Saturday, December 31, 2005

Closing out the year

"No people can be ignorant and free"

"When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainment, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility."
--Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

[The above quotes came from Morris Berman's, The Twilight of American Culture (W.W. Norton, 2000)]

Reading is important for several reasons. It helps develop an ability to think and analyze ideas and obviously develops part of the brain that aid us in particular types of thinking. Anecdotally, I’d say that Americans lack an ability to think critically and our current societal structure, where our leader’s intelligence is suspect, seems to be a point in my favor. I’m sure the experts can tell us why reading is important. As a nation, I would guess that we are reading less now, than we did, say 50 to 75 years ago, although I might be wrong. Television, computers and other forms of entertainment make reading an unappealing option in the face of a culture that values entertainment over intellectual attainment and growth. I know some will take issue and point out that the death of the novel has been predicted for a long time and book sales continue to grow. I would counter with the knowledge that the books that are being mass-produced, are nowhere near as “deep” and challenging as the classics.

Having said that, I’d agree with writers like the late Neil Postman, and others like Morris Berman, who contend that we are getting dumber all the time. Television and the types of books foisted upon the public—shallow, new age treatises and self-help tomes—help contribute to the “dumbing down” of our culture.

I don’t know, on average, how many books per year Americans read. I found this, which indicates that for “light” readers, the number is on to five, per year. I apparently am a “frequent” reader, as I read between 12 and 49 during 2005. Maybe it’s the people that I run across, but I continually hear others cluck with pride that they don’t read, as if that is some kind of badge of honor. For those of you who are readers, you might find this interesting, also.

I read fewer books in 2005, than I did the previous two years. Part of the reason is the release of my own book, When Towns Had Teams. From January, until early May, I was working on my manuscript. The early months of the summer were taken with prepping the manuscript for printing and then, the early part of the fall was given over to marketing, writing reviews, shipping orders, etc.

Amazingly, having read only a couple of books going into the fall, I’ve been devouring them of late, hence, a number that is respectable for most, but pales next to some.

Here are the books I read in 2005, with selected accompanying notes.

--Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market, by Eric Schlosser (Houghton Mifflin, 2003)

I first got turned on to Schlosser's abilities as an investigative journalist, from reading his best-selling, Fastfood Nation.

While the sales of this one were less than FFN, Schlosser once again peels back the veneer of our capitalist culture, to reveal the underside of the American marketplace.

If you are a fan of investigative journalism, something practices less and less by our corporately-controlled press, I urge you to give Schlosser a go.

--The Long Emergency, by James Kunstler (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005)

I read this early in 2005 and it opened my eyes up to a future that could be radically different, as we near (or some would argue we already have and are on the downward slope) the peak of oil production in the world.

Kunstler is a bit of a “crank”, but anyone not selling the optimistic, pop-a-Prozac, sunny side-‘o-the-street snake oil of the day is characterized that way.

Should be read by anyone who cares to live in the reality-based community.

--Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back, by Jane Holtz Kay

Another book that takes America to task for its easy-motoring ways. Holtz Kay offers a well-written and readable indictment of a nation that bases its travel policy entirely upon a model that is not sustainable for the long-haul. A good compliment to Kunstler.

--A Slender Thread: Rediscovering Hope at the Heart of Crisis, by Diane Ackerman (Vintage, 1998)

If you’ve heard of creative non-fiction, but are not quite sure what it is, Ackerman is one of the best of the genre.

--As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner

I tried, I truly did, to understand the genius of Faulkner. I mean if Oprah’s Book Club could read Faulkner, couldn’t I? I blogged about it prior.

--The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas, by Davy Rothbart (Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, 2005)

One of the great "new" writers out there. Rothbart also is the genius behind Found Magazine.

--Left Out: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, by Joshua Frank (Common Courage Press, 2004)

A concise indictment of the Anybody But Bush crowd and Democrats in general. Frank offers a fresh voice, infused with intelligence and reason, in a political world where both are found in short supply.

--Edson, by Bill Morrissey (Knopf, 1996)

Singer/songwriter Morrissey puts down the guitar and picks up the pen for the first time. An intimate look at the working class in a fictional New Hampshire mill town. The central character, 37-year-old Henry Corvine, might very well be Morrissey's nod to the autobiographical.

Comprised of believable characters, this was one of those "finds" that make reading so much fun.

--July, July, by Tim O’Brien (Penguin, 2003)

The exact opposite of Morrissey's book. I brought both Morrissey's book, and this one with me to Florida. Expecting so much more from O'Brien, as he's one of American fiction's bright lights, this book absolutely sucked! With characters you'd just as soon throw from a rooftop, than feel sorry for, this one was an insipid read and I doubt I'll go to O'Brien's inkwell any time soon.

--Florida: A Short History, by Michael Gannon (University Press of Florida, 2003-reprint)

Picked this one up in Florida, while there in November. Read most of it on the flight home; nice treatment of the state's interesting and colorful history.

--Out of Their League, by Dave Meggyyesy (Warner paperback, 1971)

Former pro football player's indictment of the dehumanizing nature of pro football. Meggysey, who played in the late 60s, retired from the game after the 1969 season. Through a series of meetings and events, Meggyesy becomes radicalized in his personal beliefs and politics and when he can no longer go along with being treated like a child and merely an item to be exposed, he walks away from the money, and also the abuse that was and still is the NFL.

I picked this book up for 50 cents at a library book fair. Obviously dated, it offers an interesting glimpse back at a time when America seemed to be striding in the right direction, but has since disavowed and returned to being comfortable with the status quo.

--The Way Life Should Be: Stories by Contemporary Maine Writers (Warren Machine Company, 2005)

Friend and fellow publisher Ari Meil's fine Maine fiction compilation. 17 writers, 17 stories, and one great state. Support your local independent press!

--Maine & Me: Ten Years of Downeast Adventures, by Liz Peavey (Downeast Books, ?)

--Outta’ My Way: An Odd Life, Lived Loudly, by Liz Peavey (Warren Machine Company, 2005)

The latest offering by Warren Maching Company. This gathers Peavey's always funny and often pointed columns from the late, great Casco Bay Weekly, a muckraking rag in the truest sense. The Downeast offering, was a compilation of her articles from the popular Maine magazine's archives.

--Among Schoolchildren, by Tracy Kidder (Harper Perennial, 1990)

Kidder is one of America's best non-fiction writers. This one, along with Lewis' Moneyball, were my favorite non-fiction reads of the year.

--Moneyball, by Michael Lewis (W.W. Norton, 2003)

I recently lauded this one, by Lewis. Whether you love baseball, or not, this is great writing and recommended reading.

Happy New Years!! May 2006 spur you to read more books.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Moneyball and the art of living outside the box

I’ve been aware of Michael Lewis’ runaway best seller, Moneyball (W.W. Norton), for over a year. Since the book was released in early 2004, it’s been the talk of the sports world, as well as being a buzzword in other circles.

Several friends and acquaintances have mentioned the book and it’s been on my ever-lengthening list of books to read, at some point. Tuesday evening, it jumped to the top of the pile. My college-age son had picked up a copy while doing his holiday shopping. He read it in two days and tossed it at me with a, “Here, I’m finished—you need to read this” while I was indulging my semi-regular habit of watching South Park.

I stayed up until 1 am, early Wednesday morning reading until I couldn’t keep my eyes open and finished the book last night around 11 pm, after returning from the Greely High School/Alumni hockey game.

I don’t purport to have anything unique or earth-shattering to say about the book, other than it was a tremendously enjoyable read. Lewis is a wonderful writer, who is able to transport his readers into the world of his subject matter and make you forget that you are reading a book. Rather than sitting in your recliner, or lying in bed, reading, you are in the batter’s box, facing a major league pitcher, or sitting in the room on draft day, at the Oakland Coliseum. Another writer that comes to mind who possesses this ability is Tracy Kidder.

I’m not sure if you have to be a baseball fan to enjoy Lewis’ book. Obviously, a talented writer can interest a reader in a subject they know little or nothing about. While I certainly consider myself a fan of the game, I’ve recently cooled in my ardor for the professional variation of the grand ole’ game. Maybe Moneyball will be my invitation back into that world of interest that I’ve maintained a connection with since I was old enough to read my first box score.

For the uninitiated, the central character of Moneyball is one Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team. The A’s are a small market team, with a very miniscule payroll, compared to the likes of the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Texas Rangers. To give you an idea, in 2002, the season that Moneyball zeroes in on, Oakland’s payroll was $40 million, while the Yankees’ payroll was over three times that, at $125 million. The Red Sox that year had a payroll of $108 million and the hapless Texas Rangers, thanks to the $50 million dollars being paid to one Alex Rodriguez, was $105 million. Only the Montreal Expos (now Washington Nationals), major league baseball’s equivalent to being sent to Siberia and the perennial basement dwellers, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays had lower payrolls, of $38 and $34 million respectively.

Beane, a former cant-miss prospect who did miss, has taken the unprecedented route to the general manager’s seat and is now running the show in Oakland. When he realized that his unsuccessful major league career was over, he asked his employer at the time, which happened to be the A’s, to allow him to become an advance scout. This person travels ahead of the big league team and analyzes future opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. At a time in his life that he should have been entering his prime as a player, Beane was asking for a desk job. As Lewis writes, “It was as unlikely as some successful politician quitting a campaign and saying he wanted to be a staffer, or a movie actor walking off the set and taking a job as a key grip.”

What made Moneyball so powerful a read, other than Lewis’ talent as a writer, was the story of how Beane, and his band of renegades, turned the major league scouting process on its head. If you want to see what thinking outside the box really is about, then Moneyball is a book you ought to read.

I found myself touched by the honesty of the writing, the willingness of Beane and the others to have their lives and imperfections laid bare for the reader. At the end of the book, Lewis, in his afterword, which he titles, Inside Baseball’s Religious War, mentions how much of baseball’s inner circle—the GM’s, scouts, along with writers and commentators (Lewis calls them the “Women’s Auxiliary”) basically “flipped out.” Beane, along with his assistant, Paul DePodesta, had no idea that exactly what form Moneyball would take until the book actually came out. Beane, according to Lewis, reacted in “horror.” Some of what Lewis wrote about him, particularly his fits of anger and violent outbursts, didn’t portray him in the best kind of way, yet, I think it was an honest and accurate representation of a complex human being, who had been bred from an early age to be a baseball star. As Lewis wrote, “I wanted to capture Beane doing what he did so well and interestingly: value, acquire, and manage baseball players. And when he did this, in his most intense moments, he was a bit of a maniac.”

To the credit of Bean, DePodesta and the Oakland A’s organization, which easily could have denied and distanced themselves from Lewis’ stories and claimed they were misrepresented, instead showed they were standup people and didn’t do that.

The real idiots of the book are many well-known and not so well-known members of the media. The pompous Joe Morgan, in his typical arrogant fashion, commented on the book that he so obviously hadn’t read—he didn’t even know that Lewis wrote it and not Beane. Because Beane and Company so totally deflated the ideas and conventional wisdom of the “old boys club” of scouts, general managers and other “lifers” of major league baseball, showing much of their thinking was a crock of shit, they had nothing left but to lash out at Beane. He showed the fallacy of drafting bodies, paying high school pitchers huge bonuses and an exposed an entire list of myths that had been perpetuated for decades.

While its possible to find fault with some of Beane’s conclusions, it’s hard to argue with the success that the A’s have achieved while maintaining one of baseball’s lowest payrolls. Year after year, since 2002, they’ve won in excess of 90 games a season, with players that were veritable castoffs from other baseball organizations. They’ve proven that getting on base is the most important thing in baseball and that you can find players who are capable of doing that without breaking the bank.

As I finished reading the book, I found myself wishing for another book like this one that I wouldn’t want to put down and would read at every opportunity and spare moment I could squire away. I also wondered about the application of these ideas in other areas; think about how life is so much about accepting the status quo in politics, economics, business and other areas. We are fed a line of BS and we are taught never to question it. Maybe we can all learn a lesson from Billy Beane and realize that our greatest opportunities may come when we decide it’s time to jump in and begin swimming upstream against the current, with the flotsam and jetsam of narrow-mindedness passing by at our elbow.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Running Kites

For many Americans, perceptions of other societies and cultures usually involve arrogance, ignorance and even, condescension. While our nation is a baby compared to many others around the world, we are socialized to believe that everything in and around America is superior to other "backward" cultures. Consumerism and military might trump the preservation of history and culture every time.

Accidentally, I happened to tune in C-Span 2 and catch author Khaled Hosseini, speaking about his book, The Kite Runner (Riverhead Books, 2003) and his life growing up and then leaving Afghanistan. Raised the oldest of five siblings by educated parents—his mother was a teacher of Farsi and History at a high school for girls and his father, a diplomat—Hosseini went to live in Paris at the age of 11, as his father was assigned to a diplomatic post in the French city.

Following a bloody communist coup and the invasion of his former homeland by the Soviets, Hosseini’s family settled in the U.S in 1980., finding a home in San Jose, California, where the young Hosseini grew up and has lived for the past 25 years.

I was transfixed, listening to Hosseini talk about his book, his life as a young Afghan male, and his family. He told about a country and his home city of Kabul, then a teeming, cosmopolitan environment, where he regularly read novels and other literature from the west, after it was translated into his native Farsi. Like any other young man fascinated by books and ideas, this Afghan young man fell in love with reading and his life was forever enriched by it.

Like most Americans, I know little or nothing about Hosseini’s native country. Afghanistan occupies a unique place in the world, geographically, historically and culturally, as it exists at the crossroads of the Asian continent. Historian Alfred Toynbee called the country, "the roundabout of the ancient world." It has been a place where the migrating peoples of Asia passed through, leaving behind a rich mosaic of the continent.

Its most recent history has been characterized by coups, and civil unrest. For much of the past 30 years, the country became a pawn of the Cold War, with a Soviet occupation and the U.S. covertly funding the Mujahideen opposition. Prior to that, however, it had been a place, not unlike much of the western world, with an educated and prosperous middle class Because of its prior history and simmering tribal rivalries that had been kept dormant for decades, the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 caused destabilization and warlordism. With the U.S. no longer interested in the country after the Soviet withdrawal, the country experienced a vacuum of leadership that made it ripe for the rise of the Taliban movement.

As I listened to Hosseini speak, I thought about the Kabul of his youth and the contrast of a bombed out and gutted city that I had witnessed via a CNN documentary on the Taliban, about a year ago. It made me think of another former cradle of civilization and culture that had been destroyed by political factions and imperialistic tendencies of the world’s last superpower—that being the nation of Iraq.

Both countries had experienced the loss of an educated, middle class culture and way of life, with the possibility that it will never to return. Hosseini, who speaks at least three languages, is an internist, as well as having written a best selling book, puts most arrogant Americans to shame with his intellectual attainment.

I found myself wondering what other civilizations we’ll have a hand in destroying in our quest for world domination. I also found my thoughts invaded by self-doubt about writing down my observations about Hosseini, his former homeland and the role that America plays in making the world a place that is becoming more homogenized by the day. There are certainly people who care about the destruction and loss of other societies and civilizations, but I’m concerned that we are in the minority and lack the power to counter the ideology of moral superiority that grows larger and seeks to devour the rest of our planet.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Seasons Greetings

Happy Holidays!!

Thanks for taking time this past year to stop by and read my musings here at Words Matter. I wish each and every one of you the merriest and most festive of holidays, in whatever way that you celebrate them.

May peace prevail in 2006.

Gettin' smacked down

The best analysis of most new events come from those who write the heart--basically non-professionals, merely taking it in, thinking a bit, and then laying it down for others.

Steve Gilliard, over at The News Blog understands this, and posts some rather incisive comments from someone from lower Manhatten, pertaining to the NYC transit strike.
I had some time to think about this walking home last night, so here goes:

Well…I screwed up last night. I made the grievous mistake of making day three of the transit strike the day I panicked and shopped a bit too heavily for the kids’ gifts. A little Daffy’s, a touch of Old Navy and Modell’s, capped off with a whisper of Steve Madden for the daughter (poor baby’s a bit of a Bigfoot at 11) and before I knew it, I’d loaded myself down with three shopping bags of ersatz Santa leavings in addition to the slim valise I’d been carrying during the strike in lieu of my heavy computer bag.

The delicate balance had been lost. The not too bad walk to Brooklyn became a f*cking ordeal. The top of my right foot began throbbing as I neared the Manhattan Bridge. Midway, it was a hot icepick stabbing through the foot. By bridge’s end, I envied Kunta Kinté, who’d had his foot chopped off by an angry massa.

I rested just after the walkway in front of some high school or other, marshaling strength for the trudge ahead. The traffic was scream-worthy. A call to the wife to drive down to downtown Brooklyn to get me was out of the question—it was inaccessible.

So I walked some more.

Slowly though, as the pain returned. I found myself at Grand Army Plaza. I stopped to gather myself and let out a huge exhale when a car pulled up next to me, honking. It wasn’t a cab, or livery car—just a small black Honda with a mid late 20’s/early 30’s Black woman in the front seat and one in back. Did I know them?

“Goin’ to Rochester Avenue…you headin’ that way?, the squat woman in front asked.

“F*ck yes!”, I screamed in my head—which came out of my mouth as “Yup! Utica and Eastern, thanks so much!”

I loaded my bags in the back next to the other woman and fell into the front seat as we pulled off for the final 2 miles or so home.

After a long, pregnant pause (and making sure I wasn’t gonna be mugged by the cast of “Set It Off II—The Reckoning”) I piped up, “I really appreciate this—you heading home from work?”

“Nah.”, she replied. “Just tryin’ to make a little extra paper goin’ between here and the bridge. You’re my last one.”

After a pause, she continued, “I know I confused you with this little car an’ all, but I got m’ girl ridin’ with me—one woman in a car is kind of a target, soooo…I’m rollin’ like this. Made about two-hundred dollars tonight.” The butchy friend in the back seat gave a half-nod as if to say “We cleaned up…big time.”

“How much for my ride?”, I asked, figuring I could maybe live without the pint of blood I’d be charged along with fifty bucks.

“Eight dollars.”, she said.

You can read the rest at the blog, under the heading, "What the Daily News Didn't Tell You."

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Back to work

Apparently the transit workers in NYC are headed back to work. Faced with the prospect of jail time, union leaders were forced to concede to the demands of the ruling elite, men like Michael Bloomberg, who probably hasn’t done a day of manual labor in his life.

Of course, commuters, inconvenienced and unaware of anything remotely resembling labor history, sided with the bosses and demanded that workers return to their posts. Now, workers will be required to labor without a contract, as talks are set to resume after the holiday.

Before I start to get the general anti-union rhetoric that is par for the course when unionism and any form of solidarity is mentioned, read some of this post from Confined Space, on what transit workers face in the form of hazards, while conducted their daily transit-related tasks.

If you care to understand why unions are still necessary, here is an interesting discussion about how unions create wages that allow workers to live with some dignity.

I had hoped that Richard, over at Commie Curmudgeon would weigh in on the strike, seeing that he lives in the city and uses public transit. He didn’t let me down.

The current state of unionism is in sorry shape. Rather than being advocates of the worker, too many of labor’s leadership ends up siding with those like Bloomberg, who prefer to exploit the workers, rather than give them a share of the fruits of their daily toil. I hope that New York’s transit workers end up with an equitable contract, but I fear that they’ll be sold out and forced to accept less than they are entitled to under honest bargaining.

As our retail-based economy continues to represent most of the new jobs being created, unions and the power to bargain collectively for living wages will once again become important. We are definitely headed in the wrong direction on pay equity and with corporate mouthpieces working diligently to divide and conquer, things won't improve any time soon.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Surveillance culture

Since the revelation was made that President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to spy on Americans, I've heard some frightening excuses given as to why this was ok. Granted, some of it is as moronic as the caller on C-Span the other morning saying, "I 'ain't got nothin' to hide, so I don't care if they listen in on my phone calls." This type of stupidity is obviously a product of inbreeding, so there isn't much that can be done to combat this.

Then, there are the Bush apologists, driven by ideological purity, which says that all is fair in the "war on terrah'"; once again, I don't know how to counteract drinking the Kool-aid. There's not much that one can come up with that will sway a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, from their preconceived notions.

What concerns me is the general level of malaise and apparent lack of perspective of many other Americans about this, however.

Michael Hawkins, over at Spontaneous Arising, has some of the best (and genuinely frightening) analysis on what all of this means. I was fascinated by his using Benthem's panopticon in illustrating the scope and possibilities of surveillance possible, given our enhanced technological capabilities.

This stuff is worth reading, if you can wedge it in amongst the gift wrapping, eggnog and fruitcake of the season.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The US Blues

Is it possible to maintain even a façade of democracy, when hype, fear, and mindless flag-waving have replaced informed debate and a commitment to the democratic process and social justice? Whether it’s the morning callers from across the country on C-Span’s Morning Journal program, or morning drive programs carried on local radio and television affiliates, the acceptance that American’s are willing to abide by to perpetuate blatant lies is astounding.

Recently, I read Michael Parenti’s pithy book, Superpatriotism (City Lights, 2004), in which he deconstructs the meaning of patriotism, or love of one’s country. I thought he did an excellent job in showing how those who appeal to a lower common denominator, such as patriotism (based on raw emotionalism), are actually the least patriotic of people. Of course, Parenti’s definition of what patriotism is, as acceptable as it is for me, might not be acceptable to those who equate it with God, guns, and flag.

What I like about writers like Parenti, is their skill at taking ideas commonly held and then using the same definition or idea to illustrate the paucity of their position. What exactly is patriotism, leaving aside Sameul Johnson’s, “the last refuge of scoundrels?”

Here are a few of many instances that Parenti uses to illustrate the futility of the form of patriotism promoted by many on the right, as well as significant numbers on the left.

--Is it patriotic for plutocratic power brokers to hail a “healthy America”, yet defund public health services and work closely with big pharma and insurance corporations to line their pockets?

--How about insisting that middle class Americans shoulder public debt, while excusing the weathiest Americans from paying their contribution, and extending tax cuts to them?

--Is it patriotic to pay lip service to our nation’s environmental heritage and natural beauty, while doing little or nothing to prevent it being plundered by mining, timber and oil interests (see drilling in ANWR)?

--How patriotic is it to routinely overcharge the U.S. government for supplies and services, or submit false bids (noncompetitive, at that) for government contracts, and then turn around and provide shoddy products and supplies to our military personnel in Iraq? That, of course is Halliburton’s contribution to patriotism.

And while we’re on the subject of the troops, and the ubiquitous and meaningless (I’d add, sickening) mantra “support our troops”, how the hell can anyone claim they are supporting them by warehousing our wounded for months in places like Fort Stewart, Georgia, where the conditions for men and women who paid a significant physical price for the flag, were absolutely squalid. In addition, wounded military members are seeing their pay and health benefits severely reduced, while no longer active for duty. I imagine this has something to do with the fact the few members of our ruling elite or their children have to face battle conditions, so they know little about what sacrifice is when it comes to waving the flag.

So what exactly does “real” patriotism stand for? As Parenti wrote, “Real patriots do not easily succumb to popular fears about external menaces that are propagated by the plutocracy.”

He goes on to note the things that people ought to be fearful of such as,

--Global warming
--The caustic effect that money has on our political process
--Recent examples of voting fraud, election thievery, as well as outright intimidation of voters, right in our own “democratic” country
--The looting of our public treasury by rampant corporate crime.

Paraphrasing Parenti, real patriots understand that the spirit of liberty and freedom in our country was displayed by those willing to speak truth to power. The early leaders of the labor movement, Socialist candidates for president such as Eugene Debs, Thomas Paine and Harriet Tubman and all those who were willing to risk the safety of a comfortable life, to challenge the status quo of power and property that extends back to our founding as a nation.

True patriotism is knowing our country’s history and true legacy and not succumbing to emotional grandstanding and the symbolic shamanism that passes for loving one’s country. Those willing to run with the true patriotic crowd will receive their share of vilification and catcalls, but the company that you’ll keep will be much more interesting and a hell of a lot more authentic. The stakes are higher than ever to cut through the shroud of superstition and drill deeper for truth.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Your government spies on you

When Nixon engaged in illegal wiretaps, during the midst of Watergate, it eventually led to his impeachment. Now, new revelations that President Bush authorized illegal eavesdropping on U.S. citizens on numerous occasions since 2001.

We have an administration that will stop at nothing in furthering their goals and agenda. It should be obvious that they care little for the rule of law and operate without regard to the freedoms and liberties of Americans.

Here is the article in the NY Times about the latest on the Bush administration's rollback of our rights.

December 16, 2005

Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts

WASHINGTON, Dec. 15 - Months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials.

Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible "dirty numbers" linked to Al Qaeda, the officials said. The agency, they said, still seeks warrants to monitor entirely domestic communications.

The previously undisclosed decision to permit some eavesdropping inside the country without court approval was a major shift in American intelligence-gathering practices, particularly for the National Security Agency, whose mission is to spy on communications abroad. As a result, some officials familiar with the continuing operation have questioned whether the surveillance has stretched, if not crossed, constitutional limits on legal searches.

"This is really a sea change," said a former senior official who specializes in national security law. "It's almost a mainstay of this country that the N.S.A. only does foreign searches."

Nearly a dozen current and former officials, who were granted anonymity because of the classified nature of the program, discussed it with reporters for The New York Times because of their concerns about the operation's legality and oversight.

According to those officials and others, reservations about aspects of the program have also been expressed by Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, the West Virginia Democrat who is the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and a judge presiding over a secret court that oversees intelligence matters. Some of the questions about the agency's new powers led the administration to temporarily suspend the operation last year and impose more restrictions, the officials said.

The Bush administration views the operation as necessary so that the agency can move quickly to monitor communications that may disclose threats to the United States, the officials said. Defenders of the program say it has been a critical tool in helping disrupt terrorist plots and prevent attacks inside the United States.

Administration officials are confident that existing safeguards are sufficient to protect the privacy and civil liberties of Americans, the officials say. In some cases, they said, the Justice Department eventually seeks warrants if it wants to expand the eavesdropping to include communications confined within the United States. The officials said the administration had briefed Congressional leaders about the program and notified the judge in charge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret Washington court that deals with national security issues.

The White House asked The New York Times not to publish this article, arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny. After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting. Some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists has been omitted.

Read the rest at the New York Times website.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Mainuh' makes good

From All Things Maine, I found out that the King Kong remake has ties to Maine, yessah!--

If the digital effects in the latest King Kong remake cause you to choke on your popcorn, you can thank Eric Saindon. He acted as a CGI supervisor for the film. And he's from Maine.

Saindon was born in Bangor, moved to Portland when he was 9, and graduated from Gorham High School and Central Maine Technical College. He later studied computer animation at Washington State University. He now works for WETA Digital in New Zealand, which also did visual effects for Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.Saindon will be speaking at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland Thursday morning, and was interviewed for today's Press Herald.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Sauerkraut: For what ails 'ya

My Saturday foray into the commercial belly of the Christmas beast ended up being a major disappointment. Redemption arrived soon after, however. Sunday saw my wife and me venturing north, along Maine’s section of U.S. Route 1. With the tourists gone and apparently, many of the area’s residents elsewhere, we had downtown Bath virtually to ourselves. A trip to Reny’s allowed us to run into a longtime friend, as well as seeing us stocking up on some needed supplies We then headed out, down the midcoast corridor, towards Waldoboro.

Maine photographer and photojournalist, Cindy McIntyre (who I mentioned elsewhere), was hosting an open studio in her home. Unpacking many of her photos and prints, McIntyre set up an interesting and festive display in her Waldoboro studio. It was interesting to talk shop with a fellow author and word has it that Santa might be bringing me a copy of her book, A Century Apart; Maine Then and Now (Downeast, 2004), for Christmas.

Since we were in the vicinity of Morse’s Sauerkraut, we meandered northward along Route 220 to Maine’s only commercial producer of the German staple and longtime favorite of the Baumer clan. My grandfather used to make sauerkraut and I would eagerly anticipate the late fall ritual, when he, along with my uncle Bob, and my father, put up their supply of fermented cabbage for the winter. With only one cousin currently keeping alive the family's tradition, I learned to make ‘kraut and have put up my own supply over the past few winters. Unfortunately, the busyness of having a book to schlep around, kept me from making any this year.

Morse’s Sauerkraut has been producing this delectable treat since 1918. They have a well-stocked specialty food store at the farm, where visitors can, of course, supply themselves with sauerkraut. They also have an ample supply of sausages, pork products, cheeses, homemade pickles, Aunt Lydia’s Beet Relish, as well as a variety of German pastries and other treats.

Apparently, sauerkraut has acquired newfound interest, as it has been found to have health benefits above and beyond that which Germans and other connoisseurs have always known about the delicacy. Scientists in Seoul, Korea have found that chickens, infected with the Avian flu virus, began to recover, when fed an extract of kimchi (a Korean dish, similar to Sauerkraut). Additionally, sauerkraut may have properties that lower a woman’s risk of breast cancer. And you just thought sauerkraut tasted good, right?

With winter’s doldrums beginning to set in, now’s the time to venture out and reclaim the state’s roadways as your own. Never have the Pine Tree State’s corridors been so free of annoying tourists and other outsiders. Maine’s hidden treasures are there to enjoy for another few months before Memorial Day’s onslaught begins anew. An additional bonus of trips to places other than Cumberland and York counties, particularly north and downeast, is that one gets to experience firsthand the character and quality of Maine, the way life used to be, back before our state began to be gobbled up by wealthy land barons. Enjoy it now, before some flatlander puts up a “keep out” sign in the not-too-distant future.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Shutting it down for the holidays

Talk about a persecution complex—the religious right keep coming up with new ways to cement the perceptions of many that they have no connection at all with reality, or Jesus, for that matter. If the myth of Jesus represents the best qualities in mankind, then so many of these fundamentalist adherents to their amalgam of flag, politics and militarism represent the ugly aspects of America.

First, there is the daily drumbeat about their Christmas being stolen, via O’Reilly, John Gibson and the other proto-fascists of Fox News. Now, we see that they have issues with President Bush’s Christmas cards—apparently they lack the right’s imprimatur, sanctioning that Baby Jesus is given the proper prominence on the president’s cards. When Bush cozied up to this crowd, it was the equivalent of reaching into a viper’s pit. If he doesn’t cater to every whim and wish of these fringe dwellers, they are launching diatribes, pronouncements and a new wave of boycotts.

If you’re still not convinced that these right-tilting “wack jobs” have no affiliation with traditional interpretations of Jesus and even Christianity, there is this, from CNN (courtesy of another Maine blogger, over at Mainelife); Christmas can’t mean all that much to these “true believers”, if the commercialization of the holidays (oh, excuse me, Christmas) takes precedence over the celebration of Jesus’ birth. I thought that’s what religious people did on Christmas—went to church? I mean, I was raised Roman Catholic and going to mass (for many, its midnight mass) was as much a part of Christmas as food and presents. For these modern SUV-driving, war-loving, hate-spreading fundamentalists, there is little supporting their program.

Personally, I don’t see that Christmas has been stolen. I think it’s too damn commercial, but, I choose to take what I like and leave the rest. I’ve already watched A Charlie Brown Christmas tape and I’ll spend some time with It’s A Wonderful Life, as well as A Walton’s Christmas and I’ll be transported back to the happy times of Christmas past. Hell, I might even attend mass for the first time in decades. I might be agnostic, but I do enjoy the religious story of Christmas.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Chavez offers Americans cheap oil

Venezuala’s President, Hugo Chavez, continues to pose a threat to the United States and the Bush administration. The major threat obviously is the clear representation of what a government, concerned with the daily needs of people, might look like. Because his policies clearly contradict those of our so-called democracy, the corporately-controlled media must define his actions with the typical language of the elite they represent.

Using terms like “coup” and “marketing ploy” to describe Venezuela’s offer of cheap oil to Massachetts’ poor is an example of how the media spins information in an attempt to prop up America’s elite and powerful.

Venezuela's state-owned Citgo Petroleum Corp., promoted its plan to offer 12 million gallons of cut-rate oil this winter with the headline, “How Venezuela is Keeping the Home Fires Burning in Massachusetts.” Running ads in two of the nation’s major dailies (including The New York Times), the company trumpeted its largesse as “humanitarian aid” and “a simple act of generosity.” Typically, The Wall Street Journal, which masquerades as a newspaper, but is nothing more than an apologist for corporate policy, found fault with the program.

Taking to task both Representative William Delahunt (D-Massachusetts) and former Representative Joe Kennedy, for cooperating with Chavez, the paper found fault with their acceptance of aid from a dictator. Actually, I’m sure it had more to do with Chavez’ criticism and clear disdain for our own unelected president, George W. Bush, the spoiled former frat boy, turned leader of the free world.

Critics and other lackeys of the elite, are unable to see past their corporate loyalties and have branded Chavez’ actions as “a cynical ploy to score public relations points” and are designed to “tweak the Bush administration.”

Delahunt and Kennedy, whose Citizens Energy Corp. will help deliver the oil, counter that keeping poor people warm is their priority.

''I don't report to George Bush,'' Delahunt said at a news conference last week. ``I'm elected by the people here in Massachusetts. So I don't feel any particular need to consult with George Bush or Dick Cheney about oil.''

Other foreign suppliers of oil to the U.S. have authoritarian governments and are accused of human rights abuses, a Kennedy aide noted.

''If we applied a democratic screen to countries we get our oil from, we'd never have enough oil to heat our homes and drive our cars,'' said Kennedy's spokesman, Brian O'Connor.

Since our own U.S.-owned oil corporations, buddied up with both Bush and Cheney, are hell-bent on greater and greater profits at the expense of the American people, maybe The Wall Street Journal could turn their pens on their greed and disdain for the working class and the poor. I won’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen, however. When given the opportunity to put people before profit, during natural disasters and human misery, these robber barons jacked up prices quickly and unmercilessly.

The Bush junta and most of the current crop of politicians regularly show disdain for the needs and concerns of most Americans. It’s time that the working class and others outside the power belt recognize who our friends are. It sure isn’t our own government or those in the media who constantly excuse the fleecing of the American people, regularly and without end.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Maine potatoes and the NY Times

Back in April, 2004, I was at Portland’s Earth Day celebration, hawking copies of the city’s late, great alternative newspaper, The Portland Pigeon. I met an interesting gentleman, a farmer from The County (that’s Aroostook County, to your flatlanders out there). Jim Cook, an organic farmer from Grand Isle, had a booth and we talked about farming, sustainable economies and how multi-national corporations were killing local culture. As a farmer, he obviously saw things from the ground-floor (pun intended). My intention was to look into the possibility of finding a story about farming and pitch it. We spoke by phone, but other projects and life’s busyness found the idea pushed aside.

Fast-forward over18 months later and Jim Cook and his Aroostook County potatoes, along with a Portland chef are being featured (requires free registration) in the NY Times Dining and Wine section. Lest you think that Cook is just another farmer, seeking to cash in by marketing to a wealthy niche of food snobs and high society types, think again. While selling his potatoes to specialty restaurants and natural food stores helps to keep him in business, his breed of farmer bodes well for the industry’s future. He “gets” the connection between local foods and the future health of society.

I took the occasion of the article (replete with photo) to touch bases with him by sending him an email. I’m starting to ramp up the idea percolator and farmers like Cook, who see the big picture, are perfect Mainers to speak with in helping me see the forest for the trees (or potatoes for the fields). He was as congenial as I remember him to be and I will definitely be sitting down with him some time, soon.

It’s hard not to sense his deep love for his craft and his desire to be part of the solution, I feel better knowing that farming is in the hands of people like Jim Cook (and many others). A lot of forces are at work, that might bring farming and local foods back to center stage, where they belong.

Maybe it’s not accidental that potatoes are on my radar screen at this point. It was the potato that allowed me to get to know my German immigrant farmer better than my other cousins. I remember his own local garden where he grew potatoes, as well as cucumbers, corn, tomatoes and many other vegetables. My Opa knew nothing about organic farming, but he respected his land and cared for it the best way that he knew how. I was fortunate to have experienced those late summer and early fall harvests as a youngster. There’s nothing like a meal from that which comes from your own efforts and bounty.

I look forward to having an opportunity to talk farming and local foods with Cook at some point in the not-too-distant future. For the time being, I’m happy to see Maine spuds enjoy some marquee billing in the Big Apple.