Jan 31, 2007

Joe Biden, You Are a Blithering Idiot, Sir

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Senator Joe Biden, a man whose mouth must now accommodate his footLeft: Senator Joe Biden, a man whose mouth must now accommodate his foot

(Washington, DC) Senator Joe Biden's quote about Barack Obama is one of the most ignorant things I have heard a politician say in years:

“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

A couple of names for you, Joe. Jesse Jackson. Alan Keyes. Carol Moseley Braun. Al Sharpton. Shirley Chisholm.

All were black presidential candidates. All were "articulate," "bright," "clean," and at least three were "guys."

I'll leave the "good-looking" part to everyone's personal judgment. Yes, I know I left out Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, and Lenora Fulani, but they were pretty far from the political mainstream. My apologies to any other African-American presidential candidates my tired brain forgot.

Now, I know that there is a contextual component to Biden's remarks, and I doubt that Biden is some kind of closet racist. But for a presidential contender to step on a landmine this explosive - on his first day of real campaigning - does not bode well for the future.

And let's face it - unless Biden was liquored up, there is no explanation for such a complete lack of tact and judgment in a public statement.

Better look for other work in 2009, Joe. You just killed your chances at the Democratic nomination for President.

Book Review: The Art of War in Spain - The Conquest of Granada, 1481-1492

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The Art of War in Spain - The Conquest of Granada, 1481-1492Prescott, William H. and McJoynt, Albert D.

London: Greenhill Books, 288 pages


William H. Prescott was a nineteenth century American historian who was nearly blinded while attending college at Harvard. As a result of the accident, Prescott left the study of law and began a new career in history, and is one of the most renowned of classic American historians. McJoynt is a military historian and a retired military officer who edited Prescott’s account of the Granada campaign for a modern audience, arguing that this effort by Spanish sovereigns Ferdinand and Isabella has long been overlooked as a pivotal moment in the history of Europe and European expansion. The book combines Prescott’s account of the conquest of Granada – taken from his 1837 masterpiece History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella - with material developed by McJoynt on late medieval warfare, the Reconquista, and analyses of Prescott’s work.

Some modern historians dismiss Prescott’s work as dated, biased, and irrelevant, but even his detractors acknowledge that he was a scrupulous researcher. Certainly Prescott's anti-Papacy bias and his similar disdain for Islam stand out as examples of his nineteenth-century mentalité. The Conquest of Granada, despite its overemphasis on political and military history, remains a factually accurate work, and Prescott’s sources continue to be the standard research material on the topic. Still, the author’s style takes readers a few pages to get used to, and his Romantic conception of chivalrous knights and pious monarchs wears thin at times, as evident by passages such as this description of the funeral of Marquis Duke de Cadiz, killed at the surrender of the city of Granada:
His body, after lying in state for several days in his palace at Seville, with his trusty sword by his side, with which he had fought all his battles, was borne in solemn procession by night through the streets of the city, which was everywhere filled with the deepest lamentation; and was finally deposited in the great chapel of the Augustine church, in the tomb of his ancestors. Ten Moorish banners, which he had taken in battle with the infidel, before the war of Granada, were borne along at his funeral, "and still wave over his sepulchre," says Bernaldez, "keeping alive the memory of his exploits, as undying as his soul." The banners have long since mouldered into dust; the very tomb which contained his ashes has been sacrilegiously demolished; but the fame of the hero will survive as long as anything like respect for valor, courtesy, unblemished honor, or any other attribute of chivalry, shall be found in Spain.

Map of the Spanish Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula, 914-1492 Map of the Spanish Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula, 914-1492

McJoynt consciously used the term “war” in place of the traditional “conquest” to describe the Granada campaign because the efforts to defeat the Spanish Muslims took nearly eleven years. Moreover, the author pointed out that the Granada war began in a tentative fashion, with an ill-advised attack by the Nasrid monarch against the fortified town of Zahara, which set into motion a series of retaliatory attacks by the Castilians against Muslim-held towns in Granada. Prescott’s documentation of the lengthy campaign reminds readers that the fall of Granada was not a simple matter of the eventual capitulation by Nasrid king Muhammad XII on 2 January 1492, but the culmination of a concerted effort that, itself, should be seen within the larger context of the Reconquista.

Prescott, with his traditional orientation toward political and military history, argued that a number of factors were most important in the eventual fall of Granada. He believed that the Spanish embrace of emerging artillery technology enabled them to conduct more effective siege warfare against the walled fortresses of the Nasrid towns, and the use of sea and land blockades was critical in starving out the Moors. He argued that Ferdinand was a skilled tactician and charismatic leader of his troops, while Isabella complemented him well as a sort of regal quartermaster, demonstrating acumen at acquiring and delivering needed military resources. Finally, in Prescott’s eyes the Catholic Monarchs were quick to embrace the emerging concepts of standing armies and large infantry forces, moving away from the medieval reliance upon heavy, knight-based cavalry.

1469 wedding portrait of Ferdinand and Isabella1469 wedding portrait of Ferdinand and Isabella

McJoynt, in addition to his essays on Iberian military history and the Reconquista, provided readers with a wealth of supplementary information. There is a lengthy glossary appended to the text to help non-specialists sort through the confusing Castilian and Nasrid terminology, as well as an impressive bibliographical list for further reading. The editor also included quite a few maps, charts, and tables to help orient readers toward place names and sort out the noble lineage in Prescott’s text.

As a social historian, I must admit I approached this work with some trepidation, not wanting to be bored with the endless battles and arcane logistical details sometimes cluttering up works of military history. Yet I found Prescott’s narrative – and McJoynt’s essays – to be surprisingly relevant and enlightening. One may, for example, see a historical precedent for the much-maligned modern practice of ethnic cleansing in the following passage describing Ferdinand’s actions after the fall of the Nasrid port city of Málaga (which is a forerunner of the later Alhambra decree):
The first care of the sovereigns was directed towards repeopling the depopulated city with their own subjects. Houses and lands were freely granted to such as would settle there. Numerous towns and villages with a wide circuit of territory were placed under its civil jurisdiction, and it was made the head of a diocese embracing most of the recent conquests in the south and west of Granada. These inducements, combined with the natural advantages of position and climate, soon caused the tide of Christian population to flow into the deserted city…
Finally, this reviewer finds himself in agreement with McJoynt and Prescott as to the oft-overlooked importance of the campaign for Granada. Not only was the reconquest of the Iberian peninsula a symbolic victory for Western Europe, but the war also developed a generation of battle-hardened conquistadores whose experience would be quite useful to the Spanish monarchs as they turned westward for sixteenth-century endeavors in the Americas.

The Quote Shelf

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A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.
--Thich Nhat Hanh

Jan 30, 2007

Mystery Ice Crushes Florida Car

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Ford Mustang smashed by a mysterious piece of icePhoto of Mustang courtesy of FOX13-Tampa

(Tampa, FL) An 18-inch chunk of ice fell from the sky on Sunday and crushed the upper portion of a Ford Mustang belonging to Tampa resident Andre Ravage.

Neighbor Raymond Rodriguez was changing a tire on his car when the ice fell from the sky.

"I was scared," Rodriguez said, adding that he was only a few feet away. "It's crazy, man."

People in the vicinity heard a whistling sound before seeing that Ravge's car was severely damaged.

Inspectors with the Federal Aviation Administration are reviewing flight schedules to determine whether the ice came from an aircraft, but witnesses said that the frozen chunk did not bear the telltale blue tint nornally associated with frozen lavatory discharge from a plane.

If mysterious falling ice does not deter you from considering Florida properties, follow the link to learn more about owning property in a state not often known for airborne ice bombs. This was a sponsored post.

Greased-Up Student Runs Naked Through School

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Taylor C. Killian, accused by police of running naked through Westerville North High SchoolPhoto of Taylor C. Killian courtesy of WBNS-10TV

(Westerville, OH) A high school student ran naked into the Westerville North High School lunch room Monday, flailing his arms and screaming until a police officer used a Taser twice to subdue him.

Taylor C. Killian, 18, was charged with inducing panic, public indecency, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, according to police.

Lt. Jeff Gaylor said that Killian apparently covered his body with grapeseed oil to keep from being caught, and got up after the first time he was Tasered to continue running toward a group of students hiding in a corner of the cafeteria.

"That prank went a little farther than he intended, I guess," Gaylor said.

No jokes about how Killian's new nickname is "Slick," please.

Jan 29, 2007

Book Review: A Small Corner of Hell – Dispatches from Chechnya

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A Small Corner of Hell – Dispatches from Chechnya, Anna Politkovskaya Politkovskaya, Anna

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003, 224 pages


Anna Politkovskaya was a Russian journalist and human rights activist who was murdered in the elevator of her apartment building in October 2006. Politkovskaya was long a critic of the Putin administration, and her death was a sobering reminder that writers sometimes anger powerful people. A Small Corner of Hell is a collection of articles on the Second Chechen War that Politkovskaya produced for the Russian biweekly newspaper Novaya Gazeta. For many months the author was one of the few journalists brave enough to travel to Chechnya and report on the atrocities suffered by the civilian population. While accused by some critics of partisan bias in her accounts – which occasionally take the form of polemic against Putin and the Russian military - Politkovskaya’s focus in this book is on the effects of war upon the lives of average Chechens.

In the book’s prologue she wrote of her motivations in covering the war:
Naturally, I have traveled far and wide through all of Chechnya. I’v seen a lot of suffering. The worst of it is that many of the people I’ve been writing about for the past two and a half years are now dead. It has been such a terrible war. Simply medieval, even though it’s taking place as the twentieth century passes into the twenty-first, and in Eueope, too… So I want you to know the truth. Then you will be free of cynicism. And of the sticky swamp of racism our society has been sliding into. And of having to make difficult decisions about who’s right and who’s wrong in the Causcusus, and if there are any real heroes there now.

Map of Chechnya and the surrounding region Politkovskaya’s biases and motivations might be better understood within the context of her own experiences during her work as a journalist in Chechnya. She was arrested by security personnel on 18 February 2001, beaten, tortured, and threatened with death by unknown Russian officials. She wrote that she decided to “omit the nastiest details, since they are completely indecent,” but added that her own experiences at the hands of the FSS helped convince her that the Chechen accusations of atrocities were accurate. One scene in particular captures the horror of being held by state agents who have no fear of reprisal:

I demanded that they tell me my charges, write their report, and send me to prison so that my family could at least bring me a toothbrush. “No!” they said. “You’re a militant! You came here to look at the pits! Slut! Bitch! Basayev paid Yastrzhembsky for you, Yastrzhembsky paid your editor, and your editor sent you here”… The same lieutenant colonel was standing by the helicopter [after she was freed]. “If it were up to me, I’d shoot you,” he said as a goodbye.
Though the region has been a part of the Russian and Soviet empires since the tsarist expansion into the Caucasus Mountains in the late eighteenth century, the Chechens have long been a source of consternation for the Russians. Fears of a Chechen rebellion caused Stalin to deport in 1944 most of the population of Chechnya to the Kazakh SSR.

Although Khruschev allowed Chechens to return to their homeland after 1956, the desire for Chechen independence remained simmering during the ensuing decades. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 also saw the formation of the Chechen National Congress, a body dedicated to promoting independence for Chechnya. The First Chechen War was an effort by the Yeltsin government to prevent Chechen secession, and the war turned out to be a humiliating defeat for the once-mighty Russian army. The Second Chechen War, initiated by Putin in 1999, succeeded in reclaiming the territory of Chechnya as a part of the Russian state and installing a pro-Moscow regime, but the region remains prone to periodic fighting and terrorist attacks. The result of the two wars has been the death of thousands of combatants, many thousands of civilians, and hundreds of thousands of displaced persons.

Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in an undated photo Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in an undated photo

War is, of course, a brutal business, and it is doubtful that there has ever been a military operation in which at least a few participants did not commit acts of violence against innocent civilians. Politkovskaya depicted the military and security forces of the Russian state in a particularly unflattering light, bringing forth stories of widespread rape, robbery murder, and kidnapping for profit by soldiers and officers. A common practice in Chechnya, argued Politkovskaya, was for Russian soldiers to arrest innocent civilians and hold them until the local villages paid a ransom. The soldiers often extorted money simply for the bodies of dead Chechens, knowing that devout Muslims are anxious that the deceased be buried in a timely fashion. Politkovskaya recounted an especially sinister series of events surrounding a shakedown by Russian soldiers:

At the request of the village administration, Alkhazur, together with the others, went to Khankala, the main military base, for the body of a fellow villager who had first been detained at the time of the previous purge and then killed there, in Khankala. A serviceman who introduced himself as an FSS official, Sergei Koshelev, acted as the go-between for the ransom of the corpse. He demanded a lamb, a video camera, and a Zhiguli. But after he received everything, he still didn’t give back the body. At the same time, everyone who brought the ransom to Khankala disappeared without a trace. This happened on December 22, 2001. On the fourteenth day, the bodies of everyone who had disappeared were found not far from Khankala, in a ditch. One of Alkhazur Dagayev’s eyes had been cut out, and the body was black from being beaten. He was killed with a pistol shot at close range in the left temple.
Chechen civilians were not the only victims in the bloody campaign to recapture Chechnya and eliminate the militants. Politkovskaya interviewed Russian soldiers, officers, and Russian civilians who lived in the war-torn region, collecting horrific accounts that underscored the fact that violence cut across ethnic boundaries. Moreover, argued Politkovskaya, the violence and lawlessness in Chechnya has as much to do with corruption in the Russian military, judiciary, and other state divisions as they do with individual thuggery. This widespread corruption also includes local Chechen functionaries:
The overwhelming majority of the new Chechen officials, who arose in close contact with the military, strive to keep things in the “no war or peace” zone. Here, everything is allowed under threat of violence: illegal oil businesses, the fifty-fifty rule, humanitarian aid being sold in the markets, medicine that the republic got for free appearing in private drugstores belonging to Ministry of Health officials and their relatives… The soldiers and many civilians are depraved by the war to the utmost degree. They have formed a lethal combination: rule by the fist, zindan [prison], and submachine gun has fused with the ostensibly peaceful Chechnya where they prefer fraud nepotism, and lack of control.

Russian troops in the Chechen capital of Grozny in 2000Russian troops in the Chechen capital of Grozny in 2000

Politkovskaya’s book follows a chronological progression, although the chapters are organized in a thematic fashion. There are few footnotes in the text, and the material was drawn from personal interviews by the author with Chechen civilians, members and former members of the Soviet and Russian governments, and members of the Chechen resistance. It appears that the author intended this text for undergraduate students, non-specialist scholars, and the learned general public, and some familiarity with Russian history is helpful – but not essential - in order to enhance understanding.

Certainly Politkovskaya’s A Small Corner of Hell deserves some criticism for its occasional lack of objectivity, as the author bitterly condemned the people she believed most responsible for the atrocities of the war, including Vladimir Putin, Kofi Annan, and George W. Bush. The articles, while sharing common themes, sometimes do not flow well together, and more effort could have been placed in developing transitions between the pieces. Nonetheless, the book is invaluable for its descriptions of the effects of the war on people who were not participants, people who simply want to live a life without fear of brutality, kidnappings, or murder. While Politkovskaya’s killers might never be found, her death may serve a greater good by shining light into dark corners, where the nefarious henchmen of the Russian oligarchs lurk, whose notions of justice include political assassination and state-sponsored terrorism.

On Racehorses and the Cult of Personality

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Left: Barbaro, a horse

I just finished scanning the major televison news stations and news sites on the Internet, and without a doubt the biggest news story today is the death by euthanization of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro. The horse fractured three bones in and around the ankle of his right hind leg, and lingering infections forced owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson to make the decision to put the animal out of its misery.

As an animal lover, I agree that it is sad to watch a poor creature suffer, and I feel sorry for the owners. I know how difficult it was for me when I had to say goodbye to my faithful Labrador retriever Hershey. We become attached to our animal friends, and their deaths can hit us as hard as our human companions.

But is this story really deserving of the sort of media frenzy we might expect with the death of, say, Mother Theresa? Every news network broke in with a report on this dead horse.

Screen capture of the "breaking news" on CNN

The blogosphere is filled with gushing comments like these from Taylor Marsh: "What a glorious animal. What a fighter. What a winner."

What a load of hooey. Barbaro was a horse bred to run races and make money for its owners. Nothing more, nothing less.

Maybe it's the cynical mood I am in today, but I tend to think that this story should be more like a quick obituary notice. Sure, Barbaro was a prize-winning thoroughbred, but shouldn't a bigger news story be - oh, I dunno - the fighting near the holy city of Najaf that killed hundreds of suspected insurgents?

The best words I have seen written on the topic of Barbaro came from another blogger, Brian at Sports Frog:
Our long national nightmare is over -- Barbaro is no more. Housewives all over America are shedding a tear at the demise of the bravest horse to ever live. Somewhere in heaven, Jesus is riding Barbaro and they're eating carrots together and laughing at Saddam Hussein in hell.
After I get done laughing at Brian's comments, someone please shoot me. My head hurts from all this Barbaro blathering.

Addendum: Be sure to check out Subcomandante Bob's "Barbaro Trifecta" of stories addressing the frenzy over the dead horse: here, here, and here.

The Quote Shelf

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A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

In modern America, anyone who attempts to write satirically about the events of the day finds it difficult to concoct a situation so bizarre that it may not actually come to pass while the article is still on the presses.
--Calvin Trillin

Jan 28, 2007

One Night on a Dimly-Lit Street

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(Toledo, OH) I first noticed the car in front of my house about eleven o'clock. It was idling in the middle of the street with its lights on, and at first I thought it might be one of my teens getting dropped off by a friend.

After a few minutes, and with the car still sitting there, I threw my coat on to go investigate.

In the front seat was a white male, about 30 years of age, sleeping behind the wheel. He managed to put the car into park before nodding off in the middle of the road. The window was down, and I tried to shake him, but he was out cold.

I called 911 and reported the car and its somnolent driver. First on the scene was the fire department, whose first move was to turn off the car and take away the keys.

I hadn't thought of that.

They then rousted the man as the police pulled up. After a few minutes of the perfunctory drunk tests, the responding officer cuffed the man and put him in the back of the cruiser. A few minutes later a tow truck came and hauled away the man's car.

The man was clearly under the influence of something, and anyone who could sleep as soundly as this person was in no condition to drive. I resisted the urge to plaster the man's face and license plate on my blog, opting instead for a few blurry shots of the emergency vehicles blocking my driveway.

Asleep. Behind the wheel. In the middle of the road.

I have thought about this guy a few times in the past two days, like why he chose the area in front of my house to make his abrupt stop, and how he could have been so wasted to actually sleep while in the act of driving. I suppose the fact that he got busted before he could have killed someone is a positive note, but I couldn't help but feel an initial twinge of guilt at turning him in.

That quickly passed, though. People that intoxicated behind the wheel of a car are more than a menace - they are tragedies waiting to happen.

On Violent Acres

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I know that I am likely the last person on the Internet to become acquainted with the blog Violent Acres. I have weeks in which I can't even keep up with answering the comments on my own blog, let alone wander aimlessly through the Web looking for more sites to take time away from my work.

Violent Acres is written by a woman whose blog header announces: "I’m just like you, only I’m interesting and my life isn’t devoid of meaning." Her writing is, by turns, caustic, introspective, and hilarious, and she might best be described with the witty summation developed by blogger Zero Boss as the raging id of the personal blogosphere.

The author has been accused of being insensitive, and her posts hold little back. Still, narratives like her embarassing visit to the DMV show that she is not afraid to skewer her own foibles, and this element of self-deprecation makes her externally directed barbs more tolerable.

Speculation runs rampant on the Internet about the true identity of Violent Acres. Some pundits go so far as to suggest that the author is actually a mysoginistic man. I prefer to simply read the posts and accept the writing (and the writer) at face value.

Full Court Shot Nails Little Kid

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I feel sorry for the recipient of this errant shot, but you have to admit this video is pretty funny.

You may have to watch it twice to see the events unfold.

Jan 27, 2007

Film Review: Jesus Camp

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Grade: A minus

Nominated for a 2007 Annual Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Jesus Camp is a documentary about a Christian summer camp for children who hone their preaching and prophecy skills.

The film avoids the more partisan approach of a Michael Moore in favor of a rather detached view of the modern charismatic Christian movement, albeit on the more extreme end of the evangelical spectrum. Interspersed throughout the film are segments featuring Mike Papantonio, who hosts "Ring of Fire," a national-syndicated weekly program on Air America Radio.

The film depicts the marriage of religion and politics in the American fundamentalist right, and is also noteworthy for a pre-scandal appearance by preacher Ted Haggard. Despite their efforts to maintain fairness, one suspects the producers had to be pinching themselves after Haggard's fall from grace last year.

The children, of course, are at the center of the film, and there are fascinating scenes in which these pre-pubescent preachers attempt to spread the Gospel to bystanders in bowling alleys and on park benches. After Rachael approaches a group of indifferent tract recipients, she walks away and whispers to the camera: "I think they were Muslims."

Jesus Camp offers a sober look at the clash of cultures in modern America, and also provides insight into the psyche of extreme fundamentalists. Rather than a predictable, condemnatory skewering of conservative evangelicals, the film attempts to understand why so many people are attracted to this blending of relgious and political ideology.

I left the film not so much shocked at what I saw, but with a better appreciation for conservative evangelicals, and - I must admit - some empathy for them. I did find the scene in which children prayed over a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush to be a bit creepy, but in the main these folks were trying their best to find meaning in the middle of a world filled with contradictions.

After all, in a time of global chaos and seeming moral decay, the certitude of the uncompromising promises offered by the likes of Pastor Becky Fischer can be quite comforting for those weary of the "sick old world" around them.

Rapid Rhetoric: FRONTOGENESIS

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This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

frontogenesis n. the meeting of two different air currents that results in the creation of a weather front.

Two conditions must be met for frontogenesis to occur. Two air masses of different densities must first exist adjacent to one another, and a prevailing wind field must exist to bring them together.

Jan 26, 2007

U.N. General Assembly Adopts Resolution Condemning Holocaust Denial

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United Nations General Assembly (New York) The UN General Assembly has adopted a resolution condemning any attempt to deny the Holocaust. Iran's UN delegate was alone in speaking out against the measure.

The resolution condemns "without any reservation any denial of the Holocaust" and "urges all member states unreservedly to reject any denial of the Holocaust as a historical event, either in full or in part, or any activities to this end."

"By this action today, the General Assembly reaffirms its condemnation of the Holocaust as a crime against humanity," said the body’s president, Sheikha Haya Al Khalifa of Bahrain. "This is a strong reminder to all that the international community is united in opposing all crimes against humanity. For the dignity of all humanity, we must strengthen our resolve to prevent such atrocities, whenever and wherever they might occur."

The motion did not single out any country, but it appears to be directed against Iran, especially considering the widespread anger provoked last month by its hosting of a Holocaust denial conference in Tehran.

2006 Media Job Cuts Rise 88 Percent

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(New York) Job cuts among members of the US media rose 88 percent in 2006 from the previous year, highlighting a trend in downsizing over the last decade.

The media industry slashed 17,809 jobs last year, nearly double the increase from the 9,453 cuts in 2005, outplacement consultant firm Challenger Gray & Christmas said in a press release.

Media companies "will continue to make adjustments as their focus shifts from print to electronic," Challenger CEO John Challenger said. "Until they can figure out a way to make as much money from their online services as they are losing from the print side, it is going to be an uphill battle."

Newspaper publishers, broadcasters and other media firms have been cutting staff and revising their business plans as the number of Americans who turn to the Internet for news and information continues to grow.

Jan 25, 2007

The Quote Shelf

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A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

In all history there is no war which was not hatched by the governments, the governments alone, independent of the interests of the people, to whom war is always pernicious even when successful.
--Leo Tolstoy

Some Thoughts on God and Religion

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Rising sun In the past few years I have been reevaluating my faith, trying to reconcile the multiplicity of influences on matters spiritual that have nudged me along the path on enlightenment.

I am by definition a Catholic of the Roman persuasion, and I attend Mass less frequently than I once did. There was a period of time when I never missed a service, served as a lector during Mass, and participated wholeheartedly in my parish.

A series of life-changing experiences, however, shook my faith. The events themselves are not worth repeating here, save to say that I - like many other lost souls - encountered circumstances that made me question the existence of God. There were nights during the height of my misery when I shook my fist and cursed God; how, I railed, could there be a God who lets evil befall a faithful servant? While no saint, I worked hard to be a good Christian, and it seemed I was rewarded by being shat upon.

It took me a few years to get past my misplaced anger toward God. I have since come to terms with the period of my life that once seemed unfair, and I understand that I will never really "know" God in this life, at least not in the sense of being able to comprehend why certain tragedies happen.

Wisdom gained from such life experiences certainly has lasting value, though I would never willingly choose to a path of pain simply for the long-term perspective gains. I still struggle, though, when I listen to spiritual leaders who claim that their flavor of faith is the One True Faith, and that all others are lesser (or even heretical) beliefs.

In my opinion there are a great many paths to God, and there are at least as many routes that can lead us in directions away from spiritual fulfillment. Some false paths are more quickly recognized as counter-spiritual, such as drug addiction or an obsession with wealth. Others - like cults - seem to provide the answer to burning spiritual questions, but which snare many unfortunate souls who fall for their Siren songs of false prophecy.

There are also people we meet along the way - call them angels, if you'd like - who live as directional signposts toward enlightenment. Maybe "tour guide" would be a better term for those souls we encounter who seem to have just the piece of advice we need at a moment of spiritual crisis. Perhaps God works through these people, offering us possible paths to inner peace, if only we see their signs.

Jan 24, 2007

Book Review: 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West

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1453: The Holy War for Constantinople Crowley, Roger

New York: Hyperion, 2005, 304 pages


Not a historian by training, Crowley was educated in English literature at Cambridge, and spent a year teaching English in Istanbul. He spent much of his life in Malta, Greece, and Turkey, and though 1453 is his first book, the text is the culmination of his many years traveling in the eastern Mediterranean. The author produced a work that, in the fashion of traditional historiography, casts the battle for the city in terms of a fight between the respective leaders, Mehmet I and Constantine XI. For Crowley, the most important consideration of the siege at Constantinople is not that the Ottomans succeeded, but that the Byzantines managed to hold off the invasion for as many weeks as they did.

Crowley approached the topic from both European and Turkish perspectives, using accounts from Western observers as well as historical Ottoman narratives in an attempt to provide a relatively balanced examination of the siege of Constantinople. The author, however, relied more heavily on secondary than primary sources in this synthesis, and there is a striking imbalance (skewed in favor of the West) between the European and Turkish sources. In addition, the material is centered squarely on Constantinople / Stamboul, with the result that readers learn little about the rest of the Ottoman Empire. Still, Western caricatures of the “Lustful Turk” and the “Terrible Turk” are largely avoided, as Crowley strove to present the atrocities committed by both sides. Most importantly, the author noted that one of the worst periods in the history of Constantinople occurred during the Fourth Crusade, when Western forces sacked and pillaged the city under the direction of the Venetians.

The text roughly follows a chronological approach, with chapters that revolve around particular themes related to the battle. Crowley began with basic histories of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires to help readers understand the context of the siege. The fall of Constantinople, argued Crowley, owed as much to the schism between the Eastern and Western Churches as it did to the military tactics of Mehmet II. In addition, the Byzantines themselves were divided between those who agreed with the reunification proposed by Pope Nicholas V and those who wished to remain independent from Rome.

Accompanying the text are a section of paintings and photographs – for which the author strove to avoid Orientalist caricatures (except when discussing Western misconceptions) - that provide readers with visual representations of the textual analysis. The author provided detailed endnotes, although there is no accompanying seriation in the text. Crowley included a five-page bibliography, a cross-referenced index, and a number of useful maps to help readers unfamiliar with the history of this battle.

Crowley wrote the book with an eye toward the general reader, and - while a prior familiarity with European and Turkish history is helpful – one need not be a specialist to follow this straightforward narrative. The text is heavier on military, political and religious history, but the author provided quite a few vignettes that highlighted the daily life of ordinary Byzantines and Ottomans. Crowley also writes with an engaging style that makes the events of the siege of Constantinople come alive in ways that many similar works do not.

Jan 23, 2007

Rapid Rhetoric: WELTANSCHAUUNG

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This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

Weltanschauung n. German; literally "world view," or a personal philosophy of life, one's view of the role of humans in the universe.

Related nouns include Weltpolitik, "world politics" (policy towards the world, or foreign policy), and Weltschmerz, 'world sorrow," (sadness at the world's woes, or pessimism).

From Sigmund Freud's Civilization & Die Weltanschauung (1918):
By Weltanschauung, then, I mean an intellectual construction which gives a unified solution of all the problems of our existence in virtue of a comprehensive hypothesis, a construction, therefore, in which no question is left open and in which everything in which we are interested finds a place. It is easy to see that the possession of such a Weltanschauung is one of the ideal wishes of mankind. When one believes in such a thing, one feels secure in life, one knows what one ought to strive after, and how one ought to organize one's emotions and interests to the best purpose.

The Quote Shelf

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A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.
--John Kenneth Galbraith

Jan 22, 2007

On Habeas Corpus and Alberto Gonzalez

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US Constitution During Senate Judiciary Committee hearings last week, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales made the startling claim there is no expressed right to habeas corpus in the U.S. Constitution. Gonzales was debating Sen. Arlen Specter about whether the Supreme Court’s ruling on Guantanamo detainees last year cited the constitutional right to habeas corpus.

Here are the exact words of Gonzalez, responding to Specter's questioning:

"[T]here is no express grant of habeas in the Constitution. There is a prohibition against taking it away...I meant by that comment, the Constitution doesn't say, "Every individual in the United States or every citizen is hereby granted or assured the right to habeas." It doesn't say that. It simply says the right of habeas corpus shall not be suspended except by..."
A brief quote from Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution is in order:

The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.
To more clearly delineate the rights of defendants in criminal proceedings, the Sixth Amendement spells out these what the accused can expect in the United States:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.
And, just in case they left something out, those paranoid early Americans in Philadelphia added an extra layer of protection against prosecutorial tyranny in the Ninth Amendment, reiterating that there are plenty of common law rights dating back to Magna Carta we enjoy:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
I would like to believe that the Attorney General attended the standard constitutional law classes that Harvard Law School requires to obtain a Juris Doctor, but - giving him the benefit of the doubt - perhaps he was sleeping off a hangover the day his professor covered habeas corpus. If this is the case, then Mr. Gonzalez should hit the books and enlighten himself.

But, unfortunately, I believe that the Attorney General is well-versed in constitutional law, and knows quite well what the Constituion says about habeas corpus. I see this as yet another sign that the Bush Administration simply believes that it has the power to supercede the supreme law of the land whenever said document is inconvenient.

And that, dear friends, is a scary thought.

Anti-Bush T-Shirt Gets Man Booted from Plane

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Allen JassonLeft: Allen Jasson, photo courtesy of TheAge.com.au

(Melbourne, Australia) An airline passenger, who was removed from a flight for wearing a T-shirt describing President Bush as a terrorist, has threatened legal action against Australian airline Qantas.

Allen Jasson said that he was turned away last Friday at a Qantas departure gate in Melbourne when he tried to board a London-bound flight while wearing a shirt with the picture of Bush and the slogan "World's #1 terrorist."

Virgin Blue airline had previously barred Jasson on a connecting flight to Adelaide, but on a return flight to Melbourne with Qantas on Friday, he successfully wore the shirt.

Jasson said that he had already cleared international security checks when he approached the gate manager, thanking him for Qantas allowing him to wear the shirt and asking for an apology for his earlier treatment.

"I concede that I raised the issue, but I wanted primarily to thank Qantas for relenting when (the gate manager) told me: 'I'm surprised you got this far, the staff should have stopped you'," he said.

Jasson said he was merely exercising his right to express "a popular political" view.

"It's game on, Qantas. They are going to fly me home wearing this T-shirt," he said. "I have made up my mind that I would rather stand up for the principle of free speech."

A Qantas spokesman said that "whether made verbally or on a T-shirt, comments with the potential to offend other customers or threaten the security of a Qantas...aircraft will not be tolerated."

Jan 21, 2007

Rapid Rhetoric: HAULM

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This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

haulm n. the stalks or stems of grasses, peas, beans, or potatoes, historically used as bedding or thatching material.

Haulm is derived from the Middle English word halm ("straw") and from Old English word healm. Similar words appear in the Danish, German, and Icelandic languages.

Book Review: Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000

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Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000Kotkin, Stephen

New York: Oxford University Press, 2001


Kotkin is a professor of Russian history at Princeton, and received his doctorate from the University of California-Berkeley. He is currently the director of the program in Russian Studies at Princeton, and is also a member of the the editorial board of the Princeton University Press. Armageddon Averted examines the fall of the Soviet Union and the structures that followed in post-Soviet Russia. In particular, Kotkin considers why the Soviet Union – with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the West and with a five million man army – devolved from a Communist empire to the nation of Russia with a minimum of violence.

Kotkin began Armageddon Averted by discussing the global contexts through which the fall of the Soviet empire should be evaluated. The author noted that the 1973 oil crisis was both a blessing and a curse for the Soviet regime; energy exports accounted for approximately 80 percent of Soviet hard currency earnings between 1973 and 1985, but the 1986 implosion of the global oil market was a disaster for the Soviet economy and, especially, for the economies of Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe.

Mikhail GorbachevLeft: Mikhail Gorbachev

Kotkin also argued that the 1930s were the years in which Soviet-style socialism could have most successfully competed against Western capitalism, as collapsing economies in the West made socialism seem like a viable alternative. Instead, the height of Soviet expansion came after World War II, during the “unprecedented boom” of capitalist democracies that lasted until the 1970s. Kotkin argued that the Soviet experiment could not win an ideological and economic struggle with the West in a period of tremendous economic growth.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, there has been no dearth of commentators with explanations for its collapse. Many pro-American pundits tend to credit the anticommunist presidency of Ronald Reagan and the buildup of the US military in the 1980s as primary causes. Satter argued that, as “the first state in history to be based explicitly on atheism,” the Soviet Union replaced religion with Marxism-Leninism, and its demise was due to the triumph of political ideology over morality. Watson maintained that rising nationalism in the republics, dissolution of Soviet unity, and the costly Afghanistan war were primary reasons for the Soviet collapse. Hobsbawm argued that the fall of the Soviet Union was primarily economic in nature, due in large part to increasing consumer demands for commodities that an authoritarian regime and central planners could not meet:
Beginning in the 1960's; the USSR and the nations of Eastern Europe began to open up their command economies to trade with the western world. Inevitably, their citizens began to compare their cramped apartments and dreary cultural life with the wondrous freedoms available in the west. Meanwhile, under cynical autocrats like Leonid Brezhnev, even card-carrying communists shed their hopes for a classless society. In the 1980's; when economic crisis battered the ramparts of the Soviet empire, its ideological empire was bare.
Kotkin, however, argued that the seeds of future collapse were sown in the reformist idealism initiated by Nikita Khrushchev during the 1950s and early 1960s after the Stalin era. Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign, argued Kotkin, produced a generation of “true believers” like Mikhail Gorbachev who believed in the “dream of socialist revolution.” The reformists, led by Gorbachev and introducing policies such as glasnost (political openness), perestroika (economic restructuring), and uskoreniye (rapid economic development), were more than mere political opportunists:
Far from an aberration, Gorbachev was a quintissential product of the Soviet system, and a faithful representative of the system’s trajectory as it enetered the second half of the 1980s. His cohort hailed him as the long-awaited ‘reformer,’ a second Khrushchev. They were right. Belief in a humane socialism had re-emerged from within the system, and this time, in even more politically skillful hands, it would prove fatal.
The period of Soviet reform led by Gorbachev, argued Kotkin, was one of well-intentioned (but contradictory) half-measures that produced unintended, destabilizing effects on the regime. Perestroika, conceived as means of moderninzing Soviet industry to compete in an increasingly global marketplace, relied upon a “recalcitrant ministerial bureaucracy to implement an improbable decentraliziation that would entail a significant loss of ministerial authority.” Glasnost, seen as a means to circumvent opponents of perestroika, became instead a vehicle that undermined faith in the Soviet system, as social, political, and economic problems previously ignored by the official government media were now brought to public scrutiny; Kotkin described this phenomena as an rising awareness by the general public that “all previous life was revealed as a lie.”

Gorbachev’s plan to bring greater democracy to the Communist Party through the newly-formed Congress of People’s Deputies had the unintended effect of weakening the power of the party Secretariat; the centralized power of the Soviet system was thus dispersed to the individual Supreme Soviets of the constituent republics, and Kotkin argued that these political bodies began to act as “parliaments of de facto independent states.”

Kotkin argued that Gorbachev’s foreign policy initiatives also produced a plethora of unitended consequences. His decision to withdraw Soviet troops from the expensive Afghanistan conflict – ostensibly a move to reduce military expenditures in an unpopular war – actually ended up costing the Soviet government more money, as the costs associated with demobilization initially exceeded those of deployment, straining the resources of an already cash-strapped government. In a similar fashion, the gradual removal of Soviet troops from the Eastern bloc cost the Soviet government dearly, as demobilization and the re-arming of former client states added to the revenue woes of Gorbachev and the reformers. In addition, Gorbachev’s decision to abandon the Brezhnev Doctrine – a move designed to defuse the expensive superpower confrontation – meant the “surrender of all the gains of the Second World War,” and created an environment in which the constituent Soviet republics could assume greater autonomy without fear of retaliation from the retreating central govenrment.

Boris YeltsinLeft: Boris Yeltsin

The author’s view of Mikhail Gorbachev is generally a positive one, although Kotkin was quick to point out the Soviet leader’s failures to appreciate the possible effects of his reforms. Kotkin, however, spared little polemic in describing the post-Soviet presidency of Boris Yeltsin, often depicting the Russian leader as a bumbling, ill-mannered buffon. The author considered Yeltsin’s National Sports Foundation as a “con” designed not as a charitable foundation for destitute athletes, but rather as a means to evade taxes. Government bureaucrats, argued Kotkin, were “far more shameless under Yeltsin” in their corruption than they had been under Brezhnev. The author added anecdotes that paint Yeltsin in a particularly negative light:
At a 1994 ceremony to mark the completion of troop withdrawals, Boris Yeltsin, in a drunken, depressed state, grabbed a baton and started conducting a German orchestra, causing a scandal.
Kotkin’s synthesis follows a chronological progression, although the chapters are organized in a thematic fashion. There are relatively few footnotes, and the cited works are drawn from archival material, secondary texts, and personal interviews by the author with members and former members of the Soviet and Russian governments. It appears that the author intended this text for undergraduate students, non-specialist scholars, and the learned general public, and some familiarity with Russian history is helpful – but not essential - in order to enhance understanding.

Kotkin provided maps, photographs, charts, and tables as additions to augment the textual material, and he provided a bibliographical essay for further reading. The author’s writing style is literate, though accessible, and Kotkin possesses the ability to write elegant, compelling prose. One cannot help but breathe a sigh of relief after reading Armageddon Averted, as Kotkin skillfully demonstrates how lucky were the citizens of the world that the Soviet Union did not devolve into a the sort of endless bloodbath that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia.

The Quote Shelf

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A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

The only difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is that the Democrats allow the poor to be corrupt, too.
--Oscar Levant

Jan 20, 2007

On the Value of Home Equity Loans

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(Toledo, OH) I wrote last summer of my long-running Catch-22 with the Internal Revenue Service. The story involved a business I once owned and some unpaid payroll taxes owed by my corporation.

As president of the company, the IRS considered me liable for what is known as the Trust Fund Recovery Penalty, and I was on the hook for about $24,000 (over half of which were late fees and earlier penalties). We whittled the balance down to $7,500 by this summer, and we were able in July to obtain a Home Equity Loan to finally get the IRS out of our hair after seven long years.

I am not a fan of adding debt when faced with personal budget concerns, preferring instead to cut expenses and take an extra part-time job. Many people use home loans to simply pay off credit cards and start the cycle of debt accumulation all over again. This, to me, is one of the dangers faced by credit-addicted consumers who roll over their balances into a larger loan.

Still, there are times when people can use home equity loans to save themselves quite a bit of money in reduced interest charges. Consider visiting PersonalHomeLoanMortgages.com - which sponsored this post - for more information about debt consolidation.

Racist Podcaster Hal Turner Claims to File Federal Suit in Internet War

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Hal Turner Left: Turner's purported receipt for the court filing

(North Bergen, NJ) Neo-Nazi podcaster Hal Turner, who became the object of retribution by a loosely-confederated group of Internet hackers (they detest the term, but I lack a better noun) called the "Legion of Anonymous," claims to have filed a lawsuit in federal court against a number of Internet sites and up to one thousand "John Does." Among the named websites are 7chan.org, 4chan.org, ebaumsworld.com, nexisonline.com, and abjects.com.

The purported court filings - which the documents on Turner's site indicate are pro se - do not show up on PACER, the federal judiciary's centralized registration database, but cases sometimes lag for a few days before showing up in the system.

Turner, for those unfamiliar with his brand of virtual racism, uses his website and podcasts to advocate the murder of "savage negro beasts," immigrants, Jews, gays, congressmen, the President, and pretty much everyone else who does not fit his narrow definition of "human." His greatest claim to fame was calling for the murder of federal district judge Joan Lefkow. The FBI later interviewed him following the murders of Lefkow's mother and husband on February 28, 2005, but did not find reason to detain him further.

Prior to the so-called Chan Wars, Turner's most recent foray into notoriety (read: publicity stunt) was the advocacy of assassinating members of Congress, posting this threat on his website:
We may have to ASSASSINATE some of the people you elect on Nov. 7! This could be your LAST ELECTION CHANCE, to save this Republic... Sorry to have to be so blunt, but the country is in mortal danger from our present government and our liberty is already near dead because of this government. If you are too stupid to turn things around with your vote, there are people out here like me who are willing to turn things around with guns, force and violence. We hope our method does not become necessary.
The cyber-drama began in mid-December when Turner published home telephone numbers of some minors who prank called his radio show earlier in the month. After the thick-headed Turner refused to remove this information, the offended pranksters went on the offensive, seeking the assistance of friends on sites such as 4chan.org, 7chan.org, and Digg.com.

Hal Turner Left: Hal Turner speaking at a 2006 National Socialist Movement function

In retaliation, members of "Anonymous" began a campaign of bandwidth vampirism (with at least one occasion of a DOS attack) against Turner's site, causing him to shut down the site many times over the last month. Turner, of course, is his own worst enemy, as he continues to egg on the hackers. He published a bloody photo of one of the "attackers" in December - claiming the hacker was the victim of a brutal beating by skinheads allied to him - but it turned out that Hal simply Googled "bloody head" and posted a heisted photo with the requisite PhotoShop additions.

The Legion of Anonymous members claim to be in the war for lulz (a rhetorical bastardization of LOLs). Instead of just ignoring Anonymous (thus depriving them of "lulz") Turner, continues to make the poor decisions in how he handles the /b/tards, and instead continues to provide them with hours of entertainment.

I see two scenarios at play here. Either Turner has doctored court papers in order to beg for donations from his listeners, or he has actually filed a pro se lawsuit that will be tossed from the courts in a New Jersey minute. I normally avoid linking directly to the websites of the racist right, but here is the purported Hal Turner lawsuit for your amusement.

Or lulz, depending on your preference.

Rapid Rhetoric: OBTENEBRATE

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This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

obtenebrate v. to darken, to cast a shadow over, to becloud. Obtenebration is the act of darkening, or the state of being darkened.

The word obtenerate is derived from the Latin ob- ("in front") and the Latin tenebrae ("darkness").

Blogger Problems

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(Toledo, OH) I have been experiencing a high number of Blogger issues over the last few days. Accessing the dashboard brings error messages like the one in the screen capture on the left. Many times I have attempted to leave comments, only to find that the comment page will not load, or Blogger wants to eat my comments.

I have also experienced a dozen or more outtages in which simply trying to view the homepage of this site brings Google error messages.

The problem seems most severe on "old" Blogger pages (i.e., those that have not yet switched to Blogger Beta).

Hoping Saturday brings a cessation of Blogger problems. Note: anyone who posts a sugary comment containing words to the effect of "but at least it's a FREE platform" gets whacked upside the head. Harrumph.