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December 5, 2006

Filed under: culture»religion»satire


For my own future reference: David Byrne recommends A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, in which an ensemble cast of children between the ages of 8 and 12 tell the story of L. Ron Hubbard and his incoherent space religion.

November 20, 2006

Filed under: culture»internet»second_life

Welcome to Second Life, Comrades

Want to bring a wistful look to the face, and a tear to the eye, of any good socialist? Mention those magical words: post-scarcity. It's practically the definition of utopia to wish for a world where no-one lacks for anything, which most Marxists rationalize by pointing to automation and a (hopelessly optimistic) faith in the innate goodness of humanity. There, they daydream, real socialism would finally be possible.

Second Life, the online environment and cult favorite of "edgy" technology writers, is a similar utopia for libertarians. A virtual world that proudly trumpets its economic statistics on the front of (currently, US$622,731 spent in the last 24 hours), it also subsides almost entirely on user-created content--or, nowadays, on content created by enormous corporations and organizations hoping to cash in on Second Life's geek cred.

What happens when one utopia runs into another? Recently, Second Life fell victim to exploitation of Copybot, a reverse-engineered program that allows players to copy items without paying for them. Raph Koster, famed designer of failed-but-ambitious online economic systems, elaborates on the point of the copybot--being able to create anything you want, without asking permission or paying money--as practically the embodiment of post-scarcity Marxism intruding on Second Life's libertarianism. They're being hoisted on their own petard, he states.

Speaking for the vast majority of people who are sick of hearing how great Second Life is, I'm going to admit to a small, warm feeling of satisfaction--like I just ate a freshly-cooked spite burrito. Mmm.

Mandatory disclaimer: I don't play Second Life. I've logged in once, long enough to verify that yes, it's a very ugly place, and no, it doesn't run well on my laptop. So I'm invoking Pundit Privilege here--the ability to write about things even though I don't have direct experience with them myself, just a lot of acquaintances who do. If that bothers you, all I can say is stay as far as possible from the Wall Street Journal's Op-Ed section.

So someone I know, who specifically asks to remain nameless, calls me last night after her first logon to a Second Life server. Let's think of her, while I'm under Pundit Privilege, as a taxi driver who gave me the perfect transitional device for an article. The Second Life newbie, not being a gamer, is first of all having trouble moving. Also, she is confused about the sights of Orientation island.

"There's a person washing the sidewalk," she says. "They have a sign or something that says you can make money washing the sidewalk." We are both silent for a moment. I don't know what she's thinking, but I'm wondering why a digital sidewalk is dirty in the first place, much less why it would be profitable to clean it. It sounds like a scam, I say.

"But," she continues, "I don't understand. What do people do here?" And I have to explain that they don't necessarily do anything, that Linden Lab (who create and maintain Second Life) simply provide the tools for their users to create everything else. So if there's something to do, it exists because someone bought the land from Linden (using real money) and built something on it.

The newbie is in Second Life for a design class project--she needs to write a business plan, and had the idea of opening a Second Life boutique, because then she'll have the hippest business plan in the class. She'd like to actually have a storefront--or at least a "coming soon" sign--for her professor and classmates to see. But that would require paying for a premium account, then buying and paying rent on land. I tell her it might be easier just to make a web page.

Second Life is, as I said, supposed to be some kind of utopia where creativity is rewarded with a stream of virtual money, which can be redeemed for real money. It has no government. Linden Lab stays out of disputes as much as possible--their first reaction to the CopyBot fiasco, for example, was to tell people to prosecute under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Predictably, cyberselfish outlets like Wired trumpeted a lack of regulation as "a bold experiment in protecting creative work without the blunt instrument of copyright law." Meanwhile, merchants and a number of players have begun closing up shop, under the belief that there's no point in Second Life without an economic system of scarcity.

But to me, what's amusing about Second Life is what it reveals about poverty. Sure, the internal world is a meritocracy of sorts--assuming that you've got cash to rent space for your storefront. But even among the set of people who can cruise the grid for free, there's selection taking place--it requires a relatively new computer with a decent 3D card (my 1GHz laptop with built-in video chugged through even the most basic areas) and broadband Internet access. On top of that, those who can enter Second Life are presented with a world that has less legal baggage than many lesser-developed countries. One of my projects at the Bank has been audio work on problems of land tenure--when the poor don't own their land, they can't use it as collateral for development, and they can't rely on a secure legal situation. That's a serious problem. It is ironic, from my point of view, that when geeks had the chance to create their own private world, they immediately recreated land tenure problems--and saw them as a positive. It's a world where you don't have to eat or pay road maintenance or deal with the big, bad government. You just have to pay rent, and hope that the mob doesn't screw you over.

Implicit in the world of Second Life seems to be the primacy of value. How much are those shoes worth? How much could I get by designing my own shoes? How much would I need to sell in order to make back my land costs--or can I make money by land speculation alone? The concept that we might value something by non-monetary means--did I enjoy creating it? do I want to share it with others? does it make me feel good?--seems to have passed the community by. Or, at the very least, nobody talks about it. Blogs like Second Life Insider mostly seem to comment on commercial items that come across as utterly bizarre to those who don't actively take part--why would I want skates? What's the point of having funny-looking shoes, or a virtual dragon? CNN isn't commenting on the creativity of designers. They're more interested in the money Second Life is generating, and Congressional plans to tax it.

And the newbie asks me, finally, why this is any different from a video game. But it's simple, really. If I buy a game, even an online game like World of Warcraft, I'm paying for someone to entertain me. It's akin to a book or a movie, and the story or experience has non-monetary value to me. Joining Second Life is paying to take part in more commercial transactions, most of which will be less fulfilling than their real-world equivalents because of their intangible nature. It's no wonder people can be so addicted to accumulating virtual property--even in possessing it, you're reminded that you really don't own anything. Perhaps in the wake of that subconscious dissatisfaction, the need to acquire remains unsated.

I don't know which one gives me more cause to despair: that Second Life players think it's inconceivable that someone would be creative without financial incentive, or that they can't see how the system itself is reinforcing that viewpoint. The term "false consciousness" has never been so tragically appropriate.

October 20, 2006

Filed under: culture»religion»books

An Unholy Trinity

With David Kuo's new book, Tempting Faith, explaining how the Bush administration took advantage of religious conservatives for political gain (who could have thought they were capable?) and Mark Foley stretching the limits of tolerance in the Bible Values crowd, it's worth the effort to examine the phenomenon of Christian Nationalism. This trend, also known as dominionism, is something that I find myself increasingly worried about as I consider the American political scene. Perhaps living in Northern Virginia simply accentuates the trend--stay around Arlington, where I live, and it's as blue as can be, but travel 40 miles West and you'll find yourself in deeply Republican territory.

Having gone to high school out in that area, what degenerates like George Allen call "Real America," I figured I had a pretty good idea of the problem--and more seriously, the disconnect that (as far as I can tell) many Democratic leaders simply don't understand. These really are two Americas, although not in the simple economic sense that John Edwards means. They're two separate cultures, one grounded in Biblical fundamentalism, and the other in a kind of casual secularism. But to get a perspective on what this might mean in the long term if my theories are right, I've been doing some reading.

Kingdom Coming, by Michelle Goldberg

Goldberg subtitles her book "The Rise of Christian Nationalism," and it works best as a primer to the dominionist movement. It's organized by issues, with separate chapters for evolution, sex education, and homophobia in turn. It's not a terribly long book, and Goldberg is an unobtrusive writer, so it's a fairly quick read.

Kingdom Coming was apparently inspired after Goldberg had done a series of pieces for Salon about Christian and Far Right meetings. She apparently had a knack for getting into conferences and seminars, where she would deliver neutral-sounding but ultimately terrifyingly honest reports--the fanatical and apocalyptic language of extremists behind closed doors. After those articles, or perhaps because the Religious Right's rhetoric has become more open, Kingdom Coming is a little disappointing. It's a pretty high-level, wide-angle view of the movement.

Which is not to say that there aren't good insights here. Goldberg presents the dominionists as not just a movement, but a political machine, and links it together as a whole. Her solutions to this problem are sadly vague, perhaps because she herself has little hope for the future. "From what I've witnessed while researching this book, I'm convinced that Christian nationalist symbolism and ideology will increasingly pervade public life," Goldberg writes in her final chapter, titled "Exiles in Jesusland."

Righteous, by Lauren Sandler

If Kingdom Coming is the big picture, Righteous is a more personal view from the bottom of the movement up. Focused on a growing Evangelical youth culture, Sandler works more with interviews and events. Righteous also examines creationism and home-schooling, but not from the leaders of the movement, but from its footsoldiers. This gives it an entirely different feel--to me, it comes across as more urgent. It's easy to dismiss Kingdom Coming as cynical politics, but Righteous reminds us that there are real people behind the fundamentalist movement.

Sandler is also a Salon editor, although it could be argued that she's a more interesting writer than Goldberg. The book is filled with anecdotes that would be comical if they weren't a little chilling: Stephen Baldwin's rise as the face of hip youth Christianity, for example. A common theme throughout the events and communities Sandler visits is the "sneaky deep." That's the hook used to attract youth to Evangelical movements--hiding overt Jesus-freak appeals behind skateboarding videos, fake scientific language, and rock music. It's the idea that people come for the entertainment, but they stay for the Christianity.

The ability to weave pop culture into conservative Christian faith is not only attractive for new members, who don't have to give up "fun" when they join, but Sandler also points out that it tends to reinforce their most regressive tendencies. At the Mars Hill church community (read an excerpt at Salon), members may have a hip priest who quotes rappers and preaches to a background of rock music, but women are relegated to the roles of mobile womb and housewife only. The communities are fiercely anti-intellectual, and their "pop culture" is restricted to Christian facsimiles as soon as a religious version can be crafted.

Although it's been mentioned before, especially when that excerpt was published, it deserves to be noted again: these movements are not only a draw because they offer security in a changing world, but also because for the young men that invariably drive and lead them, they are not actually giving up very much for the Lord. Sandler's profiles are of Christians who can find Jesus and keep their music, their tattoos, and their skateboards. Women who join the movements, however, either because they're in a relationship with a convert or through evangelism, give up much more. They lose their freedom, their independence, and (to some extent) their futures. Female graduates of Patrick Henry College work for four years building contacts and learning deep political savvy, only to reject those abilities completely once they get their degree. Despite the surface appearance of modernity, the youth Christian culture is one that's deeply regressive, and blatantly aimed at preserving the power of white males.

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

After those two books, it's nice to kick back with Dawkins' unrelenting atheism. Anyone who's read his other books, such as The Blind Watchmaker or The Selfish Gene will be unsurprised by the clear prose and sly sense of humor in The God Delusion. In fact, it's a generally unsurprising book, which is not entirely a bad thing.

While Sagan's Demon-Haunted World and other pro-science writing have made a soft case for atheism, Dawkin's book is a lot more assertive. In fact, the closest comparison might be Sam Harris's End of Faith, which was refreshingly blunt but also disturbingly sidetracked into defenses of torture and ravings against the Islamic threat, as well as a bizarre defense of Buddhism and mysticism. Dawkins is more restrained: The God Delusion walks through the myth of a Christian America, disproves the belief of figures like Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein, and explains why religious claims shouldn't be protected from scientific criticism.

In the end, it's not really something that you couldn't read on a well-written atheist blog. But maybe I'm just thrilled to have a book explicitly written in support of atheism without resorting to the crazy extremes of The End of Faith. The God Delusion is a solid effort. On the other hand, current atheists might not have problems waiting for the paperback edition.

September 29, 2006

Filed under: culture»religion»evangelical

Good Book

Fred Clark, AKA the Slacktivist, tells a story:

We were studying evangelism and the teacher was going over something called the "Romans Road" -- a series of passages from St. Paul's epistle to the Romans that described humanity's sinfulness and need for salvation. Evangelism, by definition, involves talking with people who do not already share our faith. Such people, I had noticed, also tended not to regard our Bible as their Bible, so I asked the teacher what we should say to someone who tells us they don't believe in the Bible.

"You show them II Timothy 3:16," the teacher said. And then she quoted it, "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness."

When I suggested that someone who didn't believe in the Bible wasn't likely to believe in II Timothy any more than they believed in Romans, she responded by quoting another passage, II Peter 1:21, and then another from the 119th Psalm.

It went on like that for a bit, like something from Abbot and Costello, with both of us getting more frustrated as she quoted Bible verse after Bible verse about the authority of the Bible and me not doing a very good job of expressing that someone who doesn't believe in Bible verses won't be convinced by a Bible verse that tells them to believe in Bible verses. Until finally she said this:

"Well if they still don't believe in the Bible after you've showed them all those verses, then I guess they just can't read."

In addition to his highly-entertaining and interesting Left Behind Fridays, the Slacktivist is always a good read because he has thought carefully about his evangelism, and clearly decided that the communication it implies cannot be one-way. So instead of making preaching the gospel his only contact with the secular world, he basically invites readers in to understand the culture surrounding the religion.

It is heartening to know that this communication takes place somewhere. I don't much worry about a disconnect between political parties. I am more concerned that the split between Left and Right in America reflects a basic misunderstanding between two subcultures--one of which is a paranoid rural mindset that shares a language and vision deeply rooted in the Bible, while the other is a more fragmented urban population that does not share in the heavily coded (and therefore incomprehensible) language of scripture and dominionism. Most of the people I know in cities, even those who are quite conservative, aren't really able to grasp the reality of the former. They are operating on a thought-experiment of what the rubes want, and catching a glimpse of the actual rural agenda is a rude surprise.

This works the other way, of course, as the story above shows. But frankly, the dominionists are better organized than we seem to be, and we are increasingly in their power. At the very least, we'd better be able to figure out what they're going to do with us.

September 18, 2006

Filed under: culture»asia»china»mandarin

Missed Opportunities

I know I shouldn't be expecting much when watching SciFi Channel movies, but when the old "Crisis is danger and opportunity in Chinese" chestnut came up during Painkiller Jane, I was reminded of just how ridiculous that myth is. Not only is it completely false, but it's commonly used by cultural sub-literates like Tom Friedman to, say, relate their taxi-driver's support for globalization.

And here's what really got me: they didn't even use the right character. Instead of weiji, they wrote the hanzi for yi, which means "easy." Then the actor pointed at the top half--that's danger, he said, and the bottom half is opportunity. Well, no. According to, yi is a pictogram meant to resemble a lizard. The top half is a radical that usually stands in for the sun and signifies a day (ri), and the bottom can be a negative command (wu).

Is it really that hard to find a single Mandarin-speaking Chinese-American and run this kind of thing by them before you put it on TV? Especially when you're filming in Vancouver?

September 13, 2006

Filed under: culture»cooking


Thomas Wilburn's patented Scavenger Hunt Huevos

Found ingredients:

  • 1 egg
  • Laughing Cow Lite Swiss Cheese slices
  • Salsa
  • Stale tortilla chips
  • 1 can of black beans
  • Frozen package of vegetarian hamburger substitute
  • A full spice rack

Toss the egg into a skillet on medium heat, scramble. Add one slice of cheese. Use a fork to whip these until a little fluffy. Add a handful of tortilla chips, crushing them up. Don't worry about the staleness--they're basically just going to be filler. Pour in salsa and black beans, reduce the heat, crush in another slice of cheese, and stir until the beans are soft. Add the fake hamburger last. It'll thaw quickly.

The end result will look, to be polite, like something the cat dragged in. Spice it with pepper, salt, cumin, and red pepper to taste. I have a weak sense of smell, so I season heavily. Entonces: one cheap pseudo-Mexican meal made from handy ingredients, perfect for when your vegetarian girlfriend is working late and you don't feel like going to the grocery store.

July 12, 2006

Filed under: culture»religion»satire

In Loving Memory

Sweet mother of mercy.

June 21, 2006

Filed under: culture»internet»excession

Sorry, what were we talking about?

So the DVD finally starts playing the actual movie after forty previews, mostly for terrible Disney flicks you will never watch, and then--hey, who is that actor? You've seen him somewhere before. Fire up IMDB, check out his CV, add a couple of his films to the Netflix queue--and while you're at it, check your e-mail, because it's been five or ten minutes, and maybe browse a blog or two. Who's on AIM? And is the movie actually over already?

This is how it starts. Nowadays, I actually have trouble sitting down to watch a movie without a laptop or something to do while it plays--a habit only exacerbated by my taste in forgettable horror flicks. Now, I know I live a pretty varied, busy life with lots of hobbies and interests that I bounce between, but should I really be multitasking that much?

At work, I'm actually worse. I have my monitor in portrait mode. Lotus Notes is maximized in the background, with B-SPAN videos played at the top inch or so of the screen. The rest of the screen plays host to cascaded applications: webmail, a random browser window or two (including Pandora when I'm not watching video), the B-SPAN admin applet, notepad.exe where I keep my to-do list for the day, at least one instance of Word, and my SSH session to off to one side, where I can add a few sentences every half hour or so. I alt-tab like a madman.

A long time ago, I read this editorial by Rands and thought "he's talking about me." He calls it NADD, Nerd Attention Deficit Disorder--not a name I'm particularly fond of, but you have to admit it describes the situation pretty well. And he thinks it's a good thing.

I'm not so sure.

It took me a long time to build the kind of self-organization structure (remember that notepad window?) that I need to keep myself on target. I make a lot of lists--you've probably noticed. I can hold a good, interactive conversation nowadays--but I still have a tendency to begin ranting and jump from topic to topic, which I have realized is not only frustrating for others but is also more than a little rude. And my inability to pick only a single area of expertise landed me a Comm degree and the realization that nobody wants to hire a generalist anymore. I got very lucky when I transferred to my current position, since they are more than happy to exploit whatever random talents I manifest in addition to my writing skills.

Did I mention the boredom issues? Seriously, I've got boredom issues. Gotta be doing something all the time. Drove a couple of ex-girlfriends nuts.

I wonder, sometimes, if people had this kind of problem before the Internet existed--and if so, how they handled it. More importantly, is it going to spread? For those of us in developed countries that don't face the Grim Meathook Future, we are going to continue being surrounded by information. Advertisements are everywhere--and I hate to reference Spielberg, but it is only a matter of time before they start interacting a la Minority Report. The Internet is on everything. Appliances are getting smarter, and more networked. Wireless is becoming standard. Bruce Sterling probably hears this kind of thing and practically has puppies from excitement, but I'll be honest: it frightens me.

I see this as a trend in two directions. The first is the sound bite, which we all know and love. It simplifies complicated issues, eases the production of misleading information, blah blah blah--not a good thing. On the other hand, I wonder sometimes if the modern fundamentalist movement, at its core, is a symptom of people who are just not wired to handle a high-information environment. And as it gets worse, do they keep getting weirder?

May 18, 2006

Filed under: culture»asia»china»travel

Once Upon a Time in China, Part 3

500 words down so far on the China article for the Escapist, and I feel pretty good about it. So here's one last annoying anecdote from my trip to the Middle Kingdom three years ago. If only I had a slide projector and a monotone, I could do this properly.

I spent most of my trip hanging out with a couple of students with family in Guangzhou. They were American-born Cantonese speakers, so they made good intermediaries between the three languages and cultures. And since it didn't make any sense to me to travel halfway around the world just to hang out in a dorm room, we spent a pretty fair amount of time wandering the city. That's how I ended up playing DDR for the first time--although that's not the story I want to tell today.

This story is about going to dinner. Keep in mind that when I went to China, I had been at one of the most diverse universities in the country for a couple years--but I didn't own a car, so I didn't eat out much. I'd missed out on many of the great cultural foods located around the Northern Virginia area, a deficiency that was only exaggerated by differences between American Chinese food and actual Chinese food.

So here I was in Xi'an, a Kentucky Yankee in Qin Shi Huang's court, and we decided to go out for food and karaoke (read: drinking) with some local students. They knew a great place, they said, and led us through back alleys away from the university. It was starting to look a little shady, but the restaurant was well-lit, and the food--meat strips with a spicy rub, grilled on skewers--was tasty. I had about four before I saw that my Cantonese friend was watching me closely and smiling a bit too widely. She asked if I knew what kind of meat was on those skewers. Horror stories of rodents and pets flickered through my mind. Beef? I asked.

Kind of, she said. Beef stomach. Which, looking back on it after many bowls of questionable pho meats, seems pretty tame. But at the time, it was a big step. I had two more.

Nowadays, the beef stomach incident also serves not just as an amusing cultural incident, but also a reminder of China's diversity. The skewered meats are a snack native to Xi'an's local Muslim population, called the Hui. The Hui Mingjie, or "Muslim Street," may be a tourist trap within the walls of the old city, but it's also home to the Great Mosque, where the Hui still worship as one of the nation's non-Han minorities. Arabic and Chinese mix in the carvings there.

Which is not to say that China is filled with well-integrated but conveniently-costumed cultural groups--to an outsider it still looks pretty homogenous. But it's such a big country, and communications were so slow for so long, that visitors eventually see the fierce regionalism that exists within it. It emerges with the mutually unintelligible local dialects. It manifests in the inequality between rural and urban areas. And you can taste it in the wildly different cuisines between the North and South. While for policy purposes it may be possible to imagine a simplified "China," those who don't realize that the PRC encompasses differences even wider than our own local subcultures will find the reality (pardon the pun) hard to stomach.

May 6, 2006

Filed under: culture»asia»china»travel

Once Upon A Time in China, Part 2

My parents gave me the notebook while I was in high school, I think as a Christmas gift. It's a small leatherbound volume with sheets of yellow paper, bolted together with wood and held shut by a pair of leather straps. It's kind of impressive, like something Indiana Jones would open to find the location of Tikt'Chuatl. And that was problematic for me, because I wasn't about to fill it with just anything. It had to be something worth reading.

It stayed empty until I went to China since I figured, screw it, I'm probably not going to get an opportunity more interesting than that. I sketched and took notes in the notebook, and also wedged different tickets and brochures into it for safekeeping. I did the same thing when I went to France, although I only managed four pages or so that trip. It takes a lot of time to sketch something and write about it longhand. And I don't have a lot of patience.

While I was in Xi'An, where I spent most of my time in the PRC, we took a side trip to see the Terra Cotta warriors. If you ever find yourself in the country, I highly recommend it. The warriors are the last tribute to Qin Shi Huang, the emperor who united China and then started work on the Great Wall. Not content to grind his subjects to death constructing the wall, Qin Shi Huang also wanted servants in the afterlife, and ordered the creation of thousands of life-sized soldier statues, many with different features and weapons. It was a massive undertaking--and one that was buried with him when he died. In 1974, farmers who were digging in the area found the tomb and its clay army. Researchers are still digging it up today.

At least one of the farmers is now employed full time by the PRC at the visitor's center for the terracotta warriors. He signed my notebook (as well as dating it 2003--guess I had the year wrong). According to my professor, that's all he knows how to write. I guess it's a living.

As I was saying, I did a few sketches in the notebook and the terracotta warriors got several pages' worth. I'll have to scan it some other time. But as I was standing at one of the display cases, finishing up a sketch of a warrior leading a large clay horse, a short Chinese woman walked up next to me and started to look at the drawing. "Very nice," she said, and then added something I couldn't understand. Amanda Laoshi, the graduate student from Xi'An Jiaotong Daxue who accompanied us, wandered up and asked her to repeat herself. She laughed.

"What did she say?" I asked.

Amanda Laoshi looked at the drawing and grinned. "She says you made the eyes too round," she said. "She says it looks like a Westerner."

I looked at the woman. She looked at me. I shrugged, apologized, and added some lines to the sketch, trying to correct the "mistake." The woman examined the drawing again, and made the universal face for "hmph." And at that point, deciding that I was not going to improve the situation markedly, I shut the notebook and wandered off, as tactfully as possible, to sketch something a little bit less subjective.

Future - Present - Past