27 November 2006

So Now Peace is Anti-Christian

From the Durango Herald comes the following bit of joyous Xmas news:

Pagosa Springs, Colorado--A homeowner's association has ordered a local resident to take down part of her Christmas display, a wreath shaped like the peace symbol. The homeowner's association claims that "Loma Linda residents are offended by the Peace Sign displayed on the front of your house." The association also claims that the wreath falls under a prohibition banning signs, billboards or advertising structures.

While other residents have been allowed to display Christmas decor on their properties, Lisa Jensen apparently has been singled out on account of the message of peace itself. A neighbor of Jensen's had been ordered to take down a peace symbol as being inappropriate while the United States is at war.

Bob Kearns, president of the association, refused to describe the "numerous" complaints supposedly received about the Christmas display. Instead he asserted "The peace sign has a lot of negativity associated with it ... It's also an anti-Christ sign. That's how it started." He also claimed that legal advisors had "laughed at" allowing the display of a peace symbol. Board members Jeff Heitz and Tammy Spezze joined with him and asserted that they are doing "what is best for the entire community."

Jensen notes (The Journal on Pagosa.com | The Grinch Who Stole Peace | News & Perspectives for Pagosa Springs, CO): "the rule has never been applied to wooden, paper and metal signs currently on display all over the subdivision, advertising contractors, builders, realtors, yard sales, and lost or found pets".

Jensen appealed the decision to the Architectural Control Committee for the subdivision. Chairman Jack Lilly explains what happened next:
...we have a list of do's and dont's in our neighborhood just like all the others. One of these dont's is to place offensive or political signs on your property unless its in support of a candidate and only at election time. One of our neighbors placed a Pie Plate siged Peace symbol on his driveway. Another placed a large wreath in the shape of a peace symbol on their house. The three person Board of Directors received two complaints from residents who are understandibly sensitive to the current efforts in Iraq and believed these symbols to be other that a wish for peace.

The Architectural Committee was asked to intervene. The five members met and decided that no message, other than a wish for peace could be inferred in the symbols and saw no violation of the CC&R's. The Board of Directors has the authority to override the ACC and did so. But that wasn't enough. They demanded that anyone that disagreed with them should be removed from the committee. We all resigned. Gives us more time to enjoy our neighbors. No more meetings.
The official website of the town of Pagosa Springs says "The Loma Linda Subdivision and Home Owner Association is not located in Town limits. Also, municipalities like the town do not regulate home owner associations' covenents, codes and restrictions (CC&R). THE TOWN WHOLLY SUPPORTS THEIR PEACE SIGN DISPLAY AND ALSO WISHES FOR PEACE ON EARTH."

Where do you start with something like this? This Bob Kearns character seems to be a piece of work. What could he possibly be thinking? What kind of "sign" or "advertising structure" is a Christmas wreath?

As for his lunatic allegation that the peace symbol started as a sign of the antichrist--well, it passeth belief. Who does he think he's kidding? Or is he remembering some of the fundamentalist propaganda of the sixties, when christian crazies of all varieties came out in support of napalming villagers, murdering civilians, and all the other atrocities of a war designed to impose Roman Catholicism on the largely Buddhist population of southern Vietnam. So soon we forget. Then the peace symbol was called a "witch's foot," a "broken cross," and a "symbol of Satan". No supporting evidence was ever given for any of these claims, which were all bogus anyway. They were the invention of know-nothing fundamentalists.

There is, for example, a symbol known as the broken cross. It is a cross with the upright broken or bent so that the upper part with the cross angles downward. As I recall it was supposed to symbolize the power of Christ's resurrection overcoming his death on the cross or something like that; I wasn't paying that much attention that day in class, and decades have gone by since then. But it has nothing to do with the peace symbol.

The peace symbol was first used in 1958 in an Easter march protesting the nuclear arms race. It was designed especially for that event, employing the semaphor signals for N and D and standing for Nuclear Disarmament. It has been to my knowledge a part of traditional Christmas displays since then, standing for "Peace on Earth", and symbolizing the day that ancient unknown prophet (quoted by Micah and Isaiah) wrote of, when swords should be beaten into plowshares.

As the Vietnam War energized the peace movement of the sixties christian crazies (as opposed to non-christian crazies) began to seek "biblical" or "christian" reasons to support the war. One of the ways they chose was to badmouth anything and everything connected with the anti-war movement. Jesus, for example, was said to be opposed to men wearing their hair long, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 11:14. The peace symbol did not escape these lies and slanders, even though these supposed origins were ludicrous and far off the mark. (For an online example of this sort of lunacy, check here.)

Presumably it is these sorts of people that Bob Kearns has in mind when he says that the peace symbol has a lot of negativity associated with it. It would seem to me under the circumstances that he should have gently but firmly informed the alleged complainers that they were full of crap, and should learn the truth on the subject. To kowtow to the ignorant and uninformed only encourages them in their folly. Of course it's always possible that Kearns is the one who has problems with the peace symbol. In my opinion, if he can't tell the difference between the hope that nation shall not lift up sword against nation and an advertising slogan, he should resign and take up some position he's more suited for. Street-sweeping, maybe.

See also The Broken Cross

Update (28 November 2006):
Apparently Bob Kearns' crack team of legal advisors who laughed at the idea of allowing the display of a peace symbol for Christmas have backed down. At any rate the homeowners association is now claiming that their demand was all a mistake, and that they have no intention of fining Lisa Jensen. None of the three ringleaders in this idiocy have made a statement, and two of them have apparently changed to unlisted phone numbers since they started all this nonsense. Selah.

23 November 2006

The Giving of Thanks

It's Thanksgiving, but I'm not in the mood today. My back hurts, my leg hurts, and things are not working well. Still--

I'm thankful that Matthew LaClair recorded that New Jersey coach turned U. S. History teacher preaching in class, and I hope that some corrective action will be taken soon.

I'm thankful for my family--for my beloved niece Rachel, and for my amazing newphews Sage, Brandon, and Skye, and my mother Ruth and my step-father Fred, and my brothers Bryan and Greg, and for my sister-in-law Michelle, and for my nephew Sage's wife Carlee.

I'm thankful that the Democrats will control the House and Senate for the next two years--or at least that it looks that way now. (And I'm a Republican, god help us all.)

I'm thankful for the many and bizarre blessings that have come this year.

I am thankful that our dog Zephyr is still alive, and still very puppy-like in many ways, in spite of her advancing years.

I'm thankful that the world continues to turn.

I'm thankful that we're all (or many of us anyway) gathering together for one more year's worth of thanksgiving.

20 November 2006

A Little Attitude Adjustment

Okay, I don't like to do this, but here is still more on the New Jersey history teacher recorded while preaching in class. This is a transcript of sorts from a section of the available recording. While I don't mean to defend this guy in any way, I'd like to point out that he probably did not say (as he has been quoted) "I phrase this very very diplomatically, but that's the generation that did not have terrorism did not have race aggression and all of that." At least what I hear is "a very very different attitude. But that’s also the generation that [inaudible] totalitarianism, communism, [inaudible] great depression and all of that." Note especially his belief that children should be taught homophobia, and that it's somehow wrong to present them with less bigoted views. Note also his hypothetical reaction to a child who doubts the existence of god--beat the hell out of him and drag him to church. What a real prince this guy is.

Teacher: I hope there are no—no thieves here, because I don’t always lock my doors.

Students: [indistinguishable remarks] Really?

Teacher: One day somebody may take advantage of me. [inaudible] not many places in the world left where you can do that. [inaudible] changed everything. Desperate people do desperate things. [inaudible] It really is not bad, even the schools. My problem—my problem with schools is not that I don’t think my kids are going to learn reading and writing and arithmetic or learn it well. [inaudible] The highest value in public education is tolerance, but tolerance of what? Deviant behavior? There are a lot of things I don't want my kids tolerating. Ethnic diversity, yes. Deviant sexual behavior, no. Uh, things like that. And that's all being taught right from—right from kindergarten up. I still believe in the concept of sin, man's fallen nature, all that stuff that is considered old-fashioned nowadays, and that’s how my kids are going to be raised. You know. When you think about those things, that’s what people that are concerned about education are for the most part concerned with. Down [inaudible] we had great schools as far as qualified teachers and stuff like that, but there’s a lot of disparity when it comes to world views. Public schools in general. Your family—let’s suppose you have a religious family. You send your kid—you surrender your kid to the state from preschool on up to twelfth grade. Mom and dad are trying to tell you that the Bible is God’s word and their lives are deeply rooted in faith. But yet the “smart” people—and I say that in quotations because they're not all really that smart—the teachers that you're exposed to from kindergarten to twelfth grade, never once will you see them crack open a Bible. Never once will you hear them quote it. And never once will you hear a prayer uttered from their lips. Over the course of twelve years, what's the transfer? Smart people don’t have faith. Don’t believe. That’s the transfer. [inaudible] Now my parents grew up, they went to public schools, but they went prior to 1962 so the teachers read the bible and the teacher prayed and it was part of the school day and, you know, a very very different attitude. But that’s also the generation that [inaudible] totalitarianism, communism, [inaudible] great depression and all of that.

Student (female): But then there’s also like you can’t [inaudible] exceptions to every rule, [inaudible] like my mom, and my dad, [inaudible] and like my grandparents—

Teacher: And that’s their prerogative.

Student: Yeah, and my—

Teacher: But should they impose that on the rest of the world?

Student: No no no no I know that, but like [inaudible] both my grandparents, and my grandpa especially, he goes to church every single day. Every day in the morning he gets up and goes to church, and … and like … I go to church every sunday … I go by myself, and, like, now I got a whole [inaudible] of friends I bring on church every sunday. And so like, if I’m always, you know—

Teacher: I realize there are exceptions; I don’t disagree with that. My only thing is that those are the exceptions. Like you said it’s the exceptions, not the rule. As a parent I want to create an environment that makes it more likely that my kid is going to have faith, not less likely, you know what I mean? That was one of my concerns. And now I think we’re sufficiently [inaudible]. [pause] It’s a battle.

Student: But then what would you do if one kid like [inaudible] “Thanks for teaching me all this but like I don’t agree. I don’t have faith.”

Teacher: Until you’re eighteen—

Student: Yeah?

Teacher: —you have to agree.

Student: Okay, but I’m saying, like, what if you’re eighteen—

Teacher: If you’re eighteen years old, and you made that decision I’ll still love you, but I don’t have to agree with you. I’d never abandon you regardless of what decision you made. [inaudible] God, the way he’s portrayed in the scriptures. People have done horrible things in the bible, but did he stop loving them? But in a relationship with them [inaudible] didn’t stop loving them. And that’s the example of how we should act as parents. But if my kid is age twelve and he’s telling me Dad, I appreciate your time and effort but I’ve decided in my twelve years of wisdom that I’m going to stop going to church, after I break his backside we’re going to have a little attitude adjustment on the subject, he’s going to get in the car with the rest of the family and go to church. You’re entitled to your own opinions, but you’re still going to do what your old man tells you to or suffer the consequences. [inaudible]

Student [male]: Isn’t the whole point of public school so that you can separate personal beliefs from teachers and administrators from non—non-religious, you know, non-religious teachings during school, like school prayer and all that?

Teacher: No. The purpose of public school is to provide free education to people that couldn’t afford education. Period. That’s the purpose of public school. What it’s become is social engineering. It’s supposed to reflect the values and belief-systems of the parents; that’s why we have school boards elected from the population. Now I gotta believe that most of people on the school board have faiths may be similar to mine but yet the state comes up with some weird perception of what education ought to be and they jump on the bandwagon.

Student: What—what would decide what should be—what religion should be taught in schools; what would decide that?

Teacher: No, it’s not about teaching—My point is that it’s not about teaching religion, and these issues will all come up when we get to the 1920s and things begin to get legislated and we’ll talk about them then. But the public school shouldn’t teach a religion, but the scriptures aren’t religion.

Student: They’re not?

Teacher: The scriptures are at the foundation of the world’s religions—of the world’s main religions, anyway. Religion is a set way of doing things. Like for example if you take Christian faith you have many varieties. You have Roman Catholicism, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Baptists. We differ on church government, things like that, but [inaudible] the book. The bible. We should be able to bring that into the classroom, read it, and shouldn’t be threatened [inaudible].

Student: What if some students don’t believe in the bible?

Another Student: I don’t either.

Teacher: That’s their prerogative. What if the student doesn’t believe in evolution? What if the student doesn’t believe in some, you know, other aspect of the educational curriculum?

Student: Well, evolution is scientific.

Teacher: Is it?

Student: I could get you a whole bunch of information on it.

Teacher: Yeah, I’m 38 years old; I’ve seen the information, but here’s the scientific method.

[At this point there is considerable confusion as members of the class try to figure out what the scientific method is according to what they can remember from science. The teacher suggests "experimentation" as one of the steps at one point, this being the only part of it he's interested in. For a further update on the situation check out The Lippard Blog.]

18 November 2006

Thank God for Matthew LaClair

There’s small life, and there’s big life. Or there’s simple life and intelligent life and somehow we all evolved from simpler life forms and got to the complex life forms—that’s the assumption, that may be your hypothesis. Anybody ever observe it?
This explanation of a basic scientific principle, delivered in a sneering tone, was given in a New Jersey High School. So what, you ask. Kids say a lot of stupid things; that's why they're in high school in the first place, to learn stuff, and to improve their minds. Doubtless the teacher stepped in and set the poor kid straight.

One would think, wouldn't one?

The trouble is, the oyster responsible for this particular pearl was the teacher. Yes, believe it or not, a twenty-first century educator actually said this, as part of a confused explanation of why he thought the big bang, the fossil record of the development of life, and the account of billions of years of pre-history clearly visible in the night sky, are all not science. As he babbled on this teacher cruelly revealed his utter lack of understanding of the basics of science, of the discipline of historical research, and of simple forensics.

The funny thing is that this guy has his defenders. One of them wrote:
I've had this teacher and he is one of the best teachers. He taught history the way it was and in group discussions he would view both points without no religion remarks. So who ever reads this, don't be ignorants and know the facts first.
Given the imbecilic tone and lack of logic to this screed I'm afraid the writer may well be correct, and this ignorant yahoo (I speak of him as I heard him in the recording) may well be "one of the best teachers" in New Jersey. God help the students there if that is true.

Another writes:
i know this teacher personally and know he is a good person and diddnt mean to offend ne one... and fuck the little bitch ass who recorded this shiit... im a senior @ khs and this just adds to all the fucking drama in this school.. so u know wat fuck all u bitch asses who want to see action taken...

It's teachers like this guy--his name is David Paszkiewicz by the way--telling kids nonsense about the scientific record and babbling incoherently about the bible, who are destroying the public school system. I've had my own David Paszkiewiczes in my educational life. There was one Barbara Allen, my fifth grade teacher, who believed that electricity was some awesome and mysterious gift from god, and who taught that it was immoral for people to sit in such a way that any part of the body touched another part. (In later years when I read Tertullian for the first time, I was instantly reminded of poor demented Mrs. Allen.) There was a lady named Hughes who taught Spanish and was obsessed with the notion that her students were making out behind her back. There was a guy named Bertram something or other who thought the best way to teach high school seniors about "Contemporary World Problems" was to have them endlessly color maps. (Even some of the other teachers spoke derogatorily of that particular crochet. In our hearing, even.)

But none of my teachers had the distinction of sounding crazier than Mr. Garrison (except Mrs. Allen sometimes). This guy manages it:
...the public school shouldn’t teach a religion, but the scriptures aren’t religion. ... The scriptures are at the foundation of the world’s religions—of the world’s main religions. Religion is a set way of doing things.
This comes about ten minutes into the available recording of Mr. Garrison's American History class. This is breathtaking. The Christian holy book is not religious--it is the foundation of the world's main religions. What are they? Mr. Paszkiewicz names four of them--Roman Catholicism, Methodism, Presbyterianism, and, uh, Baptism, I guess. The Baptists. At this point we begin to gather that this character has his own private definition of religion, and that it apparently excludes Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and a host of other faiths.

"We should be able to bring the bible into the classroom [and] read it," Mr. Garrison-Paszkiewisz says, the remainder of the comment being drowned out on the recording. One of his supporters adds that he said something like "Schools used to be able to open the Bible and read it as if it were a history book." (And congratulations to Joelle Perry for using the subjunctive correctly.) "As if it were a history book." Exactly. But the bible is not a history book (though it is a collection of works from which history may be derived), and should not be read as one. Does Paszkiewisz have his own definition of history as well? It's hard to say, but it should be kept in mind that this oddball is supposed to be teaching American History.

The kids in the classroom are obviously startled by the novel declaration that the bible is not a religious anthology, and the question is asked, what if a student doesn't believe in the bible. The response:
That’s their prerogative. What if the student doesn’t believe in evolution? What if the student doesn’t believe in some other aspect of the educational curriculum?
Now, up to this point Paszkiewisz has been guilty of nothing more than abysmal ignorance. At this point he veers off into preaching over teaching. With no information (apparently) whatsoever he begins to preach to the class his own religious views. This is not an "intellectual debate" as one of his former students describes--to be an intellectual debate there would have to be intellect, and all importantly, information involved. Paszkiewisz proclaims his religious views, clearly, and shows his absolute ignorance of the scientific questions involved.

Note, please, that this is not an opinion. This is an observation, based directly on the teacher's recorded comments. Paszkiewisz introduced the topic of evolution himself, without any prompting, and then went off on a strange religious tirade.
The argument goes something like this: “You’re a believer. Your argument is based on faith, but I believe in evolution; my ideas are based on ["facts?" suggests a student] science, or facts, right?
This is said in the sneering tone the teacher apparently affects any time he is talking about some point with which he disagrees. (At least he does so in this recording.) He goes on to lay out a familiar fundamentalist argument to the effect that scientific concepts are based on faith while belief in the Biblical accounts of creation is soundly based on fulfilled prophecy. He doesn't deal with the more disturbing question of why the grand creator should have written one vast and superfluous lie in the skies, and another consistent one in the layers of rock on the surface of the earth, but allowed the truth to be revealed only in one collection of ancient literature. "If there’s nothing, it can’t explode," he says at one point, referring to the big bang. Of course nobody ever said that nothing (or maybe nothingness) exploded; that's some notion that Paszkiewisz cooked up in his own brain. Nor do scientists describe life as coming about by spontaneous generation (actually an old folk belief long since discarded by science) as he seems to think. Nor are paleontology, archaeology, astronomy, and the like--sciences that peer into the past--somehow not scientific, as he seems to think, because they do not depend heavily on laboratory experiments. This is a notion that the Creation Research Institute (a fundamentalist outfit) used to push, and may still push for all I know, but it's a crazy idea that misunderstands both the nature of the scientific method and the way the sciences in question actually work. None of this is science, history, or philosophy, and all of it is religious discourse. None of it, in this context at least, has any place in a public high school.

A student, Matthew LaClair, complained about this little sermonette, and requested that the teacher apologize and correct his numerous scientific misstatements. After a suitable delay Matthew LaClair was allowed to present his complaint with the teacher present. Paszkiewisz denied everything, claiming that remarks he made had been fabricated or taken out of context. And--

Well you know the rest, right. So many times have I heard this same story, where it always comes down to the teacher's word vs. the student's, and you-know-who wins that contest. Friends, relatives, and total strangers have told me the old familiar story--yes, I admit to being a batshit insane fundamentalist, but I didn't bring my crazy religious notions to class. It's all an invention. One person I know had a teacher who during an anatomy presentation went nuts over the suggestion that some human bones were similar to the equivilent bones in animals--it seems that human beings were a special creation or something and their bones had nothing to do with the bones of animals. And every time the teacher is reinstated with a pat on the head and a "go forth and continue as you have been" from the powers that be. As a victim myself of intellectually perverse teachers I am enraged every time one of these cases comes to my attention. It makes me even angrier when I see the "teacher" in question claiming to be a victim in some fundamentalist rag. It's wretched--enough to make any thinking person retch anyway.

And that's why I say thank god for Matthew LaClair. For once the story didn't have the familiar ending. When Paszkiewisz denied the charges, his student produced the recordings of his little sermon on disk. Paszkiewisz responded (it is said) like an old-time movie villain caught in the act:
You got the big fish ... you got the big Christian guy who is a teacher...!"
Nailed, and he knew it. And yet one of his defenders finds it in his or heart to absolve him:
I know that if he denied some things he said, it was by accident, and not intentional. Its not his fault that he didn't record the discussion and listen to it over and over. That would be the only way he would remember such remarks.
What an indictment. Does the writer mean that Paszkiewisz launches into religious tirades so often that he could hardly be expected to remember the content of one in particular? Or that he's generally forgetful? Or what? Personally I find it impossible to believe that an adult man (he claims to be thirty-eight) could forget flagrantly crossing the line between teaching and preaching in public school. And if he did, well, shame on him.

If a man charged with hitting a pedestrian while out driving two weeks before denies doing it, what do we conclude? We conclude that he's either innocent, or lying. If we subsequently determine that he was not innocent, are we not entitled to assume that he was lying? No, says this defender--he might have forgotten it. But why would somebody forget something like that? Well, he didn't have a video of the event--how could he be expected to remember every little detail of his life without one?

Because of the magnitude of the event. For a man to forget hitting a pedestrian we have to assume either (1) he hits pedestrians so often that one incident could easily be forgotten in the crush of events, or (2) hitting a pedestrian is no big thing with him. Either way, he's a menace.

I suppose there's a third possibility--he could have been blind drunk.

But the fact is, once Paszkiewisz found out that he had been recorded, he acted like a man who knew he was in manure up to his waist. He demanded a union representative and shut up. And high time, too.

For a fuller look at the case, and for all necessary links, check out The Lippard Blog.

23 September 2006

Territorial Maps

I'm crouching here over somebody else's laptop at somebody else's house enjoying the festivities associated with my nephew's wedding. For some reason the old bromide to the effect that the map is not the territory springs to mind, so I guess that's the topic of today's blast. Or maybe not--it looks like things are winding up here, so whatever I have to say is absolutely irrelevant. Or not. Help, you goddamn gods, help is all, to quote--well, never mind.

11 September 2006

Quiet Reflection

Today, for anybody who's interested, I uploaded another page to my Elizabethan Drama site. This is just a list of plays, of Massinger's plays to be precise, and in no other way remarkable. Except that this list, folks, this list comes alive. Tap the name of the play, ladies and gentlemen, and a copy of that play appears in front of you as if by magic. And this copy is no ordinary copy, no sir, this copy has been brought to you from some great repository of books that may be half a world away. Now this is the future I kind of always expected--except that, to be honest, I didn't expect to live long enough to see it--or at least to see it start, which is where we're at now. At one point I thought this was going to turn into something, but somehow the idea never caught.

Fates of living men inform us
We can fake our years of grime;
And above endure enormous
Flashbacks to a life of crime.

ABC's Road to 9/11

First, I have to confess that I didn't watch all of ABC's Road to 9/11, but I did sit it out for at least two hours, finally abandoning it for the latest episode of the Venture Brothers. I'd already been warned that this was a work of fiction, and that any resemblance to any actual persons or events was strictly coincidental, so I wasn't particularly surprised by the numerous departures from the historical record. I watched it purely as entertainment, as ABC itself suggested, and the long and the short of it is--

It sucked.

The opening hour was too damn long. The sequence of events was not explained, and the constant use of short clips from an unsteady handheld camera focusing too close to see anything was at best irritating, and at worst just plain monotonous. I could have done altogether without the character of "Patricia" (who as far as I know has no historical counterpart); she seemed to have no function whatsoever.

The movie wanders aimlessly around the first attack on the World Trade Center back in 1793 or so and gradually gets to various operations taken to capture the criminals and to identify their financial backer. There's maybe a half-hour's worth of substance in the two plus hours I saw, and decent editing (not the hack-and-slash job I actually saw) might have saved it. Maybe nothing could have saved it. I don't know.

As history, it's ludicrous. As entertainment it's--well, not. Entertaining, I mean.

My advice: forget it. I intend to. Skip tomorrow's installment and maybe read a good book. I hear that The Cell is a real page-turner. You might even learn something.

17 June 2006

Journal Entry

My cat Flame just died. Or maybe not; as I look at him he seems to be breathing shallowly, but when I look again—not. It’s just some trick of the light. I went into the bathroom to take my bath a bit before three and he was lying on the floor, very still. I thought he was dead for a moment, but he spoke, his usual querulous meow. He spoke several times, complaining loudly when I lifted him from the floor onto a folded towel that I thought might be more comfortable for him, and I think he appreciated it, as he settled down a little and spoke more quietly. I petted him and told him to relax, that this was a natural transition, the next step on a journey that I could not accompany him on, but that I was here to see him off as best I could. Not that it mattered what I said to him, except perhaps to myself; he may have liked hearing my voice, though—he meowed a couple of times as I ran my bath and got in it as if to check on whether I was still there. After my bath I cleared off a cushion here in the music slash computer room upstairs, and I went back to the bathroom and picked him up gently, his towel still under him. I think he was still alive when I picked him up—I thought I saw him breathing—but when I set him down on the cushion I no longer saw any sign of life. I think he literally died in my arms.

14 June 2006

The Voices In My Head

My eyes are swollen and red and have been for the past several days--allergies I suppose, but it's difficult to focus on the screen. I've written nothing for the past several days, not that it matters I suppose, but it feels frustrating. Today I got one thing off my list of things to do--I got most of the front lawn and parking strip mowed, which makes the place look less abandoned, or at least so I fondly think. The internet runs sluggishly for me today. My head buzzes with random quotations--"It's all very strange and mysterious and I'm sure it's leading up to something," (Mrs. Drudge in The Real Inspector Hound); "What's the bird's-eye lowdown on this caper, whatever that means?" (Nick Danger); "If you didn't know the difference, you couldn't tell the difference" (a long-forgotten advertisement); "There aint much you can do with a bag of shit except bury it" (Huck Finn's pap according to Seelye).... It's like one of those scenes in old movies where voices from the past echo in some guy's mind (or at least on the soundtrack) except that these voices mean nothing. Brusha brusha brusha, get the new Ipana.... You can be sure if it's Westinghouse.... I can't believe I ate the whole thing.... You hate that cat, don't you?

Do they even make Ipana any more? Then what is the point of having this loop stuck in my head? It's talent round-up day, folks, or maybe we're going to have a special guest.

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear when Lucky Strikes brings you The Lone Ranger and his faithful Indian companion Tonto--or was it his Japanese valet Kato? Well, the Shadow knows. And the Death March of a Marionette means it's time to go to bed.

08 June 2006

There's Logic For You

It's always rather surprising to see a conservative appeal to logic--their strong suit is fuzzy emotional appeals like those President Stay-the-Course Bush is so fond of, or the irrelevant invective of the Ann Coulters among them. But over at AlterNet I saw an example of conservative "logic" that was so bizarre I have to share it.

This was a reply by Conservativation to an article by Scott Ritter, one-time UN weapons inspector in Iraq. In the course of the article Ritter cited a book by Iraq war veteran Paul Reickhoff, who compared the Iraqi insurgents to the fictional "Wolverines" of the long-forgotten movie Red Dawn. Red Dawn is one of those endless trashy movies Hollywood comes out with year after year like Independence Day or The Passion of the Christ, where action substitutes for ideas and shock for internal logic. In it (as best I recall) a high-school football team takes on the Russian army after a successful invasion of the United States and somehow manages to win. Ritter summarizes Reickhoff as follows: "The Wolverines were heroes. The occupiers, frustrated by the tactics of the Wolverines, used increasingly brutal means of suppressing the insurgency, including taking out their revenge on the innocent civilian population. Reickhoff wrote of how he and his fellow soldiers, by invading and occupying Iraq, had reversed roles with the Iraqis. The Americans were now the brutal occupier, and the Iraqis were the 'Wolverines'."

Now I see many difficulties with this comparison. The Wolverines were fictional caricatures in a simplistic movie universe; the Iraqi insurgents are real people in a complex social and political environment. The Wolverines were a single group with a fairly clear goal; the Iraqi insurgents are many groups with differing goals and tactics. The Wolverines were a bunch of high-school students; the Iraqi insurgents appear to come from a wide variety of backgrounds. The Wolverines were Americans; the Iraqi insurgents are (for the most part) Iraqis. But neither Reickhoff nor Ritter suggested that the parallel was exact, and none of these objections really affect the point that Reickhoff was making.

Now Conservativation has his own objections--two of them--that he apparently thinks are "logical" and relevant. First, he observes, "The Wolverines never killed their own...." (Their own what he doesn't say.) I assume he must mean that the Iraqi insurgents do kill "their own". I'd like to see an example of that. Judging from the various reports coming out of Iraq, the insurgents are behaving as other resistance movements have done: targeting the occupying forces, collaborators with the occupying forces, and in some cases rival insurgent groups with different agendas. In no case have I seen an instance of an Iraqi insurgent group targeting "their own"--nor does it seem likely that they would. Any insurgent group that routinely killed its own members for no good reason would not survive very long.

If by "their own" Conservativation means fellow-countrymen who are collaborating with the enemy then he's way off-base. Whatever may have happened in the movies, real resistance movements deal harshly with traitors. They kill them. Take a look sometime at the history of the resistance against the Nazi occupiers. From the viewpoint of the insurgents collaborators are worse than the occupiers themselves. They are people who have sold out for power, or for money, or for some other sordid reason, and deserve whatever happens to them.

But, writes Conservativitis, the Wolverines never "beheaded innocents that were there to help...." Ah, but to help whom? The occupying forces? Remember, insurgents do not want the country to run smoothly under occupation--quite the reverse. Logic dictates the necessity of attacking those who help the occupiers even when such help consists of food for the hungry or medical aid for the sick and injured. It's not a pretty picture, but occupation never is.

"[M]aking the insurgents into heroes is a huge stretch," Conservatorium writes, adding irrelevantly "Iraqis may dislike the US, but they are not huge fans of these murderes [sic] either. They kill more Iraqis than Americans." But whether people are heroes or not is always a subjective issue. I have talked with people who regard George Armstrong Custer as a hero rather than a blithering blowhard with a flair for self-promotion. Thomas Edison, Andrew Jackson, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Billy the Kid, and even Adolf Hitler have their admirers. On the other hand the native Americans who ran an unsuccessful resistance movement against alien invaders in North America for many decades were seen (at least till recently) as bloodthirsty savages, and their names--Cochise, Crazy Horse, Tecumseh, Captain Jack--were reviled. (And even today, not to wander too far from the point, it is considered acceptable to name a team the R-dsk-ns--one of the vilest epithets in the English language--where you'd never see let's say the San Francisco F-gs, the Tuscon W-tb-cks, or the Los Angeles N-gg-rs play in a national arena.)

Leaping nimbly from rooftop to rooftop, like the Tick on patrol, Conservatwhatever abruptly requests: "Please give me the list of other places in the world where we are breaking international law etc. The article says there are many others. Also, I guess Kosovo was not left from one President to another." While I don't undertake to reply for Scott Ritter, I can't find that either point is dealt with in his article. He does speak of US crimes in "Iraq and elsewhere"; maybe Conservilius equates "elsewhere" with "many others." I would suggest that torture at Gitmo, kidnappings in Italy, Pakistan and elsewhere, detention without trial of the innocent, extradition of suspects to Syria, warrentless spying in the US, are all crimes by any definition. (And if I weren't a Republican I'd find the mysterious election irregularities in 2004 extremely suspicious; the odds against them happening by chance are enormous. Fortunately Democrats, as far as I can tell, are all statistically illiterate, and incapable of seeing the impossibility of the reported results.)

I don't know what "logical" point Conservativeoration thought he was making about Kosovo. Ritter's point was that President Bush has no standard for victory and now admits that it will be up to some future president to figure out a way to get the US out of the mess he got it into. There is absolutely no parallel here to Kosovo, and even if there was, Ritter took no position on Kosovo in the first place (at least not in this article), so Conservativenation's illogical jump is--well, gibberish.

The absolute silliness of all this is incredible. The author wanders aimlessly through the Sudan, and into Rwanda, spewing invective but without stumbling onto a single point that has anything to do with the article to which he is supposedly replying. And then comes this priceless statement:

"I suggest a course in logic would be useful. I say that not to defend the war or the President, but to point out the utter lack of skill you have at making and defending points. It is not enough to allege folks, yet that's all you do, and when challenged, change subject to next allegation. Bush Lied...oh, um, Gitmo, oh well er, torture, er uh...whatever."

The pot criticising the kettle, the blind leading the blind. Scott Ritter's main point--that we should suspend judgment about the events of Haditha--is asinine. The military investigators didn't suspend judgment when they described four students and a taxi-driver as insurgents, or when they claimed that civilians were killed in an explosion when in fact they were shot. Facts are facts, and logic is logic. The military investigators saw no need to resolve inconsistencies in their original investigation, and instead put forth a potpourri of lies and speculation. They blew their credibility with that. Whether it was blithering incompetence or active participation in a cover-up doesn't really matter at this point. They got caught. No further military investigation is worth a damn.

But Conservativation's "utter lack of skill ... in making and defending points" is pitiful here. Does he address anything in the article? No. He engages in frivolous attacks on minor issues not related to the subject under discussion, and then attacks a straw man--some crazy person who makes points and when challenged changes the subject. (Conservativation is pretty good at subject-changing himself.) That person is not Scott Ritter. He goes on to say "It would also help your cause if occasionally you wrote a sentence that recognizes how vile, evil and animalistic the slow slicing off of heads can be," and then with complete illogic, jumps to "Finally, explain Canada being targeted. Are they not utopia?" (Need I mention that there is not one word about Canada in Ritter's article?)

And yet this irrational jumble of irrelevancies apparently passes for logical thought in this character's mind. Much of conservative thought (if that's not an oxymoron) is like this--emotional appeals, irrational jumps from subject to subject without rhyme or reason, pointless invective directed against an imaginary opponent--but this piece, to quote Aristophanes, takes the cake. To take this bucket of turds, tie a ribbon on it, and try to pass it off as logical discourse--well, it's priceless.

Conservatation concludes: "I respect good anti war positions. This article isn't one." His respect, to quote Chaucer, is "nat worth a tord; Thou doost nought elles but despendest tyme." Ritter's conclusion, however, is both sobering and chilling: "The scope and scale of our crimes, as manifested in Iraq and elsewhere, are mind-boggling. The indifference of the American people is mind numbing. And the wrath of history, which will judge all of us harshly, has yet to be felt." And that, friends, judged objectively, is beyond dispute.

05 April 2006

Power Was His Principle

The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon, USA: "His ruthlessness in pursuit of the Republican agenda, his willingness to shake down contributors, his ferocity in pursuit of political profit - all of these stemmed from a deep-seated conviction that he was right, and doing what was right justified pushing the rules to the limit and beyond."

No doubt Tom DeLay's resignation from Congress--always assuming that he actually does step down--is a good thing for the country. Not so good as his execution by firing squad in front of the Capitol building he so dishonored, but still a small step in the right direction. But as long as his ideological comrades remain in power--corrupt congressmen like Dolittle and Pombo, eco-criminals like Chiseling Charlie Hurwitz, paid-up members of the down-with-science club like Pat Robertson and our beloved president George stay-the-course Bush--it's small comfort. DeLay was nothing more than a tool, and now that he's a broken tool, the gods he served so assiduously have cast him aside as a piece of refuse on the garbage dump of life.

Corruption has become so endemic in public life that Americans treat it as normal--a perk of the office as it were. Radio and television stations that use the public airwaves not only accept bribes to run political messages, they demand them as a right. The need to raise money to pay these bribes requires that politicians in turn take bribes from groups with deep pockets--bribes that must be paid off with future political favors. Money becomes a form of political speech--and nobody protests. It's all part of the game they call democracy.

Not that DeLay and his gang actually believe in democracy. They work from a deep-seated belief that power rightfully belongs not to elected officials, but to unelected bureaucrats who are most adept at bending the rules of that other game Americans play--Capitalism--to their advantage. These guys--innovators like Ken Lay and his ilk--are the rightful bosses of us all. Why? Well, ours is not to question why, but to humbly accept the cards that the Hidden Hand (the god of Capitalism) deals us. However it comes out, we all know it's for the best, because that's the way Capitalism works.

Of course American Capitalism is only capitalistic in the same sense that American Democracy is democratic--nominally. There's no room for either in the brontosaurian bureaucracies of modern business or government. Instead we have a grotesque parody of both--"democratic" elections bought and paid for by the likes of Abramoff, and "competition" between industries for corporate welfare doled out by the likes of Rove. And tools like DeLay in the thick of things, making sure that everybody gets enough room at the trough--for a price.

And what about those who need medicine? Screw them, says Mr. DeLay, just so long as the pharmaceutical industry makes a bundle. The purity of our air and water? Not important, compared to the need of industry for coal and oil. Wildlife? No problem; there'll always be ranches where wingless quail can be shot--for a fee. Global warming? Hey, what a chance to sell air-conditioners.

The good news is that some people still see that what these guys are doing is wrong. It doesn't matter whether their shenanigans are technically legal--anybody can write a law after all--they are flat out wrong. Torturing prisoners (for whatever reason) is wrong. Taking bribes (however labeled) is wrong. Putting poisons in our air and water is wrong. Falsifying science is wrong. Invading other countries on trumped-up excuses is wrong. These are not things we should even be having a discussion about (though doing them in the name of the American people without such a discussion is also wrong). They are wrong, and the people who do them are criminals. They are enemies of the human race. The humane thing to do would be to remove them from society and put them somewhere that they could do no harm. The rational thing to do would be to shoot them without ceremony, and bury them secretly in unmarked graves lest some fool try to make martyrs of them.

30 March 2006

Innocent Mix-Up

Howard Kaloogian, a Californian candidate for Congress, boldly charges that newspapers are misrepresenting the situation in Iraq--that things there are much more peaceful than represented. "...each day the news media finds [sic] any violence occurring in the country and screams and shouts about it--in part because many journalists are opposed to the U.S. effort to fight terrorism." In proof he shows a picture of a peaceful street scene, complete with western tourists, billboards, and a taxi, captioned "We took this photo of downtown Baghdad while we were in Iraq. Iraq (including Baghdad) is much more calm and stable than what many people believe it to be." (House Candidate Draws Fire for Web Photo - Yahoo! News)

The trouble is, the picture that was supposed to be of Baghdad was actually taken in a suburb of Istanbul. This is somewhat akin to claiming that all is quiet on the streets of Paris and showing as proof a street scene taken in Helsinki.

The utter contempt this shows for the facts is breathtaking in its scope. The amazing thing is that the candidate thought he could get away with it.

It's not even a good fake--nothing is right about it for Iraq. The signs aren't even in Arabic script.

When it was called to the candidate's attention, did he apologize? Well, yes, sort of. "It was wrong," he is quoted as saying. "We're sorry." Who he's apologizing to and for what isn't clear however. He's not sorry about misleading the American people, apparently, since he reasserts his original claims the fake picture was intended to bolster. He's not apologizing for the hypocrisy of blaming news media for the lying that he himself was in fact doing.

In explanation of the lie he was caught in he says that "the military asked us to use our discretion and put things on the Internet that were nondescriptive ... (because) if we posted something that was easily identifiable, it could be a target." This somehow justifies claiming that Istanbul was somehow Baghdad? Does Kaloogian think that all foreign cities are one and the same? Or that his readers will think that? If the one is justified by military necessity in some manner, then why not simply take a picture of downtown San Francisco and label it Baghdad? The idiocy of this is beyond belief, and several light years past justification.

Or then there's his other explanation--the old I'm-not-lying-just-stupid defence so beloved by former president Ronald Reagan. It was just an "innocent mix-up"; that pictures from a stop in Istanbul got confused with those taken in Baghdad and apparently nobody in his self-described "Truth Tour" had the wit to tell the difference.

If he and his buddies are really that downright dumb, they should be listening to what their betters have to say rather than trying to instruct the American people from the depths of their vast ignorance.

And if he is as he appears to be--just another goddamn right-wing lying whore--then he should get the hell out of politics and take up something more in his line. Insurance fraud, perhaps.

02 March 2006

Dream Journal

I waited, uncomfortably, seated with suited men and one quandary in the form of a four-star general, for the briefing to start. I had left my laptop in the school lunchroom next door and had only my quill and parchment to rely on--and besides, what if somebody made off with it? There were state secrets hidden among the naked pictures of cavorting young nymphs...

Our President, Ronald Reagan, younger and more confident than ever I had before seen him, slid into the room with a subdued fanfare from an invisible orchestra. "I have" (quoth he) "good news with which to tintabulate your ear. The Wicked Witch is dead."

A gasp undulated about the room. "But how--how did you pull that one off?"

"It was nothing," said Reagan modestly, "I just appointed forty new senators to replace those who were missing."

"Who were missing," I repeated stupidly, struggling with my quill. In my mind I saw somebody making off with my unprotected laptop. How would I ever explain it to the authorities, never mind my mother?

"Yes, missing," said Our President, zeroing in on me. I tried unsuccessfully to blend into the background. "They disappeared late yesterday afternoon. I had to use my executive privileges to have them replaced."

"Your executive privileges?" We were now strolling down a long hallway, conversing.

"Yes. 'In the event that a senator disappear mysteriously the President is empowered to appoint one or more new senators to fit his shoes'--Article Seven, section five."

"But forty senators--people will talk," I exclaimed anxiously. Not at Gitmo, came an unspoken thought, for the president was no longer available to voice it, and I was walking home along a dirt path. Menacing low-flying aircraft buzzed like flies overhead while I balanced on a log crossing over a creek.

Our worst president? I thought back to the long line of presidents who had addressed us from that same podium. Who could forget old Hick'ry Jackson's courageous defiance of the Supreme Court: "Thurgood Marshall has made his decision--but how many divisions does he have?" Or James K. Polk, who launched a war on a pretext so flimsy you could embroider it and call it a negligee. Or Harding, who handed out federal oil leases as party favors. Oh yes, it had been a rare and wonderful experience.

I was walking up the sidewalk to the front door of my house. Inside my mother was cooking dinner on the typewriter. "Mom," I said, calling her by her name, "I've got to go back to school. I accidentally left my laptop in the cafeteria. And, uh, incidentally--democracy is dead."

27 February 2006

Strange Newes of the Absurditie of Anatomy

Black Monday--the day I should have taken out the yard debris to be carried off by the yard debris fairy. It was the loud crashing noises made by the yard debris fairy that woke me up this foul monday morning. I probably should have stayed in bed.

16 February 2006

Cosmic Static

I crawled out of bed late this morning--say around six or so--and talked with Greg for a bit. We watched another installment of the curling competition at the Olympics; as far as I'm concerned it's an incomprehensible game that involves sliding rocks across the ice into something that looks vaguely like a target. It's nowhere near as boring as baseball to watch, even if somewhat baffling.

After I saw Greg off to work I took Zephyr for a walk up the street and fed the fishes. There was ice on top of their tanks and I had to break a hole in each to get the food to them. Since it's cold I suppose they won't eat much, but still--well, I don't know.

The cold is supposed to get worse; we're talking at least one day where the low will be say fifteen degrees and the high freezing. I'm not looking forward to any of it.

And then I came home to fight with the dishwasher, now entering its tenth year of being on its last legs. I thought at first maybe the pump had died, but it was only a clogged drain.

And that I guess brings me to here.

11 February 2006

For Want of a Nail

Okay, we can't all be captain, as my father used to say, there has to be crew--there has to be something for you to do. Apparently in France they have something called a pig-squealing contest (not to be confused I guess with our own American hog-calling contest). Last August the AP circulated a picture of a man taking part in the contest. AP Protests Use of Photo in Controversy: "The picture shows a bearded man wearing fake pig ears, a pig nose, and a pink embroidered cap on his head. He was wearing the costume while participating in a pig-squealing contest at an annual festival in a farm village in southern France last summer." Okay, fair enough--so what?

So how did this picture help lead to riots, the burning of embassies, the destruction of property and the deaths of at least ten people?

Well, see, that's the sixty-four thousand dollar question, as they used to say in my time. Somehow this picture got included with the eleven caricatures of the prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) that were published last September in a Danish newspaper. The Danish Muslim leader responsible for this had no explanation, except that it had been "sent to the group as an example of a provocation" according to the AP report. Earlier accounts claimed that it had been sent to an unnamed Muslim (presumably in Denmark) who apparently interpreted it as a depiction of the prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) as a pig. (Maybe a friend sent it to him as an example of the idiocies of the West?)

Somebody's been hoaxed here, and my money's on--well, okay, I don't know who's responsible. I do find it puzzling that the Danish delegation felt it necessary to add other material to the eleven caricatures, if those caricatures were the issue. There's no question about the eleven--why intermingle extraneous and irrelevant material then? Is it, as some have charged, because the cartoons themselves weren't considered inflammatory enough? In other words, is this just an elaborate publicity stunt for Islam?

In any case, it's clear that the Muslim rioters owe Denmark a humble and abject apology over this issue. Will they get one? I'm not holding my breath.

09 February 2006

Chicago Tribune | Eric Zorn

Chicago Tribune | Eric Zorn: "The opinion of the Tribune's editorial page is that the cartoons were 'juvenile' and 'cheesy,' a judgment I don't share after going online to see them for myself"

08 February 2006

Gates of Vienna: Anne Frank and Hitler, Reclining

I'm not sure what "Blog This" does, but I'm trying to create a link to Gates of Vienna: Anne Frank and Hitler, Reclining; the discussion of cartoons there is at least mildly interesting.

Why Hens Have No Teeth

Keep the mind perfectly still, place the fingers on the home keys, and begin typing. Whatever emerges--that's mindscum. Today's episode of mindscum features the Byzantine Majority Text, or maybe the Beatles' 1964 Australian Tour--it's sort of hard to tell the difference. The vitriol that has been thrown is sort of amazing, when you think about it. How much difference is there, say between the Textus Receptus and Ringo Starr? or between Jimmy Nicol and the Byzantine Majority Text? And if they can all be added together, do we really gain anything? Nicol I can't help but feel sorry for--where do you go from here? asks a reporter. Well, Ringo's going to join them in Brisbane, and then it's off to oblivion for me says Jimmy. And he disappears from the scene, a handsome guy with a drumset and no future. Still, it beats being a Spinal Tap drummer, I suppose.

But the Byzantine Majority Text--there's a losing concept. Let's count the readings, and see how many variants it takes to fill the Albert Hall. Create your own New Testament. Wanted: three thousand Greek calligraphers to write new version of the gospels; must be able to follow copy with ninety-five percent fidelity.... Who comes up with these things? Of course we could fall back on the Textus Receptus, the Mr. Ed of the textual world. Sure we know who created it, and when, and on what basis--but hey, Erasmus got it straight from the horse's mouth, or maybe from the Holy Ghost. Would he lie?

Throw the two into a pit and let them fight it out--two doddering old lamplighters on their last legs, throwing punches into the air and hoping for the best. Pitiful, just pitiful, as Jed Clampett might have observed. Like watching the Old Globe text duke it out with Pope's--is there some point to this? Where is Dr. Gonzo when you need him?

I wonder if Jimmy Nicol and Pete Best ever got together. Them two, Andy White, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr could get together and form an all ex-Beatles drummer band. It would probably have as much validity as the Byzantine Majority Text. At least you could dance to it.

06 February 2006

Thinking about Christopher Marlowe, for no good reason--atheist, playwright, poet, and spy for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the First of England.... born some time this month four hundred and forty two years ago. (So was Galileo Galilei, come to think of it.) Transformed English drama with a handful of college buddies in his twenties--and dead before thirty. God, what a crew they were, these young men with their Senaca, their Ovid, their blank verse, and their incessant reading. Marlowe, Nash, Kyd and the bunch.

English theatre was in horrible shape till they hit the scene. Oh, yeah, we had the over-precious plays of Lyly to work with--and what else? Things like Common Conditions, and Sir Clyomen and Sir Clamydes--and believe me, these things have to be seen to be believed. (And how I wish I could for once see Clyomen and Clamydes--it's hard to believe it could ever have been performed, with its awkward fourteen-syllable rhymed verse and wholly preposterous situations.)

05 February 2006

Standing on Fire

I have no topic but as usual my fingers will come alive on the keyboard and make words until sense follows. This may or may not have some sane point, but nobody is reading this anyway. Certainly not me.

The night has been filled with images of Orientalists and infighting, with ancient peoples and modern, and with scrolls and palm leaves. I remember reading the Koran for the first time--a copy that had the suras (or chapters or whatever they are) in the wrong order, or at any rate in an order different from the traditional. I had to go back to the index repeatedly to read it in sequence. I was in a high-school gym, seated on bleachers, while people were screaming all around me. (I'm not sure why, now--maybe some event was in progress.) I was working my way through a long piece on "Women" and I had the thought--my god, what a long-winded asinine piece of boring garbage this is. In a way it was a heretical thought--I felt committed to the notion that there was some "good"--some piece of significance anyway, some reason, some purpose, something--in any piece of literature people had chosen to deify. Even Gone with the Wind.

The Rig-Veda had kind of shook me up in that respect, but at least it had the charm of antiquity. It is not unreasonable that in trying to get in touch with people over ten thousand miles and three thousand years away the connection might be faulty. But the Koran was born in the full glaring light of history--it was written down on palm leaves, and assembled in a big council immediately after the death of its creator--why did people read it? What were they thinking? It was like reading Atlas Shrugged.

It was a moment only, and I went back to inputting data, taking it in as I took in other stuff--provisionally. Some day I would read it in Arabic, I told myself, and I could form a real opinion.

But that day never came. At school I had a choice among several possible languages, and actually signed up for Arabic--but at the last minute a chance to learn Coptic came up, and I switched. I figured that Arabic would come later--but so far it hasn't. And I haven't learned Chinese for the Tao Te Ching or Spanish for Don Quixote either.

Translations are always unsatisfactory, somehow. Like listening to a description of a banquet rather than being there.

04 February 2006


Today's quick pick of various random blogs found some in foreign tongues, and some equally incomprehensible even though in English. The only one I stumbled into that made sense to me was this one I guess called Our Vortex or something like that.

Okay, sorry about that--something just killed my browser and I lost most of the rest of this post. It's discouraging to try to repeat myself, but I'll give it a stab. "Somebody, somewhere, will use these cartoons as a pretext for violence," this author wrote. "But don't expect me to have any sympathy or understanding for their cause. All they're doing is proving the cartoonist's point."

This is the thing that gets me. These maniac Muslims make it perfectly clear that the newspaper in question was right--their attitudes are indeed a menace to freedom of the press. You can try to spin that in any direction you like, blasphemy, politeness, whatever--and it still comes down to that. These guys have the same attitude toward the press that Stalin, Mao, and George III did--the press is free to print anything it likes, so long as they agree with it. That way lies--well, I don't remember what I wrote before, but something slimy and probably spineless is what it looks like.

The thing is, as this guy wrote, "I have the right to outrage you just as much as you have the right to outrage me. Put down the Kalishnikov, grow up, and join the Goddamn world community." It's high time. And by the by, if you've got to boycott something, take a lesson from our own Dixichristians--boycott somebody who can make a difference. Don't pick targets at random or call for government apologies--it just makes you look like loons. What you want to do is go after the pocketbook of the publisher. That will get their attention.

02 February 2006

Tempests for Two

I overslept again, probably an effect of this miracle medication I'm taking, but who knows? I see by the news today that we who complain about being censored by people with opinions are being bigoted and narrow-minded and right-wing, or at any rate insensitive to the beliefs of others. Okay, let me put it this way....

All my life people have trampled on my beliefs. People have ridiculed them, kicked them around, and told me in no uncertain terms to shut up. My fifth grade teacher told me that I was clinically insane for believing in the scientific fact of evolution, not merely Darwin's theory of the causes of it. (She also believed that "nobody really knows what electricity is or how light switches work--we just take it all on faith" and that the abbreviation Xmas is some sort of conspiracy to take the Christ out of Xmas and that "a noun is a person place or thing" so she may not be the best guide to what is sane or insane.) A guy recently told me that saying "Happy Holidays" is an insult to Christians. Still another proclaims loudly that objectivity is some sort of Western con, rather than an achievable state. Tolerance, I am told, is the easy way out and only the irrational is worth believing.

Whatever. I know there are a lot of people out there who don't share my beliefs. It would be a much duller world if everybody else did. (It would probably also be a much safer world in many respects; and as we followed the buffalo herds we would all have animated discussions about the possibilities of some day domesticating animals, or maybe planting edible grains for ourselves.) Every day animists, patriots, christians, libertarians, baconians, muslims, objectivists, canonical critics, and devotees of the Byzantine text of the New Testament are doing things that (if I knew about them) would offend me deeply. When they come to my attention I am outraged. Just because I don't go out on some rabid snark hunt, jumping wildly about and making a monkey of myself, doesn't mean I'm not infuriated. It does mean that I've got better things to do.

If I buy into this notion that certain muslims and their western apologists are making--that every time somebody says, writes, or draws something they might find offensive, somebody owes them an apology, then, by the same token, every time somebody says, writes, or draws something I find not merely offensive, but downright filthy, I am owed an abject and irrevocable apology. In this spirit, I submit a list:

People who Owe Me Apologies

(1) Donald Rumsfeld: If for nothing else, for his callous reaction to the destruction of one of the great temples of knowledge in this world: "Stuff happens." Practically every time he has opened his mouth in public, it was to say something so contemptable that even a civilized person might be tempted to throw something in his general direction--a rotten egg at least, or maybe a small explosive object of some kind.

(2) General Peter Pace: His outrageous misrepresentation of a cartoon that appeared in the Washington Post--a cartoon whose meaning is obvious to the meanest intellect--as anti-serviceman, is an insult not only to all Americans, but to all thinking people everywhere.

(3) Michelle Mashraqi: Her claim that "The press is very disrepectful if they see the outrage as Muslim's rebuking free press" is utterly offensive to all believers in the free press everywhere. This is not an issue of what Muslims believe--this is a matter of what free people are allowed to do or say. She, and any others expressing this inane viewpoint, are being deliberately disrespectful to all of us, and especially to me.

In fact, as I start thinking about all the people who owe me apologies on this basis, I start feeling a bit overwhelmed. Which, I suppose, is one of the reasons not to think about it. I really do have better things to do. And I suggest that if these protesters don't have better things to do, they should at least make a start by re-evaluating their lives.

31 January 2006

Teapots and Tangos

Maybe I'm in hibernation or something; I find myself sleeping all the time this winter. I can't seem to stay awake. But I'm up now this afternoon or evening of the last day of January, and maybe writing something here will get me going a bit. I'm not actually counting on it, however.

A winter storm rages outside, but things are calm here, and with any luck, maybe they'll continue to be. If the electricity holds. And the supplies don't run out.

I've written "winter" now twice, but by my current eight-season model of the year, we are well into the season I call Sheol, or simply, The Pit. Winter, or Christmastide, is past, and we have nothing to look forward to till Spring. Hibernation may well be a good idea.

In the news we hear of the death of Coretta Scott King, the projected elevation of Judge Samuel Alito, and the coming (or is it now over) State of the Union speech. And we hear that Muslims are once again in an uproar over some silly thing or other--in this case, the running of a handful of cartoons by a Danish newspaper depicting the prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him). This upsets them. I used to think that southern Baptists were the most idiotic people on earth for flying into a rage over nothing at all, but I've got to admit, these rioting Muslims take the cake. "...what they've done is beyond forgiveness," says one Abdul Qader Ibrahim, described as a Sudanese housekeeper in Jeddah. "...we demand that the Danish government make a clear and public apology for the wrongful crime," proclaims Nafez Azzam, a leader of Islamic Jihad. "It's a matter that touches the heart of Islam," says Hatim Misfer, a Saudi receptionist. A Saudi college student, Ahmad Alsaeed, said that a boycott of Danish goods was necessary because without it "the Western world would not have understood how serious this issue is to Muslims."

Okay ... I can't speak for the entire Western World here, but speaking for myself, what I get out of this is that some Muslim people, at least, have been living in a cocoon for too damn long. Wake up! There's a huge world filled with people who don't subscribe to your beliefs, who don't care about your notions, and who aren't even going to notice your boycott. What most people get out of this kind of behavior is that Muslims (in general!) are weird flaky people who are likely to fly off the handle for no good reason.

I remember a fellow named Wildmoan who was like that. Could've been Wildman. Seems to me he was a Southern Baptist--he acted like one, anyway. Flew off the handle over the strangest things--you just wouldn't believe it. One time he got it into his head somehow that CBS was going to broadcast a drama depicting Jesus as a child conceived through the rape of the virgin Mary by a Roman soldier. He did. Course CBS denied it, said they had a program in the works about Jesus, but nothing like what Wildeman was saying. But he wouldn't rest with that, no sir, he got people all stirred up--reeling and writhing and fainting in coils to beat the band. They were boycotting here and protesting there till you wouldn't believe it. They did. And then when Jesus of Nazareth came out, there wern't nothing like it in the show at all. Not a thing. So was Wildermann at all embarrassed? You'd think so, wouldn't you? After a mistake like that, it'd be all a body could do to show his face in public again. But no--this guy was made of sterner stuff. Not only did he appear in public, but he had the brass to declare victory! Seems in Widlemon's world he had forced CBS to back down and remove the Roman rapist from the story.

The issue here is control. Who gets to determine how a historical character is presented--his self-proclaimed followers, or all of us? The instrument is censorship--the attempt to prevent somebody with a message from reaching those who wish to hear (or in this case see) it.

And as for apologies--well, for one thing, the Muslim organizers of this boycott owe one hell of an apology to the people they've hurt with it--people who, by the way, had nothing to do with the cartoons or those who put them out. They owe an apology to all those they've offended in the West for their disrespect to the most basic law of civilized discourse--freedom of speech.

Whether anybody owes these Muslims an apology is harder to say. They certainly have every right to be offended, if that pleases them. They have every right not to subscribe to the Danish paper in question, if that pleases them. But they have no right whatsoever to keep me from looking at these images, if it pleases me and the cartoonists who made them. And the crime they are committing in trying to prevent that is indeed unforgivable.

(For a look at these cartoons, click here.)

08 January 2006

I missed Epiphany, I see, and the Christmas season is safely behind us for another ten months or so, and work can go on once again without interruption. If work be on, can springs be far behind? Sometimes this mindscum thing works; sometimes it doesn't. Anyway, I've been busy the last couple of days on a self-appointed task of rectifying an injustice at Maxpages.com, which hosts my website on the Modoc War. A clique dominates the voting there, thus featuring the same sites month after month. (Don't worry if this doesn't make sense to you; it's not important.) In response I set up an index to feature sites that really are worth visiting, not just those of a small group. The trouble is, I have to actually look at all the sites on Maxpages, not just the ones I like.

In the process I stumbled on one I liked just for its subject matter alone--the site-owner Ashley has a paragraph there about her pet iguana, Iggy. Iggy was four years old in 2000, so I suppose he'd be about ten years old today, if he's still around. My iguana Ialdobaoth (Liz for short) lived just over twenty years, and Flora lived ten and a half years, so it's quite reasonable to suppose Iggy's still sunbathing and eating carrots and romaine lettuce. Liz was big on romaine lettuce as well, but Flora was partial to kale.

05 January 2006


[This was written yesterday, but I didn't get it posted till now.]

I overslept this morning again—sleepiness is one of the annoying side effects of this otherwise amazing medication I’m on—and didn’t get up till my brother Greg, the aerobatic pilot, came through on his way to work. Had I heard about the miners in West Virginia, he asked, measuring oatmeal into a bowl for his breakfast. Well, I’d heard, all right, but from what I heard the prospects were not too bright. Trapped underground, carbon monoxide building up, and still missing—no, it didn’t look good for them this eleventh day of Christmas in the year 2006 of the Common Era.

“They’re still missing, the last I heard,” I said. “Why? Has something happened?”

“Well, kind of,” said Greg. “Last night, when I went to bed, they’d been found alive, all but one.” He put his bowl into the microwave, closed the door, started the oven. “And then this morning, as I’m driving in, I heard on NPR that only one of them was alive—the others had all been found dead.”

“Well—uh—how’d that happen?”

“Somebody told the families the miners had been found alive. And then the mining company sent some guy out about two hours later to tell them no, it had all been a mistake—there was only one of them found alive, and he was in critical condition.”

“That’s unfortunate,” I said, except that I used only one word, and that one unprintable. “What on earth did they think they were doing?” (or words to that effect). “Kind of makes you appreciate some of those airlines taking forever to release the facts till they got them right.”

In the TV room the set showed images of grief-stricken and angry friends and relatives. Somebody official, important, in charge, said a few words, urging us to remember the miracle of the one miner who survived. We switched over to the weather channel to help plan our days, and our conversation went on to other subjects.

After glancing at the news on the set I thought I had the hang of the story. Around midnight, it might begin, the bells started ringing at a small Baptist church in Tallmansville, West Virginia. They people were celebrating the joyous news that their prayers had been answered, that their loved ones had been found safe and sound, and even that they would soon be arriving at the church before being taken to the hospital. It would be like a second Christmas. Celebrations continued for another two to three hours, while hospitals prepared to receive patients and newspapers went to press. And then the unthinkable happened. The company sent a spokesman out to the church with the curt announcement that all but one of the miners was dead. It seemed there had been a slight miscommunication. Instead of all of them alive but one, it should have been all of them dead. But one.

That’s the sticking-point. What the hell were they thinking at that company—International Coal Group—in sending out news like that so hastily, without having confirmed it first? I suppose I couldn’t blame them in a way—the desire to be the bearer of good news is often overwhelming. But the company, damn it, should know better than—

Wait. Who exactly was it that told the relatives waiting at the church the false news? I worked my way through a clutch of nearly-identical internet stories without being able to pin it down. Somebody had made the announcement at the church, nobody seemed to know who. A man had come racing in with the news, saying the ambulances would stop by the church first so that the miners could have a few words with their families (surely that couldn’t be right). A “foreman” from the company had brought the news. A “foreman” had called somebody on his cell phone with the news.

More and more this was beginning to sound like one of those spontaneous rumors that pop up in crowds under stress; I could dimly recall reading about them a century or so ago in sociology class. They flare up like flash paper and move a crowd to do things that otherwise it might never dream of.

Ah, but what about the Governor? Didn’t he confirm it? Wasn’t that a second source to show the truth of the information?

Yeah, well, sort of. It seems that Mr. Manchin, the governor, got his story in the same way the rest of the crowd did, by word of mouth. The officials who were with him knew nothing of the situation. They decided to go straight to the horse’s mouth, and found that at the command center a celebration was going on. Confirmation enough, you might think. But how had the information come to command center? Again there was a blank. Apparently a message that the searchers had found the bodies and were checking their vital signs had somehow been misunderstood. It didn’t make sense, exactly, but still…

Miscommunication. Garbled in transmission. Noise is what they call it in information theory, that which interferes with communication. Editors have to deal with it all the time, the screw-ups that occur when information is transmitted, whether through time or through space. I wrote a chapter on it in one of my never-to-be-finished books, how whole documents have been assembled out of nothing more than noise. Donnelly’s solution to the (nonexistent) cipher in Shakespeare’s First Folio. Someone’s “translation” of the Troano Manuscript (one of the three documents that are all that is left of Mayan literature) that gave rise to the story of the lost continent of Mu. Miscommunication.

But still—what an odd mistake to make. A miscommunication that gave rise to celebrations at a church, at command center, and preparations at a local hospital.

Now, you have to understand, I didn’t spend my whole day on this. I mused idly while on breaks from other matters. I read casually. I watched fitfully. It was during a break for a sandwich I saw that ICG’s chief executive, Ben Hatfield, was about to make a statement to the press. I stayed around for it—and the story changed again. Some parts cleared up—others remained murky.

Okay, ignoring the sequence in which Mr. Hatfield gave it, the narrative begins with the rescuers down in the tunnels, making their way slowly like explorers on another planet, unable to breathe the poisonous atmosphere below. In this hellish environment somebody heard a sound—the sound of someone moaning. Investigation brought them to the twelve missing miners—one of them alive, the other eleven dead. And at this point comes the appalling miscommunication that led to the scene at the church—the noise in the signal, the grit in the gears.

It seems that they had a sort of code-word arrangement in effect between the rescue workers and the command center. The word “item,” for example, would be used instead of “body.” Apparently either the rescue worker who sent the news used the wrong code-word, or the person at the other end of the line of communications got confused as to which word meant what—at any rate, when the message that the rescue workers had found the twelve missing miners reached the command center, the word was that they had found twelve living miners. Miscommunication—with a vengeance.

I didn’t get from the report how many people there were at the center, but no less than three organizations were involved, and there must have been a dozen or more. ICG, quite correctly, had a ban on premature release of the news, precisely to prevent situations like this from happening, but it looks like one or more people—no doubt with the best of intentions—violated it. The false news jumped the barrier, the cell phones buzzed, and the church bells rang. Noise assumed the shape of news, and the spectre of vain hope stalked the land.

Meanwhile, back at command center, time passed, and people began to become uneasy. Where were the expected details of the condition of the miners? What was happening? After forty-five minutes had gone by, a new communication was received, and this one was not so good. Instead of twelve living miners rescued, there was one miner in critical condition. And eleven, I would assume, “items.”

Now of course at this point it was clear at command center that there was a miscommunication of some kind, but which was the error? Was it that only one had survived, or that all had survived? More time was lost while the situation was investigated, and outside the miners’ friends and families celebrated.

Of course we all know now how it came out, and in hindsight it’s easy to say what should have been done—but all they had to go on at command center were contradictory reports. And even when it was clear that it was the second report, that only one man had survived, they still didn’t know who he was. What do you say under the circumstances, and when do you say it? It seems to me that it would have been better to send some word as soon as the second contradictory message appeared, but then, I’m always in favor of keeping people in the loop, as the expression goes.

Quite late it seems that some effort was made to prepare the friends and families of the victims, though Ben Hatfield was rather vague on the point. Unnamed law-enforcement people were expected to take a more sobering report to the clergy at the church, who in turn would inform the people. Apparently this didn’t happen—more miscommunication? In any case, when Hatfield went down to the church to address the families of the victims, he seems to have thought that his only job was to give them the name of the survivor. Instead he found false hope still alive, and the celebrations still going on. It must have been an appalling moment.

Well, we all know what happened then—chaos, anger, panic attacks, fainting. One man had to be prevented from physically attacking the messenger. A pastor called for calm, and somebody shouted “What the hell did God ever do for us?” A woman who had been thanking God for her son’s survival switched to not blaming him for his death. Another threatened to sue ICG. And life went on.

There isn’t any moral to this story. There’s a certain irony, perhaps, in the miscommunication, if indeed the use of code-words intended to prevent unfounded rumors instead caused one. No doubt the company should have responded more quickly; false hope is a terrible phantom to conjure up. And of course we all should celebrate the survival of the “miracle miner,” as MSNBC insisted on calling him ad nauseam. But still, in the end, there doesn’t seem to be any point. It’s just, as Homer Simpson once said, a bunch of stuff that happened.

03 January 2006

Hold This Space

As is probably obvious, I made a New Year's resolution to actually write in this space daily, rather than thinking of things I should say some time and never getting them down. And of course already the daily thing is not working out.

Today got eaten up with many odd activities, and writing as such wasn't one of them. My niece, my grand-nephew and I went across the street to a local restaurant for breakfast, and ended up having lunch instead. I visited some with my nephew, whose work starts again today, and I talked on the phone with my brother, who is enjoying a vacation at the beach with his wife. All of this is important, you understand, but it all kind of got in the way of writing anything.

I had figured on sliding in something from the past to fill in the gaps, if and when this situation arose, but I don't have anything ready, so even that is out.

So for today, I guess, I'm going to post this piece of non-writing, so that at least technically I haven't fallen on my sword quite this early in the game. But I fully intend to be back tomorrow.

02 January 2006

The Christmas season begins to wind down now as Epiphany looms this Ninth Day of Christmas 2006. Today is still a holiday--largely by virtue of being a monday, a day favored by corporations for holidays here in the twenty-first century. The old Christmas spirit is gone, it seems, or at least expiring fast, and I still haven't read "A Christmas Carol" as do every Christmas season at some point.

Isaac Asimov would be 86 today, or at any rate this would be the day he celebrated as his 86th birthday. I wouldn't know this except that I got a copy of his two-volume autobiography for Christmas, and have been reading it off and on since it arrived. Which may explain why I haven't got back to Dickens yet. Or not. Apparently the actual date of his birth cannot be established, but at any rate it was no later than 2 January, and may have been as much as three months earlier. Close enough for jazz I guess.

Asimov was one of three people who influenced me deeply while I was growing up. There were many more of course, but these three had something in common that links them in my mind--each had a monthly column I looked forward to and read eagerly. Each of them I discovered first as a writer of a book; in each case I learned that the book was made up of articles that had appeared elsewhere; and in each case I ran down the column and from then on read assiduously.

The first of the three was Willy Ley, I think--at least I'm sure his was the first of the books I stumbled across. I believe the book was called The Lungfish and the Unicorn and it came from the county library. (Later on we acquired an updated copy called Exotic Zoology which I still have, but the lungfish title was more memorable.) The book told the stories of a variety of bizarre creatures--real, like the lungfish, quasi-mythical like the unicorn, and those that were invented outright, like the Upas Tree. It was amazing. The history of the unicorn, for example, was like nothing I had ever read before, and the story of the lungfish even more so. Other creatures I recall (many no doubt from later articles) include the tuatura (a living fossil from the time before the dinosaurs), the pangolin (a mammal that resembles a living pine cone), the man-eating tree of Madagascar (a hoax), and the mysterious creature depicted on the gates of Babylon.

Even when the subject was familiar, Ley took the narrative places that I hadn't been before, and often the subject was not familiar--far from it.

His column was called by the rather condescending title "For Your Information" and I didn't expect much when I saw it. I had read too many science columns even then, and I knew they could be counted on to mix misinformation, triteness, and artificial excitement in about equal parts. But Ley's columns were different--they were (and I don't know why this surprised me, but it did) like his books. He would digress to tell us the story of Georg Rumpf or Hildegard of Bingen; he would explore some forgotten back alley of forgotten information; and even when he had a piece called something like "News from Atlantis" by heaven it would actually contain something new. His column appeared in Galaxy, and for years reading it was a high point of the month for me.

My second discovery of these three was Martin Gardner. I don't remember the book, but I remember vividly digging through old boxes of Scientific Americans to read his back columns. I think the title was "Mathematical Games" and every month he came up with some kind of brain teaser, paradox, bizarre game, or--well, even a mere trick of numbers, something to challenge the mind and exercise the logical faculty. It didn't hurt that he was the author of The Annotated Alice and (like myself, Rex Stout, and for that matter John Lennon) a great Lewis Carroll fan. I remember many happy hours as a kid building prime sieves, self-sorting cards, hexaflexagons, and klein bottles (okay, maybe not the last) by following the directions in his articles.

Third and last was Isaac Asimov. I think the book I discovered him in as a science writer (I'd read him before as a writer of fiction) might have been View from a Height, though I don't know for sure. He had a regular column (I don't remember its name) in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and one of the reasons I didn't stumble onto that right away is that it was not one of the magazines my father brought home regularly. Dear old Dad (we called him Bryce) didn't believe in subscriptions, you see--he used to claim that he had subscribed to only three periodicals in his life, and all of them had folded before his first subscription ran out, so he was reluctant to try the experiment again. But Scientific American he bought from the newsstand regularly, and Galaxy almost as regularly, but I had to talk him into bringing home issues of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Asimov's articles were always entertaining, and he had a way of bringing home familiar truths with unfamiliar metaphors or parallels that fascinated me. He never gave me the sense that Ley and Gardner did of heading out into strange and unexplored territories, but he frequently filled in gaps in my knowledge in a solid way, and made it easier for me to understand the hard stuff I ran into elsewhere.

I've known since I wandered off into this path today I would have to end by recommending a book by each, and so I guess I will. For Willy Ley I'll go with Dawn of Zoology, a kind of history of the discipline. For Martin Gardner, The Ambidextrous Universe, a study of symmetry. And for Isaac Asimov, well it's a tough one, but why don't I go with his autobiography. It's what started me on this piece, after all.
Copyright © 2005-2017