The first Thursday of May is designated National Day of Prayer by Congress. (Apparently it was originally an interfaith thing, but it's been hijacked by the Christian right.) So here's a good idea: atheists are organizing to give blood en masse, in "a nationwide action which we hope will point out that there are alternatives to silently beseeching a deity to perform miracles."
It's particularly funny watching David Brooks flail around trying to make sense of Darwinism while Robert Wright, who wrote the book on it, is a guest columnist. Today he nails the kind of piece Brooks was trying to write on Thursday. (Wright is kind of my hero, and his The Moral Animal and, especially, Nonzero are crucial pieces of my mental furniture.)
OK, so John McCain is a psychopath -- this we already knew. (What the "Bomb Iran" thing most reminds me of is Ronald Reagan's joke about "We begin bombing in five minutes.") But why is MoveOn.org buying airtime to point this out? McCain is struggling to convince Republican primary voters that he's not too liberal. An attack by MoveOn can only help him.
I can see three possibilities:
(a) MoveOn thinks McCain is the weakest of the Republican candidates, and they're trying to help him in the primaries so he'll be defeated by the Democratic candidate;
(b) MoveOn thinks McCain is likely to win the primaries (despite all signs to the contrary), and they're starting the general election campaign early;
(c) MoveOn is trying to raise money from a bunch of fucking idiots who don't understand how elections work.
Please vote in the comments, or let me know if I've missed something.
I've noticed a miniature This American Life backlash lately, prompted by the launch of the TV show (which I haven't seen, because like the rest of the American people I do not get Showtime). As someone who still likes the radio version of TAL (or, more accurately, as someone who recently started listening to it again because they've begun podcasting it), I think most of the criticism (I'm looking at you here, Virginia Heffernan) is kind of petty, ignoring the things that are excellent about the show to pick on its (real or perceived) flaws. Mickey Kaus, on the other hand, accurately points out that a recent episode's foray into political advocacy was kind of trite. (Incredibly, Kaus still doesn't have permalinks; go here and search for "Glass snobbery," which I assume is meant to be some kind of pun.) [Like your headlines are so great -- ed.]
But this, from the Onion, is so off-base it's kind of absurd: "This American Life Completes Documentation of Liberal, Upper-Middle-Class Existence." What the fuck are they talking about? From memory: an incredible episode about prison life, another about the evangelicals of Colorado Springs, a third about a U.S. military aircraft carrier during the war in Afghanistan. This American Life has given me a remarkable kind of fine-grained access to aspects of the American experience that are usually off-limits to liberal, upper-middle-class Americans like myself. (Listen to those episodes and see.) So, yay for TAL, and a rousing fuck you to the Onion.
David Pogue on SanDisk's new iPod rival:
Finally, you can browse a list of recommendations that Yahoo calculates [based] on the songs you’ve rated highly using the Sansa’s click wheel. (Its logic can be a tad opaque. If you like the tear-jerking ballad “Bring Him Home” from “Les Misérables,” Yahoo recommends Abba’s disco hit “Dancing Queen.”)This logic is not opaque at all. If you like the tear-jerking ballad “Bring Him Home” from “Les Misérables,” Yahoo decides that you are probably gay.
What's fun about reading David Brooks is getting to see an ordinary man of no particular intelligence grappling with the really big questions facing humanity. On Monday he made kind of a good point:
While we postmoderns say we detest all-explaining narratives, in fact a newish grand narrative has crept upon us willy-nilly and is now all around. Once the Bible shaped all conversation, then Marx, then Freud, but today Darwin is everywhere.... We’re not a postmodern society anymore. We have a grand narrative that explains behavior and gives shape to history. We have a central cosmology to embrace, argue with or unconsciously submit to.Today, though, he gets himself into a bit of a mess.
Brooks anticipates what neuropsychology and social science might have to say about Cho Seung-Hui, the teenager who killed 32 people on the Virginia Tech campus on Monday:
Some will point to the pruning of the brain synapses that may be related to adolescent schizophrenia. Others may point to the possibility that an inability to process serotonin could have led to depression and hyperaggression. Or we could learn that he had been born with a brain injury that made him psychopathic. Or [maybe] he grew up with some form of behavioral illness that would have made it hard for him to interact with and respond appropriately to other people.From there, Brooks rehearses the standard humanist qualms about scientific models of behavior: Whither the soul? Whither morality?
It’s important knowledge, but it’s had the effect of reducing the scope of the human self.... The scope for individual choice has been reduced, and with it so has the scope for morality. Once, Cho Seung-Hui would have been simply condemned as evil, but now the language of morality is often replaced with the language of determinism.Brooks would like us to think that this deterministic worldview is a new post-postmodern phenomenon, because it makes for a better column. "The killings at Virginia Tech happen at a moment when we are renegotiating what you might call the Morality Line, the spot where background forces stop and individual choice — and individual responsibility — begins," he writes.
This is, of course, horseshit. Before anyone understood the neurological roots of schizophrenia, insanity was accepted as a defense in criminal trials. (According to Wikipedia, the concept of an insanity defense has been around since the Greeks, and "the first complete transcript of an insanity trial dates to 1724.") Campus shootings like the one at Virginia Tech fit squarely into the classic insanity model, in that the perpetrator gets no material benefit from his violent actions. So when Brooks writes "Once, Cho Seung-Hui would have been simply condemned as evil," we can assume that he's referring to some time before the ancient Greeks.
The real fatheadedness, though, comes at the end. Brooks has been careful to avoid picking a fight with the deterministic explanations for Cho Seung-Hui's actions:
We’re not going to put our knowledge of brain chemistry or evolutionary psychology back in the bottle. It would be madness to think Cho Seung-Hui could have been saved from his demons with better sermons.But then, in the next paragraph, he turns around and demands a moralistic explanation:
But it should be possible to acknowledge the scientists’ insights without allowing them to become monopolists. It should be possible to reconstruct some self-confident explanation for what happened at Virginia Tech that puts individual choice and moral responsibility closer to the center.Check out what Brooks uses as evidence for this:
After all, according to research by David Buss, 91 percent of men and 84 percent of women have had a vivid homicidal fantasy. But they didn’t act upon it. They don’t turn other people into objects for their own fulfillment. There still seems to be such things as selves, which are capable of making decisions and controlling destiny. It’s just that these selves can’t be seen on a brain-mapping diagram, and we no longer have any agreement about what they are.OK -- what?! After paying lip-service to scientific explanations for behavior for ten paragraphs, Brooks runs into an interesting fact about the mind -- everyone fantasizes about killing other people, but very few of us actually do it -- and asserts, without giving any reason, that this difference can only be attributed to some mysterious decision-making destiny-controlling self. What, David Brooks, is so special about that particular fact that it alone couldn't possibly have roots in brain chemistry?
Like 91 percent of men and 84 percent of women, I have had vivid homicidal fantasies. But I also have fantasies that are not homicidal, and one of them is to get David Brooks in a room in front of lots of genuinely smart people and go through a few weeks worth of columns and ask the obvious questions and watch everyone laugh at him.
Where was the spirit of self-defense here? Setting aside the ludicrous campus ban on licensed conceals, why didn't anyone rush the guy? It's not like this was Rambo, hosing the place down with automatic weapons. He had two handguns for goodness' sake—one of them reportedly a .22.At the very least, count the shots and jump him reloading or changing hands. Better yet, just jump him. Handguns aren't very accurate, even at close range. I shoot mine all the time at the range, and I still can't hit squat. I doubt this guy was any better than I am. And even if hit, a .22 needs to find something important to do real damage—your chances aren't bad.
Interview with Daniel Metcalfe, who spent 35 years working in the Department of Justice:
Ashcroft's Justice Department appointees, with few exceptions, were not the type of people who caused you to wonder what they were doing there. They might not have been firm believers in the importance of government, but generally speaking, there was a very respectable level of competence (in some instances even exceptionally so) and a relatively strong dedication to quality government, as far as I could see.
Under Gonzales, though, almost immediately from the time of his arrival in February 2005, this changed quite noticeably.... There was an almost immediate influx of young political aides beginning in the first half of 2005 (e.g., counsels to the AG, associate deputy attorneys general, deputy associate attorneys general, and deputy assistant attorneys general) whose inexperience in the processes of government was surpassed only by their evident disdain for it.
Great NYT story about the Bush administration's total failure to uncover the massive voter-fraud conspiracy Republicans are always going on about -- and the (mostly poor, mostly nonwhite) people whose lives have been torn apart for nothing more than a minor paperwork error. Josh Marshall has commentary.
Daniel Radosh makes a good point: why did Rodney Rothman, author of the infamous "My Fake Job" piece in the New Yorker, get in trouble for taking liberties that David Sedaris gets away with on a monthly basis? To his credit, Radosh takes the question seriously instead of just waving it around. Rothman himself weighs in thoughtfully in the comments.
At an airport recently, Princeton constitutional law professor Walter F. Murphy found himself on the FAA's terrorist watch list. Here's what happened next:
One of the two people to whom I talked asked a question and offered a frightening comment: "Have you been in any peace marches? We ban a lot of people from flying because of that." I explained that I had not so marched but had, in September, 2006, given a lecture at Princeton, televised and put on the Web, highly critical of George Bush for his many violations of the Constitution. "That'll do it," the man said.UPDATE: Wired's Threat Level blog suggests that an incompetent employee is to blame: "After having spent more than four years reporting on watchlists, filing Freedom of Information Act requests, and talking with persons flagged by the lists, I have never seen a single case of a person being put on the list for activities protected by the First Amendment."
Would someone please build a nice new front-end for Azureus? It's the only Bittorrent client that meets my (very reasonable) needs: OSX-compatible, allows partial downloading, handles things like tracker announcements and protocol encryption properly. But it's written in Java, and as a result the interface is cumbersome, unMaclike, and downright ugly.
The only solution I've found is the FireFrog plugin, which replaces the main Azureus window with an alternative based on the Firefox downloads window (that miracle of user-experience design). It's an improvement, but it also features one of the dumbest interface elements I've ever seen: the FireFrog menubar icon.
That's FireFrog on the left, then Azureus. (Beautiful icons too, right?)
So what incredibly useful commands do the FireFrog developers think I should have immediate access to at all times via the menubar? Let's click on it and see.
Yup, clicking -- the universal method of accessing a menubar item on the Mac -- does absolutely nothing. To get the menu, I have to right-click -- or, since I'm on a MacBook and MacBooks don't have right-click buttons, I have to Control-click. This behavior is so counterintuitive that I forget about it every time, even when all I'm doing is making screenshots for this blog post, the point of which is to complain about the stupid menubar. If anyone remembers to do it during ordinary use, my hat is off to them.
So what treasures do we find when we right-click?
Hmm .. two commands ("Open FireFrog" and "Exit FireFrog and Azureus") and two submenus ("Transfers" and "Advanced Options"). What's in the submenus?
That's right -- the "Transfers" submenu contains just two commands. What about the "Advanced Options" submenu?
It contains one (1) command -- the command that returns you to the regular Azureus interface. (Turning the plugin on and off is apparently "advanced.") Think about it for a second: in what possible scenario would it be useful to have a submenu containing just one item?
So the menu contains five commands -- a number so staggeringly high that the designers had to put them into two submenus just to avoid clutter. And to get to that "Show Azureus" command depicted above, I have to go through the following steps: click on the menubar icon; wonder why nothing's happening; read the little tooltip telling me to right-click; Control-click on the menubar icon; wonder where the "Show Azureus" command is; try the "Advanced Options" submenu; click on "Show Azureus." That's seven steps. In a sane interface I'd click on the menubar icon, then click on the "Show Azureus" command: two steps.
All this in a plugin that's meant to simplify the Azureus interface. Again: would someone who actually knows something about design please build a new front-end for this program?
UPDATE: An earlier version of this post mistakenly claimed that both the Azureus and the FireFrog icons can't be removed from the menubar. Thanks to Olivier for correcting me via the comments.
Paul Graham argues that Microsoft is dead:
No one is even afraid of Microsoft anymore. They still make a lot of money—so does IBM, for that matter. But they're not dangerous.The best evidence that Graham is right is that Bill Gates apparently finds running Microsoft less interesting than helping poor people.
UPDATE: Microsoft's Don Dodge replies that the company is very much alive. Graham clarifies what he meant:
Technology companies are projectiles. And because of that you can call them dead long before any problems show up on the balance sheet.
John McCain has disowned his comments about how safe the streets of Baghdad are. From a CBS News press release [via TPM]:
Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) says he misspoke in comments he made about security in Baghdad and acknowledged that heavily armed troops and helicopter gunships accompanied him when he visited a market there. McCain tells this to Scott Pelley in his first interview since the visit for a 60 MINUTES report. [Before the trip] the senator said security had improved in Iraq. Upon his return, he also told a news conference he had just come back from a neighborhood one could walk around in freely. The remarks made headlines and he now regrets saying them.Then comes the funny part:
“Of course I am going to misspeak and I’ve done it on numerous occasions and I probably will do it in the future,” says McCain. “I regret that when I divert attention to something I said from my message, but you know, that’s just life,” he tells Pelley, adding, “I’m happy, frankly, with the way I operate, otherwise it would be a lot less fun.”I love the way McCain tries to pretend his remarks were more of his characteristic straight talk. That John McCain -- his handlers want to rein him in, but he can't help caling it like he sees it! Otherwise it would be a lot less fun! But of course, his comments about security in Iraq weren't straight talk, they were self-serving bullshit.
CBS News correspondent Allan Pizzey on John McCain's recent Baghdad walkabout:
Brian Montopoli: It seems that some reporters, including yourself and CNN's Michael Ware, have really taken umbrage at John McCain's recent comments, essentially saying that there are a lot of neighborhoods where you can walk around relatively safely. Is it fair to say that that really sort of bothered reporters?
Allen Pizzey: Yes. It's disgraceful for a man seeking highest office, I think, to talk utter rubbish. And that is utter rubbish. It's electoral propaganda. It is simply not true. No one in his right mind who has been to Baghdad believes that story.
Now, McCain and some other senators were there on Sunday, and they claimed, "Oh, we walked around for a whole hour…and we drove in from the airport. Gosh, aren't we great, we drove in from the airport." Excuse me, Mr. McCain, you drove in in a large convoy of heavily armed vehicles. The last one had a sign on it saying "Keep back 100 yards. Deadly force authorized." Every single car that they approached or passed pulled over and stopped, because that's the way it is. When one of those security details goes by, every ordinary person gets the hell out of the way, in case they get shot.
If he did walk around that market, and I didn't see him do it, and he didn't announce he was going to do it, you can bet your life there were an awful lot of soldiers deployed to make sure that nobody came near that place. He's talking rubbish. And he should not get away with it.
My friend Jake's movie opens Friday, at least for those of us who live in big coastal metropoles. I have reason to believe that it will be awesome. (New York and Entertainment Weekly think so. UPDATE: And so does A. O. Scott in the NYT, who compares it favorably to The Player and The Larry Sanders Show. UPDATE AGAIN: Slate's Dana Stevens delivers a full-fledged rave.) In the meantime, you can listen to him talking about it with Terry Gross (iTunes, web).