Pascal’s Wager, redux.

In the last week or so, I have been deluged by a ridiculous amount of spam and phishing expeditions on myspace. I have been fervently avoiding watching naughty webcams and offers of awesome ringtones or a free ipod for filling out surveys. Somewhere in the ugly mess of ignorance and greed, my friend Preston has been thinking philosophically about the nature of belief and the rewards of faith. He has taken the old “betting man’s theory of religion.” And rejiggered it. Interesting stuff, and don’t let the math deter you, it’s more conceptual than anything else.

My reaction (which you can see with typos if you follow the above link) is this:

While I always come at the Wager from the faith versus action angle, that is the idea (which you address, albeit briefly) that salvation may or may not require more than mere belief- works over faith, etc., I see where you’re going here and I’ll come along for the ride. But I have two thoughts on the matter.
1. Pascal’s Wager, whether in its original incarnation, or in your reworked version presupposes that people behave rationally. For this formulation to work, we have to assume that human beings behave in a way that yields the most good in the long term, and forgo instant gratification for future dividends. While this is no doubt true of some rational actors, I think there is a great deal of evidence (current environmental concerns, war, obesity, et al.) for the assertion that man behaves in destructive, irrational, contrary ways.
2. In my experience, conversations about faith have no place for rationality and logic. And the more formal the logic, the greater the likelihood that you will lose your audience. I don’t mean to say that people with faith are incapable of grasping the schema, just that faith comes from a different part of us than mathematics and matrices. True believers won’t be swayed or tempted from their path by the Devil’s Arithmetic.

John Bolton on the Daily Show

Anybody else catch this last night? I really like it when conservatives go on the show. I think Jon Stewart does an admirable job of interviewing those with an opposing point of view without getting abrasive and staying (relatively) respectful. Bolton was our erstwhile ambassador to the UN, an organization that he had little respect for. During his time in the UN, he did some things right and some things wrong but I could never fully fathom the sheer gall required to make him our ambassador to the world in an organization which he famously said could lose its top ten stories without anyone noticing. While I agree that the United Nations is grossly inefficient and frequently accomplishes nothing, I am a strong believer in its potential for good and I don’t thing he had the right attitude to be our player there. He tended to personify the American arrogance that other countries perceive and get rubbed the wrong way by.

Last night he handled Stewart’s ribbing in fairly good humor, although he disagreed on just about every point. Stewart wanted to get into the Gonzalez kerflaffle, pointing out the parallels with Bolton’s ousting but fittingly for a diplomat, Bolton failed to engage. He stuck to his idea (and I’m paraphrasing here) that it is the duty of the President to fill as many positions as possible with like-minded people. Not because they are personal supporters, per se, but because they would naturally be ideological boosters and further the administration’s point of view. He further pointed out that transparency in government is only good up to a point, and that there has to be some freedom for the administration to discuss and decide policy without having to worry about public accountability.

I don’t hate Bolton, although I think he was the wrong man for the job, but I just can’t get behind any of the points he was making here. The whole point of democratic governance is to allow disagreement. Bolton seemed to be saying that the American people made their choice when they elected W. and nobody has any further say in his actions or the policies of his administration. He went on to defend this as the very model of democratic theory. To my mind it couldn’t be further from it.

On Political Authoritah…

I am a fan of South Park. My opinions on this are well documented. One of the things I like about the show is how it plays with politics and lampoons serious issues without ever descending into partisan nastiness. While I think it’s pretty safe to say that most people watch the show for fart jokes and the storylines that border on the obscene and blasphemous (and I mean that in a good way), there is an underlying political ethos, but you have to wade through the malicious and hilarious skewering of all players on the political scene to get there. There’s definitely a general trend toward conservatism, which may seem odd for such a socially liberal show. I mean between Big Gay Al, Cartman’s crusade for stem cell research so that he could clone a pizzeria, and the episode where euthanasia was the only way to let Kenny save all of creation, the South Park guys probably aren’t on the RNC’s speed dial. But I’m not talking about the typically Christian, moral majority brand of conservatism. Among others, Nick Gillespie over at Hit & Run seems to read Trey Parker and Matt Stone as Libertarians (even if they wouldn’t say so themselves) and I tend to agree.

I also like that he acknowledges the show’s ambiguity. It refuses to pin itself down to any one ideological framework and rakes muck at everybody. They are also unwilling to sacrifice fetus jokes and swear words to become some sort of crudely animated Doonesbury, so I’ll keep tuning in.

The King of the Vagabonds Presents: Tuesday’s True Travel Tales

Generally, I don’t like children. They annoy me because I don’t find them precious or cute. If you think about it, “cute” when used to describe the speech or actions of a child is really just another way of saying “weak or stupid, albeit in an endearing manner.” I know to many this makes me sound like a monster, or a curmudgeonly old grouch and I can’t really refute this claim. But at least my feelings are universal. I didn’t even really like myself all that much until I was about 17-18. I don’t like American children, I don’t like Irish children, I really don’t like French children. I do not like African children.

But rules are made to be broken and as I walked along the Eastern shore of Lake Malawi I found myself slowly but surely warming up to the phalanx of little fishermen in training that trailed behind me. When the mob of skinny little Africans ran up to me, I assumed they were swarming me to ask for money. This would not be out of the ordinary when traveling in Africa. Even the poorest backpacker probably has more wealth at their disposal than most poor Africans will see in a lifetime so you can forgive the locals for thinking that every Mzungu they see is a walking ATM. This had been happening a lot, but that didn’t make it any less irritating. Continue reading…

Sure and Begorrah

It’s that time of year again, when a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts Guinness and avoiding the pinching punishment of those who forget to wear green. It’s a magical time of year when we can all come together over a pint and look back at the man who made Ireland a serpent-free zone, your man Saint Patrick.

Most people don’t realize that the brother wasn’t even Irish. He was kidnapped from Britain when he was young and the pirates sold him as a slave to some Irish folks. He eventually escaped, but returned years later as a missionary. Tradition has it that he was responsible for converting the pagan Celts to Christianity. He was an early appreciator of a good visual aid, and used the shamrock to drop some knowledge on the locals and help them understand the concept of the holy trinity. Most awesomely, legend has it that old Padraig was able to banish every last snake from the emerald isle. Chances are there weren’t any there to begin with, but the Irish have never been known to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

What does all this have to day with the holiday we celebrate tomorrow? Absolutely nothing for most people. The masses tend to use it as an excuse to drink way more than they should, wear stupid plastic green derbies and generally act like wankers. Now far be it from me to hate on St. Paddy’s day, but I do get annoyed at the amateur night spectacle of people trying to order Guinness, trying a sip and realizing they don’t like before going back to green beer. Green food coloring in beer? Why? I find it both retarded and gross. And then there are the fuckwits who go about doing their best Lucky Charms impression and making futile attempts to riverdance.

Leave it to the professionals.

I went to a catholic school filled with Irish nuns who would frequently threatened to whack us their shillelaghs if we did not behave. St. Patrick’ s Day was the center of the school at year at St. Marys. Uniform restrictions were relaxed to allow the wearing of green. There was a day long festival where Sister Joan Grace would dance a jig and lead the entire school in several good old drinking songs. At one point, they even used the “The Wild Rover,” a song about drunken gambling and general debauchery to illustrate the biblical parable about the prodigal son. Good times.

I drink Guinness, Jameson’s, and Bushmills. I love potatoes, and I eat them like apples. I listen to Flogging Molly, Dropkick Murphys, The Pogues, and even U2. I went to catholic school, have kissed the blarney stone, and once wrote a thesis paper on the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I have many siblings. My name is Sean MacGillivray, and Saint Patrick’s Day is mine. Leave the plastic shamrock at home.

The Lamest Thing I Said Last Week:

While involved in a discussion of the omnipresent smell of marijuana smoke that hovers over the city of San Francisco like a fart trapped under a blanket, I came around to the subject of how open people are here when it comes to smoking pot. I don’t know what the police policy is on public smoking, but from what I can tell it’s more total obliviousness than zero tolerance. Not that I have a problem with that, per se, but I’m used to a little more discretion. I do notice that anyone could be smoking at any time, and since I am more unhip to the stoner parlance than your D.A.R.E teacher was I remarked that someone who said they were going to their car was more than likely going to smoke a “Doob-o.” If the laughter this provoked is any indication, this is not the preferred slang.

Things I Think Are Cool: Nunchuks

I myself was a student of the martial arts, and in my younger days I tried to learn to use nunchuks. The weapon proved a harsh mistress. It requires not only a great deal of dexterity, but a degree of quick thinking and forethought. You see, nunchuks recoil. So not only do you have to concentrate on hitting your opponent, but you have to be prepared for the weapon to bounce back and have a move in mind for the next swing. It proved too much for me, and so I concentrated my efforts on the samurai sword. And then later on trying to find a girlfriend. I met with varying degrees of success on both counts, but I’ve always kind of wanted to take another crack at the nunchuks.

Greeks, Freaks, and Twin Peaks: 300 Movie Review

This Friday Night at the Movies, I saw 300. This should come as no surprise to those of you who have been paying attention. I am a geek in many regards, and I try to not to let a comic book movie pass without checking it out. But this movie was so mind-bogglingly awesome that it has serious crossover appeal. Maybe it was the oily sheen that glistened on the Spartan’s six packs, but the crowd here in San Francisco seemed especially receptive. As long as historical fact doesn’t count as a spoiler, I think its safe to say that the 300 Spartans didn’t have a happy ending. They were tough, but I can’t help but wonder if the Spartans in the movie wouldn’t have been better fighters if they spent more time practicing with their weapons instead of doing crunches and oiling their pecs.

The story of the film is more fully fleshed out than the graphic novel that inspired it, but it is still pretty light on things like narrative, characterization, and plot. That I have no problem with these absences is a testament to how visceral the action is. As far as the story goes Sparta is about to be invaded by the Persians, whose army vastly outnumbers the Spartan force. Politics and corruption keep the full Spartan army from entering the fray, so part-time wolf-slayer and full-time bad ass King Leonidas leads his personal guard of 300 men against the invading horde. He uses strategy and superior fighting skill to make a stand against Xerxes and his army in a narrow pass between tweo mountain peaks, called the “Hot Gates.” That’s about it. Its essentially a two hour battle scene, with a few breaks in the action to check in on the home front where Leonidas’ wife is trying to rally political support for the war. But its a very pretty battle scene, with lots of leaping and well-choreographed decapitations. Its not weighed down with realism. I never knew how much I would enjoy watching elephants fall off cliffs until 300 showed me.

The blood splatters just right, and the disciplined Spartan warriors have a variety of tactical tricks. One of my favorite scenes was when our 300 heroes squared off against the enemy special forces, the Immortals. The Immortals were some kind of ninja vampires or something. I dunno, but they gave the Greeks a run for their money. It could get a trifle repetitive, and I could see some viewers get a little tired of the bloodshed. But I didn’t. Visually, the movie had lots of green screen imagery not entirely unlike Sin City, which was written by the same guy (Frank Miller). Its all very pretty, especially an early scene involving a whacked out, half naked oracle.

There’s been a great deal of speculation about what political message, if any, this movie may contain. You could read it either way, with Leonidas as either a determined leader willing to instill democracy at any cost, or as a rebellious insurgent standing up to a massive invasion. Also, the invading army is from the Persian empire which included Iraq. In the film the Persian army is full of brown-skinned people, deformed slaves, and Xerxes himself seems particularly effeminate especially when contrasted with the tough-as-nails and oh-so-pretty noble Greeks. If you wanted to do a post-colonialist interpretation of the film you’d have tons of premise fodder, but I think you’d be wasting your time. There are also notions of honor and heroism being linked directly with a willingness to eschew diplomacy for unpopular war. (Even Rumsfeld wouldn’t throw an ambassador down a bottomless pit). Not to mention the fact that Leonidas has to break (or at least bend) the very law he is so keen on defending. At the same time, Xerxes presents a real threat and promises nothing less than the enslavement of the entire Spartan kingdom, and if Leonidas had chosen not fight he would have been consigning his people to “slavery and death.” But I don’t care. At the end of the day, the film isn’t about allegory, subtle or otherwise. It’s not about politics or religion. Its about stabbing people in the face with a spear. And that is a message I can get behind.

Dork Dispatch: Mistah Rogers- He Dead…

Captain America is dead. I don’t think spoilers apply when the New York Daily News and other sources are talking about it and what it means politically. Captain America is a guy who first came on the scene by JACKING HITLER IN THE JAW!

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and now he has been taken out by a sniper and seems to be truly dead (or at least as close to it you can be in the world of comic books). The whole things reminds me of the Death of Superman story from a few years ago, in as much as it seems to have people talking about comics and turning out to buy the issue in record numbers. Captain America, or “Cap” as he is affectionately known to fans has been kicking ass since World War II. He might not have been around as a certain Kryptonian, and Hollywood hasn’t been as kind to him but Cap still holds serious iconic weight and him being Kennedy’ied is kind of a big deal.

captain america fallen son

Crash Course:

Steve Rogers was a patriotic and upstanding young man who wanted nothing more than to fuck shit up for the Nazis and serve the cause of freedom/democracy. Too bad for him he was a scrawny weakling that the Army rejected for active duty. But he still had serious game, so they used him as a guinea pig for the Super Soldier Serum. BAM! Now Steve had the muscles and agility to match his noble spirit, though not crazy powerful. He was always depicted as being at the peak of human ability, but couldn’t through cars around or smash buildings with the Hulk. Soon enough, the powers that be gave him a spiffy red, white, and blue outfit with an indestructible shield and set him loose on the Krauts, Nips, and Eye-ties that were threatening 1940s stability. He had a number of WWII adventures, and was in the fight way before our country was officially. As a propaganda tool, he was at least partially used to drum up support for American involvement in the war. Michael Chabon has a pretty cool take on the whole affair (though it is fictionalized) in his book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay Anyway, at the end of the war Cap gets frozen in arctic ice (don’t ask.) In the sixties, he gets thawed out by the Avengers and he’s been an integral part of the marvel universe ever since.

captain america

So now has been shot. He is dead. Will he stay dead? No, of course not. In the four-color world no one stays dead. Conventional wisdom holds that the only two deaths that are permanent are Spider-man’s dead Uncle who taught him all about power and responsibility and Bucky, Captain America’s old sidekick from World War II (don’t ask,) But last year, they brought Bucky back, so everything is up in the air. Comic books are different from other forms of fiction in that they can never have a true narrative arc. Whereas a novel can kill off a main character as an organic part of the story and give the reader resolution, the ongoing monthly comic book is designed to be just that: ongoing. Resolution is anathema. There can be narrative arcs, but in most ways that count things have to be returned to the status quo for the character. Cap has been around for over fifty years, and it would be retarded to ill him off permanently. He is a vital part of the Marvel stable.

My prediction: even if he is “truly dead” for the purposes of the story he will be reborn within the next few years and back again. In the meantime, there will be stories that explore what a world with Cap is like, and someone else will probably take the mantle for a while. This has even happened before. Cap has never dies, but for a variety of reasons he has given up the costume and other people have taken up the shield.

Its playing right into Marvels’ hands to discuss this in terms of the allegorical, but I happen to be a big fan of the writer who did the deed, and I think it might be interesting to explore what the symbol of America means by showing us what the world is like without him. I think Brubaker could do some interesting things with this, and so what if it ultimately gets reversed? The company has painted itself into a corner with its recent Civil War storyline, and offing Cap is one way to deal with the fallout (It’s an extremely long story , but suffice it to say that Captain America has actually been imprisoned for leading a super-insurgency against a semi-totalitarian US Government.) So if nothing else, this will open some new storytelling opportunities. I would not like if Captain America turned into an episode of Oz.

Is the whole thing a gimmick? Maybe, but it went down way more under-the-radar than when Supes kicked the bucket, so the sales will only really increase for the second printings, which will not be as highly sought. But gimmicky or not, I don’t have a problem with it. But his creator might have said it best. “It’s a hell of a time for him to go. We really need him now,”