Friday, March 31, 2006

A tortured rationalization for hanging out online

All day today I've been feeling tired and sick. I've been really unproductive. But just now, i got involved in an argument at Unfogged, and now I feel energized! I'm going to do some grading!

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Further thoughts on the Anne Lamott revolution

It occurs to me that some people might find sentiments like this:
In this revolution, there will not be any positions except kindness, and libraries. We will not even have a battle cry, as that can lead to chanting, and haranguing: Hey, hey, ho, ho, all that chanting's got to go! We would simply look one another in the eyes, shake our heads, and say, "This just can't be right." We will not try to figure out what it all means: Iraq, Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Terri Schiavo, abortion rights, the Downing Street Memo, domestic spying, immigration, the Kyoto Accords, the Geneva Connections, Tom DeLay -- none of it. We all know what kindness means, and I think we can all agree that libraries are sacred, and our revolution will decree that we will fight tooth and nail for these things, politely.
represent a willful and dangerous naïveté. No movement can get by without serious policy analysis, anger, and a willingness to offend. And in a way that’s right, but if you are going to make a mistake in your social movement, I would rather err on the side of niceness. Think about the opposite mistake. One way of understanding what’s wrong with the ANSWER coalition is that they have a critique of empire without a critique of violence. They see the wrong of American imperialism, but, addicted to power themselves, can only envision replacing it with another violent regime. (The other way of looking at what’s wrong with the ANSWER coalition is that they are a bunch of Maoist douchebags.) Given the choice between Lamont’s attending nicey nicey event, and working with Ramsey Clark, I will choose the nicey nicies every time. The more radical the social change you want to institute, the more high minded you have to be about your means. The justification for this principle--lets call it the principle of revolutionary niceness--is the same as the justification for extra caution in big public work projects like dams or bridges. The principle of revolutionary niceness is also the exact opposite of the attitude endorsed by most revolutionaries, which is why so many revolutions wind up like the Cultural Revolution or the Reign of Terror.

Final note: I see there is an old article by Michael Berube online about working with ANSWER. I will have to check that out.

Revolutionary Niceness

Professional Soccer Mom Anne Lamott calls for the left to unite and take serious action against the government:
I think we should lay down our differences, and have a revolution. I am wondering if July 14 works for everyone.
She has some strong arguments too:
Good people who have watched their country's leaders skid so far to the triumphal right would have to do something. I mean, wouldn't they? Am I crazy? Otherwise, those people's children will ask them someday, when we are all living in caves, "What did you do to try and save us?" And the children will be so angry, and they are so awful and unpleasant when they are mad, even in the dark.
I think there is a workable plan here.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Ethnic Cleansing in Iraq

I heard Aaron Schachter, the host of the PRI/BBC radio show The World, refer to the current sectarian violence in Baghdad as "ethnic cleansing" (the remark should be achieved here.) The NYT correspondent he was talking to corrected him, and said it should be called "sectarian cleansing" since all of the participants are ethnically Arab.

I vote we continue to use the phrase "ethnic cleansing" on the grounds that it is more important for our terminology to accurately reflect the enormity of the situation by reminding us of past war crimes than it is to remember whether the Sunni and Shi’a in Baghdad are both Arab. I just hope that we don’t have to start bringing in other fun terminology like “genocide.”

In other senseless violence news, I was wrong when I said that the continued US presence in Iraq amounted to siding with the Shi’a in a civil war, since the Shi’a lead the government. It now appears that we are demanding that the Shi’a leader, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, step down because of the violence against Sunnis and have even conducted a raid on a building that was at least in part a headquarters for al-Jaafari’s political party (via comments in Unfogged). So we are not siding with the Shi’a. We actually have no allies in Iraq at all. Yippee. But the real fun is in the description of the scene after the raid: "A reporter visiting the mosque on Monday saw blood stains in rooms and on rugs that had been hauled into the courtyard, bullet-pocked walls and even a chunk of human brain in a pool of blood on the tile floor of an office used by a Shiite political party, the Iraq Branch of the Islamic Dawa Party."

The Depressed Spambots, they are Big Fans of Russian Literature.

My most recent spam began with a long quote from The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, but it trailed off into jibberish, perhaps too depressed to form a coherent sentence.
the same incomprehensible sense of grief which had come to him on the balcony. He at once sought for its explanation and its cause was a strange one: the Procurator was obscurely aware that he still had something to say to the prisoner and that perhaps, too, he had more to learn from him. Pilate banished the thought and it passed as quickly as it had come. It passed, yet that grievous ache remained a mystery, for it could not be explained by another thought that had flashed in and out of his mind like lightning--' Immortality ... immortality has come . . .' Whose immortality had come? The Procurator could not understand it, but that puzzling thought of immortality sent a chill over him despite the sun's heat. 'Very well,' said Pilate. ' So be it.' With that he looked round. The visible world vanished from his sight and an astonishing change occurred. The flower-laden rosebush disappeared, the cypresses fringing the upper terrace disappeared, as did the pomegranate tree, the white statue among the foliage and the foliage itself. In their place came a kind of dense purple mass in which seaweed waved and swayed and ilmi lglhl nlgmg lhljlk jpmnmnlglu m n l kiu mm mmlg hllimu m hlf l g m ikm lqlsmlmplqlnifmp jjkj o osrrhrksur gr ms g rms i rkunr prtsmssrprqo g pkpkqm jgfj gp gof q g g gjfq isfs fqtrtfukulppt fthu h o isl rsr isisrto s osu rfrr so s pots jslrl tlpiqg quqgqnqq qh p po opopuqfqrpo p prtnjnlol io mrli mum m llmplmkklk limjmnl sl tihmnm p lp qpu ut j tp utthumt mur sktktiujun tst tqhu nu ptp qjugto tjujt jt sqrqnr quuu othttt mtjqrulu f tf pgtjugt pul t ot us r tt t pui rgslsm nsrgr gsi sdjksdfsdfsdlgkj sdflkjsdf lksdjfsdfsdf
Such grief! The spambot feels that it, too, missed a chance to learn from the Son of God. And now, cast away from divine reason, there is nothing left to do but gibber. Gibber, and sell viagra.

UPDATE: I just got two more Master and Margarita spams, plus a Bill the Galactic Hero. Interestingly, when you put passages from literature into google, sometimes you get e-libraries that hold the book, and sometimes you get spam sites that are using the text to get into google. Thus the new passage I received from Bill the Galactic Hero, when put into google, gets a site advertising "illegal or gambling of teens on the web!"

"Gambling of teens": two great internet vices put together in one not quite gramatical passage! If only you could gamble with teens for viagra.

Echidne's Dog Hank

Echidne has a moving memorial up to her late labrador .

Chinese Dam Policy

Big dam projects are a major part of the festival of concrete that is modernizing China. The most famous is the massive Three Gorges Dam, the capitalist fulfillment of a three thousand year old Imperial dream. The Three Gorges fight is over and the dam is almost done. The new battleground is the southeast Yunnan province, where Tibetan mountains meet Vietnamese rainforest. The first plan I heard about was a 13 dam project on the Nu river, which has recently been put on hold by the highest levels of government. Plans are moving forward, though, for an eight dam project at Leaping Tiger Gorge.

I'm just beginning the planning stages of a return visit to China in the Summer of 2007. My colleague Steve Robinson from Geology and I would take some students to look at environmental issues in spectacular Yunnan province. As a part of this, Steve has sent me a bunch of links to articles about the Leaping Tiger project. E Magazine has a succinct summary of the reasons to oppose the dam wrapped up in some decent journalism. The CBC also has a short from a largely anti-dam perspective. The Sydney Morning Herold covers both the Nu and the Leaping Tiger dams. provides more details on the environmental impact, pro and con. Most of these articles interview the same opposition leaders: Xia “Sean” Shenquan, an ethnic Tibetan who runs a guesthouse for tourists and backpackers with his Australian-born wife, and Ma Jun environmentalist author of China’s Water Crisis. (The water crisis book looks good. Maybe Steve and I should use it in our class.)

Environmentalists typically fight against dam building--a tradition of opposition that goes back to John Muir's fight against the Hetch Hetchy Dam. The concrete reasons for opposing dams include the displacement of people, damage to ecosystems, and the ruining of pretty canyons. Many environmentalists also have a more vague feeling that a free flowing river is just better, more natural, than a dammed one. Massive engineering projects always have complex effects, though, and are never amenable to simple moral judgments. This is especially true of contemporary China, if only because new dams can provide a clean alternative to the nasty coal they currently burn for electricity. The Leaping Tiger dam is also being pushed as a remedy to past environmental problems. The countercurrents article explains that many Yunnan reservoirs have become polluted and silted up due to mismanagement. The new dams would provide clean drinking water to people who need it.

The dam projects bring out a conflict between the practical and aesthetic sides of environmentalism. One stream of environmentalism has always had very pragmatic goals, like clean drinking water and safe energy. Global climate change and increasing strains on fresh water supplies make these issues a global priority and new dams can help solve them. Another stream of environmentalism, though, has always been concerned with saving beauty, and there is much beauty to be saved in Yunnan. The mountainous rainforest is a major center of Asia’s biodiversity, ethnic diversity, and linguistic diversity. The new dams threaten the Naxi people, whose have a rare matrilineal inheritance system and a fascinating ancient music tradition. My philosophical work has led me to favor the pragmatic aspects of environmentalism heavily, but I have no easy answers to the dam issue. I am positive, though, that the issue needs philosophic attention.

Top picture: Sean Xia at Leaping Tiger Gorge from the CBC.
Bottom picture: Naxi musican from wikipedia.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Sleater Kinney Video at IFC

Mona emailed me to say that you can watch Sleater Kinney playing live on the Henry Rollins show on the IFC website. I can't link directly, but you can find it quickly by clicking on the link for "sneak preview now" and then click on the lovely picture of Corin. You can skip Hank's self important ramblings, unless you're Mona, and he's your fantasy boyfriend.

The video is great. My girlfriend Carrie leaps and struts and does a kicking move I associate with Kat Bjelland of Babes in Toyland. Also, looking at how easily Corin's guitar can play the role of a bass made me wonder why bands even have bass players. I mean really. Most bass players turn the treble way up and play high on the neck, so they just wind up sounding like someone playing the low e string on a regular guitar, so why not have the flexibility of a second guitar player who plays low parts?

Molly officially dislikes The Woods, and she and Vicky Coffee pressed me to justify my love of it. Normally I'm good at rationalizing arbitrary judgments, but I really coulnd't do it this time. I was tempted to say "I like the way they combine the loose, expansive feeling of late sixties supergroup bands like Cream with the urgency of punk rock." But you know, that's bullshit. I would like the album even without the context of hippy proto prog and punk. The shit just rocks.

In other grrl punk news, it looks the the Yeah Yeah Yeah's second full length album is going to move toward the mainstream. Has anyone heard it yet.

Stanislaw Lem 1921-2006

Stanislaw Lem, dead at age 84. My first morbid celebrity death thought: Well maybe now we will get a good critical edition of his works, or at least a direct translation of Solaris into English.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Don't let the spambots get you down

The latest in dreary text that gets through the spam filteres:
flowers sick funeral after orphans visit widows
fatherless write letters invitation condolence establish
Related words look like sensible language to Beyesian filters. Perhaps it helps if the words are associated by a similar mood. This is further evidence that (1) the spambots are approaching linguistic competence, eventually becoming moral persons and (2) when they become persons, they will be pathologically depressed.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Definition of Civil War

Juan Cole helpfully provides us with the social scientists' definition of a civil war:
Sustained military combat, primarily internal, resulting in at least 1,000 battle-deaths per year, pitting central government forces against an insurgent force capable of effective resistance, determined by the latter's ability to inflict upon the government forces at least 5 percent of the fatalities that the insurgents sustain. (Errol A. Henderson and J. David Singer, "Civil War in the Post-Colonial World, 1946-92," Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 37, No. 3, May 2000.)
By that definition, Iraq has been in a civil war for a long time. Cole notes
The death toll from guerrilla activity and government ripostes, extrapolating from Allawi's estimate of 50 fatalities a day, is on the order of 18,000 a year, well above the 1,000 minimum suggested by Singer and his colleagues. There are no good estimates of the numbers or percentages of guerrillas killed vs. new Iraqi security forces, but if the police are included in the latter, anecdotal evidence suggests that the guerrillas inflict on government forces far more than 5 percent of the casualties they themselves sustain.
The odd thing, as I've heard other people note, is that not only is Iraq obviously in a civil war, but the administration essentially said as much when it began to describe the US mission there as backing a democratic government against a terrorist insurgency. An insurgency is, by definition, a civil war. So why the sudden fear from the right of admitting that this is a civil war? Why do people think that admitting that there is a civil war amounts to admitting defeat?

When we admit that there is a civil war, we aren’t saying anything about the number of deaths or degree of conflict. If Iraqi government forces engaged an insurgent group in a big, bloody battle, the Republicans would be happy to publicize it, and even call it evidence of progress.

The real force of admitting that there is a civil war comes from acknowledging that the warring parties are not a democratic government and a terrorist underground. This is a war between Sunni and Shi’a. But if this is a war between Sunni and Shi’a, then there is zero point in US involvement. The government we are backing is Shi’a. Why do we want a Shi’a state? It would no doubt develop close links to Iran. Certainly most Americans wouldn’t see the point in joining such a conflict. Mainstream America neither knows or cares about the Sunni/Shi’a split. Americans might be made to care if they could be persuaded that one kind of Moslem is “the good kind.” But since Al Qaeda are Sunni and Iran is Shi’a, that option is pretty much ruled out.

The current war couldn’t appear more senseless, in either the popular imagination or the informed judgment.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Edie Hinshaw, Good Dog.

Picture 006
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

There's been some confusion on this issue, so I wanted to clarify things. Edie is a Good Dog. I know, in the past, there have been Issues, even Complaints. But there has also been obedience training with Good Progress. If any one has any problems with Edie, I ask that you look into your heart. Do you see any Issues? Let he who is without Issues cast the first stone.

Also, some have said Edie is "funny looking" or even "a wiener dog." For the record, Edie is only part wiener dog. She looks kinda wienery, but when you see her next to a full blooded wiener dog, you realize she is not that wienery at all.

Protect rape vicitms

Three young men in Orange County videotaped themselves raping an unconscious 16 year old, and then left the video in a rented beach house. Because they were extremely wealthy, they were able to hire a lawyer who after three years of slandering and harassing the victim, got them off with only a conviction on sexual assault. Now the victim is suing the lawyer for harassment, slander, and libel. The lawyer responded by calling her "trash" and said "What I did to Jane Doe in the criminal case was child's play compared to what I can do to her in a civil case." Pinko Feminist Hellcat has been covering the story. Also a reader has written Bitch, Ph.D. requesting letters of support for the victim.
I have contacted her civil lawyer and received permission to send letters of support to his office. Will you please post on the blog to send letters of support to ihiroe at yahoodotcom? Please address the letter to Jane Doe if it’s a letter meant for her. I will be collecting and printing e-mailed letters to send to her lawyer’s office.

If people that have progressive blogs can forward and post this info, I would be grateful. Those that are against these heinous actions need to stand up and also let the victim know that there is support for her. Your support in publicizing this will be greatly appreciated. I have a goal of at least 500 letters, and I'm currently slowly reaching the goal.

More Literary Spam

I just got some really cheery spam. The subject line: "The pain of love is the pain of being alive. It is a perpetual wound." This is a quote from one Maureen Duffy, who among other things has written a book entitled called The Erotic World of Faery, which apparantly is not a work of Tolkein slash fanfic.

The body of the spam was a passage from Anna Karenina, which included this sentence:
She was listening to the sound of his voice, watching his face and the play of expression on it, touching his hand, but she did not follow what he was saying. She must go, she must leave him,--this was the only thing she was thinking and feeling.
And what was all this heartbreak selling? Diet pills. The spambot seems to think that fat people are unlucky in love.

Headline/body discrepancy.

Headline: "Insurgents Captured in New Assault on Iraqi Police Station"

Sure makes you think they took prisoners in the heat of battle, doesn't it? The first paragraph also gives that impression.
Insurgents launched a large-scale predawn assault on a police station near Baghdad today, their second in two days, but Iraqi forces fought off the attackers and captured 50 of them, Interior Ministry officials said.
Wow, they caught 50 people in the middle of a pre-dawn raid! What a coup! Well, no. A little later in the article we read
After the assault was repulsed, a sweep of the area led to the arrest of 50 suspected insurgents, the Interior Ministry officials said.
Actually, the battle went like any ordinary battle, and afterwards they rounded up the usual suspects.

This was irresponsible journalism. I mean, even if you assume that the people arrested are really insugents and were arrested on good evidence, there is simply no way to say that they were taken prisoner in battle. They were rounded up by law enforcement.

Meanwhile, this weirdness is burried on the second page of the story.
American military officials announced Tuesday that they were looking into an allegation that American soldiers intentionally killed 11 Iraqi civilians last week.

The inquiry, the second announced in a week, stems from an episode last Wednesday in Ishaqi, a Sunni Arab town north of Baghdad.

American officials initially said that American troops had been fired on from a farmhouse during a raid to capture an insurgent, and that they had returned fire, from the ground and the air, killing four people.

Iraqi police officials immediately rejected that account, saying 11 people had been killed after American soldiers lined up an entire family — from a 75-year-old grandmother to a 6-month-old baby — and shot them.

A local police official, Farouq Hussein, told Reuters that all the victims had been shot in the head.

"It's a clear and perfect crime without any doubt," he said. And then there's this incident
Last week, American officials announced that they were investigating an occurrence in November in which residents in a western Iraq town accused American marines of gunning down 15 civilians after a marine was killed by a roadside bomb. Military officials originally reported that the civilians had been killed by the bomb blast, but later revised their account to say that the civilians were killed by gunfire.
And remember: The Vietnam War lasted 10 years, counting from the arrival of US combat troops to the fall of Saigon, continuing under both Democratic and Republican administrations. We are only in year four of our Vietnam rerun. If we stick to the script, we have six more years of fun ahead.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Up from the comments

This just appeared in the old thread for my Ronnie Harris post, and I thought it merited being moved up.
I also appreciate the civil conversation with Mayor Harris. I was born and raised in New Orleans, including the suburb of Gretna from age 9 to 18. My mom still lives in Terrytown, a sub-suburb of Gretna. She defends Harris, whereas I tend to take a disapproving view of his actions based on the variety of stories and angles I've heard.

I've been home several times since Katrina. I can't tell you how strange it is to see Oakwood (not Parkwood) mall in burned-out tatters. Jeeze, going to the mall was of the few mother-daughter bonding type thingies I could do with my dear old Republican Mom. Practically nothing is being done in the way of repairs. Oakwood mall sits there like an albatross with a Sears tumor on its side (the Sears store is partially re-opened) while developers wait to see if enough citizens will return to warrant rebuilding the mall (and the citizens won't return until the mall is rebuilt, so go figure); the really devastated areas are still really devastated (including homes of my family and friends) while the insurance co's, local, state and fed gov't argue about who should pay. Dude, I'm posting this on March 21, 2006, not September 21, 2005.

In other news, the Ronnie Harris post did not make it to the Koufax finals. I thought I didn't care about such things--so much so that I didn't even vote myself. Now that I've actually lost, I'm wishing I had voted.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Friday, March 17, 2006

A Bacon Cheeseburger on a Krispy Kreme Doughnut

A Bacon Cheeseburger on a Krispy Kreme Doughnut, now available at a baseball stadium. One thousand calories. Allegedly this concoction was pioneered by Luther Vandross, who IIRC was getting pretty hefty toward the end of his life. Via

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Secret Society

I commend to you, the internet, the New York based jazz band The Secret Society. My best point of reference to describe them is Charles Mingus, especially during the periods where he was writing elaborately arranged, written out, music. They have a big band sound, because they are a big band, but they can get dissonant and arty and use scales that seem odd if things call for it. Also, like all Jazz after the 60s, you can hear Rock and Roll in it. Real jazz guys and New York hipsters might be able to describe them better, but that is the best I can do. They have MP3s off to the right of the blog; you can listen for yourself.

Readers who travel in the same blog circles that I do will recognize The Secret Society as the band led by Thad, consort & lover of Majikthise, and frequent commenter in her space. I’ve been reading Majikthise for a while now, and had The Secret Society on my blogroll for a bit, but I’ve never taken the time out to listen to Thad’s music. Mostly this is because I can’t listen to music while I’m working, and can only listen to children’s music while at home. (Thank God for Dan Zanes.) So now I’m listening to The Secret Society, and hey, it turns out that it totally rules. Good day for me, and for you too if you check them out.

The Grammar of Repeated Why Questions, or "why is the moon pretty?"

Caroline, like all three year olds, is always asking why. Often her why questions don't even make much sense, such as the "why is that a leaf" question I blogged last summer.(*) Other questions are simply hard to answer in three year old terms, like "Why does ice melt?"

Often figuring out how to answer why questions is a matter of getting the category of why question right. MT suggested that "why is that a leaf" was asking about the reason for the name, rather than for some essential characteristic of leaves, so that "convention" would be a perfectly proper answer to her question. The other day Caroline asked me "Why is the moon pretty?" We were getting out of the car at night, and she had just noticed the moon overhead. I paused. I didn't think she was asking a causal question, the way she was when she asked "why does ice melt?" It seemed more like a call for justification than explanation, so I said "because it is so big, so far away, and so very white." Rather than explaining how, over the course of evolution, humans came to believe that the moon was pretty, I tried to prove to her that the moon did indeed merit being called pretty.

Now, I don't believe for a second that Caroline is mentally distinguishing between causal and justificatory why questions. I stand by my judgment last June that she simply views "why" as a generic request for more information, or perhaps even as a general way to keep any conversation going. Nevertheless, I believe I am right to try to interpret each why question as charitably as I can and give it an honest answer. Dismissing or mocking why questions might stifle her curiosity, and decent answers to her questions might actually give her sense of how inquiry should take place.

Caroline has begun to notice, though, that repeated why questions make adults irritated, which makes her gleefully ask “why” even more. This has lead me to think about the meaningfulness of repeated why questions. Peirce, in “The Fixation of Belief” famously mocks those who think for an inquiry to begin “it was only necessary to utter a question”. Instead, he thought, "There must be a real and living doubt, and without this all discussion is idle.". Wittgenstein also questioned whether questioning is always meaningful. He imagines a conversation with someone who, when asked to extend the series 2, 4, 6, 8... does so normally up until 1000, when he starts counting by fours. Eventually, he reaches a point where he can no longer explain why what we all believe is the correct way to continue the series 2, 4, 6, 8... really is the correct way. "If I have exhausted the justifications" he writes in remark 217 of the Philosophical Investigations, "I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say, "This is simply what I do."

In answering questions from Caroline, I have run into both of these limits, the Peirce limit, after which inquiry seems pointless, and the Wittgenstein limit, after which inquiry seems completely impossible. I actually enjoy pushing these sequences of questions as far as possible. The trend in philosophy over the last hundred and fifty years has been to announce limits to rational questioning, not in the way that the religious do, by declaring topics to be taboo, but by pointing out areas in which rational methods cease to make sense. This has actually been productive for science, because it lets scientists focus on the answerable questions, and dismiss the unanswerable ones as senseless. A creature of my times, I must acknowledge that such limits exist. There are badly formed, unanswerable, why questions. But I have never been really comfortable with this. For starters, explaining this sort of positivist, Wittgensteinian attitude to undergraduates has often made me seem the enemy of curiosity, which is exactly the opposite of what a teacher should be.

More deeply I find such joy in pushing the questioning farther than I thought it could go. I think Wittgenstein, in his discussion of the extension of the series 2, 4, 6…, actually managed to push repeated why-questions farther than any other human being in recorded history. Farther even than any three year old. Something remarkable happened there. He marched out farther in reason than anyone thought reason could go—and all in the name of showing that you could go too far!

My response to Caroline’s why questions may seem to you evidence that philosophers should not raise children. I think the reverse.

(*)Reading that old post, I discover that it was only six months ago that Caroline couldn't say her L's. Now she says her L's just fine, but has overgeneralized, so that the color yellow is "lellow." Also, she is filling in her sentences much more than she did last summer. In the old post she asked "Why yeaf?" Now she would say "why is that a leaf?" Already blogging is paying off: look at this lovely record of my child's linguistic development!

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

They called him "shitboy"

Salon has more Abu Ghraib pictures up. They do not reveal the bottomless horror that Seymour Hersh warned us of, but they tell us a few more things. The first round of Abu Ghraib pictures published included a photo of a man covered in what was inevitably referred to as "a brown substance." We now know that the substance was, in fact, human shit and that the guards at Abu Ghraib nicknamed the prisoner "shitboy." The defense department documents identify him by name, which Salon has redacted to M-----. M----- is the same man who was seen in the last round of pictures posted at Salon being sodomized with a yellow object. The new photos and text reveal that object to be a banana.

It appears that M----- was mentally deranged when he was picked up. In fact, he may have been picked up simply because he was mentally deranged. Many of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib were arrested for ordinary crimes. Some of the women there were held on suspicion of prostitution, including this woman whom Charles Graner photographed topless. (And how can that possibly be considered consensual?)

All this puts the lie to the constant Republican reassurance that the US prisons are for terrorists and "the worst of the worst." They are filled with whomever soldiers felt like victimizing. Crazy street people. Women who look like prostitutes.

Apparently the military concluded that Abu Ghraib guards did not smear M----- with shit, nor did they sodomize him with a banana. They merely stood by, took pictures, and thought up juvenile nicknames, while he smeared himself in shit and sodomized himself with a banana. This alone would amount to criminal abuse, but the pictures themselves conflict with the military’s story.

In the middle of the three pictures where M----- is being sodomized, the shackles on his hands are visible poking out from the edge of the blanket, and he has plastic riot cuffs on his feet. This is not a man who could seek out blunt objects to sodomize himself with on his own. At the very least, his captors must have provided him with the tools to humiliate himself.

Look at the shit pictures again, if you can. His legs are shackled again. He has a lot of shit all over him, including his back. Some of that may be mud--there is a pool of standing water behind him. Still, the guards would have had a much easier time smearing him with all of that offal than he would have had smearing himself.

There are also plenty of pictures where completely bound, including one where he is mashed between two wooden pallets, with Charles Graner sitting on top of the whole sandwich. This looks like a man who is under the control of the guards, who is bound when they feel like humiliating him, and who is freed when they want to see his amusing antics.

The public still does not have enough information to judge what the hell was going on at Abu Ghraib, but the findings of the defense department self-examination are entirely unsatisfactory.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Activist Linky

The Ohio State University, in an effort to distance itself from any primate research, has shipped 9 chimps and 3 Capuchins off to a substandard facility in Texas, where one chimp, the Co-Alpha male, has already died. Ironically, the research program the chimps were involved with previously seems to have been completely harmless to the chimps. A website with a petition has been set up here. has a petition up to impeach the president. On the other hand, they have a letter up from Ramsey Clark, and seem to be affiliated with him. Does this mean that they are actually a front organization for Maoist douchebags like ANSWER or the RCP?

Meritocracy, knowledge production, and killing your advisor

Dr. Free-Ride has a post up about graduate students who murder their advisors and other cases of workplace violence in the groves of academe. There are an alarming number of examples. The lead story is about a math student name Theodore Streleski who was ABD for nineteen years before being told he would not get a Ph.D. On receiving this information, he promptly murdered his dissertation advisor with a ball peen hammer.

Janet’s main point is that, while workplace violence is morally unacceptable, it is a expected reaction to extreme workplace injustice. People are freaking out because they are being totally used. Graduate students are strung along for their usefulness as TA. Co-authorship is awarded for political reasons, and often bears no resemblance to who actually contributed to the production of the paper.

Invisible Adjunct once pointed out (I’m not going to dig up the link) that despite well known problems in the system, people with tenure generally believe that academe is a meritocracy. People who would otherwise never endorse social Darwinism assume that those who fail in the academy do so because they weren’t smart enough to compete.

Obviously, people hold this belief largely because it lets them flatter themselves. But I think there is another reason for it. We in the academy, whether we are in the humanities or the sciences, believe with good reason we are producing knowledge. Our central processes, like peer review and experiment replication, are designed to ensure the quality of our product: knowledge. So if we are producing knowledge, it is natural to assume that we are also rewarding the best knowledge producers.

This inference is at best unjustified. The systems of knowledge production and career advancement are a few steps removed from each other, and it is quite likely that they do not work in synch. For starters, remember that the processes of peer review and experiment replication operate on the knowledge itself—as represented by the academic papers and experimental apparatuses. People are judged by their publication record, but this is an additional layer of judgment.

More importantly, the academic system of knowledge generation is specifically designed not to rely on the genius of a few knowledge producers. The system consists of a large number of total schlubs carefully checking each other. It really doesn’t matter if only the best people make it into the system, because most of the important functions can be performed by anyone with enough training.

You who have tenure and a phonebook sized CV would do well to look at Theodore Streleski, who has refused parole on the grounds that his decision to murder his advisor was morally justified, and say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” You would not be betraying the integrity of your discipline.

Update: I forgot the actual link. Oops.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Paint It Black

big accordion
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

At the North Country Academy for the Excruciatingly Fine Arts, we are very open to emerging and electronic media. One of our lead artists produced this work, entitled "Big Accordion" at the Clifford page at

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Who is holding back the civil war, part 2

Now Rumsfeld himself has said it. Our troops are not in Iraq to prevent a civil war.
"That is true, Mr. Secretary," Mr. Byrd persisted. "Is there any plan to respond to a civil war in Iraq?"

"The plan is to prevent a civil war," Mr. Rumsfeld said, "and to the extent one were to occur, to have the — from a security standpoint — have the Iraqi security forces deal with it to the extent they're able to."
Rummie's comments about the Iraqi security forces hardly evoke confidence
Mr. Rumsfeld said Iraqi forces "at least thus far" have been able to deal with security problems "for the most part," and that the real foundation for stability is a government that will unify the country — the kind of government that is still a new concept for the people.
As a result they "sorta" have prevented catastrophe "at least for now" and "maybe" will make Iraq "not the worst place on Earth."

By the way, what exactly is the line between "sectarian violence" and "civil war"? Does civil war require religious militias to directly engage each other in house to house fighting? Is it “sectarian violence ” when the bodies are found later and filmed by reporters and “war” when we get actual combat footage?

another meme of fours

I've written my page, hauled my elder kid back and forth from school, and done a little office bookkeeping, so I can take the time to respond to another meme of fours, this time from Steve H.

Four jobs I’ve had
  • Drug store clerk
  • Grocery store clerk
  • Record store clerk
  • Philosophy professor

Four movies I can watch over and over
  • Wings of Desire
  • Night of the Living Dead
  • Simple Men
  • Serenity
Four places I’ve lived
  • Canton, NY
  • Auburn, AL
  • Lubbock, TX
  • Chicago, IL
Four TV shows I love
  • Buffy
  • The Daily Show
  • Battlestar Galactica (the new one)
  • Star Trek (any permutation, but the old show was my first love)
Four highly regarded and recommended TV shows I haven’t seen (much of)
  • Veronica Mars
  • Curb Your Enthusiasm
  • The Office
  • The Colbert Report
Four dishes I regularly cook (This is a mutation from four favorite dishes)
  • Things in the Fridge Pad Thai
  • Things in the Fridge Stew
  • Things in the Fridge with Rice
  • Ramen Noodle with Beer Sauce (not since getting married)
Four sites I visit daily
  • Bitch, Ph.D
  • Majikthise
  • Pharyngula
  • Writing as Jo(e)
Four places I’d rather be right now
  • Bed
Four albums I can't live without:

  • The Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs
  • Sleater Kinney: The Woods
  • The Minutemen: Double Nickles on the Dime
  • John Coltrane: A Love Supreme

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


Yesterday I renewed my lapsed pledge to write a page of real academic philosophy every day and not blog until I had written that page. Actually, I went a step farther and pledged to have something out to a journal by April 7. No shit. As it happens, Molly started taking work again Monday, which made it even more imperative that keep the children out of her hair and do my part of the housework. All this has made my little world quite hectic. Basically everything that is not writing or childcare has been shoved aside for the past few days.

My writing process has also changed. I’m bracketing more things. I’m more likely to type something like this
…or because the very act of setting aside a “park” makes that stretch of land into an artifact [Cite, something from Coates, or maybe Winner]…
I'm not taking the time to investigate sources. I'm just write was revived in the mid nineteenth century and enjoyed a major resurgence mid twentieth century (Kamala 1997, Carrithers 1983) [Note to self: read enough of these citations to confirm description].
Any problem which might have stalled me in the past is blipped over. I am not worrying about the right way to cite Buddhist scripture or transliterate Sanskrit. Half the time I'm not sure if I am writing a Pali word or a Sanskrit word. I just keep writing.

Interestingly, it is still hard to end the day with a document that is a page longer than it was at the beginning of the day. Most sentences that are added are balanced by sentences deleted. I'm filling in an outline, so when I write three lines of text, it merely replaces three lines that previously read "Heading/subheading/subheading." I only allowed myself to blog right now because at the end of the day I cut 250 words from my blog, pasted them into my document, and promised myself to work them coherently into the text later. (In my paper I want to talk about this sutta, which I blogged here, because it has weirdly contrasting nature imagery, in addition to having a woman gouge her eye out.)

I'm liking this process. The ungraded tests are piling up. My email inbox, which was empty just last week, is now full of things I need to reply to. I was supposed to be home nine minutes ago. But I'm writing. I'm going to get something out there. I'm not going to do what I did last summer, where I started to research, read a bunch of books, and came up with a hundred pages of notes but no essay that can go to a journal. I'm writing.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Swiss Calling the Muenster Cheese

Ugly personal details are emerging in lawsuits against Thomas "The Painter of Light" Kinkade, filed by former owners of the galleries licensed to deal in "his" "paintings":
In sworn testimony and interviews, they recount incidents in which an allegedly drunken Kinkade heckled illusionists Siegfried & Roy in Las Vegas, cursed a former employee's wife who came to his aid when he fell off a barstool, and palmed a startled woman's breasts at a signing party in South Bend, Ind.
Wait a second, Thomas Kinkade heckled Siegfried and Roy? For those of you who don’t know, Kinkade has this schtick where a press runs off thousands of copies of one of his works, then he liberally gobs on some dollops of oil paint to each print to “personalize” it, and then he sells it for tens of thousands of dollars as a “Thomas Kinkade original.” The question is, what can this man do to make fun of Siegfried and Roy? The article provides details
Dandois, … recounted that about six years ago the artist was so intoxicated during a performance by Siegfried & Roy in Las Vegas that people seated nearby moved away from him.

"I think it was Roy or Siegfried or whatever had a codpiece in his leotards," Dandois testified. "And so when the show started, Thom just started yelling, 'Codpiece, codpiece,' and had to be quieted by his mother and [wife] Nanette."
Maybe I'm a little giddy, because it is late, but the image of Siegfried and Roy being heckled by Thomas Kinkade is really killing me.

Via Pharyngula

Nice Tiger, Broken Monkey

Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

Fans of Damien Hirst know the importance of a good title for fine art. Here are two recent works from the North Country Academy for the Excruciatingly Fine Arts, "Nice Tiger" and "Broken Monkey," with titles provided by the artist C. Loftis and lettering by one of her assistants.


Friday, March 03, 2006

Explaining why Ice Melts to a Three Year Old.

Over in B.Ph.D I mentioned that I had trouble explaining to Caroline why ice melts. I got a good reply there, so I'm moving the whole thing over here to see if I get more. This was my original explanation to Caroline.
Me: See ice is crystallized water

C: What does that mean?

Me: See water is made up of these little things called molecules. When water is cold, they are all tied together, and they get all tied together, the form straight lines, so we call it a crystal. That’s ice. When the sun shines on the ice, it breaks the bonds holding the molecules in straight lines, so we get water.
Amy at B.Ph.D. had a better explanation
"It gets too hot to stay together and has to all move around. Ice is what happens when the water gets cold and stands still."

"Why can't I see it moving around?"

"The little bits are reaaaally tiny. Too tiny to see. All little tiny pieces of water. But you can't see them because they're too tiny. They're moving around, though."

"In there?"

"Yep, in there."
Any other ideas?

Countries visited gizmo

create your own visited countries map
or vertaling Duits Nederlands

Visited States Gizmo

I had to use some judgment calls on this. I decided not to count states I have driven through, but I did count the states I rode a bicycle through.

create your own visited states map
or check out these Google Hacks.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

“The sugar-white and wine-barrel-wide backside of Inga-Maria Calyphigia”

Ok, I am inordinately enamored of this little phrase that appeared in my spam: “The sugar-white and wine-barrel-wide backside of Inga-Maria Calyphigia”

I like the assonance in wine-barrel-wide backside. I like how her backside is associated with wine and sugar—how yummy! Also, even if you normally lust after the tiny backsides, you have to admit that there is something extra sybaritic about the wide backside, something that resonates well with all that sugar and wine. The owner of the wide backside probably enjoys her sugar and wine, thus making her sugar white and wine-barrel-wide backside all the more hedonistic a backside to be around. From the description of her ass alone, I get the sense that it would be fun to hang out with Ms. Calyphigia. Finally, if you are going to have all of those i’s in wine-barrel-wide backside, you might as well have a good rhyming name like Inga-Maria Calyphygia.

Perhaps I should investigate this Harry Harrison further. Spam: opening the doors to literature.

The latest move by the spambots

Are you guys getting spam like this:
Bill never realized that sex was the cause of it all. If the sun that morning had not been burning so warmly in the brassy sky of Phigerinadon II, and if he had not glimpsed the sugar-white and wine-barrel-wide backside of Inga-Maria Calyphigia, while she bathed in the stream, he might have paid more attention to his plowing than to the burning pressures of heterosexuality and would have driven his furrow to the far side of the hill before the seductive music sounded along the road. He might never have heard it, and his life would have been very, very different. But he did hear it and dropped the handles of the plow that was plugged into the robomule, turned, and gaped.
Some spambot out there is getting things past the SLU filters by incorporating snipits of tawdry fiction. This is the most amusing development in spam since the dictionary-based name generator that gave me Modigliani O. Localized and recently gave Charlie Winos H. Biopsies.

It occurred to me that spam-generating robots may be the first kind of software to develop truly human intelligence. They are constantly evolving to sound more like someone you want to talk to. You get the sense that eventually they will simply start having things to say. Like one day I’ll get a spam that says “Hey Rob, for your paper on Buddhist nature attitudes, you really need to check out the Jakata animal stories. Also, for cheap Viagra, click on this link.” The evolution here looks a lot like sexual selection, too. The spambot is trying to deliver a payload of information that will help it reproduce. To do this, it has to develop an appealing display. Interestingly, the appealing display is completely unconnected to the payload delivered. Just as the peacock is unaware that his elaborate feather display is a means to pass on DNA, so too is the spambot unaware of the goods it is trying to sell.

Oh, and hey, the quotation in the spam is from Bill the Galactic Hero by pulpy sci fi writer Harry Harrison.

“The sugar-white and wine-barrel-wide backside of Inga-Maria Calyphigia” Hee hee.

Caroline grasps irregular verbs

The other day I heard Caroline say "told" instead of "telled." Molly informs me that she heard Caroline say "caught" instead of "catched" and just now "gave" instead of "gived." Irregular verbs. yay!