Hogan's Alley

Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Art of Writing

Don DeLillo is one of the great writers of our time. His great novel, "Underworld", arguably deserved the appelation "Great American Novel", at least of the Twentieth Century. Professional critics no doubt shied away from that weighty conclusion, for it brings the possibility of nothing but endless argument and avoids focus on the merits of the work.

His latest book is called "Falling Man". It begins with the fall of the Twin Towers. The central character wanders out of the dust and gloom in a half daze. His office was in the North Tower.

I am not today intending to write a review of this book. I have just begun it. But I was struck by one passage, which is set in a group of people in the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease. The group is asked to do writing exercises by their leader, the wife of our hero.

They wrote for roughly twenty minutes and then each, in turn, read aloud what he or she had written. Sometimes it scared her, the first signs of halting response, the losses and failings, the grim prefigurings that issued now and then from a mind beginning to slide away from the adhesive friction that makes an individual possible. It was in the language, the inverted letters, the lost word at the end of a struggling sentence. It was in the handwriting that might melt into runoff. But there were a thousand high times the members experienced, given a chance to encounter the crossing points of insight and memory that the act of writing allows. They laughed loud and often. They worked into themselves, finding narratives that rolled and tumbled, and how natural it seemed to do this, tell stories about themselves.
"...the crossing points of insight and memory that the act of writing allows." Everyone who writes, even those of us low enough to consider blogging to be a form of writing, knows this crossroads. One cannot write without thinking and remembering. The very act lights up neural pathways that can be excited in no other way. Books may die, replaced by some future version of the internet, but every signpost indicates that writing will still be the soul and substance of this new electronic communication.

That is, of course, not to say that every act of writing invokes some sacred reservoir of pure reason. Writers do not automatically achieve some Al Goreian state of absolute reason leading inexorably to The Truth.

Gore is wrong to assert that reason alone is the proper engine of political decision making. Reason, unfettered by the emotions, experiences, biases and hopes of the writer does not exist. Not, at least, in human beings. Even a casual viewing of the range of thought available on the web shows that political writing by thousands of intelligent people produces hundreds of differing views of which political choices should be made.

Political choices, especially in a democratic systems, always involves the weighing of competing values. The need for state control vs. the rights of the individual; the benefits of relative economic equality vs. the right of people to be free from state coercion in the taking of their monies for redistribution; etc. Reason cannot lead all people to the same conclusion at the same time. Some slightly shifting honoring of all of these competing interests brings us to some middle spot through compromise. The center point is always changing, as it should.

The other annoying aspect of Gore's thesis is that correctly formed reason will inevitably lead Americans to the Gore position. Surely he will not admit that his beliefs are unreasonable. Potential saviors of the republic cannot have such feet of clay. Thus, our salvation lies in seeing the wisdom of his view of the world. He did, after all attend a fine university and has vast experience in the workings of the nation. Why, we need to barely trouble our little heads about such complex matters. We have only to rise up and demand that he lead us and he will lay down his new found wealth to serve us. Hallelujah!

So it is that I react, as a full person, to DeLillo's novel. On September 11 my sister was in her office at Verizon on Vesey St. in lower Manhattan. The building was just across that narrow street from the North Tower of the World Trade Center. When she evacuated her building onto Vesey St., she naturally gazed up at the smoking towers. What she saw, and what haunts her was a falling man. Others followed him. The sounds of their bodies hitting the plaza below could not be shut out of her ears, nor her memories.

Her experience, recounted to me late that day, is also seared into my perceptions of that event. It enters the calculus of all my thinking about terrorism, America's place in the world and how we prevent even worse attacks.

Yesterday a tape by the so-called American al Qaeda, Adam Gadahan, threatened further attacks on US soil. "Your failure to heed our demands ... means that you and your people will ... experience things which will make you forget all about the horrors of September 11th, Afghanistan and Iraq and Virginia Tech," he said in the seven-minute video."

Handily, he also provides us with the al Qaeda prescription for avoiding further tragedy:

Gadahn -- sporting a headress, glasses and long beard -- said Bush had "embroiled his nation in a series of unwinable and bloody conflicts in the Islamic world."

He also called on the United States to cease support for the "bastard state of Israel" and the "56-plus apostate regimes of the Muslim world" and to free all Muslims from its prisons.

"We don't negotiate with war criminals and baby killers like you. No, these are legitimate demands which must be met," he said.

So there we have it. To avoid further attacks we need only totally disengage from the Islamic world and stand by while al Qaeda and its allies set up Taliban-like states around the world. And we must stand by while the Israeli state and all its Jewish inhabitants are wiped from the face of the middle east. On yes, and in the process give up any dependence on oil immediately and voluntarily devolve into a second rate power, a sort of France in North America.

At least those are today's demands. Were we to acquiesce I have no doubt that further layers of demand would be issued. By the way, which prisoner in America would be stupid enough to not immediately convert to Islam?

As you know, these demands resonate with many in America. Many think that our presence in Afghanistan and Iraq is wrong. Many think that it is unjust to favor Israel over the Palestinians. Many think that our support for the regimes in Saudi Arabia and other states is wrong. Many thing that we have too many poor black men in our prisons. Noam Chomsky thinks all of this is correct.

Happily, most have concluded that these positions do not represent the full measure of truth. Most Americans, thinking as clearly as they can and yet possessing the total experience of that September day, believe that we need to oppose these Islamic fascists aggressively. Can we do it smarter? Certainly. Can it be done with an array of military, diplomatic and economic tools? Yes it can. But for most of us, bowing before the terror is not an option. It will never be. Sadly the al Qaeda types will never see that. They have their justification for violence. Effectiveness is no part of their thinking.

Thus endeth today's sermon, formed at the nexus of insight and memory by the writing process, wholly and uniquely itself.

[Author photograph by Joyce Ravid for Simon and Shuster.]

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Friday, May 25, 2007

The Clinton Administration, Part Deux

Just in case anyone had doubts, two new books, one by Carl Bernstein, confirm that Bill and Hillary have planned and schemed for decades their rise to power.

"A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton," by Carl Bernstein, reports that Clinton as first lady was terrified she would be prosecuted, took over her own legal and political defense, and decided not to be forthcoming with investigators because she was convinced she was unfairly targeted. While in Arkansas, according to Bernstein, she personally interviewed one woman alleged to have had an affair with her husband, contemplated divorce and thought about running for governor out of anger at her husband's indiscretions.

"Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton," by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr., reports that during her husband's 1992 campaign, a team she oversaw hired a private investigator to undermine Gennifer Flowers "until she is destroyed." Flowers had said publicly that she had an affair with Bill Clinton while he was governor of Arkansas.

The book also suggests that Hillary Clinton did not read the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq in 2002 before voting to authorize war. And it includes a thirdhand report that the Clintons had a secret plan after the 1992 election in which he would have eight years as president and then she would have eight years, although last night a key source disavowed the story.

I wonder if the plan also includes Chelsea's eventual rise the White house. Americans can then have the possibility of comfortably resting in the caring arms of Bushes and Clintons for a full half century. It could happen as follows: George W. Bush (1989-93); Bill Clinton (1993-2001); George H.W. Bush (2001-2009); Hillary Clinton (2009-2017); Jeb Bush (2017-2025); Chelsea Clinton (2025-2033); George P. Bush, Jeb's son of 1988 Republican Convention fame, (2033-2041). A thinking electorate no longer required.

[Photo by J. Scott Applewhite -- Associated Press]

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Did The Administration Cherry Pick The Intelligence?

Reports are emerging today from the Senate Intelligence Committee that in the weeks and months prior to the invasion of the Iraq the CIA was providing opinions that pointed to the great difficulty to be faced in Iraq and the region after the overthrow of Hussein's government.

It is not yet clear how these, now isolated reports, fit into the full array of materials available to the White House when it finalized plans for the invasion. How they fit may be the key historical puzzle of these times, nothing less.

If, as charged by George Tenet and others, the administration determined to invade come hell or high water and ignored as "nervous nellies" (in Lyndon Johnson's terms) those who raised reasonable cautions, then America was clearly mislead by this President. One can argue that the screw up regarding WMD's was a genuine mistake. But if all the advise provided pointed toward great difficulty in a civil chaos that would follow, then Bush and Co. clearly chose to lie and dissemble. We need to find out if there were contemporaneous findings that pointed to the likelihood of a facile and positive outcome. If they don't exist, then it would seem we were guided solely by the rich fantasy life of Dick Cheney.

But in the end, does it really matter so much if the President knew the likely post-war difficulties? The fact is he should have known before committing our young people to be killed and maimed. The general incompetence of the Bush Administration, both at home and abroad is already certified as being of historic proportions.

Our apparent fascination, at this very early date, with the 2008 Presidential campaign is nothing so much as a way of denying the existence of this President. Dreaming of a future great President helps us believe that America can and will work again.

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Flickr Foto Of The Day

Sunny Showers
Originally uploaded by sunsurfr
The beauty of backlight.


Jesus Is Just Alright With Me

David Brooks writes about the new sociological rise of Catholics.

According to Lisa Keister, a sociologist at Duke, non-Hispanic white Catholics have watched their personal wealth shoot upward. They have erased the gap that used to separate them from mainline Protestants.

Or, as Keister writes in a journal article, “Preliminary evidence indicates that whites who were raised in Catholic families are no longer asset-poor and may even be among the wealthiest groups of adults in the United States today.”

How have they done it?

Well, they started from their traditional Catholic cultural base. That meant, in the 1950s and early ’60s, a strong emphasis on neighborhood cohesion and family, and a strong preference for obedience and solidarity over autonomy and rebellion.

Then over the decades, the authority of the church weakened and young Catholics assimilated. Catholic values began to converge with Protestant values. Catholic adults were more likely to use contraceptives and fertility rates plummeted. They raised their children to value autonomy more and obedience less.

The process created a crisis for the church, as it struggled to maintain authority over its American flock. But the shift was an economic boon to Catholics themselves. They found themselves in a quasi-religious sweet spot.

He concludes:

In fact, if you really wanted to supercharge the nation, you’d fill it with college students who constantly attend church, but who are skeptical of everything they hear there. For there are at least two things we know about flourishing in a modern society.

First, college students who attend religious services regularly do better than those that don’t. As Margarita Mooney, a Princeton sociologist, has demonstrated in her research, they work harder and are more engaged with campus life. Second, students who come from denominations that encourage dissent are more successful, on average, than students from denominations that don’t.

This embodies the social gospel annex to the quasi-religious creed: Always try to be the least believing member of one of the more observant sects. Participate in organized religion, but be a friendly dissident inside. Ensconce yourself in traditional moral practice, but champion piecemeal modernization. Submit to the wisdom of the ages, but with one eye open.

The problem is nobody is ever going to write a book sketching out the full quasi-religious recipe for life. The message “God is Great” appeals to billions. Hitchens rides the best-seller list with “God is Not Great.” Nobody wants to read a book called “God is Right Most of the Time.”

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Interesting Blog Survey

There is an interesting survey, conducted by academics at the University of Tennessee - Knoxville. It seems to be measuring reliance on various electronic and print forms of media. The results could be interesting. Give it a shot.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Lost - Wow

Last night's two hour season finale was so rich and full of answers, questions and new directions that it was hard go to sleep.

Spoilers Below:

To begin, the show starts with a bearded Jack on a plane. When the hell was this? This Jack is obviously in trouble. He drinks too much, gobbles Vicodin and dissolves in tears. Within minutes he is standing on the railing of a bridge preparing to jump off. Behind him an accident occurs and Dr. Jack abandons his despair an responds to the cries of a woman and child hurt, in part, by their distraction in seeing him about to leap off the bridge.

As we continue to flash on this story throughout the show we learn that it is a first for Lost, a flash forward. This is a story of a depressed and desperate Jack after he (and at least Kate) have left the Island. Is this the reward for escape from the Island? Misery and loneliness?

When I saw him climb onto the bridge railing in brought to mind "It's A Wonderful Life". No guardian angel appears, unless it was the woman whose car crashed. Could it be that the post-Island Jack we see is the product of certain events on the Island? Will he be given the opportunity to make different choices on the Island that will lead to a happier result? I certainly hope so. I would hate to think that the writers have now shown us the inevitable result of everyone's efforts on the Island and are now content to let us watch the seeds of misery be sown.

And who is Kate married to? Whose unattended funeral does Jack visit? Will that person's death be somehow tied to actions Jack took or failed to take? Answers to be provided over the next three years.

And then there is Charlie. Our former nebishy junkie has turned into a major hero. It was sad to see this newly born Charlie go. He stands up to an Abu Graib-like interrogation and sacrifices his life (one must always add apparently when describing deaths on Lost) to shut off the signal jamming the radio phone that they believe will lead to rescue. But will it?

Charlie does receive a television transmission from Penny, but she knows nothing about any rescue ship and helicopter. When Jack does reach someone on the phone, they say they'll be right there. Ben, perhaps for his own motives, tells Jack that the people who come will kill everyone on the Island. He may be right. They may be the remains of Dharma seeking revenge for Ben's purge, or agents of Hanso or Mr. Paik's enterprise. I get the feeling that the Losties will soon be running from and battling these new "rescuers".

Our other hero, Hurley! Rejected twice as too fat to help with any of the dangerous tasks, he gets his microvan from the jungle and barrels into the remaining three of the Others and frees Sayid, Bernard and Jin.

Ben acknowledges to Alex that Rosseau is her mother. Chalk up another answer.

In what may be the most emotionally satisfying scene, Jack beats the shit out of Ben. It was a release I think most viewers needed the manipulative little toad to suffer.

Now begins the winter of our discontent as we await the next sixteen episode season of the best dramatic television series in history.


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

So Where's The Beef?

Doug Mills/The New York Times

Now we have had the testimony of Monica Goodling, under a grant of immunity. And what have we learned?

She believes she asked too many political questions when hiring DOJ staff, in and effort to, "ensur(e) that the department was staffed by well-qualified individuals who were supportive of the attorney general’s views, priorities and goals.” She says that a US Attorney was probably fired to make room for a friend of Karl Rove. She says that "the White House" signed off on the list of US Attorneys to be fired at the end of the process. She says that Paul McNulty was incorrect when he did not acknowledge the White House's sign off.

What she did not say was that people were fired for either overzealous prosecution of Republicans or underzealous prosecution of Democrats. That, after all, has been the all but unspoken accusation of the Democrats.

The appointment of a friend of Rove's is no crime. Such is the stuff and substance of the American political process. The winner's friends get jobs.

As for the White House sign off on the end process of a piece of staff work, that must happen every day. The key point is that there is as yet no testimony that the White House instigated the firings and that they were for some nefarious and improper political purpose.

All of this, however, will do nothing to slow the pace of the investigation. They will beat this dead horse through to the 2008 elections if they can.

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Flickr Foto Of The Day

he loves deep purple
Originally uploaded by Rosina.
It is Spring the world over.


Lost Finale, With Great Expectation

One of the joys of the return of cable service is the expectation of tonight's final episode of Lost.

This season has proved a turning point for the series. The first two years, and most of the current year were involved in laying out the mysteries of the Island and its inhabitants. It was rather like an extreme skier who must hike, his equipment on his back, to the top of the peak. It was work. Viewers had to learn who was who in the large cast; learn and wonder about an ever increasing number of connections among the "Losties"; puzzle out the strange phenomena of monsters and polar bears.

Over the last several episodes, it feels like we have now strapped on our skis and begun the exciting descent of the mountain. Questions are being answered. New plot twists and possibilities are revealed weekly. It is exhilarating and anxiety provoking at the same time, just like a descent through untracked powder on an unknown slope.


The Sopranos - What Rough Beast

(William Butler Yeats)

With the restoration of my cable service I was able to catch up with Sunday's episode of The Sopranos, "The Second Coming".

The title obviously refers to the Yeats poem, which is read almost in its entirety by AJ and his professor. The poem perfectly captures the feeling of building dread that characterizes this final shortened season of the series. The wonderfully written script is also replete with other events that qualify as second comings. There is Tony's return from the pleasure palaces of Las Vegas. There are Tony's two pilgrimages to see Phil Leotardo, both to no avail. There is AJ's return from near-death in the family swimming pool, famous in the series' first episode as the home of Tony's fantasy of a perfect family in the guise of his beloved ducks.

Something bad is going to happen in the two remaining episodes. Chase and Co. have spent these first six shows reminding us what a nasty piece of work our Tony is. At the same time, we are shown the tragedy to this family brought on by the web of lies they inhabit, compounded by the gene pool from hell. This is not going to end with Tony and Carmella moving to Hawaii to quietly live out the balance of their lives.

When last heard, Phil Leotardo is shouting from the darkness, "Get that cocksucker off my stoop!" In the preview scenes for next week, he is seen telling his henchmen that he has made up his mind, now make it happen. I think that he is directing a hit on Tony or his family. A quick shot in the preview of Tony's sister, Janice, turning around suddenly led me to think that killing Tony's sister might be seen as rough justice for the death of Phil's brother.

The acting in this hour was just superb. Robert Iler was especially good handling AJ's agitated depression and drug induced blankness. He and James Gandolfini were brilliant together in the moments after the rescue from suicide. Also very moving and understandable to all parents was the family's desperation, fear and worry as AJ is admitted to the hospital. Kudos here to the always splendid Edie Falco and to Jamie-Lynn Seigler.

I love the Sopranos, in part, because its creators are constantly willing to display the schizoid nature of this family's life and to make the audience question the premises that have been assumed over the years. So in this episode, we have Dr. Melfi's shrink (played by Peter Bogdonovich, the director and film historian and critic) point out a study that suggests that "talk therapy" might be counterproductive or useless for sociopaths, Tony Soprano being the poster boy for that malady. The central gimmick of the series, especially at the beginning, was the uniqueness of a mafia don in psychotherapy. Now it is suggested that these years of treatment may have been a waste of time.

Such reverses of expectation, refusal to pander to the audience and the richness of each script mark the entire enterprise as the work of art that it is. We will know it is such, regardless of how it ends or how dissatisfied we are with that ending. David Chase is entitled to fulfill his vision as the series' creator.

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American Idol - The Finals

It has finally come down to the last two contestants, Blake and Jordin. My heart, from the begining of the season, was with Melinda Doolittle. So part of me doesn't care who wins in the end. But after last night's performances, Jordin Sparks is the only possible choice.

Blake is a very talented entertainer, but he has never been able to fully inhabit a song. He seems like a person with ADHD who is far too bored with just the song as written. He must fill any quiet spaces with movement, beat boxing, interacting with the audience or anythng but just focusing on the meaning of the lyrics and the notes he is singing.

Jordin, on the other hand, has the capacity, amazing for one of her age, to transport herself deeply into the emotions of a song. I totally believe that her tears at the end of the final song last night were genuine and unplanned. They were driven purely by her reaction to the words she was singing and that moment in her life. I would like to see her work with a good coach to improve her vocal tone, but she has plenty of time to grow as an artist.

She has to be the winner. She should win because of her talent, her youth and promise and because she seems to be a decent person. I would also like to see her win because she is the child of a biracial family (the world should see that Americans are not bothered any longer by such things) and because her father, Phillipi Sparks played corner back briefly for my beloved NY Giants.

For what it is worth, the folks at DialIdol have predicted a Jordin victory.


Comcast Service Restored

As they had promised, Comcast technicians reconnected my house to their network yesterday afternoon, the seventh day since the storm. I was able to see American Idol's finale and catch a replay of The Sopranos and Entourage last night. Most importantly, I will be able tonight to view the final episode of Lost.

All is right with the world again.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Why Should Copyrights Expire?

In last Sunday's NY Times Week in Review section, the great novelist, Mark Helprin, raises a telling point about the expiration of copyrights after 70 years. He acknowledges that limited granting of copyrights is specifically embedded in the Constitution. His questions gets to why that should persist in our time. His essential point: intellectual property rights should be the same as real property rights.

Were I tomorrow to write the great American novel (again?), 70 years after my death the rights to it, though taxed at inheritance, would be stripped from my children and grandchildren. To the claim that this provision strikes malefactors of great wealth, one might ask, first, where the heirs of Sylvia Plath berth their 200-foot yachts. And, second, why, when such a stiff penalty is not applied to the owners of Rockefeller Center or Wal-Mart, it is brought to bear against legions of harmless drudges who, other than a handful of literary plutocrats (manufacturers, really), are destined by the nature of things to be no more financially secure than a seal in the Central Park Zoo.

The answer is that the Constitution states unambiguously that Congress shall have the power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” (The italics are mine, the capitalization was likely James Madison’s.)

It is, then, for the public good. But it might also be for the public good were Congress to allow the enslavement of foreign captives and their descendants (this was tried); the seizure of Bill Gates’s bankbook; or the ruthless suppression of Alec Baldwin. You can always make a case for the public interest if you are willing to exclude from common equity those whose rights you seek to abridge. But we don’t operate that way, mostly.

Helprin argues that our current nature as a society whose economy is driven by ideas, no longer by sweat and property, demands a change in these limitations:

And in Jefferson’s era 95 percent of the population drew its living from the land. Writers and inventors were largely those who obtained their sustenance from their patrimony or their mills; their writings or improvements to craft were secondary. No one except perhaps Hamilton or Franklin might have imagined that services and intellectual property would become primary fields of endeavor and the chief engines of the economy. Now they are, and it is no more rational to deny them equal status than it would have been to confiscate farms, ropewalks and other forms of property in the 18th century.
Helprin's solution is to use the language of the Constitution regarding "limited times". In the past, the Congress has extended the length of copyrights. Justice, Helprin argues, demands that the current 70 year period be extended, "Congress is free to extend at will the term of copyright. It last did so in 1998, and should do so again, as far as it can throw."

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Flickr Foto Of The Day

copper sunset
Originally uploaded by petervanallen.
This lovely, peaceful view of the English coast may not be totally natural, in that an HDR program appears to have been used. In any event, the exposures of sea, sun and beach makes for a beautiful photograph.


Another Failure By The FDA

The New England Journal of Medicine has published a meta-analysis of the available data linking the diabetes drug Avandia and myocardial infarctions, or heart attacks. Its authors conclude that the evidence of a connection is significant enough to require a total review and new studies. They conclude, "Despite these limitations, patients and providers should consider the potential for serious adverse cardiovascular effects of treatment with rosiglitazone for type 2 diabetes."

This follows on similar findings for the drugs Vioxx and Celebrex, which are used for osteoarthritis.

In all these cases our beloved Food and Drug Administration approved these drugs as safe and effective for human use, and they were wrong. What is going on at FDA? Is this just another example of the inability of Bush appointees to run agencies well? Are they underfunded and understaffed? Have they suddenly decided to hire idiots with advanced degrees?

I don't know the answer, but I'm beginning to take it personally. I have taken all of these drugs. So far I have not had a heart attack. I count myself as lucky.

But I shouldn't have to depend on luck. I should be able to trust that my government, having decided to monitor and control the introduction and use of all medicines, would not leave me so recklessly unprotected. This must become a priority for the Congress. We can not afford to wait for post-Bush improvements. Lives hang in the balance.

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Extraordinary New Species

From “The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss” by Claire Nouvian/Steven Haddock

The peculiar looking creature pictured above is an as yet unidentified deep sea creature. Today's Times has a fascinating piece on the discoveries of never before seen sea creatures. It is worth looking at, if just for the pictures, which look nothing so much like the work of the creature makers at Industrial Light and Magic.

This should serve as a reminder of how little we truly know about our own planet, much less the universe. In a marvelous book called, "A Short History Of Nearly Everything", Bill Bryson covers all that is known about the origins of the universe, the formation of the Earth and the development of life on our planet, all based on sound science that is made clear for a non-scientific audience. In this book Bryson sites estimates that we have probably discovered only half of all the species that inhabit the earth. That deep in the seas and the jungles and the other places man doesn't inhabit, there are hundreds of thousands of uncounted and unknown lifeforms.

A balanced view of the planet needs to take this into account against the occasional alarms about the loss of known species.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Comcast Cable Hopeless In Storm

In a severe storm, our area perennially suffers from electric and other service interruptions because of the large number of trees in this exurban/suburban town. Ice storms and thunder storms are usually the main culprits. Most of my fellow citizens are well used to the process and are willing to suffer the inconvenience as a risk of maintaining the country atmosphere of the area. Many have installed gas powered generators to maintain basic power after an outage.

As well, the electricity and telephone utilities, in this case CL&P and AT&T are reasonably well prepared to deal with these periodic crises. They maintain large enough staffs and sufficient equipment, as well as alliances that permit the rapid import of crews and equipment from neighboring states to address system failures of almost any size.

The worst situation I can recall was in 1973 when an ice storm hit a large swath of the Northeast. It took four days before power was restored to our house. In the dead of winter, we had to abandon ship after the first cold night huddled in front of the fireplace. Two more nights at my inlaws house and we were able to return. This storm was later immortalized by Rick Moody in his novel, The Ice Storm and the subsequent film by Ang Lee.

Cable television providers are young companies. They have no institutional memory of a long series of such events. As a matter of course they maintain technical crews sufficient only to do routine repairs and installations. Come a large storm, they are totally out manned.

So today, four full days after the storm, cable service has still not been restored. I waited until last Friday, when electricity had been restored to call both the telephone and cable providers to alert them of the downing of my service feed from the street. AT&T responded within 20 hours.

Comcast, on the other hand, advised me that a repair could not be scheduled until next Friday, May 25, a full week after my call. On Saturday, hoping that I had not heard correctly over the dicey cell connection, I called back. After hearing my complaint and consulting with supervisors, the repair appointment was rescheduled for next Tuesday afternoon. An improvement, but still not what a reasonable person would call prompt.

My only solace comes from the grateful knowledge that I am not dependent on this incompetent company for my phone and internet service. That would be truly intolerable. It is inconceivable to me that anyone living in an area such as ours, with overhead utility lines and plentiful trees would ever turn to their cable company for essential services such as phone and internet. These companies are simply unprepared for their emerging role as providers of "utilities", essential services which demand prompt restoration.

I can live without seeing Lost or the Sopranos live, although is will hurt, but being entirely out of touch with the would that long is absolutely not tolerable. I can't wait for AT&T to make television service over their wires available. I will sign up in a New York minute.


Return From The Darkness

On Wednesday last, May 16, at about 4:00 PM my area was slammed with what are called straight line bursts of wind between 60 - 80 mph. Just to the side of my house one burst, which sounded, in the classic description, like a freight train, tore a line of mature oak trees out by their roots. The big trees were laid down on top of one another in a row.

I admit it, I was scared. I headed for the windowless bathroom in the center of the house, fearful that a tree would crash into the house or smash the glass in one of the windows. Luckily, the house was just missed by the trees. The very tips of the upper branches of one just brushed the corner of the house as it crashed down. Damage to the house was limited to one broken window and a gutter at one corner of the roof which appears to have been blown straight up solely by the power of the wind. It was bent, tearing up the shingles and drip edge nearby. All in all, no big deal. Although, it did give me a new appreciation for the dangers of living in tornado and hurricane prone areas. It also made me wonder about the soundness of the decision-making process for those who choose to live in those areas.

The main inconvenience for me was that one of the trees took down the service lines between the street and my house. Much of the town was without power, but I new that even after service was restored my house would remain in the dark until an electric company tree crew could cut a clear line to my house and pull new cable. As it turned out, the power was restored at about 4:00 PM on Friday, 48 hours after the storm. Phone service, and my essential DSL service, were restored on Saturday at about noon. Cable is still not restored, about which more ranting later.

After the storm I decided to drive about a block and a half to a friend's house to see if they were alright. I found them comfortably watching a soccer game from England via satellite and enjoying a cup of tea. All their service were intact and no nearby trees had fallen. They had no idea that so much damage had occurred in the neighborhood.

The photo above, from the Ridgefield Press, shows a school bus that was trapped by falling trees and power poles. No one was injured and all the children were safely removed.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

BBC Documentary On Scientology

The Panorama documentary on the Scientology cult is now available online. This version also includes the reporter, John Sweeney, loosing it and shouting back in the face of the man appointed to handle him. The most striking thing about his film, which really doesn't provide much detail about the Scientology scam, is the way this reporter is followed wherever he goes by a high ranking Church of Scientology handler and accompanying camera crew. At one point the BBC reporter and his crew are forced to adjourn into a bathroom to talk in private. After a few minutes the handler is pounding on the door and shouting, no doubt filming from his side at the time.

As Sweeney says at one point, it is hard to imagine the Church of England, or any other legitimate religion so clearly harassing a reporter doing a negative story on them. Think, for example, of the Catholic Church's response to all the investigative reports about priests who abused children. No reporters were attacked as biased or hostile and followed around by camera crews. What is Scientology so afraid of?

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Flickr Foto Of The Day

Returning to the same ocean.
Originally uploaded by ali khurshid.
The seashore in Pakistan.


Why Are These Men Smiling?

Photo by Alex Grimm/Reuters

Am I missing something? In 1998 Daimler bought Chrysler for $36 billion. Today Daimler is selling the bulk of its interest in Chrysler to the private Cerebus Capital Management group for $7 billion. (Could there be a better name for a private equity firm.)

So the ever-charming Daimler CEO, Dieter Zetsche, it would seem, has lost his company something in the neighborhood of $29 billion. Sounds like he'll be a prime candidate for a massive end of year bonus and raise. After all, Daimler must hang on to such men, there are so few of them.

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Paul Bremer Argues He Did Not Create The Mess In Iraq

Paul Bremer, the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq has been silent for the three years since he left his post. In that time he has been the target of the current received wisdom that his decisions to eliminate Baath Party members from government and Hussein's former military leaders from the army led directly to the current chaos.

His argument to the contrary in today's Washington Post is worth reading. Here's a key quote:

Our critics (usually people who have never visited Iraq) often allege that the de-Baathification decision left Iraqi ministries without effective leadership. Not so. Virtually all the old Baathist ministers had fled before the decree was issued. But we were generally impressed with the senior civil servants left running the ministries, who in turn were delighted to be free of the party hacks who had long overseen them. The net result: We stripped away the tyrant's ardent backers but gave responsible Sunnis a chance to join in building a new Iraq.

The decree was not only judicious but also popular. Four days after I issued it, Hamid Bayati, a leading Shiite politician, told us that the Shiites were "jubilant" because they had feared that the United States planned to leave unrepentant Baathists in senior government and security positions -- what he called "Saddamism without Saddam." Opinion polls during the occupation period repeatedly showed that an overwhelming majority of Iraqis, including many Sunnis, supported de-Baathification.

And this:

So, after full coordination within the U.S. government, including the military, I issued an order to build a new, all-volunteer army. Any member of the former army up to the rank of colonel was welcome to apply. By the time I left Iraq, more than 80 percent of the enlisted men and virtually all of the noncommissioned officers and officers in the new army were from the old army, as are most of the top officers today. We also started paying pensions to officers from the old army who could not join the new one -- stipends that the Iraqi government is still paying.

I'll admit that I've grown weary of being a punching bag over these decisions -- particularly from critics who've never spent time in Iraq, don't understand its complexities and can't explain what we should have done differently. These two sensible and moral calls did not create today's insurgency. Intelligence material we discovered after the war began showed that Hussein's security forces had long planned to wage such a revolt.

No doubt some members of the Baath Party and the old army have joined the insurgency. But they are not fighting because they weren't given a chance to earn a living. They're fighting because they want to topple a democratically elected government and reestablish a Baathist dictatorship. The true responsibility for today's bloodshed rests with these people and their al-Qaeda collaborators.

Historians will have to be the final arbiters of what is true in this matter. For me, I plan to stop trying to find simple villains to blame for the mess in Iraq. The great historic failure was to not understand that complex internecine warfare was bound to happen in the post-Saddam power vacuum.

Photo source: NNDB.com

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