Sunday, July 31, 2011

The media's false equivalency

One of the most maddening things about this whole interminable and wholly unnecessary squabble about raising the debt ceiling has been the mainstream media's insistence on a false equivalency of the two sides. When covering the story, they will invariably insist that both Republicans and Democrats are equally to blame for the debacle, the inability of the government to function.  This is categorically untrue, and so-called journalists do a great disservice to the country and betray their professional ethics when they choose to report the story in that way.

In fact, the debt ceiling crisis has been entirely manufactured by the tea party-led Republicans whose goal is quite simply to destroy government, to do away with all regulation, oversight, consumer and public health protections, and with the social safety net that has made life more comfortable for the poor and for the middle class.  Their constituents are not the poor and the middle class.  Their constituents are the richest of the rich and they are entirely faithful to the protection and promotion of their welfare - including the welfare they receive from the rest of us in the form of subsidies and tax breaks.

The Democrats, including President Obama, have, on the other hand, bent over backwards to appease their ideological foes, even to the point of failing to protect the interests of their constituents.  Time and again they have offered compromises only to see them slapped back in their faces by the tea partiers, who have absolutely zero understanding of how a democratic government is supposed to work.  But none of this willingness to compromise is ever acknowledged by the mainstream media, and most especially not by the right-wing media which only ever reports one side of any issue.  No, to hear them tell it, both sides are equally to blame and both must do more to compromise in order to end the stalemate.  The only way the Democrats could compromise more would be to simply abdicate and accede to all the Republicans demands.  With a limp noodle of a president "leading" them, it is entirely possible that they will do exactly that.

All I can say is, it is too bad that Nancy Pelosi is not president.  That woman has balls!  And she is not afraid to stand up for Democratic principles. Unfortunately, she is held back by two dead weights, Barack Obama and Harry Reid.

Where will it all end?  Not in a good place, I'm afraid.  But no doubt the mainstream media will report it as a compromise by both sides and will thereby give legitimacy to the whole sorry mess.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Caturday fun

Tired of hypocrisy and mendacity?  Tired of your so-called representatives who don't represent you, who, in fact, don't even listen to you? Tired of people who ostentatiously wear flag pins on their lapels but don't give a flying...fig about the country and the people in it (except for those who give them millions of dollars in campaign contributions)?  In other words, tired of politics?  Then take a break.  Enjoy a little cat action - and a couple of other animals as well.  Trust me, it is good for what bugs you!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Betrayal of Trust by J.A. Jance: A review

It starts with a snuff film of a teenage girl being strangled with a blue scarf. Shocking enough, but more shocking still is where it is found - on the cell phone of the step-grandson of the governor of Washington. It was found by the governor herself who then contacts her attorney general and soon J.P. Beaumont and his partner in life and on the job, Mel Soames, are being assigned to investigate. 

J.P. and Mel are members of the attorney general's Special Homicide Investigation Team - that's right S.H.I.T. It gets worse. Their boss is named Harry Ignatius Ball, or Harry I. Ball. Those jokes aside, their mission is not at all funny. They are charged with investigating murders that are of a sensitive nature, and this apparent murder certainly fits the bill. 

It gets even more sensitive when the grandson, Josh, is found hanging from a makeshift rope of ties in his room on the third floor of the governor's mansion. He has committed suicide, but why? Did he kill the girl and then kill himself in remorse? When they had questioned him, he denied to J.P. and Mel that he had any knowledge of what had happened or how the video got to his cell phone. Was he lying or are the reasons for his suicide more complicated? 

The plot goes along with the detectives as they painstakingly follow leads and develop evidence. Their first task is to figure out who the girl in the video is and where the body is. But in checking Josh's cell phone and computer, they uncover evidence of another crime, a serious case of cyber-bullying. It begins to seem as though that might have been the motive for Josh's suicide. There appears to be a sinister clique of rich and privileged kids who enjoy making life miserable for others and they have been able to make life very miserable indeed for certain kids and maybe even to snuff some of those lives out. 

J.A. Jance knows how to write mysteries. She has created a winning team in Beaumont and Soames and she follows them step-by-step, in the best manner of police procedurals, as they unravel the complicated webs surrounding teenage culture and two unnecessary teenage deaths. She plays fair with the reader, and, although I had my suspicions,  it wasn't until near the end, when J.P. began to figure it out, that I knew who the culprits were. 

I had read a few other J.P. Beaumont mysteries, but that was years ago. I've not read them all, nor have I read them in sequence, but this latest one stood on its own very well. I felt that I was able to know enough of Beaumont's history to be able to easily follow along, and the book kept my interest right up to the end.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The poor right-wing victims of liberal hate!

Last night on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart took on the tragedy in Norway and the response to it by the right-wing echo chamber in this country as exempli- fied by Fox News.

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Yes, who in his right mind would ever associate the Norwegian assassin's actions with Christianity?  Well, only anyone who had read his manifesto or read a description of it; anyone who had seen his description of himself as a crusader for Christianity.

But, of course, with Fox News, it is all about the victimhood and we know who the victims are, don't we?  That's right - it's the right-wing nutosphere.  Never mind - Fox News is here to call out all those mean old liberals who beat up the poor little innocent fascists - er, conservatives.

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How fortunate we are to have Jon Stewart to speak truth to the power that is Fox News.  Unfortunately, those who really need to hear the message aren't listening, because they only watch Fox News.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz: A review

The Spellman family is a cast of quirky, iconoclastic characters, who comprise a San Francisco private investigations firm. The main - and perhaps quirkiest - character is Isabel Spellman, older daughter of the family who is a talented investigator. She has an older brother, David, who is perfect and not a member of the family firm. He is a lawyer. There is also a younger, 14-year-old sister, Rae, who is decidedly not perfect and whose greatest talent seems to be for blackmail. She's able to achieve her blackmailing aims because she spies on her family and learns their guilty secrets.

In fact, one wonders how the Spellman Investigations firm makes a profit because most of each Spellman's time seems to be spent spying on, tailing, and eavesdropping on other Spellmans. Finally, Isabel ("Izzy") has had enough and wants out. She is promised her release by her parents/employers if she will take one last case, a very cold case. It is a 15-year-old disappearance that was never solved, involving a young man named Snow. In following up leads on the Snow case, Izzy finds more than she bargained for and eventually has to deal with another disappearance much closer to home.

Lisa Lutz seems to be plowing much the same ground here as Janet Evanovich with her Stephanie Plum series. The whole story is played for laughs and it does provide an amusing and fun summer read. The family of characters is mostly too annoying to be likable, but this is the first book in the series and perhaps they improve on further acquaintance.

I sometimes found the writing just a little too cute and felt that Lutz was trying a little too hard for laughs, but, overall, it was an enjoyable read and I think I will probably pick up later entries in the series. The book was this month's selection for the Mystery Book Club at my local library. I would probably never have picked it up to read on my own, but I'm glad I did.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

There's always baseball

When the world turns black, when petty politicians think more about their own reelections than the good of the country and the world, when madmen turn their guns on innocent children attending summer camp and their cheering section on right-wing radio tries to excuse them, when the earth continues to heat up and all hope seems futile, there's always baseball.  During the dog days of summer - and they all seem like dog days this year - the most perfect ballgame ever invented by humans offers respite and relief from days of unrelentingly bad news.  This season, though, for Astros fans like myself, even baseball hasn't given much relief.

The Astros as of today and for most of the season are and have been possessors of the worst record in Major League Baseball.  Their current record is 33-69.  They are 36 games under .500.  This is territory that this franchise has not been in since John F. Kennedy was president.  They could well finish this season with the worst record ever recorded in MLB.

Baseball's trading deadline is July 31 and the vultures are circling my team, hoping to pick some viable parts off the dead bones of a once-proud franchise.  Teams are hoping to grab Hunter Pence or Michael Bourn or Wandy Rodrigues or perhaps one or two others that have value for teams that are trying to go to the playoffs this year. They've already taken Jeff Keppinger, a serviceable second baseman. We Astros fans will be holding our breath, hoping that our favorite player will not be playing for another team by August 1.

But this is baseball.  And in baseball, unlike Washington politics, there is always hope.  Our hope at the moment is for the future and it resides in the three aforementioned players as well as some new guys recently brought up from the minor leagues.

Jordan Lyles looks like the real deal as a right-handed pitcher.  He doesn't have a win yet although he has pitched 10 games.  His record is 0-5, but only one of those losses is really his fault.  In the other nine games, he has pitched well enough to win if he were playing for a team that was able to score runs.  He's only 20 years old so he has the potential to be a very good pitcher for a very long time.

And just last week, after Keppinger was traded, Jose Altuve was brought up from AA-Corpus Christi to play second base.  He was batting .387 in the minors.  So far in the majors, he's batting .412!  He is 21 years old, 5'5'' tall, and he appears unawed by major league pitching.  He looks like a keeper, too.

There are about two-and-a-half months left in the regular season, no time for the Astros to really make a move, even if they had it in them - and they don't. It's statistically unlikely they could even get back to .500.  The most they can hope for is to be an irritant to the teams that are in contention and to give their best effort to every game.  After all, on any given day, any team can beat any other team.  It's a game of inches and it all depends on the way the ball bounces.   If they play the game the right way, maybe good things will happen.

But even on the worst days, it is still baseball and that is still good.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Neo-Nazism is not just a European phenomenon

I was listening to a discussion on NPR this morning about the rise of neo-Nazism in Europe.  The discussion, of course, was current because of the killings in Norway by an extremist Christian, Muslim-hating Norwegian who wanted to bring about a revolution that would "purify" the population and stop the inflow of immigrants from the Near East.  The rise of neo-Nazism in many European countries has been a concern for awhile and has led to the election of some fairly right-wing governments in many countries, including the United Kingdom.  What the participants in this discussion failed to mention (at least during the time that I was listening) is that this is not just a European phenomenon.  Neo-Nazism is very much a modern American phenomenon as well.

You need only look at the state legislatures and governors around the country that were elected last year to see the extent of this philosophy's hold on American imaginations.  In states throughout the country that are ruled by Republican majorities in their governments, we see a concerted effort to reduce the freedoms of citizens and increase the government's control over individual lives.  State after state continues to try to restrict collective bargaining rights, to restrict women's rights to abortion (or even to contraception), to refuse basic human rights to homosexuals, to tear holes in the social safety net by reducing the availability of unemployment compensation and Medicaid, to impose discriminatory laws against Muslims and immigrants whose skin color the majority doesn't like, and to make it as hard as possible for people to vote.  This is not a complete list, but these are some of the more popular actions taken by our home-grown neo-Nazis in this season of intolerance.

In taking these actions, they are egged on by right-wing talk radio where hate speech is the standard means of communication, and, of course, they receive encouragement and sympathetic coverage from their favorite television network, Fox News.

The Southern Poverty Law Center which tracks hate groups across the country has noted the rise in neo-Nazism and the explosion in the numbers of the groups which they track.  A look at their "hate map" which shows where such groups are located in every state is a real eye-opener.  Texas, for example, has 59 such documented groups.

The point is that it isn't just Europe that needs to be concerned about the rise of Nazism and the threat to personal liberties.  Our country, too, trembles on the brink of a fall into the abyss and it is not just an abyss of financial failure.  Intolerance is a cancer in our country and it is growing.

As William Faulkner once assured us, "The past is never dead; it isn't even past."  And as George Santayana said, "Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it."  Personally, I don't want to repeat the 1930s and 1940s.

Saturday, July 23, 2011


The terrible events in Norway yesterday remind us once again, if we needed reminding, that sociopaths with extreme and violent political views exist in all societies, even the most benign and advanced.  The early reporting of those events by news media in this country, as Glenn Greenwald points out in his column in Salon today, reminds us of just how low our journalistic standards have fallen.  The immediate reaction by news outlets here was to assume, without investigation, that Al Qaeda was responsible.  Their stories reflected that slant.  This was true not just of right-wingers but even, as Greenwald shows, of The New York Times, the supposed "newspaper of record."   Greenwald writes:

Al Qaeda is always to blame, even when it isn't, even when it's allegedly the work of a Nordic, Muslim-hating, right-wing European nationalist. Of course, before Al Qaeda, nobody ever thought to detonate bombs in government buildings or go on indiscriminate, politically motivated shooting rampages. The NYT speculates that amonium nitrate fertilizer may have been used to make the bomb because the suspect, Anders Behring Breivik, owned a farming-related business and thus could have access to that material; of course nobody would have ever thought of using that substance to make a massive bomb had it not been for Al Qaeda. So all this proves once again what a menacing threat radical Islam is.
...In other words, now that we know the alleged perpetrator is not Muslim, we know -- by definition -- that Terrorists are not responsible; conversely, when we thought Muslims were responsible, that meant -- also by definition -- that it was an act of Terrorism.

We have allowed our media to redefine the very word "terrorism" to mean only violent acts committed by Muslims in pursuit of a political goal which we hate.  So by this definition, the attack on Rep. Gabby Giffords and her constituents in Tucson in January was not terrorism.  And neither were the attacks in Norway yesterday.  Attacks by homegrown right-wing nuts can never be terroristic in nature.  They are simply violent acts by misguided, troubled souls who are disturbed about the direction of society.

The overuse and misuse of the word terror has caused it to lose all meaning.  It has become simply another political shibboleth to stigmatize a particular group of people.  The War on Terror never was, really.  It was always and still is a war on those, foreign and domestic, who disagree with the warrior's world view.  Muslims simply make a convenient scapegoat.    

Friday, July 22, 2011

Independence Day by Richard Ford: A review

Frank Bascombe is no longer The Sportswriter. Independence Day takes place about seven years past the events of that book. Frank and his wife, Ann, divorced in the aftermath of the stresses caused by the death of their first son. Ann subsequently remarried and moved to Connecticut with their remaining two children. Frank bought her old house in Haddam, New Jersey, and, in selling their former family home, leveraged for himself a career in residential real estate. It's a job that he likes and is good at. He has made some wise investments and some would say he is sitting pretty. 

But Frank hasn't been able to fully move on with his life. He has a girlfriend but can't completely commit to her because he still sees himself with Ann. Complicating matters is their 15-year-old son who seems to be experiencing an emotional and psychological crisis which threatens prospects for his future. On an Independence Day weekend, Frank plans to take his son on an excursion to the Basketball Hall of Fame and then on to Cooperstown for the Baseball Hall of Fame. He hopes to bond with him and impart his wisdom and set him on the right course in life. An ambitious agenda for one weekend. It is, of course, doomed to failure. Or, maybe, not quite. 

In The Sportswriter, I found Frank Bascombe to be a not very appealing character, but he improves on further acquaintance. Richard Ford has written him as a sort of quintessential American, an Everyman searching for meaning in his life, searching for The Meaning of Life, haunted by intimations of mortality, fearful about his children's futures, wondering how everything got so complicated and where his life went off track. He is, in short, a character with whom I and most readers of a certain age can identify and empathize. 

Ford is a very talented writer and in Frank Bascombe, he has created a character whom he obviously knows very well. Frank may not be autobiographical exactly, but Ford thoroughly understands the place he came from, the various detours his life has taken, and why he is confused about the course on which he seems to be headed. He understands and he makes the reader understand and want to know more about how it all works out. Good thing there is a third book in this series so maybe we'll get to find out!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Heat wave? What heat wave?

Remember last winter?  It was cold.  At times, it was very cold, even breaking some records.  There was snow and ice, and on the Fox News Network, people like Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Gretchen Carlson, Steve Doocy, Stuart Varney, and Eric Bolling could not contain their glee.  After all, this proved what a charlatan Al Gore was!  Global warming was a hoax and there was no reason to amend our lifestyles.  Keep driving those gas guzzlers!  Hang on to those old incandescent light bulbs!  Drill, baby, drill!

Fox spent hours covering winter storms, making fun of Al Gore and suggesting that the cold completely undermined the science supporting global warming.  They never mentioned that, for at least 40 years, climate scientists have warned that the warming of the planet will cause more extremes in weather, both heat and cold, drought and flood.  No, that was an inconvenient truth which did not fit the narrative they were selling on the instructions of their Washington managing editor Bill Sammon.  

In fact, 2010 tied for the warmest year on record, and 2000-2009 was by far the warmest decade on record, more inconvenient truths that you won't hear about on Fox.  So now we come to the summer of 2011.  The nation is suffering through a terrible heat wave.  People are dying of heat-related causes.  There is no end in sight.  And Sean Hannity, Steve Doocy, and all the other Murdoch dittoheads are suddenly silent on the question of global warming.  But, never mind, I'm sure they'll pick up the discussion again next January/February.

Meantime, 98 percent of climate scientists around the world are convinced of human-caused global warming and continue to try to warn us of the consequences of inaction.  As that loathed prophet Al Gore has written, "Here is the truth: The Earth is round; Saddam Hussein did not attack us on 9/11; Elvis is dead; Obama was born in the United States; and the climate crisis is real."

But not in the mythological country known as Fox Nation.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Raise it already!

Are you as sick of hearing about the debt ceiling as I am?  I mean, it is not like the debt ceiling is anything new.  We've been dealing with it for years and years.  Every year Congress puts a budget in place and then, when they inevitably realize there isn't money to cover the budget they've installed, they raise the debt ceiling so that the country can borrow money to meet its obligations.  And that is the cogent point here:  Raising the debt ceiling allows us to meet our obligations, i.e., debts we've already incurred.  It doesn't allow us to spend more money.  Only Congress, which controls the country's purse strings, can do that with a new budget.

In the past, when there were fewer crazy people in Congress, raising the debt ceiling was simply a matter of housekeeping.  It was accomplished as needed with a minimum of fuss.  But nothing with this Congress gets accomplished with a minimum of fuss.  (In fact, very little gets accomplished period because the Speaker of the House is an incompetent, but that's a rant for another day.)  No, everything must be made a political litmus test, and everything must be designed to embarrass and hamstring the President and to make it less likely that he will win a second term.  The needs of the country be damned!  The only thing that matters is the needs of the tea partiers who control the Republican Party.

And so we have the situation that has dragged on interminably of the tea partiers insisting that they will not vote to raise the debt ceiling.  In other words, the tea partiers refuse to do anything to pay the country's bills which they have run up.  What was that they said about "personal responsibility?" Well, they lied in that as they have in so many things.  In fact, the truth is not in these people.  They learned their ethics at the knee of Rupert Murdoch. They will say or do anything that advances their cause.

The President, politician that he is, continues to strive for bipartisanship and continues to insist that there is cause for optimism.  I don't see it.  I think the people in charge of Congress don't give two beans about this country and that they are fully capable of letting it go down the tubes, just as long as they can achieve their political agenda.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Herman Cain is a bigot

There was a time in this country when a bigot who wanted to run for president had to hide or camouflage his feelings.  He had to pretend an egalitarianism in which he didn't believe and disguise his prejudices as a strong belief in states' rights.  Not this year though.  At least not in the Republican Party.  No, indeed, this year Republicans are more than happy to welcome bigots to the fray, especially bigots who hate gays or Muslims.  And most especially anyone who hates both.

The most egregious example of this hate-filled philosophy is Herman Cain, although he certainly isn't the only practitioner in the race.  Over the weekend, Cain carefully explained to Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday that in America it is fully permitted for any community to ban a mosque. Thus he casually tosses aside the Constitution and more than two centuries of judicial interpretation of the right to freedom of religion.

His reasoning is that Islam is both a religion and a "law" and laws which contradict our own can be banned.    In his column in the Washington Post yesterday, Eugene Robinson made clear just how specious that argument is:

Let’s return to the real world for a moment and see how bogus this argument is. Presumably, Cain would include Roman Catholicism among the “traditional religions” that deserve constitutional protection. It happens that our legal system recognizes divorce, but the Catholic Church does not. This, by Cain’s logic, must constitute an attempt to impose “Vatican law” on an unsuspecting nation.
Similarly, Jewish congregations that observe kosher dietary laws must be part of a sinister plot to deprive America of its God-given bacon.

Cain's diatribe against Muslims has nothing to do with law or with the Constitution, of course.  It has everything to do with his own bigotry and his attempt to appeal to the lowest instincts and prejudices of voters.  He stands in the tradition of George Wallace, Lester Maddox, and Bull Connor.  None of those guys would welcome Cain to their little club though, because Cain is black.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Move along. Nothing to see here.

Rupert Murdoch's American media outlets have been at pains to defend him and downplay the ever-widening scandal of bribery, phone hacking, and invasion of privacy that has been happening in Great Britain.  The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and Fox News have not given much attention to the story but what they have done has been to question why other media outlets are spending so much time on it..  Even the Washington Post, which is not officially owned by Murdoch but which seems to follow his editorial policy, has spouted the same line of nonsense.  After all, "it all happened years ago" and "Murdoch has apologized," and so there's nothing to see here.  It's no big deal.  Move along.

As usual, the truth is very much at variance with the line these News Corp. outlets are trying to sell.  It is, in fact, a very big deal, and it seems very likely to reach into this country as well.  We'll see whether our news media are as aggressive at pursuing the story as the British newspapers have been.   And we'll see whether our Department of Justice has the moxie, under the very disappointing Attorney General Holder, to actually investigate and follow the leads where they go, even if they go to the halls of Congress, to the judiciary or to the White House.  Nothing would surprise me about the reaches of this evil empire.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich: A review

Louise Erdrich can surely string words together! What is amazing to me is that in this, her very first book, published in 1984, she was able to string them together with such a sure and confident touch. The book is now 27 years old and I don't know why it took me so long to get to it, but I'm very glad that I finally did. The stories told here of the Kashpaw and Lamartine families of the Chippewa Reservation - and off the reservation - stand up well over time. They are just as relevant, poignant, and funny, that is to say just as human, today as when first published.

The stories begin with a death, the lonely death in a North Dakota snowstorm of a Chippewa woman named June Kashpaw. She was just trying to make her way home at Easter in the deepest snow that had fallen in the area in forty years. Although June disappears from the book in the first few pages, her presence lingers throughout. She continues to impact her family and everyone who cared for her. She is never truly dead to them.

The stories that Erdrich tells are of a people existing on the edges of civilization, halfway between the old ways and the new. They are caught in a time warp, as they try to hold on to the best of their past while at the same time making accommodations in order to survive in the white man's world. The stresses are enormous and many of the Chippewa seek release in alcohol which creates further stresses of its own, often tearing families and individual lives apart.

The women in Erdrich's stories are the glue that holds everything together. They are strong and passionate and they are keepers of the memories of the past. They are the providers who keep the families fed and cared for. Her description of some of the scenes of food preservation reminded me of my own mother, a farm wife who spent summers canning vegetables and fruits by the hundreds of jars. I found that I knew and understood these women very well.

The stories are told in the voices of their various characters and they all ring true. They feel and sound right. Their tone helps us to understand and empathize with each speaker.

The book does not tell a linear story. It goes back and forth in time and back and forth between characters. The result is a patchwork effect of story-telling, but when the reader looks at the whole, she can see the full pattern and it is beautiful. That is the talent of Louise Erdrich, to make us look at a people and see things that perhaps we had not seen before and to see that it is all part of a whole that makes sense.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


I long ago fell under the spell of J.R.R. Tolkien and his hobbits and so I was a prime candidate to enjoy J.K. Rowling's world of wizardry when it came along a few years ago.  I have read and liked all of her books and most of the movies based on them and now, like millions of fans around the world, I'm ready for the final movie which opens today in the United States.  I won't be waiting in line at midnight tonight though.  I'm too much in need of my beauty sleep for that.  No, I'll wait a few days and hope the pandemonium dies down a bit.

As a Tolkien and Rowling fan, you would think I would have heard of George R.R. Martin and his work, but I admit I had not until this year.  Then the HBO series "Game of Thrones" started.  My propensity to like fantasy kicked in, and I was quickly hooked.

Martin had written four books in his series about the fantasy world of Westeros and the HBO series was based on the first.  After just one episode, HBO realized that it had a hit on its hands and renewed the series for another season.  Most likely, we will have a few more seasons to enjoy this fantasyland.

The last book in the series had come out about six years ago, and finally, just this week, the fifth one,  A Dance With Dragons, has been published, just in time to boost sales for the summer for many ailing bookstores.  A George R.R. Martin book and a Harry Potter movie all in one week - the fantasy lover's cup runneth over!

The reviews that I have read of the new Martin book have all been glowing.  The word "masterpiece" has even been tossed around.  The reviews of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2" have been mostly good, too.  Many pleasurable hours of reading and viewing lie ahead.

But before I can purchase and read A Dance With Dragons, I have to read the first four books, currently sitting in their box on my "to be read" shelf.  There are about twenty books ahead of them, but I may have to jump them ahead in the queue.  I've been suffering "Westeros Withdrawal" since the HBO series ended.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Where's the ref?

Rupert Murdoch and his media empire are being investigated and castigated for their sleazy, dishonest, and probably illegal practices in managing the news.  It couldn't happen to a more deserving mogul.

Murdoch is a thug who has done much to destroy the honorable profession of journalism in all the countries where he practices his black art.  A lot of journalism's ills can be traced back to his rise.  But not all.

Journalism in this country is in a sad, sad state and that has led or contributed to many of the ills from which the country suffers.  Journalism has abdicated its responsibility as a fair and impartial referee of events.  Instead, it seems only concerned with what will capture readers or viewers.  The more lurid (and often misleading) the headline the better.  Journalism, in short, has become part of the entertainment industry and is obsessed with non-stories like the Charlie Sheen debacle or Donald Trump or, yes, Sarah Palin, the quitter from Alaska.

Our "journalists" cover these non-stories breathlessly as if they were of earth-shattering importance.  And when it comes to real stories - climate change, debt crisis, the assault on women's rights, the attempt to destroy the social safety net of the country - these same journalists will take what they would term a "balanced" approach.  They'll get a statement from some spokesman on each side of the issue and then consider that their job is done.

But all statements and all spokesmen are not equal and balance does not necessarily equal truth.  It is the journalist's job to ferret out that truth and to present it without fear or favor.  When they do that, they perform a great service to their country, even though their country may not appreciate it and may malign them.  A prophet, a teller of truth, is often not honored in his own country.  But such people are necessary if we are going to have an informed populace that can make wise decisions.

Sports depend on referees or umpires to keep the players honest.  In the real world, journalism has always been our referee, but now that referee is not paying attention to the game.  He's gazing off into the sky searching for the bright lights that will make him a star.  And the players are making up their own rules as they go along.  We need our referee to be alert and involved once again.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Get your hands off my light bulb!

Our country is in trouble.  There is a very real financial crisis.  We're engaged in two wars - three if you count Libya.  We have 9.2% unemployment and in many places it is much higher than that.  Our infrastructure is old and falling apart.  We have some of the highest health care costs in the world and the outcomes of our health care are poorer than in very many places in the world.  Our educational system is in ruins and is failing our children. 

So, which one of these major, intransigent problems do you suppose the tea party contingent in Congress is eager to tackle?  Light bulbs!  That's right, light bulbs.

The tea partiers are incensed that in 2007 a law was passed that calls for the beginning of a phaseout of the old-fashioned incandescent bulbs beginning in January 2012.  Those bulbs waste most of the energy that they consume and they cost households infinitely more in energy bills than the new energy efficient models.  Under the law, no new bulbs can go on the market after January 2012 unless they meet a new, higher standard of energy efficiency.  The old style bulbs that don't meet the standard that are already on store shelves in January can still be sold but no more can be added to the shelves for consumer purchase.  Tea partiers scream that this is an infringement of individual liberty!  It is government intrusion, just another example of nanny Big Government.

After all, it is every American's God-given right to waste energy, just as it is every American's God-given right to have cheap gasoline and drive SUVs and humongous trucks that serve no purpose.  Nobody has a right to tell us we can't use energy-guzzling incandescent 100-watt light bulbs - least of all the gubmint!

And so, there was a bill to be voted on the House today to repeal that intrusive 2007 law.  One of the sponsors of the bill was Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas (naturally!) who sputtered indignantly when asked about the bill, "It is one of those issues out there that just inflames people!  What in the world were you doing restricting the kinds of light bulbs in my home?"

This is what inflames people?  Of all the issues facing this country,  light bulbs inflame people?   Well, there is no doubt that they inflame people who listen to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck who apparently have been shouting about what they call the "light bulb ban" for weeks now, but I seriously doubt that the average man or woman in the street is too concerned about light bulbs.  I think they are more concerned about the unemployment rate and the threats to Social Security and Medicare.  The great light bulb debate is just an attempt by the right-wingers to misdirect their attention away from the important things.

As long as our House of Representatives continues to spin its wheels under the leadership of John Boehner and waste its time trying to repeal every bit of progressive legislation of the last 100 years, I'm afraid we cannot expect much progress on any of those big problems that threaten to overwhelm us.  But God forbid that Michael Burgess, Michele Bachmann, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh should not be able to purchase an incandescent light bulb after January of next year!  That might truly mean the end of civilization as we know it.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Jane and the Canterbury Tale: Being a Jane Austen Mystery by Stephanie Barron: A review

(The subject of this review was an advance uncorrected proof copy. The book is to be published next month.)
I am addicted to this Stephanie Barron series featuring Jane Austen as an indomitable detective, and so when I had a chance to get an early copy of the book to read, I jumped at it! I was not disappointed. It is another very satisfying read, perfectly suited to a hot and lazy summer day.

We find Jane visiting her brother Edward and his family in the county of Kent. The tale opens with the wedding of one of Edward's neighbors, a widow named Adelaide Fiske, to a dashing Captain Macallister, lately in service with Wellington in the battle against Napoleon. All is happiness until, the newlyweds having departed on their wedding trip, a murdered body is discovered. It soon turns out that the murder victim is actually Adelaide's first husband. He had not been dead at all. At least not until quite recently.

Edward is the Magistrate and is charged with finding the killer. Very soon, of course, he is ably assisted by his "needle-witted" sister, Jane. Unfortunately, all the evidence that can be discovered seems to point to the new bride and old "widow" as the perpetrator of the crime. She is clapped in gaol.

But then, while she waits her trial, another body turns up. This one is a young maid, - Adelaide's personal maid, in fact - seventeen years old and, it soon is learned, she was pregnant. Soon thereafter, we get to know that the father of the child was Julian Thane, the dashing young man who is Adelaide's brother. He, too, is clapped in gaol on suspicion of her murder.

The mother of Julian and Adelaide is a noisome harridan of a woman who cares nothing for her daughter and would sacrifice everything for the welfare of her adored son. How far would she actually go to advance Julian's prospects?

As usual, Jane gets to ruminate upon the mores and morals of early nineteenth century England as she seeks the answer to the puzzle of the murders. Barron has caught the Austen style of writing almost letter-perfectly and this book, to use a very "Janeish" adjective is "excessively diverting."

Friday, July 8, 2011

Wanna fix the deficit? Here's how.

Eugene Robinson is an imminently sensible, clear-thinking fellow.  He writes opinion columns for the Washington Post and sometimes appears on MSNBC as a commentator.  Last year he won a Pulitzer for his opinion columns.  Today, in the Post, his column tackles the seemingly intransigent (if you listen to the politicians) national deficit and with a few keystrokes of his word processor, he puts it all to rights.

As Robinson points out, it is evident to anyone who is paying attention that the federal government cannot continue indefinitely spending at a rate of 25 percent of the gross domestic product while taking in revenue that equals less than 15 percent of GDP.   Even a mediocre mathematician can see that this is unsustainable.  It is clear that, with the great needs that exist in our society from failing infrastructure to inadequate health care and education, it is ridiculous for this government to have one of the lowest tax rates among the industrialized countries of the world.  Robinson says, and I would certainly agree, that we must bring our spending and revenue more into balance, but that it would be unconscionable to do this by putting a "disproportionate share of the burden onto the backs of the poor, the elderly and the battered middle class."

The first step in curing the problem is for all parties to recognize and admit that spending is too high and our revenues are too low.  Both should be around 20 percent of GDP.  Here are Robinson's suggestions for bringing the two into line.

  1. Allow the Bush tax cuts for households making more than $250,000 a year to expire.  (I would go even further and allow all the Bush tax cuts to expire.)
  2. The corporate tax rate is 35 percent but that is a joke because no one pays it.  With all the loopholes available, the richest corporations pay little or no taxes.  CLOSE THOSE LOOPHOLES AND SET A MORE REASONABLE TAX RATE!
  3. Why do we have a cap on the income subject to Social Security payroll contributions?  If there is going to be a cap, it should be much higher, but the best idea would be to eliminate the cap altogether.
  4. Trimming the Pentagon's budget by just 15 percent would save $1 trillion over 10 years.   
  5. When we've done all of that, it is time to tackle another driver of out-of-control federal spending - rising medical costs.  We have some of the highest medical care costs in the world and we have a system that does not produce nearly as good health outcomes as most countries in the industrialized world.  We need to recognize that those countries are doing something right (It's called single-payer.) and try to emulate their success rather than denigrating them and pounding our chests about the wonders of "American exceptionalism."
"There is, indeed, a way to eliminate these strangling deficits with fairness and an eye toward a brighter future," writes Robinson.  "It just happens to be the progressive way." 

And therefore it must never, ever, ever be seriously considered.  The Republican leaders of Congress are determined that any reductions of the deficit shall be made on "the backs of the poor, the elderly and the battered middle class" and the President, who more and more appears to be a closet tea partier, seems to agree with them and to be willing to go along with their Randian schemes. 

There was a time, even within my memory, when politicians of both parties would put the welfare of their country ahead of the opportunity for partisan gain.  No more.  At least not on the Republican side which is now completely ruled by people who couldn't care less if the country prospers as long as their party does.

Meanwhile, grown-up, sane, progressive voices like Robinson's and like Paul Krugman's of The New York Times and Princeton continue to be ignored and our country will continue to suffer for it.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Smokin' Seventeen by Janet Evanovich: A review

This was a fun and fluffy summer read. I have been seriously disappointed in the last couple of books in this series, but this one, while not the best, did not disappoint.

There is nothing really new here. Stephanie is still chasing the same crazy FTAs (failure to appear) and her partner, Lula, is still wearing wildly inappropriate clothing and obsessing over her weight. At least Evanovich dropped the Lula fart jokes in this one, which was a step in the right direction. But Lula is still nothing but a stereotype.

Stephanie is the same incompetent bounty hunter that she was in the first book. At some point during this book, she says to herself, "I'm a better bounty hunter than I was a year ago." No, she isn't.

The two men who vie for her affections, Joe Morelli and Ranger, are still there and still besotted with her. And why is that exactly? There is no clue to Stephanie's tremendous appeal for these luscious hunks of manhood. I saw one review that mentioned that she must have a "magic vagina" that offers pleasures that no other woman's vagina can offer. Maybe that's it.

Rex the hamster is still there, breaking all previous longevity records for hamsters.

Crazy Grandma Mazur is still there going to her "viewings" and trying to open the caskets at closed casket events.

All the usual suspects, in other words, are present and accounted for and this time there are at least three baddies who want to kill Stephanie. She doesn't figure out who the third of the trio is until the end, although it was perfectly obvious to anyone who could read fairly early on in the book.

You always know what you are going to get with Janet Evanovich - comic relief. She's no Sue Grafton and certainly no Sara Paretsky and I don't think she aspires to be. She and her many fans are perfectly happy endlessly chewing over the same plot line with characters who never grow or change. She's found a winning formula and she's going to stick to it. And this time out, I didn't find that formula annoying. It kept me amused, almost to the end.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Let America be America Again

(In honor of our nation's birthday, here is a poem by American poet Langston Hughes.)

Let America be America Again

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!

The cat and the dove

Someone told me, "You have to see this hilarious video of a dove and a cat!"  So, I took a look and, yes, it was pretty funny.  I thought you should see it, too.  Here it is for your holiday enjoyment!    

You think maybe this dove has a death wish?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

One Under by Graham Hurley: A review

Graham Hurley's British police procedural series featuring DI Joe Farraday and DS Paul Winter has grown on me. At the beginning, I did not find either of the two main characters particularly attractive or sympathetic, although they were certainly interesting, but as the series has continued, now into its seventh entry, those characters have become better defined and more complex and I find that I quite like them both.

Hurley's usual modus operandi is to have the two detectives working two separate cases which intersect or overlap at some point and that is the situation here.

We begin with a man dying horribly while chained to a railroad track. The main questions are, how did he come to be there and is this murder or some weird kind of suicide? If it is murder, what could the man have done to have made someone want to kill him in this fashion? As the detectives begin to piece together the victim's story, they discover an obsessive loner who was politically active and engaged, but was there a motive for murder in any of his activities?

Meantime, while working this case, Paul Winter discovers another missing person. It turns out that this missing man has a connection with one of Paul's mates who works at the morgue, one Jake Tarrant. The missing person had sought to ingratiate himself with Jake and his family and the investigation reveals that he had turned over a lot of money to Jake, enough to help him get the home that he wants for his wife and two children. Why would the man do that? And has he now simply disappeared or is he dead? Winter begins to suspect the latter and, at some length, surmises what might be a motive for murder, but will he ever be able to prove it?

Hurley is meticulous in taking us through the process of the investigations on both cases and his writing, which has always been good, was really excellent this time. He paints such clear pictures of all the different characters that I felt as if I had actually met and talked with them. I could always understand why they did what they did, even if I did not necessarily agree with it.

I think this was really the best of the series so far and I look forward to reading the next entry.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Happy weekend!

Have a wonderful Fourth of July weekend. Stay safe, stay cool, and think "Rain"! Here in Texas, we are hoping that all our outdoor activities for the weekend will be rained out. That would be the best gift of all.