August 26, 2007

Mao's Little Black Book

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Interesting essay in the International Herald Tribune (an unrelated aside follows this sentence) analyzing Chinese personal ads over the years. (Unrelated aside: One of the highlights of 6 of the 7 days of the week when I lived in Greece for a year in the late '80s was reading the IHT. I've been spending a lot of time thinking about what's wrong with newspapers lately--everything from their business models to their in-house operating systems to their editorial content--and it seems to me that the IHT-like discipline of having to choose only the most important stories from the U.S. plus trends pieces from around the world would be a good exercise for papers to go through...)

Anyway, back to the essay -- it's an interesting read on its own merits, but I found this bit of interest:

They don't have political freedom. Their newspapers and Web sites are censored and filtered. The great movement for democracy that had produced the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989 is well past and shows no signs of a revival. But the Chinese have won the right to be as acquisitively bourgeois as they want to be, and one attribute of being bourgeois is to want pretty things, including a pretty wife or handsome husband.

It seems to me that political freedom is the institutionalization of personal freedom, built incrementally. The West's freedoms spring initially from the question of who shall determine how we worship (or worship not at all, in the case of Paine and perhaps Franklin and Jefferson)--the Pope, the King, or our own conscience. A right to pursue happiness--in transubstantiation or consubstantion, or more importantly in the girl in the beret or the boy in camo pants--leads inevitably to other rights.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:13 PM | Comments (0)

August 24, 2007

Martian genesis?

Probably not a good link for long, but Drudge reports the following:

Joop Houtkooper of the University of Giessen, Germany, will declare on Friday the Viking spacecraft may have found signs of a weird life form based on hydrogen peroxide on the subfreezing, arid Martian surface.

His analysis of one of the experiments carried out by the Viking spacecraft suggests that 0.1 percent of the Martian soil could be of biological origin.

That is roughly comparable to biomass levels found in some Antarctic permafrost, home to a range of hardy bacteria and lichen.

I think that's pretty cool (though if I remember my organic chemistry, I think hyrdrogen peroxide is a weird molecule on which to base even a weird life form). Look forward to hearing more about this, but I couldn't resist tossing in the following images:

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And, of course, the office from which it comes:

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Posted by Ideofact at 01:38 AM | Comments (0)

Black cats

Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate:

To regret that we cannot be done with superstition is no more than to regret that we have a common ancestry with apes and plants and fish. But millimetrical progress has been made even so, and it is measurable precisely to the degree that we cease to believe ourselves the objects of a divine (and here's the totalitarian element again) "plan." Shaking off the fantastic illusion that we are the objective of the Big Bang or the process of evolution is something that any educated human can now do.

There is no shortage of illusions I'd like to throw off -- the notion that if I happen to stumble upon a Phillies game in the middle innings, the very act of my watching can somehow affect their play (a butterfly's wings beating in Asia, a fan's couch potato-ism in Washington, D.C. ...) being chief among them. More seriously, I think Hitchens is on to something. In the West, in the last 100 years or so, we've arrived at a point not seen since Periclean Athens, when significant numbers (though by no means a majority, I would wager) of citizens saw the challenges to their system of gods, and recognized the frailty of their myths and legends in the light of reason. The founding myths of our own faiths -- a phantom exodus and the covenant that came from it -- are unraveling in the same way as myths about gods and goddesses bedding down with mortals did for the Greeks.

It will be interesting to see how this all turns out -- or whether it turns out at all.

Posted by Ideofact at 01:18 AM | Comments (1)

August 07, 2007

Bonds watch

He swings...he misses. I'm a Phillies fan by birth, but the Nats are my adopted team, so I'm pulling for them to beat the Giants while hoping to see Bonds put one in the stands.

My father was a Boston Braves fan and continued to follow the team when it moved to Milwaukee; he was a great Hank Aaron backer, and always thought Aaron was ill-served by playing in small markets (Willie Mays was the toast of New York, even after the Giants moved to San Francisco; while my dad thought Mays was fantastic, he thought Aaron's quick wrists made him the better hitter). I remember my dad telling me during the 1973 season (the Phillies finished in the cellar) about Aaron, and I remember watching is 716th homer in 1974.

Few people, I suspect, would admit to hoping Aaron failed because he was black, or woud confess to being behind the ugly atmosphere that surrounded Hammerin' Hank's accomplishment.

Similarly, I suspect that 30 years from now, few people will admit to being Bonds deriders, or be proud of being part of the ugly atmosphere surrounding him as he breaks Aaron's record.

For my part, I'm enjoying the baseball.

Posted by Ideofact at 12:32 AM | Comments (0)

August 06, 2007

A nightmare worthy of Kafka

More from Jessica Mitford's 1973 book Kind and Usual Punishment: The Prison Business. In these excerpts, she notes that prison parole authorities based a convict's sentence on various factors--including crimes for which one had never been convicted or even charged:

The man who has pleaded not guilty at his trial, and who continues to assert his innocence of the crime for which he was sentenced -- or even one who refuses to admit guilt for a crime for which he was charged and acquitted -- is liable to be in particularly severe trouble. "You've got your 'cop-out sheet' with you, showing what you've done in the past year: vocational training, church attendance, and the like, but you may never have a chance to bring out any of that. The board member asks: 'How do you feel now about the crime you committed?' You answer: 'I'm sorry it happened. I was drunk at the time. I guess I lost my head. But I have a trade now. I've only one beef against me--failure to tuck my shirt in when ordered to do so by an officer.' The member: 'I like the looks of your file, you're handling yourself pretty well. But what of the 1961 burglary?' You protest you were innocent of that. He says that's not what the police said. You get into a hassle -- and very soon your few minutes of time are up. There are no further questions, the panel tells you, 'We'll let you know.'" [says an ex-convict interviewed by Mitford.]

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Later, Mitford tells us,

The indeterminate sentence law gives the Adult Authority [the parole board in California] the power to inflict any punishment it deems fit for these unproved crimes, its decision often based on hearsay in the form of letters from prosecutors or police agencies. Lawyers can cite dozens of cases in which a frustrated D.A., unable to secure a conviction, gets his man in the end anyway. Example: an eighteen-year-old black is sentenced to a five-to-life term for a holdup in which no violence occurred and nobody was hurt. He is eligible for parole at the end of twenty months, and, as a first offender with a blameless prison record, has every reason to expect his sentence to be set accordingly. But there is a letter in his file from the district attorney advising the Adult Authority that he is actually a vicious killer. The district attorney had charged him with a double murder (unconnected with the holdup), and although he was unable to get a conviction after three jury trials, he says he knows the prisoner was guilty and will kill again if freed. Year after year the prisoner comes before the Adult Authority, year after year parole is denied and his sentence, unset, remains at life. He has no opportunity to defend himself--he is not even allowed to see the allegations against him in the D.A.'s latter. At age thirty-three, he is released, having served about eight years more than the average time given a convicted first-degree murderer, and fourteen years more than the average sentence for a robbery first offender.

And so it was in 1973. Now we have mandatory minimums, three strikes you're out, and other enhancements ...

Posted by Ideofact at 09:12 PM | Comments (2)

Our Only Hope

Lengthy and fascinating interview with Christopher Hitchens in the Atlantic. I found this particular passage partlicularly interesting, given his recent book:

[Q:] ... when I read about your religious crisis at the age of nine, I found myself wondering if you would have been happier in a yeshiva, where you could have questioned everything and analyzed texts to your heart’s content.

[Answer:] My own way of joining a yeshiva was to become a Troskyite, I suppose. I was a member of an extremely Talmudic sect. The leading thinker of our group was a guy called Yigael Gluckstein; he wrote under the name Tony Cliff. There was a very heavy Jewish presence in this group, too. You realized that for many people this was a kind of substitute for the yeshiva. They loved the micro-arguments within Marxism about the nature of the Soviet state: the different theories of bureaucratic collectivism, state capitalism, workers’ status—absurd as these discussions would seem to outsiders, absurd as some of them actually were! Yeshivas were very good training, no doubt about it.

I use the word “fundamentalist” as a dismissive term, but actually, those who really struggle with the text, and try and make it come out right, have my respect in a way. Grudgingly. I think it’s sinister, but people who are willing to give a bit of their life to this, to their Torah portion or their Sura—it’s better than breezing along like some nihilist or hedonist. (emphasis added)

Stalinism okay, I absolutely understand (and in the book, Hitchens argues that the enthusiasm for communism should be regarded as a species of religious devotion), but hedonists? Nihilists? Assuming both are worldly wisemen following their own lights, and not fanatics attempting to act out their hedonism or nihilism at the expense of others, aren't they rather less destructive than those who struggle with the text? Hedonism doesn't much appeal to me (though I definitely think I could be an Epicurean), and nihilism seems to be something one outgrows in one's teens or early twenties; neither fetish strikes me as being as destructive of human happiness as those who really struggle with the text, and attempt to make it come out right, because the latter group can't help but try to make those parts of the world that don't come out right no matter what conform to the text (I think this is why Hitchens invokes the word 'sinister').

More refreshing is this exchange:

[Q:] There don’t seem to be many prominent secular voices in the Arab world.

[Answer:] There are more than you think. There are quite a lot in Iran. They’ve had the longest experience with theocracy, and they’re really through with it. And Algeria and Tunisia—these are people who have an idea of what it might be like to live under these characters, and they’re not willing to do it. And there are more and more of those voices among the European Muslim population. They’re our hope. Our only hope, actually.

Indeed...

Posted by Ideofact at 02:03 AM | Comments (0)

August 03, 2007

Comparison

Don't know if this comparison is accurate, but tomorrow I've got to download this album (I'd do it now, but it's bed time...)

Posted by Ideofact at 01:12 AM | Comments (0)

August 02, 2007

The Criminal Type

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From Jessica Mitford's 1973 work Kind and Unusuals Punishment:

Discussing the importance of identifying the dangerous classes of 1870, a speaker at the American Prison Congress said: "The quality of being that constitutes a criminal cannot be clearly known, until observed as belonging to the class from which criminals come...A true prison system should take cognizance of criminal classes as such." His examination of 15 prison populations showed that 53,101 were born in foreign countries, 47,957 were native born, and of these "full 50 percent were born of foreign parents, making over 76 percent of the whole number of whose tastes and habits were those of such foreigners as emigrate to this country."

At the same meeting, J.B. Bittinger of Pennsylvania described the tastes and habits of these dissolute aliens: "First comes rum, to keep up spirits and energy for night work; then three fourths of their salaries are spent in theaters and barrooms...many go to low concert saloons only to kill time...they play billiards for drinks, go to the opera, to the theater, oyster suppers and worse...they have their peculiar literature: dime novels, sporting papers, illustrated papers, obscene prints and photographs." Commenting on the large numbers of foreign-born in prison, he added: "The figures here are so startling in their disproportions as to foster, and apparently to justify, a strong prejudice against our foreign population."

The criminal type of yesteryear was further elaborated on in 1907 by J. E. Brown, in an article entitled "The Increase of Crime in the United States.": "In poorer quarters of our great cities may be found huddled together the Italian bandit and the bloodthirsty Spaniard, the bad man from Sicily, the Hungarian, Croatian and the Pole, the Chinamana nd the Negro, the Cockney Englishman, the Russian and the Jew, with all the centuries of hereditary hate back of them."

In 1970 Edward G. Banfield, chairman of President Nixon's task force on the Model Cities Program, updated these descriptions of the lower-class slum-dweller in his book The Unheavenly City: The Nature and Future of the Ubran Crisis, an influential book that is required reading in innumerable college courses. Since it is reportedly also recommended reading in the White House, presumably it reflects the Administration's conception of the criminal classes as they exist today.

"A slum is not simply a district of low-quality housing," says Mr. Banfield. "Rather it is one in which the style of life is squalid and vicious." The lower-class individual is "incapable of conceptualizing the future or of controlling his impulses and is therefore obliged to live from moment to moment ... impulse governs his behavior ... he is therefore radically improvident; whatever he cannot consume immediately he considers valueless. His bodily needs (especially for sex) and his taste for 'action' take precedence over everything else--and certainly over any work routine." Furthermore, he "has a feeble, attenuated sense of self...

"The lower-class individual lives in the slum and sees little or no reason to complain. He does not care how dirty and dilapidated his housing is either inside or out, nor does he mind the inadequacy of such public facilities as schools, parks, and libraries; indeed, where such things exist, he destroys them by acts of vandalism if he can. Features that make the slum repellent to others actually please him.

The brilliance of Mitford is her reliance on the words of those she studies, framed by her almost anthropological approach. She notes with some irony the self-congratulatory tone of prison reformers, one of whom announced that "we are entering our second century of reform."

Posted by Ideofact at 11:56 PM | Comments (3)