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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Gay marriage, plural marriage, and the social contract

by John MacBeath Watkins

The supreme court is faced with deciding whether we can have same-sex marriage. Whatever they decide, we will eventually get there, by politics if not by legal challenges.

The reason is that the meaning of marriage is changing. There was a time when it was difficult to live a moderately human life without marriage. You needed someone to work the fields and someone to spin and weave and sew clothing, someone to look after the household. As you aged, the only people you could count on to care for you were your children.

When spinning and weaving was generally done in the household, it took up much of the time of the wife. If you bought a suit from a tailor in colonial America, it would cost about a tenth to a sixth of a journeyman artisan's wages to buy an ordinary wool suit. Currently, a journeyman carpenter makes about $27,000 a year, so that would be equivalent to $2,700 to $4,500 for a wool suit. Land's End currently sells such a suit for about $300.

A silk suit would have cost three to five times as much, equivalent to about half a year's wages for our hypothetical journeyman.

Obviously, having someone in the home to spin, weave, and sew would have been very necessary for subsistence farmers, who had little cash income. Cooking, cleaning, and washing were more labor intensive as well.

The mechanization of textiles and of clothing manufacture and time-saving appliances around the home have reduced the value of work done in the home. As a result, in most households both members of a marriage work outside the home. A great deal of labor has moved from the family to the marketplace.

Children on a subsistence farm were not merely a joy, they were a necessity. Their labor around the farms on which most people lived was valuable, and their tendency to take care of their parents was the social security of most of humanity for most of its history. They could even bring in cash income. Abraham Lincoln's father rented him out as a laborer and kept all the money. Now, children are an expense, until they grow up and pay taxes to help defray the cost of maintaining their elders in retirement.

So for those who bemoan the loss of traditional marriage, I say that we no longer have that. Marriage has changed, and will change further. It remains a legal compact to merge your assets and help each other through life, but the economic imperatives of traditional marriage are gone, and the roles of those in a marriage have changed all out of recognition.

What remains is the social contract writ small.

We must reinvent marriage, because it is an important underpinning to society. An individual may exist alone, but until there are social relations, that person is not part of society. You need friends, allies, and family. And although you are born into a family, that doesn't last. You grow up and your parents die. You must either remain alone, or invent your own family.

Marriage is the legal framework we have developed for people to form families. With the advent of readily available and effective birth control, we have removed the biological as well as the economic imperative to have children. It has always been the case that a family could involve a barren couple, but in the economic world of the 18th century and before, this was considered a misfortune that made the couple poorer and less secure in their old age. Now, to be barren is for many couples a choice.

I suppose in time, mainly people who want children will reproduce, and humanity will consist only of people who are biologically programmed to want children and a few throwbacks to a time when all you had to want was sex.  And, or course, those who do not reproduce but help relatives who do, thereby increasing the chances of their genes being passed on.

But we have no shortage of people. Whether you are inclined to credit the worries of those who say the world is in danger of overpopulation or not, it is difficult to maintain that the world is threatened by a shortage of human births.

Therefore, the value of marriage for its other functions in building a society should be our main focus, provided this focus doesn't detract from couples having and raising children. Sociologists are pretty well convinced that gay marriage does not pose a problem in this way, and in fact, children raised by gay couples seem to thrive, so the effect of gay marriage is to create more stable families in which children can be raised.

Additionally, the contract of two people to form a very small convoy with which to navigate life has got to help make society more stable. One of the larger threats to social order is single men. Not me personally, although I'm single I'm a baa lamb, but in general young, single men competing for honor are more inclined to violence than men who are married.

It's in the genes, and it's been going on a long time, as shown in this cave painting of reindeer butting heads.

The social imperative is to allow people to form households, so that they can stop butting heads with rivals and settle down.

Now, some have said that gay marriage opens the door to plural marriage. But while gay marriage serves the social purpose of getting young people to marry and settle down, plural marriage works against this, allowing those with more money to have more wives while many  men are left our of marriage. (Or, in the case of polyandry, just reverse the genders.)

The little-known scandal of polygamist sects in this country is the phenomenon of "lost boys" -- boys pushed out of their community so that the older men running things can have more wives to marry. This is clearly not a good deal for either the boys or the women they would have married, who are deprived of choice.

Marriage is a microcosm of the social contract, in which you give up some freedom to enjoy the benefits of society. As we reinvent the institution, we would do well to keep this in mind, and look to the good or harm changes in the institution bring to the social contract. The great difficulty opponents to gay marriage are having is in showing that gay marriage does harm to society. I suspect opponents to plural marriage will have less difficulty, but if the issue is to be settled, that's the ground on which the arguments should be fought.

Friday, March 29, 2013

White-Jacket, Down and Out in Paris and London, and The Razor's Edge: Masterpices of the Roman à clef

by Jamie Lutton
On any average day, I sell one copy of Moby Dick, and one or two copies of 1984, if I have them in stock. Classic literature are the last books people will sell to me.   I often tell people that I sell the same  100 or 200 'classic'  titles over and over.  
What I try to do (when asked)   is suggest lesser known titles by well known authors.  There are some fantastic books by these  authors that are not well known and are rarely read. 

George Orwell's book Down and Out in Paris and London is an account of the author's  own decidedly unromantic adventures in Paris, sliding down into filthy poverty, and becoming a down and out impoverished dishwasher in Paris. Living in a cockroach filled slum in the inner city, Orwell documents the underside of Paris, not Hemingway's cafe society of the Lost Generation. This is the Paris of La Boheme, a generation or two later, but not much changed.

Living in a slum "packed with Arabs, Italians and and Poles,"  the residents drank heavily, smoked furiously, fought duels with knives.   The bohemians were students, stonemasons, prostitutes, rag-pickers, construction workers (called "navvies") consumptive people down on their luck and dying by inches The neighborhood was also home to respectable middle class bakers and laundresses, keeping to themselves - so typical of a Paris slum, according to Orwell. The residents were packed in like sardines into filthy five story  apartments, in narrow, unending streets,  which had had cheap thin walled divides, to make tiny rooms so as to pack in more residents.
The best part of this book is the description of how he ended up starving, in desperate poverty. Robbed, losing his job teaching English, having to pawn his clothes to eat, Orwell sinks fast. His account of racking semi- starvation, of living on bread and cheap margarine, the boredom, till through a dissolute ex-Russian officer friend he gets a job as a plongeur, (what a great word for it) a dishwasher, after many travails. 

They  struggled together to get work, any work, wandering in rags in the streets of Paris.

This is a book that lends itself to being read aloud; the book starts with a resident being screamed at by his landlord for crushing cockroaches with his shoes. It is a believable life as a  slum-dweller, and of the poor dishwasher and server.. For those who want to read descriptions of life in Paris, this is one of the best, and it is a world that has vanished there. It is frightening to read about how bad it could get, and while reading this book I was thankful for modern medicine which has cured 'consumption' (tuberculosis), and having food and rent subsidies for the very poor.  The poor in this book literally drank themselves to death, to avoid thought,  or starved to death living on scraps of bread, if the consumption or knife fights or being mugged did not get them first. These people, the 'proles' turn up in 1984, written 14 years later; Orwell's affection for them had remained.
The second half of the book documenting the life of a homeless man on the move in the London streets. tramps were not allowed to stay in a shelter by law more than one night, so they had to "tramp" to the next shelter. These characters might be more familiar to Capitol Hill residents, as we trip over street beggars every day when walking down Broadway. This is their lives from the inside, in the London of the 1930's.

This book is a  Roman à clef, as Orwell probably cobbled narratives of several people as well as his own, to create this book, though it has the stink of reality to it.    This is not evident on the surface, however, the book has the ring of truth:
But it doe not matter very much .  This book is relevant to the modern reader. This is what life could be like for any of us, if not for the safety net of social services - and our own wits.

Those readers who hold "such people" in disdain would well read this book.  Reading Owell's path to abject poverty in Paris is a must read, especially if the reader has read Orwell's more famous books.   Orwell's distinctive voice as heard in 1984 can be seen here in nascent form.
 I also would recommend Orwells unabridged 4 volume collection of essays, instead of the selected essays.   The complete works are somewhat hard to find, but  are worth hunting down. His political voice, not filtered by his novels, can be found here, and is indispensable reading.

White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War, by Herman Melville, like Down and out in Paris and London, is a personal narrative.   Melville adventures as a poor sailor making his way in the world,  signing up for a fourteen month  'hitch' in the American Navy of the 1843, to get home from the South Seas back to the states.

The ships voyage on  the Neversink, is brilliantly narrated, as are the characters of the hundreds of sailors on board, and the perilous trip around the tip of South America. Ships called frigates, warships of moderate size, needed that many men on board, as this was the age of sail when it took many men to handle the sails and man the guns on ships of this era.    This account, which is semi-autobiographical is   credited with stopping the indiscriminate and brutal flogging of sailors in the American Navy. 

 This book is Melville's most politically strident work, as it is severely critical of American Navy life. documents the horrible life of sailors in the American Navy, as they lived in wretched, cramped conditions. He also depicted the captain, who he called ''Captain Claret'' as a severe alcoholic with a violent temper.  The 'white jacket' refers to the jacket Melville made from discarded canvas and insulated with rags. The quartermaster on the ship refused to give him paint to waterproof his coat, and he nearly froze to death in his wet cotton jacket, while being mocked as 'white jacket'.

It is generally believed White Jacket was directly responsible for ending flogging in the American Navy, a full generation before this ceased in the British Navy.  Members of Congress received copies of the novel during the Congressional debate over the issue in the late 1840's, and flogging in the U.S. Navy was abolished that year. The real captain Melville had served under, Catsby Jones, was later brought up on charges a few years later and court-marshaled, though he returned to duty years later, after receiving a presidential pardon.

For fans of Billy Bud, this book is a mirror of that book, and resembles it to a large degree, but is a rather better book, as it is only a thinly veiled fiction of Melville's own experiences. I had a enthusiastic  Marxist recommend it to me nearly 30 years ago, and I have been recommending it to my customers ever since.

The Razor's Edge, published in 1944,  is also a fictionalized personal account.     Somerset Maugham may have based the main character, Larry Darrell, on Christopher Isherwood, who he knew well, and who helped him translate the quote  from a verse from  the Katha Upanishad; "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard," Isherwood would later go out of his way in later writings to state 'he was not Larry Darrell" as he was annoyed that Maugham based 'Larry' on his life and travels.
Larry is a World War One veteran who is devastated by the death of a close friend in the war. He leaves for Paris 'to loaf' , living on a small inheritance, while his friends chase after status and money in the America of the early 1920's. Larry turns his back as a young man on any plans for a comfortable middle class life, abandoning his fiancee, wanting instead to 'work and think' in Paris, and to travel.  This is a telegraphed reference to the flight of intellectuals to Paris of in the 1920's.

This novel follows the parallel lives of Larry and several of his friends over the next 25 years, as Larry ends up studying spirituality in India, then returning to England. Larry's life is contrasted by Maugham with the deeply unhappy lives of his friends, in brilliant thumbnail sketches. The choices they made to seek a material life of money, power and security; happiness slip from their hands.   They age, sicken or fall into the horrors of drug use and debauched living .
This is a vivid brief tale life, and choosing security over the lure of the road. This author, who writes himself into the book, wandering in and out of the text, seems to have based all the characters on people he knew. One modern reviewer said it comes off as a 'collaboration between Henry James and Herman Hesse'. It is brilliant, and it was written generation before the 'Beats' such as Kerouac and Ginsberg wrote about the East and living unconventional lives in pursuit of knowledge. . .

Sunday, March 24, 2013

De-extinction: Let's tamper with those forces we don't understand

by John MacBeath Watkins

Mama was a chicken, daddy was a rolin' stone.

Jack Horner wants to breed a chicken with dinosaur characteristics -- teeth, a long tail, arms, hands with claws, the whole works.

Of course, it means tampering with forces mankind does not fully understand. That's because he's a scientist. If he was tampering with forces mankind has written manuals about, he'd be an engineer.

And Horner's not the only one. There's an effort under way to bring back the passenger pigeon. We've got plenty of DNA, and it's not very old, because the last of the species died out only a century ago. There's a closely related pigeon whose DNA can be used to supplement the DNA we've got.

Some folks in Europe are trying to back-breed to the aurochs.the ancestor of cows, which has been extinct since 1627. Since we have plenty of cows, that's mainly a matter of  breeding back to aurochs characteristics. A couple of Germans associated with the Munich zoo attempted this in the 1920s, and the result was a hardy breed called Heck cattle. They are smaller than the aurochs, but look like them.

The new effort can use the DNA of the aurochs and modern cattle to find the actual genetic makeup of the extinct species that has survived in its modern descendents, rather than rely on visible characteristics.

Are we playing God when we attempt such things? Well, most biologists are atheists, so they don't think that's possible, but they are alive to the notion that there are ethical issues to be addressed. But here's another aspect: Haven't we already played God in wiping various species from the face of the earth? Well, granted, we didn't do it because they were sinful, and we didn't tell them to build an ark or leave and not look back on pain of being turned into a pillar of salt, but that just shows we're less merciful and less rational than God.

The ethical questions have more to do with the question, what's in it for the animals involved?

Some techniques involve making animals with reproductive organisms that will produce a different animal entirely -- chickens with passenger pigeon gonads, for example. I'm not sure this is a problem for the chicken, who would live, mate, and reproduce in much the same way it would have with chicken reproductive organs.

But sometimes, the outcome isn't certain. A Pyrenean ibex cloned in an attempt to bring back the extinct species was born with malformed lungs and died after only 10 minutes of life. The science is imperfect -- that's part of what makes it science -- and perhaps the results will impress future scientists only about has much as Heck cattle.

And once we've brought back the obvious candidates -- mammoths, dodos, and other picturesque and recently extinct breeds -- we'll start going farther afield. How long until someone tries to bring back Neanderthal man? Or even homo heidelbergensis, the last common ancestor of homo sapiens and Neanderthal?

That's where it gets complicated, because we consider human beings ethically different from animals, and cloning humans prior to homo sapiens challenges our distinctions about what it means to be human. If they prove capable of anything we are, we won't have a problem calling them human, I'm sure, but what if they are somewhere between our capabilities and those of our simian ancestors? I don't picture us putting them in a zoo, where they would essentially be as much a freak show as Jack Horner's dinochickens.

This wants thinking about. Here's a TED talk on the subject, which I found via The Long Now Foundation 


Saturday, March 23, 2013

Lateen rig, or crab-claw? Building Meerkat, a very small catboat

by John MacBeath Watkins

Well, it's nearly four months since my injury, and I'm in physical therapy now, so maybe I can actually start doing stuff again. One project that's been hanging fire is a new rig for Meerkat. If I can do that, I can probably install bookshelves.

But if I'm going to test-drive the titanium elbow bracing and the healed hand and wrist, what rig shall I build? My first thought was lug, but lately I've been thinking either a crab-claw rig or a lateen rig. The crabclaw rig is alleged to be very efficient, especially reaching. The lateen rig isn't efficient for the area, but its center of effort is low, and I could carry more sail.

Here's what the lateen rig would look like:

I suspect the rig is more efficient reaching than is generally thought, because you seldom see Americans setting a lateen on a reach the way these fellows did:

Those are San Franciso feluccas, or as the Fish Commission sometimes called them, "Dago boats."

Here's what the proposed crab-claw rig would look like, but try to envision a boom on the curved trailing edge, which is a little hard to draw with the software I'm using.

More posts on this topic:

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

On the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war, a swearing-out

by John MacBeath Watkins

On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, I'd like to give a special swearing out ceremony for the man who did more than any other to turn a tragically misguided war into a complete fiasco.

Normally, this blog eschews rude language and tries to convey meaning in a polite, yet forceful manner. But when I think of what Donald Rumsfeld did to my country and to Iraq, I am unwilling to allow the courtesy I would extend a mere serial killer to restrain me.

Donald Rumsfeld, you sorry, incompetent son of a bitch, you played your little bureaucratic power games and decided it would be a good idea to prevent any planning for what would happen after we invaded, because you wanted to cut Colin Powell and the State Department completely out of any decision making, and because you knew the American people wouldn't back the war if they realized what would be involved in occupying Iraq.

We have the testimony of the man who would have been in charge of making such plans, Brigadier General Mark Scheid, chief of the Logistics War Plans Division.

Scheid said the planners continued to try "to write what was called Phase 4," or the piece of the plan that included post-invasion operations like occupation.
Even if the troops didn't stay, "at least we have to plan for it," Scheid said.
"I remember the secretary of defense saying that he would fire the next person that said that," Scheid said. "We would not do planning for Phase 4 operations, which would require all those additional troops that people talk about today.
"He said we will not do that because the American public will not back us if they think we are going over there for a long war."

Here's a clue for the clueless: If the country won't back the sort of war you're going to fight, don't fight it.  Pretending it's going to magically turn out right won't do the trick.

So, we didn't keep the peace after we toppled Saddam, and allowed looting and chaos. We disbanded the army without an orderly demobilization, which would have allowed us to take their weapons back, just sent them packing with guns and ammo and no job. We fired the key people who knew how the country ran because, to have a government job, they'd had to join the Baath Party. We made these mistakes because you prevented any rational planning before the invasion.

You fucking idiot, you cost countless lives, by which I mean that while we know how many Americans died in that misadventure, we don't know how many lives might have been saved by better planning, and we will probably never know how many Iraqis died because of the mess you created. Not content with participating in the lies the whole Bush administration was putting out to get us into that war, you had to make sure we had no plan for the occupation, and made sure that the whole sorry mess would turn the population of Iraq against us in a matter of months.

People like you are fond of telling us that hope is not a plan, but that's all you had, you pathetic asshole. I believe the Iraqi term for a person like you is Kus Omak.

I suppose a Japanese leader whose idiotic incompetence killed as many people as you did might commit seppuku. A Roman who served his empire as badly would fall on his sword. You haven't even admitted how badly you fucked things up. You damned fool, there's no way you could repay our country for all the damage you've done, but you could at least admit fault and apologize. You never will, because you care more for your personal pride than you do for your country.

If there is a hell, I hope you go to the deepest and hottest pit.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Find the truth with "How to Lie with Statistics"

By Jamie Lutton

If you could read just one book, and become a brain surgeon, would you do it? Or read just one book, and become a fine chef, a astronaut, or a ballet dancer who could tour?  Well, that is not possible.
To enter into any of these professions, you have to read many, many books, study very hard, take tests, write papers, and in the case of being a ballet dancer, this takes years of hard physical work and training, and starting out as a child.
But you can read one book, and begin to master statistics, and in fact, be able to cognate mathematical arguments in politics and society  better than most citizens.
How To Lie With Statistics is that book.  It makes my personal list of best non-fiction books of the 20th century.  I have been compiling a list of favorites of mine, and this one keeps floating to the top.  Other books, such as those by John Allen Paulos Innumeracy, Mathematical Illiteracy and it's Consequences and  his A Mathematician Reads The Newspaper are also very good, but were written a generation after this book, in the 1990's. This book is the first, the best and the friendliest on how to conquer "Innumeracy''.
The thesis of this book is in it's title.  This short book, at 139 pages, is  a quirky, friendly introduction to statistics, written by a non-statistician, a magazine editor Darell Huff in  1954. This book tells how to understand and decipher  lies and exaggeration backed by the misuse of statistics, by teaching a basic knowledge of statistics, using simple, funny examples and droll humorous cartoons.   
Many people, otherwise well read and intelligent, duck  trying to understand numbers and problems with numbers in them,  once they leave school and are not forced to confront math problems as part of school work.
Most people avoid approaching  even simple arithmetic without a calculator in hand, and can't do a lot of simple math in their heads, as they have been told they were 'bad' at math, and never tired to challenge that limiting assessment.  They avoid using numbers, or learning very much about the use of math in the design and function of the modern world.  And this cripples any understanding of statistics that are casually flung about in the raging debates in our society..
"There is terror in numbers," writes Darrell Huff, the author of this book, and that can lead to a blind acceptance of  averages, correlations, graphs, and trends that are vomited out by the government, big corporations and others that have a stake in swaying the voter and her pocketbook, and her vote.
This is unfortunate, because statistics and statistical charts, published online and in newspapers and books,  are often used to 'strong arm' people to one point of view  or another, or to support weak or specious arguments. 

The ignorance about how these charts were derived can lead to the unscrupulous to fudge numbers, move  or crop the 'x' and 'y' point on charts, and to confuse and misuse the 'mean' the 'median' and the mode',are among the best examples. 

The garbled results are used to protect people in power,  or to shore up a weak, wrong or even malicious arguments arguments of all sorts.   Statistics have been used to lie,and lie often, so much so that a famous cliche, attributed by Mark Twain  to Benjamin Disraeli (though some say Twain himself made it up)  that there are "lies, damned lies, and statistics."
This short book, chapter by chapter, uses amusing  examples to walk the reader through the meaning of  the simplest technical terms used in statistical reasoning, and. arm the reader so they will not be taken in by the misuse of statistics where they encounter them in their daily lives.
It is "pleasantly subversive, and guaranteed to undermine your faith in the almighty statistic" according to the Atlantic, in their original review of this book.
Statistics and   statistical reasoning is a wonderful tool, but like any tool, it can be misused in the hands of the unscrupulous; perhaps someone who wishes to hold or seize power, gaslight or  who wants to separate people from their money.
I read history and science books for fun, not fiction.  Why this book and no other for the top of my list? Is that day to day, the modern citizen is bombarded with charts, graphs,  correlations from theses charts and graphs, and trends that are breathlessly announced on every subject from the rate of diabetes in America to how the alleged moral decay of American teenagers, from one decade to the next.  Often readers shut down and ignore the questions of the day - taxation, crime, pollution, as any deep knowledge of these issues require a bit of familiarity with  statistics and numbers.
Many people, bright people who are readers blindly rely on elected leaders  to make their decisions for them, instead of being able to 'crunch' the numbers themselves.

Huff sought to break through "the daze that follows the collision of statistics with the human mind." The book remains relevant as a wake-up call for people unaccustomed to examining the endless flow of numbers pouring from Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and everywhere else someone has an axe to grind, a point to prove, or a product to sell. "The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate, confuse, and oversimplify," warns Huff.

Although many of the examples used in the book are charmingly dated, the cautions are timeless. Statistics are rife with opportunities for misuse, from "gee-whiz graphs" that add nonexistent drama to trends, to "results" detached from their method and meaning, to statistics' ultimate bugaboo--faulty cause-and-effect reasoning.
Post hoc ergo propter hoc, Latin for "after this, therefore because of this",  or as the author puts more plainly  that if 'b follows a, then a must have caused b' (page 87)
Huff's tone is tolerant and amused, but no-nonsense. Like a lecturing father, he expects you to learn something useful from the book, and start applying it every day. Never be a sucker again, he cries!     Even if you can't find a source of demonstrable bias, allow yourself some degree of skepticism about the results as long as there is a possibility of bias somewhere. There always is.

Go out and find a copy of  How to Lie with Statistics. Whether you encounter statistics at work, at school, or in advertising, you'll remember its simple lessons. Don't be terrorized by numbers.

Jamie Lutton owns Twice Sold Tales, a Capitol Hill bookstore at Harvard and Denny, and writes, with her business partner John Watkins, for the blog Booksellers Versus Bestsellers.       . 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Good read: He Died with a Falafel in his Hand

by Jamie Lutton

Machiavelli in the Prince had a wonderful thing to say about desire.  He defined for the ages 'de facto' vrs 'de jure' when talking about human behavior.  De Facto is how people actually behave, and 'de jure' is 'the law' or how people are 'supposed' to behave, In his book, The Prince, Machiavelli has a lot of fun talking about how these two states deviate from each other.
I see this in what people actually read.  A young person may say he or she is reading Dickens  or maybe their school work, but actually the night before she is curled up with a SF book, a graphic novel or a copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, say.  The desire for a fun, 'evil'  book rather than an uplifting 'good' book is just, then, part of human nature
My hardest job is finding books that appeal to the people who come in the door.   Often  I get young people walking in my shop who are not in the habit of reading, whose eyes glaze over when surrounded with books in a bookshop.  I ask them; what is the last book you read you really liked?       

He Died With a Felafel In His Hand published by duffy and snellgrove in 1994 was a book I really liked.
It has no redeeming social qualities, except perhaps,  to the eyes of an sociologist studying the behavior of  young 20th century Australians  just away from their parents, in shared housing accommodation.  It is a true account,  an autobiography, of a law student and sometime journalist living in one shared house after another in Australia for a number of years.   I had heard for decades that young Australians were a lot crazier and wilder than Americans; this book is one of the best pieces of evidence of that.
 Here is a yarn about 'de facto' living, then,  at its most decadent.
Heavy drug use, living in disgusting filth, clinical madness and  lawlessness of all sorts,  (from skipping out on rent and phone bills to identity theft) drug and sex orgies overheard,  observed are all participated in and documented in this dark, funny believable autobiography.    The author, John Birmingham, has a fine talent for observation and pithy, colloquial writing in the slang of the young of Australian. in the 1990s. . 
I find the author to be completely politically incorrect, as he documents  the beyond wild behavior of both young people of both straight and gay men, and straight and gay women. Be warned!! You will not find any sober or uplifting people in this book.   I found, however, that his characterizations to be even handed and three dimensional. With a few words, he draws thumbnail, believable sketches of his housemates as they come and go.   He does not let anyone off the hook.

His young straight men are uniformly insane, though he remarks that many went on to become 'movers and shakers'; lawyers, academics, etc.   His young women, esp. are often the sanest, soberest and cleanest people in the book.  Though not always. The greatest scam, identity theft, is run by a woman in this book.  But the reader should be warned beforehand  that this book wallows in it's drug use, filth, depravity and fecklessness, and has absolutely no redeeming moral values in it. Young people at their laziest and most decadent, mischievous  insane and wild run thorough this book.   It also is bloody, awful and horrifying  in a few places.  I am old and sensitive enough to flinch at a few of the stories in the account.
The back of my copy says "not recommended for landlords', but I would have to disagree. I think this book is a  'must read' call for any landlord.  Esp the naive and those who wish to think the best of the dewy eyed young people who approach them to set up shared housing in property they own and control. It is important  to exercise caveat vendor when renting to young people, esp. young men.   I also recommend books on commercial and industrial  sabotage to business owners and managers who come in,  for the same reason.
Myself,  I read everything   from bad romance novels to physical anthropology and books on the evolution of sauropods.  It is part of my job, so that I can review said books and steer people to the best in the field and avoid the unreadable and the junk. It is also my pattern for reading for pleasure.  But like many people,  I gravitate to books for my own enjoyment, from time to time,  that make me shriek with  guilty laughter, and shudder with horror at the same time..

I first read this book 10 years ago, reread it, and clung to my copy, though it was on line for over a hundred dollars at the time. It has come back into print now, and with a little poking around the book can be had for less than $5 on line. It is scarce locally; as a second hand bookseller I have only seen two copies in my career.
This book also make me realize what a goody-two-shoes I have been all my life.  This sort of lifestyle  may have been going on around me, in shared houses I never went to,  or perhaps was never invited to join.   My brother handed me a copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a teenager, partly, I think to warn me as well as to amuse me.  I did find the drug use in that book to be pretty horrifying,  even though I can recite the first two or three paragraphs of that book by heart, just as I can recite poetry by heart.  Hunter Thompson book is very like this one, but He Died With a Felafel In His Hand to be more believable.  For example, the 'Samoan' in the book was actually a Chicano activist and writer, Oscar Zeta Acosta; I am sure a lot of other details were dreamed up; that is part of Thompson's notorious signature. 

 The best and most redeeming thing I can say about both of these books that they are well written. Like Oscar Wilde said, that is the whole point of novels, whether something is well written or not, not whether it offends . .    
For the reader who likes dark, debauched and funny stories. like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I can recommend this book without reservation.  Unlike Hunter Thompson's obviously embellished tale of a sport's journalist's road trip to Las Vegas with a 'Samoan' companion, He Died With a Felafel In His Hand  has stink of plausibility to it. Say, maybe 80 percent of it is true..     

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Meeting The Goddesses of Kunyang, Okinawa

The Goddesses of Kunyang
Note: The recent death of a friend's mother reminded me that our mothers are often remarkable people whose experiences should be remembered, so I got my mother to write about her experience meeting a living goddess.

by Marjorie Watkins

In Kunyang, the northernmost province of Ryukyu, which means Floating Dragon, I found the goddesses of the Kyu Shin Du, the Old God Way.

This is how I found them. It was in 1967 as a US Air Force officer’s wife stationed at Naha, Okinawa.

In the entrance hall of the Culture Center in Naha, hung a picture of several women dressed in white and with white headbands kneeling on banana leaves in a shelter roofed by more banana leaves. I felt an instant, mystic rapport with them.

“They are goddesses of the old religion,” the Center’s director told me. “They will preside as priestesses at their annual religious festival.”

“When? Where?” I asked.

“Why do you want to know?”

At that time I edited a small magazine for Air Force families. I explained that this aspect of Ryukyuan culture would intensely interest my readers and help Americans better understand Okinawans.

She told me the goddesses would meet at Shioya Bay in northern Okinawa, on a weekend coming up. There was—and perhaps still is—a small resort at Okuma few miles north of Shioya Bay where military families could go for a weekend or a few days rest and relaxation.

I made a reservation for our family for that holy weekend and equipped myself with several rolls of film. Parking my husband and children at Okuma, and with a copy of my magazine tucked under my arm to act as my passport, I set forth to seek the goddesses. 

Driving toward Shioya Bay, I picked up a boy in school uniform. He was hitchhiking back to his boarding school in Naha.

“Why are you here, Meiguo gaijin?” He asked politely in Japanese.

I explained, in Japanese, that I was looking for the meeting of the goddesses at Shioya Bay.
“You will never find them by yourself,” he replied. “But I will show you where to turn off.”

He directed me to a one-lane track through tall grasses. I certainly would have missed it had I not picked up that schoolboy. The track led me, in my big green American car, into a tiny village square. That was as far as I could drive. I asked one of the villagers if I might leave my car there. 

He consented, and directed me to a path that led from that village along a waterway to another village on the shore of what looked to me like a lake. It was Shioya Bay, so called. Once it must have been accessible by boat from the East China Sea, but now a road with a low bridge and the growth of vegetation between the road and the Bay walled it and the villages on its shores from sight and sea.

Purely on instinct, feeling the goddesses drawing me, I followed a footpath to and through a couple of villages. I entered the last village, another cluster of unpainted houses, this one on a lakeshore, and began walking uphill between them. A man fell in beside me, greeted me as “ne-san”, sister, and asked why I was there. It was not often, he said, that an American came to Shioya Bay. (Ne-san in Ryukyu was an honorific; in Japan it’s what you called a waitress to summon her to your table, almost an insult. I took it for the honorific he meant it. We were speaking in Japanese, but nowhere near Tokyo.)

I told him I sought the goddesses of the old religion who I’d been told were having their annual high holy meeting.

“That won’t start for hours,” he said. “Please come and rest at my house until then.”
We sat on his porch with his wife and a couple of their children, getting acquainted and eating fingerling tree-ripened bananas from the tree beside the porch. They tasted a lot like strawberries.

His wife produced a photo of the family for me to remember them by. From their house we looked downhill to the bay. We watched narrow dragon boat race, each speeding over the water propelled by many yellow oars and looking like a brightly colored centipede

At last we began to see people singly and in small groups coming up the hill and going on past the last house, and into the woods.

“It is nearly time,” my host said. “Just follow the people. They are going to the matsuri.”

I joined the throng, and we came to an open structure about the size of a carport. Cement block pillars held up its grass thatched roof, and women in kasuri cloth kimonos and white headbands sat in rows on three sides. Each had a small lacquered black table about four inches high in front of her. On it were small rectangular rice-flour buns and saki glasses.

I thought I was the only white woman there, but no! Another white woman approached me, and introduced herself as Rae, the wife of the head of the Voice of America station in northern Okinawa. 

People stood around in little groups talking very quietly or just waiting.

“The ceremony can not start until Shigeko gets here,” Rae said. “She is the Noro priestess. These women in the ashiagi are family priestesses, one from each family in the village.”

At last the noro arrived. Her Japanese name was Shigeko Oshiro, and she worked at the Voice of America radio station when she was not being the high priestess of the area.

Then the people standing around knelt in the grass-thatched shelter before the kneeling goddesses. Some communicants were men. Each in turn received a sip of saki and a bun to take home to their family altar. Not a word was spoken. It was a simple and ancient ritual, similar to a Christian communion service, but silent. 

Shigeko became my friend. She had written a book, and gave me a copy. It was in hiragana script, a 98-characte Japanese syllabary. Back in Naha, I took the to a translator at USCAR, but he could not translate it—too many Rhukyuku words.

Shigeko spoke no English; but we shared a common tongue in Japanese. She taught me a few words of Ryukyuku, the words connected with the Kyu Shin Du, the Old God Way, and about the Family of Seven Gods, Nana nu Yazaku, Seven’s Family.

Noro is a Japanese word. Ryukyuku is such an old language that its words contain no letter ‘o’; Ryukyku speakers say ‘nuru’. A Japanese anthropologist whom I also met at the Shin Du Kyu matsuri told me he was there to learn about the old religion because it was the spiritual ancestor of Shinto.

“All the gods are women,” Shigeko told me. “The highest ‘kami’ is the Ufu nu Amu (high praying mother), the Mother Goddess. She is the daughter of the king of Ryukyu. Only now there is no Ufu nu Amu. Now the only goddesses are the nuru, the wakanuru (young goddess), and negami (sister goddess) also the bi nu gami, the goddess of beauty. And the orange goddess who tosses oranges to the people for their health in winter. ”

To me, coming from a culture in which there is only one god, and that god male, the concept of a family of gods, all female seemed intriguing. The first daughter in each family inherited the position and duty of family priestess. She was not to marry, but to spend all her time praying for her brother who would be out fishing on the China Sea in his black-painted dugout canoe. Storms could come up suddenly bringing high winds and big waves that could swamp his canoe.

(To see what these boats look like, look here.)

Okinawa is about 5 degrees north of Hawaii’s latitude. At Itoman port, I met a fsherman who had been so often sunburned that his skin had turned almost as black as his canoe. He would have nothing to eat while fishing but some of the fish he caught, and eat them raw. He needed all his sister’s prayers to come safely home with a good catch of fish for the family to eat with their rice and greens, and for his wife and sister to sell in the market

In each village, one house, at the uphill edge of the village, was the ‘nun du ruchi’, the “pray girls’ house”. Before each matsuri of the Kyu Shin Du, the nuru, or kami,.of each family would stay for five days of fasting with only an opaque white, low-alcohol rice wine to drink. This would encourage the divine spirit to enter her when she and the other kamis went up the hill to a creek near the ashiagi and baptized themselves by pouring water on their foreheads. Then they were no longer their everyday selves, but incarnations of the goddesses.

I wonder if people living in that northernmost province of Okinawa still call it by its Ryukyuan name, or still worship in the Old God Way.

Shigeko said her niece, who was to have been her successor, didn’t want to be a nuru. She wanted to be a hairdresser. She might even—goddess forbid—have joined the Nichi Ren Buddhists who were then evangelizing the young people of Kunyang.

It’s been over 42 years since the day I met the goddesses. The Ryukyu Islands belong to Japan now. The province is called by its Japanese name, Kumi Gami, as it was then to everyone except the people who lived there.

Buddhism has probably supplanted the old religion, but I hope that somewhere north of Naha, three hot dusty hours by car, goddesses of the Old God Way still live. The Kyu Shin Du produced, a culture in which all women were respected. Our world needs cultures like that.

A map of Okinawa

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Used e-books: Threat or menace? Publishing in the twilight of the printed word continued

by John MacBeath Watkins

Amazon has announced that it will patent a system to sell used e-books. This will damage publishers even more than its current policies.

Keep in mind, Amazon, which until fairly recently controlled about 90% of the e-book market, has sold e-books at a loss in order to capture the market. As Richard Russo said, "When you sell books at a loss, by the millions, to corner the market, you're not interested in competing," said novelist Richard Russo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. "You're interested in burying your competitors and then burying the shovel."

The technical term for this is predatory pricing. And once the competition is buried, the predator can gain monopoly power to raise prices and monopsony power to pressure suppliers.

The publishers, already pressured by Amazon for large discounts, tried to fight back. Instead of the wholesale model, where they sell to the vendor and the vendor sets the price, they wanted to go to the agency model, where they set the retail price. Apple, eager to gain a foothold in e-books with its tablet, agreed to the agency model.

The Justice Department, keeper of the keys to the Sherman Antitrust Act, decided that the publishers had colluded to raise prices. This lead to a great lede in a New York Times story:

The Justice Department finally took aim at the monopolistic monolith that threatened to dominate the book industry. So imagine the shock when the bullet aimed at threats to competition went whizzing by Amazon — which not long ago had a 90 percent stranglehold on e-books — and instead, struck five of the six biggest publishers and Apple, a minor player in the realm of books.

That’s the modern equivalent of taking on Standard Oil but breaking up Ed’s Gas ’N’ Groceries on Route 19 instead. 
 The Justice Department is acting as though the Sherman Antitrust Act was passed to protect consumers from being charged high prices by producers. And to some extent it was. But the pressure for an antitrust law came in part from farmers, who were being charged exorbitant shipping fees by the railroads. They formed the Granges and other organizations in large part to fight the railway monopolies.

The meaning of the term "charging all the market will bear" did not mean as much as you could sell something for in a competitive market. It meant how much a monopoly railway could charge the farmers before they went out of business.  It was bakers using the wheat at the end of the line that were charging as much as they could in a competitive market, because they did not have the conditions to charge all the market would bear. Someone else would charge less.

In effect, the antitrust laws of this country stem from producers getting together to fight against being exploited by those who controlled the distribution of their product. Pretty much what the publishers were doing, but the publishers did it in a way that was illegal under antitrust law. The ironies abound.

Now, Amazon is filing a patent to sell used e-books, presumably with the publishers and authors getting nothing. Up to now, if you bought a physical book, it was yours to dispose of as you wished, leading to a secondary market in used books and free lending libraries. But a physical book has a limited life, and you can be sure that it's the same book you bought.

When you download an e-book, Amazon or Apple does not have one less e-book on the shelf that they have to replace. What you downloaded is a copy, and if you send the download to someone else, it will be recorded on the memory media of their computer, Kindle, or tablet, in effect being a copy of the one you downloaded.

In short, the notion that Amazon would be selling the same book is a legal fiction. The particular arrangement of 1s and 0s on your hard drive that make up the book won't be the same physical book as the 1s and 0s on the vendor's computer. It's as if it were the same words on different paper, in short, a copy of the book.

Which means the technology is useless unless Amazon can work the legal system in their favor. Which, apparently, they have a history of doing.

Amazon has many books priced at a penny. The only thing working in the publishers' favor here is that the shipping costs $3.99, unless the buyer gets one of Amazon's free shipping deals. E-books priced at a penny will cost nothing to ship. This will hasten the demise of the paper book, and, not coincidentally, concerns me because it will hasten the demise of the physical bookstore. The patent appears to be for a disruptive technology, a term valorized by business writers, but really, distributing e-books is fairly easy, so the technology is really about maintaining this fiction -- when you sell the e-book to Amazon, it is no longer available to you. But because it is a perfect copy, it will never get moldy or have coffee spilled on it and be thrown away.

I don't know if Amazon will ever use its patent, or if Apple will use the patent for selling new e-books that it has filed. I'm fairly sure the doctrine of fair use would have to be considerably expanded for them to do so. But if they manage to lobby for such legal treatment successfully, it will be the change in law, far more than the change in technology, that is disruptive. It would essentially allow Amazon to get most of the money resulting from the sale of a book, infinitely copying any one copy it sells, and take money away from publishers and writers, much like the way railroads took money from farmers.

Of course, if they want to sell e-books in a manner that does not involve pretending a copy is the same book, there's a simple way to do it. Put it on some physical media, such as a ROM chip, that can be lost or ruined or wear out, and you'll have something that fits existing fair-use law and can therefore be resold, traded, or given away with ease.  Of course, they will have to sell new Kindles and tablets to accommodate this technology -- oh, dear, I think I've just told them how to make more billions.

 Now, in a lot of ways, I like Amazon. I've had friends and one relative work for them. I'm all in favor of books being read, and they have provided a distribution network that has helped people get the books they want. But not everything that is good for Amazon is good for everyone. If writers can't get paid enough to live on, we won't have professional writers, who devote their lives to producing the books we love.

More on publishing in the twilight of the printed word: 

Monday, March 11, 2013

When books become a part of you

by John MacBeath Watkins

We've talked before about the stories of our lives, and the way language enchants the world. But what stories have become a part of you, and will live on in those you have helped to make?

I've been thinking about the books that were built to last, those stories people will read five centuries from now, like Shakespeare. It won't be the books people read because they are fashionable, or because they want to improve themselves -- Shakespeare's goal was to sell tickets to his plays, the get people to settle their bums in the seats of the Globe Theatre.

So we can rule out the liars. like Greg Mortentson or Lance Armstrong. Yes, they sought fame with their books, but they took the simple shortcut of lying. Not respecting liars is part of the way we define our boundaries.

We don't want to take lies into ourselves, to make them a part of us. That's part of the beauty of fiction, that it's entirely made up, everybody knows it's made up, so how can it possibly be a lie?

No, better to accept what we get from earnest efforts to write the truth, or lies that are intended to convey a greater truth, as in fiction.

Who will be read a half millennium from now? I'm confident that The Lord of The Rings will last. Tolkien was writing a mythic epic while all the self-consciously "great" writers were writing social realism. And Hemingway made his work accessible while writers like Samuel Beckett were making meaning an enemy.

These men were great exceptions to the fashion of their times. Emily Dickenson, writing only for herself, managed a power that those writing for an audience of more than one could never equal.

How were the great writers regarded in their own times?

Shakespeare appears as a man with bourgeois goals, who achieved them. He seems to have written until a tremor in his hands made it hard to do so, then became a grain merchant. Whatever may be said of him, and much has been said, he was the sort of writer who could use make-believe to tell the truth about human nature. The Merchant of Venice, in other hands, could have been ordinary. He took a stock villain of his time, the Jewish money lender, and showed his humanity, making him tragic rather than simply evil.

One measure of great art is that it changes you. No one could watch The Merchant of Venice without gaining a deeper understanding of a hated minority. Most of his plays influence people in more subtle ways, giving us a better understanding of how the human spirit confronts love, war, betrayal, greed, and any number of other things.

Most writers only succeed in entertaining us, or may even fail at that. Reading and re-reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn changed me. The lesson that sometimes the problem is not the cruelty of the Simon Legree type, but the willingness of good, law-abiding citizens to follow evil laws is one of the most important to come from the American experience of slavery. And that's easy to say, but to get people to really understand it in their bones, having Huck decide he's willing to go to Hell for breaking the law and setting Jim free is the better lesson.

Heart of Darkness changed me as well, and no doubt haunts many who have read it with the excesses of the human spirit it portrays. One of his lesser-known books, Victory, portrays a man who has tried to do no harm in the world by not engaging with it, then helps a woman who is in an abusive situation get away and falls in love with her. It's a tragic psychological novel that leaves you feeling different when you've finished it, and at the same time a South Seas adventure story that established Conrad's popular success in this country.

But of course, it's not all fiction that becomes a part of us. Books that show us the beauty of knowledge or of craftsmanship can change us, and set us on a different path in life. American Small Sailing Craft, by Howard Chapelle, opened a new path to me when I read it in 9th grade and sid so for many others, giving us a connection to the history and craft of sailing, a sport that was being transformed by mass production.

The first book I read, sounding out the words an actually understanding them, was about steam engines. Tales of Dick and Jane held no attraction for me, but I so wanted to know about steam engines that I pushed through the barriers and read a book far above my grade level. There are books we know have changed our lives -- The Female Eunuch, by Germain Greer, would be mentioned by many of my female friends. But because it has changed them, it has changed me, despite my never reading it. It has changed me because it has changed my world.

And that's how we construct ourselves and our society. It's really all about people changing people, sometimes at a distance of time and place, as they do through books. Books change your mind, because people change your mind. Homer, Plato, and Aristotle are a part of me because I've read them, have changed me more than if I'd met them and been unable to understand what they were saying. Through the miracle of language and of books, people's voices from thousands of years ago can change me and become a part of me.

But what will last, what will become a part of future readers? Probably those who can do what Shakespeare did, and show us truths about how human beings work. Richard Harding Davis, one of the most popular writers of his time, is seldom read today, because for all his popularity and political influence, his work lacked that element. Who reads Soldiers of Fortune today? Yet, we read Conrad, his contemporary, because his characters are more real to us and the way the events in his books change tells us more about ourselves.

Or maybe someone will find more to admire in Davis than I do. Moby Dick was not considered a masterpiece until after Melville's death. Shakespeare's star didn't rise right away -- in his lifetime, he was not considered substantially better then Ben Johnson, who wrote the introduction to the First Folio edition.

Will Kurt Vonnegut last? Certainly he speaks to people more deeply than such 'serious' writers as Norman Mailer. It strikes me that he is more likely to be read centuries hence than Mailer or John Updike, so much admired by the critics of their time. His willingness to be absurd, to make the books playful while making his points, makes his work both more accessible and less ordinary than a writer like Updike.

We live in a time when there has been more published than ever before, and the internet makes the cost of publishing plunge, so we can expect the explosion of words to expand further. Will this mean more masterpieces, or just more junk to sift through? I suspect the latter, in a way, because we can only make so many books a part of our common literature. Much that is worthy will be consigned to the junk pile, simply because there is room in our minds for only so much.

We are fragmented now, a patchwork of language and culture, but just as local dialects are disappearing and local accents becoming less pronounced as we all watch the same newsreaders, we can expect more parts of the world to participate in the commercial and media culture of the most successful purveyors, from Hollywood to Bollywood. That would lead to a more homogenized world culture.

Of course, another possibility exists, we could fragment into many subcultures, each with their own common literature that becomes a part of those who belong to that subculture. If that happens, there is room in the great hive mind of culture for many things.

Time will tell.

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Where to find out about all those inconvenient truths

by Jamie Lutton

I was selling a stack of $1 nonfiction books to a young man a few days ago, and in the stack was a title by Al Gore. I asked him "What did you think of Al Gore selling his TV channel  Current TV  network to Al-Jazeera?".  He said 'what? Never heard about this".  I filled him in  - that Al Gore got $500 million for his struggling network, and got to keep $100 million of the price,
since he owned 20% of the network.     The young man was skeptical, and I said "no, no, go Google this! I am not making this up!"

Now, this sale was quite controversial, not so much because of so called 'terrorist' links of Al Jazeera, but because that channel is funded with oil money.  Al Gore, author of A Inconvenient Truth and other books about the environment and Climate Change, has taken the position for over a decade that using hydrocarbons - oil - is rapidly destroying the ecology of the Earth by heating the atmosphere. Many important scientists agree with him.

Al Gore was called upon to defend his decision to do this everywhere in the media,he even went on the Daily Show, and John Stewart was quite bewildered by his decision, and questioned him closely. ..
Since I like and support the use of nuclear power, (since it does not contribute to climate change, for a start) I got a big chuckle out of this transaction.  But many, many of my customers  had never heard about this sale, and I talked about it for at least a week. This really puzzled me.  
Did anyone catch in the news that the body of Hugo Chavez is to be embalmed and put on display under 'crystal dome?' 22 year ago, Christopher Buckley, the son of William F. Buckley wrote an essay for Forbes magazine claiming that the Russians were going to sell the embalmed body of Lenin because they were broke?

Opening bid: 15 million.

The hoax made the national news, and the Russians were inundated with offers from all over the world for his body. No one at the time noticed it was satire, as Americans, then as now, are pretty gullible.

The Russians called it an 'impudent lie' and threatened Buckley in various ways........ but Putin's regime nowadays are quietly talking about burying Lenin, and ending this bizarre worship of this dead leader.

Stalin was embalmed, and exhibited next to him, from 1954 to 1961, till he was quietly buried when news of his atrocities were better known.

But again, many of my customers had not even heard that the President of Venezuela was sick, let alone  dead, embalmed and deified.
I find that fewer and fewer people are following the news anymore. The habit of buying newspapers and following what the government, or important people are up to, seems to 'spike' during election years, and fade off after that.  Many other current events seem to come and go, and not be noticed.
Many of my customers did not hear that President Obama had used drone strikes to attack terrorists overseas, including American citizens, and had been doing so for many months.  Some had heard that the local cops had acquired drones for local surveillance, which caused great deal of local protest - but not how it tied into the national policies. 
And most have not heard that the president had not ruled out using drone 'strikes' against American terrorists on American soil.  There has even been a filibuster by Congressman Rand Paul where he questioned this policy. Eric Holder then announced the President would not be using drones in America, on American citizens - but that could easily change as there is no prohibition to doing so in the Constitution, etc.  Another president might have a different position.
So, a Ruby Ridge or Waco incident could be settled, in the near future, with a drone strike rather than military intervention on the ground.  Or a student protest like Kent State or Berkley's in the late 1960's...or Stonewall....
Another item in the news recently that was overlooked was that Kim Jong  Un had just explicitly declared war war on the US, and said he would send an intercontinental  nuclear missile to the West Coast of the US.  What with the submarine base just over in Bangor, this means that Seattle would be a likely target. 
Now, the public. have been assured by our government  that the American military could 'stop' one of these missiles, and that there is not reason to worry, this 'declaration of war'  is just saber rattling on the part of the leader of North Korea.
But what is extraordinary is that this threat is not even commonly known.  I brought it up with a few customers, and they had not even heard about it.
The Seattle Times has just announced that in mid March, they will restrict access to their online paper, unless a fee of $208 dollars a year is paid.   This is called putting up a paywall, as they are not getting enough 'click's on their advertising in their online paper to make a profit without charging..  As I will not give one thin dime to the Blethem family,  I will have to stop reading the Seattle Times. and switch to the P.I.,  which, so far, have not put up a firewall, and which I could possibly support with an online subscription.  I had not been reading it, as they require a FACEBOOK membership to comment, and I felt that was an intrusion on my rights as a reader.  I find FACEBOOK to be both unsafe, and a dead bore. If I wanted my old friends to find me, I would be in the phone book. As it is, they can track me down by Googling me, that is bad enough.
I would pay the $208 the Seattle Times wants for a subscription if they had not backed George Bush jr. twice for president in editorials, and never apologized for this grievous lapse in judgment..

As most people are used to getting their news for 'free', and the   general decline of the reading of real newspapers, I fear that knowledge of important news stories will decline with paywalls going up everywhere online. .  TV news usually only covers local fires and muggings, and what the Mayor is up to. It is weak on political and international news, and usually does not cover anything much in depth.

So, I urge readers to buy the daily  New York Times. The editors have their own wild biases  - they sign off on a lot that the president comes up with, and also bought the Weapons of Mass Destruction lies the Bush administration sold to the American people - but the paper, in general is well written, and I enjoy the editorial page.  Another good source of world news is The Economist, which comes out weekly.  It is 'hard to read', not dumbed down in any way, but the magazine is published in the United Kingdom, so it is not so swayed by American partisan politics.

At least read Yahoo news online.  It is not that well written, but it is a huge site for world and national news.   The comment sections after the articles are both hilarious and frightening.  I read them carefully, because under the veil of anonymity, the racist, homophobic, sexist and xenophobics come out  from under their rocks, and say what they REALLY think...It is the pulse of both the Tea Party and Blue States on display.  This site is educational for all those who think that everyone thinks like people in Seattle and San Francisco and New York. 
Now and then, esp. on the Science page, there are some very good short articles about astronomy, Mars and space exportation in general.  I can recommend the site for the general reader, as well as the Huffington Post, and the Pajamas Media for reading what the Tea Party  and other conservative writers  think.
This list is just a start....

I want people to know when a world leader has just threatened to drop a nuke on Seattle's head.  Or that Hugo Chavez's people are planning to turn him into another 'Lenin Popsicle' And that idealist and local hero Al Gore did to make an obscene pile of money. 
Between meteors from the sky, and North Koreans/the president  playing with nuclear missiles/drone attacks, I feel like Chicken Little, who cried the sky is falling.
Oh well. At least this week the Yellowstone super-volcano and Mt. Rainier are quiet. .
Oh, you had not heard about the Yellowstone super-volcano...?

Friday, March 8, 2013

Why don't we have more good original screen plays?...

by Jamie Lutton

 Discerning moviegoers have been complaining for decades over the lack of good, original movies in the theaters.

Original screenplays that are brilliant, and not derived from a play or books are rare.  Groundhog Day comes to mind, that and so does The Sting and When Harry Met Sally or Citizen Kane.
The problem is that studios do not want to risk money on anything that is not a sure bet, and a pre-tested play or book is safer to bet money on.   In modern times the theaters are filled with remakes,mediocre sequels and films that remakes of remakes, as the studios are terrified of taking a chance on something new.
Consider the new prequel to The Wizard of Oz, which came out this week.  Instead of working from one of L. Frank Baum's other Oz books, this is a splashy 3-D attempt to capitalize on the popularity of a 54-year old movie. The studios did not want to risk failure, so they backed a film that  is unimaginative and weak, and took no creative chances.  The reviews of this film say it is tepid, or at best safe 'children's' fare.
Other recent films, like the  two Robert Downey Jr.  Sherlock Holmes films also bear little resemblance to their original material.  The scriptwriters, who I suppose were not sure that a movie going audience would enjoy the original stories, add a lot of violence, sex, and  special effects to plots that are wildly different  from the originals.  These two films are as close to the original Sherlock Holmes stories as The Life of Brian is to the Four Gospels.  Marginally enjoyable, but hardly recognizable as an adaption of these classic detective stories.
The best films historically often start out as successful stage plays or books. A good example is the 1942 movie classic Casablanca.
It started out as a  play called Everyone Comes to Ricks. This film became such a huge cult hit that, curiously, the actors and the studio denied it began as stage play for decades, jealously guarding the credit for it's success.    This is why the   snappy, witty dialog of this film, without a misplaced word, echos the limitations of the stage. Generally stage plays rely on good writing and believable characters for their success, not (only) special effects.   Most importantly, Casablanca is of ideas as well as being a war movie. Critics say it is one of the best films ever made.
I don't want to spoil it for you, but if you have not seen it, go, go go if there is a revival in a movie theater. Or, get it on Netflix, but gather a group of friends  who have not seen it, to see it with you. .
Sometimes a film that bombs in the theater the first time out. Harold and Maude, released 1971, took years to develop  an audience .  Harold and Maude was first a novel by Colin Higgins, who co-produced the film (a gay author and director of several films, who died in the Aids epidemic in 1988)  It later had a 7 year run as a stage play  in France.          

Sometimes musicals do not  translate very well to the movie screen. Rent, based on the opera La Boheme, was not a success as a movie.  Too much of it had had to be cut, and it was 'too big' for a movie screen. Very few musicals translate well to movies, esp. as many viewers only see them on TV, and do not get to experience the musical, which like good opera, is supposed to sweep over and overwhelm the audience..
The musicals made in the 1950's of, say,  South Pacific and West Side Story are good, but any decent stage production of these two musicals  is better than the admittedly well made  film productions. The same with Amadaeus, which was a stage production in London before it was filmed with American actors like Tom Hulse.
Another great films such as Educating Rita or Butterflies are Free started out as a plays; both plays ran for months on Broadway or in London before they became films.   Well made and successful movies of ideas, these films shape end up very like the original stage plays. .
Even light comedy classics, like the Marx Brothers movies, started out as stage productions. When you see several Marx Brothers films back to back, you see that they use the same jokes, recycled over and over. These films are just rehashing of their Vaudeville productions from the 1920's.
The track record of a play helps sell the film adaption.   There are powerful people who have to be have some hope that their investment will pay off,  before a film can be funded. When Harold and Maude was first pitched as a film idea, the studio heads were disgusted by the theme - a young man falling in love with an old woman - and could not see past their reaction to see what a brilliant ideas behind this anti-war movie.  This film had to been seen over and over, like Groundhog Day,  to catch on and become a cult favorite.
The modern film adaption of Les Miserables had the advantage that it had been tested onstage many, many times with many different productions before it made the jump to the stage.  The miracle this year was The Life of Pi, as it is a straight adaption from an 'unfilmable' book. Only through the use of  the trickery of CGI could the 'tiger in a lifeboat' be to life. The director was able to use that trickery, combined a decent adaption,  to tell his story onscreen. The Life of Pi got good reviews, and all agreed that the CGI augmented but did not dominate the plot.
Jaws, for example, made in 1974 straddles one era in film making and the next. A popular novel of the time,  it 'works' still as a good movie, and is still popular even though the bloody special effects are antiquated.
In the end, Jaws is about the relationship between people, not just a big fish showing up, who eats swimmers at random. This shark showing up off the coast   serves as a deus ex machina to throw people in the small town into conflict, then comradery , Their struggle with the shark, and the three main characters had with each other in the second half of the film, created a classic.   The actors, especially Robert Shaw, were excellent actors, and allowed to improvise some of their lines, another reason which why this is a great film - the writing and the characters in it.
But after Jaws made hundreds of millions of dollars, as people would go to see this movie over and over, the studios went nuts. This film and Start Wars damaged the film industry.   The studio heads only saw the big fish, and did not notice that the film was really about  people.  And the funding for films about people, not special effects dried up, and 'sure things' like science fiction movies, remakes and comic book movies have dominated the industry ever since. Films are then made for the lowest common denominator - the teen audience.
That is why movies made 30, 40 years ago - The Godfather, The Graduate,  and Harold and Maude, are considered to be classics for the ages, and modern films often fade  out of memory quickly..
The best way to appreciate what 'great' films have to offer, is to go to live theater.
See the hot new plays, and the classics (and Shakespeare!) if you can.  War Horse, first a kid's book, is now a huge hit onstage that I predict will eventually be made into a movie  - and it will not be as good as the stage play, with puppeteers creating the horse who is the lead.
A "real" horse, created with CGI will not be as poignant as the puppet horse on stage - that you have to suspend and 'believe' the horse is real is the point of the play. Part of the greatness of this play is that the horse IS a puppet; and a brilliantly done one.  Suspension of disbelief is part of the magic of the stage.
South Pacific, Rent and Amadeus, the musicals, are better to see live, if you can manage it.  They can capture you, and stay in your heart, if you let them, in a way few movies can, even with three-d and Suroundsound .
And remember to vote with your pocket.  Go to see the serious, 'small' films, in the theater and not just on Netfilx, so they do not die out completely, and we are left with bloated special affect driven films with no heart.