Friday, July 21, 2006

Devastation in Beirut: This is what it looks like when they decide to go ahead and 'give war a chance'

Senseless violence has been begetting more senseless violence, civilians are being collectively punished for other people’s sins, and a great city is being destroyed -- once again.

This is what happens when people “Give war a chance.” That was the callous catch phrase Thomas Friedman coined in the spring of 1999 during the NATO bombing of Serbia. He took up the cry again in the fall of 2001. Friedman seems to have tired of the phrase, but Israel seems to have made it a matter of national policy, with the U.S. acting as cheerleader and enabler.

Beirut is being destroyed. Robert Fisk, the Middle East correspondent for The Independent, has written “A farewell to Beirut,” about the destruction of the city he loves and where he has lived for many years. (Thanks to Florida Democrat at Daily Kos for the link.) This is what it looks like when they give war a chance. Fisk is talking to some non-combat Lebanese soldiers who are trying to restore city services.
I knew one of them. "Hello Robert, be quick, because I think the Israelis will bomb again, but we'll show you everything we can." And they took me through the fires to show me what they could of the wreckage, standing around me to protect me.

A few hours later the Israelis did come back, as the men of the logistics unit were going to bed, and they bombed the barracks and killed 10 soldiers, including those three kind men who looked after me amid the fires of Kfar Chima.

And why? Be sure: the Israelis know what they are hitting. That's why they killed nine soldiers near Tripoli when they bombed the military radio antennas. But a logistics unit? Men whose sole job was to mend electricity lines?

And then it dawns on me. Beirut is to die. It is to be starved of electricity now that the power station in Jiyeh is on fire. No one is to be allowed to keep Beirut alive. So those poor men had to be liquidated.
This is just one short passage in Fisk's powerful indictment of the destruction of Beirut and the world's equally powerful indifference. The article as a whole is heartbreaking. Don't miss it.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Elmhurst leads the nation in using Google to search for sex, but in Madison we'd rather impeach the president and find a good brat

Google Trends Update: Thanks to Doug Moe writing in Madison's Capital Times for this tip allowing me to add an impeachment update to my post back last May about Madison and what Google Trends says about what's on our minds. It's nice to know that not all vestiges of radicalism have disappeared from our fair city. Portland seems to be trying, but we're still in first place. (Interesting geographic footnote: Madison is the only city among the top ten in Google impeachment searches that's east of the Mississippi.)

Totally nicotine-free at last, I try to prove to myself I don’t have to be so damn wordy in order to communicate

I’ve been smoke-free for eight months and then some. Nicotine is a different matter. I kept using the patch and cutting it up into smaller and smaller pieces, finally using only one-sixth of a 21mg patch (for which you need really sticky patches -- I’ve found the generic ones at Target work best) the last month or so. And then I stopped using that.

I thought it would be easy. It was just that little, teeny bit of a patch, a good deal less than 10 percent of the nicotine I used to regularly ingest -- the equivalent of less than four cigarettes a day, nothing for a real addict like me. That should be easy, right?

Wrong. We’re talking hardcore here, with my system so dependent on that last little nicotine lifeline that’s it’s actually been kinda rough. It’s made me grouchy, which is probably an understatement. And it’s made me wordy. But after a week now, it’s getting better. I guess I’ll live. And in an attempt to prove to myself that this logorrhea isn’t permanent, I thought I’d try some short posts.

So cool. And couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

Ann leaves her window open.
And water and stuff comes in.

Dick Cheney as first amendment poster child? Nah.

Bush. Really. Does. It. Right up there with the Scopes trial.

Books on demand. One at a time.

A few of us say a lot, most of us say very little. Cell phones? No, blogs.

Out of control radicals? Kossacks? No, neocons.

Had enough?

"Literature and butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man." -- Vladimir Nabokov.

For the next month, Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison will be hosting thousands of Vladimir Nabokov's favorite creatures at their Blooming Butterflies event.
Discover rare tropical treasures hidden in the heart of Madison! Experience the wonder of strolling through a tropical rain forest on a search for fleeting butterflies. Live butterflies are emerging from chrysalises daily in the Bolz Conservatory. The Bolz Conservatory, which will house the live butterflies, is a two-story glass pyramid filled with exotic plants from around the world, a rushing waterfall, fragrant orchids, and free-flying birds, and for one month out of the year, thousands of colorful butterflies. The dainty painted lady, the exquisite swallowtail, the tropical zebra butterflies, and many others will all float through the lush greenery feeding on the nectar of bright flowers. Up to two dozen species of butterflies, native to both Wisconsin and tropical areas of the southern United States, can be seen at various times during the exhibit.
The event runs daily, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., through August 13. Bring your camera. When I took this photo several years ago, butterflies were almost flying into my camera, there were so many of them.

At the same time, in St. Petersburg, Russia, Nabokov and his love of butterflies and what it meant to his writing are being commemorated by a photo exhibit at the Nabokov Museum. The International Herald Tribune reports:
Scholars of Nabokov's writing have never quite known what to make of his work as an entomologist. Some have regarded it as a sideshow, part of a carefully crafted effort to shape his public image. Andrew Field, his first biographer, once called it "an elaborate literary pose."

But those who play down the seriousness of Nabokov's interest in butterflies tend to overlook the fact that he worked as an obscure curator of lepidoptera for seven years. From 1941 to 1948, he was a part-time research fellow at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, reorganizing its butterfly collection and publishing several well-received scientific papers.

Now, Dmitry Sokolenko is trying to reconcile the two Nabokovs once and for all. Sokolenko, 29, of St. Petersburg, has organized an exhibition in the city's Vladimir Nabokov Museum that probes the links between the writer's art and his science. Titled "The Nabokov Code," a riff on "The Da Vinci Code," it juxtaposes quotes from Nabokov's books with full-color images of butterfly parts.
The photos were taken by microbiologist and photographer Sokolenko under a microscope of the kinds of details Nabokov would have observed closely when he was working on the butterfly catalog at Harvard. The photos are accompanied by quotations from Nabokov's writing. Sokolenko's thesis is that Nabokov was really a scientist first and a writer second, and that the scientist's habits of observation influenced his development as a writer.
"When you do what Nabokov did, when you shift your focus from entomology to literature, you hold onto all the methods and research tools that you've been using for years," Sokolenko said in an interview before the exhibition opened in early July. "I think that his painstaking attention to detail could only have come from his profession, from what he was doing in entomology."
While the exhibit showed under the gimmicky name of "The Nabokov Code" to piggyback on you-know-what's PR blitz, it previewed with the more poetic title of "Les Papillons de Nabokov" in France back in June. There are plans for the exhibit to come to the U.S., though times and venues have not been confirmed yet. Find out more about the show at the museum's website, which shows reproductions of some of the closeup photographs.

Want to know more about Nabokov and his love for butterflies? A good place to start is the fragment of unpublished lecture notes entitled "Invitation to a Transformation" from the famous classes Nabokov taught at Wellesley and Cornell in the 1940's and 50's. The New York Times published the passage a few years ago on the 100th anniversary of his birth. Read the piece HERE and see how Nabokov uses the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly to start talking about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Bombing pattern

The blogosphere makes it possible to see patterns in new ways. In searching for blog posts about the conflict in Lebanon, I came across the Lebanese Political Journal, a group blog published in Beirut. LPJ is one of those blogs that has its Site Meter open to the public. This sharp spike is what I saw when I opened the screen showing visits in the last month. You'll note that traffic had been running at a couple hundred visitors a day until July 12, when it doubled. Four days later it had reached about 9,000. It's not hard to imagine what happened.

You might call it a bombing pattern, or rather, the pattern made by an entire bombing campaign waged this last week against Israel's northern neighbor. And when you zoom in on the human stories behind the pattern, it's heartbreaking -- senseless death and destruction, real human beings indelibly changed and traumatized.

The blog was started little more than a year ago by Lebanese students who apparently have family and friends in the U.S., moderate liberals trying to build bridges to Israel, and working to lessen the influence of Syria and Hezbollah in the complex political life of Lebanon. The blog demonstrates, heartbreakingly, how the first thing smashed in a war is the safe place to stand in the middle of the road. You're lucky if you can make it to a bomb shelter.

Read this blog. It's one thing to experience war through the eyes of journalists, no matter how brave, not to mention pundits pontificating from thousands of miles away. It's something else to get the view from the ground of people living through it. These are the kinds of stories that, in the past, we would read in people's memoirs years after the fact. Today we sweat it out live, as events unfold.

Here's Lebanese Lady in a post titled "Leaving."
I feel guilty that I'm lucky enough to be able to leave and start my life in a safe and booming country, while my friends, neighbors, colleagues, and family have to live through this. Is the true Lebanese the one that is born, lives, and dies on his/ her soil? I tell myself that I need to travel because someone has to come help reconstruct Lebanon later on.... Half of me is being torn out of here. Ironically, it is also a half moon tonight.

Let me give you some personal anecdotes:
- Mohammad, my neighbor's driver: Drove 10 hours through dustiest mountain roads to reach his family in the south. He arrives to find that his mother was killed on the first day of the raid. His eyes are black sockets...

-Mazen: left his house in Beirut to go to the mountains. He has just heard that refugees from dahyi have broken into it and are squatting there.

- Dina: A recent university graduate. I remember how bright her eyes were when she told me she had just got her first job, how she talked about having her whole future in front of her, in this great company. Having worked for a week, Dina is now at home, all the time. Nobody is working anymore...

- Fred: Fred went through 4 interviews to get his current job in a multinational company. He was set to start on August 1st. He was supposed to sign his contract tomorrow.... The company is in shipping. (updates: all ports are under seige, and Tyre, Sidon, and Beirut Port have all been shelled, the lighthouse too.)

- Mayssa: a classmate of mine from a month ago. she lives in dahyi. The last we have heard of her is that she was in a shelter there. (update: Dahyi has been bombed every single night the past five days.. Dahyi has been annihilated)

These are just stories on the surface... Dig just a bit deeper, and you will just get a glimpse of the real destruction going on here. And it will continue, long after I have left in a couple of hours.
Like Lebanese Lady, the other bloggers are also leaving (which is probably one reason for the decline in the number of visitors). But before they left, they documented what it feels like to have a war sweep over you out of the clear blue -- nobody had predicted or expected this mess -- and completely tear apart your life, in posts like these that correlate with the dates on the chart:

July 12: Is It War?
July 13: 3:36am Israeli Planes Over Beirut
July 14: Airport Terminal Hit
July 15: Becoming a Refugee and To Everyone Who Thinks Israel's Campaign Is Just Fine and Dandy
July 19: Situation Will Get Worse When Americans Are Gone

These are just a few of the posts that chronicle the last week. Take some time to visit. And then go back to the earlier time when the blog was just another little blog with just a few hundred hits a day and nobody had any idea of what lay just ahead. It's haunting.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

"Carry me along"

Worked late tonight, so it was dark as I rolled into Madison along John Nolen Drive past the Alliant Energy Center and the Dane County Fair. Hung a last-minute left on Rimrock, parked momentarily and illegally, and snapped some pictures with my trusty standy, my good old 2-megapixel Minolta Dimage X that's always with me. What was that line from James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake" that night views of carnival skylines always remind me of?
Carry me along, taddy, like you done through the toy fair.
It's an absurd association. The line comes near the end of the book, has nothing to do with the Dane County Fair, and as nearly as I can make out, is set in the daytime. But it's always there, ready to jump out at me like a jingle fragment I can't get out of my mind, every time I see carnival lights. Go figure.

Bonus Link and Serendipitous Digression: Ever wonder what it would have been like to be reviewing "Finnegans Wake" on deadline for The New York Times when it first came out -- and what you would have said? While checking the quote on Google, I came across this 1939 review by Padraic Colum.
How, in two thousand words or less, is one to review a book which even a cursory examination shows to be unprecedented, a book of considerable length by a thoughtful and tremendously equipped man who has spent sixteen years writing it? The only thing one can do is to indicate the value of the work and to show a way of approaching it with lessened perplexity. I say lessened perplexity, for a certain perplexity cannot wholly be removed from a reading of it and the present reviewer freely acknowledges that there is much in the book that he is still seeking explanation for.

Language, nothing less than the problem of conveying meaning through words, is the first term we have to discuss in connection with "Finnegans Wake." Let us get away from the book for a moment and begin by saying that writing today -- I mean what can be described as imaginative writing -- is dissociated from the value-making word: that is, it is writing, passing from the brain through the hand to the paper without ever coming out on the lips to be words that a man would say in passion or merriment. I am not speaking now of magazine writing, but of the writing of authors of status -- John Galsworthy, for instance. As I write this sentence I see the title of a moving picture before me: it is "The Lone Ranger"; I think that there is more verbal creation in these words than in chapters of Galsworthy's. "Ranger" is a real word, holding a sense of distance, suggesting mountains; "lone" beside it makes the distance inner. There are great writers today who do not put us off with destitute words: Yeats's "The dolphin-torn, the gong-tormented sea" are value-making words.

The problem of the writer of today is to possess real words, not ectoplasmic words, and to know how to order them. They must move for him like pigeons in flight that make a shadow on the grass, not like corn popping. And so all serious writers of English today look to James Joyce, who has proved himself the most learned, the most subtle, the most thorough-going exponent of the value-making word. From his early days Joyce has exercised his imagination and intellect upon the significance of words, the ordering of words. We have the youth of "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" meditating upon a sentence he has read:

"...A day of dappled seaborne clouds."

The phrase and the day and the scene harmonized in a chord. Words. Was it their colors? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the gray-fringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colors: it was the poise and balance of the period itself.
"The problem of the writer of today is to possess real words, not ectoplasmic words, and to know how to order them" -- I love that. It's a great start, and Colum continues in a similar vein. Check out the entire review HERE. He has some interesting insights -- and his review neatly refutes the stereotype that critics never understand revolutionary new art.

My computer is haunted by the ghostly electronic traces of the architects of war.

Arianna has a great post today titled “Where Have All the Architects of War Gone?” In other words, now that the entire Middle East seems to be going up in flames, what ever happened to all the deep thinkers who got us in there in the first place?

I know where they’ve gone. They’re hiding in my computer.

I’ve posted before on how my computer is haunted by neocons. It’s because of the name of my blog, Letter from Here. If I log on too quickly with Firefox and don’t type in the entire name, my browser will go right to this:
… the infamous January 26, 1998 letter to President Clinton from the Project for the New American Century urging him to attack Iraq and topple Saddam. Here it is -- clear proof that my computer is haunted by neocons.

It makes chilling reading now, for it suggests that well before 9/11, and in fact, nearly three years before George Bush took office, the neocons around him were pushing for war with Iraq, and that any later connection with the “war on terror” was purely coincidental.

You can see for yourself: Go to the document. Search for the word “terror.” You won’t find it. They hadn’t thought of that yet. They were still talking WMDs and not letting the U.S. be intimidated by the UN.
The January 26, 1998 letter was signed by Elliott Abrams, John Bolton, William Kristol, Donald Rumsfeld, Zalmay Khalizad, Paul Wolfowitz and a dozen other neocons. But those aren’t the only neocons haunting my computer. See the tab at the top of the letter, titled Statement of Principles? That will take you to this June 3, 1997 statement, which is signed by some of the same people who signed the cover letter, and 16 additional hawk geniuses, including Dick Cheney and, of course, “Scooter” Libby. It’s the same Statement of Principles that Arianna refers to in this passage about Cheney:
The neocon fantasy was summed up by Dick Cheney, a charter member of the Project for a New American Century brigade, in August 2002: "Regime change in Iraq would bring about a number of benefits to the region: extremists in the region would have to rethink their strategy of jihad, moderates throughout the region would take heart, and our ability to advance the Israel/Palestinian peace process would be enhanced."
Yes, we've just been "enhancing" that peace process ever since we roared into Iraq with all the cocky overconfidence that Arianna documents so heart-wrenchingly. These guys need to be held accountable. Meanwhile, I wish they would just get the hell out of my computer.

If they had just named it ChryslerMercedes eight years ago, Dr. Z wouldn’t have to do all this explaining now

At the time of the merger between Chrysler and Daimler-Benz eight years ago, the latter owned one of the world’s best-known brands equated with engineering quality -- Mercedes. It would have made sense to port the Mercedes name over to Chrysler, giving the fading Detroit brand some instant German engineering street cred. Instead, eight years later, they’ve finally given it a German voice.

The trouble was, the merger became a classic case of a brand extension that turned into a muddled compromise in order to avoid cheapening the original brand. In other words, while the Mercedes brand would have brought some much-needed engineering panache to the Chrysler name, the reverse spelled trouble -- who would want to buy a Mercedes that was associated with Detroit’s number three automaker, Chrysler?

Instead, Chrysler was paired with the name of the German parent company most Americans don’t know from Adam, and which, just to add to the confusion, was spelled “DAME-ler” but pronounced “DIME-ler.” Recently it finally occurred to the company that most Americans had no idea what DaimlerChrysler was. That’s why the hyphenless hyphenated company has sent chairman Dieter Zetsche -- “Dr. Z” -- online and out on the road to scare reporters with his aggressive driving skills and puzzle schoolchildren with his jokes about muddy Jeeps. And to park his “stache” atop Google’s search listings for “mustache.”
Among the 2.2 million questions that have been submitted to since its creation July 1 came this query: “What happened to Lee Iacocca?” It is the question DaimlerChrysler officials hope most who see the ads will not ask.

Even Mr. Zetsche’s computer-generated double seems uncomfortable. “As Dieter himself will probably tell you,” Dr. Z responds, “a rigorous sales season warrants a rest afterwards. Maybe we’ll see him again!”
Maybe we will. Lee had a gift for simplicity that Dr. Z lacks: “If you can find a better car, buy it!” It's hard to improve on that, no matter how much you talk about German engineering while casually bouncing soccer balls off your head.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Eiffel Tower -- and a whole lot more -- comes to Madison

OK, so it was aproximately 321 meters shorter than the real thing in Paris. But, for something built by six-graders, it wasn't bad -- and it helped contribute some extra magic to the excitement at La Fete de Marquette over the weekend at Madison's Central Park-to-be. The slightly belated Bastille Day celebration featured good vibes, good food, crafts and some great music -- including Kekele, the all-star rumba band from the Congo we were lucky enough to hear Saturday night.

The event was also interesting in its "get them to come, and we'll build it later" approach to building buy-in and support for the proposed 17-acre near east side park and its $24-million fundraising campaign. Great idea.

Saving lives with graphic design

I loved these Ghost Bikes signs, which popped up in and around Madison a few weeks ago. Paul Soglin seemed to think they constituted a litter campaign, but I thought they were great.

What I especially liked about them was that the signs, featuring an abstract, ghostly bike constructed of skeletal white bones, employed stunning graphic design to raise awareness and make people think -- something that's easier said than done. Art directors' conferences often hold panel discussions about making the world a better place or promoting social change through graphic design. The trouble is, if there's a strong message, often the art suffers. If the art is strong, often the message is unclear or subordinated to the art. The Ghost Bikes sign campaign combined both in perfect balance. And they definitely made me think -- both when I was on my bike, and when I was driving my car.

I wondered who had designed the striking signs. Now, thanks to TDP's Madison Miscellany, I do. The creator was Michael Lemberger, a Madison graphic artist who finally decided to go public and take credit for his creation. Thanks, Michael!

Check out his blog, which has some great posts on bicycles and bicycling. This reprint with photo of a Sustainable Times story about him and his cargo bike is priceless. What's a cargo bike? All your questions will be answered here.
We've had lots of fun with this thing. Besides the countless trips to our community garden space, I've hauled insulation, lumber, paint, dog food, groceries, a bale of marsh hay and a whole bunch of interesting yard sale stuff.
Is it possible to use a bike as a mini-pickup truck? He makes a believer out of me.

"A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money."

There's an interesting post by aprichard on Daily Kos titled "The Importance of Understanding Large Numbers."
Our democracy depends on an informed electorate, but as the issues get more complex, and politicians become adept at the marketing tools and PR, it becomes more and more difficult to know what to believe. Putting large numbers in context will help.
The post offers some nice benchmarks for discussing issues involving numbers with our increasingly innumerate fellow Americans.

I added a comment saying that often it helps to begin discussion with a bit of humor, just to make it clear that you're not throwing around numbers just to show off (something that drives the innumerate nuts and makes them lose all perspective). Hard to beat the old classic:
"A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money." -- Attributed to Everett Dirksen
The quote is no less funny for there being very little evidence that the late Illinois senator ever said any such thing. There’s some fascinating background here -- including another funny story:
A gentleman who called The Center with a reference question relayed that he sat by Dirksen on a flight once and asked him about the famous quote. Dirksen replied, "Oh, I never said that. A newspaper fella misquoted me once, and I thought it sounded so good that I never bothered to deny it."
Of course, with the jokers we have in the White House now, it should probably be amended to "A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you're talking about trillions."

Poetic license

Man, did it get hot this weekend!

True to form, Maxwell Street Days took place on Madison's hottest weekend of the year. What wasn't typical was that the sky was a deep, stunning blue. Usually when it's sizzling like that, the sky gets all pale and washed-out from the heat and humidity, but Saturday it was just a piercing, cerulean blue, more like a California sky than a midsummer Midwestern sky. I wanted to capture the unusual intensity of the sky, so I decided to use an old photographer's trick to give the sky more color saturation -- use a polarizing filter. When things work right, it can be a striking effect -- not very realistic, but definitely dramatic. Trouble is, there's no way you can screw a polarizer onto my point-and-shoot. So I decided to try something I read about in a camera magazine once -- that is, hold one lens of a pair of Polaroid sunglasses in front of your camera lens. The sunglasses should darken the sky.

It half-worked. The sunglasses did indeed darken the sky, but the blue got lost. The orange tint, however, does give a sense of the oppressive heat that has settled over the city.