Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Friday, May 27, 2011 8:28 pm

“Sometimes I wonder who really won the Cold War.”

So do I:

In Lithuania, fiber broadband equivalent in speed to the service purchased by most Americans (10/1 Mbps) is$14.72 a month. The Lithuanian telco just doubled speeds with no rate increase, and you can get 40/40 Mbps service for $55, with no caps.

In the United States, I pay $40/month for 10/1 service. Recently, my ISP (Time Warner Cable) announced that they’ll sell you 30/5 for $70/month, and 50/5 for $100/month. I can’t buy the top end of Lithuanian-grade service (300/40) for any price. But I still count myself as a lucky moocher, because 56% of my fellow leeches have capped Internet service.

“Hey, buying congresshcrittersh and FCCsh is expenshive,” Time-Warner CEO Jeffrey L. Bewkes muttered,  stirring his martini with a decorative toothpick festooned with human fetal hearts.*

*OK, I made up that last part.

Both the funniest and the saddest question I have heard in a long time …

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 8:22 pm

… is posed by Doug Harlan J at Balloon Juice:

My all time favorite song is “Sweet Thing” by Rufus. Is there any way someone who is both white and male could pull that off at karaoke, possibly with back-up help? I have dreams where I do this and they seem real to me.

Dude. No. Just … no.

But in fairness, let us not know Doug only by his musical delusions:

I believe that we are, to no small extent, ruled by ignorant sociopaths who care far more about impressing each other with their faux seriousness than about whether middle-class Americans live or die.

Because that is about as pithy and accurate an observation of American governance in the second decade of the 21st century as it is possible to find anywhere.

Thursday, May 26, 2011 8:06 pm

It keeps going and going …

I’m a little late to this, but Bill Egnor at Firedoglake reflects on the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl and raises a disturbing possibility of which I had been unaware:

Chernobyl is a bad as it gets. It was the fire the spread the radioactive materials so far. Graphite burns hot and it took days to put the fire out. In that time radioactive cesium was lofted to the high level winds and spread in a classic fall out cloud. It brought low levels of radiation to all Europe west of the plant. There were even detectable levels of the radiation all the way to the United States. [cont’d.]

Around the plant it was, obviously much worse. Large levels of radioactive iodine were released and exposed populations as far away as Kiev. The levels of thyroid cancer in that part of the world are 400 times the normal level. But radioactive iodine has a very short half live and is gone in a few weeks.

Of more concern is the cesium that was released. Most of it fell within 50 miles or so of the plant. Since that is a quarantine area, that has not been much of a problem. But it has not gone away by any means. It is in the soil or absorbed into the trees in the forest there.

Now Ukrainian forests are rather like the ones in the Western United States, they tend to grow then burn. There has been no major fire in the 25 years since Chernobyl. There also has been almost no forestry work there. This means that the forests around the plant are in the kind of shape where massive fires, the kind that last for months, can occur.

If one of these massive fires happens the trees which have absorbed the cesium will burn, and throw radioactive smoke, very similar to the smoke from the original accident, high into the air. Massive fires like that can create their own weather patterns, and that would mean that once again a plume of radioactivity will head west towards Moscow and the rest of Europe.

It would be dangerous to fight such a fire, again because of the level of radiation in the soil (which would dry and also loft) and the amount of cesium in the smoke. Inhaling that smoke would very bad for your health, to say the least.

This is the legacy of a major nuclear disaster. Buildings and areas can be quarantined but there is really very little that we can do to prevent the spread of long lived radioactive elements once they are in the environment.

I am not enough of an expert on either the nuclear industry or the health risks of radiation to know whether the scenario the writer describes is the kind of deal-killer he thinks it is. I am skeptical. But we’ve also seen, at Chernobyl and at Fukushima, that there’s a certain paucity in the human imagination regarding worst-case scenarios … and that that lack of vision has a body count.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011 9:05 pm

The Republican Party has a big problem: voters

Filed under: Evil,I want my country back. — Lex @ 9:05 pm
Tags: ,

What do you do when your policies are insane, your candidates are a clown car full of geeks and waterheads off of which all the corporate money in the world can’t wipe the makeup, and your base is dying off rapidly?

At that point, you’re pretty much down to one option: You illegally and unconstitutionally conspire to deny people their right to vote. And that, under the guise of complaints about “vote fraud,” is how the GOP is rolling right now.

“Vote fraud” actually is a misleadingly broad term, a fact that works to the GOP’s advantage. It breaks down into two major subcategories — well, one minor and one major.

The one that GOP wants you to think is the major problem is “voter fraud,” or, to be technical, voter-impersonation fraud. This takes place when someone votes who is not legally registered to vote, or who votes while claiming to be someone he or she is not (typically because whoever he or she actually is is not legally registered to vote, or not registered in that jurisdiction).

The GOP has argued that this fraud is a problem so prevalent that people should be required to produce government-issued identification when casting ballots.

Two major points to recall about this type of fraud: First, fraudulently registering to vote, while properly a crime, has no affect on the outcome of an election. One must actually cast a fraudulent ballot to have even a chance of affecting the outcome. And, second, the actual incidence of fraudulently cast ballots in the computer age is, insofar as anyone has been able to document, vanishingly rare. It’s just simply not a big problem. As Kay at Balloon Juice summarizes:

Conservatives in Ohio (like Florida) instituted a strict voter ID regimen based on conservative and media claims of voter fraud. A lot of us said at the time that voter ID laws wouldn’t solve the voter impersonation fraud problem because there was no voter impersonation fraud problem. As predicted, the voter ID laws in Ohio and Florida have had no effect at all, the unsupported claims continue, and are now being used to justify still more draconian measures. This is not at all surprising, because it was never about fraud.

What it is about is election fraud — perpetrated by Republicans. The GOP is trying to prevent from voting those people — young, poor, elderly, minority, convicted felons who have paid their debts to society — who are statistically more likely to vote Democratic than Republican. The fact that doing so is a federal crime matters not a bit to them. If they can keep these people off the voter rolls, or prevent them from casting votes as they are legally entitled to do, then they have a shot at winning some elections they otherwise would have no chance to win. And because they lack a coherent philosophy, sane candidates, governing skill or anything else except an overwhelming desire to keep their faces firmly in the crotch of big business, that’s now their business plan.

Election fraud is very big and, unlike voter fraud, very real. George Bush “carried” Florida and thus was awarded the 2000 presidential election because a contractor retained by his brother Jeb, then the state’s governor, and Secretary of State Katherine Harris illegally struck from the voter registration rolls thousands of people who were legally eligible to vote and who, if even a small number had voted, likely would have swung the state and the election to Al Gore. This crime was documented in the first chapter of Greg Palast’s book The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. But that’s only the best-known example.

It’s easy to say that anyone who opposes voter ID opposes honest elections, and there’s a certain intuitive appeal to that argument. If you’re going to vote, shouldn’t you be who you claim to be? But it’s already a crime to vote when you’re not legally registered, and it’s already a crime to misrepresent yourself as eligible to register when you’re not. The fact of the matter is that Republicans aren’t pushing voter ID because they’re interested in honest elections. They’re pushing it because they are trying to keep anti-GOP voters from voting so that they can steal elections they can’t honestly win. Conspiring to deny people their constitutional rights is a felony, of course, but that’s never stopped them before.


Filed under: America. It was a really good idea,Sad,Salute! — Lex @ 8:04 pm

At times during my intermittent career as a manager, I have found it necessary to modify the performance of my direct reports. Although such modification does not, contrary to what you might have heard, actually involve whips, chairs or cattle prods, it can and usually does involve what we might discretely call incentives and disincentives. Rewards and punishments, in other words.

This is tricky business. My philosophy as a newspaper editor, given the relative rigidity of our deadline schedule and the high stakes involved with issues of factual accuracy, was to err on the side of harshness. My own adaptation of the credo approved by corporate HR went something like this: Bad behavior will continue until the pain of continuing the bad behavior outweighs the pain of altering it.

Monochromatic? Lacking in nuance? Guilty as charged. But it worked. The kid from the University of Georgia  whose performance problems were driving me up a tree shaped up right quick once he realized he was facing the very real possibility of having to work every single Georgia home football weekend. Oh, yes, I did.

When you get to the level of government work, opportunities for bad behavior abound, and just about the worst behavior is torture. Unfortunately, Americans apparently have decided for political reasons that holding the torturers (including those who ordered torture) accountable for their behavior would be Bad Form, or whatever the current explanation is, blah-blah-blah-kharmacakes.

But there is, of course, a flip side to that approach, and that’s rewarding the behavior you want to see, in hopes of seeing more of it. We could, at the least, honor those who understood the law, remembered their training, opted to remember the law rather than soiling their drawers:

Throughout the military, and throughout the government, brave men and women reported abuse, challenged interrogation directives that permitted abuse, and refused to participate in an interrogation and detention program that they believed to be unwise, unlawful and immoral. The Bush administration’s most senior officials expressly approved the torture of prisoners, but there was dissent in every agency, and at every level.

There are many things the Obama administration could do to repair some of the damage done by the last administration, but among the simplest and most urgent is this: It could recognize and honor the public servants who rejected torture.

In the thousands of pages that have been made public about the detention and interrogation program, we hear the voices of the prisoners who were tortured and the voices of those who inflicted their suffering. But we also hear the voices of the many Americans who said no.

Some of these voices belong to people whose names have been redacted from the public record. In Afghanistan, soldiers and contractors recoiled at interrogation techniques they witnessed. After seeing a prisoner beaten by a mysterious special forces team, one interpreter filed an official complaint. “I was very upset that such a thing could happen,” she wrote. “I take my responsibilities as an interrogator and as a human being very seriously.”

I’m not naive. I understand that this probably won’t happen during my lifetime. Hugh Thompson Jr., the Army helicopter pilot who threatened, at the risk of his own life, to machine-gun U.S. soldiers involved in the My Lai massacre in Vietnam if they did not stop killing civilians, didn’t get official Army recognition for 30 years.

But if we can’t investigate, indict, prosecute and punish those responsible for torturing and, in some cases, killing prisoners in our custody — prisoners who in many instances had done nothing wrong — perhaps we can at least salvage something for those who tried to do the right thing, and for ourselves as a nation whose fraying reputation for morality, freedom and justice rests, if it rests at all, on their efforts. I don’t know if a Presidential Medal of Freedom means anything anymore — giving one to George Tenet, who signed off on torture, debases the brand — but there ought to be something we can do.

Monday, May 23, 2011 9:24 pm

RIP: Dick Wharton

Filed under: Sad,Salute! — Lex @ 9:24 pm

Dick Wharton had been serving his community, his country, his church and his profession for decades before I ever met him. We met in the mid-1990s while serving together on a patient-care team for the Guilford Regional AIDS Interfaith Network. He was smart, wise (and understood the distinction), funny, compassionate, ethical and a model of Christ’s love in the world. Like me, he loved good writing of all kinds, and he was himself a pointed, pithy writer. His death is a huge loss for Greensboro, but that loss is leavened by his record of service and accomplishment and the fond memories with which he leaves us.

My sympathies to Peggy, Emily, Scott and their relatives. Thanks to all of you for sharing Dick with us.

Snaring a world record

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 8:03 pm
Tags: ,

I’ve been part of one legitimate assault on a record recognized by Guinness. In the summer of 1975, when I was visiting relatives in Connecticut, my cousin, a friend and I set out to break the world’s record for playing Monopoly in a treehouse, which was then (we understood, at least) 31 hours. We figured we could do that, no sweat. The Willimantic Chronicle and the Hartford Courant  wrote articles about our effort. As it turned out, the weather turned cold and rainy, the tarp over our treehouse roof developed leaks, we all caught colds and we ended up falling something like six hours short. More to the point, we later found out that the 31-hour record had long since been eclipsed, a fact neither newspaper bothered to dig up before writing about us. Take from that lesson what you will.

But I’ve signed up to be part of another attempt to be enshrined in Guinness, and you can, too, if you’re in the Greensboro area. On July 4, as part of the Fun Fourth activities downtown, organizers hope to break the world record for the largest number of people playing snare drums in one place for five minutes. The effort is being organized by Grassroots Productions, the folks who organize Fun Fourth every year, and you can sign up here. You need neither experience nor your own drum, although both would be helpful.

Sunday, May 22, 2011 7:12 pm

Davidson vs. Clemson rain-delay antics

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 7:12 pm
Tags: , ,

In the unlikely event that you haven’t already seen this, here it is:

Saturday, May 21, 2011 5:48 pm

Friday Random 10, Saturday Getting-Some-Stuff-Done-But-Not-Enough Edition

Filed under: Friday Random 10 — Lex @ 5:48 pm

R.E.M. – Driver 8
Social Distortion – Making Believe
Elvis Costello – Almost Blue
Clipse – Freedom
R.E.M. – What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?
Mynabirds – Numbers Don’t Lie
Replacements – Achin’ to Be
Otis Redding (Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay
Guns N ‘Roses – You Could Be Mine
The Roches – Hammond Song (live)
Elvis Costello – Pump It Up
Southside Johnny & the Jukes – All Night Long
Neil Young – Don’t Cry
AC/DC – Bedlam in Belgium
The Band – It Makes No Sense
R.E.M. – There She Goes Again
Eagles – Tequila Sunrise
Graham Parker – Corruption
Warren Zevon – Dirty Life and Times
Melissa Ethridge – Yes I Am
Was (Not Was) – Wedding Vows in Vegas
Letters to Cleo – Here & Now
Hindu Love Gods – Mannish Boy
Bruce Springsteen – Galveston Bay
Mick Jagger & the Chieftains – The Long Black Veil
Stevie Wonder – Uptight (Everything’s Alright)
Counting Crows – Ghost Train
Crowded House – Something So Strong
Replacements – My Little Problem
Warren Zevon – Poor Poor Pitiful Me
Graham Parker – Watch the Moon Come Down
Rolling Stones – Soul Survivor
Tin Machine – Baby Can Dance
Jackson Browne & Warren Zevon – Excitable Boy
Rod Stewart – Drift Away
Lynyrd Skynyrd – Trust
The Walkmen – Angela Surf City

At least my (home) desk is clear, the banking is up to date and the bills are paid and filed away. How in the hell did that take 6 hours??

On my s*** list: XMarks

XMarks is a Firefox app purporting to allow one to sync bookmarks across multiple Firefox-equipped machines. An app like that is a dream come true for me because during a career spanning numerous occupations, all of which have required a lot of Web work and many of which have required various amounts of on-site and remote webmastering,  I’ve amassed thousands of bookmarks. These bookmarks have been assiduously organized into folders and subfolders on subjects ranging from sites relevant to covering aviation disasters to being able to log in and post inclement-weather notices on my current employer’s home page.

I stumbled across XMarks a few months ago and gave it a try. At first, it seemed to work exactly as advertised.

More recently, it has started making duplicate copies of bookmarks and folders. That’s annoying as all hell and wastes disk space and processor time, but it is not exactly a disaster.

Last weekend, however, XMarks dramatically upped the ante. Not only did it make multiple duplicates of most of the folders, it also appears to have dumped all the meticulously organized bookmarks out of their folders and into the “Unsorted bookmarks” folder.

To be sure, I do not have any reason at this point to think that any bookmarks were deleted. On the other hand, I may never know until I go looking for a bookmark on deadline that I seldom use and am unable to find it.

And whether any were deleted or not, this was a damned stupid thing to have happen, and the people who created XMarks need to get to work trying to figure this out because I’m certainly not the only person this has happened to.

Finally, if anyone can recommend a bookmark-syncing app or extension for Firefox that does what it’s supposed to do, no more and no less, give me a shout. Ditto Internet Explorer. (Chrome’s native syncing appears to work OK, but I need FF and IE for work for technical reasons too boring to go into here.)

Thanks all for any suggestions you can offer.

Friday, May 20, 2011 7:38 pm

Rapping the rapture

Filed under: I want my religion back. — Lex @ 7:38 pm
Tags: , ,

For all I know, people in the western Pacific and eastern Asia are being bodily taken up into Heaven as I type, but I have found no credible news reports of such. Still, even if the world doesn’t end tomorrow, there’s still, as Britney Spears’s new music video reminds us, Dec, 21, 2012, to think about. So let’s think about the Rapture.

My friend the Rev. Ken Carter, pastor of Providence United Methodist Church in Charlotte (and pastor of a United Methodist congregation here in Greensboro in the mid-1990s, when I met him), tweeted this:

references to #rapture end of world on fb [Facebook] & twitter allow cultured despisers to display free-floating aggression toward something: why? #God

Ken, as have been many members of my family over the years, is in the God business, so I understand his defensiveness. But, as I suspect he well knows, even many of us who count ourselves believers have been pretty hard on this whole world-is-ending-on-May-21 meme (guilty as charged here, here and here, for example).

For one thing, many, if not most, Christians rely on Jesus’s caution in Matthew 25:13: “Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.” In other words, when Jesus comes again, it will be a surprise even to those who claim to know the Bible and the teachings of Jesus best.

But (allowing for the heightened risk of misunderstanding created by the 140-character limit of Twitter posts) Ken also, I think, is straying into a bit of broad-brush countercriticism of critics of the posted May 21 Rapture when he refers to those critics as “cultured despisers.”

For one thing, the phrase suggests he assumes that it’s only the “cultured” who “despise” the Rapture message — that, in other words, this is an issue of classism. Perhaps that’s not what Ken meant, but that’s how it comes across. And I know of no real evidence to suggest that May 21 Rapture criticism is rooted in classism.

He is right about aggression, but in many cases, I do not think that aggression is particularly free-floating. One of those cases is my own.

Because here’s the thing: Many of the same people who are touting the Rapture on the morrow are some of the same people who cling most tightly to beliefs that, counter to the teachings of Christ, increase the amount of human suffering in the world rather than alleviating it. And many of those people hold, or strongly influence those who hold, great political and economic power in our society, with the result that that power is used to make weaker people even more miserable than they already are.

Not only is this behavior bad in and of itself — direct disobedience of Christ’s teachings — it, in marketing terms, tarnishes the brand. It makes Christianity look silly and hypocritical, and some of us whom Ken dismisses as “cultural despisers” actually care a great deal for what these jackleg haters are hijacking.

Every time I read or hear about another instance of this kind of abuse of power, I want to slap someone. That’s not very Christian, I’ll be the first to admit. But neither is it “free-floating aggression” — against God or anything else worthy of worship. It’s a very focused aggression: focused on people who enjoy their power too much to stop using it for harmful ends or are too damned stupid to acknowledge their hypocrisy, let alone atone for the damage their beliefs and actions have caused.

I confess that another way in which I am an, ahem, imperfect Christian is that if the Rapture does come tomorrow, I expect that those who actually get Raptured will have been, like the boggle-eyed long-term employee who gets singled out for a lifetime-service surprise award at the company banquet, utterly unaware that they were among the Chosen. And I derive a distinctly un-Christian level of pleasure from the thought that after they’re gone, a lot of sanctimonious, self-righteous jerkwads who had taken special care not to drive tomorrow lest their driverless cars maim innocent (well, clearly not innocent if they’re still here) pedestrians after they were Raptured, will be left standing on the sidewalks, shaking their fists at the heavens and shouting, “Well? WELL?!?

Eyes on the ball, people. The Second Great Commandment is the prize. Keep your eye on that, and it won’t matter when the Rapture comes.

(Image: Longcat and Tacgnol of; caption by DivaGeek)

Thursday, May 19, 2011 8:08 pm

Quote of the day, War on Education edition

Notes from the front lines of the war on education, by Chris Hedges, author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, writing at TruthDig:

The truly educated become conscious. They become self-aware. They do not lie to themselves. They do not pretend that fraud is moral or that corporate greed is good. They do not claim that the demands of the marketplace can morally justify the hunger of children or denial of medical care to the sick. They do not throw 6 million families from their homes as the cost of doing business. Thought is a dialogue with one’s inner self. Those who think ask questions, questions those in authority do not want asked. They remember who we are, where we come from and where we should go. They remain eternally skeptical and distrustful of power. And they know that this moral independence is the only protection from the radical evil that results from collective unconsciousness. The capacity to think is the only bulwark against any centralized authority that seeks to impose mindless obedience. There is a huge difference, as Socrates understood, between teaching people what to think and teaching them how to think. Those who are endowed with a moral conscience refuse to commit crimes, even those sanctioned by the corporate state, because they do not in the end want to live with criminals—themselves.

It’s interesting to see and hear how many backers of immoral corporate interests use essentially these same concepts, but do so in contexts, such as rejecting the notion that a liberal-arts education remains worthwhile, that indicate that they have fundamentally misunderstood the very concepts they invoke. They get the words but not the music. And they are a clear and present danger to our remaining the kind of country we set out in 1787 to be.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011 9:47 pm

A team of her own

Filed under: Salute! — Lex @ 9:47 pm
Tags: , ,

It’s the bottom of the ninth, you’ve got a one-run lead and the bad guys have runners on. Whom ya gonna call?

OK, two questions: As long as whoever it is can strike out 14 batters in 22 innings, do you care whether the person you call has two X chromosomes? (Full disclosure: I’m the father of such a pitcher, but she’s 12 and I have only the vaguest idea what her stats are.)

The baseball coach at tiny Montreat College has offered a small scholarship to an 18-year-old girl from California. The girl, a right-handed pitcher named Marty Sementelli, has, at this writing, neither signed a letter of intent nor declined. Although the amount of the offer was not disclosed, apparently it’s not much for a school that costs about $33,000 a year. Moreover, she would have to play JV ball and earn a varsity roster spot; she’s not guaranteed one. And yet some Montreat College alumni are all butthurt about this.

The coach, to his credit, says the criticism he has gotten will not effect the offer. “She struck out 14 in 22 innings,” he said. “That’s good stats; I don’t really care where you’re at.”


Why everyone ought to take a creative-writing course

True story: I’ve written for money for more than 30 years.

Equally true story: In more than 40 years of trying, I’ve never crafted so much as a single page of what I believe to be credible prose fiction. To the extent that I have any gifts, and to the extent that I have been able to hone my craft without breaking either the stone or the blade, my gifts and my craft lie elsewhere.

Nonetheless: If it were practical and affordable, I would drive down to Columbia, shove some ingrate undergrads out of my way and sign up right now for Elise Blackwell’s fiction-writing workshop (depending on your IP address, this may be behind a paywall). I have no idea how good a teacher of fiction writing, per se, she is, but I know for a fact she knows what she’s doing and why it matters:

As a form of world-building, fiction stimulates imagination, makes students ask “why? and “what if?” I’m not naïve enough to argue that writing fiction makes someone a better person—I know far too many misanthropic, narcissistic, besotted, and otherwise atrociously behaved writers to make that case—but the attempt to create original fiction encourages students to imagine in detail what it might be like to live another life. This form of role-taking can foster their capacity to engage other people with imagination, openness, and empathy.

Writing workshops also give lessons in group dynamics, self-control, delivering and receiving well-intended criticism, and building an atmosphere in which good work happens painlessly. Due to the relatively small class size and fact that the students themselves produce the texts under discussion, the students have one of their most intimate and interactive college experiences. It’s not just that the professor knows their names but that they know each other’s names—and much more. When students with divergent backgrounds and sensibilities respond to each other with generosity and intelligence, much is learned not just about fiction but about living well in a world populated by other people. (Potential employers take note: Students in workshops report a sense of responsibility to the group to show up prepared and meet their deadlines.)

Perhaps most valuable, if hardest to pin down, is this: Writing and discussing literary fiction can shake loose the conviction that life operates by clichés and that human behavior follows simple psychological formulas. Milan Kundera has argued that the novel is the art form best able to depict ambiguity and that its spirit of inquiry is its great value. The scholarly study of literature teaches ambiguity, too, and well, but writing students tend to engage with their own work and the unpublished work of their peers more personally and with a great sense of contingency. When I hear a student in workshop say, “But that’s not what I would do in that character’s situation,” it always means the student’s critical vocabulary needs sharpening and it often means the story up in workshop has an implausible plot or unconvincing characterization. But sometimes it also signals a nascent understanding of human difference and complexity.

When I hear a student point out where another’s overextended metaphor stumbles, I hear someone discovering that language can mislead. When another says, “So she got the guy, but isn’t the most interesting part of the story what comes next?,” I hear a student realize that  marriage is about more than wedding planning. And when I hear a student who is asked whether his narrator is “bad” or “good” answer “both,” I recognize an increased tolerance for answers that aren’t easy and a real effort to understand the human condition.

I’ve recently blogged, and engaged in some online discussion elsewhere, about the value of a liberal-arts education. That value? This stuff right here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011 8:41 pm

Don’t make me come back there; or, Golf Skillz: Let Greensboro show you them

Filed under: Salute! — Lex @ 8:41 pm
Tags: ,

Hmph. Go away for a long weekend and my employer gets in all KINDS of trouble.

Congratulations to Coach Dirk Fennie and the 2011 Greensboro College men’s golf team: NCAA Division III national champions. They played with skill, they comported themselves with class and they represented the college in and with style.

Crosstown rivals Guilford College did themselves proud, too, finishing ninth overall.

(Photo: Dan O’Shea/Fairway Outdoor via Greensboro Sports Commission)

Wednesday, May 11, 2011 8:51 pm

Seeing spots

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 8:51 pm

I’ve watched a little network TV recently, which I almost never do. Consequently, I also watch TV commercials. I can’t even remember most of them, but I’ve seen three recently that made various impressions on me.

  • The Axe body wash gel spot: I suspect this spot is very, very effective at reaching its target audience. Its target audience, however, is douches.
  • The Oreo fudge-creme spot: Clever. Seriously. Love the wordplay. Tiniest flaw in the execution, though: If you’re going to say “Shut the front door!” as a stand-in for “Shut the (expletive) up!” then you need to have it kind of all run downhill from “shut,” rather than going back up a little en route from “the” to “front.” This flaw is partly remedied by the fact that I’m pretty sure the mom in the spot has said “Hel-LO, sir” in that same way many times before, and that the object she was saying it to wasn’t a cookie.
  • Claire Danes’s spot for prescription eyelash-grower. I thought she was good in “My So-Called Life” when she was a teenager, and she has turned out to be a very pleasant-looking grownup. That said, prescription eyelash-grower? I don’t want to hear another word from anyone in pharma about government regulation. Not a peep. Y’all just shut the front door.

Monday, May 9, 2011 8:32 pm


Filed under: Cool! — Lex @ 8:32 pm
Tags: ,

I did not know this, although given my background reporting on various forms of stem-cell research, perhaps I should have guessed it. But researchers are working on growing animal meat in the lab.

Go ahead, joke all you want. I did (see post title). But the fact remains that for the many, many of us who will completely give up eating meat only at the point of a gun, this approach could be beneficial not just for us but for those who have to share the planet with us.

That’s because raising animals for food, ethical considerations for the animals aside, is hard on the planet. It takes a lot of land, a lot of water and a lot of feed crops, and those animals leave an awful lot of poop behind before they move on to the supermarket, all of which has to go somewhere. (Here in N.C., which vies with Iowa for the national lead in hog production and where hogs outnumber people, this is an important environmental issue, particularly when things go wrong.)

Right now, the Netherlands is eating our lunch, so to speak, on this area of research. We ought to be leading the world at this: It would let us have our bacon and eat it, too — we could keep eating what we like, at substantially less cost to the health of our planet, and the research would create jobs.

Who should pay for the research? Well, let’s see. The railroads didn’t think they were in the transportation business, they thought they were in the railroad business, right up to the point at which they weren’t in business at all. I’d say the sooner the hog industry realizes it’s in the food business rather than the hog business, the better off we’ll all be — in terms of good food that’s less toxic to both the planet and our politics.

UPDATE: A friend writes, “‘Cuz Oscar Mayer has a way/With b-o-l-o-D-N-A.”

“Also, avoid radium. Turns out it kills you.”

Filed under: Cool! — Lex @ 6:31 pm
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Zombie Marie Curie weighs in on women in science. Teach your children, yo.

Friday, May 6, 2011 8:45 pm


Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 8:45 pm

In my senior year of high school, I won the Physics prize, competing against students who went on to study not just at N.C. State but at MIT.

How did I so excel in a subject in which, to put it charitably, my natural talents did not lie? Then and now, other than the fact that I paid rapt attention to our teacher because she was a walking, talking, jiggling illustration of the concept of simple harmonic motion, I have absolutely no idea. To this day, physics remains, to me, both baffling and utterly fascinating, even if my concentration has veered from simple harmonic motion to ballistics.

“It was the greatest honor I had ever received. … But with honor comes responsibility.”

Filed under: Salute! — Lex @ 8:41 pm
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Ellen Schrecker, honored for her research on academic freedom of expression, responds when the academic freedom of expression of colleagues is threatened: Take your honors and shove them.

Because more than 70 percent of all the instruction in American institutions of higher education is now in the hands of men and women with part-time or temporary positions, academic freedom is particularly at risk. … Freedom of expression on our nation’s campuses is too fragile – and too important – for us to allow it to become hostage to external political forces with repressive agendas and an academic community too spineless to stand up against them.

“Tenured radicals,” the concept made popular, and used as a book title, by radical-leftist-turned-radical-rightist David Horowitz, are almost a myth. There are few true radicals teaching in American colleges and universities today, and fewer still with tenure. Barely more than one in four American college instructors anywhere on the political spectrum holds a tenured or tenure-track position. Most of the rest can be fired about as swiftly as a landscaper or bartender.

Moreover, we live in an era in which some of the most important ideas are under fire from powerful, monied interests who are threatened by those ideas, in areas as diverse as climate change, economics, worker safety and gender issues.  Just to add a soupçon of irony, these interests often are even more adept at playing the victim than the real victims are, and when our national media aren’t too brain-dead to know the difference, they’re too hung up on “telling both sides of the story” to remember that that isn’t their job, that their job is to tell the truth.

So I thank Ellen Schrecker for standing up for freedom of expression. It probably won’t make a difference in Tony Kushner’s life one way or the other — the guy who wrote Angels in America probably doesn’t have to lift a finger again the rest of his life if he doesn’t want to. But it might make a huge difference for a lot of talented instructors you’ve never heard of and never will, some of whom might one day teach you or your children.

UPDATE, 5/10/11: The executive committee of the CUNY Board of Trustees has overturned the overturning. Kushner gets the degree. Sadly, the board member who prompted the vote of a week ago to try to rescind the award gets to keep his seat. Jackass.

Quote of the day, value-of-a-liberal-arts-education edition, with elaboration at no extra charge.

… from commenter “Jes St. Lawrence” on the Inside Higher Education website, where the value of a liberal-arts education is being hotly debated in light of movements in some states to tie college/university funding to job placement:

Yes, the job market is changing rapidly, so what we really need are more narrowly-educated people. Brilliant.

The Liberal Arts have always been a tough sell because the name of the degree isn’t the name of the job. Some people can’t get past that, and by “some people” I really mean “stupid people.” Recognizing the skill set involved in a major called “history,” for instance, and connecting that skill set to appropriate jobs, is apparently too complicated to explain to a governor.

Amen. When I was starting to look at colleges almsot 35 years ago, my parents told me that no matter what I thought I wanted to do when I got out of college (at the time, be a DJ), I ought to get a good liberal-arts education because, although it might not prepare me for that job, it would prepare me for a career.

And so it has. The job I wanted, I actually got well before I finished my bachelor’s; indeed, that DJing helped pay my educational bills and kept my student-loan levels manageable. But I’ve had, by my count, five distinct careers in the 29 years since I graduated from college, including one in a field that arguably didn’t exist for almost 15 years after I graduated, and that liberal-arts background has been valuable — no, invaluable — in all of them.

In my current line of work, I tell kids that a rigorous liberal-arts education will prepare them not only for the jobs they want to do but for the jobs they will want that don’t even exist yet. And I know it’s true, because that is exactly what my liberal-arts education has done for me.

I think it’s perfectly appropriate to discuss how well our colleges and universities are doing their jobs, and for public institutions to have their funding tied to that outcome. But for that process to achieve its desired outcome, we need define those jobs better. What do we expect our colleges and universities to do for their students — to prepare them for a job? A career? Citizenship? What are the criteria for assessing progress toward those goals?

And before we can do that, we need to decide what we want our kids to be — not do, be — when they grow up.

Here’s my vote:

Lots of people can, to use one example of a currently marketable skill, build, maintain and query databases. I want American kids to be able to do most of the following, find someone who can do the parts they don’t know how to do, and to understand the need for all of it: Query a database. Know which databases to query. Know where and how to get them. Know what kind of queries will tell them whether the college president, or the corporation president, or the U.S. president, is a criminal, and how to prove it. Know why it’s important to prosecute him if he is a criminal, and what bad things are likely to happen if he is a criminal and we don’t prosecute him. And be able to explain to someone else why all of this is important.

I want citizens in full, because the kind of country we chose in 1787 to be demands that we have them. And if we want nice things, we need to pay for them.

Now we just need to figure out how best to get them. Let’s get started.

Thursday, May 5, 2011 8:11 pm

Not relevant, just a funny coincidence …

Filed under: Aiee! Teh stoopid! It burns! — Lex @ 8:11 pm
Tags: ,

… but I got this intellectually bankrupt news release from the Speaker of the U.S. House today, which was the same day as the biggest one-day drop in oil prices in more than a year.

Drill, baby, drill, especially if we can let oil companies that give us campaign contributions drill on publicly-owned land without delivering market price to the taxpayers whose interests we ostensibly represent.

Sunday, May 1, 2011 10:34 pm

Osama bin Laden: Rest in pieces

Filed under: That's gonna leave a mark — Lex @ 10:34 pm
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UPDATE/DISCLAIMER (ADDED 5/2): Pretty much all of what follows is contingent on the facts in the case being as the administration reported them last night, both in the president’s speech and in administration officials’ background briefings to reporters. At this point I have no reason to doubt them, but I would be insane to assume unquestioningly that what has been reported is true and accurate in all respects, given the hash the government has made of accounts of such incidents as the Jessica Lynch case, the killing of Pat Tillman and so on. Just sayin’.

As I begin this post, President Obama hasn’t actually showed up to confirm it, but apparently, at long last, we found Osama bin Laden, killed him and positively identified the body through DNA matching.

Thoughts on the fly, hastened by some Dos Equis amber in lieu of champagne:

  • Bin Laden said he ordered attacks against the U.S. because of the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. Whether you take that statement at face value or not, the fact remains that long before he died, he already had what he had wanted.
  • The news is being announced eight years to the day (if the president actually appears before midnight ET) after George W. Bush announced “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq.
  • Speaking of Iraq, it bears repeating: Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Nothing.
  • The price on bin Laden’s head was $25 million. What’ve we spent to kill him? A trillion dollars, about 4,500 U.S. service members dead and 40,000 wounded, many maimed for life; God alone knows how many hundreds of thousands of dead and maimed civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan; and enormous, and probably permanent, damage to the Bill of Rights and the rule of law. The current president of the United States has ordered extrajudicial assassinations of U.S. citizens. The immediate past president lied us into a war of aggression, ordered torture and other crimes against humanity and ordered serial felony violations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Neither man will be investigated, let alone serve a day in prison. And all of the criminal violations of law they have committed are now no longer crimes, merely standard operating procedure.
  • Spare a thought, if you will, for the families of those killed on 9/11: the people on the four airplane flights; the people in the Twin Towers; the people in the Pentagon.
  • We, as a country, soiled our drawers on 9/11. It took us most of a decade to even begin to clean ourselves up, and that job is far from finished and never will be. Our ancestors are probably deeply ashamed of us, and well they should be.
  • After 9/11, many, many Americans, most but not all Republican, treated any criticism, even any questioning, of the Bush administration’s behavior as treasonous. Go to hell, every damned one of you.
  • Politically, this is great news for Obama’s re-election effort … for a while. Keep in mind, Obamanauts, that about this time 20 years ago, Bush 41’s approval rating was roughly 90%.
  • So, um, in a mansion outside Islamabad, huh? LOOOOO-SEEEEE, somebody’s got some ‘SPLAININ’ to do.
  • Bless MS/NBC for reminding us that we had Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora, and we let him get away.

11:35: Here we go …

… images of 9/11. Like we needed reminding.

11:37: (My predecessors didn’t make bin Laden top priority), so I told Leon Panetta that now bin Laden was.

11:39: Last August? Last August we found him?

11:40: “Bin Laden was not a Muslim. He was a mass murderer of Muslims.” Nice.

11:42: “We will be true to the values who make us who we are.” Oh, so we get the Bill of Rights back? The rule of law? Cool!

11:43: “Let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11.” And let the historians among us leave no doubt as to who exploited and squandered it.

11:44: And he walks off like Gary Cooper.

Continuing random thoughts:

  • NBC now saying bin Laden was shot at least once in the head. Good. No zombie bin Laden.
  • NBC treating Joint Special Operations Command as if it’s newly discovered. New Yorker has reported on it for a long time.
  • Memo to liberals: It’s OK to cheer the death of a mass murderer. It really is. You won’t go to hell for it or anything.
  • This news is a hanging curve ball to page-1 designers at U.S. newspapers tonight. If y’all’s lede headlines aren’t in type at least 216 points high (that’s 3 inches for you civilians), y’all suck.
  • Terrorism ain’t going away. Al-Qaeda ain’t going away. But when, not if, the next attack comes, let us not soil our drawers, OK?
  • Come down to it, this deal wasn’t much heavier than half the raids you see on “The Chicago Code.” Good thing we spent all those lives and all that money to set it up right.
  • For a decade, we have not just used but abused our military and their families. Time to make it right, and if it takes a 90% marginal rate on top earners to pay for it, I’ll vote for that and give money to opponents of anyone who won’t.
  • Before the 2008 election, Obama said he would send U.S. forces into Pakistan if need be to capture or kill bin Laden. The GOP acted like he’d threatened to torch the Constitution. The GOP now hopes you will forget this.
  • Wouldn’t you love to have been listening in when Obama called George W. Bush to tell him about it?
  • Apparently, about the same time Obama delivered a very nice standup comedy routine to the White House Correspondents’ dinner last night, he also was ordering bin Laden to be killed. As the relative of several former Army snipers, I salute his coolness and focus.
  • It figures, doesn’t it, that a man who would order the murders of civilians would use a woman as a shield in a firefight (or one of his supporters would). But that’s what happened.
  • Someone, some individual U.S. service member, pulled the trigger on the round that sent bin Laden to hell. But, much as I would like to buy that individual a beer, it’s best for him that we never know his name while he lives. We owe him at least that much.
  • Holy crap. This guy inadvertently live-Tweeted the raid.

Well, it’s damn near 2 a.m. and I’ve got to work tomorrow. So I’m going to bed. ‘Night all. Those of you partying in D.C. and New York, be safe. Those of you mourning again in those same locales, I hope you take some measure of comfort from this event.

UPDATE, 8 a.m. 5/2: My daughter had been aware of bin Laden’s death for no more than 90 seconds when she asked, “Does this mean we can bring the troops home?” Much as I might like to think so, the answer to that question is probably somewhat complicated, BUT: The burden of proof needs to be placed heavily on anyone arguing to the contrary — full employment for swindling defense contractors is not a good argument, by the way — and I love how fast her mind went there.

One other thing: I don’t know whether it was news, speculation or just Internet noise, but someone was suggesting last night that our intel source for this raid was Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. Anything’s possible, I suppose, but it’s worth remembering that the compound where bin Laden was found is only about five years old, and we’ve had KSH in what is supposedly very secure custody since 2003.

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