A Memorial Day tribute

Today is the day we honor the men and women who died in our nation’s wars. I’d like to honor three very different World War II vets today by telling you my recollections of them.

I don’t remember Mr. Roberts’ first name, and only learned it at his funeral while I was in college. I don’t recall how I met him – it was probably because he and my dad shared an interest in woodworking, and Dad took me up two doors to meet him one day. I was fascinated by this man who built simple but beautiful wood jelly-bean dispensers, and I spent hours watching him turn wood for his dispensers on the lathe in the back of his garage. Mrs. Roberts used to let me pick strawberries from their strawberry patch when they were ripe, and that’s probably why no house has ever felt like a home without a strawberry patch. Continue reading

Ancient culture and the modern makeover

Part five in a series from China

It may be the cleanest alley in the world. Walls of ash-gray brick rise three stories on either side, running straight and tight and true.

The alley is otherwise nondescript except for the gold-colored manhole covers, ornamented with intricate patterns. No papers litter the ground, no gum wrappers, no cans. Not even any dirt, really. The alley is crisp, clean, almost antiseptic.

Behind us, across the bus-filled parking lot, the Tianjin Eye, a Ferris wheel 35-stories tall, stands over the Haihe River. Seven meters taller than the Eye that stands over the Thames in London, the Tianjin Eye rises from between the lanes of traffic in the middle of bridge that crosses the Haihe. It is a symbol for all that is new and modern here in Tianjin, the fifth-largest city in China and one of the country’s most important seaports.

Much of Tianjin—at least what we see on the city’s north side—is dirty and dilapidated. It’s a city of peeled paint and rust and crumbling concrete, with grass growing up through the cracks. There are piles of rubble everywhere. Tianjin is in dire need of a makeover. Continue reading

Interview with Alexander Zaitchik

Alexander Zaitchik’s Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance is on the shelves. Beck seems to dislike the book as much as i liked it, calling it “despicable, yellow journalism.” Alexander was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book and Beck. And it turns out that at times it really was like going up the river after Kurtz.

The full story of Glenn Beck is a pretty twisted tale. Did you know what you were getting into from the beginning?

Not really. I knew almost nothing about Beck when I signed on. I had seen a clip of his famous “We Surround Them” monologue on Fox News, the one where he cried while mumbling about how much he loved his country, but that was about it. I was living abroad during most of the years Beck was climbing the talk radio ranks and broke into television in ’06. When he started on Fox, the day before Obama’s election, I had just returned to the States from a long stint in Mexico and was thinking about other things. He was not on my radar at all. It was only in March and April of 2009, when I did some reporting on the Tea Party scene, that I first came into contact with Beck. The fact that I didn’t know what I’d find is one of the things that made the project initially appealing.

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S&R exclusive: US President Obama vows to outsource oil pollution to Nigeria

Just a regular day in NigeriaIn a focused interview this afternoon, US President Barack Obama opened up about the future of offshore oil extraction for the US in the wake of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

S&R: President Obama, thank you so much for meeting with us. Clearly the people of the US will not accept the risk of offshore drilling.  You’ve already issued a temporary ban on drilling, including the stopping of existing exploration.  My question is this: where exactly will the oil America needs come from?  Doesn’t this just put you further at risk to exposure to despotic governments in the Middle East? Continue reading

Smooth as silk

Part four in a series from China

“Smooth as silk,” it seems, isn’t as smooth as I’ve always been lead to believe.

“Is little rougher than polyester,” our guide tells us. “Has texture.”

She’s standing in front of us in a small, neat seminar room at the No. 1 Silk Factory. She has passed around two cloth samples: one made of silk and one made of polyester, and she’s challenged us to tell the difference.

Sure enough, one of them is smooth as silk and the other is slightly less so.

“Polyester also shinier,” she says. “Also, it flammable. Anyone have lighter?” she asks. Remarkably, in a room full of graduate students, no one does. Our guide pats the pockets of her brown business suit, but she comes up empty, too. “Silk not burn. Fireproof,” she says.

Her demonstration has worked in the past, though. One of the samples, the smoother, shinier one, has several holes burned into it. When she asks again if we can tell which sample is the polyester, one of the students, Jerry, holds it up. “The one with the burn holes in it,” he says. His classmates laugh.

With Jerry’s guess, the silkworm’s now out of the bag, so it’s time to start our tour of the factory floor to learn how silk is made. Continue reading

Texas re-education: Don's dames

The story so far: By Ann Ivins

Pushed out of his rightful place by invidious, freedom-hating and downright evil forces,* one man dares to take a stand. One man defends God, country and family values.** One man rises in near-holy defiance of those who would undermine the self-assurance, certainty of purpose and irrefutable moral superiority of these great United States of America.*** In the twilight of his ascendancy, one man resolutely refuses to back down, fulfilling the promise of more than a decade with the Texas State Board of Education in a final glorious swan dive into the history books as the man with the guts to rewrite history… the way it should have been.

This man. Don McLeroy.

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How did extraterrestrials survive their nuclear age?

THE DEPROLIFERATOR — However overwhelming a world or national crisis may seem, one can’t help but suspect that it isn’t entirely new. If you’re sympathetic to the view that life exists elsewhere in the universe, it follows that other planets have confronted problems similar to ours on earth and lived to see another day (however long that is in another galaxy). For example, how did the denizens of another planet survive an era when its states, federations, or territories were armed with nuclear weapons or their extraterrestrial equivalent?

Among those unsympathetic to evidence that expeditionaries from deep space frequent our environs are theorists who would argue that the inhabitants of other worlds failed to outlive the class of doomsday weapon peculiar to their planet. For example, the Daily Galaxy writes about Mike Treder of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, who . . .

. . . suggests that since there is, at this point, no direct and/or widely apparent evidence that extraterrestrial life exists, it likely means [that, for instance] they have all run into some sort of “cosmic roadblock” [such as] an arms race involving nano-built weaponry [that] eventually destroys them, or at least prevents their expansion beyond a small area. Continue reading

Gusher livecam redux

So I’m watching a lot happen on the BP ROV monitor, with several things that look vaguely like R2D2 floating around, lots of lights that look as if they’re in the sky, many cables that look as if they’re stretching out into infinity, and strange looking contraptions giving each other the occasional whack. It definitely has a scifi feel to it. I couldn’t possibly tell you if it’s even live, but it sure looks interesting. Of course, I have no idea if Crap Shoot, as Greenboy referred to it (credit where credit is due, and that sounds about right, frankly), has the remotest likelihood of working. Let’s hope.

Whoa, here comes something really large. This could be it. But how would I know? Maybe there’s something even bigger coming along next. They seem to be cleaning it off now, or something.

I assume Monkeyfister will be providing entertaining commentary over the course of this, as will the thousands commenting here, here, and here.

And this is what they’re hoping to accomplish.

Update: Hank Stuever over at The Washington Post provides us with a TV Review of the gusher.

The road to liberty is bewildered by fascists, oh and American "libertarians" like Rand Paul

I saw a New York Times headline reading “The Randslide and Its Discontents” and assumed it was about the South African currency (which I hadn’t known was in trouble … it isn’t).

This introduced me to one Rand Paul, a self-declared “libertarian”? I use the term by which he calls himself advisedly because that sure as shit ain’t my definition. How does one get to be a libertarian and still oppose a woman’s right to choose an abortion? That’s a contradiction. I didn’t have to go much deeper to find more.

Paul is articulate and hard-line. When he says he is antigovernment, he means it. Unlike McConnell, he wants to end all earmarks, including agricultural subsidies for a state that thrives on them. (He does vow to preserve Medicare payments, however; they contribute to his income as an ophthalmologist.) He wants to shut down the Department of Education and the Federal Reserve. Though a social conservative who would outlaw all abortions, he believes the federal government should leave drug enforcement to the states.

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Security as product placement

As Jack Bauer finishes his complete melt-down at the end of his eighth season, I’ve had 2 revelations:  1) he seemed to confirm 3 weeks ago the opinion of experts that torture “isn’t working” and 2) we’ve all been sold a lot of security myths that people want to believe are real. Continue reading

Gusher livecam

This should provide hours of an equal mix of horror and fascination. Good commentary can be found here and here, although none of it will make you feel better. Including the stuff about the ocean floor dropping.

Update: Here’s a more colorful one, which appears to be from a different angle.

Another update (May 25)–I swear that damn hole is sinking. Oh, then there’s this. We are in such deep shit.

We need better news stories, but how will we get them?

The media-reform activist organization, Free Press, has set up a press-bashing site called mediaFail, offering minimal instruction about what constitutes a bad news story versus a good news story. Thus we must assume those all-knowing Internet media critics who nominate bad news stories at mediaFail have a disciplined, instructive sense of what’s good and what’s bad.

So what is a good (meaning well done) news story? My answer revolves around three important concepts: useful information people don’t know, adversarial purpose, and appropriate, meaningful context.

Eight years ago, my university’s journalism school gave an award to Tom Wicker of The New York Times. Wicker’s “In The Nation” column ran in The Times from 1966 through 1992, and his columns were sufficiently critical of Richard Nixon to earn Wicker a place on Nixon’s enemies list.

In accepting our modest award, Wicker said, “Find out what you can and tell the people what you know.” Continue reading

'Nuclear weapons are a gift from God'

THE DEPROLIFERATOR — Many of us who have become dependent on drink or drugs turn for help to support groups; others, to psychotherapy. If we persevere with either, before long we’re likely to discover that, while active, we may have been approaching a cul de sac. But once there, we find it opens to a path to a higher ground hitherto unbeknownst to us. In other words, the humanity and usefulness to society that we enjoy today might never have come to pass if substance abuse hadn’t demanded that we reinvent ourselves. We need, as they say in support groups, to reach our bottom.

You’d think that humanity had reached its collective bottom in the 20th century with World Wars I and II. What more havoc had to be wreaked before we got the message that wholesale conflict would lead to the end of civilization? But, instead of “letting go and letting God,” to borrow from AA lingo, states remained in a defensive crouch, none more so than the victors. As well, the United States and the Soviet Union sought to solidify their newfound dominance by building up their nuclear arsenals as if they we were still on a war-time basis cranking out munitions. Continue reading

China at the World Expo: Larger than larger-than-life

Part three in a series from China

China is larger than life.

It boasts the world’s largest population. It has the world’s fastest growing economy. It embodies the most dramatic social contrasts.

But on the day we visit the Chinese pavilion at the World Expo, China becomes larger than larger-than-life.

The pavilion itself is China writ large. It represents everything China wishes to be—and, in most cases, is: big, powerful, commanding, visionary. Continue reading

Around the world in a day

Part two in a series from China

“Welcome to Shanghai,” the banners along the highway say. “Better city, better life.”

At first I mistake it for propaganda promoting some kind of urban improvement program. After all, when I visited Shanghai last year, the city was one huge construction zone in preparation for this year’s World Expo. But the highways have been built, the downtown buildings have been facelifted, the greenspaces trimmed and tidied. Shanghai has its best face forward.

“Better City, Better Life,” it turns out, is the theme for the Expo. Continue reading

Nota Bene #111: Mmmmm… Beeeeeer

Sorry for the long absence. Let’s carry on, shall we? “If you listen to the guys up in the stands, pretty soon you’ll be up there sitting with them.” Who said it? Continue reading

China: The land of tomorrow

Part one in a series from China

The daylight never leaves us.

We race against the earth’s rotation, our speed varying anywhere from 495 miles per hour to 600, forty-thousand feet up. From Chicago we cut northwest across Canada, over Anchorage, parallel to the Aleutian peninsula and islands across the Bering Strait and on into tomorrow.

“Why do we fly up and over instead of in a straight line across the ocean,” one of my students has asked. There are thirteen of them in all, as well as my sixteen-year-old-daughter, Stephanie.

“The shortest distance between two points is a straight line,” I explained. “On a sphere—like a globe—that line becomes a curve. The shortest curve between two points isn’t always just straight around. In this case, the shortest curve is up and over.” Continue reading

Free Press' mediaFail site a bad idea from a good organization

Read a news story you didn’t like? See a news story you think really sucked? See any news product you believe represents a failure of the American news media (no matter what your standards are and whether they’re valid)?

Well, get your dander up and head on over to mediaFail and vote against that mediocrity. There, the site says, you can “Expose the Worst of American Media. Find It. Post It. Fail It.”

This site, a project of the highly respected media reform group Free Press, allows irritated readers and viewers to log in, post a link, give the story a failing grade and, lo, let the nasty comments flow.

Free Press bills this site as a route to a better media system. I disagree. Vehemently.
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