This review of The Superorganism, a book about ants, is pretty frickin' aweome if you look past the author's bizarre and disturbing lamentations that humans aren't as much like ants as we should be.
Recently in Reading Assignments Category
So, um, you may have noticed the decrease in activity on this blog. I've started a Twitter account and a lot of my snark has migrated over there. (You can see my updates over at the top of the right sidebar or follow me here if you're on Twitter.)
Anyway, most people I mention Twitter to say something like, "Oh yeah, Twitter, I've heard of that. What exactly is it?" This NY Mag article is a pretty good look at just what the heck Twitter is.
The first day I was in the Twitter office, I sat in the corner, playing with my own Twitter page, taking notes (it feels somewhat silly to write in a notebook there), and waiting to talk to Williams. For lunch, executives, including Stone, hosted programmers in the lounge to talk about some sort of open-source mumbo jumbo I didn't understand. Their HD television was tuned to a still photo of a fireplace. They were wrapped up in the meeting. I attended to my computer.
And then I noticed something on Twitter Search. The first person was "manolantern," who, at 12:33 local time, posted, "I just watched a plane crash into the hudson rive (sic) in manhattan." After that, the updates were unceasing. Some fifteen minutes before the New York Times had a story on its website (and some fifteen hours before it had one in print), Twitter users who witnessed the crash of US Airways Flight 1549 were giving me updates in real time. One of them was a man named Janis Krums. Krums lives in Sarasota, Florida, and happened to be on a ferry navigating the Hudson when the plane hit the water. He immediately took a photo and posted it to TwitPic and sent a "tweet" with a link to the picture and "There's a plane in the Hudson. I'm on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy." He then, perhaps coming to his senses, began to help passengers off the plane. (He ended up giving his phone to one of them and didn't get it back until that night.)
Now think about that for a second. In the midst of chaos--a plane just crashed right in front of him!--Krums's first instinct was to take a picture and load it to the web. There was nothing capitalistic or altruistic about it. Something amazing happened, and without thinking, he sent it out to the world. And let's say he hadn't. Let's say he took this incredible photo--a photo any journalist would send to the Pulitzer board--and decided to sell it, said he was hanging onto it for the highest bidder. He would have been vilified by bloggers and Twitterers alike. His is a culture of sharing information. This is the culture Twitter is counting on. Whatever your thoughts on its ability to exist outside the collapsing economy or its inability (so far) to put a price tag on its services, that's a real thing. That's the instinct Stone was talking about. If the nation has tens of millions of people like Krums, that's a phenomenon. That's what Twitter is waiting for.
Of course, no one at Twitter noticed any of this going on. This is the New Communication. There was no screaming and running through a newsroom, dispatching any reporter in the vicinity to the scene. For an hour, the boring open-source meeting droned on. No one in the room knew a plane had crashed. The next day, Stone would tell me that the site didn't even get a traffic spike. "That's only for huge shared experiences, like the inauguration, or Mumbai." Twitter had unleashed something ... and its executives were completely unaware, as its system worked on its own, without them. That might be what the future holds for Twitter. Or it might not be. It all depends on whether you're willing to wait for something that might not come. It all depends on whether you're willing to believe.
Well, I can't say I "believe" in Twitter, but it's combination of immediacy and simplicity is compelling.
Some good recent-ish reads:
- 2 from the Claremont Review: "The Audacity of Barack Obama" -- a fairly balance view of Obama's governing and legal philosophies; and "Reforming Big Government" -- a sober assessment of the here-to-stay welfare state:
Supply-side tax cuts did little to necessitate or even facilitate reducing the welfare state, and there is no reason to believe an explicit campaign for that goal will succeed where Barry Goldwater's failed. Given all that, conservatives need to weigh the costs and benefits of putting liberals' minds at ease by explicitly renouncing the war against the welfare state, the one that's barely being waged and steadily being lost. They could do so by making clear that America will and should have a welfare state, and that the withering away of the welfare state is not the goal of the conservative project, not even in the distant future. What libertarians will regard as a capitulation to statism is better understood as conceding ground conservatives have been losing for 75 years and have no imaginable prospect of regaining.
- Rathering than listing them all, I'll just tell you to read everything John Zmirak writes at Inside Catholic (yo, Deal, add author archive links!)
- Remember way back in... January 2008, when Ron Paul was widely dismissed as a nutjob for wanting to put the US back on the gold standard? Well, those loonies at the Wall Street Journal have given prime opinion real estate not once but twice to that fringe idea. Now, I'm not saying I'm a goldbug, but I'm not goign to hold my breath that many gold advocates will be acknowledging that Paul was out front on this.
That's all for now.I have many more I'll try to get around to in the next few days.
What I read during my lunch:
This, in brief, is the bad news: the food and agriculture policies you've inherited -- designed to maximize production at all costs and relying on cheap energy to do so -- are in shambles, and the need to address the problems they have caused is acute. The good news is that the twinned crises in food and energy are creating a political environment in which real reform of the food system may actually be possible for the first time in a generation. The American people are paying more attention to food today than they have in decades, worrying not only about its price but about its safety, its provenance and its healthfulness. There is a gathering sense among the public that the industrial-food system is broken. Markets for alternative kinds of food -- organic, local, pasture-based, humane -- are thriving as never before. All this suggests that a political constituency for change is building and not only on the left: lately, conservative voices have also been raised in support of reform. Writing of the movement back to local food economies, traditional foods (and family meals) and more sustainable farming, The American Conservative magazine editorialized last summer that "this is a conservative cause if ever there was one."
I have a post kicking around in my head on Michael Pollan as one of the most prominent and effective opponents of materialism. Someday I'll find the time to write it.
Having elsewhere published a thoughtful review of Archbishop Chaput's book that was mostly positive, Zmirak returns with sharper criticism. The title of his piece -- "Surrender Not Unto Caesar--Resisting Catholic Liberalism" gives you a hint of what he's getting at, but Zmirak is not throwing bombs here:
In America, by our Constitution as it has been authoritatively interpreted, the State is now relentlessly secular. In practice, it is rigorously relativistic. Altering either of these settled facts in American life would be unthinkably hard. Therefore, any Christian engaged in public life must seek to shrink the sphere of the State, and reduce its functions to their bare, libertarian minimum--in order to leave some room for the practice of Christian life. The bishops' predecessors realized this, when they tapped the meager resources of impoverished immigrants to build an entire, nationwide system of alternative Catholic schools. Instead of trying vainly to Romanize the (then vigorously if vaguely Protestant) schools, they built their own. A very American response to such a problem--and also a deeply Catholic one. Homeschoolers today follow in the footsteps of Abp. "Dagger" John Hughes.
The Church is officially committed to localism, rather than centralism. Catholic teaching on subsidiarity asserts that no problem should be taken up by the State which can be resolved by private action, and that no local matter should be referred to central authorities unless local institutions are hopelessly inadequate--as they are, for instance, to guard the border against foreign invasion, or prosecute interstate crimes. Empower the federal government to control (as it now does, with bishops' approval) education, social services, health care and retirement benefits, and you guarantee that each of these vital areas of life will be directed according to non-Christian or anti-Christian principles
After tracing the dissolution of America's once formidable "institutional culture" -- a collapse which had long been stirring, became visible with JFK's embodiment of Catholics' conformity to mainstream American culture and finally exploded with the backlash against Humanae Vitae -- Zmirak notes that the Church's loss of institutional authority has led American Catholics "to depend for what voice she has on the charisma of isolated individuals, such as Mother Angelica, Fr. Joseph Fessio, Fr. Benedict Groeschel, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and Fr. George Rutler" -- admittedly a formidable line-up, but no substitute for being formed in the faith by a family, parish, indeed an entire sub-culture steeped in Catholicism.
Here is where he gets back to Chaput and here is where the article breaks down a bit (hence the "goodish" tag). He makes some useful comments on the temptation of Catholic liberalism to short-sell justice in favor of mercy, but nowhere does he connect this "sentimental liberalism" with Archbishop Chaput except saying that this is a "problem" with chaput's book.
I feel compelled to issue a double disclaimer -- I hold no brief for John McCain and feel incapable of voting for either him or Barack Obama in good conscience and I also really, really like American Conservative.
That said, come on, now:
As we explore explanations for some of Senator McCain's actions, it is important to bear in mind that any professional who would render a definitive diagnosis on an individual he has not interviewed or tested is prostituting his credentials
That said, I believe it is highly likely that John McCain suffers from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
With the tanking economy effectively handing Barry O the presidency, is this really necessary?
Apparently the growing trend is for parents to allow their children to live as the opposite sex, even giving them drugs that block the onset of puberty:
It took the gay-rights movement 30 years to shift from the Stonewall riots to gay marriage; now its transgender wing, long considered the most subversive, is striving for suburban normalcy too. The change is fuel‑ed mostly by a community of parents who, like many parents of this generation, are open to letting even preschool children define their own needs. Faced with skeptical neighbors and school officials, parents at the conference discussed how to use the kind of quasi-therapeutic language that, these days, inspires deference: tell the school the child has a "medical condition" or a "hormonal imbalance" that can be treated later, suggested a conference speaker, Kim Pearson; using terms like gender-identity disorder or birth defect would be going too far, she advised. The point was to take the situation out of the realm of deep pathology or mental illness, while at the same time separating it from voluntary behavior, and to put it into the idiom of garden-variety "challenge." As one father told me, "Between all the kids with language problems and learning disabilities and peanut allergies, the school doesn't know who to worry about first."
A recent medical innovation holds out the promise that this might be the first generation of transsexuals who can live inconspicuously. About three years ago, physicians in the U.S. started treating transgender children with puberty blockers, drugs originally intended to halt precocious puberty. The blockers put teens in a state of suspended development. They prevent boys from growing facial and body hair and an Adam's apple, or developing a deep voice or any of the other physical characteristics that a male-to-female transsexual would later spend tens of thousands of dollars to reverse. They allow girls to grow taller, and prevent them from getting breasts or a period.
The whole article is pretty shocking and disturbing. I don't mean to be insensitive, and I'm sure parents who have to deal with this have it rough, but letting your 6 year old decide their own sex is too much.
That's all folks!
Charles Murray, in today's WSJ
Imagine that America had no system of post-secondary education, and you were a member of a task force assigned to create one from scratch. One of your colleagues submits this proposal:
First, we will set up a single goal to represent educational success, which will take four years to achieve no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward to it that seldom has anything to do with what has been learned. We will urge large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability to try to achieve the goal, wait until they have spent a lot of time and money, and then deny it to them. We will stigmatize everyone who doesn't meet the goal. We will call the goal a "BA."
You would conclude that your colleague was cruel, not to say insane. But that's the system we have in place.
He goes on to advocate CPA-style certification tests for most professions. As a firm-believer that college-for-everybody is insane and counter-productive, this is music to my er, eyes.
- The review you've all been waiting for: Adoremus on Piero Marini's A Challenging Reform. The review is surprisingly gentle, but definitely negative.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the book serves more as a "J'accuse" than a simple memoir. Bitterness and even rancor bleed through the text on many a page. Compared elsewhere to a spaghetti western with heroes wearing white hats and villains wearing black, the account is reminiscent likewise of a medieval chronicle, in which history, hagiography, and moralizing all conspire to tell a plangent, nay at times even maudlin, tale.
Marini portrays Bugnini in glowing terms as the tireless visionary and dauntless reformer who, advancing an agenda of inculturation and purportedly vindicating the cause of national episcopal conferences the world over, battles the prejudices of the Roman Curia enthralled by the ultimate foe, the Council of Trent. Time and again throughout the chronicle Trent rears its hydra-heads to threaten authentic liturgical reform. Its tinpot army is the Roman Curia, in the vanguard of which march and fight the Congregation of Rites, founded by Sixtus V in 1588 and dissolved by Paul VI in 1969.
- The Betrayal of Judas
When the Gospel of Judas was unveiled at a news conference in April 2006, it made headlines around the world -- with nearly all of those articles touting the new and improved Judas. "In Ancient Document, Judas, Minus the Betrayal," read the headline in The New York Times. The British paper The Guardian called it "a radical makeover for one of the worst reputations in history." A documentary that aired a few days later on National Geographic's cable channel also pushed the Judas-as-hero theme. The premiere attracted four million viewers, making it the second-highest-rated program in the channel's history, behind only a documentary on September 11.
But almost immediately, other scholars began to take issue with the interpretation of Meyer and the rest of the National Geographic team. They didn't see a good Judas at all. In fact, this Judas seemed more evil than ever. Those early voices of dissent have since grown into a chorus, some of whom argue that National Geographic's handling of the project amounts to scholarly malpractice. It's a perfect example, critics argue, of what can happen when commercial considerations are allowed to ride roughshod over careful research. What's more, the controversy has strained friendships in this small community of religion scholars -- causing some on both sides of the argument to feel, in a word, betrayed.
- James Wood presents the standard case against God based on the problem of evil under the guise of a review of Bart Ehrman's latest. I obviously don't agree with Wood, but it's an argument no Christian should ignore, and Wood presents it better than anybody.
- Sandro Magister describes a pilgrimage to St. Peter's tomb.
Imagine that it is night, as in the photo above. We're walking down a little path flanked by Roman tombs of the second and third century after Christ. We're at the bottom slope of the Vatican Hill. A short distance away is the imposing obelisk that stood at the center of the stadium of Caligula and Nero. That's where the apostle Peter was martyred. And along the path stands the monument marking the place where he was buried.
- Ross Douthat ably explains why it was incredibly stupid for Douglas Kmiec's chaplain to deny him Communion.
Father Langford: Contrary to reports in the press, Mother Teresa did not suffer a "crisis" of faith. In fact, her struggle was not with faith at all, but with the "loss of feeling" of faith, with the loss of a felt sense of the divine. As she stepped out of the convent and into the slums of Calcutta, what had been her usual consolation in prayer abruptly ended.
Though she would not understand it until later, she was being asked to share the same inner darkness, the same trial of belief suffered by the poor and destitute -- and to do so for their sake, and for the love of her Lord.
She was allowed to feel as though God was absent, and at first she agonized at the disconnect between her emotions and her belief -- though never did her lack of feeling become lack of faith.
In fact, her dark night revealed the hidden depth of Mother Teresa's faith in a way that any lesser challenge could not. Her darkness not only allowed her to exercise her extraordinary faith to the full, it allowed us -- modern disciples too often of "little faith" -- to discover the true dimensions of which faith is capable, even under duress, even in the night.
She would want to encourage us to do the same in our own Calcutta, in our own dark night: Instead of allowing our trials and pain to become a prison, we can, as she did, make our pain a bridge into the pain of others, a bond of solidarity, a catalyst for charity.
Q: How did her relationship with Mary assist her in these times of trial?
Father Langford: Just as the Israelites were given a column of fire to lead them by night, so Mother Teresa was given her own guiding light through the night of faith, in the person of the Virgin Mary.
The gift of Jesus' mother -- given to St. John on Calvary, and to disciples and saints through the ages -- strengthened Mother Teresa in carrying her own pain, and in tending to the pain of the poor.
Our Lady would help her to not only believe in the night, but to love in the night -- to transform the mystery of the cross, both within her and around her, into seeds of resurrection.
As it was Our Lady who brought St. John, alone among the Twelve, to stand faithfully at Calvary, so it was Our Lady who would bring Mother Teresa through the sea of suffering opened before her, that she might shine the light of God's love on the poor.
Some articles to drink your coffee over this weekend :
- Sandro Magister, Vaticanista extraordinaire, reruns a decade-old account of a pilgrimage to Mt. Athos.
Saints, centuries, empires, earthly and heavenly cities – everything seems to oscillate and flow, no longer distant. The monastery's treasures – golden and silver boxes with sapphires and rubies that are set in the Virgin's belt, the skull of Saint Basil the Great, Saint John Chrysostom's right hand – are offered to visitors for veneration. The light of the sunset sets them aglow, makes them pulsate. And the frescoes of Theophanes – master of the Cretan school in the first part of the 16th century – are also lit up, as are the blue majolica tiles on the walls, the mother-of-pearl on the iconostasis, on the lectern, on the episcopal throne.
After vespers one leaves the catholikon in procession and, facing the square, enters the refectory, which is also built like a church and frescoed by the great Theophanes. The same liturgy continues. The igoumenos takes his place at the center of the apse. A monk reads stories of saints from the pulpit, almost singing. One eats blessed food: soups and vegetables from old iron dishes – and on feast days even amber-colored wine – on thick, roughly hewn marble tables, themselves resting on marble supports. They are a thousand years old, yet evoke prehistoric dolmens. The exit is also made in procession. A monk gives everyone a piece of blessed bread. Another incenses it so artfully that the perfume remains a long time in your mouth.
- Two recent articles about human trafficking and prostitution caught my eye. The first is this lengthy but excellent New Yorker profile of a Moldovan woman who works for a non-profit that helps women who have been trafficked into prostitution get home. The second is this First Things daily article from last week that discusses a new book about the modern day slave trade by a reporter who has investigated trafficking all around the world.
- Lastly, Zenit has a brief article quoting Fr. Joseph Fessio talking about Pope Benedict XVI's recent trip to America. This quote stood out to me:
"Most people already knew [Benedict XVI] is extremely intelligent and articulate. Many weren't aware of the personal warmth, what in Bavaria they call 'Gemütlichkeit,'" Father Fessio said.
I don't know about you, but to me, nothing says "personal warmth" like Gemütlichkeit
An excerpt from the second review:
"I lifted cackling Tayshaun Jackson's desk above my head and wham! smashed it to the floor. 'SHUT YOUR MOUTHS!' My voice shook with convulsive intensity. The room went dead silent and motionless at my paroxysm, like a record scratching to a halt in some terrible game of Freezedance."
The school, which "looks like a prison," demanded that Brown prepare his 9-year-olds for systemwide tests that would help determine the school's funding. Teaching a history lesson, he discovered his students didn't understand that George Washington, having led the Revolutionary Army in 1776, must now be dead:
"I explained that very few people live to be a hundred. When only Sonandia and Seresa could tell me that 1904 was one hundred years before our current 2004, I realized . . . that these kids did not understand elapsed time, be it in minutes or decades. As a litmus test, I asked what time it would be sixty minutes from now. No hands. What time will it be sixty minutes from now. No hands. What time will it be one hour from now? Four volunteers. Thus, my hopes for in-depth, history-based lessons were banished to make way for my new, deceptively simple-seeming campaign for 'Time.'"
- NCR's John Allen's interview with Cardinal George.
- Cheryl Miller's review of the somewhat frightening Everything Conceivable, a book that casts an indifferent eye on our assisted reproduction mess. Warning, although the review is good, things like this might make you want to bang your head against the wall:
What of the babies who are the goal of these new reproductive technologies? The procedures of ART can harm the very children they help to create. Infertile fathers often pass their infertility down to their sons. Prematurity is now the leading cause of infant mortality in the United States, in part due to the “epidemic” of multiple births to IVF patients. Multiples are twenty times more likely to die in the first month of their lives than singletons; those multiples that survive are more likely to have respiratory difficulties, learning disabilities, and other problems. Cerebral palsy, for instance, has become more common in the United States, even as its major cause, jaundice, has been all but eliminated. And even IVF singletons are less healthy than non-IVF children: they tend to be smaller and are more likely to be born with birth defects, including bowel and genital deformations and eye cancer.
And yet press reports abound with stories of “designer babies.” Would-be parents relying on sperm or egg donations try to micromanage every part of the donor selection process—eye color, height, musical or athletic ability, even political leanings—in part, no doubt, because they desperately want to exert some control over a process in which they are largely powerless. Mundy tries, at times, to play this tendency down, arguing that most fertility patients don’t want to design a perfect baby; they’re grateful to have any baby. She quotes a nurse who tells her, “I’ve never come across a patient who wants to design their baby.”
This seems willfully naïve, even unbelievable. As much as Mundy wants to get past the stereotype of the super-picky fertility patient practicing “yuppie eugenics,” the stories she tells reinforce it. One couple fights over how tall their egg donor should be; another, to head off such squabbles, creates a mathematical formula for potential egg donors: “health plus education times looks, add back social sports.” “What are you going to do, get someone with [an SAT score of] 1550, or are you going to cheat your child and get them a mom with a 1210?” asks the parent who devised that “unofficial algorithm.” Such sentiments might strike the reader as shallow and laughable, but underneath these attitudes lie some unsavory (and decidedly illiberal) assumptions about human equality. One self-described “ardent social liberal” explains her feelings about donating her excess embryos (created using both an egg and sperm donor) thus: “These could be superstar embryos. I didn’t want to put them with high school graduates; you have the product of a doctor and a lawyer, and I wanted them to have the benefit of being around people like them.”
- John Robb's look at the future of terrorism from this summer edition of City Journal. An eye-opening read, but given recent events, the author's touting of Blackwater as a possible solution to the threat of terrorism in our cities is unfortunate.
...you might check out:
- What's with the boom in spicy food? Baby boomers:
Chiefly because of degenerating olfactory nerves, most aging people experience a diminished sense of taste, whether they realize it or not. But unlike previous generations, the nation's 80 million boomers have broad appetites, a full set of teeth, and the spending power to shape the entire food market.
- The 10 Most Insane Sports in the World
- Lefty v. Lefty on Lefties
Ezra Klein savages Mark Penn's Microtrends.I first flipped through Microtrends while at the YearlyKos convention, and Penn, astonishingly, seemed to comprehend the importance of the loosely connected, grassroots-driven, progressive movement’s flowering. “I suspect the lefty boom will bring a surge in the promotion of sheer creative energy,” Penn writes, “driven by an idea that is at the heart of this book—that small groups of people, sharing common experiences, can increasingly be drawn together to rally for their interests.” I was shocked—Penn was speaking admirably of “lefties,” not trying to recast them as moderates, not trying to write them out of the party? He was endorsing open-source politics, rather than a top-down structure? I had misjudged the man!
I read on. Penn was talking about actual lefties—people who are born left-handed. Increasingly grim, I absorbed the first hard blows of Penn’s interpretative technique: “More lefties,” he enthuses, “could mean more military innovation: Famous military leaders from Charlemagne to Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar to Napoleon—as well as Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf—were left-handed.” He uses the same thunderingly awful logic to argue that we’ll see more art and music greats, more famous criminals, more great comedians, more “executive greatness,” and better tennis and basketball players...
What’s more amazing is this: A page earlier, Penn argues that the rise in lefties has nothing to do with there being more lefties, and everything to do with more permissive parenting. In other words, where children used to be trained out of left-handedness, now parents “shrug their shoulders, saying it’s okay.” So not only does Penn fail to prove that lefties are genetically different in some important way, he also suggests that the gene pool is no different, and that there are as many of them around now as always. It’s a fallacy atop an error built around something that isn’t happening.
Forget Send, this is all you need to read about email, and it's pure gold for misanthropes.
Email is good for one thing only: flirtation. The problem with flirtation has always been that the nervousness you feel in front of the object of your infatuation deprives you of your wittiness. But with email you can spend an hour refining a casual sally. You trade clever notes as weightless, pretty, and tickling as feathers. The email, like the Petrarchan sonnet, is properly a seduction device, and everyone knows that the SUBJECT line should really read PRETEXT.
John Derbyshire's tribute to 18th century mathematician Leonhard Euler is very much worth reading. Yeah, I know what I just wrote, but it's true.
- 25 skills every man should know
Interesting list except for their lame-a** attempts to add basic computer skills to the list of general competencies every man should have. I think I'm man enough without knowing how to "Retouch digital photos." That said, I'm humble enough to admit that I scored an abysmal 6/25 on the list.
My other criticism is there's nothing about booze or tobacco on the list. Rolling a cigarette? Smoking a pipe? Mixing a gin and tonic? I guess that can be explained by the fact that the list was put together by Popular Mechanics. Still, it feels incomplete.
- A Tridentine Ordo that is unfortunately good only for another 2 months or so