Friday, August 31, 2007

Wasted crime: How to disappear completely

It was quite a surreal adventure in my neighborhood today, with media circulating rumors about a bank robber taking hostages and helicopters audibly circling throughout the afternoon. Barricades were erected, streets closed off, and gawking residents told to keep their distance, yet in the end the wannabe thief disappeared with nothing stolen, no hostages taken, and quite a few folks scratching their heads.

The facts are still murky, but it appears that a man in hospital scrubs talked his way into the back entrance of First Commerical Bank, a scant three blocks from my apartment. The man may or may not have been armed. At first it was thought that he took hostages, but now they say he didn't. The building was surrounded by Chicago police, FBI and swat teams yet somehow the perp walked away, allegedly empty-handed.

Police and news helicopters spent the day either looking for him or looking for a story. The good news is that no one was hurt in the ordeal that wasn't. The Chicago Sun Times gives us the sketchy details in their story Officials: Armed man escaped without cash.

It all puts me in mind of a favorite song by Radiohead. Wouldn't it be nice to walk away from a big mistake, and just disappear as if nothing ever happened.

How To Disappear Completely

That there, that's not me
I go where I please
I walk through walls
I float down the Liffey

I'm not here
This isn't happening
I'm not here, I'm not here

In a little while
I'll be gone
The moment's already passed
Yeah, it's gone

I'm not here
This isn't happening
I'm not here, I'm not here

Strobe lights and blown speakers
Fireworks and hurricanes

I'm not here
This isn't happening
I'm not here, I'm not here ...

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Our own dam nation: Remembering Katrina

Two years ago, on August 29th, Hurricane Katrina made landfall near Buras, a small town in Southeastern Louisiana. The storm moved along the Gulf Coast leaving a path of devastation in its wake. In New Orleans, the surge overwhelmed the city's levees in 53 places and the flooding that resulted destroyed homes and displaced thousands. There were over 1,800 deaths confirmed in the states of Louisiana and Mississippi.

The images of the chaos in New Orleans that followed the levees breaking will flood back over our collective minds to mark this anniversary. Two years later the city and region are still recovering from the physical, emotional and psychological damage suffered. George W. Bush likes to conjure the spectre of 9/11 to coerce absolute cooperation with his radically anti-democratic agenda, but it is this tragedy — the abandonment of Katrina's victims — that should act as the alarm that shakes us from our political slumber.

It's difficult for many Americans to make common cause with those folks we saw frantically flagging down rescuers from rooftops transformed into islands. They can't see themselves mirrored in the cot rows of shellshocked faces that peeked out from the refuge of filthy blankets in the Supderdome. Maybe they think that those ill-fated survivors were much poorer, were much darker, had much less to lose. Little do we priveleged many realize how precarious our own position in the world is becoming; how the walls of our own dams have thinned.

Various global tides have started to rise while we've been comfortably enclosed within our once-strong barricades. The American people have fallen into a drowsy complacency and ignored the many warning signs, convincing ourselves that good times last forever. We've opted to play a game of chance, blithely taking money from our rainy day funds and hoping that a big storm never hits. When adversity does arrive, the echoes of Katrina will certainly haunt us once more.

Today, the President made a show of sympathy with the city his federal government left to its own meager devices until too late (see the Washington Post's Bush Touts 'Strong Commitment' to Rebuild New Orleans). Bush's empty rhetoric won't fool the people of Louisiana, who know very well what to expect from him after two long years of little progress. They learned the hard lesson that the federal government no longer cares whether they live or die. It serves a much different master these days, one coldly disinterested in the well-being of the impoverished and disadvantaged.

It's time that the rest of us recognize our plight is the same, no matter how secure our finances may currently appear. If we don't take back our government, making it truly representative of us all, we'll soon see our own fortunes sinking as quickly as the flood waters rise.

To quote Louisiana's own Buckwheat Zydeco and his song Make a Change:

Make a change in your life
And make it for the better
Don't you wait no longer
It'll just set you back further

It's not for the black and white
not for the young and gray
not for the sick and homeless
not for just one race
not for one generation
for the whole damn nation

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Search & Rescue: Solving big problems to honor Jim Gray

The August issue of Wired magazine has a fascinating article on the sudden disappearance at sea and the extensive search for Techy hero Jim Gray (see Inside the High Tech Hunt for a Missing Silicon Valley Legend). The piece does a great job of revealing Gray's influence on multiple generations of Silicon Valley luminati, including key figures at Microsoft, Oracle and Google whom he mentored.

Largely because of those connections, as well as Gray's wide repute for selflessly opening the door to numerous Internet advances, an amazing array of technological and human resources were mobilized to determine if his sail boat Tenacious was still adrift in the Pacific ocean.

Here's a good summary of the social net cast out to try to pull Gray back into safety.

Gray's mysterious disappearance inspired one of the most ambitious search-and-rescue missions in history. First the Coast Guard scoured 132,000 square miles of ocean. Then a team of scientists and Silicon Valley power players turned the eyes of the global network onto the Pacific. They steered satellites and NASA planes over the Golden Gate and mobilized the search for Tenacious on blogs and on This group included some of the best minds in science and technology, among them chief technologist Werner Vogels and top executives at Microsoft and Oracle, including Bill Gates and Larry Ellison. Oceanographers and engineers from the US Navy, NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute joined the effort, as did astronomers from leading universities.
I really enjoyed author Steve Silberman's description of Gray's life and impact on the computer industry, but what I found particularly interesting was how these major corporate and governmental entities were able on short notice to shift their various activities to the single-minded purpose of locating a missing person.

The fact that an effort of this scale could be organized so quickly speaks to the tremendous capacity to problem solve that modern technology makes possible. If so much could be spent to locate one man, albeit a very influential one, what could we marshall to attack problems such as environmental degradation, intractable poverty, worldwide hunger and incurable disease? As a society, it all comes down to re-arranging our priorities.

Executives at some of the most influential businesses in the country temporarily set aside their usual all-consuming need to realize profit in order to help save their good friend Jim Gray. Isn't the pursuit of an end to the suffering of billions worthy of the same attention?

Comparable to the proverbial search for a needle in a haystack, sadly even the unprecedented rescue effort launched couldn't discover the whereabouts of Gray or his boat. That shouldn't diminish the significance of what was done, and it may even lead to more responsive and effective search-and-rescue in the future.

The article describes Gray as someone never daunted by large tasks, and the fact that this one didn't bear positive results doesn't mean it was a failed experiment. What better legacy could we leave to this man than to take inspiration from the efforts his disappearance prompted and dedicate ourselves to finding solutions to the social ills that have bedeviled us for centuries.

Photo: The Farrallon Islands where Jim Gray was headed when his boat disappeared.
Credit: Duncan Wright

Monday, August 27, 2007

Wish upon a falling star: To be someone ...

If you make any attempt to keep up with what passes for news these days, you're sure to come across a story about celebrities gone bad. The mainstream media is obsessed with star-crossed gossip, and it's open to debate whether they are merely spoon feeding the public what it wants or creating an appetite in exceptionally suggestive minds.

My friends and I gathered around the idiot box last week to watch an admittedly meaningless exhibition game between the hometown Bears and the Indy Colts, as we football junkies must have our fix. If the diversion of full padded violence wasn't bad enough, we discovered that the action on the field was mere backdrop to a continously looped soundtrack of updates on the salacious story of Michael Vick, the NFL's latest PR nightmare.

Vick's dog fighting vice is just one example of the current frenzied side show of ill fame. Headlines of star and starlet drug binges, car crashes, and relationship woes seem to push their way closer to the front page with each passing day. They make much more interesting reading than the various real social crises unfolding around the globe; and fanaticism of all stripes is more in vogue than ever, so why not worship a while at the cult of celebrity.

Like moths to the flame many are lured to the spotlight, and just as those fire-obsessed insects usually end up crispy critters, the lucky few who win stardom often find themselves burned by the constant attention.

We live in a lottery society that promotes exceptionalism by myth-making the one-in-a-million stories of those who strike it rich and famous. Unfortunately, it's also very unforgiving when these idols don't live up to their newly gifted status. As Icarus learned, the higher you climb, the further you have to fall. (The image above is adapted from a woodcut of Icarus by Jorg Breu as found in Andrea Alciato's Book of Emblems)

The Jam sang about this up-down ride of stardom in the track To be someone (check out a YouTube clip of it here). If as Andy Warhol predicted we each get our 15 minutes of fame, I wonder if we'll also get 15 minutes of ill-repute.

To be someone (Didn't we have a nice time)
by The Jam

To be someone must be a wonderful thing
A famous footballer, a rock singer
Or a big film star, yes I think I would like that
To be rich and have lots of fans
Have lots of girls to prove that I'm a man
And be no. 1 ... and liked by everyone

Getting drugged up with my trendy friends
They really dig me and I dig them
And the bread I spend - is like my fame - it's quickly diminished

And there's no more swimming in a guitar shaped pool
No more reporters at my beck and call
No more cocaine - now it's only ground chalk
No more taxis - now well have to walk

But didn't we have a nice time
Didn't we have a nice time
Oh wasn't it such a fine time

I realize I should have stuck to my guns
Instead shit out to be one of the bastard sons
And lose myself - I know it was wrong - but it's cost me a lot

There's no more drinking when the club shuts down,
I'm out on me arse with the rest of the clowns
It's really frightening without a bodyguard
So I stay confined to my lonely room

But didn't we have a nice time
Didn't we have a nice time
Oh wasn't it such a fine time
To be someone must be a wonderful thing ...

Recommended Read Award

I have graciously been awarded a Recommended Read Badge by Shinade at The Painted Veil and Zubli Zainordin who in Total Happiness organizes the Book Project blog.

I'm very proud to be included among the wonderful blogs who have so far received this endorsement. Thanks so much!

When Fours are not so Fab

Nothing imparts a better sense of how dull you are than compiling lists of facts about yourself. My friend Lisa McGlaun (another much deserved recipient of the Nice Matters Award) who authors the wonderful LifePrints blog has tagged me with the Fab 4 Meme, so I had to partake in just such an endeavor.

My foursomes of facts don't have the entertainment value of those mop-topped young gents from Liverpool for which the meme is named, but they'll provide ample motivation to create some more interesting life experiences going forward.

It is highly recommended that you be fully caffeinated before proceeding beyond this point, as the text has been proven to induce drowsiness ...

4 Jobs I've Held:
  • Short Order Cook — My senior year at Northwestern I took a turn on the flat top grill cooking eggs to order at my dorm's cafeteria. As iffy as some of the food there was, it was always good to be able to forage my own meal from the kitchen.
  • Research Assistant — My first real job out of college was working for a firm that provided economic data to Fortune 500 companies involved in litigation. At its least glamorous it involved making copies of articles at the local library, but I also got to read through some interesting documents, including baseball player contracts in the MLB collusion suit.
  • Computer Aided Drafting — Just as exciting as it sounds, I created electronic versions of engineering blueprints. A high-tech version of Etch-A-Sketch.
  • Software Quality Assurance — No one likes a critic, or those that find fault. For this job I got to point out all the mistakes software developers were making. Thankfully, most didn't hold it against me.
4 Films I Could Watch Over and Over:
  • Dr. Strangelove

  • The Godfather

  • Brazil

  • Monty Python's Holy Grail
4 Television Shows I Watch:

  • Southpark

  • Daily Show

  • Colbert Report

  • Simpsons

4 Places I've Lived:

  • Piscataway Hills, MD

  • Evanston, IL

  • Highland Park, IL

  • Chicago, IL

4 Favorite Foods:

  • Barbecued Salmon

  • Stuffed Spinach Pizza

  • Chicken Cacciatore

  • Turkey Club Sandwich

4 Websites I Visit Every Day:

  • Google News

  • MyBlogLog

  • Technorati


4 Places I Would Love To Be Right Now:

  • Watching a baseball game at Wrigley Field, Chicago

  • Checking out a favorite band at a small club

  • Looking out an airplane window on my way to parts unknown

  • Hiking through a secluded forest

4 Favorite Colors:

  • Indigo

  • Emerald Green

  • Burgundy

  • Purple

4 Names That I Love but Would/Could Not Use For My Children:

  • Galileo

  • Humbert

  • Uriel

  • Phineas
Having now satiated you with trivia about yours truly, it is my task to tag 4 others with the meme. I'm sure they'll hate me for forcing them to engage in this exercise of self-revelation, but what else are friends for?

Here are four bloggers whose work I find particularly interesting, and whose fours I'll hope to poach for future memes:

Nice ain't easy

Deborah, my friend and colleague at Climate of Our Future, has passed along to me the Nice Matters Award. I was a bit hesitant to acknowledge the honor at first, as there's a bit of a stigma attached to having a "nice" rep in some circles. The flowery pink image doesn't mesh well with society's macho expectations either. To a large extent, nice has been linked to weak, and our minds are impressed with the misconception that folk of that nature finish last.

That association is of course too bad. The world would be a much better place if thoughtfulness and consideration were personal traits valued as highly as ambition and self-sufficiency. Jesus sermonized on the mount that the meek would inherit the earth, but that prophecy is still pending. The world's movers and shakers learned long ago not to let morality get in the way of their business. Machiavelli's The Prince has served as the true political gospel for 500 years, and its pragmatism doesn't prize anything beyond self-preservation.

I fancy myself an optimist who believes that human beings are inherently very kind and giving creatures. Most of us are willing to reach beyond our narrow self interests and collaborate and contribute toward a better world. That gentler nature can be conditioned out of us, however, especially when we're convinced that our survival is at stake. As has been clearly illustrated over the past 6 years, fear can be used very effectively to divide us and call forth our baser instincts.

By accepting this award, I hope to do my small part to take Nice back from the nay sayers. Consider it a salvo in the war to salvage true community in a world too often given over to ruthless competition. Let's re-imagine our society so that it becomes a place where we practice what we preach, and reward those who think of others as much as themselves. I've come into contact with a good number of fellow bloggers who are after that very same thing. Deborah is one shining example.

The Nice Matters Award was created by Genevieve Olsen at Bella Enchanted. While at her site, I discovered there's a gentleman's version of the badge (shown on the left). As a recipient, it's my duty to pass on the honor, but most of the folks who have been particularly supportive to me in my virtual endeavors have already been acknowledged. Never one to get discouraged by conformity to rules, I'm going to list them among my shout outs anyway:

Lost weekend: Sandwiched reality

I know my blogging idleness this weekend must seem sinful, but I swear I wasn't doing the devil's work. In fact my hands were quite busy with loved labor lost in the physical realm.

I spent many fruitful hours (and some not so fruitfull ones) at our neighborhood arts fest pushing panini for my dear friends Terry & Nancy, who own Gold 'N Pear Catering. We met many wonderful folks who stopped by the booth at the Glenwood Avenue Arts Festival, and once we got all the logistical kinks worked out we had a great time.

The sandwiches were so good, they got credit for performing a miracle. A repeat customer exclaimed that one of the panini indeed saved his friend's life. I'd divine that it was an exaggeration, but I'm sure Terry and Nancy will take it as a ringing endorsement.

I'll apply my industriousness back to the blog tomorrow, so stay tuned. There are two awards, a meme, and a Wired article soon to appear. I'm sure I'll throw in a song lyric or two as well.

Friday, August 24, 2007

A Perfect Storm: Overcoming 'Bad Luck'

Sometimes Life likes to throw a perfect storm of negativity at us to see how we'll react. As a Job-like frenzy of ill fate falls across our path like a wind-blown tree, we're forced to decide whether to forge ahead or turn tail and run.

Yesterday was just such a trying occasion for good friends of mine who needed to prepare for a big catering job, and I had a front row seat to the drama as it unfolded. I won't go into the details here, but just as we got past one problem another popped up to test us. At times it seemed like the divine powers had lined up against the job and didn't want us to succeed.

The culmination of the day of bad luck was the damaging thunderstorms that hit Chicago yesterday afternoon, causing a very inconvenient power outage. I know we all felt like tossing in the towel a few times during the day, but we held it together and got through it. The prep work is now done, although a little later than we hoped, and the success is a little sweeter because of the tribulations we had to overcome. It will help us to appreciate those boring days when nothing unexpected happens, and everything goes according to plan.

As bad as it seemed at the time, it also could have been a lot worse. For example, today is the anniversary of the AD 79 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that buried Pompeii and two other Roman cities in volcanic ash, killing thousands.

Rather than shoveling out ash, I just have to dig into my music libary and pull out an appropriate little tune. When things don't go our way, it's tempting to blame bad luck. We'll get a lot further, however, by looking at it as an opportunity to prove ourselves; a challenging maze of circumstance to navigate. I've always been fond of puzzles. That thunderstorm was actually pretty cool to watch too (check out this YouTube video), as long as you were safely inside.

Bad Luck
by Social Distortion

Some people like to gamble,
But you, you always lose.
Some people like to rock 'n' roll,
You're always singin' the blues
You gotta nasty disposition,
No one really knows the reason why,
You gotta bad, bad reputation,
Gonna hang your head down and cry...

You got bad, bad luck
Bad, bad luck
You got bad, bad luck
Bad, bad luck

Thirteen's my lucky number,
To you it means stay inside.
Black cat done crossed my path,
No reason to run and hide.
You're looking through a cracked mirror,
No one really knows the reason why.
Your enemies are gettin' nearer,
Gonna hang down your head and cry

You got bad, bad luck
Bad, bad luck
You got bad, bad luck
Bad, bad luck

Some people go to church on Sundays,
Others they pray at home.
You tell them that there ain't no God,
that they're better off standin' alone.
You're always scratchin'
At the eight ball,
No one really knows the reason why.
You get to the top and then you fall,
Gonna hang down your head and cry.

You got bad, bad luck
Bad, bad luck
You got bad, bad luck
Bad, bad luck

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Google gives us the stars, but where's our New World?

Today's tech news has an interesting little piece about Google's latest upgrade to its Google Earth app, which allows users to zoom in on satellite images from around the planet. The new feature, called Sky, reverses the view, and turns our virtual gaze out into the universe (see Google puts universe online for more details).

It's the perfect enhancement for computer-chair-bound star gazers, especially those like myself who live in urban environments where the night sky is obscured by bright city lights. I love the fact that you can call up these images for free on your computer and take a virtual ride through the galaxies — a nice little space travel fix for all of us recovering Star Trek geeks.

The project has had strong backing from the scientific community, and it's envisioned as a future storehouse for astronomical data. The collaboration is another small step toward the still unfulfilled great promise of the Internet, delivering a tasty sampling of the social change the technology has dangled before us like Tantalus for years now.

My expectations may be too high, but Web 2.0 — extolled by many as the Internet's renaissance — has so far proved little more than a marketing gimmick. In theory, ever-expanding social networks should break down old prejudices and unite people around the world as never before. In reality, they're over-run by spam and get-rich-quick schemes, not to mention plenty of blogs that spew hate and stoke division.

Ideally, the advent of digitized content should lead to the dawning of a new information age of enlightenment with all of the world's stored knowledge easily accessible to any querying mind. Instead, we're refining search algorithms to call up the latest viral videos of pensive cats playing piano, and regressing into a middling muddled era of inanity.

Maybe I'm just being impatient for changes that will inevitably come, or maybe the problem lies with the overarching social system that controls the applications of these technologies, and handicaps them to suit its self-preserving needs. My inkling is toward the latter, but my digression was really just an excuse to post about a favorite song that I've been listening to again recently.

In the safety of our home we may be able to escape into virtual worlds built from the collective observations of the cosmos, or the accumulated remnants of past civilizations. Once we step out into the street, however, we still find ourselves face-to-face with the problems of a broken society: homeless men and women pleading for change.

The New World
by X

"honest to goodness the bars weren't open this morning
they must have been voting for a new president of something
... do you have a quarter?"
I said yes because i did, honest to goodness
the tears have been falling all over the country's face
it was better before before they voted for what's his name
this is supposed to be the new world

flint ford auto mobile alabama
windshield wipers buffalo new york
gary indiana, don't forget the motor city
baltimore and d.c., now all we need is ...
don't forget the motor city
this is supposed to be the new world
don't forget the motor city
this is supposed to be the new world

all we need is money, just give us what you can spare
twenty or thirty pounds of potatoes, or twenty or thirty beers
a turkey on Thanksgiving, like alms for the poor
all we need are the necessities and more
it was better before they voted for what's his name
this is supposed to be the new world
it was better before they voted for what's his name
this is supposed to be the new world

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Trial & Error in 21st Century America

I recently watched Orson Welles' interpretation of Franz Kafka's novel The Trial, and was struck with the film's eerie resonance for our own time. Welles treatment was made in 1962 (see the Internet Movie Database entry for details on the production), and his lens onto the story differed quite a bit from Kafka's 1920 central European perspective (the novel was published in 1925 from an unfinished manuscript, after the author's death). There are, however, certain universal themes in the plot that span generations and languages.

In very short order, the novel and film both tell the tale of Joseph K who wakes one morning to find himself under arrest for a charge that's never explained. He then engages in a existentialist struggle to navigate through the maze of a legal system that offers one of only two possible outcomes: madness or death. Just walking through the opressive halls of "justice" in the movie's absurdist society physically sickens K, as the stale air draws the very breath from his lungs.

The film can be a bit uneven, bouncing between the farcical and attempts at profundity, but it hits its stride in the later acts. All of the people K encounters in his wanderings through the system are trapped in their situations, much like him. Whether accused or employed by the State, they blindly accept their places in its drama and unquestioningly act out their roles. Free Will only exists within the narrow array of choices not so benevolently granted to them by the various strata of judges who interpret the system's inscrutable laws.

As The Trial draws to its climax, K discovers the impossibility of his situation, and realizes that he can only escape by not playing this lunatic's game. In the flick's most dramatic scene, K (Anthony Perkins) tries to dismiss his advocate Albert Hastler (Orson Welles). Hastler humiliates another client in order to demonstrate to K the unavoidable fate of the accused at the hands of the State. In Welles' trademark godly bass, the Advocate tells K, "To be in chains is sometimes safer than to be free." The guilt of the accused has become inconsequential, all that matters is the perpetuation of the system the laws prop up.

In George W's post-9/11 America, Joseph K's nightmare scenario has become too common a possibility for America's enemies both real and imaginary, foreign and internal. Those who fall into the ever-widening grouping of the "accused" can be detained indefinitely, hidden from public view without ever being formally charged or facing their accuser. The American people have gone along with this mad interpretation of U.S. Constitutional law, convinced that it's in the best interests of national security. We've followed Hastler's advice and bartered freedom for the appearance of safety.

Like Joseph K, we need to reject the prescribed roles we've been given in this absurdist drama. Unlike the inevitable doom faced by the hero of Kafka's dark vision, however, I believe in the possibility for us to creatively escape our condition. We just need to imagine a new set of rules and work to create a world that plays by them.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Over the Hill feelings: Happy birthday Robert Plant

Robert Plant, the musician most famous for his years fronting the band Led Zeppelin, turns 59 today. It always takes me a little aback when the iconic rock stars of my childhood start piling up the birthdays, especially since it's a medium most associated with youth and rebellion.

I've got the typical Led Zeppelin memories for a bloke my age. My brother had tickets to the DC show of the tour that got cancelled because drummer John "Bonzo" Bonham drank himself to death. I lived through those radio years when you couldn't spin the dial without encountering Stairway to Heaven several times a day.

The first thing that does and should always come to mind, however, is the music. The song that popped into my head when I read the news of Robert Plant's birthday was a catchy little tune with an appropriate title for the occasion: Over the Hills and Far Away. It evokes a certain yearning for the open road of life that appeals to me. We never know exactly where the path ahead will lead, but, if we let them, our dreams and imagination can help guide our steps and give that final destination a more pleasing shape.

I found a pretty well done video of the band performing the song on YouTube, so you can reminisce a little with me (click here). Here are the lyrics, in case you'd also like to sing along:

Over the Hills and Far Away
by Led Zeppelin

Hey lady, you got the love I need
Maybe more than enough
Oh darlin' darlin', darlin'
Walk a while with me
Oh, you've got so much, so much, so much

Many have I loved
Many times been bitten
Many times I've gazed
Along the open road

Many times I've lied
Many times I've listened
Many times I've wondered
How much there is to know

Many dreams come true
And some have silver linings
I live for my dreams
And a pocketful of gold

Mellow is the man
Who knows what he's been missing
Many many men
Can't see the open road

Many is a word
That only leaves you guessing
Guessing 'bout a thing
You really ought to know, oh...
Really ought to know, oh...
I really ought to know, oh...
you know I should...

Saturday, August 18, 2007

History Lessons: Amending our ways

On this date a mere 87 years ago, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was finally ratified by Congress giving women the right to vote. The amendment was named after Susan B. Anthony (pictured at left, looking over the shoulder of Elizabeth Cady Stanton), who was one of its earliest proponents. Its passage culminated a struggle for women's suffrage begun over 50 years earlier by Anthony, among many others.

It's a bit mind-boggling to consider that it took 131 years from the birth of our constitution for half the population to gain their due right as citizens. Of course this was just the first victory in a long struggle to gain equal rights for women, and even now there are vestiges of the old social prejudices preventing a true leveling of the proverbial playing field.

Women are certainly not the only social grouping to have faced road blocks to full participation in our civic give and take. African Americans gained their legal right to vote with the 15th Amendment 50 years earlier, but didn't win actual and unaccosted access to the levers of lawful citizenship until the passing of the 24th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act, both in 1964.

Amazingly, it's only now in the early 21st century that we have our first legitimate female and black presidential candidates. My personal politics are closer to Barack Obama's, but for either he or Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic nomination and national office would mark an historical watershed. It's hard not to harbor hope of a broader change flowing from such success.

That doesn't mean the struggle for social equity will have finally been won, however. Today's anniversary should provoke us to ponder the current groups society excludes from full participation in our democracy. It doesn't take a great leap of the imagination to conjure a couple of demographics who have been scapegoated into second-class citizenship the past few years, whether by sexual orientation or circumstance of place of birth.

What does require creativity of thought is the understanding of just how these limitations on full citizenship hurt our social organism. As with any biological entity, our community is at its best when we make use of the diverse talents and abilities of the entirety of the sum of our parts. To not only discourage but refuse those contributions is beyond foolish; it's self-defeating.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Abuzz over dying stars

There's a very interesting story in the news about the unexpected observation of a dying star in our galaxy that's trailing bits of itself as it speeds through the universe. Astronomers are marveling at the discovery of Mira's comet-like tailing luminescence. This "red giant" is expanding as it approaches the final stages of life, and the force of gravity isn't strong enough to contain its growing mass. The gases escaping from its bursting seams are lighting the path behind it.

Mira is Latin for "wonder," and the phenomenon of its waking death, captured in NASA photographs such as the one above, is certainly an awe inspiring sight. Especially wonderful is the prospect that the pieces of itself Mira leaves behind will eventually develop into new stars. It's a miraculous sowing of celestial seeds revealed by the space agency's orbiting telescope called the Galaxy Evolution Explorer.

Here are a few excerpts from the Reuters story on Mira:

Astronomers surprised by star with comet-like tail

... Rocketing through our Milky Way galaxy at 80 miles per second (130 km per second) -- literally faster than a speeding bullet -- the star is spewing material that scientists believe may be recycled into new stars, planets and maybe even life.

"We believe that the tail is made up of material that is being shed by the star which is heating up and then spiraling back into this turbulent wake," said astronomer Christopher Martin of California Institute of Technology, one of the researchers in the study published in the journal Nature. ...

"It's giving us this fantastic insight into the death processes of stars and their renewals -- their phoenix-like revivals as their ashes get cycled backed into the next generation of stars," added Michael Shara of the American Museum of Natural History and Columbia University in New York. ...
I'm one who likes to look to the stars, even though the particular patch of sky above my home is obscured by bright city lights. Mira offers an inspirational example for all of us earthbound bits of space dust as we contemplate our legacies. What better way to leave this life than by blazing a trail that lays the foundation for future generations.

It's a very loose association, but reading Mira's sad but hopeful tale brought to mind a favorite song by the band Hum. I got to see the boys from Champaign, Illinois perform in Chicago several times back in the '90s, and they put on quite the live show (you can check out a vid of the song on YouTube).

by Hum

She thinks she missed the train to Mars,
She's out back counting stars
She thinks she missed the train to Mars,
She's out back counting stars

She's not at work, she's not at school
She's not in bed, i think i finally broke her
I bring her home everything i want,
And nothing that she needs

I thought she'd be there holding daisies,
She always waits for me
She thinks she missed the train to Mars,
She's out back counting stars

I found her out back sitting naked
Looking up and looking dead
A crumpled yellow piece of paper,
Seven, nines and tens

I thought she'd be there holding daisies,
She always waits for me
She thinks she missed the train to Mars,
She's out back counting stars

I thought you'd be there holding daisies,
You always wait for me
She thinks she missed the train to Mars,
She's out back counting stars

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Ferragosto: Taking off, the Virgin Mary taken up

In the best tradition of my ancestors' homeland, I took a much deserved break from blogging yesterday. In Italy, August 15th, better known as Ferragosto, is a national holiday. If you ever happen to visit one of the country's big cities on that date, you'll find most of the shops and restaurants closed and the locals off to the mountains or seaside for vacation. The tourists outnumber the residents, and an almost eerie quiet descends on the usually bustling towns.

The abandonment of diurnal activity is very fitting considering the occasion the fest marks. August 15th is also the Roman Catholic holy day that celebrates the Assumption — when the Virgin Mary was taken body and soul up to heaven.

I've made several trips to the "old country," and if you take the time to visit the churches and museums that shelter great art across the nation, you'll surely witness many depictions of the Virgin Mary. There are hundreds of paintings and sculptures that show her beatifically cradling the baby Jesus in her arms, and a good number of artists have also interpreted the moment of her Assumption into heaven.

One of the most famous of these latter paintings is Titian's masterpiece, The Assumption of the Virgin (shown above), which graces the altarpiece of the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice. I had the opportunity to view its three-tiered design in person, and it is much more impressive than the facsimile of it you can view on a computer screen. Mary hangs between heaven and earth, captured mid-journey, as the throng reacts to her loss. It's an interesting visual treatment of the contradiction between her divine and earthly natures, and it's a juxtaposition that's even more intresting when considering the pagan origins of Ferragosto.

The feast has pre-Christian roots in the Roman holiday of Feriae Augusti where those empirical polytheists most prominently celebrated their virgin goddess, Diana, as well as the natural cycles of fertility and maturity. Diana, the Roman version of the Greeks' Artemis, was both the goddess associated with forests, nature and the hunt and the deity invoked to aid in conception and childbirth. She was the protector of women and probably an amalgam of various earth goddess figures.

I don't want to start sounding like The Da Vinci Code's Dan Brown, but the fact that the Mary the Christian religious icon assumed several characteristics of the pagan goddess with whom she shares a holiday certainly starts one to head scratching. As religious doctrine took shape, it's not hard to imagine the personality of the historical figure of Mary receding to be replaced by the more worshipful traits of a deity. In that sense, the holiday may mark a metaphorical assumption of Mary as well as a physical one.

Two millennia after she lived, it's impossible to know what Mary the woman was truly like beyond the obvious generalities. I'm sure she was a protector and font of strength, who nurtured a child to make his way in a troubled world. No doubt she was wracked by the same emotions, pain and worries every mother feels as she watches the life she brought forth gradually taken away from her.

As her story was adopted by a growing Church it was necessarily taken from the historical realm into the mythic. A very mortal and womanly figure got transformed into a divine abstraction, assuming the nature of a goddess. As much as she may have gained upon reaching the realm of the heavenly, much was also lost. Equating Mary's story with virgin births and the cheating of death, the very human and natural rhythms of fertility and mortality were disrupted in the telling. It's not hard to see a connection between that diconnect and the Catholic Church's often problematic views toward women.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Cross posting: Glowing orbs

Just to make sure you don't miss a single word of my blogging, here's a link to my latest piece at Climate of Our Future:

Using social status to reduce energy usage

The August issue of Wired magazine has a very interesting article about a unique way to alert people to their energy usage, and the piece suggests an equally novel way to take advantage of the consumers’ heightened social consciousness to get them to alter their behavior. ... Read the full post

Monday, August 13, 2007

High water: Another rat flees the ship of state

The Internet is abuzz with the news that Karl Rove is leaving the White House at the end of the month. He is the latest Bush rat to escape the sinking ship of State, but my guess is he'll be back to roil the campaign seas before too long. See the Los Angeles Times story Rove to leave the White House, return to Texas for the basic scuttlebutt about the departure of George W's svengali.

I don't see Rove as the type to shrink from a fight for long. He'll probably lick his wounds and then go courting a new partner with presidential potential. None of the current crop of candidates could prove more challenging than the former Yale cheerleader with addiction issues that he molded into a Texas governor and US President. George W. Bush, the spoiled rich kid from Maine who skipped out on National Guard duty and bumbled his way through business, became a bible-thumping, plain-talking, can-do Texas cowboy shooting his way straight to conservative hearts.

After 6 plus years in office, however, the American people are starting to see through the charm of Bush's false persona. Being linked to the President isn't good for anyone's political future. As his disapproval rating rises ever higher and the 2008 election looms on the horizon, it's time to break anchor with Bush's floundering legacy. So, rather than going down with the vessel he captained to prominence, Karl Rove is scurrying away to seek shelter from the storm.

Sadly, even with a Congressional investigation nipping at his heels, Rove's escape stage right will probably succeed. Bush himself will also likely make it out mostly unscathed if he can endure the remaining 18 months of his lame duck tenure. After all, he's got a lap-dog Supreme Court and a spineless Congress to ensure a peaceful retirement wrapped in the comforting warmth of blanket executive privelege.

Unfortunately, the American people, and the rest of the world, won't be able to run away and hide from the repercussions of the Bushies time in office. The sand may be running out on his limited term, but the damage is done, the waters are rising, and we've got very few life-preservers left to grab on to. It's a predicament that brings to mind a song by Uncle Tupelo, and a longing for Rove's freedom to quit the game.

High Water
by Uncle Tupelo

Try to face up to the blinding sun
Racing for the final word to come
Facing up, it's hard to stay devout
I can see the sand and it's running out
And it's running out

We quote each other only when we're wrong
We tear out the threads and move along
We can't seem to find common ground
I can see the sand and it's running out

It was only circumstances
But it's the difference
It gets in the way
No race is run in this direction
You can't break even
You can't even quit the game

The current drags to the bottom
A hemorrhage that moves us around
It pulls and beckons in a strong direction
High water forever bringing us down
I can see the sand and it's running out
It's running out

It was only circumstances
But it's the difference
It gets in the way
No race is run in this direction
You can't break even
You can't even quit the game

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Investing in castles made of sand

I don't claim to be anything close to an expert on finance or monetary policy, but the latest crisis causing global markets to bounce up and down seems to be pretty significant based on the reactions of people in the know. The Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, is getting pressured to cut interest rates in order to build up the sagging housing market, and he's already injected billions of dollars into the lending pool in order to instill a little calm in jittery investors.

At the heart of the crisis in confidence is the shaky footing of several hedge funds that were heavily invested in subprime mortgages. Hedge funds are inherently risky, as their managers' intent is to maximize the return on investment. Subprime mortgages are loans wearing the rosiest of glasses, taking chances on folks who want to own homes but have bad credit histories. The combination of the two had as much chance for success as the Britney Spears - Kevin Federline marriage.

As the housing bubble started to leak air, in part due to higher interest rates the Fed put in place to dampen inflation, the risky recipients of the loans started defaulting en masse. Now the loan holders are grasping worthless notes, and the hedge funds that invested in these lenders are trying to cover their losses. Because only the rich get involved in hedge funds — you need a net worth of $5 million just to play this game of Risk — the immediate impact of their collapse is limited to a relatively small number of investors, but they are investors with both political and financial swagger. As they panic, the global markets fall into line behind them.

The more I read about it, the more it seems like our whole mess of an economy is built on a foundation of sand, waiting for the first good wave of reality to level it all off. Those on the very top will have the furthest to fall, but they have the rest of us at the bottom to cushion the blow. There are already loud calls for a bailout of the hedge fund managers (see the New York Times story Market Swings Are First Crisis for Fed Chairman), which of course would come at the expense of we ordinary tax payers who are playing a much different game of risk — blindly trundling along with the economy hoping our paychecks will cover our mounting costs, and leaving our fate in the corrupt hands of the politicians big business lets represent us.

Maybe it's best to adopt a zen attitude, and accept the impermanence of all worldly things. Put on some Jimi Hendrix, sit quietly in a room with legs folded, and repeat the mantra sure to please those in power: "Everything is going to be ok." It was a good ride while it lasted, and we'll always have our memories.

Castles Made of Sand
by Jimi Hendrix

Down the street you can hear her scream you're a disgrace
As she slams the door in his drunken face
And now he stands outside
And all the neighbours start to gossip and drool
He cries oh, girl you must be mad,
What happened to the sweet love you and me had?
Against the door he leans and starts a scene,
And his tears fall and burn the garden green

And so castles made of sand fall in the sea, eventually

A little indian brave who before he was ten,
Played wargames in the woods with his indian friends
And he built up a dream that when he grew up
He would be a fearless warrior indian chief
Many moons past and more the dream grew strong until
Tomorrow he would sing his first war song and fight his first battle
But something went wrong, surprise attack killed him in his sleep that night

And so castles made of sand melts into the sea, eventually

There was a young girl, whose heart was a frown
'Cause she was crippled for life, and she couldn't speak a sound
And she wished and prayed she could stop living,
So she decided to die
She drew her wheelchair to the edge of the shore
And to her legs she smiled you won't hurt me no more
But then a sight she'd never seen made her jump and say
Look a golden winged ship is passing my way
And it really didn't have to stop, it just kept on going...

And so castles made of sand slips into the sea, eventually

Saturday, August 11, 2007

COOF: Dredging up a sea of problems

Who says you can't be in two places at once? Please check out my latest post on the Climate of Our Future blog:

Dredging up a sea of problems: it's time for hard political choices

... Nor is it just the Republicans who have formed shady political parnterships that place narrow business interests ahead of the greater social good. Recently I read a very informative piece on the destructive aquaculture practices that are threatening to dessimate whole fish populations, with consequences for both ocean ecosystems and our food supply. In his article Oceans Without Fish, Peter Montague describes the scope of the damage that over-fishing has caused. ...

Read the full post

Friday, August 10, 2007

Politics ain't rocket science

The 2008 Presidential sideshow continued rolling across America yesterday with its increasingly kooky developments. First came the news that South Carolina has moved up its Republican primary in order to assert its traditional role as first poll taker in the South (see the AP story South Carolina Pushes Up GOP Primary). This may start the dominoes falling toward the earliest primary season ever, with analysts forecasting the Iowa caucus votes to be counted before Santa makes his final naughty vs. nice tally.

At times it seems like the states are in a race to put us out of our misery, deciding the nominees before Spring. As the candidates attend forums and reveal an amazing capacity to pander to various groups while straddling the right-of-center fence that surveys say demarcates middle America, I'm finding myself longing for that rush to judgement.

At a Los Angeles forum sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign and the Logo TV network, the leading Democratic candidates tried to sound sympathetic to the LBGT community while recognizing that gay still doesn't play in Peoria. Clinton, Obama and Edwards earlier trotted out the names of gay contributors as if having gay political friends glosses over the things once and yet to be said in the heat of the campaign. It took her a few months, but Hillary finally admitted she was wrong to not have condemned Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Peter Pace's remarks that homosexuality is immoral (see my earlier post, Hillary's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"). She may change tune again the next time she speaks in front of a more conservative audience.

Speaking of conservatives, the Republican candidates didn't even show up to the event. Maybe they were worried that if they did, folks might think they're actually gay. This could be an extension of "don't ask, don't tell" to electoral politics. Don't ask the Republicans how they feel about the gay community, and they'll gladly not tell you. The political strategy of ignoring the constituency is actually an improvement over the constant vilification previously heard from GOP circles. Perhaps they're saving all that hate for immigrants — they can't vote anyway.

Make-believe public policy isn't a very scientific approach, but politics obeys a different set of laws than the rest of the universe. Bill Richardson astutely recognized that disconnect, in perhaps the most amusing moment of the evening. Here's how it was described in the Washington Post story Democratic Candidates Address Gay Rights Issues:

Activists were even more frustrated with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who when asked whether people are born gay or choose to be, said, "It's a choice" and later explained, "I'm not a scientist."
I think it's a disclaimer that could catch on at many a political debate. After eight long years in which gut reaction and corrupt politicking has trumped science, maybe we can turn to someone other than the usual political hacks to run for office. Getting people involved in government who have some familarity with the scientific method sure couldn't hurt. Asking voters to rely on blind faith hasn't gotten us very far.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Memories of the 1st Wrigley nite game: Hoping for a wash out

Nineteen years ago on this date (the easy to remember 8-8-88), the Chicago Cubs were scheduled to face the Philadelphia Phillies in the first ever night baseball game at historic Wrigley Field. Although the house was packed with local glitterati basking in the glow of the newly mounted light standards, I was taking in the action on TV at a tavern across the street from the ballpark. As the crowd was eager to cheer on the succession of moonlit firsts taking place that night (pitch, out, hit, home run), my friends and I were rooting for a quite different outcome .... a rain out.

Kevin, a good friend and fellow Cubs fanatic, had been able to snag seats for the next evening's game, so if we could just coax the clouds to open up, we'd be witnessing the first official Wrigley night game on 8-9-88 (not as easy to remember, but we were being selfish). As it turned out, the rains did come (as forecast, for once) with the Cubs leading 3-1, but before the game had gone far enough to make it into the record books.

My favorite former play-by-play man Harry Caray used to always say, "wishing won't make it so!" But on this one night a group of committed Cubs fans (or at least ones deserving of being committed to the nearest mental hospital) were able to will a washout, and we were in attendance the next evening for the first official night game against the New York Mets.

Among the memorable moments of that night was seeing the opponent's centerfielder (Lenny Dykstra, if I recall correctly), getting a beer dumped on him as he leaped after a ball hit into the vines of the outfield wall. It was a bit of bad sportsmanship on the part of the hometown fans, but also a very fitting show of childish joy at someone else's expense, considering our own revelling in the misfortune of the previous night's crowd (and a good illustration of the concept of schadenfreude). Not a proud moment, but still one that makes me chuckle years later.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Who's watching the watchers?

For those of us who hoped that things would be different once the Democrats took control of Congress, optimism's flame was doused by the donkey-brained titular leadership who once again lived down to their function as loyal opposition and approved George W's latest request for more powers of empire.

The Dems proved more concerned with election cycle appearances than standing up for principles; of course that implies that they have some. Worried that they'd be taken to task next Fall as weak on national defense, they meekly caved in to Prez Bush and passed his version of an update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that greatly expands the Government's ability to surveil Americans.

It used to be that the Fearless Leader needed to prove probable cause before a court of law in order to tap our wires. Now, the executive with priveleges can eavesdrop at will, using his time-honored justification of preserving national security. With both Congress and the Court abdicating their roles as checks on his unbalanced positions, Bush is gleefully tearing away pieces from our Consitution much as a young lover pulls petals off a daisy. Rather than inquiring after love however, the Misruler is gauging our fear.

At least the Media seems to be catching on to the significance of Bush's shenanigans. Here's a little tidbit from the Dan Froomkin's article Who's Afraid of George W. Bush? that ran in the Washington Post:

Despite his 65 percent job-disapproval rating, Bush was able to cow congressional Democrats over the weekend into granting him unprecedented authority to eavesdrop on the international telephone calls and e-mail messages of American citizens without warrants.
The Los Angeles Times also called the Dems to task for their cowardly abandonment of the people's best interests. Here's an excerpt from their OpEd piece The politics of fear:

That this flawed legislation was approved by a Democratic Congress is a reminder that many in the party are still fearful that they will be labeled "soft on terror" if they don't give this administration what it wants when it wants it. But the party may be equally injured by the perception that it won't stand up for what it believes.
As the traditional mechanisms of accountability are eroded away by the tidal wave of government over-reaction, the onus will fall more and more on we Americans to defend the Constitution and vote out all of these weak-kneed pols. As rife as that demographic is in both parties right now, we may just need to start our own political movement to accomplish anything.

Until then, I'll find solace as always in my music; listening to Watching the Detectives, as the morally defective watch and listen to me. Maybe they also enjoy Elvis Costello?

Watching the Detectives
by Elvis Costello

Nice girls, not one with a defect
Cellophane shrink-wrapped, so correct
Red dogs under illegal legs
She looks so good that he gets down and begs

She is watching the detectives
"Ooh, he's so cute"
She is watching the detectives
When they shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot
They beat him up until the teardrops start
But he can't be wounded 'cause he's got no heart

Long shot at that jumping sign
Invisible shivers running down my spine
Cut to baby taking off her clothes
Close-up of the sign that says "We never close"
He snatches at you and you match his cigarette
She pulls my eyes out with a face like a magnet
I don't know how much more of this I can take
She's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake

You think you're alone until you realize you're in it
Now fear is here to stay, love is here for a visit
They call it instant justice when it's past the legal limit
Someone's scratching at the window, I wonder who is it?
The detectives come to check if you belong to the parents
Who are ready to hear the worst about their daughter's disappearance
Though it nearly took a miracle to get you to stay
It only took my little fingers to blow you away

Just like watching the detectives
Don't get cute
It's just like watching the detectives
I get so angry when the teardrops start
But he can't be wounded 'cause he's got no heart

Watching the detectives
It's just like watching the detectives
Watching the detectives
Watching the detectives

Monday, August 06, 2007

Bargaining power: FW Murnau's Faust

Recently, I watched F.W. Murnau's film adaptation of J.W. Goethe's Faust. It was released in 1926, and although to modern eyes it comes off a bit quaint, it was a blockbuster for its time with a then big-budget cast and special effects. Because it is a silent movie, the expressions and gestures are exaggerated, but that adds to the theatricality of the film. Its use of light, makeup, sets and costumes give the action a surreal quality, enhancing the supernatural subject matter.

The Dr. Faustus legend has its origins in a historical magician who travelled 16th century Germany performing strange feats. It started its literary life as a cautionary tale against the quest for worldly knowledge. Goethe's 19th century version, however, redeems Faust and finds honor in his intellectual strivings. Murnau's take is much less intellectually complex and much more religious than Goethe's, but it too offers its hero salvation.

The themes of the story, throughout its various incarnations, have always interested me. The opposition of scientific knowledge and religious faith is certainly a topic that still has resonance in our allegedly more enlightened times. The fear of man over-reaching for powers presumed the purview of God has dogged our pursuit of medical and technological miracles for hundreds of years. As the science progresses even further, opening up ever-more mind-boggling possibilities — cloning, genetic manipulation, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence — we're certainly bedeviled by the same ethical concerns of going too far.

As with the drama upon which it's based, the film opens with a divine wager that echoes the Biblical story of Job. If he can steal Faust's soul, black-winged Mephistopholes is offered dominion over the Earth by his radiant heavenly counterpart. The Archangel looks down on Faust's study, and we're introduced to the doctor as he lectures on the wonder that is man's ability to freely choose between good and evil. That free will is of course soon to be tested.

Emil Jannings' Mephisto has several memorable scenes, despite his repeated mugging for the camera. After the wager, he's shown towering over Faust's village as the black fog of plague billows out from beneath his wings. The townfolk begin to fall to the foul wind, and Faust urgently searches his faith and his books for a cure.

Finding no answers in the Bible, more death as the reward for his labors, and only silence in response to his prayers, Faust turns to Mephisto for assistance. He imagines the legions of hungry and sick he could help with the limitless powers he signs up for, but his best intentions are continually thwarted by Mephisto. The devil can only truly offer Faust worldly possessions and pleasures, none of which satisfy the alchemist's more noble yearnings.

His restlessness leads him back home, and it's here that he meets Gretchen. Their love story fills the film's second half and precipitates its climax. Not to give too much away, but Faust does find redemption through Gretchen, if not a completely happy ending. He finally renounces the gifts Mephisto bestowed on him, affirming Love's power to wash away guilt and undo many wrongs.

The ending may strike some as clichéd, but there is truth in it. The pursuit of worldly knowledge isn't necessarily a good or bad thing. What matters is the intent of that striving. If the goal is personal enrichment, the resulting technology will inevitably cause harm. If the aim is to benefit the greater good, and there is no truer expression of love than that, the science will truly advance humankind.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Taxing anniversaries: a moral rendering

According to the old saying, there are two inevitabilities in our lives — death and taxes. We definitely can't escape the former, but the latter wasn't always an obligation, at least as far as a federal tithe on income. lists August 5th as the anniversary of the first federal levy back in 1861. It was put in place in order to cover the costs of the Civil War, and was gradually phased out once the nation made peace with itself. An attempt to reimpose the levy was made in 1894, but the Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional. The defeat led to the passing of the 16th amendment in 1913 and we've been anteing into the US treasury pot ever since. That's a pretty simplistic summary of the battles to enact the tax, and if you've got time on your hands you can navigate the more detailed history, which is almost as involved as an IRS 1040 form.

Until George W broke precedent, war-time has always been linked to increased taxes; not that Bush's Middle East adventure hasn't exacted extra costs on our society. He's piled up national debt, and slashed social spending in order to have his war cake and eat it too. Knowing that the fragile economy couldn't survive a larger payroll tax, he shifted the burden to future generations. His re-prioritizing of spending to favor the military-industrial complex over our health, education, and welfare is also a backhanded way of imposing a war tax. You can see its rippling effects on state and city budgets across the country.

Because of this long-standing link between waging war and taxing income, paying the national levy has always posed an interesting moral conundrum for those who object to a particular conflagration's prosecution. Pacifists have been especially dogged by this ethical concern. By accepting a share of the financial obligation to fund the violence, are you either tacitly or explicitly complicit in the war itself?

Jesus famously is quoted as saying, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's." This justification of Jews paying Rome its taxes came with a caveat, however: as long as it doesn't compromise your religious obligations. Ethicists have long noodled over this problem of an individual's degree of responsibility for the larger society's actions. One person's impulses can certainly be overwhelmed by the greater social sentiment, whether for good or bad.

Standing up on principle against the prevailing winds is certainly one of the most courageous acts a man or woman can take. How best to voice that opposition will depend on circumstance and opportunity. It might mean not taking a seat in the back of the bus, not betraying someone's whereabouts to the authorities, not sitting quietly by as someone spews hate, or not paying income tax.

One interesting side note to this anniversary is that on the same date in 1966 the Beatles released one of their more intriguing albums — Revolver. Coincidentally, its first track is Taxman, which includes a lyric that should serve as caution to us all:

Don't ask me what I want it for, (ah-ah, mister Wilson)
If you don't want to pay some more. (ah-ah, mister heath)
'Cause I’m the taxman
As Adam and Eve discovered upon biting into the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, self-awareness is sometimes coupled with shame. If we dig too deeply into what our tax dollars are funding, we may just emerge red-faced upon seeing the things for which we're monetarily, and perhaps morally, responsible. After that, if we don't act, we'll only have ourselves to blame.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Under-appreciating over-growth: Gardening at night

There's been a lot of talk about gardening in my neighborhood, a place that's struggling between what it is and what some would have it become. Usually the proponents of flowered plots are those with property who harbor hopes of transforming our urban environs into a more suburban clime, amenable to backyard barbecues and front porch swings. They want to white wash away the city grit that's attracted my lot, a mixed bag of strivers seeking things immaterial. We're drawn to the inky night that hides treasured secrets, not the sunny light that bathes the mundane in a favorable shine.

Gardening is a topic with which I've always found it difficult to make common cause. I'm part of a generation that was long ago alienated from Nature, and a many-year resident of the concrete jungle where space is precious and usually occupied by brick and mortar. My friends who grow things usually do so out of sight, in the privacy of their inside spaces, unable to afford more than a few rooms to hang their things.

Don't get me wrong, I understand and appreciate the desire and need to nurture. I admire greatly those who have the ability to coax things to grow, in the hopes of beautifying the lives of others. The objectives of gardeners can vary, however. Some choose to plant thorny bushes and forbidding hedges meant to exclude others, and seclude themselves. Others opt for communal gardens, with welcoming flowers meant to be enjoyed by whoever happens by.

There are also the metaphorically green thumbed, who transform cold concrete walls into many-colored splendors, planting artistic seeds that embed themselves in viewers' hearts until true community blossoms. Flowers can come in the form of portraits, poems and songs as well as daffodils. There is a creative chaos that defines the city, and it's a characteristic that some don't value and ever clamber to change into an ordered conformity, subdividing the structural diversity into neatly uniform plots.

I was lucky enough to have grown up in a wooded, undeveloped portion of southern Maryland where I could take frequent excursions with my brothers over the magically untamed streambed running through our backyard. That may seem far removed from my current urban home, but its wild honesty has much more in common with where I live than the superficial sameness of cookie-cutter single family homes.

Those Maryland woods have since been replaced by the manicured green lawns of suburban sprawl. I'll do my damnedest to ensure that Rogers Park on the far north side of Chicago doesn't meet a similar fate. My attempts to preserve and persevere against the gathering storm of gentrification may seem as vain an endeavor as gardening at night, but I know there are others here ready to dig in their heels. It's honest work in the shadows, and sometimes the dangers that hide in plain sight pose the greatest threat.

Gardening at Night
by R.E.M.

I see your money on the floor, I felt the pocket change
Though all the feelings that broke through that door
Just didn't seem to be too real.
The yard is nothing but a fence, the sun just hurts my eyes.
Somewhere it must be time for penitence. Gardening at night is never where.
Gardening at night. Gardening at night. Gardening at night.

The neighbors go to bed at ten.
Call the prayer line for a change.
The charge is changing every month.
They said it couldn't be arranged.

We ankled up the garbage sound, but they were busy in the rows.
We fell up, not to see the sun, gardening at night just didnt grow.
I see your money on the floor, I felt the pocket change
Though all the feelings that broke through that door
Just didn't seem to be too real.
Gardening at night. Gardening at night. Gardening at night

Your sister said that you're too young.
They should know they've been there twice.
The call was 2 and 51.
They said it couldn't be arranged.

I see your money on the floor, I felt the pocket change
Though all the feelings that broke through that door
Just didn't seem to be too real.
We ankled up the garbage sound, but they were busy in the rows.
We fell up not to see the sun, gardening at night just didnt grow.
Gardening at night. Gardening at night. Gardening at night.

Top Ranking: Having fun with techno errata

Often with web sites, especially ones using more advanced applications, there are glitches, hiccups, breakdowns and hangups. These are usually pretty annoying and induce fits of hair-pulling as we're forced to interface with far-off or simulated human beings put in place to support the technology. There are a few happy occasions, however, when the errors actually work to our advantage, creating a false but still exhilirating sense of well-being and rightness in the universe.

Today, Technorati had such a blissful little burp. Below is an undoctored screen shot (click on it for the full sized view) of the temporary mess-up that proved salve to my soul, indicating this blog was the number one ranked site on the Internet. Head-trippy times indeed.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Potrait of political defiance: I want everything

Too often life makes a lot of demands. We're forced to make compromises, both big and small, as to the things we want, need and accept. It happens to all of us, and some of us can adjust to the lesser goods better than others; be it a job, a home, a relationship, or a political system.

I don't know the answer to true happiness, and I'm not going to pretend I do. I'm out there still searching for it, and I expect to be for quite some time. We each need to find our own way and make our peace with where we've gone and what we've accomplished when the road ends.

All of that is just a rambling preamble to a simple caveat: I don't have the magic formula that's going to solve the world's problems, despite my proclivity toward political preachiness. Absolute truth, like God, is something too big to be grasped by the individual mind, with all of its biases and limitations. That's why I'm so fond of the connections and conversations that the Web makes possible, as that collective consciousness is the first stumbling step toward a broader, more complete picture of reality.

One small lesson I have picked up along the way in my intellectual and spiritual meanderings so far, is that we can't stop wanting it all — whatever that all is. The moment we give in and abandon hope, we've lost the battle and the war. Those who'd like to keep us from our goals often try to beat us down into fits of apathy and despair. To overcome the weight of those moments, we can best use a measured dose of defiance.

I'm certainly reminded of this every election season, and this one is upon us sooner than most. To get me through the eventual nose-holding at ballot time, I like to sing this little ditty by Cracker.

I want everything

I'm standing in your corridor
I wonder what I'm waiting for
The Leaves are drifting out to sea
I'm waiting for you desperately

All things beautiful
All things beautiful
I want everything
I want everything

You call us with your silent seas
You call us in our tiny boats
Gather us up with the storm
And cast us out upon the shore

All things beautiful
All things beautiful
I want everything
I want everything

You're deep inside this fecund swamp
Or let it be your beating heart
You're deep inside this fecund swamp
You call us in our tiny boats

All things beautiful
All things beautiful
I want everything
I want everything
I want everything
I want everything

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Let's drop the big one now

The Clinton-Obama feud reached new heights of inanity as the Hillaryites continued their attacks on the Barackers over his foreign policy experience. The latest flap erupted over remarks Obama made ruling out the use of nuclear weapons in the pursuit of Al Qaeda.

I'm certainly not a traditional political wonk, but swearing off first-strike nuke attacks doesn't seem like a very radical or unreasonable position to take. In a country where the public policy debate has been shifted so extremely to the right, however, even the Democratic leadership has convinced itself of the need to do at least a modicum of warmongering in order to capture the "middle." It's the winning strategy that garnered such success for both Gore and Kerry — passing themselves off as a kindler, gentler Bush. Maybe another loss in 2008 will illustrate to the Dems just how quickly that middle is being pulled apart toward opposing poles.

Here is Ms. Clinton's badly confused attempt to promote an appropriately tough presidential posture while not alienating the left too much, as quoted in the New York Times article Nuclear Weapons Comment Puts Obama on the Defensive:

"I think that presidents should be very careful at all times in discussing the use or non-use of nuclear weapons. Presidents, since the Cold War, have used nuclear deterrence to keep the peace. And I don’t believe that any president should make any blanket statements with respect to the use or non-use of nuclear weapons."
I might be remembering my history incorrectly, but I don't recall an official policy embracing nuclear first-strikes until George II took the reigns of empire. For it to be echoed even half-heartedly by the leading Democratic candidate certainly doesn't inspire much hope for the post-Bush era.

The absurdity of the empty but scary machismo brings to mind an old Randy Newman tune written at the height of that Cold War era. Maybe Hillary can adopt it as her new campaign song, and really get those red state voters to take notice.

Political Science
by Randy Newman

No one likes us - I don't know why
We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try
But all around, even our old friends put us down
Let's drop the big one and see what happens

We give them money - but are they grateful?
No, they're spiteful and they're hateful
They don't respect us - so let's surprise them
We'll drop the big one and pulverize them

Asia's crowded and Europe's too old
Africa is far too hot
And Canada's too cold
And South America stole our name
Let's drop the big one
There'll be no one left to blame us

We'll save Australia
Don't wanna hurt no kangaroo
We'll build an All American amusement park there
They got surfin', too

Boom goes London and boom Paris
More room for you and more room for me
And every city the whole world round
Will just be another American town
Oh, how peaceful it will be
We'll set everybody free
You'll wear a Japanese kimono
And there'll be Italian shoes for me

They all hate us anyhow
So let's drop the big one now
Let's drop the big one now

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Kicking Television: Reality killed the video star

On this date back in 1981, MTV — the music television network — seized the air, broadcasting a catchy video by a once and again obscure brit band called the Buggles. Playing a hunch, the plucky station chose the group's song "Video killed the radio star" to launch a volley across the bow of the old music biz. The music world did change in response, as video production became an essential part of band promotion, and radio lost influence. The upstart network's success lead to its complete consumption by big Media and its final descent into commercial inanity.

Today, the network bears little resemblance to its early self. Obsessed with "reality programs" that twist the world toward the consumer culture corporate America likes to purvey, music videos themselves are hard to spot.

If you want to check out your fave act, it's much easier to search for them on YouTube. In fact, these days I get the vast majority of my information and culture from the Internet, rather than that spoon-feeding Television. With the digitalization of content, the Web has everything TV does, and more: news, opinion, music, art, film, video, poetry and fiction. Surfing the net is much easier and more rewarding than the static-tinged, rapid-fire channel changing that my TV viewing experience has become.

On its 26th birthday, I toast the MTV that was while also celebrating the demise of its medium that's so lacking in message. The dawning of the connected Web has put the video star into an early grave, and considering the addled state TV has fallen into over these its twilight years, it can be called a mercy killing. Join me as I lyrically kick them while they're down with the help of Wilco.

Kicking Television
by Wilco

I'm serious
You'll see

I'm working on my abs
I'm working on me

Oh, I'm kickin'
Yeah, I'm calm
Oh, I'm kickin'

Stop shopping
Stop buying things

I'm kickin'
Oh yeah, I'm calm
Oh, I'm kickin'

Oh, I'm serious
You'll see

Yeah, I'm kickin'
Yeah, I'm calm
Oh, I'm kickin'