April 2005

2005 04 29
Our Very Own Brainman

Posted by in: Anecdotal, Television

I turned on Letterman the other night to find the camera showing the back of his guest’s head with Dave in the background. My heart leapt to my throat as I wondered if what I was seeing really was…really was…No, it couldn’t be! Is that Chris?!

Turns out the closely shorn pate was not Chris’s, but Daniel Tammet, pukka savant. Tammet is autistic, and apparently memorized Pi, in only a few weeks, to an INCREDIBLE twenty-two thousand, five-hundred decimal places. He said it took him something like five hours to recite, which means in those few weeks he couldn’t have gone over the number that many times in order to memorize it.

While I know Chris doesn’t have those skills to that degree, I think his friends and family ought to cut him some slack. What with blogging and memorizing Pi in his spare time, it’s a wonder he’s as far as he is with his dissertation. And thus we hope he’s relaxing and dancing with wolves up north.

Howls of outrage (5)

2005 04 28

Posted by in: Anecdotal, Canada

I’m heading back to Ottawa over the weekend to visit friends and family, so blogging (from me) will be even lighter than usual. Apart from the fact that friends and family will doubtless engage in an informal competition to see who can pester me the most about the completion of my dissertation and the question of little ones, the trip should be lots of fun.

Soon my pockets will be heavy with change and I’ll be cursing some moron who is driving the speed limit in the left hand lane! (Just to get this out of my system: That’s not what the left hand lane is for you stupid farging icehole.)

Oh Canada!

Howls of outrage (2)

2005 04 27
Bunker busters


A nuclear weapon that is exploded underground can destroy a deeply buried bunker efficiently and requires significantly less power to do so than a nuclear weapon detonated on the surface would, says a new report from the National Academies’ National Research Council. However, such “earth-penetrating” nuclear weapons cannot go deep enough to avoid massive casualties at ground level, and they could still kill up to a million people or more if used in heavily populated areas, said the committee that wrote the report.

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2005 04 27
Everybody has a blog now

Posted by in: Odds and ends



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2005 04 27
Sex After Fascism

The obvious danger of a book like this is that it will trivialize its subject. But I’ve read the introduction (follow the link for a link to it), and the author seems to have avoided that problem. Indeed, the book looks downright intriguing. Here’s the blurb:

Sex after Fascism:
Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany
By Dagmar Herzog

What is the relationship between sexual and other kinds of politics? Few societies have posed this puzzle as urgently, or as disturbingly, as Nazi Germany. What exactly were Nazism’s sexual politics? Were they repressive for everyone, or were some individuals and groups given sexual license while others were persecuted, tormented, and killed? How do we make sense of the evolution of postwar interpretations of Nazism’s sexual politics? What do we make of the fact that scholars from the 1960s to the present have routinely asserted that the Third Reich was “sex-hostile”?

In response to these and other questions, Sex after Fascism fundamentally reconceives central topics in twentieth-century German history. Among other things, it changes the way we understand the immense popular appeal of the Nazi regime and the nature of antisemitism, the role of Christianity in the consolidation of postfascist conservatism in the West, the countercultural rebellions of the 1960s-1970s, as well as the negotiations between government and citizenry under East German communism. Beginning with a new interpretation of the Third Reich’s sexual politics and ending with the revisions of Germany’s past facilitated by communism’s collapse, Sex after Fascism examines the intimately intertwined histories of capitalism and communism, pleasure and state policies, religious renewal and secularizing trends.

A history of sexual attitudes and practices in twentieth-century Germany, investigating such issues as contraception, pornography, and theories of sexual orientation, Sex after Fascism also demonstrates how Germans made sexuality a key site for managing the memory and legacies of Nazism and the Holocaust.

That goes right to the top of the list of books that I don’t have time to read and so probably won’t.

Howls of outrage (2)

2005 04 27

Posted by in: Political issues

With American sovereignty threatened and the Constitution itself under attack, I’m glad that patriotic Americans remain ever vigilant.

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2005 04 25
Democracy and the Filibuster

Posted by in: U.S. politics

I haven’t yet commented on the Senatorial kerfuffle over the filibuster, judges, and the “nuke-u-lar” option. I haven’t read anything terribly insightful about the whole thing. And I’m not going to offer anything amazingly illuminating here. However, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, people should see through the “democracy” rhetoric that some are resorting to instead of good substantive arguments about the filibuster’s merits. Rhetoric about democracy and the constitution is cheap, and it doesn’t take much reflection to show that making the concept of democracy determinate is no easy task.

On the matter of constitutionality, I don’t see a problem with the filibuster. The Constitution seems clear: Article I, Sect. V says (in part) that “Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings…”

Of course, one might argue that while the Constitution gives each chamber the right to determine its rules contrary to the ideals of democracy, they ought–as a matter of civic virtue–to do their best to ensure that their rules are on the democratic up-and-up. I’m inclined to agree here, but it is not clear to me that allowing minorities limited control of legislative actions is undemocratic. It is not obvious that placing certain constraints on the legislative will of simple majorities is undemocratic. Democracy has an interest in reproducing itself, and the conscience of certain (large) minorities should be heard when they believe it is important enough to stand up against the actions of majorities. This of course does not mean that the actions of the minority ought to be political costless; indeed, any minority that invokes such a privilege ought to be willing to suffer the consequences. But if there is reason to allow minorities this privilege, its invocation cannot constitute reason to revoke the privilege. What it can constitute is reason for voters to make a minority even more of a minority in the next election.

As for the history of the use of a filibuster, much of the rhetoric is irrelevant. I’m not going to get into the facts, because I don’t have time to learn them. Yet there is one important point that can be made. Many Republicans are claiming that while the filibuster is generally an OK institution, it should not be used on judges. This is a bizarre claim, given that most of the legislation that passes through Congress can be changed or repealed as soon as an opposing majority is convened or elected. Yet judges are appointed for life. It thus seems that if the filibuster has any role at all, its place is in the confirmation of such judges, not in legislation that can be changed by successive majorities.

The final point is the most devastating, in my opinion, for those Republications that invoke the ideals of democracy when opposing the use of the filibuster. The argument is that democracy prevails only when the will of the majority is effective, and the filibuster allows that will to be stymied by a minority. This argument becomes laughable when put in the mouths of Sentors. Robert A. Dahl, the eminent political scientist and historian, calls the very existence of the Senate as we know it “a profound violation of the democratic idea of political equality” (How Democratic is the American Constitution?, p. 49). As you can read in this review of Dahl’s book, the Senate’s very existence would be a blow to democracy if the current Republican argument is correct:

[H]alf the U.S. population sends 18 senators to Washington while the other half sends 82…California gets two senators; the 20 least populous states, which combined have roughly the same number of people as California, get 40 senators.

It is thus possible for a coalition of Senators from relatively small states to pass legislation by simple majority even though the elected representatives of a majority of Americans are against it. Senatorial carping about the undemocratic nature of the filibuster is thus a bit like Prince Charles denouncing the existence of House of Lords.

Howls of outrage (2)

2005 04 24
Current action prohibited by disk

Posted by in: Gadgets, Technology

Or something like that. That’s what our DVD player says when we try to fast-forward through the previews or introductory material on a DVD. This never fails to annoy me. I’ll bet it’s not technologically impossible for the machine to ignore the disk instructions and fast-forward anyway. For the publishers of the DVD to try to force me to watch an ad is merely outrageous – merely because my expectations about this sort of thing are so low now that I’m able to keep my revenge fantasies under control. The serious scandal here is that the DVD machine – our DVD machine – is conspiring with these bastards. It’s our damn DVD player. Whose side is it supposed to be on?

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2005 04 24

John Bolton seems to have lied in his congressional testimony, and no one cares. The Young Bearded One writes:

Bracketing John Bolton and all partisan considerations, this is an odd and distressing development and I think it’s genuinely weird that conservatives in general and Senate Republicans in particular are brushing it aside so casually. It’s not as if Democrats are such paragons of virtue that the executive branch appointees of the next Democratic administration will be above engaging in such things when it suits them if it’s been made clear that dissembling in congressional testimony is now going to be treated on the level of dissembling during a Meet The Press appearance. Our system of government relies, informally but crucially, on the proposition that people will be motivated not only by partisanship, but also by a sort of institutional jealously. Senators are supposed to stand on their privileges. Every member of the body loses a lot of authority when the “don’t lie to the committee” norm collapses.

But when executive branch appointees of the next Democratic administration dissemble in congressional testimony, it surely won’t be treated by anyone as equivalent to dissembling during a Meet The Press appearance. It will surely be treated as a very big deal. Republican casualness about the issue is perfectly comprehensible if we assume that they’re assuming the same thing that I’m assuming about American political culture: That consistency will count for nothing and Democrats will be judged on a blatantly unfair double standard.

Howls of outrage (2)

2005 04 23
Personals section in the London Review of Books

Posted by in: Odds and ends

Some high-quality pick-up lines. Almost every one of them deserves to get laid, I think.


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2005 04 22
Matthew Yglesias

I’ve been taken to task in the comments section of this post for incessantly recycling Matthew Yglesias posts. Well. Perhaps I should make more of an effort to distinguish myself from The Young Bearded One.

So how’s this? Sometimes when Yglesias alludes to his views about normative ethics I wonder if he’s smokin’ crack. It’s like he’s Bentham reincarnated or something. (Bentham was famous for smoking crack.) And once in a while that nuttiness creeps into his views of other topics. On the whole, though, I notice that Yglesias manages to be very sensible on most topics in spite of his odd views about normative ethics. I find that both depressing and reassuring, since it seems to suggest that normative ethics is less useful than you might hope (though, of course, something can be valuable without being useful). It’s like watching someone win a bike race with a rusty old clunker. You end up looking down at your fancy-schmancy racing bike and wondering if you haven’t overpaid.

Also, I have the impression that Yglesias thinks that The Decemberists is a better band than The Arcade Fire – and if I’m right about that, then I think we have our second criticism. The Decemberists have some good stuff all right, but The Arcade Fire is surely the better band.

I admit that this is hardly a Sister Soujah moment. But I’m afraid that I’ve already used up this year’s Sister Souljah moment on mysterious supervillain commenter Kegri. So this will have to do.

Anyway, the main mistake our good commenter seems to be making is to assume that I’m attempting to do anything as grand as blogging. As far as I’m concerned, I sort of gave up blogging as I knew it a while ago. These days I’m more interested in using blogging software to organize an online scrapbook/diary/mass friend email substitute/etc. repository. I’ll let Paul handle the blogging.

Howls of outrage (3)

2005 04 22
Taibbi on Friedman

Posted by in: Political issues, Pundits

I’m sure you’ve all read this by now, but if you haven’t, you really should. Very funny, though, as Matthew Yglesias recently noted, not quite as funny as this great New York Press moment. Both pieces have an extremely high giggle-to-word ratio.

Howls of outrage (3)

2005 04 21

Posted by in: Pundits, Shorter

Shorter David Brooks: Placing legislative decisions in the hands of a minority is bad, because it robs conservative majorities of their democratic rights. Allowing minorities to control legislative decisions is good, because it enables conservative minorities to stop expansions of federal power.

Howls of outrage (3)

2005 04 20
The lazy way

Posted by in: Odds and ends

I’ve been busy, but it just feels wrong to let another day go by without posting. So I’ll just wish you all a happy bowling team shakeup day, and go to bed.

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2005 04 20
Overheard in DC

Posted by in: Overheard

This morning, on the metro from Arlington, VA into DC, a man’s voice came over the PA system:

Next stop, Foggy Bottom, George Washington University. This is the first stop in the District of Columbus.

I have heard the same thing at least twice before, and have heard testimony that it is a regular phenomenon.

UPDATE: A Google search seems to reveal that the DC d.m.v. has made the same booboo.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)