Wednesday, October 31, 2007

But Don't Take MY Word for It...

I keep harping on the fact that torture is wrong and doesn't work. But why take my word for it? I'm no expert. Guess what? Even professional interrogators say that. Here's an excerpt from a column by retired Army colonel Stuart Herrington, who "served 30 years in the U.S. Army as an intelligence officer, which included extensive experience as an interrogator in Vietnam, in Panama and during the 1991 Gulf War."

The piece is called "Two problems with torture," and you may already have guessed what those two things are: "It's wrong and it doesn't work." Go figure.

Here's more detail on how it's supposed to be done, and how it's being done now:

In interrogation centers I ran, we called prisoners "guests" and extended military courtesies, such as saluting captured officers. We strove to undermine a prisoner's belief system, which we knew instructed him that Americans are unschooled infidels who would bully him and resort to intimidation, threats and brutality. Patience was essential. We rejected the view that interrogators could merely "take off the gloves" and that information would somehow magically flow if we brutalized our "guests." This notion was uninformed and counterproductive, not to mention illegal, and we made sure our chain of command understood that bowing to such tempting theories would result in bad information.

Persuasive? I'd always thought so, and it certainly worked for us in contingency after contingency in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. But when I explained these immutable principles to an auditorium of young Army interrogators last year, one reaction puzzled me. "Sir," a young soldier queried, "that 'tender-loving-care approach' sounds all well and good, but it takes time. What do we do when the chain of command sends out a requirement and says they need the information by the end of the day, and that thousands of lives may depend upon it?"

The very question tells us that intelligence professionals have failed to educate their commanders that detainee interrogation is not like a water spigot. "Give the inquisitors the freedom to push the envelope of brutality and good information will follow" seems to have become the watchword since 9-11.

The blog post at LGM that pointed me to Herrington's article suggests that gathering intelligence isn't actually the point:
In fact, torture (in the contemporary American context) is designed to demonstrate masculinity and Will; to sort of those who are "serious" about protecting America from those who aren't.
I'm not sure I buy that entirely. Certainly there are some who use brutality as the ultimate form of bluster and swagger. But I tend to think it's more about putting up the appearance of effectiveness, in a shallow, TV melodrama sort of way. As anyone who watches TV these days can tell you, you just rough people up, they give you information, and you solve all your problems in a matter of hours, if not minutes. Never mind that this is not how the real world works: it's how a lot of people perceive the world as working. After all, the closest most of us will ever get to an interrogation is watching it portrayed on TV.

And as the self-same TV tells us, image is everything, and perception is reality.

But they are not. Turn off the TV and think a little, OK? Thank you.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Save the Sharks

No, this is not a post about ice hockey.

Went to an advance screening tonight of a really good movie called Sharkwater. Go see it. It opens across the U.S. on Friday, November 2nd. Here's the trailer.

I will have more to say about the movie and sharks and all that. I got into this screening because of a group I do some work with, the Center for Ocean Awareness, Research, and Education (COARE). COARE is working to reduce the demand for shark fin soup, because said demand is killing ungodly numbers of sharks. It is estimated that well over 90% of sharks are already gone, and nearly all are either killed as random bycatch or specifically for their fins and nothing else.

So, support groups like COARE and WildAid that are working to reduce the demand for shark fins. Don't buy shark products: no shark fin soup, no shark cartilage, no shark meat. Be wary of "fish and chips," because a lot of that "fish" is shark. They've started calling it "rock salmon" (really) or "flake" to hide its actual nature. But it's shark, and it's really bad for the environment.

Much more coming, but we aware: this is important, and improvement needs to happen fast. Public pressure has helped to save many other creatures, like whales and elephants. Sharks need our help, and we need sharks.

More Musical Geezers

I've been meaning to mention that I went to another concert last week. Yes, just eight days after seeing 60-year-old Jimmy Buffett play live, I saw 58-year-old Bruce Springsteen. Quite a contrast, that.

Now, I have to admit that I like Springsteen, but I don't consider myself a huge fan. I've enjoyed his music for years, own a number of his albums, and have now seen him live twice. In many ways, that's the key: Springsteen is legendary for his live performances. Though he's slowing down some (he no longer plays 4+ hours at a stretch), his current tour consists of well over two hours of nearly non-stop music. One song segues into the next with very little chatter. Even the obligatory guitar changes usually happen while someone is still playing, and then he counts off into the next tune.

It's really amazing. The energy level Bruce and the band maintain is beyond anything I've seen.

What's also amazing is the number of New Jerseyites (if that's the term) who pop up like prairie dogs to see "BRUUUUUUUUUUUUUCE!" play. Riding BART to the arena for the show, eight or ten of the people standing near me were comparing notes about what part of New Jersey they came from. And when Springsteen called out from the stage to greet the bay area, he also called out to folks from New Jersey, and they were almost as loud, if not as numerous. One is not normally so aware of their presence, and I'm unclear whether they just follow the band (Bruceheads?) or whether they're always here, but usually quieter.

Anyway, it was a very good show. I enjoyed it more than the first time I saw him, which was outdoors at Pacific Bell Park (or whatever it was called that week). Springsteen really connects with the smaller audience. I'm told his solo acoustic shows are even more amazing. Perhaps I'll check that out the next time he does one around here.

Here's the glowing review from the San Francisco Chronicle the next day:
...somehow, some way, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band still stand for the same things, still shine the same beacon, still stay true to the dream. They are older, wiser men - joined now by women, Soozie Tyrell and Patti Scialfa - and they are slowed by time. .... The Boss himself couldn't quite put that harsh wailing urgency into "Backstreets," but just the fact that he was playing the song again for the first time in years said everything.
On the down side, I see indications today that some radio stations are trying to suppress some of the songs from Springsteen's newest album (although how you suppress the #1 album in the country, I don't know). Bruce has always been outspoken about things, and he makes no secret of his dislike or even disdain for the current U.S. administration. But truly, I find it difficult to believe that even to corporate conglomerates that run the radio business these days would try to suppress extremely popular music if there's money in it for them. Weird. I'll keep an eye on that.

Rock on.

Street-corner Discourse

Last night, we took my mother-in-law out to dinner to celebrate her birthday. We were in Berkeley, and parked the car right down the block from People's Park. (If that name doesn't mean anything to you, you're either far too young to be reading this, or you desperately need to go read the linked history! A somewhat more objective view is here.)

As I was attempting to negotiate my way into the parking space (always a treat parallel parking on the left side of a one-way street in an unfamiliar car), I rolled down the window to see how I was doing, and the vehicle was suddenly filled with the sounds of the "discussion" among several people on the sidewalk. Perhaps "argument" is a better description. I never did discern the substance of the disagreement, but whatever it was, it sounded as if someone were playing the soundtrack from Casino out there. (The MPAA rating noted "pervasive strong language" in that; I know there are plenty of other examples, but that one stuck in my mind.)

It was, quite literally, a conversation dominated by "F-bombs." Now, sitting there in the car with my six-year-old daughter, I wondered what this must sound like to her. It's not as if she's never heard one of us use the occasional profanity, but I doubt she's ever heard a torrent of that sort. As I finished parking, the participants headed off, still yelling, in the direction of the park.

As we sat down in the restaurant a few minutes later, my mother-in-law commented that she hadn't heard anything like that in quite a while. She used to be a teacher in an urban high school, and her husband spent many years in sports administration, so she has certainly heard her share of profanity-laced tirades. Even my niece, a college student who is more frequently immersed in the current coarsened idiom, noted that this was a particularly vehement example.

We discussed for a bit the fact that while one might use profanity as an intensifier in conversation, a "conversation" that consists of little but intensifiers expresses emotion at the expense of substance. The phrase that kept coming to my mind was "...full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Of course, the well-known context of that quote is " is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." And clearly, it is easy to dismiss the participants in last night's tirade as idiots with no meaning.

But the full context of the sentence in Macbeth's soliloquy upon learning of his wife's death, is not about the idiot, but about life:
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
It's brilliant writing ("Duh,'s Shakespeare!"). The single line, "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow," is one of the greatest lines of poetry ever written. But behind all the froth and fume, what underlies it all is life.

Meanwhile, my daughter, immersed in a game of
Brickbreaker on mom's Blackberry, seems to have ignored the whole event and discussion thereof. I hope that's a good thing, but I can't help wondering what portion of the soundtrack penetrated her subconscious. I know she hears everything, especially when she doesn't seem to be listening.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Slightly Better Torture News

In fairness, not all the news on torture is bad. There is one participant in the Republican side of the race who gets it on this issue: John McCain:
Senator John McCain, who is perhaps the most forceful (and one of the only) anti-torture voices in his party, has sharply rebuked Rudy in an interview for suggesting yesterday that he didn't know what waterboarding is and that extreme interrogation techniques might be defensible in some circumstances.
On the other hand, McCain is notorious for saying very reasonable things, and then voting for just the opposite. I talk to a lot of liberal and Democratic voters who seem to think McCain is very reasonable and moderate. But if you look at his voting record, he's dead solid conservative. He just talks a good "moderation," and has a good P.R. machine.

And, I should point out, that although he speaks out rather forcefully against torture and related madness, his message doesn't seem to be resonating with the voters or the other candidates. His campaign seems to be doing an imitation of David Caruso's career. And none of the other candidates seems to have caught the meme.

But at least there is someone over there saying something good. So there is hope, however slim.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Torture and Popular Culture

[Never thought I'd see, much less write, a title like that.]

Digby over at Hullabaloo has a great, long post about torture and TV and stuff. It's not pleasant. As usual, Digby says everything I would want to say, and says it much better.

Just a reminder:
Cruel and unusual punishment is banned in the constitution for a reason --- it makes barbarians of all of us.
I really want to stop writing about this.


...but I can't. It's a big topic among those running for president these days, but at least some of the candidates trivialize it. Rudy Giuliani yesterday told a group in Iowa that
...they talk about sleep deprivation. I mean, on that theory, I’m getting tortured running for president of the United States. That’s plain silly. That’s silly.
No, that's torture. Anonymous Liberal, filling in for Glenn Greenwald at Salon this week, dredged up some actual descriptions of sleep deprivation being used as torture. It's grim, but it's worth reading to understand what people like Giuliani are trivializing:

Apparently, this is what it's like on the campaign trail:

Mr. Bashmilah was subjected to severe sleep deprivation and shackling in painful positions. Excruciatingly loud music was played twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week. Guards deprived him of sleep, routinely waking him every half hour. Initially, the cell was pitch black, his hands were cuffed together, and his legs were shackled together, severely restricting his movement and causing him pain. Later, he was chained to a wall and the light in his cell was left on at all times, except for brief moments when the guards came to his cell ... Mr. Bashmilah's psychological torment was such that he used a piece of metal to slash his wrists in an attempt to bleed to death. He used his own blood to write "I am innocent" and "this is unjust" on the walls of his cell.

I wonder what Giuliani writes on the walls of his $4,000-a-night hotel rooms.

I'm sick of this, I tell you. Even when Giuliani says right-sounding stuff about torture, like this:
So I think America should never be for torture. America should be against torture. It violates the Geneva Convention. Certainly when we’re dealing with armed combatants, we shouldn’t get near anything like that.
That's pretty good, but his very next words were:
There is a distinction, sometimes, when you’re dealing with terrorists. You may have to use means that are a little tougher.
And later, this:
So let’s be careful on how we define this. And, sure we should be against torture. But we should not be against aggressive questioning. And the line between the two is going to require some really difficult decisions about drawing it and kind of trusting each other with the discretion for the president to make decisions about what has to be done in the interests of the American people.
This insistence that somehow it isn't torture if you're doing it in a good cause is sickening. Or that good people might sometimes torture bad people, and that's somehow all right. Sick. And sickening.

We have no business discussing the nuances of when and on whom we should be allowed to
use "aggressive questioning." A civilized society doesn't work that way, doesn't go there, doesn't even think seriously about it.

That used to be us. It can be again.

The Price of Ignorance

I stumbled onto this column by Mark Morford of the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday. I had given up reading his work a few years back because I found it too snarky (really! too snarky even for me) and rather repetitive and self-congratulatory. So I was pleasantly surprised to read this and find it serious, reasoned, and missing any gratuitous references to sexual lubricants. Maybe the guys has grown up. Or maybe this is an anomaly...who knows?

Anyway, the point of the article is that the current generation of kids is growing up horribly uneducated. And yes, you can blame TV and bad parenting and too much junk food, but the part he really stresses is that we've basically gutted the educational system.
We are, as far as urban public education is concerned, essentially at rock bottom. We are now at a point where we are essentially churning out ignorant teens who are becoming ignorant adults and society as a whole will pay dearly, very soon, and if you think the hordes of easily terrified, mindless fundamentalist evangelical Christian lemmings have been bad for the soul of this country, just wait.
Scary stuff, that.

This is arguably the biggest threat to our way of life. Not war, not terrorism, not health care or the economy. Those are all important topics, hard to solve and all that. But if we don't educate the populace, it is hard to see how we can address those issues, much less solve them. A generation that grows up without quality education or even a sense of the value of education is unlikely to recover from that.

The benefits of public education were spelled out by one of its early advocates, Thomas Jefferson:

"The less wealthy people,... by the bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government; and all this would be effected without the violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen." --Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821. ME 1:73

Perhaps the greatest benefit of an education is the appreciation of education and learning. I can't deny that the children of the wealthy and privileged will pretty much always get a decent education. But lest they find themselves isolated in a sea of ignorance, we need to ensure the education of all (or most).

My home state, California, used to rank at or near the top of national rankings of education and per-student expenditures. Now it ranks near the bottom. If the largest state in the nation, the home of Silicon Valley and Hollywood, can't bring itself to educate its children, what hope is there?

I'm bummed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Barbara Lee Speaks For Me

The title of this posting is the slogan my Congressional representative uses on her bumper stickers and posters (it's also the name of her campaign website). It is a sentence I have often been proud to utter, most notably as she has stood up for individual rights and against war and torture.

And today, she stood up and spoke out against one of the senators from our state, Dianne Feinstein, who promoted the nomination of an arguably racist judge to serve on a federal circuit court:
Let me also say that as a Californian and as an African American, I am incredibly disappointed that a Senator from my home state, Senator Feinstein, would not only vote for confirmation but would be the one to effectively bring this nomination to the floor by voting with the Republicans to approve the nomination in committee. It is particularly disappointing given California’s diversity and our history of leadership on issues of civil rights, women’s rights, worker’s rights and the basic commitment to equality before the law, all areas where Judge Southwick’s record is, quite frankly, sadly lacking.
Ms. Lee continues the proud tradition of her predecessor, Ron Dellums, for whom she worked for many years. Neither one is known for taking stands that are necessarily popular, but they are courageous and important. And I'm proud that they represent me.

I've been corresponding with a friend of mine about the lack of backbone in Congress of late. I believe I accused the leaders of both houses of Congress of being invertebrates yesterday. It is gratifying when my representative shows some spine (and she does this often!).

[Hat tip to Jane Hamsher at FireDogLake for pointing out this bit.]

Monday, October 22, 2007

Another Quiz

It's not my fault. Laura started it!

And I don't think I've ever scored 100% on any of these before:

Which Star Trek: the Next Generation character are you?
created with
You scored as Geordi LaForge

You are good-natured and quick thinking. You are good at figuring out puzzels and building things.

Geordi LaForge




Jean Luc Picard


Deanna Troi




Beverly Crusher


William T. Riker


At least none of us are Rikers....


Friday, October 19, 2007

Music that Makes Me Happy

Last night I had the roughly annual pleasure of seeing Jimmy Buffett live. This was the second time he's played at the historic Fillmore Auditorium (They no longer have their own website, darn it, so you'll have to settle for this Wikipedia article for now.), and the second time I've seen him there.

It was a good show, but it can't live up to the Really Awesome Show he put on the first time he played there in 2005. That was a terrific experience. He was obviously thrilled to be there, and had put together several special numbers with the band that resonated with the venue, covering tunes by the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Neil Young in addition to his usual fare. Last night he managed to put in a few specials, but he mostly stuck to the set list he's been touring with.

I suppose the other "special" aspect of the first show, other than it being such a first, was that the show was a fund raiser to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans has a special place in Jimmy's heart, as he grew up on the Gulf coast, so it was pretty cool to help him try to help those folks.

Being in a smaller venue (I believe the Fillmore holds something like 1200 people) means the concert is a much more intimate experience than the ones in the big barns with 15,000 people. It makes it possible to watch the faces and interactions of the band members, which is fun. And it lets you just space off with the music. Toward the end of the show, he played the song "One Particular Harbour," which always transports me:
And there's that one particular harbour
Sheltered from the wind
Where the children play on the shore each day
And all are safe within
I remember quite vividly seeing my one particular harbour on my first trip to Palau. It was our "honeymoon" (a year before the wedding), and we went past this absolutely perfect, gorgeous little spot on one of the islands. I later found out that's where one of the Palauan chiefs lives (or one of his places, anyway). Just a small, simple house with a beach, surrounded by palm trees in the tropical sun. Nice.

But I digress....

Anyway, Jimmy did some fun stuff. In place of his traditional "Why Don't We Get Drunk?" song, he commemorated the 21st birthday of one of the attendees with a serenade from Bob Dylan, which I never knew was called "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35." But the crowd all seemed to know the chorus really well. And he kicked off the second half of the show by performing "God's Own Drunk," which he rarely does any more. That's a fine old bit (originally by Lord Buckley), featuring a moonshiner, a still, and a bear. Doesn't get much better than that.

Except they followed it with a solo number by one of the long-time backup singers for the band, Nadirah Shakoor. She covered one of Buffett's older, less well-known songs, "Wonder Why We Ever Go Home," and I must say, it sounds quite a bit different when she does it. Quite nice.

Oh, and if you want to know what a professional thought of the show, here's the review from the San Jose Mercury News. See? it wasn't just me! It was a great show.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Travel Annoyance

Airport security is a weird, kabuki dance that has nothing to do with actual security, for the most part. It's mostly designed to keep passengers docile and afraid. Indeed, it has much more to do with bureaucracy than with security: You have to play by their rules; arguing has no benefit, and could have annoying (or worse) consequences. So you go along. Baaaa-aa-aaahhhh!

This rant was triggered by my reading a pilot's discussion of the stupid things they have to do, like removing their shoes. Not that they actually need to screen the shoes, but they're worried that metal in the shoes might set off the metal detector. Brilliant. So they have to take off their shoes, too.

But my favorite has to be this comment left in response to that:
Heard in a European airport, by an agonized traveler to the US speaking to a security guard: "It's not a gel, it's Camembert!"

Sunday, October 07, 2007

No, Really: Don't Call

Of course, I don't mean you, dear readers. I'm talking about the National Do Not Call Registry, a fine setup created under the Federal Trade Commission about five years ago. Basically, it's a list of phone numbers that telemarketers are not supposed to call.

Now, about that five years ago thing: it turns out that for no particularly good reason, requests to be on the list expire after five years. I say no good reason, because numbers already come off the list when they change owners, which seems fair. But it's hard to imagine that when we all signed up, five years ago, we were thinking that in five years' time, we'd be missing all those calls during dinner, so wouldn't it be nice to have people call again?

I don't get it, other than telemarketers wanted another opportunity to piss people off. Why in the world they would want to call people just because their registration had expired is beyond me. But they got that little sunset provision in there.

So if you registered back when they first started up the list, you need to re-register. It's easy and quick. And well worth it. I remember how awful it was to get all those calls, and how nice it's been lately to not get them.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Revisiting Torture

When I first started blogging, I used to write on torture a fair amount. More than I'd like to, because I don't like the topic at all. My views on the subject should be very clear to all who read this: Torture is wrong, always.

Now the subject rears its ugly head again, and brings to mind Yet Another Reason why torture is wrong: it makes people lie. When people are doing something they know is wrong, they tend to lie about it. And then when caught, they sometimes say it wasn't wrong at all. I know this. My six-year-old knows this. That "adults" somehow think we won't notice or care is stunning.

It was encouraging, once upon a time, to hear my nation's government denounce torture. It is sad to learn now that at the same time it was doing that, it was sanctioning the use of torture.

Like slavery, torture is an institution that has no place in modern civilization. Those who advocate it or try to minimize its harms have no place in high office or polite society.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Global Warming is Good for You! ...Maybe

I'm currently in the middle of reading Storm World, an interesting work about whether and how global warming and tropical hurricanes interact. It's a good read, though it might be a bit tedious for those not already interested in climate science.

But big storms aside, it appears that global warming is good for some, at least. Brain-eating amoebas are cool, in the abstract. Don't think I want to meet them in person, though.