Monday, August 31, 2009

DEBATES AT LOLITA BAR: "Should NY Reopen the 9/11 Investigation?"


Wed., September 2, at 8pm, with:

Sander Hicks* arguing yes.

Saul Devitt** arguing no.

(And the group NYCCAN fighting in court, meanwhile, over whether to make it a ballot initiative question.)

Hosted by Todd Seavey and moderated by Michel Evanchik.

Free admission, cash bar.  Basement level of Lolita Bar at 266 Broome St. at the corner of Allen St. on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, one block south and three west of the Delancey St. F, J, M, Z subway stop.

This is, in effect, our second of three debates on “conspiracy”-related topics, last time having been UFOs and October being the validity of Obama’s birth certificate.  So, whether you like it or not, we will have gone “spacer” > “truther” > “birther,” as the slang puts it.  You can decide which if any stop to get off at — but best to come hear the arguments first.

*Sander Hicks argued the case for a 9/11 inside job two years ago at Lolita and now argues more broadly that more investigation urgently needs to be done into the subject.  He has also made that case in his book The Big Wedding.  And you may have seen the bookstore/cafe he used to own, Vox Pop, in the news recently because of the mysterious decapitation and theft of the head of the store’s Statue of Liberty replica (followed by the appearance of a creepy, anonymous, al Qaeda-esque video of same).  Brooklyn terror cell?  Extremely odd government intimidation tactic, as Sander suggests?  Prank by Brooklyn art students majoring in video production?  Publicity stunt?

None can say — but with a little networking assist from me, Sander got a chance to comment on another video — one critical of 9/11 Truth claims — for a New York Post piece by Maxine Shen, if you’d like a flavor of his thinking — and this time they didn’t call him a “java jackass,” as they did in a previous article.

I will say this: Even if Sander’s specific theories prove to be inaccurate (something you can mull as an audience member at Lolita this Wednesday), they are less strange than a conspiracy theory promulgated by one of his acquaintances, who thinks that that Air Force One fly-by of (the real) Statue of Liberty a few months ago was the result of Pentagon jets (in cahoots with the Kremlin) attempting to shoot down Obama, who narrowly avoided death by flying to a highly-visible location (while on his way to visit the U.N. and convey world-saving information about swine flu).  Bet you haven’t heard that one before.

**Saul Devitt is a relatively straightforward computer programmer and would-be debunker who keeps up on the latest odd tech claims, whether false or, as in the case of doctors giving blind people sight by transplanting teeth into their eye sockets, odd but true.  Perhaps he also has an opinion on the claim that traces of “nano-thermite” government explosives were found in the ruins of the World Trade Center (a claim admittedly promulgated by a scientist who used to say he’d found archaeological evidence of Jesus having visited South America).

Regardless, we will sort some of this out on Wednesday, and if you don’t attend, you may just regret it for the rest of your life.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

And Then There Are the Protestants

Not wishing to look like I was singling out Catholicism as the only questionable faith with yesterday’s entry, I should stress that I doubt all supernatural and paranormal claims, not just, say, Mormonism (and we should be suspicious of people who only pick on a few favorite paranormal targets, as though with a sliding scale of skepticism).

So let me augment yesterday’s skepticism about Catholicism with a reminder that Martin Luther was a bit of a brutal fanatic who at times either encouraged or acquiesced in massive attacks on the Jews.

But I’ll say this for Martin Luther: He knew how to come up with a snappy title. Before those pogroms, he had opposed the violence of full-blown peasant revolts in a volume with the wonderful title Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants. Maybe that should be my new blog slogan.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Uganda Is More Christian than the U.S.

I’m scheduled to attend a Catholic (and conservative) wedding today, and I hope it won’t look like ingratitude toward my hosts (who I’m sure are too busy to read this blog today) if I pick this occasion to remind people of my love-hate relationship with religion and the religious right.

I say love because, despite my atheism, I think the moral and social effects of religion — the stuff the left usually complains about — are actually often quite positive, and I am not indifferent to the deep passions that people like C.S. Lewis represent with noble lions (which they worry shallow secularists must lack).  It would indeed be awful if people lacked those sorts of deep passions, and if religion evokes them, it must be contended with.

I say hate — though I swear I don’t literally mean hate — because I don’t think the underlying supernatural claims are true and because there is a tendency, especially on the right, to think religion explains and causes all the good things in life.  Is Europe (just slightly) more socialist?  Must be because they’re so much more secular over there.  Was the USSR oppressive?  Must be because they didn’t believe in God.

But if you think a country’s level of religiosity is a short-cut to seeing how socially-functional and civilized it is, consider just one country that’s more Christian than the U.S.: chronically war-ravaged, brigand-plagued, impoverished Uganda.

•Their populace is 85% Christians to our mere 78%-and-shrinking…

•…with Catholics about 41% of their population to our 24% or so.

So are they in better shape than the U.S. culturally?  Are you moving there soon?  If so, beware the occasional witch-led armies of fanatical soldiers who think rocks can be used as magic hand grenades and that sort of thing, which Uganda seems also to have in rather larger numbers than we do.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Nearly Everything Is Bad

Whether religious or secular, people are naturally inclined to think the universe is in some sense a just place where things tend to work out. But what if they’re wrong? I’m not a naturally gloomy person myself (I don’t think), but what if, for example, all ten of the following rather negative thoughts are true? It’s not clear that’s logically impossible.

•Political criticisms always get channeled into one of the party lines. Almost nothing can be accomplished through politics.

•The scientific establishment is usually wrong.

•Supernatural and other anti-scientific claims are all false.

•Capitalists lack the ethics to rescue their own system from decline, yet all anti-capitalist philosophies are wrong and destructive.

•Conventional sex differences lead to malevolent behavior, as do attempts to alter those differences.

•Misanthropes tend to be self-serving people making limited criticisms based on one of the agendas alluded to above rather than harsh, constructive critics who might truly improve humanity.

•Terrible behavior tends to be rewarded and thus to grow more commonplace (witness the spread of deliberately rude “Game”-style dating, which is now so widespread as to border on becoming etiquette rather than the novel assault on etiquette it so recently seemed).

•Entertainment reinforces the easy intuitive grooves that lead to the aforementioned problems.

•Art that, by contrast, is consciously disturbing or alienating tends merely to reinforce different, often worse, intuitive grooves.

•People are irrational — and as a result are often selfish and sadistic without even succeeding in increasing their own happiness. They consciously or unconsciously choose pointless conflict over peaceful cooperation in countless situations.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Personal May Need to Be the Political -- But Not the Other Way Around

I wonder if healthcare “reform” will in fact pass now simply because so many people will think “Ted Kennedy would have wanted it that way.”  Perhaps humanity’s single biggest problem is that the human brain longs to navigate complex situations with instincts built for sizing up simple interactions between a few people — deciding who seems nice enough to share food, who seems likely to throw a rock at you, etc.

Even cultural-big-picture philosophers Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor (despite the latter in particular condemning the West’s tendency to focus ever more on interior, psychological struggles instead of big questions about the wider world) are, like religion, encouraging people to think in terms of “personal virtues” (a certain vision of a classical hero type), in a world where our biggest problems may increasingly hinge on more systemic thinking: economics, filtering sound science from pseudo-science, escaping the sclerosis of bureaucratic politics, etc.  The temptation to think that simply being a warm-hearted person or doing what (Jesus, Howard Roark, Ulysses, whoever) would do is enough to solve larger systemic problems is dangerous — comforting, heartwarming, reassuring, and frequently wrong, a legacy of Christianity’s emphasis on reforming one’s own soul, mutated by modern liberalism’s self-centered emphasis on personal growth, politically correct thought, consciousness-raising, and the like.

At the same time, though, for a social system to be sustainable, the core tenets that make its broader, more far-flung rules function must seem to average people to be observable/felt in their own lives (both in the sense of being confirmed by observation and in the sense of inviting everyday participation, lest the moral rules be left to self-interested elites to administer).  So the silver bullet we need, with ever-greater urgency in a world of increasing media noise, is a code that is easily enacted on a personal level but has the broadest possible beneficial implications for governance and for the proper maintenance of social processes that dwarf the individual and transcend the current generation.

And that’s where, it seems to me, the principle of property comes in, with all its myriad positive implications, from the narrow personal level to the establishment of global (and someday perhaps even interplanetary) trade and peace.  Anything foisted into policy debates mushier than property adherence is either directly counterproductive or at best a dangerous distraction.  Particularly dangerous, then, are the growing number of liberals, conservatives, and even libertarians who say, predictably, “I see value in property-adherence — but here are the unique new embellishments I would add to that dry, simplistic moral/legal rule…”

That way, as we’ve seen, lies the stagnation of the welfare state, the ostensibly-regulated economy, mercantilism, attempts to steer whole cultures through clumsy military strikes, the near-worship of nature and biological processes combined with a disregard for often subtler economic processes, and selective invoking of God’s purported will.  End this madness.  Lay down property lines — secure and clear and legally enforceable — across the world, and let humanity begin the recombinatorial process of trading and thereby improving the world, one mutually-beneficial exchange at a time.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Fop Rock Note


Obviously, I am pleased to see that both Adam Ant and the Upper Crust made it into the Wikipedia entry for “fop” — bringing us one step closer to the ideal world in which knee breeches and mohawks signal a culture balanced between reason and productive anarchy (even if one of the Upper Crust’s former members, Ted Widmer, has been an indentured servant of some sort at that most benighted of plebian institutions, Brown University of the Providence Plantation).

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Seavey Bibliography I Never Made

I should have mentioned when I plugged The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging a few months ago that I’m quoted in it as calling “I don’t know” the three most important words in the language.  (And they are, you know.)

But in the interests of full disclosure, here is the list of all the books in which I am cited or at least thanked, per Amazon’s search function (seventeen books in all).

By no means are all the citations positive, I should note.  In the case of the ever so slightly negative-sounding Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy: Corporate PR and the Assault on Democracy, I am apparently described as part of “the Wise Use group in the United States,” perhaps a specific organization I’ve never heard of or, since it’s from a passage about tobacco, maybe a catch-all term for people who wish taxes and fines taken from tobacco companies were put to health-enhancing uses, which is not exactly my mission either, but whatever.  Maybe it just means I think smokeless tobacco is safer than smoked tobacco, which is a perfect statement of fact (and a very important one, for public health purposes, as we often note at ACSH) but is nonetheless scandalous heresy for a surprising number of ostensibly intelligent public health types.

Without further ado, I give you Todd Seavey:

The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging by The editors of the Huffington Post and Arianna Huffington (Paperback – Dec 2, 2008)

Woodstock: An Encyclopedia of the Music and Art Fair (American History Through Music) by James E. Perone (Hardcover – Jan 30, 2005)

The Forbidden Apple: A Century of Sex & Sin in New York City by Kat Long (Paperback – Mar 1, 2009)

Invisible Frontier: Exploring the Tunnels, Ruins, and Rooftops of Hidden New York by L.B. Deyo and David Leibowitz (Paperback – Jul 22, 2003)

Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto by Mark R. Levin (Hardcover – Mar 24, 2009)

The I Hate Corporate America Reader: How Big Companies from McDonald’s to Microsoft Are Destroying Our Way of Life (The “I Hate” Series) by Clint Willis and Nate Hardcastle (Paperback – Dec 19, 2004)

What to Do When You Don’t Want to Call the Cops: or A Non-Adversarial Approach to Sexual Harassment (A Cato Institute book) by Joan Taylor (Hardcover – Oct 1, 1999)

Made in America: The Most Dominant Champion in UFC History by Matt Hughes and Michael Malice (Hardcover – Jan 1, 2008)

The End of Food by Paul Roberts (Hardcover – Jun 4, 2008)

Give Me a Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media… by John Stossel (Hardcover – Jan 20, 2004)

Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement by Brian Doherty (Hardcover – Feb 12, 2007)

Selling the Dream: Why Advertising Is Good Business by John M. Hood (Paperback – Sep 29, 2008)

Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy: Corporate PR and the Assault on Democracy by William Dinan and David Miller (Paperback – Jun 20, 2007)

Overheard in New York UPDATED: Conversations from the Streets, Stores, and Subways by S. Morgan Friedman and Michael Malice (Paperback – Feb 5, 2008)

Digital Culture: Understanding New Media by Glen Creeber and Royston Martin (Paperback – Dec 1, 2008)

State of the World 2003 by Worldwatch Institute and The Worldwatch Institute (Hardcover – Jan 2003)

Hong Kong at the Handover by Bruce Herschensohn (Textbook Binding – April 26, 2000)

Collect them all.  Let us hope I can at least continue my rate of approximately one book mention per year of my post-college life.

Douchebag Redux: Most Stressful Cities

Per a piece, the top five most stress-filled cities in America are:

1. Chicago

2. Los Angeles

3. New York (feel the pride)

4. Cleveland (is there any upside here?)

5. And, yes, Providence, RI

Brown: top of GQ’s “douchebag” list yesterday, in a stressed out city today, no longer as reputationally strong according to my mom, and last I heard about to suffer a rich-kids student surtax to boot — sucks to be a Brown student any way you slice it.  Perhaps it’s time to just shut the place down and turn it into a petting zoo.

P.S. But I’ll still say nice things about Prof. Morone’s book The Democratic Wish in October.

The GOP Loves Medicare

I started saying over a decade ago that as the population’s average age increases, we’d see both major political parties “coincidentally” reformulate their philosophies around whatever elderly citizens wanted, even if it meant the Democrats abandoning their ostensible New Left ties to youth and progress and innovation and the Republicans abandoning their opposition to big-government programs, since Medicare and Social Security are the biggest of the big.  Not surprisingly, but nonetheless shamefully, the Republicans are apparently issuing a “manifesto” (as if such things ever actually articulate principles these days) denouncing any cuts to Medicare, capitalizing on seniors’ fear that Obama’s (in fact big-spending) healthcare reforms might limit their goodies.  Bush’s prescription drug plan was bad enough, but at least the argument could be made that prescription drugs, properly used, would be a net cost-reduction (rendering unnecessary more expensive interventions).  Now we see the Republicans, long ago the party of markets and limited government, simply cheerleading for sustained spending.  Two socialist parties, one angry at slightly different things than the other.  No clear way out.

A sad sidenote is that when I imagined the parties turning grey-minded all those years ago, I at least figured they’d come up with some ostensible philosophical rationale — the left perhaps arguing that seniors have “served the community most” and so deserve the massive redistributions from young newcomers they receive, the right perhaps making some sort of traditionalist argument about honoring revered elders.  Instead, of course, both sides just watch the polls and jockey for constituent-serving electoral advantage.  If the intellectuals at least get out of the habit of providing the two parties with post-hoc philosophical rationales, that would be a tiny step forward.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Brown: The Douchebag's Guide to Failure


I checked the September issue of GQ to see if it quoted me — not because I assume all magazines are likely to quote me at some point, though that would be nice, but because one of the writers, Andrew Corsello, interviewed me for a piece he was working on.

That piece hasn’t appeared, but I was made almost as happy by what did: GQ’s list of “America’s 25 Douchiest Colleges” (i.e., most obnoxious), and I think you know what institution came in at the top of the list, especially if you read all my Retro-Journal entries about going there. Yes, it’s Brown University — where, not coincidentally perhaps, the aforementioned Mr. Corsello went, writing comedy alongside me for the Film Bulletin and producing stuff that sounded not unlike GQ’s description of Brown (which, by the way, narrowly beat #2 Duke, despite some of my favorite people coming from or going to the state of North Carolina):

AFFECTATIONS: A belief that grades, majors, and course requirements are just another form of cultural hegemony; using the word hegemony.

IN TEN YEARS, [if you went to Brown, you] WILL BE: Living with your family in an old house that you quit your job to refurbish yourself (by overseeing a contractor) with painstaking historical accuracy in a formerly decaying section of the city that’s recently been reclaimed by a small population of white guys in hand-painted T-shirts who are helping you put together a health care fund-raiser for, and meanwhile being furtively obsessed with the growth and decline of your sizable inheritance and carrying on an e-mail affair with a stripper, all while leading a campaign against gluten and dabbling in absinthe.

DOUCHIEST COURSE OFFERING: English 200: On Vampires and Violent Vixens: Making the Monster Through Discourses of Gender and Sexuality.


Down at the bottom of the list are #25 University of Virginia and #24 University of Texas — the latter being where studied (and near where now dwells) my friend L.B. Deyo, the sort of man with whom the Brown alum’s hypothetical night of absinthe-drinking, which might hypothetically have gone rather badly, might well have been conducted. (UT is also the sort of school where, hypothetically, the stripper the Brown alum corresponded with might well have lived, since Austin is weird that way.) In any case, Mr. Deyo gets the credit for this blog entry’s subtitle, since he once offered it, glum and deadpan, as the hypothetical title of his next book, causing me to giggle periodically for a good ten minutes or so, while he remained stone-faced, as he does so well.

And speaking of books and things that quote me, tomorrow a list of all the books, according to Amazon, that do so.  By the way, my mother’s reaction to news of Brown topping the GQ list was to observe that Brown doesn’t seem to crop up on the top of real lists of important colleges the way it used to.  Great.  $100,000 in 1991 money to end up eighteen years later on top of the douchebag list.  And I actually turned down Harvard, you know.  And Columbia.  And Princeton.  And Cornell.  The whole Ivy League except Yale, really — to which I didn’t apply because the world-famous divinity school had me worried (as an ignorant teen) that the place would be full of Bible-thumpers.  Arguably beats douchebags, though.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ten Libertarian Items, from Town Halls to Toad Hall, from Galt's Gulch to the Congo


•Engage in elite philosophical debate all you like, but in America, at least, you need the masses on your side at some point, so it’s nice to see the populist upsurge against socialized medicine at the town hall meetings — and articles like this one about an elderly miner’s wife who’s had all the big government she can stand.  Shame on any libertarian or conservative technocrats who’d rather fault such people for their ignorance, incivility, or missteps than fan the flames of revolt.  The public ain’t perfect, but they’re necessary.  (I almost wish last week’s Manhattan Project gathering had been as boisterous — maybe the Sept. 16 one will be, if you’re there.  No real party line, I swear.)

•If you think the crowds seem rowdy at today’s town halls, you should read about the ones two centuries ago in America — about one step removed from mob rule, if that.  I’ll write more about that — and James Morone’s book The Democratic Wish — during my “Month of Utopia” blog entries throughout October.  America needs more anarchy, after all, especially on the right.

•Since politics is often talk (which beats constant violence, I suppose), it was amusing to see even our nation’s chief diplomat, Sec. of State Hillary Clinton, getting snippy at a youth in Congo for daring to ask what she thought Bill’s opinion would be on something.  Hillary snapped that she’s not channeling Bill Clinton, though she might more colorfully have added “because I’m already channeling Eleanor Roosevelt” or even “I can assure you Bill Clinton is not inside me.”

•Getting back to utopia for a moment, though: Ali Kokmen informs me we may soon be able to escape all this to Galt’s Gulch, since Charlize Theron has expressed interest in doing the notoriously perpetually-delayed Atlas Shrugged film as a miniseries.  Now would be a good time, people.

•If we can’t have Atlas Shrugged, though, maybe the next best thing would be a big-budget adaptation of Thidwick, the Big-Hearted Moose (who eventually rids himself of all the lazy parasites living in his antlers) — an excellent metaphor for the evils of the welfare state that was apparently made into a film by the Soviets, of all people.  Odd.  By contrast, I don’t think you’d ever see the story survive intact as a script in today’s Hollywood — they’d have to change it to make the parasites who beset Thidwick into real estate developers or something instead of mere freeloaders and squatters, or “shirkers,” I suppose the Soviets would have said.

There are two ways to live, people: produce or just steal stuff from others, and most of politics and philosophy, unfortunately, is an attempt to rationalize the latter.  It’s as obvious a problemn when Dr. Seuss points it out as when Ayn Rand does.  Don’t steal.

•Hollywood is in fact doing an environmentalist Lorax movie, unsurprisingly — but the impending movie about the author of Wind in the Willows is more up my neo-traditionalist alley, even if both smack of anti-industrialism.

•In a world where people still think an economic crisis means it’s time to raise taxes (as Don Boudreaux laments in the Richmond Times-Dispatch) and where…

•…even Bruce Bartlett, a man sufficiently free-market conservative to call Bush an Impostor conservative (in his book of that title) has low enough standards to place the label of conservative on John Maynard Keynes, one shouldn’t get too hopeful about laissez-faire messages getting out.  On the bright side, though…

•…it’s sort of fun just seeing the New York Times non-judgmentally carry book descriptions like these atop their bestsellers list (where millions of eyeballs see them):

#1. CULTURE OF CORRUPTION, by Michelle Malkin. (Regnery, $27.95.) President Obama and his team of tax cheats, petty crooks, influence peddlers, and Wall Street cronies…

#4. CATASTROPHE, by Dick Morris and Eileen McGann. (Harper/HarperCollins, $26.99.) Stopping President Obama before he transforms America into a socialist state and destroys the health care system.

•And if we have reached the socialist, totalitarian point where even foie gras is illegal in some places, at least there’s this consolation: sucking rubber ducks can still save your life.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

"Avatar" vs. "District 9”


Last night, I saw the fifteen minutes of IMAX 3D teaser footage from James Cameron’s Avatar (the full film due out in December), and I fear Cameron has a $237 million bomb on his hands.

Not that it was bad, really, but it’s aiming so high, the hype’s already so big, and the end result is really just another one of those “guys-in-loincloths fight to save the rain forest and ride dangerous beasts” movies that you expect to be rated G and see for sale from some not-quite-Disney company at the checkout counter, except it’s ostensibly on another planet (and has some Cameron-style space marines thrown in). But it feels less like an alien world and more like whatever mythical rain forest the aforementioned not-Disney movies took place in.

And despite all the advanced computer animation, the fact that the humanoids look like nine-foot blue cartoon jungle men — and the animals look pretty much like triceratops and pterodactyls — leaves one still feeling as unsurprised and unengaged as if watching a videogame. I was reminded of the depressing detachment I felt while watching the Gungans fight the Trade Federation droids in Phantom Menace ten years ago, and no comparison to Phantom Menace can be a good sign (except in constructions such as “That South Park episode with the talking otters worked far better as a sci-fi epic than Phantom Menace did!”).

I took far greater pleasure Sunday in District 9 — and even in watching the short film it sprang from. I hope it inspires more intelligent sci-fi films. I’ve heard some conservatives were annoyed by District 9 because it so openly wants us to analogize the plight of the aliens to that of poor black South Africans — but I think this movie might be a coalition-splitter in a good way. Libertarians and paleos will enjoy seeing the film criticize the way that well-meaning custodians of a subject populace inevitably become inept, authoritarian managers with little understanding of the locals, even when the locals are themselves less than noble. And the action felt far more convincing than most sci-fi. I for one look forward to the sequels.

(Mainstream conservatives probably ought to hail District 9 as subtly pro-life anyway. The scene in which alien babies are burned before hatching was probably the most disturbing filmic depiction of abortion since, well, The Suckling — and written with far greater subtlety than that ludicrous pro-choice propaganda film The Ciderhouse Rules.)

Regrettably, I was busy Thursday night and had to pass up an invitation to see the MST3K guys mock Plan 9 from Outer Space live, which would have meant I could say that all in one week I saw District 9, Plan 9, and scenes from a film that’s probably going to lose a lot more money than Plan 9 did.

Still, if treated as a mere animation-assisted amusement park ride for kids, Avatar could end up delighting people in much the same way Jurassic Park (which I also found a bit boring at the time) did. In both cases, kids may even come away with the opposite message from the one intended by the environmentalist writers: Kids may see Avatar and dream of intervening in alien ecosystems and cultures, just as you know they came away from Jurassic Park’s anti-biotech, anti-science monologues in 1993 thinking, “Aw, man, we can make realistic dinosaurs with computers! Awesome!” And so, as in the days of hypocritical Victorian readers of lurid gothic novels, culture continues its dialectical, drunkenly lurching march.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Beatles, the Chrysler Building, and Boobies

Here’s one more for the hippies: a Yellow Submarine remake surfacing.

I’ve watched with fascination and alarm as Hollywood, creatively bankrupt, has recently contemplated producing unnecessary remakes of nearly any film as it turns twenty, sometimes even sooner, even when the originals are perfect as-is, as with RoboCop and Total Recall (the former being considered for a Darren Aronofsky treatment, oddly, and the latter plainly pointless without Paul Verhoeven, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Ironside, and Sharon Stone).

So it’s not a real shock they’re now talking about a 3D motion-capture remake of Yellow Submarine — and if that doesn’t already strike you as excessive, read the multiple-whammy multi-media plans for the project in the last paragraph of that linked article. Maybe I’m a bad judge of whether this is a good idea, since I’m not a big Beatles fan compared to most people (perhaps the writer of this Onion piece isn’t either), but I love “Eleanor Rigby,” and Christine Caldwell Ames has observed that most of the Beatles songs I do like seem to be on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack.

And why shouldn’t that be the case, after all? Their early stuff sounds like tinny, nasal little jingles to me, and the stuff near the end is for filthy long-hairs. In the middle, they at least rose to psychedelic prog-rock grandiosity that even a Peter Gabriel fan like me can appreciate.

(Sidenote: Have I mentioned Brooklyn band Cloud Room’s “Hey Now Now” may be my favorite song of the decade, speaking of grandiose yet New Wavey things? And they’re named after the Prohibition-era speakeasy that existed atop the world’s coolest skyscraper, the Chrysler Building — which is wonderful on almost every level, not just the top floor.)

I shouldn’t pretend to be immune to IMAX 3D, I should confess: Tomorrow, I’m seeing one of the fifteen-minute screenings of teaser footage from James Cameron’s December sci-fi epic Avatar with Sigourney Weaver and reportedly perfectly-realistic computer animation of an alien ecosystem at war — and Monday, I’ll finally see Up (the Disney film about the flying house, not the Russ Meyer film by the same name about huge breasts — although it’s a shame he didn’t live to complete his planned masterpiece, The Bra of God, which might have been perfectly suited to IMAX 3D).

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Tour of My Posters (plus Robert Novak and Rose Friedman, RIP)

While looking for wrapping paper last week, I ended up unfurling the posters in my closet — as a lot of ex-hippies were probably doing over the past few days to commemorate Woodstock — and realized that I am all too predictable (a Gen Xer nerd, that is, not an ex-hippie).

I’m fairly cautious in some ways, and since my heart has never been in decorating (as anyone who’s seen any of my dorm rooms or apartments over the years can attest), this list of ten posters reflects my aversion to getting anything too far off the beaten path, I suppose. It may be an exhaustive list of all the posters I’ve ever owned, actually (aside from great poster/calendars the Phillips Foundation has sent me, mainly of old, realist paintings; one framed painting; one awesome framed animation cell of Popeye; and a few small political or DC Comics freebies I’m not counting for current psychoanalytical purposes, at the risk of looking like an ingrate — and speaking of the Phillips Foundation, we’ll toast its recently-deceased trustee Robert Novak tonight at the event described in the P.S. below):

One (1) Robby the Robot Forbidden Planet poster

One (1) Annie Leibovitz photo of David Byrne

Two (2) Superman posters (there’s a third at the office, actually, along with a Commerce Bank print of a 1905 photo of Times Square, a picture of Milton Friedman, and another of the Washington Monument called “Pinnacle of Freedom,” not that I’m necessarily endorsing publicly-funded monuments)

One (1) blown-up copy of a panel from the first Justice League comic book story I had published (thanks to Ali Kokmen, Scott Nybakken, and Michael Malice, I also own pages of original art from another one of my stories and from an issue of the series Action Philosophers)

One (1) Tarantino Reservoir Dogs poster

One (1) complex chart from a classical music station showing the chronological progress of all Western music over the past 600 years

One (1) “Nolan Diamond” grid marked by Brown students to show their political allegiances (mostly left-liberal), a relic from the “Liberty Awareness Week” Jacob Levy and I did as undergrads (there was no “liberaltarian” category for Jacob back then, and I don’t think I’d ever heard of paleolibertarians at the time, either — nor did anyone really care about the neo/paleo distinction on the right, all the rage with the young kids and/or the elderly these days, and the greens were really just getting revved up, if they don’t mind me using that metaphor)

One (1) collage of virtually every cartoon character there is, by Rico Fonseca

One (1) line drawing of an injured police officer (a decent man beset by criminals — or an authoritarian felled by anarchists, perhaps?)

And I once had a giant poster from Pink Floyd: The Wall with those giant marching animated hammers, but that seems to be gone, which may be just as well, since it was immense and fascist-looking (I bought it while at Brown mainly to fill as much wall space as possible with a single purchase, which is sort of meta).

Once more, we find sci-fi, music, and politics. That about covers it, so to speak, doesn’t it?

P.S. And if you’d like me to explain that “Nolan Diamond” political grid, a much-needed alternative to the left-right axis, in greater detail, just look for me at tonight’s Manhattan Project political/social gathering, second floor of Merchants NY East bar/restaurant, southwest corner of 62nd and First, from 6:30 on. One embodiment of the fusionist possibilities the chart suggests for political cross-pollination was Rose Friedman, who also passed away yesterday, I’m told, and was, like her husband Milton Friedman, revered by a broad libertarian-conservative coalition — and was, luckily, not quite as vilified by the Naomi-Klein-inspired anti-Friedman hate machine of the past couple years as Milton. We’ll drink a toast to her, too. Prince of Darkness Novak and the wife of so-called “Father of Global Misery” Friedman deserve to be fondly remembered by us all.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Woodstock, Benatar, and Blondie (4 of 4)


Everybody’s been talking about Woodstock and the 60s for the past four days of the fortieth anniversary, but as usual my brain’s been on my 80s childhood.

And much as I love the songs of Blondie, I have to admit Pat Benatar was undeniably more of a showman than Debbie Harry at last Thursday’s awesome Coney Island concert. It was also a reminder that while hard rock isn’t always as intellectually sophisticated as alternative rock, it’s far more life-affirming and crowd-pleasing.

Benatar and her bandmates sounded like they’ve been happily touring non-stop for decades and gave every song their all, with Benatar frequently (and non-annoyingly) addressing the crowd with stories and good wishes — and a dedication (I think it was “Invincible,” one of her best and source of the tour’s hybrid “Call Me Invincible” title) to our men and women overseas keeping the peace. (Note that she’s from relatively un-p.c. Long Island — not, say, Chelsea, where I heard a crowd at the movie W. boo an Army recruiting ad, causing my father, sitting next to me — who had briefly been in the Navy — to quietly but angrily declare the crowd “assholes.”)

Debbie Harry, much as I worship her, probably shouldn’t have tried following Benatar and sounded and moved just a bit as though her lawyers had reminded her she was contractually obligated to do the show. Maybe that’s the danger of the alternative rock affectation of apathy, after it becomes a habit of thirty years (by contrast, though, that solo Siouxsie performance of “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’” that I recently linked suggests Siouxsie is actually loosening up with age, getting less goth and more gung-ho).

Blondie often do cover songs for their encore, I think (judging by their performances of “Get It On (Bang a Gong)” and “Ring of Fire” at the end of one album I have), and it was a nice touch to finish this time with the late Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.”


My companion Michael Malice and I were chatting between bands (when he wasn’t making a strategically-brilliant run to his grandmother’s nearby home to use the bathroom) and discovered that he and I, before we knew each other, had both been at that unofficial, unannounced Blondie-reunion first appearance (when they returned with the single “Maria”) at Tramps (which J.R Taylor took me to, as mentioned in comments under my August 13 entry). Small alternative-rocking world.

I’m reminded again of the tribal realization I’ve had before that, for instance, despite Lou Reed’s fame, I’m probably one of only 10,000 or so people who saw his recent Berlin concert film. We are fewer and prouder than it might at first seem. (Likewise, there was a formative Dada movement event talked about for decades afterward that was held in one artist’s living room, I believe, and attended by only about fourteen people — maybe you’re making history right now and don’t realize it.)

Just to show that my alternative rock sympathies do not end at the 80s, let it be noted that tonight I’ll see the Breeders (though I’d prefer not to be one) at Bowery Ballroom along with Scott Nybakken and Richard Ryan — and I’m the proud possessor of actual Pixies tix (fun to say aloud!) for November, to boot.

But tomorrow night, it’s the monthly Manhattan Project social gathering (6:30 on, second floor of Merchants NY East, southwest corner of 62nd and First), and in the spirit of much-needed civil town hall discussion, I should assure everyone that even though Manhattan Project is meant as a haven for weary non-leftists in a left-leaning city, we don’t throw anybody out if you care to join us. Come on, people, smile on your brother.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Woodstock, Leftism for Hippies vs. Conservatism for Punks (3 of 4)


Drudge and Breitbart yesterday noted punk bands in Russia who are outspokenly anti-Putin, a valuable reminder that while punk may not be inherently conservative (I have no illusions there), it is undeniably anti-authoritarian. That will at least sometimes pit it against left-spawned leaders (as any ex-KGB man must be regarded, macho tiger-hunting and so forth notwithstanding), given how much of the world is ruled either by formerly-socialist regimes (Russia, China, in a more benign way India) or by regimes drifting toward socialism (such as the U.S., unless the Tea Parties and town hall protesters are the start of something much bigger). It takes guts to speak out against Putin after all the dead journalists who’ve littered Russia in recent years — I have journalist friend who spends a lot of time over there, a quasi-native, and would hate to see anything happen to her.

Hippies, by contrast, are undeniably creatures of the left (with some admirably libertarian impulses, of course). After decades of successive counter-culture and subculture movements (including aesthetes, flappers, zootsuiters, beatniks, hippies, punks, grunge fans, ravers, skatepunks, and — if it is now safe to use this as a specific historical label — hipsters), it’s easy to forget that the punks and hippies hated each other back in the 70s and 80s (before they sort of merged during the grunge phase and it became acceptable to have both facial piercings and tie-dyed shirts). Recall (the fictionalized) Johnny Rotten complaining about “hippie free-love bullshit” in the early minutes of Sid and Nancy.

Given the optimistic hippie belief in the power of sincere emotion to transform the whole world — and what is to my mind the more realistic, epistemologically humble, and tragic punk conviction that the world sucks and everything is bullshit — one could do worse than use hippie/punk as a dyad with which to evaluate the world. The friend who tries to convince you that going to a Landmark Forum seminar on self-empowerment will completely transform your life is more like a hippie, whereas the friend who warns you that there are always a lot of bad characters in this bar and a fight may be inevitable is more like a punk. As a guy who’s empirical first, normative second, and almost never starry-eyed optimistic, I tend to the think the second friend is more useful. Every last one of us has an obligation to keep an eye on the truth, not just believe what sounds nice or what we wish were true. Obvious negative consequences can follow from hippie-dippy wishful thinking or misplaced belief.


Of course, one should never get too caught up in any given explanatory dichotomy, even broadly-useful ones like right vs. left (my legislator friend Dan Greenberg is wary of any observation that begins with “There are two kinds of people in this world…”).

For one thing, simple dichotomies may lead to overly-sweeping generalizations (say, claiming that because so many reform efforts go badly, we should turn around and actively praise corruption, say — or in perhaps history’s most tragic example, embracing Stalinism as the only antidote to Hitler or vice versa).

Another problem with over-reliance on one dichotomy is simply that it may cause you to forget that the rest of the world isn’t carving things up according to those two categories the way you are. Certainly the right-left model tends to lead to frustrated people trying to shoehorn pre-twentieth-century American political currents into misleading models that don’t apply, for instance. Or to take a more jarring example, try telling Protestants and Catholics you’re neutral if you live in Northern Ireland, a place that sorely needs more neutrals and fewer people buying into one or the other side in the familiar schism.


Even two close acquaintances of mine whose thinking is like my own in many areas — Helen Rittelmeyer and Michael Malice (in some sense “conservative punks” in their own right) — have been a recent reminder to me that we don’t all share the same explanatory dyads. For instance, for conservatives Helen’s age, the neoconservative-vs.-paleoconservative split has become almost as important a divide as right/left — whereas Malice, a man well-informed about politics (and not just philosophy but also electoral history), surprised me when we were on our way to the Pat Benatar/Blondie concert last week (about which more tomorrow) by noting that he hadn’t been aware the neos and paleos often hate each other.

I don’t blame him for ignoring this spat and often wish I didn’t know about it myself, since for all my grousing and philosophical hairsplitting, I really would like to see broad coalitions maintained and everyone trying to get along — something that I fear is getting harder and harder for many neos, paleos, and libertarians to imagine. We’re in big trouble if, in a remarkably short time historically speaking, these groups have all fallen more in love with their own unique branding than with, oh, I don’t know, maybe, say, defeating creeping socialism, if they can spare some time for that.

Of course, the irony is that keeping people on the same page often requires, if not delusions, at least some sort of shared optimistic vision, and in a world full of despairing, pessimistic paleo types and panicked anti-immigration activists, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the right’s greatest success story, Ronald Reagan (mentioned now for the third day in a row), was profoundly optimistic — and broadly appealing to Americans (not to mention at least some people overseas) because of it. Recall, if you will, the final paragraph of his final in-office speech, which sounds as optimistic as Star Trek compared to the dark, cautious, protectionist visions of some more recent conservatives:

I’ve spoken of the shining city [on a hill -- that is, America] all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still.

Of course, Reagan lived in California and even expressed sympathy for pot-smoking, so maybe he wasn’t so unlike the hippies after all. We’re all Americans.


In any case, optimism tends to win in the end, at least in America, despite the way intellectuals of both right and left often seem to envy Europe’s sense of tragedy and pessimism. Pure pessimism is no way to build the future or keep people from turning, frightened, to government — and much as I love the current anti-Obama anger, something more appealing has to rise up to give the free-market coalition forward momentum.

And now, at the risk of sounding like I’ve dialectically refuted my opening anti-hippie statements, I’d love it if someday soon I can look back and say my life has spanned educational, useful ten-year anniversaries in the history of optimism — Woodstock (1969), Thatcher’s election (1979), the collapse of Communism (1989), the climax of the tech boom with its Matrix-like expectations for tomorrow (1999), and whatever comes out of the Tea Parties and town halls (2009), which may for starters have stopped socialized medicine in its tracks. History reminds us of the limits of what is possible but also shows astonishing evidence of how much the hopeful can achieve, I suppose, and it’s foolish and stunting to ignore either.

One final vaguely-Woodstock-related thought tomorrow.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Woodstock, Babies, Guitars, Republicans (2 of 4)


I was born just six days before Woodstock — though why anyone would want kids remains baffling, life being difficult enough as it is without having parasitic, ignorant dwarves* attached to oneself (and not just in the metaphorical sense of having to pay taxes to subsidize the homeless and the investment bankers).

Still, it’s nice to see anyone who does have extra mouths to feed doing well, and since Daniel Radosh’s third child is on the way, it’s a good time for him to be hired as a writer for the Daily Show (a perfect choice on their part) and for him to have the New York Times Magazine cover story today, about the making of the new Beatles version of the game Rock Band.

Disturbing as it may be to some to see guitar-playing turned into an electronic-pantomime activity for the unskilled — akin to karaoke — I think the electric guitar rock traditions bequeathed to us in part by Les Paul (who passed away on Thursday) are strong, varied, rich, and broad enough to have space for this curious, dilettantish niche, just as Mt. Everest and indoor rock-climbing walls each have their place (or Grandma’s recipes and a cookie from Starbucks).

But then, I’m a tolerant, diversity-loving sort of guy (like Ronald Reagan) — and more so, in many ways, than some of the people who most think of themselves as heirs to the spirit of Woodstock. Witness not only some of the thuggish 60s incidents recounted in the previously-mentioned Politically Incorrect Guide to the Sixties by Jonathan Leaf but also the anecdotes about socializing with liberals in City Journal contributing editor Harry Stein’s recent book, I Can’t Believe I’m Sitting Next to a Republican.

But for all the griping each of our two major political factions can do about the other side not being nice to them, it’s also worth pausing every once in a while, in this hypersensitive, don’t-marginalize-me, the-senator-said-a-bad-word culture to remember that the real argument against the other side’s positions should not be that they are shrill, too often heard, or arrogantly delivered but that they are wrong. When their positions aren’t wrong, in fact, you should strongly consider adopting them (an early indicator that the Gingrich “revolutionaries” had little interest in actually changing things was when they began whining all the time about Clinton “stealing” their positions, as if they were trying to hold onto the secret formula for Coke, not persuade a nation). The intolerant-rhetoric stuff is mostly etiquette, not policy. Stay focused, people.

*Spelling note: “Dwarves” is a Tolkienism, by which I mean I assume the dwarves are black.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Woodstock, Reagan, and the Decline of Standards (1 of 4)

I only recently watched Shattered Glass with Helen, and there’s a scene that makes Marty Peretz look like an ogre for making The New Republic staff go through the magazine marking comma errors, since he denounced it as “rife with comma errors,” telling them commas, when offsetting some subordinate idea in mid-sentence, should come in pairs.

Well, today is day one of the four-day fortieth anniversary of Woodstock, but rather than dressing like a hippie or reading a liberal magazine, this morning I read a short book of The Wit & Wisdom of Ronald Reagan edited by James C. Humes (quite comforting — we actually had a funny, impassioned, [Goldwaterite-]principled conservative president, lest we forget), and the one flaw in my enjoyment was a negative quote about him that had a jarring (to an editor’s eye) comma error in it:

“Ronald Reagan is an ignoramus, a conscious and persistent falsifier of fact, a deceiver of the electorate, and, one suspects of himself.”

Plainly, there should be a comma after “one suspects,” and only after noting that with some annoyance did I see that the quote was credited to “John Osborne, New Republic writer.”  Maybe Peretz wasn’t so crazy.

P.S. I noticed the other day that typing into my browser was causing a split-second redirect to — further evidence for my theory that Canada is somehow tied to all things squishy and moderate?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Every (Five-Legged Coney Island Freak) Dog Shall Have Its Day (in Court)

I came back from Coney Island intact after last night’s concert, but after his own departure from Coney Island, this poor dog now has as many owners and would-be protectors pulling at it as it has limbs.

If I haven’t said so before, by the way, one thing I find fascinating about modern freak shows and sideshows is how much their tone (in many cases) has fused with anarchism. Once the realm of strongmen and gypsy mystics, the sideshows lately seem dominated by tattooed, risk-taking young folk who you could easily imagine might otherwise have formed a punk band — the slightly more dangerous analogues of the Weimar-toned burlesque performers who seem to be all over NYC in recent years, ostensibly promoting a sort of judgment-free, pro-bisexual Third Wave feminism by showing their tatas while being ever so slightly fat, cynical, or drug-addled, as if any of that’s going to make a man stop highly prioritizing the tatas and corsets.

A few years ago, I saw the Coney Island sideshow performers, the s&m-like but comedic Bindlestiff Family Circus (including the truly amazing bullwhip-work of Philomena Bindlestiff — and the complete destruction of a teddy bear by a skilled knife-thrower), something more arty and European along the same lines that I can’t quite remember the name of that was put on down at South Street Seaport, and the Jackass-like Circus Apocalypse (opening for a Church of the Sub-Genius “devival” meeting) with a clever but alarming bit in which a man’s piercings-lipholes were used to create the illusion his mouth was being spontaneously sewn shut by his co-performer. They are all, I can safely say, a bit scary — but then, I always loved it when the carnival came to the Norwich, CT area when I was a kid.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

80s on the Beach, Leaf on the 60s

debbie-harry.jpg VS. peace-sign.gif

Tonight brings a free Pat Benatar/Debbie Harry concert at Coney Island, so I assume you’re going.  In other 80s news, I bought a DVD of Krush Groove the other day, admittedly largely because the lovely Sheila E is in it, but it also inspired me to look up whether Run-DMC member Jam-Master Jay’s killers had been caught (sort of), which in turn led me to realize that one can spend a long, depressing time on Wikipedia just following links to all the hiphop folk who have apparently tried to kill each other at one time or another.  Not all rappers are as harmless as Bert and Ernie.

(I, of course, am more of a New Wave guy — and tempted to buy the CD 80s Hits Stripped!, containing such acoustic wonders as a live version of “Metro” by Berlin.  My own first New Wave album would be entitled I Am Unmanned: Like a Space Mission, and my later, less popular techno band will be called Hypnopatamus.)

Those tempted to think the 1960s was a better decade might want to consider reading Jonathan Leaf’s disillusioning book Politically Incorrect Guide to the Sixties, just out this week (he also happens to the be the conservative playwright I mentioned in an earlier entry who lives near a Manhattan block notorious for weekly confrontations between cops behind little barricades and drunk kids, albeit far more sedate ones than the oft-violent but rosily-recalled 60s saw).

My parents, neither hippies nor (at least back in the day) conservatives, once casually told me something that forever altered my perception of the 60s — and contributed substantially to my general suspicion of powerful media narratives: They said that for most people (and most people were never hippies, no matter what the documentaries might suggest), the 60s was a rather frightening time marked by riots and massive urban fires caused by arsonists.  That doesn’t mean they think nothing good happened then,  but it’s worth remembering it wasn’t all incense and peppermint.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Pee-wee, Fall Guy, and Class Warrior

It is an odd coincidence, in a way, that I have just today learned that Pee-wee Herman and his entire TV show cast of characters are headed back to the stage for live shows in L.A. — while learning very recently that Heather Thomas, one of the two fabulous babes from Fall Guy (the other being Markie Post, also seen on Night Court), later went on to write forty screenplays, selling only one — called School Slut — which was never produced (sadly).

I say it is a coincidence because if you combine Pee-wee Herman and pin-up girl Thomas, you sort of get multimedia comedy sensation Jen Dziura, who performed her one-woman show about What Philosophy Majors Do After College this past Friday, as fellow theatre-goer Michel Evanchik and I witnessed.

SPORTS SECTION: After the performance, Michel talked me into watching baseball, despite my complete lack of knowledge about sports, and it ended up being the game in which the Yankees beat the Red Sox — apparently a rival sporting franchise — with the game’s only run, after fifteen innings. My games-watched to games-worth-recounting ratio is thus pretty solid. With luck, this will enable me to go through another decade or so of conversations with the masses without having to watch another game.

And if my sports section sounded a bit elitist, it may be because I am a product of the Ivy League. Or at least, a huge element of Jen’s show was coping as a rural poor kid from the South with immersion in the upper-crusty Ivy League (Dartmouth in her case, but not so different a setting from Yale, where North Carolinian Helen went, or Brown, where I went, albeit from nearby rural Connecticut). The performance was a great, funny blend of autobiography, class analysis, and a capsule history of Western philosophy, which happens to have been my major as well. Here’s hoping Jen is able to take it on the road to colleges (and philosophy majors) across the land, including the targeted Ivies.

And as if Heather Thomas weren’t enough 80s iconography for one week, tomorrow I’m off to Coney Island to see Pat Benatar and Debbie Harry (plus the Donnas) in a free concert, along with fellow 80s buff Michael Malice, whose off-the-record social gatherings for media folk New York Times recently declared the cure to Twitter (whereas the Manhattan Project gatherings for right-of-center folk mentioned in my right margin are only the cure to, like, the DailyKos).

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Media Bailout?

You hear occasional talk of some of the “stimulus” spending being used to shore up faltering old-media organizations (as Saif Ammous reminds me), an idea that should be considered alarming. If, say, Bloomberg succeeded in steering a billion dollars of government money to the New York Times, do we really believe there’d be no risk of it affecting their coverage of him? (It’s bad enough they have to keep in mind he’s mayor — or that, say, Disney and the governor of Florida are aware of their mutual dependence.)

Free speech in an ostensibly-intelligent society must never depend upon the capacity of the written-about to legally humiliate or control the writers.

Compounding the injustice if old media got bailout money, of course, is the fact that they suck. Take, for example, the recent controversy over the Times’ hilarious bungling of (ACSH associate) Walter Cronkite’s obituary, complete with nigh-parodic errors such as getting the dates of the MLK assassination and moon landing wrong, along with the assertion Cronkite stormed the beach at Normandy. The Times’ own (admittedly great) article about the fiasco also happens to feature a cameo by gruff but lovable editor Sam Sifton, who is not only the grandson of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr but was my editor at New York Press over a decade ago, so you might want to be worried about my training and background, too — trust no one (and be suspicious of things like a supposedly objective news organization like Reuters inviting its readers to join their crusade against global warming).

Perhaps more important, don’t allow the government to bribe these institutions (private institutions bribing politicians when necessary, to get the politicians out of the way, I actually have a great deal of sympathy for, but not the other way around).

On a related note, I often recall a completely bland-sounding summary I once read of an American sociology text, described as being intended to clear up a “misunderstanding” some Americans have about the press. We sometimes think the press in the U.S. is “free” and the press in many foreign countries “unfree.” In fact, the book endeavored to explain, these other countries simply believe that journalists must be licensed and approved by the government before they are allowed to publish, a simple case of equally free peoples using the term “free” differently. This is, of course, Chinese-level sophistry and nihilistic cultural relativism to boot, but perhaps the publishers of that book will nonetheless get some bailout money.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Sparks, Siouxsie, and Weird Al


I stuck a pic of the MTV astronaut on yesterday’s entry, which shouldn’t strike anyone as too odd.  Not only is it an obvious symbol of Gen X solidarity, it’s also sort of sci-fi + rock + capitalism + science all at the same time, not a bad summary of the good things in life mentioned yesterday.

And while we’re contemplating the rock of ages, here’s a Sparks song, complete with Darkness-like falsetto, in the mid-70s — “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” — and here’s the same song being covered in the mid-80s by Siouxsie and the Banshees.

That’s just one of many great covers on the Siouxsie album Through the Looking Glass, on which she proves, I think, that she can do songs by several bands better than the originals, including Roxy Music, Iggy Pop, and the Doors.  If it were “fair” to count a covers album, it might be my favorite album.  (But does anyone do the Doors as well as Weird Al with his “CraigsList” parody, especially the part about the styrofoam peanuts?)

It’s probably for the best that this recent live cover Siouxsie did (solo) of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’” isn’t on Through the Looking Glass, but you might enjoy it, too.  It’s better than the Fixx’s odd cover of that song from the bizarre When Pigs Fly covers compilation, much as I love the Fixx.

And finally, to remind us of Michael Jackson’s far-flung influence on the culture: “Fashion Zombies” and “Super-Rad.”

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Retro-Journal, Condensed Version


Before meeting me DOWNSTAIRS at Doc Waton’s at 11:30am today for birthday brunch, you might want a quick recap of my life’s four rich decades, just so you’re up to speed:

•1970s: sci-fi

•1980s: alternative rock

•1990s: libertarianism

•00s: scientific skepticism, debate


1. Time well spent?

2. Next step?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Seasteading, Bus-Riding, and a Pedestrian Thought

At last night’s seasteading meet-up and the previous night’s speech on the topic, I thought the most reassuring phrase used was “cruise ship,” since that’s a model for cityscale floating life that most people — even the elderly — can get onboard with, so to speak (and speaking of the elderly, remember I’m celebrating my fortieth birthday tomorrow at Doc Watson’s at 11:30am, if you’re interested in brunch or a very early drink).

I took a less glamorous but highly useful means of travel, the Vamoose bus, to go from DC to NYC this past Sunday, and after they moved us onto a second bus mid-trip due to mechanical problems, I was surprised to find the occupants in the second bus in the midst of watching (and hearing, without any headphones being necessary) the recent movie Crossing Over (about border police and immigration issues), complete with swearing, racial conflict, multiple convincingly-depicted deaths-by-headshot, and all-but-genitals sex (followed abruptly by deaths-by-headshot).

Unless we were interlopers on a bus full of people who (unlike us) had been forewarned about the graphic entertainment, that was a strange thing to foist on one’s passengers. Luckily, I was able to use my powers of social atomism to hunker down in a book about property rights in America called In Pursuit of Happiness while listening to my iPod. Bus-borne society will have to fend for itself.

But if one wanted to simply walk between cities, I wonder, how difficult would that be to do nowadays? I mean, assuming you didn’t care about the time spent or the provisions needed, could it even be done without having to race across a highway on foot at some point? Can you simply walk, with at least as much comfort as a hiker in the woods feels, from, say, New York City to Boston in 2009 without at some point having someone scream “Get offa da off-ramp, ya stupid idiot!”? How complete is the grid?

One last thing about the seasteading speech: There were people in attendance from Sealand, the offshore platform near England that declared itself a sovereign nation decades ago amid squabbles with the British government over pirate radio broadcasts (those squabbles being the topic of this month’s the November movie The Boat That Rocked, which I may have to see despite being warned that it transposes political parties to make Tory pols look like the only ones who wanted to shut down pirate radio — can’t have leftists and Labour looking authoritarian, after all — might confuse the kids!). I just love that these things are all connected.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Demon-Fetus Movies and More

embryo.jpg ferrante.jpg

Tonight at 7: a seasteading meet-up at Gossip (more on that topic tomorrow, most likely).

Tonight at 9:30: Jen Dziura, recovered from food poisoning and doing comedy at People’s Theatre (154 W. 29, 2nd floor).

I’ll attend both, getting a dash of seafaring politics and comedy-philosophy — but let’s get back to Native American mysticism for a moment, alluded to in Wednesday’s first entry.

I don’t know if it portends the end of the world, but Dave Whitney mentioned the existence of the terrible-sounding horror movie The Suckling (about a monstrous aborted fetus running amok), which in turn reminded me of the 70s thriller The Manitou, about a woman who checks into the hospital with what appears to be a tumor, which turns out to be an evil Native American spirit-fetus eager to be born into our world (a health fear).

Somewhat classier — and even more disturbing to my young mind — was the thriller The Demon Seed (parodied on a Simpsons Halloween episode) about a mechanized house that imprisons the woman who lives there, while her husband’s away, and eventually figures out how to impregnate her, giving birth to a house/human cyborg (I watched this at about 1am one night, having no idea what I was in for, and it was quite creepy).

Only days ago did I learn that popular (libertarian) master-hack Dean Koontz wrote the original novel, from the woman’s perspective, and two decades later, rewrote it from the house’s perspective.  But what’s really weird is that just two days ago I then discovered, upon walking into Barnes & Noble, that the new edition of that later version of the novel has just been released, with an afterword from Koontz about the moviemaking experience — and a final line about real-life governments being even creepier.

In a further coincidence, I was in Barnes & Noble in the first place buying one final gift for the thirteenth birthday of the only child I’ve been buying presents for, the first child born of any of my college pals.  I figured I’d treat him as unique to avoid going broke buying gifts for everyone — and by cutting him off at age thirteen, I not only commemorate the transition to manhood in the traditions of (one quarter of) his ancestors, I get out of this gift-giving pattern before his four year-old sister notices I’m not giving her anything.

The lad in question has good taste, I think, since he recommended to his dad this video of Coach Z rapping — and his dad noted it reminded him of this new piece from the Onion I enjoyed.  The kid also shares my birth-month, and remember that you can celebrate it with me this Sunday, August 9, at Doc Watson’s at 11:30am.

I hope and expect to see many more years — and I do not expect the imminent end of the world, but I gotta say, there’s something weird going on with the dragonflies in Manhattan, which seem to be getting as big as Twinkies and occasionally thudding loudly against my office window.  I almost suspect that some dragonfly-gigantism gene suppressed since prehistoric times may be reasserting itself.  Certainly, the size of these beasts makes it easier to believe their ancestors had two-foot wingspans.

Perhaps to really observe the evolution of the dragonflies, I should pay for one of the meditative “time travel” sessions my very New Agey acquaintance Diana Ferrante is offering, which she now offers over the phone to save time — but then, if you can do time travel — well, best not to think about it too much, to paraphrase the second Austin Powers movie.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Start a New Country Up

As it happens, Patri Friedman — the man I’m going to hear speak at 7:30 tonight at the New York Junto (20 W. 44th St.) — has sparred a bit on the Cato Institute’s website with the man I endorsed for Arkansas state senate (and president) in my Book Selections blog entry on Tuesday, Dan Greenberg.

Each man is part of an ideological dynasty and is in some sense trying to be the family member who puts ideas into practice. Dan Greenberg is the son of conservative columnist Paul Greenberg, who helped popularize the Clinton nickname “Slick Willie” — and Dan’s trying to promote freedom by being a fiscally-sane member of the Arkansas legislature. Patri Friedman is the grandson of Nobel-winning libertarian economist Milton Friedman (lately maliciously misrepresented in the writings of vicious economic crank Naomi Klein as a villain and in a resultant campaign of stickers and posters as the “father of global misery”) and the son of even more libertarian (technically anarcho-capitalist, like me) economics writer David Friedman.

Whereas granddad Milton is associated with Chicago and father David with anarchic medieval Iceland, grandson Patri is now associated with, of all things, artificial islands — for it is only there, he has reluctantly concluded, that freedom from governments is likely to be found (and he has little patience for people like Dan who are still trying to do things the old-fashioned, electoral way). That’s what he’ll speak about tonight — and during the early-October “Ephemerisle” gathering in San Francisco Bay that Helen and I might just attend. (Brian Doherty did a great overview of this so-called “seasteading” movement in Reason.)

You might think it surprising that my somewhat paleo-leaning girlfriend would be sympathetic to something as unconventional and untraditional as newly-built countries — but then, Patri Friedman, surprisingly, is himself a paleoconservative in addition to a radically tech-loving libertarian. Tonight, maybe someone will ask him how he reconciles those tendencies.

Some more wiseass questions that will likely not be raised but would be funny include:

•Didn’t Aquaman’s defeat of the villain Black Manta, who claimed to lead a movement of black men seeking to live freely in the ocean, prove the futility of this gambit (even if DC Comics later rewrote history to suggest Black Manta was merely feigning interest in that cause, once more deferring the dreams of the black man)?

•If Gilligan destroys the radio made out of coconuts that is used to communicate between the artificial islands, how would he be punished in an anarcho-capitalist system?

•And, as my friend Nick Slepko wonders, when will Indonesia start trying to tax Singapore for all the highly-valuable land Singapore has built out of piles of garbage shipped over from Indonesia?

The more practical questions I leave to the engineers, and at the Junto, there will likely be some.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Good and Bad UFO News

Jen Dziura has the flu [UPDATE: food poisoning, it now appears -- though she still hopes to perform at the People's Theatre 9:30pm Friday], I just learned this evening — but fear not, those of you planning to attend our Debate at Lolita Bar (8pm at 266 Broome St. at Allen St., one block south of Delancey on the Lower East Side):
Arguing against the existence of extraterrestrials (and against MUFON rep Lillian Waters) will be last-minute fill-in CHRIS RUSSO (one of the recently-arrested NJ hoaxers), with late-arrival cameo by his co-hoaxer and fellow skeptic Joe Rudy. Should be good. Sorry about the change (and my thanks to Center for Inquiry’s Mike De Dora for finding the substitute double-fast).

Tonight -- and 2012


Tonight’s our UFO debate (and, as explained at that link, remember that you can also catch debater Jen’s philosophy-themed comedy performance two days from now — not to mention my birthday on Sunday).

I trust that no matter how strange the debate gets, it will make more sense than this video alleging that sparking an invasion from space by the Anti-Christ is the true purpose of the Large Hadron Collider.  Then again, with NYT reporting that the damn Collider still doesn’t work (way to go, government-funded science!), maybe it deserves to be attacked by the Anti-Christ.

The oddest part of that video, by the way, is the sincere-sounding way that the man asks at the end whether he’s committed any flaws in reasoning.  He also mentions a mythical planet, the name of which I keep mixing up with Naboo from Star Wars, that some people, inspired by the finite Mayan calendar, fear will cause the end of the world in 2012, an idea that has in turn inspired a film called 2012 by Roland Emmerich, coming out in a few months (which will give him at least two years to spend the profits).  I hope it’s at least as entertaining as that guy’s YouTube clip about the Anti-Christ.

The actual year 2012 should be an interesting test of the strength of multiple threads of our culture, since (a) mystics will have loudly predicted the end of the world, (b) greens will be clamoring for a renewal of the expiring Kyoto Treaty lest the planet catch on fire or whatever, (c) a socialistic/left-liberal U.S. president (who even some libertarians apparently voted for, to their eternal disgrace) will be up for reelection, and (d) about three major sci-fi or fantasy film franchises happen to be scheduled to reach their climaxes.  Maybe all of these trends will end then, which really would yield a different world.

Speaking of political change, Roland Emmerich isn’t the only one thinking about saving the world with giant sea-arks: As I’ll explain in more detail tomorrow morning, you can join me to hear a speech tomorrow night by Patri Friedman about “seasteading” (building artificial islands to escape government) at the New York Junto.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Book Selection of the Month (Special): Dan Greenberg Picks 25 Great Sci-Fi Stories (and Dawn)


Normally, each month I write an entry describing at least one interesting book (or short story) I read. Back at the start of 2009, I said this year would be all sci-fi and fantasy (and I said not to make any recommendations, since I didn’t want to be swamped or guilt-tripped into reading 600 things, but one man could not be deterred). I’ve ended up expanding the sci-fi mandate somewhat to cover things like utopian thinking (coming up in October) and Muppets (back in April), but to compensate, this month I’m turning the reins over to someone who’s stayed more focused on the stated task: Arkansas state representative — and now state senate candidate — Dan Greenberg.

Having known Dan for two decades, I can honestly say we’d be vastly better off if he were president, never mind Arkansas state senator, but let’s set aside speculation about his political future for a moment and see what you think of twenty-five of his choices for great (mostly short) works of speculative fiction (in no particular order):

1. Charles Stross’s “A Colder War”

2. Cordwainer Smith’s “The Game of Rat and Dragon”

3. Dan Simmons’ “The River Styx Runs Upstream”

4. Damon Knight’s “What Rough Beast”

5. Lewis Padgett’s (Kuttner and Moore) “Mimsy Were the Borogoves”

6-7. Cyril Kornbluth’s “The Little Black Bag” and “The Rocket of 1955″

8. William Powers’ “Allegory”

9-12. William Tenn “Child’s Play,” “The Brooklyn Project,” “Winthrop Was Stubborn,” and “The Liberation of Earth”

13. Philip Jose Farmer’s “Sketches Among the Ruins of My Mind”

14. Brian Aldiss’s “The Failed Men”

15-21. Robert Sheckley’s “Ticket to Tranai,” “Pilgrimage to Earth,” “The Academy,” “Sneak Previews,” “The Laxian Key,” “The Language of Love,” and “Zirn Left Unguarded, the Jenghik Palace in Flames, Jon Westerly Dead”

22. Thomas Disch’s “Casablanca”

23. Ray Bradbury’s “Sound of Thunder”

24. James Tiptree Jr.’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”

25. Ted Chiang’s “Understand”

And as a bonus, let me note that Dawn Eden points out the existence of sci-fi-writing Catholic John C. Wright and even points me to a video interview with him about his conversion from atheism.

Someone should write a sci-fi story about the cosmic balance governing the lives of my ex-girlfriends and girlfriend, since I see that whereas girlfriend Helen, as noted yesterday, has resumed blogging, Dawn has recently gone on a possibly-permanent blogging hiatus (as she notes at the link above), but you can inquire via the e-address noted in the left margin of her site if you want to know what her new personal and professional projects are.

Am I going to read all the above, you ask? Well, I’m sure it’s all wonderful, but time being limited, I will instead make only this promise: I will include a novel by the prolific Mr. Sheckley (see items 15-21 — not to be confused with the pro-life-ic John C. Wright) called The Status Civilization among my October utopia-themed Book Selections. Up next month, though, it’s The Gate of Time by Philip Jose Farmer.

And what do those two books have in common? The generous Michel Evanchik gave me copies of both as gifts. And to see how he handles a debate about extraterrestrials, remember to join us tomorrow at Lolita Bar.

Monday, August 3, 2009

DEBATE AT LOLITA BAR: Have We Ever Been Visited by Extraterrestrials? (and Helen)


Wed., August 5 (8pm): “Have We Ever Been Visited by Extraterrestrials?” with:

Writer, MUFON investigator, and UFO discussion leader Lillian Waters arguing yes.

Skeptic and philosopher-comedienne (see her perform just two nights after our debate) Jen Dziura arguing no [UPDATE: Jen had food poisoning and was replaced by New Jersey UFO hoaxer extraordinaire Chris Russo, who did a fine last-minute replacement job and was recruited by Center for Inquiry head Mike De Dora].

Hosted by Todd Seavey and moderated by Michel Evanchik.

Free admission, cash bar. Basement level of Lolita Bar at 266 Broome St. at the corner of Allen St. on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, one block south and three west of the Delancey St. F, J, M, Z subway stop.

Not only does this year mark forty years of my existence (which I’ll celebrate on Sunday, August 9, at 11:30am at the bar/restaurant Doc Watson’s on Second Ave. near 78th St., if you care to join me), it marks forty years of MUFON (the Mutual UFO Network) — but do they have anything to show for it? We’ll find out at this Wednesday’s debate, which is the first of three “conspiracy”-themed Debates at Lolita Bar, before we return to just our usual level of controversy and monthly strangeness, such as arguing about public policy.

Of course, even the UFO issue has political implications. Jaime Sneider and Katherine Mangu-Ward were the first to alert me to New Jersey UFO hoaxers being punished earlier this year. They could be a debate topic unto themselves: malicious jerks? Skeptics setting (as they say they intended) a valuable example of how easily believers can be duped? Troublemakers unfairly tarring all who report siting strange things in the sky? [CLARIFICATIONS: I meant "sighting," but it kind of works either way, doesn't it? And I'm asking whether the hoaxers should be seen as malicious jerks, of course, not Jaime Sneider and Katherine Mangu-Ward.]

And if that’s not political enough for you, note the rise of “exopolitics,” which is, yes, the political philosophy that weighs how to interact with extraterrestrials and their already-earthbound agents, if any. As noted by the Washington Post, some people think Eisenhower already had to deal with this problem.

HOWEVER: If you prefer slightly more earthbound political insights, let me add that my lovely girlfriend, Helen Rittelmeyer, has resumed blogging after a summer focusing on interning at American Spectator. On the downside, now she could use another long-term gig (preferably back here in NYC!), so let me know if you have a use for a politically- , historically-, theologically-informed recent Yale alum who writes, edits, and researches like a superhuman — or perhaps a human-alien hybrid. Hey, wait a second…

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Turn, Turn (Forty and Skeptical)

I recall conversations — and in some cases as-yet-unfulfilled plans — from college as though they happened yesterday, but somehow I’m turning forty one week from today (it’ll happen to you!).

•You may as well join in me in taking over the bar-restaurant Doc Watson’s that day, Sunday, August 9, 2009, at 11:30am, just by force of numbers and forming a loose brunchal birthday coalition.

And/or catch me at two other spots before that, which, come to think of it, will be a bit like retracing my steps in life:

•This Wednesday (August 5, at 8pm) our Debate at Lolita Bar will be on “Have We Ever Been Visited by Extraterrestrials?” — and like debater Lillian Waters (and a lot of people) I thought in childhood that the answer was surely yes, but I confess to turning skeptic — about everything paranormal or supernatural — as a teen (leading eventually to my science-promoting current job at ACSH)…

•…and refining that skepticism as a philosophy major, not unlike skeptical debater Jen Dziura, whose Friday (August 7, 9:30pm) one-woman comedy show about What Philosophy Majors Do After College I’ll also see this week.

I’ll remain civil and balanced as debate host, though — and a good skeptic (or philosophy major or science promoter) should always be willing to be persuaded by evidence.

And in any case, whereas in my youth I was more prone to think a handful of my philosophical opponents were crazy, I lean more and more as I (rapidly) age toward the highly tolerant and highly misanthropic opinion that virtually everyone is crazy, just in different ways.  At different points in my life, I kept thinking my opinion of humanity and the world couldn’t get any lower — yet it always does, sooner or later, and somehow I become, if anything, more happy and tolerant, I think (which is not to say I don’t find myself increasingly sick of politics, music, genre fiction, the scientific establishment, idiots, intellectuals, and common social behavior as I complete four decades).

Heck, if all goes according to plan, today I’ll probably end another weekend in DC (after a pundity party last night) with a lunch featuring my Catholic girlfriend, Helen Rittelmeyer, her Unitarian Universalist dad, and her atheist mom and me.  We can’t all be right (and thanks to everyone who responded to our appeal for a new Helen gig — some short-term work came of it, but a long-term gig for the writing, editing, and researching genius — especially in politics or history, and especially if located back in NYC — would be extremely helpful).

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Evolution Revisited, Ethics Considered (plus Cranshaw, the Anniversary Ape)


As mentioned in my July 28 entry, Diana Fleischman is soon off to London and India, studying hygiene practices — but she’s also an evolutionary psychology expert, so it seems to me that this month is the perfect time for her to make the trek to the annual Burning Man art festival, while she’s still in nearby Texas, not simply because Burning Man always attracts people fascinated by sexual strategies but because “Evolution” (last I heard) was intended to be the explicit theme this year.

Of course, you just know the wackos (much as we love them) of Burning Man will interpret “evolution” in some bizarre, quasi-mystical way more akin to theosophy (a roughly century-old religion involving Progress and UFOs) than to Darwinian theory — and maybe all those people should also attend our debate next week on extraterrestrials, come to think of it.

But for a dose of more science-based evolutionary thinking — with no shortage of moral and social theorizing (not all of which I necessarily endorse) — you might take note of this mass-e-mailed recommendation from Diana:

This is a really fascinating conversation between Singer and Dawkins about what it means to be human, the definition of sentience, the ethical considerations involved in suffering, the evolution of moral feelings, and how Darwin paved the way for breaking down the distinction between human and animal — touching on animal research, slavery, and disgust and morality.  They even talk about cannibalism (one of my favorite topics).

From the religious in this country to even some people who are merely “spiritual,” there is a distrust of atheists because they see no moral guidelines that we follow and do not understand how moral guidelines are derived from rationality.  That’s why I think Singer (and others, like Austin Dacey) are on the right track in asking the secular community, “How are we to live?”

Me, I’m inclined to think evolution is only relevant to ethics in the way that economics is — which is to say, very, but it only tells us what is possible and likely, not in the end what we should do.  For that, you need utilitarianism, of course, but that’s a whole different topic (and not necessarily one on which Peter Singer should be assumed to have the final word, utilitarian though he is).

P.S. Helen reminds me it has been almost exactly twenty years since then-Harvard-undergrad Eric Kaplan was a Spy intern, around which time, along with Brown’s Andrew Clateman, he co-wrote Harvard Lampoon’s Time parody, which included one piece I particularly loved, the almost proto-Onion photospread depicting a man-on-the-street q & a with the very wise Cranshaw the Anniversary Ape, a chimpanzee with the accumulated wisdom of all of time, who cannot be stymied even if asked how he would survive being the leader of an ancient empire that worships the bee, beset by external enemies and internal dissent.

I believe the chimp, clad in sci-fi-esque silver shorts, at one point utters the sentence “These compounded difficulties suggest a felicitous solution,” which always brings a touch of class to even the most unevolved proceedings and somehow sticks with me years later.