Friday, December 28, 2012

Repeal the 2nd Amendment

If Thomas Jefferson wasn't in Paris from 1784 to 1789, we probably wouldn't be having the discussions we are having now about the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution.  James Madison, the author of the Bills of Rights, had a great legal mind, but was not the writer that Jefferson was.  The original intent would be clearer. We deal the consequences today and still battle over its meaning.  

It is difficult to understand what was originally meant by the 2nd Amendment.  More than one version of the text exists, Congress approved one version, while the states approved another one. The image of the text that the Library of Congress has on file has only one comma.  

"A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed."
This version implies that the individuals have a right to bear arms for their own use. This is the version that the states ratified.  But if you look at the amendment now, with the comma that was added by Congress (upon federal government ratification), it could have a different meaning.  
"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
As an English major, I have a problem with the interpretation of this as protecting the rights of  individuals as opposed to that of a militia.  The comma between "Militia" and "being" makes "Militia" the subject of the sentence.  With "Militia" being the subject, this makes "shall not be infringed" the verb. The simple structure of the sentence is this:  "a militia shall not be infringed." This is a moot point, of course, the Supreme Court has ruled a number of times on this.

The problem with this discussion is that the original intent of the founding fathers is irrelevant. When the Bill of Rights was written, the most powerful weapon available was a musket. It had one shot, it was difficult to aim and took about a minute to reload. They feared a tyrannical government so the ability to defend yourself against that government was important.  But once your government has nuclear weapons and drones, shouldn't the idea of arming yourself against the government be shelved. The Constitution is a living document. Jefferson believed that we should throw it out every twenty years.  You don't have to delve deep to know what he thought on this subject. You just need to look at this quote written in stone on the Jefferson Memorial:
But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
The original intent argument is the nonsense that the right wing likes to cling because progress scares them.  We are a new age wearing the tattered rags of an old paranoia that is no longer relevant.  

Oddly enough, gun ownership in America is down ... that is, less people and households own guns. With more and more of our society becoming urban, less people hunt. This is the scary stat:  we have more guns than ever.  What that means is that those who own guns, own a lot of them. People are stockpiling them. I am not suggesting that everyone that owns guns is a raving mad lunatic ranting about the Federal Reserve or Socialism, but I am saying that there is sufficient evidence that some of them are. Enough so that taking political action is not unreasonable.  

We need to repeal the Second Amendment and rewrite it to be more clear and modern. We can protect people's right to own a rifle for hunting and/or a handgun for personal protection while  also protecting us from more dangerous weapons. I used to think that we could live with the Second Amendment the way it is now, but when you see that first graders are being shot in their schools and firemen are being shot from rooftops, then I think that it is time to stop being so timid about this. Being reasonable and polite isn't working, it is time to be unreasonable and rude. Like most progress, the lack of political will stands in the way. The horror of Newtown is waning.  We need to keep talking about it.  If we cannot do this after these events, then we are doomed. I don't want to have to arm myself to go to the mall, a movie theater or when I go into work.  None of us should.  It is time we wrapped this old man into a well fit coat.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

My Tribute to Podcasts Everywhere

Every new year, since creating this blog, I have set a goal to make more blog entries than the year before.  Usually this means, I find myself on New Year's Eve rushing to finish the last blog entry of the year. One year, I had to blog twice on New Year's Eve to meet the goal. This year, I guess, is a good year because I met my goal with this entry in mid-December. Also, early this Fall I hit the 5,000 hit mark which took five years. I am excited to say today it is over 6,800 just a few months later. Things are good on the blogging front. For the last blog entry of the year (this could be it), I would like to do something different.

I cannot imagine how difficult finding all the information I have used in this blog without the Internet (google, wikipedia, podcasts etc.) A co-worker of mine, who is in her 20's, recently asked me, "What did people do before Google?" It is hard to believe the amount of time I'd have to spend in a library researching all this stuff if I didn't have the net. The way I have consumed media has changed drastically throughout the years. When I was young, before the net, it was the evening news and occasional news magazine or daily paper ... I wasn't very well informed. College was a black hole for me in regards to news because I was so busy with classes, homework and part-time jobs, I had no time to consume news. I hadn't discovered NPR (National Public Radio) at that point either. It wasn't until I moved to Boston, after college, that I discovered NPR. I used to read the Sunday Boston Globe at that point also. Sunday mornings I would catch a jazz brunch at a bagel place in Jamaica Plain and read the Sunday paper from start to finish. It wasn't until I met my wife that I became an NPR-head, simply through the osmosis of hanging out with her. (Please note: we have a dog named Cokie Roberts.) Even if I didn't hear a story on NPR, I'd hear it from her. For a brief period, I was streaming some of my favorite NPR shows from their web site. It wasn't until I was living here in Vermont, in the early 2000's, that I discovered podcasts. I had just bought our first iMac and it came loaded with iTunes.  I went onto the iTunes store to check out the music and I noticed something called a podcast. I didn't know what they were, but curiosity got me where I was going. I found that some of my favorite shows had podcasts which you could subscribe to for free. I clicked on NPR's Science Friday and it downloaded to my Mac. It was so simple that I started subscribing to a bunch of my favorite shows. I discovered that when a new show came out, it would just show up on my computer. My wife and I decided after about a year of listening to podcasts that we didn't need cable television anymore because our entertainment, listening to podcasts, was enough. We were more informed than ever. Now that I download the podcast directly to my phone, I couldn't be more happy with the situation. They are just an integral part of my life. I can listen to them anywhere.

Less than half of the podcasts I listen to now are from NPR. A lot of them come from completely independent entities.  I would like to spend some time sharing with you some of these with links to the shows.  My schedule varies but it looks something like this:

Adam Carolla: I start every work day with Carolla because it is light, funny and helps me deal with the trauma of the morning. This is the most popular podcast in the history of podcasts and is currently in the  Guinness Book of World Records for the most downloads. This show is not for everyone. If you are particularly sensitive to racial, gender, toilet or adult humor then you will probably not enjoy this show. Some of my favorite guests in the past have been: Dr. Drew, Ken Burns, Joe Walsh, Albert Brooks and David Alan Grier.

Merriam Dictionary's Word of the Day: Every day get a new word that you may not know. It is basically a dictionary entry read out loud.

Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac: Most people I know hear this one on their way into work in the morning. Since I telecommute, I hear it while sipping my coffee in my toasty little office. Mr. Keillor shares some of his favorite works of literature and some history as well.

KEXP's Song of the Day:  Alternative rock station KEXP in Seattle gives you a song to listen to each day.  If I like them, I find it on iTunes and buy it.

On Point with Tom Ashbrook:  This show comes out every week day, two one hour shows.  So what I don't catch daily, I listen on the weekend. Friday's Week In the News can't be missed.  This may be my favorite show on NPR. Tom is a great host capable of carrying an intelligent conversation on most subjects. One day he'll be talking about pies and the next, a heated discussion about Hamas. I don't catch every show, but I often listen to episodes that I don't expect to be interested in and I get pulled in.

ESPN's Baseball Fantasy Focus:  This is broadcasted during the Major League baseball season and leading up the season only. They talk about baseball for fantasy baseball fans. I am in two leagues. This year I won one and came in second place in the other.  This show certainly helped.  

C-SPAN:  Mondays are difficult so I start the work week with something dry. I listen to  three of their podcasts. Afterword comes out every week and has a guest journalist interviewing an author of a recent non-fiction book.  Q and A is hosted by C-SPAN founder, Brian Lamb, where he interviews a non-fiction author for an hour. Lectures in History is my newest podcast. Every week you get a different lecture from a US history professor.

CBC3: CBC Radio 3 is Canada's music radio station. Some of the best rock n' roll in English is coming out of our neighbor to the north. Thanks to this Podcast, I discovered such great performers as Arcade Fire, Dan Mandan, Corb Lund, Joel Plaskett and Feist. The DJ's are annoying but the music is great.

Dan Carlin: Dan is an independent podcaster. I really enjoy both his shows, Hardcore History and Common Sense.  The history show doesn't come out often enough. Due to the amount of work that goes into the show, but it is worth the wait. Common Sense addresses current events. I have supported this show, financially, in the past.

Freakanomics: If you have read the great non-fiction book Freakanomics by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, then you are in for a treat, because Dubner (the journalist of the two authors) has a podcast.  You can hear parts of it on NPR here and there, but the whole show is available on podcast.  This is the book that verified what I have been saying for years ... economics can explain everything.

Free Library of Philadelphia: If you are ever in downtown Phillie, you may notice the amazing public library they have. Their lecture series is now available via podcast.  You can hear great authors reading their books, lecturing and answering questions about their latest works.

My History Can Beat Up Your Politics: It is one of the better more even-handed history/political podcasts. The host, Bruce Carlson, goes into the minutia of congress and some presidential decisions that you may not know as well as you think you do.  I have to stop working to listen to this one.  He gets a lot into a very small amount of time.

The Nerdist: This one is for nerds.  Comedian Chris Hardwick talks about sci-fi movies and books, comic books and nerdy television shows usually with an interesting guest.  I just heard an episode when he chatted with Andrew Lincoln from The Walking Dead that was highly entertaining. This podcast reminds me that I am not alone in my nerdiness.

Intelligence Squared: This NPR show may be the best issue based show on-line. It is an Oxford style debate where they tackle some of the biggest issues of our day. The two sides of the debate have equal time to defend their point of view and the audience votes for a winner.
Shortwave with Grant Lee Phillips: Grant Lee Phillips is one of more soft spoken rockers you will ever hear.  He is a great host.  He has casual conversations with rock musicians.  The first one I ever heard was with Amie Mann, one of my favorite song writers.  I have been hooked since.

Sound Opinions:  This is an NPR rock and roll show from Chicago's WBEZ.  These two rock critics, Jim and Greg, talk about rock and roll for an hour.  This is probably the most intelligent rock show out there. Thanks to these guys I've been exposed to some great bands like Blitzen Trapper, The Black Keys, The Decemberists and The Drive-by Truckers.

Sports with Frank Deford: This is a very short NPR commentary about sports. Mr. Deford is always funny, witty, biting and poignant.

MacBreak Weekly: These folks discuss all things Apple: iTune, iPhone, iPods and Macs. Some of my favorite apps on my phone are stuff that I heard talked about on this show.

Write the Book: This is a local podcast for writers. Vermonter Shelagh Shapiro interviews authors near and far about their recent projects.

Science Talk: This is produced by the Scientific American magazine.  They talk about subjects that were published in their magazine.  This hasn't been coming out as often as it used so I hope it is not going away.

FolkAlley: This comes out once a month.  It is folk music only. If you don't like folk, don't listen.

Endless Boundaries:  This is jam band music.  If you don't like music like the Grateful Dead, Phish and Gov't Mule this is not for you.

Slate's Hang Up and Listen: This is probably the most intelligent sports show I've ever listened to. Baseball is the only sport I follow but these guys fill me in on whats happening in other sports.

The weekends I listen to podcasts that my wife and I enjoy together.  NPR shows like Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, Sunday Puzzle with Will Shortz, Mountain Stage, Radio Lab and On the Media can be heard on the radio. But if we miss them, we can hear the podcast.

The podcast we listen to together are:

Slate's Gabfest: Our three hosts talk about the week in politics.  My favorite part is Emily's updates on what is coming up for the Supreme Court which is a branch of the government I don't hear enough about.

Stuff You Should Know: These two guys are very entertaining.  They have great chemistry together.  They discuss all kinds of things ranging from How Fire Works to What the Dead Sea Scrolls are.  Very light and informative.

The Thomas Jefferson Hour:  We donate to this independent show.  Actor and humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson portrays our third President.  He addresses modern issues like gun control and space exploration as well as slavery, free will and the other founding fathers.  This show is a delight.

The Economist's Week Ahead: Editors of the The Economist talk about events that are coming in the week ahead like elections, global summits and impending deadlines.

Big Picture Science: Scientists from the SETI institute talk science with some very geeky humor mixed in.

Planet Money: This is an NPR show but only parts of it are played on the radio as segments in other shows.  To hear the whole show, you need to listen to the podcast.  If not for this show, I would probably be lost on what is happening in the economy.

Real Time with Bill Mahr: If I were to pay for HBO, it would be for this show. Fortunately, you can get the audio only of the show via iTunes for free. This is always a good laugh.  I don't always agree with Mr. Mahr but I appreciate his insights and those of his guests.

One show we listen to only on a special occasion.  We go on a lot of road trips: drives to Chicago, Phillie, the Georgia coast, Canada etc. When we find ourselves getting sleepy, we put the PodQuiz on. I save them up on my phone for when we need them. It is a very well put together trivia show.  Nothing like some good trivia to keep you awake while driving.

I believe I covered most of them. I always trying checking out new podcasts.  If you know any I should check out, post a comment please.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

In Defense of Rudeness

Back in the 1990's, I was one of the few people I knew, outside of work, that was on the internet. I had to carry a beeper and often got called in the middle of the night, to assist clients with software problems. Some of them were in Europe, some local, I had to spend hours resolving some of their issues. Sometimes I spent the entire night working and then had to go into the office the next day. I had a dumb terminal that I connected to the mainframe at work via a modem and from there jumped onto the client's systems. The first time I ever connected to a web page, it was all text which you had to tab from hypertext to hypertext to navigate around the page. It all seems so raw now and yet, sometimes it seems like the good old days when only the geeks were on-line.

Because I was somewhat of an early adopter, I figured out a lot of the social concepts and rules of the internet long before a lot of the less technical people I know did.  So when everyone else I know ended up getting on-line ... well, their initiation could get quite irritating at times. Sometimes I would get emails that are written entirely with THE CAPS LOCK KEY ON, which is not only difficult to read but on the net, it means that you are yelling. So you have to politely explain this to them. This usually works. One person I know, who got on-line for the first time in 2004 or so, took a very long time to figure out what Spam was. She would forward me her Spam telling me, I thought you would find this interesting. So not only did I have to deal with my junk mail, I had to deal with hers. What made it worse, she would sign me up for "deals" and give out my email to spammers. She also would send me jokes or warnings some of which have been out on the net so long that I am sure I saw them when I was new to the net.  I asked her in person and via email many times to stop. "If you want to send me an email to converse with me and see how I am doing, please do so but please stop sending me stuff that isn't written by you." But this did not work. After my polite requests were ignored many times, I decided to be rude. I sent her a scathing email in response to a fairly offensive joke she sent me about Southerners. Magic happened!  She stopped sending me crap.

I try not to be rude, at least not as a first response, if someone continually doesn't listen to your polite plea ... I let 'er rip. When someone ignores your politeness, it is okay to be rude back to them.people should listen to you when you are polite.  Fair warning, being rude or sending an angry email rarely ends well.

I am beginning to feel this way about politics, particularly when it comes to the environment and science in general.  Republican resistance to science has gotten so bad that I have told some local Republicans, people I like and respect, that I will not vote for them because they are a Republican even if they are not a nut. I used to vote for a person regardless of their party, no longer. I tell them that their party has to get a clue about science or they need to change parties, until then, I am going to vote for the opposition and possibly even donate. I have even gone so far as tell Republicans to get off my land, that politicians with an (R) at the end of their name are not welcome.

Democrats are not perfect on science either, but the difference is significant. In 2008, when asked during a Republican debate if any of them didn't believe in evolution, three of them raised their hand. This is just embarrassing as an American. If Republicans are going to be so stupid to put people like this as a candidate for the most powerful position on the planet, why should we be polite with them? It seems obvious to me politeness is not working. I normally choose to be civil, but when civilization itself is at stake, the stakes are too high. In the past two years, 80% of America's counties have requested aid for national disasters.  New York City is now looking at a Holland style seawall because their once-a-century flood has happened twice in the last three years. During this year's Republican Convention, head moron Romney laughed at President Obama for wanting to use government to heal the Earth (like most other civilized nations are doing now).  Romney received applause. This is what we are dealing with. People are so stuck in their own bubble that they disregard evidence and logic and applaud for (and unfortunately, vote for) someone who reinforces their ignorant beliefs. Democracy is scary sometimes. If it wasn't better than all the alternatives, I'd be joining the revolution. Until I see some significant change on this front, I am going to be as rude as my mood allows to any Republican I feel like. They pretend to be concerned about their children's future and they ignore global warming, for shame.

How did we get here?  The United States used to lead the world in our vigor for science.  We invented the internet, we landed on the moon, the telephone, the phonograph, mass production ... these amazing feats are American. Some say it began in 1918 with William Jennings Bryan's "The Prince of Peace" speech where he began to blame Darwinism for the moral decay of America. The speech had legs and ultimately lead to the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. Some say it started much more recently, during the American involvement in the Vietnam War, President Nixon announced a supersonic transport program, when his science advisers came out against the program, he fired them all. This set a precedent in that if you don't like what science has to say, just ignore the science. A similar situation arose during the Reagan Administration over Strategic Defense Initiative. Wherever it some point, someone figured out that preying on people ignorance and/or fear of science can get you elected. As ignorance of science grows, the effectiveness of this type of politics does as well.  

I am pleased with the results of this year's election. It gives me some hope that the Republicans may get the message, but the margin of victory was too small.  How many more storms will it take before the tide turns more towards reason?  Perhaps, I don't have to be rude ... mother nature is being rude for me.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Guns of November

Someone is shooting the dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico. On hearing this, my first thought was "Where is Sarah Palin these days?" After taking a moment to reflect on my wittiness, my second thought was "Why would anyone be doing this?" Over the past few months, carcasses of dolphins have been showing up on the beaches of the Gulf Coast. I can't imagine what pleasure anyone could be getting out of this. Why would anyone kill for pleasure? This is just another thing on my long list of things that I don't understand .. the killing of a beautiful creature, seemingly, for pleasure.

While on vacation on the coast of Georgia I was boarding a gambling boat when an employee of the casino said something very stupid about my home state. I mentioned that we were from Vermont and the person collecting tickets looked at me suspiciously and said, "Guns are illegal in Vermont!" I didn't know what to say. If I weren't so surprised I might have said, "Then what the heck are all those explosions in the woods behind my house every November?" Of course, guns are legal in Vermont.  Hunting is very much a part of the culture here. When I google gun ownership by state, it seems that Vermont is in the middle of the pack, somewhere around 20th highest percentage, around 42% of households have guns. So, that guy in Georgia, I am guessing he is just an idiot that watches Fox News. At least, that's how I like to think of him.

Hunting is something that has always bothered me, not because I have any moral objections, mostly because I just don't understand it. I understand the idea of communing with nature, but I get that in my kayak or while out hiking ... without hunting. I understand the excitement of the hunt, but you could get that with a camera as well as a gun. I don't object to eating meat. I am a carnivore. I've tried vegetarianism for a few months and I was not happy. I recently heard Mr. Spock say in an old episode of the original Star Trek, "we all feed on death, even vegetarians." That sums up my "logical" approach to any moral culinary thoughts I might have. I think of the meat I eat as being slaughtered by someone who is doing their job, not someone who is enjoying it. What I don't get about hunting is the killing, I would hunt if I had to, if I needed the meat, but I can't imagine enjoying killing the creature. I know several hunters ... people I respect, people I like and some of them, I love, but there is always a huge divide between when this subject comes up. When I see a deer in my yard, I look on it in awe. They look on and wonder where their gun is.  That is a wide chasm.

While many people I know are hunters, I know many people who are adamantly anti-hunting. I assume that there is something evolutionary going here. Are some people hardwired to hunt while others are not? I don't know the answer to this. I hope most of the rage against hunting, is against the irresponsible hunter (the dolphin shooters). As an environmentalist, I find the rage to be counterproductive. The environmental movement should embrace hunting. If you want to save a mountain from mining or clear cutting, introduce a group of hunters into the mix and you will see conservation in action. These guys (and most of them are guys) love nature, they just go about it differently than I do. Provided that they follow the rules set forth by their local game warden, it might even be good for region. Most areas in North America, like here in Vermont, have a disappearing population of predators. If not for the hunters, the deer population would explode. Their over-population could really damage a region with a variety of problems from the effects on the plant life to problems on the highways.

My neighbor has a deer stand where we sits for hours waiting for a deer to kill.  As long it sits in a tree, somewhere on his 70 acres, far away from my house ... we'll get along.  Now, I am going for a walk.  My dogs and I have our orange vest on.  Time for me to do some communing.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The SS Exodus

Breakfast at Tiffany's is one of my favorite films of any era. It is bitingly dark, sardonic and thought provoking. Also, when I watch it, I get to look at Audrey Hepburn, as the iconic Holly Golightly, which is always a treat. If not for one scene in the film, I would say it was the perfect film. Anyone in a modern audience will notice this scene immediately because it is completely out of sync with the rest of the film. Of course, I am talking about the Mickey Rooney scene. It might just be the most outright racist scene I have ever seen in a Hollywood film, which is saying a lot considering their treatment of African and Native Americans throughout the years. Rooney plays Holly's Japanese landlord, believe it or not. I think it was meant as comic relief at the time, but does not have the same effect nowadays. The scene is just painful to watch. Like the rain of frogs in the film Magnolia, this scene simply ruins an otherwise perfect film.

I could not help but think of this scene today when I start watching Otto Preminger's 1960 war epic Exodus  with the very WASP-looking Paul Newman as the star in his first big roll. Throughout the film, I kept thinking of how badly this film was cast.  Exodus is based on the Leon Uris novel of the same name about the founding of Israel. This was pre-Dustin Hoffman Hollywood, where it was okay to be Jewish when you are behind the camera or in production, but you certainly couldn't be in front of the camera. If you were on film and Jewish, you certainly couldn't look it.  Newman's father was Jewish and his mother was a Christian Scientist. I have read that  Kirk Douglas wanted to star in this film but I cannot find anywhere as to why Newman chosen. Douglas does seem to be a better match for this role.

Since I am woefully ignorant of most things Middle Eastern, I watched this film with my Mac on my lap giving Google and Wikipedia a good workout for the 3.5 hour run time. Leon Uris was famous for the amount of research he did for his historical fiction. The biggest criticism I could find of the book was that it was biased toward Israel, while the Arabs were portrayed as thugs. The film's biggest criticism seems to be its length. Preminger was so faithful to the novel that the film went so long.  At one point during the film premiere, comedian Mort Sahl yelled "Otto, let my people go." In the film, the British seemed to be much more thug-like than the Arabs. Overall, I found it entertaining, but indeed too long.  It was only educational in that I was researching the gaps in my knowledge throughout my viewing.

The biggest gap in my knowledge is the transition period after World War II and the founding of Israel in 1948.  Where did those people go? Nine concentration camps were created on the island of Cyprus to house over 50,000 survivors of Hitler death camps. After surviving the Holocaust, living through ungodly horrors, they were moved to Cyprus awaiting admission to Palestine. The camps were operated by the British from August 1946 to January 1949. Camp conditions were horrendous. Better than Terezine, but surely not comfortable. Britain had their own problems at the time.

The SS Exodus was a ship that left port in France in 1947 carrying thousands of Jews, mostly Holocaust survivors, seemingly headed toward Cyprus. None of them had certification for immigration to Palestine, so they had to go to the camps instead.  The ship was actually commanded by the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary organization. It intended to break through the blockade and illegally immigrate to Palestine. Eventually, it was seized by the British navy and forced to return to France. To add insult to injury, it was refused entry and they eventually relocated back to Germany.

It is very easy to get angry and frustrated with modern Israel. Indeed, they have a right to defend themselves, but they do seem to overcompensate. I am not qualified or informed enough to discuss the situation much more. The more I learn of how the Jewish people have been treated throughout history, the more I understand their behavior in modern times. I don't justify it, but I do begin to understand it.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Ubiquity of Poor Spelling

Occasionally, I pick up a book called War Letters edited by Andrew Carroll.  It is a great read but rarely do I read it for long. I enjoy it in short spurts.  It is a compilation of actual war correspondence from American wars starting with the American Civil War.  It has moments of beauty and can give the reader a real connection with history.  The problem with the book is the letters in it are just spelled so badly that I cannot read the book for long.  It is a reminder that people have always been bad spellers, even worse than today. These letter writers have good excuses too.  Some of them were writing in foxholes, from battlefield hospitals and/or in bad lighting. Most of them didn't have dictionaries readily available and had a lot of other things to worry about.

Nowadays, there really aren't a lot of good excuses for poor spelling. Every person on the net has access the greatest reference library ever created. You can double check everything that you write. It takes only a few seconds (not an exaggeration) to check the spelling on any number of websites like or

Spell check software is part of the solution but it is also a big part of the problem. Even though, Facebook will put little red squiggle lines below a bad word like "alot" (that's right "alot" is not a word, it is spell "a lot"), I still see "a lot" spelled as one word. Spell checks are demons because so many people become dependent on them and think that if their posting passes the spell check, then they are okay. But spell check won't tell you if you are using the wrong word. It won't tell you if you are using "your" instead of "you're," "sense" instead of "since," "then" instead of "than," "do" instead of "due," "hear" instead of "here" or "to" instead of "too." These are the mistakes I see on a daily basis. Some of this come from college educated people. How do I explain this?

One explanation is some of them are non-native English speakers. I know someone who continues to mistaken the words "such" and "should." Her emails are very confusing. Since Spanish is her native tongue, she is forgiven. Actually, a lot of the people I know from non-English cultures write and spell better than a lot of the Americans I grew up with.  The next explanation I have is stupidity, but since most of the people I know are not stupid ... I have to let this slide for most of them.

I do not purport infallibility.  My greatest demon is leaving out small words. When I proof read and edit, my brain has a tendency to fill in words that are not really there. This is particularly a problem when that little word is "not" which usually changes the entire meaning of a sentence. But spelling is not my hobgoblin, it is not because I am good at spelling, it is because I take the time to look it up when I have to. This is because I care about what I am writing. When people say to me that they are bad spellers, I think the same about them as I do about people who say that they are "bad at school."  Everyone is "bad at school," but some of us work very hard to overcome it and learn how to be good at it. Those who are "bad at school" or "bad at spelling," they are just lazy.

I do spell things incorrectly sometimes, but I do learn from this. I usually don't make the same mistake more than once.  Some of the people I converse with electronically clearly don't learn from their mistakes or don't care. I discuss politics a lot with friends on Facebook. I have one friend that seems to be obsessed with rhetoric, but he hasn't once spelled word "rhetoric" correctly.  It is clear to me that these people just don't give a shit about what they are writing. If they did, they'd take a few extra seconds to at least write something in English. If they don't care about what they are writing, why should I?

What's the solution? One big solution is don't let them get away with it. Point it out to them. Just tell them, blatantly if you have to, "sorry but I don't understand what you wrote." This goes a long way, I hope.  Maybe they will take time to write something clearly in the future.  It just takes a few seconds. The onus of clarity is on the writer not the reader. A reader shouldn't have to guess as to what word a writer meant. And for all those messages you get from people saying "your welcome," write back simply stating "I don't own a welcome."  Hopefully, they will figure it out.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Foreign Aide. the ARA and the Great Famine

I could never run for office.  If I did I'd be like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie or Chicago Mayor Rom Emanuel where I'd be swearing and yelling the entire time. I'd be doing this mostly because I'd be frustrated with voters, not so much with red tape or the media. Everyone agrees that the government spends too much ... across the board everyone seems to agree. The huge unmanageable Federal Deficit is proof to this. The bone of contention is what to cut. The more specific about spending-cuts any politician gets, the more intense the voters freak out. If a politician wants to cut medicare, seniors freak out ... he/she wants to "kill grandma."  Cut defense spending ... he/she is "unpatriotic" or "giving aid to the terrorists."  I don't know how politicians do it.  I will never run for office, so I have a certain level of respect for those who do (while I yell and complain about them myself). The only expense voters consistently poll as unpopular, across the board, is foreign aide. The $1 billion that the Obama Administration gave to the new Egyptian government seems to have pissed off everyone, conservatives and liberals alike.

I don't purport to be an expert on this subject, not in the least. But I do know that sometimes spending now can greatly decrease your expenses later. A thriving and stable Democracy in Egypt would be advantageous to everyone and in the long run save us money. We look towards history for examples of these types of situations.

Over 5 million people died during the Great Famine in Russia in 1921 and 1922.  Many years of war (the Russian Revolution, World War I and the Russian Civil War) left the Volga-Ural region devastated and starving. Much of the nation's infrastructure was no longer functioning. Only 30% of their railroads remained. Corruption and a bloated bureaucracy were mostly to blame for the famine, not drought or any other natural disaster. The pictures I have seen of the famine are horrendous. The American Relief Administration (ARA) headed by future president Herbert Hoover helped provide relief to the starving. They employed hundreds of Americans, thousands of Russians and fed millions.

Hoover believed that the Russian people would see what we were doing and revolt against their own government. That didn't happen, but this generation of children did become the army that fought the Nazis. If we wouldn't have assisted, the famine would have lasted longer. The Russian army that held Hitler at bay during those awful Russian winters of World War II, may not have done so if not for the relief from ARA many years earlier. A small amount of foreign aid  in the 1920's quite possible saved us all.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Planets Kobol and Kolob

If you are a science fiction fan, you probably already know that a very good sci-fi show is hard to find.  The Sci-Fi Channel is probably not the best to find one, most of the time. Since the reboot of Battlestar Gallactica went off the air, there is very little on this station worth watching. Gallactica was not only the best they ever put out, but arguably the best sci-fi show ever. It was more mature and edgy than any of the Star Trek shows and more profound and socially relevant than most of other shows on television, sci-fi or otherwise. It was a sad day in 2009 when it ran its course.

The planet Kobol is the one of mythical planets in the Gallactica fictional universe. Kobol was home to 13 tribes of early humans. During a great catastrophe, they had to flee the planet.  Twelve tribes travelled through an energy barrier and settled on a group of habitable planets in a common stellar system. While the 13th tribe, went further and settled on a planet called Earth. The premise of the show finds the remaining survivors of the 12 tribes searching for Earth, what many of them believe is just a myth.

The inspiration for planet Kobol is planet Kolob which is found in the Books of the Mormon, specifically the Book of Abraham. Kolob is the heavenly body closest to the throne of God. In case you are curious what Kolob looks like, the depiction below is from the inner sleeve of an Osmonds album called "The Plan."  (Kolob is also the name of their short lived label/record company). This planet was discovered by Methuselah and Abraham by looking through a seer stone pair of glasses.  Earth was created near Kolob about 6,000 years ago, but then moved to its present location. I am not sure how that happened.  Maybe it has something to do with the hand of God (see image below).

In rereading this, it is difficult to tell which is science fiction and which is a religious belief. I find them both equally entertaining  ... maybe not, maybe equally interesting.  If Romney wins the election this November, I am sure we will have a good four years to learn more about Kolob.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Words We Cannot Say

We do have freedom of speech here in America. All that means is that the government cannot limit our speech. Your speech can be limited by your employer, a person or a corporation.  For example, if you started screaming racial epithets in the workplace, you could be fired. This makes sense to a point.  Your employer has a responsibility to maintain a safe and accessible workplace for all employees. If you are using a corporation's servers, like Facebook or Myspace for example, you have agreed to a certain code of behavior. They could severe your ties at any time if you broke that code. We also socially keep each other's vocabularies in check. We have the C word, the F word, the N word and now ... wait for it ... the R word. If you violate these rules, you may release a shit storm upon yourself beyond your imagination. Earlier this week, shock pundit (aka scumbag) Ann Coulter called President Obama a "retard" on Twitter. She is a hateful person. We seem to tackle people like her the opposite way than we should. Instead of ignoring her and letting her say any stupid and hateful thing that she will, we respond to her, comment on her and share her stupidity with our friends. We do exactly what she wants us to do. We give her publicity.  I guess, to some extent, I am doing the same with this posting.

Not only do we freak out when someone uses the C, N and R words (lesser extent F), but you can get into trouble for using a word that sounds like one of these words.  In 2002, an elementary school teacher in Wilmington, NC was reprimanded and forced to take racial sensitivity training for using the word "niggardly" (which means stingy). This word sounds like the infamous N word, but has a different meaning and etymology. Again, wouldn't a better response be to teach the offended parent that she is wrong and it is not even the same word? Shouldn't we just buy this person a dictionary and teach her how to use it? But no, they punished the person with the high vocabulary and enabled the ignorance of the person complaining. Lets just make everyone afraid to say what they are thinking. Lets just turn our daily discourse into a trite self-righteous political-correct-fest.

So let me add to this. Twenty-two letters in our alphabet need assignment. Let me beat them to the punch. I don't have all of them so feel free to assist me in this venture.

A-word = asshole
B = bitch
D = douchebag
E = egghead
G = gook
H = hate
I = Indian
J = jizz
K = Kiwi
L = loser (for we all know we are all winners)
M = moron
O = Oreo
P = pussy
Q = queer
S = stupid
T = tits
U =
V = vagina
W = whitey
X =
Z = zebra

Perhaps a better S-word would be Seacrest and a K-word of Kardashian, but I digress.

From this day forward, these words will not be spoken. Also, for now on, when I leave my house I am taking a dictionary with me. I plan on using the word "niggardly" quite often and when someone complains ... I am going to call them an M-word, tell them I H-word them and to go read the F-word dictionary. Offense is the residue of a free society.  We take the offense and learn to deal with it, because the alternative is tyranny.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

America's Volunteer Army

The US unemployment numbers lately of 7 or 8% are fairly shocking (the jobless rate is even higher).  Looking at the unemployment numbers of the Great Depression (25% or so) really puts our current situation into perspective.  Would we have gotten as bad as the Great Depression without the stimulus bills?  Hard to believe that it would have. Without access to alternative universe, we'll never really know how well the stimulus bills worked or if they worked at all.  With the economy steadily improving, slowly, I am just grateful that we didn't have do some of the extraordinary things that FDR had to. Although, some of them, like the CCC, seem really cool.

The CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) was one of those extraordinary programs implemented by President Roosevelt.  If you do any hiking in the US today, you owe a big "thank you" to the CCC.  Whether you are hiking in a National Park like the Grand Canyon, one of the state parks across the country, the Appalachian Trail or the Long Trail here in Vermont, there is a very good chance that you are using one of trails they created.  In Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, there is an easy walk with concrete stairs into the planet's fourth largest cave. If you use a lean-to or a visitor's center, there is a good chance that the CCC built that as well.  They repaired bridges, created fire roads in the National Forests, did stream repair, planted trees among so many other things that we take for granted today. 

The idea of the Corp was to get young Americans to work ... to make idle hands useful and to build character and experience in the process.  Some of them had never had a job.  30,000 men from ages 17 to 23 initially signed up for a grueling job that paid only $1.00 a day, but did include three hardy meals, shelter, clothing and free healthcare.  The food and the healthcare alone made it worth because jobs were hard to come by.  They were assigned to camps, lived in barracks and had to follow a military like schedule. In the nine years of its existence (from 1933 to 1942) some 2.5 million young men participated.  Some famous people came out of the CCC.  Hall of Fame baseballer Stan "the Man" Musial, Hollywood actors Raymond Burr, Walter Matthau and Robert Mitchum and test pilot Chuck Yeager who eventually went on to be the first human to break the sound barrier ... all are veterans of the CCC. 

It is difficult to see something like this happening these days. Obamacare is basically a big handout to the insurance industry and the right wing calls him a socialist.  Can you imagine what they would call him if he revived the CCC?  FDR had his political problems as well. The right wing did indeed call it socialism and the left wing cried fairly loudly as well.  They were concerned that the $1.00 a day work was going to be the new normal.  To keep the left wing off his back, FDR appointed union leaders to run the program. A lot of us wanted Obama to be our generation's FDR. Hope lingers.

When war broke out in 1941, the CCC was disbanded.  Most of the men from the Corp joined the service. The training they received from the CCC was invaluable for the men were in shape, used to regimented living and residing in camps.  The CCC camps were small committees usually in the woods or far away from towns.  Once the war started some of the camps were used as interment camps for Japan Americans or prisoner of war camps. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

My Weekend With Bernie

I am a little frustrated when I hear reports on polling, in particular, American's disapproval of Congress.  Our disapproval rate of Congress is the highest ever in any election year.  But how relevant is this?  As a whole I disapprove of Congress as well.  I can think of some Republican Senators and Congressmen that make me sick.  But when it comes to my representation in Congress, I couldn't be more pleased. I have no doubt that there are many people in other states (some even here in Vermont) that despise my representatives in Congress, so be it. They represent me and my neighbors, no one outside Vermont.  I'd like to see a poll that measures American's approval of congress when asked about their own representatives, that would be more relevant.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to meet one of my US Senators in person.  Not the first time I have met Bernie Sanders.  We are a small state with a small population. Citizens of Vermont are some of the best represented humans on the planet.  We get two Senators while a huge state like California get two also.  So the chances you get to meet your Senator and talk to them are much higher here.  I have lived here for a little over ten years and I have met all of my representation in Congress.  There were about a 100 or so people in this little church on Westford green.  The questions from the crowd came from carpenters asking about Wall Street, IBM employees asking about Unions to dairy farmers talking about the difficulties of running a small family business. It was a great way to spend an afternoon seeing and hearing my neighbors engaged in civil discourse.

When I hear Bernie speak, I am amazed.  Not because he is a great speaker but because I agree with him about 90% of the time which is surprising for any politician.  He is consistent, unlike a Romney or Clinton, so I know what I am getting when I vote for him. He is also an independent so he isn't accountable to any party leadership, only to the voter. The only problem I have with this is that if Republicans take the Senate in November, which is possible, the Senate committees' leadership will be taken over by Republicans. For example, the leadership of the Energy Committee could be taken over by Jim Inhofe (R-OK).  This scares me. Inhofe just published a book dedicated to proving that humans aren't causing global climate change. He is one of those Republicans that I referred to in an earlier post who fell asleep in their high school Earth Science class. Would Bernie change his party affiliation to prevent the Republican crazies from taking over the Senate?  I don't know. I raised my hand but wasn't one of the people chosen.  

One of the things that Bernie mentioned in his speech was a "five stories building in the Cayman Islands that housed 18,000 corporations."  The name of this building is Ugland House. It is on South Church Street in George Town, Cayman Islands.  Currently, 18,857 corporations are registered at this address but only 5% of them are US companies. They are registered here to avoid paying taxes.  Do you remember a few decades ago when the term "corporate citizen" was used to describe companies that maintained factories and offices in the US for patriotic reason? We don't hear that term very often these days.  In the US some states are more tax advantageous than others.  Delaware is, notoriously, the most favorable. Notice where your credit card bill's address is. Wilmington, Delaware has a similar building at 1209 North Orange Street. At this address is Google, Coca Cola, KFC, GM and American Airlines even though they are physically elsewhere. Not exactly patriotic behavior.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Isn't It Time We Stop Being Nice?

I don't think I have, as of yet, called any of Obama detractors racists. For one, it is not nice and I'd prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt. Another reason, people have a right to disagree with the president. I do often.  I have to say that it is becoming more and more difficult not to call some of them racists.  I know a lot of liberal friend that complain about Bush a lot, I was right there with them. But those people who complained about Bush's policies on torture and the wars, also complain about Obama's policies on torture and the wars. Obama and Bush's policies are not that different on these matters. So I am not talking about them. These complainers are consistent. It is the non-consistent folks that are really becoming unbearable.  It is difficult to say that it is not race that is driving this, but if it isn't race, then what is it? Because it is certainly not reason.

One of the biggest complaints I hear about Obama is that he is a big spender, "a tax and spend liberal," that he doesn't care about the deficit. This would be a legitimate complaint if these same people were not quiet during the Bush Administration and his spending policies.  Before Bush W., every war time president raised taxes to pay for their war.  W. not only didn't raise taxes, but cut them and he had two wars to pay for. So if they were so concerned about the deficit then why were they quiet when Bush did it. They also complain about how Obamacare will add to the deficit (which by most accounts may not), but they were quiet ... again ... when W. rolled out Medicare Part D which wasn't paid for at all. I am glad that thousands of senior citizens have their prescriptions paid for by Medicare, but with Bush cutting taxes this is another huge deficit expenditure being paid for by Treasury Bills being bought by China. Why weren't the so-called fiscal wonks screaming about socialism then?  Not a peep.

If you are concerned about the deficit, what is worse taxing-and-spending or cutting-taxes-and-spending? When you do your personal finances for your household, what do you do when your expenses go up.  Do you cut your income like Bush did?

I come to this conclusion today because I saw a conversation between two of Facebook "friends" of mine who are really only associates, not really someone that I have any reason to call friends. They were "outraged" over the death of the four Americans in the Libyan Embassy attacks. Obama's "cover-up," according to these two guys was bigger than "Watergate." So I agree, Obama doesn't look good here and this is quite a tragedy and a screw up.  But I knew both of these guys during the Bush Administration. When  the 9/11 attacks, I didn't hear outrage toward Bush for the thousands, not four, victims. Also, I don't remember the outrage when Bush declared an expensive war in Iraq (with thousands dead as a result) based on faulty logic. Putting this in perspective, their outrage over four is ... well .. offensive.

I have this analogy:  if a black man steals a dollar and he is arrested, then a white man steals a million dollars and heads look the other way ... wouldn't the first thing you think of be racism?  For the last four years, I have tried to cling to some other reason for their outrage. Now I am tired of being nice. Being nice isn't working. I know you all may know someone like these guys, I suggest you do the same. I agree Obama is not perfect and a disappointment, but he is still a thousand times better than the alternative.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Lying Liars and the Meta-World They Create

When someone lies to me, I just assume that they believe that the truth will not be acceptable.  I have heard people justify lying by simply saying, "if I told the truth, you wouldn't have responded how I wanted you to."  Like a teenager trying to get permission to go to the mall, a lie manipulates. When I hear a political candidate lie, it is understandable. The truth won't get them elected. Can you really lie about the future?  I won't raise taxes or I won't invade that country. It is only a lie, if they know they intend otherwise. It is the intent of the speaker that determines the lie, so they are often the only ones that know they are lying. But lately, the lies are all too obvious. You get to have your own set of facts and if you repeated it enough, it gets to have its own truth, a meta-truth. You can have your own perception of the facts, but the facts don't change. You can refuse to accept them if you find them inconvenient or painful. But unless, something new gets discovered, history doesn't change just because you don't like what it says.

The Jefferson Lies by David Barton was recently pulled from publication by it's publisher. The irony of its title doesn't escape me. The book is supposed to be about the lies that are told about Thomas Jefferson by mostly liberals and historians. But the book is just a bunch of lies about Jefferson portraying him as a Christian evangelical who promoted America as a Christian nation. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you were to line up all the American founding fathers and rate them on a graph of Christianity, Jefferson would be at the bottom. He was not a Christian but not an atheist either. He was a deist. He was an intellectual explorer and is hard to pin down but he was very clear on this point, he did not believe in the trinity. He believed that Jesus was perhaps the greatest person in history with John Locke and Isaac Newton close behind.  He coined the term "wall of separation between church and state."  He was clear on this as well.  Yet the Barton book states otherwise by quoting Jefferson out of context with sloppy research rewriting history to meet his preconceived ideas, his will and his agenda.

The book was pulled from publication, yet it is still be held up by many right wingers as proof that our nation is a "Christian" nation. The publisher of the book, Thomas Nelson (a Christian publisher), received a lot of pressure from inside the bubble and out. Christian scholars, Conservative scholars and Liberal scholars all agree on this ... this book is full of lies and inaccuracies. Among the other lies is a claim that Jefferson didn't emancipate his slave because Virginia state law at the time prohibited it and that Jefferson abhorred secularism. These are fabrications. Jefferson was an avid letter writer. We know what he pondered over.  This is not the first book that has attempted to rewrite history, but what I find interesting is that even though it is widely accepted as a lie, it is still be promoted on Glenn Beck show. Beck is also republishing the book and has used it at a source for "history courses" on his web site. Why do we tolerate this as a culture? I have been wondering for a while why Beck has any viewers, so I don't think I am going to explain this here. But it does seem that we like to be lied to. As long as the liar confirms our firmly held beliefs and doesn't challenge, we are just fine with it.

Today is Columbus Day in America.  Like the speed limit during rush hour, Columbus Day is one of the lies that we keep around for unknown reasons. It is the least celebrated of our national holidays but it is still out there. As kids we were taught that he discovered America in 1492, but can you really discover some place where people already live?  He wasn't even the first European to be here. The Vikings were here long before him. When he land in the new world, he wasn't even on what we now consider American soil. He never set foot on the main North American continent on all four of his trips.  On his first voyage he visited the Bahamas (he thought was Japan), Cuba (he thought was China) and Hispaniola. We are not even named after him, but after Amerigo Vespucci.  Why don't we have a Vespucci Day? You got me! We all know it is a lie but nothing is done about it.

The meta-world makes the lies possible because we are so used to them that we just shrug them off. When Paul Ryan goes in front of the Republican Convention and lies about everything, every single bullet point contains egregious lies... the lies were so obvious that you could easily check them yourself with an Internet connection and Google ... we just go on with our day. The recent Presidential Debate wasn't much better.  When they are arguing about economic nuances or wonky policy points ... eh! ... no big deal. But when we become so jaded as a populace that people can make a living out of lying about humanity's role in global climate change, it is very scary that our response is again ... eh!  Hopefully, our destruction is only a meta-destruction.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

My Blog's 5,000th Anniversary

I started blogging in 2007 and it was mainly a personal pursuit.  I like writing but I needed something to motivate me.  I definitely operate on "inspiration of deadline" that Larry Heinemann (novelist and one of my writing teachers) refers to. Without a deadline, I don't write. I am not like Toni Morrison who claims she writes at every waking opportunity, like on the subway and in line at the bank.  I need a push.  So a blog title that implies that I will blog everyday gives me that push.  I tried blogging everyday, not only didn't I have time but most of the posts were not very good or quite mundane.  I do learn something new everyday but most of the time it is not something that worth blogging about. So if you read the earlier blog entries you will notice that they are quite different than the newer entries.  Also, I decided a couple of years to personalize it more, so the newer entries have more about me than the older ones.

My blog (this blog) just reached 5,000 hits.  This is amazing to me.  Thanks to the tools on Google's Blogger, I monitor the number of hits and where they come from.  Below are the stats for all time, since I started in 2007.  This is only the top ten.  I have seen also hits in Yemen and Nigeria and in a lot other far away places.

United States
United Kingdom

Most people hitting my blog are using Microsoft's Internet Explorer in Windows (over 70%). Only 11% are using Macs and 4% using IPhones, hopefully not while driving.

My most popular post (with over 400 hits) is the entry I made on Neil Degrasse Tyson and the Titanic.  I attribute this to the film being released to IMAX last year.  Dr. Tyson is popular but somehow I think the film is the reason for these hits.  

It is interesting the second most popular post (with 229 hits) is an entry I did the same month as the Titanic post, November of 2011, the posting about the He's Dead Jim message that appears in Microsoft Windows when you power down your PC.  I remember being very annoyed with the stress that this message caused a friend of mine.

The most common search terms used to get to my blog is "shore of Tripoli reference."  This will bring you to my blog entry about the reference to the shores of Tripoli in the Marine's Hymn. My guess is that this entry is popular because of the events going down in Libya this past year.

The entry which I have gotten the most grief over is the posting I did about population growth back in 2010. If you look at the entry, you won't see all the comments I received about this post, this is because I got them on Facebook.  I share my blog with my friends and I get separate comments there.  I don't know if those hits are even counted by blogger.  Every person that commented on that entry is someone that I know that has kids.  It ended up being a pretty good discussion with the exception of the one woman who accused me of wanting to kill her kids which I chalk this up to either my lack of clarity or possibly a literacy problem. Nothing about killing any one's children appeared in the entry.

Going forward, I hope to hit 10,000 hits in a shorter time period than five years. I do realize that hits don't necessarily mean that someone is reading it.  Someone may get to my blog and then not even read it.  But since there is no way to measure actual readers, I will assume that most of them are actually readers.  

Saturday, September 29, 2012

They Might Be Giants

The difference between insanity and imagination is that insanity believes and imagination only considers.  At least, that's what I learned by watching the film They Might Be Giants.  This 1971 British film stars George C. Scott as a man, Playfair, who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes. He wanders the streets of London solving mysteries with his psychologist in tow, Dr. Watson (portrayed by Joann Woodward). It is not a great film, but amusing.  Like many films it makes mental illness into something to laugh at. The option in bad film seems that the mentally ill are either laughable or terrifying.

This film is a little better than that.  It at least attempts to make a distinction between the insane and the imaginative. In the film, Playfair references Don Quixote saying that the famous character from fiction was insane for thinking that the windmills were giants. He explains that insane people take things too far, while the imaginative mind only considers the possibility of the windmills being giants, doesn't believe it. Without the imaginative mind, we would probably still think the world was flat and would never have considered the possibility that the mold on bread could be used as medicine. The two characters in the film are a lot like Don Quixote and his travelling companion, Sancho Panza.  One delusions charismatic character on a quest with one grounded character that looks to the delusion with awe or in the case of the film, with love.  It is a case for charisma over logic, imagination over reality ... not different from how a groupie looks to their idol.

The alternative rock band, They Might Be Giants, got their name from this film. This doesn't surprise me much.. With songs like I Palindrome I and Particle Man, they do seem to straddle the line between creativity and insanity. It is probably this line straddling that allows them to make such good children's music.  Their CD Here Come the ABCs contains some of the best children's music I have heard. Because the songs are entertaining for both adults and children, they are the perfect music a young family to listen to.  The songs are fun, entertaining and quite ... imaginative.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Loneliness and the Radical

In hindsight, you have to wonder if the friends and family of terrorists see it coming.  Did Timothy McVeigh's friends sit around expressing concern over Tim's recent radical interests?  We know it was Ted Kaczyngski's brother who turned him in.  Imagine the thought process and soul searching that one would have to go through to come up with the conclusion that one's own brother is the Unabomber.  At the heart of these lost souls is loneliness. They are outsiders, but how did they get that way?  If it takes a village to raise a child, then what happens to that village when the child grows up? We abandon them at age 18 and send them to the wolves as under developed rugged individuals, easy targets for every wackjob paranoid group out there. They reach out, looking for a connection and cling to whatever sticks. Loneliness is the problem, not moral deprivation.

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut said many times how he'd would have liked to cure loneliness.  He thought if we cured loneliness, solutions to much of our other problems would fall into place. If you google Vonnegut and loneliness you'd come up with a good many quotes.  It is a common theme in many of his books.  His novel Slapstick (Lonesome No More) is not one of his better books but it is perhaps his funniest. He saw humor as a form of curing loneliness, connecting with a stranger and sharing joy.  The absurdist plot involves a pair of twins, Eliza and Wilbur, who are geniuses when they are near each but complete idiots when they are separated ... not many better descriptions of loneliness than that. Once elected president Wilbur attempts to end loneliness by assigning every citizen a new middle name and a number, like Daffodil-11, so wherever you go you have an extended family. Forever an idealist. He wrote this novel shortly after losing his sister and adopting her children. I guess he knew what he knew a little about loneliness.

Vonnegut may be oversimplifying, but may be onto something. His education was in anthropology. His absurdist extended families are similar to the clans of the Iroquois league. This league was like a United Nations of Native American nations which included the Mohawk, the Seneca and the Cayuga among others. The league once stretched from the southern Mid-Atlantic throughout New England and Eastern New York into southern Quebec. Within each nation there were clans the wolf, the turtle, the bear, the sandpiper, the deer, etc. If a Seneca member of the turtle clan traveled into Mohawk territory, they'd always had a place to stay with other members of the turtle clan. Very little in our culture compare to this. Strangers are feared, regardless of their names. The less different they look like you, the more they are feared.

Would we have a radical fringe if we were better at solving loneliness? Is it that simple?  Probably not. Perhaps we'd have less people walking into shopping malls and high school with their own personal armories, but it certainly wouldn't prevent the political radical. Or would it?  Is political alienation just another form of loneliness, caused by a lack of connection with the bigger picture or loss of investment in one's community. The McVeigh's or the Bin Laden's of the world may be beyond most of our reaches, but they weren't always that way. What should one do if someone you care for is all of sudden expresses interest in the Michigan Military or in the John Birch Society? Do you have such an effect on the people you know and/or love that you can change their minds? It is my experience that this is very hard work and involves lots of failure and headaches.

Many Middle Eastern cultures are famous for their extended family connections still identifying with tribes far more so than with nationality or occupation like those of us from the West. Yet political radicalism seems to be metastasizing.  Osama bin Laden's childhood was not an isolated one, his household was teeming with children.  He was the only child of his father's fourth wife. When Osama was a toddler, his father divorced his mother on a whim and gave her to one of his employees. Osama went from a household of many children to one where he was the only child. Three step siblings followed later but he was much older.  Both families were members of the Kendah tribe which has over 100,000 members.  When he was 14 his parents noticed his interest in religious had vigorously changed.  He stopped watching his favorite show, Bonanza, he prayed five times a day including at 1AM, he stopped playing soccer and became obsessed with news from Palestine. In high school he discovered the Muslim Brotherhood. If not for them, perhaps his radicalness would have been just a phase.  In 1994, while he was still in his 20's, the country of his birth, Saudi Arabia, had turned their back on him and his family had disowned him.  How many people in the family of several dozen or in a tribe of 100,000 tried to change his way?  If only they would have succeeded. How depressing it must be to be one of those people he knew when he was young that gave up on him ... like I would have done.

I don't purport to have a solution to radicalism. When I read over this, I notice that I have more questions than answers.  I just know that in the information age, a lot of ideas are out there ... a lot of good ones and a lot of bad ones. Our support networks are more important than ever. This month's Harper's magazine had a bunch of quotes from the surviving members of the Jones Colony.  All of them talked about how alienated they felt from society at large before they met Jones, how lonely. Reverend Jones made them feel loved. The lonely are vulnerable.  Those scary people that shoot up crowds, they are not evil, they are not the "bad guys" as the media likes to call them.  They are us. I invoke Vonnegut again "God damn it, you got to be kind."

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Why I'm Voting for Obama

A few years ago my wife and I went on a river cruise on the Danube in Europe. The cruise was English speaking so the passengers included people from around the English speaking world: Americans, Canadians, British, Australians and a New Zealander. We'd sit with a different group of people throughout the week at each meal and had some of the most interesting conversations I have ever had.  We met a Kiwi widow, an Aussie Episcopalian minister, and an Aussie artist among others. I wasn't expecting to enjoy the cruising portion of our cruise. I was expecting the day trips into Prague, Nuremberg and Vienna etc. to be exciting and the highlights of the trip, but I had no idea how much fun the meals were going to be. The bottomless glasses of wine certainly helped.

This was during the end of George W. Bush administration.  I don't think I heard one positive thing from a single non-US citizen about him on that trip. Genuine distaste was the prevailing impression you got whenever the subject came up.  The words "buffoon," "privileged," and even "retarded cowboy" were used. My usually response was, "I voted for Gore."  Much of the political talk was about Hillary Clinton and whether we thought she would win. At the time it seemed she was going to, but I remember telling some folks about a Senator from Illinois called Barack Obama. I got some blank stares. At the time he was a long shot and his name was out of the ordinary. I must have sounded like a weirdo.

I have to say that I was fairly excited about Obama when he first came on the scene.  He had the right message at the right time, but I was not a Pollyannaish about him.  I didn't think he'd become president and change everything overnight.  In the US the head of our executive branch doesn't have a lot of power.  The presidency has gained a lot of power over the years, but still limited. Because of that, change comes in increments, for the most part, this is a good thing. Presidents also have little control over the economy.  I wish people would stop blaming him for the bad economy.  Clinton didn't deserve praise for our booming economy, Bush didn't deserve blame for our crashing economy and Obama shouldn't get grief for its slow recovery.

I am closer to 50 years of age than I'd like to acknowledge.  When you get older your political views sharpen. The broad all reaching idealism of my youth has died.  I expect so little of my federal government that I have become a one issue voter.  Yet my one issue, the environment, is broad.  Environmentalism crosses-over a lot of other parts of our government: education, energy, health care, housing and labor. Government is not the solution to everything, obviously, but the environment is one of those issues where the Federal Government is perfectly suited to resolve. In a two party system, when I have to pick one party over another, the choice is obvious.  The Democrats are not perfect on this issue, but certainly win out over Republicans ... no contest.  It is difficult even to find a Republican who will even acknowledge that global climate change is being caused by humans, never mind to expect one to find creative solutions.

Before I start complaining about Obama, let me at least talk about his successes.  The big success of this presidency is Obamacare (really called The Affordable Health Care for America Act).  He spent much of political capital on this very early in his administration.  Most presidents, since Nixon, have tried to do something about our screwed up health care system.  He is the first to make any progress.  For those of you who say that the President should have tackled the economy before health care, you are wrong for three reasons.   (1) The first reason is what I already stated, presidents have little affect on the economy.  They can help it a little, they can hurt it a little ... but little is the key word here. (2) The second reason is that he had to tackle health care early because he had a Congress that was basically in his favor.  Historically, mid-term elections usually work against the incumbent President.  Considering how hostile and obstructionist the Republican party is, it is very impressive that he passed anything. (3) Health care is an economic issue.  A huge chunk of our economy is related to health care.  It affects everyone.  As a health care professional, I know how much money health care providers write-off because of the uninsured.  Also, you just have to visit an emergency room to see our health care problem in action. People without insurance, those who cannot afford it, know that they will not be turned away from the emergency room. So our ERs are full of people who don't have emergencies or if they had insurance, would have went to see a doctor before they had the emergency.   If you don't like paying for other people's health problems, well I got news for you, before Obamacare, you were already paying for them.  You were paying for them when the Federal and/or State government bail out of a failing hospital with your tax money and you were paying for them with higher and higher insurance premiums.  Obamacare is not perfect, but it would have been closer to perfect if we didn't have one political party obstructing progress.

Obama has had some other successes that I am happy about.  He opposed the Tar Sands Pipeline, signed the Lilly Ledbetter law, ended the war in Iraq and has approved of gay marriage.  But overall, his administration has been a disappointment. I despised the Bush administration. Obama's administration has been too much like Bush for me to stomach.  Like Bush his stimulus package contained too many tax cuts, and we're still in Afghanistan. Obama campaigned on openness but his administration is probably the most secret administration since Nixon. He has the infamous "kill list" which is not only unlawful and immoral but sets an awful precedent for the future.  He has not revisited the Patriot Act and hasn't closed Guantánamo .  All this being said, I'll be voting for him, but  I won't be writing him a check like I did last time. Romney doesn't seem that bad of a guy but the planet can't survive with another Republican in the White House. It doesn't matter what he believes, he has already made it clear that he will cow-tow to the crazy far right wing of his party and nowadays that is most of the GOP.  If Romney gets elected we're all screwed.