antidote to seriousness

Maybe this should be a regular Friday feature, eh?


the battered christian

Imagine a friend of yours posted the following to Facebook:

"My husband, who is really big and strong, went on a bender last night and got really violent and destructive. Before it was all over, he had beaten up several of my neighbors, wrecked a couple of houses, and killed a couple of people in the next town over. This just reminds me of how mighty he is, and how insignificant I am in the grand scheme of things. I am so grateful to him for sparing our family and home. He is so good and I love him so much!"

A reasonable person, upon hearing this, would likely conclude that the woman speaking is 1) off her rocker and/or meds; 2) in the thrall of an incredibly abusive relationship; or 3) both. A true friend would insist that she leave her husband, and seek help.

And yet if you change "my husband" to "God", you get...well, almost exactly what a lot of people have written about the storms that tore through the South last night. (Being originally from that corner of the country, I have no shortage of people in my feed who spent the night hunkered down in basements and closets. As far as I know, everyone is fine, and I am happy for it.)

I guess I understand having a need to believe in some sort of higher power, even though I have no such need myself. And it is only human to want to make sense of the senseless. But I find it really hard not to pity someone who has to shoehorn the indifference of nature--the destructive power of a tornado, the pitiless rise of a tsunami, or the painful cruelty of cancer--into a conception of a God that manages everything that happens and takes a personal interest in your individual life and well-being.

Either God doesn't actually have a hand in all of this, or he is one seriously abusive son of a bitch.


the warmth of other suns

Here's something for you to contemplate this 4/20:

Flora that would appear black or grey to human eyes could have evolved on planets orbiting dim "red dwarf" stars, according to unpublished research that is being presented at the National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno, Wales.

This would enable plants to absorb more light to photosynthesise, using their star's light to convert carbon dioxide into organic compounds.

(whole story here)

It's good to be reminded that we consider the "visible" portion of the electromagnetic spectrum (red-violet) is entirely a function of our visual systems, and the selection pressure under which they evolved (particularly the ability to see well in the green band, the middle of our range) which is itself entirely a function of the particular light output of our particular sun in this remote portion of our particular galaxy.

Life evolving under a different sun could have photosynthetic organisms optimized to extract energy from a different part of the spectrum, and creatures with visual systems tuned to the corresponding "colors". And really, I only put "colors" in quotes because we would be unable to experience them as colors; those organisms would experience them as colors that we are literally incapable of even imagining.

I'm sure there's a metaphor here, but I forgot what it is.

(via Slog)



My curiosity got the best of me this evening, so I took in a showing of Atlas Shrugged. Actually, the more complete (and threatening) title is Atlas Shrugged: Part I.

For the sake of, um, brevity, I am going to write this assuming at least a passing familiarity with the essential elements of the novel. If you haven't read it, I'm not going to attempt to summarize it here. (And if you have, then you know why I won't.)

First of all, what works. The characters of Dagney and Hank are actually pretty well-cast. I don't know either of the actors, but they pulled it off. Taylor Schilling in particular looks the part (her eyes are quite reminiscent of Rand's, which is always how I and I imagine most people envisioned the character of Dagney: a young and slightly glamorous version of the author.)

The rest of the cast are pretty weak, though I think a lot of this can be chalked up to the source material: Rand's characters are either superhuman capitalist/engineers or "the looters". Director Paul Johansson--perhaps to his credit--does not water down Rand's black and white moral universe. The result is something that is true to the source material but occasionally a bit silly on screen.

Unfortunately, the most extreme example of this is the character of John Galt, who is played by Johansson himself. Though he only appears on screen in shadow in Part I, and only utters a few lines, he manages to be bad. Really, really bad. Sofia Coppola in Godfather Part III bad. Since Galt will be the main character in the (as yet hypothetical) sequel(s), this does not bode well. Someone should really convince him to step aside and recast for the greater good of the project (something I note with no small sense of irony.)

In short, the movie is a bit better than I expected, but not great. Rand fanboys will probably like it fine. Rand haters will find plenty to hate. And I think it is no more likely to make someone want to become an Objectivist than The Passion of the Christ made me want to become Catholic.


that didn't take long

"Our duty and our mandate under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 is to protect civilians, and we are doing that. It is not to remove Qaddafi by force. But it is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Qaddafi in power...so long as Qaddafi is in power, NATO must maintain its operations so that civilians remain protected and the pressure on the regime builds. Then a genuine transition from dictatorship to an inclusive constitutional process can really begin, led by a new generation of leaders. In order for that transition to succeed, Qaddafi must go and go for good."

--Presidents Obama and Sarkozy, Prime Minister Cameron, in a joint piece in today's NYT

So, getting rid of Qaddafi isn't part of our mandate, but we aren't leaving until he's gone. The bald-faced doublespeak would be appalling if it weren't so utterly predictable. Keeping your forces in country until something happens is making that thing happen by force. To assert otherwise is like me insisting that if I break into your house, heavily armed, and refuse to leave until you give me your television, I'm not actually robbing you.

To borrow a phrase: you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig.


i am now a contributor to the daily beast

Well, not really. But Sullivan did post a comment I emailed in here. (Mine is the second one, that begins with "The notion...")


The Civil War began 150 years ago today, which is a really long time, and yet recently enough that my grandparents (all of whom I knew) themselves probably knew a few veterans in their own lifetimes.

I don't know what I could say about this that hasn't been said a thousand times, and better. It just boggles my mind how much the conflict and its aftermath hang over the south (and other parts of the country, but especially the south) to this day. People will argue over the war, its causes, and its legacy long after I am dead, I'm sure.

At the end of the day, it was a moment when this country failed to resolve its own problems without resorting to industrial-scale violence, and as a result we wiped out 1/50th of our own population in four years.

Not exactly our finest hour, any way you cut it.

(Photo: a cemetery in Jonesboro, GA--my home town--that holds between 600 and 1000 unnamed Confederate soldiers.)

hope for the gop, ct'd

I am ever-so-slightly heartened by the fact that Mitt Romney's announcement that he has officially started thinking about officially becoming a presidential candidate (or whatever the hell that is) was all about job creation and economic policy. Or rather, that it was not about waging perpetual war, restoring "American" values, President Obama's birth certificate, fearing Muslims, hating gays, or fetishizing fetuses.

I remain skeptical of his ability to win the GOP nomination, though that skepticism is somewhat tempered by the fact that the Republicans are frontloading with proportional primaries next year. In other words, finishing a strong 2nd or 3rd in early primaries will keep a candidacy alive much longer than it would have in previous years, where early winner-take-all primaries tended to lock up the nomination soon.

I'm a long way from being excited about Romney (and even longer from actually voting for him) but compared to the rest of the GOP field at the moment...well it could be a hell of a lot worse.


the root of the problem

I'm reposting Dave from the comments downblog, because I really cannot improve on this:

Actually, the money that continues to flow after a shut down illustrates the source of our budget problems. Without an annual budget, government employees don't get paid. But entitlement payments are somehow enacted such that even without congressional action, they just continue. And that is, frankly, obscene. And it is also a stark reminder of the political might of free money for old people. And that's the root of the problem...

...if politicians are willing to temporarily stop paying soldiers in the field, then they are more than capable and willing to cut just about all government services to the bone before they cut one dollar of free money for old voters. So my sense is that once the banker cuts off the money supply and the government has to really choose, everything -everything - is vulnerable such that the federal government will become a very, very large insurance program with a very large collection of well-armed security guards.


shutdowns have consequences

You know, when we extol the virtues of an all-volunteer fighting force, this isn't what we mean:

But it's not really funny: [Sec. Gates] warned 175 U.S. troops -- on behalf of more than 1 million of their comrades -- that their mid-April paycheck might be only 50 percent of what they're expecting. If the shutdown continues, there would be no end-of-month paycheck. Not surprisingly, the impending shutdown was the subject of the first question Gates got as he spoke with troops at Camp Liberty. He stressed that any pay shortage would only be temporary.

Bet that's what the Taliban tells their guys, too. Can you imagine being a young soldier some 7,000 miles from home, and being told by a top official of the U.S. government that your next paycheck is going to be short?



run, gary, run

Johnson is running. I hope he stays in long enough for me to have the option of voting for him.

If I can ever figure out just how the hell one does that in this state, that is...


provocative qotd

"For the western world, the 'Arab spring' threatens to be a classic case of good news and bad news. The good news is that this is the Arab 1989. The bad news is that we are the Soviet Union,"

--Gideon Rachman, writing behind the Financial Times' paywall, quoted by Sullivan.

I can't get to the article, so I don't really have an opinion on his actual argument (or a solid enough grasp on the relevant history, really), but that is one hell of a jarring statement.


2 books, 1 story

It is both unintentional and fortuitous that the last two books I happened to pull off the pile (and it is a pile these days) and finish recently are both about peculiar, but highly influential religious movements in America.

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell covers the second wave of Puritan migration into New England, those that settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630's. It deals with the Pequot war, the establishment of Rhode Island, and how a persecuted sect moved far from its point of origin to have some autonomy, variously fought with and conspired with the natives against common enemies, and ultimately ended up persecuting religious dissenters within its own ranks.

Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer is nominally about a grizzly murder that took place in 1984, but that story really just serves as a bookend to a brief history of Mormonism and Mormon fundamentalism, the story of how a persecuted sect moved far from its point of origin to have some autonomy, variously fought with and conspired with the natives against common enemies, and ultimately ended up persecuting religious dissenters within its own ranks. (Also, I wish I'd read it before I started watching Big Love.)

The interesting thing about these books is that while they are written by skeptical outsiders, both Vowell and Krakauer seem to emerge from their subjects with a grudging respect for their cultures and values (apart from the odd act of murder against heretics and/or Native Americans). And while the parallels between the stories are striking, the voices of the authors are distinct. If you've listed to Vowell's contributions to This American Life it is impossible not to hear her distinct, wry voice in your head, which manages to find humor in some pretty dark material without sounding morbid. Krakauer, on the other hand, approaches things with a much more straight-ahead journalistic style (Mark Bowden comes to mind), but also weaves a true crime narrative in the tradition of In Cold Blood.


antidote to seriousness

Happy Friday! Enjoy something (or someone) beautiful...