Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Jimmy Carter's controversial book about Israel and Palestine

On Christmas Day, 1954 as I recall, at the age of 11, that all but one present that I got for Christmas was a book. I got maybe fifteen books that year. At the time, "the family" was going to church at the Jewish Community Center on 16th St in Washington while the new First Baptist Church facility at 16th and O was being built, to open Christmas Day, 1955.

Jimmy Carter has certainly inspired some controversy with one questionable word in the title of his latest book. I already talked about the issue on my movies blog with the review of Jonathan Demme’s “Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains” in November, here.

The book is "Palestine: Peace, not Apartheid." The publication details are as follows: New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. ISBN 0-7432-8502-6 Historical Chronology, 17 Chapters, 7 appendices, indexed. 264 pages, hardcover.

The book is largely chronological, and Carter discusses all of the detailed series of negotiations and conflicts over the years. He prefaces the book with a history-text chronology of the area, and clarifies that, while Britain promised a Jewish homeland in 1917 with the Balfour Declaration, Britain was quite queasy about what would really happen with such a homeland until it turned the leash over to the United Nations and the state of Israel came into being in 1948 (the film “O Jerusalem”). The history with the surrounding states in the region is rather complicated, as is the influence of the Soviet Union until the end of the Cold War. (That’s a least a peripheral plot element in Tom Hanks ‘s recent film “Charlie Wilson’s War” about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which started during Carter’s presidency.) Some of the most critical points came in 1967 and 1973 (the Yom Kippur War, leading to the Arab Oil Embargo) and in 1978 with the Begin-Sadat talks at Camp David brokered by President Carter. The history of the immediate relationship between Israel and the original Palestinians, with the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is also complicated, with many negotiations, cease fires, and re-escalations, all detailed in the chronology. His appendix supplements the history with documents, especially with the full 1978 Camp David accords text.

What is the basic problem? In sum, many elements of the Israeli governments have condoned taking of or expropriating Palestinian properties (usually without compensation), of evicting Palestinians, of separating and fragmenting their communities with The Wall, and with manipulating the legal system to justify the expropriations with all kinds of ruses and canards over the years. This is what amounts to “apartheid” ultimately mimicking the former South African experience (itself so much the subject of Ted Koppel’s reporting in the 70s and 80s). (Later Carter describes it as “two peoples occupying the same land but completely separated from one another, with Israelis totally dominant and suppressing violence by depriving Palestinians of their basic human rights.”) Some Palestinians, reacting to their own personal sense of shame, have become subject to manipulation and become suicide bombers, believing they will be rewarded in Islamic heaven.

Carter does state some major principles (the “Roadmap to Peace”, more or less) that must be followed to achieve peace, and privately many responsible citizens on both sides of the issue are likely to agree with him. These include (a) Guarantee the security of Israel (b) determine Israel’s permanent legal boundary (c) respect the sovereignty of all Middle Eastern nations

Carter praises the internal openness, democracy and freedom within Israeli society, but is critical of elements that insist on some sort of tribal or religious manifest destiny. A comparable determination, for different historical reasons, exists within various factions of radical Islam. History, as we study it, is often described in terms of the security and well-being of people as religious or national groups, with social structures within the societies allocating the rights and responsibilities to the individual people to protect the welfare of the society as a whole in potentially harsh external circumstances. The political and international debate needs to get beyond the religious and scriptural identities of the various groups and consider the rights of everyone as an individual. (Indeed, that would argue the idea of one state in the region with full citizenship rights for both Jews and Palestinian Muslims and Christians – with enormous potential for reparation issues comparable to what America could have considered with the slaves and native Americans – Carter mentions this a couple times.) Supposedly, though, this is the idea behind neo-conservatism, the overly optimistic attitude that the current Bush administration is criticized for. Carter can do this himself within the patterns of his own faith (often discussed on programs like Bill Moyers) but that is very difficult in this part of the world. Nevertheless, this seems to be the challenge. Carter says that the Bush administration has looked the other way on the behavior of some Israeli leaders out of pragmatic concerns (as did some earlier administrations -- "Charlie Wilson" again) in contradiction to its own political principles. His argument bears comparison to similar concerns about America's tendency to look the other way on Pakistan's nuclear behavior, as on a review on this blog Dec 2 (book by Armstrong and Trento).

Carter describes the work of the Carter Center in Atlanta as a body that can facilitate negotiations. It looks like an interesting place to work, to be sure.

Second picture: Anti-Israel demonstration in Minneapolis in April 2002, near the First Street Main Post Office.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Sebastian Junger reports from Afghanistan in Vanity Fair

Before getting to the main topic, I note first that the January 2008 issue of Vanity Fair has an interesting article by Cullen Murphy, “Lines in the Sand,” about what the Middle East would look like the political entities tracked to ethnic and religious reality. There is a map drawn up in 1918 by Lawrence from the British National Archives, on p 62, and a “Below the Surface” tribal map on p 63. The magazine does not give a direct link to this article and I suppose I can’t publish home photos of these, so you’ll have to buy the magazine (after all, they have to pay their employees, etc). But history teachers will love using this article.

However there is a direct link to Sebastian Junger ‘s report “Into the Valley of Death” about the current military activities in Afghanistan, which seem every bit as dangerous as those in Iraq, as when he discusses the harrowing risks of getting wounded soldiers to safety (also an issue in Tom Cruise 's new film "Lions for Lambs"). The link is here: and there is free "on location" video there to watch (appropriate when "Kite Runner" is finally in theaters). War correspondence requires real military skills. Junger had reported on Afghanistan even before the 9/11 attacks, when he reported about destruction of Buddhist shrines. He was heavily involved in reporting Massoud and the Northern Alliance just before 9/11. He is also known for his books “A Perfect Storm” (a movie in 2000), “Fire” (about dangerous occupations) and “A Death in Belmont” (a subject of a CNN 360 report). When I discussed “Perfect Storm” on an AOL movies message board in 2000, I drew angry comments from someone who resented the fact that I talked about the fact that the fishermen had to take their boat through the storm and deliver the fish or not get paid. (He thought I insulted working people. No, I just talked about what happens in the book and movie.) I met Junger at a booksigning party at an independent store in downtown Minneapolis in the summer of 1998 (for "A Perfect Storm"). I recall reading that he had “paid his dues” by working as a logger or tree trimmer, when he was once severely injured by a saw. He was interviewed on Larry King Live once in his NYC apartment, and I recall a cat jumping into the picture.

It’s interesting to look at the writing in professional articles. War can change our language. He uses Taliban as a plural noun (meaning a collection of individuals). Later he uses “Russian military” the same way. Wikipedia talks a lot about English as an analytic language, compared to all other major European languages, and how tricky it is to use word order, pronouns, particles, auxiliary or modal verbs to convey precise meaning that other languages accomplish with endings and inflection. It’s interesting to formulations (like “alright” instead of “all right” in a lot of foreign film subtitles) coming to be accepted as correct because they seem more natural in international use. Proofing in formal written English is still tedious and very tricky; grammar checks don’t catch everything when they don’t have inflection rules to go by. In my book I let this one get by: “"Algebra invokes the manipulation of symbols as surrogates for numbers or objects. As a child, it had sounded like a great mystery, doing arithmetic or `figuring' with `letters' rather than numbers,” when the “it” needs to be “the subject”.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Margaret Schwartz: The Pumpkin Patch: a story about international adoption

Author: Margaret L. Schwartz:
Title: The Pumpkin Patch: A Single Woman's International Adoption Journey.
Publication: Louisville: Chicago Spectrum Press, 2005. ISBN 1-58374-118-6, paper. 332 pgs, bw illustrations. Three Parts ("Planting the Seeds", "Tending the Garden" "The Harvest") and an Epilogue.

The Freddie Mac adoption expo in Washington DC last Saturday (Dec. 1) was giving away this two-year-old book free. The title is a transparent metaphor. Author Margaret Schwartz had a lucrative career in international marketing and decided that she wanted the experience of motherhood and lineage. In fact, she had always wanted it. She does not go into detail as to why she remained single, or believe that she should “apologize” for that.

The book is like a diary, with each little section starting with “Dear Journal.” That would give the writing a narcissistic quality, as does the great detail into which she goes about her whole process of adopting two boys from Ukraine, including her caring for them when she got home. One wonders how she had the time to document everything in so much detail, especially when she was in the Ukraine and often the hotel had only one computer, not always working, in its Internet room.

The ropes she had to jump are considerable, especially in a post-Communist country that still has a lot of corruption left over from Soviet days. She talks about traveling with $20000 in cash in fresh bills. She talks about the “moral dilemma” of adopting overseas when there are such needs (as with foster kids) at home. Later she faces the agonizing decision about having to make decisions point blank when presented small kids whom she suspects may be severely disabled. Eventually she takes two boys who have less severe medical problems, but back home the expenses become considerable anyway.

She discusses the physical parenting, even the potty training, in some detail, as a responsibility she took to quickly. Eventually she goes back to work and hires help, and considers herself fortunate enough to be able to afford it. She gives several charts in which she outlines the “moral choices” and lifestyle changes, including one chart where she compares her life with that of her mother, of a different generation and social mentality. (He mother used cloth diapers and depended on her husband for economic support.)

Readers may want to check out a book about a gay male couple in Maryland adopting, the book being “Getting Simon: Two Gay Doctors' Journey into Fatherhood” by Dr. Kenneth Morgen, from Bramble Books in 1995. In that book there was never any question that the male couple wanted to adopt.

Both books present adoption and families as something they wanted, not as a social “obligation.” Nevertheless, the media and politicians often present involvement in child care and rearing as something that everyone shares, because everyone befitted from it (“emotional karma”). Even President Bush talks about volunteering to mentor a child. Schwartz talks about the major rift in emotions within the adult world, and the emotions in dealing with kids, which are much more linear and fundamental, and deal with adaptive needs. Of course, many people, especially those with artistic temperament, feel that they must “accomplish” something publicly before they are prepared to raise children, and this does present a bit of a moral paradox. Artists talk about finishing a musical composition, painting or book as like having a baby, but it isn't (although musicians and authors have to "let go" of their work as others interpret it to perform it or adapt it to movies). Art is meaningful only because children are raised into adults able to be moved by it.

I've never felt the emotional connection of children the way the author relates it, but I can relate to the idea that another kind of "person" can make me aware of the world in ways I had not thought of. This may seem like a strange analogy, but being "adopted" by a stray cat did that. The cat, once imprinted, obviously knew who I was (even recognized the sound of my car), and would demonstrate an awareness of things in the environment that I would otherwise not notice but that define his world. It seems as valid as mine.

There is a blog posting about the Freddie Mac expo here.

Pictures: from bus stops in Minneapolis (2003), which encourage singles to adopt or become foster parents.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

New book on Pakistan's nuclear program, and it has a serious warning

One of the scariest things about Pakistan (“the Land of the Pure”) is its possession of nuclear weapons. It has about 20 or so small nukes ready to use (like the "suitcase nukes" in the Fox series 24), and some raw materials (HEU and centrifuges and various other devices) with which more can be made in time (these might be larger, like those if NTI's film "Last Best Chance" which focuses on loose stuff from the former Soviet Union). The United States is supposed have been secretly guarding all this for years, but this book will have you wondering what is to be believed. And the recent upheaval in Pakistan – the return of Bhutto, Musharraf’s suspending of the constitution, and so on, obviously increase the risk that some of this may fall into the hands of terrorists. And in fact, some of it could already have, given the double talk in the way Pakistan has been managed. Much of it, back to the Carter years and earlier, deals with enigmatic, eccentric scientist A. Q. Khan, who pursued his clandestine career with intense, single-minded focus.

The book is
Authors: David Armstrong and Joseph Trento. Armstrong is the bureau chief of the National Security News Service in Washington.
Title: America and the Islamic Bomb: The Deadly Compromise. A Project of the National Security News Service.
Publication: Hanover, New Hampshire: Steerforth Press, 2007. ISBN 1-58642-137-9; 292 pages, hardcover, indexed with endnotes. Has an Introduction, ten chapters, and Epilogue.

The duplicitous handling of nuclear issues goes all the way back to the period right after World War II, including the “Atoms for Peace” program. In more modern history, America has always had to find ways to “look the other way” on Pakistan’s undercover nuclear weapons program, often inventing paradoxical arguments, during the period of having to oppose the Soviets in Afghanistan, to the post 9/11 period where the tribal citizenry in much of Pakistan supports Osama bin Laden and where Musharraf’s hold on power becomes a delicate issue in protecting a nuclear cache that never should have been there. An important and disturbing factor is the clandestine involvement of operatives in other countries, including Dubai (UAE) and Libya, for supplying various machine parts.

The book documents all of the goings on in incredible detail (sometimes to the point of tedium), and it is amazing that the authors have discovered so much material on many of the shady characters like Peter Griffin and “B.S.A.” Tahir.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Lama Foundation (book "Be Here Now") and many other sacred places discussed in big US News issue

In 1980, I visited the Lama Foundation over Labor Day weekend with a quick weekend fare from Dallas to Albuquerque on Southwest Airlines. I drove the rent car north through Santa Fe and Taos, up a dirt road onto the west side of Wheeler Mountain (essentially what becomes the Rocky Front Range farther north), and encountered the community at about 8600 feet, overlooking the Rio Grande valley. The first building visible was a two-story log cabin with the words “remember” and the first sound was women humming as they cooked organic food for the evening’s Succoth feast.

I was attending the weekend “writer’s conference”. We slept on sleeping bags in cabins, and sat around and wrote essays longhand and read them (they might be like today’s blog posts).

The Foundation had many other activities, such as “Purification by Fasting,” which I passed up. But in May 1984, I went back for part of the “Spring Work Camp” which attracted people from all over the western states. This time I had a week’s vacation and drove my Dodge Colt from Dallas. The access road could get muddy after any mountain thunderstorm, meaning a cleaning of the rotors when I got back to civilization at Espanola.

I heard that the colony was destroyed by a wildfire in 1996, but a recent issue of U.S. New and World Report, Nov. 26, 2007, in a special issue called “Sacred Places” discusses the rebuilding of Lama on p 40 (the essay by Jay Tolson in “A History of Belief: A journey through New Mexico offers glimpses of old creeds and insights into contemporary spiritual quests). There is a picture on p 38 of a meditation shrine, with the brush beginning to grow back below on the mountainside. Taylor discusses the book Remember: Be Here Now by Ram Dass (aka Richard Alpert with the "Hunamun Foundation" -- curiously, it has no ISBN; many pages are in a graphic script), which dates back to about 1978, and describes life at the commune, along with various spiritual practices and rituals.

The magazine has a stunning array of photographs, including Tiahuanoco, Bolivia (the magazine spells it Tiwanacu), a place that the van Daniken crowd attributed to UFOs or aliens, a pre-Inca city near Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. There are some stunning pictures from Cordoba, Spain (the mezquita). I didn’t see any mention of the (AMORC) Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, CA.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Charles Karelis: The Persistence of Povery

Author: Charles Karelis., a Professor of Philosophy at The George Washington University in Washington, DC.

Title: The Persistence of Poverty: Why the Economics of the Well-Off Can't Help the Poor.
Publication: New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-300-12090-7. 190 pages, hardbound, with 16 roman numeral pages as Preface. Eight chapters, three of which have their own internal appendices.

I recall a coworker friend (he was that) at my civilian Navy Department job around 1971 who used to make up intellectual paradigms to explain how we all try to maximize our pleasure. He had been a schoolteacher in Florida, but had gone to work for the government (ironically) to make more money.

So it is with this brief but expensive book, which for most of its course uses econometric analysis to describe why the poor behave the way they do. Some of it would befit a pre-calculus course.

He does prefix his discussion with an analytic recognition of the fact that “poor” is a somewhat variable term. In many areas of the world, poverty is endemic and, with no middle class, most people live at a subsistence level or less. But every society, even when an advanced culture, has its poor, and every religion accepts variation in wealth as inevitable and not necessarily wrong if it is shared voluntarily by people.

The basic behavior patterns of the poor have to do with not working (or with lack of work ethic), not staying in school, abusing alcohol and drugs, having children too early, and shortcuts – that is, crime. The poor, he says, are rational, but in a more basic sense of reward and “punishment.” There is a discontinuity and asymmetry in all of this. He criticizes the “reciprocity” in the “Epicurean Fallacy” and shows that lack of pain is not always pleasure. The poor do not see any visible personal gain in staying in school because the time horizons are just too long and the potential rewards not visible,

Toward the end of the book, in the last chapter, he returns to morality, or economic justice. There are two opposing pillars in most theories of economic morality. One promotes individualism and personal sovereignty: that is, one is entitled to what can earn with work or purchase as property and earn a return on, and trade with others. That is essentially capitalism on a personal level. He points out that artists (he uses a novelist as an example) may believe in their work but still have the problem of convincing others to pay for what they have produced. (I know that well. Call it salesmanship if you like.) The polar opposite is the Marxist proverb that we had fun with in Army barracks during the Vietnam period: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

Karelis comes to the conclusion that we would all be better off if there were some orderly transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor, so that the poor (after having enough to "get into the game") would find improving their behavior of more continuous and visible benefit to them, so that there would be more wealth for everyone.

Karelis has relatively little interest in personal moral theory. His observations would suggest, however, that many people need a paradigm of moral teaching (that is, differentiating right from wrong to the extend that the concept ventures beyond libertarian harmlessness and non-aggression) that is simple and easy to understand. That is why religious faith and practice appeals, and why the idea of “moral absolutes” become attractive to some people.

Generally, religious morality is quite concerned with how wealth is shared. More liberal Protestant churches today sometimes talk about “Kingdom economics,” recalling a socialistic concept of life-sharing understood among the early Christians. In different ways, the sharing of burdens concern both the far Left and far Right. The Left tends to be very indignant about unearned or inherited wealth and privilege, and the conservative Right tends to believe that family values, marriage, and sexual morality relate to justifying what people “have”. Karelis is rather uninterested in all of this. Family values and domestic partnerships (in his world) are morally neutral and arise out of personal choices and perhaps immutable biological drives. Economic values, however, have moral meaning in how they affect people in practice, and that is why his own version of “trickle down” is interesting.

When I was substitute teaching, I sometimes found, with lower income kids, that their perception of family values, blood loyalty, and the idea that people put in front of them as authority figures or role models should pay their dues, all to be very real and important to them. This hardly comports with a view of poverty and educational and job performance that is explained just in terms of econometrics. It stresses that people should deserve their station in life, and that paying heed to family values can be very important in practice, something that conservatives constantly point out when they talk about marriage. Karelis does mention a little of this, that the kids of the wealthy are sometimes asked to pay their dues, and that senior citizens sometimes working in fast food places. But in general Karelis seems to look at procreation and family life as a given that most people gravitate to (with some wide personal variation, because of intellectual or artistic disposition, and, of course, sexual orientation), and sees wealth or content generating work as a real challenge for most people; to get them to do it requires a much more level playing field (with more visible time-related benefits) that our culture of extreme capitalism offers.

The perception of personal benefit, pleasure, relief or pain from any situation resulting from any behavior depends on the cultural values of the community in which the person is able to live, as well as access to wealth. Many people live in cultures that emphasize blood loyalty or family honor, or the ability of men to care for families, even before having their own children. Since this is not shared by everyone, it is a source of tension that is hard for policymakers to discuss openly. This situation may make "biological" rewards seem more urgent than other rewards more familiar in modern liberal culture.

Also, part of the "wealth sharing" to essentially give what Bill Clinton always calls "a hand up, not a hand out" comprises personal attention -- from teachers and mentors. This is not a responsibility that should be thrown at people (it sounds tempting as part of the "national service" debate) but it's something that high school and college students can work themselves into; it's much harder for retirees unless they have encountered this in a personal way (whether or not in raising families of their own).

Picture: The "new" Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, VA, Thanksgiving Day, 2007.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Matthew R. Simmons: "Twilight in the Desert"

Author: Matthew R. Simmons.
Title: Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy.
Publication: New York: Wiley, 2005 pbr 2006 ISBN 0-471-79018-1. 428 pages, paper with Preface and new Introduction, 35 Roman pages. Extensive bibliography. Four parts

In his paperback edition, Simmons provides a new Introduction and tells us that he was determined to self-publish the book, until Wiley contacted him. That’s interesting and perhaps a likely story. The book is somewhat a central focus of the Netflix “Red Envelope” film “A Crude Awakening” which warns us that we could be coming through a tipping on on world oil production and face catastrophic economic effects in the future.

Actually, the oil business passes through multiple tipping points: one in exploration (actually several, as technology makes new kinds of wells practical) and another in production.

Nevertheless, Simmons makes his point well in this encyclopediac book about Saudi oil production: there was a time when we assumed that oil was almost free. Around 1970 or so, oil men were beginning to realize that this was hardly true and that Saudi production could be by no means infinite.

The political history becomes compensated. I remember the first oil shock in 1973. I was away on a camping trip in northern new Jersey that Saturday in October and heard about the Yom Kippur war when I arrived at a social center in New York City Saturday night. I was living in New Jersey, struggling with personal mobility to get into the City enough to come out. Soon the gas prices rose steeply, and we heard about the embargo. By the beginning of 1974, the shortages appeared (Nixon had already imposed a national speed limit of 50 and closed gas stations on Sundays and told people to “stay home” more, something I didn’t need to hear). But the crisis ended quickly in April with diplomacy and with, of course, “getting the price up.” The 1979 crisis, related to events in Iran, was much more serious in principle, according to the author. (I had just moved to Dallas then, and was surprised when an old reliable independent station nestled on Cedar Springs among the condos and bars actually ran out of gas.)

Still, Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries started manipulating oil production (with technological improvements) to gain competitive advantage. In the 1980s, they boosted production enough to cause sudden oil price drops and cause significant disruption to Texas and southwestern oil production and real estate markets. (Along about this time, the Reagan administration pushed the misguided Tax Reform Act of 1986, which did not help). The Persian Gulf War, because it came to a relatively quick and decisive end (compared to what might have been) gave the West the impression that oil would remain stable. It wasn’t until after 9/11 that the American public really began to take seriously how much oil prices can disrupt the economy as a whole, in either direction.

The author spends much of his book with technical discussions of the many oil fields (Ghawar, Abqaiq, etc), generally located near the Persian Gulf in the northeast. He provides lots of detailed black-and-white maps of the oil fields. But he also precedes this with a lot of discussion of the social and political history of the kingdom, and the variable results over time that the absolute monarchy (theocratic) has in taking care of its people. Now, he maintains, Saudi Arabia, like any country, needs much more economic diversification, whatever the religious (wahhabist) beliefs of its people. Most of the vulnerability (including the anger of Osama bin Laden over American troops being there) relates to this complacent dependency on oil. That helps explain why so many of the militants (including 9/11) have been Saudis.

On Saturday, Nov. 17, The Washington Post had a Business Section article, p D01, "Saudi Arabia Works the Vast Desert To Pump Out More High-Quality Oil", here. The specific expansion is near Shaybah, the Empty Quarter. The article acknowledges industry concerns about peaking in Saudi capacity, but suggests that there are many specific opportunities that still work in increasing production for relatively little cost.

I worked with someone from 1979-1981 in Dallas who had lived in an “American compound” while working as a systems analyst for Aramco in the 1970s. The religious police would actually come into the compound and look for alcohol. I know a gay Jewish man who actually says he bicycled alone in Saudi Arabia around 1980. I also met someone who worked in the oil business in Dallas and said (around 1980) then that there were already concerns that enough new oil just wasn't "out there."

When I substitute taught a high school world history class once, students were expected to write classwork reports on current events from that day's newspapers. There was a huge story on oil supplies in Saudi Arabia, and the concern of security from Al Qaeda. Yet, some students cut up the newspapers and made paper airplanes. They hadn't a clue. This is the world they will inherit to run.

The book narrative ends with an Aftermath in which Simmons gives a somewhat negative picture of what happens if oil production irreversibly slides. He believes that the world have to give up some of its globalization (the Thomas Friedman “Flat World” paradigm) and “just in time” business practices. This can affect ordinary citizens in many ways. There can and should be more telecommuting, and people without families especially should welcome high density living with little commutation. But food will have to be grown closer to home, and more manufacturing will have to be done locally. This could affect automotive and electronics industries, although (especially with the weaker dollar) it could add jobs at home. It could mean that people have to put more effort on practical adaptive skills, unless a technological revolution in renewable energy (with switchgrass ethanol – which takes energy to make --- and hybrid cars) with enough infrastructure replacement to support our current way of life.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Lance Bass: Out of Sync

Author: Lance Bass
Title: Out of Sync: A Memoir
Publication: Simon Spotlight Entertainment ISBN 1-4169-4788-2, 2007, 195 pages, hardcover, with Introduction by Marc Elliot, color illustrations included

Lance Bass appeared recently on ABC 20/20 and discussed his book and his “coming out” (coverage ), in a broad context. His book, while short and a bit minimalist (the pages are small) covers a lot of territory, not the least of which is his first film “On the Line” (Miramax, 2001), which had the misfortune of appearing right after the 9/11 tragedy.

Most people know Lance as one of the five ‘Nsync boy band members, the kid from Mississippi with the bass voice. Indeed, some of the narrative deals with how he became his own person after Justin Timberlake, having essentially started the group and indeed launching the concept of pop star and connecting that to “music,” decided to go alone, after which the group imploded. (The color photo of Timberlake is “before.”) The dust jacket describes Bass now as “actor, producer, writer, entertainer, philanthropist” – the Renaissance Man in every sense except perhaps that of Bill Gates. He is not a geek. And now, as we can guess from the dust jack pictures, he has become a grown man.

The most interesting part of the book is his narrative of his training and tryout to become a Russian cosmonaut, a capitalist venture (with MTV) that failed over money. (In the early days of ‘Nsync there were a lot of contractual disputes over money, as the promoters at first paid them only per diem and claimed they could not exist without investors “taking the risk.”_ But he did go through grueling medical evaluations (resulting in a by-groin non-invasive cardiac ablation procedure for a previously undetected congenital arrhythmia that could have proved suddenly fatal later in life), the taking of a body cast, his growing and shrinking because of zero gravity, and various survival exercises in the Siberian tundra. (When he first got invited, he thought he was being punked by Ashton Kutcher, just as Justin had been.)

In fact, when I saw the ‘Nsync Popodyssey show at the Metrodome on 2001, I was quite impressed with the military-like athleticism and “unit cohesion” required to perform in a boy band. The boy band presented a certain paradox: the songs were always clean cut and wholesome, but had this comic edge (“Bye Bye Bye”), and sometimes a bit of social satire (like the video where the boys are toy soldiers getting checked out of a Target store – maybe a bit of satire on DADT) that always made them attractive viewing in bars, including gay bars (they were shown a lot at The Saloon and The Boom in Minneapolis when I was there).

All of this would make for good documentary film now – it’s easy to imagine HBO perhaps wanting to do it – and one could make a film based on the idea of being a music prodigy (in either the popular field with people like Justin Timberlake or Zac Efron) or in the classical area, even composition. Or one could string it together with ideas like teamwork and link up to space and the military.

His coming out is covered rather briefly. Much of this has to do with his relationship with Air Force Academy graduate Reichen Lehmkuhl, who has his own book about his experience with “don’t ask don’t tell” (“Here’s What We’ll Say: Growing Up, Coming Out, and the U.S. Air Force”, Carroll & Graf, New York, 2006, ISBN: 0-7867-1782-3. Lehmkuhl, in fact, is one of the few “military gay ban survivors” not to be kicked out.

Bass’s mother, in fact, found out about his sexual orientation from the Internet. That possibility, as it has arisen in the past ten years or so, is becoming an increasingly important reason why the whole concept of “don’t ask don’t tell” is falling on its face.

Picture: Washington Caps banner, Ballston Mall, Arlington VA (for the skating rink upstairs), no relation to book.

Update: April 21, 2008

AP story in Washington Blade, Apr 18: "Lance Bass: 'It's time for me to stand up'
Former 'N Sync singer stars in public service announcement against gay bullying", link here.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The World and I: another look at "Currents in Modern Though" and a Kaplan essay on finding fundamental rights in the Constitution

The World and I (link) has been a meaty, well illustrated, polished and somewhat expensive magazine about international and national cultural issues, with a conservative editorial bent, for many years, published by the conservative newspaper The Washington Times.

Some issues have had a section toward the end called “Currents in Modern Thought,” and the April 1999 issue, still lying around the basement, has a couple of contributions worthy of note today.

Two of them are less important than the other, but I’ll mention all three. The last one is an article about McClures’s (and S. S. McClure) by Linda Simon. The magazine was important as a long-standing example of expository journalism, ruthlessly fact checked, but willing to give writers time and resources, and effective in exposing public scandals in issues in a time long before amateurs could to the same with weblogs.

The first article, by Gerald V. Bradley, is “The Dubious Liberalism of Stephen Carter,” and starts out with the sentence, “I got into law school because I was black.” But, not being a diatribe on affirmative action (and "Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby" (Basic, 1991), the essay is instead an overview of Carter’s books and writings, including “The Culture of Disbelief” (1993) in which, the reviewer believes, the author is trying to build an argument for assimilationism that strands conservativism and liberalism (sounds Clintonian), allows all gripes and somehow doesn’t give in to irrationality. It accepts an incremental approach to abortion and a growing rationalism, which must confront faith-based principles, in gay rights (with some discussion of Bowers v. Hardwick – this issue is pre-Lawrence and pre-Massachusetts).

But the most important, and longest piece, in this issue is W&I editor Morton A. Kaplan, “Tribe and Scalia on the Constitution: A Third View.” Kaplan has a habit of reflecting on his writing as he writes, and that extends his lengths, and he tends to argue with himself. But, in his mind, that will seem necessary. He examines a few important cases, such as the flag-burning case (Brennan’s decision), contraception (Griswold) and most of all Roe v. Wade (abortion). The apparent polar opposites are Justice Antonin Scalia and Harvard law professor Lawrence Tribe, although the recent Bush appointments of Alito and Roberts can complicate such discussion today. Kaplan mentions the book " A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law" (The University Center for Human Values Series, Princeton University, 1998), by Scalia and Amy Gutmann.

The core problem is the “invention” by judges of “fundamental rights,” and idea that I discussed at great length in my first two books in the late 1990s (now, those seem like the good old days). Kaplan talks about the problem of “original intent” and the issue that language itself changes with time, and that words (codified into the Constitution or statutes) take on new meanings with time. (For example, the word "person" in the law can include a corporation.) Kaplan argues, however, that any re-interpretation of original rights as written into the Constitution and Bill of Rights (that is, any rights “invented” in the context of the Ninth and Tenth “penumbra” amendments) need to be done so only with a clear direction from the prevailing culture. Since this article appeared in 1999, it’s a good question how Kaplan would react to the Lawrence v. Texas decision in 2003. Privacy has been an important cultural concept in the objection to laws that regulate consensual sex (as with Griswold in 1965), and today the cultural change brought on by the Internet has changed the moral focus away from privacy more to expression, and the idea that one must contribute or share something of emotional substance for what one takes. Kaplan gets into the problem that the law does express moral notions, and almost by definition or tautology, moral determinations will come at the expense of someone; the question is what principles the culture has in determining who makes the ultimate “sacrifice” of some piece of rights or psychological property. He spends a lot of time on the intellectual sequels from various assumptions about the humanity of the unborn child.

Kaplan touches on the complexity of the constitutional amending process, and considers the high barriers to doing so appropriate. A good book that dissects all of this is John R. Vile, "Contemporary Questions Surrounding the Constitutional Amending Process", from Praeger (London), 1993.

Looking further, of course, we see that “moral notions” are important to people as a baseline. In a difficult world, people sometimes want to know that what they did or gave up doing was “right” and necessary. Yet, it’s interesting, as one comes back to the role of religion and faith, that in Christianity, at least, there is more emphasis on the heart, on becoming flexible and responsive to others just as one is responsible for oneself, and this concept of grace goes beyond the idea of morality as we usually express it in the law – as important as the rule of law is to freedom.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Alan Greenspan's memoir: The Age of Turbulence

Author: Alan Greenspan.
Title: The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World.
Publication: Penguin, NY. 2007. ISBN 9781594201318, 531 pages, hardcover, indexed.

The author hardly needs introduction, but to recap, he served as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers from 1974 to 1977 under president Gerald Ford, and in 1987 President Reagan appointed him as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, where he served until 2006. The book has a rather prosaic title give the length and ambition level of the discussions.

Let me digress autobiographically myself for a moment. In July 1981, on my 38th birthday, I had a job interview for a position as a computer programmer analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas. Each district has its own bank, and each bank runs somewhat autonomously. I talked about the need for end-user computing, a concept that probably was not appropriate yet at a conservative institution. I didn’t get the job (although I got one soon at Chilton by resume trading), but Greenspan would probably think my sentiments were right. The spirit of his memoir is that of libertarianism and individualism and self-ownership, even as he constantly recognizes that practicalities trouble us constantly.

Born and raised in New York, he was a decent athlete (baseball) and musician, but got out of the World War II draft because of a possibly incorrectly suspected tuberculosis. Early in adulthood, he would meet Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Brandon and discover the philosophy of objectivism, and the moral justification of “selfishness” and, and a societal level, capitalism.

The book’s middle covers our nation’s economic history from the end of World War II to present day, and it is remarkable, in retrospect, that our system has always been strong enough to overcome serious challenges, such as the Arab oil embargo, the stagflation of the late 70s (which he explains in detail), the stock market crashes (such as 1987), the savings and loan crisis, and so on. In general, deregulation and lifting of over supervision of business has tended to lead us out of these problems and enabled us to produce our way out of trouble, and raise our standard of living. There are, however, a couple of big caveats.

One is that the challenges to our stability seem to have become greater. In retrospect, they have always seemed grave at the time (the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was perhaps the gravest of all). But asymmetric terrorism, global warming, pandemics, and the like provide exogenous challenges of a nature we have never seen. He spends a great deal of space toward the end of the book analyzing these (the last chapter is “the Delphic future”) and is not always reassuring, even as he tries to maintain a general tone of favoring as little government intervention as possible.

Some of the other changes are demographic – most of all, the lower birth rates, the longer life spans, the need to use immigrants to get our work done. The increasing elderly population is an economic problem because the elderly consume a lot, sometimes more than is justified by what they produce or had produced, forcing sacrifices from their children, who may not have as many children (who consume but will soon become productive) themselves to sustain the chain. He avoids social moralizing about these, but simply talks about what the numbers would mean. We are retiring too early, to be sure (as did I, it seems), but even a decade ago companies were encouraging us to with buyouts. Defined pension plans are in real trouble, as are social security and Medicare in the long run. (He discusses the restructuring of social security around 1983 in some detail.) He proposes that social security benefits for the affluent could be rescinded entirely (as have some other libertarians – in fact Harry Browne did so). Obviously, he likes privatization and the idea of carefully conceived lifetime savings plans, but those don’t work for those already retired. If social security benefits were to be means tested, it could affect the kind of jobs people are encouraged to take late in their careers. In general, employers have wanted to use seniors to peddle their wares in lifestyle marketing, a practice for which I have some ethical objections.

Other changes are intrinsic to technology and globalization, the greatest of which is the challenges to old-fashioned notions of intellectual property or “conceptual property.” Copyright, patent and trademark laws have always struck delicate balances between competing public interests. A creator of an idea cannot always “own” the idea the way he or she could own a piece of land. What is fair use seems to depend on the circumstances of both publication or distribution, and consumption – all of which have turned upside down in a global world.

He has a lot to say about education. We are not able to find good math and science teachers in sufficient quantities, because those with technical educations can make a lot more money elsewhere. Relatively speaking, it’s easier to find good teachers for English and humanities. He thinks we should streamline or waive the bureaucratic licensing requirements and required clock hours of education courses (common in “career switcher” programs into teaching) for math teachers, and insist that math teachers actually have the academic credentials in mathematics (which I would have). One problem that he does not consider is that technical people sometimes have weaker “people skills” and have less interest in working with non-intact children who may need personalized attention.

That all brings me to the “second caveat,” which might have been summarized in an article by Naomi Klein, “Thanks a lot, Ayn Rand, for setting the greedy free: the beloved trickle-down theory of Greenspan and his ilk is less a philosophy than a handy excuse for avarice,” an article that appeared in The Nation and in the UK Guardian. (Link). Klein is promoting a book “The Shock Doctrine” (Metropolitan Books) which I have not yet seen. In her essay, she writes :

“Of course, the flip side of this is the cruel disregard for those left behind. ‘Undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment,’ Greenspan wrote as a zealous new convert. ‘Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.’”

Now it is the “left behind” (itself a book title from the religious right – Tim La Haye) that is a core concern. The political left has always dealt with need as a matter of group social justice – issues of wealth redistribution and ending discrimination against suspect class groups. That means more regulation that, in the long run, is not good for stable democratic capitalism, in Greenspan’s view. He does not go into this, but the obvious question is what every individual owes back for what he or she “takes” beyond what is expressed in a monetary market economy. I talked about this on my main blog on Oct. 9 as “psychological economics.” The culture war over family values figures into this – the truth is that people are wired very differently as to some basic emotional values and often impact persons different from themselves in ways that they do not see. Greenspan, even in his libertarian economic views, finds himself getting into some seeming moral contradictions (one of the sections of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957) was called “non-contradiction”; a film of this book is due from Lions Gate Films in 2008; Greenspan also talks about The Fountainhead). The changing demographics, it seems to me, will lead us into new debates about the personal moral choices regarding having or not having children.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Rachel Ehrenfeld expands the "Book the Saudis don't want you to read"

Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, director of the American Center for Democracy in New York City, has become a test case for a new legal controversy with her book that “the Saudis don’t want you to read.”

The book came out in 2005 in an expanded edition including a new Preface, explaining the legal situation, as well as an Epilogue. It had been originally published in 2003.

In early January 2004, she writes, she received an email from a law firm in London threatening to sue her for libel in British courts for allegations she printed in her 2003 book about the activities of Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz. The Wikipedia entry, as factual as possible perhaps, for this person is here.

It’s pretty unusual for lawyers to contact anyone by email first. Usually they send a cease-and-desist letter by certified mail, and if necessary to litigate, use a sheriff or, more frequently, private process server to actually serve papers (they can be sent by registered mail in most states). But in this case an American author was to be sued by a foreign businessman in Britain about a book never published in Britain but merely ordered by some British subjects, probably in a deliberate campaign to justify litigation. There are more details on my International Issues blog here about this new problem of “libel tourism”:

I won’t repeat the specific allegations about the businessman here, but just say that the facts in her book and extensive detailed references and notes seem to speak for themselves to the customer who orders the book (as I did from Amazon).

The book is titled “Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed – And How to Stop It,” published by Bonus Books in Chicago (296 pages, paper). There is a foreword by B. James Woolsey.

One of her basic points is about the culture of Islamic society. She talks about the “House of Islam” and the “House of War” – as everything outside of the mosque. It’s odd to describe a structure like this, because, unlike the Catholic church, Islam has no formal priesthood, is formally decentralized, and ought not to be as susceptible to corruption. But she describes corruption as a normal way to do business, as equivalent to “economic growth” in other countries. Islam, with its anti-usury laws and informal financial processes (hawalas) that transfer money indirectly without moving it, as well as a patriarchal culture that demands family loyalty (and financial support) from everyone even when they emigrate to the West, can pretend to be a society without fiat money, and only “Allah economics” despite the fact (as the extravagance in places like Riyadh and Dubai attest – with the manmade “Palms” and “archipelago” that could go under global warming) that it seems to take as much advantage of world extreme capitalism as any culture. The confusion culture makes it easy to "launder" money through all kinds of schemes that she lists in many places with dot points.

She spends a lot of space on narco terror (especially Hizballah), as if to suggest that drug users are, with their demand, contributing to terrorism, although one can also say that criminalizing drug use invites the problem.

Check a related review of a book by a man who spent a year working for an Islamic "charity" on this blog on Aug. 25.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Jack Cafferty: It's Getting Ugly Out There

Author: Jack Cafferty:
Title: It's Getting Ugly Out There:
Subtitle: The Frauds, Bunglers, Liars and Losers Who Are Hurting America.
Publication: John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 978-0-14479-4, 269 pages, hardcover, with Preface, Prologue, 13 chapters, Epilogue, index.

You might get a sense of what CNN journalist Jack Cafferty’s tome is all about from the title of his Prologue, “This Isn’t the America I Know,” and the title of his first chapter, “The Boy in the Bubble.” The latter title refers, of course, to the second President Bush, Daddy’s son, and his general failure to lead. What do they call it for teachers, specifically, “poor classroom management.” Oh, that’s misleading, because that phrase in Bush’s “no child left behind” world talks about discipline.

No, with George W. Bush, Cafferty finds a pathological disconnection from real people, a mental laziness that can miss the point and languish on vacation at his sheltering Texas ranch for a day while the dikes fail in New Orleans.

That is, President Bush would make a good mark for the Dr. Phil show. “I want you to get excited about your life. This is a changing day in your life.” Bush seems to have a self-servedness that gets into his gratuitous use of executive powers with the warrantless wiretaps and electronic searches, the whole FISA issue that form the substance of many libertarian high-tech blogs, although many of these "diaries" miss the real constitutional problems.

He seems to do what he feels like, making himself look righteous but, with the help of his alter brain Karl Rove, finding adolescent rationalizations for doing what he wants. Dr. Phil would key in to that. He (Bush) panders to special interests, and through his own bureaucracy cozies up to the health insurance companies and pharmaceuticals, explaining why we, among all major countries, leave so many people one hospital visit away from bankruptcy. (Of course, there is another side to this, getting into personal responsibility; but that has to start early in one’s working life.)

Indeed, there is a serious issue with the speech. His people “hire” writers to make something look good; money is made by manipulating appearances and people’s emotions, not by telling the truth. But, isn’t that what the whole K-Street lobbying world is all about? It’s hard for most people to make enough money to support their families without selling their souls and giving up any public integrity about what they say.

That’s one reason why bloggers have become effective – they have fewer loyalties to honor. Yet, that’s the other side of the discipline issue – our “America” is declining because we as individuals take it for granted, don’t pay back what it takes to keep our way of life. Cafferty does take up what a "real World War III" means, if we take keeping our way of life seriously. After bashing the “back door draft” in Iraq, he says, in the Epilogue (not the kind of music that Arnold Bax closed his symphonies with), “It was a huge mistake when we did away with the draft in the 1970s” (p 244); “we ought to bring it back.” A few sentences later he modifies it and argues in strong terms for mandatory national service, at least 18 months, for those age 18 to 25. He suggests that we all owe something for what we have, that we shouldn’t take it for granted, and that we ought to learn to care about people, or at least not live in such a way as to lowball others.

He runs through all of our nonsense – our carelessness with port security (turning ports over to companies in Dubai), the dishonesty and incompetence behind the war in Iraq, the letting Afghanistan slide back into Talibanization. He talks about the bankrupting of our social safety nets with tax cuts for the rich, usual stuff. He talks about the scandals of various conservative public officials, including Mark Foley and the Congressional pages. In the Epilogue, he runs through the 2008 candidates, and gives some support to more moderate and progressive ones, like Obama. It’s hard to tell his political affiliation; he may be more like Ross Perot in 1992. Eventually, it gets down to discipline of individual Americans, and accepting that there may be sacrifice and personal dues paying.

Cafferty is not afraid to use expletives in his writing, or to call people names (even the son of Rudy Guliani). He may be hinting, toward the end, that ethical reform is a grassroots, bottoms-up operation.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Joe Steffan's "Honor Bound" -- 1992 book is one of the most important life stories on military gay ban

"Personal honor is an absolute -- you either have honor or you do not. No one can take it from you; it can only be surrendered willingly. And once it is surrendered, once it is compromised, it can never again be fully regained."

This powerful statement of principle appears on p. 145 as a description of the Honor Code at Annapolis, the United States Naval Academy. Many universities have a similar honor system, and when I started college in 1961 at William and Mary students signed on to a similar academic honor code. In 1996, I would write an essay (originally intended as a chapter in my first book) in which this principle would become “Morality’s Third Normal Form” (following a metaphor in software engineering). I can add right away that a more inclusive moral concept may be “Integrity”. Honor seems to imply zero tolerance of dishonest acts by one’s peers. Integrity is an even more inclusive term. Stephen Carter writes, “Integrity requires three steps: discovering what is right from wrong, acting on what you have discovered even at personal cost, and saying openly that you are acting on your understanding of right and wrong.” (] Stephen Carter, “The Insufficiency of Honesty,” Atlantic Monthly, February, 1996, pp 74-76.). A more general concept might be something like “karma” as I developed on my main blog (and in a review on this blog in April). There is a general meaning of earning what one has in life, and sometimes that involves responsiveness to others and their needs, beyond one’s own performance.

But, to come back to this book., Honor Bound: A Gay American Fights for the Right to Serve His Country. (Amazon: ISBN 0679416609). In 1992, I came in to Lambda Rising in Washington on a drizzly September Wednesday evening, to Joe Steffan’s signing of this book. I got there late and missed his reading, but got an autographed copy and met him in the signing line. He said he was working on defeating Oregon 's Proposition 9 (scary at the time, for example this; all of this was still more than ten years before Lawrence v. Texas.) The original was published by Villard, an imprint of Random House. Avon printed the paperback about two years later. It seems that the title changed slightly (“American” became “Naval Midshipman”: Honor Bound: A Gay Naval Midshipman Fights for the Right to Serve His Country. ISBN 0380715015 ). The original had a full front uniform view, whereas the paperback has only a headshot. I somehow mislaid the original in my move back to the DC area in 2003 and I picked up the paperback from an Amazon reseller. The internals of the two versions appear to be identical.

The book chronicles Mr. Steffan’s four years at the Naval Academy, where he would have graduated near the top of his class in 1987 had be not been “outed” by another midshipman who had failed. The details of the investigation and of his decision to answer honestly are moving. But so is the story of everything that leads up to it, such as Joe’s career in the Academy choir, his singing the National Anthem at an Army-Navy game, and his summer on a submarine cruise, where the forced intimacy created no issues at all. (He even talks about chess games.) He also discusses his experience in a chapter in Humphrey, Mary Ann (editor). My Country, My Right to Serve: Experiences of Gay Men and Women in the military, World War II to the Present. New York: Harper Collins, 1988 pp. 235-242, where there are some small “confessions” about “conduct” off-base. (See also: Steffan, Joseph C., Wolinsky, Marc, and Sherrill, Kenneth. Gays in the Military: Joseph Steffan versus the United States. Princeton University Press, 1993.) It seems likely that there has always been a small gay, very closeted subculture at the service academies that only a closed circle knew about. The overwhelming majority of actual disciplinary incidents in service academies (including the Naval Academy) over the years have been with heterosexual conduct among the midshipmen or cadets.

Steffan wound up litigating, losing in the circuit court but winning on a three-judge panel in the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals. Then the court reheard his case en banc (I went to the oral arguments in May 1994) where he lost.

The night I bought the book (remember, still Sept. 1992) I recall reading the first several chapters (there are ten) at a local restaurant on 17th Street over dinner, taking it home and finishing it that evening. I knew that the ban was going to be a big issue. Candidate Bill Clinton had already “promised” to try to end the ban, Keith Meinhold had already come out on ABC, the first president Bush was already failing in the polls, and Perot was moralizing about the American people. The following spring, in April 1993, while the debate (that would lead to “don’t ask don’t tell”) raged on, we would have the great March on Washington, with the Metro stations filled, and with The Washington Times carrying an overhead shot of the Mall the next Monday. I May, I would share the book with the then Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Washington DC, where I had gone to church as I grew up.

This book has great storytelling, and has the definite “beginning, middle and end” of a movie. This is the most compelling of all of the stories of gay people who have fought the ban, even though it occurred “pre don’t ask don’t tell”. It’s a no brainer that it could make a great movie, along the larger independent films that show at Landmark Theaters or AMC Select. It inspires some ambition: imagine mass scenes like his sing at the Army Navy game, or the 1993 March. The Touchstone film “Annapolis” (Justin Lin) simulates Annapolis but condescends to genre military film stereotypes. No, the filmmaking style demanded would be more in the line of “In the Valley of Elah.” I can imagine Casey Affleck playing Steffan, with Tommy Lee Jones and maybe even Brad Pitt himself as Academy cadre. If some outfits like Participant, 2929, The Weinstein Company, Lions Gate, or even the MGM Lion took a look at this, I think they could be very tempted. A film like this, well done and properly promoted, would stir a lot of controversy. Six months later “don’t ask don’t tell” might well be history.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Time: Global Warming

Time is now selling a special issue “Global Warming: The Causes, The Perils, The Solutions, The Actions, What You Can Do,” 122 pages, paper, heavily illustrated, heavy paper, edited by Kelly Knauer; Writer and Researcher Director: Matthew McCann Fenton.

There are many sections. The book says that global warming is a “theory” in the sense that gravity or relativity is a theory; reputable scientists accept man-abetted global warming since the start of the industrial revolution because of increased carbon dioxide emissions as fact.

The book ends with fifty-one tips about what can be done about this. Some of them are progressive, such as paying bills online to avoid paper waste. But many of the tips question the personally autonomous, labor-saving lifestyles of many people. One tip suggests hanging clothes on a line rather than machine drying. Another is to exchange hand-me-down clothes (sorry, Details and GQ, no more expensive jeans and silk shirts for your models, although doing away with the prudish male necktie is a welcome idea.) Telecommuting sounds like a great idea, but that could confound the physical security of consumer data in some companies. Car pooling has been suggested for years, but some people are on-call and must be able to go into work at any time. The last tip seems to go back to the New Testament. “Consumer Less, Share More, Live Simply.” Even “get to know your neighbors.”

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

John Elder Robison: Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's

Author: John Elder Robinson.
Title: Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's.
Foreword by Augusten Burroughs,
Publication: New York: Crown, 2007. ISBN 978-0-307-39598-6. 288 pages, hardcover.

A few years ago I traveled to a large city in New England and sat down to dinner in a plush chain restaurant with a filmmaker. Almost at once, he said something like, “.. the lack of body language. You have Asperger’s.”

Since I have met with more than one film person in more than one New England city in the past few years, I need not identify the person or city. I wasn’t really shocked by the statement. It all made sense.

I see that I’ve covered the topic before, on a Nightline review in April and in a speculative discussion of whether Asperger’s has anything to do with GLBT issues, here In that latter posting, also in April, I gave some clinical discussion. Asperger’s is considered to be a mild form of autism, in a spectrum of “pervasive developmental disorders.”

The author, in fact, was not formally “diagnosed” until age 40. He mentions, on p. 235, a clinical text, Asperger’s Syndrome, by Tony Attwood. (Amazon shows two books, a recent one in 2006). There is even a book “All Cats Have Asperger’s Syndrome” by Kathy Hoopman.

What is interesting, of course, is how he explains his own experience of his own social interactions. In fact, most of the book is a narrative (sometimes a bit jumbled and out of sequence) of the author’s life experience: how he was shunned by teachers, developed an interest in mechanics and games, played pranks, dropped out of school, rebuilt his life as an engineer and eventually specialized car dealer. His narrative incidentally provides some account of how computer games and music devices developed. He married and had a son, something that many people with Asperger’s will not be able to do.

His younger brother (Robison appears to have been born in 1957) is well-known as Augusten Burroughs, the eccentric writer whose story was told in the Tri-Star film “Running with Scissors” (dir. Ryan Murphy) in which the writer was presented as an articulate youngster in a sea of dysfunctional adults. Burroughs provides a brief foreword, in which he expresses some surprise that his brother, a natural storyteller, became a busiessman rather than writer – but the two should not be mutually exclusive. Robison’s life does seem much more troubled.

The expression of the syndrome might be summarized with the command, often repeated to him as a boy, “Look me in the eye, young man!” That’s the first sentence of Robison’s own prologue.

Asperger’s is usually perceived as a lack of responsiveness to other people, an indifference, and a lack of emotion and empathy. Robison, early on, talks about empathy, and analyzes the idea that people really don’t have much emotion over the plight of strangers like they would their own flesh and blood. He says he does have emotion for his own family, and indeed later in life he did create a family. He feels that people are “acting” when the show emotion about distant people. That’s not exactly true, either.

My own experience, as a boy, was that of a certain preoccupation with my own welfare, a tendency to demand attention (particularly in grade school). Like Robison, I was teased for my clumsiness and inability to fit in (always the last one picked for a team). But my own conversational responses were not as disjointed or as inappropriate as the examples he gives from his own boyhood. By third grade, my musical talents were apparent, and by sixteen or so, I could identify most major classical compositions upon hearing only a few measures. I chronicle some of this in my main blog in August, here:

My perception of the Asperger experience is more a desire to create one’s own world, and live within it. (Indeed, full blown autism seems to be a total lack of any response to the outside world, and a satisfaction with internal stimulation.) When one is productive from that world, one can attract the people that one wants. (This would be true in a heterosexual or homosexual context). I find myself resisting both frivolous social contact (as disruptive) and intimate contact on terms other than my own. That (hyper-introversion), in the modern western world, sounds like a fundamental individual right, but within the context of the family or local community many people still expect more cohesiveness and openness. I can recall my parents’ demanding that I fulfill certain expectations of social deference that seemed “illogical” or “irrational” and seemed to pamper the emotions of others without much real need or justification. The way I performed certain things was not so important for the immediate situation as it was to prove that I could respond to the needs of others in a way that might be morally demanded of me.

My perception of emotion and empathy may differ from his. I find some of the display of emotion often seen in families as gratuitous. Familial emotion cannot replace my own need to succeed in life according to my own rules, and this observation disturbs some people, and takes on a moral tone -- one is supposed to respond to the real needs of others and just not on the basis of what is already in someone's mind. But I agree that emotion and empathy can drive political movements. Sometimes there is political pressure to help the members of a certain identifiable group because of the obvious need of these members, and emotional appeal may overcome the willingness to look at political demands more objectively.

The Attwood reference is indeed The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome, Jessica Kingsley, Philadelphia, 397 pages, hardbound, indexed, ISBN 1-85302-577-1.
This is a clinical text, that deals with the science of "pervasive developmental disorders". He talks about the "little professor" behavior, a desire that the world be perfect before relations make sense. One proverb on p 31, "I am not defective; I am different."

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Garry Kasparov: How Life Imitates Chess

Author: Garry Kasparov.
Title: How Life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves from the Board to the Boardroom.
Publication: New York: Bloomsbury, 2007, 224 pages, hardbound, ISBN 1-59691-387-8.

Former “retired” world chess champion Garry Kasparov, now in his 40s and graying, has become known in Russia for his leading of opposition to president Vladimir Putin. In this book, he explains how he sees chess as a paradigm for success in life.

He does give some accounts of his world championship matches, especially his multiple matches with Anatoly Karpov. The Soviet Union tried to steer international chess into a direction that favored its own privileged established Communist party stars. He describes a couple of games in detail, especially the 24th game in a 1987 match in Seville, Spain where he had to win with White to keep his title. He played the Reti Opening, went into relatively unbooked lines, and forced Karpov to risk disadvantage if he played for too many exchanges to equalize. Karpov got into time trouble, grabbed a gambit pawn, and wound up with an inferior queen engine, which he lost with another slip in overtime.

In time, Kasparov became more disenchanted with the politics of international chess, even trying to split FIDE, in a period that leads to his current activism in Russia.

Chess is, after all, the most individualistic of “sports.” There are the elements of strategic thinking and tactics, and the paradoxes that occur with the events on the board. There is the need to be decisive and press an attack when a win is really there, or a game can be lost. Yet, there is room for various approaches to success in life. The behavior of entrepreneurs and companies follows the pattern, and results in the transformation that has happened with the “flat world,” globalization, and the Internet. Kasparov sees success in an individualistic, libertarian-like fashion. He speaks briefly of his family and son, but does not write as if family or lineage were essential to identity.

Kasparov says that in international chess, White wins 29% of the time, Black wins 18%, and 53% of games are drawn. That is, Black wins about 38% if grandmaster games played to decision. The old Chess Charts in the 60s gave winning percentages by opening and move, with the Sicilian the best for Black and Caro Kann the worst; in those days the Queen's Gambit Declined was very strong for White statistically.

Kasparov talks about computers and chess (IBM “Big Blue” in the 1990s), but because of the staggering number of possible moves, he does not believe that computers can necessarily make the game obsolete as a competitive exercise. Because of computers, however, international games no longer had adjournments.

I can recall in college, where we had an active chess club in the 60s, that we joked about what majoring in chess would be like. Courses in the various opening types (Kasparov does see 1 e4 as the most aggressive). A year course in the middle game. Various courses in technical endgames. The phases of a chess game correspond to the phases in war, with the endgame often leading to negotiated treaty. Kasparov uses an analogy with the end of the Napoleonic wars.

There is a commentary by Anton Troianovski "Kasparov's Political Gambit
Grandmaster Calculates How to Checkmate Putin: Life imitates chess, except when it doesn't" in the Oct. 20, 2007 Washington Post, Style section, p C01, here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Randall J. Larsen: Our Own Wosrt Enemy: Asking the Right Questions

Author: Randall J. Larsen, Colonel, USAF (Ret).
Title: Our Own Worst Enemy: Asking the Right Questions About Security to Protect You, Your Family, and America.
Publishing: New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2007. ISBN 0-446-58043-0, 302 pages, indexed, hardcover, Foreword and 10 Chapters.

Recently the local Books-a-million had a booksigning party for the author, who is head of the Institute for Homeland Security. I missed the event because of a film festival. I would like to have gone.

The author is trying to reset or restructure our thinking about homeland security. Essentially, he wants to see government, business and individuals think about this strategically, rather than tactically or reactively. He is like the chess teacher who says “develop your pieces before you attack.” One of the biggest dangers, especially economically, is overreaction. Because of our sociological economics, a relative small attack somewhere can cause an enormous disruption.

One of his big ideas is that we have to recognize a distinct, if asymmetric, enemy, which he calls Al Qaeda, to mean all of radical Islam. The biggest threats (especially nuclear) have to be managed overseas (by accounting for loose nuclear material, a concern that others like Sam Nunn have promoted). It is not possible to keep all catastrophic contraband out of the country with purely defensive measures. (That’s like saying, in the Dragon Sicilian in chess, Black must counterattack; he cannot simply sit behind a defensive hedgehog) – possibly a contradictory concept for someone who wants us to think about security strategically. Likewise, he thinks that the current administration’s obsession with illegal immigration (“amnesty” notwithstanding) is misfocused; people who come here to get jobs are not a problem; it’s specific people who are a problem. Of course, much of this comes from the fact that, politically, government can’t get caught “profiling.”

He believes that a new paradigm is needed for domestic intelligence: one that is defensive (essentially a contradiction) and observational, with no law enforcement policies. This is the sort of thing that average citizens, especially those with specific skills (computer, medical, like reserve nurses) can help. From a knowledge management point of view, that sounds good, but it could lead to a “spy on they neighbor” society. He wants to bring back the idea of the citizen posse (which he distinguishes from vigilante). He thinks a 501C3 kind of organization should prototype homeland security concepts. This leads to a discussion of MIPT.

He talks about journalistic protection of sources and the danger of releasing classified information. Even bloggers might do this inadvertently, and on that point he punts, saying that the right questions need to be asked. He has a lot of discussion of Section 304 of the Intelligence Authorization Act.

He does advocate partnership between business and government, and it is obvious that business can sometimes do a much better job of responding to disaster than government, or even disorganized individual volunteers. Why not have Wal-Mart, Lowes, Home Depot and similar companies help provide pre-manufactured housing to hurricane victims on higher land? Companies are good at this, as are some large faith organizations.

He also talks about oversight agencies as important in a democracy and important to the strategic management of terror threats and other possibilities (like pandemics).

At the end of the book, he gives a detailed discussion of how to shelter in place, even after a nuclear incident. He does advocate homeowner gun ownership.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

National Geographic Oct 2007 on ethanol fuels, global warming

The October 2007 issue of National Geographic is important for the global warming and fuel supply debate. The cover shows an ear of corn, and the title: Growing Fuel: The Wrong Way, the Right Way.

On p. 38 the heavily illustrated article by Joel K. Bourne, Jr. appears, with photography by Robert Clark. It is called "Green Dreams: Making fuel from crops could be good for the planet -- after a breakthrough or two." The article compares the relative energy profit and carbon cost of corn ethanol and sugar cane ethanol (quite successful in Brazil with its midwestern "oceans of green"), and sugar cane comes out way ahead. (Corn ethanol does not come out to be too good a deal; the Libertarian Party was saying that ten years ago as governments in farm states forced gasohol use.) Maybe it could work in the Gulf States -- which means some good karma. More research would be needed to make ethanol efficiently from non-food crops like sawgrass, with their heavy cellulose. Even algae could make ethanol with more research.

On p. 32, Bill McKibben has an article, "Carbon's New Math: To deal with global warming, the first step is to do the math." The author reinterates Di Caprio's point from "The 11th Hour" that before the industrial revolution, we lived off of current sunlight and carbon was stable. It went up quickly thereafter, and the article pretty much reproduces Al Gore's numbers. He presents a chart with "three possible paths for future carbon emissions" as three wedges. The biggest problems seem to be political: the developing countries want to reproduce western standards of living and will resent the greediness of western lifestyles. This could some day to individual-based carbon accounting.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

CBS News "What We Saw"; Other album books remembering 9/11

CBS News has a hardbound book “What We Saw: The Events of September 11, 2001—in Words, Pictures and Video", with an introduction by Dan Rather. (Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0743241908).

The book is accompanied by a DVD called “The Witnesses” in eleven Chapters. The most interesting portion may be the first fro, Bryant Gumbel, which came on the air with a “Special Report” at 8:52 AM, six minutes after the first plane struck the World Trade Center. In the beginning people did not realize that this has to have been a crash with a large airliner. He talks to three street witnesses, two men and one woman. It was hard to grasp the gravity of what was unfolding (“Stewart” says, “it’s not too crazy right now”), until a second witness says he tried to put a fire out on a burning man on the street, and then the third witness, a woman, is talking while the second plane hits at 9:03 and the woman comments immediately that this must be on purpose. The woman saw the plane hit before Bryant Gumbel did; the fireball on the South Tower appears without the plane on this particular video. Then the DVD switches to Gumbel's reporting on the crash into the Pentagon at 9:43 AM.

Some of the remaining chapters zero in quickly on Osama bin Laden, referring back to the 1993 attack, and have the tone that many people had understood that a battle with radical Islam had been going on for a long time. The book has many other contributors, including Byron Pitts, Pete Hamill, Bill Geist.

Life Magazine has a book “One Nation: America Remembers September 11, 2001,” with an introduction by Rudolph Guliani, published by Little Brown.

The Robin Hood Relief Fund (and de.MO) has a glitzy paperback “NewYorkSeptemberElevenTwoThousandOne.” The first page has a copy of the front page of the New York Times that morning, a primary day, and oddly there is even an article on school dress codes.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Rafe Esquith: Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire (review)

Author: Rafe Esquith. (“An Actual Classroom Teacher”)
Title: Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire. The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56. New Publication: York: Viking / Penguin, 2007. ISBN 978-0-670-03815-2, 244 pages, hardbound, 17 Chapter, 3 Parts.

Well, helping a student with a chemistry experiment, his hair really did catch on fire once. He tells that story in the Prologue.

The Three parts of this book by an inner city male teacher with 22 years experience, in Los Angeles, apparently teaching mostly or all elementary school (fifth grade), convey a sense of its tone and message:

Part 1 is called “There’s No Place Like Home: How Room 56 Creates a Safe Haven and Provides Children with Shelter from the Storm:

Part 2 is called “The Method: A Few Simple Ideas to Enhance a Child’s Development”

Part 3 is called “The Madness: D___ the Torpedos: Full Speed Ahead.”

Mr. Esquith certainly experiences teaching as a Life, not just a “job.” With personal immersion in character mentoring and chaperoning kids, Esquith presents teaching as a complete life assuming that one is already personally socialized by marriage and being a parent oneself, or at least by strong social connections (perhaps through church) with family responsibility in general. What a contrast. In graduate school, one walks into class and watches the professor spending fifty minutes proving topology theorems from left to right on the board. That was once my concept of teaching. Actually, I taught two semesters “remedial” algebra in graduate school at the University of Kansas, and that was an experience. Others said I did not try to “sell” the material. And recently, in “retirement” I have been a substitute teacher in a couple of northern Virginia school districts, with extremely varied experiences. Some classes, like AP in high school, are essentially like college. Even, in say tenth grade, with Honors chemistry, one can set up the computer, opaque projector, and go into Google and let the students research classwork questions on atomic orbital levels and electronegativity with no fear of misuse. Once, to keep a physics class busy when lesson plans ran out, I found (with Google) a page with the derivation of the gas law equations from the standard hyperbola form with parametric equations in trigonometry! That’s a lot better than hip hop or Myspace, which is blocked at school.

The chaperoning caught my eye, indeed; it seems to be a significant expectation of teachers. I went on some major field trips in school (Williamsburg in 7th grade, and then as a senior when I took the chemistry placement test in April 1961 at William and Mary -- we visited a paper plant on the way down; the Science Honor Society trip to New Hampshire and Mount Washington, NH; a ninth grade trip to France that I passed up, and I regret that now; a football trip to Richmond (I don't remember why non football people were invited to go).

With a certain kind of student, for someone (like me, "retired") to come in from the “real world” of work and media and all kinds of political issues, and show students who are mature enough real stuff, is exciting. It can also be dangerous, given the politics and legal ambiguities in public school systems. The public school is a sheltered place, a sub-universe, and Mr. Esquith says so.

Instead, the author has spent his life as an educator, and of the young, those needing differentiated instruction, those needing constant role models in loco parentis for character development, which Esquith describes in graduated steps going from fear of punishment to being able to set your own standards to do the right thing. In high school, at least with AP / IB / honors etc. most students know pretty much what is expected and are eager to do it. After all, one can get college credit at public expense with no student loan debt later, so why not take advantage of it. Role modeling means something even here, but it is more relative to the expectations of the adult world and “personal responsibility” as libertarians know it. In the elementary world and disadvantaged environment, role modeling seems almost like being a substitute parent. That’s more than just a job.

Esquith apparently has worked in an extended program where kids are in school for long days, and have extensive supervised after-shool programs. Although many teachers sponsor field trips, Esquith arranges cross-country trips for his kids, where he arranges real-world experiences, supervised, but somewhat away from the sheltered environment of school. He also introduces real-world concepts into the classroom, with chores as jobs and artificial money, where students “rent” their desks but if they save enough money they can “buy” them as condominiums and rent them to other students. At the same time, Esquith is big on community service and getting the kids involved in activities for the homeless, trying to balance the individual initiative of capitalism with the need to help others.

Esquith is a jack of all trades (and reasonable master of some) in his teaching. . Here, remember that in grade school, kids have the same teacher all day. (In fact, World News Tonight on Sept. 6 covered a change in the Kansas City MO schools to eliminate middle school and make elementary K to 8, with kids keeping one teacher through eighth grade. I had grades 7, 8 and 9 as middle school, with some of it “general education” for two periods (English and social studies together).

He gives all kinds of practical tips with reading, writing, math (particularly word problems – he gives a lot of them in his book and algebra teachers could make up exams on word problems from examples that he gives – have at it!) He talks about teaching social studies and geography by using games – and what comes to mind for me is, yes, some board games when I was a boy did help me remember the globe (how many jigsaw puzzles do I see in school libraries?) and even games with fictitious geographical layouts (like Star Reporter) teach geographical concepts and skills. (How about the entire imaginary geography of Tolkien?) I also recall those stunningly colored topographical relief maps of every state and Canadian province in the 1950 World Book Encyclopedia, maps no longer available to day. I based many a project in grade school on these.

Esquith is a big promoter of physical education, and takes responsibility for it. He diverts and talks a lot about the virtues of baseball as a sport. (He particularly likes the idea that there is no clock to run out.) He also talks about art projects that he set up, although he denies that he is an artist. He recognizes that kids involved in performing arts often develop more quickly. (It’s worthy of note here that kids in the movies have studio teachers on set – often mentioned in film credits now – and most of these kids do very well, from all reports.) He calls his classroom The Hobart Shakespearearians studies together) He calls his classroom The Hobart Shakespearearians studies together) and his kids put in a Shakespeare play once a year. http://www.hobartshakespeareans.org/ourclass_welcome.php

He mentions a lot of novels, and especially film. One favorite he mentions early in John Knowles’s A Separate Peace. He sometimes shows films, especially in after school periods when the films can be shown without interruption. He likes classic films with a literary basis, but is critical of cheap entertainment. He does like some high quality thrillers, like Wait Until Dark. When a kid rents a video he or she has to fill out a video worksheet showing that he or she really followed the movie (he shows his worksheet for the 1963 thriller Charade. I’ve seen a teacher give a worksheet for Hotel Rwanda – what is the significance of the ‘tall trees”?) After reading through his favorite film list, I had to add to my Netflix queue.

Since I don’t have a sports blog and Rafe talks about baseball, I put a couple of links here about the Washington Nationals ‘s new ballpark.

Ballpark comparisons

Comments on the ballpark dimensions.

Update: Sept. 7, 2007

There is an important business announcement about the merger of two companies in the supported self-publishing (print on demand) business, iUniverse and Author House (Author Solutions) on another blog today, here. Some examples: an iUniverse imprint book (Aphrodite Jones) was reviewed July 24; an Author House book was reviewed on June 21 here.

Update: Sept. 24, 2007: The Metropolitan Section of The Washington Times has a story by Jordan Bartel, "Author tests trilogy on his students," about Wayne Thomas Batson's trilogy "The Door Within" (published by Thomas Nelson) with the three books being: (Same title); "The Rise of the Wyrm Lord"; "The Final Storm". The book was written by a middle school English teacher (Batson) in Maryland with his students. Mr. Batson had previously tried to get a fantasy published (pre Harry Potter) and editors said it was too long with reading level set too high.

Update: Sept. 30. Check Andrew Ferguson, "No Child Left Alone An education reform run amok" in the Sept. 24, 2007 Weekly Standard, here.