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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

ABF Wednesday:  Special Molochmas Edition!

Every year Janet and I play a Fun Tedious Game.  She puts on a CD of “Christmas music” in order to fill the house with “Christmas cheer” and the “spirit” of the “season,” and I do my crabby eyerolling Scrooge routine.  I can make it through about two weeks of “(Walking Through a) Winter Wonderland” and “Christmas Song” by singing along in Bill Murray-lounge lizard mode, bending or breaking a few notes along the way in order to indicate that I am singing in a “hep” and “jazzy” manner.  You know, “and folks dressed up like wacky Eskimos,” “and pretend that he is that coo-coo Parson Brown,” and so forth. 

But after two weeks, I’ve had enough, and no amount of parody will suffice.  If I hear “Frosty the Snowman” or “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” one more time, I will scream until they come to take me away.  Did you know that “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” is best sung by people wearing bright red sweaters with reindeers and Santas on them?  It’s true, you know.

Now, I’m not really a bah-humbug sort of fellow.  I like hearing a good “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” or “Angels We Have Heard On High,” and I think “O Holy Night” can be quite nice when it’s not too bombastic.  (Joan Baez does a fine, subtle job with “O Holy Night,” and in French, no less.) But I miss the songs I grew up with, like “Jingle Ba’al” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Moloch.” Nobody sings those anymore, because of the War on Molochmas.

So as Janet, Jamie, Lucy the Dog and I pack up for Connecticut (meeting up with New Haven Nick and the Extended Janet Clan), thence to San Francisco for the always-thrilling Modern Language Association Festival of Lights, I’m going to turn the blog over to those of you who have special Christmas holiday songs you can’t stand to hear.  To make it more fun (and yet arbitrary!), I’m going to split the unbearable songs into two categories.

Category one: “Classic” songs from the past century, including but not limited to all the atrocities named in the first two paragraphs of this post as well as “Rudolph” and “White Christmas” and Moloch knows what else.

Category two: “Rock” and “pop” songs from the past half-century that induce cringing, wincing, and boils among the unfortunates subjected to them, including but not limited to Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmas Time,” Elton John’s “Step Into Christmas,” the Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping,” and Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas.” (Don’t be fooled by those first twenty seconds of pretty little guitar-pickin’!  And be sure to watch every last second of the Elton John clip so that you can see Elton’s band literally stepping into Christmas!)

Just one thing about category two: no one, but no one is permitted to cite the Bing and Bowie duet on “Little Drummer Boy,” on the grounds that over the past thirty years this whimsical little number has gone way beyond “Classic Weird” and “Crooner and Space Alien Weird” and “Teh Awesomest Weird Duet Ever Weird” and has become a thing unto itself that none of us really know how to categorize or comprehend.

Merry Molochmas and Happy New Year to you all.  I’ll be back sometime in 2009.

Posted by Michael on 12/24 at 10:13 AM
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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

More stuff about stuff

Ah, this is fun.  My American Scientist review of Sokal’s book has gotten a comment from Steve Fuller.  He claims that I am “confused” about his testimony in Dover.

Michael Bérubé is confused about my appeal to the contexts of discovery and justification in the Dover trial. (I was the one who happened to raise the distinction.) There are two points about the distinction as it applied to the trial: (1) The plaintiffs’ witnesses were claiming that scientific inquiry required a commitment to ‘methdological naturalism’, something lacking in intelligent design theorists and creationists. This struck me as a false claim about the context of justification that smuggled in claims about the context of discovery: i.e. if you’re not a naturalist, you can’t do science right. (2) The trial itself was about what to teach high school students. Here it is completely appropriate to introduce the context of discovery as part of the pedagogy that motivates students to do science, and so it matters that important science has been done by people operating from religious beliefs not so different from the ones that are legally barred as ‘intelligent design’.

The confusion arises from those who think that science education is exclusively about teaching science’s context of justification. That is tantamount to indoctrination.

OK, so here’s my reply:

Steve Fuller is indeed a confusing fellow. In my essay, I remarked that Fuller testified in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District on behalf of the religious fundamentalists who had sought to introduce Intelligent Design into the Dover science curriculum. I briefly summarized Fuller’s argument as “intelligent design is worth pursuing partly because great scientists of the past—such as Newton—believed in God.” Fuller now replies that “it matters that important science has been done by people operating from religious beliefs not so different from the ones that are legally barred as ‘intelligent design.’” I thank Professor Fuller for taking the time to confirm my characterization of his testimony.

Yet I confess that I remain confused about Fuller’s argument. If it really is “tantamount to indoctrination” to appeal to the context of justification in order to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate science, then Fuller might as well go the full distance, and argue for teaching high school students alchemy and phrenology. One wonders why he has chosen to shill only for Intelligent Design.

Dang that American Scientist website for not respecting my carefully-crafted and intelligently-designed paragraph breaks.

And then Fuller replies to this in turn:

Michael Bérubé says something unwittingly accurate and inaccurate in his response. Alchemy and phrenology are indeed part of the backstory of modern science, and had they enough practitioners or believers today, they would be worth trying to incorporate in the science curriculum to illustrate the context of discovery. It’s interesting that Bérubé, who often strikes the pose of a pragmatist, fails to see the merit of this point himself.

The inaccurate part of his response is an inference that could be drawn by his use of ‘shill’ to describe my advocacy of intelligent design, which often suggests that the person has gained financially from the advocacy. It is true that I was instructed by defence counsel at the Dover trial to specify a notional expert witness fee. However, since the plaintiffs’ won, and the civil rights nature of the case meant that the defence was ordered to pay legal fees, which in turn bankrupted the school board, I was never paid a cent for my participation in the trial above expenses. Moreover, my subsequent ID-related activities have not appreciably increased my income.

To which I have to say, wittingly:

By “shill” I meant only that Fuller does not practice the “science” of Intelligent Design himself; he merely works as an enthusiastic bystander, urging others to do so. My remark was meant not to suggest that Fuller has “gained financially” from his advocacy of intelligent design, but to suggest that the entire enterprise of ID is fraudulent. 

Fuller seems to think that something counts as a science if sufficient numbers of people are “practitioners” of it; another aspect of his testimony in Dover, to which I did not refer in my essay, involved arguing that ID will be a legitimate science once Darwinists loosen their grip on the field and allow for a critical mass of “practitioners” of ID to develop a viable research program.  This argument neatly ignores the fact that ID has no research program, and no method of determining when in fact one has discovered the Designer.

Good pragmatists like myself don’t buy the “had they enough practitioners” argument.  Instead, we want to know why, precisely, alchemy and phrenology didn’t pan out pragmatically as sciences—and whether, by Fuller’s logic, astrology (whose “practitioners” certainly outnumber evolutionary theorists today) deserves a place alongside ID in the science curriculum.


You know, I really hope this puts to rest the truly bizarre notion that, back in the day, I “bent over backwards to defend Steve Fuller from the Dover ID trial.” I find versions of this claim floating around the Internets from time to time

Berube goes way too far and he is dipping his toes into “We can’t insult the rubes because they will get angry and that is the worst thing evah!” territory.

He did this occasionally during the “intelligent design” muckamuck a few years ago, refusing to deal with the lying scumbags as lying scumbags.

--and you know how I hate it when someone on the Internets is wrong. Especially when they’re very very wrong about me deep in some obscure blog’s comment thread.

Sure, I didn’t say anything about “lying scumbags” three years ago—that’s really not my style.  But I did quote (and then repeat!  enthusiastically!!) the passage in the decision where Judge Jones wrote that the fundamentalists on the Dover school board “lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.” And just in case anyone still remained uncertain about where my sympathies lay, I singlehandedly created a line of dancing badgers to underscore the point.  Merciful Moloch, you’d think the badgers would have sufficed.

Posted by Michael on 12/23 at 11:08 AM
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Monday, December 22, 2008


The Penn State women’s volleyball team won their second consecutive national championship this weekend, capping off a 38-0 season—only the fourth undefeated season in NCAA Division I history.  They defeated perennial power Stanford in the final, in straight sets.  But that’s not what’s so impressive.  What’s so impressive is that until they lost the third and fourth sets against Nebraska in the semifinal, they had won one hundred and eleven consecutive sets this season.  And Nebraska was basically playing a home game:

Heading into its match with Penn State, Nebraska had won 96 consecutive matches in its home state and had never lost at Qwest Center Omaha. Thursday’s match was played in front of a record crowd of 17,430, the majority of which was decked out in red.

Penn State dominated the first two sets, extending its NCAA record streak to 111 consecutive sets won. But the Huskers snapped the streak by winning the next two sets and took a 10-8 lead in the fifth set. A block by All-America setter Alicia Glass ignited a 7-1 run that propelled PSU past Nebraska.

I can’t even think of an achievement in team sports that’s comparable to winning 111 consecutive volleyball sets.  Unless you count the Brooklyn Superbas’ pennant-winning season in 1899 when they went 147-1 . . . oh no, wait, I read that wrong.

Really, has such a thing ever been done in any sport ever?  This is a real question.  Because I watched the finals at a party Saturday night with about 40 or 50 other people, and we couldn’t come up with anything.

Posted by Michael on 12/22 at 04:34 PM
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Friday, December 19, 2008

More stuff

I think one of the reasons I got tired of doing stuff recently is that I’ve done a bunch of stuff this year.  You know how that works—at a certain point, after travelin’ and writin’ and sittin’ around and readin’ and thinkin’ and writin’ some more, you say, “OK, that’s enough stuff for now.” And you say, “you know, now seems like a really good time to order this thing from the Internets and watch the Canadiens-Soviet Army game from New Year’s Eve 1975.” Why the Canadiens-Soviet Army game from New Year’s Eve 1975?  Because it is Classic, that’s why, and because in the course of writing an essay about hockey last month, I wound up reading Ken Dryden’s The Game, also a Classic, which I barely looked at 25 years ago when it was published (1983 was just about the low point of my interest in hockey—I had just started graduate school and had given away all my equipment) but which turns out to be crazy good.  I mean, just crazy good.  You’ll probably be hearing more about it on this humble blog in the future, so keep your RSS feeds tuned right here!  And then I started reading Vladislav Tretiak’s autobiography, which a friend gave me ten years ago, and, well, what better way to keep the train of thought going than to watch Tretiak and Dryden in their classic showdown on December 31, 1975?  It was Classic, don’t you know.  A brilliantly played 3-3 tie, with goals by a couple of the best players in the world, guys like Yvan Cournoyer and Valeri Kharlamov.  Tretiak stopped an amazing three hundred and eighty-seven shots in that game!  And Dryden stopped ten.  (One of these figures is slightly false.)

I have no idea why this boxed set of the greatest games in Montreal Canadiens history does not include the amazing seventh game of the 1970-71 Stanley Cup finals against Chicago, in which the Canadiens rallied from a 2-0 deficit thanks to two extraordinary third-period goals by Henri Richard (hey, check out my “away” link at the top left of this blog to see a pic of me and Richard not long thereafter) or the equally amazing second game of the ‘70-’71 quarterfinals against the heavily favored Boston Bruins, in which the Canadiens rallied from a 5-2 deficit—also in the third period.  Can someone on the Internets fix this?  Because that’s just silly.  Thank you.

Anyway, that’s not what I’m blogging about today. I’m blogging to let you know that back when I was doing stuff, earlier this year, one of the stuffs I did was this review essay on Alan Sokal’s new book.  It is my very first-ever appearance in American Scientist, for although I am an American in American Airspace, I am not a Scientist.  And it represents the very first-ever time I have managed to come up with a “clever” punning title for an essay all by myself.  In Latin!  I knew that Jesuit high school education would pay off someday.  And handsomely, too.

So if you have a second, give the review a look and let me know what you think in comments.  Just be sure that all your claims are empirically grounded!  No, wait, I close the review by rejecting the whole empirical-grounding-of-belief thing.  So never mind.  Alternatively, those of you who insist on making empirically grounded claims may feel free to weigh in on an argument begun last week by Scott Lemieux:  was Tony Esposito a better goaltender than Ken Dryden?

Posted by Michael on 12/19 at 12:26 PM
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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Poetry and pragmatism

Dear President-elect Obama,

Hi.  How are you?  I know it’s been a while since we last spoke, but I assure you that I’ve completely gotten over the fact that you didn’t pick me to be your running mate.  The guy you picked didn’t do any damage, so all good, I say.  In fact, I’ve been pretty well-disposed toward you these past six weeks, unlike that nasty Angry Left® I read about in the papers and those Centers for Advanced Criticism kinda blogs where disgruntled Clinton supporters pretend to be somewhere to the left of Joe Hill.  Your cabinet has been meh-to-OK with me so far; I remember that at this point sixteen years ago, Bill Clinton hadn’t gotten around to doing much more than practicing his presidential signature, so I’m glad to see a Democrat taking the transition seriously.  And though I’ll never invite Robert Gates to guest-blog, I’m willing to see him at stay Defense over the short term if (and only if!) you’re really going to withdraw from Iraq.

But we have to talk about your inauguration.  Seriously: Jamie (he’s my son, you know) has been home sick the past couple of days, so I haven’t had much time to read or write, but I did notice two striking things yesterday afternoon when I checked my Internets.  One was that you’d asked poet Elizabeth Alexander to read at your swearing-in ceremony.  Dude, that is, like, absolutely the coolest thing ever.  Way cooler than Maya Angelou or Robert Frost, seriously.  Infinitely cooler than Miller Williams, too.  Good call, Mr. President-elect dude.  Very, very good call.

And then, a few minutes later, I heard this news about Dr. Rick Warren giving the invocation.  My god, man, what are you thinking?  Rick Warren alone undoes all the good of Elizabeth Alexander and Aretha Franklin combined.  Yes, I know you have your talking points, full of the usual stuff about how you disagree with him on some issues but not others, and how your inauguration will be really diverse, and how you are “committed to bringing together all sides of the faith discussion in search of common ground.” (Ye gods!  That’s an actual quote from the executive director of your Inaugural Committee!) But you know what?  When someone tries to strip gays and lesbians of basic human rights and bears false witness lies about the reason why, there isn’t any common ground to search for.  Really.  Don’t bother.  Don’t waste your time and my patience.  If, back in ‘64, LBJ had been sworn in alongside someone in the “faith discussion” who opposed what they used to call “miscegenation,” and who claimed that proponents of interracial marriage were infringing on his right to free speech, we wouldn’t call that “bringing together all sides” and “searching for common ground” today. We’d call it . . . uh, what would we call it?  “Shameful,” maybe, if we were being kind.

Look, Mr. President-elect, I hear you’re a pragmatist.  I can respect that; I’m a pragmatist too.  We ought to get together and talk about Dewey and Rorty sometime.  So I’m not going to tell you that Rick Warren’s homophobia is an affront to human decency.  I won’t remind you that the LGBT community is still hurting, badly, from Proposition 8, and doesn’t need another kick in the teeth just now.  I’m not going to direct you to People for the American Way, who point out that Warren “has recently compared marriage by loving and committed same-sex couples to incest and pedophilia,” and I’m not going to suggest that this is a form of batshit fundamentalist wingnuttery that shouldn’t be anywhere near shouting distance of a Democratic administration, no matter how much the wingnut in question loves him some poor people. 

Instead, I’m going to ask you, on pragmatic grounds, what is to be gained here.  In searching for that elusive common ground, you’ve basically courted the people from those districts that actually went more heavily Republican in 2008 than in 2004—you know, those old white people living in the Smoky Mountains and the Ozarks, the GOP’s only remaining base.  The people you’re “reaching out” to here don’t respect you and never will.  What’s more, many of them will be dead in a couple of years, and they’ll go to their graves clutching their Left Behind books and spitting at the sound of your name and the Muslim Marxism it stands for.  And meanwhile, you’ve alienated pretty much everyone who voted for you.  That doesn’t seem very pragmatic to me. 

Maybe you’ll tell me to calm down, chill out, and remember that this is only a symbolic thing; the question of who delivers the invocation at your inauguration has no policy implications whatsoever.  It’s not like Clinton with “don’t ask, don’t tell,” or Bush with just about everything. Well, that’s true—this is purely symbolic. But that’s my point: because Warren’s appearance is purely symbolic, the insult here is completely gratuitous.  Or worse: because it’s not pegged to any specific policy, and because there is no “common ground” to be found here (see above), the symbolism speaks all the more clearly.  Think of Ronald Reagan kicking off his 1980 campaign by invoking “states’ rights” in Philadelphia, Mississippi.  A purely symbolic gesture—and all the clearer because purely symbolic.

See, with a guy like Gates, you can plausibly argue that we need to transition smoothly and put someone in charge of Iraq withdrawal who knows his way around DoD.  With your economic team, you can argue that we need to transition smoothly from the hell-in-handbasket economy we have now to the purgatory-in-knapsack economy of the future.  But there’s no parallel argument for a guy like Rick Warren: no one out there is saying “we have to transition gradually from the open homophobia and bigotry of the Bush Administration to the utopian egalitarianism of the Obama Administration, and Rick Warren is part of our carefully phased withdrawal from homophobia.  After all, if we move too fast on LGBT issues, we could wind up with man-on-dog situations and people divorcing their spouses for box turtles.” There is no one—really, trust me on this—no one you need to placate with the transitional figure of Rick Warren.

By contrast, the selection of Elizabeth Alexander wins you all kinds of good will among the sixteen Americans who read poetry.  It’s like tapping Bleeding Gums Murphy to be the official saxophonist of the inauguration, and thrilling everyone within KJAZZ’s twenty-eight-foot listening radius.

So, Mr. President-elect, as a fellow pragmatist, my advice is simple: dump this Warren guy.  I hear he’s a friend of yours; all the better!  Part of being a pragmatist at the Presidential level involves dumping “friends” who are wingnutty bigots who piss off nearly every single one of your supporters.  And who, besides Warren himself, will be upset at the dumping?  Well, you may get a severe tut-tut from David Broder, who’s spent the past sixteen years searching for that bipartisan common ground between Dick Armey and Barney Frank.  But that’s about it.  And you can establish some real common ground—namely, between you and your supporters—by having Elizabeth Alexander deliver the invocation instead. 

You say she’s not a minister?  Great!  All the better better!  We could stand a little healthy secularism in Washington right now.  And it would be good for poetry, too – sort of like the lightning that struck KJAZZ’s broadcast tower and boosted the station’s signal so that all of Springfield could hear the work of Bleeding Gums Murphy.

How about it, Mr. President-elect?  Do the pragmatic thing.

Posted by Michael on 12/18 at 10:23 AM
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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Shoes, cars, despair in general

Did you ever have one of those days when you just didn’t feel like doing anything?  Anything at all?  Even including typing “did you ever have one of those days when you just didn’t feel like doing anything?” I just had three of ‘em in a row.  Of course, I still did some stuff.  But I really didn’t feel like it.

And I can’t blog about the Cheney Administration’s last series of affronts to all that is good and decent, like that loophole in the bailout that requires us to keep tithing directly to our CEO overlords, or their new and hard-to-undo regulations allowing their friends to step up their efforts to poison the planet.  It’s just too depressing.  You know, it’s almost as if they’re trying to make a profit off of environmental and financial disasters!  Somebody ought to write a book about that.  Me, I’m not up to it.  I simply say I throw my shoes in your general direction, you dogs.  Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.

Nor can I blog about Senate Republicans’ desires to plunge the country into a depression in order to break the back of the UAW.  Somebody else will have to do that.  Instead, I am going to blog about something I can manage: the Dodge Avenger.

I mean, when I think of the Detroit bailout in terms of supporting the UAW, I’m not the least bit ambivalent.  But when I think of the industry . . . well, can I ask what the hell is up with cars like the Avenger?  Jamie and I rented one when we were in Vegas, breaking our streak of six consecutive PT Cruisers, and the driving experience was kind of baffling.  Let’s start with the name: Avenger?  I’ve always thought the weirdest name for a car was the Toyota Cressida.  You know, they already have a Celica—couldn’t they have gone with the “Toyota Troilus” instead?  What kind of literary allusion is that, anyway? Toyota Cressida—a car you shouldn’t necessarily trust? Yes, I know what DeLillo says—these are “supranational names, computer-generated, more or less universally pronounceable.  Part of every child’s brain noise, the substatic regions too deep to probe.” But still.  What or who precisely is being avenged by the Avenger?  Jamie and I drove around Vegas and the Hoover Dam muttering, “by Grabthar’s hammer, by the sons of Worvan, you shall be Dodge Avenged,” and we managed to amuse ourselves.  But at some point between July and now (look, it was really really low on my to-do list, OK?  I had to wait until I didn’t feel like doing anything for a couple of days), I checked out a review of the Avenger, and yes, it appears to suck every bit as much as I thought.  Who designs these hideous things?  Who names them?

And what is to be done?

Posted by Michael on 12/16 at 11:26 AM
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