The Disease of the 21st Century?

I seem to recall coming across a quote from Martin [edit: actually Kingsley] Amis to the effect of “much of what was wrong about twentieth century literature can be summed up in the word workshop.” I find no reference to this quote online and it’s possible (verging on probable) that I’ve either mutilated it beyond recognition or invented it out of whole cloth in a fever dream. In any case … real or imagined, the quote put me to thinking about “climategate” and the significance of using computer models that cannot, in practice, be tested experimentally, to make predictions used to direct large scale social and economic change. This thought, in turn, put me in mind of the calamities wrought by the use of computer models to calculate risk in the stock and bond markets … I’m on the point of issuing my own dictum along the lines of “much of what was wrong at the beginning of the 21st century could be summed up in the word model.”

And, whether Amis actually uttered the phrase I alluded to above, or whether I only imagined it, the quote captures a parallel and essential truth – that there is all the difference in the world between a hothouse reconstruction of the world (whether in equations or the sentences of a novel) catalyzed by groupthink and untested (and untestable) by experience and the real thing (or, compare, real science that makes definite predictions).

Simulation is not science, anymore than it’s literature.

The Devil’s in the Details

Quick impressions of the speech tonight.  First third (description of the problem): enormously effective.  He had me asking “can I trust my insurance?” and answering “probably not.”  Second third (description of the solution):  The wheels fell off.  Or is it that the plan outlined had too many wheels within wheels, too many moving parts.  Mind you, parts of this section of the speech were effective upon first listening but if you break it down, you get,

1.  We want insurance companies, a huge part of the economy, to stay in business.

2.  Insurance companies make too much money and we will pay for much of this plan by cutting back their executive salaries and profits.

3.  The uninsured (the young) aren’t paying their fair share so they will be required to buy insurance.

4.  The insurance companies will participate willingly in order to make money (profits) selling insurance to the formerly uninsured (the youth).

Something doesn’t balance out here.  Does he want insurance companies to be profitable or not?  Does this plan effectively throw young adults under the bus?  They seem to be the only profit center in the plan as described.

Add to this the “Prime Minister’s Question Hour” feel of congressional reaction to this part of the speech and you have … well, a not very effective part of the speech.

The peroration was effective and seemed heartfelt.  A good description of the relation between man and the city as understood by the progressive mind.

Conclusion: I came off impressed with Obama personally and still believing that the plan is half baked at best.  In other words, par for the course.

Speechless (Appropriately enough, it seems)

I just watched the “don’t do a lot of talking” snippet via Breitbart via Drudge.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard its like.  Where to begin?  There’s the snarky tone in which he declares “I’m President”; there’s the apparent command (I don’t know what else to call it – whatever it was, it wasn’t a “suggestion”) to his political opponents – “don’t do a lot of talking”;  there’s the muted, baffled crowd response immediately following (it required an “Am I wrong, Virginia?” from the One.  Well, at least he didn’t tap the microphone and say “is this thing on?”).

Here is the most generous spin I can put on this:  he wasn’t talking about citizen protesters but about Republican Rep.s in the House and Senate.  As I say, this is the most generous, least scary reading.  But it’s still pretty scary (question: has any other President actually voiced the opinion that his opposition shouldn’t speak?) 

It is also nonsensical.  As others have pointed out, the Republicans can’t do a damned thing to stop him from doing whatever he wants in either the House or the Senate.

Scary.  Weird.

Truth, Reality and the Punks of South Street

Almost 20 years have passed since R.F. Laird (aka instapunk, man of controversy) published The Boomer Bible – a book best summarized by Glen Reynolds with characteristic brevity – “Ten thousand years from now, scholars will still be confused.”

But, heck, a lot of confusing books were published in the twentieth century, right? The difference is, or would appear to be, that Laird believes what he’s saying.

That is to say, the Boomer Bible is less an exercise in literary pyrotechnics (or literary marketing) than it is an attempt at a “total book,” a book self-consciously written (whether by the empirical R.F. Laird or by the punks of South Street) to diagnose the sickness of the twentieth century by penetrating the mystery of the whole.   And he got it right.  As he will tell you.  Personally.  With extreme prejudice.

Okay. So… (foot tapping) …. What’s the sickness of the twentieth century? 

That brings me to the occasion of this post. Laird has, for whatever reason [edit: here’s the reason – as a service to his web community], suddenly seen fit to post several parts of the back story of The Boomer Bible that may or may not shed light on the meaning of The Boomer Bible. Here’s one, touching on the distinction between truth and reality, that stands pretty nicely on its own.  Still, if you’re new to Laird’s punk mythos the first few paragraphs will seem obscure. But trust me, it’s worth a read.

The Bizarre Life of Aafia Siddiqui

Terror mastermind, alumni of Room 101 or just plain sad? Having read a few accounts of Aafia Siddiqui’s competency hearing, many of which seemed at odds with one another on basic material facts, I went chasing around the intertubes looking for the real story (using wikipedia’s entry and a Boston Magazine story as my basic texts – heaven help me), only to conclude, for the umpteenth time, that the internet is at war with the notion of objective reality.

Settled Facts: Aafia Siddiqui moved to the United States from Pakistan in 1990, attended the University of Houston then transferred to MIT. She graduated from the latter in 1995. A marriage to a Pakistani anesthesiologist was arranged shortly thereafter. She went on to obtain her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Brandeis in 2001.*

Settled Facts Subject to Inpretation:
1. She was a devoted Muslim, and evidently hoped that the United States would be converted to Islam. She and her husband donated (naively or not) to organizations that the Feds came to believe were terrorist front operations.
2. Her husband was questioned by the FBI in 2001 regarding the purchase of night vision equipment, body armor, and other suspicious gear. The attention of the Feds was also drawn, it seems, by odd financial transactions that may or may not have been completely innocent.
3. She and her husband went back and forth to Pakistan at least once in 2001-2002.
4. In 2002, eight months pregnant with her third child, her marriage falls apart. Now back in Pakistan, she moves in with her mother and father. Her husband attempts to present a divorce request to the family, an argument ensues. In the excitement, her father dies of a heart attack. Note: this account is disputed by the husband who paints a picture of a moody, aggresive wife (but he would say that, wouldn’t he?)
5. Her third child is born.
6. She travels back to the U.S. again late in 2002, either to look for a job or to set up a dead drop P.O. Box for terror suspect Majid Khan.
6.1 Allegedly, she is married for a second time. To a nephew of Khalid Sheik Muhammed.
7. Well, this one’s the kicker: In late March or early April 2003 (a month after the arrest of Kalid Sheik Muhammed, who alledgedly implicates her as a member of Al Queda), she disappears. Possibly she is picked up by the Pakistani Police or intelligence at the behest of the FBI. Possibly she went underground to work for Al Queda. Possibly she just bummed around Pakistan and Afghanistan, pursuing terrorism as a hobby and going completely crazy. Lots of possibilities here.
8. On May 26, 2004 John Ashcroft and Robert Mueller issue a terror alert, naming Siddiqui along with several others in connection therewith. Which would be an odd thing to do, if they already had her in custody. Unless of course, they’re just that evil. Or, unless Cheney was somehow pulling the wool over their eyes so that he could give her the treatment alledged in point 2 at bottom. Over to you, Andrew.
9. Siddiqui is captured in Afghanistan, under very curious circumstances, in 2008. Apparently caught wandering around the residence of the Governor of Ghazni with a satchel full of terrorist literature, sounding like some extreme version of a Muslim Scientologist, she is detained by Afghan authorities.

And now we pass into the realm of the factually weird sounding stuff.

1. American soldiers and officials visit the detention center. From the reports, they were apparently there to talk to Siddiqui specifically. They enter a room with a curtain partition. Siddiqui is apparently being held unsecured behind the partition. An officer lays down his M-4 on the ground. She picks it up and fires a shot at the soldiers. The officer responds with pistol fire, striking her twice. Maybe it’s not that weird.  This is, after all, Afghanistan we’re talking about.

2. The Gray Lady of Bagram: Here I’ll just cut to the chase and quote Wikipedia directly:

Moazzam Begg and several other former captives have reported that a female prisoner, prisoner 650, was held in Bagram.[18] According to The Daily Times and Adnkronos news service the former captives report she has lost her sanity, and cries all the time. Ridley wrote about Bagram’s “Prisoner 650” and her ordeal of torture and repeatedly being raped for over four years. “The cries of (this) helpless woman echoed (with such torment) in the jail that (it) prompted prisoners to go on hunger strike.” Ridley called her a “gray lady (because) she (was) almost a ghost, a spectre whose cries and screams continue to haunt those who heard her.

Needless to say, the relevance of this story to Siddiqui is hotly disputed. And, from what I can glean, Ridley comes across as a minor league nut case herself. Nevertheless, the tale’s poignancy (along with the spectral imagery) and the simple fact that it’s out there lends it a certain force, irrespective of it’s truth. The same kind of eerie sensibility hanging over the grassy knoll.

But, I hope it goes without saying that this, like the Kennedy assassination, is a serious story; in cases like this, poignancy, shock value, or even service to one’s ideals ought to count for a lot less than truth. I suppose that we’ll have to wait for the results of her trial (if there is one) to know anything approaching the truth about Aafia Siddiqui.  For me, a gut feeling has begun to precipitate out of the mess of contradictions. An intelligent but troubled woman. 9/11. A bad marriage. Psychosis. Some activity on behalf of terror organizations.

The state may produce, or for all I know, has already produced indisputable evidence that she was a real player, a terror mastermind. To me she sounds like a crazy ( and very likely dangerous) wannabe. But that’s just what she’d want us to think, wouldn’t she?


* Asked if her work in neuroscience might have relevance to terrorist acts, a member of her dissertation committee laughed, “I can’t see how it can be applied to anything,” he says. “It’s not very applied work. It didn’t have a medical aspect to it. And, as a computer expert, she was competent. But you know, calling her a mastermind or something does not seem — I never saw any evidence.”  That just had to hurt.