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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Why AOL Lost Its Market Cap

Just a guess here, but when we looked at a borrowed computer this morning, we saw the following headlines:

Top AOL News Stories:

  • How Was The Joker Potty Trained? Mental Health Experts Psychoanalyze Batman Villains
  • Alaska's Alleged Sea Monster Caught On Film
  • WATCH: Exploding manhole Tosses Car In The Air
  • 15 Most Annoying Things About Flying the Unfriendly Skies)
  • Cat Stabs Man (Or So He Says)

Really? The nation hovers on the brink of an unprecedented financial disaster as Congress grandstands, and these are the top stories? Apparently, Arianna Huffington hasn't turned the place around yet. Orf worse yet, maybe she has.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Darkness Visible

To justify the ways of the movie industry would require the skills of a formidable writer. Any number have tried and failed. On the other hand, several writers have tried to justify the ways of God to man, and at least one has come awfully close (especially if one's leanings are at once Calvinist, classicist and obscurantist).

So Hollywood bought the rights.

All of which means that plans are afoot to film Paradise Lost.

Here's an informative but badly-written story. (Ande here's the poem, if you need to brush up). The guy who directed I, Robot has signed on; some star I've never heard of is in talks to play Lucifer. The script has already been worked on by a small army of writers, only one of them with much of a Tinseltown track record.

It sounds a little weird, but -- honestly -- it might work. It's got the ultimate in just war, and as much sex as you want to film. Paradise Lost is famously difficult to read, but the good news is that you don't read movies. If you cut through the density of the language and the literary allusions, a lot of it is pretty visual, and easy (okay, easy-ish) to imagine onscreen. Here is Satan, mustering his strength after the defeat of the rebellion:

Forthwith upright he rears from off the Pool
His mighty Stature; on each
hand the flames
Drivn backward slope thir pointing spires, and rowld
billows, leave i'th' midst a horrid Vale.
Then with expanded wings he stears
his flight
Aloft, incumbent on the dusky Air
That felt unusual weight,
till on dry Land
He lights, if it were Land that ever burn'd
With solid,
as the Lake with liquid fire ...

It just cries out for CGI, dunnit?
Anyway, the Times gets the best line, noting that although the casting for Adam and Eve hasn't yet been announced, the costumes should be pretty easy.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Weird Stuff Notes

For several weeks now, we have been changing residences more frequently than Arafat did in the 1970s, and our internet access has been spotty. Likewise television, newspapers and books. So we're pretty far out of touch with the world these days. (On the other hand, we did see some longhorn cattle this afternoon).

All this out of touchness leaves us a bit confused about the headlines. So far as we can tell, presidential wannabee Michelle Bachmann has recently left her Lutheran church, after not attending for the past two years. Nothing really new there, if you're an ELCA member annoyed about The Gays. But Mrs. Bachmann is -- or rather was -- part of the WELS. Is it possible that they weren't reactionary enough for her?*

Her decision might conceivably have been prompted by some fluff about her husband's counseling service, which includes a "cure" for homsexuality. More likely, it is related to a recent Atlantic piece, reminding the world that Martin Luther thought that the Pope was Antichrist, a belief enshrined in the WELS statement of faith, and (more significantly) in the Smalcald Articles (2:4:10).** This latter, after all, is part of the common confession of all Lutheran churches. Were it otherwise, the point would be moot, since Luther said any number of things which Lutherans are free to disregard, chuckle over, or cringe at. He was particularly rough on Jews and Germans, for example. He also thought that eating meat was a consequence of the Fall, and on one occasion endorsed bigamy. All of which is why we have the Book of Concord.

Author Josh Green does something funny here: he cites a couple of theologians who tell him, as anybody familiar with the documents would, that sure, Luther said and meant the antichrist thing; but that neither Luther nor Lutherans meant anything like the things modern people seem to read into it. Then, to all intents and purposes, he ignores them. He is explicitly trying to use Bachmann's religious association against her, as Republicans used Obama's in 2008 -- a tactic that struck us as churlish then and continues to do so now.

In related faith-baiting news, we read that a Fox News host thinks Rick Perry may have an eaiser time raising funds than Mitt Romney, since Romney "is obviously not a Christian." While agree with the general idea, we are troubled by the glibness of that "obviously." As we have said before, the question of whether Mormons are Christians is purely academic, and depends upon your definition of Christian. For the record, our definition is tied up in the somewhat loose canon of Scripture, to which the Book of Mormon is by no historic standard a part, and in the faith delivered to the saints, as recorded in their writings -- including, most especially, the Canons of Nicea. But for somebody who thinks that "Christianity," degree zero, means no more than claiming the name of Jesus as a road to salvation, Mormons are indeed Christian -- along with some Hindus. Seriously.

Meanwhile, Tim Pawlenty is talking up his Evangelicalism, just in case anybody missed it.

Now, we haven't been following these stories, so it is likely that we have missed some important details. But what comes out clearly is that, once again, religion and religious tests are likely to have a prominent role in the presidential campaign. This is, as always, an unneccessary and unwholesome contribution to the civic life of our secular republic.

But hey -- at least it got Lutheranism into the news.
*Technical note: It seems that the WELS, unlike the ELCA, doesn't remove people from the roster for inactivity; they keep you on the rolls until you die or formally request removal.
**In context, Luther is arguing that, because the [Renaissance] papacy claimed that communion with Rome was necessary for salvation, the pope arrogates to himself the saving power which belongs only to God. Since modern Roman Catholicism takes a more nuanced view of this subject, and since much of this has been dealth with in the dialogues leading up to the Joint Declaration, it seems to us that Luther's claim is no longer binding. (Even at the time, Melanchthon recognized the possibility of granting the pope authority as a practical matter.)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Modern Doomsday Cult

Long, long ago, we mentioned Shoresh Yishai, a creepy faux-Jewish cult begun by a pair of Lutheran pastors on Long Island, years ago. They were (and their successors apparently remain) an awful bunch. Start with the child molestation and go from there. Anyone who has served a parish in Nassau County knows some of the heart-wrenching story.

We recently received a note from an anonymous correspondent, who claims to have been a member of this group for most of his or her life, and who has just recently started a blog devoted to going public on the subject. There isn't much there yet, apart from this nice bit of snark:
In the 1980’s, the cult was known as Shoresh Yishai, but the name has changed over the years. Currently they refer to themselves as the Abensaur Family or simply as the Family. As you probably know, the Family is not the most original name. The charismatic founder of the cult, Jack Hickman, also known as Abba to his followers, was not the most original cult leader. Most of the ideas and dogmas that are alive in the cult today he stole from others. This is rather fitting with his character as he did after all live a parasitic lifestyle.
The least a cult leader can do, we imagine, is show a little creativity. Give us flying saucers and mind-reading machines or stay home.

Anyway, if you are interested in Jack Hickman and his followers, stay tuned to Modern Doomsday Cult, and encourage the author to keep working.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Dawkins Defends DSK

The case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn has, as you surely know, collapsed. His accuser has proven to be an unreliable witness, and although charges remain in place, it is unlikely that the matter will ever go to trial.

Many people have accused the DA, Cyrus Vance Jr., of treating DSK improperly. The heart of the accusation seems to be that he was arrested and jailed, which are the things one hopes will be done to men accused of violent sex crimes. His bail was fairly high, which is what one hopes will happen when the men so accused are wealthy and politically connected citizens of a nation with which one has no extradition treaty.

Joe Nocera gives a straightforward and convincing defense of Vance in his Times column. Here's the meat of it:
For the life of me, though, I can’t see what Vance did wrong. Quite the contrary. The woman alleged rape, for crying out loud, which was backed up by physical (and other) evidence. She had no criminal record. Her employer vouched for her. The quick decision to indict made a lot of sense, both for legal and practical reasons. Then, as the victim’s credibility crumbled, Vance didn’t try to pretend that he still had a slam dunk, something far too many prosecutors do. He acknowledged the problems.
We happen to have seen it in the print edition, but then out of curiosity we went online to read the comments, especially by those whom Nocera did not manage to convince.

Perhaps it is our perfervid imagination, but it seems to us that, if one reads just a little bit between the lines, a picture emerges. They seem like apologists for wealth and power, the sort of people who vote with the majority on recent Supreme Court decisions. One DSK defender argues that the banker was "assumed guilty and suffered extreme social and financial punishment" even though he had not been put on trial. This is, of course, nonsense. He was treated like the suspect in a violent crime, which is not at all pretty. Social and financial consequences are not the DA's responsibility; talk to the World Bank about hiring a new boss while the old one was ... unavailable.

Now, we have hinted before and hereby hint again that we do, in the depths of our conspiratorially-minded, thriller-reading heart, nourish grave suspicion that l'affaire Strauss-Kahn may have been a political hit by Sarkozy, or even by the Greeks, seeking respectively to eliminate a rival or secure softer bailout terms. Such things do happen.

But until the chambermaid writes a tell-all with the lines "and then the man known only as Stavros handed me a condom, a cellphone and a briefcase full of cash," it seems impossible to be sure. Still, given what we do know about DSK personally, and powerful men in general, it seems entirely possible that, as Nocera writes, "something very bad happened in that hotel room."

What interests us, really, is the rush to defend him, by Bernard-Henri Levy and all the anonymous Times commenters -- not to mention the Post, which was quick to claim that the maid had worked as a prostitute (as if prostitutes never got raped). All told, it reminds us what we wrote about Richard Dawkins in our last post: that there is a phalanx driven to rage by the prospect that any man may not be able to seek out sex with any woman at any time.

In effect, the vitriol Dawkins sprayed at Skept-Chick seems to come from the same place that the outrage on behalf of DSK does. It is the howl of the old and privileged, unable to bear the thought of losing even the slightest bit of what they have so long enjoyed.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Selfish Geneticist

One of these days, we will get around to Richard Dawkins -- promise. The bottom line is that, while we gather that he is a highly capable scientist, we aren't deeply impressed by his ever-more-strident public attacks on the straw man he chooses to call "religion." We don't imagine he would be much impressed by our thoughts on, say, the role of heterochromatin in transcriptional silencing, and probably for the same reasons. That's okay; thoughtful people can disagree, particularly when they do so courteously.

And our very slight reading about Dawkins had always suggested that he was a basically nice guy. A bit shrill sometimes, but understanably so; he must get more hate mail than Dave Benke. Newspaper profiles, though, go out of their way to portray him as an affable type, not quite courtly, but courteous except perhaps when snarled at.

We are beginning to wonder. It may very well be that Dawkins is, like so many successful men of a certain age, quite far from even the most basic understanding of common courtesy, particularly with regard to women. At any rate, that's how his own faithful seem to be calling it, as they turn on him like a pack of wild dogs.

It's a long story, summarized here by Gawker. The bottom line is that a prominent female skeptic was at a conference, where some guy hit on her in an elevator at 4am. She blogged about it later, suggested that this sort of thing creeped her out, and asked readers not to do it.

And there things would have lain, we suppose, had Dawkins -- in the comments section appended to somebody else's blog post -- not chimed in with a ham-fisted attempt at irony:

Dear Muslima[,]

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don't tell me yet again, I know you aren't allowed to drive a car, and you can't leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you'll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep"chick", and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn't lay a finger on her, but even so . . .

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.


He's in all sorts of trouble now. It will probably blow over, or maybe it won't.

What fascinates us is the fact that such a seemingly bright and affable guy would write this at all. Did somebody ask for his opinion on the subject of women getting hit on in elevators? Or did he simply think, as he seems to, that expertise in evolutionary genetics amounts to automatic authority in every other subject?

To be fair, there was a context. But even this does not make Dawkins look very good. The commenters were discussing, among other things, whether it was really so bad to ask a woman back to your room, in an elevator, in the wee hours. Many people opined that it was a natural enough thing, even when done awkwardly; others may have agreed, but pointed out that it was also intimidating, and therefore rude to the point of sexual harassment.

Dawkins seems to be taking the former position, which may be natural enough for a man of his age, but please do consider what that position amounts to, particularly when expressed with such over-the-top rhetoric. After all these years, there remains a large phalanx of men who are outraged -- literally, driven to a frenzy -- by the idea that they do not have the perfect right to proposition any woman, in any place, at any time, and to do so without ever being criticized for it. Some imagine they have rights which go well beyond this.

This sort of thinking is, in some ways, a reflection of gender and class privileges so deep and longstanding that until recently they were rarely even noticed. But by now they have been noticed long enough, and thoroughly enough -- especially in the academic world -- that there is no real excuse even for the most privileged. Ask Larry Summers. Were Dawkins an associate prof, he might be looking for work next term.

It is to the credit of the skeptical and atheist communities that so many of their number are having none of this nonsense. Now if we could only get them to come around on that, um, other thing.