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May 2008

Friday Ephemera

A mirror made of wood. No, really. Watch the video. // An impressive collection of navel lint. // African frog with “Wolverine” claws. // Fish acoustics. // The 56K modem emulator. // Musical furnishings. (h/t, Coudal,) // Vintage Bang & Olufsen. // Botanical gardens, Medellín, Colombia. More. // Bicarb: clears drains, detects cancer. (h/t, AC1.) // “Medieval waste studies” – an exciting new arm of academic enquiry. (h/t, Cookslaw.) // The Medieval Sourcebook. // Early visual entertainments. The anorthoscope, the choreutoscope and other phantasmagorias. (h/t, Drawn!) // Build your own Galactus, parts 1 & 2. Not actual size. // Bird’s nest, enlarged somewhat. // The biggest self-portrait on Earth, drawn using GPS. // The International Space Station, seen from 360km below. (h/t, Dr Westerhaus.) // Good news about bad guys. // Terry Glavin on the politics of opposition. // Theodore Dalrymple on multicultural Britain. // Do women really get paid less than men? // Impressive bank vaults. // View any website as a graph. // The UfoCap. // Designer gasmasks. // And, via The Thin Man, it’s Xiao-Peng Jiang and the Chinese Orchestra of Shanghai Conservatory

Long Shot

Zack Snyder’s forthcoming film adaptation of the graphic novel Watchmen is, by any measure, a long shot. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ comic book yarn remains one of the most densely plotted and satisfying examples of the form. The book is artful in its telling, at times ingenious, and rewards repeated reading. And this, for Synder, is part of the problem. The pleasures of Watchmen are very much about how the story is told, i.e., as a comic. The plot often hinges on tiny visual details; graffiti, partly-obscured adverts, a pocketful of sugar cubes – all of which become significant as the story unfolds. Skipping back and forth through the pages and revisiting these details is hard to avoid, and indeed is intended. How this might translate to film isn’t clear.

Moore described the book as “unfilmable,” not least because of its narrative structure, with flashbacks, supplementary “research” and a comic-within-a-comic that serves to counterpoint events. In an interview with Amazon, Moore recounted his reaction to Terry Gilliam’s abortive 1989 attempt to turn “the War and Peace of graphic novels” into a film: “I had to tell [Gilliam] that I didn’t think it was filmable. I didn’t design it to show off the similarities between cinema and comics, which there are, but in my opinion are fairly unremarkable. It was designed to show off the things that comics could do that literature and cinema couldn’t.” In The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, David Hughes quotes Gibbons making much the same point: “With a comic book the reader can back-track; you can reach page twenty and say, ‘Hey, that’s what that was all about on page three,’ and then nip back and have a look. We wanted to take advantage of that difference… We wanted to make a comic book that read as a straightforward story, but gradually you became aware that it had a symmetrical structure.” 

Watchmen_rorshach2_2Those unfamiliar with the comic’s plot can find a summary here. Essentially, Watchmen is a detective story set in an alternative 1980s in which Woodward and Bernstein were assassinated and Nixon is still president. The comic’s twelve chapters mark a countdown to armageddon as one by one a group of retired and questionable heroes are eliminated and the world teeters on the brink of thermonuclear war. Investigating the death of a former masked colleague, a disheveled vigilante named Rorschach uncovers a plot of unspeakable proportions and uncertain intent. The looming showdown of military superpowers could in theory be prevented by the one character with super-powers of his own, the casually miraculous Dr Manhattan. Freakishly disembodied by a laboratory mishap, Manhattan is, quite literally, a self-resurrected man. All but omnipotent, this blue transfigured being is assumed to be America’s deliverance and the ultimate deterrent. However, the doctor’s godlike perceptions are proving incompatible with human imperatives: “A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there’s no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?”

Continue reading "Long Shot" »

Phantom Guilt, Revisited

While advocating voting based on skin pigment, Ron Rosenbaum champions the phenomenon of liberal guilt:

Since when has guilt become shameful? Since when is shame shameful when it’s shame about a four-centuries-long historical crime? Not one of us is a slave owner today, segregation is no longer enshrined in law, and there are fewer overt racists than before, but if we want to praise America’s virtues, we have to concede - and feel guilty about - America’s sins, else we praise a false god, a golden calf, a whited sepulcher, a Potemkin village of virtue…

Goodness, a moral crescendo is upon us. Someone fetch a towel. It’s heartening to know that there are among us some whose moral insights are so keen they entitle those so endowed to dictate how the rest of us should – must – feel.

Guilt is good, people!

Well, that rather depends on what a person is feeling guilty about, or pretending to feel guilty about.

The only people who don’t suffer guilt are sociopaths and serial killers.

Actually, while individuals described as sociopaths are generally unrestrained by empathy, some have been known to be moved by quite improbable, often ludicrous, things. Simulating feelings purely for effect is another common marker of sociopathy, and it’s possibly worth noting that such people also tend to be grandiose, narcissistic and insufferably self-righteous. 

Guilt means you have a conscience. You have self-awareness, you have - in the case of America’s history of racism - historical awareness… Critics of Obama supporters who use the phrase “guilty liberal” or “liberal guilt” in a condescending, above-it-all manner suggest there’s something weak about feeling guilt.

There is a non sequitur here, one that’s repeated several times. An awareness of history - say, regarding slavery – doesn’t in itself necessitate feelings of any particular kind. It isn’t clear, to me, why a person should feel profoundly responsible for the actions of complete strangers who lived centuries earlier. Unless, of course, one subscribes to notions of some collective, genealogical guilt, with its infinite regress and connotations of collective punishment.

This particular critic of liberal guilt would argue that such claims and protestations aren’t “weak” as such, insofar as they require a great deal of effort to maintain. (For instance, saying “we have to… feel guilty about America’s sins” - followed by the words “a false god, a golden calf, a whited sepulcher, a Potemkin village of virtue” - isn’t an easy thing to do while keeping a straight face. Though the effort isn’t necessarily deserving of applause.) What irks isn’t feebleness, but incoherence and dishonesty. To publicly rend one’s garments over some vicarious, borrowed sin is not to affirm conscience or poignant human feeling, but to parody those things and to indulge in emotional pantomime and moral masturbation. Rather like this:

But was slavery not immoral? Was not the century of institutionalised racism and segregation that followed the end of slavery a perpetuation of “flawed values” that the nation should feel an enduring guilt over? Should we abolish the history and memory of slavery and racism just because they're no longer legally institutionalised?

Again, note the car crash of non sequitur. I’ll paraphrase for clarity:

Slavery was immoral. It was abolished. Therefore we must still feel guilt, or pretend to – all of us, indefinitely and forever. And those who don’t pretend to feel this way are abolishing history.

Assertions of this kind are, very often, for the benefit of a sympathetic audience and thus, ultimately, for the benefit of the performer. As I’ve argued before, saying, very loudly, “it’s all my fault” is only a notch and a half away from saying “it’s all about me.” Rosenbaum goes on to claim,

People who lack guilt also lack humility.

Well, people who affect guilt and presume to tell others that they too should pretend such things are, in my experience, the really arrogant sons-of-bitches. That’s my objection to the nasty little vanity called “liberal guilt”.

Avoid feeling guilty; make a donation.

Details, Details

A while ago, I quoted an essay by Professor Zygmunt Bauman - a prolific, if unconvincing, advocate of socialism - and noted his readiness to make rather questionable statements. Among them, his belief that a leftist worldview follows from two assumptions:

The first assumption is that it is the duty of the community to insure its individual members against individual misfortune. And the second is that, just as the carrying capacity of a bridge is measured by the strength of its weakest support, so the quality of a society should be measured by the quality of life of its weakest members.

These, Bauman claims, are, or should be, the “constant and non-negotiable assumptions” of the left. But one of them at least has an obvious flaw. The components of a bridge do not, I’m assured, have volition. Bricks, cables and metal beams do not make choices that determine their strength and functionality. Human beings do make choices that very often, quite dramatically, determine their prospects and quality of life. Bauman’s essay frequently assumes a kind of self-evident righteousness, the details of which are never quite explained, leading to a tone that is not so much analytical as tribal and pious: 

The left wants a humane society, one that strives for justice for all its members. The left defines a just society as one that is aware that it is not-yet-sufficiently-just, that is haunted by this awareness and thereby spurred into action.

Praying_for_socialism_2Bauman is happy to insist that his assumptions are “the basis for a self-assertive left,” and that they “set the left on a perpetual collision course with the realities of the human condition under the rule of capitalism.” Not a perpetual collision with the human condition per se, of course – such a thing couldn’t possibly be entertained - but with the human condition “under the rule of capitalism” - also referred to as the “global capitalist order” – one which entails “wastefulness and immorality, manifested in social injustice.” These are bold claims, and fairly typical, yet Bauman – hailed as “one of Europe's most influential sociologists” - seems to feel no obligation to substantiate them with particulars. These things are, apparently, simply understood. Despite a rush to claim the badge of “social justice” – a term that remains oddly undefined - the professor doesn’t explain in any detail what kind of action he would have us spurred towards. And given the role of individual judgment in how a person’s life plays out, questions of moral action do necessarily follow. Lots of them. I raised a few of the more obvious ones before, but I think some of them bear repeating:

Why is a society to be measured by how the least able fare, seemingly irrespective of why that situation arises and persists? How are people to be insulated from, and compensated for, what are often consequences of their own choices and priorities? How much control is to be exerted and how many freedoms curtailed - including the freedoms of those suffering misfortune? On what basis does Professor Bauman imagine he has a right to ensure that society’s members optimise the quality of their lives, insofar as they’re able? How, exactly, will this feat be achieved, and by whom?

If some individuals fail to make the approved decisions in the approved sequence and with sufficient foresight, will those choices be made by others, and if necessary enforced? Will individuals be compensated for all of their own shortcomings, dispositions and misjudgments, or just some of them? Who is Bauman to determine what constitutes an acceptable qualitative outcome? And how far would he go to ensure those outcomes are arrived at, regardless of the cost to others who may not share his view?

Continue reading "Details, Details" »

Friday Ephemera

CDs, microwaved. // Bacon mints. // Tea in hot water. // Bulb garden. // Shadow bulbs. // Illuminated cities, seen from above.  (h/t, Coudal.) // Snapshots of Soviet Russia. // Poland’s Buttonarium. // Embroidered felt typewriter. // The Mobile Museum of Gem Sweaters. Sweaters, with gems. // Piercing necklace. // Interiors by H.R. Giger. Château St. Germain, Gruyères, Switzerland. // Crime scene PanoScan. (h/t, Dr Westerhaus.) // Remote control flying penis. // The moral compass of Michael Moore. // Science, unsettled. // Nixon meets Elvis. // Comedy clogs. // Classic games, rewritten. // World’s largest colour LED display, powered by the Sun. // Sony’s Rolly mp3 player. Pointless, but charming. // Robot beat combo. // Margate’s mechanical elephant. (h/t, Things.) // Some fetching Japanese scooters. // The Shadow of Fu Manchu. (1940) // And, via The Thin Man, a real taste of the Orient.

Naming the Devil

Tawfik Hamid ponders jihad and the perils of euphemism.   

Yes, the word “jihad” has several, including some peaceful, meanings - but that doesn’t change the fact that most authoritative Islamic texts and systems of jurisprudence maintain that its primary meaning is “warfare to subjugate the world to Islam”… And it is simply a fact that jihad, as taught by Sunni Islam’s four schools of jurisprudence, is either a war to defend Muslims or to impose Islam on non-Muslims. It may be uncomfortable to admit these facts - and doing so may run certain risks. But it is true, and the costs of ignoring reality are far higher than the benefits of glossing over it.

Not that this has prevented Islam’s hagiographer-in-chief, Karen Armstrong, from glossing furiously, with claims that, “jihad… for most Muslims, has no connection with violence,” and, “until recently, no Muslim thinker had ever claimed [violent jihad] was a central tenet of Islam.” By whitewashing the concept of jihad and its fundamental importance in Islamic history, apologists, moderate believers – and those to whom they appeal - are tactically wrong-footed. Moderation so conceived is essentially a sleight-of-hand, and, however well-intended, is at odds with history and Muhammad’s own exhortations to violence. It isn’t enough to pretend that jihad was originated and understood as something fluffy and benign. (In May 1994, when Yasser Arafat called for a “jihad to liberate Jerusalem,” it wasn’t entirely obvious how such a thing might be achieved by an inner spiritual struggle with no physical connotations.)

Hamid continues,

Islamists are not waiting for “infidel” Americans to define jihad for them; they defined it themselves, a very long time ago. If Muslim leaders wish to insist that the word refers primarily to a peaceful struggle against the self, they have that option. Let them clearly and publicly denounce the current doctrine and establish a new one. That’s the answer - not redefining reality… The movie The Usual Suspects may have put it best: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” One of the most devious tactics used by the Islamists is scaring their enemy out of speaking the plain truth about this virulent strain of Islam, for fear it might alienate or offend millions of moderate Muslims. But this ensures that no one will directly confront their violent ideologies and the books that contain them.

Revisionists like Armstrong would have their readers believe that jihadist ideology is an aberration of Islam, disconnected from the religion’s history and origins. But jihad - understood as aggressive warfare to advance the spread of Islam - is not some modern invention of bin Laden, or Sayyid Qutb, or al-Wahhab. It’s the invention of Muhammad and his immediate successors, and has been sacralised and codified by centuries of Islamic law. This is jihad as it appears in many Islamic schoolbooks. Mainstream commentaries on the Qur’an, including those by Ibn Kathir, explain in detail what constitutes “provocation” and thus justifies jihad. Kathir, like many others, defines as provocation pretty much anything that hinders the spread of Islam or contradicts its message. Thus, the threshold is so low - and so unilateral - as to enable the aggressor to cast himself as victim. This historical line of thinking explains in part the passive-aggressive tone so common to Islamist rhetoric. 

This accumulation of precedent and theology, and the sacralising of expansionist supremacism, cannot be wished away as some malicious fabrication. It has to be challenged head-on and, if possible, reformed. The theology of the past needn’t define a religion’s future; but it’s hard to see how a more functional form of Islam can be coaxed into existence on an institutional scale without a searching critique of its founder and his behaviour. This is the intimate flaw of Islam; the source of so much dysfunction and extraordinary insecurity. The founder of a religion, his example and the means by which he urged others to propagate the faith are not insignificant details. They influence laws, a worldview and the broader tenor of what follows. And when atrocity and intolerance can be traced back directly to Muhammad’s own deeds and purported revelations, dissonance and dishonesty may be difficult to avoid.

Elsewhere (3)

Keith Windshuttle on adversarial culture.   

The moral rationale of cultural relativism is a plea for tolerance and respect of other cultures, no matter how uncomfortable we might be with their beliefs and practices. However, there is one culture conspicuous by its absence from all this. The plea for acceptance and open-mindedness does not extend to Western culture itself, whose history is regarded as little more than a crime against the rest of humanity. The West cannot judge other cultures but must condemn its own.

Peter Risdon on the cruelty of Polly Toynbee.

One thing, and one thing only, keeps people trapped in the kind of poverty of mind where they don’t feed their children properly even when they could, and shit in their own stairwells. It’s a lack of ownership; a lack of self-reliance. It’s a lack of the very concept of self-reliance. It’s an idea that the mere thought that they should be self-reliant is immoral, evil, callous and cruel.

Elaine McArdle on men, women and work.

An important part of the explanation for the gender gap, they are finding, are the preferences of women themselves. When it comes to certain math- and science-related jobs, substantial numbers of women - highly qualified for the work - stay out of those careers because they would simply rather do something else. One study of information technology workers found that women’s own preferences are the single most important factor in that field’s dramatic gender imbalance. A certain amount of gender gap might be a natural artifact of a free society.

And, via Stephen Hicks, some heinous cultural imperialism

There are about 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S., more than the number of McDonald’s, Burger Kings, and KFCs combined. 

It’s oppression, I tell you.

The Thrill of Crayons

When called on to babysit, I’ve found it helpful, indeed necessary, to have a good supply of felt tips, paper and crayons. The crayons in particular evoke a certain nostalgia. Maybe it’s the pleasing feel of them, the spectrum of colours, or their distinctive, familiar smell.

Crayola_3 Crayola_2_2

Here are some things I didn’t know about them

In the last 98 years, more than 100 billion Crayola crayons have been made.


The average child in the United States will wear down 730 crayons by his 10th birthday. Kids, ages 2-8, spend an average of 28 minutes each day colouring. Combined, children in the US spend 6.3 billion hours colouring annually.


According to a Yale University study, the scent of Crayola crayons is among the 20 most recognisable to American adults. Coffee and peanut butter are 1 and 2.

An illustrated index of Crayola colours, in alphabetical and historical orders, can be found here. There is, of course, a Virtual Museum of Crayon Collecting, with a section devoted to Crayola products and a helpful essay on how to display your collection of crayon boxes. Some, like Pete Goldlust, prefer to carve their crayons.

See also: The Thrill of Pencils and The Thrill of Carpeting.

Sweet Moral Agonies

Writing on the Guardian’s eco-blog - titled, somewhat presumptuously, Ethical LivingAdharanand Finn touches on another great moral conundrum of our time. 

If you take a bicycle, one of the greenest forms of transport available, and put an electric motor on it, is it still green?

The answer, apparently, is yes.

In the battle to get commuters out of their cars, electric bikes are regularly cited as an eco-option, particularly for those who live too far away from work to cycle, or those with injuries or fitness problems, or those who are just too lazy to cycle. They also get rid of the excuse that you don’t cycle because you don't want to arrive at work dripping with sweat. One enthusiast even suggested to me that the energy saved by not showering cancels out the energy used to power the bike, making it just as green as regular cycling.

A comforting thought for our cyclist’s friends and colleagues. Sadly, Mr Finn’s 13-mile test ride didn’t go terribly well.

After a while, however, as the motor began to lose its charge, the bike began to struggle. Hills needed pedalling up, and were almost as much effort as on a normal bike - the now feeble pull of the motor being virtually cancelled out by the added weight of the bike. I wouldn’t want to get caught out and about with a flat battery. By the end I was sweating.

Which brings us to the thorny matter of deodorant and the agonies of making the most Gaia-friendly choice. Thankfully, there are numerous eco-conscious personal hygiene products to fret over, including hemp seed oil and, perhaps surprisingly, bicarbonate of soda, which is applied either by hand or with a brush and can be bought by the kilo. However, the most remarkable product is almost certainly Dr Mist, which “flushes out toxins” while healing minor flesh wounds and is described by its makers as “a concept to respect human self-esteem.”

Mr Finn has previously wrestled with the cultivation of a green CV and such pressing moral questions as Are Ceramic Cups Really More Ethical Than Disposables?

Youthful Indiscretions

As regular readers will know, the Guardian has long been a home to unpleasant political appetites and revolting apologia for murderous idealists of an approved political stripe. The most recent example, though by no means the most dramatic, comes from Peter Tatchell, who recalls, a little too fondly, his youthful romance with Maoism:

In response to the Australian media’s deranged and often racist anti-Chinese propaganda, a few of us organised a ‘Be Kind to Mao Month’, where we promoted the ‘good’ aspects of the red guards’ rebellion against what we saw as the privileged, arrogant and authoritarian communist elite in Beijing.

Over at the Joy of Curmudgeonry, Deogolwulf shares a few thoughts:

Now, I have little interest in what Mr Tatchell’s youthful sympathies were, or in what they are now, still less in what claims he might make for the purity of his intentions. Another political fantasist to add to the pile makes little difference. What interests me is how the ideal of communism has enjoyed so charmed a life in the West, eking out a fanciful existence in the heads of such men, wherein it has remained unsullied by the reality of its application or even of its theoretical expression…

But how is it that anyone can be so brazen as to claim compassion as the very basis of his politics, and yet not bother to find out whether those politics might actually be good for others? To advocate a scheme for the whole of society, and to have made little effort to find out what effects it might have, other than that it makes one feel warm inside, is not to show compassion for others, but rather to show passion for oneself. Here, ignorance may be a defence, though not of any claim to compassion.

Indeed. And there’s something almost surreal about one-time enthusiasts of a blueprint for violation and horror speaking of their former affiliations as if they were simply fashion gaffes or a taste for embarrassing pop music.

The whole thing.