Tuesday, August 31, 2004

The Saga of TV and Me

I watch very little TV. Let me see if I can quantify that. The last program I remember watching was some Discovery thing trying to popularize string theory. I was out of town back in April or May. I think. Before that it was around Christmas time. In younger days I watched several hours a night. So why the change?

It started over 25 years ago, when I started dating my the lady who is now my wife. I'd been a stalwart fan of Saturday Night Live, but suddenly I had other things to do. She wasn't all that keen on sitting around watching TV when there were places to go, places to dine, places to walk and talk in. John Belushi was no competition.

We married. I worked on my "Piled High and Deep;" she worked as well. Our tastes in TV weren't quite the same, and we didn't really want to use up all our together time on TV anyhow. We are both readers, and apt to miss program start times if already involved in a book.

Kids started coming along. Somehow the free time started going away. Still, we found time for a few shows. Then the oldest kids started staying up until 7 or 7:30 or even 8, and wanted to watch TV. Surprise! If we let them watch a show, any show, they got wired and wouldn't go to bed on time. It could take a half hour longer to persuade them to go to sleep on nights when we let them watch a little TV than on those nights when there wasn't anything good on early. But if we sat down alone to watch while they were awake, they came racing in to watch too.

Solution: we quit watching the early shows. And then later ones.

I started becoming thoroughly fed up with the national news. (When I was a bachelor I'd used it for timing dinner: get up and stir during the commercials.) In half an hour they covered maybe ten stories, left out large chunks of background, and completely omitted international news. One injured American got 3 minutes, a quarter million drowned Chinese got 15 seconds. The local paper was pretty poor, but covered more news in more detail in far less time--and I wasn't a slave to its timetable. The local news had weather reports, which was sometimes important for planning; but they weren't reliable about when the report started, so I often missed it and got happy talk nonsense instead.

The Olympics we watched some of, but at the time the networks covered only Americans and switched back and forth between sports with stomach-churning abandon. Disasters we watched: Challenger and San Jose. The San Jose quake I discuss elsewhere: suffice it here to say that coverage was stupid and horribly unbalanced. The Challenger coverage was done by scientifically illiterate talking heads repeating themselves, sometimes with an incremental item; punctuated by interviews with NASA officials who didn't know enough yet either. I learned my lesson, and unfortunately had to apply it to Columbia: watch for 5 minutes and go away for 2 hours and hope they've learned something in the interim. (Usually not.)

Specials we hoped the kids would get something out of we watched. I don't know what the Met thought they were doing with Fafnir in Sigfried that year, but that was the dullest and most obscure dragon I've ever seen. The kids were bored stiff.

I watched less and less. Pretty soon about the only time I saw anything was when I was out of town in a hotel and too tired to work. And that was a shock. A decade and a half of pushing the envelope of taste, using shock for a cheap laugh, had transformed the culture of the sitcoms. I felt slimy after watching a little: they were tasteless, vulgar, cynical, and recognized no morality beyond "Don't do someone permanent damage." Maybe I should have looked around more, but I gave up. OK, maybe the educational channels? (We don't get cable, so I wasn't familiar with them.) Generally much better, but something was missing. It took me a while, but I finally figured out that the shows were generally spoon feeding the viewer. Some things you understand more easily when you see them, but just as with the news, you generally learn more faster from reading. And there's not so much of the "look at the pretty picture" chatter.

This doesn't mean the TV isn't on much. It is, but it plays videos most of the time. We home school one of our daughters, and there are some fine works on natural history (Life of Birds is a favorite) and history. (I had to hide the Star Wars videos, though.)

So I spend free time in repairs, reading, and writing. I'm getting a bit faster and I hope better from writing here. I have no idea what people refer to when talking about actors anymore, and it doesn't bother me.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Ok. What does this mean?

From the classified section in The Star:

school care. We provide a loving and secure environment.
Also provide breakfast and after school snack. Excellent references.

I can make a little sense of it if I change the dash to an AND. But as written, the ad conjures up images almost supernaturally strange.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

"Answers straight from God"

Listening to WNWC this evening (local Christian radio), I heard one of their 'listen to us' ads.

"when trouble comes . . . sitcoms seem empty and lovesongs do nothing for you . . . and you're looking for answers . . . turn to the station with answers, answers straight from God."

Whew! In one sense the claim is true: they talk about Jesus, who is the Answer, and with whom all things work together for good for those who love and follow Him. But I notice that He didn't always answer questions. "What is that to you? Follow me!"

So in another sense the station is taking the role of Job's friends, who claimed to have the answers for why Job suffered. And we remember what God said about them!

I doubt they intended their grand claim. While I've known a fair number of brash know-it-alls, and heard even more on the radio, the local crew seemed a little more humble than they.

I'd better let them know their ad is more dramatic than it ought to be . . .

Cigarettes worse than diesel cars?

The New Scientist reports that an Italian group finds cigarettes produce more respirable particulates than a diesel car.

“I was very surprised. We didn’t expect to find such a big difference in the particulate matter produced,” says Giovanni Invernizzi from the Tobacco Control Unit of Italy’s National Cancer Institute in Milan, who led the study.

This needs verification: among other little details we need to know the relative distributions of particle sizes and estimates for the total volumes of junk produced. Note that this refers to modern diesel cars: I've been around some older cars and trucks that strangled me even worse than smokers do.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Counting without words

Researchers studying the Piraha tribe in Brazil claim to have found that the group, which have no words for numbers beyond one, two and many, were unable to accurately match patterns that involved 8-10 items. OK, I'll buy that. Matching 10 count patterns isn't perfectly trivial, and having the mental tools to group objects could help a lot. But the next part:

Dr Gordon added that not only could they not count, they also could not draw.

"Producing simple straight lines was accomplished only with great effort and concentration, accompanied by heavy sighs and groans."

This one starts the old mental alarm bells ringing. Drawing skill doesn't have a lot to do with counting. My guess: they weren't comfortable with the tools they were asked to use, or they thought he wanted a precision in drawing that they thought excessive (I gripe when asked to draw perfectly straight lines without a ruler too), or they were having a little joke at Dr. Gordon's expense.

Unethical doctors at Abu Ghraib?

This story made the front page locally. A "bioethicist," Prof. Steven Miles, claimed that medics played a part in prisoner abuse. The Pentagon denies it, claiming that Prof. Miles (who ran for US Senate as a Democrat in 2000) cherry picked from abbreviated accounts. But I'm not sure why the Lancet ran the article, unless for purely political reasons.

Who is an ethicist? Anybody can hang out a shingle and claim the title, and when the most famous name in the business is Peter Singer, I have to conclude that it isn't self-policed very well. And so I generally ignore pronouncements by ethicists. "Who died and made you God?" A preacher or a rabbi can make judgments based on fairly well understood grounds. You can agree or disagree with their premises and with their judgments. But I have no idea what premises an ethicist uses: it could be anything.

Peter Singer, for example, works from the premise that all life is equally valuable, and concludes that a monkey is as valuable as he. I further conclude that the monkey is at least as wise as Peter Singer, and weight their advice equally.

Thursday, August 19, 2004


The Isthmus interviewed Prof. Neil Whitehead in their most recent issue: They provide the transcript here. He's an anthropologist who has written several books on Amazonia, one of which includes his experiences with the "assault sorcery" called kanaima (a particularly vicious kind of murder).

The writer tried to focus the article on the idea that these sorts of things are "intensely spiritual," but the transcript is less wacky. Usually.

Q: To what degree does kanaimà resist academic inquiry? It seems like a very difficult thing to truly know. In your sections on the historical observers, the colonials, the missionaries who badly misinterpreted or mistranslated -- is it something that is going to be ultimately knowable?

WHITEHEAD: Well, I must say that's a very interesting question and my answer is that I think while nothing human is ultimately unknowable, I think that as with anything that concerns the spiritual, the magical, the facts of the case are always going to be less than adequate or sufficient for those who insist on positivist kinds of explanation or empirical kinds of explanation. Because we are in the realm of the invisible and the immaterial and just as in the matter of any other religious truth there is a sense that things are ultimately unknowable. However, I would also add that I think kanaimà as a practice has purposely made itself elusive and difficult because it is something that has survived 100, 150 years of a kind of persecution and attempts by various outsiders to reform and change people. And that may have made it more violent in its own way, that in itself may have encouraged kanaimà to be even more violent, more hidden, more underground, but as with all human mysteries, there are some things we just cannot know. And I don't think kanaimà in that sense is any more challenging than Islam or Christian mysticism or the Jim Jones cult, you know. Lots goes down, and there are some things we cannot know as academics. There are some realities you cannot intersect. You know, I think the question is a good one, but I want to be careful not to give the impression that this is more unknowable than other things like kanaimà, and there are other things like kanaimà.

Ok, that's sensible, though not for the reasons he states. It is not a matter of things being ultimately unknowable, as of them not being amenable to mechanistic/scientific analysis. And he has some reasonable insights:

On the subject of witchcraft or sorcery, this is global, because what we're seeing across the globe is a resurgence of traditional forms of violence principally. Look at those two Wisconsin missionaries. Who were they shot down by? They were killed not because they were Americans but because they were missionaries. Now, this is important. In other words, they were killed explicitly for the reasons of witchcraft, darkness, secrecy. It's the shamanic warfare which is going on there. It's that aspect. You know, we look at Sierra Leone, right? Rwanda. We all try and read it as Nazi genocide. What we're missing is what is actually driving these people, and these are not motivations with which we are culturally familiar at all. And they are strongly located in the realm of traditional categories. Ideas of the dark and violent nature of all power, including political. So we are looking at a postcolonial culture of witchcraft. Which is why my essay is on the shamanic state. I'm arguing -- we're arguing, not just scholars in South America but Africa too -- that the modernity of witchcraft is located in the postcolonial nature of political regimes. And after all, as you know from reading kanaimà, it was the colonial regime itself that told everyone that hey, witchcraft is the place you can resist us.

But he loses his detachment to political correctness:

Q: It's hard to look at this material, whether in workshops or seminars or on the page. Do the spectacular aspects of shamanism and warfare, sorcery, dark sorcery obscure the profound nature of it?

WHITEHEAD: Absolutely. I think you've got it in a nutshell. That's exactly what I think happened with kanaimà. You know, people are entranced, I think I say in the book, the colonial mind was entranced by kanaimà. But it was exactly that which meant that it failed to perceive, just as is the case with radical Islam, the profound spiritual meaning of this violence. I mean it, you know? I mean, what we're missing with Osama, what we're missing with Hamas, we've got to get our heads out of whatever we think. These are spiritual acts for them. So I do think this is also a way in which the West undermines, distracts and devalues these kinds of violent performances, by seeing them as nothing but criminal or insane.... It's an important thing to perceive here. But it's the very extremity of the violence that forces our attention. You know, 200 people in a rail station, 3,000 people in the trade towers. But you know, we didn't listen when they said it nicely. You know, if we had listened, there'd be no basis for what they do. Why is it people got on with that? Because we have so manifestly not lived up to what we said. So, you know, it doesn't say they're not evil, bad or mad, but what makes a 20-year-old, a 28-year-old woman with two kids blow herself to bits?

"If we had listened, there'd be no basis for what they do" is, of course, so much PC rubbish. But so is the implicit assumption that to understand all is to forgive all. Just because an act is "a spiritual act" doesn't make it good. The writer seems to like the idea that things can be unknowable spiritual acts, and punches up that point several times. And you'd think that history would have told people something, that racist ideologies can tie in with religion and make slaughter "a spiritual act" to feed your ancestors, or bring glory to the sacred emperor, or bring good fortune from Odin.

Is it the fragmentation of knowledge, or the denigration of any but the most recent ideas, that leads to such profound ignorance? Or is it deliberate?

Friday, August 13, 2004

You can't make this kind of thing up:

Unless you're Terry Pratchett. BBC reports that a burning rabbit destroyed a shed .

A burning rabbit scampered into a cricket club shed and caused £60,000-worth of damage in the ensuing blaze.

The animal was hiding in a pre-lit bonfire at Devizes Cricket Club in Wiltshire.

Soon after groundsmen lit the fire, the startled rabbit ran from the bonfire with its tail alight and headed for a nearby shed.

No remains were found, so the fire chief thinks the rabbit escaped.

Update: a later story says they found a rabbit skelton, so perhaps "white faced simonee" stayed "on hot cockolorum" after all.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Zimbabwe and AIDS aid

The New York Times has a peice (which will soon vanish) Donor Mistrust Worsens AIDS in Zimbabwe. Because of corruption and government misappropriation of aid for political uses, numerous donors are declining to help at all.

This is a tough one. Corruption is a problem everywhere; some places much worse than others. Clearly if 100% of aid money is siphoned off, there's no point whatever in trying to help, since you can't. What about if 10% is siphoned off? That's probably comparable to normal costs of doing business. What about if 50%? At that point you can help 2 people somewhere else for the price of helping one person in the corrupt region. If the problem is world-wide, you can help more people by going elsewhere; and I think you probably should. If the problem is local, then I guess you have to go ahead anyway.

But there's more than corruption at issue here. The government lets aid flow to supporters, but not to tribes that are political opponents. There isn't even the weak excuse of civil war. People often try to interdict supplies to people fighting them. But that's not what's happening.

When can you restrict aid? If it is a matter of cost, traditionally you can restrict it to those able to pay for it. By convention money represents a promise of goods or services, given for value received. Maybe the money was stolen, but trying to untangle such history is fraught with opportunities for abuse, so we just assume that someone is rich because they deserve it. So someone rich enough to afford health care presumably deserves it. (I hear peals of laughter. I don't hear better schemes, though.)

But if the aid is essentially free, how can you deny it to honest citizens? The aid group will no doubt help some people who would otherwise have died, but will be simultaneously making themselves complicit in the government's evil work by deliberately denying help to others.

It is a cop-out to say "honest people can disagree" without suggesting how somebody can decide the issue for themselves. One rather selfish way to look at the question is "what becomes of you?" If you can acclimate yourself to the situation, run away and don't look back.

In some places in the ante-bellum south slave owners did not want Christian preachers to have any contact with their slaves. Others thought it good provided the preachers emphasized the passages about slaves obeying their masters and slid by the passages about equality before God. Some churches agreed to the compromise, arguing that the inestimable value of the Gospel for the slaves outweighed the injury caused by leaving out some minor details. And I think this proved true, for the slaves eventually found out about the whole story anyway. But the cost for those churches was high: they became acclimated to and eventually staunch defenders of the status quo of slavery.

Another question is "can you communicate your concerns?" The answer will almost certainly be no. Can you live with that?

Pray. One person may be called and other not, or called only to work there for a while. Pray.

No SUV's for wardens

The Wisconsin State Journal reports that "The state Department of Corrections has told the approximately 20 wardens they will no longer be entitled to fully loaded SUVs as their state-assigned vehicle"

Wow. "A review of recent Wisconsin winters makes the justification for SUV/4-wheel vehicles untenable." I'll bet it does. I'd love to have seen the original justification. OK, I'll grant that the warden's cars are "24-hour command posts." Still, we're pretty good at getting the roads clean, and I almost never see conditions that block a Taurus (the replacement) that wouldn't also block an SUV.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Vacation piecemeal

I've not been writing much because I've been taking vacation in chunks. A long weekend (Th/F/S/S) followed by a back-to-work with a lot to catch up on. Last weekend was the first no-kids vacation in a long time. Most of the stress of dealing with the kids falls on my wife, so we tried to make it as close to carefree for her as we could. So we went small-town cruising around the Lacrosse area, hiked in the parks, watched the boats go through the locks, took a dinner cruise on the Island Girl (surprise: it operates out of the Bikini Yacht Club!), and just relaxed whenever we felt like it instead of when the schedule allowed it.

The Lacrosse waterfront rejoices in a huge statue of Hiawatha, which for some reason does not bear an endorsement from the Ho Chunk. A large eagle statue celebrates the employees ("past, present, and future") of a grocery chain. Other Indians struggle for the ball in a game of lacrosse. Statues in Lacrosse are in the likeness of things in the heavens above, the earth below, or the waters under the earth; and give a welcome relief from the pretentious abstractions in Madison.

A state law requires that ½% of the cost of a new state building be spent on public artwork for it. The new business school got stained glass, which is pleasantly colorful; but the swine nutrition center wound up with three large hinges welded atop each other (about 8 feet high). At least when the Physics remodeling was done Ugo was able to browbeat the art committee into creating something students could sit on and bushes grow in.

A river cruise is pleasant. The sun set behind the bluffs, and the moon came from behind the clouds. The waves of our wake meandered the lights of the shore. People are too afraid of silence: the music could have been quieter, or even absent; but they meant well. Busy spiders staked out web turf on the outside of the window to welcome the clouds of moths and others swarming about the lights.

The mounds still puzzle me. Apparently most were built in old-growth forest, so the Indians didn't have to dig through lots of roots to get the dirt; but why build them at all? For those not familiar with them, several Indian cultures built the Midwest mounds over a period of a little under a thousand years—some in the shape of animals, some as simple rounds and others as lines. Some were initially burial mounds, some had burials inserted later, and some were just mounds. Several we walked by the Perrot park were small enough (one or two hundred cubic feet or so) that a hundred people could easily build one in a couple of days. Maybe they commemorated an interclan lacrosse victory?

I should find out who founded the city across the river: Lacrosse is matched against La Crescent.