Tag: random musings

Scenes from the National Museum of Scotland, Part the Second

In my previous post I mentioned the recent broadside against Brave for its anti-Pictish discourse and representations. I’m not being fair, of course, as its author, Melissa McEwan, doesn’t use the term “Pict” any time during her essay. Which is interesting, insofar as Brave is saturated with Pictish symbols. As an astute commentator notes:

The Scots are represented not as a homogeneous group but as a diverse people, including ethnic differences from Pictish, Celtic, and Viking ancestries. While you may choose to see this as an Othering, it is a step above the kind of racial elisions that tend to happen with Native Americans in films (since that got mentioned.)

Regardless, the original post and subsequent exchanges illustrate nicely what happens when there’s a kernel of truth heaped beneath the crazy, but the crazy emerges triumphant.

Of course, one persons’ serious of ethnic slurs is another’s nationalist myth making. Hence I was not terribly surprised to learn that the National Museum of Scotland has embraced Brave wholeheartedly.

So while McEwan (who, naturally enough, admits to never having seen the film) complains about the stereotyping “Scottish people” as using “silly instruments,” the embedded link makes clear she has bagpipes in mind.  Bagpipes, which I hardly consider “silly,” are in Brave. But I first thought, rather naïvely in retrospect, that the discussion was sophisticated enough such that she was referring to the carnyx (the rightmost picture above), which makes a prominent appearance in the film.

Listen to a Carynx.

But to return to my main point, about how one person’s ethno-chauvinist mockery of a not-so-oppressed American minority is another person’s nationalist myth-making, let us return to the National Museum. There, a significant chunk of the symbolic repertoire on display in Brave finds itself presented at the cultural origins of the Scottish nation. Lest their be any doubt about that, consider the sign pictured below.

In conclusion. Meh.

A postscript: I enjoyed Brave and all that, but for a series that combines excellent narrative, strong characterization, moral ambiguity, excitement, suspense, deep research, and the kind of exoticicizing of white ethnic “others” that would make McEwan’s head explode, check out Nancy Farmer’s Sea of Trolls series. 

HP Lovecraft and Theosophy

Some years ago I finally got around to reading Goodrick-Clarke’s The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and their Influence on Nazi Ideology. Reading Goodrick-Clarke’s description of various forms of  esotericism and mysticism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and specifically Blavatsky’s Theosophy movement, drove home the degree to which H.P. Lovecraft‘s writings — and, by extension, basically all modern horror — are a product of that milieu. Indeed, it isn’t much of a surprise that horror, fantasy, and science-fiction writers (and not a few conspiracy theorists) have been mashing up Lovecraft and Nazis for decades. 

But what really struck me is the degree to which Lovecraft’s mythos amounts to an inversion of theosophic doctrines and those of cognate intellectual currents. After all, such movements promise that decoding esoteric knowledge will lead humanity to a central, enlightened, and powerful place in the universe. In Lovecraftian writings, doing so reveals the insignificance of mankind and generally results in insanity, death, and other bad stuff. So Lovecraft provides a critical reading, of sorts, of these ideas; one with a rather ironic “reveal”: the mystical energy beings coming through that portal you invoked are going to eat your brains. 
Daniel Harms has a nice essay on this subject. 
No good reason for this post. I’ve been playing Elder Sign on the iPad and reading Charlie Stross’s Laundry books, so I’m in a Lovecraft frame of mind. 
Speaking of Stross, he recently posted an essay on the death of SF as a genre. I think he’s got it backward — genre will become more important in a world of rapidly expanding reading options, information overload, and targeted marketing. But he’s right that the intertext of SF is likely to change… but he’s also overestimating the degree to which most consumers of the genre partake in that intertext.
Image from.

How Dare the Federal Government Set Minimal Standards for a Consumer Product!

When elements of the Republican noise machine decided to call Sandra Fluke a slutty naughty sex fiend for suggesting–in public, no less–that all health-insurance plans ought to cover hormonal birth control… so that women wouldn’t suffer from ovarian cysts, here’s what I thought: “this is such a bunch of obviously crazystupidinsanemisogynistselfimmolating craziness that it has got to go away soon.”

But left-ish groups smell a fundraising winner. And we can always count on some members of the American right to double down on the stupid. Which means that we’re stuck with this for a while. So then I thinks to myself all “‘I’m a Georgetown University employee. dangnabbit. Heck, I’m like a professor and stuff. Maybe that means I should comment!”

(Did I mention the crazy crazy, crazy stupidness? Seriously, take a look at this. But don’t say that I didn’t warn you that it makes this look tame. And the second “this” is a big heaping plate of offensive.)

So, while I probably shouldn’t comment, I guess I will.

1. The President’s office at Georgetown is all kinds of awesome for producing such a magisterial letter in defense of one of our own. Yeah, I know everyone has already seen it. But its just way cool.

2. This controversy is all kind of weird for me, because I am pretty darn sure that at least one of Georgetown’s employee health-insurance plans covers hormonal birth control; our bill for it looks an awful like a copayment rather than a full-blown out-of-pocket expense. Of course, Georgetown also has domestic-partner coverage provisions for faculty and staff. This sort of stuff makes us, if I understand contemporary Church doctrine, very bad Catholics. Apparently at Notre Dame they point to us as examples of what happens when you let Jesuits build a top-ranked school. Of course, I have it on good authority that Catholic University looks at Notre Dame as a bunch of apostates, so perchance Notre Dame should lay off with the holier-than-thou stuff. And that’s holier-than-thou in the literal, not figurative, sense. Which is kind of neat.

3. I’ve been reading comment threads that involve both conservatives and liberals, and I’m starting to notice a pattern. A lot of the comments I see are all about the evil hypocrisy of the American left for being upset with Limbaugh but putting up with nasty personal attacks from the likes of Bill Maher, Rachel Maddow, Al Franken, etc. etc. Most of the liberal commentators–myself included–don’t even know what attacks our right-wing brethren are talking about (Maher apparently has said some disgusting things about Palin, but who knew?). I must say that this makes it pretty hard to feel hypocritical.

Anyway, as I was getting to, I’ve started to figure something out (I think). I used to believe that conservative handwaving about MSNBC commentators and similar types amounted to a cynical attempt at false equivalency. After all, Maddow gets about half the viewers that O’Reilly does in their respective peak slots, and the rest of Fox’s conservatainment lineup basically trounces MSNBC.

Yes, this wasn’t very charitable of me, but I couldn’t think of another explanation.

Now, however, I realize that many conservatives aren’t being at all cynical and misleading: they just assume that politically engaged liberals relate to their commentariat the same way that politically engaged conservatives do. But many of us simply find our blowhards irritating. I just don’t think we have the kind of close tribal affiliation with our self-appointed spokespeople that many conservatives have with their own (recall that Air America failed). It simply wouldn’t occur to me to aggressively defend idiocy from any of “my side’s” media personalities the way that the aforementioned commentators range far and wide to support Limbaugh–albeit largely by attacking left-wing hypocrisy.

The closest thing for liberals, I believe, is the relationship many of us have with Jon Stewart. But Stewart’s sort of odd to compare to O’Reilly or Hannity insofar as the core of his show involves making fun of “news” media. Really, most of the liberals I hang with smugly listen to NPR. We congratulate ourselves on our “intellectualness,” still act like “This American Life” is pretty fresh, and think we’re staying hip because we occasionally buy music reviewed on “All Things Considered” or promoted on “All Songs Considered.”

(Keep in mind that I’m talking about liberals, not the American left, those who still spend lots of time on DailyKos, and/or people who call themselves “progressives” because they don’t realize Teddy Roosevelt irreparably tarnished that label back in the nineteen-teens. I don’t really understand most of these people either.)

Well, I hope I’ve made my case that I probably shouldn’t comment. So I’ll stop.


Cat in the Tub

This is our cat in the bath. He doesn’t really do anything funny. He just stands in the bathtub. Then he leaves.

That was then (or, to be more precise but still vague, a few months ago). He now usually joins our daughter for her bath time. He also makes sure to come into the shower for a minute or two. And he has started imitating us by testing the temperature of the shower with his paw.
So, here’s the question: do we own a cat idiot, or is spending long periods of time in a filled bathtub a sign that he’s some sort of feline kwisatz haderarch

Lego Antikythera Machine and musings prompted thereby

Massively cool.

And here’s the earlier Lego Difference Engine:

Anyway, the juxtaposition of these two computers intersects (oddly enough) with one of the themes in the Steampunk debates I alluded to earlier. Steampunk extrapolates from the real (and imaginary) technology of the Victorian era. Cosma Shalizi identifies that period (i.e., the Industrial Revolution) as the true “singularity,” prompting Patrick Nielson Hayden to remark:

I hope Shalizi will forgive my quoting his entire post, but it seems to me to have resonance with certain recent arguments over steampunk. It might even hint at why SF (and fantasy!) keep returning to the “long nineteenth century” like a dog to its bone.

I’m also reminded of this, from one of Nietzsche’s books of aphorisms: “The press, the machine, the railway, the telegraph are premises whose thousand-year conclusion no one has yet dared to draw.”*

I’m led to wonder why more isn’t done with extrapolations of Roman technology. As Bryan Ward-Perkins reminds us in his excellent book,productivity in the Roman Empire was pretty robust–and likely significantly higher than what Europe would see for the centuries following its decline and fall. Findings such as the Antithykera Machine demonstrate rather advanced technical and scientific skills. I suspect that the later Roman Empire, let alone various periods of Chinese history, might be worth mining for an alternative technological imaginary.**

*I should note that one of the best discussions consistent with Shalzi’s argument remains that found in Stephen Kern’s The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918.

**Beyond the issue of SF potential, the lack of a Roman-era “industrial revolution” is a chronically under-theorized issue in comparative-historical sociology.



The weather favors us today, so much so that the dog refuses to come inside. It is 81 degrees and dry.

I have a beautiful new bike, which I have ridden only a few times. The wife and kid are out of town.

And yet my flu-like illness lingers. Not enough that I feel actively sick, but with sufficient tenacity that I cannot engage in strenuous activity.

In other words: teh suck.


Oh Deer, what can the matter be?

A deer has been wandering around the neighborhood over the past week, frequently sojourning in my fenced-in back yard. Sometimes the deer has a baby with it. After a while, they will hop the fence into the neighbor’s yard. Because its one of those Sundays, a few photos, of a deer in my back yard below the fold.

You can see the baby in the 2nd picture.


“Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Betrays Impatience with President’s Toy Airplane Antics”

Actually, this picture accompanies news of a leaked memo outlining plans to divert spending for high-tech weaponry, including the F-35, to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice witnesses the signing of the Joint Strike Fighter Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. and Australia in the Treaty Room of the U.S. State Department in Washington, December 12, 2006. The White House plans to shift $3.2 billion in defense spending – partly from new weapons like the Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – to support troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, a trade publication reported on Monday. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Part of me thinks this is merely a trial balloon designed to put pressure on Congress to allocate more money to the war. But it wouldn’t be a terrible thing to delay some of these projects–many of which really serve no short-term strategic purpose–to more pressing needs.

Of course, if the Administration really wants to adequately fund the war and ensure another hundred years of US conventional superiority, they could always eliminate a tax cut or two. After all, we are at war and all.


Speaking of glocalization

Does anyone know of a systematic comparison of the “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” commercials? The US and UK ones don’t seem very different–as much as it pains me, the UK PC stacks up surprisingly well against John Hodgman.

The German and French variants look to be just dubbed version of the US editions. I can’t parse the Japanese ones, but they seem to be about as localized (or not) as the UK versions.

At the very least, the ads might provide a snapshot of similarities and differences in “loser suit” and “laid-back dude” archetypes across multiple countries. I wonder, however, how well the ads travel to other settings; do the Mac commercials work as well in the UK, France, or Japan as they do in the US?


The relentness march of outsourcing

The Super Bowl score is the AP’s lead story right now; needless to say, I dropped down through the wire reports. I discovered that India not only leads the US in cheap call centers, but that the country also enjoys a capital/labor comparative advantage in surrogate motherhood.

Surrogate motherhood is among the latest in a long list of roles being outsourced to India, where rent-a-womb services are far cheaper than in the West.

“In the U.S. a childless couple would have to spend anything up to $50,000,” Gautam Allahbadia, a fertility specialist who helped a Singaporean couple obtain a child through an Indian surrogate last year, told Reuters.

“In India, it’s done for $10,000-$12,000.”

Fertility clinics usually charge $2,000-$3,000 for the procedure while a surrogate is paid anything between $3,000 and $6,000, a fortune in a country with an annual per capita income of around $500.

But the practice is not without its critics in India with some calling it the “commoditisation of motherhood” and an exploitation of the poor by the rich.

The cultural dimensions of the whole thing seem rather interesting. Supporters stress India’s “special” suitability for globalized reproduction:

“It’s true I’m doing this for money, but is it also not true that a childless couple is benefiting?” said Rituja, a surrogate mother in Mumbai, who declined to give her full name.

For the surrogates — usually lower middleclass housewives — money is the primary motivator.

For their clients it’s infertility or — some claim — educated working women turning to hired wombs to avoid a pregnancy affecting careers.

But there is also a social dimension to their service, an empathy with the childless in a society that views reproduction as a sacred obligation, and believes good deeds performed in this life are rewarded in the next one, experts say.

“Surrogate mothers are giving their (the eventual parents’) lives a new meaning. For them the money they pay is just a token gesture that by no way substitutes their gratefulness,” said Deepak Kabir, a Mumbai-based gynaecologist.

The rest of the article suggests we might see Kabir’s claims as just so much marketing.

Surrogacy as a temp job may be a lucrative deal but traditional attitudes to sex and procreation, especially in the countryside, mean Indian surrogate mothers often invent cover stories for their neighbours.

Most say they are carrying their husband’s child, and once the baby is delivered to the intended parents, they say the newborn has died. Some go to other towns and return after delivery, telling neighbours they were visiting relatives.

“It’s a lie we have to tell, otherwise how can we earn this much money?” said a 29-year-old prospective mother at a Mumbai clinic. “A lie told for a good cause is not a sin.”

I don’t find any of this completely outrageous; all things being equal (and they never are), I’d rather we see third-world countries as having a comparative advantage in life than in death. But I do think there’s a story here about the relentless internationalization of, uhh, production in the contemporary international economy.


Complaints of the petit bourgeoisie

I haven’t been posting much lately. I blame many developments for my paucity of quality commentary here. I’ve been grinding away at my book manuscript, maintaining blogs for my classes, dealing with some final revisions to various articles and chapters, getting a series of research assistants up and running on what will probably be my next major project, and so forth.

For the last week, however, I’ve had a new excuse: the premature seizure of my desk by Georgetown facilities and management prior to the arrival of my new work surface. Since my home office is now by daughter’s playroom (or, as she calls it, “her living room”), this presented a bit of a problem for me. But, at last, my desk arrived. Now all is well in my self-referential world.

One reason I’ve had difficulty blogging actually stems from an unlikely set of circumstances. A publisher contacted me about including one of my old posts in a point-counterpoint textbook, which prompted me to go back and read my older posts; I realized how much more substantial, and true to the reasons I started this blog, these posts were compared to what I’ve posted in the last six months or so. At the same time, many of my blogging hobbyhorses have transmogrified into other-published material. My first major piece on my empire work is coming out this year, and I’m working on a review essay on the state of “Balance of Power Theory” which picks up where that old series petered out.

But I do promise that I’ll be putting in my fair share here shortly. All of us here actually owe some book reviews, and I’ve got a few more I’d like to do. Meanwhile, we’re seeing a number of events that suggest the development of some pretty major international trends, particularly across Eurasia.

Plus, I’ve got a new, big, desk to spread out on!


My week in a nutshoe

Despite the many important global developments of the last few weeks, I haven’t been blogging much lately. Nor have I accomplished a great deal of the last substantive rewrite I need to do for my book manuscript.

Today, I hope, marked the culmination of my increasing lack of focus.

Yes, I did wear these shoes all day. I discovered them when my daughter wanted to walk on my shoes and pointed out that “you’re wearing this shoe on this foot, and that shoe on that foot!”

Happy Thanksgiving to our American readers!


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