17 September, 2007

Bring On The Crazy!

On Friday, lunatic and demagogue Alan Keyes announced his candidacy for President. Just when you thought Republicans couldn't possibly become any less relevant, something like this happens. Members of the reality-based community (especially comedians!) everywhere are rejoicing...

Marcus Brigstocke rants about religion...

Hilarious! "Can we have our planet back?", "Does my bomb look big in this?"...

It just doesn't get any better...

HT: Effect Measure

13 September, 2007

The Greatest Pianist You Never Heard Of That...Wasn't...

When we hear the word "plagiarism", we generally think of high-school or college students trying to slide by in composition classes. Indeed, the word seems to have a meaning that we by convention restrict to a literary context. It's easy to see how one can copy the writing of another, but what about sound?

The incredible story of Joyce Hatto, retold in this month's New Yorker, shows us how far the definition of that word might be stretched. Over a period of almost twenty years, Hatto and her husband constructed an elaborate deception; piecing together recordings by dozens of artists, labeling them as performances by Joyce, and "releasing" them under a phony label. Over the course of time they convinced music critics and connoisseurs alike that she was a great performer, one of the finest pianists no one had ever heard of. The story is at turns fascinating and appalling and stands as a cautionary tale for us all: something that sounds too good to be true, most likely is...

HT: Alex Ross

Neil Gaiman

Sometime around the spring of last year, I was browsing in Barnes & Noble at the Mall of America in Minneapolis (on a business trip) and happened across an interesting looking book entitled Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Now, I'd never heard of Neil Gaiman, but Terry Pratchett I knew quite well as the author of the hilarious Discworld series (fantasy novels set on a flat planet which moves through space on the back of a giant turtle; rather in the style of Douglas Adams). I almost bought the book at the time, but it was only available in hardback and I didn't feel like carrying it all the way back to North Carolina.

Some months later, I was in the Barnes & Noble here in Greensboro and spotted the book again. Still only in hardback, but what the hell...I bought it. I am so glad that I did.

The book is delightful: it's the end times, when the Antichrist will come forth, gather his armies and initiate Armageddon, the final battle which will destroy the world. Except...well, there are these two guys, one an angel the other a demon, who kind of like the world. They've become addicted to its creature comforts and pleasures and decide to join forces in an attempt to thwart the Creator and put a stop to His plans to end the world. In this they are opposed by the marshalled forces of Heaven AND Hell and aided (often unwittingly) by the last witchhunter and a witch who find themselves thrown together in one of the most unlikely pairings. The book is filled with Pratchett's dry and irreverent humor and Gaiman's prodigious literary erudition and style. So, if you enjoy fantasy, and/or humorous takes on fantasy and religious themes, you will probably find Good Omens a Good Read.

More importantly, this book introduced me to the work of British author Neil Gaiman, who has now become one of my favorite contemporary writers.

Some time after this, again at the Mall of America B&N, I happened across another Gaiman book, this one titled American Gods. This title was available in paperback, so I purchased it and read it during my trip and on the return flight. As with Good Omens, American Gods is an incredible work of fantasy. Part of my enjoyment in reading the book was in trying to figure out exactly what was going on, so I don't want to give too much away, so let's say that the context of Gaiman's book is mythology come to life and the struggle between old and new traditions in the New World. True to the title, most of the characters are gods and the action of the novel swirls around their efforts to survive in a world where belief in them is dwindling. It's an incredible work of depth and erudition (who knew there were so many different deities in the various cultural traditions of immigrants?) paired with humor, a well-paced story line, and wordsmithing that would make Bradbury weep. I can't say enough good things about this book, or Gaiman's other work utilizing the same construct: Anansi Boys. Both are wonderful stories, but even more, wonderful novels.

I've found myself haunting the local Barnes & Noble, sweeping up every Gaiman work on which I can lay my hands: Neverwhere, which was made into a BBC TV series, follows the adventures of a man whose compassionate rescue of a young woman he finds wounded in a dark alley throws him unsuspectingly into a shadow world underneath London and into the middle of a war between good and evil. Stardust, recently released as a movie here in the US, follows a young man's quest to obtain a fallen star for the girl he loves. Unfortunately, the star has fallen into Faerie and on his quest to obtain it, the hero must face madmen, pirates, and witches. Gaiman is also the acclaimed author of Sandman, a series of graphic novels dealing with fantasy themes (I've not read these, but they're on my list!) that have the distinct honor of being the only comic books awarded the World Fantasy Award.

Gaiman is also the author of two collections of short stories, Fragile Things and Smoke and Mirrors. Two of these stories, Snow Glass Apples (a darkly imaginative re-telling of Snow White...from the "wicked" Step-Mother's point of view) and Murder Mysteries (a sort of "film noir" story of the first crime: a murder committed in heaven and investigated by an angel) were dramatized by The Sci-Fi Channel's Seeing Ear Theater and can be heard at the links above.

I could go on and on and these are but a few of Gaiman's oeuvre (you can find complete information at his website). In my opinion, Gaiman is one of the best fantasy writers and storytellers alive today. Although of a very different character, I would say that his work compares favorably with the great literary fantasists Tolkien & Lewis. At the same time, the manner in which he uses the mundane to represent or illuminate the fantastic, the wonderful sense of humor (both light and dark), and his masterful and even poetic grasp of the English language combine to make his work both unique and completely enjoyable.

Technology Mantra: it makes our lives easier, it makes our lives...

I have to keep repeating this to myself for the next several hours while the technicians at my place of business work on my laptop. It's been experiencing problems and rather than wait until it finally gives up the ghost, they've decided to replace it. (Un)Fortunately, I've been through this process before and I have some idea of what to expect:

1) Right now, they're copying all of my personal settings so that later when they don't show up on my new laptop, they can claim that they did copy them, so they must be there. When I demonstrate that they are not, they'll claim that it must be a "glitch" in the copying mechanism. Sorry.

2) They told me that the replicating process will take "ten minutes". In IT tech-speak this apparently means "however long it takes" which will be anywhere between 10 minutes and 10 hours.

3) When I was notified that I would need a new machine, I was given an inventory of all of the installed software and asked to verify the list and add any applications that were missing. Ostensibly this is to ensure that any "specialty" software I require for my job will be installed on the new machine. In reality, it apparently serves no purpose as I'll have to re-install all of the non-standard software I use by myself in the days following receipt of my new laptop.
Since I've been through this process before, I spent most of the morning making my own copies of personal files and settings as well as trying to track down installation copies of the non-standard software I use. Perhaps I'll be surprised by an unusual bout of IT efficiency, but I'm going to be prepared for the worst.

07 September, 2007

Ethical Issues in the Abortion Debate (part I)

Pro-Choice? Pro-Life? Anti-Choice? Anti-Life? The semantics of the abortion debate are well known to any moderately informed citizen. So are the tactics; both sides accuse the other of various offenses, both moral and rational. But what never seems to really happen, at least in the general public conversation, is the rational and dispassionate discussion of the overall coherency of any given position. Can either position be defended without recourse to emotion or rhetoric?

I consider myself pro-life AND pro-choice. Pro-life because I believe that every human being is valuable as an end in itself and that our laws should be written to offer protection to individuals against harm. Pro-choice because I do not believe that a clump of cells is the moral equivalent of a human being worthy of such protection. On my view, abortion should be legally available until the point at which the developing fetus acquires those characteristics that enable the formation of moral agency, the foundation of rights and morality. Specifically, that's the brain and scientifically, it begins to develop sometime around the 10th or 11th week of pregnancy and that's where I would place the limit for abortion-on-demand. I would still support legal abortions after that point, but only in cases of rape or where the life or health of the mother was at risk.

I haven't explained the foundations of my reasoning, but some of it should be self-evident. Very briefly, any being with the self-awareness and cognitive ability to conceive of "rights" and recognize that such pertain to itself is deserving of being accorded such rights. What rights exist to be recognized will depend upon the nature of the being conceiving them. I don't want to digress too deeply on this point (as a proper defense of my theory of rights would take pages), but suffice to say here that so-called "human" rights aren't necessarily constrained to the beings we label "humans", but are constrained to beings with the same relevant essential property as humans, namely moral agency: the ability to conceive of and act in accordance with a system of values. We know that humans are moral agents and therefore have certain rights, including the right of self-determination (which subsumes a right to life). Again, I'm not going to digress into an explanation of why human rights include self-determination. Grant me this point ad argumentum for the moment.

So when does the fetus become a human being worthy of the protection of law? Well, as I've noted already the brain is the seat of consciousness and reasoning. Both are required for the existence of moral agency, so the fetus cannot be a human being until such time as it develops a brain. We cannot state for certain the point at which a brain becomes capable of generating consciousness, so I would place the limit at the point at which the development of the brain exhibits sufficient complexity for ANY processing. Again, as I noted that's about the 10th or 11th week. And that's where I would place the limit on abortion on demand.

Against this view, a couple of objections might be raised:

1) Human beings have "intrinsic" value which is not delineated by any point in fetal development (i.e., "human life begins at conception"). Well, I object to the fundamental premise of this objection as I believe that "values" are relational rather than merely existential. Objects possess value by virtue of their relationship to a subject in a particular context. Thus every value requires a valuer. The idea of "intrinsic value" seems to me incoherent for it would require the existence of value without valuers; that we could speak coherently of objects having value even though there were no one around to value them (would gold be valuable even if no one wanted it?). In the case of human beings, the valued object and the valuer are one and the same (the object, an individual's life, being valued by the subject, the individual). And as moral agency is required for the conception of value, this delineation for which I've argued seems to hold. Therefore, I don't find this objection coherent or successful.

2) While the 11-week-old fetus certainly possesses a rudimentary brain, it's nowhere near capable of actually generating consciousness. In fact, studies have shown that self-awareness and abstract thought don't really develop until AFTER birth. Given this, what would be wrong with killing infants themselves as they are not yet moral agents? This is a more serious objection. The philosopher Peter Singer has actually argued that the killing of severely retarded or deformed infants is morally defensible using very similar logic. As an animal rights proponent, Singer was intending to show a logical consequence of basing the human right to life on moral agency, rather than any other feature (Singer would use the ability to experience pain). My response to this is twofold: first, to note that I'm applying my argument at the class rather than individual level. Human beings as a class exhibit moral agency. Human beings as a class have a particular fetal development pattern and the delineation I propose is based on that class characteristic, not that of any particular indivdual. It is irrelevant, therefore as to whether any individual or group of individuals within the class exhibit moral agency. This line of argumentation could also be applied to non-human animals were they to exhibit the relevant levels of sentience.

Second, I would argue that a bright-line delineation is in any case impossible to determine. Most reasonable people would agree that an embryo or zygote are not the moral equivalent of a human person, but most reasonable people would also agree that an infant is. I propose to use brain development as a reasonable point of delineation due to its necessary relationship with moral agency.

I realize that these are not entirely satisfactory defenses against this objection. As I noted, it is a serious one. I believe however that it is more in line with our moral intuitions than arguing that it is acceptable to kill infants. IOW, we seem to have at least some level of a priori reason to believe that it is wrong to kill infants and we should treat with some degree of skepticism any argument to the contrary. Still, I concede that more thought is needed on this point.

Back to my rationale: I noted that I would allow "exceptions" in cases of rape or where the life or health of the mother were to be endangered. My reasoning here is as follows:

As every human being has the right of self-determination, we are all also endowed with the right to protect our own lives. A pregnant woman has this right to no less extent than a non-pregnant one and in cases where her own life or health are threatened, has the right to take steps to protect herself.

As with life and health, so also with rape. A woman who has become pregnant as the result of a rape did not consent to be pregnant. As she has the right of self-determination, she has the right to take steps to divest herself of the unwanted, unconsented pregnancy.

Against these views, some objections might be raised:

1) The fetus is an innocent and killing it cannot be justified. The killing of an innocent is certainly regrettable, but the justification of such killings is not impossible. Consider a hypothetical situation: a mad scientist has placed a man under mind control and is directing him to threaten you and your family. The man is completely unaware of and did not consent to his threatening behavior and thus is innocent of any wrongdoing, but he is no less a threat for his innocence. If the only possible means for you to protect yourself and/or your family is to take his life, you are justified in doing so as your right to self-preservation in the face of unwarranted violence overrides the innocent's right to life.

2) Killing the fetus cannot be justified to preserve the mother's health. This objection presumes that killing to protect one's life may be justified, but killing to preserve one's health is not. It's often accompanied by the suggestion that pregnancy is an "inconvenience" at best and killing the fetus is a "selfish" and unjustified act. Of course, pregnancy can be inconvenient. It can also have serious health consequences, some of which are life-altering.

Another hypothetical often offered in response to these types of objections is the so-called "famous violinist" scenario. Imagine that you awake one morning to find that you have been the victim of an egregious personal violation. While you were unconscious, a famous and gifted violinist has been "grafted" onto your body in such a way that all of his bodily functions are being performed by your body. In other words, his own heart, lungs, circulatory, and digestive systems have been removed and he now relies upon yours. The parasitic nature of the relationship is health (both physical and emotional) threatening to you, but it will be impossible to separate yourself from him without killing him. Are you justified in doing so? Most people would agree that continued hosting of the violinist is superogatory; that we have no duty to become slaves to another and thus that while the violinist' death is regrettable, it is ethically acceptable to have him removed.

3) Okay, I'll give you rape, but a woman who had consensual sex has by her actions consented to undertake the risk of getting pregnant (no birth control method is 100% successful) and thus the risks inherent in being pregnant. Like Singer's argument on the killing of infants, this is a more serious objection. Until very recently, I found it rather persuasive, but I am now convinced that it is not. My reasoning hinges upon what we mean by "consent" and how we actually assign moral responsibility.

But this post is long enough already. I'll delay the answer to that objection for my second post on this topic where I want to look at some ethical "dilemmas" and issues that both sides need to consider carefully in evaluating their positions on abortion.

06 September, 2007

Luciano Pavarotti, 1935 - 2007

Famed Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti succumbed to pancreatic cancer earlier today. He was 71 years old.

I have numerous recordings of operas with Pavarotti, but even though he began his career singing the bel canto repertoire (Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti), and doing it beautifully (his rendition of "una furtiva lagrima" from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore is superb), I think my favorites have to be his Puccini protagonists: Rodolfo in La Boheme, CalĂ f in Turandot, and Cavaradossi in Tosca. Those performances (from the late '80s, I believe) have to be some of the best work he ever did in roles that suited his mature voice perfectly.

The Youtube clip below is from a 1998 performance in Paris and even though the voice is beginning to show some signs of age, it's still a great performance of "Nessun dorma" from Puccini's Turandot.

Several of the music blogs I read have additional comments and stories to share:

Sequenza21 has a YouTube video of an earlier performance (maybe from the 70's?) in duet with Soprano Joan Sutherland (an early Pavarotti supporter) singing "Veranno a te sull'aure" from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. Quite stunning, and if you've not heard the early Pavarotti, a real contrast with his singing in the 80s and 90's

Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Notes has links to a couple more videos as well as some personal recollections from a public radio personality.

Alex Ross has some personal notes as well as some more YouTube links, including one from a 1979 performance of La Boheme ("Che gelida manina" of course).

Pavarotti officially retired several years ago because of the progression of the cancer that eventually killed him, but for some time before that he had begun to limit his performances somewhat. The strain of decades of singing was beginning to take its toll. At the peak of his career, he was one of the giants of the operatic world. His work will be celebrated along with the other great tenors of history (Lanza, Caruso, Bergonzi, Corelli, Gedda, Bjoerling, di Stefano, etc) for years to come.

Arrivederci, Luciano. Grazie per la musica!

D. James Kennedy dies

D. James Kennedy, founder and pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian church, co-founder of the so-called "Moral Majority", Christian dominionist, unscrupulous panderer of "Christian Nation" revisionist history, deceitful anti-family and anti-science activist, died yesterday of complications resulting from a heart attack he suffered last December. To the family who no doubt loved him and will miss him I send my sympathies. For the rest of us, we can only hope that the evil causes he championed with his demagoguery and lies will wither and fail without his support.