Monday, June 30, 2008

Mini Reviews

I’m an avid reader of the New York Times Sunday Book Review, especially the non-fiction reviews. After digesting the erudite summaries, learned opinions and academic analyses of the experts I am saved the bother of reading all these books.

Still, it takes some time to read the sometimes-lengthy reviews, so today, as a public service for those of you who are in a hurry, I’m going to quote snippets from a few of yesterday’s reviews.

Peter Dizikes, a science journalist, told us about “Microcosm – E Coli and the New Science of Life,” by Carl Zimmer:
If you must limit yourself to only one title on bacteria this year, “Microcosm” is a good pick.

Hey, Pete. Thanks for narrowing it down for me.

Holly Brubach reviewed “The Mysterious Montague,” by Leigh Montville:
His legend was born when he challenged Bing Crosby, a good golfer by all accounts, to a contest in which Crosby would play with his clubs and Montague with a shovel, a fungo bat and a rake. Montague won.

I wonder what Montague’s handicap was.

Now to insights provided by James Panero, managing editor of The New Criterion, who writes about “Apples and Oranges – My Brother and Me,” by Marie Brenner:
They both came from the same secular Jewish household . . . So how could she become a liberal journalist in New York while her brother turned out to be a Bush-loving, Wagner-listening, evangelical “right-wing nut” growing apples on the other coast?

I give up, Jimbo, how could this have happened?

Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, didn’t love a critical look at the Republican Party in “Grand New Party,” by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam. Ornstein hooks us into reading further in the first paragraph of his review:
One of the Republican Party’s most astute pols, Representative Tom Davis of Virginia, recently wrote about his party’s status among voters, “If we were a dog food, they would take us off the shelf.”

Sounds like a good idea to me.

Finally, Jack Shafer who writes for Slate, reviews “Right is Wrong,” by Arianna Huffington. Ms Huffington tells us:
McCain has been hijacked by the right-wingers! McCain is the Trojan horse the right desperately needed to put a faux maverick, faux independent, faux straight-talker imprint on the same ruinous policies that have taken us down this dark road.”

Okay, Arianna, stop holding back and tell us what you really think.

For more, you’re on your own.

Friday, June 27, 2008


The two lead stories in this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle were about guns. That the stories were side by side on the front page was not, I assume, an accident.

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision saying Americans have a constitutional right to own guns occupied the center of the page. To the right was continuing coverage about a father and two sons who were gunned down and killed here last Sunday after a minor traffic incident.

If the consequences that follow from important Supreme Court decisions weren’t so serious the intellectual and philosophical inconsistency that go hand-in-hand with Justice Scalia’s latest foray into ‘originalism’ would be laughable. To argue with a straight face that the Founders wanted the Constitution interpreted the way Scalia and his buddies see it in 2008 is the polar opposite of originalism. It has been interpreted the other way around for more than 200 years, for God’s sake.

The Scalia/Thomas/Alito/Roberts coalition, joined unfortunately all too often by Kennedy, make decisions that fit their conservative political philosophy. That’s it, pure and simple, no matter how skillfully they may argue their ‘holier than thou’ point of view. It would be easier to take if they were just honest about it. But that won’t happen.

In the meantime, the Tony, Michael and Matthew Bolognas of the world will be senselessly killed by guns, legally or illegally obtained. In their caskets the difference is of no importance.

A small confession. My libertarian proclivities give rise to a little voice in my head that says the government should not be telling us we can or cannot own guns. It is our business, not theirs. Punish us if we break the law. Don’t punish us before we’ve done anything wrong.

Like I say, a small confession. I still don’t like the Court’s decision.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Euro 2008

These past three weeks has been paradise for those of us who love what most of the world calls football. After almost two years of qualifying play, the best 16 teams in Europe got together in Switzerland and Austria to see who was best. It has been a great tournament. And because of enlightened programming by ESPN/ABC every game has been telecast live in the U.S.

Most people expected the perennial top teams – Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Germany – to do well, and except for France they all made it into the quarterfinals. The over-achieving surprises were Croatia, Russia and especially Turkey. The Turks came from behind three times with late-game heroics to win and only lost a semifinal to Germany in the final minute. The Spanish, who have a history of collapsing when it counts, broke their jinx and looked good. They’ll play Germany in the final on Sunday.

England wasn’t there. In what was a national humiliation, they didn’t qualify. It cost the coach his job. A totally appropriate consequence in my view. The country went into mourning. Also a totally appropriate consequence. So this under-achieving European football powerhouse took the summer off.

I went into Euro 2008 wanting Italy to win. But my preferences changed as the games unfolded. I thought I’d like Germany and Russia to do badly, but the quality of their play modified my view – at least a little. I haven’t forgiven the Croats for supporting the Nazis, but I found the team’s quality and the enthusiasm and sportsmanship of their young coach, Slaven Bilic, very attractive. I was glad to see Italy knock out France. I was impressed by the Dutch. I wasn’t distraught when Spain eliminated Italy, because the Spaniards were clearly the best team. And like everyone, partisan and neutral alike, I fell in love with the Turks.

I have a clear favorite in the final – Spain. That would top it off nicely, thank you very much.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Jesus Camp

If you’ve ever wondered what life would be like living in a fundamentalist evangelical Christian country, see the movie “Jesus Camp” and you’ll have the answer:

Run by fanatics
Power in the hands of pre-teen zealots
Freedom to think and do only what God tells the fanatics is OK
The church IS the state, so separation of church and state is impossible
Add whatever other nightmare scenarios you can concoct and you’ll be right

I can hear the laughter of the fanatics as I write this. They’re thrilled to hear me say all this. It means they’re succeeding. They’re getting their job done. They’re scaring the shit out of anyone who doesn’t think the way they do.

You’ve seen pictures of children studying in Islamic madrasas. Every day spending hours rocking back and forth memorizing the Koran. With the anti-Islamic propagandists spreading the word that we’re looking at the terrorists of tomorrow. These kids are benign pussycats compared to the 8 and 9 and 10 year olds in “Jesus Camp.”

The preachers and the teachers and the parents of these kids are brilliant. Their ability to indoctrinate at an early age, reinforce their ideas morning, noon and night, and provide opportunities for the kids to practice what they preach, is unparalleled. Theirs is a closed system that brooks no dissent. They concentrate on the hot button items they want to promote – never abort a fetus, always deny the validity of evolution, be a soldier in God’s army, convince others to accept Christ as their personal savior, elect those who believe as they do, home-school your kids, hate homosexuality, dump on all other churches and all other religions, etc. etc. etc.

My readers know that one of my favorite charities is the Freedom From Religion Foundation. So it is no surprise that I react as I do to “Jesus Camp.” Normally, I don’t discriminate between one religion and another. They’re all anathema to me. If I were God (relax, people, just a joke) I’d get rid of all of them. But if I were a making a list it’d be hard not to name these fundamentalist Christians as my top candidate for abolition.


Monday, June 16, 2008

Ethnic Dance Festival

Over four weekends in June San Francisco has an Ethnic Dance Festival. 2008 is the 30th annual festival. I’m embarrassed to admit that until recently I was totally unaware that this event existed. Fortunately, this year I paid attention to a brochure we received, we decided to attend and are very very happy we did.

The performances are staged at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater, about a half hour walk from our house. The Palace of Fine Arts is a large structure created for the Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915. The Exposition was an event dedicated to progress, the celebration of the completion of the Panama Canal, and the rebirth of San Francisco following the disastrous 1906 earthquake.

It is a bit of a miracle that the Palace has survived. It wasn’t built to last. And over the years various preservation movements have ebbed and flowed. Finally, in the late 1950’s a drive to rescue the Palace from demolition began and was successful. The Theater was added in 1970. It is a comfortable venue seating 1,000 people. We had great seats, dead center in the sixth row.

Each weekend during the Festival different dances and dance companies are featured. We went knowing what the line-up was, but not knowing what to expect. The dancers, from various parts of the Bay Area, are not professionals. We assumed we’d be treated to enthusiastic but not necessarily skilled performances. We were wrong. They were absolutely wonderful, each of them and all of them.

We saw nine groups:

Chinese children got us started with a dance celebrating the New Year. They were accompanied by guest musicians from Beijing.

Next we went to Mexico, “Raices De Mi Tierra,” dances from Mexico’s Chiapas region, accompanied by five marimba masters. The costumes were a rainbow of bright colors.

At the other end of the spectrum, quiet and elegant, were classical Khmer dancers from Cambodia. They were Apsaras, celestial beings, dancing in a lovely garden.

Now we were in Central Asia, watching and listening to hand drum players and a soloist doing Ukbek/Tajik rhythms.

The first half of the show concluded with a totally unique Hawaiian dance, a World Premier Piece inspired by ancient Hawaiian celestial navigation and homage to the Polynesian god Maui. The several dozen dancers were more than enthusiastic and talented and beautifully costumed.

The Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose treated us to a South Indian style Bharatanatyam piece depicting the Goddess Shakti. They were accompanied by wonderful guest musicians from India.
Now came another World Premier Piece from the Korean Ong Dance Company. Very hard to describe this one. Abstract, extraordinary music, said to be Shamanistic in honor of the Souls of the Lost. I loved it.

I also loved the Flamenco dancers and musicians. Classic. Powerful. Moving. The rhythms of Spain at their best.

The program closed with a Cuban-Haitian piece that was a communal celebration, replete with songs, flags, cartwheels and revelry. Again, great costumes and energy to spare.

Without a doubt, we’ll be back for the 31st Annual Ethnic Dance Festival next year.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Hell Hath No Fury

Finally, Clinton acknowledged the obvious, so we can move on.

Her speech yesterday, part self-serving justification, part an endorsement of and support for Obama, and part about women’s rights and opportunities was OK. It could have focused more on the historic nature of the campaign that has been waged, and there could have been more directed at those who haven’t supported her, but all in all, given her earlier behavior I can accept that what she said got the job done.

I don’t buy into the notion that her defeat was caused misogynists, sexism or other negative attitudes toward women. Yes, that exists. Just like racism exists. But those women who blame Clinton’s sex for what happened are letting their biases get in the way of their common sense.

As many commentators are opining these days, Clinton’s loss had much more to do with strategic and tactical mistakes during the campaign, financial mismanagement, staff disputes, and more. For most of us it had nothing to do with whether we think a woman is up to the job.

Having said all this, in listening to her speech it was obvious that THE issue for many in her audience was the woman thing. Cheers around that topic far outweighed all other subjects she touched on. So my not agreeing with their conclusion isn’t going to change any minds.

I am left with that old truism (or is it a sexist axiom): “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” And for those of you who care about accurate attribution, Shakespeare did not pen these words. They are from a play called, “A Mourning Bride,” written in 1697 by William Congreve.

The complete quote is:
“Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned.
Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.”

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Morning After

This morning I’ve been in a conversation with myself about Obama winning the Democratic nomination. While it has been a 16-month campaign for him, I’ve been on the journey with him for only the past five months. His extraordinary victory speech after winning Iowa in January inspired me. I knew I didn’t like Hillary Clinton, so I’d been looking for a candidate I could support. After listening to Obama I knew I now had a viable and exciting alternative.

I recognize the historic nature of Obama’s nomination. A black president? On TV in “24,” maybe. But in this country? Not likely. At least not likely soon. So I am surprised and happy that the process has taken us this far – and hopeful it’ll go all the way in November.

Today, however, my internal dialogue has not focused on the historic breakthrough. It has been on more mundane matters, specifically the role Clinton should play as the campaign moves forward. Her speech last night reinforced my existing attitude toward her. What would have been appropriate would have been to acknowledge that she had lost and to congratulate the winner. She could have been human, even emotional. She could have reiterated what she stands for, that would have been fine. Instead, she gave us a self-serving, defiant justification of the way she has behaved as a candidate, with barely an inkling of graciousness.

In his speech Obama gave us vintage Obama, soaring rhetoric, great vision, belief in a better future, and an abundance of appreciation and graciousness toward his opponent – qualities lacking on the other side. And importantly, his speech was the foundation for the campaign ahead. The issues that he’ll focus on were all laid out. In the coming months his job will be to fill in the blanks, to put substance behind the words.

As to Clinton, the news yesterday was a drumbeat of stories about whether she should be offered the Vice Presidency, clearly inspired by her and her supporters. My first reaction was “no way.” Don’t do it. Don’t compromise. Yes, she brings strength, but also a lot of baggage. Then, this morning, I began to think that maybe it is a good idea. Maybe it’s worth it if it means a better chance to beat McCain. In other words, all the practical reasons, rationalizations, for such a move. I almost convinced myself.

But then I came back to my senses. Back to my instinct, which I trust. And even with some practical reasons thrown in. For example, when did the second person on a ticket really make a decisive difference? Cheney didn’t win elections for Bush 43. Gore didn’t win elections for Clinton. Quayle didn’t win it for Bush 41. Nor Bush for Reagan. And on back. Maybe you could argue that Lyndon Johnson was critical for Kennedy in 1960, but even if Kennedy had lost Texas he would have won that election.

My hope is that over the next six weeks or so Obama will strike out on his own. Be his own man. Define himself more clearly for those who aren’t already committed to one side or the other. Not share the stage with any other Democrat. And then pick a running mate who shares his basic commitments, has experience that he doesn’t have, and is not a business as usual, politically expedient choice. Let the current turmoil and emotion subside. Then make a choice.

And by the way – I still don’t want it to be Clinton.