Sunday, October 31, 2004

Wish Me Luck

It is now National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. "Driving along in the rain, they were both whistling with the radio when the lightning caught their gaze."

Eh, why not. And building libraries is always a good thing.
Bride, Batman, Bush & BinLaden
(Please click on Permalink/Full Post to read whole thing.)

Over at John&Belle Have A Blog, John Holbo points out that Wonkette has made the requisite Princess Bride joke, before launching into an interesting Batman&Joker meditation on the bizarre cultural relationship between Bush and Bin Laden.

But the two [Joker&Batman] feed off each other, define each other in the weirdest way. Jim Henley made this point a couple days ago - with regard to Republicans and the War on Terror. Matthew Yglesias made it yesterday. It's unhealthy for the Republicans to self-define as the party of the War on Terror.Incentive structure all wrong. We want it to be easier for us to bring ourselves to end our wars than it is for Marvel or DC to bring themselves to kill off a popular character. (We know the REAL reason the Joker always gets away every time.) And there isn't any particular reason to exacerebate the other guy's sickness by playing along with the whole comic book arch-enemies storyline . . . .OBL sending us tapes is, as everyone has long since noticed, like some sort of super-villain grandstanding nonsense. You can't blame Michael Moore for getting dragged into this. You can't even blame George Bush for providing Moore with the material - the goat fodder. What you can do is decline the invitation to hallucinate that we are living inside a big superhero comic.

This touches on some inchoate thoughts I had after watching Sky Captain And The World of Tomorrow at the Parkway the other night. (The visuals were great, the story okay, the acting not so much.) The times when we, the rowdy Parkway audience, applauded and hooted loudly, were the times when the one of the heroic types dove nose first into some totally, ludicrously dangerous situation and escaped it by pulling out an even more ludicrous trick or skill or special machine. And this, of course, is how comic books and action movies are supposed to work. We want our superheroes to have stubborn grit and determination, to be extreme risk takers, to pull out surprises and do wonderful things without explaining them to us before hand.

But even in most comic books, these arrogant, slap-dash, gut-instinct followers build up a lifetime of preparation before they grab the helm so cavalierly--and even then, they are almost never the ones actually in charge. The President always summons the superhero to go forth and perform some specialized task, remaining behind as the cautious, grateful, endearingly square executor of the will of the people.

Regardless of the fact that, as Matthew Yglesias has pointed out over and over again, GWB's cult of personality is rather ridiculous, the fact remains that such a cult exists. I have to wonder if the modern disparity between fictively glamourous actions and the day to day work of political leadership has created an emotional gap in people's understanding of what makes a good leader. Are we collectively so far removed from both the real work of policy and the real work of war that we can be easily fooled by a man costumed in a flight suit? Most of the people I know who avidly read comic books are also fairly sharp about policy; from this highly unscientific sample I'd have to guess that if you are practiced at getting your superhero kicks from the world of fantasy you don't need to get them from the world of reality. At the same time I have to wonder if the truly heroic qualities needed in our modern reality aren't being adaquately addressed in the world of fiction. In the old days people drew inspiration from" good guys" like Roland and Beowulf, but fictional heroes in the more useful mold of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. haven't really taken hold in popular culture. Maybe it's time to try and change that.

JesusPolitics Asks A Question

Carlos of JesusPolitics wants to collect comments answering the following question:
(Please click Permalink/Full Post)
Who are you going to vote for and why do you believe your candidate best represents in his policies the life and message of Jesus?

I can't really answer this question as such, because the life and message of Jesus have very little direct relevance to my political consideration, or any real considerations. I don't religiously believe in Jesus, but I respect what I have understood to be his general message of kindness, compassion, integrity and truthfulness. To the extent that those ideals inform my politics, I am voting for Kerry. (In general, though the chances of this ever being a real issue are quantum mechanically small, I would hope to vote uninfluenced by the candidate having the same religious affiliation as myself--"It is not relevant," as JFK said.)

Carlos has asked me to pass the question on, however, so if you feel that you have a more relevant answer, please leave it on his comments page.
Be Well, Professor Cornell. . .

Eric Cornell, Nobel Prize winning physicist at CU Boulder, is extremely ill. He's very young (42), very smart, and very kind. He and his family are in my thoughts and prayers.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Beautiful Ice

Photographs of ice by D. Hirmes.
Amen To That

I often quibble with his reviews, but Slate's David Edelstein has hit the nail square on the head with this paen to GWB's unintentional revitalization of lefty culture:
Thank you, Mr. President, for giving us back our energy, our passion, our creativity, and our sense of humor—which we've needed to keep from going insane at what you've done to this country and the world. Your political legacy, alas, will live long—but so will the vital counterculture you have spawned. May we never, never forget you.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

A Little Friendly Beauty For Your Thursday

Another lovely image from Daily Dose of Imagery. I found the caption accidentally endearing--when I was a student at Berkeley I always hung out at the Campanile Esplanade. Reminds me of a scene from Hero.
Counting the Overseas Vote

George Gregg is a linguist and registered Republican living in France, who has been desperately trying to make sure his vote gets counted in his home state of Arizona this year. Several million expatriate civilian Americans living abroad have to jump through enormous hoops each election to make sure their vote gets counted, and many of them are buying expensive tickets home just so they can vote this year, according to Reuters. This is a group of people that tends to be uniquely well informed about issues of security and foreign policy, and many of them are abroad in capacities that directly or indirectly serve American interests. They deserve to have their vote counted, like all American citizens in good standing. Gregg sums up his ordeal:
And I think I have the information I need. I'll fill out my ballot in the morning, Rich will come over and witness it, and then I'll take it to the post office in this express envelope I bought today. If I've done this right - and it's only taken me three forms filled out online to request the ballot, four long distance phone calls during which I had to wend my way through a labyrinth of misinformation and ignorance (sorry, but it's true), a phone call to the US Consulate in Marseille, reading quite a bit of guideline documents online and downloading the federal ballot, filling it out and getting it witnessed, two trips to the post office, and a $50 express delivery - if all that works out, I will get to have my vote counted in the Great State of Arizona.

Democracy, as they say, doesn't come cheap. But given the literally hundreds of hours I've invested in researching the issues and the candidates, and the significant impact our President has on our country, I consider it money and time well spent. I'm only concerned that it's going to be this difficult for others out there and that many folks, not willing to wade through this kind of nonsense, will just decide not to vote.

And that just seems very sad, to me.

There are distinct partisan interests in suppressing this voting block (Recent Salon article.). Remember the lengths some of them are willing to go to if you're feeling lazy on Tuesday, and speak up so that we can all be heard.
Psychadelic Honda Diesel

I'm afraid I know little about the environmental or energetic merits of diesel vs. gasoline (or diesel vs. petrol, as they say in the UK), so I can't really judge the substance of the new ad campaign on Honda's UK site. But it sure is trippy! I'm almost surprised they didn't use a rendition of the great song Little Wing by Jimi Hendrix ("Butterflies and zebras and moonbeams and fairly tales,That's all she ever thinks about...") to go with their mallet-wielding penguins, earphone-wearing bunny rabbits, giant lady bugs, and engine-swallowing porpoises.

What they did use was actually better--Garrison Keillor singing a new song about hate. Without speaking to the reality of Honda's new, and first, (and, they'd have you think, super lovely) diesel engine, I have to say it's a charming ad campaign. Click on the hummingbird's "Make Life Better" banner to watch the ad. (Or, the Film.) (I should disclose that I'm generally a big fan of Honda and their gas-efficient cars.)

Car folks! Diesel vs. gasoline? Is this engine really a good thing? Let me know!

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Slate On Not Confusing Religion With Politics With Reasonableness

Steven Waldman hits another note in the ode I noted before: please don't get these three things mixed up. Noting that the faith-based vs. reality-based meme has come to symbolize Republican vs. Democrat and Christian vs. Secular, he makes a plea for understanding that "By most accounts, the president's basic intellectual make-up was formed long before his faith conversion. If Bush is incurious, it's not God's fault." He points out that the mix-up is largely Bush's own fault: "He is America's most famous evangelical Christian–and he's proudly anti-intellectual." This completely ignores a long and deep tradition of intellectual faith.
"On the one hand, he has brought great comfort to many Christians through his unabashed defense of his faith life. . . But is it really good for American Christianity to have as its poster boy someone so proudly anti-intellectual? I suspect that believers and non-believers would be better off if secular intellectuals showed less contempt for evangelicals and the nation's leading evangelical showed less contempt for intellectuals."

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Eminem's Mosh

If you haven't already seen it, I suggest you take a look at Eminem's Mosh from the Guerrilla News Network. I'm pretty ignorant about rap, but unlike most such people, I do like the genre, and hold the format separate from most of the disparaged content. I'm not familiar with the work that made Eminem famous and controversial, and I found reports of homophobia and misogyny distasteful. But I did like the mix with Aerosmith's Sing that was on the radio last summer. I like this video for the same reasons--good rap rhymes, an intense vocal energy, and just the right amount of melodies and bits mixed in. The conclusion:

As we set aside our differences
And assemble our own army
To disarm this Weapon of Mass Destruction
That we call our President, for the present
And Mosh for the future of our next generation
To speak and be heard
Mr. President, Mr. Senator
Do you guy's hear us...hear us..

So yeah. You heard the man. Vote.
AWESOME! A Pharmaceutical Non-Profit!

I remember back when I was an insanely optimistic freshman in college, serving iced tea to strangers so they'd have a nice day, I (somewhat lacking in originality) thought it would be cool if we could have non-profit pharmaceutical institutes. Why not carry out the entire drug discovery to drug manufacturing process out in the spirit of helping others, and shave costs by shaving profits? It quickly seemed like a ridiculous idea though, and a couple cursory chats with chemistry professors confirmed the insanity of it.

But luckily other people considered the old idea, and decided it wasn't insane. I think this easily qualifies as the coolest news article I've read in at least a couple months: Linda Marsa, special to the LA Times, reports on how The Insitute for OneWorldHealth may have come up with a safer and cheaper cure for the devastating Black Fever Leishmaniasis that kills 200,000 people every year in India, Nepal, and parts of Africa. From the article:

The disease might still be overlooked by researchers if not for the efforts of pharmacologist Victoria Hale, founder and chief executive of the San Francisco-based Institute for OneWorld Health, a nonprofit drug company started in 2000 to devise treatments for neglected diseases in developing countries.
Paromomycin had been tested in small human tests in the late 1990s, but although it demonstrated up to a 97% cure rate, research was halted. The World Health Organization, which owned the rights to the drug, was facing budget constraints, and the drug began collecting dust in the lab.
Enter Hale. Armed with a $4.7-million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, she joined forces with WHO to complete the last round of tests needed for approval from the Indian government.
From the Institute's website:
We challenge the assumption that pharmaceutical research and development is too expensive to create the new medicines that the developing world desperately needs. By partnering and collaborating with industry and researchers, by securing donated intellectual property, and by utilizing the scientific and manufacturing capacity of the developing world, OneWorld Health can deliver affordable, effective and appropriate new medicines where they are needed most.

Progress is all about challenging assumptions--and seeing those challenges through to a real pay off. That's pretty exciting. Link courtesy of John Laxmi.

I accidentally clicked on an ad for the Department of Homeland Security website and was predictably annoyed. The three main "calls-to-action" on the frontpage are "Ready Business," "Ready America," and "Ready Kids (coming soon". "Ready Business" comes first? Before hospitals, schools, and local governments? Before the individual citizen? Before families and churchs? Okay, fine, though I'm getting really sick of this constant worship of the private for-profit sector. Then there's the headline for the "Ready America" (or individual's) portal: "Terrorism Forces Us To Make A Choice: Don't Be Afraid--Be Ready." Under the headline Be Informed About What Might Happen, the choices are: Biological Threat, Chemical Threat, Explosions, Nuclear Blast, Radiation Threat, Natural Disasters--in that order. This reminds of two good points Matthew Yglesias recently brought up on his blog: Terrorism doesn't kill that many people compared to many other kinds of somewhat preventable death, and this administrationn (and its allies) seems bent on conceiving of it as an enormous and implacable enemy. Instead of making terrorism the organizing principle, we really ought to make safety the organizing principle.

Worthy Opponents and Keeping Debates Separate

A few weeks ago, Josh Marshall endorsed a new blog, The Bull Moose, by a newly released senior aide to John McCain who is now free to speak his own mind. Marshall Wittman, the "McCainiac" in question, seems to have started out life as a Republican, but has now endorsed Kerry-Edwards. In the long term, however, I get the feeling he's more interested in formulating a New "National Greatness Conservatism." If there are forces in the Republican party that want to take it back towards Theodore Roosevelt, I'm all for it--there are plenty of good, idealistic conservative ideas that I'd much rather debate than the dross of bad policy and incompetence that we have to scream about now.

This is somewhat related the conversation thread below with The Participant and John about conversation, debate and sports. I recall hearing that good strategists never aim to destroy their opposition. On a shallow level, they need their opposition to rally their own side against. In the realm of democratic debates (whether it be about politics, religion, or economic choices), where there is a single large population of people and the two teams are trying to win more of the population to their side, I think it's much more crucial. People don't like being made to feel they don't have a choice. Kerry can ride on the wave of people who honestly feel that this time, Bush is simply unacceptable--but he can only do it a few times. If the Republican Party does not get reworked into a viable option for conservative moderates, the Democratic party will suffer because it will have to take in all those conservative moderates.

This is also a reason why it's important not to conclusively tie up independant variables. Different sides in different debates should not be correlated with each other. My politics should not be conclusively tied to my religion, which should not be conclusively tied to my epistemological world view. One of these things is going to be more important to me than the others, and if I am forced to jump on a religious bandwagon I don't like to maintain my politics or vice versa, the quality and honesty of the social conversation suffers greatly. Ideas win allies they don't deserve, and the system becomes more cynical as it gets clogged with people who are fundamentally unhappy or badly served by their artificially bundled-up allegiances.

With that in mind, I think the Bull Moose made an excellent point last week, which I have been making for years:
The Moose fears, though, that by attributing the President’s arrogant intransigence to his religious faith may actually play into his hands. That is to say, many religious Americans identify with the President even more strongly when they sense that he is being attacked for his religious devotion. Many of these Americans even oppose his policies on the war and the economy while they deeply identify with him as a devout person.

It's an interesting post, and I recommend reading the whole thing.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Harmonizing Points of View, or, Check Out A New Blog!

My jaw is tense and my stomach is churning as we approach our national election. It should be my zenith of partisanship, and I'm hoping desperately that our side will win, and their side will lose.

I'm just not going to back down on that right now. But in general I do believe in harmonizing as many points of view as is possible without compromising on a couple of basic principles--(basically, truthfulness and compassion)--and I hope to hit those notes more often after the election. Given the number of switch over endorsements on our side, I think that's a reasonable goal.

Whether we're concered with local communities, national politics, economic markets, science, literature, religion, or just human relations, I have always believed passionately in the power of conversation to make things better*. I don't just mean the exchange of words. I mean honest exchange of ideas and understanding, such that our actions are always informed and not driven by mere inertia. One of my best friends will be giving a talk tomorrow at our high school about diversity, and reading over his notes has renewed my commitment to the ideal of learning from others without losing one's sense of self. The New Media Revolution will only become real if we think hard about making the conversation both effective and inclusive. Citizen participation doesn't have to bring the caliber of the discussion down. So I point you to a new blog--a friend of Ultracasual's and therefore a friend of mine! Well, sort of. But very interesting! Please check out The Participant, by Joe Stange. He points out a 1999 book/website, The Cluetrain Manifesto, about the need for corporations to adjust to the newly conversational markets.

(*I'll mail or give a chocolate bar to the first person who can find one of the oldest things written by me sitting on the web, which ends in emphatic praise of conversation. Sorry, if you went to college with me, you can't play. Send your guesses and mailing address to Saheli [at] Gmail dot Com)

Friday, October 22, 2004


World Comics of India seems like an interesting project: "WCI emerged from a wide variety of backgrounds to formulate a social movement that identifies comics as a powerful tool to perpetuate social change. Workshops organized for NGOs and activists have fetched manifold returns. Numerous grassroots activists and people with little formal training in illustration and story writing have used comics to express their issues and ideas." The website seems a little unfinished right now--clicking on "English" takes you to something which looks like Punjabi or Hindi, and clicking on "Mizo" takes you to something that looks like English. But it's a neat idea. I grew up reading a lot of Amar Chitra Katha (glad to see their website is finally up), and while loads of fun, it would be great if the medium became more widely accessible and politically active in India, as it has here.

Let me take a moment to plug a good cause along similar lines: Asha for Education, spreading literacy in India.
Just The Facts, Ma'am

100 Facts and 1 Opinion: The Non-Arguable Case Against Bush, by Judd Legum, over at The Nation. All fairly well known stuff, but it's pretty stunning when you just lay it out like that, complete with links to sources. The sources are mostly mainstream news organizations.

My friend Ben used to advocate making flyers out of lists like these and giving them to people. I kind of like the idea of debates where both sides have a pre-agreed upon stack of facts, like 500. They're only allowed to cite these facts, and nothing else. (If the campaigns spend time hammering out podium height and lighting conditions, this doesn't seem that impossible to me.) Then the audience can judge the debaters based on their command of the facts, and their arguments. What would have been really nice is if the White House Press Corps worked from this list, say, two months ago, and just systematically hit Bush with a question, on camera, about each item.

Okay, so sometimes I'm too much of a dreamer. Link from Scott.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Soon, There Will Be Time for Literature Again

But in the mean time, Crooked Timber provides us with some amusement. What if there were blogs in the past? The Bad Dream of having a Mickey Kaus in the world of To Kill A Mockingbird. Which, incidentally, is perhaps my favorite novel ever. Link from Nick.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

All The Casualty Data Your Sad Heart Can Handle

Well, no, probably not. We still don't have very good statistics on our wounded, nor on Iraqi casualties. That said, Iraqi Coalition Casualty Counter would appear to be a good resource for anyone trying to get a handle on the real human cost of the war, from our side anyway.(I got the link from Partha Bannerjee.) I find the About This Site to be frustratingly mysterious, but the methodology looks sound.

It's got a compilation of the data of soldier deaths from Centcom press releases, in a highly searchable database--you can filter by age, home country, homestate or country, branch, unit, rank, place of death, and to some extent, even cause (suicide bomb/hostile shelling, etc.). For example, it would appear that as of today, out of 1240 coalition deaths, 1042 were age 34 or younger. It looks like 127 were from California.

There's an incomplete list of contractors who have been captured or killed, news articles and some data on the wounded, and maps plotting country of origin.

I find that 44 were Privates, 168 were Privates First Class, 248 were Specialists, 80 were Corporals, 170 were Sergeants, 117 were Staff Sergeants, 24 were Sergeants First Class, 10 were Master Sergeants, 5 were First Sergeants, 1 was a Sergeant Major, and 4 were Command Sergent Majors.(Those are the enlisted ranks of the Army, the Army Reserve, and some of the Marines). 112 were Lance Corporals in the Marines, and 6 were Gunnery Sergeants. In the Air Force, 2 were Airmen 1st Class,1 was a Senior Airman, 3 were Staff Sergeants, 2 were Master Sergeants, and 1 was a Technical Sergeant. 9 were various classes of Naval Petty Officer, and 7 were various classes of Naval Reserve Petty Officer. I can't find any Sergeant Majors of the Army, but I think this brings the total of enlisted American soldiers killed in Iraq to 1014 out of 1240 total Operation Enduring Freedom deaths..

They lie dead, obedient to our commands. . .
Supporting the Troops

As I blogged before, had a harrowing article about injured vets coming home to poverty. When I post links about problems like that, I like to post links to you-can-help kind of sites, but I'm often not sure that the ones I find are really good charities to be directing my readers to, even with caveats. With the problem of helping veterans, it's particularly hard because it's often so politicized. However, I've just discovered the official non-profit organization for helping out veterans: The Armed Forces Relief Trust, which combines the Air Force Aid Society, the Army Emergency Relief, the Coast Guard Mutual Assistance, and the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society. I am a little disquieted by the fact that, in the case of the Army at least, the aid is disbursed through the military command structure. That makes me wonder how well aid gets to whistleblowers and people who talk to the press. But it is probably the most efficient method, and in these trying times, I'd like to spread the word about a real way to support the troops, as opposed to mere flag-waving.
Check out the Front Page of Slate Today

Go Johnny, go.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Google "Saves" Journalist's Life

My Professor Sreenath Sreenivasan (i.e. Sree) is always harping on about how journalists should have their own websites so that they have some input into their Google Profile. This morning he got a chance to prove his point. This Australian journalist got captured by some insurgents in Bagdhad who were convinced he was working for the CIA or the reconstruction, but according to the BBC, after they Googled him they let him go. It probably helps to have a fairly unique name like John Martinkus.
Now if only someone would tell the Iraqi insurgents that the CIA didn't really want to invade and warned the White House there might be no WMDs, and if only the Iraqi insurgents would realize that kidnapping and killing individuals doesn't help their cause at all, and is in fact horribly wrong, and if only. . .ah well. I am glad that journalists have some protection, because somebody needs to get the word out when it comes to war.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Protect Our Civil Liberties

Used to be acceptable on both sides of the aisle. Not anymore. Three Oregon school teachers were removed from a Bush speech and threatened with arrest because they wore t-shirts displaying that treacherous phase.
The women said they did not intend to protest. "I wanted to see if I would be able to make a statement that I feel is important, but not offensive, in a rally for my president," said Janet Voorhies, 48, a teacher in training.

“We chose this phrase specifically because we didn't think it would be offensive or degrading or obscene," said Tania Tong, 34, a special education teacher.

Link from Rishi.
The Flu

Last week I wrote a long post on the Bush Administration's lack of accountability, specifically relating to the repeat of a flu vaccine shortage. Blogger chewed up my work, but Intel Dump brings it up again, citing a WSJ article speculating about the economic impact of a potential doubling of flu cases this year. I think this only adds to the case that public health is intertwined with national security (see previous Intel Dump) and economics in a way that makes it a public responsibility. Chef Ragout had a good summary of why shortages are not the fault of either litigation or overregulation. ID's Phillip Carter seems resigned to this year's folly being intractable at the policy level, and I agree that at this point it's upto individuals and community groups to try and decrease the flu-risk through less high tech measures. To that end I direct you to a vintage WWI-era public health poster (via Medpundit), and some more contemporary PDF posters from CARD: wash your hands and sneeze into your elbows! Pass 'em on. (And please support groups like CARD, which help look after vulnerable groups like the elderly.)

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Vasudhaiva Kutumbukam: Happy 106!

Today is the fourth day of the bright fortnight of the month of Padmanabha. May true good fortune be had by all the inhabitants of the Universe. . ."Every soul is related to every other soul."
Lacadaemonians, Again

I don't have time to really comment on this, but please read this article: Injured Iraq Vets Come Home to Poverty, by Brian Ross, David Scott, and Maddy Sauer. An excerpt:

Army Spc. Tyson Johnson III of Mobile, Ala., who lost a kidney in a mortar
attack last year in Iraq, was still recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical
Center when he received notice from the Pentagon's own collection agency that he owed more than $2,700 because he could not fulfill his full 36-month tour of duty.

This is important stuff--regardless of how you feel about the justification for the war, these are soldiers who have pledged to put their life and limbs on the line at the bidding of our collective wills, in the service of our collective security. We--and the executive we appoint to carry out our will--owe them better.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Mutiny or Something Else?

From Henderson at The Bellman: A platoon of 17 Army Reserve soldiers seems to have been arrested for disobeying orders after refusing a mission, and an investigation into their misconduct is under way.(Reuters says it's 19 and Bloomberg quotes a military spokeswoman as saying that while all 19 initially didn't show up, "some, not all" refused.)

I wonder why the entire platoon is under arrest. That would suggest they acted as a group, which seems to indicate this is not an impulsivel piece of disobedience.

An investigation into the soldiers' conduct is being made. Is there any comparably efficient mechanism to investigate the possibility that their decision to disobey orders was actually justified, and the possibility that it might really be officers--or high command--at fault? Do we have to wait for their JAG lawyers to mount a defense before we look into that distinct possibility? I'm hoping Phillip Carter at Intel-Dump will comment.

There's something terribly poignant about a bunch of warriors, younger than me, calling their mothers in a panic, stranded in a terribly hostile land and suddenly in the bad graces of the very people who are their pipeline to life and safety and home.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Make Gentle The Life of This World *
(Please click on Permalink/ Full Post below to read the whole thing.)

I just taped David Grubin's American Experience Documentary, RFK. I wanted to watch it because my friend and J-school classmate PJ Tobia was the production assistant, but didn't clear room to watch it tonight because I epected it to be in the usual, somewhat dull American Experience format: cuts between historian's dry commentary and slowly panned archival footage with a neutral narration. I did catch the beginning and the end, though, and I was right about the format. I was wrong about the dull. An RFK biography doesn't need a spicy format. The man sparkles through regardless.

A couple things struck me. The part I caught near the beginning was about his introduction to the Civil Rights movement as JFK's Attorney General. According to the documentary, the man didn't start out as a Civil Rights champion. He had the same weakly pro-civil rights, "not-right-yet" attitude as most other white northern liberals who had little real connection to black culture. He actually first tried to stop the Freedom Rides because the violence against them was embarrassing JFK's during talks with Khurushchev in Vienna. He sent an aide, John Seigenthaler, to negotiate for state protection from Alabama's Governor Patterson, and was assured of it. The state protection went away when the Bus pulled into Montgomery, and was replaced by a mob. The pictures of the beaten Freedom Riders are dark with black and white gore. Seigenthaler himself was beaten unconcious. Apparently this started the change in Bobby Kennedy, making him a champion of civil rights.

When I tuned in again at the end, the scene was of Bobby Kennedy bringing the sad news of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death to a mostly black crowd of supporters in Indianapolis, and delivering his famous impromptu eulogy. It's followed by the amazing, literally colorful footage of his campaign--of thousands of people lining the streets, grabbing his cufflinks, his tie, his shoes, reaching out just to touch him--people of all races, the most amazingly integrated crowds. Even today you don't often see crowds like that. The're thrilled and excited like the crowds who greeted the Beatles. The joy snaps into sadness in a matter of moments, as he walks away from a triumphant victory speech, thanks kitchen workers, and is shot. It's such a quick transition that as you watch the film, even though you know what's going to happen, there isn't time for a sense of foreboding to set in. The horror of it still shocks. But the colors don't disappear from the film, and the rainbow crowds stay on, weeping on the platforms as the train carrying his casket makes its way to Arlington.

In between I caught a small bit about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and how RFK started off as an extreme hawk, listened to his fellow cabinet members debate, changed his mind, and became a champion of the moral position: America must not preemptively destroy a small country without making some attempt to find a better solution. The conclusion I culled from all this was that Bobby Kennedy was a man who had an amazing ability to change and grow--and what a beautiful ability that was. Earlier in the evening I flipped past C-SPAN and caught a few moments of Josh Hartnett at a Kerry rally in Des Moines tonight. The actor made a pretty clear point about how badly he wanted a president who could take in new information and change his agenda appropriately. We've gotten to such a situation in this country, that we just want that kind of flexibility on a bare minimum tactical level; we're not asking for someone who can grow, just someone who can react. But it occurs to me that, as in 1968, we stand on a larger threshold. Are we going to be a nation of stubborn stagnation, or are we going to be a nation that can learn and grow? Learning is not the easy choice, but it's the right choice. To quote that famous eulogy for MLK Jr., and Kennedy's own gravestone, the words of Aeschylus:

"Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own d- despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

*A line from Kennedy, and the title of a book of quotes written by or collected by Kennedy in his journal, edited by one of his sons.
Social Capital and Controlled Membership
(Please click on Permalink/ Full Post to read the whole thing.)

Some of my friends know that I'm mildly obsessed with the ideas of Harvard's Robert Putnam, as espoused in Bowling Alone and Better Together. There's something almost surreally magical about civil society and the nonprofit sector--people actually get together to do something that isn't necessarily for money or government. Putnam trumpets the fundamental and undersung need for civil society, warns us about its decline, and promotes a revival. One of the points he makes is that controlled membership clubs--the Lions, Elks and Rotary Clubs, the Masonic brothers, and the like--have had decreasing rolls for decades now. My instinct is to see these insitutions as emblematic of Old Boys Networking: secretive, nepotistic, usually racist. They seem to exist only to exclude newcomers from power, and to keep members loyal to a status quo. Putnam acknowledges this aspect, but notes that if they continue to decline, the service projects they do will falter unless better organizations spring up to replace them. Open membership organizations (think your local PBS station or the Sierra Club) really use membership as a means of fundraising, and are actually run by boards and the like. A "member" has few obvious opportunities to contribute action instead of cash. Even in open membership organizations where the members actually do stuff, there are few mechanisms to keep members active--a couple of people will spearhead an effort, and then it will fall apart if they leave. A transparently meritocratic version of the controlled membership clubs, with built-in protections against cliquishness, seems like the ideal solution. There has to also be a selfish incentive to stay in the club. The old Masonic type clubs used secrecy, peer pressure, and magic flutes to keep members on their toes. Barring those kinds of coercive and old-fashioned tactics, creating a unique opportunity for business and social networking (i.e., meeting potential customers and dates) seems like it might work.

At least, that's what I think is the idea behind The Full Circle Fund. I stumbled upon it while working on a completely unrelated project, and I was intrigued by the fact that I probably won't be eligible for membership anytime soon. Why would you be so open about your exclusivity? You see my guess above. By limiting themselves to " young entrepreneurial leaders" they stick to a single group that can be judged fairly objectively (Have you started a business? Is it running? Enough to give you disposable cash?) But by inviting their "clients" (people from the non-profit sector, not expected to donate cash) to their meetings, they can preserve some sense of transparency and fair play. I have no idea if this actually works, but it might, and people might want to think about it. So if you're really starting up a small business (and not a timber company tax shelter), or if you're in the non profit sector, you might want to check them out.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

He shouldn't be that busy!

A debate on Phillip Roth Novel wouldn't normally catch my eye on a busy morning like today, but this one on Slate made me do a double take: Nicholas Lemann debates Judith Shulevitz. The "Who are these people?" reads: "Nicholas Lemann is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and a staff writer for The New Yorker. Judith Shulevitz, former culture editor of Slate and former columnist for the New York Times Book Review, is working on a book about the Sabbath." What it does not mention is that these two are married to each other-you have to actually read Schulevitz's opening letter. It occurs to me that the relatively elderly editors at Slate might think that the cute "Love, Nick" and "Love, Judith" at the end might be enought to winkingly inform people. It also occurs to me that if I was having a debate with some good friends and colleagues of mine, I might put in the love anyway. I wonder if this is a generational difference.

We students always grumbled that Lemann was so busy fundraising and planning the two year program that we didn't see him enough. But if he has to debate literature with his wife by email, he's getting a little carried away. Give it a break, Dean Lemann! Go home and talk to her over dinner like a normal person!

Clarifying Update: So, as Rishi has pointed out, I seem to have implied Slate was trying to hide something, which was not at all my intention. Slate is the pioneer of full disclosure, and as I noted, Shulevitz takes care of it. I was just surprised that Slate didn't make a bigger hook out of . Erudite, brilliant people debate fiction on Slate all the time--but it's not too often you get to read the debates of erudite, brilliant people who are married to each other. I probably would have paused and taken a look for either of these bylines alone, but the two together add up to more precisely because they're married. I just think that's innately and obviously more interesting, and I would have played it up. In the NYT bookreview, of course, a "Love, Nick" would be a glaring way to catch anyone's attention, but online, and in this day and age, it just doesn't seem like an adaquate trumpet.

And yes, my last comment was tongue in cheek. Considering that I mentioned him in my application to Columbia before anyone knew he was going to be there, I can't really complain about any lack of facetime with Dean Lemann. I didn't get a chance to catch his film The Choice tonight, but I'm hoping to later this week. It is still, of course, entirely possible that the man needs to take a break. That applies to a lot of J-Schoolers.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

In Memoriam: Christopher Reeve, 1952-2004

When I was a child, my favorite movie was Superman II. I could watch it over and over again. It was really the Clark Kent character I loved, and still do---the last Boy Scout, so endearing and adorable, both sweetly sad and sweetly amused at how unaware his friends are of his real identity. Clark is utterly gentle, yet still capable of pulling a light prank or making a quietly sharp comment. After 9/11, I was tired of watching tape of the WTC Towers collapsing over and over and sad that I would never really see them. I wanted to remember them some other way, and oddly, it was the Superman movies that soothed me. It wasn't just Superman's graceful gliding around them. Logical implications of the script aside, Clark Kent exudes so much earnestness, you just have to believe that good will eventually triumph.

Death Trap, Somewhere In Time, The Bostonians, Remains of the Day, even Anna Karenina. . .I can't really think of another actor who has so consistently made me feel his whole heart was in his performance, and always pulled mine along, even to follow a detestable character or sink into an otherwise bad movie. I can't think of someone who has so consistently made me feel that performance can and should inspire strong feelings and a desire for good even as it entertains, and that an audience should be unashamed of being inspired by art. I'm sure there are other great actors who have lit up celluloid with that fire of the stage, that sense of mission and purpose, but he was the first one who really lit it up for me.

I admire people who are willing to wear their heart on their sleeve, and I've always been inspired by his imperviousness to the cult of irony. He never backed down from trumpeting a cause, including his own, just because others like to make snide commentary. He was never too cool to try and do some good, nor to ask for help when he needed it himself. He wouldn't get beaten into somebody else's idea of what he should be striving for, or what was realistic. He was one of my ideals of determination. Yet neither did he take himself too seriously. Sincerity made the balancing act easy, just like his graceful turns made it easy to believe in flying.

There aren't a whole lot of performers I proudly wear the label of fan for, but I've always been a fan of his. When I decided to become a writer, I'd sometimes daydream I'd eventually be famous enough to get to interview him--or even, one day, write a film for him to be in. I sincerely hoped that one day he would walk again. I still hope that one day others will.

Requiscat in Pacem, and Adieu.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Irish Blood, English Hearts

I have to say I've been rather taken by the Morrisey song, Irish Blood, English Hearts, because it has a good bass line and also because you have to love any song that plays on Alice yet manages to growl at Oliver Cromwell. I was going to title this post "Irish Revenge Upon English," But I thought this was a more uplifting theme.

A more uplifting theme for an entirely amusing link. This is the requested shout out to the Omnificent English Dictionary in Limerick Form, your source for rhyming definitions, random limericks, and a correctly constructed limerick template.

"There once was a [person] from [place]
Who [insert more detail in this space];
When [a theme for adults
Goes in here] it results
In a [rude, yet still logical case].
— Virge"

Link from Scott.
OkCupid Does Politics

OkCupid, the current venture of the good people who brought you the sorely missed, has a nice two-dimensional politics test. Not anything that hasn't been done already, but they do it better than most, and there are some fun twists at the end. I personally want to make a three-dimensional political test, with the third dimension rating permissiveness about competence and accountability. Link courtesy of Mike Wong.
Homeland Insecurity, Part N

Josh Marshall notes that the story on the Iraqi found with disks containing the layouts of some American schools might have a connection to Iraqi civic groups building Iraqi schools, and also doesn't seem to have any connection to terrorist groups. (CNN) If the powers that be are so concerned by finding such information in a somewhat explicable context, you would think that they'd try and get it taken down from the internet. But that would require that the Department of Homeland Security actually be organized and well funded and do some fairly hard work. It's much easier to incite well-timed panic in a few swing states.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Getting Your Facts Right, Part III

This is everywhere, but in case you missed it, courtesy of Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo--

Last night Dick Cheney told John Edwards he had never met him before last night's debate, implying that Edwards is a truant senator. But here'sDick Cheney and John Edwards at a Prayer Breakfast.

To paraphrase Jon Stewart: "Mr. Vice President--your pants are on fire."
Getting Your Facts Right, Part II
(Please click on Permalink/Full Post below to read the whole post.)

Felix Salmon has a phenomenal example of how the Vice President tried to mislead the American people last night. In response to the standard charge that the United States is paying 90% of the Coalition's costs, the Vice President said last night:
The allies have stepped forward and agreed to reduce and forgive Iraqi debt to the tune of nearly $80 billion by one estimate. That, plus $14 billion they promised in terms of direct aid, puts the overall allied contribution financially at about $95 billion, not to the $120 billion we've got, but, you know, better than 40 percent. So your facts are just wrong, Senator.

Felix Salmon has a massive rebuttal:
"Now it just so happens that the one thing I really do know about is Iraq's sovereign debt: I just wrote a 6,600-word cover story on the subject for the September issue of Euromoney...Maybe it's true, maybe it isn't. But the $80 billion figure is just crazy. Here are the facts.
Firstly, "the allies", as that term is generally understood, can't possibly reduce Iraq's debt by "nearly $80 billion", because they don't even have that much in Iraqi debt. The US is owed about $4.4 billion, the UK is owed less than $2 billion, and all of eastern Europe combined is owed maybe $6 billion – mostly to countries like Bulgaria, who weren't part of the coalition in the first place. . .Secondly, no one's "stepped forward and agreed" anything. . .Thirdly, there are certainly people out there who think that Iraq's debt will be reduced by $80 billion. But that's all in the future: it hasn't happened yet. Cheney's verb tense ("have agreed") is unambiguous: he's saying this has already happened. It hasn't. . .More broadly, Cheney is comparing apples with oranges. Consider the hypothetical case of a French contractor who built a hospital in Iraq in the 1980s. Iraq was tardy on its payments, and eventually, after the invasion of Kuwait, stopped them entirely. Of the $20 million total cost, let's say only $10 million was paid. Because the contract was supported by French export credit guarantees, the French government took on the debt, paying the contractor itself. Today, with past-due interest, the $10 million that Iraq owed has grown to $20 million. If France agrees to write off 75% of that debt, then, by Cheney's calculus, it's contributing $15 million towards Iraq, $15 million which is entirely comparable (if you're Cheney) to $15 million in real US taxpayer dollars which is being spent by the US government on troops and munitions and reconstruction and the like."

In other words, Cheney is givng the same value to a French accounting agreement as to American taxpayers. My excerpt has left out lots of facts; it's well worth reading Felix Salmon's original post. Pass it on.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Getting Your Facts Right

This absolute gem from Kevin Drum is worth a few clicks. It refers to Cheney in tonight's debate, very carefully and emphatically telling Americans to go to Type it into your browswer and see what happens.

I threw my head back and laughed out loud when I saw it.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Style Invitational

For those of you who were also wondering what Scotto was talking about in the comment below, the Washington Post Style Invitational seems to be a delightful bit of verbal silliness on the part of a very serious newspaper. Every week "The Empress" proposes a contest (say, come up with a neologism with a sequence of T,H,E, and S as the "root of the word) and publishes a previous contests' winners. One that caught my eye: spelling out sentences with letters that sounds like words. Should be particularly amusing to Cal Alumni who are fans of Twisted Titles. (Go Bears!)

Also, if you are having trouble reading something I've linked to, let me know.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Speeches in Coral Gables, Bullets in Samarra
(Please click on Permalink/Full Post below to read the whole thing.)

Listening to NPR's All Things Considered, yesterday I was (predictably) somewhat annoyed by the mild-mannered David Brooks:
". . .I was looking thruogh [the transcripts of the debate] trying to figure out who said which thing, and it's very easy. If someone talked about logistics or a nine point plan or 'I've got a long list of proposals'--that's Kerry.If somebody is talking about duty, honor living upto your word, sort of more moralistic language, that tends to be Bush. And that exercise showed me what diffferent mentalities the two men really have. Kerry really [has] a very 'how do we get this done, what do we want to do,' mentality, Bush much more personal, much more 'this is the right thing to do,' much more moralistic mentality. And those two languages were sort of on display."

Brooks, of course, carefully avoided making an emphatic judgement on this, but if listen to the whole thing, and know who he is, it's pretty obvious which brand he prefers. A lot of commentators (and, apparently, voters) give Bush character points because he talks about duty and morality a lot. The bulk of his renomination acceptance speeech was talking about the amount of "heart" he puts into such standard presidential duties as comforting the bereaved.

It is, of course, the fault of the American people that listing one's detailed policy plans is considered bad form for a candidate. But saying that the is somehow preferable is really reprehensible. We should simply talk about how important duty is, rather than actually explaining how we plan to implement it and then actually doing it?! That makes no sense. If you're in the public square and you're voting and you're paying attention, I think we can all assume that you pay lip-service to the idea that those running the Republic better do their duty, and better do it honorably. You're not going to get anything more than lip-service from listening to a stump speech, or even a good debate. The purpose of having a public square and a public conversation about the Republic is so that we can discuss how we run it.

This point came to mind today as I was wondering how to get a succint low-down on this new Samarra Operation (see Today's Washington Post). As usual, Phil Carter at Intel-Dump does not dissappoint. After summarizing the evidence for the fact that things are, indeed, getting worse in Iraq ("We don't face an opposing army in Iraq. But if you imagine a spectrum with ragtag rebels on one end and an army on the other, the enemy in Iraq is steadily creeping closer and closer towards becoming an organized, professionalized, well-resourced, lethal and effective fighting force.") he concludes with an obvious yet profound point:
If you're going to judge this president on his wartime record, it matters. This administration, though a series of major miscalculations, has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Our best hope in Iraq is to leave some sort of lasting democratic government there and to set up the Iraqis as best we can to manage their own security mess. But hope is not a method, and this will be a gamble.[Emphasis mine.]

That's right. Speechifying about hope is not a method. The Commander-in-Chief Job is not about being Cheerleader-in-Chief, though that's helpful bonus. It's about deciding on the best course of action and hiring the best people to efficiently and competently implement that course of action. It requires 9-point plans and logistics and the ability to change your mind. It requires walking the walk even more than talking the talk.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Debate Summary
(Please click on Permalink/Full Post below to read the whole thing.)

"It's one thing to be certain, but you can be certain and be wrong."--Sen. John Kerry

My battery died and my WiFi spluttered, and so that should teach me not to waste resources on goofy observations. I was actually impressed with how substantial and serious the debate was. My previous comments aside, one could maintain a decent level of respect for either candidate, and still disagree with him on policy. If this was the only Bush I ever saw, I would have a lot more baseline respect for him, yet I still would have been persuaded by Kerry to deeply disagree with the President. I also think that Kerry showed a superior demeanor and command of the facts. Stripped of the ability to mock and joke, Bush's lesser command of the facts was much more obvious. If we had started the election conversation out with debates like this back in April or May, when it was clear that Kerry was the Democratic Candidate, voters have been better informed by several orders of magnitude. One of the organizers noted that they cannot force the candidates to attend debates, and I wonder to what extent Congress could at least theoretically mandate earlier and more frequent debates, even if such a mandate is politically unfeasible.

The Washington Post has a nice transcript, though, as Eric Umansky at Slate's Today's Papers pointed out, it's too even-handed just for the sake of being even-handed. Umansky prefers the LA Times version, which is more informative; I have to give the WaPo massive style points for using a much better new media format, however--it's much easier to read. My key take away points on factchecking:

  • Bush, as usual, overstated the case for what's going well in Afghanistan and Iraq: 10 Million people are almost certainly not properly registered to vote in Afghanistan, and 100,000 Iraqi troops are almost certainly not adaquately trained.

  • Reporters jumped on Kerry for referring to the cost of the war in Iraq as $200 Billion, pointing out that as of June "only" ~$120 Billion was spent. But the difference of ~$80 Billion is almost certain to come out in the wash over the next years budget, and when I tell someone how much a car costs me, I don't just cite the downpayment, but the cash I know I will have to spend in future installments.

  • As I noted earlier,I was totally taken aback at the quibbling over North Korean Bilateral talks vs. Hexilateral talks, and almost willing to give Bush some credit for having some bizarrely sophisticated thinking on the subject. It turns out I was being too generous, and everyone agrees that he has no idea what he's talking about: The Washington Post points out that Bush's much touted China wants him to engage in bilateral talks. Josh Marshall at TalkingPointsMemo wonders if Bush knows his own policy. The LA Times also notes that Bush's claims that America worked with France, Germany, and the UK to put diplomatic pressure on Tehran's nuclear program are either incorrect or a very sudden public revelation of very secret endeavors. Since both candidates agreed that nuclear proliferation is the main security concern of the next four years, the Presidents screwing up the facts about two of its biggest fronts is pretty damning.

  • Reporters also jumped on Kerry for referring to OBL as hiding in Afghanistan, when the consensus is that he's somewhere along the Afghan-Pakistan border. This is a bit silly, since it's one of the most ill-defined borders around. They also fault him for blaming Bush for OBL's escape from Tora Bora, saying that General Franks has taken responsiblity for the "outsourcing" of the job to Afghan War Lords. But as Bush is so fond of pointing out, he is the commander-in-chief, and for such a major operation he needs to take responsibility. Moreover, it doesn't really matter what Franks says in public and on the record. Even a cursory familiarity with the extant reporting on the subject, like articles such as Dean Lemann's work in the New Yorker or James Fallows' article in this month's Atlantic, will confirm the substance of Kerry's charge. By being overly and too quickly focused on Iraq, Bush lost sight of the real target in Afghanistan. It was a colossal error of judgement, and he must be held accountable for it in November.

Over at The Columbia Journalism Review, Campaign Desk is justifiably pleased at the flurry of fact checking. ("Indeed, after months of suggesting just this sort of thing, Campaign Desk is starting to feel like a new father. If we had any money, we'd pass out cigars.") Really, this was such a surprisingly substantial debate, it would be really wonderful if, instead of getting caught up in spin over how Bush is short and Kerry was too tan and what the pollsters are finding, the media take advantage of the sudden leap in conversationally quality, and stick to finding out the important facts.

Unsurprisingly, the best lines of Democratic Victory-Crowing I've found come from Matthew Yglesias:

"The point is -- Kerry wins. And next we get our charismatic guy (Edwards) against their evil troll."