Saturday, July 31, 2010

Movie night

Chris Matthews wrote a whole book on movies he thought were important to America. I can't go that far. I love movies, but I'm just not the type who can say that movies or music changed my life or are of great importance. Some books, yes, but they are few. However, I can squeeze a blog post out of it. 
There are lots of movies I loved that just didn’t have anything larger about them. Take last years Hangover. That was one funny movie. Or Judd Apatow’s movies like Superbad or Knocked Up. Loved all three of the Bourne movies, but, they didn’t really mean anything. I pretty much only go see comedies and action/adventures these days.

I feel there is something special about the following movies . Most of them are celebrated.

Casablanca

Maybe the greatest movie I’ve ever seen. I’ve never watched Gone with the Wind or Citizen Kane, the former because of its length and the latter because I just feel I would be bored beyond my desire to live, and those are two which are often ranked up there with Bogey’s best.

What’s great about Casablanca? First, the writing. Pre-computer days I sat in front of the television once and wrote down every great line in it. It was exhausting. These are my favorites:

Ugarte (Peter Lorre): You know, Rick, I have many a friend in Casablanca, but somehow, just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust.

Captain Renault (Claude Rains): Rick, there are many exit visas sold in this café, but we know that you've never sold one. That is the reason we permit you to remain open.

Rick: Oh? I thought it was because I let you win at roulette.
Captain Renault: That is another reason.

Rick (to German officer): Well there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade.

Yvonne: Where were you last night?
Rick: That's so long ago, I don't remember.
Yvonne: Will I see you tonight?
Rick: I never make plans that far ahead.

Captain Renault: What in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We're in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.

Major Strasser: What is your nationality?
Rick: I'm a drunkard.

Captain Renault: Ricky, I'm going to miss you. Apparently you're the only one in Casablanca with less scruples than I.

There are other great lines that are much more famous (“Here’s looking at you, kid,” “this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” “Of all the gin joints . . .,” “I stick my neck out for nobody,” “Round up the usual suspects,” and “We’ll always have Paris,” which tells you why the movie is so renowned and at least two of the writers (the ones who got the credit and certainly deserve a lot of it), the twin Epstein brothers, won the Oscar. But, none of these lines make my list. Of course, the most famous line, “Play it again, Sam” was not in the movie. Go figure.

So, a few “did you knows.” Did you know -

. . . that Dooley Wilson, who played Sam, couldn’t play the piano? He was an actor (grossly underpaid compared to everyone else) and a singer/drummer. He merely imitated the hand motions of a real piano player, Elliot Carpenter, who played off camera while he sang. Originally, the role was to go to a woman – probably Ella Fitzgerald.

. . . that Joy Park, who played the young Hungarian bride willing to sell herself for exit visas, was Jack Warner’s step daughter? Her first role. Hollywood and nepotism are synonymous.

. . . that one of the quintessential lines – “Here’s looking at you, kid” was long in circulation in Hollywood before Bogey ad-libbed it for Casablanca? It worked, though.

. . . that Bergmann was taller than little Bogey? The first time they really spoke, at a lunch during the filming, they both bellyached how bad the movie was, especially the writing, and that they wanted to get out of it, according to actress Geraldine Fitzgerald. It was the only movie the two made together.

The Outlaw Josey Wales

Raise your hand (if you are a guy) and you think Josey Wales is the greatest Western ever made. It is for me. In fact, I think it was one of the best written and acted movies I’ve ever come across, period, end of story.

Here’s the plot. Don’t worry, it won’t spoil it. Josey is a farmer when his wife and kid are murdered by Union troops (“Red Legs”). He becomes a famous guerrilla fighter, and when the war ends, refuses to surrender and  is tracked by the Red Legs and his former leader. Josey kicks everyone’s ass.

But, the plot is meaningless as to why this is such an endorphin producing movie. I put the acting and direction even above the writing. Every actor, from Eastwood down to the smallest bit player, made the characters dramatic and eccentric and real. The kid who accompanies Josey in escaping from the murderous Red Legs at the beginning, the tough southern woman, Granny Hawkins, Chief Lone Wattie (played by Chief Dan George), their young Indian sidekick, Little Moonlight, who adopts Josey as her savior, the Commancheros, Grandma, the denizens or Rio Rancho, Ten Bears, the Carpetbagger, the bounty hunters, the endless trash who repeatedly try to capture him. For goodness sake, even Sondra Locke was perfect in the roll and I pretty much can't stand her. If there was a way to give out 20 academy awards that year for best supporting actors, his cast deserved them. But, this was before the academy would give Oscars to a Clint Eastwood western, a custom he broke with the far inferior Unforgiven (which, I have to admit, has grown a little on me, despite my initial disappointment – Gene Hackman and Richard Harrison were both wonderful in it – but Josey Wales deserved the Oscar).

There’s not a single boring second, not an unused moment to move the story along and show off the great characters. Okay, I had to struggle through the one love scene between Eastwood and Locke, which lasted a minute or so, but that’s me. I hate the mushy parts. Most people seem to like them.

This was another film of which I once tried, pre-internet, to copy down the great lines. Unlike Casablanca, where there is something about the writing that jumps off the page, in Josey Wales, it is the deliveries that make them remarkable. If you have seen this movie (again, you just might have to be a guy) you will hear these lines being said in your head as you read them. If you haven’t seen the movie, you must someday, preferably when your wife or girlfriend is out. Rent and watch it uninterrupted (unless, you are a complete nerd and don’t like Westerns – I’ve met a few). But, then, you will come back here and see exactly what I mean.

Here we go. Wait, I started out and then froze with indecision. There are too many great lines. Maybe even more than in Casablanca, which before Josey Wales I would have said was impossible. So, I’m going to webcheat and give you this site - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075029/quotes - where they list many of them. I’m just going with my three favorite here:

The first is when Josey and a few of his friends are holed up in a ranch expecting an Indian attack. Josey has to try to explain to some genteel folk exactly how tough they are going to have to be. This is one of my favorite lines in any movie ever:

Josey: Now remember, things look bad and it looks like you're not gonna make it, then you gotta get mean. I mean plumb, mad-dog mean. 'Cause if you lose your head and you give up then you neither live nor win. That's just the way it is.

This next one is by the Commanche chief, Ten Bears, played by Will Sampson (also the chief in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest). Josey has ridden alone, armed to the teeth, to confront the tribe over their capture of two of his friends, who are buried up to their necks. Josey doesn’t beg, he doesn’t threaten or cajole. He just lets the chief know he’s there for life or death, one or the other, whichever the chief chooses ("And I'm saying that men can live together without butchering one another.")

The chief makes up his mind:

It's sad that governments are chiefed by the double tongues. There is iron in your words of death for all Comanche to see, and so there is iron in your words of life. No signed paper can hold the iron. It must come from men. The words of Ten Bears carries the same iron of life and death. It is good that warriors such as we meet in the struggle of life... or death. It shall be life.

And this one just before (one of the many) gunfights with a young bounty hunter whose been on his trail.

Bounty Hunter: You're wanted, Wales.
Josey: Reckon I'm right popular. You a bounty hunter?
Bounty Hunter: A man's got to do something for a living these days.
Josey: Dyin' ain't much of a living, boy.

The bounty hunter leaves and Josey's friends get back to celebrating. But Josey waits quietly and sure enough, the bounty hunter returns.

Bounty Hunter: I had to come back.
Josey: I know.

Kablam!

Trust me, if these lines seems hackneyed and melodramatic, they're not delivered that way. Performance can mean everything. And these last few lines (I’m calling an audible and throwing them in), won’t mean anything to those who haven't seen it, but much to those who have:

Lige (a bushwacker who gets the drop on Josey): Benny! Come out! We got us the Josey Wales.

Granny Hawkins: So, you’ll be Josey Wales.

Captain Terrill (the captain of the Red Legs): Not a hard man to track. Leaves dead men wherever he goes.

You're not impressed, huh? Wait until you see it (guys).

Groundhog Day

When this movie came out, I was floored. I couldn’t believe it didn’t get top reviews. On the one hand it is a simple little comedy, with Bill Murray playing Bill Murray (the snarkiest of snarkies), Annie McDowell playing Andie McDowell (if humans were angels) and Chris Elliot playing Chris Elliot (maybe the closest thing we have to Jerry Lewis in this day and age).

Three questions come to mind with this movie. One, what’s so special about this movie? Two, why do men love this movie so much and not women. Three, how long was Bill Murray’s character in a time loop? ? Unfortunately, I don’t have answers.

Here are my best guesses:

What's so special about it? Wish I knew. Not that the writing wasn’t good - it was great, but it’s no Casablanca or Josey Wales. Not the delivery either. I mean, they acted just fine, but it’s a romantic comedy. And, a time loop isn’t exactly a unique plot device.

I could just tell you that so many people I have met have told me that this is a great movie and means a lot to them, but that would just be anecdotal (convincing to me – we all believe anecdotal evidence when it supports our opinions). But, I’ve heard people talk about it many times on television too (which, was the greatest authority known to man until Wikipedia).

Once, Charles Murray, a sociologist (mostly famous for the controversial The Bell Curve)  who elevates ivory tower seriousness to an art form, was being interviewed on C-Span when he casually mentioned that Ground Hog Day was an important movie culturally. The straight laced interviewer (who I’m guessing never saw it) was baffled. I wish they had spent some time on why, because I just can’t figure it out myself.

Stanley Fish, another man so pompous he probably uses the word "methinks" seriously, and a New York Times columnist, put it on his top ten list (although, I have to admit, I think his list otherwise sucks). AFI made it number 34 funniest comedy ever, but readers of Total Film magazine said it was number 7.  AFI also made it the number 8 fantasy film. The Writer's Guild ranked it the the 27th greatest screenplay ever (not a bad list as these things go - Casablanca was number 1).

Dan Rubin, a Harvard screenwriting professor who wrote the movie, says he had 50 meetings during at which everyone said they loved it, but they wouldn’t make it, until Harold Ramis, Bill Murray pal, decided to do it. I can understand why. A movie which has the premise of repeating the same day over and over again, just seems like it would be dull.

I took this from an interview of Rubin on bigthink.com. He mentions how it got so-so reviews at first, but then he started hearing that people in Europe thought it was fantastic. Then . . .

“And Harold Ramis was also getting letters and notes and the two of us would compare things and say, “Wow, this is really interesting.” And then, at some point, I guess Roger Ebert wrote, not a retraction, but a new review that sort of said, “I think we should revisit this movie. I think this is a little better than I thought.” And I know at the end of the year that it came out in’93, William Goldman, the screenwriter, was reflecting on movies of the past year and he was the one who wrote, "I think 'Groundhog Day' is the one that will be—of all of the movies that came out this year, it’s the one that will be remembered in 10 years,” and perhaps that gave it some street cred or got some people thinking.”

For some reason, television producers seem to love the concept. Wikipedia has a whole article on time loop television plots and most of them are just rip offs of GD, one way or another.

 Everyone I’ve ever met who loves the movie was a man. I honestly don’t know one woman who liked it. Why do men like this more than women? I think I might know, but this is purely anecdotal too.When I ask, why not? – the answer is always the same. It’s so boring. It’s just the same thing over and over again. And, apparently, even with character development, that bores them to tears. May be a gender thing that will baffle scientists for centuries.

How long did Murray’s character spend in the loop doing the same day over and over? Good question. Lots of answers. Harold Ramis says ten years on the DVD commentary. But, responding to a blog post (wolfgnards.com) which does a great job on the subject, Ramis said that 10 years was too short and it had to be 30 or 40 years.

I don’t think so. If I may be so bold as to enter this debate against the director, I would say that by really focusing on ice sculpture (learning to carve one face) and piano playing (learning two songs), say three hours a day each, he probably could accomplish what he wanted in four years. It would take far less than that for his spirit to change, the real point of the movie. Nothing succeeds like failure.

Love, Actually.

Look, I know some of you are going to say – What? A stupid romance movie? Starring Hugh Grant? Get out of here. In fact, that’s what I said when my daughter, then a teenager, told me about it. She insisted I trust her, and I did. Blew my mind. I’ve seen it at least seven times. Maybe more.

First, it’s a comedy; not a love story. The movie subtly weaves together nine story lines with inspiring music and quick cuts and pacing. Each story is worth a movie itself. Each story has great music that I can hear playing as I think about them.

And, as I endlessly lecture people, there’s a great theme which is narrated by Hugh Grant, who plays Britain’s lovesick prime minister right at the beginning of the movie, and which people should listen to a lot more:

Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it's always there - fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge - they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I've got a sneaking suspicion... love actually is all around.

And then you dissolve into the first story – an aging rock star re-recording one of his big hits and making it into a Christmas song.

For whatever it’s worth, here are the nine plots:

Will the rock star’s (Bill Nighy) new horrible song make it to number one for Christmas, and why does he torment his loyal but fat manager so? This plot actually helps tie the entire movie together.

The new prime minister falls for his pretty, but overweight servant, and then screws it up. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl . . .

Poor Liam Neeson plays a widower who is left with his wife’s son. They’re both sad about her death, but the kid has a worse problem – the absolute agony of love. It’s a problem they have to crack. Hint, it's really about the father and son, not the girls.

In my second favorite plotline, Harry (ladies and gentlemen, the incredible Alan Rickman), a stodgy if loveable manager, starts to crumble under the advances of his sexy secretary, while his frumpy wife (Emma Thompson), who happens to be the prime minister's sister, and the widower's best friend, holds the family together.

In my favorite plotline, a heartbroken writer (Colin Firth) travels to a country house on a lake in France to write a novel. He falls for his temporary maid, a quiet Portuguese woman. They can’t even understand each other, and then, they both have to go home. The music for this storyline is among my favorite music from any movie.

One of Harry’s employees (Laura Linney – Abagail Adams in the tv movie, if you saw that) is in love with the firm’s designer, which everyone else knows too, including the designer. It looks promising. Trouble is, her brother is mentally ill and constantly calls her.

A homely but inspired waiter/gopher who fails to find love with every woman he pathetically hits on, decides to go to America where he is sure that all he has to do is go to a bar and women will fall all over him. An inspired performance by a not so well known actor.

A couple of stand-ins for a porn movie nervously chat with each other while they are performing. Probably my least favorite of the story lines, but it is still charming.

An art gallery director is best man at his best friend’s wedding. Why he doesn’t seem to like his friend’s wife (Keira Knightley) is a mystery. She’s beautiful and really sweet. Probably my third favorite. If you don't fall for Keira, guys, you may want to consider a sex change or an alternate sexual lifestyle.

There are many more connections between these characters than I have space to cover and they all will not come out like you think. Maybe it sounds like a Love Boat marathon to you, but they can’t be compared. Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) playing a secondary role in two storylines, is hysterical. They even found a way to stick in Claudia Schiffer, Denise Richards, Shannon Elizabeth and a few other gorgeous women. Can’t hurt.

And, now, as usual, I’ve exhausted everyone’s ability to keep reading, and must finish this another day.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Political update for July, 2010

Two from the wacky world of Israel.

Israel claims it is democratic and that it is a republic. I’ll agree it is a representative democracy, and that it is not a monarchy or a tyranny. But, it is also a theocracy, whether it calls itself one or not. Domestic relations are controlled by religious courts. Jews have different rights than non-Jews, including the right to citizenship no matter where they are from (the Law of Return). This right has been liberally interpreted and even some groups from disparate countries not exactly thought of as Jewish have been permitted to become citizens. Like, from India.

Israel’s legislative body is the Knesset, which has one house. Last week, a committee in the Knesset passed a law which, if it became law, would give a small group of rabbis, usually referred to as orthodox, to determine who is a Jew. Considering that Israel gets much of its worldwide support from America and American Jews, some see it as somewhat amazing that they would risk alienating so many Jews around the world. The group which would have this power does not recognize conservative or reform Jews as Jews.

The PM, Bibi Netanyahu, isn’t an idiot and has come out dead set against it.

No one should be surprised that Israel is in part a theocracy, although I think it is, can’t think of a better world, stupid. After all, it bills itself as the Jewish homeland and it is surrounded by theocracies and dictatorships (that’s the understandable part). Even some European countries like England and France reserve some vestiges of religious rule, however much they have decentralized power. But, Israel is much more of a theocracy than those, which are more a formality.

There has long been a debate in Israel about whether it should be secular or religious. It has, since its creation, been schizophrenic about it. Whatever the percentage of those in Israel who think a theocracy is better than a secular country, but, it can’t be completely secular and maintain its Jewish nature and right of return (while denying same to Palestinians) without it. It can’t become fully theocratic and maintain support from America or even its own people.

This is not the first time that some have tried to consolidate their religious power, mullah like, but it is always sad to see it getting this far through the Knesset. I do not see it going further.

From what I understand, this wildfire has been put in suspended animation by mutual consent for six months. Hopefully, to die.

But, consider this really stupid move, this one by Israel’s secular judiciary. An Arab man, already married, lied to a Jewish girl, telling her he was Jewish and single. It worked and he scored.

Yes, it was lie. Not nice. We all agree. Even inveterate liars usually agree that lying is generally wrong. But, here’s the stupid part. He was prosecuted for and convicted of RAPE because of it. Rape by deception.

The ruling was upheld by Israel’s high court. That means, unless the Knesset passes a new law saying lying can’t be a basis for rape (sure, politicians being known for their courage when it comes to sexual politics), it is the law.

I don’t have to tell you why this ruling must put the fear of Jehovah into every Israeli man who intends to have sex with a woman. Men lie all the time to get girls. They pretend they are rich, they have jobs, they where a uniform, have a nice car, even that they are nice guys. They even say “I love you” and “I’ll marry you.”

Obviously not all guys all the times. But a lot of guys a lot of the time. This is not a secret. Not in Israel, not here, or pretty much anywhere else.  And, girls lie to, although often in different ways.

Hey, I was once told by two women on different occasions that I lied to them by telling the truth because no woman would think I was doing so. On another occasion, however, one told me that men should lie to women to get them in bed because the women know it and it helps them justify it.

I doubt my experiences were unique. The game of sex is one with difficult rules. Arguably, lying is almost required in our and every other society to some degree. Because sexual politics are so difficult, we’ve pretty much de facto decriminalized adultery in this country. You have to be a politician in the wrong place, wrong time, in order to get arrested for it.

The only way I could see a rape by deception being fair is if someone convinced a blind person they were their husband, or something like that. That's more likely in a movie than in real life.

In Israel, the defendant has complained that this was just racial prejudice, given the social disapproval among Jews of intermingling with Arabs. Some suggest this will be an aberration in the law. Maybe so. Whatever it is, it’s stupid.

Which is dumber, the Who’s a Jew proposal that passed the Knesset committee or this ruling by the high court? I’m going to go with the Who’s a Jew proposal, even though it’s not law yet, because it will affect more people if it is ever passed. Tear the country apart as the PM says.

But, they were both stupid.

Don’t they get tired of it?

Now, I’m not picking on Harry Reid right now. He’s an accomplished politician, but he is paying the penalty for activities in getting the health care reforms into law. A long time incumbent, he should be having less of a problem with the newbie, Sharron Angle. Right now, he’s closing the gap, only 3% behind her in the latest Rasmussen poll. However, he also has about a 10% higher favorable but also unfavorable rating. That might just mean a lot of people don’t know her. But, according to Rasmussen, at this point, you look at the unfavorable rating.

What caught my attention a few weeks ago was a statement he made, which cable tv cut down to a few seconds. It went like this, if I have the quote right – “They're betting on failure. They think that the worse the economy is come November, the better they are going to do election-wise."

At risk of being insolent, may I say – “d’uh!”

Naturally Republicans are betting on failure. I’m sure they remember that around the middle of September, ’08 Sen. McCain was running almost even with Sen. Obama when the economy collapsed and so did his campaign. Republican politicians’ jobs, like their Democratic counterparts, is to get elected, obtain power and doll out favors to friends and supporters.

In order to do so they have to get people to identify with them, excuse their incompetence and corruption and like them. How are they going to do that if the economy is going well. Of course they hope the economy doesn’t work.

To be fair, I’m sure a good Republican would tell you – “If the economy does well right now it will be a fluke or cyclical and it means the liberals will be encouraged to continue their tax and spend policies and drive us to ruin.”

Naturally, Democrats were delighted when the economy collapsed last year just before the election. It meant they were going to win and take power.

Also to be fair, I’m sure a good Democrat would tell you – “If the economy did well in 2008 it would have only been because Bush was having the fed prop it up, and it would have meant the conservatives would have been encouraged to continue their tax cuts for the rich and support for the big guy over the little.”

My point is, of course, neither side really cares about the economy when they aren’t in power. If it fails they will have a better chance of controlling things and “saving the day.” It’s like when the citizens of one city get excited because a ballplayer on another city’s team gets hurt, so their team will win. How many people think, too bad, it will be a less competitive game?

Reid, of course, couldn’t wait to get on the floor of the Senate and announce that we had lost the Iraq War. I have never heard him say “Oops” about that. I’m sure he had convinced himself that it was true and he was not only grateful, he wanted voters to know it.

Neither side ever seems to get tired of pretending it’s only the other side that does this. It isn’t going to do Harry Reid any good to say it, just as it didn’t do any good for conservatives to say the Democrats want us to fail in Iraq (also, in my opinion, true at that time).

The real question is, why don’t we ever get tired of it?

The whole black, black, black, etc., thing.

Years ago I was at Thanksgiving dinner with my family at a restaurant. Excepting my daughter, they are extremely racially sensitive.  The mention of an ethnic group, even innocuously, makes them embarrassed and uncomfortable. The mention of the color black at all makes them squirm.

At one point during dinner, I referred to someone who was a black guy as a “black guy”. I forget the reason I felt the color tag was helpful, because I can’t remember the actual story I was telling. I can’t really remember their exact reaction either, but it was generally one of heightened embarrassment, looking around, and I believe genuine fear. What if a black person heard me refer to a black person as black? 

Now, we have a sort tit for tat in my family. They like to greatly exaggerate stories to make me sound  horribly racist (they’ve actually started to admit this lately, which is gratifying and surprising) and I like to torture them about their racial squemishness. So, I looked around at them, gathered their attention, and said loud enough for other tables to hear - “BLACK, BLACK, BLACK, BLACK, BLACK”.

I know you are thinking "So?," but they nearly died. Great moment for me in the family annals.

If you are wondering if there is a point to this, we are going through somewhat of the same thing in our country now. The mere mention of race or someone’s ethnic identity in public is enough to make people crazy.

Few politically active people will deny that race is still a problem in America. The liberals tend to believe we must be very conscious of race, that slavery and racism is America’s great shame, that we should not mention or show a minority in any bad light, always give their opinions credence, never forget slavery, never forget Jim Crow, never forget lynchings, and give minorities advantages now so as to make compensation for the past. Even though we are a country filled with post-Civil War immigrants, we can't apologize enough and we must tip the legal scales in favor of minorities.

The conservatives feel that we are past our most racist past, that we should celebrate the strides we have made, that Western civilization ended slavery, that the best way to get rid of racial vestiges is to ignore it and judge people on their merit, and not give anyone advantages in law as a way to make up for the bad acts of our ancestors or governments.

I see both sides as having some truth or right on their side (does that surprise anyone – I’m a fence sitter). Race is both our greatest shame and the source of our greatest triumphs. It is still a difficult problem and no one can see the end of it. I don’t want to act as if there is no racism, but I don’t want someone to have an advantage in law because of their skin color either. Race means something, but it doesn’t mean everything.

But, I have no secrets to success which I can offer. One day a few years ago, when I was teaching a constitutional law class, we were discussing the fighting words doctrine, that because the government has an interest in preventing violence they may violate free speech rights in order to prevent fighting words.

During the class, one young black woman (I obviously don’t prefer the term African-American, as I believe it is illogical, divisive and dishonest) used the dreaded N-word, unabbreviated and un-hyphenated, but I thought in an appropriate way. Then, a young white man used it, also, I thought, in an appropriate way. Unfortunately, he happened to be the class wise guy and that might have made the difference. Maybe not though.

Another black woman looked at me and said loudly, pointing at him, that someone has to tell him to “Shut up.” Let me tell you, I wasn’t prepared for this. All I could think to say was something like “Well, I can’t solve this problem, but, it does show us how painful some words can be and why we have the fighting words doctrine.”

Later, the white kid came up to me when I was talking to some other students after class and asked what he had done wrong. He was clearly embarrassed and saddened. I said that I didn’t think he had done anything wrong, but he had to understand that in our culture, if he, a white man, was going to use that word, many blacks and some others would get angry at him. It was his decision.

I was teaching a class, not running for office and I wanted peaceful, motivated discussion; not a race war. A few white students later told me they thought I handled it really well. But, I noticed that an unusual number of the black students decided not to come to the next class. Naturally, I can’t say for sure if it was related. But, maybe I handled it well from a white viewpoint, but not a black one. No black student came up to discuss it with me. Although I wish I had handled it better, had something wise to say so all the students would sigh and say, "Oh, okay," I still don’t know how else I could have managed it. I’ll never have the moment back anyway. I doubt there was a solution.

I look at my own experience as a metaphor for the whole racial situation in America. We don’t know how to handle it and are slowly feeling our way forward. Some people are satisfied and others not. I can say for sure that I know it is a lot better than when I was a kid. Then again, when I once ventured that opinion in another class, one student at least couldn’t hear it and seemed to think I was saying there is no racism. That’s a problem when anyone discusses racism. People hear it through a very cloudy filter. Perceived code words often overwhelm actual words.

In the last couple of months we’ve had an outbreak of media events surrounding race. I am not sure of the order, and it’s not really important, but I believe the Arizona immigration issue was first. During the Civil War, supposedly fought over economic or political reasons, everyone knew it was fought over slavery. And, even though the federal lawsuit against Arizona (in my opinion a borderline frivolous one) is not about race at all, but about federal pre-emption, we all know it is both about ethnicity and/or votes.

Then there was the NCAAP flap, where their convention passed a resolution accusing the tea parties of racism, wanting to smear the movement with for the statements of a handful. There was also the letter from tea party leader Mark Williams which satirized the NCAAP and its leader in such a way that every media figure and progressive/liberal could easily call him a racist and his own party, not trusting that people could recognize obvious satire when they saw it, and he was trying to suggest that it was the NCAAP that saw blacks this way, through him under the bus. There is no honor among partisans.

The New Black Panthers were a scandal that shouldn’t go away, but probably will while we have a Democratic controlled congress. If the Republicans take over a house, and there aren’t more pressing issues, there might be one.* There, a long time white Justice Department lawyer retired after he learned that his bosses had dropped the easiest case he ever prosecuted, one against a couple of New Black Panthers who stood in front of a polling place intimidating whites. The administration claims that the voluntary injunction they obtained not to intimidate voters until after the 2012 election was satisfactory. Personally, it is an insult to all of our intelligence. Somehow, I don’t think I would have gotten off so easy had I tried to intimidate anyone.

Andrew Breitbart’s website, biggoverment.com, recently posted an excerpted speech by a black USDA official, Shirley Sherrod, in which it seemed as if she was bragging about not helping a white farmer. It went viral and she was fired. Sure enough, it turned out when you listened to the whole speech, she was talking about how she learned to get past her own racism. It takes a certain amount of courage to do that if you have a job where you must be politically correct.

Of course, let’s not give anyone too much credit. The administration fired her without a thought, not bothering to listen to the speech because they could care less about what happens to her. They were out for themselves. When they offered her a job back after apologizing, they were doing the same. And, Mr. Breitbart, a conservative blogger, either deliberately edited the speech or was grossly negligent. Either way, he didn’t care that he might be slandering someone as long as he could score a political point. The right wing is busy protecting him right now – he was “set up,” according to Ann Coulter, but, it's only because he’s on their team. The really interesting thing is watching how both parties and ideologues are using the episode to insist that the other side is racist. Yet we vote for these people.

Perhaps last is Tucker Carlson’s revelation of emails from a progressive group called Journolists (the “o” was for Obama) who formed their own invitation only social network where they could rant about conservatives and help each other target anyone who disagreed with Obama. One of these ways was to accuse conservatives or people on Fox (Fred Barnes and Karl Rove come to mind) as being racist. Sad, but that is the state of journalism today. It's why I hardly bother anymore.

After each sentence above I could have written - this is what partisans do. It’s rarely about us. Unfortunately, most Americans have from birth been indoctrinated into one side or the other and we give these partisan leaders credibility, as if there really are only two sides to each issue and the ideologues own all of them.

You can read about these mini-scandals anywhere and that’s why I just touched upon them. The larger point is this: the idea that we are a “post racial nation” is certainly untrue. It is better here now than at any time in our history, and as we can see, a black man can even become president. Despite the fact that liberals are sure conservatives are racist and visa versa, I feel assured that if Republicans ran Clarence Thomas, an extremely high majority of conservatives would vote gleefully vote for him and an extremely high percentage of liberals adamantly against him, regardless of his color. Ideology is the new colored.

Amazing as it sounds, the partisans on both sides have managed to warp and reinvigorate racism as it slowly dies out. They’ve pretty much eclipsed it with "race shenanigans". It is now a weapon each side wields against the other. I’m not suggesting that there is no real racism, just that false or exaggerated accusations of it have become more of a focus for the partisans and the media than the actuality of it. No one cares if any of the people mentioned above are really racist – they care if they can make a claim that someone on the other side is racist and whether it will have legs.

Ah, once again I show my ability to turn almost any topic into a rant against partisanship. It never gets old for me (maybe you, but that’s your problem).
My suggested definition for partisans: “A group of people so profligate, so mired in their priorities, and so amoral in believing the success of their country is synonymous with the success of their political party or ideology, that they could turn a tradition as old and discredited as racism into a spear point for their own ends; they are neither fit to mind the government, never mind disseminate knowledge and opinions to us. Alas, they have a lock on all of it.”

*Post note - I don’t have the best record predicting what scandals will stick, but I’m not sure anyone does. It depends on who controls congress and what else is happening at the time. If the Republicans end up controlling the House, they might decide to look into it as well as the Sestak affair. However, the Democrats will still likely control the Senate and they might decide, in response, to re-investigate Bush era issues like torture and wire-tapping. It might just suggest to everyone that they calm down.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Death in Botetourt County - a bizarre introduction into how well off we are

I’m looking at list of people who died in Botetourt County, Va., pronounced hereabouts – botetot. I reside in the small town of Buchanan within the county. According to the U.S. census department, Botetourt County has a little over 32,000 as of 2008. There are some college campuses in this country with more people than that. Buchanan has something over 1200 people, of whom I know by name and face a handful. There are many blocks in NYC with more people than that.

The death list I’m reading is from 1862. Back then, Botetourt had about a third as many people as now, some 11,550 (1860 census), which was less than a sixth of the size of the most populated county in Virginia, Henrico. 24% of Botetourt's population were slaves, which was not a high percentage for Virginia, a couple of counties being nearly three quarters slave.

There is no death list for 1863, the year before the damn Yankees invaded us, requiring our fearless general to personally burn the bridge crossing the James to slow the advance. We couldn’t stop them here, but we did down river in Lynchburg. Actually, my ancestors were busy being peasants in Russia and Hungary at the time, far as I know, so my family didn’t have a dog in the fight and I’m just pretending to take sides now in case any of my neighbors stumbles upon this. Still, just as I adopt the founding fathers as my own, and have an affinity for the ancient Greeks, I, and probably most Americans, am happy to glom onto whatever heritage I like.

By “down river” and “James” in the paragraph above, I meant the James River, of course. The same one that colonial Jamestown sits upon a hundred and sixty miles or so to the East of us. It’s not a straight line by water though. The James zig zags up and down, all over the place. Mostly it goes through wilderness, that is, if you don’t count the train tracks running along it, the dams and the telephone wires passing over it here and there. Occasionally there’s a town on the river, but surprisingly few. Buchanan is the prettiest of them. I know I’m biased, but it’s true all the same as far as I have seen.

This 1862 death list I’m looking at fascinates me. There are one hundred and eighty nine names on it. Thirty two of those were slaves, or almost 17% of them. That’s considerably less than their percentage in the population, but it starts to get a little closer to the target if you remember a bunch of young white men died fighting who probably otherwise would not have been on the list. Still, you’d think the slaves would be much less healthy than the whites and die much easier when there were epidemics. Another much smaller handful on the list was free blacks, but I have no statistics to tell me what part of the population they were. The rest were white, if that wasn’t obvious.

Illness by far took most of those on the list. The largest part of them died of diphtheria – forty six to be precise, or just shy of 25%. According to the source of all knowledge in the universe, Wikipedia, Diphtheria is still around killing folks today, although you wouldn’t think so in America, where we’ve had easy access to vaccination since it was invented in 1920. But there have been outbreaks elsewhere of late, particularly in Russia, the Saharan countries, Central and South America.

Seventeen more Botetourtians died of Typhoid Fever, but others are said to have died of just “fever,” and that may be the same thing. Maybe they just didn’t know. I’m sure it wasn’t real scientific, at least as we see it nowadays. Lincoln's son, Willie, died that same year of Typhoid or something akin. There just wasn't any cure.

Of those who died of diphtheria, April, June, August, October and November seemed to be particularly bad months. Typhoid deaths seemed a little more spread out over the course of the year, but June looked like the worst month to me without actually counting. It’s not hard to figure the terror these people must have experienced when others are just dropping like flies in any given month. Even when they were invaded, few civilians expected to be killed, if any. But, disease doesn’t care what side you are on.

By the end of the war, it looks like the double scourge of Diphtheria and Typhoid had pretty much run its course here, at least for the time being.

There were other causes of death, though. Among them were diarrhea (also referred to as the flux and bowel hemorrhage – not sure if they were all the same or different,) tb, which they called scrofulo (really scrofula), bronchitis, brain injury, neuralgia (“neuralgia”), liver complaint, croup and eueresipelus (probably erysipelas, a strep germ caused skin inflammation according to Wikipedia), among a few others. Samuel W. McClure, 27, was just listed as killed crossing the Potomac. Not sure he was fighting at the time, but it would seem to make sense. One infant died of “teething,” although that seems a little hard to believe.

The oldest to die was Susan Deisher. She was 89 and for her they just said “old age”. Nowadays, we smugly say there is no such thing; she died of some organ failure or cancer, etc., but, in a way, old age actually describes it better than cardiac arrest or the technical cause. Catharine Anderson made it to 86, dying of “old age” as well. I wonder if she and Susan knew each other. Both of them were born at the onset of the Revolutionary War. I guess between the railroads and the industrial revolution, they must have seen a lot in their time on earth.

Nineteen, or more than 10% of those who died never saw age 2, and fourteen of those never even saw 1. Five of that little group were slaves.

Forty six of the one hundred eighty nine, or just a smidge under a quarter of them were age 5 or under. This was not a great time to be a kid, but that has always been the case in the world until recently. I don’t have the heart to tell you how many of them lived only days. Makes you shiver.

Of the thirty two slaves who died that year, the most, five, were owned by Cary Breckenridge, who had a wealthy and powerful family, the only one on the list of whom I was familiar with his family and who I will talk about in a bit.

The oldest slave who died that year, Bill, was 80 and another was 70, both dying of “old age.” But most of the slaves who died were very young. In fact, almost 50% of those slaves were 10 or under. Phil, a slave, died on Christmas Day. I find it a little strange that he was one of only five of all of those who died in Botetourt County to do so in December, 1862. You’d have thought that would have been a bigger month for the reaper, given it was winter. Stranger yet, all five of those who died in December, did so on Christmas Day or after. Sounds eerily like a quota that had to be filled at the last moment. If you ever had a job where you had to bill out your time, you understand the end of the year rush.

The war took its toll too. One man died of camp fever at Richmond. Four were shot at Seven Pines, four at Gaines Mill, three at Williamsburg, one each at Leesburg, Malvern Hill, Sharpsburg, Richmond and Manassas. For four of them, I can’t tell you where it happened, and two were just listed as “Army” and “killed,” leaving aside the drowned McClure. There may be others, but you can’t always tell from the records. It seems to me that there should have been more deaths from disease in the army camps, and one instance of camp fever doesn’t seem quite right. Most of the soldiers died in what was known as the Richmond Campaign of ’62, of which Stonewall Jackson, who may have commanded many of them, served so brilliantly. I have a feeling gun shot might also refer to canon shot, but I’m just speculating. They also distinguish between dying of gun shot and gun shot wounds. I don’t.

Three Wrightsman sisters died, two in February, one in September, of unknown causes. One can only imagine their parents’ pain. Three Aldersons died too, all in their 20s, one at Seven Pines, the other two of diphtheria and pneumonia. Typhoid took three of the Murphy’s and three Glasgows perished too, two of them of the dreaded diphtheria.

George Morris died and three of his children, all of fever, all on August 24th. Three Harris’ died, ages 3, 6 and 8, all of diphtheria, all in August.

Many of the slave children who died may have been brothers and sisters too, but they didn’t have last names, so we can’t know.

Cary Breckenridge’s (sometimes Breckinridge) family bear some discussion. He was from one of those sterling Virginia families dating back to colonial times. His father, James, became quite wealthy, amassed some 4000 acres and built a mansion at Grove Hill in the Shenandoah Valley which I am planning on visiting sometime this year. I don’t even know if big house is still there. Cary studied law under the pre-eminent instructor of the time, George Wythe, who also taught Jefferson (Cary’s uncle was Jefferson’s attorney general) and John Marshall. Grove Hill is not that far from Monticello, and Jefferson visited him there as did Madison, Monroe, Patrick Henry and Edmund Randolph (a bigger deal back then, than now). His brother, John, was Jefferson's attorney general (almost VP in 1804), and figured prominently in the controversial Kentucky Resolutions. Love to see Jame's guest roster.

Cary was one of James’ two sons, but in 1844 he was all that was left and he moved into Grove Hill with his family. He served in some minor government posts, but concentrated on the estate. To document his wealth, only five families owned over 50 slaves in the County. His was second largest with 131.

Cary’s cousin, John, was vice president of the United States under Buchanan, and then a respected general and the last secretary of war for the Confederacy (and, actually, after Lincoln, received the most electoral votes in 1860).

Cary was way too old to fight in the Civil War himself, but he paid for a cavalry company and his five sons fought.

His son, Cary, rose to Colonel, and actually Brigadier General at the end, but he refused to use the rank because he never saw combat as one. Losing his three brothers (one of them, John, is on the 1862 list, dying at Seven Pines), he barely managed to keep his own, having five horses shot from under him and being wounded five times. He was also a prisoner briefly. A physical giant, he went on to some public posts, and lived until 1918, long enough for the First World War to happen. He had been a Botetourt County school superintendant by then for over thirty years.

His sister Lucy has had some small fame, at least among history buffs, because she kept a diary for two years during the war, which I understand is quite interesting, but I haven’t read. It, like too many other books, is on my list.

She was engaged twice, the first fiancĂ© dying in the war. The second she held off marrying as long as she could, having a low view of the institution – “A woman's lot after she is married, unless there is an immense amount of love, is nothing but suffering and hard work”. You might wonder then what her mother's life was like. She also seemed to have a great interest in flirting with her gentleman callers. She eventually did marry the poor guy, but, sadly, she lived only five more months after that herself. All that suffering and hard work, I guess.

She described herself as a “complete abolitionist,” and cried when she saw a young slave beaten, but, part of the reason she was against it was that she saw the “peculiar institution” as a burden on whites. She noted that she and her brothers were never allowed to strike or even scold a servant. Her desire was to fight along with the men, as she did not see female lives as being any more worthwhile of preserving than mens'. Plus, she seriously wanted to kill some Yankees.

I read Mary Johnston’s wonderful The Long Roll last year. She was a bestselling author of the early 20th century who was from my adopted hometown, and her account of the Civil War, which focused on Stonewall Jackson and his troops, was hailed by one major book review as the “best fictional study of the Civil War . . .” and got similar reviews from others. Her father was a major during the war and her older cousin was General Joseph E. Johnston. I’ve read that Margaret Mitchell claimed to have been intimidated by The Long Roll when she started the far more successful Gone with the Wind, but I can’t seem to verify it any way that satisfies me.

One character in Mary Johnston's story is named Cary and another has a last name Breckenridge. When I read The Long Roll, it immediately reminded me of the Breckenridge family history, particularly their kindness to slaves, and I believe aspects of different characters, particularly those from the two leading families, are drawn from them. I could be wrong, as while the family had strong credentials, they were not unique in Virginia.

I don’t know why there are no death records for 1863. I’m not sure anyone knows. The 1864 records show only forty three deaths, a dramatic improvement. There are no slaves listed at all on it and only eight free blacks, one of them dying at age 90. Hard to say what the absence of slave deaths means. Obviously, there was less death all around that that year, but could it have been because there were fewer slaves around too?

Of course, despite my faux-Yankee bashing at the top of this post, I am a Yankee through and through, regardless of where I live. When I read Civil War history, I am invariably rooting for the North, and champing at their incompetence, particularly the infantile Gen. George B. McClellan who has very few admirers since he and his wife died. But, if not for the issue of slavery, my sympathies would be with the South. I hardly want secession now, but I do believe it is as natural a right as it was at the time of our revolution. Certainly, I had greater admiration for the southern fighters, too, if much less so their government and economy. Both of those were more of a mess than they were in the north and it decided the outcome in my (and many others) opinion.

There is a point to all this going on about death and the like here. If you read a newspaper or an online forum these days, all you hear and see is how bad everybody seems to think it is these days. I can bellyache about the economy a bit too, if you hadn’t noticed. But, I do believe it will likely all work out some day, when it has to. It might not be fair when it happens, or pretty, but reckonings rarely are. I do remember dear old Grandma Sophie telling me when I was a little boy, you will stop eating sugar when you are ready and not before then. The old battleaxe knew something. And we will stop with the spending way over our heads someday too, but not before we are ready.

We are so much better off than we were in 1862. I can see dear old Bear commenting now - "You do realize that there was a bloody civil war going on then, you idiot" - but, I don't care if it was 1892, 1942 or 1972. We are so much better of now, it's not funny. 

No time in the history of the world has ever been as magnificent as it is now right here in our own country and much of the world. Even our poor are nowhere near as badly off as they once were. Even poor people in far poorer countries have a shot at a better life. Yes, we are congenital knuckleheads, and we screw a lot of things up, but collectively, we make a lot of things better too. Between our medicines, our communications and technology, the omnipresent free entertainment, our shops and products, life could not be better for the healthy, if you just open your eyes. And while we have the potential to destroy ourselves, why waste what time we have being depressed? At least give a little hurrah.

I heard a comedian, Louis C. K. talk about how he was on an airplane, sitting in a chair flying 34,000 feet above the ground, and the guy next to him was cursing because he couldn’t use the internet on his laptop. It was funnier when he said it, but you get the point.

I’ve heard all the arguments before - those poor people in The Congo are starving or being tortured and my aunt died of cancer at age 21. Was it Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer character who said if one person in the world was starving, he couldn’t sleep at night? I sympathize. It's really sad, but, at some point, you have to get over it or why not take the little pill you have hidden in the secret compartment in your tooth?

It’s not that everyone has it great, or the same fortune, and I’m sure not saying people are happier now, because we may be the whiniest babies in the history of the planet. Maybe that comes with all the success. I’m saying, collectively, we have the most magnificent lives and opportunities of any time, anywhere, ever. The fact that a technological moron like me can communicate with others thousands of miles away simply by typing on a keyboard and punching a few buttons should prove that. Even if you are massively depressed, and I know a bunch who are, you can take a little pill and make yourself feel better.

I’m also saying that there is so much we have now that we didn’t have before that we really need, health permitting, to be a little happier, a little more optimistic and stop the doomsday chants. Neither Bush nor Obama signals the end of the world (just maybe a horrifying financial disaster). Unless you have fantasies of being Conan the Barbarian, D'artagnan or Pericles, when in history would you have rather lived?

Were we alive in 1862, no matter where we might have resided, there would have been no feeling of security that we would not die of any number of diseases at any time. It's possible now, just not likely. When you see the devastation that was part of normal life back then memorialized in a document like this death list, it really comes to you - things are just not so bad.

We all have our personal problems, but nothing like the slaves faced or even the Breckenridge family or those who came before me in beautiful Botetourt County.

Now, shut up, America and try to enjoy yourself, for crying out loud.

Friday, July 09, 2010

New life for science

A few weeks ago I opened up The New York Times to find the claim by J. Craig Venter that his laboratory (the institute named after him) had created life. It was not a long or involved article. I saw very little about this on the news, and I’m including the internet.

Of course, there are some articles on it, but I suppose the most important one is found at http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/rapidpdf/science.1190719v1.pdf, which is the Science article in which it was announced by the creators. I did my best to read it, and hope I got the gist, but I'm not going to pretend I understood the details. Some things you don't have to go to school for. That you do.

But, I saw so little commentary on it that I wondered if most people even have a clue that this had happened. A few educated people I've spoken with had no idea at all. It seems like an event of cataclysmic proportions, over time much more important than what is going on in our government or world affairs. Freeman Dyson, the now elderly physicist who seems to be some people’s idea of a scientific genius wrote: “I feel sure of only one conclusion. The ability to design and create new forms of life marks a turning-point in the history of our species and our planet”

I find it hard to disagree. However you want to limit his achievement, and it is a step, not the whole enchilada, it seems remarkable enough and I feel like everyone should be jumping down saying “Oh, my God, Oh, my God, Oh, my God,” but instead we have a parade of yawns looking not unlike the pointless “gates” set up in Central Park a few years ago imitating art, an event that so offends my aesthetic sensibilities I had to make this unnecessary mention of it.

Let me start with some basics you probably don’t need – Who is J. Craig Venter? He is the biologist who a few years ago took on the federal government in a race to sequence the human genome – that is – read the chemical code which makes up the human genome or DNA. His approach to doing so – the shotgun sequencing method - was less accurate than the government's method, and controversial, but much faster. And, he was right; it was accurate enough. Soon, the government and his team were working together and accomplished the task much faster than either would have done alone.

Now, he and his new group have succeeded in creating the dna for a simple micro-organism synthetically and introducing it into the shell of another micro-organism. They claim they have created life.

If I’ve done a poor job of explaining what they did – I want to try again. DNA is the code of life - I know you know that – but bear with me so I can get to what I really want to talk about. This is from Wikipedia:

“Deoxyribonucleic acid . . . is a nucleic acid that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms and some viruses. The main role of DNA molecules is the long-term storage of information. DNA is often compared to a set of blueprints, like a recipe or a code, since it contains the instructions needed to construct other components of cells, such as proteins and RNA molecules. The DNA segments that carry this genetic information are called genes, but other DNA sequences have structural purposes, or are involved in regulating the use of this genetic information.”

Venter (who despite some popular opinion is not just the money man but a highly cited scientific researcher) and his team created a long strand of a DNA molecule which makes up the genome of a certain type of bacteria in the laboratory and successfully inserted it into another cell (which they did not create).

Some argue already that this is not creating life because they did not create the cell into which the dna was inserted. But, they do not claim to have created an entire organism. But, they do claim to have created synthetic, or man-made, life form – Mycoplasma laboratorium. Even if the original specimen partially existed before, the cell has replicated itself over and over again based on the synthetic dna. Did you read that? Each new cell has the synthetic DNA.

In order to keep tabs on the synthetic lines of cells they actually put a chemical watermark in it – things like the alphabet (or a code for it – again, don’t ask me), the names of the scientists, the cell’s own website and I forget what else.

The implications for this are astonishing, however inevitable it might have been to happen someday, and I doubt anyone can even now conceive the developments that will come out of it. I remember sitting in an IHOP many years ago with a friend who asked me what I thought would come out of the internet. We both agreed that it would change the world, but we couldn’t figure out how. Now, I’m no entrepreneur, but no one else seemed to have the answer to the many ways it would change the world either. There are now many thousands of applications now available to us, and it changes faster than anyone can even keep up with. Indeed, it is computer power that Mr. Venter suggests in the Science article that is the reason for the new developments ("Our ability to rapidly digitize genomic information has increased by more than eight orders of magnitude over the past 25 years.")

MIT's chief robotocist and artificial intelligence expert, Rodney Brooks writes that on one hand we can say the Venter bacterior is synthetic life, because the genome is synthetic, but on the other hand, we can't, because the ancestor was not synthetic. I think he misses the point. Yes, maybe the original creation was is only partially synthetic - but it lives. Remember, Frankenstein's monster was made up completely of a human being and its fictional re-animation was considered pretty exciting. Besides, its descendants were not only alive but all had the DNA that was man-made, including the water-marks.

Actually, Brooks also claims that Venter's genome decoding and his lab's removing of "100 out of 485 protein coding genes of what was already the shortest known genome of an organism capable of independent growth, and still the new genome supported continued growth and reproduction" were both much bigger surprises.

More, he writes, will need to be discovered before ethicists have something to worry about. First we need to discover -

"• a viable synthetic genome which mixes and matches genes from many species

• a viable synthetic genome which includes genes which have been designed rather than copied from existing species

• a bacterial line where the RNAs that decode the genome are also synthetic and which use a different encoding mapping three base pairs to amino acids — a bacterial line that uses new and different amino acids for the construction of proteins

• a eukaryote line that uses a synthetic genome, and all of the above innovations."
 
Again, I think he misses the point, even if he is a hundred times more adept than me at science - of course, this is a step. You read the Science article and you get that immediately. But, it is a magnificent step. I'm reminded of the Neil Armstrong quote - "One small step for man; one giant step for mankind." The theory of relativity did not come from nothing but from Einstein's trying to understand why existing theories seemed contradictory at points. All great scientists talk about standing on the shoulders of giants. The Greek who first thought, "hey, how about using letters for vowels too" already had an alphabet to work on too. The moon landing was a step, but wow!
 
Naturally, where there are stunning technological developments, there are ethical concerns. Some may fear the power to couple synthetic DNA with cloning and create new types of creatures, even super-humans who never age, never get bored, sneeze, nod off, worry and who can work indefinately. Of course, before they get to that we have to worry about the 6 foot tall house cats chasing pit bulls down the street and the like. With the recent work on the Genome of Neanderthal man (60 percent complete, as I understand it), we might just find out if they had speech, and given a second chance at life, prevail by making incredible lineman and tight ends.

NYU-Polytechnic's Nassim N. Taleb, whose pompous Black Swans I am now reading is an expert on "risk engineering" (trying not to laugh here - what the f*** is that? - although a lot of people find him quite important). Another day I will challenge, at least to some degree, his central thesis that unexpected events of the Jurassic Park variety are more important than the inductive reasoning (but I really should finish the book first, don't you think), so despised by philosophers and scientists, but for now, he writes:
 
"If I understand this well, to the creationists, this should be an insult to God; but, further, to the evolutionist, this is certainly an insult to evolution. And to the risk manager/probabilist, like myself & my peers, this is an insult to human Prudence, the beginning of the mother-of-all exposure to Black Swans. Let me explain.

Evolution (in complex systems) proceeds by undirected, convex bricolage or tinkering, inherently robust, i.e., with the achievement of potential stochastic gains thanks to continuous and repetitive small, near-harmless mistakes. What men have done with top-down, command-and-control science has been exactly the reverse: concave interventions, i.e., the achievement of small certain gains through exposure to massive stochastic mistakes (coming from the natural incompleteness in our understanding of systems). Our record in understanding risks in complex systems (biology, economics, climate) has been pitiful, marred with retrospective distortions (we only understand the risks after the damage takes place), and there is nothing to convince me that we have gotten better at risk management. In this particular case, because of the scalability of the errors, you are exposed to the wildest possible form of informational uncertainty (even more than markets), producing tail risks of unheard proportions.

I have an immense respect for Craig Venter, whom I consider one of the smartest men who ever breathed, but, giving fallible humans such powers is similar to giving a small child a bunch of explosives."

To the contrary, PZ Myers, a professor at the University of Minnesota writes that what we really have to worry about is not the problems coming from our infant-stride developments in genetics, but the little buggies who have been strengthened by natural selection for millions of years and want to eat us. He may be right about the buggies, but can't both things be a worry?

I believe that Taleb and Myers are both wrong, at least, potentially wrong - Taleb's black swan events could be positive as well as disastrous. We have something to say about that, if we manage our technology. On the other hand, Myers' may underestimate, for example, the damage a genetically altered honey bee might do, it got rid of all the other honey bees and then fizzled out.

We don't know. That's one of the great things about being a human in this amazing age. You just don't know what is going to happen next and the ability of us to transform ourselves and the future world may be extraordinary or disastrous, but probably both if history is a guide (Taleb would scoff at that thought). But, as a whole, humans are Vikings at heart, or at least Polynesians, and we don't just sit home. We keep doing new things. Does Nassim Taleb think that air conditioning was a bad thing? Because his black swans could have made that that a disaster too.

But, what of Taleb's comment about this being an insult to God (not to mention to evolution). What if scientists can in the near future actually create living organisms from scratch? Those believers should be careful in saying it can never happen, because one day, it is going to? And what if someday that creation includes a human? Will there be an argument made that it isn't human because, even if it has every wonderful saint-like quality you can imagine, it doesn't have a soul? 

Venter's triumph is just one of the developments that is going to so change the world that even the children today who grow up with the wonders of the internet as a given, will not recognize the world 50 years from now. I plan on being dead, of course, but I still think I will see changes that will be as astonishing as the moon landing was to people born in the 19th century.

One of the baby steps that I find marvelous is research on brain-machine interfaces. About seven years ago Duke University demonstrated rhesus monkeys controlling robot arms with their minds. More important, they showed that the monkey's brain adapted to treat the arm as if it was part of the monkey. It has been repeated elsewhere.

This research started in the 90s but has exploded. It is now possible with electrodes insterted into the brain's thalamus to digitally recreate what people are seeing. If this sounds like science fiction, it is not - it is just science.

Star Wars fans remember Luke Skywalker getting a synthetic hand, which immediately worked. That's not far fetched anymore. We also remember the character on Star Trek: The Next Generation where Jordy was able to see with special glasses. In the early 2000s, a man was already able to drive around a parking lot with the help of electrodes and glasses. Only a few years before his predecessor had to be hooked up to a two ton machine. How soon before it is possible to do it with a simple pair of glasses and a wireless device?

And, of course, they now have succeeded in having parapalegics move computer cursors. If parapalegics can do it, probably almost anyone can do it. And if we can move a cursor, we can make anything happen that is connected to the computer.

I'm not going to go on much of a fantasy flight here as to what might occur in the future. But, it occurred to me that my daughter's child, or at least her child's child, will someday have a computer chip implanted when she is born, and probably right into the fetus someday. I will suggest that we are on the verge of science outstripping or at least running alongside science fiction. At the very least, the writers are going to have to get more creative.

Bonus material:

Below has nothing to do with DNA. It is Louis Prima's band with Sam Butera doing Night Train. They were the best. I love watching Keely trying not to laugh. I'm so sorry I missed them. If only my time machine wasn't still broken.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Just another day in congress watching the ponys

I have to admit, I was a bit surprised by Elena Kagan’s testimony. After watching Sonia Sotomayor’s testimony at her confirmation hearing last year and being underwhelmed by her constitutional knowledge, and a bit concerned about her candor (I posted on her hearings on on Juy 17, 2009, if you have any interest and have absolutely nothing else to do including playing video games or thumbing your eye phone) I kind of expected more of the same from the Kagan, who, as solicitor general, job is arguing at the Supreme Court of the United States on behalf of the administration or on behalf of the country, depending on the view you take).

Kagan was much more impressive than Sotomayor. She clearly has a scholarly knowledge of the law. She clearly is comfortable with give and take on an intellectual level, and, like John Roberts did a few years ago, showed she was more than a match for the senators who tried to trip her up. I am not concerned in the least that she has never sat as a judge before. She is certainly capable of serving on the court and in my opinion, more so than Sotomayor, even if Sotomayor was a judge who has issued thousands of opinions. Quality matters, not qualifications.

But the hearings were the usual sad story, more about the senators who are on the judiciary committee and their theories and biases than it was about Kagan. This is not an unusual event. It is the rule. Having listened to her answer what are politely called questions for two days, I conclude that her testimony could have been concluded in a few hours, as she merely repeated bromides about not being able to discuss certain subjects, not having come to certain conclusions, not wanting to rate previous cases or other judges, mixed in with occasional glimpses of what passes for humor in Washington.

The Irony: One of the ironies of her testimony was the existence of her own law review article written years ago where she criticized these same confirmation hearings as being pretty much a waste of time. She suggested that the nominees should be a lot more open to answering questions about their opinion and that the senators could press more too.

Not surprisingly, although I think she genuinely tried to answer questions as fully as she thought was proper, her line in the sand for what was proper was much more conservative now that she is a nominee, than it was when she was just writing about it. In fact, she readily admitted this when speaking with Senator Graham. When she refused to answer a question for Senator Kohl as to what direction she would move the court, he pointed out that she had written that this was a fair line of inquiry. She merely smiled and said, “It is a fair question,” signaling that she wasn’t giving an answer anyway. He got it, laughed, and went on. Literally, he laughed, as if this is just a farce anyway, so hah hah. No one battered her about it and they could have.

That this was going to be the case – that her uninformed article proved to be just a mental exercise devoid of experience - was a foregone conclusion. If she intends to work with eight other Supreme Court justices, there is no way she was going to criticize them. If she intended to not let herself become a pin cushion for javelin throwing senators on the other side of the ideological spectrum, she wasn’t going to give away too much as to which way she might lead the court – left or right. However, she did acknowledge to the collegial Senator Graham that “progressive” pretty much described her politics (but wouldn’t play a role in her judging – hah hah).

If she wants not to have to recuse herself in the future, she isn’t going to comment on cases that might possibly come before her either. In fact, she acknowledged that Senator Hatch had the better of the argument with her that she really shouldn’t discuss older cases, because they might come up as precedent. What’s left? General observations about the law? Well, she was up to that, and impressed everyone as knowledgeable, just like Roberts and Alito did. Naturally, they could care less – all they really cared about was whether she was on their side or not – and they already knew that – and whether they would get a chance to “prove” their philosophical and political points.

This is what we call a horse and pony show. The shame is, because it is just a show, those who have great knowledge of the law – like Roberts, Alito and Kagan, can’t be easily weeded out from the Sotomayors and the like. It is too easy for supporters to say it's just partisanship, because there is so much of it.

I’ve watched all of these nomination hearings since C-Span started recording them in the 1980s, at least in some part. Kagan’s hearing convinces me more than ever that this is a total waste of time, at least the way that it is done. Her article was right.

The plan: Here’s what I would do if we can't just get rid of the hearings totally. Obviously, these changes would need to be instituted by the Senate, as constitutionally, they get the call as to their own rules. Make them much shorter. There is no reason for a full day where the senators make opening remarks and then the nominee makes one. They can do this in an article or blog and it would get much more coverage.
 
Next, the senators should ask only serious questions to ask that might make a difference in the ultimate voting – that is – if the other side has the votes, don’t bother absent some overwhelming necessity. The only way for this to work would be for the minority side to say – okay, we don’t like him or her, but we know the other side has the votes and there is no great principle at stake. However, the trade off is the other side has to do the same thing when the tables are turned. Once someone violates it, the gloves are off and we are back to this nonsense.

If the nominee is at least relatively qualified, they certainly shouldn’t waste time asking about the law. Most of the questions seem to be just making obvious political points – the liberals think the cases that were won at the Supreme Court on conservative votes were bad cases – like Citizen Union or the recent gun case. The conservatives think the ones the liberals won (usually meaning, they got Justice Kennedy to vote with them) are bad. We get it. In fact, no matter what she says about just following the law (as if there is a law out there in a box somewhere that can be delved into), and her deference to preference, and that the worse thing you can say about a judge is that they are results oriented, when she gets to the court, she is going to do exactly what Sotomayor did and Roberts and Alito did. They all had similar hearings in the last few years and testified to their impartiality and to their just following the (so-called) law. Were I a senator, I would say this plainly – “You are going to vote with Ruth Ginsberg a lot, aren’t you? You don’t know? Want to bet? Let’s make a bet for charity right now.” Senator Sessions 'remarks on day 2 that he couldn't tell whether she'd more likely side with Justice Roberts or Justice Ginsberg was just silly. I mean, really? It sure seemed like he could tell.

A few years ago I went to a talk given by Jeffrey Segal, a professor at Stony Brook University, who was briefly my department head when I was an adjunct instructor there (although grandly called “professor” by students, no matter how many times you tell them you aren’t). He had researched the accuracy of newspaper opinion pieces on whether the Supreme Court nominees will tend to vote left or right will do so when they are confirmed. He found that the predictions were extremely accurate. This might seem obvious, but he gave empirical evidence for it. However, as a matter of common knowledge, other than justices Blackmun, Stevens and Souter, everyone else in the last 30 years + has, generally speaking, acted on the bench pretty much as we’d all suspect by virtue of the fact of who nominated them.

What should the Senate ask the nominees about? In my opinion, pretty much nothing if there aren’t real smoking guns in their personal lives or views on the constitution that are so far out of the mainstream as to be dangerous (e.g., I would refuse to apply any of the bill of rights against the states – a statement which would be accurate but considered crazy). The fact that the nominee has a conservative or liberal viewpoint should be irrelevant. In our system, they probably wouldn’t get nominated if they didn’t. No matter what they are asked by the senators, it isn’t going to affect the votes they eventually make. Promises or platitudes given at the confirmation hearing will get all the respect presidents give campaign promises later on.

If there is some character flaw that needs looking into, the sort that might get them impeached if it came out, fine. But, those will be exceedingly rare. The two attempts that come to mind – Justice Thomas being questioned about making a couple of off color jokes (really, none of the senators who pilloried him have ever done that?) and Justice Rehnquist being questioned about having bought a vacation home which contained a discriminatory covenant (which, as he pointed out, was illegal and of no effect anyway). Both, in my mind, were mere partisan attacks, and had little to do with their fitness to be a supreme court justices, or in Rehnquist’s case – chief justice. Justice Bork's hearing was different - it was not his character that was questioned but his constitutional beliefs. He too was qualified to sit on the court.

Very few people are watching these hearings anyway. There is the usual unimaginative commentary on the news, but that tends to have more to do with moments of levity or indicia of temperament by the nominee or the senators, or maybe some dramatic spin by one of them one way or the other.

Levity: As Senator Hatch noted, if they didn’t have a little give and take between the senators occasionally, that place would be boring as hell. Unfortunately, senators aren’t funny as a rule. Neither are nominees. Every once in a while someone is going to try to make a joke and everyone will laugh just because someone tried. Even worse, if someone succeeds in making a funny, the usual follow up attempts at humor fall flat. I will demonstrate one for the sole purpose of discouraging the senators from even trying in the future.

When asked what she doing one Xmas day (when the failed Xmas Day bombing occurred) she responded that like all Jews, she was at a Chinese restaurant. Kagan may be Jewish but she isn’t Groucho Marx. Sure, the Chinese food/Jew joke is a standard of the Jewish repetoire. In fact, I’m pretty sure I have actually made that joke or something like it. It’s not really that funny. But, the follow up attempts by Sen. Leahy that he saw it coming, by Senator Graham that he did too, by Leahy again that he had just learned that (about Jews and Chinese food) from Sen. Schumer and by Sen. Schumer that no other restaurants are open – they were chill inducing. If you were at a comedy club you would climb under your table and use it for cover while you hopped towards the exit.

We will be hearing from now on what a great sense of humor she has. To be fair, she does have a sense of humor and she is very personable. But, great sense of humor – only in comparison to the senators.

There was some genuinely funny stuff, like when Kagan said the worst kind of judge is results oriented – that is, they shape their rationale to reach a decision. It’s funny because, although I believe that all the Supreme Court judges are guided by their jurisprudence, they are also guided by their politics, and sometimes distinguishing between the two is impossible. I'd like to know who she thinks doesn't do that.

It was funny when a couple of senators agreed that her “sense of humor” will be needed to moderate the court – as if she can walk in and say, “Nino, take my gavel, please,” and Scalia will say, “That’s so funny – I guess the second amendment doesn’t provide an individual right to bear arms.”

The senators: Very few have done themselves a lot of credit in this process. Senator Graham was collegial and civil with her, and led her down a path he wanted on national security and abortion, although in the end, I don’t believe hereally laid a glove on her. I'd give him the award for best try though. A former JAG attorney, he impressed me with his ability to make at least small points by cajoling, giving up his own points and staying away from character. It’s probably one of the reasons he isn’t always so popular on his own side – fraternizing with the enemy.

The two had several interesting dialogues, but the first one tickled me most. He asked her if under our domestic laws, a person could be locked up indefinitely pending trial. She said no and there should not be such a case. He agreed. That interested me, because the Supreme Court has pretty much just permitted that and quite recently. In fact, in U.S. v. Comstock, the Supreme Court has permitted states to keep sexual predators who have completed their sentences indefinitely without even a new charge brought OR CONTEMPLATED against them.

Now, forget that policywise, this might reassure all of us. Who wants some crazed child rapist out there menacing the public? But, as a matter of constitutional due process, it is, of course, an insane case. While I won’t go into my usual rant here that the constitution doesn’t really work and we just pretend it does, this case perhaps solidifies that position. We must follow the law wherever it takes us, the nominees tell us, but, in reality, when they don’t like where it takes them, they just do what they want.

I appreciated Senator Specter’s approach at this hearing too. If there is anyone who isn’t beholden to either party on the committee right now, it is him, because he isn’t running for re-election anymore, having lost the primary. But, although technically a Democrat, he is one of the real independents in congress, and he went after her for not answering questions that were important to him. Nor did he waste time with the usual pleasantries that are so meaningless.

Whenever she was going through the same blather she had said earlier, he interrupted and said he was just going to move on because either she was repeating herself or wasn’t going to give him an answer. That might strike some as uncivil or testy (he is the oldest one on the committee, I believe), but he wasn’t. He was actually nice to her – he just didn’t waste time with the usual nonsense, or by being overly collegial when he had such a short time to question her.

Specter cared most about the court’s lack of deference to the legislature. This has always been a big concern to him no matter who is being confirmed. As with her testimony that she revered the military, she claimed great deference to congress. And I suspect she will give great deference to them – that is, when it supports the policies she likes. Otherwise, probably not.

The minority leader on the committee is Jeff Sessions (“ranking member”). He went after Kagan for banning the military from the normal channels of recruiting during her tenure as Dean of Harvard Law School. The exchange was a little hot and there were times he looked like he might like to reach for his gun. She won the debate in my opinion. According to her, the military was never banned from the campus, but only from recruiting through the office of career service (they used a veterans' group office - the whole thing was just another horse and pony show), because the military’s policy of “don’t ask/don’t tell” violated Harvard’s own anti-discrimination policy. She claims great respect for the military, that recruiting actually went up when she was Dean, and that when a court of appeals’ decision ruled for the military, Harvard didn’t wait for the Supreme Court to rule, but acquiesced with the military’s requirements (the Supreme Court, she noted, ruled 9-0 against Harvard later anyway). Sessions claimed that she only acquiesced because they were told they would lose hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from the government. He may be right, but it is a hard point to prove.

At the end, Sessions lost it a little, and said that her testimony was unconnected to reality – that he “knew” what she had done. He knew how active she was in opposing the military in that situation; knew that she only buckled because of the threatened loss of money to the school; and that instead of complaining to congress about a law she didn’t like, had taken it out on military recruiters who had served the country. I could only conclude he went on that tirade because he hadn’t proved anything, and had thought it was going to be easy. I’ve been there with witnesses. It’s frustrating. But, if he was right about what really happened, he certainly didn’t present it that well, and she did. I don’t know who was correct about the facts. I do know that she appeared to have, by far, the better of the argument.

In fact, when Senator Graham, whose tolerant and collegial style seems to have the most effective style in dealing with her, and Senator Hatch with a more aggressive but still avuncular style, each took a stab at it, they couldn’t make a dent in her story either. It did have the ring of truth. I think their problem was that they were afraid of getting into a “gay” thing with her (she is believed to be by some, a lesbian) and accused of being discriminatory. So, they didn’t question her about the things she said or how she felt, but only on the facts of what she and Harvard (the school had a president) did.

Although Sessions did look bad in whining a bit about it, particularly to the microphone during a break, he can feel good that he didn’t look quite as bad as Senators Biden and Schumer did during the Robert’s hearing a few years back.

Other than the back and forth with Lindsay Graham, the most interesting questioning came from Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, who has a strong libertarian streak. He asked her if she ever thought about whether she was more free 30 years ago than now. Strange question, but I believe he was sincere. She said no, she hadn’t. Furthermore, it was not something a judge would be thinking about in making a decision, but more something a congressperson should think about. He went on to talk about the changes in freedom since he was 20, 42 years ago, and that he feels we were much freer then.

That is a telling comment. In some ways, he is probably right, particularly if you are someone who is concerned about government ownership of business and certain erosions of the bill of rights. But, I’m not so sure many black people, or women or other so called “minorities” feel that way. They might feel that for the first time in the last forty to sixty years, they are free. In fact, it might also be that many or even most adult Americans who can remember feel more free today than in the 1960s or 1970s, despite what Senator Coburn thinks. No doubt white males have less power and prominence than they used to, and that might be why he sees less freedom than someone else. In fact, for all he or I knows, most people might feel more free today, but that may also be a product of many things, some which are more related to growth of the economy or technology.

Partisanship: Of course, the usual mindless partisanship was well in view. Liberals seem to think that conservative activism on the bench, highlighted by this year’s Citizen United case and the second amendment cases, is out of control. Conservatives have always claimed that the liberal end of the bench wants to do nothing but create law and only the heroism of the right wing on the bench prevents that. The primary target of the conservatives at this hearing seemed to be Justice Thurgood Marshall, who happens to be long dead, but is the justice for whom Kagan clerked for some 25 years ago and of whom she was quite fond. The conservatives are sure that Sonia Sotomayor had violated her promises to the senate made in her confirmation hearing in her votes on the bench already. The liberals are sure that Justice Roberts and Alito have violated their promises since they took the bench a few years ago. A few of the senators even acknowledged the partisanship in all these statements and I personally thank them for the briefs moments of sanity. It does get ridiculous after a while. In fact, Sen. Graham pointed out that an “activist judge” just seemed to be one who they disagreed with, since she didn’t want to “say” who she thought might be an activist judge.

The fact that I had the slightest hope that this would be different, well, I guess I'm just a cheery optimist. Of course, when there is another hearing – the sitting judges are not exactly spring chickens – I will watch it, despite the fact that it will be just another waste of time, because, hypocrisy and train wrecks are fascinating.

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 . . . .