Monday, August 29, 2011

Jewel of the Central Valley

A couple of days ago, I had the opportunity to take myself on a little field trip to the Cambodian Buddhist Temple in Stockton, California while there on business. It may sound like I am channeling my inner Huell Howser right now when I say that it's truly an amazing place. A jewel in the Central Valley of California. Just incredible. You have to be there to see and appreciate the colors.

But why take it from me? Here's the actual Huell Howser saying, "You have to be here to see and appreciate the colors!"


Did the Pet Shop Boys Subconsciously Borrow Just a Little From the Bee Gees?

I heard the Bee Gees' "Lonely Days" song for the first time, I think, two days ago. Great song. But it sounded familiar. Had I heard it before? It took me a little while, but I think the familiarity may have come from the [gag] Pet Shop Boys' "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)." The choruses of the two songs seem awfully similar. Operative word: awfully.

You decide. Here's the Bee Gees (chorus come in at about 1:20):

And here's the Pet Shop Boys (chorus comes in at about 0:45 and repeats ad nauseam):

Election Fatigue

It's 435 days until November 6, 2012. That's the date we will elect our next president. I have been watching and listening to news about who is in and out of the Republican presidential race. That guy Christie was talked about, then he dropped out. Then there was that Donald Trump scare a few months ago. Then he dropped out. Sarah Palin's been cagey about her intentions but has been gorging on the publicity. When we she just enter the race, so she can drop out, too? I watched the Republican debate in Iowa and followed the straw poll results a couple of weeks ago. Michele Bachmann has always troubled me, but now Rick Perry is the assumed frontrunner for the Republicans. And, incredibly, he's scarier than Bachmann.

And, of course, I've watched Obama's campaign-style presidency, including his basing decisions, seemingly, on what Independents will supposedly want in 2012. But the Independents are tilting Republican. Point is, it's 435 days away, and I am tired of it, the election. I don't even have cable and I've already got election fatigue.

This isn't supposed to set in until much, much later in the election cycle. But here it is. Why are we even talking about "frontrunners"? Why are we giving credence to the results of the Iowa straw poll? What will the Supreme Court do with Obama's single biggest achievement, or maybe his only achievement domestically, and that is the health care law? If the Court sinks it at the end of the Court's session in summer 2012, what successes will Obama campaign on in the last few months before November? The extension of the Bush tax cuts, now the Obama tax cuts? The creation of the congressional super committee? I guess just the killing of Bin Laden, and maybe that we were backseat drivers in the war to topple Gaddafi. You see: fatigue.

For this reason, I plan to extricate my mind from the election until October 2012. If the world was just, the election cycle would start then. My mind's extrication, though, probably won't last long. It'll probably be over by the end of the day. And I'll be tired, so tired.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Dr. West's Plea

Dr. Cornel West is a one-of-a-kind public intellectual. He refers to all people as his brothers and sisters. He even called Robert P. George, fellow Princeton professor and brain behind the movement against marriage equality for gays and lesbians, a "white conservative brother." Now that's Christian charity. He was not afraid to tell Chris Hedges that he considers Barack Obama a "black puppet of corporate plutocrats" (Whoa!), excoriating the president for opportunistically using his association with West publicly during the election, only to continually snub him after the election. Here is Dr. West's plea in The New York Times for radical change in the name of Martin Luther King, whose anti-poverty and anti-imperialist views are relatively little-known by many who otherwise admire him for his achievements in civil rights and nonviolence:
[T]he prophetic words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel still haunt us: "The whole future of America depends on the impact and influence of Dr. King."

Rabbi Heschel spoke those words during the last years of King's life, when 72 percent of whites and 55 percent of blacks disapproved of King's opposition to the Vietnam War and his efforts to eradicate poverty in America.


The absence of a King-worthy narrative to reinvigorate poor and working people has enabled right-wing populists to seize the moment with credible claims about government corruption and ridiculous claims about tax cuts' stimulating growth. This right-wing threat is a catastrophic response to King's four catastrophes; its agenda would lead to hellish conditions for most Americans.

King weeps from his grave....

King's response to our crisis can be put in one word: revolution. A revolution in our priorities, a re-evaluation of our values, a reinvigoration of our public life and a fundamental transformation of our way of thinking and living that promotes a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens.

(Source: "Dr. King Weeps From His Grave," NYT (August 25, 2011))

Friday, August 26, 2011

Speaking of Monorails

From Monorails and Satellites:

(See previous post for reference.)

Living in Disneyland

William Gibson writes about the future of urban life in the latest Scientific American:

That's the danger of choice reduction, of top-down control. And the curse of gated attractions, the ultimate fate of every Disneyland: you can't repurpose a theme park. Cities, to survive, must be capable of extended fugues of retrofitting. Only the most pubescent of cities have never witnessed, to whatever extent, their own ruins.

(From "Life in the Meta City," Scientific American, September 2011.)

He goes on to describe Paris, New York City, and London as culprits of "Disneylanding." I wonder what Los Angeles's Disneylanding will eventually look like. Yes, there's Hollywood Boulevard. It's a cartoonish exhibit of past glory, but current blight never fails to soak through everywhere. L.A. sprawl seems to mitigate against Disneylanding, since everything becomes absorbed into the seemingly undifferentiated sea of concrete and glass, Home Depots, shopping centers, fast food outlets, and on and on.

Elsewhere in the issue, Edward Glaeser writes about the tragedy of "urban renewal," with the striking image of the futuristic, human-friendly People Mover still functioning over Detroit's barren cityscape. The connection between the images of Disneyland and its Monorail and the image of such technology hovering over a wasteland seems prophetic. I've recently been lamenting the lack of a Monorail type network in L.A. Maybe I'm deluded into thinking that would actually help things. Cities are indeed as beautiful and thriving as the people within them. Then again, maybe Monorails would help bring us together more, and save energy at the same time.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

R.A. Wilson's Libertarianism

The Ludwig Von Mises Institute has produced a podcast that profiles Robert Anton Wilson as a member of the "libertarian tradition." If you're a devoted fan of all things R.A.W., then it's worth a listen. But the author, Jeff Riggenbach, spends an an inordinate amount of time describing the agrarian self-reliance theories of Ralph Borsodi, whose magazine Wilson edited for a time in the early 1960s. There are several lengthy excerpts from Borsodi's writings, which are indeed fascinating and worthwhile, but none from Wilson's writings. Odd.

There's scant little about Wilson's own libertarianism, which stemmed in part from Borsodi, but also from, of course, Discordianism, psychedelic culture, esoteric spirituality, General Semantics, and James Joyce, among other things. In other words, there's much more to link Wilson to, say, Benjamin Tucker than to Leonard Peikoff, whose name is dropped in the podcast in a very tenuous link to Wilson through their mutual attendance at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (at different times, no less). Riggenbach holds Wilson in high regard, but I'm not sure why. Has he ever read much Wilson?

Still, I learned a few things from the podcast. Such as:

As Wilson later told the tale in Down to Earth, his grandfather "had left the Austro-Hungarian Empire to avoid military service, and … was proud of the fact, as a sign of his sagacity. The best thing about America, he told my mother, was that we had no compulsory military service here." Wilson admired his grandfather, he wrote, because "the old guy was brave enough to be a draft-dodger and sail across the wild Atlantic in a crude wooden ship to try to find a free country. I wish there was still a free country here, for others like him."


[Wilson] also showed up now and then at libertarian gatherings of various sizes and types. I still remember how startled I was one day in 1981, when I was chairing a panel on civil liberties at the national Libertarian Party convention in Denver. I had been chatting with my fellow panelists and letting them know how I'd be managing things, and I hadn't been paying much attention as the room filled up. So when, at last, I stood to make a few introductory remarks and looked out at the crowd that had gathered, I almost jumped out of my skin when I realized that the man sitting in the middle of the front row, virtually under my nose, was none other than Robert Anton Wilson, then in his late 40s and at the height of his fame.

Interesting, but it gives me absolutely no insight into Wilson's own libertarian theories. For a better treatment of it, read the section on Wilson in Brian Doherty's Radicals for Capitalism. Some of it is excerpted in Doherty's obit for Wilson at Reason's Hit & Run from January 2007. In that obit is this great quote from Wilson: "Ideologically, of course, I should have voted for Ed Clark, the Libertarian Party candidate [in 1980]; but I am not that kind of Libertarian, really; I don't hate poor people."

Friday, August 19, 2011

Rick Perry, Overt Ignoramus

Good grief!

A child asks Rick Perry how old he thinks the Earth is. A great question for political candidates: simple, elegant, and revealing. Perry answers, "You know what? I don't have any idea. I know it's pretty old, so it goes back a long, long ways."

Really? He's never even had a thought about how old the Earth is? He has "no idea"? He doesn't even have a creationist's estimation? That reveals even less intellectual curiosity than G.W. Bush had. Frightening. Perhaps he was just giving an answer that reflects the pedantic, condescending tone with which he felt it necessary to speak to the child. But then Perry adds this zinger:
 "I'm not sure anybody actually knows completely and absolutely how [old] the Earth is."
No one knows? If by "completely and absolutely" he means that scientists should be able to specify the exact number of years, minutes, and seconds the Earth has been around, then he's "completely and absolutely" deluded. Does he presume scientists are as ignorant as he is? But scientists have actually painstakingly calculated a fairly close approximation for the age of the Earth. I refer Citizen Perry and his staff to the U.S. Geological Survey. For that matter, check out Wikipedia (where I got the link to the USGS). Spoiler: It's about 4.5 billion years old.

I never thought I'd say this, but have at 'em, Karl Rove!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Jon Huntsman, Stealth Weirdo

So rare in elections does a presidential candidate bring avant aesthetics into play. Last time around, antiwar Democrat turned Libertarian Mike Gravel made an inexplicable video in which he talk-sang "Helter Skelter" over some industrial electronica, while hamming in front of a green screen a la Public Access. Sure, (almost) no one saw it. And no one these days seems to really know who Mike Gravel is. But that's beside the point. Why did he make the video? It's a somewhat oblique comment on the the way history repeats itself: Vietnam, Iraq, we go again? Certainly, the video didn't hurt his chances.

This time around, it seems Republican bottom-of-the-Iowa-straw-poller Jon Huntsman has decided to let his freak flag fly on Twitter:

"I wonder if a tweet where I admit how much I like Captain Beefheart will make the followers skyrocket even more!"

Then he linked to this video of "Electricity":

Not that this persuades me to vote for him, but it is a breath of fresh air, nonetheless. Especially true when on the heels of his tweet about evolution:

"To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."

Sad commentary that if you are a Republican who "believes in evolution," it then requires a disclaimer that you're also not crazy, but what a relief. (Hat tip to The American Book of the Dead.)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Ben Stein's Wildly Unintelligent Design

In writing elsewhere about Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth, I stumbled across Ben Stein's anti-evolution documentary, Expelled, on YouTube. I started drafting a whole essay to review it, but nothing I wrote seemed to satisfactorily sum up how obnoxious it is. Then I found this review at Scientific American that states my own thoughts about the deep problems with this movie quite clearly, especially regarding Stein's spurious equation of "Darwinism" with Nazism. (Yes, yes, he has David Berlinski in there saying that Darwin's theory is not a sufficient precondition for National Socialism, but it is "necessary" for the existence of it. I guess Berlinski forgot about the numerous other human atrocities and mass murders that occurred throughout the centuries before Darwin was even born. Ever heard of Genghis Khan, for example? Did he "need" the idea of natural selection before enacting his wholesale slaughters? Also, does Berlinski ever consider for a moment that the Nazis' might-makes-right ideology involved a gross abuse of the theory of evolution?)

A few thoughts to emphasize how plainly awful Expelled is:
  • For someone who seems so passionate to discredit evolution, Stein neither tries to explain Darwin's theory, nor does even a half-assed job of explaining the hypothesis of Intelligent Design. He focuses, rather, on the suppresson of ID in academia. But the question arises early on: Who cares? If Stein can't even provide a simple explanation of how ID is scientific and if it has been scientifically tested, then maybe the "victims" of the "scientific establishment" he parades in front of us deserved to lose their jobs, grants, and credibility. Stein did them no favors by glossing over their substantive claims.
  • And what, exactly, does Stein believe? Is he a creationist? Does he accept the ID hypothesis? He can't even articulate his own beliefs adequately or coherently. He seems bent on only one thing: dismissing naturalistic evolution out of hand. He included a clip of Berlinski calling Dawkins a "reptile" followed by a shot of Stein himself, chuckling. This is not a movie for serious thinkers.
  • Stein attacks, of all people, Eugenie Scott. She heads the National Center for Science Education. When she says in the documentary that she works with people of faith to defend evolution in K-12 science curricula, Stein cuts to Dawkins saying that evolution led him to become an atheist. Dawkins also says that he's more honest about that than others Stein has interviewed. Cut immediately back to: Eugenie Scott. I guess Stein is trying to say that Eugenie Scott's dishonest, and he uses Richard Dawkins as his authority! How disingenuous.
  • In one segment, Stein argues that America's pro-evolution apparatchiks are more repressive than other countries. His one...ONE!...example is Poland. The official he interviews accuses the U.S. of political correctness in its treatment of Intelligent Design. Pardon me, but last I checked, Polish authorities still prosecute people for blasphemy. Read all about it here and here and here. Talk about "political correctness!" Was Stein really that ignorant before interviewing this guy?
  • Stein also sandbagged skeptic Michael Shermer to interview him. Read about that and Stein's other Michael Moore-like manipulations here.
  • The final montage shows Stein himself speaking about the dangers of evolution to an auditorium full of people, intercut with footage of Ronald Reagan speaking to a crowd about tearing down the Berlin Wall. I guess Stein didn't think that was a bit self-aggrandizing. In fact, there's a glib equation of science with Stalinism that runs throughout the movie. Ben Stein apparently wants to save us from the new Red Menace. Maybe the theory of gravity, too, is Illuminati propaganda. Why not?
  • The underlying tragedy is that Stein is no dummy, but his powers of perception and explanation are clouded by a fearful, desperate ideology in which the end (blaming evolution for all our ills) justifies the means (slippery editing and ham-handed melodrama).
  • Why did Stein not interview theistic evolutionists, like Francis Collins? Collins is no slouch. He led the Human Genome Project that mapped humans' DNA. He accepts all the factual evidence for evolution and believes that Jesus Christ is his savior, too. Is that so hard? Such thoughtful balance, perhaps even compartmentalization between science and faith seriously undercuts Stein's willfully naive idea that evolutionary theory generally leads to immorality, and that it specifically led to the Holocaust.
  • Why do these creationists and Discovery Institute folks act as if this "new" concept of ID is being persecuted by the "scientific establishment?" It's as if science is the millenia-old, moribund, power-mad worldview that won't give way to new and exciting ideas. But science is the real newbie, historically speaking.