Monday, March 28, 2005

Some Notes on Socialism

[Note: Recently I was asked, albeit as a joke, if I was ever a member of the Communist Party. As it is a fair question and no doubt and edifying question as well, I thought I'd post my answer for the community to read]

Books stores, especially the big ones, a really hilarious places to visit, and I am surprised more people don't go for their inherent comedic value alone. For instance, at the local Borders here in Frederick, the Philosophy section to nestled nicely between the Linguistics section (which is quite small) and the sex section (which is fairly extensive). You often get to see very funny juxtapositions like Rawl's Theory of Justice displayed proudly beside The Idiots Guide to the Perfect Orgasm. Also, just about every History book in trade paperback is about how something or other changed the world. Examples: The Irish, the Greeks, the Scots, the American Women’s Soccer team. Some things about the bookstore are funny in a sad way. People still buy books by people like Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter. I doubt the buyers of these books know how to read, but I have to admit the books are so ridiculous and inane that I am glad they are in print. In a couple decades folks will laugh their head of off. For instance, there is this great quote from a Middle Age Crusader (Someone The Pious), who boasted that he never attacked nuns unless it was provoked.

This past weekend I was in the Latin American history section and saw a funny book titled something like "Fidel's Hollywood" which was written to expose one of the most important scandals in American History: some movie execs kinda like Castro. A quote on the back called this scandal "The Left's 'Abu Ghraib'." I'm not making this up. Well, one of the sections was a spirited criticism of Che Guevara (an actual section title: "Motorcycle Bore"). The main argument seemed to be that the movie "Motorcycle Diaries" didn't point out that Che wasn't a very good General. Thanks, guys.

But all this leads to some important questions, actually, and I will answer them in a convenient Q & A format:

Q. Did you see the movie "Motorcycle Diaries"? If so, did you enjoy the picture?
A. I did see it (not in the theater, sadly). I liked it quite a bit.

Q. So then you are a socialist like Robert Redford and the rest of those nit-wit commies in California?
A. I am not a socialist. And I happen to think Robert Redford is a very intelligent and talented actor and filmmaker. I thought Quiz Show was pretty good.

Q. So, I guess you are not a socialist because socialism is impractical?
A. On the contrary, practicality has nothing to do with it. I'm a little embarrassed that you asked this question.

Q. Well, then, would you mind telling us why you are not a socialist?
A. Certainly. I am against socialism for at least three reasons:

Matt's All Time Top 3 Reason for Not Being a Socialist

1. In my lifetime there have been four (okay, five) US presidents and every single one of them has committed outrageous abuses of power which often involved dropping expensive bombs on innocent people or selling expensive weapons to poor countries to help them destroy other poor countries or destroy that country’s own citizens. The Federal Government has also been the number one polluter in our nation’s history, and has repeatedly abused its police powers. It also happily executes its own citizens. Just recently, our current President has admitted to using government funded propaganda against American citizens. And get this: we supposedly live in a Democracy. Do I want to give our government (or any government) still more power? Not if I can help it.
2. I don't believe that just because you are against the crimes and abuses of major corporations, you must necessarily be for the crimes and abuses of the federal government.
3. There are some subtle moral issues regarding Liberty and the justifications for government sovereignty. Personally, I think a solution might be found by reassessing what we mean by Liberty in light of Wittgenstein’s private language argument, or rather, to use the Private Language problem as a template for investigating individual Liberty. Who knows?

Q. Who cares?
A. Touché.

Q. You are always criticizing. Don't you have anything positive to say?
A. Um.

Q. And by the way, how can you say you are against corporations when you work for one almost every day?
A. That's easy: I'm a hypocrite.

Q. Aren't we all? Well, that satisfies me. Wanna get a drink?
A. Cheers.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

One way to be for Christianity is to be against what passes for it*

1) My brother sent me a link to a great article about the Left Behind series, "a twelve-novel extravaganza combining a blandly paranoid worldview with crackpot theology to produce a form of biblical infotainment." Admit it: you've thought the same thing. Doesn't it feel good to have someone write it? Here are some of my favorite parts:

- 'In America, of course, with commercial success comes a degree of cultural respectability. If millions of consumers succumb to a childish revenge fantasy that takes the Christ out of Christianity and treats the Bible as a cosmic Daily Racing Form, we dare not scoff at the merchandise.'

- 'Today it reads like very bad literary criticism, although it’s admittedly tempting to admire the sheer ingenuity of a biblical “system” that turns Beelzebub into a “peacenik” and Jesus Christ into a bloody-handed avenger.'

- 'By no means are all, or even most, evangelical Christians comfortable seeing their faith turned into fortune-telling. Rossing[a theology professor] quotes an array of contemporary theologians who reject what one disapprovingly describes as “this perverse parody of John 3:16: ‘God so loved the world that he sent it World War III.’” As noisy zeal overwhelms more reasonable voices, however, the Left Behind hubbub strikes me as symptomatic of the degraded state into which American Puritanism has fallen.'

2) So, wisdom is proved by its children. And shouldn't art be considered children? Here's a fun game: match up the art of American Evangelicalism (of course, we'll have to use the term "art" very loosely to find candidates) vs. Catholicism. I am going to pick examples at random, but you can play along, too. I missed a lot. (Sorry, I don't have the strength to put in links). Here goes: Your local Mega-Church facility and parking lot vs. Sacre Coeur (or Notre Dame or St. Peter's Basilica). PowerPoint clipart vs. mosaics, frescos, and stain-glass. Thomas Kinkade vs. Cezanne (or Giotto or Any of the Mosaicists and Icon Painters or Grunewald or Michelangelo). Michael W. Smith vs. Mozart (or Josquin or Palestrina or J. C. Bach). The Left Behind Series vs. The Divine Comedy (or The Lord of the Rings, or the Canterbury Tales). Billy Graham vs. St. John Chrysostom (or St. Augustine or John Henry Newman). Mel Gibson (okay, it's tricky where to put this guy) vs. Any of the Evangelists. Dobson vs. Pascal (or Annie Dillard or Jacques Maritain or Thomas Merton or G. K. Chesterton or Dorothy Day). Frank Peretti vs. Flannery O’Connor (or Walker Percy or Andre Dubus or Graham Greene or David Lodge or Sigrid Undset). Grape Juice vs. Wine.

I can't think of any Evangelical poets. But just try to top Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Merton, Denise Levertov, St. Francis of Assisi, and T. S. Eliot (okay, he was technically only Anglo-Catholic, but I think that counts. I guess Auden might count, too. Judges?)

3) Here's another game. Dream up a crazy theology (say, dispensationalism, invented in the late 1800s). Now, who do you think is closer to the truth: (the apostles AND the early fathers AND the Bishops of the Church Councils, the compilers of the Bible and the Creed AND the doctors of the Church AND St. Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St Clare, and St. Francis of Assisi, and so on) OR (You)?? Fundamental to the concept of Tradition is the virtue of humility.

Cheers.

*With apologies to Wendell Berry for the title

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Holy Week

Today is the beginning of Holy Week. This weekend also marks the 2nd anniversary of the War in Iraq. Lord have mercy on us.

The following is a prayer attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi. I thought it might be apt.


Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred let us sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, union;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

Grant that we may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are
born to eternal life.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Good News and Bad News

First the bad news:

The president finally succeeded in getting funding for ANWR drilling with a thin 51 to 49 senate vote. It is a major victory for Bush, but (probably) a defeat for the American people. This sort of thing happens all the time: remember the missile defense shield?. Does anyone really think we need Cold War era nuclear weapons system? Especially after 9/11? Of course, not. But Bush dropped out of a major treaty and is spending something like 10 billion dollars a year on a crummy, outmoded piece of junk. Why? Hubris, maybe. Myopia? I don't know. But in 10 years and how many more billion we may get a few drops of oil from Alaska. Good grief. Anyway, it is largely symbolic, to make it look like he is doing something useful about our oil problem (as if a war wasn't enough?). Also, this is supposed to be a key part of his energy policy. Yes, that would be the energy policy that Enron dictated to Cheney.

A silver lining: 7 Republicans defected!

The good news:

The new Woody Allen movie might be worth watching.

David Denby (our old pal) writes in this week's Current Cinema:

[Compared to the last several Allen pictures] “Melinda and Melinda” is fuller, more intricate; it has monologues, party scenes, good moments for actors. And it’s emotionally more alive than anything Allen has done since “Sweet and Lowdown,” in 1999. I was absorbed in it, and I liked parts of it. And I wish to God it were better.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

On the Apparent Immutability of the Self

1) I've been feeling guilty about living so close to DC and not taking advantage of it, so I went to the National Museum of Art yesterday. I caught the exhibit on Rembrandt's late religious paintings. Excellent. I definitely would recommend it to anyone who is in the DC area. The only downside was that I missed an Agnes Varda movie that was showing at the Art Museum that I didn't learn about until I was on the subway home.

2) Agnes Varda is still making films! Can you believe it? You should thank her by going out and renting Cleo from 5 to 7.

3) I wrote my first letter to the editor today. It was fun because I had to edit my over six hundred word first draft to something around two hundred. It was extremely helpful. My final letter, a little under 250, was about ten times better written than the original. If I ever become a professor or teacher, I'll make my students write 200 word essays on long books and grade on completeness of the subject covered. I'll bet they would know it a lot better than if they had to write 10 pages!

4) Matt's All Time Top Five Places to Film a Masterpiece (unordered)
- Ontario, Canada
- Paris, France (Too easy, I know)
- Amsterdam, Netherlands
- New York City, USA (Also too easy. Yeah, yeah.)
- Pittsburgh, USA (Q: What the $@#^%?! A: Alas. I'm only human...)

Details on these and other masterpieces will be forthcoming...

5) I would write more but I've spent all evening looking for my phone, which, along with my checkbook and self-respect, I seem to loose fortnightly. Is it because I am too much of an intellect to concern myself with the petty things of this world? Nope. It's plain old fashion irresponsibility. Ah, well. There's time: NPR told me a few weeks ago that 30 is the new 20.

6) Here's an interesting sociological experiment: compare the BBC News' coverage of a new Chinese anti-secession law with a Chinese News network's coverage. Pretty funny. Somewhat related topic: Does anyone know if the US has an anti-secession law? I have a vague memory of a war happening about this, right? The Sybil war, right? When the US became briefly schizophrenic?

Thursday, March 10, 2005

File Under "Music I Was Making a Couple Years Ago"

Writes G. K. Chesterton: "Even a bad shot is dignified when he accepts a duel." I say this as a caveat to the announcement that I've posted a couple songs from the album which Dave Young, Jerome Wincek, and I recorded over a couple of long weekends in the springs or early summers of '02 and '03 in Oil City, PA. I am not sure how good the quality of the download is (it's a free service after all), but I am planning to post all the songs up there when I have time (I have to go to the library or a coffee shot in order to get broadband). At worst, this is compelling evidence not to mix large quantities of Jug Wine and warm beer with making hit records.

The songs were written various times between the late nineties and 2002. I did the singing and the bad acoustic guitar on some of the tracks (I also scratch tracked all the songs, so the mistaken-er, eccentric--timings are mine also). Jerome played Bass guitar and did backing vocals on at least one song. Dave did almost everything else, including production, mixing, acoustic and electric guitars, harmonica, drum set, some backing vocals and probably other things I can't remember. He also co-wrote two of the songs (but I haven't posted either of them yet). The folks at the Oil City Arts Council (or something like that, I forget the name) let us use the Vault studio which was really great of them.

There aren't any credits or info posted on that Soundclick site, but I'll update it eventually and I'll also upload the rest of the songs at some point.

Also, if the songs are particularly terrible or the sound quality is bad or that Soundclick site isn't very good, let me know and I'll find some place else to put them.

Cheers.

[Note: you will have to wait for the semi-weekly roundup: it's coming, but the statisticians and reporters and rainmakers and such like are still poring over the events of last week.]

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Chilling

I read a very chilling article about the use of Depleted Uranium shells by the US and UK military (see below). And the president has the audacity to call himself pro-life! This is not surprising: once you start admitting that some weapons (like land mines and biological and nuclear weapons) are immoral, it is a slippery slope to the position that all violence is immoral. Indeed, the administration has no problems with weapons of mass destruction, as long as long as they stay out of the hands of evil doers (I wonder if it is that NRA influence? "WMDs don't kill people, People Kill People"?).

I was so shocked by this article that I did some research (okay, I'm being a bit of a googlist here, I admit). Here are some good resources:

This is a good article on the topic.

Here is the position of the White House, DOD, and DOE. Plus, links to actual scientific research. There are links to the appropriate government sites and sources. Notice how flippantly the white house throws around the word "truth."

Here is Amnesty's position on the issue. It is right on (within, that is, as Wendell Berry puts it, "the narrow logic of warfare"). Even if there is a chance, even a small chance, that DU weapons have toxic effects on civilians (not to mention troops!), they should not be used.

More information is at this link but I don't know much about the source.

You can also just do an internet search on the topic.

But what can be done about it, except to get good and angry?

Note: Here is the original article. The photos, I'm told, are very disturbing.

Monday, March 07, 2005

File Under “What I’ve been listening to lately”

An iPod Playlist I Just Made Yesterday:
1. Vito’s Ordination Song. Sufjan Stevens.
2. The Book of Right-On. Joanna Newsom.
3. A Summer Wasting. Belle & Sebastian.
4. Homesick. Kings Of Convenience.
5. Bird Stealing Bread. Iron & Wine
6. The Group Who Couldn’t Say. Grandaddy
7. Such Great Heights. The Postal Service.
8. Slung-lo. Erin McKeown.
9. Do You Realize?? The Flaming Lips.
10. Vincent O’Brien. M. Ward.
11. We Are Nowhere And It’s Now. Bright Eyes (w/ Emmylou Harris)
12. Kamera. Wilco.
13. Born to Hum. Erin McKeown.
14. Apology Song. The Decemberists.
15. The Late Greats. Wilco.
16. Helicopter. M. Ward.
17. Flint (For the Unemployed And Underpaid). Sufjan Stevens.
18. Stay Out of Trouble. Kings of Convenience.
19. Passing Afternoon. Iron & Wine.
20. I Don’t Know What I Can Save You From. Kings of Convenience.
21. Such Great Heights. Iron & Wine. (Postal Service cover)

Literally listened to this song 20 times in a row (an iTunes oversight) saturday over Islay Scotch and Pipe Tobacco, and it didn't get old:
1. Look At Miss Ohio. Gillian Welch.

Good Albums I’ve Purchased Lately, Say, Over The Past Couple Months (unordered)
“Funeral” by The Arcade Fire
“Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi” by Camera Obscura
“Woman King EP” by Iron & Wine
“When The Roses Bloom Again” by Laura Cantrell
“The Futureheads” by The Futureheads
“The Milk-Eyed Mender” by Joanna Newsom (Okay, I admit it: it took some getting used to at first)
“Books” by Belle & Sebastian (I mostly buy B&S albums for the album covers, these days, and this one doesn’t disappoint--even has an obscure Annie Hall reference, but the music is okay too)

Friday, March 04, 2005

Idea for an Opening Scene of a Movie

Morning. A door. An alarm goes off for the seventh or eight time. The alarm stops mid-beep. The Character, young man with no signs of age, staggeres out of his room and down a flight of stairs into his kitchen. The only light is morning window daylight. He manages to find and turn on the coffee machine, to get a carton of 2% milk out of the refrigerator. He brings the milk carton with him into the living room, a room with a couch, a love seat, but no TV. Only bookshelves. He sets the milk carton on the coffee table and stares lazily, slowly waking. After several seconds of morning sinking in, and at least a sliver of alertness coming into his eyes, he gets up and walks to one of the bookshelves, which stands about 5 feet tall, with a stack of bowls on top. He takes one of the bowls in one hand and with the other hand he uses his thumb to trace the top shelf books. We see in a close up the flotsam of past intellectual fashions. Structuralism. Existentialism. Lacanian Psychoanalysis. Frankfurt School Marxists. Derrida. Foucault. Baudrillard. Et Cetera. Zizek. (Here we are citing that under appreciated movie, "Barbarian Invasions." Please, go see it). And after Zizek, his thumb reaches two boxes of cereal (Frosted Flakes, say, and Rice Chex). He takes a box and bowl back to his seat at the coffee table. A close up of the coffee pot buzzing that it is done. Titles.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

"but the old devils, they found me in my room"

Okay. Time for the semi-weekly roundup:

1) According to the statisticians, short lists play better on this blog than long sarcastic rants about gambling. Go figure. I guess I'll have to give the people what they want. But, not yet. Oh, and from now on I'm going to try to do better in the red states.

2) This is great news! Until now, I think we were the only country outside of the so-called axis of evil that executed juveniles. Here is Amnesty International on the issue.

3) While we are on the subject of human rights. If you want to help in just a little way, why not take a little time and petition to call for the release of Yury Bandazhevsky who has been wrongfully imprisoned on dodgy "anti-terrorism" laws. Thanks!

4) Sophia Coppola. As a director, she's very good. As an actress: not so good.

5) File under odd coincidences: I rented two random old movies this week. Both of them had Celeste Holm in them. Very good. She was a much better actress than Sophia. Related: When did the chatterbox blonde go out as a hollywood stereotype? I can't think of any recent examples, but then I'm no connoisseur, so maybe I am way off.

6) With regards to part 1: sorry read states, but your president is incompetent . Uck.

7) I'm thinking of putting my graduate degree to good use by writing a neural network to pick March Madness brackets. Anyone have any presuppositions I can automate?

8) Due to bad chemicals, I haven't been thinking too much about this blog lately. More lists and recommendations to come. Sooner or later.

Cheers.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

"The art of losing isn't hard to master"

When I was young I was never any good at video games; my family didn't have a video game appliance, and we never went to the arcade. So I only played when I visited friends, and of course I never won. However, I was able to devise a strategy that worked for most games: it consisted of pressing buttons at random and pretending I knew what I was doing. "Take that," I would say. Meanwhile my character would be jumping haphazardly around a barrel quite far away from the action. I mention all this because I hoped I would be able to make a positive transfer of learning from my Sega experiences fifteen years ago to my participation in a Texas Holdum Tournament this past Saturday. There are some similarities, but I have noticed two major differences so far:

1) With Sega, you are more likely to get carpal tunnel.
2) With Poker, you can loose money.

How much money? Well, somewhere in the vicinity of 30 dollars. (However, having just watched Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels again a week ago, I was happy to escape with all my fingers and toes).

Indeed, I consider myself a winner, and for several reasons. First, there is that great pleasure of learning something new and being terrible at it. (On this subject, I'm an expert. For instance, I am famously terrible at Chess). I had the following qualifications for participating in the tournament:

1) Dim memories of 5 card draw
2) I own the movie "Rounders" on DVD (but not the Special Edition)
3) 30 dollars in my pocket
4) I won three Euros playing slots in a seedy Amsterdam gambling establishment a couple years ago (the current shape of the Dollar notwithstanding).
5) A two hour crash course in Texas Holdum Saturday afternoon
6) A half an hour of internet poker Saturday evening (notice the synergy? I got to randomly press check, fold, bet!)
7) I saw the German-dubbed version of Maverick back in 1994

With this solid foundation, how could I loose? It started out well. I knew from Rounders that "if you don't spot the sucker when you sit down at the table, you are the sucker." Unfortunately, the only suckers I could spot were energetically playing beer-pong on the other side of the room. A minor setback. I decided to play it cool and proceeded with our strategy.

The strategy we decided to use involved playing a 'tight' game (but I swear I didn't touch any alcohol the whole night) and I was to 'fold' if I didn't get a '9' or 'above.' There was also something relating to a 'flop,' 'three little blind mice,' 'big deaf,' 'under the sand,' and 'dealer.' But, I don't want to get too technical, as I wouldn't want to confuse the laymen. Long story short, I never followed the prescribed strategy and ended up pulling the Holdum equivalent of "push the Sega A and B buttons randomly." I lasted exactly an hour and a half. Which brings me to the second reason I consider myself a winner. I lost all my money in a really interesting way: a thoughtless and quixotic suicide ('all in' as they say). I am guessing everyone does something from time to time without any logic or passion or habit behind it. I have no idea why, but I believe it should be appreciated when it happens.

Now, I would like to say that I will dedicate my life from this day forward to mastering the art of poker and return triumphantly like some contemporary Dantes returning wealthy after years in the Chateau D'if to have my way with the final table in New Brighton, PA. But although I'd like to do all that, I probably won't. The pot odds just aren't there.

So it goes.