CATEGORY: PoliticsLawGovernment

Is Paul Ryan a “Global Thinker?”

This explains so much. Foreign Policy magazine, that impressive and deep-looking tome that stands out on magazine stands because it looks, well, really serious, has published a list of the most important “Global Thinkers” in the world today. Since I’m not a regular reader, I don’t know if this is an annual list, like the Buffalo Beast’s list of the year’s most loathsome people—which is the only real inheritor of the good old Esquire Dubious Achievement awards when they meant something, or of the glorious Spy 100 lists. Or this could be a complete one-off, never to be seen again. Depending on whether the list was undertaken for satirical value or not, we may wish it never graces our screen again.

Why? Let’s start out with Paul Ryan as being number eight on the list of—wait, what’s it called?—Global Thinkers. If I read this correctly, this means that the editors of Foreign Policy think that Paul Ryan is (a) a really deep and important thinker, or (b) has ideas that are really big and important, even though they may not be very good ideas—in fact, they could be complete shit, but that doesn’t matter. Being in the camp that, like Paul Krugman, thinks that Ryan is a complete fraud—a con man, in Krugman’s curt terminology, and it fits—my inclination of to gravitate to door number two. But we run into our first problem when it turns out the list of “The 100 Global Thinkers” actually has, let’s see—sorry, have to count them up—127 people. So Foreign Policy magazine, kind of like Paul Ryan, can’t count.

Wow. Who else is on this list of “Global Thinkers?” Well, for starters, a number of people I’ve never heard of, which means nothing, of course. I probably should have, in most cases, so I would normally rely on something like Foreign Policy to tell me why some is a “Global Thinker.” But this is a list that puts both Clintons ahead of Barack Obama, which may or may not be correct, but has them, at numbers three (the Clintons, who seem to some as a set) and seven, respectively. It has Paul Krugman as number 34, which means, what? That Ryan is 27 places more important in thinkingness than Krugman is? Whatever Krugman’s faults, he knows how to count, and is generally right. Neither is true in Ryans’s case. So I have to assume that this list is satire.

Why else might I assume that? Well, it’s got crazy physicist Richard Muller of Berkeley, who made a splash when he admitted global warming existed earlier this year, ahead of James Hansen, who has been banging on about it for years. So apparently FP thinks that overcoming your own inner resistance to common sense and coming late to the game to what 99% of the rest of the scientific world already suspects is true is a criterion to being a ”Global Thinker,” apparently. There are those deeply hard line Israeli leaders—Barak and Netanyahu—right there at number 13, ahead of Israeli military peaceniks Dagan and Diskin, who think war is a bad idea. Well, war is foreign policy yadda yadda yadda. Wow, Dick and Liz Cheney at number 38, and Condi Rice at 39. Well, if we’re still celebrating deeply bad thinking, this works. Charles Murray comes in at 43. Ah, Bjorn Lomborg is there too, at 58, well ahead of Daron Acemogly and James Robinson, who in my opinion should be in the top five (for Why Nations Fail). At least they made it, but this is starting to look like a list that no one with any sense would want to be on. Hey, look, Rand Paul is there at 71. He’s certainly someone with ideas. I rest my case.

I have no doubt that many of these people have good ideas, which should be widely shared. Nor do I think this is a particularly easy task, knowing which ideas are good ones worthy of consideration—this often takes time, which lists like this one are the enemy of. I also have no doubt that this is a list compiled by someone who was seeking “balance.” Steven D over at Kos has a much more sensible critique of this list and what it stands for. If what it stands for is consensus thinking in Washington and the foreign policy establishment, we’re in even deeper trouble than I thought.

CATEGORY: ToR4

Tournament of Rock IV: the Meat Loaf pod

The results are in: pod 15 saw Stevie Nicks going all Iron Man on Ozzy and the rest of the competitors, really inflicting a beatdown that we didn’t see coming. Where are all the Ozzy fans, dude? In any case, Stevie moves on to the Sweet 16.

Now we arrive at pod 16, our final preliminary round. Yes folks, we’d do anything for corporate rock, but we won’t do that. Because, you know, it freakin’ hurts.

  • #10 Seed: Meat Loaf
  • Billy Squier
  • The Eagles
  • Limp Bizkit
  • Peter Cetera

Meat Loaf

After a tenure in the off-Broadway production Rainbow (In New York), Meat Loaf earned a slot in More Than You Deserve, a musical written by classically trained pianist Jim Steinman. An appearance in the cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show followed, and in 1976 Meat Loaf also handled vocal duties on one side of Nugent’s LP Free-for-All. Soon, Meat Loaf reteamed with Steinman for a tour with the National Lampoon road show, after which Steinman began composing a musical update of the Peter Pan story titled Never Land. Ultimately, much of what Steinman composed for Never Land became absorbed into 1977′s Bat Out of Hell, the album that made Meat Loaf a star. Produced by Todd Rundgren, the record was pure melodrama, a teen rock opera that spawned three Top 40 singles — “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” and “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth” — on its way to becoming one of the best-selling albums of the decade.

Alex: I respect a man who will tell me what he will and will not do for love. But Meat Loaf never said what “that” was, and I can’t live with that sort of uncertainty.

Jim: He wasn’t terrible in Rocky Horror. Sadly, in everything else, he was…

Me: Meat Loaf gets credit for Rocky Horror. But that’s cancelled out by his appearance with Mitt Romney. So that leaves us with Fight Club versus…everything else he ever did?

Bonesparkle: “I’d Do Anything for Love” would make more sense if it were being sung to Meat Loaf instead of by him. If a woman sang that song, I think we’d understand that by “I Won’t Do That,” she means take her clothes off while he’s in the same county.

Billy Squier

Many point to Billy Squier as early-’80s rock personified — an era when he and many of his peers tempered hard rock with pop melodicism — and by adding just the right amount of posing and posturing for the newly constructed MTV set, he scored a string of arena rock anthems and power ballads. … Squier’s hit parade continued with 1982′s Emotions in Motion, another big release that spawned an additional monster radio/MTV hit with “Everybody Wants You,” as Squier supported the album with a tour of U.S. arenas (with an up-and-coming Def Leppard opening). But on his next release, the 1984 Jim Steinman-produced Signs of Life, Squier hit a snag in his career. Although the album was another sizeable U.S. hit, the video for the album’s single, “Rock Me Tonite,” alienated some of Squier’s hardcore rock following, as the singer was filmed flamboyantly prancing around his apartment in time to the music (and in a moment of great delight, ripping off his shirt) — resulting in the clip often being considered one of the most inadvertently hilarious videos of all time.

Jim: Attempted to make The Stroke the word, but succeeded only in sounding as if he spent too much time applying The Stroke to himself…

fikshun: I remember seeing an interview with Billy Squier where he more or less blamed the end of his career on the homo-eroticism of his “Rock Me Tonight” video. He’s probably right, given his audience at the time. He claims he was only going along with what the video director was telling him to do, trusting that the director knew better. It seems apropos that the man who wrote the song “The Stroke,” a cynical assessment of going along with the machinations of the corporate world, would be undone by … you know … going along with the machinations of the corporate world.

Me: I loved Billy Squier. Still do – tracking his greatest hits as I type. It’s true that I mistyped “type” as “trype” just then and had to fix it, but that’s not the point here. The point is that Billy did some seriously great tunes, corporate or not.

Bonesparkle: Yeah, but you’ve seen that video, right?

Me: I’ve seen the video. Now, can we talk about something else?

Bonesparkle: I don’t know. I think we should watch it again.

Me: That isn’t necessary.

Bonesparkle: I think it is.

Me: Do NOT play that video!

Bonesparkle: You mean this one?

Me: You suck, you know that?

The Eagles

With five number one singles, fourteen Top 40 hits, and four number one albums, the Eagles were among the most successful recording artists of the 1970s. At the end of the 20th century, two of those albums — Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) and Hotel California — ranked among the ten best-selling albums ever, and the popularity of 2007′s Long Road Out of Eden proved the Eagles’ staying power in the new millenium. Though most of its members came from outside California, the group was closely identified with a country- and folk-tinged sound that initially found favor in Los Angeles during the late ’60s, as championed by such bands as the Flying Burrito Brothers and Poco (both of which contributed members to the Eagles). But the band also drew upon traditional rock & roll styles and, in their later work, helped define the broadly popular rock sound that became known as classic rock. As a result, the Eagles achieved a perennial appeal among generations of music fans who continued to buy their records many years after they had split up, which helped inspire the Eagles’ reunion in the mid-’90s.

fikshun: For most bands, if their principal members are no longer enchanted with their sound they’re making, they break up the band and start over.  The Eagles, on the other hand, replaced one member with another until they got their corporate formula just right. (Out of curiosity, I wonder if Don Henley is into eugenics.) It was a heck of a formula though. How many other bands got heavy airplay on the hard rock FM stations at the same time they were getting heavy airplay on the AM country stations? One point in their favor: like KISS, they’ve been on their farewell tour for what seems like 15 years now. Like KISS, they booted out a lead guitarist. Unlike KISS, they didn’t send out another clown wearing a mask with his likeness, trying to pretend nothing had changed.

Jim: Once a great band, then became everything they thought they were slyly making fun of…and didn’t realize it. To quote their best composer, “Don’t look back/You can never look back….” Had they heeded….

Me: It’s hard to imagine that adding Joe Walsh to any band would make things worse, isn’t it?

Bonesparkle: The archetypal expression of The Eagles’ aesthetic actually resides in Glenn Frey’s solo hit, “Party Town.” Discuss.

Limp Bizkit

After Korn played the Jacksonville area in 1995, bassist Fieldy got several tattoos from Durst (a tattoo artist) and the two became friends. The next time Korn were in the area, they picked up Limp Bizkit’s demo tape and were so impressed that they passed it on to their producer, Ross Robinson. Thanks mostly to word-of-mouth publicity, the band was chosen to tour with House of Pain and the Deftones. The label contracts came pouring in, and after signing with Flip/Interscope, Limp Bizkit released their debut album, Three Dollar Bill Y’All. By mid-1998, Limp Bizkit had become one of the more hyped bands in the burgeoning rap-metal scene, helped as well by more touring action — this time with Faith No More and later, Primus — as well as an appearance on MTV’s Spring Break ’98 fashion show. The biggest break, however, was a spot on that summer’s Family Values Tour, which greatly raised the group’s profile.

Jim: First, learn to spell. Second, spelling will not change the fact that you suck. One is reminded of the words of Dr. Samuel Johnson: “It is better…” Oh, nevermind. The words of that philosopher Ron White fit better: “You can’t fix stupid …”

Alex: I know LB did it all for the nookie, but I shudder to think that they got any.

Me: Wait – isn’t this the same as Kid Rock?

Peter Cetera

While best known as the longtime frontman for Chicago, singer Peter Cetera also enjoyed success as a solo performer. Born September 13, 1944 in the Windy City, Cetera was in a band called the Exceptions when in late 1967 he was recruited by another aspiring group, then called Chicago Transit Authority, to play bass. By the early ’70s, Chicago was among the most popular acts in America, their brand of muscular jazz-rock spawning such major hits as “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” and “Saturday in the Park,” many of them featuring Cetera on vocals. In 1976 he penned the gossamer ballad “If You Leave Me Now,” and when it hit number one, most of Chicago’s subsequent work followed in the same soft rock style. Although the band’s fortunes dwindled over the remainder of the decade, in 1982 Chicago returned to the top of the charts with “Hard to Say I’m Sorry”; several more smashes, including “Hard Habit to Break” and “You’re the Inspiration,” were to follow. Although Cetera recorded his eponymously titled solo debut in 1981, he remained with Chicago full-time until 1985. Upon quitting the band, he soon returned to the top of the charts with “The Glory of Love,” the first single from his album Solitude/Solitaire as well as the theme to the film The Karate Kid, Part II; that same year he scored another number one smash, “The Next Time I Fall,” a duet with Amy Grant.

Jim: I’m sorry – my brain only forms one word when I see Peter Cetera’ s name: “SUCKS!”

fikshun: The first Chicago record, back when they were going by the monicker Chicago Transit Authority, was really hot. But as with the Doobie Brothers and Jefferson Airplane, an evil changeling stepped in and it all went to crap. When the hydra descends to terrorize the city, the three heads of Peter Cetera, Mickey Thomas and Michael McDonald will be a formidable beast indeed.

Bonesparkle: Sam, you hateful son of a bitch. Didn’t we already deal with this in the Chicago pod?

Me: I felt that Cetera’s solo career deserved to considered on its own merits.

Bonesparkle: Fuck you. You call Meat Loaf vs. a second helping of Cetera vs. Kid Bizkit vs. Linda Ronstadt’s goddamned backing band vs. the Prince of Prance a choice? That’s like having a choice between getting your balls shot off or hacked off with a machete.

 

Click to vote.

The rules.

Image Credit: LA Times

CATEGORY: SRLitJournal

S&R Poetry: “Crepuscule,” by Adam Sirgany

In the twilight of the night, in the rain-fog
at summer’s edge, when the skunk comes
amble-burrowing in the compost heap

for scraps of marrow to deep to suck from bone,
when the rain comes on the cement porch steps,
a-pat-it a-pa-tit a-pat-it,

when the skunk runs rumba to its rhythm
and off into the night to burrow
and it is safe from the rain and the darkness,

and when the wind laments for the passing
of a pine, fifteen years young, a sapling!
with the readiness of apologies,

in the chroma obscura of dimness
in the haze of sweet evening,
inside it…

_____

Adam Al Sirgany attended Knox College and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He currently lives in the greater St. Louis area where he is a teacher, tutor and street musician. His scholarly pursuits include intense staring at blades of grass; his roguish misdemeanors include picking them for whistles.

CATEGORY: InternetTelecomSocialMedia

Can somebody ‘splain to me how the heck Klout works?

I have a Klout account. If you don’t know about Klout, it’s basically a new, high-tech way of stroking your ego and keeping track of how important you are. And I am all about that.

Problem is, I can’t figure out how it works. Oh, I get the basic concept: the more people like and follow and share your stuff on major social networks, the better. Especially Facebook and Twitter. But it professes to also count WordPress, YouTube, LinkedIn, G+, Foursquare, Instagram, Tumblr, Blogger, Last.FM and Flickr. I don’t use all these services, but I have connected all the accounts that I do have.

My first issue arises with the fact that they’ll only let you link one account with each service. See, I run four Twitter accounts – one personal, one for Black Dog Strategic (my business site), one for S&R and another for 5280 Lens Mafia, the awesome new photoblog. I also have the bridge for my personal and business Facebooks as well as a few others, including the S&R page. And I host several blogs at WordPress, including Scholars & Rogues, my business site and Lullaby Pit, my personal site. There is some overlap here and there, but we’re talking about very different audiences in most cases.

Which means that you cannot conceivably measure my influence, such as it is, if you limit me to one account per network. You can’t get close. As I see it, this is a problem in the methodology. Not that I’m vain or anything. I just care about services getting it right.

Even if I accept the one account rule, though, the results I get still make no sense. You can change from one connected account to another and the results either don’t change or they change in the wrong direction. For instance, the S&R Twitter feed has more followers and gets more retweets than my personal account, so if I unhitch Klout from the docslammy account and hook it up to the S&R account, my Klout score should go up, right? Nope.

An even more baffling example: up until a few days ago I had Klout linked to my Lullaby Pit WordPress site. But I figured that if I’m using Klout, I might as well maximize it, because my future hangs in the balance. So I switched the connection from the Pit to the Scholars & Rogues site, which does massively more traffic. Heck, I might get less than 100 looks a week at Lullaby Pit, but S&R has been blowing the lid off lately. My recent life on Mars post drove significantly more traffic in a few days than the Pit did in the last year.

So this change should have caused my Klout score to go up, right? Like, by a lot. Nope. It actually went DOWN a point.

There are two messages in this for the folks at Klout. First, I’m whiny and I want everybody to pay attention to me.

Second, and more important, is that your service is of no value if people don’t know what the scores mean. You want recruiters and managers to employ your results in things like hiring decisions, but only a chimp is going to do that if the methodology is this unreliable. At an elementary level, if you’re measuring X, and X is good, when X goes up the score should go up.

Right now you have a useless metric that confuses and disappoints us hapless vanity seekers and provides no meaningful value whatsoever to that business community you really need to buy in.

Might want to look into it….

Afghan military killings of American troops underscores absurdity of our Afghan adventure

Nothing is sadder than dying at the hands of those you’re sworn to protect.

In an article for the Los Angeles Times, David Zucchino writes about the incident at Kabul International Airport in April 2011 when an Afghan Air Force colonel killed nine Americans.

The nine killings remain the single deadliest incident among insider attacks that have targeted U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. … Although insider attacks in Afghanistan are persistent — at least 80 attacks and 122 coalition deaths since 2007 — no single incident seems to have registered on the public consciousness in the United States. Few family members of those killed have spoken out.

Until now.

Widows of two of the dead officers [and] retired Air Force Lt. Col. Sally Stenton, a former civilian police investigator who was a legal officer assigned to the airport the day of the attack … have pored over a redacted Air Force report, the Central Command report and a separate Air Force chronology.

They contend that the shooter, Afghan Air Force Col. Ahmed Gul … had help from fellow Afghan officers. … They point out that 14 Afghans were in the control room when Gul opened fire. None were killed or seriously wounded.

The U.S. Air Force investigation quoted Afghans as saying they fled or took cover when Gul opened fire. The reports, the three women said, indicated the Afghans did not attempt to rescue or treat the wounded advisors.

Furthermore

The three women contend that the [U.S.] Air Force failed to uncover Gul’s radicalization in Pakistan and Kabul — and the vows he made to kill Americans.

Such killings make a senseless war such as Afghanistan that much more so. Questioning the U.S. Air Force may help to make sense out of it, at least it attaches a semblance of honor to the deaths.

Meanwhile, those who lost soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq seek to make sense of their deaths by clinging to the belief that their loved ones died while defending the United States. But many of them know that the Iraq War was unjust and, even if they believe Afghanistan War was warranted, that it has passed its sell-by date. Nothing is more painful than acknowledging the truth of John Kerry’s refrain, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die” in a war.

Should loved ones also eventually acknowledge the fruitlessness and injustice of those wars, some solace still remains. First, soldiers in any war fight, in large part, to protect (and avenge) their squad mates. Second, those who die are, in effect, occupational casualties. However quotidian it may seem, just like work itself, dying on the job has its own inherent dignity.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

CATEGORY: Infrastructure

Getting ready for the next disaster

One of the many surprises resulting from the carnage inflicted by Hurricane Sandy was how ill-prepared the US northeast—well, the entire US East Coast, for that matter—was in terms of defending what passes for its infrastructure. New York City has yet to take any initiative whatsoever on any plan to deal with rising oceans from global warming, including the well-forecasted impact of storm surges. But there were other significant preparedness shortfalls as well. Had no one really ever thought deeply about how to distribute gasoline if none of the pumps worked? Or how to get heat, food and medicines to people if there was a massive disruption to the grid? Or whether or not it might be a good idea to have a stash of spare generators handy? Based on the evidence, it would appear that if there was some deep thinking going on here, and there probably was somewhere, much of it never got incorporated into actual policy measures.

Well, it’s nothing new. Two years ago the Long Island Rail Road suffered a catastrophic power shutdown when a fire destroyed one switch. It turns out that some of the switches used by the LIRR are more than 100 years old. Some of the system has since been upgraded, but still—not upgrading your switching system on one of the busiest railroads in America for over 100 years? Meanwhile, bridges keep being closed, and occasionally collapsing, around the country, ever since the horrific (and highly public) collapse of the I35W bridge in Minnesota in 2007.

This seems to be symptomatic of something deeper. Edmund Luce has a column in Monday’s Financial Times so spot on that it deserves a full read, but we’ll just sample some of the highlights:

Last summer India had the largest power outage in human history affecting 600m people. So it stung when my visiting Indian mother-in-law pointed out that America’s east coast, including Washington, was “as bad as India”. Then it was a so-called derecho storm, which left 6m US homes without power for days in the searing heat. Last month it was Superstorm Sandy, which left 10m households shivering. Forecasters predict a heavy late December cold snap that is bound to cause blackouts.

It is hard to pinpoint the date at which Americans developed an Indian – or perhaps British – fatalism about the declining quality of their infrastructure. When my British mother spent several months in the US in the 1950s, it was dazzlingly futuristic. There was air-conditioning, an icebox in every fridge, ubiquitous neon lights and an open road on which even the working class could afford to drive. But bit by bit over the past 30 years, the world’s first truly modern infrastructure has shown its age. It has been starved by a generation of under-investment. And Americans have adapted around it.

And just how likely is the US Congress, that paragon of forward thinking, to respond to this? Luce is not optimistic:

There are three reasons to worry. First, there is remarkably little public outrage over the dilapidation in the power grid, public roads, domestic airports and waterways. This means that lawmakers will be feeling stronger pressures in other directions (such as defending the existing low level of capital gains tax, for example, or maintaining job-creating defence budgets). It is hard to fly domestically in the US and not at regular intervals face heavy delays, cancellations or being bumped off your flight. It is also hard not to miss the impressively stoical reaction of most passengers.

Luce discusses how this could be solved relatively easily, but at a cost, which is why it probably won’t be. But he’s also captured something here. One of the issues that is most surprising about this whole situation is the resignation, if not outright indifference, that most Americans express in the face of the steady deterioration of their infrastructure. But Luce offers a proposition to account for this:

Second, most Americans are unaware of how far behind the rest of the world their country has fallen. According to the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness report, US infrastructure ranks below 20th in most of the nine categories, and below 30 for quality of air transport and electricity supply. The US gave birth to the internet – the kind of decentralised network that the US power grid desperately needs. Yet according to the OECD club of mostly rich nations, average US internet speeds are barely a 10th of those in countries such as South Korea and Germany. In an age where the global IT superhighway is no longer a slogan, this is no joke. The budding US entrepreneur can survive gridlocked traffic. But a slow internet can be crippling.

You can bet everyone in Silicon Valley is well aware of this, even if the rest of the country isn’t. And Luce has yet more:

Third, it may be asking too much of Washington in its present state of polarisation to give the green light to an ambitious infrastructure plan. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the US needs to spend $2,200bn in the next decade simply to maintain the existing quality of infrastructure. Under the current budget, Washington will spend less than half that amount. It requires a leap of faith to assume it will double, say, rather than fall sharply, when the bipartisan fiscal bargain is struck next year – if indeed it is.

In a departure from their party’s traditions, many Republicans are now ideologically opposed to any serious federal role in infrastructure and want to decentralise it to the states. It is thus also a stretch to imagine Congress setting up a public infrastructure bank, as President Barack Obama has requested. The bank would use $10bn in seed money to leverage a multiple of that in private money for cross-state projects – much like the European Investment Bank. The chances are it will stay on the drawing board.

Meanwhile, here in London, where we allegedly are under an austerity budget (and to a great extent we are) transportation infrastructure continues to be a high priority, as does the internet. And the various refrains and arguments over various models of airport expansion are now so customary as to be tedious. Prior to the Olympics this year we did some venturing out to some of the fringes of east London where there were various Olympic-related events taking place, and it was an eye-opener. London has been steadily expanding its rail infrastructure (for both the London Underground and the London Overground) further eastward. This is how it’s done. London laid out the transportation infrastructure for Canary Wharf and its environs over two decades ago, and the place just keeps growing. London is steadily marching eastwards, led in part by the transport and other infrastructure the local and national governments have had the foresight to prepare.

And this is where the impact of good planning, or the lack of it, takes on importance. It’s great fun being married to a geographer. Mrs W, in an inspired moment, once took a map of the Boston metropolitan area and overlaid it with the London Undergound map—a geographically accurate one, which is actually more impressive in some ways than the traditional Tube map. Of course, we’ve now got the nearly-fully-rebuilt Overground as well, not to mention hundreds of bus routes, and the many, many train services providing London commuters with access to and from areas outside of London. But even just sticking with the Underground map, the result is striking. The entire London Underground network is much larger than you think—it stretches literally, 16 miles north of central London, 15 miles east (with more coming), 10 miles south, and a whopping 29 miles west. (This doesn’t even include the current Crossrail project, which will allow pretty much anyone in London the ability to travel from Maidenhead to Shenfeld—nearly 50 miles) across the breadth of London on one single line.)

If you map this onto the Boston metropolitan area, particularly downtown Boston, where would this get you? Well, 15 miles east of Boston puts you in the middle of Massachusetts Bay, so that doesn’t help. 16 miles north gets you to up around North Reading. 10 miles south gets you to down around Quincy, which does have T service–the Red Line terminates there. 29 miles west of downtown Boston gets you out past Marlborough. Of course, the response will be there are the commuter rail systems, but of course they’re largely useless unless you’re an actual commuter. The commuter rail system feeding the South Shore of Boston, rebuilt in the 1990s and early 2000s at an ungodly cost, barely runs on weekends (it doesn’t even run on one of the two available lines), and mostly runs at rush hours in the morning and the evening during the week. And the MBTA is threatening further cuts in service.

This is not to say that London doesn’t have too much traffic, and too many cars. It does. But it also has evolved so that you can lead a perfectly comfortable life in London without ever hopping in a car to drive somewhere. I know of people my age who have never had a driver’s licence. And this is true in many—perhaps even most, for all I know–of the world’s cities. Certainly it’s true in Europe—but European cities, like the old cities of Britain, evolved before the automobile. And that accounts for a lot of it.

But it’s also true that we’ve all known for a decade or two now that the automobile-based culture of modern America was supported by so many forms of subisidy that users have avoided paying the full economic costs of the system; that long-term transport costs are bound to rise; and that the suburban model so prevalent in the US, and found in so few places elsewhere in the world, was going to be more difficult to sustain in the future. Right now there’s a burst of cheap energy from shale gas, but this is benefiting mainly chemical producers and utilities (and, good, consumers of natural gas utilities), at least for the time being—this may change once the full environmental costs are factored in, which they have not yet been.

But that’s only part of it. There seems also to be some aspect of American exceptionalism going on here (although I’d be prepared to accept that there’s something similar going on elsewhere if someone would point me in the right direction—China, for example—I just don’t know). Maybe it’s just outright denial. How else to account for Mayor Bloomberg’s anemic response to potential disaster (thank god for Governor Cuomo) including his magical thinking over wanting to let the New York Marathon take place the following weekend? Howe else to explain the preposterous amounts of skyscraper construction in Miami since the last major hurricane hit the area? How else to explain the mess that flood insurance is at present—where a program originally intended to let farmers stay on productive farmland has morphed into a convenient mechanism for rebuilding in areas that consistently get wiped out, and will continue to be in the future? How many more Sandys will it take before we get some sensible thinking? Edmund Luce is depressed. He has every reason to be.

CATEGORY: Sports

An open letter to former Colorado football coach Bill McCartney: STFU

On Sunday, the University of Colorado fired head football coach Jon Embree after two seasons. Reaction has been mixed and at times heated. Some point to the results, noting not only the 4-21 record but also suggesting that the program was actually regressing. Others argued that Embree inherited a dumpster fire from previous coach Dan Hawkins and that it was unrealistic and patently unfair not to give him more than two seasons to turn things around. I personally felt that Embree’s hiring was a mistake in the first place and that he was never likely to succeed, given two years, three years or ten years. That said, I have a long, well-established track record of being wrong about CU and its football coaches, so I’m the furthest thing from an expert opinion here. Suffice it to say that I see both sides of the argument and believe each has merit.

Then yesterday, former coach Bill McCartney, regarded by some in Colorado as the Word of God on football matters, weighed in with an open letter on Embree’s firing. As the man who recruited and coached Embree, an outstanding tight end in his playing days, Coach Mac’s position on the subject surprised no one.

I encouraged [Embree] to pursue coaching. He preceded to build a solid résumé.

Finally, CU hired one of its own. Not only that, but with a pedigree that was exemplary. This guy is good.

To short-circuit a five-year contract before two full years is an indictment of true integrity. Webster’s Dictionary defines integrity as utter sincerity, honesty, candor, not artificial, not shallow, no empty promises.

“One of its own.” That was part of the problem, actually – pro-McCartney-era voices “encouraging” the AD into a questionable hire. One local media analyst – the guy I regard as the best and smartest in town, in fact – has really good contacts and insight into the workings of the athletic department at CU; he went so far as to use the word “bully” in describing the process.

The “finally” part is troublesome, too. While Embree might be the first former player hired to the job, the school previously hired a couple of McCartney assistants – fellows named “Neuheisel” and “Barnett” – and those didn’t work out so well, either.

Still, I knew what was coming when I read the word “integrity.” I wasn’t disappointed.

Men and women of Colorado, don’t let this happen. Please weigh in. This is wrong. It undermines the values of the university.

“Values of the university.” Let’s examine this, because the man throwing around all this noble language has a credibility problem.

McCartney’s early years as coach at CU were undistinguished – he only seven games in his first three years, and that third year produced a 1-10 mark. Fine. It’s a university, not an NFL franchise.

His fortunes improved dramatically once he decided to…well, put it this way. He and his staff devoted very little effort to making sure their new recruits were choirboys. Commencing with the 1987 season, his teams won 73 games in eight years, including a mythical (and highly controversial split “national title” in 1990. Meanwhile his players were keeping Boulder law enforcement busy. From 1986-89, for instance, two dozen CU student-athletes were arrested on a variety of charges, including sexual assault.

Mr. Character. And a Man of God® – McCartney is the founder of the Promise Keepers, remember. More on that in a second, but now back to that national championship. It wouldn’t have happened save for one of the worst officiating flubs in major sports history. The ref crew, with CU trying to punch in the winning TD at the end of the game, lost track and allowed Colorado to score on a 5th down play. McCartney – the one quoted above making a big deal out of “integrity,” “sincerity” and “honesty,” of course did the noble thing, right?

Ummm, no.

Colorado football coach Bill McCartney, a former Missouri Tigers player, did little to soothe the controversy. Asked whether he would consider forfeiting the game, McCartney declared that he had considered it but decided against it because “the field was lousy.”

Do as I say, not as I do, I suppose.

What else? Oh, right. Promise Keepers. An organization built on principles of female subservience and homophobia.

From a CU podium in 1992, McCartney referred to homosexuality as “an abomination against almighty God” in support of Amendment 2, which prohibited laws protecting gays from discrimination.

Not only did Coach Mac say these hateful things, he did so backed by the CU logo, lending the appearance that the university community agreed with him. Trust me, it didn’t, and he was officially reprimanded for doing so. McCartney was so bad that the school had to adopt official policy prohibiting the kinds of activity he repeatedly engaged in.

All of which leads me back to McCartney’s words in his open letter: “It undermines the values of the university.” And a question: Coach McCartney, what do you know about the “values of the university”? For that matter, what do you know about the values of any university?

In point of fact, everything he stood for, from the recruitment of players who were archetypally unsuited for a university community to his repeated insistence on advocating Old Testament morality in an environment dedicated to progress, intellect and enlightenment, was directly counter to “university principles.”

Dear Coach McCartney: Shut. The fuck. Up. Every time you open your mouth you devalue my degree a little more. You were an embarrassment to the CU community as a coach and when you seize the microphone now all you do is remind us of your hypocrisy and the fundamental corruption of your ideology.

Worse, you taint our opinions of men like Jon Embree. I don’t know much about him as a person, although he struck me as dedicated, hardworking and decent. The more you wrap your forked tongue around his firing, the more I tend to evaluate him in terms of you. In that light, losing his job is only the second-worst thing that’s happened to him this week.

Please. Shut up and go away.

CATEGORY: BusinessFinance

Annals of Corporate Citizenship, #41,244.

Any guesses how corporate America is preparing for the impact of the resolution of the negotiations currently in the works on resolving the horribly- (and inaccurately-) named “fiscal cliff?” Well, if you guessed that there was a fire sale on giving money to shareholders before there are any changes to the current tax code, you’d be spot on. According to Markit, who tracks this sort of thing, as reported in yesterday’s Financial Times, there has been a surge in special dividends from corporate America to shareholders this quarter. As the FT succinctly puts it,

Since the start of the fourth quarter, a record 103 companies have announced they will pay special dividends before the end of the year, according to Markit. The data firm is forecasting that 123 companies will announce special fourth-quarter dividends, compared to the previous average of just 31.

Well, who knew? And why is this happening?

The current tax rate of 15 per cent on dividends, legislated by the Bush tax cuts in 2003, could spike to a top rate of more than 40 per cent next year unless President Barack Obama and Congress can avoid the fiscal cliff , which would trigger automatic tax rises and spending cuts. Mr Obama made raising taxes on the wealthy a central plank of his re-election campaign.

Well, this doesn’t sound so bad, really, if you’re a shareholder. Everyone likes a bit extra from time to time. But wait, who are the shareholders?

The dividends have been promised by companies where management insiders hold a high proportion of the shares.

And, of course, it gets better:

Some larger companies, such as Walmart, have also moved up their regular scheduled dividend payout from early January to late December. Almost half of Wal-Mart’s shares are held by the Walton family.

Huh. No one could have possibly predicted etc etc.

CATEGORY: PoliticsLawGovernment

A company’s right to lie?

Yesterday federal District Court Judge Gladys Kessler issued a ruling requiring tobacco companies to use their own revenues to inform the public that they have lied about the dangers of tobacco use:

“Defendants have known many of these facts for at least 50 years or more. Despite that knowledge, they have consistently, repeatedly and with enormous skill and sophistication, denied these facts to the public, the Government, and to the public health community.”

The pattern of dishonesty perpetrated by Big Tobacco and their supporters is well-documented. Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway connected the dots in between the campaigns of misinformation about tobacco, DDT and climate disruption and those who designed them.

But here’s the question:  will the tobacco companies get away with it? Is corporate deceit protected by the Constitution? We may be about to find out. Continue reading

CATEGORY: LeisureTravel2

I rafted the Nile

Last weekend, I went white water rafting on Uganda’s Nile River. Fear filled my bones for days leading up to the trip, along with most of the five-hour voyage down the mighty waterway. But, I refused to leave Africa without exploring this historically famous river. So, I did it. I rafted the Nile.

White water rapid intensity is measured by grade, from one to six. Grade six is usually considered unnavigable and unsafe to rafters. We took on the Nile at grade five. Experienced rafters like venturing this river for two main reasons: the water is deep, and it’s warm. This means rocks and frigid temperatures are less of a concern when flying out of the boat. It also leaves more time to traumatically count seconds while trapped underwater. Continue reading

CATEGORY: ToR4

Tournament of Rock IV: the Stevie Nicks pod

And order is restored: after a couple of notable upsets, #13 seed Def Leppard rallied to win pod 14 after falling behind Toto and The Beach Boys early. Congrats, and we’ll see them in the Sweet 16.

Moving on to pod 15, where our highest seeded female artist seeks to weave her formulaic gypsy magic over a dangerous field of challengers.

  • #8 Seed: Stevie Nicks
  • Daughtry
  • Hootie & the Blowfish
  • The Outfield
  • Ozzy Osbourne

Stevie Nicks

Famed for her mystical chanteuse image, singer/songwriter Stevie Nicks enjoyed phenomenal success not only as a solo artist but also as a key member of Fleetwood Mac. Stephanie Lynn Nicks was born May 26, 1948, in Phoenix, AZ; the granddaughter of a frustrated country singer, she began performing at the age of four, and occasionally sang at the tavern owned by her parents. Nicks started writing songs in her mid-teens, and joined her first group, the Changing Times, while attending high school in California. During her senior year, Nicks met fellow student Lindsey Buckingham, with whom she formed the band Fritz along with friends Javier Pacheco and Calvin Roper. Between 1968 and 1971, the group became a popular attraction on the West Coast music scene, opening for Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Ultimately, tensions arose over the amount of attention paid by fans to Nicks’ pouty allure, and after three years Fritz disbanded; Buckingham remained her partner, however, and soon became her lover as well.

Brian: Is it Stevie Nicks or is it a goat (think South Park)?  Your call.

Jim: Every time she sings, an angel’s wings fall off….

Me: I was so happy when Stevie went solo. I thought with her out of the way Fleetwood Mac could get back to making decent music again. [sigh] I was so young and naïve back then….

fikshun: Ozzy is in this pod. There’s nothing I can say against Stevie that I couldn’t levy against Ozzy. In fact, Stevie at least has had the class to keep her private life mostly private. Ozzy’s private life might just be his music career’s most valuable asset.

Daughtry

Daughtry was featured heavily during [American Idol]‘s seemingly never-ending audition rounds for two reasons: he was telegenic, and he capitalized on the rocker promise of Bo Bice and Constantine Maroulis from the previous season. Moreover, he was bald and handsome, had a terrific smile, and his devotion to family made for great TV. Daughtry sailed through to Hollywood and made it into the final 12, where he was hailed as a standout and soon seemed to be a favorite to win. Daughtry mania began to peak in March when his rendition of Fuel’s “Hemorrhage (In My Hands)” caused such a sensation that rumors began to fly that Fuel wanted to hire him as their lead singer — something that proved to be no rumor, as the modern rock group, savoring the new press, practically pleaded for his presence after he was voted off the show.

Jim: I personally know many great, great musicians from North Carolina. They are not famous. Chris Daughtry is. This is one of the existential mysteries.

Me: Seriously. The dB’s are from NC and they never got famous. Don Dixon is from NC and nobody knows who he is. The Right Profile died on the vine. Jeff Foster makes the best music of anybody alive and sells what, eight CDs? But this tepid saucer of cat wank makes it big? I hope there’s a hell. And when he gets there, I hope they strap Simon Cowell down and make him listen to the “music” he pimped on America for the rest of eternity.

Bonesparkle: If Avril Lavigne can be a “Punk,” then Daughtry can be a “Rocker.” Excuse me, I meant “Rocker®.”

Hootie & the Blowfish

For a short time, Hootie & the Blowfish was the most popular band in America. Grunge music ruled the airwaves during the mid-’90s, but Hootie played a mainstream pop variation of blues-rock, and their easy-going sound netted them a string of Top 40 hits. Formed at the University of South Carolina, the group featured lead vocalist/guitarist Darius Rucker, Mark Bryan, Dean Felber, and Jim “Soni” Sonefeld, and the band’s name referred to two mutual friends (not Rucker and the group itself). Cracked Rear View, the quartet’s first album, was released in the fall of 1994 and became enormously successful, due in part to the album’s first single, “Hold My Hand.” The song had worked its way into the Top Ten by the beginning of 1995, propelling the album to number one and paving the way for three additional Top 20 singles: “Let Her Cry,” “Only Wanna Be With You,” and “Time.” Cracked Rear View became the most popular album of 1995. By the time Hootie & the Blowfish returned to the scene with a second album, Fairweather Johnson, in early 1996, the debut had sold 13 million copies in America alone. Fairweather Johnson didn’t replicate that success. It entered the charts at number one and sold two million copies within its first four months of release, but it didn’t produce any singles on the level of “Hold My Hand” or “Let Her Cry.” Musical Chairs followed in 1998 and experienced even less success, and the bandmates decided to take a short break after its release.

fikshun: I have this nightmare sometimes where I’m being led down a metal grate stairwell. The air is hot and dry as though I were two feet from an open fireplace. There are shadows moving below, framed in orange light. It feels like some sort of foundry, like something out of a Terminator film. But at the same time, I have a generalized animal fear that the source of the orange glow isn’t molten metal, but rather something closer to Soylent Green. As I reach the bottom of the stairwell, I see a dark blue Rick Perry suit standing at a lever, slowly pulling it back and forth. Where the suit’s head should be, I see the AT&T logo, hovering over the collar like some menacing Eye of Sauron. The orange glow is coming from some imitation of life essence that is pouring into molds on the floor. The molds creep by me on a conveyor belt toward the suit. Some nights, the molds resemble a hollowed-out likeness of Huey Lewis, but most nights it’s Hootie.

Jim: I paid $3 to see them at a club in NC many years ago, before they sold 13 million copies of Cracked Rear View. I could have flushed the money down a toilet. I shall always regret that I didn’t choose the toilet option….

Otherwise: When I was a teen I used to shoplift magazines. We have all done things we are now ashamed of. Thank you for trusting us enough to share. Although, I must confess, I doubt any of us have done anything as heinous as paying to see Hootie. Maybe sex with an animal or a random thrill killing, but not paying to see Hootie. That’s sick, man.

Brian: There are few groups whose collective output should be gathered up, loaded into a rocket, and blasted at the sun. Hootie is one of those deserving of that special honor.

Me: No, Brian. The actual band should be blasted into the sun. I actually paid to see them live once. This was before anybody knew who they were. They routinely played a club in my hometown and a friend said “dude, you’ve never seen Hootie? They’re AWESOME!” So I went. They played for an hour and I swear, I can’t say for sure if they played a bunch of different songs or if it was the same one over and over. The friendship was never the same again.

Alex: If any band really cries over the Miami Dolphins, they deserve to be on this list. I hereby sentence Darius Rucker to be called “Hootie” for the rest of his days.

The Outfield

Ironically, given their obsession with America’s favorite pastime, the Outfield got their start in London’s East End. Playing under the name the Baseball Boys, the trio of bassist/singer Tony Lewis, guitarist/keyboardist John Spinks, and drummer Alan Jackman played around London and recorded some early demos, attracting the attention of Columbia/CBS Records. They were signed shortly thereafter and began working on their debut album, Play Deep, which was released in 1985. The album was a smash success, going triple platinum, reaching number nine on the album charts, and producing their biggest song, “Your Love,” which was a Top Ten hit. To support the album, they launched an international tour opening for Journey and Starship. They began recording their second album in 1986 and in 1987 issued Bangin’. While not duplicating the huge commercial success of their debut, it did produce two hit singles, “Since You’ve Been Gone” and “No Surrender.” The band’s third album featured a bit of a stylistic shift and was more meticulously produced than their previous efforts. Voices of Babylon, released in 1988, produced a single of the same name, but the band’s commercial success was slipping. Jackman left the band after it was recorded and they hired Paul Reed to step in as drummer for the Voices tour.

fikshun: If you took two parts debut album era The Cars, one part Cutting Crew, and a dash of Split Enz, you’d have The Outfield.  No, really.  You could totally clone that band exactly by just following that formula.

Jim: Sam liked them. I don’t know why. I don’t know why anybody liked them.

Me: Hey, step off The Outfield. Yeah, they were corporate, but they’re one of those bands that’s like Rick Springfield – there was more going on than people seemed to notice. Voices of Babylon is still one of my favorite CDs from the ’80s and there is nothing like rolling down the windows on a summer day and driving around town with Play Deep cranked to 11.

Bonesparkle: Yeah, you liked their music, but when you saw them live how many tubes of SPF 30 Chapstick did John Spinks have smeared on his nipples? Dude, put a fucking shirt on.

Me: Okay, to be fair, they were touring with Starship. I think Craig Chaquico had a no-shirt clause written into the contracts for their opening bands so he wouldn’t be the only topless douchenozzle out there.

Ozzy Osbourne

Though many bands have succeeded in earning the hatred of parents and media worldwide throughout the past few decades, arguably only such acts as Alice Cooper, Judas Priest, and Marilyn Manson have tied the controversial record of Ozzy Osbourne. The former Black Sabbath frontman has been highly criticized over his career, mostly due to rumors denouncing him as a psychopath and Satanist. Despite his reputation, no one could deny that Osbourne has had an immeasurable effect on heavy metal. While he doesn’t possess a great voice, he makes up for it with his good ear and dramatic flair. As a showman, his instincts are nearly as impeccable; his live shows have been overwrought spectacles of gore and glitz that have endeared him to adolescents around the world. Indeed, Osbourne has managed to establish himself as an international superstar, capable of selling millions of records with each album and packing arenas across the globe, capturing new fans with each record.

Jim: If Curly Howard had been a rock star, this is what he would have been like. Nyuk, Nyuk, Nyuk….

Me: First-ballot inductee into the CorpRock Hall of Fame. Anybody who can mainstream Satan worship is a king-hell god of branding.

fikshun: If ever you need a dancing monkey, Ozzy’s your man. I’ve heard rumor that he was at one point a top flight front man of evil, but that’s unsubstantiated. The only Ozzy that I’ve ever been aware of is the grinning idiot hiding behind round-rimmed shades. If there’s any pain in those eyes, they don’t make it as far as the crows feet for us to see. Eez eet taym tuh heet thuh road fuhr ah-noothuh tour, Sharunn? No?  Ookai, Ayll joost be down een mee stood-yo, fiddlin’ weeth mee plonkuh!  G’night, loov!

 

Click to vote.

The rules.

Image Credit: Nuvo.net

CATEGORY: FreedomPrivacy2

Private lives, public surveillance

An example of a Tracker Device

Whether people think about this election’s hot button issues in this framework or not, many of our country’s so-called “social issues” are issues of privacy. While lawmakers fought over the economic and religious implications of hot topics like gay marriage, abortion, health care and cybersecurity, they were essentially deciding what level of privacy Americans should be entitled to under the law, and how strictly the Constitution should be interpreted to provide or deny that privacy.

I thought about this struggle between the private lives of citizens and the public decisions of legislators and administrations when I saw a story from Texas about high school sophomore Natalie Hernandez suing her school following her expulsion. Hernandez was expelled from her high school because she refused to wear her school’s name badge, which contains an RFID tracking device. Hernandez says the badge violates her religion – the badge is considered a “mark of the beast” – and by forcing her to wear it, the school district is violating her 1st Amendment rights. After the school offered her a name badge without the tracking device, which she refused, the school expelled her.

Continue reading

CATEGORY: WarSecurity

Iron Dome’s effectiveness is not an argument for missile defense

It’s one thing to intercept a Hamas rocket, another to shoot down an inter-continental ballistic missile.

The success of Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, which has intercepted 80 to 90 percent of the rockets launched from Gaza, is viewed by many as a cause for celebration. Worse, it’s being used as evidence that missile defense works.

In fact, the odds that missile defense can protect a state from inter-continental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear weapons are slim to nonexistent.

Equally troublesome, it’s an ongoing bone of contention between the United States and Russia. The United States seeks to implement defense systems in Europe ostensibly to protect the NATO countries from — however hypothetical — a nuclear attack by Iran.

Perhaps partly because of how preposterous the Iran pretext sounds and because it serves the purposes of the Russian defense establishment, Moscow views missile defense in Europe as an even larger affront to the stability of nuclear deterrence than missile defense on American soil. Currently, aside from a radar installation in Turkey, U.S. missile defense in Europe is deployed only on ships in the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, drawing conclusions about missile defense from Iron Dome is like comparing apples and oranges. At Foreign Policy, Yousaf Butt explains.

That this small battlefield system has been so successful against the relatively slow-moving short-range rockets doesn’t mean that larger and much more expensive missile defense systems, such as the planned NATO system, will work against longer-range strategic missiles that move ten times as fast.

In other words, Iron Dome is not missile defense, it’s rocket defense (which, in fact, is also a subsection of U.S. missile defense).

In contrast to the short-range Hamas rockets, which fly through the atmosphere during their whole trajectory, the longer-range ballistic missiles … spend most of their flight in space. For decades it has been known that trying to intercept a warhead in space is exceedingly difficult because the adversary can use simple, lightweight countermeasures to fool the defensive system [such as] cheap inflatable balloon decoys.

Furthermore

… an 80 percent-effective tactical missile defense system against conventional battlefield rockets — such as Iron Dome — makes a lot of sense. If 10 conventional rockets are headed your way, stopping eight is undeniably a good thing. The possibility of stopping eight of 10 nuclear warheads, however, is less [impressive] since even one nuclear explosion will inflict unacceptable devastation. Just one nuclear-tipped missile penetrating your missile shield is about the equivalent of a million conventional missiles making it through.

Nor should we forget that

Even the largely successful Iron Dome system, while providing a worthy cover has not provided normalcy for Israeli citizens: the terror is still there.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

CATEGORY: History

Telling History vs. Making Art: Gods & Jacksons

Part four in a series.

One of my favorite places to work at Fredericksburg & Spostylvania National Military Park is the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, the small plantation office building where the Confederate general died. It’s a story I love so much that I wrote a book about it, The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson. But no book gives the story the kind of adoring treatment that Jeff Shaara’s Gods and Gene

rals gives it. Shaara’s “sentimental remembrance” puts Jackson, and Lee as well, on such pedestals that many of us jokingly refer to the novel as “Gods and Jacksons” (some imbuing the phrase with more dismissiveness than others).

“He had tried not to think of Jackson, of the death,” Shaara writes of Lee near the book’s end,

had kept his mind on the papers, but there had to be the moment, this moment, when the distractions would fade, when he must talk to God, to ask, Why? There would be no reply, of course….

Now, [Jackson’s] face came to him, the clear image, and he let it come, would not block it out, saw the lightning in the ice-blue eyes, the old cap, and he felt something inside him give way, and he leaned forward, put his face in his hands, and began to cry.

In God’s and Generals (and in his subsequent books), Shaara employs a technique used by his father, Michael, in the Pulitzer-winning The 

Killer Angels—a novel that tells the story of the men who led the fight at Gettysburg. “It was not an attempt to document the history of the event, nor was it a biography of the characters who fought there,” the younger Shaara explained of his father’s work in the forward to Gods and Generals.

“I have not consciously changed any fact,” Michael Shaara wrote in The Killer Angels’ “note to the reader”:

I have condensed some of the action, for the sake of clarity, and eliminated some minor characters, for brevity; but though I have often had to choose between conflicting viewpoints, I have not knowingly violated the action. I have changed some of the language. It was a naïve and sentimental time, and men spoke in windy phrases. I thought it necessary to update some of the words so that the religiosity and naïveté of the time, which were genuine, would not seem too quaint to the modern ear…. The interpretation of character is my own.

It’s worth noting that Shaara faces many of the same issues a Civil War historian faces when constructing a battle narrative: What actions and which troops get more or less attention? Which competing accounts are more credible? How far should an editor go in correcting the poor grammar and erratic spelling and capitalization of soldiers and eyewitnesses? How do you determine a person’s motivation?

Most, if not all, of these issues are driven by the primary source material—how much is available, when was it written, what were the agendas of the writers, and so on. The methods for attacking such questions are different for historian and novelist, but the core issues remain the same. “Both types of writers seek truth, but the historian operates within the limits of the documents, and the novelist works within what is ‘historically possible’—whether ‘psychological fact, historical fact, sociological fact,’” explains historian Howard Jones.

Shaara clearly outlines the aesthetic reasons that guide his choices: clarity, brevity, relevance. He’ll tinker with action but won’t tinker with the larger plot. He will, however, interpret character. The plot—the battle—is clearly predetermined for him as a novelist by the facts, although specific details of the plot can be tweaked as necessary; character is even less determinate because characterization gets built on opinion as well as fact, and Shaara had plenty of opinions to draw on.

Alas, in the Lost Cause tradition, opinions about Lee are so universally positive that he’s become known over time as “The Marble Man.” Not everyone shared that opinion, though. Ulysses S. Grant, in his Personal Memoirs, described Lee as “a good man, a fair commander, who had everything in his favor…a man who needed sunshine.” He believed Grant was treated like a demi-god. In the Lost Cause tradition, he still is. Shaara generally sticks with that interpretation. “He is a man in control,” Shaara writes. “He is the most beloved man in either army.”

Where Shaara deviates significantly from Lost Cause tradition, though, is his choice to make Lee’s “Old Warhorse,” the controversial Lieutenant General James Longstreet, a hero of the novel….

Next: Killer Angels, real and fictional

————

Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War.

Bringing down the curtains

Most people don’t realize that George Washington, “Father of Our Country,” was a devoté of architecture and interior design. We tend to think of him crossing the Delaware, not dressing windows. “How extremely important this was to him, the extent of his esthetic sense, few people ever realized,” historian David McCullough has noted. “Only a year before the [Revolutionary War], he began an ambitious expansion of [his] house, doubling its size…. He cared about every detail—wall paper, paint color, hardware, ceiling ornaments—and hated to be away from the project even for a day.”

I do not share Washington’s devotion to decor, but fortunately, my Aunt Mary Beth does. She has a background in interior design, and so over Thanksgiving break, she gave me some pointers as I continue to transform my living space.

Although my grandmother has been out of the house for a couple months now, recent professional obligations have consumed most of my free time, so I’ve not had much opportunity to put my own stamp on the place. Boxes remain unpacked. Closets remain unsorted. Furniture still needs shuffled from room to room. I have pecked away at it, but the house still feels more like a 95-year-old grandmother’s house than a 43-year-old bachelor’s.

Enter: Aunt Mary Beth, my father’s sister (the house I live in comes from my mother’s side of the family). She gave me some tips on some of the wallpaper/paint options I’d been considering, and then it was curtains. Literally. We went shopping for new curtains for my breakfast room and kitchen.

“You need something that looks less frilly,” she told me.

To be honest, I’d not paid attention to my curtains at all, frilliness or not. They’d become such a part of the background that I hardly saw them. I knew there was something with some blue in it—the predominant color of the room—that was keeping the neighbors from peering into the house, but hey, maybe I had Venetian blinds or something. (Turns out I had both.)

Mary Beth picked out some long, metallic gray curtains and had me choose some curtain roads, and then she picked out some mysterious things called sheers that go under the curtains and can be used to let in light while still offering privacy.

On Saturday evening, we installed a set to see how everything would look—and then she and her husband returned to Indiana in the morning, leaving me to install the rest.

After an hour and a half of climbing onto and off of chairs, dropping screws on the floor before I could drive them into the window molding, and smoothing out frills and folds, I got the curtains up yesterday afternoon.

“Hey, Jackson!” I called to my son, who was in the TV room on his computer. “Come take a look.” He trudged out, took one look at the room and, in feigned surprise, collapsed onto the kitchen floor.

Funny how something a simple as curtains can change the look of a room, though.

It’s only one room—and a room I don’t particularly spend a lot of time in, at that—but it looks entirely different. It looks contemporary. It looks sophisticated. It looks no-frill.

The old theater guy in me couldn’t help but think of the symbolism: bringing down the curtains on one era and raising the curtains on another. My grandmother spent sixty years in that house and made a good life for her family there—including me for a couple years during high school. Curtains or not, one doesn’t change that kind of ambience in one fell swoop. I’m glad.

The wall paper will eventually need some attention, I think, but it’ll do for now in a pinch. It’s more important that I turn my attention to some of those unpacked boxes and those unmoved pieces of furniture that need swapped around.

Now if I can just figure out how to work my son’s prostrate body into the kitchen’s decor somehow. Maybe I can prop a foot on him like Washington’s dramatic pose across the Delaware.

Admin using bad info for drone strikes like it did for detainees

Just like it did in Afghanistan and Iraq, the CIA and U.S. military act on bad intel when designating targets for drone attacks.

As when the United States greased the skids for war with Iraq, it’s ratcheting up tensions with Iran by disseminating misinformation about nuclear weapons. The United States has also failed to learn from other mistakes in the Iraq, as well as Afghanistan.

Remember how the United States offered rewards to the citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq for intelligence on insurgents? That only resulted in populating prisons such as Bagram and Guantánamo with legions of innocents. It seems that in their haste to unearth terrorists, the U.S. military and the CIA had failed to vet their informants. With an eye for the main chance, Iraqis and Afghans saw informing as a way both to cash in and rid their communities of neighbors who’d crossed them, for whatever reason. no matter how trivial.

Using an occupying army to assist you in ridding yourself of local enemies is a time-(dis)honored tradition. One would think that, by this point in history, the military and intelligence agencies would be alert to manipulation. Presumably a perceived need for live bodies to fill quotas over-rode their wariness. Now we see this mistake repeated in designating drone-strike targets.

The landmark report Living Under Drones, released in September by the Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and the Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law, quotes author Tom Junod. In a piece for the August Esquire titled The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama, he wrote (emphasis added):

The US detained the “worst of the worst” in Guantánamo for years before releasing six hundred of them, uncharged, which amounts to the admission of a terrible mistake. The Lethal Presidency is making decisions to kill based on intelligence from the same sources. These decisions are final, and no one will ever be let go.

By “decisions to kill,” Junod means drone strikes. Not only is the CIA using bogus intel for drone strikes as it and the military did to net terrorist suspects, it may also be paying Pakistanis to mark houses as targets by depositing computer chips nearby. In addition, GPS’s are attached to cars to turn them, too, into drone fodder.

The report also quotes Clive Stafford Smith writing for the Guardian.

Just as with Guantanamo Bay, the CIA is paying bounties to those who will identify “terrorists.” Five thousand dollars is an enormous sum for a Waziri informant, translating to perhaps £250,000 in London terms. The informant has a calculation to make: is it safer to place a GPS tag on the car of a truly dangerous terrorist, or to call down death on a Nobody (with the beginnings of a beard), reporting that he is a militant? Too many “militants” are just young men with stubble.

Smith reveals another dynamic. Imagine that a Pakistani who contacts the CIA isn’t motivated by the desire to avenge a neighbor for failing to pay back a loan, or something similar. If he’s only in it for the money, why risk fingering a Taliban commander? If discovered, he and perhaps his family would find themselves on the murderous end of Taliban revenge.

To give the CIA some wiggle room, perhaps it assumes it won’t be provided with bogus info because potential informants would fear the CIA demand return of the money if the lead turned out to be false or that it would even detain them. But, as the NYU-Stanford report indicates, the CIA or U.S. military rarely investigate the aftermath of drone strikes to determine whether civilians were killed.

Perhaps then the CIA assumes that informants would be loath to turn in innocents for fear of reprisal from the families of those killed. When deciding who to finger, though, informants may be targeting victims whose families lack the wherewithal to take revenge. Or, with what, in effect, is an astronomical sum to them, informants may factor in paying retribution money to the families of those killed.

The longer this type of cynical use of indigenous peoples continues, the further one’s respect for the CIA diminishes.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

 

CATEGORY: ToR4

Tournament of Rock IV: the Def Leppard pod

For awhile there our seeded bands were on a roll, but now, two big upsets in a row as Foreigner takes out the #1 seed, Journey. Frankly, we’re stunned. We love Foreigner, of course, but we didn’t think anybody was going to be beat what we see as the prototypical, archetypal, über-corporate mainstream rock band. But hey, the people have spoken. We’ll see the Dirty White Boys in the Sweet 16.

Up next, one of the icons of Hair Metal faces a slate headed by the fallen remnants of a true rock legend and and the ultimate in cynical corporate supergroups.

  • #13 Seed: Def Leppard
  • Beach Boys (Mike Love/Kokomo years)
  • Damn Yankees
  • John Mayer
  • Toto

Def Leppard

In many ways, Def Leppard were the definitive hard rock band of the ’80s. There were many bands that rocked harder (and were more dangerous) than the Sheffield-based quintet, but few others captured the spirit of the times quite as well. Emerging in the late ’70s as part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, Def Leppard actually owed more to the glam rock and metal of the early ’70s, as their sound was equal parts T. Rex, Mott the Hoople, Queen, and Led Zeppelin. By toning down their heavy riffs and emphasizing melody, Def Leppard were poised for crossover success by 1983′s Pyromania, and skillfully used the fledgling MTV network to their advantage. The musicians were already blessed with photogenic good looks, but they also crafted a series of innovative, exciting videos that made them into stars. They intended to follow Pyromania quickly but were derailed when their drummer lost an arm in a car accident, the first of many problems that plagued the group’s career. They managed to pull through such tragedies, and even expanded their large audience with 1987′s blockbuster Hysteria. As the ’90s began, mainstream hard rock shifted away from their signature pop-metal and toward edgier, louder bands, yet they maintained a sizable audience into the late ’90s and were one of only a handful of ’80s metal groups to survive the decade more or less intact.

Jim: Props for sticking with their drummer after his horrible accident. Props taken away for making the same damned album six times in a row because the first one in the series was a legit hit.

Me: People make a big deal of the band not ditching their drummer when he lost his arm, and the should. But they never mention that the band wasn’t really doing anything that required a two-armed drummer in the first place.

fikshun: To think, just 30 years ago, these lads from Sheffield, England were as pasty white as the recently departed Wonder Bread. Now they look more leathery than a pack of veteran CEOs at a management training retreat in Cabo. The alternate history buff in me really wants to know if they’d still have had a career had they not crossed paths with reclusive hit producer, Robert “Mutt” Lange. Come to think of it, “Mutt” also produced AC/DC’s Back in Black and Foreigner’s 4. If that isn’t the hallmark of a corporate formula, churning out more of the same, I don’t know what is.

Brian: Def Leppard tried to be just like all the other hair metal bands – and largely succeeded. Sex, drugs, more sex, more drugs, lather, rinse, repeat. That doesn’t mean I didn’t listen to them in high school, mind you. After all, what ELSE would a testosterone-charged high schooler in the late ’80s listen to?

Lex: I so remember when the cool, older burnouts had Def Lepard posters on their walls. And I guess Pyromania was a decent album for what it was. Did they do anything after that?

Me: Well, they did Pyromania a few more times, although they did change the name and cover artwork a little each time they rereleased it.

Bonesparkle: I remember James Carville’s famous comment re: the Paula Jones affair: “Drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find.” That same hundred dollar bill, drug behind a Camaro blasting “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” will get you her sister, too.

Beach Boys

After 1979′s M.I.U. Album, the group signed a large contract with CBS that stipulated Brian’s involvement on each album. However, his brief return to the spotlight ended with two dismal efforts, L.A. (Light Album) and Keepin’ the Summer Alive. The Beach Boys began splintering by the end of the decade, with financial mismanagement by Mike Love’s brothers Stan and Steve fostering tension between him and the Wilsons. By 1980, both Dennis and Carl had left the Beach Boys for solo careers. (Dennis had already released his first album, Pacific Ocean Blue, in 1977, and Carl released his eponymous debut in 1981.) Brian was removed from the group in 1982 after his weight ballooned to over 300 pounds, though the tragic drowning death of Dennis in 1983 helped bring the group back together. In 1985, the Beach Boys released a self-titled album which returned them to the Top 40 with “Getcha Back.” It would be the last proper Beach Boys album of the ’80s, however. Brian had been steadily improving in both mind and body during the mid-’80s, though the rest of the group grew suspicious of his mentor, Dr. Eugene Landy. Landy was a dodgy psychiatrist who reportedly worked wonders with the easily impressionable Brian but also practically took over his life. He collaborated with Brian on the autobiography Wouldn’t It Be Nice and wrote lyrics for Brian’s first solo album, 1988′s Brian Wilson. Critics and fans enjoyed Wilson’s return to the studio, but the charts were unforgiving, especially with attention focused on the Beach Boys once more. The single “Kokomo,” from the soundtrack to Cocktail, hit number one in the U.S. late that year, prompting a haphazard collection named Still Cruisin’. The group also sued Brian, more to force Landy out of the picture than anything, and Mike Love later sued Brian for songwriting royalties (Brian had frequently admitted Love’s involvement on most of them).

Alex: If you have Muppets in your video, it’s not your best work. Come ON! This is the group that did Pet Sounds! “God Only Knows”! “Don’t Worry, Baby!” So much good summer music. They have some of the most fantastically arranged harmonies in pop music, and they got John Stamos to strum a guitar and mug through a song about an island that may or may not exist? Psh.

fikshun: I’d be lying if I said I knew how much the Beach Boys had whored themselves out to advertisers over the years. Maybe they’ve been more conservative with their image than Marlene Dietrich. All I know is that I can’t picture a commercial for retirement planning or erectile dysfunction without whistling one of their tunes. That’s Coca-Cola level brand recognition there, folks.

Jim: This band ended after Holland. Simple question for doubters: Should any band without a single Wilson brother present be allowed to call themselves The Beach Boys?

Lex: I’ve rewritten almost all of “Kokomo” to take advantage of the silly way in which Wisconsin has named its cities. Baby, why don’t we go down to Peshtigo. We’ll get there fast and then we’ll take it slow…. Also, while they wrote some memorable stuff, I guess I wouldn’t have figured there was a time when the Beach Boys weren’t pretty corporate, but I wasn’t there so maybe I just don’t know.

Me: You know, everybody seems fixated on “Kokomo” as the archetypal sellout moment for the BBs. I get that, I do – I was club DJing in a Midwestern college town when that happened and I’m still in therapy over it. But am I the only one who remembers the whole Fat Boys / “Wipeout” trainwreck? Here, let me provide a brief reminder. (BTW, the intro to this vid features the late, great Hector “Macho” Camacho, who died this morning. RIP.)

Damn Yankees

For a brief time in the early ’90s, the supergroup Damn Yankees enjoyed a considerable amount of success on the arena rock circuit. Comprised of guitarist Ted Nugent, Styx’s Tommy Shaw, Night Ranger’s Jack Blades, and drummer Michael Cartellone, Damn Yankees arrived during the final moments of pop-metal’s heyday, and their music didn’t stray from that radio-friendly format at all. The group’s self-titled debut album spawned several hits in 1990, including the Top Ten power ballad “High Enough” and the radio hit “Coming of Age.” Although they proved to be a popular concert draw (Nugent even made headlines for his unchained behavior on-stage, which included shooting arrows into an effigy of Saddam Hussein), the band’s follow-up effort, Don’t Tread, didn’t fare nearly as well. The group disbanded soon after, with Tommy Shaw and Jack Blades continuing to work together as Shaw Blades.

Lex: So I once saw a big, over-the-hill corp rock concert in the early ’90s. it was Bad Company and Damn Yankees. Ted wowed us all by shooting flaming arrows into a cardboard cutout of Saddam Hussein. What’s funny is that Ted not only thinks he’s cool but also that Damn Yankees were cool.

Jim:  Yeah, let’s take Nugent, that guy who didn’t totally suck from Styx, a guy from fucking Night Ranger, and a drummer who would go on to play with a band calling itself Lynyrd Skynyrd who may/may not have any actual members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and form a band. I believe Miss Dorothy Parker said it best: “What fresh hell is this?”

Bonesparkle: Everybody was so offended by Ted Nugent’s neo-fascist political ranting this election season. I don’t get it. Those of us who remember his work with Damn Yankees are actually happy to see him getting his life back on track.

John Mayer

After making his introduction as a sensitive, acoustic-styled songwriter on 2001′s Room for Squares, John Mayer steadily widened his approach over the subsequent years, encompassing everything from blues-rock to adult contemporary in the process. Arriving during the tail end of teen pop’s heyday, he crafted pop music for a more discerning audience, spiking his songcraft with jazz chords and literate turns of phrase. The combination proved to be quite popular, as Room for Squares went triple platinum before its follow-up release, Heavier Things, arrived in September 2003. Mayer continued to retool his sound with each album, however, moving beyond the material that had launched his career and adopting elements of rock, blues, and soul.

Brian: After listening to an interview with John Mayer on NPR years ago (before his first big album), I was excited to listen to him. And that first big album was pretty fun. He really should have stopped there, though. Of course, I’ve started to notice a trend in artists interviewed on NPR – they are either already big and suck, or they’re about to start sucking, with very few exceptions.

Bonesparkle: Wait – “first big album”? Are you talking about the one with “Your Body is a Wonderland” on it? New rule – you never get to say a word about anything I do, up to and including catching me wearing panties and eating chocolate chip cookie dough while watching Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Jim: Hey, where’s John? Shouldn’t he be practicing his guitar? He’s not that good. He doesn’t have to be good. Nobody gives a shit. Besides, he’s busy boinking Jennifer Love/Jessica/Taylor/Jennifer Aniston/Renee/Miley. He’s too tired to practice…the guitar….

Me: I was trying to think of something snarky to say. But we’re talking about a guy who once said this: “My dick is sort of like a white supremacist. I’ve got a Benetton heart and a fuckin’ David Duke cock. I’m going to start dating separately from my dick.” I don’t think I can top that. He also said this: “Life is not short, man. Life is excruciatingly long.” Going all Nietzsche on that 14 year-old girl market, huh?

Alex: I can’t comment on John Mayer – I liked him in high school, and I’m only about six years out from high school. I’m too close to the crap to comment.

Toto

Toto released its self-titled debut album in October 1978, and it hit the Top Ten, sold two-million copies, and spawned the gold Top Ten single “Hold the Line.” The gold-selling Hydra (October 1979) and Turn Back (January 1981) were less successful, but Toto IV (April 1982) was a multi-platinum Top Ten hit, featuring the number-one hit “Africa” and the Top Tens “Rosanna” (about Lukather’s girlfriend, movie star Rosanna Arquette) and “I Won’t Hold You Back.” At the 1982 Grammys, “Rosanna” won awards for Record of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Performance, and Best Instrumental Arrangement With Vocal; and Toto IV won awards for Album of the Year, Best Engineered Recording, and Best Producer (the group)….Toto’s fifth album, Isolation (November 1984), went gold, but was a commercial disappointment.

fikshun: Corporate history is rife with stories of young entrepreneurs cutting their teeth at one corporation, and using the connections gained there move on to bigger and better things. Intel and Toto have a lot in common in that regard. Just ask IBM and Boz Scaggs, respectively. Also, it’s said that every major music city has a sound that reflects its culture and style. London is often represented by Trevor Horn, whose mixes are clean and distortion-free; every sound is tucked neatly in its place. New York’s style is often associated with the Beastie Boys and other locals who compress their mixes so heavily that the personalities practically jump out of your speakers just to get in your face. The Los Angeles sound is often characterized as faux natural. Great expense is paid for synthesizers and reverb devices that sound more realistic than an orange tan and more luscious than ass-fat injected lips. The Yamaha DX7-laden production of Toto’s Toto IV was proof just how far digital had come and helped pave the way for the West Coast Botox sound we know and love today.

Alex: Nothing in the world could keep me awaaaaaaaaaaay from jumping in here. I honestly don’t remember any other song by Toto, and even that song I remember more from when they goofed on it on Scrubs.

Me: Hey, Jeff Porcaro was in Steely Dan, sorta. It is worth noting that while this was a corporate endeavor of the first order, it was also one predicated on having guys who could seriously play their freakin’ instruments. That counts for something, right?

Jim: There were these bands in the late ’70s/early ’80s…Pablo Cruise, Toto, Little River Band…which one is this again…?

Bonesparkle: You forgot Ambrosia.

Brian: I still sing along to Toto on road trips with the family. No, my kids aren’t old enough to demand I skip the song yet – why do you ask?

Wufnik: Glad you got Toto in there. It wouldn’t really be corporate rock without them.

 

Click to vote.

The rules.

Image Credit: TimesUnion.com

Let my people go

We have finally invented the internet. In current form, the internet allows for things like the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and the documenting of a tragic school building collapse in China. It reveals the terrible innards of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012. This is a limited window of opportunity wherein information passes freely from person to person without direct interference. Let’s use it.

One Palestinian is dead and nine others wounded in an accident on the fence that keeps the people of Gaza from entering Israel. One side thought the fence was safe. The other side thought the fence was under attack. 6,000 miles away, I know about the ceasefire. I do not know what conditions were like on the ground. I hope everyone is committed to peace.

Palestinians began firing homemade rockets and mortars into Israel in 2001, after their land was surrounded by two fences, one kilometer apart, a no man’s land wherein any unidentified person might be shot. In 2005 Israel withdrew all troops from the Gaza strip.

In January 2011, the Gaza Youth Manifesto for Change appeared, declaring:

We are sick of being caught in this political struggle; sick of coal-dark nights with airplanes circling above our homes; sick of innocent farmers getting shot in the buffer zone because they are taking care of their lands; sick of bearded guys walking around with their guns abusing their power, beating up or incarcerating young people demonstrating for what they believe in; sick of the wall of shame that separates us from the rest of our country and keeps us imprisoned in a stamp-sized piece of land; sick of being portrayed as terrorists, home-made fanatics with explosives in our pockets and evil in our eyes; sick of the indifference we meet from the international community, the so-called experts in expressing concerns and drafting resolutions but cowards in enforcing anything they agree on; we are sick and tired of living a shitty life, being kept in jail by Israel, beaten up by Hamas and completely ignored by the rest of the world.

This is truth. We can now share it. The internet facilitates free speech by democratizing the means of production. What does this mean?

Santa Spendalot

Affluenza: Black Friday is America’s new high holy day

Originally published on 11/23/2012. It’s worse this year.

Black Friday is under way – has been since midnight, in fact. In many places around the country, retailers started kicking off the festivities at yesterdayover a quarter of Americans said they planned to go shopping on Thanksgiving. Or, as it will soon come to be known, Black Friday Eve. Or Black Thursday, maybe.

Want to hear some fun statistics?

2,470,000
The number of Google News results at press time for “Black Thursday,” the term for stores starting Black Friday deals on Thanksgiving instead of midnight after Thanksgiving. The general mood in the media is that Black Thursday is a terrible idea because retail workers should be able to spend the holidays home with their families (and potential shoppers should be home eating with their loved ones instead of out buying stuff). Black Thursday is already getting pretty ugly, with workers at stores like Walmart — where Black Thursday begins at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving — and Target threatening to strike. A number of petitions to stop the madness are also going viral online.

4,000
The number of Walmart stores that will have extra security measures in place on Black Friday. “Nobody wants to go into an event when they are risking injury for a video game,” Josh Phair, Walmart’s public affairs and government relations director told the Arizona Republic. Well at least they figured that out this year!

225,000,000
The number of people who shopped on Black Friday last year.

11,400,000,000
The number of dollars spent on Black Friday last year.

Imagine the stress on the workers who have to ride herd on these “doorbusters.” Imagine going to work – on a holiday - worrying that you’ll have to break up a fistfight over a toy. Or that someone might get trampled to death. Literally.

How about some breaking headlines?

What the heck. Let’s watch a video, while we’re at it.

No, folks, this isn’t a Mad Max movie. It’s Christmas shopping in America. Christmas. You know, birth of the savior. Peace on Earth. Three Wise Men, star in the east, baby in a manger, all that. I wonder if this year’s misbehavior will match last year’s carnage.

(A friend of mine works at Target. At 11:20 last night he reported that only one F-bomb had been lobbed at him so far. Of course, he still had over six hours left in his shift.)

[sigh]

America has a social disease

Have you read Affluenza? You should. This fantastic book examines, in uncomfortable detail, our culture’s pathological need for stuff. The editor’s review at Amazon sums it up this way:

The definition of affluenza, according to de Graaf, Wann, and Naylor, is something akin to “a painful, contagious, socially-transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” It’s a powerful virus running rampant in our society, infecting our souls, affecting our wallets and financial well-being, and threatening to destroy not only the environment but also our families and communities. Having begun life as two PBS programs coproduced by de Graaf, this book takes a hard look at the symptoms of affluenza, the history of its development into an epidemic, and the options for treatment. In examining this pervasive disease in an age when “the urge to splurge continues to surge,” the first section is the book’s most provocative. According to figures the authors quote and expound upon, Americans each spend more than $21,000 per year on consumer goods, our average rate of saving has fallen from about 10 percent of our income in 1980 to zero in 2000, our credit card indebtedness tripled in the 1990s, more people are filing for bankruptcy each year than graduate from college, and we spend more for trash bags than 90 of the world’s 210 countries spend for everything. “To live, we buy,” explain the authors–everything from food and good sex to religion and recreation–all the while squelching our intrinsic curiosity, self-motivation, and creativity. They offer historical, political, and socioeconomic reasons that affluenza has taken such strong root in our society, and in the final section, offer practical ideas for change. These use the intriguing stories of those who have already opted for simpler living and who are creatively combating the disease, from making simple habit alterations to taking more in-depth environmental considerations, and from living lightly to managing wealth responsibly.

Grist notes that in the wake of 9/11, affluenza seems to have evolved from social disease into official policy:

In each of the past four years, more people declared bankruptcy than graduated from college. On average, the nation’s CEOs now earn 400 times the wages of the typical worker, “a tenfold increase since 1980.” Although the United States makes up less than five percent of the world’s population, we produce 25 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions; since 1950, we “have used up more resources than everyone who ever lived on earth before then.”

Many of us also know that bigger houses, bigger cars, more gadgets, and more expensive clothes do not make us more content, despite the glossy promises of advertisers. Yet consumer spending has long been used as an indicator of both the national economy and the national mood. The more we spend, the better off we are — or so we’ve been told. This mantra has been particularly insistent in the past year, as the great blooming bubble of stock market riches began to deflate and the Bush administration chose instant gratification as an economic strategy. Since Sept. 11, national leaders have been telling us with ever-increasing urgency that consumer confidence must and will rebound. While confidence — as an indicator of our faith in the future — should return, it’s equally clear that the past few decades’ rate of consumption is neither sustainable nor desirable. Moreover, we must assume — and hope — that tragedy has made us wiser, and tempered the impulse of so many Americans to affirm their existence with a pleasing new purchase.

To be honest, reading Affluenza is one of the hardest things I’ve done in some time. I not only saw the moral emptiness of my society laid bare, there were entirely too many pages that described my own life. Even in instances where I feel like I’ve won the battle against consumerist addiction, I still had to acknowledge that once upon a time I was eaten up by a craving for material things that not only couldn’t have made me whole, they would have made the hollow space even larger. I had to slog through passages that seemed specifically written about people I know, people close to me. Worst of all, the book flogged me relentlessly with details about how our obsessions with status and toys are annihilating the physical world that sustains us … for the moment.

Affluenza ripped at my guts in ways that brought me literally to the brink of illness. Or maybe past the brink. I’m currently battling at least a couple of medical conditions that may ultimately be the result of affluenza. One of them is certainly a product of the American food complex: if you drink, on average, a liter of soda a day for the better part of 25 years, how many milligrams of high-fructose corn syrup have you strained through your body? I’m not blaming anybody for my stupidity, which was considerable, but let’s not pretend that our consumption patterns exist in a vacuum, either.

The physical impact pales next to the psychological, though. I grew up desperately seeking the sort of validation that comes with success in America, and if you aren’t careful you can fixate on all the wrong goals. Is success a certain income level? Is it a house in a trending neighborhood? Is it the security that comes from knowing that your children have newer, cooler and more expensive basketball shoes than their friends? Is it a Lexus or Beemer or Mercedes? Is it having a particular number of people reporting to you?

Is it the satisfaction that comes from working so many hours your wife doesn’t recognize you when you come home? Is it the number of ulcers you have? Is it having a physical stress level so consistently high that your body is more or less always sick in some way?

Affluenza made me think about the lies we tell ourselves about success. About happiness. About the “American Dream.” We grow up enculterated into a consumerist assumption (unless our parents raise us in the woods, miles from the nearest television – and then we have a whole ‘nother set of problems). At some point we realize that we’re not happy (although “realize” may be the wrong word – one thing affluenza seems to do is systematically kill off our self-awareness – in any case, we aren’t happy). Everywhere we look, though, we see happy people (they’re in these things we call “advertisements”), and the happiness we see always – always - emanates from a thing. A car, a haircut, a shirt, a house, an iPhone, a gaming console, a next-generation tablet…whatever it is, it’s something that can be purchased. So purchase it we do. If this means we leave the family on Thanksgiving (or worse, bring them with us) to queue up around the block at Best Buy so we can be ready to kick the door at 8pm, so be it.

We never seem to notice that after a few minutes, we’re not happy all over again. Clearly, we need to go buy something else.

I once watched a young boy on his first big Christmas morning. The monetary value of the presents he had under the tree was probably triple the value of all the presents I’d ever had under all the trees during my entire life. I mean this literally. He was the first child of affluent parents and everybody they knew was competing to outspend each other on this precious little boy.

He ripped into the first present with gusto – it was spectacular. He looked at it for a few seconds, then dropped it and ripped into the second one. Then the third. And the fourth, and fifth, and so on. He never paused to play with any of them. The holiday experience wasn’t about having or enjoying, it was only about more, more, more. When there were no more, he still didn’t sit down to play with them. I will never forget the look on his face at that moment: it was as profound a disappointment as you’re ever likely to see in a child. There were no more.

I had never seen anything like it, and I was as horrified as he was unfulfilled. That boy is a teenager now and has had many more Christmas mornings since then. As best I can tell each one has been little more than a ritual re-enactment of that first one, only with escalating price tags. He’s a smart kid and a very good kid in many ways, but I shudder to think of the hollowness that now threatens to consume his entire life.

I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that he’s one of the millions and millions out shopping today – assuming he didn’t make it to the stores last night.

Can I complain about the parenting decisions that have been made in this child’s life? Well, I could, but in truth the significance of the story isn’t what happened to him, it’s that what happened to him happens millions of times a day all across our consumerist nation. The more we have, the emptier we are. We’re a nation of addicts, and all the stuff that we’re Jonesing for is a million times more addictive and destructive than crystal meth.

What happens when we run out of fantasies?

We are the age of insubstantiation,
a generation of digital bells,
loose change on the sidewalk.

Our days are loops,
our nights tight spirals,

and if the virtual is
even better than the real thing

it’s only because the real thing is so goddamned empty.

So here’s my theory/hypothesis/question. We’re a hollow nation, a society that provides nearly all of us with rampant access to more material goods than we know what to do with. But we cannot find happiness in the material because there is not happiness in it. On the contrary – it’s a system that’s rigged to feed us a shiny, pretty lie that hollows us out some more, all the while whispering that only more of the lie will make us happy. Our consumerist society is a church that, instead of communion wafers, dispenses crystal meth. This is my body, broken for thee….

Welcome to the American reality: We have everything that this world can offer and we’re bored to tears.

Black Friday is our new high holy day. We’ve always looked at Christmas, the most sacred of holidays for a majority of our citizens, as our most important cultural celebration. Whether we’re reveling in the unbridled secular glee of exchanging gifts or ranting about the “war on Christmas” and the ways in which everyone has lost sight of the “true meaning of Christmas*,” December 25 has been our unquestioned national holiday.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink things, though. In truth, it’s Black Friday that most typifies the American pathology. Christmas is the big reveal, to be sure, but in a culture addicted to acquisition, the day that matters most is the one where we camp out, line up, bust doors, fight each other and trample each other to death – both figuratively and literally – in order to buy. To throw money at the retail giants that are our true church, to beseech the managers and cashiers, priests and acolytes, in the name of commerce, to fill the sucking holes in our souls with stuff so that we might at last be happy.

Thanks, but I’ll pass. I like playing with fun toys, too, but I’ve long since realized the truth about them. I won’t be venturing out to shop today and I salute those of you who are boycotting the madness, the utter sickness, and the corporations who promote it. To hell with Black Friday, Black Thursday, and the retailers who are cranking up the Christmas shopping music before Halloween.

My friends and family will be receiving what I think are some really nice gifts this year, but none of them are coming from Target and Walmart and Best Buy, and I’d encourage them to do the same, especially when it comes to getting me something. In fact, if you’re having a hard time deciding what to do for those you love, how about a gift that makes a real difference in the lives of people who need help the most: think about donating in their name to Heifer.org. If my friends are family are reading this, know that there isn’t much you could do that would make me happier than to give some chickens or a goat in my name.

I wish everyone a happy holiday season. And when I say “happy,” rest assured that word has nothing to do with stuff.

*That, of course, would be the imperial Christian appropriation of pagan solstice celebrations.

Portions of this article were adapted from a post that originally appeared on Sept. 9, 2009.

The Tech Curmudgeon – Eau de garbage bag

The Tech Curmudgeon was raking leaves recently when he noticed an odd smell. A flowery, almost sweet odor was wafting from the bag of leaves he’d recently filled. While some of the leaves were wet and had started to decay, it wasn’t the leaves themselves that had the overpowering stench of perfume. It was the trash bag.

Who the hell at Glad thought it was a good idea to perfume a 39 gallon black lawn and leaf bag?

The Tech Curmudgeon understands the idea of fighting odors coming from kitchen bags filled with food. He disagrees – vehemently – but he can at least understand not wanting the stench of rotting food in your house. Of course, there’s an easier solution to this problem that doesn’t require overwhelming the smell of decay with perfumes and coating the insides of you sinuses with Febreeze – get off your lazy ass and take the trash out before it starts stinking up the kitchen. But the Tech Curmudgeon digresses.

The stench excuse doesn’t apply when it comes to lawn and leaf cleanup. The Tech Curmudgeon seriously doubts anyone (sane) collects trash bags full of leaf litter or grass clippings and brings it into the house long enough for it to decay and stink up the house. As a homeowner, the Tech Curmudgeon knows just how nasty fermenting lawn clippings can get, especially after a rain adds some extra water to the mix, but that’s why he leaves them on the side of the house next to the massive covered trash can. If that smell is creeping into your house and your windows are closed, look for air leaks around the doors and windows and seal them with weather stripping or foam insulation – your sense of smell and your energy bill will both thank you.

Maybe Glad’s lawn and leaf bags are made on the same equipment that makes their “Odor Shield” kitchen bags. Maybe the perfume is just built into the polymers that make up the ForceFlex bags, regardless of whether its the white kitchen bags or the black outdoor bags.

The Tech Curmudgeon doesn’t care – it’s unnecessary and a stupid waste of money to perfume an outdoor garbage bag.

Image credit: Glad Products