This sojourn through Finland has been terrifyingly self-relevatory. I've had to question some of my basic assumptions and break down my very sense of self. Apparently, I'm just not as blond as I once thought. Or, at least, in the right light you can see my eyebrows, which is more than I can say for many of the people here.

Today was a short and fatigued spin through the center of Helsinki, buying cherries at the fishless fish market, visiting the plain interior of a Lutheran church and the exuberance of an Orthodox Cathedral, and then climbing a hill to crawl into a church carved from its own bedrock. Hot chocolate in the middle of the boulevard as they set up the bandstand across the green. The Andean pan flutists I had run into before in front of Rouen Cathedral and in Copenhagen's Rådhuspladsen and all across Europe and once, memorably, overheard playing in Covent Garden while on the phone with [ profile] rahael, have put on Sioux-style headdresses and leggings and are now marketting themselves as "The Mohicans." They're still playing panpipes, authentic as they are, but I didn't stick around long enough to hear if "I'd Rather Be A Hammer Than A Nail" was still the mainstay of their repetoire.

Tomorrow brings us to Petrograd, where I hope it gets darker.
While Googling in preparation for the possible adjudication of a dispute in a CalPundit comment thread, I came across the introduction of a coffee table book entitled Cats of Cairo. I could not imagine a cuter collection of sappy Orientalism.
[E]very visitor to the Islamic world is aware of the innumerable cats in the streets of Cairo - and of Istanbul, Kairouan, Damascus, and many other cities. Virtually everywhere, one is reminded of the saying popularly attributed to the Prophet Muhammad: "Love of cats is part of the faith."

[ . . . ]

The life of a cat has always been considered precious throughout the Islamic world: in Turkey it has been thought that even to build a mosque was not sufficient to atone for the killing of a cat, and in Muslim Bengal only eleven pounds of the most precious commodity, salt, was acceptable blood money for the death of a cat.

[ . . . ]

But in the urban areas of Arabia and of other countries that became Islamized in the seventh and eighth centuries, cats played an important role, and folktales abound. For example, everyone knows how, according to folk tradition, the Prophet Muhammad cut off his coat sleeve because he had to get up for prayer and was loath to disturb his cat Muizza, peacefully sleeping on the sleeve; or how a cat gave birth to her kittens on the prophet's coat, and he took care of the offspring. Therefore, numerous friendly sayings about cats are attributed to him. For the future generations of Muslims, it was essential to know that the cat is a clean animal - even if she drinks from the water in a bowl, this water can still be used for the ablutions before prayer (while the dog's saliva renders everything impure). Thus we often find cats in the mosque, and they are gladly welcomed there not only because they keep the mice at bay, but also because the pious think that the cat herself performs ablutions, while purring is often compared to the dhikr, the rhythmic chant-ing of the Sufis.

To show mercy to animals, and in particular to cats, was considered meritorious. A lovely Sufi tale tells how Shibli, an Iraqi Sufi of the tenth century, appeared to someone in a dream after his death, and recounted how God Almighty had shown mercy to him. Being interrogated by the Lord as to whether he was aware which of his acts had gained him forgiveness, Shibli - so he told the dreaming person - had enumerated a long list of virtuous acts, supererogative prayers, travels in search of knowledge, fasting, almsgiving, and much more. "But the Lord told me: 'Not for all this have I forgiven you!' And I asked: 'But then why?' And He said: 'Do you remember that winter night in Baghdad, when it was snowing and you saw a tiny kitten shivering on a wall, and you took it and put it under your fur coat?' 'Yes, I remember that!' 'Now, because you had pity on that poor little cat, I have mercy on you.'"
Running in parallel is the introduction to Zen Cats, which may conflate the notions of nirvana and sleeping for twenty hours a day.
Don't miss the story of the hoodwinked premillennialists, in which an LJer who had written a parodic Jack Chick-style diatribe against Harry Potter submits the essay to, which accepts it readily. (According to [ profile] gehayi, the author also convinced a number of non-premillennialist Harry Potter fans of the sincerity of her condemnation in the process.) I haven't looked at too many of the responses on's forum, but this earnest rebuttal caught my eye:
I'm pretty sure that [Lurlene Tyranna] Shores is implying that Lily had sex with Black instead of James. However, I would like to remind you that Black is an Animagus, and can change from a human to an animal, or in this case a dog, and back again at will, thus negating Lily's need to do a perverse thing, such as having sex with a dog.
Which proves that this commenter doesn't hang out in certain circles of LiveJournal, where there are needs and then there are needs.
I wish to know where this "vibrating broomstick" is, or was, marketed so that I may check to see if this ever existed. I have neither read about, nor seen, this toy. Still, an interesting question arises: Who bought them this toy? Toys cost money, so I'm assuming a parent would have to pay for it. Also, would a parent not notice a child bringing home a toy large enough to teach "young girls how to abuse themselves"?
For the record. And, as long as I'm being pedantic, from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Chapter Twenty-Four:
"An excellent point," said Professor Dumbledore. "My own brother, Aberforth, was prosecuted for practicing inappropriate charms on a goat. It was all over the papers, but did Aberforth hide? No, he did not! He held his head high and went about his business as usual! Of course, I'm not entirely sure he can read, so that may not have been bravery. . .."
[ profile] arethusa2 recently linked to a trifecta of fannish Lego sites, Boing Boing had a Lego Abu Ghraib a few weeks ago, and Maud Newton today brings us The Brick Testament, a reconstruction (in, yes, Legos) of the Bible. These are all measured against the Lego Escher project, which is unfortunately off line, though you can get a taste of it here and here.
Jim Holt examines the perils of psychoanalyzing our Intelligent Designer by reverse engineering His Creation.
While there is much that is marvelous in nature, there is also much that is flawed, sloppy and downright bizarre. Some nonfunctional oddities, like the peacock's tail or the human male's nipples, might be attributed to a sense of whimsy on the part of the designer. Others just seem grossly inefficient. In mammals, for instance, the recurrent laryngeal nerve does not go directly from the cranium to the larynx, the way any competent engineer would have arranged it. Instead, it extends down the neck to the chest, loops around a lung ligament and then runs back up the neck to the larynx. In a giraffe, that means a 20-foot length of nerve where 1 foot would have done. If this is evidence of design, it would seem to be of the unintelligent variety.
To be fair, this sounds no more kludgy than the semi-intelligently designed Windows 95.

Later in the Magazine, Rob Walker writes about hyperrealistic "reborn dolls."
But why do people want to buy an extremely realistic baby doll? For some, Gernand speculates, it's a means of reminiscing -- perhaps they have saved their actual children's clothes and enjoy dressing up the reborn doll to recapture a happy time. Garma says she thinks some others might want the dolls to ''fill a void,'' perhaps because they could not or did not have children. And there is probably the simple aesthetic attraction, heightened by the fact that many people just plain love babies. ''Some collectors have whole rooms set aside as a nursery,'' says Mitchell, the Doll Crafter editor.
"Once you get past the creepier aspects of all this," Walker writes, and I never did. It's even weirder when you read it with the misconception that these dolls were being commissioned, the motivation of cloning applied to the Cabbage Patch. However, Walker does not mention that the makers of these dolls are, in fact, taking orders to match actual specific babies. Yet.
Brad DeLong points out that the Bush administration, bastion of laissez-faire that it is, has announced new tariffs on shrimp imported from China and Vietnam. Bush, of course, has a long history of using trade regulation to political advantage -- I think he's campaigning in Ohio as the workers' friend by mentioning that he imposed tariffs on imported steel and in Michigan as the workers' friend by saying that he lifted those same tariffs. However, I just don't know what advantage he expects from this decision. Are Louisiana and Mississippi suddenly swing states?

I have to come to the reluctant conclusion that this is not at all related to electoral advantage but is instead one more example of rampant theocracy.
As I mull over a possible autumn trip to Iran, I have been much consoled by Nicholas Kristof's recent columns (1, 2) reporting that its inhabitants are strikingly pro-American. This doesn't surprise me in particular, because when I'm travelling international I rarely run into anyone who even expresses resentment towards the US government, much less holds me responsible. In fact, I spent my first few days in Egypt, when the administration was at the height of its sabre-rattling about Iraq (but a few months before the actual invasion), dissembling my nationality whenever asked. I soon stopped this, partially because I realized no one was so ungracious as to conflate me with President Bush, and partially because I grew tired of hearing "Canada Dry!" every time I mentioned my adopted homeland.

In any case, Kristof speaks of a great warmth felt by Iranians towards America, and even towards our current administration. It is notable that he writes these columns during the midst of the Abu Ghraib revelations. That they seem to have had no effect might be explicated by this post by Ogged at Unfogged:
At Least They're Consistent

My mom finally got a hold of one of our relatives in Iran to ask him what he thought about the Abu Ghraib business. Turns out, he had only seen the picture of the guy hooked up to the electrodes because Iranian TV won't show nudity. She pointed him to the Internet; I'll report back when I hear from him.
Ogged also points out that the clerics are developing a sense of purposeful irony:
Iran's hardline Guardian Council has approved a law banning police from using torture to extract confessions from criminal suspects.

The council, a 12-member cleric-dominated panel that approves or rejects Iranian legislation, had in the past quashed similar legislative attempts to protect prisoners from custodial abuse.
Avedon Carol links to an article explicating the spiritual messages of Buffy. Some excerpts:
Not so long ago, Ken Kuykendall stood before a group of Mormon teens in an Atlanta suburb, dressed in starched white shirt and dark tie. He was there, he said, to talk about serious things.

Then Kuykendall literally ripped off his shirt to reveal a "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" T-shirt and carefully laid out the moral values of the popular television show, featuring a sassy blonde in a micro-mini skirt who goes one-on-one with the world's nastiest demons.

The Mormon leader told his gum-chewing audience that Buffy was not too unlike them. For the most part, she was a spoiled, rich teenager in southern California who loved nothing more than shopping and shmoozing and clubbing in a place called Sunnydale. That is, until she discovered that dark forces were everywhere and only she had the supernatural powers to thwart them.

"The safety of the world routinely rests on her attractive, usually bare shoulders," Kuykendall told his startled audience. Time and again she had to sacrifice her own desires to save humanity and the planet.

And that is what Jesus Christ wants us to do, too, Kuykendall told the teens.

[ . . . ]

Still, the show depicts a world where evil never goes unpunished and doing good is its own reward.

"It's a medieval morality play -- only with skimpier clothes, wittier dialogue and cutting-edge music," says [religion scholar Jana] Riess, author of the just published What Would Buffy Do? The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide.

[ . . . ]

The characters explore notions about sin and forgiveness, friendship and failure, redemption and self-worth -- lightened up by puns and sarcasm and playfulness. And that's spiritual, too.

"I know every slayer comes with an expiration date, but I want mine to be a long time from now. Like a Cheeto," Buffy says in one episode.

Riess argues that the show, created by an avowed atheist, also abounds in Buddhist parallels.
Gary Farber points to a church whose reenactment of the Stations of the Cross included whipping the Easter Bunny. I don't know that there are any members of the clergy among my readership, but if there are, please tell me you don't do this. (Actually, I would be very surprised to learn that the member of the clergy among my readership even sponsors a Stations of the Cross reenactment. It seems somehow un-Presbyterian.)

In a similar vein, [ profile] yahtzee63 points to a 30-second remake of The Exorcist. Featuring bunnies.

What is up with all the carrots?
In my years of reading through the blogosphere, my proudest moment has to be the one in which Jim Henley quoted me. He hasn't done so recently, but last night he might as well have:
[Steven] Weinberg makes a plausible-sounding case that the Mars program, vaporware or not, is already cutting into NASA's science budget. He misses the obvious conspiracy theory for some reason. Which scientific research will suffer most heavily? Experimental cosmology. Which scientific research in NASA's purview would most naturally discommode the Christian fundamentalists in the President's base? Hey, I don't need two separate answers to dispose of both of these questions!
As I understand they say in the blogosphere, indeed.
Over at ATPo, there's a discussion about a possible season 5 scenario wherein Connor retains the powers he has as the product of a mystical union between two vampires, but not his memories of his time in LA, and then returns to AI seeking his true identity. Vash the Stampeder and Masq have independently arrived at the same basic plot (I'm claiming that I thought of a similar plot, but because I never wrote up my thoughts on "Home" like an interesting LJer and instead blathered witlessly about my icon, I can't prove this and you can safely ignore my bandwagon-jumping). While I was typing up a different scenario, one that is unfortunately more final, Vash posted another idea (wherein Connor just replaced another young man, who is going to want to get back to his family and out this imposter). I don't wish to discuss this scenario, or, really, the body of the post or anything about the earlier thread. I want to concentrate on one tiny little parenthetical. Vash writes, "Also, if Connor still possesses his powers (which I believe he does) [ . . . ]"

Less than 48 hours since we got a glimpse of new Connor in which his actions were basically passing the biscuits, and already people had beliefs as to what his powers are? It's not as if we've seen him leap over tall buildings in a single bound; there is not only no evidence with which to assess Connor's current powers, there haven't been any hints! And yet people are starting to believe things about him? I find this hard to comprehend.

Vash seems like a reasonable person, so I doubt he holds this belief so dearly as to declare a crusade against the infidels, but I have seen on the board at least several vicious debates between posters who knew in their hearts with absolute conviction that after Spike had been vamped, he went back to the party shown in "Fool For Love" and killed the people who had made fun of him (these posters swore he did it with a railroad spike, those providing the story Giles repeats in "School Hard"), posters who firmly believed that it was all part of Spike's blustery self-created mythos, and posters who repeated again and again that no evidence existed either way.

Ok, two points don't provide a stable foundation for a structured argument, but I wonder about this sort of belief. I think what Vash is saying is that he would, for dramatic reasons, prefer that Connor retain his powers (insofar as it would mean Kartheiser would return to the show, I share this preference). It makes for an interesting story, it brings a charismatic character back, and it dulls the knife that "Home" stuck in our hearts. By extension, I guess, this means that the people who argued that Spike went back and slaughtered the partygoers would somehow prefer the gruesome deaths of a whole bunch of innocent people to their survival. (In their defense, it should be pointed out that the partygoers were upper-class British twits, so those who believe Spike killed them can be excused. Ok, I should add that they were fictional upper-class British twits, so it's not like bad boy Spike fans are all deeply disturbed bloodthirsty homicidal maniacs. On a related note, I'd like to take this opportunity to welcome [ profile] deadsoul820 to my friends list!) Indeed this sort of strongly held preference supports a hell of a lot of LiveJournals, as it is (as Masq is discovering) the root of fanfickery. I am sure that there exist fanfics in which Spike does go back and cold-bloodedly exact revenge on the people who belittled his poetry. (I am also sure that there exist fanfics in which Spike engages each and every one of them in hot sex, but that's another discussion.)

How much does preference affect belief? Many people of the Book, at least on paper, seem to prefer a world with some sort of ultimate meaning, or where mercy is the ruling consideration, to one without meaning, without mercy; I can't blame them. I, on the other hand, call myself a skeptic, an agnostic, and an atheist. (These are overlapping but not identical categories: I am a skeptic because I do not like to accept notions until I believe that someone trustworthy has empirically investigated and verified them; I am an agnostic because I believe that the existence of God is not verifiable through empirical investigation; I am an atheist because, when you come down to it, I just don't believe in higher powers.) I suppose I do prefer a universe where humans have to accept all responsibility for their actions. I wonder about Gnostics and their spiritual relatives, though. Do they really prefer to live in a world that has been corrupted, to live among a poor, deluded mass of humanity? I suppose they prefer to be the few specially enlightened ones. I can understand that -- it is admittedly similar to why I call myself a skeptic; it gives me a vantage point from which to look down on the poor deluded mass of humanity. Still, I wonder if while I'm sneering at those faces I'm really just looking into a mirror.

I don't suppose a fanfic theory of religious studies will get anywhere, but what is Talmudic scholarship but fanwanking the Torah? And some Biblical fanfics are of Halo award-quality. There's been Jesus/Mary Magdalen het; for those who like their 'ships twisted and angsty, like Wes/Lilah and CLex, Jesus/Judas has to be the greatest slash ever told.

[My sincere apologies to Vash, Masq, dead soul, Spike fans, Christians, Muslims, atheists, Gnostics, anyone who has ever believed anything, anyone who enjoys good writing and serious thought, and my mother.]



April 2009

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