"That you may ruminate"

Archive for November, 2008

…On Future Archaeology.

Posted by Steve on November 30, 2008

When I was a kid, I read a picture book with an amusing conceit. I wish I could remember its title. The premise was that postal rates for junk-class mail had been lowered, so an overnight deluge buried America Pompeii-style under letters and catalogues and the like. The book chronicled some future archaeologist’s finds, and attempts at explanations, as they dug up this buried civilization. I remember being amused at the explanations for the parking lot full of T-Birds and of the TV.

It’s interesting to think what archaeologists of the future would make of our civilization. As I recall, the Discovery Channel had a special in the last year or two about the aging of a modern-day city with no people left to tend it, and I remember an unusually captivating passage from John Brunner’s Total Eclipse to the same effect.

Actually, it’s kind of a downer to think about what people five, ten, twenty centuries out will know or think of us. There were civilizations that built their structures to last, and the form and function of their structures is still well-visible. Roman works nearly two millenia old can be visited and seen in nearly-functional condition throughout Europe, from Rome to Mérida. The Anasazi cliff dwellings at Chaco, Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly are closing in on a millenium but are close enough to move-in condition as makes no difference. Meanwhile, we demolish our history before it can become historic. Heck, the IRS has set a guideline: non-residential buildings have a 39 year lifespan, residential rental buildings have a 27.5 year lifespan (that apartment I lived in in Minneapolis was apparently a zombie building. And yes, I realize that the depreciation lifespans aren’t quite the same as an engineering/construction physical lifespan, but that’s in part because they include an assumption that the building will be torn down – your cow goes to the slaughterhouse at 2 years old – rather than let last until deterioration – your cow dies of old age at 25 years old).

Add to that, the fact that more and more of our culture is in ephemeral technological media: hard drives and magnetic tape storage (cassettes, VHS, floppies) will all demagnetize as heat breaks down the hysteresis loops; vinyl will melt; CDs & DVDs will get scratched and scuffed… Yeah, stone tablets with carvings can break, but a file in .DOC format on an archival DVD, even if that DVD survives… that data is in code, in a specific format for that code, that’s then stored as reflections from plastic when a laser is shined at it it while it rotates at a specific speed. And contemporary archaeologists have trouble reading Linear A!

A brief paragraph from David Weber comes to mind, where several millenia from now the civilization on one planet is aware that their dueling style is based on something called a “movie” about someone named “The Seven Samurai”, but nobody has any idea what a movie is or who the Seven Samurai were.

Actually, an even better passage from a different book comes to mind. Joseph Heller’s misanthropic classic Catch-22:

The old man laughed indulgently, holding in check a deeper, more explosive delight. His goading remained gentle. “Rome was destroyed, Greece was destroyed, Persia was destroyed, Spain was destroyed. All great countries are destroyed. Why not yours? How much longer do you really think your own country will last? Forever? Keep in mind that the earth itself is destined to be destroyed by the sun in twenty-five million years or so.”

Nately squiremed uncomfortably. “Well, forever is a long time, I guess.”

“A million years?” persisted the jeering old man with keen, sadistic zest. “A half million? The frog is almost five hundred million years old. Could you really say with much certainty that America, with all its strength and prosperity, with its fighting man that is second to none, and with its standard of living that is the highest in the world, will last as long as… the frog?”

I’d like to think that five, ten thousand years from now, our civilization will be discernible through more than just Mount Rushmore and Stone Mountain, which are going to be exactly like the Easter Island heads (or, if you prefer, a statue of Ozymandias), and the ruins inside Cheyenne Mountain. I don’t know that it will, though, since culturally our mindset isn’t one of “built to last”.

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…On New Urbanism, Redux.

Posted by Steve on November 30, 2008

Previously, I’ve attacked New Urbanism as vacuous dogma pushed by a successful lobbying group, the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Of course, a more fundamental flaw with “New Urbanism” can be found right off the bat in its name: New Urbanism.

In New York City – which had over a million people living in it by the 1880 census – , there is a 106-year-old skyscraper, part of a series of similar buildings that includes a 111-year-old skyscraper in Atlanta and a 116-year-old skyscraper in Torotono, all still-standing and still in-use. This year, another skyscraper was topped out in New York City, and one in Toronto, and yet another in Atlanta. If you go to Richmond, Virginia, you can – if you’re obscenely rich and want to piss away money on a 5-star hotel – stay in a hotel built in 1895, which isn’t as old as the hotel you can stay at if you travel to the city of Luxor, Egypt – a truly ancient city.

There’s a point to this: cities grow over time. It takes decades, if not centuries, for the population in an area to reach the density to be called “urban”, for the architecture to have the age and vertical growth to be called “urban”, and for the place to undergo the cumulative divergence from elsewhere to be called “urban”. While planning for the future of chunks of a pre-existing urban area makes sense, the New Urbanist mindset is that of Planned Development – the idea that you can create a urban area ex nihilo through greenfield development, as in “Downtown” Virginia Beach.

That doesn’t work. There’s a myth that a great city can be built in a fell swoop through planning, and people talk about DC and L’Enfant as though that supports it. Thing is, L’Enfant planned DC back in 1791. And had you walked around DC in 1810 or 1820, you would not have seen the 1810 or 1820 equivalent of modern-day Washington, DC. You would have seen the 1810 or 1820 equivalent of Brasilia in the 60s or Abuja in the 90s: dreams of grandeur implemented as cutting-edge failure. It took a hundred years of growth, the McMillan plan around 1900, and another hundred years of growth to make DC into what it is today. L’Enfant’s grand plan is a legend and a lie.

As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Nor was it built in a generation. No city is, but New Urbanism flies in the face of that. Fact is, “new” is contradictory with “urban” except in the sense that the outermost piece of string in a twine ball is “new”.

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…On On Killing

Posted by Steve on November 22, 2008

Over the past week, in addition to fucking up severely and repeatedly at work, I read the book On Killing: the Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Lt. Col. (Ret.) Dave Grossman. It’s an interesting book that I picked up at Barnes & Noble while trying unsuccessfully to find a copy of Hobbes’s Leviathan.

In this book (which was written in the mid-90s), Grossman appears to have… well, I can’t exactly say how many main points. That’s one of the problems with the book, from a “sit-down-and-read-this” perspective: it verges on the meandering in its breadth. I think this may have been intentional, though, as early on in it Grossman states that his intent is to write a seminal work to get the ball rolling in the field of “killology” (he parallels his work to Kinsey and Masters & Johnson in establishing the field of sexology). As a result, what the book contains includes hypotheses and attempts to entheorize that:

  1. Normal humans have an inherent reluctance to kill each other, and historically this has included the majority of soldiers in combat
  2. Factors for overcoming this reluctance to kill include distance (physical and social/moral/mental) between killer and killed; group activity; rationalization and denial mechanisms; desensitization; an authority to shift responsibility to; and behavioral modification through classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and social learning
  3. Following World War II, the U.S. and similar militaries altered their training methods to incorporate more of these factors (particularly desensitization and conditioning) in order to overcome soldier’s unwillingness to kill in combat
  4. The act of killing (or being psychologically prepared and committed to killing) is a uniquely traumatic detriment to a person’s mental health
  5. During the Vietnam War, U.S. military training achieved unprecedented success in overcoming the vast majority of soldiers’ unwillingness to kill at the same time there was an unprecedented failure of the support structures and methods needed to prevent the trauma of being able to kill from causing lasting psychological injury, hence the unprecedented epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder among Vietnam War veterans
  6. American civilian society is replicating the desensitizing and behavioral-modification aspects of military training that create the willingness to kill but not replicating the “obedience to command authority”-inculcating behavioral modification of military training that controls the when and why of actual killing, and the result is a constant increase in violent crime.

Like I said, he touches on a lot, and I’m leaving out some of his points. Unfortunately, I think that in his quest for breadth he sacrificed too much of depth, and I also think some of his points are given in too conclusory a manner, with the evidence just sort of gestured at. Still, I think the book’s interesting, and Sections I-VI provide an interesting, if at times annoyingly freshman intro-course sort of not-in-depth, survey of the psychology of killing (in combat). Section VII is entitled “Killing in Vietnam: What Have We Done to Our Soldiers?”. And while Section VIII (the 5-chapter section on Point 6) does, in my opinion, reflect a little too much of moral panic directed towards Violently Anarchic Breakdown of Society and blaming that Catastrophic Problem on Film, Television, and Video Games, for the most part Grossman tries to steer well clear of Jack Thompson/Tipper Gore territory (though Wikipedia indicates he may have gone there in later years), clearly stating that the difference in degrees of violent content between different works does matter, and even going so far as to extol various virtues of video games in general.

Also, Section VIII includes the truly wonderful Endnote 3:

But the situation is more complex. Correlation does not prove causation. To prove that TV causes violence you must conduct a controlled, double-blind experiment in which, if you are successful, you will cause people to commit murder. Clearly to perform such an experiment with human beings is unethical and largely impossible. This same situation is the foundation for the tobacco industry’s continued argument that no one has ever “proven” that cigarettes “cause” cancer.

There comes a point when, in spite of this type of reasoning, we must accept that cigarettes do cause cancer. Similarly, there comes a point at which we must accept the verdict of 217 correlation studies.

Correct reasoning or not, I love that endnote. I’d love it more if it were a footnote, though – endnotes are a pain in the ass, what with having to flip to the back of the book. Also, the endnotes are sparse, and I’m thinking if he’d used footnotes there’d have been more of them and I wouldn’t have felt so much like the Wikipedian Protestor.

My understanding is that Grossman wrote a sequel, On Combat: [Subtitle I can’t be bothered to look up] back in 2004. I’m curious about that, to see if it contains any analysis of the current war in Iraq, in light of the Vietnam War analysis in Section VII.

Actually, I want to quote a paragraph from Section VII. On page 283/284, if you want to be specific:

During the Vietnam era millions of American adolescents were conditioned to engage in an act against which they had a powerful resistance. This conditioning is a necessary part of allowing a soldier to succeed and survive in the environment where society has placed him. Success in war and national survival may necessitate killing enemy soldiers in battle. If we accept that we need an army, then we must accept that it has to be as capable of surviving as we can make it. But if society prepares a soldier to overcome his resistance to killing and places him in an environment in which he will kill, then that society has an obligation to deal forthrightly, intelligently, and morally with the psychological event and its repercussions upon the soldier and society. Largely through an ignorance of the processes and implications involved, this has not happened with the Vietnam veteran.

I tend to think largely in physical, concrete terms. You know, “If you can’t poke it, it ain’t real.” As a result, I’ve had difficulty with the concept of “support the troops” in a non-materiel context. Grossman explained it well for me, right there.

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…On Fledgling.

Posted by Steve on November 16, 2008

This past week, in the downtime in Richmond after finishing the day’s work and before going to sleep, I read a book. Well, I also dealt with still being sick, but reading a book is far more interesting than a combination of flu symptoms and stomach virus.

The book I read wasn’t the book I’d been planning to read. Instead, the book I read was Fledgling, Octavia Butler’s last novel. I was of course familiar with her name – how could I not be, she’d won a Hugo and a Nebula – but I’d never read one of her books or stories before.

I’ve got to say, I’m glad I did. While Fledgling suffers from an advanced case of “Abysmal Blurb On The Back”, I’d gotten it on someone’s recommendation rather than as an arbitrary choice at the bookstore, so that didn’t really dissuade me any. Which I’m glad, because the back cover would lead you to believe that this is a ponderous screed on race relations that clumsily uses the vampire motif as an allegory for framing a panegyric against the spirit behind the old anti-miscegenation statutes. At least, that was the impression I got from the blurb, which ends with the sentence: “And in the final apocalyptic battle, her survival will depend on whether all humans are bigots – or all bigots are human…”. Let me just say, the dipshit who wrote that blurb (not to mention whoever picked the reviewer quotes for the back cover and front page – and those reviewers) did a major disservice to Ms. Butler and to her work, and they should be ashamed of their ineptitude. But as they say, you can’t judge a book by its cover, and that’s true here. (You want more evidence supporting that adage’s literal truth, look at the incredibly gaudy cover art of Pamela Sargent’s The Shore of Women, then read that epic, astounding, successful synthesis of post-apocalyptic adventure novel, romance novel, dystopian novel, and feminist theory. Seriously, I endorse that novel, and I highly recommend reading it.)

Look, race and race-relations-related-topics do show up as themes, and I’m told they were themes in all of Butler’s work, but saying that’s what this novel’s about is like saying The Once and Future King was about critiquing the theory of the divine right of kings. Sure, White did that, but he did much, much more. Ditto Butler here. Sure, the book does serve an allegorical function, but for any reader who’s reading for the right reasons that’s an irrelevancy compared to the primacy of Story and Storytelling.

And at those, Butler did a wonderful job here. The book’s tightly-written and I think well-paced, and the story itself is one of constant revelation: over three hundred pages, the narrating protagonist progresses from “I don’t know who or what I am” to “I know who I am, and I know who I will become.” Also, Butler did some wonderful playing in the sandbox of vampire lore. I don’t want to give anything away, but as an example mutualist symbiosis is highly (and explicitly) relevant in the story’s world, which isn’t something I’m aware of from other vampire novels. Also, while there’s a clear sexual element to the relationship between vampires and humans in the book, it isn’t predatory or exploitative – again, a bit of a twist on the vampire lore, I think. Then again, a large chunk of the SF/F section of any bookstore is now devoted to the works of writers such as Kelly Armstrong and Laurell Hamilton and other writers of what I’ve heard derisively labeled as the “vampire porn” subgenre. Which as I don’t read it, I’m not sure if benevolent vampire sex is all the rage in contemporary vampire literature. And actually, it’d make sense if it were. After all, who hasn’t wished succubi and incubi were real so would would visit them? Exactly.

Anyway. Fledgling. I liked it.

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…On Rare Victory.

Posted by Steve on November 15, 2008

Vanderbilt, where I went to college, just beat Kentucky. That’s our sixth win this season. That makes us bowl-eligible for the first time since 1982.

1982. That was 26 years ago.

In other words, Vandy’s going to go to a bowl game for the first time during my lifetime. And as I’m an alumni, I’m going to go ahead and assume I’m older than any of the players – who are, after all, current students. So all those players have just earned their school’s first bowl game of their own lifetimes.

I’m going to make another assumption: they’re all very, very, excited right now and feeling very, very proud of themselves. Good for them. They should be feeling that way!

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…On Why No Posts.

Posted by Steve on November 9, 2008

Richmond on business again this week, which means no posts till next weekend. No posts this weekend because I caught a cold. No posts this past week because of the cold and a huge deadline at work.

Besides, it isn’t like anything important happened this last week.

But, I do promise posts upon my return. One to two posts about books, for a minimum, maybe a news item, maybe an observation or something, and I’ve got one or two other thoughts a’brewin’.

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…On Craig Ferguson’s Mistake.

Posted by Steve on November 3, 2008

A few Mondays ago, Jeff (look under “I Know These People” over on the right) made me aware of this monologue by Craig Ferguson, which I like and largely agree with.

Except for one thing, which I disagree with strongly enough to mention it here. Right around the 8:20 mark, when he says, “We have two patriotic candidates.”

Two? No. We have more than two. Where I live (Virginia), we have at least 6 (I don’t know if there’s any officially-recognized* write-in candidates), with 6 candidates for Vice President as well. They are, listed in their order on the sample ballot:

  1. Democratic Party electors for Barack Obama and Joe Biden
  2. Republican Party electors for John McCain and Sarah Palin
  3. Independent Green Party electors for Chuck Baldwin and Darrell L. Castle
  4. Libertarian Party electors for Bob Barr and Wayne A. Root
  5. Green Party electors for Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente
  6. Independent Party electors for Ralph Nader and Matt Gonzalez

Those 4 you don’t hear anything about, they deserve some mention too. I know they won’t win tomorrow. I know their candidacies were futile, and I know why. I learned about Duverger’s Law in 10th grade. I know it’s a set of structural defects in the (predominant) U.S. election rules that causes it. Which is strange, since in another area, the U.S. has given the world what is, quite possibly, the single largest application of the greatest vote system yet put into place by humanity: Borda count. Also known as, “The College Football Polls.”

Let’s be clear: I don’t exactly like that the polls exist (congratulations to reigning National Champions Appalachian State), and I really really don’t like the actual votes or the reasons the voters give for them (with the exception of Greg Archuleta, who had a moment of clarity back in January of 2007). But as far as an electoral system goes – the way the ballot’s structured, and most importantly, the way the votes are counted, there’s nothing better in practice.

We all know how it works: ranked votes, with each ranking worth a few less points than the one before it. Voter gets alloted a number of these “point bundles” to pass out, and can use as few or as many of them as they want. Then, add up the points, and whoever’s got the most wins. I don’t know of a better system that’s been put into practice in any elections – and I include Single Transferrable Vote (which I’ve voted in favor of, when it was on a referendum – it’s a very close second) in that.

But, alas, we’re stuck with the first-past-the-post system, which completely lacks any redeeming quality. It allows (really, more like ensures) wasted votes and a spoiler effect, and it’s an utter flop when it comes to the single most important criterion for judging a voting system: the Condorcet loser criterion.

Am I suggesting that Bob Barr or Cynthia McKinney would have a real shot at the Presidency of the United States if the electoral system weren’t screwed up (Set aside arguments over whether or not the Electoral College is a good system. Only two states, Maine and Nebraska, are giving out their electoral votes in anything that can fairly be called a legitimate manner)? Absolutely not. I lived a long time in Georgia while both of them were in the House, and even if one believes that Barr’s conversion to libertarianism is legit (it may well be), I don’t think either of them should be trusted with high office. But I do think it would be one hell of a lot better for America if tomorrow we all got a ballot that read something like this:

Candidates for President: Assign at least a first-place vote and up to a fifth-place vote for:
Barack Obama, Progressive Democratic Party
John McCain, National Republican Party
Mike Huckabee, American Republican Party
Hillary Clinton, Democratic Liberty Party
John Edwards, Christian Democratic Party
Ron Paul, Conservative Liberty Party of America
Ralph Nader, Independent
Directional Michigan, Mid-American Conference

.

Alas, it is not to be.

On the plus side, I researched all the local school board candidates and was unable to find a single reference to creationism, so the worst-case scenario with those votes ain’t too bad.

Happy voting.

*I’m assuming the Minnesota practice of requiring people to file paperwork officially declaring their write-in candidacy (and designating the names of their electors, if being written-in for President) in order for write-in votes with their name to be counted is also the Virginia practice.

P.S.: You know, party rules may prohibit it, but there’s no Constitutional requirement and I doubt there’s a Federal Statutory requirement that a Presidential candidate have a running mate, or that a Vice-Presidential candidate be tied to a Presidential candidate, or that you vote for a joint ticket. Not that I actually expect anyone to cast a vote for, say, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin – but I’m pretty sure they could. For that matter, you could announce your candidacy for Vice President even before the first primary was held. I think.

Posted in Football, From the News, Here be Politics! | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

…On A Few Other Places to Eat in Richmond.

Posted by Steve on November 1, 2008

I left out a few places in the prior post about where to eat in (primarily downtown) Richmond. Oops.

First, I advise against eating at the Capital Alehouse around 7th and Cary or 6th and Main. When I ate there, my co-diner got sick from her scallops and I got a “jerk” chicken that was sweet and not spicy. Let’s be clear about this: jerked food is supposed to be hot-spicy and savory, not sweet. It’s made with a variation of the habañero pepper. You can call your food jerk chicken, but if it ain’t hot, it ain’t jerk.

On the other hand, I highly endorse drinking beer there. They don’t make any of their own, as best I can tell, but they had an amazing list of available beers on tap, and an even wider variety available bottled. I’d take my dad there, and beer snob that he is he’d love it, but I’d bring him there for drinking only, not for eating.

A place that does make their own beer, and a mighty fine beer, is Legend at 7th and Perry off of Commerce in South Richmond, whose beers are available throughout Virginia. Many varieties are only available at the brewery, though, which conveniently has an attached restaurant with good German fare, although sadly they’d run out of sauerbraten the last time I was there. Seriously good beer (I’ve had several varieties), good beer-food, and if you sit outside a killer view of the skyline across the James.

Also south of the James is O’Toole’s on Forest Hill. Best ribs I’ve had since the last time I was at my parents’ place and dad made ribs, which was a couple years ago.

Back to downtown, some will tell you that Perly’s on Grace between 1st and 2nd is a great sandwich shop, but I’m honestly not the biggest fan. I honestly prefer the sandwiches at the Padow’s on the Broad side of City Hall, especially the Commonwealth Club. At Perly’s, I find too many of the sandwiches contain a salami that just overwhelms the palate and blocks all the other flavors in the sandwich.

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