Saturday, December 14, 2002


Since I've been retooling the template, I decided it was high time to add a blogroll. And my, what a motley crew they are. I'm sure if I got them together at a cocktail party there'd be some great arguments.

Friday, December 13, 2002

Back to normal...whatever that is...

Blogspot let me have my template back, but I stuck with the manually-entered archive links to the left. Except -- whoa! -- when you click on them they're still mysteriously in the Chroma template. OK, whatever. So long as they're there.
UPDATE: OK, fixed that problem. Whew.
Scene stealing

Some folks from the office and I are going to see The Two Towers when it opens on Wednesday. I'm looking forward to it; the only thing that worries me is that if it follows the book, it has a giant spider in it. This could be a problem. But actually, giant spiders in movies don't bother me as much as you'd think. They're usually not very realistic, and blowing them up to human size actually isn't as alarming as shrinking people down to fly size Anyway, I know what happens in the scene, so if all else fails I can shut my eyes.

Actually, there's something else that's curious about that scene. I read the book about a year and a half ago, and when I read the spider part I realized it was very familiar. Just a few months before I'd read Edar Rice Burroughs' sci-fi novel Pirates of Venus (well, half before I bailed out -- it wasn't very good), and it had an almost identical scene. In both books (spoiler alert!) two friends meet a giant spider, and it attacks one of them; the other one valiantly fights off the spider with a sword, but returning to his friend, finds him apparently dead. He dithers about whether to abandon the body, finally deciding to stay. Presently the friend revives; it turns out he's only been paralyzed by the poison, not killed.

Burroughs' book came out in the 1930s, so he certainly came up with the scene first. It's hard to believe Tolkien plagiarized, though -- he was apparently a fan of Old English and opposed to everything since the Battle of Hastings, so could he have read tripe like Burroughs? Well, you never know what people's secret vices are. But maybe there are only so many things you can do with a giant spider in your plot.
It's a Gen-X thing

I think Dahlia Lithwick must be my age:
Out of nowhere booms the great, surprising "Luke-I-am-your-father" voice of He Who Never Speaks. Justice Clarence Thomas suddenly asks a question and everyone's head pops up and starts looking madly around, like the Muppets on Veterinarian Hospital.

OK, everyone knows the Star Wars reference, but even I had almost forgotten that Muppet Show skit. Remembering it this morning almost sent my coffee through my nose with mad giggling. Thanks, Dahlia!
Whoa, it's all gone blue!

If you're wondering why the template changed, so am I. I was mucking around trying to fix my archive problem, and screwed up the original template code so bad that I decided to change to another template and then change back so I'd have the original code. Well, Blogspot let me change, but not change back. And the archives it did not let me republish at all, so I entered the links in manually. So now you have full access to my past posts, but at this rate, I think I'm headed for Movable Type.

Thursday, December 12, 2002

I told my wrath, my wrath did end

Do you ever wake up in the morning with a thought already in your mind, as if it had started when you were still asleep? This morning I woke up with a memory, ten years old at least. It was of a piece I heard on NPR, it must have been from Maureen Corrigan, who was remembering a scene from her childhood in Catholic school. The Pope was visiting New York, and the nuns took the students out to wait on the sidewalk for the papal motorcade to come by. It was winter, but the nuns did not let the students wear their coats, because "it was important that His Holiness see our green-and-white school uniforms."

While the students waited with chattering teeth, Corrigan saw the owner of the Jewish deli behind them come out and speak to one of the sisters, gesticulating fervently. Presently he went back into his shop and came out with cups of hot chocolate -- one for each student. "I didn't hear what he said to the sister," Corrigan recalled. "But I'm sure one of the words he used must have been meshugenah."

In my opinion, meshugenah is too kind a word for it. I heard this story when I was in college in Massachusetts, and I knew well what those northeastern winters are like. And why was it so "important" that their uniforms be visible? Why should the Pope care? Even if it is important, this seems like using children to suck up to authority -- to a rather demented degree.

Why was I thinking about this today? I think this might have followed from the exchange I read the day before between Mark at Minute Particulars and Peter Nixon at Sursum Corda. Mark criticized Peter's angry rhetoric last week at Cardinal Law, saying Catholics should show proper respect for the office of bishop, even if they disapprove of the bishops' conduct. Now, I've been reading Sursum Corda for a while and Peter always struck me as one of the nicest guys in the blogosphere, but he admitted he'd flipped out:
I think many of Mark's points are well taken. His ability to maintain detachment and take the long view of this crisis is a good thing. I have usually tried to do that myself.

But I just lost it last week. I'll freely admit that the latest revelations pushed me over the edge into a blinding rage that made me want to bang my head against my keyboard in frustration. Why these revelations in particular? Who knows? They were certainly no worse than some of the things we heard earlier this year. Maybe I just reached my personal tipping point.

Like Mark, I believe that the office of Bishop is one of God's gifts to his Church. It's precisely because I believe this that the actions of Law and other bishops who have concealed abuse make me so angry. Does the sacrament of orders confer grace? You bet it does. But as with all graces, the recipient must cooperate. Respect for an office becomes increasingly hollow if the actions of the officeholder himself continues to undermine that respect.

Now, I don't like to get involved in intra-Catholic disputes, since I am not a Catholic and never have been. But this made me think about the general Christian idea that anger is a sin. I understand anger is highly dangerous, but I also know it does not always lead to evil. I am sure the gesticulating deli owner was angry, and he probably did not say very nice things to the nuns, but his anger led him to give away his own merchandise to help others. I have no doubt who acted most Christlike in that story. And I am sure that Peter's love of his church, so apparent in the rest of his blog, fueled his rage last week. I'm not that angry at Cardinal Law, but why should I be? I'm not personally invested in him. Give me a little passionate anger in the face of child abuse, over bloodless obeisance to authority, any day of the week.
Making marry

A few weeks ago I blogged about Noah Millman's response to Stanley Kurtz's argument against gay marriage. (I can't link to my own posts, because of the !@#%ing missing archives.) I didn't respond to Kurtz's article itself, but Julian Sanchez did. He now regrets his nasty tone somewhat, and writes a more sober post on the legal issues. I agree that his tone was nasty, though I admit I cracked up at his lede: "Once in a great while, there comes an article so breathtakingly stupid, so heroic in its inanity, that as one reads it, even inanimate objects in the surrounding area seem to radiate intelligence by comparison."

Wednesday, December 11, 2002


I haven't been covering the Trent Lott story here since folks like Josh Marshall are doing it so ably already, but certainly it's been the talk of my office. I tell you, there are folks in my newsroom who are the right of Attila the Hun, and they're all disgusted with Lott. "He's too comfortable hanging around with white supremecists," one editor remarked.

Indeed. But what's also striking is how many conservatives never really liked Lott to begin with. They put up with him, and now they see no reason to. Jonah Goldberg summed it up hilariously: "Regardless, Trent Lott only does two things well, freeze-dry his hair and say stupid things."

Now Lott is trying to apologize more abjectly, but I doubt that will change anyone's mind. The question is, are there enough other freeze-dried white supremecists out there to keep him afloat?
Give me smut and nothing but

In case anyone's getting tired of the high-minded philosophizing around here, take a look at the Bad Sex Prize. Not for actual bad sex, but for bad writing about sex. It's a hoot, but be warned: you may come out with fewer brain cells than you went in with.

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

The monkey in the middle

The world is still waiting for the sequel to Telford's God and nature post, so I'm still reading the book I said a while ago I'd be blogging about.

It doesn't really cover the topic I was questioning, but it does have a chapter on evolution and what it means for human nature. The chapter's focus is somewhat the opposite of what I was writing about; I was interested in the origin of evil while the author, Francisco Ayala, is concerned with the origin of good.

Actually, "good" may be too vague a term. He's considering the origin of ethics, which are not quite the same as goodness. He argues rather convincingly that human ethics are different from simple empathy or altruism, which can be seen in some animals. Ayala defines ethics by three traits that necessitate human-level intelligence: 1) the ability to anticipate the consequences of one's actions; 2) the ability to make value judgments; and 3) the ability to choose between alternative courses action. Those traits are innate to human beings, Ayala says, and so all societies have codes of ethics. The content of those ethics, however, is culturally determined. He compares it to language: everyone's brain is made for language so everyone speaks one, but there are many different languages out there.

It does seem to me that there is a difference between "animal pity" and ethics, which sometimes require you to do what you know is right even when your feelings tell you something else. This aspect of ethics cuts both ways, morally speaking: you can overcome your bad feelings by making yourself do good, but you can also overcome your good feelings, as when a misguided sense of duty leads a soldier to torture or kill innocents under orders. Yet there is a certain commonality to human ethical codes, at least the ones that I know of. They all involve some degree of subsuming self-interest to others, but the question is to what others. Family? Tribe? Race? Nation? Species? God?

Ayala doesn't really go into how this relates to Christian theology, though I expect Murphy will revisit it at the end of the book. One thing that's curious about his theory as that his second factor in ethics, making value judgments, or knowing good from evil, is what got humans into trouble in the Garden of Eden. It reminded me that in Telford's recent essay on the subject, he never quite explained why that piece of knowledge is the one thing forbidden. Telford explains the serpent's message to the humans thus: "In fact, you will die seeing and knowing the good and evil that God sees and knows. You will die with eyes wide open to what you have done."

Well, that explains why humans would know evil by eating the fruit -- by having disobeyed they will have done evil. But the Tree of Knowledge supposedly yields knowledge of good as well. Perhaps this is simply saying that without evil there is no contrast to call "good," though it still seems peculiar that the story would consistently describe the tree with both -- mentioning good first, in fact. If knowing good from evil is an innate capacity that humans have evolved, as Ayala asserts, how does this translate to the Fall? I mean, like Telford I take this story to be a fable, not history, but even as a fable this is rather problematic. But I will keep reading, and see what turns up.
All you geeks out there, hear my cry

As some of you may have noticed, my archives stopped archiving on Nov. 16. Blogger claims the subsequent weeks do exist, and I keep republishing them and they keep not showing up. The best I can get from Blogger's help page is instructions to reset and republish everything, which I have tried to no avail. Do any other bloggers out there know what the frell is going on? Is this the dreaded "Blogger archive bug"?

Monday, December 09, 2002


That was the movie I went to see Friday. I haven't read the 1961 book by Stanislaw Lem, but I saw the first film version a looong time ago, when I was about 13. I remember little about it; I had trouble following it, since the subtitles were rather incomplete (there was a lot of talking with no translating!) and it was the slowest film I've ever seen. So seeing the new version was really like seeing the story for the first time.

One interesting thing about the movie was that it was a sci-fi film that wasn't really trying that hard to be a sci-fi film. Although it had some neat space shots early on, it doesn't focus on the gadgetry nor does it tell us anything about what sort of future society we're operating in. Indeed, Earth seems much like it does now, except with a few touches that seem almost like shorthand for the future these days: video phones, collarless shirts. There's a ray-gun of sorts in the movie, but we don't actually see it used.

I expect that the director simply decided to be upfront about the truth in a lot of sci-fi: they're really stories of the supernatural with a high-tech gloss. In a lot of sci-fi the aliens are like magical beings from pagan lore, but Lem seems to be more ambitious. His alien is a planetary ocean, intelligent, creative, unfathomable, capable of interacting with humans in its weird way, but distinctly not human itself. It is a good picture of how God seems to a lot of people in the modern world.

More specifically, Solaris represents the afterlife, or the hope of one. The humans who visit the planet are themselves visited by their lost loved ones -- not ghosts, but fully embodied beings. The characters spend most of the movie trying to sort out if this is something good to be embraced or a delusion to be fought against, and in the end it still isn't clear. "There are no explanations here," says one character in a dream. "Only choices." Indeed. Is the hope for heaven a friend or an enemy? I have been wondering the same thing myself.
Technical issues

Sorry for the absence of posting. Saturday I was busy, yesterday I had a bad headache and just now I was dealing with technical difficulties with my modem. The fun never stops!

Speaking of technology, when I wrote my post about convergence on Friday I didn't realize Microsoft was coming out with its own Box That Does Everything, the Windows XP Media Center. Salon covered it today. Since this is Microsoft, its version of The Box is a PC, not the DVD player as I discussed in my earlier post. I kind of ignored PCs in that post, partly because they seem so bound to the desktop; Microsoft is trying to get over that problem by encouraging you to move it to the family room and hook it up to the TV. Having it connect to both a TV and a monitor resolves the problem of text vs. video viewing I mentioned before. The trouble with having them in the same room, though, is that you have a problem if you want to work on the computer while the kids watch TV. I suppose if these boxes become cheap enough they'll proliferate in houses the way TVs have, but it still seems to me that the reading/writing function and the entertainment functions of electronics may take a while to merge.

The Salon article also touches on something I mentioned in this post: the fact that the old huge-block-of-channels model of cable TV seems out of date. In fact, the TV industry feels threatened by the Media Center because it will make it very easy to download, buy and sell individual TV shows. But the idea of only buying stuff you actually want to watch seems like an irresistible idea. I just hope somebody figures out how to make money doing it...