Saturday, March 22, 2008

Acts by Anthony McCarthy

For those who keep challenging me to account for what I believe,

This says most of it, (palabras)

This says the rest of it. (Words in sidebar at You Tube)

And this, what I was reminded of while looking for something to make a much less important point about another musician, that Mercedes Sosa is one of the greatest artists of the last half century.

Anyone know if Danilo Perez' almost equally brilliant version is available anywhere on line?

An Early Easter Present

Notes From My Unofficial Nielsen Diary by Anthony McCarthy

It wasn’t a question but the answer was if someone threw a handful of quarters into a cess pool I wouldn’t fish them out. I certainly wouldn’t pay for the privilege to try. And that was the answer to my brother-in-law’s assertion that I should get cable to watch Keith Olbermann. If it had been a game of Jeopardy the category would be Self-Defeating Mental Habits of the Left.

If you’ve never before met someone who had “become a member of the Nielsen Family” you have now. I agreed to fill out the thing for one reason only.... well other than the fact that the poor telemarketer sounded so tired yesterday, I’m going to find every single listing on all three of the public TV stations in my area for Bill Moyers Journal and claim to have watched it. Since it’s about the only TV program I’ve seen recently worth remembering after the credits start rolling, it won’t be so far from the truth.

Any others I should add a scintilla of support to?

As for cable , if someone had a gun pointed at the head of the entire cable spectrum and was holding it to hostage to prevent advances in healthcare, environmental protection, public transportation or any of the other items in the real agenda of the real left , I’d have to say, sorry Ted you’re going to have to take the bullet. You can throw in satellite too. I’ll expand on that thought later.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Friday Critter Blogging

The first picture is of two "old-lady" lemurs, sent by our Suzie. Credits go toGreg Stamatelos at Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa.

The next picture, by Doug, is of a cactus. But it looks like an ancient desert god.

The final picture is an old one of Henrietta the Hound, the dog that rules my life. She is white in the face now, so even more beautiful than in this picture, but still equally shiny-coated.

And now a word about the bladder (by Suzie)

         Like a lot of women, I guard against urinary tract infections. My bladder got damaged during surgery and radiation, and I catheterize. Sometimes I get an infection, and sometimes I just have the symptoms.  
         Last year, while heading to the Brooklyn Museum (see below) from my Manhattan hotel, I HAD TO GO. I dashed into the Hard Rock CafĂ© but was told only the store was open. The restrooms would open in a few minutes when the restaurant did. I waited and waited and finally told a clerk that I had a disability and might urinate on his floor if he didn’t open the restroom, which he did pronto.
          The availability of restrooms is a feminist issue because women get UTIs more often than men; women often have longer waits for public restrooms; and we cannot urinate in an alley quite as easily.
          Anyway, I took some medication and scampered down into the subway. I began to feel sick to my (empty) stomach. I barely made it to the stop in Brooklyn. I got off the train and plopped down on the floor near the booth of the ticket-taker, who did not give me a second look. I figured, not only was I not the first person to get sick in the subway, but I probably wasn’t the first person to get sick that morning.
        After the nausea passed, I dragged myself into the museum, where a volunteer proffered a wheelchair. Sometimes I used it as a walker; other times I sat down and padded along with my feet. What a great invention.
        For all of us who struggle with UTIs, I recommend Megan Gogerty’s educational song “Ain’t Nothin’ Good About a Bladder Infection.” (Some of you also may enjoy her songs “Hillary” and “I Miss Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” as do I.)

Women artists & museums (by Suzie)

         As a newspaper reporter, I sat next to the art critic for a while. Once I wrote about the Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. She dismissed the idea of dedicating a museum to women, saying art should be judged on its merits, without any sort of affirmative action. That was one of many times where I thought I would leap across my desk to choke her. Apparently, there's no politics in the art world, unless it's giving recognition to women.
         The museum has a new director. The historic gem of a building is worth a visit, even if you don’t care about art. If you do, the permanent collection is solid, and the current exhibit is a retrospective of Paula Rego’s work.
         Members can go on a trip April 17 to the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Organized in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the artist's birth, 'Frida Kahlo' is the first major Kahlo exhibition in the United States in nearly fifteen years,” the Philadelphia museum notes.
          In New York, I’m loath to enter the Museum of Modern Art without a gorilla mask. But I love the Brooklyn Museum, whose Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art is celebrating its first anniversary this month.
          The museum has the first U.S. survey of art by Ghada Amer. “The Egyptian-born artist is best known for her abstract canvases embroidered with feminist motifs.” (Emphasis added to catch Echidne’s attention.)
          The “Votes for Women” exhibit “reviews women in American politics and the suffragist movement.” On March 29, the
National Women's History Project will make a stop, after a multimedia presentation on “Women’s Art and the Woman Suffrage Movement.” Also that day, Beverly Lowry will speak on Harriet Tubman.
          Other lectures include a panel discussion on “Beyond the Waves: Feminist Artists Talk Across the Generations,” March 30; and Miriam Shapiro on her work, April 26.
           The museum has an extensive collection of Egyptian art and artifacts, including alabaster goddesses and a famous Nile figure with upraised arms called “Bird Lady.” Last year, I followed curator Edward Bleiberg’s walking tour on “Pharaohs, Queens and Goddesses.”
           He explained that women were chattel in Rome and had few rights in Greece, but had many rights in Egypt. They could own property, handle business, enter into marital contracts, initiate divorce, and negotiate divorce settlements and who got custody of children. This befuddled the Greeks and Romans, who weren’t used to female rulers. For example, they saw Cleopatra as a schemer while we might understand her more as a CEO. 
           Similarly, the earlier Pharaoh Hatshepsut seemed crazy to many male historians. Bleiberg said feminists and female Egyptologists helped change her image. Her story made sense once people understood her within a context in which women could assume power as part of the “natural order.” (Maybe these experts could help us with our presidential race.)
           The museum’s Sackler Center houses Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party.” I had heard Chicago speak, and I have a poster of “The Dinner Party” autographed and framed in my dining room. (I like the irony and the reactions of people unfamiliar with it: "Um, those plates look like, well, um, I don't mean to be nasty, but, um ..."). I had never seen the work installed until last year. I roamed 'round and 'round the table, looking at it from different angles, crouching down to inspect the detailed ceramics, tapestries and embroideries.
        I attended a discussion by Maura Reilly and Linda Nochlin, curators of “Global Feminisms.” (I had studied Nochlin’s well-known book “Women, Art and Power” in college.) The moderator asked what some issues, such as transgender, had to do with feminism. Reilly snorted and said, “Let me get you a book by Judith Butler.”
           Next was a dialogue between Chicago and Sackler, who had donated the money for her namesake center. Chicago was fiery, but Sackler was pretty radical herself. They were irritated by a New York Times’ review. The headline, "They Are Artists Who Are Women; Hear Them Roar," set a dismissive tone to a story that made a little joke about bra-burning. Grrrrr.
            I wrote a letter to the editor and copied the museum. I received a thank-you from not only the museum’s director but also Sackler herself, who wrote:
The creation of the Center has been an extraordinary partnership with the Museum, Maura is a fine curator and it continues to bring in young and old from all walks and backgrounds - which is everything I had hoped.
I am glad that it is everything you would have wanted too.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Invisible Women

This is yet another post in the series of Trivial Topics No Real Feminist Would Write About. I'm so glad I'm not a Real Feminist and can just dive straight into the trivial but very interesting topic.

Which is the way the general political discussion assumes that human beings are men, that the term "gender" means that something will be said about women (men don't have gender just as whites don't have race), that there is nothing about gender when a commenter on a political thread talks about "Republicans and their women" or wonders why we never have a "Kick the Republicans in the Balls Day", that anything about children is viewed as women's issue, as if men procreate by some type of division instead.

This topic doesn't have to do with the obvious kind of sexism at all, because quite feminist people can fall into the same trap. It has to do with the automatic assumption on the part of so many that human beings are men unless otherwise explicitly stated, and if you remind them about that other half of humanity you can see the brain gears grinding into a new position: Oops! I forgot. Yes, naturally women are to be included, too. What about that abortion thingy?

I sometimes feel like a small child pulling on the sleeve of my dad, yelling "I'm here, too!", when I read certain political conversations. And when the "dad" notices me I get some version of attention to whatever is specifically female about the issue, not the kind of inclusion I wish.

What is this all about? Is it just a residue from all that "he embraces her" and so we don't need to remember "her" at all in writing? I doubt it. It's something more fundamental than that, something to do with in-groups and out-groups, I suspect. Whatever it is, yelling that "we are here, too" seems necessary.

For the Five Year Anniversary of the Iraq Invasion and Occupation

This is a reposting of the song of the earth to all the children who have died in wars and acts of terrorism, or maybe a faint echo of it, which I wrote in 2004:

These are my children, the dead ones, the beloved: the ones covered in mud and dirt, the bloodied ones, the limbless ones, the ones who were scattered by bombs like crumbs thrown for the birds. These are my children: the burned ones, the raped ones, the starved ones, the buried ones. See how beautiful they all are, my beloved children.

I seek for them everywhere, I call for them and at nightfall I find them. I gather them to me and give them sleep. The night I turn into a silken shawl, the sky into a blue blanket. I weave cradles and nests out of my hair, and I find a place for each one of my children, however hurt and frightened.

My lap is wide enough for all of them and their pain, and I give them dreams of pine forests, of fresh streams in sunlight, of young foxes gambolling in a clearing. I give them dreams of peace and quiet, of stars and sailboats, of flowers and meadows. I give them dreams of snow and sun and sweetness. I give them what was taken away from them and when I cannot do that I give them oblivion and rest. And the wind sings a lullaby, gently, in all my tongues.

It is my milk that feeds all, and my tears that sate all thirst, and these children, my beloved, will never lack food or drink or a place to slumber in my lap or a peace that cannot be broken.

On Whorses

Remember My Little Pony? These are supposed to be the next generation of ponies for little girls to play with, supposed, because though I was able to find a link to the site which sells them I was unable to verify that Toys R Us is actually selling them.

Jezebel linked to a story about them:

These are "Strutz," new pony dolls coming to a big box discount retailer near you. Aren't they a curious combination of anorexic and cleavage-y? That is the first rule of selling toys to four year old girls: making them subtly slutty is never going to do the job. How are we supposed to get our little girls to play with Legos in the face of crap like this? Thanks to veteran State Department hairdo watcher Princess Sparkle Pony for tipping us off to this new brand of toy "whorses" young Condi's parents would have protected her from seeing. [Princess Sparkle Pony]

As I said, I am not 100% certain that these are meant to be real toys. But if they are real, they sure are scary, what with those high heels for the hooves, the make-up and the bag for all the shopping that ponies do. It's as if someone wants to train girls as both hookers and consumers of makeup and clothes. Well, those girls who don't suffocate on all the small pieces of jewelry at the age of four.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Today's Action Alert

FAIR asks: Why Are Winter Soldiers Not News?

Dozens of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars gathered in Silver Spring, Maryland last weekend for the Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan hearings (3/13/08-3/16/08), where they offered harrowing testimony about atrocities they had witnessed or participated in directly. The BBC predicted that the event, organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War, "could be dominating the headlines around the world this week" (3/7/08). The hearings were covered as far afield as the U.K. (Guardian, 3/17/08), Australia (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 3/14/08), Croatia (Javno, 3/16/08), and Iran (Press TV, 3/14/08). Yet there has been an almost complete media blackout on this historic news event in the U.S. corporate media.

If you are not happy with that, click the FAIR link to find out what to do. Or you could just relax and assume that either the Pravda or the Izvestia would cover it if it mattered.

Michael O. Leavitt Cares For Pro-Life Doctors

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt worries about the well-being of doctors who refuse to treat a woman who wants an abortion or emergency contraception. He is very worried about the fate of those doctors whose ethical qualms are such that they will not even refer the patient to another provider. Poor doctors! Surely they won't be punished for violating the rule that a medical provider with ethical qualms must refer the patient in a timely manner to someone who can help her?

Don't believe me? Here's the rule:

In November, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) issued new ethics guidelines. Members who have a moral objection to performing abortions are now required to refer their patients to another provider:

Physicians and other health care providers have the duty to refer patients in a timely manner to other providers if they do not feel they can in conscience provide the standard reproductive services that patients request. In resource-poor areas, access to safe and legal reproductive services should be maintained.

And here is what Mr. Leavitt just wrote to ACOG:

I am writing to express my strong concern over recent actions that undermine the conscience and other individual rights of health care providers. Specifically, I bring to your attention the potential interaction of the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology's (ABOG) Bulletin for 2008 Maintenance of Certification (Bulletin) with a recent report (Opinion Number 385) issued by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) Ethics Committee on November 7, 2007 entitled "The Limits of Conscience Refusal in Reproductive Medicine".

The ACOG Ethics Committee report recommends that in the context of providing abortions, "Physicians and other health care professionals have the duty to refer patients in a timely manner to other providers if they do not feel that they can in conscience provide the standard reproductive service that patients request." It appears that the interaction of the ABOG Bulletin with the ACOG ethics report would force physicians to violate their conscience by referring patients for abortions or taking other objectionable actions, or risk losing their board certification.

As you know, Congress has protected the rights of physicians and other health care professionals by passing two non-discrimination laws and annually renewing an appropriations rider that protect the rights, including conscience rights, of health care professionals in programs or facilities conducted or supported by federal funds. (See 42 U.S.C. § 238n, 42 U.S.C. § 300a-7, and the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008, Pub. L. No. 110-161, 121 Stat. 1844, § 508). Additionally, threats to withhold or revoke board certification can cause serious economic harm to good practitioners.

I am concerned that the actions taken by ACOG and ABOG could result in the denial or revocation of Board certification of a physician who -- but for his or her refusal, for example, to refer a patient for an abortion -- would be certified. These actions, in turn, could result in certain HHS-funded State and local governments, institutions, or other entities that require Board certification taking action against the physician based just on the Board's denial or revocation of certification. In particular, I am concerned that such actions by these entities would violate federal laws against discrimination.

In the hope that compliance of entities with the obligations that accompany certain federal funds will not be jeopardized, it would be helpful if you could clarify that ABOG will not rely on the ACOG Ethics Committee Report, "The Limits of Conscience Refusal in Reproductive Medicine" when making determinations of whether to grant or revoke board certifications.

Thank you very much for your assistance in this matter.

Michael O. Leavitt

Get it? It's discrimination (discrimination!) to require the provider to refer the patient to someone else, even if she is, say, the victim of rape and needs emergency contraception. And it's not fair to make the provider have any consequences from such a refusal. So.

Never mind the patients. It's quite ok to discriminate against them based on nothing but the provider's conscience or political ideology or whatever.

The McCain Expertise

You may have heard that McCain made a public and simple error in the field of fighting "them terrarists", the area he is supposed to excel in. Here's the bit again:

NBC News political director Chuck Todd's reaction to this and the media's polite decision not to drag McCain over some hot coals:

"[T]his was not a one-time slip and ... had Clinton or Obama done something like this, this would have been played on a loop, over and over."

I guess it's Ok If You Are A Republican (OKIYAAR).

Let's See If It Works

By "it" I mean the classification of feminist definitions I suggested in the two-part series of "Take A Deep Breath" (Inhale and Exhale). What I'm going to apply it to is the topic of a post on feministe: a New York Times Magazine article which discusses the reasons why many Muslims want to adopt the Shariah law, either in the West for their own group only or as the major law system of an Islamic country (assuming that it's not yet the law of the land).

Now, Shariah is a legal system developed in the Middle Ages and not much changed since then. It does not treat men and women identically, and advocating such a system would not be something a feminist using the dictionary definition of feminism would use. But what about a feminist who is concerned about the happiness of women in general or the happiness of a particular group of women in particular?

Here are two quotes which would provide the foothold for arguing that Shariah might be a very good thing for some women. First, from the NYT article:

Shariah is best understood as a kind of higher law, albeit one that includes some specific, worldly commands. All Muslims would agree, for example, that it prohibits lending money at interest — though not investments in which risks and returns are shared; and the ban on Muslims drinking alcohol is an example of an unequivocal ritual prohibition, even for liberal interpreters of the faith. Some rules associated with Shariah are undoubtedly old-fashioned and harsh. Men and women are treated unequally, for example, by making it hard for women to initiate divorce without forfeiting alimony. The prohibition on sodomy, though historically often unenforced, makes recognition of same-sex relationships difficult to contemplate. But Shariah also prohibits bribery or special favors in court. It demands equal treatment for rich and poor. It condemns the vigilante-style honor killings that still occur in some Middle Eastern countries. And it protects everyone's property — including women's — from being taken from them.

Note something interesting: The good things for women are good in comparison to something undefined, not in comparison to how the law treats men. Shariah may well demand equal treatment for rich and poor men, or for rich and poor women, but not for men and women, and it may protect women's property from outright theft but it does not let daughters inherit as much as sons inherit.

The second quote is from Ann's guest post on feministe:

I first became interested in learning about Shariah courts while attending a law reform conference that included lawyers from Zanzibar (an island off the coast of Tanganyika – when the two former colonies were united they were re-named the Republic of Tanzania). While the mainland is heavily Christian, Zanzibar is over 90% Muslim. While discussing gender law with two lawyers from Zanzibar I learned that the island has Shariah courts that rule over family law issues, including divorce. According to these lawyers, Shariah courts gave women more power because a woman could initiate divorce without her husband's consent.

Being able to initiate divorce without the husband's consent is a good thing, true. But my understanding is that Shariah allows men to initiate divorce without their wife's consent, and they don't have to go to court at all to do it. When Shariah courts "gave women more power", what was the starting point like? And how much less power do women still have than men?

I am certain that women have derived not only discriminatory treatment but also legal rights and protections from the application of the Shariah law, and that such legal protection and rights could be improved upon. Is this all enough for a feminist to support the introduction of the Shariah law if Muslim women themselves wish it?

It's a very difficult question. A feminist using the first definition of feminism (as wanting equal rights and opportunities for men and women) would certainly say that it is not enough. A feminist of the second type, one who wants to "put women first" and to improve the position of women in some country where the alternatives are even more unfair to women might argue that the small improvements suffice. But would a feminist of the latter type advocate the adoption of the Shariah rules among Muslim minorities in the West?

I would not, but then I use the dictionary definition. I wouldn't advocate religious laws of any kind, actually, because they are based on patriarchal traditions, rarely give women equal rights and are usually written in such a manner that the most misogynistic interpretation is the most obvious one.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Billie Holiday Sings The Blues

Can you taste voices? Hers tastes like hot milk chocolate with cherry brandy in it.

An Irritating Thought of the Day

I started thinking of those people who argue that any feminist critique of scientific studies (or even of silly books like that Brizandine one) means a) that no feminist understand science and b) all that is needed to understand science is to accept the anti-feminist picks from it and to allow pseudoscience to be treated equally with science.

I don't like to think about those people, because it makes me irritated. They'd quite likely argue that I feel irritated because I'm an emotional woman goddess whose brain just can't absorb science. Or they'd make up a straw-Echidne, one that would argue there are no other but genital differences between men and women, and that I'm irritated (and soon will run out of the room in tears), because my straw-beliefs have been lit on fire. Ashes, that's all that remains.

But I feel irritated for quite different reasons: First, this stupid conversation happens over and over again, starting with an extremely biased and odd popularization of a carefully selected specimen of research which is nevertheless presented as the complete and final scientific truth, showing that women are all wrong and silly, and every time I feel I have to answer. I'm tired of it. I'm tired of the expectation that I should respond with some seriousness to the ridiculous arguments of someone who has never bothered doing any of the necessary research and who appears to have developed no analytical abilities at all. It is insulting. Even though the insulting expectations come from inside me.

I'm also fucking tired of the discourse that is regarded as neutral in this culture. It goes like this: One acceptable argument is that women and men are not only different but that women are somehow less (not able to do mathematics, not able to parallel park or drive (though killing fewer people in accidents), too emotional (though starting fewer wars), good at verbal skills (but men still are the great writers), good at taking care of children (but the experts in childrearing are men) good at cooking (but the great chefs are men). This is all of course a substructure intended to prop up traditional gender roles and women's lesser societal power. Yet it is a neutral and acceptable stance in the debate, and the only neutral and acceptable response is to provide lots and lots of scientific evidence showing that the underlying assumptions are incorrect.

But when that evidence is supplied and discussed what happens? The basic setup of the debate has not shifted at all. Instead, the next round starts with the same assumption that women are irrational, bad at numbers, not to be trusted with power and so on. And all the time the people making those points don't have to come up with large amounts of evidence or careful statistical calculations.

If you get angry at all this, your anger or your angry tears or your leaving the room simply prove the point that the other side had originally made: Women are too emotional.

So I think the debate has been rigged. I don't like to play rigged games, but I don't quite see what the alternative is. All my posts on these topics take much research and reporting, require much careful parsing and nuanced analysis. And for what end? It's like farting into the wind.

Today's Dose of Science-Hating Feminists

Mark Liberman on the Languagelog is always worth reading, especially when he attends to some anti-feminist arguments floating around in the mainstream media. From Ann Bartow.

I feel guilty for not attacking the initial piece myself. But Liberman does it excellently (as long as you remember that he writes in scientese and that you have to add all those fuck-you-idiot bits), life is short and anti-feminist prey is plentiful. Another day will come for me, and my brain might then light up in a totally different configuration, given these years of rabid blogging.

Barack Obama's speech on race

You can read the transcript or watch the speech here.

There are so many different perches from which to respond to a speech like that: The purely emotional level where I was going "sing it, brother", most of the time. The political pundit level of me asking which excerpts will be drawn out to be used as THE message of the speech, to be endlessly dissected and reinterpreted and discussed until the speech indeed has become those few excerpts. The political nerd level where I was making mental lists of any actual solutions the speech contained. The wannabe campaign advisor level of me wondered if all the needed buttons had been punched, if all the focus groups liked the speech equally well. The feminist me noting the ever-so-slight tilt towards men in the speech. And so on.

But mostly I think it is a very good speech, on a topic that Americans really need to be able to discuss more openly and with more patience than has happened so far. It is a speech for adults, which is rare and refreshing in political speechifying.

The Embroidery Lesson

These (found by Phila) are quite wonderful.

Below is a picture of one of my embroideries, called "The Canary" You can click on the picture to see details somewhat better.

The Margarets

This is the most recent of Sheri Tepper's fantasy-cum-scifi books. I just finished reading it and, as usual, loved her inventive worlds and how very real most of the characters feel. But, as usual, I also think that she really needs a bigger bully for an editor. She gets away with bits that should have been cut out, such as little mini-sermons for those readers who are not smart enough to "get it" and the too concrete links to current U.S. politics. For instance, No Child Left Behind is mentioned in this book, which makes no sense at all, given that the events are supposed to take place hundreds of years into the future, and nobody then would remember any rinky-dinky educational policies of this decade.

Tepper is quite a lot like that little girl of the ditty who "when she is good she is very, very good, and when she is bad she is horrid." Which really is a pity, because some of her books are based on fascinating ideas and arguments about the human race, what makes it tick and how it might look in quite a different environment.

Still, she is one of the authors I go to when the world has decided to sit on the feminist me.

Monday, March 17, 2008

So Sorry, Honey

Thanks to Nell in the comments for this interesting reversal of the usual groveling speech by politicians who have cheated on their wives:

St. Patrick's Day

I should not celebrate it, given that rumor about him and the snakes, but most likely it is just a rumor:

Pious legend credits Patrick with banishing snakes from the island, though post-glacial Ireland never had snakes;[37] one suggestion is that snakes referred to the serpent symbolism of the Druids of that time and place, as shown for instance on coins minted in Gaul (see Carnutes), or that it could have referred to beliefs such as Pelagianism, symbolized as "serpents".

Then, of course, that other interpretation of "snakes" is what lies in the heart of this here blog, too. Figure it out yerselves, assuming that you are not out drinking green beer.

The Click?

The click is that moment when a woman (or I guess it could be a man, too) suddenly realizes, on that deep emotional and spiritual level, that the world does not treat women equally and fairly. A recent piece suggests that the discussion of Eliot Spitzer's sex life and the way blame was sought in the presumed behavior of his wife may have been such a click experience for some:

Younger women, for their part, are starting to have what Ms. Goldberg calls "the aha moment" — even if it doesn't put them in Mrs. Clinton's column, as some of the welter of commentary last week found.
"Like lots of other twentysomething women, I've been an unswerving Obama girl from the get-go," wrote Noreen Malone on The XX Factor, the Slate magazine blog written by women. "Oddly enough it's taken Spitzergate — not Hillary's tears, not her scolding — to make me less dismissive of the feminist 'obligation' to vote for a woman."
It reminded her of a depressing bit of wisdom passed on by a friend's father: "The most powerful people in the world are old white men and pretty young women."
"During my supposedly post-feminist lifetime, the women who've created the biggest stir are the young women who've ruined the careers of powerful old men," she wrote. "I'm not saying I'm for Hillary now, and I'm not saying that Hillary's history with sexual peccadilloes is uncomplicated, but it certainly makes me appreciate the fact that she's learned other ways of manipulating power."

I'm not sure if the Spitzer scandal offers an opportunity for the click (a very painful moment, by the way), but if it does for some I'm happy that the society has advanced so much that something fairly subtle in the scheme of things could make you click.

I regret that the topic of that piece is about who to vote for, because that is not the part I wanted to discuss. It was the click. Click!

The Bear Pit

Well, Bear Stearns has been sold to JPMorgan for a cup of coffee per share. The building Bear Stearns owns is alone worth about four times the purchase price. Of course JPMorgan didn't just get the company but also about 30 billion dollars in loan guarantees from us taxpayers. Neat, is it not?

There are at least two separate questions about this sale: One has to do with the 60,000 dollar question whether it will have the intended effect: to staunch the bleeding in the seriously ill financial markets. I have nothing clever to say about that, because I can't read the future, sadly.

The second question is a more fundamental one, and it has to do with the old political battles between those who believe in the god of free markets and absolutely no government intervention (none!) and those who believe in something a lot more restrained and bureaucratic. I'm in the latter camp for the simple reason that the current problem has its roots in the violent resistance towards any additional regulation of the financial markets since the 1990's. The dominant view was that the markets would regulate themselves and that the innovations of the mostly unregulated markets were all Good Things.

Of course, some of those innovations are exactly what led to the collapsed mortgage markets, to the repackaging of bad loans inside large bales of loans, to be sold on, so that ultimately nobody could tell which loans were bad or even what percentage of bad loans each bale contained. Once that happened the seed was sown for what we are now reaping, and the sad thing is that we are all reaping the punishment harvest, while only some people reaped the great benefits of this scheme.

Did you spot the funny thing about all this? As long as the markets looked good the government was told to keep its filthy fingers off it, but once the troubles started the government is supposed to step in and fix them. You really can't have it both ways.

Neither can you make the argument that some risk-takers in the market have earned so much for the very reason that they assume risks if then we don't make them actually experience the downside of a risky market. In short, if the large incomes of certain individuals and firms are payment for successful risk-taking, we should see equally large losses by other individuals and firms. We shouldn't see the government stepping in and saving people. After all, they didn't bother to save people after the hurricane Katrina destroyed a city.

So much for the principles. In actual life, something needs to be done about all this, to protect those who are not at fault for the crisis. I agree with Krugman that the bailouts should be done carefully and that the major players themselves should not be bailed out. They were supposed to be the risk-takers, remember.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Bela Bartok Six Dances In Bulgarian Rhythm

Mikrokosmos Vol 6 #148-153



These pieces are the last in the collection. Number five is the hardest. All of them are wonderful.

Wish someone would put up the rest of the pieces from Volume 6.
I went looking for From the Diary of a Fly but couldn’t find it.

On The Concerns of Joseph Weizenbaum by Anthony McCarthy

People who have endured much of my writing know that I’m interested in the moral distinction between living beings and objects. Ok, yeah. So I’m obsessed with the questions about it. Most of the time the questions about the differences are put in either quasi-mystical terms or, on the other side of the coin, would be, rational-materialist terms. I generally don’t. My interests don’t fall into those two habits of thinking, for me the public discourse on the subject is, most usefully, a matter of political ethics. The lesson I gather from reading the news and history is that first step towards creating hell on earth is to either ignore or deny that living beings are in possession of inherent rights and worth. Sentient beings are in a different realm of existence from inert matter, they should never be items of mere commerce. Non-sentient life is also not wisely treated as if it was merely inert matter. I won’t go into that here, though.

In humans, who are able to reason for themselves, those rights include the personal exercise of that vitally important faculty. It is as much a right to be able to think independently as access to adequate nutrition, clean water and those other things necessary to sustain life. In just about every case, obtaining nutrition and the other physical requirements of life depend on the right, individually and collectively, to practice reasoning.

I have no doubt, at all, that seeing living beings as things without these inherent rights will be taken as permission to allow people to act badly, as badly as they figure they can get away with for their own, selfish reasons. It is only the full acceptance that other people and living beings possess rights that prevents bad behavior. Trying to prevent harm by analyzing ethics in terms of transactions among selfish entities does nothing to prevent the problem. It just makes the basic struggle a slightly more complex race to hell.

During a session at one of the more articulate and rational of the materialist blogs, where I sometimes go to test the weakness in arguments, someone asked my opinion of Alan Turing, I assumed as the inventor of the famous Turing test. My answer was that just because a machine appeared to be thinking in the same way that human beings do didn’t mean that it really was because we don’t have a real understanding of what thinking is. We don’t even know if what we call “thinking” is one or many kinds of events or even if we might mistake one kind of these “events” for another or vice-versa.

For someone in the middle of the 20th century to assert that we could make that distinction on the basis of appearances was only slightly more unrealistic than for one to assert that in 2008. We don’t have and, I suspect, will probably never will have sufficient understanding of what thought is to consider that judgment to be something within science. Pretending that the conclusions drawn in that kind of “test” are reliable is one of the failings of much of what gets called science these days.

If it's as bad an idea to believe that a machine can think as it is to let it go as unstated that people don't have the same moral status as inert objects is not a question that can be answered with science but it is one that we are going to have to answer due to impending exigencies.

So I was a bit sad to read the obituary of Joseph Weizenbaum who was both an early pioneer in artificial intelligence and one of its early critics. There isn’t time to go into much of what he wrote on the subject but his thinking should be taken seriously by anyone interested in these issues. From what I’ve always read, one of the early things that alarmed Weizenbaum about his field was that people mistook the psychoanalytic game he invented, Eliza, to be a thinking entity. It was to his credit that he was wise enough to recognize the dangers in that kind of mistake. It’s a very rare academic who can exercise that kind of objective critical wisdom about their own work. This is a succinct statement of the scope of the problem.

"The relevant issues are neither technological nor even mathematical; they are ethical," he told the Globe in 1981. "Since we do not now have ways of making computers wise, we ought not now give computers tasks that demand wisdom." Mr. Weizenbaum advised outlawing "all projects that propose to substitute a computer system for a human function that involves interpersonal respect, understanding, and love."

By contrast, in the obituary, one of his colleagues at MIT, Patrick Winston, said "Viewed from the distance of time, much of what he worried about seems quaint today, especially his concerns about whether experience-lacking computers would make bad decisions on behalf of us experience-grounded humans,"

There is every reason to believe that as the national security apparatus buys stuff from politically connected, profit making, I.T. firms that purport their products can think in just these ways, Weizenbaum’s concerns will quickly become undeniably less quaint. Even more ominous is the prospect of profit making businesses using the same kind of stuff in its efforts to wring the last cent out of the labor of humans, dispose of those who it suspects to be insufficiently profit generating, and the pillage of the living environment. The legal fashion these days is to pretty much allow more leeway in such stuff to anyone with money and power than is safe for a decent society.

The evidence available from the real life use of psychological “science” could provide a useful model of what that could get to be like. As an example, anyone who was subjected to the use of “psychological science” * by business or the courts might have a good idea of the possible problems that will come from having computers making decisions about you. People have lost jobs, their children, their freedom and, infamously in such places as Texas, their lives on the basis of the application of what was officially, but not really, called psychological science. There is every reason to suspect that as I.T. becomes an established industry that the financial and so legal pressures for it to become officially “valid science” and to be retained as such, will be even more difficult to resist.

It is unwise to give the law and business the power to allow the automation of decisions about the freedom and rights or real humans because experience shows they do not have the wisdom to make that choice. When the word “science”, with its prestige and unthinking social respectability is injected into the discussion by those who can financially profit from the adoption of technology, judges can go all gooey in the head. And wave the prospect of a few dollars in their faces and businessmen have been known do anything. Wisdom would be to keep important decisions impinging on real people and other living beings as far away from being automated as possible. My guess is that your chances are better with a mediocre person forced to make a decision without recourse to simulated thought than a machine programmed by anyone. I have a feeling that once the habit of relying on computers to simulate thought for us is entrenched, it will be even harder to overturn them than a judicial ruling.

* In some ways this kind of psychological testing might be a good model of allowing automated “thought” to make decisions about peoples’ lives. Despite what another of my opponents at another materialist blog asserted, what might be the most absurd of them all, the Rorschach Test, is still in wide use. Commercially produced and administered psychological testing can be ordered by courts and often is in all kinds of cases. Businesses and educational institutions often use them with full legal authority in hiring and retention. Often there is little to no scientific evidence that the test reveals anything real at all. Some of the most widely used tests have either no or quite ambiguous validation. The still used Rorschach Test began as a parlor game in Vienna, for Pete’s sake. Apparently, though they would have passed into the public domain decades ago, there is still some attempt to suppress access to the images themselves.

Note: There are other citations I'd like to make but as they are contained in pdf: files and those are making my computer crash just about every time I try to open one up these days, I will not be using them here.