Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for October 22nd, 2010

Movies = Soma

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I was suddenly struck by the modern-day ubiquity of movies (and TV entertainment): I was streaming a Netflix movie, could rent from Amazon, and then recalled that Netflix movies can be watched on your computer and they are making sure that you can also watch movies on the iPad and your smartphone—because you always have your phone with you, so visual entertainment (TV and movies and YouTube and whatever) is always immediately available, 24/7.

Doesn’t that sound like a soma addiction? And indeed isn’t the World State’s constant reinforcement of consumption just the message of our society? And why are we having all these wars? and building permanent bases in more and more countries? And what is so dangerous about delving into what our government has done in the War on Terror? And why does the US still torture and maintain secret prisons?

It occurred to me that visual entertainment is a very important way to distract the public (ourselves): a distraction not forced on us by corporate overlords, but distraction that we demand so that we can avoid looking at the world and what it is becoming.

In a word: soma.

(I trust that it’s obvious I’m referring to the novel Brave New World, a novel that every educated person has read at least once. It was, BTW, published 16 years before the novel 1984, another novel that every educated person has read at least once. Another such novel? Animal Farm. Who am I to tell you this? A wise old man.)

UPDATE: Although I above attribute the movement toward distraction as voluntary, politicians well understand that it’s much easier to control and govern if the populace is in a trance—and, of course, the easiest trance to induce is fear: a constant state of fear and anxiety, most easily attributed to an enemy trying to destroy us all, an enemy who is here, there, might be anywhere. Look fearfully at your fellows. Etc. And it works.

By writing “politicians,” I don’t mean to let business off the hook: businessmen are politicians of a sort, and (for example) IBM’s FUD strategy (later emulated by Microsoft) to derail competitors was an important (and frequently practiced) part of the corporate weaponry.

UPDATE 2: I lived in a time when some bars (a bar in Iowa City ca. 1964, some bars in and around Cleveland ca 1963, the Little Campus in Annapolis in my college years) sensibly kept TVs out. Those were a treat. They sometimes had a radio going, but they kept it low on a local station or, during the World Series, on a ball game. That was all talk—and talk, after all, is the point of such bars. Talk in which you participate either as one involved in a discussion or dialogue or as a member of the audience for the discussion carried on by regulars—especially once you got to know the various regulars and their personalities and positions (at which point you were pretty much a regular yourself). Admittedly, enjoying the conversation of others smacks of eavesdroppery, but not when the discussion is general.

As I think about it, it’s not the sound from the TV that’s so disturbing (though it is, with its own strange rhythms and pauses and interruptions). It’s sound that’s matched or mismatched to moving images of people—i.e., members of our species, which we find intrinsically and immediately interesting. This alertness to others—particularly to the actions of strangers—doubtless evolved for sound reasons in social species. Even with the sound off, the TV’s depiction of people in motion and the body language accompanying their interchanges compel our attention: it’s hard to look away.

But in bars nowadays, people more or less demand their TV, so much so that every seat must have a clear view of a screen. Same with airports: TVs are ubiquitous in the waiting areas. Soma: available at all times. People must not look directly at the world, they must be guided. Otherwise they might start asking questions. As, in an airport, why are we surrounded by ill-tempered armed guards and TSA agents who can have us arrested if we object too strongly to our treatment. (Interesting example recounted here.) It’s as though they are always ready to put down an uprising, isn’t it?

OTOH, what I have described as an addiction to soma can also be viewed as the evolved result of millions and millions of generations of memes competing for mindspace. Think of how many hundreds—nay, thousands—of generations of memes that we individually exercise in a day: all the little replications of, and participations in, human culture that we given mindspace to each day. Most instances are simple replications: a new generation, as it were, with minor variations, rarely a successful mutant meme (some new idea or combination that seizes some mindspace).

What we have now are the memes that succeeded better than all their predecessors in seizing and holding mindspace. So naturally these highly evolved and successful memes seize our attention and keep it. Probably the development of replicating moving visual images (first cinema, then TV, and now Internet-delivered streaming content to our iPads and smartphones) was a major step. Certainly the moving, talking image meme has expanded greatly and does indeed grab people’s mindspace (attention) and won’t let go.

These memes can be seen as keeping us from looking directly at what is actually happening to our society and our world, or perhaps they help us avoid looking directly at what is actually happening. In either case, we are distracted and become an easily controlled and manipulated populace, perpetually in a voluntary trance.

As Nick points out in comments, reality will eventually rip through the fabric of our fantasy and break the trance—global warming will eventually do that, or when the resource wars get serious with food as the main focus. In the meantime, we are soma-nation.

UPDATE 3: It just occurred to me that the above is one of the themes of the movie/play My Dinner With Andre—and, really, if you’ve not seen that recently, you should watch it again. I’m watching it again now, in fact, along with the DVD of Bonus Features, something I seldom do. In that play/movie—and it’s definitely theater—one issue is whether art can be written to force people awake, as it were, to confront actual reality. It’s interesting how they do that. Watch and discuss.

UPDATE 4: I’m just finishing rewatching My Dinner With Andre (highly recommended, but you probably picked up on that already) and an amazing amount of this post is more or less directly from the dinner conversation. I must have absorbed  that deeper than I realized. I put my own spin on it by bringing in memetics, which seems quite clearly to apply. And, of course, the conversation/play covers much more than this post. The differences are interesting (at least to me): it’s like some sort of functional transformation.

Also, a (highly recommended) book that seems directly relevant to the movie: Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder. Absolutely fascinating. The book is pure text, so it’s quite Kindle-friendly—in fact, that’s where I read it.

UPDATE 5: I believe that what they discuss at the end of the conversation—the difficulty (both) and importance (Andre) of having a direct encounter with reality—corresponds in other terms (the transformation thing again) to a meme-free encounter with our surroundings and sensorium. Extraordinarily difficult for an adult to attain, I imagine, but undoubtedly a terrific impact if you could do it—and the experience would, I think, resonate with one’s first encounter with outside reality—-when born: mind freed of all memes. But wouldn’t the result be that, with no memes to categorize or interpret what is being sensed, just the raw data rushing in: it might be hard to handle.

Written by Leisureguy

22 October 2010 at 6:11 pm

Obama on human rights

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Not his words, his actions (which speak much louder and more truthfully than his words). Scott Horton at the Atlantic reports:

In a new report (PDF) by the Open Society Institute, human-rights researcher Jonathan Horowitz contrasts the official prison system that the Pentagon has constructed in Afghanistan—where they often arrange press briefings and invite journalists on tours—with the super-secret facility run on the periphery of Bagram Air Base, the “Tor” or “Black Jail.”

[M]edia outlets in late 2009 and 2010 reported allegations of detainee abuse at a smaller facility on Bagram Air Base which Afghans refer to as the “Tor Jail” or “Black Jail” that is physically distinct from DFIP or the BTIF. (“Tor” is Pashtu for “black”). These reports included accusations of sleep deprivation, holding detainees in cold cells, forced nudity, physical abuse, detaining individuals in isolation cells for longer than 30 days, and restricting the access of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)—all of which raise serious concerns about U.S. compliance with domestic and international rules on detainee treatment. Media reports and commentators have described the facility as associated with Joint Special Operations Command, under the command of Vice Admiral William H. McRaven, and Defense Intelligence Agency agents from the Defense Counterintelligence and Human Intelligence Center.

The Horowitz report summarizes interviews with 18 prisoners held at the Tor Jail, half of whom were prisoners during the Obama Administration. They report a consistent pattern of abuse:

• Exposure to excessive cold
• Exposure to excessive light
• Inappropriate and inadequate food
• Inadequate bedding and blanketing
• Disorientation and lack of natural light
• Sleep deprivation due to an accumulation of circumstances
• Denial of religious duties
• Lack of physical exercise
• Nudity upon arrival
• Detrimental impact from an accumulation of confinement conditions
• Facility rules and relevant Geneva Conventions rules/rights not posted
• Lack of transparency and denial of International Committee of the Red Cross access to detainees

Many of these practices cannot be reconciled with Field Manual 2-22.3 (PDF), which provides the Army’s rules for detention conditions, including those connected with human intelligence gathering. As the Horowitz report notes, some of the practices appear to be forbidden even under the special circumstances of the manual’s Appendix M.

How does the Defense Department react to the report? “The Department of Defense does not operate any ’secret prisons,’” said Capt. Pamela Kunze, noting that while the locations of some screening facilities are classified, both the Afghan government and the Red Cross are informed about the sites. “Our field detention sites are all consistent with international and U.S. law and (Defense Department) policy, including Common Article III of the Geneva Conventions, the Detainee Treatment Act, the (Defense Department) Detainee Directive and the Army Field Manual,” she added.

Obviously the Tor Jail is no longer secret—the Horowitz report and earlier media accounts have blown its cover. Moreover, Defense Department spokesmen have consistently played semantic games in evading discussion of it. For instance, they send out spokesmen from the Task Force that operates detentions facilities in Afghanistan to insist that there is no such facility under their command. And indeed there isn’t. Similarly, spokesmen for JSOC have been heard to vigorously deny that the entity has any detentions operations, because the Tor Jail and similar arrangements are apparently categorized as filtration or intelligence gathering centers rather than detention centers. The Gates Pentagon insists that no one is held for more than fourteen days in such facilities, a claim which doesn’t always tally with the first-hand reports of released prisoners.

The Horowitz report collects and corroborates earlier media accounts concerning the Tor Jail, and it helps establish that the Obama Administration brought change to the formal, public detentions policy while continuing the abusive secret operations of JSOC and the DIA. The showcase detentions system does generally seem to operate in compliance with the Pentagon’s written guidelines, U.S. law, and international standards, but the secret system operated by JSOC and DIA is at best within hailing distance of legality, applying strained interpretations or even having license to disregard the written rules. In the end, the mere existence of a secret prison system is further proof that the Obama White House made some disturbing exceptions to its commitment to curb abuses in the detentions regime.

And, of course, this sort of torture is done to suspects, and (often enough) to innocent bystanders or people the US kidnapped by mistake. The Obama Administration is currently involved in a fervent defense of Ashcroft for having authorized this sort of treatment to a US citizen who was just a material witness, for the love of God—and he in fact had witnessed nothing—except, of course, how he was treated. But Obama says that’s fine. Got to expect that in the World’s Greatest Democracy™.

I found it particularly rich that Obama asked the military to observe the Convention Against Torture when he flouts it by refusing to investigate possible instances of torture and war crimes: "We must look forward, not back—except, of course, we look back for people who expose government waste, fraud, and corruption and go after them with the full force of the law."

Obama is despicable. Better than John McCain, who’s both despicable and worthless, so I stand by my vote. But I sure condemn Obama’s actions.

Written by Leisureguy

22 October 2010 at 4:11 pm

Butternut Squash with Walnuts and Vanilla

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This looks wonderful:

butternut-squash-walnuts-vanilla

I’ll make it with pignolas, which I have on hand. Here’s the recipe. List of ingredients:

  • 1 butternut squash, about 2 pounds, peeled, seeds removed, flesh cut into 1-inch cubes (see how to cut and peel a butternut squash)
  • 3 bay leaves (if boiling the squash)
  • Salt
  • 1 heaping cup of walnuts (can substitute pecans or pine nuts)
  • 2-3 Tbsp butter
  • 2 teaspoons grated ginger
  • 1-2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • Lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • Black pepper to taste

I won’t be peeling—the peel softens as you roast, so why bother? And, as the question implies, I shall indeed be roasting—why throw out all the water-soluble vitamins?

Written by Leisureguy

22 October 2010 at 4:02 pm

We pay Senators WAY too much

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Even though what we pay them is dwarfed by the amount of money large corporations press into their willing hands. An unsurprising headline:

Senate sitting on 420 bills passed by House

The Senate sees its true task as amassing large amounts of money for Senators, and passing legislation simply gets in the way. That’s why they have an infinite number of ways to block legislation, I imagine. Alex Pareene reports at Salon:

Back in February, House leadership counted 290 bills that the House passed that the Senate had not yet taken up. That was months ago, so the Senate surely made a dent in that number, right? Eh, not so much. The new numbers are in, and the tally of bills stalled in the World’s Most Deliberative Body now stands at 420. According to The Hill, the gap grew by 48 bills during the three weeks Congress was in session in September.

As always, some of this is post office-naming. And some of it is food safety, and energy, and other things that might be nice for the country.

Senate procedural reform should probably be the number one progressive priority, considering that the Senate is what is standing in the way of most other big domestic progressive goals (softening the blow of years of far-right Republican judicial appointments, appointing liberals to the Fed, fixing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, etc.) — but I’m not holding my breath.

Although, who knows! Maybe a bunch of nutty tea partiers will get elected and chafe against the chummy traditions of our nation’s House of Lords. Or, more likely, they’ll be thrilled to discover that the rules allow one crank to essentially shut down the entire legislative process.

Written by Leisureguy

22 October 2010 at 2:42 pm

Posted in Congress, Daily life

Obama Administration: Open? No. Transparent? No. Secret backroom deals with big business? Yes.

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Much like the Bush Administration in that way—as in Obama’s (and Bush’s) contemptible attitude toward civil rights and justice under law. Renee Schoof and Margaret Talev report for McClatchy:

Government scientists wanted to tell Americans early on how bad the BP oil spill could get, but the White House denied their request to make the worst-case models public, a report by the staff of the national panel investigating the spill said Wednesday.

White House officials denied that they tried to suppress the information. [So they lie—it seems more or less constantly—as well as keep information from the public. What a bunch of shitheels! – LG]

The allegation was made by unnamed government officials cited in a staff working paper released Wednesday by the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. Although not a final report, it could raise questions over whether the Obama administration tried to minimize the extent of the BP oil spill, the worst man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history.

The staff paper said that underestimating the flow rates "undermined public confidence in the federal government’s response" by creating the impression that the government was either incompetent or untrustworthy. The paper said that the loss of trust "fuels public fears."

In a separate report, the commission’s staff concluded that despite the Coast Guard’s insistence that it was always responding to the worst case scenario, the failure to have an accurate flow rate slowed the response and lulled Obama administration officials into a false belief that the spill would be controlled easily.

The first report said that the "decision to withhold worst-case discharge figures" may have been made at a high level. It said that in late April or early May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration "wanted to make public some of its long-term, worst-case discharge models for the Deepwater Horizon spill, and requested approval to do so from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. Staff was told that the Office of Management and Budget denied NOAA’s request."

A joint statement from OMB and NOAA released Wednesday said that OMB had been tapped "to coordinate and review all interagency materials developed in response to the BP oil spill."

OMB spokesman Kenneth Baer said that the discussions between OMB and NOAA weren’t focused on the flow rate, but dealt more broadly with NOAA’s modeling for the spill’s long-term shoreline impact. Baer said that OMB made no attempt to shield the public from the worst-case flow rate scenario.

"The issue was the modeling, the science and the assumptions they were using to come up with their analysis. Not public relations or presentation. We offered them suggestions of ways to improve it and they happily accepted it," Baer said.

However, the oil flow rate was part of those models…

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

22 October 2010 at 2:33 pm

What happened to the public option?

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Obama gave it away—to please health insurance companies. Obama, always looking out for big business. Details here. And another report. That second report begins:

Tom Daschle’s admission that the public option was tossed in a deal with the hospital industry may come as news to a lot of people, if it gets wide attention. It’s significant that Daschle tried to clarify his statement to Igor Volsky at The Wonk Room, even though his book contains the same information:

In his book, Daschle reveals that after the Senate Finance Committee and the White House convinced hospitals to accept $155 billion in payment reductions over ten years on July 8, the hospitals and Democrats operated under two “working assumptions.” “One was that the Senate would aim for health coverage of at least 94 percent of Americans,” Daschle writes. “The other was that it would contain no public health plan,” which would have reimbursed hospitals at a lower rate than private insurers.

In addition, this acknowledgement lines up perfectly with the admittedly scant public record we have on the subject. Miles Mogulescu pursued this story at the Huffington Post for months, and Ed Schultz got an on-the-record confirmation from a reporter at the New York Times...

Read them both. Obama may indeed have had to bargain away the public option—who will ever know—but lying about it, keeping it secret ("transparency"? Ha.), and in general showing bad faith to those who voted for him under the impression that he honored his promises: that is contemptible.

Written by Leisureguy

22 October 2010 at 2:28 pm

E-ZPass saves lives

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I’m proud that my kids use E-Z Pass. Kevin Drum at Mother Jones:

blog_birthweight_ezpass

How dangerous is it to live near areas of heavy traffic congestion? Janet Currie and Reed Walker of Columbia University have done a clever study to try to get a handle on this. They took a look at the incidence of low birthweight in babies born to mothers who lived near busy toll plazas before and after E-ZPass was introduced. Their idea was that E-ZPass reduced congestion, and therefore mothers living near toll plazas ought to benefit from it. And they did:

We find that reductions in traffic congestion generated by E-ZPass reduced the incidence of prematurity and low birth weight among mothers within 2km of a toll plaza by 6.7-9.1% and 8.5-11.3% respectively, with larger effects for African-Americans, smokers, and those very close to toll plazas….The results suggest that traffic congestion is a significant contributor to poor health in affected infants.

As you can see from the chart, E-ZPass reduced the incidence of low birthweights by half for mother who lived within a couple hundred yards of a toll plaza. The effect decreased with distance, and at about a kilometer out the effect went away, presumably washed out by the ordinary background traffic congestion in the area. Results are similar for premature births. The public policy conclusions are a little unclear here, aside from the fact that E-ZPass is good and breathing auto fumes is bad, but it’s useful to put a number to this stuff.

Written by Leisureguy

22 October 2010 at 2:22 pm

The Mother of All Funk Chords

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Here’s the video:

Now read how it was constructed from randomly selected YouTube music videos.

Written by Leisureguy

22 October 2010 at 2:18 pm

Ladies and gentlemen, Art Tatum!

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Actually, I can play piano like that. Sitting down, I mean. The finger movements: those I can’t do. Few can.

For an entire sequence of Art Tatum videos, beginning with the above, go here.

Written by Leisureguy

22 October 2010 at 10:14 am

Posted in Jazz, Video

Sick call

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Still have the cold, but my voice is marginally better. I took the first six 4-mg tablets of Methylprednisolone this morning, with breakfast (as instructed). This is the first direct assault on my plugged-up ear and I’m hoping it will quickly be successful. I did sleep well, and will probably have another nap this afternoon.

Megs seems very pleased that I’m home. She is getting into my lap in the afternoons for a good squishing, purring like an outboard motor the entire time. When I finally stop, she settles down and sleeps (as do I). At night, she’s sleeping on my hip and occasionally waking me to get a belly rub.

Written by Leisureguy

22 October 2010 at 9:20 am

Posted in Daily life, Medical, Megs

New brush and new soap

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This morning’s shaving tools as shown. On the left is the Shea Moisture shaving brush, discovered from the UK and routinely sold in Target stores for $8. Badger, and not a bad beginner brush at all. It’s a bit more prickly than a silvertip, but not unpleasantly so.

The soap is made by The Gentleman’s Groom Room and is titled “Traditional Shaving Soap/Essence of Scotland/Sweet Gale.” The label also advises “Enriched & Fragranced with Bog Myrtle, Natural Honey, Mixed Spices, Cedarwood and Aberfeldy Single-Malt Scotch Whisky.” It provided a good lather, though I could not myself detect all those fragrances. This was a sample from Razor Emporium enclosed with my most recent batch of plated razors.

And the razor itself: a Gillette slim-handle adjustable plated now in rhodium. It gave a wonderful shave, set on 5 with a new Schick Platinum blade: three passes to perfection.

A splash of Floïd and I’m ready to go.

Here’s a look at how the brush appears on the shelf at Target:

Written by Leisureguy

22 October 2010 at 9:09 am

Posted in Shaving

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