At Seventeen

Janis Ian wrote “At Seventeen” in 1973, at the age of 22. She was already somewhat well-known for an earlier protest song, “Society’s Child”. “At Seventeen” — it seems astonishing to me now– became a huge hit, on the pops singles charts, eventually reaching #1.

Here’s a bit of interesting trivia: Janis Ian appeared on the very first episode of “Saturday Night Live” and performed this song.

I don’t know of any other song like it. How many singer-songwriters would write and perform these lines:

And murmur vague obscenities
To ugly girls like me, at seventeen.

About the same number as those who would write a song like “Donald and Lydia”.

The song, if you’re not familiar with it, is about the judgments teenagers make about each other, about “those of us with ravaged faces/lacking in the social graces”, about excluding those who fall short– those who are too short or clumsy for basketball, who never receive valentines, and never get to hear those “vague obscenities”– the most rich and allusive line in the song. It is suggested that the beauty queens will get their comeuppance:

So remember those who win the game
Lose the love they sought to gain
In debentures of quality
and dubious integrity

The small town eyes will gape at you
In dull surprise when pain in due
Exceeds accounts received
At seventeen.

I’m not sure what that means. That the love you get for being beautiful is of “dubious integrity”? Temporary? Transient? I thought the song would have worked better if the “small town eyes” were “gaping” at the wrecks of the lives of those who were excluded because of their “ravaged faces” and who found solace in other places, like drugs, self-abasement, whatever. And I’m not sure that just because you’re beautiful you can’t have true love.

Either way– “exceeds accounts received”– is a clever line. Either way, your punishment, your suffering will never be the amount you deserve. Oh how badly we want to cling to the idea that you do deserve what you get. In almost all the movies about people with disabilities who overcome monumental obstacles to “succeed”, the person with the disability is glamorized. They are disabled, but beautiful, or charming, or peaceful and quietly stoic, like Michael Oher in “Blind Side”. They make you feel good because you tell yourself that you would have behaved decently to this poor, unfortunate soul.

Would we behave as decently to unfortunate souls who don’t have anything lovable about them? Who don’t agree to be the “canvas” upon which we paint our own virtue?

John Prine, an indispensable artist, wrote the song “Donald and Lydia” in 1971, and it appeared on his brilliant first album “John Prine” (which also included “Sam Stone”, “Flag Decal”, and “Hello in There”–three other great songs).

Here’s a taste:

Lydia hid her thoughts like a cat
Behind her small eyes sunk deep in her fat
She read romance magazines up in her room
And felt just like Sunday on Saturday afternoon.

Lydia and Donald are both ill-equipped to have any kind of success in society. They are unattractive, socially inept, and they know it. They’re like Janis Ian’s seventeen-year-old girl– desperate for a shot at love.

They are as real as your right hand, but they are very, very rarely the subject of music or song or film, in our society. We’re too busy selling phony stories that worship women like Leigh-Ann Touhy (Blind Side) while short-changing the very people she wants to help by reducing them, as they say, to “canvases upon which we paint the image of our own virtue”.

Lydia is just plain fat. Donald is just one of “too many”, a private first class in the army.

There were spaces between Donald
And whatever he said
Strangers had taught him to live in his head
He envisioned the details of romantic scenes
After midnight in the stillness of the barracks latrine

Donald and Lydia find each other– in their dreams. In a flight of fancy, Prine imagines them reaching out from their homely little enclaves of self-doubt, across the ether and flotsam of human insensitivity, to find each other and connect in some mystical, orgasmic union of lost souls.

They made love in the mountains
they made love in the streams
they made love in the valleys
they made love in their dreams
and when it was over
there was nothing to say
’cause mostly they made love from 10 miles away.

There are very, very few movies that deal honestly with the harsh facts of life for people like Donald and Lydia and girls with “ravaged faces”. Since most of North America believes that the function of entertainment is to allow you to escape from your dreary little life into fantasies…

Perhaps the best, still, is Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty” (1955), about a likeable Italian American butcher with no illusions about himself or his prospects.

Great Dialogue (from “Roger Dodger” 2002)

Roger: You can’t sell a product without first making people feel bad.
Nick: Why not?
Roger: Because it’s a substitution game. You have to remind them that they’re missing something from their lives. Everyone’s missing something, right?
Nick: I guess.
Roger: Trust me. And when they’re feeling sufficiently incomplete, you convince them your product is the only thing that can fill the void. So instead of taking steps to deal with their lives, instead of working to root out the real reason for their misery, they go out and buy a stupid looking pair of cargo pants.

Irreducible Complexity

It’s a red herring.

The main problem with the argument of irreducible complexity, as advanced by Michael Behe, for example, is far simpler than I think most respondents have described.

What Behe and others do is look at a complex organism the way you could look at an arrangement of thousands of marbles on a gym floor. You look at this arrangement, marvel at it, admire the different colours and patterns that are displayed, and then ask yourself, what kind of force could have placed all these marbles in exactly these locations?

It’s unimaginable: the effort, planning, and skill required to have every marble end up in exactly the place it ended up in! How could anyone believe that it was the result of a random process?

Behe implicitly assumes that the marbles were somehow destined to be in exactly the locations they ended up in. The goal of history was to put each marble in exactly that one place and no other. That is because he implicitly assumes there was a “creator” who intended all of the marbles to be exactly where they were. And he assumes that we humans, exactly as we are, are exactly what the end result of creation or evolution was intended to be all along.

But evolution doesn’t hold the view that the process of natural selection was designed or destined to produce a human being with all the characteristics we now have. The marbles ended up where they were through the process of being spilled onto the floor, hitting each other, bouncing a certain height, rolling and colliding with each other. Evolution holds that innumerable factors under extremely diverse conditions with almost infinite combinations of effects influenced the development of species in ways that may not have been consciously “designed” in a human sense.

Or might have been. Evolution does not claim to know why the marbles rolled onto the floor. They might have been rolled there by God, after all. Evolution doesn’t and couldn’t claim to know that. That is the purview of religion.

I said “human sense” because I don’t believe there is the slightest obstacle, in evolution, to a belief in God, who may well have created the world in exactly the way science suggests it was created: with a big bang millions of years ago, with simple life forms adapting and growing more complex and splattering into diversity as conditions changed, and “evolving” into what we now call human, with the miracle of consciousness, and the inexplicable: a sense of humour, memories, music, and a capacity for tears. Where’s the problem, for the believer? There is none, except, ironically, for the limitations of human knowledge, demonstrated most vividly in the Intelligent Design movement which tries to solve a problem that does not exist.

How constricted is the Intelligent Design hypothesis? What is more amazing, and reflects more vividly the glory of God: the stunning diversity of life forms and geological shapes of the earth? Or those prudish zealots with their black markers and their wagging fingers who don’t know that they don’t know what the act of creation looks like.

I have a solution to the whole problem of religion vs. science on the issue of evolution.

The Bible says that God “created” the world. I hope that even devout, conservative, Bush-loving Christians might agree that the meaning of the word “create” is, at heart, a bit of a mystery. When we say someone “created” a house, we don’t mean he invented wood and glass. We mean he obtained or created a design, gathered all the necessary material components, assembled a crew, and put everything together into a “house”. It beggars, for example, the question of who created glass.

When we say God “created” the world, however, we mean he created the design and assembled the parts, but he also created the parts– from nothing.

We have as much reason to believe that he did it in one literal instant in a human sense as we have for the belief that he did it over billions of years, from a single point in space, outwards, and in a single point of time, outwards. Space did not even exist in a meaningful sense, nor did time, until God filled it.

How dare Michael Behe insist that he knows that “create” means “in the exact space and time in which we now live”?

Obviously, God willed creation into existence. What is the obstacle, then, to believing that science is merely the systematic study of the evidence of that act of creation? Science is the study of how God “created” the world. I would say that we know now that God probably did not make everything appear everywhere (where it is today) in one instant. He appears to have started the act of creation in one specific location, and the event spread outwards from there– and still spreads outwards today.

I need a name for this. How about: “Scientific Creationism”? “Ontological Intelligence”? Then I need to create a private Foundation and a text book and find some fat donors and give some speeches at gatherings of Republican Christians where I rail against homosexuality and gun control and those arrogant educated elites who think they’re smarter than us and the sins our age that are all the result of scientific atheism.

I will soon be rich.

Thank you.

Wiki onĀ Irreducible Complexity

The Naked Assassin: Nidal Malik Hasan

Nidal Malik Hasan killed 14 soldiers the other day, at Fort Hood, Kileen, Texas.

Hasan was an army psychiatrist who was supposed to help frustrated and anxious soldiers deal with their issues before being sent back to war, or civilian life. He was also a devout Muslim. Republicans are sounding the alarm about this– kind of screeching, really, that you can’t trust a Muslim, and that this whole idea of “tolerance” and respect for diversity, should be shelved in a favor of a good, old-fashioned, bitchin’ jihad.

Pat Robertson solemnly intoned that Islam is a religion of death. This, from the guy who supports the death penalty and once advocated assassinating Hugo Chavez.

Hasan is a Muslim. He apparently became more and more disturbed about the idea of serving an army that was involved in war against Muslims as it became clear that he himself was going to be deployed to Afghanistan. I suppose he wouldn’t have been bothered if we had been making war on fellow Christians, as in World War I and II, or Buddhists, or Hindus or Communists.

Come to think of it– why was it a problem? In all of the history of the world, has the religion of our enemies ever been a factor in whether or not we were gladly willing to slaughter thousands of them without mercy? My goodness, Mr. Hasan– what’s your problem? Why are you in the military in the first place? If you don’t want to kill people….

The real reason we kill people is, usually, money. Oil. What’s love got to do with it?

Or is it race, after all? If Germany had continued to fight like the Japanese, would we have used the nuclear bomb on Berlin? Do you even wonder for a moment? Never.

When I first heard about the shootings at Fort Hood, I thought, well, there you go: another trained killer does his job. Why are we surprised? Why is anyone surprised when, occasionally, trained killers “go off” without orders, without a plan, without logic, except that blinding, incoherent fury at the world?

But Hasan is a Muslim. He is a devout Muslim. He went to a strip club. That’s right– several times, shortly before the shooting, where he paid girls to give him lap – dances. So how did we know he was a “devout” Muslim? Because he said so? The way we say so, when we proclaim that we are devout Christians, going off to destroy Iraq even though it had nothing to do with 9/11?

There was usually more than one customer at the strip club, and most of them were not “devout” Muslims.

Senator Joe Lieberman insists that he is going to investigate if the army did a lousy job of assessing the risk posed by Dr. Hasan, since he clearly proclaimed his ethical problems with serving in the American army long before he exploded into the news.

Now let me be clear– I don’t think anybody can know for sure, in advance, just who is going to be the next mass killer in America. If the signs were that clear, you would hear about people being detained because some credible experts believed these persons were about to go on a shooting spree. Never happens. Why? Because we can’t know who is about to do it. Well, yes, there is that constitutional issue– but Bush solved that and Obama doesn’t seem poised to change it. Yes, we can arrest and detain and even torture people who have not committed any crimes. Damn right. Bless you, Rudolph Giuliani.

It seems to me that the army was actually quite sensible about dealing with Hasan. I would bet that he wasn’t the only Muslim in the army who expressed strong misgivings about the mission to Afghanistan. I would bet that there was not a single “unmistakable” sign that he was about to do what he did. Unless you count the fact that he bought some guns.

But then again, he was in the army. Then again, he was in America.

It is my understanding that the Obama Administration is continuing George Bush’s policy of “extraordinary rendition”– detaining and hold terror suspects and shipping them to other countries like Egypt or Jordan or Syria to be tortured.

Was there ever a bigger public illusion than the illusion of democracy in the U.S.?

The Sacred and Holy Torch of the Olympian Majesty and Dignity of Overpriced Stadiums

I just read that the RCMP and other police forces are out in force to protect the Olympic torch from being molested by protesters. The protesters think that the billions spent on the Olympics would be better spent on the poor.

There was even a helicopter in the air above the relay, to ensure that Al Qaeda didn’t swoop down and DOUSE the torch.

This is hysterical. This is the stupidest thing I’ve heard of this week– and we are in the middle of H1N1 hysteria, so that’s an accomplishment.

What is the cost of this police protection? Probably in the millions. Well, here’s a more cost-effective solution: buy more torches and tell the police to go stop people from breaking the law instead. When the protesters try to grab the torch, give it to them. Say, “here you go”. Done. Take another torch out and resume the run.

Probably, the protesters won’t find this any fun and will quickly disperse. Even if they don’t– big deal. Nobody gets hurt and nobody loses any sleep.

I’m not big on big, empty, symbolic gestures anyway, so, as far as I’m concerned, this torch run, which has become ridiculously irrelevant to everything, should be abolished anyway.

I used to think it was kind of cool… until I found out that they don’t even pay the slightest respect to the original purpose or tradition of the run. It has become a joke– a big fund-raising extravaganza, and a way to hype the games and make you think that everyone is all excited by the Olympics even if we can’t possibly afford a ticket (while we pay through the nose, through our taxes, for the facilities for it).


You would think we all would have learned about hysterical over-reactions from the hysteria surrounding SARS in in 2003, and the even more over the top hysteria over Avian flu in 2006.

But then, many people don’t think it was an over-reaction. Many people believe we were almost swept by a deadly virus that could have killed … well…. I have no idea. I have no idea how many people many people think it might have killed. Nobody will say. Nobody will say because if they did say, they would quoted frequently when we find out that the real numbers are not quite anything like the predicted numbers, or the monumental solemnity with which Peter Mansbridge intones the phrase “pandemic”.

All we know is that SARS actually killed about 774 people world wide. Avian flu? When is the last time you saw a headline on that? Right– way before Michael Jackson died.

Now you may think that 774 is a big number. And it is– by all means. That’s a lot of death. It may sound rather clinical to observe, however, that compared to a number of other causes, it’s not really a very high number. Car accidents? Cancer? Homicide? Starvation? Every year about 4,000-5000 people die from seasonal flu alone in Canada, and about 40,000 to 50,000 in the U.S. When is the last time you saw twenty headlines in a row about those deaths? Why? Don’t they matter?

The problem is that every few years– on schedule, it seems– the media whip us all into a frenzy over some new virus that supposedly is going to decimate the population and destroy our civilization. Do you recall Legionnaire’s Disease? SARS, of course. Avian flu. With the notable exception of the AIDS virus, none of these actually had much of impact beyond the usual seasonal swell of flu deaths. SARS is reported to have been “contained”. What on earth does that mean? Sports and other events were cancelled; anyone with a temperature was quarantined; nurses wore masks; thermal scanners were installed at airports. Did any of this actually have any effect on the spread of SARS? I don’t believe it.

I’m not sure yet about getting vaccinated myself.

Fear drives bad politics. When people are willing to wait in line for eight hours to get a flu shot, you know that they will not countenance a government that says “the media are exaggerating the problem– there’s really not much the government can or should do to prevent the spread of H1N1”. The government knows that it better look like it’s doing something. The media know that the government knows that it better look like it’s doing something. Both of them want to feel important, so we have the sober Peter Mansbridge solemnly intoning that “Canadians are concerned”– as if he had some hotline to the brains of 30 million people– that not enough vaccine is available for every Canadian.

Do Vaccinations matter? A fascinating article from the Atlantic Monthly.

And an even more fascinating article in Wired which draws the opposite conclusion.

Which is more persuasive? Right now, I lean towards the Wired article because one of it’s main points is that the public has a foolish tendency to ignore the science and go with their feelings. It was the government– not the scientists– that announced that vaccines would no longer use thimerosal even though it was safe, so that the vaccines would be safer. They might have also announced that they were making witchcraft illegal, not because there are witches, but because we will all be less likely to suffer from magic spells.

Bill on SARS.

Now this one tops them all: the CBC is doing an online poll to ask viewers what story Wendy Mesley should cover tonight. One of her possible topics is this: can the public be trusted in a pandemic? I am not kidding. (Unfortunately, it is winning.)

What the hell is that supposed to mean? That the government should not compel people to get vaccinated?


The contemptible CBC: my wife and I have watched the CBC national news for about 15 years now. I used to think they were reasonably sober and serious and comprehensive, aside from occasional hysterics about SARS or Princess Diana… I don’t know– maybe they never were. We want some Canadian news, so I was reluctant to switch exclusively to McNeil-Lehrer but maybe it’s time. I was disgusted with their coverage of the SARS crisis back in 2003 and I am even more disgusted with their coverage of H1N1 now. The CBC has gone absolutely hysterically over the top this time.

From Wikipedia: As of 22 April, all Canadian SARS cases were believed to be directly or indirectly traceable to the originally identified carriers. SARS was not loose in the community at large in Canada, although a few infected persons had broken quarantine and moved among the general population. No new cases had originated outside hospitals for 20 days