Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"If you consume dairy, you should eat veal."

A chillingly utilitarian rebuff to vegetarians.

The argument is that if you eat or drink dairy products, you're supporting the existence of male calves, since "dairy cows must give birth to provide milk." These calves "are unsuitable for beef production and too costly to keep on the farm." Something must be done with those animals, and the best result -- even just from the calves' perspective -- would be to humanely raise them for meat.

But even if I accept that practical argument as far as it goes, the only thing it would seem that I "should" do is: hope that veal is produced -- and eaten by someone (of course), but not necessarily me. That's different from saying that I "should" be one of the people eating the veal. It doesn't seem like I'd have that kind of moral obligation unless I somehow knew that the amount of veal being consumed were insufficient to use up all the male calves already being born.

By the way, this is a noteworthy passage from the linked article:

The renaissance of humanely raised veal is driven in part by small farmers who embrace old-fashioned animal husbandry and see veal as an extra revenue stream. But it also has been spurred by the success of animal rights campaigns and the resulting collapse in demand for veal. In 1944, Americans ate 8.6 pounds of veal per person annually, according to Agriculture Department figures. In 2004, the latest year for which data are available, consumption had fallen to less than half a pound. It hasn't topped one pound per person since 1988.
This illustrates Mark Bittman's principle: "Let's get the numbers of animals we're killing for eating down, and then we'll worry about being nice to the ones that are left." (Quoted here, from the video here.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Which victims do we care about?

"[I]n the hierarchy of victimhood, young beats old, female beats male, domestic beats foreign, fur beats scales, defenseless beats well-armed, pregnant beats nonpregnant, and kittens beat everything."

So says this Slate article on why the press gets hoodwinked by fake victims. Of course, the point also applies to real victims.

Do you think an earlier -- perhaps censored -- draft of the article had one more item in that list: "white beats black"?

As for the part about "female beats male," I'd be interested to know if Nicholas Kristof honestly disagrees with that observation.

The 100 best songs of the first decade of the 2000s (80-71)

(Click here for the whole list.)

80. Imogen Heap — "Headlock"

I had one semester in law school where I had no morning classes on most weekdays, so I had time to have breakfast at home, and I'd always play this, the first song on her great album Speak for Yourself, to get the day started.

79. The Killers — "Read My Mind"

78. Lenka — "Bring Me Down"

77. Amy Winehouse — "You Know I'm No Good"

76. Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros — "Home"

75. Nerina Pallot — "Everything's Illuminated!"

74. Rilo Kiley — "The Good That Won’t Come Out"

Starts unassumingly, ends gloriously.

73. Arcade Fire — "Wake Up"

David Bowie joins the band in this performance. A great melisma: the joyously drawn-out "adjuuuuuuust" (starting at 3:08 in the video).

72. Yeah Yeah Yeahs — "Zero"

71. Youth Group — "Someone Else's Dream"

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"The Internet is supplementing and intensifying real life."

Some common-sense optimism on how the internet is changing our lives by Tyler Cowen, who insightfully compares the rise of online social media to getting married after a long-distance relationship.

(Via Arts & Letters Daily.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Oblivious anti-consumerism

My dad spotted these:

Left rear bumper: "Consumption Will Not Fill the Void."

Right rear bumper: "Black Star Pub Brewery"

And that's not the only thing that makes the left bumper sticker ironic. What's that thing attached to the bumper sticker? Oh yes, a car. You would think that such a vocal critic of consumerism would think twice about having one -- or at least about decorating it with unnecessary plastic.

I'm reminded of the New York Times article that reported, with a straight face, on the family (a married couple with kids) that was purporting to give away its possessions. (Coincidentally, or maybe not so coincidentally, both the family and the car with the bumper stickers were in Austin.) I blogged the story and said:
They're also going to give away their current cars ... and get new cars ... and drive all the way from their current home in Texas to Vermont (where they've never been) to start a new life. I'm not sure how driving across the country -- which is to say, using up the world's resources and unnecessarily contributing to carbon emissions, just to give a partial list of the evils of driving -- is part of simplifying your life and returning to nature. Americans are so obsessed with our car culture that using a car doesn't even register as something that goes against the ideals of simplicity, counterculture, anti-consumerism. Thus, the Times write-up never mentions their car situation, and I doubt that the writers had a second thought about this. Or if they did, it was quickly dismissed: "Come on, you have to have a car!"
I don't mean to attack people who feel that they need a car. Maybe they do. But if so, they should think twice about whether to hold themselves out to the world as paragons of monastic counterculturism.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


This is just a notice that I might not be posting much this week, as I'm traveling out of town for some job interviews. The top 100 songs of the decade list will be updated on Friday (as usual), but there might not be any new posts before that.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The 100 best songs of the first decade of the 2000s (90-81)

(Click here for the whole list.)

90. Shout Out Louds — "Tonight I Have to Leave It"

The part where he says "Give love, give love…" sounds kind of like Queen's "Under Pressure" except played by the Cure.

89. Kate Havnevik — "New Day"

The vocals are simple, but the electronics in this song are amazing.

88. The Notwist — "Pilot"

87. Owen Pallet (formerly known as Final Fantasy) — "Song Song Song"

86. Sophie Ellis-Bextor — "Me and My Imagination"

85. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists — "Counting Down the Hours"

84. Kylie Minogue — "Can't Get You out of My Head"

A more dramatic version by the Flaming Lips:

83. Iron & Wine — "On Your Wings"

82. Uh Huh Her — "Not a Love Song"

81. Locksley — "Don't Make Me Wait"

(Full disclosure, I know them from high school.)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Defending Roman Polanski

In poetry.

The most reasonable conservative I've heard in a long time

Bruce Bartlett in this Bloggingheads video (embedded at the end of this post). He's plugging his new book, The New American Economy: The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward.

Here are a few of the points he makes in the video (paraphrased, not direct quotes). These are hardly original, but they're refreshing to hear from a conservative (he worked in the Reagan and first Bush administrations):

1. America needs to raise taxes. Conservative leaders know this will eventually be necessary, and they're being brazenly irresponsible by fighting against tax increases for now.

2. The idea that cutting taxes raises government revenue is a conservative myth. So is the idea that you can "starve the beast," i.e., cut taxes so that government spends less and deficits shrink.

3. We have the least efficient health-care system in the developed world.

4. The United States should become more like Europe.

On that last point, he calls out conservatives in a way that needs to be done more often:

We're traveling down the route of Europe. And many Americans just hate that idea. If you're in any group of conservatives, and you say, "Oh, that will take us down the route of Europe," they will say, "Oh no, we don't want to do that! That's awful!" Nobody ever explains what's so terrible about Europe.

By the way, I'm not saying I agree with everything he says here. I'm not convinced by his main idea, the value added tax. On the other hand, Matthew Yglesias makes the liberal case for it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The "Hottest Heads of State"

Here's a well-done list of the world's heads of state, in order of hotness.

It's interesting to look at some of the lower-ranked heads of state and try to detect the hallmarks of unattractiveness. Many of them look like the photos were taken with a fisheye lens or distorted with a Photoshop tool.

Not surprisingly, the photos of some of the higher-ranked heads of state seem chosen to be flattering. But I've always found that photo of President Obama strangely unflattering.

Ukraine Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko

(Photo of Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed from Wikimedia Commons, by Mauroof Khaleel. Photo of Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko from the European Parliament's Flickr site, by Pietro Naj-Oleari.)

Anti-vegetarian argument #2: Tradition

In a discussion about vegetarians and Thanksgiving, an AskMetafilter commenter said this:

Food isn't just fuel - it's a whole lot of what symbolizes who you are and where you come from. One of the problems with giving up meat, especially if it's not by your own choice, is that you're giving up pieces of culture, heritage, family traditions, ties to your childhood memories, ties to the way your great grandma cooked for her children...

For some reason that's an aspect of vegetarianism that isn't often addressed.
More recently, in a personal essay in the current New York Times magazine, Jonathan Safran Foer says:
When I was young, I would often spend the weekend at my grandmother’s house. ... We thought she was the greatest chef who ever lived. My brothers and I would tell her as much several times a meal. And yet we were worldly enough kids to know that the greatest chef who ever lived would probably have more than one recipe (chicken with carrots), and that most great recipes involved more than two ingredients. ...

In fact, her chicken with carrots probably was the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten. But that had little to do with how it was prepared, or even how it tasted. Her food was delicious because we believed it was delicious. We believed in our grandmother’s cooking more fervently than we believed in God. ...

My wife and I have chosen to bring up our children as vegetarians. ... [M]y choice on their behalf means they will never eat their great-grandmother’s singular dish. They will never receive that unique and most direct expression of her love, will perhaps never think of her as the greatest chef who ever lived. Her primal story, our family’s primal story, will have to change.
That sounds like Foer basically agrees with the AskMetafilter commenter. But he has a second thought:
Or will it? It wasn’t until I became a parent that I understood my grandmother’s cooking. The greatest chef who ever lived wasn’t preparing food, but humans. ... [S]he would tell me about her escape from Europe [in World War II], the foods she had to eat and those she wouldn't. It was the story of her life -- "Listen to me," she would plead -- and I knew a vital lesson was being transmitted, even if I didn’t know, as a child, what that lesson was. I know, now, what it was.
Foer explains the lesson at the end of the essay.

It's actually not the kind of essay that most appeals to me. I prefer to read writing that gets straight to the point instead of taking extra time to build up characters who gradually embody that point.

I also find it unfortunate that Foer puts down the role of "reason" in decision-making, saying that "stories" are more important. Of course, this is a self-serving view for a professional storyteller. But he himself relies on reason when he says:
A vegetarian diet can be rich and fully enjoyable, but I couldn’t honestly argue, as many vegetarians try to, that it is as rich as a diet that includes meat. (Those who eat chimpanzee look at the Western diet as sadly deficient of a great pleasure.) I love calamari, I love roasted chicken, I love a good steak. But I don’t love them without limit.

This isn't animal experimentation, where you can imagine some proportionate good at the other end of the suffering. This is what we feel like eating. Yet taste, the crudest of our senses, has been exempted from the ethical rules that govern our other senses. Why? Why doesn’t a horny person have as strong a claim to raping an animal as a hungry one does to confining, killing and eating it? It’s easy to dismiss that question but hard to respond to it. Try to imagine any end other than taste for which it would be justifiable to do what we do to farmed animals.
But none of that gets to the heart of the "tradition" argument. I would argue that tradition simply isn't as important as numerous other factors -- but that's not likely to be satisfying to those who raise the tradition concern in the first place.

Perhaps it is better to use "stories" rather than "reason" to respond to that concern. That's what Foer does in this essay -- to chilling effect in the final section.

Monday, October 12, 2009

"No one in our family can ever say anything obvious."

A quote by "John Althouse Cohen, age 8, c. 1989."

UPDATE: A commenter responds:

The obvious thing is usually the most important thing.
Well, I thought that went without saying.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The only possible explanation why President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize

Ibrahim Assem, a man-on-the-street in Cairo interviewed by the New York Times, says:

"They are handing him the Nobel Peace Prize because he isn’t George Bush."
That's from the New York Times' roundup of reactions from around the world. See if you can tell which of those reactions are honest.

UPDATE: Mickey Kaus says Obama should turn down the prize. Kaus has the right idea, and so do people writing for The New Republic and the Telegraph and Gawker and Metafilter and DailyKos -- and plenty of other bloggers.

UPDATE: Obama reacts: he's "surprised and deeply humbled." "To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformational figures who have been honored by this prize." "I will accept this award as a call to action." Though he stopped short of turning it down, the subtext -- that he hasn't yet accomplished enough to deserve this -- was clear. President Obama, you handled this awkward moment well.

The 100 best songs of the first decade of the 2000s (100-91)

Whatever you want to call the decade spanning 2000 to 2009 (the '00s, the aughts, the naughts), we're reaching the end of it. So it's time to take stock of the past 10 years by answering the question: What were the 100 best songs?

(Click here for the whole list.)

As far as this list is concerned, a "song" has to be sung. Instrumentals by Amon Tobin, Four Tet, Ratatat, and the Octopus Project might deserve to be mentioned in a discussion of the best music of the 2000s, but they won't be on this list.

Also, the original version of the song must have been released in 2000 or later — no covers of pre-2000 songs.

Here are some other people's lists:

Pitchfork's top 500 (to see the whole list without audio or Pitchfork's commentary, click here)

Summer Anne's top 125 (a personal, emotional list)

The Factual Opinion's top 100 + 100 runners-up (plenty of drum machines and subtle analysis)

Telegraph's top 100 (These aren't intended to be the best songs released in the past 10 years; they're the songs that "defined" the decade, dating as early as 1981)

50 Songs, 10 Years (with personal stories of how these songs affected the blogger)

NME's top 100

Largehearted Boy is keeping a meta-list of "best of the decade" music lists. (As well as song lists, there are also lists of the best albums, the best music videos, etc.)
Here we go…

100. The Shins — "Kissing the Lipless"

Possibly the silliest song title in the list.

99. Hanne Hukkelberg — "A Cheater's Armory "

98. The Polyphonic Spree — "Light and Day/Reach for the Sun"

97. Edith Frost — "Cars and Parties"

Here's a video of her lip-synching the song on a cable-access show (her words).

96. Bon Iver — "Skinny Love"

This song, along with the rest of the album it's on, emerged accidentally from a state of illness and hibernation in northern Wisconsin. (Wikipedia has the details.)

95. Bj√∂rk — "It's Not up to You"

94. Jem — "They"

93.  The White Stripes — "Seven Nation Army"

Pure rock.

92. Noisettes — "Never Forget You"

91. St. Vincent — "Marry Me"

Summer Anne put this song on her list and said:
many of her songs, lyrically, are like little puzzles waiting for you to solve them. They are personal, seemingly, but also cryptic and distant. She doesn’t hit you over the head with anything. This song is the perfect example. The lyrics are perfectly poetic and, like good poetry, grow with meaning every time they are studied:

But you, you’re a rock with a heart like a socket

I can plug into at will

And will you guess when I come around next

I hope your open sign is blinking still

The Best Songs of the 2000s (2000-2009)

Here's my list of the best songs of 2000 to 2009!

91 - 100

81 - 90

71 - 80

61 - 70

51 - 60

41 - 50

31 - 40

21 - 30

11 - 20


(plus 100 runners-up)

What was it all about?

UPDATE: I did the same thing 10 years later...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Dumb inventions

Life Magazine has a gallery of 30 dumb inventions from the '50s and '60s. (Via Metafilter.)

Some are silly but seem harmless enough, like glowing tires:

Some, on the other hand, are disturbingly dangerous. Here's a couple carrying a baby while going ice skating:

Other risky inventions include the quick-draw robot, the cigarette-pack holder, and the suspended baby cage.

Sadly, one of the inventors was killed by his own invention -- the "birdman suit":

"Birdman Leo Valentin demonstrates his method of flying from a special harness. Valentin died when his invention failed him after jumping out of an airplane in 1956."

Monday, October 5, 2009

Penelope Trunk's Twitter post about miscarriage and abortion

Penelope Trunk said this on Twitter:

I'm in a board meeting. Having a miscarriage. Thank goodness, because there's a fucked-up 3-week hoop-jump to have an abortion in Wisconsin.
The mainstream media has swarmed around that three-sentence comment about what's going on in one woman's life. Penelope Trunk is one of the more successful bloggers, but she's hardly a household name — so why has this caused a national furor?

Ann Althouse (my mom) says the tweet sets back the cause of abortion rights by undermining the perception that pregnant women are on a "serious search for meaning."

Maybe the real-world net result of this tweet will be bad for abortion rights, but I wish it weren't. People should be allowed to post something to Twitter that doesn't include, within the maximum 140 characters, an obligatory qualification about how they realize that abortion is a very serious and somber thing.

And women should be allowed to write honestly about abortions and miscarriages.

Is the problem that she's glad she ended up having a miscarriage rather than doing what she had been planning to do and get an abortion? Well, if that's surprising to people, then that itself is a serious problem that her Twitter post might go some way toward rectifying. Many, many people would prefer a miscarriage to an abortion.

Maybe you think she should have somehow drenched her statement in emotion. And maybe that would have been more effective. But it can often be more subtly effective to take an issue that's usually considered too taboo or tragic to speak about honestingly and -- speak about it honestly. (And let's also remember that this is a Twitter post we're talking about; it shouldn't be held to the same standards as a magazine article.)

Being told just the plain facts can be a more powerful reading experience. It puts more responsibility on you as the reader to do some of the thinking and evaluating instead of having everything prejudged by the author. Even if this doesn't happen to be your favorite kind of writing, it's not immoral for someone to use that style when writing about miscarriages or abortions.

Trunk has also written a blunt blog post about getting two abortions, and another one about being sexually abused. Like the Twitter post, these blog posts don't broadcast their own emotional or moral significance.

But I'm glad I've had the chance to read stark descriptions of distinctly female experiences that I, as a man, haven't had to endure. We'd be a little worse off if people like Trunk felt the need to censor themselves.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The movie scene I think of every time I hear the "brilliant filmmaker" defense of Roman Polanski

A memorable conversation from Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 movie Rope:

Rupert Cadell [Jimmy Stewart]: After all, murder is — or should be — an art. … And, as such, the privilege of committing it should be reserved for those few who are really superior individuals.

Brandon Shaw [John Dall]: And the victims — inferior beings whose lives are unimportant anyway!

Rupert Cadell: Obviously! Now, mind you, I don't hold with the extremists who feel that there should be open season for murder all year round. No, personally, I would prefer to have … "Cut a Throat Week" … or, uh, "Strangulation Day" …
I've seen many defenses of Polanski (see my previous post on two high-profile petitions for his release), and they typically argue that his greatness as a movie director makes it somehow wrong to imprison him upon his conviction for child rape.

Maybe they're right: Roman Polanski is a superior individual. Maybe his victim just didn't matter as much as he does.

Well, I really don't think so. But wait a minute — I could be wrong. After all, you and I might both be among the inferior beings. Maybe we should defer to those with more refined moral faculties.

Actually, I shouldn't even refer to what's "moral." It's a lowly concept, as you might remember from Brandon's speech in Rope:
The few who are privileged to commit murder … are those men of such intellectual and cultural superiority that they're above the traditional "moral" concepts. Good and evil, right and wrong, were invented for the ordinary, average man — the inferior man, because he needs them.
Likewise, the petition signed by over 70 movie-industry figures (including Martin Scorsese and David Lynch) doesn't dwell on the details of what Polanski actually did to the 13-year-old girl; it doesn't even refer to a victim at all. It tells you only what you need to know:
His arrest follows an American arrest warrant dating from 1978 against the filmmaker, in a case of morals.
That's it — that's all the petition says about the nature of the allegations. Surely a mere case of morals doesn't provide a sufficient justification to punish a great man, does it?