Saturday, February 28, 2009

Death and Romance


People have a tendency to romanticize — to weave narratives that sound nice, fit snugly in the brain, but do not necessarily reflect reality. Take, for example, the faux-medieval vision at work in this notoriously sword-and-sorcery-nerdy rock video from Chris Dane Owens, pointed out to me by fellow ex-Film Bulletin writer Liz Braswell (and if Liz, herself a fantasy author, thinks it’s geeky, well…).

That romantic impulse in turn causes other nerds to rebel by deconstructing and de-romanticizing things — including superheroes, as in next week’s big Watchmen movie, about which this highly educational video was created by your government, for your protection, so it is every citizen’s duty to watch. Are YOU in violation of the Keene Act?

Two men (gods? man-gods? men-becoming-gods? shining Moorcockian cosmic messiahs?) who may well be in violation of the Keene Act are, of course, Scott Nybakken and Dan Raspler, a current and former (respectively) DC Comics editor who will duke it out in a Debate at Lolita Bar this coming Wednesday about nostalgia’s value or lack thereof in sci-fi, so more about that in a couple days.

In the meantime, Scott forwards this decidedly un-PETA and de-romanticizing video of a killer whale performance at an aquarium gone awry — no dead people, just one very unlucky pelican. (No demon, Scott also sends this cuter video of Australian firefighters rescuing a wildfire-surviving koala. And as it happens, our April 1 debate will be about religion and our May 6 debate about animal welfare, so all these themes are in some sense connected — and then there’s our likely June 3 debate about UFOs. By the way, Ryan Sager, victor in our last debate, just blogged about this unintentionally darkly-humorous excerpt from Werner Herzog’s Antarctica documentary Encounters at the End of the World, featuring a suicidally-deranged penguin.)


Say what you will about the Darwinian view of the world, at least it helps keep us from over-romanticizing non-human animals. Then again, there is apparently a part-animated, part-live-action 3D Yogi Bear movie in the works, so have we really learned anything? Perhaps we could learn more from a 3D Yogi Berra movie. Berra (who, like Abe Vigoda, is still alive) is, after all, the man who inspired the book What Time Is It? You Mean Now? Advice for Life from the Zennest Master of Them All.

And speaking of wisdom and carnivorous activity, check out the way the best species of all — homo sapiens — turns food into calorie-dense art on the glorious site ThisIsWhyYoureFat, pointed out to me by one of my ACSH co-workers, Jeff Stier (who is actually quite the gourmet, I should note). As my “Month of Evolution” draws to a close, I would advise other species who wish to compete with us on this planet to stop being so tasty.

Of course, some animals work better as pets than as food, such as the Portuguese water dog, which looks more than a little like the late Uber, my parents’ lovable prior mutt. It’s the breed the Obamas are considering getting. That’s plenty cute, but I must nonetheless say some negative things about the President’s recent speech — and even more so about David Brooks — in tomorrow’s entry.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Underworld: Evolution (and Race War)


A black man co-wrote and co-created the Underworld movies (specifically, that huge guy who plays one of the werewolves). I find this interesting because all three of the movies are, in some way, about forbidden interracial love — albeit between vampires and werewolves. I’m not saying everything a black writer does must be viewed through a racial lens, but it probably crossed his mind — and by the third film (this year’s weak prequel), the werewolves (including him) have become sympathetic escaped slaves, whereas the vampires are the ultimate white-as-ghosts aristocrats.

It all makes sense in context but may have a subtle deeper message, too (and the first film still has one of the coolest opening sequences ever, no matter how Matrix-derivative it is). The movies automatically put us on the side of hybridization and the overcoming of boundaries — and by extension, pit us against isolationists, preservationists, and protectionists (both cultural and economic) whether right or left. (I wrote about our growing love of vampire-hybrids for Metaphilm, as I’ve mentioned before.)

Evolution has no teleology, purpose, or inherent morality to it, but you have to like the metaphorical laissez-faire message that it’s wrong to forcibly stand in its way. You wouldn’t want to stop us becoming gods, after all — or would you? Let us conclude the “Month of Evolution” tomorrow with a bit more on that question (and superheroes).

And if you’re looking for something to do in the meantime, consider attending one of these American Tea Party anti-government-spending rallies (today in most of the numerous cities involved, tomorrow here in NYC).  Sadly, werewolves are not the only slaves, and movie villains are not the only vampires.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Push vs. Push


I notice that, somewhat amusingly, there are two movies called Push out at the same time — one a grim film about a teenage girl impregnated by her father, the other an action film featuring formerly scandalous teen-actress-who-played-a-rape-victim Dakota Fanning as a psychic. To avoid confused customers asking for their ticket money back, I think they should just combine them into one film, which doesn’t seem like it’d be that difficult. Something having to do with genetic codes and self-defense, writes itself [UPDATE: Tyler Perry, who is helping promote the film, has announced that the grimmer film is changing its title to Precious to avoid confusion -- not as interesting as my solution, but workable].

Alas, I do not think the real world will ever see the evolution of supernatural abilities in humans — nor, indeed, that there is a scrap of evidence for any supernatural phenomena of any kind at all. (But recall that we’ll probably at least contemplate such things at Lolita in six days.)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Cavemen, Butlers, and Other Loose Ends


An old DC Comics page e-mailed to me by Michael Malice depicts as glorious the inevitable day when we will all have robot butlers, advising us to “Get Ready for the Robots!” — but a compromise may be possible between the seemingly opposing dreams of having a monkey butler or robot butler: Ron Bailey writes in Reason of the possibility (and the troubling ethical implications) of “resurrecting” dimwitted and largely helpless Neanderthals via cloning (and he makes use of the awesome psychology term “Uncanny Valley,” which sort of sounds like a Marvel-DC crossover comic book series revealing that Azrael is a mutant — but we can discuss that at Lolita Bar one week from tonight).

Of course, a subservient race of semi-humans is exactly what Francis Fukuyama, a decade ago, sternly warned me to expect from our dark future if biotech remains unchecked, saying (almost verbatim) that the future would not be one built along the lines of my naive utilitarian dreams but instead a brutal, Nietzschean world of big-brained supermen and subservient monkey-men. I’m not scared — and I’m something of an expert on the caveman-resurrection issue, having dated a woman back then who had been an extra in the pool party scene in Encino Man.

My current girlfriend, notoriously, prefers monkey butlers (unlike Congress), but she can be made to feel conflicted about her love of the past and her suspicion of high-tech modernity sometimes, as when shown this old-timey footage confirming that surveillance cameras are nothing new — a steampunk panopticon, if you will, pointed out to me by Brian Floca (much more about him and steampunk at a later date, and until then just a quick note that in addition to getting his comic about the race to the moon in April, you might also consider getting this one drawn by the Cannons, one of whom — Kevin Cannon — I’ve met and who also, as noted at the end of that article, draw comics about evolution).

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I Sing the Body Politic


•I expect both Obama and Jindal will give good speeches tonight — but if grunts and whistles preceded the rise of language, you ask, might music have existed, even been used to create a feeling of community, before humanity ever gave speeches? I think my friend Joann Kahn’s brother is directing a movie based on the novel Neuromancer, which asks that question [CORRECTION: No, wait, Snow Crash asks that question].

•It’s also a question that may pass through your mind tomorrow night (Wed., Feb. 25) if you join me at my local karaoke bar, Iggy’s on Second Ave. between 75th and 76th, where the non-Krogh faction of the annoyingly identically-named New York Young Republican Clubs will be singing. Much as I like to try new things, I feel obliged under the circumstances to once more do the libertarian anthem “Tom Sawyer,” fostering fusionism through sound — though not precisely “conservatism for punks” (I’ll be there circa 8:30, for those interested).

•Questions such as whether language was preceded by song (instead of the other way around) were also very much the sorts of topic under discussion in 2005, when I attended the Human Behavior and Evolution Society conference — the big recurring evolutionary psychology event — in Austin, TX, visiting L.B. Deyo and my de facto e.p. advisor Diana Fleischman (of the University of Texas, Austin) in the process.

Without Diana’s able tutelage (in combination with research made possible by the Phillips Foundation), this “Month of Evolution” blog series probably wouldn’t be occurring. I was fortunate enough to rub elbows for a week with Fleischman and others interested in interpreting and predicting modern human behavior in the light of probable evolutionary pressures from humanity’s past — that is, things that contributed to our ancestors’ relative likelihood of reproducing, such as, say, ability to detect offspring that were not their own.


Still a relatively new discipline, e.p. is the human-centered outgrowth of the slightly broader and only slightly older field of sociobiology, which was sparked by entomologist E.O. Wilson’s mid-70s book by that title, which popularized the idea that if ant behavior and social structures can be understood in terms of the struggle to reproduce, so can human society. Interestingly, though, E.O. Wilson’s talk at the 2005 HBES centered on the revelation that some types of ants are genuinely indifferent between their own behavior vs. that of others in the colony, all members being so genetically-similar and so interdependent that there is no great survival advantage (at the level of genes) for them to selfish behavior. As Wilson put it, “Marx was right — he just had the wrong species.”

A research program as broad as the evolution of all behavior needn’t have any particular narrow political agenda (beyond a rejection, of course, of the handful of religious fundamentalists who deny evolution altogether), and the leading lights of evolutionary psychology range from libertarian (in more than a few cases) to conservative to socialist to apolitical, but it’s not surprising that political fallout was rarely far from the minds of the conference participants — and not surprising they all tend to be skeptical of the conventional empirical claims of feminism, since e.p.’s core insight may be the observation that plentiful sperm and more-precious eggs are likely to lead to instinctive (and rather reasonable) double standards and differential mating strategies and preferences, despite pretenses that it’s all just arbitrary social constructs.

The keynote speaker that year was linguist Steven Pinker, whose book The Blank Slate argued against the view that humans are born without instincts, without gender, ready to be molded as if from scratch by the politics of the societies into which they are born (and Pinker has just become an Advisor to the American Council on Science and Health, where I work, as it happens). When Pinker spoke, since-ousted Harvard president Larry Summers (previously part of the Clinton administration and today part of the Obama administration) had just generated controversy and shocked the Harvard faculty by suggesting that the insights of Pinker and other e.p. devotees might explain why men and women seem to sort themselves into different academic disciplines in unequal proportions despite affirmative action efforts to achieve perfect parity.

(On another gender-related note, one HBES speaker had devoted a great deal of research time to the importance of waist-to-hip ratio for determining female attractiveness in the eyes of males — even going so far as to use photos to confirm that males care less about weight than about said ratio, which is what men like me keep telling skinniness-obsessed dames, to little avail.)

To the extent that e.p scholars are willing to acknowledge competition, inequality, and differential success rates as fundamental explanatory facets of human existence, the e.p. crowd are bound to make liberals nervous, and since, obviously, they are ardent Darwinians and spend a great deal of their time reducing human motives to sexual strategizing, they make social conservatives nervous as well. To the extent they are willing to dispense with sanitized, popular rationales for human action and hardheadedly examine real motives, though, they are a welcome antidote to the naive fantasies of all camps (and their close cousins, behavioral economists, have even shaken some libertarians’ assumptions about rational agency in the marketplace, since, to make a long story short, people’s preferences are often nuts).


The irony is that even the truth generates fantasies, though, and those fantasies will tend to reflect the already-existing political allegiances of those who conjure them. Is evolutionary theory right-wing or left-wing, brutally authoritarian or subversively anarchic, Nietzschean or revolutionary, Supermannish or X-Hominoid?

It ought ideally to just be science, purely descriptive and not even given to just-so stories (avoiding rationalizing all observed phenomena as suvival-enhancing adaptations when they may be no such thing) — but as Diana and I were reminded by some frank pro-eugenics comments from Watson of Watson-Crick DNA fame at the 92nd Street Y (to dismayed interviewer Robert Krulwich), well before Watson’s embarrassed departure from the Cold Springs labs and not too long after HBES, it’s awfully tempting to draw sweeping conclusions when you’re unlocking secrets of human design — not to mention when you’re on LSD, as Crick apparently sometimes was, making him sound even more entertaining than the eugenics alone does.

In any case, easy as it is to make jokes about such gaffs, I would be ashamed to find we’ve become a culture more frightened of what we might discover than of remaining p.c.-but-ignorant. Another friend whose job likely makes her want to remain anonymous forwards news of a scientist who thinks profound gender differences in the brain and elsewhere ought to be more frequently studied. If this is all conventional wisdom a century from now, our contemporaries who insist for political reasons that such question cannot even be broached will look just as stupid as people a century and a half ago who insisted that Darwin was going too far, you mark my words.

(Reminder: stupider even than everyone doing karaoke tomorrow night at Iggy’s.)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Swedish Model vs. Zombies (plus Bobby Jindal)

•No matter how grim our economic situation — and the prospect of bank nationalization as a remedy for continual subsidies — is, it’s sort of fun to have people saying, “We may need a Swedish model to prevent the survival of zombies.”  I think I saw that movie on USA Network on a Friday night (you know, the network behind the rare skeptical detective show Psych, which my non-skeptic girlfriend was nice enough to show me).  Here’s one Swedish model the government might want to contemplate, Anna Sundstrand, living right here in New York City.  She may not look combat-tough, but keep in mind she’d be fighting sluggish, old-school zombies, likely wearied by their slow trek uptown from Wall Street.

•In somewhat zombie-like news, DarkHorizons reports that the actor playing Jason Voorhees was attacked by a confused and fearful (yet brave) fan at an event celebrating the release of the new Friday the 13th.  I’d like to take this opportunity to note one important difference between the new film and the original (aside from the fact that I actually watched the original): In the first film, it wasn’t Jason who was killing people — as you may recall, it was his mother, with Jason only appearing at the very end in a dream sequence.

•Zombies turn a man’s mind to thoughts of New Orleans, which is America’s voodoo capital, and that in turn reminds me that (fellow 90s Brown alum) Bobby Jindal, in his capacity as Louisiana governor, will be giving the official Republican response speech tomorrow night (circa 10pm Eastern) to Obama’s State of the Union address (I want to be on record in advance as saying that I am not being racist if anyone hears me in days ahead say “I met him years ago — he’s a Brown guy”).

As I’ve noted in recent entries, the audience at Lolita Bar last week may have thought the right is still headed downward for a time — and young folk like those in Yale’s Party of the Right may offer greater hope for the future than any current GOP Establishment types can — but if Jindal strikes a note of semi-youthful, multiculti, refreshed, free-market optimism, this speech could be a much-needed shove in the right direction.  If the right instead just gets more socialistic now, though, rest assured I’ll spend my time in the wilderness in a completely separate lean-to than them (or the Democrats).  Jindal sounding skeptical of the stimulus bill was a good sign, though (as is a revolt against one bad, expensive plan for paying for the bailout, pointed out to me by Elizabeth Cochran).

As my old boss, Stossel, recently noted, by some measures things were worse in 1982, and hardly anyone even remembers there being an economic crisis then (very different though circumstances were).  Let the market do its thing, then move onward and upward, as always.  May the Republicans and libertarians alike rally around that simple message.  And may government never spend another dime.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The "God of the Gaps," Political-Philosophy-Style


One curse of being substantially smarter than the average person but not wanting to flaunt it — due to being genuinely kind, of course — is frequently realizing you’ve been overly generous, by too hastily assuming other people know what the hell’s going on. Contact with said other people, then, can sometimes be very disillusioning.

Take one’s fellow libertarians, for example. After being steeped in the philosophy for a couple decades, it’s easy to carelessly assume that nearly all libertarians have grappled with — and presumably seen through — the most obvious, PoliSci 101-type counterarguments to the creed they ostensibly treat as their moral and political foundation (except in so far as the deeper bedrock is, say, utilitarianism, as in my case). What have they been doing with their spare time if they haven’t confronted counterarguments, after all?

Just the other night, alas, I encountered someone who has, in essence, been a professional libertarian, so to speak, in years past yet now seems to think that the whole idea of basing a philosophy on property is thrown into doubt (apparently requiring some other “culturally”-dictated source of legal legitimacy altogether) by mere areas of inevitable ambiguity in property law (ambiguities that would exist whether a law code were libertarian or identical to the law code we have now, I should add), such as setting noise-pollution levels or deciding whether an odor is bad enough to warrant an injunction.

I’m stating the argument much more briefly but more clearly than it was put at the time, as a service to the reader — a service more people ought to render in speaking as well, rather than rapidly tossing out half-formed ideas, as the most careless and shallow thinkers are prone to do, treating argument as a sort of performance art aimed at one-upmanship instead of truth-seeking, though alcohol consumption at parties is an understandable partial excuse for all people engaged in such conversations (whereas enjoying game-like one-upmanship for its own sake is not and tends to be something done by bullshitters and other intellectually-dishonest types, as well as people who just like hearing themselves talk, rarely the genuinely intellectually curious, a more patient lot).


Of course, even the most diehard anarcho-capitalist tomes, such as David Friedman’s Machinery of Freedom, have analyzed ambiguities such as noise pollution at length, so it’s not as if anarcho-capitalists are shying away from them, let alone completely unaware of them (except maybe some of the ones I bump into at parties).

Though there is a variety of ways of dealing with such ambiguities, including leaving them to decentralized common-law court decisions, there’s (a) no reason to junk the whole system because of them (anymore than Hitler’s election all by itself should persuade democracy advocates to completely abandon democracy as a source of political legitimacy, though I might argue there are other reasons) and (b) no good reason to think that such solutions as people come up with, though they may vary, will necessarily vary in ways that are richly culturally determined (or to put it another way, strongly correlated with culture) so as to alter the very basis of the law code itself (culture over property, say, or culture over pragmatic utility).

That is, just because hypothetical future Jordanian libertarians decide to deal with the ambiguities by convening an annual legislature-like council, whereas hypothetical future Irish libertarians go the common-law courts route, doesn’t necessarily mean any substantially culture-rich element has even been introduced into law (their differing choices may not have even had much to do with the ostensible moral wellsprings of the local cultures). Similarly, ornithologists engaged in counting birds in different parts of the world may pick different methods of resolving ambiguities about what counts as a newly-observed plumage pattern, but it is entirely likely that, say, the method picked in Japan will have nothing distinctively Shinto about it and that the method picked in India will have nothing distinctively Hindu about it. They may just pick arbitrarily different numbers of colors as the hurdles for distinctiveness, say.

(I’m sure it’s already the case that both Jordanian and Japanese land surveyors face occasional uncertainty about where even something as clear-cut as a land property line lies, not for political reasons but merely because surveying land can be tricky, but there’s little reason to believe you’d even be able to tell which method for resolving such disputes was used where if you read their respective instruction manuals, just as science texts of sufficient complexity sound nearly the same all over.)


But people with some agenda — an axe to grind whether political, religious, or aesthetic — are usually plenty eager to pounce on any perceived ambiguity (usually with a tone suggesting they discovered the ambiguity themselves) and suggest that the solution is (surprise!) the wholesale importation of whatever philosophical cure-all they’re pushing.

The notorious “God of the gaps” leaps up to “solve” every uncertainty in science, social democracy or unlibertarian “cultural norms” lie in wait for any problem in property law not so clear-cut as to be solved in one short sentence, linguistics majors ratchet up and down their standards for terminological exactness as their own argumentative needs require, and lawyers are more than happy to see you head to court anytime you realize that you and your business partner have poorly worded one inconsequential phrase in a long contract.

So many of these problems could be avoided if people would calm down, be a bit less eager to portray themselves as poking novel holes in theories that have been battered and remained standing numerous times since before they were born, and stop thinking that if they zigzag rapidly through a conversation they’re likely to settle age-old questions in five minutes of cocktail chatter that have already been dealt with numerous times in dry, encyclopedic tomes without eureka-like resolutions (don’t act like you’re immanentizing the eschaton, as some wise and cautious conservatives like to say, when you may simply be arriving late to the conversation wired from too much coffee).

And lest it sound like I’m complaining unduly about my (genuinely beloved) fellow libertarians, who are hardly the worst offenders in all this, let me just add that I’m about ready to strangle the next liberal (though he no doubt means well too, of course) whose eyes light up as if he thinks he’s thought of one I’ve never heard before and says, smugly, “There’s one thing you’re forgetting: What about the poor?!” (Of course, these days, with everyone from Wall Streeters to Afghanis on the dole in some sense, the focus on the poor seems to be getting watered down a bit, for good or ill. Sigh.)

By contrast, I have some nice things to say about Bobby Jindal tomorrow, on the eve of his official GOP State of the Union response speech.

Gay/Barr, Oscars


•I don’t know who the winners at the Oscars will be, but I do know that two of my favorite acting moments at the movies last year were sort of gay:

(1) Heath Ledger (formerly best known for playing a gay cowboy) as the Joker, called crazy by one of the other gangsters in The Dark Knight, yet insisting with such emphatic conviction “I’m not — I’m not,” even though the Joker most certainly is.

(2) Sean Penn whining “No” (as I recall) as Harvey Milk, just before being shot.

It might sound insulting or sadistic to say that I thought a final whine from a gay politician was a nice touch, but, on the contrary, I thought it was a courageous choice on Penn’s part: He didn’t feel obliged by the legend-like status that the rest of the movie had bestowed on Milk to show him as invulnerable or inhumanly stoic in that awful final moment.  We’d seen him do enough impressive things and wouldn’t begrudge him a perfectly human bit of fear or indignity at the end (made all the more convincing and natural-seeming by the fact that it sounded like he was still trying to communicate in some small way with Dan White, who after all was not some anonymous gunman but a colleague and therefore, had he been just a bit saner, perhaps persuadable).

Dare I say it, I think it worked in much the same way that Shatner choking up for a moment while saying “human” during Spock’s funeral did (even though we know now Spock was resurrected in the next two movies, went on to reunify Romulus and Vulcan on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and will briefly appear as an elderly twenty-fifth-century Spock on the big screen in May — during my second “Month of the Nerd.”)

I should also add while I’m at it that Milk worked very well as a “movement” film depicting a lot of frank, crass, strategic political organizing details that might easily have been left out by a film more bent on romanticizing individual characters.  The Van Sant/Altman/Soviet-montage approach of essentially making “Harvey + San Francisco” the only (composite) character that really mattered (besides White) seemed right to me.

•Many gays who liked the film are probably also delighted to hear that George Mason University (notoriously libertarian, not quite the same thing as the decidedly leftist film) has just elected its first male (drag queen) homecoming queen.  A Nobel in economics, an amazing basketball team, law prof Michelle Boardman, and now this — is there anything George Mason can’t do?

•In other gay/libertarian news, Bob Barr — the Republican turned Libertarian who ran for president last year (and made a stop at one of our Debates at Lolita Bar, featuring Ken Silber, who also tried unsuccessfully to persuade our audience this past Thursday that the right’s prospects are looking up) — said last month that he was wrong back in his Republican days to push for the anti-gay-marriage Defense of Marriage Act, a turnabout that comic book industry veteran Mark Evanier sees as too little too late, by the way (Marcia Baczynski and Ali Kokmen pointed out the Barr and Evanier pieces to me).

•Not being a “liberaltarian,” I think the issue of gay marriage, no matter which side you’re on, is trivial compared to the devastating consequences of rampant statism in the economic realm, such as the obscene stimulus bill just passed.  Anyone who mere months ago was touting the idea of a liberaltarian alliance — or even voting for Obama on ostensibly libertarian grounds — owes the entire population of the planet an immense apology mere months later, the idea of liberaltarianism (or a legit “Obamacon” position) permanently exploded by the socialistic stimulus bill.

Having done virtually nothing to roll back Bush war and national security measures that bothered some libertarians, Obama has greatly increased spending and plainly intends to help the one-party-rule Democrats increase the burden of regulation as well.  Liberaltarians were wrong — and may well have helped kill their nation.  But rather than apologize, they will no doubt continue their highbrow, enlightening “dialogue” with liberalism as America is sent to ruin.  Nonetheless, as a practical matter, say what they will, liberaltarianism has now been weeded out of the political genepool, so to speak, by political consequences and economic reality.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Matt Ridley on "The Natural Order of Things"


Gerry Ohrstrom, who I mentioned in Thursday’s entry, forwarded a link to an article by libertarian and evolutionary psychology popularizer Matt Ridley, who argues that biology, economic development, and technology can all be seen as (in some sense) evolving over time (when left free to do so).  Ridley is a widely respected and popular science writer in the UK — so it’s not just me seeing some libertarian/e.p. parallels, and as I’ll explore in a bit more detail this coming week, more than a few major evolutionary psychology theorists are libertarians or close to it.

On a less econ-oriented note, I can’t help thinking that evolutionary thinking may help explain why some (usually less-evolutionarily-savvy) people instinctively (or culturally) react to homosexuality as if it is a dire, existential threat, an attitude I’ve rarely observed among libertarians — but more on libertarians (including Bob Barr) and gays tomorrow, just in time for the Oscars.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Truth Is Out of Style


This year marks the twentieth anniversary of (1) the collapse of European Communism, (2) the unscientific scare over the chemical Alar (which will be commemorated today on ACSH’s website if all goes as planned), and (3) the pro-skepticism rap anthem “The Truth Is Out of Style” by MC 900 Ft. Jesus (better known as Dallas DJ Mark Griffin but for rap purposes using a name inspired by ludicrous televangelist Oral Roberts’ claim that a 900-foot Jesus appeared to him and commanded him to build a hospital and to raise $8 million or God would “call him home,” apparently a bad thing).

I was reminded of the third of these events by Jen Dziura’s account of seeing a thirty-six-foot audio-animatronic Jesus at a Bible-themed park on her recent trip to Argentina (which sounds a little like dropping acid during the final ceremony of Burning Man, mentioned in yesterday’s entry).  The MC 900 Ft. Jesus song came out a couple years after the Oral Roberts incident — and after what was arguably the peak of New Age mysticism in American culture, the so-called Harmonic Convergence of 1987 (which happened to fall on the tenth anniversary of Elvis’s death — for those who believe Elvis is dead).

If all three of the twentieth anniversaries listed above were being celebrated fully — and the proper lessons drawn from them — our culture would be in pretty good shape: market-oriented/pro-freedom…pro-science/pro-industry…and non-religious/non-superstitious.  Let’s hope the econ focus of last night’s Lolita discussion did just a little bit to push things in the right direction.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Grand Old Burning Man

So, tonight’s Debate at Lolita Bar (between Ken Silber and Ryan Sager) is about the fate and state of conservatism — and I can’t help thinking that if conservatism were a bit more like anarchism, as it should be, it could surely reformulate itself and endure.

The theme at this year’s iteration of the near-anarchist annual art festival called Burning Man (coming in August, with more than a few of my acquaintances likely attending again, though I’ll once more refrain) is the same as that of my blog entries this month: “evolution.”  And while I expect that the neo-hippies, performance artists, drug-addled nudists, and assorted freakazoids at Burning Man will play even more fast and loose with the concept — and stray farther from the topic of biology — than I have, there is a certain metaphorical logic to that theme as one for an anarchist temporary city, balancing as it does continuity and nearly boundless potential for change (and Black Rock City, as they call the physical location of Burning Man out in the Southwestern desert, is indeed an anarchist temporary city).

I was on a panel about parallels between evolution and econ once in Las Vegas (alongside Will Wilkinson and others, thanks to Gerry Ohrstrom and the Association of Private Enterprise Education), and I remember thinking then that free-market economics, evolution, and being in a place that tantalizes with endless possibilities like Vegas somehow seemed like a natural combo (even though I didn’t gamble).

I have no intention of going to Burning Man and trying to lecture people about Adam Smith (though I see the Objectivists are throwing a massive eight-day conference in Vegas this summer, which may amount to almost the same thing).  On the contrary, though, I would love it if Adam Smith’s ostensible defenders absorbed a bit of the anarchic spirit of Burning Man, in the sense that they should all remember that markets only make sense if experimentation and failure (and learning from even catastrophic mishaps) are part of the process.  That should mean no government bailouts and subsidies, for anyone, ever — but it also means that “fiscal conservatives” should not be conservative in the short-sighted sense of thinking we must cling to and preserve the current financial institutions or, even more shallowly, fall into the stock-watching trap of thinking that whatever “reassures the market” today is politically, culturally, and economically healthy in the long run (conservatives are supposed to think about the long run — as are progressives — right?).

Despite the pro-bailout arguments that came even from some very pro-market people like Megan McArdle (initially), we should be willing to sit back, let things fail, and trust that new institutions can be created that may actually improve upon the old (perhaps rapidly-revved-up, formerly small rural banks after the death of older Wall Street firms?).  If a bunch of art-hippies can build a temporary city in the middle of the desert each year, surely rich people can evolve new institutions to replace their failed, fraudulent, unreliable old ones — and do so without government holding their hands.

If fostering the open-minded attitudes that would allow such beneficial transformations to occur necessitates mixing and blending elements of radically different philosophies — into a very broad new fusionism that cannibalizes and then transcends libertarianism, paleoconservatism, liberalism, Marxism, and other strains — so be it.  But we won’t get far thinking the economy must not be allowed to evolve beyond its precise current forms, if that’s the stagnant attitude that our current blend of liberalism and conservatism breeds.  (Perhaps this is something we can address tonight at Lolita Bar.)

P.S. I know my evolutionary psychology expert friend Diana Fleischman (about whom more next week) has considered going to Burning Man, so perhaps this year’s theme makes it the perfect time for her to go.  (Me, I’m more tempted to return to Vegas and visit the Star Trek-themed bar again.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Those Amazing Animals

Though it’s not clearly stated in this article about that chimp attack in Connecticut, the woman who was attacked presumably had her face eaten off, since that’s what primates do.  They’re monsters, in short — yet about the best the wretched non-human animal kingdom has to offer, so keep that in mind the next time some vegan tries to convince you that animal preferences ought to outweigh humans’.  This also should kill any residual dreams about monkey butlers’ superiority to robot butlers.  By contrast with the savage primates, we can trust the robots.  For now.

I suspect, by the way, that this was the same escape-prone Connecticut chimp named Travis (how many could there be??) mentioned in my primate-crimes article for Radar a few years ago.  I’ve been well aware for some time of what violent, untrustworthy creatures primates can be, thanks in part to the tales of chimp violence at primate study labs from my evolutionary psychology expert friend Diana Fleischman (who you’ll hear more about in an entry next week) and in part to Scott Nybakken, who warned me before my trip to India ten years ago that “Monkeys go for the face.”  (Note: I know chimps are not monkeys.)

But since I’ve said so little about non-human animals in this “Month of Evolution,” let me note a few positive things about animals to compensate for the late Travis’s shabby behavior:

•Architect Dave Whitney forwards this amazing video of a massive excavated ant colony.

•Arguably the most important website about animals notes an evolutionary development of some significance.

•Strangely, the same site featured this picture of Gersh Kuntzman (through no fault of his own) interviewing a walrus about his bucket.

•Chris Nugent notes that the Travis incident at least had the upshot of producing this swell CNN headline: “Chimp had tea, Xanax before vicious attack” (he also notes these other amusing CNN headlines yesterday: “Bristol Palin: Abstinence for teens ‘not realistic’,” “Doctors test orifices for weight-loss operations,” “Stimulus: Now for the hard part,” and on a less sexual note, “Shark takes chunk out of beloved dolphin”).

•And I notice that in Connecticut, a couple years after my parents’ dog Uber passed away, someone happens to have started an Uberdog luxury kennel, where I hope the dogs will be as happy and comfortable as Uber was throughout most of her life (her successor Jaycie seems pretty content, too, despite a little tumble down the cellar stairs when I was home over Christmas — animal life can be tough).

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Cosmo Kramer -- Kosmokrator?


Wikipedia has no entry exclusively devoted to “Kosmokrator,” the (very cool) name for the Gnostics’ demiurge, the amoral spirit believed by them to have created Earth, rather than Yahweh, thus explaining (for people as yet unacquainted with the idea of evolution) this complex but noticeably imperfect world.

But if you try doing a search for “Kosmokrator” on Wikipedia, it does ask whether you meant to search for the Seinfeld character Cosmo Kramer.  Mere coincidence?  Or might this explain why Kramer was able so easily to transform his apartment every time we saw its interior, whether into a replica of the Merv Griffin show’s set, a hot tub, wood-paneled shelves, or other dreamscapes?  Was Kramer redecorating — or was he terraforming?  And does he have the power to transform Hawkman from an Egyptian into a Thanagarian?  Does anyone?

Speaking of animal-entities — loathsome, offensive brutes, if you will — an overdue look at some actual animals tomorrow, starting with that bad, bad chimp.

Monday, February 16, 2009

DEBATE AT LOLITA BAR: Has the Right Hit Bottom Yet?


With the government, intended by the Framers to be small and humble, now funneling a trillion dollars through itself and into the hands of its allies and supplicants…with pop culture iconography fusing with state-worship to create an ostensible messiah-president…with self-interested elites from academia to Nobel committees now oblivious to the difference between compassion and centralized planning (whether of economies or ecosystems), can the desperate (and often stupid) forces of opposition — the exiled right, marginalized conservatism — get any lower?

I’ll host — and Michel Evanchik will moderate — a debate on that very topic, “Has the Right Hit Bottom Yet?”

This Thursday, Feb. 19 (8pm) see optimist (and writer, blogger, and Research editor) Ken Silber argue yes, that the right is already planning its comeback, while pessimist (and author of Elephant in the Room) Ryan Sager argues no, saying the movement he loves is still plummeting downward for the foreseeable future.

My fellow Phillips Foundation Fellow (possibly joined by others of our kind in the audience), Heather Wilhelm, will give us a brief report from the activist field as well [UPDATE: Due to a bad cold, she likely won't join us, alas] — and it all goes down on the basement level of Lolita Bar, 266 Broome St. (at Allen St.) on the Lower East Side, one block south and three west of the Delancey St. F J M Z subway stop.

All ideological and non-ideological stripes are welcome — though non-leftists in need of some shelter from the storm might consider joining me for another monthly event, the Manhattan Project gathering, one night prior to the Thursday Lolita Bar Debate, namely Wed., Feb. 18, from 6:30-on at Merchants NY East, southwest corner of 62nd and First. You will get no pity from me if you do not read this carefully enough to tell the two events apart and thus show up on the wrong day: non-leftist social gathering Wednesday, mixed-crowd debate about the right on Thursday.


And for me, tonight, an oddly-eclectic gathering of secular-leaning libertarians under the auspices of the Institute for Humane Studies in a space belonging to the Jesus-leaning King’s College, located in the basement of the Empire State Building of all places, Ayn Rand’s old headquarters. It’s a very political week for me, ending with Friday’s Phillips Foundation annual New York gathering, with talks by columnist Robert A. George and others.

In the meantime, today is President’s Day, and in addition to reflecting on the wisdom of America’s fairly-libertarian first president, George Washington, and its first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, it might be worth taking a look at this list of conservative celebrities and remembering that there is still a scattered handful of influential people out there — including Buffy, a former Superman, and a few top models — who know the current political order is not as it should be. We can add to that list David Mamet, who wrote the fine play I saw yesterday (with a group gathered by George Mason law professor Michelle Boardman, fittingly), Speed the Plow.

Less enthusiastic about the American way and American media is the Muslim founder of Bridges TV, the project aimed at softening Americans’ impressions of Islam, who has been arrested here in New York for beheading his wife, as Irwin Chusid informed me (and as Drudge has now informed the world, I see).

On a more positive multicultural note, though — and one that may well be an indicator of the right’s strategy for making a comeback, or a mere coincidental sign of the times — I notice not only that (1) a black man, Michael Steele, is now heading the Republican National Committee but that (2) the House of Representatives’ one Jewish Republican, the market-friendly Eric Cantor, is now likened to former rebel-leader Newt Gingrich and (3) my fellow 90s Brown alum, Indian-descended Bobby Jindal, is giving the pivotal official GOP response speech to Leader Obama’s first State of the Union address next week, on Tuesday, Feb. 24. For those of us more concerned (far, far more concerned) about promoting fiscal responsibility than the tribal or cultural agendas our foes fear, these are mostly good signs.

And lest we forget that econ is now the battlefield where the fate of freedom and thus civilization is likely to be determined, here’s a Robert Higgs column reminding us of the magnitude of our era’s changes in political economy — including the bailout and other intrusions upon the fragile market.


My own broad predictions for the future? Things will go very badly for the economy — the main determinant of human wellbeing and voter sentiment, though people resist these twin insights — under Obama, and the GOP’s response, if things go badly, will be roughly as sophisticated as this hypothetical statement:

FAT, AGED, UNCHARISMATIC WHITE MAN, SURROUNDED BY OTHERS LIKE HIM: “This president promised change, but it seems to us he’s left Americans without pocket change!” [mugs for cameras with inappropriate good cheer, profound sense of self-satisfaction, and a big grin -- then his allies pick up a few seats in Congress for 2010 and make no significant changes in policy; they begin planning for 2012 election campaigns, which will also accomplish nothing]

I have shown you one very likely possible-future, and you know it. I almost feel the same sense of trans-temporal inevitability about it that Dr. Manhattan does contemplating time and death in Watchmen — but that’s a topic better suited to next month’s debate (and next month’s Book Selection), about which, more in two weeks.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Flying Cars, Flying Debris, and Flying Pigeons with Eyebeams


Amid all the current talk of infrastructure and road-building, you don’t hear many people making a case for promoting flying cars instead. As my friend Michael Mendelsohn (who also happens to be the husband of playwright Lynn Rosen, mentioned in yesterday’s entry) likes to point out, though, you have to wonder whether the creation of the Federal Highway System six decades ago may have had the unintended side effect of undermining and retarding the market for personal flying craft, which might otherwise have existed (he also notes that he pities the researcher who worked on that linked article who had to confirm the obscure factoid that Alaska is the only state in which taking off from a public road is legal).

I think it best to avoid treating questions such as whether we’ve been robbed of flying cars in a good/bad, should/should not way. The question isn’t simply whether we ought to have flying cars (though if Samuel L. Jackson continues to portray Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., in Avengers movies, I certainly hope we’ll see Fury’s flying car). Rather, process is the point: In econ, science, tradition, and biology alike, we should keep in mind that when we inhibit or encourage growth in one area, there tends to be corresponding spread or contraction in others (and in the economic arena, the market, not subsidies and regulations, tends to find the most efficient mix and the most reasonable pathways).

Systems often evolve around the impediments placed in their way, but they may be wasting energy in doing so, in ways that we do not even perceive. Stop immigrants from entering Arizona and you may just cause lots of people to waste their time rerouting to California, for instance. (And in the specific case of the Federal Highway System, there are arguments to be made that it fostered militarism, shattered ecosystems and migration patterns, and undermined local communities to boot, but we don’t have time to get into all that.)


Speaking of “routing around damage” (as the computer people say), I was saddened to hear about the almost heavy-handedly symbolic collision of a Russian satellite and an Iridium satellite (Iridium having at one time been the great hope for a completely private satellite communications network, later sold for a song and now heavily dependent on defense contracts) — but on a happier note, the suddenly-heightened problem of space debris circling the Earth reminds me of the odd old sci-fi sitcom Quark, starring Richard Benjamin as a space garbage collector. At least, I’m pretty confident I didn’t just hallucinate the series.

And speaking of hallucinations and high technology, I have only just learned that overrated and half-mad inventor Nikola Tesla believed that a friendly magical pigeon with shining eyebeams was the source of his inspiration.

But if you prefer fantasy to scientific reality anyway, I’ll leave you with these links to interviews by my friend Joel Keller, of Joss Whedon, Bob Newhart, and Eddie Izzard.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Book Selection(s): Ray Bradbury and the Romance of Old Times/New Times

bradbury.jpg Book Selections of the Month (February 14, 2009)

The “stimulus” bill should have been horror enough for one week — spending an amount about equal to a twelfth of the entire GDP, which is a bit like just announcing that every dime in the country will simply be moved three inches to the left (except worse because that shift will move many of those dimes into the pockets of government and its inefficient, failure-prone buddies).

However, this week also saw a children’s book holocaust, since ludicrously stringent anti-lead regulations, if anyone cares, have just made it illegal to sell or even loan to children any item produced before 1985 unless it goes through expensive lead testing. The result is that huge numbers of old children’s books and toys were simply discarded this week by devastated secondhand book and toy stores (but then, books before 1985 do not have Leader Obama in them, so they can’t be very good — more on that next week at Lolita Bar, though).

The crazy regulations (which my co-workers have been warning people about for months) are like something out of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 — so now’s a good time to look at Bradbury and some other items that touch on the tension between building a future and too-hastily discarding the past — a dozen such texts altogether, in fact:

The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit and Other Plays is a collection of three smart, fanciful plays by Bradbury, reminding me a bit of the smart-but-fanciful (albeit less mid-century and more postmodern) short plays of Lynn Rosen (or the surreal verse plays Richard Ryan likes to produce). In the title entry, we get a simple, Treasure of the Sierra Madre-like look at the solidarity and divisions that can be produced by poverty, as six men decide to purchase and time-share a fabulous-looking suit with the potential to change their lives (an idea rooted in Bradbury’s real experiences of youthful poverty, lest anyone think he’s merely slumming).

“The Veldt,” a better-known play, comes closer to hitting on the conservative message Bradbury intended to convey in 451 — not simply that censorship is wrong, Bradbury says, but that we are in danger of losing our culture if we forget the works of the past in favor of shallower entertainments and shallower emotional relationships. “The Veldt” depicts children who are largely ignored by their well-meaning but lazy and high-tech parents — and so take revenge by using their highly-realistic video screen playroom to depict their parents’ repeated killing by lions.

Most philosophically satisfying from my perspective, though, is the Postman-like play that completes the Bradbury collection: “To the Chicago Abyss,” in which an old man in the future is the only person still crazy and rebellious enough to speak of the things the impoverished society has lost. As Bradbury notes in his introduction, the play deliberately does not merely celebrate aristocratic high culture or the hopes of the downtrodden proletariat but simple, everyday, bourgeois, American pop-culture/trash pleasures that we have every right to enjoy and take pride in, such as candy bars and portable radios and canned foods — all things prior centuries would have envied, though we are often guilt-tripped into forgetting that by the hateful intellectuals and cultural gatekeepers of both right and left (and are forgetful about it because of our own ingratitude).

As the old man rants: “Let one man want wine, another lounge chairs, a third a batwing glider to soar the March winds on and so you build even greater electropterodactyls.”

I am reminded of a movie project Pat Dinizio told me he was thinking about, in which nostalgia-loving hipsters would have to become the rebuilders of society. As I’ve said before, we need both memory and imagination, and neither is very interesting alone.

•Even things that are completely imaginary have history to them, by the way, which makes it interesting to read Skeptical Inquirer’s Jan./Feb. 2009 UFO retrospective issue. If it weren’t obvious enough (from the lack of hard evidence) that the UFO phenomenon is likely all in our heads, this issue’s article on the different, faddish phases of the phenomenon (for sixty-two years now) helps make it obvious that the things people see in the sky, lurking in ambiguous shadows at their windows, or abducting them in their dreams pretty obviously follow the aesthetics of the time: enemy saucers in the 1940s, creeping infiltrator-beings in the 1950s, messianic messages in the 1960s, then abductions, New Age spiritual missions, and government conspiracies.

And I recall noting in the Brown Daily Herald way back circa 1990 that there were also unmistakably gendered elements to UFO and supernatural stories, with men enjoying stories of dangerous invaders or government cover-ups and women liking tales of spiritual uplift — a point confirmed by the Skeptical Inquirer article and parodied in an insightful scene on X-Files a decade ago, when paranoid Mulder was chastised by Scully’s New Age sister for (rather hypocritically) looking down at New Age claims, telling him, “Just because it’s happy doesn’t mean it’s stupid.” Of course, in the real world, people who make the sorts of claims they do might both be considered stupid.

But then, maybe I’m wrong about both spirituality and UFOs. We’ll get a chance to debate these things at Lolita Bar, too, since after our Feb. 19 debate on the state of conservatism and our March 4 debate on sci-fi, we’ll move on to an April 1 debate on religion and, if all goes according to plan (after a May 6 debate on animals), a June 3 debate on, yes, UFOs — during which I promise to be a polite and neutral host, skeptic though I am (incidentally, the religion-defender on April 1, Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, like the Ray Bradbury book described above, was sent to me by Dawn Eden, so my thanks once again to her).

•A starkly fantasy-free look at the past can be gleaned from the fascinating book The Good Old Days — They Were Terrible! by Otto Bettmann, best known as the founder of the Bettmann archives, from whom so many people like me in writing or journalism have rented archival photos over the years. Tired of seeing people rent and talk about the most glowy and lovely aspects of the Gilded Era in particular, Bettmann decided to write essays built around marvelous photos and cartoons of the real century-ago world Americans lived in, from the crowded tenements to New York City streets full of horse dung and wandering pigs, the inefficiency and waste exacerbated by machine politics and rampant hucksterism. Thank goodness I am not living in — or smelling — the New York City that once was. No summer heap of garbage bags today can rival the foul rendering plants and soot of just a few generations past. And one can’t help, like Bettmann, taking on a bit of a Mr. Burns/Herman T. Zweibel tone in discussing it all.

•I should confess to not having read How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, though he (a) is cited heavily in the Bettmann book, (b) is easily read online, and (c) was praised to me by a nice older woman named Rose Marie — who apparently lives in my building, eats and drinks occasionally at Dresner’s across York Avenue, and tells me (seconded by building super Albert, who was also at Dresner’s that night) that our building is quite historic. Our block, just north of virtually-unknown Cherokee Place on the Upper East Side and south of diminutive East Side Drive, was built a century ago precisely to be improved housing for workers, a high-minded and progressive retort to the tenements of the Lower East Side, down near Lolita Bar. I’ve said before that the Upper East Side and the Lower East Side are two of my favorite places, representing an important yuppie/punk dichotomy in my character, and now I know that my building is almost literally the Anti-Lower East Side.

•But if you want new reasons to fear the Lower East Side, consider checking out comedienne/performance artist Rev. Jen’s new site, advertising her periodic performances based on the DIY “art star” scene down there, and giving you just a tiny, somewhat sanitized glimpse of why I really worry about a lot of Rev. Jen’s friends and hope they don’t all end up in asylums or with serious dope habits, except in onstage sketches, of course.

•Ensuring that we will not long have to suffer deprivation and poverty even with the government doing nigh-apocalyptic stupid things like the bailout/stimulus bill, the inventors celebrated at Popular Mechanics‘ annual Breakthrough Awards are a great injection of hope for tomorrow in a world full of pessimism. With a little guidance from helpful co-host Seth Porges, attending last year’s Breakthrough Awards was enough to remind me that no matter how many things go wrong, humanity is still capable of experimenting and dreaming its way toward inexpensive hand-operated machines and mini-mills for use by people living in the Third World (to take the most-honored project, by MIT’s Amy Smith, as an example), microchips capable of circulating through the body detecting tumors (chips created by Harvard’s Mehmet Toner), the Pur water-purifier additive so effective you can drop it in water with fecal matter in it and turn it clear and drinkable, or the Pulse Smartpen that records audio while you take notes and correlates the resulting scrawls to the audio recording for later playback. The world will be OK, I suspect, no matter how low our stocks drop in the next few years.

•After all, people still managed to have fun even circa 1940, which is around the time the bizarre Fun Encyclopedia that girlfriend Helen gave me for Christmas was created (and I hope she likes what I gave her for Valentine’s Day today — we cannot live solely on a philosophical love of past or future). The Fun Encyclopedia is a poignant and often unintentionally self-parodic reminder of just how little there was to do back then: a thousand pages of frankly lame, somewhat desperate, and often almost offensive party-game suggestions such as throwing a Hardluck Hobo Party (at which not everyone is given an apple), a Slum Party (at which two performers speak in mock-Irish accents and are then symbolically victimized by crime through the use of cap-pistols), a strangely dry description of inviting someone to try and hit a target with his finger while blindfolded but arranging to have someone bite his finger, boulder-throwing, brain-teasing “conundrums,” and a “Jim Crow Is No Mo’” party guaranteed to bring laughter unless “your friends are hopeless,” plus a brief essay on the pro’s and con’s of “nonsense,” which modern experts apparently say is OK in small doses.

•I showed the bizarre encyclopedia to both professional puzzle-maker Francis Heaney and Todd Zuniga, editor of the literary journal Opium, the latter of whom, as I predicted, liked it so much he was tempted to reprint sections in Opium. This should make perfect sense to anyone who has read that journal, since there is an unmistakably game-like quality to many of the stories and poems in it. Very literary yet at times delightfully and self-consciously juvenile, it often contains stories about something whimsical happening with a “serious” twist, such as waking up to find out your dog can talk — but that he only talks about the Holocaust (I made that one up, but just barely). In the first issue, Zuniga — who, fittingly, has worked for Rockstar Games (the videogame manufacturers behind such classics as Grand Theft Auto) — sets the pace with a tale of a boyfriend so giving that he eventually starts losing body parts to his needy girlfriend. That’s a talking dog story but also (unlike some cutesy-for-cutesy’s-sake exercises) a disturbingly plausible metaphor for some relationships (not mine, though — Helen’s a trooper). Another piece in that first issue I loved was created by the simple but brilliant game-like means of corresponding with a series of spam e-mail senders as if they were engaged in serious, thoughtful, emotionally-significant bonding, climaxing with an angry denunciation by our author/correspondent of his penpal’s poor grammar and spelling in one missive that reads, says our author, as if his new friend has thrown his keyboard down a staircase or something.

•And it was at Opium’s most recent New York event that I saw a talk by the founder of the stripped-down but literarily interesting site, which should serve as another reminder that we need not take this whole collapse-of-the-economy thing lying down. Go out and create on the cheap — as our ancestors certainly did — or you have no one to blame but yourself.

•In fact, the aforementioned Rumpus founder noted that part of his inspiration was hearing Arianna Huffington tell him she loved the idea for his site — but then admitting to himself that she was too busy with more lucrative ventures to pay much attention to it. That’s ironic, since it means that blogs like are now the quasi-mainstream media that younger, fringier bloggers in some sense aspire to become. And they’re in luck! Because whatever its political crimes, and they are indeed severe, HuffingtonPost has done the world a favor by publishing The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging, which is indeed thorough, informative, and useful — and just happens to include among its contributors writer Laura Vanderkam, one of my fellow Phillips Foundation Fellows, who perhaps will join us this coming Thursday at Lolita Bar, when our fellow Fellow Heather Wilhelm will be one of the speakers, before Silber and Sager duke it out about the prospects of conservatism (Vanderkam also had a great piece about self-employment in the recent issue of Manhattan Institute’s City Journal).

One amusing bit of tangential, very cautious advice from page 15 of the Huffington guide, by the way: “The term ‘weblog’ was coined in 1997 by Jorn Barger, the editor of Robot Wisdom (itself a blog, albeit one with some nasty anti-Semitism bopping around on it, so we don’t recommend you humor him by visiting the site).” Rocketry, Volkswagens, blogs, summoning Hellboy — is there anything those Nazis can’t do?

•Seriously, though, people who really want to build a better culture know that a strong central state is no way to do it — more often an impediment, as I was reminded by the dry but informative tome Overcoming Barriers to Entrepreneurship in the United States (edited by Diana Furchtgott-Roth). Want to know how the young or the Latino are faring in starting businesses? You’ll find stats and charts on such questions in here (another reminder things aren’t as completely awful as they used to be, in some ways). As it happens, Helen won this book, and I won a copy of Ryan Sager’s Elephant in the Room, in the raffle at a recent New York Young Republicans Club party, and so we traded (she may get Sager to autograph the book Thursday at Lolita). I swear the raffle wasn’t fixed.

•In conclusion, since I’ve been contrasting the old days and new throughout this month’s Book Selections, let me dip back into the recent past — to my own Book Selections from December — and note again the book The Tyranny of Liberalism by James Kalb. Like me, you may differ with some of his ultimate conclusions, which are rooted in religious and strongly-traditionalist conservatism of a sort that even most Republicans these days would not understand, modernists that they are — but you might still benefit from hearing his very thorough outsider’s perspective (as it were) on the entire liberal order of modernity — the whole assumption that efficiency, statistics, pleasure, and equality are good things. Few books I’ve read do a better job of enabling you to step back and see as if for the first time a modern world that previously seemed just commonsensical and natural, with all its implicit, rarely-questioned assumptions. I dare say bulk purchases for polisci classroom use might be called for.

Of course, at times, Kalb frankly sounds as embittered (albeit much more reserved in his rhetoric) as the right-wing, quasi-anarchic superhero/narrator Rorschach from Watchmen — railing against the filthy, meaningless lives of average New Yorkers. Ah, but more about Rorshach in next month’s Book Selection(s) entry, gentle reader…

Friday, February 13, 2009

Kung Fu, Killer Cyborgs, and Motherly Love


Before celebrating romantic love tomorrow on Valentine’s Day, let’s pause to salute motherly love — and the return tonight of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a show most people probably think of as driven by action sequences and sci-fi concepts but which owes most of its emotional power to the viscerally-convincing conceit that a woman will do anything necessary, even sacrifice other people, to keep her son alive, since he is, after all, the human race’s only hope.  Despite the obvious appeal of the robot-filled show to nerd males like me, there must be more than a few moms out there watching it and thinking “This feels right somehow.”

(What feels less right about the show is the strange contrast between the actress in the title role, who is British but sounds so flawlessly American that it’s almost alarming — they can imitate our voices! — and the actress playing the series’ most-advanced Terminator, namely Shirley Manson from the band Garbage, whose pale Scottishness and robotic demeanor somehow combine to make me feel as if I’m suddenly watching Doctor Who, interfering with my suspension of disbelief.  But then, I won’t have to suspend my disbelief long, since I have no intention at this time of getting a digital converter box, do not have cable, and fully expect that if I watch tonight’s episode — along with the premiere of the new show Dollhouse from Summer Glau’s old boss, Joss Whedon — it will be the last TV broadcast I see for a long, long time, which is just as well.)

For a beautifully violent display of daughterly love for a mother, though, I recommend the Thai martial arts movie Chocolate, which opened last week, from the makers of the Jackie-Chan-level martial arts film Ong-BakChocolate starts out slow, almost silly, and builds to such an acrobatic climactic melee that you’ll wonder how they could possibly have done it without injuring lots of people — and then you’ll see easily the most disturbing blooper reel full of injuries ever during the credits.  How could they do it without injuries?  They couldn’t.

The cutesy but effective premise is that a delicate-looking, autistic teenage girl whose nearly-only talent is imitating kung fu fighters on TV goes around innocently demanding the money that is owed to her ailing mother by a bunch of gangsters — then beating the crap out of them and their minions when they won’t pay up.  By the end, it’s like ballet, I tell you.

But for more on love and sci-fi — and more on the perpetual struggle to balance the claims of past and future — join me for my Book Selection(s) of the Month entry tomorrow, featuring Ray Bradbury and much more.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Darwin Is 200 Today


Congratulations to Charles Darwin on the 200th anniversary of his birth today. Shame on roughly half of the peasant population of the U.S., who feel compelled to reject the most basic facts about biology because their baseless religious beliefs might thereby be threatened. Science may not have all the answers to life’s problems, but neither does stupidity.

With Valentine’s Day coming up this Saturday, please take a moment to marvel at the fact that we wouldn’t fully understand the origins of the emotional attraction living things feel for each other without the insights Charles Darwin offered a century and a half ago, about the evolutionary incentives creating the reproductive impulse and the desire to protect kin — malleable though they may be to some extent in creatures as rational as ourselves. (We may get one or two Darwin-bashers at Lolita Bar one week from tonight when Ken Silber and Ryan Sager debate the question “Has the Right Hit Bottom Yet?” so consider that potential learning experience an extra reason to show.)

Take an additional moment to appreciate the hardships scientists endure to perform their research on animal life, whether it’s Darwin traveling to the Galapagos, Dr. Will Marshall (seen in the picture above) traveling to the “Land of the Lost” in an alternate timeline, or the unfortunate Ph.D. student in England whose immense bag of lizard dung was mistakenly thrown out by maintenance people.


Even kids can have an intuitive sense, I think, of what seems evolutionarily-plausible and what does not, just as some of us were nerdy enough to recognize that, say, a cartoon of a spaceship shaped like a tree was probably disregarding engineering efficiency (even if we didn’t fully understand engineering). That hasn’t stopped fantasists from depicting some crazy and evolutionarily-unlikely monsters over the years, though, from the absurdly super-massive Godzilla to the even less-plausible “thought beasts of Krypton” (essentially hippos with TV sets for heads that display the thoughts of people standing nearby), creatures DC Executive Editor Dan Didio would reportedly like to see brought back in the new Superman: World of New Krypton series.

As DC Comics editor Scott Nybakken once said sarcastically to me and professional manga-seller Ali Kokmen, “That’s such a useful evolutionary adaptation, I can’t believe it hasn’t happened already.” Ah, Nybakken, that cynic spawned by (non-Kryptonian) scientist parents — but you’ll hear more about him next month. For now: congratulations again, Mr. Darwin.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Monkey Butler vs. Robot Butler (and Oompa-Loompas)


Humanity is a string stretched across an abyss between monkey and robot.

To the extent humans dream, likely in vain, of taming both the animal nature from which we have evolved and the immortal machine-people we are almost inevitably destined to become, they may entertain fantasies of turning the twin archetypes of monkey and robot into mere servants — butlers.

As it happens, my girlfriend Helen (a traditionalist conservative) strongly prefers (aesthetically) the idea of having a monkey butler, while my libertarian sci-fi comics-creator friend Paul Pope is perhaps best known for depicting a robot butler character, powered by the chemical THB. I can sympathize with both sides, having marveled at a chimpanzee bartender on either That’s Incredible or Those Amazing Animals decades ago and dreamt often of a world where robots relieve us of all physical labor.

Perhaps a debate on this topic between Helen and Paul is in order (it would at least afford an opportunity to advertise a “Rittelmeyer vs. Pope” clash and excite Catholics) — but instead we’ll discuss other divisions on the right at Lolita Bar on Feb. 19, so come see that.


Before that, though, we must celebrate the 200th birthday of Darwin tomorrow, and in the meantime…

…today is the eighty-third birthday of the man who should appear next to the entry for “deadpan” in the dictionary: Leslie Nielsen (reportedly a Republican, by the way). Among the numerous Vaudeville-flavored bits of silliness on the hilarious and short-lived 80s sitcom Police Squad, which spawned the Naked Gun movies, was an introductory shot of Nielsen as Lt. Drebin driving a squad car with a chimpanzee in a cheap suit in the passenger seat, with Drebin’s voiceover informing us that he’d been investigating a murder at the zoo and was now returning to headquarters to question a suspect. That’s comedy (and speaking of deadpan comics in their eighties, kudos to the casting genius who hired notoriously not-dead actor Abe Vigoda, one of my fellow Upper East Side residents, to be the voice of the Grim Reaper in a new H&R Block TV ad — subtle!).

Another random Police Squad moment I loved was Drebin’s shoeshine boy informant telling him that if he goes up against the local mob leader, “you’d better watch out for his goon Luka,” to which Drebin, deadpan as always, asks, “What’s a goonluka?”

Perhaps the moment on the series that makes me laugh most, though, is Drebin unexpectedly drifting into a reverie about his gay lover of long ago (after a crying widow asks him if he knows what it’s like to live with a truly good man), ending with his glum recollection, “They ran him out of town like a common pygmy.” And that brings us to the Oompa-Loompas…


I’m not sure the Oompa-Loompa part of this Drudge-linked article from last week about sorority hazing at Cambridge fits into the article’s overall moral outrage. Do the British think there’s something shocking or wrong about “frolicking with Oompa-Loompas” (or rather, dwarfs dressed as Oompa-Loompas)? I can understand the traditional aversion to sex antics in public, but what do they have against little people per se?

Of course, some politically-correct people will claim they’re concerned for the Oompa-Loompas’ sakes, that they’re being exploited or something. But that’s ridiculous. Being “exploited” in this way is sometimes your best ticket to the party. If you’re seven feet tall, you make a good Chewbacca. If you’re four feet tall, you make a good Oompa-Loompa. The world would be a far better, more rational place if we were all comfortable admitting that.

Some, I suppose, will lament working conditions for the Oompa-Loompas and so forth — though if they seem happy enough to sing on the job, how bad a life could it be? The Oompa-Loompas just need a prosperous economy, not politically-correct, Marxist nonsense and identity politics. If I were a dwarf, though, I’d dress like I was from Middle Earth and make people listen to my theories on mysticism and dragons. Instant spiritual-leader cred, and women at Renaissance fairs would probably have sex with me.

But to get back to the primatology stuff for a moment: I hear they’re remaking Conquest of the Planet of the Apes as a stand-alone movie — about the first hyper-intelligent ape-slave in the near future to say “No!” to his human overlords and start a rebellion. There’s your revolution if you’re looking to liberate cinematic slaves.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Scientific Caution, Political Hopes


There are, it must be said, legitimate scientific reasons to be cautious about embracing sociobiology too readily.  For one thing, we should avoid the temptation to concoct “just so” stories about each and every human trait as if it had significant survival value.

Genes (somewhat like traditions) get passed along in bundles, called alleles, that may mix the useful and the useless.  Some genetic traits of no great value may be lucky enough to be “along for the ride” on an allele containing other, far more useful traits.  If people pay a lot of attention to hair, does that mean shiny hair was always an important sexual signal, indicating good health, as some sociobiologists have hypothesized?  Or is it simply an inconsequential trait that happens to correlate with more useful but less glamorous ones, such as skin that’s less likely to develop infections?  Some traits might even be counter-productive but lucky enough to be along for the ride with highly useful ones — or simply too embedded in the system of our biology to weed out in a handful of generations (does anyone think that the vestigial ticking timebomb called an appendix is maximally efficient?).

It’s an imperfect world, full of imperfect creatures and inefficient behavior patterns.  But start looking at the world as the result of ongoing weeding-out processes, with the best available option in an array of imperfect ones tending to win out, and it all begins to make a lot more sense.

E-mail isn’t perfect, but it was a more effective solution than fax machines, so e-mail spreads and faxes wane.  Taboos against women in the workplace sidelined half the workforce, so those taboos — which made somewhat more sense when there was far more work to be done in the home (making clothes from scratch, etc.) — erode.  Communist central planning can’t get the job done, so it crumbles.  Proto-humans were smarter hunters or quicker reproducers than the other apes, so, for all their faults, they proliferated and left descendants who rule the world — and who sometimes show a terrible ingratitude toward the processes that got them here, even denying that those processes exist.  Forgetting the past isn’t a very wise or conservative thing to do.

Here’s a suggestion for a (grand-fusionist) truce: the left admits that Darwinian thinking vindicates much of what the right is saying about human nature, tradition, and market processes.  In return, the right shows that it knows when to embrace Progress and gives Darwin some long-overdue respect.

Tomorrow, though: some comic relief in the form of birthday boy Leslie Nielsen and the archetype of the monkey butler.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Religious Objections (Some of Them Veiled) to Darwin


So, Darwin, for all the conflict he has inspired, can sometimes bring left and right a little closer.  By offering a model for human behavior that vindicates competitive sorting processes (not only biology but tradition, markets, and science itself), Darwinian thinking could provide an explanation of change over time, an explanation that unifies rationalist, moralist, traditionalist, capitalist, and Progressive threads of Western thought.  These threads have been separated since roughly the eighteenth-century Enlightenment — at great cost to our intellectual life — with the right-left rift only the most obvious manifestation.

But a reunification is unlikely.  Our cultural house will probably remain divided, and for the obvious reason.  Most on the right will not stand beside the left and say “We are all Darwinists now” as long as Darwin is seen as subversive of religion.  There have been occasional signs of rapprochement over the years, such as a pro-sociobiology series of articles in the conservative magazine National Review that included a piece called “Origins of Conservatism.”  But more conservatives sound like Jeffrie Murphy, professor of philosophy and law at Arizona State University, who once wrote a sociobiology-friendly book entitled Evolution, Morality, and the Meaning of Life but years later told me, “I am now inclined to take more seriously a religious perspective on moral matters…the village atheist/science worshipper person present in that book now strikes me as a shallow fellow indeed.”


Convinced that the materialist account of life is reductionist, a tiny band of conservative scientists have even been working in the opposite direction from the sociobiologists, you might say, attempting to show that the complexities of biology can only be explained by rejecting Darwin and invoking “intelligent design,” some unseen maker.  Intelligent design theorists have gotten press attention far out of proportion to their numbers and influence within scientific circles (and I’m giving them a little more right now, I must admit).  By studiously avoiding using religion as an authoritative source, referring only to scientific observations such as the surprising complexity of cell structures, the intelligent design theorists avoid becoming the outright laughingstocks that their predecessors, the creationists, were (with their accounts of dinosaurs being killed by the Flood, etc.).  Like the creationists, though, they claim that it is Darwinism that is dogma.

Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, author of the anti-evolution book Darwin’s Black Box, told me he thinks sociobiology is a fad, one more example of evolutionists telling stories that can explain anything they choose.  “It’s superficially plausible, which is why I guess it sells.  There are some anatomical similarities between chimps and humans, and evolutionists are always good at pointing out that the similarities can imply common descent…The fact is, nobody knows what it would take to develop a language instinct in something that looks remarkably like a person but didn’t have that language instinct.”  His prediction, then, for the fate of sociobiology?  “I predict that sociobiology will draw a picture of humanity that is remarkably similar to the personal predilections of the people who subscribe to it, and after a while it will fade away.”


Intelligent design theorists routinely claim that species-making differences simply could not arise in the few billion years of life on Earth, and many conservatives are happy to take them at their word.  Anti-Darwinists ought to at least be given pause, though, by the incredible variation that has taken place just within dog populations in the past few thousand years, in some cases mere centuries or decades.  Who, if arriving from another planet and lacking familiarity with Darwinian theory, would have thought that wolf-like creatures could beget St. Bernards and chihuahuas in a just a few thousand generations?  They are as strikingly different in their way as chimps and humans, but we know dogs have a common ancestry.

The anti-Darwinists might respond that we know the lineage of dogs but that for other, more ancient animals we lack “transitional” fossils showing one species turning into another.  The fact is, though, that every fossil is transitional, since each generation is constantly blending into the next, with changes happening very gradually.  It’s not as if one should expect to find something like a werewolf in the fossil record, transmuting before our eyes from one species into another — though if the anti-Darwinists need something that blatant, recently-unearthed feathered lizards ought to count for something.

If God designed life on Earth, there is absolutely no evidence of it.  He would seem to have designed it to look exactly as though it resulted from billions of years of unplanned evolution.  From mosquito populations that shift toward a higher proportion of mosquitoes who prefer human blood after their supply of rat hosts diminishes, to the widely acknowledged phenomenon of bacterial antibiotic resistance (caused because each generation of bacteria descends from those bacteria that were resistant to the previous round of antibiotics), evolution is happening in small, gradual ways all the time, all around us.

Luckily, even the Vatican acknowledges this and discourages claiming that every remaining gap in our knowledge is evidence for the direct intervention of God.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Kitcher vs. Singer: Two Views of Ev-Psych's Relevance


Sexual double standards. An instinctual moral sense. Innate tribalism. Tradition vindicated as functional. Markets vindicated as a natural process. It all begins to sound as if Darwin’s world is a rather conservative one (except for requiring no God, of course).

Philip Kitcher, a professor of philosophy of science at University of California at San Diego, wasn’t happy about this when I communicated with him about it a decade ago. “E.O. Wilson, it should be noted, was a genuine liberal, sometimes distressed by his own conclusions. Today’s Darwinian psychologists seem delighted with what they find,” charged Kitcher. “These endeavors are often defended in the name of free inquiry, and the investigators cast themselves as bold challengers of orthodoxy…In fact, they frequently succeed in capturing public attention precisely because they pander to old stereotypes, especially about the ‘proper’ roles of men and women…and any morally sensitive venture into the biological understanding of human behavior would be much more cautious.”


For good or ill, it does seem that sociobiology’s impact is, on balance, a conservative one. But no less left-wing a figure than Princeton philosopher Peter Singer — notorious for his defenses of infanticide and bestiality — now says it may be time for the creation of what he calls a “Darwinized left,” and it is clear he means by this a somewhat more conservative, more sociobiological left.

Singer notes the practical limits that evolutionary theory puts on the left’s ambitions to transform selfish human nature. As he put it in a speech on the topic, “Wood carvers presented with a piece of timber and a request to make wooden bowls from it do not simply begin carving according to a design drawn up before they have seen the wood.”

Singer acknowledges that a system that harnesses our instinctual self-interest may be wiser than one that attempts to eradicate or ignore it, and he even notes that arch-capitalist Adam Smith got this idea right two centuries ago. Singer goes further, arguing for the interrelatedness of self-interest and virtue on the basis of the insights gained from “tit for tat” strategies: “By being provokable, [tit for tat] creates a virtuous spiral in which life gets harder for cheats, and so there are fewer of them. Therefore cooperators do better because they are more likely to encounter another cooperator rather than a cheat.”

While praising altruistic actions such as blood donations, Singer recognizes that, as evolutionary theory would predict, our charitable instincts tend to taper off as the beneficiaries become more foreign, more anonymous — less clearly kin. If it is true that our desire to help others is motivated at the gut level by whether we think of them as kin, then we should make redoubled efforts to “expand the circle,” as Singer puts it, of our kin-like relations (and indeed some evidence, such as an aversion to incest even among adoptive siblings or collectively raised children, suggests that relatedness is to some degree a state of mind rather than pure genetics — our kin-regarding instincts can be fooled).

Echoing concerns of anti-urban Founding Fathers such as Jefferson (who thought anonymous city life makes callousness and bad behavior more likely) and concerns of modern paleoconservatives (who argue that a society of anonymous masses and immigrants may not make for good neighbors), Singer asks: “What structures can overcome the anonymity of the huge, highly mobile societies that have come into existence in this century and show every sign of increasing in size with the globalization of the world economy?”

Interestingly — and refreshingly — Singer does not call for a retreat from the increasing interconnectedness of the world but, contrary to many on the left, urges the embrace of globalization (in his book One World: The Ethics of Globalization). You can’t expand the circle of kin-like relations — and accompanying altruistic feelings — while severing the ties of trade between people.