Thursday, November 30, 2006

Dear Rudence: Masochism Edition

Dear Rudence is a parody of the advice column Dear Prudence written by Emily Yoffe at Slate Magazine. Original post in the Dear Prudence Fray found here.

Well kids, here we are, back again to offer up clues to people way too horribly confused to take a free gift. Today's selection brought to you by the ashamed mother of a bimboid (presumably bubbly, blonde, and boorish), a whiner with abandonment issues, a cuckold with a desire for further abuse, and a terminal klutz wracked by deserved guilt. I can almost feel the space-time continuum straining to maintain its integrity in the presence of the density of the individuals herein.

Dear Rudence,
My 27-year-old daughter seems like a high schooler because of her vocabulary, mannerisms, and inability to comprehend what's socially acceptable. She talks with a Valley-girl accent and says things like "eeww" if you mention babies, sick people, etc. Her younger siblings are more mature than she is and don't like hanging out with her because she boasts about her inappropriate behavior and makes embarrassing remarks to their friends. She does not realize that these things, along with her over-the-top clothes and makeup, make people dismiss her as a dumb bimbo. (She thinks everyone loves her or is just jealous!) She wasn't the brightest student, but did finish college and has always been able to support herself, although I am concerned about her inability to keep a long-term position. I love her to death and am happy that she's responsible enough to take care of herself and seems to enjoy her life, but the lack of progress in her maturity at 27 really worries me. I'm embarrassed by others' reactions to her (something she obviously doesn't pick up on) and don't know what to say to my friends. If I offer guidance, she says I'm critical. Any suggestions?

—Valley Girl Mom

Dear Van Nuys Roadkill,

Rudie knows that most parents have somewhat greater than realistic perspectives on their offspring, often imbuing even the most remedial retreads with qualities that qualify as near superpowers. "My two-month old son can solve a 5x5 Rubik's Cube with his telekinesis." "My daughter can see through walls and hear the prattle of the dead." "My son can absorb all the information contained in a book just by putting it on his head and allowing gravity to deposit the information directly into his brain." "My daughter can stand on her hands while quoting Shakespeare she's never read, doing my taxes on the 1040 form, and playing classical guitar with one foot and a back scratcher."

Trust me, you may think you have a kid of genuinely average intellect, but think about it. Graduating college is no trick or special ability. Showing up is half the battle, and D is still a passing grade. And there are plenty of "Here's my diploma, now what do I do with my Bachelor of Arts in Flipdippery with a minor in Frobbishment Studies?" sorts of majors which require as much effort to obtain as required for a drunk hamster to fall off his exercise wheel and vomit into his food pellets. Maybe she isn't coming off like a dumb bimbo. Maybe she IS a dumb bimbo.

So, perhaps her talents lie elsewhere.

The only remaining place where the Valley Girl accent still enjoys a level of cultural relevance, not surprisingly, is in the glorious San Fernando Valley where it originated... which, by the by, is also the Porn Capital of the United States, if you didn't know it.

Rudie's guess is that her 'superpower', if she is possessed of one, is the ability to suck spherical sports equipment of a specific diameter through a flexible gardening aqueduct of significantly smaller diameter, or perhaps, the ability to use her vaginal walls as a grasping instrument.

If she has gone down this path, her lack of maturity can only be of benefit to her. Maturity often imposes a somewhat reserved and quietly prideful air about a person, which seems to be the last thing a woman needs to be burdened by if her job consists entirely of allowing largely anonymous well-endowed men intimate access to her netherregions, scream on cue according to what passes loosely for a script, and allow the men in question to... ah... relieve themselves on her person.

When she says that people either love her or are jealous, in this light, it does really seem like a true statement. The men in her life positively adore her, and the women are jealous. Wouldn't you be jealous of someone who gets paid handsomely to do easily that which you strive to do in your personal life to have fun?

—Rudie, envy-is-a-bitter-mistress-ly

Dear Rudence,
How nice do I have to be to my parents? I feel silly asking this question at 43, but I'm really struggling to find a balance. I was perpetually neglected as a child. Not the "you didn't come to my school play!" sort of neglected. I was the kid who was actually told I smelled bad by my classmates kind of neglected. I flailed my way through life with minimal parental involvement and direction. I spent my 20s expressing the anger I couldn't give voice to as a child and my 30s trying to forge a happy life so my parents could enjoy my sons. Then I had an epiphany when I turned 40. I realized that my parents are just plain miserable people. They both seem to have narcissistic personality disorder. They want me and my children in their lives with a grasping, needy desperateness, but then they are critical and unpleasant. We live in the same town, and have their only grandchildren—my only sibling wisely lives far away. My parents are with us every Christmas day. I just don't want to do it this year. I want to hang out with my boys and go to a movie if I want. It makes me feel kind of sick to think about my parents being alone on Christmas day, but when I think of having them here, I'm filled with dread. In addition, my best friend is dying, and that's been devastating. Am I a jerk if I blow them off this year?

—Emotionally Exhausted

Dear Options Exhausted,

It might be nice if you'd ask one question per letter. Right here we have a coterie of issues, each of which might, in and of itself, be sufficient fodder for aspiring psychologist's theses. Rudie is wondering, perchance, if you are aware of the Dear Rudence policy? Clearly not.

First clue is free, the second is a dollar, and each subsequent multiplies your running total by 2. For example, if you are in need of three clues, the first is free, the second is a dollar, and the third doubles your total... for a grand total of 2 dollars. Easy, huh?

Relax. Rudie is certain that a person as intelligent and well-adjusted as yourself can certainly come up with enough spare change in your couch to cover the bill.

By the way, the repetition of easily obtainable policy qualifies as your first, and only, free clue. The remedial math lesson counts as your first additional clue. Right now, you owe me a dollar.

CLUE! Current Total: $2
Given the fact that most parents probably do more damage to your average child than any other force in their lives, you don't have to be nice to them at all. "Nice", as you put it, should be a sliding reward inversely proportional to the amount of shit you've taken due to their negligence, stupidity, or plain old lack of kindness. For you, nice, as weak and namby-pamby a word as it is, is probably too strong for the tepid treatment you should be giving them.

CLUE! Current Total: $4
You waited for your parents to take an interest in you, and they did not. Survival instincts, should they exist within you, should probably have given you a strong lesson in the folly of blind reliance on others and the virtue of self-sufficiency. So quit feeling like you've been abandoned at the altar by an unrequited love. They've given you the most valuable lesson they could teach you: don't count on them.

CLUE! Current Total: $8
Neglect is no excuse for not establishing some level of equity with the level of 'civilization' exhibited by your classmates. How much direction does one really need to pick up a bar of soap and a bottle of shampoo in the shower? How much parental training and attention does one really require to slather on a little deodorant?

CLUE! Current Total: $16
Regardless of the amount of psychological damage that your parents visited upon you, you must understand that you spent your 20's, arguably the most happy and carefree time in any person's life, kvetching about it. We all make mistakes, but spending a decade yelling about your awful lot in life regardless of the anger was a biggie.

CLUE! Current Total: $32
This clue comes in the form of an observation:
You spend your twenties bitching about your parents, "expressing your anger", so you spent the next ten forging a happy life for the purpose of making these twits happy. Hmm. Very interesting.

CLUE! Current Total: $64
People who are still having epiphanies after exhausting half of their projected lifespan should maybe place "Coming To Practical Terms With Reality" a little higher on their collective priority lists.

CLUE! Current Total: $128
Quite a few parents seem to end up plain miserable. It seems to come from the idea that their usefulness as people has come to an end the second the kids leave the roost. While this may not be true, old habits die hard, and they've grooved the idea of themselves as perpetual caregivers into their crania so hard that only a palsied neurosurgeon with cataracts would be able to unfurrow that mindset. Yours are doubly engrained of this because they're coming to terms with the unmitigated series of nothingness they gave you as a child. That they are critical and unpleasant has much to do with the aforementioned old habits dying hard.

CLUE! Current Total: $256
Perhaps your remote sibling, in his/her decision to move far away from the parents, has blazed a trail for you here. It's really not that difficult to see. The trees to either side are still on fire.

CLUE! Current Total: $512
How the hell do you manage to feel sick for them being alone on Christmas? You've apparently spent your entire life cloyingly expecting their attention and... well... parenthood... and they've never delivered on it. They have each other, and are perfectly capable of being miserable without you being there and including you in the 'festivities'. Go with the dread. Fifteen minutes into the movie, you'll think it's just the director trying to build suspense and succeeding.

CLUE! Current Total: $1024
Yes, you are a jerk if you blow them off, but you're an asshole if you invite them over. If your incessant whining about the life you've had is even a quarter as truthful as you've thus stated, you are owed a big, fat vacation from yet another in a long line of horrid Christmas bullshit at the behest of your clingy, neglectful parents.

Wow, $1024. That added up pretty quick, didn't it? Well, Rudie does have a soft side, although he's not wont to show it often, but Christmas just brings it out in him... Tell ya what. Rudie'll knock off the 24 dollars and make it an even $1000. Call it a Christmas present. Money orders, cash, certified check, credit accepted. Please remit to [CENSORED BY RUDENCE EDITOR DUE TO EXTREMELY POOR TASTE. PERS. NOTE: RUDIE'S FLOGGING WILL BE MY PERSONAL GIFT TO YOU THIS NOEL.]

—Rudie, quit-it-with-the-cat-o-nine-tails-boss-ly

Dear Rudence,
I'm in my early 30s and getting divorced after only a year and a half of marriage. My soon-to-be ex confessed seven months into our marriage about an affair she had only a few months after our wedding. We spent most of the year in therapy, even though she often said she didn't think it would work. Finally, we decided to divorce amicably using a mediator. Recently, a friend informed me that her affair wasn't a moment of weakness, but a months-long relationship—my wife had moved to another city to start school, and my intention was to follow her there next year. I've been told they have seen each other again. I came to the marriage with a good job, savings, and an expensive apartment. I was devoted to her and supported her while she followed her dream to go back to school. Now I feel like a chump. My original plan for an amicable divorce now seems naive and part of me wants to get the divorce papers signed, tell her she's not getting a dime of my money, and never speak to her again. However, I feel bad thinking about her in an unrelenting and expensive city with a part-time job and a mountain of student loans. Are those the feelings of a nice guy trying to do the right thing, or someone who doesn't understand that this is an infected limb that needs quick and decisive amputation?

—Scared To Be Cruel

Dear Too Stupid To Be Scared,

Let me see if Rudie's got this straight. You lasted a whole year and a half with this woman. You were prepared to split amicably when you found out that she cheated on you once. Then you found out she cheated on you for months and probably intends to get with this guy after all this is over. Now you feel all chumpy. You want to cut her off at the knees, yet you experience guilt at leaving her financially bereft.

Rudie could draw you a map, but Magellan you ain't.

People like you make Rudie want to dip his wang in an aquarium full of pissed off electric eels, piranha, and comb jellyfish, then start banging on the sides, chumming the water, and hitting the occupants with pieces of driftwood.

*CHUM* *CHUM* *ZZZZZZZZTTT!* (flailing and snapping of a feeding frenzy is heard, at the same time lethal poison barbs pierce tender flesh)

AHHHH... all the shocks, searing pain of mascerated flesh, and the wooziness from the impending poison coma have cleared Rudie's head of all the psychic pain your idiocy has induced.

Rudie needs to go to the hospital. You need to grow a spine.

-Rudie, time-to-join-the-rest-of-the-chordates-ly

Dear Prudence,
At work, I accidentally knocked over and broke a beloved, handmade, one-of-a-kind coffee mug belonging to a person I am not well-acquainted with. I apologized profusely and offered to reimburse her for a replacement, though in reality, it could never be replaced. She was quite gracious and told me not to worry about it and that reimbursement was not necessary. Should I accept her graciousness and leave it at that? Or should I try to locate a mug to replace it? I feel awful destroying something that was so obviously loved. I don't know whether to reimburse her, give her another mug, or let it go. What do you think?


Dear Dumbles,

Since Rudie has already sacrificed his "family heirlooms" to the creatures of briny deep for the purpose of excising the pain... a pain caused by being subject to depleted uranium shells of abject intellectual density shot at him by Blinky the Cuckold above... he will have to come up with some other method of ignoring the pain you're causing right here.

Now listen very carefully... are suggesting...
...that you can replace a ONE-OF-A-KIND mug...
...or somehow reimburse monetarily something which is probably priceless in its sentimental value...
...and you are doing this in all seriousness...

Bravo! Rudie didn't think he could be brought lower.

In honor of your dedication to the art of fuckwitry, Rudie will, quite literally, cut off his nose to spite his face while simultaneously giving himself a concussion. This to silence the screaming wraiths of psychological damage that are, right now, driving doughnuts in monster trucks all over what's left of his sanity.

Fortunately, Rudie has available a set of rusty, blunted kitchen shears and a ball peen hammer approximately the same size as a leg of his kitchen table.



-Rudie, ................-ly

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Rudie's Rants: Rudie Has A Headache And It's Your Fault

Far be it from Rudie to mince words, as you well know. He has a headache, and yes, it is your fault. You. Not the guy standing behind you... well him too, but we're talking about you here. Let's try to stay focused, take your Ritalin if you must.

Rudie has gone off at length in the past about what general contempt and disregard he holds the human race, and there is no reason to doubt the merit of those reactions... there are simply no signs that humanity's predilections for stupidity, barbarism, and cultural irrelevancy are in any way abating. Those occasional flashes of penultimate worth you see are nothing more than a mirage... fleeting glimpses of what could be... just before someone pours industrial runoff through it, then takes a dump on top for good measure.

Yep. You all suck.

But like he says, Rudie does not mince words. Rudie, being a willing accomplice in the con that is our pitiful existence, sucks too. Sucks out loud, if you really want to know the truth. One cannot be purely contemptuous if one participates willfully in what one despises, and in this regard, Rudie is just as damn guilty as the rest of you simps in propagating the sham that pits a cruel creator against his flawed, dullard, hapless charges.

But this time, Rudie's headache is really all your fault.

Rudie can accept the fact that most of you are about 3 IQ points above the "hey, I'm a sentient being" cutoff line, while the rest are several dozen points below. Of this latter group, Rudie must ask, if he cut out your conscience, intellect, and sense of propriety, much like a farmer cuts off the head of a chicken, would you just mill about in a circle eating your own feces? In other words, would nothing change?

Just curious. Digression is a tempting indulgence, and Rudie will indulge.

But what Rudie has come to expect from the human race is at least a passing interest in fobbing oneself off as something slightly more civilized, better groomed, and more intelligent than the village idiot just after he suffers a self-inflicted brain injury involving a precarious and ill-advised jaunt along the rooftops... something about gravity does not suffer fools.

And here's where the headache comes in. While Rudie is content to accept the idiocy, vituperousness, and general ill will of the human race as de rigeur he's becoming more than just a little pissed about the blatancy of it all.

And you're just as guilty as anyone else. Paying for a pack of smokes at a 7-11 with a credit card? This all whilst Rudie stands two assholes back with a 24oz of poor, insipidly brewed go-juice in three fingers on his right hand, two singles gripped between the other two, and his whole left hand squeezing the shit out of his ballsack to induce greater pain and suffering than the goony moronitude being displayed is causing him.

Did you buy a minivan, SUV, or other Family Truckster in Metallic Pea? Rudie knows you bought it because of "the children". Now could you please explain to him why the only thing he ever sees in your Familyvaluesmobile is a consumerist fuckwit and a pile of shit from Pottery Barn? Excuse Rudie while he cracks his own skull with your tire iron and rams the jack up his own ass. No lube, thanks.

And in this gloriously vulgar age of instant video shorts authored by 12-year-olds with handheld devices possessing more computing power than my desktop, and richer video editing features than Industrial Light and Magic... where everything of even passing interest to at least two people shows up on YouTube no later than 15 minutes after it actually happened (complete with professional bumps and lead-in commentary, no less)... politicians have the audacity to claim that they didn't say something when there's enough shit on "teh internets" to damn them to the 14th Circle of Heck. To add the insult to the salted wound of the injury, some people actually buy the bullshit. To these "some," as Douglas Adams once opined, "the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys".

Speaking of handheld devices... have you ever "shushed" somebody in a public place because you can't hear the person you're talking to on your cellphone?

Seppuku is actually starting to sound like a completely reasonable act.

Rudie cannot believe he's saying this, but in the interest of the ongoing migraine he suffers on account of your utter lack of manners, morals, intelligence...

People, take better care to hide your stupid, please.

Why It's Not A "Civil War" In Iraq

A "civil war" in Iraq? Are you kidding me? What a bunch of malarkey. I haven't heard this much public policy manipulation since Time Magazine announced that Lance Bass was gay. Why not just blackball the poor kid at Hooters while you're at it. It's disgusting. (Not being gay. Being gay is fine. Stylish, even. Gay is the new "it" girl, as it were.)

If you bury your head in that sand any deeper, you're gonna strike oil, especially if you happen to be at the gulf coast, where there's oil aplenty we're not allowed to drill for, for whatever reason. Thanks, liberal everglades huggers!

We may be on the cusp of losing 3,000 American GIs. We may have inadvertently killed possibly over 100,000 Iraqi civilians. We may be in the middle of a quagmire the likes of which we haven't seen since Clarence Thomas was pointing out pubic hairs on cans of Coke for the enlightenment and bemusement of his coworkers. (Face it: It was funny. Real funny.)

But one thing we can be sure of? It's not a civil war in Iraq. Why? That's easy.

Because Matt Lauer said it was

Yeah. That's quite the endorsement. If I'm not mistaken, isn't this the same crew at The Today Show, that crack staff of investigative journalists who broke the red hot story that the flooding in New Orleans may or may not have been caused by rising water levels? Whatever, Matt. You might want to stick with getting the skinny on Nicole Richie's weight loss. (Pun so intended.)

Because NPR kept implying it was all weekend

I mean honestly. Those pinheaded communists constantly asking me for my money so they can spread trumped-up lies and persiflage over the airwaves have a lot of nerve, especially considering the fact that they laud that overblown anti-Semite, Jimmy Carter, on Fresh Air (with your host, Terry Gross, lesbian [how convenient]), a former president, no less, who all but comes out and says that the problems in the Middle East all stem from the fact that Israel deserves to exist and that every non-Jew who wanted peace in the region was subsequently assassinated by some Zionist whack job intent on keeping Palestine on a short leash. Who's the insane retard now, Jim? Take a good long look in the mirror, Asshat P. McDoofus. All Things Considered, huh? Right. More like All Things We, The Liberal Media, Deem Pertinent, Relevant And Biased Toward Furthering Our Own Leftist Agenda Considered.

Because the alleged participants in this so-called "civil war" are not clearly differentiated by the color of their uniforms

E.g., blue versus grey? Ring any bells? Wake up!

Because it's just a phase Iraq is going through

Come on. We've all been there. You get to be around 12 or 13 and your body starts to change. You have urges, anxiety, depression. You're confused. You lash out. Next thing you know, you have a party when your parents are out of town, there's underage drinking, drugs, and 74 people have been blown up into a million pieces because Jason and Amber broke up after Kim had an anxiety attack. This is nothing more than Iraq's "going through puberty", but it's certainly not a "civil war". Please.

Because no one tried to free any slaves

Unless you count the regard in which women are held in Islam. But that's not the point. The point is that a civil war has to be about political ideology, not about religion, defense contracts, and oil. Case closed.

Because "civil wars" must have good guys and bad guys

I'm really beginning to feel sorry for you. Okay, let's back up. Remember back in middle school American history, with the textbook you had to sign your name in reporting the relative condition of the book, and your responsibility to report any damage to it, before and after it was issued to you? Remember? Well then think back to the nearly 4.3 pages devoted to that North/South conflict. Remember who the good guys were, and the bad? Wrong! In Iraq's case, that criteria just doesn't hold water. Because they're all bad. It's so mind-boggingly obvious.

Because everyone's confusing a surge in "sectarian violence" with a surge in "civil war"

Which, if you think about it, is pretty easy to do. "Surge"? "Urge"? "Urges"? Yet again, historical puberty on a national scale rears its ugly head. Again.

Because "civil war" implies, well, "war"

It's right there in the title phrase. Iraq, however, is, like Korea, a "police action". Nothing more, nothing less. And I'm not exactly seeing footage of GI Joe directing traffic, unless it's at a checkpoint, which is about to blow up, or GI Jane handing out parking citations or "rounding up perps". That doesn't count. If it's a "war", then where are the front lines? You can't have a "war" unless you've got clearly demarcated lines of battle, like the diarrhea-filled trenches of France circa 1917, or the "behind enemy lines" of Germany circa 1944, or the jungles of Vietnam circa 1985's Rambo: First Blood Part II (with the revered director, George P. Cosmatos at the helm). Looks like it's not so quiet on this western front after all. You lose.

Because it's an "insurgency", not a "civil war"

Here we go again. "Insurgency"? "Surge"? "Urge"? Aww. Iraq's first "that time of the month". I suspect that if you were feeling bloated and moody, it's not any stretch of the imagination that you might feel like taking out an orphanage with a 50 caliber Gatling gun. Clearly you've never met my ex-girlfriend whilst she was "on the rag", which seemed, basically, like, I don't know, all the time. Looks like it's about time America broke out the Midol. Chamomile tea on the march! It's so devastatingly cute. Girl, you'll be a woman soon/Soon you'll need a man… Sing it, Neil!

Because we're losing

Don't you see? By virtue of the fact that we, America, are losing means, by default, that it, by definition, can't be a "civil war", because we aren't one of the "sides" that are fighting. I.e., you cannot, ever, have more than 2 "sides" in a "civil war". It doesn't work that way. Obviously.

So, to sum up: It's not a "civil war" in Iraq because of "Let's see what's happening in your neck of the woods", Robert Siegel not using "the math" when analyzing polls, Old Glory/Johnny Reb, awkward boners, Uncle Tom's Cabin, "Good, Fair, Poor", more awkward boners, Richard Crenna was robbed at the '85 Oscars, proof of insurance, "I'm now talking to the 19 people inside of Sybil", and "We'd like to get that number up to 3,000 by the first of the year."

Any questions? Class dismissed.

Taking the Nazis down a notch

Though she almost ruins her piece by stretching things passed the point of credibilty at times (e.g. the "nuclear option" was not actually executed, and IMO would not have been the blow to democracy McWhorter makes it out to be), I think Diane McWhorter makes some good points about the dangers of our putting Nazism on its own unique evil pedestal.

During the Dick Durbin flap, it amazed me that the Administration and its defenders actually were trying to move Durbin's words in the direction of a direct equivalence with Nazism. Then, they could invoke Godwin's law, discredit Durbin, game, set, match.

To me, this is stunning. And it seems to create a perverse incentive. If you're going to enact policies that have somewhat fascist overtones, you may as well go all the way and get as close to the line of absolute fascism as you can. That way, you'll probably attract a comparison to Nazi Germany, which you can use to discredit not only that critic but more measured criticisms as well. You make the story about that -- the press and blogosphere will eat it up, since it's more interesting than investigating the ins and outs of legitmate criticism.

Thus, "not as bad as Nazi Germany" becomes our new moral standard. And indeed, "not quite as bad as Nazi Germany" becomes a preferable position to "somewhat questionable."

It's time to take the Nazis off the pedestal.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Google-bombing = dirty trick?

In a Slate article, Bonnie Goldstein outlines the Democrats' Google-bombing campaign. She notes, "This variety of Googlebombing appears to be the first campaign dirty trick (practitioners prefer the term "netroots citizen activism") in many a year to be pioneered by Democrats."

First, the technique is hardly new. InstaPundit referred to it in 2002(scroll up a tick). Perhaps today's Google-bombing is more sophisticated than 2002's Google-bombing, as the bombers and Google strucggle to keep up with each other.

Second, if this is what "dirty tricks" look like today, then we're in pretty good shape. It used to be that if you wanted to flood the zone with your message about a candidate, all it took was control (or purchase of ad space) of a few media outlets.

Now, you have to try to manipulate the algorithm of a search engine so that your take on a candidate appears before all the other takes that anybody can publish and anybody can access.

It seems to me that if Google-bombing is a "dirty trick," then we've got a true marketplace of ideas out there. It may give those who use it a (somewhat) unfair head start, but it doesn't end the race.

The Slowest Poet I Know

Several years ago, in one of many moments of wavering between getting a doctorate or making something of myself, I signed up for a poetry class with Marie Ponsot. She spent a good part of the first session introducing us to each other through our work : she read one of each of our submissions. It was kind of excruciating, for Marie is the slowest poet I know. A line break occasions a moment of silence and reflection; a period allows one to go out and grab a cuppa. Yet in the course of ten sessions with her and some very nice fellow-travelers, I came to appreciate her velocity.

For Marie, poetry is an art of attentiveness. In part, she means fixating on detail, as in her poem "Explorers Cry out Unheard"

What I have in mind is the last wilderness.

I sweat to learn its heights of sun, scrub, ants,
its gashes full of shadows and odd plants
as inch by inch it yields to my hard press.

Marie wanted us to take in each tuft, clod, and moss-heap and turn them into bricks of language, foundations for saying the things she believed each of us had a god-given need to say.

What she had to say usually involved the ways the things of the world held not only poetry together, but also bound her to the rest of us:

And the way behind me changes as I advance.
If interdependence shapes the biomass,
though I plot my next steps by pure chance
I can't go wrong. Even willful deviance
connects me to all the rest. The changing past
includes and can't excerpt me…

Marie's technique of teaching attentiveness was aural. She insisted that our first encounters with each other's poetry come through listening. The parts of the poem that were heard most clearly – that was the heart of what we had to say to each other. And so we spent a semester reading aloud, listening, telling each other what we heard.

Marie believed in metrics, and found cadences everywhere. One evening she arrived in class late; she'd seen a dance performance. The dancers had chanted as they moved, clapping in rhythms that Marie identified in the manner of the Greeks: anapests, iambs, troches. In the way that a certain frequency of energy can destroy a bridge, she thought these collections of stress could kick you, beautiful and terrible.

Marie's teaching seldom made individual poems better. Instead, she made us better poets. She encouraged silliness, formal bravado, improbable corralling of verbs. She could make a poem turn in on its own logical underpinnings. Take the aforementioned explorers:

… Memory grants
just the nothing it knows, and my distress
drives me toward the imagined truths I stalk,
those savages.

This interconnectedness thing may not be all it's cracked up to be. What is it that I think I'm seeking, and how will I know when I find it?

It's the kind of improbable yet logical reversal Marie loves, and she comes about it slowly, in due time, giving each vowel its luxuriant breath, until, sometimes abruptly, she stops:

… Warned by their haunting talk,
their gestures, I guess they mean no. Or yes.

And here is this thing undone. This aged lady, crossing the street at a geologic pace, has just shot herself and her readers with a dart poisoned with god knows what root, and that, of course, is the reason the explorers cry out unheard.

To undo what you have done, to take risks with words, to listen for the separate cadences of keyboards, city buses, elms, or Pop Rocks, to say precisely what you have to say: that slowness is what Marie taught. Or, summed up in a single sentence (mantra, motto, prophesy):

"English is more powerful than you are."

Thanks to islandtime for reminding me.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Five (minus two) More Thoughts - Social Justice Ed.

  1. Killing people, that is, looking them in the eye and murdering them (ignoring for the sake of discussion the usual realpolitikal weaseling of the biblical shalt nots) is bad. Most of us grade the badness on a curve based on the level of malice committed, as probably we should. For example, if you commit murder in a spontaneous rage, it's less bad than if you spend a month contemplating it, and less bad than if you torture somebody over the course of days (again ignoring...). You can consider the cumulative evil as, roughly, the area under the violence-time curve.

    (Parenthetically, the resistance to this evil is a good definition of toughness. In materials science, toughness is the area under the stress-strain curve. It measures how much ill treatment can be absorbed before failure, how much overall. Although it's cumulative, it also varies with the rate of abuse.)

    Here's the thing though, we happily let people fall off the bottom edge of the evil scale. The bullying boss, the browbeating wife, the inconsiderate smoker, each of these people is likely to commit more stress over a longer period of time than someone who puts a knife through someone's heart. And even if the end result is the same--death through a broken spirit or through lung cancer--only the murder that peaks high in violence is a serious crime. Although it's no doubt unworkable from a criminal justice standpoint, it would be interesting (and better?) if our notions of social acceptance were wired differently. The victims of these long-simmering traumas are also tougher, of course, than people usually give them credit for. Our animal selves are not wired to love the people who willingly take shit every day of their lives. Paradoxically, they only attain social status when they resist their slow oppression with sudden violence.

    It's the rate we respect.

  2. Many of you know that I keep a blog apart from here. For reasons I myself don't fully grasp, I try to keep that content full of my more "writerly" stuff (though I'm considering dumping it all in there). One thing I do that seems appropriate in that motif are book reviews. If you have a Stat CounterTM, one thing it can do is keep track of what search queries caused people to land on your blog. For a low-traffic site like mine, book reviews are a magnet for new arrivals, and it gives me a warm fuzzy in those rare instance when they go on to look at pages other than the one they landed on.

    On the other hand, I'm pretty sure it's been a source of ill-researched book reports. (There are the .edu domains for one thing, and when someone googles "book report of XXX," it's sort of a hint.) I don't know what to make of this, really. I'm probably less sanctimonious about plagiarism than you are, but on the other hand, even I can see how wrongness accrues as an area-under-the-curve thing. It's not as though any of these hapless schmucks is going to pass for me (in the unlikely event they'd want to) but I'm enough of a prick that I'd be happy if I knew a way to encode some bombs to alert a wary teacher that some kid is skating by on my material. Any ideas?

    Popular book report queries, if you were wondering, are Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin, and Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut. I kind of wish I tried harder on those reviews. Maybe brilliant writing would have been enough to out the sneaky little bastards.

  3. I hate spammers more than plagiarists, and if they are not as bad as murderers, they still deserve a special place in hell. Just the same, they are quirky enough to provide me with amusement from time to time. It's tough to imagine that any sane email reader would answer an intimate letter from Melinda, especially when he's sitting on a boxful of identical ones from Raul, Julio, Ingrid, Courtney, Alice, Davey, Mustafa, Clementine, Axl, Stimpy, and Masumi and all of these old friends are just so suspiciously eager to sell their stores of Viagra and Ambien at discount rates. Penny stocks aren't much better--you'd have to be stunningly naïve to conclude that the avalanche of insider information from people you've never heard of constitutes some kind of clever tip.

    Sure, you'll land some suckers with those techniques--stunning naivete being all too abundant--but smart spammers, should they exist, need to capitalize on subjects to which people spend lifetimes conditioning themselves in gullibility (the stock market is not a bad stab at this, I admit). I'm talking religion. If J. Random Idiot got 114 emails telling them that Jesus (or Mohammed or Krishna) asked--no commanded--them to donate a dollar or to buy into Avalanche Pharmaceuticals (AVP, now trading at $1.98/share--last chance!), then that would really strike to the heart of their unreason. You just know that otherwise functioning members of society would be squirming themselves into knots about donating. Because what if God really does want me to do it?
So send $1.25 to Keifus at the address below or risk eternal damnation. Ganesh commands you!

A favourite story

Anybody remember the short story about the kid who was so fast, so amazingly, unbelievable fast that he couldn’t lose.

He dreamed of the day of the race when all would see his blinding speed. Running home on his own, he measured his winning margin. It grew by the day. Sometimes he would toy with the rest of them, slow down to let them think they had a chance, then laugh and burst away like a superman. Finally, the day of the race. He exploded off the starting line, how could others not wonder in amazement? Already he was alone, the rest would race for second. In his rapture he closed his eyes, and ran even faster. The wind pushed his face, pressed his eyes and screamed through his hair. He smiled to himself. A few more steps and he would open his eyes, and bask in their glory.

Well, we know what happened (ain’t no ribbons for fourth).

It’s a favourite, I think, because lots of things make me think of that story. This was the latest.

WikiFray Plagiarism Policy (draft for discussion)

It’s not just because we’re already famous that plagiarism has real implications for WikiFray. When an author seeks recourse under Digital Millennium Copyright Act for unauthorized use of their work, a service provider is obliged to take action and may block access to the site where the infringement has occurred, or they may take down the site altogether.

Plagiarism Guidelines (proposed):

  1. Post content that is not original must include proper citation
    • except for phrases in common use. In the event of uncertainty about whether a source is common, the poster should err on the side of caution.

  2. Failure to cite non-original material may result in the following:
    • the poster may be notified of the problem, and asked to edit or remove the post;
    • the post may be deleted by an admin;
    • other blog members may be advised, by post or email, of the actions taken.

  3. When someone spots a problem in a post on the blog, they should
    • contact the poster in question and explain the problem, requesting an edit or removal of the material in question;
    • contact admin if they’re unsatisfied with the person’s response, or if they are unable to reach them;
    • advise others as appropriate.
Because there is always the possibility that a citation is missing due to an HTML error, the benefit of the doubt ought to be accorded the author of the offending post whenever possible. Unless it is a particularly egregious offense, they should be given the opportunity to address the problem before other action is taken.

A few points about citation:

When an idea is common knowledge it is not necessary to cite its source. Less clear is the handling of short quotes that are in common usage, but which nevertheless can be attributed to an author. Does the fact that I had to look up attribution for “cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war” (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar) mean that I can use it without citation? Probably not, but the fact that it’s a phrase in common use probably does. I’m thinking “rosy-fingered dawn” also needs no attribution.

Unless the work you’re quoting is designated as "Some Rights Reserved" or included in the Creative Commons, cutting and pasting entire articles, or even substantial portions of them, violates the guidelines of fair use. Material from the Creative Commons may be used with fewer restrictions than copyrighted material, but attribution is generally required. See the Electronic Frontier Foundation for a brief explanation of fair use and other issues, including the appropriate use of borrowed images in a post.

Other questions to consider:
  1. In terms of context, consequences, anonymity and accountability, is WikiFray a different environment than the Fray?
  2. What about a member’s history prior to blog? Should someone be held accountable on the blog for something they did on the Fray?
I admit that I didn’t check the copyright on the images I posted in my Poetry Slam posts. I also failed to address the recent problem with topazz's post in the manner outlined above, even though I had every opportunity to do so. And I’m one-hundred percent sure I could find unattributed quotes in one or two of my posts on the fray.

If anyone feels I should remove myself from membership on the blog because of these transgressions, I’m willing to do so. If not, where do you think the we ought to draw the line?

Sunday, November 26, 2006


The idea of damnation is that you could commit and act so egregious as to take precedence over all other counterbalancing acts. A damning act is one that defines us.

The American Heritage Dictionary (online version – but of course) defines damnation as:

1. The act of damning or the condition of being damned.
2. a. Condemnation to everlasting punishment; doom.
b. Everlasting punishment.
3. Failure or ruination incurred by adverse criticism.

Damned is defined here:
1. Condemned, especially to eternal punishment.
2. Informal. Deserving condemnation; detestable: this damned weather.
3. Used as an intensive: a damned fool.

That a single act could define us relates to both the concept of shame, and subsequent cognitive dissonance regarding a behavior we might initially have seen as uncharacteristic of ourselves. Though I might believe myself to be a good person, I might commit an immoral act that violates my assumptions about who I am. When faced with such a conflict, my choices are to either alter my behavior [redemption] or alter my belief about myself [damnation], or the act I committed [rationalization].

If I commit murder, I might first look for mitigating aspects of the situation, so I am not left considering myself to be a “murderer.” I might have killed on the battlefield (good soldier), I might have killed by mistake (unfortunate accident), or for self-defense, or when my capacities were diminished by emotional strain, intoxication, or psychiatric condition.

Without a situational mitigation, I am left with an unfortunate dilemma – I can either alter my beliefs about murder (e.g. I’ve released their soul to heavenly splendor) or myself (I’m a rapacious bastard, and I like that I’m a rapacious bastard – makes me the meanest mutherfucker in town). In the former of these two, I’ve sacrificed my connection to reality in an attempt to preserve positive self-concept – implementation of psychotic reasoning. In the latter, I’ve damned myself; I’ve disowned the greater part of myself – my self-conceptualization prior to the act – and forced instead a self-definition that excludes my core morality.

We all behave in uncharacteristic ways at times. In fact, it’s one of the inevitable aspects of correcting ourselves. When I behave in an uncharacteristic manner, I’m challenging the manner in which I’ve previously been defining myself. Optimally, this represents a growth experience – I explore a previously undeveloped aspect of myself, and then subsequently find some way to integrate this into my larger self-concept. In this way, I broaden my repertoire of adaptive responses. Should I stray too far, however – lock my children in the car and push it down the boat ramp, for example, or kill my ex-wife and her lover in a fit of jealous rage, then I’ve not broadened my repertoire at all – I’ve limited it. Once I’ve damned myself, and forced a schism between where I am now and where I was then, I’ve lost access to those things that were previously rewarding – that seemed to define me. The gulf between the aspects of myself seems unbreachable.

Other people, of course, also play a role in this process. Once I’ve committed an uncharacteristic, and potentially damning act, I might consult my friends. If they are good friends, they’ll attempt to reflect me in my entirety – both the person I have been, and the person who committed the act, and help my find ways to reconcile the two conceptualizations of myself. Less true friends, however, will sacrifice my best interest for their own emotional comfort. They will respond to the vicarious shame by either minimizing what I’ve done, or by damning me for it. In these instances, they are refusing to provide me with a reflection of myself that encompasses both the before and after, because some aspect of the act has made them so uncomfortable, they cannot go there with me.

So, the process of redemption then, from this framework, involves an integration between aspects of myself that seem irreconcilable, while damnation involves reinforcement of a schism between my self-concept before and after I committed whatever egregious act. The role you play, in either the damnation or redemption of others, depends on the degree to which you are able to avoid projecting your own feelings of shame onto a person in a specific situation, and your ability to communicate a unified impression of that person back to them.

We must tend to our own gardens, before we can offer assistance to others.

For ourselves, then, redemption consists not on reinforcing the schism between the seemingly irreconcilable aspects of ourselves by denying one or the other, or withdrawing from the conflict, but by actively attempting to reconcile the two. We must tend to the entire garden, not allow part to become fallow while we direct our attention exclusively elsewhere*.

[This same framework also applies to the process of countertransference in psychotherapy.]

*This conceptualization seems to fly in the face of traditional (ie. Catholic) views on the subject, but I believe its closer to the original conceptual intent than what is traditionally purveyed. It seems we're always at the mercy of people who are unable to bridge the gulfs in themselves, and are therefore unable to assist us in our attempts to do the same. It's a very unchristian view of the matter, however, from the perspective of new testament philosophy.

Friday, November 24, 2006

My brother got hooked on crystal meth

Yesterday I met with the psychiatrist from the mental health team that's been overseeing his case for the last few months. Despite the fact that the symptoms of psychosis persist, he informed me that he would retain the "substance-induced" diagnosis, because it can take up to a year for meth-induced psychosis to resolve. Without a psychiatric diagnosis, my brother has access to little in the way of resources, save for traditional drug treatment, which might be helpful if he could actually engage in treatment, but he can’t. He’s so far been dismissed from three treatment centres in two months... He's waiting for admission to a fourth—this one with a better handle on meth-users’ special problems. Better handle is probably a stretch, though, because people with meth-induced psychosis really need to be in a residential psychiatric facility for 5-9 months before their brain chemistry will balance out enough to make drug rehab worthwhile. This is not available. They don't lock people up anymore. We’ve moved on to community-based care, but he’s not eligible for that, because he doesn’t have a psychiatric diagnosis. All his participation is voluntary, so the fact that he can’t keep track of anything for even five minutes is a problem. He was dismissed from one recovery house because he failed to take his meds. He failed to take his meds because he couldn’t remember to take them. Treatment centres and psych wards have released him without notifying us, which is about equivalent to dropping a six year-old child off on the street to fend for himself. This is how it goes: no case manager overseeing his treatment, no communication with the family because of privacy laws, and no resources of the type that he actually 1) needs, and 2) of which he can avail himself.

I have experience working with the mentally ill and with addicts in recovery and I've never seen anything like this, never seen anyone this vulnerable, this lost, this resistant to help. And it's not just resistance—he can't ever see that it's help. He raves. He spins like a top. If there's a way back, I haven't been able to see it for him. He wants to die. He talks about it often—how it would be easier than the life he's now living. Eighteen months ago he was as normal as you or I.

This is the problem with crystal meth: its captives are so rapidly and so profoundly undone. They move quickly beyond reach, away from everything that knows them. It doesn't happen to all of them, but this is why many of them will die.

So the psychiatrist listens to me tell him that my brother was a successful small business owner for fifteen years, that he’s shared custody and care of his 13 year-old son up until the point when the drugs took over, that he does not have a long-term drug habit, that he in fact developed this one after nine months of ADD meds, which he was unable to regulate his use of and so quit taking, that he’s been unable to comply with treatment, that he only recently started taking his meds, that he's still disorganized, still hearing voices. The doctor leafs through his file and asks about his arrest last summer for uttering threats on the phone to his ex-girlfriend, convinced she was part the conspiracy against him. I explain that he now has a bail supervisor and that drug rehab has been mandated by the court, which is good, because he’s not really anti-social, and the criminal justice stuff has so far moved him to compliance (when he can remember appointments). I don’t bother tell him about how they held him in pre-trial for a week, and how glad I was—because it was like catching a moth in a glass before he beat himself to death on the porch light—how I urged them to hold him until he could go to treatment, to not release him, how they released him anyway, and he got high, of course, because the lizard brain wants its succor and it is driving.

I thought he was going to die. My beautiful, intelligent, talented brother had grown barely visible inside the arrogant and volatile shell of a person he'd become. When he stayed at the house, I had trouble sleeping, worried that he would decide I—his nemesis—was the person behind all his misery. I was the one who called 911 when he threatened to kill himself. I was the one who called the police when he grew menacing. He’d never been violent in his life, but this drug made him hostile and unpredictable. The cats were afraid of him, and so was I.

I have been angry at him. I've been tired, disgusted, aloof, furious, terrified and despairing. I've shut him out. I've thought it might be easier if he did die.

Today the psychiatrist advised me to contact his bail supervisor, to ask him to call the mental health team and request that my brother's file be transferred to the forensic psychiatric centre. It's not residential treatment, he said, but my brother would get real case management there. They'd give him more support, more structure, and would actually keep tabs on him, supervise his meds, his rehab, his re-integration into work and community and life.

I had this guy, his bail supervisor, on the phone as my mom took my brother in to his scheduled meeting with him. Although the man had just told me he didn’t have the authority to request the transfer, that my brother wasn’t in the right funding group for that intervention—maybe it’s because I speak the language, maybe I convinced him that my brother is a good candidate for rehab, is worth the extra effort, because my brother came home and informed me that he was getting referred to the forensic psych centre. He was happy about it. He’s been taking his meds for about ten days, too, and he’s coming back to us. Incrementaly, the symptoms resolve, and he’s mostly himself now. He can feel us again—that we’re not just interfering in his life, making things hard for him, but that we're trying to help. He's still volatile, but he recovers from anger quickly. He’s remarkably cooperative. His communication skills are excellent. He’s almost three months clean.

Today, for the first time since this ordeal—his year-long descent into psychosis—began, I allowed myself to hope. I just went downstairs to find him spreading a sheet of tin-foil on the floor at 2am, but nevertheless—I have hope. Today I began to believe he would survive.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Turkey Day Everyone!

I can say that now that we've gotten through most of the meal and the mess. The dishwasher is singing a one-note koan to itself in the kitchen and the rest of the gang is playing Munchkin and settling stomachs for pumpkin pie.

Had a couple really good moments. Danica and Miranda and I were at the grocery store for that one last shopping trip that always seems to have to happen the night before. We were in the salad section, and I was picking up some tomatoes to add to the bagged salad kit we were planning on and Danica said I shouldn't. When I asked her why she said, "You can't! The salad is perfect. It's like making God wear a bad hat!"

When they first got out Munchkin, my brother-in-law wasn't too sure what was going on. It's a silly card game based loosely on the idea of Dungeons and Dragons. First monster he fights he draws the "Sex Change" card. This makes it so your character is the opposite gender from you. I'm all the way in the kitchen and all I hear is "What the HELL kind of game is this!?"I love it.

The Munchkin moment was topped just a bit ago, when my BIL finally managed to get rid of the Sex Change card by foisting it off on my younger son, who just gave us a spirited but very bad rendition of the chorus of Meridith Brooks's "Bitch" complete with a little dance.

I hope you all are having a wonderful evening with family and friends.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

WikiFray Board of Directors - call for nominees

I’m willing to take the lead temporarily. I’m going to be going away from late Nov. until mid Dec., so I’m motivated to get this sorted out quickly, and get things back on track. I’m not interested in an on-going leadership role here, but I am interested in seeing the blog survive. Can you all trust me for a short time, while we try something out?

What I need from you:

Contributors and any other interested parties please nominate yourselves to the board of directors. All those who wish to have a voice in blog business are welcome to become directors. I’d like to invite topazz and Ender to participate in the process. I also encourage those who do not feel aligned with Ender or myself or topazz to join in the process. While divisive grandstanding will be discouraged as counter-productive, this ought not be an insider’s club. All are welcome.

I’ll need your email to give you access, so if Ender doesn’t have it, you need to give it to him.

Ender, if you’ll give me access, I’m going to set up a boardroom blog for these interested individuals only, in order to work out blog business away from public scrutiny. I’m of the opinion that business matters are best discussed behind closed doors, not because any of it needs to be secret, but because too many voices with too many agendas tend hamstring the process.

All interested parties please sign in below.

Dear Prudence decends into self-parody...

Seriously, I'm beginning to think they are choosing these questions deliberately to give the spoofers material. Last week we had the woman who wasn't sure if she deal with her poorly endowed fiancee, and this week we have the mom looking for warning signs his son might be gay.


Tuesday, November 21, 2006


I nominate august to take over administrative responsibilities. august, there’s actually nothing to do, but I think you’re the best person for the job nonetheless.

Other nominations? If not, "YEA" or "NAY".

Of course, I’ll still finish tweaking the blog and be available to handle technical difficulties. I think the reasons why we need someone besides me running things are obvious enough that we needn't have a debate.

Studio 60 Thread

Ok, so it took Simon and Tom for Harriett to realize that some guys would get off seeing the uptight church girl nearly nekkid?

Disloyalty from the writing staff resulting in a screw-up will be rewarded?

Is product placement evil?


These things usually have a pattern, whether the offense is plagiarism or hate-filled speech. The perpetrator is called out for the offense, then either posts an apology or a defiant post.

In response, some posters weigh in on the gravity of the offense, and to be sure, some who considered themselves enemies of the perpetrator probably take a little too much enjoyment in the perpetrator’s offense.

Then come the vultures – and this is what pisses me off.

These are the ones who pat the perpetrator’s hand, tell him it’s no big deal, and say that the real problem is those preening moralists who think that racism and plagiarism are serious offenses.

This story is attractive to the perpetrator, because he’s in a vulnerable place. He’s hurt; he’s done something stupid, and could use cheering up.

These vultures also keep the story alive, which probably would have died down without their “help.” Coincidentally, this serves the vulture’s desire to feed the perpetrator the story about how he’s the real victim here of those mean moralists.

But this comfort is not free – this is a favor the vulture expects to cash in later.

Did anyone see Michael Richards on the Letterman show last night? It would be hard to imagine a picture of a remorseful person. And it seemed to me that Jerry Seinfeld was a true friend to him – he didn’t try to gloss over the offense, he said he was upset about it, he didn’t attack the press for jumping on the story, but he gave Richards a forum to start making things right.

I don’t know if Michael Richards is a racist, or if he slipped up once. I don’t know if topazz is serial plagiarizer or had a slip. I do know that they both screwed up publicly, and that it’s not unreasonable that there be consequences for that.

Does that make them bad people? No. But if I’m choosing someone to speak extemporaneously, they wouldn’t be on my short list.

Pretending these actions don’t have consequences isn’t being a friend; it’s being a vulture.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Written products and watercooler discussions.

All right, I've come to some conclusions about the whole sordid affair. Unfortunately, I wrote such a lengthy response, I think I better top-post it.

I’d argue that people, varying in degrees, visit and interact on BOTF for the sometimes unrelated motivations of entertainment/interaction, and stimulation. I think this is an important distinction. The people who are there, at least in large part, for intellectual stimulation probably view writing in a different manner than those primarily for entertainment.

It’s not random that many of the people I consider to be “writers” here (that doesn’t include me, BTW), are the most offended by Topazz’s larcenous post. My take is that these are the people who view their creations here as products, presented, and subsequently appreciated, by an audience. These are the same people who might make a living at writing. It’s striking, to me, that people as diverse as Switters, DawnCoyote, and August are among those who feel offended. This is not an unsympathetic audience.

What I’d like to suggest is that, on the Fray, all people do not necessarily view written products the same way. If I view written products primarily as a vehicle for entertainment, or to engage interaction, then I probably have a very different view of the sanctity of words or ideas than those who make a living (or would like to) by the products of their written work. If Topazz views the primary purpose of her post to be a springboard for discussion/interaction, then it’s entirely possible that she doesn’t view her crime as more than a very minor issue. The best analogy I can come up with, at the moment, is bringing the same issues up in the course of a verbal discussion. She may view her inclusion of the words as representing agreement with them. I guess a written equivalent would be an office newsletter – who provides citations in those? This presumes she was talking about actual experiences she’d had. I haven’t seen anyone challenge that.

This makes Topazz an entirely different creature than Denny, who is presenting products not to facilitate interaction, but in order to impress people with his artistic talents. I also find the comparison with Adam Morgan to be offensively overstated, because what Topazz did, if equivalent to a discussion, is no more sociopathic (intended to impact others with intentional disregard for their welfare) than what millions of people do around water coolers every day. From this perspective, Topazz is only slightly dishonest (a lie by omission), but no more so than most of us, from time to time.

I mean, Topazz didn’t credit her pic of Marilyn the other day, either – did anyone think she was pretending to have taken it? What I’m suggesting is that she views her theft in a similar vein, rather than the egregious infraction viewed by others. Hypothetically, if Topazz had read a post on “The Company Bitch” about a shoplifting incident and said to herself, “Hey – that’s just like what happened to me!” then her subsequent post wouldn’t be plagiarism either, would it? I don’t think it necessarily is (though I also think it’s naïve not to anticipate being challenged for it).

So, the dispute among people on the board may expose differences in assumptions about what happens there. To borrow from Ciinc (borrowing from Vonnegut), perhaps BOTF is a karass, perhaps a granfalloon. Individual perceptions exert a substantial impact on normative expectations, as well as anticipation of sanctions.

Though Topazz is free to use the space as she wishes, however, I also agree that certain stakeholders are entitled to impose their perceptions on other players – Geoff and Ender. Geoff and Ender have created the space in which we’re playing, and have the right to set expectations about the manner in which participants will interact. Geoff is entirely within his rights to pull her star, and Ender is entirely within his rights to pull her blog membership. Geoff isn’t going to flush her, I imagine – I imagine he views the star as reflecting something about the predictable quality of written products.

But the rules haven’t been defined on this space, and Topazz may have reasonably established, though incorrect, perceptions about what constitutes appropriate behavior. Is her character flawed? It seems that most on the Fray who are supporting her are really objecting to the manner in which she seems to be damned. I find myself leaning in this direction. I think submitting your work here takes a post beyond the level of a discussion, however.

Question: Would you feel better if she’d been quietly warned, and she’d withdrawn her posts without comment? Why? If she’d withdrawn them with apology, would you still be wanting her expelled from the blog?

Last thoughts: Switters, I don’t think the comparison to sampled music is disingenuous at all. I wonder if you might feel differently were you a composer, as opposed to a writer [got both in my family, and I know how they feel about it].

I remember working on grant projects in which large sections of other people’s work were lifted and paraphrased. I believe this was seen as acceptable, as the application was seen as a vehicle to an end, not an end itself. I think this is an apt comparison.

Lentenstuffe: Somehow, I have the sense that if someone had lifted a couple of lines from one of your poems, and then posted them as part of their own, you’d have a different sort of reaction. I’m guessing your objection is, in essence, similar to mine above. If not, then I don’t get it. I also disagree with the comparison to kos – it’s not like anyone’s calling for her exclusion because she has bad taste.

Fluffy: if you’re going to make a statement like that, could you at least flesh it out a little? Hard to know how to respond.

Ender, Dawn, John, August: I’m not exactly disagreeing with you – I think you all have excellent points, particularly about out tolerance level for plagiarism – now that we have the expectation established. I just happen to thing there’s an understandable counter-perspective that isn’t getting acknowledged, and this lack of acknowledgement makes Topazz look like a crook, as opposed to someone trying to provide an interesting, entertaining discussion [God forbid we’d have too many of those on BOTF!]. Though I think Ender has every right to insist on his perspective on the blog, I would have pursued the matter and attempted remediation, before a banning.

Of course, I’m not volunteering to be blogmaster, either. Ender, it's your call - I just wanted you to know how I felt about it.

Discussion on Personnel Changes?

My take: Ender, it's your blog. You hold the keys, you put in the work, you took whatever risks were taken - the rest of us are along for the ride. That being said, it is a proprietary blog presented as a collective, community blog.

I'm not really questioning your decision to pull Topazz from the contributor's list - I'm decidedly ambivalent about the whole matter. I'm just wondering if the decisive editorial action took anyone else by surprise, whether a discussion on the manner(s) in which a wrong like this could be redressed would be either interesting or worthwhile, or whether I'm alone in at least wondering about the most appropriate action in such a situation would be.

I guess I'm ambivalent is all. That you're not (and that you're the one calling the shots) doesn't bother me - just curious about other's thoughts on the matter. If this had occurred in a traditional setting (if Topazz were a newspaper collumnist, for example, or perhaps author of an article for her departmental newsletter), is there a uniform standard that would be applied? Given this isn't remotely my area, and aside from a vague awareness of people like Glass, I don't really know the answer.

I imagine Geoff will pull her star, for whatever it's worth. She'll still have a chance to rehabilitate her reputation on the Fray, if she chooses. Would you (collectively, not just directed at Ender) ever consider having her back? Again - I'm still sorting out my own feelings on the matter.

How I (would have) Framed O.J.

Dear Harper Collins,

I have observed with mounting excitement the manner in which you are capitalizing on the publicity generated by the O.J. Simpson case. I applaud your recognition of the profit to be gained through facilitating Mr. Simpson’s venality, and it was a stroke of genius to defer the expense of promotion to the predictable media frenzy generated by the book’s release. I tip my hat to your marketing department.

I was particularly impressed with the number of salacious and controversial elements that you employed throughout the story: celebrity, racial tension, clandstine sex, betrayal, police misconduct, and miscarriage of justice are all used in good service of the public’s appetite for defilement. However, while I thought the story contained some wonderful twists, I found it lacking somewhat in the sort of lurid detail that would truly satisfy its readers’ morbid fascination with the grotesque. For example, with its relatively straightforward stabbing of Ron and Nicole, the “juiciest” part of the story is over all too quickly. In ordure to draw that out, the killer might have undertaken some impromtu torture of his victims after bursting in on them flagrante delicto. A three-way tussle on the bed could have been used to titillating effect, prior to Ron and Nicole being dispatched with O.J.’s glinting dagger, and while a ritual castration of Ron might have tested the audience’s credulity, what reader could resist the scarring for life of little children forced to witness their mother’s murder?

I realize I’m armchair-quarterbacking here, so let me get straight to the point:
Further opportunities to profit from this case present themselves to those willing to exploit them. I propose a new project: “How I would have Framed O.J., if I’d done it. I’m not talking of framing him for the two aforementioned murders—that cow has been milked, the pig has been skinned, and it's time to move on. What I’m suggesting is a story wherein O.J. is arrested, tried and convicted for the grisly sex-slaying of his young pool boy, Jorge. Jorge, a former Nicaraguan street urchin, will be found in bed next to an unconscious O.J., who will be covered in the dead boy’s blood.

In order to ensure that our intrepid protagonist will not this time evade a murder conviction, special evidence will be planted that will not only seal the case against him, but will add to the story that special element of vulgar novelty for which readers slaver. In order to attain this evidence I’ll employ a technique used by cattle breeders to extract semen from a reluctant bull. When that anal probe delivers its shock to O.J.’s prostate, it won’t matter how much rohypnol he’s ingested, he'll spit out the DNA sample I require. I’ll transfer the sample to the boy’s body just prior to alerting the police, and then I'll go home and set down in words all the colourful details while they're still fresh in my mind.

In order to gain the greatest loft on the media bubble that this case will surely generate, I will contract with Harper Collins to deliver the manuscript to press by the time the judge delivers the death sentence. In addition to contracting with O.J. for a second book, I suggest Harper Collins supply O.J.’s defense counsel for the case, thereby gaining access to the appeals process post conviction. Mark Fuhrman might also be approached to do case analysis.

A Cardboard Box

Line Rider

First Class

Yesterday, I found myself confronted with an attractive woman in my seat as I boarded a connecting flight in Cincinnati. She’d just met an old friend, seated next to my assigned seat, and proposed a trade. Would I mind sitting in first class?

Turns out, I didn't mind at all.

First class travel is an entirely different experience. The seats are comfortable, and you don’t have to worry about the obese woman sweating through her corduroy pants at the point of juncture with your leg (one leg of my trip out). You can see the in-flight movie.

The passengers are noticeably different. My seat-mate chose to watch the movie (the latest Pirates of the Caribbean – I was working), and I was a little startled and amused to see her emotional reactions (holding her hands to her face, little gasps etc.) to the special-effects enhanced drama it seems most have become inured to. A bunch of business types were in the front two rows, bantering about the day’s college football games, and joking about getting cell-phone updates in-flight. (I don’t know if they did, but I wouldn’t be surprised.) One of them presented the stewardess with an origami flower (made from an airline napkin) shortly before we landed. She beamed at his cleverness. He beamed back at her.

This is the stewardess we shared among the twelve or so of us. She offers pre-flight drinks, makes the rounds with the snack basket (which offers an actual variety), the coffee cup they provide you with holds more coffee, she apologizes for not having your preferred sweetener, and bemoans the lack of an actual sandwich to offer when she realizes you haven’t had time to eat all day.

Looking at the entitled passengers, and how they took their experience in first-class for granted, got me thinking about class differentiation.

I remember research reviewed in a physiological psychology class on rats raised in enriched environments – about how their cortexes are much larger, they learn new tasks faster, they are more socially interactive, less aggressive, and have a proliferation of cholinergic receptor sites (associated with intelligence) compared to their deprived counterparts. I thought about rats raised in deprived conditions – how they’re prone to attack each other, and tend to be (anthropomorphizing admitted) brutish, stupid, discontented and short-lived.

And I thought about children I’ve worked with – raised in front of televisions, social interaction limited primarily to school, tending to be less intelligent, more aggressive, and unhappy.

My father was raised in a blue-collar home through the depression. Yet the three surviving boys all earned advanced degrees (their sister married instead – a successful dentist. She ran his office until he retired). Though the difference between Coach and First Class may appear to be economic, that distinction is conveniently artificial – the discriminating factor is environmental. They were raised in a family where there was a concerted effort to provide the children with options and stimulation. The lack of money, while hard, also necessitated cooperative efforts to achieve super-ordinate goals. This is the stuff of bonding, and an avenue to self-efficacy.

The ability to make choices – to exercise options, or assert yourself, or modify your environment to suit your transient desires; this is a critical difference between first class, and coach. This is also a critical difference between the children of many first-class passengers, and the children of those riding Coach. Or Greyhound. The first-class passengers assume the world will conform to their desires. The Coach passengers make no such assumption, and will have such corrected by the harried airline staff if they do.

The experience of underprivileged children in this country, as egregious as conditions can sometimes get, pales in comparison to the rest of the world. I had an interesting conversation with my neighbor the other day. He was raised in Ramallah, and still has many friends and family members in Lebanon. He talked about the continuing shelling of the refugee camps, and how an extended family of 18 was killed the other day. He talked about the ridiculous assertion that a warning precedes the shelling; the camp residents have no place to escape to.

And I thought about the impact of all the violence, and the drastic limitation of options, that characterizes the lives of the children living in such places. My neighbor talked about the ridiculous idea that actions such as those make anyone safer, and of course we talked about the war. What we didn’t talk about was the manner in which such an environment sets the stage for problems down the road, as the traumatized children raised under such pathogenic conditions become traumatized adults.

And it makes me angry, because we know better. We’re astute enough to study the impact the war in Sierra Leone has had on the chimp population in the area (devastating – perhaps unrecoverably so), yet we acknowledge too infrequently the impact such an environment exerts on the people who live there – it’s too overwhelming to think about. We continue to justify engaging in widespread destruction (which is so easy, really), and then pretend bafflement when those same tactics are used against our efforts to rebuild some of what’s been lost – as though that isn’t a predictable consequence of our own actions. We refuse to adequately fund public education in our own country, or to provide inadequately supervised youth with attractive alternatives to television, videogames, Myspace, drug use or delinquency.

My first-class seat-mate had a powerful, observable reaction to Hollywood special effects in a relatively tame movie; proof enough of a background free of personal involvement in violence and despair. We should all live in such a world, but we can't provide it for ourselves; we have to provide it for each other.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Weekend Football Roundup

Michigan Loses to Ohio St.; Remains No. 2

That seems about right. Ohio St. won the game, so they deserve to be number one, and it's had to think there's another team in the three-pont difference between Michigan and Ohio St.

That being said, I do have a problem with that No. 2 ranking translating into a rematch in the BCS Championship Game. Michigan had their crack at the Buckeyes; they didn't take advantage of it. None of the other teams may be "as deserving," but Michigan definitely isn't.

To put my cards on the table, I've never thought that a college football season ending with some ambiguity over who was the "national champion" was a tragedy. The BCS has resulted in some great games -- last year's Rose Bowl, the Ohio St.-Miami game from a couple years ago -- so I like it as far as it goes. But I never thought it was a grave injustice if the two best teams didn't match up with each other in a bowl game. It's nice to know what your ceiling is, but if you need to be declared "national champion" in order to feel good about an undefeated seaon, there's something wrong. It's not enough to win all your games -- you must be declared better than everyone else.

So I've also never been in favor of a playoff system. It would remove the last semblance that these guys are supposed to be students, for one thing. Also, as last year's baseball season demonstrated, a playoff does not guarantee identifying the best team.

I also think the BCS has concentrated too much attention on the teams in contention for the No. 1 ranking. For example, last year's Heisman nominees were Reggie Bush, Matt Lienart, and Vince Young, all of whom were in the national championshop game. Lienart one the previous Hiesman. The year before, Leinart won it for #1 USC. The year before that, Jason White won it for #1 Oklahoma. Now, I know there's usually a correlation between outstanding individual performances and team success, but this seems beyon conincidental.

I propose one change to the BCS system -- you must win your conference in order to be in the champtionship game, and each conference must declare a champion. This would prevent re-matches, and things like Nebraska getting to the championshop game despite not even getting to its on conference title game. It would also return some focus to winning your own conference instead of positioning yoursel for a national title.

Panthers Shut Out Rams

Stick a fork in the Rams -- they're done. Without Orlando Pace, the Rams couldn't protect Bulger, which takes away their two Hall of Fame-caliber receivers. This will not end well. I don't see Bulger making it through to the end of the year.

McNabb out for year

The Eagles are done, too.

I had high hopes for this year. I thought that with the Owens thing in the rear view mirror, the Eagles could be poised for a good year. But things never quite came together, and you wonder if their window has close.


  • Not too worried about the Colts, despite their loss.
  • The Rutgers ride was fun while it lasted.
  • This was one of the oddest endings I've seen, with Denver seeming to want to blow the game, and San Diego not quite letting them.

    These odd endings seem to happen a lot in prime-time games, by the way.
  • If you don't have the NFL network, you will miss NFL games! I like how they worded these ads to make you think you'll miss games you would have seen in previous years, and try to make you think you'll miss playoff games.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Atlas Shrugged; JohnMcG Reviewed

Upon leaving my last job, the VP recommended I read Atlas Shrugged, so I would remember that there would always be a use for my technical skills. Part of why I left that job is that there was that I perceived that there wasn't much correlation between producing value and rewards. I guess he wanted me to know that my skills would always be valued.

In any instance, as a philosophical treatise, I found much to like. The vision that those who produce value should be rewarded for it not feel guilty about it is quite attractive to me. And while we might not go on strike, we do get disincented from producing more than we could at maximum effort. So, it's an attractive notion.

I think Objectivism has some holes, notably children and others who, as Cathy Young noted, are "helpless and dependent through no fault of their own." Rand would say a person's virtue is their only claim on us. What about the orphan and the widow?

But I'm not a philosopher.

As art, the first two thirds of the novel were a challenging but enjoyable read, but by the last third, it had become a chore.

Perhaps it was because Rand had already said what she had to say, and at this point was repeating herself.

Spoilers ahead…

But I think the problem was the introduction of the John Galt character -- Rand would have us believe that Galt was perfection personified, and from this reader's perspective, that title was unearned. I found the other characters' deference to and admiration of him to be incredible.

For example, after Galt's speech (which I confessed I skimmed -- I found it ironic that an author would expect the reader to indulge her a 60+ page speech about, in part, how people shouldn't be guilted into doing things they don't want to), everyone on both sides is in agreement that Galt must be made supreme ruler of the economy, to the point where the villains torture Galt to try to get him to assume dictatorship. Then, in what for me was the most incredible event of the novel, Galt, whose defining philosophy is that he will not use his mind for the benefit of others, tells his torturers how to repair the generator that is powering the torture machine they are using to torture him!!!! But Rand couldn't help herself from giving us one more example of how smart and wonderful Galt is, even at the cost of him violating his creed.

To me, Galt comes off as a bit of a blowhard. Yeah, the motor's cool and all, but I don't get why other characters whom I likes better, Francisco and Rearden in particular, are so deferential to him, and why Dagny puts them aside for Galt. I just don't buy him as a hero.

Also, considering Rand's atheism, the parallels between Galt and Jesus are interesting. (and it's surprising to me that others haven't noted them). Both work in obscurity for most of their lives, then go to the desert. Both deliver a manifesto (I'd say the radio speech was Galt's Sermon on the Mount). Both are captured by ineffective leaders who don't know what to do with them, and end up turning them over to be tortured. Both of their names are used as an expletive. I guess Galt is better than Jesus (or had better taste in friends), since his friends didn’t run away and deny knowing him, but launched a brave rescue.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Sampling and Music Copyright Fuck Ups

The article

I remember being in Harlem one afternoon, where I lived for a bit, and blaring out of one of the top stories of a brownstone was the guitar riff from Zeppelin's "The Ocean", just the first 5 notes, followed by the 2 bars of Bonham's drums, repeating over and over again, over which folks were rapping. To this day I think it was the Beastie Boys, but I'm still not sure. (I guess I could google it.)

Still, by virtue of the fact that the first 5 notes of "The Ocean" are very recognizable as "The Ocean", and when you add the fact that those cats were clever enough to appreciate that riff as a perfect bed for rap, I thought it was incredibly creative, not to mention cool as shit. It pre-dated the Rap Rock genre by about 20 years.

When the Beasties sampled an extremely recognizable section of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring in the late 1990s, I thought only m'boys would be sophisticated enough to pull that off.

There was a time when sampling was not only allowed but was actually seen as a real art form (and yes, it is), when dudes like Mix Master Mike (Beasties) and Terminator X (Public Enemy) were revered as the masters of the craft, when the term DJ meant something else entirely, something substantive, productive, creative.

Listen to just the open of "Fight the Power", for example. The layers, the elements, the subtleties of off beats, vocal hits, old school funk and new school punk. It's incredible that not only did they come up with these beds in the studio from scratch, but that the DJ, if he's old school (like Mike and X), has to recreate those beds during live shows. It's nothing short of a virtuoso musical performance.

That some ambulance chasing copyright lawyer cocksucker seems single-handedly trying to make that illegal strikes me as the epitome of wanton depravity not only because he's stifling the creative genius of the few "spinners" that still do it, but precisely because he's cheating the originators of those riffs, those hits, those backbeats, musicians who, it turns out, are thrilled to have them included in the collage that is the rap bed.

I have it on pretty good authority that Stravinsky would have totally dug m'Boys shout out.

(Duh! "The Ocean" is used in "She's Crafty", from License to Ill. And I call myself a fan.)

Blogging the Qur'an, Surah 6


Opening oddity: the Royal "We." Initially, the use of the Royal We came into English use because of the theory of the "king's two bodies" – that the king was simultaneously himself as an individual, and also himself as head of state (two bodies in one). An alternative theory states that the Royal We came into use because the monarch embodied and represented all of his subjects at once, speaking for them. Yet in the translation of the Qur'an, Allah refers to himself with the Royal We. This seems like an odd choice. With a religion and scripture so focused on Allah's transcendence, peerlessness, and oneness, one would not think of Allah as the "head of" anything, or to have dual roles, or to have enough in common with any created thing to be "representative" of them. The use of the Royal We, then, seems an odd translation choice – obviously not because Allah is not important enough to use it, but because the reasons why it is used do not seem to apply to Allah.

Without further ado, enter Surah 6 – Cattle.

The surah opens with a paean to the multitude of reasons for belief in Allah. The existence of creation and your own birth (similar to the proof for God that replaces "I think therefore I am" with "I was born and can conceive of God and therefore God must be.") Interestingly, the surah also lists your own death as an additional reason to believe in Allah. This makes sense two different ways: in its own way, death is as remarkable a natural occurrence as life; and also death is the ultimate reason for religious belief. As Rosenzweig said, in the face of death, philosophy (as opposed to religion) is like a man stuffing his fingers in his ears and saying "I can't hear you."

The surah acknowledges that there will always be disbelievers, no matter what. They think themselves secure while enjoying Allah's blessings, but their security is an illusion that Allah can sweep away at any time by withdrawing those blessings when their debt is not acknowledged.

My brother-in-law once said something to the effect of: "If God would just rearrange the stars to write Jesus's name, evangelism would be easier." This surah deals with this common sentiment. The Pharisees in Jesus's time they said that if the prophets had come to them instead of to their ancestors, they would have believed. The Pharisees also demanded "a sign." Jesus rebuked them, saying that only a wicked generation demanded a sign, and that they were no better. This surah makes a similar point. Allah provides signs as he wills, and those who disbelieve his inspired messenger – Muhammad – will not believe no matter what signs are shown. So the disbelievers always ask for "something more." Muhammad tells them revelations from Allah. What do they say? Essentially, "we don't believe, show us something written down in Allah's handwriting." If Allah sent an angel instead of a man, the angel would have had to be in man-form anyway to communicate with men, and the disbelievers still would have disbelieved. Besides, the surah says, if Allah sends his angels down to mankind, it's already too late – that means the End is here. This section is very reminiscent of Jesus's parable about the dead beggar, Lazarus, and the rich man. The rich man, burning in hell, begged Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them about damnation. Abraham says that "They have Moses and the Prophets; let them follow them." The rich man says "But they will listen if they hear it from a dead man!" Abraham replies: "If they don't believe Moses and the Prophets, then they won't believe even if someone rises from the dead." This was a poignant foreshadowing of Jesus's own death and resurrection (which still didn't convince the unbelievers) and it is exactly the point this surah makes – if they don't believe Allah's truth and message when he has sent you a Prophet (Muhammad) then they won't believe no matter what Allah does, whether it's a sign or an angel. They're just making excuses.

The surah goes on to say that Allah "prescribes for himself mercy" – that is, everyone needs mercy, and Allah's sufferance alone is the source. Eventually there will be a day of reckoning, and on that day one will either have Allah as a friend or foe. Terror and judgment await those who choose wrongly. This is a powerful concept – people often talk about the glorious presence of God. It is glorious, but whether or not it is a good thing (for you) depends largely on your situation. If you are a friend of Allah, then his presence is a joy and a help and you rejoice that you cannot depart. If you are an unbeliever, then Allah's presence is terror and judgment.

As a lawyer, I rather liked the surah's comment that the best possible witness one could have is Allah – and Allah's testimony is that he is One. Yet people choose the ruin of their own soul by rejecting Allah's testimony through his messenger. The words of Allah find the hearts of those who are meant to receive it. This is similar to the Christian doctrine of predestination – a theme we will come back to throughout the surah – and also resembles Jesus's parable of the sower, that the seed of the Word will find its way to good soil.

Conversely, as Allah witnesses that he is One, and always bears true witness, so those who bear false witness about Allah are the greatest wrongdoers. There are two ways to fall into this ignoble category: (1) deny these revelations, since that is denying Allah's words, or (2) invent lies about Allah, saying that he has "partners" (rival gods).

The surah goes on to describe the fate of those "greatest wrongdoers" – that on the last day, everyone will believe, but too late to save themselves. There is a clever, almost funny image used here – the last day comes, and the unbelievers come naked and alone before Allah. Allah then asks, deadpan, "Where are all your other gods? ("partners of make-believe") You thought they were so useful, let them show up now!" You can have whatever make-believe gods you want, but they don't show up when crunch time hits before Allah. Then the unbelievers will try to change their story, but too late. Of course, even their repentance isn't true repentance – it's just borne out of fear, and if the day somehow passed they'd go right back to their idols. Nice touch, given the way many folks get very pious when no one but God can help, but forget God as soon as the crisis passes.

There's an interesting next verse (25) in the surah that says Allah places "veils upon the hearts" of some who hear, lest they repent. This is strikingly similar to God's injunction to Isaiah in Is. 6:9-10 (and later quoted by Jesus as the reason for speaking in parables) -- [God] said, "Go and tell this people: " 'Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.' Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed."

The surah supports the suicide bomber (martyrdom seeker)'s reasoning: this world is nothing compared to the Hereafter. Almost rhetorically, the question comes – have you no sense? Why reject joy everlasting? Why reject the truth? Reminds me of the quote by Jim Eliot (martyred Christian missionary in South America ca. 1956) – "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." To be clear, there is no specific call to martyrdom in this passage, but its focus on the Hereafter could lead one that direction.

The surah goes on to counsel Muhammad how to deal with rejection. Muhammad is not the first messenger to be rejected. If the disbelief grieves Muhammad, don't let it, because there is no sign that could convince the disbelievers. They all need to hear, but it's not your job to convince them. Allah does the only effective convincing – in fact, Allah himself will raise the dead and let them hear the message (though presumably they will still not believe unless they were intended to believe – more predestination). There are those who will say "why is there no sign" (see above) but they do not know the truth or they would not need a sign. As Jesus said, "a wicked and adulterous generation demands a sign, but no sign shall be given but the sign of Jonah."

Nor is Allah just revealing himself for the first time. Many people and nations have received revelations from God. These have been messengers, prophets, and calamities sent to keep men humble. But they still never learned ("the devil made all they used to do seem fair" in their own eyes). So Allah let these wicked men prosper for a time and then caught them and destroyed them in the very moment of their triumph and enjoyment. This passage has a lot of resonance with the Psalms, the wicked prospering for awhile but ultimately being swept away.

In verse 50 Muhammad clarifies his claims. He does not claim to have the "treasures of Allah" (talismans or something like that) or the "knowledge of the unseen" (presumably some sort of mystic, Gnostic knowledge) and does not claim to be "an angel". Muhammad has only revelation from Allah, and that is enough.

Interesting section now follows on Muhammad's instructions on how to deal with believers and unbelievers. For the believers, "those who call on the Lord and seek his face, do not drive them away." Does this mean Muhammad maintains a "big tent" for those who truly wish to follow Allah? Perhaps, for the surah goes on to say that "You are not accountable for them and they are not for you." Only Allah can compare each to the other; no man can say which person Allah favours most.

As for the unbelievers, if they demand proof of the coming wrath and judgment, well, that's up to Allah in his own time. If it were up to Muhammad, he would have judgment come immediately; but God is "the Best of Deciders." (Take that, George W. Bush!)

Only Allah can deliver men from darkness. Verse 63 has a pithy note about unbelievers who pray in secret to Allah saying "save us from this and then we will be thankful" but then how, after merciful deliverance, they still attribute other gods beside him.

Another interesting set of verses on unbelievers. Verse 65 says that for "those who deny the truth, "Say (Muhammad): I am not put in charge of you." Muhammad is not in charge of those who disbelieve. One can see this either as a mandate to leave the unbelievers to their own sinful devices, or simply a reminder that each soul stands or falls under the gaze of Allah.

Irony alert – verse 68 seems to speak directly to those of us involved in this "blogging the Qur'an" project: "when you see those who meddle with our revelations, withdraw until they meddle with another topic" So it's no wonder blogging the Qur'an would not engage a lot of Muslim attention – they're commanded not to deal with those who meddle with the revelations. Regarding the previous paragraph, this also looks like a command to disassociate and warn, not conquer.

The surah then goes on to warn Muhammad to forsake those who see religion as a "pastime" and who are beguiled by the world. In other words, beware those who want to turn religion into just another club. You hear exactly the same from orthodox religious figures the world over. It seems that a good part of why so-called modernizers and reformers who call for "more palatable" (i.e. more Western and secular) interpretations of Islam have not caught on and are generally despised. If the goal of such "modernizers" is to turn Islam into the Arab equivalent of the United Methodists or the Unitarians or the other dying liberal Protestant denominations, then no wonder they are rejected. You don't turn Allah's truth into a social club full of good intentions where you go on Sundays to "teach your children some morals and values." You live it or you leave it.

Following is one of the more interesting and cohesive narrative sections of the surah. This part tells a story of Abraham. Abraham tells his father and family that they are idolators. They dispute this. Then Abraham starts pretending to worship the heavenly bodies – a star that rises, the moon when it rises, the sun when it rises. Each time he pretends to be totally dismayed when they set, saying "I need guidance and help all the time, not just when they're up – where are they now?" Yet they still dispute, so he says: how can you blame me for questioning your crappy gods, who can't even stick around, when you stand there questioning the true God? I'm the one secure in this situation, not you, because I am questioning things you worship, while you are questioning the one who created them.

The surah then goes on to list "the righteous," which is a Biblical who's who --- Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Noah, David, Solomon, Job, Joseph, Moses & Aaron, along with Elijah, Elisha, Ishmael, Jonah, and Lot from the Old Testament. There is also Zachariah and John and Jesus from the New Testament. There's a lot of overlap in this surah between the other People of the Book – a focus on Islam as the superseding "New Covenant" (Islam is to Christianity as Christianity is to Judaism). The list of the righteous is those people to whom God gave the Scriptures and wisdom and prophecy. But if those people disbelieve, then the Scriptures will pass to those who do believe – the new Islamic believers inherit all the Scriptures and revelation of the past covenants.

A break in the trail of listing who's received which revelation: Muhammad is ordered to "Ask no fee for giving warning, for you are only being a Reminder as you were told to be." I suppose this does not technically say Muhammad cannot receive a fee if offered, only that he should spread revelation whether rewarded temporally or not.

Back to the revelation argument: If the Jews (presumably applying to other People of the Book also, but particularly the Jews) object to Islam because "God doesn't speak to mankind," then you have an easy answer – where else did the Torah come from? They didn't know it in advance, nor did their ancestors; it was all new. So obviously God can give revelation. Muhammad's Scripture is a Scripture confirming that revealed before, to "warn Mecca and those surrounding." This is one of the passages I found most interesting, since it seems to indicate that Muhammad may have perceived of his role differently (and less grandly) at some point. There is a big difference between being the particular prophet to a people (the Arabs) who hadn't received a specific messenger up to that point (unlike, say, the Jews) and being The Prophet.

I love this title for Allah: "Cleaver of the Daybreak."

Also, note that the Qur'an is just as Creationist, if not more, than the most zealous Christian fundamentalist. In fact, this surah indicates that "the jinn" were created by Allah (thus showing that they are not in fact gods, but creatures). First mention of the Jinn in this surah.

The surah then specifically takes on one of the competing religious narratives: Christianity. The surah complains that some "ascribe to [Allah] sons and daughters", obviously a reference to Jesus the "Son of God." But Allah cannot have a child, the surah argues, because he is the Originator, and thus cannot a "consort" since he created all things? It is hard to tell if this is intended as a real response – an argument about the unity and eternality of Allah precluding any sense of a sub-aspect like "God the Son" – or if it is merely a flatly literal interpretation of the complex doctrine of the Incarnation and the Trinity (i.e. "Christians claim God has a son. God does not have a wife. Therefore God has no son.") The first is not particularly well fleshed-out, if that is the intent. The second raises the interesting possibility that Muhammad may have been acting out of some rudimentary Christian convictions, except that due to his relative isolation from major Christian centers, he got only the crude watered-down version of the doctrine, which made him think it needed revision.

The surah now reiterates that the idolaters would not be idolatrous except for the will of God. More predestination. It also says specifically that Muhammad is not responsible for the idolaters.

Here is a really interesting passage to apply to modernity. Allah orders Muhammad that he should not "blaspheme" the false entities that idolaters claim are their gods, lest Muhammad induce "retaliatory blasphemy," so to speak, of Allah. In other words, show respect even for false gods of idolaters, to encourage idolaters to show respect for Allah. I am afraid I think immediately of the Danish cartoon fiasco, the censorship and racism of similar cartoons run in Muslim papers, and the subsequent Iranian "Holocaust Cartoon" seminar – the way that Muslims demanded respect from Western publications while simultaneously running cartoons disrespectful of Jews and Christians seems pretty clearly contrary to this section of the surah.

The surah then goes back to the earlier idea of using signs and portents to induce belief in the unbelievers. The idolaters all swear they will believe with a sign. But Allah knows that even though they say they will believe, they still wouldn't. "Though an angel speak to them, they would not believe; though the dead speak to them; they would not believe, unless God opened their hearts. But most are ignorant (willfully)."

Allah then goes on to say that he has appointed for every Prophet an adversary – "devils of humankind and jinn" to spin beguiling tales to unbelievers. Allah allows this so that every person may feel good about their sin, keep doing it, and thus earn their just punishment.

The next section is where the surah gets its name – it deals with dietary restrictions.

Always say Allah's blessing upon meals. As long as grace has been said over the food, there's no reason no to eat it. Unless, of course, it is forbidden. But you would know that in advance. Unless you are compelled (does this mean to eat something forbidden?) Avoid eating anything over which Allah's blessing has not been said.

I was a bit confused at verse 123, which says that "he who was dead and we have raised to life" has nothing in common with one in darkness – does this mean Jesus? The eucharist? Or is the verse just saying, in a convoluted way, that those who behave like the idolaters (in darkness) have nothing in common with those who are not idolaters (they who were dead and who were raised to life, metaphorically)?

An interesting turn of phrase follows, saying that Allah "makes broad" his bosom for believers and "makes narrow" for unbelievers. This seems like the opposite phraseology of the New Testament, though for a similar concept – compare the New Testament "broad road that leads to destruction" with the "camel passing through the eye of a needle."

Allah speaks again to the Jinn – he says they "seduced mankind, and mankind "enjoyed" it (sounds a little kinky, in a spiritual sense). After the evildoers testify against themselves, they depart to the fire – clear reference to a negative afterlife to go with the positive. This ties in with the theodicy point the next verse raises – how do some evildoers get into positions of power? Well, some of the wrongdoers are allowed power over others to allow them to earn more punishment. Meanwhile, every person gets a warning – Allah sent messengers to ensure that nobody was destroyed unwarned.

Apparently the Greek theory of sacrificing to all the gods at once so you didn't "miss out" on any doesn't work with Allah. If you try to placate Allah as one god among many, then your sacrifice to the others does not reach Allah, and what you claim goes to Allah just goes to the other gods. Neither sacrifice pleases Allah. This makes sense, since the very act of putting Allah into a group with others is itself the worst sort of sacrilege. Well, that and child sacrifice, which Allah accuses the idolaters of performing. Which, it appears, the pagan Arabs of Muhammad's time actually did – they sacrificed their children and sometimes buried "unwanted" girls (still the practice in, e.g., China).

Speaking of ways to offend Allah, it appears that adding regulations is just as bad as ignoring revelation. This is consistent with the Biblical approach, actually – see, for example, Jesus railing against the Pharisees for nullifying God's laws with their traditions, and Paul railing against the "Judaizers." Specifically, this surah speaks against Gnostic-style division of foods – rules about which cattle can be eaten, whether veal is forbidden, rules about some types of cattle reserved for men but not women (all rules of the pagan Arabs which Islam rejected). In fact, Muslims are allowed to eat sheep, goats, camels, oxen, and all young thereof, because Allah has not made a rule against it, and those who say he has such a rule are lying about his requirements. Lying about Allah's requirements – whether denying them or adding them – is equally bad.

The only things forbidden are carrion, blood, and swine, or anything sacrificed to idols. This is, in fact, the same compromise that the Jerusalem Council reached in Acts, with the exception of swine. But Allah will forgive consumption of them if there is compulsion involved.

Jews got different regulations as a penalty for rebellion (thus the difference with the Torah). So if anyone who adds extra regulations says "We are just doing what God told us" then challenge them to produce the one to whom God spoke. Muhammad is there ready to testify; where is their prophet? In fact, the true "sacred duties" are: no other gods, do good to your parents, do not slay your children because of poverty (i.e. girls), do not approach lewdness, and do not kill except in the course of justice. Also do not take from the orphan, give justice, and keep your word. Once again, proving that the rules necessary to keep society going are pretty universal. How does "do not kill except in the course of justice" relate to violent jihad against civilians?

Nevertheless, where they are not superseded by Muhammad's revelation, Muslims are to follow the other revealed scriptures, and do not say it was only for "other sects" (i.e. Jews and Christians) because you have been warned that it still stands. Do not think you can follow only the prior scriptures and do it "better" than those who failed, because now a greater revelation has been given. If you don't follow this revelation, you wouldn't have followed the previous either. So Jews and Christians cannot keep going with their old revelations now that Muhammad has come along. If unbelievers doubt the revelation because they say they wait for a sign (or angel) to come, well then it isn't faith – if they believe when they see the sign, what credit is that? This is like the Biblical story of Doubting Thomas – Jesus says "You have believed because you have seen. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe."

160 – Schismatics are condemned. Bad news for Protestants, and more specifically bad news for "reformers" of Islam who contradict the traditional, stricter understandings of the Qur'an.

Good deeds will be repaid tenfold, evil deeds repaid with justice. Similar to "punishing the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation, but showing love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments." (Old Testament Yahweh).

Interesting comment that each man's station in life is part of his test from Allah. Does this have some resonance with ideas of karma? Or is it a way to keep people satisfied with their social position instead of demanding social mobility based on "equality in Islam"?

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