Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Review of Jayson Blair's Burning Down My Masters' House: My Life at the New York Times

Blair, as many of you may recall, recently catapulted to infamy with the discovery that he wrote scores of articles for a paper that considers itself our journal of record - The New York Times. His articles included things like interviews that never took place, and long descriptions of places he had never been to. Some times there was research from, say the internet, or an Atlas, or whatever. But they were rarely modeled after actual events.

Seeking to capitalize on his infamy he recently wrote a book, Burning Down My Masters' House: My Life at the New York Times. The book seems to do two things. First, it dishes out lots of gossip about the Times. Second, it serves as a self-serving set of excuses for all the crap he pulled at the times.

There is a lot of weirdness that goes on at the times. First, there are all these things traded for mentions in stories. Reporters get money, gifts, trips, and sex, lots of sex, in exchange for a nice plug in a times articles.

Moreover, articles are not written as they appear. If an article was datelined "Atlanta" it does not mean that the article was really written in Atlanta. But it is supposed to guarantee that the author was in Atlanta sometime between the time the story was written and the time it was published. But Blair was above this. Being there was just a technicality, so why bother?

The other thing that the book does is make excuses for Blair. He is black. Apparently in the world's most liberal paper, this caused him problems. He also attempted to invoke black privilege in the title with a gratuitous reference to his "master". His annoying upbringing, and drug problem also caused trouble, and we are supposed to feel bad for him. I really did not.

Frankly the book was not really worth reading. Blair is a good writer, but it is an attempt to whine his way out of his own embarrassment. It is quite pathetic actually.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Password concern

I was thinking about my passwords this aftrernoon. Most people, I assume, use the same password for everything they do online. If they register for the NYTimes, ebay, blogger, banks, stocks, and just about every service on the 'net. Is it me, or does that sound a bit dangerous? It only takes one of these services to be either unscrupulus or insecure for all these passwords to get out and endanger all these people. Some email servers require changes of passwords ever month or two. That is a good way to protect email. But what about everything else. If I just made people register for my site, thnen I could fish around the internet to see where their password works. Personally I use variations on the same passowrd for most of my things that need registration, but I sometimes have to sit around and guess which variation I used for which site. It is all scary and annoying. I hope none of these databases with all these passwords gets hacked in the near future.

People should probably have two passwords that they use. One for Their email, bank records, stock stuff, etc, and a second for the things that are not very secure, like newspapers, and spam crap.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Review of Stanislaw Lem's The Futurological Congress

It is always a pleasure reading Lem. (I think that except for Tarski and Copernicus, I have read few other Poles.)

The Futurological Congress is a good quick read. The basic plot is that someone from a future -topia (not sure if it a "u-" or "dis-") goes even further in to the future to discover an apparent utopia that is not at all what it seems, and then even that is not what it seems.

The book presages a number of interesting sci-fi concepts (fans of The Matrix will discover something interesting at the end, as will personal identity theorists) and is a quick pleasure to read.

Lem is truly one of the classics.

Friday, March 26, 2004

Under God

When I did basic training in the US army last summer some of my fellow soldiers and I would often have conversations about religion. My fellow soldiers seemed to find me particularly interesting to talk to because I was the only soldier in my platoon who was Jewish and went to Jewish service, and I was a "professor" in civilian life. (They did not really grasp what an adjunct is.) So people asked me a lot of questions about God, and Jews' understanding of Jesus and things like that. What was particularly strange about me, as they saw it, was also that I do not believe in God.

So after they heard that I do not believe in God, the next question I always got was "What do you believe in?"

The answer I usually gave was some variant on "I believe in freedom, liberty, democracy, and the American way". Which is entirely true. I believe very much in personal freedom, liberty, truth, and justice, and all that stuff. If I didn't I would not join an army which swore to protect it.

But that answer was never really satisfying to my battle buddies. I am not sure why. I would sure be frightened if I was in a firefight and the soldier next to me thought that his God would save me, and he wouldn't have to worry. We all took oaths to defend the constitution and obey the president and our superiors. The constitution which I swore to defend guarantees that the state will have no say in my religious life or lack thereof.

They seemed to always think that if you do not believe in God, you really don't believe in anything. For some reason everyone has to have some belief in some greater being, even though the Commander in Chief was the highest authority.

The supreme court is also trying to take this approach. (I wrote about this before.)The phrase "under God", said Justice Stephen G. Breyer, has now been broadly construed in a "civic context" and inclusively. This seems to be saying that "under God" means anyone's God, even the non-believer's God. I am not really sure what that is supposed to mean. It is however quite reminiscent of the Bertrand Russell anecdote where he was once being led to jail as part of some anti-war related event. In filling out the paperwork, the person processing him asked his what his religion was and he replied "agnostic". To which the guard replied something like "well, whatever you call him, I guess we all worship the same God". Russell found this amusing enough to get him through the few days he spent there.

God is out of place as part of our pledge of allegiance. Let us right this wrong and reclaim America for the true patriots, those who believe in America, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

NASA Astronaut says earth is square

OK, so he didn't exactly.

Today I heard Mario Runco, a former NASA astronaut give a talk at his undergraduate alma matter. It was a fluff talk (ie, not technical) but he tried explaining various things about space flight to us. The first thing he explained was an orbit. To explain orbits he drew a picture of a square Earth, and then explained what happens when you increase the number of sides of a square to the limit - you get a circle. Thus the concept was simplified.

It was actually a fun talk. He showed us great pictures of interesting stuff, including lake Chad, Madagascar, typhoons, and Israel. You can see the boundary between Israel and her neighbors because of the change in vegetation.

Overall it was a fun talk.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Hate Crime

This is a hate crime. Framing white people (like me) for racism. If there is not enought racism on campus for some people to complain about, hey, why not invent some?

I bet she spends most of her day blaming Bush for decieving the public.

Geeze, as if there were not enough crazies out there giving academics a bad name, we now have Tawana Brawley with a PhD in Psychology. To think she teaches other people about how to solve their emotional prblems.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Yassin's assassination

It is not entirely clear to me why Israel decided to assassinate Yassin. It is not that I doubt that he really deserved it, I have little sympathy with spiritual leaders of terrorist organizations. However he was kind of old, and it is not clear that the gains outnumber the losses. Won't someone else just fill in to do the job that he is doing, and this will generate more immediate threats, while having the long-term threats stay level? Perhaps Israel's goal is to force Palestinian unity? Perhaps Sharon wants to intensify the conflict to justify the security fence, or to make Israel's position stronger? Maybe, and this is the official reason, a power and leadership vacuum in Hamas will emerge that cannot easily be filled. If this happens (and here is my prediction) there will typically be a number of groups all claiming to be the real Hamas, and various splinter factions. They will fight amongst themselves, compete for funds, and people. Each will be forced to start its own terror campaign, with varying degrees of success.

Apparently there was some dissention in the Israeli cabinet. I hope the choice was wise.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Baruch Dayan Emet

This morning I was at "Y"'s father's funeral.

Hamakom yenacem otah betoch shaar aveilei zion v'Yerushalaim.

Saw Doctors

Tonight I went with "J" to hear the Saw Doctors in the Hammerstein Ballroom. The show was OK. Almost everyone there was Irish. I was not. I felt like an outsider. I was rather self-conscious of my non-Irish lineage. She Actually just won the tickets, so even though I never hear of the band, I went. It was good.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

Review of Hanley's The Metaphysics of Star Trek

First of all, you will not want to read this book if you are not a least somewhat of a Star Trek fan.

Star Trek is a great way to introduce these issues because there are so many questions raised by the show, and so much of the show's coherence depends on the answer to some interesting metaphysical issues.

For those familiar with and interested in Star Trek, the book is a good introduction to some of the standard issues that are of concern to philosophers who study metaphysics. The First questions are about the nature of life, humans and rationality. What is reason, how do we know when we have encountered it? What is life and how do we know when we find something alive, or sentient? In Star Trek there are often in-between or ambiguous cases, that are worth Hanley's analysis. Data is one classic case. What is he? (It is a shame that the book was written before the Voyager series was sufficiently underway or the Enterprise series started. The EMH would provide lots more interesting cases.)

Another question dealt with is one of personal identity. This was a rather popular metaphysical topic. Dax, Tuvix, Kirk/Lester, are just the tip of the iceberg. Questions like who you are after you beam are legitimate. (Jaegwon Kim one claimed in class that he would think that he would be a different person after beaming.) There are also plenty of cases of mind-transfers, mind melds, and insanities.

Finally, there are all sorts of time questions. Time travel is a favorite question of philosophers too, and again, Star Trek is great for that.

I would recommend this to any Star Trek fan who is curious about how a real philosophical analysis of the problems obviously raised in the various series and movies. The analyses are rarely novel, and they stick with the standard philosophical party lines (eg, Nozick's closest continuer scheme of personal identity). Toward the end he also accuses the writers of just not making sense, but that is rare, and when he does it is clear that the writers deserve it. He is quite charitable though, and fans will appreciate the seriousness with which all this is taken.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Review of Douglas Copeland's Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture

Generation X is a classic. It actually is responsible for naming a generation, and thus it has earned a place in literary history.

Personally I thought the book was OK. It did speak to me on some level, and I do see a lot of myself there. I do have more ambition than the characters in the story, but I can really identify with them.

The book revolves around the lives of a few characters who have really tried to drop out of society in so many ways. There is a complete lethargy about the characters. Not in the sense that they are lazy, but that they feel like there is nothing out there really worth doing. They do not have real relationships or real jobs. They have no deep interests, nor do they even scorn those who do too much. There is a lot of apathy. I feel like that a lot. There is not too much that I think is really important to me. The characters tell each other stories, and act all non-judgmental. I do find that appealing.

The book reminded me, and this is a cliche, but really accurate, as an updated Catcher in the Rye. This has been said before, but it does seem to resemble it, in the way it classifies the generation. I am also reminded of Kafka's "Hunger Artist" where the main character starts out doing something interesting by not eating. At the end the character confesses that he simply found nothing that he really liked to eat.

The book is important. Read it. It is OK. It goes nicely with the his Microserfs in taking a look at another segment of Generation X.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Review of Rabih Alameddine's Koolaids

Man, this writer is pretentious.

Koolaids focuses on two events mainly in the 1980's. The first is the AIDS crisis, and the second is the civil war in Lebanon. The book has no real plot, nor is the writing all that great. But surprisingly I did not hate it.

The writing is odd. There are no chapters, just short sections. There is a lot of self-reference for self-reference's sake. There are these interludes that have little point but to try to be artsy, and add nothing either to the writing or to the plot.

The cover has no art, but a lengthy quote from Amy Tan which is about as full of oneself as can get. It is a bit pathetic.

The plot itself was just this gay guy who is a successful Lebanese painter/homosexual ex-pat in the US. He laments about how screwed up his home country is. Mostly he blames the Israelis, for all the bad things in the civil war (somehow) but there is plenty of blame heaped on the Americans, the Christians, and the Syrians. Just about the only group who is not blamed is the Palestinians/Moslems. (The origin of the narrator should not surprise you.)

The book seems again, very self-referentially autobiographical. There is a lot about love and loss, and loss to AIDS and questioning about the meaning of life and loss and death. Nothing deep.

It is an interesting perspective both on the AIDS crisis and the Lebanese civil war. The perspective is very Lebanese, and very homosexual (to the extent either of those two groups, qua groups, have a unique perspective). Its main virtue, I suppose is that it was a quick and non-painful read about AIDS and Lebanon for those interested.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Spain and the aftermath

It is a well studied fact by now that terrorists do what they do because it works. Almost all the recent acts of suicide terrorism, say of the past 20 years, have been geared toward cooercing modern liberal democracies to do their bidding. The terrorists almost always win. Israel's giving back Gaza and Jericho initially followed suicide campaigns, same with the Tamils in Sri Lanka, and the Palestinians in Lebanon. Turkey alone was the sole victim of terrorism that did not did not make terretorial concessions to terrorists. (Spain of course was not a case of suicide terrorism though.)

Political terrorism seems interesting too. Once in a while a country doesn't get it and just lets the terrorists win. In Israel after Rabin was shot by right winger, Yigal Amir, the country voted for Netanyahu on the right. In Spain now when the country was bombed by terrorists, the country voted to capitulate to their demands by voting in the party that promised to give in. (Maybe they are just too close to France.)

Psychologically, one would predict that when faced with such death and grief the country would vote right. It is odd.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc

Do you think that George W. Bush will go down in history as the president who opened the door to gay marriage in the US?

After all, he was president when it started. The fact that he had nothing to do with it, will likely be irrelevant.

The economy improved with Clinton, and he got credit for the internet. We left Vietnam under Nixon, and he signed title IX. Whoever was there would have to have done it, but the only ones who mention that are people who blindly hate Nixon. Bush gets blamed for the pre-9/11 intelligence failures. He was in office less than a year and inherited both the economy and the intelligence infrastructure from Clinton. But no one ever mentions that.

So Bush's being in office will likely earn him historical credit for gay marriages, even though he still wants a constitutional amendment prohibiting it.

How is that for irony.

Saturday, March 13, 2004


It is official. Douglas Rushkoff is now Jewish in my book. Qua Jew, the only thing he really has to say is that everyone is out to get him.

I really generally do like Rushkoff, but his Jewish stuff is really way off. With the exception of really fringe groups, no one thinks he is not Jewish for 1) not believing in God, 2) not unconditionally supporting Israel, 3) doing Yoga (if he does) 4) wanting to talk about Judaism. . .

The persecution complex is not becoming. There is no UJA/reform movement/Jerusalem Post/Zionist conspiracy against him.

Move on, Doug. Accept the criticism of your book, not as a personal attack on you, but rather on the fact that you need to look more closely at what Judaism is really like, and how the vast majority of Jews see Judaism. Then adjust your critique accordingly.

Most Jews, myself included, do not think that The Satmar Rebbi, Anne Roiphe, or Ariel Sharon speak for us on Jewish matters. They may not like what you say, but so what? For the most part their (and anyone else's criticism of you (as was mine)was fairly substantial. It was not "Hey, what do you know, your not really Jewish!" This is not the type of criticism one take seriously enough to respond to. So you don't liek bagles. That is not the point.

Telling someone that you have "the Truth" about something is hardly (as inthe book's title) compatible with your professed willingness to "talk". Can we talk? Sure, but talking needs to be both ways. Calling us all racist, and telling us that we must think poorly of you for this reason or that, is not the way to open dialogue.

Deal with your real critics, not with the straw men who just don't like you.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Review of Nelson and Nelson's On Quine

Nelson and Nelson's On Quine is one title in the ever growing Wadsworth's Philosophers Series. It is a rather typical volume. It is about 100 pages long and covers the basic ideas that Quine has made popular during his career. Quine was arguably the most significant post-positivist philosopher. He became famous for a few things, all of which are spelled out nicely and clearly in the book.

Quine's most interesting achievement was his eradication of the analytic/synthetic distinction which has been vital for philosophers from Kant through the positivists. The distinction, and Quine's dissolution of it is still controversial. Quine's main interest was in naturalism though. Quine taught us that philosophy was just science being "self conscience". Science was supposed to be continuous with philosophy, not above it. Epistemology was to be reduced to psychology, for example. Our ontological commitments are to be determined by what our best science commits us to. Our science, like our language, is meaningless when taken one fact or one word at a time. We need to be holistic about both. All of our scientific beliefs are are well intertwined, and no word in our language has meaning when taken in isolation. It is only when we consider it as a whole can we determine meaning.

The book goes through all of this and a few other important views of Quine. It can serve as a good introduction to Quine. If you know Quine's main work, you will find this generally uninformative. If you want to get a grip on some of the central views of contemporary philosophy without going through Quine himself, this is a good place to start.

Friday, March 05, 2004

Bush's Political Ads - why they work

Apparently George Bush's new political ads are causing some controversy. Many of us have already seen the ads. They seem fairly tasteful, but there are depictions of a piece of the twin towers, and other images reminiscent of 9/11/01. The Bush campaign people are claiming that it is a big part of what defined his presidency, so it is natural and expected that some of it be shown to remind people that he lead the country thorough that. The Democrats feel that it is inappropriate and insensitive to exploit this tragedy for political gain.

Now, every psychologist who studied at all in college is aware of a few interesting experimental results in psychology. Here is a description of one of these famous experiments: Psychologists show a number of subjects a film and ask them to answer a number of questions about their country, religion and the like. Then we asses their answers for attitudes toward these institutions. When the film that was shown was about death, and contained scenes that evoked images of death, the subjects were much more likely to exhibit and profess feelings of xenophobia, patriotism, groupishness, and the like. In other words, it is a demonstrated psychological fact that thinking about death triggers feelings of national pride and patriotism, and general rallying around the flag. This is well studied. Any good intro book on psychology will explain this in greater detail.

Psychologically astute (read: successful) advertisers know this too.

They also know that Bush is associated with war, patriotism, strength, and nationalism. He is the right-wing candidate. The right is always associated with stronger ties to nationalism.

It follows that they also realize that making people think of death, will make them think of a strong leader, and will make people crave stability. It will make people feel the need for a familiar government, ie, not changing president.

(An additional illustration of all this might be the sudden spontaneous surge of patriotism and immediate flag waving in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th tragedy. Death there made us all be patriotic and love Bush, as polls then showed.)

So, while I am not morally opposed to the ads, (it's still a free country, after all) I do think that people should realize how they are manipulated by advertising each and every day of their lives. (You may also remember that Bush had another advertising scandal in his first campaign with the "rats" frames and the subliminal messages.)Advertisers are not at all above manipulating you in any way they can get away with. A good education about the media and your own psychology will go a long way toward immunizing you from the media's pernicious influence.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

The hunt for OBL

I'd be willing to bet that bin Laden will turn up just before the elections. Anyone taking bets?

My meals this week

Geeze, life has been so busy this past week. Here is a tiny recap of the highlights.

Friday night I had dinner in Soho Steakhouse. It was good, albeit not that filling dinner.

I then went to a birthday party (where I had breast-shaped birthday cake). Fun.

On Saturday I passed an anti-Kerry demonstration on Lexingtron Ave at around 26th street. Apparently they were challenging some of his war claims. Apparently, if I read their flyers correctly, he got a few purple hearts without ever having to spend any time in the hospital. A purple heart is supposed to be issued for receiving injuries in combat. Of course, anyone who knows the military knows how much they like giving out ribbons and medals. They look for any excuse to hand out trinkets to the soldiers. (It is like giving "producer credits", it is a way to give people something and not have to pay them.)

Then I had lunch in Chennai Garden right there. It was a good Indian lunch. I particularly thought the bread there was good.

Saturday night saw me the the UWS. I met some nice people there.

Monday night I met some friends in Times Square in Ruby Foo. It was good Pan-Asian cusine, though a bit pricer than I am accustomed to. (I think that was a theme this week for me.)

Tuesday night I was in my office when I felt like getting dinner. So I went out and I walking down 23rd Street, and I paused in front of a pizza store. I was trying to decide whether to fill up on greasy carbs or to look for somehting healthier. So I was taking a moment to contemplate when I hear cheering behind me. These three guys were saying "go in, you know you want to" and stuff like that. There was mild chanting too. It was a real New York moment. So I went in and had 2 mediocre vegetable slices.