Saturday, January 26, 2008

Fun Charity site

Kathy Tomajko just sent me this fun charity site. If you love word games and you love giving, it's for you! The site is Each screen gives you a word and four definitions. You chose the one you think is correct. If you're right, you donate 20 grains of rice through the United Nations to help end hunger. That doesn't add up to much, really, but it is kind of addictive to see what the next word is and if you'll get it.

Poetry; Rose in the Desert

I was at a lecture the other day related to the internet. The speaker asked what can we find on the net, and mentioned this, that, and the other thing, and lots of really bad poetry. Reminded me of my own poetry which I mostly wrote as catharsis over a few years. The emotional stress eventually dried up, and I realized that I had said everything I wanted to say, and so far the muse hasn't returned, though I keep meaning to see if I can entice her back.

Anyway, I thought that as long as I have a blog, which is an exercise in vanity anyway, why not post some of what I consider my better poems. I don't think it can lower the level of poetry out there. ;-).

So here is the first one:


© 18 August 1996; by Mary Amanda Axford; all rights reserved

Dark is the night, and frigid cold.
Yet the air is pure and opens the senses.
Faint scents drift on the wind.
The dry taste of dust is upon the tongue.
No color save the blue-white dance
of endless stars sprawled lazily
across the night sky.
No sounds save the faint noise
of life that flourishes even here
in the desert, life skittering
or sliding across the gritty sand.
The vigil has been kept the whole
of the night, the mind going deep
as each clear pure breath is drawn.
Eyes closed, the wind touches
the face, and each molecule drawn
in as breath connects the dreamer
to the whole. Each star is a friend,
a beacon; each grain of sand a universe;
each breeze a touch of hope.
The vigil draws near its close.
Black night turns indigo, the wind
blows its coldest.
The sky turns delicate, then blazes
blues, golds, orange hues.
Moment by moment the view
becomes more clear, details
and colors sketch themselves in the light.
Before the dreamer is the object of the quest;
one single sweet and perfect rose,
velvet against the sand.
The dreamer draws in breath,
a tear falling on the cheek.
Gazing on the rose,
touching lightly its glory and
smelling the faint scent,
the sorrows and joys, heartbreaks
and loves too much to bear
drop away into the sand.
Always remembered, and again
tomorrow perhaps too heavy to hold.
Yet the rose brings to the dreamer
the harmony of the universal core;
the peace outside of time.
Drawing in the sweet scent once more,
the dreamer turns away,
renewed, to share the burdens
of life one more day, to bear the memory
of the peace within the heart.

Book and Movie review: Howl's Moving Castle

TitleHowl's Moving Castle
AuthorDiana Wynne Jones
Tagsfiction, anime, fantasy, wizardry
Your reviewFirst I saw the movie, which I really loved. Looking at the IMDB record for the movie I noticed it was based on a book by Diana Wynne Jones and got the book and read it. it was quite good. There's some differences in the characters and the plot, and I personally liked the movie better, though there were a couple of things in the movie I didn't understand, like why Sophie had to destroy the castle in order to save everyone.

Anyway, I liked them both enough to recommend them.
PublicationEos (2001), Mass Market Paperback, 336 pages
Publication date2001
ISBN006441034X / 9780064410342

Book Review: Takeover, by Charlie Savage

TitleTakeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy
AuthorCharlie Savage
Tagspresidential power, government, politics, George W. Bush, US, democracy, non-fiction
Your reviewExtremely valuable book. Deals with the expansion of presidential power during the administration of George W. Bush. That may sound dry, but it MATTERS whether we live in a democracy or a dictatorship. The administration of George W. Bush has sought, since its inaugeration, to seize every opportunity to expand the powers of the Presidency. This seems to be driven primarily by Dick Cheney, who first worked in the White Hose for Ford during a time when steps were being taken to reign in presidential power after the abuses of Nixon. Cheney stated often that those reforms were a mistake. The claims for the powers of the President by the Bush White House are extreme, yet the administration has for the most part has been able to get by with it.

Charlie Savage, the author, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist for the Boston Globe, makes clear that this is not a conservative or liberal issue, that many of both persuasions have attempted to fight back against the Bush encroachment. For example, the military JAGs, not known for being liberal, have fought hard to maintain their independence rather than be put under the control of civilian political appointees. It also just makes sense that conservatives who are for less government would not be for a more powerful president. However, the GOP-dominated Congress too often gave Bush what he wished.

Secrecy has been the tool used to hide the extent of the grab, and a justification in that so much secrecy is done in the name of national security. Savage talks about secrecy in many contexts, and the power grab in terms of many issues. National Security issues include the intelligence leading up to the Iraq war, the abuses at Abu Ghraib, the major issue of Guantanamo and the military commissions, the politicization of so many departments of government, the classifying and de-classifying of documents (such as the quick de-classification that led to the leak of Valerie Plame's name), the lessening of protection for whistle blowers, ability of the courts to deal with excessive presidential power, the little-noticed appointment of Supreme Court justices whose philosophy supports extremely positive views of expanded presidential power, and much more. It has a detailed discussion of signing statements, pros and cons, and their use in the Bush administration. Another fascinating discussion concerns the use of torture, which most professional interrogators deplore as getting unreliable information, and how the need for so many interrogators in Afghanistan and Iraq meant using people not trained in it. Moreover, many of the people interrogated were not terrorists: "Only later would it emerge that hundreds of the prisoners being hastily shipped to Guantanamo were not hardened terrorists at all. Aside from a handful of hard-core terrorists, most were poor peasants conscripted against their will into Taliban militias, while others had been turned over to U.S. forces on false pretenses in exchange for $5000 bounties." (p. 148)

Along the way Savage provides more information on some of the administration people most involved, including David Addington, Cheney's chief of staff, and John Yoo, who wrote memos while in the Office of Legal Counsel that justified torture and more (this book covers some of the same material as Jack Goldsmith's The Terror Presidency, and makes a useful supplement to that work).

Finally the book has an interesting tidbit on the Bush administration and the war in Iraq: ""One document, later obtained by Judicial Watch, showed that Cheney's energy task force was studying Iraqi oil fields, and the companies that had drilling rights on them, as early as March 2001..." (footnote, p. 91)

The book is meticulously researched with almost 50 pages of footnotes and an extensive index.

Well worth the time to read.
PublicationLittle, Brown and Company (2007), Hardcover, 416 pages
Publication date2007
ISBN0316118044 / 9780316118040

Rant from the Left Side of Town

Recently I saw the blog of a someone I roomed with almost 20 years ago and who is a friend, though we've lost touch except through a mutual friend. Partly the loss is due to just loss of contact, partly my discomfort with her increasingly conservative views.... which makes me a coward, something she is not. I'm not a person comfortable with conflict, and yet I get uncomfortable with either letting views I disagree with pass by, or speaking out and getting into an argument. I'm aware that's a failing in me, that I haven't learned to speak my convictions with passion yet without anger. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who share this failing, and it means we don't have a sufficient dialog in this country between those on the right and the left. We each listen to people who share our views and reinforce them, rather than have a dialog where we might learn from each other and at least acknowledge the other side has legitimate concerns.

Anyway, recently our mutual friend sent me a site about her on a con web page (she is now a published SF Author- Mazel Tov -) and the page pointed me to her blog. So I read several posts, mostly fun, and then of course read a politically-oriented one that, also of course, I highly disagree with. It has bothered me for a few days, and I have to respond to it. The blog post is on this page. Click on "blog" then scroll down to An Open Letter to Anyone Who Views Killing in War, by Actual Soldiers in Their Nation's Armed Forces, as "Murder" post.

Oh, a note on sources: most of the sources I will list here are books I have reviewed on Library Thing. Look at my reannon account if you are interested in the complete citation and review of any of those sources.

Begin reply:

There's so much to say I'm not sure where to begin. I think first with your comment "spare me your equivocations about the nuances of your position." Sorry, no can do. The issue is complex, and nuances are a part of that complexity. Way too much political comment, including from the media, is too simple and doesn't give a full picture of reality.

Secondly, I'm not exactly your target audience. I don't call the death of legitimate military targets in a legitimate war murder. But (oh, those damned nuances) I suspect we differ quite a bit in what we consider legitimate targets in a legitimate war. I'm aware that in the current state of war it isn't possible to avoid civilian casualties, if for no other reason than a cowardly enemy uses civilians as shields.

BUT I INSIST WE HAVE A REALLY GOOD REASON FOR KILLING CIVILIANS AND FOR PUTTING OUR SOLDIERS IN DANGER OF DEATH AND INJURY (yes, I'm shouting). The war in Afghanistan is legitimate, in my opinion, and should have as its goal taking out Al Quaeda.

It is a view shared by many of the populace that Iraq was a distraction from the mission in Afghanistan and caused it to fail because it diverted so many resources. Many Americans, including me, do not view the war in Iraq as legitimate. There is absolutely no doubt now that there were no WMD in Iraq, and no connection between Iraq and Al Quaeda, and that the intelligence that said otherwise was faulty at best, and often disputed by the professional intelligence services (see, among other sources, Hubris, by Michael Isikoff and David Corn). It is also clear from multiple sources that Bush was determined to go into Iraq before 9/11 (see, for example, the footnote on p. 91 of Takeover, by Charlie Savage, and Richard Clark's assertions that Bush asked him, as counter-terrorism director, to find a connection beteeen 9/11 and Iraq, despite Clark's repeated assurances that there was no such connection). Many of the Iraqi people see the war as a pretext to gain control of their oil, and there are strong reasons for agreeing with them. For example, when the US military first went into Baghdad, the only government building that was protected was the oil ministry, which held the maps of the oil fields. The military stood by while the priceless history of all humanity was destroyed in the national museum and archives, and didn't even protect a huge armory... many of weapons stolen there are believed to have killed or maimed many U.S. soldiers. (I can't remember specific sources for these, but I've read a fair amount on the topic and the sources sort of blur into each other. A major source is Ali Allawi's The Occupation of Iraq, also see William R. Polk, Understanding Iraq).

Naomi Klein, in The Shock Doctrine adds another reason for Bush to invade Iraq - his vision of a free market economy with democracy, remaking the country into a blueprint for the Middle East. A major problem with this was that Bush and his team went into the war profoundly ignorant of the history and culture of the region (see Allawi and Peter Galbraith, The End of Iraq, in which he tells that Bush, in a meeting with three Iraqi VIPs two months before the invasion, didn't understand the terms "Sunni" and "Shia").

Is the world better off without Saddam Hussein, a brutal dictator? Again the answer is complex. Mostly I want to leave that answer up to the Iraqis, who have seen hundreds of thousands of their citizens killed, near starvation conditions, the destruction of their infrastructure, no-bid contracts awarded to companies that built buildings where shit drips from the ceilings, built by laborers brought in from elsewhere though Iraqis desperately need jobs, etc (see William R. Polk and George McGovern, Out of Iraq). Another part of the answer is that it would be understandable to be confused by US policy. We supported Saddam duing the Iran-Iraq war (actually we went back and forth, arming first Iraq, then Iran, then Iraq again). From where do you think the chemical weapons came from that Saddam used on his civilian population? (see Galbraith and others). Moreover, the US has a history of supporting dictators as long as they do what we want. Sometimes we then overthrow them if they stop doing what we want (Saddam, Noriega), and sometimes we overthrow legitimately elected regimes that we don't like. You mention that the problems we have with Iran now could have been avoided if we dealt harshly with Iran in 1979, and blame us liberals for the failure to do so. But that Iranian revolution was in part blowback for the CIA coup against Mossedegh in 1953 and US support for the Shah, also a brutal dictator (see Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah's Men).

My point is that war should be the last resort, and for the defense of the United States. Isaac Asimov said violence is the last resort of the incompetent. The American public needs to know that its leaders are spending the blood of our soldiers and the lives of civilians, as well as billions of dollars, for reasons vital to security. Bush is not the first US president to go to war for unjust reasons (see Norman Soloman, War Made Easy, and Robin Andersen, Century of Media, Century of War).

Another point is that Americans, bewildered by "why do they hate us", are not exposed to how other peoples do see us. They don't know that citizens in other countries have seen photos of the bodies of civilians burned by white phosphorus (see Allawi and Andersen). They don't remember the number of coups we've created, the support we've given to utterly brutal dictators (see Anderson, Klein, Kinzer, and Galbraith, among others) They don't see the thousands of bodies burned in Panama when we overthrew Noriega. And Grenada? What WAS that about? The medical students were not in danger.

I love this country. I love the ideals it was founded upon. And I do consider myself a patriot because I want this country to live up to those ideals, and to be the "shining city on the hill" that we could be. Have we ever wholly lived up to our ideals? Not really... there was slavery, and the genocide against the Native Americans, equality for only a few. But over time we have developed brilliant new concepts of what equality is, and what the ideals we aspire to are. I hold us to high standards, but I don't believe they are out of our reach. To make these dreams real we must hold our leaders accountable, we must be aware of what is done in the name of the American people, and we must get back to a clear vision of what American ideals and interests are.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Book review: The Ever-Running Man

TitleThe Ever-Running Man (Sharon McCone Mysteries)
AuthorMarcia Muller
Tagsseries, mystery, fiction, sharon mccone
Your reviewThis is the latest in Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone series, and is an excellent addition to the series. McCone is hired by her husband's firm to investigate a series of bombings of the firm's offices. She learns things about the firm she dislikes, and isn't sure to what extent her husband Hy Ripinshiy is involved in. The case jeopardizes their relationship.
PublicationWarner Books (2007), Hardcover, 320 pages
Publication date2007
ISBN0446582425 / 9780446582421

Book review: Home to Holly Springs

TitleHome to Holly Springs (Father Tim, Book 1)
AuthorJan Karon
Tagsfiction, christian, father tim, series
Your reviewI always underestimate Jan Karon, and expect too little of her as a storyteller, and she always surprises me with her quality. Take this story... it is the story of Father Tim's childhood in Holly Springs, Mississippi, which was a time of severe racial oppression in that place. I had misgivings that she would downplay the oppression, and indeed the ugliness of it isn't as deeply felt as in some works. Yet Karon explores the complexity of racial relations through complex and well-portrayed family relationships. Recommended.
PublicationViking Adult (2007), Hardcover, 368 pages
Publication date2007
ISBN0670018252 / 9780670018253

Book review: Spanish Dagger

TitleSpanish Dagger (China Bayles Mystery)
AuthorSusan Wittig Albert
Tagsfiction, mystery, series, china bayles
Your reviewSpanish Dagger is the 15th of Susan Wittig Albert's China Bayles series. China is a former lawyer who gave it up to open an herbal shop in the Texas hill country. Her best friend is Ruby, who owns the New Age shop next door. The two eventually open a tea shop together. Meanwhile, they solve mysteries, lots of them. In this particular book, Ruby's former boyfriend is killed at the same time that Ruby is trying to deal with her mother's dementia.

The series isn't as cozy as it sounds. China has experience dealing with rough stuff in her lawyering days, and knows from experience that small towns that seem tranquil on the surface have their problems like everywhere else. China grows a lot as a character through the series, dealing with her intimacy issues which she resolves enough to marry McQuaid, a former policeman, now private investigator. She learns to cope with motherhood to McQuaid's son by a previous marriage, and to deal with the parents who virtually abandoned her, one a workaholic and one an alcoholic.

Altogether a dynamic series and Spanish Dagger is an excellent entry into the series. Nice bits of herbal lore and recipes are included in the books.

Albert also co-authors, with her husband Bill, a mystery series set in late 19th and early 20th century England under the pseudonym of Robin Paige. It is also an excellent series. Albert writes the Cottage Tales, which have Beatrix Potter as their main character. I've only read one, and it had more talking animals than I was ready to read about.

Check out the Alberts' site at for details on all their works.
PublicationBerkley Hardcover (2007), Hardcover, 320 pages
Publication date2007
ISBN0425213943 / 9780425213940

Book review: Atonement

AuthorIan Mcewan
Tagsfiction wwii
Your reviewMy book club read Atonement for the January 2008 meeting. I hadn't read very far into yet, and was not too engaged by it. The excellent reviews from the other people in the bookclub persuaded me to finish it, and I'm glad I did.

The book has three parts. The longest section is set in England in 1935. The second part is duirng WWII, from the British retreat to Dunkirk through some time later. The third and quite short part is set in 1999. In the first part a great injustice takes place. The second part is the experiences of two of the important characters during WWii, and the last wraps up what happened.

In hindsight, the story isn't what held my interest that much. The story of WWII was what captured my interest, and the power of McEwan's prose. It was mesmerizing.

Now I want to see the movie. ;-)..
PublicationAnchor (2007), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 368 pages
Publication date2007
ISBN0307387151 / 9780307387158

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Book review: Radicals in Robes

TitleRadicals in Robes: Why Extreme Right-Wing Courts are Wrong for America
AuthorCass R. Sunstein
Tagssupreme court, judicial theory, non-fiction, cass sunstein,
Your reviewSunstein describes four approaches to U.S. constitutional law: perfectionism, majoritarianism, minimalism, and fundamentalism. Perfectionism is the more liberal approach, following the text but also making decisions following their own views of freedom of the press, equal protection, etc. It was the main approach of the Warren Court.

Majoritarians believe that unless there has been a clear violation of the Constitution, the "courts should defer to the judgements of elected representatives." (p. xii). Oliver Wendall Holmes was a majoritarian, but there are few if any on the Supreme Court today.

The third approach is minimalism. Miinimalists rule narrowly, one issue at a time, rarely if ever making broad rulings with wide application.

Finally the last approach is fundamentalism. "in their view, the founding document must be interpreted to mean exactly what it meant at the time it was ratified". (p. xiii) "But some fundamentalists have not hesitated to betray their commitment to the original understanding when the historical evidence points to results they dislike. Their willingness to do so suggests that some of the time, they are working for a partisan ideology rather than law." (p. xiv) Clarence Thomas is the foremost of the fundamentalists, willing to write broad decisions that overturn precedent. Scalia is similar, but less willing to overturn precedent.

A summary, from chapter 10: "In the abstract, fundamentalism appears both principled and neutral. But too much of the time, fundamentalists offer an unmistakably partisan vision of the Constitution. Their Constitution casts serious doubts on affirmative action programs, gun control laws, restrictions on commercial advertising, environmental regulations, campaign finance reform, and laws that permit citizens to sue to enforce federal law. As many fundamentalists understand America's founding document, it raises doubts about the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, and many other federal agencies. It allows the President extraordinarily wide authority to wage war even at the expense of the most basic liberties. It contains no right of privacy. It allows the national government to discriminate on the basis of race. It permits states to benefit religious believers and perhaps even to establish churches. It imposes sharp limits on Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce and to enforce the guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment. Most ambitiously, fundamentalists want to move in the direction of some Lost Constitution or the Constitution in Exile - the document as it was understood in the distant past. " (p. 243)

"Fundamentalists claim to embrace originilism, and to their credit, some of their conclusions do fit well with the original understanding of the Constitution. But they write as if their approach is the only legitimate approach to interpretation - as if those who reject the original understanding, and refuse to be bound by the views of those long dead, are refusing to do law at all. This is a myth. The Constitution doesn't call for fundamentalism. Nor have fundamentalists confronted the serious conceptual difficulties with following the 'original understanding' of a document that was written centuries ago. And they have been evasive rather than candid about the radicalism of their approach, which would threaten to undo much of the fabric of our democracy and our rights." (p. 244)

Sunstein advocates a minimalist approach, which produces change over time but slowly.

I can't say I understand all the details of Sunstein's arguments, but it is a surprisingly readable book for the layperson, and on a really important topic.
PublicationBasic Books (2005), Hardcover, 281 pages
Publication date2005

Monday, January 7, 2008

iPod thoughts

Last month I committed iPod. It took me a while, but I finally gave in to this bit of consumer culture. It brings up a lot of thoughts.

First, it makes me feel guilty. The iPod says up front that it was designed in California but made in China. I deplore that everything, especially all of our electronics, are made overseas, primarily in China, probably by workers earning a pittance in poor working conditions. I don't know Apple's policies on labor, but Milton Friedman (see Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctiine) and Wal-Mart have had a disastrous effect on the world economy. Wal-Mart not only has manufacturing plants in China, but insist that their suppliers bring in items for such a low price the suppliers have no choice but to start manufacturing overseas paying miniscule wages.

I'm totally perplexed at pricing for mp3 players. I did a lot of online shopping and price comparisons, including looking at non-Apple brands. For lower capacity players, the other brands are cheaper, but Apple gets competitive with their higher capacity players. But the p;rices are just all over the place. You can get players under 1 gig for under $50. 2-4 gig players range greatly in price. What I really don't understand is that you can get an 8 gig iPod Touch for $200 and for $250 I got an 80 gig iPod Classic. Ten times the storage capacity for only $50 more! I do understand they are different technologies, one solid state and one a hard drive, but don't know that there is much difference in the life of the product.

It sure is nice to have all this music in one device I can put in my pocket. And I can also save podcasts, video, and even documents (though I haven't tried that yet). The iTunes store makes a tremendous amount of material available. There is very little music I searched for that wasn't available. The major exception is, amusingly enough, the Beatles. Their albums are on Apple records, which has had an adversarial relationship to Apple Computer. iTunes also has movies and TV shows available. For example, some episodes of classic Star Trek are available for only $1.99 an episode. Not that much is available yet, but the price is a surprise... Paramount has up until now charged large amounts for Star Trek. Podcasts of Bill Moyer's Journal are available free - it is just the audio, of course, no video, but still!

Even more exciting is iTunes U, or University. There are free podcasts of lectures from many universities. I've found lectures from Paul Krugman, Al Gore, Molly Ivins, Cokie Roberts (on the Founding Mothers), Dan Rather, and many more. I do hope Georgia Tech is working on getting our material into this format.

I guess I'm just really entwined in consumer culture and have become a Modern Woman. I now have a laptop, a cell phone, and an iPod. What next?

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Frontline great ideas

Just watched an episode of Frontline which has some marvelous stories. One I had already heard about, Kiva, which arranges micro credit loans to small businesses in the third world. All it takes is a credit card and an internet connection, and anyone can loan money. Several people who have loaned money then get it back and make new loans. One man profiled is involved in over 70 loans. The amounts are small, a large loan is $1100. Multiple people can be part of a loan. Kiva ( partners with organizations in 3rd world countries to take applications and approve loans. So far they've had a 100% repayment. Businesses profiled included a woman who has a peanut butter factory and a man who makes furniture. What a wonderful way for individuals to help change the world!

The second great idea was the Play Pump by entrepreneur Trevor Field. Clean water is difficult to find in Africa, and often requires walking long distances and cranking a hand pump for a lengthy time.. Field's Play Pump uses a merry-go-round like apparatus. Children in the school play on it and pump water to a tower where it is stored and then fed to a spigot. The story about it is here:
Field started out producing it with his own money, and now has raised a good bit of money from many sources and plans to triple his production.

Genius is alive and in the service of humankind!