Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Is Wikipedia the worst offender in ruining the Rorschach test?

The New York Times lets us know that the Wikipedia entry for "Rorschach test" includes reproductions of all the ink blots (which aren't copyrighted). And watch out -- the whole thing is really dramatic and exciting, as the Times makes sure you're aware by telling you how angry everyone is:

[I]n the last few months, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia has been engulfed in a furious debate involving psychologists who are angry that the 10 original Rorschach plates are reproduced online, along with common responses for each. For them, the Wikipedia page is the equivalent of posting an answer sheet to next year’s SAT.

They are pitted against the overwhelming majority of Wikipedia’s users, who share the site’s “free culture” ethos, which opposes the suppression of information that it is legal to publish....

“The only winners seem to be those for whom this issue has become personal, and who see this as a game in which victory means having their way,” one Wikipedia poster named Faustian wrote on Monday, adding, “Just don’t pretend you are doing anything other than harming scientific research.”

What had been a simmering dispute over the reproduction of a single plate reached new heights in June when James Heilman, an emergency-room doctor from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, posted images of all 10 plates to the bottom of the article about the test, along with what research had found to be the most popular responses for each.

“I just wanted to raise the bar — whether one should keep a single image on Wikipedia seemed absurd to me, so I put all 10 up,” Dr. Heilman said in an interview. “The debate has exploded from there.”
Wow! OK, I understand the psychologists' point. I do think they should consider seeing a psychiatrist about their explosive anger.

But they shouldn't pretend that this is anything new. I've had a book called Big Secrets, by William Poundstone, since the mid '90s. Now, that book isn't as bad as Wikipedia -- it's worse. See, the Wikipedia page gives extremely sparse descriptions of potential answers, like this:
Plate 2 (two humans)
That's Wikipedia's entire description of Plate 2 (aside from reprinting the plate itself). In contrast, the Big Secrets book says this about the same plate:
It is important to see this blot as two human figures -- usually females or clowns. If you don't, it's seen as a sign that you have trouble relating to people. You may give other responses as well, such as cave entrance (the triangular white space between the two figures) and butterfly (the red "vagina," bottom center).

Should you mention the penis and vagina? Not necessarily.... You may not say that the lower red area looks like a vagina, but psychologists assume that what you do say will show how you feel about women. Nix on "crab"; stick with "butterfly."
The book gives similarly revealing analyses for all the plates.

Oh, but isn't it disingenuous of me to suggest that Big Secrets and Wikipedia are equally important? Come on -- Wikipedia is on the internet, and we all know that's what people read these days, right?

First of all, I wish people would be more explicit about their assumptions. If we're supposed to know that intelligent people are more likely to turn to Wikipedia than books for information, then fine -- let's say that openly. But let's also remember that point when it comes time to debate whether Wikipedia is a second-class or first-class source of knowledge.

But anyway, Big Secrets actually is available on the internet -- on Amazon. You can find it by searching for [rorschach], and it's the first result if you search for [rorschach secrets]. From there, you can read all the salacious details about the ink blots, since Amazon allows you to search the book's full text. So let's see the psychologists channel some of their rage against William Poundstone and Amazon.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Are we having the often-called-for "national conversation on race" yet?

John McWhorter looks at the recent evidence -- the Gates/Crowley incident, Obama's NAACP speech, the Sotomayor confirmation hearings, the Ricci case -- and says yes.

Of course, many people are going to keep repeating that we need to have a national conversation on race. What's going on?

McWhorter explains:

The people itching whenever blacks are reminded that they are masters of their fate--i.e. that they are human--do not set the terms of The Conversation in 2009 and never will again. They are, today, a powerless minority, overrepresented among academics and writers and good for TV hits, but out of step with how the largest number of black people think. A black professor I will not name tried putting over the “you are powerless victims” message on a mostly black bookstore audience a few years ago and met so much resistance things almost got ugly. ...

If it were to come out the way the naysayers want it to--and think about how odd and tragic it is that so many want the situation to be worse than it is--then the New Haven firefighters’ test would include questions about whether Bordeaux is a kind of Sauvignon Blanc, Sonia Sotomayor would have been asked why she thought a Latina was qualified to sit on the Supreme Court at all, Obama’s NAACP speech would have made a joke about welfare queens, and Gates would have been stopped in his car and pulled out and slammed against a wall for asking why.

Only in that America would we need to have a Conversation on Race different from the one we are having. That one acknowledges something the professional Cassandras, despite their keen minds and extensive educations, cannot: progress that is incomplete, yet so vast that the lenses of the old days are no longer of use.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Filler

I plan on doing little to no blogging for the next week or so, as I'll be using most of my free time moving into a new apartment.

In the meantime, for those of you loyal readers who don't want to be entirely without the Jaltcoh blog for so long, I offer a few options:

(1) You can try the "random post" link over to the right -- you just might happen upon a timeless old post that you somehow missed the first time.

(2) You can keep yourself informed, edified, or entertained by clicking any of the links in the sidebar. (Does anyone besides me ever click those?)

(3) Feel free to talk about whatever you want in the comments of this post...

Friday, July 24, 2009

What are the best songs of the 2000s?

I turned to AskMetafilter for advice on a list of the best songs of the 2000s. You'll be able to find it here on the blog, but it won't be posted till later in the year.

[UPDATE: Here's the list!]

For now, here are the suggestions from the nice folks at Metafilter. They absolutely floored me with over 100 answers, many of them recommending multiple songs. What do you think?



(Photo of St. Vincent by "sushiesque.")

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Basil Wolverton: equal-opportunity cruelty

Today's New York Times has a detailed piece on the Basil Wolverton exhibit in New York City, including a slideshow of highlights from the exhibit.

I'd like to think their interest in the exhibit was piqued by the blog posts by me and my mom.

The author of the Times piece, Holland Cutter, says:

Wolverton’s art — I’ll use the word, though he shied away from it — could be incredibly cruel. The heads he drew look dreadfully diseased, or like genetic catastrophes, or like beings melted and scarred in an atomic blast.
Cutter then says that "his work comes across as spectacularly misogynistic," but he doesn't explain how that statement is consistent with his observation that "he turns men into freaks too." Based on what I've seen, he was at least as cruel to men, and he chose male subjects more often than women. (I'm excluding his caricatures of real people.)

As long as we're going to look at the art through a politically correct lens, wouldn't a more straightforward criticism be that his cartoons are offensive to people with actual deformities?

But why not judge for yourself? The exhibit runs till August 14 at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery, which is on 515 W. 24th St. (between 10th and 11th Ave.) in the Chelsea neighborhood of NYC. If you happen to be nearby, I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"Who do you trust?"

Encylcopedia BritannicaGood question!

Here are some of Joel Achenbach's answers:

Google and Wikipedia are pretty good, but they're just starting points in the quest to find out what's going on....

I trust nature, resilient and resourceful as it has shown itself to be for some 4 billion years in these parts.

I trust the scientific method, for being so relentlessly self-correcting, and for having the courage to view truth as provisional.

I trust the future. Could be foolish. But trust always has an element of faith. I trust the future to give us a better world. (Cross my fingers.)
Achenbach picked up the "Who do you trust?" meme from this nicely short Washington Post piece, in which Philip Kennicott asks the same question in the wake of the death of Walter Cronkite. Kennicott writes:
It was deeply disturbing, but not terribly surprising, to learn that under the guidance of a stern man in a lab coat, ordinary people would torture innocent victims in the infamous Milgram experiment carried out at Yale University. Cronkite was a white man in a tie, with a calm, reassuring voice, and he could have talked us into almost anything, if he wanted to. But his legacy is a paradox: We trusted him to teach us to trust less.

The nostalgia for Cronkite is nostalgia not for a lost golden age, but for a brief time when three large media corporations held a monopoly on the airwaves, when trust could be sorted out easily and quickly with the shorthand of race, class and education....

But there is no aura of trust that public figures can put on like a bespoke suit. Trust has been shattered into a million little pieces, which was, perversely, the name of a dubious memoir endorsed by Oprah, unofficially the most trusted woman in America. Replacing it is a host of smaller and more precise ideas. Transparency. Authenticity. Accuracy. A different world, and not necessarily a worse one.
(Photo of Encyclopedia Brittanica by Stewart Butterfield.)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

"'We’re looking at a problem that could be as bad as drunk driving, and the government has covered it up.'"

Congress suppressed a federal agency's empirical study that warned of the high risk of driving while talking on a cell phone, including hands-free. The apparent reason: Congress didn't want the agency to lobby states based on the research, especially on the issue of hands-free phones.

"The highway safety researchers estimated that cellphone use by drivers caused around 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents over all in 2002."

If the New York Times' report is accurate down to each and every insinuation, then Congress has, in effect, chosen to injure and kill innocent Americans in order to keep voters happy.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Crime is dropping in cities across the United States; experts baffled

The Washington Post reports:

Violent crime has plummeted in the Washington area and in major cities across the country, a trend criminologists describe as baffling and unexpected.

[Washington, DC], New York and Los Angeles are on track for fewer killings this year than in any other year in at least four decades. Boston, San Francisco, Minneapolis and other cities are also seeing notable reductions in homicides.

"Experts did not see this coming at all," said Andrew Karmen, a criminologist and professor of sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Maybe the criminologists are systematically ruling out certain possible explanations.

Maybe if the facts are so baffling to them, they should consider changing their theories.

I keep reading about how the United States has too many people incarcerated. Isn't it possible that our policy hasn't been totally irrational, but is actually working?

Another post for my "experts" tag.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Walter Cronkite is dead at 92.

He's from before my time, so I can't say he means very much to me. But when I saw he had died, I thought of the same thing many people will be watching (and I'm sure many bloggers will be linking to) this weekend:



I don't have anything more to say about Walter Cronkite. I don't think there's much reason to feel sad about someone dying at 92.

The above clip is from HuffPo, which also has Cronkite's first news broadcast. I didn't watch the whole thing, but I was most interested to see what the cigarette commercial was like, back when they were allowed on TV:



Paxton! Humiflex! Fortified with pectin! The filter you hope for! The flavor you smoke for!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Away We Go

In my list of things we did in NYC, I included seeing the movie Away We Go in a Chelsea theatre. So, what did we think?

I said in a Facebook status update:

John Althouse Cohen saw Away We Go and it was OK.
Someone asked:
What's that one about? How do I not know about this?
I responded:
John Krasinski (Jim from The Office) and Maya Rudolph (from SNL) are in a relationship, and she unexpectedly gets pregnant. They realize they aren't tied down by anything, so they go on a trip to multiple cities (including Madison, WI), visiting friends and family to try to figure out what kind of life they want to have together.
(I mentioned Madison because the person I was talking to and I both grew up there.)

Someone else asked:
not oppressively smug as a review I read suggested?
I responded:
It definitely wasn't "oppressively smug." If anything, I wish it had been more ambitious and taken more chances. It was too modest and low-key, though I generally liked the low-key quality. The main characters spend almost all of the movie in a daze -- slowly, passively taking in lessons from one family after another. They come to the underwhelmingly reasonable epiphany that they should try to emulate the families they like and avoid the mistakes they've seen people make.
(The person who asked that question might have been thinking of the New York Times review, which oddly says, "Does it sound as if I hate this movie? Don’t be silly. But don’t be fooled. This movie does not like you.")

The part of the movie in Madison is the most heavy-handedly satirical. It focuses on a surreally flaky, maddeningly judgmental new-age couple. One reviewer said they illustrate the folly of disregarding "human nature," but I think that conclusion is off the mark. For instance, they insist on home births, saying that hospital births are emotionally scarring. They sleep in the same bed as their children and (again) have some theory about why separate bedrooms are harmful. The mother has such a strong objection to using a stroller ("Why would I push my baby away from me?") that she barely conceals her revulsion when the lead characters give her a stroller as a gift. Are any of these things unnatural? I have nothing against strollers or hospital births or parents sleeping in separate beds from their children, but I'll admit that my views aren't based on an allegiance to "human nature." Like just about everyone, I'm willing to dispose of nature when I happen to find it convenient to do so. The problem with the Madison couple isn't that they disregard human nature; on the contrary, they're so off-putting because they exalt the idea of nature and abhor anything that smacks of social construction.

But my favorite lampooning of the Madison left wasn't the couple. It was a brief instant when the lead characters first arrive in town, are walking around the University of Wisconsin campus, and pass by protesters holding a huge sign saying:
THE CIA TRAINED BIN LADEN!
That transported me to my days of being a UW-Madison student in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, bewildered that most people I talked to felt that the only appropriate response to the attacks was to criticize America. The left has a distinctively unfathomable way of being wrong on foreign policy. When conservatives say things about foreign policy that I disagree with, I can at least understand what's driving them. I might disagree with their values or even their facts. (For instance, I disagree with those who say Iraq had WMDs right before we invaded; furthermore, even if Iraq had them, I disagree with the idea that this would have been bad enough to justify going to war.) I can still understand how someone with their set of facts and values could arrive at their conclusion. But when lefties say, with a tone of revelatory self-righteousness, that "we trained bin Laden!," I don't even understand how they get from that assertion to any kind of prescription about what anyone should do in the future.

Back to the movie: my biggest complaint about it isn't whether it was too this or too that (too arrogant, modest, scathing, bland, etc.) in any particular scene. The problem is on a larger scale: the characters start as blank slates and end up as ... blank slates. There's so little conflict in their relationship that they have a running joke about how they need to pretend to get in fights, because they never get in real ones. John Krasinski's character has some not-particularly-interesting struggles in his career path, and these struggles are ... never resolved, just left hanging, as if there were a sequel planned. Maya Rudolph's character starts the movie in the early stage of pregnancy with her first baby, and ends the movie ... in the late stage of pregnancy with the same baby. The movie is all about the fact that these two people are going to be parents of this child, and we never see the child or what they're actually like as parents. None of the families they meet along their road trip has any kind of dramatic arc that we get to witness first-hand; they're all like tableaus that exist for the two lead characters' edification.

I should add that some of my favorite movies have very little conventional plot: My Dinner with Andre, Slacker, Zazie dans le Metro, etc. I'm not one to say, "That movie was terrible -- there was no plot!" But Away We Go is no Slacker and certainly no My Dinner with Andre. It doesn't invite you into a little world that's satisfying on its own terms; it sets you up to expect more of a dramatic pay-off than it delivers. (The adventurous-sounding title is unfortunate.)

Another problem: this movie is nominally a comedy. Danielle and I both agreed that we laughed a few times, but we couldn't remember anything in the movie about which we could honestly say, "That was so funny!" The laughter from the audience usually sounded a bit polite, never uproarious.

The movie looks great, particularly the sets. If you're in the mood for an unusually low-key movie, I'd give a lukewarm recommendation based on overall aesthetics, sweetness, and poignancy. Just don't expect much of anything important to happen. After we watched it, we talked about it for a long time, but not because we had strong reactions (positive or negative). We had a lot to say because it seemed to be made by (and about) such thoughtful, decent, likable people, but it fell so far short of its potential.

Finally, I want to highlight Roger Ebert's perfect response to the reviews that says it's too smug:
Burt and Verona are two characters rarely seen in the movies: thirtysomething, educated, healthy, self-employed, gentle, thoughtful, whimsical, not neurotic and really truly in love. Their great concern is finding the best place and way to raise their child.... For every character like this I’ve seen in the last 12 months, I’ve seen 20, maybe 30, mass murderers....

The almost perfect relationship of the unmarried Verona and Burt seems to survive inside a bubble of their own devising, and since they can blow that bubble anywhere, they of course find the perfect home for it, in a scene of uncommon sunniness. They have been described as implausibly ideal, but you know what? So are their authors, [Dave] Eggers and [Vendela] Vida. They are thirtysomethings. With two children. Novelists and essayists. He publishes McSweeney’s, she edits the Believer.

They are playful but also socially committed. Consider his wonderful project “826 Valencia,” a nonprofit storefront operation in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Boston and Ann Arbor, Mich. It runs free tutoring and writing workshops for young people from ages 6 to 18. The playful part can be seen in San Francisco, where the front of the ground floor is devoted to a Pirate Store. Yes. With eye patches, parrot’s perches, beard dye, peg legs, planks for walking — all your needs.

I submit that Eggers and Vida are admirable people. If their characters find they are superior to many people, well, maybe they are.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Robert Wright's self-contradictory attack on the "new atheists"

Robert Wright, who has a new best-selling book out called The Evolution of God, explains his problem with the "new atheists" -- an unfortunate term that presumably includes Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris (see below for the video version):

I think now it is more acceptable for intellectuals to openly ridicule religion than it was 15 years ago. But anyway, whatever the case . . . this bothers me, and it is part of the motivation for my writing th[e] afterword [in The Evolution of God]. And here's one reason it bothers me. In a way, at the root of that afterword is the belief that . . . being human is hard. . . . I think even harder is trying seriously to lead a moral life and be human.... If somebody is really making an earnest effort to lead a moral life, in the face of all the obstacles ... and really moral by our lights: they're decent, gentle people. They're trying to help. They're not going on jihads and killing people. It makes me just almost nauseous when someone walks up to them and say: "Don't you understand, the basis for this noble struggle is just not as intellectually sophisticated as I am?" OK? That just makes me sick. . . . But John, you do that! [He's talking to John Horgan. -- JAC] You're anti-religion! You want to wipe religion out!




I think that "nauseous" statement is wrong on a few levels.

First, I don't see how Wright could reconcile it with his comments in a diavlog between him and Joel Achenbach (again, scroll down for the video):
Achenbach: Is it not a fact that I asked you a straightforward question, I said -- these are the exact words -- "Bob, is there a God?" And you came up with this sort of Clintonesque answer ... "Depends on what the meaning of 'God' is," or something like that.

Wright: Well, don't you think it kind of does, Joel? I mean, for example, if you defined God as a laptop computer we could both just look around us and go, "Yeah, God exists." So it does depend on the definition.

Achenbach: First of all, it's the entity that's accountable for everything. OK? Has created everything and, ideally, cares about us.

Wright: No, wait, let me read exactly what you said on your little blog -- I mean your blog. You said: "We all know what we mean by God, which is someone who cares about us and has unlimited power." Now, I can tell you right away, that kind of God doesn't exist.

Achenbach: How do you...

Wright: Because if God cared about us and was omnipotent, could do anything, we wouldn't suffer as much as we do, Joel! So that one's easy: no, that kind of God doesn't exist.

Achenbach: OK, I'm glad we cleared that up.

Wright: For crying out loud! But you know, most gods that people have believed in for most of history have not been those kind. They have not been omnipotent. That's, like, this Judeo-Christian, this Abrahamic hang-up.



(Previously blogged here.)


Note that he doesn't just deny the Christian/Jewish/Islamic God's existence, but he also takes a distinctly pugnacious tone (it's "obvious"; the Abrahamic religions have a "hang-up," etc.).

He makes a similar statement in the same diavlog where he makes the above "nauseous" statement:
Horgan: Bob, let me just ask you, right to your virtual face: do you believe in a loving god?

Wright: Do I believe in the sense of having confidence that one exists?

Horgan: Just answer the question, Bob!

Wright: Well, the answer to that is no.*
* I've left in more discussion in the video below. If you watch the video, do you think he accurately characterizes what atheists necessarily believe about morality?





Now, Wright has publicly stated that he was raised devoutly Southern Baptist and rejected the religion. He's said he doesn't strictly follow any religion but is, at most, a "bad Buddhist." If he really believed that Abrahamic religion were essential to being good, presumably he'd still believe in it. But actually, he says that his sense of right and wrong comes from thinking about concrete facts in the world within a utilitarian framework.

Wright doesn't seem that different from Sam Harris, one of the "new atheists" he excoriates. (I don't think Harris is very concerned with disproving the existence of God, hence the scare quotes -- but that's how Wright and others refer to him.)

Both Sam Harris and Bob Wright reject Christianity/Judaism/Islam and prefer a vague Eastern mystical alternative. They both view the world through a modern/secular framework in which science tells a lot about the physical world but doesn't provide everything you need to live a meaningful life. They both recognize that a lot of evil has been done in the name of religion, and that Christian/Jewish/Islamic sacred texts include a contradictory mix of good principles (don't kill, don't steal, give to charity, etc.) and bad ones (advocating or at least condoning violence, slavery, prejudice, etc.).

The main difference I see is that Harris tends to see religion as the cause of things like the Crusades and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Wright thinks that's ridiculous because those conflicts were actually motivated by land disputes. Both of them are being far too confident that they know what would have happened in a world without religion. We'll never know what that counterfactual would have looked like. So I think it's futile to try to point to human behavior -- whether it's war or donating to charity or anything -- and say: "Aha, this was caused by religion! Gee, isn't religion good/bad/___?" Harris and Wright have each decided to adopt a posture -- Harris's being more anti-religion, Wright's being more pro-religion -- and they'll relentlessly interpret the facts to fit this stance.

I also take issue with Wright's language (in the first clip in this post) about how the "new atheists" hold themselves out as being on such a lofty intellectual level that the commoners should defer to their superior intellects. Maybe this is a fair critique of Dawkins's The God Delusion. But I don't think Harris (in The End of Faith) or Hitchens (in God Is Not Great) say anything of the sort. You don't even get that sense from reading between the lines of their books. Those books actually aren't written on an especially high intellectual level. They're easy, fast reads. (I say this as a very slow reader.) The M.O. of both authors is to collect a bunch of facts -- many of which are readily accessible and will be familiar to the average reader -- and make common-sense observations about them.

Another undertone to Wright's "nauseous" comment -- with its vivid language about the new atheists "walking up to" religious people and so on -- is that Harris and Hitchens are simply rude to write their books. (I'm picking on Wright, but many others have made this argument.) Well, the content of most nonfiction books that make persuasive arguments would be rude if you repeated it in the wrong company. If you've noticed that your co-worker has a lot of anti-war bumper stickers on their car, you probably won't tell them about all the great arguments made in the book you just read by Robert Kagan -- but Kagan still writes smart books about foreign policy that are worth reading.

I think it's quite common for people to have blunt discussions about what they like and don't like about this or that religion (or about those who don't subscribe to any religion). You might not choose to talk about it, say, at work, or even with certain close friends or family members, but maybe you'll have the conversations with other close friends or family members. I don't see what's wrong with writing books about these issues that people are going to think about and talk about anyway.

It's also too easy to forget the fact that criticizing religions -- even in a harsh or over-the-top way -- isn't unique to the "new atheists." It's done all the time by people of all religious stripes. The adherents of one religion will regularly criticize those of other religions. People within a religion will even criticize other followers of the same religion. And when there are criticisms being made out there in the world, they're probably going to be reflected in books if they're on enough people's minds. Whether you like it or not, Christians (for instance) are going to write books supporting their Christian views, secular humanists are going to write books supporting their secular humanist views, and so on.

Now, the fact that secular humanists enjoy this kind of freedom of expression along with religious people hasn't been true for most of human history. But we're not in most of human history; we're in 2009. It's inevitable now.

And I'm not too worried about the possibility that Hitchens/Harris/Dawkins might hurt religious people's feelings. People who are easily offended by criticisms of religion aren't likely to read those books anyway. But to many people -- including people who are kept up at night wondering if they're evil for disagreeing with the faith of their family, and including gay people who wonder if they're going to go to Hell, and even including devout believers who simply enjoy reading an honest polemic from the other side -- the books might be quite welcome.

So, go ahead and criticize the "new atheists" for making specific points you disagree with. But don't criticize them just for harshly criticizing religion -- unless you're also going to criticize everyone else who does so. That includes a whole lot of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. And it certainly includes Bob Wright.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The subtle art of flirting

We're sitting in a small cafe. A man is loudly making conversation with his waitress, asking her about a recent vacation she went on with a few friends:

Customer: Did you go to the beach?

Waitress: Yeah.

Customer: Did you go to the nude beach? HA HA HA HA!

Waitress: No.
I look at Danielle's notepad to see if she has any silent reaction. She writes in her elegant hand -- "That guy is..." -- then in big capital that take up the rest of the page -- "SUCH A DOUCHE!!!!"

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Double standards about risk taking

"John Bachar, a rock climber who inspired awe as a daredevil, condescension as an anachronism and eventually respect as a legend, fell to his death Sunday from a rock formation near his home in California. He was 51." (via)

There's a strange gender bias in which men who risk their lives or health are lauded as heroes, but women who do so need help. There couldn't be a female David Blaine. [Maybe not -- see the comments for counterexamples.]

I agree with Bertrand Russell, who wrote in his 1930 book The Conquest of Happiness:

Borrow's friend who taught himself Chinese in order to be able to endure the loss of his wife was seeking oblivion, but he sought it in an activity that had no harmful effects, but on the contrary improved his intelligence and his knowledge. Against such forms of escape there is nothing to be said. It is otherwise with the man who seeks oblivion in drinking or gambling or any other form of unprofitable excitement. There are, it is true, border-line cases. What should we say of the man who runs mad risks in aeroplanes or on mountain tops, because life has become irksome to him? If his risks serve any public object, we may admire him, but if not, we shall have to place him only slightly above the gambler and drunkard.

Friday, July 10, 2009

My nominee for "most desperate attempt to fit 2 trendy topics into 1 headline"

A piece in Psychology Today: "Could Michael Jackson Have Created Twitter?"

Anat Cohen's Clarinetwork - "Benny Goodman and Beyond" at the Village Vanguard

Seeing Anat Cohen at the Village Vanguard was possibly the best thing we did in New York City. We hadn't heard of Anat Cohen -- I just thought we should go to the Village Vanguard to make the visit complete. But now she's my favorite clarinetist.

You can listen to her play at the Village Vanguard last year by clicking on this link and then clicking the link at the top of the page ("Listen Now: Anat Cohen Quartet Live At The Village Vanguard"). The first song (Fats Wallers' "Jitterbug Waltz") will give you a feel for what last weekend's show was like.

I love this niche: taking a decidedly non-modern musical idiom and reviving it for the present day. It's probably harder than it sounds. You don't want to be too tame and old-fashioned. You need to bring your own personality to the music, make it sound newly relevant. But you also can't be too self-conscious or heavy-handed about it. Anat Cohen's quartet got the balance just right.

We sat through 2 back-to-back sets -- about 3 hours of instrumental music -- and I don't think we were ever bored. The whole experience simultaneously felt "larger than life" and yet more intimate than I had expected (even though I was familiar with the venue). She seemed constantly excited about the music, even when she wasn't playing. She was never just standing around waiting for her solo -- she was always dancing or grinning or something.

As a bonus, the drummer, Lewis Nash, did a perfect wordless vocal solo that sounded like a saxophone.

I realize I haven't said much about the rest of her excellent band, but here's a whole blog post focusing on the pianist's performance. (That post is about one of the earlier concerts in her 6-night series at the Vanguard.)

She mentioned that they were recording the second set. I don't know if it was for an album. But if they do release a "Benny Goodman and Beyond" album from the Village Vanguard, definitely buy it!

She also plays classical music. If you happen to be in NYC at the time, I recommend seeing her playing Mozart's Clarinet Quintet as part of a concert that starts at 3 pm on Sunday, August 2, at Barge Music in Brooklyn (here's the website for directions, etc.).

By the way, she also composes, plays tenor and soprano saxophone, and is fluent in a variety of genres from around the world. (She said in an interview, describing her experience at Berklee College of Music, "I came to understand when a chart says 'Latin' on top it means almost nothing. You need to know if the music is from the northeast of Brazil, the west coast of Colombia, or someplace else on the continent. I was inspired to explore world music, starting with the music of South America, in detail.") Appropriately enough, none of these facets were on display when we saw her. She has a multitude of talent but also good taste about when to use it.

Here's another sample of her music, though quite different from the
show we saw -- playing with the popular singer/guitarist John
Pizzarelli (caution: this clip has been not working for some people, but it works for me):

Thursday, July 9, 2009

What we did on our trip to NYC

Danielle and I went on a little vacation in New York last week, which is why I wasn't blogging. What were the most noteworthy things we did in the city? Here's our list.

1. Live music -- classical
a. New York City Opera performing a variety of crowd pleasers on Pier 17 (free)
b. Escher Quartet playing Brahms, Bartok, and Haydn at Barge Music in Brooklyn (free chamber music every Sunday at 3 pm)

2. Live music -- jazz
a. Anat Cohen paying homage to Benny Goodman at the Village Vanguard [UPDATE: Here's what it was like.]
b. random free jazz shows around town

Washington Square Park

(Part of a jazz group playing in Washington Square Park.)

3. Parks
a. The High Line (opened just last month, running along 10th Ave. from about 12th St. to 20th St.)
b. Washington Square Park
c. Socrates Sculpture Park (Astoria, Queens)

DSC00604

DSC00608

(Danielle and me on the High Line.)

4. Cafes with good food
a. Cafe Brama (East Village)
b. Dumbo General Store (Brooklyn)

Brooklyn - Dumbo General Store

(Dumbo General Store.)

5. Bars
a. Lillie's (just opened last year on 17th St.)
b. 5 Ninth (West Village)
c. Lolita (Lower East Side)

Cafe Brama in the East Village, NYC

(Danielle at Cafe Brama.)

6. Movie: Away We Go at Clearview Cinema in Chelsea [UPDATE: Here's what we thought of it.]

7. Bookstores
a. Strand* (the beloved institution on Broadway at 12th St.)
b. Three Lives (West Village)
c. The Powerhouse Arena in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn (emphasis on photography)
d. Rocketship on Smith St. in Brooklyn (alternative comics)

* I originally wrote "The Strand" but changed it following some discussion in the comments.

Brooklyn, Dumbo General Store

(Me at the Dumbo General Store.)

8. Chelsea galleries
a. DJT Gallery
b. Basil Wolverton exhibit at the Gladstone Gallery (more images here) (till Aug. 14) [UPDATE: I respond to the New York Times' response to the exhibit.]

9. Bronx Zoo

Reviews to come...

Socrates Sculpture Park in Astoria

(Socrates Sculpture Park. All photos in this post are by me, except the ones of me, which are by Danielle Pouliot.)

UPDATE: See the comments over here for more NYC ideas. People are going wild over Wolverton!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Robert Strange McNamara dies at 93.

Robert McNamara died yesterday. Just a few weeks ago, we watched The Fog of War, the Errol Morris documentary -- easily one of the three best documentaries I've ever seen -- about McNamara's involvement in World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War.

Unsurprisingly, the movie is an indictment of the United States' conduct in the Vietnam War. What is surprising is that this is accomplished almost entirely through McNamara's own voice -- occasionally supplemented with historical recordings of U.S. officials, but without a single sentence from an anti-war or even neutral commentator. One of the most memorable moments is when McNamara -- staring directly into the camera, as he does throughout the movie -- strongly suggests that he would appropriately be called a "war criminal."

On the other hand, one of the most frustrating moments is his response at the very end of the film to questions about why he didn't speak out against the war. He cryptically says that he had good reasons and that his decision would make sense to people who know everything he knows. In contrast with the rest of the movie, we hear him talking while seeing him in profile, somberly driving his car, rather than making eye contact with us.

Mickey Kaus wrote, in this 1995 review of McNamara's memoir:

I met McNamara once, at a conference. He was self-effacing, and breathtakingly concise. I understand the charm. But there is something wrong with a culture in which a McNamara is feted for his "guts" while George McGovern and Gene McCarthy, who opposed McNamara's mistakes, are regarded as nobodies. In one of the uglier passages of In Retrospect, McNamara sneers at the antiwar protesters who marched on the Pentagon in 1967. If they had been more "disciplined" and "Gandhi-like," he says, "they could have achieved their objective of shutting us down." Instead they were "troublemakers" who "threw mud balls" and "even unzipped [soldiers'] flies." This is contrition? Shouldn't McNamara be admitting that the mudball-throwers, after all, had been right?

McNamara's book confirms what he had often hinted: that he came to believe the war was unwinnable as early as 1965. At that point, as Paul Hendrickson of The Washington Post has noted, 1,335 Americans had been killed. Why didn't McNamara quit and speak out? He claims that would have been "a violation of my oath to uphold the Constitution." Cabinet officials who quit must do it "silently," he says, citing as a model Dean Acheson, who resigned from FDR's administration when he "found himself unable to accept the president's monetary policy."

Monetary policy! By the time McNamara left the Pentagon for the World Bank, another 14,000 Americans were dead. [If I remember correctly from the movie, McNamara states that the figure is around 25,000. -- JAC] And of course the war didn't stop then. President Nixon continued it for five more years, although McNamara now says Nixon should have withdrawn. Surely whatever strictures prevented McNamara from criticizing Johnson wouldn't have prevented him from speaking out against Nixon. Even if he hadn't yet decided on withdrawal, simply giving voice to his doubts would have had an impact. Yet he didn't do it, while another 42,000 died. As McNamara puts it, defending his infamous quantitative approach to military success, "things you can count, you ought to count. Loss of life is one...."

And why, suddenly, having maintained his costly silence for so long, does McNamara break it now? Because, he says, he has "grown sick at heart witnessing the cynicism and even contempt with which so many people view our political institutions and leaders." Please. Wouldn't the cynicism have been less if he'd spoken up earlier, maybe even at the risk of losing his prestigious World Bank job? Let me offer an alternative--more cynical--explanation for McNamara's strange sense of timing, one that fairly leaps off the pages of his book: he is acting now to protect his posthumous reputation.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in a gushing back-cover blurb for In Retrospect, asks: "Can anyone remember a public official with the courage to confess error and explain where he and his country went wrong?" An answer to this question does come readily to mind, or should have come readily to Schlesinger's mind: Robert Kennedy, who admitted his own culpability when breaking with Johnson over Vietnam in 1968. But Kennedy showed his courage when it made a difference in the lives of others. McNamara only found his when the one left to save was himself.

ADDED: Joel Achenbach points out this passage from Paul Hendrickson's book on McNamara:

At the time Robert McNamara seems most likely to have lost his faith in the military aspect of the war, in the late fall of 1965, after the battle of the Ia Drang Valley, the official U.S. casualty figures stood at 1,335 dead and 6,131 wounded. That is a total of 7,466. Almost two years later, in early October 1967 -- which was approximately the time when LBJ began actively setting out to remove McNamara from the Pentagon, now convinced his once-awesome defense secretary had gone "dovish" on him -- the casualty figures had hit 100,269. Which is to say that nearly 93,000 people were wounded or met their death or were reported missing in the period of the defense secretary's disbelief.

There it was, the essential contradiction of a public man's life, cold and glinting on the legal page, acknowledged now by the man himself: that he had ceased believing in the military efficacy of a war that he had stayed on to prosecute anyway.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Obama isn't leading on gay rights.

So says this editorial in The New Republic.

It's easy to excuse Obama by saying he's had more urgent priorities; he just needs a little more time to get around to gay rights. But that doesn't seem to explain his inaction on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell":

Obama may need Congress's approval to officially repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, but he has the legal authority to tell the Pentagon to stop enforcing the policy via executive order. He could do it tomorrow. As for the political risks: Obama should look at some polls. Unlike same-sex marriage, the question of whether gays should serve openly in the military is no longer a particularly controversial issue. According to Gallup, 69 percent of Americans believe gays should be able to serve openly. To put that number in perspective, it is 25 points higher than the percentage of Americans who endorse Obama's handling of health care, 19 points higher than the percentage who currently support the war in Afghanistan, and 18 points higher than the percentage who approve of the administration's economic policies. Obama is not afraid to push health care reform, send more troops to Afghanistan, or stand by his stimulus program--nor should he be. But why, when it comes to the far less controversial cause of gays serving in the military, is he apparently willing to punt?

UPDATE: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says he'll consider recommending that the United States apply its policy of discharging openly gay members of the military in a "more humane way."

He vaguely suggests that we could stop applying the policy against those who are outed by third parties. Perhaps someone could explain in the comments section why discharging those who voluntarily out themselves as gay is any more merited. I can't think of a reason.

My mom asks:
Is that enough hope and change for you...?
I doubt there's anyone in the United States who supports gay rights and feels at all mollified by Gates's words.