The Nation, 11 May 2009


The recent release of Bush-era “torture memos” occasions an argument to the effect that those responsible for the writing of those memos and the implementation of the procedures described in them must be held to account.  This must be done, less to honor a duty to the past than to establish a precedent for the future:

As a former constitutional law lecturer, Obama should have a firmer grasp of the point of executive accountability. It is not merely to “lay blame,” as he suggests; it is to set boundaries on presidential behavior and to clarify where wrongdoing will be challenged. Presidents, even those who profess honorable intentions, do not get to write their own rules. Congress must set and enforce those boundaries. When Obama suggested that CIA personnel who acted on the legal advice of the Bush administration would not face “retribution,” Illinois’s Jan Schakowsky, chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations, offered the only appropriate response. “I don’t want to compare this to Nazi Germany, but we’ve come to almost ridicule the notion that when horrific acts have been committed that people can use the excuse that, Well, I was just following orders,” explained Schakowsky, who has instructed aides to prepare for a torture inquiry. “There should be an open mind of what to do with information that we get from thorough investigations,” she added.

There must also be a proper framework for investigations. Gathering information for the purpose of creating a permanent record is only slightly superior to Obama’s banalities about wanting to “move forward.” Truth commissions that grant immunity to wrongdoers and bipartisan commissions that negotiate their way to redacted reports do not check and balance the executive branch any more than “warnings” punish speeding motorists.

A short piece remarks on the success leading neocons have had in publicizing the view that piracy off the Horn of Africa is a national security threat to the USA.  The Washington Post, for example, the other day tossed off a reference to “ties between al Qaeda and” the group that recently hijacked the Maersk Alabama, ties which appear to be wholly imaginary. 


The Funny Times, May 2009


None of the good cartoons this time are pastable; the magazine’s website doesn’t even have the current cover up.  But there are some good one-liners.  From Jason Love’s column: “Remember that you are totally unique just like everyone else”; “The best part about gay men is that they aren’t always trying to prove that they’re not gay”; “Live each day like it’s your second-to-last.  That way you can fall asleep at night”; and (recommended by Mrs Acilius) “Men are hit by lightning four times more often than women, proof that God is improving Her aim.” 

Curmudgeon has a couple of good one-liners, too.  Robert Benchley, told that drinking is “slow poison”:  “So who’s in a hurry?”  Homer Simpson’s toast: “Here’s to alcohol, the cause of- and solution to- all life’s problems.”  Denis Leary: “I would never do crack.  I would never do a drug named after a part of my own ass, okay?”


Thanks to LeFalcon for alerting me to this:


Car Violence

Keith Knight is writing about Los Angeles (the city he’ll soon be leaving, perhaps for Seattle), but might be writing about any number of places in the USA.  Including, unfortunately, Seattle.  


The Atlantic Monthly, May 2009

atlantic-may-2009Recently attempts have been made to launch spacecraft that would sail on the force of photons emanating from the sun.  “Solar sailing” may be a technology that will make it possible to achieve very high speeds, perhaps more than half the speed of light.   An article describes these efforts and the history behind them.  The first place I heard of solar sailing was in a story by Arthur C. Clarke, who according to the article was a major figure in the drive to build them.  Clarke suggested that solar sails might power the first probes intentionally sent to the stars.  The article also mentions the late astrophysicist Thomas Gold, who argued that solar sailing was impossible for the same reasons that perpetual motion machines are impossible.  Once advocates manage to get a sail out of the atmosphere, we should find out whether Gold was right and solar sailing is a physical absurdity, or Clarke was right and it is the royal road to deep space.     

In a review of recent books on the Holocaust, Benjamin Schwarz points out that ordinary Germans knew a great deal about the slaughter of European Jewry as it was going on.  Not only was the genocide too vast to be truly secret, but the leaders of the Nazi regime may actually have wanted a certain degree of knowledge of their worst crimes to leak out:

By establishing the murder of the Jews as an open secret—open enough that awareness of it pervaded society but secret enough that it couldn’t be protested or even openly discussed—the Nazis devilishly nudged the nation into complicity, and further bound the population to its leaders.

Did the German population perceive the killing of the Jews as a crime, or were they so far gone in their anti-semitism that it seemed like a reasonable thing to do?  Apparently a psychologist named Michael Müller-Claudius conducted interviewed senior Nazi party members in 1938 about their attitudes towards Jews.  He found that 5% of these “fully rejected antisemitism,” while another 69% would not admit to being hostile towards Jews.  If even senior Nazis hesitated to embrace their party’s official antisemitism, one would expect the population at large to have very queasy consciences about the Holocaust.  Schwarz closes his piece with discussion of a line by Goebbels, “As for us, we’ve burned our bridges behind us … We will either go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all time, or the greatest criminals.”  I have no idea whether the Nazi regime really did play this coy game with the German public, but the thought that they might have is the sort of idea I tend to find irresistible.   

Peter Hitchens’ less interesting brother writes a piece about Edward Upward, who for a little while in the 1930s was perhaps England’s most influential man of letters.  By the time Upward died this February at the age of 105, he had outlived all the authors on whom he was an influence; certainly his name was not familiar as theirs still are (Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Louis MacNiece, Cecil Day-Lewis, among others.)  I note the piece here because of its reference to “Upward’s novel Journey to the Border, which was thought of by many as the only English effort at Marxist fiction that was likely to outlast the era in which it was written.”  I might want to read that some day.

Alien Kitties

Goodnight Moon, Good Morning Phonetics

Here we have the children’s book Goodnight Moon set to music. 

And here we have it  in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Down with Justinian!


In ancient times, the Romans observed a festival called the Parilia every year on 21 April.  We remember this festival as “Foundation of Rome Day,” since first-century Romans like Ovid believed that 21 April was the day when Romulus laid out the boundaries of the new city.  The Romans settled on  753 BC as the year of the city’s founding only centuries after they had agreed on 21 April as the day.  From their point of view, the day returned regularly and could be celebrated, while the year was gone forever and therefore had no practical value.   

Apparently to emphasize the association between the Parilia and the founding of Rome, the emperor Hadrian changed the name of the festival to Romaea in AD 121.  The importance of 21 April outside the city of Rome rather declined as the center of the empire moved eastward in the centuries after Hadrian; by the time the western empire officially collapsed in AD 476, it is doubtful whether the festival was observed in the east at all.  When in AD 547 the Byzantine emperor Justinian decreed a new system for naming years, the Romaea or Parilia lost all official status in the east. 

So, those of us who have a soft spot for Foundation of Rome Day have a grudge against Justinian.  Apparently, we are represented at Language Log, where Bill Poser today posts a note about some of the more hideous aspects of Justinian’s proudest achievement, the law code known as the Corpus Iuris Civilis.

This might be of interest:




“Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers:  The Story of Success is a protracted attempt to debunk the conventional notion of ‘success.’  Gladwell challenges how we typically think and talk about successful people.  He argues that the conventional equation:

Ability/Talent + Determination/Hard Work = Success

is just erroneous.  Outliers makes a compelling case that this simplistic equation is flawed and that it significantly distorts the dynamics of the process whereby extraordinary achievers arise.


“The problem, as Gladwell frames it, is that the traditional narrative of success does not take into account the context surrounding the individual.  Yes, he finds that successful persons do indeed tend to possess above-average abilities or intelligence (although, beyond a certain “high enough” threshold, high intelligence ceases to be a determinant of success).  And he also find that successful persons do indeed, across the board, work extremely hard (normally logging about 10,000 hours in their chosen field of endeavor as a prelude to reaching their phenomenal achievements).  But not every highly intelligent, hard-working individual attains the achievement levels of Bill Gates, Einstein, or Michael Jordan.  Why?  Gladwell submits context as the heretofore neglected ingredient.


“‘Context’ includes various things.  For example, the author describes how one arbitrary institutional rule can exercise a massive effect on people’s developmental trajectories.  In Canada, youngsters get singled out at an early age for their superior hockey abilities.  However, it seems that the kids who stand out are not endowed with greater athletic talent.  Rather, they are merely the ones born right after an arbitrary January 1 cutoff date and are slightly older (and therefore bigger and stronger) than their peers.  The system creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.  These slightly-older standouts then receive a whole range of advantages designed to groom their hockey prowess, while the smaller, younger kids (who might possess great natural talent in their own right) are not given the same tools to develop and lag further and further behind every year.  Ultimately, the system produces an odd and striking anomaly:  An overwhelmingly disproportionate number of Canadian hockey stars have birthdays in the early months of the calendar year.


“For high achievers in other areas, Gladwell uncovers clusters of coincidences that transformed ability and work – when situated in the right place and at the right time – into stellar feats of accomplishment.  For example, he sums up his discussion of Bill Gates’ background with a quote from Gates himself:  ‘I had a better exposure to software development at a young age than I think anyone did in that period of time, and all because of an incredibly lucky series of events.’


“At the same time, the book also draws attention to the ways in which context may limit achievement.  It considers the stunted career of genius Chris Langan.  In spite of his extraordinary mind, this man could not effectively navigate the world of practical affairs.  Gladwell argues that Langan’s difficult early life denied him opportunities to cultivate certain key attitudes and interpersonal skills that would have allowed him to find his niche.  (Langan is contrasted with a diametrically-opposite figure:  renowned scientist Robert Oppenheimer, who attempted a bizarre murder and then talked his way out of any consequences.)


“The second half of the book shifts the discussion from general factors of context (clusters of ‘lucky breaks,’ family and socio-economic background) into a more focused consideration of one area:  cultural legacy.  Gladwell provides intriguing illustrative examples of how of behaviors, events, and patterns of achievement may be rooted in cultural heritage.  He links the feuds of Appalachian communities to their forebears’ Scots-Irish culture of honor.  He connects Korean Air’s high frequency of plane crashes to the way in which Korea’s hierarchical culture hampered communication in the cockpit.  And he ties the high math performance of Asian students to the attitudes and patterns of living that grew up around traditional wet rice cultivation and to the linguistic forms of numbers in Asian languages.


“In the final chapter, ‘Marita’s Bargain,’ the author brings an important perspective to public school education.  He suggests that children of lower socio-economic background tend to fall behind, not because they are less intelligent, nor due to lower-quality schooling.  Rather, the decisive factor appears to be that these students are doing very little learning in the summers.  Consequently, they drop further and further behind their middle- and upper-class counterparts whose home environments do provide educational stimulation during those months.  In this chapter, there is some slippage away from the cultural legacy theme.  The chapter might fit more naturally in the first half of the book.  Alternatively, Gladwell could have placed more emphasis on the African-American and Latin cultural legacies of the children affected.


“Throughout the book, the writing is clear and unobtrusive.  By not attempting high style, Gladwell leaves the reader free to absorb his well-constructed arguments without the impediment of unnecessary verbal density.  His thesis of the importance of context to an understanding of success is not revolutionary.  Rather, it is almost commonplace.  However, he has explored the idea in unusual depth.  Nor is he unaware of its implications.  The better we understand the mechanisms of success, the more readily we as a society can set up institutions that make success viable for larger numbers of people.”

Ukulele Loki and the Gadabout Orchestra’s “Prague”

Things I like include:

  • Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije Suite
  • Klezmer-inflected clarinet playing
  • Antique slide projectors, including stereopticons 
  • Surrealism
  • Nostalgic tributes to 60s psychedelia

All five of these can be found in this video.  There are also some pretty girls whose appearance could be described as “sexually available.”  I like them too.