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Whenever I think I ought to find something to blog about so as not to leave this thing un-updated for a long period (such as the weekend off I just had), I can never find anything suitable.


An Affirmative Action Memoir

... The schools obviously categorized my girlfriend [a Mexican American] as an underrepresented Hispanic and me [a Filipino American] an overrepresented Asian. The categories assumed that I belonged more with my Japanese American classmates than with my Mexican American prom date.

This assumption, however, captured just part of my story. Though I shared certain values with Asian Americans, I also shared certain customs with Latinos. In some respects, especially where Catholic and Spanish influences were concerned, I arguably had more in common with Latinos. On Sundays, for example, I occasionally attended Spanish-language Mass and followed the homily, which contained words that Tagalog speakers understood. Yet these commonalities seemingly went overlooked.

This article is an interesting comment on the crudeness of standard racial categories in capturing a person's experience. I wonder to what extent there's a feedback from categorization to identity (though certainly a milder one than in an official-racial-classification-dominated situation like aparteid South Africa). Does the existence of the category of "Asian" lead someone like the author to feel more commonality with his Japanese-origin peers than he would in a situation in which Filipino and Japanese were totally separate categories, creating a larger degree of justification for the classifications after the fact? I recall hearing that such an effect was deliberately produced by the creation of the "white" racial category, bridging what had been a fierce divide between Anglo-Nordic people and the Irish, Italians, etc.

UPDATE: The author, Robert Tagorda, points to a post on his blog that elaborates further.
Supreme Court Strikes Down Gay Sex Ban

The Supreme Court struck down a ban on gay sex Thursday, ruling that the law was an unconstitutional violation of privacy.

... Texas defended its sodomy law as in keeping with the state's interest in protecting marriage and child-rearing. Homosexual sodomy, the state argued in legal papers, "has nothing to do with marriage or conception or parenthood and it is not on a par with these sacred choices."

No wonder the law was struck down. According to the second paragraph I quoted, the state of Texas, which is supposed to be defending the law, essentially offered an argument against it. If the law is based on the state's interest in protecting marriage and child-rearing, but the law bans a practice that has nothing to do with marriage and child-rearing, it sounds like a pretty bad law.


Henry Farrell has a post that echoes some of what I wrote earlier about the lack of a real economy in Tolkien's Middle Earth. (I should note, in connection with that post, that I am no longer the only site on the googleable internet that mentions Dorwinon -- but I am the only one in English, as my competitor appears to be French.)

I haven't read much fantasy in a long time -- even my liesure reading over the past few years has tended toward nonfiction outside my area of specialty (for example, I just finished Ronald Hutton's excellent The Triumph Of The Moon: A History Of Modern Pagan Witchcraft). But I've been tossing around the idea of writing some. I think a big part of what drew me to fantasy was the sociological (or social science in general) aspect of it, anemic as that side is in most works. My greatest interest is in a richly built world, and I've invented more worlds than stories to take place in them -- indeed, much of the writing I've done is more or less an attempt to explore and record a world I've imagined, even a world as mundane as the town of Slate Hill, PA that featured in the last bout of fiction writing I did four long years ago.

My inspiration these days is, unsurprisingly, SunWatch Indian Village, the reconstructed Fort Ancient period Native American settlement where I work. I've had a longstanding bias in favor of fantasy that gets outside the standard Medieval Europe setting (hence my admiration for Shardik and Janny Wurts' Empire trilogy). I want to be able to re-create an imagined version of that world that does justice to things like the division of labor and the cycle of agricultural-religious observances, not just treating them as a more exotic backdrop.

One of the drawbacks of modern archaeology is that we can't fantasize beyond the data in our capacity as researchers, devising grand narratives of history like the first archaeologists who tried to make sense out of the prehistoric mounds they found. Working as an interpreter at SunWatch while excavating another Fort Ancient site has impressed upon me how much guesswork is involved in even so simple (and crucial) an aspect of our picture of the society as the placement of the smoke hole in the roof. I wonder whether I did a good enough job of impressing upon people how sketchy our definite knowledge of the Fort Ancient is, and will necessarily remain barring the invention of a time machine. This kind of caution is good as a scientific practice, but it can be frustrating on a more personal level. Maybe that's where fiction writing could step in, provided the two don't get mixed together too much.

Indeed, those very aspects that Tolkienesque fantasy over-emphasizes -- the exploits of exceptional individuals -- are the things we know least of archaeologically. Instead we have evidence of the mundania of food supply and tool manufacture. Setting aside any written records, an excavation at Rivendell would tell us little about the Council of Elrond (I wonder if we would even be able to be certain of the nature and function of the council room, based only on the foundations and whatever artefacts were left -- the presumable cleanliness of the high elves would doubtless work against future Middle Earth archaeologists). But it might reveal where the grain for the elf bread was grown and baked.


I finally have access to the computers at the dorm I'm staying in over the summer, so I may actually be able to post here from time to time. I had a post written about McDonald's a few days ago (when last I was online at the public library), but Blogger signed me out and wouldn't let me sign in. Luckily I saved it by emailing it to myself. But Clark updated its webmail this weekend, so it will be a few days before I have access to messages sent before the changeover. And since I still haven't eaten dinner today, I have no new content for you -- just the vague promise of some.


Another post from Ampersand has got me thinking (this limited internet thing means my sources of inspiration are a bit more limited these days). After watching Beauty and the Beast, he comments on the apparent injustice of cursing the entire castle -- turning the servants all into furniture and such -- as a punishment for the prince/beast's sin. This remark reminded me that in much of the premodern material that I've read, recalling particularly the Old Testament and Greek mythology, this same ethic is operative. The family or clan is the moral unit, rather than the indivdual, as we're accustomed to. For example, it makes perfect sense in these cultures to punish a person by killing those close to him or her (especially sons). Curses and blessings are typically bestowed on a person's "house," i.e. their servants and family. This makes a certain sense insofar as we grant the premodern assumption that servants (and in a different sense, other relatives, particularly a wife or heir) are, to some degree, the master's property. Even today we punish people by doing things to their property (e.g., by fining someone), and a crime of property damage is not a crime against the piece of property involved (as it might be from, say, an animist perspective), but a crime against the owner, and likewise a crime committed by property (e.g your dog attacking someone) is presumed to be the responsibility of the owner. Blame and harm flow freely across the relationship of ownership.

Modern individualist ethics seem to have swung all the way in the opposite direction, treating people as almost completely independent of each other. Interpersonal relationships are now treated as impervious to the flow of blame, and largely impervious to the flow of harm (the flow of harm may be taken into account when something done to one person harms another person who, due to the barriers of blame, is considered innocent -- for example, the effects of a prison sentence on the convict's children. This could even be conceptualized as a strategy for stopping the flow of blame, so that the children don't suffer for the sins of the parents. But we would never accept harming a person by harming his or her relatives the way we would harm his or her property).


Ampersand has a post that includes a time-series of how one of his latest cartoons was drawn. It's interesting to see how a drawing comes together. He clearly spends a lot more time in getting things sketched out than I ever do. In part, that's due to time constraints. I generally aim at a half-hour turnaround time, from the point when I conceptualize the cartoon to the point when I'm ready to scan it. It's an effect of drawing for the school paper, though with the Scarlet -- where the spots for my cartoons are pretty standard, and I never have to illustrate an article that I haven't read until production night -- I could probably work farther in advance and thus take more time. I complain from time to time about the short-notice cartooning, but after several years I've gotten used to it. I'm not sure what I'd do with more time. In part that may be due to working in a fairly minimalist style most of the time. I draw at only a little larger than the size that the finished cartoon will be published, which (along with my artistic disposition) prevents me from putting in too much detail. I've even cut down on the shading that I used to do, since it tended to look awkward when done with a wider pen such as I was using.

My main hang-up right now is faces -- specifically, faces that are supposed to actually resemble someone. I'm fine with, say, George W. Bush, because he's developed a standard caricature. He's been drawn so many times that it's easy enough to evoke him, even with a drawing that bears fairly little resemblance to the real man. It's the less-well-known (and less-often-drawn) people that I have trouble with. This carries over into non-cartoon drawing as well. I can draw a person's face so that it looks like a real person's face -- but not the exact person I'm trying to represent. There's some knack for recognizing those features that make a person's face distinctive (and, I think, distinctive to the artist and audience -- the same person would be appropriately caricatured differently by, say, an American versus a Japanese versus a Kenyan cartoonist, because experience of a different set of faces makes different features more distinctive), and to capturing and exaggerating them.

The other thing that's interesting is the fact that, for at least the one character illustrated in his post, Ampersand now has a history of that drawing preserved (I'm guessing he scanned the same drawing at intervals, so it's not like he has retrospectives of all of his cartoons on file somewhere). In any creative work I do, I tend to eliminate earlier versions of a work, out of a desire for clarity and avoiding embarassment. (I'd probably drive scholars and historians nuts if I ever became a famous and influential thinker and didn't leave them "papers" by which they could reconstruct my intellectual development.) This tendency is carried to an extreme in my cartoons, where I rarely even keep the "original" of the drawing. At times this makes sense, if I do a lot of cleaning up on the computer, but even for drawings that are essentially finished on paper, all I usually have is the published version in the newspaper and the ultra-low-fi electronic version on my website. But at that point, my archival instinct kicks in. Once a work reaches "finished" status, I hang on to it forever, and get upset if my archive is not complete.
I think Dayton has topography envy. The names of many streets in my neighborhood -- Big Hill, Ridgeway, Far Hills -- suggest the presence of steep slopes. Yet by my Pennsylvania/New York standards, there are none to be found.


This week has made me realize how much of my life is invested in the internet. Being without access except when I can get to the public library, and 10 minutes on an old modem at work, has left me really out of touch with things. And I'm noticing it more than in the last hiatus I had -- the two weeks I was on the intersession trip in Australia, with zero internet. Much of that is probably because I do so much more online now. I didn't have a blog then, and I was just an ordinary SMU on the Brunching Board (and I had taken a Brunching hiatus for the duration of the semester abroad, so the trip didn't affect that).

It's left me out of touch with the news as well, since there is no convenient place to pick up a paper copy of a newspaper (I prefer to read the paper version, but for blogging and for being able to check a range of sources, not to mention price, the internet wins). Assuming this continues, I wonder what it will do to me by the end of my 10 weeks in Dayton. I'll have only a general idea what the issues of note are, and so much could happen in blogtopia in that time. It will be a little like starting over, though without the newcomer boost that you can claim when you're genuinely starting from scratch. I wonder how long it will take to get my commentary muse back, since it needs to be fed with information for a while before it's strong enough to bring out anything interesting.

We'll see. If all goes according to plan I won't be completely cut off, and I'll be able to post here a few times a week. But it will still be a big reduction from how much time I spent online during the past couple years.


... and of course that last post didn't publish properly, so it's another day until I can make an update.


Of course, the week I got links from both Calpundit and Oxblog would be the week that I unexpectedly don't have internet access and can't post thrilling updates to potentially earn some new readers. My internet access is going to be light for the next ten weeks, and nonexistent on Fridays and Saturdays (because the place I'm staying observes the Seventh Day Adventist sabbath). On the plus side, I'll get to do some real archaeology -- excavating an 800-year-old Fort Ancient village, and helping to build a reconstruction of a similar village at SunWatch.


(Part 2, continued from post below)

But what if you could? What if, say, the nation voted to have George Bush sitting in the Oval Office when anti-terrorism policy was being made, but Al Gore would take over when the subject turns to the environment. Instead of one President job covering all duties, there would be a collection of jobs. Congress could be broken down this way too, so you could choose separate Representatives and Senators to handle separate issues, according to their expertise and opinions. It would be in some ways like the divided leadership that some Native American tribes had, often composed of a "war chief" and a "peace chief," or like the division of labor in any other sector of our civilization.

Obviously there are major problems with this idea. Foremost are the lack of coordination among sectors (which plagues the topic-specific cabinet agencies), and the problem of issues falling through the cracks. But it's interesting to think about.
(Part 1, continued in next post)

Greening the Elephant

We conservation-minded Republicans are the true conservatives in our party. True conservatives protect the health and well-being of current and future generations. If conservatives won't conserve, who will? REP America believes so strongly that conservation is conservative that we've trademarked that slogan. So, dealing with the "oxymoron question" is a snap.

... So, here's the real core of my answer to that second question: Only when the leaders of both major parties take up a cause do the American people see meaningful, permanent progress. So we must restore the environment as an important issue for both Republicans and Democrats.

There's definitely something to this idea that real, lasting change requires a bipartisan consensus (and on the environment, we at least seem to have achieved a bipartisan consensus on using pro-environment rhetoric).

Ordinary voters, who don't have time to do more than come out on the second Tuesday of November, run up against a problem if they share the position of one of these sort of unorthodox factions. Voting is a package deal, gviing the same effective endorsement to both the positions that motivated you to choose the candidates and the ones you're holdig your nose over. You can't vote a la carte.
Kevin Drum has a post up about which blogs have comment features, spinning off a comment that JoeF left on Matt Yglesias, saying that left-wing bloggers are more likely to have comments than right-wing ones. Kevin says that sounds right, given five of the top six lefties have comments, whereas only one of the six top righties do. The comments section on the post is full of anecdotal evidence and hypotheses to explain it (including that old canard "liberals are open-minded and want to hear multiple perspectives, but conservatives don't"). I, however, was interested in getting some data.

In an earlier post, Kevin linked to a map of the blogosphere. I decided to use this as my sample, since it did the work of classifying blogs into left and right for me (since I don't read many of them regularly). I visited all the sites and tallied up how many had comments. On the left, 22 out of 42 blogs (52%) had comments. On the right, 21 out of 34 (62%) have comments. So it seems JoeF's impression is incorrect.

1. Usual concerns about the problems of a one-dimensional left-right political spectrum.
2. Any methodological concerns affecting the blog map (both in terms of representativeness and in terms of left/right classification) carry over to my analysis.
3. The map listed LGF twice for some reason, but I only counted it once.
4. The map listed a blog called "SSDB: My Precious" which I was unable to locate, so I left it out.
5. I used a "one blog, one vote" technique, but depending on what you want to make of this data, an analysis weighted by number of hits/day might be more appropriate.

UPDATE: 1. I forgot to add a sixth caveat, which is that a blog using an external commenting service such as Yaccs or Haloscan may have appeared not to have comments when I visited, as the comments links sometimes won' appear if the host site is screwy (I've noticed this happening on my site a number of times).
2. For whatever reason, I can't open my own comment boxes (or those of anyone else using Yaccs) from this computer. I can read the comments by logging in to Yaccs (so go ahead and post), but be aware that I can't reply.


After The Fall: Why do Some Societies Rise Again From The Ashes?

After decades of studying how societies end and begin, archaeologists have turned their attention to a poorly understood intermediate step: what happens after collapse.

... Studies in Peru, for instance, suggest that the Inca rose to power in the 15th century partly by learning important lessons from nearby empires that had collapsed not long before. In Syria, researchers have found that a loose tribal structure allowed early civilizations there, in the third millennium B.C., to regenerate more readily than they might have under strict leadership. And in Cambodia, archaeological findings suggest that the Khmer empire sustained itself from 500 B.C. to A.D. 1250 by closely linking each group's rise with the traditions of the previous rulers.

-- via Ghost of a Flea

The ideological strategy mentioned for the Khmer -- claiming descent from a previous mighty civilization -- is quite common. The Incas played off the heritage of Tiahuanaco. Every European conqueror from Charlemagne to Musolini claimed to be resurrecting Rome (and political theorists with as un-imperial a vision as Rousseau still paid homage to the Roman example). The strategy seems to draw on two ideas. On the one hand, it frames the former empire as the "normal" or base state of things, so that the rise of the new empire is less a building and more a reclaiming of what is rightfully so. Second, it seems to serve as a model or teacher and a proof that the quest can be achieved. This second sense is especially apparent in the mirror image process among non-imperial cultural movements (such as Daniel Quinn's praise of pre-agricultural environmental ethics or Goddess theorists' vision of a prehistoric "matriarchy").


Regarding the article quoted in the last post, it’s also interesting the way the presence of a solution shapes our notion of what is a problem. There’s the obvious conspiratorial sense of pharmaceutical companies encouraging people to see themselves as sick in order to sell them a drug. But there’s also the sense in which the presence of a corrective technique creates an expectation that it will be used. It shifts a problem out of the realm of unfortunate happenstance and into the realm of things we can control. Things we can control are things we are responsible for. Compare the situation of a person who is unemployed because he has Down’s syndrome to a person who is unemployed because he is too lazy to go put in applications. We feel sorry for the first person, and are willing to support him in various ways, because we know he can’t help having Down’s syndrome. But we’re less sympathetic to the lazy person, telling him to get off his butt and work, because we presume he has control over the thing that’s keeping him unemployed, and should take responsibility for it. But say scientists developed a cheap and easy technique for eliminating Down’s syndrome. It seems likely that attitudes would shift, and we would start to regard a person who has Down’s syndrome as willfully avoiding doing something that would allow him to become a productive member of society. Down’s syndrome would no longer be an unfortunate thing out of his control, and so he would become responsible for it. Similarly, cosmetic surgery and more effective diets might lead to a loss of tolerance for ugliness and fatness, since ugly and fat people would be presumed to be able to do something about their condition. I wonder what this would do to diversity, since so often the rallying cry is "I can't help that this is who I am," with the corrollary "so I might as well be proud of it instead of ashamed of it."

We can see the opposite trend happening with the medicalization of some behavioral disorders, like depression or alcoholism. Things that were once considered matters of personal responsibility became uncontrollable medical problems. Many people feared that this would lead to placing the burden of those problems on society as a whole -- even if only in the sense of claiming sympathy and an end to blaming from others. The classic example is the criminal who exonerates himself by claiming to have been abused as a child. The presumption, of course, is that the claim of uncontrollability is false.
American Bioscience Meets The American Dream

Yet it would be a mistake to think this is merely a matter of the market creating an illness. It is also a matter of a technology creating an illness. Wherever we can make the tools of medicine work, the condition that we are working on tends to be reconceptualized as a medical problem. It used to be the case that some people could not have children. This was not a medical problem; it was an unfortunate fact of nature. But once new reproductive technologies -- such as in vitro fertilization and sperm donation -- came on the scene, that fact of nature was reconceptualized as a medical problem. Now it is called "infertility" and is treated by medical specialists. This kind of reconceptualization runs throughout the history of psychiatry. When the new disorder of "neurasthenia" arose in the 19th century, we also got the new treatment of "rest cures" in private clinics. When the new disorder of "gender dysphoria" arose in the mid-20th century, we also got new surgical techniques for sex reassignment. When anxiety disorders became widespread in the 1950s and '60s, we also got "minor tranquilizers" such as Miltown and Valium. And when the concept of hyperactivity became widespread in the 1970s, we also got an upsurge in prescriptions for Ritalin.

For people who worry about the extent to which enhancement technologies are being used nowadays, it is tempting to look for something or someone -- the pharmaceutical industry, psychiatrists, cosmetic surgeons, the fashion industry or sometimes simply "the culture" -- to blame. In the end, however, these technologies could not have taken off in the way they have without the traction provided by the American sense of identity. In America, technology has become a way for some people to build or reinforce their identity (and their sense of dignity) while standing in front of the social mirror. We all realize how critically important this mirror is for identity. Most of us can keenly identify with the shame that a person feels when society reflects back to him or her an image that is degrading or humiliating. But the flip side to shame is vanity. It is also possible to become obsessed with the mirror, to spend hours in front of it, preening and posing, flexing your biceps, admiring your hair. It is possible to spend so much time in front of the mirror that you lose any sense of who you are apart from the reflection that you see.

That’s a long quote, and I have a lot of thoughts on this article. First (more to come later), regarding the mirror referred to in the last paragraph above: I think the mirror is internal as well as external. People’s drive to shape their identity is not driven solely by the pressures of others’ judgments (real or hypothesized). It’s driven by self-judgment.


In Contempt Of Courtship

Perhaps the continuing popularity of The Rules--in spite of its co-author's marital track record, they're still charging $3.99 a minute for dating consultations--is a sign that singles today are desperate for some set of principles to follow. Unlike the well-established courtship rituals of the 1950s, what we have today is a motley set of individual expectations, most of them patently mystifying to everyone but ourselves. Courtship has become an unending pick-up game of playground ball, with each player operating according to his or her own individual rulebook. A woman may make a seductive gesture fraught with symbolic meaning--only to find that, to her partner, it's a request for a time-out.

... At the risk of being stripped of my right to wear Birkenstocks, I have to admit that the courtship rituals of the 1950s make me feel a little wistful. The gender roles may have been constricting and the shoes were impossibly tight across the toes, but it's impossible to deny the now-guilty pleasures of sweetheart bouquets, dinner dates, and nightclubs where heterosexual men danced voluntarily.

This article is a nice change from the usual laments about the demise of courtship. I'll grant the author's assumption that modern courtship is less structured than it was in the past (though I'd say that 1: it looks more chaotic to someone raised under a different system -- such as the author, who admits to being married for some time -- than to those of us growing up in the current system, 2: the world tends to look more ordered in hindsight, and 3: the examples of dating consultants and screening processes are not representative of most people's dating experience, and may simply represent the commodification of things previously carried out by family and community). The author is able to point out the utility of a shared set of social conventions as an aid to communication and behavioral coordination without making the mistake (which I posted about before) of conflating "a set of social conventions" with "the particular set of social conventions that our society recently adhered to." This gives us room to formulate a new and better set of rules (for example, eliminating some of the bizarre double standards about which gender does what) rather than giving us the false choice of the old order or chaos.
The fact that the king of Swaziland could denounce human rights in a radio address, but still felt it necessary to put them in the country's new constitution (see previous post), is a nice example of how liberal democracy sets the terms of discourse in today's geopolitical climate, even for regimes that reject it. Nobody doubts that Saddam Hussein is a dictator, but yet he still went through the charade of an election every so often -- a common tactic, as are staged pro-government rallies. The most bizarre example I've come across recently is Saparmurat Niazov's crackdown on graduation parties. Instead of just banning them, he engineered a "grassroots" letter-writing campaign to "pressure" him into taking action. I guess it's some sort of victory that these regimes feel the need to put on such a farce.
Dressing-Down For Trousers

Swaziland's absolute monarch has singled out women wearing trousers as the cause of the world's ills in a radio sermon that also called human rights an "abomination before God".

"The Bible says curse be unto a woman who wears pants, and those who wear their husband's clothes. That is why the world is in such a state today," said Mswati, ruler of the impoverished feudal nation of about 1 million.

I guess he figured he had to outdo Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

Although in a sense he's right, if you take (as the Mswati seems to) women wearing pants as a symbol of the larger feminist movement and the breakdown of rigid gender roles. Those things are, in part, responsible for the state of the world today. The real disagreement is that he seems to think that's a bad thing.

And it probably says something about how little the Western world cares about most of Africa that the Sydney Morning Herald printed this, but overlooked the fact that Mswati also dissolved parliament. Interestingly, in light of Mswati's Bible-based attack on women's fashion and human rights, the new constitution "provides that Christianity is the official religion of the country whilst acknowledging the practice of other religions," but "Fundamental human rights and freedoms of the individual are declared and guaranteed."
Plan To Lock Up 30 Per Cent Of Barrier Reef

Nearly a third of the Great Barrier Reef will be protected from fishing and trawling under a new plan to be announced by the Federal Government today.

... [The executive director of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Don] Henry said the Government needed to deal with climate change, which he said was another big threat to the reef's long-term survival.

"They could ratify the Kyoto protocol and ensure that Australia becomes a world leader in efforts to tackle climate change, because that's the biggest threat to the reef in the future," Mr Henry said.

Climate change is kind of a cliched example of a globally-interconnected environmental issue, but the juxtaposition here highlights one of the pitfalls of current environmental management. We tend to think of patches of land (and socio-cultural groups, which gets us into a discussion about saving minority cultures) as independently self-sufficient, affected mostly by endogenous characteristics. But the connections between places can matter just as much. It's becoming less and less possible to wall off areas and let them go their own natural way.