Aug 29

Pretty People Behaving Stupidly

I’ve been learning about the romance genre recently. I have no intrinsic interest in it at all, but I have an intelligent friend who plows through romances the way I read SF, and we’ve been discussing the conventions and structural features of the genre. Along the way I’ve learned that romance fans use an acronym TSTL which expands to “Too Stupid To Live”, describing a class of bad romance in which the plot turns on one or both leads exhibiting less claim to sophont status than the average bowl of clam dip.

My wife and I have parts in an upcoming live-action roleplaying game set in early 16th-century Venice. As preparation, she suggested we watch a movie called Dangerous Beauty set in the period. I couldn’t stand more than about 20 minutes of it. “It’s just,” I commented later “pretty people behaving stupidly.”

On reflection, I’ve discovered that PPBS describes a great deal of both the fiction and nonfiction I can’t stand. It’s a more general category that includes not just TSTL, but celebrity gossip magazines, almost every “romantic comedy” ever made, and a large percentage of the top-rated TV shows (especially, of course, the soap operas).

Obviously there’s a huge market for this stuff. I must be from Mars or something, because I don’t get it. How is wallowing in PPBS any different from going to the zoo to watch monkeys masturbate?

B-but… half my readers are probably spluttering, “…those are monkeys. PPBS is about people. Their hopes, their loves, their foolishness and dreams.” Yeah. And your point is? The entire emotional range of PPBS is duplicated in the social dynamics of any chimpanzee band; that’s exactly what makes it so boring.

There is nothing there about what actually makes us human, neither the good stuff like science and art and discovery nor the bad stuff like warfare and governments. In a universe of satoris and supernovas, the people who produce and consume PPBS only care about who slept with or dissed or made up with who.

I find that truly sad.

UPDATE: I’m a shadow Tourette’s Syndrome case, not a shadow autist like many other geeks. Nevertheless, this description of neurotypicality seems relevant.

Aug 28

Katrina and the Kos

About twelve hours ago I toyed with the idea of writing a satire in
which the Bush-haters blame W. for the magnitude of the disaster
bearing down on New Orleans. I discarded the idea on the grounds that
it’s (a) not funny, and (b) not believable enough. I mean, who could
really imagine that theory even from a barking moonbat?

Shows you what I know. One of the contributors at Daily Kos has already
flung those feces,
before Katrina lands, yet. And — here’s the funny part —
the charge is already falsified by the facts on the ground.

I’m not a fan of George W. Bush. But when his opponents are
this transcendently foaming-at-the-mouth idiotic, it’s hard not to
wind up supporting him.

Aug 28

People Getting Brighter, Culture Getting Dimmer

In response to my previous post noting that the Flynn effect turns out to be a mirage, at least two respondents have suggested that average IQ has actually been falling, and have pointed to the alleged dumbing-down of politics and popular culture in the last fifty years.

I think both those respondents and the psychometricians are correct. That is, it seems to me that during my lifetime I’ve seen evidence that average IQ has risen a little, but that other traits involved in the “smart or stupid” judgment have eroded.

Continue reading

Aug 26

Out like Flynn

Renowned pychometrician Charles Murray has given us, in The
Inequality Taboo
, a concise summary of the most current science on
group differences in IQ and other measures of capability. Most of it
is not surprising to anybody who has been following the actual science
rather than press accounts severely distorted by the demands of
political correctness.

There is some new information here, however, and perhaps the most
interesting bit is that turns out to be much less to the Flynn effect
than meets the eye. The Flynn effect is the long-term rise in average
IQ scores recorded since IQ began to be measured in the early 20th
century. Advocates of the view that IQ is unimportant or meaningless
have seized on the Flynn effect to argue that IQ is either (a) a
statistical artifact, or (b) almost entirely environmentally driven
(and thus can presumptively be increased by correct social

Murray’s news is that the Flynn effect is not being driven by a
rise in average g, the measure of general mental ability that accounts
for over 50% of variance in almost all kinds of mental aptitude tests.
Since Spearman discovered the ‘g’ statistic, almost all psychometricians
have accepted that IQ is interesting precisely because it is a good
approxmation of g. Thus, the Flynn effect is basically a mirage —
it’s taking place in the noise, not the signal.

I’m not entirely sure what this means yet, and I don’t believe
Murray or other psychometricians have gotten to the bottom of it
either. But at minimum, it’s very suggestive that IQ differences are
either genetic or driven by environmental factors over which we have
little control. Spearman’s g, in particular, is notoriously
intractable. It is highly heritable according to separated-twin
studies. And while there is good evidence that it can be lowered from
its ‘natural’ genetic level by unfavorable environment (such as poor
childhood nutrition), it apparently can’t be raised by a favorable

Indeed, Murray reports in a footnote evidence from a study in
Denmark that the Flynn effect has leveled off since the early 1990s.
Thus, it may be that we have already maxed out the effects of wealth
and better nutrition on the both the g and non-g components of IQ that
we can manipulate.

Aug 25

Blame The Audience

In Summer
Fading, Hollywood Sees Fizzle
, a writer for the New York
explores the theory that movie attendance is tanking
because the quality of all too many mega-hyped “major movies” has
plunged into the crapper. Well, no shit, Sherlock — what was
your first clue? Pearl Harbor? Alexander?
Mission Impossible II? What’s really news about this story is
that it’s news — a startling break from the blame-the-audience
thinking so prevalent in Big Media over the last decade.

Continue reading

Aug 02

Libertarian realism

I hate war. Even when the results of defeat would be worse than
the results of war, I hate war. It kills people and makes government
stronger. But when the results of defeat would be worse, I face
reality and support war.

Our Islamist enemies want to kill us all — starting with Jews and
gays, but continuing to anyone who doesn’t convert to Islam and accept
shari’a and the whole nine yards. That’s not melodrama, it’s
reporting of the plain and simple statements Al-Qaeda uses in their
recruiting videos. They want to kill us all. They demonstrated
the deadly seriousness of this aim on 9/11.

The choice between “support the war” and “allow the pressure off of
enemies who want to kill us all” is not a difficult one. As a libertarian,
I’m deeply sorry we live in a world where governments are doing the fighting
for us, and I fear the consequences of the power they will amass while
doing so. But I don’t see an alternative.

If I had a magic wand that could instantly materialize a world of
private security agencies, insurance pools, and mercenaries capable of
fighting the war on terror, I would have waved it long before 9/11.
But I am not capable of changing the objective conditions of the war
any more than I am of changing the murderous intentions of our

Though I’ve been accused of abandoning my libertarianism for a
conservative position, I still believe in the non-initiation of force
as strongly as I ever have. I saw one damn huge freaking initiation
of force on 9/11 — not just an attack on one city or one country
but an assault on Western civilization. Everything al-Qaeda’s
propaganda organs have said since confirms that is what they intend.

George Orwell, writing during World War II, wrote:

Pacifism is objectively pro-fascist. This is elementary common
sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side, you automatically
help out that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining
outside such a war as the present one. In practice, ‘he that is not
with me is against me.’”

If Orwell were alive today, I have no doubt he would view this war
as equally pressing, nor which side of it he would choose. And all
libertarians should heed his words. We’ve shown far too much of a
tendency to slide into denial about the war on terror and the
consequences of refusing to fight it.

Sliding off into denial and fantasyland is not noble, it’s an
abdication of our responsibility as human beings and members of a
civilization. If that denial becomes “the” libertarian position, our
statist opponents will damn us as for deserting our neighbors and our
civilization in its hour of need — and they will be right to
damn us.

Other libertarians may fail this test. I will not.

Aug 02

The “Bush Lied” lie

Today’s entry in the Belgravia Dispatch
does an excellent job of demolishing the “Bush lied, people died!”
canard so popular among the anti-war left — Greg Djerejian
echoes my own conclusions when he writes: “But if you dig into the
weeds of the investigations that have taken place — one must
judiciously conclude that he didn’t.”

But let’s suppose that George W. Bush had in fact lied about Iraqi
WMD during that State of the Union address. I long ago concluded that
I would not care if he had lied. To see why, let’s try looking at this from
George Bush’s (simulated) point of view…

Continue reading

Jul 26

Kurds in the Coal Mine

How will we know if the attempt to reconstruct Iraq is failing?

This is a serious question. With as much hysterical anti-Iraq-war,
anti-Bush-Administration fabrication going in the media as there has
been, it’s tempting for a rational person to dismiss every negative
report as just another load of Michael Mooronism and dismiss it. That
would be a mistake. Things could still go very bad there. How would
we tell?

Continue reading

Jul 24

Sowing Dragon’s Teeth

David Lucas’s op-ed
in the Knoxville News-Sentinel combines with this story about active-duty military personnel criticizing Edward
Kennedy and Dick Durbin’s “gulag” rhetoric about Guantanamo Bay to suggest something interesting about the long-term political impact of the Iraq War.

Historically, one of the major byproducts of American wars is politicians. While it’s rare for a career military man to carve out a successful political career as Dwight Eisenhower did, there’s a strong pattern of non-career junior officers serving in combat returning to civilian life to become successful politicians. John Kerry, though he failed to win the presidency, has had a successful enough political career to count as one of the most recent examples.

I expect the Iraq war will produce a bumper crop of future politicians from its junior officer corps — men like David Lucas who are already making public names for themselves. So it’s worth asking what these people believe, and how the lessons they’re learning in Iraq will affect the attitude they bring to careers in civilian politics.

Recent surveys showing that 80% of the serving military officer corps voted Republican in 2004 combine with exceptionally high in-theater re-enlistment rates and op-eds like Lucas’s to paint a picture of a military that believes very strongly in the rightness of the Iraq war — a belief which appears to be strong not just among careerists but among short-timers who expect to return to civilian life as well. A related piece of evidence is negative but almost equally strong; the anti-war wing of U.S. politics has failed to discover or produce any returning veterans of Iraq who are both able to denounce the war effectively in public and willing to do so.

We already know, because they’re telling us themselves in mil-blogs, that the military serving in Iraq has developed a bitter contempt for the mainstream media. Biased, shoddy, and selective reporting with a heavy sensationalist and anti-war slant has had consequences; it has played well among bicoastal liberals in the U.S. but angered and alienated the troops on the ground. They know that reality there is greatly different from what’s being reported, and increasingly they’re willing to say so.

The Washington Times story shows that anti-war posturing by leading Democrats is angering and alienating the serving military as well. An increasing number seem to think they are seeing what is in effect a conspiracy between the mainstream media and the Democrats to make a just war unwinnable in order to score domestic political points. In the longer run, this is a disaster in the making for Democrats. It means that this war’s crop of successful politicians and influence leaders probably going to trend Republican and conservative to an unprecedented degree.

This is not a prospect that fills me with glee. Given their military background, the political children of the Iraq war seem more
likely to reinforce the authoritarian/cultural-conservative side of the Republican split personality than the small-government/libertarian one. In the worst case, military resentment of the Democrats could fracture the strong unwritten tradition that keeps the serving military out of civilian politics. That could be very bad.

I think that worst case is still quite unlikely. But if it happens, the Democrats and the mainstream media will have nobody but themselves to blame. Their irresponsible and destructive political games have sown dragon’s teeth; let’s hope we don’t all come to regret the harvest.

Jul 22

American Empire Redux

A respondent to my previous post on American Empire said “For non-Americans, the concern is not necessarily “does America behave like an empire?”, but “can we trust it not to act like one when the chips are down?” (e.g. if oil supplies dwindle to the point where the US economy is at real risk).

The answer is “of course not!”. You can never trust any nation-state not to go imperialist in a crisis of that kind, if it has the power to do so. But the United States is demonstrably exceptional in one important respect; it doesn’t hold on to its gains when the survival crisis is over.

Ask the Japanese or Germans, defeated in World War II and ruled by American proconsuls for years afterwards. Both became independent and prosperous nations. Or ask the Iraqis — defeated twice by the U.S., but now drafting their own constitution.

Contrast this with the great 19th-century and early 20th-century imperia. The British pattern was to shellack the hell out of the natives when they got uppity, then rule them lightly and (with only sporadic exceptions) quite benevolently. This was a small improvement on the French and German empires (almost as civilized, rather more nakedly exploitative) and a large one on the extremely brutal Belgian, Japanese, and Russian empires. But the Americans go the Brits one better; they civilize the natives and then get the hell out.

And why is this? I was travelling in Europe a few years back, and some Euroleftie began blathering in my presence about America’s desire to rule the world. “Nonsense,” I told him. “You’ve misunderstood the American character. We’re instinctive isolationists at bottom. We don’t want to rule the world — we want to be able to ignore it.”

The play of expressions on his face as he rethought his history was hilarious to watch. The other Europeans laughed at him, as well they might. Because it’s true. Whatever Americans may get up to abroad when some Hitler or Hussein needs squashing, at the end of the day they invariably do the one thing no previous global hegemon’s soldiers ever have. They go home.

Jul 21

American Empire

The American Left, and some of the Buchananite/isolationist elements of the American Right, have spent a lot of time and rhetorical energy fretting about the “American Empire”, and/or the “global system of American hegemony”. Lee Harris has written a very informative essay on Hegemony vs. Empire in which he points out that these two words mean different things, and delves into the history of “hegemony” as a form of voluntary organization of groups of states against external threats.

Harris’s implicit point is that in the post-9/11 world, confusion between “hegemony” and “empire” serves the ideological purposes of the enemies of our civilization — the head-hackers, the suicide-bombers, and the rogue states behind them. But even if the word “hegemony” had not been misappropriated and trashed by the anti-American left, the phrase “American Empire” would still have a sting. The implication, quite intentional, is that the U.S. aims to rule the known world after the manner of the Romans or the British.

Does the United States have an empire? There are at least two ways to address this question. One is extensional: ask to what extent the U.S. behaves as imperial powers have historically behaved. The other is intensional; ask what purpose empire serves for the people who control it, and then ask if the U.S. has created a structure of control that achieves the purpose. (The second question is useful partly because it may enable us to discern imperialism that dare not speak its name.)

Let’s take the second question first. What is the purpose of empire? In fact, this turns out to be an easy one. The one consistent feature of all empires, everywhere, is that commerce between subject regions and the imperial center is controlled so that the imperial center imports goods at below-market rates and exports them to the subject regions at above-market rates. The mailed fist, the satrap, and the gunboat are just enforcement mechanisms for imperial market-rigging.

This economic criterion may sound dry and abstract, but it is the one thing that relatively benign imperia like the British Empire have in common with out-and-out despotisms like the Russian or Persian empires. Thus, for example, the Roman grain ships feeding the population of Rome with wheat harvested by slaves in conquered Egypt; the British destruction of the Indian textile industry so its customers would be effectively forced to buy shoddy cloth made in the English Midlands; and, more crudely, the tribute wagons rolling to Persepolis.

Over time, imperial means of squeezing their subject nations’ economies have become more subtle. Early empires looted; later ones used discriminatory taxation; still later used preferential tariffs (all, and this is the point, enforced by the imperial military). Does the U.S. have an empire by this criterion?

Some would argue that it does, and cite U.S. attempts to force an American-style patent regime and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act on its trading partners. The trouble with this theory is that the U.S.’s negotiating leverage comes from the size of its economy, not fear of its military. Not even the most tinfoil-hatted of paranoids imagines that U.S. troops will ever land in (say) Brazil to enforce the DMCA; rather, it’s the prospect of being locked out of the world’s biggest export market that alarms Brazilian politicians. Reasonable people may reject the U.S. patent regime and the DMCA, or differ about the fairness of the Brazilo-American relationship, but “empire” is not a good word for it.

(Arguably the U.S. in fact did have an empire by this criterion until the 1950s, in parts of Central and South America and the Pacific. However, that is the past. I am addressing the question of whether “American Empire” is a true or useful description of the present.)

To reduce the market-rigging claim to absurdity, consider oil. If the U.S. truly were an empire, Venezuela (which supplies 25% of U.S. oil needs) would have been subjugated and annexed long since rather than left to the tender mercies of an unstable anti-American dictator like Hugo Chavez. The corrupt and despotic House of Saud (supplying a much higher percentage I don’t have at my fingertips) would likewise have been replaced by American puppets, not left unmolested to dole out billions of back-channel petrobucks to any anti-American terrorist who can pronounce the word “Wahhabi”.

In both cases, these would have been distinct improvements and among the best arguments one could muster for imperialism in the 21th century. But the U.S. has neither done them nor sought the power to do them. It fails the intensional test of empire.

To perform the extensional test, let’s look at some things that previous empires normally did and ask if the U.S. does them. To make the anti-American case as easy as possible, I won’t pick straw-man brutalities like crucifying, impaling, or machine-gunning entire populations in order to suppress revolts, the sorts of things the Soviets or Mongols or Japanese routinely got up to; instead, I’ll confine myself to the subset of common imperial practices engaged in by the Victorian Britons. If the U.S. fails even to replicate the behaviors of that least oppressive empire in human history to date, it’s hard to see how the term “empire” can sensibly be applied to the U.S.’s situation at all.

  • Does the U.S. impose U.S. law by force on conquered peoples without giving them citizenship or representation in the national government?

  • Are there any places outside the U.S. where treaties with subject nations stipulate that an American citizen will be subject only to U.S and not local law?

  • Does the U.S. routinely conscript large portions of its armies from subject peoples who lack U.S. citizenship?

The answer to all these questions is, of course, “no”. The U.S. fails the extensional test of empire as well.

Nevertheless, I am certain the charge will continue to be flung. The most forgivable reason for flinging it is gross ignorance of history and what actual empires are like. Far too often, however, people raising the cry of “American Empire” would not actually care about the facts if they had them; it is the emotion of anti-Americanism that drives their convictions, rather than the reverse.

Jul 18

The Hollywood Left is from Venus?

David Koepp, the screenwriter behind the current blockbuster movie
War of the Worlds has said:
“the Martians in our movie represent American military forces invading
the Iraqis.”

As InstaPundit observed, you just can’t make this stuff up. It’s
hard to lampoon the Hollywood left any more, because they keep
uttering inanities that venture beyond far, far beyond parody —
yea and verily, into the Land of the Barking Moonbats. Nevertheless,
here at Armed and Dangerous we’re not afraid to

OK, Mr, Koepp, let’s see if I have this straight. The Americans in
the movie aren’t Americans. they’re Iraqis. The Martians aren’t
Martians, they’re Americans. Fine, I follow you so far. Is there a
scene where the Martians collect toys from the Red Planet to give to
American children? Do they build schools and powerplants for the
Earthlings who are blowing them up with IEDs? Is there a scene where
the Martians depose the brutal American dicator George Bush —
you know, the one who fought a pointless war with Mexico and
nerve-gassed the population of the upper Midwest? Do we get to see his
twin daughters amusing themselves by feeding dissidents feet-first
into industrial shredders?

Koepp would have it that War of the Worlds is a fable
about the perils of military adventurism. As an anarchist who
believes that war is the health of the State and an overly healthy
State is a damnably bad thing, I daresay I’m more dead set against
“military adventurism” than he is; I’ll bet he thought it wasn’t so
bad when, say, Soviet tanks were rolling into Prague in 1968, if he
was alive then.

But “adventurism” is a peculiar word to use in this context. Not
the movie, but what he claims it refers to. Um. Just checking,
now…four years before the movie began, did the two tallest buildings
on Mars get flying saucers crashed into them by terrorists operating
from Guatemala? Did every intelligence service on Mars believe, and
tell their leaders, that the terrorists had been getting training and
logistical support from the CIA? Did the Martian press repeatedly
publish investigative stories about the terrorist/American connection
and urging Mars to do something about it — stories that were
believed clean across the political spectrum before a campaign for
Supreme Xyglfrntz made it convenient for one faction of Martians to
forget that?

Probably not. But that’s the movie I want to see. You know,
the one where John Kerry does a cameo as a failed candidate for Supreme
Xyglfrntz who voted for the invasion before he voted against it.

Jul 06

Gayness is hard, lesbianism soft

Fascinating. This NYT article bears out a suspicion I’ve held for a long time about the plasticity of sexual orientation. The crude one-sentence summary is that, if you go by physiological arousal reactions, male bisexuality doesn’t exist, while female bisexuality is ubiquitous.

I’ve spent most of my social time for the last thirty years around science fiction fans, neopagans, and polyamorists — three overlapping groups of people not exactly noted for either sexual inhibitions or reluctance to explore sexual roles that don’t fit the neat typologies of the mainstream culture. And there are a couple of things it’s hard not to notice about them:

First, a huge majority of the women in these cultures are bisexual. To the point where I just assume any female I meet in these contexts is bi. This reality is only slightly obscured by the fact that many of these women describe themselves and are socially viewed by others as ‘straight’, even as they engage in sexual play with each other during group scenes with every evidence of enjoyment. In fact, in these cultures the operational definition of ‘straight female’ seems to be one who has recreational but not relational/romantic sex with other women.

Second, this pattern is absolutely not mirrored in their male peers. Even in these uninhibited subcultures, homoerotic behavior involving self-described ‘straight’ men is rare and surprising. Such homeoeroticism as does go on is almost all self-describedly gay men fucking other self-describedly gay men; bisexuality in men, while an accepted and un-tabooed orientation, is actually less common than gayness and not considered quite normal by anybody. The contrast with everybody’s matter-of-fact acceptance of female bisexual behavior is extreme.

It is also an observable fact that many women in these cultures change either their sexual orientation or their sexual presentation over time, but that this is seldom true of men. That is, a woman may move from being sexually involved mostly with other women to being mostly involved with men, and back, several times during her adolescent and adult lifetime; nobody considers this surprising and it doesn’t involve much of a change in either self-image or social identity. Not so for men in these cultures; they tend to start out as straight or gay and stay that way, and on the unusual occasions that this changes it tends to involve a significant break in both self-image and social identity.

Until I read the abovementioned NYT article, I thought these were peculiar, contingent traits of this group of subcultures (which are influenced by each other). That is, I thought that (in the jargon of postmodernism) SF fans, neopagans and polyamorists had arrived at a common social construction of sexuality with no privileged relationship to the biological substructure.

Now I wonder. If the studies the article references are correct, the distribution of behaviors I’ve been describing is exactly what you see when you bypass self-consciousness and social construction entirely, and just measure how aroused people get when they look at pictures of other naked people. This actually is how our biology ‘wants’ us to be! Who knew?

Jul 05

Punishment, Coercion, and Revenge

Because I’m both both a libertarian and famous for conducting a
successful propaganda campaign, libertarian activists sometimes come
to me for tactical advice. During a recent email exchange, one of these
criticized me for wishing (as he thought) to “punish” the Islamist
enemies of the U.S. and Western civilization.

I explained that I have no desire to punish the perpetrators of
9/11; what I want is vengeance and death. Vengeance for us, death for
them. Whether they experience ‘punishment’ during the process is of
little or no interest to me.

My correspondent was reflecting a common confusion about the
distinctions among coercion, revenge, and punishment. Coercion is
intended to make another do your will instead of their own; vengeance
is intended to discharge your own anger and fear. Punishment is
neither of these things.

Punishment is a form of respect you pay to someone who is at least
potentially a member of the web of trust that defines your ethical
community. We punish ordinary criminals to deter them from repeating
criminal behavior, because we believe they know what ethical behavior
is and that by deterring them from crime we help them re-integrate
with an ethical community they have never in any fundamental sense

By contrast, we do not punish the criminally insane. We confine
them and sometimes kill them for our own safety, but we do not make
them suffer in an effort to deter them from insanity. Just to state
the aim is to make obvious how absurd it is. Hannibal Lecter, and his
all-too-real prototypes, lack the capacity to respond to punishment
by re-integrating with an ethical community.

In fact, criminal psychopaths are not even potentially members of
an ethical community to begin with. There is something broken or
missing in them that makes participation in the web of trust
impossible; perhaps the capacity to emotionally identify with other
human beings, perhaps conscience, perhaps something larger and harder
to name. They have other behavioral deficits, including poor impulse
control, associated with subtle neurological damage. By existing,
they demonstrate something most of us would rather not know; which is
that there are creatures who — though they speak, and reason,
and feign humanity — have nothing but evil in them.

On the behavioral evidence, Saddam Hussein and his now-deceased
serial-rapist son Uday fit the DSM-IV criteria for psychopaths
exactly; by contrast Qusay, the other deceased son, appears to have
been a merely ordinary thug. But it would be a dangerous mistake to
dismiss Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and their ilk as merely
psychopathic — they don’t have the deficits in impulse control
and other areas that would imply. I fear they are examples of a
phenomenon even more troubling — neurologically normal
non-psychopaths who speak, and reason, and feign humanity, and
have nothing but evil in them.

Osama bin Laden is a religious fanatic, not a psychopath. He
suffers not from lack of conscience but from a particular kind of
conscience, principles that drive him to plan and execute mass
murder. Like a psychopath, he apparently lacks any capacity to
identify with his victims; but rather than being neurological, his
disorder is possession by a killer idea. He is a memebot.

Fanatics of bin Laden’s intensity are like psychopaths in that
reason cannot reach them and punishment only fuels their rage. We
have seen bin Laden’s like before in Hitler, Savanarola, and a
thousand pettier examples. Their belief systems are closed, circular,
self-justifying, bordering on if not becoming actually delusional.
You can confine them or kill them, but they cannot be re-integrated
into the ethical web of trust by the measures we use on mere

The attempt to fit the treatment of fanatical terrorists into
a “criminal” frame, as though they were shoplifters or second-story
men or even ordinary murderers, is symptomatic of a deep blindness
in all too many Westerners — often a willful blindness. It
is as though, by denying that these people are irredeemably evil,
the tender-minded think they can edit evil out of the world. The
rest of us, if we ever had that illusion, lost it on 9/11.

Feb 12

Lies and Consequences

Eason Jordan has resigned as CNN’s chief news executive following
rumors that he said at a conference in Davos that the U.S. military
had deliberately targeted journalists for death. Jordan denied making
this allegation, but two U.S. legislators who were present agree that
he did, and the Davos organizers have denied repeated requests to
release the session video.

But I am not writing to argue about what Eason did or didn’t do. I
want to address the way some people have reasoned about the worst-case
interpretation of his remarks. The blogosphere pressure for release
of the video from Davos has been described
this way: “…tire-necklaced by a bloodthirsty group of utopian,
bible-thumping knuckledraggers” to “benefit the torturing,
gulag-building blood-cult known Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld’s Republican
Party.” Even leaving aside the bloody-minded partisanship, this
seems, shall we say, a little over the top?

Nobody should want journalists ever to fear attacking the behavior
of the U.S. military when they have actual evidence that it is wrong.
Militaries are dangerous and terrible things, and a free press is a
vital means of keeping them in check. It is right and proper that
we make heroes of those who speak damning truths to power.

But it makes all the difference in the world when a journalist does
not have actual evidence of wrongdoing. Especially when
the journalist is a U.S. citizen and the claim gives aid and comfort
to the declared enemies of the U.S. in wartime. Under those
circumstances, such an attack is not heroic but traitorous.

I hope this is a teachable moment. Oliver Wendell Holmes observed
that shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is not protected speech; if
the speaker has no evidence of actual fire, the consequences to that
speaker should be as dire as the risk of death by trampling he created
for others. The Holmes test should be applied in politics as well.

And yes, I agree that test should be applied to the Bush
administration — but, unlike the “Bush Lied, People Died”
crowd, I haven’t forgotten that the warnings about Iraqi WMD were not
only backed by British and French intelligence reports, but echoed
assessments made by the Clinton administration and endorsed to this
day by Clinton himself. Whatever errors Bush & Co. may have made
on this score, they believed they had evidence to back them.

Assuming Eason Jordan said what the witnesses say he did, his
behavior was far worse — because his own account of his remarks
makes clear that does not believe he has evidence for any claim of
deliberate targeting. It is good that he has been forced out over
this. It will be better if his disgrace frightens other journalists
into paying more attention to details like having some evidence up
front. The best outcome, though probably too much to hope for, would
be the end of reflexive oppositionalism in American media.

After Vietnam and Watergate, a lot of journalists (and other
people) lost the distinction between speaking truth to power and
simply attacking whoever is in charge (especially any Republican in
charge) on any grounds, no matter how factually baseless. Mere
oppositionalism was increasingly confused with heroism even as the
cultural climate made it ever less risky. Eventually we arrived at the
ludicrous spectacle of multimillionaire media personalities posing as
persecuted victims and wailing about the supposed crushing of dissent
on national news and talk shows.

But now, for the first time in decades, irresponsible
oppositionalism just cost a major media figure his career. Better yet,
the campaign that forced him out was a grass-roots effort by people
who take seriously their responsibility to hold the media to account
for its truthfulness. These are both grounds for celebration, and for
hope that the horribly dysfunctional culture of American newsrooms
will improve in the future.

Jan 06

What Do You Believe That You Cannot Prove?

I wrote this for John Brockman’s 2005 Edge Question. Can’t see
any good reason not to blog it as well.

I believe that nature is understandable, that scientific inquiry is
the sharpest tool and the noblest endeavor of the human mind, and that
any “final answers” we ever get will come from it rather than from
mysticism, religion, or any other competing account of the universe.
I believe these things without being able to prove them despite — or
perhaps because of — the fact that I am a mystic myself.

Science may be the noblest endeavor of the human mind, but I believe
(though I cannot prove) that the most crippling and dangerous kind of
ignorance in the modern West is ignorance of economics, the way
markets work, and the ways non-market allocation mechanisms are doomed
to fail. Such economic ignorance is toxic, because it leads to insane
politics and the empowerment of those whose rhetoric is altruist but
whose true agenda is coercive control.

I believe that the most important moment in the history of philosophy
was when Charles Sanders Peirce defined “truth” as “predictive power”
and made it possible to talk about confirmation of hypotheses in a
non-circular way.

I believe the most important moment in the foreseeable future of
philosophy will come when we realize that mad old Nazi bastard
Heidegger had it right when he said that we are thrown into the world
and must cope, and that theory-building consists of rearranging our
toolkit for coping. I believe the biggest blind spot in analytical
philosophy is its refusal to grapple with Heidegger’s one big insight,
but that evolutionary biology coupled with Peirce offers us a way to
stop being blind. I beleve that when the insights of what is now
called “evolutionary psychology” are truly absorbed by philosophers,
many of the supposedly intractable problems of philosophy will vanish.

I believe, but don’t know how to prove, a much stronger version of the
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis than is currently fashionable. That is, I
believe the way humans think is shaped in important ways by the
linguistic categories they have available; thinking outside those
categories is possible but more difficult, has higher friction costs.
Accordingly, I believe that some derivation of Alfred Korzybski’s
discipline of General Semantics will eventually emerge as an essential
tool of the first mature human civilizations.

I believe, but don’t know how to prove, that Julian Jaynes was on to
something very important when he wrote about the origin of
consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind.

I judge that that “dark matter” is no better than phlogiston as an
explanatory device, and therefore believe without being able to prove
it that there is something very deeply wrong with the standard model
of cosmology.

I believe, but cannot prove, that the “knowledge interpretation” of
quantum mechanics is pernicious nonsense, and that physical theorists
will essentially develop some testable form of nonlocal realism.

I believe, but cannot prove, that global “AIDS” is a whole cluster of
unrelated diseases all of which have been swept under a single rug for
essentially political reasons, and that the identification of HIV as
the sole pathogen is likely to go down as one of the most colossal
blunders in the history of medicine.

Much of the West’s intelligentsia is persistently in love with
anything anti-Western (and especially anti-American), an infatuation
that has given a great deal of aid and comfort to tyrants and terrorists
in the post-9/11 world. Besides these obvious political consequences,
the phenomenon Julian Benda famously called le trahison des
has laid waste to large swathes of the soft sciences
through ideologies like deconstructionism, cultural relativism, and

I believe, but cannot prove, that le trahison des clercs is
not a natural development of Western thought but a creation of
deliberate propaganda, directly traceable to the successes of Nazi and
Stalinist attempts to manipulate the climate of opinion in the early
and mid-20th century. Consequently I believe that one of the most
difficult and necessary tasks before us in the next half century will
be to banish the influence of totalitarian nihilism from science in
particular and our culture in general.

I know how to prove, or at least convincingly demonstrate, that
open-source software development produces better results than
secrecy and proprietary control. I believe that the same advantage
applies to any other form of engineering or applied science in which
the limiting factor of production is skilled human attention, but I
don’t know how to prove that general principle.

Jan 06

A Unified Theory of Male Slobbishness and Female Preening

It’s all about asymmetrical investment, boys and girls….

One of the hot topics in the blogosphere recently has been the difference between male and female standards of attractiveness, and what this has to do with feminism and “the beauty myth”. Ann Althouse has been having fun at the expense of Laura Kipnis’s column bemoaning the grip that beauty has on women. Sissy Willis and has connected this issue to a gripe by Andrew Sullivan that women ought to demand that men turn themselves out better.

The bloggers rightly see the differing incentives attached to sexual selection as the key to understanding these differences. Those differences are the reason that the many forms of un-PC behaviors that Ms. Kipnis decries aren’t going to go away short of a genetic reengineering of human beings.

What’s missing, so far, is a unified explanation of why those incentives are different. This turns out not to be complicated, and understanding it helps us grasp some interesting and entertaining subtleties in the situation.

The central fact that controls the the preferences of both sexes is that bearing children is difficult and dangerous for women, but fertilizing a woman is almost trivially easy for a man. Furthermore, the female investment in childbearing is front-loaded (proportionally more of the risk is before and at birth) while the male investment is back-loaded (proportionately more of the risks and costs are incurred after birth).

Moderns living in a largely disease-free environment seldom realize how cruel and pressing these differences were over most of our species history. But before modern sanitation, death in childbirth was so common that men wealthy enough to afford it expected to have several wives during their lifetimes, losing many of them to childbed fever and other complications.

Also relevant is the extremely high rate of childhood death from infectious diseases and parasites that was characteristic of premodern societies. Disease resistance in humans is highly variable and generally increases with genetic mixing (the same reason a mongrel puppy or kitten is less likely to catch a disease than a purebreed). Thus, both men and women have instincts intended to maximize genetic variety in their offspring in order to maximize the chances that some will survive to reproductive age.

Our instincts evolved to cope with these patterns of life and death. The next piece we need to understand those instincts is what physical beauty means. Recent anthropology revealing strong cross-cultural patterns in the perception of pulchritude is helpful here.

In both sexes, the most important beauty indicators include symmetrical features and a good complexion (clear skin without blemishes, warts, etc.). It turns out these are indicators of resistance to infection and parasites,
especially resistance in childhood and during adolescent growth. Good hair
is also a health indicator.

In men, physical signs of strength, dexterity, and agility are also favored; this reflects the value female instinctive wiring puts on male specializations in burst exertion, hunting, and warfare. In women, signs of fertility and fitness to bear are favored (healthy and generous breasts, a certain range of hip-to-waist ratios).

Men fixate on physical beauty and youth because under primitive conditions it is a leading indicator of the ability to bear and suckle children. Through most of history, plain or ugly women were bad risks for the next round of infectious diseases — and their children, carrying their genes, were too.

The last piece of the puzzle is that men and women have asymmetrical information about the parentage of their children. A woman is seldom in doubt about which children are the issue of her womb; a man, by contrast, can never be as sure which are the fruit of his seed. Thus, genetic selfishness motivates the woman in a mated pair to sacrifice more for her children than it does the man. This is why women abandon their children far less often than men do.

While women do respond to male good looks, it’s not the agenda-topper for them that it is for men. To understand why this is, it helps to know that the optimal mating strategy for a woman begins with hooking a good provider, a man who will stick around to support the kids in spite of not being as sure that he’s their father as the woman is of being their mother. Where men look for fitness to bear children, women seek the capability and willingness to raise them.

Thus, robust health and infection resistance, while desirable in a potential husband, are not the be-all and end-all. Behavior traits indicating attachment, loyalty, nurturance, and kindness are more important than a tight six-pack. Men instinctively worry about these things less because they know women are more certain of parentage and thus more tightly bonded to their children. Fitness-to-raise also means that indicators of success and social status count for more in men. Men marry health and beauty, women marry security and good prospects.

There is, however, one important exception — one circumstance under which women are just as physical, beauty-oriented, and “shallow” in their mating preferences as men. That’s when they’re cheating.

Both sexes have a genetic-diversity incentive to screw around, but it manifests in different ways. Again, the reason is parentage uncertainty. For a man, diversity tactics are simple — boff as many hot babes as possible, accepting that you don’t know which of their kids are yours and counting on stronger maternal bonding to ensure they will have at least one devoted parent around. Because a woman can be more sure of who her offspring are, her most effective diversity tactic is different — get married to a good provider and then cheat on him.

Under those circumstances, she doesn’t have to value good character in a mating partner as much; hubby, who can’t tell the kids aren’t his, will supply that. Thus the relative value of handsomeness goes up when a woman is taking a lover on the sly. Marrying the lord and screwing the gardener is an old game, and from a genetic-selfishness point of view a very effective one.

All this should explain why men can often get away with being slobs while women primp and preen. But it is wise to distrust evolutionary accounts that are simply just-so stories without making testable predictions. This one makes a few.

Most notably, it predicts that women who are less concerned about security and the the status of their offspring (e.g. wealthier, older, or for other reasons less dependent on a male provider) are more likely to be interested in bagging studmuffins. It also predicts that by contrast, men’s tendency to value physical beauty over most other qualities in a mate will change little, if at all, with their wealth level — because their instincts tell them health, not wealth, is the woman’s most important input.

It also explains why gays and lesbians have such opposed attitudes about beauty. In (male) gay mating both parties are instinctive beauty-seekers, while in lesbian matings both parties are instinctive security-seekers. Thus, gay culture is full of posturing pretty-boys and lesbian culture full of sincere plane janes.

As others have noted, women who habitually demand peacock males are making themselves less effective at competing for the good-husband traits that instinct tells them are more valuable; they will lose out in the reproductive race to women who can tolerate a faithful slob. On the flip side, the instinctive male fixation on fitness-to-bear means that all attempts to devalue female beauty in the mating market are doomed. Hetero- and bisexual women know this in their bones; it takes a lesbian to believe this is even a reasonable project — which is why agitation against “lookism” has been the least successful facet of feminist ideology.

Jan 03

Appreciating Joe Satriani

I like to listen to instrumental electric guitar, and have a very
large collection of the genre from the pioneering Jeff Beck albums of
the 1970s forward, and including most of the output of Jeff Beck, Steve
Morse, Eric Johnson, Steve Vai, Gary Hoey, Marc Bonilla, and half a
dozen other guitar virtuosi.

The seldom-disputed king of this genre today is Joe Satriani, who
has produced a string of excellent and often groundbreaking albums
since his debut in 1986. There are other guitarists who have had
moments of brilliance exceeding anything in Satriani’s catalog (I
think, for example, of Marc Bonilla’s astonishing EE
album from 1992) but nobody else has sustained Joe’s
level of quality over eighteen years and a dozen albums.

For those of you who have been living in a hole for fifteen years
Joe Satriani definitely hails from the rock/blues end of the guitar
spectrum rather than the jazz-fusion one — his technique is
sometimes near to speed-metal. His commercial success seems to be
built on an ability to appeal to both intelligent metalheads and
old jazz-fusion fans like me.

Here’s my personal guide to appreciating Joe’s work. It covers
every track on all of his studio albums, but not the EPs or
live-concert anthologies. It’s aimed mainly at people who have
heard parts of his music and would like to know where to go next, or
who want to deepen their appreciation of what they’ve already heard.

One of the perils of being a virtuoso is that you can get so caught
up in your own skill that it’s hard to know when to stop —
musicality can get crowded out by meaningless elaboration. This is a
trap that lies in wait for all guitarists above a certain technical
level; some (like, say, Yngwe Malmsteen or Tony McAlpine) fall into it
to the point of near-unlistenability, and others are badly compromised
by it but still able to turn out good work when they restrain
themselves enough (Joe’s student Steve Vai leaps to mind). Very few
have the ability to sustain a flawlessly consistent balance between
technique and musicality; Marc Bonilla managed it, Jeff Beck and Eric
Johnson come very close.

Joe Satriani’s grasp on that happy medium is pretty good but prone
to lapses. I think he is acutely aware of this problem. One of the
themes you can see in his career development is how he struggles not
to let his technique run away with him, sometimes reacting with a
retreat into an obstinate minimalism or over-reliance on traditional
forms (eight-bar blues, the 4/4 rock beat, etc.). Gradually, over
time, he gets better at avoiding these extremes.

Joe takes chances, and sometimes he fails. Thus, this guide is not
going to be an unbroken paean of praise. But one of the things that
keeps me a fan is his very refusal to play safe, his determination to keep
trying new things and pushing his own boundaries as a musician. Joe
shows a rare combination of talent, hard-working dedication to his
craft, and artistic courage that is worthy of all praise.

One pattern that became apparent to me as I was compiling this
guide is that it is always worth holding Joe’s song titles in mind as
you listen to his stuff. They are often valuable clues to his
intentions. Many of his pieces seem to have been written as
soundtracks to go with a strong visual image to which the title is a
pointer, and it can thus substantially increase your enjoyment to
decode whatever references are in the title.

Not Of This Earth (1986)

This was Joe’s freshman album. I first heard it after
Surfing With The Alien and Flying In A Blue
, and it was fascinating with that experience to hear
Joe’s style not quite yet fully developed.

The title track, Not Of This Earth, blends acoustic and
electric guitar sounds in an interesting way that Joe would explore
further in The Lords Of Karma on the next album. It’s
followed by The Snake, a rather funny tone poem about
slithery things that manages to include references to both the
Volga Boatmen and some death-metal tune I’ve never
quite been able to place, I think by Black Sabbath.

Rubinais named after Joe’s wife. It is built around a
simple, pretty melody but somewhat marred by a drum track that sounds
mechanical and is mixed way too far up. Memories is
stronger, combining a reggae-like rhythm track with some raga-like and
bluesy melodic influences to produce a unique and tasty sound.
Satriani is finding his voice here. He continues to explore
interesting territory with Brother John, an odd but
pleasing little modal finger exercise.

The Enigmatic is one of the two standout tracks on
this album — tense, dissonant, weirdly inventive. Joe’s bold use
of atonality to depict an encounter with the alien is carried off
beautifully and works well at both the technical and emotional

After that, Driving At Night is positively reassuring as
it reasserts the bluesy call-and-response pattern at the core of rock
guitar. We are no longer in alien darkness but rather in a soothing and
familiar night.

But that night has Earth creatures in it too, and some of them can
be pretty scary. Hordes of Locusts is another tone-poem
about creepy-crawlies, imbued with the faintly campy menace of a 1950s
monster movie. This piece is funny, but (as you’ll especially learn
if you ever get to hear it live) it also rocks bone-crunchingly hard.
It’s a standout.

The remaining two tracks are slight, almost finger exercises.
New Day feels like dawn after the night of the locusts.
Headless Horseman is a silly bit of business that refers
to Washington Irving’s famous short story.

This was a very thought-provoking debut — uneven, but promising.
That promise would be fulfilled with the next two albums.

Surfing with The Alien (1987)

This was my first introduction to Joe’s amazing talents, and seems
more generally to have been the album that made his name and secured
him a long-term fan base (his official bio describes it as the most
commercially successful instrumental-guitar album since Jeff Beck’s
genre-defining Wired in 1974). The Satriani style is
already fully developed here.

The title cut, Surfing With the Alien, is without a
doubt one of the great instrumental rock guitar numbers of all time
— a screaming hyperkinetic rave-up that goes straight over the
top and then delivers everything it promises. The album cover
makes it obvious that the alien in question is the Silver Surfer
of Marvel Comics fame, and you can hear him swooshing through space
at a couple of points in the track.

The title Ice 9 is a reference to an SF novel by Kurt
Vonnegut in which a bizarre form of self-propagating ice freezes all
the oceans of the world. This track is not quite such a tour de force as
the first but tasty all the same. On almost any other album of
instrumental guitar it would be a standout; here it tends to fade into
the background in comparison to the flashier pieces.

My personal favorite on this album is Crushing Day.
What makes this a standout is that there is not a wasted note in in
it. Though the first and second solo sections reach blistering
intensity, Joe has his technique under perfect control here; he never
loses sight of the underlying melodic idea for a nanosecond, and the
result is tight and right. Half a dozen albums and nearly twenty years
later it is still one of his best pieces of playing.

Always With Me, Always With You is a quiet little
number, this album’s equivalent of Rubina. He hasn’t yet
attained the simple lyricism and delicacy we’ll hear in
Home, two albums on, but he’s reaching for it.

Satch Boogie is another propulsive rave-up that stands
comparison to the title track as a display of guitar pyrotechnics.
Interestingly, what makes the whole piece work is a quiet section in
the middle (about 1:44 in) that builds tension towards the ending.
Joe has commented in an interview that a fan who disliked the
quiet part once sent him a mix tape with the section deleted in an
effort to prove his point. “It sucked,” said Satriani, succinctly
and correctly.

Hill of the Skull is 1:48 of auditory comic book. You
can see the evil skull-shaped temple brooding on the hilltop, torches
guttering in the great gaunt eyesockets…

Circles is much more substantial, opening
with a lovely acoustic-guitar appetizer that sets you up for a muscular
electric main course in the manner of Led Zeppelin’s or Heart’s best.
The loud-soft contrast is artfully handled, and like all of Joe’s
best work this piece is distinguished by seventeen-jewel composition
and exacting control of his instruments.

Lords of Karma continues the hot streak, opening with
sitar sounds and launching into a driving raga-influenced melody. The
exultant glissando guitar scream at about 1:42 is particularly
lovely. At a couple of points in the piece the recurring sitar
sounds make a pungent contrast to the guitar line. The whole
is as tasty as a good Indian curry.

Midnight, by contrast, is as mannered as a Bach fugue,
nearly a finger exercise. It segues directly into the final track,
Echoes, which returns to the meditative feel of
Circles and finishes off the album in excellent style.

This is a great album, barely a dud track on it. Even Hill of
the Skull
works in its silly way. It remains among Joe’s two
or three best, and is probably still the best introduction to his

Flying in a Blue Dream (1989)

This album starts off strong with the hypnotic feedback and
acoustic rhythm guitars of the title track. The long sustained
electric guitar notes played over them contain subtle shifts of tambre
and vibrato that would do Carlos Santana proud. The interplay between
the acoustic guitars and the electric lead line recalls
Circles and works equally well here. As with that track
the effect is meditative, almost mystical. And, no, Satriani himself
doesn’t know what the little boy is saying in that background sample.

The next track calls itself mystical, The Mystical Potato Head
Groove Thing
, but isn’t. The effect is more one of inspired
whimsy, with subtle off-rhythms and a whirling, eccentric guitar line
giving the piece the feel more of witty banter than anything else. The
bridge section at about 3:00 in echoes the melody of Surfing with
the Alien
but the effect is of commentary rather than self-imitation.
The track closes with a classic smashing rock finish, very satisfying.

In Can’t Slow Down, Joe Satriani sings.
Unfortunately, even the most dedicated Satriani fan generally reacts
to his singing with a heartfelt wish that the man would shut up and
play his guitar. Fortunately, he does.

Headless is just as embarrassing, a pointless retake of
Headless Horseman from the first album that is only partly
redeemed by Joe’s quiet, rather self-mocking chuckle at the end.

In Strange, Joe sings again. The contrast between his
clumsy vocals and the shimmering loveliness of the guitar bridges is
almost painful to the ear. Alas, the worst is yet to come.
That worst is the next track, I Believe, possibly
the most cringe-worthy opus Joe has ever committed to tape. He sings
again, wrapping an uncertain voice around lyrics that intend to be
inspirational but come out mawkish. A few lovely guitar bits cannot
redeem this mess.

In the next track, One Big Rush, Joe blessedly does not sing.
We’re back in the familiar territory of Surfing With The Alien
or Satch Boogie here. It’s not as inventive as the album’s
first two numbers but a good solid piece of work. Probably the best bit
is the last five seconds of coda.

On Big Bad Moon, Joe sings again. This time it works a
little better, as he portrays some hapless geek who has become a
werewolf and, far from considering it a curse, discovers But I
like it!
. His fretboard antics over a steaming boogie
grind rescue this track.

The Feeling is 50 seconds of rootsy banjo. This works
pretty well, considering.

In The Phone Call Joe seems to have figured out that
his weak singing voice works best as comedy. This mini-soap-opera
about a selfish and none-too-bright guy dumping his ditzy and
gold-digging girlfriend is worth a chuckle or two.

Day at the Beach (New Rays From an Ancient Sun) echoes
Midnight from the last album, and works best as a sort of
extended intro to Back to Shalla-Bal. This track is
straight-ahead leather-jacketed rock complete with a revving Harley.
The motorcycle theme continues in the rather similar next
track, Ride. Joe sings again, managing not to botch
the job too badly. Still, one does wish he would stop.

The Forgotten begins with a short finger exercise that
is, like Day at the Beach, a preface to something more
substantial. Part two returns to the meditative, introverted feel of
the title track, but with an emotionally powerful melody that feels
almost like something a Romantic-era classical composer might have
penned. It’s up there with the first two tracks as a standout.

The Bells of Lal is another two-part composition, but
this one feels like noisy fragments that never quite come together or
rise above the level of noodling.

,Into the Light by contrast, feels elegiac and
graceful. I think of cloudscapes suffused with sunlight when I hear
this piece, and rather wish Joe had given it more than 2:29 of

This album is uneven, undisciplined. Parts of it match and even
exceed the quality of Surfing With The Alien, but a lot of
it is experiments that should have been left on the studio floor. Joe
clearly needs somebody working with him to curb his excesses.

The Extremist (1992)

Perhaps Joe found that somebody. This album returns to the consistent
form of Surfing With The Alien; it’s neither as quirky nor
as inventive as Flying in a Blue Dream, but full of energy
and joy.

Friends, The Extremist. and
War are all good solid work, intricate and high-energy
guitar explorations in the now-standard Satriani mold that reward
repeated listening pretty well. There’s some nice blues harp in the
second track, but the third is probably the strongest of the three.

Cryin’ is a quiet, bluesy track with a prog-rock feel to
it. It’s well followed up by Rubina’s Blue Sky, a down-home
delight that uses mandolins and acoustic guitars to evoke the feel
of folk or bluegrass music. The last two minutes sets off the acoustic
guitars against a singing, joyful electric-guitar line, then mysteriously
fades out with a pibroch-like ending.

Summer Song (which you can deduce from one of the the
album-cover photos originally titled The Door Into Summer
after Robert Heinlein’s novel) was this album’s big radio single, a job
it fulfills admirably well. A tight and well-layered arrangement and
immaculate production make this a crowd-pleaser.

Tears In the Rain is another intricate finger exercise
like Midnight, conducted this time on a nylon-string

Why and Motorcycle Driver return to the basic
style of propulsive and intricate guitar we’ve heard in the first three
tracks and Summer Song. Like those, these tracks are
sunny and exuberant music that would sound great pouring out of a
boom box at your next beach party.

New Blues is a total contrast — a spare,
introverted blues piece that fades into silence. It foreshadows where
the next studio album is going.

Time Machine (1993)

The first disk of this two disk set combines rarities, oddities,
and unreleased tracks from old studio sessions. The second is a
collection of live performances. The quality is uneven here; some of
this stuff is the equivalent of doodling. But for a serious fan this
is definitely worth having, if only because it collects limited-release
stuff like Dreaming #11.

Joe is generally pretty good at picking strong openings for his
albums and Time Machine is no exception. This exercise
in massive-guitars-of-doom can bear comparison with his best work and
is a standout track. Following it, The Mighty Turtle Head is
merely passable; the parts are OK but don’t seem to cohere
well. All Alone works better; it’s a big blues tune in
classic style. One can easily imagine it as movie music.

On Banana Mango II Joe jams with world-beat rhythms.
The result is loose, floaty and interesting, quite different from his
usual sound. Thinking of You is a simple, pretty tune,
lovely and lyrical, proving once again that Joe doesn’t need effects
or elaborate arrangements to sound good — another standout

From the sublime to the ridiculous: Crazy is another
one of those regrettable occasions on which Joe sings. We live
through it.

Speed Of Light nails once again the joyous
power-pop-like groove Joe found in Summer Song. An
unusual and interesting touch in this use is Joe’s use of wordless
choral singing as a counterpoint to the guitar.

In Baroque Joe experiments with the idiom of classical
guitar. His execution is good but the production is heavy-handed; I
think it would have worked better without the effects.

Dweller On The Threshold is a Lovecraftian tone poem
that is probably the closest approach to true speed metal in Joe’s oeuvre.
He proves here that he could out-Metallica Metallica if he wanted to
(Kirk Hammet was an early student of his in the 1970s). The atonal
alien from Enigmatic makes a cameo appearance.

Banano Mango previsits the word-beat rhythms we heard
earlier in Banano Mango II, but the guitar treatment is
different in style. Not as good, I don’t think. but it’s instructive
and interesting to have both versions included.

Dreaming #11 takes us to another unusual place that
can only be described as surrealist comedy funk. The strain of sly,
zany humor that flavors a lot of Joe’s music is in full evidence

The title of I am Become Death doubtless refers to Robert
Oppennheimer’s famous quote from the Bhagavad-Gita at the first nuclear
test in 1945. The piece is simultaneously grim, bathetic and jarring,
a deliberately disjointed nightmare. On Saying Goodbye Joe sounds quite unlike himself and
so much like Jeff Beck in a quieter moment that I think this piece
must be an intentional tribute. The first disc then finishes with
Woodstock Jam, which is also utterly like anything else
Joe has ever recorded, sixteen minutes of atonal psychedelia that
plays like the soundtrack for a drug dream.

The main thing the second disc demonstrates is that Joe plays his
tunes live with great fidelity to the studio versions, so I won’t
review all of these separately here.

Joe Satriani (1995)

In contrast with the sunny vibe of The Extremist, this
album seems moody, sad, even depressed. I have no hard information, but I
suspect Joe might have been going through a rough couple of years as
this one was recorded.

Cool #9 If, and Down, Down, Down
set the tone — deeply bluesy, well-executed, somehow rather

Luminous Flesh Giants is one of the standout tracks on
this album — angry, powerful stuff and doubtless a big
live-concert number.

S.M.F. returns to the deep introspective groove of the
first three tracks, burrowing into the classic 8-bar blues as though it’s a
refuge from something. One of the problems with this album is that these
four tracks are all too similar and tend to blur together in one’s memory.

Look My Way is one of Joe’s occasional comedy numbers. He
sings, badly. But the composition is such that bad singing is sort of

Home is a surprising island of calm and beauty. It’s
the refuge that a lot of the rest of this album seems to be looking for,
and a standout track.

Moroccan Sunset sounds a little happier, too. The
melody line is indeed middle-Eastern flavored in spots. The rhythm
guitars share the dark, fuzzed-out flavor we hear in many of the other
arrangements on this album. Nevertheless this is another standout

In Killer Bee Bop Joe seems to be trying to capture
some of the flavor of bebop jazz — the opening base line
certainly suggests that. This is a fast, noisy track, interesting
but at times rushed and incoherent-sounding.

The first section of Slow Down Blues slides even
deeper into the blues idiom, with a spare and mostly acoustic
arrangement featuring a dialogue between Joe’s understated electric
lead and a blues harmonica. All this recalls New Blues
from the previous album, and seems deeply sad. Things pick up some
in the last four minutes as the track launches into a steady electric
boogie with a big finish.

(You’re) My World is another simple, effective tune
that seems (like Home) to express some kind of peace or
resolution. The effect is very beautiful and a standout track.

The album ends with Sittin’ Round, another slow and
sad blues reminiscent of the first section of Slow Down

Emotionally, Joe had nowhere to go but up after this album.

Crystal Planet (1998)

And up he goes, in what is certainly his best album since
Surfing With The Alien. Whatever troubles informed
Joe Satriani are gone; he seems to reach a new high in
energy and inventiveness here.

The album opens strong with Up in the Sky, a fast and
tight little number built around an odd guitar lick with an almost
surf-rock feel to it. The tastiness continues with House Full
of Bullets
and Crystal Planet, which don’t break any
particularly new ground but are well-composed works that deliver the kind
of virtuosity Joe’s fans have come to expect.

Love Thing slows the pace a little to do a more
melodic exploration in the mode of Home or (You’re)

My World from the previous album. It’s followed by
Trundrumbalind which moves a bit up-tempo again but
sustains great intensity of feeling and is one of the standout tracks
of this album. The last minute is especially interesting.

Lights of Heaven starts off quietly, but the
fanfare-like bit at about 1:13 leads into one of Joe’s best sustained
stretches of composition ever, one in which occasional hushed stretches
serve to build tension for soaring guitar lines that resolve them wonderfully.
The shimmering finale in the last 40 seconds is magnificent. This is
possibly the strongest single track on the album.

Raspberry Jam Delta Vee is not quite as impressive,
but it delivers the goods. The break using string and cello tambres
about four minutes in is unusual, and the track finishes strong with
dual leads and and interesting use of what sounds like ring

Ceremony returns to the up-tempo pace and
arpeggio-rich solos typical of the first three tracks, but there is
nothing especially distinguishing about it. With Jupiter In
, on the other hand, is a standout track with a strong and
attractive melody on which Joe works some interesting transformations
before returning to the opening version. Fat rhythm guitars back up
a powerful finale.

Secret Prayer is merely ordinary for this album,
which is to say it is better than most guitarists could manage
on their best days ever. Train of Angels opens interestingly
with military-style drumming and remains tasty even after switching to
a traditional rock beat; the second solo beginning at about 2:00 is
especially nice. A Piece of Liquid is quiet and restful,
making interesting use of a catchy South-American-flavored rhythm.

Psycho Monkey is a distortion-fest with a deliberately
heavy attack; the dog-whistle feedback at the end is reminiscent of the
title track from Flying In A Blue Dream.

Time is a clever tone poem in which the staccato
4-chord figure the rhythm guitars repeat seems intended to evoke a
ticking clock. There’s a lot more going on, here, though, and it
repays several listens to find out what.

Z.Z.’s Song ends the album with a resonant acoustic solo
piece that seems to use silence as much as sound.

There really isn’t a weak track on this whole album, which is especially
impressive since it runs to 15 of them. It’s probably the right one
to buy second, after Surfing With The Alien.

Engines of Creation (2000)

The title of this album seems to be a reference to to K. Eric
Drexler’s seminal book on nanotechnology; the cover art and
the song titles suggest that Joe had a lot of SFnal imagery in mind
when composing it. Despite that promising start, a lot of Satriani
fans would say this album shouldn’t have been made. In it, Joe seems
to be trying to understand electronica and house music. The result is, alas,
cold and mechanical-sounding in comparison to the rest of his work;
drum machines and synthesizers almost drown out his guitar.

Despite that, this album has some excellent moments. And even when
it doesn’t work, I think Joe deserves praise for being willing to take some
risks. Another Crystal Planet or Surfing With The
would have been more of a crowd-pleaser — but at
this point Joe could probably crank out ordinary guitar virtuosity in
his sleep and would not necessarily have grown as a musician by taking
that easy path.

Devil’s Slide tells you right away you are not in for the
usual, with its drum machine and synthesizer-led attack. Parts of it achieve
a chill, haunting beauty. Flavor Crystal 7 is very similar,
but with a more up-front guitar line that makes it more interesting.
Both tracks take us far from the rock/blues/metal roots of Joe’s style;
he displays the superb musicianship we’d expect, but the results seem
at times unnervingly soulless and antiseptic.

Borg Sex is more of the same, with a growling guitar
line that manages (probably not by accident) to sound rather like
industrial noise. Joe seems to use this one fairly frequently in

Until We Say Goodbye, by contrast, is much more like a
normal Satriani track; some superfluous electronic effects in the
background fail to step on an appealing and rather jazz-tinged
melody. The pizzicato strings in the last eight seconds are a nice

Attack puts us right back in the territory of
Devil’s Slide, which it rather resembles. The break
about two minutes in, ornamented with little sequencer bits and
drum-machine licks, is probably Joe’s most effective use of
electronica idiom.

Champagne? is a bit of clowning in which glassy synth
voices are set against a bouncing baseline and bluesy guitar. It
changes style abruptly at about 2:04 when the drum machines turn on,
but returns to being an appealingly silly romp in the last three
minutes. The last section changes styles again, offering us a jazzy
solo with beautiful arpeggios and an odd roots-rock sort of
finish vaguely reminiscent of Creedence.

Clouds Race Across the Sky is a surprise and a
standout, laying a beautifully simple guitar line over an infectious
South-American-flavored rhythm track. The effect is tranquil and

The Power Cosmic 2000 is a two-part invention. In it,
Joe seems to be trying to fuse electronica influences into his basic
style (the first guitar line in part two will remind you of The
Mystical Potato Head Groove Thing
) but succeeds mainly in
sounding chilly and remote. By contrast, the synthesizer
instrumentation of Slow And Easy fails to completely
suppress some moments of quiet beauty.

Engines of Creation is a gradually building crescendo
that unaccountably cuts out just as it should be reaching a climax.
Too bad; there are some good moments on the way there, and the track
does better at integrating synthesizers with guitar and base than most
of went before. But, like the album as a whole, the track is a
brave experiment that doesn’t end well.

This is still the most difficult Satriani album to enjoy, and may be
for hard-core fans and completists only. But I like it better than I
did when I first heard it. It will take several listenings before
you can get past the electronic clutter to what Joe is trying to
achieve, but doing so has some rewards.

Strange Beautiful Music (2002)

If a comparative failure like Engines of Creation was
what Joe needed to grow, this album tells us it was worth it. I think
it’s his best ever, equalling Crystal Planet and
Surfing With The Alien for creativity and melodic
invention and showing a maturity and grace neither previous album
can match.

Oriental Melody continues Joe’s flirtation with modal
scales and time signatures derived from Middle Eastern and Indian
music. It’s a good start to the album, which puts some creative
distance between Joe and his roots as a rock player.

Belly Dancer moves back towards rock rhythms, but an
eastern touch is still present in the melody line. The track centers
on lovely series of arpeggios at about 3:08. The sitar tambre that Joe
used so effectively in tracks like Lords of Karma reappears
as a nice bit of background color towards the end.

We get a third beautiful melody in Starry Night,
which though stylistically reminiscent of Home from the
Extremist album is nicely original.

Chords of Life is themed around a nice bit of
acoustic-guitar rhythm work that appears in it twice and dominates
the finale. This is a crisp and satisfying little number in
which the electric lead gets its licks in but, for once, takes a back
seat to other elements of the composition.

Mind Storms is more in the conventional Satriani
idiom, and a fine example of same. The alien from
Enigmatic makes a brief reappearance at about 2:00

Sleep Walk covers a Santo & Johnny hit from 1959,
archetypal syrupy fifties pop. I have a strong personal aversion to
this particular sound, but there is no denying that Joe (with some
help from, of all people, Robert Fripp) nails the style dead-on. If
it has to be done at all, it should be done this well.

New Last Jam is another superior Satriani slice of
fretboard frenzy, unremarkable only because it’s jostling so much
good material on this album. Mountain Song, immediately
following, is even better. His normal idiom has never sounded hotter.

What Breaks A Heart begins with what seems to be an
experiment in vox humana guitar; the effect is almost like wordless
singing. The middle section that begins at 1:19 builds to reggae
rhythms and more vox-humana playfulness. The whole finishes with a
very pretty ride-out as Joe riffs away with gleeful zest.

Seven String takes us back to basic rock’n’roll crunch
with a somewhat Southern flavor — one can imagine Lynrd Skynrd or
.38 Special playing this, if they had ever come within a light year of
having the chops to try. It’s followed by Hill Groove, a
bluesy piece that features some particularly nice interplay between
lead guitar and electric base.

The Traveller has something of a prog-rock feel to it;
listen for the nice use of harmonics at about 1:58. And the album
finishes strong with Journey, another melodic and excellent
track without a waste motion in it.

The music on this album is so consistently good that it’s hard to
pick standouts. Pressed, I’d have to pick Mind Storms and
Seven String, but there are several other tracks that give
these a serious tussle.

With this album, Joe seems to have almost completely banished his
occasional tendency to get lost in his technique. All of these tracks
have a well-seasoned restraint about them, to a degree that was only
true of exceptional pieces like Crushing Day in his
earlier work.

Is There Love In Space (2004)

Is There Love In Space is a big contrast with
Strange Beautiful Music. It’s a neoprimitive crunchfest
of fat, distorted rhythm guitars that begs to be played at
room-filling volume. Satriani is out to remind us that, by damn, he
is a rock guitarist — and he succeeds.

The first track, Gnaah!, is a piece of sly humor. You
can hear the title gnaah as a repeated rising note in the song’s main
lick. Up In Flames is a loose bluesy howl that has good
moments but some tendency to fall into mere noodling. Much in these
will sound familiar to long-time fans.

Track three, Hands in The Air, is a standout — a
stomping, shouting rock’n’roll rave-up that has “arena-filler” written
on it in letters of fire. Fuck yeah, turn those Marshalls up to 11!

It’s interesting to contrast Hands in The Air with
Luminous Flesh Giants from the Joe Satriani
album. These two tracks are stylistically and structurally similar, but
what a huge difference in emotional tone! Where the older one is
dark, brooding and ominous, the newer one is a big joyful noise.

In Lifestyle Satriani accomplishes a personal first by
by managing to sing without sucking. His voice actually sounds good
run through a chorus box over a basic three-chord romp. The lyrics
are pretty funny, too.

The title track Is There Love In Space, gives us a
quieter and more reflective moment, especially in the final section
about 4:00 in which takes us back towards Joe’s jazz influences.
If I Could Fly continues in a similar vein, firming up to
a steady rock groove around which Joe dances in trademark fashion.
There’s nothing especially novel here but the effect is quite

The Souls Of Distortion takes us back to the Land of the
Monster Stomp, at a slower tempo than Hands in The Air
but with tasty use of a wah-wah pedal. The fading feedback blare at the
end is just right.

Look Up is lyrical and quiet, resembling Rubina’s
and Always With Me, Always With You in flavor.

I Like The Rain, unfortunately, demonstrates that
Lifestyle was probably a fluke; Joe sings and sucks. You’ll
be reminded of Ride from Flying In A Blue Dream,
but he did it better it the first time.

Searching is another standout track. It opens with a
hypnotic ostinato reminiscent of Ted Nugent’s
Stranglehold and holds to that line relentlessly amidst
flurries of manic noodling and blares of feedback. You get the
feeling this was recorded as a late-night jam-session with everybody
half wasted, and you are right there with them.

Bamboo will remind you of Midnight from
Surfing With The Alien or Tears In The Rain
from The Extremist. There’s some interesting and subtle
use of what sounds like reverse echo at about 3:25 in.

In some ways this album doesn’t compare well with the previous one;
there is less variety and originality here than there was in
Strange Beautiful Music. It’s got more in the way of
simple, turn-it-up-loud visceral thrills, though. If Joe was out to
prove that he can rock the house down better than 3/4ths of the
spoiled children who call themselves ‘metal’ acts, he sure