Natural reaction

When I saw this story:

Thick black smoke billowed from a fire Wednesday in Vice President Dick Cheney’s suite of offices in the historic Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House. Cheney’s office was damaged by smoke and water from fire hoses, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said.

I’m sure I’m not the only person whose first reaction was that one of Cheney’s memos required more than shredding….
UPDATE: Looks like TPM got there ahead of me

Jane Fonda's "weak-ass faith"

Greta Christina look at the recent Jane Fonda-Ted Turner divorce. The turning point was Fonda’s sudden religious conversion, about which she said:

“My becoming a Christian upset him very much — for good reason. He’s my husband and I chose not to discuss it with him — because he would have talked me out of it. He’s a debating champion.”

As Greta put it, Fonda…

would rather get a divorce than allow my faith to be seriously questioned.
Or to put it another way:
I know that my faith probably doesn’t stand up to reason. I know that I could be argued out of it. But I still want to have it — even if it means divorcing my husband of ten years. I’d rather get the divorce than be convinced that my faith is mistaken. I’d rather get the divorce than even take a chance on being convinced that my faith is mistaken.

Farewell, Salon

Back in the mid-1990s, I started reading a new online magazine called At that time it seemed that Salon and Slate were the only games in town, and I liked Salon’s (relatively) contrarian and feisty style. ((Slate seemed far too concerned with proving how cool and professional they were. Odd, that.)) I was enough of a Salon fanboy that when they launched their paid Premium service in April 2001 I signed up immediately, as a gesture of solidarity. I can’t remember if I kicked in a few bucks when they made their appeal to stave off bankruptcy in 2003, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
Although the content was uneven, there were a number of regular contributors that kept me coming back, particularly Patrick “Ask the Pilot” Smith, Glenn Greenwald, Laura Miller, and – above all – Joe Conason with his excellent – and relentless – political work. The resident “agony aunt,” Cary Tennis, was occasionally insightful but increasingly self-indulgent, and Tom Tomorrow provided essential political cartoons.
At some point I switched to using RSS feeds for my web content, which meant that I rarely saw the Salon home page. Instead of being a magazine, it became for me just another collection of feeds. Around about the same time, the Huffington Post kicked in and eventually swamped the rest of the liberal political news sites. Salon had attempted to combine both news and commentary, but after HuffPo arrived Salon’s commentary became less incisive. Conason gave way to Blumenthal, who (while better connected) is much too much of an insider.
And so I found myself skipping more and more of the Salon content, and not really missing it. So when my Salon Premium subscription came up for renewal a few days ago, I paused. I took a look at the current issue, to see whether there was anything worth subscribing to, and my eye fell upon this interview by Steve Paulson with the theologian John Haught. Once again a quirky liberal theologian – someone who would never be able to pass for a Christian in a Red State – was lambasting “the new atheists” for being ignorant of religion, and the Salon interviewer was serving up softball questions that did nothing to expose the serial contradictions in Haught’s so-called argument. I thought about adding a comment, only to find that 333 people had got there before me.
If I want that kind of stuff, I can get it for free on any one of a dozen blogs. It’s as bad as HuffPo’s love affair with the ridiculous Deepak Chopra.
And so, Salon, this is goodbye. I appreciate the pioneering work you did in helping to define online journalism in the late nineties and early oughts, but I won’t be subscribing any more. Good luck.

They can't do that to my favourite Christmas song!

From (ironically) the BBC NEWS:

BBC Radio 1 has said it will stand by its ban on the word “faggot” from the Pogues’ 1987 Christmas hit Fairytale of New York to avoid offence.
The word, sung by the late Kirsty MacColl as she trades insults with Shane MacGowan, has been dubbed out… Another line, where MacGowan calls MacColl “an old slut on junk”, has also been edited.

The strange thing is that this bowdlerization only applies to Radio 1. Radio 2 will be playing the original version. When I lived in England, Radio 1 was the cutting edge, while Radio 2 was Jimmy Young and Max Bygraves territory; no bad language allowed. How times change.
The only thing this story needs is an announcement by the Beeb that the decision was made on “health and safety” grounds; that seems to be the standard excuse for institutional stupidity these days.
Anyway, here’s the original version, with Kirsty. (Sigh… why did you have to go and die like that?)

UPDATE: Sanity has prevailed!

Getting serious about the Kindle

I’ve had my Kindle for just over three weeks now. I’ve really enjoyed using it: I’ve finished two full-length books (“The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman, and “Takeover” by Charlie Savage), I’ve downloaded and dipped into a couple of Project Gutenberg files (Milton’s poetry and Greek philosophy), I’ve sampled an enjoyably trashy novel ((No, I’m not going to identify it – but you can find some interesting things if you select a category in the Kindle store and then Sort by Price, Low to High!)), and I’m just starting “Arsenals of Folly” by Richard Rhodes. I’ve also downloaded sample chapters from several books, sometimes to check them out and sometimes just to demonstrate the latency to curious friends.
I’ve also been reading newspapers, taking advantage of the 14 day free trial. I’ve tested the New York Times and San Jose Mercury News; both were OK, although they need to work on consistency of content. I’ve read the Seattle Times every day; I usually scan it over breakfast at my local Starbucks. I’ve developed a good rhythm, scanning the contents, clicking in to individual stories, popping back when I’m done. It goes pretty quickly. I really wish that Amazon could sign up an English paper – The Guardian, or the Independent (hell, even the Daily Telegraph), complete with crosswords! Never mind; reading newspapers on the Kindle seems to work well (and better than reading the RSS feed, which is what I used to do).
But now, suddenly, it gets serious. I need to decide if the Kindle is simply a convenient gadget, or whether it’s going to be a long-term part of my intellectual life.
It all started when I read a piece called On Intuitions in Philosophy in a philosophy blog called the Leiter Reports. It quoted a review by Michael Liston of a new book by Penelope Maddy ((Professor of the Philosophy of Science at UC Irvine)) : Second Philosophy: A Naturalistic Method. I read the review, and I immediately knew that I wanted this book. The reasons are unimportant right now; read the review for yourself if austere philosophical naturalism is your cup of tea. The important thing was that Amazon showed that it was available in two formats: hardback, at $61.20, and Kindle, at $58.50. ((One friend was surprised: “I thought all Kindle books were $9.99!” Well, no: although most of the NYT best-sellers are available at that price, Kindle books cost anything from (hang on, let me check) 25 cents to $1,079.96.))
This isn’t a throw-away (or even a give-away) book. It’s the kind of book that I will read carefully once, and then re-read in six to twelve months. It’s also the kind of book that I will probably refer to when reading a similar book, or cite in anything I write on a related theme. As a paper book, it would probably acquire various “post-it” comments, or even marginalia. And if I really enjoyed it, I might want to lend it to a few friends who would appreciate it.
Of course it’s also the kind of book that could turn out to be a great disappointment, and which I would try to sell at the local university bookstore, so that it might find a better home.
So I downloaded a sample chapter of “Second Philosophy” to my Kindle, read it carefully, and enjoyed it. ((Publishers need to recognize the value of this; the opportunity for unplanned purchases is clear.)) I like Maddy’s thesis as well as her style. This simply confirmed that I do, in fact, want this book. Setting aside the option of waiting patiently for a paperback edition, the choice is clear: hardback or Kindle? There are several questions to consider.

  • Given the restrictions on lending and resale, is the price of the Kindle version reasonable? I think that the answer is “no”; my gut feeling is that a more reasonable price point would be around $45 or $50. However it’s hard to blame the publishers for picking the price that they did: this is a new business proposition, and there’s no obvious model for pricing. So the question is, would I pay this price even if it seems unreasonable, just because I want to give the publishers some data?
  • Is the Kindle a suitable device for reading this kind of book? In general, I think that the answer is yes. However on one point I can’t answer without checking the paper edition: footnotes. On the Kindle, reading a footnote involves scroll, click, read, back. If the paper book uses same-page footnotes, the Kindle would be much slower. If, however, the hardcover uses chapter or volume end-notes, the Kindle will be much more efficient.
  • How will it work to have a subject library spread over multiple types of media? Beats me – the only way to know is to try it? It’s silly to get hung up on mystical mumbo-jumbo like “the sacredness of paper”; the only way to learn is to do.
  • Perhaps the most important question: is the Kindle really going to be in my future? I’m a classic early-adopter, an inveterate fiddler with electronic devices of all kinds. I’ve lost count of how many different cellphones, PDAs, palmtops, tablets, PMPs, portable game players, and ultralight computers I’ve owned. How many of them were used for content ((Other than games.)) that I couldn’t transfer to somewhere else? None. Even my DRM-laden iTunes music can be burned to regular audio CDs. But if I load my Kindle with a book that I want to be part of my permanent library, I’ve got to be certain that the Kindle won’t wind up in a dusty drawer with the other forgotten devices. ((At this point, some will start ranting about DRM. Don’t. I’ve heard it all before. Look at how long it took go get from the first Apple iPod to Amazon’s DRM-free MP3 store. It’s illogical to expect book publishers to move any more quickly.))

After re-reading what I’ve just written, I went through to the other room, opened up my Kindle to the last page of the sample of Maddy’s book, and clicked on “Buy Now”. I’ll let you know how it goes.


I just got back from watching the newly-released film adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement. It was, quite simply, brilliant. I can’t remember when I saw a better film. Visually, it leaves everybody (including Merchant Ivory) in the dust: the scenes on the beach at Dunkirk were some of the most powerful depictions of war that I know of. The metafictional elements of the novel, always a challenge in film adaptations, came across perfectly.
This should be a slam-dunk for the “Best Picture” Oscar.

"The Golden Compass" at the Cinerama

I’m waiting for the 9:15am showing of “The Golden Compass” to start. The Cinerama was the obvious choice of venue: a big, extravagant setting for an over-the-top film. After reading the reviews ((Decidedly mixed, as you can see.)) , I decided to re-read the books before seeing the film; I’ve finished the first two and will knock off the third this weekend. (Of course none of the books were originally called “The Golden Compass”; that’s an American revision.)
More after the movie is over.
So, a very mixed bag. If only the director had insisted on an extra hour; there’s too much packed into the 113 minutes allotted for this. (But then a couple of scenes are dragged out too long, especially the climactic battle.) On the other hand, the actress that they found for Lyra, Dakota Blue Richards, is perfect. Here’s Ty Burr in the Boston Globe:

Any adaptation of Pullman’s fiction hinges on its Lyra, and in the first-timer Richards, Weitz has found someone worth following. Rangy and impetuous, with a sour, tilted mouth and big eyes that narrow with suspicion, Richards suggests the foul-mouthed street urchin and the future grande dame; she’s not conventionally pretty, but she has beauties in her. Above all, she’s whip-smart and curious – a real adventuress. She makes the “Narnia” kids look vaguely feeble.

So often when you see the film of a favourite book, there’s a jarring effect: “I didn’t imagine her looking like that!” But Richards’ Lyra is an improvement on my imagination, which is delightful.
Much was made of the fact that the director had tried to downplay the identification of the Magisterium with the Catholic Church, and to present it as a vague, generic form of authoritarian institution. Many atheists expressed frustration that Pullman’s clear anti-religious message was being diluted. I don’t think they need worry: the Magisterium is clearly, unequivocally, depicted as a religious organization, and it is unambiguously evil.
If you know the books, you will probably enjoy the film, although the clumsy preamble and bizarre resequencing are likely to frustrate you. If you don’t know the books, read them first. Either way, try to see the film on a really big screen. And hopefully the “director’s cut” DVD will be twice as long.


While scanning the evening’s RSS feeds, I noticed a story in El Reg about a security update for Quicktime. Naturally I ran Software Update… to see if the patch was ready to instal. ((“Install” in the US, “Instal” in the UK.)) It was, so I downloaded it, answered the relevant questions, and was surprised when it told me that a reboot was necessary. “But it’s an application; why would… oh, never mind.” So I rebooted. A message appeared, saying that something was being installed, and then the screen went black.
Odd. Press Enter. Check screen brightness. Listen to fan. Nothing. Press the power button. Nothing. Hold down the power button. Nothing. Press the power button. The fan comes on, and I can hear the disk spinning up, but otherwise nothing. Hold down power button again, fan stops. Nothing. Change batteries. Nothing. Insert bootable DVD, try to boot off it. Nothing. Try to eject DVD. Nothing.
Hmm. I’m now starting to speculate on the price and availability of a new MacBook Pro. Down, boy! Try zapping PRAM (booting with cmd-opt-P-R). Nothing. Unplug power, try booting on battery. Nothing.
Log in on second ((Of many…)) computer. Go to Resist temptation to check online store, head over to Support. Double-check procedure for zapping PRAM. See link to page for Resetting PowerBook and iBook Power Management Unit (PMU). The description suggests that this is the Last Chance Saloon. So I try it:

  1. If the computer is on, turn it off.
  2. Disconnect the AC Adapter and remove the computer’s battery.
  3. Press and hold down the power button for 5 seconds and then release the button.
  4. Reconnect the battery and AC Adapter.
  5. Press the Power button to restart the computer.

Follow the instructions. No sounds, no lights, no feedback of any kind. ((Computers need blinking lights!!)) Finally press Power, and the system starts up. Whew! Log in. The poor beast has forgotten many things: the clock is set to January 1, 1969; I have to re-enter the WiFi key… no matter. It’s back.
Just for the record, the optimum MacBook configuration would be $2,067 and the MacBook Pro would be $3,048. ((Amazon has cheaper but slower configurations; I think Apple is holding back the 7200 rpm disk units for itself.)) Both available by 12/24.
And yes, Quicktime works OK.