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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Monday, 8 March 2004

Topic: Science

DEEP THOUGHTS: God in the Spreadsheet

Kevin Drum over at led me to this.

Odds on that God exists, says scientist
Stewart Maclean, Catherine Bolsover and Polly Curtis, The Guardian (UK), Monday March 8, 2004

Yeah, on this site I linked to a lot of things and made fun of Mel Gibson's movie quite a bit. But now it seems the odds are I will roast in hell for it. Mel gets to heaven, probably, and I don't. Why?
A scientist has calculated that there is a 67% chance that God exists.

Dr Stephen Unwin has used a 200-year-old formula to calculate the probability of the existence of an omnipotent being. Bayes' Theory is usually used to work out the likelihood of events, such as nuclear power failure, by balancing the various factors that could affect a situation.

The Manchester University graduate, who now works as a risk assessor in Ohio, said the theory starts from the assumption that God has a 50/50 chance of existing, and then factors in the evidence both for and against the notion of a higher being.
Ohio? Really?

And what does this Brit in Ohio use to work out his assessment?
Factors that were considered included recognition of goodness, which Dr Unwin said makes the existence of God more likely, countered by things like the existence of natural evil - including earthquakes and cancer.
Wait a minute, Steve! "Goodness" makes the existence of God more likely?

Let's think about that. Remember the Crusades? Remember the Inquisition? Remember the Thirty Years War? Yeah, well, looking at it the other way, smiting the godless, torturing people and mass slaughters may be a form of goodness to some. I suppose that depends on your perspective. Making sure "bad folks" die in excrutiating pain has, as a very good thing, many adherents.

Goodness is, though, a slippery term. Ask Martha "It's a good thing" Stewart. Hell, some people (like me) think anchovies are "good."

I remember when first encountering Dickens or Shakespeare my English students would whine, "But that's boring." And I would then patiently explain that they were bored, which wasn't at all the same thing as Macbeth or Great Expectations being intrinsically and inherently boring, or not. No written work was boring as such. There was no such inherent quality. But there was one's reaction - "This bores me" - that is quite valid. Of course.

I suspect this Unwin fellow is confusing reaction to something with its inherent qualities. Perhaps he should read "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" where Robert Pirsig chats about such things, bringing in the Pheadrus dialogs of Plato.

That seems unlikely. This fellow would have us use Excel spreadsheets.
The unusual workings - which even take into account the existence of miracles - are set out in his new book, which includes a spreadsheet of the data used so that anyone can make the calculation themselves should they doubt its validity. The book, The Probability of God: A simple calculation that proves the ultimate truth, will be published later this month.
Why am I reminded of Douglas Adams and the question at the core of A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy where, of course, the answer the meaning of everything turns out to be... forty-two?

Unwin says he's interested in bridging the gap between science and religion. And he argues that rather than being a theological issue, the question of God's existence is simply a matter of statistics.
"On arriving in America I was exposed to certain religious outlooks that were somewhat of an assault upon my sensibilities - outlooks in which religion actually competes with science as an explanation of the world," he said.

"While I could not be sure, having slept through most of the cathedral services I had attended during secondary school, this did not seem like the version of faith I had remembered. In many ways, this project was for me a journey home - a reconciliation of my faith and education."
Yeah, well, Unwin, we all have our issues.

So the probability that God exists is sixty-six percent, and Unwin maintains that he is personally around ninety-five percent certain that God exists. Good for him.

Two in three chances God is out there. For this guy a nineteen in twenty chance.

Fine. Suppose we grant this, even without downloading the spreadsheet Unwin has devised.

Does this not then beg the question, if there is a God, probably, what is God doing these days? What is this business with war and death and all the rest? God's messing with us? He, or she, or it has an odd sense of humor or Mel Gibson understands fully? Perhaps so.

Posted by Alan at 16:01 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Topic: Photos

White Stuff

This is what they call, out here in Hollywood, a money shot.

No it isn't. Some of you actually know what a "money shot" is. But let that pass.

Lunaria (annua: Lunaria biennis - biennial), sometimes known as "Money Plant" - and in Old England and the remote hollows of Appalachia known as "Honesty." In my kitchen window on a cloudless, ninety-degree afternoon. The Santa Ana winds have kicked up and the humidity has dropped to nearly zero. The cat is upset as every time her nose touches something there a spark and she jumps back. She glares at me like it's my fault. Oh well.

Posted by Alan at 13:44 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 8 March 2004 19:56 PST home

Sunday, 7 March 2004

New issue of JUST ABOVE SUNSET MAGAZINE now online!

No blogging today.

Sunday is the day I do final assembly and post the week's new issue of this: Just Above Sunset Magazine.

Commentary here will resume tomorrow. And I will, tomorrow, also restore the links on the left side of this page....

Check it out.

Drop me a line if you can't get there. I just changed hosting services, so there will be some bumps now and then as the DNS settings get aligned....

Posted by Alan at 21:45 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Saturday, 6 March 2004

Topic: Election Notes

A short meditation on the nature of faith and reason....

Bush's new campaign advertisements....

"Lead," "Tested," and "Safer, Stronger" were produced for the Bush campaign by Maverick Media. You can watch these on the Bush campaign website. For streaming video try this. And for transcripts click on this.

A lot of people, like Bill Maher on HBO this weekend and who knows how many other comedians, have been branding these advertisements as essentially carrying the message "It's not my fault." Bush inherited the recession from Clinton and all the economists are wrong? That, and much else, is implied.

The advertisements do have little substance. A good discussion of them can be found here:
Morning in Bush's Head: The president's new feel-good ads.
William Saletan and Jacob Weisberg, SLATE.COM - Posted Friday, March 5, 2004, at 2:00 PM PT

Weisberg offers this summary:
Advertisers draw a distinction between product ads, which are supposed to sell something specific to customers, and image ads, which promote familiarity and positive associations with a company or brand. These first Bush commercials are political image advertising. In them, the president doesn't tout any particular aspects of his first-term record, such as signing a law subsidizing prescription drug benefits for the elderly, or even any second-term proposals, such as making his tax cuts permanent. Rather, his media team weaves together images, words, and music in an effort to "redefine" Bush after a season of Democratic attacks and make voters feel good about him in general.

Like its commercial cousin, this sort of political advertising relies heavily on clich?d images of Americans going about their jobs and lives. With a bit of re-jiggering, the 60-second spot called "Lead" would work as an uplifting commercial for General Electric or AT&T. The stock images such ads use come in several varieties: nostalgic, technological, patriotic, multicultural, and sentimental. This one begins with a shot of a uniformed waitress switching on the neon "Open" sign in a coffee shop before sunrise. The next picture is of a white businessman making entries in a handheld computer. Then we see a young minority woman at work; white and black construction workers in white hard hats; a minority mother in military camouflage with her child; a Caucasian family sitting on the hatchback door of a station wagon; an Asian-American teacher at the blackboard; an African-American grandmother laughing with her adult granddaughter; and so on. What, one might reasonably ask, does any of this have to do with the election? The final image is of a white president strutting along a white portico in the White House. George W. Bush: He'll bring the economy back to life.

Amid this wash of feel-good Americana, the president and first lady enumerate the incumbent's leadership qualities: optimism, strength, focus, and "belief in the people of America." One can't dispute the accuracy of anything in this ad because, as the New York Times tartly notes, it "makes no verifiable claims." If you think Bush is a great president, you will probably like it. If you dislike him, you will think it massively evasive of all the issues in the campaign.
Weisberg is the latter:
But the display text implicitly makes a more tendentious point, depicting the president's first term as the story of him being handed a country in deep economic crisis, exacerbated by the terrorist attacks, and now finally "turning the corner" thanks to his leadership.

This is a selective version of the past four years, to say the least. Where'd the Iraq war go? And how did Bush become a victim of a weak economy, rather than the perpetrator of one? There is also some explicit dishonesty. The text of "Safer, Stronger" begins: "January 2001, The challenge: An economy in recession. A stock market in decline. ..." In fact, as Bush acknowledged quite recently in his Meet the Press interview with Tim Russert, he did not inherit a recession from President Clinton. The recession began two months after he arrived, in March 2001.
This is the only demonstrably untrue statement to be found in these three ads. Tellingly, it is also nearly the only statement of fact in any of them.

Then Saletan piles on -
Bush won the presidency in 2000 by reframing everything that had gone right under Clinton as a given, to which Clinton had failed to add more. The "prosperity" had been handed to Clinton, who in turn had failed to put it to a larger "purpose." Now Bush plays the same game with his own administration. The recession that began two months into Bush's term? The terrorist strike that happened eight months in? Well, as Bush likes to say, if you've got a problem, blame somebody else.
Yep. Clinton should have taken care of Saddam and Osama. He didn't. And it must be those guys at the CIA who fooled Bush with scare stories and made him go to war when he didn't really want to do that at all. Poor George.

Of course you're read everywhere about the widows of men who died at the World Trade Center being upset, and not mildly upset, at how one ad uses an image of a body, or at least body parts, being carried from the rubble in a flag-draped box. It seems that they think this man should not use that kind of image to seek out votes - as this is the same man who will only give the commission investigating what happened one hour of his time, and not under oath at all, and only informally, with the two chairmen and no one else who might ask pesky and impertinent question. I guess they think it's not fair. But of course he is a busy guy. And the union representing the firemen there are ticked off too - this man using this image to fish around for more votes is the same guy who is cutting funding for fire and police and "first response" teams. They don't like that much. Are they crybabies? As they say over at fair and balanced Fox News - we report, you decide.

Well, all this pales in comparison to what Jimmy Breslin has to say.

See He molests the dead
Jimmy Breslin, Newsday, March 6, 2004

I like the subtle opening:
In his first campaign commercial, George Bush reached down and molested the dead.

Here's what Breslin means:
... this only in keeping with both Bushes. George Bush, Sr., had the badge of officer Eddie Byrne, who was gunned down in South Jamaica, and he stood up at Christ the King High School in Middle Village and held it up and said he would have this badge on him forever. Some chance. Bush then led high school girls into insane cheers for the death penalty.

Now, right off, this second George Bush came up with the badge of a Port Authority cop, George Howard, who died. He was from Hicksville. His mother gave Bush the son's badge. When Bush came back to the trade center a year later, he reached into his pocket and whipped out that badge and he had a tear in his eye. What makes it worse is that this George W. Bush acts like he's entitled to treat the remains of a dead man like a souvenir. Now he shows a commercial with dead bodies....

"Bush is afraid to let us see the dead being brought back from Iraq," one fire fighter said yesterday.

The ad is nothing more than another George W. Bush fraud. First, arriving at the trade center, he was led by a flunkey to a retired fire fighter, Bob Beckwith, who had come down three days after the attack to take a look. Bush's flacks had Beckwith stand on a destroyed fire engine and Bush came up next to him and Bush put an arm around him and, two heroes, Bush called out "we're tough" to the television cameras.

He had all he wanted out of the place. A picture.

You all saw Bush play dress-up and land on the aircraft carrier and stand there, the helmet under his arm just like an Ace from the top of a bloody sky. The aircraft carrier had to be turned around so the skyline of San Diego wouldn't be seen.

Now he has his world trade center commercial out there and a lot of decent people regard it as an insult.
Ah Jimmy, Bush is a politician. What did you expect?

Click on the link and read the rest, because Breslin immediately proceeds to rip Rudolph Giuliani a new nether orifice. Well, Newsday is a New York publication. This is Jimmy's beat, his home turf. And Rudolph Giuliani comes off as pretty creepy given the events related here.

But George Bush and Rudolph Giuliani are heroes to most people. And their faith in these two will not be shaken by facts.

Isn't faith described as what you believe in the absence of facts? Or what you believe to be true when the available "facts" are ambiguous?

What do you call it when the facts are not ambiguous at all, but you still believe in something? When the hard and quite real evidence points to what you believe being flat out wrong - and you still believe you are right?

There is a word for that.

Posted by Alan at 13:58 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 6 March 2004 14:07 PST home

Friday, 5 March 2004

Topic: The Culture

Open Season on Those Who Make Us Uncomfortable
This week's issue of L.A. Weekly seems to feature analyses of political gadflies. Each item is quite long and worth a click and a read.

First up is Michael Moore.

See American Bigmouth: Why Michael Moore won't shut up
Ella Taylor, L.A. Weekly, issue of March 5 -11, 2004

Taylor interviews him and offers some thoughts. She opens with this:
Other things being equal, Moore's president of choice remains Dennis Kucinich, but he knows his favorite doesn't have a prayer, and given that all the candidates are "to the left of Gore in 2000," he says he'll go with any of them who can get George Bush out of office.

Except, apparently, Howard Dean.

... Moore insists -- twice -- on his admiration for what Dean has done to energize young people to become politically involved. "But spend 10 minutes in the same room with Dean," he says, "and you're asking, do you want to support him?"


"He's kind of a prick."

There's a moment of revisionist silence, followed by Moore's trademark high-pitched giggle.

"Prickly, really. I hate to slag him, but as you look at him, where will he win?"
Well, Moore isn't exactly subtle.

But here's the core:
... It's not hard to understand why conservatives can't stand Moore and why there are several Web sites exclusively devoted to zealously combing his every speech, book and movie for inaccuracies. For all Moore's protestations that liberals are less nasty and more laid-back than conservatives, he is one of the few on the left who hacks away at the right with its own methods, and he's usually more to the point. While Matt Drudge pants away on his Web site trying to drum up sexual dirt on John Kerry, Moore is busy firing off "Dear George" letters out of his, calling Bush on his policies at home and abroad. He remains the left's only well-known shock jock. And it's unlikely that either Al Franken or Molly Ivins, both of whom have anti-Bush books on the best-seller lists, would have gotten the book deals they did without Moore's trailblazing hits. Moore lacks the intellectual chops of either, but he's a deft popularizer and a very funny guy.

Which may be one reason why so many liberals and leftists, at least those who are over 30, don't like him. One New York Times piece fingered him as a senior member of the "Bush-hating left," and Daniel Okrent, introducing himself as the paper's new ombudsman, wrote snootily, "I'd rather spend my weekends exterminating rats in the tunnels below Penn Station than read a book by either Bill O'Reilly or Michael Moore." And few on the left are likely to be amused by his "endorsement" of Oprah, Paul Newman or the Dixie Chicks for president.

Moore has been dumped on by organs as disparate as Alexander Cockburn's shrill far-left rag Counterpunch and the staidly democratic-socialist Dissent, which last spring heaped scorn on Moore's confrontational tactics, sniffed at his gifts as an entertainer, and accused him of cynicism for railing at both political parties. This last is absurd -- you only have to spend five minutes in Moore's company to realize that sincerity is one quality he possesses in spades.

But even in England, the liberal newspaper The Guardian last November suggested that Moore has gotten sloppy and become a "left-wing version of loud-mouthed ultra-conservative shock-jocks such as Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter."
That is rather harsh, but perhaps true.

Then Marc Cooper gets his shots in with Moore Is Less: One stupid white man's problem with the man in the ball cap.

The problem? Moore is not Mort Sahl.
I know very well the role that Michael Moore ought to be playing.

For it was neither Marx nor Marcuse that initially radicalized me as a teenager in the 1960s but rather the comic, Mort Sahl.

... On Sahl's word that the now-defunct Hunters was L.A.'s best political bookstore, I began frequenting the shop on Little Santa Monica. And one afternoon in 1967 I bumped right into Sahl as he thumbed through the special table of titles on Vietnam. We chatted for a half-hour during which he told me I still had a lot to learn. As a last-minute gesture, Sahl bought me a copy of British correspondent Bernard Fall's classic The Two Viet-Nams -- a moment, and a book that would mark the rest of my life.

I cannot imagine Michael Moore having that sort of transformational effect on anyone. Moore arrives before us not with a newspaper under his arm, but rather with a bullhorn and a sledgehammer. Sahl engaged his audience in subtle, complicated dialogue, enticing his fans to think beyond the conventional wisdom. Moore's style is to bully and bluster. Sahl helped teach me how to think. Moore purports to tell us what to think.

Which wouldn't be so objectionable if there was evidence that Moore had any depth, any nuance or at least some consistency to his own thought.

I find no trace.
So it's "Dump on Michael Moore Week" here in Los Angeles?

Maybe so. But Brendan Bernhard examines Dennis Miller in Miller's Crossing: Can a pro-Bush comedian get laughs?

Actually, a lot of this item is a discussion of John Stewart's "The Daily Show" - and it's rather positive about that, and its format.

As for Dennis Miller and his new show on MSNBC?
Miller begins each episode of his program with "The Daily Rorschach," a segment in which he sits at a desk and delivers wordy -- some would say laborious -- riffs on the news, much as he once did on Saturday Night Live and Dennis Miller Live on HBO. (Sample jokes: "A new poll shows that Senator Kerry's support in the South is strongest among blacks. Kerry's appeal to Southern blacks is obvious: He's a white man who lives far, far away. Kerry's campaign is also gaining support among women. However, Kucinich is still tops among post-op trannies.") This part of the program, at least, could benefit mightily from a live audience, because without some laughter to feed off, Miller the comedian can seem a little lost, even with crew members providing some consolation chuckles offscreen.
Well, the show has been yanked for a few weeks to be "retooled." And it will come back with a live audience. But Miller will still be the bloodthirsty, mean-spirited, kill-them-all right-winger he has now become. It won't be any funnier, I'd guess.

Finally Kate Sullivan writes about Howard Stern in Really Hot Air: Viacom sucks up to FCC over Howard Stern's indecent exposure.

Stern was just cancelled by Clear Channel, the radio empire run by a personal friend of the Bush family and darling of the FCC run my Michael Powell, the son of the Secretary of State. Stern was indecent, it seems. But Stern has been all over the airways and in the press saying he was never in trouble with his naughty show until he made some anti-Bush comments. Then they canned him. Clear Channel says that's only a coincidence, that after the Janet Jackson bouncing bare boob thing at the Super Bowl, they decided it was time to be more responsive to the wishes of all Americans, who hate smut and nudity and dirty talk and all that sort of thing. If their audience is neo-Puritan, and the FCC is making noises about cleaning things up, well, they are just giving the audience what they are demanding and adhering much more strictly to what the FCC tells them to do. Heck, the FCC has rules. Ask George Carlin about the seven dirty words you are not allowed to say on television. Howard Stern had to go. Times are changing. Or to be more precise, now the rules really do matter.

Sullivan comments:
I'm no Howard Stern fan, but it seems unfair that a guy who was hired precisely to be trashy is now being punished for holding up his end of the bargain.

Obviously, it's also a bit retarded for the federal government to try and determine what is and isn't offensive to consumers. As Limbaugh said after his bosses at Clear Channel dropped Stern, "You know, I'm in the free speech business here, my friends. I couldn't survive without it. And it is one thing for a company in business to determine whether or not they're going to be party to it. It is quite another thing for a government."

At the same time, Washington's shrill reaction to everyday tastelessness has got to be a boost for Stern -- who banks on an outlaw rep. (Stern once released a CD called Crucified by the FCC, which contained censored bits from his show and featured cover art of Stern carrying a cross.) Last week he waxed heroic on his show. "They are so afraid of me and what this show represents," he said. "I don't think I'm going to last a month."
That was just prior to the air going dead.

Moore, Miller, Stern... surprising that we now, given this administration, even allow them to live.

Posted by Alan at 13:56 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

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