Just playing terrorist

John sent me a news article about how the military freaked out the entire New York metropolitan area by staging a photo shoot of a low-flying 747 being followed by F-16 fighters. The stunt caused panic and evacuations of buildings in lower Manhattan.

If something good comes out of this idiocy, I hope it has something to do with evaluating the evacuation plans of those buildings. And the firing of certain doofuses in Washington.

Back to the drawing board

OK. After accidentally deleting my theme files, I’ve been rebuilding this site, trying for an artsy “magic-marker” theme. It’s not working. I don’t have the graphic design skills to pull it off correctly.

I’ll be getting back to basics and focusing on making Adam’s artificial habitat accessible and sharp-looking again. Thanks for your patience.

Fun with third graders

It’s school tour season at the park. I had some third graders today. One boy asked me if I had ever seen Herbert Hoover. Sometimes I forget that their grasp of the distant past is not very firm, so I answered “No, he died forty-five years ago.” He said, “You don’t remember him?” Then I understood and said, “Oh no. I’m not that old.”

I will concede that third grade now seems very, very far off in the past.

At the end of the tour I told them how men and women sat separately in Quaker meetings. This is hard to explain, even to adults, but the Quakers believed men and women were equal (at a time when women could not vote and so forth), and adopted a separate-but-equal approach in the meetinghouse to provide women with the same opportunities to participate as the men. I also told them the Quakers worshipped in silence, but would stand up and speak if they felt “deep down inside like they had something important to say.” One girl raised her hand and, after I called on her, stood up and announced, “This sitting separately is crazy!”

That’s how I knew she was paying attention.

Disappointed by a senator

I sounded off to my elected officials about President Blam-O’s proposal to grant immunity from prosecutions to our government’s torturers. Senator Tom Harkin’s office e-mailed me back a message. Tom Harkin has been in the Senate most of my life and his letter, which is loaded with John Kerry-like waffling and trying to have everything both ways, shows it. Here’s my response, in part:

You mentioned, “Regardless of whether individuals are charged criminally, I do believe that we need a full accounting of how top Administration officials intentionally and systematically violated the law.”

I wonder how full accountability of law-breaking can be achieved without criminal prosecutions?

You also stated, “It is imperative that our country move beyond the dishonorable policies of the past…”

We should move beyond these things once the responsible people have been exposed and punished, not for the sake of convenience. I worry that the measured and cautious approach to this matter taken by Congressmen like you is exactly why these abuses of power occurred in the first place.

I never expect a meaningful response back from these people. Their letters are mostly automated or handled by staffers, I’m sure. My guess is that Harkin, a Democrat, doesn’t want to be tarred as a liberal (political poison!) by too zealously purging Bush’s abuses. But what’s controversial about punishing torturers, especially when it’s illegal? Our politicians are so averse to challenging the nation’s jingoistic consensus that they won’t stick their necks out to protect our rights, which they swear an oath to protect. That’s why I’m not so optimistic about any lasting political realignment resulting from Obama’s election. Conservatives may be in America’s dog house but progressives are dead.

Genocide

I’ve been thinking about genocide lately, though not because I’m contemplating one. I read and hear the word in the news often, and it seems to have recalibrated our morals. War is permissible but genocide cannot be tolerated.

There was speculation about whether during his recent trip to Turkey Barack Obama (or President Blam-O as I have come to think of him) would address the matter of the 1915 Armenian genocide. Why this has become controversial lately is beyond me, but the Armenians and their sympathizers want the atrocities officially regarded as genocide, the while Turks and their apologists insist it was simply war.

Which I think entirely misses the point: when human beings kill each other it is a bad thing whether it meets the criteria of genocide or not. I wonder if the definition of genocide in international law was devised only to make warfare acceptable as long as it doesn’t surpass some arbitrary threshold where it is deemed unpopular or superficially excessive.

Because if it’s not genocide then it’s okay, right? There doesn’t have to be any meaningful intervention in Sudan if the government there isn’t actually trying to expunge Darfuri DNA from the world’s genetic record. Conversely, what is achieved by recognizing the murders of Armenians in 1915 as genocide? This trivializes the tragedy by establishing a gold medal for mass murder. Are there really lesser and greater homicides? Is the murder of a single person somehow less painful or wasteful when not accompanied by the slaughter of that person’s compatriots? Because that’s what mass murder really is, the ending by force of a lot of individual lives. Let’s not forget that human rights are individual rights and not collective rights. We are eroding our own entitlements to these rights if we can only ratchet up our outrage when death tolls reach six digits.

Mustaches

Are mustaches coming back into fashion? I’ve seen Brad Pitt sporting one on magazine covers in the grocery checkout aisle. But here’s the thing: Brad Pitt could strap on a Toucan Sam nose and still look good. Yet I’ve been seeing a few people around town–mostly university students–with them. The kid behind the coffee shop counter, for example, had one. It was absolutely terrible. He must have been 20 or 22 and would have been pretty good looking but for this horrible thing on his lip. What’s going on?

Very few people look good with mustaches, probably because good ones require some attention. If you are going to grow one, please follow these simple rules:

  1. You must, must, must be a man.
  2. Be at least 40 years old.
  3. Do something with it, trim it or shape it or something. Don’t let it grow like a weed, for heaven’s sake.

By the way, there is an American Mustache Institute. According to the organization’s website:

AMI continues to battle negative stereotyping that has accompanied the mustache since those glory years of the 1970s – the peak of mustache acceptance – fighting to create a climate of acceptance, understanding, flavor saving, and upper lip warmth for all mustached Americans alike.

I, Robot and Fahrenheit 451

I used to hate book reports when I was a kid, and here I am writing them for fun. My exploration of old-school science fiction continued with “I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov and “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury. They turned out to be interesting choices. They were both published in the early 1950s and represent two very different visions of the future, set right around our own now.

Asimov’s narrative is sometimes sloppy. He employs abrupt and confusing mid-paragraphs transitions of scenes. However, his “Three Laws of Robotics” are among the cleverest ideas in science fiction. “I, Robot” feels like a very small sample of limitless possible stories about them. The book works through the evolution of robots from laborers in uninhabitable space to inventors and global economic managers.

Bradbury appears to be the better writer of the two at this point. “Fahrenheit 451” is not quite as creepy as “1984” and is much less depressing, but its vision of future America is disturbingly dead on: citizens are obsessed with material well-being and mindless entertainment while their teenage children are out murdering for fun and as their government wages overseas wars to maintain their affluence. He even gives automobile culture the skunk eye; pedestrians are considered suspicious and drivers feel like they are wasting time if they aren’t speeding along at 150 mph. Where did he get this stuff?

Where “Fahrenheit 451” is between ambivalent and hostile to technology, “I, Robot” sees a lot of promise. The principal human characters in “I, Robot”–we could call them the heroes–are vested in the technology: engineers, businessmen, and the like. But they are presented against a backdrop of a population so fearful of robots that their use is forbidden on Earth. Because their ethical programming is infallible–robot brains are built so that disobeying Three Laws is a mathematical impossibility–Asimov sees technological automation as a solution to our worst excesses, like war. Over time the heroes work through the robots’ idiosyncratic applications of the Three Laws.

Bradbury is not as sanguine. The only robot in “Fahrenheit 451” is the Mechanical Hound, a four-legged executioner programmed with a database of individuals’ scents. The real villainy, though, comes in the form of willful ignorance. A robotics booster in “I, Robot” dismissively waves off the accusation that automation erodes human initiative. The dissenters in “Fahrenheit 451” see technology as a barrier to human relationships in the community and in the home, and ultimately a barrier to happiness.

A small burn

Flames and smoke engulf a burning brush pile in a wooded field.
Flames and smoke engulf a burning brush pile in a wooded field.

Friends of Hickory Hill Park organized a prescribed fire for this afternoon so I went to help. We burned an acre or less of old field pasture that is overgrown with shrubs. They are trying to bring back the prairie in some small parts of the park.

It’s fun to be part of a local burn that doesn’t have the federal government’s rigid bureaucratic requirements. At the same time I felt like I had avoid getting too loosey-goosey. They guy in charge did a good job of briefing everybody, though. The most excitement was when I noticed small a spot fire on the wrong side of the fire break and we put it out. Hooray.

Titanic

I’ve avoided watching “Titanic” for the last 12 years. Since I’m trying to catch up on films that Lore’s already seen, I watched it today.

I didn’t care for it. There’s some good stuff in it and some really terrible stuff. I’m surprised it won so many Academy Awards, but it looks like 1997 was a weak year for films. Now that I think about it, why am I surprised that such a mediocre film would be recognized by the Academy? When will I learn…

The NIT

I went down to the bar hoping there might be a decent sporting event on TV. Instead, the NIT championship game was on, Baylor versus Penn State.

I didn’t even know they still played the NIT. What’s the point? I can’t imagine those time outs in the last two minutes had anything to do with game strategy. I still don’t know why Penn State was celebrating when they won. What did they win?

I propose a National Crapitation Tournament. The worst college basketball teams play a month-long, 64-bracket ritual of athletic humiliation. They don’t get to go home until they win a game.