Thursday, October 06, 2005

Gore on the Media: The Man's just plain right.

Media conference on Wednesday in New York:

I came here today because I believe that American democracy is in grave danger. It is no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse . I know that I am not the only one who feels that something has gone basically and badly wrong in the way America's fabled "marketplace of ideas" now functions.

How many of you, I wonder, have heard a friend or a family member in the last few years remark that it's almost as if America has entered "an alternate universe"?

I thought maybe it was an aberration when three-quarters of Americans said they believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for attacking us on September 11, 2001. But more than four years later, between a third and a half still believe Saddam was personally responsible for planning and supporting the attack.

At first I thought the exhaustive, non-stop coverage of the O.J. trial was just an unfortunate excess that marked an unwelcome departure from the normal good sense and judgment of our television news media. But now we know that it was merely an early example of a new pattern of serial obsessions that periodically take over the airwaves for weeks at a time.

Are we still routinely torturing helpless prisoners, and if so, does it feel right that we as American citizens are not outraged by the practice? And does it feel right to have no ongoing discussion of whether or not this abhorrent, medieval behavior is being carried out in the name of the American people? If the gap between rich and poor is widening steadily and economic stress is mounting for low-income families, why do we seem increasingly apathetic and lethargic in our role as citizens?

On the eve of the nation's decision to invade Iraq, our longest serving senator, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, stood on the Senate floor asked: "Why is this chamber empty? Why are these halls silent?"

The decision that was then being considered by the Senate with virtually no meaningful debate turned out to be a fateful one. A few days ago, the former head of the National Security Agency, Retired Lt. General William Odom, said, "The invasion of Iraq, I believe, will turn out to be the greatest strategic disaster in U.S. history."

But whether you agree with his assessment or not, Senator Byrd's question is like the others that I have just posed here: he was saying, in effect, this is strange, isn't it? Aren't we supposed to have full and vigorous debates about questions as important as the choice between war and peace?

Those of us who have served in the Senate and watched it change over time, could volunteer an answer to Senator Byrd's two questions: the Senate was silent on the eve of war because Senators don't feel that what they say on the floor of the Senate really matters that much any more. And the chamber was empty because the Senators were somewhere else: they were in fundraisers collecting money from special interests in order to buy 30-second TVcommercials for their next re-election campaign.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, there was - at least for a short time - a quality of vividness and clarity of focus in our public discourse that reminded some Americans - including some journalists - that vividness and clarity used to be more common in the way we talk with one another about the problems and choices that we face. But then, like a passing summer storm, the moment faded.

In fact there was a time when America's public discourse was consistently much more vivid, focused and clear. Our Founders, probably the most literate generation in all of history, used words with astonishing precision and believed in the Rule of Reason.

Their faith in the viability of Representative Democracy rested on their trust in the wisdom of a well-informed citizenry. But they placed particular emphasis on insuring that the public could be well- informed. And they took great care to protect the openness of the marketplace of ideas in order to ensure the free-flow of knowledge.

The values that Americans had brought from Europe to the New World had grown out of the sudden explosion of literacy and knowledge after Gutenberg's disruptive invention broke up the stagnant medieval information monopoly and triggered the Reformation, Humanism, and the Enlightenment and enshrined a new sovereign: the "Rule of Reason."

Indeed, the self-governing republic they had the audacity to establish was later named by the historian Henry Steele Commager as "the Empire of Reason."

Our founders knew all about the Roman Forum and the Agora in ancient Athens. They also understood quite well that in America, our public forum would be an ongoing conversation about democracy in which individual citizens would participate not only by speaking directly in the presence of others -- but more commonly by communicating with their fellow citizens over great distances by means of the printed word. Thus they not only protected Freedom of Assembly as a basic right, they made a special point - in the First Amendment - of protecting the freedom of the printing press.

Their world was dominated by the printed word. Just as the proverbial fish doesn't know it lives in water, the United States in its first half century knew nothing but the world of print: the Bible, Thomas Paine's fiery call to revolution, the Declaration of Independence, our Constitution , our laws, the Congressional Record, newspapers and books.

Though they feared that a government might try to censor the printing press - as King George had done - they could not imagine that America's public discourse would ever consist mainly of something other than words in print.

And yet, as we meet here this morning, more than 40 years have passed since the majority of Americans received their news and information from the printed word. Newspapers are hemorrhaging readers and, for the most part, resisting the temptation to inflate their circulation numbers. Reading itself is in sharp decline, not only in our country but in most of the world. The Republic of Letters has been invaded and occupied by television.

Radio, the internet, movies, telephones, and other media all now vie for our attention - but it is television that still completely dominates the flow of information in modern America. In fact, according to an authoritative global study, Americans now watch television an average of four hours and 28 minutes every day -- 90 minutes more than the world average.

When you assume eight hours of work a day, six to eight hours of sleep and a couple of hours to bathe, dress, eat and commute, that is almost three-quarters of all the discretionary time that the average American has. And for younger Americans, the average is even higher.

The internet is a formidable new medium of communication, but it is important to note that it still doesn't hold a candle to television. Indeed, studies show that the majority of Internet users are actually simultaneously watching television while they are online. There is an important reason why television maintains such a hold on its viewers in a way that the internet does not, but I'll get to that in a few minutes.

Television first overtook newsprint to become the dominant source of information in America in 1963. But for the next two decades, the television networks mimicked the nation's leading newspapers by faithfully following the standards of the journalism profession. Indeed, men like Edward R. Murrow led the profession in raising the bar.

But all the while, television's share of the total audience for news and information continued to grow -- and its lead over newsprint continued to expand. And then one day, a smart young political consultant turned to an older elected official and succinctly described a new reality in America's public discourse: "If it's not on television, it doesn't exist."

But some extremely important elements of American Democracy have been pushed to the sidelines . And the most prominent casualty has been the "marketplace of ideas" that was so beloved and so carefully protected by our Founders. It effectively no longer exists.

It is not that we no longer share ideas with one another about public matters; of course we do. But the "Public Forum" in which our Founders searched for general agreement and applied the Rule of Reason has been grossly distorted and "restructured" beyond all recognition.

And here is my point: it is the destruction of that marketplace of ideas that accounts for the "strangeness" that now continually haunts our efforts to reason together about the choices we must make as a nation.

Whether it is called a Public Forum, or a "Public Sphere" , or a marketplace of ideas, the reality of open and free public discussion and debate was considered central to the operation of our democracy in America's earliest decades.

In fact, our first self-expression as a nation - "We the People" - made it clear where the ultimate source of authority lay. It was universally understood that the ultimate check and balance for American government was its accountability to the people. And the public forum was the place where the people held the government accountable. That is why it was so important that the marketplace of ideas operated independent from and beyond the authority of government.

The three most important characteristics of this marketplace of ideas were:

1) It was open to every individual, with no barriers to entry, save the necessity of literacy. This access, it is crucial to add, applied not only to the receipt of information but also to the ability to contribute information directly into the flow of ideas that was available to all; 2) The fate of ideas contributed by individuals depended, for the most part, on an emergent Meritocracy of Ideas. Those judged by the market to be good rose to the top, regardless of the wealth or class of the individual responsible for them; 3) The accepted rules of discourse presumed that the participants were all governed by an unspoken duty to search for general agreement. That is what a "Conversation of Democracy" is all about.

What resulted from this shared democratic enterprise was a startling new development in human history: for the first time, knowledge regularly mediated between wealth and power.

The liberating force of this new American reality was thrilling to all humankind. Thomas Jefferson declared, "I have sworn upon the alter of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." It ennobled the individual and unleashed the creativity of the human spirit. It inspired people everywhere to dream of what they could yet become. And it emboldened Americans to bravely explore the farther frontiers of freedom - for African Americans, for women, and eventually, we still dream, for all.

And just as knowledge now mediated between wealth and power, self- government was understood to be the instrument with which the people embodied their reasoned judgments into law. The Rule of Reason under- girded and strengthened the rule of law.

But to an extent seldom appreciated, all of this - including especially the ability of the American people to exercise the reasoned collective judgments presumed in our Founders' design -- depended on the particular characteristics of the marketplace of ideas as it operated during the Age of Print.

Consider the rules by which our present "public forum" now operates, and how different they are from the forum our Founders knew. Instead of the easy and free access individuals had to participate in the national conversation by means of the printed word, the world of television makes it virtually impossible for individuals to take part in what passes for a national conversation today.

Inexpensive metal printing presses were almost everywhere in America. They were easily accessible and operated by printers eager to typeset essays, pamphlets, books or flyers.

Television stations and networks, by contrast, are almost completely inaccessible to individual citizens and almost always uninterested in ideas contributed by individual citizens.

Ironically, television programming is actually more accessible to more people than any source of information has ever been in all of history. But here is the crucial distinction: it is accessible in only one direction; there is no true interactivity, and certainly no conversation.

The number of cables connecting to homes is limited in each community and usually forms a natural monopoly. The broadcast and satellite spectrum is likewise a scarce and limited resource controlled by a few. The production of programming has been centralized and has usually required a massive capital investment. So for these and other reasons, an ever-smaller number of large corporations control virtually all of the television programming in America.

Soon after television established its dominance over print, young people who realized they were being shut out of the dialogue of democracy came up with a new form of expression in an effort to join the national conversation: the "demonstration." This new form of expression, which began in the 1960s, was essentially a poor quality theatrical production designed to capture the attention of the television cameras long enough to hold up a sign with a few printed words to convey, however plaintively, a message to the American people. Even this outlet is now rarely an avenue for expression on national television.

So, unlike the marketplace of ideas that emerged in the wake of the printing press, there is virtually no exchange of ideas at all in television's domain. My partner Joel Hyatt and I are trying to change that - at least where Current TV is concerned. Perhaps not coincidentally, we are the only independently owned news and information network in all of American television.

It is important to note that the absence of a two-way conversation in American television also means that there is no "meritocracy of ideas" on television. To the extent that there is a "marketplace" of any kind for ideas on television, it is a rigged market, an oligopoly, with imposing barriers to entry that exclude the average citizen.

The German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, describes what has happened as "the refeudalization of the public sphere." That may sound like gobbledygook, but it's a phrase that packs a lot of meaning. The feudal system which thrived before the printing press democratized knowledge and made the idea of America thinkable, was a system in which wealth and power were intimately intertwined, and where knowledge played no mediating role whatsoever. The great mass of the people were ignorant. And their powerlessness was born of their ignorance.

It did not come as a surprise that the concentration of control over this powerful one-way medium carries with it the potential for damaging the operations of our democracy. As early as the 1920s, when the predecessor of television, radio, first debuted in the United States, there was immediate apprehension about its potential impact on democracy. One early American student of the medium wrote that if control of radio were concentrated in the hands of a few, "no nation can be free."

As a result of these fears, safeguards were enacted in the U.S. -- including the Public Interest Standard, the Equal Time Provision, and the Fairness Doctrine - though a half century later, in 1987, they were effectively repealed. And then immediately afterwards, Rush Limbaugh and other hate-mongers began to fill the airwaves.

And radio is not the only place where big changes have taken place. Television news has undergone a series of dramatic changes. The movie "Network," which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1976, was presented as a farce but was actually a prophecy. The journalism profession morphed into the news business, which became the media industry and is now completely owned by conglomerates.

The news divisions - which used to be seen as serving a public interest and were subsidized by the rest of the network - are now seen as profit centers designed to generate revenue and, more importantly, to advance the larger agenda of the corporation of which they are a small part. They have fewer reporters, fewer stories, smaller budgets, less travel, fewer bureaus, less independent judgment, more vulnerability to influence by management, and more dependence on government sources and canned public relations hand-outs. This tragedy is compounded by the ironic fact that this generation of journalists is the best trained and most highly skilled in the history of their profession. But they are usually not allowed to do the job they have been trained to do.

The present executive branch has made it a practice to try and control and intimidate news organizations: from PBS to CBS to Newsweek. They placed a former male escort in the White House press pool to pose as a reporter - and then called upon him to give the president a hand at crucial moments. They paid actors to make make phony video press releases and paid cash to some reporters who were willing to take it in return for positive stories. And every day they unleash squadrons of digital brownshirts to harass and hector any journalist who is critical of the President.

For these and other reasons, The US Press was recently found in a comprehensive international study to be only the 27th freest press in the world. And that too seems strange to me.

Among the other factors damaging our public discourse in the media, the imposition by management of entertainment values on the journalism profession has resulted in scandals, fabricated sources, fictional events and the tabloidization of mainstream news. As recently stated by Dan Rather - who was, of course, forced out of his anchor job after angering the White House - television news has been "dumbed down and tarted up."

The coverage of political campaigns focuses on the "horse race" and little else. And the well-known axiom that guides most local television news is "if it bleeds, it leads." (To which some disheartened journalists add, "If it thinks, it stinks.")

In fact, one of the few things that Red state and Blue state America agree on is that they don't trust the news media anymore.

Clearly, the purpose of television news is no longer to inform the American people or serve the public interest. It is to "glue eyeballs to the screen" in order to build ratings and sell advertising. If you have any doubt, just look at what's on: The Robert Blake trial. The Laci Peterson tragedy. The Michael Jackson trial. The Runaway Bride. The search in Aruba. The latest twist in various celebrity couplings, and on and on and on.

And more importantly, notice what is not on: the global climate crisis, the nation's fiscal catastrophe, the hollowing out of America's industrial base, and a long list of other serious public questions that need to be addressed by the American people.

One morning not long ago, I flipped on one of the news programs in hopes of seeing information about an important world event that had happened earlier that day. But the lead story was about a young man who had been hiccupping for three years. And I must say, it was interesting; he had trouble getting dates. But what I didn't see was news.

This was the point made by Jon Stewart, the brilliant host of "The Daily Show," when he visited CNN's "Crossfire": there should be a distinction between news and entertainment.

And it really matters because the subjugation of news by entertainment seriously harms our democracy: it leads to dysfunctional journalism that fails to inform the people. And when the people are not informed, they cannot hold government accountable when it is incompetent, corrupt, or both.

One of the only avenues left for the expression of public or political ideas on television is through the purchase of advertising, usually in 30-second chunks. These short commercials are now the principal form of communication between candidates and voters. As a result, our elected officials now spend all of their time raising money to purchase these ads.

That is why the House and Senate campaign committees now search for candidates who are multi-millionaires and can buy the ads with their own personal resources. As one consequence, the halls of Congress are now filling up with the wealthy.

Campaign finance reform, however well it is drafted, often misses the main point: so long as the only means of engaging in political dialogue is through purchasing expensive television advertising, money will continue by one means or another to dominate American politic s. And ideas will no longer mediate between wealth and power.

And what if an individual citizen, or a group of citizens wants to enter the public debate by expressing their views on television? Since they cannot simply join the conversation, some of them have resorted to raising money in order to buy 30 seconds in which to express their opinion. But they are not even allowed to do that. tried to buy ads last year to express opposition to Bush's Medicare proposal which was then being debated by Congress. They were told "issue advocacy" was not permissible. Then, one of the networks that had refused the Moveon ad began running advertisements by the White House in favor of the President's Medicare proposal. So Moveon complained and the White House ad was temporarily removed. By temporary, I mean it was removed until the White House complained and the network immediately put the ad back on, yet still refused to present the Moveon ad.

The advertising of products, of course, is the real purpose of television. And it is difficult to overstate the extent to which modern pervasive electronic advertising has reshaped our society. In the 1950s, John Kenneth Galbraith first described the way in which advertising has altered the classical relationship by which supply and demand are balanced over time by the invisible hand of the marketplace. According to Galbraith, modern advertising campaigns were beginning to create high levels of demand for products that consumers never knew they wanted, much less needed.

The same phenomenon Galbraith noticed in the commercial marketplace is now the dominant fact of life in what used to be America's marketplace for ideas. The inherent value or validity of political propositions put forward by candidates for office is now largely irrelevant compared to the advertising campaigns that shape the perceptions of voters.

Our democracy has been hallowed out. The opinions of the voters are, in effect, purchased, just as demand for new products is artificially created. Decades ago Walter Lippman wrote, "the manufacture of consent...was supposed to have died out with the appearance of democracy...but it has not died out. It has, in fact, improved enormously in technique...under the impact of propaganda, it is no longer plausible to believe in the original dogma of democracy."

Like you, I recoil at Lippman's cynical dismissal of America's gift to human history. But in order to reclaim our birthright, we Americans must resolve to repair the systemic decay of the public forum and create new ways to engage in a genuine and not manipulative conversation about our future. Americans in both parties should insist on the re-establishment of respect for the Rule of Reason. We must, for example, stop tolerating the rejection and distortion of science. We must insist on an end to the cynical use of pseudo studies known to be false for the purpose of intentionally clouding the public's ability to discern the truth.

I don't know all the answers, but along with my partner, Joel Hyatt, I am trying to work within the medium of television to recreate a multi- way conversation that includes individuals and operates according to a meritocracy of ideas. If you would like to know more, we are having a press conference on Friday morning at the Regency Hotel.

We are learning some fascinating lessons about the way decisions are made in the television industry, and it may well be that the public would be well served by some changes in law and policy to stimulate more diversity of viewpoints and a higher regard for the public interest. But we are succeeding within the marketplace by reaching out to individuals and asking them to co-create our network.

The greatest source of hope for reestablishing a vigorous and accessible marketplace for ideas is the Internet. Indeed, Current TV relies on video streaming over the Internet as the means by which individuals send us what we call viewer-created content or VC squared. We also rely on the Internet for the two-way conversation that we have every day with our viewers enabling them to participate in the decisions on programming our network.

I know that many of you attending this conference are also working on creative ways to use the Internet as a means for bringing more voices into America's ongoing conversation. I salute you as kindred spirits and wish you every success.

I want to close with the two things I've learned about the Internet that are most directly relevant to the conference that you are having here today.

First, as exciting as the Internet is, it still lacks the single most powerful characteristic of the television medium; because of its packet-switching architecture, and its continued reliance on a wide variety of bandwidth connections (including the so-called "last mile" to the home), it does not support the real-time mass distribution of full-motion video.

Make no mistake, full-motion video is what makes television such a powerful medium. Our brains - like the brains of all vertebrates - are hard-wired to immediately notice sudden movement in our field of vision. We not only notice, we are compelled to look. When our evolutionary predecessors gathered on the African savanna a million years ago and the leaves next to them moved, the ones who didn't look are not our ancestors. The ones who did look passed on to us the genetic trait that neuroscientists call "the establishing reflex." And that is the brain syndrome activated by television continuously - sometimes as frequently as once per second. That is the reason why the industry phrase, "glue eyeballs to the screen," is actually more than a glib and idle boast. It is also a major part of the reason why Americans watch the TV screen an average of four and a half hours a day.

It is true that video streaming is becoming more common over the Internet, and true as well that cheap storage of streamed video is making it possible for many young television viewers to engage in what the industry calls "time shifting" and personalize their television watching habits. Moreover, as higher bandwidth connections continue to replace smaller information pipelines, the Internet's capacity for carrying television will continue to dramatically improve. But in spite of these developments, it is television delivered over cable and satellite that will continue for the remainder of this decade and probably the next to be the dominant medium of communication in America's democracy. And so long as that is the case, I truly believe that America's democracy is at grave risk.

The final point I want to make is this: We must ensure that the Internet remains open and accessible to all citizens without any limitation on the ability of individuals to choose the content they wish regardless of the Internet service provider they use to connect to the Worldwide Web. We cannot take this future for granted. We must be prepared to fight for it because some of the same forces of corporate consolidation and control that have distorted the television marketplace have an interest in controlling the Internet marketplace as well. Far too much is at stake to ever allow that to happen.

We must ensure by all means possible that this medium of democracy's future develops in the mold of the open and free marketplace of ideas that our Founders knew was essential to the health and survival of freedom.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

NASA is full of retards.

On a message board I post to, someone noted that the head of NASA said the shuttle launch was a mistake, and wondered "Why, then, did we do it?"

This was my reply.

It's not the shuttle that was a mistake, so much as that NASA made many, many mistakes.

After we won the space race, NASA lost the largest reason for its existence. Like all bureaucratic institutions, it existed not so much to accomplish anything, but because all its members wanted to keep their jobs.

To keep NASA's funding, they had to keep justifying the existence of the agency. They had to emphasize the importance of the scientific studies (mostly not that important, and in very low volume), the importance of the continued space program for national morale (the first launch, yes, the 200th?), and the safety (...).

So they continually raised expectations, and had to keep fudging things to make sure no one ever found out how bad it was.

The shuttle was designed almost whole cloth as it was. It wasn't built and tested time and again piece by piece to make sure we knew how they functioned. Those pieces weren't integrated unit by unit and tested again.

This showed in the many problems they've always had in maintaining equipment. Eventually it showed in the Challenger explosion. It showed again two years ago with the Columbia.

As the equipment got older, it got worse. The engineers all knew it and kept reporting the increasing lack of safety. But when those reports hit management, they were unwelcome. In a single memo you find "the chance of seal failure is critically high" and lower down "seal failure is not a critical issue" (I paraphrase).

In the end, the mistake was in trusting a political entity with its own oversight. That's how we lost two shuttles.

Then I adjourned to the bathroom, where I keep magazines for companionship, and read an article in US News and World Report (7/18/05) on the then impending launch of the Discovery (happened 7/26) and what do I read?

Excerpt From a Report on NASA Dumbassity:
Of the 15 changes that the Columbia Accident Invistigation Board recommended be checked off before another flight, NASA says it is sure of only 12. Stull uncentain is whether debris will fall from the external tank during launch, and the agency has not been able to replace the leading edge [of the wing] with stronger materials nor devise a sure way, once in orbit, to repair any damage on the way up. But the agency is going ahead, after its flight team concluded that while the board's concerns are not all met, the chances of a second, similar accident are now below the risks posed by other known dangers, such as meteor damage.

Tards tards tards tards tards.

Now, to my recollection, we've had three disasters in space, only one of which did not kill everyone on board, and all of which were caused by failure of the equipment.

Here you will read that no spacecraft has ever been hit by a meteorite. They've even gone out there with collectors to try and sample them and came back empty-handed. The space station has had to patch 2 holes. Two. As in 1+1.

When an accident occurs, that does NOT mean it will not happen again. That means that the likelihood of its occurence is NOT negligible. What these goddamn fools bet on was that because they flipped a coin and it came up tails, that in the future it's more likely to come up edge.

This is exactly the dumbass attitude that was discovered after the Challenger explosion. Because they wanted so badly to keep sending the shuttle to space, the management insisted that the odds of an accident were 1 in 10^5. That's one flight in every 100,000. Or once every 300 years if we launched every day. We've had three that I can recall, and we DON'T launch every day.

And because the shuttle landed safely (8/9/05), they're just going to assume that their horse-[bleep!] statistics are valid, downgrade safety precautions, postpone indefinitely the final changes recommended after Columbia, and kill more astronauts.

Thank god, at least, that they're running out of shuttles. They're playing Russian roulette, only the bullets are million dollar, 10 year old Pintos with hundreds of thousands of miles. Here's hoping the next one lands on NASA management.

And then, after posting that, I think, "It's praiseworthy that a political figure said a succesful mission was a mistake. That guy has balls. I'm going to say what a good guy he is." Then cynicism kicked in and I decided to try and find the news story so I know the circumstances around his comment.

Good thing.

Here you'll see that I'm prescient. I'm so right it hurts. I can predict these things with remarkable acuity. That they've already happened doesn't mean it's not a prediction. With sufficient evidence of past events I was able to predict exactly this.

I don't know how long the link will work, so I'll blatantly steal the relevant information.

Excerpt From Yet Another Report on NASA Dumbassity:
In a numbing setback sure to set off a national debate over the future of the space program, NASA has grounded all future shuttle flights because of a large chunk of foam that broke off Discovery’s fuel tank in hauntingly similar fashion to Columbia’s doomed mission.

That the Columbia accident didn't happen again is because they got damn lucky.


Saturday, August 27, 2005

Odysseus/O Brother, Where Art Thou?

I just finished rereading the Odyssey, and then the whim struck me to rewatch O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and it struck me how well the movie was written.

I'm not just talking about the obvious parallels; they're all over the place:

1) The Kyklopes, Polyphemos/The one-eyed Bible Salesman, Big Dan Teague
In the poem, Odysseus happens upon an isle that is wild, verdant, and lush with food. He ventures with some men to a cave. They wait for the cave's inhabitant to return, and prevail upon his hospitality. Instead he messily devours some of them. They remain for a day, and sharpen a log while waiting. When he returns, Odysseus gets him drunk and they put his eye out with the fire-hardened spike. The poem's actually fairly graphic at this point, though I don't know how realistically. I've never had the good fortune to watch as someone's eye gets stabbed out with a burning hot, pointy stick. Anyway, they escape, though they leave a few behind.

Big Dan instead gets them to serve him a free meal, and pay for the one he was eating when he decided to rob them (two meals, just as in the poem). Then he beats the crap out of them (saving Ulysses Everett McGill for last, just as Polyphemos promised Odysseus he'd be last) and steals their money and car.

2) The Sirenes
Well, this was obvious. They ended up on the rocks. In the movie at least. In the book, Odysseus has his men tie him to the mast and stop up their ears with wax so he can listen. Turns out their song was about... wait for it... the glories of the Trojan War. That's right; they were going to lure him to his death with a song about his own prowess. More on this later.

3) Kirke
The malign goddess didn't really show up in the movie, but I think there was a bit of a reference. Kirke's thing (everyone has a "thing" they do) was to lure people in for a feast and turn them into pigs (à la Bavmorda, in [u]Willow[/u]). Those she really liked, she'd sleep with until she got bored with them, then turn them into something noble, like a lion or a wolf. Odysseus survives because Hêrmes gives him a potion.
Anyway, the movie's parallel is Delmar's (mistaken) belief that Pete's been turned into a toad.

4) Menelaos
Did you catch "Pappy" O'Daniel's first name? Menelaos, just like the red-haired king, husband to Helen, for whom Odysseus sailed off to war in the first place.

Actually, one of his epithets was "Menelaos Xanthos", which is why he's called the red-haired king. "Xanthos" means "blond", or "slave". So why do they call him red haired? Have you ever seen a blond Greek? Of course not, so he couldn't have been blond.

Um, have you ever seen a red headed Greek?

5) Man of Constant Sorrow
I didn't get this until I watched it tonight. Here's a sample of the lyrics.

I am a man of constant sorrow,
I've seen trouble all my days.
I bid farewell to old Kentucky,
the place where I was born and raised.

And further,

Your friends think maybe I'm a stranger,
my face you'll never see no more.

Ha! Get it? It's the whole theme of both poem and movie! He's a wanderer, having adventures. That's his idiom (his "thing"). Odysseus bid farewell to old Ithaka, where he was born and raised.

6) The Wife
Penélopê in the poem, Penny in the movie (ha!). He has to leave her behind, and she gets courted while he's away. To quote one of Everett's daughters, "He's a suitor!"

In both poem and movie, the wife welcomes this attention.

Penny's motives are clear. She's got seven daughters to look after, and Vernon T. Waldrop (the suitor) has good prospects.

Penélopê's motives are less clear. She takes joy at their presence, even though they're impoverishing her. This is clearly indicated by the dream she relates to Odysseus in his guise as a beggar (was it even a real dream, or was she testing him?). I think Homer was simply an astute observer of the human scene. Greek women were fairly circumscribed. Their fathers, husbands, and sons were technically in control of their lives (though this poem and others indicate that women held more power de facto than they were considered to de jure). Legally, a woman had no real control over her life. With the suitors around. Penélopê was more than just the wife waiting for Odysseus; she was the center of the plot. Without them, Odysseus could just come home and she'd be a minor point to wrap up at the end of the poem. Because she was sought after, she became important. She was a proving point to her husband and her son. She had to be fought for. She became known for her guile in holding the suitors off for years. More than just the waiting wife, she was special and had to be acknowledged.

7) The Blind Prophet
Odysseus has to travel to the underworld in order to speak to Tiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes. Ulysses happens upon a blind prophet after escaping from the penal farm. Both prophets give unwelcome news.

Tiresias tells Odysseus that he'll be away from home for years, and will have to travel MORE after getting home. The nameless prophet of the film says they won't get the treasure they seek, but they'll get another one, despite obstacles in their path.

8) Finally, the man himself
Odysseus was famed for his ability as a thinker, a tactician, a debater, rather than as a fighter (although, as a hero, he was necessarilly death incarnate when the poet got around to it). He could talk anyone's ear off, lie on the spot, come up with whatever story he needed to get someone to do what he wanted. That was his skill. He told a long (and subtly insulting) story to the king of the Phiaikians in order to get a ride home. When he gets home, he tells a lie to the first person he meets. Hell, he lies to EVERYONE he meets. Even after he's killed the suitors and slept with his wife (while dissembling to her about the time he spent with Kalypso, nudge nudge), he lies to his father. He's just a fast talking, likeable liar.

And so is Ulysses Everett McGill.

Neither had much control over the men nominally under their command. Both were vain.

All in all, the movie was incredibly well written. I also enjoyed the many Wizard of Oz references. The KKK dance was funny, too, especially the lyrics.

Yo hi yo hi yo hi yo
eenie meenie miny moe

Ah well. This has gone on long enough. I'll talk about the odd feminist/antifeminist tone of the Odyssey some other time.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Cain and Able, oh, Onan, too.

People don't like other people, it's a fact. Especially if they're foreign or different. Most especially if they've got a different religion than you. Hoo boy, watch out for religious folks with a grudge!

So you have the Israelites, who are mostly shepherds. They herd, and being herders, they're not farmers or hunters. We know that herders hated farmers, who hated them right back. Different lifestyle, it makes you weak or stupid or indolent or you smell funny.

Able was a shepherd; his gift to god was a sacrifice of meat, and god liked it. Cain was a farmer; he gave god some fruitw, and god said, "What, are you calling me a fruit? I don't like yourfruity gift. Go away and let me go ack to liking Able."

So Cain threw a hissy fit and killed Able, then went awa to found a foreign country where they do fruity things, like farm.

See what this story really is? It's a canonization of an excuse to go to war.

1) God hates farmers, just like we do! Yay! Look, it says here that God doesn't like their gifts, he likes OUR gifts.
2) Foreigners are evil! See, Cain went off and founded some other country! All foreigners, bad! Hiss! Spit!
3) They started it! They hit us first!

And while I'm at it, I don't like people talking about the story of Onan like it's a condemnation of masturbation or of birth control. See, Onan's brother died, and he did so before he could get his wife properly knocked up with a son. No son means no heir. By the laws presented in Leviticus, it was therefore Onan's duty to get his brother's wife pregnant (If they got married, it would be known as a Levirate marriage) so his (dead) brother would have an heir.

Onan didn't want to do this. With his brother dead and heirless he would be the sole inheritant of his father's property. Or maye he just didn't like his brother all that much. For whatever reason, he didn't want to get his sister-in-law pregnant. That was his crime, failing to fulfill the Levirate law that said he had to do so. Nothing else.

And it's not like it was ambiguous in the Bible. It says straight out that he didn't want to get his brother's wife pregnant, so he didn't, and God killed him for it.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

I Like Dumb Movies

I like a movie that has the courage to say, "I don't have to win an award!" I like a movie where the main character runs around beating up/killing anonymous bad guys in well choreographed fights. I like the lack of a detailed plot. I like it when there's no character development.

Complexity is for people with interesting haircuts and an espresso addiction. Plot is for people who read long books about the weather in upstate Oregon. Character development is for girls and those anomalous guys who admit that they cry.

I like guy movies. I like it when things blow up. I like it when the girl explains away plot holes by taking her clothes off. I like it when directors distract us from bad lines with girls in skimpy outfits. I like fast cars, fast women, and fast ... action scenes.

I like it when the lead pauses in the middle of a situation in which there's no way anyone could pause and then says something pseudo-witty. I like it when the bad guys are obviously bad because they do something stereotypically bad (like shoot someone who doesn't need shooting). I like good guys who are obviously good because they do something stereotypically good (like not shooting someone who obviously needs shooting, but then having to shoot him because the [bleeper] doesn't know that he's fighting the good guy and should give up and not keep trying to kill him).

I like movies that embrace the B label. I like it when they know they have silly plots and run with it. I like it when they go beyond corny. I love it when they take a long, hard look in the mirror and have SEX with their clichédness.

I hate the masturbation of clever. I hate a movie that does something witty, then pauses and says, "Did you see that? I'm smart. Suck my [bleep!], you critic whores! I know you love this [bleep!]!" I hate movies that critics rave about. I hate critics, because they're the [bleep!]s who couldn't get a job writing. Writers can't get real jobs because they spill things and get lost in technical applications and tend to lose focus and start daydreaming about things. Critics are the people who are bad at being bad at things. They're the ones who watch a film major's on-screen-mind-masturbation and think, "Wow, that was deep." They're the ones who think a 3 hour movie about a guy stuck on an island is a moving exploration. They think a guy standing at a crossroads is symbolic of standing at a crossroads. [bleep!] critics.

I like the movies that people who are paid to watch movies hate.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Technically, it's Thursday.

It's late, I'm kinda tired, and the tag at the back of my neck itches. That sounds like a perfect set of reasons to talk about fighting dirty through history. There's a lot of groin popping in literature, if you know what to look for.

My first example comes from the collected romances of Chrétien de Troyes from around the 13th century. You have to realize that the world was absurdly different back then. Men wept on eachothers' shoulders when they parted, war was the accepted, constanst, state of affairs, they didn't have the Late Show.

An Arthurian Romance (so called because they usually involve the big man or one of his knights) usually had three elements; the knight's horse, his sword, and his woman. He would start with some combination of these three, and have to strive to acquire the third. Sometimes he'd lose one or more of the three and have to reacquire them. I don't know if it's significant that two of the three relate directly to fighting and only one to sex.

Anyway, one of these stories begins with a young knight out hunting (on his horse). As I recall, he's hunting a stag. Unfortunately, calamity strikes and he receives a wound to his thigh. I'll let you know right now that that's a euphemism for groin. We know this because his mysterious leg wound in no way hampers his ability to fight later in the story, and because the only way his wound can be cured is by the touch of a woman. Appropriate, because this young man was notoriously unmarried.

Anyway, he gets in a magic boat and rescues a woman trapped in a tower married to an old man who, we are again euphemistically told, needs Viagra. Some things change, some things don't. By the way, most Arthurian romances involve dashing young men stealing the wives of older men. Gawain & Lancelot, for example. Lancelot's story [The Knight of the Cart] almost got Chrétien punished by the church for showing Gwinevere as an adultress. At least Gawain, the perfect knight, had the decency to kill the poor bastard first.

Actually, this is an interesting reflection of a situation that persisted for most of our history. Women had an unfortunate tendency to die young, often in childbirth. Men had a tendency to not be worth marrying until they were older and had accumulated some real estate and wealth. So most brides were taken up by older men, which left the landscape awash with unmarried young men, many of whom spent their entire lives preparing for war. This was an age of conflict, remember.

So you get a bunch of horny young men with weapons and nothing to do... The result should be easily predictable. "What dost thou rebel against, young master?" "What hast thou got?"

Why do you think Norman knights conquered Sicily? They had nothing better to do. And they couldn't get away with that sort of back home in Western France. Why do you think people were so eager to send knights off to Jerusalem? Because they were wreaking havoc on the countryside at home; better they do that sort of thing to the heathens.

Anyway, back to thigh wounds. They show up all over the place, because everyone was imitating the best selling book of all time. The first recorded instance of anyone getting a shot to the meat and two veg occurs in the Bible. Jacob wrestles with an angel, who "knocks his thigh out of joint". "The mighty sinew there shriveled." Jacob doesn't have any more kids after that fight, and most Biblical figures are fecund out the wazoo. That angel fought dirty.

Let's face it, there's really nothing new we can bring to the table concerning fighting. They knew how to knock each other about back in the day.

I'm sure my Uncle Ben can correct me all over the place on this post.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The Religious Right

Is it just me, or is it disingenuous for the religious right to claim they're being persecuted while at the same time justifying any action on their part by pointing out that Christians are a majority in the nation?

Of course, just because Christians form a majority doesn't mean that the religious right forms a majority. Small-minded reactionaries aren't yet a majority in America, I hope. The fact is that every politician out there kowtows to the vocal, extreme minority of his party, and the Republicans long ago allied themselves with the RR.

All this adds up to a small minority having undue influence over a small majority. Because the Republican can't afford for that vocal minority to defect, they have to keep feeding them. It's like riding a tiger; it'll get you where you're going, but you can't get off once you get there.

As for the claims of persecution; don't be fatuous. It's not persecution to keep you from doing things to me. YOU are allowed to pray in school; don't try to make me do the same. You don't have to have gay sex. You don't have to not believe in god.

This country was fatally weakened when small, fearful men betrayed the country's principles and added religion to our coinage and pledge of allegiance.

This country is majority Christian. This country's majority has always been Christian. That does not make it a Christian nation, unless you're willing to extend the concept that this is a white nation, founded for and by the past and present majority of whites, from which principles we have most definitely strayed.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

This is astounding.

Check this out. This guy can DANCE.

It's the second video, the "Eric Fenn - Sketches" video.

They played the music fast to film him dancing to it, then they slowed him down to play the music normal speed on the video.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Let's Emigrate

"Domestically, Britain was very divided on the American Civil War. There were economic issues, ideological issues, and moral issues involved and different segments of the British population were on opposing sides. So any intervention in the American Civil War would have caused a huge political crisis in Britain.

Strategically, Britain knew that the United States and the Monroe Doctrine worked to British advantage. Occupying the United States would have been a huge expense and would have forced Britain to either allow other Europeans to occupy their own shares of the Americas or to assume the burden of keeping them out. Either option would have stretched British resources and made Britain the target of more foreign resentment."

I just read this in a thread about why no one attacked the US during the Civil War (think about it, why wouldn't they attack a small country with rich economic resources in the middle of a crisis?).

My thought, on reading this, was "and that's why the US will do nothing when China, in the next few months, invades Taiwan."

We're too heavily involved elsewhere, and China owns too much US debt.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005


I should teach people how to drive. For a year, I worked as a pizza delivery guy, getting paid decent cash to drive like a maniacal asshole. I was given permission to drive the way I did by the police. One time I passed a K9 unit. The sedan behind me, heartened by my example, did the same, and was promptly pulled over.

I saw every example of bad driving there is. I encountered the worst of inattentive morons and inconsiderate pricks. I've been rear-ended, flipped off, honked at for using my turn signal. I know how to analyse a driver's attitude and destination in a few moments and predict all future driving behavior from that.

In other words, I know all the ways there are of fuxxong up, and all the ways to compensate for mistakes in others. It may come as a surprise, but I'm one of those slow drivers that are content to use the right-hand lane.

And I'm willing to yell at students and get their attention. I've the sort of fun arrogance that gets responses.

I rule.

Damn, that sort of thing feels good.

Thursday, May 26, 2005


Calley, my new kitty.

You can't see it, but she's .... special. She's half grey tabby and half orange tabby.

I don' know how to describe it, but where you see orange is where she's basically an orange striped tabby. Where you see grey she's a grey striped tabby. She's "called" calico, but it's like she's got two different types of tabby right there on her!

I've the coolest cat ever.

I've had a discussion with my older brother. Cats are traditionally "girls" pets and dogs are for guys, right?

Fuck that! Cats take care of themselves! Put down food, and make sure the toilet isn't the epitome of "covered with shit" and cats take care of themselves! And they can live without constant reinforcement!

With a dog, you have to be there all the time. Dogs are for girls, who need someone there all the time.

A cat is a guy's pet. They need minimal supervision.

Now, to go reassure my new cat. She's still worried tha ninjas will break in and steal her tuna. That's a sensible fear. I've annoyed many a ninja clan.

If you're in any way affiliated with my apartment complex, you're hereby forbidden to have read this.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The Joplin Apocalypse

There were some seriously awesome/creepy clouds over the town of Joplin, Missouri. Stuff straight out of Ghostbusters!

Check out these two:

Just look back and forth between them. They were obviously taken just a few seconds apart. Imagine sitting there, able to SEE that air is actually a fluid!

Of course, also imagine sitting there, knowing that the sky looked like it did because of the sort of air currents that lead to tornado formation.

You can see even more pics here:

One of those is my new desktop.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Fight Club Desktop

Man, I can't even remember who made this. A little research tells me he took a Fight Club desktop he found online and added the words. I 've seen the black background with Norton holding the soap online. I found it tonight and this is years after the movie came out. So I can only surmise he took that and added the multi-phrases to it. Personally, I think it's better with the words, even if they sometimes clash with desktop icons.

Damn good wallpaper, I think.

By the by, I'm aware this image won't copy well. I suppose I could send you the original. Sheez, I gots ta find out who made this, I think he deserves credit. Or at least warning. I'm aware I've a huge fanbase and he could become the next artist du jour because of me.

Sunday, May 22, 2005


Picture, if you will, a bar at closing time. It's about to release its collection of drunks back into the wild. So that the drunks can wander freely, this bar is in the middle of a featureless plain, infinite in dimensions.

This scenario is not unlike putting a drop of dye into a glass of water. The infinite plain is the water, and the dye is the drunks. What will happen as time passes? Obviously, the dye will diffuse into the water (the drunks will scatter randomly across the plain), but how will the dye diffuse, and can we predict it at all mathematically?

To make things simpler, we'll make our drunks one-dimensional. The bar is located at the origin of a line.

Now, you can see (hopefully) that the drunks are free to wander up or down the line. When they fall down, they have an equal chance of heading in either direction.

I'm deliberately setting this up in the same way Einstein did, but without all the math. In his discussion, the drunks were particles, and he set up functions that defined how far they moved and how often, etc.

The drunks (dye) are totally concentrated at the origin. So if you were to graph the concentration of drunks as a function of space, the graph would be 0 everywhere but the origin. At the origin you would have a spike, representing all the drunks.

You could say this is a graph of the function c(x,t) concentration a function of space and time. This graph is c(x,0), all space at time t=0.

We know that as the drunks wander, they will leave the bar (the origin) and slowly spread across the infinitely vast plain. But we want to come up with a mathematical representation of their movements. Can we be precise? The answer is "yes", which probably won't surprise you.

How can we describe the concentration of drunks as a function of both space and time? First, we need to introduce the concept of flow. Flow is the rate of passage of drunks through a point at a certain time. Picture a square placed over our line, so that the line passes through the center, perpendicular to the square.

If three drunks move through the square heading to the right, then the flow at that point at that time is 3. If three drunks move through the square to the right and four drunks move through it to the left, then the flow at that time and position is -1. As a function, flow is:

Now we need to relate "flow" with "concentration". This is actually pretty easy to do. Suppose we have 6 drunks on the left side of the square and 2 on the right.

Once we release them, they're going to spread randomly. So some will move through the square heading right, some will go through the square heading left.

First, the change in concentration with respect to x. We see that there are more on the left than the right, so concentration is decreasing as x is increasing.

The funky symbols in front of 'c' and 'x' are Greek lower case deltas, they represent change. In this case, the change in concentration as x changes.

What about flow? The drunks are moving randomly, so half will go one way and half the other. Three will move through the square heading right, one will go through it heading left. So flow overall is:

And we see that flow is proportional to the negative of the derivative of concentration. Say what? When concentration decreases as you head to the right, that means that flow will be to the right. This jibes with our qualitative understanding of diffusion. There are fewer particles on the right, and we know that particles will diffuse from where they are to where they aren't. Nice.

However, we can't work, mathematically, with that proportionality. Let's get rid of it and stick a nice, fat, "equals" sign in there.

This equation tells us that flow is equal to the negative of the derivative of concentration multiplied by some constant number "D". Hoodoggy. We had to stick that "D" in there because that's what you do when you change from proportionality to equality. You can think of "D" as a factor that transforms one number (change in concentration) to another (flow).

However, this hasn't given us an actual equation. It just relates two functions, both undefined. Can we get rid of flow? (I know, I introduce flow, and now I want to get rid of it? That's what you do in this kind of thing.)

Let's relate flow to concentration in a different way. Instead of a square on the line, let's stick a cube on there.

Now we'll talk about flow and relate it to concentration inside the cube. First, let's state that flow is positive (j>0), that particles are moving to the right.

Posit that at some time t, there are three drunks moving through the square at x = -1, and five drunks moving through the square at x = 1. This corresponds to positive flow and to the case that the flow increases as x increases. In this case, the concentration inside the cube is going to decrease by two drunks.

See that? Three move in, five move out. Now for the functions.

Flow is increasing with x, and concentration is decreasing with time.

Now let's reverse the situation. Now five move in and three move out.

Five move in, three move out, flow is still to the right, it's decreasing, and concentration is increasing.

So now we can generalize this to an equality, right? Hooray! Yes!
Let's call this Equation 1.
Ooh! But we knew from before that

So now we just have to do the math!

And now we can plug this back into Equation 1...

Sweet! We've completely eliminated flow from the picture, and now we have a formula that discusses concentration and ONLY concentration. Booyah! Hmm... But how much information does this equation contain? It's got all those derivatives and that proportionality constant. Fortunately, a member of the sprawling Bernoulli family dealt with situations like this and he's told us how to solve it (Yeah, there were a bunch of mathematical geniuses in one family. Their dinner discussions must've been abstruse awesomeness.)

To deal with this, you have to make a number of assumptions. The first is that:

This assumption tells us that concentration is a function of space and time, and that they are independent. This is an assumption that holds true for stochastic motion (random, Brownian, diffusive). It obviously wouldn't hold true for directed motion; throw the ball, and it's path in time and space are fixed and related to each other.

Now we need to plug that back into our big, ugly, derivative-filled equation.

The apostrophes are another notation for derivative that you can use for functions that only have one variable. It saves some space, makes things a bit easier on the eyes.

Now let's rearrange that bad boy so that we get time on one side and space on the other (this is called separation of variables).
equation 2
Now that is pretty. And it has the nice property that it can only be true if both sides are equal to a constant (because they involve different variables, see?). This next part is going to have a LOT of equations.

Now we're going to go ahead and assume that T(t) and X(x) are exponential functions, because exponential functions have a nice property. The derivative of an exponential is equal to a constant multiplied by that same exponential (so X'/X is equal to that constant).

The "k" in each of these is another constant. The "i" in the second formula is a special mathematical constant. It's the square root of -1. Look back to when you learned about square roots and you'll recall you can only take the square root of a positive number. "i" let's you work around that. It's the imaginary number. Cool, eh?

Now we need to check that these fit the requirements of equation 2.

Excellent! The functions we have are a nice little model for the mathematical definition of concentration! If we plug these back in to the definition of c(x,t)=X(x)T(t) and do a little more work, we come up with the pretty result:

"Wait," you say, "where'd all that junk out front come from? Why are 'D' and 't' on the bottom up there? What the holy hell are you doing?" The quick answer: don't fret. It's all just to make sure the function behaves like we want it to. This is really a representation of the probability of finding a particle at a certain location at a certain time. The junk out front makes certain that the probability of finding a particle anywhere at any time is 100%, not more or less than that. The other changes we'll go ahead and illustrate here and now.

Remember, when t=0, at the very beginning of things, we have a spike, with all our drunks inside the bar. Then we hit last call and the drunks start going home. We get a nice little gaussian curve that's still pretty sharp. It's still pretty early, so most of the drunks are still near the bar. However, as time progresses, the drunks get more and more spread out and that curve flattens down. Once we hit infinity, the drunks are evenly distributed across all space and the curve is completely flat. There's an equal probability of finding a drunk at any point.

Now that we've got it in one dimension, want to tack on an additional two dimensions and try doing it again? :shudder: Let's just leave it that this can be expanded to three dimensions without any difficulty.


Okay, so the combination of Windows and other factors yields inordinate suckage. So I'm going to have to modify my (100!) exam and change things so it's completely qualitative. Some pictures, no math. It'll take me a while, but I'll go ahead and get the first up this afternoon.

Me'n'a friend