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.