Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A poem for Wednesday

Love rejected
hurts so much more
than Love rejecting;
they act like they don't love their country

what it is
is they found out
their country don't love them.
-Lucille Clifton

:Hat tip to Ta-Nehisi Coates for posting this on his blog. I understand his reaction, "this stopped me cold." It is a powerful piece and works on so many levels at the same time. So many things unsaid that the reader must bring to it: this effect in the best poetry allows the writer and reader to unite in a way prose seldom does.

Monday, December 28, 2009

A poem for Monday

From you alone to you alone, everlasting to everlasting, all that is not you is suffering, all that is not you is solitude rehearsing the arguments of loss. All that is not you is the man collapsing against his own forehead, and the forehead crushes him. All that is not you goes out and out, gathering the voices of revenge, harvesting lost triumphs far from the real and necessary defeat. It is to you I speak, solitude to unity, failure to mercy, and loss to the light. It is you I welcome here, coming through the coarse glory of my imagination, to this very night, to this very couch, to this very darkness. Grant me a forgiving sleep, and rest my enemy.

-This is from Leonard Cohen's Book of Mercy, a collection of personal psalms that are honest and profound. For believers of all stripes, the book speaks from a centerpoint of faith. For non-believers and skeptics, this collection of psalms in modern poetic form can speak eloquently to the power of human expression through art, as the master artist struggles with the ineffable.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Ahmad Tea - A tea to remember

I am no connoisseur, but I do love tea. And I drink it both black and the Irish way, with full fat milk (in America we call it whole milk). But I'm not fussy about it, I'll even use cream. Now my English wife (half English anyway) will tell you that's properly called 'the English way,' but my grandfather called it the Irish way and that's good enough for me. Of course, if I were to apply reason to the debate, I would probably lose, because it is very unlikely that the Irish had enough money to splurge on milk for their tea, if they could afford tea, so it is probably more accurate to describe tea with milk as an English phenomenon, which the Irish adopted as they peered longingly at their richer English neighbors' milky tea cups. But why would one ever let reason into a marital debate?

Again, I am no expert, but I have drunk thousands of cups, from quiet contemplative sips in the temples of Siam and Nippon to rowdy, roaring cups in the caravan tents of Jordan and Oman. I've even had the good fortune to enjoy traditional English tea service in my grandmother-in-law's delightful coastal bungalow on the South coast of England. The latter experience was probably the most self-conscious one, as the hostess was a very formal English Tory, and I am a lowly descendant of Irish immigrants to the New World, and thus completely out of my element in such rarefied environs. Fortunately my wife coached me through it and I emerged unscathed, but delightfully full on crumpets.

My favorite tea is Ahmad Tea of London. Their English Tea No.1 is a sublime riff off of the more traditional Earl Grey - there is just a hint of bergamot. Also, their fruit teas are phenomenal. Normally I don't go for anything like apricot or apple teas, not only because they are bit frilly for my taste, but also because the fruit flavor often seems a little off and overbearing against the tea. But Ahmad Tea makes a mango tea that is out of this world. And their apricot is also impressive. The fruit flavor is hinted at, but the experience is still a full black tea experience.

So, since I routinely buy their products, I looked into the company's background. One assumes from their delightfully designed tea caddies that the company has a history that stretches back into the time of the Raj and the height of the British Empire. Which, apparently, is exactly what the company is going for with their designs. The look and feel of the tins instantly recall an earlier era, and the label artwork is richly evocative of England, at least the England of myth.

But the truth is the company was started in 1985 by Iranian immigrants to the UK. Though apparently the family has some four generations of tea making experience in Iran, they capitalized on the worldwide reputation of English tea when they got to London. And good for them. I must admit, if their label had an Iranian theme and was named Ahmad Tea of Teheran I probably would not have given it a try, and would have been the poorer for it. As I look at their products, there is nothing that claims a long company history, but the impression is so strong, one assumes it. Which I suppose means they did their marketing well. Fortunately they also make their tea very well too.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Blue eyed devils on the wane

I remember years ago while reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X, how the Nation of Islam preachers would constantly refer to "blue-eyed devils." It was alarming to me, first, because I have blue eyes, but secondly, I found it curious that they would single out a fairly rare aspect of (mostly) white folks. Surely, I thought, this particularly extreme group held grievances against all whites, not just those with blue eyes.

A recent article in the Associated Press shed some light on this. Apparently blue eyes are much rarer than they used to be. While nearly half the country (USA) peered through blue-tinged orbs at the beginnning of the Twentieth Century, only 10% of Americans do so today. So, back in the formative years of the Nation of Islam, the 1940's and 50's, blue eyes were much more common than they are now, hence the applicability of the "blue-eyed devils" comment. Otherwise, why would they single out only a sixth of the "white race," their stated enemy?

Thus it appears that my children and I are in a rapidly disappearing cohort. According to a study in Human Genetics the appearance of blue eyes in the human race began between 6,000-10,000 years ago via a genetic mutation in one single human being near the Black Sea. This characteristic was passed down through the generations, appearing mostly in Northern Europe, but also in a few areas in Africa and Asia as well. And now it is on the wane. Steadily disappearing in North America and Northern Europe, where inter-marriage and inter-cultural exchange has allowed the dominant brown eye color to slowly filter out the recessive blue.

While we blue-eyed individuals have been alternately favored and vilified, it appears that we can state, as a group, to the Nation of Islam, that soon, in the words of Richard Nixon, "you won't have us to kick around anymore!" And while I adore many brown-eyed individuals (my wife included) I would sorely miss the bright blue eyes of my children, as they dance and shimmer in the morning light. Alas, soon there will be no more debate about which are more beautiful, genetics will settle that score forever, as the succeeding generations of humanity slowly evolve into billions of copies of Tiger Woods (hopefully without the philandering!)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

With a nod to Gully Foyle

Patrick is my name
And blogspot is my nation
Cyber space is my dwelling place
The truth my destination

-A quatrain of appreciation for Alfred Bester

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Poem for Monday

A Brief Encounter

We ride into life alone,
no horse,
bare ass;
chords singing to the wind.
We gather toys and buttons,
cat’s tails.
Soon we gather wisdom.
We stay away from electric sockets,
rabid dogs.

Days come with enough to share.
We learn about bank accounts and love affairs.
We give what we can,
We help whom we know.
It’s all we can do.

Even our children ride alone.
Free, but alone.
They may take our buttons and abide our wisdom.
They may not.
It’s all we can do.

We ride out of life alone.
We follow friends and we leave friends…
Riding into nowhere.

Confirmation Bias: A Testimony

I was on an airplane yesterday and a friend had given me a book to read, Sam Harris’ The End of Faith, the fairly well-known, even infamous, New Atheist tome. As I sat in the waiting area I pulled the book out of my bag and the thought immediately struck me that some of the people around me are bound to make judgments about me simply because of the book I am reading. There, in a very religious, conservative city on the Southernmost border of America, where 67% of the population claim to attend church service weekly, I was mildly concerned about generating ill will in my fellow travelers. Now, the fact is, since my beliefs are decidedly in the undecided column, I probably do fit into most of these folks' definition of an atheist. But I do not consider myself in full agreement with Mr. Harris on all points in his book and I would not want to be painted with a broad brush in that manner. But here is a larger question.

Why did I think most of the people around me would assume that I was reading this book because I agreed with it? And was I wrong for thinking it? I will admit that I assume the same things about others, if I see someone reading say, the Koran, on a flight, I assume that the reader is probably not a Baptist minister. Of course, he could be, and I could come up with several scenarios in which a Baptist minister might study the Koran: to find out more about an increasingly important faith in the world, or in preparation for a sermon denouncing said faith, or simple curiosity. Who knows? But the likelihood is that the person reading the Koran is a Muslim. Why would I say that? Because of confirmation bias. What, one might say? Again, that is confirmation bias - the idea that most people willingly consume information that reinforces already held beliefs, and ignore or avoid contrary points of view.

Now, do I know absolutely that confirmation bias is widely practiced? No, I don’t, but I suspect that it is, primarily because of my own susceptibility to it and my observation of the propensities of others. In my own case, for years I read almost exclusively authors that I agreed with. I listened to speakers and preachers that I agreed with. I let a certain set of spokesmen and authors shape my beliefs to a great extent. Then I learned about confirmation bias, and realized that I had been guilty of practicing it. I then determined not to do so in the future. I assumed that what I believed at the time was true and would not seriously change as I examined other points of view. But, I also knew that whenever I had read far afield from what I was used to, it was a mildly uncomfortable experience. So I knew that I was setting out on a difficult course. Of course, I didn’t know at the time that my entire concept of the universe and my place in it was to change as a result of my newfound determination to erase my own ignorance.

In my case, I was raised around politically conservative Christians (those whom Andrew Sullivan calls Christianists), and when one is raised in these circles, a favorite past time is finding and excoriating enemies - nothing unites a group like a common enemy. So, my only experience with a lot of alternative view points to my own was through the lens of my group’s spokesmen. For instance, I heard a lot of denunciations of secular humanists (quite the bogeymen in my group) but I had not actually bothered to meet, read, or consider anything actually written by a self-proclaimed secular humanist. A clear symptom of confirmation bias. And I suspect that this scenario plays itself out in many different circles. If I had been raised by raging Leftist environmentalists, I could likely tell a similar tale.

Thankfully, I shed myself of this limiting and debilitating habit (not completely, but it is a work in progress). Over the years I have read hundreds of works by all the old bogeymen: secular humanists, and leftists, and socialists, and atheists, and evolutionary psychologists, etc. And guess what, encountering these points of view changed my own forever. And I don’t regret it in the least. Confirmation bias be damned. My life has become eminently richer by encountering a much greater swath of humankind. Of course, I have also been scared and alarmed in having to question many of my own assumptions, but I believe I would rather continually question and seek knowledge “to the utmost bound of human thought” than to remain in the shackles of group-think and confirmation bias.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Dulce et Decorum Est


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

8 October 1917 - Wilfred Owen

It is an enduring truth that no one knows the price of war like those who have to fight them. The title, translated from Latin, means, “It is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country,” and, of course, the author writes to show the lie of that statement.

In the first stanza, the "Five-nines" are 5.9 inch mortars which impact behind them as they march away from the front. In this scene the soldiers are too tired and spent to even care how close they are. Then they turn out to be gas rounds.
This poem startles with its ghastly imagery, to drive home its point. In the second stanza, the use of the word, "ecstacy" to describe the frantic fumbling with one's gas mask when under a chemical attack is spectacularly inappropriate. His description of a luckless soldier who didn't get his mask on fast enough is a direct challenge to all those who were propagandizing war in Britain at the time. There is no way this awful, squirming death scene could be described as glorious.

The author was a British soldier who was killed in World War I, then called the Great War. -PTR

Monday, December 7, 2009

Coffee is a drug, but some drugs are useful.

As a follow up to my earlier post on coffee, where I noted the drug-like characteristics of caffeine, I should give fair hearing to the other side of the issue. While caffeine does act like a drug in that we build a tolerance to its effects, that is only one aspect of caffeine. Many benefits have been noted over the years by medical researchers, including decreased incidence of diabetes and Parkinson disease, and, believe it or not, enhanced athletic performance. Of course, as with everything, it's a trade-off. Still, for me, just the smell of brewing coffee is electric.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Is the BBC the future of journalism?

John Nichols, veteran journalist, paints a very bleak picture about the future of journalism funded by free enterprise. Government subsidy of journalism is the only answer, according to him. We in the US already have publicly funded press outlets (PBS, NPR). But the UK has had probably the best record of a pubicly funded news service in the form of the BBC, historically very independent from government pressures. His assertion that the press in America began with government was a revelation to me. I will have to research more on the history of which he speaks. I suppose if George Washington and John Adams supported public funding of the press, it will be harder for people to oppose it.

Hat Tip to Hans at The Nordic Link for the video.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

My Caffeine Tolerance

On a recent podcast episode of Skeptic's Guide to the Universe, the hosts have an interesting conversation about caffeine. Apparently, caffeine does diminish in its effects as tolerance in the body builds, but the details are illuminating. This is especially important for those of us who partake daily. I drink both coffee and tea just about every day. Fortunately only a cup or two total, usually one or the other.

According to Dr. Steven Novella on the aforementioned podcast, caffeine is an adenosine inhibitor. Of course, I don't pretend to know what that means, but it seems that adenosine keeps the brain calm, so when it is inhibited by caffeine, the brain is more active, which is not quite the same thing as being stimulated, but the effect is the same. However, this effect diminishes over time, because the body simply produces more adenosine when the current amount proves inadequate. Then more caffeine is needed to inhibit the additional adenosine, then more adenosine is produced, and so on and so on. Thus tolerance for caffeine builds in the body, and apparently pretty quickly. Apparently after less than two weeks, users (which includes me) are simply drinking caffeine to return to normal.

Basically it is the classic definition of drug tolerance and addiction, and apparently it is an addiction shared by quite a few people. According to the Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 80% of adults consume the caffeine equivalent of at least one cup of coffee a day. That's a lot of people just trying to get back to normal.

After finding out all this out I thought I might want to reset my caffeine tolerance, to go back to zero, and only use caffeine on those occasions when I actually need heightened mental acuity. And I am in the middle of this effort, but I confess I failed today - broke down and had a cup of tea. How long it takes to reset all this neural receptor business is somewhat unknown - it depends how long one has been using and how much. But I think in my case about 5 days should do it. We will see. If I fail, well, I will have a lot of company.

Carlene Bauer, former Evangelical

Carlene Bauer talks, in an interesting interview at More Intelligent Life, about her deconversion experience, "There was always a tiny voice inside me saying “That can’t be right” whenever I heard something that seemed to contradict who I understood God and Jesus to be from reading the Bible—all-loving, all-forgiving."

I am personally drawn to deconversion experiences due to my own startling experience. I have served in combat, lost my Dad to Cancer, been divorced, and generally seen alot of bad things happen in the most desperate parts of the world. But I still consider the most jarring event, the most inner-peace shattering event, in my short 40 years to be the moment when I lost belief in God. For a person who was raised in a very religious home, and accepted those beliefs fully, it was a very alarming experience. I didn't know where to go or who to talk to about this. Normally, when believers ("believers"-that's what we called each other) have a problem, especially some faith-pertinent problem, they tend to call other believers, or ministers, and get their faith "bolstered." But when I no longer had faith to bolster, I knew I couldn't call my fellow (or former fellow) believers anymore.

It was quite comforting when many others in America started to tell about their own faith-loss experiences. Those of us who are skeptics, or outright unbelievers, are a set-upon minority, at least in this country, and we can use all the company we can get.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Insightful discussion on Obama's China visit

James Fallows of The Atlantic is discussing in much more depth and clarity than any other MSM (main-stream media) outlet, President Obama's recent trip to China. One of his readers who is based in China writes
,"...based on my observations of these things over the years I'm very much leaning toward the White House insider's view -- that the reach was vast and deep, in the many millions or tens of millions, though not necessarily entirely positive. But the comment from President Obama that I think will have the most impact inside the firewall was not the one about US principles that you quoted in your followups. It was this one:

'Now, I should tell you, I should be honest, as President of the United States, there are times where I wish information didn't flow so freely because then I wouldn't have to listen to people criticizing me all the time. I think people naturally are -- when they're in positions of power sometimes thinks, oh, how could that person say that about me, or that's irresponsible, or -- but the truth is that because in the United States information is free, and I have a lot of critics in the United States who can say all kinds of things about me, I actually think that that makes our democracy stronger and it makes me a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don't want to hear. It forces me to examine what I'm doing on a day-to-day basis to see, am I really doing the very best that I could be doing for the people of the United States.'

"Wow! As a resident of China for two decades and a Mandarin-speaking China-watcher for three decades, I can say without any doubt that those words will resonate far more deeply -- and potentially more "subversively" or "destabilizingly" -- than any overt thumb-in-the-eye hectoring that any foreigner or foreign leader might muster, in public or private. Those words are ***precisely*** the kind that Zhongnanhai [Chinese term equivalent to "the Kremlin"] fears the most, and rightly so."

-This is exactly what I hoped to see from the man. I can't think of a better, more disarming explanation of the strength of societies that practice democracy and protect free speech. His whole approach sums up the word, diplomacy. It's subtle and it's slow, and the US media outlets can't squeeze it into a five second sound bite, so they deride it, but I suspect one day, in a few years, we will look back and realize that there has been quite a bit of incremental progress going on. In short, while the Nobel prize was a bit premature, I think he will earn it in the end, and for incidents just like this one, where he subtly wins, not just his point, but hearts as well.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


I watch I do
I study I copy
I rehearse I perform
Everyline prepared

I see I record
I play the tapes
I stand my mark
I enter on cue

I fear I act
Because I fear
An unprepared line


Alicia might remember this one.

A Poem for Monday

To Each in His Own Tongue

A FIRE-MIST and a planet,--
A crystal and a cell,--
A jelly-fish and a saurian,
And caves where the cave-men dwell;
Then a sense of law and beauty,
And a face turned from the clod,--
Some call it Evolution,
And others call it God.

A haze on the far horizon,
The infinite, tender sky,
The ripe, rich tint of the cornfields,
And the wild geese sailing high,--
And all over the upland and lowland
The charm of the goldenrod,--
Some of us call it Autumn,
And others call it God.

Like tides on a crescent sea-beach,
When the moon is new and thin,
Into our hearts high yearnings
Come welling and surging in,--
Come from the mystic ocean
Whose rim no foot has trod,--
Some of us call it longing,
And others call it God.

A picket frozen on duty,--
A mother starved for her brood,--
Socrates drinking the hemlock,
And Jesus on the rood;
And millions who, humble and nameless,
The straight, hard pathways plod,--
Some call it Consecration,
And others call it God.

-William Herbert Carruth

I think the strength of this poem is demonstrated by the diversity of its admirers. I've seen it quoted by Christian preachers in sermons against evolution and by scientists in essays stating that evolution does not make claims against belief in the divine. It's sweeping and startling imagery also bolsters its popularity, I am sure. As a skeptic I am comforted by the author's assurance that the overwhelming nature of life defies explanation. In fact, the author seems to be saying that labels don't matter, since their power to explain is ultimately wanting.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Pets versus clean energy

This article on the World Bank site details how the world spends more on pet food than on research and development of clean energy sources. The comments following the article are worth reading as well. Let's hope that, at least, the author is wrong in predicting that we will "get the energy we deserve

Monday, November 9, 2009

Pre-Katrina Revisited

If you ever hear any politicians tell you that they had no idea such a thing as Hurricane Katrina could happen, please wave the bullshit flag. Here is an All Things Considered broadcast from 3 YEARS BEFORE Katrina hit that warned about the real possibility of a big storm hitting New Orleans and overwhelming the levees. Numerous experts are interviewed, even some from the Army Corps of Engineers, who were sending up reports warning of the increasing danger to the dilapidated levee system.

I know it's a bizarro world notion, but somehow I got the idea that our political leaders are supposed to be looking ahead and trying their best to protect the people from just exactly this kind of very foreseeable disaster. If an asteroid comes out of nowhere, or a solar storm flares up and grills the Earth, I will give them a pass. But for something that was so predictable, the lack of readiness is unforgivable. I realize that books full of outrage over this sad episode have already been published, but it still bears remembering, don't you think?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The wit of Russell Brand

Some things are funny because they true, sadly. Here's the English comedian, Russell Brand, while hosting the MTV Video Awards, "I should explain, we English are a little different from you [Americans], instead of truck we say lorry, instead of elevator we say lift, and instead of letting people die out in the middle of the street, we have free health care!"

The look on pop star, Pink's face said it all - achingly funny.

Google Tracker

Here's a bit of technical blog stuff I just discovered. I am not by any means a techie or IT expert so I did not realize that when I changed the background template for this blog, I would also have to repaste the google tracking code into the Layout - Edit HTML page of the blog.

I was wondering why I was seeing zero traffic on the site for the last 9 days or so, when I knew from a few emails and a couple comments that there had been at least a few visitors. Well, apparently the tracking code disappears, so one must keep that in mind when changing to another template.

This is obviously not a high traffic blog, but to go from 10 or 15 visits a day to 0 for more than a week was puzzling. So, I think the puzzle had been solved. I will find out over the next couple days I guess. Or maybe the entire webworld has given me the about-face salute for reasons unknown. Time will tell.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Case for God

In Karen Armstrong's recent book, The Case for God, she outlines how the great philosophers of the axial age (Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Rabbi Hillel - and by extension, Jesus) all came to similar great insights about the human condition. Out of this time we were given what is known as the Golden Rule, or the law of compassion - that we should "treat others as we would want to be treated," or, in another configuration, "do not do harm."

Armstrong asserts that these early versions of the world's religions were not interested in doctrine and the other most divisive aspects of religion, but in how to be good. They were reacting to the great waves of violence that were ripping the ancient world apart, trying to find a way out for mankind. She states that religion is at its worst where it draws up its standard and declares all must concede "this" or be wrong -and suffer the consequences, from shame to death to eternal hellfire (whatever it is is always bad.) She also contends that those who do so are acting in opposition to the original intent of the great sages. The point is not to be right, but to be good; not to believe correctly, but to act compassionately toward our fellow human beings.

She cites the famous quote where Rabbi Hillel (a Jewish scholar slightly before the time of Christ) was asked to cite the whole of the Torah while standing on one leg, and he replied, "Do not do unto others that which is hateful unto thee. That is the whole of the Law. The rest is commentary." This is the law of compassion that religions today should be teaching, if only they would be true to their origins.

I must confess I am a uniter at heart and I love Armstong's narrative. But is it true? I am not aware that the world has ever been particularly peaceful. In fact, from the dawn of human history, the world has been one long slaughterhouse from that day to this. I suspect that these great insights were simply logical extensions of behavior codes left over from a nomadic, tribal existence. We learned how to act reciprocally, even sometimes charitably, within our tribe. But as human civilization formed, the concept of tribe expanded beyond the 100-200 strong village-group to allied regions, then cities, then city-states, and empires, etc., and philosophies to incorporate previous enemies into the "in" group were hatched. The Golden Rule as we know it today evolved out of much more brutal codes, in fits and starts, slowly over the centuries.

But it was never pure; always the compassionate aspects of the religions came with a lot of cultural baggage that Armstrong rightly decries, but she also tries to wish it away. If the aspects of these religions that cause such trouble, such as clashes of doctrine concerning the role of the divine, the purpose of human existence, and the nature of the afterlife, are mistakenly over-valued by the great masses, where is the proof? To Armstrong, these matters are not important, and were not considered to be important by the original sages. But if that were so, why did those same sages teach anything at all about these subjects? Why lead everyone astray by allowing the chance of misinterpretation? Why not say, "all the rest of that is rubbish, concern yourselves with this alone." I suspect that Armstong herself has moved past these issues, and would like all of us to do so as well, but to say that the great religions also do so if only they are correctly understood is, I suspect, more a wish than a fact.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


This blog has been quoted in a new book on the human voice in the UK, The Voice of Influence, by Judy Apps. Ms. Apps quotes an earlier post on nonverbal qualities of the 2008 candidates for president that suggested how the resonant character of (then Sen.) Pres. Obama's voice favored him in the election.

Isn't the web world a remarkable thing? That an author in the UK can simply reach out and find a small blogger's post on a relevant subject in Japan (I was living in Japan at the time) - just fifteen years ago such a thing was basically impossible.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Sway of Irrational Behavior.

Here is a very thorough review of the popular book, Sway: The Irresistable Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori and Rom Brafman. The psychiatrist-reviewer, Dr. Grohol lays out the core of the Brafmans' book in a clear and succinct manner, so I won't do that here. The gist of the Brafman brothers' argument is that humans are subject to irrational urges and fears which overwhelm their critical faculties, often at the most innopportune moments. No matter how reasoned and logical we think we are, we are not.

Of course, from the standpoint of Evolutionary Psychology this makes perfect sense. Since we are, after all, simply high-functioning cognitive predator-animals, it would make sense that we resemble hot blooded mammal predators in our decision-making processes.

Through several entertaining anecdotes, the Brafmans illustrate many of these irrational tendencies, such as overreacting to impending losses, and falling prey to diagnosis bias by acting as is expected of us.

Many of these "sways" are already known to most people as oft-heard maxims and proverbs. Value attribution, where people imbue something or someone with certain qualities based on perceived value rather than on objective data, is a concept well-known through the sayings, "take someone at face value," or "don't judge a book by its cover." Diagnosis bias refers to the power of a first opinion; we all know how difficult it is to see past our own first impressions and reconsider things upon learning new information; this is why we have the saying, "first impressions last."

It is likely (again, purely my guesswork) these behaviors developed in humans because they conferred survival value to those who displayed them. If I were to guess, I would suggest that, in a world of limited information such as in the small-group, tribal existence of nomadic plainspeople, one must learn to assess quickly whether others can be trusted, or should be feared. And holding on to a first opinion is probably wise when life is often violent and brutal and a single mistake can be one's last. In such a tooth and claw world, it is no surprise that irrational, or highly emotional, behavior held sway on humankind.

Given the likely source of these irrational impulses, I have to agree with Dr. Grohol that the weakest part of the book is the last chapter, where the authors suggest ways to overcome these tendencies. The solutions suggested by the brothers Brafman really amount to little more than an exhortation to do better, with little reason, and no proof, that we as a species can.

Friday, October 30, 2009

A Poem for Monday (on Friday)

This Love

I don’t understand this love;
It is not like the others.
It did not ignite like a rush of summer fireflys,
Nor consume with equal parts elation and pain.
Other loves did.

Other loves pushed forward with the involuntary embrace
Of primal instinct and spiritual fascination,
So alive and desperate,
They made me feel.
But not this love.

This love is a new page
When I thought I had already read them all.
This love is a quiet joy,
A goose on the lake,
A ripple in the leaves,
A purple hue on the waking mountain.
This love is a knowing laugh and a long sigh.
It settles calmly like the rhythm of pleasant tinkering,
And it is my home now.


Sunday, October 25, 2009

Long lost Sarah Vaughan

The first time I ever heard Sarah Vaughan was at the end of "Master Harold and the Boys," a play by the South African playwright Athol Fugard. It was a filmed version of the play with Matthew Broderick, Zakes Mokae, and John Kani in 1985. It was a superb production (with the exception of Broderick's poor excuse for a South African accent) and it ends with the two black South Africans dancing as the credits roll. The voice of perfection I heard singing as they danced was completely transformative. It opened up a entirely new musical landscape for me. As a young kid in the 70's and 80's, any kind of music popular before 1960 was completely unknown, and, presumably, uninteresting, since that was what my parents listened to.

I asked my mother who the singer was and she said she was pretty sure it was Sarah Vaughan. I immediately began to listen to everything I could find by her. There were no credits noting what the song was, so I found the play in a library and checked the end. The play only says that, "Sarah Vaughan sings as Sam and Willie dance."

After going through fifty or so albums and looking all over the web, I found what I was looking for just a few months ago. That song that started my infatuation with Sarah Vaughan was on Count Basie/Sarah Vaughan. It is, "Little Man You've Had a Busy Day." It was recorded in the early sixties when Sassy was at the height of her powers. She had honed her delivery over the previous two decades, and time (and her continuous smoking) had not diminished her vocal instrument at all. She never really lost her voice or much of her range, but it did deepen quite a bit in her later years and her notes stayed out of the stratosphere.

But anything before 1970 (which includes hundreds and hundreds of songs over three decades) by Sassy will be exquisite. I know ella Fitzgerald is known as the clearest voice ever, but for me, I place Sassy just a bit higher in the jazz all-stars. When I hear her sing, I think that must be what they mean when they speak of Heaven.

Monday, October 19, 2009

King of the Gun

Here's a tale of mine picked up by Andrew Sullivan on his blog on how one gay Marine became "King of the Gun."

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Afghan Campaign

There's an incident depicted in Steven Pressfield's "The Afghan Campaign," in which Macedonian soldiers threaten a Mesopotamian shopkeeper that they will cut off his son's foot unless he returns a stolen purse. The shopkeeper feigns innocence until, as the blade descends upon the boy's foot, the boy's young sister screams and points to the money's hiding spot. As the soldiers leave, the senior one points out to the junior ones that the shopkeeper and his wife were going to let them cut off the boy's foot. He then adds that even now, they were very likely thrashing the young girl to within an inch of her life for giving up the purse, even though she saved her brother's foot (and probably his life) in the process.

This incident reminded me that nothing much has changed in the region in 2000 years and that cultural barriers to understanding are often immense. When I was working at the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain, one of the Marines who provide security to the post fell ill. He was down hard and on bed rest at the Marine House for several days. One of the secretaries, a local Arab girl, was friendly with the Marines and asked her friend to drive her by the Marine House so she could drop off some hot soup for the sick Marine. When they arrived, noone was there except the bedridden Marine and the gate guard, so the guard told her to leave the dish inside on the foyer table. She did so and left.

She didn't show up to work for two weeks. When she did she still bore the bruises from the severe beating her brother administered upon hearing that she had entered a house alone with other men, and infidels on top of that. Even though she was in the house for the briefest of seconds, the family honor had been jeopardized. So she was beaten. This was not the only such incident I had heard about while in that region of the world, but this was the closest to me. I had chatted with the young lady. She was bright and smiling most of the time before her assault. Very reserved and withdrawn afterwards.

Such events cause me to wonder, along with Christopher Hitchens, why Western liberals seem to give a pass to this barbarism under the name of multiculturalism. I rarely hear it addressed by feminists, Ayaan Hirsi Ali being at least one exception. Why is this?

I don't pretend to have a grand framework of cultural understanding by which to pass judgement, but I feel strongly that free people, right, left, or center, must stand against this kind of thing, of whatever culture.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ode to the Far Kingdoms

O Babylon unmake your name;
Unfurl your sheets of veiled shame.
Disband the guard across your gates
And let us wander to our fates.

Jerusalem, break down the wall
That wails and weighs upon us all.
Fling our God-prayers to the wind
And heap the ash on those who’ve sinned.

From Damascus down to Tel Aviv
I saw her naked body grieve;
I saw her brothers pray for war
And sisters hide who knew the score.

O Babylon returned to dust;
Jerusalem, your gates are rust;
Damascus down to Tel Aviv;
Grieve, grieve, grieve.

A bit of doggerel before heading home to a fine Scotch. Tonight I think it will be Tomatin.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Grab bag

I heard a woman on the radio today talking about getting ready to evacuate her house due to approaching forest fires. She said she was placing same irreplaceable items in her pickup truck - paintings and heirlooms, and locking up her family's important papers in a firesafe.

That reminded me of a conversation I had with a lady whose house did burn down in California (San Diego) four years ago. She also left important papers behind in a firesafe. She'd only had about five minutes warning before the fire took her house, so she can't be faulted. And when she returned to the pile of ashes that used to be her home, she found the fireproof safe intact and still locked. But when she opened it, as soon as oxygen hit the contents, everything crumbled. Apparently fireproof safes will keep the flames away, but the temperature will still reach several hundred degrees and bake everything inside until its brittle.

Her advice? - put all your important stuff (birth certificates, marriage certificates, deed to the house, passports, etc.) in a grab bag that you can get to in under a minute and take with you.

Bound by lines on the map

One central lesson of geography is that humans are bound to the earth around them. Globalism has indeed made the world seem smaller (or flatter, acccording to Thomas Friedman) but the supremacy of typography and the tyranny of distance have not been transcended yet. Over the years I have lived on both sides of the U.S. and have spent about a decade outside the United States in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Far East. And I noticed that in most places people generally have at least two names to describe where they live: a poltical name and a geographically descriptive name. The political name is official, usually recognized by other political states and organizations such as the United Nations and usually gives no clue as to the physical environment of the place; it has no descriptive value. The descriptive name is normally unofficial, often not known widely outside the area, but universally known and used by the residents.

Those who live in Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Suffolk, or Hampton Virginia (yes, they are all rip offs from English towns or counties) are united by the knowledge that they live in the Tidewater region. It describes their litoral existence on the Virginia coast and unites them to their common geography. Their are many such regions. In Texas there is the Hill Country. In Kentucky, the Bluegrass. In New Mexico, the Otero Mesa. The Ozarks unite Northern Arkansas and Southern Missouri in common customs and lifestyle and is more of an identity for the people there than the imaginary border between them. In fact, this is often the case.
People use these alternate names because they often feel tied to these geographic realities much more than to the artificially drawn state boundaries that were often simply the result of expedient compromises reflecting the political landscape of centuries past.

By ignoring natural boundaries in favor of statute and treaty-drawn ones, we impose artificial restrictions on ourselves and, often, sow the seeds of conflict where otherwise there might flourish cooperation. Where I currently live is one example. The city of El Paso should rightfully be part of New Mexico. El Paso shares a common heritage, trade routes, climate, an aquifer, and the Rio Grande river. El Paso, technically part of Texas, is nearly 600 miles from the nearest major city in Texas, San Antonio. It is only 30 miles from Las Cruces. El Paso and Albuquerque, the largest city in New Mexico, are 3 1/2 hours apart by car. For decades there has been a heated clash over water rights, El Pasoans arguing for more water, New Mexicans turning a deaf ear. All of El Paso's water originates in New Mexico. The residents of New Mexico decide what to do with the Rio Grande without much thought or consideration to El Paso, not to mention Juarez in Mexico. This situation produces no end to the consternation and debate in the region. But what if the political boundaries were drawn just a bit differently? What if El Paso county were ceded to New Mexico? Wouldn't it be better for all involved to address the issue of shared resources more democratically? Indeed, why not include Juarez as well? Think how the fortunes of Juarenses would be different today had the Texas border been drawn twenty miles to the south?

Elsewhere, the problems generated by haphazardly drawn boundaries often result in more than hard feelings and thirsty farms, they result in war. In Africa, boundaries drawn by the European colonial powers in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars created political divisions right through indigenous tribal nations, administratively separating them forever. In Nigeria, for instance, major ethnic groups who shared neither language nor religion, and often fought each other, were thrown together and told they were fellow countrymen. Conflict continues there to this day along tribal and religious divisions, as Ibo Christians clash with the Muslim Fulani and Hausa. It is a dire situation resulting from the sad combination of ignorance and power wrought into imperial imposition. Quick and thoughtless decisions by conquering powers 200 hundred years ago, in complete ignorance of the internal social or physical geography, continue to cause needless suffering. All because of lines on the map.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Human Paradox.

The human paradox is that nothing can be known with a deal of certainty, yet we are forced to act. - Morris West

America does not have an immigration problem.

Pat Buchanan's alarmist screeds notwithstanding, America really doesn't have an immigration problem, at least when compared to Europe. Yes we have several million people pour over the southern border every year. But they are coming to work. And most go back when they are done. And those who stay assimilate. And they come to become Americans. They do not come to turn America into Saudi Arabia, or Egypt, or even Mexico. They come for the same reasons immigrants have come here for the last three centuries, because of the promise of a better life in exchange for hard work.

Yes, Europe has a serious problem, and I don't think it makes one a nazi to wonder whether bringing millions of poor Muslims from North Africa and Asia into the heart of Old Europe is a good idea. The problems can be seen across the communities of Europe as they struggle to reconcile this vast new, teeming, strange, and often severe culture into their refined, socialized environment. The French revulse at the Hijab. The Dutch ignore honor killings as too foreign to deal with. The Germans riot against a Turkish "invasion" in their small towns.

The situation in America is wholly different. Immigrants, legal or otherwise, from Mexico and points south, already share the predominant religion, speak at least Spanish, the second most common language in the country, and often share community ties across the borders.

In The Border, by David Danelo, he relates a tale by the owner of Pilgrim's Pride, the company that provides most of the chicken eaten on America's tables. Apparently, Bo Pilgrim's greatest challenge is "an inability to find laborers" willing to work hard ten hours a day processing 9 million chickens a week. Even though they pay more than $10 an hour, the company has has trouble finding Americans willing to work there. According to the CEO, they've gone to homeless shelters, halfway houses, temp agencies, and college campuses. They found no one willing to pick up chicks for ten hours a day. Most of their workers are hispanic. They had to present documents to the company, but most are probably false, and most are probably in the U.S. illegally. But what are we to do? Is the United States going to give up eating chicken anytime soon?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Echoes from the Dead Zone - Cyprus

While visiting the island, I have been reading Echoes From the Dead Zone by Yiannis Papadakis, which chronicles his attempts to reach across the Greek/Turkish divide in Cyprus. The "dead zone" refers to the no-man's land that sits between the borders of the UN patrolled DMZ that splits the island in two. Papadakis grew up on the Greek side and wasinculcated with the usual one-sided viewpoint that an aggrieved population often develops. Students here are taught about the many atrocities committed by Turks and Turkish Cypriots over the centuries, with special emphasis on events surrounding the Turkish invasion of 1974, that has divided the island ever since. The Greek students are not taught, however, about any Greek or Greek Cypriot atrocities. Papadakis' journey of discovery reveals two sides who have been deeply wronged, but also have not been completely innocent. For anyone familiar with the island, and the usual biased, predictable drumbeat of offense one hears from its residents (both Greek and Turk), Papadakis' honest portrayal of the view from both sides is refreshing. His attempts to sit astride two cultures and perceive each openly and honestly remind of Richard Rodriquez' Hunger of Memory in that regard.

To quote President Obama in his latest speech at Cairo University, “If we see this conflict only from one side or the other then we will be blind to the truth.” He was speaking of Israel and Palestine, but Cypriots would do well to heed this advice. One side blustering on about the other with no attempts at honest engagement is getting very tiresome. Hopefully Papadakis is in the vanguard of a swelling movement.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Cheryl Burke is not fat.

Ok, things on here have been a bit rarefied of late as I've been on a poetry kick, but I must weigh in on some of the more important issues as they arise. No,not the swine flu, but dancing with the stars. My wife started me watching this show and I admit I'm mesmerized, mostly by Cheryl Burke. I recently saw some furious bloggingabout how she gained 5 pounds and is now fat. To which I must say, "What?!" Take a walk to any local Walmart and within the first five minutes I am sure you will see someone who truly is overweight. I actually wrote a fairly long report for my master's on the obesity epidemic and have a pretty good appreciation for the dangers of letting weight get out of control, but this young dancer is not one of those people.

I realize there is no accounting for taste and every man and woman has different aspects of the opposite sex (or same sex, if so inclined) that they find attractive, but I still react viscerally to this type of pettiness. Not only is the woman not fat, she is pretty much an ideal for beauty in my opinion, and could probably even stand to gain about ten or fifteen pounds to achieve real perfection. I just have never understood the attraction to thin, stick women who resemble prepubescent boys more than anything else. I think I would be concerned about myself if I was infatuated only with women who look like young boys. Now, I harbor no animosity for any thin women reading this, nor for prepubescent boys, I just don't consider them sexually attractive. And I realize this is just my opinion, just my taste, if you will, but the thing that gets me riled up is how the skinny-women lovers assume their (weird) taste is somehow the universal ideal, and they feel free to level accusations that anyone above 110 pounds is overweight. I tend to find women who are fuller figured attractive, women who obviously look like women, but I don't necessarily assume everyone shares my preference. But most of the men who love rail-thin women do make this assumption, and they call people fat who are obviously not. Give me a break.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

From another time, and another world.

A snippet from "Horatius":

...Then outspake brave Horatius.
The captain of the gate:
"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods...
-Thomas Babington Macauley

And an observation on current events from Kipling:

...In the Carboniferous epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "If you don't work you die."

Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew,
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled, and they began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold the Glitters, and Two and Two make Four-
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more...
-Rudyard Kipling

Some things are eternal. By the way the "copybook headings" referred to in the poem are those phrases, mostly proverbs and axioms, children used to copy to practice handwriting in the 19th century.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

A Poem for Monday


Unclench your fists
Hold out your hands.
Take mine.
Let us hold each other.
Thus is his Glory

-Madeleine L'Engle

Comment: One may wonder why a blogger who professes profound doubt on matters of God's nature and existence might find L'Engle's work compelling. I admire her because she grounds her reflections on the divine in the realm of humanity. It is not the faith of vaulted cathedral ceilings she writes , but barnyard chores and workshop tinkering. So, I must agree with Karen Armstong that one may admire the great gift of religion, the Golden Rule, or as she calls it, the Law of Compassion, without necessarily thinking those religions to be true. I remain Unconvinced, but hopeful.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Why Jim Webb is my favorite Senator right now.

For a junior senator, only two years in office so far, this guy gets things done. He quickly got the New G.I. Bill passed for vets who have served since 9/11. The difference between the old one (the Montgomery GI Bill) and the new one is that this one will actually pay for college instead of about 1/3 of it. And he did this in spite of fierce Pentagon opposition, which position was that it would cost too much and give too much incentive to military members to get out after their first term and go to school instead of back to war again.

Now he is taking on crime and prison reform, and it's about damn time. I will let him speak for himself, "We have five percent of the world's population; we have 25 percent of the world's known prison population. There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice." - It's hard to argue with that kind of common sense. What we are doing in our prisons is atrocious, and in a country where a majority claim to follow Christ, there does not seem to be much concern for the "least of these" in prison.

Monday, March 30, 2009

A great site for Fort Worth locals

FortWorthology is a wonderful site dedicated to rethinking the ways we live together in cities. I would love to hear about more examples of local-focused blogs dedicated to new urbanism, or suburb rethink, or whatever you call this new move toward considering our metro areas holistically. I do not live in Fort Worth, but I am glad there are people there giving serious thought to sustainable cities designed for human beings, as opposed to cars.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Did O.J. take the rap for his son?

I have watched a bit of this and for those interested in the case it might be compelling. I had a friend back in the '90s in the Marines who grew up with Jason Simpson and had been to their house many times.. His first reaction when hearing about the whole affair was that Jason probably did it. He said Jason hated Nicole and was one crazy cat. He also said that he wouldn't be surprised if O.J. took the rap for Jason. Might be something to this after all.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Brandi Carlile is a raging talent.

I have written songs on and off since I was 11. Some are better than others, and some are damn good, so when I run across a song writer who impresses me, I tip my hat.

Brandi Carlile - hat tip to you.

"I'm like the rain in a downpour,
I wash away what you long for..."

Check out her song "Downpour" on The Story.
Just about any song on the album is brilliant. She has quite a knack for matching a lilting melody with a starkly honest turn of phrase. I must admit I didn't expect to like her stuff just by description because her kind of homegrown Americana-ish pop is not normally my kind of thing, but I have listened to this album constantly for a week and this girl has skills.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


I've heard the new movie Watchmen uses Leonard Cohen's original version of Hallelujah instead of one of the many covers out there (some glorious, some hideous). As a one who had declared myself a huge fan of Cohen I guess I should weigh in on these covers.

My first reaction to the huge and growing popular response to this song is somewhat unexpected, at least by me. And I am dismayed at it. Because now, this beautiful thing I had discovered and was known by only a few others and was special to us all has been appropriated into the huge crass marketplace of the unwashed. It has already become treadworn and tired through relentless repetition. Which is so sad for such a brilliant song.

The first time I ever heard it, or anything by Cohen was in the mid-90s while in bed with a randy co-worker who had coaxed me to her apartment with promises of desperate passion. She was playing some rather weird music in the background as we consummated our unfaithful (for her) relationship. I found out she was cheating when she answered the phone as it rang in mid-coitus... and she talked to her long-distance fiance. As the call stretched into minutes I started listening to the singer more closely and realized that it was some kind of odd genius coming out of those speakers. It was Cohen's live version of Hallelujah.

But Cohen's unusual lyrical mingling of sex and spirituality, which pervades his work, is always colored, for me, by the circumstances of our introduction. Cohen's alluring and sensual melodies settled across the dark room of that young girl's flat as I lay still, still, well, intimately connected to her, while she carried on a very intimate and passionate conversation with her half-a-world-away fiance. It was a strange experience, sharing this woman's bed as she cried and whispered "I love you" to someone else. Kinda chips away at one's belief in other people, doesn't it? Of course, I didn't leave either so I suppose that says a lot about me too, at least the younger me. Looking back, I can't think of a more fitting soundtrack for such an occasion than the bard of tortured love. It was the start of a long relationship - with Cohen. I don't remember her name.

As for the endless cover versions. The one most spoken of is Jeff Buckley's, but I prefer John Cale's to his. However, the top prize must go to k.d. lang, who wrenches unbelievable emotion from this performance at the Canadian Juno Awards in 2005.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Cadillac Records

While it's not strictly historically accurate, the movie Cadillac Records captures the major moments in the history of Chess records and its legendary blues titans. While Jeffrey Wright and Beyonce Knowles have gotten alot of critical notice, and for good reason, especially in Wright's case, it was Eamonn Walker's portrayal of Howlin' Wolf that stole the show for me, though he was afforded only a minor part in the film, which really follows the careers and relationship of Muddy Waters and Leonard Chess as the main storyline.

Here is Walker's rendition of Smokestack Lightnin' in the film. His performance of Howlin' Wolf's inhuman growl is even more startling if you hear the actor's natural, fairly refined London accent.

I enjoyed the film so much, I watched it twice in a row on a flight from Tokyo to D.C..

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Reminiscence - a homecoming

I am in my Dad's old neighborhood. I took a drive around his hometown in Massachusetts. I wasn't raised there, nor anywhere close. I only ever visited the area as a very occasional visitor - mostly at family reunions. But seeing this area has brought to mind events I have tried not to think about for awhile now.

My father died while I was at war, about four years ago now. I spoke to him from a satellite phone from Fallujah as he lay in his death bed. I don't remember much of what was said. He was having traouble speaking. He managed to get out, "I love you," and something about being proud. I couldn't make it all out clearly.

When I said goodbye and hung up the phone, I was paralyzed for several minutes; very still and alone in the middle of a vast desert stillness. I had said goodbye for the last time. I got on a helicopter to Taqqadum, a base where I would catch a plane to Kuwait, then a long flight back to the world.

At Taqqadum, I slept for a few hours, awaiting the next flight south. When I woke I called my brother from a green phone at the field air terminal and found out from my brother that Dad was dead.

I wanted to be mad at God, but I found that I didn't any longer think there was one. As fantastical and crazy as it sounds to say that this is all a big accident, this world, this universe, this precarious life, is an accident, it is the only thing that made sense to me.

The misery I saw in Iraq, in Haiti, in Afghanistan, and a dozen other miserable countries; the deep, deep sorrow that was gripping me; the sheer madness of this healthy, pious, non-smoking, non-drinking, 68 year-old tri-athlete dying of lung cancer - it seemed to me that all of it could only be excused, if we are all indeed just products of chance, because if there is a God, he has a lot to answer for.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Leonard Cohen on Travel

Leonard Cohen is such a favorite of mine, almost a guilty pleasure but even more so. He is the kind of close held thing that I cherish and don't tell others about. I would be too wounded if they didn't like it, or maybe my view of them would be diminished forever in the event they didn't appreciate or "get" him.

As a poet and songwriter, I knew his talents were supreme, but as commenter on the nature of daily life I hadn't seen much from him. This latest tidbit in a New York Times interview about his return to public performance stood out. Of course, he is talking about a very peculiar kind of travel known to touring performers, but I think it translates to a lot of jobs people do that involve a lot of travel:

“There’s a similarity in the quality of the daily life” on the road and in the monastery, Mr. Cohen said. “There’s just a sense of purpose” in which “a lot of extraneous material is naturally and necessarily discarded,” and what is left is a “rigorous and severe” routine in which “the capacity to focus becomes much easier.”

Monday, February 16, 2009

Grass - A Poem for Monday


Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work -
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?Where are we now?

I am the grass. Let me work.

-Carl Sandburg

Commentary: This well known poem compels me not for the simple anti-war theme, but for its reflection on the fleeting nature of humanity. By evoking the names from horrific battles, the poet conjurs the great demons, but then, almost undetected, he contrasts the simple, mundane situation of a passenger on a train asking where they are, against the vanishing sweep of time. The grass stands for nature, or time, or a combination of all the forces of the universe that grind against us mortals, I am not sure, but under its slow, inexorable work, even the most terrible events bleed into forgotten history.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A poem for Monday

A real one this time. Instead of the popular habit of posting a poem for contemplation and spiritual enrichment on Sunday, as is popular on many blogs, I have decided to post poems for Mondays, to encourage a brief meditation in the midst of the chaos and industry of Monday.

For your quiet moment, on Monday:

"Strategic Air Command" - Gary Snyder

The hiss and flashing lights of a jet
Pass near Jupiter in Virgo.
He asks, how many satellites in the sky?
Does anyone know where they all are?
What are they doing, who watches them?

Frost settles on the sleeping bags.
The last embers of fire,
One more cup of tea,
At the edge of a high lake rimmed with snow.

These cliffs and the stars
Belong to the same universe.
This little air in between
Belongs to the twentieth century and its wars.

VIII, 82, Koip Peak, Sierra Nevada

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Inaugural Poem

For those who appreciated the very unique and talented Elizabeth Alexander, the inaugural poet, I offer my own humble scribble, from a tortured former Catholic (is one ever really former?), Andrew Sullivan would approve:

We ushered in Hope
And got rid of the Dope
Now let's see what we can do
About this idiot Pope.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Iraq makes it through another election

I have no inside information on the latest election, but I was on the ground for the 2005 rounds of elections in Fallujah, and can shed some light on what happened. As your sources noted, the Sunnis of Anbar province boycotted the first round of elections in January, 2005. Out of a city with an approximate population of 180,000, Fallujah saw 8,000 turn out to vote. What was never revealed, maybe until now, is that those numbers were significantly padded by the 4,300 Iraqi Army soldiers stationed in Fallujah. And these soldiers were nearly all Shi'a from Baghdad or Basra. So, in the end, less than 4,000 Fallujans actually voted in that first election.

The job of that first assembly, as you may recall, was to draft a constitution, like our Constitutional Convention of 1787. The Sunnis of Al Anbar, and especially Fallujah, realized quickly that their boycott had only resulted in ceding all the power to the Shi'a and the Kurds. So they decided to participate in the next round of elections. First came the constitutional referendum, which saw more than 100,000 Fallujans vote (nearly unanimously against it) in October of 2005. Then, in December, even more Fallujans, 130,000+ by the Iraqi Election Commission's reckoning, voted in the Iraqi National Assembly elections.

Setting the conditions to allow this election was the major objective of my unit at the time, and we all did everything we could to encourage the large turnout. But it seemed to me then, and still does, that this early emphasis on elections was certain to backfire. Our political leaders were selling elections as if they were a magical cure for all the problems of Iraq, that, simply by voting, Iraq would become like all the other democracies in the world. And this clearly was not the case.
Elections in the absence of stability might have even made things worse, offering false hope to the soon-to-be disillusioned Sunnis of Al Anbar. The riots and uptick in violence in Anbar province that occurred when the election results were announced (in early 2006) would seem to confirm this view.

Before the election I talked with a lot of Fallujans about what the election would mean to them and what they expected from it. To a man they were convinced that Sunnis were the majority population in Iraq and once they all voted, Sunnis would take their rightful place at the head of government. It was impossible to counter this idea. If I suggested that generally accepted figures by the U.N. placed Sunni Arabs at about 20% of all Iraqis they would dismiss it out of hand. Who gave you those figures? The Shi'a? Iran? I remember the old men saying, "How can this be? Look around you, everyone here is Sunni. Everyone I know is Sunni. You Americans are so naïve to believe everything the Shi'a tell you."

During these conversations, I recalled our training on Iraqi culture prior to our deployment. A professor from Georgetown University had warned us (mostly college educated officers) how different it would be to interact with illiterate people. Most people in Al Anbar could not read, she said, and therefore they had only their limited personal experience, and the words of their elders, to provide context to their reality. For a literate person, it is virtually impossible to comprehend how an illiterate person processes information. How true this observation turned out to be. The idea that our civilian leadership thought liberal democracy would spring up naturally in this environment still seems incomprehensibly foolish to me.

I think the folly of introducing "democracy" with the hasty election scheme was disastrous and foreseeable. Any serious student of geopolitics knows that the rule of law is the fundamental precursor to a functioning democracy - institutions, culture, accepted norms... need to be shaped and accepted thoroughly over generations. Our own democracy did not drop out of the sky in 1776, it was a product of centuries of British history. As the already sixty year rise of South Korea, Japan, Singapore, etc. reveal, the transition from rule of law to democracy occurs in different ways in different cultures, and typically takes several decades, not months.
As the recent election reveals, Iraq might very well be on that path of transition at last, but I hope our leaders finally understand that it will happen in Iraqi fashion, and will likely be a decades-long process. So hopefully we will ask ourselves whether we want to take the ride with them, or if we have found a good spot to get off.