Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Have a light Ten Days of Newton

In her Wild Side column yesterday in The New York Times, evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson pointed out that:
Sir Isaac Newton, the founder of modern physics and mathematics, and arguably the greatest scientist of all time, was born on Christmas Day.
    ...Newton was born in England on Christmas Day 1642 according to the Julian calendar...But by the 1640s, much of the rest of Europe was using the Gregorian calendar (the one in general use today); according to this calendar, Newton was born on Jan. 4, 1643.
Ms. Judson suggests that an alternative reason for our annual winter holiday could be to have an extended festival in honor of Newton.
After all, the festival of Christmas properly continues for a further 12 days, until the feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6. So the festival of Newton could begin on Christmas Day and then continue for an extra 10 days, representing the interval between the calendars.
For an explanation of why the Julian calendar was supplanted, plus a summary of Newton's career (including his interest in religion and alchemy), I recommend Ms. Judson's column.

She even suggests a song in honor of Newton’s Birthday festival. The final verse begins:
On the tenth day of Newton,
My true love gave to me...
For another article on Newton, you might consult Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The real Bill Ayers

In the recently concluded presidential race, I was unwillingly thrust upon the stage and asked to play a role in a profoundly dishonest drama. I refused, and here’s why.
So begins William Ayers’s first public statement about John McCain's attempt to defeat Barack Obama by demonizing him by association with an "unrepentent domestic terrorist." I invite you to read Mr. Ayers’s complete statement, titled "The Real Bill Ayers" and published yesterday in The New York Times.

The comments on Mr. Ayers’s statement are also instructive. Times readers are well-educated, well-informed, and generally very thoughtful.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Why Pakistanis aren't protesting the Mumbai massacre

In his op-ed piece today in The New York Times ("Calling All Pakistanis"), Thomas L. Friedman asks a question:
On Feb. 6, 2006, three Pakistanis died in Peshawar and Lahore during violent street protests against Danish cartoons that had satirized the Prophet Muhammad. More such mass protests followed weeks later. When Pakistanis and other Muslims are willing to take to the streets, even suffer death, to protest an insulting cartoon published in Denmark, is it fair to ask: Who in the Muslim world, who in Pakistan, is ready to take to the streets to protest the mass murders of real people, not cartoon characters, right next door in Mumbai? [emphasis mine]
    ...We know from the Danish cartoons affair that Pakistanis and other Muslims know how to mobilize quickly to express their heartfelt feelings, not just as individuals, but as a powerful collective. That is what is needed here.
Maybe Thomas L. Friedman is right that such a protest is needed. But I doubt that it's going to happen. And I have a question of my own: Why not?

The reason seems to be that people in a Muslim society (people who fancy themselves completely subservient to "Allah") don't seem to ever get that motivated unless they think their religious dignity is being insulted or threatened. Obviously, people who think their religion calls on them to kill other people (even by killing themselves to accomplish it) value their religious beliefs incommensurably higher than they do lives (even their own). Fortunately not many Muslims (but still a horrifying number) sign up to strap on the explosives, but unfortunately, as Sam Harris reported in his 2004 book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, an international Pew Research Center survey indicates that quite significant percentages of Muslims in many countries feel that it is acceptable to kill in "defense of Islam"—whatever that means1.

I don't have a copy of Harris's book to quote from, but I did find on the web a May 22, 2007 Pew Research Center report on Muslim Americans. The report appears to derive from later findings of the same Pew Global Attitudes Project that Harris cited. American Muslim responses to the question, "Can suicide bombing of civilian targets to defend Islam be justified? How often?" are compared with those of Muslims in some European, African, and Middle Eastern countries. The percentages of Muslims who responded:
    "Often/sometimes"     ["Rarely"]
U.S. (all Muslims):    8%    [5%]
    (younger than 30):    15%    [11%]
France:    16%    [19%]
Spain:    16%    [9%]
Great Britain:    15%    [9%]
Germany:    7%    [6%]
Nigeria:    46%    [23%]
Jordan:    29%    [28%]
Egypt:    28%    [25%]
Turkey:    17%    [9%]
Pakistan:    14%    [8%]
Indonesia:    10%    [18%] [pp. 59-60]
I quote the "rarely" answers [in brackets] because Harris added those figures to the "often/sometimes" answers to come up with the percentage who felt that suicide bombing to defend Islam could be justified at least in some circumstances. Thus, he might have said: In the United States, 26% of Muslims 18-29 feel that suicide bombing to defend Islam can be justified. Which is how USA Today reported it:
Poll: A quarter of younger Muslim Americans support suicide bombings in some circumstances
My point is that there seems to be a swell of opinion among Muslims that religion tops everything (as in mine versus yours [or your life]). So don't expect any protests of the Mumbai killings in Pakistan.
  1. Were the Catholics from Europe "defending Christianity" when they punished or put to death the Aztecs who wouldn't convert?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

"Other possibilities beyond the brute either/or...."

Another edifying passage from Julian Barnes's Nothing to Be Frightened Of:
In one of my novels I had a character imagine that there must be other possibilities beyond the brute either/or, the ultimate would-you-rather, of 1. God exists, or 2. God doesn't exist. So there were various alluring heresies, like: 3. God used to exist, but doesn't anymore; 4. God does exist, but has abandoned us; 8. God did exist, and will exist again, but doesn't exist at the moment—He is merely taking a divine sabbatical (which would explain a lot); and so on. My character got up to number 15 (there is no God, but there is eternal life) by the time he, and I, reached the end of our imagining powers.
    One possibility we didn't consider was that God is the ultimate ironist. Just as scientists set up laboratory experiments with rats, mazes, and pieces of cheese placed behind the correct door, so God might have set up His own experiment, with us playing rat. Our task is to locate the door behind which eternal life is hidden. Near one possible exit we hear distant ethereal music, near another smell a whiff of incense; golden light gleams around a third. We press against all these doors, yet none of them yields. With increasing urgency—for we know that the cunning box we find ourselves in is called mortality—we try to escape. But what we don't understand is that our non-escaping is the whole point of the experiment. There are many fake doors, but no real one, because there is no eternal life. The game thought up by God the ironist is this: to plant immortal longings in an undeserving creature and then observe the consequences. To watch these humans, freighted with consciousness and intelligence, rushing around like frantic rats. To see how one group of them instructs everyone else that their door (which even they can't open) is the only correct one, and then perhaps starts killing anyone who puts money on a different door. Wouldn't that be fun? [p. 187]

Monday, December 1, 2008

"It is difficult for us to contemplate...."

A passage from Julian Barnes's recent book of ruminations on death, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, that I found particularly compatible with my own view:
It is difficult for us to contemplate, fixedly, the possibility, let alone the certainty, that life is a matter of cosmic hazard, its fundamental purpose mere self-perpetuation, that it unfolds in emptiness, that our planet will one day drift in frozen silence, and that the human species, as it has developed in all its frenzied and over-engineered complexity, will completely disappear and not be missed, because there is nobody and nothing out there to miss us. This is what growing up means. And it is a frightening prospect for a race which has for so long relied upon its own invented gods for explanation and consolation. Here is a Catholic journalist rebuking Richard Dawkins for poisoning the hearts and minds of the young: "Intellectual monsters like Hategod Dawkie spread their despairing gospel of nihilism, pointlessness, vacuity, the emptiness of life, the lack of significance anywhere at any time and, in case you don't know this useful word, floccinaucinihilipilification." (It means "estimating as worthless.") Behind the excess, and the misrepresentation, of the attack, you can smell the fear. Believe in what I believe—believe in God, and purpose, and the promise of eternal life—because the alternative is [expletive] terrifying.... [pp.171-172]

Thursday, November 27, 2008

"I am thankful"

Some years ago I attended a Thanksgiving dinner at which the hostess asked everyone to "go around the table" and say what he or she was thankful for. I enjoyed the experience, and I probably addressed my expression of thanks to "God," perhaps as "Heavenly Mother" rather than as "Heavenly Father," depending on whether this happened before or after I grew tired of the general tendency among Christians (as among Jews and Muslims) to refer to deity as masculine.

As I anticipate going over to our neighbors (in less than two hours!), I've found myself wondering whether anyone will make a similar suggestion. In anticipation of the possibility, I've looked up "thankful" in Webster's:
1: conscious of benefit received <for what we are about to receive make us truly ~>
2: expressive of thanks <~ service>
3: well-pleased: GLAD <he was ~ that the room was dark>
I have long thought that thankfulness in the first sense is too important to relegate to a single day of the year, for such mindfulness encourages compassion and humility. We might not have been so lucky. Can we justify thinking that we deserve our luck more than others deserve their lack of it?

But Thanksgiving as an annual event, as a holiday, tends to make us think about things from a larger perspective, even a national one. But I've already been thankful ever since November 4 that come January 20 we won't need to put quotes around "president" any more. A larger perspective for me is remembering some of the people (such as Gary) who can't be with us (or with anyone else) today. They died young or they died violently or they just died unexpectedly.

On this particular Thanksgiving, I will remember that, for the "national turkey" named Pumpkin pardoned yesterday by our current "president," there are literally millions of turkeys that were recently slaughtered (or slaughtered weeks ago and frozen) so that creatures higher on the food chain could gorge themselves today. And lots of other animals as well. To me, that's very sad. In a couple of hours I mean to be mindful of the sacrifice of the free-range turkey our neighbors have been baking this morning.


Actually, only one of our neighbors baked the turkey; the other baked a cut of free-range pig. Unfortunately, each animal's flesh was so delicious (as also was the sweet potatoes, the stuffing, the cranberry sauce, the brown gravy, the Brussels sprouts and carrots, the green beans, the dinner rolls, and the wine, all followed by pumpkin pie, chocolate-pecan-Kahlua-bourbon pie, wine cake, and New Orleans chickory coffee) I barely paused to remember that the two animals had been deprived of their range, not to mention their lives, for the very purpose that distracted me.

It isn't easy to be thankful, especially in America, where we have perhaps too much to be thankful for.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Half a world population ago

In 1968, a couple of years after Lunar Orbiter I made the first images of Earthback when the planet's human population was half what it is today—I gave a talk recommending zero population growth at a meeting of a chapter of the American Association of University Women.

Many of those present had already heard the term zero population growth, and some may have read Stanford University ecologist Paul Ehrlich's bestseller of that year, The Population Bomb, which was among my primary sources of information. The basic idea was that if humans, on average and as a personal commitment, produced just enough offspring to replace themselves (two per couple), then population could remain approximately constant. Zero population growth. Or, as an entry in Wikipedia puts it, "In the long term, zero population growth can be achieved when the birth rate of a population equals the death rate...."

Ehrlich's predictions of worldwide famines between 1970 and 1985 because of overpopulation may have failed in their details, but few informed people today doubt that overpopulation has driven and continues to drive global warming, including unmistakable changes in weather patterns, shrinking polar icecaps, and the rising acidity of oceans (some of the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere going into the formation of carbolic acid)—all of which have stark consequences for life on earth.

For along with rising numbers of humans come their rising expectations, which can be summarized briefly as expecting to live like an American. You know, drive an SUV and produce, by Third World standards, an astounding amount of garbage.

I don't know how accurate Erhlich's 1968 prediction was for when the Earth's population would double (I'd have to read his book again to check), but he did expect it to double. He knew how difficult it would be to achieve ZPG, because, to quote Wikipedia again, "a country's population growth is often determined by economic factors, incidence of poverty, natural disasters, disease, etc."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, here are the Earth's population figures for 1966 and 2008: 3,416,212,203 and 6,677,602,292 (doubling in those 42 years). Its prediction for the next 42 years (2050) is 9,392,797,012. While that would be a growth of less than half the preceding period, remember that the extra people will be hustling to realize their growing long as conditions don't worsen to the point where such expectations are impossible to maintain and many will give up hustling in favor of desperately hoping and waiting for an afterlife.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Wait...or hustle?

Thought for the day

Reading Dick and Felix Francis's 2007 novel, Dead Heat, this morning, I found on pages 176-177:
Who was it, I thought, who said, "Things may come to those who wait"?
    I asked my computer who said the quote. It came back with the answer: Abraham Lincoln. But his full quote was: "Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle."
I too asked my computer about the quote, and a number of sites have it and attribute it to Lincoln, but none of the ones I found indicate where or when Lincoln wrote or uttered it.

A plumbing company (I don't think it was Joe the Plumber's) recast the first clause in the more New Age or New Testament way: "Good things [emphasis mine] come to those who wait, but only the things left over by those who hustle." (Strict New Agers and fundamental New Testament folks, of course, don't include the second part, intent as they are to sit back and wait for the good things to roll in without any more effort than it takes to be optimistic.)

The intent of Lincoln's statement seems to be to recommend hustling as the way to get the best things, since otherwise you'll get only the things that the hustlers didn't manage to get or didn't want.

Of course, many a hustler comes a cropper. And some waiters come into a fortune. I wonder whether Lincoln said anything about luck? Of course, there's the business of the "Lucky Penny" charm. Was that a Lincoln penny?

The only possible Lincoln quote containing "luck" that I could find through a spot of googling was one site's claim that Lincoln said (or wrote): "The harder I work, the luckier I get." Lincoln really did seem to recommend that we hustle.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Early image of Earth newly restored

On Monday, The New York Times editorial, "The Moon View," published a newly restored image of our planet photographed from the first lunar orbiter, in 1966. More attractive images (in color) have of course since been made, but, as the editorial concludes:
What is most evocative is the awareness that this is our planet in 1966, which feels like a very long time ago. A train of thought immediately presents itself. If scientists can recover extensive new information from old electronic data, shouldn’t there be some way to peer beneath those clouds, back in time, and see how this planet looked when it had only half its current population? [emphasis mine]
    It is probably not possible to say that one Earth is ever more innocent than another. And yet there is a feeling of innocence hanging over that beclouded planet, which was just about to get the first glimpse of itself from the Moon.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

“Of the two, one has been a big success....”

The story of the comic beginnings of “Doonesbury” is told in an April 11, 2008 article in the Yale Daily News, “For Trudeau, Road to Comic Fame Began on York Street,” by staff reporter Raymond Carlson.

The strip’s creator took some of his initial attempts at cartooning to Reed Hundt, Yale College ’69, LAW ’74, the executive editor of the Yale Daily News, who was interviewed for his side of the story:
After rifling through the first three or four comic strips, Hundt shrugged. He was impressed with the artist’s humor, but less so with his drawing ability.
    Still, Hundt agreed to run the strip.
    “Sure. We print pretty much anything,” the young man recalled the editor saying.
    Little did Hundt know that he had recruited Garry Trudeau, [Yale College] ’70, ART ’73, future creator of “Doonesbury” and now, one of the most widely syndicated cartoonists alive.
Hundt recalled that during his junior year, Trudeau lived above him and George W. Bush lived below.
According to Hundt, Trudeau—a member of Scroll and Key—was amiable, “dashing,” “witty,” and “intensely verbal.” Bush, [Yale College] ’68, too, was “agreeable,” “genial,” but he [was] the center of the Davenport College social life as the go-to source of alcohol for his classmates. [emphasis mine]
    Still, Hundt said, “Of the two, one has been a big success—that would be Garry.”

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

"He's half-white, you know"

Garry Trudeau had no backup for today's "Doonesbury" in case Obama didn't win the election, and most newspapers planned to hold today's strip until tomorrow (or never), just in case. But not The Los Angeles Times.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Don't worry, be happy?

Yesterday, I began to read Philip Roth’s 2007 novel, Exit Ghost, and today I read in “Don't Worry, Be Happy,” on Judith Warner's New York Times blog, “Domestic Disturbances”:
The excitement/disappointment cycle of the past two elections has taken a toll on many Democrats. Some have undergone a kind of progressive self-numbing. Their brains could register only so much outrage before they became desensitized and began to rewire themselves to adapt. Oliver Stone’s bizarrely inert new movie “W” exhibits just that kind of circuits-overloaded mental compromise.
    Philip Roth, on the other hand [emphasis mine], in last year’s novel Exit Ghost, painted a brilliant portrait of the fallout of too much political heartbreak. Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, a near shut-in, decides, post Bush v. Gore, (an election he describes as “perfectly calculated to quash the last shameful vestige of a law-abiding citizen’s naiveté”) to cut himself off from all awareness of politics, precisely in order to shut out any future glimmers of hope.
    “Having lived enthralled by America for nearly three-quarters of a century,” Zuckerman says, “I had decided no longer to be overtaken every four years by the emotions of a child – the emotions of a child and the pain of an adult.”
Like Nathan, I have damped my own emotions and don’t experience any of the euphoria that might otherwise accompany the highly probable prospect of a Democratic victory on November 4. I’m too shy of potential euphoria’s being dashed yet again, defensively steeling myself for the long-shot possibility of needing to practice another four years of adaptive stoicism.

But a friend of Warner’s advises her:
“You may as well enjoy the anticipation,” she said, “Because it may be all that you’ll get.”
Warner accepts this advice and recommends it for us:
...whatever happens, those of us who are tired of experiencing the “despising without remission” that Zuckerman was moved to flee in the Bush years are entitled now to a tiny moment of elation.
    And we’d better grab it.
I’m not sure my heart is up to it. It’s so scarred from these years of political desecration, I don’t think I’ll feel all that euphoric even if Obama and Biden win by a landslide. Domestic and international prospects are daunting. We’re not going to see dramatically better days for a very long while yet. Anything but stoicism seems naive.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Why Barack Obama Is Winning

Why Barack Obama Is Winning," by Joe Klein, Time Magazine, Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2008

"McCain will have no trouble in Missouri"

A news article this morning on NPR ("Joplin May Be Reddest Corner in Missouri," by Linda Wertheimer) investigates how likely it is that the bellweather state of Missouri will again "pick the president." Only once in a century have Missouri's electoral votes not gone to the candidate who became president. (Missouri went for Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kevaufer in 1956.)

Polls currently show the Democratic and Republican tickets running neck and neck over Missouri as a whole, but apparently not in Jasper County. At about four minutes into Ms. Wertheimer's article, we're treated to this frank admission by a shop owner in Joplin, who says that "McCain will have no trouble in Missouri":
He's against abortion, anytime, and he's also, he's against same-sex marriages. Those are very important things to me. The country can go broke, and those things, those morals still stand. If you've got a moral country, God will be with you.
I don't need to parse this for people who can actually think, but if I needed to I might mention, for starters, that "belief in God" confers no moral advantage. In fact, it could weigh against God (if God existed), that the Bible allows itself to be interpreted the way this benighted Missourian interprets it. Also (if I were to mention one more thing), haven't we had enough of people who decide their vote on single issues? "The country can go broke, but..."
..."under God" MUST be mandated for our pledge of allegiance.
...homosexuals MUST not be permitted to marry.
...Roe v. Wade MUST be overturned.
...taxes MUST be lowered.
...the Ten Commandments MUST NOT be removed from our courthouses.
By the way, in my list of labels at the bottom of this post, I didn't choose the labels for how they would sort with respect to which labels would follow "Democrats" and "Republicans." Just turned out that way.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Be prepared to fight for your right to vote

With so many Americans in the McCain/Palin camp showing themselves to be red-hot rednecks, we well-behaved, hopeful Americans need to be ready for what might unfold on Election Day. We haven't forgotten the debacle in Florida eight years ago, or the serious findings of vote theft and disenfranchisement in Ohio four years later (see Robert F. Kennedy, Jr's Rolling Stone article, "Was the 2004 election stolen?"). It is impossible to doubt that similar things will be tried this year. After tolerating an illegitimate "president" Bush for eight years, it would be heart-breaking (and nation-destroying) to endure four more years of such "leadership."

The New York Times reports, in today's editorial, "Sorry, I Can’t Find Your Name," that
Republicans have been pressing for sweeping voter purges in many states. They have also fought to make it harder to enroll new voters. Voting experts say there could be serious problems at the polls on Nov. 4.
    When voters die or move to a new address, or when duplicate registrations are found, a purge is necessary to uphold the integrity of the rolls. New registrations must also be properly screened so only eligible voters get added. The trouble is that these tasks generally occur in secret, with no chance for voters or their advocates to observe or protest when mistakes are made.
    A number of states — including the battleground state of Florida — have adopted no match, no vote rules. Voters can be removed from the rolls if their names do not match a second list, such as a Social Security or driver’s license database. But (like the U.S. mail) lists of this kind are notoriously mistake-filled, and one typo can cause a no match. In Ohio, Republicans recently sued the secretary of state, demanding that she provide local officials with a dubious match list. As many as 200,000 new voters could have been blocked from casting ballots. The Supreme Court rejected the suit, but Republicans are still looking for ways to use the list on Election Day.
The editorial warns us to be prepared to fight for our right to cast a ballot and recommends that voters vote early if their state permits it. "Any voter who finds that their [sic] name has disappeared from the rolls will then have time to challenge mistakes."

The editorial concludes [emphasis mine] that
If voters find on Election Day that their names are not on the rolls, they should contact a voters’ rights group like Election Protection, at 1-866-OUR-VOTE, or a political campaign, which can advocate for them. They should not, except as a last resort, cast a provisional ballot, since it is less likely to be counted.
    There is a desperate need for reform of the way voting rolls are kept. Until then, election officials, voting rights advocates and voters must do everything they can to ensure that all eligible voters are allowed to vote.
I plan to vote early myself, as many, many Americans are doing—they're that angry1 and that concerned. I'm hearing that the lines for voting early are getting pretty long, but they're surely a good deal shorter than what we'd experience on November 4 if we haven't voted (or attempted to vote) before then.

By the way, the comments from Times readers on today's editorial are extremely moving.
  1. A friend tells me that some white people in her neck of the Pennsylvania woods who still use the n-word are so mad they're going to ignore Mr. Obama's skin color and vote Democratic...if they're not prevented by one or another dirty trick.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Rare...or frequent but not long-lived?

Richard Dawkins, in the penultimate chapter of his 1996 book, Climbing Mount Improbable, addresses the general question about how and to what extent life may have arisen in the universe.
...[O]ur island planet in the universe has never, so far as we know from properly authenticated accounts, been visited. More significantly, for the last few decades we have been equipped to detect radio communications from far away. There are about a million stars within the radius that radio waves could reach in a thousand years. A thousand years is a short time by the standards of stars and geology. If technological civilizations are common, some of them will have been pumping out radio waves for thousands of years longer than we have. Shouldn't we have heard some whisper of their existence by now? This is not an argument against life of any kind existing elsewhere in the universe. But it is an argument against intelligent, technically sophisticated life being spaced densely enough to be within easy radio range of other islands of life. If life when it starts has anything other than a low probability of giving rise to intelligent life, we might take this as evidence that life itself is rare. An alternative conclusion to this chain of reasoning is the bleak proposal that intelligent life may arise quite frequently, but typically only a short time elapses between the invention of radio and technological self-destruction. [emphasis mine; p. 284]
Why necessarily technological self-destruction? Technology provides only the means, but not the motive. To me, the most striking thing about our technological age is that technology coexists with a prevalent tide of religiosity. There are a few minds who contributed to the pivotal discoveries and inventions that led to present-day technology, but there are so many more minds still stuck in animism and tribal animosity. If a nuclear device were detonated anytime soon, the chances are that it would be set off by religious zealots.

The "rise of intelligent life" is more the rise of the potential for intelligent behavior than of its actual realization in significant numbers of "intelligent beings." The sad reality of pervasive unintelligent behavior is well illustrated by the 2008 political season in America.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Lapping onto the food chain

The photograph below is Slide 5 of 7, "Nature’s Born Phlebotomists," from Natalie Angier's article, "A Taste for Blood," in today's New York Times.

DEER TICK: This tick, which is the size of a pinhead when it starts searching for a bloody meal, is responsible for about 20,000 reported cases of Lyme disease each year in the United States. [caption from the Times article, Photo: Clouds Hill Imaging]
I chose this photograph because of all of the deer ticks that my wife and I have picked off ourselves (and off our poodle) after being in various fields and woods of North Carolina's Piedmont Forest. We are grateful that, so far, none of us has contracted Lyme disease (or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever).

Friday, October 17, 2008

Fiery writing on the wall

On Thu, Oct 16, 2008 at 5:07 PM, my friend Edwin wrote me:
"Joe the Plumber" says he has no plumbing license.
    Does no one in the McCain camp have a computer? Has no one there ever heard of Google? This company that has two employees, the owner and himself, I doubt has ever made $250,000.
    As I watched the debate I thought of a college that was going broke and all the heads gathered around the table trying to come up with a plan that could save the day. The door opens and the coach runs in shouting about how fired up the team is and how he believes they could get a bowl bid. Two guys get up from the table and give him a high-five while the others look at them like they've lost their minds.
    I miss the 60's. It was more fun watching this stuff on drugs; now it makes me want to cry.
    I see the light at the end; let us hope it's not a train.
I share Edwin's sense of foreboding. Despite the high hilarity afforded us by the crumbling McCain and preposterous Palin (whose pronouncements can be distinguished from those of Tina Fey only because Fey refrains from becoming incendiary), I can't shake off a terrible sense of doom. That McCain could be proud (or claim to be proud) of the Americans who come to his and Palin's rallies and jeer at The Other (the questionably brown man with the suspect names) is not just desperate, it is ominous, like fiery writing on a wall. My local morning newspaper reports that those very people cheered maniacally yesterday afternoon at a Palin rally within fifty miles of where I sit to write this. Oh, America.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Learning experience

"Are you sorry?" I asked the young head cashier at a local home improvement store. She had just straightened out my $25 discount coupon on a purchase of over $300 for building and gardening materials. I was getting set to build a raised planting area my wife wanted in the back yard.

Over half an hour earlier, the computer at checkout had rung up only about a $10 discount, seeming to have applied a miniscule percentage discount to each item as it was rung up. The head cashier had had to refund everything one at a time, then re-enter all the items a different way before applying a straight $25 discount, as the coupon called for. The first time she did this she didn't seem to believe the results, so she called another cashier over and they redid the whole thing before concluding that she'd done it right the first time.

I'd grown a bit grumpy standing around for all of this (and for three or four telephone interruptions the head cashier had handled while she was straightening out my discount), occasionally looking through the entrance doors at my 16-year-old Honda, which had six 6"x6"x8' timbers and four 2"x8" timbers tied on top and, in the trunk, six bags of top soil, four bags of mushroom compost, and two dozen 18" pieces of rebar. Plus, I was already pretty tired and would still have to come back to the store two or three times to collect thirty more bags of top soil and twenty-five bags of pea gravel that I hadn't room for on this trip (my Honda is a passenger sedan, not a pickup truck). I expected her to tell me at the end that she was sorry for everything. But all I heard as she handed me the receipts was, "Thank you."

So I looked her in the eye and asked, "Are you sorry for all of the trouble I've been put to?"

"Oh no," she said, "it was a learning experience."

Considering this astounding obtuseness, I must have looked stunned for a moment. I told her I appreciated her helping me, she'd been put to a lot of trouble too. But could I talk to the store manager?

She fetched a manager, and I told him what had happened and how long it had taken. I told him that the first cashier and the head cashier (who was there to hear this part) had been very good to help me, but this sort of thing shouldn't happen in this store. I'd been a customer of the chain for twenty years. Surely they could set up their computers to handle their official coupons, and not reqire their cashiers to spend half an hour re-entering things by hand.

The manager had been listening patiently to my account. He said he was sorry about everything, but he paused, seeming to be waiting to see where I was headed.

"I'm really disappointed," I said. "I'd like some satisfaction."

He asked me if I was planning more purchases at the store. I said I had no particular purchase in mind, but my wife and I were always coming in. After all, we were home owners. He took a small card out of his shirt pocket and asked me for my name. I told him and he wrote something on the card and handed it to me. He said I'd receive a 10% discount for a checkout made within a month. And, again, he said he was sorry about my trouble.

I trust that the young cashier heard enough of this to learn something further from her experience. Customers whose shopping doesn't go well need a little sympathy.

Friday, October 10, 2008

McCain's reward

McCain'll go back to the Senate beaten and bruised,
Defeated, derided, disgraced, and defused,
    No longer tall,
    Ignored by all
But Joe Lieberman—still piqued, heart-eating, confused.

Inspired by Comment #25 on today's article by Jim Rutenberg, "New McCain Ad Slams Obama on Ayers, Economy," in The Caucus, The New York Times Politics Blog. RMC's comment began:
...last memories of McCain will be a dirty, desperate, hate-filled campaign that couldn't argue the issues. What a pathetic way to send off one's legacy.

He will soon be back at the Senate, weakened and beaten and bruised [emphasis mine].

"weakened and beaten and bruised"

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

After the debate

Within an hour of last night's presidential debate, the following three comments (#8, #9 and #10) were posted on the editorial, "Politics of Attack," in The New York Times. They sort of say it all:
11:16 p.m. McCain visibly became more and more desperate this evening during the debate against a more articulate and poised Obama. McCain stuttered, breathed heavily, and repeated the same phrases over, and over, and over again. The last several weeks have clearly worn him down, and now he's making a last ditch effort. Mr. McCain, you're too old for this.
                    — Emily, Pennsylvania

11:21 p.m. The other night, an audience member shouted to McCain that Obama is a "terrorist." McCain smiled. Then, where Palin was speaking to a different audience, a member shouted "kill him"* when she mentioned Obama—and she smiled. (MSN videos captured these incidents. [I could not verify this.])

What is going on here??? I am tempted to go get a bumper sticker made, "Restore Decency—Elect Obama."
                    — Darster, Birmingham

11:23 p.m. McCain looked old, stiff, and graceless in the debate. He was condescending, snide, and sarcastic. In contrast, Obama looked vital, strong, graceful and was very, very articulate and eloquent. He certainly went on the offensive but did it without coming across as disrespectful. He of course did not look or behave like the terrorist Palin/McCain have been trying to turn him into. He makes them look like mean-spirited fools with their pathetic character attacks.
                    — AJBF, New York City
* From the Times editorial:
Ms. Palin, in particular, revels in the attack. Her campaign rallies have become spectacles of anger and insult. "This is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America," Ms. Palin has taken to saying.

That line follows passages in Ms. Palin's new stump speech in which she twists Mr. Obama's ill-advised but fleeting and long-past association with William Ayers, founder of the Weather Underground and confessed bomber. By the time she's done, she implies that Mr. Obama is right now a close friend of Mr. Ayers—and sympathetic to the violent overthrow of the government. The Democrat, she says, "sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country."

Her demagoguery has elicited some frightening, intolerable responses. A recent Washington Post report [possibly "Unleashed, Palin Makes a Pit Bull Look Tame," by Dana Milbank] said at a rally in Florida this week a man yelled "kill him!" as Ms. Palin delivered that line and others shouted epithets at an African-American member of a TV crew.

Mr. McCain's aides haven't even tried to hide their cynical tactics, saying they were "going negative" in hopes of shifting attention away from the financial crisis—and by implication Mr. McCain's stumbling response.

We certainly expected better from Mr. McCain, who once showed withering contempt for win-at-any-cost politics. He was driven out of the 2000 Republican primaries by this sort of smear, orchestrated by some of the same people who are now running his campaign.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Realist's reply to a poll on Sarah Palin

I’ve been asking people if anyone they know has owned up to liking Sarah Palin (as a candidate). So far, only one person has owned up. In fact, he told me he “LOVE[S] Sarah Palin!” [exclamation mark his] (That besotted, he may hang out with the likes of David Brooks and William Kristol.)

But here's why I’m back to log. To report the following reply to my poll question:
None of my friends or acquaintances has expressed admiration for Sarah Palin. I think it’s only in the last 3 weeks that I’ve been convinced Obama will win. She’s pretty obnoxious, accept she’s sort of like an unreconstructed high school cheerleader type, breathlessly optimistic and impermeable to reason or facts. I suspect she does a better job in Alaska and doesn’t pontificate on junk she doesn’t understand. It’s hard to believe any serious, conscious person with a high school education or better would think she could possibly be qualified to be president. The interview with Katie Couric was devastating; it’s weird that they still let her come out in public, but she’s a quick study and bounced back to perform acceptably in the debate with Biden: i.e., she appeared, answered questions, usually managed to talk in sentences [sic], repeated herself with variations (kind of like modern jazz or Ravel’s Bolero), and didn’t faint or pee in her pants. All Barack’s campaign should do is run various videos [of] her trying to answer several of Couric’s questions, then ask: Do you want this person up at 3 a.m. trying to decide our nation’s future?

Boldest comment yesterday

Comment #518, by HPLeft of Brooklyn, New York, on William Kristol’s October 6 New York Times op-ed piece, “The Wright Stuff”:
The phrase “God damn America” goes back at least as far as William James, a far greater intellectual than anyone in Bill [Kristol]’s failed but dangerous movement, in the aftermath of revelations of US atrocities in the Philippines during the Spanish American War. To criticize America when it is responsible for wanton acts, the kind that Reverend Wright likely has first-hand knowledge of, is the soul of patriotism. In contrast, to spin away responsibility for crimes against humanity and democracy, as Kristol and his like do every day, is the soul of treachery.
HPLeft was referring, I suppose, to the concluding paragraphs of Kristol’s column:
I pointed out [on the phone to Palin] that Obama surely had a closer connection to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright than to Ayers—and so, I asked, if Ayers is a legitimate issue, what about Reverend Wright?

She didn’t hesitate: “To tell you the truth, Bill, I don’t know why that association isn’t discussed more, because those were appalling things that that pastor had said about our great country, and to have sat in the pews for 20 years and listened to that—with, I don’t know, a sense of condoning it, I guess, because he didn’t get up and leave—to me, that does say something about character. But, you know, I guess that would be a John McCain call on whether he wants to bring that up.”

I guess so. And I guess we’ll soon know McCain’s call on whether he wants to bring Wright up—perhaps at his debate with Obama Tuesday night.

I asked at the end of our conversation whether Palin, fresh off her own debate, had any advice for McCain. “I’m going to tell him the same thing he told me. I talked to him just a few minutes before I walked out there on stage. And he just said: ‘Have fun. Be yourself, and have fun.’ And Senator McCain can do the same.” She paused, and I was about to thank her for the interview, but she had one more thing to say. “Only maybe I’d add just a couple more words, and that would be: ‘Take the gloves off.’ ”

And maybe I’d add, Hockey Mom knows best.

Monday, October 6, 2008

"Comments are no longer being accepted"

This morning and the other day, for the first times, I noticed the statement, "Comments are no longer being accepted," posted atop the comments section of a couple of op-ed pieces in The New York Times. I saw the first one on Friday, the morning after the vice presidential debate, warning any further readers from trying to comment on David Brooks's op-ed piece, "The Palin Rebound." Brooks's piece was so mind-bendingly, fawningly complimentary to Palin's showing in the debate that I felt an urgent need to ask Brooks whether he'd been smoking dope. Alas, after searching all over for the place to comment, I saw the notice.

And this morning I saw the notice again, above William Kristol's equally fawning piece, "The Wright Stuff." Within only a few hours, enough ridicule had already been heaped on each of these right-thinking gentlemen, thank you. Enough is enough!

The only question is:
Did Brooks and Kristol throw in the towel themselves, or did their editor call the fight to protect their dignity and their possibly injured ability to meet the paper's deadline for their next pieces?
I don't remember how many comments Brooks had suffered before further comments were disinvited, but Kristol (or his editor) threw in the towel before even 200 comments had been posted.

While it's fun to wonder who stopped the fight and precisely why, I regret that "Comments are no longer being accepted" meant what it said. Even still fairly early this morning, I was already too late to ask Mr. Kristol whether, for example, Palin hadn't bewitched him? (Her voodoo pastor's incantation was intended, presumably, to protect her, not people on whom she herself might practice.)

Not that similar questions hadn't already been asked by the hundred and eighty some commenters who'd gotten through. Like #23, by LGG of Orange County, California:
It's so heartening, Bill—may I call you Bill?—that you are so concerned with Obama's now-renounced pastor and church affiliation. I have no doubt, then, that you will as vociferously investigate and report upon Palin's associations with Muthee, the African witch hunter.

Curious, isn't it, that we get 24/7 coverage of Wright's inflammatory comments, but one has to go to Yyoutube to see Palin being exorcised of witches by Muthee. Why is that, do you think? The clip of Palin being exorcised is certainly not a fake as evidenced by the fact that the pulpit upon which Muthee stands and behind which Palin stands is identical to that which multiple other clips show Palin speaking from when addressing her church's congregation. Things that make you go "Hmmmm."

10-7 Flash

I see that the number of comments on Kristol's column has now reached 525, which indicates either that several hundred comments were still being "moderated" (approved for posting) when the spigot was turned off...or that the floodgates were reopened, the editor maybe having decided that Kristol deserved comments like, say, #523, from Peter in Indiana:
Oh, Bill, there you go again, looking to the past instead of to the future! (By the way, did you happen to ask Palin about McCain's association with that economic terrorist, Charles Keating, or her own association with the witch-exorcizing priest? Or is sauce for the goose not sauce for the gander?) Here you are, being bamboozled by some pretty-face, Gidget-goes-to-Washington type who talks outside of both sides of her mouth, whose talk (when it's possible to understand it) is mostly vacuous, who spouts off baloney about the Constitution's take on vice president (but fails to comply with a Constitutionally valid sub poena), and your take is that the drivel is mostly the fault of her handlers instead of her inherent lack of understanding. Even the latter is a sign of the classic Republican who yaps about accountability and responsibility except when it comes [to] them—then it's always someone else's fault.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A reverse slam dump?

Last Tuesday, for the sake of continuing political entertainment, I expressed the hope that vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin not be dumped but remain on the ticket through Election Day. Indeed, her stand-up routine Thursday night (i.e., she didn't fall off the stage) allayed my apprehension, and we’ve since been treated to her statement, after reading in the paper that McCain had decided to give up Michigan, that she wants to go there and try to turn the tide, and to her statement, reported this morning, that Obama has palled around with terrorists.

The front page where I read about the alleged palling around also informed me that in Alamance County, North Carolina, 5,203 new voters have registered since last November 1, and Democratic registrations have outnumbered Republican 2,660 to 679. The proximity of the two news items of course made me wonder whether Palin had heard the news from Alamance County and hoped to play Moses here too.

But in this morning’s New York Times, op-ed columnist Frank Rich, in his column, “Pitbull Palin Mauls McCain,” suggests that nevertheless Palin may very well be “dumped”—but not in the way you may be thinking.

After enumerating a number of particulars about “Mr. Past, poor old John McCain,” Rich asks,
So how can a desperate G.O.P. save itself? As McCain continues to fade into incoherence and irrelevance, the last hope is that he’ll come up with some new game-changing stunt to match his initial pick of Palin or his ill-fated campaign “suspension.” Until Thursday night, more than a few Republicans were fantasizing that his final Hail Mary pass would be to ditch Palin so she can “spend more time” with her ever-growing family. But the debate reminded Republicans once again that it’s Palin, not McCain, who is their last hope for victory.

You have to wonder how long it will be before they plead with him to think of his health, get out of the way and pull the ultimate stunt of flipping the ticket. Palin, we can be certain, wouldn’t even blink.
The “wouldn't even blink” was a reference to earlier paragraphs about how Palin had responded to Gwen Ifill’s question how the two vice presidential candidates would govern “if the worst happened” and the president died in office. Without hesitating or even blinking, Palin said “that as a ‘maverick’ she’d go her own way.”

I think she winked, though.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Comment of the day on last night's debate

One of many such comments on an editorial in today's New York Times:
October 3, 2008 12:01 am

Biden was brilliant! Knowledgeable, precise and on the ball. Palin read her reading points and did some joe sixpack improv, along with a few winks. I found that really sleazy and disturbing. What was she doing? Trying to pick up the American public?

— Observer, Australia

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Somebody Bush is smarter than

Quote of the day

Bush is a stupid man but he’s smarter than the people who voted for him twice.
—Bill, in a comment on Timothy Egan's blog article, "The Legacy," in yesterday's New York Times.

In your face

After timidly experimenting with a couple of insipid titles for yesterday's post, I finally settled on the more in-your-face title, God didn't vault Adam and Eve to the top of the mountain, which by the way prefigures the first paragraph's reference to the jehovahs, who insist that Adam and Eve were real people.

But is the title I finally settled on too in-your-face? An op-ed column reprinted in today's Burlington, North Carolina Times-News by Miani Herald "Pulitzer Prize-winning" columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. contains an apology for asking of Sarah Palin last week, "Does she really take the parable of Adam and Eve as literal truth?" Pitts writes now that that column
unleashed a flood of e-mails from people angry that I had demoted the Christian creation story [Christian?!] to the status of parable [sic] and suggested by implication that anyone who believes it is, as one reader put it, a "fool."
After apologizing (Pitts has to try to keep all of those readers; he's a paid columnist, after all), he tries to regain his self-respect:
Let me be clear: I don't believe the Bible's account of creation. Never have. Leaving aside Darwin [why? afraid of offending yet more of those valuable readers?] and taking the story on its own merits, there are still holes in it big enough to walk a dinosaur through. Not least of which is the conundrum of how, short of incest, humanity reproduced itself if there was only one family on earth.
    And had I framed my question more narrowly—Does Sarah Palin really want the Bible story of creation taught in schools?—you'd be reading no mea culpa here. Science classes are for science and faith is not science. Nor, in a pluralistic society, does anyone have the right to impose faith on someone else.
    But I didn't pose a narrow question. Instead, I airily dismissed a belief which, in and of itself, hurts no one, marginalizes no one, and is a fundament of faith for millions.
    That was needlessly...disrespectful. It also was arrogant. Which is, oddly enough, the one trait of the lately resurgent atheist movement that vexes me....
Then, after maligning atheists, too, for a paragraph, he steps back in a sort of apology to them!
In fairness to atheists, though, I've always suspected that was a reaction to the equally irksome arrogance some religious conservatives—let the Rev. Jerry Falwell stand as avatar—have exuded upon the rest of us for 30 years.
Poor Leonard Pitts! The guy's trying to please everybody, but is surely pleasing only the most complaisant.

An unfortunate consequence of trying to please everybody is that Pitts fools himself into thinking that a religious belief can be "in and of itself" and (therefore) "hurts no one [and] marginalizes no one," and should (therefore) be given a bye because it "is a fundament of faith for millions." But there is no such thing as a religious belief "in and of itself." A person's basic beliefs affect everything. They affect what parents want taught in schools. They affect how people vote—or whether they vote (jehovahs, I'm told, abstain). They affect whether people sign up to detonate themselves in a crowd.

It's important to believe things because you know they're true (and not otherwise)..

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

God didn't vault Adam and Eve to the top of the mountain

Richard Dawkins, after referring in his 1996 book, Climbing Mount Improbable, to "any number of Jehovah's Witnesses tracts [that] make the mistake of treating Darwinian natural selection as [a random process]," goes on to say:
To this day, and in quarters where they should know better [I don't think he's referring to the jehovahs here!], Darwinism is widely regarded as a theory of "chance."
    It is grindingly, creakingly, crashingly obvious that, if Darwinism were really a theory of chance, it couldn't work. You don't need to be a mathematician or physicist to calculate that an eye or a haemoglobin molecule would take from here to eternity to self-assemble by sheer higgledy-piggledy luck. Far from being a difficulty peculiar to Darwinism, the astronomic improbability of eyes and knees, enzymes and elbow joints, and the other living wonders is precisely the problem that any theory of life must solve, and that Darwinism uniquely does solve. It solves it by breaking the improbability up into small, manageable parts, smearing out the luck needed, going round the back of Mount Improbable and crawling up the gentle slopes, inch by million-year inch....
    The height of Mount Improbable stands for the combination of perfection and improbability that is epitomized in eyes and enzyme molecules...
    ...As we have seen, to invoke chance, on its own, as an explanation, is equivalent to vaulting from the bottom to the top of Mount Improbable's steepest cliff in one bound. And what corresponds to inching up the kindly, grassy slopes on the other side of the mountain? It is the slow, cumulative, one-step-at-a-time, non-random survival of random variants that Darwin called natural selection...It was Darwin's great achievement to discover the gentle gradients winding up the other side of the mountain. [pp. 77-79]
This argument (from Chapter 3) is made more elaborately in Dawkins's most recent book, The God Delusion, which I recommended in January, when it came out in trade paperback format.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Why is politics entertaining again?

I've realized over the past few days that the long period has ended during which I found American politics not at all entertaining. Sarah Palin and fools like William Kristol have changed all that. I was glum and out of sorts because we (the country) were hamstrung with Bush, Cheney, etc., including an opposition party unable to take decisive action and even unwilling to pursue seriously the question of impeaching the ba**ards. Now that I find reason to hope that the Democrats will win the White House in November, I have become less glum, even to the extent of being relaxed enough to laugh at the folly of fools. The lifting of glumness seems to be the reason (or at least a prerequisite) for my now finding politics entertaining again. Palin (Alaska's proximity to Russia being the source of her foreign policy experience, her fear of bewitchment and all) can only have been sent to entertain us. May she not be dumped but remain on the ticket through Election Day!

By the way, 1,087 comments have now been posted to Kristol's Times column yesterday. Here's #1,087:
Palin has amply demonstrated by now through her Couric and Gibson interviews her ignorance and lack of ability to think logically. (Ignorance and lack of ability to think logically are two distinct characteristics, each highly bothersome individually.)

Whatever coaching McCain campaign operatives might desperately provide to Palin at this late hour is their application of—hmm—lipstick on a pig.

I have an idea that on both accounts, Palin's above incompetence and McCain's display of incompetence just in her selection as his running mate (leaving aside [many other] matters), the candidacy of the McCain-Palin duo is going to implode before too long.
And from # 1064:
This snooty elitist (and yes the rich republicans are the reel elitist here) says Obama is liberal. What does that mean? That he grew up on food stamps? Saw his mother die of cancer while fighting insurance companies? That he put himself through school? That instead of taking a job on Wall Street for 7 figures he returned to Chicago to take a $12,000 a year job working in the community to getter the lives of everyday people as opposed to the richest and most powerful? That he joined, at no pay, two Chicago school boards and was instrumental in helping that city turn around a failed school system? Is that what you call liberal?

I call that being an American. An up from the boot strap American. Not some prep school, last in his class Annapolis legacy, serial adulterer, intemperate, impetuous, social climber who married the rich blonde heiress. That doesn't sound like my neighbors.

Flash! This just in, from The Smirking Chimp1

This political season has even brought out voices reminiscent of the sixties magazines Ramparts and Mother Jones and the rhetoric of Abby Hoffman and Jerry Rubin:
Then there's the God stuff: Palin belongs to a church whose pastor, Ed Kalnins, believes that all criticisms of George Bush "come from hell," and wondered aloud if people who voted for John Kerry could be saved. Kalnins, looming as the answer to Obama's Jeremiah Wright, claims that Alaska is going to be a "refuge state" for Christians in the last days, last days which he sometimes speaks of in the present tense. Palin herself has been captured on video mouthing the inevitable born-again idiocies, such as the idea that a recent oilpipeline deal was "God's will." She also described the Iraq War as a "task that is from God" and part of a heavenly "plan." She supports teaching creationism and "abstinence only" in public schools, opposes abortion even for victims of rape, denies the science behind global warming and attends a church that seeks to convert Jews and cure homosexuals.

All of which tells you about what you'd expect from a raise-the-base choice like Palin: She's a puffed-up dimwit with primitive religious beliefs who had to be educated as to the fact that the Constitution did not exactly envision government executives firing librarians. Judging from the importance progressive critics seem to attach to these revelations, you'd think that these were actually negatives in modern American politics. But Americans like politicians who hate books and see the face of Jesus in every tree stump. They like them stupid and mean and ignorant of the rules.

Which is why Palin has only seemed to grow in popularity as more and more of these revelations have come out. The same goes for the most damning aspect of her biography, her total lack of big-game experience. As governor of Alaska, Palin presides over a state whose entire population is barely the size of Memphis. This kind of thing might matter in a country that actually worried about whether its leader was prepared for his job—but not in America.
  1. From the article, "The scariest thing about Sarah Palin isn't how unqualified she is—it's what her candidacy says about America," by Matt Taibbi.

Monday, September 29, 2008

American politics is entertaining again!

William Kristol is one of those stone-blind right-wing ideologues still chanting various conservative mantras and, in his case, doing so as a token con [artist] in The New York Times's stable of op-ed columnists. His piece in today's Times is a howler. For example, he writes:
With respect to his campaign, McCain needs to liberate his running mate from the former Bush aides brought in to handle her...On Sunday he dispatched his top aides Steve Schmidt and Rick Davis to join Palin in Philadelphia. They’re supposed to liberate Palin to go on the offensive as a combative conservative in the vice-presidential debate on Thursday.

That debate is important...Palin has to dispatch quickly any queries about herself, and confidently assert that of course she’s qualified to be vice president. She should spend her time making the case for McCain and, more important, the case against Obama...The core case against Obama is pretty simple: he’s too liberal...He has radical associates in his past...Rev. Jeremiah Wright....
But the comments (975 of them as I write this!) are even funnier. I've read only a relatively small sample, but here's a good one:
Unchain Palin? She's a talented communicator? Has Mr. Kristol watched the Couric interview? The reason she's been boxed up is that she's a disaster unscripted. This suggestion alone makes me think Kristol is just having fun. Although, at this point, expectations for her in the debate are so low, she may actually beat some expectations - especially if she can memorize those cue cards.
And this one:
What an astonishing partisan hack piece. "Liberate Sarah Palin"...? When the Times went scouring the nation for its token conservative they would have been far better served by choosing someone who wasn't so tired, gimmicky, out of his depth and flat out ridiculous. If this is one of the most authoritative and respected voices of conservatism, then that movement is in far greater trouble than even I had supposed.
And another:
Given that Ms. Palin's own pastor is a (literal) witch hunter from Kenya, your advice about bringing up pastors seems unusually obtuse, even for you.

Keep trying, Bill! I'm sure you'll have a good idea one of these days!
If a very brief dip into the comments found these, then there must be many, many more good laughs in the hundreds of others you might read there if you had the time and the need for diversion.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Realism...or magical optimism?

This morning I read in the New York Times a very short op-ed piece, “The Power of Negative Thinking,” by Barbara Ehrenreich. Ms. Ehrenreich assails the pie-in-the-sky optimism that I myself subscribed to for many years:
As promoted by Oprah Winfrey, scores of megachurch pastors and an endless flow of self-help best sellers, the idea is to firmly believe that you will get what you want, not only because it will make you feel better to do so, but because “visualizing” something — ardently and with concentration — actually makes it happen.
I believed this so ardently in 1989 that I suffered an excess of mania and on its magic carpet sailed for most of the summer, believing that I would win the Publishers Clearing House $10,000,000 Sweepstakes and publish a best-selling book that would tell the world how Youie (a.k.a. “God”) Herself revealed these wonders to me in advance.

Over the years since 1989, I came to see that the psychotherapist who helped me when the inevitable happened and my carpet crashed me into depression was right, it really was mania and not divine revelation.

Ehrenreich's article concludes:
When it comes to how we think, “negative” is not the only alternative to “positive.” As the case histories of depressives show, consistent pessimism can be just as baseless and deluded as its opposite. The alternative to both is realism [emphasis mine] — seeing the risks, having the courage to bear bad news and being prepared for famine as well as plenty. We ought to give it a try.
I hadn't thought in these terms, but one way for me to think of the turn my thinking about god and religion took last year is as a turn to realism. Of course, you may dispute whether this is valid, because what is real is, ultimately, a matter of belief, perhaps even "religious" belief.

Of course, in terms of what I myself believe is real, I think I did turn from optimism (God exists and will take care of the righteous, who will live forever in heaven, their young, sexy bodies restored) to realism (we're all alone here, bud, the atoms in our bodies will be recycled, and our spirits evaporate with them). Of course, many people shudder violently at that view; to them it's the rankest pessimism. They cling to their magical optimism.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


I put it on this morning just for fun, not realizing that it might lend me an air of respectability. For the first time since I've been walking to the pickup point of the van I commute to work in, a neighbor stopped and offered me a ride!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Sony Religious-Noise Canceling Headphones

Tip for today

If you ever find yourself a captive audience of evangelizing Christians, consider purchasing a pair of Sony's Religious-Noise Canceling Headphones. Sony offers several models. Look for them yourself, perhaps by googling on something like "sony noise canceling headphones."

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What difference can a county line make?

My wife and I are pleased to have found kindred spirits among our new neighbors. They recently put up an Obama for President sign and have offered us a second one that they expect to acquire soon.

One of them is a teacher relatively new to North Carolina, who recently changed school districts (and now teaches in a different North Carolina county). She reports:
It really is shocking how ignorant a lot of people are and scary that McCain/Palin actually seem to have a good shot at winning. I must say how refreshing it is to be working in Chapel Hill now. People seem so much more liberal there. I didn't think I'd notice a difference but I really do, even in school. Several of my students were absent a couple of weeks ago because they were at the Democratic convention—a far cry from my last school, where I had some students tell me that I must be a Democrat because I believe in global warming! I pointed out that global warming is a fact, not an opinion.

In that school I was working alongside colleagues (female) who told me with no shame that Ms. Clinton could not be president because she's female and therefore too emotional. Shocking, really, and very sad. I pointed out that Hillary has bigger balls than Bush and maybe what was needed for this country was a little emotion. I felt as though my opinions were frowned upon as I'm just the snooty outsider! It is a refreshing change to be surrounded now by people with some sense.
"Believe" in global though it's a matter of faith rather than scientific knowledge. Religion is quite a pernicious influence in this country—however more pernicious an influence Islam is in countries where that medieval religion predominates. The women who condemned Hillary Clinton were most likely influenced by the ancient Old Testament emphasis of much of Christianity.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The wisdom to know the difference

A cousin wrote me yesterday that she'd meant to call some of our relatives in Arkansas to see whether they were okay in the wake of Hurricane Ike, but that "like always" she'd put it off and not done so.

I told her that either our relatives are okay or they aren't, and there's nothing we can do about it.

Her reply surprised me:
I really LOL [laughed out loud] at what you said. I guess you're right, there is really nothing we could do about it. If something was wrong with any of them, we would have heard.
I trusted that her LOL was owing to her relief at realizing that, indeed, we can do nothing about most things, so we might as well free ourselves from the illusion that we can.

In this connection, I had already been musing about people's practice of praying for other people, as though they could thereby improve their lot. I think people pray for others in order to demonstrate that they care while at the same time absolving themselves of any responsibility for the actual outcome. After all, they generally ackowledge that god isn't bound to act on their prayers. They believe that god will either do something or "he" won't. Or, as I say, the people they are praying for will either be okay or they won't. Prayer doesn't come into it.

We're all familiar with something known as the serenity prayer (commonly attributed to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr):
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference....
The serenity prayer is itself a prayer, though not on behalf of other people. I suppose that many people who utter it and subsequently think they have come to know the difference would be unsure whether to pray less, or more, in the future, not knowing whether to attribute the effect to divine intervention or to purely psychological mechanisms. (I attribute it to the latter; "god" has nothing to do with it.)
When I called my sister in northwestern Arkansas, she told me that she and her family are doing okay, "thank the Lord."

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Canada geese resting in Mebane, North Carolina on the way south (presumably)

At least, they look like Canada geese, although my wife and I weren't sure at first this morning, as we viewed them from our back door. We couldn't at the time match them to any species in our bird books. But look at the photo and accompanying text provided by BirdNetInformation.

Or are they locals? A friend who is an avid birder tells me:

They might not be migrating geese, but just a gaggle of local geese that found your pond. If you don’t already have a population of year-round local geese on your pond, you soon will. The year-round population is exploding in North Carolina, and many communities are having to take action to run them away. I like to watch the geese, and am thrilled to see them return in such numbers. However, they do make a terrible mess in yards, on walkways, etc., and they can be very aggressive.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Circa 1948

That's me in the cowboy hat, which was, for me in my fabulous childhood, ubiquitous.

Monday, August 25, 2008

A darling TV series

During the past week, my wife and I watched all of the episodes of the 1991-93 British TV series, "The Darling Buds of May," starring David Jason, Pam Ferris, Philip Franks, and Catherine Zeta-Jones (hyphenated in professional contexts). What a tenaciously upbeat, hopeful dramatic series! We loved it entirely, this saga of a wholesome, generous, light-hearted, public-spirited family and the local community (in Kent). It quite brought back to me the way one of my nieces used to apply the adjective "darling" to anything (and many things) that utterly captivated her. Sentimental, no doubt, but I never felt a moment's embarrassment this week from being so. Now, whenever I find myself spontaneously imagining that I am Pop Larkin (the family head portrayed by David Jason), I feel that I am a better person for it.

And what a delight the Larkin children are! Zeta-Jones (portraying Mariette, who is 18 in the opening episode), was in her early twenties when the episodes were filmed, so she of course was not a child.

This series was said to have been the most popular one ever to appear on British television. Wikipedia even has an entry on it.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

"God takes care of his children"

Waiting in a line this morning at the university transportation office to renew my bus pass, I overheard the story of the guy ahead of me. Motorcycle rider, multiple parking passes, one of which he'd returned but was still being billed for. But the clerk helping him was smoothing everything out and seemed to conceive of herself as one of God's angels or something, for she said, "God takes care of his children, doesn't he?" And the guy said, "You got that right."

Well...not really. The lucky ones, maybe. The ones who don't suffer and die prematurely, like my friend Gary, who's not expected to make it after suffering massive brain injuries in a motorcycle accident the other day, right before the eyes of his wife, on her own Harley behind him.

But even Gary's wife asked her friends to pray for him, as though Gary's disastrous fall of the roulette ball could be made right by a miraculous intervention. As though Gary could yet be one of the lucky ones of God's children, even though his being hit and run off the road by the vehicle he was trying to pass (as it pulled out itself to pass the vehicle ahead) seemed to have demonstrated that he was very much not one of those.

People want to believe that they're lucky, that they're being taken care of. It helps them somehow to believe that. Some of them even make up elaborate explanations of why the apparently unlucky ones are really being taken care of anyway, in some mysterious way that surpasses human understanding. The crab that gets sucked in and eaten by a cuttlefish has just gone home to God, by God!

Oh yeah, I'm sure.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Treat all living creatures humanely

Apropos one of my "new ten commandments," there'll be a referendum on animal rights in California this November. As New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote yesterday:
Proposition 2 would ban factory farms from raising chickens, calves or hogs in small pens or cages.
    Livestock rights are already enshrined in the law in Florida, Arizona, Colorado and here in Oregon, but California’s referendum would go further and would be a major gain for the animal rights movement. And it’s part of a broader trend. Burger King announced last year that it would give preference to suppliers that treat animals better, and when a hamburger empire expostulates tenderly about the living conditions of cattle, you know public attitudes are changing.
    Harvard Law School now offers a course on animal rights. Spain’s Parliament has taken a first step in granting rights to apes, and Austrian activists are campaigning to have a chimpanzee declared a person. Among philosophers, a sophisticated literature of animals rights has emerged.
Kristof tells a poignant story of the Chinese white geese:
Once a month or so, we would slaughter the geese. When I was 10 years old, my job was to lock the geese in the barn and then rush and grab one. Then I would take it out and hold it by its wings on the chopping block while my Dad or someone else swung the ax.
    The 150 geese knew that something dreadful was happening and would cower in a far corner of the barn, and run away in terror as I approached. Then I would grab one and carry it away as it screeched and struggled in my arms.
    Very often, one goose would bravely step away from the panicked flock and walk tremulously toward me. It would be the mate of the one I had caught, male or female, and it would step right up to me, protesting pitifully. It would be frightened out of its wits, but still determined to stand with and comfort its lover.
Humans are not such special animals relative to others as most people seem to think. Ironically, many of them are abetted in the belief by one or another of their "holy books." Of course, if geese had written the Bible, "God" might be a super goose and geese the very most special of animals....

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Participating in the Pacific Cup [Sailboat] Race with their Division C boat the Ada Helen, my son-in-law and his fellow crew members reached Hawaii around 8:42 p.m. yesterday (Hawaii time). Here's a photo they took soon after embarking from San Francisco on July 15:

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Two more

Remembering that there are numerous recycling centers in Chapel Hill, I took my three stuffed bags of newspaper, glossies, and "mixed paper" to the one at University Mall last night, when I was in the neighborhood on another errand. (It seems contradictory to make a special trip to a recycling center—if you have to burn fossil fuel to do so.)

Well, tonight is our next-to-last night in the apartment, and my back is looking forward to a lie-down. I loaded and unloaded a 14-foot U-Haul today—the main cargo's being 30 or 40 of my wife's potted plants that some former neighbors let us set in their yard until we moved to Mebane. That doesn't sound like many. Only one load? Well, it was about 300 feet from where most of the pots were sitting to the truck, which I parked on the street so as not to risk damaging something on my neighbors' property. And the pots were heavy. I moved 20 or 30 by putting several at a time in a wheelbarrow, but the others required a hand truck (or "dollie'). There was also a four-wheel wagon with a huge jade plant that I rolled up the ramp on to the truck (and rolled down at our new house). And about 20 1-gallon plastic bottles of water, which I took along to help buffer the pots, about half of which are ceramic. That is, they can chip, crack, or break. And I didn't want to damage any of my wife's pot. (She and Wally went off to Mebane early to let in the painter who would coat the new drywall in the garage and touch up the repairs from where we removed the standard shelving in two closets and the laundry room, in favor a more versatile style.)

There was also some other yard and gardening stuff under some other neighbors' deck: two metal benches; several water hoses; two shepherd's hooks and three water hose racks; four heavy rubber-wrapped rebar poles (which a local nursery sold as rose stakes); a large disassembled metal pot stand; a bag of pine bark soil conditioner; shovels, hoes, and rakes; and the wheelbarrow and dollie mentioned above. Oh, and two very heavy rocks. Yes, rocks. One has a cavity in which we poured water for our visiting birds. The other is just a dramatic-looking rock, about two feet long, that my wife likes for me to plant vertically somewhere (wherever she asks me to, I mean). Well, these neighbors have a deep front yard also...I wonder how many miles I walked today loading that truck.

I barely had a third of the truck bed loaded and my back was already feeling none too good. I was so far from having my first load delivered and being on my way back to Chapel Hill by one o'clock or so, that I didn't leave Chapel Hill with my first load until about 2:30. We didn't pack up at our new house to return to the apartment until 6:30.

We had our first experience in Mebane of working out in the rain, just after some new neighbors from across the street had come over to introduce themselves. Within minutes of their leaving (to go to Wal-Mart, which is less than half a mile away), the rain started heavy then leveled off to tolerable soaker. Not seeing any lightning (although we did hear one and only one thunder clap), we felt comfortable being out in it to unload the truck. Most of the pots had to be moved only about fifty feet. (I think I mentioned in a post of several weeks ago that we were downsizing; our old house was on 1-1/3 acre, our new one on about 1/4.

I felt more than comfortable in the rain; working in thoroughly soaked T-shirt, pants (and underpants), socks and shoes took my mind off my back (well, almost), and I drove the truck back to Chapel Hill feeling quite accomplished, even if I had managed only one load. Anyway, there are only 15 more pots (even if they are humongous). I'll have room to load everything from the storage locker tomorrow, too, plus a few more gardening implements from under the other neighbors' deck. Oh, my aching back....

And raise a toast to good neighbors, bless 'em!