Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Thoughts on Olbermann & Weiner

Hey Vig,

Recently, I heard Thom Hartmann, or one of his guests, explain why the Democratic party has no backbone, and continues to be so easily manipulated by the Republican'ts: the Democrats are behaving as a battered spouse behaves, after having been emotionally and physically beaten to a bloody pulp: the battering they experienced was the Republican't impeachment proceedings they brought against Bill Clinton.

Tonight, I heard Keith Olbermann's moving Comment about his dad and his plea that Congress think about what would help our country rein in healthcare's out-of-control costs, rather than what would be most politically expedient for their re-election chances.

Democrats MUST pass an effective cost-controlling healthcare bill which includes, at the very least, a viable public option and at best which opens up Medicare to younger people.

Keith Olbermann's comment on behalf of his father moved me to tears tonight.

Anthony Weiner, Democratic Congressman of New York moved me to cheers.

We need more Democrats to find their inner Anthony Weiner and dare to speak the truth out loud, with conviction and passion as Congressman Weiner did so inspiringly tonight.

We desperately need Senators and Congress-persons who will put personal gain aside in the interests of saving our country from the imminent demise of everything that once made America the land of possibility and hope. After the past eight years of the Busheney reign of terror and destruction inflicted upon our citizens, America is become a has-been debtor nation, which is down for the count as, incredibly, the Republican'ts lead Obama and the Congress around by their noses. Unbelievable, but true.

Thanks for being here, Vig, and providing a place to say what is on our hearts...

Saturday, February 20, 2010

How Much Does It Cost to Kill a Marine vs a Taliban?

The evocative term for the level of spending on a war is burn rate.

In Afghanistan, the burn rate is estimated to exceed $10 million an hour, or more than $8 billion a month. Much of that is literally burned — in the engines of American jeeps, trucks, tanks, aircraft and power generators. On average, each of the 183,000 soldiers currently deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq requires 22 gallons of fuel a day, according to a study by the international accounting firm Deloitte.

Because of a difficult and dangerous supply line that runs more than 1,200 miles through Pakistan, fuel for the troops in Afghanistan is considerably more expensive than for those in Iraq: an average of $48 per gallon counting the cost of transport and protection. Flown by helicopter to positions on remote Afghan front lines, the cost can reach $400 per gallon.

Which helps explain why Afghanistan “is one of the most expensive, perhaps the most expensive, war in U.S. history on a per troop basis,” says Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank. His estimate of the cost per year of a soldier deployed in Afghanistan this year matches the number used by the White House – around $1 million. (The Pentagon says is it is less.)

The staggering cost of the war highlights an aspect of asymmetric warfare which is worth noting: the insurgent has a huge advantage on the financial front. While a Marine Corps combat brigade, for example, burns up around 500,000 gallons of fuel a day (or $24 million, at an average of $48 per gallon), the marines’ insurgent enemies use a tiny fraction of that. They ride around in pickup trucks, or walk. They do not move in Humvees that average four miles per gallon.

The cost-benefit advantage the insurgents enjoy in combat occasionally features on jihadist websites. One video clip makes the point that an improvised explosives device that costs $30 to make can knock out a $3.2 million Bradley Armored Fighting Vehicle.

Both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have so far been financed with borrowed money that makes up part of the country’s deficit. The 2009 budget year, which ended in September, set an all-time high with $1.42 trillion. In 2010, it is expected to reach close to $1.5 trillion.

One way or the other, it’s difficult to see how the administration could balance the books in the absence of a war tax – an idea pushed by several influential Democrats – or painful cuts elsewhere at a time of high unemployment (10 percent) and economic hardship for millions of Americans.

Does that mean the United States is drawing closer to a tipping point, a level of military overstretch and indebtedness that sapped empires in the past?

In an essay at the beginning of the year, a few days before Obama took office, the Harvard historian Paul Kennedy, author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, commented that no country on earth had,
anywhere like the staggering array of overseas military commitments and deployments” as the U.S. . . . . more and more that state of international indebtedness we historians associate with the reigns of Philip II of Spain and Louis XIV of France…
If Obama read that, he should have been worried. Under the reign of Philip II from 1556 to 1598, Spain reached the peak of its power, a global empire controlling territories from Europe and the Americas to Asia. It sank to second-rate status through a combination of factors that included wars and massive foreign debt. Louis XIV was involved in four big wars and on his death in 1715, left France deep in debt.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Blogs vs. Books

I've had this column stacked with piles of newspapers in the corner of one room or another for a couple of months. Finding it today, it struck me an opportune time to boost it up, what with Vigilante gone. Whatever.

by Pico Iyer
It was already clear, in December of 1999, that books were a dying species. Already more people seemed interested in producing novels than consuming them, and when it came to serious works, there seemed more fascination with the writer than the writing. Books, I heard from two serious, bewildered editors in New York on the same trip, were now part of the "entertainment industry," and a first-time novelist was as likely to be judged on the power of his author photo as on the character of his content. If, 10 years before, one might have read Joan Didion's earlier work before listening to her or meeting her, now one was more likely to read her Google entries, everything that had been said about her, everything that she had said in idle moments. The days of YouTube, and judging an author, as well as her work, on her cover seemed already imminent.

Even so, I don't think I could have guessed, 10 years ago, how very quickly the icon and the image, in every sense of those new-century words, would erase so much that had been building for centuries. Memory is now seen in computer terms at least as often as in human ones, and blogging has set into accelerating motion a revolution in the very way we think of "reading" and "writing." The global village has certainly produced a village commons -- you might as well call it the Internet -- but its rules and features seem much more those of a global city, a fractured, violent and screaming inner city expanded to the size of a planet.

In December 1999, ignoring global panic about Y2K, I took my mother to Easter Island to remind myself how even at the dawning of the 21st century there were places, many of them, where nothing was so rare as a piece of wood. Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, I don't think I ever imagined that those of us in the free-ish world would fall so quickly under the tyranny of the Moment. So much of our time, already, is contracted to the point of right now, that we're locked, more and more, inside the windowless cell of the Present. Tiger Woods the hero seems ancient history already, and the latest convulsions in the Jon-and-Kate story, broadcast with every tremor, ensure that we're trapped inside the latest millisecond.

It's as if space has miraculously expanded, thanks to satellites and airplanes and Skype; but time has terrifyingly constricted, to this second that's just vanished. Movies, more than ever, are made (or unmade) by their opening weekend; books last about as long as their first review or appearance on Jon Stewart, whichever comes first. In the old days, bands might be only as good as their last album; now they're only as good as their last concert, which was probably webcast last night so you could see everything of U2 except what you love about them. The obituaries for our new president and his vision began on Jan. 21, 2009.

As planned obsolescence moves at the speed of light -- in Japan, where I write this, the "Royal Milk Tea"-flavored KitKat I fell in love with last week is already gone from the shelves -- I sometimes think that all we hunger for is liberation from the moment, and anything that will release us from the swarming, cacophonous, surround-sound, 24/7 dictatorship of Right Now. So long as we are human, we will always long for touching that part of ourselves -- or of one another and our world -- that doesn't have a date-stamp on it.

So might books actually have a reason for being after all? A few days ago, I conducted a small experiment in my two-room apartment here in rural Japan. I spent two hours clicking through what are among the most literary and unhurried of the alternatives to books, the online versions of the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. I came away with delectable snippets of information about Richard Holbrooke, American schools and the Obama campaign. I could talk now about any of these matters of current interest at a dinner-party with three minutes' worth of wisdom. But I also felt, as I logged off, a little as I did when I worked four blocks from Times Square: wildly stimulated, excitingly up-to-the-moment, alive with ideas -- and with no time or space to hear myself think.

Then I picked up a novel a friend had just given me, the not very remarkable Swiss book "Night Train to Lisbon." It's a long way from Virginia Woolf or Emily Dickinson, and it didn't begin to hold me as Alice Munro or Colm Tóibín might. But when I looked up from my reading, I'd forgotten what time it was, my self and my life seemed much larger -- and it was as if I'd stepped out of a traffic-jammed car on the 405 at 5 p.m. on a Friday and into a deep forest rich with secrets.

Define happiness, someone asked me recently. Absorption, I said instantly (it was an e-mail interview), and anything that gives me an inner life and a sense of spaciousness, intimacy and silence. The world is much better for many of us now than it was 10 years ago, and I never could have dreamed so many of us would have so many kinds of diversion, excitement and information at our fingertips.

But information cannot teach the use of information. And diversion doesn't teach us concentration. Imagine a seven-hour-long heart-to-heart with someone who's been saving up all her life for what she's about to whisper in your ear. The medium that has been dying the whole century may be one way we can rebel against the hidden dictatorship of Right Now.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Saturday, February 13, 2010

News Item: Islamic Scholars Oppose Full Transparency in Airline Travel

A group of scholars that advise Muslims in North America on the application of Islamic law has declared the full body scanners being introduced at airports to be a violation of their religion's teachings.

In what the Detroit Free Press has described as a fatwa, although the scholars do not use that term themselves, the Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA) this week issued a statement which said that the "general and public use" of full body scanners is "against the teachings of Islam, natural law and all religions and cultures that stand for decency and modesty". Emphasizing that it "fully supports the necessary measures for the safety and protection of all passengers" and "appreciates the alternate provision of pat-down search (when needed)" the FCNA stated:
It is a violation of clear Islamic teachings that men or women be seen naked by other men and women. Islam highly emphasizes ‘haya’ (modesty) and considers it part of faith. The Qur’an has commanded the believers, both men and women, to cover their private parts. Human beings are urged to be modest in their dress
Further emphasis was placed on the fact that "extreme necessity" can result in an "exception to this rule". The FCNA's origins lie with the Muslim Students Association of the United States and Canada and is a body with strong links to the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). The Indiana-based FCNA also suggests that "software should be designed to produce only the picture of questionable materials on an outline of the body". Support for the statement has come from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an organization which operates independently in the U.S. and Canada. Nihad Awad is the Executive Director and co-founder of CAIR in the U.S. and he is quoted by the Detroit Free Press as saying:
We support the Fiqh Council’s statement on full-body scanners and believe that the religious and privacy rights of passengers can be respected while maintaining safety and security
For the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) spokesman Jim Fotenos advised that with 40 full-body scanners already in use at 19 airports in the U.S., there are plans to install a further 450. Noting that passengers may refuse a full body scan, in which case a private pat-down search would be conducted, Mr Fotenos indicated that the images produced by the scanners are "like chalk outlines”. He said:
TSA's use of these technologies includes strong protections in place to safeguard passenger privacy. Screening images are automatically deleted, and the officer viewing the image will never see the passenger
Security at airports and on planes has once more become the focus of much attention following the attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on December 25. Body scanners form a part of increased security measures introduced or due to be introduced following that incident and their arrival is being opposed by more than just religious groups such as the FCNA. The New York Daily News says that civil libertarians have voiced their displeasure at the prospect of full-body scanners becoming a regular part of airport security. While the Telegraph reported back in January that the Equality and Human Rights Commission had written to the British Home Secretary Alan Johnson to express its unease with the scanners being introduced in the U.K.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


It's a risky business, panning a movie before one sees it. The honest truth is that at this stage of my life, I have less discretionary time to journey out to theaters in an experimental mode. The same is true as far as renting DVD's via NetFlix. Consequently, I rely heavily on reviews and my own steel-trap mind with its iron-clad judgments.

Sometimes, under the pressure of impending Oscar (and others) Awards , I defy both critics and my intuition and take on a sure loser, as I did recently with Inglorious Basterds. That pathetic experience reinforced confidence in my own infallible judgment. I won't make the same mistake - going against my expectations and critics' judgment - on Avatar. I don't have to see this "epic" to know how modest I will find its marrow.

Lara Gardner, an attorney and critic in Portland, recently published her review of Avatar, Not the Best Picture. Excerpts flow below:

. . . . Why is it that if a movie is filled with spectacular special effects it is considered a best picture candidate?

Asking this question is some evidence that I think a best picture is one that actually contains characters who show some complexity, or a story that is unique in some way beyond what the film looks like. I simply do not consider as best picture a movie that is unique only on a visual scale. There were so many deliciously brilliant films this year, I'm frustrated that a film whose only merit is visual is sweeping the awards yet again.

If Avatar had been set on earth, with humans riding horses in their beautifully lush jungle, the imperialists coming to destroy the land for profit, it simply would not have been possible best-picture fodder. I doubt it would barely climb out of B-movie-land. The story has been told, and it has been told better. The Mission comes to mind. Even Australia, which had some predictability and overwrought elements, but visually stunning panoramas, was a better film. At least it attempted character development.

However, Avatar is a visually stunning movie, and for that reason alone, everyone is going to see it and it is winning awards. Give us a few years and its effects will not be quite so grand after we've seen the same sort of thing a few hundred times. Remember Jurassic Park? The first time I saw that movie I was awestruck. I saw it again recently and while it is moderately entertaining, the dinosaurs are no longer quite so spectacular because I have seen giant CGI creatures so often, I am used to them. Not such a thrill these days.

Halfway through Avatar I was already frustrated by its bland formula and dialogue. The characters on Pandora lacked anything unusual other than what they looked like. Sure, James Cameron spent years creating this "other world," but that world certainly looked awfully earth-like to me. The characters were prototypical natives, down to their bare feet, the beads in their hair, and feathers in their arrows. There is the tribal chief queen and the royal children destined for marriage. There is the natives' intrinsic harmony with that land. And let's not forget their natural-world deity (native Americans, anyone?). Even their alien steeds, both land and air versions, look like horses -- albeit with some extra legs and wings, and reins that could connect to their riders' minds. Yes, in some of the details, the Na'vi were clearly aliens, but nothing about them was unique to the point they were unrecognizable as fundamentally human, something one might expect would occur on a planet somewhere far from earth.

And the human characters, don't even get me started. They were such caricatures, I could hardly stand to watch some of them. The bad guys were Very Bad. We knew they would be Very Bad the moment they showed up onscreen. The early dialogue in the film was unrealistic, managing to give us all the background we needed in the span of ten minutes. Hyper bad Marine colonel. Check. Scientist who wants to save Pandora and empathizes with the natives. Check. Evil corporate greedy guy. Check. Main character who will save the day. Check. Sexy native woman who is won over by main character. Check. And on and on. None of them had any depth beyond a mud puddle.

I suppose I should not be surprised that a picture so visually breathtaking while simultaneously lacking any depth is considered by many to be the best picture of the year. Spectacle seems to be the theme in so much of America these days. Rather than intelligent debate regarding complex issues, politics has been reduced to screaming sound bites and accusations. The worse the behavior, the more attention it gets. Reality television has mostly replaced anything resembling more complex programming. Spectacularly bad behavior replays constantly where the most loud and obnoxious wins, at least to the extent that the winner gets their face plastered all over the tabloids, their hideous behavior played out ad nauseam.

I liked Avatar. I did. I was moderately entertained when I wasn't squirming in my seat at the made-for-t.v. movie dialogue. The visual effects were cool. But I just can't see it as a best-picture candidate. Best means superlative of good, surpassing all others in excellence. Avatar may be the best today for visual effects, but in all other areas it was barely average. No matter how you cut it this just isn't what a best picture should be.
That's what a great review should be. That, and my infallible judgment, tells me to wait - several years even - for the DVD.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Tea Party Spellers

You gotta love 'em! I do!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Sunday, February 7, 2010

America's Team

Al, we kept the faith.

The club was silent whenever the other guys scored.

When the Saints scored?

You couldn't hear yourself think!

Friday, February 5, 2010

News Item From Afghanistan

Massacre at Dog Fight

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- A motorcycle bomb struck a crowd watching a dog fight Friday in southern Afghanistan, killing at least three people and wounding more than two dozen others.

The blast on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province, came as U.S. Marines and their NATO and Afghan allies are poised to launch a major offensive against the Taliban in the area.

The explosives-packed motorcycle was parked near the dog fight, according to deputy provincial police chief Kamal Uddin.

Health Department director Dr. Inayat Ullah Ghafari confirmed the casualty toll, saying seven children were among the 26 wounded.

Dog fighting was forbidden under the Taliban regime but has emerged as a popular pastime in many parts of Afghanistan after the hard-line Islamist movement was ousted in 2001.

Such competitions have been targeted in the past. More than 100 people were killed in a suicide bombing at a dog fight in the southern city of Kandahar.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

"United Corporations of America"?

How does that sound to you?
"...that we here highly resolve . . . 
that government of the people corporations
by the people corporations
for the people corporations
shall not perish from the earth.

Thus, the Gang of Five in SCOTUS used Citizens United v Federal Election Commission (CU-FEC) to turn Lincoln's Gettysburg Address on its head. This is a wake-up call for me.

The only easy way out of growing corporate control of American politics and governance is denial. Pretend, as I have for so long, that they're just part of the moving ballast in American politics. As I used to say,

Corporations are just a given part of the American political environment. Just accept corporations as part of the topography and terrain. All they do is tilt the playing field in the Democratic-Republican bowl so it's not quite level. That's all. Get used to it.
Now I see that I was wrong; as wrong as I could be. It's not that corporate establishment represents the topography over which the Democrats and Republicans contest. It's the reverse. It's more like the Democrats and the Republicans occupy front stage in a puppet theater while hidden corporate hands pull the strings. We, the people, think we're activists; actually we are just 'actors'. Actually, puppets.

A blogger who I am reading more and more these days, explained it to me. Curt Day, who calls himself a politically extreme moderate, asked the rhetorical question: The Road To A Corporate Republic: Are We There Yet?

And his answer is that we are well on our way:

It is easy for those of us on the Left to overreact to the latest Supreme Court decision on the appeal of Citizens United v Federal Election Commission (CU-FEC) to overturn limits put on corporate donations to political campaigns. After all, the actions of our government make it all too obvious that corporate interests already outweigh public interests. Wars, bailouts, deregulation, and the lack of enforcement of current laws show that corporations count while people do not. Currently, our government takes care of corporations while expecting us to live off of their benevolence. Thus, what we have is a democracy, once-removed.

For Corporations to keep their preferred status with our government, they must silence potential critics and foes. This silencing is not done through force by muting protesters, but by anaesthetizing and inoculating the public from the virus of dissent by creating dependence. Enough must be made dependent on corporations so as to relegate criticism. We should note that if at this point, you replace corporations with government, you get the Conservative definition of Socialism.
I don't know what Day means by this. Conservatives think of socialism as a four-letter word. Does the author mean that, in order for socialism to be acceptable, government must engage in corporate socialism or corporate welfare? That must be what he means. Since corporations are now deemed as persons, it's not a far reach to see them expecting to collect welfare checks.

Cay continues,

We should also note that Conservatives do not object to the inevitable authoritarian rule that comes from such dependence as long as those in charge come from elite pockets of the private sector known as "The Achievers." In addition, we should realize the danger that the Left sees in this private sector authoritarianism. That danger is that corporate rulers are not accountable to the public through elections. The Conservative response is "Duh, that is why we call it a Republic."

The two parties which must be made dependent on corporations are government officials and citizens. It is obvious how government officials are made dependent on the government; it is through bribes both legal and illegal. Legal bribes come from lobbyists and the benefits they bestow. Other legal bribes come in the form of job offers after one's government service is finished. But perhaps the primary way our elected officials were made dependent on Corporations is through campaign financing. If candidates cannot not win elections without corporate financing while they can win without public financing, then corporations own the candidates--regardless of their political party affiliation. Note that votes are secondary to selecting our Congressmen and Presidents because the voters are so blindly committed to supporting a two-party system.
Here I feel compelled, as I have so often before, enter my skepticism about the plausibility of salvation by 3rd party. I don't think voters are blindly committed to a two-party system. Most voters I know, vote for 'the lesser of two evils': if there were a 3rd party, they would merely vote for the least of three evils. But the real problem with freedom of political speech & press being  guaranteed to corporations by the SCOTUS, is that any 3rd party would eventually resort to corporate patronage as soon as it attained prominence. The more plausible a 3rd party became as an alternative to one or both of the traditional parties, the more it would seek and find corporate sponsorships. Any 3rd party will eventually become infected with the same corporate virus which afflicts the current parties.

Day continues,

Corporate ownership of our candidates have been threatened in two ways this millennium. The first threat came through campaign finance reform that "limited" what corporations could provide. The second threat came in the 2004 Democratic primary races. Howard Dean was raising substantial support from individuals through the internet. If candidates became financially dependent on the public, they would no longer be under corporate control. Thus, we have the just recent lawsuit and Supreme Court decision that removed the anchor that weighed down and kept corporate ownership of candidates from soaring.

This Supreme Court decision neither introduced anything new nor did it provide an ominous sign for the future. Rather, this Supreme Court decision merely nipped a possible problem in the bud, it stopped citizen influence over elected officials before it could get started. With a compliant and conforming electorate, all that is left for corporations to control government is to put them on the payroll. Once that is done, government will then pass the necessary legislation that allows a net profit to result from this venture. We should also note that once corporations can up the ante in campaign contributions, the resulting rising costs of such campaigns will remove them from depending on individual contributions--though such contributions will always be accepted in order to boost the egos of the contributors by making them feel like they were a significant part of the election.
As Day suggests, the danger was present all along. Now, as a result of CU-FEC, the process of corporate takeover of American politics will only accelerate. Soon corporate hegemony will become 'too big to fail'; if it is not already. Somehow it must be stopped in its tracks. Reversing CU-FEC is a number one priority.

It can only be done through a constitutional amendment. As Robert L. Borosage says today in Taking Elections Back From the Corporations and the Constitution Back from the Gang of Five, what is needed is,

A broad coalition of groups are joining together to push the drive for the amendment ...

This should lead to campaigns in every state to pass the amendment - and force legislators to decide which side they are on: Should corporations be guaranteed the same free speech rights as American citizens?

The Supreme Court's decision - imposed by the gang of five activist conservative justices - is wrong on the law, wrong on the history, wrong on the principles of a Republic (as opposed to the interests of Republicans). Scorning decades of precedent, and dozens of settled federal and state laws, the right-wing majority imposed a power-grab every bit as egregious as the decision in Bush v Gore that made Bush president by shutting down the vote count in Florida.

If citizens begin to understand the stakes, then this decision may well backfire on the Gang of Five and their conservative allies.
All the more reason, I say, to get this ball rolling immediately. Kudos for Congresswoman Donna Edwards for her early response:

Here's the Text of the 28th Amendment:


‘‘SECTION 1. The sovereign right of the people to govern being essential to a free democracy, Congress and the States may regulate the expenditure of funds for political speech by any corporation, limited liability company, or other corporate entity.
‘‘SECTION 2. Nothing contained in this Article shall be construed to abridge the freedom of the press.’’

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Captions, Please?

This billboard sign is located in Wyoming , MN heading south on 35 just before the Wyoming exit on the east side just before Stars & Strikes bowling alley.