27 August 2007

Iraq: how we got to where we are

The next question should perhaps be: Where exactly are we? "Too soon to tell," as Zhou Enlai famously said about the impact of the French Revolution on Communist China. Nevertheless, knowing how we arrived somewhere can sometimes help reveal where that somewhere is.

This one is a new one on me, but it sounds about right. As my father, once personnel director for that big port city in the south, could tell you, its all about picking the right people.


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26 August 2007

Manuel de Falla, Spanish music and El Cid

I have discovered the joys of quality headphones attached to my laptop. At the moment I am listening to Manuel de Falla's La vida breve. He's one of my favorite composers. Falla was greatly influenced by native Spanish music and his interpretation of these themes virtually created the image of "Spanish" music for all time. A few bars of his music and your mind automatically pictures Spain in a type of aural iconography. We instantly know what it is supposed to mean. The composers of movie scores would have almost nothing to work with if such iconography didn't exist. Carlos Saura made a great movie of Falla's El Amor Brujo* that probably could have been performed actors without sets or costumes and the music itself would have set the scene.

That is why Miklos Rozsa's music for "El Cid" is so brilliant. He took snatches of genuine medieval Spanish music, mostly from one source, the Cantigas de Santa Maria, jazzed them up with some Falla-esque touches, added a full symphonic orchestra, et voila. An "authentic," thoroughly "Spanish" score, or at least so our ears tell us without the need to think.

Although laughable today, "El Cid" the movie was arguably the best, and certainly the most intelligent of the great Hollywood epics of the 50s and 60s. As virtually all movies set in the Middle Ages (and most novels) do, it invents its own private Mediaevalia that has little to do with reality. Still, it is impressive. I think its success owed as much to Rozsa's music as to Charlton Heston's clenched teeth or Sophia Loren's - well, everything.

And after all, while professional medievalist might do a much more accurate job of reconstructing the late 11th century, we would not get it right either, and our version would be almost incomprehensible to the audience. So stick with the Hollywood version if only for the sake of the music.

* and if you like flamenca, you should see each of Saura's trilogy: "Blood Wedding," "Carmen," and "El Amor Brujo."

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Attempts at a new schedule

Now that school is back, I am going to have to try out a new schedule. One thing is clear: I have to be productive first thing in the morning if I want to get anything done. I am no longer very productive late in the evening, perhaps because of sleep problems or simply advancing age. I used to get a lot done after midnight but now all I can do in those hours is surf the web and play spider solitaire neither of which will look good on my annual report.

I will try to get up before 7 every morning, do my little routine, and hop the bus by 7:30 or get in the car and leave by 8. I want to be in my office working by 9 and to stay until 6 or so. Then when I get home I can relax, read, and play with my blogs.

The only problem so far is that it seems to take me about 2 hours to actually become fully awake. I drink a little pot of coffee first thing, but caffeine has never had all that much effect on me. Writing my matins helps as much as anything. I will give it a try. I certainly have to try something - the last few years have seen me falling further and further behind in all of my work. I blame it all on incurable sleep apnea.

i.e. ... it's not my fault.

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24 August 2007


After getting back from that place down south I immediately had to start acting like I still had a job, i.e. the new school year started. Monday bright and early I went off to several meetings where I was told all kinds of irritating stuff. For instance the senior checks which are time consuming and detailed will no longer be done by administrative staff trained to do it, but by the professors. I guess they didn't think we had enough to do. But as I have always said, the good folks of North Carolina can either pay me to teach their children or to push paper. Seems like they are content with the latter.

Tuesday classes started. After six months out of the class room I am trying to get back into the swing of things. So far so good. I am determined to try to get most of my work done during the day and not have things hanging over my head every evening and weekend so have been unusually busy the last few days.

Hence, very few posts. I am not sure how much blogging I will do this semester, but we'll see.

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14 August 2007

Invasion of the (Republican) Body Snatchers

Years ago I was driving from Wisconsin back to Minneapolis with a psych major from the University of Minnesota. We were listening to a press conference Q & A of Pres. Reagan. Suddenly the budding young psychologist ticks off three or four characteristics we are hearing in Reagan's speech patterns and says "Those are all indications of ... " and she names some disease of the brain with an odd German sound that I had never heard of. We all know how soon after Reagan left office we heard the news that he had Alzeimers.

So I am fascinated by the changes in personality that some see in both our Prez and Vice Prez. Something clearly has happened, but what? Several people who once worked with Cheney say that they no longer know him. Of course events like 9/11 (and the experience of having to order a civilian airliner to be shot down) can change a persons view of the world and perhaps that is all that happened.

And then there is George II. Ignore the political bias in this little clip and you can still be dumbfounded by the change in his speech patterns and general demeanor. I honestly don't have a clue as to what has happened to the man, but something has, however innocuous. Somedays I make no sense whatsoever, so perhaps it is simply the normal effects of age, but I doubt it (since this has always been true of me, alas). Lingering effects of alcoholism? Something else?

Or are we making too much of this? But it has always been very odd, and a bit disturbing.

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13 August 2007

A personal update

I am slowly melting in that unnamed port city to the south. Hope to milk it for the one really unique thing about it - its Spanish heritage - by going to the Cafe Viscaya soon and drinking LOTS of Sangria. Until then I am not sure how much posting I am going to do.

Next week I return to the cool green mountains where I will have to go back to work. Alas. I will need excuses then for procrastinating so I will probably start posting a lot.

If it weren't for Mora I would get nothing done. My next book will be dedicated to her. If I ever get around to writing it.


More conservative opinion on Rove

Well, for political conservatives he may not seem like the real thing since he hates George II, but Andrew Sullivan is a dyed in the wool conservative of the philosophical type. He doesn't think much of Rove either. Here is his sendoff of the Mayberry Machiavelli. I personally think it is a nice little summary.

The man's legacy is a conservative movement largely discredited and disunited, a president with lower consistent approval ratings than any in modern history, a generational shift to the Democrats, a resurgent al Qaeda, an endless catastrophe in Iraq, a long hard struggle in Afghanistan, a fiscal legacy that means bankrupting America within a decade, and the poisoning of American religion with politics and vice-versa. For this, he got two terms of power - which the GOP used mainly to enrich themselves, their clients and to expand government's reach and and drain on the productive sector. In the re-election, the president with a relatively strong economy, and a war in progress, managed to eke out 51 percent. Why? Because Rove preferred to divide the country and get his 51 percent, than unite it and get America's 60. In a time of grave danger and war, Rove picked party over country. Such a choice was and remains despicable.

I have always been curious how true conservatives could not hate the fellow who stopped the rightward drift of the American public dead in its tracks.

But I might be wrong about that.

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Rove wants to spend time with his family

Claims it is because his son is going off to college so they want to spend a lot more time together. Now admittedly it is a long time since I went off to college but I don't remember going with the idea that I should spend as much time as possible with the dear old Mater and Pater. But maybe I was just weird. Anyway, that's the excuse (or reason) that Rove is floating to explain his departure from the White House. For those of us more familiar with the aquatic habits of seagoing rodents another explanation springs to mind.

Still, I am a wishy-washy liberal and I don't want it said that I am allowing my political biases to cloud my assessment of this brave public servant. Here is Michelle Malkin's ode to the departing Rove. And Michelle is as close to a rabid conservative Repub I can imagine.

btw, the picture on Michelle's post shows that old Repubs CAN get down. It clearly brings tears to the eyes of the guy standing behind Rove to your left.

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09 August 2007

Harry Potter in Spanish

The internet is truly a thing of wonder. As soon as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out fans began to translate it into Spanish as Harry Potter y las reliquias de la muerte. They finished the translation and posted it to the web by 26 July!

So, anyone who can read Spanish (e.g. Carmen) and is willing to put up with a few mistakes and grammatical errors, it is up and free. Of course, this is a serious breach of copyright.

And that would be wrong.

[Consequently I don't actually link to the translation, but only a post about the translation. It contains the link, supposedly]

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07 August 2007

Taxes: Some data

Jack and I have started a discussion of the role of taxes, among other things. This little post from The Daily Dish (Andrew Sullivan's blog) contains some interesting info putting to rest the common perception among Democrats that people earning ca. $50K pay more in taxes than those earning ca $250K. It's worth a read.

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Conservatives for Hillary!

No, I didn't believe it either, but I am reading more and more comments like this one from one of the conservative bloggers filling in for Andrew Sullivan. Here's the core of his argument:

A couple of months ago I came to the realization that no Republican can win the White House next year.... Having come to this realization, it became necessary to judge the Democratic field to determine which candidate would be the least bad from my point of view. I concluded that Hillary Clinton was less objectionable that the others. She appeared to be a clone of her husband on economic policy--which is good as far as I am concerned--and a realist on foreign policy. Given the choices facing us, I concluded that conservatives ought to consider supporting Hillary in order to ensure that a more liberal candidate such as Barack Obama or John Edwards didn't become our next president.

I can't tell if this is sincere or a hope that by nominating Hillary the Republicans might be facing the one Democrat they can defeat. At any rate, looks like it will be an interesting political year.

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"Getting Iraq Wrong"

That's the title of a column by Michael Ignatieff, former Harvard professor, now a member of the Canadian parliament. Also a journalist for The New York Times Magazine. Why I've linked to it because it is not so much about why he got Iraq wrong but about the nature of political judgment and how it differs from personal judgment and from academic judgment. He feels he is in a position to make those distinctions now that he has been a politician for a few years. He even quotes Machiavelli (well, what political scientist doesn't). Here's a bit of his distinction between politics and academia.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin once said that the trouble with academics and commentators is that they care more about whether ideas are interesting than whether they are true. Politicians live by ideas just as much as professional thinkers do, but they can’t afford the luxury of entertaining ideas that are merely interesting. They have to work with the small number of ideas that happen to be true and the even smaller number that happen to be applicable to real life. In academic life, false ideas are merely false and useless ones can be fun to play with. In political life, false ideas can ruin the lives of millions and useless ones can waste precious resources.

I find this idea very interesting. But then, I am an academic.

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05 August 2007

The High Tech book reader

High tech and high priced. Probably too high priced but still interesting as a possible way to the future. Mike Musgrove reviews the new Sony Reader for the Washington Post. Here's the core of what he says:

Click a button with your left thumb to hop to the next page on the device's screen, which is about the size of the average paperback. After some extensive ocean-side research, I can report that it does a fine job of withstanding sand, suntan lotion and light rain. The battery lasts longer than you'd think; I made it through a Stephen King thriller and the bestseller "Freakonomics" with hardly a dent on the meter.

Getting books onto the Reader works pretty much the way an iPod works for music. Connect the device to your computer, fire up Sony's online bookstore and download away. Instead of carrying just one book on the plane you can now lug about 80, stashed in the Reader's memory.

Sounds great until you realize that you have to buy the books from Sony which has only 15,000 titles (a typical Barnes and Noble stocks ca 200,000), you can't read newspapers or magazines on it, you don't have the satisfaction of watching your books accumulate (Ian?), and it costs $300.

Musgrove also seems to think that it is also a negative point that you can't lend your books to a friend, but considering how many books I've lost over the years that might be a plus.

At any rate I am interested in such devices, especially for traveling. I can never pack all the books I want. But then, I suspect the books I want won't be found on Sony's play list either. Still, the technology is intriguing. Anybody else have any thoughts about this?

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Conservatives for Harry Potter

Certainly not all of them since Dobson and other social conservatives of the Evangelical type seem to think they promote devil worship, satanism, and magic. But saner folks over at the National Review, bless them, think the Harry Potter books are great. Here's Mark Krikorian's defense against the Dobsonites:

The absurdity of claims that Rowling's stories somehow promote satanism or the occult was clear from the beginning, but having just finished reading the final book, I have to say that Dobson et al. owe Rowling an apology. It's not just that all the magic is a benign part of the fairy tale, like Cinderella or Snow White; it's not even just that the series "reinforces a core Christian belief that good and evil are not just socially constructed," as the op-ed I linked to says. More than all that, there's no way you can read the finale of the last book and not see it as "unambiguously Christian."

One more reason to read HP VII. Rick Brookhiser provides an historical reason for the hiding of the magical world from Muggles, as portrayed in the books:

I noticed in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that the witches and wizards of England decided to hide themselves from non-magical people in 1689—the year the Whigs nailed down their triumph in the Glorious Revolution.
[I can see the exam question now: Take out your blue books and write a five page essay discussing the significance of 1689 on the world of magic, relating it to the Glorious Revolution]

Krikorian, btw, wonders what the Christian conservatives are going to do when they get a load of a real anti-Christian work like The Golden Compass. Good question since Carmen and I have been wondering for some time if the projected movie will lead to a filming of the whole Dark Materials trilogy, especially the last one where it is clear that they are waging war on the forces of a senile old god named Jehovah. Or something like that.

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04 August 2007

A few thoughts on the bridge disaster in Minneapolis

As I described in the last post you can see that I take this accident very seriously. It is unlikely given the size of the place that I knew anyone dead or injured, but I may make a few phone calls this weekend, just in case.

The 35W bridge was built in '57, I think. It was at the time the best engineering that we could give it. It has been regularly inspected and while the last few inspections found deficiencies, this does not mean that it was in any danger of collapse.

Now Minnesota has, rightly, a reputation for clean government and a lack of corruption. That doesn't mean that something wasn't fudged, just that it might be less likely than elsewhere. Minnesota, on the whole, has always been more willing than most states to put money into its infrastructure.

In other words, if this could happen to an 50 year old bridge in Minneapolis, it can damn sure happen anywhere else in our aging and rusting transportation system. The problem has been noted for over two decades at least. No level of government wants to spend the money needed to keep these things in good shape. And they certainly are not willing to raise taxes for something that the public could not "see." So the bridges continue to deteriorate.

For all of you out there who think that government is the problem and should be starved of taxes so it can be spent on something better (bigger houses? more toys? bigger cars?), just keep telling yourself that the next time you cross a bridge with your loved ones on the back seat.

I'll be praying for you.

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The Bridge in Minneapolis

The other night just as we were setting down to eat my older brother Jesse called to tell me about the bridge collapse in Minneapolis. He was seeing it on all the TV stations. We had to check on the Internet to see what the story was.

I rode on that bridge countless times. It is not very far from where the University is and where I lived is only downriver from it on Lake Street. You can see it here. The 35W bridge is just above the yellow arrow. The bridge on Interstate 94 that I went across almost everyday that I lived in Minnesota is down river (my apartment building was just at the end of the shield with the number 94 in it, north of Lake Street. I was only a block from the Lake Street Bridge. For awhile before I moved the Lake Street Bridge was so dangerous that buses had to stop at the edge of the bridge, unload their passengers into little vans, and then have the passengers taken across the bridge to be picked up by another bus. The span, a beautiful old steel bridge, was replaced with a new concrete hulk, one that looks very much like the marvel of modern engineering that went down.

At least the death toll seems much smaller than was originally thought. Given how awful it looks it is hard to believe. One young man who was on the school bus is being hailed as a hero because he helped all the young children get out. It was from one of the more ethnic and poorer neighborhood summer school and returning from a day at the lake, I think.

Here is a picture of 35W on a normal day. You can see how big it is and how much traffic was on it for it to be bumper to bumper as it was when the bridge went down.

It gave me a funny feeling to hear all the old Minnesota voices and to see how they were coping. I saw some videos of eyewitnesses and I have to believe Minnesotans took it more calmly than most other places would have. That old Scandinavian/Lutheran grit I guess, although the young hero is named Hernandez.

02 August 2007

An addendum to transportation in San Fran

I was pretty well convinced that the Segway Scooters were simply toys - great for a tour while on vacation but not for much else. Then on our way through downtown San Francisco to get to the airport for our flight home, I saw a distinguished man with gray hair and beard (looked a bit like me) wearing a business suit calmly riding his Segway up the street in front of us.

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Transportation in San Francisco

San Francisco turned out to be a delight for someone as interested in weird little vehicles as I am. First off I noticed there were a lot more Priuses (Prii?) on the road than I have seen anywhere else. I even saw a Prius taxi, called "The Green Cab." Obviously SF is a very green kind of place.

As we were walking along the North Beach area heading towards the Golden Gate Bridge we saw groups of bikers all pedaling exactly the same type of black mountain bike with a carrying case on the handle bars emblazoned with "Blazing Saddles.*" It's a bike rental place that must be earning big bucks because we must have seen nearly a hundred or more of these things.

Even before we started our walk that day we passed the main depot for the weirdest little cars I've ever seen. They were low, bright yellow, and three wheeled. Later we saw about a dozen of these little yellow cars zipping around. They use GPS technology for a computer guided tour of the area. The cars have a 2 HP engine (!) yet can go up to 35 mph which is plenty for the city streets the tour is designed for. They are controlled by a handle bar rather than a steering wheel and looked like they were a lot of fun. They seem to get about 50 mpg, which is fortunate because the tank only holds about 1.5 gals.

Do you remember the Segway Scooter? The one our commander-in-chief fell off of? I thought they had died out because they were so impractical, but they are used for touring groups in SF. We saw several large groups of Segway tourists, all wearing plastic chartreuse colored safety vests. A group of Segways, by the way, are inherently funny, especially when they circle to listen to their leader - not sure why. But in SF even the post office is trying them out.

We saw a few other weird vehicles including a gasoline powered knock-off of the Segway and an electric car used by the city. You can't say the San Franciscans aren't trying to find a way out of the petroleum dependency trap!