Saturday, April 01, 2006

The stars foretell

How astrology works, via the Monty Python "What The Stars Foretell" sketch:
Mrs O: Morning, Mrs Trepidatious.

Mrs Trepidatious: Oh, I don't know what's good about it, my right arm's hanging off something awful.

Mrs O: Oh, you want to have that seen to.

Mrs Trepidatious: What, by that Dr Morrison? He's killed more patients than I've had severe boils.

Mrs O: What do the stars say?

Mrs Trepidatious: Well, Petula Clark says burst them early, but David Frost...

Mrs O: No, the stars in the paper, you cloth-eared heap of anteater's catarrh, the zodiacal signs, the horoscopic fates, the astrological portents, the omens, the genethliac prognostications, the mantalogical harbingers, the vaticinal utterances, the fatidical premonitory uttering of the mantalogical omens - what do the bleeding stars in the paper predict, forecast, prophesy, foretell, prognosticate...

(A big sign is lowered with the words on it.)

Voice Over: And this is where you at home can join in.

Mrs O: ... forebode, bode, augur, spell, foretoken, (the audience joins in) presage, portend, foreshow, foreshadow, forerun, herald, point to, betoken, indicate!

Mrs Trepidatious: I don't know.

(The sign is raised again.)

Mrs O: What are you?

Mrs Trepidatious: I'm Nesbitt.

Mrs O: There's not a zodiacal sign called Nesbitt...

Mrs Trepidatious: All right, Derry and Toms.

Mrs O: (surveying paper) Aquarius, Scorpio, Virgo, Derry and Toms. April 29th to March 22nd. Even dates only.

Mrs Trepidatious: Well what does it presage?

Mrs O: You have green, scaly skin, and a soft yellow underbelly with a series of fin-like ridges running down your spine and tail. Although lizardlike in shape, you can grow anything up to thirty feet in length with huge teeth that can bite off great rocks and trees. You inhabit arid sub-tropical zones and wear spectacles.

Mrs Trepidatious: It's very good about the spectacles.

Mrs O: It's amazing.

Mrs O and Mrs Trepidatious want to believe in what the stars can supposedly tell them, so they won't remember that the horoscope was significantly off about the green, scaly skin and so on, while holding on to the memory that it was dead-on about Mrs. T. wearing spectacles. Such selective memory is a natural instance of publication bias or the file-drawer effect (in which experimental outcomes which don't confirm theoretical expectation are buried in a researcher's file drawer). Astrology and other supernatural beliefs owe a great deal to such selective remembering.

While I'm sort of on the subject, Eliot Gelwan had a handy list recently of Wikipedia pages covering cognitive biases, logical fallacies and so on, to which I'd add this one and the illusion of control.

Ed Fitzgerald | 4/01/2006 09:07:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


Down the drain

A friend sent me Professor Pollkatz' (aka Stuart Eugene Thiel's) new Flush Bush graph while my computer was out of action and I wasn't blogging, but I forgot about posting it here until just now. Enjoy!

[Thanks to Gar]

Ed Fitzgerald | 4/01/2006 04:20:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


Breaking the Spell (1)

Here are some more brief excerpts from Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell -- rather than putting them in a number of shorter posts with attached comments, I decided to combine them together into longer posts, of which this is the first.

Please note that I didn't select these particular excerpts in order to accurately represent the thrust of Dennett's book, nor to establish an argument of my own -- they're simply passages that struck me as interesting as I was reading the book, and which caused me to dog-ear the page for future reference. (I'm a confirmed dog-earist.) I hope that, collectively, they will give a sense of the tone and scope of the book

As before, I've occasionally broken up one of Dennett's long book-oriented paragraphs into shorter ones for ease of reading. As always with material I've typed in, all typos are mine.

[continued here]

Ed Fitzgerald | 4/01/2006 12:04:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Friday, March 31, 2006

The will of the gods

I promised earlier to post some excerpts from Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion As A Natural Phenomenon, and I'd like to start to follow through on that promise.

Here's Dennett on the origins of divination (I've divided his long paragraph into shorter blog-friendly grafs):
[W[hat good to us is the gods' knowledge if we can't get it from them? How could one communicate with the gods? Our ancestors (while they were alive!) stumbled on an extremely ingenious solution: divination.

We all know how hard it is to make the major decisions of life: should I hang tough or admit my transgression, should I move or stay in my present position, should I go to war or not, should I follow my heart or my head? We still haven't figured out any satisfactory systematic way of deciding these things. Anything that can relieve the burden of figuring out how to make these hard calls is bound to be an attractive idea.

Consider flipping a coin, for instance. Why do we do it? To take away the burden of having to find a reason for choosing A over B. We like to have reasons for what we do, but sometimes nothing sufficiently persuasive comes to mind, and we recognize that we have to decide soon, so we concoct a little gadget, an external thing that will make the decision for us. But if the decision is about something momentous, like whether to go to war, or marry, or confess, anything like flipping a coin would be just too, well, flippant.

In such a case, choosing for no good reason would be too obviously a sign of incompetence, and, besides, if the decision is really that important, once the coin has landed you'll have to confront the further choice: should you honor your just-avowed commitment to be bound by the flip of the coin, or should you reconsider? Faced with such quandaries, we recognize the need for some treatment stronger than a coin flip. Something more ceremonial, more impressive, like divination, which not only tells you what to do, but gives you a reason (if you squint just right and use your imagination).

Scholars have uncovered a comically variegated profusion of ancient ways of delegating important decisions to uncontrollable externalities. Instead of flipping a coin, you can flip arrows (belomancy) or rods (rhabdomancy) or bones or cards (sortilege), and instead of looking at tea leaves (tasseography), you can examine the livers of sacrificed animals (hepatoscopy) or other entrails (haruspicy) or melted wax poured into water (ceroscopy). Then there is moleosophy (divination by blemishes), myomancy (divination by rodent behavior), nephomancy (divination by clouds), and of course the old favorites, numerology and astrology, among dozens of others.

This profusion of widely differing schemes for uncovering the will of the gods, all presumably believed by their practitioners to be accurate and infallible (within the scope of the ability of the user to correctly read the signs) parallels one of the enduring embarrassments for ecumenically-minded liberal religionists, the large numbers of competing religions, all of which are believed by their practitioners to be the one true creed, and all of which are, in some respect or another, incompatible with other religions.

[More Dennett here, here and here]

Ed Fitzgerald | 3/31/2006 11:29:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


One from column A...

Jonathan Chait convincingly explains the conservative book publishing industry.

[via Kevin Drum]

Ed Fitzgerald | 3/31/2006 11:15:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


Fake states

Fake Is The New Real proposes fixing the Electoral College not by abolishing it, or by synchronizing it to the national popular vote, but by realigning and rationalizing the 50 states:
Obviously, not a terribly practical suggestion -- but while you're on the site, take a look at the maps which compare the size of world subway systems. There's a bunch of other strange stuff worth looking at, too.

Ed Fitzgerald | 3/31/2006 02:25:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


Delusions of history

Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, writing in The New Yorker:
The President and the members of his war cabinet now routinely wave at the horizon and speak about the long arc of history’s judgment—many years or decades must pass, they suggest, before the overthrow of Saddam and its impact on the Middle East can be properly evaluated. This is not only an evasion; it is bad historiography. Particularly in free societies, botched or unnecessary military invasions are almost always recognized as mistakes by the public and the professional military soon after they happen, and are rarely vindicated by time. This was true of the Boer War, Suez, and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and it will be true of Iraq. At best, when enough time has passed, and the human toll is not so palpable, we may come to think of the invasion, and its tragicomedy of missing weapons, as just another imperial folly, the way we now remember the Spanish-American War or the doomed British invasions of Afghanistan. But that will take a very long time, and it will never pass as vindication.

The title of Coll's piece is "Deluded," and that's an apt description of Bush and the neo-cons who urged him on and provided what passed for intellectual justification for his invasion of Iraq -- or, you could used the adjective I keep returning to, "pathetic."

About some things, most things, really, I'm totally uncertain about how history will view them. Maybe, like the scene from Woody Allen's Sleeper, it will turn out that everything we know (or think we know) is wrong, and deep fat, steak, cream pies and hot fudge are really good for us -- stranger things have happened, paradigms have been overturned, white and black have exchanged places, it could happen. But about Bush, I have absolutely not an iota of doubt at all: history will look upon him as a very, very bad president, one of the worst, if not the worst, we've ever had.

Oh, the Right will get over its current disenchantment with him, just as they did with Reagan, and they'll mount an attempt to deify him, as they've done with Ronnie (a medicre president at best), but they won't get any traction on it, because people who lived through the horrors of this time will just want to forget it ever happened, and people who didn't won't find any evidence to support the canonization. I mean that he's so bad that there just won't be a believable case than can be made for him once partisan loyalty no longer puffs him up, even taking into consideration the fantastic propaganda capabilities of the Right. It will not fly, and Bush's rep will do nothing but drop like a stone once he's got nothing to offer in the way of power, prestige or influence.

I was going to write that I hope the guy's not looking forward to a fulfilling retirement, but on reflection I assume that he'll get a nice, high-paying sinecure of a job, perhaps connected with Major League Baseball, or the oil industry, and he'll be happy enough. He'll make enough money, and be surrounded by sufficient numbers of toadying sycophants that he probably won't even notice (unobservant, incurious, and insensitive man that he is) that he's been shunted aside to the dead letter office, and no one's really interested in what he thinks or has to say.

And, boy, won't we all be happier then. "I survived the Bush II Presidency and all I got is this massive debt, chaos in the Middle East, nuclear proliferation and the disrespect of the entire civilized world" t-shirts will be all the rage.

Ed Fitzgerald | 3/31/2006 02:02:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


From sea to shining sea

dreaminonempty says "you can now travel through the US from the Atlantic to the Pacific without setting foot in a state where Bush's approval tops 45%", and he's got the map (based on SUSA data) to prove it:

There's a lot more analysis, including great maps and graphs, so make sure to click through.

Ed Fitzgerald | 3/31/2006 12:07:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Odd fact

Congress did not officially recognize The Star-Spangled Banner as our national anthem until 1931, fully 117 years after Francis Scott Key wrote the poem it's based on. (The Navy was using it by 1889, though, and Woodrow Wilson ordered in 1916 that it be played at appropriate occasions. Also, around 1918 it started to be played at baseball games, at first during the 7th inning stretch.)

Recall also that "under God" wasn't added to the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954. These aren't sacred traditions -- they're not even all that old, really.

I'm waiting to find out if they'll continue playing God Bless America, a song I absolutely loathe (especially the Kate Smith recording they often use) during the 7th inning stretch at Yankee Stadium this season, which they've done since 9/11. I understand the impulse which started them doing this, but I much prefer the 7th inning stretch to be preserved for Take Me Out To The Ballgame.

(Opening Day at Shea: next Monday, April 3rd! Opening Day at Yankee Stadium: Tuesday, April 11th!)

Ed Fitzgerald | 3/30/2006 10:58:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


Looking back

This "age gauge" is fun, and fast. It was especially interesting to be reminded of how old I was at certain landmark events in time -- for instance, I was:
46 years old at the time of the 9-11 attack on America
40 years old at the time of Oklahoma City bombing
39 years old when O. J. Simpson was charged with murder
36 years old when Operation Desert Storm began
35 years old during the fall of the Berlin Wall
31 years old when the space shuttle Challenger exploded
29 years old when Apple introduced the Macintosh
25 years old at the time the Iran hostage crisis began
21 years old on the U.S.'s bicentennial Fourth of July
19 years old when President Nixon left office
14 years old at the time the first man stepped on the moon
13 years old when Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated
10 years old during the Watts riot
9 years old at the time President Kennedy was assassinated
2 years old when the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 was launched

[Thanks to Jo Ann]

Addendum: For the amusement of my kids I have a small Excel spreadsheet which calculates the age in days of everyone in my family. It's a little disconcerting, however, to see that I'm 18787 days old. However, unfutz is only 943 days old, which means that I've been blogging for a little over 5% of my life.

Ed Fitzgerald | 3/30/2006 10:07:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Fascism defined, redux

In an earlier post I listed Ernest Nolte's key characteristics of fascism, which were:
  1. Strong belief that--through social darwinism--morality is ultimately tied to blood and race, understood as descent and genetic relationship.

  2. Strong rejection of the classical "liberal" belief that individuals have rights that any legitimate state is bound to respect.

  3. In its place, an assertion that individuals have duties to the state, seen as the decision-making organ of the collectivity.

  4. A rejection of parliamentary democracy and other bottom-up institutions to assess the general will.

  5. The assertion that the general will is formed by the decrees of the leader.

  6. A strong fear of twentieth-century Communism, and an eagerness to adapt and use its weapons--suspension of parliaments, mass propaganda, rallies, street violence, and so forth--to fight it.

Now, from Free Inquiry magazine and the website of the Council for Secular Humanism, Laurence W. Britt lays out 14 basic characteristics common to fascist regimes:

  1. Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism.

  2. Disdain for the importance of human rights.

  3. Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause.

  4. The supremacy of the military/avid militarism.

  5. Rampant sexism.

  6. A controlled mass media.

  7. Obsession with national security.

  8. Religion and ruling elite tied together.

  9. Power of corporations protected.

  10. Power of labor suppressed or eliminated.

  11. Disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts.

  12. Obsession with crime and punishment.

  13. Rampant cronyism and corruption.

  14. Fraudulent elections.

Britt came up with these after studying seven fascist regimes: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, Papadopoulos’s Greece, Pinochet’s Chile, and Suharto’s Indonesia. (Read the article for more.)

[via A Rational Being]

Update: In his The Anatomy of Fascism (2004), Robert O. Paxton writes:

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.


I believe that the ideas that underlie fascist actions are best deduced from those actions, for some of them remain unstated and implicit in fascist public language. Man of them belong more to the realm of visceral feelings than tot he realm of reasoned propositions. [I call] them "mobilizing passions":
  • a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions;

  • the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it;

  • the belief that one's group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external;

  • dread of the group's decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;

  • the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary;

  • the need for authority by natural chiefs (always male), culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group's historical destiny;

  • the superiority of the leader's instincts over abstract and universal reason;

  • the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the groups success;

  • the right of the chosen people to dominate other without restraint from any human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group's prowess within a Darwinian struggle.
Fascism according to this definition, as well as behavior in keeping with these feelings, is still visible today. Fascism exists [in a preliminary stage] within all democratic countries -- not excluding the United States. "Giving up free institutions," especially the freedoms of unpopular groups, is recurrently attractive to citizens of Western democracies, including some Americans.

[Typos mine -- Ed]

Update 2: In 1995, Umberto Eco published in the New York Review of Books an essay on "Ur-Fascism", or "Eternal Fascism," an excerpt from which was subsequently published in the Utne Reader. Eco has his own list of 14 characteristics of ur-fascism, which he introduced in this way:

In spite of some fuzziness regarding the difference between various historical forms of fascism, I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.

Eco's 14 characteristic are these (see the article itself for more specifics):

  1. The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition.

  2. Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism.

  3. Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action's sake.

  4. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism.

  5. Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity.

  6. Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration.

  7. To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country.

  8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies.

  9. For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.

  10. Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak.

  11. In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero.

  12. Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters.

  13. Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say.

  14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak.

Eco concludes:

Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier for us if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, "I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Blackshirts to parade again in the Italian squares." Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances — every day, in every part of the world. Franklin Roosevelt's words of November 4, 1938, are worth recalling: "If American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land." Freedom and liberation are an unending task.

Update (4/4): Based on Britt's article (see above) this site illustrates 12 warning signs of fascism. [via Indie Newsfare]

Update (8/31): To see if the nonce characterisation "Islamofascist" (or "Islamic fascist") makes any particular sense, Digby looks to the writings of Mussolini, the founder of the original fascismo movement, for his definition of fascism. Here are the bullet points:

  • The Fascist accepts life and loves it, knowing nothing of and despising suicide: he rather conceives of life as duty and struggle and conquest, but above all for others -- those who are at hand and those who are far distant, contemporaries, and those who will come after...

  • The foundation of Fascism is the conception of the State, its character, its duty, and its aim. Fascism conceives of the State as an absolute, in comparison with which all individuals or groups are relative, only to be conceived of in their relation to the State. The conception of the Liberal State is not that of a directing force, guiding the play and development, both material and spiritual, of a collective body, but merely a force limited to the function of recording results: on the other hand, the Fascist State is itself conscious and has itself a will and a personality -- thus it may be called the "ethic" State

  • The Fascist State organizes the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the State alone
Early warning signs of Fascism

Note: Images added on 1/8/2008. -- EF

Ed Fitzgerald | 3/29/2006 11:56:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


They lie, they lie, they lie, they lie

...and we know they do, but why do they lie so badly, and in ways that can be so easily refuted? It must be some deep-seated insecurity that the nature of reality is not at all what they portray it to be, so they're compelled to lie about it.

It's pretty amazing.

Just to sum up, this picture was claimed by a wingnut politician (Howard Kallogian Kaloogian, running in an April special election in the 50th congressional district in California) to be a street in Baghdad during his recent trip there, showing how calm things are in that city, contrary to press reports and the ravings of the lunatic left:

But, in actuality, the picture is of a neighborhood in the Istanbul area, in Turkey:


Update: Various commenters on dKos worked on uncovering the truth about the photo, among them AnthonyLA, daristani and jem6x. TPM Muckraker has more here, here, here and here. Josh Marshall's summary is here and his earlier doubts about the pic are here.

Also, check out Howard Is A

This just in (actually, I just saw it): Tristero explores the neurobiology of the right.

Update: Here's the best Kallogian can do now to show how calm and peaceful Baghdad is, a picture shot from the security of a hotel in the Green Zone:

Once again, pathetic.

Ed Fitzgerald | 3/29/2006 05:24:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


On the edge

I think it's possible that Antonin Scalia, having been passed over for Chief Justice, a job he made pretty clear that he wanted, has fairly much given up controlling his behavior, and is now something very close to a loose cannon. Eliot Gelwan and Kevin Drum have evidence.

(Jonathan Turley calls Scalia the Court's enfant terrible, and, in truth, some of his behavior is pretty infantile.)

Keep an eye on Scalia, he bears watching for signs of increasing arrogance and diminishing self-control.

Update: Atrios has more.

Ed Fitzgerald | 3/29/2006 04:08:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


Big and small

My friend Joan sent me this, although I've seen things like it before -- it displays 39 orders of magnitude, going from 10 million light years out from the Milky Way galaxy (10 to the 23rd meters) all the way down to confronting quarks at 10 to the -16th meters:

Secret Worlds: The Universe Within

Ed Fitzgerald | 3/29/2006 03:58:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


No thanks for the memories

As part of the read-down of my backlog of magazines and newspapers, I read the "Year in Ideas" issue of the New York Times Magazine that appeared on December 11th, and came across this, under the title "False-Memory Diet, The":
According to the results of a study released in August, it is possible to convince people that they don't like certain fattening foods - by giving them false memories of experiences in which those foods made them sick.

The research was conducted by a team including Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, who is known for her previous work showing the malleability of human memory and calling into question the reliability of recovered memories in sexual-abuse cases. She turned her attention to food as a way to see if implanted memories could influence actual behavior.

After initial experiments, in which subjects were persuaded that they became ill after eating hard-boiled eggs and dill pickles as children, the researchers moved on to greater challenges. In the next study, up to 40 percent of participants came to believe a similarly false suggestion about strawberry ice cream - and claimed that they were now less inclined to eat it.

The process of implanting false memories is relatively simple. In essence, according to the paper that Loftus's team published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, subjects are plied with "misinformation" about their food histories. But a number of obstacles remain before members of the general population can use this technique to stay thin. Attempts to implant bad memories about potato chips and chocolate-chip cookies, for instance, failed. "When you have so many recent, frequent and positive experiences with a food," Loftus explains, "one negative thought is not enough to overcome them."

More work is needed to determine if the false-memory effect is lasting and if it is strong enough to withstand the presence of an actual bowl of ice cream. It's also not clear, at this point, how people could choose to undergo the process without thereby becoming less vulnerable to this kind of suggestion.

Nevertheless, the technique does seem to work. Loftus's newest, unpublished studies have looked at whether a memory of a positive experience with a healthy food could be implanted. And indeed, she says, "we can convince people they really loved asparagus the first time they tried it as a kid."

Now as opposed to a district attorney of my former acquaintance, I have a lot of respect for Elizabeth Loftus' work on memory, and the limitations of memory which make eyewitness testimony so much less valuable than we once thought it was, but despite that, I have to say that the idea of deliberately implanting false memories, even in the service of achieving a positive result such as losing weight, even with the permission of the subject, is absolutely horrific to me. The implications are pretty terrifying -- just think what nefarious people could do with such a technique!

Shame on Loftus for pursuing this. It's one thing to implant minor false memories in order to study the nature of memory and how it works, and to help warn us to the unreliable nature of our memories, but this is something far different, and goes beyond what should be done. Our memories, however unreliable they are, are a part of our essential being and shouldn't be screwed around with like this.

Ed Fitzgerald | 3/29/2006 03:37:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


Sidewalk art

[A little light blogging before I get down once again to saving the world. -- Ed]

I'm very glad to read this installation has been refurbished, I always enjoyed walking over it in the years after it was first installed. (I got interested in it after listening to Max Neuhaus's now out of print 1968 LP "Electronics and Percussion: Five Realizations" [Columbia MS 7139], which has pieces by Cage, Stockhausen, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman and Sylvano Bussotti, and a picture of a very shaggy, bare-chested Neuhaus on the front, surrounded by percussion instruments, speakers and batteries.)
Something Fresh Wafting Up From a Times Square Grate: Art


Even in the cacophony of staccato noise that defines Times Square, one sound seems particularly intriguing. Depending on one's ear it is either a continuous oooom-like mantra, a moan, a reverberating bell or an organlike drone.

It can be heard if you stand on or near the grating over a subway ventilation shaft on the pedestrian island where Broadway and Seventh Avenue intersect south of 46th Street. You can even detect it sometimes aboard the Queens-bound R, N and W trains before they lumber into the West 49th Street subway station. But no tourist map or sign identifies it.

That is the whole point.

"I wanted a work that wouldn't need indoctrination," says Max Neuhaus, the artist who created the work, which he calls a sound sculpture. "The whole idea is that people discover it for themselves. They can't explain it. They take possession of it as their own discovery. They couldn't do that if it were labeled 'An Artwork by Max Neuhaus.' "

Mr. Neuhaus was born in Texas, grew up in Westchester and attended the Manhattan School of Music. He wanted to be a jazz drummer.

"I happened to be passing through Times Square and I walked across that island and knew I would do something there," he recalled. What he did was create what he called "an impossibility within its context" — a "rich, harmonic sound texture resembling the after-ring of large bells."

Since the artwork, which is called "Times Square," was installed in the subway ventilation shaft in 1977, the sound and its source have been discovered by, among others, a subway track worker. He found the phone number that Mr. Neuhaus had left, and called to say that the machine was making quite a racket. "You better come fix it," he said.

A homeless man moved in after Mr. Neuhaus, who in 1992 was preparing to move to Europe, had disconnected it but had not yet removed it.

Four years ago, several groups and individuals collaborated to bring the sound sculpture back. The collaborators — a Manhattan gallery owner, Christine Burgin; the Times Square Alliance (the neighborhood Business Improvement District) ; Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of The New York Times; the Metropolitan Transportation Authority; the owners of several nearby buildings; and the Dia Art Foundation — spent about $150,000. The sonic instruments and loudspeakers use about as much electricity as a 20-watt bulb.

Laura Raicovich, Dia's director of external affairs, described the sound as "highly experiential — you don't just hear, you step into it, you understand your environment in a different way." She added: "It's an unusual, modulating tone that you can't quite place. That's what sets it apart from all the noise in Times Square. It slows the pace of perception."

Dia commissioned Mr. Neuhaus, 66, to make another sound sculpture, to be installed at its permanent galleries in Beacon, N.Y., this summer.

Sound, Mr. Neuhaus said in a telephone interview from his home in Capri, Italy, "doesn't exist in time, it exists it place," and in contrast to sight, sound is "a more direct channel to the unconscious."

Today, Times Square looks very different from the place that Max Neuhaus happened upon 30 years ago.

"Now, it's been taken over and programmed; it's more deliberate," he said. "But the piece still works."

His "Times Square" is a rare constant at the very crossroad of contained chaos. If you're not on your cellphone or listening to your iPod, you might stop a moment and decide for yourself: What's that sound?
If you're in the Times Square area, take a listen -- 46th Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue, in the grating in the middle of the downtown end of the traffic island which has the TKTS booth at the uptown end.

[New York Times]

Ed Fitzgerald | 3/29/2006 02:46:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Daniel Dennett and 9/11

As I mentioned earlier, I'll be posting some excerpts from Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion As A Natural Phenomenon in the coming days, but I didn't want to let the day pass without acknowledging that today is Dennett's 64th birthday.

Happy birthday, Professor Dennett.

Here's a brief excerpt from Breaking the Spell I happen to have handy. It's not about religion, but bears on the argument Dennett makes in the book:
Since September 11, 2001, I have often thought that perhaps it was fortunate for the world that the attackers targeted the World Trade Center instead of the Statue of Liberty, for if they had destroyed our sacred symbol of democracy I fear we as Americans would have been unable to keep ourselves from indulging in paroxysms of revenge of a sort the world has never seen before. If that had happened, it would have befouled the meaning of the Statue of Liberty beyond any hope of subsequent redemption -- if there were any people left to care. I have learned from my students that this upsetting thought of mine is subject to several unfortunate misconstruals, so let me expand on it to ward them off. The killing of thousands of innocents in the World Trade Center was a heinous crime, much more evil than the destruction of the Statue of Liberty would have been. And, yes, the World Trade Center was a much more appropriate symbol of al Qaeda's wrath than the Statue of Liberty would have been, but for that very reason it didn't mean as much, as a symbol, to us. It was Mammon and Plutocrats and Globalization, not Lady Liberty. I do suspect that the fury with which Americans would have responded to the unspeakable defilement of our cherished national symbol, the purest image of our aspirations as a democracy, would have made a sane and measured response extraordinarily difficult. This is the great danger of symbols -- they can become too "sacred". An important task for religious people of all faiths in the twenty-first century will be spreading the conviction that there are no acts more dishonorable than harming "infidels" of one stripe or another for "disrespecting" flag, a cross, a holy text.

Friends I sent this to last week were doubtful that having the Statue of Liberty destroyed in this way would provoke the kind of response Dennett posits, but I'm not so sure. Symbols are tremendously powerful things, and it's taken a lot less to provoke warfare in the past.

A few other thoughts on this interesting passage. First, thinking locally, I mentioned to out-of-town friends shortly after 9/11 that the Twin Towers were by no means a beloved feature of the landscape here in New York. They were there, they dominated the skyline downtown, but no one really much liked them, so the response to their destruction (apart from the horror of the deaths involved, which is another matter altogether) was somewhat strange. They were there, and then they were gone, and we miss them (still), but the buildings as buildings didn't mean much to us.

Now, if the terrorists had attacked, instead, the Empire State Building, that would have been another thing entirely. For one, because of the way it was constructed, it probably wouldn't have fallen down, and many, many less people might have lost their lives, but even if the building had remained standing, and been repaired, an attack on that icon of New York would have gone much more to our hearts, and, as Dennett reasons, would have made it much more difficult for New Yorkers (specifically) to think rationally about what kind of response was appropriate. Dennett's argument about the Statue of Liberty -- a more general, national icon -- and the reaction to its destruction by Americans across the country thus would also strongly apply to New Yorkers and the Empire State Building.

But that didn't happen, the World Trade Center, as a building or a piece of property, had little iconic or symbolic value to us here in New York, or to the nation as a whole (and the symbolic value of the Pentagon is mixed as best), so the initial American response to the attacks of 9/11 could be, and in general was, appropriate to the scale and nature of the attack, and measured to obtain a specific and confined set of goals, the overthrow of the Taliban, the break up or disruption of al Qaeda, and the capture of bin Laden. (Not that we achieved all those things, but that was the legitimate aim of the invasion of Afghanistan.)

It also has to be said, again, that the extended use of the attacks of 9/11 as justification for the invasion of Iraq was not appropriate, and not in any way a measured response. It is, in fact, an example of just the kind of overreaction that Dennett is afraid might have occured if they had gone after the Statue of Liberty. Bush pumped up the significance of the attacks and used them to bootstrap the invasion of Iraq, utilizing false "intelligence" and outright lies about Saddam's relationship to al Qaeda, and managed to do exactly what Dennett feared might happen -- he besmirched the reputation of the US for decade to come, made us into essentially an overburdened bystander in the Middle East instead of a true player, unable to act either as an honest broker or as one with an enlightened self-interest in the region. We can only be seen there as a bully with a stick that's not quite as big as the neo-cons thought it was.

So without even attacking the Statue of Liberty, thanks to the miscalculations, intransigence, stupidity and ideological blindness of Bush and Cheney and their advisors, that icon's global symbolic value has been drastically decreased.

Way to go Bush, helping the terrorists to do their dirty work. What a putz.

Update: Other excerpts from Breaking the Spell are here. here and here.

Ed Fitzgerald | 3/28/2006 11:59:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


2005 Koufax Awards

Finalists for the 2005 Koufax Awards for liberal/left weblogs have been posted on Wampum blog. The short lists for Best Blog are:


Carpetbagger Report
Crooks and Liars
Progressive Blog Digest


Daou Report
Media Matters
Political Animal
Talking Points Memo
Think Progress
James Wolcott

I'm not familiar with a couple of these blogs, but I'm surely going to check them out soon. The others are excellent, among the very best of the best. Be sure to cast your own vote.

Update: Accch! See what happens when you don't read the blogs every minute of every day? -- you completely miss the fact that voting for the Koufax ended this past Sunday, and you make a fool of yourself by telling people to go and vote! What a maroon!

Oh well, that's life. Now I don't have to decide which of these great blogs to vote for, which was going to be a problem for me.

Ed Fitzgerald | 3/28/2006 12:47:00 AM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE

Monday, March 27, 2006

Back in the saddle again

Well, that was a bit longer break than I expected -- my laptop's keyboard went on the fritz, but since the touchpad still worked I could still surf the Web and read various sites, I just couldn't comment, or post, or input anything. As long as there was a hyperlink to follow, I was fine, but otherwise I was stymied (I thank Wikpedia's designers for including an A-to-Z interface, it helped me out a lot). I dithered about bringing the machine in to be repaired because I didn't want to be almost totally cut off (not to mention that I couldn't afford it), but I finally bit the bullet and added to our credit card debt. My computer came back this afternoon, a day earlier than I expected, and I'm catching up on various things now. I hope to be back to regular posting as of tomorrow.

I used my break to read down my backlog of newspapers and magazines (did you ever read 18 weeks of the Sunday NY Times' "Week in Review" in one sitting?), to finish
Jared Diamond's Collapse and read Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion As A Natural Phenomenon, as well as to pick up his Freedom Evolves from where I put it down almost a year ago. I also read some of Jonathan Lethem's short writing -- so I wasn't idle. I'll be posting about some of this stuff later on, especially some excerpts from Breaking the Spell.

In other news, my good friend Roger Keeling will be posting here occasionally, which pleases me greatly -- he's one smart guy and a very good writer, and he has the good taste to agree with me most of the time.

Ed Fitzgerald | 3/27/2006 10:28:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


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the story so far
unfutz: toiling in almost complete obscurity for almost 1500 days
2005 koufax awards


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If you read unfutz at least once a week, without fail, your teeth will be whiter and your love life more satisfying.

If you read it daily, I will come to your house, kiss you on the forehead, bathe your feet, and cook pancakes for you, with yummy syrup and everything.

(You might want to keep a watch on me, though, just to avoid the syrup ending up on your feet and the pancakes on your forehead.)

Finally, on a more mundane level, since I don't believe that anyone actually reads this stuff, I make this offer: I'll give five bucks to the first person who contacts me and asks for it -- and, believe me, right now five bucks might as well be five hundred, so this is no trivial offer.

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© 2003-2008
Ed Fitzgerald


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