September 15, 2007


Note for first time readers: This blog usually covers fairly serious issues during the week. Weekends, however, are reserved for the contributions of various animals in and around Goat Rope Farm.

This weekend, we once again welcome our official film critic, Mr. Sandor Sege (pronounced Shandor SHEGG-ay). We must remind readers that Mr. Sege suffered a head injury when he crashed into a wall whilst chasing a squeaky toy. As a result, he has sometimes been known to transpose the plots of the films he discusses. Nonetheless, we are convinced that his unique insights into the world of cinema more than compensate for this regrettable shortcoming.

It is our deepest hope that such commentaries representing (bio) diverse viewpoints will elevate the level of public discourse and promote a greater appreciation of both the humanities and the animalities.


OK so this movie is about a pig and a spider. The pig is scared of getting eaten and this spider decides to help him out.

The whole movie takes place in this fancy resort in the Rocky Mountains where the spider, the pig and their kids are staying while it's closed. They're like supposed to take care of it during the winter or something.

The thing is, the resort is haunted and there's all kinds of ghosts in there. The pig starts getting really weird so the spider decides to get out.

She runs away and now she looks kind of like a blond. She decides to stay at the Bates Motel. The guy who works there is named Norman and he has some issues with his mother. Doodus says it's a Freudian movie.

I don't know about that but sometimes I kind wish something bad would happen to Doodus so I could have Moomus all to myself. Then I feel guilty about it...

Anyway, right at the time the blond spider woman gets in the shower, this guy Norman comes in but--this is the cool part--she follows this white rabbit who's late for a very important date down a rabbit hole where they drink tea and have an unbirthday party.

The rabbit and the blond spider woman go on this big road trip and drive off the Grand Canyon holding hands.

I think everybody forgot about the pig, which is my main criticism of this movie. The part where they had these jet battles was awesome though.


September 14, 2007


The guiding thread through this week's Goat Rope has been a series of musings on the ideas of determinism and its opposite, which is usually called free will. I prefer indeterminsm.

If this is your first visit, you are fated by eternal laws of causality to click on the earlier posts. Or maybe not.

One characteristic of philosophical debates about issues like this is that it kind of depends on how you look at it.

The late great American philosopher William James recounted the story of one such debate in his Pragmatism:

SOME YEARS AGO, being with a camping party in the mountains, I returned from a solitary ramble to find every one engaged in a ferocious metaphysical dispute. The corpus of the dispute was a squirrel - a live squirrel supposed to be clinging to one side of a tree-trunk; while over against the tree's opposite side a human being was imagined to stand. This human witness tries to get sight of the squirrel by moving rapidly round the tree, but no matter how fast he goes, the squirrel moves as fast in the opposite direction, and always keeps the tree between himself and the man, so that never a glimpse of him is caught. The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: Does the man go round the squirrel or not? He goes round the tree, sure enough, and the squirrel is on the tree; but does he go round the squirrel?

James was asked to settle the dispute, which he did as follows:

“Which party is right,” I said, “depends on what you practically mean by ‘going round’ the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the verb ‘to go round’ in one practical fashion or the other.”

There was method to his madness:

I tell this trivial anecdote because it is a peculiarly simple example of what I wish now to speak of as the pragmatic method. The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many? – fated or free? – material or spiritual? – here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right.

According to James, pragmatically speaking, accepting the idea of free will means "novelties in the world, the right to expect that in its deepest elements as well as in its surface phenomena, the future may not identically repeat and imitate the past." It means that improvements are at least possible. In James' words, it is a "theory of promise."

The other option is in effect to reduce humans to the status of objects that bounce off the walls of the universe with the predictability of billiard balls. I'm not convinced people are that kind of objects.

Come to think of it, I'm not even sure objects are that kind of objects...

THE LATEST ON THE MEGAN WILLIAMS CASE. Here are three items from the Gazette. At a meeting in Logan last night convened by AFSC attended by around 35 people, participants pledged to hold local law enforcement and prosecutors accountable, express support for the victim and her family, and work to bring the community together to respond in a positive way.

THE TRUTH ABOUT CHIP. President Bush is currently waging a preemptive war on the Children's Health Insurance Program. Here's a critique of his claims that the program undermines private health coverage.

NEW FIG TREE NOTES. Here's the latest edition of Jim Lewis' Notes from Under the Fig Tree.


September 13, 2007


El Cabrero is a big fan of audio books and lectures, especially those by The Teaching Company and The Modern Scholar.

Recently, I listened to one of the latter's offerings, an entertaining series on science fiction literature by Professor Michael D. C. Drout. Drout is one of those teachers who can make just about any subject interesting and fun.

It had been years and years since I read any science fiction, but I was moved to dive into one of the old-school hard-boiled epics of the 40s and 50s, Isaac Asmiov's Foundation Trilogy.

It was kind of a hoot and an interesting social artifact. Good though.

While it's set so many thousands of years into the future that nobody can remember for sure what planet the human race started out on, the characters talk and act like classic 50s males (with a few notable female exceptions).

The plot is about the decline of the galactic empire and a plan to rebuild a new one and save the galaxy from thousands of years of chaos and destruction through the application of the science of psychohistory. As developed by Hari Seldon, this science can predict the course of future events based on a statistical analysis of the actions of large groups of people, in this case over thousands of worlds and involving billions of people over thousands of years.

There are some limits to its predictive powers, however. It can't foresee the actions of individuals and its success depends on people not knowing about it, because this knowledge could change reality. As the story unrolls, things get a little dicey.

Asimov himself was moved to write it after re-reading Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

The thing that struck me most was how odd it seems now to imagine even in fiction a world with that degree of predictability. I think the universe and human history is open, if not for business, then at least for novelty and surprises.

THE LATEST ON THE LOGAN, WV CASE is that federal authorities do not plan to bring charges in the case of the abduction, rape, and torture of an African American woman. The state will proceed with its case, which could carry life imprisonment. I hope readers are aware that the people of West Virginia and of Logan County are horrified by this incident and that they avoid the all too human response of judging an entire population by the actions of a few. I expect this crime will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Residents of Logan will be meeting today to discuss a response to this horrible event.

THE POLITICAL BRAIN. Are conservatives and liberals really different when studied scientifically? You be the judge. Here's a start.

MORE LOSSES. Two of the soldiers who signed a recent NY Times op-ed critical of current policy were killed in Iraq. They did their duty in more ways than one.

HERE THEY GO AGAIN. Pro-Iraq war spin doctors are once again trotting out the long-discredited link between Iraq and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This is part of a major propaganda effort to revive support for this disaster.

IN CASE YOU WERE WORRIED that the earth may not survive the death of the sun in 5 billion years, relax.


September 12, 2007


Caption: This is him.

The guiding thread through this week's Goat Rope is the topic of determinism, which El Cabrero is writing about of necessity even though he doesn't quite buy it. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

When it comes to determinism, the French scientist Pierre Simon Laplace (1749-1827)was hardcore:

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.

In other words, he thought it was possible for an intellect that had all the correct information about a given moment to completely reconstruct the past and predict the future.

Note: he didn't refer to the hypothetical intellect as a demon; that title was bestowed by later writers.

The story is also told of his interview with the Napoleon, where he presented him a copy of his work. The Emperor said, "M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator."

He replied, "I had no need of that hypothesis."

One wonders what Einstein or Spinoza would have said. All I can say is that I find it easier to believe in Zeus' merry band of Olympian immortals than in a completely mechanistic universe.

THIS HORRENDOUS West Virginia story about the abduction and weeklong sexual abuse and torture of an African-American woman has made national news. Six suspects, all white, have been arrested. The FBI is participating in the investigation at the Logan County Sheriff's Department request and is investigating this as a hate crime. Here's the latest from today's Gazette. AFSC staff and others here are working now on a local response.

MORE ON THE SHOCK DOCTRINE AND DISASTER CAPITALISM. Yesterday's post mentioned Naomi Klein's new book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Here's another review from the NY Times and a link to a short film from her website. WV's own right wing is attempting to "unleash" its own version here.

WHAT DO THEY KNOW? Here are the results of a new poll of Iraqis about their views of the situation:

Barely a quarter of Iraqis say their security has improved in the past six months, a negative assessment of the surge in U.S. forces that reflects worsening public attitudes across a range of measures, even as authorities report some progress curtailing violence...

More Iraqis say security in their local area has gotten worse in the last six months than say it’s gotten better, 31 percent to 24 percent, with the rest reporting no change. Far more, six in 10, say security in the country overall has worsened since the surge began, while just one in 10 sees improvement...

More directly assessing the surge itself – a measure that necessarily includes views of the United States, which are highly negative – 65 to 70 percent of Iraqis say it’s worsened rather than improved security, political stability and the pace of redevelopment alike.

The survey was conducted by ABC News, BBC, and Japanese broadcaster NHK.

REMEMBERING THE CCC. The Charleston Daily Mail had a good piece yesterday on a reunion of Civilian Conservation Corps workers. New Deal era programs like that build a great deal of WV's--and the USA's--infrastructure. They had a real president back then, too.


September 10, 2007


Caption: These guys are all about free will.

El Cabrero is not a determinist, but some of my favorite people are. One such is the great (excommunicated) Jewish philosopher Baruch or Benedict Spinoza, who lived from 1632 to 1677.

Spinoza's masterpiece was The Ethics, which is a little misleading as a title. It's really about God, the universe, and everything--which, at the risk of oversimplifying, were all pretty much the same thing for him. It was written in the style of Euclidean geometry, with axioms and proofs.

Spinoza's universe was like the one Einstein wanted to live in, fully determined:

In nature there is nothing contingent, but all things have been determined from the necessity of the divine nature to exist and produce an effect in a certain way...

Things could have been produced by God in no other way, and in no other order than they have been produced.

Spinoza's God acts from the necessity of (fill in the appropriate pronoun) own nature. Needless to say, he believed that necessity applies to the rest of us as well. He once wrote to a friend that if a stone thrown through the air became conscious, it would think it was doing so of its own free will.

To be exact, he said,

Further conceive, I beg, that a stone, while continuing in motion, should be capable of thinking and knowing, that it is endeavouring, as far as it can, to continue to move. Such a stone, being conscious merely of its own endeavour and not at all indifferent, would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish. This is that human freedom, which all boast that they possess, and which consists solely in the fact, that men are conscious of their own desire, but are ignorant of the causes whereby that desire has been determined.

For that matter,

an infant believes that it desires milk freely; an angry child thinks he wishes freely for vengeance, a timid child thinks he wishes freely to run away. Again, a drunken man thinks, that from the free decision of his mind he speaks words, which afterwards, when sober, he would like to have left unsaid. So the delirious, the garrulous, and others of the same sort think that they act from the free decision of their mind, not that they are carried away by impulse.

For him, freedom consisted largely in becoming aware of necessity.

Far be it from me to dis Spinoza, but I'm not convinced that the universe is that tightly wrapped. I think we have a little wiggle room...

SIX YEARS AFTER. Six years after 9/11, this editorial from the Charleston Gazette looks at where we've been and where we're stuck.

MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL MINING has been getting a lot of national attention. This is from Wired.

GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS. The good news is that the federal minimum wage has finally been raised. The bad news is that it doesn't buy what it used to. Here's what is was worth in the past in constant 2007 dollars:

*1950 - $6.48
*1968 - $9.58
*1997 - $6.68
*2007 - $5.85

ANOTHER POST-MODERN MOMENT. IBM workers in Italy are going on a virtual strike in Second Life.

ALEX THE TALKING PARROT died at age 31. The African gray parrot astounded scientists with his vocabulary of over 100 words and apparent ability to do some basic counting and recognize colors and shapes.



Caption: Does this wild turkey move from choice, chance or necessity?

El Cabrero has been thinking about determinism lately. I couldn't help it...

Determinism is the idea that all things follow strict laws of nature and causality. That seems to have been a driving--if contested--force in the development of the natural sciences. After all, the apparent laws of physics seem to hold up pretty well to repeat observation most of the time. The speed of light doesn't vary a whole lot from day to day.

While most people would probably agree to the rule of law and causality in much of the natural world, it gets a little stickier in the case of living things and especially people. If strict determinism was the universal law of nature, it would be pretty odd to exempt ourselves from the rest of the world.

But is it?

The iconic physicist Albert Einstein spent much of his later career fighting a desperate rearguard action against quantum theory, which he ironically helped to launch. Quantum investigations--don't even ask me exactly what that means--seemed to suggest indeterminacy and a universe at least partially based on chance and probability.

In opposing this view, Einstein was probably more driven by temperament and philosophical preference than evidence.

In a long running and friendly debate with quantum theorist Niels Bohr, the deterministic Einstein used to insist that "God does not play dice with the universe."

Bohr countered by saying, "Who are you to tell God what to do?"

While the thoughts of Einstein and Bohr--let alone God--are far beyond this simple goatherd, I can't help believing that God loves dice--and that maybe dice-ness and God-ness are not two entirely separate things.

(Note: the contemporary physicist Stephen Hawking once said that "God not only plays dice, but sometimes throws them where they cannot be seen.")

Next time: Spinoza's stone.



RE: DOMESTIC SPYING, this is not a shock.

STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT. On a global scale, the difference in life expectancy between the rich and the poor is now 30 years, which is nothing to sneeze at. Prepositional correction: at which this is nothing to sneeze.

"UNLEASHING" DISASTER CAPITALISM. Here's an item by the UK Guardian about "markets" and violence.