Tuesday, August 31, 2010

what he saw

But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near...

--Andrew Marvell
"To His Coy Mistress"

When he rode out of the palace for the first time at age 29, accompanied only by his charioteer, the prince saw old age, disease and death, also for the first time. Deeply affected, he asked "What joy or pleasure can people take in life, knowing they must soon wither and pine away?"

The answer, of course, is simple. We take joy and pleasure in life, as well as indulging in less ennobling emotions such as resentment and envy, because we're able to ignore the brute facts of our imminent demise. We're able to simply put our coming decline and fall out of our minds most of the time, and go with our lives as if they'll last forever.

I'd suggest, however, that doing so is not such a good idea.

It's true that life goes on (until it doesn't) and that there's no point in ruining the present by moping about the future. But how differently would we live our lives, how would our behavior change, if we lived as if each day was our last? Would we have time then for greed and petty resentment, envy, and the implied ingratitude of taking for granted those we love?

Death relentlessly comes closer every day. The final resolution of life, with all its joys, sorrows, and ambiguities is certain. I need to keep that in mind as much as possible if I'm going to use what life is left to me to full advantage, and not piss it away with trifling and irrelevant bickering and pointless disputes over imaginary supremacy, such as indulging in "king of the hill" type mind games.

I see what the prince saw, and it teaches me to do good today rather than worry about who's right, or fret over what I consider incorrect definitions of "God."

Later in his life, when he had matured and become a great teacher, the prince admonished us to "no longer lose ourselves in vain speculations and profitless subtleties...let us practice good, so that good may result..."

Quotes are from "The Teachings of Buddha," compiled by Paul Carus, 1915 (Reprint ed., New York: St. Martin's, 1998).

Illustration by O. Kopetzky.

Monday, August 30, 2010

mortality landscape

Who painted this interesting and surreal landscape? If it wasn't so bright and garish it might look like something by Cezanne, I suppose. If it was less borderline abstract, and a little more representational, Van Gogh might be a decent guess.

Actually, nobody painted it. It's a drop of rosé photographed under a microscope, an illustration for Time magazine's story on the results of a recent study of the link between alcohol consumption and mortality.

The surprising results of this study? Drinkers live longer than teetotallers. Moderate drinkers live the longest, but even alcohol abusers tend to live longer than total abstainers.

The study didn't compare the conditions of life for the different categories, however, so it didn't convey the information that heavy alcohol consumption is the second-leading cause of dementia (after Alzheimer's disease). Still, staying away from the stuff completely doesn't seem to be such a good deal after all, and no doubt the best option is to face life as a moderate drinker, unless you're one of those people like me who just can't handle the stuff. And in that case, you just have to forget about that glass of wine with dinner, and take your chances with abstinence.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

back in the w.r.a.

The Weimar Republic of America's huge late-summer fascist rally was a roaring success, drawing nearly 100,000 faithful stooges of Murdoch's Fox News Network and the Texas billionaire oilmen Charles and David Koch. They drank bottled water and were regaled by the pieties and platitudes of American fascism's star celebrities, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, as they enjoyed the perfect weather of a late-August Saturday afternoon.

The weather, the time of day, the location, and the season of the year all conspired to help to perfect the momentous occasion, cleverly (and cynically) scheduled to occupy the same date and geographical space of Martin Luther King's most famous speech 47 years earlier.

The fascist triumph was, of course, also aided and abetted by the incompetence, cowardice, corruption, and dishonesty of the Obama administration, which has responded to the challenge of governing an out-of-control federal bureaucracy and war machine, and a civilian economy undergoing the worst economic crisis in 80 years, in the worst possible ways.

Since taking office, Obama has ramped up one war in Afghanistan, ponders launching another in Yemen, delivered an anemic and undersized economic stimulus whose funds remain partially unspent, and refused to decisively confront the predatory cannibalism of Wall Street. He makes the moderate Republican Dwight Eisenhower, who ended the Korean War and spurred Congress into building the interstate highway system, look like a flaming radical.

For the semi-conscious tools who comprise the mob, the dark president with the African-sounding name remains the object of their resentful attention. If they had even a glimmer of how completely they're being gamed by fascist billionaires whose interests run counter to their own, they might appreciate the irony of yesterday's celebration of fascist ideals. As Malcolm X once told his own followers, "You've been had. You've been took. You've been hoodwinked. You've been bamboozled, led astray, run amuck."

However, no such self-awareness penetrates the dim brains of the tea party crowd, and Benito Mussolini would have been envious of the way a few self-interested American plutocrats have spent millions of dollars and employed modern techniques of brainwashing through sophisticated mass media to produce the effect we saw yesterday. They haven't yet seized the power that will enable them to further enrich themselves totally unchallenged, but they're poised on the brink.

Today I can write this kind of stuff without worrying about a knock on the door. I don't live in fear of being taken downtown to have my fingers broken so that I can no longer type subversive messages from the land of the conscious, or being made the subject of fun and games with electricity.

That won't come until 2013.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

the disease

Om, Shanti.

I don't wish to spend half my life, and sometimes more than half, reading and writing on the political discussion board at BeliefNet. But I keep doing it.

It's some kind of weird addiction, "a sickness" as a fellow-sufferer called it in an e-mail the other day. Maybe we should form the nucleus of a support group. The first step would be "Admitted I was powerless over the politics discussion group, and that my life had become unmanageable."

I have tried and tried to control and enjoy my visits to Beliefnet, but to no avail. Once I start, I lose control and can't seem to stop.

God, are you listening?

I've also come to realize that arguments and evidence will not change anyone's mind, and that some political orientations provide a very thin cover for deep-seated psychological problems, such as derive from an obsessive need to control others' behavior, or a non-specific anxiety, or anger at having been rejected at some point in the past, or an authority fetish. I sometimes wonder if that describes me, and if so, what my problem is?

But on reflection, I've concluded that I'm psychologically healthy, or at least healthier now than ever before. I'm fascinated with the current deformities in American politics (see yesterday's post here), but that doesn't explain the obsession. I don't know what to attribute it to.

I do take the time for yoga every day, including a 10- to 15-minute meditation. I meditate on the chakras, and lately I've been going pretty far down the mine shaft. Maybe tomorrow I should meditate on the BNet politics board, and see if come up with anything.

Friday, August 27, 2010

astro tuff

Jane Mayer, one of America's best political reporters, and one who contributes frequently to the New Yorker, has written what is perhaps the most important political story of the past decade, and possibly of the decade to come as well.

"Covert Operations," in this week's (August 30) New Yorker tells the story of the shadowy Texas oil billionaires the Koch brothers, Charles and David, who are nearly single-handedly responsible for the rise of the Tea Party movement. An astroturf, or fake grass-roots movement dedicated to undermining "big government" in general and Obama in particular, the Tea Parties are almost wholly funded by the brothers, who also provide the organizational framework for the movement. That, combined with Fox News's publicity for all things tea party-ish, has given the movement traction and momentum.

That the present-day American fascist movement seriously aims at seizing control of the government isn't really news. It has been attacking the status quo with steadily growing volume and vigor in recent years, and now seems poised on the verge of accomplishing its objective. That this movement is the work of a very few people, primarily Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers, has not been apprehended by the public at all until now. Mayer's article remedies that.

Murdoch's work and ideology require no exposé, since his is a media empire, which by necessity and definition operates in public. The Koch brothers, however, have managed to hide under a cloak of anonymity, provided by the multitude of foundations, think tanks, and agitprop organizations they founded and pay for, and by channeling their voices through platoons of their paid tools, hired stooges who are unjustifiably honored with titles like "journalist" or "analyst."

I'll leave you with a sample from the first page of Mayer's article, and you'll no doubt want to follow up by absorbing the whole thing.

Over the July 4th weekend, a summit called Texas Defending the American Dream took place in a chilly hotel ballroom in Austin. Though (David) Koch freely promotes his philanthropic ventures, he did not attend the summit, and his name was not in evidence. And on this occasion the audience was roused not by a dance performance but by a series of speakers denouncing President Barack Obama. Peggy Venable, the organizer of the summit, warned that Administration officials “have a socialist vision for this country.”

Five hundred people attended the summit, which served, in part, as a training session for Tea Party activists in Texas. An advertisement cast the event as a populist uprising against vested corporate power. “Today, the voices of average Americans are being drowned out by lobbyists and special interests,” it said. “But you can do something about it.” The pitch made no mention of its corporate funders. The White House has expressed frustration that such sponsors have largely eluded public notice. David Axelrod, Obama’s senior adviser, said, “What they don’t say is that, in part, this is a grassroots citizens’ movement brought to you by a bunch of oil billionaires.”

Thursday, August 26, 2010

traffic jelly

The enormous 100-mile-long traffic jam which caused a freeway leading in and out of Beijing, China to freeze up in what may have been the worst case of gridlock in history disappeared overnight on the evening of the 24th and morning of the 25th. Nobody knows why.

The crisis began on August 14, and was caused by lane closures for road maintenance combining with the increasing numbers of trucks carrying consumer goods to the newly-affluent citizens of the big shitty. It seems the Chinese are now determined to make all the same mistakes we did, and are working hard to multiply those afflictions which have been peculiarly American up until now, automobile dependency and affluenza.

For those of us living in Seattle and daily experiencing some of the worst traffic conditions in the country, the Beijing traffic clusterschnazzle is instructive. The automobile is behind us, the bus, the bicycle, and walking shoe in front of us. Which way will each of us go?


It was 90 years ago today that the 19th amendment was added to the Constitution, legalizing women's right to vote and conferring citizenship on half the U.S. population.

The measure came late. Women's organizations had been agitating for the vote since the 1840's, but the weight of paternalism and Biblical interpretations fostered by fundamentalist Christianity slowed the momentum of progress, as they always do.

Those same forces have prevented the passage of an equal rights amendment, even to the present. Still, over the past 40 years equal rights for women, particularly in the area of equal pay for equal work, have advanced steadily, though not guaranteed by law. And there's still quite a way to go.

Echidne of the Snakes points out that even after the 19th amendment became law, many women chose not to vote "either because of local obstructions; violence in and outside the home; (or) cultural beliefs about women and politics." Then as now, the dead hand of the past pressed down on our society, as it does on all societies.

But we progress in spite of that, and 90 years of citizenship is something to celebrate.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

good ol' days

I sometimes overhear older people like myself talking about how it was "in the old days," or "back when." The usual tone of these soliloquies sounds warm and nostalgic, and nowadays it's the fifties, not the war years or the Depression time our parents spoke of, that nostalgics recall as better than the present.

Things were certainly simpler then, but seemed complex and unfamiliar at the time. In some ways the fifties were a lot like today. The political conversation was all about communism, but now the Muslims stand in for the communists. Instead of Joe McCarthy on TV, we have Glenn Beck on TV, Rush on the radio, and record numbers of Little Joes on the internet.

Oh, yeah, the internet. There was nothing like that stirring things up and agitating society back in the good old days, was there? Well, actually there was. TV was still brand new right up to the end of the fifties, and millions of us, hypnotized by the novelty of possessing fuzzy black-and-white images sent through the air into our darkened living rooms, scheduled our lives around favorite TV programs. In the early sixties, the first large-scale "Where did all the good programming go?" public discussion broke out, only showing that the novelty of TV was beginning to wear off.

There were major differences between then and now too, mostly stemming from the appearance of stability we shared in the old days, a reassuring certainty which has now evaporated like dew. And the seeds of decline which sprout today were planted in the fifties -- the growth of Empire, and rise of the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about as he was leaving office, and the earliest appearance of that mentality which led to the corporate replacement of government.

All the toadstools planted in the fifties flourished, and finally failed, and today we live with the reality of instability and enormous changes, projected out into the most distant imaginable future. And now we acknowledge the universal belief in stability which prevailed a lifetime ago as a haze of idealistic smoke, the illusion of a proud, strong, but easily-manipulated people.

Photo: Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca of "Your Show of Shows.

Monday, August 23, 2010

late summer

As the days become gradually shorter and the north wind begins to communicate the unmistakable shift of seasons which is already occurring on Vancouver Island, we still can look forward to the prospect of a few more glorious afternoons like this one. And who knows, the season, with some interruptions, may last well into September -- it sometimes happens.

Time moves slowly through these golden hours, meandering lazily toward sunset with its accompanying cool western breezes wafting off the glass surface of the Sound. Everything expands under the warm sunshine, and time is no exception.

Summer was short this year, and I'm sure we'll be left wanting more. But that's also the case even when, as it was two years ago, the season lasts longer than usual. These are rare and irreplaceable days, and sometimes I think their beauty is a function of their scarcity. Anything as beautiful as this really should be rare.

The next two days are supposed to be unusually clear and very warm, and I don't plan on letting them go to waste.

Oil painting, Late Summer, by Peggy Root.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

weapons of self destruction

I've been watching, reading, and listening to the mass hysteria over the so-called "Ground-Zero mosque" and the so-called "Iranian nuclear threat," and even participating in the debates. But no more.

Any of us interested in continuing to live with a minimum amount of comfort and security now needs to withdraw attention from the noise machine of Fox News, the imbecile fulminations of CNN's talking heads, and the crescendo of government propaganda, and focus our minds and resources on dealing with the real and severe problems we're facing -- global climate change, the abrupt end of the petroleum age, the unfolding economic collapse resulting from the credit binge of the last 30 years, and the unwillingness of our ruling elites to even acknowledge the existence of these challenges. The multitude, distracted by chimerical bogeys like the supposed Islamic plot to impose Sharia on U.S. society, or the crackpot Afghan War, are failing in the most fundamental way to provide for their own survival in a radically changed landscape.

The author and blogger Chris Martenson addresses our predicament with the caveat that "these are simply my beliefs," then goes on to lay out the probable present and future scenarios with commendable brevity.

...the next twenty years are going to be completely unlike the last twenty years. Why is this important? Because we tend to base our view of the future on our most recent experience. That’s just part of being a human. It is also a gigantic liability at key turning points. So I say that massive change is already upon us...

Next I believe that its (sic) possible – possible – that the pace and/or scope of change could overwhelm the ability of our key social and support institutions to adapt. Katrina taught us that a major US city could be wiped out and pretty much remain that way for years. That is an example of major change occurring faster than our ability to respond. The types of changes I foresee in our economic landscape are larger than Katrina. Much larger.

My third belief is that we do not lack any technology or understanding necessary to build ourselves a better future. Rather, we only lack the political will...

And from what I've seen the political will is not forthcoming. The future, both near- and long-term, is going to require us to fall back on our own collective resources in ways that were hinted at in the rather half-hearted "back to the land" movement of the late sixties, and which now need to be taken up again in dead earnest.

We have the capacity and technical know-how to form self-sustaining communities, able to provide their own food, shelter, clothing, electricity, and protection. Providing for transportation and medical care will be more challenging, but doable. I'm not certain whether we have the social skills necessary for this task; that may be a bigger challenge than the material aspects of the transition, although I'm hoping that necessity, as it's the mother of invention, will also be the father of adaptation.

We're talking about a small minority that will be able to weather this challenging transition with some degree of grace and redefined prosperity. The vast majority are at the moment engaging their attention on imaginary threats and irrelevant issues, and thus condemning themselves to facing the collapse of current living arrangements in a desperate, hand-to-mouth struggle.

As Grace Nearing says -- it's the motto of her blog -- "If your knew what was coming, you wouldn't be wasting valuable time reading this."

Painting by Shaun Grech, mixed media on board.

Friday, August 20, 2010

spider's web

just outside one of the doors of my apartment building, a tiny spider has spun her web in a shrub sheltered by two small trees. Now she sits in the very center of it waiting for a gnat or fruit fly or some other small game to come along and get stuck in the strings.

She's a very small spider, and her threads are extremely fine, almost invisible to the naked eye. But standing close enough late this afternoon while it was backlit, with difficulty I made out the perfection of the design in the delicate latticework.

I think her location is not very good, for she seems to be getting very little traffic, although I'm not out there much. Maybe she's making do with very little. These are, after all, hard times for everybody.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

tv land

(Originally posted on a political discussion board at BeliefNet.com.)

It's with fear and anxiety sometimes that I enter the old BNet fun-house hall of mirrors, this airless purgatory of exhausted sperm donors (James Wolcott's phrase -- damn him!), this Never-Never land where if you wish upon a star, your most cherished dreams of torturing people and running them out of the country on red-hot rails will come true, to try to make sense of the increasingly grossening bigotry-fueled gibberish that substitutes for political discussion around here.

And the first thing I stumbled into coming here this hour, on this thread, was the indignant snort that critics of the Sacred and Most High Fox News Network should get their info about that holy sepulchre of Brownshirt propaganda and urging on the Baggers from the original source, and not "liberal" blogs.

Well, what about direct quotes and transcripts? Do they count?

'Cause they're gonna have to do.

See, you have to understand that even if I did own a TV, which thank God I don't, but even if I did, I wouldn't watch it. I like the universe I'm living in. It's real, and it's full of real, three-dimensional people and animals, with whom I can interact, mostly pleasantly, sometimes not so pleasantly. On TV, there are nothing but two-dimensional cardboard-cutout people on a flat screen. it's an alternative universe, and I don't want to be in any alternative universe, especially one so loud and shrill and stupid and endlessly repetitive as TV land. Not even for five minutes.

And I can also assure you that knowing that some TV is worse than other TV, you would have to pry the remote control device from my cold, dead, stiff hands and force my corpse at gunpoint to sit still for Fox News, with its verbal tweetings and chirpings from a grotesquerie like Ms. Palin, or the disgusting and degrading bully-boy routine of Bill O', or the psychotically boiling rage total flip outs of Mr. Beck. Been there. Once. Seen it. Won't go again.

If this is what passes for serious political perspective, we're in a lot of trouble.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

broke down engine #2

Feel like a broke down engine, mama,
Ain't got no drivers at all...

--Blind Willie McTell
"Broke Down Engine," take 2.

So this morning I finished that book I previewed here a couple weeks ago. I'm a little overwhelmed and troubled by it, and can't really say too much yet. However, there's one passage on the next to the last page that pretty much encapsulates Shteyngart's attitude of combined pessimism and acceptance: "We were talking, placidly despite the wine intake, about global warming and the end of human life on earth.The Italians were describing our role on the planet as that of bothersome horseflies, and the planet's self-regulating ecosystems as a kind of gigantic fly-swatter."

He's an unusual guy, this Shteyngart is, of the Russian subdivision of the tribe of Ashkenaze, that slender demographic slice that consistently tests out as the most intelligent ethnic chunk among all humankind. The Russian Ashkenaze are uniquely schooled in the knowledge of misery, having endured in short order Stalin, then Hitler, then Stalin again.

Shteyngart was raised his first seven years in St. Petersburg, or Leningrad as it was called then, in an apartment overlooking a huge square dominated by an enormous cast metal statue of the man himself, old Vladimir Ilyich. In 1979, when he was seven, his family brought him to Queens, NYC, and stuck him in a Hebrew School. Thereafter, till he was 14, he ran a rut between school and home where the family continued to speak only Russian.

All this has given him a unique perspective on the subjects of decline and fall, of nobility and depravity, and what human beings are capable of. He knows, recognizes, and understands the signs and symptoms, is educated in history and psychology, and incapable of denial or of flinching before bad news. He may or may not be a great writer -- his technique impresses me as both flashy and sure of itself, but my impressions of that aspect of the book are too new to judge. As a historical chronicler, he's top-drawer.

I had to rouse myself and get out of the house for a while. Even after my morning exercise routine my thoughts were roiled and choppy, still churned up by the book's message. So here I sit at the Green Bean, decompressing. After a cold and cloudy morning the sun is shining gently on Seattle, and life is going by placidly out on the street. There's a warm breeze out of the south, and the Bean is full of the usual silent and indrawn laptop heads. it's strange to think of how fragile this all is.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


As the centerpiece of his foreign policy plan, Barack Obama campaigned on the promise that the final pullout from Afghanistan would begin in mid-2011, during the third year of his administration. He planned it that way so he could campaign for re-election on having ended the war in 2012. That this plan has remained firm in his mind is confirmed by various events and conversations, such as...

Bob Herbert's Times column this morning channels an interesting conversation between Obama and Biden which Jonathan Alter reports took place in November of '09:

In his book, “The Promise,” about President Obama’s first year in office, Jonathan Alter describes a brief conversation between the president and Vice President Joe Biden that took place last November at the end of Mr. Obama’s long deliberation about what to do in Afghanistan.

Mr. Biden asked whether the new policy of beginning a significant withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2011 was a direct presidential order that could not be countermanded by the military. The president said yes.

There are a couple of strange things about this conversation, if it is accurately reported. Is Biden, the old hand in Washington who supposedly knows what's happening, asking the newcomer, Obama, if the president is still the commander-in-chief of the armed forces? That's what it sounds like. And if Obama was being honest (you never know), was he showing that he's naive?

Yesterday Petraeus said he is not going to Afghanistan to preside over a "graceful exit."

In an hourlong interview with The New York Times, the general argued against any "precipitous" withdrawal of forces in July 2011, the date set by President Obama to begin at least a gradual reduction of the 100,000 troops on the ground.

Petraeus (such a classical-sounding name) might be the American Caesar. He's in the perfect position to step up and take charge, no matter what happens in Afghanistan. A skilled propagandist, he would easily outmatch the sly but indecisive and ineffectual leader of our present dysfunctional and fragmented government, and offer instead the strength and decisiveness of an imperium, which, when functioning as it's supposed to, is the expression of an individual will.

This is not our fathers' United States of America. I'm old enough to remember when Harry Truman fired General MacArthur and brought him home from Korea. MacArthur and the Pentagon squawked, but they followed orders. I'm certain that today they'll figure out a way to override any orders they don't like, especially any that might endanger the continuous pursuit of perpetual war. Obama is way too timid to bring any such issue to a confrontation.

And a dictator doesn't have to seize the presidency. The Soviet Union was run not by a president or prime minister, but by the general secretary of the Communist Party (starting with Stalin), and France during the Terror was ruled by a legislative committee, the Committee of Public Safety(!). A Secretary of Defense could wield power easily enough, and I'll bet most of us will live to see it happen.

Monday, August 16, 2010

advert mysteries

Sometimes I'm mystified by advertising graphics, like this one.

A girl in a skimpy bikini stands in front of incoming surf on a hot day. This is Seattle? Looks more like Acapulco or Nassau.

Maybe today, one of maybe three or four days out of the year when it's as hot here as in the picture, it fits. But forget the surf. Puget Sound is a sheltered inland sea, and the only time we get waves even approaching what you see in the picture is when a sou'wester blows in off the mouth of the Columbia and bypasses the Olympic range. And when that happens, the sky is dark as a tar barrel.

A better Seattle picture would show a middle-aged lady in an L.L. Bean waterproof parka with the hood up, wearing rubber boots and walking along a pebbly beach in front of what looks like a gray-green lake, but is actually "our" salt water. She might be shown trudging along under a cloudy sky carrying a bucket and a rake, for gathering butter clams. The ad copy might read, "Beat the heat: Seattle in late August -- One Day Special."

Sunday, August 15, 2010

the blimp

Here in the heat of high summer, we wait uneasily for the autumn collapse, when the blimp falls out the sky in a flash of fire and a cloud of smoke.

Thou too, sail on, O blimp of state.

Commenting on our current war on two fronts (foreign and domestic) yesterday at Huffpo, Dan Froomkin, recently fired from the Washington Post for unauthorized liberalism, wrote:

As Gen. David Petraeus kicks off an extended media blitz intended to make Americans feel better about the war in Afghanistan -- or at least give him some more time to fight it -- he faces a foe more implacable than al Qaeda, or even the Taliban: Reality.

That reality, increasingly obvious to national security experts and the general public alike, is that no amount of good intentions or firepower is going to advance our fundamental interests in Afghanistan -- and that as much as Petraeus might be able to achieve in the next six months, or a year, little to none of it is sustainable and most of it is, even worse, counterproductive.

But what else can he do? He has to try to counter the Wikileaks documents dumps somehow, and prop up public support for the perpetual war, which was already sagging even before the Wikileaks revelations.

So this morning we were treated to the well-orchestrated kick-off of the Afghanistan Public Awareness Program, an informational service of the Defense Department's Office of Homeland Mood Elevation (OH-ME), which began with Petraeus as the lone guest on NBC's Meet the Press with Dancing Dave Gregory. Simultaneously, the AP published a stenographic (as opposed to "probing") interview with the general by Anne Flaherty, and a photographic montage of daily life as experienced by our troops in Afghanistan.

Who knows? They might also try dissolving a few tons of happy pills in the water supply.

This farcical P.R. campaign, worthy of Oceania's Ministry of Truth, replays the incessant muttering of war department propaganda that served as filler and background noise accompanying the screams-and-explosions sound track of the Vietnam disaster. We're led by idiots, as incapable of learning as they are of forgetting.


Concurrent with the Defense Department's propaganda campaign, a "technical indicator" known as "the Hindenburg Omen" showed up in the stock market on Tuesday and on numerous financial pages by yesterday. Widely feared as a signal which indicates an imminent, radical markets sell-off and loss of value, or crash, the omen isn't simple, but it's fairly easy to understand, and consists of these five objective criteria:

The daily number of NYSE new 52 Week Highs and the daily number of new 52 Week Lows must both be greater than 2.2 percent of total NYSE issues traded that day.

The smaller of these numbers is greater than or equal to 69 (68.772 is 2.2% of 3126). This is not a rule but more like a checksum. This condition is a function of the 2.2% of the total issues.

The NYSE 10-Week moving average is rising.

The McClellan Oscillator is negative on that same day.

New 52 Week Highs cannot be more than twice the new 52 Week Lows (however it is fine for new 52 Week Lows to be more than double new 52 Week Highs). This condition is absolutely mandatory.

It's all pretty straightforward except for the McClellan Oscillator, an arcane bit of financial inner-temple number crunching, but all you have to know about it to make sense of this is it's always either positive or negative.

In order for the omen to be validated it must appear again within 36 days of the first occurrence. If that happens, look out below.

So, in short, our empire is crashing and we're losing all our money. What's not to like?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

invisible man

Alvin Greene, my favoritest political candidate of the year, is under indictment in his home state of South Carolina, charged with showing a dirty pic to a coed.

One of the two charges Greene faces is a felony. If convicted, he'd be ineligible to hold any political office.

Greene is an unemployed military veteran who lives with his dad. He easily beat a Democratic hack named Vic Rawl in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate, despite the fact that he didn't run even the trace of a campaign, had no web site and no campaign organization, and appears to have very few opinions. About anything. He'll face the Republican incumbent Jim DeMint in November, if he lasts till then.

He's a man of few, or sometimes no words. In TV interviews he responds to questions by either staring blankly into the camera or giving one- or two-word responses. He would be absolutely perfect for the U.S. Senate, where the daily shouting into the news cameras, empty rhetoric, phony posturing, and narcissistic preening show the "world's greatest deliberative body" to be a clown riot.

Alvin would add nothing to that. He'd just be there, like a totem pole.

I hope these charges are dismissed, but it looks pretty bad for him. The alleged victim, who has been identified by her first name only, says she was fairly seriously traumatized when Alvin flashed the dirty pic at her on his computer and asked if she wanted to take him up to her dorm room. "It really scared me," she says, "and I still feel intimidated about that to this day."

There's also been some question about how Greene came up with the $10,440 filing fee to get into the primary, but the police say his claim that he saved his military pay for two years is backed up by bank records.

Last month Greene gave his first speech, 6-1/2-minute verbal tsunami in which he said he is in favor of jobs and education. It's good to know he's not against those things.

Friday, August 13, 2010

old-timey eats

There's a lot of wrangling in the arena of ideas these days about diet -- what's the best diet? the most supportive of optimum health? the most humane? the coolest, trendiest, and with-it-est?

I got to thinking about the impressive longevity of some of my not-so-distant ancestors, and what their diets were like. A lot of them lived in Kentucky, and I don't know for sure what they habitually ate, but I can guess. I would bet they ate a lot of things like rabbits, raccoons, possums, and squirrels -- especially squirrels -- to supplement their staple fare of bacon, beans, and cornbread, sometimes with molasses. Also quite a few chickens, along with corn, taters, onions, turnips, apples and peaches in season, and collard or mustard greens.

They most likely had eggs from the chickens they kept, and frequent breakfasts, lunches, and even dinners of biscuits and gravy, the white flour (Michael Pollan calls it "the original fast food") and fat-laden gravy made from meat drippings being two of the worst things in this largely home-made or foraged diet. But even the gravy, made from wild or home-grown meat, would not have been as bad as today's gravies made from the fat of factory-farmed animals.

Peach pie and apple pie in season would have been luxuries and special treats, ice cream (home-made, of course) a delicacy, gingerbread or bread pudding more usual desserts.

All in all, I think my Kentucky ancestors probably ate a better diet than most people in America today. There was no pizza and no processed food -- no Hot Pockets™, no Big Macs™. They worked real hard, lived a long time, got through the summers with no air conditioning and the winters with wood stoves or fireplaces, and frequently had schools of kids. They lived pretty much as people had for thousands of years and hundreds of generations before them, close to the earth, adapted to the climate, flora, fauna, and topography of where they happened to be. They had no running water in their homes, and no electricity. They may not have even known what electricity is.

Eventually one of my recent ancestors decided he wanted to leave Kentucky. Maybe he got into trouble, or maybe he just thought he could do better elsewhere. So then, as the old hills-of-Kentucky song* says:

Now he's long gone from old Kentucky;
Long gone -- ain't he lucky?

Not so lucky as it turned out, because he moved to Kansas.

Then came the twentieth century, and the human race, especially the American portion of it, decided we needed to make some serious progress, And that, also, was not so lucky, although our immediate ancestors had no way of knowing that.

*The Ballad of Long John Dean from Bowling Green.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

special delivery

The Marvelettes were the first big-time girl group to come out of Detroit. Actually, they came out of Inkster, from the high school in that Detroit suburb, where they finished fourth(!) in a school talent contest.

The school let them go to the big audition at new Motown Records studios anyway, even though only the first three finishers were supposed to go. The story becomes complex at that point, but the upshot is the girls were able to record "Please, Mr. Postman," released in the summer of '61 and subsequently at number one on all charts for seven weeks.

Even though this video is lip-synced, it's a rave. The song has few lyrics and no story -- it's not a narrative but a sweetheart's lament, delivered up-tempo and syncopated, like it was a celebration. Leadsinger Gladys Horton, at left in the photo, simply overpowers the vocal and wrestles it into submission, in a pound-'em-down-to-the-bricks performance.

For more on the complicated and chequered history of the Marvelettes, see the article at Wikipedia.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


I'm reading the newest contender right now, which is probably why I found myself reflecting this morning that the best dystopian novel among the many I've read over many years has got to be the little-known "In the Heart of the Valley of Love" by Cynthia Kadohata, which is still in print and still selling on Amazon. Two reasons I like it so well: no flying cars, and no androids.

What I had totally forgotten is how long it's been since I read it, when it was first published. Kadohata wrote "Heart of the Valley" nearly 20 years ago to forecast the feel and quality of American life in the middle of the 21st century. It's perfectly set in Los Angeles and the desert communities east of L.A., and portrays a society exactly like the one we're living in now, only more so.

"Before everything ran out of money, back at the beginning of the century, the government had started to build something in Southern California called the Sunshine System," we're told by Francie, the multiracial, multicultural teenage protagonist, "an ambitious series of highways and freeways that would link the whole area and eliminate traffic jams. They never finished the Sunshine, though, and the truncated roads arched over the landscape."

That not only sounds real, it is; I've seen that stump of one freeway overpassing another in Riverside.

If Kadohata's eye for the future is accurate, there will be no revolution, no cleansing reform, no relief from today's subtly repressive, propaganda-driven plutocracy. Corrupt, inept governments and police agencies harass and worry an impoverished and powerless mass of proles, mostly reduced to selling each other black market water, gasoline, cigarettes, and other necessities.

But there's good news. To some extent, people's ordinary, everyday lives go on as they always have. They fall in love, have hopes and aspirations, do what they can to better themselves, and work together in families and groups to enhance survival. They ride bikes and whatever buses are still running, and drive ancient, rusting vans and pickup trucks when they have to haul something and can get the gas. They also have to deal with extremes we don't witness today, but are perfectly feasible assuming there are no changes in the status quo in the near future: for example, an army of hundreds of homeless beggars marching down the middle of the Sunset Strip in broad daylight.

As in places like Nairobi or Mumbai or Tegucigalpa today, most people make most of their livings in an informal, semi-underground economy, as street vendors, black marketeers, delivery servicers, carters, lumpers, drivers, shoeshiners, tour guides, handymen and roustabouts, etc. And everybody buys and sells on the black market.

Francie, whose parents both died of lung cancer when she was 13 because "They'd probably both been exposed to a chemical or something," faces the bleak landscape stoically, enrolls in a community college, has ambitions and an aptitude for writing, and falls in love, like anyone living in any time. But she also finds features of her alien environment deeply disturbing, like the trucks, for even in 2050 the semis are still running.

"Those trucks scared me," she says. "I felt as if everything in the world was falling apart and yet the trucks kept driving. Every time we came out to the desert, there they were."

Cartoon: "Dystopia" by Michael Fitzjames of the Sydney Morning Herald. Click on the image for a larger view.

Monday, August 09, 2010

gone a long old time

I love the old songs that also serve as annotations on history. "White House Blues" concerns the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley by a frustrated job seeker who bore the wonderfully sinister name of Czolgosz, performed here by the great bluegrass banjoist and singer Charlie Poole and his North Carolina Ramblers. I don't know who the fiddler was, but he had a wonderful way with the final notes of many of the instrumental phrases. Not a blues strictly speaking, the song consists of rhymed couplets, each capped by one of several refrains.

McKinley was shot while shaking hands in a receiving line in Buffalo, NY. Czolgosz stood in the line with one hand wrapped in a bandage concealing the weapon. The assassination resulted in Vice-President Teddy Roosevelt assuming the highest office ("That damned cowboy" as one contemporary pundit called him), and the song also refers to Roosevelt's daughter Alice.

I've found that the best, most edifying way to listen to these old chestnuts is to open a second browser window, then call up the YouTube video and play it while reading the lyrics. You can either click the link and use the second window to re-access this site, or stay here and call up YouTube in the second window and key "White House Blues" into the search function. You'll want the first item on the results page.


McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled
Doc said "McKinley, I can't find that ball."
From Buffalo to Washington.

Roosevelt in the White House, he's doin' his best;
McKinley in the graveyard, he's takin' his rest,
He's gone, a long, long time.

Hush up little children, now don't you fret;
You'll draw a pension at your papa's death,
From Buffalo to Washington.

Roosevelt in the White House takin' Alice to her cup;
McKinley in the graveyard, he'll never wake up;
He's gone, long old time.

Ain't but one thing that grieves my mind,
That is to die and leave my poor wife behind,
I'm gone, a long old time.

Looky here little children, don't you fret;
You'll draw a pension at your papa's death,
From Buffalo to Washington.

Standing at the station, just lookin' at the time;
See if I could run it by half past nine
From Buffalo to Washington.

Then the train, she's just on time,
She run about a mile's far 'tween eight o' clock and nine,
From Buffalo to Washington.

Yonder come the train, she's comin down the line,
Slowin' every station, Mr. McKinley's a-dyin',
It's hard times, hard times.

Lookit here, you rascal, you see what you've done?
You shot my husband with that Iver Johnson gun,
Can't (unintelligible) to Washington

Doc told the horse, he tore down his mane,
Said to that horse, "You got to outrun this train."
From Buffalo to Washington.

Doc (unintelligible) his remedy, takes off his fix,
Said, "Mr. McKinley, Better pass in your checks,
You're bound to die, bound to die."

Sunday, August 08, 2010

more books to read

Chalmers Johnson, international relations professor, a former CIA consultant, and author of the "Blowback" trilogy, has a new volume coming out shortly. Like the "Blowback" series, it's published by the American Empire Project, the brain child of radical columnist Tom Engelhardt.

"Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope" will be available at Amazon and elsewhere on August 17.

I enjoyed all three titles in the trilogy ("Blowback," "The Sorrows of Empire," and "Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic"), but found them somewhat redundant. If a person was to just read one of the three, I'd suggest "Sorrows."

I like Noam Chomsky, but find him hard to read. He sometimes goes off on tangents, and tends to be all over the map. Johnson's geopolitical orientation is similar to Chomsky's, but he's a better writer. His style is formal, very old school, and classically organized, moving methodically from one outlined point to next.

I hope the new book is a how-to manual, with detailed instructions and pictures. I'm usually pretty good at following instructions, especially if I have a diagram to work from.

Photo: Chalmers Johnson (r.) and friend.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

not unsilly

The morose looking chap at left is Henry James, the author of the celebrated short novel "The Turn of the Screw," and other tedious, over-written novels and stories.

"Turn of the Screw" was a product of the late 19th century, when late Victorian artists and writers were overloading their productions with endless ornamentation, bric-a-brac, gingerbread, and curlicues. I'd heard of the story, of course, and was familiar with the standard critical appraisal of James as a "master" fiction sylist. I was never motivated to actually read the thing until I discovered that my friend the perfesser once wrote a book, now out of print and selling for big bucks on Amazon, analyzing the historical context in which "Turn of the Screw" was conceived as a way of dealing with the two major conflicting interpretations of it, and rendering an authoritative judgment on which interpretation has greater merit.

I don't want to broach that subject here, however, except to say there might not have been conflicting interpretations of the story if its author had communicated it a little more effectively. But Mr. James, who admitted in his correspondence that he built the story using a formula (a blueprint, as it were) was thus freed to concentrate entirely on style, which is throughout this tiresome potboiler characterized by inscrutable subtlety, sentences built on double and triple negative statements, indirect references, and a scrupulous avoidance of straight answers.

It concerns a governess, one of those 19th-century nursemaid/tutors, who is sent to care for a young girl and her brother in a haunted house. The ghosts of two domestics formerly employed in the place are the story's spooks and villains. This pair was apparently sexually involved when alive, although their physical liason, like everything else in this sweaty, overworked tale is implied by the author and inferred by the reader rather than stated directly. Nothing here is ever stated directly.

For example, when the governess tells her confidante in the household, a lower-status female domestic, about a conversation she had with the female ghost, the confidante asks if the apparition actually spoke. "It came to that," the governess replies, which probably means "She might as well have spoken, but she didn't literally speak real words," although we can't be absolutely sure. Events, people, and conversations throughout the story are slippery, evasive, vague, and all but impossible to nail down. I'm sure the author intended this effect, and thought it enormously clever in its subtlety.

All the unselfconscious hysteria of late Victorianism is here, from the fear of sex to the intolerable sentimentality in James's descriptions of the children to the love of evasion and attendant dislike of straightforward, blunt observation. I wasn't able to finish this root canal of a story, but I read enough of it to feel astonished when comparing it to, say, the stunning clarity of style exhibited in Defoe's first-person fictional narrative "Moll Flanders," that Anglo-American literary standards could have become so thoroughly degraded over the relatively short span of 200 years.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

crazy & violent

Dealing with crazy and violent people as a routine daily chore is very much an urban thing.

We know there are violent psychotics in rural as well as urban settings, because from time to time there is news of someone out in the sticks running amuck and shooting a bunch of his neighbors. But such people and such encounters, more common in the country than before because of the spread of methamphetamine, are still legion only in the city, where facing or avoiding dangerous freaks, supplied like props from central casting, is a skill all experienced urban hands have mastered.

I expected that kind of confrontation during yesterday's big adventure, when I rode buses downtown to the Westlake Tunnel to buy a senior citizen's bus pass. But the Westlake Tunnel was full of "normies" -- nobody scary in there. It's a pleasant, attractive place decorated with bright murals, where buses move in and out like taxicabs, alternating with beautiful, long white trains, which glide to a stop silently then, seemingly without effort, glide on like benevolent ghosts.

Returning to Northgate by the way I'd come, I stopped by Barnes and Noble to buy a book, and decided to walk the two miles home. No dangerous encounters so far. But then, when almost home, on 109th about a block west of Aurora Ave., there he was, standing in the intersection threatening passing cars with a length of pipe. The sound of his voice hollering at drivers who ignored him, avoiding eye contact as they wheeled past, told me that alcohol was playing its usual part in this loser's psychosis.

I avoided eye contact too, but decided not to cross the street to evade him, which would have signaled fear. Instead I tightly gripped the handle of the briefcase I was carrying as I walked within a couple feet of him. It contained three fairly large, heavy books, which if swung at arms length would broadside a human head with enough force to take an assailant off his feet. But he ignored me since I wasn't driving, and possibly because I didn't show any signs of intimidation.

That's always the first rule of such encounters: don't ask for or initiate a confrontation, but show no fear.

Illustration by Mark Khaisman: translucent packing tape on clear plexiglass.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

creeping UN-ism

The Republican candidate for governor in Colorado has sounded a warning: promoting bicycle riding threatens our personal freedoms.

From today's Denver Post:

Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes is warning voters that Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper's policies, particularly his efforts to boost bike riding, are "converting Denver into a United Nations community."

"This is all very well-disguised, but it will be exposed," Maes told about 50 supporters who showed up at a campaign rally last week in Centennial.

Maes said in a later interview that he once thought the mayor's efforts to promote cycling and other environmental initiatives were harmless and well-meaning. Now he realizes "that's exactly the attitude they want you to have."

"This is bigger than it looks like on the surface, and it could threaten our personal freedoms," Maes said.

Got that? Promoting radical ideas like riding a bicycle to work instead of driving your car is going to turn us into a bunch of "United Nations" communities, These under-the-radar socialists are attempting, in Maes's words, "to put the environment above citizens' rights."

Right you are, Mr. Maes. We definitely are going after your personal freedom and the political establishment's "rights" to serve as an accessory to degradation of the environment and promote the oil companies' exploitation of us, you asshole.

This 1941 map shows Seattle's comprehensive and efficient electric trolley system, later torn up at the behest of the automobile manufacturers of Detroit, the oil refiners of Oklahoma and Texas, and the rubber barons of Akron. It would be simple justice if all those streets were now converted to bike-and-pedestrian trails and closed to auto traffic.

The revolution won't be One Big Confrontation. Instead, it will take a thousand different forms, small, nonviolent underminings of the tyranny of institutionalized exploitation which has enslaved us gradually over the years, a little bit at a time.

In the words of David Crosby:

"Wooden ships on the water -- very free and easy...
Silver people on the shoreline, let us be...
We are leaving; you don't need us."

Click on the image for a larger view, then click again to embiggen even further.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

books to read

Not too many of us read books any more, and even those who do, I'm convinced, are reading fewer of them.

However, here's a new book I think just about everybody who reads is going to want to enjoy. I heard of it for the first time last evening when I saw an ad for it on the inside back cover of the new (August 2) New Yorker. Five minutes later I opened the Seattle Times and my eye fell on a review of it. I read that, then turned on the radio to listen to NPR's Fresh Air, and Terry Gross's interview subject was -- you guessed it -- Gary Shteyngart.

He's an interesting guy; brought here by his parents at age seven from the disintegrating Soviet Union -- this was 1989 -- and enrolled in what he calls a "horrible" Hebrew School in Queens. The protagonist of "Super Sad" has a lot in common with Gary Shteyngart.

Needless to say, I haven't read it yet, but I can't wait. The novel sounds to be a narrative of a dysfunctional romance set against the background of a crumbling, chaotic but nevertheless highly oppressive near-future USA. One reviewer on Amazon says:

Everyone is plugged in to their "apparats," mobile devices that tether them to their cyber realities. As pedestrians walk the streets of New York City their credit ratings continually appear on poles alongside the sidewalks. The USA is mired in debt but the consumerist orgy is never ending. China completely owns us. We produce nothing.

Is this sounding familiar? The National Guard has set up checkpoints everywhere. These soldiers are all from the south. Racism and fear are rampant. Citizens are asked to pretend that none of this is happening.

The ruling political authority in this day-after-tomorrow America is the Bi-Partisan Party, an entity which, while it doesn't exist formally yet, already describes the reality of the situation. Dystopian near-future writing is usually a sly caricature of the present, and a satire on it.

Monday, August 02, 2010

veg out

The carnivore-vegetarian debate is one of the several themes of the larger problem we all face. How do we find peace of mind in a violent world?

It's impossible to completely eliminate violence from our lives. Even the smallest movement implies friction and overcoming inertia. Even the primitive hunter-gatherer commits violent acts such as killing, harvesting, slashing and burning, though he/she lives more harmoniously on the earth than any other type of person. So the question becomes, "How much violence is acceptable?"

Just for myself, I've decided that driving a car to a burger joint and having a hamburger, perfectly normal behaviors in a contemporary industrialized society, consists of two acts, both of which are unacceptably violent.

We all want to do things which will enhance our lives and make us feel better, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Fine tuning the delicate instrument of the self requires in-depth perception of the consequences of every little thing we do, and the unexamined life is a heedlessly unconscious one. A fool might think he's having a good time, according to the Buddha, but when the consequences of his foolishness begin to pile up "how bitterly he suffers."

Consider cats (and some humans), who are unable to understand the disastrous consequences for themselves of uncontrolled breeding. Their increase in numbers quickly outstrips the capacity of their habitat to support their lives.

Consider the "advanced" human beings of the modern industrialized world, who are just now beginning to understand the many consequences of using widespread industrial techniques of production and modes of consumption, including consumption of factory-farmed animals.

I'm convinced that if we fully understood and acknowledged these consequences and the effect they have on our ecological, social, and individual existence, we'd all be vegetarian.

Life today in the kind of society we live in is extremely complicated and hard to understand. We're all mentally conditioned by the institutions of this society -- its governments and educational establishments and corporate enterprises -- to accept "the way things are." The nature of reality has always been elusive (see Lao Tszu); perceiving it while living in our present circumstances is harder than ever. Doing so requires overcoming the social conditioning we're all subjected to. But if we fail to understand it, we amplify our own suffering, as well as the suffering of other creatures, human and non.

Philip K. Dick, the science fiction writer and mad philosopher of California, once said that reality is that thing which, "when you stop believing in it, it doesn't go away."

Sunday, August 01, 2010

now how much will you pay?

And the debate rages.

Everybody's wondering, if Obama's revised tax plan is adopted, will it cost me more than I'm paying now?

Fox News and the Republicans say we'll all be on the hook for more money if the Obama plan goes through. Liberals and the Democrats say only gazillionaires will be affected.

This handy, dandy chart, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal (of all places) which I schnorred from Barry Ritholtz's econ blog, The Big Picture, will tell you, and removes all doubt.

get it together

Can we talk? About human waste, I mean.

It's a bigger deal than most realize. Freeing ourselves from chemical fertilizers is a major part of ending our enslavement to the oil corporations. The humble honey-bucket will help immensely with this.

We really need to get our shit together.

Mud houses, sculpted and free of straight lines and right angles, made out of the earth itself, and composting toilets -- I'm convinced this is the future.

Take a look.

The Romans invented concrete and professional sports spectacles. Those were their contributions to civilization, such as it is, but now it's time to say "Good-Bye to All That."

I've never been to Stoke-on-Kent, where I hear concrete is all you see. Not a tree to be found, but I should like to go one time. There is some great graffiti to see in England. Banksy is there, celebrating the decline of the industrial age.


Reagan was part cowboy. He was multi-cultural before multi-cultural was cool.

However, Mrs Reagan is definitely not cow-girl.

Cowgirls don't consult astrologers.