July 2011 Archives

Today's moment of sanity is brought to you by Jon Stewart (h/t: David Taintor at TPM):

The Bulwer-Lytton contest (which "challenges entrants to compose bad opening sentences to imaginary novels") has announced their 2011 winner:

Cheryl's mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.

Sue Fondrie (Oshkosh, WI)

There are some real gems there, but the punster in me got a special chuckle out of the "Purple Prose" winner:

As his small boat scudded before a brisk breeze under a sapphire sky dappled with cerulean clouds with indigo bases, through cobalt seas that deepened to navy nearer the boat and faded to azure at the horizon, Ian was at a loss as to why he felt blue.

Mike Pedersen (North Berwick, ME)

At the risk of exhibiting a prematurely triumphalism, Nigel Barber's upcoming study looks promising. He wonders, "Why do modern conditions produce atheism?"

In a new study to be published in August, I provide compelling evidence that atheism increases along with the quality of life. [...] The reasons that churches lose ground in developed countries can be summarized in market terms.

First, with better science, and with government safety nets, and smaller families, there is less fear and uncertainty in people's daily lives and hence less of a market for religion. At the same time many alternative products are being offered, such as psychotropic medicines and electronic entertainment that have fewer strings attached and that do not require slavish conformity to unscientific beliefs.

The study's abstract is intriguing:

Findings show that disbelief in God increased with economic development (measured by lower agricultural employment and third-level enrollment). Findings further show that disbelief also increased with income security (low Gini coefficient, high personal taxation tapping the welfare state) and with health security (low pathogen prevalence). Results show that religious belief declines as existential security increases, consistent with the uncertainty hypothesis.

As people's actual lives improve, there is less need to imagine a supernatural successor.

David Sirota observes in "why Americans can't afford to eat healthy" that Americans' worsening eating habits (as in the Gallup poll showing that we're eating fewer servings of fruits and vegetables) is due less to epicureanism than economics. The Right's "carefully crafted mix of faux populism and oversimplification," writes Sirota, "dishonestly omits the most important part of the story. The part about how healthy food could easily be more affordable for everyone right now, if not for those ultimate elitists: agribusiness CEOs, their lobbyists and the politicians they own:"

...the tale of the American diet is a story of the worst form of corporatism -- the kind whereby the government uses public monies to protect private profit.

In this chapter of that larger tragicomedy, lawmakers whose campaigns are underwritten by agribusinesses have used billions of taxpayer dollars to subsidize those agribusinesses' specific commodities (corn, soybeans, wheat, etc.) that are the key ingredients of unhealthy food. Not surprisingly, the subsidies have manufactured a price inequality that helps junk food undersell nutritious-but-unsubsidized foodstuffs like fruits and vegetables. The end result is that recession-battered consumers are increasingly forced by economic circumstance to "choose" the lower-priced junk food that their taxes support. [...]

The aggregate effect of such market manipulation across the agriculture industry, notes Time [from NYT], is "that a dollar [can] buy 1,200 calories of potato chips or 875 calories of soda but just 250 calories of vegetables or 170 calories of fresh fruit."

Subsisting on poor-quality foods with high caloric contents will doubtlessly cause even more problems as the Great Recession continues.

In writing is bad for you, The Guardian's Rick Gekoski wonders about readers' "need to justify the reading and study of imaginative literature." "I wonder, too," he asks, "if this insistence on the improving qualities of our baptismal dips into the waters of literature does not blind us to the real thrill of reading; the recurrent reason why we come back for more, remember, quote, argue, share our experience of books?"

For me, reading needs to be justified not in terms of some notional moral benefit but - that more dangerous and enticing category - pleasure. I read because I love to read, because, in the company of a book, I am happy, engaged, and inexorable. This may well be bad for me, as selfish pursuits often are: taking me out of contact with my nearest and dearest, making me shirk obligations from washing up to keeping up. "I am reading! Leave me alone!" is the mantra of every true reader.

Writing, he observes, is far more detrimental than reading:

It has become increasingly clear to me over these last 10 years, in which I have written more regularly than before, that the more I write the worse I become. More self-absorbed, less sensitive to the needs of others, less flexible, more determined to say what I have to say, when I want and how I want, if I could only be left alone to figure it out. [...] It is embarrassing, being thus conquered by an inward voice desperate to formulate, reconsider, construct, deconstruct, seek out the right phrase, amend it, think again.

I could post much more frequently if my perfectionist procrastination weren't quite so pronounced.

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