Friday, December 30, 2005

Bessie Smith

bsmith

A few weeks ago I decided that one of my friends -- who is rather into music -- had a gap in his repertoire when it came to light romantic popular music from early in the 20th century -- those songs which most everyone finds vaguely familiar but for which nobody tends to know the words unless they have a 'thing' for elevator music lyrics or they sing in a barbershop quartet. This suggested a Christmas present for my friend and I went out and bought him CD in which Danny Wright's excellent piano perfomance shows off many of these sturdy, if tired, songs to their best advantage.

Looking at the CD I had just bought it seemed a bit too much of a white-bread present for my friend so I also bought a Bessie Smith CD for balance and wrapped it up with the other CD. In the process I noticed that the Bessie Smith bin had several used CDs at attractive prices and I bought a couple of them as presents to myself.

For most people Bessie Smith is a familiar name but they have trouble remembering her songs. Those few who know the songs will still tend to remember someone else's performance of it since most of Bessie's successful songs were covered by other artists later and, having the benefit of less primitive recording technology, these covers tend to be the version that gets played. This is really too bad since Bessie Smith had something -- something that few other Blues singers have at all, and nobody else has quite as much of it as Bessie.

When women sing the Blues they generally are singing about "their man" and how he mistreats them (often expressed as "done me wrong"). Bessie is no different in that respect. But, with the others there is always an element of puzzlement, if not some irritation, on the part of the listener that these women allow themselves to be victimized with no attempt to take control of their situation. With Bessie, on the other hand, one gets the sense that, while her man may be the immediate cause of her problems, the real cause is her bad decisions driven by appetites that are at least the equal of his.

Another reason Bessie doesn't get a lot of airplay is that some of her best songs are rather explicit, even by today's standards. Consider this section from "Empty Bed Blues [mp3 excerpt]"

He came home one evening with his spirit way up high
He came home one evening with his spirit way up high
What he had to give me, make me wring my hands and cry

He give me a lesson that I never had before
He give me a lesson that I never had before
When he got to teachin' me, from my elbow down was sore

He boiled my first cabbage and he made it awful hot.
He boiled my first cabbage and he made it awful hot.
When he put in the bacon, it overflowed the pot
Ooof! There's a good example of how a well chosen metaphor can take an indelicate subject and make it lewd.

One thing that strikes me about Bessie's songs is that, while most of them are about sex -- or at least about relations between the sexes -- the notion of procreation is entirely absent. You'd think that since her songs were recorded in a time when there weren't many options for contraception the idea of pregnancy, or the risk of it, would appear somewhere among the list of woes to be cataloged. But it doesn't. The words "mama" and "papa" appear often enough, but always as terms of endearment; they are never used in a literal sense. Most of her songs were written by men and maybe that explains the omission to some extent.

One may be justified in thinking that the apetites expressed in Bessie's songs make them to some extent auto-biographical. One of her few songs that is not about sex as far as I can tell -- Gimme a Pig Foot and a Bottle of Beer [mp3 excerpt] -- nonetheless expresses a fondness for unrefined fun that may explain some of her reputatuion for showing up at club dates too drunk and out of control to perform. But she was always sober for her recording sessions and her performances in her prime are wonderful. Gimme a Pig Foot is a particular favorite of mine. She wails. She stomps and growls. It is the least ladylike song I can think of. It's a marvel.

One song that Bessie did write herself is Black Water Blues [mp3 excerpt]. It's not her best song but it is intersting for a couple of reasons. First, it shows how she could use the same music for very different songs. It has almost exactly the same tune as Empty Bed Blues but it is a very different song. The second thing about it that strikes me is that it is the perfect theme song for Hurricane Katrina.
When it thunders and lightnin' and when the wind begins to blow
When it thunders and lightnin' and the wind begins to blow
There's thousands of people ain't got no place to go



Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Why we can never know anything.

spreader

The New York Times ran a story this morning quoting an unnamed "official in the Interior Ministry" as saying that a tanker truck stuffed with forged ballots was intercepted entering Iraq from Iran at the border town of Badra.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said the Iranian truck driver told the police under interrogation that at least three other trucks filled with ballots had crossed from Iran at different spots along the border.

No sooner than the Times story was released comes the Reuters story saying that the Times story is untrue.
The head of Iraq's border guards denied police reports on Wednesday that a tanker truck stuffed with thousands of forged ballot papers had been seized crossing into Iraq from Iran before Thursday's elections.

"This is all a lie," said Lieutenant General Ahmed al-Khafaji, the chief of the U.S.-trained force which has responsibility for all Iraq's borders.

"I heard this yesterday and I checked all the border crossings right away. The borders are all closed anyway," he told Reuters.

Iraq's frontiers are closed for the period of the election.

"I contacted all the border crossing points and there was no report of any such incident," Khafaji said.

Interior Minister Bayan Jabor also denied the reports, which the New York Times ran prominently, quoting a single unnamed Interior Ministry source, and said it was an attempt to discredit the election process.

The maddening thing about this sort of thing is that while the two stories contradict one another they are both equally credible. There is simply no question that Iran would do something like that if they thought they could get away with it. On the other hand it is entirely possible that some Sunni sympathizer working at the Interior Ministry might wish to discredit the expected Shiite success in the polls by circulating a story of truckloads of forged ballots from Iran. Somebody is telling lies, that much is clear, but exactly who it is we will never know. Both versions of the story are now out there -- one is a fact the other a factoid. In the end we will all simply have to decide who we wish to believe.

My choice? I think the Times was taken. The part about the driver saying that three other trucks had gotten through is too carefully crafted to create doubt to be true. The other three trucks change the story from "Iran attempted to fix the election and the border guards thwarted them" to "Iran has successfully fixed the election and the border guards have belatedly detected it."

It will be interesting to see what, if anything, the Times does with the denials.

Hat Tips to both Drudge and the Instapundit.

Photo Credit: The truck is a Stahly AeroSpread manure spreader.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Epiphany



I heard a joke the other day. It was told to me by someone I know slightly as we were leaving a meeting of a technical-related organization. He seems to be a nice person and he warned me ahead of time that the joke was rather crude.

It goes something like this:
George Bush stole the election. He falsified evidence on weapons of mass destruction, lied to the American people and got us into a illegal, pointless and expensive war. Now if someone would only give him a blowjob we can have him impeached!

Haw!! Thats a good one, isn't it? ... Is it? ... Ok, me neither.

I tried to act like I enjoyed his joke but the best I could manage was a sort of non-committal Ummmmm. I don't think I fooled him since he called me later to apologize for the joke because he was afraid he had offended me. As I said, he is a nice guy and I enjoy working with him, so I assured him I wasn't offended, saying "I am sure I tell a number of jokes that are funny to Republicans that you wouldn't like that much either."

What is funny is that when he called to apologize I am sure he thought I was offended by the "blowjob" part. Finding out that I am a Bush supporter must have been quite a surprize for him.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

3:37

 LE:E  I woke up briefly this morning during that spooky minute of the night when the digital display of my clock radio shows my name upside down. My lovely wife and I had seen March of the Penguins and I was dreaming that I was on the outside of the group and the howling Antarctic wind was freezing off my tailfeathers. I was awake only for the few seconds it took to glance at the clock and tug back my share of the covers from my wife who may have been having a dream similar to mine except for involving more success at keeping warm.

If you haven't seen March of the Penguins yet I can highly recommend it. If, like me, you tend to wait to catch nice-to-see films at the second-run theater the time has come. It's a wonderful film and quite an accomplishment given the conditions under which it had to be made (midwinter in Antarctica.) Morgan Freeman's reading of the narration is very fine and the writing is quite good. They managed to make an engaging narrative out of their footage without excessively anthromorphizing their subjects.

The photography is uneven but always acceptable given the circumstances under which it was shot. In the underwater scenes, for instance, one is aware of the limitations of the video camera used by the robot that shot them -- but, on the other hand how often do you get to see penguins feeding under the Antarctic ice shelf? In the footage of the southern lights it was also apparent that they were right on the edge of what their equipment could do. But these are minor things that remind you that you are, after all, watching a documentary. Over all the cinematography was excellent, and at its best it was amazing. Especially delightful is the closeup photography of the birds. Emperor Penguins are astonishingly beautiful animals close up. One sees lots of photos and video that show the appealingly clumsy way they walk but the iridescence of their feathers is a revelation.

So, as I said, go see it if you haven't yet. But put another blanket on the bed.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Veterans Day



Today is Veterans Day. When we hear the word veteran we tend to think of previous generations. But sometimes veterans are our kids.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Alien

burqa I worry a bit
that we worry too much
that we might be showing prejudice
when we see a man in a robe
or a woman in a burqa
and we think to ourselves
"Now, there is someone
who is not like me -- someone
who makes me nervous
because I don't know
what he is thinking,
or what she is thinking of me."

There are other kinds of people
who make us just as nervous
but correctness does not require
that we worry that
our nervousness may be based
in prejudice.

I have had a beer
in a cowboy bar
where people wear boots
and Stetson hats
and nurse a private sadness
for the passing of a day
that never was.
I understand that sadness --
to a certain extent --
but it is not the same as mine.

I have eaten a burger
in a biker bar
where scary men
and substantial women
gather to worship their God:
Harley Davidson --
the American motorcycle.
Bikers have a bad reputation,
which they carefully nurture,
but do not deserve.

I have eaten tofu and sprouts
in a stylish semi-vegan place
near my daughter's college.
I chose my words with care
because I knew
if I said the name Jesse Helms
a bit too loud
in the wrong tone of voice
conversation would stop
and people would stare at me
until I went away.

I have slipped a dollar
under a garter
in a bar where women dance
nearly nude on a stage
while men gather in corners
watching football on TV --
rather confused about
what testosterone is for --
worshiping a diety
I will never understand.


This was originally posted as a comment on a posting on Sunbreak City. His posting -- As I Stepped Out One Evening -- is a stream-of-consciousness, blank-verse musing on multiculturalism and Islam in America.

Monday, October 24, 2005

United Nations Day

unIt's United Nations Day!

In 1947 the General Assembly of the U.N. passed a resolution:
that October 24 shall hereafter be officially called United Nations Day, and shall be devoted to making known to the people of the world the aims and achievements of the United Nations, and to gaining their support for the work of the United Nations.

OK then, the "goals and achievements of the U.N." on this the 54th United Nations Day.

U.N. Then (goals):

WE THE PEOPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS DETERMINED
To save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime, has brought untold sorrow to mankind and
To reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women of nations large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
To promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

AND FOR THESE ENDS
To practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors, and to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and
To insure, by acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and
To employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples

HAVE RESOLVED TO COMBINE OUR EFFORTS TO ACCOMPLISH THESE AIMS.

Accordingly, our respective Governments, through representatives assembled in the city of San Francisco, who have exhibited their full powers found to be in good and due form, have agreed to the present Charter of the United Nations, and do hereby establish an international organization to be known as the United Nations.

June 26, 1945

Preamble to the U.N. Charter

U.N. Now (achievements):
THE United Nations withheld some of the most damaging allegations against Syria in its report on the murder of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese Prime Minister, it emerged yesterday.

The names of the brother of Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria, and other members of his inner circle, were dropped from the report that was sent to the Security Council.

The confidential changes were revealed by an extraordinary computer gaffe because an electronic version distributed by UN officials on Thursday night allowed recipients to track editing changes.

The mistaken release of the unedited report added further support to the published conclusion that Syria was behind Mr Hariri’s assassination in a bomb blast on Valentine’s Day in Beirut. The murder of Mr Hariri touched off an international outcry and hastened Syria’s departure from Lebanon in April after a 29-year pervasive military presence.
...
But the furore over the doctoring of the report threatened to overshadow its damaging findings. It raised questions about political interference by Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary- General, who had promised not to make any changes in the report.

One crucial change, apparently made after the report was submitted to the UN chief, removed the name of President al-Assad’s brother, Maher, his brother-in-law, Assef al-Shawkat, and other high-ranking Syrian officials.

The final, edited version quoted a witness as saying that the plot to kill Mr Hariri was hatched by unnamed “senior Lebanese and Syrian officials”. But the undoctored version named those officials as “Maher al-Assad, Assef Shawkat, Hassan Khalil, Bahjat Suleyman and Jamal al-Sayyed”.
...
Mr Annan had pledged repeatedly through his chief spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, that he would not change a word of the report by Detlev Mehlis, a German prosecutor. But computer tracking showed that the final edit began at about 11.38am on Thursday — a minute after Herr Mehlis began a meeting with Mr Annan to present his report. The names of Maher al-Assad, General Shawkat and the others were apparently removed at 11.55am, after the meeting ended.

Oct 24, 2005

Excerpt from TimesOnline news story.


THREE CHEERS for the U.N. on United Nations Day! Hip hip! meh...

Wetbacks


photo credit

This posting identifies some dots in the connect-the-dots picture that forms the background for my thinking about illegal immigration. I make no claim that these dots, when connected, present a clear or accurate picture of anything in particular. I rather doubt that they do, but they are all that I have to offer.

.dot...

A number of years ago I returned from a family vacation to Florida on the night train. I had less time-off from work than my wife so she and kids dropped me off at the train station in Winter Haven Florida on Sunday night and a friend from work picked me up at the Raleigh North Carolina station Monday morning.

I called my ride when I arrived and had a bit of a wait until he picked me up. It was a pleasant morning and, since the Raleigh Amtrack station is only so exciting, I sat outside to wait. Across the street from the station was a roadside shelter where day laborers are picked up for odd jobs. Most of those in the shelter appeared to be hispanic (probably Mexican) and they sat quietly until a pickup truck would arrive. The next laborer in line would walk out, talk to the driver briefly and signal back to the rest how many were needed. The required number would get up, climb into the truck and it would drive off.

There was one individual in the shelter who was obviously not hispanic. He sat a little apart from them and he would occasionally go out and talk to a prospective employer too. I couldn't hear the Mexicans but I could hear him. "Sevun dollllars uh hour!" he yelled at one point, obviously drunk despite the early hour, "I don't work for no sevun dollllars a hour!" He would stagger back to the shelter. One or two of the Mexicans would then get into the truck and the drunk would yell abuse as they drove off. By the time I was picked up most of the Mexicans were gone but he was still there.

..to.dot...

I don't remember exactly where I was. It might have been I-85 near Atlanta. The traffic was heavy but moving smoothly and quickly. I was trying to move with the flow of traffic which was moving at about 63 miles an hour despite the 55 mph national speed limit the Carter administration had imposed. Looking down the interstate ahead, and in my rear-view mirror, I could see two-, maybe three hundred automobiles on the road including three Highway Patrol Cruisers. Each and every one of them was breaking the law. As was I.

..to.dot...

Among my friends and associates, the ones who have the strongest negative feelings about illegal immigrants are themselves immigrants. They have jumped through a number of hoops to enter the country legally and are sputteringly indignant about those who bypass the process. Many of them tell awful stories of the incompetence and callousness of the INS but most of their anger is somehow redirected at the illegal immigrants who never had to deal with the INS.

..to.dot...

When I had my house built fifteen years ago the back yard required some contouring to get the drainage right. After the guy with the backhoe had established the general slope a landscaping crew came in to finish the job. The guys with the rakes were all Mexican and, of all the workmen who had worked on the construction they impressed me as the hardest-working. On several occasions I saw them bend down to pick up a rock and throw it into the woods. This doesn't sound like a big deal but when you contrast it with the attitude of most construction workers -- who seem to regard each site as an informal landfill -- it stands out as an unusually good work ethic.

..to.dot...

There was a time, years ago when the local post office would be packed on Saturday mornings with hispanics waiting in line to send their pay back to their families in Mexico and Central America. Recently I see fewer of them there. I think this may be associated with signs I see in the windows of hispanic grocery stores. "Envie Dinero a Mexico Aqui. / Western Union." (Send money to Mexico here.) Wiring money costs more but it gets there sooner.

I have heard this flow of money from illegals working in the US to their families in Mexico described as a de-facto subsidy of the Mexican economy. I guess that's a fair statement, but we subsidize the economies of lots of countries. We give hundreds of millions every year, for instance, to Israel and even more to Egypt. I don't remember seeing that many Israelis hanging sheetrock in this country, or laying sod, and I'm pretty sure I don't remember any Egyptians picking up rocks in my back yard.

..to.dot.

Immigration has been much in the news lately. Post-9/11 nervousness about our porous borders has made a number of people, myself included, re-examine their stands on immigration law and enforcement. I find myself reluctantly persuaded that we need to tighten up enforcement on our borders. That's where my head is but, I must confess, my heart isn't in it. When I hear stories of people who ford the Rio Grande and hike across forty miles of desert, just to get a job flipping burgers for minimum wage, or nailing shingles in the hot sun, I have trouble being properly indignant. I suppose my impression may be colored by the fact that North Carolina is quite a distance from the nearest border. The illegal immigrants who make it this far are likely to have come looking for work -- not for handouts. Most of them work hard, live cheaply and send most of their pay to their families back home. It may all be illegal but it still seems like enterprize to me.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Spiders have woven a Disney Store around us.

vpoohOOPS. I wasn't paying attention and I seem to have accidentally become a Disney Store. A few years ago when my wife and I unhandily found that we were both unemployed at the same time I put both our resumes up on one of my web sites. We have since both found jobs and I forgot that the page was out there. There was little enough interest in the page back when we were both looking for work and recently the only ones to visit it are internet spiders -- programs that follow random links on the web looking for this and that.

A spider looking for information to go on this list of local disney stores in our area came across my wife's resume, noticed that it contained 1) the words "Disney Store", 2) an address and 3) a telephone number, and put two and two together. Hey! Presto! It made us a Disney Store.

We got a call this morning from a very nice young lady who had done an online search which identified us as the Disney Store in Cary. (Actually, the Cary store closed several years ago and the nearest Disney Store is the one in Raleigh, 20 miles away.) She told me that she had gotten our phone number from the Disney Store's official store-locator site. I was curious about this and tried to do the query myself but I found that all the official Disney web sites do not mention the in-mall Disney Stores at all. A Disney Store in a mall? No such thing! The very idea!! (Disney corporate is quietly phasing out the in-mall stores -- at least most of them -- a fact which they will neither confirm nor deny publicly.)

If you let your search-engine nudge you off the "official" Disney sites and into the Disney-hanger-on'er sites, such as the one I linked to above, you can find mention of the local stores although the information may be a bit dodgy.

When the spiders made me a Disney Store they failed to provide me with any merchandise. In particular, I cannot sell you the friendly, lovable, blood-sucking bear illustrated above. I'm not even sure I could find the page again where I snagged the image. I seem to recall that the prices were in Yen so it may only be available in Japan and it may also not be this years merchandise. [Update: try "Vampire plush pooh" in eBay. ]

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Sunnis Discover Horse of a Different Color

differentThe Sunnis in Iraq have decided to support the new Constitution after a few minor last-minute concessions were made. According to an AP news story: "Iraqi negotiators reached a breakthrough deal on the constitution Tuesday, and at least one Sunni Arab party said it would now urge its followers to approve the charter in this weekend's referendum.
...
Under the deal, the two sides agreed on a mechanism to consider amending the constitution after it is approved in Saturday's referendum. The next parliament, to be formed in December, will set up a commission to consider amendments, which would later have to be approved by parliament and submitted to another referendum.
"

This is the point in the process where the Sunni leadership can no longer ignore the fact that, as the group with no oil in the part of the country they control, they have a strong interest in keeping the country together and the proposed constitution represents their best shot at doing so. Todays "breakthrough" agreement gives the Sunnis much needed cover allowing them to cave in while saving face. If we can have another referendum in a year, they can say, well then, that's a horse of a different color!

There is nothing wrong with this, of course. The US constitution was ratified after similar last-minute wrangling and we have the Bill of Rights to show for it.

Update 13 Oct 2005:

IRAQ THE MODEL is a good blog to read for an insiders view of Iraqi politics. Click the link for his take on the accord.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Cronyism

cronePeople have been writing that Prez Bush picked Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court because of "Cronyism." That's cold, dude. I mean, like, she's no spring chick -- but I don't think she looks like a crone and I don't think Dubbya picked her just because she is old and wrinkled. She does sorta look like one of my mom's friends at church when I was a kid -- the older lady who always brought the three-bean salad to the Wednesday night pot-luck supper in the parish hall. She was Mrs. Somebody (I don't remember her name) and there never seemed to be a Mr. Somebody around so she might have been a widow, or she might have been divorced, or maybe Mr. Somebody didn't like three-bean salad. I never wondered about it then and its too late to wonder about it now. It doesn't matter. The thing is that in her hair-sprayed, funny-smelling way she was a good person -- and I'm sure Harriet Miers is too.

</silly>

miersOK, I do know the meaning of the word "Cronyism" and I can see how it applies -- but I must admit I have always thought it to be an overrated vice since it is the opposite of credentialism which is worse. I'll talk more about the Miers nomination in a minute, but first a non-sequitur.
For example, there is one element which must always tend to oligarchy--or rather to despotism; I mean the element of hurry. If the house has caught fire a man must ring up the fire engines; a committee cannot ring them up. If a camp is surprised by night somebody must give the order to fire; there is no time to vote it. It is solely a question of the physical limitations of time and space; not at all of any mental limitations in the mass of men commanded. If all the people in the house were men of destiny it would still be better that they should not all talk into the telephone at once; nay, it would be better that the silliest man of all should speak uninterrupted. If an army actually consisted of nothing but Hanibals and Napoleons, it would still be better in the case of a surprise that they should not all give orders together. Nay, it would be better if the stupidest of them all gave the orders. Thus, we see that merely military subordination, so far from resting on the inequality of men, actually rests on the equality of men. Discipline does not involve the Carlylean notion that somebody is always right when everybody is wrong, and that we must discover and crown that somebody. On the contrary, discipline means that in certain frightfully rapid circumstances, one can trust anybody so long as he is not everybody. The military spirit does not mean (as Carlyle fancied) obeying the strongest and wisest man. On the contrary, the military spirit means, if anything, obeying the weakest and stupidest man, obeying him merely because he is a man, and not a thousand men. Submission to a weak man is discipline. Submission to a strong man is only servility.

The paragraph above is from G. K. Chesterton's What's Wrong with the World, Chapter IV. I had dimly remembered it as supporting a point I wanted to make but, having tracked it down, it is rather oblique for my purposes. Chesterton's prose is always a joy so I pasted it in anyway. My advice would be to follow the link above and read the whole Chesterton book before you finish reading this posting. I'll wait for you and you will be a better person for doing it.
. . .
Back, are we? (Or still here -- oh, well. Your loss.)

What I was looking for Chesterton to say was that the task of calling the fire brigade is merely a job -- that it would be a waste of talent for the best and brightest man in the building to stand by the telephone sniffing for smoke, and certainly that any time spent making sure that the best-qualified man was selected would be wasted effort since anyone who could operate a telephone would do fine. But that's not exactly what he said, so the task falls to me to say it. I have no reason to believe that Harriet Miers is one of the finest legal minds in the country -- she could be, for all I know, but I don't care. Sitting on the Supreme Court is, and ought to be, just a job, and I think that the justices we already have now are too clever by half.

The Constitution is neither a very long, nor a very complicated document, and I am not sure we are well served by having it interpreted by by jurists whose legal theory includes emanations, penumbras, string theory, quantum jurisprudence or relativistic tort-tunnelling at the constitutional event-horizon. I am not saying that intelligence is a bad thing in a Supreme Court justice -- several of them have built considerable structures of legal theory that are firmly rooted in the text of the Constitution -- but that having a bent for advanced legal theory does entail a temptation to build legal castles in the air which, not being firmly grounded, tend to sway and drift with the winds of politics and the passions of the day -- or the passions of the judge.

So the question that interests me is not whether President Bush has picked the best qualified candidate for the job -- using the usual metrics of legal eminence -- but whether he has picked an at-least-minimally qualified candidate who understands the proper limits of the courts. President Bush clearly believes that is what he has done and he very well may, in fact, have done just that. Since Ms. Miers has done very little writing on constitutional law it is difficult to say.

Many of the president's conservative supporters are angry about the Miers pick. They worked hard to put in place the political clout needed to force a showdown on the role of the court, which they (we) feel to be seriously out of whack. The president's choice of a "stealth" candidate feels like a betrayal -- their leader is pulling them back from the verge of victory. Robert Bork -- whose own failed nomination for the Supreme Court perfectly exemplifies the problems faced by a brilliant, outspoken legal scholar with a generally conservative paper trail -- is quoted in an AP story as expressing this frustration:
"It's a little late to develop a constitutional philosophy or begin to work it out when you're on the court already," Bork said on "The Situation" on MSNBC. "It's kind of a slap in the face to the conservatives who've been building up a conservative legal movement for the last 20 years."

There is no one whose opinions of the Supreme Court I respect more than Judge Bork. His book, The Tempting of America, is as good an analysis of the problems with the role of the Supreme Court as you will find anywhere. I share his sense that there is no more pressing domestic issue than correcting the role of the high court and I share his frustration that the Miers appointment does not further the process... and yet, and yet...

And yet Robert Bork is a judge and George W Bush is a politician. It would be wonderful to see a major societal change in which the notion of an activist judiciary is discarded and the virtues of strict constructionalist and originalist interpritation of the constitution are generally embraced -- wonderful, but difficult to accomplish. The chattering set, who rule based on their superior glibness, will fight to the last man, woman, and ambiguously-gendered individual to prevent it. It is not clear to me that that it is a fight we can win, even with the Presidency and a majority in the Senate. That is, we may well lose if we give the gifted talkers among the opposition anything to talk about.

That's why Miers is the perfect stealth candidate. She has very little published (or even known) opinion on constitutional issues and, what is more important, she is not particularly interesting. There's just not much there to talk about. She's a woman. She's a lawyer who has practiced law for decades. Like the President, she is from Texas. She's ... um ... Zzzzzzzzzzzz

The president has known her for many years, believes she shares his views on the role of the court and can put her on the court without much opposition. I imagine that he, too, would like to see a victory on a referendum on the role of the high court, but he doesn't seem to think that the Senate Republicans can deliver it for him so, instead of changing the mind of America about the role of the Supreme Court, he is settling for changing one-ninth of the opinion of the court itself. This is not as good -- in point of fact it is disappointing and frustrating -- but given the lack-lustre performance of the Republicans in the Senate lately it's not at all clear that he hasn't made the best compromise.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Serenity opens Tomorrow

serenity2Serenity Opens Tomorrow. It is Joss Whedon's directorial debut for the big screen and is a sequel to his television series "Firefly".

I saw it Tuesday at a preview showing for press and bloggers. It will be interesting to see if the rest of the movie-viewing world responds to it the way I did. It is something of a burning curiosity with me: What will the movie-going public make of Serenity? I dunno. I know what I thought of it but, since I am not necessarily typical in every way, I can't reliably predict what other people will think.

If you look at the film in objective terms -- the usual quality metrics that everyone agrees on but nobody really cares much about -- Serenity gets middle-of-the-road marks. The special effects are good -- but not unusually so. The art direction and cinematography are also fine, but the composition and editing seem a bit television-ish -- tightly framed and edited, seldom making use of a big screen's ability to pull back from the action and still keep the audience engaged.

The story may strike people as not particularly original. This comes, in large part, from the shorthand language Whedon uses in storytelling. He is very adept at using pop-culture stereotypes to tell a story in the most compact, efficient manner. His characters step out onto the screen and almost immediately, from their costume and their first few words, the audience knows pretty much who they are. They evoke other, similar, characters we have seen before. His plotting uses the same shorthand. Whedon can start his story right in the middle of the action because he knows that we will recognize the plot elements as the same sort of archetypes that help us understand his characters.

Of course, I may just be blowing smoke in all of this talk of pop-culture archetypes. I have seen every episode in Firefly, his TV show that Serenity continues, and it could well be that my sense of recognition is not so much because Whedon draws on the work of earlier directors -- notably Howard Hawks' westerns such as Rio Bravo -- as because of the seventeen hours of material about the characters and their situation that I have already seen.

And originality is somewhat overrated. It adds a degree of difficulty to writing a script and properly increases the score for a good performance, but it is not particularly a thing that is good in itself. The last altogether original film I remember seeing is Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees which was totally, mind-blowingly original and quite dreadful. IMDB.com suggests that the filmmaker has not made any films in the last ten years so we may be allowed to hope he got some help.

What worries me about Serenity, and its reception by the marketplace, is that while it is a Science Fiction film, and those seem to be well received, it is also a Western -- a genre that appears to have died. Without giving away too much about the film, these two pictures show what I am talking about here.

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Serenity is Science Fiction. See, everything is blue in this shot and mostly made out of glass and metal. Science Fiction.

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Serenity is a Western. Here we see two of our heroes shooting back over their sholders at the bad guys who are pursuing them out of town. Clearly a Western (although, to be fair, nobody runs out of bullets and throws his gun.)

Like I said, I am curious what people will think about the film. That curiosity can only be satisfied if people actually go to see the film so they can react to it one way or the other. Universal doesn't seem to be doing a lot of advertising -- or at least too little to suit me -- but their tactic of inviting bloggers to preview showings is novel and I'm curious to see how that works out as well. (I am doing my bit for them here.) In an effort to get people to go see the film I have discussed it here in very general terms. People who are already Firefly fans will go see Serenity no matter what I write here. I've tried to pique the curiosity of those who may not have been aware of the film without overselling it. Because I want to find out what people think of a Space Western.

And, as for me -- what did I think of Serenity? Best F***ing SF film in years!

But that's just me.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Torque

carbomb"Man said to be Zarqawi's No. 2 killed" says the Reuters Headline. It runs with a photo of a smoking automobile. Was Zarqawi's guy in the car? I click on the picture to bring up the related story. Nope, just another random car bomb. Why did Reuters run that photo? Don't they have a photo of Abu Azzam, the man said to have been killed? Hmmm.

I close the photo window and return to reading the main story. "BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Al Qaeda's second-in-command in Iraq, Abu Azzam, was shot dead in Baghdad this week, the U.S. military said on Tuesday, a potential blow to the group at the heart of Iraq's insurgency." Again, Hmmmm -- a potential blow? I wonder what an actual blow would be like?

A few paragraphs later: "The death may mark progress against militants but attacks continued unabated." This is a prime example of the al Reuters classic butt-spliced compound sentence. The form is this: <qualified good news> but <unqualified bad news>. The deaths may mark progress ... but the attacks continue unabated.

Next paragraph, another way to look at the story as bad news: "It is uncertain how much intelligence Azzam's killing will deliver, particularly since it appears he was shot without being interrogated."

A bit later: "Zarqawi, a Jordanian, is allied to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network. His group has claimed many of the deadliest attacks in Iraq, and has pledged all-out war against Iraq's majority Shi'ite population, an effort to provoke civil war and drive the country further into chaos." This one is subtler, can you find the spin in this one? It's the word "further" in the phrase "to ... drive the country further into chaos." The implications being that even without Zarqawi's civil war (which I don't think he has the leverage to start) Iraq is already in "chaos". This is a running theme of Reuters coverage -- that the situation in Iraq is spiralling out of control -- chaos.

If you look at the photo that Reuters chose to run with the story you will see a nice metaphor for the situation in Iraq and Reuters coverage of it. In the foreground is the smoking ruin of one car blown up by the terrorists. In the background, two Iraqi fire trucks, several Iraqi firemen with hoses and a crowd of rubberneckers standing on the sidewalk. The photo focuses on the burning car -- and the fire trucks, firemen and people are just background. Reuters focuses on the individual acts of violence and ignores the background of political progress and an Iraqi populace who increasingly look to the new government to deal with the growingly-isolated terrorists.

People say that Reuters ignores good news from Iraq, but this is far from the truth. The news service has a special office just for dealing with positive stories from Iraq. In the office is a single desk holding a computer in an airtight glass box. In the box with the computer is a torque wrench and a supply of adjectives, adverbs and conjunctions. When good news arrives from Iraq a highly-trained operator slides his hands into the rubber gloves on the side of the box and uses the wrench to affix qualifiers to the story. Only after enough words and torque have been applied to spin the story properly can the box be opened and the story removed.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Serenity

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A word from our sponsor...

Joss Whedon, the Oscar® - and Emmy - nominated writer/director responsible for the worldwide television phenomena of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, ANGEL and FIREFLY, now applies his trademark compassion and wit to a small band of galactic outcasts 500 years in the future in his feature film directorial debut, Serenity. The film centers around Captain Malcolm Reynolds, a hardened veteran (on the losing side) of a galactic civil war, who now ekes out a living pulling off small crimes and transport-for-hire aboard his ship, Serenity. He leads a small, eclectic crew who are the closest thing he has left to family -– squabbling, insubordinate and undyingly loyal.

... Ok, maybe that was a bit more than one word but it's over now and we can return to our regular, irregular blogging.

Joss Whedon's first film as a director comes out next Friday and you should plan to see it. Whedon is best known as the creator of the television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Angel. He also created the television show Firefly, which struggled to grow its audience and was cancelled after one season which was unfortunate because Firefly was one of the best written and most interesting Science Fiction television shows ever.

Whedon has a real talent for dialog and character development, and a proven track record of creating believable, endearing characters in television shows with appallingly silly premises. His first big success, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was a television spin-off of an amusing but lightweight movie about a high school girl who, in addition to school and homework, must save the world from an outbreak of vampires. Given that unprepossessing premise, there is no particular reason why Buffy should have been one of the best written, and most enjoyable shows on television -- but it was.

Firefly's premise was a bit less problematic; it was set in a future world that had a number of parallels to the western United States just after the Civil War. The show's protagonist had fought on the losing side of a war of succession. He seeks out-of-the-way places where he, his spaceship, and his crew can make a living and try not to attract attention. That last part -- not attracting attention -- turns out to be difficult and provides most of the basis for the plot.

Firefly was very well written and vastly entertaining. The characters were very engaging and the plot had a strong arc to hold the individual episodes together. This is something that Whedon struggles with sometimes -- losing track of where he is going with a series. But if Whedon seemed lost sometimes in Buffy and Angel -- not really knowing where he was going with the story from episode to episode -- he seemed to have the problem under control with Firefly. It was Whedon's best, most mature and most satisfying work to date.

But it had a fatal flaw. If you've been reading closely you might have caught it. Firefly was a Western -- a Space Western -- and for some reason Western's just don't work right now, especially on television. When you bear in mind that it was a Western, you see that it was gutsy of Fox to have backed Firefly at all and small wonder that they pulled the plug.

Once the series was neatly and finally cancelled it could be released as a box set on DVD. The Firefly box set sold quite well and its success doubtless played a role in Whedon's ability to get backing to make a movie based on the series. Serenity opens Friday. I am quite hopeful about it.

If you are a blogger and you are interested in attending a preview showing before the actual release of Serenity you can agree to write about it in your blog and attend a special showing for bloggers. More information is available in this posting on TownHall.com. Maybe I'll see you there.

Update: 9/25 6:30pm
Apparently all the spaces available for bloggers in the preview showing have been spoken for. If you aren't already on the list you will have to wait the extra four days.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Art Sale for Hurricane Victims

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Joel Haas, Raleigh area sculptor and friend of mine, is selling bas relief resin panels of angels at auction with all profits going to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. The image above is a detail from one of the pieces. Joel is using his blog as a venue for the auction -- each item is a posting and all bids are made by attaching comments with name and amount bid. The process is described in more detail in Joel's blog. If you are interested in bidding but find the process intimidating, feel free to contact me and I will help. My email address appears on the right-hand side of this blog.

Joel is a good guy and these panels are beautiful. If you are possessed of the right combination of good taste, civic spirit and financial sufficiency you can help the victims of Katrina and get a lovely piece of art at the same time. Click on the image of the angel (or here) to go to Joel's blog.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Daily Tarheel May Have to Close

jeansAfter over a century of publication, the University of North Carolina's student newspaper, the Daily Tarheel, faces a crisis -- one it is not clear they can survive. Recent events suggest that there may soon be no one left to write for them.

The crisis started with the publication of an opinion column by Jillian Bandes, a new daily columnist writing her third column for the paper. Her first two columns had been generally well received; both were humorous pieces on innocuous topics -- female body image and the campus "Greek" experience, notably sorority "rush" week. There were, to be sure, a few letters to the editor from insulted sorority sisters, but the young Turks of campus journalism have no time for the Greeks and there was no real controversy. As for the body image piece, fat chicks on campus apparently had another slice of pizza and decided to get over it. Jullian's first two columns were fine. Her third column was trouble.

Jillian's third column was a clear example of why a newspaper should have an editor. She decided to write a humorous piece on racial profiling of Arabs in airports. In it she took the perfectly defensible position that even Arabs should support such racial profiling. She has a point there. While it is inconvenient to be singled out to be searched, it is even more inconvenient to watch an airplane disintegrate around you as you begin the six-mile fall to the sea. Where Jillian went astray is in her rather ill-advised humorous take on the subject. I'm sure you could write an article that suggests that body-cavity searches can be fun, but it's probably best not to do so in a piece about Arab-American relations and racial profiling. In a happier world an editor would take the writer aside and tell her that her piece was, sadly, slightly too long, and indicate to her the parts that she could cut to save a column-inch or two... and her reputation.

But that would be censorship so nothing of the sort was done. Her piece ran as written and she was not immediately fired. She was, to be sure, fired -- and before her next column ran -- but, says editor Chris Coletta, it wasn't because of the content of her piece. Ms. Bandes was let go because of "Journalistic Malpractice," and her firing had nothing to do with her expressing an opinion that is anathema to the almost-exclusively liberal UNC community. "I fired her," said Coletta, "because she strung together quotes out of context. ... Bandes didn’t inaccurately quote anyone. (I have her notes as proof.) But you don’t necessarily have to make things up to get them wrong or to mislead the reader. ... Bandes told the three people quoted in her column ... that she was writing an article about Arab-American relations in a post-9/11 world. ... Racial profiling was, in fact, part of their conversation. But it wasn’t their entire conversation."

So there you have it. Bandes wasn't fired because of the content of her piece. The Daily Tarheel was reluctantly forced to let her go because she had violated their journalistic standards. Clumsy, ill-advised attempts at humor; interviewing people at length and quoting them selectively; telling your sources your general topic but not your particular focus; leaving your sources feeling a bit used -- these are all offences that get a student journalist fired on the first offence at The Daily Tarheel. They have no place at a student newspaper. So far only Bandes has been fired. No announcement has been made about when the rest of the writing staff will be let go or what use will be made of the space in the Carolina Union currently occupied by the Tarheel.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Tragedy

notragedySome years ago I was driving down a busy street and I saw a young lady standing on the sidewalk. Her face was red and had a look of open-mouthed horror. She was holding a short dog leash that terminated in an empty collar. A few feet away in the heavy traffic was the remains of what had been a puppy. When I think of the word Tragic that young lady comes readily to mind.

Around the same time I overheard a group of women talking about a cat that had been run over. Since the owner of the cat was not present, one of the women felt free to voice her opinion: Well, that's what you get when you let your cat run around loose, she said. She seemed quite angry at the cat's owner for not taking more care to control the animal. To her the story of the cat was not at all a tragedy. It was all about bad management and she was rather cross about it.

In Greek drama "Tragedy" is meant to instruct. Tragedies are cautionary tales that show that innocence and good intentions are not sufficient. The hero can still have hamartia -- a lack of balance or "fatal flaw" that causes him, although blameless, to act wrongly, leading to his destruction. For the lesson to be properly learned it is important for the hero to be without blame. If we are angry at the hero then we will distance ourselves from him, and from his problems, and we will not be forced to examine our own phyches for the subtle errors that tragedies explore.

It is important to remember that tragedy focuses on the results of our actions -- not merely on unfortunate events. I have owned a cat who would reliably make a dash for the door whenever I came in carrying a bag of groceries, knowing that being so burdened I would find it difficult to perform the manoeuvre needed to keep the cat inside -- kicking the cat and slamming the door in one continuous motion. That cat eventually disappeared and I have no doubt that like the cat in the conversation above, she was hit by a car. Tragic clearly, but much of the "fatal flaw" was to be found in the cat herself.

You might think that, since tragedy concerns itself with the results of one's own actions, it would follow that events totally outside of one's control would not be tragic. If someone is walking down the sidewalk and he is is struck by a giant meteor, or someone eles is sitting in her office when a terrorist flys an airplane into the window, where is the action that caused these events? What is the "fatal flaw" that marks the event as a tragedy? There is one. It is a flaw that we all have, in varying degrees. We like to forget we are mortal. We don't always do the most important things first and, if we are suddenly reminded of our own mortality, they often never get done at all.

I think that we, as a society, are afflicted with a petulant refusal to experience tragedy, simply as tragedy and, as a result, we fail to learn the lessons that tragic events can teach us. We insist that our lives go smoothly and, when unfortunate events happen we immediately look for someone with whom we can become angry. If we are personally affected by the tragic events we look for someone else to blame so we don't have to deal with our own lack of preparation -- physical, financial or spiritual -- and, even if we do blame ourselves, self-directed anger is neither a fair nor a helpful response. If we are not personally affected we have an irrational tendency to blame the victim. Well, that's what you get if you let your cat run around loose, we think. It saves us from the pain of empathy and allows us to refuse to come to terms with the fact that our cats might prefer a shorter life in the sunshine, or that our own children might make mistakes and come to harm.

One of the ways we shield ourselves from experiencing the instructive pain of tragic events is to insist on a false dichotomy -- that an event must be either a "tragedy" or an "outrage" but that it cannot be both. If we can find the smallest trace of culpability we will focus on it, and the comfortable, soothing anger it affords us, and ignore the larger part which, being merely tragic, we don't like to think about. We do this so reliably that, when dealing with an event that actually is more of an outrage than a tragedy, pundits can safely assume that in calling it a tragedy they will be understood as saying that the victims themselves were largely to blame.

Monday, September 12, 2005

DragonCon

Iron Man and BatmanI have a number of terribly important, if slightly ponderous, postings sitting as half-done drafts -- but they will have to wait. I have bought myself a flickr.com pro account as a more convenient way to serve images and I have loaded up some photos I took over the Labor Day weekend to try it out. So, a bit of photo-blogging about DragonCon.

DragonCon is a huge SF / Media / Comics / Gaming / etc. convention held yearly in Atlanta in the later part of the summer. DragonCon gets bigger every year and this year, despite the high price of gasoline, it seemed bigger than ever. Some fans, who concentrate on a particular area, may tend to disparage DragonCon for its sprawling lack of focus. Those who are mostly interested in written Science Fiction, for instance, may tend to prefer the smaller, more bookish, World Science-Fiction Convention that rotates from location to location rather like the Olympics (this year it was in Glasgow and next year L.A.).

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One answer to that is that DragonCon is so large that if you take just the written-sf program items and ignore the rest you have a decent World Con. This, for instance is a very World-con-esque photo of Anne and Todd McCaffrey who read excerpts from a novel they haven't quite finished.

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Anne Crispin hosted a memorium session to remember Andre Norton, a very popular fantasy writer who died this year after a writing career that spanned over 60 years. [See teleoscope: Andre Norton RIP]

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Also on the Andre Norton memorium panel was my long-time frind Brad Linaweaver, a writer who lives in California. Brad is currently collaborating with ...

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... actor Richard Hatch, shown here discussing a plot element from one of the Battlestar Galactica novels on which he and Brad are working.

One of the chief pleasures of DragonCon for me is the opportunity to see my old frinds, like Brad (above) or Bill Ritch (shown here announcing that the performance of the play he had written would be slightly delayed while they got the sound system to work.)

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Bill is a computer programmer who lives in Atlanta and spends his free time producing radio drama with the Atlanta Radio Theater Company ...

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... (shown here performing an adaptation of A E Van Vogt's Weapon Shops).

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Bill also writes and directs plays for the Mighty Rassilon Art Players.

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MRAP (pronounced Em-Rap) usually put on one play during the convention and this years offering -- Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter -- is a musical...

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... and actually quite good.

Another attraction of DragonCon is the large number of attendees who make some sort of costume to wear at the con. Some of the costumes involve many people and hundreds of hours of work...

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... such as this one which won first place in the Masquerade.

Other costumes are "hall" costumes which people wear around the convention.

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Some of the hall costumes are amazing examples of craft, aesthetics and hard work.

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... and other costumes consist mostly of attitude...

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... or of paint (for which you will have to view my slide show). [Warning: not work safe.]

And, of course, DragonCon is a good place to meet new people.

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Well, that's all I have time for. I tend to spend much too much time tinkering with my images. [One of the photos above had a partial figure removed, can you guess which one?] And all the tinkering slows me down. But I do enjoy it. Consider the following image from Romeo and Ethel. The subjects were moving and blurred and the light was a bit dim for proper autofocus so the original image was quite blurred. But I kinda liked it. I liked the motion and the way the blurring abstracted the images. But I also knew that if I posted it to a photo blog it would just look like a crappy picture. So, I tinkered a bit more...

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Friday, September 09, 2005

Must-View Photoblog

A young man from New Orleans has put up a slide show with commentary that documents his experience of the huricane in New Orleans. You simply must read it.

It is amazing that one guy with a digital camera and a Kodak EasyShare account can provide ten times as much information about Katrina and New Orleans as all the major media put together.

Update: 19 Sept 2005.

Someone pointed out to me that the slideshow had moved to a new address. I have updated it and it should work again.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Mardi Maigre

Spare a thought for the residents of New Orleans today. Life is hard in the Big Easy.

And parts of Mississippi are much worse off. The death toll in Biloxi alone may run into the hundreds.

Update: Wed, Aug 31. 2:50pm.

"We know there is a significant number of dead bodies in the water ... and others dead in attics." New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said. Asked how many, he said: "Minimum, hundreds. Most likely, thousands." From an AP story

Monday, August 29, 2005

Slabs of Marvel

For those of you who can see the right-hand column of my blog* there is a section of links under the heading Military Blogs. These are blogs that are either authored by members of the military or by writers embedded with the military in either Iraq or Afghanistan. The contents of this list will change from time to time as new blogs catch my attention. Occasionally I will mention some of these new blogs in a posting such as this one.

* One regular reader has told me he has trouble with his browser such that my blog doesn't have a right-hand column.

Today's MilBlog of interest is Life in X Minor written by a young man in Afghanistan. He is on the right in the photo above which I found in his flikr gallery. His most recent posting as I write this -- Michaelangelo -- offers his philosophy about how we are shaped by adversity and created by our enemies. It contains, among other things, one of my all-time favorite typos.
Only through conflict of the self versus everyone and everything do we learn anything about ourselves. Your strength of will against the whole fucking world. Like a slab of marvel in the hands of Michaelangelo.
[In fairness I should point out that the word marble appears several times in the piece correctly spelled and he was clearly betrayed by a missed mouse-click in his spell checker.]

Xavier (as I believe his name to be) is a good writer with interesting things to say about his experiences. When he is in a serious mood -- as in Michaelangelo -- he can be a bit overmatched by his topic, but when he writes a funny piece he is really good. As examples, consider The Afghan Sauna or Full Body Massage [Caution: indelicate language and subject matter... but funny.]

Life in X Minor is fairly typical of military blogs written by deployed soldiers. The stop-and-go nature of military in-theater life -- occasional actions interspersed by long periods of boredom -- are an ideal environment for blogging and many of the blogs are well worth reading.

This same stop-and-go pace often means that they can't post on a regular schedule and I worry about them during these hiatuses. In most cases they have just been busy, or deployed somewhere without an internet connection, but in some cases the reason for the interruption are more serious -- sometimes tragic. I was a a regular reader of Steven Vincent's blog -- In the Red Zone -- and his articles in the New York Times and National Review Online and I was deeply saddened to hear that he had been killed -- murdered by gunmen who were most likely linked to the corrupt Shiite police forces he had recently criticised in the Times.

I think everyone who feels the need to have an opinion about the War on Terror should read the occasional military blog. It is terribly difficult to get a clear view of what is going on in Iraq or Afghanistan (or London for that matter) when the media pundits on both sides are spinning the story so strongly this way or that. Of course the soldiers in the field also have their opinions -- their slant on things -- but I think their first-hand experience and having their butts on the line should buy them some credibility. They have earned the right to a little torque of their own in spin city.

A good place to start with military blogs is The Mudville Gazette -- the uberblog of the MilBlogs which is both a decent blog in itself and a great source of links to what other MilBloggers are writing. It is through the Mudville Gazette that I found many of my favorite blogs -- things like 365 and a Wake Up that I read regularly and include among the links on the elusive right-hand-side of my page.

If you are like me, reading some of the blogs I have mentioned here will leave you impressed with the intellegence, talent, bravery and thoughtfullness of the men and women who serve in our military. They are slabs of marvel to be sure -- each and every one.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Please find a way to spend money...

... on The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (or some other Larry Blamire work.) Buying the DVD would be easiest since the film got limited release and is hard to find in a theater to spend money on tickets. Blamire also wrote "Robin Hood" -- a comic take on Robin and his band, written primarily for performance by troops of young actors -- which seems to be everywhere (it's fun and the royalties are quite reasonable). Spending money to see that would help, too.

You can read a bit about Blamire in an interview on Joe Mammy's site and on the notes page of the Steam Wars site.

The reason you must spend money on his work is that I am desperate to see Steam Wars actually get made and a bit more money associated with his projects might help him get a bit more traction.

Do read the links above, even if you are not in a position to spend money on Lost Skeleton right now. Blamire is an interesting guy. He started as a SF and comics illustrator (Steam Wars concept painting image is his work) and has had an interesting and varied career. Who knows what would happen if his limitless creativity were to be enhansed by just a bit more money.

Images are links to the sites for the projects they are taken from.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Blogger Ben on the Iraqi Constitution*

In his posting of September 17th, 1787 proto-blogger Ben Franklin writes:

I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other. I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the Builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another's throats.


It's interesting to notice the date on his posting: September 1787 is a bit more than eleven years after the Declaration of Independence. This sort of thing takes time.

Since my last posting I have had an opportunity to read excerpts from the proposed draft of the Iraqi constitution. The good news on that front is that there is quite a bit more punch in the punchbowl than I had expected. The wording designed to soothe the sensibilities of the would-be theocrats is there and is very broadly worded -- but the protections against their excesses are also there and are very specific and clear.

* OK, you're right -- he isn't actually writing about the Iraqi constitution -- but he might as well have been. His full text is here.

Monday, August 22, 2005

The Iraqi Constitution

Updates below. Fri, Aug 26

The Iraqis are this close to the first draft of their constitution and nobody is happy about it. The Sunnis are decidedly unhappy (which, come to think of it may be a good thing, on balance.) The Kurds are pretty grumpy about it. The Shiites are dissatisfied although they are the ones closest to getting what they want from it. The Americans are not happy about the wording of several parts, and by all accounts the Iraqi electorate may not go along with it. The situation is a mess.

This, of course, is nothing like we wanted and is also exactly what we wanted. It's called Democracy -- and it's hardly ever pretty. In a country as deeply divided as Iraq you simply must expect that their constitutional punchbowl will have a number of big brown floaters that nobody much wanted. But it is important to remember that the element that is new here is the punch. What they had before, especially from a Shia or Kurdish viewpoint, was a big, all-you-can-eat bowl of crap, so they are moving in a hopeful direction.

From what I have been able to gather the constitution will be worded so it sounds like it grants each faction what they want but doesn't really. That way everybody can declare victory and no one need really accept defeat. The Kurds get some autonomy but not enough to start that border war with the Turks which neither the Sunnis or Shia want. The Shiites also get some autonomy but not enough to play footsie with Iran, which neither the Sunnis or Kurds would enjoy. The Sunnis get a piece of the action on the oil revenue but very limited political power. The clerics get to claim Islam as a primary source of law (but not as the primary source of law.) When it comes time to implement these Islam-based laws the reluctance of the Kurds and the difference between the Sunnis and the Shia or the details will tend to limit what can be done at the federal level and, over time, the differences between the various federal states will tend to liberalize their local laws. In short, as long as everyone keeps one leg in the sack the three-legged race nature of Iraqi politics will tend to limit the damage they can do to one another and their neighbors. Oddly, the Sunnis are our best hope in this regard -- their part of Iraq has no oil to speak of so they have a strong incentive to keep the country together. They may deceive themselves that they are keeping it together so they can take over again but, since that is not likely to happen, we shouldn't mind.

And best of all, in an odd sort of way, is the fact that there will be parts of their constitution that we don't like. What better confidence-builder could there be for Iraqis of all stripes than the realization that they wrote their constitution, not the US, and that there are important parts of it that the US doesn't like. We have the opportunity here to demonstrate the the civic virtue of compromise -- not by rolling over, we should argue our position forcefully and complain loudly about the parts that don't go our way, but by holding our nose and abiding by the result. We don't have to be happy about it -- it would be a mistake to pretend we are. We just need to show them that Democracy means compromise and that we can live with the punch, even if there are a few ingredients that aren't in our recipe for it.

Update: Fri, Aug 26. For an informative guided tour of the proposed constitution, see Mad Canuck: Iraq Constitution - a more complete draft. (Hattip: The Mudville Gazette)

Friday, August 05, 2005

The Problem of Islam



Let me begin by admitting that I am by no means an expert on Islam or the Islamic world and I am sure there are nuances that escape me -- shades of distinction that might make a difference in my arguments, one way or the other. I am just an ordinary, reasonably well-read American who, like many such, has been trying to wrap his head around the problem of Islam. Because the fine distinctions are difficult for me I will stick to a couple of hit-you-over-the-head obvious observations that many people seem to have missed.

Consider these three statements:

"Islam is the problem."

"Islam is a problem."

"Islam has a problem."

The first statement -- "Islam is the problem" -- is clearly false, at least without additional qualifications. To be defined using the definite article a problem needs to be bigger. "Knowing the mind of God" might well be "The" Problem, if you are religious, or "Deciding how best to use your life," if you are not, or "Where to find 'organic' seaweed to roll your sushi" if you are from California. Whatever you may think of Islam, there are other problems we face, individually and collectively, that are at least as pressing.

On the other hand, the last statement above is clearly true. Islam plainly has a problem. There are elements within Islam who, in the name of Islam, delight in provoking the powerful governments of the West. They seek to polarize relations between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds and to isolate the Islamic population from what they perceive as corrupting western influences. They plan to use this isolation to establish a sphere of influence in which they can operate and then to work to widen their caliphate to the rest of the world. If you support their objectives then the "problem" is keeping the various factions in Islam in line to present a united front until the Great Satan can be forced to retreat. If you oppose them the "problem" is to isolate them so they can be acted against in a targeted fashion without letting them, in effect, use the rest of the Islamic world as hostages. There is some disagreement as to which of these problems holds but nobody denies that there is a problem.

As to the second statement -- "Islam is a problem" -- it remains to be seen whether it is true or not. The decision is largely up the Islamic community. If they decide to close ranks and present a united Islamic front to the west (as the extremists among them hope they will do) then, from a western point of view, the statement becomes true. If, on the other hand, they decide that the extremists are a liability -- needlessly antagonizing the western powers in an effort to bring about an strict theocracy that few in the Islamic world really want -- then it is unfair to hold all of Islam responsible for the insanity of the few.

One can find writers who support each of the three versions of the problem of Islam. Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci (Wikipedia Bio) is one who comes to mind for the "Islam is the problem" view. She has had a long and interesting career starting in the anti-Mussolini resistance in WWII, becoming a trendy celebrity journalist who got interviews (often exclusive ones) with everybody famous or infamous in the 1960s and 1970s, and more recently writing increasingly cranky books and articles about Islam. She is currently charged with criminal disparagement of a religion in her native Italy and is scheduled to go on trial next year. She lives in the US and doubts that she will return to Italy to stand trial. She doubts it in part because she finds the charges ridiculous, but largely because she has terminal cancer and it is unlikely that her health will permit her to return to Italy, even if she lives that long.

I was reminded of her by a brief posting in Sunbreak City (Oriana's Poisoned Apples) that was critical of her views. I usually agree with Das Anderson (the proprietor of Sunbreak City) but I think he was a bit too hard on Fallaci in describing her writings on Islam as poisonous and hate-filled. I read her articles (parts one, two, three and four) which he was discussing and found them shrill, one-sided, overgeneralized and rather angry but nonetheless within the allowable limits for a really-pissed-off polemicist. She raises a number of issues that are worthy to be considered, even if many can be subsequently rejected on merit.

I worry that we no longer are comfortable discussing foundational issues -- when people point out intractable problems we assume that they have selected those particular problems to complain about because they are intractable. We assume people talking about these problems are not so much interested in seeking solutions as merely spewing hatred. It may well be that Oriana "hates" the Islamic world. But a number of the things she writes about may still be true.

Other, less phlegmatic writers have written about the problem of Islam and the West and have come to similar conclusions, even if their style of presentation is less angry than Oriana's. Wretchard, the proprietor of the Bemlont Club, worries that the West fails to grasp the global scale of the goals of Islamism in "The Provincial West." Victor Davis Hanson has looked at the question of whether Islam is in need of revolution or reformation in "Reformation or Civil War?" in National Review. Salmon Rushdie remains calm in "Muslims unite! A new Reformation will bring your faith into the modern era" from the Times Online when one could forgive him for ranting. Rushdie has at least as much reason to be paranoid about extremist Islam as does Fallaci -- there is an official Fatwah calling for Rushdie's death while the widely-circulated pamphlet calling for Fallaci's death has no official standing.

One need not be a supporter of the "War on Terror" to worry that accusations of "hate" speech can stifle serious discussion of Islam. Joe Sobran is no fan of the Iraq war or the current administration but still worries about suppression of free speech in "What is this thing called Hate?." [Note: I am a long-time fan of Joe Sobran but disagree with him most of the time since 9/11.]

With the notable exception of Paleocons like Sobran, it is not difficult to imagine that many of the most vocal opponents of the efforts to confront and contain radical Islam have taken their positions simply because a conservative was in the White House when the Twin Towers came down -- and particularly because that conservative was George W Bush. Many conservatives, myself included, are grateful that it was Bush and not Gore who was president on Sept 11, but if it had been Gore I tend to suspect that he too would see that the attack needed more of a response than an Interpol investigation and some unavailing complaints to the UN.

Because they oppose the war and need to explain why, many Liberals will reach for the moral-equivalence argument when pressed. It goes like this: fundamentalist Islam has its dangerous kooks but so do other religions, especially Christianity and Judaism. This is true, to a certain extent, but Christianity has its more-dangerous kooks mostly marginalized. Christian churches may well close ranks to defend the Seventh-Day Banana-Man types (who believe that on the seventh day of creation God pulled the Earth out of his baggy pants, saying Aaahhhhh!) but when you start blowing things up they cut you loose. This may not have always been true but it seems to be true now.

Unfortunately, it is less clear that Islam has decided to marginalize their dangerous "kooks" -- and it is not just the kooks who are dangerous. From a Classical Liberal point of view there is much to dislike about the Islamic "mainstream." For instance, "Honor Killings of young women are quite common in places like Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- if you are a young Jordanian woman and your father or your brother don't like your boyfriend there is a fair chance that you may wind up dead and your death will not be investigated or any charges made against your killers. (See "Death by Sharia: Reviewing Norma Khouri├é’s Honor Lost." from NR, or "The Vanishing Victim: Criminal Law and Gender in Jordan" from Law & Society Review, Jun 2005, by Catherine Warrick.)

I will close with a snippet from al Koran from The University of Michigan's online text. As I write this paragraph the date is August 14th so I will quote the five verses centering on 8.14.

[8.12] When your Lord revealed to the angels: I am with you, therefore make firm those who believe. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.
[8.13] This is because they acted adversely to Allah and His Apostle; and whoever acts adversely to Allah and His Apostle-- then surely Allah is severe in requiting (evil).
[8.14] This-- taste it, and (know) that for the unbelievers is the chastisement of fire.
[8.15] O you who believe! when you meet those who disbelieve marching for war, then turn not your backs to them.
[8.16] And whoever shall turn his back to them on that day-- unless he turn aside for the sake of fighting or withdraws to a company-- then he, indeed, becomes deserving of Allah's wrath, and his abode is hell; and an evil destination shall it be.

So there you have it. Today's reading from the Religion of Peace. I am all for the people who are working on a pastoral, live-and-let-live reformation of Islam. I am rooting for them and vaguely hopeful for their success, but you gotta admit based on todays reading: they have their work cut out for them.



More resources for Oriana Fallaci Information

Prophet of Decline: An interview with Oriana Fallaci.
Wall Street Journal Opininon Journal, June 2005, by Tunku Varadarajan

Oriana Fallaci: Biographical Information
from Giselle.com

Oriana in Exile
American Spectator, by Christopher Orlet

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Not a Dog.

This is Snuppy. He is an Afghan Hound and he is a clone -- the first of his kind. (Image is an excerpt from an AP photo here). He seems healthy and normal -- big floppy ears, wet nose, big ole tongue -- but it is important to remember that he is not, really, a dog, at least as far as I can tell from the statements of South Korean scientist Woo-Suk Hwang who made Snuppy.

When discussing the same technique used for therapeutic cloning the Reuters story quoted him as saying that
...he is not cloning human embryos, but using eggs harvested from human females, infusing them with genetic material, to create cells that can never become human beings.

"I firmly reject the term human cloning," Hwang said in an interview with Reuters in May. "This is a scientific activity called somatic nuclear transfer, and in no part does it involve the physiological process of fertilisation of eggs by sperm."


So, there you have it -- no sperm, no human -- and by extension, no dog. Snuppy was made using eggs harvested from a female dog, infused with genetic material and thus he can never become a dog.