Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Disturbing Pamphlet. Is it the NRA?

It's not hard to be a pro-gun liberal. Most of my friends are. I'm one. The good people over at the Oregon Democratic Party's Gun Owners' Caucus are. What's difficult is dealing with some of the people who support the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. Somehow during the seventies it got tied up with Right Wing politics, and many of the major gun rights organizations started getting into unrelated issues like immigration, tax cuts, religion and foreign policy. Lately it seems like they've been genetically grafted to the Republican Party.

It's a shame. Essential civil rights shouldn't be a partisan issue. It does nobody any good when they're used as a wedge to divide people. The NRA has been falling closer to that trap, but they've mostly stayed focused on firearms. That may have changed.

A couple days ago Wonkette's blog posted pictures of a pamphlet supposedly from the NRA. The art is excellent. The text is disturbing. The artwork is very high quality and utterly disgusting. The race-baiting isn't even a subtext. The good guys are always White. Every single dark-skinned person except one is a member of an (and I quote) "Alien Gang". The one exception is a huge demonic head bursting out of the television set to snap its enormous teeth at the White suburban family. The police officers holding the helpless (White) little old lady down with guns to her head are dressed head to toe in black. The nameless hordes descending on the (White) homeowner are silhouetted so as to appear, you guessed it, black. George Soros appears in as a grotesque caricature with an exaggerated hooked nose.

Since then it's been all over tha Intrawebs. An African-American NRA member on Daily Kos expressed some skepticism. There were more comments on Wonkette, Boing-Boing and Raw Story - both of which are hosting the whole document. It's probably discussed been on every single forum that even touches on self defense or guns. So far it's all conjecture. Nobody knows who the real author is or where it came from.

There are references to the National Rifle Association and NRA logos throughout including several pleas that only the NRA can save our precious freedoms and one would assume our precious bodily fluids. Several people including me have called to ask if this is a real NRA publication. The responses have ranged from "No comment" to "I'll have to get back to you." I got through two layers to someone who wouldn't give his name but said it was the first he'd heard of it and the NRA's publicity people would issue a statement as soon as he could do some research and find out what was going on.

At some point you've got to take people at their word. If the NRA comes out in the next day, two at the outside, and says "It's not ours. We never had anything to do with it. We're going to sue whoever it was who used our name and trademarked emblems without our permission. That's a disgusting piece of tripe," or "Someone in our organization did it. We didn't realize what he was up to. He's been sacked and has moved on to bigger and better things in his new job with the Ku Klux Klan. So have the people who green-lighted it," that should be enough. If they weasel and say something like "This has never been an officially released document of the National Rifle Association" or "We consider many options for getting our message across" or just say nothing we'll have to assume that it's theirs. If it is I'm sending my membership card back and will not renew it next year. This is some really hateful race-baiting crap, although the vicious lobster scuttling out of the water to pinch with its tiny claws and the Spotted Owl carrying a dynamite bomb are pretty funny. And the hairy-legged environmentalist chick looks kind of cute even if we can't see her face.

It would be a real shame if the NRA has stooped to the worst excesses of current American politics. I'm still holding out some hope that this they haven't but not for too much longer.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Thanks to Tiel for the Poem

The haiku in the new header is courtesy of Tiel.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Why I hang onto cars until they start to rot

Every few years the car I'm driving finally gives out and it's time to get a new one. The sunroof turns into a Y2K-compliant drinking water collection system with repairs that would cost more than the car was worth. The old Ford pickup was like the Wonderful One Horse Shay, It ran and ran until everything gave out at once. When one of them goes I feel that old cavalry sergeant in the classic Bill Mauldin cartoon.

This time the car was running fine until some idiot rammed his Nissan into it while it was parked in front of the house. He didn't have a driver's license. After this he didn't have a working car. But he did have the stupidity to tell the cops that he was under the influence of "pain pills". Fortunately he also had insurance.

The last time I bought a car I didn't really understand how useful tha Intrawebs were for little guppies like me swimming with the car sharks. Thank you Autotrader and special thanks to Consumer Reports for their in depth analyses. A few hours pretty much told me what the best cars were in my price range and mirabile dictu some of them were even new. The best choice is new and in limited production; there didn't seem to be but half a dozen in Oregon.

There were two dealers close by with similar cars at about the same price. I made an appointment with one for late afternoon and called the other to come in for a test drive.

The contrast couldn't have been greater. Jay Lee Honda started the pressure right away. "There are three other people interested in this car. First one in with MSRP gets it." After the test drive lo and behold there was an extra $2000 "ADM" (Added Dealer Markup - thanks Consumer's Union for the heads up) package, "I need to talk to the manager in the backroom. Sorry, if you could just add a few hundred more dollars. No the invoice isn't available. What will it take to let you drive away in this car." And any time a salesperson starts a sentence with "I was honest with you" you can be sure of one thing.

It was a positive pleasure to say "What you want isn't what you said on the phone. Your deal is unacceptable", walk out and ignore the half dozen phone calls.

The experience at Ron Tonkin Honda couldn't have been more different. They were happy to show me the invoice. MSRP was within Consumer Reports' acceptable range. In fact the margin was awfully narrow, so right upfront they said "We want you to buy a couple hundred bucks worth of dealer accessories." All weather floor mats - a good idea in Oregon - and cargo cover for the trunk took care of that. There weren't any attempts to upsell except the traditional stab at an extended warranty. I ended up with a somewhat better model for a fair bit less money.

I guess it's a game-theory problem for both of them. Jay Lee is willing to have a few people leave if the rest will buy at a higher price. They aren't really expecting repeat business. And there are miles of car dealerships on 99E between Portland and Oregon City. If you leave they've lost you. Tonkin has a number of dealerships. If you want something a little different they can send you to get a Toyota or a BMW. They're counting on a bit of repeat business and customers who don't like the hard sell or don't become emotionally attached to a particular car in the showroom.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

James Baker III Duc de Richelieu Comes Back to Washington

As Bush Senior saw the trouncing the Republicans were about to get at the polls it was obvious that something would have to be done for the good of the nation, the Party and his son. He seems to have decided on sending his old counselors to the White House to straighten things out.

It was brutally quick. Rumsfeld carried out the only successful military maneuver of his career by falling on his sword right after the election. According to wonkette some of the more outrageous claims of what happened behind the scenes have been confirmed. A tame treatment is in the current Newsweek.

And I reinstalled Photoshop. Shakespearean tragedy? Maybe. There's definitely a little Richard II here. Something Roman Empire? It's a stretch. Besides, Baker isn't Cincinnatus. Then I thought of a time when someone outside the royal family took charge of the country because, dammit, someone had to.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

If I Grin Any Wider the Top of My Head Will Fall Off

I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I've been running ever since
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

It's been too hard living but I'm afraid to die
Cause I don't know what's up there beyond the sky
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

I go to the movie and I go downtown
Somebody keep telling me don't hang around
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

Then I go to my brother
And I say brother help me please
But he winds up knockin' me
Back down on my knees

There been times that I thought I couldn't last for long
But now I think I'm able to carry on
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

--Sam Cooke

And damned if it didn't.

If anyone shows up here in the next week the Santorum Shots are on me.

I went into this election afraid that once again the Democrats would snatch Defeat from the jaws of Victory. Or maybe the Republican dirty tricks - voter suppression, letters to Democrats, Blacks and Latinos that they'd be arrested if they voted, Saddam Hussein's finely timed verdict in the Court of Judge Wallaby, Diebold, poll-switching and all the rest - would steal enough votes to swing the election.

It didn't matter. The Democrats took back the House, the Senate and the governor's mansion in the biggest mid-term reversal in recent decades. No Democratic incumbents lost at the national or gubernatorial level. Not. One. Single. Seat.

The Progressives will point to their get out the vote effort. The DLC GOP-lite will say that their "triangulation" strategy carried voters in Kansas or Indiana. The foreign press is pretty much writing off the Bush presidency and sees it as a massive repudiation of him and his policies. Polls seem to show that people have gotten tired of the Republican strategy of appealing to raw fear. "The faggots are coming! The faggots are coming!" and "If you vote against us the terrorists will come and steal your precious bodily fluids" just stopped working. Even 30% of evangelicals voted Democrat this time. Here in Oregon it was nearly as good. The "vulnerable" Ted Kulongoski was easily re-elected despite Saxton's enormously expensive campaign. He will start his second term in the same Party as both Houses in the Legislature. It would have been nice if Measure 42 had passed and 47 hadn't.

What will the Democrats do? Will they take a Progressive turn? Will they do a Tony Blair and position themselveds slightly to the right of the GOP? Will we see deadlock? Dare we hope that they will shine lights into the dark corners and watch the roaches scuttle? Those are all tomorrow's questions. Right now I'm basking in the warmth of the first good political news in twelve years.

Thank you America. You did the right thing.

[Note: It was really, REALLY hard not to make Santorum jokes.]

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

On a Lighter But Still Political Note

<br><A HREF="http://not-a-real-namespace/">FCFU</A><br>

The good people at FCC-FU have some great material in defense of the First Amendment including a passionate speech by Carlos Mencia.

Also making the rounds...

Things You Have to Believe to be a Republican Today

Jesus loves you, and shares your hatred of homosexuals and Hillary.

Saddam was a good guy when Reagan armed him, a bad guy when Bush's daddy made war on him, a good guy when Cheney did business with him, and a bad guy when Bush needed a "We can't find Bin Laden" diversion.

Trade with Cuba is wrong because the country is Communist, but trade with China and Vietnam is vital to a spirit of international harmony.

The United States should get out of the United Nations, and our highest national priority is enforcing U.N. resolutions against Iraq.

A woman can't be trusted with decisions about her own body but multi-national corporations can make decisions affecting all mankind without regulation.

The best way to improve military morale is to praise the troops in speeches, while slashing veterans' benefits and combat pay.

If condoms are kept out of schools, adolescents won't have sex.

A good way to fight terrorism is to belittle our long-time allies, then demand their cooperation and money.

Providing health care to all Iraqis is sound policy, but providing health care to all Americans is socialism.

HMO's and insurance companies have the best interests of the public at heart.

Global warming and tobacco's link to cancer are junk science, but creationism should be taught in schools.

A president lying about an extra-marital affair is an impeachable offense, but a president lying to enlist support for a war in which thousands die is solid defense policy.

Government should limit itself to the powers named in the Constitution, which include banning gay marriages and censoring the Internet.

The public has a right to know about Hillary's cattle trades, but George Bush's driving record is none of our business.

Being a drug addict is a moral failing and a crime, unless you're a conservative radio host. Then it's an illness and you need our prayers for your recovery.

What Bill Clinton did in the 1960's is of vital national interest, but what Bush did in the '80's is irrelevant.

Gays and lesbians are a moral threat to the sacred institution of marriage, but it's okay to be a pedophile as long as: the cause can be linked to alcohol abuse, sexual abuse when an adolescent by a member of the clergy, and your attorney announces you're 'gay' in a press conference.

If you don't send this to at least 10 other people, we're likely to be stuck with more Republicans in '06 and '08, and remember:

"Friends don't let friends vote Republican!"

Time For One More Pre-Election Rant

When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross. -Sinclair Lewis

Just about a lifetime ago one of our greatest Presidents, Franklin Roosevelt, said "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Today the worst President ever tossed up by the electoral process has said "All we have is fear." The only thing he and his Party have to run on is fear of terrorists, fear of homosexuals, fear of women, fear of Mexicans, fear of sex, fear of non-Christians.

We've seen the USA PATRIOT Act which dealt body blows to our civil liberties.

We got no-fly lists.

We got a war which we are losing at a cost that would pay for gold-plated health care for every American for the next ten years. It's trashed readiness and America's stock of military materiel to an extent not seen since the end of the Vietnam War.

We've seen American prestige put in a hole it will take a lifetime to dig itself out of.

We've seen corruption on an unprecedented scale where the Vice President's company gets billions in no-bid unaccountable contracts and personal supporters of the President are given unfettered access to the White House and the public purse.

On October 17th a craven, cowardly, treasonous Congress gave the Executive the right to declare anyone an "enemy combatant" with no rights, no habeas corpus, no trial by jury, no access to lawyers or the courts. Any one of us can be disappeared - tortured, sent to a third country to be abused or worse - if the President so decrees. Yes, yes, yes. The Military Commissions Act forbids torture. But it lets the President decide what is and isn't torture with no Congressional or Judicial review. The very same day we got the John Warner Defense Act which lets the President, again at his whim and with no checks or balances, declare martial law, rule by decree take over the National Guard and put "potential terrorists" and "undesirables" into camps. There is no appeal. They have no rights and no recourse. Congress and the Courts have no power to stop him. Oddly enough the camps are being built by Kellogg, Brown and Root a Halliburton subsidiary.

This is the same Administration which claims the power to crush the testicles of an innocent child to make his parents talk and says that no law can stop it.

Now our right to travel is on the verge of becoming a privilege. The Department of Homeland Security proposes that no citizens be allowed to enter or leave the country without official permission.

George W. Bush now has powers equal to Stalin or Hitler. How much worse does it have to get before people realize what we have lost? Do they care? Even old line conservatives like the editors of American Conservative Magazine are calling for a repudiation of the Bush doctrine.

We have a chance to reclaim some of what we gave up. The mid-term election gives us one more chance to set things right. The Democrats aren't great. Many are spineless consultant-ridden triangulators. They are the only real force opposing our slide into authoritarianism and totalitarianism.

Get out there and vote. Throw the bastards out.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

CDC Warns of Virulent New STD

Gonorrhea Lectim

The Center for Disease Control has issued a warning

about a new virulent strain of sexually transmitted

This disease is contracted through dangerous and high
risk behavior. The disease is called Gonorrhea Lectim
(pronounced "gonna re-elect him").

Many victims have contracted it after having been
screwed for the past 4 years, in spite of having taken
measures to protect themselves from this especially
troublesome disease.

Cognitive sequelae of individuals infected with
Gonorrhea Lectim include, but are not limited to:

  1. Antisocial personality disorder traits;
  2. Delusions of grandeur with a distinct messianic flavor;
  3. Chronic mangling of the English language;
  4. Extreme cognitive dissonance;
  5. Inability to incorporate new information;
  6. Pronounced xenophobia;
  7. Inability to accept responsibility for actions;
  8. Exceptional cowardice masked by acts of misplaced bravado;
  9. Uncontrolled facial smirking;
  10. Ignorance of geography and history;
  11. Tendencies toward creating evangelical theocracies;
  12. A strong propensity for categorical, all-or nothing behavior.

The disease is sweeping Washington. Naturalists and
epidemiologists are amazed and baffled that this
malignant condition originated only a few years ago in a
Texas Bush.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

New Experiences in the Kitchen

No outrage today. No torture-crazed Vice Presidents or rants about Tesco's Peekaboo Pole Dancing kit for the four to sex year old set although that is really foul. Nope, I've finally started something I've been meaning to do for quite a while. I'm making sauces.

Back when Raymond Sokolov was food critic for the New York Times and had his wonderful monthly column in Natural History magazine he wrote books. There were excellent history books like Fading Feast which chronicled the disappearance of regional American food and Why We Eat What We Eat: How Columbus Changed The Way the World Eats. He also wrote a number of cookbooks such as The Cook's Canon: 101 Recipes Everyone Should Know and How to Cook. I picked up Saucier's Apprentice, a guide to the classic French sauces and let it sit on the shelf for a long time. The idea of spending two days watching glace reduce down from twenty quarts to five was a little daunting.

A while back I figured it was now or never. Between Gartner's Meats, the last of the old style butchers and Pastaworks which lives in symbiotic bliss with Powell's Books for Cooks I was able to get all the ingredients, twenty six pounds of cut up veal and beef bones and so on. All of the professional cooks I talked to and all the butchers liked Saucier's Apprentice. Most had copies of their own. All of them thought I was a little mad to be doing this in a small home kitchen.

Mr. Sokolov was right. It's painstaking and requires a lot of time and energy, but it's not that difficult if you devote a weekend to the task and are willing to do an unchristly amount of skimming and straining. By the end of Sunday there were five quarts of classic demi-glace in one cup containers. The dogs were happy to help get rid of the strainings and a few of the boiled bones. I did change a couple things. He recommended leaving the stock to cool on a counter overnight. Couldn't do it. The County Extension Agent would probably have descended on our house and confiscated the Master Food Preserver's badges. We'd have to leave town in shame. Bad all round. The stock went straight into the fridge in open containers. In the morning removing the fat was trivial.

Tonight we tried it out. Was he blowing smoke when he said you could make really good meals quickly with the mother sauce? As it turns out, no. A few minutes, one sautéed onion and a quick reduction produced Sauce Robert which was nothing like the stuff you can buy in the store. The wine expert at Wild Oats who used to be a chef gave some very good advice about modifying the Robert for use with beef instead of pork (a tablespoon of sun dried tomato paste). Hollandaise turned out to be just about as quick and easy. Maybe it was beginner's luck, but the emulsion took and didn't separate or get too thick.

Next week it's on to other mother sauces: chicken and veal Veloutés, Glace Viande Blanc and Sauce Allemande. It doesn't take any longer to make a gallon than a cup, so it's good that the stock pots didn't get buried again.

We'll probably go through the classic sauces at least once. It's a fascinating look at one of the most important parts of canonical cooking and opens up some wonderful possibilities. If you're interested give it a try. It's straightforward, and the results are well worth the time invested. Be warned that this is industrial cooking. A regular kitchen is going to be cramped, especially with all the tools and cookware that need to be cleaned. Now I lust after deep sinks, a stock cooking gas burner and a deep refrigerator.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Congratulations to Neil and Maritza

A year or so back two of our favorite people, Neil and Maritza, called.

Maritza said "We'd like you to marry us."
"OK, but I'm already married. You'll have to check with Tiel first."
"No, you *bad words in Spanish*. We're getting married, and we want you to do the ceremony."

I'm not a judge. The IRS dropped the Big Hammer on the Universal Life Church some time back. Yeshiva would probably take too long, and besides I don't look good in a beard. A quick web search turned up the Church of Spiritual Humanism, a sort of grandchild of Unitarianism. Free ordination with a wide choice of titles. Unfortunately "Crazed Degenerate Cultist of the Great Old Ones" wasn't on the list. Close enough, though.

Enough time went by that the wedding became a running joke. Then a couple weeks ago Neil said that they'd set the date for October 7, right in the middle of the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival. Greater love hath no man than to forgo the pleasures of Great Cthulhu for his friends. Something came up, and the wedding was moved to the 14th.

The bride was beautiful and nervous. The groom was surprisingly laid back. The women of his family put together the reception meal. Nobody fumbled his or her lines. Tiel read a poem from Rumi that started with "Love comes with a knife" which pleased the couple and shocked the audience. Neil gave back the engagement ring which we had lent him after he lost the old one in an accident.

The paperwork got filled out and mailed off to the proper authorities. We were gratified to see that "race" is no longer required on the license application. When we got married some fifteen years ago it caused problems and required some friendly Legislators and a new State law to change that bit.

It's great to see them finally married. Congratulations and long life to the new couple.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Think he hit bottom? Fred Phelps pulls out the shovel and digs.

Fred "G-d Hates Fags" Phelps of the unspeakable Westboro Baptist Church isn't content with interfering with the funerals of US servicemen and women killed in Iraq or gay teenagers. Now he wants to picket and disrupt the funerals of the Amish girls murdered by a killer-rapist in Pennsylvania. According to what passes for logic in his mind the deaths were a punishment for Governor Rendell's mockery of Phelps on Fox Radio.

Mike Gallagher headed off the whole sordid thing by giving the WBC an hour of airtime to rant. Good on you, Mike. You may have negotiated with terrorists, but you did save the bereaved from a truly hellish experience.

One wonders what Phelps' next stunt will be. Does he plan on breaking into maternity wards to berate new mothers for bringing homosexuals into the world? You really can't put much past a man who brings a crowd bearing "Thank G-d for IEDs" to soldiers' memorial services.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Empty Store Fronts in a Brightly Colored Building

Twenty years or so ago Hawthorne Boulevard in Southeast Portland was a sleepy, artsy place, home to antique shops, a shuttered movie theater across from a dance studio, a few restaurants and an aging Fred Meyer's supermarket. Then, as such things happen, it was discovered. The supermarket got a facelift. Junk shops gave way to more upscale boutiques and many of the artsy bohemian crowd which gave the neighborhood its character either got better jobs or moved out.

Oregon has a notable history of segregation. In fact, when we got married we ran into the last vestige of the old Oregon Constitution which forbade a "member of the White race" from marrying a "Mulatto, Free Negro, Kanaka or Chinaman". The actual miscegination law was toppled by the US Supreme Court in 1954, but there was still a requirement which we objected to. You still had to put down "Race" on the marriage license application and could only put one. The wouldn't accept "human" or "pongid" for me, although when I finally scrawled "1500 meters" illegibly they gave in. Tiel could honestly tick every box except "Hispanic" and "Australian Aborigine". They didn't much care for that either. Eventually we gave in and were married. During the next legislative session our State Senator was kind enough to introduce legislation to remove the requirement.

What does this have to do with that brightly colored building? Quite a lot as it turns out.

To this day the demographers tell us that Portland, Oregon is perhaps the most integrated large city in America for those of Asian descent. Chinatown has shops, but nobody really lives there. The same goes for the Vietnamese businesses in the Northeast Hollywood district and the pan-Asian spread on 82nd Avenue. You find concentrations of businesses but not homes.

It is also arguably the most segregated for African Americans. From the early days it was "Nigger, don't let the sun set on you in this town." There were only about 11,000 in the whole state up until 1950. Most of them lived in Vanport, a quasi-city in the Columbia River floodplain. In 1948 the Vanport Flood forced the (Black) residents into Portland itself. Most were packed into the Albina district in Northeast. Redlining was a matter of policy. Banks, insurance companies and realtors would not allow Whites who wanted to live in the area or Blacks who wanted to live pretty much anywhere else. No houses shown. No mortgage approved. No insurance sold. In much of Northeast the only business loans were for liquor stores, bars and pawnshops, hardly the stuff that a healthy local economy is built on. While it was officially forbidden in the 1960s it was common into the 90s.

Rising housing prices and city administrations which wanted urban renewal ended the practice. Unfortunately for the people who lived there it meant that many were priced out of their homes, and newcomers started the businesses. Such is gentrification in an insane housing market. On the other hand, it is much safer and life is generally better. When I lived here in the late 1980s Northeast Alberta Street seemed to have declared unconditional surrender in the War on Poverty. There were few businesses. Many were liquor-related or the traditional auto-body, valve-grinding, garbage company sorts of places you find in commercial space in poorer areas. During my brief stint with the Guardian Angels we met in a rickety abandoned building with boarded up windows, no heat and only a couple of lightbulbs on the corner of 15th and Alberta.

That building is now the mostly-organic Alberta Food Co-op. It's brightly lit, freshly painted and has lots of windows.

Business loans and relaxation - though not elimination - of informally enforced segregation completely transformed the neighborhood. The last of the idle buildings are being brought up to code and house shops, restaurants, the Oregon Tradeswomen, and a few civic organizations. The area has switched from mostly rental to mostly owner-occupied. And in all fairness many of the new owners are old renters. Turning a tenant into a stakeholder changes his perspective and attitude like nothing else. Most of the businesses will fail. But the investment they made in the infrastructure and the area's new attractiveness will make it easier for their successors to get started. The entrepreneurial earthworms will make soil from the detritus of dead shops.

I suppose you could say that Tiel and I were either the last of the old or the first of the new. Ethnically mixed, educated, not much money, upper middle classupbringing. We were on the cusp.

If you turn South at the corner of NE 15th and Alberta and head walk four or five blocks you'll find yourself on NE Prescott. For a long time there was a house on one corner, a dilapidated drug house on another, a rundown convenience store on the third and a long-closed unlicensed social club on the last. The drug house was sold, remodeled and sold again. The convenience store is still rundown but has been repainted, Lord only knows why, in battleship gray. There is talk about how much more valuable the land would be as practically anything else. I expect it will be sold, torn down and sprout a mixed-use complex pretty soon.

The dull, dirty social club is the interesting one. Its history resembles nothing more than ecosystem succession. First there's nothing. Then the small first colonizers arrive and a simple ecosystem develops. Populations succeed each other. Eventually a balance is reached until the next chance occurence or change in the environment alters conditions and the mix of species again. World without end.

A few years ago the building was sold. A video store moved into part of the space. Then a really good taqueria opened up. More of the building became a carniceria, a hair and nail place, and a Mexican specialty store and so on. The carniceria folded and was replaced by a panaderia. The rest of the businesses mostly owned by Latinos and most of them from Guerrero or Chiapas. I had some doubts about the bakery. The owner didn't charge nearly enough for what he sold. A hand decorated half sheet tres leches cake should cost more than fifteen dollars. Flan at three for a dollar is a steal. No matter. He seemed happy.

The building lost its old gray/black shades a piece at a time. Chilango's Taqueria went through a couple of shades before settling on its current hue. The whole building has been repainted in colorful greens, yellows and reds.

A few months ago the panaderia, the Mexican goods and the hair and nails place all went out of business at pretty much the same time. Chilango's was closed during what used to be prime business hours, and a few familiar faces were gone from counter and kitchen. When we asked we were told that Immigration had done a big roundup. The missing businesspeople were probably illegal immigrants. I believe pretty strongly that a nation has the duty to defend its territorial integrity and should only allow in those whom it deems in its national interest to welcome. But the loss of productive businesses in a formerly blighted area doesn't seem terribly productive. It should be difficult. It should be expensive. It shouldn't be as easy as "You broke the law for enough years that you get in ahead of the people waiting honestly in line." But there should be a way for people like that to legitimize their residence.

Chilango's is still there. The video store closed. A barbershop and a coffeeshop, both owned by lifetime neighborhood residents, have just opened. The Mexican goods store is an upscale bar, and the panaderia's space is going to re-open as a barbecue joint. Life goes on. Alberta becomes Hawthorne. Hawthorne becomes Northwest Twenty Third. Somewhere there's a can of paint in a different shade waiting to be brushed onto the storefronts on the corner of 15th.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Update to Nurse Strangling Intruder

It looks like the nurse I referred to in the last entry wasn't attacked by a random intruder. He was a hitman. Not a very good one, but a hitman. Her estranged husband seems to have hired the deceased because his wife wouldn't reconcile with him.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

A Fine Example of the Self Defense Mindset

Nurse Strangles Intruder With Bare Hands

- - - - - - - - - - - -

September 08,2006 | PORTLAND, Ore. -- A nurse returning from work discovered an intruder armed with a hammer in her home and strangled him with her bare hands, police said.

Susan Kuhnhausen, 51, ran to a neighbor's house after the confrontation Wednesday night. Police found the body of Edward Dalton Haffey 59, a convicted felon with a long police record.

Police said there was no obvious sign of forced entry at the house when Kuhnhausen, an emergency room nurse at Providence Portland Medical Center, got home from work shortly after 6 p.m.

Under Oregon law people can use reasonable deadly force when defending themselves against an intruder or burglar in their homes. Kuhnhausen was treated and released for minor injuries at Providence.

Haffey, about 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, had convictions including conspiracy to commit aggravated murder, robbery, drug charges and possession of burglary tools. Neighbors said Kuhnhausen's size -- 5-foot-7 and 260 pounds -- may have given her an advantage.

"Everyone that I've talked to says 'Hurray for Susan,' said neighbor Annie Warnock, who called 911. "You didn't need to calm her. She's an emergency room nurse. She's used to dealing with crisis."
I'm sorry that she had to do this without the physical and psychological distance a firearm would have given her. On the other hand, good for her. She did better than most people would have.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Fine Leatherwork

I just received two superb examples of the leatherworker's craft from Chas Clements of Denver. The first is a book weight modelled after the classic from St. John's College in Santa Fe, NM. It's made from soft leather (elk hide?)and nicely outlines a page from a typical hardback. The other is a soft sap, a slightly larger version of his standard Bouncer's Pal.

It's hard speak too highly of Chas' work. His pieces are very well constructed, almost over-engineered. The choice of materials, quality of craftsmanship and attention to detail are all top-notch. He also does other leather goods - cases, belts, holsters and the like.
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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Is This the Face of the Urban Future?

Back on August 11th there was a bank robbery in Tacoma. This isn't really news unless you live there. It wouldn't be except that the three people arrested were Army Rangers. That got me thinking. The diagnosed rate of stress disorder for returning vets is about 1 in 10 or 1 in 5 depending on whose statistics you believe. Returning veterans are finding it difficult to get work where "difficult" means an unemployment rate of fifteen percent for younger vets. There have already been a couple cases of soldiers and Marines coming back with their urban warfare reflexes intact - unable to deal with American cities as anything except a war zone. At the same time wages are a smaller fraction of GDP than at any time in the last 47 years. Real wages are at best holding steady while benefits are shrinking and vacations are disappearing. In short, it is not a good time to be a returning veteran from Iraq.

This would be bad enough if the military had its usual high caliber of recruits. Unfortunately, that's no longer the case. The only way the Pentagon has been able to maintain manpower has been by "stop loss" - keeping servicemen and women after their hitch is up - stretching the National Guard and Reserves beyond reason, calling up the Individual Ready Reserve and lowering standards.

How are they lowering standards? The Army has tempered its policy of zero tolerance towards fascists and neo-Nazis. They are getting into the military with the specific goal of getting combat skills. More recruits are getting in with criminal records of a sort that would formerly have disqualified them from the Service. The Army has even upped the proportion of Category IV recruits, high school dropouts and those who score in the lowest third of the AFQT from two percent to twelve. In a military which increasingly relies on complex skills and advanced technology this is alarming.

What's the problem? A bunch of guys who aren't too smart will end up carrying rifles. A few people with criminal records will learn to fear their sergeants so much that they'll turn into soldiers, Marines, airmen or sailors. During WWII and the later parts of the Vietnam War the military would take almost anyone.

Aside from the implications for the nation's defense I'm afraid that it means serious trouble for law enforcement. Sooner or later they will come back. Most will reintegrate into society. But there will be a large number of unemployed or unemployable young men and women with professional experience in urban warfare. More than the regular number will be pre-disposed towards crime or violent political extremism. If our last extended war is any indication many of them will be badly psychologically damaged. It sounds like the makings of a perfect storm. It won't happen all at once, but I predict that we will be paying for the current war for years through professionally executed violent crime. Bank robberies may be only the beginning. Home invasions done by groups with combat experience clearing houses? Criminal gangs who are better trained than the police who oppose them? It sounds bad. So far it hasn't been part of the national consciousness.

I'm afraid that that will not last.

A Weekend of Sera, or Boil Me In Dit Da Jow

This weekend was Guru Plinck's second annual Sera weekend. It's primarily for his students although others are sometimes invited and generally welcome. This year was a little bit smaller than last time. It was still an excellent event. A couple people from out of town showed up, notably Bobbe Edmonds from Seattle.

The large floors of our old venue in St. John's have mostly been walled in, and the Capoeira school which had offered to host the event evaporated. The people at The Place to Shoot and Portland Thai Boxing & Martial Arts were kind enough to rent us their facility on very short notice. A local barbecue joint, known as Honey B's or Loiusiana Ed's depending on how long you've been in Portland, provided dinner Saturday at a very reasonable price.

It was sort of like Guru Plinck's regular classes, except that it lasted fifteen hours. Sensitivity drills, fundamentals, footwork, handwork, body mechanics, distance, timing, juru-juru and ground fighting. There was more emphasis this year on strong limber legs and working low to the ground. As the Guru says "Your martial arts are only as good as your base". What was almost completely missing in the stand-up portion of the program was technique. Most of us were his students. The rest all had strong martial arts backgrounds. We already have more technique than we'll ever use. The emphasis was on developing skill and understanding so that we can make what we have work.

Everyone seemed to have a great time and learned a lot. We're looking forward to next year, maybe on a more convenient date.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Tactics - Play to Your Strengths

While looking something else up I came across an interesting news story about the great magician David Copperfield. This April he was in the Palm Beach area after the last of six shows. Four young robbers with guns approached him and two of his female assistants. The women gave over their money, cellphones and passports. When the criminals went for Copperfield he showed them his pockets and concealed his valuables by sleight of hand. The robbers drove away. One of the assistants got the license, and the malefactors were captured soon afterwards.

It's a funny story. It has some important lessons for self defense.

First and foremost, the magician and his companions kept their cool and didn't do anything to escalate the situation. It would have taken very little for four teenagers with guns to turn it into a bloodbath. The bad guys got what they asked for and left. That's about the best you can hope for in that situation. Yeah, they were taken off guard at first. They thought the robbers wanted autographs. But they recovered well and didn't panic.

Copperfield's act has included mentalist tricks. Many of these rely on the ability to remember things seen only fleetingly. It would be reasonable to assume that this helped them catch the license number.

Even more important was pitting his strengths against their weakness. Copperfield is a world class illusionist. He put what he is good at - sleight of hand and playing to an audience - against their mental weakness. He captured their attention and used his professional skills to control the situation in an unrehearsed, completely improvised act with a hostile audience on a stage he didn't prepare. Not many performers have chops like that. The article doesn't say so, but I'd be willing to bet that he used his abilities at handling an audience to de-escalate the situation.

This wasn't self defense as most people think of it. There's a lot more of Her Wits About Her than Put 'em Down, Take 'em Out. It wasn't dramatic. The robbers weren't heroically disarmed until the police caught up with them. It was a brilliant success accomplished with the best tools at hand. I'm only sorry he wasn't able to pull a rabbit out of his pocket and make the robbers disappear.

Friday, July 28, 2006

New Bird Flu Initiative

The President has announced a bold new initiative to combat bird flu.
He has begun bombing the Canary Islands and will continue next week with Turkey.

Actually, there is good news on the bird flu front. Trials of a new vaccine appear promising.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

H.L. Mencken, Theodore Roosevelt and Herman Goering

Henry Louis Mencken was one of the greatest journalists ever to bang out a story on a Smith-Corona. Skeptic, humanist, misanthrope, muckracker and uncomfortably accurate witness of the human condition he is best known for his scathing coverage of the Scopes trial. He's been dead half a century but still provides some of the best commentary on the American political character.

I just ran across a particularly prophetic bit of Menckenia from On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe:

The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.

The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

From Theodore Roosevelt, the last honest President the Republican Party produced:

"The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else."

And finally, from Herman Goering's last interrogation/interview by Gustave Gilbert author of Nuremberg Diary:

We got around to the subject of war again and I said that, contrary to his attitude, I did not think that the common people are very thankful for leaders who bring them war and destruction.

"Why, of course, the people don't want war," Goering shrugged. "Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship."

"There is one difference," I pointed out. "In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars."

"Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

Comics of Note

Six years ago Scott McCloud wrote in Reinventing Comics that if there were to be a future for the medium it would be in the Internet. Newspaper comics were mostly tamed and boring. The promise of comic books was never fulfilled. He's probably right. These days it seems like everyone has a webcomic. Most of them follow Sturgeon's Revelation, "90% of everything is crud."

There are nuggets in the gravel. Some writers have moved completely to electronic distribution. Phil Foglio puts up three pages a week of his lovingly drawn Steampunk epic Girl Genius and only puts it onto dead trees as collections. It's also kept him to a schedule, something he used to have trouble with. Ghastly's Ghastly Comic, Tentacle Monsters and the Women Who Love Them would never see print but maintains a huge online following of hentai fans and other happy perverts. Bill Holbrook straddles both worlds. Safe Havens and On the FastTrack are syndicated. Herdthinners is an online comic and subsists on donations, subscriptions and collected volumes.

My two favorites are poles apart from each other.

Brooke McEldowney turns out a page a day of 9 Chickweed Lane, a fanciful slice of life about a grandmother, mother and daughter. Chickweed just won the National Cartoonist Society’s Award for Best Newspaper Comic Strip, quite an accomplishment for a newspaper comic that appears in no newspaper. His tri-weekly effort Pibgorn is currently replaying A Midsummer Night's Dream in a Roaring 20s urban setting. Cut loose ten bucks and look through the archives. It's well worth it.

Anthony Lappe and Dan Goldman have offer a very different and much darker vision. Every week the chatty populist online Smith Magazine publishes another installment of Shooting War. In 2011 blogger/journalist Jimmy Burns is detailing the abuses of Eminent Domain under the McCain Administration when he catches a terrorist bombing live on video. The strip follows his later adventures as a journalist in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Mogadishu. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Lappe and Goldman have been declared enemy combatants, stripped of their citizenship and extraordinarly renditioned somewhere terrible for this bitter incisive critique of American foreign policy.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Back Home

We got back a couple hours ago to excited dogs, haughty cats, a torpid snake and a toad who is still frightened of everyone. The trip lasted just long enough. We were beginning to get tired of riding the train.

Most of what happened was typical vacation stuff - dead boring to anyone who wasn't there. We did notice something very interesting in the fifteen plus years since we took the Empire Builder . There are a lot more waterfowl. There were ospreys, geese and herons galore on the Columbia River Gorge. There were no ospreys the last time we made the trip. Plenty of geese, ducks and even pelicans in Montana and North Dakota. What in the world are pelicans doing in North Dakota? There were swans several places. I don't remember the last time I saw flocks of wild swans.

What's responsible for this? Who knows? Maybe we just picked the right time of year, although it isn't the season for anything to migrate. Perhaps there was more water than usual. Maybe the years have undone the effects of DDT and some of the other pesticides that were destroying waterbird eggs. In any case they added beauty to the trip and further convinced us that rail is a better way to travel. If we'd taken the plane we would have seen clouds, circular fields, mountains, square fields and the airport. We got to see the Northern Prairies all green on the way out and brown on the ride home, spectacular mountains and a chance to see the disappearing glaciers of Glacier National Park.

The Empire Builder is one of Amtrak's best lines, one of the few that survived the budget cuts more-or-less intact. It was on time both ways over a two day trip. The train was comfortable, and the service staff were unfailingly professional. Our cabin attendant said that it's a mark of distinction to be assigned to that line.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Amtrak Blues

This is the first year that Tiel has been able to get two weeks of vacation together, so we're taking a long-delayed train trip. It was going to be Portland-Chicago-New Orleans, but that's just not going to happen any time soon. We're visiting people in upstate New York and coming back with a side-trip to Grand Rapids to see Chuck Pippin and Mushtaq.

A lot of people have bad things to say about Amtrak, and some of it is true. Cheap oil and effective lobbying by the airline industry have left us with a starved passenger rail system that can hold its head up proudly with, say, Bulgaria. But that's a rant for another time. Even with its problems Amtrak still provides a really wonderful experience.

We left Friday afternoon on the Empire Builder. It's one of the most beautiful rides you could ever take. It starts with a ride through the Columbia River Gorge. There's a point part way up when the Douglas fir forest switches suddenly, in less than a mile, to scrub oak, juniper and sagebrush. We missed the Ponderosa pine near Spokane. Night fell about the time we reached Pasco. Pasco gets its name from the Pacific Steamship Company which took freight as far up the river as deep water ships could go.

We were in Montana by morning and went through Glacier National Park during the nicest part of the day. Go there while the eponymous glaciers are still there. The ice is retreating quickly and could be gone inside twenty years.

North Dakota? Flat with loess carved into fantastic shapes by wind and water. Minnesota? Flat. Lots of lakes.

The train arrived in Chicago miraculously on time. The waiting room for the Southbound trains resembles a badly-designed feed lot. Sixteen hours later we arrived in Albany-Rennsalear.

Amtrak isn't up to Japanese or European standards, but it's still very nice. The seats are large and recline. The view is beautiful. The ride is comfortable. It's a bit less expensive than flying, and you don't leave feeling like you've just survived the Middle Passage - otherwise known as flying coach.

I managed to get a good deal on an economy sleeper for the first leg of the trip. The privacy is nice. The shower is very welcome. But it really isn't that much more comfortable. If there are cancellations we might be able to get one on the way back.

Amtrak Blues? It's a damned fine album by Alberta Hunter. Not many can claim to have gotten their chops in the 'teens, had a red-hot jazz career through the early fifties and come back in the seventies. And only one of the is Ms. Hunter.

How couldI have forgotten?

Outside of Buffalo, NY the train stopped. Two police (FBI? Local?) in plain clothes, pistols exposed, got on the train. They went to a group of people and asked if each was a US citizen. They checked passports and took away one guy off with a Ghanian passport. One officer said to the other "The others are in the dining car. We'll have someone get them."

What happened? Who can say? There was something very Centerforce or KGB about the whole thing.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Condition White for Self Defense

I'm not a poet like Tiel, so I can't say it as well as she did here or here. I really hate the cancer that walks like a city, Las Vegas. It's a monument to all that is worst in the human spirit: greed, self-deception, lust unalloyed by love or even human connection, addiction, drunkeness, gluttony and the shutdown of all the higher faculties. It produces nothing, just extracts money from visitors with mathematical precision and pours water out onto the desert. It is hard to express just how much I loathe that place. (Note to self: Don't hold back. Tell them how you really feel.)

We were just in Las Vegas on family business. Fifteen years ago it was appalling. Now it's plain terrifying.

Everyone knows how the lights on the Strip and in the casino don't let you know whether it's day or night. The bars stay open, and there are no clocks on the walls where there is gambling. That's only part of it. The buildings lack all sense of scale and proportion. It's difficult to tell how big or how far away anything is. Rooms can be close without fostering intimacy or enormous while still being oppressive.

There is noise everywhere, but it's chaotic, arrhythmic and as intrusive as possible. The lights are even worse. With the animated billboards, neon signs and slot machine displays there is movement everywhere at odd angles and and from strange directions. It never stops. It's all designed to attract attention while shortening the attention span and encouraging compulsive behavior. The Strip supports enormous luxurious hotels and huge casinos on the strength of twenty five cent slot machines. They have to provide an environment that encourages people to focus in on the machine or the gaming table and keep ponying up.

As long as you ignore your environment and keep feeding money into the city's maw you are pretty safe. Food, drink and entertainment will be provided. Large men in gray suits keep regular criminals away from the customers. If you step outside the psychic box it becomes overwhelming in a few minutes and psychosis-inducing in a couple days. I've spent the last few years trying to live in Condition Yellow on Colonel Jeff Cooper's Color Code (as modified by many others) - relaxed, prepared for trouble and aware of the environment. Most of the time it's an excellent state to be in. It is the minimum acceptable level of preparation for an armed person. It is very difficult to maintain unfocused awareness when there is so much going on which is designed to distract and disorient.

Over long periods you can learn what is important in that environment and tune out the rest. You can try to maintain environmental awareness and activation during complete sensory overload without specific targets. Or you can dial your awareness down and revert to Condition White, experiencing Las Vegas the way you are meant to. I didn't have time for the first, got cranky and twitchy doing the second and (reluctantly) went to the third while inside "safe" places like casinos. Eventually we just kept repeating to each other "We'll be out of here in a few days and we'll never have to come back."

If you're teaching awareness to martial artists, bodyguards, cops or similar by all means take them there for a final exam. Have your students spend three or four days on the Strip visiting casinos in quick succession and walking around outside, especially at night. If they can go the whole time in Condition Yellow without having a psychotic episode or falling into Condition White out of psychic self defense they've passed the test. Hell, take off your belt, bang your head on the floor and beg them to take you on as their student.Either they've mastered the material or the local Zen monastery has snuck one of their Sages into your school as a ringer.

So ¡Muerte Las Vegas! The place would be improved if the US military moved the Nevada Test Site to half a mile above the corner of Flamingo and Las Vegas Boulevard.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Wrestling With G-d, Hoping For Two Falls Out of Three

A Jew's relation to Judaism can be a lot like a fish to the fisherman. A lot of line can be played out, but there's always the potential that you'll get reeled in. Well, they sunk the hook in me early, and much as I've run away from it from time to time there's always that connection. Lately it's been stronger. I grew up in a very secular household and didn't get much of a Jewish education. The local synagogue wasn't terribly helpful. The backbiting, politicking, and personality conflicts were so strong sometimes that I doubt even G-d could get a word in edgewise. Unorganized reading of Torah, Talmud and Kabbalah in translation helped, but there's just way too much for an outsider to collate. So I'm taking courses from the JLI taught at the local Lubavitcher shul.

The Lubavitch Chassidim are great people. They are very observant but live in the world and, as the Rabbi says, "If it can't be applied to real life throw it out." They were in New Orleans after Katrina even before the Mormons arrived. They help even ignorant secularized Yids like yours truly learn Torah. I just can't say enough good things about them. So it's very painful to have to wrestle with some of what they teach and to say that, when I examine my conscience and do the best I can with my limited faculties I just can't swallow some of what they're teaching.

The current class is "From Sinai to Cyberspace". It's a course in the basics of Jewish thought and how Judaism views and interprets the sacred texts in a changing world. So far most of it is very good. The 13 principles for deriving meaning from the Written and Oral Torah are helpful. The quotes from the Sages are illuminating. The relationship between the Written Law and the adaptive Oral Law is beautiful. But when it comes down to it I am unconvinced by some of their arguments about the fundamental question:

What does G-d really want from us?

Before we go any further I need to make a couple things absolutely clear. This is not an indictment of Judaism as Judaism. The problems I see here are ones that can affect any religion. But since it's Judaism that is raising the questions at the moment it's Judaism that I'm wrestling with.

I'm willing to grant that what is written down in Torah is what is written down there. Torahs all over the world from Ethiopia to China are letter-perfect identical. I'll accept that the direct given-to-us-at-Sinai portions of the Oral Law have been preserved faithfully. It's the other two parts, the stuff derived according the rules of Jewish scholarship and later legislative acts that start activating my bullshit meter. To cut a long story short, what is derived is considered to be Torah as much as, if not more than, what is written. Further, a posek's pronouncements have the force of Torah.

I'm quite ignorant of Torah, can only sound out Hebrew, don't know any Talmud to speak of. But the brain works pretty well. And what does it perceive that troubles me deeply?

The first starts with science. And where is Steven J. Gould(ztl) when we really need him? The attempt to justify science with religion or religion with science does neither any good. No matter what the fundamentalists say - doesn't matter whose fundamentalists - you can't use a revealed religious text as a science book. And no matter what the sociobiologists or reductionists say you can't use science as religious scripture. We know more about the physical world than we did 3000 years ago. The nature of science as a discipline dictates that everything we do is our best effort at the moment. It will be superseded by better understanding and information later, but it's what we have to go on. In every lesson there's a bit or two that is usually labelled "HDTK?" or How Did They Know? A pronouncement about the physical world is made from Talmud, and it is declared that what modern science is just discovering was revealed back in the day. Therefore the religion is true.

The problem is that it often isn't. Tonight's HDTK was from the Talmud, to the effect that pigs are unlike all other animals because their internal organs are like humans'. There are similarities, but the statement just isn't true. Bears are just as close albeit bigger. Monkeys are even more like us. Apes are closer still. But if you try to say that the answer is that science is imperfect. It's a classic ratchet mentality. What supports my beliefs is true. That which contradicts them is your error. Cats don't have poison in their claws. Pi is not equal to three. If the woman orgasms first the child will not necessarily be a boy. Fasting, holy water and sacrifices will not cure leprosy. In a larger sense, if you look for validation of religion in science you'll either have to backfill and wave your hands vigorously when the science changes or accept that your religious tenets will have to evolve with our understanding of the physical universe. If you hold out the imperfection of science as a way of denying new understanding that contradicts religious beliefs about the nature of the physical universe you can not claim the mantle of science to validate your theology. Any other position is self-deception if not actually dishonest.

The second is selective derivation and its sibling, moral abdication. The Torah as written is sketchy and doesn't provide a lot of details. The Oral Torah provides the key. Among the tools for figuring out the meaning and the Almighty's design are thirteen rules of inference. All well and good. Judaism has a tradition of rigorous scholarship and logic. But there are times when it is incredibly selective. In many cases it's a good thing. Part of the Jewish tradition is change so that Jews can live in the world and with the Torah. But dishonesty creeps in again.

Let's take a subject which arouses strong feelings in many of us, rape. The Written Torah is absolutely clear about rape. If the victim is in the city and doesn't cry out for help she dies as a punishment for her immorality. If she was out in the back-beyond or was in the city and cries out she marries the rapist and can never get a divorce. Given the nature of Israel in those days it made a certain sense. Later rabbis have pretty circuitously come to the conclusion that the rapist is required to give up his right to marry the victim and she's entitled to, what is it, nine different compensations for pain and suffering. It's a valiant attempt to get around a huge obstacle in the road of justice. It's still sophistry albeit for the best of motives. I wish to be closer to the Almighty, but this is a point where I have to say "Lord, if that's your rule I just won't follow it. And I'm willing to spend extra time in Gehenna for that disobedience. Rapists belong in prison or floating face-down in a ditch."

Close on the heels of selective derivation is the limited, human nature of the Sages and their normal human blind spots. The ancient and not so ancient rabbis were incredibly knowledgeable and wise men. No doubt about it. They dedicated their lives to Hashem and used every faculty they had to that end. But they were human and suffer from the same frailties that all human beings are heir to - ratchet mentality, groupthink, cultural assumptions and the blindspots that go with them and more. No matter how wise a person is these things happen. The results of these systematic errors must be accounted for when we use their teachings, legislative acts and interpretations of Torah. Unfortunately, that is heresy. The Rambam himself said that questioning those who pass down the Oral Torah is forbidden. Far from being heresy I maintain that it is a serious responsibility. When we stand in front of the Final Judge what should one say?: "Who am I to question that wise man? Take my failings up with him." or "I did the best I could with what I had and disagreed with him when I could not honestly agree."

Just as a trivial example consider sheep. In chumash and the rest everyone has sheep. Avraham had sheep. So did Isaac and Jacob. David was a shepherd. By the time we get to the codification of the Talmud the center of Jewish intellectual life was in Babylon. That part of the world is cow-loving. Where cows are loved, sheep are hated. All of a sudden shepherds are low, venal, crude and worthy of contempt. But "shepherds ben Avraham" are fine. The arguments are unconvincing. I can't honestly accept them when a more parsimonious one works better.

Connected to this is the over-reliance on tradition. Tradition is important. Shared values and customs are the glue that hold a community together especially in times of oppression or diaspora. It's quite another thing to say that because it was done before a tradition is binding in the same way that Divine Law is binding. The comfort of the familiar is seductive. It makes a person feel psychically safe. The danger is that it will become autogenic and that a person will follow it because it is familiar, not necessarily because it reflects G-d's will. When you raise a human tradition to the level of G-d's Law you come dangerously close to deifying your habits. Arguments like "The Sages were closer to Sinai, so whatever they did is more proper" or "We don't want to be like the Gentiles, so any particular thing we used to do to distinguish ourselves is a religious duty" seem intellectually bankrupt and self-serving at my level of understanding.

One of the most egregious examples is the division of Jews into Ashkenazim (North, Central and Eastern European) and Sephardim (everyone else from Italy to Indonesia). Such and such is required for Sephardic Jews but forbidden to Ashkenazim. Ashkenazim may do that. Sephardim should consult their rabbi. There were no Sephardim and Ashkenazim at Sinai or during the time of the Temple. It's a later historical development, and it has permanently divided the single Jewish people into two increasingly divergent tribes. It reaches its nadir in the treatment of the Ethiopian Jews. Bet Yisrael as theycall themselves have been Jews since Biblical times. They have the same Torah as Jews everywhere else. They have somewhat different Oral Traditions, no rabbis and customs that seem strange to outsiders. A reasonable person would say "You have what you have and have done your best to keep G-d's Covenant. We went a different way doing the same thing in a different time and place." Not so. First they were told that they weren't really Jews and would have to convert to be accepted. Then, when the Israeli Rabbinate nearly went into schism it was agreed that they were Jews. But the scholasticists and deifiers of tradition then said "Their religion isn't Judaism because it doesn't have the same history that ours does."

Today we have some better tools. It turns out that almost all Cohanim share a gene on the Y-chromosome. It's not surprising. Priesthood passes through the male line. A "family tradition that we were Cohanim" is good. The ability to check it out genetically may be better. Likewise, family tradition aside, if you're a Cohen or Levite and have the genetic markers to support it shouldn't that be considered? Oral family records are unreliable. At the most basic level a mother is a fact while a father is an opinion.

Next comes what I refer to as the Sheri Tepper syndrome or excessive information hygiene. The rabbis speak of building a fence around the Torah. It can mean many things such as defending the Torah from corruption or making sure that knowledge doesn't get lost. Most often we see it used to justify laws that are stricter, sometimes wildly stricter, than what Hashem dictated in order to avoid error. What seems to be lost is that it is possible to go so far in that direction that you are further from the mark than those who are somewhat lax. Sherri Tepper parodied this logic in one of her last good books, Raising the Stones I believe. A commandment "Don't be sexist pigs" ends up after a few generations as "Don't eat anything with four legs" in a few logical steps.

Where does that leave us? The great Rabbis and Sages had to make the best they could with what they had. They were wise, and their words are a guide for the ages. But they were only human beings trying to make sense of the world. If we are to be honest and show moral courage we can't take the easy way out and say that they've answered it all, and it's heresy to ask inconvenient questions. We have to make the attempt ourselves to make our religion vital and come as close to the truth as we can. The attempt will fail. We are imperfect by design. But the virtue and the reward lie in the attempt.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Progressive Faith Blog Carnival: Misquoting Jesus

The Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - all place great importance and hang a good bit of their legitimacy on sacred Books. In fact the youngest of these refers to their adherents as "People of the Book". Whether it's the Quran, the Gospels or the Torah the faithful look to their texts for guidance, validation and G-d's words. The question that comes immediately to mind is "How do you know your Book is accurate?" Let's leave aside the arguments that insult one's intelligence like "The Book is true because it says so right in the Book", supposed codes that are almost certainly applications of the law of large numbers and that classic of theological persuasion "Believe or I will kill you, you blaspheming heretic." Where do the books come from? How do we know they are accurate?

We've bought most of our books at Amazon for some years now. Their cluster-analysis software has gotten terrifyingly good at predicting what we will enjoy, so just a couple months ago I was surprised to see Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why on our recommendation list. I'm not a Christian. The Gospels and the letters of Paul are of no interest to me. But I had enjoyed the Nag Hammadi texts and some of the non-canonical Gospels such as Thomas and Mary Magdalene. My next thought was that it was the latest in a long line of ill-tempered rants about the Christian Bible. But the price was attractive, and it was paired with something else I was interested in, so a copy was soon on its way from Nevada to Oregon.

Dr. Ehrman has impressive academic credentials - doctorate from Princeton and currently chair of Religious Studies at UNC Chapel Hill. But he's not just a liberal scholar with no real religious background. He was Born Again in high school and attended Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton. His criticisms of his faith and its underpinnings are reluctant. His enthusiasm is obvious. Textual criticism is one of the driest possible subjects. His passion for the subject is infectious.

Misquoting Jesus addresses a number of important areas. First, there is the formation of the Christian canon. This has been dealt with in detail elsewhere, but he goes over it lightly - church letters and their significance, martyrologies, apologetics, tracts, acts of the apostles, apocalypses and important attempts at formalizing the canon such as Marcion's. Much is made of the fact that the original manuscripts have been lost and had, in fact been lost for decades when the earliest Christian Bibles were first put on paper.

A large portion of the book is devoted to copying and copyists. We think of a book as being published in editions each of which is a letter-perfect replica of all the others. I was amazed at how false that turned out to be. In an age when literacy, defined so loosely as being able to recognize one's own name on paper, was at about 5% there were very few Christian scribes who could actually read and write. Accidental changes were common as were intentional alterations to fit the views of the copyist. In fact, the earlier the manuscript the worse the errors and the more the editorial changes. A long piece on the history of textual criticism of the Christian Bible points out that the discrepancies run into the tens of thousands and that is impossible to honestly say what the "original" text said. A number of important passages are shown to be of questionable provenance either through error or deliberate adulteration to support the copyist's beliefs.

So what's the point here? Is it just an attempt to pull down Christianity? I would say not. The easy certainties are always casualties of the search for truth. Biblical scholarship is no exception. The author makes the point forcefully and repeatedly that the authors of the Christian Bible were trying to make sense out of the world. They had texts of varying reliability. There was doctrine. There was argument about doctrine. Somehow what they believed had to be reconciled with the words of the Divine. Thus we have four very different views of Jesus, passages corrected to accord with what the writer knew in his heart to be true, alterations to emphasize or support the wholly Divine Jesus versus the half-Divine or the Adopted Jesus and many others. The Bible has to be seen as a collection of documents coming out of a living tradition, a very human collection that must be viewed more as an exploration than a destination.

On a deeper level, these scribes and copyists, secretaries, monks and apologists were trying to do something which is ultimately impossible. They were trying to take a picture of G-d, to encompass and put a form around that which is by nature beyond human comprehension. We have to do this since human minds are all we have to work with. The effort will fail. It is still important to try.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Revisiting old topics: Portland Barbecue and the Geography of the Burrito

Long ago I wrote about barbecue in Portland and promised to talk about burritos. I'm finally getting around to it, and it's an interesting story.

One of the first things immigrants do is find ways to make money. A classic one is to sell food. It might be scraping together the money to buy a 7-11 franchise or open a grocery store. Those with more hope than is realistic open restaurants. As near as I can tell they fail more often than anything except martial arts schools.

Now, Portland is a strange city. By most measures it is the most integrated US city for Asians and the most segregated for African-Americans. I can't prove it, but I'm pretty sure it's responsible for the concentration of barbecue and Southern cooking in our part of town and the ubiquity of Pho, Thai food, Bento, Sushi and bad Chinese everywhere else.

Of course, there are still concentrations of Asian communities here. The Hollywood district has a lot of Vietnamese businesses. There is still a mile or two of really scary Chinese restaurants out on SE 82nd, recently joined by the equally dodgy Hung Far Low (I swear to G-d I'm not making that name up)that used to be downtown. But on the whole, Asian food has spread all over the city. I particularly welcome the opening of the Malay Satay Hut in the Fubon Pan-Asian shopping center and supermarket on 82nd.

What does this have to do with burritos? More than you would think.

Fifteen years ago there really wasn't much Mexican food in Portland. Taco Bell doesn't count. With one or two notable exceptions (Lil Mexico, La Caretta, etc.) the only good Mexican food was out in Hillsboro where there were many Hispanic farm workers.

Over the intervening years we've seen places start to pop up. When contractors started hiring large numbers of Latin Americans we started to notice lunch carts switch from stereotypically American food to tacos and burritos. Some neighborhoods began to sprout taquerias: St. John's, Alberta, and others. They were followed or accompanied by ethnic specialty shops, bakeries, Spanish-language video stores and everything else you'd expect. Meanwhile several of the late and unlamented taco y burrito gringo joints have gone under, pushed out by better and more authentic vendors.

Infernal Snowball Fight to Follow Porcine Landing Maneuvers

Years back QWEST took over our phone company US West. Their slogan was "US West is now QWEST!" to which many of us replied "And still sucks!" When Speakeasy started offering VOIP we signed up right away. And I had started the process of dropping QWEST altogether. Nothing could convince me to stick with QWEST, its customer "service" and hidden costs.

That all changed today.

Some of you may have been raised in a bell jar and have only recently been released. I'll bring you up to speed. The President has decided without any law being passed, any Court decisions made or even the sneering formality of a signing statement that he can spy on any communication between Americans in this country. No probable cause. No ongoing investigation. No court order. He just can. The separation of powers doesn't apply to what Attorney General Gonzales calls "The Unitary Executive".

Bush has been exercising this newly created power by sending the NSA on a massive fishing expedition. The phone calls of tens of millions of Americans have been intercepted, analyzed and stored in the NSA's databases. These are not people who are suspected of terrorism. They are just innocent people caught up in the largest invasion of privacy this country has ever experienced.

All of the big telcos except one rolled over and gave the President what he demanded. QWEST was the lone holdout. They refused to hand over their records without proper warrants out of concern for their customers' privacy. For that alone they deserve our support. We'll keep the VOIP for extended long distance calls. We'll still grumble about our phone bill. But we'll be sticking with QWEST. They came through when it mattered and when nobody else had the courage to stand up to Big Brother.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

News That Scares the Bright Green Piss Out of Me

It seems that Halliburton is quietly building detention camps against some unspecified "immigration emergency". Leave aside, for a moment, that it's Dick Cheney's company which got the no-bid contract. Again. Anyone with even the vaguest notions of US and European history who loves liberty should be terrified and outraged. Haliburton, or more properly its subsidiary KBR, also built Camp Gitmo. Gitmo has fallen off the national consciousness lately. We have the collective attention span of a Yorkshire Terrier with profound ADD. But for those who remember, we are holding a bunch of people there without trial, counsel or access to any of the legal and humanitarian rights extended to convicts, suspects or prisoners of war. An analysis taken entirely from DoD documents shows that fewer than half of the detainees still there are suspected of doing anything violent against the US. Only about 8% are Al Qaeda or Taliban fighters.

Meanwhile, Alberto Gonzales is putting forward the unique legal theory that there can be no limits on presidential power. As long as the president says the magic incantation "security" his word can not even be questioned. This is bad enough when it's about warrantless wiretaps that are against laws we passed in the 1970s to combat proven abuses. Even worse, we have a government that issues lettres de cachet and approves of torture without even the figleaf of judicial oversight.

What makes it worse is that the Administration is beginning to float the idea of killing at Presidential whim. This isn't in some fringe publication. It's not a Loompanics book. We're talking about that squarest of establishment publications Newsweek. The "purely academic" discussion is about the idea that the President should have the unaccountable and unanswered power to order extra-judicial killings of those he deems enemies of the State on US soil.

How would those enemies be found? Remember "Total Information Awareness" that became "Terrorist Information Awareness"? It's been reborn as Analysis, Dissemination, Visualization, Insight, and Semantic Enhancement (ADVISE). The plan is for routine, massive electronic surveillance of everyone's communications, data-mining corporate and government databases and other unspecified technological driftnets.

The London Times reports that the CIA's head of counter-terrorism was sacked for not beings sufficiently enthusiastic about torture such as that which will occur in Morrocco's new American-built secret prison.

We can, at least take some solace in the fact that the Administration will end in 2009. At least, that's the theory. The Huffington Post has a news of a disturbing Freudian slip on the part of the White House. Even more disturbing is a bill introduced in the House to repeal the 22nd Ammendment.

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