31 January 2006

Oh, come on!

All right, I admit it. I watch American Idol. I hope you don't think less of me. I'm not quite sure why I watch it; I hate most of the music, and I'm older than all of the contestants. I guess it's nice to see people pursue a dream, even it makes me gag.
The last dude on tonight's episode, Taylor, the grey-haired feller from Alabama--this guy, I want to see this guy in the finals. I want to buy this guy's album(s). This guy, he's pretty much the first person from Idol I've ever wanted to buy his album. I'd even break my cardinal "No RIAA purchases" rule for this guy.
Simon said no! The bastard. Actually, he had a good point--a grey-haired drawlin' white Suth'ner singing Sam Cooke? No, they're not going to vote him into the finals. The people who call in to vote on this program, they're not going to; they're just not that bright. These people voted for Clay Aiken and Kelly Clarkson, who are awful. I cannot possibly make enough phone calls to that 800 number to get this Taylor guy into the finals, though rest assured I will try.
Paula and Randy liked him enough to let him go forward to Hollywood. Maybe, just maybe, I'm underestimating the American Idol voter pool (unlikely; I probably give them too much credit for taste). But you heard it here, folks: the first truly interesting musician in five years of American Idol performed tonight. I hope he gets a chance.



Buy Danish!

This is one of the few items you'll ever see cross-posted on this blog AND any neocon blogs.
To wit: A Danish newspaper published a satirical collection of editorial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. This was done after lengthy editorial debate about self-censorship in the West regarding Islam and the Middle East (read the linked article for background).
As expected, following the publication of these cartoons, some of which were rather pointed, the Muslim world exploded in indignation. Hamas has placed direct threats on the lives of Danes visiting the Palestinian territories (so endeth the theory that Hamas might be forced to liberalize in order to govern, I guess). Libya has pulled its ambassador from Denmark (good riddance, the Danes the probably thought). People across the Muslim world are boycotting Danish products.

So a counter-boycott has arisen: Buy Danish!. And why not? Shouldn't the Danes be able to publish satirical cartoons if they want? Free speech and free press are two of the cornerstones of Danish (and American) society, and why should the Danes (and the entire West) be forced to self-censor to please people in other countries?

Western artists have a history of portraying Mary, Christ, and other religious figures from Christian and Jewish theology in unusual and often extremely negative ways. Examples: an art museum in California exhibited a figurine of the Pope (that would be the previous Pope, John Paul II) squatting for a number two as if in the woods. A piece displayed at the Brooklyn Museum depicted the Virgin Mary covered in real elephant dung. (Real dung! That'll bring the crowds in!) Artist Andre Serrano has a whole series of "artworks" consisting of religious icons dipped in various of his bodily fluids, and charmingly titled things like "Piss Christ." Lovely.

Christians are, as any decent person would be, offended by these things, and not just because they are ultimately bad art (and they are, make no mistake; when you have to use elephant dung to get people to look at your art, that's a good sign you shouldn't have quit your job as a clerk typist). But Christians do not march on the museums demanding the artists' heads. Westerners wouldn't put up with that. Freedom of expression is too highly valued in our society; I certainly don't disagree that public money shouldn't be spent on this (because public money should never be spent on bad art), but I would never condone censoring this stuff. It's crude, and pointless and in time its practitioners will drop by the wayside; after all, there were bad artists in the Renaissance, but you don't remember them because bad art doesn't last. Funny, huh.

Frankly, I've seen these cartoons. Some make a good point. Some are puerile rubbish. Denmark is a small country; it probably doesn't have 12 outstanding editorial cartoonists, so that some of these cartoons would be bad shouldn't surprise us. If people wanted to censure the cartoons for being lousy, that would be okay with me. But the backlash has gone too far--just as the fatwa calling for Salman Rushdie's head (which is still active, mind you, both the fatwa and the head) went too far and had the ironic effect of making the Muslim Imams who trying to preserve their dignity look entirely devoid of it.

Now, I recognize that in Islam depictions of people are verboten, depictions of the Prophet doubly so. Islamic art has 1300 years of very fascinating history with nary a depiction of a human face, testament to the extremes of creativity the human mind is capable of. Look at a genuine Persian carpet some time. Look at a collection of 10th Century Arab pottery (the Islamic Ceramic Museum in Turkey has nice on-line photographs of its collection for free). Art does not have to depict the human form.

Neither, however, does art have to not depict the human form. Seriously, people. I'm not a Muslim. I'm not bound by Muslim dictates. Neither are the Danes, nor any other non-Muslims. Why should Muslims think I would be?

Oh, but it's not culturally sensitive!

Rubbish. We have arrived at a situation where no one can criticize any aspect of the Muslim faith without his or her life being threatened. People get away with criticizing aspects of the Christian faith all the time. Heck, Muslims criticize the Christian faith. The Qur'an criticizes Christianity specifically in at least three verses. Let's face it: the people boycotting Danish products want to have it both ways. Freedom of expression will never catch on in the Middle East as long as the brand of fundamentalist Islam that reigns in Iran and Hamas and Saudi Arabia controls the mosques.

The few Muslims I've known in my time were American Muslims, and they would not have supported the truly asymmetrical response the Muslim world has had toward the Danes over this (this matter of a cartoon, lest we forget the trivial nature of the debate here). The ideas of freedom of the press and freedom speech carry weight with Americans of all stripes, Muslims included. And, to be sure, if Muslims wanted to boycott Danish products over the incident, that's not a problem. It's the demand for a retraction, an apology, the withdrawing of ambassadors, the threatening of individual Danish citizens... I'm sorry, but that is not the response you take to a case of cultural insensitivity. It is entirely undeserved.

And you know what? If the people who are driving this response--I don't wish to imply that all Muslims or even all Muslims in the Middle East are involved here--want to claim it's an insult to their heritage or whatever, fine. It's an insult to my heritage to enforce censorship of the media or any form of expression because you find it distasteful. Liberty may not carry any water with the fanatics, but it sure as hell does with me.

So I say to hell with them. Buy Danish!

That doesn't mean eating danishes. Suggestions include:
Havarti Cheese: it's absolutely delicious; but buy the Havarti from Denmark and not Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Havarti isn't as good; just as well, Danish cheddar is awful. You can almost certainly find other outstanding Danish cheeses at your local grocer.
Danish Herring I don't care for the Herring in Cream Cheese, but the Herring in Wine and the Curried Herrings are actually quite good when you need a salt fix. Sometimes they're at the seafood counter, and sometimes they're in the refrigerated coolers by the shredded cheese and Claussen pickles.
Pork Denmark is home to Danish Crown, the world's largest exporter of pork and pork products. Though you may not find Danish Crown pork at the grocery store, buying pork generally will raise the price of pork, benefiting both Danish and Iowan pork producers. And anything that's good for both Denmark and Iowa just can't be beat. Danish Crown ham is sometimes available at the grocery store under the trade name DAK. Of course normally I'd recommend a nice Smithfield Virginia Ham, but this is a special case.
Tuborg or Carlsberg beer At home, at the office, at the bar: wherever fine beers are sold! You'll find Carlsberg at almost any well-stocked liquor store, including frequently at Class VI stores on military bases. Tuborg is harder to find but is the superior beer and well worth looking for. Available at the bar at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, although I bet the Qataris will be searching the next few planeloads and sending any Danish products back. Tell your local bar to support the Buy Danish! campaign by stocking Carlsberg and Tuborg.
Legos There is hardly a more Danish product in existence. Even though the Lego bricks themselves are made in a number of countries including Denmark and the U.S. (but not China), Lego is pretty much the first, if not only, Danish product most people would think of off hand. This is your excuse to go crazy at Toys R Us and buy every Lego set in the store. You know you want to.



27 January 2006

Hamas, Morales, Yushchenko

So, let’s see. Monday, the Palestinians voted in Hamas as their new government. Good for them; unlike Floridians in 2000, they actually intended to vote for the lunatic right-wing fringe. Earlier this month, the Bolivians voted in Evo Morales, a socialist coca grower who is friends with Venezuela’s Hugo Chaves. Last week Michele Bachelet was elected in Chile over two pro-U.S. right-leaning opponents. And in December the Iraqis voted in a group of sectarian rabble-rousers rather than the hoped-for secular parties. Can nothing go right for the U.S. in foreign elections?

Actually, yes it can. Stephen Harper’s conservatives have been elected in Canada. Viktor Yushchenko was installed in Ukraine after mass popular demonstrations. Unhappy voters in Georgia installed Mikhail Sa’akashvili (don’t you just love Georgian names?) two years ago after the ruling party rigged an election. This spring the Lebanese threw out the Syrians and elected a parliament of their own choosing, for the first time in over two decades. Germany threw out Gerhard Schroeder and his anti-American foreign minister Joschka Fischer last September in favor of a national unity government headed by the Atlanticist Angela Merkel (that’s ONG-gela, not AN-jela, for us American types).

Then there are places like Kyrgyzstan, where pro-reform demonstrators tossed out the only leader the country had known since independence, Askar Akayev. Akayev had actively courted the United States, but the new leadership doesn’t seem to mind U.S. presence.

Frankly, all over the world it seems like long-standing regimes are falling by the way. Liberia has just elected a new president, the first elected female head of state in all Africa. The Spaniards threw out their right-leaning Atlanticist pro-business government in favor of the socialists last year. The Portuguese did the same the year before. The Poles sacked their left-leaning government last summer in favor of a coalition of rightist parties. The Indians ditched the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to return to the old National Congress last spring. Over the last two years a great majority of countries that have had the opportunity have thrown out their sitting governments in favor of something new. The UK, US, Japan, Russia, and Australia are the only major countries to have kept their leaders during elections over this period. And in Japan at least, keeping Junichiro Koizumi was almost as revolutionary as throwing out a government would be in any other country.

So what does it all mean? Anything?

Yeah. It means everybody’s as pissed off about their governments as we are. In a sense it’s not much more than proof that people power, whether exercised through non-violent protest or at ballot box, still rules the day. But that is proof of something very, very good.

Not all of these revolutions and changes in government will turn out well. Kurmanbek Bakiev in Kyrgyzstan looks an awful lot like Askar Akayev in most respects. The voters have soured on Viktor Yushchenko after his government has failed to produce any meaningful reform or reduction in corruption. The Poles seem to hate their current government as much as the one they just threw out. And we must admit it will be a miracle if Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf or Evo Morales can bring stable government or solid economic growth to Liberia or Bolivia. But at least now they have a chance.

Still, mixed results are better than none at all. Mikhail Sa’akashvili has reigned in one of his two secession-minded provincial governors and returned stable electricity to his country, more than his predecessors had ever done. Morales has sounded a wise moderate tone, courting both Venezuela’s Chavez and more rational leaders and offered reassurance to Bolivia’s foreign energy investors that he doesn’t plant to seize and nationalize their assets a la Fidel Castro. The jury is still out on most of these new governments and leaders, of course, though in many cases they’ve been more impressive than not, more centrist than extreme, more interested in good government than ideological pablum. This is certainly a good thing.

So I come back to Hamas and Palestine. This morning it was reported that Israelis are split 48-43 on the question of whether to negotiate with the new Palestinian government (48% supporting negotiations, surprisingly). President Bush for once has not been unbendingly ideological, arguing that we have to deal with Palestine one way or another, and that if the new government wants recognition they have to renounce their statements calling for the destruction of Israel.

It is very easy to look at the Hamas victory as universally negative. After all, Hamas is a terrorist organization, and they do call for the destruction of Israel. Hard to deal with people like that, but then let’s not forget that our country has its ideological wackos and we all manage to get along well enough, Ted Kennedy and Rick Santorum included. The easy thing to do here is fall into the idea that the Palestinians voted in Hamas because they agree with the organization’s goal of destroying Israel.

No doubt there is an undercurrent of support for that, but it is hardly the dominant issue in Palestinian hearts and minds. Just as with Kyrgyz, Bolivians, Ukrainians, and Lebanese—as with Americans and Brits and Japanese—the first issues are close to home. Do I have a job? Can my kids get to school? Is there anything to buy in the stores? Do I feel safe at home? And how much money do I have to set aside this week to bribe the authorities into letting me live my life unmolested?

In Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan at least, as in Palestine, corruption and graft were everyday parts of life. Americans aren’t really used to this idea. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, if you had money, it was not uncommon to be sideswiped at a traffic intersection. The other driver would feign injury or otherwise keep you at the scene until police arrived. The police would then threaten you, say they were taking you to jail or seizing your car, but if you paid them some money—not much by American standards but plenty by Kyrgyz—they would agree not to report your dreadful infraction. After you left, the other driver would then receive ten to twenty percent of the bribe as payment, and then get back in his car and start looking for the next victim. Seriously. This went on every day in Bishkek, Osh, and Jalal-Abad, and likely elsewhere. It wasn’t reported, because there’s no one there to report on things like that.

In Ukraine, if you wanted to start a business—a business selling fruit by the roadside, for example, though any business of any size would count—you faced (still face) a daunting array of legal obstacles, which may take between four and eight months to overcome and cost the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars. Of course, for the right fee (usually about half the total cost of filing fees) a bureaucrat could be persuaded to look the other way. If you wished to do business honestly and not pay the bureaucrat and jump through all the hoops, then the bureaucrat’s cronies in the police and criminal worlds would make your life hell for your trouble, through intimidation and criminal activity (arson was popular, as were crooked insurance schemes, and frequently the police and mafia were in collusion).

These things just don’t go on in America, or the West in general. If they did, you’d be out on the streets complaining about it, wouldn’t you? You’d be voting out the bums in office the first chance you got. If the bums in office were the seemingly sane moderates—Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party, for example—you’d even throw them out in favor of crazy extremists, because at least maybe the crazy extremists would let you get on with your life. When anything is better than what you have now, you’ll vote for anything. In Palestine last week, Hamas was anything.

Now the crazy extremists in Hamas have to figure out how to govern for real. It’s been easy—using their fundraising network they’ve been able to build trust in the community by building schools, funding hospitals and poverty programs, supporting the man in the street when he came up against the corruption and cronyism of the Fatah regime. They did not campaign on a “Vote for us and we’ll destroy Israel” platform. They said, “Vote for us, and we’ll eliminate the corruption and graft of the old regime.” That was it. That was the issue.

Compare this with Evo Morales in Bolivia. This is a country that has had six presidents in six years; Morales is the fourth just since 2003. The people felt their government was corrupt, their leaders were enriching themselves with energy money from foreign companies, and that their lives weren’t getting any better. Morales came along and said, elect me, I’ll take over the energy companies and give you the money, I’ll kick out the old corrupt guys, I’ll let you get on with your lives—whether that includes growing coca or what. Here in the U.S. we focused on two things: he’s a coca grower, and he promised to nationalize the energy extraction industry. Back home in Bolivia, the people were focused on Morales’ promise to give them money and let them get on with their lives.

It has always been true that where you stand depends on where you sit. When you sit in America you have a very different perspective from the average Bolivian or Palestinian.

In the end, the victory may be a good thing for Hamas and the Palestinians in general. Not that America, Israel, or anyone else (save Iran) should rush to embrace Hamas. That isn’t the point at all. The fact is, now that Hamas has won, they have to prove they can do something. Getting elected has never been the hard part about governing, even if getting elected is very hard (as Viktor Yushchenko has found out). The hard part is figuring out how to turn your campaign promises into real change that the voters can see—because otherwise, they’ll throw you out, too. Hamas now has to build schools and hospitals. They need to build an airport in Gaza and reopen the port. And above all, they need to give Palestinians a sense that they can get on with their lives without being harassed by their government. And that government, for most Palestinians, is a combination of Israel and the PA. Hamas will have to talk to Israel. Many Palestinians work there; if bad relations between Hamas and Israel lead to tighter border controls or outright restrictions, those folks who voted for Hamas may find themselves out of a job—and they’ll have no one else to blame.

Hamas will realize this eventually; it’s possible their leadership has realized it now. What will it take for them to deal with Israel? One newly elected Palestinian parliamentarian said on NPR the other day that Israel and the PA had a window of about four to six months during which they didn’t really need to talk—as long as the cease-fire holds (which this Hamas-backed representative seemed to take for granted, it’s worth noting), Hamas needs that time to create a working government, and Israel has its own election to deal with—an election that has been thrown into turmoil three times now, first with Sharon’s creation of Kadima, then with Sharon’s stroke, now with the election of Hamas—and those things will occupy the governments of the states for a while before they need to talk. It will be a delicate dance, but the PA can no more afford to have Israel give it the silent treatment than Canada can afford to have the U.S. close its borders.

It is tempting, given the prevailing attitudes in modern society, to assume the worst about everything. Tempting, but silly. We can throw up our hands and wail that Hamas’ elevation will surely mean the death of the peace process if not of Israel itself. Or we can sit back and recognize that, before it can do anything, Hamas will have to prove it can govern, that it can provide for the people and reduce corruption. The Palestinian electorate will be less forgiving of a failure in those areas than the Israelis or the rest of the world will be in other areas.

This isn’t, of course, meant to be all sunshine and smoke. After all, as I said, Hamas is a terrorist organization bent on the destruction of Israel. But just as the IRA had its Sinn Fein, Hamas will now have to develop a reasonable political arm. That could mean the creation of a false front governing authority that supports increased terror attacks or even outright war on Israel; it certainly isn’t hard to see that happening. But it could also mean the beginning of a bright future for Palestine, and perhaps the first sign of a future peace in the region. After all, Ariel Sharon showed us that old warriors are sometimes the only men with the authority to make peace. Perhaps Hamas will continue his example.

26 January 2006

A Response to Rachel*

In a recent post I mentioned that I'd been awarded a really terrific scholarship from Stetson Law. This is definitely a good thing.

I also mentioned that, unfortunately, Stetson was not my top choice school. Rachel* left a comment that I shouldn't say that--specifically, she said that, "I was very specifically told that one of the reasons they felt justified in giving me such a hard time was because I admitted my disdain for them online."

Rachel*, you see, was a student at Stetson Law and had a less than enthralling experience there.

Of course my first instinct was to note that our situations are still markedly different, since I'm not really being disdainful when I say they're not my first choice (or when I say they're my fifth). But then I thought about that. Maybe a very insecure person or group of persons might think I was showing disdain.

I posted a short comment and then deleted it, but now I've been thinking about it for a few minutes and the whole area seems to need elaboration. Extensive elaboration. Damn, I wish the Jump was still working, because this is going to take up a lot of space and there are other new posts below it. I'll try it.


First off, I think it's worth pointing out that every law school applicant this year has a ranking in their head of school preference. This is human nature. And for many people that ranking will not have any real effect on reality--meaning, they'll go to a school that's low on their personal ranking, because they weren't admitted to their top choice schools or couldn't get the money. And, too, a lot of people, if they used a service to help write their personal statements, told their first choice school that it was their first choice. (I didn't, but I think the whole idea is silly.)

So I have a preference, sure. In order, it would be, Virginia, William & Mary, Stanford, Georgia State, Stetson.

This ranking developed while I was writing the personal statements, not before. I wrote a single essay, then modified it for each school, and included some comments about what made that school one of the few I applied to. If it was free, everybody would apply to every school; and there are lots of great schools across the country. I thought it would be helpful to mention one or two things that made a school so interest me that I'd spend the money to see if they'd actually let me in. Call it flattery if you like; I'd prefer a much more sophisticated word but I can't think of any.

Regardless of what I wrote in the essays, my thinking goes like this. I like Virginia because it's the only top-ten school that students, alums, and professors all agree is not a 100% eat-your-classmates cut-throat institution. It's also one of only three schools on my list I ever visited, and though I only visited the MURP grad program and that was in 1998, I really loved the place. It's in a great location, and I can't overstate the importance of location in my life. Not that I think I'd dislike any location (well, maybe UND in Wahpeton, North Dakota), but place is important to me. Additionally, Virginia has a ginormous class offering. I know not every class is available every semester, but that's true even at places with much narrower course offerings. Finally, UVA, like Stanford and W&M, attracts the absolute top of the pool of law school students, and I'd rather be challenged by students who are smarter than me than be the one doing the challenging.

William & Mary stood out for its instruction method, which I won't go into here because you don't care. It also has a great location, though I'm finding housing in Virginia generally is grossly overpriced.

Stanford is like the third-ranked school in the country, depending what rank system you look at. They're in a cool place, have great students who seem to really have fun there (as opposed to many law students who seem utterly miserable), and have a huge class offering, like UVA. Stanford slips to third on my list, but remember my list is the top five of about 400 schools in the country. They're behind the Virginia schools because California is a long damn way away. It's that simple.

Georgia State moved into fourth because while I was reading through their literature again to write the essay I stumbled across a joint metropolitan growth center that the law school participates in with the planning, architecture, and public administration schools at GSU and Georgia Tech. I may not have any desire to complete my Masters of Urban Planning or to be an actual planner, but growth management is still very interesting to me. This seemed like a really unique program GSU offered, and frankly on some days of the week I'd say GSU was my third or even second choice. Also, most of my best friends live in or within a few hours of Atlanta, so that doesn't hurt.

Stetson slipped to fifth because it lacked anything like GSU's urban issues program despite its urban setting, and because it just doesn't have the breadth and depth of course offerings at the other schools. But Stetson does have one of the very best trial advocacy programs in the country and if I stay in the military or go back in as a JAG later, trial advocacy is what I'm going to be doing. Learn from the best, right? I'll be the first to admit the study of law and the solving of problems will be like cake to me compared to trial, so going to a school that excels in trial advocacy would be a great way to strike at what I perceive as a likely weakness. Also, it's in town, which means not only could I keep my condo, which I love, I could stay in Tampa for three more years, which would be a really long time for me to be in one place. I'd either get really bored or else I'd never leave again; hard to say.

In positions six through 390-something is every other law school in the country to which I didn't apply. So if someone from Stetson wanted to troll through the internet to see what their applicants are up to in the name exercising their first amendment rights to free speech, they'd want to keep that in mind.

But that really wasn't the only reaction I had to Rachel*s comment. I'm contrarian even in the best of circumstances, but this is a bigger matter. I won't pretend to know what Rachel* went through with Stetson, but I think I can understand at least some aspect of her mindset there--namely, who are these people to tell her how to think and feel, or to keep her thoughts and feelings to herself?

I feel the same way, if possible even more strongly. The military tells me everything: where to go, when to be there, how long to stay, what to do while I'm there, what to wear while I do it, how to do it, when to do it, when to stop doing it, who to do it with, how I should feel about it, what I can say about it, what I can say about everything else, how I should feel about everything else, and also how to shave and how I should cut my hair.

I understand, believe me, that at every point in my life somebody is going to be trying to direct me on at least some, if not all, of those issues. And I'm 28 years old now, and all those somebodies can go straight to hell.

If a school decides they don't like me because I don't display the right attitude towards them, then I hope they enjoy not having me as a student. It won't be any skin off my back. I like to believe people aren't that petty, but of course experience has shown time and again that they are. People are terribly stupid, short-sighted, petty creatures, and it's certainly possible that a school that beat out hundreds of other schools to get my application and my money might feel so slighted by my description of them as only fifth choice that they'd take some sort of action against me.

In that case, they'd merely be showing me that I don't want to be there. I don't care to join an organization that is so insecure that it can't handle a frank statement.

Look, I'm polite, courteous, and deferential to people I meet in life. But public organizations and public figures lose the right to automatically expect that kind of behavior from me or anyone else simply by being public. With individuals, you don't tell them their faults to their face, you don't gossip about them, you don't call them names, and you measure your honesty in appropriate doses--there's a time to tell someone he looks like hell and a time to hold your tongue about it. Most people seem to follow those rules to some degree.

Maybe I'm completely psychotic, but I don't see why I have to give public organizations the same treatment. I think it's generally a better tactic to be explicitly honest about what organizations or public figures are doing, because any agency or person who works in the public sphere needs to be told when it or he is being an ass, so he can stop. Maybe this is idealism, but I tend to think public agencies care what us plebes think about them so they can do a better job serving us, since that's their purpose. I'm probably wrong. I don't care. I'm happier this way.

So, I guess the truth is, if Stetson would be offended by a comment that they're not my first choice school, I'd ask, why take offence? Is the criticism warranted? Does it amount to libel? Are opinions supposed to be shelved and ignored if they aren't just what you want to hear? And how negative does a statement have to be before it causes harm?

This isn't a legal issue about public criticism. This is a philosophical issue, and an important one. If any school can't trust me not to write terrible libelous things or reveal a scandalous past, then they're no better than the military, which claims to trust me but has to tell me how to do everything (the safety briefing for office workers includes a mandate not to read while going upstairs, for example) and check up on me once a quarter to see whether I'm doing it just as the reg says. Don't law schools assume the students they're admitting are fairly mature, and able to take responsibility for themselves? If a school doesn't, I have no interest in going there. Why would I want to leave one place that doesn't trust me to do anything right just to go to another one that's exactly the same?

If a law school can't trust its students to be responsible for themselves and to speak their minds frankly, and reasonably, without causing harm, I'd want to know before I enrolled.

Are cell phones rude?

I went to lunch today with two coworkers. Both of them spent almost the entire drive to the restaurant on their cell phones. I saw two other drivers in traffic on their cell phones. At the restaurant the guy at the table behind us was yakking on his cell phone almost the entire way through his meal--and there were two other people at the table with him. After we finished eating, my friends both spent about five minutes text messaging people on their cell phones. As we left the restaurant, there were three people standing in the parking lot talking on their cell phones (all within about twelve feet of each other, all facing outward from some mystical cosmic central radiation point; it was like some sort of bizarre modernist performance art).

At the gym this afternoon one guy picked up his cell phone and made a call before he was even out of the locker room. In the grocery store and the liquor store, people were walking down the aisles, absentmindedly pushing their carts right down the middle of the aisle so nobody could pass, talking on their cell phones, in one case very loudly. I saw an older gentleman stand in front of the canned vegetables for a few moments before pulling out his cell phone and calling (presumably) his wife to ask her what she wanted. He told her what he was looking at and how much each brand cost.

I've made cell calls while driving (though I do at least feel guilty about it afterwards). I've made cell calls in stores and other places in public. I've never done so in a restaurant or while grocery shopping (though being single I don't have to ask for anyone's approval to decide what brand of canned tomatoes I want). I usually turn off my phone if it rings while I'm talking with friends, except when I'm on vacation and the cell phone is my leash to the office. So I'm not saying I'm perfect here. But I wonder, since cell phones have become so ubiquitous in modern life, has that changed our perception of what is rude and what isn't?

I didn't say anything, but I thought it was rude for my coworkers to be on the phone the whole way to the restaurant. I thought it was rude of the guy at the table behind me to be on the phone while he ate (rude both his lunch partners and the person on the other end of the phone; talking on the phone while you eat is like talking on the phone while you sit on the toilet. Nobody wants to hear that). I thought it was rude of my friends to text message after lunch, when civilized people would be engaging in conversation with the real people sitting right next to them.

I thought it was rude of the woman in the liquor to be talking so loudly, so that everyone in the whole store could hear her end of the conversation (which was pretty insipid anyway, so it might have been rude to the person on the other line, too). I don't think it was rude of the guy at the gym to place a call from the locker room, but I did think it was completely pathetic.

I think it was rude for the canned vegetable man's wife to send her husband shopping with so little clue what he should get and with, apparently, an expectation that he'll get exactly the right thing, that he had to call from the store. Why should he feel he has to do that? What would he have done twenty years ago when there weren't cell phones (at least not commonly available)? Would she have told him exactly what she wanted? Would she have just dealt with it if he'd bought something other than what she wanted if she couldn't tell him exactly? Would she have just gone shopping herself?

I think it's incredibly rude to be on the cell phone in an elevator with other people. But I think rudest of all is people who interrupt a face-to-face conversation with you to answer their cell phone without looking at the caller ID. All cell phones have caller ID. But a lot of people will answer the phone without looking at the ID, and when people do that while engaged in conversation with someone else, it's like they're saying, "I don't know who this is--it could be the bank calling to say they've reposessed my house--but I'm going to enjoy talking to them more than I enjoy talking to you."

So. Am I just a stick-in-the-mud? Am I too old fashioned for my own good? Or are cell phones really about the rudest piece of technology ever invented?

Camry

Have you seen this Toyota Camry commercial where the store manager announces a Camry parked in a tow-away zone, and everybody in the store leaves because it might be their car?

That commercial doesn't make me want to buy a Camry. In fact, it makes me want to flee from Camrys. I'd never want to own a car that everybody else owned, and I can't imagine why its universal popularity is any reason why I'd want to own it.

Am I the only person like that? I mean, I guess the idea of universal popularity is a selling point for most people. For me... I guess I just assume that most people wouldn't like what I'd like, and that I wouldn't like what they like. Hmm.

25 January 2006

The Burb Commute

This week over at Sticks of Fire there's been a discussion about commuting from New Tampa.

The discussion got off on a bunch of tangents, like any good discussion, but I was thinking about the whole topic earlier today anyway.
This chunk of a comment by Brett caught my interest.
If I could find something that would get me from New Tampa to my office (located near Feather Sound) in less than three hours and four bus changes, I’d probably jump all over it, as I’m about ready to shove my commute up the arse of the next jerk to cut me off in traffic. As it is, I’m seriously considering selling my house and getting an apartment in the city again. At least I might regain some semblance of my sanity.


You know, I honestly wonder why people who feel this way DON'T take that action. Not that anyone should do this lightly, but seriously, you CAN'T have everything. So you have to pick and choose. I think the entire concept of the suburbs was an attempt to have everything. At first it seemed great, because the vast majority of people, all they really want is a nice safe, secure home in a quiet neighborhood where they can pick and choose which neighbors they talk to and where the kids go to school with other kids who come from families just like theirs.
I think a lot of people still think that's what the suburbs offer. The fact that you have to drive for an hour each way to get to work, can't walk to the store to get groceries because the store is a mile away down a six-lane highway, and doing anything--including taking the kids to school--requires a half-hour driving investment and, these days, twenty bucks' worth of gas, just took a while for everybody to figure out.

So, you can't have it all. You want the big house and yard and the quiet street? Take the hour commute and all the money spent on gas and time away from the kids.

Me, I want my time. I live in downtown. I only have 980 square feet, so it's a small place (for which I paid $106 a foot, if you're interested; but then, I also don't think the seller had any idea what the place was worth--and her realtor was real shady). I don't have a yard. It's not quiet (not at 2330 when the cops are chasing somebody off I-275 and down Ashley, or when a train blows through downtown at
0130 and lays on the horn at every crossing (ahem, Tuesday morning).
But it is close to work. My daily commute takes maybe as much as 35 minutes total. I have this incredible view of downtown all day every day. I can walk to the grocery store that's a block down and around the corner (yes, it's a Chinese grocery, but it has milk and bread), and pretty much every store I ever need to shop at is within a five-minute drive.

Frankly, the things the suburbanites complain about, I don't have to worry about. I try to not to complain too much about the things I gave up--the hardest one is the fact that it's never quiet--but I don't sense the same coming from suburbanites. Unfortunately, I think they'd complain just as much that living in the city isn't "safe" enough.

Some folks just aren't happy and don't want to be. You can get rid of your long commute, but you can't just pick up your whole neighborhood and move the whole thing into downtown and cut your commute. Since you can't do that, you might as well decide whether the short commute or the suburban neighborhood is what you really want.

Another good quote came from Tim.
I don’t think traffic is that bad. Yes, it’s a pain, but traffic is a pain in *any* big city. It takes about 40 minutes for me to get home from USF at 5pm. That’s not that bad.


Holy crap. 40 minutes to get home? Not that bad? I'd rather shove a hot fireplace poker into my eye, but that's me. Tim, at least, seems to have accepted his commute. I think if you choose to live in the burbs, you should accept your commute, too, or else join the revolution and move into town. It's really not as scary as you think.

22 January 2006

The Areas of My Expertise

Smitty's super-short review of John Hodgman's The Areas of My Expertise:

Why didn't I think of that?

And how in the hell did he think of all that?

Buy this book. Read it on the john, because you're going to laugh a lot. Really hard. And if you actually read every one of the 700 hobo names, write and tell me. That's a lot of hobo names.

No, seriously, this was really absurdly funny, and it was just the sort of thing I needed to be able to read during this period of intense and often confusing turmoil in my life. Thank you, Melinda.

The Areas of My Expertise

Smitty's super-short review of John Hodgman's The Areas of My Expertise:

Why didn't I think of that?

And how in the hell did he think of all that?

Buy this book. Read it on the john, because you're going to laugh a lot. Really hard. And if you actually read every one of the 700 hobo names, write and tell me. That's a lot of hobo names.

No, seriously, this was really absurdly funny, and it was just the sort of thing I needed to be able to read during this period of intense and often confusing turmoil in my life. Thank you, Melinda.

Seabird

This plane looks like it would have been a blast to fly.

But it's not mine to fly. I'm not allowed.

I'm no longer going to Iraq. The tasking we got was clearly messed up and AMC is trying to fix the matter. This plane is supposed to be flown by fighter pilots. Because, you know, it's smallish, or something. It looks fun and fighter guys always take the fun jets. Frankly, it looks like it would take off in a stiff breeze and could be shot down by a child with a rock. But still, if there was a way I could go and do it, I'd jump up and a down and say, "me me me me me, ooooh, pick me!!!" But there's no way I can go.

Few if any of my readers will understand how, or indeed why, this is so disappointing to me, or how much I was looking forward to going to Iraq, even when I thought it was just as a staff flunky. Flying this plane (indeed, instructing Iraqis on how to fly this plane, which is the job) would be way cooler than being staff, but even being staff in Basra would be way cooler than doing the same damn thing for four more months. But that's what I get to do, is the same damn thing for four more months.

Oh well.

21 January 2006

Yaay, Pot(s)!

I went to St. Pete Clay today. And I actually made things! I haven't actually made anything in a very long time. It was wonderful. I made four things, one of which will be presented at an event later this year.
I also took some pictures, since A) it's been a while and I have new stuff, and B) one of my regular readers needs them. So without further ado:

Here are some old jugs, which I made years ago at Clemson and which have been in my house ever since. I thought I could maybe put them up for sale at St. Pete Clay at cheap prices and have them sell right away. And yet, here they sit. The black and orange one, without the handle, is glazed inside with the famous Praseodymium Yellow glaze, also called RF Yellow. There was also an RF blue, though the blue jug here is not RF Blue; it's St. Johns Blue. All of these were glazes I invented. Unfortunately you can't really see the RF Yellow. Maybe I'll take another picture, since, despite the shockingly yellow glaze this one doesn't seem likely to sell.


Here is a piece of User-Defined Art (UDA). It is also called the UFO. I don't know what it is. I don't know why it's so bloody heavy, either, but I try not worry much about that. It's sort of the shape of a lava lamp, I guess. I suppose you'd use it as a vase, but really, I'm just not sure. I hope somebody buys it because it sort of mocks me, sitting there.








And here is a jar, with a lid. It is a rather extravagant lid, with absolutely no purpose. I like it for that reason. The glazes here are... unusual. The red on top is okay. The green below, it's... I'm not sure what to make of. It's called Ayumi, though that means absolutely nothing to me. It turned out a beautiful and consistent sea-foam green on an urn I made earlier, but here it's hardly consistent and not really sea-foam green. I don't dislike it, understand, but the color scheme on this jar is almost violently inappropriate. I should have taken a picture of the inside, which is really, really cool--the same red glaze you see here, only it went all deep purple on me. Tres cool.



Here's a pic of several things that have come out of the kiln recently and not been photographed, including the two previous items. The toy jars in front are all glaze tests. The black vase in the foreground is so freaking shiny it's almost scary. I want to charge way too much for it, which is why it's not on the sale shelf yet. These pieces are mostly the dregs of a spurt of productivity through the summer; I haven't actually made anything new, aside from the toy jars and two 14" platters that are as yet unglazed, since Septemeber.



Now, these are very old jugs. In fact, the one is the first large jug I made, probably back in May or June. It's been sitting on the wood shelf for months and months, and then finally in December we fired the Anagama kiln. I had four pieces in it.





One of the four pieces was this here pitcher. The inside is, mostly, smooth. I wish it were smoother, but I did everything I could. Realistically this piece should have been at the top of a shelf, but it sat on the floor and was surrounded by coals, which actually kept the temperature slightly too cool for the glaze inside to vitrify.
Still, it's water tight, and it's very nice. I sort of see this as a gift piece, though, not as a sale piece, since I think the odds of it selling are fairly slim, because of the rough inside. So if you'd like it and can think of a reason why you deserve it, let me know. I'm thinking of some particular person I might give it to, though that person has already requested something different.



Here are two better pictures of the jugs that came out of the Anagama. The one on the left here was probably my very favorite jug. I'm sorry to say it did not fire quite as I might have hoped; it's much rougher than I'd wanted, a casualty of a slightly low firing temperature and probably other factors. Still, if you click on the photo and view the larger size you can see some of the subtle shades and coloration that make it very unique in its own right.
The picture on the right here is a closeup of the old jug. This jug just plain looks freakin' cool. The blue glaze on it didn't vitrify at all, so it just looks like a cobalt wash spilled over the top. And, it looks like it's been buried in the ground for years. I love that look.






So that's the most recent set of photos. Now that... events have conspired... I will probably be making a few more things. Though, since there's a good bit of stuff on my shelves yet, I don't have much room for things. For that reason, I'm mostly looking for commissions. So if anybody wants anything special, just say so.

18 January 2006

They like me! They really like me!

Too bad their my fifth choice. But I can't tell them that just yet, since I haven't heard from anybody else.

Stetson Law today sent me a letter (and left a message on my cell phone) telling me that they have selected me to receive a full-merit scholarship. Yaay! No need to pay tuition there! As long as I maintain standing in the top third of the class. Man, competition sucks. Oh well, that's going to be the way of things with any scholarship, so I guess I have to deal with that.

Still, I'd like to get a similar letter from one of my more preferred schools. I guess that'll just have to wait. Stetson wants a response by April 3. This should be interesting.

On a second note, my wireless connection has been misbehaving lately and posts will be intermittent at best until I figure out what's been going wrong.


16 January 2006

Guess the Speaker

...the excellence of human society comes about in the light of justice and spirituality. Measures that are taken outside religious morality--politics minus morality, economics minus morality, culture minus morality--only turns the world into a hell for nations and humanity.


Who said it? Taking all bettors.


13 January 2006

Another year, I guess

Let me assure you that I am as lukewarm and halfhearted as possible when I say: I won't be running for Congress this year.

I was planning, of course, to run for the open seat in FL 11; our current Congressman, Jim Davis, is running for governor. I believe Mr. Davis to be an instructive case.
Many (myself included) argued that the Congressman was too chicken***t to run for governor; he has flirted with the idea at least twice before and both times stayed in Congress when it appeared he would face a difficult race for the nomination.
Some would argue that Mr. Davis would have made a much better nominee than the actual '02 nominee, who's name I have forgotten because he was such a lackluster and nebbish individual. I am one of those people. Mr. Davis is a good candidate and a good man, and should do well in the race if he is the eventual nominee.

However, as is always the case in elective politics, outside factors will have a more significant say in the ultimate outcome than anything the candidates themselves might do.

That said, by waiting so many years to finally run, Mr. Davis seems to have achieved what he was looking for in the first place--a fairly easy path to the nomination. FL 11 is and has been a solid Democratic seat, and Davis has faced few difficult races in his 8 years in office. The field contesting his open seat this year presently includes five Democrats and one Republican; the Republican (an accountant) has no chance of winning but will definitely succeed in raising his name ID and respect in local GOP circles as the party's sacrificial lamb. Among the Democrats running are a county commissioner, a state representative, two local lawyers, and another guy who mainly seems to be running to raise the issue of rapprochement with Cuba. The county commissioner, Kathy Castor, is the daughter of the 2004 Dem U.S. Senate nominee and is presumably the frontrunner in this race primarily on the basis of name ID.

Though it is an open race, I would not, as Mr. Davis does, have the advantage of being a clear frontrunner for this seat. Why not? I'm not known. That's probably the main disadvantage to running now. But at the same time, this isn't necessarily a race I needed to win. What is the point, after all, of running for office if you are not going to fight for it? If you just waltz in with no concern, what have you done? Who among your constituents have you convinced of your positions? Why did people vote for you? Because they knew your name? That is a soulless sort of political life, and I for one would never want to run a race without opponents, serious opponents who could raise serious ideas and with whom I could have serious debates. After all, in my mind the goal of elective politics is not to defeat an opponent but to have a serious discussion of issues, to bring the voters in to discuss those issues, and then may the best man win. This is, of course, why I realistically have no place in modern American elective politics.

Some commenters on the poll brought up some good points.
1. Money. Do I have seed money? Yes. I have a home equity loan I'd like to pay off soon (with money I plan to make in Iraq), but I could easily write myself a check on that loan to provide seed money for a campaign. Raising money would be a different matter, and I find cold calling prospects as unpleasant a prospect as my candidate did in 2000; of course, we also lost that race. But I accept that raising money will be an unpleasant aspect of any race I run and I will not let money alone keep me from running in a race where I feel I have something to add to the debate.

2. Are there local volunteers for campaign treasurer, campaign workers, etc? One of the difficulties an independent candidate faces is that, come general election time, there is no pre-existing party support structure to handle knocking on doors, GOTV efforts, and the like. That said, the five Democrats running in the primary this year will have to fend for themselves in the primary and only get that support structure after becoming the nominee. Do I have those volunteers in place? No. Am I reasonably confident I could get them? Yes. But reasonable confidence is not everything, and the fact I do not, off the top of my head, know somebody I would ask to be my campaign treasurer (though I could of course do that myself) is at the least a sign that my ties to this community are weak.

3. Would it be better to run for a lower-level office? No. Not in this circumstance; after all, there are no open seats in any district I live in for city council or county commission, and I am much better versed in national issues than I am in local ones. This would also be a problem in a Congressional race, but a much less significant one, since none of the candidates can claim to be "local" in all parts of the district, and all will have to learn together about the issues that matter in some areas.

4. The interesting question of whether someone ought to keep their interests as interests and not as their sole means of support got me to thinking, about much more than just this race. In the end, though, I concluded that politics is at least one thing that is silly to keep as an interest without trying to engage. I can understand the problem of finding that, once a thing becomes your sole means of support, no matter how much you enjoy it you will lose something of the enjoyment you drew from it when you have to do it to pay the bills. We should all hope to find a job that we do for something more than just the money, but we should also keep in mind that those things we are most passionate about might best be kept as passions, and not as work. I don't know anyone who would say work and passion are the same, or even should be the same. But again, as I said politics doesn't seem like the type of thing I can do on the side. A lot of people can, and do, and much of the current electoral system in this country is based on the volunteers who live for this but would never run for office themselves. That's not who I am.
After I managed the campaign in 2000 I am sure several people reading this recall me saying I was no longer interested in running for office. And at the time, I wasn't. What's more, I have if anything become even more jaded about politics and campaigns since then, and that experience jaded me pretty well green. Yet here I am, seriously contemplating giving it a shot anyway. Is it a psychosis? Possibly. But in any event it doesn't look like I'll be staying on the sidelines forever.

That said, I will be staying on the sidelines this year. As I was thinking it over, I had a few reasons for deciding against.

One was money, which is a distasteful thing in most cases and which I have little interest in or talent for raising. A good fundraiser can do amazing things--witness the amount of money Howard Dean raised in 2003 almost exclusively on the internet. I was, to be honest, planning on using the Howard Dean model anyway--aside from the ranting populism, which I don't entirely buy. But, I'm not sure I'm ready yet for that kind of involvement in the fundraising game. Maybe another few years, after I meet some people or move someplace where I find the idea a little easier to swallow.

Another was local connections, which by and large I lack. I was lucky that St. Pete Clay is in my district, so I've been over in that area and know some of the folks in St. Pete and Midtown who I'd have to be asking for votes. But Bradenton I've been to all of twice, and even here in Tampa I simply don't have a network of local friends. Of course I'm not the sort of person who creates that network easily (a "natural politician," as they say), so wherever I go I'm going to face that problem. Knowing that, I've looked on FL 11 as an easy district for a person like me, since the district is almost entirely in one community; most Congressional districts (which, remember, have about 800,000 people in them) sprawl over huge territories that require a lot of travel, require knowing the bigfeet in a lot of different communities, and require knowledge of often disparate areas and their concerns. FL 11 is basically Tampa, Ruskin, south St. Pete and Gulfport, and parts of downtown Bradenton.

The third problem I thought of is one that would dog me no matter where I ran or for what office as long as I continue to be a thin, neat, single white man. Thank goodness this is a Democratic-leaning district, but I nonetheless assume that at some point somebody would "leak" to the press that I am gay. This is what torpedoed Mark Foley's Senate campaign in 2002 (though he was smarter than Mel Martinez and would be a much better Senator), and these whispers have followed most single men in politics througout their careers, including the extremely conservative Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, for whom I volunteered a bit in 1998 (and who I'm pretty sure isn't gay). I'm secure enough in my sexuality that this isn't reason enough to stop me from running--especially not in this district--but at the same time it's just a bother. For whatever reason modern America doesn't like single people to be older than about 27. After that, you must either be heartbreakingly divorced, widowed, or homosexual. I don't know if it was always this way, but it is irritating (I've been told, also, that I should expect Iraqi men to fix me up with their sisters once I let slip that I'm not married, since the assumption is that if you aren't married you must be miserable about it) and I'm not really prepared to argue that, frankly, at this point in my life I'd actually feel bad about dragging other people through the constant changes in direction I make. Perhaps there's someone out there who also wants to change careers and living locations every couple of years and doesn't know what she wants to be she grows up, and who isn't ten. But I haven't met her.

I think most of these problems can be overcome, which leaves the main reason for staying out of the race this year: logistics. Timing is a big factor--the news value of coming home from Iraq and jumping into a campaign is inestimable, but I'd be coming home AFTER qualifying closes, and with only five months to campaign. That's pretty harsh. If we were to back up the entire timeline of my life about three months then things would be a lot better. As it is, all the previously stated difficulties simply become that much more difficult when time is so compressed. Additionally, there is the matter of my still technically being employed by the U.S. Air Force at least through the summer. Though I'd be out by the time of the election (and yes, it is legal to run while on active duty, I looked it up, but it doesn't come up much), the problems inherent in both having to work for the government by day and then not being allowed to say anything bad about the government seem almost insurmountable. I can't participate in political speech in uniform or in any official capacity as a member of the military. Since I would certainly make note of my service at the outset of the campaign and continuously thereafter, it becomes legally tricky to say I'm not representing the military when I speak, since I'd be speaking not just as a veteran but as a current member of the military. I'm just not sure I want to go down that road, since I don't know where it leads and it could, in any event, get ugly.

So, I'm not going to run for Congress this year. Another year, I guess.

12 January 2006

11 January 2006

Tawdry joke

Okay, so it's not the Pope and Raquel Welch. And frankly, I usually find blonde jokes about as thrilling as Polish jokes after one or two of them. Although they get better after a few beers.
Anyway, Robb Allen at Sharp as a Marble has a really good blonde joke.


Why not Virginia?

Why can't I get a letter like this from a school I actually want to go to?

I wanted to take a moment and personally invite you to apply to the University of Miami School of Law. In fact, I'm so interested in receiving your application that I'm waiving your $60 application fee.

Click here to apply online right now, or take a look at the application first. We've designed it so that you can save your work and return to it later.

I look forward to reviewing your application, Matthew.

10 January 2006

Collapse

Jared Diamond’s Collapse is a long book. But societal collapse may not take a very long time at all. An interesting juxtaposition.


Let me start out by saying that this is an outstanding book. It has a handful of minor faults, most of which are of curious nature and not worth discussing (Mongolia is neither politically nor environmentally in danger of collapse; I assume he meant Nigeria, which has many of the same letters). That a book of this size and scope should have but a handful of minor faults is remarkable, and were I to write a full review of this book it would be almost entirely positive.

But time is short these days. It feels like it always is; and that’s why it took me so long to finish this book, which I started in October. Time is the one resource we must almost deplete at a constant rate, and there’s nothing at all we can do about that.

So I’ll keep this review short. What will you get if you buy this book? In the first few chapters, you’ll learn a great deal about the collapse of several ancient societies (and no, Rome is not one of them; Visigoths are not an environmental issue). These stories present lots of interesting questions and will keep you thinking long after you’ve put the book down.

Next you’ll read several chapters about collapses in more modern societies, and about the environmental problems facing certain places and how those are causing societal changes. This is an important point: Diamond is surely an environmentalist in some sense and he is surely writing from that perspective, but he is not writing about what is happening to the environment in these places (Australia, China, Rwanda) simply because the environment is pretty and full of fluffy woodland creatures; this is a deficiency of many environmentalists, the notion that we should care about the environment for the environment’s sake. What Diamond has done is show us, both in the previous chapters about ancient societies and in the ones about the present day, is that environmental degradation creates significant impacts on human society, so significant as to result in that society’s ultimate destruction.

Taking these two sections together, Diamond is showing us how societies themselves affect the environment, and how the effects those societies themselves had on their environment led to their downfall—or, in some cases, how those societies recognized and solved their environmental problems to their own benefit. This isn’t Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance. Diamond is no breathless idealist. He’s simply using empirical evidence to show how societal mismanagement of the environment has significant, and often negative, impacts on society itself.

The final chapters of the book relate more general ideas about the environment and society, such as how on Earth could the Easter Islanders have been so stupid as to cut down all their trees. Diamond examines how societies fail to perceive, to understand, and to solve environmental problems. He discusses how major players in any society, be they tribal chieftains or corporate CEOs, have looked at environmental issues.

The final chapter of Collapse summarizes what Diamond sees as the largest environmental problems currently affecting society, how they are interconnected, and how they can be solved. He doesn’t propose solutions, he simply points out that all of the problems can, in fact, be solved by modern world society. But it will take sustained political will. And a part of that sustained will must come from us First Worlders, in the form of embracing a lifestyle that involves less consumption. Less consumption frequently is translated to "lower standard of living," but this need not necessarily be the case. Diamond does not get into this but I'm thinking about it and will probably post on it later.

I would love to discuss this book at length with anyone who is interested in doing so. But I must leave this review here. In summary, this is an outstanding book, one that deserves to be read by everyone. One reviewer called it "the most important book of the decade," and he may not be far off. You owe it to yourself and your children to read it. My only fear is that most Americans will likely turn their backs to Diamond's message. Jared Diamond calls himself a "cautious optimist" about the future. I hope he's right.

Collapse

Jared Diamond’s Collapse is a long book. But societal collapse may not take a very long time at all. An interesting juxtaposition.


Let me start out by saying that this is an outstanding book. It has a handful of minor faults, most of which are of curious nature and not worth discussing (Mongolia is neither politically nor environmentally in danger of collapse; I assume he meant Nigeria, which has many of the same letters). That a book of this size and scope should have but a handful of minor faults is remarkable, and were I to write a full review of this book it would be almost entirely positive.

But time is short these days. It feels like it always is; and that’s why it took me so long to finish this book, which I started in October. Time is the one resource we must almost deplete at a constant rate, and there’s nothing at all we can do about that.

So I’ll keep this review short. What will you get if you buy this book? In the first few chapters, you’ll learn a great deal about the collapse of several ancient societies (and no, Rome is not one of them; Visigoths are not an environmental issue). These stories present lots of interesting questions and will keep you thinking long after you’ve put the book down.

Next you’ll read several chapters about collapses in more modern societies, and about the environmental problems facing certain places and how those are causing societal changes. This is an important point: Diamond is surely an environmentalist in some sense and he is surely writing from that perspective, but he is not writing about what is happening to the environment in these places (Australia, China, Rwanda) simply because the environment is pretty and full of fluffy woodland creatures; this is a deficiency of many environmentalists, the notion that we should care about the environment for the environment’s sake. What Diamond has done is show us, both in the previous chapters about ancient societies and in the ones about the present day, is that environmental degradation creates significant impacts on human society, so significant as to result in that society’s ultimate destruction.

Taking these two sections together, Diamond is showing us how societies themselves affect the environment, and how the effects those societies themselves had on their environment led to their downfall—or, in some cases, how those societies recognized and solved their environmental problems to their own benefit. This isn’t Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance. Diamond is no breathless idealist. He’s simply using empirical evidence to show how societal mismanagement of the environment has significant, and often negative, impacts on society itself.

The final chapters of the book relate more general ideas about the environment and society, such as how on Earth could the Easter Islanders have been so stupid as to cut down all their trees. Diamond examines how societies fail to perceive, to understand, and to solve environmental problems. He discusses how major players in any society, be they tribal chieftains or corporate CEOs, have looked at environmental issues.

The final chapter of Collapse summarizes what Diamond sees as the largest environmental problems currently affecting society, how they are interconnected, and how they can be solved. He doesn’t propose solutions, he simply points out that all of the problems can, in fact, be solved by modern world society. But it will take sustained political will. And a part of that sustained will must come from us First Worlders, in the form of embracing a lifestyle that involves less consumption. Less consumption frequently is translated to "lower standard of living," but this need not necessarily be the case. Diamond does not get into this but I'm thinking about it and will probably post on it later.

I would love to discuss this book at length with anyone who is interested in doing so. But I must leave this review here. In summary, this is an outstanding book, one that deserves to be read by everyone. One reviewer called it "the most important book of the decade," and he may not be far off. You owe it to yourself and your children to read it. My only fear is that most Americans will likely turn their backs to Diamond's message. Jared Diamond calls himself a "cautious optimist" about the future. I hope he's right.

Thinking about Congress

I admit I'm probably not going to do it... but then there's this entry on Political Wire about Iraq vets running for Congress. I'll be an Iraq vet. When I come back from Iraq, that is, but still. Of course I'd run as an independent and not a Democrat. Nonetheless, something to think about.

In August It Will Be So Hot

To add further to existing controversies over school calendars, now people are having heart palpitations over the early starting date of schools in some districts around the state. Hillsborough is one that starts somewhat early.

Today brought a breathless article from the Miami Herald about the tragedy of early start dates. Poor Sherry Sturner. She’s never received a good answer to why Dade County schools started on August 8th.

Gee, Sherry. What could possibly be the reason?
1. Starting the school in early August means the first semester is over before the Christmas holidays. Students take their fall semester exams before the break, rather than returning to school in January for a week and then taking exams after the holiday. Thus after the new year teachers can begin immediately in the next semester’s course of study instead of wasting two weeks with review and exams. It’s called efficiency.
2. Starting school in early August also means an extra three weeks to spend for FCAT prep. FCAT prep takes up the lion’s share of time in 3rd, 8th, and 10th grade classes, and starting earlier doesn’t move up the date of the test; it just gives you three more weeks to prepare. You can either spend three more weeks in intense preparation or, one would hope, spread out the preparation a little longer and cover more material rather than teaching to the test.

Oh, but August is so hot! Why send kids to school in the heat?

''It's so bloody hot out in August that the kids can't even play,'' said local genius and British impersonator Jennifer Kochman. Oh, so you’d rather keep your kids at home during the bloody hot month? To do what? Stay inside and play video games because it’s too bloody hot outside? If you have to keep them inside, you probably should keep them inside a school building learning, rather than keeping them inside at home all summer watching television and playing video games and drinking coke and contributing to the child obesity epidemic. Bloody hell, Jennifer.
In August it will be so hot, you will be a cooking pot,
Cooking soup, of course, why not?
Cooking once, cooking twice, cooking up a stupid scheme because you have too much damn time on your hands.

Of all the tyrannies in this world, school starting in early August is one of most minor. Far worse is to encourage the state to engage in the tyranny of ordering school districts when to start classes.

09 January 2006

Tampa is Pretty


I took this from the beach in front of the base hospital this afternoon.


08 January 2006

Annapolis

I understand it's a lovely city. I have nothing against the place. I don't even have anything against the institution.

But this movie, Annapolis? All right, I didn't go to the Air Force Academy. Or to West Point. And I routinely make fun of my colleagues who did. But this ridiculous advertising campaign, calling Annapolis the hardest military academy in the country? Are you F'ing kidding me? Who the hell made that determination? Hollywood? Bite my shiny metal ass, that's what I'd say about that. If I was a robot.
Yeah. Not gonna see that movie.


06 January 2006

Guess the City













For some of you, it will be obvious. For others, you can follow this link. But keep it under your hat.


Last thoughts on Judge Alito

With the confirmation hearings for Judge Samuel Alito just around the corner, I thought I’d make a very brief statement about what to expect.

1. It will be ruthless and ugly. Nobody, not Democrats and not Republicans, and not Alito, is going to come out of this thing smelling like roses. Ultimately I expect this process to make everybody look like shit and to piss off and alienate most voters.

2. Expect people on both sides to scream bloody murder about how absolutely atrocious the other side’s behavior has been. Ignore all of this from both sides and you’ll be a happier, better person.

3. Alito is said to be a quiet, pleasant, and generally deferential individual, as one would expect from a nerd (which the judge most certainly is; this is not a bad thing. I and many of my friends are nerds, and we’re very nice people). How this will hold up under what will certainly be a very ugly attempt at character assassination—-to include the calling of character witnesses by the Democrats who will attempt to question the judge’s credibility—-remains to be seen. If he can maintain his demeanor he will probably be confirmed. If he fails to do so he will not be.

If I was a Senator, and I’m not and I think we can all thank our lucky stars for that, I would vote against confirming Judge Alito. Whether I would have done so at his initial hearings years ago for the post he now holds—-and whether any other sitting Senator did so—-is entirely irrelevant. This will not stop the pro-Alito machine from whining about why people changed their minds. People change their minds all the time, in government as much as in life. I didn’t used to like peanut butter, but now I do; that's not a character flaw. And in the 80s when Alito was initially confirmed, his paper trail was shorter and concern about his willingness to expand executive power was nonexistent. Things and people change and so the mere fact that you supported somebody two decades ago has no relevance to how you feel about that person now.

I would vote against Alito because I am concerned that he is too willing to expand executive authority. I have a deep and abiding distrust of any form of executive political power and this president has shown continued attempts to expand that power under the guise of fighting the war on terror. We can debate this topic all you want, but I am far more of a libertarian than a law-and-order guy and for one am unwilling to see continued expansion of presidential powers that erode basic civil liberties—even in wartime. The prez may say he’s simply using his commander-in-chief powers, but please bear in mind that the “War on Terror” is an open-ended war. There is no reason why, once accepted by the courts, any present expansion of presidential authority under the CINC clause need ever be revoked. What we’re seeing here is an attempt by Bush to permanently expand the authority of the executive, thereby permanently degrading civil liberties and preventing us from regaining them. This is how freedom is lost, gradually and almost imperceptibly to the notion of security, and I could not vote to approve a judge who I suspect would be complicit in that expansion. This is, frankly, the only issue that matters in this debate.



05 January 2006

Hooray for the IRS

I just wanted to say how very thrilled I was to receive my 2005 federal income tax forms in the mail today. The rest of the government may not be able to work efficiently, but it's good to know that the agency charged with hoovering money out of your wallet is spot on time.

I noticed on the form that my local IRS Service Center, in Atlanta, is also the local service center for Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, and Rhode Island.
Rhode Island.
There's another center in Andover, Mass. I checked my mapping software. No part of Rhode Island is more than 100 miles from Andover (except Block Island). All the other New England states use the Andover center. Why does Rhode Island use the Atlanta center? Does this bother Rhode Islanders? Do they get their refunds later?


Three Pieces

A few months ago I vowed that I would not buy any more CDs until the music industry gave up its policies of threatening and demeaning its customers and overcharging for its products. This has, shockingly, not yet come to pass, so officially I'm still not buying CDs (except for independently made ones, of course).

But one day I was listening to the local NPR affiliate, which mostly plays weepy classical music that I hate listening to during the day or, God forbid, when I'm driving and need to stay awake; normally during the non-NPR hours of programming I listen to CDs. But one day I was in the car and I had been listening to Morning Edition, and when I got in the car it was classical music. And it was the most incredible thing I'd ever heard. I listen through to the end of the piece because I knew that one way or the other I had to own this music.

It turns out I had been listening to Henryk Gorecki's Three Pieces in Olden Style. I needed this music. This was simply too wonderful for me to not own it. I checked out the Apple iPod site, but, perhaps not surprisingly, there was a dearth of 20th Century Polish Classical music there.

Not to be dissuaded I went to my favorite place for the buying of stuff, Barnes and Noble. I was happy to find the Three Pieces there, on a CD with the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. For such a dreary sounding piece of music, this is actually quite delightful, but still pales in comparison to the heavy strings of the Three Pieces. I bought the CD; it's a Naxos CD, which is a company that prints only classical music CDs and which, while probably still associated with the RIAA, at least seems unlikely to engage in lawsuits against innocent people.

I enjoy classical music a great deal (especially baroque music and Russian romantic and modern music) but am dreadful at describing it in an appropriately pretentious manner. The Three Pieces in Olden Style are three pieces for string orchestra, all fairly short (three to four minutes). The first is slow and lilting and builds gradually, as if it is the beginning of an epic journey. The second is a bit quicker, consisting of short bowed notes where the bass instruments play along in a little march while the higher strings carry a melody. It's quite different from the other two pieces and a nice counterpoint. The final piece is mostly long chord progressions; being a fan of minimalism, I love chord progressions. This one is notable for ending with a minor chord that just tears your heart out. I love it.

Most evenings I listen to the Three Pieces four or five times before I go to bed. I am, in fact, listening to them right now. I share this with you because, though the RIAA is in fact run by demons expelled from Hell, music still has immense power to bring joy into our lives. We must not lose sight of that fact. Though if you ask I will certainly play you my copy of the Three Pieces, I recognize that you may not love them as much as I do. No matter. Another piece of music will do the same for you. We must not let the industry that packages and sells that music destroy what music is and means.


04 January 2006

Poor Charlotte Simmons

Yes, poor indeed. I Am Charlotte Simmons has been relegated off my "Currently Reading" list but not put on the "Recent Reads" list, because I haven't finished it. In fact, I haven't read one page of the book since my vacation in October.

This is deeply disappointing, as it was an excellent book so far, one of those books that's almost a little too good, so it's sort of scary? There are a few problems--I mean, Wolfe seems to say that the only thing going on in college is sex, period. I was in college and that was not the only thing going on there. Yes, there are parts of the college society where, to quote Mr. Wolfe, "rutrutrutrutrutrut" is the only thing going through anyone's mind, but that is hardly universal and surely a girl like Charlotte would have had an easier time finding her way than Mr. Wolfe gives her. Rutrutrutrutrutrut might be part of college, but it's hardly the only part. I mean, what about throwing month-old bran muffins and two-liters of water off the top of the football stadium into the parking lot? What about burning architecture projects in the woods? What about getting drunk on cheap beer and kicking cans around the basement of your dormitory just to make a racket? Those are all fun parts of college, too.

Still, Tom Wolfe is my favorite working novelist. I was enjoying the book before, and I want the chance to enjoy it fully, so, as I did with Cryptonomicon earlier, I'm putting it back in the pile of things to read at a later date.

I still plan to finish Collapse soon, but in the next few days you should see the reading list expand a great deal with some rather weightier books, all of which I'm hoping to read by the end of the month. Wish me luck.


Decisions

I've had to make a couple of really significantly large decisions about life in the last couple of weeks, and a few more are on their way. The difficulty of one of those decisions seems to have been underestimated by some folks. I'm not criticizing anyone here, lest any of my readers think I'm throwing darts.

It's just given me cause to note how difficult empathy is. The decision I've made is one that I'd warrant a lot of my friends and family might think I made fairly easily. It wasn't. But a couple times recently I found someone who didn't seem to get that. And I thought, why should they?

We have at best a vague idea of how other people think, and even at that we are frequently wrong. You think you know somebody, but the truth is you only know what's going on outside, and it's easy to look at that and make assumptions. It's also easy to do the exact opposite and assume other people understand what you're going through even when you don't bother to explain matters to them. So, I'm going to try to be more understanding, and to help folks do a better job of understanding me. Well, some folks. Only a few. Not you, certainly, dear reader, much as I do adore you. For you, I shall continue to be as blank a slate as possible.


A Few Notes

There's been a lot of news lately. I'm busy, so I haven't been thinking much about it, but I wanted to post a couple unrelated notes.

1. Wow. Did the news ever get it wrong today. I was shocked by the sheer number of newspapers that led with color-photo-above-the-fold stories about the 12 miners being found alive. This is such a colossal "oops" I don't even have words for it. What a dreadful start to 2006.

2. Evidently, the President is above the law. I'm just gonna go ahead and link to Charging RINO (a RINO is a Republican in Name Only, just like I used to be). When El Arbusto signed the Defense Authorization Act with its anti-torture amendment and crowed about what a great thing it was, he wasn't being even remotely serious. Evidently, as Charging RINO will tell you, he released a statement when he signed the bill that indicates he feels he can ignore it any time he wants. Did you wonder about how he changed his mind so fast, one week saying the ban would hinder the war on terror and the next saying how great it was? Well, now we know; that's how long it took his lawyers to figure out how to get around the provision. As Charging RINO notes, the biggest concern we should all have about Judge Alito on the Supreme Court is not abortion or anything like that, but Alito's tendency to support broad expansions of executive power. The executive power is the most easily abused, the hardest to reduce once expanded, and should be the least trusted. Bush wants more of it. And, evidently, he wants to be above the law, too.

3. What a man is Jack Abramoff. For six or seven years he wrote down and kept copies of everything he did as a lobbyist, every dime he spent, every person he spent it on, and everything he asked in return. As Ron Gunzberger of Politics1 points out, probably the only reason he'd do such a thing is that "he was always concerned that someday he'd get caught and would need leverage to cut a good deal." This is going to be a fascinating season.