What’s in a Name?

Canon is pretty funny to discuss.

For example, what’s that lady in white’s name?

It’s Mon Mothma, obviously, and she’s about to tell us about how many bothans died to get the plans for the second Death Star.

But her name isn’t actually used in Return of the Jedi. It is mentioned once in Revenge of the Sith, and she’s in the Clone Wars cartoon, but those came out over 20 years later. We all learned it somewhere, through osmosis, through fan transmission, through the strange ways that we communicate knowledge to one another on the playground, on the internet, in the letter pages of fanzines…

But, during that interregnum, what counted as good enough evidence that her name was Mon Mothma? What counts as “canon”?

The ending credits, which aren’t a part of the narrative?

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The shooting script, which isn’t part of the film at all?

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The novelization?

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Trading cards?

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Action figures?

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Signed photos from the actress herself?

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I would submit that, rather than worrying if we have to accept that Art Carney is a member of the Rebel Alliance if we also want Chewbacca to have a family, it doesn’t actually matter where the information comes from, provided it makes for a better and more interesting story, and a more rewarding experience interacting with the film. Sometimes it’s trivia, sometimes it makes a big difference, and sometimes it’s meaningless.

More, of course, on this topic to come…

de Sade and the Curious Endpoints of Power

The Marquis de Sade isn’t the world’s best philosopher. He’s a fairly good writer and stylist, and has an alright grasp of character dynamics, but his dialogues are worse than Plato’s when it comes to having one character give long speeches, and another nod, agree, and say “oh yes, you’re right, you’re so wise, you’ve convinced me completely.” Plato at least had the decency to have his characters argue a bit, and occasionally end a dialogue with the problem unsolved. de Sade, on the other hand, well…

The longest and most cohesive statement he wrote on his theories is in Philosophy in the Bedroom, a series of dialogues in which Eugénie, a young woman who has already been seduced by an older and more experienced woman, is further initiated into the world of libertineism by the older woman’s brother and his friend (and the well endowed gardener). In between various sex scenes, de Sade’s mouthpiece Dolmancé speaks at length about atheism, natural law, hatred of mothers, the pursuit of pleasure as the highest goal, and how the stronger are obligated to dominate the weaker.

Many have read this and his other works as attempts at satire, as trying to show the enlightenment philosophers where their theories inevitably lead, and speaking out against the perversions of the upper class, but that just doesn’t square with the details of his life, considering that he was imprisoned for beating a hired servant, Rose Keller, half to death, holding her captive for quite some time, and then trying to pay her off. He was arrested at the request of his mother-in-law, who wanted him unceremoniously locked away from her daughter. His letters are full of whining about how unfair it is that he’s in jail merely for beating up a whore he paid (which is an interesting interpretation of events, as Keller, a widow and beggar, was under the impression that she was being hired as a housekeeper). If it’s satire, it’s of the sort that is jealous of those who are getting away with what he was caught doing.

It’s easy enough to see where his hatred of mothers come from, considering the circumstances.

But he makes one very glaring and crucial mistake early in his philosophy that renders the entire system rather hilarious in light of his life, and it’s a mistake seen again and again in so many people who try to use Nature or the state of lawlessness or the power of the strong over the weak as justifications for their actions.

He starts with the fairly reasonable propositions that Nature doesn’t care about humanity’s existence one way or the other, and that pleasure is the highest goal of human existence. There is little evidence that the planet would stop spinning if humanity was wiped out, and life existed long before we came into being, so we can grant him this, I think. It’s the second bit that trips him up.

Because pleasure is the highest goal, we should be relentless in seeking it, and therefore nothing ought to stand in our way when it comes to wringing every last bit of pleasure to be had from everything and everyone around us. If you would enjoy someone, take them, whether they consent or not. If you’d like to kill someone, do it. If you want something, take it. The state does this all the time, so why shouldn’t the individual? Those who are strong enough to inflict their will upon the weaker deserve to have their will services, and those who are weaker should learn to enjoy the pain that accompanies their taking.

All well and good, if you accept some of his premises, but he makes a major misstep along the way, and forgets just how society was constituted in the first place.

There is no natural system of government. There are no natural laws. There are no divine rules set in place. These statements his philosophy is in complete accordance with. And so it is that the strong are allowed to set forth their will upon those who are weaker than them.

And they did. Hundreds of years ago. This is the origin of the state.

Implicit in the ability of one to impose one’s will on another is setting boundaries, rules, laws, that the weaker must follow. The idea that a group of strong individuals wouldn’t band together and assert their collective will upon a populace is such naivete that it’s surprising that so many miss it. This ahistorical view of things, the desire to restart history from right now, always seems to crop up. They miss that they are late to the party, that it already happened. And even if it were restarted, it’d only be a matter of weeks or months before people had banded together to form gangs, and then local municipalities, and then armies, and soon we’d have nations all over again. If the state were so weak, it would not be able to assert its will upon them. It wouldn’t be able to imprison or execute them.

But for someone who’s convinced that the powerful get to do what they want, whining when you’re the one’s getting fucked is just pathetic. You’re already living in the world you asked for. You did what you wanted, and people more powerful than you did what they wanted to you. Who are you to tell them that they can’t collectivize and mob together if it brings them pleasure to see you scorned?

At the end of Philosophy in the Bedroom, Eugénie’s mother arrives to try and save her daughter. She is beaten, humiliated, and raped by the assembled (primarily by her daughter), raped by a syphilitic servant, and her genitals are sewn up to insure that she is infected. If the collective is allowed to take revenge on a stand in for his mother-in-law because they disagree on her stances, why isn’t the collective allowed to have it’s way with him?

And when a truly strong man like Napoleon came into power and dominated the entire country, well, what possible objection could he have then? Dolmancé instructs Eugénie and the Madame de Saint-Ange not to complain when he whips them both bloody before sodomy, because it is only through pain that the greatest pleasure can be achieved.

Perhaps rather than struggling and running off to Italy whenever he could, de Sade should have learned to lay in prison and take it?

Or, perhaps, just perhaps, he’s not arguing in good faith, and like all folks of the Natural State of The World and The Strong Control The Weak persuasion, he imagines himself as the one holding the whip, rather than the one in the cell, and is baffled to find that this just isn’t the case?

Color Science

Consider a woman, Mary, who is color blind. She is a neuroscientist, and knows absolutely everything there is to know about color, all the wavelengths and all the effects of light on the eye, etc.. There is nothing she doesn’t know about it. But she has never, herself, experienced it. One day, a surgical procedure is developed, allowing her to see color for the first time. Does Mary gain any new knowledge?

So is formulated one of the modern classic philosophical arguments, and one that, honestly, is built on such a false premise that it’s difficult to believe that it’s had as much traction as it’s had. Rather than go through all the logical argumentation, I’ll simply rewrite the analogy, and the flaws should become glaringly obvious.

Consider a young man, Gary, who is a virgin. He is eighteen years old, and knows absolutely everything there is to know about sex. Thanks to the internet, there is nothing he does not know about it. But he, himself, has never actually had sex. One day, he goes on a date with a woman, and after dinner and a movie, they make love. Does Gary gain any new knowledge?

Obviously, Gary could not have full and complete knowledge of sex. Any claim as such is non-sense. There is no refutation of physicalism, because he never had the knowledge in the first place; he does not have all the physical knowledge, so his gain of new knowledge is nothing significant. He could imagine it, he could try to synthesize what it would be like, he could try to create a simulacrum via masturbation, etc. but any claim to absolute knowledge of the subject is necessarily false.

A hoax that got out of hand

GET FUCKING VACCINATED YOU IDIOTS

I was angry with Alan Sokal back in 1996. He missed the point, to say the least, and, subsequently, did a great job providing everyone who didn’t want to think with an easy piece of shorthand to gesture at when they wanted to dismiss entire schools of thought without engaging with them (see also: Dawkins, Richard re: religion, whose blistering insights about the Problem of Evil and the Teleological Argument have only been debated for ~1500 years or so before he was born; a spectacular case of getting everything right but missing the point completely).

And so, in the grand tradition of academia, I decided to get back at him. And how better than to get him at his own game? A hoax of my own. It would take time, planning, effort. It would require coordination with someone just unscrupulous enough to want to see a proud man taken down a peg. And we wouldn’t go after some podunk little journal with no readers and even less renown. No, we’d hit one of the big time journals, one of the unassailable, unimpeachable bastions of integrity that represent the industry as a whole. The kind that the lay people have heard of.

So, my friend and partner-in-crime Andy and I started cooking up a paper that, clearly, had to be bullshit. There was no way anyone could read it and think that we were serious, that we had found a correlation. We stacked on as much garbage as we could, putting in as many spurious claims as we could link, each trying to out do the other in a marathon session that involved many bottles of wine and many scratch pads, trying to come up with the most ridiculous theory possible. It would be the “Naked Came the Stranger” of science publications.

“Autistic Enterocolitis” was the name we settled on.

We then stapled together some photos of sad kids and their upset parents, cribbed together some sentences about MMR from other papers we found lying around Andy’s office, copied the index out of an old Vladivostok telephone directory, and sent it off.

For the first year, nothing. If you don’t know what waiting for peer review is like, it’s an agonizing period of hurry up and wait. You are scrutinized by an anonymous jackass whose main concerns are advancing their own careers and making sure that they’ve been cited enough times in the bibliography that they feel like a part of the intellectual community. You will be given this person’s lowest possible priority, your paper lost underneath some student work, the novel they started last year, a coffee ringed calendar with numerous other “important” events they are blowing off, and the three complimentary textbooks they’re considering reviewing for next semester. But, if you’re lucky, some intern will knock the stack over when they rush in with multiple vials of blood that they’ve mislabeled and are hoping (praying?) that there’s some test that can be performed to identify the people they belong to so that they don’t have to do 18 more draws from even more doners in order to complete the experiment, and your (now bloodstained) paper will end up on top when the student finishes picking everything up through tears and goes running down the hall, wondering why they thought they could ever do anything right. Then you get a glance through to check that their name is somewhere in there, and a few notes to make it look like they did something. (“Nice use of commas, too many semi-colons. One is enough per paper to make the author look like s/he knows English grammar. Could have written more about mathematical diabetes, but otherwise acceptable for publication”)

Imagine our surprise when, on 28 February 1998, The Lancet published  “Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children”

We were flabbergasted. Dumbstruck. It worked! We jumped up and down like teenage girls who’d just been asked to prom, hands clasped, the pictures on the walls of Andy’s apartment shaking each time we landed. How could they have taken the bait? Vaccines cause autism, which presents itself as a bowel disease we invented whole cloth? Who’d believe that garbage? And a sample size of only 12, a third of whom hadn’t presented autistic symptoms? We’d done it. All the was left was to call Social Text and let them in on the joke. They deserved it, after all they’d been through. They could drop the story and we’d let is spread like wildfire. We figured we’d let it stew for a week or two, then announce that we’d fabricated the whole thing — just enough time for the praise and adulation to start rolling in, but not enough that people would start actually acting on it. We didn’t want people to get hurt, after all. I was just wishing I could be there when Alan got the news that he’d been punked back.

But then, a funny thing happened. Not funny “ha ha”. More, funny “sad clown is going to hang himself and is on his way to the store to buy rope, and slips on a banana peel and falls off a bridge to his death”.

Somehow, people believed us. People really believed us. The newspapers and the TV didn’t bother to read the paper, they just ran with it. Those sorts of people emerged. Granola people. “I’m a Christian and a Mother and I Vote” people. Survivalists. Christian Scientists. The people who think the fluoride in the water contains mind control drugs. And these people convinced other people. It spread like a virus, like one of Dawkins’ memes, through the populace. It was too late. We’d let it loose, and there was no way to get it back into the cage.

And then Andy got weird; he started believing it too. We had an angry phone call one night, and we haven’t spoken since. He now denies that he ever knew me. It hurt, losing a close friend like that. That was 17 years ago. But he has famous friend now. Jenny McCartney loves him. So does Charlie Sheen. Alicia Silverstone. Donald Trump. One of the Kennedy kids. What use would he have for me?

It spiraled and snowballed, growing worse and worse. More and more people got in on the hoax. Old diseases came back, and came back with a vengeance. Children were disfigured. Babies born with horrific defects. Corpses piled up, needlessly. The Lancet finally retracted the paper, but the djinn was out of the bottle, the monkey’s paw had already closed one of its sinister fingers. I never wanted to hurt anyone. I never wanted to cause the extinction of the human race. I just wanted to rib back someone who’d ribbed us.

Gotcha, Alan. Ha ha?

Audio Mixing

How a song is mixed, and the levels at which the different instruments are recorded, edited, etc. produces different effects.

Observe:

Studio version, with rather muddy and otherwise flat mixing. The song is understandable, but so much of the detail is lost. The instruments blend together, the volumes on many things are wrong, and many of the subtleties are lost. Did you hear David Byrne humming near the end? How many different drummers are there? Can you hear Tina Weymouth’s bass clearly throughout?

You probably won’t notice is until you hear a differently mixed version, so now listen to this one:

From the first few seconds, you can hear difference in Abdou M’Boup congas and Tina Weymouth’s bass. They’re clearer. It’s like you’re in an empty room with them. They haven’t been cut down and flattened out. And, mind, you’re probably listening to this through a pair of laptop speakers or cheaper headphones. You don’t need fancy systems or expensive gear to hear the difference.

It’s different from a live recording, though. A bit more polished and pure. Live shows have their own energy and vibe. Like so:

(Sadly, Talking Heads broke up shortly after Naked was released, so there are only recordings of David Bryne playing the song, not the full band)

It’s not as perfect, because you only have one shot to get it right. But that’s alright too. You aren’t going to a live show to see perfection, at least not with this style of music. The performer coming out, holding up a CD player, and hitting “play” would be a statement of its own, but I doubt it would please the audience much. Just as important is seeing the band enjoy itself, or not enjoy itself, depending on the music — some people want KISS or Bowie style spectacle, others want a gas station attendant looking at his shoes the entire time, and a lot of folks want somewhere in between.

V.

“A phrase (it often happened when he was exhausted) kept cycling round and round, preconsicously, just under the threshold of lip and tongue movement: “Events seem to be ordered into an ominous logic.” It repeated itself automatically and Stencil improved upon on it each time, placing emphasis on different words—“events seem”; “seem to be ordered”; “ominous logic”—pronouncing them differently, changing the “tone of voice” from sepulchral to jaunty: round and round and round. Events seem to be ordered into an ominous logic.”

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“A schlemihl is a schlemihl. What can you “make” out of one? What can one make out of himself? You reach a point, and Profane knew he had reached it, where you know how much you can and cannot do. But every now and again he got attacks of acute optimism.”

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“Some of us are afraid of dying; others of human loneliness. Profane was afraid of land or seascapes like this, where nothing else lived but himself.”

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“For that moment at least they seemed to give up external plans, theories, and codes, even the inescapable romantic curiosity about one another, to indulge in being simply and purely young, to share that sense of the world’s affliction, that outgoing sorrow at the spectacle of Our Human Condition which anyone this age regards as reward or gratuity for having survived adolescence.”

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“Time of course has showed the question up in all its young illogic. We can justify any apologia simply by calling life a successive rejection of personalities. No apologia is any more than a romance—half a fiction—in which all the successive identities are taken on and rejected by the writer as a function of linear time are treated as separate characters. The writing itself even constitutes another rejection, another “character” added to the past. So we do sell our souls: paying them away to history in little installments. It isn’t so much to pay for eyes clear enough to see past the fiction of continuity, the fiction of cause and effect, the fiction of a humanized history endowed with “reason.”

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“It takes, unhappily, no more than a desk and writing supplies to turn any room into a confessional. This may have nothing to do with the acts we have committed, or the humors we do go in and out of. It may be only the room–a cube–having no persuasive powers of its own. The room simply is. To occupy it, and find a metaphor there for memory, is our own fault.”

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“What of Thought? The Crew had developed a kind of shorthand whereby they could set forth any visions that might come their way. Conversations at the Spoon had become little more than proper nouns, literary allusions, critical or philosophical terms linked in certain ways. Depending on how you arranged the building blocks at your disposal, you were smart or stupid. Depending on how others reacted they were In or Out. The number of blocks, however, was finite.
“Mathematically, boy,” he told himself, “if nobody else original comes along, they’re bound to run out of arrangements someday. What then?” What indeed. This sort of arranging and rearranging was Decadence, but the exhaustion of all possible permutations and combinations was death.”

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“Could we have been so much in the midst of life? With such a sense of grand adventure about it all?”

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“Life’s single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane.”