Saturday, September 29, 2007

understanding the mind I

From Sidney Lamb's monograph Pathways of the Brain.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

BEEM, 5th place: Hard Boiled:

[Best Editing in an Exploitation Movie Award]

"There's no room for failure now. The innocent must die"

Hard Boiled, 1992, was John Woo's final Hong Kong film before his Hollywood debut with 1993's van Damme vehicle, Hard Target. In many ways it represents the epitome of the style Woo had been developing with his previous films, A Better Tomorrow (1 and 2), The Killer, and the brilliant The Deer Hunter remake, Bullet in the Head. The film's exceptional cast includes the legendary Chow Yun Fat, the incomparable Anthony Wong (HK-style note: Wong performed in 16 feature films in 1993 alone), and perhaps the greatest actor to come out of Hong Kong, the inimitable Tony Leung. The plot of Hard Boiled is relatively simple, hard-boiled cop "Tequila" (Chow) pursues a gun smuggler (Wong) so persistently he treads on the toes of undercover cop Leung. By the time the movie's hour+ (!!!) climatic action scene begins (a showdown in a hospital), Leung and Chow have teamed up, and the conclusion is inevitable (even if the death toll isn't).

The editing of the action scenes is superlative (as one reviewer noted: "school is now in session"), featuring four properties often missing in gun battles this side of the pacific: choreography, imagination, elaboration, and danger. choreography: each action sequence is meticulously choreographed down to the exact timing of each shot and explosion; more importantly, this choreography is consistently adhered to in all shots. imagination: yes, people are pretty much just shooting at each other, but they're doing it with guns hidden in vol. 2 of the complete works of Shakespeare, or while diving through a car, off a boat, through an internal hospital window, or while cartwheeling through clouds of flour in a kitchen. elaboration: Hard Boiled is absolutely exemplary in its use of multiple shots (angles, speeds, etc.) to increase the excitement of a single event / moment. We can see this technique crudely employed in such (nevertheless great) action films as Bullit, where an admittedly intense driving stunt is replayed from three different angles, but it is only in Hard Boiled that this technique is elevated to an art. A brief moment (say, our protagonist diving through the hull of a mid-manufacture car as its neighbor explodes in flames) is amplified and elaborated upon by extending it through a sequence of shots which capture every heart-pounding aspect in excruciating detail. danger: at several points in Hard Boiled we see flames from nearby (and decidedly non-CGI) explosions whip around the bodies of our protagonists (their faces easily identifiable, and thus not those of stuntmen). Reportedly, Woo detonated the explosions himself as Chow runs through the hospital holding a baby (yes, the baby was a stunt-double) in a closing scene because the SFX-techs weren't generating enough excitement. Apparently, the "safe" distance to detonate each explosion from Chow simply didn't look good enough on film so Woo took matters into his own hands. The result is palpable excitement.

the original trailer for Hard Boiled:

trailer for new Dragon Dynasty DVD here.

memorable editing moment: Although there are many instances of great editing in the action scenes of Hard Boiled, the opening "teahouse" shootout being only one of several examples, there're also plenty of instances in non-action scenes. One scene which involves the shooting of a gun, but not at a person, stands out here. Chow and Leung are trapped in a corridor between the hospital morgue and the secret weapons stash of smuggler Wong. In an attempt to open the door, Chow empties the gunpowder from several cartridges into the screwhole of some lead piping on the wall, inserts a further bullet into the hole itself, then steps to the other side of the room. In Chow's performance, he first aims slowly and carefully at the tiny target, then, apparently flustered, looks away, relaxes his arm, and exhales. Then, suddenly, in one fluid motion, he aims again and fires, hitting the screw-holed bullet and exploding the pipe. Here, Woo's editing amplifies Chow's acting. As Chow aims initially, we see several CUs on Chow, intercut with a slowish CU zoom onto the bullet, and a reverse of Chow aiming with his gun in focus (and his face out) as he aims, but begins to shake. Then a two shot (Chow and Leung) and a close up of Chow's hand as he relaxes. The moment Chow decides to fire, however, is elaborated upon with a CU of his head turn, a second angle of his head turn +raising of gun to fire, a third angle of raising of gun, a swift zoom onto the target, a fourth angle on the head turn / raising of gun / gun firing, and finally the resultant explosion. The point here is just that the shape of Chow's performance (his initial hesitance, followed by determination) is mirrored in the flow of the scene's editing, creating an overall experience which is more than the sum of the parts.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

BEEM, 6th place: Schramm

[Best Editing in an Exploitation Movie Award]

"Today I am dirty, but tomorrow I'll be just dirt"

German auteur Jörge Buttgereit abandoned low-budget filmmaking after his fourth feature, Schramm, 1993. He burst onto the underground gore scene in 1987 with his classic ode to necrophilia, Nekromantik, following it with a sequel and the unique Der Todesking. His films are distinctively "gore" (or, even, "experimental") rather than "horror"; Buttgereit disdains the cliched strategies for building tension with music and editing which have become standards in "horror" since Psycho for a truly "'romantic" approach featuring ponderous, emotive musical themes and voyeuristic, non-judgmental camera work.

Schramm follows the final days of a serial killer ("Schramm") as he drives his taxi, lusts after his prostitute neighbor, kills Jehovah's Witnesses, masturbates, hallucinates, and paints his ceiling. Technically, this is Buttgereit's most advanced work, representing the culmination of years of experience in no-budget cinema. The camera-work is extremely inventive, employing custom built rigs to achieve unique spinning and rotating shots. The timeline of the story is labyrinthian, beginning with the moment just after Schramm's death and bouncing back and forth chaotically around the same sequence of events, each time portraying them in a new order and aspect. Slow motion, (apparently) archival footage, and sparse (but graphic) effects are used to great advantage. As a story, there's barely anything to Schramm at all. Rather, it is the editing which churns a relatively simple (and repugnant) sequence of events into a meditative swan-song for the humanity of even the lowest and most despicable members of the species.

the trailer for Schramm:

memorable editing moment: Immediately following the title sequence we see a close-up of the floor spattered with white paint. Panning slowly (to thundering synth strings) we see first spatters of blood mixed with the paint, and then the body of Schramm, fallen from his stepladder (while painting). (All this intercut with legs running a marathon in slow motion.) Next spinning and backward images of the body and the fall intercut, the fall (in reverse) of a leg prosthesis. We hear a knocking on the door and cut to the (realtime) image of his neighbor knocking. Next, in rapid succession: Schramm openning the door to the Jehovah's witnesses (hours earlier), Schramm openning the door to his neighbor (days earlier), pan over Schramm's realtime corpse with knocking, Schramm painting (minutes earlier), doorbell and openning the door to the Jehoavah's Witnesses (hours earlier, but this time we continue to follow their interactions with Schramm). The dizzying array of temporal permutations continues for the rest of the film (albeit at a somewhat slower pace), building a tapestry of meaning around the "senseless" violence of Schramm's acts.

BEEM award (intro)

The BEEM ("Best Editing in an Exploitation Movie") award is designed to recognize the great editing brought to bear in presenting unabashed explosions, titties, martial arts, and gore on the silver screen (or, more commonly, the cathode-ray tube). In order to adequately represent the various countries and genres, we will count down the top 6 best edited exploitation movies to date.

6. Schramm
5. Hard Boiled
4. Peking Opera Blues
3. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
2. DOA (Dead Or Alive)
1. Cannibal Holocaust

Monday, September 24, 2007

prospects for a local solution

One proposal for solving the liberal dilemma is a local solution: acknowledging that it is impossible to ground a liberal government without previously adopting a value system, one instead takes the intersection of all local value systems and uses this "core" for the foundations. The result is a kind of bounded liberalism: any value system is permitted so long as it conforms to the minimal set of values in the "core". Two remarks: 1) the local solution is the approach which in practice guides most purportedly liberal societies in the modern world; 2) even a supposedly general liberal theory must prohibit some value systems (in particular, those which involve a systematic infringment on the practice of alternate value systems). Nevertheless, there are some nagging problems to the local solution which render it unsatisfactory as a foundation for liberalism.

Theoretically Determined "Core" ~ Denial of Pluralism?
If one attempts to find the intersection of local value systems through purely theoretical means (armchair political philosophy), one runs into the danger of simply imposing one's own value system. Arguably, this is the fundamental flaw in Rawls' project. John Rawls attempted to justify a liberal society using a notion of overlapping consensus to play the role of "core" mentioned above. Unfortunately, all Rawls' attempts to analyze the content of this core amount to him simply stating his own value system (as in the argument from the original position), or are simply circular (circularity being such a problem for Rawls he attempted to defend it with the notion of reflective equilibrium). Once one relativizes the liberal project to local mores, one cannot stay true to the liberal spirit by purporting to determine these local mores without empirical confirmation.

Empirically Determined "Core" ~ Mob Rule?
The only way democracy succeeds in warding off accusations of "mob rule" is by appealing to some foundational guarantee. Yes, the majority does impose it's will on the minority, but the Bill of Rights (or Magna Carta, or whatever) guarantees that this imposition will not extend to the prevention of the minority from pursuing its own value systems. Thus, democracy is only a liberal form of government if the scope of democratic choice is restricted in such a way as to protect the plurality of value systems. Yet, if the intersection of value systems which grounds the liberal society is to be determined empirically (i.e. by vote), this initial democratic act will lie outside the protections of an established society. In other words, if the "core" is not large enough to provide the appropriate basis for a government, one will be tempted to include value judgments which are held by the majority (though not with unanimity). Such a move would indeed amount to mob rule and ground a supposedly liberal society on an act of persecution. Of course, if there is enough consensus within a community, this will not be a problem. This explains why the local solution is more suited to the City-States of ancient times than to sprawling, modern "liberal" societies such as the U.S. or the E.U.

Can an Empirically Determined "Core" be Stable?
Suppose one's "core" values exhibit enough overlap to establish a liberal society. These have been determined by an initial empirical test, and have now been used to set a government in motion. Since, however, we have acknowledged that these were not absolute values, but merely the values of a particular society at a particular place and time, how do we know these values won't change over time? Does this society run the risk of oppressing itself in the future? What about immigrants and future generations ~ what is their status if they do not share the values in the justificatory "core"? One strategy for combatting this worry is that of constant ratification. The foundational documents (e.g. constitution) must be re-ratified at regular intervals. Such a procedure would ensure that at any given time the "core" value system appropriately represents the intersection of individual value systems in the society (and some Libertarians have argued for such a procedure for just this reason); nevertheless, it should be obvious that this approach is too impractical (and dangerous!) to actually implement.

However, supposing even that the local value systems remain stable, there is still a profound difficulty for this approach: the momentum of government ensures that the government will eventually encroach on aspects of life outside those dictated by the "core," and thus infringe on the value systems of the citizens. Of course, this reality of government behavior is a problem for any liberal society. One wonders, however, whether a solution to the liberal dilemma which purports to be absolute rather than contingent (as the local solution is) might have a better chance of preventing this growth of government. A society which acknowledges its government is founded merely upon contingent values is in danger of believing its changing value systems to be the cause of government change, when in fact it has misconstrued the order of causality. This is precisely what has occurred in the US: many citizens perceive the government as evolving in conformity to their demands, when actually the government has evolved in a predictable and predetermined manner, and it is the expectations of the citizens which have evolved in conformity to it.

Even as a practical measure, then, the local solution is far from satisfactory; nevertheless, it is thus far the best approach on offer.

sea and sky

. . . . and who are we to determine where the one shall cease and the other begin?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

(III) kabbalah as psychological theory

There are at least two senses in which we can interpret the kabbalah as a psychological theory. On the one hand, kabbalistic practice could delve into the innate structure of the human understanding of the world; on the other, it could harness the cognitive power of signs which have been imbued with meaning by human culture.

1) Kabbalah as Innate Structure ~ One way to interpret the Tree of Life is as a map of the different parameters along which interior life can vary. Compare, for example, with the Myers-Briggs personality test. Myers-Briggs uses four parameters with which to measure personality types. Each parameter is defined by its extremes, for example "thinking vs. feeling," or "extraverted vs. introverted," and the test determines where on the continuum between these extremes the subject falls. Now, each Sephirah on the Tree of Life is associated with a distinct set of emotions and types of behavior: Geburah with judgment / anger, Hesed with fatherly love, Binah with motherly love, Netsah with endurance, Tif'eret with beauty / compassion, etc. These emotions / drives exist innately in every human being and kabbalistic practice allows the kabbalist to "get in touch with" these aspects of his inner life.

Of course, personality isn't exactly right as a gloss on what aspect of innate human structure the kabbalah analyzes, but perhaps the Sephiroth can be thought of as more like aspects of innate human spirituality. Those feelings within us which get triggered in church or through meditation, those passions which transcend rationality and drive us to commit selfless acts or even the most vile depravities, that part of the human mind which seeks out the supernatural, not for its plausibility, but for its possibility. The hypothesis here is that the kabbalah offers a map to one facet of innate human structure, that associated with a particular type of experience and attitude toward the world. This hypothesis is consonant with one interpretation we gave of traditional kabbalistic practice, namely as a form of meditation for discovering the aspects of the divine within oneself. The efficacy, then, of kabbalah (such as it is) could be attributed to the accuracy of this map in describing the innate spiritual tendencies latent in every human being.

2) Kabbalah as Semiotic Technique ~ The more popular account, and the one more consonant with modern, "chaotic" magickal practice, is that of kabbalah as a system for organizing signs by their significance, a semiotic toolbox, as it were. The idea is something like this: signs are powerful, they can have a profound effect on us (think of the swastika, the cross, the US flag, etc.). Each Sephiroth has a cluster of signs associated with it, these clusters being defined by some common effect or purpose. When the magickal adept "travels" to a Sephirah or the traditional kabbalist meditates upon one, all the associated signs combine in their effects to create a particular mood / emotion / state of mind far more profound than any of the signs in isolation. This rather Jungian interpretation implies that the kabbalah is contingent and a posteriori, it is a classification and organization of the by-products of human culture.

Even the semiotic interpretation of kabbalah depends on some theory of innate psychological structure. It is in virtue of this innate structure that signs effect us in the first place, and that the techniques employed by kabbalists are efficacious. The kabbalist uses his own innate susceptibility to the power of signs to rewire, as it were, his own emotional structure. By visiting a particular Sephirah (an act effected by meditation on the appropriate symbols), the kabbalist stimulates the emotional state / world view associated with that Sephirah. After the ritual, the kabbalist is a different person, in the sense that certain aspects of his worldview have been altered. Furthermore, if the reports of magickal adepts can be trusted (and insofar as they represent a subjective diary of inner states (rather than an objective account of changes in the world), let us suppose they can), the change in the kabbalist's personality can be of a variety of types. Visiting a Sephirah is not an unambiguously positive experience. While it will change the adept's attitudes and emotional structure, it will not necessarily do so in favor of the emotions and perspectives associated with that Sephirah. Basically, the adept, by performing the appropriate ritual, puts himself in a highly receptive state; in virtue of meditating upon the set of signs associated with a Sephirah, he perceives himself as present in an actual location, sometimes even conversing with entities, associated with that Sephirah. In this hightened state, however, the adept can have any number of experiences, often violently negative, and it is the nature of these experiences which will determine how the adept's psychological makeup is rearranged after the experience is concluded.

Obviously, once the kabbalist moves in his expectations past mere personal development to the alteration of the external world, he must likewise move past the psychological interpretation to some metaphysical interpretation of kabbalah. Nevertheless, it is surprising just how much of kabbalistic practice can be accomodated by a purely psychological theory, and how much of kabbalistic literature retains its interest and force in light of this naturalistic interpretation.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

le mort joyeux II

(II) kabbalah as practice

There are a variety of different ritualistic practices associated with the kabbalah. All of these interact with the kabbalah's metaphysical structure to some degree, though often these rituals are also consonant with the interpretation of kabbalah as psychological theory. The variation in kabbalistic practices is broad, including at least, but not exclusively:

1. "Traditional" Kabbalistic Practice ~ As depicted in the Zohar, kabbalistic practice involves close textual analysis of the Torah. Each letter is important and a number of arcane techniques are permitted in this analysis. For example, because Hebrew script does not notate vowels, the same word can be read in a variety of ways. Connections between words in different parts of the Torah are imbued with meaning. Complex techniques utilizing the correspondence between Hebrew letters and numbers are employed (i.e. Gematria). Although the purported purpose of this practice was to reveal the different manifestations of God (the Sephiroth) as concealed in the holy text of the Torah, scholars (e.g. Scholem) have speculated it also served a meditative function. By focusing all their thought on increasingly involved and arcane readings of a passage, kabbalists whipped themselves into a mystical frenzy or trance. Under this interpretation, these traditional practices are ambiguous between the metaphysical and psychological interpretations of kabbalah. Is the trance of textual analysis a contact with the external divine? ~ or is it a delving into those aspects of the divine which can be discovered within?

2. Magickal "Qabbalistic" Practice ~ Western magick utilizes a series of rituals to effect journeys to the various "spheres" or Sephirah on the Tree of Life. Each sphere signifies a different grade in the acolyte's magickal progress. Traversal of the spheres can be a long and laborious journey; Crowley, for example, began his magickal work as a neophyte in 1898, but only achieved the rank of "magus" with his visit to Chokhmah in 1915. The ritual associated with a particular sphere involves the use of the substances and imagery which correspond to that sphere. Thus, as Hesed corresponds to the element of fire and the color white, the ritual associated with it may require that the acolyte dresses in white and keeps fires burning in braziers. The image associated with Hesed is of a crowned and enthroned king, and the acolyte may be required to fix his mind upon this image while performing the ritual. Chanting, complex movements, and (occasionally) psychedelic drugs are employed to induce a mystical frenzy of hallucinations in the acolyte. Magickal kabbalah also involves a "practical" aspect, i.e. it can ostensibly be used to effect changes in the world. In this case, the adept invokes the sphere which corresponds appropriately with the type of change he desires to effect. Thus, if the adept wishes retribution and judgment to fall upon a business partner who has cheated him (say, to pick an occurrance which seems unusually frequent in the annals of Western magick), he may invoke Geburah, which corresponds to judgment. Even in the literature on "practical" kabbalah, however, there is a deep ambiguity. The rituals which ostensibly effect change in the world can often be interpreted instead as effecting change in the adept himself. Thus, even magickal kabbalistic practices can be consonant with the psychological interpretation of the kabbalah.

3. "Hollywood" Kabbalah ~ The recent popularity of kabbalah in Hollywood has little to do with either of the above traditions and a lot to do with traditional cult conversion techniques (c.f., for example, this personal testimony). Yossi Klein Halevi says it better than I could:
The [Kabbalah] Centre is hardly the first California-based faith to combine self-help techniques, a smattering of postmodern physics, and Star Wars spirituality (the "emperor of evil" versus the "light force"). But, unlike, say, Scientology, the Centre has co-opted one of the world's great mystical traditions. It draws on just enough authentic Kabbalah to make the deception credible to the credulous. Concepts like the evil eye and blessed water do exist in Jewish mysticism, but they are Kabbalah's least spiritual and intellectual elements. And that's precisely why the Centre is promoting them as Kabbalah's essence. In fact, the Centre doesn't merely trivialize Kabbalah; it inverts its intention. In traditional Kabbalistic meditation on the names of G-d, the goal is to transcend the separated self and experience oneness. "It's about annihilating the ego, not reinforcing it," notes Pinchas Giller, professor of Kabbalah at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

Suffice to say, the Kabbalah Centre supports the discredited first century AD theory of Zohar authorship, attributes Platonic philosophy and Newtonian optics to kabbalistic study, and claims that AIDs is caused by nuclear waste. Furthermore, the Kabbalah Centre teaches that mere possession of its ($415) Zohar brings spiritual and material benefit:

The Zohar is not merely paper and ink. It’s the truth, and as such is alive with divine energy and is the ultimate instrument for generating miracles. An amazing number of people have reported them just from housing a copy of it in their home. By simply possessing the books, power, protection, and fulfillment came into their lives. You may find that hard to believe, but that’s before you owned a set.

Interestingly, the Kabbalah Centre's store does not direct one to the new critical translation of the Zohar currently being undertaken by Daniel Matt (perhaps versions published by other organizations lack the divine power of the Kabbalah Centre's edition . . . ?).

(1) and (2) are both complex and difficult practices, involving years of study, asceticism, and hard work. Whether any benefit can actually be achieved from these endeavors depends upon one's expectations. Certainly the Spanish kabbalists of the 13th century derived spritual fulfilment from their rituals, but it is doubtful that they achieved either the material success or physical immortality promised to practitioners of (3). Furthermore, although (2) and (3) involve progression through stages of spritual development, these are measured by onerous tasks in (2), but monetary contribution in (3). Only (3) claims any benefit from mere monetary outlay (such as simple purchase of the Zohar), and as such may be discredited as a serious interpretation of kabbalistic practice.

Monday, September 17, 2007

dreams in which . . .

. . . inanimate objects talk to one, urging one into nefarious exploits, are unsettling in the extreme.

(I) kabbalah as metaphysics

The kabbalah involves the study of a system called The Tree of Life or the ten Sephiroth. Each Sephirah involves a group of associated concepts. For instance, Geburah is associated with Isaac, "power," "judgment," the color red, the planet Mars, the concept of height, etc.; while Hesed is associated with Abraham, (fatherly) "love," "grace," the color white, the planet Jupiter, the element of fire, etc. The Tree of Life is an arrangement of the ten Sephiroth as the vertices of a graph. The 22 edges of this graph represent "paths" between the Sephiroth; these paths also participate in a series of correspondences, for example with the 22 Major Arcana of the tarot.

There are a variety of different interpretations of The Tree of Life as a metaphysical system. For example, the ten Sephiroth can be interpreted as stages of creation, from Kether, the divine singularity of God, to Malkhut the mundane work-a-day world of human experience. Instead of interpreting the Sephiroth as temporally distinct, however, we might alternately interpret them as materially distinct. Under this analysis, each Sephiroth represents a distinct "level of reality" or "plane of existence." Again, Malkhut corresponds to the work-a-day world of ordinary appearance (prison of the uninitiated), while Kether represents the transcendent level of the Godhead, where all is one.

A third, more deeply theological interpretation is also possible. Traditionally, the Sephiroth were taken to represent different aspects of the Divine. For example, Geburah would represent the judgmental, retributive aspect of God, while Hesed would represent his fatherly love.

As a metaphysical system, the kabbalah leaves little to recommend it. The original draw of kabbalistic thought for Western occultists was its supposed origin in antiquity. Until quite recently, the kabbalah was taken as an ancient Jewish system, dating back to the first and second centuries AD. The most important early kabbalistic work, however, the Zohar was written in the late 13th century AD, after Maimonides' attempt at Aristotelianizing the Jewish faith. The Zohar's mysticism can be seen more as an attempt to reinforce the distinctiveness of Jewish culture in the face of widespread persecution and assimilation than as a legitimate recovery of ancient practices. This, at least, is the view popularized by Gershom Scholem.

(intro) kabbalah

The kabbalah has three fundamental interpretations or aspects.

I. the kabbalah as metaphysics.
II. the kabbalah as practice.
II. the kabbalah as psychological theory.

In order to understand the kabbalistic literature, one must consider all three. Nevertheless, it is commensurate with this literature to hold only one (or any combination) as the correct interpretation.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

9 / 11

One event at the start of the third millenium anno domini changed the face of US foreign policy, US domestic policy, and, correspondingly, the security policies of most of the world. Travel by air has always exposed one to insult and humiliation by the airlines, but now the government itself has stepped in to ensure that every single traveller is treated with the same respect and decency as a common criminal. The "privilege" of habeas corpus has been suspended, a measure only licensed by the Constitution "in cases of rebellion or invasion." Yet questions still remain about the exact nature of the events that transpired that day and where exactly they fit in the historical map of US foreign and domestic policy. Even if a fully comprehensize answer to these questions is impossible, some kind of stopgap account is needed, and those presently available are far from adequate.

Questions about the events of 9/11 are often framed in terms of "official story" versus "conspiracy theories." Yet this dichotomy is spurious. For one thing, unlike in the cases of the JFK assassination, Pearl Harbor, and most other events which have inspired "conspiracy theories," the "official story" here also involves a theory about a conspiracy. Thus, the choice is quite literally between rival conspiracy theories (I have yet to see a non-conspiracy explanation for these events). Furthermore, it is a mistake to think there is a single, uniform "official story." The only unifying feature of advocates of the supposed "official story" is a kneejerk rejection of any criticism of the behavior of the US government or its officials concerning the events of Sept. 11. The 9/11 Commission Report does not provide an "official story" along these lines for a variety of reasons. First, it is far from complete, failing to address many issues potentially relevant to the events of Sept. 11, 2001 (e.g. the collapse of Building 7). Second, it is actually quite critical of various government agencies as dramatized in The Path to 9/11. Third, the findings of the commission on certain key issues, in particular the scientific explanation for the collapse of the Twin Towers, are no longer a part of the consensus view. Strangely, the abandonment of the "pancake theory" in favor of the (slightly) more sophisticated NIST account vidicates early "conspiracy theorist" criticisms of both the theory itself, and the willingness to accept such an absurd theory on the part of the investigative committee.

However, it is not only the "official story" which has been unjustly treated as a well-defined and comprehensive account, the "conspiracy theories" as well are far from homogenous. "Conspiracy theories" can differ dramatically in both the nature of their accusations and the extent to which these diverge from the "official" consensus. Here's a sampling of the widely divergent nature of the accusations and sources:

Gross incompetence was demonstrated by the government in the years and months leading up to Sept. 11, 2001. In particular, adequate information on both the danger of bin Laden / al Qaeda and the specifics of the attack was available to the FBI and CIA, yet administrative red tape and cowardice prevented them from acting.
~ The Path to 9/11

Gross incompetence or criminally poor judgment was demonstrated by the government in planning a domestic defense exercise which would leave our nation's skies uncharacteristically unguarded on Sept. 11, 2001.
~ The 9/11 Commission Report

The government knowingly and with malicious forethought not only permitted the hijackings but furthermore assisted them and manipulated the events of Sept. 11, 2001 for maximum shock value on the American people.
~ Loose Change, Painful Questions, etc.

Either gross incompetence of deliberate malice has been demonstrated by the government in the events since Sept. 11, 2001 as it has fabricated an organization (al Qaeda) which actually has no substantive existence outside government imagination / delusion.
~ The Power of Nightmares

Deliberate malice and blatant opportunism has been demonstrated by the government in its behavior since Sept. 11, 2001. In particular, it willing failed to pursue bin Laden with maximum prejudice and instead merely juggled information until it could drum up enough public support for a war in Iraq.
~ Fahrenheit 9/11

This is only a rough sampling of the variety of accusations and theories out there. Rather than focus upon where exactly in this continuum of possible positions to demarcate the "official story," the crackpot "conspiracy theories," or the legitimate criticisms, I think there are pragmatic questions which can be answered without fomenting sectarian rivalries.

1. For domestic policy: Were there security measures in place before Sept. 11, 2001 which, if implemented correctly, would most likely have prevented the attacks from succeeding? This question is abosolutely crucial. The gross disruption of liberties, the denial of habeas corpus, the legalization of warrantless government spying, etc. which have been perpetrated upon the American people over the last 6 years depend for their justification on the thesis that the 2001 attacks succeeded because sufficient preventative measures were not in place. If it turns out that sufficient measures were in place, they were merely were not implemented as designed, then our focus should not be on giving government more power, but on reforming the existing government power structures to remove the threat of incompetence. I believe the evidence (including that of the "official" Commission Report) points overwhelmingly to an affirmative answer to this question; however, there is no consensus.

2. For foreign policy: Was interventionist US foreign policy in the decades before 2001 a major causal factor in the attacks of Sept. 11? If the answer to this question is "yes," then the US should reconsider its strategy for preventing future terror attacks with an aggressively interventionist foreign policy. The answer to this question most certainly is "yes," with the consensus overwhelming. In fact, so far as I know, the only group in the world which wouldn't answer in the affirmative here is the Republican presidential hopefuls. Nevertheless, I repeat, there is widespread consensus on this point, yet our foreign policy proceeds along interventionist lines without the subtle and convincing arguments needed to justify this strategy in a post-9/11 world.

3. For the peace of mind of the American people, for the dignity of the US in the eyes of the world, and to provide a consensus on the answer to (1): Is there sufficient cause to initiate a new independent investigation into the events of Sept. 11, 2001? Here, again, I believe the answer to be "yes." The fact that we have no consensus answer to (1), the single most important question for the daily lives of the American people, is reason enough for a new independent investigation.

I do not expect to ever discover the "truth" of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Furthermore, such a goal is unnecessarily ambitious. Nevertheless, pragmatic considerations alone prove our current understanding of these events inadequate. The only responsible behavior for the US government is to a) initiate an independent investigation which will deliver a definitive answer (at least) to (1); b) heed the consensus position on (2) and, at the very least, offer the American people a more robust and nuanced justification for its current foreign policy choices (ie one sensitive to the role of an interventionist foreign policy in instigating the 2001 attack).

Sunday, September 9, 2007

informationless age

We must make a sharp distinction between data and evidence. Data are measurements, details, numbers ~ data simpliciter say nothing about any theory, any story about how and why these details and numbers fit together. Only evidence can support or refute a theory, and the process of turning data into evidence is neither trivial nor even congenial to any general systematization. At the very least, this process incorporates a vast array of background beliefs and expectations which, themselves, are immune to evidential support.

The "information age" is an age of increased data, not facts or evidence. The never-ending stream of "factoids" which the internet presents to us cannot hold the full-fledged status of "facts," as for every factoid that A, there exists another that not-A, and it is an intrinsic characteristic of facts that they are true. Since, A and not-A cannot both simultaneously be true, they cannot simultaneously be facts, and thus not all factoids are facts. Surely, some factoids are facts, and thus all we need is a theory about which "information sources" can be trusted and which cannot. Here, however, we run into the problem of turning data into evidence. For the trustworthiness of a given "information source" can only be judged against a background of prior beliefs and expectations. Thus, the factoids originating in that source alone give no evidence about its authenticity, they are merely data.

If all the factoids, all the "information," available on the internet is merely data, than the modern e-citizen is faced with the monumental task of turning data into evidence not just for theories about the world, but also for theories about the reliability of data-sources. This second-order uncertainty ensures that any modern e-citizen knows less in this "information age" than ever before ~ for the sheer proliferation of "information sources" via the internet magnifies the conceptual problem of validating said sources past the finite bounds of human ability. Yet faith in certainty ever abounds, and certainty has proved itself the chimera of the modern age.

The wise man says: attestation to knowledge is the hallmark of madmen and fundamentalists.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

parody, paranoia, or prescience?

"You're not very humorous, are you?"
"Not at all. I recently had a dream that capitalism invented terrorism to force the state to protect it better . . . very funny, isn't it?"
[raucous laughter]

~ Die Dritte Generation


A symptom without a disease, a punishment without a crime, an effect without a cause.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

the summer solstice

tall narrow glass, preferably widening near the top
ice-cold vodka
cranberry juice
sparkling water

Place several large ice cubes in glass. Cut 8 - 10 thin slices of cucumber and distribute these on top of the ice cubes. Pour vodka over ice and cucumbers, filling 1/3 - 1/2 of glass (depending on how much it widens near the top). Make sure you use as clear and flavorless a vodka as you can find - this is not a drink to cover up the pungent taste of rotgut - I've been using Smirnoff. Furthermore, using ice-cold vodka ensures the drink mixes itself. Next, pour on a tiny splash of cranberry juice; the red from this should sink to the bottom. Fill remainder of glass with sparkling water (make sure it's not flavored - I've been using Pellegrino). Finally, put a dab of honey on the end of a flat knife and rub gently around the rim of the glass. If all goes well, you'll have a refreshing summer drink. Ideally, the main taste should be of cucumbers, with the water and vodka acting as a mere vehicle for this delicate flavor. Resist the urge to use too much vodka or too much honey. The cranberry juice really only serves to counterbalance the vodka flavor, ideally one shouldn't actually taste it (this is why only a splash is required). Enjoy.