24 November 2009

The Ultimate Reality Game

As I believe I've mentioned before, I work for a media relations service that prefers to remain anonymous in employee blogs (lest we say something disrespectful, I suppose, or reveal the plot for the next Twilight absurdity*). I will say that we have many clients in both the health/pharma and entertainment industries. The other day, I realized what a synergistic combination these two could become.

Attend: Pharma companies spend millions going through elaborate clinical trials to prove that their drugs are effective against any number of diseases. Entertainment companies scramble to find the next big reality show. How about we combine their efforts?

Survivor: [Disease of the Season]!!!

Considering its topicality, we could start season one with Survivor: Flu. Two or more teams get drugs that may or may not cure a disease, and we get to watch. Imagine the potential drama - Team A puts a mole in Team B to sabotage the results; one half of a family gets Drug 1, the other half gets Drug 2; someone on Team A is a (secret) drug addict; etc.

It's a win-win situation for the drug companies and the viewing audience! (Though not, admittedly, for the poor schmucks who get ineffective drugs or the placebo.)

Potential future shows:
Survivor: Plague
Survivor: Ebola
Survivor: Leukemia
Survivor: Crohn's Disease

For comic relief, we could have a season of Survivor: Jittery Leg Syndrome or Survivor: Warts.**

* To be fair to my employers, I do understand their concern that truly sensitive info doesn't get out in a public forum before its owners wish.
** For the truly dense: This is not meant as a serious proposition. It's called satire, though I do not claim to reach the rarified heights of a Jonathan Swift.

Things to Be Thankful For? #3 - The Israeli Supreme Court

I don't often have good things to say about the Israeli government but their Supreme Court often surprises one with their wisdom and insight.

Case in point is a recent ruling made concerning the legitimacy of private prisons. In an 8-1 decision, the Israeli court determined "that incarceration infringes on such fundamental liberties that only the state should carry out this function, not least since the alternative is to turn prisoners into a means of extracting profit. `Economic efficiency is not a supreme value, when we are dealing with basic and important rights for which the state has responsibility.'"

What heresy!

The care of prisoners should not be left in the hands of people whose sole motivation is to make money.

One might extend this to the prosecution of wars, as well.

Things to Be Thankful For? #2 - Indoor plumbing

Do I really need to elaborate?

Of all the achievements of human civilization, "indoor plumbing" has to rank up there in the Top 5.

I trained to be a historian. I would love to travel back in time to see all sorts of things. But I wouldn't want to stay anywhere much before 1900 without a flush toilet (or, to accommodate water conservationists) any form of toilet.

Things to Be Thankful For? #1 - Healthcare "reform" debate?

How mortally damaged is our democracy that the Democrats declare it a great victory when they win a procedural vote to allow debate on a healthcare reform bill? Not, mind you, an up-or-down vote on a bill. Not even a vote on a critical amendment. But a vote on whether or not to allow the Senate to simply talk about a bill. And the leadership had to kow tow to Lincoln, Landrieu, Nelson and Lieberman to get that!

The Senate has not been a great deliberative body for a long time (and even back in the day, their reputation was exaggerated) so maybe the Republicans were hoping to spare us a tedious round of endless speechifying? I doubt it. It seems to me that the Republicans (and their faux Dem allies) are afraid that some real information might leak out to the public if a debate were to take place - like that fact that no civilized country on the planet (including free-market bastion Switzerland) allows its citizens to suffer so at the hands of for-profit, private insurance companies.

But should the question of debate even be up for a vote? Why is the agenda of the Senate subject to a vote? It's the responsibility of the majority party to set the agenda and if they want to debate something, then the minority should just deal with it.

We've long lost sight in this nation that our society is made up of different interest groups. Some of those interests are complementary, some relationships are neutral, some are going to be actively antagonistic, and many overlap. At the moment, unfortunately, the only representation we have is that of the financial elites, who've managed to convince over the last 30 years that bloody, unregulated capitalism is a benison.

12 November 2009

Armistice Day - 2009

Another Armistice (aka Veterans) Day and another year where America and her legions appear to have gone out of their way to make the world a more violent place.

I tried to find something positive to mention here and this is the best that I could do:

MIA dog found in Afghanistan after 14 months

And as for the continued insanity of the Long War:

Britain's last WWI veteran shuns Remembrance Day (the UK's equivalent of Veterans)

And remember, Next Wednesday, Nov. 18, is the second anniversary of Collateral Damage Day!

31 August 2009

The Most Powerful Senator of the 20th Century?

I nearly lost it in the days after Ted Kennedy's death. It was all I could do not to throw the radio against the wall or swerve into a lamppost just to end the agony of Ted's canonization. He was a man after my own heart; many of the bills he sponsored or supported in his long career, I too supported or support. But as I look over all the verbiage and bandwidth devoted to his legacy, I am struck by his ineffectiveness.

Yes, there's some landmark legislation to his credit - Title IX and other civil rights law from 30 years ago - but much is like the little Dutch boy who tried to stop the flood. Where Kennedy could stick his liberal fingers the water was stopped, but the conservative flood overwhelmed the levee and the country is demonstrably worse off.

While this post is a response to the general tenor of the Kennedy hagiographies, it specifically plays off two blogs at the Rude Pundit, where the author (who I like and follow) lists some of Kennedy's achievements, many of which illustrate my point.

1. State control over school curricula. Nice concept but because of the way the school-book publishing industry is gamed, the nation's schools' curricula is largely determined by a few school districts in Texas, that bastion of enlightened, rational thinking.

2. Getting to vote at 18. Considering the usual turnout of the 18-21 crowd at election time, does this really signify? And considering the voting patterns of the 40- and 50-somethings who first benefited from this amendment, can we consider this the wisest piece of legislation anyway?

3. Cheap airfares (aka, deregulating the airline industry). Talk about mixed blessings. And, this was the opening salvo in the senseless and disastrous assault on any form of government regulation.

4. Mental institutions should treat people humanely. A no-brainer by any standard of morality but this was also the era of Reagan, when such institutions were defunded and their patients dumped on the streets.

5. Minimum wage. This is one fight I was personally involved in. In 1987/88, during my junior year at college, I interned with the Americans for Democratic Action in Washington. One of the big legislative pushes for that year was a Kennedy-sponsored increase in the ludicrously inadequate minimum wage to increase it to a slightly less inadequate wage. The legislation went nowhere (I don't think we got a federal increase until the Clinton era).

6. Health care. For this latest round, I have to give Kennedy a pass - he had his own crisis to deal with - but he was fully competent in 1993 when Clinton introduced his disastrous solution, and he was fully competent for most of the intervening 15 years. I guess we should be grateful he helped block "medical savings accounts" and privatizing Social Security and Medicare.

7. The war(s). Kudos to the man for voting against the original "war" resolution (in 2002 or 2003) but where was he for the next 6 years? Where was he at the anti-war rallies? Where was he on the PATRIOT Act, the Military Commissions Act, immunizing the telecoms from illegal wiretapping charges, the legality of rendition, and the other successful assaults on civil liberties and justice? Small comfort to imagine how much worse things might have been if Kennedy hadn't been in the Senate.

His heart was in the right place and he will be missed in the Senate but he never commanded the respect and support he needed to effect his policies, a political tragedy with more far reaching results than either of his brothers' legacies.

06 August 2009

Hiroshima Musings

I hope it doesn't need to be said that today and Sunday will mark the 64th anniversary of the days we instantly incinerated 100,000+ people and condemned even more to lives scarred by cancers and other fallout from dropping the "Bomb" on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

If not, you can refresh your memories here, here and here.

But it also terrified the Japanese into ending then and there a war that had lasted nearly five years and had claimed its own enormous share of casualties.

And that's the moral question: Considering the qualitatively different nature of atomic weaponry, were we justified in using the A-bomb? (Actually, it raises the broader question of bombing at all when we know full well the targets are primarily civilians but I confine myself today to the "atomic" aspect of the question.)

When my brother and I were kids, we collected quite a bit of WW2-related stuff - from Time-Life books to Avalon Hill's plethora of war-related games (remember "Axis & Allies"?). The question of the Bomb's morality and whether or not there had been alternatives hardly signified. (Let's be honest, at least in American literature, the Bomb was "good" and "justified.") As I've grown older, though, my feelings about war and the military have changed; I've read a wide range of views on the subject, and I've thought about it (particularly during those first weeks of August when it seems no one but the survivors and their kin remember Hiroshima). When it comes down to landing on one side of the issue or the other, I have to say that dropping the Bomb was both a moral and a (long-term) strategic mistake. Morally because waging war is an obscenity (a mortal sin, if you want to go Catholic about it). Even though we were forced into conflict, our moral imperative was to limit the damage inflicted on ourselves and our foes. Strategically because we set a precedent: If the putative "leader of the Free World" saw fit to use a device of such destructive power why can't a similarly righteously motivated nation use it? Or, far worse, why can't atomic weapons simply be counted as just another sword in the arsenal?


There's a scene in Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns where the retiring Commissioner Gordon is explaining to his replacement why she shouldn't oppose the Batman. The context is the beginning of World War 2 and Pearl Harbor but I think the point is still valid:

GORDON: A few years back, I was reading a news magazine. A lot of people with a lot of evidence said that Roosevelt knew Pearl was going to be attacked and that he let it happen.

Wasn't proven. Things like that never are. I couldn't stop thinking how horrible that would be, and how Pearl was what got us off our duffs in time to stop the Axis.

But a lot of innocent men died.

But we won the war.

It bounced back and forth in my head until I realized I couldn't judge it. It was too big. (page 96 in my edition)

Without the benefit of hindsight, can we legitimately judge Truman and his advisors?

Perhaps not. Perhaps - no, definitely - where we've failed as a country and as moral agents is facing the consequences of the action, and deciding that it will never happen again, and taking the necessary steps to ensure that it doesn't.

Rethinking the Universe?

There is an article in the July/August 2009 of Discover that has proven to be a frustrating disappointment to me. It's titled "The Return of the Invisible Man," and the abstract says, "Stephen Hawking, the master of time, space, and black holes, steps back into the spotlight to secure his scientific legacy - and to explain the greatest mystery in physics." On top of that, the cover's teaser: "Stephen Hawking Rethinks the Universe."

All this would lead the reader (at least this reader) to expect an essay about Hawking's latest efforts to explain how the universe works. Instead what we get is a little-over-six pages of Hawking biography, a peer review of his legacy and three measly paragraphs that suggest what Hawking is up to but leaves us hanging.

The chief offending paragraph:

"Hawking is now pushing a different strategy, which he calls top-down cosmology. It is not the case, he says, that the past uniquely determines the present. Because the Universe has many possible histories and just as many possible beginnings, the present state of the Universe selects the past. `This means that the histories of the Universe depend on what is being measured,' Hawking wrote in a recent paper, `contrary to the usual idea that the Universe has an objective, observer-independent history.'" (Discover, July/August 2009, p. 51)

The paragraph after intimates how this may save string theory (which has come under increasing attack in the last few years as it continues unable to experimentally prove any of its claims); and graf three suggests where scientists might look to confirm Hawking's predictions (the background cosmic radiation).

And that's it. There's no further exploration of the practical consequences for our understanding of the universe if Hawking is right or if he's even in the right neighborhood.

I hope that Hawking (who's not in the best of health) or one of his students can further explore the hypothesis and generate a book friendly to an amateur cosmologist like myself because I'm still trying to wrap my brain around that first paragraph.

The Gates/Crowley Affair, Part 2 (or, Another Reason to Hate Cops)

"Lethal Sting," in the August 2009 issue of The Progressive, reveals the cops' use of civilians in sting operations. Author Vince Beiser focuses on a young woman facing jail time for possession (of marijuana) but was told she could avoid t if she participated in a sting to nab some dealers.

She died.

The cops "lost" her at a critical moment, and she was gunned down. Beiser discusses similar operations with similarly fatal results.

I'm simply stunned that this is permitted. That untrained civilians are sent into potentially lethal situations and (so far) no one has objected. Typically, though, the death of a white, middle class girl with outraged parents has galvanized some action to restrict if not outright ban this stupidity - at least in Florida. "Rachel's Law" now requires police departments to make an informant's safety "the highest priority" but I still shudder to believe that anyone considers this a rational policy.

31 July 2009

The Gates/Crowley Affair

Like many, I've been watching the latest example of our slide toward the "police state," and have been thinking about what to say about it. Well, I need agonize no more. Ted Rall has taken the words right out of my mouth at his latest blog - Everyone Hates the Cops. It captures almost exactly what I've been thinking.

I particularly liked "I admit it: I don't like cops. I like the idea of cops. The specific people who actually are cops are the problem" and "Nevertheless, the Gates incident has illuminated some basic, strange assumptions about our society. Cops think they have a constitutional right to be treated deferentially."

I don't think it's so much a matter of individual cops consciously wanting to further the agenda of the police state but rather a matter of terror. The cops are terrified of the citizenry (in some neighborhoods justifiably so) but they've been trained to respond like soldiers in a war - shoot first and hope you're right. But the rational response should not be to ratchet up the fear and violence. A rational response would include, among other things:

Civilian oversight of the police. (In my own city, it's pointless to complain to the LAPD because they investigate themselves and invariably find that their actions were justified.)

A more just economic system. (I know, it won't and can't solve all crime and violence but you can see the ameliorative effect it has in countries where the divide between rich and poor is not so wide.)

Better police training that emphasizes defusing situations and an emphasis on those quaint Constitutional guarantees of privacy and innocence until proven guilty.

28 July 2009

And one final thought today...

An even briefer note: Contact your senators and representative - e-mail, snail-mail, call & fax - overwhelm the bastards:

1. Single-payer healthcare - yes
2. Get out of Iraq and Afghanistan
3. "Yes" on the Employee Free Choice Act

3:10 to Yuma

Just a brief note: If you're a Western movie fan, a fan of Russell Crowe, a fan of Christian Bale, a fan of Glenn Ford or any or all of the above, I would recommend watching both the 1957 and 2007 versions of "3:10 to Yuma."

Personally, I think the Crowe/Bale version superior to the Ford/Heflin version. But it's a close thing; neither lacks for good storytelling or wonderful acting.

And speaking of time, over the course of the last few weeks I've caught four very different examples of the time-travel genre. In order of increasing "artsiness": "Retroactive," "Timecrimes," "Primer" and "Le Jetee."

"Retroactive" is the most "Hollywoodish" of the four but is an entertaining diversion; and it's fun watching the body count continue to rise each time the hapless heroine goes back and tries to make things "right."

"Timecrimes" is a Spanish film that follows a middle-aged man who's accidentally caught up in a time-travel experiment. Probably the best of the lot. A friend of mine who's also seen the film has invested some serious mental effort in justifying some of the less believable aspects. One of the more interesting aspects of the film is the question of whether or not you should even try to change the past knowing the consequences.

"Primer" is the indie film that wowed audiences and critics on the film-festival circuit. It doesn't merit the hyperbolic praise of the critics but it is good, one of its strengths being that it's the story of a man's moral disintegration and the destruction of a friendship rather than just a time-travel story.

"Le Jetee" is a French film (1962) told in a series of still photos and voice over. There's probably no American director who could have pulled this off (except for a young Orson Welles) but Chris Marker succeeds brilliantly. (FYI, this film heavily influenced Terry Gilliam's "12 Monkeys, a good film in its own right.)

I Think I'm In Love

I think I'm in love. No, not that way - the woman's been dead for 40 years. No, I have had the great good fortune to once again stumble across an author who has completely enamored me, and for whose works I would gladly pay so that I could set them up on their own book shelf.

Of that august body I would include the following:

Fyodor Dostoyevsky. D. was the first "literary" author who captured my imagination and altered the way I read and judged books. Crime and Punishment was on the list of selections my 11th grade English teacher, Mr. Hartmann, offered the class as a paper topic. My choice was almost at random; I think some of the factors was that D. wasn't an English-speaking author, I didn't want to read the "usual" classic and the subject sounded suitably lurid to my 17-year-old mind.

I'll admit that the full scope and genius of the novel escaped me at the time (and probably still does albeit to a lesser extent) but it was a wonderful experience reading it. The next year, in College Comp (with the same teacher), I moved on to The Brothers Karamazov and beyond.

More briefly, others:

Edgar Pangborn. An unjustly forgotten master of humane SF. Check out Davy and Still I Persist in Wondering, but even his "failures" are worth reading.

Ursula Le Guin. A writer who's grown in skill and power over the years. Fictionwise, I would especially recommend her last two Earthsea volumes - The Other Wind and Tales of Earthsea. Nonfictionally, pick up her several collections of essays and her idiosyncratic translation of the Tao Te Ching.

W. Somerset Maugham. I met Maugham through the chance remark of a friend who compared me to Larry in The Razor's Edge. I found myself closely identifying with author and many of his characters.

Around the same time I discovered Joseph Conrad; and just as serendipitously. I saw "Alien" when it first came out in 1979 and always wondered why the ship was named "Nostromo." Eventually, I bought a used copy of the novel, and it was another case of love. I devoured it while camping on Catalina Island, and went on to feast on all his other works.

Anton Chekhov. OMG! How could I have missed this author for so long? No matter, I did find him.

Iain Banks and Steven Erikson are two authors whose works (Consider Phlebas and The Malazan Book of the Fallen, respectively) galvanized a flagging interest in SF.

But none of these authors are the real subject of this blog. Our real subject is an English writer named Ivy Compton-Burnett. Born in the 19th century, her first successful novel was published in 1925, and she continued to publish right up to her death in 1969. All of her novels focus on families and their relationships, and all are composed nearly entirely in dialog (one commentator I've read compares her to reading a Mamet play). They require an attention span somewhat longer than that fostered in modern culture but they are so worth the effort. Compton-Burnett writes with a mordant, piquant wit but still creates real people whom the reader cares about.

You can open her novels to pretty much any page to get a sample of her wit and style but the opening to Manservant and Maidservant can give you a taste:

"Is that fire smoking?" said Horace Lamb.
"Yes, it appears to be, my dear boy."
"I am not asking what it appears to be doing. I asked if it was smoking."
"Appearances are not held to be a clue to the truth," said his cousin. "But we seem to have no other."
Horace advanced into the room as though his attention were withdrawn from his surroundings.
"Good morning," he said in a preoccupied tone, that changed as his eyes resumed their direction. "It does seem that the fire is smoking."
"It is in the stage when smoke is produced. So it is hard to see what it can do."
"Did you really not understand me?"
"Yes, yes, my dear boy. It is giving out some smoke. We must say it is."

If your interest is piqued, check out her website:

13 July 2009

A New Revelation?

For your hands are defiled with blood,
And your fingers with iniquity;
Your lips have spoken lies,
Your tongue has muttered perversity.

No one calls for justice,
Nor does any plead for truth.
They trust in empty words and speak lies;
They conceive evil and bring forth iniquity.
They hatch vipers' eggs and weave the spider's web;
He who eats of their eggs dies,
And from that which is crushed a viper breaks out.

Their webs will not become garments,
Nor will they cover themselves with their works;
Their works are works of iniquity,
And the act of violence is in their hands.
Their feet run to evil,
And they make haste to shed innocent blood;
Their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity;
Wasting and destruction are in their paths.
The way of peace they have not known,
And there is no justice in their ways;
They have made themselves crooked paths;
Whoever takes that way shall not know peace. (Isaiah 59:3-8, RKJV)

I transcribed the above not just because it's a pretty good invocation of these times (sad, isn't it, that something written c. 3,000 years ago still applies) but also because it shows that there is a fair amount in the Bible that's actually quite good (there's also a lot that's quite bad: And you shall stone him with stones until he dies, because he sought to entice you away from the Lord your God [Deuteronomy 14:10] and just plain irrelevant: He shall put the holy linen tunic and the linen trousers on his body; he shall be girded with a linen sash, and with the linen turban he shall be attired [Leviticus 16:4]).

I also mention it because it has come into my mind that we are ripe for - in desperate need of - another "revelation" along the lines of the great ur-revelations of the Axial Age (Abraham, Buddha, Laozi) and their successors - Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, any number of bodhisattvas. Lately, I've been reading histories and commentaries on various scriptures and it seems to me that we need another prophet to sweep the detritus that's accumulated over the last 2,000 years on the essential messages of our greatest philosophers.

We're at a point now where we can't afford to be the errant little children of a Father God (or a Mother Goddess, for that matter). It's time to grow up and start taking responsibility. We know how to behave ourselves - we've known for 3,000 years - but we've always managed to justify murder, rape, lies, selfishness, etc. in the name of that God (or Gods).

The factor that prompted this entry comes from an essay I caught on by Robert Jensen, where he sort of articulates what's been bouncing around in my own head: "To imagine a just and sustainable world, we need not just a politics but a theology that can help us face the delusional arrogance and disastrous self-indulgence of humans." (I like it when I find validation in other's musings.)

I wish I had the charisma (and belief) to be that prophet but I don't. Human beings seem to be constituted in such a way that an a-theistic view of the universe is almost impossible to imagine or sustain, and ultimately unappealing, so we have to hope for a man or woman of faith to emerge. And a person of real faith. Not an L. Ron Hubbard who was cynical enough to exploit human gullibility but didn't have the moral sense my cats were born with.

03 July 2009

Happy Fourth of July

Oh, come on! You knew it was coming. July 4th? The most patriotic day on the U.S. calendar? It just cries out for one of my “anti-American” screeds, doesn’t it?

Well, not quite.

Make no mistake, I still loathe what our government descended to over the last eight years (and more) and that it appears to want to remain in the sewer under Obama but I don’t have any new targets. Sites like or programs like Frontline or Bill Moyer’s Journal do far better and more credible jobs than I can aspire to in exposing how rotten and corrupt this country has (unfortunately) become.

No, I want to look back today at the founding of our Republic and ask “Was the Revolution really necessary?” or, at least, was a war necessary to wrest the colonies from Britain? I was reminded of the topic because this month’s issue of The Progressive carries an essay by the historian Howard Zinn, “A Just Cause ≠ A Just War.” In it he asks us to consider what alternatives there may have been not just to the Revolutionary War but to the other “good” wars in American history – the Civil War and World War II. I don’t think I can entirely agree with his contention that there were alternatives to war in the latter two cases. From my reading of Civil War history, Lincoln bent over backwards to placate Southern fears, and it was South Carolina’s precipitate action at Fort Sumter that forced the federal government to act. True, the president could have let the South go, and good riddance, but that would have left I-don’t-know-how-many African-Americans slaves. What, possibly bloodier, violence would have lain ahead if that cancer hadn’t been addressed? And, if the South had successfully seceded, what would have happened to the idea of the Union? More than any other president before him, Lincoln made “these United States” into “the United States,” a truly unified nation.

In the case of World War II, the fascist dictatorships forced war on us. Again, it’s true, preceding actions on all sides often didn’t help defuse tensions or actively abetted the fascists (the Versailles Treaty being just the poster boy of a long string of foolish mistakes) but fascist ideology needed war. No matter what the Allies did, even if they had made no mistakes, it was only a matter of time.

That doesn’t make these wars “just” or “good.” Violence is never so but I can’t make the case to myself (much less you) that it’s never necessary.

The Revolutionary War, on the other hand? Maybe not so necessary. After all, who were we revolting against? The British Empire? A nation on the cutting-edge of democratic reform at least from the Glorious Revolution in 1688? As oppressive dictators go, George III was pretty tame; and given the inevitable change in government, the colonists’ complaints (so eloquently set out in the Declaration of Independence) could have been addressed by a new Prime Minister. Zinn points out in his essay that a year before “the shot heard round the world,” “…farmers in Western Massachusetts had driven the British government out without firing a single shot. They had assembled by the thousands and thousands around courthouses and colonial offices and they had just taken over and they said goodbye to the British officials.” Zinn argues that it was the richer colonists’ desire for land that provoked their decisive break with London. After the French and Indian War, treaties with Native Americans blocked the Colonies’ expansion westward, and that, more even than stamp taxes or no representation in Parliament, incensed certain sectors to no end. Of course, it wasn’t as simple as all that but it does suggest that the motives behind the rebellion were not as pure as the common wisdom would pretend, and there were alternatives, if anyone had had the vision to pursue them.

Would the Colonies have eventually won their independence without war? Almost certainly. Look at Canada or Australia or any other province of the Empire. Even if they hadn’t, would things really be so bloody awful today? I can’t think so. Perhaps the abolition of slavery (which came about quite bloodlessly in the British case) wouldn’t have required 600,000+ dead and a further 150 years of segregation and Jim Crow. Perhaps a Great Britain that included the “kingdoms” of England, Scotland, Ireland and the Thirteen Colonies would have been too daunting for the fascists to challenge. Perhaps a happier relationship could have pertained between us and the Native nations. Perhaps.

Perhaps, too, the world would be in even worse shape politically, economically and environmentally today (though that’s hard to imagine).

The point is, however, not “might have beens” but that violence unleashes so much chaos, destruction and pointless death that its justification has to be nigh unassailable. It’s not a Manichaean choice between war and pacifism but one between war and how do we create a world where that option is not ever on the table.

Was the death and destruction of the Revolutionary War a necessary price to pay?

2009 Mid-Year Book Round-Up

It’s mid-year 2009 and time for the now traditional overview of the more interesting books I’ve read so far this year. (All these have been reviewed on my GoodReads page.)

Top Five Fiction:

1. Modern Love (poems), George Meredith. I’m not one for poetry usually but I was intrigued by Michael Dirda’s write up of this 50-sonnet cycle of poems about the author’s disintegrating marriage in his Classics for Pleasure.

2. The Great Stink, Clare Clark. A marvelous novel about the building of London’s sewers and the love between a man and his dog.

3. Three Bags Full, Leonie Swann. From my review on GoodReads: “Three Bags Full is, without a doubt, the best sheep detective novel ever written.”

4. King Jesus, Robert Graves. Graves’ iconoclastic look at Christianity’s savior. It’s a brilliant book.

5. The Judging Eye, R. Scott Bakker. Bakker’s fourth book set in the world of the Three Seas. It’s not as strong a beginning of this new sequence as The Darkness That Comes Before but it’s quite good.

If I were listing the top seven, I’d have to include Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (a bit of a surprise because I loathed My Antonia when I had to read it in high school) and James Cabell’s Figures of Earth.

Top Five Nonfiction:

1. An Army at Dawn, Rick Atkinson. Atkinson’s first book in his trilogy on the Allied invasions of Africa and Europe. I started in the middle with the author’s account of the Italian campaign; this is just as good, and I’m looking forward to his concluding volume about D-Day.

2. The Punic Wars, Adrian Goldsworthy. Very readable account of the wars that birthed the Roman empire.

3. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, John McWhorter. A short, well written look at some of the quirkier aspects of English.

4. The Limits of Power, Andrew Bacevich. A follow-up to Bacevich’s extraordinary The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War. This one’s just as good.

5. Comanche Empire, Pekka Hamalainen. The academic jargon can be a bit of a slog, especially in the first few chapters, but well worth the effort as this author reveals a fascinating chapter of Southwest American history.

Best Reread of the Year to Date: A tie: The Worm Ouroboros, E.R. Eddison and Still I Persist in Wondering, Edgar Pangborn

Worst Reread of the Year to Date: The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis

Best Reading of New Material from a Favorite Author: Kull: Exile of Atlantis, Robert E. Howard

Most Disappointing Reading of New Material from a Favorite Author: Regenesis, C.J. Cherryh

25 May 2009

Memorial Day Rant

As I sit here typing this "rant" I'm listening to an excerpt from another demonstration by the Winter Soldier project. The soldier testifying is explaining how he and his fellows were issued "drop weapons" - guns that would be dropped by the bodies of murdered civilians to "prove" that they were insurgents.

Though this particular story has not prompted this blog entry directly, it is an example of just why I say on this Memorial Day: "Fuck the military."

Now, as individuals, most people in the military are decent enough (I believe I've mentioned previously that my brother's a Marine vet, and I'd trust him to babysit the cats) but as an institution the armed forces have brutalized this country's soul. Certainly they haven't defended "freedom" (whatever that may signify) since the Second World War (and some would argue that). Unless, of course, they've been defending the ability of our ruling elites to do anything they damn well please anywhere they want. Consider: The chief function of the U.S. Army from c. 1800 to c. 1861 was slaughtering or transporting Native Americans (known today as "ethnic cleansing" or "genocide"). From 1861-1865, a case could be argued that the army was actually performing its function to defend the Union (unless you're a complete pacifist) but post-1865, it was back to the status quo ante. Fortunately for the Republic, the Indians and our Latin American neighbors were military midgets. The pre-WW2 military-industrial complex never attained a size where it exercised an overwhelming influence over our government. That balance changed after the Allies defeated Hitler and Tojo. The U.S. found itself the only industrial power of any size, and segments of our society with sympathetic aims coalesced around a permanent war economy that bribed millions of Americans with good jobs and secure lifestyles.

I challenge anyone to show me where American military intervention has benefited a country. Haiti? Nicaragua? Iraq? Iran? Viet Nam? Afghanistan? Pakistan? The list of the unfortunate who have endured (or are enduring) our baleful presence goes on and on.

Sigh...I know that painting with such a broad brush invites defeat in detail but the point is that violence always leaves and generates more problems than it solves. And in America's case, it's become the only solution we seem capable of (witness the hysterical reactions of many to even the suggestion that Obama was open to negotiating with the enemies we've made).

I can respect a person's decision to join the military for pretty much any reason, no matter how deluded I think they may be, but I cannot respect the institution they serve, and I'm not going to celebrate that service.

18 February 2009

Shakespeare Recommendations

I've been doing a lot of reading, listening to and watching Shakespeare the last few months. I've finished the so-called Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV (pts. 1, 2), Henry V), King John and Richard III, and I'm preparing to tackle Henry VI (pts. 1, 2, 3). I've also caught (or recaught) Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Othello and As You Like It.

In terms of listening to the Bard, I can't recommend enough the Arkangel series of audio CDs which have been uniformly excellent so far. I'm in the midst of Henry IV right now and the actor reading Falstaff is brilliant.

In terms of visual delight, I'd recommend without reservation the Ambrose Video series of adaptations. David Gwillim and Jon Finch are marvelous as Henry V and Henry IV, respectively, and Anthony Quayle is wonderful as Falstaff. I also particularly enjoyed the actor who portrayed Richard III. The casts are always good, regardless.

The only drawback to all this good literature is that it's ruined me for my job as a copy editor - I just can't take a press release about Carls Jr's new crispy burrito or the Santa Monica Pier's centennial seriously or I'll rail about the utter lack of writing ability :-)

Book Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

Just wanted to strongly recommend John McWhorter's latest book, a slim volume for the general reader interested in language called Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.

In five chapters, McWhorter looks at some of the more interesting aspects of English -

Chapter 1 - Explains why English has the "meaningless do" and uses the present participle (-ing) as a marker for the present tense (it's the Celts' fault).

Chapter 2 - Looks at the arbitrariness of grammar and how English's evolved.

Chapter 3 - Explains the reason why English is astonishingly lacking in case endings (compared to its Indo-European cousins) (blame the Vikings for this one).

Chapter 4 - Demolishes the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that grammar significantly shapes a speaker's view of reality.

Chapter 5 - Discusses the exciting hypothesis that proto-German's sound shift from "p", "t" and "k" to "f", "th" and "h" is the result of Semitic influence from the mid-first millennium BC (the Phoenicians can claim this one).

Overall, a very satisfying and quick (c. 200 pages) read.

Evolution: 1, Intelligent Design: 0

Having taken last week off from work, I was lounging around the apartment Tuesday night providing a comfortable cushion for the cats when I stumbled across a Nova episode recounting the Dover, PA, case where a school district tried to get Intelligent Design taught as a scientific theory. Based solely on the trial's transcripts, the episode utterly demolished ID's claim to scientific validity. The case was so obvious, even the conservative, Bush-era-appointee judge recognized ID's worthlessness as an explanatory theory.

The most telling comment came when one of the scientists interviewed said that, ultimately, Intelligent Design is a science killer. It stops inquiry dead in its tracks since it says that if you find an "irreducibly complex" organ the only possible explanation is a "designer." (And, as IDers can't claim it's God, they're willing to contemplate aliens from Xenu or annunaki from Nabiru, which makes the theory's explanatory power even weaker.)

But, of course, you can trace the elements that go to make up so-called irreducibly complex organs: Vision has independently evolved several times, for example, and even the bacterium's flagellum (one of ID's prime examples of irreducible complexity) has been parsed into its constituent elements. (Richard Dawkins in The Ancestor's Tale points out that if the flagellum is such a wonder of motive power and efficiency, why is it only present in bacteria. You would think an intelligent designer would want to put such a marvelous engine in all its creations.)

At any rate, if you can find it on the Internet, see it on a Nova rerun, or purchase it from PBS, I recommend it highly.

31 January 2009

Book Review: The 2008 Year-End Roundup

All of the books below have received some sort of review on my GoodReads site so I'll confine myself to a few brief notes. Note, too, that this certainly doesn't exhaust the list of stuff I read between June and December 2008, this is the cream of the crop:

The Fiction Roll -
The January Dancer, Michael Flynn. Probably the best new SF I've read all year.
The Nature of Monsters and The Great Stink, Clare Clark.
Toll the Hounds, Steven Erikson. Book 8 in The Malazan Book of the Fallen.
Dark Sleeper and The House in the High Wood, Jeffrey Barlough. A mixture of Dickens and Lovecraft; the former predominates in Sleeper, the latter in House (whose ending is one of the most profoundly creepy I've ever read).
The Coroner's Lunch, Colin Cotterill. A mystery series that follows the adventures of a Laotian coroner under the Communist regime. I can also recommend the second in the series, 33 Teeth.
Un Lun Dun, China Mieville's stab at young-adult fiction. Very good.

The Nonfiction Roll -
The Horse, the Wheel & Language, David Anthony
Who's Been Sleeping in Your Head?, Brett Kahr. A look at "normal" people's sexual fantasies.
The Geese of Beaver Bog, Bernd Henrich. One of the best nature books I've ever read.
The Singing Neanderthals (Steve Mithen) and Inside the Neolithic Mind (David Lewis-Williams). I put these two together because they're complementary texts in my mind: The first looks at the origins of music and language; the second looks at the origins of spirituality and religion in modern homo sapiens.
The Ruin of the Roman Empire, James O'Donnell
How Fiction Works, James Wood
Barbarian Tides, Walter Goffart. A dense book, not for the faint hearted but well worth the effort.
The Suspicions of Mister Whicher, Kate Summerscale
Young Stalin, Simon Montefiore. Stalin's life before he became Stalin.