Tuesday, March 31, 2009

We Get Mail Dept.
Like many Americans, Mike from Manomet, (whose real identity will not be revealed for his protection), has had enough of network television.

He writes:
Where do you get your news? I'm sick of the f&%!king mainstream media; most of it is unwatchable bullshit: spin, red vs. blue, R's vs. D's, black people do this, white people do that, our poll..., their poll.... ad nauseum. What a bunch of crap.

That f&%!king blonde [bimbo] on ABC's Good Morning America aired a piece about five-to-seven year old girls' perceptions of beauty in colored dolls this morning. They placed two baby dolls, one black, one white [pink & brown] on the table in front of several girls - one girl at a time - and asked:

"Which is the pretty doll?" (majority picked the pink one)
"Why do you like that one?" (various answers you'd expect from a 6 year old: 'shiny, liked the color...')
"Which one is the 'ugly' doll?"


I'm not making this up! You should have seen the girls' faces when confronted with that leading question, trying to explain why they, the girls, thought the brown dolls ugly, when of course they hadn't.

BTW, all the girls were black or brown, and were confronted with the color comparison of their skin, to that of the 'ugly' doll, after the initial quiz.

Nice, eh?

This is the same [bimbo] who went to North Korea last year, showed 'fashion' magazines in classrooms to North Korean high school girls (Cosmopolitan et al.) and asked: "Don't you want to be and look like American girls (women)?"

In a victory for self esteem, they all said "no". Some eloquently and patiently explained why to the tall blonde [bimbo] with the magazines, who claimed to be representing our country.

(Who's brain, did you say, has been washed?)

[Hold on, Halle Berry just appeared on the tube.]

Mike Updates: I think the kids were eight years old, not five-to-seven; and 47%, or nearly half of the girls said the white doll was "the pretty doll" before being asked "Which is the ugly doll?" - not the majority of girls as I previously wrote. My bad. (Of course ABC only showed the kids' answers that fit their edit - all picking the white doll - so what you see is what you get.)

Still, what could be the motivation for asking an African-American child which of the two is the ugly doll? (Come on kiddo, there's only one left.)
Perhaps asking "Do you see an ugly doll?" would not result in the desired supporting "evidence" to suit the story.

It's interesting to see how researchers or "journalists" use leading questions to obtain answers to suit their goals. Prompting respondents to answer in a particular way, though clever, is deceitful. And children's desire to please adults can make them especially susceptible to such tactics. It might help the show's ratings, but I wouldn't want these people around my kids.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


From the Boston Dirt Dogs...

And Dan Shaughnessy Watch.
Updike, Science Fiction and "the Modernist position"
In the back-page editorial for the latest (March) issue of the New York Review of Science Fiction, David G. Hartwell passes along some grim forecasts for the field in publishing (which I'll discuss in a separate post).

After which he writes:
I had hoped to devote this editorial entirely to John Updike, but a condensed version will have to do. Updike was one of the principal arbiters of literary taste in the U.S., a writer of extraordinary talent, and, like Edmund Wilson, a fine book reviewer, principally for the New Yorker. Like W.H. Auden in the generation before him, he was interested in science as well as literature, and Updike was the single most influential force in establishing the literary acceptability of Ursula K. LeGuin in the mainstream in the U.S. He uttered an authoritative marginalization of science fiction as a whole in his New Yorker review of my own A World Treasury of Science Fiction--in part authoritative because it came from a selective sympathizer. He set up his discussion with what he called the crucial question: "What keeps science fiction a minor genre, for all the brilliance of its authors and apparent pertinence of its concerns?" His answer I always found unsatisfactory: "Each science fiction story is so busy inventing its environment that little energy is invested in the human subtleties." My short version response is that this is fairly clearly a restatement of the Modernist position that good literature is solely about the inner life of characters in ordinary situations. Science fiction in general does not attempt that but excels at the behavior of characters in unusual and at best entirely plausible invented settings. I invite our readers to comment.

Now...there are a couple of things one can say about this. I would agree with DGH, first of all, if you accept his version of the Modernist position. But... I'm not sure that's a fair version. One can, for instance, find modern novels that are about the inner life of characters in not-so-very-ordinary situations and not-so-ordinary settings--even if the environments are more familiar than those posed in SF novels. (I'm talking about hard SF, not Fantasy.)

For example, off the top of my head: Lord of the Flies. Sophie's Choice. Anything by Elmore Leonard. Atonement by Ian McEwan.

If many mainstream novels are quite obviously about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances (the Holocaust, World at War, etc.), you can argue this undercuts SF's claim to special consideration. If all you have to distinguish the genre now is the invented environment (however plausible)--I don't think it's enough. And it seems to me that Updike's criticism --SF is long on environment, short on humanity--can still be made of many SF novels. [Obviously not all--and there are superb writers like James Morrow, Jonathan Lethem, Mike Flynn, Ken MacLeod, Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling, among my favorites) who write so well they transcend the genre.] Unfortunately, I think critics can still claim SF novels often sacrifice character and plot for the sake of their environments. A lot of SF novels you see on the shelves--if you can easily pick them out from the surrounding interminable series of infantile vampire novels, just don't invite a second reading.

So, inventing a different environment can't get SF off the hook, I think, for not producing more of what most in the mainstream of readers expect in a good story, including--especially--the human subtleties. I know a lot of SF writers and editors were unhappy when the late Stanislaw Lem unloaded on the genre in his now infamous essay from the early 1970s--but his point I think still stands: Too many hard SF stories are just not very well written--with characters that are shallow and uninteresting. Dialogue is very often mediocre at best (I just finished one, for example, about a hop-scotch trip across the galaxy through wormholes that frankly could have succeeded much better without any dialogue at all.)

Last week I linked to Will Saletan's coverage of the young Japanese woman who underwent IVF and then aborted the child when she found out the doctor had made a mistake and implanted an older woman's embryo--in essence the latter's last chance to have children at all. The story is, as Saletan observes, both grotesque and agonizing. Clearly the technology and science have made for new circumstances which few people might have foreseen. The result: tragedy.

Now, if Ursula K. LeGuin had written this as a novel 40 years ago before IVF was even available, during the New Wave of SF, with all of the tragedy, pathos and poignancy it brings to the surface here as a news story, Updike might well have labeled it a triumph. It would be available in a nice edition from Farrar Straus & Giroux and not as a cheap paperback with a second-rate cover. (How SF is branded and marketed by the publishers is a whole separate topic--and in my opinion has to loom large as one of the reasons it still isn't taken seriously.)

But in fact, no one in SF did write this story 40 years ago. Or, if they did, it was so poorly written it never rose to the surface after it appeared in Galaxy or Amazing Stories. So I think Updike's point is still well taken.


Friday, March 20, 2009

Thoughts for a Friday
At one time there was a popular romantic picture of the courageous man who had rejected the props of religion and its illusory comforts, who stood erect on the darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and fight, facing boldly the fact that life does not provide him with any meaning at all. He is prepared with honesty to manage without it. The difficulty with this alluring picture is that concepts like courage and honesty have to belong to a character in a story, and if in the end there is no story then there is no courage or honesty either. You might as well speak of the honesty and courage and integrity of the warrior ant.
Herbert McCabe, Faith Within Reason, Continuum Books, 2007, (p. 42.)

I'm on something of a McCabe tear lately, it being Lent. The man left behind a mountain of superb material and thanks to Brian Davies, it's being edited and released in a marvelous series of books like the above.

I expect to be posting more from his works when I can. I think Christian theology is desperately in need of more thinkers like McCabe. Especially these days when the whole tiresome argument seems to be between zealots of Darwin and zealots of Design.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Welcome to Brave New World:

From a pro-life standpoint, the whole thing is grotesque. But from a pro-choice standpoint, it's agonizing. One woman who wanted a child aborted, in her own body, another woman's healthy, wanted child. It's generally understood that if you hire a surrogate to carry your embryo, she, not you, gets to decide whether to abort it. It may be your baby, but it's her body, and that's the legal trump card. A woman who's carrying your child against her will, as in the Japanese case, presumably has an even greater right to end the pregnancy. But what about you? You didn't sign a surrogacy contract. You made that embryo so you could give it life yourself. The doctor picked it because it looked like a good candidate to become a child, and the subsequent pregnancy proved him right. A healthy child, your child, was terminated without your consent, consultation, or knowledge. Is that right?

If you think this is an easy call, hang on: It gets worse. The woman who aborted the fetus was in her 20s. The woman who lost it was in her 40s. If the elder woman has since become pregnant, I can't find any record of it. Can you imagine losing your last chance at motherhood this way? What would you have said to the woman carrying your child, if you'd had a chance to speak to her in time?

Huxley had no idea....

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Thoughts for St. Patrick's Day
I found this extraordinary piece of Boston history at an antique shop in Newton Upper Falls. You can't make out the date in the lower right hand corner of this rendition, but it says 1915.

Not even a century ago, but it's right around the time that both my grandfathers had come over, from Cork and Dublin respectively, to look for work here. My maternal grandfather, perhaps familiar with signs like this one, hopped on a train and spent over a decade traveling around the U.S. finding work where he could before coming back to settle in Boston. One of his jobs was helping pour the cement foundations of Wrigley Field in Chicago. (I always suspected baseball was in the blood.) The house he bought on Sidney Street in Dorchester is still in the family.

We hear all the time, of course, about the prejudice against the Irish by the 'natives' when they arrived. Still, it often seemed to me more 'legendary' than real.

This sign hangs in my office now to remind me of that reality.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

David Ignatius sees cause for concern:

One reason this season feels so political is that Obama has stacked his administration with politicians and ex-government officials. You might think that with the greatest financial crisis of his lifetime, the president would want a few business leaders with experience managing large organizations in crisis. But no.

Here's the un-businesslike Obama Cabinet: At Treasury, a former government official; at State, a former senator; at Commerce, a former governor; at Defense, a former government official and university president; at Energy, a former professor; at Homeland Security, a former governor; at Health and Human Services, a former governor; at the White House as chief of staff, a former congressman; at the White House as economic czar, a former university president and government official.

All fine people, no doubt. But as thin on business experience as a Hyde Park book club. Maybe Obama sees business executives as too tainted by the financial crisis to be useful, or confirmable. The closest he comes is Paul Volcker's Economic Recovery Advisory Board -- which includes Jeffrey Immelt, chief executive of GE; Jim Owens, chief executive of Caterpillar; and venture capitalist John Doerr.

The culture of immobilism starts on Capitol Hill. These people are still working a four-day week, taking Fridays off so they can run home and tell constituents how diligent they are. They may talk about a crisis, but they don't act like it's real.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Will Saletan has a thoughtful piece in light of the president's decision to lift the ban on stem cell research:
Think about what's being dismissed here as "politics" and "ideology." You don't have to equate embryos with full-grown human beings—I don't—to appreciate the danger of exploiting them. Embryos are the beginnings of people. They're not parts of people. They're the whole thing, in very early form. Harvesting them, whether for research or medicine, is different from harvesting other kinds of cells. It's the difference between using an object and using a subject. How long can we grow this subject before dismembering it to get useful cells? How far should we strip-mine humanity in order to save it?
He draws a striking parallel between those who supported the use of torture under the last administration and those who support unlimited stem cell research.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Even with the TV muted, whenever I saw Rick Santelli's puss on CNBC, he always looked like a blowhard. I used to change the channel whenever he was the guy on the trading floor. Now comes Jon Stewart, (HT Rod Dreher) to tell me that looks... weren't deceiving.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Ian McEwan is absolutely right:
Three years ago, McEwan culled the fiction library of his London town house, in Fitzroy Square. He and his younger son, Greg, handed out thirty novels in a nearby park. In an essay for the Guardian, McEwan reported that “every young woman we approached ... was eager and grateful to take a book,” whereas the men “could not be persuaded. ‘Nah, nah. Not for me. Thanks, mate, but no.’ ” The researcher’s conclusion: “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”
I'm certainly counting on women to sell my next novel.
Siris responds to my query below:
So the simple answer as to why so many atheists are attracted to the argument from evil is that they are the sort of people who would be attracted to design arguments if they were theists. The two types of arguments make use of the same basic processes of reasoning and similar views of design as relatively obvious to spot if it's there; they just reach different conclusions because one says that this or that is obviously good enough that it has to be designed, and the other says that that or this is obviously bad enough that it couldn't possibly be designed. And both tend to be locked into the view that it is design or nothing.

Those of us, theist or atheist though we may be, who recognize that these positions are contraries rather than contradictories will tend to prefer other arguments and, as John says, regard the underlying presuppositions as dubious. I am certain, for instance, that John generally finds the argument from evil obviously dubious precisely because he would regard most design arguments to be obviously dubious; given doubts about the one, it would take an extraordinarily sophisticated version of the other to impress. But once the basic points were in place historically -- a sort of empiricism connected with the rise of science and the spread of a weak view of causation -- design arguments on the one side and arguments from evil on the other side became the easiest arguments for people to understand. So I imagine that they will be hard to put back in their place; it would require a sort of revolution in the world of thought, whereby what is now popular becomes unpopular and what is now unpopular becomes popular. We none of us have any inkling of what would accomplish that.
Read the whole thing.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Catch Up
I didn't have time over the week before taking off to write about Boskone. I was on a few fascinating panels, including one on Darwin, one on Galileo (with the redoubtable Mike Flynn, who has a new novel out now), and one on the Future of Faith, with James D. MacDonald, James Morrow, author of The Philosopher's Apprentice, and Greg Bear, author of (take your pick) any number of excellent science fiction novels.

Mike's Galileo panel was more than apropos ("Guilty as Charged!") as I had been asked by Catholic World Report to do a piece on Galileo given the many conferences and festivals taking place this year, the 400th anniversary of his telescopic observations.

Meanwhile, Ken Miller's been getting a lot of attention from atheists since his book was reviewed by Jerry Coyne. As I mentioned below, Coyne's 'problem' with religious scientists doesn't measure up, and I have to say here, it seems to me, Massimo Pigliucci similarly fails to get the better of the argument.

Apropos of Massimo, this might be a good place to ask some heavy hitters amongst the philosophy bloggers I check regularly...why is it that so many atheists are hugely impressed by the 'problem of evil'? Massimo, like so many, starts from the presupposition that the Biblical God's goodness is defined in moral terms. He predictably proceeds from this assumption to the observation that there is so much unpleasant suffering in the world that this God must be a beast or a sadist, and therefore doesn't exist.

Is it me, or is that presupposition highly questionable? Scott? Siris? Food for thought.