Monday, December 24, 2007

What would Jesus say?

Ronald Reagan's Cadillac welfare queen seems be part of the ur-unconscious of the right-wing mind. (Would it be unfair to call it the conservative racial memory? Perhaps.) She lives there in the psychic shadows, constantly ready to be rediscovered and to emerge on demand, in the hour of conservative need.

And so it came to pass, only recently, as I understand it, that Sharon Jasper, a resident in public housing in New Orleans, complained about missing window screens, a leaking sink, and high deposit charges and utility bills in her subsidized housing. This got the attention of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, such that they sent one of their photographers to look at her apartment. Given that a leaky sink will not put any news photographer in the running for a photojournalism Pulitzer, the photographer opted for a picture of her very large TV set instead.

Now, this TV set has excited a good deal of outrage in the conservative blogs, like Ross Douthat's, for example. And I myself saw the picture. The flat screen TV appeared quite large, though the wide-angle lens used exaggerated this somewhat.

But no matter. It was definitely a big television set.

The Lee Atwater-esque encoded message here (which right wingers with instinctive wisdom never feel the need to spell out and make potentially falsifiable) is that the overburdened taxpayer has paid for this TV set, or, if not and if the money was Ms Jasper's very own, then it should have been used for several months rent for non-subsidized housing. Absent such assumptions, indeed, why else would there be the outrage?

Well, let's assume for the moment that the Atwater-Rove message is true, just for the heck of it.

The important question to ask, then, in terms of the holiday tradition being celebrated even as I write (by all except secular enemies of Christmas and maybe a few Jews and Muslims and Buddhists), is "so what?"

I suspect Ross Douthat either belongs to, or in any case and for whatever reason psychically identifies with, an income bracket that has received an inordinate Republican tax break at the expense of the rest of us, not to mention at the expense of our children and grandchildren, and as such is either himself a greater burden to his fellow men than Ms Jasper, or admires men who are. Not to put too fine a point on it, Warren Buffet, second richest man in America, is in a much lower tax bracket than his secretary, who pays twice the percentage of her income to support George Bush's war than Warren Buffet does. Mr. Buffet was honorable enough to express outrage about this, but I doubt if any conservative bloggers have. I could be wrong, of course. I haven't read Ross Douthat's archives to find out about him.

But I digress. Getting back to the TV welfare queen, and to introduce a little perspective here, this being Christmas Eve, I went to the Good Book to say what Jesus might say about the matter. Assuming that, say, adultery might be considered even worse in conservative circles than ownership of a large TV set, Jesus' words to a mob agitated by a serious transgression against a conservative moral code might be instructive and apposite. "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

In fact Jesus seems like the kind of guy who would get more offended about wide-screen TVs in the houses of the rich than in the houses of the poor. Specifically, " is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Matthew 19:24

That's a pretty hard message for a conservative to hear, but they seem to have been diligently at work all these many centuries not hearing it.

And there's this: "Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you" again from Matthew. This would seem to prohibit those among the right wing who are actually Christians from being real soreheads about Ms. Jasper's subsidized housing.

In the spirit of the Season, I have to say that my overall impression is that Jesus was far more forgiving of the sinners than of those who obsess and rend their garments about the sin.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Newspaper of record

You'd think that Maureen Dowd had at last jumped the shark with her psychotic Hillary dominatrix column in today's New York Times, but I finally realized, reading it, that the shark can no longer be jumped by an American pundit. Modo's steamy mix of unknowing self parody, psychosexual obsession, bodice-ripperesque O-take-me-Rudy fantasy as politics has finally achieved the level of the unremarkable in political journalism. I guess I hadn't been paying attention. Tom Friedman's sophomoric "Obama needs a big swinging Dick as VP" column on the same page clinches it.

One weeps for the Republic.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Is this a great country or what?

Yesterday our born-again Manichaean president made his fourth trip to San Antonio to strut and preen before an audience of wounded and maimed soldiers at Brooke Army Medical Center. According to the San Antonio Express-News, he made a light vs dark speech where he said that "If you kill people to achieve a political objective or to advance an ideology ... you are nothing but evil." He was referring, of course, to "suiciders," not deciders.

"Bush spent almost two hours at the center chatting with wounded soldiers, including Pfc. Nicholas Clark, 26, of Seattle, around whom he wrapped his suit coat. Bush asked Clark, who lost his left leg below the knee in an ambush June 2 in Afghanistan, if he wanted to go home."

"No. I want to go back (overseas)," Clark said.

"Isn't this a great country?" Bush responded.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The hoverbot

The Washington Post has come out with a story about tiny flying robots which may be spying on, well, whoever. They had a photo of a robotic "fly" which was actually about the size of a wasp, resting on the tip of someone's finger. The robot wasn't shown in the air, and it was not clear that it was functional.

They also had a video which showed a flying robot "dragonfly" which did have two pairs of wings like a dragonfly, but the resemblance ended there: the robot was about the size of a great tailed grackle, and flew like a barnyard chicken that had gotten over a fence.

According to WaPo's informed sources, DARPA is also spending the taxpayers' money installing computer chips in moth pupae, hoping a bionic spy moth will emerge. They are also working with beetles, hoping to take control of living insects with inserted silicon chips.

Mention was also made of the threat of unrestricted flying robots to commercial air traffic.

The story concluded with speculation that tiny spy robots may already be airworthy and operational, mentioning various reports of odd looking dragonflies at peace demonstations.

I also have my inside sources, more credible perhaps than those of the Washington Post.

Here is the real deal, the CIA's secret spy bot. Called the hoverbot, it is about half an inch long, and contains a very, very tiny camera with an even tinier ultra telephoto zoom lens.

Hoverbot in action

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Ken Burns's War

Having watched the 16 hours of Ken Burns's war extravaganza, I have to say I thought it sucked. There was a lot wrong with it as art, which I will get to, but there was a deep moral hole at the center of it. The artistic failure and the moral black hole are related.

Nostalgic, sentimental, slow paced like an endless thanksgiving family get-together, and deeply invested in American exceptionalism, with a self-congratulatory and mawkish backward view of any mention of the evils of the time, segregation, for example, from an implicit we-are-much-better-now-thankyou viewer-supplied perspective, plus running through it all there was a kind of subliminal and in my view deeply dishonest crypto-triumphalism as contaminating background radiation. It was a succession of Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post magazine-cover pictures of war on the home front alternating with the attempted-realism of non-stop newsreel explosions, weary soldiers marching, more explosions, corpses, and more corpses, and mutilated corpses, and more of them too, all with the probably unintentional effect of deadening any real realization of the human meaning of it, with a voiceover of course, explaining it all.

Mention was made of the furor that arose when the first photos were published, in Life, I think, of dead American soldiers in Pacific beach sand. Those photos had impact because no one had yet seen them. To see 16 hours straight of death and mayhem and more death and more death yet deadens the moral instincts, assuming the viewers have any left after CSI Miami and the average American action-movie genre film.

This series was in effect a vaccine against a genuine apprehension of what that war or any other war really is.

The voice-over was almost unbearable--no cliche, bromide, nor hackneyed comfort-zone voice giving sonorous meaning to it all left undeployed, and most unbearable of all was Tom Hanks reading homilies from a Minnesota small-town newspaper. I hasten to say that the homilies themselves were not unbearable in their original context. They only became so in the context of this obscene celebration of The War.

Yes, celebration. Who does Ken Burns think he is kidding?

And the celebration was profoundly dishonest, in every which way from Sunday. (Tom Hanks could really say that well, I'll bet.) First of all, the idea of taking four towns as representative of America is folly. Hispanics got angry, with good reason, because there was not a Martínez or a Gonzales from any of these places, but four towns are by definition not representative. The project of painting these towns, in black and white mostly, as "America" is flawed and dishonest from the start.

What this was, was the construction of an idyllic myth of "America" brought together by this great (and I suspect in Ken Burns's view, wonderful) crisis, The War. Rosie the Riveter rolled up her sleeves. Civilians put their shoulders to the wheel. We put our differences aside. Fresh faced boys lined up to volunteer. All underwent great sacrifice, enduring hardship, death, and destruction to further our great project, victory, which brought us all together.

What crap! What unbelievable nonsense.

Burns inadvertently makes exactly those same observations about the Japanese and the Germans. The War was a great crisis that brought everyone together, everything subordinated to the cause of victory--but, given a view from the outside, he has no trouble seeing the downside of Japanese or German nationalistic fervor.

Our guys are heroes. The Japs are fanatics. This film should really be offensive to anyone not blinded by Ken-Burns-Americanism.

Burns also comes down pretty much on the side of those who claim the use of the atomic bomb was necessary, and quotes absurd hypothetical numbers of lives-that-would-have-been-lost. Half a million American soldiers. Hypothetical numbers are great to send into rhetorical battle.

He mentions, but only in passing, and without exploring it, the fact that the Japanese were actively trying to arrange a conditional surrender when the bombs were dropped. He does not mention that the one condition they required, and which we rejected, was the retention of the Emperor as head of state. When they surrendered unconditionally, we gave them the very thing they had been holding out for in their back-channel peace proposals.

Burns, who has no concept of irony, does not talk about this.

Burns does not say a word about the fact that the chairman of the joint chiefs, Admiral Leahy, opposed dropping the bomb. He does not mention that Eisenhower opposed it. He does not mention that Admiral Nimitz opposed it. He does not mention that Admiral Halsey opposed it. He does not mention that Admiral King opposed it. He does not mention that MacArthur opposed it. Most of them opposed it on old-fashioned moral grounds. Some, who knew how close Japan was to military collapse, opposed it on pragmatic grounds.

He does not mention that Einstein opposed it. Of course not. Einstein was not from Mobile, Alabama, or Laverne, Minnesota.

The millions of people who watched the final episode of this travesty went away knowing nothing of the historical issues surrounding the use of the bomb, and now think that it was a regrettable necessity.

That's very sad.

Why did I watch it, then? The personal accounts were fascinating, and were the main reason I stuck with it all the way through. I liked all the talking heads, even the couple of them who made the war into a springboard for some well-rehearsed crackerbarrel philosophy. They spoke, as the voiceover would have said, from the heart. Their words from the heart however were drowned out by the voiceover and the the explosions and the sturm und drang, courtesy of Ken Burns. These people were deeply deceived by Mr. Burns, in my opinion, because their relatively quiet and moving testimony was perverted to his toxic ends.

I liked most of the music, but again, it was misused to further Burns's terrible project.

I never saw Burns's Civil War, and I know now that I never will.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Maureen Dowd, glossed

The first bad thing about the lifting of the TimesSelect curtain is that Tom Friedman, Maureen Dowd, and David Brooks are no longer hidden behind a protective veil, and the second is that I, a retired guy with better things to do with his time, once again feel a certain compulsion to read them. My operative relapsed-addict emotion when caught by their columns is a kind of hair-standing-on-end fascination, like when you can't turn your eyes away from some TV horrorshow like CSI Miami (which is probably really bad for you, mental-health-wise, to watch.)

Friedman and Brooks are the ones who sometimes provoke me enough to write blog responses, but I have never quite gotten a handle on MoDo. For Dowd junkies I have the pleasure of recommending a blog entry at Bats Left Throws Right, where Mr. Doghouse Riley has compiled, at who knows what psychic cost, a handy Dowd glossary that is, well, both a work of profound psychological insight and a stunningly accurate lexicographical tour de force.

The good thing is that I am no longer dependent on the kindness of strangers for Krugman.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Reflections on 9/11

I think September 11, 2001, was my first day back at work. Ten days earlier my wife Kay had gone into the hospital with acute myeloid leukemia. She had been extremely sick when admitted, but by the 11th she had started chemotherapy and her condition had stabilized. The oncologist told us that Kay had a 50 percent chance of being cured. I knew by then that he was stretching the truth, but I have no doubt that his motive was to make Kay feel better.

I was sitting at my computer looking up stuff in medical journals about myelogenous leukemia, when I heard someone saying that the Pentagon was on fire and that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. The White House is under attack, someone said.

Oh, I thought. That's interesting. My concerns were elsewhere. That can't be true, I thought. And I went back to reading about blood cell cancer. We had no TV in my office, but someone turned on a radio, and slowly the scope of the attacks began to dawn on me.

I don't know if you remember, but there were rumors of more planes hijacked and possible attacks elsewhere. It occurred to me that I should be with Kay. I had only scheduled myself to work half a day, so I left early and went back to the hospital. Kay was watching TV in her room when I got there.

So, like everyone, we watched the towers explode in a fireball. Again and again. We watched the towers fall, and fall, and fall again. (I have never watched those images since then, and I probably never will. I can see them in my mind's eye if I want to--and I don't much want to.)

I didn't know anyone who died on 9/11. Nor do I know anyone who knew anyone who died on 9/11. I realized watching with Kay in her hospital room, still not totally sure she would survive in the short term and very uncertain about her longer term prospects, that 9/11 was very different for a few thousand people who died, and for family and friends who were left behind, than for the rest of us. It was a national trauma, whatever that means, but a lot of people since then tried to pretend to a level of grief that is not really theirs. That is not to say that the rest of us are not sincere in being shocked or horrified or angered by what we all saw.

There were a few thousand people who suffered real grief on 9/11. The rest of us were spectators. Kay's death eight months later was more real and terrible to me than a thousand 9/11s. That is the nature of actual grief, and actual death.

What I am leading up to is that there was and is a profound bad faith at the core of the political use of 9/11, mostly by Republicans, though they are not the only culprits. It's just that they have used it more cynically than anyone else, and with incredible and heart-stopping success. They used their own pretended grief and other people's shock and horror to further, and unfortunately to accomplish, their political agenda, which turned out to be pretty goddamn vicious and monstrous in almost every way possible.

I am not a conspiracy crackpot. Even though George Bush instantly appropriated 9/11 and used it for his own purposes, I don't think he engineered it, if only because he is not that competent. Nor do I believe he passively but knowingly let it happen. His popularity was dropping, and he may have been secretly praying for a terrorist attack, but I doubt if he really knew anything about it. He is a chuckle-headed if inflexible and authoritarian superannuated frat-boy, and frat boys don't bother their pretty heads about stuff like that.

The problem is what he did afterwards. I am not talking about hiding all day in a hole in Nebraska, or was it Kansas, I forget, though that was certainly revealing behavior on his part. What I am talking about is his wrapping himself in the flag and pissing on it from the inside as he defiled the the bill of rights and set about making his office one of an elected absolute monarch. No separation of powers for this creep. He stole the country, and used 9/11 as his burglary tool.

He is still doing it, as he conflates staying the course, as he calls it, with patriotism, and sends his flunky General Petraeus to take the heat for the White House authored put-up job bogus-numbers "Petraeus report" on the alleged success of the surge.

Interestingly, George Bush and Osama bin Laden both like to commemorate 9/11. Given that it made both of them successful beyond their wildest dreams, how could we expect otherwise?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Another anti-war vigil in Austin

War protest
About 300 people gathered late yesterday afternoon on both sides of the Congress Avenue bridge in opposition to the Iraq War. The people driving by overwhelmingly honked in support. I didn't see any expressions of disagreement, but I don't have psychic powers to intuit the motives of the honksters who did not wave or cheer. Certainly there was no overt hostility.

All in all, it was very peaceful, and a nice afternoon to be out on the bridge, but as far as I can tell the efforts of the Austin Statesman photographer, who was busy with several cameras, went in vain--I could find nothing this morning in the Austin newspaper about the event. He certainly took more photos than I, and I took 20 or 30. But the online Statesman sometimes buries or does not run things that are in the print edition, so perhaps I missed it (I unsubscribed to the print version a year ago, for political reasons.)

Clearly though, it was not a significant news event on a day when local news included a congratulatory piece on an Austin Statesman reporter winning third prize for an outstanding food-reporting story.

War protest

War protest

War protest

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Torture once again

Here we have Megan McArdle, a conservative columnist at, suggesting that those of us who oppose torture, possibly not including the columnist, should not use pragmatic arguments against torture by claiming, for example, that it does not work. She suggests that perhaps it does. Instead, she advises liberals, of whom she is clearly not one, to take the harder approach, and stand against torture on moral grounds.

McArdle, who previously wrote a blog under the pen name of Jane Galt, may perhaps be a fan of the the harder approach and the heroic pose on principle, if her taste in political literature can be admitted in evidence (she enjoys the novels of Ayn Rand, though she insists she is not, herself, an "objectivist," Rand's name for her socialist-realism stood on its head.) I find myself unfairly perhaps suspecting that if McArdle does in fact oppose torture on principle, it is because so many liberals oppose it for inferior and pragmatic reasons.

But, in any case, I agree with her that if we oppose torture, we should do so on principle, even as at the same time I have my doubts as to her bona fides as an advice-giver to liberals.

But is the legitimacy of torture something that is even a morally defensible thing to talk about? Is it a discussion we should actually have? Why do liberals find themselves invited--by right-wingers whom we are assured are earnest,philosophically-minded truth-seekers--to even talk about such a thing? Does the invitation to this intellectual soiree have another consequence, not to mention another purpose, than the unveiling of the Truth?

I am not suggesting a conspiracy, by the right. I am suggesting a fundamental flaw in the way these guys look at the world.

Let's take something similar. Suppose a right-winger proposes--and not in a Jonathan Swiftian way--that we seriously examine the case for murdering our children, and eating them, in times of hardship.

After all, 9/11 changed everything. And sometimes it works. Protein is protein.

Immediately we see the problem.

Now McArdle here in effect inserts in her by-the-way manner that really, if we _really_ oppose such cannibalism, we should do so because it is a bad thing, not because it doesn't provide calories.

Now, in the first amendment sense at least, I am not in favor of actually, legally, suppressing such a discussion. I suppose I am more in favor of a Mennonite-like shunning of people who wish to carry on that conversation with us. The only philosophical argument here, that I can see, is the case for rejecting such talk altogether, not the case for boiling and eating our children.

I suppose I would make a sort of slippery-slope argument, that the very consideration of that behavior--or for that matter, of torture--takes us closer to very bad things indeed.

At this point, someone wishing to be helpful, suggests that we should define our terms (we actually see this in comments to McArdle's blog.) What do we mean by killing and eating our children? Perhaps eating our children without killing them should be an acceptable thing to talk about. And so forth. Or to paraphrase some of the real comments, "Torture is a bad thing, agreed, but how about waterboarding?"

We see the slippery slope, here, already getting slid down.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Tlakaelel at Hueco Tanks

Tlakaelel at Hueco Tanks--1
Tlakaelel is important in the Mexica movement, an indigenist religious revival movement which began in Mexico City in the 1960s. It is organized, if that is the word, into highly independent local groups called kalpullis. Partly traditional, but tending towards syncretism, this movement tapped into Chicano identity issues in the American southwest, where the kalpullis have adopted a lot of US Native American religious ceremonies and beliefs. Over the years Tlakaelel, whose real name is Francisco Jimenez, has evolved a sort of pan-Indian ideology which has a Nahuatl mythological core, but a lot of ceremonial practices gotten from North American Indians.

A few years before her death, my wife Kay Sutherland, an anthropologist whose specialties included Native American rock art and meso-American religions, had concluded that a lot of elements of southwest rock art represented a fusion of Meso-American and native pre-Puebloan concepts. Through a complex series of events, this led some kalpulli members in El Paso to seek out her assistance in getting the Texas parks system to give their kalpulli the same status to conduct religious ceremonies at Hueco Tanks State Park as some US Native American groups had.

So she spent some time interviewing Tlakaelel, who is revered as an elder by most US kalpulli groups, and she took him to important rock art sites like Hueco Tanks. She came to feel that the kalpulli understanding of these sites was certainly as valid as that of the official Native American groups. Now, the parks department wanted only groups with historical cultural continuity with Hueco Tanks. Their concept of cultural continuity was simplistic, but hey, these people are highly politicized bureaucrats, and simplistic is all they know. Kay gave it a shot, but their basic prejudice (literally) was that these people are Mexicans reinventing themselves as Indians, a viewpoint completely at odds with Kay's anthropological training, not to mention her Jungian personal views of religion.

Anyway, Kay was sympathetic to the kalpulli, and presented a perhaps overly sophisticated argument to the parks people that all religions reinvent themselves all the time, and moreover that there was in fact a greater continuity of myth between the religious symbols found at Hueco Tanks and the contemporary belief system of the kalpulli than with the contemporary belief systems of some of the allowed groups. But no dice. The kalpulli lost.

So they conduct ceremonies in the desert outside Hueco Tanks.

I think these photos were taken in 2001. Tlakaelel would have been about 80 years old here. He has a certain personal presence, as you may be able to see from the pictures.

Update: Tlakaelel died on July 26, 2012.

Tlakaelel at Hueco Tanks--2

Thursday, July 19, 2007

For your amusement...

...and speaking of Senator Hutchison, when I was sending the remarks in the previous post to the senator, I found the following caption on her web page. It was under a photo of the back of a lot of heads in an auditorium looking at a woman in the distance who may be the Senator herself behind a podium, addressing them. "07.18.07 Senator Hutchison addresses the Christians United for Isreal Washignton Summit about America's friendship with Isreal."

I am sure this will be corrected at some point, if and when a literate person reads her web page and points it out. Perhaps I will send an email to the site administrator myself.

Update: I did email the site administrator, who, without privately thanking me or even acknowledging my message, fixed the caption. Republicans. But in fairness, I guess he or she could have been fired if the Senator, who is notoriously bad tempered with underlings, found out about it.

Another open letter to my senators

I occasionally get tired of sending unread pixels to gnomes in the offices of senators Cornyn and Hutchison, and post an open letter addressed to the senators from Texas on my blog so that they might, when surfing the web, run across it and read it here. Of course I also send it the standard way, along with an invitation for the senators (or designated gnomes) to comment, either here or by return mail. They never do, unless you count a form letter.

Dear Senator:

Having seen Michael Moore's film, I feel compelled to write to protest the awful medical system we have in this country.

The word "awful" is carefully chosen. This is the only country in the civilized world where people are _ever_ reduced to penury by medical bills. Only in America. Not only does this happen here, it happens routinely, even in cases where people have insurance they have paid for all their lives in good faith, believing it would actually be there for them when they got sick.

As you know it is quite common to have payment disallowed by insurance companies when major illness strikes. Indeed, and as you know, insurance companies employ large numbers of people whose sole _job_ is to find excuses not to pay when an insured person gets sick.

Republicans believe deeply in home ownership. As it happens, this is also the only country in the civilized world where people lose their homes because of medical bills. Medical bills are the major cause of personal bankruptcy in this country. Not only that, but because of the draconian bankruptcy laws (that YOU voted for, by the way, Senator) victims of illness now stand not only to lose their homes, but, once reduced to bankruptcy, will spend their old age (if they survive the illness, which in this country is less likely than in 36 other countries) in perpetual debt peonage to meet the requirements of their court-ordered payment plan, assuming of course they are able to hobble to Walmart to work as a greeter or stockboy.

What a brave new world you have created!

But wait--the rest of the world is not like this. I momentarily forgot. Sorry. This problem is one of the few items we can find still bearing the label "made in America." In France, and Britain, and every western European country, they spend half as much as we do on medical care, with better medical outcomes. Half as much money. Better outcomes.

And faster service.

Contrary to insurance company propaganda, in all of these countries except Canada they have a _shorter_ wait time for elective medical procedures than we do. (In Canada it's about the same as here.) And nobody at all goes bankrupt because of medical bills in Britain, France, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, get the picture...or even in Canada.

Wow! How do they do that?

Well, I have a suggestion as to how. Here's my proposal. Why don't you extend the, um, "socialized" medical care you receive as senators to the rest of us? Senators and members of Congress have a very good taxpayer funded medical plan, which is comparable to what ordinary citizens have in France. I have seen the details of your plan. It's exceedingly gold-plated--for the United States, although, of course, it would be entirely normal elsewhere.

This issue is kind of personal for me, actually. A good friend of our family died a few years ago because she had no insurance and could not afford to see a doctor until she got very sick, at which time it was too late to cure the cancer that killed her--which is routinely cured if caught early. She was the sole support of two children. She worked as a waitress. Her excuse for her negligence? She had to put food on the table and come up with the rent for a roof over their heads. Obviously, in retrospect, she should have let them go hungry for a week, and perhaps even gotten herself and her children evicted. That would be the Republican way.

Maybe there's a better way, senator. The system that you and your friends have built (for the rest of us, not for yourselves), sucks. It's time to change it.


Jim McCulloch

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Dulce et decorum est

So here I am minding my own business on Flickr, where I have sequestered myself lately, looking at and enjoying other people's excellent photos, and in going through new photos on one of the groups that usually has wonderful pictures displayed, mostly of nature, I find a photo of a tattered stars and stripes against a stormy sky, with the caption "Remember the children..."

This is the day after Scooter Libby has been pardoned by The Decider in Chief, and the day before the Fourth of July, so it briefly occurs to me that politics will rear its ugly head for good or ill, probably ill, but hey, let's not jump to conclusions yet. Maybe it's an ironic comment on justice in America, where Scooter walks and merciless and often draconian sentences are meted out to the lower orders, who of course have no friends in the White House.

So with a deep sigh, I read the long entry that followed the ellipsis, which quickly fulfilled my intuition that we cannot escape right-wing political hectoring, in this case dipped in syrup, even when we are innocently looking at online photo galleries. "Some of us have highs, others lows, but really, what have we done for those who have lows unavoidable? Those away, serving, what have we done for them, for their families, for their children."

What indeed? So far, it looks like we have posted a photo an American flag. This person, who btw likes to upload photos of monster trucks crushing natural beauty under enormous tires, goes on:

"what are we doing on Independance Day to remind those children of military parents that the sacrifice they give is also as worthy of the ones their military parents give. Remember those kids who dads havent seen them graduate, havent seen the prom dress, didnt get to walk them down the aisle, havent had the first dance, missed a baptism, werent there for a birth, a first step, a first word, a first smile.

Remember those in the Services who didn't volunteer when there parents did....remember the children. "

Well, in answering the question, which our flag waver does not actually do, other than proposing remembrance and a sort of involuntary enlistment for them, I suppose that since those children already have the folded-up flag the government gave them, they have no need of flag photos, nor of reminders that dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, nor saccharin pieties and sappy bromides.

What was this guy thinking?

You know, there's not a lot you can say to someone whose father or mother has been killed in Iraq, whether that father or mother was an American soldier or one of the 600,000+ Iraqi civilians killed so far. "I'm sorry," (if sincere) is certainly appropriate. I don't know what else you can say.

But now that I think about it, I suppose that monetary reparations would be a good thing--even though obviously morally and psychologically insufficient--in that a chunk of money would at least be a practical help to survivors. The sums could conceivably be quite ample, if taken out of the profits of Halliburton and Blackwater and all the other mercenary corporate profiteers swollen like parasites with the rewards of war.

And maybe some of the superpatriots could sell of a few of their monster trucks and all-terrain vehicles and donate the proceeds to the children of the war dead. Anything helps.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Where have I gone?

I have mostly been ignoring the impulse that leads to the leaden and pedestrian (if sincere) prose you see in the movie review below, or to incendiary political rants, and taken me and my camera out in the world to take pictures of it, at the moment mostly photos of the natural world, though that may change. And I post them on Flickr, if anyone is interested in seeing lots of dragonflies and butterflies.

Regardless of the quality of the results, I seem to enjoy this hobby a lot more than writing blog entries, hence I put up a lot more pictures on Flickr--more or less daily, depending on the weather--than posts on the blog. I do try, at least occasionally, to put a little bit of explanatory (or exculpatory) writing under the photos, though, lest anything think I have slipped entirely under the spell of the visual.

So, even though the blog is still in business, please don't stay tuned here on a daily basis. But if you check back every couple of weeks, you might find something new.

Saturday, June 23, 2007


In this movie Michael Moore does just what he has done in the past, only better. He presents a very, _very_ simple point that most Americans agree with.

Actually, several very simple points. It's wrong to let people die or suffer because they are poor, or because they are uninsured. It's wrong for insurance companies to hire people whose sole job is to find excuses to deny coverage to people who _are_ insured, or at least who had believed themselves to be insured, till they got screwed out of coverage by their insurance company. It's wrong for people to lose their homes because of medical bills. It's wrong for the richest country in the world give 50 million uninsured people rotten medical care, or none, and simply throw them to the wolves when it comes to illness. It's wrong for hospitals to dump a confused and indigent patient, barefooted and wearing a hospital gown, on a Los Angeles skid row because the woman had no insurance. You see her wander around, dazed, in the street, after being put out of the taxi--all captured by a security surveillance camera. It's a pretty strong image.

And it's wrong for us to spend twice as much per capita on medical care as any country in the world, apparently to have that spending go to profits for insurance companies rather than treatment of illness--such that we are 37th in the world in the overall quality of our medical care.

Because Moore presents things very simply, and powerfully, he places those who disagree in the position of having to excuse obvious inequities, iniquities, and injustices, as well as outright medical atrocities like having to decide which finger you want to save, of two you have sliced off, based on the size of your savings account.

The more complex and convoluted the apologies for this sort of thing are, the deeper the hole the apologists dig for themselves.

He's unfair, of course. What he does is something the right wing has always done, and always been good at, but which they do in a much more dishonest way. Given that the Right thinks of their kulturkampf as a war, not a discussion, Moore presumably believes he is justified in coming back at them in the same way. It's kinda refreshing, if you believe in his message, to see a man of the left being both unfair and really effective.

But the Cuba business was probably a mistake, because it gives the Right an opening to change the subject. Alas, Moore can never resist a stunt. Fox News has already referred to the treatment Moore's sick people got in Cuba as Potemkin medical care. But the damage Moore does to himself here is confined to people who do not see the film. Those who do see it will still agree with Moore's basic points even if they suspect that the Cuban medical care shown was more than what an ordinary Cuban would get. The trouble is, a lot of people will not see the movie, and will get their review of it not from me, or someone like me, but from Fox and Rush Limbaugh.

In any case, Moore is not at all unfair, and is not pulling a stunt, when he compares Canadian, British, and French medical care with our own. At least half the movie is a demolition of the claims right wing propagandists have made for half a century about medical care in these three countries. In one nighttime sequence he goes on house calls with a French doctor. House calls. The French spend _half_ as much as we do on medical care, pay their doctors very well, have better medical outcomes, and can still afford to pay doctors to visit patients in their houses!

When was the last time a doctor came to your house?

How can a right winger argue with this? Only by changing the subject, preferably to something about Cuba. Even that is dangerous. Cuba is a third world country that has been subjected to a severe embargo for 40 some-odd years. Whether Moore's sick people got Potemkin medical care or not, ordinary Cubans do live as long as we do, and more Cuban babies survive infancy than American babies. Overall, Cuban medicine is ranked 39th in the world, slightly behind us. Remember, we are number 37, although, as some of us are fond of saying, we are the richest country on the planet.

Friday, June 22, 2007


This South Congress sidewalk photo was taken at the most recent First Thursday, which was an originally spontaneous Austin street event which is now semi-institutionalized but highly variable in turnout, sometimes very extravagant with large crowds, or sometimes sedate, like this one, hard to tell from the normal South Congress sidewalk scene except for clumps of enthusiastic capoeiristas, occasional street musicians with forlornly open guitar cases with a few dollar bills floating inside, a couple of vacant lots with tentsfull of renaissance-faireish craft vendors, and an occasional street preacher.

The women in the foreground have just each been handed a multi-page tract dense with King James Bible quotations set in 6 point type. The preacher seems to be a fresh-faced country boy hard beset by sin. He is not wearing a kevlar vest, though it might appear--sorry for the quality of the photo--that he is.


Saturday, June 09, 2007

The strange case of General Patriotboy and his lynch mob

Lately the dovecotes of liberal Blogistan have been fluttered by the Nashville Is Talking incident. I was alerted to this by Chris Clarke's blog, Creek Running North. A local blogger in Nashville (, Brittney Gilbert, well known for her stalwart liberal views, posted, under the heading Teaching Libs a Lesson, a particularly vicious piece of work from a right-wing, racially ante-bellum blogger called Smantix, which exulted in Steve Gilliard's death.

It was in fact so nasty that one would either assume that Ms Gilbert was herself an insane racist who agreed with this, or else that she was holding up to her readers a particularly dreadful piece of trash, illustrating what kind of person this Smantix character was. And in fact, regular readers of Nashville is Talking knew that the latter was the case, because Ms Gilbert was well known to detest Smantix, who is apparently notorious in Nashville for such beyond-the-pale stuff.

Her blog actually posts a lot of stuff without much comment, relying on the readers to either have common sense, or the initiative to find out context and meaning for themselves. Her paid gig as a blogger, under the auspices of a Nashville TV station, according to a video she posted in February, prior to the uproar, is in fact to function as an aggregator of other Nashville blogs, with some comment or opinion from her. Apparently she had in fact commented on Smantix and his views in the past. She neglected to do so this time.

Problem is, you have to spell stuff out for fundamentalists. Trouble is on the horizon.

Soon a liberal blogger called Patriotboy who usually posts under his other pseudonym of "General J. C. Christian, Patriot" (who is moderately well known, and who considers himself--in his own Haloscan comments, at least--an "A-list" blogger,) happens upon the Smantix screed.

Oh, my. He goes nuts. He denounces Ms Gilbert. He writes her employer, and the blog's advertisers, trying to get her fired. Not only that, his devoted what-he-said following apparently did likewise, and filled the comments to her blog with, well, poorly considered remarks.

General Patriotboy himself, who was soon informed that Ms Gilbert was a liberal and that she was well-known to dislike Smantix and everything he stands for, is now in a quandary. Shall he back down? Well, he does, in the sense that he removed the contact information for writing her employer. Evidently he regarded this as a retraction of his request that she be fired. But he redoubles his vituperation, as do his troops.

He adds an update to his original post. In it, he asks her to apologize. His request was phrased as "Apparently, Brittney is just plain fucking stupid." That kind of request for apology generally is not perceived as such.

This is probably what set off the firestorm. Now people were going to the General's blog and accusing him of being a sexist bastard. The general denied this, and I am willing to take him at his word, but unlike Ms Gilbert's clear statement that she finds Smantix's words abhorrent, the General refused to retract his remarks about "Brittney," but continued to maintain stoutly that he was not a misogynist.

You can draw your own conclusion about that.

And the troops continued to accuse Gilbert of stupidity as well as racism, in her blog's comments, as well as in the General's.

One of them asks, "Is she at the local Klan meeting or is she dropping the kids off at Nazi Youth Camp?”

Another asks, “Brittney, Brittney, Brittney: What are we going to do with you kitten?”

Another lets her know of her perils if she travels to Canada. “In Canada, Brittney and her colleagues could be considered criminals under the Criminal Code of Canada as it states that ‘anyone who incites hatred of an identifiable group or promotes hatred is guilty of a criminal offense and will be imprisoned for two to five years.’"

Another says, “Brittney, what a monster you are.”

Another: “You’re a bigot, there are millions like you, everybody knows it, case closed.”

Another: “Either Brittany is an idiot or she’s got a serious racism jones. Well, actually the two are not mutually exclusive. There are far too many people with Brittney’s skill set currently working in media and government, perhaps she should consider a different career path.”

There was a lot more like that.

Ms Gilbert quit. She said essentially that this was the last straw; she had been thinking of leaving anyway, she wasn't thick-skinned enough for this kind of abuse, and goodbye.

Well, you can imagine what happened then. I checked in at General Patriotboy's place, and the comments were far from universally favorable, though the General's faithful did step up to the plate. And more. One of them, indeed, goes so far as to write the dean and the student newspaper and the supervising professor of a UC Irvine PhD student who had disagreed with the General and his throng, accusing the student of being a white supremacist, which was self-evidently the opposite of the case. This tattling had the intent of--well, it's unclear to me. Getting the student thrown out of school? I don't know.

At last count there were 265 comments in the General's blog on the whole business, including a few of my own, which I regret. There are also a great many other blogs, including Creek Running North, and now this one, expressing some opinions on the matter.

I guess what I find appalling in this is being forced to a renewed awareness that there are a lot of people nominally on my side, that I don't want on my side. I cringe.

In fairness to the General--although it's hard to be fair to him, because he has carried it out to a degree where that's difficult for me to do--I can understand his outrage at the offending Smantix filth. I guess at that point we part company, because if I ran across something that vile, I know I would have tried to find out if it was being held up as something awful, or if the blogger agreed with the quoted material.

In Brittney Gilbert's case, that would not have been very hard.

Monday, May 28, 2007

How do you know when...

This is pretty local and arcane, but people in Texas who have been following the recent events in the Texas House of Representatives will know what I am talking about.

An old bad joke made worse (something Texas politicians are good at):

Q: How do you know when Tom Craddick is lying?
A: When Terry Keel's lips are moving.

When the people of the state declined to make Keel a judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, they forgot to drive a stake through his heart.

OK, I suppose I should explain this. It's simply too obscure.

Terry Keel was my rep in the Texas Legislature. Although (because of gerrymandering) he represented what was considered a safe Repub seat, his ambition led him to run for higher office. Whether because of his haircut, which, though comic, is a trivial issue but probably the deciding one, or because of his politics, which combined an opportunism he is unable to conceal with an extremism which down-home Republican extremists probably suspected, unjustly, was merely simulated, he lost.

Cheers arose from all of us who have had anything to do with him. A Democrat won the seat he vacated. Hurrah!

Meanwhile, the speaker of the Texas House, Tom Craddick, a minor league henchman of Tom Delay, was running into difficulty with his own party in the Lege because of his high-handed ways. I don't know the details of why--his arrogance, favoritism, and stupidity have not changed and have not harmed him in the past so I see no reason why they should suddenly do so now--my guess is that backroom backstabbing is involved--but anyway a revolt broke out and a head count showed he did not have the votes to keep his post. So, his response to this situation was to fire the Parliamentarian (a paid official) whose job was to make sure parliamentary rules were followed, and he hired an unemployed pol, the selfsame Terry Keel mentioned above, as a replacement.

The reason quickly became apparent. One thing that Craddick is not, is quick on his feet. In fact he is possibly the most inarticulate and witless politico this side of George Bush himself. You have not seen a deer in the headlights until you have seen Tom Craddick attempt to answer an unfriendly question. Keel, on the other hand, though creepy beyond belief even without his black cape, is smart.

So for the duration of the (failed) revolt, about 3 days, those of us with enough curiosity to tune in on the local access channel which had the Lege live, could see someone raise a point of order, and Craddick would turn to Keel, Keel would speak in slow three or four word phrases (the limit of Craddick's short term memory, apparently) which Craddick would repeat verbatim on the mike. The world's worst puppet show.

In this way, Keel orchestrated a refusal to recognize any motion whatsoever to remove the speaker. And the orchestration was successful. I fear that Keel will go far.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Zen of dragonfly photography

The word zen, which arrived in Japan after a complex millenia-long meander through East Asia of ever-more-mispronounced Sanskrit, means meditation. I have practiced Buddhist meditation, in one way or another, for more than 30 years. I do still sit in meditation, but i prefer to bring a certain amount of zen to my ordinary life--though the preference does not necessarily imply success in the project.

I find dragonfly and butterfly photography very meditative, unlike regular attendance at my local zen meditation hall, which requires 12 miles of driving on Interstate 35, each way. The drive hones your survival skills, assuming you survive, but in general is unmeditative in either direction, regardless of whatever degree of spiritual awakening you may have arrived at in the interlude between each half of the commute.

I actually like to sit zazen (which redundantly means sitting meditation) at home, and (rarely nowadays) at my local zendo, but the drawback mentioned keeps me from doing the latter much. Before I retired, my work was in the same part of town as the zen center, so since I was already in mid-town Austin, it made sense to go pretty regularly. If I went to the evening zazen after work I could look forward to sitting crosslegged on a cushion looking at a wall for 40 minutes--not for everyone, I realize--and in recent years, not for me, because of hip stiffness, so I sit seiza instead of crosslegged, that is you sit on your ankles, ideally with the aid of a cushion or a small bench made for the purpose. Then I would drive home after rush hour, which generally involved less adrenalin than the 5 o'clock traffic itself does.

Zen Buddhists also do a kind of walking meditation called kinhin, which, for Soto Zen practitioners (my local zen center is Soto, not that that matters) is a slow motion one foot per breath deal that is vaguely silly looking, as in fact almost everything you see or hear in a meditation hall is, come to think of it. However, when I walk in the woods and spot a dragonfly I want to photograph, an unbiased observer would say that my movement at that point would look even sillier than kinhin. Certainly the movement is even slower. I have this superstition that if I manage to approach the dragon (that's what we call them) or the damsel (ditto) or the butterfly in the right state of mind, I will not scare it off. Empirically, that's probably not correct. But then, on the other hand, when I do scare it off, a moment's reflection convinces me I was in the wrong frame of mind.

That is how how superstition is maintained.

Almost as much as walking in the woods and taking pictures, I find processing the pictures to be meditative as well. The zen of photoshop.

The photo below, of a calico pennant, possibly embodies a little bit of both.

Calico pennant

Monday, May 14, 2007


At this writing it is still uncertain whether the Texas Legislature, exercising its Texas-size and legendary unwisdom, is going to pass a poll tax surrogate in the form of a voter ID bill, requiring would-be voters to prove they are citizens. We'll see. A lot of Republicans, in the course of what passes in the Texas Capitol for debate, have been bleating piteously about the danger to our way of life posed by noncitizens swamping the polling places.

A lot of Democrats, and indeed many other reasonable people, have been flummoxed by the this episode of Vote Fraud phobia. Elsewhere in the country, we see a certain manic quality, for example, in the Republican explanation for the wholesale firing of federal prosecutors, that the fired prosecutors didn't show enough zeal in prosecuting vote fraud. The official excuse is beyond strange, because there is no evidence that vote fraud had occurred significantly in the bailiwicks of the fired prosecutors, or indeed, had occurred at all.

So what's up with that, one wonders.

The problem from the POV of the Bushies is not "vote fraud," but instead the more pressing and serious danger of "votefraud." "Votefraud" is pronounced sternly as a single word, and is a dogwhistle Republican code for the franchise when exercised by Democrats.

And as you will recall the Republicans have striven mightily to prevent votefraud, most notably and successfully in the 2000 Florida election, when, at the behest of Jeb Bush, many thousands of black voters who were in fact eligible to vote were put on a list of people to be turned away from the polls. The votefraud of these black voters was twofold; first, that their names resembled those of released felons who, under Florida law, were not supposed to vote; and secondly and more importantly, that black Florida voters traditionally vote about 9 to 1 in favor of any Democrat.

So, even though massive votefraud occurred anyway, such that slightly over 50 percent of Florida voters cast their votes in favor of Al Gore, the votefraud suppression list made the results close enough that Governor Jeb could ask the Supreme Court to intervene to appoint his brother president, to prevent the additional votefraud of a recount.

It was too close a call, and they didn't like it.

So we can see why votefraud is an ever-present concern of the Bush Administration. Once you understand the nature of the problem, it's obvious why prosecutors, even Republican-appointee prosecutors, would be fired if they were unwilling to interrupt the investigation of crime and political corruption to pursue the politically urgent matter of Democrats voting.

And given that many of prosecutors all around the country were actually doing their statutory (as opposed to political) job, it's not a bit surprising that Karl Rove wanted to fire them one and all, clean house and begin anew, kind of like God dissatisfied with his own handiwork, to start over again, in this case with a Justice Department arkfull of the faithful few and a lot of dumb animals--though if Mr. Rove had been in charge of the actual Biblical Ark, he would have brought on board a lot more sheep than the letter of the Law allowed, for who could wish to see the Texas Legislature drown?

Monday, April 30, 2007

Quote of the day

"We don't really have extremist groups here," he said. "This is the heart of the Bible belt."

--Lufkin (TX) Police Sgt. Stephen Abbott, quoted in the Austin American Statesman.

This remark was in regard to a guy from Lufkin named Paul Ross Evans, who was just arrested for planting a bomb at an Austin abortion clinic.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

The old Caldwell County Jail

My intention today was to take photos at a couple of old Mexican graveyards, but I ended up in taking pictures of an abandoned jail instead. (Notice that I avoided the cheap writerly temptation to say I ended up in jail. It's not often I have such discipline.) The old Caldwell County jail is in Lockhart, Texas, and was in use from about 1910 until 1982. It's a kind of jail you used to see in little towns all around Texas. They have mostly been torn down, and replaced with facilities no doubt just as inhumane, if not more so, but more comfortable for the staff and harder to break out of, allegedly.
The old Caldwell County jail, Lockhart, Texas
(All photos can be viewed larger on Flickr.)

This is actually a very small building. I didn't count the, um, beds, but I'd say the place could have held 15 to 20 very crowded prisoners at one time. The jailer and his family lived on the ground floor. The two floors above were where most of the prisoners were housed, and there was a place for a gallows in a stairwell space between these two floors. The gallows was removed in the 1930s without ever having been used, according to the woman who ran the museum now housed in the jail building. The fourth floor was a single room used for solitary confinement. It was actually a lot roomier and nicer than the other cells, and it had a view. For all the other cells, there was an observation corridor used by the jailer that stood between the cells and the windows so the prisoners could not really see out.

The museum is a local history museum with the excellent odds and ends that I have come to expect from local history societies--a sword from the Civil War that belonged to a local worthy, a saddle from the Chisholm Trail along with a gallery of portrait photos of Chisholm Trail cowboys, an Edison phonograph with a hand crank, someone's piano, a local doctor's turn of the (20th) century bedroom furniture, et cetera. I love stuff like that, and the museum proper--i.e., the ground floor jailer's quarters--was full of such things. But to my surprise, the public is allowed to go upstairs and through the old jail itself, which is pretty much unchanged since 1982, except dingier and the paint as now all peeling, and plus there is no bedding on the steel beds.

There was a photo in the museum of the first sheriff to run this jail, above a display case which held his brass knuckles. He was murdered walking over the railroad tracks between the courthouse, two blocks away, and the jailhouse. I speculated that the brass knuckles might have had something to do with the unsolved murder, but the museum lady seemed to think it was courthouse politics gone very severe.

In any case, you don't want to go to jail in Caldwell County. At least not then, and probably not now.

Photos follow:

Common room. What you see on the opposite wall is a sink, not a urinal. Both the second and third floors had very low headroom. It looks like they painted over graffiti with metallic paint every few years, but when the jail was abandoned they seem to have left the last wall-writings untouched.
Common room, Caldwell County jail

Beyond the door is a 2 person cell, about the size of a broom closet. There are two steel bunks in there. Some cells were bigger than others, leading me to remember that the jail was almost certainly racially segregated. I didn't ask the museum woman, but I suspect that the smaller cells were for racial minorities.
Two-person cell in the old Caldwell County jail

This is solitary, on the 4th floor. As I mentioned, it is more spacious than the other cells.
Solitary confinement cell, Caldwell County jail

This is the view from solitary.
View from Solitary, old Caldwell County jail

Jailhouse wisdom. This is actually not original to the graffitist--it's a quote from Bernard Meltzer, a radio show host from the 1960s through at least the 1980s. Maybe the jailer put it there for the comfort of the prisoners, though I doubt if jailers were encouraged to write on walls.
Jail graffiti, old Caldwell County jail

This graffito is more mysterious, but seems more authentic--as you can see it was first written in pencil and then recopied more legibly by the spider artist.
Jail graffiti, old Caldwell County jail.

This cell contained "El Vato," which might be translated as anything from "The Dude" to "The Badass." El Vato may have been the same as person as "a la pinta Arturo Acosta." "A la pinta" would mean " on the way to the pen."
El Vato, old Caldwell County jail

Finally, a jail corridor, for atmosphere.
Corridor, old Caldwell County jail

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Remembering a mass murder

I was on the University of Texas campus on August 1, 1966, when Charlie Whitman started shooting people from the university tower. I had graduated from UT 2 years before, had lived in San Francisco after joining the Army reserves, and had just returned to Austin. I was unemployed, trying to decide whether to go back to San Francisco, and was hanging out in the student union (already a slacker.)

I heard banging noises which sounded like they were coming from the courtyard between the student union building and a library building. It was an odd sound, and for some bizarre reason my mind finally concluded it was someone cracking a whip there. Never mind that I had never in my time as a student seen anyone cracking a whip on the University of Texas campus, or anywhere else in Austin for that matter--it was somehow what I thought. And I thought nothing more about it for several minutes.

The whip cracking continued. I idly decided to see what was going on, and walked over to where I could see the courtyard. No whip cracker, but the noise continued. Someone came running down the student union hallway and said that a guy had been shot while riding a bicycle on the Drag, as the main street on the west side of the campus was called.

I heard somebody else say someone was shooting from the tower.

So, naturally, I went to the nearest window in the student union building where I could see the tower. I stood there in the middle of the window, along with several other people, and I could clearly see Whitman with his rifle. He was shooting over the tower parapet at that time. (Later, when police and deer-hunter citizens started shooting back, he began shooting from some port holes under the stone parapet.)

It should have occurred to me that if I could see Whitman clearly, he could see me clearly. But that thought did not enter my head. I decided to make room for others to gawk, and as I moved away from the window, Whitman shot someone who had been standing next to me. There was a big commotion, and all I could see was that someone fell down, people ran away from the window and they pulled the wounded person away. That wounded person lived.

Nobody stood in the window after that.

I didn't know any of the people killed, though one of them was the son of a professor I liked.

I was staying with a friend of mine who was a grad student in biology. He and his wife and I went to see a movie later that day, in the middle of the afternoon, a comedy, I think, though I remember nothing about it. I remember sitting in the dark in an old-fashioned downtown movie theater paying no attention to whatever was on the screen. Sitting in the dark for 2 hours watching a movie none of us paid any attention to seemed to make us all feel better.

The murders were very shocking to me--more so even than the one yesterday in Virginia, though probably that was because I happened to be present at the UT tower shooting. Still, I wonder if my impression that a crime like that was more unimaginable then than now, is true. That the mere fact that crimes like that are more imaginable, makes them more possible?

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Low-impact crusade

Over at Meanwhile Back at the Ranch Idyllopus is (gently) criticizing No Impact Man, whose blog which consists in a running journal of a low impact Manhattan lifestyle. As a Zen guy, I like paradoxes like the juxtaposition of "low-impact" and "Manhattan." Plus as a bonus (for me) no impact man currently has a somewhat bizarre discussion of Nansen's cat, an infamous koan. (Technical detail: NIM uses the Korean spelling of Nansen, I use the more common Japanese spelling. In present-day Pinyin it would be Nanquan.) NIM seems to think that the cat is the planet. It's unclear to me whether NIM considers that he is the Zen maniac who, as a test of the monks (metaphorically, one presumes) kills the cat, or that his critics are the killers, or both. That's very Zen.

I don't have any criticism of a low-impact lifestyle. I am pretty low impact myself, but it's a function of being Low-Income Man, plus maybe some remote Scottish stinginess inherited from my forebears, operating scarcely diminished at a remove of 300 years.

It seems to me very American of us to make saving the planet into a personal and moral quest, like NIM does. America, in our minds, should still be a City on a Hill, a new Jerusalem (never mind that the reality of America, from the beginnings till now, ought to disabuse us of such notions.) And if we are gonna be worthy of being among the elect, we must be strenuous in the pursuit of personal goodness. Who can object to that? I certainly don't. I like good people, and the low-impact crusaders are good people, by and large. As an old hippie, I have personal memories of earlier such children's crusades. I was a part of them. I still cherish the worldview we had. I am not cynical about the motives of the children. They may have been the finest children in the world.

The problem is that it won't save the planet.

The tragedy of the commons works on all scales, from an individual to an international level. Personally and locally, if I use less gasoline, it increases the supply, and lowers the price to Hummer owners, who drive more. Internationally, if the US as a nation decreases gasoline consumption, it increases gasoline availability for others, which leads to a decrease in the price of gasoline in, say, China, where in response they build more cars and highways, and drive more.

Likewise, Jevons's paradox is a related problem. William Stanley Jevons first noticed that the increased efficiency of Watt's steam engine over the earlier Newcomen engine led to more coal being burned, not less. It's intuitively obvious to us why this is so, but it was a puzzle to economists. Increased fuel efficiency of cars will not, of itself, lead to less gasoline being consumed, but will very possibly have the opposite result.

The only way to get circumvent these two tendencies is through governmental action (gas taxes, rationing, etc.) and, on a larger scale, international treaties. This requires a sense of emergency, like everyone had in world war II. We do not yet have such a sense of emergency. But, because the problem is genuine, we will presumably realize the emergency exists at some point, and be willing to act. The question is, of course, will it be too late. I wish I knew the answer.

(I was going to put in a coda that came out basically sounding like "in the meantime, to thine own self be true." But one of the reasons I have cut back on political blogging is the Polonius quality it had--to my mind at least. I laughed the other day when I read, in James Wolcott I think, a quote from someone else to the effect that what we really love about Hamlet is that Polonius gets stabbed. So, in the spirit of Nansen, I will now try to kill off Polonius for a few days again.)

Addendum: In the original version of this post, I had overlooked a certain grandiosity of NIM's blogname, and mistakenly referred to the blog's author as Low Impact Man. Sorry for the carelessness.

Arbitrary Zen photo
Zen photo for the blog

Friday, March 30, 2007

Friday cat blogging

Gray on the dining room table. He likes this table because he can see out the front windows, and because it often has stuff on it that he can push onto the floor. Here it is unusually free of such objects, and perhaps he disapproves. But it is hard to read a cat's expressions.

Gray the cat

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Anti-war march in Austin, St. Patrick's Day

One of the first posts on this blog, 2 years ago, was a brief account of a peace march on the final Saturday of South by Southwest in Austin in 2005. SxSW as it is called, has become a big deal here, with crowds downtown all week long, musician hopefuls from all over performing at amazing hours (sometimes before noon), and music industry people, and talent scouts and hucksters and critics and writers and an amazing array of people who get their way payed to come here, and when they get here dress like they imagine Austin hippie-musicians do. It's a nice event, but those of us who live and work in Austin generally can't afford to go to many of the performances. There is also a SxSW film festival, as well as music, btw, but the films are earlier in the week. But I digress.

Sadly, the 2005 march did not bring the war to an end, nor has any march since then done so. But we can't give up on this, so today we had another anti-war march. This one was more in the spirit of SxSW than the 2005 event, because we had our own music. Word seemed to have gotten out that any musician was welcome and any musical instrument should be brought. And a lot of people who could actually play came to the march, plus, to make it democratic, so did a lot of people who brought pie pans to bang on with spoons.

But it doesn't matter, in a parade, because when the tubas and trumpets and trombones at the front were playing When the Saints Go Marching In (they did, actually, most of the way, real loud), the various knots of instruments along the length of the march would play something else because you can't hear what's at the front anyway if you are fifty yards behind.

So we paraded through the streets of Austin behind a brass band, mostly a tuba ensemble, but with any conceivable instrument being played somewhere in the throng, from pennywhistles to ukuleles to saxaphones to fiddles.

It's almost enough to restore your faith in America, several thousand people marching down Congress Avenue in opposition to the Iraq War, with a loud brass band and police motorcycles leading the way and the cops in general being nice even when people wandered out of the designated lanes (we were supposed to only use half of Congress Avenue, though we were allowed all of Sixth Street, which is already blocked off to car traffic anyway because of SxSW.) The crowds on Sixth Street, just as in 2005, were mostly bewildered, but strongly supportive. Many joined the march, since the parade had better music than some of the indoor venues, no doubt.

The parade ended, as before, on the steps of city hall, with more music.

More photos are on my Flickr page, which is where you will go when you click on the photos below.

Dancing in the parade
Anti-War March in Austin, St. Patrick's Day, 2007

Here we are on Sixth Street, the heart of Austin's music district
Anti-War March in Austin, St. Patrick's Day, 2007

Friday, March 16, 2007

Friday cat blogging

Gray looking out the kitchen window early in the morning. There's nothing out there.
Gray, the cat-2

Gray attempting to psychokinetically fill his food bowl by gazing powerfully at the servant
Gray, the cat--1

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Joe Klein

Having taken a brief vacation from public affairs, I was unaware until today that a Time magazine columnist named Joe Klein had caused a stir in left-Blogistan by accusing us of being, well, left-wing extremists. Or rather, we "might be" left wing extremists if....[see long list below.]
(Now just how the fuck--to validate the last item on Klein's list--can a guy get what I presume is a nice meal ticket and a regular gig writing for a magazine found in every dentist's office, plus second-tier Sunday afternoon pundit status, with stuff like the following, which is absolutely no different in quality or thoughtfulness from riffs on "you might be a redneck if your porch caves in and kill four of your dogs, etc."?)

A left-wing extremist exhibits many, but not necessarily all, of the following attributes:
--believes the United States is a fundamentally negative force in the world.
Hmm. A majority of people in 20 of 26 countries polled by the BBC recently believe that very thing. This makes most Canadians (among many other nationalities) left wing extremists, eh, Joe. In fairness, Israel, Iran, and sometimes North Korea, are widely thought to at least occasionally surpass us in the negative force in the world department. However our current standing is at an all-time low world-wide, according to the pollsters, and a majority of people in the world outside of Poland and a few countries in Africa join me in being left wing extremists, it seems.

--believes that American imperialism is the primary cause of Islamic radicalism.
I guess I could believe that if I belonged to the Trotskyist faction of the SDS. Does Joe Klein think we are living in 1968? When was the last time you heard "American Imperialism" used by anyone but a stand-up comedian?

--believes that the decision to go to war in Iraq was not an individual case of monumental stupidity, but a consequence of America’s fundamental imperialistic nature.
See the previous. I have to say, though, that Joe is trying to slip a false dichotomy past the folks in the dentist's office--it's perfectly possible for a left wing extremist, at least in my case, to believe the decision to go to war in Iraq was neither of the above. How about you, gentle reader?

--tends to blame America for the failures of others—i.e. the failure of our NATO allies to fulfill their responsibilities in Afghanistan.
Um, what? I'm not following this one.

--doesn’t believe that capitalism, carefully regulated and progressively taxed, is the best liberal idea in human history.
Oh, Joe, Joe, how can I answer that when my porch just caved in and killed my dawgs? Jesus H Christ. How can stupid stuff like this even get printed? Should I try to take this question seriously? Should anyone? Suffice it to say that most of us LWEs can, indeed, think of better liberal ideas than capitalism, even capitalism barricaded by Joe's tendentious and somewhat cargo-cultish qualifiers.

--believes American society is fundamentally unfair (as opposed to having unfair aspects that need improvement).
I guess we LWEs are in the glass half empty camp. Sorry, Joe.

--believes that eternal problems like crime and poverty are the primarily the fault of society.
" Eternal problems," huh? Joe likes to telegraph the answers, doesn't he? Now Jesus did say a long time ago, and a little more eloquently than Joe Klein, that the poor are always with us, but I don't think He woulda said that Lazarus should have acknowledged that his situation was neither society's nor Dives' responsibility and gotten himself up from Dives' door and gotten his sorry ass off welfare.

--believes that America isn’t really a democracy.
I also believe that a hot-air balloon isn't an airplane. Who did win the 2000 election, anyway, Joe?

--believes that corporations are fundamentally evil.
There are many corporations. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is probably not fundamentally evil. Walmart is perhaps more towards the powers-of-darkness end of the spectrum. Halliburton is, if not in league with the Devil, clearly in league with His servants in the White House.

--believes in a corporate conspiracy that controls the world.

--is intolerant of good ideas when they come from conservative sources.
I think Joe needs to name one, so we can decide.

--dismissively mocks people of faith, especially those who are opposed to abortion and gay marriage.
Allow me a digression here. Where did the term "people of faith" come from? Whatever happened to "Christians" or "Jews" or "Baptists" or "Seventh Day Adventists" or "members of a polygamous splinter faction of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints"? My point being that many "people of faith" do not have opinions on abortion or gay marriage that anyone would want to mock. Some, however, do. To try to gather all the people of faith behind a criticism-proof protective shield constructed as an analogue to "people of color" is to obscure some important distinctions that we LWEs continue to make, living as we do, in the ruined remnants of a reality based world.

--regularly uses harsh, vulgar, intolerant language to attack moderates or conservatives. Well, what can I say? Though I don't want to be vulgar about it, I do feel a little put out that I have wasted a half hour of my time unburdening myself of the certain exasperation I feel when I run into stuff like Mr. Klein's shameless rhetorical defecation on captive readers who already have enough trouble, like a root canal and how to pay for it.

Thursday, February 22, 2007


No, I am not closing down this blog. But regular readers will at this point benefit from knowing, if they have not figured it out already, that I will not post as often as I used to. Probably coming by once a week will do, or even once a month.

I think bloggistry probably has probably been here long enough to have established a standard blog trajectory. Blogs begin with enthusiasm, the blogger having lots to say. Later it becomes more like a job, with a sense that people are counting on you and you need to say something significant--or at least put some words out there. After that comes the realization that it's not a job, and indeed that nobody should be (and hopefully nobody is) waiting in suspense for your next post.

The first year of this blog was mostly anecdotal and personal, consisting of recollections and reflections about people and places I have known. The second year has been sustained more by political outrage than anything else. I suppose the political outrage still exists, but there is not a lot to say about the Regime that has not been said by sane and reasonable people many times over.

I feel less compelled than formerly to write about politics, simply because I am either repeating myself or amplifying, not necessarily to advantage, what others have already said--not that that will be guaranteed to shut me up, given the always astonishing ability of Republican officeholders to descend to new depths of foolishness, reckless folly, and shameless deceit in ways that even now astonish me. Whenever I am astonished I tend to sit down at the keyboard and write.

Lately I have spent more time taking pictures than I have writing. I am well aware that whatever native talents I have lie more in the realm of words than picture-taking, but sadly--or it would be sad if either were more than a retirement hobby--I greatly prefer photography to writing. I always have.

Years ago, I had a girlfriend who, after knowing me a few months, observed that I was obsessed with seeing things--that I had a more binoculars than your average compulsive birdwatcher needs or wants, several telescopes, a drawer full of hand lenses, and of course a camera, though I could not afford a very good one. I took one or more of these instruments out with me far more than I needed to, like going to the grocery store with a Hastings triplet in my pocket, not that I had any real intention of examining the produce with it, but just because you never know when you might want to look at something up close.

She thought this was odd. Maybe it is.

Anyway, since retirement I have rediscovered an interest in photography that had somehow lapsed in the press of job and family life in the 20 years or so before I retired.

As I mentioned I am not all that good it it, but I find myself very much looking forward to a day of taking photos, and regarding even an hour or two of sitting down to write a blog entry in something like the opposite way--which is not a good way to approach a blog.

So this is a long way around of saying it may be a week, or a month even, between blog posts--whatever the frequency may turn out to be of being struck with something that seems important to say, and a desire to say it.

In the meantime if you wish to check in on my life, or that part of it I am taking pictures of, which at the moment is mostly outdoor stuff, nature photography, but also contains occasional records of trips and social events, you can go here to see photos arranged by date, or here to see them arranged by subject.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Thursday buzzard blogging

A couple of shots of Cathartes aura.

Checking me out

Flying away, since I seem to be in good health

Monday, February 12, 2007

Is Iran next?

Before we rush off to the next Republican war, we should take a moment to think about the one we are in.

I suspect the claims of Iranian interference in Iraq are most likely lies, given the credibility of the people who are making those claims, and given the ongoing lack of evidence. But that is not and should not be the issue. The issue is that we have no business in Iraq in the first place, and, hence, should get out.

What is important to remember is that we have no legal or moral or national self-interest basis for being in Iraq. None.

We are engaged in a war now universally acknowledged to have been founded on lies. We are not defending our "homeland" from Iraqi aggression. Iraqis were not involved in 911. Iraqis had no weapons of mass destruction to threaten its neighbors, much less us. We are not bringing democracy to the Iraqis. We are not bringing them security, but civil war instead. We are not bringing them prosperity. We are not even securing a reliable supply of oil for our SUVs, as cynics believe is the true purpose of the war. (Oil is sold on the open market. If we somehow "secured" oil from one region, there would simply be more for sale to the rest of the world from other oil-producing regions. This isn't rocket science. This is economics 101.)

The latest, last, and least of reasons given by the Administration and its cheerleaders is that to leave Iraq would be "defeat" and defeat would harm our country. What crap. We were driven out of North Korea, and our country prospered. We were defeated in Vietnam, and we survived as a nation. And with regard to Vietnam, we obviously would have been better off never going there to start with, and, once we did go there, would have been better off leaving sooner rather than later. Nothing could be more evident.

Anyway, it follows from the fact that _all_ the reasons for going to war in Iraq were and are untrue, that we now have no justification--at all-- for being there at this moment.

It also follows that the Iraqis who choose to resist have a perfectly legitimate reason to defend their country against a foreign invasion.

We forget this. We have illegitimately (and, under international law, illegally) invaded their country, using outright lies as a pretext, and are now occupying it by force. People in any country, under such circumstances, might be expected to fight back. We would normally accord legitimacy to such resistance.

Except, of course, that ours is the invading and occupying force.

If they have good reasons to defend themselves against an invasion that no one now believes had any truth behind it, then presumably they would have the right to call on assistance from others. Whether various factions of the Iraqi civil war have done this I have no way of knowing.

I would be far less disturbed at learning that they did, assuming that the Administration and its servo-repeaters in the press are, God help us all, actually telling the truth at last--which I tend to doubt--than at the ongoing and daily injury our continued presence in Iraq does to our honor as a nation, to goodness and decency itself, to the harm it does to our own soldiers, and the even more tragic injury it does to the people of Iraq, when 650 thousand of them have already died in our war and no end of the carnage we have brought them is in sight.

And it increasingly looks like the only way out of this debacle the Administration sees is to march into Iran--citing, of course, provocations.

That's not much of a plan.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Self portrait on my 66th birthday

My daughter would have wanted me to do something to celebrate, but she is in Costa Rica.

Waiting for the self-timer
Self-portrait on my 66th birthday

Monday, February 05, 2007

Salon on spanking

In an article in Salon this morning, Eilene Zimmerman goes off on a proposed California law against parents hitting children. The legislation is highly unpopular in California, and evidently has no chance of passage.

But even though it won't pass, it "raises the question of how far the government should go in telling parents how to raise their children" (not to mention providing material for an article, always useful for a writer.) Ms Zimmerman sees a slippery slope yawning before her, though, as it happens, many civilized countries have such laws. Sweden is one. But it seems Sweden is not a popular role model for Americans, law-wise.

The author's view is that we already have laws against "physical abuse," which should be sufficient. Physical abuse is legally defined as assault which leads to physical impairment. In other words, if you don't break any bones or leave any bruises you are home free, as a parent who hits children. And the author's implicit, but somewhat conflicted, view is that it should remain that way, although, being a capable writer, she does not place her own opinion on laws against hitting children in the same paragraph as her mention of physical impairment.

My own feeling is different from hers. It's true that I am not in favor of major, punitive criminalization of hitting children--we are already too punitive as a nation. That is part of the problem. But certainly making it a misdemeanor punishable by, say, a fine would be A-OK in my book. In Texas you can beat your child in public and get away with it, no problem, but if you forget to get your car inspected on time you will owe the government $135. (I have no problem with the latter, by the way.)

Underlying the article, it seems to me, is a fundamental notion, deeply rooted in the American psyche, of the legitimacy of inflicting physical pain on people--a notion that is really not questioned by the author, though when her American psyche encounters another world-view, it does recoil in amazed horror.

How are we going to teach our children to cross the street safely, if we don't whack them to alert them to the danger?

To digress a little bit, as part of our national character, we don't much question things like the fundamental police power of enforcing "compliance," at least by non-lethal means. In other words, if you question authority you can expect, and should expect, to get into, um, compliance, through somebody putting some pain and suffering on you, if need be. As far as most Americans are concerned, the taser is fine and dandy for that purpose, a big improvement over the bullet or the billy club. But this is territory that Ms Zimmerman does not explore.

One of the proponents of the California legislation mentioned in Zimmerman's article is a law professor with the unfortunate name of Thomas Nazario. (You can already see it coming, can't you.)

Zimmerman declaims in passing--without seeing any irony in her own contribution to the public discourse--against America's saturation with opinion on child-rearing, which produces, in her view, massive parental anxiety. I suppose if you are anxious about not being able to continue hitting your disobedient kid, there may be something to that. She yearns for a simpler time, when spanking was spanking, not child abuse.

Shortly into the second page of her article, she quotes someone calling the proposed California legislation fascist. The word "fascist" appears five words away from the name "Nazario," who, as I mentioned, is a proponent of the law. I told you that you could see it coming.

We see here the utility of projection in american politics--as for example Rush Limbaugh's calling women he disagrees with feminazis, while if we pause and search for irony, and scratch the surface of Mr. L himself we might find something close to the very essence of a real Nazi, un-adjectively-modified. Or perhaps we might merely find a huckster with no principles and a shrewd view of those of his audience. In any case the dogs are loose now; fascists are running in the street, which is where we are at the end of the article, though the author's internal conflict over her own position puts in a surprise appearance in her final paragraph.

"Should any of us be doing these sorts of thing? Of course not" she says, of hitting children. But she doesn't want to be arrested for it, if she does it.

And I don't want her to be arrested either. What do I want? I guess I want her to go back to her own memories of being spanked and hit as a child, and see if she is really as unimpaired as she thinks.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Spitting and baby-killing

A new story of good and evil is making its way through the right-wing blogs, and, of course, has gotten play on Fox News. It is, in essence, this: A disabled Iraq-War veteran named Joshua Sparling, who was a counter-protester at the recent anti-war demonstration in Washington, says he was spat upon, called a baby-killer, and threatened with clubs by maddened peace-demonstrators.

Some have questioned Mr. Sparling's story. He has in the past made at least two public claims--which have separately gotten into the news--of having been menaced or abused by people opposed to the war, which, combined with this, certainly seem to make him a statistical outlier. But who knows--some people get struck by lightning more than once.

What is more curious is the way this story immediately gets into print and gets air play, and becomes an issue with the right wing. It seems to have visceral appeal, as did the Vietnam era urban legends of peaceniks howling insults at returning soldiers, and spitting on them.

Spitting is interesting. Americans regard it as a sort of ritually contaminating gesture, something unclean (though, oddly enough, relative strangers in America regularly exchange spit, sometimes on the first date). Spitting on, or at someone, is not how Americans would normally disagree. And it seems to me that there is an element of unmanliness in the gesture, when and if it occurs, as well as un-Americanness. A red-blooded American man would challenge you to a fistfight, perhaps, but spitting implies, somehow, spit and run. John Wayne would not do it--it's not the Code of the West.

I have to admit that the reappearance of the Vietnam-era epithet "baby-killer" puzzles me. If I remember right, the term "baby-killer" entered public consciousness after it became known that Lt. Calley and his platoon did indeed murder about 500 civilians, many of them children. In other words, there was a historic event that led to the use of the term--and I think it was used--in some of the more extreme screeds of the SDS and such groups. Whether or not the phrase was ever actually uttered as an insult to individual soldiers in airports and bus terminals, as claimed by the right, is of course, open to question.

In any case, the present war lacks such a context. The atrocities that have entered public awareness have more to do with the torture of adults than the killing of children.

But the incorporation of spittle and supposed name-calling into stories of good and evil seem to me spring not from context or plausibility, but from a kind of psychological projection. These tales seem to appeal to people who love to hate their enemies, but do not wish to acknowledge that hatred; people who consider those with whom they disagree to be deadly enemies, not political opponents.