Sunday, March 21, 2010

Jesse Ventura's "American Conspiracies": Wow!

Author(s): Jesse Ventura (aka James George Janos) and Dick Russell
Title: "American Conspiracies"
Publication: 2010, Skyhorse Publishing, ISBN 978-1-60239-802-3, 228 pages, hardcover, 14 chapters; Amazon link.

The title of the book calls to mind the film “An American Haunting.” I feel flippant because I was astonished at the mass of theories presents. Ventura was governor of Minnesota from 1999 to 2003, and was considered both an Independent and a rep for the Reform Party. He was popular with the Libertarian Party of Minnesota during the days that I worked with them . He is level-headed and sensible, so at first glance this work sounds astonishing. Some of his other books are “I Ain’t Got Time to Bleed” and “Don’t Start the Revolution Without Me.”

The best way for me to launch a review of this book is to develop my own personal experience with some of the material he presents.

I remember the joyful “wake” in an Irish bar in St. Paul, MN on election night in November 1998, with friends from the LPMN. We broke out in cackles as Ventura pulled ahead. I had been impressed by the level of activism. An insurance professional had run for city council in Minneapolis (“basic services first” -- I remember the debates on loose shopping carts) and a college student (who would later launch my speech and cable television appearance on my own book) had run for council in St. Paul at something like age 21.

Flash forward three years, to a Saturday night late in September in 2001. Jesse Ventura, while governor, comes to the Human Rights Campaign dinner in Minneapolis. We have a chat (by then he probably knew me and my work on “don’t ask don’t tell”), and we talk about 9/11. He agrees with me that “It is safe to fly” now. There’s no hint of radical interpretations of all these “bad things” in his remarks.

Now, I flash back to about a week before 9/11, when I had moved into a larger apartment in the same downtown Minneapolis highrise. I celebrate Labor Day weekend by going up north, to Duluth gay pride, and stay in a motel in Wisconsin, unable to connect to my email. But Sunday night, in Thunder Bay, Canada, I connect to AOL, and I recall a bizarre email heading with “911” in the title. I figure it is sent by a virus and delete it. But several other friends of mine report getting a similar email, which had apparently arrived mid-day Saturday.

The day after Labor Day, back at work, I picked up a Popular Science issue in a drug store, an issue that talks about the possibility of local EMP attacks launched by terrorists with relatively cheap microwave generators. Another friend at work (rather much more of a techie and engineer than me) had seen it and is concerned. Later, the movie “Oceans 11” would have a plot incident based on the idea.

The last two days that week (Sept. 6 and 7), we had the largest (and really only) computer network virus infection ever at work. It was a big deal. I had a feeling something was going to happen. It had been a bizarre summer in some ways, and there was a sense something would happen.

So I dig Ventura’s imagination, at least. We needed more imagination, and we certainly need it now. But if the government (the old libertarian paranoia, perhaps) is the source of the plots rather than Al Qaeda, we’re pretty much sitting ducks.

Let me mention one more autobiographical oddity. I spent boyhood summers in a town of Kipton, Ohio, five miles west of Oberlin; and I was told by local sources that the flight 93 actually turned in that area and might have crashed a few miles NE of Kipton.

So I come back to the subject of “imagination” and I must say that Ventura states a lot of facts and theories. And he does provide beaucoup bibliographic references and endnotes. It would be quite a challenge to go through this book’s 14 chapters on different “incidents”.

On 9/11, he mentions some interesting records about the path of Flight 77, enough to suggest that something else (a missile) could have hit the Pentagon – and notes the lack of debris from Flight 93 and similar questions about its path and whether the government really would have shot it down in time to protect the Capitol if “Let’s Roll” hadn’t happened. Why was the government so slow to respond to the multiple attacks? He questions the usual theories that jet fuel fire could have caused the WTC towers to pancake in ten seconds, and analyzes the nearby Building 7 that collapsed. He recommends the “Loose Change” movie (reviewed on the “disaster movies” blog Oct. 1, 2009. One could ask questions about why FBI Agent John O'Neill was "allowed" to go to work for the Port Authority and WTC Security Operations and be in the towers on 9/11, his first day of work on a new job, to die, as in a PBS Frontline documentary (link, near the end). One should also ask why Zacarias Moussaoui's laptop wasn't examined by the FBI (he was nabbed in Minnesota in flight training, remember), or about FBI agent Coleen Rowley whose warnings were ignored (I believe I met her in a coffee line on the Skyway underneath the Minneapolis 111 Building once), or about the NSA's intercepting a message (like the mysterious email above) on 9/10 and not looking at it until 9/12. By the way, there were mysterious arrests in Boston on 9/12 that the media reported but never followed up on.

Ventura's most convincing chapters concern the stolen election(s). It’s true that voting software is vulnerable to manipulation. I’ve worked as an election judge three times in northern VA, and found the procedures (with the machines from Advanced Voting Solutions, with no paper trail) strict enough – we were kept there for 18 hour days with low pay. In Minnesota we had voted with punched cards that could be counted, so there was a paper trail. He mentions, in discussion of the 2004 election, the subjects of draft dodging and combat heroism in Vietnam, somewhat in departure from his libertarian leanings. He also suggests that one official who “knew to much” may have been murdered by having an microwave EMP blast fired at a private plane he was in. That’s the old but obscure Popular Science article again. The Washington Times has also discussed the EMP problem in some op-ed columns (see my International Issues blog).

On the Collapse of 2008, his work more or less parallels the writings of Michael Lewis (“The Big Short”, which I haven’t personally looked at yet but saw summarized on 60 minutes – see my TV blog for March 15). True, AIG and Goldman-Sachs were artificial.

Ventura "comes out" for ending the war on drugs in his chapter on the Iran-contra affair.

On other materials, he really gets interesting. On the JFK assassination, he presents the theory of a double for Oswald, which sounds reasonable. On Watergate, he supposes that Nixon wasn’t so bad himself but that he was set up, with a Watergate burglary intended to fail and “get caught”. He explores the idea of a “Manchurian candidate” style mind control black ops in the CIA, particularly with the RFK assassination and possible programming of Sirhan. He talks about Lincoln’s end as a wide-netted plot not covered in history books, and mentions the possibility of biological warfare (with yellow fever) in the Civil War (let alone smallpox in the Revolutionary and French and Indian Wars). He presents some evidence that Jonestown was actually underwritten by the CIA, with almost all the residents actually murdered.

One can only say, wow. In his last chapter, he warns about the extent that government can go to, declaring martial law and shutting down communication on the Internet at a whim. This is no “duck and cover”. I remember the concerns right after 9/11 about the web and steganography, and the idea that ordinary people’s sites could be hacked with steganographic instructions. In fact, on an old site of mine, a file was hacked right at the point where I started talking about suitcase nukes. Who was trying to send me a message.

The Alex Jones Channel offers a perspective on the book (and Ventura's TV shows and "True TV"):

Jones calls this Ventura's "best books" and speaks of government crimes himself.

There were at least two "hit man" killings of people working on highly sensitive government projects in the Maryland suburbs of DC in late 2008, in one case leaving bizarre clues on social networking sites; one wonders if Ventura's theories could apply to these cases. The governmnet did it?

Frankly, “my dear”, I an’t got time to bleed.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Scientific American offers comprehensive view of Titan, most "Earthlike" body in Solar System ("moon" of Saturn) besides Earth itself

Although usually magazine articles shouldn’t get book reviews (I do a few with NatGeo), the March 2010 Scientific American has a fascinating portrait of Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, well deserving of blogger congratulations. It’s on page 36 (does SciAm use wonderful font for its page numbers? – looks like grade school!). The article is by Ralph Lorenz and Christopher Sotin, and it is titled “The Moon that would be a planet.”

Larger than Mercury, it has an atmosphere thicker than Earth’s, and apparently is the only other body in the solar system with both significant land and liquid surfaces. (That’s superficial – underneath, there may be a water layer, like Europa, or ice; also, the appearance of Triton and Pluto deserves some speculation). The article compares the structure of Earth’s atmosphere’s to Titan’s. There is a kind of pseudo-volcanism that may resurface Titan every hundred thousand years or so (a similar observation has been made about Venus, which turned itself inside out half a billion years ago, pretty recently). But from pictures and aerial maps, some of it looks like California desert country. One observer thought he recognized Malibu Beach in one of the pictures.

The link for the article is here.

One of my own movie scripts is called “69 Minutes to Titan.” That’s about how far light would take to get there from Earth when Saturn is on the same side of the Sun as Earth.

BBC Worldwide YouTube video on Titan:

Carl Sagan's illustrated book "Cosmos" in 1980 had offered artist's impressions of Titan and suggested that organic compounds called thiolins fall on the surface.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Jim Wallis: "Rediscovering Values": a call for more sociability? What about introverts?

Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street
Author: Jim Wallis
Title: "Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street: A Moral Compass for the New Economy"
Publication: New York: Howard Books, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4391-8312-0, 255 pages, hardcover, 7 parts, 17 chapters, Introduction and Epilogue, endnotes. Available as ebook. ‘’

On page 56, Wallis writes, “The problem comes when ‘I am special” turns into ‘I am an exception.’ When ‘I believe in myself’ becomes ‘I do not believe in others.”” I would react by saying, “I believe in some others, but I must have the freedom to select those others.” I remember an episode of WB’s “Smallville” where teenage Clark Kent says, “I’m different, not special.”

I’m getting ahead of myself, here. I’ll come back to the personal reaction. This book was mentioned in a recent issue of the AARP Magazine, and purports to be an interdenominational examination of our values, of what we should be living for as we come out of the Great Recession. You could say that he combines George Soros's criticism of "market fundamentalism" with a religious suspicion of hyperindividualism. In a sum, it seems that we are no longer sufficiently social (or sociable) creatures. (On p. 63 there is a section “We are social creatures” in the chapter “It’s all about me”.) We need to learn to live for purposes greater than ourselves. (John McCain has said that.) We need not so much a social contract as a social “covenant”. But, in this author’s view, the issue is much bigger than the loss of the focus on “family”, even if it should not remain so nebulous as "the common good". In fact, Wallis stays away from characterizations of the “natural family” (a book by Carlson that I reviewed in September 2009) and the divisive social issues that result (like gay rights) and keeps things pretty general. His thinking is a bit like Rick Warren’s “it’s not about you” or the “Purpose-Driven Life”. Of course, this can lead to loss of individual choice or freedom as we normally see it today (loss of “personal autonomy” or “individual sovereignty”) and can invite corruption from those who do wind up in command of the social structures.

It's important to note that Wallis points out that we need to learn to ask the right questions. Are we talking about accepting the importance of loyalty to family and community in a way to cover sacrifice, or are we talking about "rules of engagement" that keep the veneer of individualism while addressing "sustainability"? We like to get rid of "double standards" but doing so explicitly (getting rid of "don't ask don't tell"-style thinking completely) can result in loss of freedom for everyone. There's no way a society can make things absolutely "equal" and "fair" for everyone (as we often expect it) and preserve freedom as we experience it. That probably explains some of the "socialism" of most religious teachings.

Wallis's perception of Wall Street is pretty straightforward: financial practice got separated from contact with the customer. Banking entered the world of abstraction, with the packaging of securities into bundles (“derivatives”) that had nothing to do with people. The motive was short term profit and a particularly simplistic, Hollywood-ish idea of “greed” (perhaps not even the enlightened self-interest of reputable objectivism). Generally, big business became more consolidated and disregarded the needs of its workers (here he sounds like he comes from the Left). As a result, families tended to be hit harder by the uncertainties of the workplace than did single or childless people, and young adults felt discouraged to take on personal responsibility for others. In my view, the eldercare demographic crisis can change this quickly.

But it’s how we look at individual people that matters. A culture of hyper-individualism replaced the solidarity of earlier generations, with a view that the poor or vulnerable are personally responsible for their own plight. (One can ask that question of borrowers of subprime mortgages when they later defaulted; was this "getting something for nothing", or an inevitable consequence of taking on family responsibility, which cuts both ways when it comes to materialism.) Not so, he says: people don't start out at the same place in line, and God never intended that invidivuals completely control their own fates; all major religions have a tradition of accepting the reality that some poverty is unavoidable. He compares the socialism of the early Christians to that of Shariah law and the Muslim practice of forbidding usury, which in some cases leads to financial practices in home ownership that are more sustainable. He also discusses periodic redistribution of land or wealth in Jewish law in the Old Testament. (I think that the Parable of the Vineyards provides an interesting paradox, as does the Parable of the Talents.)

One interesting notion is "moral hazard" as he defines it. That is, someone keeps the gains, but vanishes from the planet before the house of cards falls. That again is a "generativity" problem. He does mention fatherhood as giving him a sense of futurity.

But it’s how the individual himself or herself should behave – and interact with other people – that interesting. His last chapter has “twenty moral exercises” which generally lead to more interaction with others (particularly family) and less emphasis on “artificial” self-reliance buoyed up by a vulnerable technological infrastructure.

I wondered how these suggestions should apply to “introverts” or people who do better if they do guard their own spaces and safe harbors in life. Not everyone has children or wants them – but that could be seen as part of “the problem” (as noted in other books talking about “sustainability” and “generativity”). Indeed, the effect that the emotional and financial demands of family life can be passed on to those who did not make their own choices in these matters (including the childless) creates moral tensions. I understand the practical benefit of “staycations” but sometimes one wants the adventure of, say, the high speed train trip to Tibet in China. Media sounds like a poor replacement for people, but media (as understood in the broadest sense, going back for centuries, including performing arts) provides income and culture for millions.

In my case, there are some particular problems. I spoke out (with my self-published books and websites), and presented my taste in “people” as kind of “knowledge of good and evil.” (There are particular reasons for this in my early upbringing: what was probably intended to teach “teamwork” or social interdependency got converted or elaborated into a moral exercise in measuring the worth of people, especially when they do fall behind – all the way back in the 1950s.) Therefore, it’s not surprising that some people challenged me as to why I resist personal “intimacy” (and willingness to give affection to others whom I did not "choose" or give "consent" to) in situations where it is really needed. (My history as a substitute teacher, discussed on other blogs, bears that out.) And, from my social reticence, I have at least come to understand why some people want to see moral purity (even as spelled out in religious texts) around them so that their obedience in setting up familial relationships actually has “meaning.” This is important in explaining some of the horrific things some people have done.

Wallis mentions many ideas that most of us think of as progressive and ultimately improving freedom and sustainability both: alternate fuels (he mentions destruction of the environment, peak oil, and mountaintop removal), and a creative commons for intellectual property. The recent fights over copyrignt and digitat rights management has made it clear that we all might have more if we took a more “Commons” oriented approach to cultural innovation (“Creative Commons”, often discussed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is one example).

Link to author’s video discussing his book is here.

YouTube version from Simon Schuster

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A valuable compendium explaining the entire Qur'an (Koran)

On February 28, I attended a screening of a one hour film “Inside Islam” (see my movies blog March 1) at a northern Virginia protestant church, and at that event someone was offering complimentary copies of the three-volume compendium “The Message of the Qu’ran”, translated and explained by Muhammad Asad (1900-1992, born in the Ukraine), published by The Book Foundation, England. The three volumes are paper, 1174 pages, indexed.

The volumes comprise a Prologue by Husan Gai Eaton, a Foreword, a layout explanation, the 114 Surahs (split among the volumes as 1-9, 10-29, 30-114), and four appendices.

The layout of each page consists of four components: on the upper right is the original Arabic; below it is Arabic transliteration; to the left is an English “interpretation”, and below are the footnotes and commentary. The Prologue explains the proper understanding of “translation”. Eaton writes that the Qur’an (or Koran) may be understood fully only in the original Arabic, because the language contains a syllabic structure that is comparable to poetry and even music. Asad writes in the Foreword, “We Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the Word of God, revealed to the Prophet Mohammed through the medium of a human language. It was the language of the Arabian Peninsula: the language of a people endowed with that particular quick-wittedness which the desert and its feel of wide, timeless expanses bestows upon its children.” He goes on and explains “ijaz”. Perhaps this notion is roughly like what the high school English literature student faces in understanding Shakespeare’s plays in iambic pentameter. However, the use of detailed commentary and footnotes helps justify the English “translation.”

The appendices deal with some esoteric materials, such as the meaning of the concept “jinn” as a kind of hidden but reconciled kernel of consciousness, as well as the Night Journey.

The social and political application of the “message” – and the paradigm that converts the message into human laws of interaction, is always controversial. But Asad believes that the underlying issue is the individual spirit itself, and not just the laws – even if Islam, to the westerner, seems unusually preoccupied with moral perfectionism and justice. Therefore, Asad would seem to support a moderate, civil system of law like what we expect from mainstream Judeo-Christian societies.

This compendium of the Qur’an reminds me of a 1949/1957 book from Thomas Nelson Publishers, “Gospel Parallels: A Synopsis of the First Three Gospels”, edited by Burton H. Throckmorton, Jr.; it used to be taught at American University in Washington DC in the late 1950s by a pastor Frank Baumann.

Monday, March 01, 2010

E-book piracy concerns are rising, but the business models are different

The introduction of Apple’s new Tablet (or iPad), as if Moses should have downloaded the Ten Commandments onto one, doesn’t necessary exacerbate a problem that is slowly smoldering: copyrignt infringement with e-books, on a smaller scale than but ultimately similar to the problems with music and movies. And the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) could come into play.
Tom Spring has a detailed article on the problem in the March 2010 PCWorld, “E-Book Piracy: The Publishing Industry's Next Epic Saga?
With the rise of e-book readers like the Kindle, Sony Reader, and Nook comes the scourge of the digital world: pirates.” The link is here.

In some cases, well-established authors like J.K. Rowling with the Harry Potter novels have refused to allow their books to be published in e-book form. However, “entrepreneurs” might jive up ways to make illegal electronic copies available anyway. This issue may be more of an problem with books where the “ending” matters and where there is a “spoiler” potential.

Another problem is that different readers only work with their own downloads; there is no interchangeability, as there is with CD’s. (We’ve had the problem with DVD formats, though, just as we did with VCR’s in the mid 1980s.)

Remember back in 2000 Stephen King had tried an experiment with “The Plant”, an honor system where users paid for chapter downloads. It didn’t work. Here’s an old account on Applelinks from Nov. 2000 by John F. Farr, “Deadbeats Kill King Internet Book, at Least for a While”, link here.

Many "less established" authors make their work available for free browsing online, in either HTML or PDF format, to become better known.

Print-on-demand companies are making books available for various e-Reader formats, too.