Sunday, April 30, 2006

Fear Is Not What's Important

Photo by James Nachtwey - Afghanistan, 1996 - Mourning a brother killed by a Taliban rocket "Fear is not what's important. It's how you deal with it. It's not a matter of whether you feel it. It's how you manage it."

That's James Nachtwey in the excellent 2001 documentary War Photographer directed by Christian Frei. The temper of this subtle, but powerful documentary perfectly mirrors an extraordinary man, who one editor for Der Stern describes as appearing on the battle field in pressed jeans, an immaculate shirt and neatly parted hair. To watch Nachtwey in action is an astonishing thing. Considered the best in his field, he seems utterly unlike any combat photographer (or paparazzo) you could imagine. He's soft spoken, even described as shy, and he remains utterly, utterly calm and quiet in every situation he'd shown in.

Most impressive, however, is the philosophy behind his work:
Is it possible to put an end to a form of human behavior which has existed throughout history by means of photography? The proportions of that notion seem ridiculously out of balance. Yet, that very idea has motivated me.

For me, the strength of photography lies in its ability to evoke a sense of humanity. If war is an attempt to negate humanity, then photography can be perceived as the opposite of war and if it is used well it can be a powerful ingredient in the antidote to war.

In a way, if an individual assumes the risk of placing himself in the middle of a war in order to communicate to the rest of the world what is happening, he is trying to negotiate for peace. Perhaps that is the reason why those in charge of perpetuating a war do not like to have photographers around.
I watched another film this weekend which focuses on the theme of fear: Peter Greengrass's United 93. Like a lot of people, when I first saw the trailer for this movie (it's almost a documentary or cinéma vérité in its style), I was prepared for the worst. When I heard Greengrass was the director, I though maybe he'd pull it off. And he did. It's a tense and horrifying film that left the audience (myself included) largely speechless, as it should, and though there are heroes in the movie, they act as humans, planning on the fly, acting in a rush. There are no stirring aisle-way Agincourt speeches because that's not what happened. That's never what happens, despite what Hollywood's been feeding us for decades.

Still, these men were heroic in the most human sense. They were successful in overcoming their fear and attacking their hijackers, but their success didn't prevent their death. As we know, however, it likely saved the lives of many, many others.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Hallelujah & Pass the Tequila!

Shot full of Messiah
I organized a visit for the gang from work to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at Charlotte's Discovery Place today. Fascinating stuff. You even get to see encased samples of the scrolls, which are specially lit with lights that go out in intervals for several seconds, so the parchment isn't damaged.

But the piece de resistance was the Dead Sea Scrolls shot glass a coworker bought me. Utterly classic! Now, I just need the Torah, Apocrypha, and New Testament glasses to complete the collection.

I'm a Neo Neo-Con

Crooks and Liars has this hilarious clip of Stephen Colbert interviewing Bill Kristol. Colbert continues to amaze me with how well he stays in character.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Say What?


This fun little app lets you quickly add speech bubbles to any picture. Drawbacks: you can't resize the bubble for longer quotes (though you can move it around), and it doesn't handle special characters. Hence the missing umlaut. Update: SayWhat creator Zach tells us in comments that you can reshape the speech bubble by hitting enter at the desired point. Thanks Zach.

Disclaimer: Despite wishing to maintain a moderate and sensible point of view, this blog makes no apologies for comparing our nation's Secretary of Defense to Stanley Kubrik's Dr. Strangelove. We will, however, concede to the point that such comparisons are less than novel.

But, when even The Economist is calling for Rumsfeld's resignation, there's hardly much controversy, is there?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Rest in Peace John

WHISPERS of heavenly death, murmur’d I hear;
Labial gossip of night—sibilant chorals;
Footsteps gently ascending—mystical breezes, wafted soft and low;
Ripples of unseen rivers—tides of a current, flowing, forever flowing;
(Or is it the plashing of tears? the measureless waters of human tears?)

I see, just see, skyward, great cloud-masses;
Mournfully, slowly they roll, silently swelling and mixing;
With, at times, a half-dimm’d, sadden’d, far-off star,
Appearing and disappearing.

(Some parturition, rather—some solemn, immortal birth:
On the frontiers, to eyes impenetrable,
Some Soul is passing over.)

- Walt Whitman, "Whispers of Heavenly Death"
Update: A Seattle Times obituary for John, who I studied with in school and who attained some international notoriety for his Star Wars stunt. John was a tremendously gifted young man, and a great example of how not everyone who attends my alma mater is of a predictable type or mindset.

Falwell Vs. Fallwell

Someone with a great sense of humor is using this URL to rebutt Jerry Falwell's anti-gay propaganda. Apparently, Falwell (three "l"s) tried to take (four "l"s) to the Supreme Court over the site's alleged misuse of his name. However, the Supremes refused to hear his case. Don't Falwell and his lawyers think the Court has better things to do with their time? Like disfiguring the Constitution to outlaw gay marriage or something?

Elsewhere, we read that some religious conservatives are suing for the right to be intolerant:
"Think how marginalized racists are," said [Gregory] Baylor, who directs the Christian Legal Society's Center for Law and Religious Freedom. "If we don't address this now, it will only get worse."
Given the context, I know what he's trying to say: He believes sexual orientation is a choice, unlike race, so he believes homophobia (my word, not his) is not the same as racism. But--Think how marginalized racists are?--didn't Baylor still make some sort of Freudian slip there? I guess his point is that the anti-gay crowd might be one day be "marginalized" like racists. I'm not sure racists are exactly marginalized in our society, considering some of the things you can read in the paper on any given day directed at illegal aliens. But taking Baylor's point, I guess an appropriate response might be "So?"

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

St. Pete's 500th

The Basilica by Viviano Codazzi
The latest free lecture from The Teaching Company is by Prof. Kenneth Barlett on the 500th anniversary of the cornerstone being laid for the St. Peter's Basilica. They tell us to share these things, so here you go [mp3].

Interesting nugget: the sale of indulgences to raise money for the building of St. Pete's contributed to Luther's consternation with the Pope's pardons and the Protestant Reformation. I wondered if this connection were exaggerated, so I did a little research, and here's what Luther himself had to say in his 95 Theses:
49. Christians should be taught that the Pope’s pardons are useful, if they do not put their trust in them; but most hurtful, if through them they lose the fear of God.
50. Christians should be taught that, if the Pope were acquainted with the exactions of the preachers of pardons, he would prefer that the Basilica of St. Peter should be burnt to ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep.
51. Christians should be taught that, as it would be the duty, so it would be the wish of the Pope, even to sell, if necessary, the Basilica of St. Peter, and to give of his own money to very many of those from whom the preachers of pardons extract money.
Guess I'd take a slightly different tack from Mr. Luther: Does make you think when you see all those multi-million dollar mega-churches (with their garish architecture, plush seating, and elaborate sound systems), wouldn't all the money spent building these edifices be better distributed, say, feeding the poor and providing shelter for the homeless?

Monday, April 17, 2006

Old Macheath’s Back in Town

Threepenny Poster

Check out this great site devoted entirely to The Threepenny Opera. Includes posters, sound clips, and history. With a suitably noirish navigation consisting of knives, the tips of which drip with blood when you hover over them.

Found via this NPR review of what sounds like a fantastic new version translated by Wallace "Cliffs of Insanity" Shawn and starring Alan Cumming, Cyndi Lauper(!), and Nellie McKay(!) - with costumes by Isaac Mizrahi. What's not to like?

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Best Easter Joke Ever

Elegant in its simplicity. OK, so I'm easily amused. What else is new?

Lot of folks come here looking for these Easter diorama (plural of "diorama" anyone?) constructed out of Peeps, too. Good times, good times.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

This Spells Trouble

Have you considered the inanities of English spelling lately? If not, check out these spelling poems.

An excerpt:
I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough and through?
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
And dead: it's said like bed, not bead -
For goodness sake don't call it deed!
Much more where that came from. Got to love English, all those permutations are fascinating, however annoying.

Via This Is Broken, where the contributor asks, do they having spelling bees in other languages? Good question! Anyone know? I don't remember encountering spelling bees in Korea, for example.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Thoughts from Saturday on a Sunday

"When anything can happen, everything matters" - Ian McEwan

Here's a couple of passages from Ian McEwan's Saturday, a fine novel, which I'm just finishing up:
There are these rare moment when musicians touch something sweeter that they've ever found before in rehearsals or performance, beyond the merely collaborative or technically proficient, when their expression becomes as easy and graceful as friendship or love. This is when they give us a glimpse of what we might be, of our best selves, and of an impossible world in which you give everything you have to others, but lose nothing of youself. Out in the real world there exist detailed plans, visionary projects for peaceable relams, all conflicts resolved, happiness for everyone, for ever--mirages for which people are prepared to die and kill. Christ's kingdom on earth, the worker's paradise, the ideal Islamic state. But only in music, and only on rare occasions, does the curtain actually lift on this dream of community, and it's tantalisingly conjured, before fading away with the last notes.
And a few pages later, a description of how, perhaps, we all feel these days:
Have his anxieties been making a fool of him? It's part of the new order, this narrowing of freedom, of his right to roam. Not so long ago his thoughts ranged more unpredictably, over a longer list of subjects. He suspects he's becoming a dupe, the willing febrile consumer of news fodder, opinion, speculation, and of all the crumbs the authorities let fall. He's a docile citizen, watching Leviathan grow stronger while he creeps under its shadow for protection. This Russian plane flew right into his insomnia, and he's been only too happy to let the story and every little nervous shirt of the daily news process colour his emotional state. It's an illusion, to believe himself active in the story. Does he think he's contributing something, watching news programmes, or lying on his back on the sofa on Saturday afternoons, reading more opinion columns of ungrounded certainties, more long articles about what really lies behind this or that development, or about what is most surely going to happen next, predictions forgotten as soon as they are read, well before events disprove them? ... He's lost the habits of scepticism, he's becoming dim with contradictory opinion, he isn't thinking clearly, and just as bad, he senses he isn't thinking independently.
Emphasis mine throughout.

Say what you like about Noam Chomsky, I think his idea of "manufactured consent" delivers a sharp ring of truth. That second passage from McEwan illustrates perfectly the way our thinking is constrained by the information (accurate or inaccurate) that we're flooded with via the government in (perhaps unwitting) concert with the media.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

"We Hit the Jackpot"

Artwork by Ray Troll. Thanks Ray for permission to reproduce.Hooray, evolution!

Update: Ray Troll has some wonderful artwork featuring pictures of the little beastie on his site already. (Via Pharyngula)

And there's a nice Wikipedia entry already, of course. Ain't the Internets a wonder?

fish transition snagged from Wikipedia, who apparently lifted it from Nature?
And the creationist response:
Because evolutionists want to discover transitional forms, when they find a very old fish with leg-bone-like bones in its fins, they want to interpret this as evidence that it is some sort of transitional creature. However, other fish seem to have the same sort of structure as stated above, and these bones are not constructed as one would expect for weight-bearing legs. It may be just another example of the wonderful design of our Creator God.
Hmm, or it could be a transitional fossil. Ever heard of Occam's Razor? Note how the above tacitly presupposes evolution to be impossible: "these bones are not constructed as one would expect for weight-bearing legs."

Er, right, that's what makes it a transitional feature. Their very rebuttal reveals that they do not understand Darwinian adaptation, which is blind. As the changes are happening, they are not happening so that the creature can walk on land one day. The creatures with these subtle differences usually enjoy some sort of advantage because of that feature, and over eons, those features, through further adaptation may turn into different "parts." But the parts aren't thinking, "I'm going to evolve into Elle McPherson's legs one day." They're just doing what they can do in their current state. It ain't rocket science.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

I Want My MP3

Cover for Byrne and Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

Here's a couple of semi-topical freebies for yah; both worth a download:

Good ol' Billy Bragg, the closest thing we have living to an honest-to-God folkie protest singer; he's recorded an adaptation of Leadbelly's "Bourgeois Blues" called "Bush War Blues." It's both tongue in cheek and dead serious and you can download it free from Yep Roc Records [mp3]. It was recorded just the other day. Ah, Internets, how marvelous are thy ways.

Then, via Boing Boing, there's word that David Byrne and Brian Eno's 1981 masterwork My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is being rereleased, along with several extra tracks. Via Creative Commons license, Byrne and Eno are even making multitracks from two of the songs available for interested folks to remix. What's missing, however, is one song entitled "Qu'ran" that disappeared shortly after the album was originally released. Blake Leyh explains why, having tracked down the following explanation from enoweb:
The Islamic Council of Great Britain had approached the record company with a complaint about the use of the “found” material [a ritual chanting of the Holy Koran. Actually, I’m surprised that anyone got permission to even tape it in the first place]; There are some expressions of Islam in which *all* music is considered “haram” [I think that’s the Arabic term, anyway] - or against the teachings of the Koran. There is an argument about whether or not Mohammed (pbuh) stated that “music” for use in certain Islamic festivals or special occasions *is* allowable, but that’s for folks who know the Surahs better than I.

At any rate, the Islamic Council voiced its strong disapproval of having the original source material used in the way it was used ... , and in the days of watching the Fatwahs fly back and forth, Eno and his pals deemed it meet to exclude it. “Very Very Hungry” was added instead. However, my copy of it includes both, so some other judgements must have been made later.
For a short time, Leyh is linking to the song [MP3].

So, interestingly enough, in choosing to download that second song - or not - you may be making a small, but pointed moral statement. What that statement is, of course, depends on your point of view.

Anyway, if you've never heard Bush of Ghosts, I strongly encourage you to check it out. It still sounds bracingly current today, and clearly influenced many musicians in its wake.

You can also watch the video for Mea Culpa on the site dedicated to this anniversary edition.

God's Own Party

On a roll with his book out and making serious waves, in today's Washington Post, Kevin Phillips details the rise of religious fundamentalism in the United States:
These developments have warped the Republican Party and its electoral coalition, muted Democratic voices and become a gathering threat to America's future. No leading world power in modern memory has become a captive of the sort of biblical inerrancy that dismisses modern knowledge and science. The last parallel was in the early 17th century, when the papacy, with the agreement of inquisitional Spain, disciplined the astronomer Galileo for saying that the sun, not the Earth, was the center of our solar system.

Conservative true believers will scoff at such concerns. The United States is a unique and chosen nation, they say; what did or did not happen to Rome, imperial Spain, the Dutch Republic and Britain is irrelevant. The catch here, alas, is that these nations also thought they were unique and that God was on their side. The revelation that He apparently was not added a further debilitating note to the late stages of each national decline.
Combine these thoughts with the rise of foreign economies in countries whose populations dwarf ours, and it's not hard to imagine America's status as the world's solo superpower dwindling significantly within our lifetimes. Let's just hope we can maintain our civil rights and our freedom here as the inevitable unfolds.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Some Thoughts on "Illegals" from a Legal

I recently received an email from a friend with a headline that read: "from the occupied US where and army of 11M illegal aliens demand the right to be here illegally (in foreign tongues) while waiving foriegn flags."

Apparently, that vicious rhetoric came via a local politician. I'm not saying who specifically because I've yet to find mention of it online. However, the headline rather inflamed me. What follows are some thoughts I've distilled from subsequent email which went back and forth between my friends and me.

I actually think both sides of the immigration issue make some legitimate points, but I hate to see "the illegals" vilified when we as a country have been trying to have our cake and eat it too, as people complain about porous borders, but small businesses and corporations quietly but vigorously insist on the ability to hire such folks. It ain't just orange orchards hiring "migrant workers." I was hearing a story on NPR about a guy who runs a tech plant and was using all illegals a decade ago before he got busted.

I'd be for making the borders less porous, sure, as I suspect many folks on both sides of the political divide would be (and I don't think this has to be a political issue, though both sides may pander to it in some manner or another - I also find that folks on both sides have complex views of this issue), but I also think that kicking out all of "the illegals" (as they're often crudely described) would be an absolutely monstrous human rights issue for all sorts of reasons. People want to make it black and white, but it just ain't. Just one example: Do you send a 6 year old kid who only speaks English back to Mexico with her parents?

So, I think we should take the best points from both sides on this issue - tighten the borders (and not by policing them with white supremicists with itchy trigger fingers), but treat the people who are here humanely - and move forward from there.

Also, "the occupied US"? WTF? We're scared of 11 million peaceful "illegals" - people picking oranges and blowing leaves - when we have hyper-religious terrorists flying into buildings and killing thousands of people?

Consider this: I busted my ass for six years to maintain a legal condition while I was here and still left the country so I wouldn't be "an illegal," so it does bother me a little when folks who haven't cared about the law suddenly get amnesty. Nonetheless, I do think there's far more to the picture than that.

Also, ask yourself: you're born into a dirt poor country neighboring a rich one. Your family needs money. American businesses by the thousands *want you* to come over and work for them. Is it really a FELONY for you to go over to the rich country and try and make money for your family? Gimme a break.

In considering our laws, let's also consider our humanity.

Let the Stereotyping Begin!

It's become popular around here to point out every Mexican who's busted for drunk driving. One particularly malignant local politician, Sue Myrick, has made a big deal about this and is now pushing for an immigration court here in North Carolina. Myrick is also adamantly anti-gay, so she's singling out gays and minorities regularly for her ire. Aren't their better things you could be doing with your time, Sue? I guess hate-monguering is a sure-fire way to rustle up votes in some quarters, though.

Do illegal immigrants break (additional) laws? Of course. But not all Americans are law-abiding either. Hell, if you want to be exact about it, probably *few* are. Not all *humans* are law-abiding. We have *plenty* of drunken redneck drivers around here. Mexicans aren't by nature all drunk drivers or gang members. Myrick pulls in these tangential arguments to build a case that appeals to stereotypes in an effort to scare people into running folks out of the States she doesn't like. Some folks are even scary us with visions of virulent diseases coming into the country via "the illegals."

Immigrants are either illegal or they're not; we either send them back or we don't; we either seal our borders or we don't. But these malicious arguments around crime and disease are just scare tactics, and they've been used against every minority groups that's every come to the United States, including the Irish.

Another example often used is of the mother who comes here pregnant to ensure citizenship through her newborn. But this is just *one* cherry-picked example, too, and it doesn't represent all cases. There are plenty of children who are born here simply because that's where their parents were living at the time.


Corporations actively lobby the government to be able to hire the cheapest labor possible, and they know the law well enough to do whatever slippery paperwork they need to to hire whoever they want, who would not be able to get into the US otherwise. Of course, since those are generally educated people they're hiring, this practice goes largely unnoticed, but those people do come to the United States and legally (technically, though not following the spirit of the law) work for half the amount Americans would. It's a practice called "inshoring" - it's going on all around you right now and we'll probably hear a lot more about it in the future. I know some awfully nice people who are benefiting from it, though it certainly wasn't something I benefited from as a liberal arts graduate back in 1995.

Do I want to see those people sent home? Of course not. They actually acted entirely legally. It's the companies that put a rush on their paperwork that need to be scrutinized. Are they really hiring a foreigner, as the law says, because a qualified American wasn't available? Of course not. (At least not always.) They're hiring the foreigner because he or she's willing to work in the United States for half the amount that a citizen often is.

I'm cool with that. But it's just another example of us as a country wanting to have our cake and eat it, too.

One more thing: all the folks complaining about *so vociferously* about the illegal aliens here. Can we quit pretending this is anything but thinly disguised racism (or xenophobia, if you prefer I be more polite)?

We have a standard of living which rates among the highest on the planet. So, to the most vocal of the "send 'em all home" crowd, I ask, can you please show me how these "illegals" are actually impacting your life?