January 28, 2007

Knowledge is good

Filed under: Laws and Sausages, Science and Technology — tomemos @ 1:47 pm

Recently, it seems that the news has been rife with one of my least-favorite things: the denial, rejection, or disapproval of new information or research that does not fit with one’s worldview. Many of you know me as a skeptic, so you would expect that I would be in favor of taking all news with a grain of salt. I am. However, what we are dealing with here is not “skepticism” in the proper sense, since these are not cases where individuals want to get all the facts before making a judgment. This is simply refusing to accept facts (or hypotheses, if you want) which one doesn’t like, which is actually just another form of skepticism’s opposite, credulity. Some of this is due to identity politics, some is due to a warped moral sense, and some is due to out-and-out lying. Which is which? You make the call:

•Fox News’s John Gibson refusing to recant the claim that the Indonesian school Barack Obama went to as a child was a “madrassa” (implication: a conservative Islamic school), even after a CNN reporter visited the school and found it to be a secular public school. Infuriating quote:

HOST: Yeah, [CNN] sent a reporter out there.

GIBSON: Yeah, cause they got a reporter in Indonesia, probably went to the very madrassa, now works for CNN. But that reporter went out there, and what did they see when they went to the madrassa where Barack Obama went to school?

HOST: Kids playing volleyball.

GIBSON: Playing volleyball, right. They didn’t see them in any terrorist training camps?


GIBSON: No. Um, but they probably didn’t show them in their little lessons where they’re bobbing their heads and memorizing the Koran.

If you’re up for some real outrage today, I recommend listening to the audio. You really have to hear Gibson’s disgust that CNN would be so treacherous as to have a reporter in a foreign country, and that they would sink so low as to use him to verify the truth of something.

•Some conservative Christian groups opposing the mandatory vaccination (and some even opposing the optional vaccination) of young women against HPV, the vaccine that causes cervical cancer, because HPV is a sexually transmitted disease so vaccinating against it might send a message that promiscuous sex is okay. Infuriating quote: Jeez, that wasn’t infuriating enough? Well, okay:

“Some people have raised the issue of whether this vaccine may be sending an overall message to teen-agers that, ‘We expect you to be sexually active,’ ” said Reginald Finger, a doctor trained in public health who served as a medical analyst for Focus on the Family before being appointed to the ACIP in 2003.

Wow, pretty scary. Hey, what’s the ACIP? Why, it’s the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which advises the CDC on immunization. Yes, this former James Dobson employee was on a GOVERNMENT PANEL.  (The vaccine was eventually approved, but of course the fight continues.)  Man, I am horrified to think what we might hear from these people if we ever discover an AIDS vaccine. Speaking of which:

•Male circumcision opponents refusing to accept (or, at least, refusing to approve of) the studies that show that male circumcision makes transmission of AIDS less likely, even though the 50-60 percent reduction it seems to cause could save millions of lives. Infuriating quote…is behind a firewall, and I don’t feel like paying five dollars to make fun of it. But if you know anything about the anti-circumcision movement, you can write it yourself: “Circumcision evangelists … false hope … mutilating infants … many Jews and Muslims now oppose …” God, what a less-than-urgent cause that is. I could write a book.

•Some gay rights and animal rights activists refusing to believe that Dr. Charles Roselli’s research on gay sheep is not a precursor to developing a “cure” for being gay, even after Roselli insisted that he was “repulsed” by the idea of sexual eugenics. Infuriating quote: Tennis star and lesbian Martina Navratilova, who “remains unconvinced” despite a personal response from the university assuring her that there was nothing sinister about Roselli’s research:

“The more we play God or try to improve on Mother Nature, the more damage we are doing with all kinds of experiments that either have already turned or will turn into nightmares,” she wrote in an e-mail reply to a reporter’s query. “How in the world could straight or gay sheep help humanity?”

Well, Martina, I suppose that the way they would help humanity would be in the way all other learning has helped humanity: by enhancing our understanding of the world and our place in it. This is good in and of itself, but it’s particularly important with a subject as plagued by ignorance and fear as homosexuality. In a world where many people still believe that homosexuality is a choice, couldn’t research into what causes it to naturally occur help promote understanding? This is the quote that made me want to write about this subject, because I don’t understand how anyone could take a blanket position against knowledge. What is the practical difference between saying the above and saying, as Darwin was headed for Galapagos, “How could short- and long-beaked finches possibly help humanity?”


January 22, 2007

You’re not a person ’till you’re in my phone book

Filed under: Laws and Sausages — tomemos @ 2:31 pm

Happy Blog for Choice Day! Today is the 34th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and so a most appropriate day to consider why those of us who support abortion, do. Two of the best I’ve seen today are a defense of abortion even in non-drastic cases, and the most succinct statement I’ve seen of why the choice to abort is an essential right. I’d like to offer the following: a pro-choice vegetarian’s two cents.

I’ll cannibalize the first part of my statement from a comment I made almost two years ago: The reason I believe that a woman has the right to abort a pregnancy is that an embryo or fetus is part of a woman’s body. Its status is the same as that of all her other cells: biologically dependent on her. It’s nourished by her nutrients, and if she dies, it dies. It’s her responsibility, a responsibility that cannot be shared, and as such it’s her decision whether to sustain it or not. Yes, you can argue that a newborn infant is dependent on its mother, too, but that’s not true—if others step in, they can keep it alive and growing. But before it is born a fetus is a part of its mother.

Now, an animal, on the other hand, is an independent life form. It can find food, shelter, and other essentials with the help of its own damn mother, and then later on its own. It may not have sentience, but it is self-sufficient. (I’m aware that some animals have been so heavily bred as food that they are no longer self-sufficient; I recently learned that turkeys have been bred so fat that they cannot mate on their own. This is cheating. Farm animals were capable of being more than food before we bred those qualities out of them.) And like an infant, unlike an embryo, an animal feels pain. Given the choice, I try not to contribute to that pain.

So, abortion does not pose a moral problem for me; eating meat does. But I recognize that 1) the question of whether eating meat is good or bad is an intractably complex one, one that no one source can definitively settle, and 2) many people (those living in non-arable areas, for instance) do not have a reasonable choice in the matter. Therefore, I believe that it would be wrong for me to judge meat-eating, either in individuals or in groups, and I do not. And the idea of there being any laws restricting it at all is ludicrous. I expect the same from those who are against abortion: an acknowledgment that there is no definitively correct answer to the problem, and a refusal to attempt to settle the question with legislation. Believe it or not, I have met some abortion opponents who agree with these terms: they see their opposition to abortion as personal, and while they will argue with me about the morality of the abortion issue they do not expect or want the state to take sides in it. I respect their moral concerns, even if I don’t share them. As for the others, I have no interest in conducting any sort of debate with them, because I’ve seen those bumper stickers already.

Obviously I am not advocating moral relativism here. Slavery, child labor, the equality of all men and women—these are not difficult moral issues. The question of what’s alive, or what subhuman life we can use or take for our own ends, is. And as long as there is no clear moral solution, “do as thou wilt” must be the rule.

January 19, 2007

So yeah, we’re werewolves

Filed under: Music — tomemos @ 5:29 pm

Happy New Year! It’s long past time for me to rank my favorite music of the past year; the Grammys (Grammies?) have been given out and I think Pitchfork is about to release its “Best Music of the First 19 Days of January” list. In the past, my best-ofs were just distributed by e-mail to those as obsessed as myself. This year, though, inspired by Kugelmass and Irrelevant Narcissism and new UCI blogger Sur la Carte (note the new link on the right), I’ve decided that broadcasting my music opinions is exactly what a blog like this exists for. So, below please find my top albums and songs of the year. I’ll give commentary on the albums/songs when I have something to say, which isn’t very often but sometimes something occurs to me you know.

The 12 Best Albums of 2006:

12. Cat Power, The Greatest

11. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Show Your Bones

This album posed something of a conundrum for me, because it is wickedly uneven. It has three stone-cold classic songs—”Gold Lion,” “Cheated Hearts,” and “Dudley.” On the other hand, it has a bunch of songs I’m indifferent to (“Warrior,” “Mystery”) and one I actively dislike (“Phenomena”). So normally it would fail the “good album” test, but those three songs really improved my quality of life significantly over the course of the year, so there really isn’t a way for me not to include it. Also, hint to aspiring bands: a great Coachella performance, like the one the YYYs gave, is a sure-fire way to get on this list next year! If I end up going to Coachella and attending your performance.

10. The Coup, Pick a Bigger Weapon

For a long time, this album kept me from posting this entry. (Sure, Tom, blame it on the Coup.) See, I bought this album on impulse back in September, and then put off and put off and put off listening to it. Like Aesop Rock, the Coup spend a lot of time (and words) not living up to their potential, and an uneven concert at UCI just deepened my fears that this album would mostly meander. And I didn’t feel right about ranking the best music of 2006 when I had a pretty well-regarded 2006 album gathering dust on my shelf. So today I finally forced myself to put it in my CD player, fully expecting to reject it…and it’s actually good. And since I bought the Clean version by mistake, I can only imagine that the real version is better yet. (One note, though: Boots, stop talking about sex. Forever. It’s hard for any rapper to pull off, particularly a Marxist, and in this case it doesn’t even work as a joke.)

9. Islands, Return to the Sea

8. Shearwater, Palo Santo

These guys seem to have been universally overlooked. I didn’t see them on any end-of-year lists, and I’ve only ever known one fan. It’s almost unheard of for me to be into something that some of my friends don’t also follow, so part of me fears that when I say I like them everyone is embarrassed to be around me and just isn’t letting on. But screw my friends, becuase Shearwater are great. If you like Iron & Wine but aren’t in a very gentle mood, give them a listen.

7. Ghostface Killah, Fishscale

6. Joanna Newsom, Ys

Some people I respect rated this album very highly. Well, so do I, in a way; every song sounds great, and the ambition of the project is really admirable. However, it’s hard for me to think really highly of Ys, for the simple reason that I liked the compact, exciting songs of The Milk-Eyed Mender too much to be unambivalent about her abandoning that format completely. I mean, what’s my favorite song on Ys? It’s hard to say, because you can’t just pick out a song and have fun with it; the shortest song is seven minutes long, and the highs and lows of her voice and instrument mean that while it’s good all the way through, it’s off-putting all the way through too. I don’t say that no one should make complex, challenging music, but those who can make beautiful, pithy, strangely singable songs should not cast that aside lightly.

5. Yo La Tengo, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

Also somewhat overlooked, though there the answer is easier: there is no one ideal Yo La Tengo album, because all of their albums do a million things at once. They often do them brilliantly, but it makes them difficult to characterize. What I am learning is that the best Yo La Tengo album is all Yo La Tengo albums strung together, and since this wonderfully-titled record is part of that procession I am happy to list it here.

4. Bruce Springsteen, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions

Confusingly, none of the songs here were written by Pete Seeger. This makes sense, because Seeger did not really write Bruce Springsteen songs (though I could see a great Springsteen version of “If I Had a Hammer”). The characters of American folk music—canal workers, outlaws, preachers, widows, and steel-driving men—did. So this album is such a natural combination that I’m astounded that Bruce didn’t get to it until 2006, by which time he had already covered “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” (magnificently, but still). NB: What’s funny is that, not only did Pete Seeger not write any of these songs, I’ve only heard him singing one of them (“We Shall Overcome,” an uncharacteristic song on the album). However, that’s just because I haven’t heard enough Seeger performances. So I’ll get on that.

3. The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America

2. The Decemberists, The Crane Wife

1. Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

Honestly, not to end on a grumpy note, but the fact that this was my favorite album of the year sort of indicates that this was not a great year for music. Last year I had a bunch of new discoveries—Wolf Parade, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, M.I.A.—clambering over each other in search of the top spot, rounded out by great albums by established favorites (Franz Ferdinand, the Mountain Goats, Sleater-Kinney, the Decemberists). This year, Neko Case is by far the most important act I got into. If the stars I gave songs in iTunes meant everything, Fox Confessor wouldn’t get the crown; it only has two or three great songs (compare to Show Your Bones, above) and sometimes lags a bit. But whenever the quantitative side of me wanted to demote it, I remembered that, for days at a time, I listened to nothing else, just hearing her voice do everything. That says “album of the year” to me.

The Best Songs of 2006, from albums that didn’t make the cut:
The Editors, “Munich”

“Weird Al” Yankovic, “White & Nerdy”

Just shut up. I don’t want to hear it. This song is great. “I was in AV Club and Glee Club and even the chess team”? You can’t front on that.

She Wants Revenge, “These Things” or “Tear You Apart”

Oh my God, their lyrics are SO DUMB sometimes. “Either way, he wanted her, and this was bad.” As my friends will tell you, one thing I said again and again this year was that I would like to get a version of these songs that just consisted of the instrumentals and the chorus. But you know, the reason I said that again and again was that, despite myself, I just couldn’t stop going back to these songs. The thrill is insubstantial and transitory, like the melting popsicle in “These Things,” but five minutes later you’re hungry again.

Ladytron, “Destroy Everything You Touch”

Belle and Sebastian, “The Blues are Still Blue”

TV On the Radio, “Wolf Like Me”

This song also features one of the best videos of the year, directed by the good people at Waverly Films, those guys that I totally know some of them.

Gnarls Barkley, “Crazy”

What can you say? I stuck up for this album for a long time, just certain that the rest of it must be good too. Hell, I even swore that the cover of “Gone Daddy Gone” was a valuable reinterpretation of the Violent Femmes original. But eventually I realized that I was never playing this album; when I tried to make myself listen to it, I just vaguely wandered away. Now I’m putting all of my Gnarls eggs in this basket, which is the best rap/electronic/r&b (damn if I know how to classify it) song in years.

Of course, the best rap single of this year may be coming from a source somewhat…closer to home. Just check this space. I’ve said too much already.

So, to conclude: let’s have more great music this year. I mean, more than we had last year. The Shins, the Arcade Fire, I’m looking at you.

1/20/07, 3:00 a.m.: Superficial edits made.

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