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July 2008

The Moon, Remembered

Thanks to The Thin Man, here’s the 2007 documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon, in which the surviving Apollo crew members recount their remarkable, and at times moving, experiences. There’s previously unseen mission footage, an excellent score by Philip Sheppard, and keep an eye out for Kennedy’s extraordinary speech, about 13:20 in.

The film is also available in six parts here. Related: Freefall, Craters, Astronomical Odds

Ink and Privilege

Some time ago, I wrote

The more sceptical among us might suspect that the unintelligible nature of much postmodern ‘analysis’ is a convenient contrivance, if only because it’s difficult to determine exactly how wrong an unintelligible analysis is.

With that in mind, a reader, Todd Lemmon, has steered my attention to this post by Rick Hills on obscurantism and being “anti-intellectual”:

I am most certainly an anti-intellectual… Being anti-intellectual is not the same as being anti-intellect. My beef is with a particular social class - the “intelligentsia” - and not with the practice of using one’s intellect to reflect on experience. In my experience, intellectuals (as a class) are ideologically intolerant, easily offended by ordinary humour, and pretentious in their prejudices, which they disguise as universal truths. Moreover, I find a direct relationship between the academic obscurity of self-consciously “intellectual” writer’s prose and the willingness of that writer to justify the unjustifiable.

It takes the convoluted abstractions of a Carl Schmitt or a Heidegger to offer apologetics for Hitler; a Sartre, to temporize about Stalin; a Foucault, to defend Khomeini. In this respect, I stand with George Orwell who spent the 1930s and 1940s denouncing the obscurity of intellectuals’ prose as a cloak for tyranny (and, incidentally, who was also accused of being an anti-intellectual). Intellectuals spray polysyllables like squid ink, to evade the democratic decencies of conversation. I’d like not to be one of their number.

I am aware of, but never have been persuaded by, various efforts to justify the deliberate obscurity of intellectuals. Pierre Bourdieu, for instance, offered a defence of academic obscurity in the introduction to his book, Distinction. Alas, it was too obscure for me to understand. Instead, I tended to think that the rest of Bourdieu’s book provided a better account of the social function of academic obscurity: Obscurity is what Bourdieu dubs “cultural capital”. It is akin to knowing to wear white shoes only before Labour Day or which jazz CDs to play at a Upper West Side academic party - a sort of union card that one can flash for admission to a privileged class.

Judith Butler offered a defence of her obscurity in the New York Times, in which she argued that obscure prose was necessary to get outside of the oppression built into ordinary language. But she gave no examples of instances in which her prose served such a function, and I remain sceptical. Her standard argument that gender bias is built into language can, I think, be communicated effectively without the name-dropping and byzantine insider jokes that are (again, my view or prejudice) the hallmarks of Butler’s style. I tend to think that simple questions simply asked a la Socrates can unveil much more incoherence and oppression in ordinary social conventions that any numbers of references to “hegemonic discourses” and the rest.

The whole thing.

For more on Judith Butler, see here and the comments following this.

Related: Derrida imparts his wisdom. And, of course, the extraordinary Professor Caroline Guertin.

Gushing for Gotham

I wasn’t going to comment on Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which I saw over the weekend, but the level of cooing and gushing among reviewers has been so extraordinary a note of dissent seems in order. Having been led to expect a work of profound genius and “one of the year’s most haunting cinematic experiences,” I was puzzled to find a serviceable popcorn movie, albeit one with pretensions and a serious lack of focus. There are, of course, some great set pieces, most notably one involving cables, improbable physics and a somersaulting truck. And the scene with Heath Ledger’s Joker dressed as a nurse is, for several seconds, positively surreal. In fact, taken individually, there are plenty of fine components. But the overall impression is of Nolan shovelling in as many plots and themes as possible in the hope that some of them would resonate, by chance, apparently.

Joker2There’s the rise of Gotham’s shining prosecutor, Harvey Dent, whose subsequent moral corruption and reinvention as Two-Face is erratic and unbelievable even on its own terms, based as it is on the demise of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s underwritten love interest (about whom we scarcely care) and the implausible misplacing of blame. There are several subplots involving the mob’s money, ferryboats and bombs, high-tech surveillance, copycat vigilantes and the attempted blackmail of Bruce Wayne, though none of these asides amounts to very much. A third deranged villain, the Scarecrow, makes a brief appearance for no discernible reason, and then inexplicably vanishes from the plot. There are some nods to contemporary terrorism, rendition and torture, and the age-old question of how to fight evil without becoming a monster. But a refusal to follow through with most of these ideas leads to a glib ambiguity. Nolan seems determined to have it all ways, while committing to none in particular. Batman is supposedly a creature of great purpose, but his moral logic is often unclear and confused, as when he’s repeatedly told that by “provoking” terrorists he’s responsible for the deaths of innocents – a lie which he apparently believes. Thus, for much of the film, we have something close to a Guardian-reading Batman, which is hardly the stuff of heroism, or indeed gripping cinema.

That said, The Dark Knight is nothing if not busy, though it’s not always clear why. Even the repetitive fight scenes are framed so tightly and cut so quickly it’s difficult to tell who’s doing what to whom. There’s just lots of stuff… happening. And, after the first ninety minutes or so, the whole thing begins to lose focus badly and buckle under the weight of undeveloped ideas. With so much to plough through, there’s little room to establish the assumed poignancy on which the final act depends, which leaves the closing scenes oddly flat and undramatic. At the screening I attended, the last hour took its toll and glancing furtively at watches became an audience pastime. In an attempt to overwhelm the audience with sheer volume of characters and material (and a two-and-a-half-hour running time), Nolan fumbles the final payoff. Several reviewers have hailed the film as “primeval and exhilarating,” “the most intelligent blockbuster movie ever made,” and a dark epic that “leaves you wanting more.” But, for me, great films are the ones I want to see again. And I don’t want to see The Dark Knight again.

See Iron Man instead. Seriously. It’s funnier, better paced, and, mercifully, much shorter.

Bias Undetected

If you’ve followed the recent discussion about alleged “male privilege” and the “holding back” of women, this article by John Tierney may be of interest.

You’ll find sweeping assertions of discrimination in academia against female scientists if you read the executive summary of the National Academy of Sciences’ 2006 report, which was issued by a committee led by Donna Shalala. But if you look in the report for evidence of bias, you find studies showing that female graduate students in general (and those without children in particular) are as likely as men to finish their studies, and that they’re as likely to have mentors and assistantship support. According to the report, there were some differences in productivity — male graduate students published more than female students, and tenured male professors published about 8 percent more than female tenured professors — but when men and women were up for tenure, they received it at similar rates.

Tierney’s conclusion is that, contrary to some claims (and some dubious use of statistics), the data in question doesn’t actually demonstrate any widespread bias against women studying for Ph.D.s and faculty jobs. However,

[T]here are obstacles that keep women from wanting to study science in graduate school or pursue a career in academia… I suspect the chief one is the difficulty of balancing their careers with family responsibilities, particularly childrearing.

Which is, of course, a different issue.

What’s interesting is that Tierney still frames the question in terms of women being “underrepresented” in certain professions and areas of study. But this rather begs the question. How do we know that 1:1 gender parity is some natural, default state, from which any deviation must be construed as evidence of bias? On what basis – besides ideology – can we determine that there “ought” to be a particular ratio of male and female chemists, or mathematicians, or engineers? How can we assume that, were all cultural obstacles miraculously removed, men and women would be roughly equal in number in any given profession? Whether or not meritocratic selection has been achieved cannot be determined simply by whether or not gender parity results, since we have no solid basis on which to say that gender parity should be the meritocratic outcome.

Surely what matters is that suitably capable and motivated women who wish to become engineers, mathematicians or whatever can compete as fairly as possible? Whether that leads to a roughly 50/50 gender split in any given profession seems entirely beside the point. The gender bias, if any, of an academic department or a business cannot be determined by whether or not it employs an equal number of men and women in positions of comparable status. If there are other dispositional variables to consider, statistically, in who pursues a subject to advanced levels, or other factors regarding the availability of suitable female candidates or their persistence in the field, then a gender parity of employed engineers or mathematicians might just as plausibly indicate an anomaly, or a bias in favour of women. To assume that, magically stripped of all disagreeable influences, the male and female population “should” be perfectly symmetrical in interests, skills and dispositions is just that – an assumption. A prejudice, if you will.

And, following the logic of “representation,” couldn’t we also say that women are “underrepresented” in mining and construction, or in the military? Could similar claims be made regarding the “over-representation” of women in, say, healthcare or primary school teaching, or gay people in the arts?

Related. (h/t, The Thin Man.)

Friday Ephemera

Television without context. // 8mm cameras we have known and loved. // A $24,000 turntable. // Some jaunty speakers. // “I heard the pipes rumbling a bit, and suddenly hailstones the size of golf balls started exploding out of the toilet.” // Inside the Lego factory. // Unlikely office space. Shoreditch, East London. (h/t, Andy.) // Lunar transit of the Earth. // Hubblefest. // Brace for impact! Doin’ the spaceship shake. // “Manhattanhendge.” (h/t, Stephen Hicks.) // Typewriters of noted figures. // Detecting academic imposters. (h/t, Vitruvius.) // Extra tentacles. // Rendering things unseen: the flying spaghetti monster. (h/t, Dr Westerhaus.) // Fire hydrant collections. (h/t, Coudal.) // “How much tax would ‘the rich’ have to pay before it becomes fair?” // Myron Magnet on victimhood and responsibility: “It’s not what they’re doing to us. It’s what we’re not doing.” // Great moments in internet history. // Ryan. An animated short. (h/t, Drawn!) // And, via The Thin Man, Did You Ever…? (Unknown, 1933)

The Villagers are Revolting

At last. The Angry Mob Play Set.


Add some dramatic tension to your playtime. Each set includes nine 2” to 3” tall, hard vinyl villagers wielding a variety of weapons for them to wave menacingly at the object of their disdain. Great for intimidating your action figures and teaching children the concept of mob rule.

Only $15.95  (h/t, Tim239)

Being Reasonable

In today’s Guardian, Marcel Berlins ponders burglary, self-defence and being reasonable.

Many people hoping for an unrestricted green light to beat up or shoot their burglars or robbers, even unto death, will be disappointed. The new law turns out to be the old law, thinly disguised. Force against an intruder must not be excessive or disproportionate in the circumstances, says the new act. In other words, reasonable. The old law, too, is based on the concept of “reasonable force”. Indeed, the justice secretary, Jack Straw, explains the new law by referring to the right to use reasonable force. Moreover, the Ministry of Justice gives several real examples of cases in which - under the old law - defenders of their property were not prosecuted for injuring, or even killing their intruders. So, it seems, the law worked perfectly well in refusing to take any court action against victims who reacted violently when threatened by potentially dangerous intruders, and the new law doesn't seem to change anything...

Nor would the new law help anyone who, warned of a possible break-in, lies in wait and takes forceful action against the burglar. Such conduct has been premeditated. To avoid being prosecuted, it would have to be an instinctive reaction.

The problem, of course, is what constitutes reasonable force and who gets to decide. If you’re going to judge how others react in such a situation, and judge what is “reasonable,” you should first indulge in some pretty vivid empathy. Imagine you and your partner wake abruptly in the middle of the night. You hear a stranger moving about in the hallway outside your bedroom. Your newborn child is sleeping quietly, for once, in the room across the hall. There’s now an intruder between you and your child and his motives are unclear but certainly not benign. He’s obviously used force to break into your home at a time when you’re most vulnerable. It’s an act of premeditated violation and he may well use force again. Has he made these efforts in order to steal your property or to do you mortal harm? And, if interrupted, will the former involve the latter? What if your child wakes and starts crying?

Is it “reasonable” to assume that the intruder is merely a thief who doesn’t mind terrorising those whose homes he violates and whose property he steals, but isn’t prepared to do actual violence to his victims, even when cornered? And on what is that assumption based? Given the situation, and the fact your heart is pounding, do you really have the time and means to fathom the intruder’s motives and take them into account before acting – and acting without “excess”? Or do you use whatever force possible to disable the intruder before he can even think about harming you or your child? And what if the intruder is bigger and stronger than you? What if he’s armed with a knife or a gun? Are you going to wait to find out, dutifully bearing in mind the likelihood of subsequent legal disputation?

Wouldn’t it be wise to disable him as quickly as possible, by whatever means, rather than risk being at his mercy, along with the rest of your family? Doesn’t that most likely involve using as much force as can be mustered - say, with a decisive blow to the head using one of these - even if that risks the intruder’s death or serious, permanent injury? Is that “excessive or disproportionate” - or is it a basic moral imperative? And if the law doesn’t permit such things, and permit them unequivocally, don’t you have a right to be just a little “disappointed”? Don’t we want a world in which it’s the bad guys that are scared, and scared for very good reasons?

Elsewhere (4)

Mick Hartley on Freud, Marx and Hegel - and being antiquated. 

Freud didn’t cure anyone, or come to his conclusions through the hard work of trial and error. The analytic situation was merely the backdrop for what was really going on: myth-making on a grand scale… To use [Freud’s theorising] to explain Western literature, as generations of academics have done, following Freud’s example, is to hold up a mirror and believe you’re seeing through a window.

Thomas Sowell on some economic fallacies. (h/t, Lattenomics.) 

If it was really true that you could hire a woman for three quarters of what you could hire a man with exactly the same qualifications, then employers would be crazy not to hire all women. It would be insane to hire men. Not only would it be insane, it would probably put them out of the business because the ones that were smart enough to hire women would have such a cost advantage that it would be really hard for the others to compete.

Norman Geras on Seumas Milne’s latest apologia for Hamas.

Milne tactfully passes over what Hamas’s charter reveals about it: that it is a programmatically anti-Semitic organization which quotes from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and promises the killing of Jews. How is it thinkable that a Guardian journalist doesn’t notice this or, if he does, discounts it? It’s thinkable. In fact, it’s getting to be an old story. [There] was a time when it was kind of shocking.

Yet now it’s a routine pathology among a large part of the left, perhaps the larger part, and its mainstream British publication.

Friday Ephemera

Woody Allen interviews Billy Graham. // NASA wants your urine. For the toilets of tomorrow. // Wine in a can. // Toys for cats. // Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes. Part 2, 3, 4, 5. // Stephen Salmieri’s photographs of cadillacs. (h/t, Coudal.) // Build your own giant cardboard Ghandi. // 100 ways to draw manga eyes. // “My boots are all sticky.” // Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along. It’s tough being evil. // The Victim Privilege Checklist. (h/t, Anna.) // Communist Loser: James Kirchick on the delusional Eric Hobsbawm. // Cultural imperialism! // Latte art and assorted cakes. More. // The German Hosiery Museum. // World’s largest subwoofer. (h/t, Chastity Darling.) // Colour flipbook. // 696 book covers. // San Francisco panorama. // Skyscraper earthquake dampening. A 728-ton sphere should do it. // Dismantling old buildings, from the bottom up. // Ship graveyard. (h/t, Tim239.) // Steve Reich: Piano Phase. // And, via The Thin Man, it’s Ms Ethel Waters.

Comedy of Manners

Thank God for the Guardian. No, really. I mean, where else would you turn to find a socialist named Jemima lecturing us on snobbery and the evils of the word “chav”? Yesterday, Tom Hampson and Jemima Olchawski, both pillars of the Fabian Society, urged Guardian readers to fret about their language:

We have to stop using the word “chav”… It is deeply offensive to a largely voiceless group and - especially when used in normal middle-class conversation or on national TV - it betrays a deep and revealing level of class hatred.

It’s interesting to note how readily vulnerability is assigned to “a largely voiceless group” that isn’t actually defined anywhere in the article. Apparently, it’s no longer necessary to specify who or what is vulnerable, or how; one can merely assert that something, somewhere is. But which “group” are we talking about? Poor people? Criminals? Antisocial youths? Or some subset thereof? 

We have heard it increasingly used in conversation over the last year, invariably to casually describe people “not like us” and very often used by people who are otherwise rather progressive in their politics.

Doesn’t that say something about the company being kept by the scrupulously leftwing authors, rather than, necessarily, the population as a whole?

You cannot consider yourself of the left and use the word. It is sneering and patronising

And that would be unheard of. Especially among those who hold in such esteem that thing called “middle England”.

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