Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Zooming in on your reality

The July Issue of Wired magazine had an interesting feature on Google Maps and the way it is democratizing the skills of mapmaking, which have always been a powerful tool for those trying to define reality (see the article Google Maps Is Changing the Way We See the World). By allowing users to share their maps annotated with descriptions of the places that make up their world, Google is spreading the information wealth that had been the reserve of the political elites of eras past.

One of the interesting sidebars to the piece includes a tidbit about a new technology that allows cell phone users to call up information on buildings they pass on the street. Here's an excerpt:
What if you could walk down an unfamiliar street, use your camera phone to take a picture of a building, and instantly know everything about it, from the architect to the list of tenants. The technology to make common objects clickable, like hyperlinked words on a Web site, is available today in the form of 2-D barcodes. These digital tags look like empty crossword puzzles. Users create them online, print them out, and paste them around the city. Then anyone with a phonecam can "click" on them.
As with all technological innovations, this one has the potential for mischief as well as enlightenment. I don't know how the information is being vetted, but it's pretty easy to imagine pranksters creating bogus entries about a place they don't like. Spammers could create faux barcodes that call up unsolicited ads, or law enforcement could encode personal information that jeopardizes tenants' privacy.

I can also imagine the technology getting spread out to other objects in our environment, leading to a chattering world of smart buildings, buses, cars, and trains beaming their various messages to passersby ... much as the information swarm depicted in the film Minority Report.

At some point we may also see barcodes on people, either stitched into apparel or tattooed on skin. You could share your bio, blog address, email and cell number with anyone wanting to network, socialize or hookup. The creatively vengeful might even take the opportunity to spread some sensitive insider scoop about an ex-partner by surreptitiously hanging a strategic link on their back like a virtual kick-me sign.

As always, those who control the information technology will determine its uses, so master it as soon as you can.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Like to like, each to each ...

by Francis Scudellari

Like to like, each to each, ever more attracting
Our self-same, seeing the same selves separating
Uni(n)formed, in-clothed, a-dressing as one, closing
Minds walled off, a-side, to smaller corners pulling

Pushing the other into e’er tighter clutches
Opening debates to expose those thought poor-minded
Uniting behind berms built high, borders made bold
Alien-making, light darkened, us them-ed, untied

I, left staring at the lone self mirrored
Your right wrongly made, different, a-part, not-us
Both now looking through a glass suddenly rubbed clear
T(w)o see our goal won, none, abandoned, no other

Toying around with the past

I've rediscovered yet another old friend from my childhood. His face, or more appropriately faces, may be familiar to you:

Yes, the inimitable Mr. Potato Head! Our relationship dates back to the early days of my youth. My mother has kept some old kindergarten assignments of mine, including one where I wrote of this my favorite toy. So there's something about sticking facial features into an imitation spud that always captured my imagination.

The toy was first sold to consumers in 1952 by Hasbro, and initially didn't include a body. Kids were supposed to put the plastic bits into real vegetables. I'm not quite old enough to remember those days, but I'm sure that must have gotten quite messy so the artifical torso was tossed in by 1964.

Maybe it's an attachment to the art of disguise, or maybe it's a fondness for limitless physical transformation. Whatever the explanation, part of me has always been fond of this plastic monument to personal redefinition. You can get quite lost in choosing different combinations of eyes, nose, ears, mouth, hats and even feet to create tubermen that reflect a particular mood or fancy. My nephew Matthew got caught up in that very frenzy today as he shared in the excitement of another unboxed antiquity.

Metamorphosis is an act to be enjoyed by all ages, and adaptation is an important trait to embrace in this time of epochal change. Re-imagining ourselves and our world is a necessary step to take if we're to pass through the threshold upon which we're poised and emerge on the other side better off for the journey.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Cafe Society: This week's gleanings

Class is always in session at the Ennui Café and this week's lessons were varied and enlightening, as always. Already revved to maximum capacity by the caffeine intake, my fevered brain only retains the information received for later processing. Removed from their surrounding context the incidental connections often get lost, but it's my job to piece together the puzzling continuity.

Join me as I follow the twisted path of collective consciousness, and we'll wend our way toward a mutual understanding that is informed by decades of art, literature, and music. Coffee klatch culture is nothing if not eclectic, and there's a hint of augmented sweetness mixed in with the bitter bean's natural flavor ... so drink deeply from the unconventional cup. Here's a sampling of the topics discussed, with appropriate links in case you'd like to explore them in more depth:

Emile Nolde — I must admit my here-to-fore ignorance of the work of this German expressionist. He is known for his bold use of color and his mystical exploration of the supernatural (his painting "Masks Still Life" appears above). He was listed as a "degenerate" artist by the Nazis and forbidden from painting during the war, but during those years he secretly produced a series of watercolors he called "unpainted pictures." Interestingly, he was a member and supporter of the party early on. He certainly wasn't the only German to get swept up in the wave of nationalism only to become victimized by its hateful and barbaric ideology when the classification of the "other" grew broad enough to include him.

Joan Didion — An American essayist and novelist, Didion is someone I've heard of but never read. Her writing mixes the personal with social commentary, critiquing modern American culture and politics. The coffee talk was of her 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, which chronicles her grieving after the loss of her husband and was adapted into a one-woman play currently on Broadway. It's described as an interesting mix of the very personal story of Didion's mourning and a more clinical analysis of grief in general.

Gustav Mahler — The Austrian Romantic Composer's Songs of a Wayfarer (better translated as Songs of a Travelling Journeyman) was the subject of conversation as it had been performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra the night before. The song cycle, with lyrics by the composer, was allegedly inspired by an ill-fated romance and combines emotionally evocative music with German folk poetry. It mourns the loss of love, but the grief expressed is in an overly dramatic vein and the wished-for death an exaggerated conceit. Mahler himself would suffer a tragedy on par with Didion's in 1907, as his daughter died too soon at the age of five leaving him distraught.

Friday, July 27, 2007

An animated Friday, Part II

Serendipitously, today's Simpsons movie debut occurs on the 67th anniversary of the first Bugs Bunny short. In A Wild Hare, the irreverent rodent took his first starring role and an initial swipe at ongoing nemesis Elmer Fudd. Bugs set the precedent for all smart alecky cartoon characters to follow, and proved an enduring role model for yours truly.

I've always been more partial to the work of Tex Avery than that of Walt Disney — preferring clever slapstick to sap and schmaltz, which probably reveals a lot about my personality. I'll always admire Bugs' ability to draw giggles and guffaws as he tweaks the various authority figures who try to pull him out of or force him down that rabbit hole. Sometimes a well-placed wisecrack can dissipate a lot of menace.

I salute Bugs on this his birthday for teaching me the value of a keen wit and a strong sense of humor when doing battle against the absurd and the oppressive. Let's honor him by giving a figurative boot to all those real-life Elmer Fudds making our lives more difficult.

Here's how Wikipedia describes the screwy wabbit's debut:

Bugs Bunny first appeared in A Wild Hare which was directed by Tex Avery and released on July 27,1940. It was in this cartoon that he first emerged from his rabbit hole to ask Elmer Fudd, now a hunter, “What's up, Doc?" It was also the first meeting of the two characters. It is considered the first fully developed appearance of the character. Animation historian Joe Adamson counts A Wild Hare as the first "official" Bugs Bunny short. It is also the first cartoon where Mel Blanc uses the version of Bugs voice that would become the standard.

An animated Friday

The long-awaited Simpson's movie is opening across the country tonight, and I will be joining the throngs to catch it in the theater. I've been watching the cartoon craziness since the series debuted with a typically twisted Christmas special way back in 1989. It's got me so giddy in anticipation, that I'm feeling very animated right now!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

When a hand up is really a foot on the neck

Having spent some time down in post-Katrina Louisiana this past April (see Buras, LA: Final Thoughts for a recap) I try to keep up with the news regarding the region's recovery. Unfortunately that news is never very encouraging, especially if it has anything to do with the Federal Emergency Mismanagement Agency (FEMA).

The latest FEMA flap has to do with the agency's refusal to acknowledge residents' complaints about high formaldehyde levels in the trailers they were given as temporary shelter. People living in the residences have been reporting health problems for over a year, but FEMA would not conduct tests to determine the safety of the homes, allegedly fearing the legal implications of recognizing the dangers. Up until the very recent bad press clippings, FEMA even insisted on continuing to distribute the units.

Here are a few articles, if you want to get caught up on the latest:

Formaldehyde is a chemical often used in embalming and it's not something that living human beings should be breathing, as it causes severe respiratory problems. Katrina victims were given the trailers as a hand up until they could rebuild their lives, but with the deathly slow pace of recovery outside and the deadly gases inside, FEMA seems to be trying to make the homes into premature tombs.

In the area around Buras, where I volunteered this Spring, most of the homes were destroyed by the storm surge such that only their foundations remain. It was essential for the residents to have those trailers to live in while the community tried to gut and rebuild. The health hazards in the post-hurricane Gulf are already great and the care options are limited, so it's heartbreaking to find out that the FEMA trailers add their own toxicity to the mix.

For FEMA to pretend that the problem never even existed borders on the absurd, but it's par for the course considering the administration the agency serves. If you espouse a philosophy that government is too big and cumbersome to be effective, your governance will self-fulfill that prophecy.

The Bushies embrace radical privatization and free market solutions, believing that business can better provide social services. To help sell that concept to the American people, they've encouraged ignorance and incompetence in their appointed officials. For them, putting the health and well being of the American people at risk is a small price to pay for perpetuating that all consuming ideology.

(Photo by Infrogmation)

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Wading into the darkness, where Wild Things lurk

Today I did some digging into boxes around my apartment, and I found my set of Where the Wild Things Are figurines (see an example of one of the darling critters at left). For close followers of this blog, you'll remember my previous post about Maurice Sendak's funny scary creatures of the night and how they captured my imagination at a young age. They have yet to release their grip on my thought box, as I'm still quite giddy with viewing the magical little monsters that have been lurking in my closet.

If you remember the story book adventure, young Max escapes from the doldrums of his room to the land of Wild Things, the outwardly fearsome but eventually engaging monsters of his dream world. It's a book with lessons for young and old, teaching us it's better to conquer our fears than try to run from them. I've always liked following Max's lead, to seek out those things that go bump in the night. The darkness may conceal some dangers others' prefer to keep hidden, but it's also home to some treasures otherwise left unexplored. Out of the blinding hot glare of daylight, I'll continue to live on the fringes seeking my inspiration and creativity as the shadows overtake meeker souls.

To honor these spirits of my childhood and my enduring inkling toward the inky night, I'm including the lyrics of a favorite and appropriately winsome song by arty rockers Camper Van Beethoven.

Come On Darkness
by Camper Van Beethoven

Come on slowly
Won't you rise and come
To the top of this hill
Where the cool breeze spills
Now that it's dusk
Someone drive them off the street
Let the pavements cool
Come on now
So come on love
And lay your body down, next to mine
'Cause what we're longing for has withered in the light
Come on darkness
Lay your body down on us
We've been calling you for so long now
We're weary of your name
Come on blackness
Let me breathe you in
'Cause with this clattering and din we are calling you
Brother, have you got a smoke
Or baby, have you got a dime
Seems like we're all a little down on our luck
And baby if you're workin' now out in Bakersfield
At some honky-tonk they call the Wagon Wheel
I feel swept and you feel rolled away
So come on darkness, I need you today
Come on blackness, let me breathe you in
'Cause with this clattering and din I am calling you
Come on darkness
Come on darkness

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Hoosier Daddy? ... B(ig) P(olluter), an update

Last week, I posted about the State of Indiana's approval of a BP plan to dump more pollution into Lake Michigan (see B(ig) P(olluter) of Lake Michigan). The story has been percolating in the local media since then, and the public outcry in Illinois has grown loud enough for the pols in Washington, DC to notice.

As reported in the Chicago Tribune, see the excerpts below, Illinois politicians from both sides of the aisle in both the House and Senate took BP execs out to the wood shed, where they delivered a pretty simple message ... "ain't gonna happen." The Land of Lincoln has a little more clout in DC than the Hoosier state does, so this travesty of environmental policy might just get put out of our misery pretty quickly.

The article points out that there is "little political downside" for the Illinois reps to oppose this, and that's certainly true considering the refinery sits across the border, but how important can 80 new jobs really be? There has to be more to this story than the mainstream media is giving us.

What else is at stake for the state of Indiana to put the health and welfare of the whole region at risk? Was something else promised or threatened? What kind of hold does BP have on the Hoosier state? Why are they being so quiet now, even after all the negative publicity? Inquiring minds want to know.

Illinois lawmakers bash BP plan to dump waste in Lake Michigan
By Jim Tankersley and Michael Hawthorne Tribune staff reporters

WASHINGTON - Executives from the oil company BP hit a bipartisan buzz-saw on Capitol Hill Tuesday, as Illinois lawmakers rebuked them in a private meeting and the House prepared to condemn BP's plans for increasing the dumping of pollutants into Lake Michigan.

Bashing BP, which recently secured an Indiana state permit to discharge more ammonia and suspended solids from its massive oil refinery in Whiting, is a new sport for Illinois politicians who see big problems with the permit—and little political downside to attacking an oil giant over drinking water quality, especially with no Illinois jobs hanging in the balance. ...

There were no Indiana lawmakers at the meeting. They generally have been reluctant to criticize BP, at least in part because the refinery expansion would add 80 new jobs. ...

Read the full article

Monday, July 23, 2007

Thank yourself by not smoking

Today would have been my father's 78th birthday, and for me July 23rd will always be a date tinged with sadness because of his too early death in 1989. The Tobacco companies and their paid off scientists, spin doctors and apologists may deny any link between the lung cancer that decimated my father's body and his pack-a-day habit, but no one who knew him has any doubts.

Ironically, coincidentally, serendipitously — choose the word that best matches your view of fate — as if to comemmorate the anniverary of Anthony Edward Scudellari's birth, today I read that Governor Rod Blagojevich signed into law the Smoke-Free Illinois Act, which bans smoking in public places around the state begining next January (see Gov signs ban on smoking in public places from today's Chicago Sun Times)

I have many friends who smoke. I have relatives who smoke. I go to cafés and restaurants where I see smokers huddled outside doors, indulging their compulsions. I hang out in bars where I breath the emissions of 20-somethings who carelessly puff away at those leaves rolled with chemicals and toxins. I know the arguments well, having heard them flung my way like self-defending punches:
  • "It's my life and my body, and I can do what I want with them."

  • "We've all got to die of something ..."

  • "The government can't tell me what to do."

  • "I have a right to smoke where ever I want."

There's also the usual outcry from pro-business circles against the rise of what they call a "Nanny State." I could counter these arguments with my usual responses. I could discuss the social impacts of individual behaviors — both the ill-affects of second-hand smoke on non-smokers, and the way smokers' poor health escalates health care costs for the general population. I could point out that the right to operate a business is granted with the expectation that owners accede to regulations that protect and preserve the greater social good, just as individuals have to abide by the law in order to receive their civil rights.

Forget all that, however, and take some simple words of advice from someone who spent long hours and days sitting at the side of his morphine-sedated father as he lay in a hospital bed dying an agonizing death. You don't want to die that way, and you don't want to put your own family through that much sorrow.

Photo credit: Gregory Maxwell, copyright 2005

From blah day to "Blog of the Day"

Occasionally the universe conspires with others to deliver the unexpected.

Just yesterday, I lamented the fact that I lacked inspiration and direction. In my post, I wrote about a metaphorically muddy feeling, as if my muse had receded underwater to grab a hold of my ankles and keep me stuck in the muck. Thankfully, I had the White Stripes to lend their lyrics and pull me up out of my black cloud mood.

Today, the foggy mood had started to lift, when as if on cue, lo and behold, there was a lovely surprise waiting for me in my mail box. Sylvie from FuelMyBlog informed me that Caught in the Stream had been awarded their "Blog of the Day" honor.

Not wanting to annoy the academy, I'll graciously accept the trophy with a simple "thank you" and keep it on my blog shelf as a personal reminder that sometimes we're our own harshest critics.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Writer's block and an unproductive day

In the lazy, hazy days of Summer, it can be hard to focus, create, write or pretend. As much as we fight it, some days are just meant to fade rather than blaze. Today was one such day of unproductivity for me, and rather than continuing to struggle for ideas, I'm going to retreat back into my music. Taking a deep breath — a pause to refresh but not completely surrender — I'll let the White Stripes speak my mind, since it's stubbornly not sharing its thoughts with me.

This blog may be a labor of love, but it's not always the requited variety. Tomorrow, I'll try to jump-start this problem relationship to get things back on track. New directions may be required and old hang-ups overcome, as I sense that I'm currently caught in a deep, still and muddy stream.

I just don't know what to do with myself
by the White Stripes

I just don't know what to do with myself
I don't know what to do with myself
planning everything for two
doing everything with you
and now that we're through
I just don't know what to do

I just don't know what to do with myself
I don't know what to do with myself
movies only make me sad
parties make me feel as bad
cause I'm not with you
I just don't know what to do

like a summer rose
needs the sun and rain
I need your sweet love
to beat love away

well I don't know what to do with myself
just don't know what to do with myself
planning everything for two
doing everything with you
and now that we're through
I just don't know what to do

like a summer rose
needs the sun and rain
I need your sweet love
to beat love away

I just don't know what to do with myself
just don't know what to do with myself
just don't know what to do with myself
I don't know what to do with myself

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Two hours of the power of darkness

Did you sense a chill running up your spine at approximately 7:16am EDT this morning? Maybe a sudden heaviness weighed on your shoulders? Or a dark cloud seemed to hover over your mind? Did it suddenly lift about two hours later?

Well, here is the explanation:

Bush Reclaims Power After Colonoscopy
By DEB RIECHMANN, Associated Press Writer

CAMP DAVID, Md. (AP) - President Bush transferred the powers of his office to Vice President Dick Cheney for more than two hours Saturday while under sedation for a colon cancer screening. ...

At 7:16 a.m. EDT, Bush invoked the disability clause and transferred his authority to Cheney. The vice president was at his home on the Chesapeake Bay in St. Michaels, Md., about 30 miles east of Washington.

Bush reclaimed his presidential powers and duties at 9:21 a.m. EDT. ...

Read the full article

Check that program: Computers solving games

There was a report in Friday's newspapers detailing the quest of a Canadian computer scientist who has "solved" the game of Checkers (aka Draughts to our friends across the pond). He force-fed data to a program with the breezy name Chinook, having it run through the hundreds of billions of scenarios that might play out in a friendly set-to. The artificially intelligent verdict is that when played perfectly on both sides, the outcome will always be a draw. See the Scientific American article Computers Solve Checkers—It's a Draw for a good recap of the 18-year effort to mathematically prove the game's ultimate outcome is a dead end.

The next boardgame solving challenges, in order of complexity: Othello, Chess, and Go. As computer technology improves, these types of problems will get easier to solve through brute force calculations. It will take much longer, however, to develop the type of artifical intelligence science fiction writers have often imagined, with computers using reasoning and decision-making skills to solve puzzles.

Maybe then it will be possible to not only solve boardgames, but for computers to decide the many complex social jousts that are a part of human life. Imagine being able to feed data into a program so that it can analyze all of the possible outcomes of a difficult interaction and recommend the best moves to make. Have a first date? Just let Decide-O figure out how to act in order to secure a second. Need to approach the boss for a raise? Decide-O will give you the exact amount to ask for, and the properly deferential language to use.

My guess is that if such a program were devised to "solve" all human interactions, the proof would once more show an end-game with no winners. All of this game theory has called to my primitive mind a favorite song dealing with problem relationships ...

Game of Pricks
by Guided by Voices

I've waited too long to have you
Hide in the back of me
I've cheated so long I wonder
How you keep track of me

You could never be strong
You can only be free
And I never asked for the truth
But you owe that to me

I've entered the game of pricks
With knives in the back of me
Can't call you or on you no more
When you're attacking me

I'll climb up on the house
Weep to water the trees
And when you come calling me down
I'll put on my disease

You could never be strong
You can only be free
And I never asked for the truth
But you owe that to me ...

Friday, July 20, 2007

Thoughtfully thought of again

Deborah, my dear friend and colleague over at the Climate Of Our Future (COOF) blog, has passed along to me the Thoughtful Blogger Award. The honor is especially important to me because it comes from someone who is the epitome of thoughtfulness, as she created COOF out of a passionate concern for our environment, and that's a cause that touches each and all of us. I don't know if I can measure up to it but I will hold it close and grip it tightly, especially since she may not approve of my next post, which could prove so cantankerous as to make her wish to rescind the privilege.

The Thoughtful Blogger Award (as well as a few other variations) was created by Christy over at Writers Reviews. She lists there all of the details on how to propagate and display the award. To quote the author, the award is dedicated to the following bloggers:

For those who answer blog comments, emails, and make their visitors feel at home on their blogs. For the people who take others feelings into consideration before speaking out and who are kind and courteous. Also for all of those bloggers who spend so much of their time helping others bloggers design, improve, and fix their sites. This award is for those generous bloggers who think of others.
I find myself in very good company at my alternate universe blog COOF, as the following were awarded this badge of kindness there: Lyn, Jeane, Karen, and Jackie. Not to mention the amazing Nina, who gave the award to Deborah and is the author of Alien Next Door, a very interesing site.

I look at my Caught In The Stream (CITS) self as the evil doppelganger to my COOF persona, so I don't know if I truly merit inclusion here. That self doubt is why I have resorted to a game of fetch with COOF, re-nominating those named there. Trying to offset my potential bad karma for not doing separate shout-outs from CITS I will also do a most thoughtful and inclusive all and nothing pronouncement: to all my readers, you are now deemed Thoughtful Award recipients ... take up the challenge and carry it forward.

An impressive birthday: Edgar Degas

As Chicago's Art Institute is home to a large collection of great Impressionist paintings (see their web page Impressionism and Post-Impressionism for a sampling), I thought it important to recognize one of the masters of that movement. On July 19th in 1834, Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas was born in Paris to a wealthy banker.

Some of his most well-known works are those depicting ballet dancers in different snap-shot like poses representing the painter's impressions of a spontaneous and often off-guard moment. One of my personal favorites depicts quite a different scene, however. It's the 1876 oil-on-canvas Absinthe (see the detail image above), and I'm particularly captivated by the expression Degas captured on the woman drinker's face. There is a look of sadness and bemusement as she sits almost stoically among the seediness of her situation.

I read that the work of Degas shows unusual attention to composition for an Impressionist, with a special emphasis on balance, but those are details that escape my untrained and emotional eye. Unfortunately, later in life Degas was afflicted with vision problems that robbed him of his sight and art, and this led to the sorry state of his final days blindly wandering the streets of Paris. It's better to remember him in his prime by appreciating the many fine works he produced.

Cafe Society: Opening the Wine & Grind

Knowing my fondness for marrying musical lyrics to randomly inspired thoughts, my good friend the Poetress at Binding Ink left me a lovely little comment that re-imagined the words of Cabaret to suit yesterday's Café Society posts. Ever one to recognize true genius, I am giving her creativity a place of prominence.

Poetress had the intriguing idea of combining the gourmet realms of coffee and wine into a new bistro-like establishment called Wining and Grinding, where the slogan would be "No Sour Grapes Allowed, But Lots of Spilling the Beans Welcomed!"

Given the propensity for wine to lay low and coffee to raise up, I think my mind could achieve quite the equilibrium at such an establishment. The picture above is a detail from Edouard Manet's painting Au Café and it perfectly captures the equanimity that I imagine settling upon my own mien at such a place.

With no further ado, here is Poetress's contribution to yesterday's randomness:
What good is sitting alone in your room?
Come hear what’s brewin’
Life is a Carafe, old chum,
Come to the Café.

Put down the metaphorical pen,
The book and the broom.
Time for a holiday.
Life is a Carafe, old chum,
Come to the Café.

Come taste the wine so fine
The java lava,
Come hear the gossip.
Come blow your horn,
Start celebrating;
Right this way,
Your table's waiting

No use permitting some prophet of doom
To wipe every smile away.
Come hear what’s a brewin’
Life is a Carafe, old chum,
Come to the Café!

Bearing in mind that a Carafe is ironically both: 1: a bottle with a flaring lip used to hold beverages and especially wine 2: a usually glass container used to hold and serve coffee. Which goes with the Wining and Grinding!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Cafe Society: Randomness Part III

When the caffeine spell begins to wane, it's often best to shift into listening and learning mode. Sit back, relax, and drift along with the free flowing conversation.

III. Life is a Cabaret, but not all fun and games

At my final resting place for the day, I imbibed one last cup o' joe and drank in the witty yet educational observations of my good friend George Kokines. Having been well-met by a theatrical friend about to direct a local run of Cabaret, the conversation circled around the artistic, dramatic and political scenes in Chicago and New York.

George is very good at dropping names, especially those of artists with whom I have only the barest familiarity. Riffing on our friend Fred's musical endeavor, he mentioned the drawings of George Grosz, which he thought would make a great back-drop for the performance. This was an occasion for physical and mental note taking, as I'd never seen or heard of Grosz's work. A political and social satirist, Grosz lampooned the corruption and decadence of the German bourgeoisie between the wars; certainly material appropriate to the action of Cabaret. The above picture is a detail from his painting Street Scene 1925. He eventually left the country for New York City in 1932.

From there the conversation morphed into the politically riotous, with George giving us first hand accounts of his experiences at the time of the 1968 Democratic National Convention (which he skipped out on, knowing the bent for brutality of that era's Chicago cops) and 1969's Stonewall rebellion (which politicized the gay community in New York). The radicalism of the late 60s eventually gave way to the "free love" decadence of the 70s, and so we found ourselves back in the world of Cabaret.

It was a round trip worth taking, but now having returned home java lagged it's time to put down my metaphorical pen and seek out inky sleep. Tomorrow, I will be back at the café fuelling more thoughts of randomness.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Cafe Society: Randomness Part II

Continuing on with the random observations and inquiries generated by the java-injected brain ... for the low, low price of 2 bucks you too can become a coffee mischiever.

II. Languishing over language: Tasting quality versus quantity

Whenever my friend Terry, a chef and self-proclaimed foodie, is in the coffee house the conversation will inevitably turn toward culinary delights. As he and fellow free thinker Tom W compared notes on cooked books, I had to interject a bit of mischief — not wanting to be left out of the fun despite a lack of subjective interest and relevant intelligence. And so it was that I met their Gourmet with my Gourmand.

What you may ask is the difference? Gourmet describes a person who appreciates fine food and wine, with an emphasis on the quality of the meal consumed — a good variety of discrimination. A Gourmand is also a lover of good food, but the word has the implication of someone who is more concerned with consuming mass quantities — a gluttonous fondness when taken to the extreme. In many ways, I fall into the latter category due to certain penurious tendencies; preferring a filling meal to an expensive one. I can, however, display fits of snobbery about some food and drink — wanting my pasta served al dente and my ale good and hoppy.

Digging into the root of the two words, I found a dash of irony to add to the stew pot. Both words derive from Grom, a Middle English word for valet or servant, presumably the fellow in charge of procuring the wine. So it is that those who embrace the gourmet life of high-class habits, are carrying on the best traditions of indentured servitude — ever slaves to good taste.

For those in the neighborhood, an opportunity to sample some quality food in ample quantities will avail itself shortly as Terry showcases his skills in a jumbalaya cook-off to benefit charity on July 26th at the No Exit Café (6970 N. Glenwood Ave., Chicago). I'll provide more details on that later.

My bean-soaked brain is quickly losing its edge, but I might just have one more post left in me before I crash into uncaffeinated sleep ... stay tuned.

Cafe Society: Randomness Part I

If you spend a lot of time socializing in cafés like I do, you've probably experienced the wonderful chaos of well-caffeinated conversation. There's something about the coffee buzzed mind, when it gets to whirring, that spins out some pretty interestingly random trains of thought.

As evidence, I offer up three different examples of the divergent branches of digressive discourse that I navigated with friends across two different local chattering holes (with a stop at the police station in between). I'll divide the wide-ranging topics into 3 posts: anagrams, acronyms and the PATRIOT Act; linguistics, gourmets and gourmands; theater, gay rights, and George Grosz. Yes, I have way too much time on my hands.

I. Packaging ideas for mass consumption: Mmm, taste the misinformation

Our conversations at the cafés always start out innocently enough — a piece of witty banter, a joke, or an off-handed obsevation — but we soon find ourselves inevitably winding our way into the political realm, wonkishly impaired as we are. So it began once more today: the chance observation of an anagram used in the same sentence with a friend's name (take and kate).

From anagram to acronym is a pretty easy mental jump, and trying to determine if the initials of organizational and legislative names configure themselves into any interesting combinations is a personal pastime (derived from years of listening to Chicago play-by-play great Harry Caray's old habit of pronouncing batters' names backwards). My friend George had to fill out a police report for a stolen license plate sticker (one of the incidental joys of living in the 'hood), and the name of the form that the helpful officer handed him spelled MIER, which sounded close enough to "mire" to amuse me.

Ah, but my mind-game amusement didn't end there, as the discussion of acronyms led me to cite the PATRIOT Act as one unshining example of their pernicious use by our dear leader. As hated as that little piece of unconstitutional shennanigans is in my circles of activity, few realize or recall that the name of the legislative trickery is actually an acronym. It's such a long and convoluted series of words, I haven't ever been able to commit them to memory. A few incorrect but more accurate possibilities did come to mind:
  • Perpetrating Atrocities That Really Increase Our Terror

  • Persuading Americans to Trample Rights Indiscriminately Over Terror

  • Politicians Acting Tough and Realizing Income from Official Terror
Upon later investigation, I learned the preposterously extended true full name of the Act, which includes a USA in front (brace yourselves): Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act.

Once you get past the name to take a much closer look at what's in it, you'll see the degree to which this piece of political perversion opened up a pandora's box of domestic snooping; giving license to here-to-fore illegal searches and seizures, as well as general violations of your rights to free speech and privacy. The American Library Association is a good resource for understanding the implicaitons of the Act. See, USA PATRIOT Act and Intellectual Freedom.

It's amazing how well George W. Bush masked the absurdly nefarious details of the Act with his catchy little play on post 9/11 patriotic fervor. As they say, a spoonful of sugar helps the poison go down — not to mention the coffee.

Ah, but my java fueled musings have just begun ... stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

I blog therefore I am?

What is at the heart of this little social experiment we call blogging? Why do we throw ourselves out into the blogosphere for the whole world to see? Is it mere vanity, or the hope for something much deeper? To blog, perchance to dream?

I wrote this poem based on my personal understanding of the phenomenon. It's a wee bit abstract, which fits my purpose well, as it'll leave the answer open to your interpretation.

Hoping to connect, I
by Francis Scudellari

Hoping to connect, I
reach out

Out-words, of nothing, I
spread o'er

O'er-coming space, time, I
give in

Inside my trembling I
lift up

Up-sighed, down, detached, ex-
posed I

Losing all shame
Losing all fear
Loosing all

Losing ...
Each drop of blood

Losing ...
Each cell, stretched, pulled

Losing ...
My pounded pulse

Losing ...
My soul-led flesh

A-way, A world
gaining, A cause
gaining, All

Monday, July 16, 2007

B(ig) P(olluter) of Lake Michigan: A few jobs, a lot of harm

Yesterday, the Chicago Tribune broke the story of an unimaginably nasty little Faustian bargain the State of Indiana has entered into with BP. The absurdity of the details makes one's head spin. In short, BP is to be allowed to dump more pollution into Lake Michigan. As someone who lives on that lake's shore, it's a travesty that strikes very close to home. It's also one more example of the corruption that has overtaken our unrepresentative democracy, with corporations able to use their out-sized influence to wrangle favors from all levels of government.

In this case, BP cajoled the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to circumvent several state and federal laws that prohibit the increased dumping necessitated by the company's plans to expand their refinery in Whiting, IN. The EPA looked the other way too, but that's no surprise considering the agency's gutting under the Bush administration. These regulators profess to be "unsure" of the ecological impacts of the increased pollution. Well, I bet they don't take a drink of Lake Michigan water any time soon.

Is anybody out there still unconvinced that our political system is broken?

The lake is the source of our drinking water here in the Chicago area. It's also a place where thousands swim, fish and boat throughout the summer. The region's economy depends on it, and so do the lives of the flora and fauna that make up its fragile ecosystem. The Tribune article describes how the increased ammonia will lead to larger algae blooms that endanger fish, and the sludge the refinery produces contains poisonous heavy metals. Yet, the State of Indiana thinks it can claim sole jurisdiction and approve this license to pollute putting the rest of us at risk.

What are its absurd justifications?
  • Jobs — The refinery expansion is to produce a whopping increase of 80 jobs. Never mind what negative impacts the damage done by it will cause to the regional economy or the costs to human health. Does the betterment of 80 individual lives offset the harm done to millions? Can the state and region afford to cover the damage it will do to its residents at a time of spiralling health care costs and reduced federal dollars.
  • "Diversity and security of oil supplies" — The increased refining capacity is supposed to help the Midwest become less dependent on Middle Eastern oil reserves. Of course this comes at a time when the calamitous extent of the environmental impact of carbon-based fuels is becoming more widely accepted. Humanity needs to reduce oil production not increase it. Dependency on any oil, not just foreign oil, is a habit we need to kick.
  • State revenue — It wasn't listed among the justifications, but I can only guess that Indiana is expecting increased tax revenues from this selling of its soul. This completely ignores the greater social costs they're creating. All around the country, our society is burdened by brown sites — the souvenirs of factories that moved on after heaping their poison on the Earth. The bygone tax dollars brought in by those industries are being spent many times over in order to clean up the wastelands left in their wake.

It's somewhat ironic that BP (once British Petroleum, but now christened Big Polluter) has tried to project an environmentally friendly image, even re-working its logo a few years back to look green, bright, sunny and flowerlike. Of course that's just corporate spin to mask the damage they do to our Earth. No amount of marketing can disguise the stink of this swindle, however.

We've mortgaged our future too many times before to not have learned the hard lessons from those mistakes. Let's hope a public outcry from this latest attempt to hijack our environmental stewardship can undo the injustice perpetrated.

Here is an excerpt from the Tribune's exclusive, and a link to the full story (it might require a login):

BP gets break on dumping in lake
Refinery expansion entices Indiana
By Michael Hawthorne, Tribune staff reporter

The massive BP oil refinery in Whiting, Ind., is planning to dump significantly more ammonia and industrial sludge into Lake Michigan, running counter to years of efforts to clean up the Great Lakes.

Indiana regulators exempted BP from state environmental laws to clear the way for a $3.8 billion expansion that will allow the company to refine heavier Canadian crude oil. They justified the move in part by noting the project will create 80 new jobs.

Under BP's new state water permit, the refinery -- already one of the largest polluters along the Great Lakes -- can release 54 percent more ammonia and 35 percent more sludge into Lake Michigan each day. Ammonia promotes algae blooms that can kill fish, while sludge is full of concentrated heavy metals.

The refinery will still meet federal water pollution guidelines. But federal and state officials acknowledge this marks the first time in years that a company has been allowed to dump more toxic waste into Lake Michigan. ...

Read the full article

Politics 101: Follow the money

As you've probably guessed from reading past posts, my politics lean more toward the Democrats than Republicans on most issues. That is not to say, however, that I'm more than a tepid supporter of the Democratic party leadership. I certainly find fault with it on many things, especially its lack of courage and vision, and its failure to address the real needs of those it claims to represent. Too often they tell us what they are not, rather than what they are.

I mention this because the election campaign is starting to heat up, and five of the Dems hit my hometown today for a trial lawyers conference. If you listen to the speeches coming at you over the next few months leading up to the primaries, you'll hear each of the Democratic front-runners posturing to be the candidate of the "little guy." They'll take public positions that may on some level appear to back up that claim, but our challenge as voters will be to try to get past the rhetoric and determine whom, if any, we can trust to deliver on the many promises made.

In comparison to the past 8 years of abuse under George W, it will be tempting to latch on to any shred of hope we can get. It'll also become tempting for many to wax nostalgic over the Bill Clinton years, and gloss over the failings of the man who shifted his party pretty far to the right. One mantra you'll hear from Democratic leaders is that we should first worry about electing more Dems, and then worry about electing progressive dems. That kind of compromise is exactly what's gotten us into our current mess. Making few demands of your party in return for your vote is a foolish way to engage in politics.

Here are a few important things to keep in mind as the race unfolds:

1. Until we make the election about ideas and vision, rather than money and slick advertising, we'll always end up with politicians whose loyalties are first and foremost to their biggest donors. Already, the media's litmus test for legitimacy has become the amount of dollars raised (see the Washington Post story Obama, Clinton Have $30 Million-Plus as one example). Those unable to pull in big sums soon get marginalized, and no matter how worthwhile their positions on the issues, they quickly drop away. It's already begun, as two of the candidates were not invited to today's Chicago event. This makes it almost impossible for any truly grassroots movement to gain traction in electoral politics.

2. Money will corrupt the process, no matter who is giving it. The Bushies attained the White House with the strong support of Oil and Coal, and we've paid the price with bad environmental law and a resource-consuming war. The Democrats' money may come from different sources (although not completely, as some corporations like to play both sides), but that may just mean a whole new set of problems. Pay attention to the groups the candidates bow down before, and you'll get a better understanding of the impetus behind their policies. The Chicago Sun Times has a good piece on the ties between the Dems and Trial Lawyers (see Dem hopefuls come courting).

3. Our duties don't end on election day. True democracy isn't about just voting every 4 years; it's about holding our representatives accountable every day of the year. Of course that will require non-stop education and participation, but no one said democracy would come easy.
As a first step toward achieving that priceless democracy we all want and deserve, arm yourself with knowledge by taking a look at the website. It's a great resource for tracking the forces behind the politicians and understanding why our reps do the things they do. You can even keep track of who's raised what and from whom in the current election cycle. See, Race for The Whitehouse: Banking on Being President.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Counting stars with Woody

95 years ago today, folk-singer Woody Guthrie began the first stanza of his life's ballad. His songs are well known for their depression era stories and working-man sympathies, and he's had a great influence on all folk rockers to follow.

Guthrie gained renewed popularity when a set of unpublished songs were put to music by Wilco and Billy Bragg on their Mermaid Avenue CDs. Below are the lyrics for one of those tracks, which is my personal favorite of the collection. It's full of some wonderful images and captures a mix of weariness and hope, romance and sentiment that to me is perfectly representative of Woody Guthrie's music.

It's amazing how much inspiration we can take from Nature's simple beauty, and the love of another. It's enough to propel us to great deeds, even against heavy fatigue and long odds.

California Stars
Words by Woody Guthrie

I'd like to rest my heavy head tonight
On a bed of California stars
I'd like to lay my weary bones tonight
On a bed of California stars

I'd love to feel your hand touching mine
And tell me why I must keep working on
Yes, I'd give my life to lay my head tonight
On a bed of California stars

I'd like to dream my troubles all away
On a bed of California stars
Jump up from my starbed and make another day
Underneath my California stars

They hang like grapes on vines that shine
And warm the lovers glass like friendly wine
So, I'd give this world
Just to dream a dream with you
On our bed of California stars
Addendum: I neglected to mention the Official Woody Guthrie website in my original post. It has a lot of great information, including all the lyrics to his songs and great photos. I'm particularly partial to the shots that include his guitar with its slogan: this machine kills fascists. Sometimes music can be a very potent weapon. Thanks to Jeane at Binding Ink for the comment that spurred me to put up the link.

Bastille Day: I've got new dreams ...

On this date in 1789, Parisians stormed the Bastille kick-starting the French Revolution that would give bloody birth to the modern republic. The prison held a store of arms that the people wanted for self-defense, fearing an impending crack down by the royal troops. Because of its history as a place of internment for political writers and intelectuals, the destruction of the Bastille became a rallying point of the revolution, and to this day the event is celebrated by Francophiles around the world. Painter Jean-Pierre Houël famously captured the storming in his work Prise de la Bastille, at left.

The power of the moment lay not in the actual significance of the prison when it was seized, as it only held 7 inmates of no particular political importance, but in the symbolism of the structure. The Bastille had become representative of the oppressive rule of the old aristocracy, and tearing it down was a metaphorical act of defiance against their power. It stood as an abstraction for the old social structures that kept the new, blossoming political ideas of the age from seeing the light of day.

Prisons are very powerful symbols for the inhibition of both social and personal development. When political States form, they erect an entire apparatus of social control meant to preserve the power of the status quo. Societies are living things, however, and they continue to evolve until the old laws become restrictive, holding back the full potential for growth. That's when a society is ripe for revolution.

People are much the same; we can become trapped in old ideas. A mental system we've created to survive a certain age or period of life becomes rigid and confining as we continue to grow into new circumstances. We can either keep those old systems in place and make ourselves misearable, or try to break free of them and embrace change in all its scary beauty.

These threshold moments can be messy and intimidating, as we stand in the doorway to our future deliberating whether to step forward. We just need to recognize them for what they are, screw our courage to the sticking place, and take that first step into the next phase of our lives. Once we do, the trepidation will fall away and we'll feel the exhiliration of new possibilities.

Local Chicago punkers Naked Raygun penned a deceptively simple song about these life-changing moments. Repeating the mantra-like lyrics will help steel us to do what's necessary to achieve our true potential, individually and as a society.

New Dreams by Naked Raygun

I got new dreams
I say I got new dreams
I got new dreams and I'm gonna make 'em real
I got new dreams and I'm gonna make 'em real
I got new dreams and I'm gonna make 'em real
I got new dreams and I'm gonna make 'em
Woh-ay-oh, Way-oh-ay


Friday, July 13, 2007

8 Scary Facts About Me

My friend Agnes Varnum at the Doc It Out blog has graciously tagged me with the "8 Things" meme. For those still not up to speed on the Blogosphere phenomenon of memes, it's a way to build community by getting fellow bloggers to write on a common theme. I did a very similar one a little while back (see Tag: I'm It), but recognizing my readers' voracious appetites for information about me, I am giving it another go ... with a twist to commemorate the "holiday."

Today, as you probably know, is Friday the 13th — a day usually linked with bad luck, the eerie, and the supernatural. In keeping with that concept, I tried to pick some facts about me that have a macabre tinge, although their scariness proved to be in how embarassing they are to me. Never one for triskaidekaphobia I plunge ahead, throwing caution to the wind.

First, let's get the business end of things out of the way:

The 4 Simple Rules:

1. Post these rules before listing your facts.
2. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
3. People who are tagged write their own blog post about their eight things and include these rules.
4. At the end of the post, choose eight people to get tagged and list their names. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged and that they should read your blog.

Now, here are my 8 facts:

1. Yesterday, I rowed over the River Styx, casting about in mire and filth, before entering the realm of forgetting. Well, I did so metaphorically. I spent my Thursday cleaning up the Chicago River, and although that may sound pretty cool (and in fact it is), there are some pretty scary things you'll still find in the muck of the river bank: condoms, hypodermic needles, diapers, bandages, tampons ... you get the idea. This was my 3rd trip out with a group of friends to pick up the nastiness that collects in a small wetland just south of Diversey Avenue. The overwhelming smell of sulfur that greeted us as we approached it certainly made me feel like I'd crossed into the netherworld. All that was soon forgotten on the trip back to shore, however, as paddling on the tranquil waters, past perching herons and turtles, the harsher memories were washed away.

2. A few years ago, I had an organ ripped from my belly. It was just my appendix, and the docs took it out with my permission, of course. For those of you who haven't had the wonderful experience of appendicitis, it is like food poisoning but much worse. An added bonus: my wound was held together by staples, not stitches, which I thought was pretty neat. My stomach still bears the scar, but it's not very noticeable.

3. As a boy I used to like to impress my older brothers by swallowing small rocks and pebbles. This was my immature attempt at playing a carnival geek. Now I just try to be a computer geek, and I'm equally unimpressive at it. These ingestions may have had repercussions for my appendix ... see above.

4. I once had a close encounter with a train suicide. I was riding the Elevated train in Evanston headed to Chicago when we made an unexpected stop. I could smell burning hair and see the poor man's legs laying on the track in front of the car. He had apparently used the electricity of the third rail to carry out the deed. It was a quite nauseating experience that I will not dwell on any longer.

5. The first single I bought as a kid (they were called 45s back then in the before time) was Superstition by Stevie Wonder ... very much appropriate for today's date. That's a little better than my other musical firsts, which are scary to me in retrospect. My first album: Kansas' Point of Know Return (ouch, even the name makes me cringe). My first concert: Bad Company (ok, could have been worse, could have been Kansas). My taste got better with age, so I look at it as the waywardness of youth.

6. My all-time favorite spooky book is Amanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko. Granted, it's not a horror novel, but the subject matter verges on the very disturbing: South American torture rooms, child kidnapping, perverse dog breeders, and a pscyhic who is able to locate murder victims.

7. My all-time favorite horror movie is Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. There's not much gore in it, but Jack Nicholson plays the insane inn keeper with a lot of style. I particularly love the ending chase sequence through the frozen garden maze.

8. For weirdness in the TV realm, I must mention my fondness for a series from my youth, Kolchak: The Night Stalker starring Darren McGavin, which my siblings and I watched religiously. I loved these spooky tales of a Chicago news reporter chasing down the unexplained. I remember the tabloids my mother brought home from the grocery always featured similar stories of demon possessions, big foot sightings and alien abductions. Unfortunately reading that stuff always had a negative impact on my sleep habits. Later, I ended up being a huge fan of the X Files, and I'm still pretty fascinated with the occult.

Since I did this meme once before, I'm going to skip the tag rule. The bloggers who I tagged on my previous foray (click here if you don't know who you are) are welcome to join me in reprising the meme with a 8 additional scary personal facts.

Ok, that's 4 rules, plus 8 facts, plus 1 cheat, which gives a fitting 13 items for my post.

Never too early for a little Electioneering

Thursday night in Detroit, 8 Democrats and a lone Republican presidential candidate (Tom Tancredo) held a debate of sorts at the NAACP convention (see the local Detroit Free Press coverage: 'There's more to do,' Obama tells adoring crowd at candidates' forum). It was an opportunity for Sen. Obama to shine in front of a very sympathetic crowd, but the other candidates scored some points too, usually at the expense of the current administration.

I, like most Americans, haven't paid much attention to this earlier than usual politicking. Although I can't really find fault with the general principle of additional time for voters to learn about the contestants for next years big to-do, the excitement just isn't there yet. Maybe it's the crowded field of flawed choices. Maybe it's the reluctance to subject ourselves to the ritualistic political nastiness any earlier than we absolutely have to. Maybe it's the continued apathy from years of corruption and lies at all levels of government. Most likely, it's a combination of all of these.

George W is going to continue to be everyone's whipping boy, and rightly so, but that's not going to energize anyone. In a world urgently pressed by climate, health and economic concerns, the American people are desperate for hope, but none of the candidates has displayed enough credibility or vision to inspire it. Obama gives some nice speeches, and has a real rock star quality, but doubts still linger in many minds about the depth and substance of his campaign.

We've all learned the hard lesson about the corrupting nature of the current money-tainted system, and even a politician with integrity and the best of intentions can't help but get sucked in to the inevitable compromises it demands. It sews a seed of suspicion in our minds until the endless promises begin to ring hollow and all we're left with is the emptiness of electioneering.

Of course that calls to my music addled mind a favorite tune, which I share the lyrics to below (typed exactly as they appear in the liner notes, so don't wonder about my mental capacities ... consider it word art).

Electioneering by Radiohead

i will stop
i wil stop at nothiN.
say the riGHt things.
when electioneering.
i trust i can rly on your vote.


riot sheelds.
voodoo economiCks.
its just business.
cattle prods and the IMF.
i trust i can rely on your vote.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

(Our lack of) Knowledge is (Their) Power

Today the Bush administration got hit with another revelation by a former insider describing attempts to alter and suppress scientific information in order to promote favored policies. The Bushies' latest detractor is former Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona, who accuses the President's office of playing politics with a position meant to act as the nation's guide on health issues.

Testifying alongside Dr. Carmona before a Congressional oversight hearing was Dr. C. Everett Koop, who held the head doc position under Ronald Reagan. Koop expressed the same exasperation with the direspect shown to his successor. Carmona was made subordinate to political appointees whose objective it was to spin policy rather than report scientific findings.

Here are a few excerpts from the AP story as it appears on the Guardian Unlimited site:

Carmona Says Administration Muzzled Him
By KEVIN FREKING, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Bush's most recent surgeon general accused the administration Tuesday of muzzling him for political reasons on hot-button health issues such as emergency contraception and abstinence-only education. ...

[A] report, on global health challenges, was never released after the administration demanded changes that he refused to make, Carmona said.

"I was told this would be a political document or you're not going to release it." Carmona said. "I said it can't be a political document because the surgeon general never releases political documents. I release scientific documents that will help our elected officials and the citizens understand the complex world we live in and what their responsibilities are." ...

Read the full article
This follows and echoes a very similar story told in last month's Rolling Stone about the manipulation of EPA reports in order to create doubt and confusion in the public mind about the cause and severity of global climate change (see my earlier post). It's also got a very familiar ring to previous disclosures on the cooking of intelligence in the lead up to the Iraq War. For a final clue as to the Prez's brainwashing bent, there was the tried and true Bush tactic of paying pseudo-journalists to produce stories that promoted specific policies and agendas.

What's it all about, Alfie? Nothing more or less than info war. Yes, in today's world there is no more important task than controlling the narrative that defines people's reality, especially when information can spread so quickly. Is anyone really surprised that this American government has so brazenly embraced that former scourge of words used to revile the misinformation disseminated by all our enemies past, present and future: Propaganda?

Bush and his coterie of neo-Cons understand the modern truism that those who control information, control society. This is why they've pursued all tools available to them to extend their network of surveillance, while at the same time over-using the plea of executive privelege to guard their own secrets. It's why they have also embarked on an unrelenting propaganda campaign to undermine scientific evidence and sew enough public confusion on critical issues to prevent popular opposition to their nationally destructive agenda.

Our current political environment is dominated by extreme ideologues, who will pursue any means to ensure the dominance of their worldview. Pure power politics have taken over, and all tactics are fair game to achieve their ends. Nothing is beyond the pale, not even violating the sanctity of the US Constitution. The only defense against them is truth, exposure and accountability, but that will take an intellectually curious and politically active electorate.

George Orwell's 1984 forecasted it a bit early, but doublethink has found a home in the Washington, DC of the early 21st Century. We need to get past the confusion of deceptively named initiatives such as Clear Skies (lowered air quality standards) and Healthy Forests (eased clear-cutting by loggers), and re-assert the facts. Like the novel's Winston Smith, we're in peril of being convinced that "two plus two makes five," just because the corporatized State insists it's so and has industry-sponsored reports to prove it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Building up a Sunday: Jazz, Ennui, Portraits and Silhouettes

Last week I wrote about an excellent jazz show, featuring Jimmy Bennington and Julian Priester, that I witnessed at the Velvet Lounge on the southside of Chicago (see Night time is the rite time for Jazz). Today I got some good news: Jimmy has invited Julian to sit in on his regular Colour and Sound gig at the Ennui Café right here in the neighborhood.

Maybe it's the collaborative nature of the genre, but my experience has been that jazz musicians are some of the most generous folks on the planet, and Mr. Priester is certainly displaying a grand level of graciousness in allowing us locals an opportunity to witness his trombone play. It's not often that you'll get the chance to see a musician of such renown play in such an intimate setting. Here's an excerpt from an article on Mr. Priester from All About Jazz:

... Julian Priester was born and raised in Chicago. His musical education was steeped in his study of bebop, but was seasoned by his exposure to the blues and the music of Sun Ra. Spontaneous improvisation was the focal point of Sun Ra's music, and it planted a seed of creative exploration that has stayed with Priester throughout his career. It took some years for Priester to truly understand what he had learned from his Sun Ra experience, but it was valuable indeed in the musical situations in which Priester would soon find himself. ...

Read the full article
Of course we in Rogers Park have gotten spoiled by the weekly sessions of free jazz (in price and style) that Jimmy has been arranging at the café every Sunday between 7 and 9pm. Jimmy's career has already covered a lot of territory and his expertise on the kit demonstrates that experience. All About Jazz did a nice interview with Jimmy a couple years back (see Meet Drummer Jimmy Bennington), and here's a snippet from the intro to that article:

... Having spent two years between 2000-2002 working as a drum tech for Elvin Jones touring the United States and Europe, Bennington is a drummer with a distinctive playing style and he has had the opportunities to work with a diverse array of artists from the jazz and improvised music communities including Gordon Lee, Art Resnik, and Michael Vlatkovich. ...
If you're going to be in Rogers Park on Sunday, make sure you get over to the Ennui Café (located at 6981 N. Sheridan Rd.) at 7pm to be a part of this event. If you're not, find a way to get here. As an added bonus, you'll be able to purchase their new CD — Portraits and Silhouettes.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The Truth About Dick: He's The Man Who Sold The World

Over at the Climate Of Our Future blog, I put up a post summarizing an article from this month's Rolling Stone magazine that should be required reading for all Americans. It reveals the depths of deceit and corruption to which the Bush administration, under Dick Cheney's particularly nefarious influence, has descended. It gives the truth to their lies about the lack of evidence linking carbon emissions and climate change, and exposes the real nature of the pseudo science they've used to promote a pro-oil agenda, much as they cooked intelligence to goad a coalition of the coerced into the Iraq War. Here is an excerpt from my post there (ah, the joys of self-reference):

"The story Mr. Dickinson constructs from this evidence will shock even the most cynical among Bush's critics. Upon taking the reigns of the administration's energy policy, not only did Cheney try to gut the EPA of scientists that ExxonMobil viewed as critics, but he installed industry lobbyists to run the Council on Environmental Quality, which became Cheney’s 'shadow EPA.' The CEQ's express mission was to create enough doubt and confusion in the public mind on the causes and degree of climate change to mute calls for immediate federal action. The agency also promoted junk science that was published by organizations the oil companies funded."

Read my full post (Rolling Stone Exposes Cheney’s Oil Driven Propaganda Machine), or skip to the long but well-written original article (The Secret Campaign of President Bush’s Administration To Deny Global Warming) by Tim Dickinson.

Earlier this year I had featured a favorite song lyric with no additional commentary. I'm taking this occasion to resurrect those words and embue them with added meaning. The song goes out to Dick and all his fellow evil servants of petroleum's private profit rather than the public good:

The Man Who Sold The World by David Bowie

You'll never look at Dick's grinchy smile the same way again. We always knew that smirk was hiding some dark secret.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Choosing to Schmooze, nothing to lose

A few months back I learned about a social networking service for bloggers called MyBlogLog. It's a place for folks with blogs to join together and create communities. Sometimes the communities organize around shared experience and like minds, but they can also be places of unity in diversity, where we learn and grow by exposing ourselves to varied perspectives.

The connections made through MyBlogLog are for the most part virtual, but the bonds can still be very strong. In my short time with the service, I've formed some friendships that I know will last, and I hope to enter into others. Jeane, nom de plume the poetress, from Binding Ink is one of the special people I've met online, and she's graciously bestowed upon my little website a Power of Schmooze award, which as far as I can tell originated from Mike's Ordinary Folk blog.

In a sense, Schmoozing is one of the most critical skills in the Web 2.0 world of social networking. All good networkers need to go on the charm offensive to build wider groupings of contacts and more powerfully connected communities. That can mean something as simple as thanking chance visitors for taking the time to read your posts, or it can be a more complex and rewarding conversation with your fellow writers.

Here are my list of bloggers, who have represented the best aspects of Schmoozing. As far as I can tell they have yet to be tagged, but even if they were it'll just mean an additional link of recognition for them, and another good piece of Schmoozing on my part.

  • Alex of A Blog That Lies was one of my earliest contacts at MyBlogLog and we're regular commenters on each other's sites. He is quick to thank and seek feedback from visitors, and his site has a very interesting concept: fictionalizing news stories.

  • Jennifer, aka truthdancer, of Goodness Graciousness just got an award from me, but I'm tagging her again. She is one of the most positive people you'll ever come to know and her site will definitely give you a new more uplifting outlook.

  • SpacedGirlHero of Stuperhero Extraordinaire is one of my newer contacts, but she has been very generous in leaving complimentary comments on my blog. She is equally open and welcoming on her own site, and I hope you'll check it out.

  • David of Very Short Novels is very quick to notice and acknowledge visits to his wonderful short-fiction site. He limits himself to 299 words in crafting his posts, but you'll be surprised at how much he can express in that small space.

  • Amy of Wamylove music video blog is also someone I've traded comments with from early on in this networking experiment. Her site is great if you like music, as she provides wonderful background and video clips of some interesting bands.

Re-imagining life to open up a universe of discovery

A panel of scientists with the National Research Council has released a report advising NASA to be a little more open-minded in its interpretation of what constitutes a life form. In their opinion, the US space agency has been too focused on rediscovering the traditional hydro-carbon model for life formation. With the recent discoveries of new organisms that thrive in extreme conditions of cold, heat and harsh chemicals, such a bigotted definition of ET could cause NASA to overlook some unobvious environments, such as Saturn's moon Titan (pictured at left).

It's always a good idea to step back from our failed obsessive pursuits and consider new ways of thinking and seeing. When we break out of the constraining boxes of old perceptual forms to re-consider and re-imagine our most basic, and closely held beliefs, we just may find a whole new universe open up to us. As the wise biochemist states below, it would be truly tragic to blindly stumble past the possibility of a profound discovery due to a lack of vision and imagination.

Here are excerpts from the Reuters story:

Look for life not as we know it, U.S. report urges
By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor

"The purpose of this whole report was to be able to look for life on other planets and moons with an open mind ... and not maybe miss some other life form because we looking for some obvious life form," said John Baross, professor of oceanography at the University of Washington in Seattle, who chaired the committee. ...

Recent discoveries of extremophiles -- organisms living in conditions of heat, cold and dark and using chemicals once thought incompatible with life -- have changed ideas of where life can survive.

As a biochemist, Baross said lab experiments also show water does not necessarily have to be the basis for life. It might be possible for a living organism to use methane, ethane, ammonia or even more bizarre chemicals, he said. ...

"If you are a biochemist, Titan is of enormous interest, because it's a carbon moon. It does have clearly some liquid methane or liquid ethane lakes or pools. There could be chemical reactions going on that could be favorable for producing complex biochemicals," Baross said.

"The exploration that could lead to a novel life form ... would be the most profound discovery ever made," Baross said.

Stumbling past it or worse, destroying it because it did not look like life, would be an equally profound tragedy, he said.

Read the full article

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Magical memories of Marc Chagall

120 years ago today, Moishe Shagal, the artist who would become better known as Marc Chagall, was born in the town of Vitebsk in the then Russian Empire. His long life spanned years of revolution, world war, and great artistic movements. His art used vivid color and iconic imagery to evoke a deep spirituality. He painted in his own language of symbols and metaphor to portray a world filled with meaning. I have two small but personal connections to Chagall's work.

His ceramic mosaic "Four Seasons" graces downtown Chicago in what is now known as Chase Tower Plaza (once better known as First National Plaza, it's undergone a few name changes over the years due to various bank buyouts and mergers). I first saw and admired the large stone wall covered with small colored tiles at the age of 14, when I came as a tourist to the city that would eventually become my home. It was a special trip for me, because I was the solo accompanyist for my father on his business trip, having left my siblings and mother behind in Maryland. The memories from that visit will always hold a magical place in my heart, and whenever I am in the vicinity of Chagall's mosaic now, I make sure to pay homage.

My other personal encounter with the works of Chagall was on a visit to Nice in 2000. I had gotten a surprise last-minute invitation to a college friend's wedding taking place on the French Riviera. I don't get many excuses to fly off to that part of the world, so I accepted the chance invite. It was a fun adventure and a very happy time for me, embarking as I was on the start of my own personal partnership. Although there is much to see in the region, which is home to Cannes, Menton (site of the wedding) and Monaco, I was particularly drawn to the working class character of Nice. The city, it turned out, is also home to the Musée Nationale Message Biblique Marc Chagall, which focuses on his biblical paintings and stained glass. Viewing the art there was one of the highlights of the trip, and Chagall again became entwined with very pleasant memories.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Treating a cancer in the White House

Today is the 61st birthday of our dear leader King George W, so I thought I might give him a proper tribute. Things haven't gone so well lately for the Emperor with Closed Mind, but I'll do my best to cheer him up so he's not too crabby on this his special day.

First, he should know that there are others out there besides the neo-cons who are applauding his little maneuver to spring Scooter. Here's a very informative piece written by former Monty Pythoner Terry Jones congratulating our prez on his new found madness for mercy: A president transformed. I, like Mr. Jones, am brimming with positive expectation that this is the turning of a new leaf and the start of the compassionate conservative era that was promised once upon a time.

Second, there's some hopeful news in the stars. It turns out that it's not too late for this Chief Executioner to change his deadly ways. For George and all the other cancers out there in the world, here is an instructive little horoscope I found on the Los Angeles Times website:

Cancer (June 22-July 22). Education and tolerance go hand in hand. When you know more about the lives others are leading, you can respect their choices. By exploring the way others live, you gain sophistication of thought.
Education and tolerance, those are two magic words that could salvage Georgie's legacy yet. Picking up books and newspapers could be the start of a whole new Bush burning with optimism's flame. It's hard for a man to be so isolated from the folks he serves and gain that sought after sophistication of thought, so maybe George can walk a mile in our shoes before sending us all off to Guantanamo for choosing to fight for such crazy notions as freedom of speech.

George could spend some time in the fields, picking fruit with the immigrant workers he wants to extort before granting amnesty. He could spend some time in the inner cities breathing the particulate matter choked air that his friends in the fossil fuel industry want to continue polluting. He can take the long 3-bus ride from my neighborhood down to the only public hospital in Chicago serving the uninsured, to see what it's like for the tens of millions of Americans with no way to pay for quality health care.

Granted, that's a lot to do for a lame duck with only 18 months left in office, but real education isn't easy or quick. It's a birthday gift that will keep on giving, and you'll thank me George when you're finally able to sleep at night no longer tortured by the demons of your unforgiveable sins.