IN YOUR CERULEAN-SKINNED DREAMSWith an impeccable sense of timing (Avatar has just become the highest grossing movie evah), the Royal Society convened a conference in London where scientists speculated on what alien life is likely to be like if there is indeed such life out there.
While none of the alien life forms resemble those sexy Na'vi babes, some bolder thinkers are wading into the science-in-waiting of extraterrestrial anatomy and making some educated guesses after sifting through what few clues there are.
What these extraterrestrials will be like depends on where and how we expect to meet them. Natch.
Barring the appearance of flying saucers, there are two broad possibilities: Either we have a close encounter by visiting relatively near planets and moons next door, or as the New Scientist puts it, "We make an interstellar phone call to creatures inhabiting much more distant planets that circle alien suns."If first contact turns out to be within our solar system, then at least we have some prior knowledge about the available habitats. Several spots might be suitable for Earth-like life based on carbon biochemistry and using water as a solvent. The subsoil of Mars may be warm enough to host microbes akin to Earth's bacteria, and there could be larger beasts swimming in the watery oceans of some outer moons of the solar system -- especially Jupiter's moon Europa, to cite but two of many possible examples.
Astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch calculates that the energy supplied by the volcanic vents on Europa could feed a large population of microbes, which in turn could support a pyramid of predators. "Europa could support a shrimp-sized organism," he says, but there would not be enough prey to feed a viable population of predators bigger than that.SO MUCH FOR PHONING HOME
In any event, these scientists say that extraterrestrials are probably not going to be very interesting to talk to. For aliens on earthlings' intellectual level -- or far above it -- we will almost certainly need to look beyond the limits of our own solar system through efforts like the SETI initiative, which searches for the sounds of alien transmissions.
If we do make contact, what kind of creature is going to be on the other end of the line? Even without knowing the details of their chemistry or habitat, it is possible to hazard a few guesses.
For openers, they may have a taste for flesh. "Predators tend to be more intelligent," says evolutionary biologist Lynn Rothschild. "They have to do more moving around to outsmart the other guy. You don't have to be terribly intelligent to grab a leaf of lettuce."
And then there's the fact that in order to contact us, extraterrestrials must be able to send and receive radio waves or laser beams, or use some other medium to reach across the light years. So either they are vast creatures that have evolved natural radio-wave organs to talk and listen to each other, or they have developed technology.
But for that intelligence alone is not enough. "The thing that advances us as a species is that we are social," says Schulze-Makuch. "One of us alone is not very smart -- I'm so dumb I can't even build a radio. It is by working together that we got on the moon."
It need not be anything like human societies, however. "There are meta-intelligences in the societies of bees and termites. I can imagine something like a termite or ant colony that gets really intelligent," the astrobiologist says, noting than even on Earth, clever brains come in a wide variety of packages ranging from dolphins and primates to octopuses and squid.
WOULD ALIENS NEED REDEMPTION?That provocative question is posed by blogger Rod Dreher, who wonders whether intelligent alien life would be "fallen" in the theological sense. "Would aliens need a messiah?" he asks. "Is the fallenness that is part of postlapsarian human nature something that runs through all of creation, or only the human race?"
Dreher notes that Orthodox Christian teaching is that through the Fall, all of creation became corrupted, so all of creation awaits redemption.
Hmm. (And by all means read the comments to his post.)
Sunday, January 31, 2010
Saturday, January 30, 2010
I keep reading that of all the major newspapers trying to reinvent themselves . . . er, survive, The Washington Post is having the toughest time. Long story short, this is because it has lost its mojo as a must-read national paper and cannot survive as a you-might-want-to-read local paper.
On a more personal level, beyond the WaPo's Style section (which I always thought was the best of the Bigs), it isn't doing the kind of hard-hitting investigative reporting that helped make it a national powerhouse, its Editorial Page has gone mushy, op-ed columnist David Broder should be shot . . . well, I could go on and on.
Then there's the mad flailing for gimmicks such as a recent Your Take reader forum on the Disgraced Power Couple -- John and Elizabeth Edwards -- which asks if the Missus is doing the right thing by leaving the Mister now that he has confirmed he is indeed the father of Rielle Hunter's love child.
The readers' take is that the WaPo has lost it's institutional mind by even positing such BS. Mine, too.Hat tip to Crooked Timber
Friday, January 29, 2010
If those in charge of our society -- politicians, corporate executives, and owners of press and television -- can dominate our ideas, they will be secure in their power. They will not need soldiers patrolling the streets. We will control ourselves.-- HOWARD ZINNWe'll never know if the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling giving corporations the right to buy elections was the final straw, but it must have been a bitter coda to the long life of Howard Zinn, whose death on Wednesday from a heart attack brought a sudden end to the career of an extraordinary historian and political activist.
Zinn, who was 87, drew on his deep intellect and senses of morality and modesty to play influential roles in two of the seminal events of my lifetime -- the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War.
Meanwhile, his revisionist A People's History of the United States (1980) gave voice to the experiences of blacks, women, Indians and blue-collar workers usually neglected by historians. The book remains a bestseller and is the American history text of choice in some schools although Zinn is viewed with loathing by conservatives comfortable with the hackneyed traditional portrayal of the slave-holding Founding Fathers and the American experience as viewed through a white racial (and sometimes racist) lens.
Zinn acknowledged that he was not trying to write an objective history or a complete one.
"There's no such thing as a whole story; every story is incomplete," he said. "My idea was the orthodox viewpoint has already been done a thousand times."* * * * *Zinn was born in New York City on August 24, 1922 to Jewish immigrants, Edward Zinn, a waiter, and Jennie Rabinowitz, a housewife. He attended New York public schools and was working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard when he met Roslyn Shechter, whom he married in 1944. She died in 2008.
He joined the Army Air Corps and served as a bombardier during World War II and was awarded the Air Medal, but found himself questioning what it all meant. After the war, Zinn worked at a series of menial jobs until entering New York University on the GI Bill as a 27-year-old freshman. He worked nights in a warehouse loading trucks to support his studies. He received his bachelor’s degree from NYU, followed by master's and doctoral degrees in history from Columbia University.
Zinn was an instructor at Upsala College and lecturer at Brooklyn College before joining the faculty of Spelman College in Atlanta in 1956, where he served as history department chairman at the historically black women's institution. Among his students were novelist Alice Walker, who called him "the best teacher I ever had."
He inevitably become involved in the nascent civil rights movement, serving on the executive committee of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the most aggressive civil rights organization of the time, participated in numerous demonstrations, and in typical Zinn fashion encouraged his black students to request books from segregated public libraries. (Spelman later fired him for insubordination -- his criticism of the college administration's antipathy toward the civil rights movement.)
Zinn became an associate professor of political science at Boston University in 1964 and was named full professor in 1966.
The focus of his activism became the Vietnam War. Zinn spoke at innumerable rallies and teach-ins and drew national attention -- and considerable criticism -- when he and the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, another leading antiwar activist, went to Hanoi in 1968 to receive three prisoners released by the North Vietnamese.He published two books on the war -- Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal (1967) and Disobedience and Democracy (1968).
In 1988, Zinn took early retirement to concentrate on speaking and writing.
On his last day at Boston University, he ended class 30 minutes early so he could join a picket line and urged the 500 students attending his lecture to come along. A hundred did.
* * * * *
As Zinn wrote in his autobiography, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train (1994):
"From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than 'objectivity'; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble."It also was a recipe for years of rancor with John Silber.
Zinn twice helped lead faculty votes to oust the Boston University president, who in turn once accused him of arson (a charge he quickly retracted) and cited him as a prime example of teachers "who poison the well of academe."
Among Zinn's credits are a cameo appearance in the film Good Will Hunting (1997). The title character, played by Matt Damon, lauds A People’s History and urges Robin Williams’s character to read it. Damon, who co-wrote the script, was a neighbor of the Zinns growing up.
"Howard had a great mind and was one of the great voices in the American political life," said Ben Affleck, also a family friend growing up and Damon's co-star in Good Will Hunting. "He taught me how valuable -- how necessary -- dissent was to democracy and to America itself. He taught that history was made by the everyman, not the elites. I was lucky enough to know him personally and I will carry with me what I learned from him -- and try to impart it to my own children -- in his memory."
One of Zinn's last public writings was a brief essay published last week in The Nation about the first year of the Barack Obama administration.
"I’ve been searching hard for a highlight," he wrote, but said that he wasn't disappointed because he never expected a lot from the president.
"I think people are dazzled by Obama's rhetoric, and that people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president -- which means, in our time, a dangerous president -- unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction."
It was classic Howard Zinn.
I want to remind you that, fifty years ago, racial segregation here in the South was entrenched as tightly as was apartheid in South Africa. The national government, even with liberal presidents like Kennedy and Johnson in office, was looking the other way while Black people were beaten and killed and denied the opportunity to vote. So Black people in the South decided they had to do something by themselves. They boycotted and sat in and picketed and demonstrated, and were beaten and jailed, and some were killed, but their cries for freedom were soon heard all over the nation and around the world, and the President and Congress finally did what they had previously failed to do -- enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. Many people had said: The South will never change. But it did change. It changed because ordinary people organized and took risks and challenged the system and would not give up. That's when democracy came alive.
I want to remind you also that when the war in Vietnam was going on, and young Americans were dying and coming home paralyzed, and our government was bombing the villages of Vietnam -- bombing schools and hospitals and killing ordinary people in huge numbers -- it looked hopeless to try to stop the war. But just as in the Southern movement, people began to protest and soon it caught on. It was a national movement. Soldiers were coming back and denouncing the war, and young people were refusing to join the military, and the war had to end.
The lesson of that history is that you must not despair, that if you are right, and you persist, things will change. The government may try to deceive the people, and the newspapers and television may do the same, but the truth has a way of coming out. The truth has a power greater than a hundred lies. I know you have practical things to do -- to get jobs and get married and have children. You may become prosperous and be considered a success in the way our society defines success, by wealth and standing and prestige. But that is not enough for a good life.
* * * * *
Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement -- Against Discouragement
Those years at Spelman were the most exciting of my life, the most educational certainly. I learned more from my students than they learned from me. Those were the years of the great movement in the South against racial segregation, and I became involved in that in Atlanta, in Albany, Georgia, in Selma, Alabama, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Greenwood and Itta Bena and Jackson.
I learned something about democracy: that it does not come from the government, from on high, it comes from people getting together and struggling for justice. I learned about race. I learned something that any intelligent person realizes at a certain point -- that race is a manufactured thing, an artificial thing, and while race does matter (as Cornel West has written), it only matters because certain people want it to matter, just as nationalism is something artificial. I learned that what really matters is that all of us -- of whatever so-called race and so-called nationality -- are human beings and should cherish one another.
Thursday, January 28, 2010
The one-eye bit was because these speeches are seldom noteworthy and despite Obama's oratorical skills, yet again brilliantly on display, this one ran true to form. The dread stemmed from my belief that the crisis atmosphere that pervades his administration one year on is grounded not in substance but in message, and while this bloodied warrior was correct to take responsibility for aspects of the crisis he should not take the blame.
I suppose I needed not worry, because that's pretty much as things played out with nary an outburst from Joe Wilson, although he and his Republican colleagues were stonily silent when Obama proffered one of the GOP's perennial faves -- tax cuts. Do we live in a great time, or what?
My big sum-up is that while it was a very good speech, in turn scolding and reassuring, and overnight poll numbers were hugely positive for the president, it won't change anything.
Here's what some other pundits had to say:
Josh Green at The Atlantic:
Tax incentives, small-business veneration, glorification of the entrepreneur, chest-thumping on competition, and even a bit of nationalism. Obama articulates Republican policies better than Republicans do. Doesn't look sour and mean, or like he wants to bite somebody.Mark Levin at the National Review:
I have watched many, many State of the Union speeches. This is the most partisan, least presidential of them all. His rhetoric, his glances at the GOP side, and his almost mocking tone at times — not to mention his over-the-top dissembling about the deficit, among other things — will not, I predict, improve his position with the public. Nor should it.Ezra Klein on Twitter:
This health-care section is good. Obama is smart to admit that people are skeptical and to blame it on process and bad communication.Kevin Drum at Mother Jones:
That's it for healthcare. Seemed a little bloodless to me. Didn't really explain his plan very well, and never stood up for anything more specific than "Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people." I was hoping for more, but maybe I expect too much.Robert Stein at Connecting the Dots:
The unusual tone of this State of the Union came from both directions. Below each outburst of applause, there was an unprecedented hum of disapproval from stony GOP faces.Yuval Levin at the National Review:
[The speech] won’t make much of a difference either way—and it wouldn’t have even if it had been a much better or a much worse speech. But it’s interesting as an indication of where the administration’s thinking is at the moment. It really didn’t suggest the sharp pivot everyone has thought was coming: he was very defensive of everything he has done all year. But it also didn’t suggest a renewed determination to pursue his agenda: the speech was very vague and not very energetic. The Massachusetts election has certainly left the Democrats disoriented, and it showed tonight.Joe Klein at Time magazine:
This was Obama at his best. He wasn't cuddly, but who cares? He was smart and he was funny--and he was drop-dead serious about the country. The speech should do him some good, but it's not enough. Now he has to preside, in the true sense of the term.BooMan at the Booman Tribune:
I expected the reaction of the progressive blogosphere to this speech to be harsh, but it hasn't been for the most part and I am not sure why. As best as I can guess, it's because this speech reminded people why they liked Obama and worked to get him elected. After all, CBS says 83 percent and CNN says that 78 percent of the people had a positive reaction of the speech. And there were elements of the speech that should please progressives. He said that all of our troops will be leaving Iraq (which is probably not true), he called for the repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell law, he committed to letting the Bush tax cuts for the rich sunset, and he vowed to keep up the fight to pass health care reform.Ross Douthat at The New York Times:
I don’t mean to be too hard on the president: All State of the Unions tend to sprawl, and some of the tonal and substantive dissonances I’m picking up on here are inevitable in a big, detailed, cover-the-waterfront kind of address. But if there was ever a night to tighten things up, to narrow the focus, and to figure out a few big things you want to stay and a couple of big impressions you want to leave, then this was it.
Let's note from the jump that Democrats also can be corrupt, but it is Republicans who are spectacularly so.
The bust of conservative filmmaker and ACORN pimp James O'Keefe and three others after they were caught red handed tapping the phone of Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu at her New Orleans office may set a new record for incestuous corruption. And then there's Andrew Breitbart.
There is something satisfying in an unsatisfying way about the massive recall of Toyota cars and SUVs. It is satisfying because Toyota's reputation for integrity and yada yada yada deserved to take a hit and unsatisfying because people have gotten killed because of the apparent pandemic of stuck accelerator pedals.
Toyota, which supplanted GM as the world's largest automaker in 2008, is taking the unprecedented step of halting production in the U.S. of the eight suspect models for an indefinite period. The timing totally sucks coming as it does on the heels of the Japanese company reporting its first-ever annual loss last year. The recall -- actually the second for the problem -- was handled in extraordinarily ham-handed manner beginning with the fact that Toyota bigs knew about it two years before they were chided by the feds to take action and then denied that there was a problem with the pedals themselves, instead blaming drivers for letting floor mats slid under them.
Toyota has become an industry leader by selling cars that are reliable if often dull. But with its quality ranking heading south with its stock price and competitors offering cars that are more desirable and reliable, it if faced with the prospect of losing longtime customers and with it that all-important market share
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Beau Biden, the son of the vice president, is catching major heat in some quarters because of his decision to not run for his father's Senate seat in a special election and concentrate on his duties as Delaware attorney general.
I happen to know a thing or three about Delaware politics being a native son and part-time resident, and I offer the following:
* Biden probably would have lost to popular U.S. Representative Mike Castle, a moderate Republican in a state notorious for ticket splitting. Not the best way to advance one's political career, eh?
* Castle, who is 70 and not in the best of health, in all likelihood will be a one-term senator. Biden will be only 45 when the 2014 election rolls around. (The special election is for a four-year and not six-year term because Ted Kaufman will have filled out the first two years of what would have been Joe Biden's term had Barack Obama not won and has said he would not run for a full term.)
* Much of the flak Biden is catching is because of his contention that it is more important for him to stay on as state AG and be re-elected so he can focus on a major child molestation case. That case, involving a pedophile pediatrician charged with raping nine girl patients from 3 months to 13 years old, has rocked the tiny state. Prosecutors have said the number of victims could surpass 100.
Finally, I don't know about you, but aren't dynasty politics getting a bit old?
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Is this the week that I finally get a divorce from the Democratic Party? After last week's overreaction to the Massachusetts special election result and underreaction to the Supreme Court campaign finance coup d’état, it's quite likely.
What will push me over the edge is a party with substantial congressional majorities giving up on health-care reform. As in reform in my lifetime. As in reform that while far less than perfect will substantially close the gap between Americans who are insured and those who are not.
If health-care reform ends up in the crapper, the Democrats will have no one but themselves to blame. They failed to sufficiently mobilize public support. They failed to maintain party discipline like the Republicans were able to do so effectively at the height of their hegemony and, in fact, have done on this very issue while in the minority. They acted like the threat of a filibuster was the bubonic plague.
Passing health-care reform is not merely a political act. It is a moral act. To shy away from that because you're afraid of losing your House or Senate seat is another kind of act -- an act of cowardice -- that will not merely sully the Obama agenda but stain the Democratic Party for all time.Cartoon by Tom Toles/Universal Press Syndicate
Monday, January 25, 2010
Music, not sex, got me aroused.-- MARVIN GAYEIn the quarter century since Marvin Gaye's way premature death in 1984, a cottage industry has sprung up trying to explain the meaning of this extraordinary singer-songwriter's troubled, violent and ultimately enigmatic life.
I'm not even going to try, and if you can find clues while reading between the following lines, good for you.
Long before Gaye was shot dead by his maniacal minister father, he had attained an iconic status. This is because he didn't merely define soul music during a 26-year career but took it into uncharted territory through powerful songs about social, political and sexual issues that have influenced many recording artists in genres as diverse as doo-wop, rhythm and blues and jazz.
To my ears, one of the best albums ever is Gaye's self-produced What's Going On (1971), a song cycle presented from the point of view of a Vietnam veteran returning to the country he had fought for who is confronted by injustice and suffering.* * * * *Marvin Pentz Gay Jr. was born on April 2, 1939 to Alberta Cooper, a domestic and school teacher, and Marvin Gay Sr., a minister at the House of God church in Washington, D.C. (Marvin Jr. later changed the spelling of his last name to Gaye because he felt that it sounded more professional, although some people have said that he was sensitive to the original spelling's homosexual connotation.)
Gaye spent much of his childhood in a public housing project in Southeast Washington and sang and played instruments in his father's church choir. He dropped out of high school in 11th grade and joined the Air Force in the hopes of becoming a pilot but was discharged after faking mental illness.
Returning to Washington, he joined a childhood friend who had formed a group called The Marquees. Bo Diddley signed them to Okeh Records, where they had moderate success. Gaye then joined the R&B and doo-wop group The Moonglows with whom he sang backup on records by Chuck Berry and Etta James.
After the Moonglows disbanded in 1960, Gaye moved to Detroit where he signed with the Tamla label, a subsidiary of Berry Gordy Jr.'s Motown Records. He initially worked as a session drummer for The Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas and Little Stevie Wonder, among others.
Gaye clashed almost immediately with the all-powerful Gordy as he began charting a solo career. They disagreed over the music that Gaye wanted to record and the tight leash and miserly payments Motown artists had to abide, and that contentious relationship was to eventually liberate the independent-minded Gaye from the Gordy's Motown plantation if not the label itself.
In 1961, Gaye released his first solo recording, The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye. It featured Broadway standards and jazzy show tunes and was a commercial flop. Three singles followed that also failed, and he was to attain his first commercial success not as signer but as co-writer of "Beachwood 4-5789," the 1962 Marvelettes hit.
Gaye finally cracked the charts in September 1962 with the hit single "Stubborn Kind of Fellow," a reference to his moody behavior. He broke into the Top 40 in 1963 with three hit singles -- "Hitch Hike," "Pride and Joy" and "Can I Get a Witnesses" -- and then had four more hits in 1964 -- "You Are a Wonderful One," "Try It Baby," "Baby Don't You Do It" and "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)", which became his first signature song.
From then on the hits came fast and furious. They included another personal fave of mine, the 1967 album United, which he recorded with Tammi Terrell and included the hit singles "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Your Precious Love."
Gaye's moodiness lapsed into depression when Terrell was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He refused to acknowledge the success of his first number one hit, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," which he wrote and had been an earlier hit for Gladys Knight & The Pips, became bored with music and tired of fighting for artistic control. Meanwhile, his first marriage to Anna Gordy, Berry Gordy's sister, was collapsing. (His second marriage in 1977 to Janis Hunter, the teenage daughter of Slim Gaillard, lasted a year.)
He went into seclusion when Terrell died in March 1970 but shook off his depression three months later when he recorded the singles "What's Going On," "God Is Love" and "Sad Tomorrows."
Gordy refused to release "What's Going On," infamously calling it "the worst record I ever heard." Gaye threatened to leave Motown unless it was released and the plantation master relented. It was released with virtually no publicity in January 1971 and quickly shot up to number one on the Billboard R&B chart, where it stayed for five weeks and years later was ranked the fourth best song of all time by Rolling Stone.
After the single's success, Gaye demanded an entire album of similar tracks and Gordy had no choice but to agree.
What's Going On was a bold departure from Gaye's earlier work and was the first soul concept album, although it had ample funk and jazz influences, as well. Most of the album's nine song lead into the next and it ends with a reprise of the opening theme. The album also spawned two number one singles, "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)."
Gaye renegotiated his Motown contract after What's Going On was released to immediate critical and commercial success. The $1 million deal finally gave him creative control as well as being the most highly paid black artist, and his follow-up album, the soundtrack for the blaxploitation firm Trouble Man, also was a huge hit.
Shifting gears in 1973, Gaye recorded the sensual Let's Get It On, which became his biggest selling album during his lifetime. But while the hits kept coming, by 1979 he was besieged by tax and drug problems. He filed for bankruptcy and moved to Hawaii where he lived frugally until setting out on a star-crossed 1980 European tour that included showing up seven hours late for a Command Performance at a Royal Gala Charity Show for Princess Margaret.
Gaye finally broke with Motown the following year when he accused the label of editing and remixing his Lifetime album without his permission. He enjoyed a brief period of sobriety while living in Belgium and then signed with Columbia Records in 1982. He released Midnight Love late that year and the single "Sexual Healing" was to become his last hit.
His bouts of depression deepend in 1983 and his friends feared for his life, but Gaye's end came unexpectedly.
He had moved back into his parents' house and threatened to commit suicide several times after bitter arguments with his father. On April 1, 1984, Marvin Gay Sr. fatally shot his son after he intervened in an argument that had started after husband and his wife squabbled over some misplaced business documents.
Marvin Gaye would have turned 45 the next day.
This article is based in part on the Wikipedia entry on Gaye.
PHOTOGRAPHS (From top): Gaye with The Moonglows (ca. 1959); Gaye (1954); Berry Gordy (ca. 1962); The Soulful Moods dust jacket; Gaye and Tammy Terrell during a 1967 Mike Douglas Show performance; United dust jacket; Gaye with Anna Gordy Gaye; What's Going On recording session; What's Going On dust jacket; Live at the Oakland Coliseum during his 1973-74 world tour; Live at the London Palladium in 1977; Gaye honored by Ebony magazine (2008).