Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Doc Watson (1923-2012)

More here.

The Banish Cable TV Revolution Is Being Televised & That's Just The Start

Frank "The Fixer" Tagliano is a former New York mafiosi and restaurant owner who after testifying against his mob boss joins the witness protection program. Intrigued by Lillehammer after watching the 1994 Winter Olympics, he is relocated by the FBI to the picturesque town in northern Norway under the assumed name of Giovanni "Johnny" Henriksen.

That is the outlandish premise of Lillyhammer, Netflix first original series.  And while the series abounds with cliches, it is hilarious as Johnny, played to perfection by Steve Van Zandt and backed by an all-Norwegian cast, soon discovers that being an unemployed immigrant is not easy.  Johnny resorts to his old ways, which include buying a restaurant and getting what he wants through intimidation, when necessary, and sometimes worse. 

Van Zandt is, of course, a legend.  He played Silvio Dante in The Sopranos, is the longtime rhythm guitarist in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band and has his own solo career. 

Reviews have been mixed since all eight 45-minute episodes of Lillyhammer became available through webstreaming in February.  Some critics were put off by the cliches (one local tells Johnny that "You seem to know a lot about guns and pistols for a restaurant guy") and others found the  subtitles annoying.  Meh. 

Van Zandt, who co-produced Lillyhammer, has described it as a "dramedy" and there indeed are dramatic elements.  A local constable believes that Johnny is a terrorist in Norwegian mufti who was released from Guantánamo Bay and is up to no good, the mob boss he ratted out gets wind of his whereabouts, and other shenanigans.  But it is over-the-top funny with only dollops of violence.

"We're pushing the envelope as far as violence is concerned," Van Zandt told an interviewer. "[The Norwegians] just don't have any -- they don't allow it. You can have sex in prime time there, but violence is not cool."

* * * * *

When I shuttered the pied-à-terre and I moved to the mountain retreat fulltime, I bid an unfond adieu to a $50 a month cable television bill.  Beyond Turner Classic Movies, The Weather Channel and occasional sports, the other 80 or so channels had gone unwatched.  

For about $1,000 -- or less than two years worth of cable -- I bought a 37-inch HDTV, a Blu-Ray DVD player, wireless Internet router and a Roku, a marvelous little box through which we webstream movies, television and other content that are mated to a 10-year-old Sony amplifier-tuner and Bose speakers and an eight-year-old MacBook laptop.  Oh, and two ridiculously expensive HDMI cables, which are Digital Age counterparts of RCA cables.

Roku streams Netflix, Amazon, Crackle and dozens of other channels, including the estimable TED Talks.  Netflix sets us back $16 a month for both DVDs and webstreaming, while Amazon is substantially free because we are Amazon Prime members, and Crackle, TED Talks and many other channels are just plain free.

There will be some additional expenses en route to webstreaming nirvana.  

Speaking of the Olympics, we will want to watch the London Games this summer, but not what NBC Sports wants us to watch, which is lots of swimming, gymnastics, track and field and . . . did I say gymnastics?  We will be able to cherry pick events and watch them at our leisure.  Without commercial interruption.

Cartoon du Jour

Matt Bors/Universal Uclick

Monday, May 21, 2012

Iraq: Your Precious Tax Dollars At Work

Save for some Republicans who remain blindered to larger realities, most people concluded long ago that the Iraq war was a fool's mission that wasted thousands of American and many tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, bled resources from the war in Afghanistan, bankrupted the federal treasury, lowered the U.S.'s standing in the world, and accomplished none of its goals save for taking out Saddam Hussein, who while a very bad man posed no threat to the U.S. or the Middle East, let alone had any links to the 9/11 attacks.

One of the goals of Operation Iraqi Freedom was to transform the country into a democracy, in this case at point of gun, which of course has not happened.  In point of fact, Iraq today is less stable than it was at the outset of the 2003 invasion with a Shiite thug beholden to Iran -- which has emerged as the big winner in the wake of the eight-year American occupation -- as its prime minister.

The latest casualty of the war is an ambitious multibillion-dollar State Department police training program that was to be the centerpiece of the post-occupation civilian mission.  The original 350 American law enforcement officers, backed by 1,000 support personnel, have been scaled back to 50 and even they may be withdrawn by the end of the year.

The failure of the program is a metaphor for waning American influence, indifference on the part of many Iraqis, and muscle flexing by the government led by Prime Minister Al-Maliki, whose assertion of national sovereignty took U.S. officials by surprise and hastened the withdrawal of the last combat troops.

Besides which, no one at State bothered to asks the Iraqis if they even wanted the program.  Oh, and repeated efforts by auditors for the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) to examine the program's books have been rebuffed with "trust us, we're the government" rejoinders.

In all, some $7.3 billion has been spend on police training since 2003, which prompted HuffPo commentator Peter Van Buren to write, "Ka-ching! Anybody's hometown in need of $7.3 billion in federal funds? Hah, you can't have it if you're American, it is only for Iraq!"

Meanwhile, a SIGIR investigation found that some U.S. commanders believe funds for relief and reconstruction may have ended up benefiting insurgents.

The watchdog agency surveyed officers and officials associated with the Commander's Emergency Response Programme (CERP), a fund used by American military officers for projects totaling $4 billion to boost rebuilding in their areas of responsibility.

"Some commanders indicated that the diversion of CERP project funds may have benefited insurgents," SIGIR said in a report.  "Money . . . was found during raids on insurgents (along with) admission from contractors that they paid money 'for protection' . . . There was substantial evidence that the local authorities were stealing right off the top."

About 150 U.S. troops remain in Iraq under the authority of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

Photograph by Ayman Oghanna for The New York Times

Cartoon du Jour

Glenn McCoy/Universal Press Syndicate

Thursday, May 17, 2012

With Friends Like House Speaker John Boehner, America Doesn't Need Enemies

Will the House Republican leadership ever learn? Probably not.

In a dizzying week of developments, House Speaker John Boehner again threatened to shut down the federal government by not agreeing to raise the debt ceiling (something that the great conservative god Ronald Reagan advocated and did himself several times), proposed three separate budgets for next year although none is required because of an earlier deal on spending caps (while lying through his teeth in claiming that one of the budgets was actually President Obama’s own proposal), and threatened to renege on the spending caps in proposing that the bloated Pentagon be given even more money and that cost-saving measures already in effect be postponed (with the predictable slash-and-burn cuts in social programs).

Those of us who do not share Boehner’s short memory recall what happened last year when he acquiesced to the House’s hair-on-fire Tea Party bloc: Bond rating agencies said that the U.S.’s reputation had been severely damaged and the government lost its AAA credit rating, something that the speaker, in another lie this week, blamed the president for. The stock market tanked, as it did last year, and Congress’s approval rating ticked down ever closer to single digits.

For good measure, Boehner also said that the House would vote before the November election to continue all the Bush tax cuts, which it cannot prevent from expiring on January 1. This would deprive the Treasury of more than $3.5 trillion in the coming decade that could be used for deficit reduction.

It is tempting to forgive Boehner’s ways by saying that his governing philosophy differs from those of the president and most Democrats, but extortion is not a governing philosophy.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Same-Sex Marriage: The Moral High Ground Gets A Vigorous Workout

The moral high ground is getting a vigorous workout in the wake of President Obama's endorsement of same-sex marriage, but what exactly is the moral high ground?
In ethical and political parlance, the moral high ground refers to having the status of being respected for being moral and adhering to and upholding universally recognized standards of justice and goodness.  But alas, there are no commonly accepted universal standards in these divisive times and the result is not unlike a wrench that is ratchetable to any setting that conforms with a person's own standards.

That is why people who believe there should be no restrictions on ownership and use of firearms and are obsessed with threats to their safety, real and imagined, as an unhealthy number of Americas are, believe that they have the moral high ground.  They would take heart in the illustration above of Jesus instructing a young disciple on the proper use of a 9mm Glock pistol.  Oh, and they believe Mahatma Gandhi was a wuss.

On the other hand, people who believe that ownership and use of firearms should be restricted if not banned outright and are convinced that the proliferation of guns and increasingly lax laws on their use are responsible for the epidemic of gun violence, including incidents like that which took the life of Trayvon Martin, believe that they have the moral high ground.  They would be appalled at the Jesus image and revere Gandhi's commitment to nonviolence.

The term moral high ground is being used with indiscriminate abandon by both supporters and opponents of Obama's endorsement of same-sex marriage (while unconscionably adding that he also supports states deciding the issue on their own), while he used the term himself early in his presidency.

In a veiled reference to the Bush-Cheney interregnum and its use of torture, Obama declared shortly after his inauguration that America would now be "willing to observe core standards of conduct not just when it's easy, but also when it's hard. We think that it is precisely our ideals that give us the strength and the moral high ground to be able to effectively deal with the unthinking violence that we see emanating from terrorist organizations around the world."

As it is, supporters of the use of torture to extract information from terrorism suspects --  and these often are people who wave their religious credentials around like glow sticks --  believe that they have the moral high ground.  Never mind that it has been proven that torture is counterproductive when compared to less coercive interrogation techniques.  And one could only hope, these self-righteous supporters would feel extremely uncomfortable when it is pointed out that Jesus guy himself was tortured.

But Obama's hands are not exactly clean.  While his first official act as president was to prohibit the use of torture, the Guantánamo gulag remains open, military tribunals are alive and well, albeit a bit cleaned up from years past, and the CIA and military still operate secret prisons in Afghanistan and God knows where else.

Then there is the matter of medical marijuana, a proven and safe pain reliever for victims of cancer, glaucoma and other diseases.

In this instance, the Obama administration -- as opposed to the president himself, who has said little about the matter since he came off the election trail in 2008 -- has taken the view that federal drugs laws, which still classify marijuana in the same category as heroin and cocaine, trump states like California where voters approved ballot issues decriminalizing its use.  (Irony Alert: As opposed to states where voters approved ballot issues that essentially criminalize same-sex marriage.)

And so in the end, the moral high ground turns out to be more of a slippery slope.

Cartoon du Jour

Stuart Carlson

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Barack Obama Belatedly & Finally 'Mans Up' In Endorsing Same-Sex Marriage

My Monday post originally was going to riff off of the words of former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell who urged Barack Obama "to man up" and endorse gay marriage, an issue which took on a new urgency with North Carolina this week becoming the 30th state to ban same-sex unions. Whether the president was heeding Rendell's advice or not, his endorsement in a television interview today carried very little political risk and was years overdue.
Hitting exactly the right note, Obama told ABC News that "At a certain point, I've just concluded for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married" in taking a definitive stand on what commentators call one of the most contentious and politically charged social issues of the day.

Commentators, as usual, are well behind the curve.

The issue certainly is contentious for religious conservatives and most Republicans, but with every passing year a growing majority of Americans -- and that majority is growing faster that most pollsters have predicted -- say that gay and lesbian couples should be afforded the same rights as heterosexual couples. The reason is simple: Most of us know gays, some of us roomed with them in college and consider them to be among their best friends, we watch the television shows in which same-sex couples appear, and have come to understand that sexual orientation is an individual choice and certainly not something that the government should regulate.

In contrast, Mitt Romney, Obama's presumptive Republican rival, not only opposes same-sex marriage but favors a Constitutional amendment to forbid it.
That position is safe for Romney because to believe otherwise would alienate his already shaky party base.  It is just as safe for the president because  few voters are likely to cross over to the Republican side in November simply because he has now endorsed same-sex marriage and it will be a fundraising boon for him.
Opponents of same-sex marriage say that Obama's decision will hurt him in battleground states, most of whom have laws against such unions, but polls tell a different story.  The nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that a plurality of swing voters favors same-sex marriage, 47 percent to 39 percent, and outside the South the margin widens to a majority of 53 percent in favor and 35 percent opposed. 
Across the aisle, at it were, is Mitt Romney, who to my knowledge has never placed principle above political interests.  The moral high ground is often based on unpopular choices, and the presumptive Republican nominee wouldn't know the moral high ground if it bit him in the ass.
Given my own background, the belated nature of the endorsement has been painful.

My parents taught my siblings and myself that people were to be judged by their actions, not who they happened to be.  It was no big deal that three of their best friends were gay -- two men who owned a restaurant had lived together for many years and a psych nurse who happened to be a lesbian.  I was especially found of her because she let me drive her MG convertible after I got my driver's license.

Several of my professional friends have been gays and lesbians, I hired the first openly gay editor at a newspaper where I worked and lost another gay friend -- who was married and closeted -- in the early 1980s to what we later came to understand was AIDS.

At the end of the day -- and it has been a singularly significant day for gay rights -- not one mind will have been changed on the issue.  It didn't take courage for Obama to recognize that.  It only took way too long.

Monday, May 07, 2012

10 Great Books For Summer Reading

I inhale books like moviegoers inhale popcorn, and am fortunate enough to have the time to devour about one book a week.  The following 10 reads are particularly noteworthy, in my view, most are available in used paperback editions for a song through Amazon for or can be ordered from your local library through Inter Library Loan.
ANNALS OF THE FORMER WORLD (2000) is John McPhee's Pulitzer Prize-winning account of traveling back and forth across the U.S. on Interstate 80, which roughly parallels to 40th parallel, often in the company of geologists who open the world beneath and beside the highway for he and the reader. From the Palisades overlooking the George Washington Bridge to the Golden Gate, McPhee writes about the geology we only catch glimpses of from a speeding automobile. He pretty much skips Missouri and Nebraska (b-o-r-i-n-g) and pauses especially long in geology-rich Wyoming.
THE ART OF FIELDING (2011) is the best baseball novel since forever.  While the book is ostensibly about baseball and lovers of the game will be held in thrall by Chad Harbach's deft descriptions of America's one-time passtime, it is most of all an intimate and beautifully told tale of how a single pitch in the climactic game of a season profoundly effects the fates of five very different people who are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties and secrets.
She sat on the throne of Peter the Great and ruled the largest empire on earth. She was intelligent, well read, had a quick wit and was a shrewd judge of character, was open minded but wielded the power of life and death. She was Catherine II of Russia, and her extraordinary life is vividly brought to life in CATHERINE THE GREAT: PORTRAIT OF A WOMAN (2011), a magisterial biography by Robert Massie, who has spent almost a half century studying czarist Russia.
Erik Larson's THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY: MURDER, MAGIC, AND MADNESS AT THE FAIR THAT CHANGED AMERICA (2004) was on best seller lists for months and it is easy to see why.  You know how the stories of the twin protagonists -- the architect responsible for the construction of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and a charismatic serial killer who preyed on visitors to the fair -- will turn out from the opening pages, yet this still is a chilling and compelling read.
There have been a tsunami of books about George Washington in recent years, but none has captured the great man with such wit and charm than JOHNNY ONE-EYE: A TALE OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION (2009).  Never mind that Jerome Charyn's account of Manhattan Island during the Revolutionary War, save for the broad historical overlay and the deeds of familiar figures, is apocryphal from start to finish.  It is a hoot.  Or as the Brits might say, a rum tale.
Manning Marable, an eminent Columbia University professor and prolific author of books on race and racism, died a mere three days before publication of his brilliant MALCOLM X: A LIFE OF REINVENTION (2011), a long overdue corrective to Alex Haley's Autobiography of Malcom X, which Marable found is rife with factual errors and inaccuracies, as well as accounts of Malcolm X's life based less on the historic record than what Malcolm wanted people to believe about him. 
When a load of rubber bath toys plummeted into the northern Pacific Ocean from a storm-tossed container ship in 1992, the toys eventually washed up on coastlines from Alaska to California to Massachusetts. For Donovan Hahn, it was an opportunity to set out on a series of seagoing adventures long on introspection, as well as laughs, that would culminate in an unalloyed joy --  MOBY DUCK:THE TRUE STORY OF 28,800 BATH TOYS LOST AT SEA AND OF THE BEACHCOMBERS, OCEANOGRAPHERS, ENVIRONMENTALISTS AND FOOLS, INCLUDING THE AUTHOR, WHO WENT IN SEARCH OF THEM (2011).
No less an authority than chillmeister Stephen King describes SWAMPLANDIA! (2011) as "brilliant, funny, original . . . also creepy and sinister."  Karen Russell, not yet 30 years old, has written a darned good but not quite great book about a family of alligator wrestlers in South Florida's now almost destroyed wilderness and the coming of age of three young innocents whose trials by water and fire are extraordinarily gripping.
I sometimes felt like my head was going to explode as I waded through TURING'S CATHEDRAL: THE ORIGINS OF THE DIGITAL UNIVERSE (2011), a sometimes highly technical book by George Dyson, the son of famed physicist Freeman Dyson.  He chronicles in gripping detail the mesmerizing cast of character who worked at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study and created, among other things, the first computers while wrestling with the ethical aspects of their military research and development work, which included the basic research that led to the hydrogen bomb.

By my lights, Danish writer Peter Høeg is the best practitioner of Arctic Noir, and his deeply suspenseful Smilla's Sense of Snow and The Quiet Girl are among the very best of that genre. But Høeg breaks the mold with THE WOMAN AND THE APE (1996), the story of the wife of an eminent behavioral scientist and a 300-pound ape that in the end is a searching quest for the nature of love, freedom and humanity.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Did You Hear About The Al Qaeda Massacre In Arizona? You Didn't?

It is worth noting yet again as the first anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden passes that while Islamic-driven terrorism remains a serious problem, right-ring domestic terrorism is a more substantial one.  And that the inability of the media and many other folks to connect the dots between one mass shooting and another -- and then another and then another -- renders us impotent to deal with the problem.

The latest unrelated (cough, cough) incident occurred in Arizona when a sick f*ck by the name of J.T. Ready, a longtime white supremacist and border vigilante who had amassed weapons (which was an open secret) and formed his own brigade of volunteers to walk alongside him as he hunted  “narco terrorists” on the Arizona-Mexico border (which also was an open secret). 

Ready previously had been a member of the National Socialist Movement, the largest neo-Nazi organization in the U.S., and among his mentors was said to be  state lawmaker Russell Pearce, who would gain national notoriety for his part in crafting the state’s tough immigration law. According to the Phoenix New Times, Pearce mentored the young man and helped him convert to the Mormon faith.

When Ready met his Not 72 Virgins in Paradise on Wednesday, it was not at the hands of drug runners, but with his own gun during a rampage inside a home east of Phoenix. The Arizona Republic reported that four others died: Ready’s girlfriend, her daughter, the daughter’s boyfriend and the daughter’s 18-month-old baby.

Ready still managed to use the massacre to blame immigrants even after his death. A posting on his Facebook page appeared hours after the massacre.
"Reports are unconfirmed that a cartel assassination squad murdered JT Ready and several of his friends and family this afternoon in Gilbert Arizona," the posting said. "This page’s admin will keep you updated of the situation as soon as possible."

It is, of course, possible that something as awful as this could have happened in Vermont or Oregon, but Arizona is ready made for mass shootings because of lax law enforcement of anything not having to do with immigrants and drugs and allowing domestic terrorists like Ready to go their violent ways.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Report Lambasts Murdoch As Being Unfit To Run His International Media Empire

Rupert Murdoch is filthy rich and has amassed enormous political power in Britain, the U.S. and Australia that would have made even Citizen Kane blush, but he has never attained  and now never will attain the one thing he has most wanted -- respect.
In an extraordinarily damning report released today, a select Parliamentary committee concludes that Murdoch is "not a fit person" to run his huge international media empire. 

The report followed a months' long investigation into the phone hacking scandal at Murdoch's British newspapers and said he had exhibited "a willful blindness" to wrongdoing at his New York-based News Corporation, a global conglomerate of newspapers, magazines, Fox News and other broadcast outlets.

While the consequences of the Parliamentary panel’s findings were not immediately clear, it is unimaginable that a U.S. congressional committee would issue such a report, let alone investigate the unscrupulous and possibly criminal activities of the deeply conservative media baron.  In fact, requests by Senator Jay Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat, that the FBI investigate whether News Corporation engaged in similar tactics in the U.S. have gone nowhere.
The cross-party Parliamentary committee, which approved the report by a majority of six to four, scolded News Corporation for misleading Parliament and trying to cover up the hacking. It said that there had been huge failures in corporate governance which also raised questions about the competence of his son, James.

"News International and its parent News Corporation exhibited willful blindness, for which the companies' directors — including Rupert Murdoch and James Murdoch — should ultimately take responsibility," it said. "Their instinct throughout, until it was too late, was to cover up rather than seek out wrongdoing and discipline the perpetrators."

"Even if there were a 'don’t ask, don’t tell' culture at News International, the whole affair demonstrates huge failings of corporate governance at the company and its parent, News Corporation," the 85-page report concluded.
The impact of the report was blunted by divisions within the panel itself. The committee said it had been split on party lines in the assessment of Murdoch, with the dominant Conservatives opposing the criticism while the Liberal Democrats, the junior coalition partner in Prime Minister David Cameron’s government, and the Labour opposition supporting it.
Murdoch, 81, and son James, 39, had long asserted and claimed last week in testimony before a separate judicial inquiry that the hacking was the result of a single rogue reporter and that they had no direct knowledge of its extent. This included the hacking in 2002 of a mobile phone belonging to Milly Dowler, an abducted and subsequently murdered teenager.
In a statement from its New York headquarters, News Corporation said it was "carefully reviewing the select committee’s report and will respond shortly." It also said the company "fully acknowledges significant wrongdoing at News of the World" -- the now-shuttered Sunday tabloid at the heart of the scandal -- "and apologizes to everyone whose privacy was invaded."

British police are conducting three separate investigations into phone hacking, e-mail hacking and bribery of police officers. More than 40 people have been arrested and questioned — though not charged — including senior editors and executives at the News International subsidiary.

The report also could embarrass Cameron, who has acknowledged that Britain's political elite has been dazzled and charmed by the Murdoch's media clout for years. 
The scandal also has threatened Jeremy Hunt, Cameron’s culture minister, who was in charge of overseeing a $12 billion BSkyB takeover bid by News Corporation that collapsed as the hacking scandal grew. As culture minister, Hunt had the power to waive regulatory scrutiny that could have doomed the takeover.

Cartoon du Jour

Schrank/The Independent