Archive for August, 2006

The Thinker

Another Suitcase in Another Hall

I am traversing a fine line between having two lives. In one life I am the devoted husband and father, who trudges off faithfully to work in the morning, returns home in the early evening to kiss the wife, send paternal greetings to my daughter, eat a leisurely dinner and then shuffle off to bed around ten o’clock. I repeat the pattern four or five times a week, until I start the weekend pattern. With minor exceptions, this is the pattern of my life for maybe ten months a year.

The other two months of the year I am traveling. A week or two of it will be with family and for leisure. The rest of it is business traveling. Alas, that is what I am doing this week again. I spent last week at home. However, the previous week I was in Maine. Now I am seventy or so miles from home in Shepherdstown, West Virginia where I have parked my tuckus for the week.

I am not entirely clear why I am rooming and boarding here at the Office of Personnel Management’s Eastern Management Development Center. I could in theory commute to this weeklong training class. It took me seventy-five minutes or so to drive here last night from my home in Northern Virginia. I am here to wrap my brain around this leadership stuff. I know leadership is important. I have been doing my best to be a leader, but I have been doing it based on my intuition. Apparently, there is something of a science to the leadership business. By Friday, I will have spent about three thousand dollars of your tax money, will have not fully succeeded avoiding the voluminous food at this resort, and have a neat looking certificate to add to my pile of training certificates. I hope that I will embrace new skills that will show the world, or at least my organization, what a powerful and effective leader I am.

At least for this trip all I had to do was throw my suitcase into my trunk and drive for an hour or so. This makes it much more bearable than the usual routine of air travel and airport navigation. Generally, when I travel for business, at least one full business day is taken up getting there and back. This Management Development Center is physically attached to a swanky Clarion Hotel here in Shepherdstown. I am sure that most of its business comes from government travelers here attending seminars. Room and board come with the seminar fees. The hotel puts out a good spread of food. As well they should, considering the $800 a day my employer is paying for tuition. Fortunately, Shepherdstown is rapidly joining the civilized world. Two years ago when I was here my cell phone could not pick up a signal. The only way I could access the internet was to use a computer in a kiosk in one of the buildings. In 2006, my cell phone now reports four bars and the 11 mbps wireless LAN at the hotel is very sweet.

In my last business trip, I spent four nights in Augusta, Maine at The Senator Inn. For Augusta, it was premier lodging, but it was nothing out of the ordinary. The biggest surprise there was the hotel’s food. Its dining room, Cloud 9, was not quite a four star restaurant, but was three and a half stars in my book. Even if you found the entrees less than perfect, all its desserts were outstanding. However, here at the Clarion Hotel meals are business standard fare: good to very good in taste, bad to very bad for your waistline. The same addictive food runneths over at lunch and dinner, which are also complementary for us seminar attendees. Stop me before I hit the dessert bar one more time!

“It’s like a cruise ship, except it never leaves port,” our instructor told me today over lunch. That is it precisely, except the rooms are bigger. It provides all of life’s amenities. The rooms are clean, upscale and comfortable. At night, the hotel is eerily quiet, perhaps because it is so far out in the country. You can walk indoors a few hundred feet and cross into the Management Development Center. There you sit at tables with half a dozen other classmates, listen to lectures, absorb PowerPoint slides, work on group exercises and shuffle off to frequent breaks where the sodas and coffee are plentiful (and complementary, naturally).

It feels a bit surreal. It is work, I guess, but it also feels like a vacation. At 5 p.m. or so when class is done for the day, rather than endure the hassle of a commute, you can be in your room in just a couple minutes. A few minutes after that you can be in the exercise center on a cardiovascular machine, or dipping into the clean outdoor pool. Then, unless you are anal like me and feel some obligation to read your office email, you can drift off to the dining room with a fellow classmate for dinner. Then it is back to your room where can read, play on your laptop computer, or watch HBO as takes your fancy. You can do this for many guiltless hours until fatigue gently overtakes you and you drift off into a gentle and restful sleep. Thank you Senator Robert C. Byrd, who used his influence to populate Shepherdstown with federal largess. No Motel Six accommodations for us movers and shakers of the United States federal civil service.

It is true my family is not here. I do not have my wife sitting next to me, happily writing her latest fan fiction story on her computer for her internet friends. I do not converse with my daughter to hear how her day went. (She is on summer vacation anyhow, so her days rather run together for her anyhow. I am not missing anything.) Consequently, offsite training like this does start to feel like a vacation from responsibility and routine. All of life’s needs can be conveniently met and I do not even have to leave a climate-controlled space.

Most of my business travel, alas, is not like this. More typically, business travel means days of meetings followed by evenings spent socializing with others from my agency. Nevertheless, it does begin to run together after a while. Whereas it used to seem strange and disconcerting to wake up in a hotel room, now I hardly give it another thought. It feels almost as natural as shuffling to the field office in the morning in a rental car. The airports, the airline delays, the security bottlenecks, the announcements from the flight attendants, the taxi rides and the jet lag all blend together after a while. The rooms and locations may change, but somehow it seems familiar, as if I have been doing this much of my life. It has slowly become something of a second life for me.

I do not know whether I like it or not. It came with the territory of my latest job. I can expect to be at a minimum on the road for six weeks or so a year. I take some solace in knowing it could be worse. I know a fellow unit chief whose travel is much more demanding. He can easily spend three months of the year on the road. No wonder he is single. Not too many spouses would put up with this degree of absence.

In any event, another dimension to my life has opened. I have this new part time gig: business traveler. When I travel, it is as if I am in living a different life. After a week, I am transported back into this more familiar place called “home”. I find my wife lying next to me in bed again in the morning. I tread a different pathway to the bathroom. I relearn how to use my toilet (lever is on the side) and the shower (hot water on the right). After a day or so, memories of my vagabond business traveling life recede. Until next time.

I am hopeful that I have only one more business trip to go this year. There is no telling for sure. I am already looking at next year, and I see at least three trips to Denver and at least two other trips on my agenda. I suspect there will be a few more thrown in there for good measure.

It will feel strange, probably upon retirement, to close out this new part of my life, and once again resume a full time and homebound life.

 
The Thinker

The lure of the feline

One thing I have noticed: our house stays cleaner now. It is amazing. Whereas I used to spend part of each week wiping cat gorp off the carpet or the floors, or vacuuming the cat dander off the sofa, now we can go for months without needing to vacuum the living room. Of course, it helps if you rarely use your living room. There is no television or computer there to draw people. It is there mostly for show. Consequently, I can still see on the living room carpet the imprints from the wheels of our vacuum cleaner weeks after I vacuumed.

Our kitchen floor also requires half the cleaning it used to. We kept the cat food and water in one corner of the kitchen. Cats may be finicky about what they eat, but they are careless about how they eat it. When we had our cats Squeaky and Sprite, they lived on The Science Diet. I could count on cat food pellets scattered for several feet around their food dish every day. Usually I could not tolerate this disorder for more than a few days before I had to sweep it into the trash. I am a bit anal that way. The absence of cat food in the kitchen may explain why we did not suffer our usual invasion of ants this spring.

As regular readers know, Squeaky and Sprite have gone to meet their makers. Squeaky went first, in 2004, at age 17. Old age only made her louder, more annoying and more crotchety. My beloved cat Sprite passed away in March at age 18 and a half. They are still with us though. Their cremated remains hold a place of honor on our mantelpiece. Had they tried to walk on the mantelpiece when they were alive we would have chased them off. Now they rest there with our blessings. They earned the right to such an elevated place in our house.

We have been dealing with too much death these last few years. Losing cherished family pets is traumatic enough. Losing my mother last year added to our sense of loss. Our family unit is still trying to get its bearings. We are still in the boat together, but the waters have become quite turbulent. We realize life is about change, but it seemed easier to pretend change was not happening to us. As if I needed more evidence, my daughter starts her senior year in high school in about a week. She could potentially be off to college in a year, although I suspect she will opt for community college and commute from home. It still hurts to visit my father and know my Mom is not puttering around the kitchen. It seems very strange that, at nearly 80, he is dating other women. In addition, I turn 50 next February. My wife and I are also eyeing our financial portfolios with retirement no longer an abstract concern.

Our six months without a pet have not been entirely bad. I found other things to do with my time than feed the cats in the morning and take their used litter out with the trash twice a week. With no cat serenading me outside my door, I sleep better. I have rather gotten used to not having a cat on my lap while on the computer. I notice it is a lot easier to type without a furry, purring behemoth stretched across my lap.

Still, I think my family is ready to take on another pet. My wife has been pushing a rabbit as our ideal next family pet. Like a cat, they are certainly soft and cuddly. They can be cute like cats too. Most importantly, she is not allergic to rabbits. So with my encouragement she learned about the House Rabbit Society. They put us in touch with a local woman who keeps rabbits in her house. She had four when we visited her a few weeks back. Her house often acts as a way station for rabbit in transition, since rabbits like other pets are often turned in or abandoned.

One of her rabbits was a Hurricane Katrina survivor. We sat on her floor and let the rabbits scamper around us. This survivor rabbit had recovered nicely. Once deeply antisocial, she was now the most curious rabbit in the house. She repeatedly came around to sniff my foot and rub up against it. They are rabbit loves signs. She would let me pet her a little bit too, although she was skittish. I enjoyed my time with the rabbits, but I was not quite sure we could make it work in our house. There was no place for a rabbit hutch. In addition, it is quite a pain keeping them safe from live electrical cords. Rabbits have teeth that can slice through an electrical cord without any difficulty. I also noticed that while they used litter boxes, it was only to urinate. They were quite content to poop wherever and whenever they needed to. I did not particularly like the idea of having to daily vacuum the rabbit poop off the carpets and floors. Rabbits also require a watchful eye. When they are out of their cages, you needed to know where they are at all times. We agreed that rabbits were probably impractical in our household.

We discussed other pet options. We never owned a dog. A few breeds are hypoallergenic. Nonetheless, there are some significant drawbacks to dogs. First, they require much more attention than cats. None of us is the type who likes to take walks with the dog 5-6 times a day, particularly in the early mornings. In addition, many dogs are yippers. Cats can be loud too, but dogs tend to be much louder and more persistent. When I arrive home in the evening, I need solace. I could not see getting much with a dog in the house. In addition, I have found dogs to be a bit too devoted for my taste. I do not mind adoration from a pet, but 24×7 in your face adoration is too much for me. Therefore, we scratched dogs from our list.

We were hopeful in our cat free environment that my wife’s allergies would subside. That has not proven to be the case. She takes multiple pills and sprays for her allergies. After Sprite died and the dander receded, she went off her Flonase nasal spray. Yet she soon developed sinus infections anyhow. The doctor put her back on the Flonase. So while cat dander would remain an irritant for her, it would be just one of many. Since she would have to treat her allergies anyhow, getting another cat is no longer out of the question.

We are considering cat breeds that have less dander. Bengals and Abyssinian cats reputedly have less, but they are harder to find. (There are also hairless breeds of cats, like Sphynx cats, but I find them personally revolting.) Having had Squeaky and Sprite as kittens, I am not particularly anxious to go through that furniture-shredding phase again. Instead, I would prefer a gentle indoor adult house cat, preferably one amenable to lap sitting. Perhaps a new cat would restore some sense of balance to our out of kilter lives.

Our daughter seems more anxious than I am to have another house cat. She spends much of her free time surfing web sites looking at cats for adoption. Through my covenant group, I know a woman who works for a local animal rescue shelter. She sent me a flyer of cats available for adoption. Since this week will find me in Shepherdstown, West Virginia attending leadership training, this weekend is not a good one to adopt a cat.

My wife seems happily resigned at this point to another cat. She too prefers cats, just not their dander. Perhaps next weekend we will start our search for a new feline friend in earnest. With another cat, we know that our house will be louder, messier and dirtier. However, I think our house will feel more like a home again. Perhaps when I retire in the evening, I will once again find a faithful companion on my bed, his nose pressed into my face. Like our last cats, he will probably want to sleep with us on the bed. Like them, he will be disappointed. We will cuddle him (if he will let us) then gentle drop him outside our door before we drop off to sleep.

 
The Thinker

No Longer the Top Banana

We Americans are in denial. We assume that our country is a military superpower. The sad fact is that we no longer are one. We were demoted. The rest of the world largely understands this. The polite ones, like most of the European countries, feel it is kinder not to draw it to our attention. Like a once popular diva, they are content to let the realization slowly dawn on us. Eventually, after performing at enough half-empty concert halls, they know we will figure it out.

Other countries have been observing us warily. They have mostly coped by staying at the far edges of the gorilla cage hoping we would not notice them. Of all the gorillas in the cage though, we were the most fearsome. We looked like we weighed 800 pounds. We thumped our chests, howled and hissed a lot. We liked to kick those lesser gorillas who pouted or spat at us. However, often we would settle down. We could smile nicely and even share our bananas with our friends. Sometimes other gorillas tried to acquire favor by giving us some of their bananas. Occasionally they helped us beat up other obnoxious gorillas in the cage. Who though could predict when we would go through another manic phase? Therefore, most gorillas stayed out of our way. More than once, they looked at us with scorn. They wondered what was it about us that even though we had so many bananas, we could still be such a loose cannon. Now, after watching us get kicked hard in the ribs a few times, falling over and squealing in pain, we no longer look quite so fearsome. In fact, now that we are on the floor of the cage, some are working with the other gorillas to figure out a way to keep us there.

How can this be? The United States has the best-equipped, best-trained and most expensive military in the world. We can move our power anywhere in the world. Our aircraft can slip through radars. Our spy satellites can see basketballs on the ground from hundreds of miles away. Our intelligence services reputedly have computers than can sift through millions of calls per second.

The irony is we lost our superpower status in part by being too good at winning conventional wars. We have outthought and outspent our rivals. There is no nation left in the world, except perhaps foolhardy ones like North Korea that would directly attack the United States. In that sense, we have succeeded. Fear and intimidation may be crude methods of ensuring compliance, but they tend to be effective. Unfortunately, what we largely missed is that we failed to prepare sufficiently for unconventional wars. While we have the ability to defend our own borders from attack, we no longer have both the will and the means to require other regimes to bend to our will.

The recent war between Israel and Hezbollah is a textbook case for our changing times. Israel is the 600-pound gorilla in the Middle East part of the gorilla cage, thanks largely to the many bananas we have given it. If it chooses to do so, it is bye bye Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or any country in that region that threatens its existence. It might come at the cost of using its nuclear weapons and give the country permanent ostracism from the world community. However, as long as it has its nuclear card and other Arab states do not then Israel can win any conventional war against any state in the Middle East.

Of course, these countries are no longer stupid enough to directly wage war against Israel. Instead, they use proxies. Why should Syria put its soldiers at harm when there are passionate paramilitary forces ready to do its dirty work? These forces have no expectation of realizing their ultimate goals in the short term, but they do have tenacity and unbelievable passion. Their method of success is to use the equivalent of Chinese water torture. They are realizing that modern wars are won through attrition. They are realistic and expect that this war will last generations. Yet they are also confident of ultimate success.

Unlike Israel, the United States does not have enemies on its doorsteps. If we had to defend our two thousand mile border with Canada against the threat of rockets, we would be as inept, if not more inept than the Israelis were against Hezbollah. We might even imitate some of their tactics, perhaps by leveling large parts of Montreal and Toronto. It is unlikely though that it would solve our problem. Even if Canada had the will to remove paramilitary groups from its border with us, it is unlikely they would have the means and the people to finish the job. This was the essence of Lebanon’s problem. Its military was too poorly equipped to ensure that Hezbollah could not attack Israel. Not all the Israeli air strikes in the world could coerce them to do something they were incapable of achieving. In fact, the air strikes made Lebanon less capable of restraining Hezbollah.

Fortunately, although Canadians will bitch about us Americans from time to time (and we about them) they do not hate us. We have cordial and even friendly relations. We have a mutually beneficial relationship based largely on trade.

Israel is now uncomfortably awake to its new reality. It is floundering to try to find a solution. It hopes that the presence of tens of thousands of international troops on its border with Lebanon will at least delay the problem. If there is a solution to Israel’s security problem, it cannot be won by arms. It can only happen through political discourse. Given the new dynamics, any viable solution would require significant and probably currently unacceptable conditions from Israel. There is no viable way to neutralize paramilitary forces like Hezbollah until the animus that causes it to work for Israel’s destruction goes away.

The United States was bitchslapped in Iraq. As I warned before the war, we could not succeed with less than half of the forces needed to do the job. While we could have brought sufficient forces to control Iraq, it would have been at the cost of something else. We would have had to leave volatile places like South Korea with a skeleton American presence. Otherwise, we would have had to reinstate the draft. The Bush administration though realized that the draft was not politically viable, since the war with Iraq was a war of choice, not of necessity. Even had we the 250,000 or more troops needed for the invasion of Iraq, it is still unclear whether the strife we are seeing there today could still have been restrained. Regardless, we would still be viewed as an occupying Christian army in a Muslim region of the world.

Apparently though our current administration refuses to acknowledge our karmic lesson in Iraq. It prefers delusion, which has had the consequence of immense folly. Worse, we are making noises that show we have learned nothing from our experience. Because now we are working hard to take punitive actions against Iran. We still suffer from the delusion that through coercion we can really keep Iran from having the nuclear program it wants. Naturally, our administration is straining at the leash to find punitive tools to use against Iran. Its bellicose words, which began with our president’s unwise decision to publicly label Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil”, have been consistently harsh. Now, since Iran has refused U.N. nuclear inspectors access to its facilities, we are pushing for economic sanctions and boycotts.

What a stupid and pointless thing for us to do. Not only will it not work, it would simply give Iran a reason to play its oil card. The oil card trumps any sanctions the world community can put in place. Even the most modest reductions in its oil exports are likely to cause enormous spikes in the price of oil. It is like those old Roadrunner cartoons. Iran is playing the roadrunner. We are the coyote. The anvil that we dropped to kill the roadrunner will instead hit us on the head.

You would think by this point we might have a clue. Yet a reduction in oil exports by Iran in response to sanctions is one of the better scenarios. Iran’s navy has convenient access to the Persian Gulf. It could easily put a stop to much of that region’s oil exports. We could of course use our military to try to stop it, but that would simply cause more tremors in the oil markets. It would also likely cause an all out war between the United States and Iran. Like it or not, the international community will accommodate Iran, not the other way around. Our short-term need for steady oil prices trumps any long term concerns about their potential nuclear capabilities. The United States may not like the idea of unconditional talks with Iran on its nuclear program, which Iran is proposing. However, if we were operating with our prefrontal cortex we would be accepting such talks. We simply delude ourselves if we think that tough talk will have any deterrent effect on Iran. Iran has the trump card and we have nothing to trump it.

This shows why we are no longer a superpower. If we were a real superpower, we would have figured out effective ways to counter these threats. We have not. The game has changed. We are just beginning to assess what it might take to deal with these new threats. The effect though is that America has lost its claim of being a military superpower. Arguably, we retain other superpower statuses, such as the world’s economic superpower. Unless, like the Cold War, we can develop effective tactics against these new military tactics, we will never be a military superpower again.

 
The Thinker

Review: Pulse

Pulse, playing now in theaters, is an oddity of a horror movie. It is a movie that supposedly takes place in Ohio but was actually shot in Romania. It is a movie that has many of the elements of horror without actually invoking much of that horrific feeling. It has an interesting premise that will likely keep you from falling asleep but will probably not cause you to suspend disbelief. It has a mixture of largely unknown and very young actors who can act decently but do not develop enough character for you care whether they live or die. It mixes occasionally neat special effects with often annoying, fast-paced youth dialog that is just a bit too trendy to sound real.

The story takes place on a college campus so old that if it were vine covered it would look new. It looks decrepit, which makes sense for a film shot in Romania. Doubtless, there are many decrepit and ugly buildings there left over from the Cold War. It must not have cost much to rent these drab and grey Cold War relics. Doubtless too, the cost of shooting movies is likely much cheaper in Romania than in Hollywood. Clearly not much money was spent on sets. In fact, I am willing to bet there were no sets constructed for this movie at all. I believe the interior shots were filmed entirely inside these Cold War block apartment buildings. The student housing on this campus is one nasty roach motel. Along with the roaches are students who look and smell just as bad. Apparently, the guys at this campus never learned to shave properly. Neither gender apparently has learned how to pick up after themselves. Nor have they learned the survival skill of throwing away old milk cartons in the refrigerator. All this ugliness is before the creatures from the electromagnetic spectrum arrive. They find many of their victims through cell phones and computers, which they use as conduits to infect you and then kill you. However, apparently they can also come in through cracks under the doors and through the windows. No crack is too small. Only red electrical tape seems to keep them out.

Only a few successfully fight off these — what are they again? I do not believe they were ever given names. Perhaps like Lord Voldemort they are “they who shall not be named”. These students must have got hold of the duct tape before there was a run on it. Gradually though it is not just these geeky students who become infected. (Their bodies turn to charcoal imprints and their spirit seems to get sucked into some weird band on the electromagnetic spectrum.) It is virtually everyone on the planet. The city seems to turn into a ghost town overnight, but the students are too addle brained or busy putting up duct tape to spend much time watching CNN. Your only hope of survival it to get away quickly before you become infected. You must go so far away that your cell phone will not work. (Presumably though, these creatures cannot attack through the ordinary AM band, since near the end we hear civil defense on the radio providing instructions on where the safe spectrum-free areas are.) Even if you make it out so far where there is no cell phone coverage (is there such a place left in Ohio?), do not turn on your computer or use any electrical device. These soul suckers from the electromagnetic spectrum will get you if you do. If you want to survive in this brave new world, be like the Amish.

It may be that I am simply too old for this movie. This movie is clearly targeting teens and young adults. It tries to be cool. Everyone has cell phones and computers. They are constantly text messaging each other. You cannot find even a crease on their remarkably youthful faces. At least the guys look suitably grungy. While filmed in color, the movie is deliberately shot in a dark drab. The dialog is more cyberspeak than English.

Is the movie a waste of your time? I guess it depends on what you want out of a movie. Were I in my teens, this would probably be a nifty teen date movie. I could likely identify with this tight knit group of students, particularly if I were hip enough to spend my day sending friends text messages on my cell phones or chatting with them on IM. (When do they find time to study with all the IMing and text messaging?) The special effects may not be out of this world, but they are decent. Moreover, the actors are suitably scared at the appropriate moments. I just could not identify with them. I think I am too old. I consider myself very technologically savvy. I can program in PHP, swim in RSS, know what spread spectrum means and can distinguish a T-1 line from DSL. I have, however, some sophistication. I have something more than an ability to gabber in technogeek. Nor do I emulate our president with short, punchy sentences that do not always carry a coherent thought. My sentences tend to be coherent and full of adjectives. The dialog in this movie is a tad too hip to be real. If the youth of today do talk like this, heaven help us.

The film does have a certain film noir though. Moreover, it is competently directed. The director Jim Sonzero probably did about the best he could with the available low rent actors, the mediocre script and the limited special effects budget. Apparently, although it is a Wes Craven film, Wes bailed out early. Maybe he realized even he could not make this turd of a script blossom.

Oddly, my wife loved the movie. So it may be that I am all wet with my review. IMDB though agrees with me. Its reviewers give it 3.8 out of 10 stars. Pulse is not a bad movie. It is not bad like that recent dreck of a movie Stay Alive, for example. Nevertheless, it is certainly not a good movie. It is simply a forgettable movie, and a cheaply made one at that. It is a B film with pretensions of being something a bit more stylish than it actually is. If you are curious enough to see it, then save your money for the matinee. That way you will feel less ripped off if you do not like it.

If you can still find it, go see Lady in the Water instead. This is suitably creepy, much more entertaining and far more horrifying. (This is spite of the fact that neither movie is actually gory.)

Pulse gets 2.3 on my 4.0 scale. My pulse never went away, but, like the movie, it certainly never soared.

 
The Thinker

JonBenet Ramsey and the tip of the iceberg

If I have one axe to grind against our modern news media, it is how it can blow one individual story way out of proportion. Last week while traveling on business, I was watching CNN from my hotel room in Augusta, Maine. The story broke that John Mark Karr had been arrested in Thailand as a suspect in the now ten-year-old murder of child model JonBenet Ramsey. I immediately groaned and looked for things to throw at the screen. I knew what was coming. For about a week, CNN along with the other major American media outlets were going to turn into the “Nearly All JonBenet Ramsey News Channel.”

It was not that I am unhappy that maybe this case would finally move toward resolution. Justice delayed is better than no justice at all. The other hard, arguably far more important news was out there, like the fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah, the continued carnage in Iraq and increasing violence in Afghanistan. These stories all got short shrift, if they were mentioned at all. All our news media outlets were focused on the murder of one child ten years ago.

Yes, our media decided that the case of one six-year-old girl who had been brutally murdered more than ten years ago was worth at least 75% of its news time. Just in case we had forgotten the gory details (if that were possible, since they have been burned into our national conscience by this point), it was: let’s regurgitate the disgusting details of her murder again and again, every hour, on the hour. Let us recall the secret chamber beneath the Ramsey house. Let us relearn that the poor child had been sexually assaulted and bludgeoned. With this new development, new questions were raised. Was it possible that her parents been falsely convicted by the media for the crime? Isn’t it a shame that her mother Patsy Ramsey passed away in June of cancer under a cloud of shame and scorn? Prominent psychologists racked up big consulting fees on the airwaves. The hype was incredible; the news content was marginal at best.

Why is JonBenet Ramsey’s life still worthy of such media hype? Because she was a weird little child-model who had something terrible and bizarre happen to her. We were also fascinated because her parents had turned her into a moneymaking machine, seemingly so they could live a more opulent lifestyle. Yet there was a more obvious reason than that: because JonBenet Ramsey’s murder was one mother load for the media. Her strange case reached the demographics that our news media wanted to reach. The more they publicized the case, the more their ratings soared. The more their rating soared, the more they could charge for advertising time. Their pandering was mostly about corporate profits, not the public interest. As long as the news media could sustain interest, other more important news items got short shrift.

Focus, people. Of course, I have sympathy of JonBenet Ramsey and her family. Nevertheless, her death is simply a blip on the radar screens of child deaths, murders, molestations and abuses going on it there all the time. It is just that those other statistics do not seem to bother us. We are mostly inured to the daily child carnage swirling around us.

Approximately 30,000 children die every day from preventable causes like dysentery, malaria, fouled water and hunger. I would die of shock if CNN spent just fifteen minutes a day drawing our attention to these statistics. The closest we came to it recently was the media’s exposure the situation in Darfur. The genocide going on there among the non-Braggara tribes in western Sudan included not just many miserably dying children, but adults too. Then there was the famine, war, racism, terrorism and the half hearted international response to the crisis. Thousands of women were raped, sometimes repeatedly. Over 50,000 people have died in Darfur.

Sad as Darfur is, it is a minor problem compared to what has happened in the Congo. 3.8 million Congolese died in their latest civil war. Who among us Americans actually cares? Most Americans could not even pick Congo out on a world map. More people died in the Congo’s latest civil war than the 3.3 million Cambodians that were massacred by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. Yet we find Terri Schiavo or JonBenet Ramsey to be far more interesting, even dead, than millions of remote and desperately poor people in the heart of Africa or Asia. It is almost like 1,000,000 deaths of people we do not care about from ordinary preventable disease and civil war in foreign countries equals one death of some prominent White Caucasian American under unusual circumstances.

Okay, so we tend to have a hard time seeing beyond our own borders. So let us focus on some child abuse statistics here in our own country then. 1500 children die from child abuse in the United States every year. That is over four JonBenet Ramseys a day. Children in this country suffer 140,000 injuries as a direct result of child abuse every year. There are 1.7 million reports of child abuse every year. Add in neglect and the total rises to 2 million reports a year. Among those reports are between 150,000 and 200,000 cases of child sexual abuse a year. One in four women report being sexually abused as children, and one in seven men make a similar claim.

The living adult survivors of child abuse carry forward staggering amounts of psychological damage. Many will end up abusing their own children. With my adult perspective, I now count myself as a survivor of child abuse too. I love my mother, who passed away last year, dearly. I remember and cherish the many wonderful and truly extraordinary things she did for us. However, she also had times when she flipped out. Her emotional teakettle was frequently close to boiling. I suffered from the toxic environment of having an easily angered mother ready to lash out at her own children both emotionally and physically. My Mom was also a firm believer in “spare the rod and spoil the child”. In the 1960s, her behavior though was completely ordinary. If getting abuse at home was insufficient, there was much more to be witnessed in our parochial school. Most of my friends received the same, or worse, from their parents, so my case is hardly noteworthy. It took a couple more decades before society acknowledged that this kind of behavior was unacceptable. It was not tantamount to child abuse; it was child abuse.

So perhaps the JonBenet Ramsey case, because it happened to someone who looked more like a porcelain doll than a human being, gives us a safe way to indirectly confront the abuse we received growing up. Acknowledging our own abusive childhoods may be too painful. However, we can project our feelings and anger into a singular case and talk about it endlessly. JonBenet Ramsey’s tragic death then perhaps has the noble side effect of letting us express those feelings, yet without actually acknowledging our individual traumas.

The real conversation though should not be about JonBenet Ramsey, but about the abuse the vast majority of us suffered as children from people with power over us. Much of it was from parents. Sometimes it came from siblings. Maybe it came from the bully who beat us up at school, or a friend who through wounding words sliced our fragile psyches into cutlets. Child abuse, spousal abuse and plain old abuse goes on all around us. The best neighborhoods are no less immune to it than the roughest neighborhoods. Many of us seem to be unable not to hurt the ones we claim to love the most.

When popular news stories like the JonBenet Ramsey case are invariably raised in the media, outlets like CNN and Fox News would be doing a public service to also expose the scope of the child abuse problem. Perhaps it will bring this shame out of the closets where we can talk about it. Instead of letting these wounds fester, perhaps it is time for us to collectively take steps so they can heal.

 
The Thinker

Many blogs, many motivations

Where do bloggers find the time to blog?

That is what I am wondering about this evening. I like to blog. Actually, I love to blog. I could probably blog during all my waking hours. I just cannot figure out a way to do it and keep a roof over my head at the same time. So I have a full time job. In addition, I have duties as a husband and father. Moreover, there are these chores I have to do. There are groceries to buy, weeds to be pulled, cars that need to be maintained and a house that requires regular maintenance. That I can blog at all is directly attributed to the fact that my life finally has large enough pockets of free time where I can indulge this time consuming hobby.

This week, since I was on business travel, I felt grateful to be able to blog at all. To write even one entry though something had to give. I had to give up some sleep. As a result, my one on the road entry was hurried and slapped together. I was fighting sleep while putting on the final edits.

I figure most dedicated bloggers must be independently wealthy or are stealing time from their employers. Take Billmon, for example. For me, his blog is required daily reading. Yes, it is true that for months he gave his blog short shrift. Maybe he got bored with it or he was going through some personal issues. For whatever reason, he took it up again earlier this year. Particularly when political events spire out of control as they have recently, he blogs up a storm. Pages of daily sharp and insightful analysis come out of his fingers and with seemingly no effort are thrust into the blogosphere. Just one entry of his insightful and masterful essays would take me several hours to compose. Lately he has been doing several of these a day.

The lefty political blogosphere is rife with people like Billmon. To name a few, check out Informed Comment, Talking Points Memo, My Left Wing and Political Animal. It is amazing enough that these bloggers can even find the time to develop an informed opinion. It is another thing entirely to also read dozens of blogs daily, ponder contrasting points of view and then put out readable and highly articulate blog entries for public consumption. If there is any money to be made for these efforts, it is in the form of pocket change from also serving Google Adsense content or ads on your blog from the Liberal Blog Advertising Network. To my knowledge, Marcos Moulitsas (who runs Daily Kos) is the only one to earn his livelihood solely from blogging, and that is only because he runs the nation’s number one blog.

It seems everyone has a blog these days. Particularly with the emergence of social networking sites like MySpace.com, it has become easier and trendier to put your thoughts out there for the world. Call me skeptical, but I think blogging is one trend that is going to go the way of the Rubik’s cube phenomenon. Eventually most of those who are blogging (if they have not already) will simply give it up. I’ve got a lot better ways to spend my time is what they are likely to learn. Having a life is more meaningful than taking the time to record it in cyberspace.

We all want to feel that our lives matter. Blogging provides the illusion that our thoughts are being widely read. It is harder to accept the fact that just because our words are out there on the Internet does not mean that it matters. The vast majority of blog posts are noise indistinguishable from static on the radio. They mean nothing except possibly to those who take the time to put them out there.

Clearly, I may be suffering from the likely delusion that my blog matters too. What I am discovering is that it is darn tough to have a blog that strangers will choose to come back and read regularly. It is even tougher to have them recommend your blog to their friends. With so many blogs out there, and with an infinite number of blogs that are potentially available, it becomes almost virtually impossible to distinguish your blog. It appears to have already reached the point where unless you are already a blogging phenomenon, you are unlikely to ever become one.

The first arrivals in the blogosphere that stayed, cultivated and ruthlessly networked their blogs tend to have the lion’s share of the blogging market today. Unless they deliberately drive their audience away, or lose interest, they are likely to retain their prominence. The rest of us are mere table scraps. Some of those, like those early Silicon Valley pioneers, are cashing in their blogging chips. Blogging has become a means to another end, not an end in itself. Witness Wonkette (Anna Marie Cox), who has sold her blog and started writing a trashy and badly reviewed book. Wonkette is now a trademark. It is now owned by Gawker Media, and has both a paid editor and news analyst.

Wonkette may be a sign of the future for many top blogs. It is unlikely if they will be as interesting as when they represented on person’s unique viewpoints. Yet it hardly matters because they have capital of a different type: market share, eyeballs, and prominent real estate where ads can be served. The new owners will worry endlessly about market shares and balance sheets. These blogs are likely to be seen as commodities and profit centers, rather than as unique expressions of free thought.

As for the rest of us, we have to finance our blogs out of our own pockets. Our blogs, regardless of their content, are now unlikely to rise above the billions of other blogs out there. We have become part of the matrix. If it happens to us, it will be a modern Cinderella story.

While I am hoping Occam’s Razor gets lucky, I am not foolish enough to expect it. This blog may be of interest to handfuls of regular readers, but is unlikely to grow much bigger. There are too many other choices out there. I do see growth in my blog, but it is largely attributed to having more content amenable to search engines.

My blog remains an excellent way for me to amuse myself. It also allows me to work regularly at improving my writing. While I blog mostly for my own amusement, I still enjoy those occasional times when a particularly inspired blog entry has some stranger I don’t know smiling, or nodding their head in agreement, or getting an insight they might not otherwise have.

For me that is what blogging is about, and that is enough. Yet I will entertain a buyout. Gawker Media: call me and make me an offer.

 
The Thinker

Hallowell: the town that time forgot

I am in Augusta, Maine on business. This is my first trip to our most northeastern state. In fact, until this week New England was largely unknown to me. Maine thus far has turned out to be about what I expected: rolling hills, verdant forests, seemingly as many boats as there are people, craggy coastlines, plentiful seafood, and a regional accent that is a bit peculiar. My name Mark, for example comes out “Mahk”.

I have been here about 48 hours. For much of it I have been working, or hanging around with the usual people that come on these trips. We chose Augusta, Maine to meet because one of the members of this group lives here and can host. Augusta though is a comparatively sleepy city by northeastern standards. I am not sure what it did to deserve being the state’s capital. Perhaps its somewhat central location made it a logical place for a state capital. If you are expecting a vibrant capital city, look elsewhere. It reached its prime long ago. Today, it feels more like a sleepy, backwater Southern city, just hillier.

Tonight we drove for dinner a few miles south of Augusta to the small town of Hallowell, on the west bank of the Kennebec River. The state capitol dome can be seen easily above the trees, for it cannot be much more than a mile away. We ate a leisurely dinner at an Italian restaurant, and then strolled through its business district. There was something very peculiar about Hallowell.

It could be peculiar in that it is old. It was founded in the 1762. The buildings look old too. Perhaps “quaint” is a better description. The buildings are solid and largely made of brick. They look a hundred years old or older. It is what passes for the town’s business district.

Aside from feeling quaint, the town mostly feels like it has not kept up with modern times. With the exception of the restaurants and a bar, everything was closed. The businesses generally closed by 5 PM. Some closed at 4 PM.

In Hallowell, they roll up the sidewalks awfully darn early. There is not even a 7 Eleven in this town. Indeed, the complete absence of anything that would resemble a commercial chain is its endearing aspect. There is no Wal-Mart. There is no Starbucks (although there is a coffee shop). There is no Target. There is no Applebees (although we passed one in Augusta). It is a town full of Mom and Pop businesses. It is a place from another time.

I am sure it is not unique but it still seems so very odd. We passed a bar. This was not a fern bar. This was not a bar that also served fish and chips. It was a bar: you came in, you drank and you left. There was not even a pool table.

The Kennebec River passed by peacefully. On the opposite side of the river was not more civilization, simply more woods.

The town is such a contrast to where I live in Northern Virginia. There life is in a constant state of flux, with continual growth being the only constant. In Hallowell, as in much of Maine, life moves at a more serene pace.

So we tarried. We looked at the high water flood marks on the side of one building, with a recent 1987 flood appearing to be the most devastating. We walked down to the boat ramp, watched the river waters pass silently by, and heard the sounds of the summer cicadas. Above us, the stars unfolded in a splendor impossible to see in our light polluted Northern Virginia skies. Mosquitoes occasionally danced along the surface of the water.

What was once so familiar though now seemed strange, and almost alien. Still, I wished for a week or so to keep tarrying in this small town, to get to know its people, and to see if maybe small town life was for me. This small town, like much of Maine, will be worth more of my time when I have more time for it.

 
The Thinker

A Pit Stop in the Adventure of Weight Loss and Healthy Living

The good news is that since the start of the year I have lost about twenty pounds. The bad news is that I need to lose at least another ten pounds. Ideally, I should lose an additional ten pounds. If so perhaps I could again wear the same suit that I wore at my wedding.

My likelihood of my success? I hate to handicap my own odds but I will feel very fortunate if I can get down to a body mass index (BMI) where technically I no longer fall under the stigma of being overweight.

These days I feel good and think I look good too. I can slip into size 36 jeans again without effort. I get regular and sustained exercise. I eat better. In addition, with some effort, I am maintaining my weight. Depending on whose BMI scale you use, I may be on the high end of having a healthy BMI.

My daughter tells me of a saying at her high school about those brainiacs who managed to go to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. This is a state chartered school in Alexandria, Virginia for the region’s most promising high school students. “School, friends or sleep. Pick two of the three.” This is similar to being a middle age adult with low metabolism working at a sedentary job. “Job, exercise or personal/family time. Pick two out of three.” So far, I have been picking three out of three. Maybe this explains why my weight loss has plateaued.

I continue to bike to work. This time of year, I drive the three miles to work more often than bike them. Part of it is explained that I take the car to get to the gym after work. Afternoon thunderstorms in the summer are more likely than not, which makes even getting home in the evening chancy. Over the last few weeks, aided by rampant global warming, the temperatures have predictably been on the extreme side. The stagnant hot air usually means bad air quality. Biking to work may actually make me less healthy. Now that we are in August, the weather slowly becoming more bearable. I still go to the gym three to four days a week after work. The routine consists of 30-60 minutes of aerobics, usually on an elliptical machine, followed by a half hour or so of weight training.

Thursday at the gym one of many personal trainers wandering around accosted me. He talked me into coming in for an assessment yesterday. I had a good idea of where he was going: he would want to sell me personal training sessions. Steve made a logical case. He told me that I had to continually break down different muscle sets. This way my muscles would be continuously rebuilding and I would continually build muscle mass too. As a side effect, even at rest I would have a higher metabolism and burn more calories. Moreover, I would feel better, have higher self-esteem, be attractive to babes and maybe get a pony. We went through a sample workout together. I have to admit he definitely stretched muscles I did not even know existed. Nevertheless, I was not sure I wanted to cough up $400 a month for meeting with a personal trainer four times a week.

Steve asked how serious I was about fitness. Well Steve, it was you who solicited me out, not the other way around. I said I was six on a scale of ten. My goal is not to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, at least when he was still lifting weights. (Poor Arnold has let most of it turn to flab. See what getting married does to a man?) My goal was to maintain a healthy weight level and good muscle tone. Steve could not promise me I would end up weighing less, just that I would add muscle weight and lose body fat. There was nothing wrong with the goal, but essentially, it meant I would have to turn into a body-obsessed exercise machine. I would need to commit to spending more time at the gym and endlessly worrying about toning various kinds of muscle groups.

Then there was the usual advice to eat less, or at least differently. I have already tried all sorts of variants. What I have discovered is that these helpful suggestions just do not work for me. I cannot remember to eat when I am not hungry nor do I particularly want to remember. I actually prefer to feel hunger pangs before eating. Nor can I remember to keep guzzling from a water bottle all day long. I am sure I do need more water, but I have weak enough kidneys as it is. Must I be shuffling off to the restroom every hour on the hour?

I would rather have two larger meals a day than four or five small meals. I would like a strategy where I can eat smaller portions of things I enjoy at times that seem natural to me. Instead, to lose weight and maintain optimal health I must constantly think about food, water and exercise until it becomes all-consuming. What kind of life is that? For me this exacerbates the problem by making it a larger problem in my life than I feel it deserves.

I have gotten lots of advice on weight loss and exercise over the years. I have talked to doctors, dieticians, personal trainers, psychologists, relatives, friends, and coworkers. Maybe soon I will turn to mystics and gurus. Each has snippets of insight, but there is no one size fits all solution to weight loss and health. It amounts to what you are willing to do with the limited time you have available. It certainly does help if you have more willpower than the average person does. In addition, it does not hurt to have a support group. For most of us who have not grown up being physically active, all this sensible advice amounts to cajoling yourself to work at variance to your body’s natural patterns every day for the rest of your life.

It means smaller meals when your body wants larger meals. It means exercise on days even when you simply want a day for rest and peace and quiet. It means telling yourself that yes it really is more important to spend a couple hours in the gym rather than sort through the family finances, which also has to get done. It amounts to willpower: your ability to force yourself to do things you do not want to do.

I will measure success in the short term my maintaining my twenty-pound weight loss. I keep measuring my weight every Sunday morning and try to fine-tune my eating and exercise based on what the scale reveals. Then I hope I can summon the energy to go further. I know what it will take and it is guaranteed not be easy. I will need to coax my body into eating less than what I need to maintain my weight. Moreover, I will have to push myself to do even more exercise on a more regular basis.

For now, I take some pride and sense of accomplishment from dropping twenty pounds in eight months and keeping it there. This was, in fact, one of the strategies recommended by Heather. She is the dietician I saw during the spring. Time will tell whether her advice was better than all the others out there selling me health solutions.

 
The Thinker

Pirates of the Caribbean

Those arriving here hoping of a review of the latest pirate movie Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest starring Johnny Depp will be sadly disappointed. I have not seen the movie and am in no hurry to see it either. I did see the first movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. While I understand its appeal to that age group craved by advertisers, and found parts of it amusing, I mostly found it to be just another forgettable bubblegum movie. It confirmed to me once again that Orlando Bloom is only in movies for his looks, for he cannot act.

No, in this entry I talk about the real pirates of the Caribbean. Their story is frankly a much more amazing, gritty and appalling story than anything yet conjured up by Hollywood. My daughter gave me a book on pirates as a Christmas present. It nicely complemented my desire to know everything about the 19th century British Royal Navy that I principally gleaned from C.S. Forester’s Hornblower novels and, more recently, the Aubrey-Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian. This latest book, A History of Pirates: Blood and Thunder on the High Seas by Nigel Cawthorne is a logical complement to the book my wife bought me a few years back, To Rule the Waves, which I reviewed last year.

A History of Pirates as a book is uneven. While meticulously researched, it often drags. It needed more editing than it received, and its typesetting is embarrassingly poor, with paragraphs occasionally begun without indenting. It made me wonder if it was one of these books where the author acted as his own editor and proofreader. Whoever did edit this book either worked at a discount rate or ripped off the author. These defects aside, it is a book worth reading if you want the straight dope on pirates. It focuses on pirates in the Caribbean, principally during the 16th and 17th centuries.

What emerges is a portrait of The New World (which at that time was largely the Caribbean area) in chaos. The major powers at the time (Spain, France, Great Britain, and to lesser extents, the Dutch and the Portuguese) were all engaged in its exploration and, much more importantly, its exploitation. During this time, what we call the United States was virtually unknown. Jamestown, the first English settlement in North America, was not founded until 1607. (As I noted though, we owe our nation in part to our high comfort level with certain forms of piracy.) Much of the action in this book occurs before Jamestown was colonized.

The New World back then was, frankly, a big crazy mess. It attracted the adventurous, the desperate, the mentally ill and those who could not deal with the rule of law. Settlements went up willy-nilly. Settlements were often overrun willy-nilly too. It seemed like Great Britain, France and Spain were constantly switching allegiances, depending on how the usual wars were going back home. Your enemy today was likely to be your ally tomorrow. You would pledge your new ally eternal fraternity until, of course, politics dictated otherwise, which could be months, but was more often a matter of years. Sometimes it was not politics that changed allegiances. Often it was simple greed. More than one English captain, when England was officially aligned with Spain, found it convenient to pretend he had not heard, would violate orders and plunder a Spanish galleon. Who could resist the allure of all that gold bullion and the chance to live life on a grand scale?

You would think the Spanish navy would be full of Spaniards and the English navy full of English. However, that was often not the case. Sailing was a high-risk profession. It attracted the desperate, the miscreants, and people from all ethnicities. Considering the brutish way people were raised back then, and the barbarism routinely witnessed on the high seas and on land, few sailors had expectations that they would live into their old age. It is not surprising then that many opted for piracy.

Not only was The New World a big chaotic mess back then, but humanity had only begun to take on a civilized veneer. The number of true gentlemen out there were very few. Many, like Sir Francis Drake, could assume the role of gentleman at home and become a crazed and barbaric captains at sea. In short, the ranks of the mentally ill were numerous on the high seas. Merely living on the high seas would likely make you more mentally ill. The numbers of people with heads on their shoulders were few. The barbarians were often crashing the gates. Those who chose to settle in The New World did so at their peril. These combinations of factors inculcated a climate that bred piracy and lawlessness. It bears more than a passing resemblance to modern day Iraq.

Of those who counted themselves among polite society, pirates were the lowest of the low. Alley cats had better morals than pirates and likely smelled better too. Once caught, pirates usually received trials. Occasionally they could buy themselves the justice they wanted. More likely, they were quickly tried, hung on the wharf, and then tarred. Their bodies were prominently display facing the harbor so passing pirates would understand what was in store for them. There was no burial for these hooligans; their bodies were allowed to fall away and rot. Mercy was in short supply in those days. The idea of mercy toward pirates who seemingly lacked any compassion seemed absurd.

Of course, pirates were just greedy plunderers and opportunists, eager to exploit an area of the world that was virtually lawless. While projecting an aura of fearless, they were not stupid. They did not necessarily attempt to board every passing ship and were smart enough to develop tactics that minimized their own casualties. While the humans on board were dispensable, the cargo of the looted ship and the ship itself (the “prizes”) were not. Before Madison Avenue existed, they learned that image was the key to successful plundering. Hoisting the Jolly Roger was alone sufficient for a captain to surrender without firing a shot. Their lives were usually spared, but not any article of value on their persons. Often the captured crew would find themselves simply marooned on an island. With few resources, death was delayed. However, sometimes the crew of the captured ship would happily join in the plunder and the ranks of the pirates.

There were however, some almost civilized things about pirates. In a time when monarchies reigned, their small societies were obsessively democratic. Crews were also scrupulously egalitarian. The crew elected its captains. If the captain failed to live up to the crew’s expectations, he was easily replaced and relegated back to common seaman. Plunder was equally shared among the crew, with generally slightly larger shares going to the captain, the ship’s master and the first pirate to board a ship. When a pirate tired of acquiring treasure, he often did try to settle down. Either he cleared some jungle and made a place to live or set up residence in one of the many town that were essentially pirate havens, such as Port Royal in Jamaica. As hunted fugitives, it is unlikely that his retirement would last long.

Pirates learned to live in the moment because, with a few exceptions, once they became a pirate they became marked men. Their lifespan decreased to a couple of years. Those who did not die from piracy’s many hazards were eventually captured and hung. Many others died from generally poor food, dehydration, sicknesses and the effects of poor hygiene. If these were not enough, there was also alcoholism, scurvy and the many tropical and sexually transmitted diseases that were rife in the Caribbean.

The women were no more enlightened. The book documents the cases of a few well-known female pirates. Many of the women of the Caribbean were whores. With their settlements frequently under attack from foreign powers or pirates, women too learned to live by their wits. Unfortunately, conditions were not necessarily better back on the continent. There too most people lived sad and miserable lives punctuated by war, poverty and cruelty that by modern standards seems unbelievable.

Such was the colonizing of the New World. It was not an enlightening experience at all. Often it became a desperate quest for survival from forces both natural and unnatural. Only a very few got both filthy rich and lived to enjoy it. I sometimes wonder why today’s homicide rate in the United States is so much higher than in most of Europe. After reading this book, I think I know the answer. Many of us came from this stock. We carried over from generation to generation their angst, hostility and brutality. The Pirates of the Caribbean simply were the worst of the lot. We have come a long way.

There is much more to learn from A History of Pirates. If you are at all curious about real pirates, then this is the book for you. Although the writing is occasionally uneven and the best parts of the book are in the last half, it is nonetheless an eye opening book. It provides valuable insights into times and places that understandably we might want to forget. Like our crazy grandmother living in the attic, the story of pirates is also part of our human story. We need histories like these to remind us of where our species has been, how far we have come and why we never want to devolve back into those crazy days.

 
The Thinker

Storm Warnings Posted

Are we in the blogosphere making too much of Senator Joseph Lieberman’s loss in the Connecticut primary to challenger Ned Lamont yesterday? Perhaps. Lamont’s margin of victory was not exactly a blowout, since he won by a margin of just four percent. Connecticut is not just a blue state, it is a bright blue state. Moreover, while trying to find consensus from Democrats on just about any issue is next to impossible, Lieberman seemed out of the mainstream even to most ordinary Democrats.

Now that he has lost and is declaring he will run a campaign as an independent, all of Joe’s nice and cozy congressional Democratic pals are putting him at arm’s length. Whether they are respecting the will of the voters or protecting their own hides is unclear. Clearly, there is a dearth of Democrats rushing to embrace Lieberman’s independent campaign for the Senate. Karl Rove’s willingness to use the Republican Party’s time and money to help Joe win in November should send the last supportive Democrats rushing for the exits. With friends like Karl Rove, who needs enemies?

I would not want Lieberman’s odds of winning the general election as an independent. In Connecticut, registered Democrats comprise about 33% of voters, Republicans 21% and Independents 44%. Prior to the primary, which attracted participation rates of over 40% (virtually unheard of for a primary, particularly in August) many Independents switched to Democrats just so they could vote in the primary. At this point, it is not clear whether these were Democratic or Republican leaning independents, but it is unlikely that too many Independents would become Democrats if they had Republican leanings. Anyhow, Connecticut Democrats will have to decide if they want to break ranks to vote for a man who has consistently voted with Republicans on matters that are core Democratic principles (such as approving right wing judges). That defies common sense. Republicans will have to decide that they are okay with holding their nose and not vote Republican. In addition, of course, Lieberman has to build up excitement for his run in a state which is just tired of the man.

Lamont’s victory was particularly startling because six months ago he was a virtual unknown who had only held one small public office some twenty years ago. It helps, as always, for challengers to be rich and be unafraid to spend their personal fortune. Even so, Lamont’s fortune could not make up for contributions from Lieberman’s political connections. Lamont was outspent by more than two to one. This win can be interpreted then as a sign the state’s Democratic voters are deeply frustrated with Lieberman and want someone who truly represents their values.

Attributing his success to the liberal blogosphere is disingenuous. Even though top liberal blogs like DailyKos attract up to a million visits a day, most ordinary Americans are not myopically reading political blogs. They have lives. Certainly, Lamont got some significant cash from the blogosphere as well as many volunteers. At best, the blogosphere was only indirectly responsible for Lamont’s victory. Their role, if anything, was simply to draw attention and energy to his candidacy. Lamont’s victory is more a sign of disgruntlement with Lieberman than enthusiasm for Lamont, although reportedly Lamont is a very down to earth and sensible man.

Perhaps Lamont’s surprise victory is this simple: he acknowledged the elephant in the room. Lieberman did not. In doing so Lamont demonstrated that he was grounded in the current reality, sad though it may be. It appears that this year voters are looking for candidates who can acknowledge the complexity of today’s issues. Iraq today is a hopeless place, yet Lieberman is one of the few people who still thinks we can really solve a problem that has devolved beyond our, or anyone’s ability to control it. It shows that he is seriously detached from reality.

I think yesterday’s primary was the first gust of wind in the first wave of a political storm will make landfall on November 7th. Storm warnings have been posted. Sensible politicians who want to survive are battening down the hatches, not standing on the surf laughing into the wind.

 

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