Tue - March 9, 2004
I've said all I can
Words make images
Fri - March 5, 2004
How Does It Feel?
Today's New York Times has a terrifying article about the complete disintegration of law and order in Haiti. What makes the article so upsetting, aside from the graphic descriptions of violence and revenge, is this Reuters photograph of a man identified only as Tiroro, left, and an unidentified member of a band of vigilantes about to exact their revenge on Tiroro under which the article runs.
The Times describes the circumstances around Tiroro's death as follows:
After what the thugs did to his son, no punishment seemed harsh enough to Roland Lysias.
Two months ago, loyalists of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide kidnapped his 21-year-old son, Junior, and tortured him, chopping off his hands and feet and poking out his eyes before burning his body, because he had supported a militant opposition group, Mr. Lysias said.
So on Wednesday, when an armed band of vigilantes found the man he said was responsible for his son's death, a pro-Aristide militant known as Tiroro, he watched with satisfaction, he said, as they beat him unconscious, threw gasoline-doused tires around his neck and set him on fire. He described how the chanting and cheering crowd threw rocks at the man's burning body, indifferent to his screams for mercy.
This is one of the most fascinating and horrifying images I've ever seen (even more so than the Eddie Adams's infamous photograph of a Vietcong prisoner being executed in the street) for all that it shows and all that it implies--its powerful intimacy and complete lack of humanity--and looking at it and reading the accompanying article fills me with questions:
In short, it's one hell of a picture.
Where Are All of the Grown-Ups?
I happened to be in our Fitness Center, where a television was tuned to CNBC, when the Martha Stewart verdict was announced. While a camera focused on the front door of the court building, commentators attempted to fill otherwise dead air by engaging in all sorts of speculation and conjecture, my favorite being:
During deliberations, the jury only asked questions about Peter Bacanovic's case. That suggests that Stewart will be found not guilty.
Or perhaps it suggested that the jury was pretty sure Stewart is guilty.
Occasionally, the picture would shift from the courthouse door to a graph of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia's stock price for the day. Then, the verdict was announced. People came running out the door, flashing signals, waiving scarves, and holding up signs. The camera turned to CNBC's correspondent, who stood in front of two easels, one each for Stewart and Bacanovic, urgently asking passersby for the verdict on each count and checking the appropriate boxes on the easels. But he kept getting inaccurate information. His easels ended up looking like John Madden's telestrator after a particularly exciting play. Couldn't CNBC have waited thirty seconds to post a definitive graphic, saving what little dignity this poor man once possessed?
For half an hour after that (and counting when I went back to my office), CNBC moved quickly from one commentator to another. All of this time spent reporting that the two defendants were found guilty of eight of the nine charges against them could have been used to ask analytical questions that would place this event in some sort of meaningful context: How often are securities charges filed? Do experts believe that this accurately reflects the amount of securities crime being committed? How often are the defendants of those charges found guilty? Why were these charges filed against her and not others? Why was she found guilty? Instead, they asked:
Who read the verdict, the jury foreman or the judge?
Did Martha meet Peter's eyes when the verdicts were read?
Thu - March 4, 2004
What Was I Waiting For?
After about the tenth time that I had to cut a comment short to get under HaloScan's thousand character limit, I decided to look into upgrading my account. Turns out it only costs twelve dollars, which seemed worth it. So comment to your heart's content. But bear in mind that I now have the ability to edit your comments, which hardly seems appropriate.
Mon - March 1, 2004
How Do You Spot the City Boy in the Country?
My brother forwarded this to me. I usually don't spend much time on these things, but for some reason, this one amuses me no end.
How Do We Think About God? (Part 4)
Western science was founded on a spiritual insight with which it has now come into conflict. What passes for a straight line in the realm of intellectual evolution could be drawn from the philosophic efforts of Socrates and Plato through Aristotle's efforts, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and on to Western science as we have it now. This lineage is important if we're to understand the dogma on which modern Western science precariously rests. It was born in Socratic and Platonic dualism, not Lucretian materialism. Western science started not with the empirical insights of Epicurus and Lucretius (that is, all existence is nothing but fundamental particles and their motions), but with the abstract theoretical frameworks of Socrates and Plato (that is, there are fundamental distinctions between ideal and real, abstract and concrete, soul and body, and so on), as later supported and explored by Aristotle and his followers. In a sublime irony that has taken centuries to unfold, science followed Platonic dualism to Lucretian materialism, and over the last century, that has started to cause some serious epistemological problems.
The Socrates of the Platonic dialogues can be seen as similar to the Jesus of the Gospels. The clearest parallel is their willing martyrdom after refusing to compromise themselves and defend themselves on the terms employed by their accusers. But there are other parallels as well: Both claimed to benefit from divine enlightenment; both were at the center of a community of disciples; though neither left any documents of their own, both spread their wisdom to the world through the work of those disciples and their followers; and both declared the existence of the immortal soul. They described an eternal and immaterial homunculus within each of us, experiencing and guiding our existence, a transcendent subject forever separate from the object of material creation. Lucretius had little patience with that idea:
Listen: to show you that a living thing's
That certainty and impatience can be heard in the arguments hurled by the champions of empirical science at believers in transcendence, yet those champions of science are the intellectual descendants of Socrates, not Lucretius. This is not an amusing historical accident--it is a historical necessity. Empirical science, the science practiced in the West since at least Aristotle, would be impossible without that initial dualism of subject and object, observer and observed, scientist and experiment, natural and artificial. And I contend that the intellectual leap to that distinction wouldn't have occurred to those who made it if they didn't feel that they were somehow apart from or somehow transcended the creation that they sought to understand. In short, science as it is practiced in the West is unlikely to have come into being without the idea of the soul.
It's possible to understand something clearly and objectively only if you can separate yourself from it as an observer, but having done that (whether by explicit belief in an immaterial soul or implicit use of immaterial abstraction), it will be far easier to develop a productive, systematic understanding of that thing if you can limit yourself to material explanations. So Western science starts from Socratic, Platonic, and Aristotelean dualism and aspires to Lucretian materialism. As they say in Maine, "You can't get there from here." That's what Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, and our attempts to understand our own consciousness each tell us. And the further we push the reaches of dualistic empirical science, the more often we will stumble on that fundamental conflict. We can only achieve a full empirical understanding of creation as long as we're not part of it.
Sun - February 29, 2004
Is This Finally It?
Sat - February 28, 2004
Sometime yesterday, this Weblog received its 50,000th visit. Even leaving aside the thousands of visits I've made myself and the thousands of visits to see Jennifer Lopez's ass, that's a lot of readers. Thank you all for your time and attention.
Fri - February 27, 2004
Why Was Howard Stern Dropped By Clear Channel?
This tells the whole story.
What If Yoga Had Been Popular in the 1950s?
My wife asked me how my yoga class went yesterday morning. I told her that, as always, I felt better for having done it, but (given my rotund form) doing the forward bends is like trying to fold a ball. She started giggling uncontrollably. When she regained her breath, she explained that she was thinking of a Honeymooners episode in which Ralph and Norton would take a yoga class together. (My wife occasionally casts me as Ralph Kramden in the sitcom of our life.) Imagine Ralph's eyes bulging as he struggles and huffs to get into a downward dog or teeters precariously on his belly in a locust, while Norton shifts from pose to pose with preternatural ease, accompanying each transition with his trademark flourishes and shaking out his hands before joining them in front of his chest. It's sad that we'll never see this episode.
Thu - February 26, 2004
What Does Ken Wilber Think About Darwinian Evolution?
The standard neo-Darwinian explanation of chance mutation and natural selection--very few theorists believe this anymore. Evolution clearly operates in part by Darwinian natural selection, but this process simply selects those transformations that have already occurred by mechanisms that absolutely nobody understands...
Take the standard notion that wings simply evolved from forelegs. It takes perhaps a hundred mutations to produce a functional wing from a leg--a half-wing will not do... The wing will work only if these hundred mutations happen all at once, in one animal--and also these same mutations must occur simultaneously in another animal of the opposite sex, and then they have to find each other, have dinner, a few drinks, mate, and have offspring with real functional wings.
...Random mutations cannot even begin to explain this. The vast majority of mutations are lethal anyway; how are we going to get a hundred nonlethal mutations happening simultaneously? Or even four or five, for that matter? But once this incredible transformation has occurred, then natural selection will indeed select the better wings from less workable wings--but the wings themselves? Nobody has a clue...
...The Big Bang has made Idealists out of almost anybody who thinks. First there was absolutely nothing, then Bang! Something. This is beyond weird. Out of sheerest Emptiness, manifestation arises.
This is a bit of a nightmare for traditional science, because it puts a time limit on the chance mutations that were supposed to explain the universe...
...Calculations done by scientists from Fred Hoyle to F. B. Salisbury consistently show that twelve billion years [the apparent age of the universe] isn't even enough to produce a single enzyme by chance.
This Is Passion?
Ash Wednesday has come and gone, and Mel Gibson has released his religious snuff film. Based on the reviews that I've read, it seems that it's every bit as divisive as many feared, and worse. Not only are there the incendiary historical and theological inaccuracies (much-discussed elsewhere), but there's also Gibson's blood lust, as described, for instance, by David Denby in this week's New Yorker:
In the climb up to Calvary, Caviezel, one eye swollen shut, his mouth open in agony, collapses repeatedly in slow motion under the weight of the Cross. Then comes the Crucifixion itself, dramatized with a curious fixation on the technical details--an arm pulled out of its socket, huge nails hammered into hands, with Caviezel after each whack. At that point, I said to myself, "Mel Gibson has lost it," and I was reminded of what other other writers have pointed out--that Gibson, as an actor, has been beaten, mashed, and disemboweled in many of his movies. His obsession with pain, disguised by religious feelings, has now reached a frightening apotheosis.
There's only one plausible moral or aesthetic justification that I can imagine for such a vicious and retrograde portrayal of what is supposed to represent the greatest act of sacrifice ever committed, an act that Gibson believes has brought universal redemption to all who would properly accept it: Gibson wants us to understand the enormity of Christ's Passion, the degree to which He suffered on our behalf. But such an angry and literal-minded portrayal of the Passion can only undermine that point. I don't believe that twelve hours of physical and emotional suffering, no matter how persistent or degrading, would be sufficient even to expiate my sins. If I were given the option of undergoing such a trial to have myself and my loved ones morally redeemed, I would do it tomorrow--countless individuals have allowed themselves to suffer far worse for far less. And yet, this suffering by one man (for Christ was a man in his suffering) is supposed to answer for the transgressions of us all? And who precisely is the Judge who would want such tawdry suffering in exchange for spiritual guilt? All of this makes Christianity much smaller than it means to be.
Wed - February 25, 2004
Is This Better?
Tue - February 24, 2004
Mon - February 23, 2004
often those who are not good for much else turn to thought...
I've been thinking about this, sometimes more seriously and sometimes less so, at least since college, and Friday afternoon, wandering through Coliseum Books, I finally made up my mind: I'm going to learn Latin. I bought the Wheelock's Latin text, workbook, and reader, and a Latin dictionary. As soon as I finish this month's book for the reading group, I'm going to dive right in.
I admit that this might seem a strange undertaking, but probably no more strange than any of the other ways I spend my leisure time. I've never been happy that--despite six years of junior high school, high shool, and college French and one year of college Japanese--I'm stubbornly monolingual. Yes, I was once able to ask the Chinese proprietress of a restaurant in rural Luxembourg to call a taxi for me, my companions, and our bicycles to the next town, but that's not quite the same as reading Proust in his native tongue. I'm frustrated that I have to read books that mean so much to me in translation and that significant aspects of life in New York aren't available to me because I can only conduct my life in English.
But rather than learning French or Spanish, I'd like to go back to the common ancestor of so many languages. Because Latin is no longer spoken, I can learn it as a schematic abstraction rather than as a living entity. That tends to work better for me. And perhaps by learning a fully-developed and unchanging language, I'll be able to get a better handle on the concepts of grammar and syntax, which I only know in a pragmatic, ad hoc way at this point. Then, having mastered Latin and read Virgil without the aid of translation, I can move on to other languages, perhaps reading Cervantes in Spanish, Proust in French, and Dante in Italian. After all, I'm only thirty-six, and I've already accomplished everything that I ever expected to--I have to find something to do with the rest of my life.