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Unpopular Ideas

Ramblings and Digressions from out of left field, and beyond....

Location: Piedmont of Virginia, United States

All human history, and just about everything else as well, consists of a never-ending struggle against ignorance.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Era of the Septuagenarians

It seems that this is the age of the 70-year olds, though on a smallish scale, and even then for most of them this period of glory can't last long.

If I am not mistaken I saw a headline suggesting that people of that age had done well during the recent Oscar awards ceremony, in which one of the most toasted films was titled, ironically, "No Country for Old Men."

Meanwhile John McCain, at 71, is currently the candidate for President that most Republicans are banking on to extend the string of their nefarious successes in recent decades. And at 74 Ralph Nader is supposedly running for the same office. And over in Cuba 76-year-old Raul Castro has picked up the reins of leadership. Then there's the writer, who still manages to detect sunlight returning every morning.

The Cuban exiles were bitter at seeing Raul Castro and the men of his generation taking over from his ailing brother. They said they had hoped for a younger group of leaders, who would set into motion the reforms that would be needed to make more rational and comfortable the return of the exiles. In other words they saw Raul Castro as being too old for the job. Yet you know that they are happy to completely overlook the fact that McCain is just a few years younger, and that very likely he is prone to letting his mouth get ahead of his brain much more than Raul Castro. After all, the latter already has almost half a century of experience at being his country's defacto co-leader, with all the struggling to overcome countless difficulties that that has entailed, while much of McCain's experience has involved backtracking and sweeping away the traces of his numerous missteps.

But Raul Castro may have his work cut out for him, in lasting much longer than his ailing brother. And meanwhile, if the U.S. has any kind of luck left, McCain will not become the next President, while millions would love to hear not even another whisper from Ralph Nader.

As for the writer, better luck should be in store, because Spring and warm days will soon be here. That has to be certain, since the astronomers have not yet detected anything of a rocky nature that is on its way to knocking Planet Earth out of its orbit.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Priorities and Meltdowns

I am completely baffled as to why the U.S. Congress is so interested in whether one citizen named Roger Clemens, a baseball player, has taken steroids, or why the U.S. news gatherers feel the need to report each and every day on the difficulties of one singer named Britney Spears in holding on to custody of her children. And if it wasn't that it would be something else. In her case that has been true for three or four years.

Meanwhile the ice is melting at a great rate at both the polar circles, and we are inexorably sliding into a global oven of our own making. And meanwhile all the conditions seem to be in place for a gigantic financial meltdown, and for some people, especially homeowners, that infinitely painful process has started. And meanwhile events keep happening, such as the one two days ago at Turkey Point in Florida, that remind us of how close we always are to a nuclear power plant meltdown somewhere, with the potential to cut a chunk out of our country for centuries, when it comes to being habitable. And also meanwhile a humanitarian meltdown that was started by some Americans has already been well underway in Iraq for five years, and, in spite of the claims made by a man allegedly serving as the President plus another man who would like to succeed him, it still shows no signs of abating.

But, in the face of all those catastrophes, most in various stages of actually taking place -- and if the news reports are any gauge -- the personal pharmaceutical affairs of a baseball player and the personal domestic affairs of a singer are the situations that matter most, and we are expected to understand that.

If they were to pop up in front of me, I would be unable to recognize Roger Clemens or Britney Spears even a little bit. I've never seen Clemens hurl a baseball or heard Britney Spears trilling some lyrics.

That must be the answer. By doing nothing to correct those glaring deficiencies in my cultural life, I have failed to meet those two overriding obligations of all good Americans.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Too Many the Underlying Cause

Often when there is an article about various ills of the world, someone will comment that, regardless of all the reasons given for what has brought things to this desperate point, together with the clever proposed solutions, first it is necessary to understand that the base cause of that and so many other problems is simple and easy to see. There are too many of us bipeds living jammed up together on not that much livable acreage.

But not long ago I saw someone striking back at this contention angrily, saying that blaming things on overpopulation is a right wing tactic, and that on the contrary there's plenty of room on the planet for everybody and for many more besides. Humankind has only to resolve to use the earth's resources and space in better ways.

I am puzzled I thought it was the right wingers instead who considered overpopulation to be a left wing bogeyman, with one example of that being conservative opposition to discussing most forms of birth control, except the fanciful one of abstinence.

Reason says to me that an excess of people is indeed the cause of most if not all of the problems of livability and survival of not only humans but also of the great majority of the other fauna and flora that also live here and have done so for far longer periods of time. That seniority in turn gives them more right to be here, and we shouldn't be surprised if the Way of Things agrees and might have already set the wheels in motion to correct that situation.

It's as simple as basic arithmetic. Until conditions set in to restrict it, the human ability to multiply is infinite, while the resources supplied by the planet that people need to keep going after they're born is finite. When speaking of energy, things like the sunlight and the tides may be exceptions, but at present even the utilizations of those have their limits.

The Earth is a big place, but it is covered much more by oceans of poisoned water than it is by the friendlier land masses. In turn only a fraction of that land is habitable, and making the uninhabitable parts livable too often involves using excessive amounts of water and energy. Also that effort tends to upset the delicate mechanisms by which all the forces of Nature that enable us to survive even as briefly as one second work together, each in absolutely essential sync with all the others.

Recently I saw a documentary called "In the Pit." It was about some construction workers who are building an elevated roadway in Mexico City. Their working conditions were uniformly unpleasant and dangerous, and for relief they seemed to rely mainly on making frequent scatalogical remarks. The film called this skyway the "longest bridge in Mexico City history." But for a bridge it had a noticeable lack of water or ravine under it. Instead all that was to be seen was just cars, streets, and buildings, and more, much much more of the same. This construction had become necessary because in a city with 15 million people and 3 million cars, there was no longer enough room for the cars.

The film ended with a spectacular, continuous shot taken from a helicopter as it flew above the "bridge" and traced its course in one direction, showing it in various states of construction and completion. Atop its pillars the roadway rolled in an almost imperceptible gentle curve to the left and on into the distance with an eventually stupefying sameness, on and on and on, so unvarying and unending that after a while the fascination of following it wore off, and I started urgently wishing for that "bridge" to finally arrive somewhere, anywhere at all, though it never did.

It was a "bridge" obviously constructed at enormous costs in everything, and it crossed only over an infinity of souls and neverending streams of vehicles -- a fitting apparatus in a gigantic, overcrowded city that shows how the injunction to "be fruitful and multiply" is another of several Biblical footballs that badly need to be at last slammed to the ground and some sort of score chalked up, instead of being forever carried devoutly downfield with no goalposts in sight.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Short Step to Oblivion

This morning on the History Channel I saw a film about the new leader of Cuba, Raul Castro, that started with shots of an accident that happened four years ago. Most likely the Cuban exiles in Miami cheered mightily at the time, but today it sent chills through me, because it was just the kind of possibility that I've come to fear. Nothing much is needed to cause it, yet the chances of it being catastrophic are far too great.

When a person is walking along he trusts his downward peripheral vision to tell him when whatever is under his feet has suddenly changed enough to become a peril. Such a situation is particularly present when, after a person takes a number of steps on one level, suddenly there is a sharp dropoff of no more than 8, 9, or 10 inches to another level of the same color. To the leisurely scanning eye this dropoff might show itself only as a thin line, easily invisible to someone who is not paying full attention and has no reason to expect such a need to step down.

Four years ago, when he was about the same age as I am now, Fidel Castro was striding along somewhere, glorying in the toasting and adulation that he has been enjoying for nearly five decades, pointing his finger and maybe declaring something, when such a dropoff suddenly presented itself yet escaped his notice. After he lifted one foot an inch or two while expecting to set it down again on the same solid surface, to his instant horror and panic he instead felt his foot finding nothing after descending that inch or two, and not after another inch either, or another or another....

You probably know the feeling.

With no one ahead of him to break his fall, the longtime leader of Cuba and renowned international maverick, survivor of dozens of assassination schemes, and driven powerfully ahead by the force of his confidence and his stride, half toppled and half hurtled forward and slammed face down onto a hard surface, with his head crashing into a row of ordinary metal folding chairs. It was quite a startling sight, and he a "world leader." Nothing lends an ominous and prophetic tone to the proceedings quite like the sight of a set of metal folding chairs thrown into sudden disarray by the skull of an iron man.

Instantly Castro's ever-present entourage surrounded him, but the damage had been done, and it's no wonder that now, four years later, he is such a physical wreck, and he has had to hand over the reins to his younger brother, Raul, who, at 76, the same age as Fidel was then, is himself deep into his bye-bye years. Even a younger person might have trouble coming back from a fall like that, and you can imagine that Fidel's large frame contributed to the force of his hitting that concrete or stone floor or whatever it was.

I am hopeful that our lone cat, Beauty, is protecting me from such an event. He does this by his love of walking around underfoot with the utmost silence, forcing me to be always aware of where he is. His jet black color still doesn't always make him him easy to see in the light, while in the darkness he presents a definite danger.

For instance at night sometimes he will wait outside on the deck while I'm in my workshop. When I come out I have to be diligent about remembering that he could be there, and in his haste to get a little ahead he could cause me to stumble over him and fall headlong down a set of about 12 steps. That or some other similar mishap could have consequences too uncomfortable to think about, especially in my usual solitary conditions.

The moral of this post should've been second nature to Mr. Castro especially. Always be on the lookout for Spanish doubloons sticking half up out of the ground.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Toward Nader's Nadir

Like many another who has tasted the thrill, but unlike those who also have a sense of perspective and the good judgment to listen to it, Ralph Nader couldn't resist -- or either a certain political party told him that the time had finally come and he was needed again, to play the spoiler role. Formerly known for being an effective consumer advocate, he is again running for President, for the fifth time, as an independent. After the candidates in the two mainstream parties have expended so much cash and effort over a long period, he just now made it official. Maybe he had to conserve his energy. In a few days he will be 74, three years older than John McCain, whose age has already led to some reservations being expressed about him, and, being older than either of those two, I have to say with good reason.

Or maybe Nader was inspired by the massive turnout in the primaries of Democratic voters, and he must think that he would have good chances of cutting out from that herd a goodly bunch, especially if there is conflict at the Democratic convention. Otherwise it's hard to guess why he would go to the trouble. There's nothing sadder than a habitual perennial candidate. Harold Stassen showed that. Remember him? Starting in 1948 that former governor of Minnesota made nine unsuccessful runs at being President, the last time in 1992.

Nader will get plenty of support at least from the likes of the commenters at Common Dreams. More violent toward the Democrats than they are toward the Republicans, though the latter make up the party that is doing the real demolition work on what remains of the forward-looking institutions of America, those people would like nothing better than to see the Democratic party dismembered into sections, so that they can grab as many as possible to put together a viable 3rd party. They have no hope of chipping off similarly from the Republican body, since it has the consistency of a granite boulder.

Nader's running was a grave disservice to the country in 2000, and the fact that he is so unable to feel any sense of shame for that should sink him without a bubble right there. He and his supporters vehemently deny that they helped the Republicans to win in that tragic year. That their rationales hold no water must be the reason that I can never remember what they are. Mike Huckabee, McCain's sole remaining competitor for the Republican nomination, said today that a vote for Nader is indeed a vote for Republicans, and he welcomed Nader into the contest. So there you have it.

For all Nader's good services in the past in the consumer area, I hope that as a Presidential candidate, he will remain only what he has been reduced to being -- a favorite wet dream of an unknown number of disgruntled, spite-saturated, supposed Progressives.

Race Pride, Heroes, and Batpoop

An unlikely reader would not have to read many of my earlier posts in this weblog before deciding that I have a noticeably short supply of racial pride.

The fact is that quite possibly I have none at all.

That also goes for the wedding partners of a condition like racial pride, heroes. These deficiencies can be uncomfortable, but only at widely spaced intervals, and that's because I am seldom if ever around people who feel prompted to remind me of my sin.

Last night HBO proudly unveiled a documentary that gave me a powerful clue as to where those essentials all went. They were beaten out of me by the likes of Joe Louis.

This shows how topsy-turvy things are for me, because for just about everybody else who was lumped into my "racial" category, the situation was the exact opposite..

I didn't want to look at "Joe Louis, Betrayed," but I ended up sitting through the whole thing. At first, afterward, I wasn't depressed, though I had expected to be, but after two good nights of sleeping for a full 8 hours each, which had been unheard of for me lately, this morning I popped up fully awake at 4, because of a vividly bad dream. That may have been helped along by also seeing, right after "Joe Louis," another documentary on the NGC Channel, about two heroes who went into a bat-ceilinged, guano-floored cave in Indonesia, looking for reticulated pythons. After a few yards water started liquifying the guano, and soon they were intrepidly struggling thigh deep through it, and they had to put on respirators because of all the ammonia generated by the pools of batpoop. Finally they found what they were looking for, and for their labors one was given four severe gashes in his upper thigh by the teeth of the huge snake.

I had felt that I didn't need to see the Joe Louis movie, because his story is so familiar to me, and the title didn't have to tell me that it would end sadly and badly. The years of his successes coincided almost exactly with my first 20 years or so, and actually, like everyone, because of him and other things I had plenty of race pride and so forth, until around the time that I entered college, which was in 1949. But then my natural aversion to fist-fighting and pugnacity in general, which extended even to chess, coupled with becoming convinced that if a huge number of people fervently believed in a thing, something must be wrong, soon spread and infected all my ways of thinking.

Briefly put, it started making no sense to me that the worth of a whole group of people should be gauged by the ability of some men to hammer the brain cages of other men with their fists with a view to knocking them unconscious or even dead, and I no longer understood why that group should take so much pride in such a thing, and yet they did, profusely and totally. And it had been that same boxing-type "kick-ass" factor that had led me to abandon organized religion a few years earlier. You know, the threat that "you will believe as I do, or as I profess to do, or else I will see to it that your ass gets kicked," which is implicit in Christianity and in most of the other religions as well.

In the same vein I thought, and still think, that it is the fate of heroes sooner or later to betray us, and to be betrayed. Joe Louis should have saved a dollar or two while asking somebody what was this thing called taxes, instead of emptying his wallet on wine, women, and song. But he was fatally helped along in all that by all those who saw in him the ultimate hero, simply because he could combine being a genuinely nice guy while also being highly adept at punching people into more than their ordinary states of senselessness, and he bought, whole hog, their song and dance around his altar.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Barack Obama, Achiever

I wish the Rainbow community in which I grew up could see Barack Obama.

I mean those who were 25 or 30 or more years older than me -- the parents, the ministers, the lawyers and doctors and such, but mainly the teachers. As I am nearing 80, there can't be many of that older generation left. But even people my age or 10 or 20 years younger might have the same reaction. Meanwhile those who are even younger are accustomed to taking things for granted that people my age and older could hardly hope for in our formative years, and those more recent generations are likely to view the Obama success as much less of an unheard-of phenomenon, and instead as only their just due. They are mistaken about the former proposition, though the latter is true.

The old folks would be completely astounded and pleased. They would see Obama as exactly what they had been aiming for, all these long years. Yet at the same time they would be wary, and not a little fearful. Is this the same United States we've always known? they would ask themselves. What's behind all this enthusiasm of so many different groups of people over this Rainbow man? Is there another shoe waiting to drop? If so, how long is it going to take for that to happen, and what form will it take? After all we've had many Rainbow leaders to reach heights in the past, though admittedly none having so good a shot at actually becoming the U.S. President. And few if any of those have escaped being demonized in some manner or even literally gunned down, as witness Reverend King Jr. and Medgar Evers. Mainly their downfalls have been accomplished by charges of moral wrongdoing or political or financial corruption of some kind.

So is this Barack Obama man being set up so high just to create an especially resounding and doom-filled crash for us when eventually he is brought down, as if we haven't already had to suffer from such situations as, for nearly 20 years, the sight of that sorry, prurient, Charley McCarthy excuse for a man, Clarence Thomas, who has been a towering humiliation for us from the day that he took the seat on the Supreme Court that had been occupied by a truly legitimate Rainbow hero, Thurgood Marshall?

I don't know enough about Obama, I think because he rode in on such a tide of esteem and praise before I had had a chance to make a good estimate of those waters. He popped up too suddenly from out of nowhere, like a Deus Ex Machina. I hear that he is especially proficient and inspiring in his speeches, but so far I haven't been in a position to hear any of them.

Yet, though he is a few days over being exactly 30 years younger than me, I feel as if I know him well. That has nothing to do with both of us being males and of African ancestry, his of much more recent vintage than mine. Nor is it because we have much the same kind of mixture of bloods. Instead he is familiar because he is exactly the product that the educational system that I went through strived for with might and main. And that is all the more interesting because I'm told that during Obama's high school years he had issues that wouldn't have predicted his present eminence.

The teachers at Dunbar, the somewhat snotty yet worthwhile high school that I attended in D.C., would have been thrilled out of their socks by the sight of Mr. Obama. I don't mean the Dunbar of today's hip-hop world. I mean the much more staid Dunbar of the 1940's, when it was the academic school that was attended by the aspiring children of D.C.'s Rainbow professional elite, the doctors, lawyers, teachers, and what-not, whereas everybody else with any African ancestry went to three other high schools that specialized in lower prestige business, technical, and vocational subjects.

In a certain sense I had no business being at Dunbar. I was certainly smart enough to be there, and I think I showed that, but in terms of outlook, I was like a fish on the ground. Like everywhere else where I have ever been, I was regarded as being an outsider, a weirdo, but at Dunbar I felt especially uncomfortable, as I did later at Howard U., because I thought that because Rainbows were discriminated against no matter who they were, there should be no place among them for snootiness and class differences, and yet there were, strongly, and I wanted to have nothing to do with any of that.

So I was strangely disturbed when, after I had heard his name for a while, I finally saw Obama's picture.. He looked so keen, bright, alert, and polished. He looked like he was born wearing the kind of business suits in which he was so immaculately togged out, while I on the other hand have always seen wearing suits as just a form of self-degradation. In a word to me he looked like (gasp!) that model of my day, an achiever, and that was something to which I couldn't relate, because for so long -- and in a weird way just like a typical block boy, to whom I couldn't relate at all -- I had been suspicious of the type.

Barack Obama makes me feel sorry for that Rainbow community that produced me. They would have liked so much to have produced him instead, and instead of letting odd, far-flung spots like Hawaii and Indonesia be the places that can claim that privilege, formative-wise. But sometimes the times are badly out of sync with our desires, and no one can know that better than a Rainbow.

Yes, that older generation must now be pretty much gone, but the one contemporary with me and a decade or two younger is still around, including the achievers with whom I graduated. A number of them were able to bypass humble Howard U., and instead they attended -- in the eyes of the larger world -- more prestigious and expensive schools, and later some of them went on to indeed become big fish in the American seas.

Or at least I think they did. By not staying in D.C. in the latter stages of my life I don't know what became of them, but I feel sure that however many are still around, they're all cheering at the tops of their voices for Obama, and so am I, though not at the top of my voice because I have that same wariness and fearfulness that I pictured in the older generation, if they could be here. But that wasn't why I voted for Hillary Clinton in the primaries. Instead I had many other reasons, among them the fact that she and her husband go back so far in support of the Cause, and yes, partly because that surf that brought in Obama had become a strongly rising sea, and there is something in me that always makes me unable to avoid trying to swim against the tides.

Actually I am for Obama and Clinton equally, and therefore, as they are the only ones left standing on the Democratic side, I should be enjoying what should be a win-win situation. It is a huge exception in my many years of wishing for good things in politics, and I don't think it has ever happened before. But since only one of them can get the nomination, I will feel deeply sad about the other that will fall short...

Right now it's beginning to look as if Obama will achieve the nod, and, though few others might, I can strongly sense that already the area around 1st and M Streets N.W. in Washington, D.C., the location of the now long torn-down fortress-like gray building that housed the Dunbar that I attended, is thronged with thousands of powerfully approving wraiths and spirits.

Friday, February 22, 2008

A Cloud on the Horizon No Bigger Than...

I long ago allowed my copy of one of my favorite poems to drop out of my possession. I don't remember how. I just know that I have to stop putting off asking Amazon Books to send me another copy. It is a book-length poem about the Civil War called "John Brown's Body," and it is by an American poet who was big in the 1930's and '40's, named Stephen Vincent Benet. I need the poem now, partly because, among other things, it contains a line from which I got the title and the idea for this post.

The line goes something like: "A cloud on the horizon no bigger than a hand." If I remember right, it refers to one of the harbingers of the Civil War, and I think it also has some type of connection with Robert E. Lee.

As in so many other otherwise enjoyable situations, there's a certain pain that goes along with the books that engrossed you so much in your early years. Eventually they become a part of you almost as literally as a section of your skin and flesh, and when a favorite of those volumes gets out of your hands, usually by someone borrowing and never returning it, a long time often goes by before you can get yourself together to replace it. Maybe that's because you feel that, though the words in the new copy will be exactly the same, your heart and mind stay true to that one particular original and now forever lost copy.

Right now, however, I'm wondering if Kosovo might become like that cloud on the horizon, because of how the Serbians are so worked up about losing that province in which they kept such an iron hand around the necks of 85 or 90 percent of its inhabitants, the Albanian ethnics. Now, in their fury and often through the instrument of fire, they're going around wrecking things. They destroyed the buildings and cars at two Kosovo border crossings, and they're not through at those places yet. They're holding big demonstrations elsewhere in Kosovo. They set fire to the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, and later they also attacked the Croatian embassy there, which aroused some some Croatian soccer fans in Zagreb, who then burned the Serbian flag, and the Croatian police hauled in apparently the whole bunch.

Serbia is painfully remembered as having been a flashpoint for two of the three most recent events that left large parts of Europe in horrible convulsions. The shot that eventually led to the First World War was fired there, and more recently Serbia was the terror of its neighbor states after Tito died and Yugoslavia fell to pieces, as the Serbians fought hard to keep those other states in harness.

So are these current events set off by Kosovo's declaration of independence just an initial furore that will eventually die down, or will these fires keep spreading, eventually to burst into something really big that no one can stop?

It looks like another case of the age-old battle between people doing what is clearly prudent to do and, on the other hand, doing what is expected of them.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Matrimonial Warfare

Contrary to my expectations, that "daring" leap that I made into the Angry Arab arena a few days ago was noticed, yet it resulted in no sort of an attack on me.

I should've known.

For one thing, I wasn't completely toxic. I just asked if what appeared to be the several people all using the name "Anonymous" could use a more courageous handle, to make it easier to distinguish the combatants.

I also mentioned the most vitriolic of the combatants, one Barabie, saying that she was "stricken," intended as a half-hidden allusion to a certain undesirable mental state. Also I said that she at least was easily recognizable because of her brand of invective.

Though she was there, Barabie didn't react. Maybe she realized that I was someone from somewhere far, far off and therefore entirely non-apropos, as evidenced by my failure to use one of the hot terms of the day, such as "safavids," whoever they are.

Someone else said that Barabie is actually a man. But I don't believe that, and I think his comment was just another oblique attack that he was trying to make on her. On the Internet I have often confused people's genders, but I have noticed that men who are taken for women seem only to be silently amused, but if you take a woman to be a man, you will definitely hear about it.

I had also forgotten a lesson that I learned long ago.

When I was young I was, at different times, close to two couples in whose cases the partners, shortly after they married, developed extreme hostility toward each other. Right in my presence, as if I was no more than a picture on the wall, they would go at each other hammer and tong. Sometimes I would say something. Though it was clearly interference in their affairs, they would duly note my remarks, but they would only gently nudge me aside and resume clawing full force at each other's jugulars.

That and other situations indicated to me that couples and groups who have turned marriage into open warfare become locked in this peculiar state in which they get so absorbed in hitting out at each other that they can see and hear nothing else. That particular thread on Angry Arab, which had been prompted by a post on different approaches to waging war, eventually rang up 179 comments, more than the average on that site by a factor of six or seven.

So I am emboldened, and I am tempted, at some later date, to post on another thread there the following comment. Naturally it would have less effect than dropping a pebble into the Mindanao Deep, but that's not what matters.

Because anger is usually accompanied and followed by stupidity in thought and in actions, and because stupidity tosses aside clear communication, and because garbled communication results in terrible misunderstandings, all you warriors in here would do well to lighten up on the anger, in spite of the apt but pitiful name of this site. That would go far toward helping you to resolve all these battles being waged daily in the Angry Arab world. And it would also help an ignorant American like me to understand just what all this screaming at each other, about so many different countries, is about. That would help you, too, since it is the American behemoth that, knowingly or not, and to varying degrees, is keeping its big clumsy feet on the neck of so many of your sacred entities -- that is, if it is your perception that that is so.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The World Without People

Recently the History Channel indulged itself and us in a scrumptious fantasy that I am sure has occurred, in one form or another, to many who have found themselves trapped in a box filled with their own kind, such as a traffic jam backed up for blocks and even miles. The program, called "Life After People" presented the world as it is likely to exist at various intervals, starting from a day when suddenly there are no more humans on the planet.

The program gave no reason for this total disappearance, and thus it avoided having to deal with the first and the only really horrible result of such a situation in real life -- the dispersal of all the billions of human bodies that, after some mega-catastrophe such as the explosions of thousands of neutron bombs, would be left lying around all over the place.

I wonder how a presentation like this is taken by those who so endlessly toast the human animal? In demonstrating that its departure would be a godsend to everything else on the planet, except lapdogs, this depiction reduced the species and all its vaunted accomplishments to total insignificance.

The makers of this program pointed out that everything that humans build is contrary to the desires of Nature, and therefore Nature would waste no time in wiping out these structures, by a great variety of means, till, after about 10,000 years the Earth's entire landmass would once again just be a collection of bucolic landscapes of various kinds.

Much more than a city-dweller, a person living in a rural setting knows the absolute certainty of that.

As you might expect, the lights would start going out immediately, and the last operating power plant would probably be the one at Hoover Dam, which is responsible for the desert extravagance of Las Vegas. Because the "fuel" is the water hammering through from Lake Mead, things can operate there without human hands for months and even years. But after a time its generators, too, would gradually come to a halt -- because of tiny mussels that would have built up enough to block the water intake coolant pipes. But the dam itself would last many hundreds of years, maybe even thousands, because it is built so stoutly.

The first creatures that would feel the brunt of no more people would be the numerous breeds of small dogs. They wouldn't last more than a few weeks, because they wouldn't be able to get out of the house, and if any did manage to escape, they would soon wish they had stayed inside. Meanwhile big dogs would go back to where they came from, becoming forms of wolves. Meanwhile any animals that could break out of the zoos would start having the field day that they would so richly deserve.

I was gratified to see that my favorite domestic animals, cats, would keep right on doing what they do best, which is to assume that everything is done for their comfort and well-being. A great many of them would soon find a fruitful new habitat -- in the skyscrapers of the big cities, which, with all the windows blown out and everything resplendent with rust, mold, and what-not, would become overgrown with flora of all kinds and overrun with cat food on the move. The program suggested that some cats might even evolve webbing between their legs, so that they could glide from building to building like flying squirrels. I thought that image, however, was doubtful. Cats know when they look good, and they would resist looking like airborne potholders.

In that same vein would come the most salutary result of all. In the absence of humans using the seas as "a pantry and as a dump," the populations in the oceans would start regenerating almost instantly, and in just a few years things would be back to the huge abundance of fish and other fauna of just a few hundred years ago, with unbelievable possibilities -- if you or I could still be around -- such as being able to walk across the water on the backs of turtles.

Through the miracle of computer graphics the program had numerous shots of gigantic, iconic structures wasting away, and the sights of them crashing to the ground or the water were spectacular -- the Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Sears Tower, the Space Needle, the Eiffel Tower. And eventually even the Giza Pyramids, built at such huge costs in blood, sweat, tears, and futility, would become covered over by the desert sands, without the Nile crocodiles ever noticing. Disappointingly, no mention was made of the only iconic structure that I have seen on a daily basis, the simple granite obelisk of the Washington Monument in D.C.

One expert on the program proposed that the longest lasting trace of the human presence would be Mt. Rushmore, because it is carved in granite and is in a geologically stable place. But I thought this was sad and inappropriate. I'm not disparaging the four figures that are celebrated there, but they have been honored in a great many other places and in a great many other ways. Borglum's work, which I have seen, struck me as being only an unseemly interruption in some otherwise worthwhile scenery.

My candidate for the "Last Trace Visible" is instead the Chief Crazy Horse mountain sculpture, located just a few miles from Mt. Rushmore. My wife and I saw that marvel in one of its first stages, back in 1966, when its originator, Korczak Ziolkowski, was still alive. Wouldn't it be so much more fitting if that tribute to a people who truly lived in harmony with Nature was the last discernible evidence of the touch of the human hand on the face of the planet.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Kosovo and Seceshes

The Territorial Imperative that is so powerful and destructive in all the beasts of the executive mansions and the fields and the jungles and the polar wastes of the world is now making itself seen in another severe test of "whether this nation or any other nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure," as Mr. Lincoln so eloquently said of the U.S. in his Gettysburg Address.

Kosovo has finally carried out its longstanding threat to cut itself loose from Serbia, much to the anger of Serbia, Russia, China, and Vietnam, among others on the one side, and on the other the U.S., Germany, France, Great Britain, and Italy.

This secession can't help but be logical, in view of the fact that 90 percent of the Kosovars are not of Serbian extraction but are Albanian instead, and it makes no sense that such an overwhelming majority should be lorded over by another ethnicity that has only 5 percent of its people inside the borders, just because of some battle that was fought in Kosovo many centuries ago. And even more in view of the fact that the Serbians were highly vicious toward the Kosovars when Yugoslavia broke up a couple of decades ago, and they were only forced to pull back and dig themselves when Bill Clinton and Wesley Clark sent over some planes and dropped bombs.

I was very much interested in wanting to find out why Russia and the others were so incensed at Kosovo's declaration. The major argument they make is the claim that it will set a bad example, because there are many other populations around the world who would dearly love to do the same thing. And that is surely true, though I don't see how that makes Kosovo's independence unjustified and undeserved.

The first trouble spot they have in mind must be Kurdistan, that hoped-for place inside the borders of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. But Russia, itself the huge remnant of the once gigantic Soviet Union, from which many now independent countries have happily detached themselves, still has other territories that would likewise like to escape its grip, at least one of which a Russia in its right mind ought to be glad to see go -- Chechnya. And then there's Tibet, Sri Lanka, Palestine, the Basques, and other places that escape my mind, though I can think of various forms even of the U.S. South that have never stopped entertaining the idea of secession, first broached and then bloodily quashed as long ago as the middle 1800's, though I would bet that now there are many, in the North as well as elsewhere, who privately wonder if it wasn't such a bad idea after all.

Kosovo should make it. For all the growling of the bears, there can't be much of an appetite in that region for a resumption of horrible events as recent as the last days of the 1900's.

A Great Dream and Regrets

At night I usually manage to time things so that an instant after I switch off the bedside lamp, I fall asleep. But last night I tossed and turned for so long that I almost decided to get back up, put on my clothes again, and resume my usual nocturnal wanderings through the house. But I fought that notion, and I finally did fall asleep, and at some point I had that most unusual of experiences, an endlessly pleasant and reasonable dream.

I was somewhere at Howard U. in D.C., my alma mater, and so was this girl, this woman, with whom, in real life long ago, back in the late 1950's, I had spent large amounts of time in the library, exchanging countless looks across the huge gap of more my shyness than hers, without ever speaking to her. But now I was much older, and she, too, was older but not nearly as much. She looked different. Her face was thinner and more marked with experience and knowing, but she was still the same woman, Sara (Something).

She had been with some other people but they soon drifted elsewhere, and that left just her, and, miracle of miracles, she was looking as intently in my direction as I was in hers. I was doing something with some string, and i saw that she was mimicking my every move. I kept glancing behind me to see if she was really looking at someone else, but unlike the way our earlier real life series of encounters had eventually turned out, this time no one else was there.

So then the really remarkable thing happened. Without the use of our legs we moved toward each other, till she was just a few feet away and we smiled at each other. And then we had a long and very nice talk, in ways that, unlike in the usual dream, actually made sense. She told me that she was now a first year grad student, in business. I recounted to her that once I had had a play performed at Howard. (My subconsciousness must've thought that she knew that perfectly well, because, with the guy who had finally claimed her heart, she had attended a second play in which I had played a non-speaking jury member). I worried some that I had become much too old to interest her, but that didn't seem to make any difference, and instead she invited me to share a meal that she had fixed.

My understanding is that the function of dreams is not well understood, though one theory is that they serve as a dumping ground for our anxieties. Assuming that I am not a complete oddball and that sometimes other people have experiences similar to mine, let me say then that, besides the obvious upside there's also a smaller but inevitable downside to having a dream as wonderful as this.

With the great majority of our dreams, we are just as relieved as we can be to awake and find ourselves in the good old real world. We have made another unbelievable escape from something totally bad and ridiculous. But when you have a terrific dream like this, you wake up instead with intense regret, and you wish that that wonderful person, this woman, was real so that ever afterward you could look at her and talk with her whenever you pleased. But alas, as in all these dreams, which might occur only once every 10 years or so, you know that this incredible being will never ever reappear, even in another dream. And that regret lasts longer than it takes that dream, too, eventually to fade from memory.

Monday, February 18, 2008

At Great Risk

In my current fascination with Angry Arab's site -- you can actually pick up a huge amount of interesting and important info there -- at great risk to life and limb, at least blogging-wise, I just now posted a comment there. And it's weird. I had the distinct sensation of having suddenly jumped down onto the blood-soaked sands of the Roman Colosseum in one of its heydays, during a gladiatorial contest of hundreds, while I was armed only with a computer mouse.

Foreign Policy Experience

To stay on good terms with a wide range of neighbors, one should never make any requests of them that would exert pressure on their lifestyles, even for the briefest of periods.

--There. That's it. From all that I can see, that's all that one needs to know to be able to conduct foreign policy successfully. (This assumes, of course, that you already know all the basics of being a decent human being.)

Therefore I can't understand why high on the list of qualifications that people would like to see in candidates for U.S. President is foreign policy experience.

I would think that if a person has ever lived in a neighborhood filled with people whose interests are different from his in every way, as I have, having spent much of the first part of my life in deeply majority so-called "black" surroundings and now appearing to spend the end of my days in deeply majority so-called "white" surroundings, and yet that person knew who his neighbors were and he stayed on good terms with them all, then he already has all the foreign policy knowledge, qualifications, experience, and instincts that a good Chief Executive would ever need.

Perhaps by asking a candidate how he or she thinks they will do in foreign policy, one is really asking, "When you do have to interact with leaders of other countries, can you climb down off your normal master-slave attitudes long enough to behave with the same decency, humility, and respect for others that you would show during your neighbor's backyard barbecue -- that is, before you start tossing back a few?"

Once, when he was President -- in Japan I think it was -- the father of the man who is currently in the same guise and who is now trundling around in Africa so as to give the impression that his heart is in the right place allowed himself to get so zoned out at a high level diplomatic event that he fell out of his chair, in full view of cameras and the world. And that's the kind of thing that one has to worry about whenever this son goes abroad.

So, more important than foreign policy experience would be a candidate's promise to keep his country in at least a semblance of a good light by making sure his mind stays alert and his torso upright in all situations everywhere.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Angry Arab: Reprise and Reprieve

Wouldn't you know it! Just as soon as I finished speaking harshly of Angry Arab's comment constituents, yesterday a different bunch took over and even put considerable time and effort into making a number of interesting and informative posts. That didn't keep the worst of the "buzzards," an endlessly shrill and violent being named Barabie, from making an appearance, but even that was subdued because it was so brief.

Thinking so much about Angry Arab's world yesterday wasn't the most comfortable preliminary to two programs that I saw that night on the National Geographic channel. The first explored the political history of Pakistan in recent years, a lot of it having to do with the now very sadly deceased, wondrous Benazir Bhutto. The second refreshed our memories about the details of the escape of Osama Bin Laden from U.S. clutches following 9/11.

What a messed-up situation that is, in those two ill-fated countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan! And the programs made it sound as if U.S. agencies engineered much of it, though the inhabitants, mainly the men with guns, bear the lions' and also the jackals' and the hyenas' and the vultures' share of the blame.

The U.S. is in a tough position, geopolitically-wise. It feels compelled to keep both feet sunk in Angry Arab's world, because of Israel, oil, and the 9/11 attack. Things weren't quite as bad directly after 9/11, because then it had company in the effort, but now those allies are so appalled that they are constantly looking for ways to ease out of the scene and let things in and around the Khyber Pass and the Persian Gulf and the Gaza beaches work themselves out on their own.

To that end I wouldn't be a bit surprised if, among some Americans themselves as well as among those allies, there isn't a secret wish that the oil does indeed run out, soon, in spite of all the dislocation and the need for drastic adjustments that that will cause.

The La Brea-type tar pits are too numerous and too active in Angry's world.


I am now beginning to think that the comment mood on that site shifts drastically from one day to the next, and that sometimes a certain amount of insanity is involved.

Today Angry Arab's threads were dominated bu two people on different kicks. One guy kept posting long articles that I suspected weren't on topic, but I couldn't know because they were entirely in Arabic, which is rarely used there. The other guy, one of the ubiquitous Anonymous Boys, went from thread to thread posting in each the same long rant that, though in English, was also entirely unintelligible to me. It seemed to be an invocation of some kind, addressed to Syrian Sunnis and referring frequently to "Alewite dogs."

But another Anonymous got in a good lick at his brother's expense.

In one post As'ad said that whereas 20 years ago there was one mosque in Egypt per every 6,000 plus people, now there is one for every 750 or so. The second Anonymous said that that is because after each new mosque is finished, Brother runs in and repeatedly shouts that rant about the Syrian Sunnis and the Alewite dogs, and that promptly creates the need for the building of another mosque.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Shotgun Volunteer

Yesterday the 15th marked exactly 56 years since I marched off to war, U.S. draftee style. Or I should say "shotgun volunteer" style. That was how they referred to men who had been called up for the Army but instead volunteered for one of the other services. I chose the Air Force. It was a decision that was all to the good.

The War, the Big One, the Second World War, was over, and I had thought that was the end of that. It was 1952 and some serious fighting had been going on in Korea for a year or more. But if that was also a war, it hadn't been declared by Congress, it was only called a "Police Action," and it was an unwelcome anomaly, because I had noticed that the real wars took place at 20 year intervals, so that the next one wasn't due till 1961 or longer, and I didn't know what to make of Korea. Anyway, all I could do was, as usual, just wait and see.

By that time I had also had more military training than the average recruit, because of having been in the high school cadets and in the Army ROTC. But that kind of thing had also had its day in my mind, and the Air Force did nothing to force me to take the military seriously again. I did everything they asked of me, without question and with application, and I got several letters of commendation along with a cigarette lighter engraved with my name, they sent me to interesting places where I wouldn't ordinarily have gone, and after four years I got out with lots of good memories and an honorable discharge. No fuss, no muss.

I mark that day when I boarded a train to go off to basic training in the frigid Finger Lakes region of New York state more than I do any other day in my existence. The day of my marriage and the day of my birth should trump it, but my marriage didn't change things nearly as much, and the date of my birth is just that, a date without a memory of any kind.

The Angry Arab and His Fans

For several years I've been reading, off and on, a weblog called "The Angry Arab News Service." It is a most curious place. To enter its environs -- meaning also its comments sections -- is like taking one of those little train rides into a chamber of horrors in a carnival -- or at one of the Disney worlds.

The Angry Arab goes by the name of As'ad. He appears to be a professor of some kind somewhere, possibly in the U.S. I don't know his country of origin. He gets around. He gives lectures all over, from San Francisco to numerous places in the Middle East. Once he played a bit part in the movie "Legally Blonde." He takes seriously the role of his site as a news service, so that every day there are 10 or more fresh items that he gleans from a huge variety of sources. And most are pieces of information that you're not likely to find anywhere else, at least not all in one spot.

His site is valuable in the same way and nearly to the same extent as Juan Cole's Informed Comment. If I want to see what's going on in Iraq and its neighbors, I turn first to Cole. If I want to get some perspectives on situations in the 20 or so Arab countries that are clustered 75 percent of the way around Israel like emeralds adjoining a pendant ruby, or like wolves around a ram, I look to see what Angry Arab has to say.

I don't always know what he's saying, though the site is largely in English. With his time obviously being valuable, he often resorts to being terse and cryptic, and sometimes even a lot of clicking through isn't enough. But I assume he's doing us a favor by even writing in English, or American I should say.

His constituents are not as helpful. Instead I would say that his fans, his hangers-on, his commenters are a disaster, and they reflect the fact that Angry Arab shot himself in the butt from the start by his choice of the site's name. Anger is something that should always be avoided, because it is certain to be accompanied by stupidity, in thoughts and action. I think this is nothing less than one of the irrefutable laws of human physics, and this is why the whole of the Middle East and much of the Arab world is in such terrible turmoil, and why the Israelis are in such a huge pickle, by having allowed themselves to be fetched up squarely in the middle of it

Of the other two weblogists from that region that I read regularly -- Riverbend's "Baghdad Burning" and Raed Jarrar's "Raed in the Middle" -- neither allows comments, and it must be because of all that anger that appears to be so endemic in the Middle East. It's significant that, though both are from Iraq, Riverbend is now in Syria, the last she wrote, which was a while ago, while Raed is safely esconsed in the U.S., where he is happily and authoritatively bitching about the U.S. political system as if he has been here all his life instead of just two or three years, and as Angry Arab isn't also above doing, and with great gusto.

Meanwhile Prof. Angry Arab does permit comments, unmoderated, and he does so at great risk to his site, because the denizens that haunt his comments plumb the rock bottom depths in rudeness, meanness, obscenity, obtuseness, uninformativeness, and in every other undesirable respect that can be conveyed by words. They conduct feuds with each other that are unmatched in viciousness, and among them are so many namby-pambies that hide behind the name "Anonymous" that they can't be told apart.

His commenters, many of them, are in fact so odious that actually they're remarkable. And yet Angry Arab suffers them, though they swoop down and attach themselves to each and every one of his posts like starving buzzards, by the 10's, 20's, and sometimes even up into the '40's.

All in all, it's an interesting site.

Angry Arab clearly does not suffer from stomach ulcers, though he must think he's above any of the dangers of the road. Lately, without explanation, he has taken bitter exception to warnings being handed out by the Queen of Jordan, Raini, against reckless driving.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Congressional Update: the Surveillance Bill

Two days after I expressed my doubts that much could be expected from Congress, the House side begged to differ, and in a big way that I hope they can make stick.

Despite Bush's generous offer to delay his upcoming jaunt to Africa so as to inspire them to vote his way, the House members voted yesterday to pack up and go home for a week's recess, thus setting the stage for the ill-considered Surveillance Act to expire tomorrow.

This is being accompanied by the expected howls of outrage from the Republicans, which the Democrats are countering with no-nonsense statements such as this one from much-maligned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi:

The president knows full well that he has all the authority he needs to protect the American people. President Bush tells the American people that he has nothing to offer but fear, and I'm afraid that his fearmongering of this bill is not constructive.

The press couldn't avoid picking up her allusion to Franklin Roosevelt's admonition from long ago, that "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."

At the same time, despite vigorous White House objections, the House has cited two of Bush's aides for contempt of Congress over the political sacking of some Justice Dept officials, the first time that has been done in 25 years.

Bobby Fischer said that "in chess timing is everything." Maybe with the huge outpouring of votes that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are drawing on the Democratic side, the Democrats in Congress feel that the time has come, and they no longer have to take so much into account the large number of lockstep Republicans that still clog the pipes of both sections of Congress.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Danish Dare

Maybe as long as 20 years ago I saw on TV a program that had to do with the prison system then in place in Denmark. I was struck by how liberal their policies were, compared to U.S. prisons, and I especially remember that wives were allowed to have quite free conjugal relationships with their husbands while the latter were incarcerated. I could hardly believe it.

On that program or maybe somewhere else at around the same time someone asked a Danish thinker why there was so much more free and forward thinking in his country than there is in the U.S. His answer was simple. He said that it was because in Denmark religion doesn't play nearly as much of a role.

That and other things, such as their attempts to protect their Jewish citizens when the country was occupied by the Germans in the Second World War, planted in me an extra high opinion of the Danes, and that was only dented by the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, a highly unjustified and destructive move in which the Danish leadership collaborated with the Bush forces.

I was startled. That seemed so uncharacteristic of the Danes. Surely whoever their buttonpushers were, they should have been able to calculate easily how far down in the toilet that was going to lead. Though Saddamn Hussein was well known for being a secularist, was it a religion thing again, but in a different direction?

Next, just a couple of years ago, a Danish newspaper published some cartoons depicting the founder of Islam in various warlike stances, including having missiles protruding from his head. This inflamed those Muslims who were most likely to react, and boycotts, demonstrations, and riots followed against embassies and other Danish interests in several Islamic countries. Eventually the flames of outrage seemed to die out ...but not completely.

A few days ago the Danes claimed to have uncovered a plot against the life of the man who had drawn the cartoons, and two Tunisians and a Danish citizen of Moroccan birth were detained.

And yesterday the same newspaper reprinted the same cartoons, as a demonstration of freedom of the press, and other Danish papers followed suit, in a spirit of solidarity and observing of a principle. The cartoons were also reprinted in several other European countries, in accounts of the alleged plot -- and now everybody is waiting to see what sort of shoe will drop this time, because that is a challenge of the barest kind.

When Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini put a proscription on Salman Rushdie's life after he published some verses that were supposed to insult Islam, forcing him to go into hiding for years, I thought that that was just the sort of intolerance and high-handedness that gives religion such a bad name, and the same could be said of the violent reactions against the cartoons the first time around.

That's because I believe deeply in the virtues of irreverence, while fundamentalism strait-jackets thought.

All the same I don't believe, either, in waving red flags in front of bulls if you don't have to. Or as a creative writing teacher liked to tell us, in regard to using phrases and such repetitively, "Once around is enough."

There's a big irony in all this for me, because I long ago marveled at how throughout my adult life, due to some unfortunate real estate "transactions" starting in 1948, more attention has been paid to the fortunes of Israel than to any other group of five million people in the world, by a factor of 20 or 30 or more. And the contrast with Denmark, a country of nearly the same size, came easily to mind. I wondered if the Israelis ever had occasion to envy Denmark's constant atmosphere of peace and accommodation with its neighbors, notwithstanding occasional painful episodes like that Nazi incursion.

Now the irony is that tiny, peaceful Denmark, the idyllic land of good pastry and good bacon, is under threat of finding itself locked in the same never-ending go-round of eye for an eye as the Israelis, and against the same adversaries, though of course on a far lower level of seriousness and deadly intent. Or will the would=be Muslim rioters let things slide this time and instead put their energies to more useful purposes -- such as finally chipping off a piece of that sacred black rock so carefully and illogically hidden away in Mecca, so that scientists can answer once and for all the burning question of whether, as a meteorite, the Kaaba is stone or metal?

The Surveillance Imbroglio

Unlike some others, I am finding it impossible to get excited and all steamed up about the struggle now coming to a head in the Congress, over the Protect America Act, or the Surveillance Act, or the Spy Law, which, as near as I can understand, is due to expire in three days unless the House of Representatives acts otherwise, and the White House hopes it does.

There are several reasons for my indifference. One might be on the self-centered side, and it can be easily countered by ranting to me, "Just because you so seldom talk on the phone and just because the calls you do participate in are without exception so innocuous that it would be pure comedy that anyone, much less the FBI, would ever want to overhear one, doesn't mean that all the rest of us aren't in fact making highly sensitive calls every minute of the day and night, and even when we're not, we still highly resent any idea of the Government listening in, with the collusion of the telephone companies."

That says most of it for my first reason, except that I also happen to fervently believe that no matter how important and "sensitive" phone users believe their conversations to be, it is all, when one comes right down to it, just a cartload of pure twaddle and fiddle-faddle, save for genuine emergencies. And added to that is my big question of just who can be hired to listen in on all these phone phests? I think it would give the expression "thankless task" a whole new meaning. And so for that reason I think the whole business of endless wiretaps is just a football field full of empty threats.

Maybe I'm also unworried about the Govt listening in to me or to anyone else because I've seen so much of the excellent if sometimes harrowing HBO miniseries, "The Wire."

Though it has won few if any bigtime awards, "The Wire" nevertheless is such a well-done story, with numerous interesting characters, that it has built up a large and fervid audience. Now, sadly, it is in what is advertised as its 5th and final season, though the only reason I can see for the necessity of the "final" business is the writers' somewhat idiotic tendency to kill off too high a percentage of its best characters.

At the heart of "The Wire," and thus its name, is the continuous attempt to tap into the phones and other electronic gadgetry that is cunningly used by some often vicious and deadly inner city drug dealers in Baltimore. Sometimes these attempts work and sometimes they don't, though there's a hard core of dedicated police who have to combat their less principled colleagues as well as higher-ups. All in all it presents a picture in which wire-tapping is not the cakewalk that its opponents might fear that it is. And in "The Wire" it is presented -- whether accurately or not I do not know -- as the best hope of controlling and even eliminating the drug scourge and all its attendant miseries.

Finally I don't know why anyone would get all worked up over anything that the Congress does or fails to do, and I haven't had any hope of great things from it since the Civil Rights days. It is just what you would expect if you had a barrel with hundreds of bad apples mixed in with the good ones. The ego count in both halls is through the roof. Several years of watching their hearings on C-span convinced me of that. Pitiful, and scary!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Six Degrees Can Change the Planet

I think I was so activated this morning on hearing of all the wild fires in my state because I went to sleep last night with my head full of a 2-hour National Geographic Channel program that I had just seen, called "Six Degrees Could Change the World." It gave a very graphic and convincing picture of the drastic and tragic change in climate that is staring us squarely in the face -- or I should say "you," if you are younger than I am -- yet little is being done about it.

The program went over, in detail, the changes in store with each one-degree increase in the average yearly temperature. "You" are already at point 8 of the first degree. When that figure reaches just 2 degrees, which could be in as little as 10 years, the planetary warming will already be in the runaway stage, and it will be impossible to stop from then on, up through three, four, five, and then six degrees, at which time the Earth will be in a superheated state, with new deserts everywhere, category 6 hurricanes will be commonplace, and a lot of the well-known cities of today will be under water, among many unwelcome circumstances.

On the face of it this matter of just a few degrees seems odd, and that may be why so many people find it hard to take these warnings seriously. We see temperature fluctuations of at least six degrees nearly every day, and it's not unusual to see some of as much as 30 or 40 degrees in one 24-hour period. But the scientists, with such a myriad of undeniable achievements under their belt, assure us that even a small, permanent increase in the yearly average temperature is a very serious matter.

And I don't see how the calamity will be avoided.

It will happen fast enough to be noticed but still too gradually to instigate people to back off -- before it is too late -- from the widespread habits of ease and comfort that have led to all this dumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in the last 200 years.

Whereas others take it entirely for granted and look on it as a deadly dull business and unworthy of notice, for me weather has always been the most dramatic aspect of everyday living. And we and mostly you have some exciting days and years ahead, in the ancient and painfully ironic Chinese sense of that term, and I think I am happy for us all. We will have earned this "joy."

A Different Tenor to the Day

Last night I expected to awake this morning with no more on my mind than the usual uncomfortable detritus left over from the numerous but forgotten dreams I had had, plus the awareness I would have of the pressing need Tuesday morning to drive 10 miles and back, to take part in what is being called the "Potomac Primary" and so give Mrs. Clinton the badly needed support of my one crucial vote. And things did happen that way, for a while.

Alone as so often these days, I did a fair number of my regular chores, and I was taking my first break by leisurely reading down the items in Google News when my eye hit an item that jolted me and suddenly gave the day a different kind of tone. It said that half of Virginia's counties had been hit by wildfires fanned by high winds, and the Governor had put the National Guard and other forces in a state of readiness. I had had no idea that that kind of thing was happening, in this place where the catastrophes that hit other states routinely almost never visit.

All day yesterday there had been lots of unusually strong winds, but aside from thinking of a certain section of metal roof covering that for years I had been putting off screwing down sufficiently, I hadn't given the gusts much thought. Wild fires are rare around here, but there hasn't been much rain for a long time, and there are seas of dead leaves everywhere around my home sweet home and so in most other nearby areas, too.

I dialed my ex-fireman friend and neighbor, H., who keeps up with the local news (meaning Lynchburg 25 miles away), but my phone was dead, and that really got my attention.

I then hopped in my truck and took a little spin around the neighborhood, while sniffing the air, because, depending on the direction of the wind, distant fires can easily be sensed that way. But it had been another very cold night, 19 F, and the air was still frigid, clear, and odorless, and none of the three households that I visited were alarmed. A member of one family had seen a fire burning just a few miles away yesterday, but it had headed off in another direction, while another fire just "over the mountain" had set off an order to the residents of a small town to evacuate.

Otherwise no one was disturbed, even by the dead phone lines. Members of two and possibly all three of these families also have cell phones.

But they were all glad to see me out and about in the world.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Gardner Paradox

I live on the edge of a paradox that I can't reconcile.

Time passes by much faster for me than it does for most others. On the other hand I live much slower than others. How can that be?

I'm not alone in the first part of that paradox. Many others are crowding that stage of life. But I have less company in the second, often because living fast has followed its logic to the end.

By living slowly I don't necessarily mean moving around or thinking or speaking slower and all that, though that's a part of it. But it's much more a matter of having so many more events crowded into one's life -- living "fully," some might proudly claim.

I have had friends who have had so many more shifts crammed into their personal lives than I've had in the same period that it has made my head whirl. Before I know it, they've switched spouses and other family situations. They've changed jobs and vehicles. They've switched houses. They've moved from one region of the country to another. They've changed obsessions. They've altered their appearance. They've changed their outlook. They've changed their levels of prosperity. And they do these things multiple times, while to my perception I have continued to stand utterly still.

It's interesting.

Could it be that, for one thing, I'm confusing quietness for speed?

I'm working on the math of it as we speak.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Hawking Paradox

No one is more aware than I of how totally unqualified I am to even so much as mention any topic at all in the highly rarefied world of theoretical physics. But then, how many people outside that world are qualified? And why should the theoretical physicists have all the fun?

If you have ever bothered to try to get even a small piece of a handle on the questions that theoretical physicists are forever exploring, then you already have an idea of what a fantastic melange of jiggery-pokery their ideas seem to be. There's nothing else in science like it. And the starring actor in all this is an English guy named Steven Hawking, who from an early age has been condemned by ALS or Lou Gehrig disease to spend all his days plastered to the back of his wheelchair as if by a silent but all-powerful wind that hasn't finished blowing. It's like a kind of massive lateral gravity that miraculously, and to the great credit of Hawking and his incredibly dedicated care-givers and co-workers, hasn't been able to crush his brain as yet.

I assume Hawking is still alive. Those kinds of things sometimes get by me. Medical theory forecast that he would have said goodbye many years ago, and the fact that he has been around for so long and still doing the equations is at least a much of a paradox as the out of the world stuff that has squeezed out of his brain.

Hawking and his colleagues are actually in a very favored position. They can propose situations that on the face of it are fanciful to the extreme, yet they're beyond the pale of criticism because few if any outside their discipline can have the math needed to prove or disprove their points. But they are not safe from the rogue non-entity like me who can openly speculate on whether this is all just another shell game.

A lot of institutions that we hold dear and absolutely inviolable --descendants from the earliest days of priesthoods -- are examples of this. These activities are readily identified by having clouds of impenetrable mumbo-jumbo surrounding them. That way the priests maintain an air of exclusive rights. Once one manages to clear away enough of that cloud to begin to understand things, it turns out that there wasn't much to it after all.

Religion is the most widespread, oldest, and most egregious example of this. Others are economics, politics, the arts, sports, engineering, and piloting airliners. (In my enthusiasm and because of my doubts about the existence of superhumans, I was tempted to toss in surgery, but it's obvious that surgery is an activity that requires superhuman abilities on several fronts.)

Hawking theorizes about various things but he keeps coming back to the favorite of us all, black holes. You know, those forever fearsome leftovers of huge stars after they've died, with so much gravity compressed inside them that they suck in everything that comes in range -- planets, stars, and even light and time itself!

The things that Hawking and his buddies say can't be taken lightly because they calculated that there were black holes years before telescopes were perfected enough to allow people to see them, and in fact there is a huge one right in the middle of our own galaxy, plus there could be miniature and even subatomic ones anywhere in your room and in our heads.

About 30 years ago Hawking kind of got a patent on black holes by saying that according to his calculations, all information that gets drawn into a black hole vanishes completely. This was a paradox and a very chilling one because it had been a solid principle of physics that the information contained in all the particles and things that make up the universe can't be destroyed or lost. That didn't mean there was a good chance someday of regaining all the good stuff that was lost with the destruction of the library at Alexandria, in Egypt, but it was close enough, and I personally like this theory because it explains a lot of things.

For one thing it explains the frequent violations of the Santayana Principle, the one that says all those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it. Also it explains lots of mysteries of old age. Memories, tools, papers, and other goodies that we knew we had have been gobbled up without a trace by those smaller black holes that are all around and inside us. That should make us all feel better.

But no, some of Hawkings colleagues couldn't buy that, and, as we are told on an excellent if sloppily written Discovery Science Channel program, "The Hawking Paradox," one of them, a Richard Suskind, announced that he had discovered, after many years of effort, that information didn't disappear forever down black holes after all. It was retained instead, and it could be found smeared instead along the event horizons, the whirling edges of black holes.

A few years ago, after a long stay in the hospital, Hawking kept himself alive by coming back strongly with the refutation. He announced that he had deduced that Suskind was right, and he had been wrong...partly. Information is not lost in black holes after all. But it isn't grabbed and held by the event horizons either. Instead Hawking picked up on an old science fiction concept and said that the information comes out again in parallel universes, most likely lots of them, some of which have black holes and some don't, and it is in the latter kind that the information still resides, safe and sound.

Naturally the Discovery Channel film showed all the assembled experts listening respectfully. After all, Hawking is a bonafide legend in his field, and they were glad to see him still in there kicking. But between the lines of what the report said about the reaction, you couldn't miss the general import, which unmistakeably was "Bullpoop!"

Hawking admitted that he didn't yet have the equations as proof, but he meant to come up with some.

As for me, I only know that I have always loved the idea of parallel universes, and I hope that he or somebody comes up with some good numbers on the possibility soon, though it's impossible to imagine how math could do that.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A Baby, Names, and Ugly Dogs

I've recovered enough that my wife rose earlier than she ever has to begin one of her marathon 12-hour drives to Florida, and now she is probably already somewhere in North Carolina, tooling comfortably along in her mother's 2002 Cadillac. Meanwhile I'm not fully up to snuff, and for one thing my head has been whirling a lot, but I can make it alone for another two weeks. Fortunately it's been warm for February, and if that keeps up, hauling in the firewood shouldn't be too much of a strain, though I have determined that the individual logs have gotten twice as heavy.

Not knowing the exact nature of my malady, I think I will wait another two or three days before meeting my biggest social obligation of the moment, which is to visit a scene presided over by A., a very vibrant young lady who lives just up the road with her mother and other members of her family. A. is the proud mother of a newborn, her first, delivered on the 3rd, I believe, and she has announced that illness is no excuse for my failure so far to check out her and her people as they do the NewBorn Baby bit.

I guess my absence has been a little unexpected, especially since A.s mother, S., has said more than once that I helped raise A., which is nice, though it's a conclusion that I can't see at all. Also, during the last week of A.'s pregnancy I showed up at their house twice, to remind A. that she was running a bit late of the promised due date, which eventually extended to eight days.

After they finally decided to slip a little something special into A's I-V, she finally had the right contractions and delivered in about an hour -- a healthy boy, and an unusually large one at that, at 8 pounds 11 ounces and 22 and an half inches long -- the size of a baby more than two weeks old, S. claimed, and she ought to know, because she had four herself, all of whom, due to the vastness of the United States, I have seen more of and know better than I do all but two members of my own family.

I haven't bothered to ask A. about her mother's contention that I "helped" raise her, but it is obvious that she is quite fond of me, to the point that while she was dithering over what to use for her baby's middle name, she floated the idea of "Carlito." But both her mother and I frowned on that notion, and eventually she settled on "Caesar," even though, if I'm correct, the father, D., wasn't born in Ancient Rome either but somewhere in Mexico City instead. A very easy-going person, he seems to have left the name-giving entirely up to A., which I guess, her dynamism being what it is, was easy to do, And meanwhile his own first name oddly sounds like it is straight out of New Hampshire instead of from South of the Border.

With the exception of one other family, E. and I are the closest neighborhood friends of this rather rambunctious N. family, but we both have to steel ourselves for visiting them, because their premises are shared, inside and out, by a small troupe of extremely large and extremely noisy, snarling, drooling beasts called English mastiffs. S. assures me that this breed is actually rare and the dogs are valuable, and she raises them to make money. But because I see so much of them, they seem absolutely commonplace to me, and a little too in your face for comfort. They sound and look as if they could chomp off one of my arms in an instant.

We are told that with lions being rare in China, especially of the sort that court ladies and empresses could use to keep their laps warm and engaged, if there is such a kind, Pekinese dogs came about because they most resembled the Chinese Imperial family's concept of lions. But it's easy to think that the English came closer to real lions by developing mastiffs, because that is exactly what S.'s animals remind me of, a herd of young lionesses slinking about, with their longitudinal muscles leisurely rippling along their shoulders in exactly the same manner.

But the N. family is twisted anyway, and that is shown by A.'s and S.'s definite preference for the ugliest dogs imaginable, namely Shar-pays (I refuse to look up the correct spelling), and those mastiffs, and now A.'s favorite animal is a mixed breed conglomeration with the suitably unlovely name of "Diesel," who looks like a demon conjured up from a bad LSD trip, and I'm surprised that it doesn't have horns. (A., a animal lover almost beyond belief, went on to bestow on her perfectly innocent cat the name "Stinky Tuna.")

But E., who did visit A. as soon as she got home from the hospital, informed me that A. has a beautiful baby.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Medical Dropoff

Back on Feb 2 last, Groundhog Day, I did indeed call my friend L., over on the Northern Neck. The conversation went great, except that I should have waited longer, because during its course a pain that I had been having in my stomach all morning suddenly got worse, and finally I had to cut short the call and report to the toilet room. This was after getting basically a clean bill of health from the doctor and a blood test just a few weeks earlier.

That was followed by upchucking all afternoon, till the little sack that is called my stomach had done a pretty good job of emptying itself. And that's been followed ever since by some serious weakness, with my never robust appetite not doing a very good job at all of pushing me to take in enough food to bring the sack back to its normal, partly full state. As a result I have no strength to get around as I once did, though that is improving day by day, after I gradually digest a little more.

Because it is my thing to report to hospitals only during the most dire events, I still have no good explanation for all this.

The same thing happened, my wife E. claims, six months ago, in July, when I very reluctantly had to call to ask her to come back home to give me a hand. She was down in Florida, tending to her mother, who had had a stroke not long before, while her stepfather, who had entered the hospital on exactly the same day, was recovering from a back operation. I could appeal to her, successfully, with a clear conscience since I figured that there were a lot more people helping her mother in the hospital and at the therapy center than I would feel comfortable with calling on here at home, which was exactly none.

But this time the medical event happened while E. was here, and I feel bad that my illness has caused her to delay returning to Florida, though she has gotten no emergency summons from there, which means her mother is making enough progress in the therapy center. But in the next two days I expect to see E. setting sail once more for Florida, after which the long period that I will then spend entirely on my own with the energy level of a crushed snail will be a big adventure.

Meanwhile I'm wondering whether I should be highly concerned about the way that my major activity nowadays consists of sitting around the house doing precisely nothing, except writing long weblog posts in my head. After my close friend S., a beekeeper like me, died a few years ago, at just a little older than I am now, his wife told me that she knew that something serious was up when he started sitting around the house doing nothing.

That was uncharacteristic of him, plus the two of us had made a vow that we would never spend the rest of however many years we had left doing what we had observed to be the lot of many old men in the county, which was sitting on their front porches and just chewing the rag. By crackey we were both going to go out instead while DOING SOMETHING!

Well, even reaching one's early 70's doesn't save one from such juvenile bravado, and we can have little to no control over the many forces waiting to take from us our energies of former days, though I had been thinking that S. went out like that, keeling over with no warning while sitting quietly, because he had a bunch of stents in his chest, while so far I have had no trouble with my heart, But how can a person ever really know?

It's already a major miracle that the muscular little pump that we are all born with can stay on the job for a very large number of years without ever missing even one beat.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Groundhog Day

Today marks another of those days in which we can safely indulge ourselves in the absurd. People around the country get interested in the antics of some people in a town with an unpronounceable name in Pennsylvania, who dress themselves up in black top hats and frock coats, if I'm remembering correctly, so that they look the same as I imagine the elders togged themselves out in colonial Salem, when they consigned to flames highly unfortunate women accused of witchcraft.

Under the fond gaze of TV cameras, these guys in 21st Century PA gather around the burrow of a groundhog -- or woodchuck, depending on where you live -- and wait to see if he will come out and cast a shadow. Whether he does or not is supposed to forecast whether or not we will have six more weeks of winter. I can never remember exactly how that goes, maybe because six weeks later the news is never full of gratitude or indignation about the truth of that forecast.

It's sunny here today, but because it's also cold I don't expect the Virginia groundhogs, a practical bunch, to make any showing at all, especially if they're not too drowsy to detect the presence of throngs of noisy, expectant observers waiting just outside.

This observance is so popular that, as happens so often in these often jealous United States of America, such as the earliest dates of primary elections, many other places around the rest of the country have jumped into the act and are engaging in the same activity, so draining out of the event any tiny speck of significance that it may ever have had.

But the occasion has its uses, because it always allows me to remember that the day also marks the birth of L., a longtime friend and one of my best friends.

I rarely see him because he lives far off in another part of Virginia, a beautiful area close to the Atlantic picturesquely called the Northern Neck. There he lives where previous owners operated a horticultural nursery, so that now he can enjoy the sight of crepe myrtle shrubs that are as tall as three-story buildings.

L. and his wife M. keep inviting us to visit them again, but despite the fact that they are in the same state, my extreme reluctance even to set foot on my road has caused me to drop in there only once. They are well off, and L. has a boat that he can board directly from his lawn, because their land fronts on what the Northern Neckers call a "creek," though to me it looks suspiciously like a full-fledged bay, just as the natives in my county will give the name of "lake" to what has all the appearance of being only a pond, maybe a biggish pond but a mere pond nevertheless.

I'm impressed by L's crepe myrtles but not especially by his boat. I appreciate boats only when I would like to go somewhere in them, such as to Japan, and I have exactly the same attitude toward airplanes. The reason is that if the craft breaks down you can't get out and walk.

Every year, because the groundhog watching reminds me that it is L's birthday, I think it a good idea to call L. and wish him well, but somehow I never get around to it. I guess that is because my aversion to taking joyrides in boats, planes, and even cars extends to talking on the telephone. But talking to L. is a good reason, and I'm waiting with interest to see if I will at last get it together this year.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Friday Cat Blogging

Among many of the weblogs that I check out regularly -- and far and wide elsewhere for all I know -- there's a custom called "Friday Night Cat Blogging." Though I am as appreciative of cats as anybody, I haven't taken part in this, partly because at this time my camera equipment isn't working well, and partly because from a resplendent family of eight of those little furry rascals just four years ago, we are now down to just one, and partly because...


A few weeks ago, on the same day that Bobby Fischer left us, so did one of the dogs that lived with NTodd, at the Dohiyi Mir weblog. Rin Tin Tin had been a member of that household only for about a month, yet there were no less than 59 comments made in response to the post about the sad event. But to the post in which NTodd also observed Bobby Fischer's death, there was only one comment offered, mine.

I understand this perfectly. Dogs and to a still large but lesser extent cats are integral parts of the American household. But to the great majority of Americans Bobby Fischer was only a name, when they had heard of him at all, and a soiled name at that. For a while he was widely toasted after he bested a Russian at their own game to become World Champion. But that was in 1972, 36 years ago, and afterwards he supposedly made anti-Semitic statements, plus he disobeyed the U.S. government by playing a match in Yugoslavia in 1992 against the same man, Boris Spassky, and again winning, and in the furore following that Fischer gave up his U.S. citizenship and joined Iceland.

But, with 60 years of chessplaying sealed inside my head, I am -- much more than the overwhelming majority of people -- aware of and appreciative of Bobby Fischer's amazing achievements at the chessboard. There are not many things as indicative of the tremendous feats that the human mind can accomplish. And because he only had one life and that was at the chessboard, I discount the other things that are held against him. Besides, as with any of the other delights, chess can work grievously against the mind if a person drinks too freely from its punchbowl.<

Fischer's mother was Jewish, which meant that he was born into that, and I don't see how anyone can escape what he was born into enough to truly disavow it. Control over 16 wooden pieces is one thing; control over the innumerable affairs external to that is another thing altogether.

As for the match in Yugoslavia, it was worth three million dollars to him, and the chess world is not like pro football, pro baseball, pro basketball, singing, acting, stock-dealing, drug-dealing, weapon-dealing, and all the other entertainments. If you were to invite only millionaires to a chess tournament, you would have an empty room like you wouldn't believe.

Sometimes I regret not similarly honoring my one remaining cat by featuring him on a Friday night. But he humors me in this as he does in most other things. His name is Beauty. He's short-haired, black, with golden eyes, medium-sized and still lithe and unusually strong. He's an outside cat, and a survivor. We don't recall the year of his birth, but he must be about 18 years old. Though he can be a little on the demanding side at times, he's an endlessly good person.