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Tuesday, January 28, 2003

And You Are There

Juan Gato reminds us that the Challenger exploded during launch seventeen years ago today. This, as Juan notes, is one of those "where were you?" moments. I've mentioned this in Gato's comments section, but I'll do it here too. A Small Victory also has a post about this. (Note that nearly everyone in Juan and Michele's comments were little tiny big-eyed children when this happened, whereas I was...not. Whippersnappers. Turn down that music!)

I was in grad school. I taught (well, "taught") physics lab in the morning and had a math class (that I was taking) right after. The lab class ran from something like 8 to 11, so we hadn't had any contact with the outside world that morning. When I got to the math class, one of the other guys said that the space shuttle had blown up. We still had class. Afterwards, I went down to the grad student offices and found some of my friends. Toward the beginning of the month I mentioned my friend Dave. He was deeply affected by it, and several of us went up to his office to sit on the floor and mope. Someone poked his head in and asked what was going on, and Dave said that we were holding a wake.

I don't remember anyone having a TV at school. When I got home, of course, it was all over the tube, and it was on apparently every newspaper and magazine in existence. There was even an editorial cartoon showing a newsstand where every magazine had the same picture, of the two solid rockets going awry.

Except for a few of us students, I don't remember anyone in our department being terribly broken up about it. Some of my professors were not displeased. They thought that manned space flight was too dangerous. One of them was actually pleased, and when the next space shuttle was launched, he said, "I hope they lose another seven."

Lesson 1: There is no tragedy so awful that some asshole, somewhere, will not welcome it to vindicate his own crank agenda.

We learned this on 9/11, but it's good to remember that it always applies.

Another friend of mine I'll call L. L, for some reason, was the hardest hit of all of us---absolutely devastated. And he was the first one to start sending us tasteless Challenger jokes through email.

Lesson 2: Some people cope with sorrow in strange ways.

When the next shuttle went up more than two years later, I was still a grad student, this time TAing a "physics for poets" class. The kids were taking their first test of the semester, and the professor (a different professor, not any of those mentioned above) and I were proctoring it. There was a little room between the two big lecture halls where demonstration and AV equipment was stored, and the man in charge of the equipment had brought in a small TV to watch the launch.

I kept sneaking into this room to see how things were going. As launch approached I'd duck in to watch, then poke my head out to make sure none of the kids needed help. Sometimes they would, and I'd run up the steps and answer their questions, then run back down to watch. The launch took place toward the end of the period. One of the students who'd finished his test early burst in, wanting to know how it was going. "Solid rockets have separated," I told him, and that was when I realized that it was probably going to be OK.

Our Cousins

(Be sure and say "cousins" with the kind of tone that a Scarsdale dweller might use to refer to the unfortunate Ozark hillbilly cousins who have unexpectedly dropped in. If you, like me, are the hillbilly cousin, you'll just have to use your inbreeding-stunted likker-dulled imagination.)

Andrew Sullivan points to this nervous WaPo article on the rising anti-Americanism in Britain.

Oh, no! Are our dear friends the Brits turning against us? Well, maybe not.

For evidence the Post cites, among other things:

1) The Daily Mirror's anti-war effort.
2) The fact that Stupid White Men a bestseller there.
3) An Observer cartoon
4) The "Question Time" program for which the BBC eventually apologized.
5) Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
6) John Le Carre's opinion piece in the Times.
7) Harold Pinter


But there always was an alternative view that the United States had gotten some of what it deserved, that the attacks were payback for decades of ignoring Third World grievances. At a BBC televised panel discussion two days after the attacks, a studio audience fired hostile remarks at former U.S. ambassador to Britain Philip Lader and jeered his responses. "We share your grief, America -- totally," wrote columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, one of the panelists, afterward. "But you must share our concerns."

Novelist John le Carre wrote in an op-ed piece in the Times newspaper that "America has entered one of its periods of historical madness, but this is the worst I can remember: worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam War."

The British left, which has waged a steady campaign against the United States since the days of the nuclear disarmament campaign and the Vietnam War, has also weighed in. Playwright Harold Pinter in a recent speech denounced "American hysteria, ignorance, arrogance, stupidity and belligerence."

Pardon me if I feel almost reassured. If the British have legitimate fears---by which I mean, fears that I can understand and sympathize with, not necessarily fears I share---then there is indeed something to worry about. But if what we're supposed to be worried about are satirical plays; the execrable Mirror (doing badly in the circulation wars, if I recall correctly); Michael Moore; the predictable Observer; a rigged "Question Time" audience that infamously shocked and outraged many who saw it; the petulant, silly, self-pitying Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (who was on that "Question Time" panel, note); John Le Carre's delusional opinion piece; and the ludicrous, hysterical Pinter---well, I'm almost comforted.

Let's have a little more comfort, shall we?

Other British observers insist that what's growing here isn't anti-Americanism, but rather healthy criticism of a superpower gone awry. "Being critical of U.S. policy does not constitute a prejudice," said Godfrey Hodgson, a veteran journalist and author. "A vast majority of the British people are favorable to the United States, but a substantial majority are opposed to George W. Bush."

Much of the outrage is indeed aimed at Bush, whose colloquial speaking style and Texas accent don't go over well here.


"Bush is a gift for anti-American cartoonists," Timothy Garton Ash, director of the European Studies Center at St. Antony's College at Oxford University, said. "If Bill Clinton were still in the White House, I suspect it'd be a very different story."

So, if Bill Clinton were to take the very same actions as Bush has, it would be OK, because he's Clinton and you know he's not a dangerous "cowboy"; whereas Bush is, because he does certain things (which would be OK if Clinton did them, because he's not a cowboy, like Bush). Well, thanks for showing off your greater sophistication there. I feel so humbled.

I'll also take exception to the notion that knee-jerk contrarianism is "healthy", in any context.

So if this is the best the WaPo can muster as evidence of an increasing tide of British anti-Americanism, I believe I shall sleep better. It's possible we may lose our best allies, but it won't be for a good reason; it'll be because they listened to idiots like Alibhai-Brown, Le Carre, Moore, and Pinter.

Sunday, January 26, 2003

I Woke Up Screaming

Last night I had a nightmare. I dreamed that my employment situation had come to such a dire pass that I was forced to take the most degrading work imaginable.

That's right. I dreamed I became a professional journalist.

I was grateful for the opportunity, too. If I remember correctly, some sort of natural catastrophe had befallen us all. That must have had something to do with it.

Saturday, January 25, 2003

He's Everywhere! He's Everywhere!

You remember the Tourist Guy, the fellow whose picture was supposedly snapped at the WTC just seconds before the plane hit. And you probably remember that he started popping up everywhere---near the Hindenberg, on the Titanic, in Ford's Theater...

Well, now he's surfaced again:

The famous oil painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware River was vandalized at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, allegedly by a former museum employee who glued on a computer image depicting a fake view of the World Trade Center attack.


...[T]he computer image glued onto the painting showed a phony photo of a man standing at the trade center with a jet flying toward it.

The story does not explicitly say that it was that particular fake photo of a man standing at the WTC while a jet flies toward it, but the odds are high that it is.

The painting was saved by the crack conservation SWAT team, apparently, and suffered only a slight loss of dignity.

The perp was a former security guard at the Met. If I read the story right, the vandalism took place on the 19th. The guy gave them the slip that day but returned on the 23rd, when he was captured. I think it's safe to say that he is not painting with a complete palette.

By the way, I didn't realize that the real Tourist Guy had been identified long ago. He's a Hungarian named Peter, who made up the picture and sent it to his friends, and from there it escaped into the wild.

New Additions

The other day, while doing a vanity google search, I noticed that Rick Prelinger of Prelinger archive fame had mentioned my blog on his web site.

Well, I figured if anyone was going to wander over here from there, I'd better spruce the place up a bit, and make things easy to find. So after the blogroll on the left I've placed a list of my Prelinger-related posts, which will be updated as necessary. Updating the template is kind of a pain, but there were are.

I'm thinking of doing something not at all serious or deep for the next one, maybe dealing with the absolute ecstasy that only a car can bring. Involves a 1960 Ford commercial.

The Snob

This is yet another in the series of reviews of ephemeral films from the Prelinger archive.

Today's offering is "The Snob". This comes from the class of short guidance films, produced to instruct teenagers in the "proper" way to behave. See the previous post for a description of these films.

This specimen involves Sarah, a high school student who doesn't have many friends. As the film opens she's trying to get her algebra homework done despite the noisy teen party next door. Her mother comes in and gently tries to nag her into making friends with those nice young people. Sarah is rather snippy with Mom, and sends her away.

Meanwhile, next door, Ron's party is over, and his mother is helping him clean up. She nudges him into inviting Sarah. He doesn't want to. See, the other kids just drop in without needing an invitation, and he thinks that giving Sarah a special invitation will just encourage her to think herself better than everyone else.

This is where another instructional film should step in and point out that dropping in without an invitation would be very rude, and that as antediluvian as it may seem to Ron and his mother, some people cling to these old ways, and they really don't mean it as snobbery. Hmm, but I guess butting in like that would be rude, too.

But that's not really the problem. Ron has Sarah all figured out. See, she used to be the smartest girl in elementary school; but when they got to junior high, and then senior high, that was no longer the case. Now she feels she has to raise her status by snubbing her classmates.

That's Ron's theory, anyway. It's true that Sarah does show some jealousy toward students she thinks get by on less work than she does---"apple-polishers", she calls them. But she also seems just absorbed in her own little world.

Her father tries to get her to talk about it, and that's where all this comes out. He seems to think it's all her fault though. Try to like people, he tells her. "Friends are important in this world." And then he hits her upside the head with a parental non-sequitur: "All these people you don't like---aren't they happier than you are?" This is supposed to be the money quote, the stinger, the zinger, the line that makes her think. Feh. (In his book Mental Hygiene, Ken Smith says that this line makes you want to either "burst into tears or put your fist through a wall." I'll take wall, please.)

Anyway, Sarah's mother pushes her into attending the party that Ron's mother pushed him into inviting her to. She sits there stone-faced and silent, resenting the other kids, especially popular Bill Tyler and assuring herself that she's better than they are. This is the only time we really see her being a snob. Friendly Bill asks her to dance, and she spurns him nastily. Another kid tells her, "You just couldn't pass up the chance to be a snob!" Alarming horns sound, Sarah looks stricken and runs out of the house to go cry on a tree. Ron runs after her, and she explains that his friends are "mean and hateful", and don't understand anyone who isn't one of them.

We don't get a resolution, because this is part of the Discussion Problems in Group Living series, so we get asked a bunch of questions. Is Sarah covering up for some lack? Can Ron help? Is the group justified in judging everything Sarah does as snobbery?

"What do you think?"


This does not explore the basic problem of snobbery one damn bit.

I predict that today school counselors would take one look at young Sarah and her problem and decide that she's a lesbian, and that it's perfectly natural that she should struggle with her sexuality and they're going to help her, etc. Which is fine, should she actually be a lesbian. But there are other identity crises besides sexual ones. I get the idea that counselors are eager to stuff kids into that particular pigeonhole. "Well, a new record for crisis resolution, folks! If we hurry we can have time for a cig in the teachers' lounge before the bell rings."

Instead, I diagnose plain vanilla lonerdom. She's just not into what the other kids are into. That would be OK, except that her society (and not just mental hygiene films) doesn't seem to recognize that as an option. People, especially teenagers, are supposed to be gregarious, hanging out with one another, playing loud music and doing wacky things. If you don't want to do that, people think something's wrong with you, until you wonder if something's wrong with you. And they do seem to be having a lot of fun... You have to be especially confident, or oblivious, or physically isolated, to regard a disinclination for the company of other people as no big deal.

Notice the whiff of anti-intellectualism here. Ron immediately identifies Sarah's intellect as the problem. When Sarah and her dad have their heart-to-heart, Dad looks vaguely embarrassed that she should think that she is smarter than the other kids. Anti-intellectualism is an old and honored trope, but it just seems kind of out of place in this film. If you wanted to teach kids about the dangers of snobbery, wouldn't money or social position snobbery be more common?

But then, I say that because I'm an intellectual snob.

This film has great resonance for me, because I was Sarah, or would've been if I hadn't had the good fortune to grow up in a rural neighborhood where the few kids were real crumbs---petty juvenile delinquents. My Dad played the role of Sarah's parents, but he---let us say---was not as easily put off.

You know, it occurs to me that this film, or one like it, just might have been responsible for those little episodes! Dad's fear was apparently that if I did not make friends with the neighborhood kids at age 13, I would not ever get married. No, that was really his reasoning. My dad is exactly the age these films were designed to reach. If he'd been a little younger, anti-drug films would've shown him that fitting in was bad, and he wouldn't have tried to get me to make friends with those punks. (That lasted all of one evening. About a week or so later he saw them toking up or something, and forbade me to run around with them. Oh, my broken heart.)

I think this film is especially interesting because the grown-ups seem to be in almost as much confusion as the kids. They "know" what's to be done, they just don't know how to do it.

In contrast to Ken Smith's assertions that these guidance shorts were intended to harrass kids into conformity (see the previous post), in The Snob, you actually get the idea that the filmmakers believed there was a real problem with the kids---not a problem in which they behaved badly and were a pain in the neck, but one in which the kid was hurting, and which the grown-ups must fix, though (in this case) they weren't entirely sure how.

This movie is a little different from most of the "fitting-in" films, in that the problem is kind of vague, and the solution is not easy to see. (Most of these films urge kids to get involved in activities, to listen to others, to be considerate of others, etc.)

As I said, Sarah's problem was also my problem. To this day I hate parties. I feel awkward about joining other people in conversation. What if I'm butting in? What if I'm boring? Have I said too much? Too little? Of course I feel awkward about standing alone. Why not go home if I'm going to do that? Bleah.

I wonder what would happen if Sarah just thought about it and told her parents that she just wasn't interested in hanging out with the kids, that she'd rather be alone with her books. Would they just say OK? Would they take her to a psychiatrist? Or would there be a film in which poor Sarah is shown how to fake enjoyment at parties, because parties are the key to all future happiness?

Now, Sarah. Ask him about the Big Game last week. Once you can fake sincerity, all the rest is easy.

Mental Hygiene

This is another in my series of discussion of the films of the Prelinger archive.

(Sound of my three readers thundering away, leaving me alone with the inky blackness. Ahhhh....hello Darkness my old friend...)

I want to discuss the class of films dealing with "mental hygiene". These were made in order to help guide kids (usually---primarily teenagers) in correct social behavior. Dating, sex ed, anti-drug and driver's ed films made up distinct subgenres, but there were also films about getting along with family and peers.

These little movies are interesting for the slice of the times they showed, for the illumination of what their intended audiences hoped for, or feared. Because they are so narrowly focussed on certain topics, viewing them in large chunks can give the disturbing impression that the entire intellectual power of the era was turned toward molding the social lives of teenagers.

They often look strange and corny to us now. Younger children, especially, are urged to good behavior with stridently cheerful instructions from a narrator. More sophisticated films are content to let the story do the talking; they show the dire consequences of ignoring the featured rules. Even a small social error could lead to the worst imaginable fate for a teenager---the other kids would shun you! Many people find these laughable, but I vaguely remember being a teenager, and being shunned was considered to be a pretty dire fate (partly because being shunned often led to being assaulted).

Many people see the films as relics from an era of repression. That's is the general tenor of the book Mental Hygiene:Classroom Films 1945-1970, by Ken Smith. The films featured in the book cover a wide variety of topics; besides the ones mentioned above, they also instructed kids in personal hygiene, etiquette, career guidance, and what you might call civics.

On page 30 of Mental Hygiene, Ken Smith cautions against considering these films an attempt at brainwashing, because after all:

Mental hygiene films were not made by conservatives or reactionaries. Rather, they were made by some of the most liberal and progressive-minded people of their time. Their goal was noble: to help children become well adjusted, happy, and independent (within limits). The films look corny and manipulative to us today, but not because the people who made them were evil or stupid.

You may have to see several of these films before the "brainwashing" aspect begins to be noticeable. I'm so relieved to hear that the films can't possibly be "brainwashing", because their makers were liberals! Thank heavens! (You conservatives can feel free to seethe now.)

Smith remembers this point on page 30, but seems to forget it all the rest of the way through the book, where he is teasing out hidden meanings in the films. In the chapter, "Fitting In", for example, he tries to make something sinister out of films which encouraged getting along with peers. Don't misunderstand---many of these films are creepy, especially to someone my age. When I was growing up, "fitting in" meant "peer pressure", which meant doing drugs. By the time I was in school, kids who wanted to "fit in" were looked down upon a bit---I was always told to think for myself, which actually meant thinking what my parents wanted me to. So the rather neurotic emphasis on getting along does seem a bit odd.

But not sinister. Smith writes that conformity in the '50s was brought about by WWII. After a couple decades of chaos, a great war had been won and future prosperity assured by mass production and teamwork.

Why be a "selfish" individual when so much that was good had been, and could be, accomplished when the individual operated as a cog in a mega-machine?

The idea of fitting in with whatever or whoever was popular, when extended to American society in general, meant conforming to a very rigid, conservative status quo.


Films, a uniform delivery system, were ideal for promoting a uniform code of behavior...

Chilling. But not very apropos to the films he's describing, at least most of the ones I've seen. For example, when relating the behavioral films to---of course!---the McCarthy era, he says

...Americans hid under a blanket of conformity. Fitting in was the only safe course of action...Those who try to fit in and fail, as do teenaged Marion in Social Acceptability (1957) and Barbara in Habit Patterns (1954), weep in torment, damned by their own individuality.

Er, except for the fact that Barbara's problem is that she is sloppy and careless; she wears a stained sweater and the other girls notice. Barbara does not stand up for her right to be sloppy, does not denounce the prejudice against the Grubby-American. She doesn't rebel against what's expected of her, she's just too lazy to do it.

In Social Acceptability, Marion's real problem is that "fitting in" means giving parties every once in a while, and her mother is reluctant to help because she is actually rather shy (she didn't have films to help her when she was a girl). Social Acceptability is interesting because it shows a less affluent lifestyle than is usual in these films, and a parent who is (at first) not interested in integrating her daughter into the group. I'll have to do a post on it one day.

(Mind you, both these films induce a Festival of Cringing, so it's not like they're good or even harmless; I just don't think they're good examples of the fate of the non-conformist.)

Smith also notes that, such was the repressive climate of the times, that:

There were no positive role models for rebels, heretics, bohemians, radicals, agitators, inverts, eccentrics, freaks, or eggheads.

Inverts? Except possibly for the eccentrics and eggheads, there aren't any positive role models for any of these because, historically, people who go against the grain of their societies aren't viewed positively by those societies. They're only "positive" role models among other rebels, heretics, etc---or in the gauzy light of nostalgia, once they're safely dead or defanged. It's only in the last few decades, even here in the individualistic US, that rebellion for its own sake (as opposed to for a specific goal) has been thought of in a positive light.

In his notes for the CD-ROM collection Our Secret Century (disk 3, "The Behavior Offensive"), Rick Prelinger also blames (or credits) WWII for a change in teenage behavior that led to the need for these behavioral films. With even mothers away from home, working in war jobs, unsupervised teens got into trouble. He backs this up only by including on the disk the 1943 film As the Twig Is Bent, to which he makes only this very brief comment

As the Twig Is Bent dramatizes the wartime problem of "youth in crisis," and in so doing provides the missing link that
explains the origins of the postwar behavior offensive.

So I was a little suspicious of this war-film connection, but it's upheld by this snippet from Chapter 13 of the book, Love, Sex, and War: Changing Values, 1939-45 by John Costello (William Collins, London, 1985). Skip down to near the bottom, on the "patriotutes" ("victory girls", Prelinger calls them) who decided it was their duty to sleep with departing servicemen. Huh. You learn something new every day on the Web.

Prelinger goes on to say, "Finally, the young began to believe that nothing mattered, that the future was not worth living for." Which, I believe, has been the cry of the disaffected (and usually affluent) youth for a couple centuries now.

Prelinger and---especially, and despite his early caution---Smith are eager to see the dark, controlling side of these behavioral films. But after watching a number of them, I begin to see a different side. The people who produced these films saw that some kids didn't fit it, and it made them (the kids) unhappy (and some of them dangerous). Well, what's the cause of this inability to fit in? Gosh, it's that some kids just don't know what you have to do. Let's make some movies, to show them!

But, of course, getting along isn't just a matter of remembering to say please and thank you and to wear clean sweaters. What do your life-adjusting, group-integrating social guidance recommend then? We'll see in the next post.

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Open Source Polling

Bliss Puppet got a flyer for Retro Poll (discussed here) at the anti-war protest in San Francisco. He says we need more Open Source polls. Oh, I agree! If Retro Poll hadn't published their poll questions, we might've thought they had an agenda or something.

Monday, January 20, 2003

It Never Rains on California...

...but it pours, man it pours.

I lived in Silicon Valley from 1994-1999, and I noticed neither alienation nor any sort of myopia. Maybe that's because I'm a short-sighted alien. I loved living there---loved it, loved it, loved it---and would go back like a shot, for a halfway decent job. Yeah, there were problems. Traffic was bad. And, um...well. There were a lot of people. Land was at a premium, so stores are smaller (and so have fewer things) than they are in other places I've been (Houston, St. Louis). But after Sydney I'm not sure I'd notice that anymore.

The people I worked with were all scientists, about half native Californians and half transplants. I noticed very little difference between them. Maybe the natives were a bit more relaxed. (My first boss, a native New Yorker, had married a California girl. He was the most relaxed one there.) This was sometimes aggravating, in an amusing sort of way. When you're a girl from a working-class family in rural Missouri, the idea of going to college, getting a PhD, and ending up at hot research lab in beautiful Cali! Fornia! is sheerest fantasy. So I was thrilled to be there.

But the natives took it in stride as just, you know, another lifestyle choice. "Well, I was always interested in science, so when I graduated from TechGeek High 314 I went to Stanford, y'know. Then I went to grad school at Berkeley and worked in N. Bel Laureate's lab, and got my PhD with him. But I coulda owned a head shop! This guy I know wanted to me to go into business with him, but I got a job with NASA instead, so..." I had several conversations like that.

I will point out that Californians aren't the only ones with their heads in a bubble. Shortly after I moved there, there was a letter in the San Jose Mercury News from a woman who had recently moved to the area from some Southern or Midwestern area. She wrote a condescending, smug, scolding letter to the effect that the locals had better shape up and grow up and live like Real People do. Real People, you see, have children and acquire Family Values and go to church. That's the way it had worked in Flat River, Missouri [town chosen at random], and that's how it has to work in San Jose, too. So you all had best remember that, and get busy reproducing and get your little hinder to church.

Really, she seemed somewhat taken aback that millions of people could choose not to embrace conservative values and still think of themselves as responsible adults. The specific complaint that I remember was that she had four children, and this was considered rather a lot in California (probably because you can't afford the room for them). She was particularly under the impression that the woman of the region were self-absorbed and selfish and "neglecting" to have children. It didn't seem to occur to her that this was a choice.

Non-Cal bloggers will often claim that the Bay Area, in particular, is hostile to lifestyles like that of the woman above. When I got there, I felt an overwhelming relief that no one cared what my lifestyle was. I was free to be single, childless, married, whatthehellever. No one gave a damn, which is more than I can say for Missouri.

I've noticed a hell of a lot of California bashing on the blogs I read. Yeah, yeah, it can be funny, but after a while it makes you grit your teeth. It also seems less in fun than in earnest now. Glenn thinks that conservative areas of the country were denigrated during the Clinton administration (which was, note, when I lived in California). Why would this be? Are there people who flip-flop from election to election, taking on the values of the current majority and bashing the minority? Or is that when you're in the minority you keep your head low, and once you're in the majority you gleefully beat up on the opposite side? Isn't either behavior kind of childish?

I look forward to one day being derided as a "Californian" again.

Only 339 Days Left!

Greetings from Firetrap Manor, where we have just finished purging the place of Christmas. Our tree stopped taking in water long ago, but the needles stuck like glue to the very end. The branches, however, were dry as kindling, and tended to snap like icicles if we tried to bend them.

Andrea Harris, on her old Spleenville blog, had a charming Christmas image of a happy '50s family scene. (The picture's not there anymore.) The kids get the ornaments out while Dad fiddles with the stand and Mom holds the tree straight for him. This is the way Niles and I did it (except for the kids part). I wonder what Mrs. Pearls 'n Heels did when her Hubby said, "OK, it's not in straight. Can you lift it up and turn it 180 degrees?" When they took the tree out, was she the one who got to lift it over her head to throw it in the dumpster? No, probably not.

As always, I hated to take the tree out. I hate to take a nice tree, cut it down, stick it in my lair for a bit, then toss it out like garbage. Years ago, every year I would vow, "Next year a live tree!" that I could plant in the yard and enjoy forever. But as the chance for a yard "next year"---or indeed, any year---dwindled, I sort of gave that up.

One day in the far future, archaeologists will study our strange Christmas customs. Will they impute great religious significance to the Christmas tree? After all, it takes a great deal of energy to decorate the tree, and the things people are willing to spend energy on are the things that are very important to them. I figure that setting up and decorating---and then taking down---the tree is at least two days' worth of labor, what with vacuuming, moving furniture, vacuuming, getting the tree, setting up the tree, vacuuming, getting every single thing out of the closet to get to the Christmas ornaments, vacuuming, and decorating the tree. And then we had to vacuum.

(But, apparently, not very closely. It was my job to hand-pluck needles from near the baseboard where the vacuum wouldn't work. I was stabbed by pine needles. Note that we did not have a pine tree this year, we had a fir; nor has Niles had a Christmas tree here since 1993. We always have Christmas at my place, wherever that is; in '93 it was here. I guess Mr. Neatnik isn't as fussy as I thought.)

I imagine that archaeologists of the future will have strange and wonderful explanations for the importance of the Christmas tree tradition, very nearly all of them wrong. (After all, even present-day, amateur sociologists sometimes err, as in this report from a newcomer to our shores, who was told by a slightly-usedcomer that generic store-bought Christmas ornaments are "quite offensive" to Americans, which explains why we didn't see any in the stores. Oh, wait, we did.)

My musings on fantasy future archaeologists make it a bit difficult to take some of the current practicioners seriously.

(Thanks to Prof. Bunyip for the heartwarming story of the offensive ornaments.)

Sunday, January 19, 2003

Terrible, Terrible News

Fires have destroyed much of Canberra, Australia---now including the Mount Stromlo Observatory. This is terrible; I had no idea it was even in danger. The SMH article reports that all the telescopes were destroyed, although the back channel news (still kind of fragmentary at this point) is that one of the smaller ones was not. All of the staff and residents were evacuated safely, although most of the residents' homes are gone.

Even though they're just bits of glass and metal and cabling and smelly oil, a telescope is like a friend to those who use it. (Friends' friends, to me---I was never up there.) I was going to write that 74" telescopes (the largest lost) don't just grow on trees, but they kind of do. This company makes an off-the-shelf 2m telescope.

Also destroyed was an instrument they were building for the Gemini telescope in Hawaii. This was going to be a large chunk of Australia's contribution to the multinational Gemini project, and it was going to be really, really cool. And now it's gone, and so is the workshop in which is was being built, so making a new one---should the money be found---may not be easy.

This is really a terrible blow for Australian astronomy. Have I said terrible enough yet? My writing is terrible.

This Canberra Times story doesn't mention the observatory, but gives a horrific account of how suddenly the fire grew. This story says it's the worst fire Canberra has had, and the first time home in the suburbs (as opposed to the forest) have been lost in 50 years.

Here are some pictures of the aftermath.

Here's a picture of the 74 in telescope, and one of the entire observatory complex.

I can't point you to other pictures. They reside on the observatory's computers, and my attempts to access them have been futile. The observatory is a part of the Australian National University in Canberra, which is still up, and I would have assumed their computers would be located on campus, but perhaps they were all on the mountain.

In better news, Canberra blogger Chris Textor is still holding on; the fire didn't come to him. Yesterday it looked like this near his place.

Last year we had bush fires outside Sydney. The place reeked of smoke for about a week, and one morning I woke up to a sky the color of a new penny. But those were far away from me.

Via Bad News Blair.

UPDATE: Here's a Canberra Times story about rebuilding the observatory, and here's another about the general cost of the damage throughout Canberra.

UPDATE II: Jack at Captain Yips Secret Journal writes to point out that there are pictures of the devastation at Sky and Telescope's web site. There are only a couple. This article points to one in the SMH which has one more photo. The one of the Yale-Columbia (did the Aussies know the pun and the allusion?) makes me sick to my stomach. It was a large refractor, too. Geek break: Refracting telescopes use lenses; all research telescopes for about the past century have been reflecting telescopes, using mirrors (most amateur telescopes larger than a couple inches are reflectors as well). It's much easier to fabricate and support a large mirror than it is a large lens. So they don't make big refractors anymore, and now this one is lost.

Both the SMH and Sky and Telescope articles mention NIFS, the instrument I talked about, above.


The fire then consumed the main administration building, which housed the observatory's library...

Which no doubt contained much valuable stuff---historic research papers in manuscript, early photographs and photographic plates, log books noting important discoveries and petty, comical carping. Not to mention a complete collection of Far Side books.

Look at that beautiful dome in the side-by-side comparison picture. They knew how to build observatories then. That will no doubt be the subject of a future blog post.

Saturday, January 18, 2003

Poll Dancing

This is one of those items which deserve a lot more attention than I'm willing and able to give. I really wish that someone from a real media source would have picked up on this, but since they didn't, I will. Note that the results I'm going to quote were released back in October.

The other day, John Le Carre emitted a large puddle of nasty bodily secretions that the Times of London was proud to put on display for all to see. In it, he noted in passing that "A recent poll tells us that one in two Americans now believe Saddam was responsible for the attack on the World Trade Centre." The Guardian's Seumas Milne also notes that in the US "half the population believes Saddam Hussein was responsible for the September 11 attacks, according to some polls."

Le Carre's claim, at least, wafted throughout blogdom, leading many people to wonder which poll this was. One of Tim Blair's readers, the mononymic George, comes to the rescue by identifying this Retropoll as the possible culprit. Please note that I have no way of knowing that this is really the poll Milne and Le Carre were talking about.

Tim quotes George:

The actual question asked was: "Is there evidence Saddam Hussein worked with al Qaeda?" The results: Yes (44.8%) No (22.8%) Don't know (32.4%)

Leaving aside the fact that 44.8% is not "one in two", believing that there is evidence that Saddam Hussein worked with al Qaeda is not at all the same thing as believing that he was responsible for the attack on the World Trade Centre.

Yes, indeed. But George goes on to say:

Though to be fair, the poll is not meant to be representative; it attempts to see how the information that people have about a particular event relates to the opinions they express.

Ah, no. I don't think so. Let's look a bit at this independent organization, Retro Poll, and its poll. Here's the home page of Retro Poll. It begins by saying:

Do you have a suspicion that public opinion polls you read and hear about in the corporate media may be done mainly to support the views of those commisioning the polls? Perhaps you think that polls mold public opinion as much as they ascertain the public's will? If you do, then you should be a Retro Poll supporter. Retro Poll's starting point is that potential and real bias by corporate media, the two major political parties and government in survey research are a danger to the free and open discourse of ideas in a democracy.

And Retro Poll's ending point is to create poll unsullied by corporate or government spin, yet laughably biased toward their own viewpoint. For example, right above this fearless denunciation of government/corporate bias, they proclaim:

Results of the first poll show that support for the war is a result of government propaganda.

The linked page does show the results of their first poll, but it doesn't come to that conclusion, which---surely I hardly need say this---is a conclusion no scientific poll would claim. But if you want to see what flimsy evidence exists for this, you need to look at this cross-correlation between two questions, which were: Is there evidence that Saddam Hussein worked with Al Qaeda? and Do you support War against Iraq or other countries the U.S. labels as "supporting terrorism" when they are not attacking anyone?

Those are the only two questions cross-correlated. From the answers to these two questions, they conclude that 75% of people who believe that Saddam and Al Qaeda are unconnected are against the war in Iraq. But, if I have read their table correctly, 33 people (out of 150) believe there is no connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda, and out of those, 25 are against war with Iraq.

I'll point out again that this is a poll based on 150 people. If poor Iain Murray were not preoccupied right now, perhaps he could tell us how close this comes to being an accurate poll. Here they claim that they get a 6-8% margin of error, and defend their small sample size.

Their press release, by the way, states that:

The association we have shown between having misinformation on Iraq's sponsorship of Al Qaeda terrorism on the one hand, and a willingness to go to war with Iraq, on the other, is very strong.

My emphasis. Remember, if you believe that Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda may be linked, you are misinformed.

Let's look at some of poll questions.

The first question is about whether you believe US government policies since 9/11 are "worsening" world tensions. (Not "increasing", but "worsening"--whereas another option is "lessening", rather than "relieving".)

The next question (with results):

2)Who invaded Kuwait in 1991?
Russia (0.7%)
Israel (1.4%)
Iraq (67.3%)
Don't Know (30.6%)

That's an interesting question considering that none of these is the right answer. (Except, of course, "Don't Know.") The right answer is "the US and its allies", who invaded Iraqi-held Kuwait in February of 1991 (air war began in January). Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990. See this timeline. I'm assuming this is just sloppiness.

Next question:
3) In the 1980s which nation provided the money and military training to Osama Bin Laden and his Islamic fundamentalist followers to build them into a fighting force against the Russian Army in Afghanistan?
Cuba (0.7%)
Iraq (11.6%)
the U.S. (43.8%)
Don't Know (43.8%)

What, no Pakistan? No Saudi Arabia? Huh.

The next question is about executions world-wide, which is odd, since it doesn't seem to have anything to do with Iraq or terrorism. (But see the section after the list of advisory board members.)

More questions:

5) Is there evidence that Saddam Hussein of Iraq has developed nuclear weapons?

6) Is there evidence Saddam Hussein worked with Al Qaeda?

7) Do many nations of the world support the U.S. government's stated intent to overthrow the government of Iraq by force?

Now that was an unbiased formulation.

8) In 1973 did the CIA work with Chilean army generals to overthrow Chile's elected president, Salavador Allende resulting in the torture of many thousands of Chileans?

9) Was the U.S. found guilty by the World Court for its sponsorship of terrorist crimes by the Contra army in Nicaragua in the 1980s?

Nope, no agenda here.

The next question asks people their definitions of terrorism, and the question after that, their definitions of state terrorism. Then:

12) In the Palestinian uprising of the past two years 84 children were killed on one side before the other side killed a child. Were these killings committed by
a) the Israeli Army (10.0%)
b) Palestinian militants (12.9%)
c) neither (1.4%)
d) don't know (75.7%)

Huh. Well, right about this time the agenda starts hitting you over the head. You know, I realize that there are such things as biased polls, polls which try to manipulate the way you answer---but I wonder if there are many polls which try to indoctrinate you.

The next set of questions asks for your personal opinion on recent events.

13) You may have heard there was a recent, short lived, military coup against the elected president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. There are many reports that substantial funding for the coup came from the U.S. Government.

a) might backing a coup cause hatred of the United States in Latin America?

b) do you approve of this U.S. intervention?

You'll note that the second half of the question assumes that the backing did in fact come from the US.

By this time quite a few of the answers are "don't know". Think the respondents might've smelled a rat? I wonder how many, if any, of them bailed before they got to the end.

The next questions asks a similar question about Bush's demands to remove Arafat, and whether that is likely to "cause hatred", and whether we approve of Bush's demands.

Question 15 is a long, four-part question about Israel, and terrorism, which insinuate that Israeli actions are "state terrorism". The last question is this:

16) Do you Support or Reject including the following elements in a war on terrorism.
a) That the U.S. should support international attempts to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

b) Lengthy detention for anyone, citizen or not, who the U.S. government decides to arrest without providing criminal charges, proofs or trials.

c) The use of outlawed interrogation techniques such as torture.

d) A requirement that the U.S. government must prove accusations against nations before attacking them.

e) War against Iraq or other countries the U.S. labels as "supporting terrorism" when they are not attacking anyone.

Here are a few (admittedly minor) news outlets which report on this poll. There are also quite a few references on Indymedia sites, but I don't want to have to wash off my computer. Look 'em up yourself.

Here's a benefit for Retro Poll (scroll down to July 30).

Retro Poll lists its advisory board here. I googled until I was tired of googling, and here's what I dug up.

Advisory Board

Mike Davis
PhD Professor of History, author
State University of New York, Stony Brook

Speaks at anti-capitalist demonstration

Is the model for a character in a mystery novel. This gives some background on his time in LA. (He's a friend of the author's.)

Charles Drekmeier PhD
Emeritus Professor of Political Science,
Stanford University

The link to Stanford's Pol. Sci. department lists him as Emeritus. He doesn't have a web page. This is Condoleezza Rice's old department, just by the bye.

Signed petition protesting sanctions against Iraq.

Urges a halt to the bombing of Yugoslavia.

David Himmelstein MD
Associate Professor of Medicine
Harvard University

I couldn't find a page at Harvard for this guy, nor even what department of the med school he's in. This page says he's Chief of the Divison of Social and Community Medicine at Cambridge Hospital, and co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program.

I gather that hospital physicians often have some sort of position as a "professor" at a medical school, even if they do very little teaching. Kind of like being an adjunct professor, I suppose. So I guess it's not too surprising that he wouldn't be listed in any of Harvard's departments.

He's a strong proponent of national health insurance. Here he is on some sort of panel with, among others, Arianna Huffington.

Sut Jhally
Director, Media Education Foundation

Jhally's schtick is the study of our sheep-like manipulation by the media and advertising. He's a Professor of Communications at U. Mass, and executive producer and director of the video, The Myth of the Liberal Media, with Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky.

Justin Lewis, PhD
Professor of Jounalism, Media and Cultural Studies
Cardiff University, UK

Same as Jhally, pretty much. He also worked on the Chomsky video.

Peter Phillips
Associate Professor of Sociology
Sonoma State University
Director, Project Censored

Googling on this guy (Beware of imitations! Peter Phillips is a common name; I know at least one other who is a professor.) yields a zillion hits. The Project Censored web page is also rich in interesting things, if you're into that. Apparently the View from the Right is never censored. Here, for example, are the 25 Most Censored Stories of 2001-2002.

Anuradha Mittal Scroll down a bit.
Co-Director, Food First

True cause of hunger in the world is the US.

Charles Stein
Professor Emeritus of Statistics
Stanford University

If you hurry, you can sign up for a workshop celebrating his caree, in Singapore. (This is actually the sort of honor which doesn't come to just anyone. He must be a real hot-shot.)

This account of an anti-death penalty march describes a Charles Stein who may be this one.

I didn't find any record of political leanings for Ekman, Finkelstein, Newcomer, or Janson. I will say that every polling organization needs the advice of a radio host (Kris Welch of KPFA, lefty Berkeley station), and a folk singer (Bruce "Utah" Phillips). I bet I can guess what their political leanings are.

Retro Poll's FAQ explains that it will do polling on highly controversial topics "such as the War on Terrorism, the Middle East, the Death Penalty, a National Health Care system, etc." Perhaps this explains some of the odder questions. I'm wondering if it fully explains the participation of some of the advisors. For example, does Himmelstein the national health insurance advocate necessarily agree with their anti-war stance? Or does he not believe that lending his name to the poll signs him up for all its beliefs? Is this another example of one left for all, and all for one?

But surely the scholarly advisors ought to be ashamed of themselves for attaching their names to this thing. They complain that biased government and corporate polls distort reality, so their solution is to make an even more blatantly biased one? I'm actually insulted that they thought such a bare-faced agenda would escape un-noticed. Idiots. I shall watch their future career with considerable interest.

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Where Shadows Lie

Three wars for the contractors, eager to supply
Seven for the oil lords of the dark catacomb
Nine thousand Iraqis, doomed to die
All for the Dark Lord, in his White Home
In the Land of Morford, where Shadows lie
One man to rule them all, one man to bind them
One man to bring them all, and with darkness blind them
In the Land of Morford, where Writers lie

Oh, dear, it's time for an episode of The Truth Is What I Say It Is, with our special guest, Mark Morford. For those who don't know, Morford is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist who is practically the poster boy for every single solitary thing that's wrong with the Left today. He's a smug, self-righteous, hyper-refined, indignant, posturing fool who believes his own drivel.

Can't find a fact to fit your particular pout? Just make it up! Are inconvenient reports splashed across every TV screen in the country? Deny they ever existed! Do it all with Mark's patented Morfacts!

This is not a war. Iraq will not be a war. Do we understand this? We do not seem to understand this. This is heavily corporatized power brokers killing each other for oil and capital. Oh yes it is.
You cannot have a war when there is nothing to fight against, when it's essentially going to be a huge U.S. military stomping/bombing exercise, when, just like Afghanistan, we stand to suffer zero U.S. casualties (except for those we seem to kill ourselves), and we just bomb and bomb and kill and kill and shrug.

Morfact #1: We bombed and killed indiscriminately in Afghanistan and don't you let anyone tell you that any less than 10,000 innocent big-eyed children were killed, because it just isn't so.

Morfact #2: Since we are so much stronger than our enemies, we are in the wrong. (This is an extremely popular model. All your finest idiots are using it, and it has given general satisfaction.)

...we want to annihilate everything as fast and ruthlessly as possible, simply because the longer such an operation takes and the more expensive and obviously pointless it becomes, the more everyday citizens snap out of it and begin to say, wait, why are we doing this again?

Morfact #3: All wars are Vietnam, and if they're not, they ought to be.

Now [Saddam's army is] even weaker, due to ongoing sanctions and U.N. oversight and a decade of continuous U.S.-led bombing raids on Iraqi targets you never read about.

Except in the newspapers.
Morfact #4: You didn't read about it. I don't care if you thought you did, you just didn't. It was never there.

Now let's say you sense this all to be true. Let's say you have a queasy feeling deep in your gut as you realize no one is talking about exactly why we need to launch a second simultaneous war to go along with the unwinnable assault we're still running in Afghanistan.

An even better example of Morfact #4. Nobody's talked about why we need to be in Iraq, despite the fact that everybody's talking about why we need to be in Iraq. It's been all over the news for months, both pro and con. What Morford means is that he's not satisfied with the explanations given, but saying that means that he'd have to address the explanations, and present a rebuttal, and that's all so much work when you can pretend that the whole subject was never addressed.

Remember Afghanistan? Yes, we're still there, warring away. Bombing and attacking and killing. Haven't caught a single al Qaeda leader of note yet. That looks bad for Dubya. Killed a few thousand civilians though. Shrug.

Morfact #5: These aren't the corpses you're looking for. You can go about your business. Move along.

We have in fact caught or killed several Al Qaeda leaders, including Rahim al-Nashri and Abu Zubaydah (yes, it turned out to be him) and Mohammed Atef and ...

You see, but as long as we haven't caught Bin Laden himself, then we haven't done a single blessed thing. Oh, and if we had caught or killed him, then Islamic terrorism would be wiped out, and we could all go home. Until, of course, the next terrorist attack, when we could blame Bush for being so stupid as to think terrorism could be killed with one man.

So, let's boil it down: Why go to war with Iraq? Can't find Osama, is one reason. That looks bad. Really, really want to steal all that delicious oil for ShrubCo, is another.

Morfact #6: Say it with me now: It's all about the Ooooiiilll!

Perhaps you wonder why no one is asking any of these questions, making similar points.

Perhaps you wonder where is the national TV coverage of all those huge anti-war protests, hundreds of thousands of people, all over the world, from Spain to Berlin to New York to San Francisco.

Perhaps you wonder how Morford, a columnist with high-rent media real estate, missed them. Perhaps you wonder why he's allowed to keep his column, considering that he does the same damn thing week after week. Perhaps you're doubly puzzled, considering that he's such a abysmal writer.

Perhaps you wonder where are all the "serious" journalists, the risk-taking news agencies pointing up the absurdity of it all, the imminent horror, the outrage. Could it be these news agencies are owned by major conservative corporations? Could it be they're all terrified of losing ratings, of saying something unpopular, of invoking Cheney's wrath, of losing advertiser dollars and that ever-precious, ever-dwindling dumbed-down audience? One guess.

Perhaps you wonder why Morford's lazy ass is not in Iraq at this very moment, and whether that means he's not a "serious" journalist. (Perhaps that leads you to wonder whether Robert Fisk will get beat up by Iraqis, and whether tickets will be sold and how you could get one.) Perhaps you wonder how on earth Morford could be so detached from reality as to imagine that news agencies eschew controversy.

If you're like me (and I know I am), perhaps this next paragraph will make you wonder what the sky is like on Morford's home world.

...This is the age of the preemptive-strike, screw-you Bush regime. Who needs, for example, the Monroe Doctrine, that crusty old rag stating how America will go to war only as a last resort, as a defensive measure, and won't become embroiled in unwinnable foreign wars that are none of our business?

Morfact #7: Any venerable historical principle will validate what I say, as long as no one checks.

The Monroe Doctrine:

We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those [European] powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But with the Governments who have declared their independence...we could not view any any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.

Our policy in regard to Europe...remains the same [as before], which is, not to interfere in the internal concerns of any of its powers...submitting to injuries from none.

I've elided some flowery language and wherefores and whereases, but this is the gist: We won't interfere in Europe's internal affairs, we won't interfere with European colonies which are still colonies, but you come in and try to make colonies out of independent nations in this hemisphere, and we'll have something to say about it. I'm sure, given the state of the US military at the time, that this had the Euros shaking in their buckled shoes---with laughter.

But you'll note that it doesn't say anything about defensive measures, last resorts, or unwinnable foreign wars. In fact, it doesn't have anything to do with anything but the relationship between Europe and the Americas. If Morford would look at his map, he'll find that Iraq and Afghanistan are not in either place.

Who needs every precedent ever set by international law? Who needs the U.N. Charter?

Who needs cites when you can just make stuff up?

Who needs confused congressional approval?

Who missed the vote? Who slept through that whole month? Who's making crap up willy-nilly now?

Who needs ethical integrity?

Certainly not Mark Morford.

Who blow up da owl?

(I'm bitterly disappointed to find that that line, like "Play It Again Sam", does not really exist. Who removed it? Who?)

Screw it all, says Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his black eyes gleaming like the devil's own golf balls.

Who needs a writing class?

Let us become an ever-more-hated rogue nation, attack whomever we want, whenever we want, with no international support and much international disgust.

Morfact---what are we up to---#8?: We have no international support. Pay no attention to Britain. Or Australia. Or Turkey, Qatar, Israel... Pay no attention to France---that'll be easy.

Let us be clear. Saddam is not a threat to the U.S., and never has been.

Morfact #---ah, screw it. This is just a lie. You can debate how big a threat, and whether it's enough to go to war over, but he is a threat.

We are, in short, going to attack and massacre Iraq for the oil reserves, to protect America's corporate interests, to feed the gaping maw of the military-industrial complex. Same as it ever was.

I left this in to justify my poem. There's more in the original.

We are not doing it to defeat terrorism (it will have the exact opposite effect)...

Morfact #10: You know these things when you're a columnist for a major daily. You just do.

...And to believe we are is, quite simply, to be wholly misinformed and openly, flagrantly, deliberately deceived.

And if there's anyone who knows about deliberate deception and flagrant misinformation, it's Mark Morford.

Ah, but where do idiot lefties go when they grow old, eh? Do they fat, lazy, and mellow? Or do they continue to crop feebly at the weedy garden of punditry with their worn and increasingly-useless teeth?

I have seen Morford's future, and it is Harley Sorensen. Sorensen is one of Morford's stablemates at the Chronicle; he has a column entitled "The View from the Left". That's right, the Chronicle finds that occasionally they need to supply a leftist view, just for balance. Just as a token, you understand.

Here are a few choice tidbits:

We're finally willing to fight back in the class war that has always existed in America, the Haves fighting to keep the Have Nots beaten down.

Damn straight! You young 'uns might've thought the Class War was all about money. Fools! No, it was all about keeping the Have Nots beaten down. Why, those Carnegies and Rockefellers would go without their dinners to go foreclose on a widow. A young DuPont would say, "Daddy, can't I please, please have some money for college?" And his Pa would say, "No! I have to pay the Pinkertons, so's they can shoot some miners. Why you need to go to college, anyway? You don't need a college education to beat down the poor! Here, take this stick and practice on the butler, and if he's not bleeding when I get back, young man, you will be!"

So who are the classes in this Class War? For starters, the poor versus the rich. A word of caution, though: not all rich people are as arrogant and snotty and self-serving as Rush and Bush.

That's right, like those nice Hollywood folk---those Sarandons and Sheens and so forth. Oh, and the Kennedys. And Michael Moore.

Now here's the quote that had Juan Gato rolling in the aisles.

Gorbachev was a wise man. He knew that after all these years and all these wars and all these deaths and all the money spent, the Americans would not quit until the Soviet Union folded. So, for the sake of his people, Gorbachev folded the Soviet Union.

That, and they were coming for his gizzard.

Somehow Juan missed this stirring conclusion:

Bush likes to ask: "What kind of person would gas his own people?" That's a reference to Saddam Hussein gassing the Kurds (who, incidentally, are not "his people"). Bush also asks, of the leader of North Korea, "What kind of person would let his own people starve to death?"

Well, let's continue the class war by asking: "What kind of American leader would deny poor children medical care?"

Now, the other day, Juan and several other people were disgusted by a report that some lefties were sanguine about Kurd-gassing because "they're his people". Now, here's a leftie who says, "Well, hey, you know, technically the Kurds aren't his people." Hey, he's right! Well, gas away then!

Sorensen makes it sound as if Bush is sending his Pinkerton goons to toss poor children out of hospitals. In reality, Sorensen just thinks that the government Must Do More. This is certainly arguable, but it does not bear comparison to deliberate mass murder and starvation.

I shouldn't have to make that last point, but by the time I'd finished Sorensen's Dick-and-Jane prose (not to mention Morford's crap) I felt my IQ drop by 50 points. The line at the end of the columns says, Harley Sorensen is a longtime journalist and liberal iconoclast. "Longtime"---apparently so; he says something about his generation fighting the Korean War, which means he's pushing seventy. (Think of that---Hawkeye Pierce is over seventy years old now, maybe more like eighty! Probably still goosing nurses, too.) By which I mean, he doesn't have any excuse for being a poor writer. I predict Morford won't get any better with age either.

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

The New Look for Men


This shows a new idea for men's fashions---breast prostheses. No, I'm not kidding. Oh---I---yuck.

Notice this is from Sydney. Must...not...visualize...colleagues...

In Sydney the working men often wore cute little shorts on their muscular gams, even in winter. They'd probably beat this guy up.

Not only that, but, honey, that sweater. That is so '70s. Do you know what kind of figure you have to have to look good in something like that? Only Mary Tyler Moore could pull it off, and she was a stick. Don't go back there, sweetie.

Via those fashion victims at the Corner.

Sunday, January 12, 2003

Why They Hate US: Part 2,537,368

Today's Houston Chronicle carries an article by Thomas Friedman entitled "U.S. Indifference Breeds Anger Among Arabs." Unfortunately this is not linked on the Chron's web page, but here's the New York Times link (which requires registration).

The article begins with him visiting the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, which he says is the most important one there. After the main sermon, which apparently mentions "oppressors" only in general terms, there is a "street service", in which political leaflets are passed out and a young man from the crowd begins denouncing "American tyranny".

The point that takes up the first half of the article is that, while there is a lot of anger against the US, there wasn't any support of Saddam Hussein; not at the mosque, and not in his conversations with others in Cairo. A few choice bits:

By steamrolling Kuwait in 1990, Saddam looked strong. Today, he appears to be weak...In the early 1990s Saddam was still benefitting from years of having bought off Arab journalists, who sang his praises. That chorus seems to have dried up now that he is no longer passing out so many Mercedes-Benzes.

Friedman goes on to say that Saddam used to be viewed as the Sunni hero standing up to Shiite Iran, and his oppression of his own people was not mentioned. (Note: check out this map showing how the Shia oppress the Sunni---warning: a bit large.) Now it is. Cairenes are now content to let the US oust Saddam, if too much Iraqi blood is not spilled.

But still, George Bush is hated. Why?

But the biggest factor remains the Bush team's seeming indifference to making any serious effort to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when so much killing is going on. The administration's refusal to apply any creative imagination to defusing this conflict, and even belittling it while calling Ariel Sharon "a man of peace," has embittered the Arab public...

Yes, official Arab newspapers and TV have nourished Arab anger toward America and Israel for decades---and still do. And one regime after another has exploited this conflict for political purposes...

Nevertheless, says Friedman, when US-educated young Arabs only want to talk about this issue: feel that there has to be something authentic in their anger about this open wound.

He goes on to say:

I am convinced that much of the anger over U.S. policy is really a cry of
[sic?] help from people who know what they have to do---to democratize, liberalize their economies...but can't do it because these ideas are promoted by a power they feel is indifferent to their deepest hurt.

I am not talking about what is right, or what is fair, or even what is rational. I am talking about what is.

He concludes by saying that unless we address the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the benefits of regime-change in Iraq will be wasted.

OK. Well. I'm glad that he added that part about rationality, or I'd think his own reason was in question. If I have this straight, young, educated, urban Egyptians are angry because we are not able to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problems---which makes the Bush administration the tenth consecutive American administration which has failed in this area (not to mention all the other nations which have failed). Because of this, anything American---including democracy and free enterprise---is seen as "tainted", something Arabs can do without.

And this, apparently, is why they hate us. Because of a conflict (largely) not of our making, a conflict Arab governments have done little to mitigate, and much to aggravate. Because of miserable Arabs whom other Arabs have conspired to keep in misery so that they may have a stick with which to beat the Israelis, and, who, by the way, have shot themselves in the foot so many times they're reduced to walking on their kneecaps.

And we are "indifferent" to it, and the Arab world is wounded by our indifference.

Let me just send these friendly words of advice to Arabs:


We did not make this quarrel, and if you are "hurt" by it, we are not responsible for it. While we don't want to make you miserable, we are also not responsible for your happiness.

(This probably explains why some people have such a passion for "talks", even when talks are plainly getting nowhere. As long as the proper rituals are being enacted, the people are satisfied, and no one notices that the rain does not fall.)

I will never understand this dualistic vision that some people---not all of them Arabs, by any means---have of the US. On the one hand, the US meddles where it should not, oppresses and subjugates others; and on the other hand, its "indifference", its inability to resolve their problem, enrages them. One day, if we all survive, this will be considered one of those inexplicable mass delusions of history, the idea that all salvation and all evil comes from the US.

Friedman's final paragraph notes that this might not be a rational attitude, but we ignore it at our peril. Fair enough. But we cater to it at our peril, too. We cannot allow ourselves to be subject to the emotional blackmail of Arab drama queens. Friedman's final sentence says:

The Egyptian playwright Ali Salem says: "We have an Egyptian proverb: `The drunk is in the care of the sober.' You are the sober. Don't forget that."

We are under no obligation to care for drunken strangers who will not sober up, especially those who, in their intoxication, try to kill us. Our obligation is instead to defend ourselves from them. Ali Salem should not forget that, and neither should we.

UPDATE: My idea of the US as a font of all good and all evil is echoed by John Derbyshire here, although I confess to being fuzzy on the applicability of the cargo cult model. Mark my words, this will be rich ground for PhD theses in the coming years. Humanities majors, start yours now and avoid the rush.

Daddy's Car

OK, just one more car-related thing, and then I'm done with it. My dad's a car nut, he can talk your leg off about cars (or pretty much anything else, come to that), but they just don't excite me that much.

This was the car I learned to drive in. It's a '64 Imperial (I learned to drive in '78.) Ours was that color, too. The ad copy at the bottom reads:

Today, there is a totally new Imperial. Tomorrow, somebody will ask if you've seen it. It is far more than a new car. It is a new concept of what a fine car should be. The new Imperial is America's most spacious luxury car. It is also the quietest. If you admire fine cars, enter the quiet world of Imperial--The Incomparable Imperial for 1964.

People got paid to write this, you know. It reminds me of the Meat Sermon I mentioned a couple weeks ago.

Spacious, hell. A family of four could live in it, with room for Grandma in the trunk. Ours had power steering with a lot of play in it; you had to turn the wheel through about 420 degrees before there was a significant course correction. It had---no lie---push button drive; instead of a gear shift it had a row of buttons. After all, button pushing was THE FUTURE! It steered like an aircraft carrier, and had mischievous power brakes; you depressed them for four inches and nothing happened, but another quarter inch would send you through the windshield. Whee!

The power windows were dead by that time, too. When I bought ol' Sparky, I was hesitant to get power windows because of my bad experiences with the Imperial's. The salesman asked me how old the Imperial had been, and when I told him, he said, "Oh, but you're not going to keep this car that long, are you?" HA ha!

Saturday, January 11, 2003

The Twelve Days of Sparky

Thinking about the kind of dough I dropped on my beloved old car, I got into a kind of "Twelve Days of Christmas" rhythm. So here are the Twelve Days of Sparky. You know the drill.

On the ___ day of Christmas, my Sparky cost me:

Twelve thousand dollars[*]
Eleven gallons of coolant
Ten bleeding knuckles
Nine mechanics laughing
Eight fuel injectors
Seven jump starts
Six thermostats
Five piston rings[**]
Four bald tires
Three windshields
Two radiators
And an engine rebuilt completely

[*]The approximate price of the car, new, give or take a grand. That was a lot for a car in those days. As I said, money was less of a problem then.

[**] OK, it was only a four cylinder engine. My artistic license is paid up. Nyeah.

Dude, Where's My Car?

(I hesitated to post this, but I figure it's my blog and I'll bore if I want to, bore if I want to.)

Damian Penny asked a bunch of us what we drove, and I mentioned my last car, good old Sparky. (Here's a picture of an '85 Laser of the same color.) Sparky was a 1986 Chrysler Laser, which I bought in the fall of '85; it was one of the first of the model year.

Now, I loved this car. In those days money was not such a problem for me, so I piled on all sorts of fancy packages. It had cool digital display (just like we'd have in THE FUTURE!), and it talked. Yes, children, in the '80s there was a fad for cars that reported faults and things with voice messages. This turned out to be a very handy feature.

It was a pretty peppy car, too; had a lot of pick-up. Just before I got mine, I heard on the radio that someone driving a Laser had led the Missouri Highway Patrol on a 100 mile chase at 150mph. They had to give up when he hit St. Louis rush hour traffic. Not, of course, that I condone such a thing. Or that I ever drove mine that fast (this was the era of the double nickel limit, after all). But it was nice to have that kind of muscle handy.

So I loved the car, and what with one thing and another, kept it for 14 years. By that time, of course, it had started to develop some problems.

I hadn't had it for two weeks when some throttle control sensor thingy went haywire. If you let it fall below so many RPM, it would stall. This was fun on the highway. But of course it was still under warranty then.

After four years the air conditioning went out. This never got fixed.

After about six years the radiator busted, and I had to get a new one. That one sprung a leak too, eventually, but it just had to be welded.

After eight years the driver's seat broke, so that it would recline even when you didn't want it to. I never had the money to fix this (it was an extremely expensive repair), and drove it like this for the next six years. I stuffed a bunch of junk behind the seat to prop it up. It was very uncomfortable, no doubt dangerous, and probably illegal. I tried not to drive very far.

After ten years everything started to go to hell. The engine block cracked (I had a rebuilt one put in). The steering wheel fell off---well, OK, not off, but it came discombobulated in such a way as to disconnect the ignition interlock gizmo and to make a long story short the car plumb died right there in the street. You had to hold the steering wheel in a certain way to keep the car running. I took it in for repair that afternoon---you don't want to fool around with that.

The car developed a tendency to overheat. Every month or so I had to drive up a mountain, and I had to keep my eye glued to the temperature gauge. When it got too hot I'd have to pull over to the side and sit until it cooled, then continue on my way. I usually had to do that twice before I reached the summit.

There's an Austin Lounge Lizards song called "Waitin' on a Call from Don". Part of it goes:

Now I've got my own car and a mechanic named Don.
I go to see him when all hope is gone.
He's honest and careful, so I hand him the keys,
Then I sacrifice a chicken and get down on my knees.

And pray, Don, have pity on me!
When you call and say what the damage will be.
And I'm a-waitin' (waitin') hyperventilatin'
Waitin' on a call from Don


St. Peter don't you call me, 'cause I can't be gone
'Cause I'm waitin' on a call from Don

Except that my mechanic was named Vince, this was my life. Vince was an honest mechanic. Sparky and I went to visit him nearly every month, and sometimes he would do small things for free (gave me a set of sparky plugs once). When the car was overheating, Vince and I were looking at it with Vince's trusty assistant, Paul. Vince was saying, gosh, there could be so many things wrong with it, he wasn't sure where to start. He reached up to pluck a stray leaf out of the vacuum lines, and as he did, the car---which had been running very ragged---suddenly sprang into life. Paul and I looked at each other. "He's such a professional," Paul said. Praise Don---er, Vince! (Turned out that the vacuum lines weren't, um, vacuuming very well.)

By the end of our time together Sparky had developed periodic tendencies to leak coolant or gas. I was always frantically sniffing for one of these two substances. To this day the smell of ethylene glycol brings a knot to my stomach.

By this time most of you will be saying, "Well, ya moron, why didn't you just get a new car?" Good question. The answer is that I was in constant danger of losing my job. When you start in physics research, you generally start with a postdoctoral position, which lasts from a year on up, generally only to two or three years. Then you have to get a new job. I had a fellowship which was for a year initially, but which was usually extended to two years, and very rarely to three. I figured (such was my self-esteem) that I'd only get a year, and would have to move on. It's not easy to get jobs in my field, and it would be foolish to buy a car knowing there was a good chance I'd be unemployed right away. After a year, I knew I'd be there only one more year for certain, and the same arguments applied. Same thing when my fellowship was extended for a third year. And, sort of so on. I seldom know for sure how long I'd be employed. Also, I didn't earn a lot of money.

I could have bought a used one, but I figured better the problems you do know than the problems you don't.

Just when I was thinking that it might finally be time to get a new car, I got the job in Australia. I thought about selling Sparky, but he was in such bad shape that he wouldn't bring very much, and selling would be a hassle. And we would need him for various things until the very end, and a seller might not like that. So I gave him to the American Cancer Society. It was very hard.

Sniff. I still miss him.

Friday, January 10, 2003

Do You Like Pina Coladas?

Meryl Yourish sighs over the difficulty of summing up one's personality and mate requirements in a few words. Huh? That's easy:

Intelligent, witty woman seeks man to tell her she's brilliant and laugh at her jokes.

This is all I ask in a man, and it's only fifteen words. Enough money left over for lots of Popeye's. Feel free to use it, Meryl!

UPDATE: I showed this to Niles, and he laughed, thus passing the test. I'll keep him for a while longer.

Thursday, January 09, 2003

The Grannies of the Guardian

Oh, my goodness, get the smelling salts! Those delicate flowers at the Guardian have come over all woozy!

First, we must have some background. The other day the Guardian ran a story in their G2 tabloid insert about growing vulgarity and voyeurism on television. The article's hook was the departure of Cilla Black (a perky '60s singer, Niles tells me) from her post as host of the game show "Blind Date". Blind Date has apparently gotten more raunchy and vicious over the past years (although I didn't find a story where Black named this as the reason for her departure).

This long thumb-sucker wonders how (British) television got so coarse, when it started focussing on humiliation. Har. I've always thought that the humor content in much British comedy was based on voyeurism and contempt---an extended guffaw at those crap-flinging monkeys in the human zoo. "I say, dahling, have you ever?" "No, Niles, I never." "Well, we certainly are superior to them!" "Thank goodness! More Harp, luv?"

But, OK, whatever. The thing is, the Guardian editors selected a Leading! Artist! to illustrate the cover of G2. And what did current artistic genius Gillian Wearing come up with? Well, she wrote in black magic marker, on a white field, FUCK CILLA BLACK. (It's the Tuesday cover.)

Genius, sheer genius. You can always tell real genius: it's something you would never think of in a million years, because it seemed too obvious or lame. She won the Turner Prize, you know! That's your assurance of contemporary artistic brilliance, right there. Here's Our Artiste's explanation of how she came to create this masterwork:

"It's funny because Cilla Black is the last person you would say fuck to. You wouldn't imagine saying fuck and Cilla Black in the same sentence." She said she wrote the words roughly in felt tip pen "because I wanted it to look like graffiti - like, in a way, it shouldn't be there."

"Tee hee! Mumsy says I musn't and it made Teacher all red in the face!"

Well, that's when the epidemic of fainting fits began. Come with me and enjoy this Thomas Freedland article showing the Guardian facing the spectacle of too much liberalism:

[The cover] sparked a loud debate among Guardian staff and, as you can see from today's G2, among readers too. Defenders say that, once you hand over a canvas to an artist, you can't tell them what to put on it.

The hell you can't. At the very least, you can refuse to put that canvas in your newspaper.

What was meant as an essay on the coarsening of the culture ended up coarsening the culture just a little bit more. The f-word was sprayed across 400,000 breakfast tables where it was not invited; it was flashed before children whose parents or teachers may work hard telling them it is not fit for public use.

Great Scott! He's suggesting censorship for The Children! In the Guardian! Now I may faint.

The rest of the article is, for the most part, quite a sensible piece on the competing pressures of free expression (which Freedland refers to as "liberalism and tolerance") and a need for at least minimum public standards.

However, this being the Wanker (how's that for public standards), he has to open his coat and expose his leftist bona fides:

...heaven knows that in a world where civilians are about to be incinerated in an avoidable war, there are far greater obscenities than a swear-word in a newspaper.

Yeah, I seen it before, pal.

Freedland goes on to describe a number of objectionable advertisements, which should prompt me to muse on Australian TV ads, but not today.

The subhead of this article is "We are going to have to make new allies to halt the debasement of our culture by the media and advertising". At the end are two paragraphs very nicely demonstrating [Tim] Blair's Hypothesis, that all the idiocies of the world are converging into one big mass:

What can we do? Progressives need to drop their congenital worry about seeming prudish, repressed or unhip and start to speak out whenever they see yet another corrosion of the culture. There will be no shortage of allies. Anti-capitalists will surely join hands with an assault on this rampant marketisation...Feminists will sign up for a war...

The Church of England has a new leader who has wasted no time in railing against the primacy of market over all other values. After him comes the army of social conservatives traditionally disdained by liberals...

I'm sympathetic to the problem of free speech versus public propriety, but I'm also amused at the war rhetoric, and at the call for comrades from some of the dimmer portions of the Right Thinkers brigade.

Notice that this article has morphed from chiding the Guardian for its unfortunate (but artistically-driven, of course) decision, to a harangue for war against advertising. (If there's one thing that has turned me off liberalism, it's the constant cries for war. It's not just, "Write in and tell them you're offended and won't buy their product." No, we have to raise an army and go to war and destroy this menace. It's rare that something is unfortunate, mistimed, or ill-judged; it's always a deliberate act of malice.)

For more, see the news article about the complaints they got.

The decision to commission a series of top artists...was taken more than six months ago.

Some of the artists prepared their work in advance but Wearing came up with her idea after spending a day with the Guardian's features team yesterday.

So much genius, and in only one day.

"Today's G2 cover is 100% offence and 0% art. Had the first word been 'love', it would have been 100% waste of space and still 0% art. No artist should have been allowed to so misuse the opportunity given to her," said one reader.

Who apparently found his copy on a bench, or in a trash can, since that seems like too sensible a comment for a Guardian reader.

At the time that article was written, they'd had 50 reader comments, only a handful of which were supportive.

The last time a one-off Guardian incident caused such public outrage was when the paper ran both its crosswords in the same section.

The move provoked 300 complaints...

Entire circus via Peter Briffa.