Friday, November 30, 2007

In Case You Weren't Sure

Irony is completely dead.

As evidence, I offer this: Evel Knievel died of (more or less) natural causes today.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Like Breathing

Saw a link to this article from the Washington Post today. Short version: Kids don't read. People don't read. This is bad.

The story the numbers tell, Gioia said, can be summed up in about four sentences:

"We are doing a better job of teaching kids to read in elementary school. But once they enter adolescence, they fall victim to a general culture which does not encourage or reinforce reading. Because these people then read less, they read less well. Because they read less well, they do more poorly in school, in the job market and in civic life."

This hits home, of course, because I come from a long line of book addicts. My house is full of books (kinda overflowing...sorry for those who have to squeeze into the guest room!). We read all the time; all of us.

Anecdote: Last week, we went for a parent-teacher-student conference at our (six-and-a-half year old) daughter's school. One of the exercises in the conference was for each of us to list strengths, challenges, goals, and action plans for our daughter. One of the things that surprised me when my daughter was listing her strengths was that she left out reading. That's probably the area where she excels most, and it could be called her defining characteristic. She's always walking around, carrying a book and reading it.

It occurs to me that she doesn't see this as a strength: everyone around her (at home, anyway) is always reading, too. It reminds me of an experience my wife related, where she was at a class, and people went around the room listing their hobbies. She was surprised how many people listed "Reading" as a hobby. She'd never thought of it as one, though she reads daily, because "it's like breathing, just something you do." It seems it's like that for our daughter, too. We have always read with, to, and around her. We read for pleasure, read for work, just read.

Now, I realize that this is atypical. We read far more than most people. But I also realize we're reading so much that we (and people like us) skew the averages upward. Which makes the overall decline in reading all the more disturbing to me.

So, go out and read a book in public. Support your public library. Support your local bookstores, especially independent ones. Make it visible; make it popular. Carry a book with you so people see what you're doing. Talk about what you read. Especially around young people. They need to know that reading is a Good Thing, and not just in the "taking your medicine" sense. It may not be as easy as watching TV, but it's much more rewarding.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Techno-Geezer Humor

This is a fairly amusing parody. The premise is that the TV show "24" is set in the year 1994.

I've never watched 24, but I thought it was amusing, anyway, in a weirdly nostalgic sense.

Oh, Those Good Old Days

Tom Tomorrow this week waxes nostalgic for those innocent days, back in the twentieth century, when we used to discuss how to parse "what is is" and what constituted sex.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Baffling and Mind-Boggling

I found a reference to this posting on LGM:
These are weirdest, most ill-conceived toys from around the globe. If you're about to say that they're "weird" only because of our own xenophobic ignorance of other cultures, well, we have two words for you: Poop toys.
I had heard of some of these before. I laughed a lot while reading the list and comments.

I have nothing further to add.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Bad News, Bears

No, this is not a post about my favorite college football team, although the title might be apt.

Rather it is about actual bears, or more to the point, the fact that three quarters of the bear species on the planet are in danger of extinction:
Six out of the world’s eight species of bears are threatened with extinction, according to recent assessments by the IUCN Bear and Polar Bear Specialist Groups.
Those of you who know me probably know of my fondness for bears. That alone makes the news very sad to me. But beyond my personal preferences, threatened bears are probably an indication of great danger to the larger ecosystems in which they live. The common threat to most of the threatened bears is habitat destruction. If the bears can't live there anymore, it's likely an indication of general ecosystem degradation.

I may be wrong about that. For one thing, different kinds of bears play very different roles in their ecosystems. Polar bears, for example, are top-level predators, where black bears (not terribly threatened) are generalist scavengers, for the most part. Pandas are highly specialized, particularly with regard to diet. So threats to a particular type of bear might just mean that bear is too specialized.

I'm not an ursinologist (nor even a wildlife biologist), but I do know that bears are magnificent creatures, and it's sad that they're in decline. It might not be the kind of dire threat that the precipitous decline in sharks is, but still, it would tend to indicate problems.

It's the Incompetence, Again

(Updated below)

As you probably know, we had a fairly nasty oil spill in San Francisco Bay last week. I almost commented on the idiocy of the reporting of the event, as the initial news reports said it was 140 gallons of fuel, which later became 58,000 gallons of fuel, which later became 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel. But that's a detail, really.

No use crying over spilled fuel; just clean it up.

Oh...wait.

It seems we're not so good at that. Now, I realize that oil spills are nasty, devastating things, and rather hard to handle, but the first rule of such things is not to turn away the people who want to help, especially if they know what they are doing.

I get that it might be important to turn away the untrained, especially if they could make things worse for themselves or the overall situation. But to turn away the people who are specifically trained to handle just this scenario is moronic:
The city of San Francisco offered 150 specially trained municipal workers to help clean up beaches and save birds - but essentially got shrugged off by the Coast Guard, according to the city's acting mayor and the president of the Board of Supervisors.
...
The city workers are firefighters and workers in the health department "who have training to deal with oil-contaminated creatures and spills, but all they've taken from us is a handful," Dufty said, noting that only about six have been called out.
Apparently we learned nothing from Katrina. The combination of operational incompetence and P.R. bungling is deadly. It hurts the operation at hand and also poisons the attitudes of those whose support you need.

And there is a basic rule of the universe: when people show up to volunteer, find something for them to do, even if you really don't have anything meaningful for them to do. If it's too dangerous to put them out on the beach, then put them in an office, a warehouse, covering for the people who are on the beach. Don't just send them away.

Oy.

Update:

Todd Woody of Green Wombat has a really good, first-hand look at the handling of the disaster and its response, with an eye toward how technologically backward the whole thing is.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Please Help If You Can

I'm finding there is very little awareness of (and little reporting of) the disaster currently taking place in the Mexican state of Tabasco:
A week of heavy rains caused rivers to overflow, drowning at least 80 percent of the oil-rich state.

Much of the state capital, Villahermosa, looked like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, with water reaching to second-story rooftops and desperate people awaiting rescue.
You read that right: 80% of the state under water. And an epidemic likely on the way.

Unlike New Orleans and the U.S. Gulf coast, Tabasco doesn't have the wherewithal to recover, nor does it have the attention of the world.

Bob Harris provides info on how you can help. Please do, if you can.

Here's another blog posting with lots of ways you can help.

The E-Voting Scam

Just when you thought I was never going to write about anything except torture, here I am, back on the subject of electronic voting.

Just read an interesting piece by "looseheadprop" at firedoglake on e-voting in New York, which includes this:

Remember HAVA? The totally misnamed, designed to do the opposite, “Help America to Vote Act”? It was passed in the wake of the 2000 hanging chad scandal. It appeared to have some laudable goals, such as forcing the states to make the voting experience handicapped accessible, and provided money to the states to “update” their voting systems to comply with its requirements. Coming from the Administartion that LUVS unfunded mandates, it sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it?

And by now you know why. It was yet another con, a really dangerous con if you believe in voting.

There's some great additional analysis. I recommend it.

While I'm on the subject, I should point out that the city of San Francisco is all agog over the fact that they have to hand-count all the results of Tuesday's mayoral election, and might not know the results for two to three weeks? It seems California's top elections official, Secretary of State Debra Bowen, ruled that although the City could use its electronic voting machines, they would have to hand-verify all the results, which will be a long and expensive process. On the plus side, the City is suing the manufacturer of the machines.

This is a story that is repeating itself in various ways, all over the country. At least Bowen is trying to ensure that the votes are counted properly, which is what really matters. It's a shame that it's such a costly process, but it is important to get it right.

I have no problem with the fact that it takes a long time to count the votes. It's a shame that the process is made less efficient by the very technology that was supposed to streamline things. But the goal of accurate vote counts is more important than the expense.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Not What I Wanted to Read

I was thinking this afternoon about a professor with whom I took four classes in my major field (Rhetoric) years ago. I'd been talking about him and one of those classes (Reader's Theater) with my wife the other day, and wondered whatever became of him. I figured (correctly) that he was long since retired.

But I didn't want to know this:
Robert Beloof, a poet and friend to both Robert Frost and E.E. Cummings, died unpoetically in Portland on Tuesday, hit by a Volkswagen van as he crossed Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard on foot. He was 81.
Two years ago. Man.

This part is highly accurate:
“He didn’t make friends unless people were willing to be honest and frank with him all the time,” said son Doug Beloof, a Lewis & Clark College law professor. “My father had no patience for etiquette or pretense or show.”
In addition to Reader's Theater, I studied two terms of oral interpretation of literature (one each of poetry and prose) and an amazing class on symbolism, the last half of which was spent reading Moby-Dick intensively.

I think it's fair to say that those classes shaped much of my understanding of literature, and certainly trained my voice for reading. There is probably nothing I've enjoyed in this life as much as reading with my daughter, and I'm sure a part of that I owe to my training with professor Beloof.

He was an interesting man, apparently rather difficult to get along with. His office was down a different corridor than all the other faculty in the Rhetoric department, for example. At the corner, a hand-printed sign pointed one way as the "hall of light" and the other as the "hall of darkness." I don't think they were just referring to the afternoon sunshine on the west side.

But he was very curious about many things. We used do discuss computers, since he knew I worked with and taught about them, and he figured he should get one to use in his work, particularly writing.

I'm sure if he'd had the chance, he would have come up with some choice words to describe his untimely demise, but he didn't. Alas.

Hmmm. I guess I should read my alumni magazine more carefully, because they ran an obituary for him in November, 2005. I knew only part of this:
Robert, a resident of Berkeley, was chair of the speech department at Berkeley in the 1960s, a period when many universities were converting their departments to study communications. He pushed in the opposite direction, expanding the department to cover more humanities and to use a pedagogy derived from classical rhetoric, which explains why the department is now called Rhetoric.
Good for him! That's a terrific legacy.

Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition

*sigh* At least, nobody expected it would reappear in the 21st century. In the United States.

As I wrote over a year ago, I can't believe we're having this discussion, much less a debate. For the U.S. Senate to be arguing with a nominee to be Attorney General over whether a technique directly out of the Inquisition constitutes torture is sickening. That there are people making not just legalistic hair-splitting arguments, but actual defenses of waterboarding, is appalling.

That one of my senators voted to approve said candidate's nomination is beyond belief. I thought it was bad when she voted to ban flag burning. I am deeply concerned that the moral underpinnings of this country may be lost, that there is not a sufficient number of people who actually understand what is happening to all of us and our reputation in the world.

Scott Horton has another excellent piece in Harper's today:
There is no respectable opinion that can hold waterboarding legal. It is criminal depravity. When we allow its justification as an article of polite conversation, we deal our society and its values a potentially mortal wound.

“Political language. . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable,” George Orwell reminded us in “Politics and the English Language.” In the waterboarding debate, Orwell’s warning has found its most literal application.

The ongoing discussion is worrisome, but I am encouraged that so many voices are being raised in opposition. Horton, of course. Christy Hardin Smith at Firedoglake today. Anonymous Liberal had a couple of good posts on the subject yesterday. And Keith Olbermann did another of his excoriating special comments last night. And the LA Times' media watchdog comes out strongly over how the debate is portrayed:
When the media characterize it as a political struggle between the White House and congressional Democrats or as a complex debate over national security in a post Sept. 11 world -- two convenient dodges -- they aren't being realistic or fair. What the media really are doing is engaging in a sophisticated fan dance -- a convenient act of concealment.

What's really at stake is whether this country will continue to stand with the framers of our Constitution and our authentic moral traditions or whether we now will allow Bush and Cheney to put us shoulder to shoulder with Pol Pot.
Wow. I hate that things have gotten to this point, but it is encouraging to hear people speaking out, and speaking out strongly. Keep it up! Public opinion is on the right track on this:
Asked whether they think waterboarding is a form of torture, more than two-thirds of respondents, or 69 percent, said yes; 29 percent said no.

Asked whether they think the U.S. government should be allowed to use the procedure to try to get information from suspected terrorists, 58 percent said no; 40 percent said yes.

Now, why a substantial majority like that doesn't translate into political action, it's hard to say. The invertebrates on Capitol Hill don't seem to get that it's us they need to listen to, not their own echo chamber.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Who'll Stand Up For Us?

Great. Just in case you were on the fence on this torture thing (maybe I should change the name of this to TortureBlog...), here's fine news about the U.S. State Department: In order to keep their own options open regarding torture, they are now unwilling to condemn the practice of waterboarding even when applied to U.S. citizens by others. In other words, they say it's OK for people to torture me, so long as they get to do whoever they want to torture, too.

From an article in Harper's (pointed out by Digby at Hullabaloo):
And the reason for the public contempt consistently shown Bellinger by the [international] legal community is simple: He finds it impossible to condemn torture. No legal adviser before him had any problem with that proposition.
The Bellinger referenced is Jim Bellinger, senior legal adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Read the rest. Read Digby's comments, too. Who's supporting the troops now, eh?

Nice: disdain and derision. That's just how I like to see my country's legal stands viewed elsewhere. I'm really looking forward to my next international trip.

It's going to take a long time to build a new reputation for this country. I hope we get the chance to do it.