Sunday, October 07, 2007


A warm October day demands a walk. Which way though?

Just head to the first intersection and go from there.

Take it in stages if you want.

That's how Autumn does it.

First it starts with the tops.

Then works its way down.

But don't take too long, smelling those flowers.

Soon it will grow dark.

And it will be time for dinner.

Just be sure to ask for your own napkin.

Friday, May 20, 2005

On How President Bush Talks About the First Lady's Trip

It's pretty common for President Bush to refer to the First Lady in his speeches' introductions. Usually, he uses her as something of a foil, contrasting her grace favorably with his own rough edges or casting her as straight-talker who is able and willing to call him on his mistakes and shortcomings. Having recently embarked on a visit to the Middle East, Laura Bush is being cast by the President as a messenger of freedom, representing the United States and trumpeting democracy.

Granted, my description of the First Lady's trip is pretty lame, but it ends up not really being any better than the President's. Look at how he described her trip at the recent International Republican Institute Dinner:
I regret Laura is not with us tonight. You probably think she's working on some of her one-liners. (Laughter.) She's actually packing her bags because she's off for Jordan and Israel and Egypt, to continue to deliver the freedom message -- and I can't think of a better messenger. (Applause.)
Then, the next day, when Bush spoke in Milwaukee:
But before I get there, I've got some other things I want to say, if you don't mind. (Laughter.) First, I'm sorry Laura is not traveling with me today. She is -- you probably think she's home preparing a few one-liners. (Laughter.) She's not; she's home packing her bags. She is off to Jordan and Egypt and Israel to represent our country. I can't think of a better representative than Laura Bush. (Applause.) She's going to help advance the freedom agenda -- which is really the peace agenda. The more freedom there is in the world, the more this world will be a peaceful world. (Applause.)
And, most recently, at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast:
I am sorry that Laura is not here. You probably think she's preparing a couple of new one-liners. (Laughter.) But, in fact, she's winging her way to Jordan and Egypt and Israel to spread the freedom agenda. (Applause.) But I know if she were here, she would join me in thanking you and millions of others whom we'll never get to say thanks to in person for the countless prayers. It's an amazing experience to be the President of a nation where strangers from all religions pray for me and Laura.
Certainly, there are some who might object to the idea of sending the well-off wife of the President of the United States to deliver the message of freedom, as if she were peace's pigeon. Others might critique the notion that freedom, as a concept and a practice, is so easily packaged and delivered to the world's sandier corners.

I, however, hardly know about such things. Instead, what I object to is the rather flippant way in which the President casts the First Lady's trip. Laura's off after having just packed her bags, rather than after she fastiduously prepared for the trip's more abstract and symbolic needs. Once her bags were packed, Laura Bush then winged it to Jordan. Though the language suggests otherwise, I hope that when she goes and enacts freedom for the Middle East, she does more than just wing it. By Bush's own words, after all, this is a significant trip with a significant message. I just wish he would characterize it in a way that differs from how I would describe a trip to Michigan to visit the folks!

I wonder, too, what a feminist critique of the First Lady and all this packing would be like. Would it point out that despite representing the United States and freedom as a woman--in an area of the world not known for feminism or gender equality--the First Lady is being "contained" by presidential descriptions that place her in the very domestic scene of the suitcase-strewn bedroom?

Monday, May 16, 2005

On A MOMA Site

The MOMA has a site about Tall Buildings that is very neat. (via, mediabistro: UnBeige)

I especially like number six; it's what I expect a skyscraper to look like with an acknowledgement of history that doesn't seem too wierd.

On A Police Chief's Imagery

As the case involving Wendy's, chili, and an unknown finger comes closer to its denouement, San Jose's Police Chief has an interesting way of putting things:
"The jig is up. The puzzle pieces are beginning to fall into place, and the truth is being exposed," Police Chief Rob Davis said.
Is it that police cases always involve a conceptualization of pieces coming together, or is it because this case was about a finger piece that the Chief talked about it like this?

On How the National Trust for Historic Preservation Casts a Threat

James Traub wrote a piece for the Times Magazine that explores the ironic twist inherent in attempts to preserve examples of Modern architecture--the buildings enacting a philosophy that eschews the preservation of older buildings and their former ways of life. In a margin was a list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historical Places, as designated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Dedicated to protecting significant works of architecture from deterioration or destruction, the Trust's approach to framing these 11 projects bears examining. Look at how the Trust talks about one of them, the Historic Cook County Hospital:
Although the building suffers from the effects of deferred maintenance, its overall condition is good. The only true threat to the property is manmade: The administration of the Cook County Board of Commissioners is set to execute its plan to demolish the hospital, despite the fact that its plans have failed to take into account the architectural and historic value of the building, as well as the desires of the public.
Rather than casting the building as a building, the Trust describes the hospital in ecological terms that suggest a certain living quality to the place. Not a building, the "property" can now "suffer" and is cast is opposition to a "manmade" threat.

Strictly speaking, of course, the hospital is as manmade as its threat. But, through those words, the building becomes naturalized and any action "executed" on it through demolition can now be understood as an abhorrent desecration of nature. All the more threatening is the sense that the hospital's "suffering"* comes not from a recognizable man or woman--a natural human enemy--but, rather, a faceless "Board of Commissioners." How much more terrible things become when the perpetrator turns out to be that most un/inhuman of manmade creations: the bureaucracy. The very entity that drains and denies its parts the smallest drops of humanity in favor of mindless and soulless groupthink/speak that claims and acts in the names of Efficiency, Officiously, and Officially; the very entity that lives on when all of its members have been dead and replaced by others equally destined for death; the very entity that acts, naturally, in contravention of the "public's" desire and the building's spirit--two deeply vibrant notions.

*Shouldn't a hospital's suffering occur from within and not from without?

On A Structure

The Washington Post has a good piece on Phillip Johnson, retired Berkeley law professor and proponent of Intelligent Design Theory. Michael Powell, the piece's reporter, does a fine job at highlighting Johnson's irascible personality, strong objections to Evolutionary Theory, and his place within the scientific sphere. But, more than that, the piece offers an interesting structure: it narrates Johnson's life in evolutionary terms.

The article begins where much of evolutionary science must begin: with an awareness of the present. Powell neatly starts his piece with a description of the scene he arrives at, when he meets up with Johnson for an interview:
BERKELEY, Calif. "The Washington Post is not one of my biggest fans, you know that."


The Washington Post reporter has just walked out of a spray of Pacific-borne rain into the living room of a modest bungalow west of downtown. There's a shag rug, an inspirational painting or two and Phillip Johnson, dressed in tan slacks and a sweater and sitting on a couch.
Third person objective point of view. Very scientific. This blogger can almost imagine the reporter entering this strange scene and examining this even stranger beast, the Intelligent Design Theorist.

Powell continues with a description of how Johnson and Intelligent Design Theory currently intersect with Evolutionary Theory :
Johnson and his followers, microbiologists and geologists and philosophers, debate in the language of science rather than Scripture. They point to the complexity of the human cell, with its natural motors and miles of coding. They document the scant physical evidence for the large-scale mutations needed to make the long journey from primitive prokaryote to modern man.

They've inspired a political movement -- at least 19 states are considering challenges to the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution.

None of which amuses evolutionary biologists, for whom intelligent-design theory inhabits the remotest exurb of polite scientific discourse. Darwin's theory is a durable handiwork. It explains the proliferation of species and the interaction of DNA and RNA, not to mention the evolution of humankind.
Like any young person fresh from her visit to the zoo, we now know what lion and tiger and beast walks among us, but we hardly know where they came from. Looking at the record, Powell begins to piece things together:
Johnson's early life was, by his own accounting, a rationalist lad's progress. He grew up in Aurora, Ill., a cocky kid so razor sharp that after his junior year in high school he packed off to Harvard. "I attended church in high school, but it was just part of the culture, like the Boy Scouts," he says. "We'd drop my father off at the golf course on the way to church."

He finished Harvard and then law school at the University of Chicago, where he graduated first in his class. He dabbled in Christian philosophy, read some C.S. Lewis. "I found it mind-stretching but I remember thinking: It's a real shame it's not true." Johnson became a clerk to Chief Justice Earl Warren at the Supreme Court. In 1967, with a wife and two young children, he went west to Berkeley, where he would gain international renown as a teacher of criminal law and legal theory.
Starting from the very beginning, looking at the “progress” Johnson’s life made, allows us to better understand how Johnson got to be where he is today. How much, I wonder, did Harvard, Chicago’s law school, and a wife and family adapt Johnson’s “razor sharp[ness]? Not much, apparently. But changes were occurring within the world and his life, nonetheless:
Johnson possesses a tenured professor's inability to hold his tongue, whether assaying a reporter's dumb question or his own life's arc. In the 1970s, Berkeley was roiling. Johnson opposed the Vietnam War but grew disillusioned and turned right. His wife, an artist, found feminism and wandered another way. Their marriage swept away like flotsam.

"I had been very happy for a long time," he says. "I was shaken to my core."
Examining his life’s arc, that curved path that Johnson walked, the world and its inhabitants seemed shaky and unsure, with tumult all about. The “core” of Johnson’s life seemed to change. Which, in turn, led to another series of changes:
The night his wife decided to leave in 1977, Johnson attended a church supper with Emily, who was 11. The pastor spoke passionately of Christ and the Gospels. The professor doesn't remember a Lord-sundered-the-heavens moment; he wasn't rending his tweed jacket.
There was no bolt of lightening, the hand or image of God. Johnson was no Saul on the road to Damascus. Instead, one might say that Johnson was … evolving.

Powell goes even further in casting Johnson’s life in terms of subtle changes, more fully exploring and explaining Johnson’s conversion:
Johnson drove home that night and pulled out his books of law and philosophy. If this was to be his epiphany, he would experience it with his rationalist lights on.

"I was concerned that I could be just throwing my brain away," he says. "I needed to know if I was adopting a myth to satisfy my personal hunger."

He was nudged along by his interest in "critical legal studies," a left-wing movement that holds that the law is prejudice masquerading as objective truth. Asked to contribute a conservative critique for the Stanford Law Review, Johnson embraced the movement -- sort of.
Through passages like these, Johnson is seen as a person adopting (adapting?) —however willfully—to his life and his environment. And what was the result?
In time, he converted and married his present wife, Kathie -- who also was an adult convert.
Slowly, but certainly, Johnson changed. And from this point on, that change—that adaptation—spurred along another development: Intelligent Design Theory.
All of which laid the groundwork for Johnson's sabbatical in 1987. He traveled to London nagged by the sense that his intellectual gifts had been put to mediocre ends. One day while browsing in a bookstore, Johnson picked up a copy of "The Blind Watchmaker" by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins argued that life was governed by blind physics, that free will was illusion, that religion was a virus.

"I was struck by the breadth of Darwin's claims as opposed to how scanty were the observable changes." He peers at you with that unwavering gaze. "I said to my wife that I shouldn't take this up. I will be ridiculed and it will consume my life.
Once again, Johnson is seen in terms of change.
Stephen C. Meyer, then a young graduate student studying the philosophy of science at Cambridge, got word of this "law professor who was getting some odd ideas about evolution." Meyer, who harbored his own doubts, walked to a tavern with Johnson and they talked for hours.

"Phillip understood that the language of science cut off choices: Evolution had to be an undirected process or it wasn't science," says Meyer, who today directs an intelligent-design think tank affiliated with the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. "He knew the rhetorical tricks.

"By the end of that day I knew we could challenge Darwin."
This change, in turn, led to other changes and compelled Meyer to grow in a new theory and establish his own institute. And Johnson only continued:
Johnson composed a sort of prosecutor's brief. Natural selection? It strengthens existing species, but there's "no persuasive reason for believing that natural selection can produce new species and organs." Mutations as a driver of new species? Much too slow to account for grand changes.

By the end of his 1991 book, "Darwin on Trial," Johnson was convinced that he had peppered Darwinian theory with intellectual buckshot. So he posed the question: Why won't science consider that an intelligent hand operates alongside chance and physical law?

Let it be said that Johnson's book did not change the world. The scientific reviews weren't so hot and a few law school colleagues looked at him as if he had lost half a brain lobe. But Meyer, director of the Center for Science & Culture, remembers reading it and feeling a sense of relief.
Not convincing everyone, Johnson still developed the Intelligent Design Theory and established a spirit of thought and argument that maintained and maintains the arguments:
The building blocks of the intelligent-design movement slowly took form. A few like-minded souls in academia e-mailed Johnson. He called back, connected one with the other, and often traveled to meet them.

"I found a lot of people ready to challenge the culturally dominant orthodoxy, but they didn't know how," Johnson recalls. "They thought if they just dutifully presented evidence, the Darwinists might listen. I said we have to think more strategically.

"I evolved -- if I may use that word -- as a leader of that group."
There! Look at that. Evolution, evolution, evolution. And what are Powell’s last words?
He [Johnson] smiles and catches himself. "I'm content just to open science up to an intellectual world that's been closed to it for two centuries."
Well, they are Johnson’s words, of course, but they were selected by Powell, and they seem to suggest that, in the end, Johnson is concerned with just making a few changed in scientific debate about Evolution. How very evolutionary!

Perhaps I am overstating the obvious (I’m certainly over-quoting!). Inasmuch as a narrative usually adheres to a chronological arc, and inasmuch as evolution occurs over time, then it makes sense that Johnson’s story would have an evolutionary feel to it. But, there's still some irony there.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

On A Blog Entry About Someone Writing About Blogging in the Times

David Greenberg, a historian at Rutgers, took a stab at blogging, didn't take to it, and wrote about it in the New York Times. He concluded this:
The best bloggers develop hobbyhorses, shticks and catchphrases that they put into wider circulation. Creating your own idiosyncratic set of villains to skewer and theories to promote - while keeping readers interested - requires as much talent as sculpting a magazine feature or a taut op-ed piece.
A while back, I tried to make something of a villain out of Greenberg for making something of a villain out of Nixon. I think that's sort of funny.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

On Taxing

With revenue scarce and financial obligations many, states and cities have begun to look at cell-phone taxes as a way to fill their depleted coffers. As the New York Times article describes them, however, the legislators' attitudes are troubling.

First, it seems vaguely sinister to target something for taxes just because there are budgetary needs to be met.
Last year, the City Council in Baltimore faced a budget shortfall so bad that it considered laying off 186 city police officers, reducing some fire department operations and scaling back trash collection. Then it found an untapped honey pot: cellphones.

"I can't remember the last time we've had such an easy budget year," said Sheila Dixon, the president of the City Council. "The bulk of our taxes come from property tax, but when you can't diversify and the federal and state taxes are drying up, you need other income."
Though I understand that taxes serve multiple functions, one of which is to provide the state with revenue, it still strikes me as rather capricious to select cellphones for taxation simply because they are around and easily taxed. Isn't there a sense that taxes are a response to a cost associated with what is to be taxed? Property taxes, for instance, are used to pay for the services and costs that are created by people living in a particular city or state. Sales taxes help pay for the wear-and-tear commerce places on the roads and environment. Utility taxes pay for the costs associated with ripping up the land to lay electrical and telephone lines. What sort of costs arise from the odd cellphone tower placed here or there (or, are there really that many?)? And why is the cost so large that a city needs to impose a 5% tax on a person's monthly cellular phone bill? And all of this is beside the point if the tax is being levied to make up budget differences that would exist regardless of whether or not cell phone exist.

I am not well versed in the theory of taxation, so I might be hopelessly wrong about all of that. However, I can--with great certainty--rebuke the skulky-attitude some legislators seem to have regarding these kinds of taxes:
Officials are particularly eager to tax cellphones because the amounts individuals pay each month are small enough to go virtually unnoticed, but in aggregate can be substantial. Cellphone subscribers nationwide paid an estimated $17.8 billion in federal, state and local taxes last year.
Virtually unnoticed? Regardless of whether one can virtually unnotice something, why are legislators taking into account the assumption that most folks won't even notice the taxes!? This is not a case where the cellphone companies are adding hidden fees in small print on the back of a bill; these are governments of the people, by the people, and for the people, sneakily slipping people this tax. I think that they shouldn't be acting like slimy snake-oil salespeople.

If this is the type of stuff that goes into their calculations, no wonder governments are (morally) bankrupt.

On Referring to Little People

The New York Times, doing a piece on an Iraqi television show, uses a term that sounds pretty jarring these days:
Fawzi's friend Ahmad (played by Behjet al-Juburi), a midget who had been pursuing an unlikely romance with a beautiful young woman next door, finds happiness. They marry and have twins.
Is there no better term? It's like referring to people with Downs Syndrome as mongoloids. (Incidentally, says midget is as offensive as mongoloid.)

And, while the Times is trying to be less offensive, it might try viewing a relationship between a little person and "beautiful young woman," as something other than "unlikely." That sort of observation is pretty condescending and probably more editorial in nature than necessary.

On the Definition of a Library

The New York Times reports that a small library on the University of Texas-Austin campus is replacing their books with a computer system that holds (it's hard not to employ material words!) digital-copies of the texts in its memory. A student expressed his surprise and offered a definition of what a library is:
"Well, this is a library - it's supposed to have books in it," said Jessica Zaharias, a senior in business management. "You can't really replace books. There's plenty of libraries where they have study rooms. This is a nice place for students to come to. It's central in campus."
I think the first part of her definition is pretty good: a library is a place where books are stored. The second part, however, makes it sound like a library is a destination for socializing and getting together. Certainly, I don't think the two are mutually exclusive, but, given the context, I would emphasize the repository sense of the library. If not, a person might begin to sound like this:
"The library is not so much a space where books are held as where ideas are shared," said Geneva Henry, executive director of the digital library initiative at Rice University in Houston, where anyone can access and augment course materials in a program called Connexions. "It's having a conversation rather than homing in on the book."
Given this definition, why, a coffee-shop could be called a library, since folks meet there for conversations. I suppose I don't really care all that much, though. In the end, I bet it would be nice to read a library book at three-in-the-Minnesota-morning without battling the cold.

But, if this is one of those battles against progress, then I think the conservative arguers should stick to the ideal of a library as a place where books are materially stored. If they must, perhaps they can cautiously point-out that the physical presence of texts creates an atmosphere for thoughtful conversation and debate, but not more than that. Otherwise, they might be left with computer tables everywhere. And I know that they would not want anyone to gather in a place flooded by the harsh glow of flourescent-lamp and LCD light.

Friday, May 13, 2005

On An Ivy League Graduate

Reporting on Connecticut's first execution in 45 years, the New York Times seemed to emphasize the fact that the executed was an Ivy League graduate. No fewer than three times did the article mention and underscore Michael Bruce Ross' Cornell credentials. Once,
A graduate of Cornell University and a former life insurance salesman, Mr. Ross convinced judges he was competent, smirked at psychiatrists who said he was suicidal and often seemed exasperated by his inability to reshape his image.
Then, twice.
While rough edges defined that man, Joseph Taborsky, Mr. Ross was an Ivy League graduate with a sometimes condescending manner and a masterful grasp of the nuances of death penalty law.

He was first arrested on murder charges in 1984, three years after he graduated from Cornell. Six of his victims lived in eastern Connecticut; two lived in New York. He was sentenced to death in 1987 for four of the Connecticut killings.
A serial killer with rough edges!? I can't imagine. It was a good thing for Mr. Ross that he had good academic pedigree; otherwise, people might have thought that he was just a run-of-the-mill murderer. Maybe it was Cornell's legendary stressful atmosphere that pushed him over the edge.

Or, maybe his school had nothing to do with it.

On Uncertainty

The Dallas Morning News has a column that discusses religion in public life. Jean Power argues against religious reasoning in public debate because there are too many Biblical interpretations to be found:
I do not claim to know all the answers to solve the problems of this nation and its people. And I certainly do not believe myself to be a theological scholar. Religion is an incredibly personal matter open to many interpretations.

It is of great danger to our community if we allow our leaders with obvious agendas to use our faith to achieve their often less-than-Christian goals. There will never be agreement among Christians, much less those of other faiths, on which scriptural teaching should prevail. And it is for this very reason that we must strive to permit our government to work objectively and fairly for all persons regardless of their faith.
It seems to me, however, that lots of evidence is open to multiple interpretations. One of a fact's unsettling features is that it can be pretty malleable. You know, one person's unemployment figures say that the unemployment rate is down. Another person says that unemployment figures don't take into account the people who have stopped looking for a job altogether. In this case, the fact that there are lower unemployment numbers might just mean that more folks have just decided to give up looking for a job--hardly good news as far as unemployment is concerned.

I wonder why the polysemic nature of religious support should disqualify it from public debate when other types of evidence get a pass.

On A Scrabble Score

A little thing, via The Little Professor.

Pholph's Scrabble Generator

My Scrabble© Score is: 54.
What is your score? Get it here.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

On Percentages

Joni Bolter in the Seattle Times suggests that we should start paying attention to men, in regards to their education. Acknowledging that gains in female matriculation and graduation rates were significant and worthy of praise, Bolter suggests that men are slipping behind and that this might be cause for concern. She points out:
For many years at the University of Washington graduation, the university president, in his welcoming remarks, offered a tally of female graduates in various fields. After the female percentages were announced, Husky Stadium would erupt in a roar of cheers. Many years, similar figures for male students were not offered.
Given that there are only two categories, female and male graduation percentages, isn't the male percentage implied whenever the female percentage is offered?

On Words

A neat little paragraph in a Washington Post article that talks about words and China/Taiwan relations:
The disputes over wording may appear arcane and trivial to outsiders, but the governments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait regard them with utmost seriousness and sometimes threaten to go to war over them. At stake in these battles over nouns and adjectives is the definition of the Chinese nation itself, with the mainland defending its claim that Taiwan is part of China and the self-governing island territory struggling to present itself as an independent, sovereign country.
A nice example of how words create worlds.

On A Friend's Conception of Citizenship

Yesterday, I talked on the phone with a friend from college for an hour and so and we moved here to there on a variety of topics. He's currently at a crossroads-of-sorts, deciding where his next ten years or so will be. He's interested in both law school and the Marines, and decided to yoke the two together by going to law school and heading off to the Corps after he's through with reading the law.

When I mentioned this to a few of my graduate student friends, I detected something of curiousness in their reaction, as they were surprised that a smart guy like my friend would want to sign-up for the military. Left in their outlook--like many--it probably seemed an incongruous thing for him to do. Coming from a home with a father who served in the Marines, and being more to the right of my graduate-student friends, I didn't experience the same sort of cognitive dissonance, though I recognized it and understood where they were coming from.

In my own feeble way, I attempted to explain to them that my future-Marine friend had a conception of civic obligation that led him to this decision. He explained it much better than me, of course, and said that apart from a small sense of adventure that might come from joining, he thought the military a just and honorable path to take. Now, my friend is not right-leaning; he's a liberal-sort with seemingly libertarian leanings, but, he has a conception of citizenship that finds it an unsettling and bad thing that US culture has developed to a point where the idea that a smart and competent person would willingly choose the military is sufficient to elicit shock and surprise out of many folks. The way he figures, it's not a bad thing for smart and liberal people to join the military and if some folks think that the service is more vice than sir, more diverse perspectives and outlooks in the ranks can help. It doesn't seem to make much sense to him that the left would uniformly abandon the armed forces.

I thought this was all very reasonable and asked him more about his conception of citizenship, since he seemed a person who reflected on his role as a member of society. Plus, I'm sort of interested in how folks think about themselves before and after they engage in the public. Here is what he said, in a paraphrased kind of way:
When you look at individual people, by and large, you get a sense that folks are insular and self-absorbed—not worth too much commitment and sacrifice. But, when you conceptualize community and society as a whole, it becomes easier to pledge your allegiance to people once you remember the more active-types who take time to develop, debate, and vote on the issues, who do good works for society, and seem all-in-all dedicated to others. These model-citizens, in a way, redeem society, and make it easier to establish and maintain commitment to the citizenry.
In order to become and stay committed to society, my friend relies on a fairly active visualization of good citizenship and good citizens. It seemed like something out of Habits of the Heart and went a long in way in explaining his decision to go into the law and the military.