Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Richard Dawkins on Mark Steyn:
I have over the years developed a dislike for Mark Steyn, although I've always admired his forceful writing. On this issue, however, he is clearly 1000% in the right and should receive all the support anybody can give him.
He's right.
Sidney Pollack, RIP. For my money, Pollack's best film remains Tootsie, not least because he did a cameo in one of my all-time favorite scenes from a comedy.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

More tales from life in academia. Fascinating piece in Chronicle about the farcical handling of the vaunted Judas Gospel, and National Geographic's sloppy handling of the whole project.

One of the seven million people who watched the National Geographic documentary was April D. DeConick. Admittedly, DeConick, a professor of biblical studies at Rice University, was not your average viewer. As a Coptologist, she had long been aware of the existence of the Gospel of Judas and was friends with several of those who had worked on the so-called dream team. It's fair to say she watched the documentary with special interest.

As soon as the show ended, she went to her computer and downloaded the English translation from the National Geographic Web site. Almost immediately she began to have concerns. From her reading, even in translation, it seemed obvious that Judas was not turning in Jesus as a friendly gesture, but rather sacrificing him to a demon god named Saklas. This alone would suggest, strongly, that Judas was not acting with Jesus' best interests in mind — which would undercut the thesis of the National Geographic team. She turned to her husband, Wade, and said: "Oh no. Something is really wrong."

She started the next day on her own translation of the Coptic transcription, also posted on the National Geographic Web site. That's when she came across what she considered a major, almost unbelievable error. It had to do with the translation of the word "daimon," which Jesus uses to address Judas. The National Geographic team translates this as "spirit," an unusual choice and inconsistent with translations of other early Christian texts, where it is usually rendered as "demon." In this passage, however, Jesus' calling Judas a demon would completely alter the meaning. "O 13th spirit, why do you try so hard?" becomes "O 13th demon, why do you try so hard?" A gentle inquiry turns into a vicious rebuke.

Friday, May 23, 2008

One of the joys of moving into a new (larger) house is (at last) finding the shelf space for your classic science fiction paperbacks!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Sean Carroll has a new piece in Scientific American: Does Time Run Backward in Other Universes?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Now this is my kind of science:

They studied the martinis' ability to deactivate hydrogen peroxide - a substance used to bleach hair or disinfect scrapes, and a potent source of the free radicals linked to ageing and disease.

While the detailed chemistry is not fully understood, martinis were much more effective than their basic ingredients - such as gin or vermouth - at deactivating hydrogen peroxide, and about twice as effective when shaken.

The martini must contain an antioxidant that deals with the peroxide, and which works better after shaking. (The olives that are normally added might also have an effect, but were left out as being "too difficult to model".)

Dan Kennedy with some thoughts on the Bay State's senior senator:
This may or may not come to a surprise to outsiders, but in Massachusetts Kennedy is known principally for two things: his diligent attention to the constituent-intensive aspects of being a senator, especially when it comes to bringing home the bacon; and his easy affability and accessibility, especially in comparison to our more dour and distant junior senator, John Kerry.

Friday, May 16, 2008

John Allen sits down with Simon Blackburn, and the exchange is well worth reading:
I’ve often put it slightly mischievously by saying, “Even Christians are human!” I think there are a lot of values that humanity needs to defend. I’d just have to listen to exactly what they say.

Would you as a secular intellectual with no particular affinity for religious systems nevertheless be prepared to say that it’s helpful to have someone with the cultural standing of the pope making this argument?

It could be, yes. I think it’s important. The defense of values is something that has to be done again and again and again. You can never rest. Insofar as he’s defending what I would recognize as Enlightenment values, then of course I’m very pleased to hear it. Naturally, as a non-religious and certainly non-Catholic thinker, I’d be worried about whether some of the values he’s defending are ones I can’t subscribe to.

The pope has written that ultimately, it is only truth that sets limits to power. If there aren’t objective truths about human dignity, for example, what we can and cannot do to other people, then you can justify absolutely anything.

I think that’s a very good argument. Whether it requires a high-powered notion of truth, I don’t know. It certainly requires a value, that’s for sure. It requires that you think of other people in a certain way, acknowledge boundaries to what you can do to them. It requires a commitment of you. Whether that commitment in turn requires a more heavyweight notion of truth is another question, it seems to me.

Now, of course, governments are extremely unlikely to acknowledge that there are limits to what you can do to people. The United States threw that over in the last five years. I don’t think any government, or any religion for that matter, has an unblemished record of respecting the boundaries to what you may do to other people.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Bill Vallicella, in fine form on the overuse of slang:
Too many people use the word ‘stuff’ too often. Here is an example. I was brought up to believe that it is a piece of slang best avoided in all but the most informal of contexts. So when I hear a good scholar make mention of all the ‘stuff’ he has published on this topic or that, I wonder how long before he starts using ‘crap’ instead of ‘stuff.’ “You know, Bill, I’ve published a lot of crap on anaphora; I think you’ll find it excellent.” But why stop with ‘crap’? “Professor X has published a fine piece of shit in Nous on temporal indexicals. Have you read it?”
I always liked the Biblical portrait of exile: 40 years in the wilderness. According to Rod Dreher, and I think he's right, the GOP better get used to it.
In my dreams, I still hear the cries when they left their parents.
A long unacknowledged heroine, Irene Sadler, has passed away at age 98:
The Nazis ordered a stop to normal social services, such as food and health care. Charged with warding off typhus and tuberculosis, Sendler had official permission to move freely in the ghetto. She convinced Jewish parents to let her hide their children. She used an ambulance to smuggle children in burlap sacks and coffins. A dog seated next to her would sometimes bark to drown out the children’s cries. She received aid from the Zegota, the Polish Council to Aid the Jews.

The children were given new names and false documents, and placed with Christian Polish families and at Christian religious establishments. Sendler wrote their real names on slips of paper that she hid in bottles underground, intending to retrieve them later.

The Gestapo arrested Sendler in 1943 and tortured her brutally, breaking her legs and feet with wooden clubs. She was sentenced to be executed, but she escaped after the Zegota bribed a guard. She remained in hiding until the end of the war, then dug up the bottles under the apple tree and tried to reunite the children with their families. Most of the families had perished, though some were placed with relatives around Europe. She was known within Poland, but she received little publicity in the West during the Cold War years. In 1980, she joined the Solidarity movement.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

I've had days like this too...

I'd like to start my review of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother with a disclosure. I haven't read Young Adult novels before (nada, zippo, not one), but I can't say it made the slightest difference: I wasn't stopping here and there to remind myself, 'okay, cut the author some slack, he's writing for teenagers for God's sake, so he can get away with this, or that gimmick.' I just read it like any other novel, and found it a lot more interesting and thought-provoking than many of the adult level audience novels I more regularly read...(Speaking of which, what would happen if you crossed Cory Doctorow with Ian McEwan...?) [shudder]

The plot summary I'm going to crib from Chad Orzel:

Little Brother is the story of Marcus Yallow, a 17-year old in San Francisco who's exactly the sort of protagonist you would expect to find in a YA book by Cory Doctorow. He's an inveterate tinkerer, a talented hacker, someone who knows the ins and outs of computers and the Internet, and he has a strong anti-authoritarian streak. He knows how to subvert the security on the school's computer network, and how to evade the surveillance systems they put in to keep kids from sneaking out. Which he does, anyway, with a few of his friends, to play an Alternate Reality Game called Harajuku Fun Madness.

They're searching for a clue in downtown San Francisco at the exact moment when terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge. In the panic and chaos after the attack, Marcus and his friends are picked up by the Department of Homeland Security and taken to a secret prison. Marcus is tortured into giving up the passwords to his personal electronic systems, and they read his email and all his secrets. They let him go, after dire threats of what will happen if he tells anyone where he was or what they did.

He returns home to find that one of his friends is missing, presumed dead, and the city is under the control of a surveillance state run wild. But when he discovers that they've bugged his personal laptop, he declares war on the DHS, and launches a campaign to bring them to their knees with XBoxes, hacked electronics, cryptography, flash mobs, and a whole armory of geek obsessions.

Pretty much, that's it: but a lot of the fun and suspense of the book is exactly how Marcus goes about his work. And that kept me turning the pages.

Second disclosure: I'm not exactly in sympathy with all of the positions the author espouses; and it was an exercise in self-examination, as I read this romp about young revolutionary techno-geeks using every trick in the book to fight the agents of Homeland Security, to picture ...well, where I would fit in the plot if I was the same age. It was none too edifying to realize I'd probably fall into one of three scenarios: the little bookworm who
  1. disappears, then upon release---realizes how naive's he's been about the way things are, is too terrified to do anything about it and just stays out of trouble, refusing to help (weasle);
  2. disappears, then is never heard of for weeks until he returns as a complete and nefarious tool of the dark side (and promptly gets his come-uppance)
  3. disappears, then upon release---realizes how naive's he's been about the way things are, and promptly gulps, signs up with the forces of light to do what he can (and immediately gets wasted in the very first crossfire).
All of which is a long-winded way of saying perhaps I'm not supposed to be enjoying this book. But I did.

Doctorow's style: Chad mentions, for example, "...that there is not a subtle sentence in the entire book-- the Important Message is hammered home as hard as any message has ever been hammered home."

I don't agree. Going back over some highlighted gems from my pages, I find little samples like this:
I don't fold. I have a trick for staring down people like Benson. I look slightly to the left of their heads, and think about the lyrics to old Irish folk songs, the kind with three hundred verses. It makes me look perfectly composed and unworried. (p. 13)
I think every kid figures something like this out, and it clicked with me as soon as I read it. (Only difference, I would look to the right side of their heads, and start thinking about Richard II, Act 5, Scene 5, "I have been studying how I may compare this prison where I live unto the world...")

I like Marcus's voice. Yes, he's a smartass--but not a complete smartass. Doctorow manages to educate the reader on various aspects of encryption and programming without ever stepping outside of the kid's natural tone. I don't consider myself a programmer, but I've had do enough tinkering in the various multimedia programs and my own web sites, to appreciate why programmers love to code. Making computers do what you want is cool.

Some readers have complained about the 'deus ex machina' ending to the book (which I will not divulge), but again, I think this is not fair to the author, who sets up all of his plot twists with plenty of foreshadowing, so I read right to the end without a hiccup.

I found only one false note (or rather, one note that didn't ring true at all for me). And that was the pitch to revive the 'generation gap.' At the first secret party to organize themselves, Ange stands out among the newbies and goes full throttle into a rant about the suspiciousness of anyone over age 25: "They forget what it's like to be our age. To be the object of suspicion all the time! How many times have you gotten on the bus and had every person on it give you a look like you'd been gargling turds and skinning puppies?" (p. 166)

Okay, maybe Boston is different from San Francisco. Most of the time I see kids get on the T or buses with me, they're not getting any looks at all. They get loud enough you'll see every man and woman over 30 just keeping their head down and staring at the floor--too intimidated to say a word and just hoping they get off at the next stop.

Like I said, a minor caveat. And I'm well over 25 anyway, so don't trust me.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Scott Carson is back, with some 'warm' memories of life in academia. Okay, not quite so warm, but ...not surprising either.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

When No News is Good News:
Now, it might be thought an amazing coincidence if Earth were the only planet in the galaxy on which intelligent life evolved. If it happened here, the one planet we have studied closely, surely one would expect it to have happened on a lot of other planets in the galaxy--planets we have not yet had the chance to examine. This objection, however, rests on a fallacy: it overlooks what is known as an "observation selection effect." Whether intelligent life is common or rare, every observer is guaranteed to originate from a place where intelligent life did, in fact, arise. Since only the successes give rise to observers who can wonder about their existence, it would be a mistake to regard our planet as a randomly selected sample from all planets. (It would be closer to the mark to regard our planet as a random sample from the subset of planets that did engender intelligent life, this being a crude formulation of one of the saner ideas extractable from the motley ore referred to as the "anthropic principle.")

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

In an otherwise engaging profile of British thespian and former director of the (new) Globe Theatre Mark Rylance, we learn yet again how unexposed to critical thinking a number of modern artists are.
In 1989, Rylance played Hamlet and Romeo four times a week each, in R.S.C. productions in Stratford-on-Avon. While acting there, he began to think about the authorship question. He thinks now that Shakespeare was likely a front for a small band of writers, perhaps headed by Francis Bacon, which included, among others, Lady Mary Sidney.
I know many theatre professionals are not that computer savvy, but you would've thought someone Rylance's age would've at least been curious as to whether anyone ever did an analysis of Shakespeare's writing compared to the usual suspects supposed to have written in his stead.

But no, I guess not. Cue The Place 2 Be...

Friday, May 02, 2008

Apopos the story today that Barbara Walters, promoting her new book, told Oprah that she had an affair with former U.S. Senator Edward Brooke (the first African American senator and a Republican one at that), I went back to the archives to find this shot of my father (right) interviewing him (left) on Channel 5 back in the mid 1960s when the Boston Herald Traveler also owned the then WHDH-TV station.

I recall my dad telling me Brooke was (is) a good man (and a good source), and Brooke factors in his (as yet) unpublished memoirs.

Update: Dan Kennedy, weighs in:
Maybe it's because I'm old, but my first reaction was: "I knew that." It sounded very familiar to me when we talked about it on "Beat the Press" yesterday on WGBH-TV (Channel 2). When I started searching, I found this line from a March 5, 2000, Globe profile of Brooke by staff writer Sally Jacobs: "A regular at the lavish parties at the Iranian Embassy, he did the hustle with Elizabeth Taylor and squired Barbara Walters about town."

There's also this, from a Feb. 17, 1980, story on Walters by then-staffer Marian Christy:
Walters has dated Alexis Lichine, the wine expert who was once married to Arlene Dahl. She used to count among her friends former Sen. Ed Brooke and Secretary General of the Organization of American States Alex Orfila. Both Brooke and Orfila are married now and, for some years, Walters' closest friend has been Alan Greenspan, the financial wizard.
Do we not understand the plain meaning of this? Especially that Brooke became a "former" friend of Walters after he got married?
Could Mike Behe jump ship? Larry Arnhart writes:
As I noted in my first post on Ben Stein's movie Expelled, the absence of Michael Behe was remarkable. After all, Stein interviewed most of the "senior fellows" at the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture. So why didn't he interview the most famous one and the one who has been the leading scientist for "intelligent design"?

It is now almost a year since the publication of Behe's new book The Edge of Evolution. The Discovery Institute funded the writing of that book, and it heavily promoted the book when it first appeared. But now if you go to the website for the Center for Science and Culture, there are few references to Behe's new book. The lists for "Essential Readings" and "Books by Center Fellows" include Behe's Darwin's Black Box, published in 1996, but not his new book. Ever since the end of November, the blog for the CSC has given almost no attention to Behe's new book.

I now suspect that my early predictions last year have come true--the folks at the Discovery Institute now realize that Behe's new book subverts their rhetorical strategy, and that it was a big mistake for them to promote it.

Interesting to consider whether this might lead eventually to Behe rethinking his whole commitment to the Discovery Institute. Imagine the ID movement's worst nightmare: Michael Behe and Ken Miller on the same side, touring the country in support of good science education.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Amy Welborn has a thoughtful post, the gist of which is (if I read her right), that culural Catholicism, the traditions and approach to the faith born of specific cultures and times, is dead. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. And it may explain why, when I received a brochure from the Carmelite Monastery in Wyoming, soliciting donations, I found myself laughing out loud at the snap shots of heavily cowled monks driving tractors (how the hell could he see where he was going?) and playing touch football. All I could think of was Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It just looks beyond parody.

Not that I'm against retreats from the rat race of everyday modern life. Or dedicating your life to prayer, work and the ascetic life. Far from it. But it seems to me this is exactly what Amy's talking about. Why automatically think the solution to a problem in Wyoming in 2008 is to dress up like people in Europe from 2012? Too many groups and movements in the Church are thinking culturally first (hey--let's go back to doing it the way medieval monks did it) rather than thinking the Gospel through in terms more respondent to our culture here and now--and creating something wholly new.

At least rethink the cowls? Anything wrong with taking a cue from the Chinese and donning simple, plain outfits they wear in the rice fields? Or maybe something wholly new?