Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Volcanoes and the little ice age

Earth's climate and the cycles of warming and cooling that it goes through is one of the more fascinating subjects in earth science. It's a subject that has become fraught with passion in recent years as climatologists have repeatedly tried to warn us that humans are upsetting Earth's cycles and science deniers have done their best to shout them down. But looking back at the historical data is perhaps a little less controversial.

Scientists have recently been doing research on the period from the 1200s to the 1900s, a very cold time in the northern hemisphere that has come to be known as the "little ice age." There have been many theories over the years about what might have caused this prolonged cold period which, in many ways, shaped the culture of Northern Europe, Asia, and North America. At the time it was happening, some people blamed witches. The ignorant always find a scapegoat. But this new study may give a definitive answer to the question of why it happened. The answer, the scientists postulate, is volcanoes.

The researchers have found evidence that there was a 50-year period just before the beginning of the little ice age during which several volcanoes were very active. They repeatedly erupted, shooting ash and debris into the atmosphere where it reflected sunlight back out into space, thus the warming rays of the sun could not reach the planet and Earth cooled off. They believe this caused a chain reaction which redounded for centuries during which the northern hemisphere, in particular, shivered and seldom saw a real summer.

This is just the opposite of what is happening now as humans send pollutants into the atmosphere which create a barrier - a greenhouse cover - that traps heat back on Earth. And so the planet heats up.

Whether heating or cooling, the laws of physics apply. We cannot escape them. The prime causal factor may be volcanoes or human beings or asteroids, but however these factors present themselves, Nature's laws will prevail and Earth will again find an equilibrium. Whether there are any humans who survive to witness it is really irrelevant to Nature.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Newt-tron bomb

It has been fascinating on many levels to watch the progress of the Republican presidential nominating process. For awhile, it was fun to speculate about who would be the new front runner of the week as they struggled to find someone - anyone - who was not Romney and who might have a possibility of destroying the hated Obama in the fall election. Now that the field has been winnowed down to, essentially, two more or less viable candidates, the whole thing has become a little less exciting and more predictable.

Still, one thing continues to fascinate and amaze and that is the level of support which Newt Gingrich has garnered among the righteously evangelical voters. This was, of course, particularly on display in South Carolina, where those who said that "family values" and social conservatism were the determining factors in their votes actually voted for a womanizing serial philanderer who has betrayed the marriage vows he made to at least two women. As for that third marriage that was contracted with Callista after several years of her serving as his mistress, has he been faithful to those vows? I wouldn't want to bet the farm on it.

In addition to being a serial philanderer and breaker of marriage vows, Gingrich is a serial hypocrite. The most famous example of his hypocrisy is his railing against Bill Clinton for carrying on an affair while he was in the White House. Gingrich thought he deserved impeachment for that, but during the time that he was trying to destroy Clinton, he was carrying on his affair with Callista (and possibly others) while he was married to his second wife. Whom he had married after having an affair with her while married to his first wife.  All the while he was righteously spouting about preserving and protecting "family values."

Newt thinks he's a very smart man, smarter than everybody else, and that he should not be held to the same standards as ordinary people. But what would lead self-proclaimed evangelical Christians, who surely would frown on such a sexual history if it belonged to a Democrat, to enthusiastically support this man? Probably because he serves up red meat hatred and racism which, frankly, seems to appeal to this particular style of Christian.

One sees and hears political pundits refusing to pin the label of racist on Newt. They will say that he's just engaging in dog-whistle politics to fire up his base. Well, I grew up in the South as Newt did, and I can tell you that if it talks like a racist, acts like a racist, and advocates policies that are on their face racist, it is a racist.

The latest polls from Florida seem to indicate that Newt's schtick isn't playing quite as well there as it did in South Carolina. In fact, it seems that he may lose badly in tomorrow's primary. If so, the Republican nominating process will certainly have lost some of its color and entertainment value, although I feel sure that Ron Paul will soldier on to the end and do his best to continue to provide interest. Once the Newt-tron bomb has exploded though, it may be hard to continue to focus on these essentially colorless and boring candidates.

Saturday, January 28, 2012


In one of my other blogs, Backyard Birder, I have reported on the arrival in California of the first wild gray wolf seen there since the 1920s. The wolf is a two-and-a-half year old male from a pack in Oregon. He is fitted with a GPS tracking collar and is designated as OR7. He crossed the state line from Oregon into California on December 28 and, since then, he has become an instant celebrity.

  The wolf's image was captured by a wildlife camera that had been set up in the field.

The last gray wolf previously known to be in California was shot in 1924. In the early part of the twentieth century, the species was mostly extirpated throughout the West, and, indeed, throughout the country. It was listed as endangered under the newly passed Endangered Species Act in 1974. Then, in 1995-96, wildlife officials trapped 66 Canadian gray wolves and released them in Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho. Despite some predictable setbacks, the wolves have flourished, and the area is now home to about 1700 of the critters.  

Gray wolves have actually been remarkably successful in reclaiming their former habitats. In some states, they have succeeded to the point that they have been removed from that state's endangered species list. Indeed, in a few states, hunters are even allowed to legally hunt the animals. They are still protected and listed as endangered in California.

Californians have been very excited about the new addition to their state fauna. At least two Twitter accounts have been set up for him, where entries are made daily to report on his activities and his "thoughts." Some have petitioned state wildlife officials to provide a girlfriend for OR7. That is actually an important point. Wolves are social animals who depend upon a pack. A lone wolf has difficulty fending for himself and likely will have a shortened life span. If OR7 is to long survive, he will need a family.

It is interesting to note that if OR7 does manage to create a pack and survive in California, he and his family are likely to have a serious impact on the environment. In Yellowstone, where the wolves have now been in residence for some seventeen years, a new scientific report has recently been issued showing that elk and coyote populations are down. At the same time, aspen, willow, and cottonwood trees are increasing because they are not being overgrazed by elk. The number of beavers also is up, possibly because there are more of the trees that they need or because there are fewer coyotes to prey upon them. The regrowth of the trees also has positive implications for woodland birds and other small animals that live in such habitats. In short, the addition of the wolves to the environment has helped to balance the ecology.    

And yet, there is a segment of the population, many of them in the West, that harbors an unreasoning hatred for wolves. No amount of scientific data about the positive impact of the wolf upon the environment will ever change their minds. Unfortunately, some of them express their hatred by the unlawful killing of wolves even in areas where they are protected. 

The world is seldom a matter of black and white. Instead, it is often many shades of gray. But the issue of wolf vs. man seems one that is fairly clear-cut and well-defined. The wolf has much more to fear from man than man has to fear from the wolf, and the environment has much to gain by the return of the gray wolf.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach: A review

Baseball has been used by some very good writers as a metaphor for life. It is an apt metaphor. Baseball, like life, is a game that teaches one to deal with failure. The best hitters fail about two-thirds of the time. Pitchers are charged with either success or failure as reflected in their won/loss record. They are the only team member whose stats clearly reflect the success or failure of the team. 

It is a team sport, but when playing defense, there are no team errors. Any individual player who fails to catch a catchable ball or who throws errantly is charged with an error. It is the stat by which fielders are judged. That is a fact which Henry Skrimshander, a shy, small-town kid from North Dakota, knows, and it is why he works relentlessly every day of his life from childhood to master the art of fielding. It is why he has committed to memory the book of instruction written by his hero, Aparicio Rodriguez, "The Art of Fielding." The book contains such Zen-like statements as: 
To field a groundball must be considered a generous act and an act of comprehension. One moves not against the ball but with it. Bad fielders stab at the ball like an enemy. This is antagonism. The true fielder lets the path of the ball become his own path, thereby comprehending the ball and dissipating the self, which is the source of all suffering and poor defense.
Henry's diligence has paid off. As a high school senior, he plays in a game where he is noticed by the catcher of the opposing team, Mike Schwartz. Schwartz recognizes in Henry something special in the art of baseball. He sees in him a dedication that matches his own and he determines to recruit him for his college team, Westish College, a small liberal arts school in Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Michigan. 

Henry goes to Westish where he becomes a roommate of Owen Dunne, who introduces himself to Henry as his gay, mulatto roommate. Owen himself has been brought to Westish as the winner of a prize given by the college. He is from California and is an extremely self-possessed young man whose baseball teammates give him the nickname "Buddha." 

Owen's cause had been championed by the college's president Guert Affenlight, a Melville scholar, lifelong bachelor, and father of an estranged daughter, Pella. Guert is 6o years old, almost 61, and his life has settled into a comfortable routine, which is now disrupted by the return of his daughter who is ending an unfortunate teenage marriage. At the same time, Guert is falling hopelessly and inappropriately in love. 

Pella, on her return to Westish, meets Mike at a very low point in his life. As she struggles to make sense of things and to get her life on track, she begins a new relationship with him. 

The Art of Fielding is told through these five characters: Henry, Mike, Owen, Guert, and Pella. This is a story where baseball is not just a metaphor for life, but, in a very real sense, it is life. It is told primarily through the experiences of Henry and his relationships to the other four characters. Henry achieves brilliance in his baseball career at Westish. For more than two years, he is perfect, but as he threatens to break the fielding record held by his hero, Aparicio Rodriguez, it all goes horribly wrong. How these five characters - these five friends - deal with the errors that follow, how those errors shape their lives and reveal their essences is the heart of this excellent book. A book which is about baseball, yes, but not really baseball as a metaphor. It is more about baseball as life. 

The reader doesn't have to have a love and appreciation of the game of baseball to get this book, but I think such an appreciation does deepen one's experience with it. I love baseball and I love this book. This was Mr. Harbach's first novel and it was released to virtually universal acclaim last year. The acclaim is well-deserved. He has gone straight to the "bigs," bypassing the minor leagues. It will be interesting to see what comes next in his career. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


PolitiFact, the self-proclaimed checker of facts in the world of politics has become nothing more than a sad joke. Like so many in the world of journalism, or what passes for journalism these days, they are obsessed with appearing "fair and balanced" and never betraying a "liberal bias." Unfortunately for them, the truth does, in fact, very often have a liberal bias, but you'll never catch them conceding that. If necessary, they will distort the truth themselves in order to protect their credibility with right-wingers. It's a hopeless cause, for right-wingers have never given them any credibility anyway.

PolitiFact's latest fiasco was their assessment of President Obama's State of the Union speech last night. In the speech, he made this statement:
"In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than 3 million jobs. Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005."
PolitiFact originally rated that statement as half-true! When columnists and bloggers and political pundits and economists across the nation screamed in protest and pointed out that the statement was entirely true (which it is), PolitiFact reluctantly changed its rating to "mostly true"! Still wrong. It isn't mostly true or half-true or three-quarters true, it's TRUE! But PolitiFact cannot and will not admit that they were wrong and biased in their assessment.

The fact-checkers also blew it on this statement from the speech:
"Right now, American oil production is the highest that it’s been in eight years."
Want to guess what rating they gave that? "Mostly true!" No, fact checkers, it is an easily verifiable fact that is 100% true. I think you should change your name to PolitiFiction.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian: A review

Various members of my family are big fans of this series and for years I've heard them rave about how wonderful it is. At length, I decided to find out for myself and I put O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin books on my reading list. I'm happy to have now finished with the first one.

O'Brian's style of writing seems very much of the period about which he writes, which is to say the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries. In fact, his writing reminded me of perhaps the most famous English writer of that period, Jane Austen, in its language and turn of phrase.

Of course, O'Brian was writing of naval history, not Austen's country manners and manors, but still the similarities are there.

What true O'Brian fanatics love about his writing is all that nautical stuff - the descriptions of the ships, all their riggings and their personnel and the intricate detailing of the battles at sea. Frankly, my eyes glazed over a bit at much of that terminology and I tended to skim over those parts. What really fascinated me was the relationships of the men who went to sea and particularly the relationship between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.

Aubrey is Captain Jack Aubrey, R.N., "Lucky Jack." Maturin is his ship's doctor, a man of boundless interest in and enthusiasm for the natural world. Wherever he is and whatever else he is doing, Maturin is always making observations of the world around him, particularly the birds. He is a man after my own heart.

The descriptions of the interactions and relationships between all these men living in very close quarters with one another seem quite realistic to me. I think O'Brian took great care to make them so.

So, one book down and only twenty or so more to go. I've got my reading work cut out for me. At least now in family discussions of the personalities of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, I'll be able to join in.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Happy Year of the Dragon!

Gung Hay Fat Choy! Happy Chinese New Year!

Today marks the New Moon in the lunar cycle which means that it is the Chinese New Year's Day and this is an especially propitious year - the Year of the Dragon.

The Chinese lunar calendar recognizes a twelve year cycle, each characterized by a particular animal: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. As you will see from looking at a list of these animals, they are all real except for the dragon.

Dragons are mythical creatures and they are the most powerful of all the animals in the Chinese calendar. As such, years dominated by the dragon are generally considered lucky years. To be born in a Year of the Dragon should be especially fortuitous and the Chinese are expecting a baby boom this year. Persons born in such a year are said to be innovative, enterprising, flexible, self-assured, brave, and passionate. That's quite a set of positive attributes!

On the other hand, being possessed of all these advantages can lead a Dragon to be conceited, tactless, and quick-tempered.

Chinese horoscopes are fascinating to me, even if I am generally skeptical of horoscopes. After all, the Chinese have been doing this for thousands of years so they must have learned something along the way. I, myself, was born in a Year of the Monkey. If only I could believe that I possess all the wonderful attributes that the Chinese attribute to one born in those years!

But I digress.

We are entering the Year of the Dragon, a very powerful year. It is a year under the protection of this wonderful, mythical creature which should bring very good things to us all. Let us hope that the Chinese have it right this time.

Gung Hay Fat Choy!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Help! I'm a prisoner in Downton Abbey!

I missed the first season of the excellent PBS (by way of BBC) television series Downton Abbey, but in this day when the Internet can provide instant gratification, failing to catch the series when it is first shown is no barrier to its enjoyment. After all the acclaim and awards it received in its first season, I decided that perhaps I was missing something, and that I needed to catch up on it by watching online in order to prepare myself for the second season which started a couple of weeks ago. I didn't quite make it in time for the start of the season, but this week I finished watching season one and then went on to watch the two episodes already shown in season two. Now I'm all caught up and ready for Sunday night's showing of the third episode. I'll be there because I am well and truly hooked!

What is it about this upstairs, downstairs soap opera of the veddy, veddy rich of early twentieth century England and their faithful (and not so faithful) servants that so captures our imagination? It is a world and a century away from us, a very much simpler time when social conventions that had not evolved so much since Jane Austen's era were still in force. But it is also a time when everything was about to change and I think that may be one of the things that attracts us to this story.

The telephone had just been invented and had come into at least limited use in the homes of the rich. Electricity was the newest thing going. The nights of lives lit by romantic candlelight are numbered. One of the funniest scenes in the first season was Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess' reaction to the first electrically lighted chandelier at Downton. She shields her eyes with her fan against the brightness. That might be a metaphor for all the changes coming to Downton.

Lady Edith, the middle daughter, learns to drive an automobile. Lady Sibyl, the youngest daughter, is embroiled in the politics of the time and especially in the campaign for women's rights. The Crawleys of Downton Abbey are caught up in all these changes and both welcome them on some level and at the same time try to shield themselves from and sometimes hold back the tide of the changes. We see all these decent people at what may be termed the beginning of the modern era and they are coping with dramatic upheavals in their way of life, things that we very much take for granted in our daily lives, and we can empathize with them because we, too, are beset by constant, never-ending change at an even faster pace.

I think that is the key to Downton Abbey's attraction for us. Empathy. We have two families, the Crawleys upstairs and the servants led by Mr. Carson, the butler, and Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, downstairs, and both families are comprised of mostly sympathetic characters. Yes, we have some stinkers belowstairs in O'Brien, the lady's maid, and Thomas, the footman. And upstairs the daughters, Lady Mary and Lady Edith engage in some truly snarky and downright cruel antics at the expense of each other. Their sibling rivalry is a nasty thing to watch, but even so, their characters are essentially lovable and we hope for a detente between the two and happiness for both. Most of all, we hope that Mary and Matthew will finally recognize that they are meant for each other and will just get on with it!

But this year, we are in war and all the able-bodied men of Downton are finding their way into the army and onto the fields of France. What will this week bring? You can be sure that I'll be sitting in front of my television Sunday night at 8:00 to find out.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Governor Goodhair heads home to Texas (with update)

Rick Perry was finally able to read the handwriting on the wall and so he gave up his campaign for the presidency today. It was a campaign that rates as perhaps the most gaffe-prone in the history of presidential politics, marked by one stupid, inane remark after another. The campaign could be summarized by that word that Perry uttered on that unforgettable occasion when, during one of the debates, he forgot the name of the third agency he wanted to get rid of: "Oops!"

So we won't have Rick to kick around anymore, at least not on a national level. Unfortunately, now he's headed back to Texas where we'll still be stuck with him until the end of his term. And who knows beyond that? Texas voters are not known for being discerning. They might very well give him their votes again.

Anyway, considering Texas' recent history, once he's gone, we'll probably just elect someone even more embarrassing to be our governor. Then we'll find ourselves longing for the good old days of Governor Goodhair.

UPDATE: Read Campaign Stops in The New York Times for another Texan's take on the ignominious Perry campaign.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James: A review

What a delicious read! This book combines two of my favorites: Jane Austen and P.D. James. James writes here in the style of Austen. 

She has taken up the story of two of the most-loved characters from Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, now Mr. and Mrs Darcy of Pemberley. We meet them six years after their wedding, now at home with their two sons. Elizabeth has adjusted to the role of mistress of Pemberley and is busily planning the Lady Anne ball held each October in honor of her husband's late mother. The ball is to take place on the morrow when suddenly all the best-laid plans are torn asunder by a violent death which occurs in a woodland on the Pemberley estate. 

Most distressingly, the Darcys first learn of the death when a horse-drawn conveyance comes barreling up to the house and a hysterically screaming woman emerges from it. The woman turns out to be Elizabeth's ditzy youngest sister, Lydia, who is screaming that "Wickham is dead!" 

As it turns out Wickham is not dead but his friend is. Denny has been killed by a violent blow to the head and since Wickham is found with the body and is covered in blood, and since he says, "I've killed my only friend! It's my fault!", he is charged with murder and must stand trial. 

In the late 18th/early 19th centuries, having a relative, even a relative by marriage, stand trial for murder is a scandal from which a family might never recover. But despite all the odious Wickham has done to cause them pain, Elizabeth and Darcy cannot really believe him guilty of murder and they set out to help in any way they can. 

The mystery that is woven here by James is not up to her usual standards. The complications and convolutions of the plot are caused mostly by the hidebound social conventions of the era, the conventions about which Austen wrote with such humor and empathy. James lives in a vastly different time, two centuries later and she finds little humor in the conventions that keep women firmly under the thumbs of their male "protectors" but she still manages to convey the empathy for those who are bound by those conventions. She does a good job of channeling Jane and brings off one of the more successful Austen pastiches that I have read.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A meditation on self-love

Occasionally, we all need reminding that we are only human and that, while it is good to have high standards and expectations of ourselves, we must acknowledge that at times we will fail and fall short. We will not always be that person which we want to be and which we strive to be. At such times, it is easy to fall into depression and even self-hatred. It is at these times that we need a reminder and affirmation of our humanity and our essential worth.

This weekend as I was going through my Google reader, I came across one of the blogs that I read, Snap's Tales from Twisty Lane. Hers is an inspirational blog and she often has posts that speak to me in a very spiritual way. That was the case on this day.

She referred to an article by Laura Fenamore in Tiny Buddha which was entitled "Create solutions not resolutions." Since this is the time of year for resolutions and since resolutions are notoriously easy to break and forget, it struck me as highly appropriate to be thinking instead about solutions. Here is the quote from Snap's blog post and Laura's article:     
My solution  for letting go comes in daily reminding myself of the process.
I do that using this morning affirmation for self-love:
Today, I accept myself just the way I am.
Today, I accept my body the way it is.
Today, I accept my mind the way it is.
Today, I accept my heart the way it is.
Today, the love I have for myself is so strong that I embrace all that is me.
Self-love transforms my life from fear to joy and guides me to make healthy choices.
Today, I share time with others and easily forgive any injustice I feel in my mind.
Today, all of my relationships are based on respect, love and joy.
Today, I allow the divine wisdom in me to direct all my thoughts, words, and deeds.
Today, I allow divine love to give me peace and joy.
Today, I remember I am one with all life, and I give thanks for being me.
It's my opinion that a lot of the ills of the world could be cured with just a little more self-love. Love has to start with ourselves. How can we love others if we can't love ourselves?

And so, one of my "solutions" for self-improvement this year will be to keep Laura's morning affirmation in mind as a daily meditation. I will try to remember that I am a child of the universe, that I have a right to be here, and that I am one with all of life. I will give thanks for being me and will try even harder to be a better me.  

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Dance With Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire, #5) by George R.R. Martin: A review

George R.R. Martin is back on his game with this fifth volume in his A Song of Ice and Fire saga. He wastes no time in bringing us up to date on the charismatic characters, such as Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister, who were missing from the fourth book, a pale effort compared to the previous three. This book follows those characters and then, in the final third of this very long tale, it brings together many of their stories with some of those that we came to know in the previous book. The paths of the stories converge and one begins to see the faint glimmer of an outline of how the saga may go from here on out. I believe there are at least two more volumes planned and A Dance With Dragons certainly leaves enough loose ends to fill them with their conclusions. We can only hope that we will not have to wait as long as fans of the series waited for this book (six years) before The Winds of Winter, #6 of the "Songs" is delivered to us. 

Jon Snow, the 998th Lord Commander of the Night's Watch has more than his hands full here in trying to rebuild the Watch to full strength as he faces the challenges of pitiless beings that inhabit the land of ice beyond the Wall and threaten the realm of men. The Night's Watch is sworn to guard the Wall and protect the Seven Kingdoms from the creatures beyond it but Lord Snow knows that the Wall is only as strong as those who guard it. It is his burden to try to rebuild that strength while surrounded by enemies on all sides including some within the Watch. 

Within the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, the battle for the Iron Throne goes on. The throne is occupied by the child Tommen Baratheon, but who will be the power who controls Tommen? Meanwhile, his uncle Stannis Baratheon continues to claim the throne and marched with his army all the way to the Wall to assist the Night's Watch in repelling the wildlings from the north. Then he turned south again to try to retake Winterfell, now held by the execrable and unspeakably cruel Boltons. 

In the east, Daenerys and her army have swept through several cities, freeing slaves wherever she goes. She has stopped in Meereen, where she, too, is surrounded by enemies and beset by those who would bend her to their will. But hers is the blood of the dragon, and oh, yes, she does still possess those three dragons, and who will dare to dance with them? 

Daenerys is believed to be the last of the Targaryens, and yet, now, we learn that there may be another. And is there, just perhaps, a third, a bastard who also possesses the blood of the dragon? I have begun to suspect that there may be. But now I'll just have to wait along with everyone else to find out for sure.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Tebow phenomenon

I don't follow football and so, when we were in Colorado in late October and everyone was talking about Tebow, my reaction was, "What's a Tebow?"

Well, it turns out it is both a noun and a verb. The noun is Tim Tebow who is the quarterback of the Denver Broncos. The verb is an act that he does after a winning football game where he ostentatiously kneels on one knee and prays, giving thanks to his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. At least that's what I read. I can't say that I've actually seen him do this. It's all hearsay - or readsay - but there's a lot of it around. People just can't stop talking and writing about him. He is, of course, a darling of fundamentalist Christians and a figure of fun for late night television comedians.

I know very little about the young man actually, but apparently his devotion to Jesus is completely sincere and unironic. Personally, I find the overt public displays of one's religious faith a bit offputting. It always reminds me of the Pharisees whom Jesus chided for their loud public prayers which were done merely for show. But that's just me. Obviously, Tebowing has struck a chord with much of the public and has made this football player perhaps the most well-known and popular athlete in the country today.

By all accounts, he is a sterling character who puts his religious faith to work in his everyday life and that is certainly admirable, but if he could manage to do it without the ostentatious posturing, I would find it even more admirable.

And I wonder, what does he do when he loses a football game? Does he still "Tebow?" And if not, why not? Even in defeat, surely Jesus loves him just as much and is just as deserving of his thanks.

I guess I just don't get it.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Weak tea

The Republicans really, really don't like Mitt Romney. The tea party Republicans positively despise him.

If the tea partiers had a single candidate, they could swamp Romney and chase him out of the race, but they don't. They are fragmented, squabbling among themselves over which candidate offers them a chance to win. So far they have tried out Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum, but they haven't fallen in love with any of them - at least not for more than a few weeks. Meantime, the inevitable Mitt Romney rolls on and looks to be unstoppable. Will they finally, grudgingly, get behind Mitt?

Well, if there is one man they despise more than Mitt, it is Barack Obama. For these people, he will always be the illegitimate, Kenyan, socialist, Muslim, privileged, elite, black man who usurped the White House. The fact that the truth is that he is none of those things - except a half African-American, half white man which makes him black in the eyes of the world - matters not a whit. When they look at him they see a black face, and nothing else really matters to them. They can't see past the color of his skin to recognize that, in fact, his is a very traditional Republican presidency. He has more in common with Dwight Eisenhower than with Bill Clinton, for example.

Their hatred of Obama is so strong that my guess is they will swallow their distaste for Romney and get behind Mr. Inevitable when he claims the nomination. Their support, though, may be a brew of very weak tea indeed. There doesn't seem to be the heat that would make it stronger.  

Monday, January 9, 2012

The American caste system

The New York Times last week had a report about how the myth of the American meritocracy is just that - a myth. In fact, of all the countries in the industrialized world, it is harder for a person of low economic status to rise higher in the United States than it is almost anywhere else. If America as the "land of opportunity" ever existed, it has disappeared, and this is primarily due to the policies pursued by the government. The governments of other developed countries make it their goal to protect and help their citizenry and to take care of those who are least able to take care of themselves. In this country, the government only very begrudgingly assists at all, and thus the poorest must fend for themselves and find ways to improve their economic lot if that is to be done and there will roadblocks all along the way to a better life. Roadblocks put in place and defended unto death by the government.

This is not a pretty picture and it is certainly not the image that most Americans have of their country. Unfortunately, our government is in the grip of heartless people whose extreme wealth separates them from the masses of citizens. They've got theirs, often from the hands of lobbyists for corporations they should be regulating, and they couldn't care less about helping their fellow citizens better themselves. Thus, the country is well on its way to establishing a hide-bound caste system - whatever caste you are born into will determine your lot in life and will be the caste that you die in.

Paul Krugman's column in The Times today is on that topic, the unlevel playing field. Krugman almost always nails it in his columns, but never has he done it so well, in my opinion as in today's column. You can follow the link to read the entire piece, but let me quote extensively here:
Americans are much more likely than citizens of other nations to believe that they live in a meritocracy. But this self-image is a fantasy...America actually stands out as the advanced country in which it matters most who your parents were, the country in which those born on one of society’s lower rungs have the least chance of climbing to the top or even to the middle.
And if you ask why America is more class-bound in practice than the rest of the Western world, a large part of the reason is that our government falls down on the job of creating equal opportunity. 
The failure starts early: in America, the holes in the social safety net mean that both low-income mothers and their children are all too likely to suffer from poor nutrition and receive inadequate health care. It continues once children reach school age, where they encounter a system in which the affluent send their kids to good, well-financed public schools or, if they choose, to private schools, while less-advantaged children get a far worse education.
Once they reach college age, those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds are far less likely to go to college — and vastly less likely to go to a top-tier school — than those luckier in their parentage. At the most selective, “Tier 1” schools, 74 percent of the entering class comes from the quarter of households that have the highest “socioeconomic status”; only 3 percent comes from the bottom quarter.
And if children from our society’s lower rungs do manage to make it into a good college, the lack of financial support makes them far more likely to drop out than the children of the affluent, even if they have as much or more native ability. One long-term study by the Department of Education found that students with high test scores but low-income parents were less likely to complete college than students with low scores but affluent parents — loosely speaking, that smart poor kids are less likely than dumb rich kids to get a degree.
As Americans look at and evaluate candidates for political office in this very political year, they would do very well to look at whether they appear to be interested in making the field more level for all of us or whether they are only interested in protecting their own "caste." Or to quote Krugman further:
Think about it: someone who really wanted equal opportunity would be very concerned about the inequality of our current system. He would support more nutritional aid for low-income mothers-to-be and young children. He would try to improve the quality of public schools. He would support aid to low-income college students. And he would support what every other advanced country has, a universal health care system, so that nobody need worry about untreated illness or crushing medical bills.
If Mr. Romney has come out for any of these things, I’ve missed it. And the Congressional wing of his party seems determined to make upward mobility even harder. For example, Republicans have tried to slash funds for the Women, Infants and Children program, which helps provide adequate nutrition to low-income mothers and their children; they have demanded cuts in Pell grants, which are designed to help lower-income students afford college.
And they have, of course, pledged to repeal a health reform that, for all its imperfections, would finally give Americans the guaranteed care that everyone else in the advanced world takes for granted.
So where is the evidence that Mr. Romney or his party actually believes in equal opportunity? Judging by their actions, they seem to prefer a society in which your station in life is largely determined by that of your parents — and in which the children of the very rich get to inherit their estates tax-free. Teddy Roosevelt would not have approved. 
Right on, Dr. Krugman. One can only hope that your fellow Americans will heed your words.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Sex and the Republicans

The Republicans running for president this year are really, really obsessed with sex. Not only their own sex lives but everybody else's. They want to proscribe what you can do and with whom you can do it and they especially want to control women's bodies and their ability to make decisions about their bodies. As I noted yesterday, they would like to take us back to a time when women had no rights, when they were chattel at the mercy of their lords and masters. In Republican thought, this is the way the world was intended to operate. Intended by God, of course.

The surging Rick Santorum, the latest not-Romney, is particularly pernicious and strait-laced in the way he views sex. First of all, in Rick's world, there would be no contraceptives of any kind allowed. Sex would only happen within marriage and only for the purposes of procreation. I can see a few problems with that idea.

For example, what about post-menopausal women? Are they just supposed to give up sex once they no longer have the possibility of conceiving? What about men married to post-menopausal women? No sex for them either, I suppose.

What about married couples who, for whatever reason, are infertile? Is their relationship to be chaste with no sex allowed?

I'm not sure Rick has thought this all the way through to its logical conclusion.

To what can we attribute this Republican obsession with matters sexual? Based on news stories about members of the party in recent years, it is obvious that they often do not live up to the standards they would impose upon the rest of us. Still, these proponents of "small government" are eager to send government snoopers into our bedrooms and to monitor the monthly menstrual cycles of every woman of child-bearing age to ensure that if one of them conceives, she is forced to carry that fetus full-time regardless of the circumstances or consequences for the woman or the child or the family.

There is no government more intrusive than one which attempts to regulate one of the most pleasurable and intimate activities in which its citizens can engage and this is exactly the kind of government these guys would give us if they could. Let's make sure they can't.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Taking it back to the Magna Carta!

Have you heard the latest from New Hampshire? No, not the primary they'll be having there next week. This time it is the state legislature that is making news. A state legislature, like so many this year, dominated by Republicans.

It seems that three Republican members of the legislature are proposing a law that would require that any new bill proposed in New Hampshire cite a passage from the Magna Carta as its basis and reason for being.

The Magna Carta, as you will no doubt recall from your history lessons, was a charter forced upon King John of England by feudal barons in the year 1215! Yes, as I've long suspected, the Republicans don't just want to repeal the twentieth century and the modern era; they want to take us all the way back to medieval times. To quote from Wikipedia's information about the Magna Carta:

The 1215 Charter required King John of England to proclaim certain liberties, and accept that his will was not arbitrary, for example by explicitly accepting that no "freeman" (in the sense of non-serf) could be punished except through the law of the land, a right which is still in existence today.
Despite its recognised importance, by the second half of the 19th century nearly all of its clauses had been repealed in their original form.

So even in England, its place of origin, most of the charter was deemed to have outlived its usefulness by the "second half of the 19th century."

Yeah, that sounds like something that will fit right in with the Republican platform in 2012.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire #4) by George R.R. Martin: A review

"A Lannister always pays his debts" is a refrain that we saw often repeated throughout the first three books of this series. But once Tyrion Lannister paid his debt owed to his father Lord Tywin near the end of A Storm of Swords, he disappeared and he did not reappear at all in volume four. That is unfortunate since he is easily the most interesting character created by George R.R. Martin in this epic saga, but that's only part of the problem with A Feast for Crows

Also among the missing here are Jon Snow (except for a short bit at the beginning), Daenarys Targaryen, and most of the far-flung remaining Starks. Arya and Sansa do appear but they feel tangential. 

In fact, most of the characters in this book, many of them new ones that we hadn't heard from before, seem tentative and incomplete. They are not people who engage our attention and sympathies. 

And the blood! My god, the blood and gore! The incessant and incredible cruelties perpetrated on these characters is both mind-blowing and revolting. I cannot count the number of characters who have their ears sliced off in battle. (Martin really seems to have an obsession with his characters losing their ears and noses.) The grossest of wounds are described in great and loving detail and yet the writing just seems stilted and without the passion that pervaded the earlier books. I think that lack, again, can be traced back to the colorful characters that are missing here. 

Most of this story involves Cersei and her evolution into the mad bitch queen that one could see coming a couple of volumes back. She is one more testament to the proposition that absolute power corrupts absolutely. 

A more interesting evolution has been that of her twin, Jaime. Having been maimed and humbled in the last book seems to have given him a clearer perspective on the world and a more sympathetic view of others. Dare I say that he has transformed from villain into hero? He shows definite heroic tendencies here especially in his dealing with Brienne, the Maid of Tarth. 

Brienne, though, is a problematic character for me. She is a female knight who swore to Lady Catelyn Stark that she would find her daughters and return them to her. After reaching King's Landing with Jaime, she also gave him her oath that she would find Sansa Stark and keep her safe. And yet, as she wanders across the face of Westeros seeking Sansa and getting nowhere, she seems to have very little idea or plan for doing what she has pledged to do. In fact, she seems just a bit slow and dense, not a happy or safe combination in the dangerous world of the Seven Kingdoms. One just knows she is never going to find Sansa, because we KNOW where Sansa is and Brienne isn't headed there. One senses that Brienne may be a forever wanderer and that things will not end well for her. 

There is an author's note at the end of this book explaining that the characters with whom we had bonded in the first three books will return in the fifth volume, A Dance With Dragons. Let us hope that Martin's robust muse returns as well and that he gives us better writing in the next entry. Ah, well, when you are writing an epic story of thousands and thousands of pages, I guess you should be allowed a few mediocre ones.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Go Rick!

I'm on pins and needles waiting for the result of the Iowa Republican caucuses tomorrow. Who will a few thousand ultra-conservative Iowans anoint as the next President of the United States?

They've been thoroughly wishy-washy in making up their minds and, according to polls, a lot of them are still undecided, but I have decided who I'm hoping to see in the winner's circle come tomorrow night: Google's favorite Rick Santorum!

Joan Walsh had a piece in today's Salon.com where she described Santorum succinctly: "By contrast with most of the GOP field, Santorum is the real deal, a dull, home-schooling culture-warrior who likes to brag about fathering seven kids, as though morality can be measured in offspring."

Walsh goes on to say that even though Santorum is surging now and is the natural darling of Iowan evangelicals, he doesn't stand a chance to become a truly national candidate because of his extreme extremism. But I say any party that could nominate Sarah Palin as a vice presidential candidate can easily swallow Santorum at the head of their ticket. In fact, why not a Santorum/Palin ticket? Talk about your wet dreams!

So, I say, don't listen to naysayers like Walsh, Rick! You can do it! You can be the Republican nominee for president. Go, Rick, go!