Monday, December 31, 2007

My Reading Project: Another Year Toward 1000.

Another year is coming to a close. This day could prompt a range of musings and reflections about the past year, or speculation on what the next will bring. But much of what I've experienced and considered during 2007 is already documented on this blog, and I have no immediate plans to discontinue the project. So I guess it's more appropriate for me to comment on an annual goal that holds personal meaning for me. December 31st is the date that I take stock of my progress toward my reading project. As I mentioned around this time last year, I decided (in my early 20's) that I wanted to read 1000 books, and keep an updated list of them. The standard I set for myself was 40 completed books per year. When I add up my list for 2007, I count 53 titles- one better than last year. My total sum now sits at 671.

I suppose I could take some measure of pride in the fact that I've been averaging one book/week over the last two years. It has required a certain level of focus and commitment to reach these totals. Life is filled with distractions- some meaningful and some merely irritating. In the coming year, I expect to make a lot of adjustments in my life and I'm not certain how my reading habits will be effected. Still I do know that this project is going to remain a priority in my life, for many of the reasons I mentioned last year. It will be interesting to see what I'm willing to sacrifice to meet my new obligations. Likely I will spend less time going out to meet friends and acquaintances. Perhaps I'll watch less movies. Maybe I'll write significantly less. Who knows?

For what it's worth, I present to you my ten most notable reads from 2007 (in no order):

David Simon, Homicide.

- I'd have never guessed that a trade paperback would make this list. Yet this journalistic account of a year with Baltimore homicide detectives was both memorable and haunting. I'm not much for the hour-long police procedural television drama- but the book is worth reading.

Chuck Kinder, Last Mountain Dancer.

-The author's folksy tone provided the backdrop for some interesting anecdotes about a subject of particular interest- West Virginia. If you can't figure out why this state should fascinate me... check this out.

Mary Gaitskill, Bad Behavior.

-This collection of short stories examines the psychosexual obsessions of the women of my generation. I found it enlightening and entertaining. Have you ever seen Shainberg's Secretary? It's loosely based on a tale from this volume.

Steven Millhauser, In the Penny Arcade.

-Whatever Millhauser lacks in emotional depth, he more than makes up for with his fanciful flights of imagination. He creates magical realism in an early Twentieth Century urban setting, and almost makes the case for the prevailing American ethos.

Jason Moss, The Last Victim.

-The author is not a particularly strong writer, nor are his insights especially deep- but this account of a young adult's correspondence with serial killers such as John Wayne Gacy is riveting. The entire setup is just too unique and intriguing to put down.

A.M. Homes, Music for Torching.

-I'm always on the lookout for a distinctive contemporary American voice, as it's fulfilling to follow the development of an author as she enters the prime of her career. Homes is definitely worth watching and exploring in detail. She is mordantly witty and illuminating all at once.

Jon Ronson, The Men Who Stare at Goats.

-I had previously read Ronson's Them- a wacky examination of eccentrics who find their essential meaning through the study of conspiratorial systems. This follow-up was just as entertaining, but with the focus shifted on to the US military... it's a bit spookier as well.

Ann Powers, Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America.

-Here's a sociological study that hit close to home. While reading through this book, I recognized the types of people that Powers interviewed... in fact, I feel as if I've been hanging out with them my whole life. If some future generation finds a reason to be curious about the demographic that I most closely identify with- then this will be an ideal place to start seeking answers.

Gaddis and Long (editors), Panzram: A Journal of Murder.

-If you are squeamish, you might want to skip this one. It is the autobiography of one of the most jaded, vile, unforgiving and prolific criminals in all of American history. And you've likely never heard of him because he was edited out of your public education. Probably a good thing?

George Singleton, The Half-Mammals of Dixie.

-This spot could have easily been filled by one of many fascinating "True Crime" books I've read this year. But given the previous make-up of this list, I figured I'd give you a break. These are rather light stories by a master storyteller of the South. You might not remember reading them a few months later, but you'll laugh if someone jogs your memory with its contents. It happened to me after I lent it out.

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Gabriel Range, "Death of a President" (2006).

If there's one way to be certain about becoming a target of FBI surveillance, it's to craft a documentary about the assassination of a sitting president. In fact, I'm probably taking some kind of risk by writing a review of the movie. But hell- I'm not doing anything wrong, and I'd certainly never advocate violence against the government. It would be a shame to become so paranoid about the erosion of our civil rights that I would find myself censoring my self-expression. I talked to a woman I met at a party the other night, and she was telling me how little trust she has in the US government. Meanwhile she works for them. I don't have an inordinate amount of trust in the leadership of this country either, but I hardly think they have the time and/or resources to invest in tracking down lawful citizens and harassing them. They've got bigger fish to fry than us guppies.

Anyway, I have to admit that I was honestly astonished to find out someone had made a fake documentary about the death of George W. Bush. The decision to work on such a project does seem to cross some line. I don't believe that an American could ever get financing for such a film. In this case that was no problem, as the filmmakers are British. They were obviously not dissuaded by any type of "chilling effect" in the wake of 9-11 and the subsequent "War on Terrorism". I've also been surprised that I've not heard too much of the backlash directed against the release of the film. I'd have to assume that most people in the United States aren't even aware of its existence. One can only imagine that the mainstream media (aside from Fox and AM Radio) would likely downplay any story about this documentary.

When I saw a used copy of Death of a President at Hollywood Video, I was compelled by my own curiosity to take it home and watch it. I wondered whether it would be some perverse type of wish fulfillment on the part of its creators. What I discovered was an extremely well-made movie posing as a conventional documentary. The production values, the performance, the dialog and the editing all seemed indistinguishable from something you'd see on public television. It was completely convincing, as if the events portrayed had actually taken place. It employs both actual media footage and a variety of other camera outputs to add layers of authenticity. Had I just returned to the United States from space, I would have believed I was watching actual history. Given the way the film presents the speculative consequences of the assassination, we should all thank our gods that it never happened.

Anybody of rational mind should be able to figure out that killing the head of our government could never have positive results. Sure... I've heard people make offhand comments that Bush's absence would be welcome. I'm not a big fan of Dubya myself. But who of sane mind would want to face the extreme negative consequences of such an eventuality? For one- we live in a purported "representative democracy". Violence undermines the entire enterprise. If you use such tactics to influence the course of society, then you risk evoking (or actually embracing) the vilest of human tendencies. Additionally such acts of civil disorder only prompt further repressions from whoever is left in the federal government. In Death of a President, we see the new President Cheney push through a new and stricter version of the Patriot Act. We also see him use the fatal attack as an excuse to promote another invasion of a Middle Eastern country.

It's no wild leap of reasoning to suggest that the assassination of our leader would be viewed as an attack of "terrorism", no matter the provenance of the perpetrators. All types of retributions would be justified in response. What scares me most about the scenario portrayed in Death of a President is the remarkable realism of the production. Given that a fiction like this can be made on a relatively small budget, just think what the government itself could do with its unlimited resources. It seems that we can no longer trust our own senses in determining the truth of a situation. We have entered the era of infinite doubt. With modern technologies, we can be led to believe anything at all has happened. Imagine how easy it would be for a manufactured (or virtual) crisis to be put into play.

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Saturday, December 29, 2007

William Friedkin. "Bug" (2006).

It shouldn't come as any surprise that many film critics wrote off the directorial career of William Friedkin in the late 80's. Let's face it- the last movie he made that even attained a measure of cult status was To Live and Die in L.A (1985). This was a long time after he broke out as one among many significant American auteurs, with the undisputed future classics The Exorcist (1973) and The French Connection (1971). Cruising (1980, starring Al Pacino) and Sorcerer (1977, starring Roy Scheider) garnered some interest, but it was pretty clear that Friedkin's star was on the descent. I'm certain that there were a handful of later films that he would now prefer to forget altogether (like Rampage, The Guardian, and Blue Chips). But even if that's not the case, the American public was done with Friedkin long ago.

I imagine that when advanced notice of Bug came out, no one outside of a few friends and relatives of the cast really cared. That's why it is so shocking that Friedkin's latest feature was so distinctive, challenging and polarizing. Who knew that the late-career product of such a has-been would be so effective at generating controversy? Frankly I think a lot of the media and word-of-mouth traction Bug has received was the result of poor marketing. Most people who saw trailers for this film, and noted the cast (including Harry Connick, Jr and Ashley Judd) alongside the title, probably thought they were going to see a modern variation on the classic monster movie genre. That might have been a reasonable expectation, but it was far from the reality.

Bug is based on a successful stage play, and examines the lonely and sordid life of a mother (Judd) who is living in a cheap motel in the middle of nowhere (Oklahoma), after losing her only child. Her only friend RC (a lipstick lesbian, played by the very attractive Lynn Collins) introduces a very strange man into her life when she drops by for a few puffs of some unidentified white-powder-drug. The man (Michael Shannon, who performed the stage role for years) is a soft-spoken enigma, who seems to have gentlemanly manners and a disposition which is simultaneously off-putting and trustworthy. He hasn't had the company of a woman in a long time, but is drawn to something in Ashley Judd's sad little life. Judd has a bit of trouble brewing in the form of her recently released jailbird of an ex-husband (Connick), who she most authoritatively would like to see excised from her life.

So a budding romance begins between two seemingly desperate and pathetic people, and we are happy to see them get one single thing they want out of life. Still, given the disturbing title, we know this isn't a charming love story. It turns out that Shannon has brought something with him, and the questionable discovery of an aphid-like bedbug foreshadows the coming obsessions that will obstruct any potential domestic bliss. What do we actually know about this strange man, who we learn was a gulf war veteran? He's got plenty of exposition for his increasingly odd behavior, and Judd is in no position to get particularly choosy. Like the dream of a train derailment, we feel the force of ill tidings bearing down on the unlikely pair. Naturally things turn out badly, but I'm not going into the details, because that would ruin the fun.

What you should know is that Bug is not a campy popcorn flick (but I wouldn't discount its potential to rightfully assume its place in the "horror" pantheon). It is a serious portrayal of the obsessive paranoia and madness of our times. Friedkin has made such an odd little allegory of the zeitgeist that much of its meaning is going to be completely lost on the audience that ends up viewing it. Alternatively, a group of unconventional film connoisseurs is going to stumble upon it and extol its virtues, giving it an extended life on DVD. Years from now it may even be considered as a representative artifact of the era- much like the Exorcist is now. Regardless, I don't think Friedkin will ever have cause to regret making Bug. Its performances and compelling premise will captivate a select few for a long time.

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Setting the Terms of Arrival.

I suppose that it is inevitable, given my present circumstances, that most everybody I come into contact with wants to talk about the child implanted in my wife's womb. Given the fact that impending fatherhood is an undeniable prospect for me, I suppose inquiries about my perceptions of the experience are completely appropriate. It likely reflects the interest that my friends take in my life and well-being. Still the constant redirection to a single aspect of my being gets a bit tiresome. In some ways I suppose that it's like any other major event in a person's life- after repeating oneself again and again, it's easy to want to change the subject and talk about something else. But I realize that it's not really fair to deflect genuine concern and curiosity. So I continue to respond with what have become canned insights and sound bytes.

The question remains nonetheless. What is happening with this baby? Well, last we heard he has reached the hefty weight of eight pounds and nine ounces. According to M. he has a big fat belly like a happy Buddha. According to the doctors and technicians who've examined him via ultrasound, he is a stubborn kid. He's simply not motivated to turn over and shift around on command. And why would he be? He's got a pretty good deal as it stands. He's got a loving mother who has made every effort to provide a sound and healthy environment for him to grow in. It's warm in there, and he doesn't have to do shit in order to receive proper nutrients or to void his wastes. From his perspective, he can just kick back and set his own schedule. He's probably not aware that anything can be done about that.

The reality is that humans have developed all manner of techniques to make the unborn conform to logistical necessities. You see, if this kid stays in M.'s belly until he is "full-term", then there is probably little chance that he's going to be delivered naturally. So M.'s obstetrician would like her to do whatever is possible to get him moving. This entails going for long walks, eating spicy food and (ahem) sex. While I understand the factors involved, it's a bit difficult for me to come to grips with the latter method. There's just something about the thought of invading my youngster's little comfy space that is a bit unsettling. I keep thinking that his skull is still soft, and that he is resting with his head pointed downward. It's not that I'm endowed with such formidable assets that I'd really present a threat (as such), but the psychological aspects of these maneuvers might be difficult for me to negotiate.

Anyway, if he isn't prompted from above or below, he's going to eventually reach a size that will require a c-section for his delivery. Since the beginning of the pregnancy, M. and I have been aware of the odds of having made what would turn out to be a huge baby. Given the fact that all the males in my family have been quite hefty, it would have been silly to delude ourselves with dreams of easy birthing. So the possibility of having to face a surgical procedure seemed very concrete. Obviously such medical interventions carry with them additional risks which we'd like to minimize. Additionally, the recovery period from c-section deliveries is much longer and more problematic than those of "natural birth". Still, the both of us find it very odd that the United States is one of the few developed nations where doctors resist giving the parents the option of a c-section.

Either way I have resolved to have very little say in the matter. I can't help but wonder if this whole phase is portentous of future parenting experiences. Both M. and I are extremely willful individuals. It seems to follow that we should expect our little boy to embody a similar spirit. Will he learn early on that he can get his way by simple and unyielding immobility? Is he going to assume an entitlement that dictates the quality of our shared lives? It seems that when I get to the point of considering these mysteries, I always end up reminding myself that it is simply folly to speculate about what "will be". Yet that bridge that I'm going to cross when I come to it draws ever near.


Thursday, December 27, 2007

So it seems...

Sometimes (on rare occasions) I realize that posting every day is not necessary.


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Albert Nerenberg, "Stupidity" (2006).

Today I stumbled on a documentary that I hadn't heard about. Its title was "Stupidity", and (naturally?) the face of our sitting president was featured on the cover. Nowadays it's a commonly accepted cliche that we are led by a man who is (at best) not particularly smart. There is even a cartoon on cable television that features a cartoon-version of a young George W. Bush that episodically reveals his vast idiocy. Had the cover of this DVD placed the "smirking chimp" front-and-center, I probably would have left it on the shelf. You have to give me more than that- it's just too obvious an attack. It wouldn't even be any fun. But instead there's a teen with a dunce cap being worshiped by a crowd, and Osama Bin Laden flanked by Bert (of Sesame Street fame). When I flipped the package over and noticed the Disinformation logo on the back, I was virtually sold.

The Disinformation imprint has become notable for issuing risky media that challenges the conventional perspective on a variety of topics- including politics, art, culture and social issues. I appreciate what they do, and so I decided to support them by buying Stupidity. Since I had no idea what points the filmmakers would be making, I popped it in this evening. It was basically what you might imagine- an examination of the concept of "stupidity" and plenty of documentation of its many incarnations within our culture. Of course its creators needed to define the word first, before it could draw some conclusions about its ramifications. It turns out that "stupidity" is a fluid idea, and not so easy to pin down. The most convincing definition I heard had to do with the inability to process information that violates one's internal schema.

At this point it may be useful to draw discriminations between terms like "idiot", "imbecile" and "moron". Incidentally, the documentary tells us that these words were invented to describe the lower score ranges on the very first I.Q. tests. They were originally very specifically applied, and only later found traction in common parlance. It could well be that these descriptors were disseminated so quickly, and now appear so frequently, primarily because there is so much in our society worthy of being described with these words. Surprisingly though, "stupidity" hasn't been the subject of many academic studies. Several talking heads in the film were asked why that should be, and a few speculations were offered. Perhaps the most convincing argument was that researching the phenomenon would lead to the attainment of insights that would ultimately introduce a responsibility for our society's leaders. And it appears that many influential groups within our nation would rather that the populace embrace stupidity.

It should come as no surprise that the quality of television was a prominent subject in the film. I often marvel at the extreme stupidity of the programming our corporate media groups offer us. (The filmmakers treat us to excerpts from modern-day stupidity-fests such as Jackass and Steve-O to underscore the depths we have collectively reached) Obviously it is in the best interest of those in power to encourage us to be uncritical of "the way things are and must be". This is the strategy they employ in order to consolidate and increase their wealth and control. We must be led to continue a sheep-like consumerist existence. The shows themselves are meant to defuse our mental faculties, and leave us more vulnerable to the real "content" of the platform- the advertisements. The same thing applies to Hollywood, which also gets tough treatment in Stupidity. The stories we are told reinforce simplistic absolutes that can be manipulated to manage us easily and effectively. We are hypnotized by these simple, black-and-white messages and the accompanying titillation provided by violence, sex and the "glamor" of consumption. These are all necessary for an era of global capitalist dominance.

Now we get to the part with George W. Bush. The charge of "stupidity" has often been levied against him. But is this the reality, or a carefully crafted and intentional facade? It seems reasonable (at least) to accuse him of extreme intellectual laziness. He's always admitted this to be the case (and historical analysis confirms it). Furthermore, if you believe what he says about the role of his Christian faith in his politics, you'd have to accept that he meets the definition of "stupidity". For there is nothing characteristically "Christian" about how he has run the country. Rather than using a considered personal spirituality to guide his policy, he merely sets up a schema that cannot ever be confronted on a rational basis. He has used the strategy of public perception management to infantilize the citizenry with absolutist fairy tales about vast indeterminate struggles between "good" and "evil". Still he seems to get his way every single time, despite the numerous examples of communicative idiocy he displays that lead many to think of him as a "boob".

Whether or not Bush is indeed "stupid" is mostly beside the point at this late date. What his presidency has shown is that a substantial proportion of the US population is vulnerable to an anti-intellectualism that allows those in power (corporations and government both) to enhance their positions at the expense of just about everybody on Earth. So who exactly is "stupid"?

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Outsider Photography?

It seems inevitable that in the process of Christmas shopping, I end up finding a few things that are just right as gifts... for myself. Somehow it feels easier to justify indulging myself while I am buying stuff for other people. These are the type of objects that I would love receiving as a present from someone else. It's just that the chances of getting something that I would purchase spontaneously approach zero in likelihood. That's not to say that my tastes are too oblique for others to determine- but rather that they are rather widespread, and there's no way for anyone else to figure out whether or not I already have a particular item in my collection. Anyway, when I stopped by Half Priced Books the other day, I had an idea I'd be taking home some choice items to keep.

I was impressed to discover that someone (Chronicle Books in San Francisco) saw fit to publish a volume of "outsider photography". I've always been drawn to artwork that originates from outside of the art school pantheon. That's likely because I didn't attend art school, and have very little formal education in anything having to do with art. So whether it's the work of the insane, the incarcerated, the reclusive, or the addled- I'd like to see it. Whatever it actually is- it generally falls under one of a few different classifications tagged with words including visionary, outsider, folk, primitive, naive, or "Art Brut". There are already numerous collections of painters and sculptors who fit within this broad category, and the conventional art world has taken notice. Within certain cultural circles, the names Howard Finster, Henry Darger, Adolf Wolfli and Charles Benefiel are quite well-known.

But what about C.T. McCluskey, Alexandre Lobanov, Morton Bartlett, and Joe "40,000" Murphy? Do any of those names ring a bell? Most likely not, because all of them used components of photography in their work... and that is one medium that is still too often overlooked within the art community. Perhaps it's because the materials of photography have always been so readily available. Everyone has snapshots lying around their house- one need not consider themselves an "artist" to grab the camera and take some shots. There's a certain intentionality implicit in painting and sculpture that suggests that the perpetrator of such activities knows what they are getting themselves into. On the other hand we simply take it for granted that anyone can take some pictures. Very seldom do we see it as the proper business of "the artist".

Create and Be Photographed: Photography on the Edge (edited by John Turner and Deborah Klochko) presents the work of seventeen "largely self-taught artists who have used photographs or photographic elements in their creation." This study has broad enough parameters that include photo montage, collage, manipulation, and tableau methodologies. Whether the artist is setting up a fantastic scene, gluing cut-out photos into a work, or painting over the top of a photograph- he/she is employing non-conventional means to express a wildly idiosyncratic and personalized vision. Few of the artists in this book ever had any intention to engage the world of exhibition and commerce. Like their painting and sculptural kin, they are driven by inner obsessions to express themselves through their artwork. For them photography isn't necessarily about documenting "what is"- but rather "what would never be", without their own mediation.

I think the editors are on to something when they declare that this sub-field of art appreciation is largely unrealized. Who knows what unseen gems are going to see the light of exposure in the near future? For decades people have been defining their relationships with the external world through the eyes of cameras. With digital technology increasingly replacing film processes that limited the scope of participation, we are bound to see a further expansion in the numbers and variety of "outsider photography". Who knows what we'll find on vast photo-sharing sites such as Flickr? This most democratic of platforms is bound to stimulate a new renaissance in photography. For those engaging the world of the lens (and whatever side of it that they find themsleves on) there is an array of adventures to be discovered*.

* Check out this and this...

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Monday, December 24, 2007

The War on Christmas Continues.

Do you have any Christmas rituals that you participate in year-to-year? For me, Christmas Eve means one thing only- it's time to do my bit for the "War on Christmas". I don't know if you are aware of it, but there's been a long and bloody conflict being waged throughout this great nation for decades. The shock troops are geared up and ready, and both sides are digging in for the long and bloody annual siege. Yes, I am doing my part. I've been all around town today, engaging the enemy's front on the battle or words. Complete strangers have been firing salvos, and each time the dreaded words "Merry Christmas" wound me just a little bit more. All I can do is hunker down and return the attack with the most trusty weapon of all... I respond with "Happy Holidays", and then it's on.

Every year the great heroes are feted. The ever-expanding and evil empire of Walmart is abuzz with activity. The AM radio stations have their fight songs on a continuous loop- strains of melody extolling the battlefield legends like Santa and Christ fill the air. Formidable sums of money are spent in a frantic arms race to determine who exactly is the merriest of all. Tonight the city will grow quiet and the Christian soldiers will gather for their solemn ceremonies in the churches of all the great neighborhoods throughout the metropolis. They will fortify themselves with the words of their illustrious incense-bearing generals. They will cast their beady eyes around their ill-lit chambers, and see that there are strangers in their midst. Some of them will be wearing jeans, and that will be cause for alarm. It may occur to them that the enemy has infiltrated their camp. Still their resolve will be strong to carry their banner forever.

On the other side, Jews and atheists will be undermined by the insidious consumerism that each side will bemoan as the tactic of their enemy. There's often no way to tell who is who in this indeterminate and seemingly endless war. Some will even try to extricate themselves and stake a claim of neutrality. But they are fooling only themselves. There is no value-neutral path. You are either with us or against us. This message is broadcast in diverse ways, but is unmistakable. The propaganda machine is fueled by the fervor of the righteous. Half the houses in your town will be lit with the warm colors of festivity and energy consumption. You will have some mission to fulfill, as no one is left untouched by the madness of war. Some will seek to inure themselves from the pain by consuming spirits, while others will bravely make due with unadulterated egg nog or diet coke.

What marks this year as different from all those preceding it? Who are the bold foot soldiers who have distinguished themselves with true and mighty valor? In listening for dispatches from the militarized zone last week, I heard the inspiring story of a suburban man who has erected a 15-foot cross on his front lawn. Now this would not be particularly notable in this climate of terror, as many have seen fit to erect gaudy displays meant to honor their symbols of victory. But this cross has an unusual figure nailed to it- it is that fat and bearded jolly bastard Santa Claus. Reportedly his neighbors are divided on the meaning of this gesture. Could this be a message to both sides in this soul-depleting conflict? Should we continue to invest our resources in such a fruitless and divisive fight? Is it good for us? Is it good for the larger society? Must we continue until the other side is vanquished permanently?

Meanwhile Kevin Miller over at KDKA 1020 has been seeking to expand the sphere of conflict beyond its typical borders. Not content to merely decry the enemies of Christmas, he has taken it upon himself- not just to work on X-mas Eve, but to issue a new war cry for the traditionalists among his people. That's right, friends and neighbors. He has taken a bold and courageous step. He is calling for the return of "the dress". This holiday season (according to Miller) we should seize the spirit to return to the halcyon days of old. We should hearken back to the pure days of Eden, and remember the wise words of our Christian fathers- it is for the men to wear the pants in a family. There might be a role for women in The War on Christmas, but it is vitally important that they do their fighting in a dress. Otherwise they will never be "ladies".* And so it goes in our war-torn society.

* I swear to Santa that I'm not making this up.

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Look @ Pittsburgh Forum.

Listen. I know that I am often extraordinarily tough on suburban/exurbanites on this blog. I realize that it would probably be better for my mental health if I stopped thinking in such contentious terms about a demographic that makes up a large proportion of our nation. And I want to make it absolutely clear that I don't believe that all of them are evil. In fact I don't really believe in evil, per se- so I guess this last admission is a bit weightless. Still the truth is that I have met and known a number of people in those communities that are well-meaning and rational. Indeed I am even related to some of them. Conversely there is no shortage of "bad apples" in the cities. One only needs to turn on the network evening news to reinforce that point.Now that my disclaimer is out-of-the-way, I'm going to draw a bead on ex/suburbanites once again. I'm going to do this because a lot of them simply piss me off.

Here's what I've been doing a lot of lately- I've been visiting the message board forums of the City-Data Web Site. This is an incredible resource for people all over the nation to learn about cities that they are considering traveling to or relocating in. The concept is democratic, sound and compelling. If you want to know something about a certain place, what better way to find out about it than to ask someone who lives there? I think it's a truly great site. I love that there is a public forum that anybody can contribute to, and air his/her opinions about home-town, USA. Of course there is another side to this accessibility- one doesn't need to be thoughtful, open-minded, fair and/or balanced to add his/her two cents. As long as you stay in the general area of civility, then your posts remain. This can be simultaneously liberating and infuriating.

I think it's important to engage people that have radically different perspectives from our own. If we only ever discuss issues with folks that are like us, we aren't likely to ever broaden or refine our thinking. The opportunity to discuss items with a wide variety of people has kept me frequenting message boards for years. I've learned some useful things and stimulated some extraordinarily heated interchanges. I am sometimes difficult and occasionally adversarial (just as I am in person). But so far I have never been asked to leave, and I am hardly ever censored. Considering how invested I have been in some of these debates, I am proud of my record. At the same time, I am also shocked at what posters are willing to put into public print.

You might think that a site named would have a large proportion of urban dwellers offering their insights. Yet there seems to be a vast majority of ex/suburbanites weighing in with their opinions. This is unfortunate because few of them actually have any depth of experience with the elements of the cities that they are commenting on. It's an odd phenomenon that those who have sought to avoid the problems of the city seem to consider themselves the most qualified to pronounce judgments about them. I have read an avalanche of unfounded assumptions, a plethora of distortion, and an excess of disinformation during the few weeks I have been logging on to City-Data. I am sometimes so overwhelmed by the limited viewpoints that I despair for the future of the entire nation. But on the other hand, I now have a much better handle on general politics.

Here are a few quotes about Pittsburgh that are freely available on the forum (enjoy):

On race: "Stating that people are moving because of race is something that the evidence doesn't support."

"Certainly, not ALL blacks are criminals, nor do all of us white folks believe they are. It might be good to try and not be so sensitive to racial issues. "

"Pittsburgh's suburbs might not be diverse, but they are not full of racist. There are plenty of diverse neighborhoods in Pittsburgh for people who want diversity. And for people who could care less one way or another, there are plenty of less diverse neighborhoods that will welcome anyone regardless of their race."

On local schools: "We are the #1 state for teacher strikes, so if you'd like to raise a little hell at work and extort tax money from your local community, PA is your place! Unfortunately, if you pay property taxes or have school-age children in public schools, PA isn't so great... "

"Yeah, if you feel like stealing from the poor in order to make too much money, then Pittsburgh is for you. The Union is strong here, so you have no worries. The extra money will help you pay for all high property taxes the strikes have caused."

On local leisure: "There is nothing to do in this city. Unless you want to go to South Side and get drunk with the annoying college crowd, there is nothing to do. And if you decide to go to South Side and go to a decent bar like Fat Heads or Piper's there is no way to get home because there are NO cabs in the city."

On City Planning: "I just wish there was more of a police presence in downtown. Free or MUCH cheaper parking is another biggie. I really hate having to pay 8 bucks to "window shop." "

"Pittsburgh needs to make the city safer by having more of a police presence and then bonds or funds to help tear down and rebuild some of the really gritty, dirty areas. A few things have been done, but it is scattered throughout the city that there is no real "good" side of town. Shadeyside has a street - one street that makes it nice."

" Too much "preservation" and not enough knock downs and rebuilds in the dying (Pittsburgh) cities."


Saturday, December 22, 2007

Now What Do I Do?

Nobody ever said that today's media-sphere made life simple, did they? Because if they did, they were lying. I realize that my point is going to seem melodramatic once I explain it, but I'm willing to take that risk. You see, M. and I completed our viewing of the 3rd season of Lost today. We ordered it from Amazon a month ago and had it in our possession for less than two weeks. In that short time we've watched all 23 episodes. There were several days when I had intermittent thoughts about the show throughout the morning and afternoon, knowing full well that we'd make time for one or two episodes in the evening. Every single time that happened I found myself well satisfied. Lost is an excellent show, and I'm no more bored with its premise or execution than when we started Season One. Perhaps that's because we didn't have to delay our gratification to any great degree. Now circumstances are different.

The Fourth Season of Lost is due to begin its network (ABC) run on January 31, 2008. The die is cast, and now we have a decision to make. Will we wait until next Fall/Winter, when the DVD package comes out with this batch of episodes? Or will we find some way to see the show as it is released, week-by-week. In many areas ABC is a station that people can pick up via antennae. But for some reason we can't get it where we live. In order to watch it in the comfort of our own home, we'd have to sign up for a cable or satellite package. I haven't researched the options but I believe such a move would cost us between $50 and $100 per month. Can I justify this type of expenditure with a baby on his way? If so, do I really want to?

Years ago M. and I committed to the choice not to have cable television. M. was convinced that if we had access to a multitude of channels, she would waste a lot of time in front of the boob tube. I have no doubt that her instincts would be proven correct if we tested them. Despite the fact that we only receive two network stations and PBS, I often find her enraptured by the easy distraction of beamed images. It doesn't matter how bad a program is- she'll watch it anyway. When FOX was running the syndicated Simpsons and Seinfeld, it wasn't too difficult to justify getting plugged in. But then they replaced Simpsons with Two and a Half Men, and no human being could possibly explain their presence in a room tainted with that pap. So we're stuck with The Nightly Business Report.

Anyway, I will do whatever I can to resist giving in to the temptation to pay for substandard entertainment. I don't understand why 'they' don't simply let you pick-and-choose the channels you want. I know that the technology currently exists to allow expanded consumer choice. I'd be willing to pay a premium to avoid supporting a lot of the crap that the corporations try to force-feed a nation of "sheeple". I'll even pay by the minute if I have to. Give me IFC, Encore and (maybe) the History Channel, and I'll be perfectly satisfied. Or better yet... eliminate channels altogether and simply let us pick from the individual shows themselves. If I find myself with 300 options to choose from, I'll inevitably find myself wasting time surfing for something exceptional. Of course I'll rarely find it.

Yet if I don't give in to the arbitrary paradigm of 'programming', I'll have to wait until everybody else has seen the shows that I plan to purchase on DVD. I'll run the constant risk of some indiscreet yahoo ruining the mystery and anticipation with written or spoken spoilers. Even eavesdropping in a public place includes the danger that I might overhear what just happened to my favorite character. So what am I to do? I could isolate myself in my home and limit any unavoidable conversation to people with no interest in the type of entertainment that I enjoy. I can be forever vigilant, and ready to cover my ears at any hint of disclosure. Or I can try to find someone else who has a cable package, and is willing to let me come over every week to watch Lost. I'll have to sacrifice my Thursdays on the altar of J.J. Abrams and Brian Burk, and hope that nothing comes up in the life of whomever I'm relying on to provide the means to get my weekly fix. That'll be fun.

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Friday, December 21, 2007

James Ellroy, "My Dark Places" (1997).

In November I wrote a review for James Ellroy's Black Dahlia (1987). That piece of hard-boiled crime fiction introduced me to the author's obsessions with the seedy Los Angeles of the 40's and 50's. His subsequent stories of mid-Twentieth Century Southern California were increasingly lauded, and he was touted as the spiritual heir of such Noir writers as Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler. He could never be accused of downplaying the more sensational details in his tales, and several of his books (including L.A. Confidential) were eventually adapted for the big-screen. Ellroy's mix of gritty realism and salacious trimmings owes itself in part to his own experiences growing up in and around L.A.

The tragic plight of Geneva Hilliker is perhaps the defining moment of James Ellroy's life. Hilliker was found in 1958, slaughtered and dumped off on an access road leading into a public school complex. She had been strangled with stocking and cord ligatures, and was partially disrobed. Although the 11-year old James Ellroy seemed to be nonchalant about this event, it would later return to haunt him. Geneva Hilliker was his mother. Ellroy's parents were initially separated by age (his father Armand was over a decade older), and later by hard emotions and thwarted expectations. Because of Armand Ellroy's inability to hold down a steady job in his later years, Geneva was awarded custody of James. Mother Geneva struggled to keep her household afloat in order to provide a decent environment for her child. Meanwhile his father still took him on the weekends, and took every opportunity to poison his son's mind against his mom.

Because of Armand Ellroy's systematic campaign against Geneva Hilliker, James viewed her murder as something of a blessing. He had been convinced that his mother was a drunken whore, and looked forward to spending all of his time with his indulgent father. The younger Ellroy was on such a long leash that he had the run of a string of neighborhoods in downtown Los Angeles. It didn't take him very long to find trouble. He became a peeping tom and a petty thief, and found himself incarcerated more than once during his young adulthood. Throughout his 20's he abused alcohol until his body was just about ruined. Forced sobriety led him to consider the trajectory of his life, and he became a golf caddy and an aspiring author. Eventually he garnered both national sales and critical acclaim.

In the early 90's Ellroy was moved to come to terms with the memories of his mother. He had repressed the meaning of her life and death for way too long. He decided to re-investigate her murder, which had never been solved. He enlisted cops and reporters in his quest, and set out to find the answers that would define the missing parts of himself. Obviously the nearly forty intervening years had left a tremendously cold trail. Ellroy tried to get his hands on whatever records survived from the initial investigation. He identified a list of living witnesses, with the help of his buddies and contacts in law enforcement. He set up a chain of interviews which started in the little bar in which Geneva was last seen, and extended in concentric circles that stretched far across the country.

Along the way Ellroy was forced to confront plenty of unpleasant details about his mother's life. Most of us would probably be indelibly scarred by much of the information he unearthed. Yet this upheaval instead evoked much emotional re-evaluation in the son. The brutal honesty of Ellroy's evolving reflections on the case reveals the author in ways that a dispassionate account could never do. It is often difficult to like James Ellroy, as we accompany him on his harrowing personal journey. Unfortunately his clinical approach and irritatingly repetitive style drags the impact of My Dark Places down into a murky police-procedural mess. But in the gloomy corners of his prose one finds an occasional glimpse of humanity that comes across unexpectedly. If Ellroy had employed a better editor, this might have had the potential to become a classic within the genre.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

How to spend a pre-holiday Friday night in Pittsburgh.

As one might expect, happenings around town this weekend are limited by the looming holiday. I guess it is assumed that most people will be expending all their energy and money on gift shopping. While I believe that's a fair assumption, it doesn't take into account the sizable minority of the population who have little or no inclination to observe Christmas. Likewise there are a number of folks looking to spend their time in non-traditional ways- such as going out to an art opening and/or seeing a show. Despite the fact that spending time with family is obligatory (for many of us), we should be forgiven for wanting a break from them. Before you write off the coming days as an opportunity to stay in and get drunk by yourself, allow me to make a couple of suggestions for tomorrow evening.

Bob Ziller and August Rolin will host an opening reception for their work at The Beehive on Friday night, from 6-9PM. Ziller has been curating the series of storefronts along Carson Street that make up this coffeehouse for as long as most of us can remember. As a result many artists have gotten their starts exhibiting on Beehive walls. Once in awhile Bob will book an already-established artist who isn't necessarily obsessed with selling his/her work. Although patrons have always been able to purchase artwork from the Hive, many who have shown there see it simply as an opportunity for greater exposure. Perhaps you have a series of pieces that doesn't jive with mainstream commercial intentions. Or maybe you just don't want the pressure of thinking about selling your art as "product". The Beehive is a niche that allows you to primarily focus on presentation and free expression. There's no cost to hang your stuff, and thousands of people will end up seeing it. Bob takes a loose approach to curating the shop, so don't let fears of rejection stop you. If you are looking to bring your work out into the public eye- get in touch with him. I know that now is a great time to get in on the action.

Anyway, Ziller has grabbed the chance to roll out some of his own work. I don't know what he's planning to exhibit, but chances are that it will be thought-provoking and contain a hearty dose of ironic humor. He's never been afraid of taking risks, and he doesn't get hung up in adhering to any particular style or form. Ziller makes conceptual art for the common man... not just for those with an MFA. Meanwhile, August Rolin's work is immediately identifiable as his own. His drawings are illustrative fantasy works depicting all manner of strange, humanoid, mythical beasts. They are vaguely reminiscent of Japanese calligraphy painting, but at the same time they create a visual lexicon that is personally idiosyncratic. Stop in and meet these accomplished creators, and let them know how much you appreciate the venue.

After you are done with the South Side (and given that weekend evenings get extremely irritating in that neighborhood... it shouldn't be an all-nighter), make your way over to the Brillo Box on Penn Avenue (Lawrenceville/Bloomfield). The proprietors have been kind enough to offer up a special treat tomorrow night. Slim Cessna (of Auto Club fame) will be performing with his son George. If you haven't seen Cessna's solo show- you should know that it encapsulates a bit of the magic that you've come to expect from the full band, but has an intimacy that you really can't get among an amped-up crowd of revivalists. It's a bit quieter and a mite slower, and that means you've got a better chance of digesting his message. Some have made the mistake of assuming that Cessna is merely a Christian rock act. In some ways, that couldn't be further from the truth. Not only is the idea reductionist, but also extremely narrow-minded. Still, the only way you are going to know the truth is to see him in person.

So come out an see what is on offer tomorrow. The Anonymous Schizoids and Corn Pone open up for Slim Cessna (and son!), and it all starts at 10 PM for just $5.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Who is Mike Huckabee?

It's remarkable how quickly the political landscape can shift leading up to the primaries. If you'd have asked me six weeks ago, I would have told you that Rudy Giuliani was a virtual shoe-in as the Republican candidate for the 2008 presidential election. But no sooner had Pat Robertson endorsed him, then the race began to markedly change. Despite the illustrious support of the hate-mongering host of the 700 Club, it appears that Christian Conservatives are unsure about Giuliani's reactionary credentials. I knew that they would have a problem getting behind the pro-gay, pro-choice, and pro-gun control former mayor of NYC- but I didn't think they would decide on an alternative as quickly as they have. It really seems like the Evangelical rank-and-file is preparing to line up behind Mike Huckabee.

Not too long ago this former Arkansas Governor looked like a long-shot. The only thing most people knew about him was that he had recently dropped 110 pounds of excess weight. Few realized that he is an ordained Baptist minister. Huckabee has used this fact to knock Romney from his second place standings in the polls. By strategically bringing his Mormon competitor's beliefs into question, he has managed to bring his own faith into the forefront. After watching this not-so-subtle but effective maneuver, I wondered what other surprises Huckabee had up his sleeve. As his political star rises, his record and positions are going to be analyzed in much greater depth. I wanted to get a head start in understanding where he is coming from.

Huckabee was born into a middle class Arkansan family in 1955. He attended Baptist universities, and upon graduation worked as a staff member for a televangelist. Later he served as a pastor for several Baptist congregations and became president of the Arkansas State Baptist Convention. He credits "divine intervention" for much of his success , and has publicly stated that politics and religion are absolutely inseparable. Huckabee considers abortion akin to "holocaust", characterizes homosexuality as abberrant, unnatural and sinful, and opposes gun control. He has supported a "Covenant Marriage Act"- which seeks to limit divorce and the resulting lawsuits, and compels troubled partners to seek counseling. He has tried to designate October as "Student Religious Liberty Month" in an effort to promote school prayer. And Huckabee has been clear about his belief that creationism should be presented in public schools.

Despite his social conservatism- when Huckabee was running for state Lieutenant Governor he worked to be seen as a political moderate. This was on the advice of his campaign manager, Dick Morris. When he ascended to the Governor's Office, he made good on his promises. He tried to adjust property taxes to make school funding equal across the state. He tried to put a small portion of the state's sales tax toward parks and resources. He made an effort to decrease the number of children in Arkansas without health insurance. In his second term as governor, Huckabee mandated annual body mass index measurements for all public school children. At the same time he tended to more frivolous pursuits like deciding where the University of Arkansas should play its football games, and playing in a band called "Capitol Offense".

Despite his generally wholesome public perception, Huckabee has garnered some controversy. He is quite vulnerable to the influence of campaign contributors. Having been bought and paid for by the poultry industry, he has worked hard to fight measures to decrease water pollution. He also granted clemency to a longtime supporter named Eugene Fields, who had been convicted of four 'driving while intoxicated' charges. More damningly Huckabee has been criticized for granting clemency to a convicted rapist (Wayne Dumond), for what some have called political reasons. When Dumond was released with Huckabee's help, he went on to sexually assault and murder at least one woman in Missouri.

A lot of fiscal conservatives are loath to throw their support behind Huckabee, as they accuse him of having been a tax-and-spend Governor. Still Huckabee backs the "Fair Tax", which would replace all existing federal taxes with a single national sales tax. Meanwhile his stance on immigration is also raising eyebrows. Although he claims to be in favor of a secure border, Huckabee would also like to see illegal immigrants extended rights and benefits including college scholarships and the free access to jobs. He says he has never heard of an incident where a lawful citizen's opportunity to work was supplanted by an illegal immigrant. In his opinion they merely occupy jobs that Americans "don't want". That contention should resound heavily in the ears of the American worker.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Personal YouTube Night. Vol 4.

It's been over a month since I broke into my treasure trove of YouTube videos. True to form, I have reached a blank space wherein I really can't think of anything timely that I would like to address. So sit back, grab a hot tea or a scotch... and enjoy these offerings. It's a wonderful world that we live in.

1. I don't know anything at all about the electronica band that scored this video. I have been told that the footage itself was not made specifically for the song. It's from a bicycle safety training film. How can something be so eerie and frivolous simultaneously? It's haunting and nostalgic- but it's also really funny. The music is hypnotic and served to draw me in to this peculiar atmosphere. I have to warn you- you may want to watch it again and again.

Watch the Video

2. Frankly, I've always found those When Animals Attack videos to be fairly cheesy, and often in bad taste. But this is almost unbearably sweet. It just so happens that it involves specimens from my two favorite classifications of animals. This pick serves as irrefutable proof that I'm not irredeemably jaded. I can indeed appreciate the simpler things in life.

Watch the Video

3. Sometimes there's very few reference points for selected YouTube clips. This is a tremendously surrealistic piece of pop candy. After repeated viewings, I've found that the best way to process it is to sit back and view it uncritically. Who created it? Why? These questions are beyond the point. There are some disturbing undercurrents to it- but nothing I believe my readers can't handle. Know this- there is a happy ending here. If you've ever wondered what "wtf" meant... here's your answer.

Watch the Video

4. Growing up in the Northeast during the 70's and 80's, you couldn't help seeing a television commercial for "Crazy Eddie" (his prices were in-sane!). He sold electronics to all the good people. It would be interested to see a compilation of such low production ad spots from all over the country. You can really tell a lot about a regional culture from these things. Here's a perfect example:

Watch the Video

5. OOOhhh... spooky! You know I could never construct a list of these things without including at least item featuring urban ruins. We had a similar abandoned asylum here in Western PA, which seemed to bring out the creative juices of a host of young gen-X'ers. Fortunately, we actually get narration with this clip, describing the various uses of the building over the years. For full reward... watch this alone, at night, and with all the lights off.

Watch the Video

6. Remember all of those old cereal commercials you used to see in between Saturday morning cartoons? They always made you want to tell mom to run out and get you some delectably sugary treats. This will bring you back to those days... kind of. Whoever made this took a side trip somewhere along his/her development. This really isn't for the kids (at all). Notable quote: "Candy for breakfast? My mom would beat me to death with a whiskey bottle if I had candy for breakfast."

Watch the Video

7. Did you think that all the adults were lying to you when they warned you about the dangers of LSD? You didn't believe them, did you? And that's why you ended up having conversations with your food. But you have no one but yourself to blame. This is a 60's-era educational film about the subject. Perhaps you should thank god that this wasn't you. Because you would have been messed up forever. Some of us are more resilient than others. This has a SAD ending.

Watch the Video

And with that nonsense behind us, I bid you adieu.


Monday, December 17, 2007

Performance Enhancement.

Today I had a delay before work, and had an opportunity to stop on my way and pick up some performance enhancing drugs at the local coffee chain. It's no secret that I am not a morning person. Every person who deals with me during the first half of the day is no doubt effected. I'd love to make caffeine a part of my everyday morning ritual, but unfortunately my digestive system can't bear up under the acid in standardly-brewed coffee. For some reason, espresso doesn't have the same ill effects on my stomach lining. Would that I could process that dark and bitter sludge the convenience stores serve up- that would make a lot of folks very happy. So anyway, there's a little extra treat for those in my presence today.

The whole idea of this legal stimulant makes me think a lot about the current hubbub affecting major league baseball. I wonder what would happen if employers throughout our nation suspended and/or fined their employees for chemically "enhancing" their job performance. I imagine there would probably be a revolution the likes of which our good old forefather Jefferson called for when he talked of the blood that nourishes the tree of liberty. It seems to me rather hypocritical to pick on these multimillionaire heroes basking in the public spotlight. Our society demands extremes- run faster, get stronger, and work harder. Is it really any surprise that professional sports figures look for that extra edge? There is so much (not the least of it huge sums of money) riding on the outcomes of these games.

I think it's important to remember that these contests are games. Yet at the same time, they serve a very crucial role in our particular society. They condition us for war. It may seem flippant to make a comparison between an amusement played with a ball, and the blood-drenched activities of war. Obviously warfare has a greater power to change lives permanently. But our sports obsession grounds young people in the concepts of militarism, and without sports I think it would be more difficult to conduct our special form of international diplomacy. How do we get our populace to understand the idea of "us versus them"? In what ways can we illuminate the importance of victory for its own sake and at any cost... or for no discernible purpose at all? For such answers- simply attend a high school football game on Friday night, or go over to your friend's house on any Sunday during Autumn or Winter.

Clearly then, if winning is the important thing... we must do everything we can to meet that goal. There used to be something called "good sportsmanship", which included elaborate structures and the threat of peer disapproval as a response to violations of this informal code. There also (not coincidentally) used to be "rules of engagement" in war. The time when "will to power" was tempered by such attitudes is long gone. The tragedies of the Twentieth Century made them obsolete. We have finally and completely accepted "total war", and this means the only acceptable outcome is victory at any cost. Try suggesting that our soldiers should limit their means for winning on the battlefield- you will risk being called a defeatist, or even worse- a traitor.

Given the current state of things- when I heard President Bush's comments on the George Mitchell report concerning doping among baseball players, I was appalled by the (admittedly customary) hypocrisy. Dubya's actions in the War on Terror have not been mitigated by international law nor the guarantees of the Bill of Rights. He will go to any lengths to achieve his objectives (whatever they may actually be). If you think the US military would stop short of administering performance-enhancing drugs to our armed forces, then you are hopelessly naive. I know that the latest revelations about athletes "cheating" with steroids sets a bad example for our children, but there is nothing novel about this in the world of sports today... nor in the sphere of actual militarism. Of course (as usual) the mainstream media has missed the "real story". Our sports are a reflection of our nation's values, and unfortunately this entire controversy is woefully consistent with our times.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

2008 Presidential Campaign Endorsements.

As we get closer and closer to the primaries, various public speakers are coming out with their endorsements for the presidential race of 2008. I'm not sure how meaningful these alliances are, but it's amusing to keep abreast of who is supporting who. Perhaps if you are on the fence about several candidates, looking at a list of their supporters may help you get some perspective. Maybe your favorite entertainer, author, pundit or another politician can help you make your decision. I decided to take a shallow look at some of the more intriguing candidates, to find out who they have gathered into their respective camps. Please excuse me if I skipped your favorite selection. *


Ron Paul: The Libertarian wannabe has recruited Doug Stanhope (comedian), Tucker Carlson (hack pundit), Krist Novoselic (former bassist for Nirvana), Barry Goldwater Jr., Kinky Friedman (the last of the Jewish cowboys), Lowell Weicker (ex- CT Governor and Senator) several economists, and a pair of professional wrestlers.

John McCain: The insane former Vietnam POW has managed to hook Joseph Lieberman (infamous senatorial turncoat), Samuel Brownback (Christian Right leader and Senator), Trent Lott (former Senator and Clinton nemesis), Tom Ridge (former PA Governor and secret police commander), Henry Kissinger (evil genius), Charles Schwab (investment magnate), Curt Schilling (big-mouthed MLB pitcher), and a handful of high-level advisers to Pres. Ronald Reagan.

Rudy Guliani: The profligate 9-11 opportunist has hoodwinked Adam Sandler (cheeseball comedian), Kelsey Grammar (actor and cocaine addict), John Elway (buck-toothed NFL quarterback), the dude from King of Queens, Pat Robertson (hypocritical, hate-mongering televangelist), Jeff Gordon (NASCAR driver and white trash icon), Steve Forbes (CEO of financial rag), and former politicos Tommy Thompson, Rick Perry and Pete Wilson.

Mitt Romney: The great Mormon hope has converted Paul Weyrich (founder of The Heritage Foundation- a fascist front posing as "think tank"), Ricky Schroeder ("Little Lord Fauntleroy"), Dr. John Willke (former president of National Right to Life Committee), Bob Jones III (founder of fanatical "Christian university"), Senators Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch, and the founder of eBay.

Fred Thompson: The flat-toned actor counts among his audience George Allen (former presidential hopeful and racist Senator), The National Right to Life Committee, Senators Jim Inhofe and Lamar Alexander, and Elizabeth Cheney (wife of Darth Vadar).

Mike Huckabee: The incredibly-shrinking Arkansan is served by Jim Gilchrist (founder of the immigrant-baiting Minutemen Project), Ric Flair (platinum-blonde professional wrestler) and Chuck Norris (Chuck Norris!)


Hillary Clinton: The waffling former executive matron has charmed numerous Senators and Congressmen (including Chuck Schumer, Evan Bayh, Danial Inouye, Diane Feinstein), Elliot Spitzer (Governor of New York), Catherine Baker Knoll (Lt. Governor of PA), John Street (Mayor of Philadelphia), the National Organization of Women, American federation of Teachers, the National Association of Letter Carriers, Bob Vila, Barbara Streisand, Madonna, Barry Manilow, Janet Jackson, Anne Rice, John Grisham, Chevy Chase, Candice Bergen, "Babyface"., Elizabeth Taylor, Melissa Etheridge, Christie Brinkley, Rosie O'Donnell, Berry Gordy, Magic Johnson, Quincey Jones, Maya Angelou, Jenna Jameson (!), 50 Cent, The Charlotte Bobcats, Billie Jean King, Steven Spielberg, Hugh Hefner, Jerry Springer, Martha Stewart, Merle Haggard, Michael Douglas, and many of her husband's former advisers.

Barack Obama: The scourge of "whitey" has conned Senator Dick Durbin, 'soul brutha' John Conyers (Representative-MI), Tom Daschle (milquestoast), Jesse Jackson and his son, former Senator Harris Wofford, Keith Ellison (the only Muslim in Congress), Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor, Chris Rock, Will Smith, Oprah Winfrey and the author of this very blog.

John Edwards: The elaborately-coiffed Carolinian has enamored the United Miners, the United Steelworkers, Danny Glover (Bruce Willis' colored partner), and the marginally talented Tim Robbins, Madeline Stowe and Kevin Bacon (of six degrees of... fame**).

Mike Gravel: The Democrats' answer to Ron Paul shares the wilderness with Ralph Nader.

(Note: I was going to continue with the Democratic field of candidates, but it seems Hillary has sucked most of the endorsements into her gluttonous maw.)

* Please note too that these lists are far from exhaustive. I only mentioned endorsements by figures of interest to me. My selection process is necessarily subjective.

** Which (I guess) in some ways gives Edwards the endorsement of everyone on Earth.


Saturday, December 15, 2007

From Robots to Babies. From Anything to Babies.

Last night I made sure to get to the Brillo Box early enough to get a table, and enjoy the atmosphere before the typical Friday night crowd. I had met a friend earlier at the South Side Brew House to see The Uncanny Valley Rally- an exhibition of work by Rossum's Robotic Art Collective. The show included complex and dynamic mechanical structures built by artists apparently obsessed with building robot simulations out of unconventional materials. Sure, the nerd quotient was high... but there was a sizable crowd and everybody seemed to be having fun. My attendance was a "no-brainer" as I hadn't eaten dinner and I knew that the Brew House events are usually accompanied by a well apportioned refreshment table. Even if I got nothing out of the work on display, at least I would leave satiated. Despite my relative disinterest in "How Things Work", a few of the pieces compelled my attention.

Anyway, my friend (R.) and I resolved to travel across town and meet up again at my favorite watering hole. Just as I had expected, it was perfect for my mood. I always run into people I want to see at the Brillo, and I usually end up being embroiled in some lengthy and heated discussion. Last night was not an exception. I ran into a young friend (S.) of mine who works as a professional nanny. Naturally she wanted an update on the status of my unborn child. She generously offered (as she has in the past) to share her expertise and time whenever we feel a need for her help. I would view such an offer as a polite gesture of congeniality if it came from a different source, but in her case I have no doubt that it is genuine. I know S. loves children and values the limited friendship that we have shared over the past few years. I thanked her and suggested that she would be high on my list if I needed any advice.

This exchange prompted a remarkable reaction from R. He suggested that as a parent, he might be a more appropriate source of information than a nanny. After all, who would have a greater stake in the well-being of a child than his/her mother or father? S. was visibly bothered by the idea that parenthood is a prerequisite for caring deeply for a child. As the conversation continued, both S. and R. became increasingly impassioned about their positions. It's often the case that emotionally-laden interchanges are underscored by the specific and very personal experiences that each of the parties in a conversation brings to the table. This was certainly a reality in this instance. While I watched the thread of the discussion turn toward the question of adoption vs. raising one's biological offspring, I tried to merely listen and occasionally moderate whenever I thought that a point was being misunderstood.

R.'s contention was that, all things being equal, a parent will naturally have more love for a genetically-related child than an adopted one. S. was appalled by this idea, and argued that she would be perfectly capable of loving an adopted baby just as much as one that she actually gave birth to. R. was trying to convince her that biological connection is the ultimate factor in developing a connection between parent and child. It seemed to me that the crux of R.'s argument relied on a philosophical and/or rational understanding of the issue. On the other hand, S. was putting more emphasis on the values and emotions that define the concept of "love". What I found particularly compelling in the dynamic of the discussion was the seeming difference between the way men and women view parenthood. Perhaps I was making a simplistic generalization in imagining the existence of such a variation, but nonetheless this was a perspective that emerged from my comparison of the thinking of these two individuals.

Personally, I feel that I could never feel quite as much for an adopted child as I could for one that shared 50% of my genes. This is likely because I am a selfish a-hole. I could outline a rationale for my attitude based upon the imperatives of evolution regarding the human male. But the reader can probably trace that reasoning without the assistance of a conceptual map. What I will say is this- I don't believe that my position on the issue is at all universal among men. And I definitely do not believe that women are incapable of the equality of love that S. was talking about. I know way too many examples of biologically-related family units that glaringly contradict R.'s ideas about the relationship between genetic identification and love. I have also personally experienced parents that make no discriminations between their adopted children and the products of their own procreation.

Maybe R.'s claims would be verified by a widespread statistical analysis of normative parenting behavior, but I believe there are too many variables that could potentially confound the utility of any resulting conclusions. I also think that "love" is so subjective a term that it would be nearly impossible to gather objective data. Finally, I'm not sure that the depth of one's love necessarily determines the quality of one's parenting skills or subsequent advice on the subject.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

The Blogger Show Opening @ Panza Frame and Gallery, Millvale.

There will be a slight hint of sadness to my activities this weekend. That's because Saturday marks the last Pittsburgh opening reception that the Digging Pitt Gallery will be involved in. The ironic thing is that the show doesn't even take place in Lawrenceville. Instead it's in Millvale at the Panza Gallery (115 Sedgwick Street) between the hours of 6 and 9PM. It's the last installment of The Blogger Show, which ran concurrently in NYC and Pittsburgh last month. I have a fair amount of work displayed for this exhibition. The binding commonality among the artists included is their involvement in blogs with art-related themes. By this definition Serendipity is a bit of an exception. Although I occasionally write conceptually about art products and process, my site isn't anywhere near as centered on these subjects as the others represented in the show. I suppose my sporadic participation in The Diggging Pitt blog worked to my favor.

If it weren't for John Morris (Digging Pitt's owner/curator), I wouldn't have established Serendipity when I did. It was through his prodding that I started writing for blogs- first for the gallery, and then for myself. I became affiliated with the Digging Pitt when local art star Bob Ziller included me in a group show that John had asked him to put together. I had expected to get a few photographs accepted for display, but it turned out that John happened to be (atypically) free of distraction when I brought my stuff in. He decided almost immmediately that he liked my work, and asked if I'd be willing to keep some of it in the flat files at the gallery. Thus started a multi-year interaction that kick-started my entry into the local arts scene. It wasn't long after that fateful day that I was planning to co-curate a themed group show at the Digging Pitt (Carnivalesque- A Grim Guignol- 2006). We had a lot of fun putting that together, and I'd have to say it was a reasonable success.

Earlier this year I had my first gallery solo at Digging Pitt Too. It included 40 photographs from a conceptual series called Regenesis. My experience with hanging (thanks, Susan C.!) and selling that show was invaluable. As time progressed I started forming a friendship with John that I hope continues when he goes back to NYC. We even tramped around Chelsea, Brooklyn, and Queens together this past summer. I have to say that I learned an inordinate amount about art from John, who was already a well-established artist before he ever showed up in the 'Burgh. Unfortunately I also had to sit through a series of lectures about urban planning, as that is another one of his obsessions. It's incredibly rare to meet people so well-versed in their passions, and so willing to share information, as John Morris.

So that's why my enjoyment of The Blogger Show has been tinged with a hint of sorrow. Soon after the show wraps up, Pittsburgh will lose a valuable asset. I guess that it's ultimately fitting that the pieces I'm showing this Saturday are from my bodies of work that John likes the best. There is a series of shots I took of an outdoor bible walk behind a Franciscan Friary in West Virgina. And there is an enigmatic collection of raw and emotional drawings I made over ten years ago. These are incredibly personal creations, and John was the first (besides myself) to see something valuable in them. In fact, he's one of the few people that has heard the full story behind the creation of this work. Despite getting to know me primarily as a photographer, John has been consistently encouraging of my return to drawing. For this I owe him a debt of gratitude.

I don't think I'm the only person in Pittsburgh who has benefited from Digging Pitt's presence these last few years. John's commitment to art and artists has always outstripped whatever negative feelings he might have had about this city. Through my participation in the gallery's activities, I have met many artists and collectors that I expect to stay in touch with. A sense of community is built from the accumulation of individual energy that people put into their passions. John Morris certainly became a part of the community, and he'll be missed when he leaves. Take the opportunity to stop by Panza Gallery tomorrow night, and wish John well in his future endeavors. Also introduce yourself to Mark Panza who remains in the area, maintainig a decades-long commitment to the Pittsburgh art scene.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Huckabee VS. Romney.

Things are heating up in the Republican primary race for the 2008 presidential elections. In a mere three weeks, party-members in Iowa are going to be casting votes for their favorites. If the results mirror current polls, Mike Huckabee is going to run away with the victory. Mitt Romney is his closest competitor, trailing by almost 15%. This is an odd situation for Romney, because until the beginning of December he had been the clear front-runner in this defining primary state. In fact he had a consistent lead for more than five months. What changes have caused this shift in loyalty? One could make a good case that Huckabee's systematic campaign of targeting Romney's Mormon faith has borne fruit.

Huckabee has not been shy about identifying himself as a "Christian Leader". Indeed there's a fair amount of truth to his claims. He's an ordained Baptist minister, and that particular credential promises to serve him well among the Christian Right. Not only does that position serve as an asset for Huckabee, but it also threatens to be damning for Romney. Because every time the man from Arkansas makes a point of calling himself a "Christian", the former governor of Massachusetts blanches. Many Protestant evangelicals (including Huckabee's Baptists) consider The Church of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) heretical. Regardless of how much effort Romney puts into downplaying the effects of his faith, there is no doubt that it is qualitatively different from Christianity.

For better or worse, many Americans make political decisions according to their religious beliefs. Many among the faithful are immovably convinced that they are in the right, and that all disbelievers are (at the very least) wrong. It is for this reason that Romney is at a major disadvantage. If the majority of evangelical Christians see Mormonism as a "cult", it's not likely that they'll choose an adherent as their standard-bearer. The ironic thing is that Romney would have a much stronger chance at being successful with a Democratic support base. In that camp, regilious affiliations are often beside the point (JFK being an illustrative example). That's one of the reasons Romney was able to become Governor in the liberal state of Massachusetts. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that any Republican nominee can win the general election without the support of the Christian Dominion of America.

Huckabee has (of late) become even more blatant in his appeals to God's One True People. In an interview in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Huckabee was asked whether or not he considered The Church of Latter Day Saints a "cult". Although he responded in the negative, he followed his answer with a not-so-subtle question. He asked the reporter, "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the Devil are brothers?" It was an extraordinarily strange forum for the Baptist to begin his interfaith theological examinations. One would have to be a complete political simpleton to believe that Huckabee's intentions were innocent. But still, much of the media is allowing him to backpedal from this divisive strategy. If they are correct in their analysis of Huckabee's sincerity, then I think such true ignorance should automatically disqualify him as a serious presidential contender. (Yet I would be dishonest if I said I didn't believe the current president is capable of posing a similarly stupid question.)

While I think that Huckabee has distinguished himself as either a crass political opportunist or a backwoods rube, I am not willing to discount a candidate's religious beliefs from the political dialogue. It is completely appropriate to question a potential leader's faith, especially when it has been used consistently as a badge of integrity. Rather than resort to idiotic concerns (such as framed in Huckabee's ridiculous question), we should examine the candidates' opinions on the validity of direct revelation. George W. Bush has continually expressed his belief that he is doing "God's work". Is that acceptable in today's sophisticated international arena? If we have reservations about a man's faith, it seems only natural to question his judgment. Mormons believe that the Brethren (upstanding male members of the church) are able to receive direct revelations from God. Haven't we had enough of being led by men claiming to be divine representatives? Are we that nostalgic for the Middle Ages?

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"Cat People" (1942); "The Curse of the Cat People" (1944)

Several years ago I purchased and watched Paul Schrader's Cat People (1982). The film was a re-make of an earlier classic, and starred Nastassja Kinski and Malcom McDowell. Besides being the daughter of one of the most intense and entertaining actors of all time, there was just something about Kinski that I found titillating. Furthermore I always found watching McDowell compelling as well. Schrader had written what was once my favorite film (Taxi Driver), and the feline themes promised by the title suggested that my enjoyment would be a sure thing. Alas, it didn't meet my expectations. The performances were over-the-top and the writing was sordid and unrealistic. It ended up being little more than an exploitation film. It's visual style aped the times, and the 1980's were notorious for an abundance of cheesy aesthetics. Despite all it had in its favor, the Cat People re-make ended up being a failure.

I didn't know what to expect from the original Cat People (1942). It was made by French director Jacques Tourneur (Night of the Demon, Out of the Past) and produced by Val Lewton. The latter was a writer/producer for RKO studios, and became known and respected for making a series of horror/suspense films that retained a high level of quality, despite being made with very low budgets. Had he not died of a heart attack in his 40's, he may have gone on to widespread acclaim. As it is, many film buffs recognize his place among more conventional film legends. Somehow his movies transcended the naive simplicity of many of the entries in the developing horror genre. I'll reserve my judgment until I get through the entire Lewton box set that I ordered recently, but my initial impression is that his reputation is well-deserved.

Cat People is centered on the burgeoning romantic relationship between a ship designer (Oliver, played by Kent Smith) and a Serbian immigrant (Irena, portrayed by Simone Simon). Oliver quickly overcomes Irena's resistance to forming a romantic attachment, and they get married, but there are stormy times ahead for the couple. It turns out that Irena suffers from some psychological malaise that makes her believe that whenever she is moved by passion, she transforms into a panther. Apparently her superstition (?) involves the folk mythology endemic to the little village where she was born. Despite Oliver's patience with his reticent wife, the obstacle becomes insurmountable when a co-worker (Alice, played by Jane Randolph) expresses her undying love for him. Therein lies the conflict that drives the plot toward its inevitable end.

Lewton (who penned the script) has obviously set up a metaphor for the fear many naive young women had about sex and marriage at a time when these issues weren't openly discussed. Animalistic attraction was seen as potentially destructive, and to be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately for those movie-goers seeking enlightenment regarding this touchy subject, such fears turn out (in this film) to be justified. Despite the presence of a grounding presence in the form of an amorous psychologist, things turn out quite badly for Irena. Meanwhile Ollie and new love interest Alice escape relatively unscathed. Or do they?

Cat People was followed up by The Curse of the Cat People (1944), a film directed ably by Robert Wise. Truthfully, I watched the sequel with apprehension. Was it really necessary to return to the flimsy pretext of the earlier story? It turned out that my reservations were unjustified. The Curse does indeed pick up with Ollie and his (now) suburb-entrenched family, but the "cat people" are really nowhere to be found. The tale here concerns Ollie's daughter Amy (Ann Carter), a dreamy child whose isolation inspires her to create an imaginary friend. Plenty of kids have resorted to this companionship throughout the ages. But Amy's visions bring back the ghost of Irena. This obviously becomes problematic for her father, who we are told has never quite gotten over that tragic business with his ex-wife. Meanwhile there is an unrelated subplot examining the strange relationship between a mother-daughter pair that live down the block.

Despite the return of several central characters, The Curse of the Cat People is thematically quite different from its predecessor. In some ways they are sort of diametrically opposed. For if Irena's obsession with myth keeps her from developing the human contacts that might ultimately save her, Amy's dream-life redeems not only her loneliness- but also her relationship with her dad. In this way the function of fantasy is rehabilitated. It's a strange turn when taken in context with the lessons of Cat People. Perhaps the two films share the message that the supernatural is only disregarded at one's peril. Sometimes our inner lives are overtaken by strange ideas and unlikely beliefs. But no matter how unscientific or irrational they seem to others, these shadowy undercurrents effect us in undeniable ways. They might threaten our existence, but alternatively they might make us whole.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Pittsburgh no longer "Best Kept Secret"?

The accolades for Pittsburgh continue to pour in. On the heels of being identified as the number one "Most Livable City" on Rand McNally's Places Rated Almanac, our fair city has garnered additional attention. Frommer's released their top 13 worldwide 2008 travel destinations, and lo and behold the 'Burgh was on the list. In fact it one of just a few American cities mentioned. Unlike McNally's award this one isn't determined by any objective analysis, but rather relies on the subjective judgments of a team of travel experts. Intriguingly, our hometown is joined on the list by such exotic locales as Denver, Cardiff (Wales), Seoul (South Korea) and Kosrae (Micronesia).

The Frommer's people considered a variety of factors including area attractions, ease of access, opportunities for cultural and physical engagement, and (tellingly) relative obscurity. That last trait was no doubt a major reason for Pittsburgh's inclusion. Despite the wave of nice things reported by the national media, there are still so many folks who remain ignorant of the city's charms. Predictably most of the dismissive comments emanate from people who have never even visited Pittsburgh. Growing up in eastern PA, I was privy to unlimited advice about how I should avoid attending college in the former steel capital. My friends were dumbfounded by my choice. Somehow its reputation was still that of an exceedingly polluted and depressed shadow of its former industrial past. While it's certainly true that the 'Burgh has remade itself since the 70's, there's been plenty of misinformation about that transformation.

Perhaps that's because there are still so many natives living in the distant past. It's a general rule that the area's greatest boosters are to be found among its transplants. The harshest criticism seems to perpetually come from people born and raised in Western PA. It could well be that these negative opinions were formed through listening to parents and grandparents talk incessantly about past glories. Clearly sometimes nostalgia obscures the vista of the present. This accounts for my pet theory about the raving fanaticism displayed by the "Steeler Nation". In the 70's, while the last vestiges of the steel industry were leaving town, the Steelers were winning multiple Super Bowl Championships. There wasn't a whole lot of joy to latch on to. Local pride resided almost exclusively in the 'Black-and-Gold'. Unfortunately many see nothing but this limited legacy.

If you come to Pittsburgh with an open mind, you will quickly observe its substantial assets. There are world-class museums like The Warhol Museum, The Carnegie, The Heinz History Center, The Science Center, The Mattress Factory. There are several top-notch universities, surrounded by vibrant intellectual communities . Pittsburgh has countless neighborhoods with distinctive character that contain all sorts of hidden gems. The hilly topography and the three rivers accentuate the charms of the diverse architecture to be found throughout the city. There are vibrant corridors with a wide selection of restaurants, art galleries, cafes, nightlife and quality shopping. Urban adventure and plenty of outdoor activities await the intrepid traveler. Fallingwater and Ohiopyle are only a short drive away.

I could continue listing Pittsburgh's many amenities, but if you haven't seen the place with your own eyes- you're likely going to hold on to your skepticism. Perhaps more external validation is in order. American Style rated Pitsburgh as the #1 mid-sized arts destination. The 'Burgh is among the Top Ten Cleanest Cities in the World, according to Forbes Magazine. Pittsburgh recently placed #8 in Bizjournals' list of the most fun cities in America. Wired even picked it as a top city for computer geeks (or so I'm told). With all of these notices, is it possible that our city can lose its distinction in the dubiously desirable ranks of the 'Best Kept Secrets'? If so, I have decidely mixed feelings about that.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

A More Personal Armageddon.

It had been months since I'd visited the coffeehouse that I used to frequent regularly, so I figured I'd stop in when I had a few hours free this past Saturday afternoon. It didn't take long before I found myself engaged in a lengthy discussion about technology and its speculative effects on society. I ran into an old acquaintance who designs robots, and we jawed about processing chips and other items I know so very little about. He ended up doing most of the talking while I occasionally interjected (probably extraordinarily inane) questions. Somehow the natural progression of the conversation led toward a call for future space exploration. In fact, I found myself listening to two reasonably sane individuals talk about the necessity of colonizing the Moon (and Mars).

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit finding the idea of space colonization utterly ridiculous. I can't think of many national priorities that I would rank below extending the terror of the human parasite beyond our planet. I am perfectly comfortable believing that we are alone in the universe, and in accepting that condition as ideal. When George W. Bush started giving speeches about returning to the Moon (immediately after initiating a nebulous "War on Terror" of indeterminate cost and length) as part of a long-term project that would culminate in a walk on Mars, I was one of his most vocal critics. As David Cross so aptly says (I paraphrase), "You want to put a man on the Moon? How about putting a man in an apartment?!" In short, there are no shortages of problems that we need to resolve on our very own planet- and few of them will realistically be addressed by exporting ourselves.

But of course there are many who think that we are doomed here on Earth, and so we better get a back-up plan as soon as possible. Hell, if we have somewhere for the rich to escape to- then why not pollute the place with increased abandon? Peak oil... No problem. Global warming... Big deal. No more clean water... What's your point? Let's adopt a worldwide 'slash-and-burn" policy. Capitalism requires infinite growth, and where else do we look for a limitless expanse? My conversation partners were absolutely convinced that it is irresponsible not to expand our space program today. They've already written off the future of the planet we have. They pointed out that one way another, whether through man-made causes or natural cycles, we will all eventually be destroyed. Apparently they believe that it's crucial that the human race survives. But I didn't get that memo.

In order for me to buy into their perspective, I would have to first view the preservation of humanity as an ultimate good. Sadly, I don't meet that basic test. Extinction of our species would only be a big loss for ourselves. We're really not that important. So our little discussion should have ended abruptly on that note. Instead they asked me what will happen when mankind launches an all-out nuclear war. What will we do then? The survivors will need somewhere to go. My answer involves an "ounce of prevention"... some old fogey's notion about taking the long view. There's no reason to believe that a nuclear holocaust is looming. I know that it "only takes one madman". Still, how many such madmen have we already seen come into power? How is it that this worst-case scenario hasn't yet happened?

I remember being continually frightened during the 80's that the Cold War would turn hot, and the missiles would fly en masse. Those were the Reagan years, and such a prospect seemed likely. Even after the Soviet Union fell I remember being jolted out of my sleep whenever a train roared passed, with the fear that "The Day After" was imminent. So it's strange that the threat has dissipated despite Dubya's seven year reign of total incompetence. It's odd to realize that a whole generation of children who have never lived in fear of a nuclear apocalypse is now entering adulthood. But is the absence of anxiety justified by external events? Our president certainly tries to recover the specter of such devastation whenever he wants to invade another sovereign nation. Do the odds suggest that we could one day experience total war on the scale of World War II?

I'm not much of a gambler, but if I had to make a bet- I would put my money on the increasing focus and precision of future conflicts. Superpowers seem to have learned the lesson that causing the utter ruin of an enemy diminishes the material benefits of winning such a fight in the first place. The development of technology seems to be geared toward the ability to eliminate specific targets, while maintaining the integrity of the spoils. We live in a time when even a band of moderately-sophisticated religious fundamentalists can seemingly wage pinpoint attacks on the sacred symbols of their opponents. There is no longer a need to cause indiscriminate collateral damage, and not much to be gained by doing it anway. As techniques become progressively more advanced, the "War of all against all" may very well be the most personal in history.

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