Friday, January 11, 2008

While I'm Bashing Hillary....

Let's remember one of Molly Ivins' last columns: I Will Not Support Hillary Clinton for President, which sums it up pretty well.

Don't get me wrong, I'll pull the lever (okay, fill in the bubble; we have optical scan here in Massachusetts) for Hillary if she's the nominee. But still. It'd be nice to not have Bush/Clinton/Bush/Clinton. You know, not an aristocracy.

Why I Read Scalzi

Scalzi unloads with both barrels on the current political situation. My favorite bit:

These are reasons that I can’t help but think the GOP would rather face Obama than Clinton in the general election: because I doubt she’s as unpopular as some folks want to believe, and also, when it comes right down to wallowing in the pig shit and going after your opponent with a splintery baseball bat, no one does it better than the Clintons, and the GOP is out of practice dealing with an opponent who not only hits back but is out to break your fucking skull. Obama’s already been marked as someone who wants to take the high road, which is to say, he’s a sitting duck for a smearing, and we all know how the GOP loves a soft target. The Clinton’s aren’t going to put up with that crap. The first 527 to try to Swift Boat Clinton is likely to get its collective ass handed to it.

If Hillary would actually campaign on a platform of "I will break their fucking skulls if they get in my way", I might actually feel inclined to vote for her. But she (and Bill too) has shown time and again that she's willing -- eager -- to triangulate when she doesn't even need to (e.g. co-sponsoring flag burning amendments or voting to call Iran's Revolutionary Guard (Iran's Army) a "terrorist organization"). Sure, the Clintons will pull out the knives to get elected -- but will they do so to fight for an actual policy agenda once elected?

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Jane Austen, Vampire Slayer?

We got our monthly PBS Home Video catalog a day or two ago. It's got Jane Austen all over it, since PBS is showing all the various Jane Austen movies/miniseries this month. On the cover is a truly creepy picture from the cover of the Persuasion DVD:


It's a little less obvious in this digital picture, but the catalog cover version makes the woman (presumably Anne Elliot) look like a vampire from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show. It's fairly spooky.

Now, let's see, where was the Slayer while Jane Austen was writing? A Buffy/Jane Austen mashup sounds like it'd be fun...but clearly I am not the only one with this idea, as this google search nets 63,000 hits.

F, it's Warm

It's 64° F here. In January. Less than a week ago, it was 6° F

Next up: rains of frogs.

In other climate news, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby this past weekend continued his streak of being a schmuck by basically saying "it's cold! This disproves global warming!" This is the sort of breathtakingly inane, willfully ignorant, and most of all cliché statement that should automatically trigger derisive laughter. Others in this category include "I'm not          ist -- some of my best friends are         ", "gay marriage undermines heterosexual marriage", and "I went to college in Boston" to faux-humbly obscure that one went to Harvard.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Are Mormons any Funnier than Christians?

Today's New York Times Magazine has an article about Mitt Romney, Mormonism, and politics. The the article doesn't really add much to my knowledge or understanding of Mormons and politics, but then again I'm a political junkie, and live in Massachusetts, where Mitt Romney was governor (and where he lived for 30 years, raised his kids, and now slags on as part of his protean campaign for the Republican nomination).

The article does include one paragraph I found very thought-provoking:

Still, even among those who respect Mormons personally, it is still common to hear Mormonism's tenets dismissed as ridiculous. This attitude is logically indefensible insofar as Mormonism is being compared with other world religions. There is nothing inherently less plausible about God's revealing himself to an upstate New York farmer in the early years of the Republic than to the pharaoh's changeling grandson in ancient Egypt. But what is driving the tendency to discount Joseph Smith's revelations is not that they seem less reasonable than those of Moses; it is that the book containing them is so new. When it comes to prophecy, antiquity breeds authenticity. Events in the distant past, we tend to think, occurred in sacred, mythic time. Not so revelations received during the presidencies of James Monroe or Andrew Jackson.

I've wondered about this aspect of religion-in-public-life before. Is there any rational (as opposed to merely rationalized) basis for mocking the Mormon or Scientologist religious stories (or, for that matter, those of Heaven's Gate or other cults) but not those of mainstream Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and so on?

Full disclosure time: I'm an atheist. I find the supernatural/theological content of most religions to be bunk. (Aram says I worship the top quark, which is metaphorically true -- I suppose this makes me a Unitarian physicist.) I was raised in a fairly standard mainstream Protestant Christian (Presbyterian, to be exact) household, and to complete the stereotype, I am a preacher's kid.

I do feel an urge to give a something of a pass to older religions, at least to the followers thereof who don't take their founding texts literally. The question is: is this merely familiarity? Antiquity giving a patina of respectability? Or is it the actual content? Or something more meta?

It might be the content. Both Mormon and Scientologist "history" make some fairly silly factual/historical claims (with L. Ron beating Joseph Smith on the silliness meter, but he had the advantage of being a science fiction writer). The stories of Jesus of Nazareth are actually much less miraculous than the stories of Genesis. Don't get me wrong -- the Christian Gospels are full of miracles, but they're all relatively small in scale. Raising the dead is pretty amazing, but it was one guy, not millions. Walking on water is cool, but it's again, one guy. Loaves and fishes and water into wine? Both one-time, one-gathering things. And even the Resurrection? One guy, one-time event. Compared to Moses (parting the Red Sea, Ten Commandments [all various versions], plagues, etc.), Jesus' miracles are pretty darn local. ("Think globally, miracle locally"?) If you take away the miracles (or take them as metaphor, or whatever), though, there's actually a fair amount of story left.

Aside: one of the things I find weirdest about fundamentalist/literalist Christians is how much (i.e. basically all) of their issues (e.g. with evolution) are from the Old Testament. As Lewis Black put it, "it's not their book!".

So maybe it's not the content specifically -- Jesus visiting the lost tribes of Israel over in North America after the Resurrection, or Thetans visiting Earth in DC-9-resembling spaceships parked in volcanoes, aren't all that much crazier than Great Floods or Red Seas Parting, or the whole Garden of Eden thing. Maybe it's the literalism. I find Christian Biblical Literalism to be ludicrous in the abstract and scary in the concrete, and I have similar responses to both Mormonism and Scientology. (By the way, I do not consider it coincidental that Romney is running for President fairly soon after Tom Cruise jumped the couch. There's nothing like a newer cult/religion to legitimize a slightly older one by contrast.)

But I think it's more than just literalism vs. metaphor here. I think it really comes under the heading of presentism. I guess I consider anything after the Enlightenment to be part of the modern "now", and wonder how anyone in the modern era could ever take something like the literal claims of Mormonism or Scientology seriously. And I'm willing to give a pass to older established religions because People Back Then were ignorant and superstitious, lacking Our Modern Perspective.

The only wiggle room I see for getting out of my self-diagnosed Presentism is to say that since we don't actually know with good documentary evidence how most of the well-established religions started, People Back Then might not have taken things as literally as we assume, while we know a lot about the start of Mormonism and Scientology, because they're within modern historical (and in the case of Scientology, living) memory. But I think that's a pretty weak wiggle.

And since I find literalist adherents of older established religions to be as silly as literalist Mormons or Scientologists, I guess that settles it for my position: all religions are full of historical claims that are deeply sily and at odds with the evidence of the world. Anyone who takes those claims literally is choosing willful falsehood over evidence-based science. That's their choice. It's not what I'd want for myself, and it's certainly not what I want in a President.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Thanks, Blogger

Apparently, in Blogger, if you save a post, and then post it later, the timestamp is stuck at save-time, not post-time, so your post shows up below any more recently-started posts. That sucks.

I refer to this review of Charles Stross's latest books. So even though it's below my more recent post, that's actually new.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

F, it's Cold

10° F here now, going down to 6 overnight. I expect that the gas company will be very happy that I will be paying them a huge amount of money this month.

Zetetical was just whining about flying to Florida from 50° weather in the Northeast. Quitcher whining. But no rubbing it in!

Obligatory political jab: this is the first time this winter that our temperature (in ° F) has gone below George W. Bush's approval rating (in batshit-insane percent).

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Book Reviews: Stross Stuff

I've recently read Charles Stross's latest two books, Glasshouse (June 2006) and Halting State (October 2007). I read Halting State first.

Halting State is a virtual-world whodunit, centering around a virtual bank heist inside a MMORPG. The novel's structure is three intertwined second-person narratives (apparently a nod to second-person text adventure games). The three plot threads work fairly well, but the second-person viewpoint doesn't work as well as it could have -- I found at least two (and sometimes all three) of the characters basically interchangeable. It's a fun near-future romp in the fields of Charlie Stross's mind, but it's not his best book. (I feel like he took some experimental chances for this one but they didn't fully work. But good for him to be taking chances.)

Glasshouse is a seriously disturbing book (or at least I found it so). The first-person (present-tense) narrator, Robin, is a veteran of the Censorship Wars (during which the wormhole/teleporter network was hacked by seriously Bad Guys) who has had a big chunk of his memories removed surgically in an attempt to -- well, he's not sure, since he can't remember. While in a rehab environment, he joins an "experimental anthropology" study wherein he and other humans will be put inside an isolated environment and will try to recreate late-20th century culture (since by the 27th Century when the book takes place, history has been mostly blasted into oblivion).

It takes the first quarter or third of the book to get Robin into the experiment (complete with a new, female, body and a new name, "Reeve"), at which point the whole novel becomes an astonishing and stomach-churning investigation into both the social structure of a stereotypical 1950's U.S. suburb and social experiments. The investigators mix panopticon surveillance (thus the Glasshouse of the title) with social status incentive structures that make the Stasi seem like your neighborhood Girl Scouts. Some of the other participants take to the experiment like ducks to water and turn into the worst kind of people -- think high school "popular kids" raised to the Nth power. I was forcefully reminded of the Stanford Prison Experiment, and Stross even places a "Zimbardo protocol" reference in later (Philip Zimbardo ran the Stanford Prison Experiment). (Somewhat unrelated to the story, there seem to be a large sprinkling of Cordwainer Smith references in the book.)

Robin/Reeve quickly realizes that something is seriously wrong with the experiment and starts making plans to escape. I won't spoil any more of the plot, but I will say that it unfolds very effectively and concludes satisfyingly.

Bottom line: Halting State: fun, but it will date quickly like most near-future SF. Glasshouse: highly recommended unless you still have nightmares about high school social structures.

Attend the Tale....

The Spouse and I saw Sweeney Todd the other day. It's really good. Gruesome (in ways that the stage version can't be), but really good.

Johnny Depp, I forgive you for dating Winona Ryder.

Johnny Depp can actually sing. Helena Bonham Carter can mostly sing, though her voice is a bit thin for the part of Mrs. Lovett. The kid they got to play Toby is fantastic. Alan Rickman as Judge Turpin is, well, Alan Rickman.

My only complaints: no "Ballad Of Sweeney Todd" (apparently it's "too theatrical" -- they apparrently filmed something but ended up not putting it in), not even over the end credits; too many shots of Sweeney Todd's victims' bodies falling down into the basement (it's the landing part of that that clearly was giving Tim Burton the Happies); and not enough Anthony Stewart Head (who is in there for about three seconds; he was originally going to be part of the "Ballad of Sweeney Todd" chorus but that didn't work out).

Highly recommended. But not for the faint of stomach.