Archive for March, 2008


March 30, 2008

Just saw Superbad, the dirtiest, filthiest, vilest, foulest, most profane movie I’ve seen in a while. Loved it! Seth Rogen is like a god to me.

Speaking of whom, if you liked Superbad and Rogen’s other raunchfests you might like this, also featuring super-hot and very funny Elizabeth Banks (apparently soon to be going all sexy librarian as Laura Bush(!)). NSFW! Oh, so very NSFW…

Metal vs Digital Fonts

March 30, 2008

I seem to be on fonts now.

I just ran across an article entitled, “Why Bembo Sucks.” Intrigued–I love Bembo, I think it’s one of the very nicest of typefaces (also, see this!)–I read it, and found that it’s really about “why digital fonts (often) suck” and “why inappropriate and poorly used fonts suck.” It’s a great article; if you’re into this sort of thing, go read it now. One of the main points is that digital fonts tend to be pale and lifeless imitations of their metal originals (many of which, including Bembo, are in turn copies of much older and quirkier typography).

This seemingly superfluous dilemma [which original point size of a metal font to digitize] can only be truly understood when the original metal typefaces are seen in print. Oh, what a joyous sight! The subtle variation of letterform, the slight impression into the paper, the vibrant warmth of a page of text. It is not only beautiful, but an absolute delight to read. The effect of these typefaces is impossible to emulate with their insipid digital ghosts. Modern printing has become so perfect, so uniform and precise that the spirit of the original is crushed. It is like spending a lifetime slurping instant coffee and never experiencing a proper espresso.

That’s a well-known problem with digital typefaces. The great Edward Tufte even went so far as to design his own digital Bembo, having found Monotype’s existing digitization unbearable (there is now what looks like a better one).

Not long ago I was struck by this when reading two books, both set in Fairfield, back-to-back. Here are two examples from books I just picked up off the pile on our coffee table:



Maybe you can’t tell from my lousy scans, but I find the older one much livelier and more interesting. The newer one also doesn’t bother with the double-f ligatures (lazybones typesetters!).

How nerdly am I for noticing this?

March 30, 2008

While typing that last post, I noticed a typographical pun(!): my old copy of the Oresteia is set in Electra. I really hope that was on purpose.

Robert Fagles, RIP

March 30, 2008

I see that Robert Fagles has died. In my admittedly limited experience, Fagles’ translations are among the best at capturing the power and raw beauty of the great Greek poets and playwrights, something which I can experience only in translation. From his Eumenides:

You younger Gods!–you have ridden down
the ancient laws, wrenched them from my grasp–
and I, robbed of my birthright, suffering, great with wrath,
I loose my poison over the soil, aieee!–
poison to match my grief comes pouring out my heart,
cursing the land to burn it sterile and now
rising up from its roots a cancer blasting leaf and child,
now for Justice, Justice!–cross the face of the earth
the bloody tide comes hurling, all mankind destroyed.
…Moaning, only moaning? What will I do?
The mockery of it, Oh unbearable,
mortified by Athens,
we the daughters of Night,
our power stripped, cast down.

Misinterpeting Mel

March 29, 2008

Apropos intellectuals misunderstanding religion, I remember being surprised how few liberal intellectuals (e.g. most film critics, and almost everyone I know) seemed to understand Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. They were mystified because they were making a category error: they reviewed it as if it were a movie. But it’s not a movie. It’s a devotional object, a Renaissance altarpiece, the stations of the cross. Mel was merely working in his own medium, which happens to be film.

Almost all the nation’s movie critics (former altar boy Roger Ebert being a notable exception)1 failed completely to realize what they were seeing. Among other things, they were displeased at The Passion of the Christ‘s focus on Jesus’ death, to the complete exclusion of the rest of his life, his ministry, and his teachings. They had expected it to tell a story of at least some part of Jesus’ human life, à la King of Kings or The Gospel According to St Matthew–or even Jesus Christ, Superstar or Life of Brian. But stories and narrative and indeed anything involving rational thought are completely beside the point. You’re not intended to watch it in order to appreciate the subtle nuance of the plotting and dialog2 or to learn about Jesus’ theology, but to experience fully the suffering of our dear savior.

Not surprisingly, The Daily Show seemed to understand this best (the quote is in the context of antisemitism in the film but I think it applies generally):

Jon Stewart: Rob, the big issue everyone’s talking about is antisemitism. Did you get any of that from the movie?

Rob Corddry [looking shellshocked, having just seen The Passion]: That’s kind of a brain question, Jon, and this is a movie you watch more from a stomach place…

I would have expected more critics to have figured out the film’s true nature. Didn’t some large fraction of them take art history courses in college? Gibson and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel were quite overt in echoing the look and feel of the aforementioned altarpieces and other Renaissance religious artwork.

As a side note, I think many of the evangelicals/fundamentalists who did relate to The Passion on its own level may not have quite realized what they were seeing–in particular I don’t think they understood how very very Catholic it was, in all its Marian imagery and whatnot. Not that they needed to understand that, or that it would matter if they did.

1 See also the discussion in Slate between Robert Alter and Stephen Prothero. Of course, they are religious studies professors, not movie critics.

2 Not that there wasn’t any. I loved the way Pilate questioned Jesus in Aramaic–and Jesus answered in Latin. I assume that’s because arch-Catholic Gibson wanted to hear the line “Quid est veritas?” in Latin.

The God Delusion

March 28, 2008

I picked up Richard DawkinsThe God Delusion as airplane/vacation reading last week. As with everything I’ve seen by the “New Atheists”–Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett–I find myself in complete agreement with 95% of Dawkins’ points–indeed, with practically everything except his overall premise.

Let me get some of the obvious points of agreement out of the way. Yes, belief in an anthropomorphic personal God, especially as described in pretty much any set of sacred scriptures, has no rational justification. Yes, many dreadful things have been done in the name of religion (but note how I phrase that, and read on). Yes, it boggles the mind that evolution and stem-cell research are at all controversial. Yes, people who claim that our Constitution and laws are based on the Ten Commandments are either willfully ignorant or outright lying. Yes, atheism should be respectable and acceptable in public life. Yes, atheists are on average exactly as moral and ethical as religious people.

That said, on to the more interesting criticism. Dawkins is a prominent (and interesting) enough figure that his book has elicited a great many responses, to many of which he responds in turn in his preface to the paperback edition. I’ll start by responding to his responses to the responses (his paraphrases of which are in bold):

  • You can’t criticize religion without a detailed analysis of learned books of theology. Dawkins points out that learned books of theology are really irrelevant to his point that “the God hypothesis” is very weak. Theologians generally start with the assumption that God exists and proceed from there; attempts to prove God’s existence based on logic or other “scientific” are laughably weak. He’s right there, so far as that goes. The real problem I have isn’t his simplistic analysis of theology, or his simplistic treatment of, say, the Bible, it is his (apparently) simplistic understanding of religion as a whole, on which more below.
  • You always attack the worst of religion and ignore the best. To this Dawkins responds that for most practical purposes religion is the worst of religion: “to the vast majority of believers around the world, religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of Robertson, Falwell, or Haggard; Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini.” The “best of religion” is to Dawkins significant only in that it enables and encourages the worst. To this I would say that (i) I hope (and think) that he’s wrong about the numbers–and I’ll note that he doesn’t provide any actual evidence for his position–and that (ii) in my experience the vast majority of evangelical/fundamentalist/pentecostal Christians are altogether more admirable than their alleged leaders such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and Ted Haggard (I am resisting the urge to make a Ted Haggard joke here.  Oh heck, watch this.).  Dawkins is right that the Robertsons and Falwells have altogether too much influence over too many people, including, very unfortunately, much of our government, but their influence can be (and is) overstated.
  • I’m an atheist, but I wish to dissociate myself from your shrill, strident, and intemperate, intolerant, ranting language. Dawkins points out that in comparison to the language used in e.g. restaurant reviews his is quite mild. Religion, he says, enjoys a wholly undeserved freedom from criticism. Indeed, one of his goals is to help change that. To a certain extent I agree with him here: his language really is pretty mild, though it must be said that in this he is unlike his fellow New Atheists Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. There is however, a certain communications gap at work here: one man’s wit is another man’s rant.
  • You’re only preaching to the choir. Well, he is preaching to the choir, but choirs like to be preached to. And there is a point: he is trying to convince “closet atheists” to come out, to make atheism respectable. This is a laudable goal.
  • You’re as much of a fundamentalist as those you criticize. No, he’s not, exactly. I believe Dawkins when he says he would be willing to change his mind on, say, evolution, overnight if presented with incontrovertible evidence. That is in fact the way science works, and scientists love nothing more than having to change their minds (not that you’d know it from the way they talk sometimes, but it’s true). The problem here is more subtle, and really applies more to the likes of Hitchens and Harris than to Dawkins himself. The New Atheists may not be fundamentalists about evolution, but the are perilously close to unshakable belief in the superiority of their own reason over, well, everyone else’s. That unshakable belief is just as odious as Christian fundamentalism, and would be just as dangerous if there were more like them. Chris Hedges discusses this at length in I Don’t Believe In Atheists; I’ll have a bit more to say on it below.
  • I’m an atheist myself, but religion is here to stay. Live with it.
  • I’m an atheist myself, but people need religion. I’m more or less with him here; the first statement (whether it turns out to be true or not) is stupidly self-defeating, the second really is patronizing.

Not covered so succinctly is Dawkins’ assumption that if religion were simply to vanish the world would be a better place. That may be true (insofar as any conterfactual can be said to be “true”), but neither Dawkins nor anyone else I know of has even come close to justifying it. Certainly any number of atrocities have been committed in the name of religion, but that is not at all the same thing as saying they have been committed because of religion. Religion is and always provided an excellent excuse for whatever people wanted to do anyway: Dawkins’ list of horrors at the beginning of his preface:

Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as “Christ-killers,” no Northern Ireland “troubles,” no “honour killings,” no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money…

[he left out the Thirty Years’ War, the French Wars of Religion, the fires of Smithfield,…] demonstrates plenty of correlation but less causation than one might think. The Crusades, for example, began because the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I wanted mercenaries to help him fight the Turks, and Pope Urban II was only too happy to rid Europe of even a small part a violent and greedy warrior class. Yugoslavia and Ireland’s problems are far more political than religious: the religions are merely convenient markers (I hope to post about this point at much greater length, eventually). Ditto for the Gunpowder Plot, on a smaller scale. Televangelists are only one species of a great order of scam artists. Even in the more difficult and less comprehensible cases of suicide bombers and honor killings and witch-hunts, true motivations are difficult or impossible to discern. Religion provides a channel for pre-existing hatred, and a tool, one of many, for unscrupulous leaders to control their duped followers. But it is neither necessary or sufficient for hatred and atrocity. If there were no religion, we would be more than capable of finding other reasons to kill each other in awful ways.

The last century provides what should be conclusive examples that we can commit unimaginable horrors without the aid of religion: horrors don’t come much more horrible than Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, to name only the two biggest and most obvious. Dawkins does discuss both at some length, but he misses the point, or at least my point. He seems to be defending atheism from the charge that, without a God-given moral compass, it leads inevitably to Hitler and Stalin. That’s not my point at all. My point is that they show pretty conclusively that religion is not the sole cause of the world’s ills.

Now what does link many of history’s evils is unthinking devotion to ideas and causes. Religion certainly excels at that. But so does nationalism, and even misunderstanding of allegedly scientific principles. Dawkins does understand this, I think. I fear that his fellow New Atheists Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens do not. Chris Hedges puts it strongly, using the language of sin:

I think both the Christian right and the New Atheists in essence don’t believe in their own sin, because they externalize evil. Evil is always something out there that can be eradicated. For the New Atheists, it’s the irrational religious hordes. I mean, Sam Harris, at the end of his first book, asks us to consider a nuclear first strike on the Arab world. Both Hitchens and Harris defend the use of torture. Of course, they’re great supporters of preemptive war, and I don’t think this is accidental that their political agendas coalesce completely with the Christian right.

[And later:

Harris is just intellectually shallow. Harris doesn’t know anything about religion or the Middle East. For Hitchens, it’s about a performance, and that was true when he was on the left. He hasn’t changed. It’s all about him. It’s all about being a contrarian. He reminds me of Ann Coulter, he’s that kind of a figure. He’s witty, and he’s funny and insulting.


I have another deeper and more subtle problem with Dawkins and the other New Atheists, perhaps the root of all my disagreement with them. They don’t seem to understand exactly what religion is: they confuse Religion with Belief. An easy mistake, to be sure: most True Believers also confuse their religion with their belief. And belief is a central part of most religions, certainly of Christianity in its most prevalent forms. But any religion is much more than its belief system: it’s a culture, a society, a way of life, a worldview. That I think is why we refer to Christian children and Muslim children and Jewish children, a practice Dawkins despises: not because they believe in the various tenets of their religions (although they probably do, of course), but because they are part of their respective cultures.

Perhaps it is because they don’t understand, or at any rate acknowledge, the full reality of religion and religious experience that Dawkins and the other New Atheists do not admit of any categories other than “deluded believers in anthropomorphic deities” and “atheists.” That scares me a little; it reeks of a fundamentalism as insidious as the religious right’s. Or perhaps the reason they don’t allow “deeply religious nonbelievers” to identify as such is purely polemical: they want all nonbelievers to proclaim themselves proudly as atheists.

Entering Exotic Characters

March 27, 2008

From Bill Poser at Language Log, some really useful resources for entering exotic characters, both as actual characters or as html codepoints (suitable for blogs, for example); and a set of links to nice IPA utilities (I particularly like the clickable pronunciation chart).

I generally get non-ascii characters using either vim digraphs, or a couple of macros I wrote for jEdit.

Another very nice-looking free font with lots of unicode coverage is Junicode, written by a medievalist for medievalists. And of course the DejaVu fonts have lots of coverage as well.

Upgrading Ubuntu

March 26, 2008

Throwing caution to the winds, I upgraded my Ubuntu laptop to the beta of Hardy Heron the other day. It almost worked…

The only serious problem I had–have–is that I can no longer get my WPA-encrypted wireless connection to work. Of course, that’s a bit of a showstopper–I am paranoid enough not to turn off encryption (and so should you be). I have just filed my first open-source bug report. Ah well, that’s betas.

The wireless problem may well have prevented me from running into any other major issues. I have hit a couple of minor ones, though. Most seriously, terminal fonts looked dreadful; that turns out to be known and easily fixable.

Other than some graphic coolness the new feature in Hardy I expect to find most immediately useful is wubi, which looks like it ought to make it possible to install, or at least test, ubuntu on a windows machine without doing scary things (well, disk partitioning tends to scare me) to it. I have just such a machine that I’d like to ubuntify, and I’d really like to make sure its wireless connection works before I do anything drastic.

DC v. Heller

March 18, 2008

Oral argument in DC v. Heller is today. Exciting stuff indeed! My prediction is that there will be a splintered decision, with the four “conservative” justices voting (possibly in several opinions, including a very short one from Justice Thomas) to let the appellate decision stand, the four “liberals” voting to remand, possibly with a range of instructions across several more opinions, and Kennedy endorsing something like the Solicitor General’s position (the moderation and sense of which has so offended the Administration), only more pompously; the result being 5-4 in favor of remanding, with muddy instructions to the lower courts.

I’ll see if I change that after the argument, or more precisely after I see what more intelligent and better informed people have to say about it.

UPDATE: No new thoughts, but a question: what happens if a majority (Kennedy and the liberals) decide to remand (but for different reasons), and a different majority (Kennedy and the conservatives) find an Individual Right to bear arms (but draw different conclusions from that finding)?  What precedent does that set?

The Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright

March 18, 2008

Blogging on Barack Obama’s pastor problems is probably already passé, but a few thoughts anyway:

The United Church of Christ certainly is a Big Tent denomination. Wright and Obama’s Trinity Church, with its great size and aggressive Afrocentrism, sounds nothing like the quaint and sedate Congregational churches that dot the town greens of New England, whose congregations are as white as their clapboards (I say that as a member of one of those churches). I imagine they have a better choir than most of our NE churches, too…

As for Obama’s relationship with Wright, and Obama’s statement that he was unaware of Wright’s more inflammatory rhetoric, I certainly can’t judge–and neither can the pundits and bloggers who have been judging, as far as I can see. And really, I’m not sure what Wright said is as bad as all that:

The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.

Not something a politician wants to be associated with, certainly, but in context not entirely undeserved. Racism is America’s Original Sin, and it behooves us to stay aware of that.

Barack knows what it means living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people. Hillary would never know that. Hillary ain’t never been called a nigger. Hillary has never had a people defined as a non-person.

Hard to deny that one. The big problem there, IMO, is campaigning from the pulpit.

[just after 9/11]: We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost.

The least defensible of Wright’s quotes that I’ve seen. The “reason” 9/11 happened, insofar as the concept applies, is that Al Qaeda is evil. For all I know Wright said so; I haven’t seen the rest of his sermon that day, and obviously it might matter. But even if the quotation isn’t missing relevant context, there is an argument to be made that our policies abroad have consequences at home–if our policies the Middle East were different, would 9/11 have happened? (The answer is, “I don’t know.”) Certainly what Wright said is less odious than what Pat Robinson and Jerry Falwell and their ilk said. Not that that’s a defense.


OK, so maybe he’s a little crazy:

The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color.

We started the AIDS virus . . .

and I’m not going to try to say anything nice about his association with the odious Louis Farrakhan.