Archive for May, 2007

The Thinker

Review: Away from Her

Warning: if you are going to see this movie, bring a handkerchief. I do not want to sound sexist but if my wife is typical of most women, perhaps women should bring two.

Away from Her, now playing mostly in small, out of the way, artsy kinds of theaters, is an understated, poignant and memorable movie featuring actors from one of Hollywood’s most neglected demographic groups: sixty plus Americans. This is likely why this movie is playing in small, out of the way, artsy kinds of theaters. Because if you are in your teens, why on earth would you want to see a movie about some old lady with Alzheimer’s when instead can watch Tobey Maguire play Peter Parker one more time in Spider-Man III?

Here is a hint though to any teenage guy looking to win affections from a young lady by taking her to a movie: skip Spider-Man III and take her to Away from Her instead. This movie is way more romantic than Peter will ever get with Mary Jane. It is possible since you are new to this love business that you will find yourself a bit bored. Nevertheless, I will bet that your date will not be bored; at least not once she gets into the movie. Instead, she will be crying in buckets. If you play your cards right when you leave the theater you can say something like, “Gosh, if I ever get married I want to love my wife as least as much as Grant loves Fiona.” She will probably kiss you right there. I would then suggest taking her on a drive to Lover’s Lane to discuss the movie. Keep telling her how much you were touched by the movie. You may end up touching a lot more of her than you dared dream. (Bring protection, Big Guy.)

You may also discover something else you did not expect: two people can be way over the hill, still passionately in love with each other and, I know this is hard to believe, still sexy. At least you can make this statement if you are Julie Christie, who looks stunning at age 66. She plays Fiona, who has been married to Grant (Gordon Pinsent) for forty-five years. I know it is hard to fathom but you may be 66 one day too. Moreover, if your 66-year-old wife looks and acts like Julie Christie you will never be tempted by any other woman, even if she is half her age.

Sadly, except for a few flashbacks, the movie is mostly about Fiona’s decline as her brain wasting disease gradually takes its toll. Eventually her decline becomes more than Grant can handle, which is why they jointly and bravely make the decision to place her in an assisted living facility for Alzheimer’s victims. The institution is clean and as livable as such a place can be. However, it has a policy that in order for new residents to adjust, their spouse cannot visit for the first thirty days. Grant, who has rarely spent a night away from Fiona, is devastated. He is so happily married that living without her is a torment. After thirty days, the Fiona he finds barely remembers who he is. Due to her disease, she has become affectionate with a mostly wheelchair bound man with a vacant look (Michael Murphy). Poor hopelessly besotted Grant is placed in the unenviable role of finding ways to make his wife remember who he is when every day her long-term memory fades. He also becomes driven to continue to love her in the way that is best for her now, even though what is best for her is personally devastating to him.

You are probably thinking, “Gosh, this sounds like a pretty depressing movie. Why would I want to see something like this?” You see it in part because it is a parable, in part because the acting is so stellar and in part because it will open your heart to both the depth of human love and the depth of tragedy that can occur in a person’s decline.

Do not expect special effects, because there is none. Do not expect breathtaking vistas or award winning cinematography. Expect instead a love story that is flawlessly rendered by a 28-year-old first time movie director Sarah Polley. She seems wise beyond her years and is able to coax out subtle and understated performances from the whole cast.

If there is a problem with the movie, it may be that the devotion that Grant has for Fiona may leave you incredulous. Is it possible to love another human being that much? Perhaps yes if your 66 year old wife possesses such extraordinary physical beauty and is such a gifted, intelligent and passionate woman. We have not seen much of Julie Christie on the silver screen since she has aged, but she has proven that she is still a sensational actress. While it is hard to take your eyes off Julie Christie, do not give short shrift to Gordon Pinsent’s subtle portrayal of Grant and his utter devastation as the woman he loves slips away from him.

For a romantic chick flick, you do not need to search the oldies section of your local Blockbuster for the sappy 1970 movie Love Story. Away from Her is much better, not to mention far more plausible. For some reason love feels more authentic when the participants are old married farts, as these two are, then when they are star crossed lovers.

I give it 3.3 stars on my 4.0 scale.

The Thinker

More bad XX chromosome advice from Amy Dickerson

Uh oh. Amy Dickerson, the advice columnist is at it again on the issue of men and pornography. And I thought I had said all I had to say on the matter in this entry.

Dear Amy: I’ve been happily married for 13 years. My husband and I have a beautiful daughter.

One thing that bothers me in our marriage is my husband’s need for pornography.

He watches porn on TV and on the Internet.

I’ve confronted him about it a few times.

He pretty much tells me that it has nothing to do with me.

But I’m hurt that he does this, and it makes me feel self-conscious.

I don’t like to be compared to the silicone-enhanced liposuction-ed bimbos.

It makes me wonder about what else he might be doing behind my back.

I think that I’m a smart, strong, beautiful woman.

Am I not good enough?

I try to understand that men are visual beings, and I think that most men think that looking at pornography is normal.

Is viewing pornography cheating?

— Wondering

Dear Wondering: Whether or not pornography is actually “cheating” is beside the point.

What matters is that your husband is choosing to do something that according to you is hurtful. I would also think that as the father of a young daughter, your husband wouldn’t want to engage in activities that are demeaning to women and girls. If he can’t make the connection between his own daughter’s life and how pornography depicts and exploits females, then he’s either not trying very hard, not very bright or hooked on something that has become more important than the people in his life.

A thoughtful husband and father should not be engaging in this sort of exploitation. I hope that the two of you can work this out. If you need to sort through your feelings about this, talking to a professional counselor will help.

The good news is that this column gave my wife and me something to discuss. Not that we necessarily disagree on pornography. Depending on how you define pornography, she likely enjoys a lot more of it than I do. As a fan of homoerotic fan fiction, a.k.a. slash, she both reads and writes the stuff. It can consume hours out of her day.

Since I am a male, I am more likely to be turned on by the visual pornography than the written kind. So maybe because her pornography is written, it is not really pornography. Maybe it is “erotica”. I strongly get the feeling though that Amy Dickerson, unless the portrayal is of an airbrushed Vargas Girl, would call any other photographic depiction of women in an undressed state, particularly who are engaged in sexual acts “pornography”.

So if it is written down and marketed for women then it must be erotica. However, if women choose to undress themselves and let themselves be photographed in sexual acts with other people, not only is it pornography but according to Amy, these women are also exploited. By this husband viewing pornography, even if it is only done privately when his daughter is out of the house, he is engaging in activities demeaning to women and girls and exploiting women. Gosh! What a guilt trip! And why? Because, according to Amy, he is dismissive of his wife’s feelings and/or is addicted to pornography.

It’s a good think Amy Dickerson doesn’t come strolling down my street. I would have to throw a big, wet raspberry at her. She can do much better than falling into stereotypes.

Let me try to give “Wondering” some useful advice, instead of rushing to embrace stereotypes.

“Cheating” is whatever you and your husband defined it to be before your marriage. If you agreed before marriage that viewing pornography was the same as cheating then you were cheated on. If you discussed it and it was not an issue with either of you, it is not cheating. If you never got around to discussing it at all before marriage but you assumed your husband felt as you did, this was your mistake. You have the right to bring up your concern to your husband and tell him how you feel, but unless you both agree that he will refrain from it because you feel it is cheating, it isn’t. Instead, your feelings being hurt and you are just upset that you cannot coax or guilt trip your husband into changing his behavior and pretending to agree to your values.

Sorry, you do not have the right to unilaterally add an additional previously undisclosed constraint on your marriage. A marriage contract may not be written down, but it is still a contract. It is exactly what you jointly agreed to at the start of the marriage plus any subsequent amendments to which you both agreed. If you did not discuss it before marriage that was your mistake because it is clearly important to you. Your husband certainly should listen carefully to your feelings and you should listen to his, but neither of you has the right to impose a new unilateral demand or to frame the relationship in a new way. If it is a source of great friction between the two of you, you should both be willing to work through the issue with a therapist. If your husband’s looking at airbrushed pictures of “bimbos” is that dang important to you but does not affect your husband’s feelings for you, there is an alternative. It is called divorce. Your husband has already told you that looking at naked pictures of other women does not affect his feelings for you. What does it say about you that you cannot take him at his word?

As for your daughter, I certainly agree your husband should not be watching pornography in front of your daughter. And if it bothers you, even though it appears that he is being open with you about his interest in pornography, he shouldn’t do it in front of you either. If he has a pornographic stash, and many men do, you should agree that he will keep it in a locked box that is out of the way. If he gets all his pornography online now, which seems to be the modern way of doing these things, he should ensure that his daughter does not have access to his computer or, if she does, that the files are kept in encrypted electronic vaults where only he has the password.

As for pornography “exploiting women”, doubtless some women who get into the business are underage runaways or are vulnerable because of bad or dysfunctional relationships. However, Amy is painting with a very broad brush. Women, like men, are sexual creatures. Pornographers scrupulously avoid hiring underage women. Those women who go into pornography may be desperate for money, or are supporting a drug habit or could be making a very bad choice, but they are still of legal age and get to sort out these issues for themselves. It is also possible, indeed even likely that they get some enjoyment beyond the monetary aspects of being sexual on camera.

Getting back to Wondering’s daughter, parents are doing a disservice to their children if they are pretending they are asexual creatures. I am not suggesting that parents should engage in heavy petting in front of their children, even if they are all grown up. However, children do need to understand that both Mommy and Daddy have a sexual side to them. Is it not it dishonest to pretend otherwise? The parents should express a hopefully real warm and intimate relationship between each other that shows that not only do they love each other, but also that they are passionately physically, emotionally and sexually connected with each other. The son or daughter who does not occasionally hear Mom and Dad squealing behind locked doors is getting an artificial view of life. Parents can help their children through the treacherous waters of human sexuality by showing that they are sexual creatures too and comfortable with their sexual nature. They should communicate the truth: that sexuality in its many variations, including enjoying pornography, is part of the broad spectrum of being a sexual being. To pretend otherwise is hypocrisy.

Since this issue is so important to this wife, it should be discussed. I hope they will get joint counseling on the issue. However, I do think there should be some respect for both the inherent sexual natures of the wife and the husband. There should be some middle ground here. A reasonable middle ground would be some of the steps I outlined. Neither total capitulation to the wife’s demands nor dismissing the husband dismissing the wife’s concerns is appropriate for a healthy marriage. Honest dialog and open communications is the glue that truly binds a marriage together.

Women seem to have a near monopoly in the advice columnist business. They should not. We need more advice columnists like Salon’s Cary Tennis, who can give the male perspective. In any case, Amy Dickerson should be clear that her opinions are just that, opinions, and they align well with the XX chromosome perspective of the world. Nevertheless, they do not necessarily align with those of us in the XY chromosome set. In short, like all people including myself she brings a bias. She should be very mindful not to paint such a broad brush with hurtful advice like, “If he can’t make the connection between his own daughter’s life and how pornography depicts and exploits females, then he’s either not trying very hard, not very bright or hooked on something that has become more important than the people in his life.”

The Thinker

Why KML may revolutionize the world

Almost two years ago, I gushed about Google Earth. Two years later, this product from the engineers at Google continues to amaze and astound many of us, particularly those of us who are geography geeks. I thought at the time (and still think it is true) that Google Earth is a revolutionary product, every bit as significant as the web browser. Two years later, I am beginning to understand that its underpinnings, something called KML, has the potential to fundamentally change the world as we know it.

Scott McNealy the Chairman of the Board of Sun Computers said some ten years ago, "The network is the computer". This is now their corporate motto. Scott was ahead of his time, but in my opinion, the network did not become the computer until 2005 when Google Earth was released. Here at last was a killer application wherein the network really was the computer. Google Earth could not work at all without the ubiquity of the Internet. It also required Google’s very big and very fast pipes to the Internet. Nor could it exist on computers in somebody’s basement. The staggering amount of imagery rendered by Google Earth was measured in the terabytes. To serve all that imagery to so many clients simultaneously required very big and redundant computer centers. In short, it required the sort of infrastructure that only a few companies such as Google could provide. It also needed software that allowed easy access to geographical data. This was the Google Earth program that you installed on your computer. However, the Google Earth program was useless without the network infrastructure. The network was the computer indeed.

Google assembled and licensed a staggering amount of surface imagery of our planet. Much of the low-resolution imagery was provided free of charge by my employer, the U.S. Geological Survey. Google was also astute enough to realize that people had to have an easy way to describe points on the earth, link those points to URLs, describe geographical boundaries, features on the earth, and topics of interest. Creating this dataset was too big a job even for Google. However, if given the right tools people could describe these geographical points of interest themselves. The trick was to describe these geographical features in a way that Google Earth could render. Google, rather than reinventing the wheel, looked at what was out there. It settled on KML, or Keyhole Markup Language as the geographic markup language that Google Earth would render. (In time, Google bought Keyhole, which was in the digital imagery collection business, and which invented KML.)

If you are a geek like me, KML is just an instance of an XML schema. XML (Extensible Markup Language) is a platform neutral way of sharing data along with its meaning. HTML (the markup language used to describe web pages like this), or rather its modern manifestation called XHTML, is also an instance of an XML schema.

The important thing to understand about XML and KML is that you do not have to be a rocket scientist to write either of them. You can do it in a text editor if so inclined. You just have to know the schema, which amounts to the rules to be followed to mark up data for a particular kind of use. Thanks to the popularity of Google Earth, KML has become a de facto standard for describing many kinds of geographic data. There is now a very large community of KML enthusiasts out there. Many of them are busy marking up their own unique geographic content in KML. Load someone’s KML file into Google Earth and you too can show your friends the precise location of things that interest you, like Aunt Martha’s grave or your favorite hiking trail.

Google Earth then is really nothing more than a rendering engine for geographical information described in a KML syntax. In the same way that HTML describes how web pages should be presented by a web browser, KML describes how applications can describe geographic data. In addition, just as Mosaic (which quickly morphed into Netscape) became the first popular web browser, the Google Earth software just happened to be the first application for rendering geographic data described in KML. Among those now providing competition for the Google Earth program are World Wind and Geoportal.

When you innovate as fast as Google, it is hard to get ahead of them. While you may not have tried Google Earth, you are probably familiar with Google Maps. With Google Maps, you only need a web browser but you still have an amazing ability to intuitively examine the earth and find points of interest. Google Maps of course has competition too, principally from Yahoo Maps and MapQuest.

There is no question that Google Earth is ultra slick. Web browsers are ubiquitous but relatively unsophisticated. Until Web 2.0’s vision is realized, we will continue to need to download and install specialized software for many applications. This places a limitation on KML because to use it effectively you need to install a sophisticated program on your desktop computer.

If the network is the computer then Google Maps itself is really just a mapping application rendered by a web browser. Mashup sites like Frappr allow you to overlay your points of interest to you on top of Google Maps. What if a web mapping sites like Google Maps could display a user provided KML data source? Then there would be nothing to install and you could easily see the location of Aunt Martha’s grave using a browser.

As I discovered yesterday, you can now do this with Google Maps. In its search box, just point it to a web accessible KML file and it will render those points in Google Maps. (If you know the secret, you can pass the KML file as a URL parameter.) To me this is very exciting. I manage this big web site for the USGS. For years, we have been wanting to add a scalable mapping application to our site. It is not that it cannot be done, it is just that providing an interface like Google Earth is hard to do, particularly when your agency is resource constrained, as ours is. We are still hoping to roll our own scalable mapping interface one of these days.

Fortunately, we USGSers in the water business were at least astute enough a year or so back to figure out that we could create KML files that describe the locations of some of our stream gauging stations. You can find some of them here. This was not particularly hard for us to do because we know the exact latitude and longitude of these stations. Moreover, marking up KML is simple. Now you can use Google Earth to find the location of our gauging stations. In addition, the clever folks in our Waterwatch area enhanced the KML to show more than just location data, but actual useful information. They figured out a way to show how current stream flow conditions compare with historical periods of record. You can get a sense at a glance from color-coded dots in Google Earth just how much water is flowing. Black dots, for example, mean the stream gauge is at an all time high for its measured period of record.

All this is great if you have Google Earth, but many will not take the time to download the software. That is why being able to render KML in Google Maps is to me quite exciting. For example, try this link and you can see USGS stream gauges for the state of Virginia where I live. The color-coded dots give an intuitive "at a glance" sense of just how much water is flowing across the state. Moreover, you can zoom in, zoom out, pan and add road and satellite imagery too.

You may find this mildly interesting, but unless you are a hydrologist or a flood forecaster this information is probably only of passing interest. Suffice to say that USGS is not alone in providing data in KML. The amount of data provided in KML is truly voluminous.

Since it appears that KML can be married ubiquitously to a web browser, what is most amazing is what this says about the potential future of KML. Since KML is just an instance of XML, it is extensible. This means that KML can be married with and include all sorts of other kinds of data. Sources of data are everywhere. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau has huge amounts of demographic information about us and much of it could be marked up with KML. If these data sources would publish their data in KML, not only could they display their data on web sites like Google Maps, but also it could push the development of platform independent KML analytic tools. I can see web sites or open source tools that will collect KML from all sorts of locations and do data mining for you, finding interesting and hitherto unseen connections for your consideration. The relevant information could then be exported as KML, displayed, stored and most importantly shared.

Therefore, KML has the potential to foster data analysis for the masses, allowing us each to become unique assemblers of new knowledge by gleaning onto lots of other sources of data, but letting our computers find new and relevant patterns between the data.

Whether my vision will be realized remains to be seen. I would be very surprised if others are not already working to turn my vision into a reality. If this can be done then the simple Google Earth tool may one day be seen as something akin to Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, bringing us to the shores of a new land of knowledge that for now is hard to fathom, but whose realization may now well be within our grasp.

The Thinker

The Rudest Man on Television

If the political right is wondering why Americans are abandoning it in droves, it is not just because of our catastrophically bad president. It is also because of the number of extremely annoying people that populate that side of the political spectrum. I have seen and heard enough to make one judgment: Fox News Commentator Bill O’Reilly is without a doubt the rudest person on television.

Image of Bill O'Reilly

It is unlikely that Bill O’Reilly will call me on the phone and invite me to be on his show. However, if he did I can tell you my answer in advance. I would attempt to politely decline the offer but perhaps because my brain has been tainted by watching him, more likely I would utter something extremely rude into the receiver. Something like (you fill in the blank, I know you can), “No way. No ____ing way. Absolutely NO ____ING WAY would I be caught DEAD being on your CRAPPY, MEAN and HURTFUL show!” I do not care how many people I might have a chance to influence by being on his “show”. I do not even care even they offered me a million dollars to debate him. Money cannot buy some things, like my integrity. I would rather spend a day in a vat full of poisonous snakes wearing nothing but my skivvies than spend even thirty seconds on his show. It is not because I am afraid of Bill, it is because I know I would never be heard in the first place. Instead, I would be slimed. So Bill, don’t call me. I will not take your call and even if you did, I would have to hang up on you. I certainly would not let my daughter within a mile of you; some of your vitriolic toxic personality might rub off on her.

Naturally, I do not bother to watch his show The O’Reilly Factor on the Fox so-called “News” Channel. At this point when I am channel surfing, if I even see his ugly mug, an autonomic finger jab moves me to the next channel even before his face registers in my brain. Before I knew better though I did watch his show, each time with my mouth hanging open in shock and disbelief. When he invites someone he does not agree with the format is always the same: they “debate”. Debating, according to Bill O’Reilly means being mean, smearing and constantly interrupting guests. Except for the first thirty seconds or so and in the last five seconds when he makes a slight feint of politeness, he goes for the jugular the same singular way your dog goes for the dish of Alpo when you put it down.

Perhaps he would almost be tolerable if most of his arguments were not non-sequiturs. For example, he will pull some quote by his guest from five years ago, which has no relevance to the topic at hand, and try to use it to prove he is a slime ball. It may be one sentence or phrase from a couple paragraphs. It is likely the sentence must be understood in the context of the entire argument. That does not matter. Anything is fair game for him. All he really cares about is sliming those he does not agree with. If you once shook Jane Fonda’s hand, he will use it to insinuate you were burning American flags.

In front of a “debater”, he does not know how to shut up. In fact, he does not even know how to debate. To debate you must discuss an argument on its merits. Debate is supposed to consist of point and counterpoint, not to be entirely one sided. O’Reilly’s idea of debating is to invite you into his sandbox, immediately start throwing sand in your face, then kick you and beat you over the head until you leave or cry uncle or until the first commercial hits. O’Reilly is not a debater. O’Reilly is simply an emotionally abusive bully who is paid top dollar by his employer, Fox News so the sick voyeuristic tendencies of his audience can satiated. If he pulled this kind of crap in public school, he would have been expelled for the semester.

I read today that Michael Moore is planning to go on The O’Reilly Factor to promote his new movie about health care, Sicko. Perhaps “interviews” like this come with the territory when you have to promote a documentary. I would urge Michael to cancel his appearance. Michael, your “interview” may generate some heat, but do not expect it to generate any light. It is not as if the viewers of The O’Reilly Factor are going to be going to see your movie. Instead, you will just be more red meat for this crowd who, let’s face it, already hate you because (a) you are liberal, (b) you are fat, (c) you hate President Bush and (d) you believe in gun control.

The same goes with anyone else who shows up on Bill’s show from the left side of the political fence. The odds are not just stacked against you, you are guaranteed to be verbally abused and bullied. You would probably divorce your spouse if he did this to you. Why put up with it in public? Except for the first thirty seconds or so, you will be unlikely to get out a coherent sentence. Whatever the alleged reason for your appearance on the show was, Bill will quickly steer it in a completely different direction that will be designed to make you look foolish. The alleged topic for discussion is merely a means to promote his ideology, which seems to be that the right is always right, and the left is universally wrong.

Are you tired of Bill O’Reilly? Do you want a civilized alternative from the other side of the political spectrum? Why not listen to The Diane Rehm Show instead? If it is not syndicated on your public radio station, you can listen to it live online from 10 AM to Noon Eastern Time on, or download the latest podcasts of her show. Here is an interviewer with manners who asks thoughtful and probing questions. Here is someone who even if she does not agree with you will give you the opportunity to get your point across in a coherent manner. She will never denigrate you for your beliefs. In short, Diane has been house trained. Guests do not leave the studio feeling slimed; they leave the studio feeling like they had a chance to be heard. What an idea!

I would have thought that O’Reilly would have crossed the line a decade ago, but like the Energizer Bunny, he just keeps going and going. There does not appear to be anything he can say on the Fox “News” Channel that will get him kicked off the air. As a cable network, Fox knows the FCC will not be coming after them, so I guess anything goes. In addition, there must be quite a market for his bilge. Two millennium ago, his viewers were the kind filling Roman coliseums to cheer on the gladiators.

So unfortunately, unless his ratings go through the toilet, or the right wing totally implodes (not impossible given our current president) Bill will continue to be haunting the Fox “News” Channel. However, I suggest that even if you agree with him, you have better things to do with your time. If you have children, keep them away from the TV when Bill O’Reilly is on. If you ask me, his “show” should be rated at least TV-MA (Mature Audiences Only). The only problem is that if you were truly mature, you would not touch his show with a ten-foot anaconda.

Instead, I will channel Nancy Reagan and “just say no” to Bill, just as I have said no to Wal-Mart and Circuit City. I have taken the “No more Bill O’Reilly ever” pledge. I pledge not just to not watch his show any more, but also to do my utmost to avoid even the possibility of seeing or hearing him. Even if my favorite blog suggests watching a guest tussle with him on YouTube, I will wisely decline.

Like a Buddhist, I envision a more peaceful and gentle planet. Ideally, Bill O’Reilly would not be on it. If he has to be on it, people should be smart enough not to give him a microphone, because when someone like him gets a microphone it adds a couple centuries to our quest.

In any event, I do not need any more of his bad karma leeching onto me. Bye bye Bill.

The Thinker

Review: Children of Men

What if human fertility ground to a total halt? This is the premise behind the 2006 movie Children of Men. The year is 2027 and it has been eighteen years since the last child was born. The movie surmises that human fertility is the glue that binds society together. As a result by 2027, with the exception of Great Britain, nation states have ceased to exist. What has replaced it is worldwide anarchy and mass migration. As the world’s last state, Great Britain is a premier destination for the desperate and disenfranchised. Not surprisingly, Great Britain wants nothing to do with these people. When they are discovered, they are quickly arrested, taken to horrific refugee camps and deported.

Great Britain itself borders somewhere on the shaky precipice between governable and anarchy. What remains is a nation that bears more than a passing resemblance to modern day Iraq. Guns are plentiful. Police are everywhere. Random bombings occur regularly. Civil rights are a sometimes thing. It is a nation that is more shell than reality. It has become a soulless nation. Those who remain appear to be hanging onto their sanity, if at all, then by a thread. Life seems purposeless. It seems that humanity is a few decades away from an ignoble end.

Director Alfonso Cuarón (who also directed the 2004 movie Harry Potter and the Prison of Azkaban, which I really liked) presents this bleak future for us to ponder. It joins a list of dispiriting and nihilistic films that are hard to watch yet nonetheless compelling. It is as if you could skip ahead two decades and see this happening in your own neighborhood. It suggests that the boundary between anarchy and civilization is easily breeched. In some ways it is far more terrifying than movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, because while arguably it is less bloody (although there is plenty of violence in the movie) it feels far more plausible.

Not many films fully pull you into the reality of war, but this one does. If for some reason this film does not give you enough of this experience, you can watch other movies like the excellent Oscar winning film No Man’s Land (2001) or Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1987 film Full Metal Jacket. Unlike those films, Children of Men actually brings a tiny measure of hope to a world gone to hell. It comes in the form of a miracle pregnancy by a black woman named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey). A group of British citizens who are fighting for immigrants’ rights (since Kee is African) protects her. At least that is what it appears to be on the surface. It becomes Theo Faron’s task (who is played by Clive Owen) to protect Kee and her child. Theo is chosen because he has connections in a British ministry. This will allow him to get a pass that will allow the woman to traverse from one fortified zone of Great Britain to another. Kee must meet a rescue ship off the British coast that reputedly will offer sanctuary and care for her and her miracle baby.

Cuarón chooses to enhance the realism of the film by having it wholly shot using hand held cameras. This successful technique adds the necessary intimacy that might otherwise feel lacking. He also adds an assortment of mostly unknown actors. This turns out to be a virtue because by being largely unknown, it makes the film feel more realistic. Michael Caine is the exception. He plays an eccentric ex flower child named Jasper who lives with a vegetative wife and a dog in a compound deep in the woods.

Cuarón’s eye for authenticity is near perfect. I do not know how he directed some of those urban combat scenes because many of them consist of minutes long single camera shots. They unfold in the midst of urban combat, involving hundreds of combatants, tanks, windows and walls being shot up and many, many dead and dying people. All of it is flawlessly realized. As a result, it is impossible not to feel like you are in the midst of the unfolding horror. That Kee is with baby dramatically adds to the stakes and the drama. I do not think that any mother can watch this movie dispassionately. You simply ache for Kee, her baby and for humanity to somehow be resurrected from what feels like Armageddon itself.

In short, Children of Men is a remarkable film. It is well worth your time to rent if you have the stomach for this sort of cinematic experience. I am not sure why the film got short shrifted at the Oscars. While it received a few Oscar nominations (but no awards) for cinematography, editing and adapted screenplay, Cuarón really deserved a nomination for Best Director for this movie.

Children of Men is a wrenching, plausible and fully realized portrait of a world in our near future where anarchy is coupled by scenes of surreal poignancy that are too special to describe here. I am intrigued enough by the movie to consider buying it so I can get the DVD extras. Some of the special effects (such as the birth of Kee’s baby) are just so astonishingly realized that I remain almost as intrigued by how Cuarón managed to pull it altogether as I am by this captivating yet anguishing movie itself.

If forced to find something to complain about, it is that the movie ends on a note of ambiguity. While I understand why it was done, I still would have preferred more resolution to this movie.

Overall, it is an excellent and compelling film, fully worthy of the 3.6 out of 4 stars that I am awarding it even though, as a rule, I steer away from violent movies.

The Thinker

The End of the Angry God

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God“, 1741

Homosexuality is Satan’s diabolical attack upon the family that will not only have a corrupting influence upon our next generation, but it will also bring down the wrath of God upon America.

Jerry Falwell (1933-2007)

On Monday, the Reverend Jerry Falwell passed away and entered the great hereafter or nothingness, depending on your beliefs. It appears that he died at age 73 of congestive heart failure. What I really suspect he died of (based on recent pictures) was obesity. Presumably, he did not view gluttony as one of the seven deadly sins. However, it might have had the effect of helping him commune with his Lord a bit earlier than he expected.

Falwell, of course was the famous televangelist and creator of the so-called Moral Majority. He went on to help found the Christian Coalition, which yielded surprising political clout over the last quarter century. The Christian Coalition was instrumental in turning the GOP from the Goldwater Republican set into the God-fearing all pomposity all the time set. Perhaps the last great triumph of this group was the election of George W. Bush in 2000. Arguably, Bush would not have won Ohio (and the election) without their help.

As a progressive, I find that it is hard for me to shed tears over Falwell’s passing. When I envision the words sanctimonious and chutzpah, Falwell’s image will indelibly come to mind. Falwell was the epitome of both: utterly certain about everything, and not afraid to use his mighty pulpit and TV ministry to tell us about it. He wielded disproportionate influence from Liberty University (which he founded) there among the rolling hills of Lynchburg, Virginia. His choice of residency is perhaps a bit ironic given that in one of his more flamboyant quotes he actually said:

I had a student ask me, “Could the savior you believe in save Osama bin Laden?” Of course, we know the blood of Jesus Christ can save him, and then he must be executed.

I have little doubt that given the opportunity Falwell would have been glad to lead the lynching of Osama bin Laden. I am sure he would have a Bible in one hand as he kicked the chair out from under him.

Falwell’s God is choosy and apparently has an inner circle, of which he confidently claimed membership. He told us that God must love homosexuals in spite of their perversions, but apparently, not very much, because they ignored 3000-year-old advice in the Book of Leviticus that Jesus repudiated. So in the unlikely event we feminists, secular humanists and homosexuals do make it into heaven, we will be firmly escorted to the cheap seats way in the back. This is just as well because even in heaven, they have their standards. Any flagrant sinners who through God’s grace somehow manage to escape Hell do not get to mingle with the premier elect, you know, people like Jerry.

In general, Falwell had nothing but thinly disguised contempt for gays, feminists, secular humanists and pretty much anyone who did not think exactly like him. That was because his God was actually a jealous and angry God. Hey, it takes a mean God wielding a big stick to get us sinners into line. Nonetheless, you would think that after repeatedly putting his foot in his mouth with his outrageous comments that he might have modified his behavior. But no, not his type, not when you are consumed by righteousness. He went through life with religious blinders on. His path to God was straight and he walked it with complete ease and confidence. All we had to do to get there too was to act just like him: a weird, loud but generally kindhearted and sanctimonious bigot. God and the Bible gave him certainty that eluded the rest of us fallible mortals.

Now Jerry is gone. I would like to think that maybe no one will rush to fill his shoes, but as we all know, fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Ted Haggard of course got his comeuppance last year, so he is not available to until he is sufficiently forgiven by his fellow elect. In time, doubtless sooner rather than later someone will take that first audacious step forward. However, it is unlikely he or she will be able to command as much attention from the media. Falwell innately understood that evangelists who do not want to be footnoted by history must put on a wild show, and he rarely failed to deliver. Most of us are more circumspect.

In the 21st century, Falwell’s oratory, for all its pomposity, huffiness and vitriol, now looks both pathetic and comic. Those damned secular humanist forces, which I guess includes me, seem to have gained the upper hand. Apparently, I am a servant of Satan or something. Damned people like Jon Stewart can now dismiss people like him with a single smirk. Yet in fact, Falwell was just the latest and most prominent pompous leader whose time has passed.

There will doubtless again come a time when we will be vulnerable to those who propose simple solutions to complex problems. For now, the public is still reeling from the effects of having its hand pressed on the hot stove by people like Falwell. In truth, modern demons like Osama bin Laden are manifestations of the sanctimonious black and white thinkers like Jerry Falwell, rather than the result of societal debauchery, homosexuality and rampant secular humanism. In fact, many of those “sins” are the wreckage from people like Falwell trying to make us square peg Americans fit into the round holes of their conformity.

Now we know that if we are to slay these demons of stupidity (as Dogbert would put it), we need to use more intelligent tactics. The straightforward path apparently goes right into a brick wall. A more circuitous but rational path seems to be in order. That means application of reason, science and rational tolerance, you know Jerry, that secular humanist forebrain stuff instead of that primordial limbic brain stuff. Rational leadership eschews launching impossible crusades and worrying later about whether it was a good thing to do. The Crusades, by the way, never succeeded in removing the alleged apostasy of Islam or in permanently liberating the Holy Land. As a tactic, crusades suck.

So perhaps Falwell has left something of a positive legacy after all. By being such a pompous and egregious example of what not to do and by exercising such disproportionate political influence he may have moved America more quickly toward its progressive, more tolerant, more diverse and secular humanist future. I will note that since Western Europe has gone secular, it has not experienced a single war. Maybe some of that secular stuff will rub off on us when we come back bloody and defeated from our latest crusade in Iraq.

If that turns out to be the case, then thanks Jerry.

The Thinker

Speaking of faith

Well, it has taken a few centuries but it looks like there is a small, tiny hairline fracture in the religious space-time continuum. When atheists and devout Christians can sit down together and learn from each other without dismissing or proselytizing to one another, this is news. Yet somehow, this momentous event was largely overlooked. Yet it is actually happening, albeit in a relatively small way.

Mehta, now an honors graduate in mathematics and biology, has not converted, but the two have become friends. Mehta has started his own blog ( and travels to speak to churches and humanist organizations. He has written a book – “I Sold My Soul on eBay” – that explains why he is an atheist and gives churches advice on what it would take to reach nonbelievers.

This is not to suggest that interfaith dialogs never occur. They do. Even the Pope occasionally catches the ecumenical wave and is seen openly praying with Muslims, Jews and assorted Protestants. The problem with most of these dialogs is that no real understanding occurs. These dialogs serve some other purposes but mutual learning is not one of them.

Nevertheless, when atheists and devout Christians can actually hear what the other is saying and take some actions based on their learning, I begin to feel that there is hope for humanity. It makes me wonder if seemingly intractable problems like global warming can be solved too. In the case of Jim Henderson, a former evangelical pastor, he is learning from atheists what I suggested back in 2004: Christian marketing practices suck. They suck because they are based on the model of the ignorant savage. There are not many of us still running around the bushes. Evangelicals hoping to draw in new adherents had better understand where the modern unchurched are coming from.

As for the “friendly atheist” Hemant Mehta, he is getting an eye opening in contemporary Christianity. If he was inclined to believe that Christians are starry-eyed myopic zealots, his understanding is now clarified through actual experiences. It seems that Christians are not necessarily always studying their Bible on break, or spending their weekends knocking on doors bringing the good news to the unenlightened. It seems that Christianity does not necessarily wholly define the lives of all Christians. Who would have thunk?

If you ask me, both the religious and the non-religious should spend much more time listening to each other. Talking at each other is easy. Listening is hard. When you listen, you have to acknowledge the point of view that you are hearing. When you listen, some part of your mind must see the world through the eyes of the person you are hearing. When you listen, it is hard not to develop empathy with the person talking. The person you are tuned into is no longer objectified as the heathen or the unenlightened. Instead, they become a human being. They become personable and real.

Many issues needlessly divide us from one another, and one of our most polarizing differences is religion. I count here atheism as a religion too. I am sure many atheists will want to harass me on the point, but there are many similarities between the religious and the atheists. Christians and atheists have this in common: certainty. Christians are certain that Jesus is our Savior. Atheists are certain he is not and God is a fiction. Both are dogmatic. Only now, maybe they are a little less so than they used to be.

Here is one of life’s lessons that I fortunately learned quite early after I pulled away from Catholicism: what religion you do or do not practice doesn’t really matter. Religion is the window dressing. Values are the window itself. I am guessing that you think that Christians and atheists do not have many values in common. Guess again. Both likely have a reverence for life. Both likely believe in love, fidelity and family. Both share a passion for the truth and only differ in how the truth should be interpreted. Of course, they also have other values that are not in common. That is okay because we are all unique. We all arrived where we are at via different paths. Consequently, we are not all going to believe the same things. So of course, we are not always going to share the same exact perspectives. We are each like a unique mold of gelatin, but we are all made of same gelatin. Our mold just happens to be our path through life. We are different but simultaneously we are also the same. This is natural for us. This is the way it was meant to be!

We need to never forget this. Truly, far more commonalities tie us together than pulls us apart. Your religion, your lack of it or your complete indifference to it should not matter any more than your eye color. The world would be a less interesting place if we all had brown eyes. The same is true with our many faiths and spiritual practices. Why not embrace our differences, instead of feeling affront if your beliefs are different from mine? If we were all the same then this world would be deathly dull. You can see how exciting the world was when much of it lived under communism. Was it better when everyone lived in the same kind of drab block apartments? How much more interesting life becomes when we celebrate, respect and realize we draw collective strength because of our differences.

My inner theist almost thinks this meeting of minds between religious and irreligious must be divinely inspired. How wholesome it is. How intuitively right it is. Now what is needed is much more of the same. Let us bring many more of the churched and unchurched together. Let us get them talking in measured and respectful ways. We have nothing to fear from open and respectful dialog and everything to gain. We are simply who we are. Yet almost all of us want to be listened to with respect. When we are not heard in a respectful way that is meaningful to us, the extreme cases can end up wreaking their vengeance in horrifying ways.

Look, I know it is not easy to listen. It is as hard for me as it is for you. Nonetheless, we need to make active listening a conscious and regular habit, particularly with people we are most prone to disagree with. Let us listen to each other with a kind and open heart. Let us find common connections with each other. There may or may not be a heaven in the hereafter. However, we can all agree that there is plenty to do in the here and now to make our world much better, kinder and gentler place.

Genuine dialog is the means to achieve this end. So step one is simply this: to listen.

The Thinker

No silver bullet

Those of us of a certain age remember the presidency of Jimmy Carter. While Carter’s post presidency was far more successful than his actual presidency, Carter also had a bad habit of not telling us what we wanted to hear. In the midst of rampant high inflation, oil shocks and other systemic problems most of which were decades in the making he asked Americans to sacrifice. He told us we needed to change ingrained habits to ensure a brighter tomorrow. He talked about the urgent need for our country to establishing energy independence from the Middle East. He told us to turn down the thermostats in the winter and turn them up in the summer.

Americans did not cope well with these suggestions. I cannot remember a time when my fellow citizens were in a sourer mood. It was no wonder then that when Ronald Reagan proclaimed that it was Morning in America, his message fell on receptive years. Living with the reality of the energy crisis and the fundamental changes underway in our economy at that time was no fun at all. Our politicians were convenient targets at whom we could vent our rage. Out went Jimmy, in came Ronnie. Out went fiscal discipline, in came Voodoo Economics. We would grow our way to prosperity by charging it to the U.S. Treasury. We would delude ourselves that we were prosperous the same way that Blondie deluded herself that she could afford all those shoes because there were still checks in the checkbook.

Reagan exploited a fundamental truth about Americans: in peacetime, the electorate can tolerate a few servings of spinach only. For the eight years of his administration, the spinach diet disappeared and was replaced by the jellybean diet. (Ronnie loved those jellybeans.) To ensure we would not be eating spinach, he strengthened our relationship with Middle East oil suppliers, i.e. Saudi Arabia. All that cheap oil did help grow our economy, which in time perked up the national mood. The Saudis seemed very happy with their new fleet of American fighter jets, not to mention our growing military presence in the region, even though we were technically infidels. It is now clear that this strategy to keep America growing through access to cheap oil had a downside. It tied us intimately to the intractable problems in the Middle East.

In case you have not noticed, the Middle East, never a calm region of the world, is hardly a more secure place than it was twenty-five years ago. In fact, it is arguably in more turmoil than it has ever been. The umbilical cord between the Middle East and us, driven by our insistence on its oil, is now so big and so thick that cutting it is unthinkable. Moreover, the fundamental issues in the Middle East have not been resolved either. In fact, we have exacerbated the Middle East’s problems. We have given oppressive and authoritarian states (Egypt and Saudi Arabia in particular) the means to keep their people oppressed. I strongly suspect that there is a direct connection between the continued oppression in these states and the rise of Islamic Jihadist movements. Osama bin Laden, after all, is a Saudi who had no sanctioned outlet for his grievances. He was told to stuff it or go to prison or possibly be executed.

And so we get in higher and deeper, to the point where we make ghastly half trillion dollar mistakes in hellholes like Iraq trying to undo our mistakes. As if the carnage in the Middle East were not enough to distract us, there are these other problems that make issues like terrorism seem rather trivial. Global warming and its consequence, overpopulation and a ravaged environment, is probably the biggest problem that humanity will ever face. We recognize the need to do something serious to address it, but we are not sure what should be done. Whatever solutions are required, what we have done so far clearly has not worked. It looks like we need a long-term strategy to really address global warming, we need it now, and it must be dramatic. In many ways, these issues are the same issues we tried to address a quarter century ago. Only now having spent twenty five years ignoring the problem, the cost and pain involved in fixing the problem has mushroomed, much like the costs of occupying Iraq.

Americans are beginning to understand, grudgingly, that it is time to eat the spinach again. Since Republicans seem incapable of it, the Democrats will have the unenviable task of leading on these issues. It remains to be seen though whether Americans are willing to accept the pain and sacrifice necessary for genuine energy independence and real solutions to global warming. Thinking back to the Carter years, I am not hopeful. In fact, in our SUV addicted nation, I think we will give up our guns before we will give up our Hummers. Instead, we will look feverishly for that silver bullet that will allow us to live our first world lifestyles without actually having to pay for it.

In today’s USA Today, I read that Honda will release a limited edition hydrogen powered car next year. Great news: it will not pollute the air at all! You will refill your tank at special gas stations equipped with hydrogen pumps. While hydrogen powered cars will not emit any pollution, all that hydrogen is going to have to be manufactured and transported from somewhere. Ideally, it would come from a nonpolluting sources such as hydroelectric plants and wind farms. To make a long story short, hydrogen powered cars probably are not a silver bullet either. At least in the short term producing the hydrogen to run them would probably contribute to global warming. If we use renewable sources of energy, like feedstocks, to produce hydrogen, we may drive up the cost of food, and cause people to starve. We are already seeing the effect from using corn for energy. Corn is being used to create ethanol. As more corn is used, demand for corn increased, and prices rise. As a direct result, rising corn flour prices in Mexico are deepening the poverty of many Mexicans and causing more Mexicans to go hungry. With hydrogen powered cars, our urban skies may eventually be cleaner, but it will not solve the global warming problem. Instead, trying to solve one problem will likely cause additional unforeseen problems. Someone will probably pay a price for every clever strategy we concoct to solve these problems.

There are unlikely to be any silver bullets for us on the global warming issue. Technologies like hydrogen-powered cars, while better than doing nothing, are merely tinkering around the edges. Real solutions are likely to be too painful to adopt. To address it we must consume much less energy than we do now. We must stop our population growth and eventually reduce our population to levels that the earth can handle. We must live in denser neighborhoods. In short, a few servings of spinach will not suffice just like a couple week on the Atkins Diet won’t make you a thin person for life.

I expect that Democrats have learned from the Carter years. I think they will give these issues attention, but not enough to alter the dynamics between the needs of people and the needs of the planet. Instead, they will choose a middle ground. Arguably, it may be the better of two bad choices. Turn the screws too tightly, and the Republicans get back in charge, which if their history holds true suggests we will go back to giving lip service to the global warming problem. That will be toxic to our species and to our planet.

Hillary Clinton epitomizes this middle ground. She is expressing hope and optimism that we can address global warming, energy independence and all the other issues our nation is grappling with. To me it sounds like a new version of Morning in America. Hope is a necessary ingredient to drive change, but more than hope is needed. These actions, however much hope they may inspire, are doomed and fall short of what is needed.

What is needed is massive and painful societal change. I have some ideas that are unlikely to go anywhere. However, if they were enacted they would demonstrate to the world that we are serious about global warming. Mind you that these are only first steps. How many of these would you personally commit to in order to address global warming?

  • Limit tax deductions for dependents to two dependents per household.
  • Tax homes that exceed a reasonable square footage, say 2000 square feet.
  • Limit trash collection to once a week.
  • Prohibit the use of power mowers. If we must have power mowers, ensure they use catalytic converters like our cars use.
  • Require all houses to undergo annual energy audits. Fine those that do not meet strict efficiency standards.
  • Limit power consumption from carbon producing sources to a given number of kilowatt-hours per household per month. Exempt households that receive their energy from clean power sources.
  • Put a surcharge on energy use to be used for the development of more clean forms of power.
  • Prohibit new development on undeveloped land.
  • Limit the number of automobiles to one per household.
  • Pay per pound of garbage collected.
  • Provide tax credits for households that have certified systems that keeps temperatures at 65 or below in the winter and 80 or above in the summer.

Yeah, I know. Most if not all of these ideas are dead on arrival in Congress, even if my party, the Democratic Party wins control of all branches of government. As President Carter found out, this will be too much spinach for the national stomach to digest. While other actions show good intent, only actions like these will lead to meaningful change.

The reality is that our golden era of energy gluttony has passed. This new era in which we will arrive either sooner or later will not be as comfortable, but we and/or our grandchildren will have to get used to it. It is either that, or as is suggested in the movie The Last Mimzy, the future of the human race and of the planet looks unimaginably bleak.

The Thinker

Review: At the Abyss, An Insider’s History of the Cold War

The Cold War, thankfully, is receding into history like a bad but distant memory. I was born about a decade after the Cold War began and I was in my early thirties before the Soviet Union finally collapsed, which of course ended the Cold War. For a few wonderful years afterward Americans lived largely free of the fear of imminent nuclear attack.

Of course, we have not given up our nuclear weapons. We still have nuclear missiles on standby. We still think nuclear weapons are a deterrent. Instead of building nuclear arsenals to destroy the planet, now we develop smaller yield tactical nuclear weapons designed to drill deep underground and destroy hardened bunkers. Nor has the end of the Cold War diminished interest in nuclear weapons. The cost of entry into the nuclear club has dropped dramatically. It seems that every rogue state with sufficient means, and even many mainstream states like India, also wants the bomb.

The threat of nuclear war thus only receded a bit with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now it has morphed and become a different and arguably far more complex chessboard. Today we are beginning to understand that the Cold War never wholly left, but instead it has mutated. What have changed are its players. Use of a nuclear weapon today, if it occurs, has only one small redeeming aspect: it is less likely to start a worldwide thermonuclear war and the United States is less likely to be its first victim.

Therefore, in a way the Cold War seems almost nostalgic. For all its immense cost the problem of nuclear deterrence was, in some respects, simple. Our strategy was to show that if attacked we could also attack our foes with equally lethal force, meaning that neither state would survive to claim victory. Was it luck, the hand of God or enlightened leaders that kept us from Armageddon? While we may never know for sure, former Air Force Secretary Thomas C. Reed would argue it was the latter. In his 2004 book, At the Abyss, An Insider’s History of the Cold War he walks us through its long history.

Mr. Reed though does bring some unique insight to the Cold War. He was one of our nuclear program managers, and managed the development of a number of nuclear weapons as a young Air Force officer. It is in his description of the development of these weapons and his witnessing of their testing that this book shines. There is no substitute for a first hand account of a thermonuclear test in the Pacific. Mr. Reed gives us insight into what a real thermonuclear war would be like. I would say it would be chilling, except it would be just the opposite. The reality is hellish:

There’s the light, a brightness that simply does not stop. People talk about a flash, but a thermonuclear detonation is not a flashbulb event. The sun starts to burn on earth; darkness seems never to return. There are the colors- purples and other hallucinogenic hues that confirm Shakespeare’s observation about the next world: “What dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.” There’s the heat. It makes no sense to the brain, because the explosion being observed is almost over the horizon, as far away as Baltimore is from Washington. Yet the first flash gives way to an oppressive, lingering heat whose persistence is unnerving. And then there’s the all-enveloping roar of the savage beast unleashed… So much else happened that the senses are numb. The first shock wave is not a crack or a pop, as one hears from a gun fired far away. It is the opening of a roar encompassing the senses, seeming to continue forever.

Reed’s first hand accounts of thermonuclear tests, along with his recollections of what it was like working in the nation’s premier nuclear laboratories at Los Alamos in New Mexico and Lawrence Livermore in California are fascinating and insightful, as well as very scary. I was struck by the utter sobriety of those engaged in this ghastly nuclear weapons business, as well as their ingenuity in making such arrays of nuclear devices work from so many platforms: from submarines that lurked beneath the seas, from airplanes, and from all sorts of land based missiles. This was done while also ensuring that they would remain inert unless very complex permission schemes were used. Reed does us a favor by giving us a very intimate glimpse of these years. It is fascinating and sobering reading.

Eventually Reed got out of the nuclear weapons business and the Air Force. Politics attracted him. In particularly he was a devoted follower of a certain former actor and governor of California. No, I do not mean Arnold Schwarzenegger, but Ronald Reagan. Reed was a friend of Reagan during his years as governor, and acted as his chief of staff during those years. He also assisted in his many campaigns and won Reagan’s personal respect and friendship. He served as the Secretary of the Air Force under President Ford, and then went to work on Reagan’s National Security Council, ably assisted by a certain Major named Oliver North. Consequently, Reed also brings us some unique insights into the back stage shenanigans at the Reagan White House. We learn that the White House was broken into two sets of key players, the Old Guards of which Reed was a member, and a newer and more politically savvy set, epitomized by James Baker. Reed was an unabashed admirer of Reagan. He gives him full credit for ending the Cold War, although he is certainly respectful toward most of the presidents who developed the strategies and exercised the leadership needed during our long Cold War. He does not even mention Reagan’s fiscal and environmental wreckage.

While this book has many merits, it also has some detractions. Where Reed has personal insights, it shines. When he has no first hand experiences, like the Vietnam War, we tend to get short histories of the sort you can read free on Wikipedia. You can also tell that he chooses to walk a fine line. He is in awe of Reagan’s leadership and personal character, but he is less enamored with Nancy Reagan, who he portrays as “The Queen of Hearts”. On the other hand, even when he gets into sensitive areas, like Nancy Reagan’s behavior, he manages to do so in a way that is mildly gossipy, yet offers little in the way of new revelations.

Reed is also Republican to the core, so his bias is obvious. In the first chapter, for example, he gives a history of the death and misery inflicted by Communist rulers. It was a tragic chronicle but the numbers of deaths that he asserts were caused by Communism are so large as to seem incredulous. He asserts, for example, that Stalin killed over twenty million Russians and more than thirty million Chinese died in Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution. Unlike others, like Barbara Tuchman, he thinks our bombing of North Vietnam actually was quite effective.

The book’s title is a bit misleading. I imagine his publisher demanded a florid title to ensure brisk sales. He was never at the abyss, unless that means being fifty miles from a planned thermonuclear explosion. He was not starring down the Russians in the seas off Cuba in 1963. He does however provide plenty of insight and personal experience in significant aspects of the Cold War. This makes his book worthy of the read, in spite of its abject partisanship. For Reed is as much a patriotic American as he is a Republican. He comes across as one of the more eloquent and grounded people in the Republican Party, more of the Barry Goldwater mindset than the Newt Gingrich variety. Books like his are invaluable for historians and scholars. We should be grateful Mr. Reed took the time in the autumn of his life to capture it for us.

The Thinker

My second home

I am back in Denver again. More specifically, I am back in Golden, Colorado, which hugs the Denver metropolitan area’s western edge. As usual, the group of us out here on business together is staying at the same hotel. Actually, we rotate between two hotels. One is a Courtyard Inn. Just across a street is a Residence Inn. Since they are both owned by Marriott, they are effectively one hotel.

Usually when we come to town to do testing or training, we cannot all fit in one hotel, so we spill over into the other hotel. The testing that we will do this week is smaller scale. Only about a dozen of us will be participating in this test, so we are all in the Courtyard Inn. That is a bummer, for many of us have been here many times before. And although the Courtyard Inn arguably offers a better breakfast, the breakfast at the Residence Inn is complementary, as is the Happy Hour at 5 PM. Therefore, we generally prefer the Residence Inn where the rooms are also larger and the amenities nicer.

This is my fourth year coming to these hotels. I figure this is my eighth stay. This is my third stay this year alone. The hotels and the surrounding neighborhood have become so familiar by now that it is starting to feel like a second home. How do I know? I remember the last time I stayed at the Courtyard Inn in January, and the plate of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies placed in the lobby in the evenings. It is now Pavlovian. I expect the cookies to be there and they had darn well better be there because I am salivating for them before I walk in the lobby in the evening.

The clerks behind the counters do not know me by name yet. I do not know their names either, but gosh darn are they looking familiar to me. There is the blonde haired woman who services us in the morning at the Courtyard. When I stay in the Residence Inn, there is the Fox News Channel blaring away in the dining room of each morning. (I did complain about their preference in “news” networks, but it has not seemed to have worked.)

I remember things I should not remember. I know that, toward summer at least, Wednesday is hamburger and hot dog night at the Residence Inn. The Happy Hour there can be bountiful or frugal, but many of us figure it is enough calories to suffice for dinner, so why go out to eat? I know how they will dress down the beds in the Courtyard versus the Residence Inn. In the Residence Inn, they are into pillows. If there are not at least six of them on your bed, they figure you may not have enough pillows. At the Courtyard, they do not believe in blankets. If you get cold, you fish one out of your drawer.

I have had a couple days where I have woken up and for a minute, I did not know whether I was at home or in the hotel. Maybe this is a sign of age. On the other hand, maybe this is a sign that Denver is becoming something of a second place of residency for me.

I do not need directions to the pool, or the hot tub, or the exercise room. I have been to all of them repeatedly. I find I like the exercise room in the Courtyard better than in the Residence Inn: they have a useful weight machine. I know exactly where the icemakers are. I have learned that when staying in the Courtyard, to ask for a room facing the mountains, so you do not have to hear the traffic from Route 6 all night.

I am sure all this familiarity is good for Marriott’s bottom line. I would not say that I am loyal to this hotel, since someone else is making the reservations. I do sometimes wonder what all the other hotel experiences around here are like. I suspect I will never know.

It is not just these hotels that are becoming routine but the same traveling experience is repetitious too. I often end up on the same flight from Washington Dulles to Denver. I know I will fly United because that is our contract carrier. I know which flights offer the wide body aircraft. I know that when I arrive at Denver International I will be deposited on the B Concourse, because that is where United rents space. I know that the Wolfgang Puck restaurant is on that concourse. I know where the money machines and the restrooms are. I think I even have memorized the recorded speech on its people mover.

The flights are becoming the same too. I have eaten the same identical United Airlines $5 snack pack on the last four successive flights. I know that I can listen to flight chatter on channel nine. I know the flight west typically takes three hours and fifteen minutes, and the flight back two hours and forty-five minutes. I have learned how to pack my liquids. Denver after all is a mile high. If I leave the cap on the shampoo bottle on too tight, its contents will burst (which is one reason I put liquids in a plastic bag). There is an art to tightening a travel bottle enough so that it bleeds a little with the air pressure, but not enough so that it leaks any of its contents.

I have learned how to accommodate jet lag gracefully. I try to nap on the trip east. I try to arise a bit early on the day I fly east. When I follow this strategy, I usually do not notice the time change.

I am not bicoastal, but this flying to and from Denver is so routine now that it is almost second nature. It is almost a reflex.

Why am I flying here so much? Our training center is in Denver, and that helps a lot. In addition, Denver is a good deal. The agency I work for (The U.S. Geological Survey) is very spread out since we do our work in the field. This means that we must also come together regularly. Denver has some strategic advantages. It is big enough where even if you live in a small city you can usually get to it in no more than two hops. In addition, there are plenty of airlines that fly in and out of Denver. This means you are likely to get a decent airfare. The cost of living is modest, at least compared to Washington standards. It is also reasonably in the middle of the country, if you include Alaska and Hawaii. No one has to endure much in the way of jet lag in order to do business.

So Denver it is and Denver it will likely mostly be until I retire. There are times when I feel that maybe our agency should invest in some time-share condominiums out here. With all the traveling we do in and out of Denver, it must be cheaper to use leased condominiums than pay even modest hotel rates. Until that time, I have a feeling the Courtyard Inn and its next-door neighbor, the Residence Inn here in sunny Golden, Colorado will continue to feel more and more like my second home.


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