Sunday, November 30, 2008

But it doesn't have quite the same ring as "Everett Dirksen"

For those to whom it matters, it seems that Ashlee Simpson and Pete Wentz named their newborn son Bronx Mowgli; by one account, they hoped for a name that would be suitable for either a rock star or a United States Senator, and I certainly agree that we should strive for versatility. Contemplating the question of what kind of adult would give a child such a name should at least add to the baby's eventual happiness, since neurologists have found that increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex is an important contributor to a sense of well-being.

What sensation of personal happiness may have been enjoyed by Neanderthal man is an open question, which, among other reasons, makes the question of cloning them an ethical issue. Mapping their genome is one thing, but inserting them into 21st-century life is another. Though they vocalized in some manner, it is not certain that they had what we would call speech, so at least they would not add to the growing public chatter on cell phones, and since they required over 3,000 calories per day, the fast food chains would gain a new and eager addition to their customer base. The October issue of National Geographic provides informative text and artistic recreations of these hardy folk.

Nicholas Wade examined the topic in The New York Times, along with the question of reviving the Wooly Mammoth. Since cloning a Neanderthal would presumably be done by altering modern human DNA, it raises a human dignity objection from Richard Doerflinger of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. An alternate approach, Wade notes, would be to alter the genome of a chimpanzee.

Slate's William Saletan, usually a very acute reasoner who writes with clarity and incisiveness on questions of bioethics and is always eager to show how science must not be waylaid by religion, takes Doerflinger and his bishops to task and, thus, strangely misses the point. The issue of whether a Neanderthal should be cloned from modern human or chimp DNA is made moot by the question of whether we should clone a Neanderthal at all: we shouldn't. Whether or not it would be an offense against modern human dignity, it would compromise the recreated Neanderthal's own dignity.

Primitive or not, a living Neanderthal would be a conscious creature, vaguely aware of his inability to understand or cope with our world and with no immunity to the crowd diseases that have been a major factor in selecting human genes for the past several centuries. Used to being a member of small hunter-gatherer bands that almost never saw other humans for long, he would be placed in a world that was, to him, intolerably overcrowded. Never having developed devices so simple as projectile weapons or the concept of division of labor, he would have little to contribute to his own sense of efficacy except brute strength, endurance, and the pursuit of the very simple life his fellows once knew, little valued in our own day. If his cognitive functions were not of as high an order as ours, it would become really necessary, for the first time in human history, to evolve two tiers of civil rights for two different types of Homo Sapiens, based on their respective capabilities. The Neanderthal would become a sort of living zoo exhibit, to be observed by tourists in safari parks, if not exploited for his strength. Study them as topics in biology and paleoanthropology, by all means, but as for the rest, let them rest in peace.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Seems, madam? Nay, it is.

Mark Steyn correctly wonders, concerning the photo of the Mumbai terrorist patrolling the train station with an assault rifle, what it takes for the Western media to overcome their absurd penchant for politically correct euphemisms and call him a gunman instead of a "suspected" gunman. The habit of thought is pernicious and seems to show up everywhere; my company newsletter, on a rare snowy day in the South, warned us about "challenging" weather conditions, as though calling it "bad" weather might hurt Jack Frost's feelings and provoke a lawsuit.

Speaking of warnings, just as U.S. intelligence was warned before 9/11 that terrorists could pilot airplanes into buildings, the Indian government was warned two years ago that terrorists were receiving maritime training and that coastal defenses should be ramped up; as the Washington Post reports:

A December 2006 letter written by a Mumbai Intelligence Bureau official and obtained by The Post says that hundreds of operatives from Lashkar-i-Taiba had received maritime training.

Members of the group "are being trained to handle large boats, laying of mines in coastal zones and planting of explosives under dams, bridges, ships etc.," says the letter, which was marked "secret."

"[T]hey are being taught navigational techniques, rescue operations, surveillance methods, concealment of explosives and underwater attack on enemy's coastal targets/vessels," the letter says.

Sriprakash Jaiswal, minister of state for home affairs, told reporters Friday that India's state governments were warned to boost coastal security two years ago.

The Washington Post also printed this thoughtful article by a former editor of the Times of India, reminding us that Muslim extremism is exacerbated by its opposite number among radical Hindus, as well as by repressive police tactics, while Doug Saunders writes in the Globe and Mail that in a land with India's history of terrorism, comparisons to 9/11 may be a little too easy. Rich Lowry points to the poverty and illiteracy existing alongside the new and more prosperous India: "Young Muslims score more poorly on literacy tests than Hindu 'untouchables.'" Newsweek's background piece on counter-terrorism in India, by two members of the Council on Foreign Relations, is an informative account of the many terrorist groups operating there and the government's uneven response. According to the article, "'India lacks a coherent strategic response to terrorism; there is no doctrine, and most of our responses are kneejerk,' says retired Major General Sheru Thapliyal, who works at the Center for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi."

Minister Jaiswal resorted to the common trope of saying that the Indian government would now have to be on a "war footing," and one elephant in the room in any discussion of terrorism is whether framing counterrorism as a "war on terror" helps the problem or makes it worse. Those who advocate a police-oriented approach are sometimes seen as temporizers, trying to evade the severity of the problem. I think that the term "war" should be reserved for hostile engagements involving military force between recognized states, where there are known military objectives and the outcome can be conceived of in terms of concrete gains or losses of sovereignty, territory, resources, or other specific goals. To those conditions, the United States should add, as its Constitution does, that a war is military action pursuant to a formal declaration sought from Congress by the President.

Absent these conditions, "war" is at best a metaphor and at worst a misnomer. President Johnson declared a "War on Poverty," but that didn't involve searching people's luggage in airports and confiscating extra pairs of shoes that were then donated to the poor. India's counterterror efforts are not the only ones characterized by kneejerk reactions, and it's time to abandon an approach that absurdly commits everyone to a "war" with no foreseeable and definable end, using military tactics that can't win against a multitude of groups of uncertain identity, over conditions that are as old as civilization itself. As reported recently of a Rand Corporation study :

The study examined how terrorist groups since 1968 have ended, and found that only seven percent were defeated militarily.

Most were neutralized either through political settlements (43 percent), or through the use of police and intelligence forces (40 percent) to disrupt and capture or kill leaders.

"Military force has rarely been the primary reason for the end of terrorist groups, and few groups within this time frame achieved victory," the report said.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

No bill of attainder or ex post facto law shall be passed

What legal issue was relevant to the MySpace® suicide? Really, there was none; two sets of prosecutors declined to take it up, for the very good reason that no existing law adequately covered it, and the jury wisely convicted Lori Drew on a lesser charge. Retired FBI agent and internet safety consultant Jeff Lanza told the Kansas City Star, "Legally, this case has nothing to do with suicide."

U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O'Brien tortured an indictment out of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, specifically a section that provides penalties for anyone who

intentionally accesses a protected computer without authorization, and as a result of such conduct, causes damage; and...the modification or impairment, or potential modification or impairment, of the medical examination, diagnosis, treatment, or care of 1 or more individuals

O'Brien's biographical page notes that he actually did go to law school (at the University of San Diego, where he was associate Editor of the Law Review); perhaps more significantly, he is a graduate of the famous Top Gun training facility, which is strangely apt, since he seems to build cases the way Tom Cruise flies. If his reasoning in this case means anything at all, it means that if I had told my former boss what I was often tempted to say, that he could best benefit his department by leaping from the roof of the building, and if he had done so, my conduct might have been reprehensible but immune to penalty, but if I had opened a hotmail® account under a false name, transmitted the same opinion in a single e-mail, and the message had been sufficiently persuasive, I would be guilty of a federal crime.

Of course O'Brien was thinking, not of my former boss, but only of vulnerable teen girls, as he explicitly stated; the problem, as he seems never to have realized, is the gap between what he wishes were true and what the law actually says. (Not to mention his absurdly coy formulation: "If you're going to attempt to annoy or go after a little girl and use the Internet to do it, this office will hold you responsible." Really? Annoying someone is now a federal crime?) As Robert Bolt has Sir Thomas More reply in his own defense, "The world may construe by its wits. This court must construe according to the law."

It goes without saying that Drew's act was despicable, a taint one hopes will not be erased no matter how often she appears on talk shows to discuss her progress in learning to feel better about herself. But suicide from shattered hopes and deceit in love are as old as society itself; what happened to Megan Meier could as easily have occurred with equally tragic results 150 years ago, with paper and pen. If registering a false name on a network server becomes a felony, does expressing false sentiments in a thank-you note constitute mail fraud? The real issues here are the creepy strain of infantilism permeating much of our culture, the rash misinterpretation of laws to punish acts they were never meant to forbid, and the nearly superstitious imputation of unique and irresistible power to technology in itself.

Meanwhile, HR 6123, offered in the House of Representatives by Congresswoman Linda T. Sánchez of California, is a step in the right direction:

Whoever transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication, with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person, using electronic means to support severe, repeated, and hostile behavior, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.

Sánchez's bill, though originating with a concern about the welfare of minors, wisely extends protection to all. And yes, I know that language such as "substantial emotional distress" and "severe...hostile behavior" are subject to interpretation, but so are "reckless driving" and "disorderly conduct"; in any case, both I and the 15-year-old down the street are entitled to a remedy if someone repeatedly transmits "I want to make you scream" to our respective in-boxes.

Speaking of severe behavior, one hopes that even O'Brien could find sound legal grounds for prosecuting those who trampled a Wal-Mart employee to death this morning in Valley Stream, New York. On my budget, I sometimes shop at Target (where, in fact, a heedless guard very nearly did trample my son, years ago, when my son was quite small), which I suppose must not be that much different, but there is something about the idea of Wal-Mart that makes me inclined to see shopping there at all as a candidate for a misdemeanor charge, at least.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

Do the duty that lies nearest to you, and the next will become clear

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is claiming that the terrorists who attacked Mumbai were of "foreign origin," an obvious dig at Pakistan, though the group claiming responsibility calls itself Deccan Mujahideen, an equally obvious reference to a feature of Indian geography. It is likely that at least a part of Singh's finger pointing is to cover the government's embarrassment that the terrorists traveled undetected through one of the world's busiest harbors , one that has been a center of world commerce and crucial to Indian defense for 300 years and that now serves as headquarters of the Indian Navy's Western Command. (Indeed, the HMS Minden, the British man-of-war on which The Star-Spangled Banner was written in 1812, had been built in Mumbai Harbor.) Local fishermen did in fact confront the intruders, according to Newsweek, tipped off by their comparatively lighter skin and failure to speak the local Marathi dialect, but were brushed off by the armed group.

As one American visitor commented, “The navy should be ashamed. A terrorist vehicle sails past their territory, and they don’t even know.” Meanwhile, a retired Indian Admiral follows his Prime Minister's lead in the art of sharing blame: “The police should have set up a marine force in Mumbai to patrol the harbor and the valuable ground installations....That’s not the navy’s job.” It's at least comforting to know that that kind of thinking is not confined to FEMA.

If anyone in the Indian government had been a fan of British and American thrillers, he or she would have learned that the idea of a terrorist attack from a harbor with inflatable craft was used 30 years ago by Frederick Forsythe in The Dogs of War , while John Grisham used a similar device to put an assassin ashore in The Pelican Brief. In any case, Mumbai Police and Indian government commandos fought bravely last night, and the chief anti-terrorism officer of the Mumbai Police was killed in the fighting. The terrorists seem to have based their attack on a search for British and Americans, and as always, I admire the understatement of the Brits, one of whom commented, "It was not the most pleasant experience."

Similar fortitude was required of another group of Englishmen who traveled here in 1620. For a look at modern Americans trying to live as they would have in 1628, watch the 2004 PBS series Colonial House . For an account of the difficulties the original Pilgrims faced in getting out of England at all, see a 1995 documentary filmed on location at the sites that were important to their early struggle. For a history of the Plymouth settlement, as well as a sobering account of the violence that ensued between the next generation of colonists and their Native American neighbors, culminating in King Philip's War, read Nathaniel Philbrick's excellent Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War.

Those who want a close look at Pilgrim life without the hardships of the Colonial House group should visit Plimoth Plantation, a living museum with costumed reenactors. I have never been there but saw an interesting news feature on it some years ago. One of the most amusing features of Colonial House was the dilemma faced by the modern colonists when one family simply stopped attending church and the rest of the colony had to decide whether to expel them. I call it amusing because, even though church attendance is no more my preference than that of the defaulting family in the program, they had known that such observance would be an expected part of their participation before they ever volunteered in the first place.

Though it was only for an evening, I used to visit an annual Pilgrim service held every year on the night before Thanksgiving in a local United Church of Christ, the descendant of the Pilgrims' Congregational churches. Members of the congregation dressed in Pilgrim costume, sang psalm texts a capella, listened to a lengthy sermon, and were awakened, if they dozed off, by a bircher patrolling the church with a rod that he used to nudge them, and whose stern and silent progress terrified my then-5-year-old daughter. Members would also be called up and rebuked before the congregation for sleeping and other faults, being reminded of the story of Eutychus, who tumbled from a window to his death, as we are told in the Acts of the Apostles, when he fell asleep during a sermon of St. Paul, whose prayer then brought him back to life. When she heard this, my daughter began tugging my sleeve and urgently whispering to me to ask if they had thrown him out the window. I explained that it was an accident, since he had apparently been sitting near the window and there were no bars to prevent him from falling. She thought a moment and then asked, "Well after St. Paul brought him back to life, where did he sit the next time?"

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

I am that I am

Brad Pitt, apparently mistaken for a paparazzo, was manhandled by a security guard at the Los Angeles premier of David Fincher's new movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in which Pitt plays the title role. Jimmy Carter's Secretary of the Treasury, W. Michael Blumenthal, challenged some years ago to show identification to get his credit card accepted in a San Francisco restaurant, pointed to his signature on the dollar bill, while Telly Savalas later brushed off an admiring fan on a New York to Athens flight who turned out to be King Constantine of Greece. Fortunately Constantine, who has a black belt in karate, was more restrained than Pitt's security guard.

Benjamin Button, based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, tells the story of a man who ages backwards, born as a wrinkled man of 70 and growing younger through the years until he departs this life as an infant. Fitzgerald's tale is haunting and poignant; a work on a similar theme is Andrew Sean Greer's best-selling 2004 novel, Confessions of Max Tivoli.

The trailer for Pitt's film, which also stars Cate Blanchett, is set to the equally haunting, poignant Aquarium theme from Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saens. The theme is sung by Libera, a boys' choir from South London that also performed background music for Terry Gilliam's 1995 film, Twelve Monkeys, in which Pitt also starred. The Aquarium theme was used as background in Terence Malick's uneven 1978 film, Days of Heaven, with Richard Gere and Sam Shepard.

As George Bernard Shaw remarked, "Youth is a wonderful thing. What a crime to waste it on children." I'm sure eminent scholar Jacques Barzun, who was already older than I am now, when I was in high school, is surprised to find himself still alive at 100 (101 as of this Sunday), though I'm glad he stayed alive long enough to write his masterful survey of cultural history, From Dawn to Decadence, which he began at 84 and which I have yet to read. Of course Fitzgerald's and Greer's stories are really about the difficulty of matching age with physical and emotional development and discovering a fitting partner of one's affections at any stage of life. (Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour played characters facing a similar dilemma in the 1980 film, Somewhere in Time.) Though there seems to have been nothing between them but friendship, the woman who gladdened the daily life of Louis XIV more than any other was his granddaughter-in-law, Marie-Adélaïde of Savoy, 47 years his junior. Dignified but playful, she charmed the elderly King and all his court from the time she arrived there as a girl of 12, and her death at 27 probably hastened Louis' own death 3 years later.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

Monday, November 24, 2008

All a-twitter

From the destination of Chaucer's pilgrims and the site of the martyrdom of Becket comes a sensible dissent on Twitter®. Still, if Hugh de Morville had Twittered his sovereign on the question of what he was doing right then, Henry Plantagenet would have died with at least one less burden on his conscience and need not have repaired to Canterbury to be whipped. Using more traditional media, crusading editor Tom Gish, owner of the Whitesburg, Kentucky Mountain Eagle, served, with his wife, Pat, as the conscience and scourge of strip mining companies, unresponsive school boards, and heavy-handed police (the paper's offices were fire-bombed after Gish exposed police brutality in 1974). I had never heard of Gish, who died Friday at 82, but listened to this feature from NPR last night, a fine tribute to his life and work.

Meanwhile, the much-maligned mainstream media does its part with this article by Daniel Gross in Newsweek, pointing out, first, something that ought never to have needed to be said: that the subprime crisis cannot be blamed on the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977:

In recent months, conservative economists and editorialists have tried to pin the blame for the unholy international financial mess on subprime lending and subprime borrowers. If bureaucrats and social activists hadn't pressured firms to lend to the working poor, the narrative goes, we'd still be partying like it was 2005 and Bear Stearns would be a going concern. The Wall Street Journal's editorial page has repeatedly heaped blame on the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), the 1977 law aimed at preventing redlining in minority neighborhoods. Fox Business Network anchor Neil Cavuto in September proclaimed that "loaning to minorities and risky folks is a disaster."

This line of reasoning is absurd on several levels. Many of the biggest subprime lenders weren't banks, and thus weren't covered by the CRA. Nobody forced Bear Stearns to borrow $33 for every dollar of assets it had, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac didn't coerce highly compensated CEOs into rolling out no-money-down, exploding adjustable-rate mortgages. Banks will lose just as much money lending to really rich white guys like former Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld as they will on loans to poor people of color in the South Bronx.

More importantly, Gross describes the work of ethical subprime lenders, and no, apparently, that is not an oxymoron. Part of a "community finance" movement, small banks and credit unions, of the sort whose chief officers don't make millions or get pictured in Business Week, are changing their communities for the better, instead of turning them into urban and suburban wastelands. Newsweek describes one example:

"We're in business to improve people's lives and do asset building," says Linda Levy, CEO of the Lower East Side Credit Union. The 7,500-member nonprofit, based on still-scruffy Avenue B, doesn't serve the gentrified part of Manhattan's Lower East Side, with its precious boutiques and million-dollar lofts. The average balance in its savings accounts is $1,400. The typical member? "A Hispanic woman from either Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic in her late 40s or early 50s, on government assistance, with a bunch of kids," Levy says. Sure sounds like subprime. But the delinquency rate on its portfolio of mortgage and consumer loans is 2.3 percent, and it's never had a foreclosure.

What have these modest enterprises discovered that MBAs from the Wharton School have not?

What sets the "good" subprime lenders apart is that they never bought into all the perverse incentives and "innovations" of the late subprime lending system—the fees paid to mortgage brokers, fancy offices and the reliance on securitization. Like a bunch of present-day George Baileys, ethical subprime lenders evaluate applications carefully, don't pay brokers big fees to rope customers into high-interest loans and mostly hold onto the loans they make rather than reselling them. They focus less on quantity than on quality. Clearinghouse's borrowers must qualify for the fixed-rate mortgages they take out. "If one of our employees pushed someone into a house they couldn't afford, they would be fired," says CEO Bystry.

Speaking of the causes of the subprime crisis, Gross also wrote in praise of Timothy Geithner as "The Un-Paulson" in Slate last week, and in its October issue, Harper's printed a first-person account of "trashing out":

...a phrase we use to describe the process of entering a home that has been foreclosed upon by the bank, and that the bank would like to sell, and hauling all of what the dispossessed owner has left behind to the nearest dump, then returning to clean the place by spraying every corner and wiping every inch of glass, deleting every fingerprint, scrubbing the boot marks off the linoleum, bleaching the cruddy toilets, sweeping up the hair and sand and dust, steaming the stains out of the carpet (or, if the carpet is unsalvageably rancid, tearing it out), and eventually, thereby, erasing all traces of whoever lived there, dispensing with both their physical presence and the ugly aura of eviction....

And speaking of trashing out, the never-bashful Christopher Hitchens has this and a great deal more to say about the President-elect's projected appointment of Senator Clinton as Secretary of State:

A president absolutely has to know of his chief foreign-policy executive that he or she has no other agenda than the one he has set. Who can say with a straight face that this is true of a woman whose personal ambition is without limit; whose second loyalty is to an impeached and disbarred and discredited former president; and who is ready at any moment, and on government time, to take a wheedling call from either of her bulbous brothers?

All too true, though I still think it may be a shrewd move on Obama's part: the Secretary will either rise above herself or not and will do so on the world stage. As Someone Else once said to an associate of uncertain loyalties, "That thou doest, do quickly."

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

Those who do not understand history are doomed to misquote it

In Oliver Stone's W, the 43rd President responds to his wife's comments on John Adams and John Quincy Adams by interjecting, "But wasn't that about 300 years ago?" (For an interesting round table on whether Stone's film got Bush right, see this article in Slate. I for one have never wondered whether it was important to Stone to get things right to begin with, but in any case, the discussion is enlightening.) Now, presidential historian Michael Beschloss reminds us that LBJ, who started life as a schoolteacher, can be heard on tape telling an associate that Lincoln returned to Springfield, Missouri—after he was President(!) I think my daughter's grasp of history was on firmer ground when, after I took her and her little brother to see the 1871 Woodruff-Fontaine house when they were small, summed up the experience by saying "Daddy, the people who lived in that house lived in the old-fashioned times, but today we use the right potties and we know everything."

As to the 16th President, someone else who apparently falls short in his grasp of the essential Lincoln is the director of the Lincoln Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, who was caught shoplifting DVD collections of House and Seinfeld from a local Target. A year earlier, he had been convicted of shoplifting ties from Macy's. Since the man made $200,000 a year, he would not have qualified for the President-elect's proposed tax cuts, so one can only hope that he learns the value of a little belt-tightening. I, too, would be tempted to shoplift if Target or anyone would stock a DVD copy of John Huston's 1970 Cold War thriller, The Kremlin Letter, with Richard Boone, Orson Welles, Patrick O'Neal, George Sanders, and Max Von Sydow. It was derided by critics, but I have certainly appreciated it on the 3 occasions since 1971 when I have been able to catch it on TV at 2 in the morning.

AdSense is still having trouble figuring out what ads to place here; it is displaying the same offer to post for $10,000 a week, or something to that effect, and I have no idea how that relates to anything I've said so far. Perhaps if I had quoted the Epistle of Jude—"Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints"—it might be understandable. Apparently picking up on my references to church, AdSense posted this message of comfort last night—"Are Gays Going to Hell?"—and about an hour ago, an ad for Dianetics® invited the reader to ponder the origins of irrational behavior, strangely fitting after two guards at the Church of Scientology were forced to shoot a man to death in self-defense after he appeared on the property brandishing two samurai swords. Otherwise, AdSense is reduced to advertising itself, inviting bloggers to "monetize" their ads by using this service. I wish I could say that making a noun a verb by attaching -ize to it was peculiar to our day, but I learn from William Manchester's biography of Douglas MacArthur that the general's father, himself a famous soldier of the 19th century, was fond of using "mediatize," a word he had invented.

Speaking of Presidents and their place in history, the BBC reports that former President Carter—the same man who assured the world in 1994 that the nuclear threat from North Korea was at an end—is shocked that things are as bad as they are in Zimbabwe. The former President is distinguished for his personal decency; he taught the men's Bible class at the Washington, D.C. Baptist church he attended as President and has volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, but his career as a statesman inclines one to believe the claims of some cosmologists that there are parallel universes and forces one to wonder if the gentleman from Plains inhabits one of them.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

More matter and less art

Michael Kinsley wonders if there are too many blogs, and perhaps this one was the last straw, though I tried to choose a title that would let Kinsley off the hook. In any case, he observes, quite validly:

The opportunity for us all to express an opinion is wonderful. Having to read all those opinions isn't....Many readers may be reaching the point with blogs and websites that I reached long ago with the Sunday New York Times Magazine—actively hoping that there isn't anything interesting in there, because then I'll have to take the time to read it.

Opinions abound, but I for one found it worthwhile to read an article in which Nancy Gibbs lists several good reasons for the Obamas to send their daughters to the distinguished Sidwell Friends private school in Washington, where Chelsea Clinton also attended; I have no doubt that their decision was sound, though I would still have been happy to see the Obamas encourage by example the work of Michelle Rhee, the feisty, reforming Chancellor of D.C. schools.

The Obama daughters are promised a puppy in their new home, which should be easier to maintain than the bear cubs that Jefferson kept when he was there; meanwhile, other city dwellers are turning to urban chicken farming. As described in Newsweek:

Over the past few years, urban dwellers driven by the local-food movement, in cities from Seattle to Albuquerque, have flocked to the idea of small-scale backyard chicken farming—mostly for eggs, not meat—as a way of taking part in home-grown agriculture. This past year alone, grass-roots organizations in Missoula, Mont.; South Portland, Maine; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Ft. Collins, Colo., have successfully lobbied to overturn city ordinances outlawing backyard poultry farming, defined in these cities as egg farming, not slaughter. Ann Arbor now allows residents to own up to four chickens (with neighbors' consent), while the other three cities have six-chicken limits, subject to various spacing and nuisance regulations.

Newsweek acknowledges that there could be drawbacks:

That quick growth in popularity has some people worried about noise, odor and public health, particularly in regard to avian flu. A few years back in Salt Lake City—which does not allow for backyard poultry farming—authorities had to impound 47 hens, 34 chicks and 10 eggs from a residential home after neighbors complained about incessant clucking and a wretched stench, along with wandering chickens and feathers scattered throughout the neighborhood. "The smell got to be unbelievable," one neighbor told the local news.

Some parts of China are apparently carrying on the Salt Lake tradition; as the Journal of Infectious Diseases notes, "China plays a huge role in the global poultry industry, with a poultry population of 14 billion birds, 70%–80% of which are reared in backyard conditions." Admittedly, China's public health practices are not ours, and in any case, sophisticated Americans want to flavor their urban lives with authentic experiences of nature; as K.T. LaBadie, a major figure in the movement, noted, slaughtering a chicken is "messy, but real."

No doubt, though for my money, if LaBadie is simply looking for meaningful existential encounters, she should volunteer in a hospice or read Dostoevsky. I'm sure we all appreciate fresh eggs, but I see no more reason to set up a chicken coop so that my quiche will be just right than I do to skin my own rabbit to make a pair of mittens for my grandnephew.

As Jared Diamond notes in Guns, Germs, and Steel, living in proximity to animals has always been "a bonanza for microbes." (See pages 205–210 of that book for a description of animal pathogens and their emergence as contagious diseases in humans.) A guide to small-scale chicken production published by the World Poultry Science Association describes the ways that infection can spread:

Pathogens can multiply rapidly in a chicken flock and be passed from bird to bird...via saliva, droppings or contaminated eggs. They can also be spread via humans and animals (rats, birds, flies), on boots, feed bags, equipment, bicycle- or car tyres. Some viruses can even be spread by air, on wind and dust. Other birds (ducks, geese, turkeys, guinea fowl) can carry pathogens without showing any signs of disease, and can pass them on to chickens. The most notorious case of this is avian influenza. (p. 52)

Frankly, it doesn't surprise me that the URL to this document contains the rather ominous title, "Journey to Forever."

To be fair, the 84-page guide is a clearly written list of effective procedures for ensuring health and safety for humans and poultry alike. If the lady in the apartment downstairs, whose free-range dogs do their best to fertilize our apartment parking lot, ever decides to cultivate chickens, I have my doubts as to how closely she is likely to comply with this guide, or any other.

In any case, it seems the experts overrule me; Newsweek notes, "As GRAIN, an international sustainable agriculture group, concluded in a 2006 report: 'When it comes to bird flu, diverse small-scale poultry farming is the solution, not the problem.'" Public health officials believe that if avian flu turns up in the United States, it is much more likely to appear in factory-farmed poultry than in your neighbor's back yard.

I don't know enough to contradict them and can only hope their judgment in this matter is sounder than that of Alan Greenspan. Actually, I have a turkey in my apartment right now, which I won in a trivia contest last night, though it is confined to my freezer; I'll deliver it to my brother's home Tuesday morning, and my sister-in-law can have a "real experience" preparing it.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

Yon Cassius hath a lean and hungry look

When I read that Barack Obama was seriously considering Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State, I thought he had lost his mind. Looking at it again, I think it's a shrewd move. Resigning her Senate seat, she can't hinder any of his preferred legislation out of pique, and if she displays the same persona on the world stage that she did in the primaries, she will appear even more plainly for what she is, while Obama will only win sympathy for enduring her.

Michael Hirsh argues that the position of Secretary of State is as much subject to Presidential control as any other and cites three instances in which, rightly or wrongly, Secretaries of State were pushed aside. However, his argument seems to depend on the presence of an Acheson- or Kissinger-like figure in an Administration to take the place of the original appointee, while Obama specifically tries to avoid conditions that make such changes necessary to begin with. I hope that Newsweek's observation is accurate: that Obama is unusually detached and self-aware for a politician. The seven words that even waterboarding could never force from Hillary's lips were also spoken by someone of unusual detachment, who ate locusts and wild honey.

(A friend kindly passes along David Brooks's column from yesterday's New York Times; Brooks reminds us that Clinton, whatever else she may be, is one of a galaxy of daunting talent assembled by the President-elect. The Governor of Alaska, on the other hand, seems to be among those who embrace the creed, "Ye need not any man to teach you," though admittedly, the author of those words was speaking of a spiritual assurance and not knowledge of geopolitics. This week's Time notes that Palin will get a $7 million book deal, and Oliver Stone nominated her for Time's Person of the Year.)

Speaking of detachment, it appears that Obama is about to govern a nation in which, "According to a 2006 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, a third of white evangelicals believe the world will end in their lifetimes." Michael Gross analyzed the effect of this strain of thought in The Atlantic a few years ago.) One zealous soul runs a web site that he wishes to be known as "the eBay of prophecy," a concept so amazingly oblivious to the context of its own religious origins that one hardly knows where to begin. Those who are less convinced that the dread day is upon us may have been among the admirers lined up at Wolfchase Mall in Memphis yesterday to get the autograph of Thomas Kinkade, "Painter of Light™." It seems that Kinkade's works hang in 1 in 20 American homes, a fact that, in itself, is enough to make one hope that the apocalypse is not so far off after all. Eighty-five years ago, the art of choice for 1 in 4 American homes was Maxfield Parrish's Daybreak. To be sure, Parrish was no Rembrandt, but at least his work reminds one of Alma-Tadema.

I was in 6th grade when Kennedy was shot. The Zapruder film became the horrifying precursor of YouTube. I remember seeing John Jr. salute his father's casket as it passed down Pennsylvania Avenue, though I had forgotten that his mother induced him to do so; I thought I remembered it as spontaneous. A classmate of mine visited Martinique the week after the assassination, and locals were asking him if there would be a coup in the United States.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

Friday, November 21, 2008

What is Tagalog for "toggle"?

Typing the title of this post, I saw the words turned into apparently meaningless character combinations: &#2352,&#2381, etc. That had me scratching my head, until I remembered that I had turned on a setting that enables transliteration into Hindi. I'm all for promoting international understanding and am aware that Hindi is the world's fourth-most spoken language, but I still felt that I ought to click the new transliteration toggle on my toolbar (itself a Hindi character looking something like 3-T) and turn the thing off for now. English has been the language of trade and technology, but now, we have the launch of India's Chandrayaan-1 unmanned lunar orbiter, as well as China's Chang'e-1 space craft, which doesn't mean "change," but considering China's growing economic clout, might as well. I think Chandrayaan is Sanskrit for "We're catching up with you, USA."

Chinese scientists, rather like the beings from the future obligingly reconstructing Frances O'Connor from a single strand of hair in Spielberg's film AI, worked from a single moon rock given as a goodwill gesture by the United States; according to Time: "China's true fascination has long been the moon--at least since 1978, when the U.S. presented Beijing with a 1-g (.035 oz.) sample of lunar rock brought back by the Apollo 17 mission. Chinese officials razored off half of that moon crumb and gave it to scientists to study. 'From that half a gram, we produced 40 papers,' space scientist Ouyang Ziyuan told the People's Daily."

Meanwhile, NASA left all its data analyses of moon dust on tape drives that could only be played on equipment last manufactured in the 1960s, and on my single visit to the Kennedy Space Center, in 1979, the tour guide could not say the word "spacecraft," which he continually pronounced spacecran. All I can say is that if I had to travel to the moon, which takes about 4 days, I would want to listen to this on the way, certainly one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written.

The AdSense ads finally appeared, though nowadays, any interval in which ads do not appear is more remarkable; I suppose I can understand the frequent ads for suicide prevention, since I mentioned the Jonestown suicide, though the frequent ads for removing belly fat, while certainly reflecting a private goal, don't seem related to anything I've discussed here. As I checked the single piece of spam in my G-mail inbox this morning, Google helpfully offered an ad for "Tasty Spam Crescents." It wouldn't hurt for the ad writers to avail themselves of a spell check utility; so far, I've seen "jewerly," "recieve," and "entrepeneur."

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Render unto Batman

In 1935, the mayor of Rome, Texas, cabled the League of Nations to offer assurances that his town, at least, was not complicit in Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia. Now the mayor of Batman, Turkey, seeks damages from the producers of The Dark Knight.

That the undercurrents of history can sometimes be glimpsed in small moments is evident from Nancy Gibbs's comments in Time on Presidential transitions:

Outgoing President James Buchanan advised Abe Lincoln that water from the right-hand well was better than from the left, and he shared the secrets of the pantry. During John F. Kennedy's visit the day before his Inauguration, Dwight Eisenhower demonstrated the panic button, instantly summoning an evacuation helicopter to the White House lawn. Fatefully, Lyndon Johnson gave Richard Nixon a tour of the hidden tape recorders.

Another hidden agent is AdSense, a program that invites bloggers to add its HTML code to their templates, activating a script that is supposed to place ads here that are keyed to what the blogger writes about. I've pasted in their code and can't see any difference. I wondered what kind of ads these comments might evoke; whether, upon coming on a reference to Caesar, AdSense might place an ad for Little Caesar's Pizza. The ads were supposed to appear within a few minutes, and it's been several hours now; perhaps they're meant to be like faith, "the evidence of things not seen."

Speaking of belief in spite of the facts, I was startled to hear an otherwise very intelligent friend of mine assert, a couple of years ago, that autism can be caused by childhood vaccinations. Autism is not caused by the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine, any more than cancer is caused by power lines or AIDS by spirits of the dead. Frightened parents of children with autistic spectrum disorder are being misled by poorly done science, and other parents may risk exposing their children to diseases that had nearly been eradicated in the United States.

The incidence of autism is increasing--it is diagnosed in as many as 166 children per 10,000, up from 4 in 10,000 just 45 years ago. No precise cause has been identified, though it probably results from some combination of genetic and environmental factors. What it does not come from is the MMR vaccine. As noted by the Centers for Disease Control:

Groups of experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, agree that MMR vaccine is not responsible for recent increases in the number of children with autism. In 2004, a report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) concluded that there is no association between autism and MMR vaccine, or vaccines that contain thimerosal as a preservative.

The absence of measles and other contagious diseases from our daily lives has made many forget the severity of the threat. What could happen if a sufficiently large number of parents decided to skip MMR vaccination? The CDC notes:

Measles is one of the most infectious diseases in the world and is frequently imported into the U.S. In the period 1997-2000, most cases were associated with international visitors or U.S. residents who were exposed to the measles virus while traveling abroad. More than 90 percent of people who are not immune will get measles if they are exposed to the virus.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 900,000 measles-related deaths occurred among persons in developing countries in 1999. In populations that are not immune to measles, measles spreads rapidly. If vaccinations were stopped, each year about 2.7 million measles deaths worldwide could be expected.

In the U.S., widespread use of measles vaccine has led to a greater than 99 percent reduction in measles compared with the pre-vaccine era. If we stopped immunization, measles would increase to pre-vaccine levels.

Listen to this interview on autism, genetics, and vaccination with Dr. Larry Reiter of the Department of Neurology at the University of Tennessee Center for the Health Sciences, Memphis, conducted by Nicole Erwin of WKNO FM.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

Save the jobs; sell the walnut desks

Louis XIV was dying for weeks of gangrene, and no one thought to amputate. An article in this week's Time gives specifics on the ripple effect if GM is allowed to go under.
"Although the Detroit Three directly employed about 240,000 people last year, according to the industry-allied Center for Automotive Research (CAR) in Ann Arbor, Mich., the multiplier effect is large, which is typical in manufacturing. Throw in the partsmakers and other suppliers, and you have an additional 974,000 jobs. Together, says CAR, these 1.2 million workers spend enough to keep 1.7 million more people employed."
I'm not sure Time helps its cause by inserting a link to photographs of the "50 worst cars of all time"! The same article quotes Peter Schrager, of the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, saying that GM's management needs to be dismissed and the company broken up into three separate units: Chevy, Buick-Pontiac-GMC and Cadillac-Saab-Saturn. Whatever else they do, I hope they at least keep making Saturns!

Henry Payne, of the Detroit News, writing in National Review Online, also notes the shortcomings of GM as presently constituted.
"It is an open secret in the Motor City that — even leaving aside its high labor costs, surplus of brands, and bloated dealer network — GM’s manufacturing culture is inefficient compared to foreign rivals Toyota and Honda. Conversations with numerous supplier reps confirm an antiquated Detroit culture that does not thoroughly engineer products before contracting production with suppliers. As a result, production runs for Detroit automakers like GM are frequently interrupted to change specifications. Those interruptions add costs — costs that Japanese manufacturers rarely incur. The problem is so prevalent that employees for JCI — major international supplier Johnson Controls, Inc. — often joke that their acronym stands for 'Just Change It' because its American clients routinely run up unnecessary costs by altering production contracts.

"Can a $25 billion taxpayer bailout help General Motors change its culture? 'No,' says one supplier executive. 'You have to burn them down and start over.'”

I wondered if I had received my own bailout, or at least its first installment, when I opened my mail last night and found a check drawn on Wilburton State Bank of Oklahoma for nearly $5,000, accompanied by a letter from Bravo Services telling me I had won a quarter of a million dollars in an international lottery. The letter was obviously a scam, but the check looked real. The first order of business was to find out if there really is a Wilburton, Oklahoma, and there is. Next, I wondered if there really was a Wilburton State Bank and yes, that is real as well, as is the prominently displayed banner, one of the first things you see on their web site, warning you that checks from Bravo Services are fraudulent. If Saturn goes under, it looks like it will be a while before I replace my Ion with a Bentley.

An ad from Hewlett-Packard in my e-mail this morning made me blink; it said "Experience the Freedom of Wireless Printing," and I thought it said wireless painting! I wondered if there will come a time where we can't do anything unsupported by technology.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor

The mass suicide at Jonestown happened 30 years ago today; the following morning, a Sunday, readers of newspapers awoke to this photo on their front pages. The 1980 TV mini-series, with Powers Boothe, Angela Cartwright, and Randy Quaid, gives a flavor of the place, within the limits of television.

Anthony Burgess's 1981 novel, Earthly Powers, refers to a Jonestown-like cult. In the novel, the irony is that the cult's founder, Godfrey Manning, was a boy dying of meningitis in a Chicago hospital in the '20s, restored to health through the intercession of a priest who had unavailingly prayed for his own dying brother. In the year of Jonestown itself, Burgess had published his dystopian novel 1985, about British society crumbling while militant Islam claimed an ever larger place in English life.

Speaking of society crumbling, this morning's New York Times contains the startling headline, "Many Dealings of Bill Clinton are Under Review," which is rather like announcing that the universe is still subject to entropy. Perhaps a suitable subheadline would have been Psalm 130:3. Commenting on overtures to Senator Clinton from the Obama team, the former President rather artlessly commented, "If he decided to ask her, and they did it together," but fortunately, he remembered that he was discussing national politics and reined himself in, concluding "I think she’ll be really great as a secretary of state." Plus ça change...

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

Monday, November 17, 2008

American exceptionalism

I hadn't thought until today that an Anglican Church from outside the United States, trying to fit American usage, has to adapt in more ways than one. Rite II has an epiclesis; the 1662 BCP does not (though its effect is implied).

I had actually visited a church on Saturday, though not for a service. St. George's Episcopal in Germantown
had its annual Antiques Arcade last weekend.

Bull & Bear Antiques, of Chesapeake, VA, displayed a 10-foot Hepplewhite dining table and matching chairs; the table, around 75 years old, was offered for $8,950. The dealer explained to me that even late 19th-century tables in that style cost around $25-$35K, and too few were willing to spend that amount on a table for actual use. "With these less expensive pieces," he went on, "it doesn't really matter if someone accidentally spills a drink on it."

I couldn't argue with that, but for only $0.99, I downloaded an MP3 of the basso aria Mache Dich Mein Herze Rein, from the Bach St. Matthew Passion, intending to use it as background for this blog, but apparently, putting up background music is not as simple as I thought. I had forgotten that that aria was played as background in the 1999 film of The Talented Mr. Ripley.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

We shall never cease from exploration

...And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

I went to church today, though I couldn't really say why. Aside from special occasions, it was my first time to attend a service in 8 years. I had felt an unaccountable impulse, as though something were calling to me, and this was my way of responding. The first two doors I tried were locked, but that appealed to my former debt collector instincts, and I finally got inside, just in time for the service.

The parish is Anglican Church of Kenya; Rite II at 11 a.m., 1662 BCP at 7:30. It is formal enough to be church, sociable enough to give meaning to the whole idea of convening in a group to begin with. The sermon, given by one of the laity, was preached with more sincerity than passion, but the oratorical style is not easy to achieve in this casual age, as each major presidential candidate recently discovered.

Visiting a church is like visiting a nude beach; you always wonder if you will meet someone you know. At the beach, you hope to avoid coworkers (unless, perhaps, the threat of embarrassment is your only means of compelling their cooperation on your project); at church, the impertinent fool who mishandled your customer complaint or the smarmy businessman who defrauded you. One of the members believed he had met me somewhere, though I couldn't remember him; we shared neither present nor previous employment, he had not taken one of my guided tours of the Mallory-Neely Mansion before it closed, and he doesn't compete in local trivia nights, so we were both left wondering. Finally, he concluded that I had a "standard face."

Why do people go to church? Because they actually believe what is professed in its creeds and hymns, or because they hope, by gathering with others, to convince themselves that they believe? (To be fair, Bacon made a similar observation about atheists: It appeareth in nothing more, that atheism is rather in the lip, than in the heart of man, than by this; that atheists will ever be talking of that their opinion, as if they fainted in it, within themselves, and would be glad to be strengthened, by the consent of others. Nay more, you shall have atheists strive to get disciples, as it fareth with other sects.)

I once believed religious teaching quite sincerely, though no longer. I told the priest, a native of Kenya, of my unbelief, said I had come on impulse, and remarked that I was not sure I would be back. He was quite unassuming and chatted pleasantly while his wife offered me coffee and a brownie. I reminded him that this coming Saturday is the 45th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis, as well as that of John F. Kennedy and Aldous Huxley.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.