Thursday, December 30, 2004

Book Report Thursday: Dance, Dance, Dance

Dance, Dance, Dance by Haruki Murakami This is the first Murakami novel I've read, having stalled out on Norwegian Wood a few years ago. It's a sheer delight, a deeply weird story of an aimless 34-year old freelance writer, his aquaintance from middle school (now a movie star), three call girls, an intensely beautiful teenage psychic, a one-armed American poet who spends his days fixing sandwiches, a failed writer named Hakari Makimuri, and the Sheep Man who inhabits a separate reality. The novel is what I understand to be a Murakami trope: disaffected thirtysomething, unsure what he's accomplishing in his life, alienated by his meaningless job "shoveling cultural snow", and unable to forge true connections to the people around him. He trudges through, distracting himself as best as possible, while wondering if and when things will change. There are a few hopeful sparks amidst a fundamentally disheartening series of events, and in the end it's only vivid personalities that we have to hold onto. With such an oddball cast, there's much not to relate to, but I identify with this brief passage, with the protagonist on a quasi-date with the teenage psychic:
I bought Yuki a chocolate from the snack bar as we waited for the movie to start. She broke off a piece for me. When I told her it'd been a year since I'd last eaten chocolate, she couldn't believe it. "Don't you like chocolate?" "It's not a matter of like or dislike," I said. "I guess I'm just not interested in it." "Interested? You are weird. Whoever heard of not liking chocolate? That's abnormal." "No, it's not. Some things are like that. Do you like the Dalai Lama?" "What's that?" "It's not a 'what,' it's a 'who.' He's the top priest of Tibet." "How would I know?" "Well, then do you like the Panama Canal?" "Yes, no, I don't care." "Okay, how about the International Date Line? Or pi? Or the Anti-Trust Act? Or the Jurassic Period? Or the Senegalese national anthem? Do you like or dislike November 8, 1987?"
I love lists of marginally related entities.

Book Report Thursday: The Biblical Flood

The Biblical Flood by Davis A. Young Davis Young is a geology professor at Wheaton College, a small Christian college in Michigan. He uses Noah's flood as a lens to examine how Christian thinkers have considered extrabiblical evidence in their understanding of both scripture and the natural world. The essential points of contention in regards to the flood are:
  • Whether the flood was geographically universal, covering the entire globe, or local, limited to Mesopotamia.
  • Whether the flood was anthropologically universal, destroying the entire human population other than the 8 ark-riders, or local, meaning that there are living humans not descended from Noah.
  • Whether the flood required extensive miracles, such as the wholesale creation and later destruction of the flood waters ex nihilo, or whether its proximate causes were mostly or entirely natural.
A brief synopsis:
  1. Early Church fathers did not hesitate to cite extrabiblical knowledge in support of their interpretation of Scripture. For example, Augustine referred to the existence of marine fossils in the mountains, and the prevalence of flood traditions in many cultures as positive evidence for a universal deluge.
  2. Young argues that an appeal to extrabiblical knowledge is absolutely appropriate, because God created both Scripture and the natural world, and hence prima facie there cannot be any contradiction between the two. Any apparent contradiction is due to either incorrect interpretation of Scripture, or erroneous science.
  3. Many writers strove to explain how the flood and ark could work without resorting to miracles. Note that this is a rather different exercise than seeking evidence of the deluge itself; a miraculous deluge might still be expected to leave evidence that we could discover. For example, James Hutton explained the global deluge by positing an enormous subterranean abyss, which an earthquake unleashed. Edmund Halley (yes that one) suggested that a passing comet might have caused a great tidal wave to wash across first one side of the globe, then the other. An entire field of "arkeology" (my favorite word of the month!) grew around the calculation of the size of the ark, the arrangement of the animals within, and the logistics of transporting, feeding, and returning the animals. Johannes Buteo, a Catholic mathematician, calculated in 1554 that a year's supply of hay for the ruminants would occupy 146,000 cubic cubits, filling the second deck of the ark. The world's larger animals would occupy a space equivalent to 120 cows; the reptiles could wrap themselves around rafters and beams. In 1675, Athanasius Kircher estimated that 4,562.5 sheep would be required to feed the carnivores.
  4. Over time, scientific evidence piled up that challenged the traditional interpretation of the flood. The discovery of the Americas & Australia, with animals unique to each, now required long and tortuous journeys for the critters to and from the ark. In the nineteenth century, the discovery of dinosaur fossils presented a challenge to the space requirements of the ark. And in the twentieth century, modern dating techniques establish a human presence in the Americas at least 15,000 years ago -- well before the posited historical flood -- calling into question the anthropological universality of the flood.
  5. Young notes that many writers adjusted their interpretation of the scripture of the flood in response to this new evidence:
    • The critical school of scriptural analysis accepts that there was a historical flood in Sumeria in around 2,500 B.C., an event incorporated into the epic of Gilgamesh, and later into the Hebrew Bible.
    • Modern Evangelical commentators have for the most part pressed the case for a universal flood on both textual and scientific grounds. Scripturally, a geographically or anthropologically local flood poses problems for the promise of God to Noah never again to flood the Earth. A variety of Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Seventh-day Adventist and other Christian scholars have appealed to scientific uncertainty about the distant past, or embraced fringe science (such as using frozen mammoths as evidence of a catastrophic deluge), to assert that extrabiblical evidence can support, or at least not contradict, the traditional interpretations.
    • Young himself, with a vocal minority of Christian scientists, believes that the text describes a disrupting event in Mesopotamian civilization, in order to make vital theological points about human depravity, faith, and obedience.
I'm entirely wooed by Young's argument that if one believes God created both scripture and the natural world, there can be no threat in understanding both as thoroughly as possible. The appeal to fringe creation science by some evangelicals puts their faith on less firm ground, by making it seem that any alternate understanding of the worldly evidence would overthrow their religious understanding. As Augustine himself wrote:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars... about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics... Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books.
I came away from the book intensely curious what Jewish scholars have written about the historical reality and nature of Noah's flood. In fact, I found it rather curious that Young didn't consider their writings at all, since they've presumably been pondering this for at least a thousand years longer than Christians. Will report back if I learn anything.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Book Report Sunday (Tuesday Edition): Cosmicomics

Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino Truly delightful. Fanciful, sparkling sketches inspired by the sublime and ridiculous stories that modern cosmology has to tell. Nothing more need be said, except that All At One Point (listen to it read!), a wistful reminiscence of Mrs. Mrs. Ph(i)Nk from back when everyone was in the same place before the Big Bang, sustained my longest smile in ages.

Book Report Sunday (Tuesday Edition): The Nazi Seizure of Power

The Nazi Seizure of Power by William Sheridan Allen A very merry Christmastime to all. Nothing better than a cozy week of snowshoeing and fireplaces to get some reading done... In the small [Bavarian] town of Northeim, the National Socialist Party rose from winning 5% of the vote in 1930 to over 60% in 1933. Once they achieved democratic victory, the Nazis promptly dismantled the free press, absorbed civil societies, crushed opposition parties, and cancelled elections. Allen seeks to explain how and why the Nazis swept to power so suddenly and thoroughly. Northeim was a typical country town of about 10,000, with about one-third of the (male) population civil servants, one-third industrial workers or unskilled laborers, and the remainder a mixture of professionals, farmers, and merchants. Unemployment peaked at a moderate 10%, even at the height of the Depression. Around 130 residents (1%) were Jewish, mostly thoroughly assimilated shop owners. A relatively small number (~ 8%) were Catholic, with the rest Lutheran. The character of the place was solid "Red State", if you will -- industrious, tightly-knit, patriotic, militaristic. Prior to the Nazi rise, the electoral picture was roughly this: * a solid 25% of the electorate supported the Democratic Socialists, to whom [AUTH] is clearly sympathetic. They were the only party that was committed to democracy and the Weimar Republic to the bitter end, and their support scarcely wavered over the years. * A small but noisy fraction (~ 5%) supported the Communists, whose effects were primarily to frighten the middle class and prevent the Socialists from moving further to the center. A sizable chunk of the Communists would eventually support the Nazis, either out of spite of the Socialists, an attraction to radical revolution of any stripe, or the belief that it would hasten the true communist revolution. * The majority of the electorate was split between several conservative parties: the Nationalists, the Catholic Center, and the People's Party. It was from these rather staid parties that the Nazis would win the bulk of their support. Much of the middle of the book is simply a chronicle of rallies, speeches, and marches held by the various parties. This part is rather boring and seems to miss the point -- I rather doubt the Nazis won simply because they held four rallies with three brass bands each in April of 1932. Rather, the victory was primarily ideological and strategic: * First of all, the patriotic, militaristic character of the town was shrewdly exploited by the Nazis, who took every opportunity to wave the flag, point to the Imperial Army as the true soul of the nation, and identify the Nazi cause with a rejuvenated military. * Both from tradition and for fear of Communist encroachment, the Democratic Socialists espoused Marxist rhetoric (though they were centrist in practice). This alienated the sizable middle class of the town and made a centrist governing coalition impossible. The Nazis crafted their message to be primarily anti-Marxist, stirring up fears of violent revolution by anticlerical fanatics. * As unemployment rose, the right-wing parties stymied every effort of the Socialists to reduce unemployment with public works projects. Though unemployment was never very high, the unemployed were very visible, waiting for the dole and at the soup kitchen. Thus fear of a worsening economy tilted sentiment away from the ineffective Socialists and conservatives, toward the parties that were agitating for decisive action, i.e. the Nazis (and to a lesser extent Communists). * Violent clashes between militia groups on the left and right (the Socialist Reichsbanner and the SA Brownshirts) further polarized the situation. Once blood had been spilled, prospects for a centrist governing coalition evaporated, and conservative fears of Bolshevik violence escalated. Soon the thuggery of the Nazis seemed to be only "safe" course to prevent Communism. * Finally, the tradition and commitment to democratic principles was simply not well established. Hence neither the electorate nor the right-wing parties flinched when Nazi rhetoric made clear their desire to stamp out dissent and bring strong, "uniting" leadership to the country. It is at the end of the book that the simple failure of democratic society is made clear. As the Nazis consolidated power, they began shutting down both the left-wing and right-wing independent newspapers. One would like to think that in countries with well-rooted democratic traditions, this would bring such a hue and cry that the experiment would end there. Instead, the conservatives acquiesced utterly. Then the Socialist party was banned, and again the conservatives did not object; when the conservative parties themselves were banned, people were upset but the train was already off the tracks. Martin Niemoller indeed.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Book Report Sunday: Fighting Years

The idea is that I record a few favorite passages and any take-home thoughts I have from books as I read them. These aren't summaries or book reviews, so their utility may be limited for the dear readers. This one is catch-up from a couple of weeks ago: Fighting Years: Black Resistance and the Struggle for a New South Africa by Steven Mufson Written in 1989, after the mid-80's revival of the liberation movement in South Africa, but before the freeing of Mandela and the end of apartheid. Two rather simple lessons stand out for me: 1. Counterinsurgencies actually can work, and liberations can fail. Watching The Battle of Algiers, it's easy to draw the conclusion that when you're fighting for liberation and self-determination, victory is a historical inevitability, and counterinsurgency only cuts heads from an indomitable hydra. In the modern context this may be true, viewed from a sufficient distance. But there were determined, popular, and well-organized black liberation movements that had the entire nation of South Africa ablaze in 1960, in 1979, and 1985. And each time, with ruthless persecution of the leaders, squelching of the free press, and concessions to the material and social well-being of the underclass, the government pretty well stamped each movement out. So damn, these things are hard, it turns out. I suppose a Palestinian or Tibetan could remind me of that. 2. The question of the use of violence in a liberation movement is not a simple one. I have always maintained, along with the rest of my 8th grade social studies class, that Gandhi and Martin Luther King were good men. No controversy there. The question is, is their path truly the only just one? There's a moment in the book in which a crowd seizes a suspected police informer. They begin to force a tire around his shoulders, in preparation for necklacing. Bishop Desmond Tutu jumped into the crowd, cradled the informer in his arms, and told the mob they would have to kill him first. A few days later, speaking to an extremely skeptical crowd, he tried to explain his actions. He raised his arms in a Christ-like pose, and said:
I understand when people are angry or hurt and want to take it out on those we think are collaborators. But I abhor all forms of violence. I want to condemn in the strongest terms what happened in Duduza [an internationally televised necklacing]. Many of our supporters around the world said then "Oh, oh. If they do those things maybe they are not ready for freedom." Let us demonstrate the discipline of people who know that they are ready for freedom. At the end of the day, we must be able to walk with our heads high!
It's a great speech, and the practical and moral lesson is clear, but the crowd was unimpressed. Years of nonviolent efforts had resulted in nothing but exile or death for the leaders. George Orwell once wrote a short essay (forget the name? Ah. Reflection on Gandhi) in which he alleged that a non-violent campaign like Gandhi's, intended to appeal to the conscience of the oppressor, would simply fail in a country where dissenters disappeared in the middle of the night. South Africa was such a country, and the conscience of the whites was simply not stirred. Not until whites faced civil unrest, difficulty traveling through the countryside, and rebellious youth throwing stones in downtowns of "white" cities did they take notice. So perhaps, just perhaps, there is room in my moral universe for violent acts, at least directed against property, and against uniformed enforcers of the oppression. Alright, hafta cut this short. cheers.

Book Report Sunday: Prequel

After a very cozy dinner with friends and a few minutes of throwing snowballs for the dog, why can't I spare 20 minutes for the blog? So, in a moment, the start of a new tradition. But first, a treacly moment for the fuzzy ones in life, be they animate or dis: Sniff. Growing up is hard. (via Pharyngula)

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The Paige Award

In the spirit of Andrew Sullivan's funny little awards for outrageous discourse, I would like to propose the Paige Award. This goes to that person in public life with the most outlandish and offensive comparison of domestic political opponents to terrorists. I name the award in honor of former Education Secretary Rod Paige's February 2004 labeling of the National Education Assocation a "terrorist organization." An early contestant was President Bush's advisor Karen Hughes, when she commented that pro-choice = terrorist:
"I think after September 11th the American people are valuing life more and realizing that we need policies to value the dignity and worth of every life. And President Bush has worked to say, let's be reasonable, let's work to value life, let's try to reduce the number of abortions, let's increase adoptions. The fundamental difference between us and the terror network we fight is that we value every life... Unfortunately our enemies in the terror network, as we're seeing repeatedly in the headlines these days, don't value any life, not even the innocent and not even their own."
And I have a new nominee, from this recent NYTimes article about Christian conservatives -- Missouri State Representative Cynthia Davis:
"It's like when the hijackers took over those four planes on Sept. 11 and took people to a place where they didn't want to go," she added. "I think a lot of people feel that liberals have taken our country somewhere we don't want to go. I think a lot more people realize this is our country and we're going to take it back."
I'm sure there are a few to be found on the left somewhere, but these ones made an impression on me at the time.

Thursday, December 09, 2004


(Apparently, ethical/religious minutiae are what I like to think about in my spare time. Also the ideal arrangement of my desktop icons, but nevermind about that.) Topic of the hour is tipping. Example: once or twice a month, usually those lonely Monday nights when Mrs. Prophet is in class until late, I get a falafel from the place down the street. They have a little tip cup in the front. Sometimes Mr. Owner is working the cashier, and sometimes this Friendly Guy who is about my age and lives in Astoria. I always want to put a dollar in, but somehow I find it mortifying to do so while on of them is looking. So I wait for them to look away, and then quick -- jam the dollar in. About half the time I don't get a chance, and they go untipped. Shame is the emotion that motivates me more than any other, so I tend to project it onto others as well. I'm pretty sure neither the owner nor Friendly Guy are embarrassed at all by my tipping, but my own embarrassment clearly comes from an intuition that there is something humiliating for either Mr. Owner or Friendly Guy to earn their living from my whimsy. If it were my world, I would abolish tipping. George Orwell, in Homage to Catalonia, describes the scene in Barcelona as he arrived in late December, 1936:
I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do. The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing... It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said 'Señor' or 'Don' or even 'Usted'; everyone called everyone else 'Comrade' and 'Thou,' and said 'Salud!' instead of 'Buenos días.' Tipping had been forbidden by law since the time of Primo de Rivera; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy.
This sounds great to me. Yes yes, totally impractical of course, oppression of communism, failure of socialist economies, etc., but I'll never get over the simple egalitarian instinct that this is how things ought to be. And so I hold on to the abolition of the tip as a small part of a better society. Potential Objections to abolition of the tip:
  1. Perhaps we already have a culture of equality in America, and so tipping is more of a friendly guesture between peers than a condescension. Certainly Mr. Owner and Friendly Guy look me in the eye, and don't call me 'Don'. With 250 years of rough social equality (give or take racism), we simply don't need the radical European measures.
  2. Perhaps abolishing tipping, or -- worse -- declining to tip when it is acceptable, ignores the simple fact that some service-oriented professions simply do better with tipping. Certainly non-tipping restaurants in Western Europe can have a, um, lackadaisical quality. And waitstaff are generally happy to take tips, socially demeaning or no.
  3. Or, most likely: my anguish at tipping simply reflects my weak-bellied liberal discomfort at the simple social fact that I'm a well-educated, privileged white man. And at the fact that social inequities exist, and will exist under any economic system we can bear. Tip or no tip, these facts will not change, so I should just get over my angst and give the guy a buck, whether he's humiliated or not.
Objection 1 has some merit; objection 2 might be correct but I'm willing to sacrifice some "quality" for a social good, if it is worthwhile; and objection 3 is undeniable. Yet I still cling to the idea that we'd be better of with tipping, in any setting. Dear readers three, do you tip (in non-restaurant situations, i.e. when it's not necessarily expected of you)? Would you prefer an anonymous tip, or no tip at all?

Waiting for the light

With winter solstice coming up on the 21st, one's thoughts naturally turn to the celebration of the birth of Mithra, lord of truth and light, enemy of error, guarantor of oaths, born of the virgin Anahita. Except, for most of us, they don't. Ever since Julius I's letter to Cyril of Jerusalem in 349, our thoughts turn instead to that other guy. No hard feelings. (Just to clear something up, despite the "s", this blog is named in honor of the Persian deity, not the Roman Johnny-come-lately, who was much less likeable in my opinion.) Anyway, here's to turning the corner on wintry darkness, whether you celebrate stars in the East, miraculous oil, burning yule logs, or installing batteries. Browsing holy texts over lunch is a good habit, by the way. I recommend it.

Monday, December 06, 2004

At Least They're Reading Our Poetry

One more little note, of the encoding-lifestream variety: We dashed across the street to the fall concert of the Columbia orchestra earlier this evening, and it was a true delight. The program was a crowd-pleaser, with Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, and Copland's Appalachian Spring. And the performance was wonderful, making me realize that living or working at or near a university is always worthwhile. Anyway, the part I want to record for posterity is the concert notes, in particular a pair of passages about Copland. The topic of concern is whether it is dangerous, flattering, or both when the Government takes an interest in art. First, on the music:
... Reviewing the first Workers Song Book of 1934, Copland writes of mass song as "a powerful weapon in the class struggle," a "collective art activity" that "creates solidarity and inspires action." He is more pointed still: mass song, he maintains, is "a more effective weapon than any in the hands of the novelist, painter, or even playright..." ... This isn't just idealism, it's communism, and it colors the brazenly memorable simplicity of Appalachian Spring with more than just utopian longing. In its squaredances, country fiddlings, and revivalist sermons, a dream of another America, a coup, is couched.
And now on Copland and America:
1953. The Chairman: "Now, Mr. Copland, have you ever been a Communist? Mr. Copland: "No, I have not been a Communist in the past and I am not now a Communist." The Chairman: "Would you agree... that there is a political importance in music?" Mr. Copland: "I certainly would not... I spend my days writing symphonies, concertos, ballads and I am not a political thinker." Copland won a Pulitzer prize for Appalachian Spring in 1945, but it hardly kept Joseph McCarthy from issuing the composer a subpoena and interrogating him behind closed doors in 1953. Fifty years later, as part of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the transcripts were released, and the make at least two unpleasant points:
  1. No amount of musical patriotism, either the implicit Appalachian Spring variety, or the explicit Lincoln Portrait kind, will get you off the hook when Fear is ruling the Ruling Powers, and
  2. Copland perjured himself, twice. First, he was, if not entirely official party-member, definitely a fighter for the cause; he didn't just defend the premise of mass songs, but wrote them too, songs like "Into the Streets May First." Second: Copland denied music any political force, emasculating arguably the dearest aspect of his vocation.
He had to bluff, out of self-preservation, but it's still painful to read. When was the last time the American government really wanted to know what a composer thought about the political import of music? And cared about his answer? We will have to wait for the FOIA to get us the transcripts.
This reminds me of some garbled quote from a Soviet history class, in which one poet said to another, "Sure, they're sentencing us to death in a labor camp, but at least they're reading our poetry!"

Sunday, December 05, 2004

eat the freely given

So there are many wellsprings of thought or feeling out of which vegetarianism might grow. I am an extremely approximate vegetarian myself (holding a tummy of "ma Foy"-inspired lentils, spinach, bacon, and egg as I write). A rough survey of the field of Vegetarian Commandments might include:
  • Thou shalt not cause pain and suffering to sentient beings <-- my rationale
  • Thou shalt eat healthily
  • Thou shalt avoid meats and produce made with nasty synthetic hormones, pesticides, and fertilizer
  • Thou shalt protect thy Earth; i.e. prevent destruction of Western grazelands or Amazon rainforest for cattle <-- my rationale in high school
  • Thou shalt indirectly feed the hungry, by minimizing thy impact on world resources (i.e. eat vegetables because of the extraordinary inefficiency of meat production, as measured by raw materials per calorie afforded)
  • Thou shalt hold wacky deep-green beliefs
These different inspirations yield different guidelines about what one should or should not eat, of course. For example, the question of fish: could go either way from my "sentient being" perspective, depending upon one's beliefs about fish consciousness; desirable from the health perspective; probably not okay under a "deep green" philosophy; and either great or horrible, depending on the specific fish, from an environmental perspective. I was thinking tonight about another possible wellspring, and what choices it would coerce:
  • Thou shalt eat only the foods freely given by a living being, without taking its life
This diet would consists of milk & dairy products, honey, nuts, berries, fruits, and anything else that is "freely given" by the host with the intent that it be eaten. For all I know there's a sect of people in California that do eat this way. Fruitarians come kinda close, but I think more in the surface behavior than in the motivation. I'm uncertain whether one could subsist on this diet. I suppose the human body puts up with all kinds of horrific treatment. But life without greens or grains or legumes could be tough. I'm certainly not proposing it, for myself or anyone else. But it's an interesting concept, and it does have a pleasing simplicity and comprehensibility.
A new leaf. Rather than refraining from posting until my musings have reached some unachievable (while nonetheless paltry) threshold of coherence and depth, I will now let a blog be a blog. Henceforth, this is a stream of consciousness, a record of things I'd prefer not to -- but might -- forget (e.g. my life). My senior year of high school (a remarkable 10 years ago), I kept a thoughts-journal. It was made out of duct tape, and had the word ΦιλοσοΦια inscribed on the cover. I loved it very much, though of course I shudder when I on occasion leaf through it. I look forward to doing similar shuddering in mere weeks here! To come: thoughts this eve.