Wednesday, April 30, 2008

What side of the brain are you reading this on?

I listened to two speeches by The Reverend (which used to be the correct title – the former adjective is now a proper noun) Jeremiah Wright this week. I thought he was a good speaker, except when he sang. But, admittedly, I am almost always bored when speakers sing. To me, but apparently not many others, he is a somewhat entertaining distraction from the election and the issues. On the other hand, I really don’t care if he is ever mentioned again. And I certainly could care less if Obama has seven friends like him. Wouldn’t it be terrible if one of your friends couldn’t get elected because of some of your idiotic beliefs.

In fact, most people, maybe all people, believe and say ridiculous things all the time, including Plato, who defined a man as a biped without feathers, and I, on the other extreme, who has labored to convince people that that the discovery of an economic method of growing square peas will save the economy. Politics, particularly partisan politics, makes us exaggerate the importance of the stupid things political enemies say. If there wasn't a political penalty for admitting it was a stupid thing to say, more politicians would admit their mistakes.

I do NOT believe that just because a peace advocate, which is what Wright intends to be, says “God damn, America,” and believes the government is capable of great evils, that he hates Americans or can’t be patriotic. Frankly, many Americans (and our friends around the world) feel much like Wright despite Obama's statement that all Americans are offended by what he says. Personally, I am disappointed that Obama has now totally discredited his former pastor, who was probably hurt when his friend and "family member" denounced what he believed in and has preached openly for years.

Although it is obvious Obama takes this route under tremendous political pressure (much like McCain sidling up to the religious right and all the candidates being against gay marriage) I would have been more impressed if he showed some personal loyalty to someone as close to him as Wright was, however nutty he might be to most of us, particularly as Wright had done nothing to Obama, but only defended himself from personal attack. It is the Clintons who we are told are so ambitious all the time, but, obviously, it is just a political thing, to which even the saint-like Obama is susceptible. I much preferred his original approach and do not accept the refrain that by defending or promoting himself, Wright has now attacked Obama.

Of course, as I have also already said in an earlier post in this almost unbearably riveting blog, Wright will be Obama’s undoing one way or another either during the primaries or the general election. Many people don’t feel as tepid as I do about Wright's anti-American (government) statements, and the partisan opportunities are too good for Obama's opponents to ignore, and much too good for ratings for the media not to play over and over. Of course, they, our own collective media imbeciles, are so in love with Obama, many continue to pronounce that this has all passed now that Obama has "thrown Wright under the bus". Nope.

Four paragraphs into this and I still did not come to my point. Here it is. I am stunned, just stunned, that some in our supposedly intelligent media, while noting that Wright has hurt Obama politically, actually say he makes sense when he talks about black children learning on the right side of their brains and white kids on their left. Are you kidding me? For those who will rely on pseudo-science to support him -- there is absolutely no scientific evidence which would support such a statement. And I once did a whole coloring book on the brain, so I should know.

While scientists have taught us that the left and right side of the brain have somewhat different functions, it is not so simple as thinking of them as separate compartments in which some people learn in one box and other people in the other one. Different attributes are associated with different parts of the brain like the medulla oblongata (motor stuff) and Broca’s area (language, comprehension). Let me repeat for the hard of thinking, yes, there are two parts of the brain, but blacks and whites don’t learn on different sides of it. Wasn't there a sport's commentator a few years ago whose career was ended just because he opined that black's muscles twitch faster than white's.

Here’s Wright’s basis for his theory: Black children come from a culture where African griots memorized long histories and stories. So what? How many black people have you met who were trained as griots. I know there are a few griots left in the world because I looked it up. But, are not black children in American and European schools learning from the same methods as white kids – generally watching the same television shows and movies; playing the same video games? How many black kids in America does Wright think learned from griots? How many of there parents or grandparents learned from them? Or great grandparents, for that matter. My guess, with little fear of contradiction – it is pretty close to zero, if not exactly zero. Does he believe in hereditary learning? Does our media?

Is Wright not aware that there is a black man now running for president who went to Harvard Law School and seems to take to logic and math just fine? Or, does he think he was capable of doing so only because he is half white and could learn on both sides of his brain? That’s where his logic leads. Does he not realize that same man was actually the son of an African (unlike most blacks in this country) and was raised for a few years in an Asian country and yet was a tip top student in Western schools? If you don’t know who I am talking about, stop reading and watch cable news for a few weeks.

Does Wright not realize that the Western world has a history of bards who memorized long passages too. Ever hear of Homer, or traveling minstrels? Ever see a concert orchestra play a several hour long piece? What about all of the Muslim students who memorized the Koran? Are they incapable of learning in Western schools? As a Hispanic commenter on a blog said this week (I’m paraphrasing) – “I am Hispanic – what side of the brain do I learn on?” Does Wright not realize that not all black’s ancestors came from places in Africa that had griots? Does he not realize how many Africans in West Africa live in cities these days, not in villages without any schools.

This is why blacks, he says, can memorize rap lyrics – they are learning on another side of their brains. How would he explain the fact that many white people can also recite the words from dozens of songs, including rap. It is just what they are interested in and motivated to learn – nothing more.

He also says that blacks have a different rhythm than whites. I was a little stunned when he was imitating a black marching band as if they had vaguely simian qualities. I am not denying that different forms of music have different beats. But black people are perfectly capable of performing Western music and excelling at it and whites are perfectly capable of playing jazz and blues as well as blacks, regardless of Wright’s suggestion to the contrary. It has nothing to do with what side of the brain they are learning on.

Can you imagine, can you imagine, can you just imagine, if John McCain or Hillary Clinton or any white politician dared say that black kids learn on a different side of their brain than whites, and that is why they don’t do as well in school? Everyone would be screaming racism. Can you imagine if John McCain imitated a black marching band by crouching down and swaying as if he were an ape? I shudder to think about it. Yet, somehow, some of the same people who condemn the authors of The Bell Curve for racism (I'm not getting into that here -- but read the book before you condemn it thus) swallow these silly comments whole as if Wright had just spent a year doing neurological research.

Wright’s message is just horrible for blacks struggling with the educational system. It is a pretty rare specimen these days who doesn’t believe that the way blacks were treated in this country for centuries was horrific right up into our life times. There is still a need for better education opportunities for many of them, particularly in primary and secondary schools (certainly not all and obviously, not Barack or his wife). And, I am sympathetic with Wright’s message that we have to look at differences in cultures and people and understand that because it is not the same as we do it is necessarily worse. BUT THAT DOESN NOT MEAN THAT EVERYTHING IS OF THE SAME VALUE. This is the same as the relativistic argument that all wrongs are equal (stealing a pen is the same as killing someone to steal their pen). It is a mistake to say that because we all have different accents that there is not a range of proper speech that will permit people of all races to better succeed in school and work. Yet, Wright would hold otherwise. Even his specifics lack a factual background. Yes, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson had strong accents, but there accents on vowels did not mean they spoke ungrammatically or idiotically. In fact, if you listen to the speeches that he makes fun of, they were perfectly understandable (he would have done better picking on our current president's syntax.

Television and movies are now filled with black men and women who speak excellent English, are highly educated and are getting an opportunity to show it. They are good role models. Barack Obama and his wife are perfect examples. Black journalists are another. But, ministers telling parents of a child who isn’t learning or can’t sit in a chair that he or she is doing fine, that he or she is just different or speaking some type racially diverse English, is generally helping doom that child in terms of education and earning a living.

We love celebrities as a people, and the media has now made one of Wright. Remember, the press also made Paris Hilton famous, so there really are no limits to how talentless or generally nonsensical a person can be and still stay in the limelight. Wright can now go on talk shows and have people take his silly remarks seriously. Chris Matthews will likely interview him someday with the same seeming infatuation he has for Al Sharpton, who appears quite rationale compared to Wright (sorry, Chris has disappointed me lately and I just felt like taking a mild shot at him). I am not even going into Wright’s theories about AIDS and why terrorists attack us. His educational theories are enough to make my point.

Sometime this year Wright will come out with a book, or maybe more than one. Although he has done very well, he might make more money in one year than he did in many an earlier one thanks to the publicity from his (former) friend running for president and his own wacky imagination. Had he been unoffensive and mild, he would not be known to us today.

Whenver you comment on race, there are those people who will quickly condemn you as a racist, which is a far worse insult in my mind, than someone hurling swear words at you. To some, I would be considered a racist although I believe there is at least no substantial difference in learning ability between what we call races (however possible some such differences might be among groups of people with different genetic backgrounds), and Wright, who thinks that black kids can’t succeed because they are being taught on the wrong side of their brains (if we could only bring back the griots) would likely not be considered a racist by those some people.

There is only so much energy we should spend listening to people who spout nonsense, unless we are just entertained by them. Discussing Wright yesterday with a relative, I was not surprised to hear him say that even if what Wright said was not true in my mind, he was stating a “different truth”. Unfortunately, this wisdom is all too commonly overused these days.

I mean, doesn’t there have to be at least just a little “truth” in the truth?

Monday, April 28, 2008

The curious case of John Bellingham

If you have ever fantasized when waiting on some company's voice mail and want to beat the computerized voice to death with a baseball bat you will understand what drove the subject of this post crazy when he felt he could not get government to listen to him. Although I cannot advocate his solution, the story reminds me of what a lawyer friend said to me some years ago – "One thing this business teaches you is how close to the edge so many people live." So, listen to the tale of an Englishman who fought the good fight (but was unfortunately nuts at the time).

John Bellingham was an English merchant from Liverpool in 1804, the same year that saw Burr shoot Hamilton, Jefferson win his second presidential election, Napoleon declared Emperor and Lewis and Clark take off for the Pacific coast. Bellingham went to Russia on business and after completing his work was about to depart from Archangel, the great northern Russian port, when a Russian ship called the Soleure was lost at sea. It had been insured at Lloyds, the British insurance exchange, which, unfortunately for Mr. Bellingham, refused to pay. For reasons which are probably lost to time, the Russians grabbed him as he was leaving and threw him into prison.

He contacted the British consul at Archangel who contacted the Ambassador, Lord Gower. Gower applied to Archangel’s military governor, who had ordered the imprisonment, but, as the governor claimed that Mr. Bellingham was being held for “legal cause” and had acted “in an indecorous manner,” Lord Gower politely stepped aside. For years poor Bellingham tried to get his country’s representatives to ask the Emperor to investigate on his behalf:

“[A]fter being banded from prison to prison, and from dungeon to dungeon, fed on bread and water, treated with the utmost cruelty, and frequently marched through the streets under a military guard with felons and criminals of the most atrocious description, even before the residence of the British Minister, who might view from his window, this degrading severity towards a British subject who had committed no crime to the disgrace and insult of the British nation” he was finally able to have a trial brought through the Russian system and obtained a judgment in his favor.

It was not as good as it sounded though, for he was thrown back into jail, and 2000 rubles was demanded of him to satisfy a bankrupt Russian merchant who claimed Bellingham owed him a debt. He refused to pay, as he was certain he did not owe the money, and was declared a bankrupt, the penalty for which was more jail.

The rule in Russia was that when a foreigner was declared to be bankrupt, creditors were given time to make their claims (the same is true here and now except they don’t hold you in prison).

After 3 months, no claims were made against him, but still he was held, and still Lord Gower remained silent. Although Bellingham later claimed that he could have paid, he preferred remaining in jail to paying what he insisted was a completely unfair penalty. When the Marquis of Douglas came to Russia Bellingham was able to make contact with him and asked only that the Russians be required to prove the debt.

The Marquis went to bat for him, but he was still required to pay the 2000 rubles and, worse as far as Bellingham was concerned, acknowledge the justice of the sentence against him. However, he learned that if he did so, he would be deemed to have previously lied to the authorities and would be sent to Siberia. At least, it was what he was led to believe.

While he was going through this, his twenty year old pregnant wife and baby, waited at the capital, St. Petersburg, and were finally forced to travel on home alone and likely greatly depressed. For six years Bellingham suffered while the British ministry continued to refuse him help. Certainly, this is how he perceived it, although he acknowledged that the Marquis of Douglas gave it a shot and that the ambassador had, at least, initially made an effort. It particularly galled him that another British merchant had his paltry case brought to the Emperor’s attention four times in a month, while his was never heard for six years. Finally, in 1809 the Russian Senate discharged him one midnight and he was ordered to leave the country, which I’m sure he was all too happy to do.

When he got home, he went to work trying to get "redress" from the British government for his troubles. He believed that for him to have been held all that time, his imprisonment had to have been sanctioned by the British minister. No surprise, he was passed about from one John Bull department to the next. He even applied to the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, who, given that the Napoleanic Wars were ongoing, and that Britain was on the brink of war with America, might have been a little too busy for Mr. Bellingham’s problems.

In the meantime, Bellingham’s friends at home in Liverpoolm and in London, where he spent 1812 trying to collect the debt he was sure he was going to get, realized that he had become completely unhinged whenever he spoke about the subject. He even went so far as to bring his wife and friend to an official’s home, whom he had told them would confirm that the government was going to finally pay him quite a bit of money. However, the official calmly told them all that it was never going to happen.

Eventually, in April, 1812, he wrote to police magistrates:

"SIRS, I much regret it being my lot to apply to your Worships under most peculiar and novel circumstances . . . . The affair requires no further remark, than that I consider his Majesty's Government to have completely closed the door of justice, in declining to have or even permit my grievances to be brought before Parliament for redress, which privilege is the birth-right of every individual. The purport of the present, is, therefore once more to solicit his Majesty's Ministers, through your medium, to let what is right and proper be done in my instance, which is all I require. Should this reasonable request be finally denied, I shall then feel myself justified in executing justice myself, in which case I shall be ready to argue the merits of so reluctant a measure with his Majesty's Attorney General, wherever and whenever I may be called upon so to do; in the hopes of averting so abhorrent but compulsive an alternative . . . [y]our very humble and obedient Servant. JOHN BELLINGHAM."

He received answers to that "threat", including one from the department of Treasury informing him that he “had nothing to expect, and . . . was at liberty to take such steps as [he] thought fit.” Perhaps a bad choice of words.

In late April he sought out the services of a local tailor to make a special addition to his suit and began frequenting the gallery of the House of Commons. He was then living at the home of one Mrs. Roberts. Although he rarely dined with the family, he was well respected by them, and attended church with his landlady. The family servant, Catherine Figgins, thought he often seemed confused but was remarkably regular in his habits. On May 12th, after a dispute with a washer woman over a dressing gown, he went out, returning around noon to accompany Mrs. Roberts and her son to a museum. He did not return home with them. Other plans, it seems.

At about 5:00 or a little thereafter he was waiting in the lobby of the House of Commons when the prime minister, Mr. Spencer Perceval himself, came through the lobby. There were less than twenty people present at the time.

In spite of the presence of officers, one right near him, Bellingham removed a pistol from the inside pouch he had had the tailor sew into his jacket and put a ball through the chest of the prime minister. It entered his chest and angled towards, perhaps into, his heart.

Perceval ran forward a few steps, looking, in one witness’s opinion, more like the culprit trying to escape than the victim, tried to say "murder" and fell forward on his face. He did not stir.  Mr. William Smith was in the lobby and had heard the shot (no one who later testified had actually seen the shot) and another man tried to raise him up and realized who it was. They took him into a secretary's (undoubtedly a man) office and put him up on a table. His eyes were open and for a few minutes he “convulsively sobbed.”  Dr. William Lynn came in and inspected him, probed the wound (always a bad idea, but that is what they did in those days) and took his pulse. Dead as Bellingham's chances of recompense.

While the PM was being whisked away, a solicitor, Henry Burgess, saw Bellingham sitting on a bench, apparently greatly agitated. Lt. General Isaac Burgoyne, who had been waiting for Perceval, rushed into the room after hearing the shot and was told Bellingham had fired it. He knew Bellingham by sight and rushed up to him. Thinking Bellingham was going to kill himself he pressed his hand down while Burgess took the pistol from his hand. The gun was still warm.

Burgess asked Bellingham why he did it. “Redress of grievances and refusal by the government” or similar words, Burgess later recalled. “I said, you have another pistol in your pocket; he replied, yes; I asked him if it was loaded; he said, yes . . . .” Burgoyne searched him and pulled, among papers and other things, a matching pistol from his pocket. He handed the papers to another member of the house, and, as some others were trying to pull the culprit away, told Bellingham he would not escape him.

Bellingham was completely calm at that point and once again irrepressibly British. He complained of being roughly handled, admitting that he had fired the shot but noting that he had submitted. He was taken into another room and quickly examined. He not only admitted his acts, but cordially noted the slight mistakes made by the witnesses when they were examined in his presence as if he were trying to help the poor excited sods out and unconcerned about his own defence.

Trial came only the next week. After the initial evidence from prosecution witnesses, Bellingham was given a chance to testify and put on a defence. He began to do so by thanking the attorney general for objecting to the defense his friends and counsel put up of insanity on his behalf. At the same time, he also thanked his friends for claiming that he was insane.

His manner was both dignified and humble, displaying the sang froid for which the British were known. He was also quite crazy – let’s listen to him at trial:

“Gentlemen, I beg pardon. This is the first time I ever was in public in this kind of way, and you I am sure will look at the substance of what I say more than the manner of my offering it.

As to the lamentable catastrophe for which I am now on my trial before this court, if I am the man that I am supposed to be, to go and deliberately shoot Mr. Perceval without malice, I should consider myself a monster, and not fit to live in this world or the next. The learned Attorney General has candidly stated to you, that till this fatal time of this catastrophe, which I heartily regret, no man more so, not even one of the family of Mr. Perceval. I had no personal or premeditated malice towards that gentleman; the unfortunate lot had fallen upon him as the leading member of that administration which had repeatedly refused me any reparation for the unparalled injuries I had sustained in Russia for eight years with the cognizance and sanction of the minister of the country at the court of St. Petersburg.

. . . . No man, I am sure, laments the calamitous event more than I do. If I had met Lord Gower he would have received the ball, and not Mr. Perceval. As to death, if it were to be suffered five hundred times, I should prefer it to the injuries and indignities which I have experienced in Russia, I should consider it as the wearied traveller does the inn which affords him an asylum for repose, but government, in the injustice they have done me, were infinitely more criminal than the wretch, who, for depriving the traveller of a few shillings on the highway, forfeits his life to the law. What is the comparison of this man's offence to government? or, gentlemen, what is my crime to the crime of government itself? It is no more than a mite to a mountain, unless it was proved that I had malice propense towards the unfortunate gentleman for whose death I am now upon my trial. I disclaim all personal or intentional malice against Mr. Perceval.”


After Bellingham finished and had given the version of events in Russia which I summarized above, a few female friends, and even the servant of Mrs. Roberts (who had claimed to be to ill to testify herself) tried to paint a picture of derangement on Bellingham’s part.

There was also a strange interlude, where Bellingham’s lawyer asked the door-keeper to see if witnesses from Liverpool had arrived. They had, in fact, just arrived – two of them. They were shown in, took one look at Bellingham, and said, basically, "Oops, wrong crazy person. Never mind."

Lord Chief Justice Mansfield presented the case to the jury in a fashion that would be out of place in American courts, marshalling the evidence and giving his spin on it. It would not be accurate to say that he was impartial. During his opening sentence he burst into tears, squeezed out another clause or so, and then burst into tears again, leading a good part of the courtroom in doing so.

He then gave a tribute of the deceased to the jury stating that for “a man so dear, and so revered as that of Mr. Spencer Perceval, I find it difficult to suppress my feelings.” Of course, not wanting to prejudice the jury, he kindly point out that to them that “to say any thing of the distinguished talents and virtues of that excellent man, might tend to excite improper emotions in the minds of the jury, but would with-hold these feelings which pressed for utterance from my heart, and leave you, gentlemen, to form your judgment upon the evidence which has been adduced in support of the case, undressed by any unfair indignation which you might feel against his murderer, by any description, however faint, of the excellent qualities of the deceased.” Such passes for fairness when you shoot the most important person in the country.

The jury was out a little more than 15 minutes and came back, according to the reporter, with their verdict written on their faces. Bellingham, entirely confident in his acquittal, was stunned to hear himself pronounced "Guilty" and was unable to respond when asked why he should not be sentenced to die.

The sentence, pronounced by the court recorder, ended in traditional fashion:
"That you be taken from hence to the place from whence you came, and from thence to a place of execution, where you shall be hanged by the neck until you be dead; your body to be dissected and anatomized."

Perceval was assassinated many years before anyone tried it on any American president, nearly a half century before anyone succeeded, but he was also the first and last British prime minister killed in this manner, while four American presidents have been done away with, one in fact, Garfield, under relatively similar circumstances to those here (killed by a crazy, disappoined office seeker).

Unlike the unsuccessful parliamentary bomber Guy Fawkes, Bellingham did not get a holiday named after him. However, his ridiculously dignified demeanor and the rather strange trial makes this story read like an Oscar Wilde satire. And that's enough to make these pages.

Is there a moral to this story? How about -- Don't let them get to you, because when they do -- they'll kill you.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Trivia

I know I just did a trivia post two weeks ago, but these are some of my personal favorite trivia questions. Now I have it out of my system. Answers below.

1. How many states have a point further north than the southernmost point of Canada?

2. Not counting islands, which two states are physically split into two parts?

3. It is common knowledge that Greenland is the largest island (not counting the continent Australia). What are numbers two and three?

4) What is the easternmost state?

5) What is the most popular religion in South Korea?

6) Who is the only president with the first name Stephen?

7) Which vice president of the United States was also a member of the Confederate cabinet and rebel general?

8) How far is the nearest star from us?

9) The highest rated single television episode is still . . . .?

10) By far, the country with the highest per capita GNP in the world is . . . ?

11) Which states (there are three) touch the most other states?

12) When did the Supreme Court of the United States determine that it was illegal for a state to forbid racial intermarriage?

13) How many of our presidents went to school at either Harvard or Yale (or both)?

14) Which was the last president and vice president team of which neither was elected?

15) Two tiny independent states are found within the boundaries of the country of Italy. What are they?

16) Which of our presidents survived assassination attempts?

17) Leaving aside the Adamses and Bushes (father/son) and the Harrisons (grandfather/grandson), the Roosevelts are usually reported as the next closest relations among presidents, but they were only fifth cousins. Which two were second cousins?

18) How many states have less people than New York City?

19) What was Clarence’s last name in It’s a Wonderful Life?

20) Jackie Gleason’s real first name was?

21) How do you get to Neverland?

22) When was the Declaration of Independence not signed?

23) Which planet has a moon bigger than two planets?

24) A flock of crows is called a . . . ?

25) At least proverbially, Wild Bill Hickock was killed while holding what poker hand?

26) During WWII UFOs were known to the Allies as . . . ?

27) What was the name of the little girl who was Magilla Gorilla’s friend?

28) John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4th, 1826, considered an extraordinary coincidence. But another president died on the Fourth of July too, in another year. Who was it?

29) Who served the longest as either president, vice president or both?

30) Indians who lived in Tallahassee (“Old Town”), Florida were relocated west and gave their new residence a corrupted form of the same name, which we know as what present day city?

31) Joe Louis lost only three times, twice at the end of his career when he was in his late thirties, and once, famously, in his prime, to Max Schmeling, which he revenged. But he was also knocked out of the ring in his prime by the brother of a more famous fighter. Who was it?

32) Who was the five time presidential candidate who won 3.4% of the popular vote from prison?

33) If Barack Hussein Obama becomes president, he will be the second, not the first, to have to have a middle eastern name. Who was the first?

1) Twenty-six. Believe it. I personally counted them.
2) Michigan and Virginia.
3) New Guinea and Borneo.
4) Alaska. The Aleutian Islands stretch to the westernmost part and over into the easternmost part. Near the poles, longitude lines are close together. It is also the westernmost, and, of course, northernmost state.
5) Neither Buddhism or Shinto. It’s Christianity and it arrived there in the late 1700s.
6) Stephen Grover Cleveland.
7) John C. Breckenridge (Buchanan’s VP) was Jefferson Davis’ Secretary of War.
8) About 4.3 light years or 25,260,787,199,705,600 miles (don’t check my math please). Actually, Alpha Centauri is three stars in a system, but who cares?
9) The final episode of M.A.S.H. (1983).
10) Itsy bitsy Luxembourg.
11) Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri, all which touch each other.
12) Hard to believe, but not until 1967.
13) Ten of them – almost 1 in 4.
14) Gerald Ford and Nelson Rockefeller from 1973-1977.
15) One is pretty easy, Vatican City, but the second, is the oldest surviving constitutional republic in the world – San Marino – and under 40 square miles.
16) Jackson, T. Roosevelt, FDR, Truman, Ford, Reagan.
17) James Madison and Zachary Taylor.
18) 39 of 50 of them.
19) Oddbody.
20) Herbert.
21) Second (star) to the right and straight on till morning.
22) It is arguable when it was signed, and it was on different days by different signers (some not even there when it passed), but definitely not on July 4th. It wasn’t ready to be signed yet.
23) Jupiter. The moon is Ganymede. And don’t tell me Pluto isn’t a planet.
24) A “murder”.
25) A pair of aces and a pair of 8s – a dead man’s hand.
26) Foo fighters. It was thought they were Japanese secret weapons. We still don’t know what they were.
27) Oh Gee.
28) James Monroe in 1831, five years after the other two.
29) Surprisingly, Richard M. Nixon, who resigned about 2 ½ years into his second term as president, and two earlier terms as VP has the most time in. FDR was elected four times but died in his fourth month after inaugurated the last time. No one else has been elected four times.
30) Tulsa (originally “Tulsey Town”), Oklahoma.
31) Max Baer’s huge brother, Buddy (6’ 6” 230-250), was also an excellent fighter who fought Louis for the championship twice. Although Louis beat him both times, the first time the big man knocked him right out of the ring.
32) Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs was imprisoned for making speeches during WWI which were found to have encouraged resistance to the draft. Warren Harding, who won the election, commuted the sentence after more than 2 ½ years served.
33) Warren Gamaliel Harding. Gamaliel means benefit (or reward or recompense) of God.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Longstreet at Gettysburg

In my travels, I have experienced few other places as historically sublime as Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. One that comes to mind was an hour or so spent on the uninhabited island of Delos where Greek myth has the god, Apollo, and usually his twin sister, Artemis, being born. The island has been left undeveloped with many of the ancient ruins intact, and, if you move off by yourself away from the tourist throng, which isn’t hard, your imagination and sense of connection to history soars. In a more modern setting, Gettysburg is much the same. You can easily find yourself transferred back nearly a century and a half, when a great war nearly destroyed the country, but ultimately, changed it for the better.

I have actually been twice to Gettysburg. The first trip was in some senses a disaster. Around 1996/7, I took my daughter, and my girlfriend’s family to Washington, D.C. It was so hot that I couldn’t blame them for not being hopped up to tour. On the way back I thought it might be interesting to stop at Gettysburg. After all, who would not want to spend some time at the site of America’s most important preserved battlefield? One grown woman and three small girls, that’s who.

At some point, with a good half hour left with our personal guide, I glanced into the back. You have never seen four more bored people in your entire life. I’m pretty sure if not for the pouring rain you would be able to hear their eyes rolling into the back of their little heads like marbles. Our guide, who obviously relished his job, was literally taken aback when I told him he had to cut it short. He even politely argued with me. I explained that I was afraid that some of them might just die from boredom back there, and besides, it was not a trip just for me, but for all of us. He gave in and we finished up quick.

About ten years later I returned with three couples (including frequent commenter, Bear) who were as delighted to be there as I was. We stayed right in the beautifully preserved town (only blighted by the hideous Holiday Inn, which was built before they put in appropriate zoning laws in the 70s --it should be torn down by a group of angry re-enactors). All of the men in our group were Civil War buffs, and, to my satisfaction (after my last experience), all of the women were interested too, if not as obsessive as the boys. We took a guided tour on our first day, and did our own tour the next. Frankly, I can't wait to go back.

There are dozens of descriptions of the battle online for you to read, and, if you haven't delved into it yet, many books that explain what happened in detail. Even easier, Gettysburg is one of the best made-for-television movies and acted in for free by a number of stars (e.g., Martin Sheen and Jeff Daniels). But, in short, and I mean short, the battle of Gettysburg occurred in the middle of the war (June/July 1863), when the South was still doing well. Lee was headed North with his armies through the Appalachian Mountains into Pennsylvania, determined to take the war to the enemy, when Union and Confederate troops began mixing it up at Gettysburg where six roads crossed. Lee could have moved on, or enticed the Union to attack him, but instead, he chose to agressively fight it out there. The battle lasted three days and had several deservedly famous moments. Finally, the South, severely depleted and outnumbered, retreated.

Unlike, most descriptions of Gettysburg you will read, this post concentrates on one General, James Longstreet, and his role in the great battle. As a mini-biography, Longstreet was born and raised in the deep South, a graduate of West Point (not too high either), was wounded in the Mexican-American war, and a soldier for the U.S. of A before seccession, after which he became a confederate general. He has been ranked everywhere from the best corp commander on either side in the war to the man responsible for the South losing at Gettysburg, to a great subordinate general but a weaker commanding general, to the slowest moving general in the South. It still strikes me strange that his second wife, Helen Dortch, born during the war (much younger than Longstreet) lived until 1962 when I was not only alive, but three years old. It puts into perspective that this really wasn't all that long ago.

Robert E. Lee was, of course, in command of the South’s Army of Northern Virginia. He had been Confederate President Davis’ military adviser and took over the Army of Northern Virginia when Gen. Joseph Johnston was injured in late Spring, 1862. After a number of successes (and one very notable loss at Antietam) his Waterloo occurred at Gettysburg 13 months after he took over. Many consider it a, if not the, turning point of the war.

During the run up to the battle Lee argued politely enough with some of his best generals, including Longstreet, whom he called his War-Horse, about the wisdom of fighting there. Longstreet thought it an extremely bad idea and candidly told Lee so. In fact, most of the generals, like Longstreet, were against the entire idea of invading the North with a large army. Lee's authority and the soldiers' confidenence in him was so great at the time, that it did not matter much what the rest of leading generals thought.

Years after the battle, after Lee was dead, some vanquished Southern officers tried to lay blame for the loss on Longstreet, who had made himself unpopular with them during Reconstruction by becoming a Republican and even working in the Grant administration. Yet, Grant and Longstreet were great friends before the war; Longstreet introduced Grant to his cousin, Julia, and was best man at the wedding. It was hardly fair, anyway, given Longstreet’s reluctance to fight at Gettysburg at all, although he was charged by some with showing up late for the fight. In his own memoirs, he goes step by step through the arguments made by one seemingly knowledgeable person in particular, Robert E. Lee’s nephew, Fitzhugh Lee.

Fitzhugh, a Southern general himself, claimed that his revered uncle told him before he died that he would have won at Gettysburg if he had had Stonewall Jackson with him there (Jackson had died earlier in the war). This was a slap in the face to Longstreet, who, if no Jackson (was anyone?), had certainly proved himself time and time again during the war. But, Longstreet didn’t deny that Lee might have said precisely that. Instead, he pointed out that Lee had had Jackson at Antietam, a “more awkward” situation than Gettysburg, and it hadn’t helped him there either.

Fitzhugh also said that Uncle Bobby told his father (Lee’s brother) that he had relied too much on his confidence in the fighting qualities of his men and “the assurances of his highest officers” at Gettysburg. That would, of course, include Longstreet, who replied in his memoirs that, in fact, none of the highest officers gave Lee these assurances, save one (General Jubal Early).

For Longstreet, the problem was manpower: “The army when it set out on the campaign was all that could be desired, (except that the arms were not all of the most approved pattern), but it was despoiled of two of its finest brigades . . . . The greatest number engaged at any one time was on the first day, when twenty-six thousand engaged twenty thousand of the First and part of the Eleventh Corps. . . . . On the third day about twelve thousand were engaged at daylight and until near noon, and in the afternoon fifteen thousand, -all of the work of the second and third days against an army of seventy thousand and more of veteran troops in strong position defended by field-works.”

In other words, if they had had a shot at the beginning, by the end they were completely outmanned and outgunned. “Forty thousand men, unsupported as we were, could not have carried the position at Gettysburg. The enemy was there. Officers and men knew their advantage, and were resolved to stay until the hills came down over them. It is simply out of the question for a lesser force to march over broad, open fields and carry a fortified front occupied by a greater force of seasoned troops.” He was talking about Pickett’s charge, perhaps second in fame tragic in fame to the famous charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in the Crimean War a few years earlier, which Tennyson had immortalized in poetry (“Theirs not to wonder why/Theirs but to do and die”).

One interesting and sometimes forgotten Civil War story involves the timidity in which Longstreet and his artillery chief, Col. Edward Porter Alexander (who, in some scholars’ opinions, wrote the best memoir of the war), subtly argued over who had to give the order for Pickett to begin the mile or so long infantry charge across field and fence against what would likely be relentless rifle and artillery fire. If not for results, it would have been a comical game of hot potato.

According to Colonel (later General) Alexander, Longstreet told him around that he would give a signal to him when Pickett was ready to go, and that Alexander, placed in a good spot, should then give the signal for Pickett to advance. This made it seemed like it was Longstreet’s call. But, while awaiting the signal, Alexander received a note from Longstreet. The note said that Longstreet would rely on his Alexander's judgment as to whether Pickett should proceed, based on whether or not the enemy was driven off or greatly demoralized by Alexander's artillery bombardment. Alexander had this note in his hand when he wrote about it nearly 40 years later.

This, he noted, gave him a responsibility which he was determined to avoid. He might have been emboldened had he known that Longstreet gave him the duty because he considered him an officer with “unusual promptness, sagacity and intelligence” despite his having graduated from West Point only a few years before the war. He wrote back to Longstreet that he would only be able to determine the enemy’s response by their return fire, and, if there was any other way to best the enemy besides the charge, it should be considered before they expended all of their scarce shells. On top of that, he added, even if they won, it would be “at a very bloody cost”. Alexander could clearly see the foolishness of this charge against a mountain of men with heavy fireposwer and did not want to be saddled with the fault.

Neither did Longstreet. He passed the ball back and wrote to Alexander that the plan was to drive off the enemy or “other effect such as to warrant us in making the attack”. When the moment arrived he, Alexander, should let Pickett know and give him what artillery cover he could. Alexander felt the weight upon his shoulders. While all of this was going on, another Southern general told him that he himself had temporarily taken Cemetery Hill the day before, but that as the Union was surrounding it in a horseshoe shape it could easily reinforce it from several directions.

Alexander went off to speak with Pickett himself, whom he found “sanguine of success” and “only congratulating himself on the opportunity”. That sounds like every popular description of Pickett, a modern day cavalier imbued with an outsized sense of honor. He was certainly flashy, particularly known for his hair and beard, and had graduated last in his class at West Point (not that Longstreet was any great shakes there, although contrary to what you may read, he did not graduate last). However, from the time of the Mexican-American War, where Pickett had the good fortune to climb a parapet and take the flag from the injured Longstreet (of all people), he had a steady rise in his career, and some impressive moments.

After talking with Pickett, Alexander determined that a half hearted effort by them would lead to disaster. They needed everyone involved or they would surely fail. If he was told to fire his remaining artillery barrage, there had better be a good reason, and Pickett should charge. Thus, he shouldered the responsibility with courage. He advised Longstreet that he would let Pickett know when the optimum moment arrived, which he figured would be 15 minutes or so after he began firing. And so the great artillery barrage began, both sides firing hot and smoke filling the field between them, obscuring all. The usual story is that it went on for two hours, but Alexander, who should know, says that it is not so -- people were lumping those guns in with others firing before then.

His 15 minutes passed, and then another. As Alexander had earlier predicted, he had no idea what was going on with the other side. All he knew was that they were firing back without slack. Low on ammunition, he sent Pickett a note:

“If you are coming at all you must come immediately or I cannot give you the proper support; but the enemy’s fire has not slackened materially, and at least 18 guns are still firing from the cemetery itself”.

This might fairly be called a conflicting order, and, not surprisingly, Pickett was befuddled. Alexander believed that Pickett hightailed it over to Longstreet to ask him what to do. Longstreet just stared at him, being unable to give the order. With what to some observers seemed like no direct order from above, Pickett told Longstreet that he would advance and went back to his troops to ready them. Longstreet rode over to Alexander, whose version, so far, we have relied on.

Soon after he had given his last note to Pickett, Alexander saw the 18 Union guns stop firing and disappear. He was aware that the Union had more ammunition than he did, generally speaking, and since they did not normally need to keep a reserve, this made him quite happy. Perhaps they had lost heart or were giving up. He sent another note to Pickett that he should go immediately.

When Longstreet himself came over to Alexander, the colonel told him how low he was on shells. Longstreet said, “I don’t want to make this charge; I don’t believe it can succeed. I would stop Pickett now, but that General Lee has ordered it and expects it”.

At that time, Pickett started his march and Alexander gave him what cover he could. The result, is well known and has been told many times over. In a word, it was a slaughter, the attacking force being largely massacred. The most amazing part is that some soldiers actually made it across that long field amidst the bullets and cannon balls, even having had to stop and climb a wood fence, before retreating.

Given everything we know about Gettysburg these days, it is hard to see how Longstreet can be blamed, whether he was indecisive or not, as he merely fulfilled Lee’s order. A few minutes one way or another would not have mattered. In fact, immediately after the charging force was decimated, Lee took the blame upon himself. His affection for Longstreet was unabated. Here’s a letter from him to Longstreet written the year following the war, which arguably answers any questions about Lee's general post-war opinion of his war-horse:

“You must remember me very kindly to Mrs. Longstreet and all your children. I have not had an opportunity yet to return the compliment she paid me. I had, while in Richmond, a great many inquiries after you, and learned that you intended commencing business in New Orleans. If you become as good a merchant as you were a soldier, I shall be content. No one will then excel you, and no one can wish you more success and more happiness than I. My interest and affection for you will never cease, and my prayers are always offered for your prosperity."

Nor did Alexander blame Longstreet. He said “Never, never, never did Gen. Lee himself bollox a fight as he did this."

There is no battle report from Pickett and some believe it was destroyed by Lee. That doesn’t feel right, but it is hard to explain its absence. Pickett reputedly had at least one painful meeting with Lee after the war, reported by the Confederate guerilla, John Mosby, aka (the Civil War’s best moniker) The Grey Ghost, who was with him. Though it is said Pickett never forgave Lee, publicly he said that he always thought that the reason the attack failed was because of the Union troops. This was the honorable thing to say, of course, and may not reveal his true opinion.

Longstreet’s own memoirs, From Manassas to Appomattox, written three decades after the war, and decades after Lee's death, gives a brutal list of the superior officer's faults on that day:

- Lee was disingenuous in suggesting that he had given orders for the charge the night before instead of the morning of the charge;

- twice as many men would have been needed for the success of the charge;

- Lee was not even near them when the position assignments were being made, which Longstreet thought “singular indifference”;

- when the left side of the confederate line failed, the right side, where the fatal charge was readying, was not even informed – a telling failure;

- bitterly, he complained that he, a non-believer in the attack, was made to supervise it, when Gen. Early, the only senior officer to encourage the charge, was available.

- just as bitterly, he complained that Lee did not order them help when he could have.

All rough stuff about his long dead leader for whom he seemed to otherwise have had great affection.

Not surprisingly, Longstreets memory differs to some degree from that of Alexander’s, but really not significantly. However, one line in his recitation of events is just funny to read today: “Then I rode to a woodland hard by, to lie down and study for some new thought that might aid the assaulting column”. Lie down? In the middle of the fight? That just doesn't sound right.

Unbeknownst to Alexander, Pickett was actually already with Longstreet, who was still lying down, when he received Alexander’s note to come at once, if he was coming at all. Longstreet himself acknowledged later that he could not speak, but claims that he made an “affirmative bow”. It is not hard how to see how some there could have missed it, but I have found a statement to that effect by at least one other soldier who confirmed the bow in a speech made a couple of years before Longstreet’s memoirs (James F. Crocker, 1894).

Longstreet also claims that he was already with Alexander when the Union ceased firing for a while. This was after he says that he ordered Alexander to stop the charge so that Alexander could get reserve ammunition, and then learned there was none to be had. It was about then that the firing from the union slacked off and Pickett took the field.

Longstreet was happy to report that Lee not only took all the blame (generally agreed upon) but also that a number of times he said that he should have listened to Longstreet, who had recommended a flanking move. In one case, Lee reportedly said that, had he listened to Longstreet, the South would still be free. Of course, this is from Longstreet’s memoirs, so you decide.

143 years after Alexander and Longstreet watched the charge in horror, my friends and I sat in the middle of the mile or so long open field that was the scene of Pickett’s Charge and marveled at what made men run across such a long stretch of land with bullets and shells tearing them to pieces just because someone told them to do it.

For a while we soaked it all in and, then, unlike most of Pickett’s men, moved on.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Greatest Epics ever made (in my humble opinion)

What is the equivalent of a Deadhead for lovers of the Lord of the Rings? Hobbithead is just awful. Perhaps a Lordian or Lordite would be ok. Maybe not. A Gandalfian? All right, I can’t think up anything better. Whatever it is, that’s me. I’ve read the books at least ten times and – admittedly, it’s a lot easier – watched each of the movies at least four or five times despite my initial reservations that it would dilute the importance of the books.

There are lots to things to say about the books, but I will keep it to a sentence. They are, in my humble opinion, the best, deepest, most interesting books of the 20th century, blending history, religion, language and mythology in a manner which no one seems able to duplicate and very, very few can approach (I thought T. H. Whites Once and Future King got close). Ignore the comparison with Tolkien you find on the dusk covers of fantasy novels.

I can’t snap off a post about the books. They just mean too much to me and I will probably labor over it for weeks someday (you could check out the Will the real Tom Bombadil please stand up [7/17/07] post, if you are interested, though). But, I saw the movies this past week on cable and remembered that I wrote this last year and never published it. I dusted it off, did a little editing and here it is. However, if you haven’t seen the movies or could care less about The Lord of the Rings, click off and come back next week.

The stories, bloopers and trivia that came out of the movie making could probably make a book (I presume it did, although I never read it). I’m only going to mention the ones that interested me. Too bad that I didn’t think of this last week, as it is kind of fun to watch the movies knowing this stuff. These items were all on the web amongst many others, and I took the ones that seemed like they were from reliable sources and seemed interesting.

Probably the three movies, individually and collectively, deserve their inclusion in top 100 lists. For me, they are the greatest epics ever made (although, I'm not really an epic guy). Filming all three together must have been an exhausting undertaking and it occurred on up to seven different sets each day. The “dailies” were three to four hours long – that is, each day the dailies were as long as each of the three movies ended up.

Sean Bean, who played Boromir, is more famous in England than here. He is the star of an ongoing series of British tv movies in which he plays the hero, Richard Sharpe (1993-2006). Never saw them; just heard of them. You have possibly seen him in National Treasure and Ronin (where, playing a real loser, he outperforming an all star cast, imho, including DeNiro) among many other movies. In Lord of the Rings, he had a special problem. Some of the filming in New Zealand was done near the top of a mountain. Everyone would helicopter up. That is, everyone except Sean, who refused to go up in a helicopter (I don’t blame him; I like to fly, but helicopters scare me). He would walk two hours up the mountainside and then down again at work day’s end dressed as Boromir. That’s dedication. The cast and crew could watch him walking while they flew, no doubt pointing and laughing at every sighting.

There are two portraits above Bilbo and Frodo’s fireplace. One is actually of the director, Peter Jackson, and the other of producer, Fran Walsh, also a screenwriter and, probably more important, his significant other. Jackson snuck himself into the first movie, standing outside of the inn in the village of Bree, the second as a defender at Helm’s Keep and the third briefly as a pirate and for a split second playing Sam in the fight with Shelob. Fran Walsh is in the movies in a slightly odder way. When you hear the Nazgul’s scream – that’s her. However, she did not do their voices. That was the same actor who played Gollum – Andy Serkis.

Many thousands of props were made for the movies by WETA, a New Zealand special effects workshop that built all the props for the movies. Some of the crew got in the films in an appropriate way. They played orc blacksmiths working in the depths below Isengard. Famous Tolkien artists John Howe and Alan Lee also got into the movie, being two of the nine human kings bearing rings. Howe’s skinny arms were also the models for Gollum’s. Guess he needs to work out a little.

Sean Astin is the son of the great John Astin (Gomez Addams to me) and Patty Duke. Playing the seemingly buffoonish, but loyal and indefatigable Sam Gamgee, he had to put on 30 pounds for his character. His was one of many injuries on set. If you recall the scene near the end of the first movie when Sam wades into the river after Frodo’s boat, Sean stepped on a piece of glass and had to be airlifted to a hospital. If you also recall, Sam cannot swim and nearly drowns before Frodo rescues him. We watch him sink beneath the waves until Frodo grabs him. Actually, that never happened in real life. The drowning was filmed at a different time in a studio without any water. Big fans created the wavy effect and special effect magic did the rest.

Sean’s own daughter played Sam’s daughter at the end of the movie. The baby in that scene was actually his movie wife’s (Rosie’s) own kid. Then again, when Aragon kills his first orc after leaping off the pirate ship, it is Viggo Mortensen’s own son, Henry. Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh’s’s kids are seen in the shot where Sam and Rosie marry. Why not? Hollywood is nothing if not incestuous. Many other people from producers to Howard Shore, the composer, were used as extras.

Shore’s soundtrack ranks him up there with John Williams in my book. The song that ends the third movie, Into the West, written for a friend who died of cancer, is spellbinding. I intend to play it at my pre-funeral party.

Sean’s father ("Gomez Adams") also auditioned for Gandalf, as did, it seems, almost every older actor in the world. He didn’t get the part. (Can you imagine -- “Galadriel . . . that’s French”). Horror actor, Christopher Lee, also wanted to be Gandalf. He was a huge LOTR fan and actually met Tolkien once upon a time. He was the first main character cast, but as the evil Saruman, not Gandalf. He broke his hand while filming, but in the hotel, not on the set.

Who wouldn’t want to be Gandalf? Even old Tom Baker, the best Dr. Who there ever was, was in the running at one time. I think I would have liked that, but McKellan was superb and I have not one complaint.

Speaking of Bakers, the role of Sauron was played by a young and successful stuntman named Sala Baker. He also managed to play a couple of orcs and a Gondorian and one of the Rohirrim. He’s not going to get an Oscar but none of the actors did. A number of actors played multiple roles.

Young Orlando Bloom, who probably has benefited from these movies in terms of fame more than anyone else, auditioned for the role of Faramir while still a drama student. He didn’t get it, of course, but the better role of Legolas. He performed many of his own stunts and broke a rib for his troubles. It may seem unbelievable the way he fired off arrows so rapidly in The Return of the King, and it should. It was computer generated. Bloom and actor John Rhys Davies (best known for playing Indiana Jones’ buddy) were both thrown from their boats in filming the river scenes. Viggo Mortensen came close to drowning during the scene where he was floating down the river (after he went over the cliff).

Dominic Monaghan(Merry) and Billy Boyd (Pippin) both originally auditioned for the role of Frodo Baggins. It is a little strange, but fun, to watch the last film and try and picture Boyd or Monaghan walking on the ship at the end, leaving a sorrowful Elijah Wood behind. Anyway, the two ended up being best buddies. I understand that Monaghan now has a role on the t.v. show, Lost, which I don't plan on ever watching. Boyd, is a singer, and actually wrote the tune that he sings near the end of the movie using words from the books (Viggo Mortensen also wrote the melody for the song that he sings after Gandalf crowns him -- talented group).

Davies played the dwarf, Gimli. That was a bit of a stretch, literally, as he is actually 6’ 3”. The poor guy was allergic to his makeup and could not film any two days in a row. It took 3 hours just to put the make up on. He was also the voice of Treebeard (just listen; you will hear it), who was physically represented by a 14 foot tall puppet. That is almost half as tall as the model for Orthanc, which looked huge, but was only 27 feet tall.

Gimli didn’t have it so bad with make up. Bernard Hill, Theoden, underwent up to nine hours of make up for some of his scenes -- I presume the one where Saruman was controlling him. But I feel worse for the actor who played Grima. He had to repeatedly shave off his eyebrows during filming. How fast do eyebrows grow, anyway? Wouldn’t a little plaster forehead have been easier?

Ian McClellan was also too tall for his own good. The scene where he bumps his head on the rafter in Bag End was not scripted (Not sure I believe that one). But, it supposedly happened and he just kept on acting. Actually, there were two Bag Ends for filming purposes. When Gandalf was in a scene they used a smaller one to help the illusion of how short the hobbits were.
It is interesting to watch the mourning of the fellowship in the first film for their lost friend, Gandalf, after he died in Moria, when you learn that none of the cast members had actually met Ian McKellen yet. The scenes were not filmed in sequence and he wasn’t even in New Zealand at the time. I guess that’s good acting on their part. They looked really sad.

Bilbo was played by Ian Holm who has been nominated for an academy award as the trainer in Chariots of Fire and he has been acting for about a half century. He had once played Frodo in an early 80s BBC radio version of LOTR. Bilbo’s speech to the hobbits at his 111th birthday party was the first dramatic moment in the three moveis as he slipped on his ring and disappeared, shocking everyone. The only thing was, Ian Holm wasn’t actually there. He performed all his scenes that supposedly took place in Hobbiton while standing in front of a blue screen in a studio. And the birthday cake? Plastic. It caught on fire while he was making his speech but, like Ian McKellan, he kept acting away. Show must go one and all that.

Remember Bill the pony who Sam had to release before the fellowship started through the mines of Moria. Well, it was too much trouble to bring the real life Bill into the mountains for that scene, so the horse actually had a double played by two guys in a horse suit, like you might see in a junior high production, only much better quality. Now, that’s funny.

Speaking of horses, how did they avoid injuring them during the battle scenes? Simple. They filmed them by themselves (well, with their riders) in the studio going through the paces and wearing special protective clothing. Computers did the rest.

During most of the filming Sam and Frodo had to interact with the animated Gollum, which was represented to them by an orange ping pong ball. Couldn’t they have made a Gollum doll or something. Good acting.

Peter Jackson had wanted Lucy Lawless (Xena) to play Galadriel and Uma Thurman (Kill Bill) to play Arwen. Both apparently got pregnant before they could audition. So what, Kate Winslet was fantastic as Galadriel. I originally thought Liv Tyler the weak link in the movie as Arwen (Why do I feel bad saying that? She is not going to read this). Is she even really an actress? But, actually, she was pretty good. Thurman might not have been an improvement. Winslet was also offered the role of Eowyn.

Jackson had wanted Daniel Day-Lewis to play Aragorn. Admittedly, he probably would have done a good job. Of course, given his propensity for getting into his character even when he wasn’t filming, that might have been a little weird. Then Jackson tried to get Russell Crowe to play the heroic part. He wanted to, but couldn’t manage to schedule it. I’m not a big fan of his (the whole Meg Ryan and the telephone throwing things) but he probably would have been good too. But, now, who can image anyone but Viggo playing Aragon? Not this dweeby little blogger.

Fran Walsh was not the only behind-the-scene-screamer. If you remember the fireworks scene in Fellowship, there is a scream when the dragon firework happens. That was Billy Boyd (Pippin) who was startled by the fireworks, which he had not understood would be real.

When they needed a scream for the orcs in Moria, they found what they wanted in possum calls. The cave troll scream was a little more complicated, being comprised of walrus, tiger and horse sounds.

In one of the great (read "stupid") business moves of the century, Tolkien sold the rights to the movie for $15,000 in 1968. His estate was never in favor of Jackson's film but there was nothing they could do about it at that point. Eventually, one grandson named Simon publicly supported the project and the Tolkien family supposedly disowned him. However, the most important Tolkien, Christopher, son of the Master and author of many books on Middle Earth history himself, eventually signaled that it was okay with him. As good as the films were, if I were a Tolkien, I would have insisted on a Masterpiece Theatre type scene for scene version.

The films were not perfect, nor could they ever hope to be. Many noted the absence of Tom Bombadil, but he was easily excludable from the film, as he adds character, but really doesn’t move the story at all. The entire drama of the return to the Shire was left out too, but how long could the films be? Personally, I was affronted by the few anachronisms in the film such as when the subject of “dwarf tossing” comes up, and the scene in which Legolas skateboards down some stairs. However, leaving that aside and some of the changes in sequence or story, which bothers me in any adaptation of a classic, I was delighted by these movies.

And that’s a wrap.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Potpourri - kids, candidates and presidents

Today is potpourri day where we discuss whatever strikes my fancy.

Post presidential moolah

Is anyone as disgusted as me with the fact that the Clinton’s made well over a hundred million dollars in the past seven years and kept most of it?

Normally, I am a – what the market will bear - type guy. No problem for me, if a baseball player or a movie star can get many millions for their services. It doesn’t matter that a school teacher can’t make a living in some places (like San Francisco where they had to build low cost homes just for teachers). There are lots of people who can teach and very few who can hit a 90 mile an hour curveball with any consistency (or throw one for that matter). Besides, people pay for what they want and they want movies and sports (education, we know is secondary – just look at the results – we win the overall Olympic title all the time, but can’t compare to other developed nations in 8th grade math and science scores).

It’s not that I believe that an ex-president should be restrained from earning money. It’s not that I believe that the Clintons have done something immoral at all. It’s not because I believe they have less rights than others or shouldn’t make a good, even great, living. But since they are completely making this money off of their so-called public service, wouldn’t it be just great if they gave it to the government? Not required, just great. The Clintons gave somewhere 9 and 10 % of their income the last 7 years to charity. All presidents and candidates have public pressure on them to prove they tithe since Reagan claimed he did in the 80s, so that's what they do. I think I would have been happier with about 50%, which would still have left them unbelievably rich. In fact, if they had 10 million each for everyone in the family, would they ever have a problem? And, of course, they would still be earning money.

Sometimes people ask -- why should someone go through all the hell involved in running for and actually being president? Here’s one good reason, I guess. You will get very, very rich. For most people, it is worth doing almost anything for that – even a tiny fraction of what the Clinton’s made. And please don’t tell me that the Clinton’s would have made this money had Bill not been president because he’s a great speaker. Sorry. It’s not so. The Clintons left office with nothing except the gifts they took with them and debts.

The Clinton’s certainly didn’t start the post presidential post cashing in bonanza. I’m not sure who did, but I think Reagan. I recall being furious when he was bought a 2 ½ million dollar house by some businessmen (what would that be today – perhaps 7.5 million?). Long after he left office his chief of staff claimed that Reagan paid them back when his money came out of the blind trust presidents put them in. But who knows. I have read that Papa Bush makes a fortune sitting on corporate boards and writing letters for companies, but I don't think it is Clinton type money.

And, I have long predicted that George Bush and Dick Cheney will be among the richest men in the world, courtesy of oil companies, when they retire from office. But, I can’t say if presidents before Reagan did the same. It would be good to know.

There’s nothing we should do about it. But it says volumes about what the presidency is really about. Money and power. No wonder Bloomberg doesn’t bother to run. He’s the only one who is rich enough not to care at all about the payola at the end.

Imus II

This time it’s a female commentator who got in trouble for speaking her mind. Personally, I didn’t like Randi Rhodes referring to female politicians who are running against or don’t support the candidate she likes as “whores”. Worse (to me, anyway), she said that Geraldine Ferraro was like David Duke because she had the temerity to suggest that at this time in history Barack Obama gets a benefit from being black in his run for presidency, just as she acknowledges she was only chosen as vice presidential running mate because she was a women in the 80s. The comments didn’t sound like jokes to me, although she was giving a performance at a comedy club.

But, even if she had said it on her show . . . so what? Have you heard her show?

Most people probably don’t know who Randi Rhodes is. She is a talk radio personality on Air America with a tiny audience. She is basically the liberal version of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. She constantly says ridiculous one sided things. Back when I lived on Long Island and Air America was available on local radio there, I would often go back and forth between her and Hannity whenever there was a commercial on one of them. Often they would talk about the same thing from completely opposite perspectives. Fine. I listen because I love politics, and often I am greatly amused at the way they completely twist facts and opinions so that their side is always right.

I admire Rhode’s ability to rant for seemingly forever about the same few topics day after day just as her right wing adversary’s do. But, when I listen to any of them my patience is limited because they are all so partisan. Both sides love to compare each other to Fascists and Nazis. No wonder they are so beloved.

So, why is Air America getting upset now? Is it because she is attacking liberals who they hope will continue to fund their enterprise (they have come close to folding at least once for sure, and I have heard Randi Rhodes herself say that it is a chronic problem). No one seemed to care when she called Bush and company fascists (or was it, Nazis? I forget.)

When you hire a partisan, be it Ann Coulter or Randi Rhodes, you have to expect them to act unreasonably and say unseemly things. That’s why people listen to them. They should leave her alone, even if she was intemperate. Her targets were public figures. They weren’t kids. What she said about Ferraro was stupid, not racist. What she said about Clinton and Ferraro was nasty and says more about her than them. Just like with Imus, nobody has to listen.

Georgia’s kick ass educational system

Say, what about these 7 and 8 year olds in Georgia who made a sophisticated plan to kidnap and punish their teacher who had scolded one of them? Impressive, huh?

Was it their parents or teacher who deserve an award for raising really smart kids. Who knew that an 8 year old could think about things like who cleans up the blood and who draws the blinds?

Seriously, I hope the kids are treated individually and not as a group in an obeisance to some ideal about fairness to them or their parents. If any of them were serious about carrying out this plan (in so far as we can discover), then they need severe punishment. Punishment usually works at that age. Of course, if these possibly crazy kids are so spoiled or twisted already, good luck to them.

I have to admit that I’m a little cynical about what happened here. There is no truth so pure that the news media cannot get it completely wrong. I am reminded of an incident a few years ago when a mother lost it at a shopping center and began (it appeared) to wail on her little girl. Unfortunately for mom and daughter it was caught on video. I remember the first time I saw it, immediately realizing that she was not even touching the kid. If anything, she was just brushing her skin. It was later admitted by authorities that as hard as it looked like mom was smacking the girl’s face, there was not a mark on her. She wanted her daughter to know she was angry. Probably, the kid deserved it and probably the mom overreacted. But, her overreaction was nothing compared to everyone elses.

The media played it over and over on tv. The little girl was ripped from her mother’s arms (at least metaphorically) and taken into supposedly protective custody. Mom had to admit in court that she had a problem and get therapy. Soon, she got her daughter back under supervision.

It is unlikely the fake beating had very much effect on the kid other than probably making her cry. Being taken from her mother was definitely traumatic though. Maybe the forever kind of traumatic. Either she thinks it was her fault and she was never going to see mommy again, or some pinhead savior told her that it was mommy’s fault and she doesn’t have to take it ever again (yeah, that will work in the long run). Add that up with all those stories about little kids getting suspended from school because the hugged or kissed another little student.

I remember a plan my neighbor and I came up with to take over the world through acts of terrorism. It was a pretty stupid plan, but I was probably ten or so. Today, we both probably would have gotten suspended and anger management classes.

I’m not suggesting that child protective services aren’t necessary and doesn’t do good things. There are neglectful and abusive parents out there. But, it often is a necessary evil and sometimes it is the problem, particularly when the media is on their back.

Parenting in front of the whole world

Today, if you want to do anything different with your kid, you might end up doing it in front of the whole world. Take the mother who made the news this week, because, God forbid, she let her nine year old son take the subway home in a safe neighborhood. I could barely stand to hear the moron newscasters on cable wonder out loud whether she was being neglectful. As the mother explained, this is like a story about boy eats melon (actually, that’s not what she said, but it was something like that). And she’s right.

Raising my own daughter I quickly found out that I was more willing than other parents to let her try things before other kids. One of her friend's parents was surprised I let her walk or ride her bike home at night a few blocks in one of the safest neighborhoods in the country at age 14. When I told one of my female friends about it, she thought I was crazy to let a 14 year old go out at night at all. Okay. I have no doubt that most of the families I knew on Long Island felt the same way.

Often in New York City though, I noticed kids walking around more by themselves or groups than on the island, where it is more and more rare. Even taking the subway sometimes. Without having a study to refer to, it at least seemed to me that parents in the city were more confident that nothing would happen to their kids than parents on the Island, where, it was relatively astonishingly safe. Somehow, between the time I grew up and now, predators have materialized out of thin air (an absolutely verifiable untruth which I cannot get anyone to believe) and danger lurks at every corner (despite how much safer it is now).

Somehow, I was able to ride my bicycle miles from home at age 11, and was going from Long Island to the City by myself by 14. It seems like everyone else I knew was allowed to do the same thing. My friends and I took our bikes on a three day unsupervised trip the length of Long Island when I was 15. What happened since that era? My guess, the 24 hour news cycle scares the hell out of parents. Peer pressure does the rest.

Good for this mom. I admire her. Her son wants to do it again and I hope she lets him. He will end up more confident than the kids of parents who think they are protecting their kids by oversheltering them.

Got MLK?

I love the presidential election. Where else can you see all the candidates worship at the altar of Martin Luther King whether they want to or not. My intended vote goes to John McCain, but it is hysterical to see him have to squirm about his past opposition to Martin Luther King Day, for which he has actually had to apologize.

This brings up one of the sillier things you hear on right wing talk radio. The hosts are very fond of pointing out that it was Republicans in congress that were responsible for the passage of the civil rights acts in the early 60s. From this, they extrapolate that they are the party of inclusion and tolerance. Of course, factually, they are right. Democrats, mostly Southern Democrats, were against the civil rights acts. Actually, it was more so a North/South thing if you look at the voting, but there were more Democrats in the South then.

Of course, once the acts passed under the leadership of the Democratic President Johnson, the entire scenario changed with the Solid Democratic South became the Solid Republican South. It became unfashionable in Republican or Conservative circles to support an MLK day, probably all the way up through the 90s.

Times are changing again though, and we have a black man, half black, anyway, running for president with a fair shot at winning if you look at the polls, his fundraising and the crowds. Now, McCain cannot afford to be seen as in any shape or form against King. No politician can. In fact, McCain now has to recognize King as “great” and participated in Martin Luther King Day festivities, where he issued his apology.

Perhaps because I like McCain, and also believe in redemption and politicians who grow over time, I can accept that he has changed his mind. I am not surprised that those supporting others have difficulty accepting this, and his words were not met with cheers, to say the least.

Well, you can’t win them all, Senator McCain. Thank goodness for Reverend Wright and imaginary sniper fire, right?

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .