old articles and essays by scot
Saturday, January 15, 2005
Big media on the ropes
The Claw-handed Whirlyball Girl
A Homo Summer
Just Die Already
Norman Podhoretz on the War
Rock's Greatest Guitar Riff
The Underrated Beatle
(old reading room links)
Here on the Island by Lewis Napper
Frank Zappa Interview by Bob Marshall
The Importance of Posing as Oscar by Eric Bentley
The New Amateur Journalists Weigh In by Matt Welch
The New Scholarship of Comics by Paul Buhle
Politics and the English Language by George Orwell
The Road to 1984 by Thomas Pynchon
The Sound of Philosophy by Dmitri Tymoczko
The Soundtracking of America by J. Bottum
What happened to Aldous Huxley by John Derbyshire
Which Is the Fly and Which Is the Human? by Lynn Snowden
Censorship - Frank Zappa on Crossfire
Cirque Du Soleil's Elena Lev's Hula Hoops act
Flash animation: animator vs animation
Janez Jevnikar's spray paint art
Juliana Chen's magic 1
Juliana Chen's magic 2
One week of Japanese Art
Verbatim - a lecture by Erin McKean
Arab traditionalism by Steven Den Beste
Artificial Intelligence and Human Nature by Charles T. Rubin
A Big Theory of Culture a talk with Brian Eno
The Commander by Fred Barnes
Confidence by Bill Whittle
Courage by Bill Whittle
An Empire of Cant by Mitchell Cohen
History by Bill Whittle
The Hypocrisy of Noam Chomsky by Keith Windschuttle
The Ideological War Within the West by John Fonte
Information Does not Equal Knowledge: Theorizing the Political Economy of Virtuality by Marcus Breen
The Intellectual Advantages of a Roman Catholic Education by Alan Wolfe
Is Free Will a Necessary Fiction? by Thomas W. Clark
Left and Right by Steven Den Beste
Liberal Democracy vs Transnational Progressivism by John Fonte
Magic by Bill Whittle
Mind Games: Psychological Warfare Between Therapists and Scientists by Carol Tavris
The Naked Face - Can you read people's thoughts just by looking at them? by Malcolm Gladwell
The Nature of Time by Humberto Maturana
The New Gloomsayers by Joshua Muravchik
The Odds of That by Lisa Belkin
On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
Our New Old Enemies by Ralph Peters
Postmodernism and Truth by Daniel C. Dennett
Power and Weakness by Robert Kagan
The Psychology of Effort by John Dewey
Responsibility by Bill Whittle
The Shah Always Falls a talk With Ralph Peters
Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell
The slyer virus: The West's anti-westernism by Mark Steyn
Spotting the Losers: Seven Signs of Non-Competitive States by Ralph Peters
The Starving Criminal a talk with Theodore Dalrymple
The Thinkable by Bill Keller
Transnational Progressivism by Steven Den Beste
Universal Democracy? by Larry Diamond
The Unlikeliest Cult in History by Michael Shermer
Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments by Justin Kruger and David Dunning
Victory by Bill Whittle
Virtuality and Its Discontents by Sherry Turkle
Who Am We? by Sherry Turkle
Who is our enemy? by Steven Den Beste
Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions? by Jared Diamond
Why History Has No End by Victor Davis Hanson
Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell
Welcome to North Korea
A Biological Understanding of Human Nature a talk with Steven Pinker
A Bluffer's Guide to Science Studies and the Sociology of "Knowledge" by Robert Nola
Brain Size and Expertise by John Skoyles
Co-evolution of neocortex size, group size, and language by R.I.M. Dunbar
The Computational Universe by Seth Lloyd
Computer Criticism vs. Technocentric Thinking by Seymour Papert
Computing Machinery and Intelligence by Alan M. Turing
Conscious Machines by Marvin Minsky
The Cyclic Universe by Paul Steinhardt
The Emotion Universe by Marvin Minsky
The Evolution of Culture by Daniel C. Dennett
From Essentialism to Constructivism: Philosophy of Technology at the Crossroads by Andrew Feenberg
Function and Phenomenology: Closing the Explanatory Gap by Thomas W. Clark
Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward M. Hubbard
How could I be wrong? How wrong could I be? by Daniel C. Dennett
How the Public Sector Got its Contradictions - The Tale of the Paradoxical Primate. by Colin Talbot
Human Nature and Its Future a talk with Steven Pinker
Human Origin. A proposal of an evolutionary explanation of the human bipedality, sexual behaviour, language, and consciousness by Svend Palm
Humans and Future Communication Systems by Bernulf Kanitscheider
The Inflationary Universe by Alan Guth
The Intelligent Universe by Ray Kurzweil
Is the Brain a Digital Computer? by John R. Searle
Minds Are Simply What Brains Do by Marvin Minsky
Modernity Theory and Technology Studies: Reflections on Bridging the Gap by Andrew Feenberg
Precis of Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition by Merlin Donald
The Problem of Consciousness by John R. Searle
Rules for a Complex Quantum World by Michael A. Nielsen
Scientist on the Set a talk with Marvin Minsky
Searle's Chinese Box: Debunking the Chinese Room Argument by Larry Hauser
Signs of Consciousness: Speculations on the Psychology of Paleolithic Graphics by J.A. Cheyne
Sleep Paralysis and Associated Hypnagogic and Hypnopompic Experiences by J.A. Cheyne
The Sociobiology of Sociopathy: An integrated evolutionary model by Linda Mealey
Special Relativity: Why Can't You Go Faster Than Light by W. Daniel Hillis
The Ultra Early Universe by Martin Rees
What Is Information? by Andrzej Chmielecki
Carl Sagan Cosmos Series: 02 - One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue
Carl Sagan Cosmos Series: 03 - Harmony of the Worlds
Carl Sagan Cosmos Series: 04 - Heaven and Hell
Carl Sagan Cosmos Series: 06 - Travelers' Tales
Carl Sagan Cosmos Series: 07 - The Backbone of Night
Carl Sagan Cosmos Series: 08 - Travel in Space and Time
Carl Sagan Cosmos Series: 09 - The Lives of the Stars
Carl Sagan Cosmos Series: 10 - The Edge of Forever
Carl Sagan Cosmos Series: 12 - Encyclopaedie Galactica
Carl Sagan Cosmos Series: 13 - Who Speaks for Earth?
Carl Sagan on the Drake Equation
Computers and Common Sense - a lecture by Doug Lenat
Human Computation - a lecture by Luis von Ahn
Plasma Comuputer 2
Secret Worlds: The Universe Within
Stephen Hawking - Black Holes and Beyond
Friday, January 14, 2005
Norman Podhoretz on the War
Every so often an essayist comes around with a piece on the War on Terrorism that reminds me exactly why I don't write more about it myself. It's certainly a topic of interest and after three years of reading, a topic I have become well acquainted with. However, the talent and scope of these writers simply makes it more fun to read than write. They strike that perfect balance between history and current geopolitics while delivering their pieces with enviable substance, concision, and style. Norman Podhoretz has two pieces that fit that description.
The first group of essays I read after 9/11 had to do with the nature of the enemy and the cultures that fostered them. Bernard Lewis' The Revolt of Islam and The Roots of Muslim Rage were among the first, as was Daniel Pipes' The Danger Within: Militant Islam in America, and Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism. Lee Harris' Al Qaeda’s Fantasy Ideology, Michael McFaul's The Liberty Doctrine, Steven Den Beste's Arab Traditionalism/Who is Our Enemy, and Ralph Peters' Rolling Back Radical Islam and a piece he published in the late 90's, Spotting the Losers: Seven Signs of Non-Competitive States, were also some of my favorites. Add to the list anything from Victor Davis Hanson or Michael Ledeen.
While these essays provided insights into Arab terrorism, much of their focus was on renewed American foreign policy and the different theatres of military engagement - real and potential. The second group of essays I explored dealt another front to the war that was equally fascinating though far more subtle. Primarily ideological, the assertion that the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, was the true enemy in the conflict was a view that resonated not only with the Islamist and dictatorial enemies of the West, but also with an alarming number of domestic malcontents. Far from being merely a view, it has turned into a de-facto movement. Rather than seeing terrorism as the result of Arab cultural failure, their focus was squarely on America and its brutal foreign policy.
Those who opposed the war, or large portions of it, generally fell into two categories - those cautious about American strategy and those that simply hate America. While the first group displays the strength of a democracy, the ability and freedom to question the decisions of its leaders, the latter, deluded and bordering on dangerous, exposes its vulnerabilities. Decadent and lazy, they find their current utopia of Western life not really worth defending, let alone fighting for. Whether it was Old Europe or homegrown campuses, articles like Mark Steyn's The slyer virus: The West's anti-westernism, Ralph Peters' Our New Old Enemies (again from the late 90's), Robert Kagan's Power and Weakness, Lee Harris' The Intellectual Origins Of America-Bashing, Steven Den Beste's Transnational Progressivism, and John Fonte's The Ideological War Within the West and Liberal Democracy vs Transnational Progressivism dutifully exposed the enemy within.
Central to the tenets of the Bush doctrine, America would not remain ideologically passive while others, at home and abroad, propagated the usual myths about its supposed hegemonic, imperialist, colonialist or racist intentions. The United States, as with just about every other nation in the world, will be best served when the Middle East convincingly pursues freedom from tyrants, theocrats, and terrorists. September 11th invited America to play an aggressive role in this change. Podhoretz's World War IV: How It Started, What It Means, and Why We Have to Win and his follow up, The War Against World War IV, exposes both the Jihadist and anti-war forces at play while making the case for American intervention and resolve. Interestingly, the first essay was written just prior to the election, the second one just after. Both pieces make my list of favorite political essays since 9-11.
Monday, November 15, 2004
Just die already
It is being reported that Yasser Arafat is on his deathbed in a France hospital (no kidding). 75 years old, the de facto leader of the Palestinian people and the front line general in the war against Israel is finally knocking on heaven's door. Unfortunately for him, that door will remain unanswered. He deserves no better than a long, excruciating, undignified death - and eternal damnation thereafter. He is destined for resentment in history's trashbin with the likes of Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler, and Mao.
Arafat has led generations of Palestinians into a pointless and deluded war against Israel. He has transformed an entire culture into a genocidal death cult that seeks not land claims but the eradication of 'the evil Jew,' as well as other Westerners where convenient. Children are taught from an early age disgusting fabrications of their heritage, their religion, and the nature of their mortal enemy: the Jewish people and their state. Palestinians have grown up to believe that their existence and purpose amounts to nothing short of terrorizing and murdering Israelis at any opportunity.
He refined and nearly perfected the strategy of urban terrorism over the last few decades with the cultivation of the 'suicide bomber,' a brainwashed jihadist foot soldier strapped with explosives for detonation in public places. Adding to the carnage, if the victims are not blown apart, they are often impaled for life with various shards of metal, packed for maximum bloodletting. Purposely murdering thousands of defenseless civilians (usually women and children) with this appalling tactic, Arafat’s only restraint to killing in even greater numbers was his limited imagination.
His claims of enacting justice for a displaced people has served as clever subterfuge while he and his Arab counterparts attempt yet another holocaust. Fooling his minions into believing he was championing their cause when he was simply using them to fulfill his own military inclinations, Arafat acquired an astounding amount of personal wealth. That he is a billionaire while 'his people' starve to death seems only par for the course for today's successful tyrant. His place as leader of the Palestinians is even more curious when you consider he himself is not Palestinian (nor are many Palestinians for that matter), but an Egyptian who has freelanced all over the Middle East. He has made an absolute mockery of the axiom ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.’ Nevertheless, this political opportunism has rewarded him handsomely.
His legacy and wealth has also been another crippling blow for the scandalous and floundering United Nations. It wasn’t enough that his terrorist squads were using UN ambulances to deceive and penetrate Israeli checkpoints, the UN was constantly shoveling money and resources into a failing state and its hopeless war against Israel. Worse off than from the day it started, all this well-intentioned aid has contributed to one of the planet’s most depraved cultures. An irony that upon Arafat’s sickness, medical treatment from anywhere but home was summoned to tend to him before he finally left for Europe. Billions of dollars pumped into building a society and nary a doctor in the house.
Arafat no doubt can take solace in knowing that he has been quite successful on some fronts. He has duped many in the West into supporting his cause in what can only be described as an amazing diplomatic score. A pint-sized Hitler who has made civilian Jew killing and terrorizing his prime occupation, Arafat has convinced a large chunk of the West into believing Israel, with its restrained and surgical responses to Palestinian terrorism, is actually the bigger demon. The UN, the European Union, and a large share of Western campuses, media, and special interest groups all bear responsibility in being taken for suckers in Arafat’s propaganda war. Here is what BBC reporter Barbara Plett had to say about the father of Arab terrorism:
But where were the people, I wondered, the mass demonstrations of solidarity, the frantic expressions of concern?
Was this another story we Western journalists were getting wrong, bombarding the world with news of what we think is an historic event, while the locals get on with their lives?
Yet when the helicopter carrying the frail old man rose above his ruined compound, I started to cry... without warning.
I remember well when the Israelis re-conquered the West Bank more than two years ago, how they drove their tanks and bulldozers into Mr Arafat's headquarters, trapping him in a few rooms, and throwing a military curtain around Ramallah.
I remember how Palestinians admired his refusal to flee under fire. They told me: "Our leader is sharing our pain, we are all under the same siege."
And so was I.
Despite his obvious failings - his use of corruption, his ambivalence towards violence, his autocratic way of ruling - no one could accuse him of cowardice.
Everyone says Yasser Arafat has made too many mistakes, that he has missed too many opportunities. He did and he has, but look also at what he has been up against.
Throughout his years of revolution, peace, and uprising, the Palestinian leader has been an enduring national symbol.
I feel for her. Lamenting the death of history's most despicable is never easy. Here's the same excerpt from a Herbert London piece I posted on my site last year:
The Big Lie is as prevalent in public life today as it was in Hitler’s Germany. So rash and irresponsible is European reporting about the Middle East that in a recent European Union poll Israel was regarded as the number one threat to world peace, ahead of Iran and North Korea.
This view so strains credulity, that it appears as if a kind of brainwashing that afflicted Germans during World War II has occurred in Europe today. Moreover, it confirms a deeply held suspicion among many Jews that anti-semitism has raised its ugly head in Europe yet again.
A European Union poll of 7500 found that 59 percent deemed Israel “a threat to peace in the world,” with figures rising to 60 percent in Britain, 65 in Germany, 69 in Austria and 74 in Holland.
Europe is playing with fire when it treats Israel as the villain. Yet it appears as if this is the direction adopted by media elites. Hence, it is hardly surprising that this European Gallup poll resulted in widespread anti-Israeli sentiment. Israel has been painted as the “bully” and many Europeans believe it.
One can only hope Europe comes to its senses before a 21st century Kristalnacht is ushered on to the world stage. We have been there before and the sight is too ugly to reconsider. “Never again” is taking on new poignancy with a European public apparently suffering from amnesia and the press corps fanning the flames of bigotry.
The progressives and illuminati of the West have treated Israel as a militant pariah state while overlooking Arafat's thriving terrorist machines. They have confused themselves with their moral relativism by viewing Israel, under siege from Arafat and other Middle Eastern despots, as the equal if not more malevolent side of the conflict. They have also adopted an updated version of anti-Semitism that further compounds their inane views: phony reports of Israeli massacres, complaints and fears of Israel’s access to nuclear weaponry, conspiracies of Jewish control over Washington.
A democratic nation that seeks to live in peace (to the point of actually offering land to appease its enemies) in a swampland of tin-pot dictators and theocratic wack-jobs, Israel, as well as intelligent Western morality, have taken serious blows from Arafat and his like-minded jihadi brothers. Arafat, like Che, Fidel, or Mumia, has become a paragon of rebellion and struggle among those that should know better. The nature and scope of Islamic terrorism has been in the spotlight for three years now, and the misguided support and sympathy for this monster and his ilk diplays a remarkable brand of idiocy.
Like Saddam, it seems Arafat chose to wither instead of partaking in the martyrdom he urged on others. Another jihadist loser in what is quickly becoming a rather large line. He will go down as one of history's most pathetic tyrants.
Thursday, June 10, 2004
The Underrated Beatle
The Beatles, like other popular culture icons, have attained such a level of fame and mystique that they have become excessively criticized far more than the rest. 'Were the Beatles really deserving of their success?' or 'Musically, they had little talent' are not unpopular sentiments among pop culture sophistos. From legitimate criticism to questionable deconstructionism to absurd postmodernism, for some, whatever it takes to prove the best can be the worst.
A favorite target among the anti-Beatles clique is without a doubt Ringo. Replacing pop music's favorite footnote, Pete Best, Ringo was the last one brought into the band. He was the oldest and shortest Beatle, and for quite some time, the most popular one. His clown persona and sheer likability however didn't translate into musical appreciation. He is the Beatle given the least credit for the band's success. His value as a drummer, and whether he was worthy of playing in popular music's best band, is a frequent contention.
The arguments against Ringo boil down to one of two things: he wasn't as good as other drummers of his time and he wasn't nearly as good as the other Beatles. While Ringo's contribution to the Beatles was certainly less than John, George, or Paul's, the perception that he was in over his head or was somewhat expendable are false. In the rush to discredit pop music's best band, Ringo's particular talent and role in the band is frequently overlooked.
Ringo is often compared to other drummers of the sixties as a way of showing that there were better drummers available when the Beatles were looking for their fourth. Most often mentioned are the decade's pioneers of rock drumming such as the Who's Keith Moon (I Can See For Miles), the Rolling Stones' Charlie Watts (Get Off Of My Cloud), Cream's Ginger Baker (NSU), and the Yardbirds' Jim McCarty (Shapes of Things). With the need to satisfy the faster and harder pace of what would be FM rock, drummers like these were arguably the most responsible for splitting the genre from rock-n-roll during the mid sixties.
The pure pop leanings of the Beatles however didn't require the virtuosity or power of rock drumming. Though songs like I Want You (She's so Heavy) and Helter Skelter made them rock-cool, the In My Life and Let it Be side of them made more than half their sales. The Beatles were foremost a pop band and musically didn't require a madman with baseball bats behind the kit anymore than they needed a personal basketcase to disrupt the band's already unique chemistry. Baker and Moon may have been better rock drummers than Ringo, but they were not better pop drummers.
A look at pop drumming during the mid sixties shows Ringo not only to be capable drummer but clearly among the finest. While comparable bands such as Tommy James and the Shondelles (Hanky Panky), the Hollies (Pay You Back With Interest), the Byrds (Mr. Tambourine Man), and the Beach Boys (Good Vibrations) all created memorable pop drumming, Ringo was crafting his unique sounds with the likes of Taxman, Rain, Paperback Writer, Good Morning Good Morning, and the double snare drive of Tomorrow Never Knows. It's hard to imagine a different drummer playing on those tracks.
One overlooked contribution from Ringo is the number of Beatle songs he sang on. A look at other drummers, pop and rock, shows Ringo sang much more than his peers. Though hardly among their best, it's still interesting to note that songs like With a Little Help from My Friends, Octopus' Garden, and Yellow Submarine are usually the first introduction children get to the Beatles. Ringo's wholesome and playful image paid off for the Beatles here. For a terrific Ringo moment, listen to Ringo play - and sing - on the Beatles' early hit Boys.
Ringo's musicianship is not only compared to other drummers, but also to his bandmates. Technically, none of the Beatles were among the virtuosos of the day as far as pushing the boundaries of playing. Paul's bass and piano is flawless and sweet, but not difficult to play. John's rhythm guitar and piano, an edgier and grittier contrast, is just as learnable. The only standout, instrumentally, was George's guitar (Something, Revolution). As good as he was however, he was no Eric Clapton (Hideaway) or Jeff Beck (Jeff's Boogie). Ringo's influence on pop drummers is no less than the other Beatles with their instruments.
A popular argument used to dispute this is the fact that Ringo was replaced on many of the later tracks, especially 'the White Album' and Abbey Road. True, he was replaced by Paul quite a lot, but this had less to do with Ringo's competency and more to do with band politics. This was a power grab by Paul as John was dominating the popularity and songwriting of the band. Paul became overly fickle with his songs and that often meant nudging out Ringo (and sometimes the whole band - Birthday and Back in the USSR for example). The drum parts for those songs weren't so complicated that Ringo couldn't play them, he was just the hapless innocent caught in Paul and John's crossfire.
Certainly a legitimate knock against Ringo is without question his contribution to the songwriting. Ringo wrote zero songs and cowrote one - the fittingly titled With a Little Help from My Friends. In a band with an excellent songwriter and two legends, what's a guy to do? Though most drummers are rarely part of the songwriting process, Ringo's solo career also reflected his lesser songwriting abilities.
Ringo couldn't claim nearly the post-Beatles catalogue of the others in neither sales nor overall chart success. Like his role in the band however, Ringo carved out a more than average place for himself. He was the first ex-Beatle with a number one song, two of them actually - You're Sixteen and Photograph, and through the early seventies was just as successful as the others in output, popularity, and critical acclaim.
By the late seventies he slowed down with several ho-hum releases and was lagging far behind his ex-bandmates in overall presence. By the mid eighties he was completely out of the music scene and battling addictions. By the early nineties he recouped and that decade enjoyed his most productive output. He is still releasing CDs at a one per year pace. And for what its worth, Ringo did better than the rest in the rockstar hot-wife department marrying Bond-girl Barbara Bach. Their 1981 movie Caveman is a cult classic.
Ringo's solo career, like his place in the Beatles, has always been viewed as earnest and hard working. Aside from some personal baggage (and who can blame him?), he has built a better than average career and reputation. Looking at the public eccentricities and indulgences of John and George, only Paul seems to have led a more dignified solo existence than Ringo. Sure, Ringo is currently playing casinos with a band of rock and roll retreads, but he gets to make the music he wants while immune from the criticisms of the spotlight. If his wife were to sport a wooden leg, you probably wouldn't hear much about it.
Overshadowed by the monstrous influence of the other three, Ringo's membership in pop music's most famous outfit is often judged as unworthy. Ringo had a reputation in the early 60's pop market as one of the best backbeats around, and for the Beatles, that turned out to be the perfect fit. Like his playing, his contribution to the chemistry of the Beatles is also far underrated. The band needed someone whose personality was compliant and wouldn't draw attention away from John or Paul. Who else could have fit this role more perfectly?
It's not uncommon in looking for band weaknesses to target the drummer. Ringo was the clown, the quiet guy, the steady - and he perennially gets dumped on for it. After enjoying what has to be considered one of the greatest jobs of all time, Ringo forged ahead with an admirable solo career. Like his role in the Beatles, he has absolutely nothing to answer for.
Sunday, December 07, 2003
Some days luck just seems to go out its way to find you. Last month, in the middle of what already had been a good day, I walked past a sidewalk trashcan and saw the October issue of Discover atop a relatively clean heap of other dry papers. I reached halfway down the can and grabbed it from the pile. Unusual I know - I'm not a big reader of paper magazines. Nonetheless, I figured I had some good bedtime reading material for the next few nights.
I used to buy Discover, along with other science, music, and literary mags, up to the late 90's before I went online. With access to thousands of science essays, articles, thinkers, and websites (many wonderfully above my scope), these magazines, at 6 bucks a pop, became expendable. Playing with more efficiently storable information than I could handle, I didn't really miss the dozen or so mags I used to buy.
I suppose I underestimated my appreciation for the art of the 'package.' The next few days I was glued to my treasure. I couldn't believe the timeliness, variety, and presentations of the essays and articles, all in one easily portable tote. I came across dozens of pieces that were of particular interest and others I would have been just as happy to surf to if I saw them online.
My terrific finds included:
(link) A piece on the evolution of the naked ape. Shedding excess body heat was the traditional explanation given for human denudement, but that theory may see a shift thanks to evolutionary biologists like Mark Pagel (n.b. his website is less interesting than sand). His theory is that bodyhair is an evolutionary disadvantage as it was more prone to carry pests and diseases. Sounds about right. I would add that a coat of fur also hinders our ability to manipulate our sheathing. Bare skin has a smoothness that allows for many more varieties of protection - and sensations.
(link) An article on something I had never heard of before - space tethers. These cable contraptions are some kind of wondertool that are starting to be implemented into NASA's programs. Here's a longer article from Space.com on this, including a few words from the president of Tethers Unlimited, the company leading this enterprise.
(link) An interview with anthropologist Scott Atran on suicide terrorism. He certainly sees the cult connection:
Q: How on earth does anyone sane work up the gumption to blow himself up, together with what is often hundreds of bystanders?
A: Exactly the same way that you get soldiers on the front line of an army to sacrifice themselves for their buddies. What these cells do is very similar to what our military, or any modern military, does. They form small groups of intimately involved "brothers" who literally sacrifice themselves for one another, the way a mother would do for her child. They do it by manipulating universal heartfelt human sentiments that I think are probably innate and part of biological evolution. In fact, I think most culture is a manipulation of innate desires. It's the same way that our fast-food industry manipulates our desires for sugars and fats, or the way the pornography industry manipulates people to get all hot about pixels on a screen or on wood pulp.
Q: Wood pulp?
A: Yeah, paper in a pornography journal. I mean, it has no adaptive value. In the case of something like Al Qaeda, you've got these people in groups of three to eight people, for 18 months, isolated from their family, getting this intense and deep ego-stroking propaganda. You do that to anyone, and you'll get him to do what you want. There are all these studies that psychologists have done of torturers on all sides of the political divide. A very famous one is on ordinary Greeks who became torturers during the military junta of 1967 to 1974. They found they were perfectly ordinary--in fact, above-average intelligence. They'd get them to be torturers by indoctrinating them, by showing them how necessary they were for their societies, and getting these people to believe it.
Q: You seem to be suggesting that natural selection may be playing a role in generating the feelings that enable people to become suicide terrorists, but blowing yourself up is hardly a good strategy for propelling your genes into the next generation.
A: Natural selection gives us all sorts of dispositions and desires that were adaptive in ancestral environments. Now, our cultural milieu picks certain of these adaptations or their by-products and is able to trigger them to produce behaviors that have nothing to do with what they originally evolved for. Kin altruism (the theory that individuals are willing to sacrifice their lives to save closely related kin) evolved through natural selection. If you listen to most political and religious discourse in societies, it's always done for a brotherhood--brothers and sisters. So you create a fictive family. How else are you going to get people to die for one another when they're non-kin-related? You've got to trick them into believing they are kin-related somehow.
Atran's essay, Genesis and Future of Suicide Terrorism, is a longer and more detailed read. He stresses the notion that these Islamist footsoldiers aren't the crazy lunatics they're made out to be. He's right about that. There is a level of education and sociality about suicide terrorists that suggest they aren't exactly 'nuts.' Atran errs however when he makes no mention of the ideological battle being waged between Jihadism and the West. The canon of hatred disseminated by preachers, educators, and governments of Islamic nations that would have their followers rally and fight for world-wide Sharia law receives nary a mention while Atran alludes to political grievances and dictator propping as the Islamists' main beef (even though it was the Arab Caliphate, not geopolitics, that fueled Osama bin Laden). Atran definitely has some good insights but I also believe his perception is skewed concerning the greater scope of Islamism, the state of Muslim culture, and the perfidies of Iraq:
As for winning the War of Ideas about democracy and personal freedoms, the Pew survey strongly suggests that Muslim opinion in favor of these values means that war was already won. This raises suspicion that the call to battle against haters of democracy and freedom – like the alarms about Iraq’s imminent use of weapons of mass destruction and its ties to Al-Qaeda - was cynically designed to rally the home front for a strategic push into South and Central Asia. The Pew survey intimates that much of the world – apart from America – thinks so.
Muslim opinion truly favors democracy, yet they are banished to live under dictators, ad-hoc monarchies, and religious crackpots. Considering the tyrannies in question, would you not conclude that the rulers of these nations are in fact haters of democracy and freedom? Atran also pushes the 'Iraq had nothing to do with Al-Qaeda' argument which is both false and irrelevant. And cynically designed? 'Iraq's connections to weapons programs, terrorism, and human slaughter' speaks for itself - no cynical design necessary. He's right about the strategic push into the Middle East, but I'm getting the impression he thinks it has more to do with oil than war.
* A finely complicated mathematical argument explaining why American currency could benefit from the 18 cent piece. Ivars Peterson in Science News has more. For Canadians, who regularly use six coins in their currency, the math works out to an 83 cent piece.
* Five optical illusions from the Autumn night sky, capping off a terrific summer of cosmic opera. Here's a cool pic and explanation of one of the illusions - the enlarged Harvest Moon.
* A cover story on gravity!
I remember a little piece that used to air on the Space channel about Walter Wright, this guy who theorized gravity wasn't in fact a 'pull' from the Earth's center but rather a 'push' from the sun. To back up his theory, he had constructed about a dozen or so magnetic contraptions that modeled the principals, as he saw them, of gravity and cosmic movement. A kind, affable fellow, he was excited to be pushing his high school level of physics to its limits. His room, full of books and models, had a charming, Isaac Newton vibe to it. I came across a book review of his 1979 work Gravity is a Push a few months ago and it had to be one of the funniest I've ever read.
* Mars and the politics of space exploration. I got sucked in after reading this thinking that a (human) trip to Mars was in fact the next major project NASA should be focusing on. After sending robots there, a footprint on the red planet seemed to be the next logical step. Sending a crew to Mars would not only be seen as Earth's greatest technological achievement, it would also revitalize our waning interest in space. Ex astra scienta - let's roll!
Grandiosity got the better of me however when I came across the next piece about a return trip to the moon. Not just another visit, but this time there to stay. Building science bases on the moon seems a much more practical route than blindly hurtling ourselves to our second nearest planet. If private enterprise is poised to exploit the moon, why not science?
Glenn Reynolds considers colonization as the impetus for any future space jaunts:
BACK TO THE MOON?
Why not? I was just a kid, over 30 years ago, when the last humans set foot on the moon. Now there’s some indication that President Bush may come out in support of going back.
In general, I’m very much in favor of moving human beings off the planet in large numbers. In fact, I agree with Stephen Hawking that the human species is unlikely to last 1,000 years if it stays earthbound. Between the risks of war, accident, and natural disaster, the prospects for civilization (and quite possibly the species) don’t look great if all the eggs are in one basket.
I’ve been more of a fan of Mars missions than of a lunar return, though unlike many in the area I’m not committed to either the Moon or Mars as a necessary next step. There are plausible pathways to human settlement of outer space that start with Mars, there are plausible pathways that start with the Moon, and there are plausible pathways that involve neither, though those are a bit more difficult.
What’s most important is that whatever we do be sustainable, not just another flags-and-footprints mission to say we’ve done it. Long-term, that means getting private enterprise involved, and making sure that people can make money. Taxpayers get tired of spending money. Businesspeople never get tired of making it.
Congress, reports Rand Simberg, is beginning to look at such questions, and it’s notable that this is happening even as there’s considerable progress in non-governmental space activities. Let’s hope that this succeeds, as the future of humanity may well depend upon it.
Rand Simberg's website, Transterrestrial Musings, offers a cornucopia of space news and policy (here's his latest FoxNews piece on the tired and aged NASA).
* The results of Central Park's Bio Blitz. In their own words:
At noon on Friday, June 27th, hundreds of volunteers joined teams of scientists in a 24 hour survey of the diversity of plant, animal and microbial life in New York's Central Park.
The group identified and catalogued nearly a thousand different species. The website gives a breakdown of their finds.
* Book reviews for more books I know I won't get a chance to read:
Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology by Paul Broks (Guardian review here)
Adams Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form by Michael Sims
(Architect Books review here)
Mirror Mirror: A History of the Human Love Affair with Reflection by Mark Pendergrast
(CNN review here)
I read the magazine front to back, including the pile of reference links found at the back. It was a nice change to read pieces for their own enjoyment instead of simply gluttonizing information into my storage banks. Does this mean I will be buying more magazines in the future? Probably not.
Friday, August 29, 2003
The Claw-handed Whirlyball Girl
One interesting topic I've read much about in the last couple of years is a trend that has seen the polarization of people that either admire or respect power (as I tend to do) with those who hate or fear it (you all know by now who I'm talking about). Professional sports dynasties, war generals, great thinkers, world empires - political and economic, spacecraft, skyscrapers - the most interesting people, places, and things has always been the powerful.
This is not to say I don't appreciate a good underdog. The tiny avenger of justice, the lunchpailers, the injury-prone n'er do wells - underdogs carry unique charms. I don't root for the underdog out of loyalty to the weak but rather out of admiration for the right character mixed with other strengths like resourcefulness, ambition, and desire. A favorite of mine has always been the underdog who refuses assistance. To some people, against the odds means exactly that.
Not long ago I saw a great example of this from a young girl playing Whirlyball - a unique game where players are required to hold a plastic scoop with one hand while maneuvering a bumper car with the other. The game is played by kids and adults, but this day a group of 9-13 year olds were on the court. This girl, 10 maybe 11, had a claw for a hand - a disfigured thumb and index finger that functions more like a pincer. This was ineffective for both properly using her scoop as well as driving her car, so like one-armed pitcher Jim Abbott, she adapted by quickly switching her good hand to manipulate her car or scoop while her pincer held the other steady.
During her first game, both teams fell into the habit of gently handing her the ball. Being given the ball from her own side was teamwork, the other charity. About halfway through the game she scolded an unfortunate boy, as well as a couple of others, for treating her less than what she was - the opposition. "Play the game properly" she would yell. Even her own team began handing her the ball only when it made strategic sense.
Most striking about all of this was that the girl wasn't very good. Already small to begin with, her first game gave her no time to acquaint herself with her necessary adaptation. She wasn't the worst on her team, but she was a detriment. The times when she was handed the ball made little discernable difference to the play. She never did score any points, nor did she seriously interfere with the other team scoring theirs. Nonetheless, she did improve after a few games enough to make a few assists in addition to using her car to (somewhat) defend against opposing rushes. Still making her share of mistakes, she had at least progressed from 'detriment' to 'neutral impact,' but through efforts all her own. Another few games and she would have been scoring.
It's a nice distraction from the societal clouds of victimhood and oppression that perceives all those without power somehow 'owed' something. It's inspiring to see the disadvantaged refuse assistance and twice as satisfying for those who succeed at something despite the odds. That girl, as well as her parents, deserves praise.
A Homo Summer
The past few months has been busy for the gay community. With Canada's same-sex marriage recognition, the Supreme Court ruling on sodomy, and the queer Episcopalian priest, there's been a lot of gay in the air. Even Wal-Mart jumped into the fray with their non-discriminatory policy toward the hiring of homosexuals.
For a straight guy, I've known more than my share of queers. I've met many through work (especially social services), school, and music (though mostly bisexuals). I've had a few gay male friends and many gay and bi female friends. For years I counseled dozens of teenagers and young adults that were gay, bi, or trans. On two different occasions, I lived in downtown Toronto's all too hip gay district. I drank in their bars, shopped in their stores, and dated their girl friends. All in all not an entirely comprehensive sample, but certainly a good one.
Similar to the discussions I have with other 'minority' friends, whether black, Jewish, or women, I often ask about their group's particular extremisms in relation to their own views. There is a bias here since I don't usually befriend the generally angry or deluded so the feedback I do get tends to be less radical. Still, it is pleasing to hear the denunciation of crackpot philosophies and behaviors from mainstream gays as it reinforces my generally liberal views when it comes to certain causes of theirs. Unfortunately for the gay community, the minority often speaks louder than the majority.
Gay activism, more so than other lobby groups, is subject to an extremism that often subverts its own mission. Though good ol' fashioned prejudice accounts for much of the difficulty homosexuals have faced when vying for equal rights (like marriage or spousal benefits), their cause has also been hindered by the extreme philosophies and actions of queer culture that clash with the general mores of society. In order to realize further advances into mainstream society, the gay community will need to quell various problems:
The gay movement is poorly served by the parade of near nude satyrists on display during Pride celebrations (or Saturday nights in the Village). The news photos I saw of happy couples, just married and now legally bonded, contrasted sharply with the ugly exhibitionism of the gay party-set. Add to this the reputation for frequent outdoor activity (you have your own bathhouses!) and you start making homosexuality look vulgar. Lesbians fare no better. Their 'erotica' looks as much like porn as it does art, especially when plastered about their workspaces. Overt public horniness is rude.
androgynizing the sexes
This concept, found in both queer and feminist literature, is little more than a backdoor attempt at social engineering. Ideas like those that suggest females and males should produce equal results in everything, or that environment and not genetics plays a greater role in determining gender difference, are not supported by historical, cross-cultural, or scientific proof, but rather driven by a political need to eliminate the genders. Androgynizing the sexes as a way of undermining society's male female yin yang will not expedite your cause.
aligning with other radicals
When the Blacks and the Jews teamed up in the 60's to unite for civil rights, they both faced similar battles (which is actually the core battle of the gay movement - equality in particular institutions and 'acceptance' by society at large). When the gay movement allies itself with feminists and anti-globos, it reduces its cause to just another part of the leftist miasma, and a further reason the right and gays don't get along.
manipulating words and altering language
Homophobia makes about as much etymological sense as the term 'racism.' Those who are bigoted or prejudiced toward homosexuals are not afraid of them, or becoming one of them, any more than the ethnically bigoted are anthropologists who study the genetic differences between races. This redefinition of words and ideas not only leads to confusion in general thought and conversation, it also makes otherwise marginally interesting fields of academic study political minefields. Several words (gay, queer, queen, fairy, butch, femme) now seem to have double meanings that can trigger the overly sensitive.
In the same vein, homosexuals that refer to themselves as 'fags' and 'dykes' are no more dignified than the blacks who call themselves 'niggers.' It's not 'taking the word back' - it's pitiful self-victimization.
insisting children need to be queer educated
Families with two moms or two dads account for less than one percent of all families. Unless a kid is getting picked on at school, there is no reason to introduce the homo rainbow into the classroom. Homosexual families are simply not that important.
I don't criticize the majority of churches for balking with the gay thing. A group collective by definition implies group first, individual second. I've never understood how changing the rules of a club to suit a small minority doesn't qualify as selfish. For a group, especially one where membership is voluntary, to change its view or stance on a topic a gradual, democratic sway needs to occur. If that change doesn't occur than too bad - you can either acquiesce to what the group has accepted or you can start your own group.
I do support gay couple spousal benefits and their freedom to marry - in whatever definition the term marriage ends up as after the dust settles. I also under particular circumstances (which I won't bother with here) support their freedom to adopt. I support these for the same reasons I do other political issues - I believe it to be 'fair' and I believe its implementation will do society more good than harm. My general support wanes however when other causes, left unchallenged, are allowed to distort the core of this one. I see the issue of gay marriage and spousal benefits as neither personal nor impactful on society at large and therefore don't weigh in on it much. An overabundance of radicalism and vulgarity could propel me to weigh in even less.
Sunday, June 22, 2003
Prior to the invasion of Iraq, I wasn't sure what kind of behavior we would see from the anti-war left during the occupation. They could either lick their (mainly self imposed) wounds and get ready for the next cause (Iran? Saudi Arabia? Syria?) or they could stagnate and dwell on past arguments. Interestingly, they have opted for the latter. With a renewed furor again directed at the usual suspects - Bush, America, the Anglos - more important issues seem to have been pushed aside for illogical murk.
Several causes, with little new about them, have again been at the forefront of leftist complaint. 'Bush lied about the weapons,' 'Quagmire,' and 'What about the war on terrorism?'. Though separate issues, there is a unique tie that binds those who aver the above statements and that is a misunderstanding of the context. Iraq wasn't a war, it was a battle - the first battle on Middle East soil that will transform the region the same way Europe was in the mid (West) and later (East) parts of the last century. Contentions like '16 words!,' 'No cell phone access in Baghdad,' and 'Where's Osama?' look humorously small in this light.
From the time it was agreed that weapons inspectors would be used to look for the weapons they were impeded from finding before, the entire WMD debate has been a mess - a half year long mess that gave Saddam more than enough time to export and/or hide the same production facilities and stockpiles everyone agreed was there. To wonder where these weapons are because they might be used on you or other civilians is reasonable. I too would like to know where they are and hope no resource is spared finding them. To care about the missing weapons because you challenge the legality or legitimacy of the war, than your arguments will always be trapped within a false context. Preventing Iraq from producing and supplying jihadis with WMD was only one of the goals of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and that goal has been achieved.
Similar to the WMD controversy, the notion that Iraq has turned into a quagmire has been another media driven panic erroneous on more than one level. As tempting as it is to compare wars that you don't like with Vietnam, that battle was a fight to prolong a stalemate - this one is to democratize a country. Two different military campaigns, two different objectives, two different occupations. A quick scan of the last six months also puts this 'quagmire' in perspective. During the invasion of Iraq, allied forces were losing 3-4 soldiers a day. After the cessation of major hostilities, the number dropped to about one per day. Lately, that number has dropped again to a few per week. Utilities have been almost fully restored, the people are fed, and the interim governments and homegrown military are on the way. Six months after invading and occupying one of the world's worst nations, there is scant evidence of a quagmire.
Cries of quagmire interestingly contradicts another favorite protestation of the yelping left - Iraq has distracted the U.S. from the war on terrorism. Advocating that Iraq has no formal connections with Al Queda and is therefore an aside to the war on terrorism is a fantastic claim. Iraq used to flaunt its support of terrorism and gave respite to a variety of terrorists, Al Queda included. Though other countries have greater legions of jihadis on the ready (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan), Iraq's own, living under a government that had made it more than clear its intentions of warring with America, made this an immediate concern. As hard as it might be to believe, Saddam and Islamic terrorists were on the same side. Bush's bravado laden 'Bring em on' was not only a message for the leftover Baathists of Iraq, it was also an invitation to the various terror groups, leaving their roosts in Iran, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, to engage the U.S. on Iraqi turf. The Yanks came to fight, and better the war happen there than here.
Focusing on specific issues of the Iraqi conflict with the intention of challenging intelligence capabilities is warranted, and necessary. Intelligence is and never will be perfect but now is certainly an opportune moment for it to improve. Also of great interest is the citizenry of Iraq. They were let down by the U.S. once before and now deserve as quick and painless a transition to their new government as possible. Questioning American intentions toward 'allied' Islamic regimes like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as a way of enriching foreign policy debate is also welcome. Even supporters of U.S. foreign policy have difficulty with the cozy relationships it has with certain countries. It's also important that with two overwhelming military victories, the current administration doesn't get complacent and lazy.
As the allied war efforts continue apace, it is critical that future debate is as factual and sound as possible. Rehashing old arguments with the same ad hominems, straw men, and absurd equivocations in a desperate attempt to undermine the accomplishments of the good guys is not just faulty reasoning, its moral foolishness. Whether it's 'hating Bush,' or painting Arabs as the ultimate victim, leftist argument has remarkable similarities with the other side.
Big media on the ropes
Since high school we've been taught that anything owned, managed, and maintained by lowly humans will be subject to the same gaffes, misperceptions, and biases that we ourselves are. We all screw up and we all cloud our judgments according to our unique tendencies to do so. Accepted is that even some of our most important services - government, medicine, and education - are vulnerable to human blunders and biases. Unless a mistake or accident becomes too egregious, or a deliberate breach of ethics has occurred, the public will often tolerate a generous margin of error.
Big media has always been given much leeway by the public. Though not a critical service like government or medicine, the media fills an important role as a democratic pillar. Keeping the public informed and politically aware is as important and noble as the education or the charity sectors of our society. Because of this standard, as well as their common sales pitch, we generally expect the media to make good on presenting the news as truthfully as possible.
Columnists and newspaper editorials may offer pieces that make no effort to hide political stripes, but since we're used to seeing these on the opinion pages, there's really nothing suspicious here. Major papers will even print completely dichotomous points of view, even if less visible. The owners also have political biases and inclinations and hardly breach any ethics by generally commandeering their businesses according to their personal politics. Since the media, like any other industry, is fueled by competition, the political spectrum of the public is generally well represented. Those wishing to combat the prejudice of one media outlet need to do little more than access two or three others, mainstream or otherwise, for alternate takes.
Fact checking too is usually of little concern to us. Multiple sources are nearly always in concert pertaining to the who, when, and where of major events. Lesser details, if not corrected (or corrected prominently) by the news source that made the error, will often be corrected by alternate sources. The spirit of business competition here knows no bounds. Unless a news provider develops a reputation for misinformation, the occasional error does little harm. Again, the public's tolerance for honest mistakes by media outlets reporting or communicating information is often tolerant and fair.
The past few months have exposed some curious violations of bias and accuracy from this industry. Television and print have come under fire for years of methodically dishonest reporting as well as some highly questionable opinions and editorial content. An information savvy readership with access to more accurate news coverage, facts, and arguments has caught big media by surprise.
One of its crowning jewels, the New York Times, has been of late one of the most scrutinized. From the deliberate misquotations and seething hatred of syndicated columnist Maureen Dowd to the news gathering 'stringer' collective under the hire of journalist Rick Bragg (scroll to bottom), readers have been left to wonder how many years the paper has treated the news, and opinion, with this kind of recklessness. That reporters like Jayson Blair ware fabricating stories on the homefront from thin air surprised few after reading for months the 'quagmire' of Iraq - before, during, and after the war. Extremist bias and errors of information are not only happening in greater frequency and magnitude but are now bordering on tabloidism. It was more than just the Blair scandal that cost Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd their jobs; it was the culture of incompetent news delivery they had created. America's third largest daily is facing not only severe self-examination, but also a long overdue flogging.
America's most recognizable television news presence hasn't fared much better. A few months ago, CNN confessed it had struck a deal with Saddam and tailored its coverage of Iraq to present the vile regime as nothing more menacing than say...France. The cost of doing business with Saddam was to CNN a small price to pay for their journalists' limited access to the country. Nevermind the validity of news reporting from a place that incorporates torture into its definition of censorship - the idea of appeasing enemy regimes by omitting obvious news content, content such as the killing of their own children and the sponsoring of Middle Eastern terrorism, is nothing short of dishonorable. Even hostile media like Al Jazeera knew how to criticize Iraq. Other stories such as their piece on assault weapons has left its audience wondering if political ideology will always trump accuracy when its comes to reporting the news. How much presentation has been manipulated or omitted for the purpose of a hidden message? A gradual slide from ethics and responsible newsgathering to devil's handshakes and information sensationalism. American TV media, like print, has been caught playing tabloid.
The British media, yet to expose their Jayson Blairs, have nonetheless been under attack by their more intelligent than expected readership. Flirting with the fine line between bias and complete obfuscation of fact, the shrill cries of 'empire,' 'oil,' 'quagmire,' and 'looting' during the Iraq war made the British press at times look as professional and paranoid as the Arab News. The newsgathering and presentation seems to have also developed the same propensity for 'mistakes' as American media. Obvious misquotations and deliberate misinterpretations of events do little to retain the impressive reputation British journalism once enjoyed.
The opinion pages of the British media are also looking more like writing class projects than thoughtful commentary. Popular columnists John Pilger and Robert Fisk churn out extremist, Chomsky-esque versions of the West that bend, warp, and purposefully misconstrue facts for any point or argument necessary. Nothing is tangible in their post-modern malaise of all knowledge as hazy shades of gray and subject to the most wild of interpretations. Oblivious to their own anti-Angloism, their versions of events too often stray from provocative opinion to full blown alternate reality. With the role Britain will play in the current war on Islamism uncertain, and the dark cloud of the EU ready to assimilate Buckingham Palace, the Brits are unlikely to accept second rate newsgathering and analysis from their first rate nation much longer.
No stranger to its own anti-Westernism, the Canadian media has also indulged in excessive U.S. bashing the last couple of years. From the government sponsored CBC to the largest newspaper dailies, the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail, big Canadian media has turned this unique paranoia into a cottage industry. A combination of Liberal dynastism and a politically apathetic public has allowed a proliferation of weak and lazy opinions that treat its nation's best ally as a cold, hostile acquaintance. Columnists like Rick Salutin, Eric Margolis, Mark Kingwell, Haroon Siddiqui, and Heather Mallick echo the same anti-American fanaticisms found in European and leftist American media - sans the clever writing. This, coupled with the anti-American hostilities of the current government, has left many Canadians shaking their heads in disbelief and wondering 'Why are we supposed to hate them?'.
Consistent with its anti-West/anti-U.S. positions, big Canadian media has grown sympathetic to Middle Eastern Islamic terrorism. Defending the former regime of Saddam Hussein one day, equivocating Palestinian terrorism with Israeli self-defense the next. In this blind rush toward neutrality is a refusal to acknowledge the scope, and sickness, of Islamism and its primary objective: the annihilation of Israel. News providers like the CBC and the Toronto Star cling to the antiquated notion of terrorist equaling freedom fighter and routinely overlook the anti-Semitic barbarity of the Arab Muslim world. Chanting 'By the will of Allah, destroy the infidels!' while detonating explosives amidst children and pedestrians is not fighting for freedom, whether it's Jerusalem, Kashmir, Bali, Mombasa, or New York. If taking the middle ground between good and evil isn't bad enough, there are also have columnists like Michelle Landsberg, Antonia Zerbisias, and Naomi Klein with their fawning support for anti-Semitic conspiracy zealots like IndyMedia, WhatReallyHappened, and Rachel Corrie. Canadian big media, aping their Liberal overlords, has shifted from the realm of political bias and partiality to anti-Western extremism.
In the last couple of years, we saw some powerful institutions deservedly attacked for crossing various ethical thresholds. Companies like Enron and WorldCom were the biggest names in a lengthy parade of corporations that cheated past the public's tolerance level. With the amount of money and power at stake, people understood a certain level of corruption would be the norm - obviously the corporate world would be held to slightly lesser moral standards than perhaps the medical or educational sectors - but there was still a line and more than a few big businesses crossed it. Shady ethics and the occasional misdemeanor is one thing, but lying and stealing, in large enough doses, will more than get the attention of the public.
The Catholic Church also found out what happens when conduct becomes so unbecoming that it riles even the uninterested. Witness the anger directed at Cardinal Law (and the Pope) for 'overlooking' the pedophilia that priests had been engaging in for years. Cloaking the scandal at every turn by shuffling the priests to different churches compounded a horrible sex-crime with harboring and willful deception. People were angrier with the lying and condescension of the Catholic Church than they were at the demented priests.
So what is the public to think when they see news 'stories,' in the 'fable' sense of the term, in one of the nation's most important newspapers? Or when a media giant does protectionist business with international despots? Or defends them in print? Concocted events, omissions of truth, blatant lies, and rhetorical treason. For an institution that is supposed to deliver facts and information, this is unacceptable. This culmination of ethical and moral lapses in big media, combined with a seriously degraded product, has awoken the generally complacent public.
The extent to which the trust and power of the media kingpins has been compromised will only be determined by future audiences. If other media outlets and news providers avoid the scandals and serious blunders of the giants, and deliver the news with similar flair, they will find eager new customers. Media outlets also need to be aware that their readership is much different than it was ten years ago. No fact can go unchallenged, no argument easily dismissed. The next couple of years, with the noteworthy events that no doubt await, will determine what role big media will play in providing the public with news.
Sunday, April 27, 2003
Rock's Greatest Guitar Riff
(note: for users of Windows 2000 and up, the audio samples should open in your browser - others will likely see default media players open)
Next to Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry wields perhaps the greatest influence in rock and roll's history. The two had much in common; they were the best at fusing popular country and blues styles into a definition of rock and roll, and they had the showmanship and popularity that both resonated and defined American culture. They also influenced more musicians than any of their time.
Unlike other progenitors of the genre (Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and even Elvis), Chuck Berry played lead guitar - which would become rock music's A2 position. If Elvis showed the way singers would perform, Chuck Berry trademarked the way the guitar would be played. His signature licks and solos have become a staple of nearly every pop and rock guitarist that has followed. His high-energy style also popularized a unique feature of not only rock and roll, but also rock, country, pop, punk, and even rap - the guitar riff. From the opening lick of Johnny B. Goode, the guitar riff had established itself as the most popular sample of a song, a favorite of both players and listeners.
By definition, a riff is little more than 'a repeated melodic phrase.' In rock and pop, it can form the backbone of the song. Most often played by the guitar, it can be comprised of notes, chords, a combination of both, played on one or more guitars, or in synch with other instruments. Some can trick us into thinking or remembering we actually heard the song before. For the budding young guitarist, mastery of a few dozen riffs usually occurs somewhere between 'Yankee Doodle' and the first note-for-note guitar solo.
After the late 50's early 60's sounds of Chuck Berry, Scottie Moore, and James Burton, a new sound was ushered in with the next generation - the fuzz tone. By the mid 60's every band was experimenting with this new sound and in the process separating 'rock' from rock and roll. Roy Orbison's Pretty Woman, the Surfaris' Wipeout and the Chantays' Pipeline quickly turned into the Kinks' You Really Got Me and All Day and All of the Night, Tommy James and the Shondelles' Hanky Panky and the Yardbirds' Heart Full of Soul.
In no time this sound had progressed yet again into the Animals' Girl Named Sandoz, Cream's Sunshine of Your Love, Mountain's Mississippi Queen, and Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze and Manic Depression. These longer, fuzzier blues licks mixed with the mind-altering substances of the day gave a new dimension to guitar oriented rock. This heavier form of music was also responsible for a new concept - FM radio.
If the mid to late 50's was the golden age of rock and roll, then the late 60's to early 70's was the golden age of rock. This was the era that introduced concept albums, double albums, rock operas, and the five to ten minute 'epic' song - sometimes in movements. The guitar riff was kept alive and well with players like Neil Young (Cinnamon Girl), Free (All Right Now), Deep Purple (Smoke on the Water), and Black Sabbath (Iron Man) all contributing to the prime years of rock.
By the mid 70's, rock and the guitar scene had become a little stale and the cooler riffs a little sparses. The best bands of the 60's (Beatles, Rolling Stones) and early 70's (Zeppelin, The Who) had either broken up or peaked while FM radio was being challenged by other genres like punk and disco. There were a few gems - Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, Eric Clapton's Cocaine, the Cars' Let the Good Times Roll, and Tom Petty's Refugee were natural FM anthems with terrific riffs, but hardly enough to fill rock's baring cupboard.
Guitar rock picked up in the late 70's with harder and louder bands like Van Halen, Kiss, and Judas Priest slowly gaining popularity. Pop music had now branched into an even harder form of rock - heavy metal. Along with this louder and often faster sound, guitar riffs became more aggressive - and sometimes more technical. Acts like Ozzy Osbourne (Crazy Train), AC/DC (Back in Black), Iron Maiden (Run to the Hills) and Rush (Tom Sawyer) brought a new excitement to guitar playing that had been waning the previous years.
By the mid 80's, not only were bands like Ratt (Round and Round), the Scorpions (Rock You Like a Hurricane) and Slade (Run Runaway) cashing in on great guitar riffs, but so was Michael Jackson (Beat It), Joan Jett (I Love Rock and Roll), Run DMC (Walk This Way), Yello (Si Senor the Hairy Grill), Ministry (Stigmata), Jesus and Mary Chain (Happy When it Rains), and INXS (Devil Inside). Rock guitar was in high demand across the pop spectrum.
As a result of this new popularity, the late 80's saw the guitarist as virtuoso. Unknown guitarists like Yngwie Malmsteen, Paul Gilbert, George Lynch, and Steve Vai inspired thousands of players into memorizing scales, studying music theory, and exploring more esoteric influences such as classical, jazz, and movie soundtracks. This trend resulted in teenage guitar wizards, breakneck guitar solos, and memorable riffs such as Joe Satriani's Surfing With the Alien, Living Colour's Cult of Personality, Anthrax's Got the Time, and Metallica's One.
The guitar scene of the early 90's took the aggression of heavy metal but without the speed and precision of 80's metal guitar. Instead, it combined the bluesier riffs and solos from 60's and 70's rock guitar with mid 50's and late 70's pop structures to give rise a new form of thick, brooding punk - grunge. Pearl Jam (Animal), Soundgarden (Jesus Christ Pose), Nirvana (Heart Shaped Box), and the Meat Puppets (Backwater) encapsulated the Seattle scene and added a terrific sub genre to FM radio and guitar rock.
During the mid 90's guitar rock went through another lull. The popularity of genres like hip-hop and electronica saw less (if any!) guitar used and little need for the flashy solos and riffs of genres past. Again, like the mid 70's, there were a few notables - Big Wreck's Oaf, Bush's Everything Zen, Ash's Jack Names the Planets, and Hum's Isle of the Cheetah ensured rock guitar still had a place.
Guitar oriented rock from the late 90's to early 00's, while nowhere near the popularity of the late 60's or mid 80's, has re-energized. Rap-rock (Limp Bizkit's Break Stuff, Linkin Park's In the End, and Papa Roach's Last Resort) and pop-punk (the Strokes' Last Nite, the Raveonettes' Attack of the Ghost Riders, Queens of the Stoneage's No One Knows) are dutifully carrying the tradition of rock guitar with clever fills and solos and some already classic riffs.
Picking out the best guitar riff of all time became difficult when scanning 50 years of popular music. Rock's greatest bands each have a catalogue to offer: the Beatles (Come Together, Birthday, Something) the Rolling Stones (Satisfaction, Jumping Jack Flash, Start Me Up), the Who (I Can't Explain, My Generation, and possibly rock's greatest bass riff in 'Boris the Spider') Led Zeppelin (Whole Lotta Love, Heartbreaker, Kashmir) and U2 (Sunday Bloody Sunday, Pride, Where the Streets Have No Name) all make fine picks. Add David Bowie (Rebel Rebel), Queen (Tie Your Mother Down), Alice Cooper (Muscle of Love), Pink Floyd (Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2), Van Halen (Runnin With the Devil), Guns and Roses (Sweet Child O' Mine), and REM (The One I Love) and your pool begins looking to large to manage. Each of these acts would have a few riffs that I would consider 'great' (though my vote goes to Zeppelin for the most). One difficult thing with these bands is that picking their one definitive riff was hard, with so many great samples to choose from. No different than trying to pick my favorite song from the same batch.
I had another problem since I was obviously going to look to my favorite bands: Sonic Youth (especially Kool Thing, Wish Fulfillment, and Androgynous Mind), Rheostatics (Soul Glue), Medicine (A Short Happy Life), Ween (Doctor Rock), the Smiths (How Soon is Now), the White Stripes (Fell in Love With a Girl), the Foo Fighters (My Hero), the Smashing Pumpkins (Here is No Why), the Pixies (Dead), the Cocteau Twins (Evangeline), Mike Watt (Piss Bottle Man), Dinosaur Jr (Loaded) and about a hundred others. The same problem occurred when I put together a list of my favorite guitarists. The 'A' list quickly expanded from Jimmy Page and Johnny Marr to Dave Navarro, Eddie Van Halen, Brian May, Jeff Beck, J. Mascis, Brad Laner, Kevin Shields, Billy Corgan, Frank Zappa, Reeves Gabrels, Kim Deal, Glenn Branca, Mick Ronson...well, you get the idea.
Instead of trying to find my favorite, I simply settled on finding the best (which you could argue is merely subjective, and therefore is my favorite - not so. My opinion is entirely objective). Ultimately I turned back to the middle page of rock music's best years: the late 60's - early 70's. Of all the guitar riffs I've hammered out over the years, this time period has by far grabbed the majority of them including the all time best - Derek and the Dominoes' Layla (it would figure that of all the samples I've used, this is the one that not only features no trace of the riff, but features instead the quiet denouement of slide guitars playing behind the piano during the second movement). To those who don't have it, get it. To those who play guitar, learn it - both parts.
If a great riff can make a good song sound better then a great song can also make a good riff sound better. Layla is a perfect example of both. A delicate balance of bright notes and subtle chords, the two guitarists (Eric Clapton and Duane Allman) play a beautiful call and response melody straight from page one of the blues. After two riffs the band kicks in and delivers one of rock's magic moments. The riff is later used throughout the chorus behind Clapton's "Laylas!" that begins each of his pleas.
My selection was further enhanced by the mystery of the band. A one-off project headed by Clapton, Derek and the Dominoes released only two albums; Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970) and the live In Concert (1973). The death of Duane Allman in 1971 and the drug-alcohol problems of at least two others (Clapton and drummer Jim Gordon) derailed any further works from the band. Despite the proven talent and reputation of the musicians involved, Derek and the Dominoes have gone down in history as rock's favorite one-trick pony - in album and in single. While Clapton would pursue a successful solo career, no other projects from him or his ex-bandmates would equal the chemistry that made Layla one of the best rock albums of all time, Layla one of the best songs of all time, and Clapton and Allman's two-part blues lick the best rock riff of all time.
* audio samples are from the really cool entertainment site FYE Music