They insult because they care
January 31, 2008, 1:40 am
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Hit and Run links to news about a Three Little Pigs story being denied an award in the UK “as the subject matter could offend Muslims”. There is something very patronizing about a bunch of (presumably) white, (presumably) self-described ‘progressives’ sitting around and deciding what Muslims “could” be offended by.

Is there any actual evidence that any significant number of non-insane Muslims are offended by children’s stories that feature pigs as characters?

Not only is it patronizing, it’s insulting. The people who made this decision are saying, in effect, that they believe Muslims are so irrational and idiotic as to be “offended” by the mere existence of a story in which there is a pig.

The Muslim faith, like the Jewish faith, features a prohibition on eating pigs. I really don’t know where everyone gets this bizarre extrapolation that it likewise commands Muslims to pretend that pigs don’t exist. But it’s striking just how a supposedly ‘progressive’ viewpoint can have such demeaning ramifications. Let’s do a thought experiment: if someone assumes that, say, a picture of Porky Pig or Piglet or Babe will “offend Muslims”, and I don’t assume it will “offend Muslims”, who is respecting Muslims more? Who is giving the average Muslim the benefit of the doubt that, absent evidence to the contrary, they are sane and rational and tolerant and won’t fly into a homicidal rage at the existence of a cartoon pig somewhere? The answer should be pretty obvious but, ironically I suppose, ‘progressives’ keep picking the side of insult and stereotype, patronization and infantilization. Like a doting mother who declares that her 17-year-old son needs a night light because he’s afraid of the dark. Is this really showing respect, or something else?

This all comes on the heels of the British government decision to refer to Islamic terrorism as ‘anti-Islamic activity’. Again, there is something very patronizing and insulting at work here. While in this case the motives are at least decent and understandable (if wrongheaded), the problem here should be obvious to anyone who gives it a moment’s thought: Just who exactly is the government of England to declare which activities are “Islamic” and which aren’t? Has the government of England appointed itself the head of all Islam?

Suppose an Islamic terrorist is captured in the UK and charged with this, er, “anti-Islamic activity”. How does the interrogation go?

UK: “Why did you do it?”

Prisoner: “I was merely carrying out my understanding of the tenets of Islam, to fight the infidels.”

UK: “But you committed terrorism, and that’s not Islamic. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said so.”

Prisoner: “But yes it is. I think it is.”

UK: “No, it’s not. We have decided that it’s not, and that’s that.”

Prisoner: “But you are wrong. It is.”

UK: “No, it’s not.”

Prisoner: “Yes it is.”

Et cetera.

Who’s going to win this argument? The guy who’s actually a Muslim, believes Islam commands him to commit terrorism, and is obviously prepared to act on that belief….or the government of England with all their swell intentions?

The fact that UK Home Secretary Jacqui Smith somehow implicitly assumes she would win this argument – because she’s the UK Home Secretary and thus all Muslims are beholden to her declarations on Islam? – is, among other things, the height of arrogance and naivete. But it also illustrates how easily ‘progressive’ impulses, even decently-motivated ones, can morph into self-deception and solipsism. Jacqui Smith may think that terrorism is “anti-Islamic”, but there are plenty of young angry Muslims in the world who think otherwise – and, of course, that’s the problem. How does ignoring that problem or re-labeling it help anything?

What’s the logical endpoint of this idiocy? Will the UK find itself issuing more official declarations of what is and isn’t “Islamic”? Will the UK set up an office of ‘Royal Imam’? Will Parliament carry out votes and issue regular proclamations on what’s “Islamic”, what true Muslims should and shouldn’t do, should and shouldn’t be offended by, etc.? I don’t see what’s to stop it. In fact, logically, I don’t see how it can be avoided. They are going to have to if they are to remain consistent.

Small universes
January 30, 2008, 3:41 am
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I finally got around to watching through the most recent season of Battlestar Galactica, and am very disappointed by where it has ended up. I’m trying to understand why it bothers me so much. Spoilers coming.

The big finale last year revealed that, in some sense, four of the Galactica characters were in fact secretly “Cylons” and didn’t know it. This instantly made the Galactica universe… smaller. For much of the season we knew that there was going to be a big reveal of who the “final five” Cylon-humans were. The “five” appeared in visions and dreams and were shrouded in mystery. Even the other Cylon-humans didn’t seem to know much about them. Apparently their identity was supposed to be some sort of big deal to us.

But it turns out that four of the “final five” Cylons are just a hodgepodge of characters we already knew: Tigh the second in command, the President’s PR advisor, a former pro athlete who married Starbuck, and the chief engineer on the flight deck. Whaddya know, turns out this random mixture of characters are Cylons. “And always have been”, as Chief Tyrol so unnecessarily puts it in the big reveal scene. There are strong hints that the “fifth” will be Starbuck. So instead of five additional mysterious characters to meet and learn about, we have zero new characters. Just the same old set of characters with a new set of problems.

This sort of thing is pretty common on TV shows, but it seems to me that it’s especially egregious to do it in science fiction. Science fiction is all about learning about a new, expansive, and speculative universe. That’s the whole point. Resorting to soap-opera plotlines such as A turning out to be B, C turning out to be D’s father, etc., etc., just seems to defeat the purpose. The notion that we are learning about a complete, self-contained, and fully-populated universe is completely undermined when you make too many spurious and implausible connections. This is also part of what went wrong with the Star Wars prequels: turns out Anakin made C-3PO! turns out R2-D2 belonged to Luke & Leia’s mom! turns out Chewbacca had met Yoda and sent him off to Dagobah before pairing up with Han Solo! Enough of these and pretty soon your previously-fascinating, speculative universe starts to feel pretty cramped.

Not surprisingly, making these connections – since it’s usually done as a cheap dramatic stunt rather than because of internal story logic – also risks stretching the credulity of the audience beyond the breaking point. Contradictions are inevitable and the implausibility factor intrudes on the (rather high amount of) suspension of disbelief necessary for sci-fi. In the case of Galactica, it’s a bit hard to explain how these ‘four’ all happened to survive the holocaust. I mean, out of however-many trillions of people, some 50k survived, and at least four of them were the ‘final five’ Cylons? What are the odds? (We see no evidence that there are multiple models of these people, as with Boomer/Athena, etc.)

It’s even harder to explain why these relatively unimportant characters should turn out to be so important. I mean, being one of the ‘final five’ Cylons is pretty darn important. Such people should be important both in Cylon schemes and in human society. But who are these four?

  • Tigh is a drunkard whose career was basically over before Adama tapped him for the job on Galactica – which, of course, was not a plum job at all; Galactica was a relic. He’s lucky to even have a job instead of spending his days in a bar. But he’s one of the final five Cylons.
  • Tory (President’s PR flunky) – well actually we have no idea what she was doing for the first two seasons. Evidently she survived the attack & escaped on a civilian ship, but she had no important position until the previous PR flunky Billy was killed & Tory got promoted. If Billy hadn’t been killed, Tory would still be an obscure civilian somewhere in the fleet. But she’s one of the final five Cylons.
  • Tyrol, the chief engineer, is just…well, the chief engineer on a not-very-advanced battlestar. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not exactly the most prominent thing in the world. But he’s one of the final five Cylons.
  • Anders – Starbuck’s widower and ex-pro athlete – is on Galactica only as a result of a miraculous and coincidental chain of events. It’s a miracle he even survived the attack, it’s a miracle he didn’t die while fighting Cylons on Caprica, then Starbuck just happened to go back and meet him and fall in love with him, which meant she would return for him. Had just one of those coincidental things not happened he would probably be dead; surely he wouldn’t be on Galactica. But he’s one of the final five Cylons.

Why did the Cylons plant these people, in particular, in human society? Or (if this is a better way to ask it), why were these important Cylon plants in such obscure and unimpressive roles? If the ‘final five’ are so important how could their very survival and presence amongst the human fleet have been allowed to hang on so many threads?

Maybe some of these will be explained next season. More likely, the explanations will only raise new questions. Apologists can of course explain away all of my concerns by saying it was “fate” that these four would survive, end up on Galactica, etc.

But sometimes “fate” is just another term for lazy writing and cheap stunts.

Too many
January 29, 2008, 2:16 am
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Yesterday, out with my 3-year-old M., and she wanted something to drink. I stopped at a Starbuck’s but took one look at the long line and lack of free tables and decided against it. We moved on to look for a different cafe or deli. “There’s too many people in there”, I said.

As we crossed a street a block or down further down, a huge flock of birds flew overhead. “Whoa!”, she said.

Later it came up in conversation whether she liked being in New York (we’ve recently moved here).

“Yes, but there’s too many birds in New York.”

Gummy hell
January 28, 2008, 3:23 am
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seen on digg

People make me tired
January 27, 2008, 9:40 pm
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One of my big problems is that I don’t talk to people. Okay, that’s not entirely true. I talk to some people, of course. But not enough, and not sufficiently often.

I am an introvert. Jonathan Rauch wrote a brilliant column several years ago about introverts. I always knew these things about myself but until I read that column I had never seen my particular situation characterized so accurately. Anyone who is not sure they understand introversion ought to go read that column.

The shortest way to explain the (affliction? trait?) is to say that people make me tired. When I was a kid and would get home from school, my mom would ask me how my day went, what I learned, etc., and I literally could not put more than a few words together in response to her. Most often I would say “I don’t remember”; I did, of course, remember but it would have taken serious mental effort to recount the day’s events and so I didn’t want to. Perhaps I’d retreat to my room to put on some records. This frustrated her to no end and from time to time she would complain that I didn’t “open up” enough but in retrospect the truth was that I was simply tired from spending however-many consecutive hours in the presence of other people and I needed some time alone to recuperate, in an almost tangibly physical sense.

For me, being around people is like acting. It is being on stage. Continuously, with no breaks or intermissions. When I’m around others I am super-conscious of everyone around me and their eyes upon me (when they are), listening to what they say and reading their body language, and I am on my guard. Surely you can understand how this can be tiring? It is certainly not relaxing.

Ironically, I spent several semesters in grad school as a TA – teaching small sections of 20-30 students. And “it’s like acting” is precisely how I always characterized it. And yes, it was extremely tiring. Maybe it’s not all that ironic to have gravitated to such a role. Some people say that actors themselves are often introverts and suffer from similar feelings.

By the way, one of the reasons I believe people are so tiring to me and, perhaps, people like me is that – I believe – I pick up on others’ feelings very easily. Rauch talks about introverts getting a lot of input from other people. Yes. The input is always coming in, and I’m processing it. So if I’m in a group of people, and one person’s unhappy, I might be the one who picks up on it. If someone’s rude to the waitress and she walks away scowling, I might be the only one to notice it and feel bad. If I’m in a crowded supermarket I know whether I’m likely to be obstructing someone.

I am the opposite of oblivious to other people in this regard. And that is because my brain is on such high alert around other people. And that is tiring.

So, as a result, I act introverted. In one-on-one conversations I’m fine but in a group I might clam up. With so many people around it’s “hard” to think of something to say, calibrate my statements, and pay attention to how others are reacting, all at the same time. So, more often than not, I just don’t. At parties I stand to the side. At “social” events, say a work-related wine and cheese social or something, I am completely hopeless: the socializing part seems like so much effort that I invariably think “why bother?”, grab my stuff, and go somewhere quiet to relax. Or home.

The reason I bring all this up is that, while I’ve generally achieved some good things in spite of my introverted nature – a wife, beautiful children, good education, decent job – it is starting to cause me real problems career-wise.

For I have, somewhat haphazardly, found myself in a job where introversion is going to be a career-killer, and it’s frustrating and depressing. The fact that I don’t “talk to” people (other than one-on-one, or if I already know them, etc.) isn’t just some cute quirk, it has and will continue to have real negative effects. But I don’t know what to do about it.

I’m pretty sure that blogging about it isn’t the solution, but at least it can’t hurt, I don’t think.

Anyway, that’s one of my problems.

Because a creepy man broke into her bedroom?
January 27, 2008, 7:48 pm
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“Why Doesn’t Cathy Eat Breakfast”, via Dr. Frank:

The mind boggles. I do kinda like the groovy music, though.

Heath Ledger
January 27, 2008, 3:12 am
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Like everyone else I was shocked and saddened to hear of the untimely passing of Heath Ledger. Nothing I could say in a “blog” about this would be anything but trite so let’s take that as read. Most people have highlighted his work in Brokeback Mountain in particular, but for me the role where I really began to notice him was in Terry Gilliam’s somewhat underrated Brothers Grimm.


I saw that movie and forgot that I was watching Heath Ledger, teen hearthrob. He took interesting roles, and made some entertaining movies. He was too young.


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