Monday, November 28, 2005

keep the fi-yer burnin'

We finally had our first snow of the winter on Saturday night and now our underinsulated little rented house at about elevation 7400 feet requires us to burn wood at top strength all our waking hours. We only bought our first cord of wood last week - before that I was gathering everything we were burning from the forest up the hill, which is fine before it snows but afterwards... I grab stuff that everybody else leaves behind as not worth getting after they've cut the bigger trunks with chainsaws. I smack long branches of pinon in half with my ducktaped woodsplitter. I beat up stumps of cedar, fragrant and disturbingly red in the middle. What I get is great for starting fires, if not for keeping them going at length. I guess I should own a chainsaw. I'm going out to get one right now. Ha ha, that's a joke. We should insulate the house instead. Renter's dilemma, how much to improve somebody else's house. Usually my answer is, not at all, but that is pretty deadbeat, dad.

Monday, October 24, 2005

We Interrupt This High Five

Ya, I'm thrilled that cartoons like this have become possible.

And that the New York Times is eating its heart out. That Americans want out of Iraq. That articles like this one are now possible too.

Bush is still in charge. His Party may not all love him anymore, but they're still in charge too.

The Democratic Party is still run by people who don't have a clue.

Here's something that in the current hurricane//hurricane scandal//scandal news cycle is evidently not much worth talking about: The Patriot Act is still on its way to being reauthorized, soon. Here's an interesting situation at least - there are Republicans and Democrats who are standing against it, or at least trying to modify it.

When it's all over there will be a lot of senators and congressmen who will go right along with this assault on civil liberties who might, if you are a liberal or progressive, get your vote in a future election, simply because they are "basically" decent, or not as bad as the Republicans they run against, or at least "pro-choice" or not so "anti-poor," or maybe just because they are Democrats, or maybe just because they are not-Republican, etc., etc.

And what we are going to need - after the vote - is organized vindictive voter action against those who support the continuation of the Patriot Act.

What is vindictive voter action? It isn't hurting them or scraping car keys on their limos. It's refusing to vote for them ever ever again, no matter what they are running for or, more scary to be sure, who they are running against. Ow, it's effective because it hurts.

That's putting it pessimistic - what we need before it is to loudly let them know: sorry, we won't be able to vote for anybody who supports it, ever again, so think twice. I'm suuuuuure they will see reason if we just show them. Just in case it doesn't though - if that's Hillary Clinton who supports the reauthorization of the unmodified Patriot Act (and who knows whether "modifications" will be enough to take off the skull and crossbones), and she turns out to be the next presidential candidate from the Democratic Party, then so be it - sorry, we'd love to vote for you, gag, but we just can't vote for you now, any more readily than we can clean up our barf like a cat. So we'd better let them

the ubiquitous them they them

them- the politicians, who do most of what they do while looking over their shoulders, allegedly at us but actually at our reflection in

them- the media, who tell all of us what we are allegedly all thinking, a self-fulfilling prophecy thanks largely to

them- the other voters, especially all the "smart" voters who only vote for people they think have a chance to win

let them know what the consequences will be for politicians who go along with this, right? I mean, we'd all hate to have to "waste our vote on a third party" or "help the Republicans win" if we can't support a Democratic candidate without completely trashing every principle we have. So here's the beginning of fair warning. We as voters say - there are certain things you can't do, and certain things you must do, or we'll never ever support you, no matter who you're up against. The Patriot Act is a great start - there's hardly anything more basic than our basic freedoms to actually make a stand on.

* * * * * * * *

Will anybody have the stomach for this? It's a good question, but I'd prefer to see the noise made first. If it's a bluff, then let's make it a loud bluff. And if it's not a bluff, then let's know what we are doing and why we are doing it. That cliche about "voting with your head, not your heart" would actually have some meaning if we used those heads instead of pretending that there is just one "rational" way to go.

As I said in an earlier post (9/12/05), there was a lot of goodwill behind the decisions of thousands of people to go ahead and vote for Kerry last year, despite everything wrong with the man and all the things he wouldn't stand for, or against. That goodwill is gone. It was a questionably bright move for us all to engage in anyway

(especially not holding the guy to anything, just saying, go beat that bad bush black and blue, we don't care how you do it. Remember Norman Mailer telling people not to protest in New York City because it might give moderates the wrong idea? That kind of stupid.)

Mediocrity, passive not-badism, vaguely not-as-badism, none of it is capable of defeating evil, or even of making good policy. To settle for it and win might really have been worse for us than to settle for it and lose - at least we know a bigger revolution is necessary. Politics sucks anyway and there isn't much point to being grown-up about it.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Remember the Alamos

Four Saturdays ago, two Saturdays ago, I was in Santa Fe for the first two sessions of a four part academic conference designed for teachers up through the community college level. Last year's conferences were discussions of Sophocles, while this year's are on atomic weapons and energy.

Sophocles is more my speed. Discussions of literature go around like a spiral staircase; the give and take gets us somewhere. A discussion of atomic weapons and atomic energy conducted in the figurative shadow of Los Alamos and the literal shadow of invited experts from Los Alamos goes around more like a carousel.

The first session was devoted to the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most of the people in my seminar were against it, but I understand that some groupings were mostly dominated by people who supported it. After that part of the day is over we always have lunch, and then an invited speaker. The post-lunch presentation from a director of the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos included some rather startling ideas. It turns out that historians who support the decision to drop the bombs are "military historians" while historians who criticize the idea or say it was more to impress the Soviets than end WWII are "left-wing." I like that polarization is presented as more central than the relative persuasiveness of the reasons that are given. In any case, it turns out too that, given certain recently declassified documents, that now the "military historian" view has the upper hand currently! The director didn't share any of this new information with us, but did let us know that the view that the civilian inhabitants of Hiroshima were "innocent victims" was questionable because many of them worked in armament factories, even including many children. So therefore, not even the children were innocent! (I have to wonder how far out of the bag this argument is going to get in this age of the "war on terror" - the entire definition of terrorism involves the notion of "innocent civilians," "women and children" - so I'm thinking, Ward Churchill got in enough trouble for suggesting that not everybody in the World Trade Center was "innocent" that I'm surprised anybody would want to get near an idea like this. But then, the director from Bradbury wasn't talking about Americans.)

Two weeks later, the topic was atomic energy. In the morning we were told that someone from LANL (Los Alamos National Labs) would be discussing "radiation and health." Hmm, I wondered. Will this have a certain ring of familiarity? A couple of years ago I temped for about three miserable weeks in an ultra-high-security accounting office (we needed escorts to go to the restroom) for a firm that did business at LANL and as part of the mandatory safety/policy orientation I learned that we are surrounded with radiation in our everyday life and only a teensy bit of it comes from anything "nuclear." The purpose of giving us this information, aside from making us more knowledgeable about cosmic gamma rays and household radon levels, is to make the newly oriented say, gosh, all this time I've had this irrational fear of radiation and here it's been all along. Then we heard a cautionary tale about a new employee who emailed a friend from her work computer on her first day of work that on her lunch break she was planning to smoke a "great big joint" in her car. You can guess what happened to her. Our instructor had been the very person who had hired and fired her! And then there was the new guy who had looked at 86 porn websites his first day...

Surely there would be a different presentation for a group of educators, yes? Well, there was nothing about porn or inappropriate e-mails, but pretty soon that same pie chart of average radiation exposure was on the chalkboard, complete with a dinky little slice from LANL that wouldn't feed a mouse. Deja vu. But this guy had a lot more to talk about, including some strong criticism for the nuclear policy of Jimmy Carter. I would think that one of the many presidents since Carter might have changed things but evidently Carter put some kind of whammy on this policy and we are still suffering from it. In most countries they have nuclear energy, but "nuclear hysteria" has crippled America and we are "falling behind." So this lecture was about more than "radiation and health" after all.

His presentation was boring, he coughed a lot and mumbled and basically seemed like he hadn't addressed an audience in ages. Then an interesting thing happened - the presentation ended, questions began, and he perked up considerably. He turned into a real asshole. Anybody who asked him a question that didn't run along the lines of, gee, nuclear energy sounds terrific, got ridiculed. Often the question went unanswered, too, or deemed irrelevant or misguided in the first place. One teacher said that he had heard of increased rates of genetic mutation near the nuclear plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, mentioning two-headed deer calves, twelve-toed deer. The guy from Los Alamos said, "well, there's a lot of two-headed moonshiners out there too." Dig the Southern joke. The atmosphere got interestingly hostile, more conversations were breaking out amongst the various tables, and this after we had all had a yummy free lunch. After quite a few heated exchanges about the relative safety of nuclear waste ("nuclear waste management is actually an economic opportunity for poor communities") and the relative viability of alternative energies ("you can't have a reliable energy grid with solar" - great answer by the way, as if the "grid" were something we all could agree on needing), I got the gumption to raise my hand and say:

"I'm guessing the answer is no. Should we worry about events like Chernobyl?"

He said, "well, people worry about Chernobyl and Nine-Mile Island."

"Nine-Mile Island?" I said like the guy in a bad vaudeville act.

"Yeah," he said, "if you are allowed to stretch the truth, I'm allowed to stretch Three-Mile Island."

That was, by the way, his whole answer. The director of the conference re-asked my qeustion about Chernobyl since he had so blatantly not responded to it (I like too how I had "stretched the truth," simply by asking this question - clearly they keep this joke encased in lead up at the lab). Since it was the director of the conference asking, the guy answered this time. Chernobyl was no big deal. The Soviets were stupid. Only 437 people died from it.

Watching him actually made me much more suspicious of Los Alamos in particular and nuclear energy in general. What, on the rhetorical level anyway, are they thinking? Here's somebody they send out to be a face for their organization, to talk to people, to convince them that everything is fine, somebody they send out to educators to convince us to convince our students that everything is fine, and this guy can't even answer any of our "hysterical" questions with anything more than intimidation and incredibly bad jokes. It was like talking to somebody from the Bush administration.

But what really kept me thinking for the rest of the day was a woman at my table who seemed to mainly and rather humorously think he was full of shit, and yet she was more annoyed with people who asked him challenging questions than with our visitor. She in fact felt sorry for him because it was "his job" to sell nuclear energy to us while those who insisted on arguing with him were just making it more difficult for him. Discussion was impossible; argument was pointless, and she just wanted it all to be over with, for about fifteen minutes before it was over with.

I have met or known so many people like this in my life that I have come to think of it as a type: the person for whom conflict is the ultimate sin (never minding that their own position on the subject is a kind of "conflict" in itself; they are just sharing this with me and not participating in a "fight"). Given that conflict has to involve at least two people, it is noteworthy too that this person will generally express more sympathy with the one who is participating in the conflict because that is his "job" - people who "fight" on their own time are troublemakers.

I think of this attitude as very "American," but in fact I don't know.......

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Skepticism for the Converted

There are a lot of Skeptic sites on the web but there seem to be few for those self-described as Gullible.

Anyway, I wouldn't even bother to write this review here except that I went searching for comments on Penn & Teller's Showtime program Bullshit and was sort of amazed at the overwhelming preponderance of positive commentary the program has inspired. I have always enjoyed P&T, including their underloved movie Penn & Teller Get Killed (especially the stunning casino sequence), but after perusing the back of the DVD of the first season at the Taos video store I had an I-don't-want-to-be-the-one-to-bring-this-home feeling about Bullshit. However, when my wife Marci spotted it I was secretly thrilled because I could watch it without in any way being responsible for my own viewing. (Go ahead, immolate my pathetic self). We got the first disc and were all excited.

I should say here that I've always wanted to go on and on about how, judging from the things they write, most of those who call themselves Skeptics with a capital S are pretty boring thinkers. You know how most Atheists can't stop thinking about God, in rather the manner that most homophobes can't stop thinking about homosexuality? Well, Skeptics who can't stop thinking about psychics and UFOs are pretty much in the same boat, except that psychics and UFOs lack the universal relevance of God and homosexuality.

The excuse - and let's get right to Penn & Teller on this because they have this in spades - is that the Skeptics are concerned terribly terribly about all the poor souls who are being duped and all the money that is going to charlatans, and that their work is therefore incredibly important to the maintenance of civilization and not, say, an unhealthy and trivial control freakdom verging on mania.

What this means is that you won't see Skeptics - or Penn & Teller - going after stuff that really costs money like privatization or the pharmaceutical industry. Not only because it isn't as much fun for them, but because so many Skeptics (and definitely Penn & Teller) are capital-L Libertarian capital-B Believers in the Scientific Method. Which means their skepticism stops when they get to their own back door.

This is such a shame. It is a great failing of the Skeptic movement. Penn & Teller talk about following the money constantly, but they follow itty bitty money around. Worse, they actually seem to think they don't have core assumptions of their own.

All of this, really, I could have guessed without seeing the show, but the show is so very terrible that it doesn't, in fact, make a good case for a criticism of the American Skeptic movement (despite the rabid support it receives from Skeptics).
The program looks slapped together. Incredibly, Penn & Teller give very little time to rational argument of any kind, evidently regarding rational argument as boring - there is about as much logic on this program as you are likely to see on Bill O'Reilly, and a good deal less than on the Home Shopping Network. The show's basic strategy is not argument but a succession of talking heads, most of which we are to understand are stupid or deluded or lying and a few of which we are to understand as truth tellers. The Cato Institute Is Not Full of Motherfuckers, No Sirree!!! We shall direct no skepticism at the Cato Institute, who we are sure are never funded by tobacco companies and even if they were.

P&T's notion to go ballistic with the bad language, (shocking!) calling everybody motherfuckers, etc., aside from being bad form, is lame entertainment, and Penn J. I must say is not the most able swearer I've seen - he comes off, oddly, as a prig when he says righteously stunted things like "these people are motherfuckers." Everybody on the web seems very impressed by Penn's explanation that he is much safer, legally, using these terms than calling people liars or hoaxers or frauds, for which P&T (and Showtime) could be sued. Far be it from me to suggest to people ways in which they might sue people, particularly "cool" people like Penn & Teller, but couldn't that explanation Penn gives in the first episode that he'll be using "motherfucker" as code for "fraud" be used by a smart lawyer against them later?

Monday, September 12, 2005

Is It Time Yet?

Is it time to start talking about third parties and protest votes and such again? Almost but not quite? Way past time?? Too far away from the '06, from the '08?

Something nobody has even acknowledged was the way that people who voted Nader in 2000 mostly - overwhelmingly, actually - supported Kerry in 2004 in a grand gensture of goodwill. They noted the support, yes. They fudged on the motive.

The reason nobody acknowledged it as a gesture of goodwill was because of a little bit of political wisdom. It makes no sense to acknowledge and plead thanks for something that has been given away, easy. Voters who realize that they've traded away their vote for absolutely nothing are likely to feel cheated. But this isn't just political wisdom either. It works in business transactions too: render that which is actually negotiable invisible.

The way this transfer of allegiance was officially viewed was as a massive "coming to senses," a sudden influx of reason amongst the previously foolishly idealistic, a sudden desire not to be insane. As such it could be dismissed. As such it could be implied to be permanent, too.

To dwell upon this gesture of goodwill as what it really was - a gift of a vote to a guy and a party that had done nothing to deserve it except not be George W. Bush and the Republican Party - would possibly have alerted those doing the gifting that in fact they had asked for nothing - except victory.

They didn't get victory. So was that "coming to their senses" a permanent shift after all? Or will they actually ask for something in exchange for their vote next time?

Friday, September 02, 2005


Times like this where the news is so bad (New Orleans) give me this absurd feeling of agitation where I go about thinking up arguments as if this really matters. Of course in times and places arguments do matter, but it feels megalomaniacal to me too and inevitably from listening to people talk on the radio, I imagine what I would say on the radio. How can this not feel megalomaniacal?

In such a spirit of agitation I rented the movie The Corporation and it is just the thing - a terrific documentary. Corporations might not have anything directly to do with the mess in New Orleans, but the worldview that supports them sure does.

But this movie got me thinking about something that I haven't really wanted to look into, whether that wondrous and suddenly easily available product "Cabot Sharp White Cheddar" which is available not just at a cool place like Trader Joe's but at the I-admit-it-I-buy-stuff-there-too behemoth Wal-Mart, whether Cabot is as "Natural" a creamery as the name "Cabot Natural Creamery" would imply. Whether they use bovine growth hormone, which we tend to frown on around here since we don't really want our two pre-pubescent girls sprouting breasts by age eight.

Apparently Cabot does use bovine growth hormone on everything but their products that are explicitly labeled "organic." If I hear otherwise I'll let you know. In the meantime I got on their website and sent them this letter. I hope you can feel my pain when I speak of giving up their products. I don't have much hope of getting them to feel my pain, but the revocation of my almighty consumer dollar (in my case "consumer dollar" should definitely always be singular) alone won't be noticed. Cabot's Sharp White Cheddar, available for about the same price as mediocre Monterey Jacks of all sorts, is one of those poor man's culinary miracles. Not anymore though:

Dear Cabot,
I have been very excited to be able to buy your sharp cheddar at Wal-Mart locally. Since you list yourself as a "natural" creamery I assumed that your products are free of bovine growth hormone. I actually thought that you just didn't advertise not having rbgh because Wal-Mart wouldn't stock some product that makes their other products look unsafe. I thought, well, if I buy products at Wal-Mart that buck the trend toward crazed unsustainability, that I am influencing in a way America’s largest retailer towards such products and away from others that are more a part of the problem. I should have known better.

Let me assure you that I am a real consumer, not someone who is part of any organization (not that that would make me "not real," just that this is an inspired letter by one agitated consumer, not part of an orchestrated campaign). It is with great regret that I tell you that I can't buy your very tasty products any longer.

Only morons who are actually stupid enough to believe that just because products are approved for sale in the United States they must be safe continue to use milk with bovine growth hormones.

I'm very sorry to tell you this because I really like the way your cheese tastes. If you will stop using this stupid technology I will go back to buying your cheese, pronto.

Regretfully --- Vic Perry

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

eat a crocodile

The very definition of a pissing contest occurs when Hamlet comes upon Laertes grieving over Ophelia and is offended. It is Hamlet's last ridiculous moment in the play, and the first thing he ever expresses any shame over (at least outside of a soliloquy - about this he actually admits to Horatio that he had gone too far). After this Hamlet is really quite heroic, assuming an acceptance of death that could be compared with our notion of the Zen philosophy of the samurai. But how does it show "love," really, his actions there? A shocking lack of grief over the death of Ophelia is covered up with absurd theatrics towards Laertes.
* * * * * * *
Or, is it love, anyway?
Teaching Hamlet as well as a number of short stories this summer, I am struck by the idealizing attitude toward love that is so different than some of its true results - statements such as "he didn't really love her" made about Hamlet or most of the male characters in the stories we've read only reinforces my sense that we want love to be a more ennobling emotion than it probably is.

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