Thursday, November 30, 2006

Three Ruby Links

A couple of cool links on Ruby since I'm doing my project in it.

First is Why's (Poignant) Guide to Ruby. Alright, so it's the obligatory link, but this is the strangest, funniest, coolest intro to any programming language you're likely to find.

Here's something else I read today - pretty random, really. An argument that Ruby is "a Lisp." That is, that Ruby can double as a functional language (like Scheme or, of course, Common Lisp). More interesting than the post is the discussion in the comments (which I didn't finish). I include this here because my own mind isn't fully made up on this issue - one of the main reasons why I wanted to play with Ruby for this project (and in general). Since the project I'm doing directly relates to how well Ruby can stand in as a functional language, I should know a lot about it in another week! Really - it's something like if my project goes smoothly, then Ruby is "a good Lisp," and if it doesn't, it's not.

Related to the functional languages theme, here's something on monads in Ruby - another good test of just how "functional" Ruby can be.

Unfortunately, I spent all my time today blathering about Canada, so I'm not going to say much about this now. Or really much more this semester, probably. I have stuff to learn about algorithms now too.

Is Stephen Harper Crazy?

So now that the results are in and the press has moved on, what to make of Harper's Quebec resolution?

On the surface, it's an excellent illustration of how weird Canada is, and one of the (many) reasons I'm glad I don't live there. Here's the general picture. In Parliament there is a Party (the Bloc Quebecois) which is dedicated to the dissolution of Canada. Of course, they don't put it that way. They only want independence (or at least some measure of sovereignty) for Quebec; the rest of Canada can do as it pleases. But it's sort of hard to imagine how Canada would hold together without Quebec. More precisely, it's hard to see how Quebec leaving wouldn't result in a domino effect with the western provinces (starting with Alberta) going, then Ontario not wanting to pay for Newfoundland all by itself, etc.OK, so this party tables a motion which recognizes Quebec as a "nation," although it isn't at all clear about what this means. Probably it's meant to be something of a legal trojan horse - getting vague language inserted into the legal code that Quebec could exploit later...somehow...or something. So why bother? Well, it was introduced just ahead of local elections in Quebec, and the Bloc is just starting to regain its 1990s-era solid majority there again. (It paid off: the Bloc won 66% of the vote.) Now, Harper is PM by the skin of his teeth. The Tories don't really have a majority, nor a coalition - it's kind of strange that they form the government, actually. How it happened is this: Alberta voted Conservative as a rock-solid block (every riding in the province), BC and Saskatchewan both did their parts too. The West elected Harper, in other words - and he made up the difference with votes in rural Ontario and Quebec. In fact, there are 10 seats from Quebec in the Tory camp. But that's weird - the Tories NEVER take seats in Quebec. Well, right, and they never will again - all it is this time is an anti-Paul Martin protest vote from some of Jean Chretien's old cronies. They openly campaigned for the Conservative candidate in their districts (in areas where the Bloc is weak, one presumes) just to spite Paul Martin by forcing him from office less than two years after he FINALLY got elected. So the common press version goes that Harper is trying his damndest to shore up seats in Quebec for the next election. So when Duceppe tabled this "nationhood" bill for Quebec, Harper countered with a bill of his own, recognizing Quebec as a "cultural and linguistc nation within Canada." Supposedly, it's the "within Canada" bit that's important - the Bloc left this out of their own bill. But of course it's hard to see how this really sets back the Bloc's legal trojan horse much. It won't stop Quebec from holding another referendum that I can see, and in the meantime it might give them even MORE special privileges than they already have. And indeed, the Bloc ended up supporting Harper's bill ... along with everyone else: it passed 266-16. (This didn't stop them from voting for their own version at the same time, but theirs didn't pass.) What's weird about this is that 70% of the population (you know, the actual Canadians all these MPs supposedly represent) was opposed to it. 70% of the population opposed, yet it passed with over 90% of Commons in favor. WHAT'S UP?

Poor Stephen Harper. He didn't even get anything out of it. The Tories got trounced in the by-elections anyway, and he lost a cabinet minister out of the deal besides (Michael Chong resigned rather than recognize "ethnic nationalism"). Quebecers aren't stupid: they know who really gave them this bill, and the Bloc did nicely for itself at the polls. Soon it may once again be able to drum up a secession referendum - and who knows? Maybe it will pass this time.

So what was Harper thinking? I mean, surely he didn't expect anyone in Quebec to vote Tory on the basis of a watered-down version of Dueceppe's bill? What was everyone else thinking? How does it happen that something so unpopular passes with this kind of majority in Commons?

What a strange place Canada is. The government frequently plays Russian Roulette with the nation's future over Quebec, and yet the overwhelming sentiment of the population on the issue is a giant miserable groan.

I guess no political party wants to be the party that denied Quebec was a "nation." There would eventually be a price to pay. Ontario is where the real votes are, but Quebec is a somewhat-close second. (And unlike the Tories, all the other parties do regularly get seats in Quebec - especially the Liberals).

So what, if anything, is Harper smoking? Well, the media would say that it was all just a cynical short-term bid for votes. From the article linked above:

"This was really an atrocious idea," said Michael Behiels, a University of Ottawa historian who specializes in Quebec issues.

"It was all driven by the hope of very, very short-term political gain for Harper. It was an attempt to shore up the 10 seats from Quebec that he stood to lose (in the next election.)"

And also this:

"At first glance (Harper's motion) seemed brilliant, a master stroke," said Wiseman. "But these things can spin out of control. Brian Mulroney thought the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords were a great idea too."

But if that's the case then it's unfair to let the Liberals and the NDP off the hook: you don't get a 90+% majority vote on anything without substantial support from both parties after all.

I think there are (at least) two other interpretations, the second more interesting than the first:

  1. Harper did it for Canada. Maybe he really thought this was in Canada's best interest. The reasoning would be: the Liberals are already debating such a resolution ahead of their leadership convention (this weekend), which just so happens to be in Montreal. Issues of Federalism (Trudeau's legacy) therefore come to the fore in the contest (indeed, three of the most prominent opponents of Harper's Bill, aside from Michael Chong and Dalton McGuinty, are candidates for Liberal Party Leader). Duceppe saw an opportunity and grabbed it, hoping to sow dissent in the Federalist camps. Now the Liberals can do one of two things. They can block the Bloc's bill and table their own later (presumably one very similar to Harper's, specifically mentioning that Quebec is a part of Canada), or they can just support the Bloc's bill as it stands. In the first case, the end result is the same, only the Liberals get to pick up the pieces rather than Harper and the Tories, and he could kiss those 10 seats in Quebec goodbye forever. In the second case, he reasons there is a real danger to Canada: the Bloc would have managed to get a federal bill passed recognizing Quebec as separate in its specific wording, if not in overall intent. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, it would seem - especially if this allows you some control over the details (which admittedly might turn out to be very important indeed here).

  2. He did it because he wants a less federal union. This is the interesting one, and something that the media isn't considering. What if Harper did it not for votes and not because it was inevitable, but because he knows it will open a Pandora's Box and he likes what's inside? A looser federation. It's certainly not inconceivable.

I wish the media in Canada would pay more attention to possibility #2 here. Western alienation is real, after all. The solid votes for the Tories in the last election probably had less to do with the fact that the party is conservative (though westerners in general, and Albertans in particular, do tend to be more conservative than the rest of the nation) and more to do with the fact that Harper is from Alberta. On his acceptance speech, in fact, one of the first things Harper said was that he wanted to make clear to Alberta and the rest of the west that "you said you wanted 'in' ... and you are 'in.'" Fine. So what if he's negotiating a less central union because this reduces the ability of Ontario and Quebec to continue to dictate policy for the rest of the nation? Is this just my dumb outsider's take on things, or is it possible something like this is actually going on? Harper's also big on the elected Senate idea, after all, and he's not ATB against scrapping first-past-the-post in favor of proportional representation. I don't think it's at all off the charts to suspect that there's more to this Quebec vote than simply heading off political opponents.

The trouble with too much speculation about this in the media is that it does get into ugly (well, from their perspective) questons about what Canada really is in the first place. All nations are artificial to some extent or another - but Canada's a more extreme example than most. It doesn't have any natural boundaries and doesn't really have a shared history. One could argue that the same is true of the US - but the US at least has the virtue of a more evenly-spread population and an enduring foundation myth. Power and population aren't terribly concentrated anywhere, and the various local regions blend in to each other. Canada, on the other hand, is Ontario (which is about a third of the population by itself) plus a bunch of less-than-willings along for the ride - either by accident (Quebec), or failure (Newfoundland - maybe the other Maritimes as well to lesser degrees), or because it just kinda happened that way and it's never been all that worth it to get up and leave (everyone else). Not to mention, leave and go where? It seems like too much trouble to form a nation of 3million or so, and the US isn't exactly taking applications. Not that most Canadian provinces would want to join the US anyway. Joining the US would cheat the Maritime provinces out of a pretty sweet wealth-sharing package. The West will be carrying its own weight soon (Alberta already is), true, but joining the US is a bit scary too. If you think you're a small fry in a nation of 10 provinces and 30 million people, try 50(+) states and over 300million! And so Canada just sort of IS ... and keeps on BEING ... year after year. But no one's totally sure why.

In the 70s Trudeau tried to give an answer to that question - and at the time it was a pretty good one. This is the Canada we know (and most people love) today: the touchy-feely, lib-left, "multiculturalism within a bilingual framework" social welfare state. But there are and always have been two major problems with this version: (a) it's ahistorical and (b) it's not representative.

First point first. Canada has never been and was never intended to be a centralized federation. That was something Trudeau came up with on his own - probably because he wasn't sure what country he was living in. Now granted, it's been HIGHLY centralized since the 1970s in many ways, but it's cobbled-together nature was always just below the surface. There's nothing necessarily wrong with a loose federation. In fact, it's probably a good idea. So no slight to Canada is really intended here. Quite the contrary - viewing the country as a loose collection of fellow travellers is a more accurate way to look at the situation on the ground, and local control is generally a good principle for any nation.

As to the second point, geography and demographics are important, and there's no denying that most of Canada is in Ontario. When you build a national identity as a merger between the most populous province (Ontario) and the squeakiest wheel (Quebec), you're necessarily leaving out everyone else. What holds it together, if we're honest, is a handful of bribes to the Maritimes. But the point is there are vast spaces in Canada that Ottawa just doesn't do a very good job representing. Federalism works in the US because the whole country isn't centered in, say, New York. Congress is something closer to a table of equals. But in Canada? Well, there's a lion, and he takes his share, and gives parts of it to some of the others, and so it goes. It's not exactly an inspiring national vision.

But alright, I'm not Canadian, so I don't really know all that much about it. What I wanted to say is that I think the press is giving unfairly shallow treatment to Harper's latest bill. It might be exactly as they say: a cynical vote-buying scheme that backfired, the worst consequences of which are yet to come. But then again, it might also be one of two other things: (a) an illustration of just how divorced from its people Canadian politics and politicians have become and (ironically) at the same time (b) a risky attempt to solve just this problem by shaking Pandora's Box a bit.

Of course, it might also be a cynical, but harmless, vote-buying scheme that simply amounted to nothing. The point is that we don't know so long as the press only quotes people who don't like Harper.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Happy Brithday

My lil sis is 30 today - and a new mom as of August 22!

Happy Birthday, Fae (<- a nickname; her real name is Ruth)!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


Today in Friedman's Class we got the big bombshell: in place of a final exam we have to implement Mini-Kanren (full technical report here, a goofy application to demonstrate the language in action here) in a language of our choice.

A couple of words about why this could be a bitch of an assignment. First - Mini-Kanren is a logic programming language, and its chief virtue is that it runs forwards and backwards. Pretty much everything is handled through Unification, which is why this works. The spiffy thing about it is that in addition to doing the normal program thing - i.e. you give it a program and it gives you an answer - in a limited sense this one works the other way too - which is to say, you give it an answer and it gives you a program.

That's a sugar-coated way of putting it, of course. In reality, it quickly gets unmanageable, and a lot of the information it would give you wouldn't be very interesting. So, for example, if you give it "5" and some sort of variable in which to store all its responses, it could well give you every possible statement it can think of the answer to which is "5" if you run it. So, you know, it gives you (* 5 1) and (+ 2 3) and (lambda (y) 5) - and eventually starts to get silly, with things like (* 5 (+ 2 (- 3 (+ 2 0)))) and so on. So you wouldn't use it to generate every possible statement that could give you "5" as an answer (it would never return anyway - there are an infinite number of such statements), but it is quite useful for other things. One example we did in class was type inferencing. Some programming languages are "typed," meaning that they enforce rules in which expressions only make sense if used with the proper kinds of values. So, for example, if I multiply 2 and 3, I expect the answer to be another integer. Of course, you can look at it the other way too: if I get an integer as an answer, and I know that it was the result of multiplication, I would expect the two values involved in the expression to also be integers. So it's easy to see how languages like Mini-Kanren come in handy: we need type inferencers to be able to work "both ways." More to the point, the operation involved is really just normal logic unification. That is, statements all pretty much take the form of an equation - like so:

int = int * int

And so on. If I don't know what one of the members is:

??? = int * int

All I really have to do is just unify it with the rule, and the system will realize that the missing element is just "int" (since the rule looks exactly like this statement with the unknown, save that in place of "int" in once place is has "???" - more properly, there would be a variable here).

So Mini-Kanren works well with type inferencing. And of coure, the BIG hope for it is that it will be easily adaptable to automatic theorem proving. (WARNING: the same was hoped for Prolog, and Prolog was something of a disappointment, though it's a healthy programming language and still in regular use over 30 years after it was invented).

Now, anyone who clicked the link to the technical report on Mini-Kanren above will have noticed two things about the language. First - it's very compact. Second - it's implemented in Scheme. The first is what makes it possible to assign this as a last-minute final project in a graduate course. If Mini-Kanren were a full-on programming language, we would need a lot more than a single semester (let alone the just over two weeks we have!) to implement it. The second is what makes it daunting.

See, the thing about Scheme is, it's really (really REALLY) nice for syntax extensions. Scheme is minimalist in the sense that it gives you very little to work with in the package - but maximalist in the sense that what it gives you to work with are high-powered precision tools. It can do (pretty much) anything, just that you might have to build some of what you want to do yourself. In particular, what Scheme has that helps with implementing a language like Mini-Kanren are macros. These allow you - literally - to extend the syntax of the language at low cost. So it isn't really a problem to implement other languages in Scheme - particularly simple languages of streamlined concept like Mini-Kanren. What sucks is that few other programming languages give you these tools in the box. So all the help that Friedman, Oleg and Will had from Scheme getting the base version of Mini-Kanren up and running is unavailable to us for this assignment. And that, of course, is where the challenge comes in. We have to work up a sweat for this one - because we're tested not just on our ability to replicate what was done in class, but in this case how well we actually understood it - because we're applying the knowledge in a completely new environment. It's actually the perfect final for this class. But that doesn't make me any happier about having to do it.

Actually, I'm kidding. I'm ecstatic about doing it. (What I'm NOT happy about is that we apparently have a regular homework assignment due this weekend anyway, and I could really use a break - not the least because I need to get to work on this Mini-Kanren implementation...).

I quickly put dibs on Ruby, a programming language I'm really interested in, have learned, but haven't ever really gotten my hands dirty with. The assignment says that no two people can use the same PL (unless it just so happens that certain people don't have programming experience outside of their One Favorite Language and that turns out to be the same for two people in the class or something), hence my haste (Ruby is sort of trendy these days, so I'm sure someone else would have thought to do it). Of course, the cop-out thing to do is to use a language like Haskell that is similar to Scheme in key ways (in this case: in terms of having lazy evaluation built in, so the infinite recursive features - i.e. the stuff that makes it possible for Mini-Kanren to generate infinite numbers of answers - come easy. Also, Haskell is also a functional language, so the translation from Scheme would be trivial). The badass thing to do is to use a language like Fortran or BASIC which only has very very primitive near-machine-level instructions. I actually was planning to do it in Fortran just to show off, but (fortunately!) Friedman then added that the only other restriction on languages was that the langauge in question must come equipped with a garbage collector. That rules out Fortran (at least, it rules out Fortran77, the version that I would have used) because the only garbage collection I know that's available for g77 - the "standard" home use Fortran77 compiler - is just a collection of homebuilt tools. The language itself doesn't have it.

Now, I'm not going to post here that I want to implement Mini-Kanren in Fortran77 just to show off and then not actually do it. There's nothing more annoying than people who brag they can do something and then don't follow through. But I wiped some sweat off my brow when Friedman ruled out Fortran in this way because it means I don't have to do it NOW. :-) I can start on it when I'm working on my Ruby version (not that Ruby - a purely Object-Oriented Language - is anything AT ALL like Fortran77 - a purely imperative langauge), finish it over the holiday, and mail it to Friedman or Will when (and IF) I finish. The reason I had hoped to do Fortran77 is because I'm interested in how you actually get super-highlevel things like Object Orientation and Infinite Streams out of the actual hardware. Obviously, it happens. Scheme runs, after all, and boasts one of the fastest compilers in the business (and in fact, ML, another highlevel functional language, probably has the best compiler of any language - though I guess C people would take exception to this) - so obviously it's possible to get computers to exhibit the kind of behavior we see in Mini-Kanren. I'm just not clear on all the low-level details some of the time, and Fortran77 would be a nice way to get that way. But OK, Ruby it is (and a damn good thing too!).

This doesn't help my freetime. I know very little about Ruby - so I have to jumpstart knowledge of a new programming language. Which I WANT to do, but probably don't have TIME to do. So we'll see. But it should be interesting. Ruby is a weird little item - whether or not it will continute to look as good on job applications as it does now I don't know (in fact, I have in the past cautiously predicted it won't - another example here - though it's a safe investment for now for sure). But this gives me a good excuse to get really familiar with it, so I jumped on it.

Blogging will be spotty from now till the end of the semester. Wish me luck on the Mini-Kanren implementation (yes, I know that there is an implementation already - but I'm not going to peek at that unless I get really stuck. I haven't actually run it yet - it might not even be any good. There are, in fact, implementations for many languages already out there. I'm sure Giancarlo will have an easy time finding one for Python - the language he got. There's at least one for Java that someone in Friedman's class last year did - but I don't know if it's online. It's probably pretty impressive - getting Java to act like anything but the annoying juggernaut that it is.).

[UPDATE: please forgive the boneheaded math error in one of the above examples. As Noah rightly points out in the comments section, (* 5 (+ 2 (- 3 (+ 2 0)))) actually evaluates to 15. I meant to type this instead: (* 5 (+ 2 (- (+ 2 0) 3))) ]

Much Appreciated

Relevant to continuing discussion about whether Borat was a good movie is this recent Charles Krauthammer column. This is a point that I left out of my list of reasons why the whole Borat thing is a bit annoying, but it's a good one too, so I thought I'd send Krauthammer a hat-tip (you know, via my massive armies of loyal readers).

The idea is this: if Cohen is really concerned about anti-Semitism, then he's picking on the wrong country. "U S and A" has probably been friendlier to the Jews than just about any country in history, when you stop to think about it. That isn't to say that anti-semitism doesn't exist here. I personally know some Jew-haters, actually. But on the whole, I should think the US is the best place in the world outside of Israel to be Jewish. Jews are, for example, much more successful here than the average citizen, there are plenty of Jewish communities, Jewish celebrities, etc. I think it's probably true that there is some discrimination against Jewish politicians, and that's certainly unfortunate and should be fixed. But there are certainly successful Jewish political leaders here too, not to mention very effective Jewish interest-group political organizations. Attacks on Jewish businesses and places of worship are vanishingly rare - they don't happen any more often than is statistically expected for any religious or ethnic group given the higher-than-average number of whackos in this nation. The US donates huge sums of money to keeping Israel afloat, and I don't think anyone doubts its willingness to defend it, even against its own national interests in many cases, should REAL shooting start in the Middle East.

Krauthammer's bone to pick with Cohen comes from an interview Cohen gave Rolling Stone - out of character, in a rare move for the camerashy comedian. In it he speculates that the kind of indifference to anti-Semitism he encountered in a bar in Arizona is what led to the Holocaust.

Unlike Krauthammer, I'll have to grant Cohen that point. Indifference to racism certainly enables racism, and so in some sense I guess telling harmless (and not-so-harmless) "Jew jokes" now and then actually does have the potential to lead to real damage. But as someone who tells an occasional Jew joke myself, I really resent the implication that I would stand by and let the Holocaust happen all over again here in "U S and A." Even among the people who get a kick out of racial humor, there's a difference between those who are actually indifferent to racism and those who are just letting off some steam. What I'm getting at is that I think this argument works both ways ... and also "neither way," actually. That is, sometimes harmless racist jokes really are harmless - nothing's meant by them at all. Other times they're more serious, but these times they're just as likely to function like pornography is sometimes said to function. That is, there's some evidence that liberal pornography and prostitution laws keep sex crimes down. I'm not aware that anyone has done a similar study for so-called "hate speech" (racist jokes, in this case) and hate crimes, so I don't know whether this argument holds any water or not, but it seems plausible that it could. Occasional cracks at other ethnic groups in small doses might help ease tension now and then. Now granted, most anti-semitism is irrational and probably based on envy (the Jews do better on average than most Americans and are stereotypically smarter) - but then no one I know subscribes to the theory that hate crimes are rational. Envy is a typical motive for hate crimes, in fact. So if singing "Throw the Jew Down the Well" in a redneck bar helps some people not burn down Synagogues - well, I won't say "I'm all for it" because I'm not, but I appreciate the degrees of wrong here, and singing an offensive song is definitely better than property damage.

The point that Krauthammer makes well, and Cohen apparently misses, is that in Europe and even Britain (nominally, though probably not actually in terms of culture, part of Europe) - people ARE starting to burn Synagogues again. If you're looking for REAL anti-semitism, then America's not your man. And neither is Germany, by the way. (The Rest of) Europe and the Middle East are the places to go, but Cohen doesn't bother.

Why not? Well, I have two theories, neither of them very flattering. One is that Cohen lacks the balls. That seems like an odd thing to say about a man who stood up at a rodeo in Virginia and spoofed the Star Spangled Banner - but read the Rolling Stone link first and THEN tell me there might not be something to it. Second, and probably closer to home, is just that Americans make good targets. We're used to being spoofed, and in fact we do it to ourselves all the time. One thing I could never make my mind up about over the 6 years I lived abroad was whether it was good or bad that Americans tend to roll over and play lapdog when foreigners start dissing on their country in front of them. Being something of a hothead, I mostly think it's bad. But I can see the advantage to it too. Popular stereotypes to the contrary, Americans are actually not at all sensitive about their nation. It's rather the people who accuse them of it that tend to have the problems, in my experience. By this I mean in particular Canadians, Brits and New Zealanders. The few French people I've met were not at all anti-American, were very friendly in fact. The Germans are in general VERY anti-American, but they're also cool with you dissing on Germany, so you tend not to mind so much. No, what's annoying are Brits and Canadians - who insist when they meet you that they want to be candid about nationality and don't mind healthy criticism of their own countries, but of course don't mean a word of it and get quickly offended if you give as good as you get. It's hard, in other words, to see anything deeper behind a British comedian coming to "U S and A" and allegedly sniffing out anti-Semitism than just that he's working out whatever weird issues he and his countrymen in general seem to have with us. And it helps that he knows (whatever he may say in interviews) that Americans are mostly good-natured about people spoofing them and will go to see and laugh at his movie anyway.

What I think Krauthammer's column gets exactly right is the idea that there is a difference between what academics now like to call "qualitative" and "quantitative" research, and there's really only so much you can conclude from "qualitative" research. I have a(n ex-)friend in Ottawa who used to drive me up the wall with her "qualitative" research on feminist issues. She is making a career out of doing things like collecting narrative accounts of how women view their bodies, blah blah blah. I suppose it's interesting to have these collected in a book somewhere - but what I always found annoying was how much she wanted to read into this stuff. This is, in fact, the logical fallacy of "testimonial" taken to an absurd degree. The biographies of individual people make for interesting reading and can give perspective on otherwise dead events - but they do not form the basis for any solid conclusions about said events. That Borat can find anti-Semitism in "U S and A" is as uninformative as it is unsurprising. And I guess I have the same problem with this that I have with lots of Michael Moore's movies. That is, it's easy (enough) to catch people on camera doing goofy things and saying shit they probably shouldn't. It's easier still to take such material and frame it so that it comes out how you want it. What would be harder would be to ... say ... do followup. Interview the people at the bar and find out why it is, exactly, they don't mind singing songs about doing violence to Jews. You might be surprised at what you'd find.

Where stunts like this come off as cowardly to me is on exactly this point. Cohen and Moore get what they want and just go home. Fun for them, not so much for their dates. What Cohen doesn't want to know is that some of the people in the bar actually don't care one way or the other about Jews as a group, but would be happy to defend them with their lives if it came down to another Hitler incident. (What he further doesn't want to know is that some people in the bar may well have had relatives who died for more or less this cause in WWII.) What he also doesn't want to know is that some of these people may have been wronged by Jews in some way or another. Not that that justifies their racism, mind you - but it's something I'll bet Cohen wouldn't be willing to put on film. And in fact, reading Krauthammer's column reminds me of the most famous deleted scene from the film: this one, where Borat wants a woman to stand in a corner and hold up horns and say "Shalom" and then tells his dog to "attack the Jew." The woman says something about how Jesus loves Jews. Maybe not the kind of rationale most of us would give for rejecting racism (and in fact, it doesn't reject racism at all - just racism against Jews) - but the point is that the scene doesn't jive with what Cohen is trying to show, and so he lets it go. Here we have a card-carrying Christian Right Redneck who doesn't fit the stereotype Cohen is peddling, and so it's out.

I guess the overall point is this: I tend to take Cohen's movie a little personally, I think - and it's because I'm a Southerner of German heritage. As such, I'm very much aware that there's quite a bit more to racist jokes than latent racism. More often than not, when I'm saying "nigger" around my northern friends, it's to get a rise out of them - much the way Borat/Cohen himself does in his movies. It's because there ARE negative stereotypes about Southerners, and since I don't seem to be able to fight them head-on, it's a nice way to release tension about them to watch people cock their heads and try to figure out whether you're serious. But there's a price to be paid for this, of course, and that's that you often come face-to-face with what you're trying to spoof (the way Cohen does in that scene in the movie where he wants a gun to "kill Jews" and just leaves when the attendant doesn't have a problem with it rather than dragging out the comedy - since real Jew-haters must make Cohen, as a Jew himself, very nervous!). And when all is said and done, the problem with getting sensitive about anything to do with ethnicity or heritage in the first place is that you can't control for all the people on your side. Which is to say, there are, of course, plenty of racists in the South, and there's also nothing I can really do about that - and that they exist doesn't really help my cause when I'm trying to get people I've never met to please not assume that I'm one of them automatically. Well, all this is naturally true of Jews too. Negative stereotypes don't come from nowhere, as a general rule. Cohen could do something useful by actually probing the subject - but he doesn't. There's no reason to fault him for that, of course - he's making a comedy, not a documentary. What's irritating is that he turns around and gives interviews like the one for Rolling Stone passing his stuff off as serious work. If it is, he's doing a really shitty job giving the whole picture. And of course if it's not, he really shouldn't say it is.

If it is, though, I think "U S and A" has, as Krauthammer points out, pretty good reason to be annoyed that we're the target, given how much better the US is in comparison to pretty much anywhere else when it comes to treatment and acceptance of Jews. Indeed, neither I nor any other Americans I know think any Jew is less "American" for being Jewish. It's ironic, but it doesn't generally occur to anyone - in the US, anyway - to think of Jews as different people in lots of cases until they bring up the subject themselves. And the best point in general in the column, I think, is this one:

Look. Harry Truman used to tell derisive Jewish jokes. Richard Nixon said nasty things about Jews in government and elsewhere. Who cares? Truman and Nixon were the two greatest friends of the Jews in the entire postwar period: Truman secured them a refuge in the state of Israel and Nixon saved it from extinction during the Yom Kippur War.

Think what you will about either President, Israel policy, or whether supporting Israel has anything whatever to do with helping Jews (I myself do not believe that the Jewish people have any ancestral claim on the land of Israel. Whatever the statue of limitations on these things is, it ran out over a thousand years ago. I would, however, have fully supported open immigration into the US for Jews either displaced by WWII or simply unwilling to return to Europe after everything that happened to them there - and I am in general very supportive of Israel politically for other reasons - not the least of which being that I don't believe for a minute the Palestinian leaders are sincere about coexisting with the Jews there). The underlying point here is two-fold: (a) actions speak louder than words and (b) there is no truth in presenting only half the picture. It would be disingenuous to accuse Nixon (infamously vulgar in conversation as he was) of anti-semitism based on things he said when he was, in general, a friend to Israel as a politician. It could be argued that his friendliness to Israel was an attempt to "send the Jews home," and maybe it was - but the point is that this has to be argued from complete evidence rather than inferred from a handful of off-color statements. It certainly isn't an argument for general American anti-semitism that the president says anti-semitic things if the system as a whole outputs policies that Jewish political groups like! But mostly, it's just that relevant information is relevant information. You can't call "qualitative" studies objective when they're not.

The same advice goes for comedians who purport to have discovered something deep about American culture and neglect to mention everything else that's relevant and on the table for discussion.

Maybe Cohen's point is that if anti-semitism exists in the world's second most Judaism-friendly nation, what does that say about everywhere else? And if that's his game, then I'm on his side; it's a useful thing to say. But his movie isn't being presented that way at all; certainly there's nothing in the (bit of the) Rolling Stone interview (that's available online) that gives that impression.

No, I think what we have here is exactly what Krauthammer thinks we have: another case of America-baiting passed off as social commentary when the real meat of the issue is to be found elsewhere. Unoriginal - but nothing we here in "U S and A" aren't used to.

Piece of Cake

Ok, so I originally said that this blog would be back up two days ago rather than today. Wanna hear my excuse?

Kay. My computer crapped out. No, seriously. It started showing symptoms just before I went home. Occasionally it would just freeze, and once or twice it gave me five beeps (rather than the normal one) and refused to boot. (Unfortunately, it turns out to be hard to find a list of diagnostic beep codes for Asus motherboards. Word to the wise. I got one eventually: five beeps means "monitor problems.") After I got back this got really bad - I couldn't run it for more than about 10 minutes before it crashed.

Well, I have another computer (two actually - both laptops), but blogging on the desktop is a pretty ingrained habit, so I extended my break.

But that's not the point of this post. The point is just to note how ludicrous the problem turned out to be. In fact what was wrong was that the graphics card had slipped a bit loose. This is apparently (according to the ever-reliable internet) a common occurrence. Back when I built this thing (in June), I remember being worried about just this kind of thing happening, because the adaptor I have on the monitor cable is a bit heavy, and I was worried it would pull the jack out or something. That's not exactly what happened, but it's close enough. On some message board I read a suggestion to someone having a similar problem that he simply take off the cover, take out the graphics card, and then reset it back into place. That's what I did last night, and the problems have vanished.

I sometimes wonder what volume of dollars each year gets spent on "repairs" of this kind. You know, where a perfectly good working part has simply been nudged loose somehow, and all the repairman has to do is snap a cable back in place or something.

This was also a nice illustration of the law of coincidences. Over the break, I had two prescient conversations with family members. My dad asked whether my homebuilt computer was still running (I think he will probably eventually want one for himself - since homebuilts are so easy to upgrade and definitely cheaper over the long run for that reason), and I said that it was (JINX!!!). Also my brother-in-law wanted to know why I wasn't planning to haul it home for Christmas - and I replied that I was sort of afraid it would come apart. Not a real reason, of course - I could always just snap whatever had come loose back into place, but you get sentimental about these things. For a storebought machine I wouldn't worry so much about it because I assume everything is optimized for space and clamped down pretty hard by machine assembly. This kind of durability may be the one advantage to purchasing a manufacturer machine, in fact. I guess you could argue that time savings on assembly are another, but once you realize how ridiculously easy home assembly is, this argument sort of melts away. The two hours you spend on it are easily worth the $100-200 you save upfront, and the savings over time on upgrades (which is where the REAL benefit to having a homebuilt comes in) more than make up for whatever time you invested into learning the ropes and shopping for parts initially.

But probably the biggest benefit is illustrated by exactly this encounter: the money you save on repairs over the long run by just knowing what goes where.

Even assuming something "real" goes wrong, 9 times in 10 it's just a part that needs replacing. So you have to buy the part - which you would've had to do anyway. This way you don't have to pay the man at the shop $50 just to snap it into place for you. In those rare cases where something truly fucked up is the cause, THEN it's nice to have experts - and that, in the end, is what they're really for. Kinda sad that I imagine their bread and butter comes from the repairman's equivalent of plugging in the power cord!

Well - lesson learned. I'm notorious among my friends for knowing fuck all about cars. So far my '99 Maxima has given me 0 trouble (well, modulo a misfiring cylinder, which you can't repair yourself on a Maxima anyway), but it's still a car, so it will eventually. Just like they say about harddrives: "There are two kinds of people in the world: those who have lost data in a harddrive crash and those who will." Probably the same is true about combustion engines. You should back up your harddrive, and you should know some basic things about vehicle repair. Guess I have another project for the break. I would hate to be the auto mechanic's equivalent of "that idiot technophobe who can't even install his own RAM."

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Gone Fishin'

The previous post is about a Wiki article on Robert Conquest. Turns out he's a really interesting guy who wrote a highly controversial book published in the Summer of Love about just how awful the Soviet Union was. Most of his career, in fact, has been dedicated to smashing leftist illusions about the Soviets ... so naturally he gets a TOWM SALUTE!

There's a cool article about him in the Guardian here. Best line - when asked to give a title to the updated edition of the aforementioned masterwork "The Great Terror," he is said to have responded "I told you so, you fucking fools."


[TOWM will be down for the holiday. Posting likely to resume Sunday 26 November, but possibly earlier.]

Maybe Just Me

Alright, this struck me as really funny, but maybe it's just me. From a Wikipedia article about obert Conquest's book The Great Terror (on extent of Stalin's "Great Purge"):

The timing of the publication of The Great Terror, in the middle of the Vietnam War and the great upsurge of leftist sentiment in Western universities and intellectual circles (see The Sixties), guaranteed that it would receive a hostile reception.

"A great upsurge of leftist sentiment (see "The Sixties")." Classic. Have I mentioned recently how dopey the 60s were?

Wow, that was Terrible!

I don't really know why I continue to watch Battlestar Galactica. Last night's episode was all ways horrible.

  • Cliche city. Let's see if we can name any other military series in which a subordinate screwed over by a controversial command decision and presumed dead shows up again randomly years later to haunt the person who made the decision? How bout I go with....ALL of them. I guess this episode was inevitable. And, honestly, there's nothing wrong with rehashing cool old plots. People are people, and we like the stories we like for a reason. If it worked once, it'll work again. But it's classier if you take a new twist on it somehow, and this one just doesn't. What's worse, it suffers from all kinds of fake emotion. Adama is supposedly distressed by his decision to shoot down Bulldog's viper, but come now, was it really that hard to make? He was under direct orders. It was one of the foreseen contingencies. He would have prepared himself for it mentally, and it's simply unrealistic that he doesn't blame his superiors at all for having ordered them on the mission in the first place. I think the worst part about it, though, is the use of "uniforms" to "mean things." How obnoxious. We're supposed to pay attention to when Adama's wearing his dress uniform and when not, we're meant to notice that Tigh puts on his uniform again for the first time in months to go save Adama from Bulldog (never mind that when you're rushing off to save someone's life you don't generally waste time putting on a uniform when your civies will do just fine), and the gag-me-with-a-spoon worst moment on TV this year comes when Adama hands Bulldog his uniform just as he's boarding the plane to go to the psych ward. I really hope the actors had a good snicker over that one when they called cut!

  • Gaping plot chasms. A person shows up on a random Cylon raider which is being chased by only two other Cylon raiders, and Kara Thrace is the only one who thinks to check for a trap? And she finds it just by noticing that the two raiders in pursuit are deliberately missing the one they're firing on? I mean, geez - these are machine-people we're talking about, these Cylons! Can't they put on a more convincing show? Better yet, why are they even bothering with this television cliche in the first place? Don't they watch colonial TV? Hell, don't the other Colonials watch colonial TV? Wouldn't they have been better off firing a couple of damaging shots and then letting Bulldog just "escape" so that by the time he found Galactica there wouldn't be anyone on his tail missing worse than COBRA troops in GI Joe to tip Starbuck of that ohmigod this might just maybe be a setup? Speaking of which - the real bombshell. How does a prisoner "escaping" from a Cylon prison (a) learn how to fly a raider (remember, it took Kara - the World's Best Viper Pilot - several hours to get the hang of it in You Can't Go Home Again) and (b) locate the Galactica?????? More to the point, if the Cylons have known all along where Galactica is, then why are there any humans left alive in the universe at all? Oh, and nice touch about Dr. Cottle knowing that Bulldog isn't a Cylon from a simple DNA test, guys! That must've been why Baltar's first assignment from the president was to develop a Cylon-detection test, why it took him several episodes to develop it, why we were explicitly told that it takes a lot of time to test someone, why Baltar himself didn't seem too sure it worked (he let Sharon off the hook after all, right?), why development of this test was so important that President Roslin and Adama even gave Baltar a nuclear warhead for his experiments after his highly implausible explanation for why he "needed" it. All this happened because Dr. Cottle has been able all this time to just administer routine DNA tests and verify that people aren't Cylons?

  • The premise of the whole series is inconsistent now. Thanks, guys! So the "instaburden" that we're supposed to just buy that one of the characters had been shouldering since the series began with no previous outward signs is that Adama thinks he might be responsible for the Cylon attack on the Colonies. And why? Well, because he commanded a mission that sent a viper just inside Cylon space to spy on them a bit. Never mind that this mission is itself hugely implausible. Why couldn't they just send a probe? More to the point, wouldn't they have sent a probe before bothering with the manned flight? And wouldn't that probe have warned them that the Cylons appear out of nowhere when you so much as cross into their space? Why isn't it enough to just set up outposts on the Colonial side of the border? Come to think of it, why aren't there outposts set up all along the Colonial side of the border? Since when is there even a "border" to begin with? I seem to remember something in the pilot miniseries about the Cylons just leaving. No one knew where they went. There's a kind of Panmunjeom (in the form of Armistice Station), but no DMZ. The real clincher, though - if the Colonials sent a spy mission into Cylon space which the Cylons detected (this ep makes clear that they did) and Adama had to shoot down Bulldog's ship to prevent his capture, then what's up with the general disarming fever going on in the pilot episode? In other words, if key members of the military are still convinced that the Cylons are a threat, then why is Galactica being decomissioned, why is Adama a "relic," why is the military being downsized, etc. etc. etc.??? It's horribly inconsistent. Granted, this does buy us some explanation for why Adama, of all people, remains convinced that a Cylon attack could come at any time (and without warning). And it adds a dimension to his decomissioning speech about how you can't just ignore your past mistakes. We all thought he was talking about the failed relationship with his estranged son - it's kinda cool to find out that there was, in fact, a triple meaning to that bit. But of course, that's just a pipe dream because we all know good and well that this mission never existed until last month when the writers pulled it out of their asses.

I, for one, thought it was much, much cooler when we just didn't know why the Cylons attacked humanity. And I guess I have to admit that doing it because of a random raid is kind of a neat idea in a way. The reasoning is this: the Cylons would have attacked eventually anyway. It's clear to everyone (except Adama) that one stupid mission across the border isn't enough to justify genocide to anyone who wasn't already planning genocide. (It's hugely implausible that the otherwise level-headed Adama actually loses sleep over this, actually. Not to mention - we could add to our list of inconsistencies the fact that he once directly asked Sharon why the Cylons attacked. I guess it's plausible he wanted to confirm for himself that it had nothing to do with this aborted spy run - but the point is that Sharon doesn't mention the spy run in her answer.) But it is kinda cool that they would have waited until humanity gave them an "excuse" - once again emphasizing that there's a weird psycho-games dimension to this from their side, and also that they're ultimately machines. They have infinite patience. Of course, they have no way of knowing that anyone involved in the original spy mission will survive their genoicide to stick around for the mind games they're playing in this episode...

Previous paragraph aside, I just don't buy this. It's better thematically for the attack to be completely unprovoked, in every way inexplicable. In fact, that really spoke to me early in the series. Ron Moore makes no bones about this being a series in part about 9/11 and the aftermath - and that really echoed my own sentiment on 9/11. It's pointless to try to explain it. In fact, I once again completely agree with Roslin when she tells Adama that the real reason the Cylons attacked was "a thousand things we did, some of them good, some of them bad." She adds a line that echoes things I have also said: that the reason people cling to fantasies that some single obscure thing "we" did explains the Cylon attack (read: 9/11; read: the North Korean nuclear program) is because it gives them the illusion of control over the universe. In reality, we don't have control. That doesn't mean we're not responsible for our mistakes, but it does mean that we shouldn't be ever-ready to blow the consequences of minor actions out of proportion. It's interesting to me that I find myself liking Laura Roslin more and more each episode (a character who initially annoyed me a bit, though to my credit I always stopped short of joining my other Galactica-watching friends (there were about three during the first season - now I'm the only one left) when they harped on her), even as I start to actively hate the series itself. She and Baltar are the two characters who have really survived intact. And I guess Caprica Six and Gaeta to a lesser degree (though I admit Gaeta might be wishful thinking on my part: I really like that character).

Well, fine. There's no solid indication that the Mission From Adama's Past had anything to do with the Cylon attack - even as one of Roslin's "thousand reasons." And Roslin's level-headedness is once again the one bright point in an otherwise dismal episode. Well, actually maybe there were two. Number Three's recurring dream is not bad - especially the fact that the recurring element is the words "End of the Line" written on a door. "End of the line" is something the hybrid says a lot - and dreams in general have been effectively used in this series (as a subtle reminder to the audience that although this series is pretty straight-ahead military most of the time, there are mystical elements buried just below the surface. In particular, the fact that Brother Cavil knows Tyrol has been dreaming - despite Tyrol's denial - in Lay Down Your Burdens, pt. 1 is an effective use of this technique - as is Roslin's foreknowledge that she would meet and kill one of the Loebens.). But otherwise this is yet another cliched continuity-killer that the writers should've gotten off their chests in season 2.5. More proof that jumped is jumped.

Ron Moore says in an interview with Harlan Ellison that he thinks there are 2 more seasons worth of material left. I think that's only true if you drag your feet as they obviously are now. If Ron Moore has an overall plan for where this sinking ship is going, he needs to actually execute it already and quit wasting our time by raiding the pulps for tired old stories which he pointedly fails to improve upon. These little diversions are doing damage to the thematic and logistic continuity of the series - a series that in itself is damn good.

I think it's ironic, really. The general consensus on the 1970s show was that it was a great idea wasted on a stunningly bad execution. I think that's exactly right. Old Battlestar is sometimes fun to watch, but mostly you just wince in pain at the cheesy, stock dialogue, the flat characters, and the gaping plot holes. But the core idea is damned interesting: humanity on the run after a near brush with genocide. The killers are machine-creatures of unknown motive. It has endless potential to be interesting. Too bad Glen Larson is a gasbag.

When Ronald D. Moore got the helm there was much rejoicing. Here was one of the people who made Star Trek the Next Generation intersting. A proven good writer - he would know what to do with Galactica! In the interview linked (twice, actually) earlier, Moore says pretty much what I just said: that Galactica was a great idea done poorly (man, was it ever!); it deserved a second chance. He said the basis of his show was to take the same idea only take it seriously this time. And that's what we got for the first 24 episodes. In fact, he even improved on the original idea. The Cylons are now humanity's creations - not some random alien bullies who show up out of nowhere. They want to be human - which is certainly more interesting philosophically than the race of unthinking robots we got in the other show. And best of all - their plan to destroy humanity isn't a half-assed bait-n-switch that any credible military would've seen coming a mile away. I can actually believe in an overwhelming nuclear sneak attack based on insider intelligence provided by human-doppelgangers as a plausible genocide. Best of all, they've got religion. How cool is that?

So what happened? Don't know. But as I've said before - I think it's a general lack of foreplanning. The X-Files disease. If you're going to present a show as planned, then damnit you'd better take the time to really plan it. You can cram for one test, but you can't keep cramming week after week. The cracks start to show.

They've rarely been as visible as they were last night.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Was Borat Funny?

One of the signs that I'm getting older: more and more I find myself seeing merit in opinions I don't agree with.

Case in point. Here is a review of this Borat movie that totally trashes it, and yet I see a lot of its points.

Personally, I laughed my ass off at Borat. I enjoyed it so much I mailed my sister and told her to see it. She's just had a baby, so she doesn't get out of the house much anymore. I'll be home next week for the world's best holiday, and I thought we could leave the baby with my mom while my sister, her husband, and anyone else who wants to come went to see it. But I find myself thinking more and more maybe I don't really wanna go, and I didn't really know why. Then I read this review and well...he makes some good points.

  • Yakov Smirnoff for this generation. Right. And Yakov Smirnoff got old a long time ago. This is the same shit, really. The dumb foreigner from the enemy culture (back then it was the Soviets, today it's the Muslims) endlessly repeating the same stereotyped joke.

  • Lazy scapegoating. Again, right. Pulling out a bag of shit at the dinner table is funny on one level (FULL DISCLOSURE: I thought it was hillarious) - but it doesn't work as satire. Nor is it exactly racist of the people at the party to throw out their guest who invited the black prostitute to dinner. Both are funny because they're totally inappropriate - and that's always good for a laugh. But Cohen loves to explain his routine as having the higher social purpose of exposing us to our ugly, racist underside. I don't really see what's wrong with being offended by someone inviting a prostitute to crash your party. Funny, yes - but social commentary it ain't. And that goes for about 97% of the jokes in the film, actually.

  • Some of the jokes fall flat. In particular, the bit at the rodeo. I guess it was funny to have the old man laying it on the table about homos, but this scene has been mischaracterized in the media. Supposedly what happened is that the crowd cheered along with his bit about George Bush drinking the blood of every Iraqi woman and child - but actually a lot of booing had started by then. Those cheering were probably just cheering out of habit - because they'd liked the earlier statements about the "War of Terror" (and of course they can be forgiven for thinking this was just a foreigner's mangled English - they weren't cheering a War OF Terror), and it naturally catches you by surprise to find out you're being spoofed - doesn't register at first. Point being, the "victims" didn't exactly cooperate. And this happens time and again in the film. What we see more often than not are people being polite to the dumb foreigner. After awhile, you sort of get the feeling that the joke is on Cohen.

  • Inability to spoof the walking victims. The reviewer points out the Alan Keyes interview as a case in point. An honest-to-God homophobe, and all Cohen can get out of it is a stock gag about Borat not knowing that the man he went to the shower with was gay. Great. And this is repeated endlessly in the movie. The gun shop clerk who doesn't mind that Borat wants to shoot Jews, for example. Cohen just leaves. Or even the old man at the rodeo. Should've been a goldmine, but Borat just kinda nods. Unimpressive.

  • Hypocritical. I also agree with this reviewer in that it bothers me a bit that Cohen claims to be exposing anti-Semitism but doesn't himself seem to mind spreading negative stereotypes about Muslims. Of course, he would say that he's not spreading them but just holding up a mirror to them: part of the joke is supposed to be everyone's willingness to accept kazakhs as racist, misogynistic boors. At the end of the day, though, I just don't believe him. Meaning, I imagine he would be offended by a similar schtick with a Jewish character, and that's not cool.

  • Selective Victims. Most of the people being spoofed are old hat at being the butt. We're mostly picking on Rednecks and Christians, Jew-haters, Prim Southerners, American patriots, etc. When you think about it, Cohen doesn't do anything REALLY ballsy ... like pick on black people.

It's the last two points that really get to me. The golden rule of comedy is NO HIDDEN AGENDA. I've seen it time and time again - otherwise brilliant shows fall flat when THE POINT makes its miserable entrance. It's the main reason, really, why Beavis and Butthead was, is and ever shall be superior to SouthPark. SouthPark is just way too cautious. It pretends to be edgy, but it isn't at all, and that's because they're so busy covering their ass making sure that everyone gets the point that they're equal opportunity spoofers. But the world just doesn't work that way. Some things need to be spoofed more than others. Southerners, Christians, Rednecks, American Patriots - these are not among them. They have been endlessly spoofed as long as there's been Hollywood (and Europe). A good comedian is like a good masseuse. He finds the places where the pressure's built up and rubs them. That's what comedy is for. Rub the same spot for too long and it smarts. Good comedy is zen - it's aikido. You use the momentum of your object against it. Things get spoofed that set themselves up to be spoofed.

If there's a genuinely funny "edgy" comedian these days it's Sarah Silverman. She says what she wants. No need to pay three redneck college kids and liquor them up so you can knock down a straw man and call it comedy; no need to exaggerate the extent of anti-semitism in the world to prop up a papier-mache soapbox.

OK - end of rant. The movie was funny; I laughed my ass off. Go see it - it's good times. But the reviewer linked makes a lot of good points all the same. It is, at the end of the day, like SouthPark. Funny - yes. But missing that special whatever-it-is. It's good comedy, but it's nothing like great comedy. I think a lot of the hype around this movie is probably misplaced. I'm just as guilty here: I was taken in by it too.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Ban Fascism

I haven't been on Facebook in ages. Today, though, I felt compelled to log on and join three (count 'em!) groups. My way of venting a little steam after reading this bullshit in the paper today.

Seriously, what the hell? We already have a rule on this campus that prohibits smoking within 30 feet of buildings. It is not AT ALL difficult to get away from smokers. And honestly, even if it were, a breath here and there of second-hand smoke never hurt anyone. True, there is some research that shows a connection between exposure to second-hand smoke and certain heath issues - but two crucial details are always left out of reports of this research: (1) it only applies to regular heavy exposure (such as living in the same house with a chain smoker) to second-hand smoke and (2) THE RESULTS AREN'T STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT. (Not satisfied? Another example here. And also here.) But there is nothing to indicate that a breath in passing twice a week is any more harmful than, oh, say, breathing in all the other crap that's in the air.

I'm tired of the argument that smoking is obnoxious. So what if it is? Farting and spitting in public are obnoxious too; I've never seen anyone fined for these things.

What's especially galling is the softball IDS throws these people. The article is nothing but a long string of propaganda. It starts with the first line:

Student smokers might soon have to leave campus to get their nicotine fix.

Wrong, Einstein. The campus ban would apply to everyone. That means professors, workers and guests too. Don't believe me? The first summer I was here, we (being the Computational Linguistics people) held a conference attended by people from as far away as Japan. After each lecture, some of these foreigners, not being familiar with our strange nazified American ways, went outside to have a smoke. (In Japan there is no need - it's perfectly acceptable to smoke in classrooms.) The fat SLIS secretary (and I include that detail about her bodyweight because nothing irritates me more than hypocritical moralizing about smoking on the part of people who are themselves unhealthy by choice) would come out and shirlly explain - despite the fact that this was in summer and no passersby were likely to be affected - that campus smoking rules required everyone to stand further away from the building than they were standing. These were not IU students she was yelling at. Of course, we politely moved further away. In retrospect, I should have said "Yeah, drop some pounds and get back to me, hippo!"

Here's another gem from people on the original smoking policy taskforce:

"As I recall, at the time there was a consensus to move forward but not to move forward to that level," he said. "Now we've had another three or four years and public opinion has broadened, so it could be time to take the next step."

"Move forward." Public opinion has "broadened." Jesus Christ! We're talking about smoking, here. This isn't some cosmic spiritual quest. You can't use words like "broaden" to talk about a change in personal preferences!!! And anyway, since when do we call people "broad-minded" for policing the personal habits of others?

Here's the history of this abomination:

The coalition started off as the Facebook group "PLEASE ban smoking on IU's campus," but Bryce Wininger, vice president of the coalition, said the overwhelming response to the group -- now 1,200 members strong -- encouraged him and Morgan to try to do something about it.

"We realized we could do something about it if we talked to the right people and took the right steps," Wininger said.

So it started on Facebook. Absolutely bleeding predictable. Look, nimblenuts - 1,200 people is a drop in the bucket on a campus of 40,000+. Your 1,200 people do NOT constitute any kind of majority or mandate. If you would care to take a scientific poll, you would be on more solid ground. But I can reproduce these results for any issue I choose. I can say with a great deal of certainty that if we circulated a petition to get marijuana smoking legalized on campus I could easily find 1,200 signatures. That doesn't mean it's in IU's best interest to do so (though if it would help certain crusaders unwind a bit, it might be just what the doctor ordered...).

Wininger said he believes the administration and trustees overwhelmingly support the ban. He expects complaints from students but believes it will be worth it, he said.

And this just takes the cake. Since WHEN has the IU Administration ever considered student opinion on anything? Is this the same IDS that constantly gripes about the fact that students weren't allowed even so much as a single representative in the meetings that led to President Herbert's resignation? Has anyone at all EVER been consulted about the near-constant raises in the athletics fee, hmmm? Did students actually vote to have their season tickets holdings reduced from 9 to 7 without warning (after they'd paid!!!) and I just missed it or something? Now all of the sudden the Administration is being "responsive" to student demands and NO ONE AT IDS SMELLS A RAT?

Here's the motherlode:

"If we should go tobacco-free, we're not trying to ban people from doing something, it isn't our intention to take something away," Morgan said. "We don't want to ban them from smoking, we want to provide a tobacco-free environment for everyone."

Orwell much? Let's try this one on for size: we're not banning black people from our school so much as promoting an all-white environment. You can't ban something by not banning it - doesn't matter what your intentions are! If you ban smoking on campus, then you bleedin' well are banning people from doing something! Saying otherwise has no effect on this fact. But of course I'm being too generous. This Morgan neanderthal is simply speaking Politics: his intention is very much to ban.

Oh yes, and we get a glittering example of the bandwagon effect:

IU-Purdue University Indianapolis and IU-Southeast have already banned smoking on campus, Morgan said. Other universities across the country have also enacted similar bans. "This is going to happen eventually, so there is no reason for us to be left behind."

No reason except that what you're trying to do is IMMORAL, you mean. Look, just because everyone around you is a controlling nazi doesn't mean it's a good idea to be one yourself. This is what's called the "bandwagon technique" (see my convenient page on logical fallacies and propaganda techniques): telling people to do something because it's popular. I'll just add this to the 56,781 other examples I've collected from the IDS that show that IU students really need a core curriculum requirement in statistics and basic reasoning. Point being: a thing's popularity proves exactly nothing about its appropriateness (Jay Leno has, at times, been the king of latenight television, has he not?).

Alright - this post has been nothing but a huge rant - I admit it. But smoking bans (like gun control) are one of my buttons, and what are blogs for if not public venting?

The silver lining is that this ban is a thousand ways unenforceable. What're they gonna do? Walk up to you and give you a ticket? Fine - so you just crush your cigarette out in their book and don't pay it. It's not like people wear license plates (dangit - I shouldna oughta gone and said that - the jackboots will get ideas!). I suppose they could hire some rentacops - but in a strange way I hope they do. It might be the only way to drive the point home to these fascists that control is control is control. It doesn't become any less controlling in the name of a good cause. And that's the final point about all of this. It may well be a good idea to quit smoking. In fact, I don't think anyone these days denies this. (ASIDE: Looking for pro-smoking groups on Facebook today I found one that was called something like "Smoking's bad for me? I never knew! Thanks, man, you just saved my life!!!") The question is whether the harm is so great that we're allowed to resort to police force. Clearly, it isn't. People lead long, healthy lives as smokers. Maybe they die of cancer in the end, but everyone dies of something. To smoke or not to smoke is a personal choice - and if someone values the regular relaxing pleasure of a good cigarette over the kind of acetic health nut existence that the reductio ad absurdum of the anti-smoking campaign would lead us to, then who the hell am I to fine them for so choosing? Free is free and individuals are sovereign, no? Yes, not when they violate the rights of others, comes the response. So let me just reiterate: IU ALREADY HAS A POLICY KEEPING SMOKERS OUT OF EVERYONE ELSE'S WAY! No rights are being violated here. So anyone who supports this ban can officially fuck off.

I don't currently smoke on campus, but I look forward to starting if the Administration presses this.

TOWM Political Quote of the Day

Today's cool quote comes from Mike Adams:

For years, people have asked me why I switched from being a left-wing Democrat to a right-wing Republican. When I'm not in the mood to talk, I give a one-word response: reality. When I'm feeling more verbose, I give a two-word response: affirmative action.

Right on. Anyone following the idiocy at IUPUI will know what he means.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Cool Misuse of Term

From Anna Gajar's 1987 paper Foreign Language Learning Disabilities: The Identification of Predictive and Diagnostic Variables:

129 achieved an A, 71 students achieved a B, 30 students achieved a C, 10 students achieved a D, and 4 students achieved an F.

"...achieved an F." Classy.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Heil Kitler!

To anyone out there who thinks the internet is a huge waste of time full of meaningless crap, I defy you to tell me how your life can fail to be enriched by

Take the time to click on the "best kitlers" link on the left. #1 bears a truly astonishing resemblance. Most of them aren't that great, but I will say that numbers 12, 14 and 19 should be in 3rd, 2nd and 4th place respectively. I didn't make it much past 20, though, so no offense to any "Kitler" gems I might have missed.

I would just like to state categorically that my cat Marten does not in any way, shape or form look like Hitler (or endorse Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign - though he does hate chipmunks quite a lot).

[UPDATE: Silly me, the rankings change as people vote. here is the one that was #1 when I looked. The one I think should be #2 is here, and also #3 and #4. Some commenters on the discussion page for #1 speculate that it might be photoshopped. I put it in a viewer and checked it, and the "hair" is definitely not, but it's possible that the "moustache" was. Oh well. ]

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Jumped is Jumped

Just when I honestly thought things were more or less back to normal, Battlestar Galactica goes and pulls more crap out of its ass just to prove me wrong. So OK, I've learned my lesson. Once a show has jumped the shark, it can't unjump.

Last night's episode wasn't a total disaster. Visually, there was something really nice about it. James Callis' acting skills were on full display. And the image of Baltar as Jesus - while it might come across as pretentious to some - really worked for me. It was way cool seeing the Cylons fall victim to their own religious bullshit for once - and a nice illustration of the fact that their religion is as much a weakness as a strength. More on this later.

What went wrong was pretty much everything to do with the plot.

  • Why was Helo included in the decision to use the virus against the Cylons at all? If you're going to wipe out someone's race, you don't generally include in your briefing someone who is married to a member of that race! But it's doubly weird in this case because Helo isn't such a high-ranking officerin good standing to begin with; he's not normally included in decisions this weighty. It's clear that he's only here because the writers need him to have a moral crisis leading him to snuff the Cylons before the Colonials can kill them in the presence of the Resurrection Ship, thus "uploading" the virus into their birth chambers. That is, he's here because the writers need him to know the plan. But there are other ways to accomplish this. Rumors leak, after all - there's nothing wrong with having Helo overhear Adamas Sr. and Jr. discussing plans, etc. More interesting still would have been to have Helo figure it out himself. I mean, surely everyone wonders why they're suddenly on a suicide run, luring Cylon Basestars near the nebula with Galactica itself as bait? It's not at all inconcievable that Helo could have pieced it together - especially with Athena's help. The resolution would have been more tense this way - because it would have required quick thinking on Helo's part. He would only have a couple of minutes prior to launch to short out the life support in the holding cells, and he would have been very aware of the risk of waiting too late and accidentally "uploading" the virus himself. The way it's done here, however, is completely predictable and not at all engaging.

  • Sharon/Athena's reaction is bullshit. I don't care how born-again dedicated she is to the Colonial cause now, no one sits back and allows her race to be killed off just to "keep her word." It's HUGELY implausible that Helo would be acting alone in sabotaging this mission. (This is, of course, yet another reason why it's also unlikely Helo would have been included in the briefing when the decision was made - they would expect him to blab to Athena.) What's even worse: Sharon is included on the mission!!! This stretches credulity well beyond the breaking point. I get that Adama doesn't want her to think he doesn't trust her - but c'mon, he could easily have explained pulling her off the mission as an act of respect - not wanting her to have a hand in the destruction of her former comrades, etc. It wouldn't have even been a lie, really. Would that have led to weirdness between Adama and Sharon? Undoubtedly. She might eventually swallow the explanation that he's pulling her for ther own good - but there would be lingering doubt. But since when has this show ever shied away from emotional complexity? There was a time when grey areas like this were the norm.

  • Helo's moral discomfort is misplaced anyway. Lee's plan isn't going to work to begin with. Hera, we're told, is immune. If the baseship Baltar is on were infected, he couldn't help but notice this, since he and Hera would be the only survivors! He's an accomplished medical scientist; it wouldn't take him long to come up with a serum. I mean hell, it took Dr. Coddle all of about 5min., right (speaking of whom, what happened to his cool chain smoking habit)? And he didn't believe he was fighting for his life. Now, granted, Helo and the others don't technically know that Hera is with the Cylons, but they must surely suspect it. Anyway - they know Baltar is, and that's probably enough. They can't honestly believe that their "biological weapon" is really going to wipe out the entire Cylon race! A more realistic assessment would be that it would have an effect on the Cylons similar to what their sneak attack had on the colonials: it would mostly wipe them out. This should be something that Helo can live with. After all, the continued existence of the Cylons at their present strength is a threat to the survival of humanity. Even if Helo's right that outright genocide is wrong (and there are plenty of reasons to believe he isn't in this case), he can't seriously think it's wrong to at least even the odds!

  • Another miracle cure. It was bad enough when President Roslin's cancer was miraculously cured by Hera. Now Sharon is also immune to the virus because she gave birth to Hera? This is entirely too much.

  • The virus is a bit implausible anyway. So the idea is that this is an Earth virus. The Colonials are immune because humanity built up antibodies to it some 3,000 years ago, when the 13th tribe left for Earth. Now, the Cylons must certainly have used humans as the blueprint for their own human forms. After all, they look and feel human, and they come into regular contact with humans without dying of debilitating illnesses. It stands to reason that they are naturally immune to whatever diseases humans are immune to. Why is this one inexplicably overlooked? Because it's 3,000 years old? PLEASE! If the Colonials are still immune to it 3,000 years on, then so are the Cylons. More to the point, how is it even remotely possible that a disease that got transplanted to a new planet by carriers who were immune to it survived intact for 3,000 years??? Surely it would have mutated and evolved by now? Meaning: it's already a stretch to think that Dr. Coddle could recognize it in the first place, but even if he could, I doubt humans would still be immune to it in its new form. 13th tribe Earth humans, sure, but the other 12 tribes? Highly doubtful. ESPECIALLY given that the Cylons are not. But OK - I guess the implication is that this beacon has been there for 3,000 years - this is the selfsame virus that is on record from the time the 13th tribe left. Fine - but this makes it extremely unlikely that the Cylons aren't immune by virtue of having copied present-day humans. Further, while I get that viruses aren't "alive" when outside of a host, and therefore don't need to metabolize, it still seems unlikely that one could survive on the surface of a space probe for 3,000 years. Surely stellar radiation of some kind would break it down? They're near a nebula, after all.

  • Screwing with Gaeta again. Gaeta is surprised to hear that Baltar is alive? Give me a break. He was there when Baltar was offered safe passage off of New Caprica! Even if he is surprised, it doesn't seem like Gaeta to be all that affected by the news. This smacks too much of that silly "true believer" scene in Exodus pt. II. Gaeta acting as aid to the elected president I can buy. Gaeta as a true believer in Baltar I just can't.

  • Where is Colonel Tigh? It's getting really annoying how they just drop threads and characters for whole episodes when they can't be made to easily fit. I would like to have seen at least one scene with Tigh. What makes this one worse than most examples of this is that Tigh would have been more highly motivated than most to kill off the Cylons. He would have thought to prevent Helo from doing what he did - might have even gone behind Adama's back to have Helo locked away for the duration of the mission. He certainly would have protested Sharon's participation in the mission. And there's no way in hell he would have let Adama just quietly pardon Helo and Sharon for sabotaging the mission. And yet, he's nowhere to be seen. Veeeeeery convenient for the writers...

  • If medical knowledge from 3,000 years ago is detailed enough that they know this virus is an old one, why was Earth ever a legend? Early on in the show, Adama's quest for Earth is revealed to be propaganda. He doesn't really believe in it, he's just giving the crew something to focus on. Earth and the 13th tribe are believed to be fantasy. In this episode, it's presented as established fact. Inconsistent.

  • In an odd way, I no longer believe in Baltar's cowardice. At the outset of the show, Baltar is completely selfish, interested only in his own survival even as humanity dies (something Caprica Six interestingly calls "moral clarity"). But a lot has happened to him since then. On New Caprica we saw a changed man, a Baltar actually doing some soul-searching. I think he has grown a lot, and his pleading as he's being tortured no longer seems in character for him. Nor did the "apology" right before the torture session. Overall, the plot arc involving Baltar and the Cylons is the one thing that still truly shines about this show, but they need to be more sensitive to the changes he's undergone. After all, early-series Baltar didn't believe in love either, but he's since discovered that he loves Caprica Six and has definitely acted on that knowledge (when, for example, he frees one of her copies from Pegasus and gives her an atomic weapon). Enough has happened to Baltar at this point that I no longer believe survival is his primary motivation. (And indeed, we get some evidence of this in the occupation arc. Baltar seems ready to let one of the Dorals kill him rather than sign the execution order. His vision of Caprica Six has to plead with him to change his mind.)

Not everything was bad. I liked the reminder that Roslin is tougher than Adama. I admit, I liked Adama better (and found Roslin annoying) at the outset of the series. I didn't like seeing him (eventually) capitulate to her on the question of sending Starbuck off on a mission to Caprica. But once that was done and clear, I accept Roslin as top dog. It's especially interesting given that she seems so frail most of the time. Adama projects a tougher exterior, but she's made of sterner stuff. That's cool. And so I really appreciate that it's Adama who has second thoughts about the genocide plan, not Roslin. She makes her decision with no regrets. It was an especially nice touch to have Adama pass the buck to her (by quoting law that says he needs presidential authorization to use biological weapons), her call him out on it, him admit it, and then her not even bat an eye assuming full responsibility for the decision.

It helps that I agree with her. One thing I guess I really don't understand about Western Civilization are these moral hangups about using WMDs. I have no problem with dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and would have happily done it myself given those circumstances. I'm on Roslin's side: when someone is threatening to oblitterate you, you don't owe them any moral sympathy. One of the cooler scenes in the early days of the show was when President Roslin threw Loeben out the airlock after putting on a really good show at pretending to have been affected by his speech. It was especially cool that Starbuck was so shocked by this. Roslin simply replies that Loeben is a Cylon - you don't coddle them. Of course, we know that Loeben has planted doubts in her mind about Adama, but these don't last. Roslin is tough. She keeps her head where others (Starbuck in the early case, Adama in the recent one) don't. And I think she's right about this. The Cylons gave up any moral parity with humanity when they nearly succeeded in wiping it out. That having been done, there is no basis for moral doubts about doing the same to them. Roslin is doing her job as president. Adama's second thoughts are understandable (given his new friendship with and faith in Sharon), but Helo's are just annoying. I guess it should be added here that Tigh isn't the only character that should have thought to put Helo under guard. Roslin actually sparred with him on the subject, and she was genuinely offended by his position. Her conversation with Adama at the end of the episode indicates that she wasn't at all surprised to hear that someone had sabotaged the mission. She even says there are really only two suspects - so it seems clear she never really trusted Helo. Are we to take this as a kind of relief that Helo saved her from the consequences of her decision? More likely, I guess, is that it's not that she minds the decision so much, but she realizes that others do. Having nearly wiped out the Cylons, she would then have to somehow maintain command in the face of doubts from people like Adama and Helo. This is indeed a very cool bit of character development for her - and I like the subtle way it was introduced.

I also liked the implication that it was Sharon that caused the basestar to self-destruct. She has an odd look on her face after interfacing with the computer, and again when it's announced that the ship will blow. Now, granted, these might simply be on account of the computer having been infected - but I appreciate the subtle hint that more is going on. (Of course, if I'm right this leads to other problems. If she really destroyed the baseship herself, then it's doubly weird that she participates in the mission without blinking an eye. Is it because she knows what Helo will do? If so, this is indeed Very Cool. And Very "Cylon" of her. They are master manipulators, after all. I, for one, am with Roslin on the "Sharon" question too. I don't fully trust her - in spite of everything.)

Finally, of course, I like what they did with Baltar. I don't guess there's a whole lot to say about that except that James Callis is a great actor, and this plot is thematically interesting. It's nice not only that we see Baltar using the Cylon religion to manipulate them, but also that there's a show on the air at all that deals this bluntly with the role that religion plays in shaping people's personalities and worldviews. It's supercool that the Cylons themselves have differing degrees of faith in God (including Cavil - who seems to be the "leader" and yet doesn't believe in God at all - indeed, seems to look down on the others for their religion). One problem here I didn't notice myself - but was raised by others online - is the question of what ever happened to Capirca Six's visions of Baltar? Briefly she had some - now they're just gone? Even while she's watching Baltar be tortured, and he's simultaneously having visions of her? Sounds like a plothole to me...

But when all is said and done, I could have done without this episode. It was visually pleasing, well-executed, featured some brilliant acting (especially, as usual, by James Callis as Baltar), and it tried to tackle an interesting issue. But ultimately, it failed. The plot was just entirely too leaky. Nothing here makes sense - and the most galling thing about it is that half of what was wrong (especially as deals with Helo) could have been saved by a bit more planning. It just goes to underscore what I have said before: that this show suffers from the same thing that always afflicted X-Files. The writers never bothered to think about where they wanted to go with it - with the predictable consequence that everything is adrift.

More serious, I think, is that they're passing up an opportunity for some truly interesting stories. Suppose Roslin had managed to upload the virus? Clearly, that won't completely destroy the Cylons - but it gives humanity some breathing room. They could have gone into a subarc about actively looking for Earth, believing that the Cylons have been destroyed. Of course, the Cylons will show up again - but probably in changed form (since their population would have been decimated). And in the meantime there's all the moral struggling about what Roslin would have done. Could she have remained president? Would Adama's conscience have caught up with him? More interesting still - if I'm right about Sharon and she can't be fully trusted, would she have exploited this to manipulate the colonists? With what consequences? (If I'm wrong, how long would she have remained sanguine about the destruction of her race? Wouldn't it have been interesting if it didn't bother her at all but continued to bother Helo? What would that have done to their relationship?) What would have happened to Baltar stranded on a deserted Cylon basestar? Would the other 5 Cylons have appeared? Is he, in fact, one of them? In short, the writers threw away a goldmine here.

Alright - lesson learned. Jumped is jumped. It was naive of me to think that this show would be back on track ever. You can't fix a broken show. This show is still enjoyable, and it's still better than most of what's on TV now, I guess - but it's not what it was in season one, nor will it be again.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Death Watch Suspended ... or Something

Not long ago I reported in the weekly death watch report on SourceFilter that the situation was improving. However, we're now well over a week since the last post.

There are technically less than five days to go in the official deathwatch. However, I think I'm going to scrap it anyway - rather than extending it, which would be the natural thing to do after some improvement and then a return to neglect. Noah will have a second kid any day now, plus he's busy with the process of advancing to full candidacy. It's probably a bit much to expect blogging to be any kind of priority at all at the moment, let alone a high one.

So let's pronounce SourceFilter "in a coma" rather than DOA. It may well recover sometime in the next couple of months.