Sunday, October 29, 2017

Meditation on a T-Shirt (Standing Up for Science, in Good Faith)

A really neat T-shirt on sale on the web says on its front,

            Earth Is Not Flat
         Vaccines Work
         We've Been To The Moon
         Chemtrails Aren't A Thing
         Climate Change Is Real
         Stand Up For Science

But if I were making a shirt for myself, I'd want on on the back,

         Teaching Flat-Earth v. Round-Earth Hypotheses Is a Fine Way to Introduce Kids to Scientific Method and the History and Philosophy of Science
         The Human Species Evolved Like the Other Species, and Is Contingent, Not Special
         In a Universe of "Billions and Billions of Stars," the Human Species Is Trivial
         If There's a Multiverse of Universes, the Human Species Is Really Trivial
         If the Human Species Is Trivial, You Certainly Are Nothing Special
         If You Eat Carrots, Let Alone Hamburgers, You Deny that Life Is Sacred
         Like the Carrot or Steer You Eat, When You're Dead You're Dead
         Belief that "in the Big Picture" Humans Have Value Over, Say, Sheep or Cockroaches Is Necessary But Absurd
         Stand Up For Science and Its Implications

Herman Melville's Ishmael (or just the Narrator of much of Moby Dick) tells us that "[…] the truest of all books is Solomon's, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. 'All is vanity.' ALL" (ch. xcvi, "The Try-Works"). In a bit more detail, and more modern language — "vanity" means "emptiness": "All is emptiness" and "a striving after wind" — Koheleth tells us that he looked deeply into the truth of things and "decided as regards men, to dissociate them [from] the divine beings," gods and angels, "and to face that fact that they are beasts. For in respect of the fate of man and the fate of beast, they have one and the same fate: as the one dies so dies the other, and both have the same lifebreath; man has no superiority over beast, since both amount to nothing" (Tanakh Ecclesiastes, 3.18-19).

Since the Renaissance and increasingly since the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, scientific research has expanded the human-eye view of the universe in space and time and displaced us from the center of things. This is good for human humility — a virtue we generally lack — but it has its dangers.

Robert Ardrey tells is in his African Genesis about a theory that circulated for a bit in the mid-20th century, on "The Illusion of Central Position" as the birthright of every human child. I look around, and I see that the universe revolves around me. "With maturity, however, the illusion is undercut and the child and then the man comes to a truer perception of his place in the scheme of things." 

Nonetheless the theory grants that should a man ever attain a state of total maturity — ever come to see himself, in other words, in perfect mathematical relationship to the tide of tumultuous life which has risen upon the earth and in which we represent but a single swell; and furthermore come to see our earth as but one opportunity for life among uncounted millions in our galaxy alone, and our galaxy as but one statistical improbability, nothing more, in the silent mathematics of all things—should a man, in sum, ever achieve the final, total, truthful Disillusionment of Central Position, then in all likelihood he would no longer keep going but would simply lie down, wherever he happened to be, and with a long-drawn sigh return to the oblivion from which he came. (145; ch. 6)

So let us Stand Up for Science and Truth — but count its costs and face the pain of the human position and condition in the real reality of such materialist truth.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 et al. and Overstimulation: Aural Division

In Elizabethan London, one would go to hear a play.
In America, we go to see even a concert.
The different word choices are significant.

            After having participated in an on-line discussion of Blade Runner 2049, I may have to expand to five my current “standard four O’s” for the tent-pole movie: to over-financed, over-produced, over-long, and overblown, we might have to add, “overly loud.” 

            To that I’m going to throw in just having learned that back in Oxford, OH, Kona restaurant is closing after some 20 years of operation. That’s not a bad run for a restaurant and no big deal for those not directly involved. Relevant for me here is that some Miami University (Oxford, OH) faculty liked to eat there, and we got to watch when the restaurant remodeled. I knew the manager, and I commented to him that just about every change they made to the restaurant worked to make it noisier. The manager said that was intentional and noted that among other reasons for that strategy was “We want to get rid of people like you.” I.e., they wanted to get rid of older diners who wanted to eat a meal and then sit around and talk. They wanted to attract youngish drinkers, who would drink, shout a few lines at one another — this was in the BT era (Before Texting) — order some snacks, drink more, and then leave, freeing the table for more drinkers.

            About the time of the Kona remodeling, I had a brief series of conversations with the manager of the aerobics area — it had some fashionable name I've forgotten — at Miami U’s Recreational Sports Center. I asked him to turn down the volume of the Muzak since even wearing ear stopples and “shooting muffs” I still could hear it pounding away. He said (1) they had an audiologist check it out, and it wasn’t too loud, (2) it was “my” music (classic rock), and (3) I was the only one to complain. I told him (more or less) that “my” music was music I could turn off and that they should try klezmer, progressive jazz, or light classical at that volume and see if there were any complaints. 

            And one bit more to throw into the mix as I sidle up to my point: For a while I’ve been intrigued with why “splatter” movies would be so popular with audiences largely the age of the victims in splatter movies. I could see why American youngsters might pay to see and hear the grotesque deaths of people of the older generations screwing them over, but what’s the kick in watching messy deaths for their peers? One answer I’ve received is that young people suffer (if not much) from sensory overload and need increasing doses of stimuli to respond. A touch of terror can get through, and feeling anything can be a positive.


For sure the fashion nowadays is for sensory overload even on such old-fart-infested contexts as the busy, busy, busy screens on CNN. Jokes about hearing loss among teens aside — it’s a real problem but not that bad — it may be that the loud volume on movies is designed precisely to appeal to The Prime Demographic of 18-24 year-olds (skewing male) and that annoying unfashionable old people would be an advantage. 

            There are people in the movie biz who see problems in sticking with this fashion. First, essential to fashion is change, and film projects started now and going for loud may come out when the fashion moves toward something quieter (although that seems unlikely). Second, the Prime Demographic — blessings upon their free time and disposable income! — have sources of entertainment besides movies and may prove disloyal. Old people have even more free time and more money and can prove a profitable (and artistically challenging) niche market in a number of venues. The problem for now is getting old folks out of the house and into the remaining movie theaters. 

            A strategy to attract the young and somewhat repel the old — as a direct goal or side effect — has its problems commercially. Esthetically, legitimate occasions for volume at the border of pain are rare. So the next recycling of some Ridley Scott or Stan Lee product, remember that the original audiences for dreaming andoids, Wonder Women, and X-Men are getting on in years — and turn down the volume.


Monday, October 23, 2017

Universal Obligation (to Serve) and Selective Service: A Response to Senator McCain

"If we're going to ask every American to serve,
every American should serve." — Hon. John McCain
US Senator, interview 22 October 2017,
quoted on Huffington Post

I recall Senator Ted Kennedy's staff running the numbers a few decades back and concluding that even demanding a year of service from every American at 18 or 19 would be prohibitively expensive. Still, I like the principle Senator McCain has presented, and I'll repeat my suggestion for an affordable and equitable compromise:

Take almost literally, and implement, the official American doctrine of "Universal (military) obligation and selective service."

As long as we require 18-year old male residents of the US to register for the Draft, it's probably safer for liberty to both expand and contract the pool to all American citizens 18 to 80, with everyone filling out a brief form with our physical and mental condition, skills, and current contact information. As future cohorts turn 18, they can register in more detail, including some testing, ending with a little ceremony at which they receive a card that can serve as short-form passport and for voter-ID/registration, and registration as Of Age for the purchase of alcohol and any other legal recreational drugs.

"Old enough to fight, old enough to vote; old enough to vote, old enough to 'drink' (i.e., ethyl alcohol as a recreational drug)." A rite of passage for Coming of Age in America would be useful to help cure the current American epidemic of arrested development.

Everyone in a computerized system makes real "Universal obligation," with the provision that "the System" be programed to call up people for service as needed, with the political tweak that two members of Congress and a US Senator will be called up each month of a military draft: If they got us into this emergency and perhaps declared the war, let's be sure at least some of them fight it.

(Last time I made this suggestion, I had to consider what possible contribution to some war effort could be made by Senator Strom Thurmond, who was approaching 100 years old at the time. I noted that the System could be set up to allow for extreme age in members of the Congress and to give credit for previous military service, especially such superior service as that of Thurmond — no, World War II, not the Spanish-American — and, besides, in Thurmond's case there was always mine clearance …. More seriously, by "service" I meant Federal Service, in the sense used by Robert A. Heinlein in the more carefully considered, and perhaps even revised, sections of his Starship Troopers [1959]: maybe militaristic, in the novel, but not necessrily military. For Representatives and Senators, though: military if at all possible. There're always military jobs as guinea pigs at Fort Detrick.)

Other advantages to Universal Obligation: Senator Sam Ervin opposed military conscription for women with a line something like «America is not ready to see her daughters coming home in aluminium coffins.» That has turned out not to be literally the case so far, so long as the coffins are few; and insofar as it is the case, it's an argument for drafting women. American society can use every check we can get on war fever, and if a squishy sentimentality over the deaths of young women reduces the number of deaths, period, then go for it. Also, the US Left and Center have clearly been way too optimistic about the progress of women toward full integration into American political and civic society. Military service has helped other groups into US society; it should also help women.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Politics and Language in the Time of Trump: Left-Wing Clichés Must Also Go

"Carthage Must Be Destroyed!"
— Bumper-sticker version for
"Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam"
of Cato the Obsessive Elder

         One of my standard lines is that it’s bad enough that people don’t listen to what others are saying but too often we don’t even listen to what we ourselves say. Lately — like for most of my life and back to, say, the Roman Republic — this has been particularly bad on the war-loving Right; we on the Left, however, have our own issues.

         I got thinking about one of our cliches repeated by a schoolchild and answered by one of Robert A. Heinlein’s barely sufferable Men of Authority, in this case inStarship Troopers (1959): the idea that violence or war never solves anything. The authority figure tells the girl to tell that to the elders of Carthage. And here Heinlein moves into fantasy and has a near-future schoolchild know that Carthage Has Been Destroyed. Roman warfare solved their Carthaginian problem as it later solved their Jewish problem at Masada and with the other massacres and what more recent generations with a cleanliness fetish would call “ethnic cleansing.”

         What could be brought up against Heinlein’s militaristic pedant is the ancient historical tradition of dating the decline of the Roman Empire precisely to the moment they killed off the competition with the destruction of Carthage: an argument I find both macho and moralistic (and unconvincing), but it is out there.

         Better, I think, to introduce the small “m” machiavellian note that getting your way by killing people is a game any number can play and part of protecting your city would be a doctrine that whole cities and civilizations shouldn’t be destroyed too casually. More generally, progress would include increasing acceptance of the idea that even people with power shouldn’t kill other people unless they/we really, really have to. As the true Law is laid down by a wise old hermit more nuanced than the pedants of Starship Troopers, “[…] you mustn’t kill unless you must kill. And hardly even then” (Ursula K. Le Guin, City of Illusion (ch. 3).

         If warfare didn’t have its uses, the world, on average, would be a safer and nicer place. Although a whole lot of people would need to be effective at nonviolent resistance since there are other horrors besides war and smaller-scale violence. As Hannah Arendt has said in a argument mostly against violence: “under certain circumstances violence, which is to act without argument or speech and without reckoning with consequences, is the only possibility of setting the scales of justice right again.”

         Ian Morris suggests we should take seriously the rhetorical question (and song) , “War! What Is It Good For?” War does have its practical — as in historical, long term — uses. Better we should think of war and violence in the dangerous but necessary terms of good and evil: Killing people is always evil; killing, wounding, maiming and traumatizing people in masses, destroying the products of human labor and craft and art is evil, and to be chosen as a method consciously, with fear and trembling, and only when its the least evil choice. And indeed, as Le Guin’s hermit says, “not “unless you must […]. And hardly even then.”