31 July 2010


MONOGAMY. Christopher Ryan poses an interesting hypothesis -- that monogamy is an unnatural state for our species. His take on shifting relationship codes over our evolutionary development, starting in prehistory, has some factual merit. Still, as one who is educated in ecology and evolutionary biology, it is not clear to me that his analysis stretches to lend support to humans being naturally polygamous (or polyandrous). Bottom line, whether or not we are hard-wired for certain social behaviors is emphatically secondary to our free will, set of ethics, or simple practicality.

In my hormone-driven youth, I went through passages of having one intimate partner, and also of having more than one partner (with one of those being primary). There was never any duplicity -- all parties knew and approved of whatever arrangement held sway at the moment. Ultimately, I found that paying adequate and deserved attention to just one partner (emotionally, sexually, intellectually) was not only more satisfying, but more realistic. Spreading onself around simply takes too much energy and attention, and doesn't do justice to the Quality of each relationship.

Perhaps that's just me. Perhaps others have discovered a capacity for multiplicity, at least for short periods. I doubt that it is workable as an established social norm, without risking the oppression of one gender or the other.

INTERNET PRIVACY. Ellen Nakashima -- "The Obama administration is seeking to make it easier for the FBI to compel companies to turn over records of an individual's Internet activity without a court order if agents deem the information relevant to a terrorism or intelligence investigation."

Over my dead body. Privacy is a sacrosanct civil liberty. I do not trust either the integrity or the judgment of ANY intelligence agent with the details of my personal life, as a matter of principle. We've seen far too many instances of abuse and neglect over the years, by the FBI, by the CIA, by the NSA, and by the Department of Homland Security. If the need is legitimate, then the agency must justify it by getting a court order. Period. The old joke runs that the term "military intelligence" is an oxymoron. A facile judgment, perhaps, but not without some foundation in truth. Far better to preserve judicial oversight in order to avoid intelligence excesses.

30 July 2010


In today's NYTimes, Nicholas Kristof notes that the ostensible "war on terror" has been the most costly war in American history, with the exception of World War II. This information comes from a new report by the Congressional Research Office, and measures only monetary costs. It does not include the costs in casualties or ruined lives, in troop morale, or in the credibility of the US among the world community. Kristof justifiably takes President Obama to task for his escalation of the war in Afghanistan (tripling the number of US troops in that country since he took office). The money and lives would be far better spent (as this writer has noted repeatedly) by shifting our attention to education in Afghanistant and other countries.

Greg Mortenson's inspiring book Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time is required reading at West Point, but its message has yet to penetrate the upper levels of policy making in the Obama Administration. Three Cups of Tea is set in Pakistan, while Mortenson's follow-up book Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, not Bombs is set mostly in Afghanistan. Mortenson's non-profit Central Asia Institute is based in Bozeman, MT, and has built over 130 schools in the two countries -- not by barging into local communities and declaring "this is what you need", but rather by respectfully establishing relationships with community leaders and then asking "what do you most need?" Resoundingly, the answer is "We need schools." CAI's approach includes locals at all levels of decision-making and construction, which is key to allowing them to feel empowered, to take charge of their own lives. Incidentally, that taking charge includes rejecting any further support for the Taliban, in village after village. Military protection for these schools is not needed, as the experience of Mortenson and the relief organization CARE have demonstrated repeatedly.

Kristof's article mentions Three Cups of Tea as a model for a much more effective method of combatting terrorism than our costly and counterproductive military presence in southern Asia. The focus on schools for girls is especially important. "Teach a boy, and you educate an individual. Teach a girl, and you educate a community."

Kristof closes by noting that "We won our nation's independence for $2.4 billion in today's money ... That was good value, considering that we now fritter the same amount every nine days in Afghanistan." Time for a change in priorities, indeed. For the cost of just one soldier in Afghanistan for one year, we could start about twenty schools there.

On another Afghanistan front, the recent publication of thousands of documents by Wikileaks has been roundly (and predictably) criticized by Administration and Pentagon officials. For another viewpoint, please consider this brief essay by a soldier on the ground in Afghanistan. We need more transparency in government, not less. The US intelligence apparatus is so bloated that, according to the Washington Post, the number of people with Top Secret security clearances is 1.5 times the population of the District of Columbia. Fewer spies, more teachers?

29 July 2010


BULLFIGHTING. Grand news !! CBS News reports that in the northeast of Spain, the parliament of Catalonia (whose capital is Barcelona) has voted to ban bull fighting. This is an unprecidented step forward, in my view. Consider that in a traditional bull fight, the animal is first pierced by the lances of mounted picadores, who aim to sever neck muscles and cause extensive bleeding. Next barbed sticks are used by banderilleros to further enrage, confuse and bleed out the bull. Finally, when the bull is exhausted and weakened from loss of blood, and after being taunted repeatedly by the motion (not the color) of a sweeping cape, the matador, if he is skilled, kills the bull with a well-aimed thrust of his sword to the spinal column. If the matador is not skilled or quick on his feet, he risks being gored by the bull. All for the blood sport of the cheering audience.

There are certain human forms of entertainment which can only be considered barbaric, cruel torture. Among them, bull fighting, dog fighting, cock fighting, and rodeos. The former three involve bloodshed and death. While rodeo usually does not, most events feature humans forcing animals into states of fear or anger, with a high risk of injury to man and beast. Once a redneck Texas cowboy challenged me on this, saying that the animals in events such as calf roping are not hurt. The biologist in me (not to mention the humanitarian) responded that for an animal to be running at full speed, then when a lariat settles around its neck and tightens, to be brought to an instant halt, so violently that the calf is jerked off its feet and somersaults to the ground, physical trauma is inevitable. I suggested that the cowboy try out the role of the calf for himself, to see what it felt like. He declined.

The last time I attended a rodeo was in my teens, at a local three day event celebrating Whoop Up Trail Days, or Whoop Up for short. The naivete of youth was shattered during a bronc riding event, along with one of the hind legs of the bucking horse -- the rear knee joint broke clean in two, leaving the lower half of his leg dangling and swinging bizarrely by only a shred of skin. The poor horse went wild with pain, careening out of control. It took event managers a full half hour to get the animal into a holding pen, contact its owner for instructions, and finally to end its misery with a gunshot to the head. During that entire time the arena air was pierced by the horse's screams. Never again.

So Parliamentarians of Catalonia, I salute you. Bullfighting is on the wane in Spain and Mexico. It cannot disappear too soon.

SPACEQUAKES. Scientists at NASA have discovered a phenomenon called spacequakes. Just as earthquakes are disturbances in the earth's crust, spacequakes are disturbances in the magnetosphere surrounding Earth (and presumably other celestial bodies). Here is a brief video illustrationg a spacequake's behavior. And here is a fuller description of the discovery.

VISUALS. Just for fun -- here is a high-speed (9000 frames per second) video of multiple lightning flashes. Slow motion takes on an entirely new meaning. And here is an article and graph on the mathematics of marriage. Analysis, far from deadening the mystery of music or poetry or literature or relationships, adds to the color and enjoyment.

BONUS. Robert Redford is more than an accomplished movie actor and director. He is also an intelligent and committed philanthropist and environmentalist, just as his close friend Paul Newman was a lifelong active humanitarian. Redford founded the Sundance Film Festival, the largest venue for independent filmmakers in the US. In a recent editorial on The Huffington Post, Redford eloquently and forcefully rebuts those Republican Senators whose cynical intransigence blocked passage of meaningful, comprehensive energy and climate legislation. Ever since the US failure to sign the Kyoto Accord in 1997, the US has been the sole developed nation to resist energy and climate reform. We are the laughing-stock of the world, due to our myopia, greed and stupidity. Obstructionist conservatives should be horsewhipped. Or perhaps be made to perform the calf's role at a rodeo.

28 July 2010


Two days ago I watched a nuanced and very moving Czech film called Kolya, on DVD. The story is set in what was then Czechoslovakia (see map below), one of the satellite republics of the former Soviet Union. My mother's parents immigrated to the US from Prague (see image above), so my interest in the film's story was heightened.

You may recall that Czechoslovakia was the setting for reformist Alexander Dubcek's Prague Spring, an attempt to grant additional rights to citizens through partial decentralization of powers, and through democratization. Dubcek's reforms posed a threat to the Soviet leadership, who launched an invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops and tanks. Dubcek was removed from office, and Soviet dominance with an iron fist reigned until 1989, when peaceful student protestors sparked a nationwide general strike, in what is now known as the Velvet Revolution. The Communist Party relinquished power, and in subsequent elections, Vaclav Havel was chosen as the nation's President, and Alexander Dubcek became the elected speaker of the federal parliament. With the fall of the USSR in 1993, Chechoslovakia as a nation was dissolved, becoming two independent nations -- the Czech Republic and Slovakia. I have family and friends in both nations.

The film takes place on the eve of the Velvet Revolution, during a time of flux when it was still dangerous to express anti-Soviet sentiments. And yet the indomitable Czech spirit refused to be crushed. An active underground existed, and ultimately prevailed. Against this backdrop, the title character is a middle-aged cellist and hedonistic bachelor, with no family ties until his life becomes complicated by .... well, you'll have to see the film. This is a warm and personal story, one which both warmed my heart and moved me to tears at the end.

It also revived in me a feeling of pride in my family's cultural heritage. My family roots lie in Bohemia, one of three Czech districts (the other two being Moravia and Czech Silesia). Imagine, having roots in a land where revolutions are achieved peacefully, without violence or bloodshed. The human history of the region is ancient and rich with achievement. The list of famous Czech writers, poets, musicians, composers, artists, philosophers, politicians, and scientists is long and impressive. It is one of my dreams to spend a year in Europe, including significant time in the land of Kolya the cellist.

27 July 2010


WHO COOKED THE PLANET? Eminent economist Paul Krugman follows the science, the politics, and the money -- and points out events that make you go "hmmm". If you are among the dwindling number of those who doubt that global warming is real, and in the current instance is caused by human agency, please read this.

SCIENTISTS CONFIRM UNDERWATER PLUMES ARE FROM SPILL. Gee, ya think? This is the 500-lb. gorilla in the room that no one is talking about. It's easy for the media and the public to notice all the oil on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, thousands of square miles of ugly sludge. Equally easy to notice that same oil as it washes ashore, despoiling pristine beaches, marshlands, and wildlife habitat. But beneath the surface, out of sight, is where even more oil is circulating. All those chemical dispersants didn't make the oil disappear -- they simply broke it up into smaller particles, which sink partway to the sea bottom. Additional plumes of oil were formed at the well head, and simply didn't make it to the surface before being carried by ocean currents, circulating in the Gulf of Mexico gyre, potentially to be caught and carried out into the Atlantic and up the eastern seashore of the US. Here in the water column, the oil spill may create environmental havoc at least equal to the damage done on the surface and onshore. The subsurface oil is like that portion of an iceberg which one cannot see from the surface -- more massive than the visible portion, and just as deadly to marine life. Thank you, BP. Thank you, Transocean. Thank you, Halliburton.

CRITIQUING THE ROLE OF THE CITIZEN SCIENTIST. Our tendency is to place our trust in professionals, rather than in amateurs. Yet a quiet army of informed, non-professional scientists contributes immeasurably to the advancement of scientific discovery. Witness the number of stars, comets, asteroids, and other celestial bodies discovered by amateur astronomers each year. Witness the volunteers who observe, collect data, and analyze results as volunteers in the study of nature, species and habitats. The non-professional, or "natural philosopher", has an important place in our evolving, growing body of knowledge.

RESTLESS CONFEDERATES. The author offers an array of revelations about life in the Confederacy during the Civil War, aka the War Between The States. As was true in the North, the South was far from a unified populace. "The Confederacy was conceived as a republic of white men. But since of its 9 million people more than 3 million were slaves, and half the remainder disenfranchised white women, the new nation faced from the outset a crisis of legitimacy ... Southern leaders realized early that they would have to compete with the Union for the loyalty of these groups ... The need to generate consent allowed the Confederate unenfranchised to step onto the stage of politics, with their own demands, grievances and actions." One wonders if the South would have collapsed beneath the weight of its own internal strife, even without a war to drive it to ruin.

150 years later, and we're still learning about our own history. An aside -- during my life I've lived in four Southern states (Texas, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee). Many Southerners, especially white Southerners, hold close to their hearts the memory of the War of Secession. Visiting non-Southerners often wonder aloud (rather rudely), "Why are you still fighting the Civil War? It's over, you lost. Get over it."

Not so easy to do. Imagine yourself a descendant in a family and a region which fought in a war lasting four bloody years. The politics aside, Southerners ultimately were invaded, defeated and humiliated by the second Northern invasion called Reconstruction. Such wounds run deep, and take many generations to heal. Even some of my most free-thinking Southern friends have mixed feelings about that time. For a different window into this paradox, I recommend reading John Hersey's 1965 novel White Lotus. Hersey examines slavery from the point of view of fictional Americans invaded and conquered by China, and their subsequent transport as slaves to that Asian nation (just as African blacks were captured, enslaved, and transported west to a strange continent). One's language, social class, cultural traditions, patterns of thought and behavior are all suddenly replaced by alien concepts and expectations. Learn quickly, or suffer the consequences. Acquiesce? Resist? Rebel? Things are much more complicated and nuanced than they appear.

DISPARITY SEEN IN DEATH PENALTY. This article discusses studies which demonstrate that racism in our country has many faces. One of them is found in the justice system. Racial and ethnic minorities, especially blacks, make up a disproportionate number of those arrested for crime, those bound over for trial, those convicted, and those sentenced to a prison term or to the death penalty. This is entirely supported by the research done by my ex-partner, a JD/PhD (an attorney and a psychologist) who is a professor of criminology and criminal justice. We may not see as many lynchings or burning crosses as we did half a century ago, but racism remains a profound and troubling aspect of our national character.

26 July 2010


The nearly nine year old war in Afghanistan, ostensibly being waged by coalition forces against Al-Qaeda terrorists and Taliban insurgents, is an exercise in futility. There is a growing list of reasons why the US should hasten its withdrawal of troops from the region.

~~ Counterinsurgency is much more effective in the form of humanitarian aid, rather than military invasion (which generates more insurgents and terrorists than it destroys).

~~ Conventional warfare conducted against indigenous guerrilla forces has a long history of tilting in favor of the guerrillas.

~~ There is evidence that neighboring Pakistan not only provides safe haven for Taliban fighters, but also that Pakistan's secret spy service collaborates directly with the Taliban. This, in spite of the fact that our ostensible ally receives over $1 billion annually in military assistance in fighting the Taliban. (See regional map below, click to enlarge.)

~~ As David Swanson reports, the American public is largely unaware of several pertinent facts relating to the military in general, and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in particular. For instance, the Taliban's largest source of revenue is US taxpayers. The US' top consumer of oil is the US military. Over half of every US tax dollar is spent on wars, the military, and payment on debt for past wars and military spending. The leading cause of deaths in the US military is suicide. Military funding is being devoted to escalating the war, not to stabilizing the Afghan government or its military.

Nine years. Just one year shy of the duration of another grotesque folly, the Vietnam War. The only people happy with this state of affairs are arms suppliers, military contractors, and undertakers -- plus a powerful network of hawkish politicians and military leaders, all of whom have their hands in each others' pockets, and all of whom hope to have a hand in controlling the natural resources of central Asia. The dollar sign is the bottom line.

25 July 2010


The Shirley Sherrod implosion last week was a learning experience on two fronts.

The first learning experience -- the political train wreck was caused by our increasing reliance on spin doctors. You'll recall that it all began with the NAACP calling upon the Tea Party movement to "repudiate those in its ranks who use racist language in their signs and speeches." A resonable request. Reactionary conservative activist Andrew Breitbart shot back by posting a heavily edited video of Sherrod (Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the United States Department of Agriculture) describing what sounded like reverse racial discrimination -- until you listen to the entire address, and realize that she was describing the process of unlearning racial stereotypes. Breitbart's perverse brand of journalism is unmasked for what it is -- naked bigotry and intentional distortion of fact. Here, for the record, is Sherrod's entire 42-minute address -- the pertinent portion runs from minute 17 to minute 22.

But (and this is a big "but") NO ONE in the media, in the White House, in the USDA where Sherrod worked, or in the listening public, took the time to get both sides of the story. There was a vertiginous rush to judgment, and Sherrod was forced to resign without benefit of due process. Only days later did the full story emerge, and everyone except Sherrod (a lifelong dedicated public servant) should be cringing with shame. Any journalist or policy-maker worth his/her salt knows the first rule of news -- check your source. As one old-timer put it, "If your mother tells you she loves you, get verification." Realizing that the source was Breitbart, consulting with Sherrod, and listening to the entire video address, would have stopped the scandal in its tracks.

The second learning experience -- in today's NYTimes, two columnists respond to the Sherrod episode. Bob Herbert in Thrown to the Wolves takes the White House to task for its limp policies on race relations. Maureen Dowd in You'll Never Believe What This White House Is Missing describes the near-total absence of racial minorities among President Obama's inner circle. Both articles pull no punches in their commentary. The message needs to be heard. Race and human overpopulation are THE fundamental social issues of our time. After 234 years as a democratic republic, white male America still hasn't gotten the message that blacks, Asians, Latinos and Native Americans are citizens, too. Unemployment and poverty in those communities far outstrips the economic hardships in the white populace, most especially during the current recession. Obama is to be praised for his intellect, his vision, and his determination to seek conciliation between opposing factions. But he also needs to grow a backbone when faced with the virulent conservative backlash which is paralyzing the political process. So long as Republicans know that Democrats are deathly afraid of being labelled as "liberal" (when they should be proudly claiming that adjective), conservatives will continue to obstruct and delay and obfuscate. Throw the intransigent bums out. If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.

And here, just for fun, is an animation which demonstrates in an "aha!" fashion the link between math and visual design. Which brings us full circle back to spin. Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night.

24 July 2010


SCHORR. Yesterday legendary radio and television journalist Daniel Schoor died, at age 93. His broadcast journalism career spanned more than six decades. He was originally recruited to CBS radio news by the pioneer news journalist Edward R. Murrow. Murrow cultivated two generations of associates at CBS, most of whom went on to establish their own stellar careers.

The first generation of "Murrow's Boys" assembed during World War II, and included William L. Shirer, Eric Severeid, Tom Grandin, Larry LeSueur, Charles Collingwood, Howard K. Smith, Winston Burdett, Bill Downs, Mary Marvin Breckinridge, Cecil Brown, and Richard C. Hottelet. The second generation assembled after the war, and included Walter Cronkite, David Schoenbrun, Alexander Kendrick, Robert Pierpoint, George Polk, Marvin Kalb, and ... Daniel Schorr. Nearly all these names were familiar to me as a child in the 1950s, since our family entertainment orbited around radio. Many of the old radio "boys" successfully made the transition to television news -- Severeid, Collingwood, Smith, Burdett, Hottelet, Cronkite, Pierpoint, Kalb and Schorr notable among them.

Daniel Schorr possessed scrupulous integrity, and was fearless in the pursuit of the truth. He famously made President Richard Nixon's enemies list, and was surprised to find his own name on the list when he read it aloud during a broadcast. He won three Emmy Awards for excellence in television journalism. This elder statesman of news and analysis will be sorely missed.

MUCHA. In an ideal world, if I were living in the home of my dreams (and my own design), of all the art genres that exist I would probably choose two to predominate -- indigenous art and crafts from around the world (native masks, carvings, basketry, artwork), and Art Nouveau (artwork, furniture, stained glass, architectural design). Both appeal to me because each, in its own way, incorporates either natural materials or the organic, curvilinear flow of natural design.
On this day in 1860 one of the pre-eminent Art Nouveau painters was born -- the Czech master Alphonse Mucha. His work influenced an entire generation of artists, and is recognized and sought after to this day. Here is a link to a visual sampling of Mucha's work. Click on any of the images to enlarge it.

23 July 2010


BREAKING THE ICE. The next generation of online dating has arrived. Imagine noticing an attractive person whom you would like to get to know better. You aren't into the bar scene, or you might not have the time at that moment to strike up a conversation, or you might be a little shy. Connecting can be as easy as slipping that person a discreet card with the inscription "Look up. You might be missing something." Below, in smaller letters, are the words "Find me," a code, and the website of an online dating service. Voila.

Unlike established online services like Match.com or EHarmony, new services like Cheek'd and flipmedating don't require you to fill out a lengthy personal profile. Your website information is only available to those whom you choose specifically. Rather than being tied down to a computer doing searches, one is actually engaged and out in public, with the ability to spontaneously yet safely show interest in someone you see. The "next generation" article link above describes in greater detail how the process works, along with users' opinions. Sounds like fun.

SEXERCISE. It has been long established that exercise and physical activity promote neurogenesis, growing new neural connections in the brain. So the burning question becomes, can frequent sex make us smarter -- and can "virtual" sex do the same? Click on the link to read more about research into how the process works, and draw your own conclusions.

SWEET MEMORY. Fifteen years ago today, Comet Hale-Bopp was first discovered approaching Earth's vicinity from the outer reaches of the Solar System. It was visible to the naked eye for a record 18 months. During that time I was living in the forested foothills northeast of Vancouver, WA. Even though the night skies of the Pacific Northwest are often obscured by clouds, on one memorable, crystal-clear night my son and I drove to a nearby spot where we had a magnificent, unobstructed view of the comet. We gazed in delight for a long time. It was a shared moment I'll always treasure.

22 July 2010


For some decades now, the term space music has been associated with New Age and Ambient music that evokes a feeling of comtemplative spaciousness. The program "Music from the Hearts of Space" was one of the original radio versions, on NPR.

An enterprise called Project Calliope would like to try for a literal interpretation of space music, by launching a satellite into orbit with sensors on board -- "an ionospheric detector transmitting sonifiable data back to Earth for web streaming and remixing." I would like to know more specifically just what signals are being detected and relayed back to us, but the concept is interesting. Will the result be the readily-identifiable (but entirely non-musical) sound signature of radioteletype signals received on short wave radios? Or will we hear the ethereal, shifting aural equivalent of the Aurora Borealis? Time will tell.

A much more familiar form of music is bird song -- an anthropomorphic term for the calls which birds make to defend territory, attract mates, communicate with other flock members, or to announce the presence of a predator. Since so many bird calls are pleasing to the human ear, and also since so many take the form of identifiable, repeating patterns, we use the term "song" as a convenient shorthand. For even the most clinical ornithologists among us, it is a strong temptation to hear the ornate repertoire of a Mockingbird , or the cascading arpeggios of a Canyon Wren (see image below), or the haunting cry of a Common Loon, with the strong feeling that here is Nature proclaiming the joy of life. [Note: click on each bird link, turn up your volume, then click on "listen" to hear that bird's call.]

So just for the fun of it, here is a bird song quiz. Click on "launch interactive", and you will be presented with eight species with singular calls. Click on "begin", and have fun !!

21 July 2010


At a site two blocks from the former World Trade Center in New York City, a local Muslim Imam would like to establish an Islamic cultural center and mosque. The prospect has aroused violent controversy. Among those who support the center (whose stated purpose is to educate and inform, as well as provide a place of worship) are religious leaders of many faiths and most local politicians. Among those who oppose the center are some September 11 family members, conservative bloggers and Tea Party activists.

Our society's founding ideals include freedom of religion and tolerance for divergent viewpoints. The US, more than any other nation I can think of, includes an amazing diversity of cultural and ethnic traditions -- nowhere more so than in New York City. The manner in which opponents of the center have expressed their views has ranged from understandable confusion to vicious and irrational racial hatred. I''m deeply saddened.

Coincidentally, I'm reading a novel with similar overtones of racial and cultural conflict. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford. The story is set in the Asian communities of Seattle during World War II. A young Chinese boy, transcending the prejudices of his own family and of the surrounding white majority, becomes best friends with a young Japanese girl. Japanese armies had been invading and terrorizing China for ten years before Pearl Harbor, so relations between Chinese-Americans and Japanese-Americans were sometimes strained, sometimes supportive. The two children, their families and their communities endure the special bullying bigotry which is aimed at a perceived enemy by white residents of Seattle, and by the US military. When the Japanese girl and her family are summarily rounded up and shipped to one of America's infamous internment camps. the reader's heart breaks. Yet that is only part of the story in Ford's nuanced and eye-opening tale. With learning comes understanding, and with understanding comes compassion.

Our nation has gone through repeated cycles of singling out racial or national "enemies", reflecting our black-and-white thinking on most issues. How ironic that American's melting pot can be so xenophobic. Native Americans, blacks, Irish, Scandinavians, Slavs, Jews, Germans, Japanese, Russians, Mexicans, and now Muslims (to name a few) have felt the stinging lash of our hatred, within our own borders. When we generalize and stereotype ANY group, (e.g. "all Muslims are terrorists"), we indulge in shallow, lazy thinking. In fact most Muslims are peaceful. The teachings of the Qu'ran do not include the barbarism practiced by fundamentalist extremists. Extremism of any flavor, from Taliban to Tea Party, is no substitute for rational thinking and intelligent behavior.

How long before we mature, as a nation and as a species, to live in this rich and diverse world without war or hatred, guided by the sonnet which is engraved inside the Statue of Liberty -- "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to be free."

20 July 2010


In yesterday's Washington Post, Dana Priest and William M. Arkin revealed the startling growth of secret intelligence agencies and contractors. The article A Hidden World Growing Beyond Control describes the creation since 9/11 of literally thousands of governmental agencies and private contractors devoted to gathering intelligence related to terrorism. The resulting flood of information is uncoordinated, unsupervised, often overlapping, often irrelevant, and monstrously expensive. The sheer volume of surveillance and documentation is beyond the ability of any policy-maker, or group of policy-makers, to even read, much less correlate into a comprehensive view of events. Our justifiable concern over security has mutated beyond recognition into a paranoia which happens to present a financial windfall to those who would profit from fear.

Here is a useful map showing the locations of governmental organizations and companies within Top Secret America, with at least 2,246 government work locations and 7,046 company work locations globally. The map can be explored by city, and the bar graph across the bottom details numbers of locations for particular givernment agencies. Your tax dollars at play.

So is human warfare a trait which we inherited from our primate ancestors? The question is explored by Franz de Waal in his article An Academic War About War. De Waal has also put together a four-part video series on the violent side of the human condition. Collectively called The Bipolar Ape, each tw0-minute segment is concise and informative.

On a more elevating note (as it were), on this day in 1969 the first humans (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, with Michael Collins remaining in lunar orbit) set foot on the moon, fulfilling President John F. Kennedy's goal of reaching the moon before the Soviets before the end of the 1960s. Alas, the Apollo Program only ran from 1961 until 1975. For 35 years the human exploration of space has been limited to Earth-bound observatories, to the orbiting (and soon to be deactivated) Space Shuttle program, to orbiting missions like the Hubble Telescope, and to interplanetary and interstellar probes. The vision of hands-on human space exploration has been subverted by politics, wars and collective myopia. If NASA enjoyed even one-tenth the budget which we devote to the military, we would be on our way to the stars.

19 July 2010



THE HASHISH ARMY. The projected start of withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan a year from now, is predicated in part on training and expanding Afghan military forces, particularly the Afghan National Army (ANA). A video interview with US Special Forces training personnel suggests that this may prove to be impossible, at least to US standards and expectations. And therein lies the problem -- the clash between cultures. Most US personnel have yet to understand or accept the fact that Afghanistan exists as a national entity mostly on paper and on maps. The country is a sometimes-cooperating, sometimes-competing loose confederation of tribes and ethnic groups, whose history of discord (and resistance to invaders, from Alexander the Great to the USSR to the US) goes back millenia.

On the video, the US officer's disdain for Afghan troops is painfully apparent -- he calls them children (as racist American whites once called blacks children), and bemoans the fact that they operate on a different timeline than he does. How unfortunate that this condescending frontline representative of the US comes across so harshly as the prototypical ugly American. The use of hashish by the troops is only a symptom of the much larger disconnect between US and Afghan cultures, both military and civilian. Greg Mortenson's books Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools demonstrate how it is possible, with respect and humility, to establish personal connections with village and tribal leaders, which ultimately is the ONLY way in which we will defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan -- by providing resources and then empowering Afghans to choose for themselves. Native peoples will always choose an ally who is tolerant and understanding, over an oppressor who is brutal and rapacious. The Taliban is the latter. It is up to the US to become the former.

Adding to the complexity of the war in Afghanistan is the reality that it doesn't address the true source of terrorism. That source lies across the border to the east, in Pakistan, whose government allows safe haven to both Taliban insurgents, and also to Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born founder of Al-Qaeda and a financier of terrorist acts around the globe. The political and military web becomes even more tangled and sticky when you consider that Pakistan is a nuclear power, and a fierce enemy of another nuclear power (and US ally), neighboring India.

Diplomacy amid such a morass is a delicate tightrope walk at best. Military intervention is as doomed to failure as it was in Vietnam. The US is in quicksand in Asia. The wrong spark at the wrong time could set off a conflagration. And we're worried about a little hashish?

Strange bedfellows.

IMMIGRATION ALLIES. Politics makes for strange bedfellows, as we know. President Obama has discovered an unexpected ally in his push for immigration reform -- the evangelical Christian right. Laurie Goodstein writes that as the proportion of US citizens who are Hispanic has risen, so has the number of influential evangelical leaders. An unlikely and potent alliance has formed between Latino and white evangelicals, and the Latinos are crystal clear in their support of Obama's immigration reform proposals, whatever their differences may be with his other policies. Poetic ironies abound. One can only smile, and hope that Governor Jan Brewer, who signed into law Arizona's offensively racist immigration law, is squirming in her seat. If a proposed INS federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the Arizona law is successful, her continued credibility and tenure will be cast into severe doubt. As well they should. Shame on her.

RANGO. Now, just for grins, a preview of Rango, an animated movie due out next March in which Johnny Depp does voice-over for a gecko. Enjoy.

18 July 2010


This is something of a love story. Yesterday I chanced to tune into NPRs Weekend Edition, a news, commentary and human interest program. The segment that snared my imagination was entitled "Horse Racing's Zenyatta Puts the Boys to Shame" (click on the link, then on "Listen to the Story" to hear the interview for yourself -- the full script may be read as well). I was enchanted.

Zenyatta is a dream horse. Foaled April 1, 2004 in Kentucky, this champion American Thoroughbred racehorse remains undefeated in her 17 starts, one of only a few undefeated American Thoroughbred horses in racing history. What sets Zenyatta apart, in addition to her prowess, is her personality. During a race she will playfully idle along, biding her time as the suspense builds among other riders and the audience, and then unleash a display of beauty, power, grace and speed that sends her cheetah-like past any horse in her way. During pre-race warm-ups, she will express her high spirits with a peculiar dance, prancing and then pausing to point a foreleg foreward.

Add to all that Zenyatta's spectacular good looks, and you have a horse which inspires awe. She stands seventeen and a half hands (seventy inches) at the shoulder, often literally head and shoulders taller than her competition. Her physical conformation is dynamic and balanced, and she appears to be charmingly unaffected by her stardom. Her mahogany bay color defines her musculature clearly. (Click on any image to enlarge.)

Here is a nine minute ESPN segment on Zenyatta, with discussion to accompany the video. And here is a two and a half minute live video of the 2009 Breeder's Cup, in which Zenyatta started at dead last, remained near the rear of the pack through most of the race, then exploded into fluid speed at the far turn. She is breathtaking, a perfect athlete.

17 July 2010


Oddities online. There are several versions of a partially-true story circulating, one involving a young woman being pulled over by the flashing lights of an unmarked police car in a remote, unlighted area -- a ruse used by some robbers and rapists. What to do? Click the link for the full story, and for the true and untrue aspects of the viral message.

Jim Meskinen has it goin' on. You look at the totally corny image in his video and you think, what the? But once he opens his mouth to sing, it is a revelation. His basso profundo voice will shiver your timbers -- especially if you close your eyes.

Aging gracefully, a la Francaise. French women are famous (infamous?) for their natural beauty, whether young or older. The article reveals how diet and skin care lie at the heart of the charm of the French.

In an earlier post I described the Tea Party's racist propaganda aimed at President Obama. Tobin Harshaw explores the issue in more depth, asking penetrating questions about our attitudes and assumptions around race, and providing thoughtful analysis. Well worth reading.

Finally, a droll play on words from the ever-entertaining xkcd webcomic.

16 July 2010


BP. I first came across the concept of a world run not by governments, but by corporations with their own mercenary armed forces, in a comic book during the 1950s. Should I feel reassured that this is precisely how the world has been run for many decades? With the possible exception of World War II, every war, every shady deal, every scandal I can think of during my lifetime has had its genesis, in whole or in part, in corporate greed. Capitalism is broken (see Michael Moore's film Capitalism: A Love Story if you doubt this). The system of free enterprise espoused by the political right is a smoke screen for unbridled profiteering, at the expense of consumers and taxpayers.

Think about it -- those very souls who whine about too much government intervention into our lives, only have to take a look around to see that we are surrounded by the results of corporate excess and too little government regulation and enforcement. Examples --

~ the Gulf oil disaster.
~ the near-collapse of the banking industry.
~ the housing debacle.
~ the current recession and long-term unemployment crisis.
~ the conservative-sponsored deregulation of banking, securities, and insurance companies.
~ the average corporate CEO takes home 300 to 600 times the income of the average employee.

Yesterday a report surfaced that is astonishing even to the most jaded observer. BP, the same company which is turning the Gulf of Mexico into an oil reservoir, confirmed that it has lobbied the British government to conclude a prisoner transfer deal that the Libyan government wanted to secure the release of the only person ever convicted for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie Scotland, which killed 270 people, 189 of them Americans. BP acknowledged that "it had promoted the agreement to protect a $900 million offshore oil and gas exploration deal off Libya's Mediterranean coast. "

Free one terrorist, at the expense of 270 innocent lives, to preserve a lucrative oil deal. And the British and Scottish governments caved in. Libya's lunatic leader (and supporter of terrorists) Muammar al-Gaddafi greeted the released bomber with open celebration, and no doubt laughed all the way to the bank afterward.

I am thoroughly, militantly, and irrevocably disgusted at this obscenity. It is time for the government of the people, by the people, for the people to step in and take charge. Period.

NRA. There's a reason why I, a gun owner, am not a member of the National Rifle Association. The organization's right-wing politics aside, leadership and members alike appear blinded to the absurdities to which their extremist vision of firearms ownership lead. Here's an example -- The NRA Protects a Potential Serial Killer. The NRA's policies have the effect not of protecting individual liberty or safety, but endangering it by fostering the sale of firearms (including automatic weapons) to criminals. Have we wandered down the rabbit hole again?

15 July 2010


OLD BUSINESS. Jurist and current legal analyst Andrew Napolitano asserts in both print and on camera that former President George W. Bush and former Vice-President Dick Cheney should be indicted for their blatant, unconstitutional violations of habeus corpus and of individual civil rights during the days following 9/11. This, in light of the fact that hundreds of Arab-American citizens were rounded up and jailed without charges, without the representation of an attorney, and without bail. Napolitano makes a compelling argument. Bush and Cheney have a record of participating in criminal conspiracies, not least of which was lying to Congress and the American people about the (non-existent) threat of weapons of mass destruction as a pretext for invading Iraq in 2003, as well as the subsequent kidnapping ("rendition") and torture of foreign nationals vaguely suspected of being terrorists. Time for some accountability.

NEW BUSINESS. The NAACP has challenged the Tea Party movement to weed out racist elements from its ranks. Tea Party members are proudly blatant in their absurd verbal and visual vilification of President Obama (see a sample roadside billboard below -- lately removed for being "counterproductive." Gee, ya think?), and downright vicious in their racist verbal attacks on black members of Congress. Tea Party spokespersons like Sarah Palin deny the allegation, naturally. Here is a brief video clip on the controversy.

"WHAT IF?" BUSINESS. Child: "Did you ever smoke pot?" Parent: "It's complicated." A recent NYTimes article explores this quandary for parents, with humor and insight. Assuming that the parent in question did indeed smoke pot back in the day, should one say No, in order to occupy the moral high ground (at the cost of lying) -- or should one say Yes, and risk being accused of hypocrisy when cautioning youth against the use of drugs and alcohol? The article offers a satisfactory common-sense resolution.

BTW. By the way, here we are at the Ides of July, with Missoula daytime temperatures hovering in the high 80s dF, yet there remains a dusting of snow atop the highest peaks of the Bitterroot Mountains, visible from the valley -- a paradoxical result of our long, cool Spring. Montana is a land of unpredictable contrasts.

14 July 2010


The tapestry of life is interwoven with experiences that are joyful, puzzling, challenging, painful. To understand the whole, it is necessary to understand its components, even the unpleasant ones. This is why I try to learn all I can about relationships, politics, the environment, human and natural history, cosmology, the arts, racism. And war.

As a Vietnam veteran, my interest in how we wage war (and why) comes naturally. But one does not have to be a veteran to realize how important wars, past and present, are to humans. War is one of the signal events which define our lives -- as individuals and as a species.

My library includes a fair number of books on World War II, Vietnam, and Iraq/Afghanistan. Some are fiction, some are memoirs, but all draw upon the authors' particular experiences during their time in country. All offer a different window onto that paradoxical landscape where long periods of boredom are interrupted by moments of chaos and terror. Every individual's experience is different -- the memories of an infantryman differ from those of a fighter pilot, an artillery gunner, a medic, a SEAL, a radio operator, a rear-echelon clerk, or a LURP . There are over two million stories from Vietnam alone, and that doesn't include the stories of families and loved ones left at home. It also doesn't include the stories of North and South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.

In recent weeks I finished three exceptional books about war. In the order in which I read them, they are:

Matterhorn, a novel by Karl Marlantes. 598 pages. The story centers on Marine lieutenant Waino Mellas, who is in charge of a rifle platoon near the DMZ in South Vietnam. Historically the Marine Corps has had to do more with less, being the last to receive new weapons, transport and survival gear. Just so in Marlantes' narrative. Heat, filth, illness, torturous patrols through mountainous jungle, monsoon rains, and the seeming capricious whims of superior officers coalesce to complicate their primary mission -- to seek out and destroy NVA infiltrators, while trying to survive attacks from those same NVA. Personalities mesh and clash as the 1960s politics of race, class and ambition find a microcosm in the platoon. Of all the Marine stories from this era, this may be the best.

Crossing the Rubicon, a novel by Patrick Wageman. 741 pages. A very different Vietnam story, in both setting and tone. The reader follows a helicopter crew chief through his entire year's deployment with the 1st Air Cavalry Division. The pace is less relentless, with attention paid to character development and the inner thoughts of Robert Quint as he gradually gains both experience and perspective during his missions -- which include airborne assaults (transport of troops to a designated area of insertion), log runs (resupply and replacement of troops), and ferrying choppers between bases for repair or reassignment. A crew chief is an enlisted man who not only performs preventive maintenance on his bird, but also acts as one of two door gunners during missions. Quint's responsibilities are formidable, yet the story does not bog down in mechanical detail. I found myself settling into the narrative with ease, almost as though I were one of the crew.

Note: I've known Pat Wageman since 1970, when we met in Houston. We've been good friends over the years. He devoted much of that time to the writing and polishing of his novel. The finished product was well worth the blood, sweat and tears, Slick.

War, a memoir by Sebastian Junger. Fast-forward to the present. The author of The Perfect Storm is a journalist with a flair for language and the indelible image. Junger spent portions of fifteen months embedded with an Army infantry platoon based at Korengal, possibly the most remote and forboding outpost in eastern Afghanistan. The landscape is dry, rocky and vertical. Advanced weapons and support technology such as reconnaissance drones and satellite communications are nearly negated by terrain, and by the ingenious adaptability of Taliban insurgents. As was true during the American Revolution, and again during the Vietnam War, a guerrilla force enjoys unique advantages against a larger, more cumbersome invading force. Evasion, ambush, and the ability to blend into the local population create an elusive and formidable enemy. For me, the most striking aspect of Junger's book is the insight which he provides into the emotional and psychological affects of war on the human psyche, both during combat and afterward. Junger researched his subject well. He describes in vivid detail behavior among US troops which would be bizarre, even barbaric under any other circumstances. But he also explains how that behavior evolved, giving us an understanding which has been lacking for many years. On the individual level, war is not fought over ideology or resources. Politics and patriotism take a distant second seat to the intense bonding among one's warrior brothers -- a bond so strong that what civilians may regard as heroism is, for the troops, simply doing whatever it takes to keep fellow soldiers safe, even at the risk of one's own life. Anything less is regarded as cowardice. Along with John del Vecchio's For the Sake of All Living Things, Junger's book is a vivid and penetrating glimpse into the mentality of the warrior.

A footnote: on this day in 1789 French Revolutionaries stormed the Bastille, the Parisian fortress and prison which represented the oppression of the monarchy. The fall of the Bastille marked the true outbreak of the French Revolution, and the occasion is still celebrated as a public holiday. Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite !

13 July 2010


ANONYMITY FOR THE ACCUSED. A man falsely accused of rape explains why rape suspects should be given anonymity until convicted. Legally and morally, his assertion is entirely valid. The accused man was proven innocent, yet he endured not only jail time (where sex offenders are treated violently), but also the social stigma attached to rape and child molestation -- a stigma sufficient to arouse a vigilante response in the minds of many.

Under the US Constitution, an accused person is innocent until proven guilty (in contrast to France's Napoleanic Code under which an accused person is guilty until proven innocent). It is a reasonable extension of this principle to expect that an accused person should be granted anonymity from the media, until his or her guilt is established. Otherwise trial in the court of public opinion may prejudice the accused's right to a fair trial. In recent years, with the advent of DNA testing and other advanced forsenic techniques, a fair number of convicted and imprisoned men and women have been proven innocent and set free, having lost years of their lives to incarceration. Such miscarriages of justice fly in the face of the principles of fairness and individual rights which we hold dear. English jurist William Blackstone put it succinctly in the 1760s -- "It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer."

GRAVITY. Like all good science, physics has evolved over the centuries, from Newtonian physics (which we all learned in high school) to Einsteinian relativity (at which I am still gnawing) to string theory (trying, trying). I refer the gentle reader to a mind-stretching NYTimes article, A Scientist Takes on Gravity, in which a physicist proposes that gravity may be an illusion, or a side effect of something else going on at deeper levels of reality. It is at the very least a fascinating mind experiment, and possibly much more.

I'm reminded of one of my all-time favorite novels, Richard Bach's Illusions. The narrator, an itinerant biplane pilot, meets another pilot who becomes his mentor on the nature of reality. The story is entertaining, with enough principles and reminders and pokes in the side to make one wonder, "Yeah, what if .... ?"