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Tuesday, June 28, 2005  
R.I.P. Shelby Foote, dead in Memphis at age 88.


Monday, June 27, 2005  
Worse than you think. This is an infinitely depressing way to start a week. Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings collectes a number of links to present a current snapshot of the war in Iraq that is frankly nauseating. Her long post moves through many facts of the conflict, and concludes with a telling quote:

I opposed this war. But since we went in, I have felt that we needed to stay in until we had set Iraq on its feet. The one thing that has always given me pause, however, is the thought that we have botched the war so thoroughly that we are not capable of doing that: that our presence is counterproductive, but our absence would be worse. I have never figured out whether I think we are there yet. I suspect we are. For this reason, I honestly do not know what we should do.

I do know, however, that it is time for this administration to stop pretending that we are winning the war, or turning the corner, or that "the insurgency is in its last throes." (Editor and Publisher: "Is Dick Cheney the New 'Baghdad Bob'?") The American people are not stupid. They know that the insurgency is not in its last throes. They need leadership, not lies. I also think it is imperative that this administration set aside its usual modus operandi and actually consult with congressional leaders of both parties. They have had their chance to act as they see fit, and they have used it disastrously. It is time for them to stop. I agree with Zbigniew Brzezinski in yesterday's radio address (mp3, my transcript):

"Patriotism and love of country does not demand endless sacrifice on the part of our troops in a war justified by slogans. To ensure a safe and secure America, we have a responsibility to ask how we got to this point and where we are going from here. For the first time in our history, America is conducting a war without any effort whatsoever at bipartisan consultation on our tactics, on our strategy, and on our goals. The President can't change the circumstances in which we went to war. He can't make up for the mistakes that have been made. But surely he can move forward in a more responsible way.

The President should provide the American people with a plan describing the key elements of a successful strategy in Iraq. He should explain clearly and credibly what must be achieved before our troops can come home. And then he should lay out what he needs in order to achieve that goal. Our soldiers don't need fancy slogans to do their duty. But to accomplish their mission they need honesty and real leadership based on genuine national unity."

For my part, I did not oppose the war, at least in principle. I believed (and believe) that the UN or something like it is essential to deal with transnational problems like terrorism, environmental degradation, famine, AIDS and other pandemics, refugees, and a host other problems that will never be solved by nations hiding behind their borders and their sovereignty. As I said in January of '03:
"What the evidence of recent history clearly shows is that left to its own devices, Iraq will completely ignore the clear commands of the UN, and the credibility of the UN as a forum for effective global co-operation and enforcement will seek ever-lower nadirs. But that's as far as I'll go. As for the rest of it, I can't swallow that much bile - the cynical, manipulative way that Bush & friends foisted this issue onto the nation, the reverses and inconsistencies in our statements to our allies and our enemies, the repellant demagoguery of the deaths of 3,000 people to justify his shitty little oil venture. Don't get me wrong, I think that Bush is an evil chimp, and any coincidence of his motives with a concern for global justice is but coincidence. But, whether he really cares about the UN or not, when he says that the UN becomes less relevant every day it lets Saddam spit in its face without doing anything, he's right.

But, in the event, that was just wishful thinking. A war to strengthen the UN was never in the cards; the UN sent the inspectors back in, and when their preliminary reports indicated that nothing was there, we kicked them out* and let slip the dogs. Bush did nothing to strengthen the UN, and the war itself was spun and has been used to further disempower and humiliate that body. There is no hope of a multinational force playing any role in Iraq, ever. There will be no blue helmets. Iraq is ours, and ours alone.

What characterizes so much about this shitty little war is the vast tracery of public relations papier-mache that has enclosed every facet of it, and how repeatedly that millimeter-thin veneer has been punched through to reveal incompetence, carelessness, or real dishonesty. From the carefully-spun and cherrypicked WMD intelligence and the UN puppet show by Colin Powell, to Cheney's public assurances to the American people that we would be greeted as liberators, to the supposedly ironclad links to al Quaeda, to the rise and fall and rise and fall of Mr. Chalabi, to the claims that the Iraqi oil fields would pay for the reconstruction, to the catastrophically abrupt "de-Baathification" of the military casting hundreds of thousands of people out of jobs and into bitter poverty, to the bogus "mobile chemical weapons factories," to the Abu Ghraib "bad apples," to the missing billions in reconstruction funds, to the STILL-unarmored vehicles that carry our troops, to the hundreds of tons of high-grade explosive left unguarded which are now being used to blow so many of them into prosthetics, wheelchairs, and early graves. And a hundred more examples, including the general lesson that this war has taught the world: America is far, far weaker than you thought. Before Iraq, the world was pretty sure that we could take on any six countries and whip them while yawning. They don't think that anymore. Its almost unbelievable, really. Almost as unbelievable as the fact that all of this was known on November 2, 2004.

* We kicked them out. Despite the fact that the president chooses to repeatedly lie about this fact, Saddam did not refuse to allow the inspectors in. He let them in, and we told them to leave or risk getting caught in the invasion (no doubt he had his own reasons for doing so, and no doubt those reasons included the large American army massing on his doorstep, but he did let them in, and it would be nice for the President not to lie so much about it). We rejected the inspectors' claims that they were finding no evidence of WMD's; in fact, we took their empty-handed preliminary reports as evidence that Saddam was up to his old tricks of concealment. Given what we know now, this irony is particularly sickening.


Wednesday, June 22, 2005  
Dagnabbit. The solar sail vehicle never even had a chance - the crappy Russian missile that was supposed to get it into orbit crashed 83 seconds after takeoff. Oh, well.

UPDATE: But wait! The initial reports may have been wrong! Signals from the craft may have been heard over the Marshall Islands! Stay tuned! More exclamation points surely to come!



Monday, June 20, 2005  
Do you know what a turtle is? Free weekly newspapers are a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes, they offer straight news reporting, and sometimes they indulge in snarky outsiderism that can be a bit grating. Sometimes, though, they come up with a perfect blend of the two, and give you something you are just not going to see anywhere else. DC City Paper's "Seller's Market" is one; another is this article in the Bay Area Wave, wherein Eric Gutoski contacted each of the many candidates for mayor of San Francisco, and administered the Voight-Kampff test from Blade Runner to them. As Gutoski puts it, "Rather than confuse you with endorsements, position papers and other outmoded means of political influence, we’ve decided to get to the bottom of the only question that matters: Is a particular candidate human or an insidious replicant, possessed of physical strength and computational abilities far exceeding our own, but lacking empathy and possibly even bent on our destruction as a species?" An important question, to be sure. Only one of the candidates recognized the reference, and the rest were priceless. My favorite was Angela Alioto:

The Wave: Reaction time is a factor in this, so please pay attention. Now, answer as quickly as you can. It’s your birthday. Someone gives you a calfskin wallet. How do you react?
Angela Alioto: I’d accept it.

TW: You’ve got a little boy. He shows you his butterfly collection plus the killing jar. What do you do?
AA: I’d look at it. What do you mean what would I do? As opposed to saying “how horrible?” I would tell him how beautiful it is.

TW: You’re watching television. Suddenly you realize there’s a wasp crawling on your arm.
AA: I’d knock it off. It’s something I’m used to doing in politics [Laughs].

TW: You’re in a desert walking along in the sand when all of the sudden you look down, and you see a tortoise, Angela, it’s crawling toward you. You reach down, you flip the tortoise over on its back, Angela. The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over, but it can’t, not without your help. But you’re not helping. Why is that, Angela?
AA: That would never happen. I wouldn’t turn it over in the first place, and the thing with it being in pain is out of the question. Let me ask you, John, how does this fit in to the bigger picture when you ask me about the dying tortoise and the dead butterflies?

TW: They’re just questions, Angela. In answer to your query, they’re written down for me. It’s a test, designed to provoke an emotional response. Shall we continue? Describe in single words, only the good things that come into your mind. About your mother.
AA: My mother? She’s beautiful. She’s an artist. She’s a renaissance artist.

CONCLUSION: Her defensiveness over her lack of empathy for the butterfly is telling, as is the comparison of a political rival to a wasp that should be knocked off. I think we can safely say that Angela Alioto is indeed a replicant, albeit one that “loves” the implanted memory of her mother. Keep an eye on her.

Read them all. Via Jonas Cord in the comments to this post.


Just got back from traveling, so I have no idea what's happening in the world. This, however, is extremely cool:
Sunshine-Propelled Craft Is Set to Sail in Space

The idea occurred to German astronomer Johannes Kepler in the 17th century when he detected a comet flying across the night sky trailing what looked like a plume of fire. If space had so much wind, why not build ships to sail the heavens?

Indeed. Tomorrow, barring delay or mishap, a U.S. filmmaker, an international association of space buffs and Russian aerospace organizations will use a leftover Soviet ballistic missile to put the first "solar sail" into orbit.

This unusual device, which looks like a 6,500-square-foot flower with eight triangular, mirrorlike petals, does not use wind, as Kepler predicted. Instead, it hopes to show that sunlight's gentle push might one day enable a spacecraft to reach speeds far greater than anything achieved by a mere rocket. Deployed, the petals are about 1 1/2 times the size of a basketball court.

"The design life for this mission is only a month," said Louis Friedman, project director for the venture known as Cosmos 1. "It could go longer, but not much. What we want to do is prove that it works -- that we can increase orbit energy and make it fly higher."

Solar sails work on a relatively simple principle -- that beams of light bouncing off a reflective surface will transmit a push to the surface, driving it forward. Although the force is tiny, it is also constant and cumulative. And in the vacuum of space, there is no atmospheric friction to slow it down.

Speed rises, and eventually will build well beyond the 25,000 mph needed to free an object from Earth's gravity. If they handle it properly, ground-based engineers can steer a solar sail back and forth in space, Friedman said, "tacking it, like a sailboat -- although the physics are different."

"The basic trick is to get a large enough sail surface and a spacecraft that's light enough so you can move," said NASA In-Space Propulsion Technology Manager Les Johnson, who is overseeing two NASA solar-sail projects expected to be ready sometime after 2010. "In the 1970s, we didn't have either the materials or the structures, and we've only gotten them in the last five or 10 years."

Traditionally, when I think of a "solar powered vehicle," I think of something like this, clad in silicon panels, where photons knock electrons free in a two-layered cell, converting light to electricity through a chemical process, which electricity then powers some traditional motor to produce mechanical thrust.

But this is a more rudimentary, more primitive form of solar power, derived from the basic f=ma force created by a light source like the sun, rather than a sophisticated manipulation of light's chemical properties. Here, the photons are not absorbed or transformed by a cunningly wrought material, but rather they simply rain against the "petals" like a hundred trillion tiny ball bearings, each imparting the tiniest push against the craft, quite literally like a wind billowing away from the sun, but a wind with no horse latitudes between here and Pluto, no calms until the Big Sargasso between the stars, where the sun's light goes out.


Thursday, June 09, 2005  
Missed recruitment goals are indeed a problem, but as John Cole says, this is not the solution (edited):
When Marine recruiters go way beyond the call

For mom Marcia Cobb and her teenage son Axel, the white letters USMC on their caller ID soon spelled, "Don't answer the phone!" Marine recruiters began a relentless barrage of calls to Axel as soon as the mellow, compliant Sedro-Woolley High School grad had cut his 17th birthday cake. And soon it was nearly impossible to get the seekers of a few good men off the line.

"I've been trained to be pretty friendly. I guess you might even say I'm kind of passive," Axel told me last week, just after his mother and older sister had tracked him to a Seattle testing center and sprung him on a ruse.

A single mom with a meager income, Marcia raised her kids on the farm where, until recently, she grew salad greens for restaurants. Axel's father, a Marine Corps vet who served in Vietnam, died when Axel was 4. Clearly the recruiters knew all that and more.

"You don't want to be a burden to your mom," they told him. "Be a man." "Make your father proud." Never mind that, because of his own experience in the service, Marcia says enlistment for his son is the last thing Axel's dad would have wanted.

The next weekend, when Marcia went to Seattle for the Folklife Festival and Axel was home alone, two recruiters showed up at the door. Axel repeated the family mantra, but he was feeling frazzled and worn down by then. The sergeant was friendly but, at the same time, aggressively insistent. This time, when Axel said, "Not interested," the sarge turned surly, snapping, "You're making a big (bleeping) mistake!"

Next thing Axel knew, the same sergeant and another recruiter showed up at the LaConner Brewing Co., the restaurant where Axel works. And before Axel, an older cousin and other co-workers knew or understood what was happening, Axel was whisked away in a car.

"They said we were going somewhere but I didn't know we were going all the way to Seattle," Axel said.

Just a few tests. And so many free opportunities, the recruiters told him.

He could pursue his love of chemistry. He could serve anywhere he chose and leave any time he wanted on an "apathy discharge" if he didn't like it. And he wouldn't have to go to Iraq if he didn't want to.

At about 3:30 in the morning, Alex was awakened in the motel and fed a little something. Twelve hours later, without further sleep or food, he had taken a battery of tests and signed a lot of papers he hadn't gotten a chance to read. "Just formalities," he was told. "Sign here. And here. Nothing to worry about."

By then Marcia had "freaked out."

She went to the Burlington recruiting center where the door was open but no one was home. So she grabbed all the cards and numbers she could find, including the address of the Seattle-area testing center.

Then, with her grown daughter in tow, she high-tailed it south, frantically phoning Axel whose cell phone had been confiscated "so he wouldn't be distracted during tests."

Axel's grandfather was in the hospital dying, she told the people at the desk. He needed to come home right away. She would have said just about anything.

But, even after being told her son would be brought right out, her daughter spied him being taken down a separate hall and into another room. So she dashed down the hall and grabbed him by the arm.

"They were telling me I needed to 'be a man' and stand up to my family," Axel said.

What he needed, it turned out, was a lawyer.

Five minutes and $250 after an attorney called the recruiters, Axel's signed papers and his cell phone were in the mail.

Now, to be sure, this is just one account of the story, but still, what the fuck, huh? And now, in what is becoming a characteristic response, the Bush administration has decided to deal with the sagging numbers by...changing the disclosure procedure to obscure the problem! Yay!


Wednesday, June 08, 2005  
Long Non-Political Post. I don't want to say anything about gulags, or medical marijuana, or Mark Felt, or any of it. What I want to talk about is drums.

Over Memorial Day weekend, I attended the Modern Drummer Festival. A jazz drummer friend of mine and I met up in Manhattan on May 27th, and spent the entire weekend eating great food and geeking out over some of the most overpowering drumming I have ever seen. The festival was amazing, consisting of two days of showcases featuring fifteen or so performances in a wide range of drum styles, from double bass metal speed-freaks like Jason Bittner (click here for a quick video clip, if you want to see someone play double bass really fast), to Drum 'n Bass guru Jojo Mayer and his band Nerve, topped off by a set from jazz legend Roy Haynes. Haynes was particularly inspiring, as he always is – he is 80, and still hits a ton. I don't mean he hits a ton for an 80-year old. I mean he hits a ton, period. Powerful, creative, clean, funky, on-point. That is Roy Haynes, then and now.

Watching Mayer was an eye-opener, as he played beats designed to replicate the superfast metronomic drive of drum-machine based techno music. His clinic was an object lesson in what machines can never capture. Mayer's imitative technique was clean as a whistle, and I imagine if you put a metronome to him, his time is damn-near perfect. But. There still emerged in his playing an identifiable pulse, a whispering artifact of dynamic tension and release that drove the band (a live bass and keyboard player) into the most interesting music I heard all weekend. The bass player had a big part of this, as he was clearly dialed into whatever Mayer was up to just behind the beat. I normally hate techno music, or at least am profoundly bored by it, but this was riveting.

Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers did a dual clinic with Ian Paice of Deep Purple, an avuncular, war-story-swapping affair. The best moment, and one of the high points of the festival, came when Ian Paice invited Smith to take a solo. Paice (a really likeable guy) had just finished an impressive technical solo, with lots of cascading triplets and thunder and cymbals, in the Moby Dick mold. Smith sat down, and just started to stomp out a brutally funky syncopated groove, simple, but driving. Bump, BAP. Bump-babump-BAP. Bump, BAP. Bump-babump-BAP. Everyone was waiting for the explosion, because, although he doesn't use them much on the RHCP records, Smith has huge chops, and can perform amazing, pyrotechnic solo moves when he is of a mind. But he wasn't of a mind. He just sat on that groove, playing steady, hard and loud, for three full minutes. Bump, BAP. Bump-babump-BAP. Bump, BAP. Bump-babump-BAP. It was a thing of beauty.

In the evenings, we went to see some club shows. Nick Payton at Birdland was a mixed bag – Payton was burning, but his band just wasn't up for it, especially a very lackluster drummer, who refused to challenge Payton dynamically, and just seemed inclined to hang back and impress himself with the cool broken-time comping he learned at Berklee. Sunday night, however, was a whole 'nother story. We went to see Wycliffe Gordon play at one of the new small jazz venues that Lincoln Center has set up at Columbus Circle – Dizzy's Club Coca Cola. Despite the cheesy corporate name, and the even cheesier names on the menu (the Manteca Sundae? The Cubano-Bop Steak? Cheese Fries in Tunisia? Okay, I made up that last one, but still), this was the most beautiful jazz room I have ever been in, with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the park and the skyline. The band was entirely smoking, with Herlin Riley and Reginald Veal (fellow alumni with Gordon from the classic Wynton Marsalis Septet), and later, Wynton himself, showing up to wish Gordon a happy birthday and take a few solos. A great night, and a venue I hope very much to return to.

So, there. Some other non-political topics: Revenge of the Sith? Good, but not great. Not a good enough reason to turn to the dark side, and a real waste of the potentially devastating Darth Vader Moment ("Noooooooooooooooo!"....feh.) New Spoon record? Good, but I liked Kill the Moonlight better (except for "The Infinite Pet," that's a great fucking song). New M. Doughty record? I was really enjoying it, until I realized that none of the songs would be out of place on a Dave Matthews Band record. Then I noticed that, in fact, Dave Matthews was guest vocalist on the song I was listening to. Then I realized I had better things to do than listen to a Dave Matthews Band record.

All right, that's a bit harsh. I have been walking around singing "Looking at the World from the Bottom of a Well" and "I Can Hear The Bells" for like a week now. They are insistent and catchy as hell. But don't you see? That's how they get you! That's what they wanted all along!!!


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