Thursday, December 27, 2007

Benazir Bhutto Assassinated

Shocking news this morning: Benazir Bhutto was assassinated only hours ago during a political rally in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Around 15-20 others are reported dead. The NYT story is here (Bhutto Assassinated in Attack on Rally, NYT, 28 December 2007). My usual portal into the Pakistani blogosphere, Chapati Mystery, already had the the story up when I got there. According to the Times account, although the exact details remain to be confirmed, she was apparently struck by gunfire, and then by shrapnel from a subsequent explosion detonated by a suicide bomber. She was taken to a hospital in Rawalpindi, where attempts were made to revive her, but she was declared dead at 6:16 p.m. local time.

I don't want to go on at length about this, since the story will be well covered elsewhere, but for anyone who doesn't know already, Bhutto was a former Prime Minister of Pakistan (1988-1990, 1993-1996), twice dismissed from her office for alleged corruption. She went into a self-imposed exile in 1998, from which she returned this past October, under an agreement with Pervez Musharraf withdrawing all charges against her. Her return, as a leading opposition candidate in the upcoming 2008 Parliamentary elections, was greeted by an immediate assassination attempt by suicide bombing, which left over a hundred dead in Karachi. She was briefly placed under house arrest during the state of emergency declared by Musharraf in November. For a quick bio, see e.g., Wikipedia's entry for Benazir Bhutto (being continuously updated).

What can I say? I don't know enough about Pakistani history and politics to have a legitimate opinion on the merits of Bhutto's career, views, or candidacy; but regardless of one's political persuasion, no one who believes in making collective decisions through peaceful, lawful, democratic procedures can avoid feeling pain and disgust when a life is cut short to silence dialog and subvert the process. My only comment for now is on the following sentence from the Times story, regarding the attack that took place last October in Karachi: "The government has maintained that she ignored their warnings against such public gatherings and that holding them placed herself and her followers in unnecessary danger." Indeed. How can democracy ever proceed under circumstances that preclude public gatherings, whether prevented by dictatorial fiat or fear of assassination?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Please Make It Stop!

Am I the only one who's burnt out on the endlessly repeated Miller Lite commercial featuring Christmas holiday lights flashing to the tune of Trans-Siberian Orchestra's "Wizard in Winter"? It's bad enough when music you actually like gets worn out by repeated playing, but this theme for hyperactive dwarves is starting to make my eyes and ears bleed. Yeah, I know I can change the channel, or maybe it's time to install that auto-mute function, but really: Enough, already!

Saturday, December 15, 2007


Hey, I have a new story up at Word Riot (see under Experimental, "The Lunatic"). Now, if you liked the story, and just happened to get here through the 91st Place link at the end of my author bio, what do you find? My latest post about the story you just read.

Maybe I should work on getting up another post...?

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Heisman Hyperbole

I couldn't care less who wins the Heisman. Oh, I really do like sports, but what interests me more is the process by which the meaning of words and expressions can change over short periods of time, and especially the contribution of the popular media to the destruction of meaning altogether. So when I hear an advertisement on ESPN that promises the Heisman winner will "transcend greatness and become a legend," my ears prick up. Say, what? "Transcend greatness"? Actually, I was going to say that when I hear this kind of shit it feels like someone just poured boiling lead into my ears, but that would be hyperbole, wouldn't it? Anyway, there is nothing new about sports hype. Remember how many coaching "geniuses" we had not so long ago?
As an admittedly mere mortal, my main question is, do athletes really become "legends" before they make their mark in the pros? Pop quiz: How many college "legends" didn't last even 5 years in the NFL? Can't remember them all? Let's put it another way. Think of NFL greats you really would confer "legend" status on. How many of these guys won the Heisman before they were drafted? After asking a few questions like those myself, I found some of them echoed, and answered, in "Heisman Is No Key to NFL Glory: Why do so few winners make it in the pros?" by Allen Barra, Opinion Journal, December 6, 2007. Here's a couple more from Barra's article: Who was the last Heisman-winning QB to win a Super Bowl ring? (Hint: It's been a while.) What percentage of Heisman winners have gone on to MVP status in the NFL in the last 50 years?
Okay, it's fair to say there are a lot of reasons a truly remarkable athlete might not have a legendary career, as Barra points out in his article--injuries, being stuck on mediocre teams, even while putting up phenomenal numbers--so there's no reason to expect one can reliably use the little statue as a predictor of a truly memorable future. But that's not my point. Or maybe it is exactly my point, which is, what does "legend" actually mean, anyway, when it's applied so early in life and, when all is said and done, in such a small arena? Alexander the Great was a legend in his own time, but then he conquered most of the world known to the Greeks of the period, and even he didn't get started in earnest until he was 20. Moreover, is "greatness" now such a deflated concept that it must be transcended in order to satisfy the media's imperative to anoint? So what will we be hearing next year, then? Transcend legend and become... what?... God?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Creationism/I.D. Wars Move to Texas

The forced resignation of Christine Comer shows that future struggles over what's appropriate to teach students about the life sciences won't be just taking place at the local school board level; she was the Texas Education Agency’s director of science (see "Official Leaves Post as Texas Prepares to Debate Science Education Standards" by Ralph Blumenthal, NYT, 03 December 2007) . It also shows that advocates of scientific illiteracy will use whatever means necessary to prevail. Let's not make the mistake of thinking about the teaching of Intelligent Design or Creationism alongside Evolution as a free speech issue; for one thing, if that were really what I.D. advocates were after, Christine Comer would still have her job. In any case, this is about setting education policy at the State level; it has no more to do with free speech than advocating that we must teach students to consider that the Earth being flat or round is a matter still being debated by legitimate authorities, or that angels, not physics and applied mathematics, keep airplanes from falling out of the sky. Citizens, or their churches, or their media, can offer any explanation for things that they want. There is no law barring anyone from saying that 1 +1 could equal 3, but teaching it to children in schools would not be tolerated, because we know that things don't work that way, and applying such an idea in practice would lead to a LOT of things not working. The same applies to Creationism or Intelligent Design.
Does this mean we don't want our children to think, or to question established wisdom, or to put forth and test their own hypotheses about the way things work? Of course not. The reason current theories about life, more often than not, allow us to make predictions, and to convert current knowledge into useful practice, is that they've been developed within a framework of the scientific method, which means making careful observations, developing hypotheses, testing them with more careful observations, and rejecting what is inconsistent, what doesn't work, what doesn't make sense. Because none of these theories are perfect, this process continues. Beyond evolutionary theory itself, this is what we want students to learn about science; there is still much that we don't know, and we want those that are curious and interested to continue to make new observations, ask new questions, and find new answers.
Accepting Creationism and Intelligent Design implicitly involves a rejection of openminded inquiry, no matter how their advocates try to dress up their arguments with the trappings of science, like "journal articles" and I.D. "museums", and pretend their ideas don't simply come out of received faith and received scripture. Christine Comer's forced resignation demonstrates clearly that anti-Evolution advocates have no faith at all that they can ever prevail in a rational scientific debate, based on evidence and reason. Early indoctrination of children, and hardball political manipulations like the one that just took place in Texas, are the only weapons they have, and they know it.