Thursday, August 10, 2006

O tempora! O mores!

All right, twice now I've written posts about today's foiled plot to bring down six to ten jetliners using liquid explosives in carry-on luggage. The first time, my kid deleted it to play some game or other (why again did we buy him a GameCube for his last birthday?). The second, I got caught in a Blogger planned outage and didn't save the whole thing quite in time, and the part I did manage to save before the outage was the link-free intro. Darn it.

I'm too tired now to recreate the links. The point was this: I woke up this morning and flipped on the TV, something I seldom get to do, and - holy cripes, a monstrous plan to kill thousands, caught apparently just in time, disrupting air travel in the UK and the US in ways we haven't seen since 9/11. Surely, I thought, this near-miss will have a salubrious effect on the Left, in spite of their foolish triumphalism about Lieberman, one of dang few Democrats with any appeal to the center.

But no - the two dominant memes I've seen on the big sinistrosphere blogs have been these:

1. I Question The Timing! or, isn't it conveeenient that this plot is disrupted right after the Lieberman-Lamont primary? (No kidding. That really is one of the nutty ideas floating around out there: that the Rovian Right was willing and able to create a fake plot that would cause the British government to shut down Heathrow and US travel authorities to cause parents to drink their babies' formula in front of a security officer in order to bring it aboard, yet for reasons known only to them, delayed it until after Lamont won, as a kind of "told you so" to the anti-war anti-forces. No kidding. No kidding.)

2. Nothing to see here..., which describes the way Kos was treating it. Two pages into DailyKos, no story or commentary. A few diaries addressed the plot, over in the right sidebar (which may be no coincidence... though they seemed largely to conform to either my #1, above, or #3, below), but Markos apparently didn't find the situation compelling enough to talk about.

3. This plot demonstrates the failure of Bush's War on Terror! or, as a Protein Wisdom commenter noted, apparently the new standard for success in the War on Terror is that no terror attempts - nay, no terror plans - occur. I guess the idea is that Bush thought we were so convincing that a group of people who, like medieval Europe, are living only for the rewards of the afterlife, in the space of three to five years (depending on when the Leftish speaker believes Bush started screwing things up), should have abandoned their pursuit of Allah's glory and their own paradise in favor of a Prius and a bargain on a Super Tuscan.

I actually saw one Left-side commenter referring to Bush's Iraq policy as "short-sighted." "Short-sighted": a generational plan to recast the Middle East in a more liberal image. I also read one blog, apologies that I can't recall which one, in which the writer mused about a definition of intelligence s/he had read: (paraphrased, but accurately) the ability to hold two opposing views in mind simultaneously. I certainly hope that that writer meant "to consider" rather than "to hold," which IIRC was in fact the word used (I can say definitely that it wasn't "consider"), because otherwise what we're talking about is not intelligence but cognitive dissonance, the resulting imbalance from which can lead to awful and nonsensical rationalizations.

Such as, for instance, "The Bushies are stupid doofuses who masterminded the 9/11 attacks." Or "The interruption of a plot to kill thousands, which resulted in inconvenience to many more thousands of travelers but no loss of life, was [take your pick here] a Rovian plot to spank the righteously angry anti-war netroots, or a failure." Or "Portraying Joe Lieberman in blackface is not at all antithetical to our liberal commitment to tolerance and proportionate ethnic diversity in the public and private spheres, but rather simply political speech that really doesn't concern you Republicans, since it's internecine." Or "Israel is committing genocide(!) [do they even remember what 'genocide' means?] by attacking the sources of rockets being fired at civilian targets in Israel by an organization pledged to destroy Israel as a nation and Jews as a people, because those sources are placed deliberately in civilian neighborhoods in Lebanon."

I thought - I hoped - that the good that could come out of this foiled plot, besides the fact that thousands who might have been killed will not be, would have been that the Democratic party would wake the hell up and realize that Islamism really doesn't give a flip which American president is in office: the aim is to destroy the West because of its liberal, to some observers libertine, ethos. And the people most vilified by Islamists are the ones the Democratic party claims most especially for its beautiful organic-cotton vegetable-dyed rainbow tent: atheists. Gay people. Feminists and other uppity women. Jews. Fornicators and the debauched of all stripes (which we might call "people who believe in bodily freedom," perhaps).

Wake up. The important common denominator among us in the West is not which groups we embrace or identify with - it's which philosophies we embrace and identify with. And the greatest of these, the one that changed everything and continues to inform our lives daily, is:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Generalization versus specialization

Steering well clear of Lebanon, not out of lack of interest but out of lack of energy to get all read up on it so I could have anything at all insightful to offer...

I've been reading Jane Austen lately, and as always with literature of that period and the periods immediately following - say, up until the Edwardians or so - I'm struck by the concept of "accomplishments." I mean the way all girls of the middle class and above learned to draw, play piano or some other instrument, sing, write descriptive prose and poetry, dance, arrange flowers, do fine needlework, all of them acceptably well regardless of native ability; and the way all boys of the middle class and above learned some of the above but more about riding, shooting, maybe swordplay (ornamental or practical), dressage if they were in the country, and so on. Both genders were expected to have a working knowledge of "the classics," of course.

All times have their accomplishments. In my teens I was "expected" to master (or at least to perform acceptably) certain things that I largely didn't: gymnastics (no prayer - I couldn't even touch my toes for most of my youth), pop singing (classical is another matter! But I could never get the whole close-your-eyes-and-whine-nasally genre down), drawing horses (I've never figured that out), fashion (to judge and to wear, not to design, not that I could design it either). My brother had to be competent in certain team sports, be familiar with some canons like Star Wars (at which I was better), and do tricks on something with wheels like a bike or a skateboard. I'm not able to step outside my own life well enough to determine which well-rounded young person, the 1980s one or the 1800s one, had the harder time learning his accomplishments. But I find roots in the youthful-accomplishments idea in the Renaissance and the Renaissance man, and I find similarities in places today.

This post, from the Long Tail blog, deals with how digital photography and cinematography change acting and directing:

Why [has digital caused such large changes]? Because film costs a lot and must be used sparingly, while digital tape is practically free. The difference between the scarcity economics of film and the abundance economics of digital is, as Bill put it, "the difference between pointing a loaded gun at someone and a toy gun. You point a loaded gun at them and they're going to act different. A film camera is a loaded gun. Digital is not."

He explained further what he learned shooting Flyboys with the Panavision Genesis. "The old model of acting is that the rehearsal is great and then things change when you say "rolling"--usually for the worse. Now there's no film in the camera. You can shoot everything. So there's no rehearsal. Or perhaps it's all rehearsal. Either way, it's far more natural."

Actors freeze up when they know that there's a cost to failure--a thousand-foot magazine of film costs $1,200 between film and developing. Said Bill: "That slight whirring noise of film running through the camera is the sound of money. And it gets in the way of being real."

Anybody? Anybody? I have on my wall three absolutely fantastic candid pictures of my kids, enlarged and proudly displayed rather than clustered on a shelf or on the fridge, because we bought a big memory card for our digital camera and are able to take a hundred and some high-res pictures without unloading. If I hadn't had literally dozens of shots of each child to choose from - that is, if I'd been limited to the amount of film I was willing to buy and develop - I would have had virtually no chance of taking three shots good enough to treat like professional portraits. My mother-in-law, digital camera always at the ready, treats the medium the way she always has: "Get over there next to your brother, honey. Sit up a little. Turn. No, the other way. Now - SMILE! Darn it, you had your eyes closed. Let's try it again..." rather than clicking away twenty times on the premise that one of those twenty captures will yield something good. It frustrates me to watch (especially since the whole reason professional photographers can charge the big bucks for children's portraits is because it's so hard to get three kids to look good all at once in a portrait-style shot), but I understand the impulse.

So. Available tools change the types of accomplishments we strive for - no great news there. The question for me is whether our "accomplishments" in these days, aided by tools that can turn the rankest amateur into an occasional master by dint of sheer persistence, render this age a new renaissance, in which we ought to try not just to perform learned skills adequately but actually to be relatively masterful in several areas at once. With my computer, an internet connection, my digital camera, and enough time, I can (both theoretically and, in some cases, in fact) turn out a killer home movie, gallery-worthy photos or even "art" if I apply enough filters, an animated feature, a book that only needs professional binding... Add some readily available craft materials and I can actually bind that book and expect it to last for decades, or turn out cards that ought by rights to put Hallmark out of business, or illuminate a manuscript. If I have a melody line in my head and a Moog or its equivalent, I can (and this is purely theoretical - I've never yet come up with a melody that's worth remembering) arrange it and "perform" it with multiple virtual instruments, sing it in harmony, and distribute it over the internet. Between the resources available at any public library and the resources available at my desk, I have access to almost everything I need to become "accomplished" in the 19th-century sense, at least on paper (I can't afford a horse), as well as in the 21st-century one (that's what my HTML, VBScript, and SQL books are for). So. Do I focus, or do I diffuse my efforts? With so very much available to be learned, am I better off as a specialist or as a generalist?

Heinlein had his opinion:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

-The Notebooks of Lazarus Long, first published in Time Enough For Love