Sunday, May 31, 2009

West Wing Episode: The Birnam Wood

Just saw again "The Birnam Wood" episode of the West Wing. It is an excellent dramatization of the issues involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, all done in an hour and giving the issues a human face. Bravo is running the West Wing, and they are pretty flaky about how they are doing it, but it is well worth watching. Still, I hope to purchase the whole set with next year's tax refund.

Movie Review: Hangmen Also Die

Caught this movie on TCM and found it fascinating. It is the story of the assassination of Reynhard Heidrich, Hitler's overseer in Prague, and the results, which included the killing of many hostages. The movie is not very true to the real story of the assassination, but the whole story was not known in 1943 when the movie came out. And I find it fascinating that the movie came out while the war was still going on. It is quite an adventurous yarn, but it must have had even better effects as showing the civilian population some of what they were fighting the war for, in showing how rotten the Nazi regime was and the awful choices that the Czechs were forced to make to survive.

I did a paper on Heydrich in college, and he was fascinating in a horrible way. He was highly intelligent, and could have been a force for good in the world. Instead he did things like coordinate the gathering of intelligences from Hitler's brothels, come up with the ideas for the genocidal Final Solution, and ruled the Czechs with typical Nazi brutality. I had to wonder how such a person could live with himself, and got an interesting clue from one event in his life. He had been out drinking and came home. As he came in he saw his reflection in a mirror, pulled out his gun, and shot the mirror. That, to me, argues self-hatred in a big, but ineffectual, way.

Book Review: The Gamble, by Ricks

Title: The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008
Author: Thomas E. Ricks
Rating: ****1/2
Tags: iraq, war, counterinsurgency, david petreaus, ray odierno, military, non-fiction

The Gamble is one of those rare books that has entirely changed what I know and what I think about a topic. It is about the change in U.S. military strategy in Iraq in 2007, what is usually called "the surge". I have been opposed to the war in Iraq, and was opposed to the surge, but I now know that I didn't know what it meant.

The big lack was in not understanding what counterinsurgency means as a strategy. Its first goal is to protect the population, and then to isolate the insurgents and so starve them of support. This meant a huge change in the previous strategy, which was to capture and kill, not being concerned about civilian casualties, and to operate out of large bases not near the population. Counterinsurgency requires higher numbers of troops, because they have to live, patrol, and hold territory in the population centers.

The whole book is fascinating, and well-written, in telling how the new strategy came to be adopted, by who, and what effects it had. It meant a change in military top brass as well as in strategy, and it is remarkable how much change was driven by people outside the normal chain of command. An Australian counterinsurgency expert, David Kilcullen, wrote one of the leading documents, and a retired general, Jack Keane, saw how badly the war was going and pushed for change. But primarily the two responsible for having the new strategy adopted and implemented were David Petreaus and Raymond Odierno. Petreaus was in charge of a team that wrote the Army's new counterinsurgency manual, and then took over operational control of Iraq. Odierno was more in charge of the day-to-day operations that made the new strategy happen.

The new strategy had its biggest successes in turning the Sunni tribesmen in Anwar away from Al Quaeda in Iraq. And all over, when protecting the population became the main goal, terrific things happened. The soldiers got to know the people they were protecting, understanding them better, which led to people sharing intelligence with them that made for greater success in defeating the insurgents. And over the course of several months, deaths began dropping dramatically.

The book, thus far, is a rather thrilling adventure about what had failed by not caring about people turned into a success by caring about them. It is an uplifting story.

However, in the final section of the book, Ricks brings it all back down to earth again. The surge worked, militarily. Deaths dropped dramatically. The military was irrevocably changed in its culture and approach. Yet military success did not breed political success in creating a more stable Iraq. Ricks finds it unlikely that Iraq will ever be the kind of secular integrated democracy that Bush so grandly envisioned yet failed to have any realistic plan for. Iraq may yet have more dictators in its history. Even worse, it is almost inevitable that some U.S. troops will be required for many years to have even a mildly acceptable Iraq, one that isn't a flash point in a regional war.

I highly recommend this book for those who want to understand Iraq and U.S. relations with it.

Publication Penguin Press HC, The (2009), Hardcover, 400 pages
Publication date 2009
ISBN 1594201978 / 9781594201974

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Book Review: Ida: A Sword Among Lions

Title: Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching
Author: Paula J. Giddings
Rating: ****
Tags: lynching, women, suffrage, civil rights, ida b. wells, frederick douglass, non-fiction

Ida B. Wells, at least until the publication of this book, was something of a footnote in history, her role in anti-lynching campaigns played down by those who came after her.

Gidding's book restores Wells reputation, in great detail. Actually the book was hard for me to get through. It is long and heavy, not good with my minor carpal tunnel. But I decided to finish the book and am glad that I did.
Wells was born a slave in 1862. Her parents were skilled though, and made an easier transition to freedom than many others. Unfortunately they died young, and Wells and her siblings were forced to survive on their own. Wells lived in Memphis and was a teacher. Black civil rights, gained afer the Civil War, began to be eroded pretty quickly. Wells first came to public attention with an anti-lynching article in 1892, against the lynching of three men, one of whom was a friend of hers. Her anti-lynching campaign helped propel her into journalism, but she was forced into exile from Memphis in fear of her life. She traveled a lot, eventually winding up in Chicago, where she married a lawyer named Ferdinand Barnett and had four children with him. She never stopped working for civil rights for African-Americans and women, and for improving conditions for blacks.

In her anti-lynching campaigns, she investigated incidents in detail, and published the results in pamphlets, while also writing articles refuting that the cause of most lynchings was black male rape of white women.

Wells could be a contentious personality, and it cost her over her life. But what also cost her was just the unwillingness of many to hear the cold hard facts she wanted revealed. She was farther to the left politically than most, insisting on civil rights when it was far more popular to follow Booker T. Washington in saying that black vocational education was more important than rights, that it would improve the economic conditions and raise the status of the race. Wells knew that, for one thing, it wasn't a lot of use to educate blacks for jobs that they wouldn't be hired for because of their skin color.

Giddings gets into some sickening detail in eiscussing lynchings, but these are the facts. The events were brutal... not just death, but torture before death. Reading these horrors don't make one proud of being white. Even progressive whites were often unable to understand the degree of their racial prejudice. Ida made them uncomfortable because she would tell that they were wrong and why.

So all in all, this is a story that shows the worst of humanity, prejudice so strong it destroyed lives in so many ways, but also of those who had the courage to speak up, and to never give up, despite every possible discouragement. It reinforces what I've thought for a long while, that society advances by evolutionary change rather than revolutionary. Revolutions tend to provoke reaction that sends things back to where they were or worse. Yet society needs the revolutionary voices to raise consciousness and introduce new progressive ideas. Ida B. Wells was one of those voices.

Ida: A Sword Among Lions is a book that in the end rewards the effort of reading it.

Publication Amistad (2008), Hardcover, 816 pages
Publication date 2008
ISBN 0060519215 / 9780060519216

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Quote of the Day: 5/28/2009

"The poetry of earth is never dead."

John Keats, On the Grasshopper and Cricket

Kingdom of Heaven by Melissa Etheridge

I'm listening to Melissa Etheridge on my iPod. Just heard her song "Kingdom of Heaven" and I really like the lyrics. Here's the chorus:

My God is love,
My God is peace,
My God loves you,
My God loves me.

Simple enough. Works for me.

The Costs of Current Drug Policies

This CNN article reports on a study of current federal and state spending on drug-related issues. The numbers are pretty shocking. So little of it goes to treatment and prevention, so much to policies that have simply failed.

Heart-wrenching News Story from Iraq

This CNN article puts a human face on the destruction in Iraq. Unutterably sad.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Thoughts on Current TV

Ok, I admit it. I don't have a life and I watch too much TV. There, now you know. So I have some thoughts on the current season of TV that has just finished up. First of all, I don't like reality shows. Real people, for the most part, just aren't all that interesting, I guess, at least not those who show up on most reality shows. The bits and pieces I see of them seem to be mostly about pretty, vapid people, who don't care about any of the things that I'm interested in. I think the singing/dancing/talent shows are more interesting and worthwhile, they're mostly just not my thing, though I've been thrilled by Susan Boyle. Then I'm not that much interested in sit-coms. They're hard to make different, or interesting, and are rarely funny enough to keep me coming back. The humor I most like right now is political satire, specifically The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, which I watch religiously.

So that leaves scripted dramas. There have been quite a few over the years that I've loved. Science fiction faves include the original Star Trek, Star Trek the Next Generation, and especially Star Trek Deep Space Nine. Babylon 5 is absolutely one of my top favorite shows of all time and all genres. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is also one of my favorites, and I keep wondering what it would be like if J. Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5, and Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy, got together on a project. It would either be one of the best things ever, or it wouldn't work because two people of staggering genius just get in each other's way.

Right now, I'm obsessed with the reruns of The West Wing, which I find better and better every day, though I didn't watch all of it when it ran originally. It is part of the obsession I've had with politics arising from the horrors of the Bush administration. Anyway, it is a compelling drama, with excellent characters, and by Jove, it provides good civics lessons too.

Out of the current crop, I am most watching Chuck, Medium, NCIS, the Mentalist, Lie to Me, Criminal Minds, Ugly Betty, Gray's Anatomy, Eleventh Hour, Burn Notice, Eureka, Dollhouse, Flashpoint, Numb3rs, Bones, and Legend of the Seeker.

One trend that I rather deplore is the genius guy who is an immature spoiled brat. The Mentalist started really well, and showed a lot of promise, but lately it has succumbed to this temptation. Lie to me, about a consultant who can detect lies, has come close to it. Numb3rs, which could have easily succumbed to it, has kept clear by having characters who are geniuses but humble enough to question themselves and learn from their experiences.

If I had to say what the defining quality I like in a show is, I'd have to say maturity, but I then have the problem of defining what I mean by that, and I find it hard to define. In the context of a TV series, I mean that it has complex characters dealing with complex situations, facing them head-on, not giving into the temptation to give simple answers in situations where there are no simple answers. They struggle with how to be ethical in situations that have no clear easy answers. They don't have knee-jerk reactions. They think, and they feel, but not superficially. The situations they deal with may not have a good solution, or what solves part of the problem may cause another. You know... like real life. One of the greatest surprise series that's new this spring that illustrates what I mean is Flashpoint. It runs on CBS Fridays at 9, and is about a SWAT team. Ones expects super machismo from such a show, but it doesn't ever happen here. The team looks for any answer that isn't violent first. They will use lethal force when they must, but it hurts them and they have to deal with the pain. They have gotten a little formulaic... the "villains" are almost always good people who have been driven to the breaking point, and the team learns to appreciate them even while doing what they have to to resolve the situation as safely as possible.

Legend of the Seeker is a fantasy show, set in a medieval world where magic works. There is a villain who wants to conquer a whole world, the hero destined to stop him, the woman who has certain magic that allows her to get the truth from anyone, and another character is a wizard of the first order. What I like about the show is that magic works, yes, but it has consequences and is as often dangerous as it is helpful.

Ugly Betty has one outstanding characteristic, which is characters of great depth. Even the worst of the characters has some good qualities, and one also sees where their character traits came from. The good characters have their bad days, but they recover their moral compass sooner.

Bones has taken an odd turn for a forensics drama... lately it seems to be turning into a comedy. It's pretty good comedy, but it is odd.

Burn Notice is an unusual show. It is a spy story, and once again I expected super machismo... which you may have gathered, I dislike intensely. The spy in question, though, has been "Burned"... told he is out and all his resources cut off. He has to deal with his dysfunctional family and girlfriend. He is not a macho character. he spends his time helping people in trouble, and as in Flashpoint, violence is his last resort. He'd much rather think his way out of situation, and he uses technology in an almost McGyver-like fashion. A show I was lucky enough to see from the beginning and hope to see for several years.

Another interesting trend is the number of shows that have scientists as major characters, including Numb3rs, Eleventh Hour, Eureka, Bones, and, of course, the Big Bang Theory. I'm not sure what it means, but I like it.

I don't think the day of scripted dramas are over... there may be fewer of them, but they survive, and on more channels than ever.

Book Review: Life Sentences

Title: Life Sentences: A Novel
Author: Laura Lippman
Rating: ***1/2
Tags: mysstery, laura lippman, baltimore, fiction, stand alone

I've read and enjoyed some of Lippman's other books, but this one just didn't gel for me. I didn't particularly like the main charadcters, and there was one plot point I never did understand.

The book is set in Baltimore like most of Lippman's work. The main character is Cassandra, who is, as might be guessed from the name, the daughter of a professor. She was a daddy's girl, but Daddy left when she was 10. As an adult, Cassandra has written best-selling volumes of memoirs, and thinks there might be another book in the story of her and her classmates, one of whom later spent sever years in prison after her baby son disappeared.

Lippman is a good writer, but even good writers can occasionally produce a lesser work.

Publication William Morrow (2009), Hardcover, 352 pages
Publication date 2009
ISBN 0061128899 / 9780061128899

Summary of Reactions to Sotomayor

This Utne Reader post on reactions to Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination. It is a nice summary of the reaction of the blogosphere and the media and has links to a lot of resources.

Quote of the Day: 5/27/2009

This seems somewhat appropriate, given yesterday's California court upholding Prop. 8:

"If God dislikes gays so much, how come he picked Michelangelo, a known homosexual, to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling while assigning Anita [Bryant] to go on tv and push orange juice?"

--Mike Royko

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

New Sherlock Holmes Movie

...coming in December, starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law. I think Downey is a great actor, I loved him the most in Restoration and Chaplin. Here's the trailer:

Bad News from California

Prop. 8 has been upheld. I don't at all see how this can be legal, but I'm not on the California court nor a lawyer.

Marriage Equality is a matter of civil rights.

The GOP and Its Future

This article from CNN discusses the feuds between the right-wing of the party, specifically Limbaugh and Cheney, and one of the few current moderate voices, Colin Powell. What I thought most interesting was the popularity figures for the three. Powell has a positive rating of 70 percent, while Limbough has a favorable rating of 30% and Cheney 37%. The unfavorable ratings for Cheney are 55 percent and Limbaugh 53%. That's for all voters, of course. Among Republican voters all three rank in the 60s for positive views. There's also the poll result that showed the numbers of Americans identifying as Republicans is down to a low of 22%. See also my previous post on young people not identifying with socially conservative views. None of this speaks of good times ahead for the GOP, and in my view, they've earned every trouble they have.

However, I do agree that we need two healthy parties to be a viable democracy... but would not mind a viable new party arising to the left of the Democratic party. It might get the support of a lot of people, as many people in polls identify with progressive positions, even if they don't call themselves liberal or progressive. But I guess such a party would never attract enough money to survive. It might happen if we had public financing of campaigns.

Quote of the Day: 5/26/2009

"Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies."

- Groucho Marx

Congratulations to Judge Sotomayor

Obama has chosen Judge Sonia Sotomayor to replace Supreme Court justice David Souter. See Glen Greenwald's post here. One article mentions that 99% of her opinions have been upheld. Greater diversity on the Court can only be a good thing, and Sotomayor's life story is inspiring.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Younger Americans Less Socially Conservative

This article talks about polling data from Pew, which seems to be a highly reliable organization. It shows that younger people are less socially conservative by a respectable amount, which tracks with what I've been seeing in other news articles and polling data.

Interesting New Ecological Products

See this Mother Jones article on interesting products that may improve the environment... including using hair from hair trimming salons to soak up oil.

Black Mayor Elected for Philadelphia, Mississippi

Wow. The town that is most associated with the murder of three civil rights workers in 1964 has now elected a black mayor. This is s story that renews my optimism...

Memorial Day

Thank you to all those, including my father, who have fought in the service of this country.

I support the troops. To me that means some specific things: that they have adequate pay, adequate equipment including armor, are not subject to too many deployments in too short a time, the best medical care during their lifetimes, and most importantly:

That they not be sent to wars that do not have a viable national interest and are not sufficiently planned out with achievable goals and exit strategies.

Quote of the Day: 5/25/2009

"So what right do I have to object because [Rush] Limbaugh makes fun of different people than I do?
I object because he consistently targets dead people, little girls, and the homeless - none of whom are in a particularly good position to answer back. Satire is a weapon, and it can be quite cruel. It has historically been the weapon of powerless people aimed at the powerful. When you use satire against powerless people, as Limbaugh does, it is not only cruel, it's profoundly vulgar. It is like kicking a cripple."

Molly Ivins, "Lyin' Bully", May/June 1995, republished in You Got to Dance..., p. 138. The same article gives several good examples of Rush getting the facts wrong.

I miss Molly Ivins more all the time. What a great voice she was for sanity.

Health Care Reform

Paul Krugman has this sobering article on health care reform, and it looks like a public option may be off the table, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is A Very Bad Thing. However, I watched the latest Bill Moyer's Journal yesterday, and he had two doctors on there cogently arguing that a single payer health care plan is the only one that can cover as many people as possible and can control costs. This issue is vital, and yet the political will to make single-payer possible is lacking in the politicians. Single payer would get rid of the health insurance industry, and they are spending a LOT of money to see it doesn't happen.

Jack Goldsmith on Obama's Terrorism Policies

This article is by Jack Goldsmith, who was an Assistant Attorney General in the Bush administration and served as head of the Office of Legal Counsel. He withdrew two of John Yoo's memos, judging the advice they gave illegal. He wrote an excellent book on the topic, The Terror Presidency. In this article he compares the Obama and Bush administration policies on torture, rendition, and detainment, and shows that the late Bush administration policies and Obama's policies are not that different. Goldsmith sets these issues in their historical, legal, and political context. There's a lot of Obama's policies on these subjects I don't agree with, but through this article I understand them better.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Book Review: 8th Confession

Title: The 8th Confession
Author: Paetro, Maxine
James Patterson
Rating: ***1/2
Tags: mystery, series, women's murder club

Eighth in the Women's Murder Club series by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro. Young wealthy San Franciscans are dying and the ME can't figure out why. Detective Lindsay Boxer and her parnter Rich Conklin are under pressure to solve these cases quickly, but there are few clues. Meanwhile Cindy, the reporter whi is a part of the Women's Murder Club, is fascinated by the death of a homeless man that others saw as a saint, but she can't get the police interested.

As usual, Patterson and his co-writer provide a fast-moving plot and fairly interesting characters.

Other authors: Paetro, Maxine
Author – Paetro, Maxine
Publication Little, Brown and Company (2009), 368 pages
Publication date 2009

Book Review: Lethal Legacy

Title: Lethal Legacy (Alexandra Cooper Novel): A Novel
Author: Linda Fairstein
Rating: ****
Tags: mystery, series, alexandra cooper, new york city, nypl

Linda Fairstein's Alexandra Cooper series is one of the best mystery series around. Fairstein writes what she knows, having been assistant DA in New York, like her character. Fairstein also seems to have undertaken to educate the world about the city of New York, as most books in the series are about major features of the city. In this volume, the focal point is the New York Public Library, and during the course of the book one finds out a lot about that institution.and about historical maps. A woman was killed and the clues point to a library connection.

Good book in an excellent series.

Publication Doubleday (2009), Hardcover, 384 pages
Publication date 2009
ISBN 0385523998 / 9780385523998

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Inestimable Ed Brayton

I've mentioned lots of his posts on his blog Dispatches from the Culture Wars before. Today he has three really important ones that I'll point to in the same post:

Excellent post on what he suspects Obama meant by empathy in a Supreme Court justice. He makes several good points about the Court.

Post on debunking the claims that hate crimes legislation will give protection to pedophiles. There is a LOT of lying that goes on about hate crimes legislation from the right.

Post on the horrors of prosecutors blocking access to DNA tests that could exonerate a prisoner.

Nice Summary of Gay Marriage Issue

This article, as the author admits, doesn't say anything new on the marriage equality issue, but is a nice summary of it from the pro-gay marriage point of view. I think he is right, that some time from now same sex marriage will be legal in all 50 states and people will wonder what all the fuss is about. I'll say it even stronger... the battle has been won. The younger generation is pro-gay marriage in numbers sufficient to make it legal across the country. SO.. why not admit it and let it happen sooner, so the same sex couples living now, who want to be a legally recognized family, can have that right?

It isn't unimportant, though those not directly affected may see it that way. It is a matter of psychological health for LGBT folk, to feel that they are equal and respected as anyone else. It is a legal matter... there are too many cases of wills leaving assets to a long-term partner being overturned, of partners not being able to see their partner in the hospital or not being able to make medical decisions for an incapacitated partner, and so on.


Labor Unions and Employers

This article discusses the methods used by employers to prevent unionization and their prevalence. Usage of such methods as one-on-one meetings to discuss views on unions with employees, firing of employees, and threats to cut pay and benefits are up, while of course union membership is down.

Quote of the Day: 5/20/2009

"The thorns which I have reap'd are of the tree
I planted; they have torn me, and I bleed.
I should have known what fruit would spring from such a seed."

-- George Gordon, Lord Byron, Childe Harolde's Pilgramage, Stanza 10.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Quote of the Day: 5/19/2009

For today, one this is short, fun, and often reflects my reality. ;-/.

"It's a three-dwarf day. I'm Dopey, Sleepy, and Grumpy".

NYT article on the Berlin Wall

Nicely written article from the New York Times on what it was like living with the Berlin Wall. It reminds me sharply of how grateful I am for the freedoms I have and that I wish were shared by everyone in the world.

Soufan's testimony on torture

This post by Ed Brayton gives a nice summary of testimony by Ali Soufan on the efficacy of torture and the timeline of the interrogation of Abu Zabaydah, and also how traditional interrogation works.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Soldiers Getting Cultural Training Via Video Games

This CNN article talks about how young soldiers are getting some training, including on cultural issues, through video games. It is interesting in part because I am reading Thomas Rick's The Gamble, a book about Petreus and his change of the war in Iraq to a counterinsurgency strategy, which makes protecting civilians a key part of the strategy.

Child "Witches" Abused

As someone who considers myself a witch, but who understands how complicated that term is for most people, I'm interested in any article relating to witches. I have been concerned for some time with the charges of witchcraft in Africa and the dangers endured by those so labeled. According to this CNN article, the problem is getting worse.

Quote of the Day: 5/18/2009

Another long quote, my second one from a memoir by a cast member of the original Star Trek series. This is Nichelle Nicol's encounter with Dr. Martin Luther King:

[Nichelle Nichols on almost leaving Star Trek]

"The following evening I attended an important NAACP fund-raising even. I was chatting with someone when a man approached and said, 'Nichelle, there is someone who would like to meet you. He's a big fan of Star Trek and of Uhura.
I turned to greet this "fan" and found myself gazing upon the face of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was stunned, and I remember thinking, Whoever that fan is, he'll just have to wait.
The man introduced us. Imagine my surprise when the first words Dr. King uttered were, "Yes, I am that fan, and I wanted to tell you how important your role is."
He began speaking of how he and his children watched Star Trek faithfully and how much they adored Uhura. At that moment the impact of my decision really struck me. Nevertheless, I replied, "Thank you, Dr. King, but I plan to leave Star Trek."
"You cannot," he replied firmly, and you must not. Don't you realize how important your presence, your character is?", he went on. "Don't you realize this gift this man has given the world? Men and women of all races going forth in peaceful exploration, living as equals. You listen to me: Don't you see? This is not a Black role, and this is not a female role. You have the first nonstereotypical role on television, male or female. You have broken ground -"
"There have been other Black stars," I countered.
"In TV?" he replied. "Yes, Beulah, Amos and Andy. Do I need to go further?"
"No," I answered softly.
"You must not leave. You have opened a door that must not be allowed to close. I'm sure you have taken a lot of grief, or probably will for what you're doing. But you changed the face of television forever. You have created a character of dignity and grace and beauty and intelligence. Don't you see that you're not just a role model for little Black children? You're more important for the people who don't look like us. For the first time, the world sees us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people - as we should be. There will always be role models for Black children; you are a role model for everyone.
"Remember, you are not important there in spite of your color. You are important there because of your color. This is what Gene Roddenberry has given us."
All that weekend Dr. King's words echoed in my head as I weighed every factor. Perhaps he was right: Perhaps Uhura was a symbol of hope, a role model. And if that were the case, did I not owe it another chance? Granted, Uhura's full potential had not been realized, and sadly, probably wouldn't be. But she was there, wasn't she? And that had to count for something.
When I returned to work on Monday, I went to Gene's office first things and told him about my conversation with Dr. King and my decision to stay.
A tear came to Gene's eye, and he said, "God bless that man. At least someone sees what I'm trying to achieve."

Nichelle Nichols, Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories. NY: Boulevard Books, 1994, p. 158-159.

Obama's Notre Dame Speech

It ranks up there with his speech on race, in my humble opinion. He says very eloquently things I've tried to say but less well, and without always living up to them in my actions. The speech is a plea for discussing the difficult moral issues that divide us with open hearts and open minds and without demonizing the other side, to recognize that they may have equally deeply-held moral convictions, and that through open discourse we may work our way to acceptable solutions. Marvelous!

For those who prefer to read the speech, the transcript is here.

Here are the three sections of the speech as posted on YouTube, and kudos to Fox News for showing the whole speech.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Dan Choi's Open Letter

Ed Brayton posts the text of Dan Choi's Open Letter about being an openly gay soldier. Well worth reading.

Quote of the Day: 5/15/2009

In honor of the New Star Trek movie, here is a LONG quote from George Takei's autobiography on the meaning of citizenship in America:

[George Takei and his family were interned in camps as were many Japanese and Japanese Americans in World War II. The following conversation took place many years later between Takei and his father, on his father's decision to apply for American citizenship]

"I didn't mean to interrupt him, but Daddy noticed me watching. He smiled, took off his glasses, and pinched the tension strain on the bridge of his nose. He gestured to a chair, so I sat down. "You look like you have something on your mind," he said. I knew it was late and he was tired, but I had to ask him what citizenship meant. This is how I remember his reply.

Daddy explained that citizenship is to be a member of a country or a city or a community; but more than that, to be a citizen is to subscribe to a set of values. When I asked why he wanted to be a member of this country when he didn't have to, he answered, "Citizenship is a choice. Some people are born with it but never do anything about it. That's not real citizenship. That's only paper status. You have to consciously decide to give it meaning. Your mama felt so strongly about her citizenship and what it stood for that when it was violated, she acted [renounced her citizenship]. She made her citizenship meaningful and made a strong statement. And because she values it, she's fighting hard to get her citizenship back.

"For me, there was a great struggle to make my citizenship possible, by people who wanted to give me that choice, by people who believe in America's best ideals. America is where I've lived most of my life. You kids are Americans. My future is here - in this country. Now that I have the choice, my decision is to become an American citizen."

"But America has treated us so badly," I persisted. "There's no justice in this country. What made you decide to become a citizen of a country like this?" Daddy closed his book and pondered. "America is a strange country," he began. "Despite everything, it's still a nation of ideals. Yes, justice here is neither blind nor fair. It only reflects the society. But this is an open society where people who want to can become a part of it. The system here is called participatory democracy, where the important thing is to participate. If people like me aren't willing to take a chance and participate, America stays that much farther from its ideals... My choice is to help America be what it claims it is."

That night, as I listened to Daddy's fatigued but resolute voice, my understanding of the meaning of American citizenship became as solid as the book lying on his desk. By the light of the lamp shining on that well-used American history book, America and its ideals were eloquently explained to me by an immigrant, a wartime "enemy alien," a concentration camp internee, the husband of a renunciant of her American citizenship -- my father."

George Takei, To the Stars: The autobiography of George Takei, Star Trek's Mr. Sulu. NY: Pocket Books, 1994, p. 107-8.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Sources of the Declaration and Constitution

Ed Brayton in this post uses the words of the Founding Fathers to see from where the inspirations for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution came from. The Bible was not mentioned by them as a source. The main sources were such authors as Locke and Montesquieu.

Lawrence Wilkerson on Cheney and the Republican Party

Wilkerson was chief of staff in the State Department under Colin Powell, and has been willing to refute the Cheney position before now. In this article he speaks as a Republican who is angry that Cheney and Bush did not do a better job at protecting the U.S. and now he believes that Cheney is damaging the GOP.

Robert Reich on Social Security and Medicare

In this post, Reich explains why Social Security is a minor problem at worst, and why Medicare is a big problem but needs to be addressed differently than is often the case.

Quote of the Day: 5/14/2009

"Mary Kay is one of the secret masters of the world: a librarian. They control information. Don't ever piss one off".
-- Spider Robinson, _The Callahan Touch_ (NY: Ace books, 1993), p. 64.

Yay, a fan of librarians! Reminds me of one of my favorite library-related t-shirts:

"Librarians, the original search engine"

Obama's Decision to Not Release Photos

Obama has decided to not release the photos of prisoner mistreatment. I don't like that decision, but I think Obama is in a tough situation. This blog post sums up that situation nicely. Just discovered this blog through Blog Catalog, and it may be one I have to follow! Good work, Dr. Alex G.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Science and Religon

This is part of a Scientific American article on the movie Expelled, which I mentioned in a prior post. But I want to quote this part that explains well why science doesn't and can't support intelligent design theory:

"5) Science does not reject religious or "design-based" explanations because of dogmatic atheism.
Expelled frequently repeats that design-based explanations (not to mention religious ones) are "forbidden" by "big science." It never explains why, however. Evolution and the rest of "big science" are just described as having an atheistic preference.

Actually, science avoids design explanations for natural phenomena out of logical necessity. The scientific method involves rigorously observing and experimenting on the material world. It accepts as evidence only what can be measured or otherwise empirically validated (a requirement called methodological naturalism). That requirement prevents scientific theories from becoming untestable and overcomplicated.

By those standards, design-based explanations rapidly lose their rigor without independent scientific proof that validates and defines the nature of the designer. Without it, design-based explanations rapidly become unhelpful and tautological: "This looks like it was designed, so there must be a designer; we know there is a designer because this looks designed."

A major scientific problem with proposed ID explanations for life is that their proponents cannot suggest any good way to disprove them. ID "theories" are so vague that even if specific explanations are disproved, believers can simply search for new signs of design. Consequently, investigators do not generally consider ID to be a productive or useful approach to science."

Quote of the Day: 5/13/2009

"Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet;
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams."
-- William Butler Yeats, Irish poet, playwright and politician, born June 13, 1865.

John Yoo and the Philadelphia Inquirer

I'm outraged that John Yoo has been offered a columnist spot with a major American newspaper, and this article expresses well my feelings on the matter. It is of a piece with Karl Rove being considered a serious commentator, and the outrageous and ethically-challenged Ben Stein being in Comcast ads with Shaq.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Yglesias on Defense Spending

In this article Yglesias refutes John Cornyn's statements on defense spending. I think the graph included says volumes.

Richard Land of Southern Baptists Condemns Torture

Since I've gone to a lot of trouble to point out where I think fundamentalists have gone wrong, I want to be balanced and applaud them when I think they've gotten it right, as Richard Land has on the subject of torture according to this post.

Quote of the Day: 5/12/2009

"Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally."

-- Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

Glen Greenwald on the Selective Vision of U.S. Media

Glen Greenwald of Slate makes an excellent point in this article. He mentions several journalists who have been imprisoned by the U.S. on little to no evidence of wrongdoing, yet that this is covered very little by U.S. journalists, or is justified because it is the U.S. doing it. The central point is here:

"Lake goes on to suggest that even if the journalists we imprisoned weren't guilty, it's still different when we do it, because we're the U.S. and they're Iran. And there is a perfect distillation of moral relativism: the rightness of an act is determined not by the act itself, but by who is doing it ("when I do X, it's good; when you do it, it's evil"). It also perfectly illustrates what is, as I noted on Friday, "the single most predominant fact shaping our political and media discourse: everything is different, and better, when we do it."

This is "American exceptionalism" at its worst, and is an attitude far too deeply ingrained in both press and public, much less elected officials, in my opinion.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Quote of the Day: 5/11/2009

"Fairy tales always have a happy ending".
"That depends... on whether you are Rumplestiltskin or the Queen".
-- Jane Yolen, _Briar Rose_

Hilarious post: New Vocabulary

Funny post of new or under appreciated terms proposed by readers of Schott's Vocab in the New York Times. My favorite is the following:

"Twitchforks | “Here is an interesting proto-neologism: Twitchforks. Twitter + Pitchforks. ‘Social activism facilitated by Twitter.’ Campaigns against and the government of Moldova are recent examples.” Mark"

Friday, May 8, 2009

Moral Purity

Interesting article that shows that those who attend Church once a week or more are more likely to support the use of torture, while those who have no religious affiliation are the least likely to support it. The article does include a comment that those who are more likely to support torture may do so out of the need to protect the citizens of this country. The author of the article, however, does say this:

"However, the notion that Muhammad and Zubaydah deserved to be tortured is, I think, latent in some justifications of torture: that they are bad people who did terrible things, and hence we shouldn't feel so bad about what was done to them, is a looming feeling that one can sense from some discussions of torture. And that implicit (sometimes explicit) argument is about retribution."

The reason I point out things like this isn't to bash Christians, but to try to refute the idea that so many conservative Christians have that they are the only morally pure among us, and that what they believe is always what is morally right. The mere fact that Jerry Falwell called his organization the Moral Majority is a sufficient example, in my view. And I want to point out to such Christians that their attitude strikes others as arrogant and dangerously wrong. My morals are different from yours, but I don't agree they are inferior.

To take some of the hot button issues; I can understand the position that abortion is murder, but I don't agree with it. I believe that an all-knowing all-powerful deity would simply not put souls into fetuses who will not be born. More, I think the way to stop abortions is to make them unnecessary, and I believe that can be best accomplished by teaching teens about sex and contraception, about the responsibilities that having a baby entail, by doing something to address the sexual abuse of children and teens, etc.

In the case of gay rights, I think I've made my position clear. I think LBGT people are made that way, and trying to force them to change causes many suicides among them. Moreover it is an ethical issue of equal rights, which they deserve as much as any other class of people that have won protection against discrimination. I also believe it is an issue of mental health, that anytime you tell a person they are bad for any reason intrinsic to who they are, such as skin color, handedness, or sexual orientation, you damage them in terrible and completely unjustifiable ways.

As for torture, I believe it morally and practically unjustifiable. Not only is it wrong, and against the ideals this country has held since its beginning, it does not produce reliable information.

Another issue is patriotism... there are two strands of patriotism that run through the history of the U.S. One is that whatever the leaders do is right and should be followed without question, that questioning can cause breakdowns in functioning that can be dangerous in crisis situations. The other strand holds that to be patriotic is to hold that this nation, born with high ideals that it never fully lived up to, should constantly strive to come closer to those ideals of freedom and justice for all. The latter is my view, though I admit the issue of functioning while maintaining independence of thought has its complexities.

There are many more issues, but these draw me the most right now. What I am really trying to say is that there are as many views of what is morally right as there are people. Some of them are pretty clear and agreed to by most of us. But on others, we should be less willing to say our opponents are immoral as that we have differing views of the moral and the ethical.

Another Pagan Quote

From this page about Wicca:

"Wicca is a deep appreciation and awe in watching the sunrise or sunset, the forest in the light of a glowing moon, a meadow enchanted by the first light of day. It is the morning dew on the petals of a beautiful flower, the gentle caress of a warm summer breeze upon your skin, or the warmth of the summer sun on your face. Wicca is the fall of colorful autumn leaves, and the softness of winter snow. It is light, and shadow and all that lies in between. It is the song of the birds and other creatures of the wild. It is being in the presence of Mother Earths nature and being humbled in reverence. When we are in the temple of the Lord and Lady, we are not prone to the arrogance of human technology as they touch our souls. To be a Witch is to be a healer, a teacher, a seeker, a giver, and a protector of all things. If this path is yours, may you walk it with honor, light and integrity."

Some Good Quotes about Paganism/Wicca

Here are some good quotes about Paganism/Wicca, found on this page from a marvelous site about religious tolerance:

"We are not evil. We don't harm or seduce people. We are not dangerous. We are ordinary people like you. We have families, jobs, hopes, and dreams. We are not a cult. This religion is not a joke. We are not what you think we are from looking at T.V. We are real. We laugh, we cry. We are serious. We have a sense of humor. You don't have to be afraid of us. We don't want to convert you. And please don't try to convert us. Just give us the same right we give you--to live in peace. We are much more similar to you than you think." Margot Adler [Margot Adler is a reporter for NPR and wrote the definitive survey of Pagan religions in America, Drawing Down the Moon.

"If you take [a copy of] the Christian Bible and put it out in the wind and the rain, soon the paper on which the words are printed will disintegrate and the words will be gone. Our bible IS the wind and the rain." Herbalist Carol McGrath as told to her by a Native-American woman.

"We should educate people that 'Witch' is not evil but ancient and positive. The first time I called myself a 'Witch' was the most magical moment of my life." Margot Adler.

"When one defines oneself as Pagan, it means she or he follows an earth or nature religion, one that sees the divine manifest in all creation. The cycles of nature are our holy days, the earth is our temple, its plants and creatures our partners and teachers. We worship a deity that is both male and female, a mother Goddess and father God, who together created all that is, was, or will be. We respect life, cherish the free will of sentient beings, and accept the sacredness of all creation." Edain McCoy

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Cost of Combatting Climate Change

Matthew Yglesias here asks the trillion-dollar question: What is the cost of NOT dealing with climate change? We hear a lot about how much changing our energy policy would cost, but the costs of NOT doing something are enormous.

Funny Quotes

This article is a rather interesting take on the current state of the Republican party, but it has a couple of the funniest lines I've seen recently. Here's the first:

"The world doesn't hate us quite as much now that a president is offering a handshake instead of the finger, and we're not alienating our allies now that we're not asking them to jump off the Geneva Convention while screaming "Yee-ha!" all the way down."

And the second, about Arlen Specter's defection to the Democratic Party:

"Some GOPers conflated H1N1 with Specter by dubbing his defection as "The Swine Flew."

Kristof on Atlanta Prostitutes

Nicholas Kristof does admirable work exposing sex trafficking and the horrors suffered by those involved. In this article he explores prostitution in Atlanta, which is representative of the situation across the U.S. Most of the prostitutes are abused girls who are then victimized again by their pimps. The independent and glamorous courtesan figure beloved in literature is a rare creature in real life. Kristof says the problem will not begin to be solved until the pimps, the customers, and the corrupt police who ignore the problem are the target of prosecution rather than the prostitutes themselves.

Quote of the Day 5/7/2009

"They gave me a medal for killing two men, and a discharge for loving one."

--- from the tombstone of Leonard Matlovich. Leonard, buried in Arlington National Cemetery, was the first enlisted military man to challenge the military ban against homosexuality.

Dean Baker on a Systematic Risk Regulator

Dean Baker is a voice I've learned to listen to on the economy, and this post has some excellent information on how the housing bubble happened and how a systematic risk regulator probably wouldn't have stopped it.

Marie Osmond Supports Gay Rights

According to this article, Marie Osmond's daughter Jessica is a lesbian, and Marie supports equal rights for LGBT folk. This can't be easy for her, as she is also a committed Mormon, so it is great to see her courage in making sure that her position is known.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Getting Girls to School in Africa

You may squick at the subject, but it is an important one. Nick Kristof in this blog post talks about feminine hygiene and how it is a bar to girls going to school in Africa, and about an innovative idea that is trying to solve it. It would never have occurred to me, where there are easy solutions for the problem available, that this could be such a problem. Thanks to Kristof for publicizing problems and their possible solutions.

Quote of the Day 5/6/2009

"Alec walked over to the gramaphone, wound it again, and put on more blues, a woman singing this time, gay and sad at once, like a stranded angel who had traded holiness for humanity but remembered what it used to be like to know God."
-- Barbara Hambly, Bride of the Rat God (NY: Del Ray, 1994), p. 116.

Interview with James Galbraith

James Galbraith is an economist I admire, and this article has a good interview with him about the current status of the U.S. economy.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Book Review: Religious Literacy

Title: Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't
Author: Stephen Prothero
Rating: ****
Tags: religions, literacy, christianity, judaism, islam, buddhism, hinduism

Prothero, a professor of religious studies, argues that the level of knowledge in the U.S. about religions of the world is dangerously low, with an appalling ignorance of how religion has shaped history, religion, and public policy. He traces the history of religion in the U.S. and believes that the lack of knowledge about religious doctrines and beliefs began with the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century, which emphasized feelings over thought, the spiritual experience over religious study, and the direct experience of the believer over the mediation function of clergy. During the latter part of the 19th century, public schools became more secular.

The latter part of the book is a dictionary of religious literacy. Prothero doesn't attempt to be comprehensive, but to introduce the aspects of the major world religions that are most often the subject of public debate. I consider myself fairly knowledgeable, but I learned a good bit from the dictionary. Where I fault Prothero the most is that he completely ignores modern Paganism and Wicca. Naturally I'm biased, since I am Pagan, but I do believe that the impact that Paganism, especially Wicca, has had on popular culture, the high degree of misunderstanding about it, and the debates over how it is handled in the military, for example, make it worthy of inclusion.

Nevertheless, an interesting and useful book.

Publication HarperOne (2008), Paperback, 384 pages
Publication date 2008
ISBN 0060859520 / 9780060859527

Friday, May 1, 2009

Book Review: Sworn to Silence

Title: Sworn to Silence
Author: Linda Castillo
Rating: ****
Tags: mystery, police procedural, amish, serial killers

Kate Burkholder is police chief in the small Ohio town of Painter's Mill, Ohio. Kate grew up Amish in the town, then left both the faith and the town after being raped and almost killed as a fourteen-year old. Now the serial killer active back when she was a teen seems to be back, each crime more shocking and violent than the last. kate must protect her secret past while trying to stop the madman.

Castillo has come up with an excellent book, which may be the start of a series. The characters are good, as is the plot. The details of the murders are not for the faint-hearted, but no worse than a lot of books structured around serial killers. I look forward to more books by Ms. Castillo.

Publication Minotaur Books (2009), Hardcover, 336 pages
Publication date 2009
ISBN 0312374976 / 9780312374976

Book Review: Plum Spooky

Title Plum Spooky (A Between-the-Numbers Novel)
Janet Evanovich
Rating ***1/2
Tags mystery, series, humor, stephanie plum, new jersey

Number 5,000,000 in the Stephanie Plum series. I know a lot of people got tired of this humerous mysteryseries, but for me it has held up farily well and I've continued to enjoy them. I have to admit, though, there were times in this one I almost understood their point of view. This time Joe Morelli and Ranger had small roles while yet ANOTHER incredibly sexy hunky guy is around who wants to get into Stephanie's pants. This one is Diesel, who seems to have supernatural powers and claims to be some sort of cop who keeps other supernaturals in line. He is looking for Martin Munch, a genius who is working for vampire-like Wulf on something mysterious and scientific. Munch is on of the cons who failed to appear for a court date and that Stephanie the bounty hunter is responsible for bringing in. Meanwhile a monkey has been left in Stephanie's care who seems to understand English.

It is a pretty good book, but my devotion to ther series is lessening.

Publication St. Martin's Press (2009), Edition: 1, Hardcover, 320 pages
Publication date 2009
ISBN 0312383320 / 9780312383329