Saturday, 27 February 2010

Is the Guinness Book of Records biased?

In recent times as I have read stories of stigmatics like Thèrése Neumann and Marthe Robin, I have wondered whether the fabled Guinness Book of Records really is rather biased.

Although I had heard of “supernatural fasting” from Sara Maitland’s 1983 A Map of the New Country, it was quite some time before I took these claims seriously as a result of reading Sophy Burnham’s underrated The Ecstatic Journey: Walking the Mystical Path in Everyday Life, which spoke of Catherine of Siena as having fasted for seven years.

Probably because of
  1. my autism attracting me to people who are psychologically the opposite (as stigmatics certainly are) of myself
  2. my problematic tendency to be excited at things like inedia (long abstinence from food)
I have tended to believe stories of people surviving on nothing apart from Holy Communion without looking at the scientific evidence on either side. As a matter of fact when I try to talk the issue over with my brother – who is militantly anti-religious and says that the only purpose of stories of inedia is to make women more submissive (in fact, women of the psychological type of potential stigmatics are of course going to accept an all-male hierarchy as an absolute requirement of natural law).

The whole issue, I think, is that the psychological make-up of the two sides of the culture wars are so different that either side understanding the other is in essence out of the question. This difference is
  1. as Benjamin Wiker says, based on the surface on the difference between a designed and a random universe
  2. but at depth roots in psychological difference between a rational thinking type who views everything as explicable, and a feeling type who does not and tends to see things in terms of natural law and as a result, of God
In this context, it is easy to see how scientific investigation of inedia is of course going to be dominated by claims of bias: I don’t consider it unfair to say balance is impossible. It is also true that
  • because they ate Holy Communion every day, these inedics do not strictly qualify for the records the Guinness Book of Records is asking for.
  • Sophy Burnham, however, does say that this consumption of Holy Communion is so limited that their inedia still defies normal laws about eating.
  • Marthe Robin (and some other inedics), however, were paralysed throughout their period of inedia, so they were not living a normal life, as is pointed out in the excellent book The PK zone: a cross-cultural review of psychokinesis (PK)
The best final word, from that same book - and indeed the best summary of this extremely difficult and culturally inherently divisive question, is:
Although fraud seems to be a frequent explanation for the apparent ability to survive without eating, there do appear to be a few cases that are not so easily dismissed

Violence in Iran and how it relates to industrialisation

Today in the newspaper Blitz, there is is really good look at how the Muslim regime of Iran has succumbed to the pressure caused by modernisation in Iran.

Like so many of the best articles about the Islamic Republic of Iran, it illustrates so clearly how every traditional society will undergo a crisis unless it possesses or can migrate to large supplies of flat, ice- and permafrost-free land. Iran, of course, is an exceedingly mountainous country where such supplies simply do not exist, so that its communities will have a typical crisis just as Europe and East Asia did. One should see some difference between the response of conservative Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam on the one hand versus the muted response of other traditional religions, but at the bone there is no real difference: any form of religion is not going to survive in a nation short of usable land and key minerals.

However, it is to the credit of Blitz that they are able to show how horrific so many of the practices that have been carried out by the Islamic Republic are. Amongst them:
  1. "virgin women prisoners must be raped before execution to prevent their going to heaven"
  2. "...Revolutionary Guards fire a single bullet into the womb of women political prisoners, leaving them to bleed to death in a slow process of excruciating pain. Even pregnant women are not spared, and hundreds have been executed with their unborn children."
  3. "small children of many young women in Evin Prison (in the northwest of Tehran) are viciously abused"
This really does show that, as many commentators have said, Islam has many similarities with Marxism - in spite of the fact that Marx never knew of concepts like jihad and that Marxism before Lenin was not spread by the sword.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

The end of the Euro or a politically unified Europe?

Recently in Time, there has been an article stating that the economic crisis hitting Greece (which I had noticed in one of my rare appearances on television) could lead to a bailout package not only for Greece, but for the whole European Union and for the Euro currency scheme.

With hindsight, if such a bailout goes ahead, it is further reason to see the problems in the "big-is-beautiful" ethos behind the European Union. One can see the EU formed on the basis that large nations are needed to compete with such countries as the US, Australia, China and India who all have many more natural resources than all of Europe combined.

The problem is that so many people have shown the huge problems of bigness both in cultural and environmental terms. In countries like that owing to either
  1. their generally flat topography and lack of distinctly different environments (Australia)
  2. or particular circumstances that allowed for easy movement even in pre-industrial era (China with the Grand Canal)
possess a very definite "natural unity", one sees especially how this cult of bigness brings ecological ruin (Australia) or demographic and environmental problems (China). What Jared Diamond also said was that Europe's natural disunity due to the lack of rivers and abundance of coastal ports was what allowed it to go ahead so well with colonisation of the Americas (where the native mammals' egalitarian social structures precluded comparably advanced societies) and ultimately Africa and Australia.

The danger is that if the EU goes ahead with the kind of political unity suggested by Time, Europe could become a big-government behemoth affected by demographic decline and an absence of thriving local economies that, up to the middle 1970s, were praised by so many thinkers. Whilst unity of this sort allows planning to deal with environmentla crises in particular, I have said far too often that Europe, owing to its remarkably fertile soils and low biodiversity from extensive glaciation of most regions north of the "Continental Divide" separating those regions draining to the Mediterranean, is the region that needs sustainable environmental policy least, so the benefits are minimal compared with real pressure for zero emissions from Australia.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Two words that solve a sporting mystery

As a child, I was obsessed with the history of the VFL (now the AFL) and noticed that Hawthorn, the club I most closely followed during those years (it got so boring after a while because they won so many games and I preferred to focus upon statistics) had gone from the worst club in the League from 1925 to 1953 (when it won only 111 and drew three of 522 games) to the best in the League during the 1970s and 1980s. Between 1969 and 1991 Hawthorn won nine premierships and won overall almost 69 percent of its games.

In the history of the VFL/AFL, no club has shown over sustained periods such striking contrasts in its results. For a long time, I ignored the contrast in Hawthorn’s VFL history as a pure accident, but in recent times as I have become more aware of cultural differences across the developed world, I have come to realise that there is much more to Hawthorn’s uniquely bad record from 1925 to 1953 than  popularly acknowledged by either historians or those within League officialdom itself. In my article “Why to Expect Compassionate Conservatism” and review Marianismo Versus Masculinisation” I show a major cultural divide separating Australia and “Red” America from the rest of the developed world and indeed from many developing nations. Australia and “Red” America stand out as much more
  • socially conservative
  • unsupportive of wealth redistribution
  • and privately charitable
than the rest of the developed world. I argue that this is due to their different cultural values, which are much more feeling-oriented than the rest of the developed world and their traditions of much smaller government due to less demand for radical social reform during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In essence, Australia and Red America have retained lost values of “marianismo” that have completely disappeared as far as they existed from most other developed regions. The reason for this difference is that resources of land and minerals are much more abundant in Australia and Red America, and a lower population density. This results in much less competition for resources, especially in areas that are not industrial. (The north-of-Yarra clubs were originally based in densely settled and/or industrial areas where unions were strong).

The result is that eastern and outer suburbs of Melbourne developed (and retain) a culture that is
  1. apolitical
  2. socially very conservative
  3. noncombative
  4. noncompetitive
Such a culture can be referred to as a culture of marianismo. Although the term is historically restricted to Catholic and Eastern Orthodox cultures that venerate the Virgin Mary, in fact marianismo as defined below can also be found among such Anabaptist groups as the Amish, Hutterites and Old Order Mennonites (where it is known by the German word “Gelassenheit”. Marianismo can also be found to a considerable extent among many Buddhist cultures of the Himalayas.

In a noncompetitive, comfortable culture like that of outer-suburban Melbourne, sporting teams have a very hard time because people tend to be very accepting of defeat and lack a fighting spirit. This “nice guy” attitude fits perfectly with Hawthorn’s amazingly bad early VFL record: its players never minded losing at all: indeed they were extremely “docile” and “submissive” about an inevitable result for Hawthorn in the vast majority of matches.
Marianismo”, in Latin American folk culture, is the veneration for feminine virtues like purity, moral strength, etc. Marianismo represents the “virgin” aspect of the virgin-whore dichotomy. Evelyn Stevens states that marianismo teaches that women are semi-divine, morally superior to and spiritually stronger than men.”

The ideas within marianismo include those of feminine passivity and sexual purity. There is power in marianismo that stems from the female ability to produce life.

This term supposedly derives from Catholic belief in the Virgin Mary as both a virgin and a Madonna. According to the New Testament, she was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus. She was eventually given the title “Mother of God” and thus became a subject of veneration and admiration. From this is derived the idea that an ideal woman should be spiritually immaculate and eternally giving.

This ideal woman is emotional, kind, instinctive, whimsical, docile, compliant, vulnerable, and unassertive. She has a higher status in the community if she has children and is a caring mother. She is also pious and observant of religious laws.
Hawthorn’s extreme success during the 1970s and 1980s can be explained using a word more familiar to most Australians: gerrymander. It might seem odd to associate gerrymanders with sport rather than politics, but the country zoning system which has long been acknowledged as the cause of Hawthorn’s eight premierships between 1971 and 1991 can undoubtedly be called a gerrymander, even an “accidental gerrymander” as country zoning was never designed specifically to help Hawthorn.

However, Hawthorn’s zone had three times as many boys as Collingwood’s (by no means the worst zone), which, by definition, is “a form of boundary delimitation in which constituency boundaries are modified to favour a particular group” (here Hawthorn and in a lesser degree Carlton, Richmond and North Melbourne).
Gerrymandering is a form of boundary delimitation (redistricting) in which electoral district or constituency boundaries are deliberately modified for electoral purposes, thereby producing a contorted or unusual shape. The resulting district is known as a gerrymander; however, that noun can also refer to the process.

Gerrymandering may be used to achieve desired electoral results for a particular party, or may be used to help or hinder a particular group of constituents, such as a political, racial, linguistic, religious or class group.

When used to allege that a given party is gaining a disproportionate power, the term gerrymandering has negative connotations. However, a gerrymander may also be used for purposes that some perceive as positive, notably in US federal voting district boundaries which produce a proportion of constituencies with an African-American or other minority in the majority (these are thus called "minority-majority districts").

The word gerrymander was coined by a newspaper editor in reaction to a redrawing of Massachusetts electoral boundaries under the then governor Elbridge Gerry. In 1812, Governor Gerry signed a bill into law that redistricted his state to benefit his Democratic-Republican party. One of the resulting contorted districts was said to resemble a salamander. The term first appeared in the Boston Centinel on March 26, 1812.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Keltner analysis of undiscussed Rock Hall Artists: Dire Straits

The site A List of Things Thrown Five Minutes Ago, discusses various artists' credentials for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

After finishing my analysis of the Rock Hall backlog, I always intended to analyse artists who have never been discussed by the Nominating Committee, but still might have credentials to justify induction. The aim of the process is to find out whether, on the basis of the Keltner list for a Hall of Fame, the Nominating Committee really is completely ignoring artists who have undeniable credentials to be in the Hall.

I do admit that there are some problems with the criteria, especially given known biases of the Nominating Committee and how they effect who is already in the Hall, but still I cannot see any better alternative.

I have so far done six Keltner tests on undiscussed artists:
My next artist, first eligible in 2003/2004, is Dire Straits. They were formed in 1977 by guitarist and lead vocalist Mark Knopfler, his younger brother David on rhythm guitar, bass player John Illsey and drummer Pick Withers. They toured in late 1977 opening for (surprisingly) the Talking Heads, and began recording their debut album Dire Straits at the beginning of 1978 with producer Muff Winwood, the older brother of Steve and once a bandmate in the Spencer Davis Group.

Owing to the success of the hit single "Sultans of Swing", both Dire Straits and its follow-up Communiqué were big sellers, and, with David Knopfler replaced on guitar by Hal Lindsey, their third album Making Movies was a huge hit in Europe and Australia even though it only reached number 19 on Billboard. Their 1982 album Love Over Gold was an even bigger seller, topping the charts in the UK and Australia, but again only reaching #19 on Billboard, probably because its songs were too long for radio - though Triple M in Australia still plays "Private Investigations", "Industrial Disease" and even the 14-minute "Telegraph Road" occasionally. After this, they released an EP Twisting by the Pool, which became a huge hit on the Australian singles charts but only reached number 53 in the States, and a live album Alchemy, which was only slightly more successful. During this period, mainman Mark Knopfler was also involved in a number of other musical projects such as the Local Hero soundtrack.

In 1985, however, aided by a sardonic attack on MTV in "Money For Nothing" (which I recall as a young boy devouring chemistry textbooks as "stannane working" instead of "that ain't working"), Dire Straits became the first superstars of the CD age with Brothers in Arms, which was at its peak the second best-selling album of all time in Australia after Best of ABBA and topped the charts worldwide. The band's success, however, seemed to affect Knpfler adversely, so that they took a long break after the world tour to support the album and did not reunite (with only Knopfler and Ilsey of the original line-up) until 1990 to record On Every Street. Though that album was a best-seller, Knopfler after that separated from Illsey for a solo career which - though not prolific - continues to this day. Illsey had released solo albums Never Told a Soul in 1984, Glass in 1988 and after a period of fifteen years entirely away from the music business, Live in les Baux de Provence in 2007 and a studio collaboration Beautiful You in 2008.

An evaluation of Dire Straits' Rock Hall credentials based on the Keltner criteria, which actually come from the Baseball Hall of Fame follows.

1) Were Dire Straits ever regarded as the best artist in rock music? (Did anybody, while Dire Straits were active, ever seriously suggest Dire Straits were the best artist in rock music?): No. Even when they were at their peak of popularity, Dire Straits never stood out over other giants of the 1980s like Bruce Springsteen or U2 - or, in different genres Michael Jackson or Madonna. More than that, whilst Dire Straits lyrics were almost all in the "populist" tradition of America roots-rock, they never were so effective at epitomising the cultural conflicts of the 1980s as Springsteen or even Mellencamp.

2) Were Dire Straits ever the best artist in rock music in its genre?: No. Even within the field of "populist" rock - as Knopfler's lyrics show him to be in their appeal to such sentiments as leisure and get-rich-quick schemes - Dire Straits were always behind Springsteen, Petty and Mellencamp.

3) Was any member of Dire Straits ever considered the best at his instrument?: Yes, Mark Knopfler was always regarded as an extremely good guitarist, and was in great demand as a session player for the duration the band was active. He may not make many critical lists, but he is extremely respected for his skill.

4) Did Dire Straits have an impact on a number of other artists?: One book I read said that "nobody was inspired by Dire Straits to start a career in music, but maybe they were in the field of making money". Another, more favourable book I recall from a long time ago said they were "strangely uninfluential". Though these books were written a long time ago, one cannot see that things have changed since. Thus, this question must get a "no".

5) Were Dire Straits good enough that they could play regularly after passing their prime?: No. As I have pointed out, after their first few albums Dire Straits were reduced to Knopfler and Illsey, and with the latter turning from music to art in the 1990s, there was never any hope of the band continuing beyond On Every Street.

6) Are Dire Straits the very best artist in history that is not in the Hall of Fame?: No, even though most of their rivals are already in the Hall of Fame, one has to consider so many bands of far greater influence and/or longevity.

7) Are most bands who have a comparable recording history and impact in the Hall of Fame?: Yes. Springsteen, Petty and Mellencamp are already in the Hall of Fame, as are U2 (who in a different way spoke to those disadvantaged by 1980s economic reforms). It is almost impossible to think of nearly so successful a roots-rocker who is not in the Hall of Fame.

8) Is there any evidence to suggest that Dire Straits were significantly better or worse than is suggested by their statistical records?: One can make little comment here. Dire Straits were a band who spoke to the working class of the 1980s very effectively, as shown by their ability to gain airplay with songs normally too long for radio.

9) Is Dire Straits the best artist in its genre that is eligible for the Hall of Fame?: Possibly, but only because most of their rivals on the charts of the 1980s are already inducted. It is striking how after Springsteen, Mellencamp and them, there is a complete drop off in the "populist" rock scene.

10) How many #1 singles/gold records did Dire Straits have? Did Dire Straits ever win a Grammy award? If not, how many times was Dire Straits nominated?: Dire Straits never actually had a number one single, but all six studio albums went gold in the US (and to higher status in the UK and Australia). So did their first live album Alchemy and first best-of Money for Nothing, which is a particularly impressive record by any standard. They won one Grammy for "Money for Nothing" and were nominated in 1980 for Best New Artist and for Best Rock Vocal Performance By a Duo or Group for "Sultans of Swing". They were also nominated in 1992 for "Calling Elvis".

11) How many Grammy-level songs/albums did Dire Straits have? For how long of a period did Dire Straits dominate the music scene? How many Rolling Stone covers did Dire Straits appear on? Did most bands with this sort of impact go into the Hall of Fame?: Dire Straits had only one Grammy-level song in "Money for Nothing" and one album in Brothers in Arms - which actually won a Grammy for its videos only. They appeared on only three Rolling Stone covers, which is a very modest number for so commercially successful a band and does not auger well for their credentials.

12) If Dire Straits were the best artist at a concert, would it be likely that the concert would rock?: Yes. They were a major concert drawcard throughout their career and released several noted live albums, the first of which sold very well. With Knopfler's epic guitar work, it is not surprising they, like earlier jam bands, could be so effective live.

13) What impact did Dire Straits have on rock history? Were they responsible for any stylistic changes? Did they introduce any new equipment? Did Dire Straits change history in any way?: Most definitely not in terms of changing rock history or equipment. Dire Straits cannot be said to have brought any new equipment to rock or new styles: their style was very much inherited from the roots music of the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, in terms of musical technology, one can say they were the first to promote the CD. I would not view that as a critical issue, though.

14) Did Dire Straits uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?: There is relatively little to be said here, though the fact that Dire Straits never had the problems of drugs or other such issues may be in their favour.

All in all, Dire Straits can be best viewed as a case of "one too far" regarding their potential induction. Though of the 1980s roots-rockers they are the only major one not inducted, it cannot be said that they deserve it. Thus the verdict must be don't induct.

The worst music genres? Maybe, maybe

Today, the Australian (of all things) webzine Crave is offering its list of the "worst music genres of all time". It has a list of seven items thus:
Most of these genres are very recent terms that one would hope to wait about before actually doing anything to assess them. More than that, I have not heard anything from most of these genres. Nonetheless, what I have heard really is, to be honest, nothing short of dreadful. In most ways the EMO that I have heard is much worse than even 1980s pop metal, because its dense production tends to be more distracting from the sound of the music. So-called "nu-metal" bands like Linkin Park I have heard on Triple M and to be honest they are even worse than EMO groups. My hatred for techno bands like Corona is equally deep.

The problem is that the whole list is focused on an extraordinarily narrow way on a few genres of music, which of themselves cannot be the problem. One could add such genres as
  • teen pop
  • comedy rock (e.g. Presidents of the USA)
  • glam rock (I have never understood why people tolerate the likes of Slade or Gary Glitter)

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Are Heartney and Hanson being vindicated?

According to this site here, the Vatican has released a list of what it considers to be "“a semiserious guide” to the top ten rock and pop albums of all time".

Whilst what is on this list is far too familiar for me to desire writing a single word, I do serious desire to say that what the Vatican is doing is hardly unbelievable when one realises that the counterculture of the 1960s was heavily influenced by Catholicism, most especially by the personalist philosophy of Emmanuel Mounier and Dorothy Day, both of whom are considered candidates for canonisation. Mounier has been acknowledged, importantly, as an influence by numerous non-Catholics such as Albert Camus and Allen Ginsberg. Another source of Catholic influence on the Beats and the 1960s hippies can be seen in the nineteenth-century Decadent movement, which is studied in Ellis Hanson's somewhat flawed but fascinating 1997 Decadence and Catholicism and less effectively in parts of Eleanor Heartney's Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art. What I recognise now is that this Decadent movement's influence can be seen in a great deal of underground rock music from before the late 1970s "punk revolution" when AC/DC turned decadence into genuine Epicurean nihilism through their songs of celebratory violence like "TNT". This middle 1970s period is when the anti-Christianity of the modern counterculture really emerged, not during the 1960s when people like Tolkien and Dorothy Day were heroes to many in the underground. (Can you imagine that people at Woodstock were much more likely to have met Day than Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem, which is probably true)?!

The Murray and the Great Lakes?

According to this post in Time magazine, carp, a fish well-known in Australia for decimating the native fish ecosystems of the Murray-Darling Basin, are also invading the Great Lakes of the United States. The species, however, that is invasive is different but of the same family, and the carp that has invaded the Murray is also listed as one of eight dangerous Asian species.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

A familiar list from a non-familiar magazine

Today, Time magazine published a list of the Top 10 invasive species throughout the United States.

In spite of the radically different ecology of the US and Australia, there are some remarkable similarities between the two lists. I have coloured brown those species which have become pests in Australia:

  1. Asian Carp
  2. European Rabbit
  3. Cane Toad
  4. Kudzu
  5. Grey Squirrel
  6. Killer Bee
  7. Starling
  8. Northern Snakehead
  9. Zebra Mussel
  10. Burmese Python