Monday, April 30, 2007

Favorite Song of the Day: Divide and Conquer

Tomorrow, thousands of workers, immigrants, and concerned citizens will take to the streets of Chicago and other cities to voice their support for meaningful immigration reform. The marchers will come from all walks of life and together they will take a stand against the politicians who break down barriers to allow the free flow of capital but erect them to constrain the movement of people.

You'll hear lots of self-proclaimed pundits spouting vitriol as they demonize immigrants for all of our society's ills. It's a pathetic attempt to scapegoat those who are least able to defend themselves. Do they really believe that people in this country lack jobs, homes, adequate health care and social services because undocumented workers are stealing their wages and benefits? The destruction of the social safety net perpetrated by the Right over the last 30 years is the more likely culprit. Not to mention George W's morass of a war that's diverted billions of dollars from our nation's economy.

These "Defenders of America" will also fall back on the argument that we should all play by the rules, at the same time they look the other way while businesses illegally exploit the very workers they want to keep out. Their hypocrisy is astounding, and their nationalistic and xenophobic rhetoric shamefully reminiscent of the most repressive eras in this country's history.

Most disappointing of all, there will be recent immigrants who will speak against those who are in the country "illegally," manipulated by the "divide and conquer" propaganda that's been used over the years to play segments of the poor and working class against each other in order to perpetuate their exploitation at the hands of big business. In light of that, I chose today's favorite song ...

Divide and Conquer by Hüsker Dü

They divided up all the land
We've got states and cities
Cities have their neighborhoods
And more subdivisions

There's lots of area codes
And nine digit zip codes
Secret decoder ring codes
Arteries, shopping nodes

There's countries divided by walls
Oceans and latitudes
And longitudes longing to find out
What they're missing

Big Brother on every wall
Muzak plays in all the halls
Embassies rise and fall
They divide, conquer

It's not about my politics
Something happened way too quick
A bunch of men who played it slick
They divide, conquer

Well I expect I won't be heard
Because my silence is assured
Never a discouraging word
They divide and conquer
They divide and conquer

The right's penchant for red-baiting continues

Conservatives are always quick to attack those who label their policies fascist, but that doesn't stop them from falling back on the tried and true technique of red-baiting Democrats for proposals that advocate any type of social responsibility.

Anyone who has a real understanding of Socialism and Communism will realize how ridiculous these criticisms truly are. For example, it's common among the far right, especially the reactionary media types, to label Hillary Clinton a communist. This probably arises from her healthcare proposals in the '90s. She's also strongly pro-Choice and close to the "Hollywood Elite" that we're told dominates the media and advocates for radically left ideas.

But despite her positions on a couple of the right's favorite hot-button issues, the fact is that Hillary and her husband Bill are actually pretty conservative Democrats whose policies clearly embrace Captialism and side with the corporate oligarchy that has dominated our politics in recent years. Bill Clinton signed into law Welfare Reform that continued the dismantling of the social safety net advocated by the conservative's darling Ronald Reagan. He was also responsible for NAFTA. To my knowledge Hillary has never supported a Single Payer system as the solution to our healthcare crisis. She's also consistently taken very conservative foreign policy positions, including supporting the Iraq War.

The affect of this kind of simplistic, misleading categorization of the Democrats is to skew the political debate further to the right. Democrats have proven quite good at enabling the Republicans in this tactic, usually tripping over themselves to embrace more conservative positions in order to avoid the Socialist characterization.

Below are excerpts from an article on the Guardian Unlimited site describing Rudy Giuliani's attack on the Dems' healthcare proposals. If the health reform Mr. Giuliani advocates (vouchers) is truly the answer to the predicament we find ourselves in, he should tout its merits and let the people decide for themselves if it makes sense. That would serve everyone better than the empty rhetoric and fear-mongering he stoops to by mischaracterizing the Dems' positions as leading to socialized medicine.

Giuliani Assails Democrats' Health Plans
Associated Press Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani on Friday accused his Democratic rivals of embracing health care plans that would amount to socialized medicine.

The former New York City mayor, responding to comments in the first Democratic primary debate Thursday night, claimed Democrats favor "mandatory" universal health care and the plans would only exacerbate the cost of care by putting the system in the hands of bureaucrats.

"They're moving toward socialized medicine so fast, it'll make your head spin," Giuliani said, adding that private solutions could help bring down the cost of care. "When we want to cover poor people, as we should, we give them vouchers."

Read the full article

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Leaders laid low by lust

Saturday's news includes a story about a vengeful DC madam who, after getting busted for prostitution, is naming names of the well-heeled johns who took advantage of her services, including some pols in high places.

They say that Death is the great leveller, but Sex can do the trick pretty well also. The police blotters are filled with the mug-shots of the unfortunate, usually working class stiffs who get picked up for soliciting. As fun as it is for some to poke fun at these misfits, I find it much more amusing to see the mighty laid low (pun intended) by their desire for female companionship.

They also say that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, but I guess it wasn't working so well for these gents -- or wasn't attracting the sort of women they could get with a little cash instead.

Below are the excerpts from the New York Times coverage of the story:

Woman in Escort Case Plans to Name Names in Defense
By Eric Lipton

WASHINGTON, April 28 — Deborah Jeane Palfrey has not been at all shy about it: for more than a decade she ran an escort service that catered to upscale clients in the nation’s capital, sending college-educated women to men’s homes or hotel rooms.

For about $300, she promised 90 minutes of what she has described as a discreet “legal high-end erotic fantasy service.” But the discreet part is over, after federal authorities charged her with operating a prostitution ring.

“The tentacles of this matter reach far, wide and high into the echelons of power in the United States,” Ms. Palfrey wrote in a court filing last month, as she prepared to release a list of her clients’ telephone numbers and vowed to subpoena her customers — some of whom she described as prominent Washington officials.

It is a defense strategy that had its first casualty Friday.

Randall L. Tobias, the top foreign aid adviser in the State Department, became the most prominent person on the list to be publicly identified when he resigned after acknowledging to ABC News that he was among Ms. Palfrey’s clients. The State Department’s statement on Mr. Tobias’s resignation said simply, “He is returning to private life for personal reasons.”

Read the full article

Friday, April 27, 2007

Partaking in organized creativity

My life has taken a turn toward the artistic recently, and that's a pretty good thing.

Last night I attended the opening of the bridgeArtFair exhibit down at the Merchandise Mart. My cousin Jen Blazina has a wonderful installation called Recollection that is being hosted by the Marx-Saunders Gallery. It's a very creative piece that uses old photographs and school desks to delve into themes of memory and identity (see photo at left). There were many other interesting pieces of various subjects and media on display at the Fair, and I encourage you to check it out. The people-watching is quite fun there as well.

Continuing the theme of organized art, I'm helping to put together a festival that's a little more grass-roots. It's the eleventh annual Chicago Labor and Arts Festival and it kicks off next week. The festival showcases art for and by working people of all stripes (yes, it's a category that's intentionally quite broad), and there are events happening throughout the city during the month of May (click here for the full schedule). The theme this year is Borders and Barriers, and with the current political environment of hyper-nationalism and immigrant scapegoating it should be quite fertile soil for the artistic mind to take root.

Knock down a personal barrier, cross a mental or physical border and join me for some wonderful art this weekend and all next month.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Today in History: The bombing of Guernica

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica, which was later immortalized in a work by Pablo Picasso. The painting (a detail of which appears at left), is quite haunting and as eloquent a piece of anti-war sentiment as has appeared in any artistic medium.

It's important to keep it in our minds' eye to remind ourselves that war truly is hell, and whatever ends it seeks to achieve will necessarily be won only through the most violent of means. History tends to gloss over the small stories of loss and devastation that touch so many lives during wartime, and art like Guernica serves to constantly remind us of the tremendous costs exacted, especially in the modern brand of warfare.

The power of the painting is certainly recognized by those who wage war. I'm reminded of the press conference that took place at the UN in New York before the Iraq War, in which Colin Powell had a copy of the painting draped so that the disturbing imagery of the affects of that bombing did not serve as a backdrop to his rationalizing the need for more of it.

Below are excerpts from a very good article that appears in The Independent, a British newspaper. It points out that Guernica marked the first instance of "total war", in which civilians became targets. As much as the use of "precision bombs" today is supposed to minimize such losses, no technology is perfect especially when operated by fallible humans.

Guernica remembered: Picasso's legacy
By Graham Keeley

It was a busy market day in a small town then little known beyond Spain. The central square as alive with the chatter of the peasants selling their produce and the noise of their livestock. But at 4.40pm on 26 April 1937, this bustling scene was reduced to carnage as Luftwaffe bombers unloaded their deadly cargo on Guernica.

The church bell rang out to warn the townsfolk of their approach, but though many found makeshift shelters, these offered little protection from the onslaught. Three hours later, the indiscriminate carpet bombing of this defenceless civilian population would propel the ancient capital of the Basques on to the world stage.

Hundreds of miles away in Paris, Pablo Picasso read about the massacre and was outraged. He immediately decided to change a canvas he was painting for the Paris Exhibition and the result was Guernica, the masterpiece which has come to symbolise the barbarity of war.

Today, exactly 70 years after the Luftwaffe's Condor Legion led the attack which is thought to have claimed 1,600 lives and left about 800 injured, survivors will mark the atrocity.

The attack, was the first use of what came to be known as total war. This put civilians, not just soldiers, in the front line; targets who were as legitimate as armed combatants. It has come to be an integral part of war since.

Read the full article

Favorite Song of the Day: The Sad Punk

Today's song's title says it all, capturing the mood of yours truly — an unrepentant punk with sadness in his heart. It's a little black in subject matter, but that's pretty par for the course for Pixies (irony in that name, to be sure). The more I read, hear and see of the world and what we're doing to it, the more I too think about extinction. Mortality is a bitch, because you die.

The Sad Punk by Pixies

i smell smoke
that comes from a gun
named extinction
it was a long time ago
could have happened to anyone
he was struck by a bullet
and he melted into fluid named extinction
one thousand miles an hour
i'm just like anyone
i want to feel
the road of tar beneath the wheel named extinction
and evolving from the sea
would not be too much time for me
to walk beside you in the sun
i read something
about a son of a gun
named extinction

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Current neighborhood got you down? Maybe it's time to move

Are you sick of where you're living? Maybe the weather is getting you down, with all of the ups and downs and instability. Maybe the neighborhood has gotten so over-run with violence that you don't feel safe anymore. Maybe it's just too crowded and noisy, and you need a little room to stretch out and enjoy some peace and quiet.

Living on Earth just ain't what it used to be, but don't worry there's a way out. Scientists have finally discovered a lovely new neighborhood where we can relocate. They don't really know yet what the new planet is like, and there could even potentially be folks already living there but that's ok. We can spruce things up and force the natives out. We've gotten pretty good at that over the years.

Here's the story as reported on The Washington Post's site:

Potentially Habitable Planet Found

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- For the first time astronomers have discovered a planet outside our solar system that is potentially habitable, with Earth-like temperatures, a find researchers described Tuesday as a big step in the search for "life in the universe."

The planet is just the right size, might have water in liquid form, and in galactic terms is relatively nearby at 120 trillion miles away. But the star it closely orbits, known as a "red dwarf," is much smaller, dimmer and cooler than our sun.

Read the full story

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Today in History: The Trojan Horse

Although they say you shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, if it's large and wooden you may want to take a look inside its belly before pulling it into your city. According to, April 24 is the date traditionally observed as the anniversary of this classic (literally) piece of war-time deception. If you don't know the story, you can get more details from the Trojan Horse article. The event that scholars date on 1184 BC was passed down through oral history and is recounted briefly in Homer's Odyssey and more expansively in Virgil's Aeneid.

While doing some Internet research on the subject, I found that both Homer's epics are available on line. If you have a spare moment or two, take a look at the full text of the Iliad and Odyssey.

Maybe George W has a similar piece of tactical genius up his sleeve to end the standstill in Iraq, but unfortunately he seems more apt to continue deceiving the folks at home that things are progressing apace (See the latest exposé on the Pentagon's propaganda machine: Government Challenged on Lynch and Tillman from the New York Times).

Favorite Song of the Day (04.23.2007)

I know the theology of it isn't very complex, but the following song resonates with me lately.

I can't say I believe in God, certainly not one that has any real impact on the events of this world. I do believe in a Spirituality that's found in each of us, and maybe that's the true Supreme Being -- the collective soul of all life past, present and future.

Whatever the case, it serves us all best to do what we can for each other in the here and now. We certainly can't depend on miracles to pull us through.

Divine Intervention by Matthew Sweet

I don't know where I'm gonna live
Don't know if I'll find a place
I'd have to think about it some
And that I do not wish to face
I guess I'm counting on His
Divine Intervention

I cannot understand my God
I don't know why it gets to me
One day my life is filled with joy
And then we find we disagree
All depending on his
Divine Intervention

Does He love us?
Does He love us?
Does He love us?
Does He love us?
Now does He love us?
I look around
All I see is destruction
We're all counting on his
Divine Intervention

When he comes the sun shine
When he comes the sun shine
Sunshine, the sunshine
Here it comes...

Monday, April 23, 2007

April 23: Shakespeare coming and going

Today is the anniversary of William Shakespeare's birth (1564) and death (1616), at least as best historians can tell. There's always been some uncertainty about the identity of the Bard of Avon, but I'll stick with the traditional historical account of his life until someone proves otherwise.

Shakespeare is an author I've read pretty thoroughly, and my Master's thesis focused on 3 of his plays (Measure for Measure, The Tempest, and Othello) so I always raise a glass to his memory on this date, at least metaphorically.

To further honor him, I'm posting three of my favorite passages. Each includes ideas that are significant to my personal world view. Whether my sympathy with the Bard's words is born of Nature or Nurture I can't fathom, but it exists nonetheless.

The first passage is from Measure for Measure, and comes in the middle of Isabella's eloquent plea to reverse a death sentence against her brother. It speaks well to the pretentiousness of self-appointed authority and the foolishness of men who, though fallible themselves, try to sit in judgement of others. Justice not tempered with mercy, is not justice at all ...

Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would nere be quiet,
For every pelting, petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder,
Nothing but thunder! Merciful heaven!
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Splits the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle; but man, proud man,
Dress'd in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assur'd—
His glassy essence—like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themsleves laugh mortal.
[Act II, scene ii, Lines 136-149]
The second comes from The Tempest, and is a lovely little piece of speech from an unlikely source. Caliban, native to the island where the action takes place, and enslaved by the play's main character, Prospero, who has been stranded there, is generally portrayed in hostile terms by the Europeans with whom he interacts. The following lines always left me with the impression that Shakespeare might have had other sympathies. The words speak to the longing for that which we can't have, and the difficulty in coming to terms with that reality — at least that's my reading.

Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That if I then had wak'd after long sleep
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I wak'd
I cried to dream again.
[Act III, scene ii, lines 132-140]
Finally, the third passage comes from Othello and speaks to the power of words to bewitch the listener. It is a spell that can be used to both positive and negative affect, as Othello learns tragically at the end of the play when Iago's deceptions are revealed too late. It's a cautionary tale about perception and reality, trust and betrayal that we'd all be wise to heed. We see the relevancy today as many in politics and the media attempt to twist reality to suit their purposes.

And often did beguile her of her tears,
When I did speak of some distressful stroke
That my youth suffer'd. My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.
She swore, i' faith, 'twas strange, 'twas passing strange;
'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful.
She wish'd she had not heard it, yet she wish'd
That heaven had made her such a man. She thank'd me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that lov'd her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story,
And that would woo her. Upon this heat I spake.
She lov'd me for the dangers I had pass'd,
And I lov'd her that she did pity them.
This only is the witchcraft I have us'd.
[Act I, scene iii, lines 171-184]

Buras, LA: Final Thoughts

Here is a little more background on Buras, LA and some final thoughts about what I witnessed, heard about, and think it all means. Wikipedia has the following information on the town, I can't vouch for the accuracy of the article, but it includes Census data, and the figures sound about right:

Buras-Triumph is a census-designated place (CDP) in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, United States. The population was 3,358 at the 2000 census. On the peninsula, Buras has been located higher, with Triumph located southeast of Buras.

Buras-Triumph has become famous as the location where, on August 29, 2005, at 6:10 AM CDT, the eye of Hurricane Katrina, by far the costliest natural disaster (and one of the deadliest) ever to strike the United States, made its strongest landfall. However, the storm surge and high winds began on the previous day, August 28, 2005. During those 2 days, the area was obliterated as a result.

Read the full article
Buras, along with its neighboring communities, sits at about 17 feet below sea level. It is flanked on either side by levees that keep the Gulf of Mexico (west) and Mississippi River (east) at bay. Because of this location, it is always going to be prone to storms and the possibility of flooding. It's a temperate climate, and I'm told that fruit orchards were quite prevalent there before Katrina. Residents were able to feed themselves off what they grew on the land and caught from the sea.

The region's economy was based on entrepeneurial fishermen and big oil (we passed the compounds of both Halliburton and Chevron on our drive to Venice on Friday). We were told that residents could buy Oyster leases for $2 an acre from the State, but that the leases needed to be maintained in order to remain in force. With the destruction of boats and homes, many of the lease-holders have either lost or sold their stakes because they don't have the wherewithal to continue to cultivate the area. Oil rigs are supplanting oyster boats, and the entrepeneurial fishing culture that defined the area is being lost as a result.

The governmnet is organized on a Parish-wide level, the equivalent of the county government system here in Illinois. I don't know if there is a more local body that governs Buras, but it doesn't appear so. Because the Upper Parish escaped the scale of devastation wrought in the south, and its population was not displaced to the same degree, it has a much stronger voice on the Parish council. Because of this, relief funding and services are not being distributed in an equal manner, at least in the eyes of the locals in Buras. There is also resentment toward New Orleans as it has a much higher public profile, and residents believe it's getting the vast majority of the State funding.

I don't know what the infrastructure was like in Buras before Katrina, but I'm told they had the services that the community needed. That is certainly not the case now, as residents have to drive an hour away for groceries and medical care. There is a clinic nearby, but a resident said it is poorly staffed and she didn't trust it to administer something as simple as a flu shot. A few small businesses have re-opened and it's possible to buy a few things there. Emergency Communities (EC) also runs a distribution center that supplies locals with canned goods and other essentials, but that's dependent on weekly charitable deliveries that won't last forever.

There is also a great need for mental health services in the area. Residents are definitely feeling the pressure associated with the vast destruction that took place and the work involved with trying to rebuild lives. EC tries to provide a space to relieve some of the stress, but I don't think many take advantage. The ability to meet at EC over a meal and talk to each other and the volunteers helps. There's a great need to communicate to the outside world what happened in Buras, and the more chances locals have to converse the more healing will take place. I think we as humans can best make sense of the world through story-telling and shared experience, and that's one thing that the EC complex does offer residents, especially as sympathetic and curious volunteers from across the country pass through it.

I get the sense that the people of Buras prided themselves on their self-sufficiency and independent lifestyles. They were able to find a niche for themselves in this part of the world, and they thrived in it quite nicely. That independence proved a double edged sword in the face of such a disaster, as there was no infrastructure to deal with the crises they faced after the storm and no social safety net to provide for their needs when thrown into a situation where they could no longer rely on personal strength alone.

The federal and local governments have certainly not stepped into the breach. One consistent complaint among all the residents we talked to was the ineptness and inadequacy of the support they've received from all the official agencies. With the lack of aid as well as the insufficient insurance reimbursements, residents find themselves in a Catch 22 -- they need to go back to work in order to get the money to rebuild, but when they return to work they don't have sufficient time to devote to the reconstruction. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that FEMA is threatening to take away the trailers that provide temporary shelter during the gutting and renovation.

What next? Some will question the wisdom of rebuilding in that part of the world, where another storm could undo any reconstruction. Many of the displaced residents themselves won't want to return to Buras, having started new, possibly more secure lives elsewhere. From what we were told, only about 10% have returned to rebuild so far. There's no question in my mind that the residents deserve our support as they recover from this disaster and try to begin anew. I do think that there are lessons to be learned and changes that will need to be made to prepare for and prevent future loss of life and property. There's no way to foresee and prevent a future disaster, but there are ways to mitigate the affects of a storm.

The situation reiterated one particular point in my mind -- the need for strong, involved, interconnected and interdependent communities. As much as we as a society like to promote the idea of extreme individualism, self-reliance, and a Do-It-Yourself ethos, it is a paradigm that only works under ideal circumstances. The reality is that we will always experience crises on a personal and communal level, and the only way to survive them is by having a strong safety net that provides support for the worst off among us during the worst of times. It's the reason humans formed societies to begin with -- realizing that the best way to ensure individual survival is through cooperation and collaboration with others who have the same goals.

We are all our sisters' and brothers' keepers. It's a lesson taught by the sacred texts of most religions, but one that's been lost in the simplistic, moralistic preaching into which modern faith has devolved.

Lessons learned in Louisiana

A couple days and 1,000 miles removed from the situation in Southern Louisiana, I'm still trying to figure out the lessons to be learned from the experience. Buras was a community that prided itself on its self reliance, and in many ways I think that's made the recovery all the more difficult. There is no way to rebuild and recover from such a tragedy without a strong social network to support the efforts.

As far as I can determine, there was no real community leadership in Buras before the storm (especially in government), so there's been a tremendous void post-Katrina. Emergency Communities and some active and dedicated local residents are now filling that vacuum, and I have no doubt that they'll get the job done to the best of their abilities.

It's an object lesson to the rest of us, and we need to recognize the importance of planning, peparedness, prevention and a strong social safety net. Creating a disaster plan is a tremendously complex and difficult task, and even the best one can't prepare us for every eventuality. That said, the work has to be done.

What truly scares me is the fact that we're already being forced to deal with tremendous cuts to social services locally due to budget problems in Cook County. The gutting of these services will further hamper us in any attempts to prepare for the possibility of an emergency situation.

The human capital of many caring individuals, such as those I met in Buras, will see us through some problems, but without real leadership and community these efforts will be disorganized, inefficient and unproductive.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Life in Buras, LA -- Day 5 (Farewell)

Friday was our last day volunteering in Buras with Emergency Communities, and the quiet final farewell was made with mixed emotions. I was definitely satisfied that we'd done all we could to help for the 5 days we were in Buras, but it passed by so fast that I couldn't help but feel it still wasn't enough. I was happy to go home to the simple comforts of a bed and flush toilet, but sad that I was leaving behind a community still in great need.

We met some wonderful folks during our stay, and I hope that we can stay in touch with them and the community so that we can keep tabs on the recovery and support it in some way going forward. I don't think it will be the last time I see Buras, and I'll carry the hope that I'll be pleasantly surprised the next time I do.

Here's a short recap of our final day there:

After helping to unload the weekly shipment of supplies, we gave a hand with the serving of breakfast and post-meal cleanup. My friends Hari and Neal pose from the serving line below. Hari drove down with Terry and I after hearing about the trip at the Red Line in Rogers Park a few weeks ago (I'd say that it was a chance encounter, but Terry says there are no coincidences). We met Neal at EC, and worked long and hard with him in the kitchen discovering along the way a kindred spirit.

Terry and I then headed down to the bottom of the peninsula to see the Venice Marina. The following pictures are all from that little excursion. Venice lies about 15 miles south of Buras and is the point furthest south in Louisiana (as the sign indicates), where the Mississippi meets the Gulf. It's been rebuilt and is proudly proclaimed as the "fishing capitol of the world". There's one reminder of the storm, an SUV floating in the water, but otherwise it's a beautiful little spot of Nature at the bottom of the country and shows the promise of the area's recovery.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Life in Buras, LA -- Day 4 (Photo Essay)

I'll let the pictures do the talking for this post. These pictures were taken in the area immediately around the former YMCA complex that forms the base of Emergency Communities. You can get a sense of the devastation down here just from these few shots. The tent is where I'm sleeping at night, it's in what used to be a gym -- one of the basketball hoops is still operational and I've put it to good use.

Life in Buras, LA -- Day 3

I had two very interesting conversations with residents today. I also made my first trip "off-site" and got a chance to tutor some local children.

The first discussion was with a woman who talked about the problems people are having with government and the insurance companies. She personally had to "reject" two trailers that FEMA tried to send her, because she quite evidently didn't need them -- she was already living in one. That kind of bungling shouldn't be too surprising considering FEMA's ineptness immediately after the storm hit.

She also described the problems with money getting to the "lower parish," in the south of the peninsula where Buras is located. Most of the relief funds have been spent in the "upper" part of Plaquemines Parish closer to New Orleans. She characterized it as a result of the local government's bias toward the upper parish, which is better off both in the financial sense and as in not suffering the same scale of damage as the lower parish, where Katrina first made landfall.

As far as the insurance companies, they managed to wiggle out of proper payments to residents by claiming that the damage was caused by whatever wasn't covered in the policies -- wind or water.

Related to the FEMA trailer story I talked about in an earlier post, a volunteer working with us has read that FEMA signed an 18 month contract with a trailer manufacturer and part of that agreement was that the trailers get destroyed at the end of the period to prevent glutting the market. It's something straight out of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath where food was destroyed rather than given away to the hungry, but this time it's the government taking away people's homes in order to preserve a private company's profits.

The second conversation I had was with a resident who rode out the storm by sitting in a tree for 3 days. He and his family used a boat to get 40 feet above ground and then had the water lapping at their feet as it was roiled by the ferocious winds. Unbelievably he and the 5 others he was with made it out alive -- dropping out of the branches when the water subsided some and then walking along the levee until the Coast Guard finally picked them up. His 3 dogs weren't so lucky.

It's become apparent that a lot of the residents down here really appreciate the chance to tell their stories to a sympathetic listener. That and a place where they can not just get a free meal, but sit down with the other locals and volunteers and regain a real sense of community once more. It's why they're so grateful for the work that Emergency Communities is doing out of the old YMCA here.

Besides my usual kitchen duties -- the residents have been quite pleased with the quality of the meals since Terry Feingold started doing his magic in the kitchen here (with my small help) -- I also got a chance to "tutor" some kids after school at a local elementary school. It was a pretty cool experience, even though it was just helping the teacher give some kindergarden students a little individual attention while they did their homework, read books, and colored. Two of the little girls gave me hugs, and that was a nice little payment for the day's efforts.

I took a number of photos today, and I'll get them up tomorrow when I recharge the camera's batteries. I even have one of a refrigerator stuck in a tree about 20 feet above ground.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Life in Buras, LA -- Day 2

It's been a long day working in the kitchen here (helping to prepare two meals, and cleaning up after one), but it was definitely a productive and rewarding one.

Emergency communities serves 3 meals a day to the residents here. They also operate a free laundromat, library, tool exchange, and Internet center. The volunteers (some from Americorps, others just concerned folks like us) also do work off-site helping with the gutting and rebuilding efforts.

We've talked to a few of the residents here, along with the volunteers (some who have been here several months), and there's a mixture of anger, frustration, hope and determination. Buras was mainly a fishing community and the residents here lost their homes and livelihoods. We're told that the storm surge was 35 feet high, and so the whole town, which sits below sea level, was completely immersed during Katrina. For most, all that remains of their homes is the concrete slabs of the foundations.

One resident talked of the real possibility that a unique culture, not just a community could be lost. The people of Buras knew how to live off the bayous, and that lifestyle is definitely being threatened by the slow recovery. Why has it been so slow -- that's a tough question and the answer appears to be pretty complicated. I'm still trying to figure it out based on the stories I'm hearing. Certainly, the scale of the devastation is a major factor. There's no doubt the people here are passionate about getting their community back.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Life in Buras, LA -- Day 1

We arrived in Buras this morning, and I'm still trying to get my bearings a little, so I'll keep this brief. There will be more to write later, and I'll post some pictures as well.

Even more than 18 months after Katrina hit, there's a lot of damage to be seen down here. We've heard a few stories so far, and I'm sure we'll hear more in the days to come. The basic drift of what we've heard is that the government hasn't done much to help the people here who are trying to rebuild their lives.

It's hard to sort fact from rumor at this point, but many believe that the government would like the land for other purposes (oil exploration, perhaps), so they're being less than cooperative in order to push people to sell rather than rebuild. Same story as in the 9th ward where houses are allegedly being condemned and taken via eminent domain if not gutted by a certain deadline. I'm told that as of this September, FEMA is even taking back the trailers it gave to people as temporary housing even though most just completed the gutting of their old homes and can't possibly have them in livable condition by then.

The people of Buras are extremely nice and appreciative of the help they're receiving from the Emergency Communities group I'm volunteering with. One man told me that all the help has given him new faith in humanity.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Off to Louisiana with senses on my mind and a song on my lips

In a few hours I'll be headed down South to Buras, Louisiana to see what damage Katrina wrought, and try to lend a hand or two to help. I'll try my best to post regularly while down there, but I don't know what the Internet situation will be.

Before I go, I wanted to mention an extremely interesting article I read in Wired's April issue (I know, I've been mentioning the mag a lot this past week). The piece is called Mixed Feelings by Sunny Bains and the tag line on it is:

See with your tongue. Navigate with your skin. Fly by the seat of your pants (literally). How researchers can tap the plasticity of the brain to hack our 5 senses — and build a few new ones.
Briefly, it talks about the adaptability of the human brain and describes several scientific experiments that show we can perceive the world in new unconventional ways. In one example, electrical pulses are applied to the human tongue to transmit visual information to the brain, enabling the subjects to "see" without their eyes. Interestingly, some people who have had their senses "hacked" have a difficult time adjusting back to the old ways of experiencing the world.

Reading these types of stories gives me the impression that we're on the verge of some pretty major advances in both medicine and the development of artificial intelligence. My guess is, the science will butt up against the usual resistance, especially in the faith communities.

Through loose association, the story brought to mind an old favorite song, and since I've been neglecting to post lyrics lately I thought I'd get back in the saddle.

Senses Working Overtime by XTC

Hey, hey, the clouds are whey
There's straw for the donkeys
And the innocents can all sleep safely
All sleep safely

My, my, Sun is pie
There's fodder for the cannons
And the guilty ones can all sleep safely
All sleep safely

And all the world is football-shaped
It's just for me to kick in space
And I can see, hear, smell, touch, taste
And I've got one, two, three, four, five
Senses working overtime
Trying to take this all in
I've got one, two, three, four, five
Senses working overtime
Trying to taste the difference
'tween a lemon and lime
Pain and pleasure
And the church bells softly chime

Hey hey, night fights day
There's food for the thinkers
And the innocents can all live slowly
All live slowly

My, my, the sky will cry
Jewels for the thirsty
And the guilty ones can all die slowly
All die slowly

And all the world is biscuit-shaped
It's just for me to feed my face
And I can see, hear, smell, touch, taste
And I've got one, two, three, four, five
Senses working overtime
Trying to take this all in
I've got one, two, three, four, five
Senses working overtime
Trying to taste the difference
'tween a lemon and lime
Pain and pleasure
And the church bells softly chime

And birds might fall from black skies
And bullies might give you black eyes
And buses might skid on black ice
But to me its very, very beautiful

And all the world is football-shaped
It's just for me to kick in space
And I can see, hear, smell, touch, taste
And I've got one, two, three, four, five
Senses working overtime
Trying to take this all in
I've got one, two, three, four, five
Senses working overtime
Trying to tell the difference
'tween the goods and grime
Dirt and treasure
And it's one, two, three, four, five
Senses working overtime
Trying to take this all in
I've got one, two, three, four, five
Senses working overtime
Trying to taste the difference
'tween a lemon and lime
Pain and pleasure
And the church bells softly chime

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Favorite Mammal Episode VI: The Raccoon Dog

Episode Six of BBC's Life of Mammals is entitled The Opportunists and it features omnivores -- those animals who have diversified their diets so that they can more easily adapt to changes in their environments (and avoid the fate of specialized eaters like the Giant Panda when loss of habitat occurs).

My favorite animal among this grouping is the Raccoon Dog found in East Asia -- what can I say, I'm fond of dogs. It is the only member of the dog family that hibernates during the winter. Also interesting is that it's the female of the species who hunts up food for the pups while the father takes care of them back at their den. The video includes some nice footage of the mother returning to her young with various tidbits (meat, eggs, etc.) for them to fight over while she goes back out for more.

Other highlights of the episode include:
  • The Babirusa, a usually solitary wild pig from the Sulawesi forest, socializing on a river bank.
  • A Skunk sightlessly feeding on baby bats that had fallen from a cave ceiling, and then finding a chance for love in the unexpected place.
  • Grisly Bears diving into streams to feed on Salmon as they spawn in Alaska.
  • A Raccoon using its sensitive hands to feel the bottom of a creek bed in search of food (including delicately evading the pincers of a crayfish while grabbing it).
  • A rat carrying its young one-by-one to a more elevated hole as a sewer fills up with water.

Favorite Mammal Episode V: The Bush Dog

Episode Five of the BBC's Life of Mammals features The Meateaters -- the various cats and dogs who hunt for their sustenance.

My favorite among these predators, and one that's probably the most rare, is the South American Bush Dog. It is the only member of the dog family that has webbed feet. The St. Louis Zoo, which I've visited, has bush dogs, and their web site's South America page (from which I got the photo here) includes a short video of one swimming. You can also get much more info about the bush dog from Wikipedia's article, which has some good external links.

Other highlights from the episode:
  • A Marten jumping from branch to branch chasing birds.
  • A Fennec Fox deftly trying to subdue a venomous snake
  • A Cheetah using its tremendous speed and agility to chase down a Gazelle

Favorite Mammals Episode IV: Mole Rats, Beavers, and Capybara

Continuing my cataloging of cool animals from the BBC's Life of Mammal series, I've got three interesting ones to highlight this post. The fourth episode of the series is titled The Chisellers, and it deals with some very adaptable rodents. Here are my favorites, which inhabit very different environments and have correspondingly very different behaviors.

The Naked Mole Rat

These little animals from East Africa are the only hairless rodent, and they have some other very unique traits:
  • Like social insects, there is a queen who breeds and worker rats who are sterile and handle the digging of tunnels and procuring of food.
  • Their lips seal behind their protruding teeth to prevent dirt from flying in their mouths as they dig.
  • They can walk equally fast both backward and forward.
The Beaver

It's not a very exotic choice (at least to those of us in North America), but it's engineering feats make it one of the most amazing animals on the planet. The video has some amazing footage of Beavers at work building and maintaining a dam, felling trees, storing branches in the refrigerating cool waters of the lake they created, and passing the winter in their well-insulated lodge. It's a very industrious little creature. It also has an amazing capacity to hold its breath underwater, a trait that serves it well in eluding its predators, and doing its day-to-day tasks.

The Capybara

This is the largest rodent in the world at about 4 feet long and 110 lbs, and it resembles an overgrown guinea pig. The Capybara is indigenous to South America. It is as fast as a small horse on land, but also well-adapted to water so that they can navigate the flooded grasslands during rainy season.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Lessons from the squared circle

On Thursday night, my friends and I partook in the very old-school Chicago past-time of watching the fights. More specifically, we took in the action at the Golden Gloves boxing tournament being held this week at St. Andrew's Church in Wrigleville.

The bouts were well-fought and hard won, and the crowd was in good spirits. All the winners and losers, both men and women, novice and expert, battled fiercely but showed admirable sportsmanship throughout.

After a brutally long and nasty political season, there is definitely a lesson to be learned from these young people who went toe-to-toe in the ring. Give it every last ounce of your strength, do everything you can to out-maneuver your opponent (within the rules), and after it's all over give each other a congratulatory hug and move on to the next fight.

Remembering Kurt Vonnegut

Author Kurt Vonnegut died Wednesday in New York at the age of 84. I've read and enjoyed several of his novels, including Slaughterhouse Five and Cat's Cradle. He also made an amusing little cameo in the otherwise forgettable Rodney Dangerfield movie Back to School. He will be missed.

What came to my mind first on hearing about his death, was his description of the character Billy Pilgrim's death in Slaughterhouse Five. In that story, Billy has become "unstuck" in time and bounces between different events in his life. At one point he is abducted from Earth and put on display in a zoo by the aliens of Tralfamador. There he learns about the Tralfamadorian's different sense of time -- seeing all events past, present and future as occurring at once. It is with that perspective in mind that he recounts his own death not as an ending but as just one piece in the ever unfolding story of his life.

So it is that Mr. Vonnegut's death is made less sad by the wonderful works of fiction he left us to keep his memory and keen insight alive.

Here's a blurb from the story on his passing from Thursday's New York Times:

Kurt Vonnegut, Counterculture’s Novelist, Dies
by Dinitia Smith

Kurt Vonnegut, whose dark comic talent and urgent moral vision in novels like "Slaughterhouse-Five," "Cat’s Cradle" and "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" caught the temper of his times and the imagination of a generation, died last night in Manhattan. ...

Mr. Vonnegut wrote plays, essays and short fiction. But it was his novels that became classics of the American counterculture, making him a literary idol, particularly to students in the 1960s and ’70s. Dog-eared paperback copies of his books could be found in the back pockets of blue jeans and in dorm rooms on campuses throughout the United States.

Like Mark Twain, Mr. Vonnegut used humor to tackle the basic questions of human existence: Why are we in this world? Is there a presiding figure to make sense of all this, a god who in the end, despite making people suffer, wishes them well?

Read the full article

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Hacking into politics: A movement toward open source government?

I'll give fair warning, this is just the kernel of an idea that's been ruminating in the fertile but sometimes errant gray matter of my brain ...

What's been troubling me of late is the very adversarial nature of politics these days. Rather than proposing and pursuing policies that lift us up out of the morass of social problems in which we find ourselves mired, representatives of both major parties are more preoccupied with discrediting their opponents.

I think the core issue is that our political system has become hopelessly outdated. Our government is so torn apart by polarizing ideologies that it can't possibly engage in a productive conversation that charts a course forward. Whereas the technological changes transforming our economy have started to manifest themselves in the business and cultural spheres, politics lags behind.

I'm a pretty avid reader of Wired magazine, and although I don't always agree with their viewpoint, the featured articles in the April issue (Get Naked and Rule the World: Why Exposing Yourself is the Future of Business) got me thinking ... yes, a dangerous prospect.

Our current political model is informed by the ideas that arose and served an era of Industrial Capitalism. This has also been true for every other social sphere -- take a look at the way our education system turns out students like a factory produces widgets -- but gradually and unevenly things are starting to change based on a new economy.

Just like the old ecomonic model, which emphasized proprietary ownership, exclusiveness and competition, our two-party system is marked by an adversarial, winner-take-all mentality. This of course runs counter to the values of the new economy, which stresses tranparency, inclusiveness and collaboration. And I think those are the values that would best serve our democracy as they encourage a degree of involvement by the electorate that has been lacking for quite some time (if not forever).

What I'm suggesting is not a simple polling of public opinion. What's needed is an Open-Source model for politics and government. I'm certainly not able to flesh out the details in a blog post, so I'm just trying to start a conversation to see where it leads. I think initially it would have to be developed as a very local model.

Policies could be proposed and posted in a public forum, and then people can have at the details, tinkering with them until a consensus is arrived at after a set period of time. It's a model that would emphasize and value contributions from everyone willing to participate, not just those who pull the political reigns at the moment.

Blogging through the muck

In April's edition of Wired magazine, there is an article entitled The See Through CEO that includes the following paragraph that I found interesting:

Secrecy is dying. It's probably already dead. In a world where Eli Lilly's internal drug-development memos, Paris Hilton's phonecam images, Enron's emails, and even the governor of California's private conversations can be instantly forwarded across the planet, trying to hide something illicit - trying to hide anything, really - is an unwise gamble. So many blogs rely on scoops to drive their traffic that muckraking has become a sort of mass global hobby. Radical transparency has even reached the ultrasecretive world of Washington politics: The nonprofit Sunlight Foundation has begun putting zillions of public documents in elegantly searchable online databases, leaving it to interested citizens to connect the dots. One adroit digger recently discovered that former House Speaker Dennis Hastert had earmarked $200 million for a highway to be built near a property he had a stake in. When the property was sold, Hastert made a 500 percent profit on his original investment, provoking a wave of negative coverage.
The discussion of transparency and the end of secrecy is an intriguing one, and whether it's actually true and desirable in the worlds of business or politics could be debated at length. It is, however, the sentence on blogs (my emphasis added) that I find instructive at this particular moment.

There is a Wild Wild West atmosphere on blogs right now, where anything goes and the rules are still ill-defined, especially when it comes to politics. I think the biggest mistake a politician can make is to try to control that discussion. Instead, they need to learn how to engage it on some level so that they become an integral part of the conversation. Of course that's a daunting proposition given the toxic environment currently being cultivated on most blogs.

The biggest asset of the Internet as a medium is its ability to radically democratize different fields. Certainly that applies to blog journalism, where anybody can put finger to keyboard and bang out a story on what's happening locally.

With the abdication of investigative journalism by the mainstream media, especially at the neighborhood level, someone has to fill that void and it's a positive thing that local voices are emerging to do so. The Internet gives bloggers a potential audience that they could never reach in print. The trick of course is attracting that audience.

Some take the easy way out and try to increase traffic to their sites by succumbing to sensationalism, as pointed out in the article. Most readers, however, are more savvy than we think, and they'll catch on to that game quickly enough and tune out the blather. For those bloggers who stick to the high road, embrace credibility, and win the trust of their readership, the payoff will be much greater.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Favorite Song of the Day (04.10.2007)

I'm a firm believer in karma, and that all chickens do come home to roost. There's definitely some karmic imbalance going on right now politically, socially, economically and environmentally. You know what they say, payback's a bitch (not to mention blowback).

Karma Police by Radiohead

karma police, arrest this man
he talks in math
he buzzes like a fridge
he's like a detuned radio

karma police, arrest this girl
her hitler hairdo
is making me feel ill
and we have crashed her party

this is what you get. this is what you get.
this is what you get. when you mess with us.

karma police, i've given all i can
it's not enough,
i've given all i can
but we're still on the payroll

this is what you get. this is what you get.
this is what you get. when you mess with us.

for a minute
i lost myself
i lost myself

Favorite Mammal Episode III: The Gerenuk

Speaking of heads in the clouds, here's an animal that can get pretty high trying to eat its favorite food, the leaves of the Acacia tree: The Gerenuk.

Episode 3 of the BBC's Life of Mammals is entitled "Plant Pradators" and it deals with the multitude of mammals who eat vegetation in its various forms, and the unique challenges this diet creates. The instincutal intelligence that's evolved for these animals is quite impressive, allowing them to uniquely adapt to their environments. One example of this are the Elephants who have become salt miners, scraping cave walls with their tusks in order to compensate for the mineral diffeciencies caused by their usual plant eating ways.

And then there's the small Pika from the Canadian Rockies, which looks like a round-eared rabbit, and collects plants with varying degrees of toxicity to build up its winter stores (the poisons preserve the vegetation through the cold, so the least toxic plants are eaten first and the most toxic toward the end of the season).

As for the Gerenuk, it's one of several animals who eat different strata of the Acacia, ranging from the small Dik-Dik to the majestic Giraffe. It's able to reach branches that animals of comparable size, for example the Impala, can't because of the Gerenuk's ability to swivel on its hips and stand upright. Now that's one intelligent design!

Favorite Song of the Day (04.09.2007)

Not so long distance dedication: This one goes out to all the folks in the 'hood who've got their heads in strange places right now ... try to get a grip before you lose it entirely.

Makes No Sense At All by Husker Du

Walking around with your head in the clouds
Makes no sense at all
Sell yourself short, but you're walking so tall
Makes no sense at all
Is it important? You're yelling so loud
Makes no sense at all
Walking around with your head in the clouds
Makes no sense at all
Makes no difference at all

I don't know why you want to tell me
When I'm right or when I'm wrong
It's the same thing, in your mind, the only time
I'm right is when I play along

Walking around with your head in the clouds
Makes no sense at all
Sell yourself short, but you're walking so tall
Makes no sense at all
Is it important? You're yelling so loud
Makes no sense at all
Walking around with your head in the clouds
Makes no sense at all
Makes no difference at all

You concern yourself with evidence
It's evident to me
Well you say you've got the tiger by the tail
But I don't see these things that way

Walking around with your head in the clouds
Makes no sense at all
Sell yourself short, but you're walking so tall
Makes no sense at all
Is it important? You're yelling so loud
Makes no sense at all
Walking around with your head in the clouds
Makes no sense at all
Makes no difference at all

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Happy Eostre!

In case you've been troubled by the seeming disconnect between the Christian holiday of Easter and the fertility imagery (eggs, chicks, bunnies) that is commercially linked to it (an incongruity raised with the usual skewed humor in this week's episode of South Park), the answer lies in the derivation of the holiday's name.

Here's how the Etymology section of the Wikipedia Easter article explains it:

The English name, "Easter", and the German, "Ostern", derive from the name of Germanic Goddess of the Dawn (thus, of spring, as the dawn of the year) - called Ēaster, Ēastre, and Ēostre, in various dialects of Old English. In England, the annual festive time in her honor was in the "Month of Easter" or Ēosturmonath, equivalent to April/Aprilis.
This interpretation is based on the writings of 8th Century historian the Venerable Bede. The fertility imagery certainly synchs up much more with pre-Chrisitan vernal celebrations than a commemoration of the resurrection of Christ. It's interesting to note that the rest of the Western languages use words for the holiday derived from the Hebrew word for Passover -- Pesach -- as many believe the last Supper was in fact a Seder meal.

So, as you bite the head off your next chocolate bunny, think about how you might actually be honoring the Pagan goddess of the dawn.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Getting their signals crossed

Like chocolate bunnies, baskets full of Peeps, and hiding dyed eggs, one of the annual Easter rituals is for devout Fillipinos (and others) to nail themselves to a cross. (And if you think there's something a bit strange about the mixture of pagan fertility imagery with the Christian resurrection story, you're not alone.)

Although I do admire the religious fervor of those willing to actually nail their limbs to a piece of wood, I think that there are better ways to emulate Jesus. How about by performing a selfless act that benefits the poor, hungry, homeless, or gravely ill? Wouldn't that be something that truly commemorates the holiday?

Below is one account of the crucifixions from the Washinton Post, just to prove I'm not making it up:

Filipino Devotees Nailed to Cross
The Associated Press

SAN PEDRO CUTUD, Philippines -- Seven devotees were nailed to crosses on Good Friday in a northern Philippine village where the rites drew thousands of tourists and spectators.

The Lenten ritual is opposed by religious leaders in the Philippines _ Southeast Asia's largest predominantly Roman Catholic nation. But it has persisted to become one of the country's most-awaited summer attractions in San Fernando City's San Pedro Cutud village.

The devotees' palms and feet were attached to wooden crosses with 4-inch nails soaked in alcohol to prevent infection after a nearly mile-long walk to the mound, each carrying a wooden cross on their backs.

Read the full article

Friday, April 06, 2007

Favorite Mammal Episode II: The Pangolin

Episode two of the 2002 BBC series Life of Mammals is entitled "Insect Hunters" and it takes a look at various shrews (woodland and water), moles, hedgehogs, anteaters and bats (essentially shrews with wings). Of these, one of the most interesting to me is the African Pangolin (pictured at left, courtesy of the African Wildlife Foundation). A body covered with hard keratin scales give it the look of a small dinosaur as it ambles along on its hind legs.

Here are a few interesting facts about Pangolins:
  • They are toothless
  • Their ears have special valves to keep ants out
  • They roll themselves into a ball to defend themselves
  • They have anal scent glands like skunks
  • They swallow small stones to help their digestion
  • They have very long tongues (up to 16 inches) and sticky saliva

You can read more about Pangolins at:

AWF Pangolin Page Pangolin Page

Other cool little insect hunters (linked to more info):

The Golden Mole (a "sand swimmer")
The Star-nosed Mole (has 22 little "arms" protruding from its nose)
The Sengi or Elephant Shrew (creates tidy trails on which it sprints to evade predators)

Thursday, April 05, 2007

An introduction to the Echidna

I'm watching DVDs of the BBC series The Life of Mammals with David Attenborough (see the IMDB listing for more details), which takes a very long and interesting look at the huge variety of animals in the mammalian class.

The first episode deals with the mammals who are closest to those that evolved 200 million years ago, Monotremes (egg-layers) and Marsupials (pouches). There are only two surviving monotremes: the Platypus and the Echidna. I'd never seen or heard of the latter, and it's pretty damn cool looking, in my humble opinion -- a cross between a hedge hog and an anteater.

The Echidna page has info on the animal from a number of different sources. The photo here is courtesy of the Ryan Photographic website, which has some really cool Nature shots.

I'll probably put up info on other animals as I watch the rest of the series.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

It's not so easy being King (Bhumibol Adulyadej)

I bet you thought that being a monarch was a pretty cushy gig. Well, it's not all sunshine and lollypops. Some people just don't respect royalty the way they should, and they can do some pretty hurtful things -- like draw clowny faces on your picture -- those brutes.

The Thai Monarch has his royal drawers in a twist over a YouTube video that's been deemed insulting. It's quite a childish little vid (you can watch it here, while it's still available) that most folks would dismiss as so, but it's gotten much more attention than it deserves because the Thai government is now banning access to YouTube to keep its citizens from watching it.

The Thai elected government was overthrown by a military junta last year, so it's no real surprise that they'd resort to such heavy handed tactics (read the Wikipedia article on Thailand). My guess is that YouTube is the least of the king's concerns, considering the current political situation there. If he wants to see what real attack videos look like, he should check out how US politicos get treated (George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton are just two examples).

Here are excerpts from the New York Times article on the story:

Thailand Bans YouTube

BANGKOK, April 4 — Thailand’s military-appointed government blocked access to YouTube and several other Internet sites on Wednesday in a crackdown on material that denigrates the country’s monarch.

"We have blocked YouTube because it contains a video insulting to our king," said Winai Yoosabai, head of the censorship unit at the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology.

Thailand’s ban of YouTube, the popular video-sharing Web site, came after YouTube's owner, Google, refused to remove the video clip, the communications minister, Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom, said.

The clip, crude and amateurish and lasting less than a minute, depicts the king with clown features painted onto his face and an image of feet pasted over his head, a highly insulting gesture in Thailand.

Read the full article

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Ghost of Scotty to Haunt Space Aliens

Now we get our revenge on all those probin' ETs out there by spreading the ashes of our dearly departed in their backyard. May the brogue of Star Trek Actor James Doohan's ghost disrupt them the next time they fondle the bum of an unfortunate abductee.

Here's an excerpt from the AP story:
Doohan's ashes to be blasted into space
© 2007 The Associated Press

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — The ashes of James Doohan, who played chief engineer Montgomery "Scotty" Scott on the original "Star Trek" TV series, have been loaded into a rocket that is set to launch in New Mexico later this month.

The remains of Doohan, Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper and some 200 others were loaded into the rocket Friday by Charles Chafer, chief executive of Celestis, a Houston company that contracts with rocket firms to send cremated remains into space.

Read the full article

Favorite Song of the Day (04.02.07)

Gotta Serve Somebody by Bob Dylan

You may be an ambassador to England or France,
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance,
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world,
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

You might be a rock 'n' roll addict prancing on the stage,
You might have drugs at your command, women in a cage,
You may be a business man or some high degree thief,
They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

You may be a state trooper, you might be a young Turk,
You may be the head of some big TV network,
You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame,
You may be living in another country under another name

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

You may be a construction worker working on a home,
You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome,
You might own guns and you might even own tanks,
You might be somebody's landlord, you might even own banks

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride,
You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side,
You may be workin' in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair,
You may be somebody's mistress, may be somebody's heir

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

Might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk,
Might like to drink whiskey, might like to drink milk,
You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread,
You may be sleeping on the floor, sleeping in a king-sized bed

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

You may call me Terry, you may call me Timmy,
You may call me Bobby, you may call me Zimmy,
You may call me R.J., you may call me Ray,
You may call me anything but no matter what you say

You're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

Copyright © 1979 Special Rider Music

Monday, April 02, 2007

Google Maps of Katrina Damage: Back to the Future

I read with particular interest a news item that Google Maps has replaced its images of areas hit by Hurricane Katrina with earlier satellite photos taken pre-storm. In two weeks I'm heading down to volunteer with Emergency Communities in Buras, LA, where Katrina first made landfall, and all the reports I've read indicate the damaged areas still have a long way to go before recovery.

I don't know if this is some grand conspiracy, but Google is doing all concerned a disservice if they in anyway convey the misinformation that these areas are back to normal. See an excerpt from an AP story below the following, current Google satellite image of Buras. I'll be giving a full report of what I see down there in a couple weeks.

On Google map, everything's back to normal after Katrina
Satellite imagery of devastated coast as it once was fuels talk of conspiracy
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — Google's popular map portal has replaced post-Hurricane Katrina satellite imagery with pictures taken before the storm, leaving locals feeling like they're in a time loop and even fueling suspicions of a conspiracy.

Scroll across the city and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and everything is back to normal: Marinas are filled with boats, bridges are intact and parks are filled with healthy trees.

"Come on," said an incredulous Ruston Henry, president of the economic development association in New Orleans' devastated Lower 9th Ward. "Just put in big bold this: 'Google, don't pull the wool over the world's eyes. Let the truth shine.' "

Read the full article

Sunday, April 01, 2007

April Fools: Fish or Fowl?

It may seem like a strange question, but depending on whose tradition you observe, the symbol of the holiday can be either a cuckoo (Scottish) or a dead fish (French). I'm kind of partial to the latter, just because it makes better eating.

Below is an extract from Wikipedia's article on the origins of April Fools day. An interesting side note is that Wikipedia is preventing editing of the story today, as they're afraid of the pranks folks might pull in accordance with the holiday. As always on this day, read everything with a healthy dose of skepticism.

... Though the 1st of April appears to have been anciently observed in Great Britain as a general festival, it was apparently not until the beginning of the 18th century that the making of April-fools was a common custom.

In Scotland the custom was known as "hunting the gowk," i.e. the cuckoo, and April-fools were "April-gowks," the cuckoo being there, as it is in many countries, a term of contempt.

In France the person fooled is known as poisson d'avril. This has been explained from the association of ideas arising from the fact that in April the sun quits the zodiacal sign of the fish. A far more natural explanation would seem to be that the April fish would be a young fish and therefore easily caught. The French traditionally celebrated this holiday by placing dead fish on the backs of friends. Today the fish has been replaced with paper cut-out. ...

Favorite Song of the Day (April Fools)

Offend in Every Way by the White Stripes

I'm patient of this plan
as humble as I can
i'll wait another day
before i turn away
but know this much is true
no matter what i do
offend in every way
i don't know what to say

you tell me to relax
and listen to these facts
that everyone's my friend
and will be till the end
but know this much is true
no matter what i do
no matter what i say
offend in every way

i'm walking through the door
but they're expecting more
of an interesting man
and sometimes i think i can
but how much can i take
i'll speak until i break
with every word i say
offend in every way