The Laboratorium
August 2004

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Fossils as Faith

One line of attack you sometimes hear in the debate over the teaching of evolution in schools is that secularism is itself a relgion. This claim is usually stated with a tone of smug confidence. And though the scientists and other “secularists” are usually at pains to deny that their beliefs constitute a religion, they seem to share the belief that it would be a telling blow if they were.

I’m not so sure. Yes, calling science a “religion” does undercut the force of its claims to objective truth as a system for describing the world. But at the same time, it concedes to science all sorts of other powers that I don’t think creationists would be too happy to grant.

In the first place, religious arguments have a level of subjective incontestability that scientific ones don’t. If secularism truly is a religion, then its adherents are genuine in their faith. Asking a biologist to repudiate evolution would be like asking a Christian to abjure God. Indeed, notwithstanding the call to proselytize, it becomes positively offensive (in our civil society) to demand that devout secularists teach “theories” that are religiously repugnant to them.

And, secondly, calling secularism a religion gives it the ability to pass moral judgments. True, secularlism doesn’t mete out eternal punishment to unbelievers, but even religions without afterlives have profound moral teachings. Calling science faith gives the scientist license to claim that creationist beliefs are morally offensive and that proclaiming divine creation is sinful. Stirring up moral righteousness against themselves doesn’t strike me as being a very shrewd move by creationists.

Stoners and Stereotypes

I don’t want to make too much out of a film that quite self-conciously presents itself as a trifle. But Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle strikes me as one of the most nuanced and thoughtful portraits of race in America that I’ve seen in a while. Yes, it’s a stoner comedy, but it’s filled with bits that ring true—and I’m not just referring to its New Jersey geography.

Telephonic Disorientation

It’s pretty confusing when someone in a movie has the same cell phone ring as you—especially when you’ve never met anyone else who uses the same ring. In my case, I ran into the other room looking for my phone, only to come running back in bafflement after I found it silent.

The Past, That Other Country

I’ve been reading The Moonstone, by Dickens’s friend and contemporary Wilkie Collins. Collins is no Dickens: there are quite apparent reasons why Dickens has over a dozen novels in honorable active service, while Collins has only two. The Moonstone is a sentimental pot-boiler whose plot is, by turns, clever and too clever. Still, as the ur-detective novel, it offers the pleasure of presenting plenty of genre standards in their uncut form.

One of the striking things about reading 150-year-old genre fiction is that the lack of overtly “literary” qualities frees you to notice those assumptions that have changed in the last 150 years. To modern American ears, the omnipresence of class in Collins’s literary world is startling. It’s there in Dickens, with his colorful characters from all up and down the social hierarchies, but in Collins, it’s startlingly foregrounded.

It’s odd, for example, to read a detective novel in which the detective—universally acknowledged to be the best and most respected detective in the business—is considered so inferior to every other named character that his presence under the same roof can be an unbearable affront. An arisocrat can shut herself up in her room and refuse to speak to him without anyone thinking it suspicious. The servants consider it a grave affront to have him search their possessions: the only hope is if the gentry of the house willingly open up their own possessions to search, and a single refusal derails the entire plan.

Class has its own topography, too, in that intricate pattern of rules dictating the places to which people may and may not be admitted. A caller with an income can drop by uninvited and will be allowed into one of the downstairs rooms—but then must send a note upstairs to the host, without even knowing whether that esteemed personage is at home. The servants flit about freely, but leave the house-islands only on specific business. Everyone else is consigned to floating about the picturesque ports of call where their betters visit only when the plot requires such an excursion of them.

The effect is a bit like reading religious mysticism or cultural anthropology: while I can understand the descriptions and I can see how it works, but the mindset remains elusive, incomprehensible. I wonder how they’ll look back on our detective novels a century and a half from now.

Sometimes, They Just Write Themselves

The New York Times is reporting that Toys ‘R’ Us Says It May Leave the Toy Business. The snappy comebacks are just too easy.

  • Oh, you must have them confused with Toys ‘Backwards-R’ Us. Toys ‘Regular-R’ Us is just a hack imitator, and no wonder it’s failing.
  • Toys ‘Wuz’ Us.
  • If they both are and are not toys, then that’s a contradiction, so the system is inconsistent and all statements are provable, including the one that all prices are 99% off. Yay!

And many many others in the same vein.

That Obi-Wan Sense

I received one of my best compliments ever at work the other day:

You’ve got that Obi-Wan sense of serenity.

Let Me Get This Straight

When there’s an uptick in chatter, we get worried because it might be a sign of an impending terrorist attack, and when there’s a downtick in chatter, we also get worried because it might be a sign of an impending terrorist attack?

Do we also get worried when there’s no change in chatter because it might be a sign of an impending terrorist attack?

Who Votes for Nader?

I don’t ordinarily like simply to link to news stories (see, for example, my first post to the Lab, in which I decry “clip-n-comment” blogs), but sometimes there are tidbits buried in them that are just too good to resist (see, for example, my first post to the Lab, in which I nonetheless link to a news story).

The Times has an article about the Democrats’ sophisticated anti-Nader campaign. Stan Greenberg has been doing extensive polling to figure out who the Nader voters are and how to reach them:

Nader supporters, Mr. Greenberg’s polling shows, are generally older and angrier than other voters. They are fiercely against globalization and corporate dominance, and they are largely indifferent to social issues like abortion and gay marriage.

Sounds to me like a bunch of unreconstructed Marxists. Old enough to be nostalgic for the Soviet Union? Check. Angry as all get-out? Check. Strongly motivated by anti-capitalist economic issues? Check. Indifferent to social issues? Check. (After all, culture is epiphenomenal, and issues of social injustice are just by-products and consequences of the deeper economic inhumanity of the capitalist system.)

Either that, or they’re the doppelgangers of the libertarians: once you’re committed to a certain species of localism, the distinction between incredibly pro-capitalist and incredibly anti-capitalist is surprisingly weak. If you lump Naderites and Badnarikites together and call them all anarchists, you’re not too far from the truth, even if they’d love to claw each others’ eyes out. Holy wars are always fiercest within splinter sects.

Two early clues from the polling: when Nader supporters learned that Mr. Nader had accepted help and money from Republicans to get on the ballots in various states, they dropped away. And one of the few public figures who has credibility with Nader backers is former President Jimmy Carter, who is perceived as not compromised by or profiting from the political system.

Or, maybe they’re just ill-informed hard-line leftists, and it takes both the right kind of facts and the right kind of appeal to their sinister nature (or is that the left kind of appeal?) to wean them away.

Three Reasons to Like the Mountain Goats

First, the liner notes to Tallahassee include a quotation taken from A.W. Brian Simpson’s Cannibalism and the Common Law.

Second, John Darnielle is an insane genius of a lyricist in, loosely, the Bob Dylan or Stephin Merritt mode: able to wring pathos from the most unlikely of conceits. He’s particularly good at writing demented love songs. The chorus to “No Children” is “I hope you die / I hope we both die.” And yet it works.

Third, John is cool with fans taping his shows and sharing the recordings. That’s why I’m able to point you to a live version of “No Children.” If you like what you hear, you can check out the set that hooked me enough to buy an album … thereby exposing me to the liner notes, and completing the cycle.

This is a model that can work. A good sharing policy helps new people find out about your music. Good music makes fans out of them. And good packaging gives your new fans a reason to buy your actual albums.

I don’t know how media will work when the copyright convulsions have worked themselves out, but this particular experience encourages my hope that things may work out well.

Three Ways of Looking at a Drive-Thru Tree

  • I’m disappointed that there’s more than one.
  • It’s something of a rip-off not to mention the admission fee until you’re already in line at the gatehouse with cars both in front of and behind you.
  • A good test for whether your car is too big is whether it can fit through a tree. The SUV in front of us couldn’t, and it was glorious to behold.