Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Young Plagiarista Busted. BBC America hate grammar.

These links are from the blog of a comedy writer who was approached online by a college coed needing an essay in a hurry. Read and weep, or laugh like I did. This is a cheater's nightmare.

Nate's update from today is at:

Perhaps I'm only righteously gleeful about this student's misfortune because of my own bitterness. I'm full of sour grapes since I discovered that my short story was not chosen as the winner in a competition I entered for BBC America. This fact alone is not too suprising, so not very discouraging, given the numbers of entrants and subjective factors that go into judging. However, what shocked and disappointed me was the failure of objective measurement to exclude the Grand Prize winner they chose.

Here's one among many howlers: "With shoulder length blonde hair, blue eyes that sparkled, and firm high breasts that begged to be released from the confines of the tight, black embroidered waistcoat, Thomas was dumbstruck." I was dumbstruck, too, since the sentence decribes Anna.

To be candid, the competition was for novice writers who've published fewer than three short stories and no novel-length work. Under these guidelines, I qualified to enter, but did that mean I had to suck? Perhaps the contest's idea was that so-called amateur writers should write amateurishly, as if we never hoped to be mistaken for professionals.

I'd thought since the competition was hosted by BBCA and judged by, among others, an author who did a teleplay for the BBC's production of the modern Canterbury Tales, this would be a nice opportunity for some good yet undiscovered writer. Sure, I hoped I would be that writer, or that they'd publish a long list of finalists (nope), and I might at least secure a minor bragging right. I thought my adaptation of the Nun's Priest's Tale stood on its own whether or not one remembered Chanticleer's original adventure. I wordsmithed and restructured to make the 1900-2000 word limit, and it's the best super-short I've written, although I never assumed that guaranteed its success in the contest.

If you want to read mine, I'll post it for comparison. The full winning entry's here. Do you think it's good? Or is it, as one dear associate described it, "El Stinko"?

Adding insult to injury, members of my online writers' group recently informed me and other members that we weren't invited to their gathering since we're "aspiring writers." I responded, "How, after thousands of pages, can I be said merely to aspire to write?" Turns out unpublished is their special definition of "aspiring". Someone who's written two hundred words on choosing socks for the online edition of Hikers' Quarterly has made it. I aspire.

I admit to being a fiction writer and therefore having fewer chances to be published. I admit to primarily writing crime novels for adults, further thinning the number of possible venues while causing literary types to question my intellect and standards. I admit that I desire publication in hardcover. So sue me.

I take my work seriously. I'm productive and self-critical, and I leverage critique groups, writers' resources, and professional networking to improve my skills and aid my nascent career.

But I won't sit at the kids' table just because my dreams are ambitious. And I will not create writing that makes my annoying classification as ASPIRING and AMATEUR permanent.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Assumptions about the Disabled and Safety in the Air

Here's a commentary from a severely disabled Harvard grad who was almost put out of his infant misery by a kindly soul. Aside from the religious rationales and namecalling which have been largely the MSM focus, overshadowed and underreported are the many disabled advocacy groups who oppose the action in Florida because of its implication for their members' welfare and the tacit perception that they'd be better off dead.

The next item is my personal anecdote of transportation security. I was recently flying from LaGuardia to Detroit Metro and had to queue in the longest security line I had ever seen either in person or on the news. The line did move, and considering the incredible masses of people coiling through corridors and blocking doorways (another type of security risk?), I was pleased to get through the mess in 45 minutes. While I waited, airline employees walked the length of the line, calling out flight numbers and destinations, so people with already-boarding flights could be expedited to the front.

When I thought I was almost done, having arrived at the glassed-in peoplequarium which housed the security gauntlet and pat-down artists, I had to shuffle through more back-and-forth cordons like a duck in a shooting gallery. However, this provided a vantage point for me to observe all the lines. I'm always amazed there isn't more loss as people get separated from their parties and belongings, but the line that most interested me contained an airline captain who shucked his shoes and cap into a plastic tub before crossing the metal detector.

Perhaps it's just my turn of mind, but I did not feel a warm, egalitarian comfort that they were also screening the pilot. If he wanted to do harm in the air, what he carries in his brain and what's within reach of his hands has more capacity than anything he could jam into his insole. Should he choose to exercise that destructive potential from behind his bullet-proof cockpit door, even having an armed Federal Air Marshall on board wouldn't help passengers much. Looking at this demonstration of equal throughness, I saw immoderate foolishness.

Rather than guaranteeing pilots aren't packing nail clippers, for this group of persons, I'd prefer thorough background checks, occasional evaluations of health and stress, and perhaps random urinalysis to insure sobriety during flight. But that would be discriminatory, wouldn't it? These days, it feels perversely radical to suggest treating a group differently because its members are and therefore represent different risks.

Current airport security measures are obvious and intrusive, but not particularly sensible or discerning. They ought not to be blanket applications of inconvenience, but specific, targeted measures focusing on what is reasonable and likely and most deleterious with minimum impediment to freedom and commerce in the sky.

Well, I can dream, can't I?

Monday, March 28, 2005

Memoir madness

Stefan Beck of The New Criterion's blog, Armavirumque, notices the market's inundation with memoirs and tries to provide sensible categories to help us stay afloat.

He quotes Stanley Crouch from The Artifical White Man (who I further trim from Stefan's crop job which you can read in the link above) to provide this essential guidance for writers:

"In essence, Hemingway's dictum of writing about what you know has become an excuse for avoiding risks...What you know might be something you took the time and went somewhere to discover."

I'm repeatedly bored by memoirs, notably the Carrie Fisher survivor/victimology type a la: I've reformed, of course, and now view my former life with wryness and wisdom, but let me wallow in my former sins and selfishness which have somehow awarded me legacy cool points in excess of anything your circumscribed, non-Belushi-knowing life could claim. I said drugs are bad, right?

Ms. Fisher's on her THIRD memoir. Can something please happen to her that doesn't become a chapter? Can anything stop the unwavering self-indulgence?

Friday, March 25, 2005

Onto other business

We can't sacrifice the rule of law which protects us all over a single injustice. We can only fight like crazy to correct it, and failing that, prevent it from happening again. Regarding Terri Schiavo's immenent death, Captain Ed summarizes the call for now-illegal interventions and explains their futility. He echoes my state of mind today. As he says, "It's time to cool the passions and start praying for mercy."

Revisiting another disservice to the realization of human potential, Max Boot dropkicks one of my least favorite American institutions: tenure.

The primary practical effect of tenure is to make universities almost ungovernable. The people ostensibly in charge - presidents and trustees - come and go; the faculty remains, serene and untouchable. This helps to explain some of the dysfunctions that mar big-time universities, such as the overemphasis on publishing unintelligible articles and the under-emphasis on teaching undergraduates.

Read it all here.

Now, the tough questions. What can be done to fix it? And who would have the will?

Thursday, March 24, 2005

This will likely be my last Schiavo post

In this situation, many people are anecdotally applying their own instances of removing someone from life support who was terminally ill or in tremendous pain. These circumstances, while tragic themselves, are not true of Terri Schiavo.

People are casting those who support Terri's life as the "religious right." I'm not a member of any political organization and I consider myself more libertarian than anything else. I'm disheartened that more libertarians don't see my position as supportive of free will, being cynical of a single man's uncorroborated hearsay as evidence of intent, and paying more attention to the evidence of the life lived. I choose to err on the side of preserving not only her unique right to exist, but also her opportunity to thrive under the auspices of those who promise (as Michael Schiavo did before the cash award) the best technological assistance we can give her. I think the quality of her future remains unknown through neglect.

Many people (bloggers especially) that I respect say that Congress was wrong to intervene and ask for a review of the facts. Most of these people are also lawyers and may have a greater appreciation for the fundamental construction of the system than I can in this instance. Justice is the goal of our legal system if not always the result. States' rights versus federal powers has to be another check-and-balance arrangement to guarantee neither abuses its authority at the expense of the citizens. Congress asked for review of the case, but did not legislate a conclusion. The legal arena seems offended, but Congress represents the wishes of the people and their demands are as fundamentally Constitutional as the judicial branch's purview in interpreting the laws.

My twin concerns are that 1) Terri's true condition has yet to be assessed using the prevailing medical technology for the diagnosis and 2) her husband, who is inarguably a financially interested party with no outward observance of the marital bond that gives him his moral authority, is the sole witness to her alleged statement that she'd wish to die.

What puny legal perspective I have says that accepting a single person's hearsay evidence as fact in a life or death case where there is considerable disagreement about the claims isn't justice. My thinking is that denying a disabled woman current diagnostic and rehabilitative therapies isn't good guardianship of her interests.

And the coverage of her condition is as flawed as her care. Newsweek has an entire article with a Jesuit bioethicist who claims that the Pope's statements on denying food and water have been misconstrued and that the Pontiff was just playing to the crowd.

Here's my problem with this travesty. The Vatican's own bioethicist, Monsignor Elio Sgreccia, is tersely excerpted in direct contradiction of the opinions of the interviewed subject. Wouldn't this guy be the right source for the Church's opinion? Instead, our interviewee- not a designated advocate of the Church's position, but a guy teaching at Boston College, that august institution of intellectual firepower- gets his picture posted and two pages for his opinions. It's telling that he believes the best understanding of this situation is gleaned from the writings of ... Aquinas, Papal edicts, Jesus himself? No. This priest's favorite reference to guide life-or-death decisions is a chief justice's ruling.
According to the Rev. Paris,

"even such things as artificial nutrition and fluid can become extraordinary if they become burdensome when you have to sustain somebody for 15 years on it. That’s surely burdensome. It has nothing to do with the technique itself. Antibiotics could be extraordinary if a patient is dying and it’s not going to offer many benefits."

Under his definition, nutrition can become an extraordinary measure to preserve life, when food and water is the most ORDINARY, UNIVERSAL way to preserve life. Think about the ramification of this perspective. Blood testing several times a day and injecting insulin for diabetes could be termed burdensome. So could dialysis. Before you decide I've gone too far in interpreting what Paris intends, read how he reiterates this point.

Newsweek: So you’re saying providing Schiavo with food and water is not morally obligatory?

Paris: For 400 years the Roman Catholic moral tradition has said that one is not obliged to use disproportionately burdensome measures to sustain life.

Newsweek: And in this case, you view this as disproportionately burdensome?

Paris: Fifteen years of maintaining a woman [on a feeding tube] I’d say is disproportionately burdensome, yes.

Terri is not on life support and requires less care than a newborn. She requires less care than other seriously ill people whose lives are maintained though intolerably burdensome means like dialysis. This priest thinks feeding someone twice a day is disproportionately burdensome. I hope I'm never his house guest. How would he feel about the disproportionate burden of providing fresh linens and a clean bathroom, the maintenance of both those normalcies which require more time and elbow grease than feeding Terri? I feed, water, and walk my dogs daily, bagging up their poop with my own wittle hannies. Burdensome to some perhaps, but it's my joy in them and concern for their welfare that makes me do it, and I'm not even legally allowed to starve them as Terri's starving now.

My problem with using "disproportionately burdensome" as a guide is its inherent relativity. This is especially significant when we have one party who unapologetically wants Terri dead and another that wishes to remove her from the medical environment (which her stable, healthy body doesn't require) and provide all her nurturance in a home surrounded by her loving family. To whom is this incredible offer not burdensome? A mother. Most mothers.

These tortuous considerations may all be moot, because someday soon, without unforecasted intervention, Terri will die. And I differ with all the pundits who start their articles with the disclaimer that they'd certainly never want to live that way. I'm a human exceptionalist. I believe human life represents something unprecedented and rare. I believe the innovations of science and medicine allow us to maximize the potential of many severely disabled persons. Certainly, if my body were healthy and comfortable (and maybe even if it weren't) I'd want to live.

Life is good. Life wants to live. Once, that wasn't assumed to be such a crackpot notion. I never thought I'd find myself being viewed as a fanatical right wing fascist bedroom-invader, but if my compassion has led me here, so I am. I can't be with the lawyers or the death promoting activists on this one. I am with the poets. At least, the non-suicidal ones.

This is a C.S. Lewis quote: "It is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects --military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden --that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increaseand prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police,economics, etc., are simply a waste of time."

Here's another: There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations--these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit--immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.

I will conclude this train of commentary, possibly forever, by saying that I fervently believe Terri Schiavo is a splendid immortal who deserves the ordinary happinesses that simple existence can bring.

Life is Constitutionally guaranteed- unless you're disabled

The Terri Schiavo case has brought forth another malevolent aspect of the MSM. As I watch, I repeatedly see Terri mischaracterized as being on life support or comatose, as requiring more than food and water when in fact she requires much less physical assistance than many seriously disabled people who we haven't killed- yet. I think the more familiar you are with her condition and how contentious and uncorroborated by data her PVS diagnosis is, the less you want to kill her off as a hopeless case.

Last week brought the New York Times' jaw-dropping article on how starving to death is just a sweet goodnight. A thinking response goes something like: If it's such a picnic to starve, why should we intervene in hunger in Africa and the developing world? Were all those videos of children with bloated stomachs crying in pain just faked-up propaganda? Shouldn't the rescued concentration camp victims have surrendered to the "euphoria" of skeletal death? That the "right-to-die" movement would be so entrenched in their media that they can't consider anyone might not want to be exterminated by such "gentle" means is as telling as it is repulsive.

Michelle Malkin rounds up the current predjudicial coverage here.

Startlingly, the only place I've seen a recovered PVS victim on television was on Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto, a business news program. I wish I could find a link for the interview, but he had on a woman who suffered a severe stroke and was in a PVS for 70 days. Much shorter time, I know, but she noted that she was put promptly into rehab and that in her assessment, Terri hasn't had the chance to prove what improvements might be possible. I agree. The most chilling part of her interview was when she reported that she had been aware of everything happening to her while in the PVS. She felt "trapped inside her body" with no way to communicate. Her medical team so underestimated her ability to feel that during surgery, she was underanesthetized because they didn't think she could sense anything in her condition anyway. She was aware and suffering excrutiating pain.

If that's not the stuff of nightmares, what is?

This woman said that, based on her own experiences, Terri may be much more aware than anyone is crediting. This "vegetable" can now think and speak well enough to tell us about it, and is an author and spokesperson for the similarly affected. Isn't that enough reason to hesitate?

Death is today's MSM deception, rewriting starvation and dehydration as euphoric when properly understood as terrible by every world religion, charity, human rights organization, and even every B-movie director who ever set a movie in the desert.

Disabled people can have all the parking spots and handrails they want, but shouldn't expect their rights to exist to be championed.

A child with a cup of water for Terri is handcuffed, perp-walked, and loaded into a squad car. Thank goodness law enforcement is nipping this junior scofflaw in the bud.

Orwell's dystopia is here in a psychadelic new flavor. Your right to Live, clearly specified in the Constitution is subordinate to your right-to-die, something humans have never had problems managing on their own and whose sanctity isn't specifically preserved at all. In the new nihilism, death equals the pursuit of happiness.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Manolo knows

I've tried to explain my aesthetic approach to cherry picking from pop culture. Much of what's sold today is common and joyless, but some evinces brilliant design and great loveliness. Something utilitarian yet beautiful, something gracefully packaged, a wonderful consumable or wearable can change a person's mood, and I believe a coherent, pleasant personal environment is vitally supportive of one's self. In a modern urban, even suburban, society where we craft so little of what we use and where our access to natural beauty is often brief and constrained, vulgar consumerism is the method by which many people invite beauty into their lives.

The Manolo of Manolo's shoe blog says it well:
It is also the belief of the Manolo that the admiration of beauty, even of the beauty of the objects that can be purchased at the outlet store of the factory, it is not imcompatible with having the rich inner life.
Indeed, until recently, it was the commonly held belief that owning or even looking at the things of beauty could aid in achieving the inner spiritual beauty. (Do we not take our children to the museums of art? What is the purpose of that if not to inculcate into them some idea of the power of the beauty.)

The Manolo he will not pontificate on the trouble caused by the rise of the Protestantism, or the Weberian theory of the ethic of work and the iconoclastic leanings of Calvinism, instead he will merely note that most of the religions of the world believe that the spiritual it can be accessed through the contemplation of beauty. Why else, for the example, the veneration of the icons of the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox?

So, in the final response to the question, the Manolo he can only say that beauty and the acquisition of the objects of beauty, they have their own spirituality, one that if approached properly enriches the life.

Read the whole thing here

So if I find transendence in accessories and adornments, who's to say I'm purely shallow? Hey, I go to the Met, too.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Death should come despite (not because of) our efforts

Starving and dehydrating a helpless woman on International Water Day just points out how barbaric this action is. I believe Terri Schiavo's sentient, but the thought of her pain makes me almost wish she weren't. In a public restaurant, water must be made available to anyone who asks. In absence of her feeding tube, Terri is not allowed to even try her luck with a Dixie cup to prove she can live independently.

Here's a good article from the NRO explaining how Judge Whittemore in Florida is short-circuiting the obvious intent of Congress which legislated a from-scratch (de novo) review of the case. If a new examination including the early days of this case isn't made, we can never dispute Judge Greer's previous finding of "fact" that Michael Schiavo's reportage of his wife's wish to die represented her true intent. If we can't get back to that essential question, it becomes difficult to deal with anything after it. It has been highlighted that more than single-person hearsay would be needed even in a probate hearing over Grandma's half-acre. But as Andrew McCarthy notes, it's on to the Apellate Court.

Here's Thomas Sowell's thoughtful, concise view of the topic:

Although my emotions and instincts say that purposely starving and dehydrating a sentient person to death is a horror, I don't believe we need to rely on feelings to have concerns about the case. Whether Terri Schiavo is in a persistent vegetative state (a definition whose meaning has been expanded over the years and now includes conscious humans, too) and whether she preferred to die rather than live in such a condition are the key issues.

The doors of inquiry along these lines have been closed by Judge Greer's earlier rulings and Michael Schiavo's obstruction to having his wife undergo modern diagnostic analysis of her present condition. I think Congress' recent action, prompted by its onus to represent the voices of its constituency, is proper. They've not specified a result, but a thorough review of all aspects of the case and its history to insure that Terri's constitutional rights to life, liberty, and due process are observed. Given that we allow inmates on Death Row tremendous latitude in filing appeals which delay their sentences, and given that we wouldn't starve them for weeks regardless of the outcome of their appeals, restoration of Terri's food and water until a complete review is made is appropriate.

Some think that Congress' action was merely political grandstanding. Some of those accusers come from states where municipal law punishes you for not having a long enough leash for your dog in the backyard. For them to complain of the instrusiveness of the federal government in this case- when life (not just way of life) is at stake, is hypocritical to my mind. But I'm sure they'd say the same of my perspective.

As Cal Thomas notes (hat tip: LaShawn Barber) But the hypocrisy label can be turned around. Didn’t liberals reject states rights when it came to civil rights for African-Americans four decades ago, and didn’t they make federal cases out of such things as integrated restrooms and universities? They supported sending federal troops to force integration on unwilling states. They were right to do so then, and conservatives are right to ask the federal government to intervene when a Florida judge has, in effect, ordered the murder of Terri Schiavo by denying her food and water.

The rest of LaShawn's round-up and insightful commentary is here:

For disabled or seriously ill people, I'm concerned that we may be setting a precedent where one person's word can put another to death. I'm concerned that the evidence of Terri's lifelong, faithful practice of Catholicism is totally ignored as if it were non-representative of her intents and values. In general, and especially in trials, we judge a person by his actions more than his words which may be insincere or misremembered. Why do we not show that bias here?

The current scenario where immediate family is in disagreement with the medical actions does not even satisfy the demands of the Groningen protocol, the guideline used in Holland to assess the acceptable cases for euthanasia. If a strongly right-to-die country wouldn't deprive her of food and water, how firm can we feel in doing it?

Why can't we send her home to live with the father and mother who want to absorb all the cost and effort of her care? Why must we prioritize the wishes of a man who received his rights to dictate Terri's care by a marriage that he flaunts through his common-law wife and their offspring?

People have argued that for Michael Schiavo, it's not about money or he would've accepted the generous financial offers made for him to renounce custody. Well...

Perhaps I read too many crime stories, and this falls into the unfounded guess bucket, but one unsusbstantiated theory is that Michael Schiavo could have a larger concern than money in controlling his wife's body and the biological evidence from her intital injuries that is carried, and as yet unexamined, within her. His unwillingness to allow scrutiny of her condition and his refusal to allow reahabilitative therapies makes me wonder whether, given her family's unflagging attention, if Michael Schiavo might worry that Terri's voice or body can confess how she became as she is. I wonder whether his own liberty might not be at stake in his relentless desire to see his wife dead and her body immediately cremated. Perhaps it doesn't matter how much you pay your shyster from your wife's medical fund if he helps you stay in the clear for something far worse than fiduciary misconduct. Many people are bending backwards to be dispassionate and open-minded towards Michael Shiavo despite their feelings. As for me, I'm not accusing, but I'll admit to being angry and suspicious.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Good and Evil

Today's object of ire is again from the WSJ (I know, I've gotta branch out). Philip K. Howard's article of March 17th notes:

Sooner or later, Americans will realize that sue-for-anything justice erodes their freedom. First it was diving boards that disappeared, then seesaws. Businesses stopped giving references, and doctors started quitting.

Like a lake receding from its shores, the area of our freedom continues to diminish with each new theory of liability. The latest casualty is volunteerism. Last month, a jury in Milwaukee found the Catholic Archdiocese liable because a volunteer for a Catholic lay organization, driving her own car, ran a red light and caused an accident while delivering a statue of the Virgin Mary to an invalid. Although the church does not direct the activities of this group, called the Legion of Mary, its meetings are held on church property. The jury decided the Archdiocese should pay $17 million to the paralyzed victim, an 82-year-old semi-retired barber.

Peggy Noonan of the same paper on the same day (see what I mean about branching out?) has an only slightly appendixed version of Ashley Smith's story- in her own words- about her experience as Brian Nichols's hostage and his decision after their conversations about God to allow her to leave. It's a freebie for non-subscribers.

A new film written and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel has opened in Germany, and many are complaining about the human, though not enviable, face it gives the Fuhrer. Downfall shows Hitler as kind to his secretaries, attached to his dog and chocolate cake. It makes some viewers squirm to see him- in any moment of his existence- as comprehensible to a sensitive person.

So, this all makes me think:
Should we punish people who are trying to do good even if it's in the name of God? Should organizers of volunteers become so afraid of the liability that they stop helping? I don't think they should pay a discouraging cost for stepping in where families and communities fail. It's probably crass to note, but what are we really compensating an 82-year old Milwaukee barber for? The 17 million cannot ease his pain and suffering if medical science and his own state of mind don't. Medical compensation and care for the rest of his life seems right to award, but unless the cost of living is way up in Wisconsin, he doesn't need 17 million. That's a million a year if he lived to 99! Of course, I say that hypothetically, because his lawyer will take at least 1/3 of the award. And the reason that lawyer took the case, at the risk of being crass again, is that he found a way to link the incident to the deep pockets of the Catholic Church which had the affrontery to facilitate a woman supplying a devotional statue to comfort an invalid.

Does this represent our general wishes or what we see has the essence of justice? I think not, that's why I support strong tort reform and a renewed stringency around "pain and suffering" or punative "teach them a lesson" awards.

Onto larger offenders. As a civil society, we may argue about the best way to view and deal with exceptionally heinous criminals like Nichols or much further along the spectrum, Hitler. However, the current fashion of dehumanizing villains by labeling them monsters denies how close they are to ourselves, liberates us from the duties of compassion, and encourages us to minimize our own failings. I believe in acceptance of our flaws with suitable efforts at reform, not comparison with "bigger sinners" until our petty crimes of the heart and mind and word look small enough to ignore.

To me, all these stories lay across that uneasy confluence of organized society, popular culture, and religion that is a defining characteristic of this moment. While many people seem to want to turn religion into an either/or proposition that requires them to deliver regular condemnations- an operation more about the state of the lungs than the spirit- the greatest evils in the world still reside in humanity, a humanity capable of the world's greatest good and redemption- even Brian Nichols, even Der Nazi Fuhrer. It's a bag of contradictions you can spend your life learning to carry. If it doesn't seem as immediately alluring as easy conclusions, nonetheless, I hope people will hunger to leave the shallows and attend to the deep mysteries of life. The dilemmas are knottier but they make for humility. And the glories are infinitely richer and more wondrous than "I told you so."

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Wasn't I just talking about trains?

Yes, I was, although I must admit I was inspired by the Amtrak op-ed in the NY Post. Wednesday's WSJ has P.J. O'Rourke tackling the issue. I excerpted more than usual since it's a subscriber article, but not all of it. To read the rest, try going here. Yeeks- I've got to learn that link thing.,,SB111093850317180759,00.html%3Fmod%3Dopinion%26ojcontent%3Dotep

But here's the stuff that most interested and amused me.

Mass transit helps preserve nature in places like Yellowstone Park, the Everglades and the Arctic wilderness, because mass transit doesn't go there. Mass transit curtails urban sprawl. When you get to the end of the trolley tracks, you may want to move farther out into the suburbs, but you're going to need a lot of rails and ties and Irishmen with pickaxes. Plus there's something romantic about mass transit. Think Tony Bennett singing "Where little cable cars / Climb halfway to the stars." (And people say mass transit doesn't provide flexibility in travel plans!) Or the Kingston Trio and their impassioned protest of the five-cent Boston "T" fare increase, "The Man Who Never Returned." No doubt some lovely songs will be written about the Washington County, Ore., Wilsonville-to-Beaverton commuter rail line to be funded by the new transportation bill.

There are just two problems with mass transit. Nobody uses it, and it costs like hell. Only 4% of Americans take public transportation to work. Even in cities they don't do it. Less than 25% of commuters in the New York metropolitan area use public transportation. Elsewhere it's far less -- 9.5% in San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, 1.8% in Dallas-Fort Worth. As for total travel in urban parts of America -- all the comings and goings for work, school, shopping, etc. -- 1.7 % of those trips are made on mass transit...

The Heritage Foundation says, "There isn't a single light rail transit system in America in which fares paid by the passengers cover the cost of their own rides."

P.J. suggests with the $19 spent per trip on the Hiawatha, we could lease the passengers BMWs. He also suggests turning the trains into thrill rides through even shoddier maintenance and regressing to 1970s subway policing standards. And of course, he notes we could employ the catch all for municiapl finding shortfalls: slot machines on the buses.

I didn't know that not a single, stinking one pays for itself. If that's true, it makes the train just another public works sinkhole, which disappoints me. But the number of NY commuters who use the train seems low at 25%, of course including the outer boroughs, maybe it's understandable. However, that still makes at least a million people on NY Public Transit. Nobody can make that turn a profit, or use some fancy numbers to justify how the added commerce in Snapple and newspapers sold near the train floods dollars into the local economy? What about the social savings from private charity extended toward bongo players and M&M shills who won't sell their last box?

Is it so wrong to want trains? If Florida can waste federal dough on "golf awareness" programs, why can't I have trains? Choo-Choo. It's a bittersweet choo as I face the fact$.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Why poetry? If it were good, you wouldn't be asking.

I am not a poet or very well read in the form, but when I encounter what is generally considered fine work, I recognize the quality. I have delighted and wondered. I have experienced transcendence.

My beef with contemporary poetry is much like my beef with contemporary art. In its desires to promote content, which, unfortunately, is most often composed of simplistic social commentary, the form has become as uninspring as the naked soapbox. Its modern practitioners have lost the undergirding aesthetics that make great work both powerful and lasting. Many of today's artists (and poets and writers and musicians) promote a message first and barely concern themselves with the package they've wrapped it in. Modern faddists have learned to tolerate such puling coarseness, while most "unsophisticated" (read normal) audiences alike consider the hasty, vulgar packaging and disregard the contents

When I tackle substantive poems with the intent to try to understand what's great about them, I always look to heavily annotated editions and other criticism to help me get the most out of my novice reading. However, as in art, my favorite work grants immediate pleasure, and more and different enjoyments upon examination.

I believe much of the art currently touted is horrifically superficial and worse, boring. I find myself tiresomely able to predict what will be promoted as "shocking" and/or "edgy."
After all, there really are only so many ways that used tampons, condoms, and bodily excretions can be employed in iconic representations of govermental and religious figures. I'm surprised the approach hasn't run out of steam yet. I've been yawning for a decade.

Camille Paglia, who I do not always applaud, is releasing a new book, a line-by-line examination of 43 poems. I expect to find her detailed analysis of the poets' language, context, structure, and antecedents enriching and fascinating. I believe reading work that is intitially beyond my comprehension, and certainly my own emulative abilities, is calisthenics for my brain, and should improve the crapola which I am able to produce.

What is obvious in this article, excerpted from the introduction of her book, is her affection and enthusiasm for the form. May she aid its revivification.

I know I said I'd learn to use the condensed links, and I will. I gotta get on the ball with pictures, too.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

So many excitements, how to choose?

I was going to rant about kitchen/home remodeling, seriously. The result of the process seems like a unique individual expression to its owners, a step-by-step adventure into the unknown that they usually relate in grindingly explicit detail, but to the rest of us, the completed assertion of selfhood looks like a kitchen. Snowflakes are also unique, but from a normal viewing distance, they all look the same.

However, there are so many interesting international developments, I feel I must round up, not dwell. Here is a smorgasbord of what's tickling my synapses today.

HT Instapundit. Wizbang explores a recently burgeoning area of democratic discussion. Are cute girls (such as the Lebanese shoulder-sitters) the harbingers of success for a political movement like they are for other organizations or even nightclubs? And if so, is it merely because more males will flock to the chicks or do hot (and therefore usually popular) babes have a bellwether instinct for the right place and right time?

The White House is brushing off Gerry Adams (Sinn Fein's less barbarous brother) as he comes through town for his annual wallet tapping. Making generations-removed sons of Ireland rekindle their melancholic souls enough to fund the IRA's crime empire is one of Adams' main duties, and usually, he gets his brogues spit-shined by Yankee apologists. But not this time, huzzah!

After a particularly heinous, pointless murder (well-capsulated by Mark Steyn in the Chicago Sun-Times below), the victim's sisters and fiancee and much of Northern Ireland is demanding an end to the thugocracy. But as everyone knows, the buck stops here geographically. If America stops funding these horrors from the homelands, they may become weakened enough to fail. This long-since emigrated child of Eire hopes it happens.

Lileks overlaps some of today's interests, but includes a dissing of The Fountainhead. According to his theory, I was simply too old when I read it. I found it overheated crap, and the male and female leads were cardboard. Not able to conceptualize the modern Adam and Eve hiding within the melodramatic, Manichean characters, I failed to drink the Kool-Aid, although I still admire the spirit of skeptical examination and critical thought espoused by Rand adherents. But a peeouuooow stinky novel.

Last one, kay? The Wall Street Journal offers freebie online articles daily. Today, two of the three have a slightly different flavor than usual and concetrate on what we might call "arts and culture" topics. Read these two on partying libertarians and H.P. Lovecraft and see whether you agree that the WSJ is making a serious run at undermining the NYT by mixing its own popular conservative fiscal and defense outlooks with a more fun-loving look at the arts and lifestyle. How can the WSJ capture the many people who were pro-war and voted for Bush but who consider themselves more socially liberal and/or culturally adventurous? Is this the way? You decide.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Go Lebanon! Go away Junk Science.

I confess after the first anti-Syrian protests in Beirut, I was elated. Then I was chastened and discouraged by the following pro-Syria demonstrations. Sure, the second set of protesters looked more like hired commandos than locals, but there were so many of them... Today's new anti-Syrian protests are at least twice (some say three or four times) the size of the Hezbollah hurrah.


I'm back to Bashar-bashing. May Lebanon be restored to a beautiful garden cultivated by its own people.

Jeff Jarvis has a great round-up from Lebanese who are blogging this event.

In other news, the NY Post published this op-ed below about an extremely iffy linkage between breast cancer and second-hand smoke. What's noteworthy is not that such unexamined crap became a story among the MSM who all have health segments to fill. What encourages me is that this response to the bad science could be made so quickly and vigorously.

Americans become conversant with unfamiliar issues through media coverage: tsunamis, judicial filibusters, hybrid vehicles. That's not such a terrible method if the information provided is accurate. However, I think we could all become more discerning when digesting the "new research" blurbs by learning or refreshing our understanding of concepts like peer review, statistically significant sampling, double-blind studies, and hypothetical extrapolation. Many of the practices that make good science are intuitively sensible, so it wouldn't take much enhanced exposure to get more people to start asking questions about the methods behind the "facts" they're presented.

A more scientifically-savvy (even logical) populace may not avoid all the junk science, but it might keep some of the unfounded doom and panic stories off the teleprompter and heap scorn upon the talking heads who propogate such garbage. But of course, which media giant wants that?

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Etymology Rules!

Here's something I found illuminating from my Word of The Day e-mail.

potboiler \POT-boi-lur\, noun: A usually inferior literary or artistic work, produced quickly for the purpose of making money.

The play was a mixed blessing. Through it O'Neill latched on to a perennial source of income, but the promise of his youth was essentially squandered on a potboiler. --Jane Scovell, [1]Oona. Living in the Shadows

If reading and travel are two of life's most rewarding experiences, to combine them is heavenly. I don't mean sitting on a beach reading the latest potboiler, a fine form of relaxation but not exactly mind-expanding. --Stephen Kinzer, "Traveling Companions," [2]New York Times, April 19, 1998

Potboiler comes from the phrase "boil the pot," meaning "to provide one's livelihood."

(To subscribe, send a blank message )

From context, I'd always thought a potboiler was the kind of work that ratcheted up suspense, at the expense of plausibility, for maximum page-turning, popcorn-crunching excitement. Histrionics, a pot threatening to boil over. Now I see that although I labeled works as potboilers mostly correctly, it was for the wrong reasons. Now I can't consider even my own pulp fiction as a potboiler, even though it's of dubious quality and intended to broadly entertain, I haven't recognized even the rumor of income from it.

With this corrected definition, columns for hiking magazines, resumes, credit card marketing letters, and dishwasher instruction manuals might all be potboilers, reflecting the current range of inferior arenas and results to which writers devolve for sustenance. I think I prefer my old definition.

As to Stephen Kinzer's excerpt above, I find even substandard reading combined with so-so travel helps me achieve a zen-like detachment which is the essence of mind expansion. I'd advise that chewing on meaty intellectualism or art can be too engaging and envy-producing to lift one to the elusive and blissful Go-Lightly state of observation and serenity.

Ah, travel. Where is my verandah?

Friday, March 11, 2005


I have always loved traveling by train. The sightseeing is great, passing through the backyards and downtowns of America where you perceive more about the character of a place than by seeing its Stuckey's on the interstate. (No offense, Stuckey's, I love the logs). Trains traverse the most beautiful, unspoiled vistas in the nation, and newer models have comfy seats with lights and air and electrical outlets. You can often arrive as fast or faster than by car depending on the number of stops and train line congestion. Unlike the bus, the ride is smooth with bathrooms that don't reach odiferous overflow after two hours. You can carry your bags with you and bring whatever you want. There's no mile-long security line where granny's body-searched while we all watch with our shoes in our hands. A terrorism concern? Yes, but... I like the sense of anonymity and freedom that's still possible on the train. I will admit that the microwaved cheeseburger from the cafe car is an acquired taste, but if you've learned to love White Castle sliders, you're ready.

In my dreams, I occupy a sleeping car on the revamped Orient Express, a meander of pure luxury through Europe and the Near East that costs around $10,000. But for me, trains have typically been used when they're a direct, cost-effective way to travel. I want long-route train travel to survive for recreation and leisure, but it once was and still can be an effective system of mass transport. However, continuing to subsidize inefficiencies and financial shenanigans won't make it happen. Modern passenger travel by train will never do anything but limp without removal of Amtrak's unfair competitive advantages. No politician wants his constituency and its freight stranded in Nowheresville, but cars, trucking, bus services, and even regional airports provide cheaper options these days. I firmly believe that even if certain regional Amtrak lines closed, if allowed, somebody or a bunch of somebodies could take the existing infrastructure and run routes both profitable and pleasant. I say let the games begin!

Here's the op-ed piece about the current state of Amtrak which inspired my current rant.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

I've been a-travelin'. Africa's a-starvin'. EEk!

I was recently preparing like mad for a trip and then traveled for 5 days without internet access- horrors! Since returning, I've caught up my laundry and e-mail and finally have something to post.

The link below is for a commentary article on one of my regular irritants, that is, the deliberate withholding of biological and agricultural advances from needy third-world countries based on a fat, first-world view of what's best for them.

Now, we could ask some of these extreme environmentalists and anti-chemical/anti-biotechnology activists (EEks for short) who live in wealthy countries to advocate first in their own backyards. However, they are so hypocritically hateful of technology (which provides their clean, wired-up, climate-controlled palaces of contempt), and they are so desirous that the rest of the world's wildness remain unsullied (for their photographic safaris and vacations, I suppose), that they zealously obstruct the deliverance of vaccines, insecticides, and improved-yield agriculture from people whose lives could be saved by them.

EEks claim to worry so much about the slight chance of a bad reaction to medicine that they're pleased to doom millions to illness and death. I say give African parents the option to decide and see how many millions are willing to play the odds and give their children a chance at life.

EEks naysay established chemicals with strong histories of effective use in moderate concentrations, instead hinting at scientific and government conspiracies as their excuse to let insect-borne disease- one of the biggest killers on the planet- continue to ravage entire populations. Meanwhile, EEks seek out every technical advantage in their MP3 players and high-performance camping gear and shelf-stable soy nuggets, even in the communication tools they employ to stage their diatribes against anyone else getting to enjoy the goodies. Why does America not significantly suffer from malaria? DDT. I say we help Africa overcome this plague, too.

EEks' arguments against other people's progress presuppose that given the tools and knowledge we have, the residents of another geography will be hopelessly unable to make good decisions about how to use and preserve their resources. I always marvel that they don't recognize how racist and condescending they seem. First world countries survived the onset of industrialism, and current economic analysis demonstrates that after development surpasses a certain threshold of wealth, societies get environmentally cleaner. No longer merely scrabbling to survive, people can begin focusing on enhancing the quality of their lives. Many of the most strident, obstructionist EEks are from countries which have already run this course. Since they cannot shortcircuit this dirty, difficult process for Africa, they would prefer Africa not be allowed to progress at all.

The attitude appalls me, even as I know this kind of paternalism and suspicion of the future is one of the hallmarks of a wealthy, advanced society- the place and time where I was born and for which I am deeply grateful.

Kenya's Akinye Arunga puts it this way: "Cute indigenous lifestyles simply mean indigenous poverty, indigenous malnutrition, indigenous disease and childhood death. I don't wish this on my worst enemy, and I wish our so-called friends would stop imposing it on us."

Read the whole commentary here:\Commentary\archive\200503\COM20050308d.html