Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A Good Week for Death

It has been a good week for death. But not in the way you might think.

True, there have been a number of prominent deaths: filmmakers Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni; the pioneering TV late-night host Tom Snyder; and Bill Walsh, the celebrated coach of the professional football team from San Francisco. There are probably a number of others that I've overlooked.

But Death, as I think Bergman himself discovered later in his career, does not play chess. Or if it does, it certainly does not seek to checkmate us into oblivion.

This is the lesson of the book with which many of us began this week, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. As I mentioned in my review, this 750 page conclusion to the Potteriad is, first and foremost, the completion to an insight teaching on death. Death in Nature is both consummation and transformation: it affords us the chance to see the poetry in a true life, and to contemplate the wondrous realities that await us all, beyond it.

In Rowling's story, Harry finds that the "deathly hallows" are useless--indeed, worse than useless, because they are the product of an illusion. The power and immortality of these objects are made of the same vapor as Voldemort's ambitions; their only strength is in deceit, their only substance is the corrupting corpse of belief. By leading Harry astray, the hallows steal his energy and persist, until the bubble of delusion is finally burst in the luminous scene at King's Cross Station, where a living truth shines into every corner, even the one where the squalling mutation of the baby Voldemort lies, helpless and ignored.

Death, Harry finds at last, is simply a movement between dimensions--"the last great adventure," as his mentor told him back in Harry's very first year at Hogwarts. Ghosts and tyrants fail to perceive this, and so they quail at the very gates of freedom, and retreat, either into a shadow-life or an obsession with power.

So even though Harry does not spend a day in class during his final Hogwarts year, his education is completed more fully than if he had spent the rest of his life at school. Dumbledore reveals to him the heart-knowledge that he will need to return to the earth and finish the work of killing ego, merely by facing it down and taking back the life that it steals from our misplaced fears. As in the graveyard of the fourth year, Harry does not need a killing curse to win; the disarming charm ('Expelliarmus') is all that is required to make Voldemort kill himself.

Perhaps what Harry learns in the end is that there are really no such things as wizards. There is only magic, and the humans through whom it is done. This is as every poet knows: we can never be the wind, but only the reed.

So it has been a good week for Death, because many of us have learned so much about its living reality. It is a beginning of a better understanding, which we will have to build upon from here. For has anything in all the world been given such bad press as Death?

It goes on, of course, to this day: in the same week as the deaths of those celebrated people mentioned above occurred, another story emerged in the news. You may have heard about Oscar the cat, a resident of a hospice center, who seems to have an unerring instinct for death. He visits those who are soon to die, and has proven himself so accurate in his "predictions" of death that the physician who works at the hospice wrote a piece in the New England Journal of Medicine about the kitty that one vapid news headline would call "The Grim Creeper".

The most likely truth is that Oscar knows what Harry Potter had to struggle to learn: that Death in the way of Nature is a movement between dimensions, a passage through a veil whose fluttering light conceals another dimension, into whose gentle realm the voyagers of Earth move with a reluctance swiftly followed by delight. Ghosts are made only by those violent and disastrous deaths that violate Nature, or by the inner suicides of tyrants. For these, Death is no more to be blamed than is Life.

This insight upon Death was expressed by a poet named Lao Tzu, in a teaching he delivered some two and a half millennia before Harry Potter first received, and survived, the mark of delusion that made him "the last horcrux":

To live in the Tao means abiding in the eternal—
Perceiving completely, with all one’s being:
Life is never exhausted;
It is only delusion that dies.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Into The Silence

How best to honor the memory of a man who gave the world so much? Watch one of his masterpieces again. Click the graphic to view The Seventh Seal.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Listening to the Quantum Song

Another weekend walk through Prospect Park, Brooklyn (music by Debussy, played by Peter Schmalfuss; Quicktime 5.2MB, 3:00, click to view)

I have very little of any value to teach, but here is something:

If I could be heard by the young as a sort of love advisor, my advice to them would be so plain: savor every caress, every night and day of ecstasy, every dance, every look, every touch.

Experience each of these, and each other, as if there were never to be another, even though there will be, and even though you may never have such a conscious thought (in fact, it's better if you don't).

After all, it is how you feel your way through life, not what you think about it, or how much, that matters.

Mind is always busy in the background; you don't need to force it. Focus instead on all your senses—those of your bodily organs and the others that whisper to the mind from within, the words and the images of the quantum song.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

One of the cool things about reading literature for meaning rather than form is that you get to review books like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows without giving away anything that would be considered a "spoiler." Herewith, then, a metaphorical review, if you will, of the last tome in the Potteriad, which I just finished this afternoon.

First, one background note: the reported online page scans from last week, along with the "news" of the prominent deaths in Book 7, turned out to be vapid falsehoods. Now this may have been simply a devious piece of hype-stirring on the part of the publishers and their advertising machinery: I put nothing past Madison Ave. and corporate America anymore. But I was certainly relieved to find that the "scans" were lies, because the outcomes they predicted made no literary or metaphorical sense. Once the ending is better known to all, we'll revisit this point.

This book helped me to confirm a loose formula that I have held about Rowling's work over the entire series, and it is this: the more the magic done in the stories is applied to ordinary living, the greater is its appeal and the more compelling the reading. But the more the magic strives toward the fantastical, the more tedious is the reader's experience.

Thus, the numerous and lengthy warfare scenes in this book are, like the slightly overwrought conclusion to the fifth book, somewhat turgid and dense, especially the Armageddon-like scene at the close of this 7th tome. I suspect this is what Kakutani of the Times was referring to in the complaint about "lumpy passages of exposition and a couple of clunky detours".

So it is no coincidence that the one place where Rowling's narrative fails to support her otherwise clarion message is in one of the warfare segments, where Harry—yes, Harry Potter—uses the "unforgivable curses" on another. In other words, he tortures a person, thus supporting that disgusting Bushspeak/Jack Bauer ideology that torture is OK as long as the good guys are doing it. The entire scene is a blot on an otherwise lovely conclusion to this epic series.

Yet that is as critical as I can be of Rowling's work, which in other respects glows with insight, intricately-ordered detail, and with the courage of an author willing to take on the most challenging human issues of truth and meaning.

One example prominent in this last story is death. By the end of Deathly Hallows, we have a broad view of Rowling's teaching on death. It is a movement between dimensions (according to the latest theories of quantum physics and nonlinear dynamics, there are somewhere between 12 and 26 dimensions, all but four of them outside the ordinary reach of human bodily consciousness). Since the characters of the Hogwarts universe are metaphorical creations, they are given the ability to move freely between and communicate across these dimensions.

This suggests a feature that the film versions of these novels have but poorly appreciated. The ghosts of Hogwarts, for example—presented as mere eye-candy in the Columbus films and generally ignored in the others except as plot-pushers and information-bearers—represent a crucial piece of these death-teachings in the novels. This seventh is no exception, with a ghost providing insight, and some delineation of the ordering of the formless realm in the closing scenes. The ghosts are a recurring and forlorn reminder—to Harry and to ourselves—of the grave consequences of a superficial understanding of death, such as those we find in the various institutional religions of the world. This feature of Rowling's work is perhaps worth the deepest attention and reflection from modern readers.

Another feature of the Rowling opus, again prominently explored in this last novel, is the destructive tendency of government to brainwash both grownups and children into the most insidious complacency, the most sheepish and slavish dependency, the most arrogant self-importance, the most violent and inevitably suicidal group mindsets. The best that can be said or expected of the State and of traditional, hierarchical group leadership is expressed near the end of the novel—which comes, appropriately, from a voice in one of those other dimensions:

...perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who...have leadership thrust upon them and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.

The last overall theme, to the Potteriad as a whole and this last novel in particular, concerns the nature and action of personal truth. Rowling teaches, above all, that truth is not a mysterious entity, either in its essence or its pursuit, except as we accept the Voldemort indoctrination of the individual's inadequacy before the group's supremacy; the weakness of the person beneath the rigid and engraved monuments of an institution. As we disperse or dis-spell (to borrow a magical expression) these points of dogma, then the mystery dissolves before us. When we penetrate the vapor of the Pensieve, light and clarity are revealed.

Another feature of truth that is beautifully revealed in this final story is that truth is never fixed in place or stuck in the ground of time: it is transforming rather than amorphous; expanding rather than evanescent; growing rather than dead or unyielding. In order for these features of truth to flow through our lives, we merely have to be receptive; open and sensitive to the change, flux, and growth of truth. Harry and his friends advance to the extent that their awareness of this remains clear and unobstructed by attachment or assumption.

A final comment to be made on Rowling's work as a whole concerns what is perhaps most topical about it. The Harry Potter novels comprise an alternative to the media-speak of our own government and its ideological parrots in television studios and newspapers. Today, we are still constantly hearing that "we must fight them over there so that we don't have to fight them here." The superficiality and destructive myopia of such phrases are revealed in the lessons and events of the Hogwarts stories, whose protagonists always seem to respond rather than assault; influence rather than occupy; defend rather than invade. The characters of Rowling's prose most often benefit from inner clarity in advance of outer action; their motto might well be "better to fight them in here (pointing within themselves) before we fight them out, or over, there."

Now that the readers of these stories understand (or soon will) the events and the outcomes for all their favorite characters, we may have reached the point where we may now seek some meaning from these tales. As I have mentioned before, it has been my experience, both in life and in the observation of government, legal affairs, and history, that real inquiry and true discovery only occur when everything is known. Thus, I would recommend to all readers who have experienced and loved these stories, that they work more deeply within themselves with the whole. Perhaps it is time, now that we know how it all "turned out", to turn within.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Friday, July 20, 2007

De-Toxing Fame

One final word on J.K. Rowling seems necessary, for though I've been critical of her involvement in what I call the "Cheney-fication" of her work, one overriding point to be made about her is that she has dealt admirably with an obscene level of fame.

Rowling has been dropped into a trap more perilous than devil's snare and has not just survived--she in fact stands as a living model of how to endure the assault of fame.

Nevertheless, no one truly thrives under fame's garish glare and noise, because it is, in fact, a poison to the living personality. A casual glance over the landscapes of Hollywood, professional athletics, and the mass media would be sufficient to remove any doubt as to the toxicity of fame.

Rowling's strategy on handling fame has probably been more instinct than calculation: she retreats, she stays in motion, she appoints guardians who keep the media and other hounds at bay, and she defends her private life like a mother bear protecting her cubs.

Though I am not, and never will be famous, I have learned something about fame from observation and inquiry. One secret to working through this issue seems to involve an inner affirmation of recognition over fame. Whenever we avoid the harsh glare of fame, we invite the softer glow of recognition, which is simply the acknowledgement of effort.

This, indeed, was Rowling's original quest when she wrote the first of the Potter books. She sought recognition for her work, and the chance to become free of that lower-middle-class treadmill of subsistence.

As she later admitted, she overshot the target in that respect, but not through any calculation of her own. Maybe a stock trader or a hedge fund manager would set out on his career with the notion of eventually becoming a billionaire; but not an author.

I can speak from experience to this: writers do not wish to be rich, only free. We ask only for enough critical and material recognition to allow us to keep writing, and to follow the star that has guided us through sleepless nights of work and the dark stream of three-line rejection letters from agents and publishers. Most of us sense that fame would only complicate matters and make the work itself hard, which it never is by nature.

So should fame ever be thrust upon you, as the old saying goes, that would be the time to thrust back. Reject it as far as possible, and then retreat as you can. Otherwise, the snare will wrap itself around your creative heart and eventually morph you from an artist into a mere celebrity. There can be no greater tragedy in the creative realm than this.

Friday Reflection: Felix Felicis

We finish our week of Potter mania on a personal note. The sound file (m4a, 10MB, click to listen or right-click to save) in the graphic is something that would get me sued by J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros., Scholastic, the RIAA, and god knows who else. But since I currently have $91.51 in the bank, I think I'm safe. The fact is, however, that I have recorded every single chapter of every one of the six Potter books. My daughter listens to them every night on her iPod to help her sleep; they have been bedtime stories for her all of these past five or six years. To make it interesting for myself, I tried on some of the characters' accents, both as I imagined them myself and as we heard them in the films. This part is one of my favorite scenes: the encounter with Mr. Ollivander in the wand shop of Book One.

The Outcasts of Hogwarts

There are many wonderful themes among the sub-stories and characters of the Potter universe, and one of my favorites has to do with all the marginal people and creatures who populate the wizarding world. These include:

  • Rubeus Hagrid

  • The House-Elves

  • The Centaurs

  • Professor Trelawney

  • Professor Lupin

  • Sirius Black

  • Luna Lovegood

  • Harry Potter himself

  • All of these characters have been fully ostracized from mainstream society or else pushed to the margins , either as individuals (Harry, Luna, Trelawney, Black) or by virtue of their connection with a demonized group (Hagrid / giants; Dobby / house-elves; Firenze / centaurs; Lupin / werewolves).

    The question that comes up for the reader, and that Rowling surely had to work through herself, has to do with the path of return and growth that these characters must take to discover their identities, their true selves. Must they each take the solitary path of self-discovery through autonomy, or can they find themselves through a validation of their group, as many gays, women, minorities, and immigrants must do in our Muggle world?

    The answer, of course, is that it has to be both. A group identity may be a necessary part of acculturation, depending on the time and circumstances of one's world.

    Necessary, perhaps, but never sufficient. The self gains its internal unity, its connection to the undivided whole of life, through autonomy. The family, community, nation, or other group is best furthered when each individual who comprises it is allowed the full and free expression of his or her (or, in Hogwarts, its) autonomy.

    When self-rule becomes the guiding principle within the individual, then government happens as if by itself; there is no effort to it, and order becomes as natural and ordinary as breathing or walking.

    This occurs through the influence of one of the universal principles of the mind and of democracy: equality. When self-government happens within the individual, heart and brain; body and mind; feeling and intellect all work as single, undivided, co-equal functional units. The remoteness and the medieval prejudices of hierarchy are unknown to such an ordering of the personality. Lao Tzu expressed it this way:

    Equality is the Cosmic Way:
    Good and evil are born of fantasy.
    The Sage is neither partisan nor punishing:
    No one is special, no one excluded.

    Consciousness breathes,
    Expands and contracts.
    It never varies, and each moment is unique.

    Now when Lao Tzu referred to "the Sage", he meant the quantum teaching energy of the cosmic consciousness. The Sage guides each of us to the right action in whatever line of work we're cut out for. It manifests itself in everyone, uniquely in every person, but the Sage is always there.

    To make such an affirmation in a culture like ours is to risk the same kind of marginalization as Luna Lovegood endures at Hogwarts. Now since I've never seen or felt a nargle, I can't comment on her experience; but I can tell you something about how I and many of my counseling clients have experienced the Sage.

    The Sage is not a Lord or an executive type of God. It does not demand obedience, but inspires trust instead. Can you see the difference? Trust arises from love—the attraction between equals. Obedience is born of fear.

    So religions speak of cultivating the "fear of God." This is not the way of the Sage. The Sage works through the force of attraction—quantum gravity, if you will, in the field of Mind—and inspires trust. It never asks either faith or obedience of us. If you can understand this with your mind and feel it in your heart, then your Sage is alive in you.

    How we make equality breathe within ourselves is very much an individual matter: each person's experience will be unique. How we make equality breathe within our nation arises from the path that each of us travels, and from the vision and planning
    of leaders who never cease in the search for honesty, accountability, and above all, humility in their actions. But whenever, as now, power becomes either the means or the end of such leaders, we must call them down and demand that they cease using power, or else leave.

    Back at Hogwarts, we find that whenever Harry and/or his friends must make a great journey or perform a particularly difficult feat, they are helped by some object or energy that dissolves the hard shell of form and its resistance. A web of light may form to protect Harry during an encounter with Voldemort; a magical bowl of gaseous light may take him through time and space toward a great realization; or the characters may wrap themselves in a cloak of invisibility.

    In the closing paragraph of The Tao of Hogwarts, I ask the reader to don the invisibility cloak within, and feel himself as both form and light:

    Think of yourself again as energy: the ceaseless movement whose order and disposition define the seeming matter of your body, and indeed of all form. You breathe out your excess into the Whole from which you came and to which you will return; you gently inhale the nourishment of renewed life-force—what the Chinese refer to as "chi". You can feel waves of movement, as of water or wind, passing through you with each breath—gently dissolving what is manifest but only derivative, while the energetic core of your personal inner truth is gradually revealed and strengthened. You are not, after all, your race, your gender, your occupation, your material possessions, your marital or family status, your sexual orientation, your socio-economic class, your political, national, or religious affiliation; nor are you what the voice from a television says you are. All these ingrained self-images dissolve with every breath, as the life-force enters and moves through you—dispelling the false, peeling away the appearance, revealing the core and center of your being, whose inimitable perfection dances in joyful separation from the realms of pride, guilt, and opposition.

    If you're in Brooklyn tonight, stop by the Community Bookstore on 7th Avenue and say hello. On this lovely evening, I have one wish for all my fellow Potter fans (and the rest of you as well): Felix Felicis.

    Thursday, July 19, 2007

    Report from Midtown Manhattan

    Here's an update from midtown Manhattan, where I work, and where we had an explosion last night. So far, one person has died and 30 are injured, two critically. The following streets in the area remain closed:

    Lexington Avenue from 34th to 57th Streets
    Third Avenue from 38th to 42nd Streets
    Park Avenue from 34th to 54th Streets
    42nd Street from Park to Third Avenues
    Vanderbilt Avenue for its entire length from 42nd to 47th Streets

    So, what happens when you start a pointless war that increases global terror, alienates former allies, kills and wounds tens of thousands of your own and hundreds of thousands of innocents in the nation you attacked and occupied?

    Well, one thing that happens is that you spend up to a trillion dollars on this war, and have nothing left to spend on your own nation's infrastructure, which in turn rots and then does some of Uncle Osama's work for him.

    Harry Potter Meets the Starfish Phenomenon

    It would take a lot, admittedly, for me to reach a saturation point re. Mr. Potter of Little Whinging. After all, I've written a book about it, which still isn't done yet (by the way, the pdf file of the entire text is now back, at my other site).

    What may be conspicuous to the reader is what we've overlooked—specifically, the news that's being reported about scanned pages of Book 7 appearing on the web (though Kakutani of the Times has already read it and given it a respectful, nearly reverent review, and Barack Obama's waiting his turn).

    The point of this omission is not to avoid "spoilers," because I don't think that knowing what will happen will spoil anything: as I wrote last month, plot is so small a factor in a work of literature. Character, setting, dialogue, and all those other indefinable aspects join with plot to create meaning in a novel; and that's what matters, if a work is to endure.

    So I actually have an objection with the cult of secrecy that has grown around this body of work: the whole stupid drama comprises a petty act of Cheney-fication. Rowling (to the extent that she was actually involved in this chicanery) and her publishers should be ashamed of themselves for creating hype and then scolding people for getting excited. It's the old feed-the-kids-sugar-and-then-spank-them-for-acting-out scenario. Total bullshit, especially when you factor in the oppression involved in forcing printshop workers to labor in the dark and be basically strip-searched on every shift.

    Guess what, then? The workers rebelled in the only way they knew how—by finding a way around the Orwellian crap being visited on them. There is also a lesson in this for all institutions that would punish people for their enthusiasm. The RIAA could tell you all about it, because they're making lawyers rich and themselves silly by chasing after housewives, students, and grandmothers for downloading music illegally. That book I reviewed last month, The Starfish and the Spider, talks about this side of the issue: when you enforce obedience, you inspire the creativity of rebellion. The creator of "Dumbledore's Army" should know this better than anyone.

    So if you're reading along here, Ms. Rowling (yeah, that's likely), my advice is this: let go and move on. You're done; it's been a massive, marvelous accomplishment, and your place in literary history is already assured, if that matters to you. Put this behind you now, and grow. But if you go on playing policewoman to your first creation, you will find yourself under the oppressive weight of writer's block, and we will have a very long wait to see anything fresh and new from you. For now, spend time with your family, take a break from the typewriter, and let Harry fade into your past. That way, the next great story will arise within you as naturally and easily as this one did, on a train ride from Manchester to London some 17 years ago.

    As we near the end-point of the Potter tales, I am reminded that we're also near the end for this blog. In about two weeks, we'll be done. The archives will be moved to a blogspot URL (hosted, that is, by Google), and the original domain name is now officially up for sale. If you could do something with, and you can make a reasonable offer, it's yours—write or give me a call.

    As for The Tao of Hogwarts, I'm hoping that its audience will soon arrive. It has been my experience in life that real inquiry and true discovery only happen after everything has been revealed. We see this principle in government, in legal affairs, and I hope it applies in literature as well. Perhaps once the end to the Potter story is known, people will begin to ask themselves, "what does it mean—to me?" That may be the time when some editor for a publishing house will see the potential in a book like The Tao of Hogwarts.

    Meanwhile, it will soon be time for me to take the advice I'm so quick to offer others, and move on.

    If you're in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn Friday night, you can find me and my daughter at the Community Bookstore on 7th Ave. (about eight blocks north of where the really big crowds in that neighborhood will be, at the B&N store by Methodist Hospital).

    Wednesday, July 18, 2007

    Geek Wednesday: Harry Potter, Geek Like Me

    Put down that Red Bull, geek! Try an Acai extreme instead. Whether you're a Senator doing an all-nighter or a Harry Potter geek who will need some juice to get you through the weekend ahead, you'll need to remember the basics:

  • Sleep during the day on Friday. If you have a job, so much the better. Bring a pillow to work and take an afternoon snooze under your desk. You can also nap while in line at the bookshop—bring a folding chair or sleeping bag.

  • Five minute breaks every hour while reading. All right, two. If you feel yourself fading, chug some of that acai stuff, or simply perform the Vigilimens charm (page 641, Charms for Geeks, by Flavius Wozniak).

  • Take Monday off. You'll be finished with the book by then, but you'll need a day to recover and come to grips with the Potterless reality of it all. I'm doing it.

  • Leave the PC off till Tuesday. You won't want to go online right away—the nargles take over the WiFi networks every time a new HP book comes out, everyone knows that. Instead, remind yourself that Harry still lives inside your own geek self:

  • Harry: Geek Like Me

    Movie 5 is out, Book 7 is just days away, and game 5 is out (and being lambasted by the gaming press, which hates games that don't spread blood all over your screen). It's Potter mania, and we're in another grip of it. What does it all mean to geeks? Here's what Harry has in common with you, geeks. There's plenty, and the glasses are just the beginning of it.

    DOM: it's only a Dept. Of Mysteries until you understand structural isomorphism. Then it's just the Document Object Model again.

    The Dark Lord can read your mind, but fortunately lacks write permissions.

    You can tell time and direction like a magician; you can write in languages that 99% of humans can't fathom. To them, it's all runes and glyphs. Your friends are all outcasts like yourself, bug-eyed nuts who read InfoWorld upside down. Your skin has a faintly jaundiced look (the fluorescent tan), as if you'd been hit with one too many Stupefy spells; yet you're strangely healthy and clear-thinking.

    You know stuff that nobody gives you credit for and that most people think is useless; yet when someone's PC breaks down, who do they call? You're a walking Room of Requirement when it comes to that, and like Harry, this is when you can score with the ladies. Even the Muggle women are interested in you then.

    That veil of death in the Dept. of Mysteries was what color? You guessed it: blue. BVOD.

    You know that Jobs would have called his new feature in Leopard the Time Turner, except that HG Wells is public domain and J.K. Rowling is expensive.

    Every spell you cast can be copied and adapted by anyone with the skill to do it. Harry, too, abides by the GPL: magic is all open source. You'd never buy an iPhone: it doesn't come with a wand.

    Red Bull is made by Snape: "brews fame, bottles glory, puts a stopper in death." You don't own an owl; you are one.

    That Patil girl is in Ravenclaw now, but before that she dropped out of IIT. You know the Triwizard maze, and you know how easily it turns upside down: it was your screensaver in Win95, the one with the rat (Peter Pettigrew?). That Sphinx at the end of it spouts algorithms.

    Palindromes and anagrams, whether they come from Tom Riddle or a bigass mirror from your past: normal features of your world. You talk to paintings (in PS, anyway) and get answers; you walk through doors that no one else sees; you shoot fireworks with no flame (in Flash); you can remember the password to the common room from three years ago, or else could hack your way by the Fat Lady. If staircases stayed in one place, that's when you'd be puzzled.

    You once owned a horcrux: it was made by Packard-Bell. Memory, you are sure, is never truly random; only evil is.

    Take a close look at your forehead someday when you're doing your monthly shave. That mark--has it always been there? Or did Gates or Ballmer leave it on you? Just a thought.

    Look at your PC: it's as big and medieval as the Monster Book of Monsters or a pewter cauldron with a half-melted bottom, but it's got a ton of information on it and you would feel as if you were being shot through the death veil at the Dept. of Mysteries if you had to give it up.

    Slytherin = Redmond
    Ravenclaw = Cupertino
    Hufflepuff = Wherever BeOS was made
    Gryffindor = Tuxville

    You know all about divination: the I Ching can tell the future because it's 64-bit. Voldemort's power and Rowling's income double every 24 months. Moore's law. But you know it can't go on forever.

    Tuesday, July 17, 2007

    Why Harry Potter Matters, Now

    In case you've been under a rock recently, the publishing industry is gearing up for the biggest day in its history since Gutenberg made his little contraption.

    So what's the big hairy deal? Why would millions of people around the world stand in line outside bookshops this Friday, a little before midnight, to buy a book? Why have amazon and B&N sold some 2 million copies of this thing before the release date? Why is the author of a pack of children's books a billionaire, and how has she incited the Jesus hate-club to burn, ban, and brutalize these stories? WTF is going on here?

    As it has been in the long history of literature, since a blind poet wandered around Greece singing about another pointless war in the Mideast and the general insanity of men in groups, it is all about a single artist holding up a clear, bright mirror to the demonic face of human institutional ego.

    This is the point: Cornelius Fudge and Dolores Jane Umbridge are in Washington and London and Baghdad and Cairo and Moscow—they are all around us, even within us in some shape or degree. Lucius Malfoy sits in the CEO's office of most American multinational corporations. Lord Voldemort and the Death Eaters are in Darfur, where they call themselves the Janjaweed; they have been in Rwanda and also passed through Fallujah and Haditha. Rita Skeeter sits in a FOX News studio, spewing lies and hatred against anyone who calls down this ruling evil and its cult of death. And again, each of these people and groups also lives within us, in the darkness of suspicion, racism, and fear.

    Fortunately, we can also look around and within ourselves to find Professor Dumbledore, Sirius Black, Minerva McGonnigal, Professor Lupin, or Rubeus Hagrid. If you work in the media, Dumbledore is a honey-voiced, steely-eyed Texan named Moyers; if you follow politics, Lupin is a former vice-president from Tennessee; if you're a blogger like me, you know that McGonnigal is a gentle but fearlessly inquisitive and often uncompromising beauty named Huffington. Every one of these characters is also alive within you, if you can scrape away the distortions left by the others, which are mistakenly called "evil."

    This leads to another point that I think Rowling makes very well in her fiction: there is no such thing as evil. There is excess, there is the malignant warping of inner truth and original nature; but there is no evil. To call a thing or a person evil is to give it a power that it does not, and never will have.

    It is, I admit, a difficult lesson to digest in this era of global tyranny, government corruption, religious pedophilia, and the foul self-indulgence and arrogance of wealth.

    In the latest movie, based on the fifth book, there is a living example of this lesson. Dumbledore's confrontation with Voldemort at the end of this story is their only personal encounter. Well, how does Dumbledore meet this symbol of Evil, who is there to kill and bring down everything in the world that Dumbledore is defending? Does he call him "despot," "tyrant," "Islamic fundamentalist extremist," or "Satan"?

    Nope, he calls him Tom—the man's original name, the one he has had since boyhood. In other words, Dumbledore refuses to play the power game: he will not add to the energy that Voldemort has already stolen from others. He doesn't drop his weapon, mind you, or offer his antagonist therapy or sympathy (Karl Rove's complaint against liberals); but he will not aggrandize him with Evil or any of its epithets. In the worlds of art or geopolitics, it just doesn't get better than that.

    So there is more than the economy of an often-faltering industry at stake in this event, the end of the Potteriad: there is also the message of the story itself, which is a frontal assault on the modern state and its tendency to transfigure men and women into sheep—principally through the use of media slaves. If 7 continues in this vein, we can expect to see more fictional portraits of Bush, Blair, Rove, and their bought media (for a more detailed study of that, check out my article Harry Potter and the State).

    People in our culture tend to consume literature the way they eat: we are very much a literary "fast food nation," to borrow Mr. Schlosser's metaphor. Healthy societies, from Homer's Greece to Lao Tzu's China to Virgil's Rome to Thoreau's America, have done better.

    We have heard that the way to judge the quality of a nation is to examine the way it treats its poor/its children/its animals; I would add that we could also look at how it reads. In our era of the 30-second sound bite and the Sunday morning television liar's brunch, we are in desperate need of improving our ability to communicate overall, and that includes our ability to read. Harry Potter is a good place to start because the books are substantive in metaphor, generally well written, and of course massively popular. Reading literature to penetrate appearances and inspire honest, open debate is exactly the sort of activity that Al Gore recommends in his new book: it is very much a democratic practice. And as Professor Dumbledore would remind us, democracy, when it truly happens, is a greater magic than anything we do at Hogwarts.

    Monday, July 16, 2007

    Monday with McKenna: Looking Back in Time

    Another Sunday walk through Prospect Park, Brooklyn. The music is Rachmaninoff's G Major Prelude, beautifully played by Vladimir Ashkenazy (Quicktime video, 2.5 MB, 3:23, click to view)

    If you follow the lies broadcast on your television, you might believe that there were just a dozen or so of us nutcase lefties objecting to the Bush occupation-invasion-imperialist-quagmire, back when it was being planned and sold some five years ago.

    But you would be wrong: there were protest marches all around the world, attended by tens or hundreds of thousands of people, depending on the location. Yet it is also true that the American mass media were generally on a forced march of slavish advertising of the war and its delusional justification. Few on television or in the American newspapers were daring to speak against the notion of war back then in 2002. I am honored to say here that my blogging partner, Terry McKenna, was one of those rare writers. If you click the graphic and zoom it in your image browser of choice, you should be able to read Terry's op-ed piece in the Morris County Daily Record, from a few days after the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. And in case you can't read it in the graphic, here's an excerpt from Terry's piece of Sept. 15, 2002:

    ...the president is not telling us the truth. It is not that George W. Bush is lying, but he is a politician and his public utterances are spin, not truth. He speaks to advocate a position, not to explore meaning.

    Bush's career is in domestic politics...He projects an all-American niceness that stirs little genuine animosity. With these qualifications, we suggest that the president knows almost as little as the rest of us regarding whether we should go to war.


    War is a struggle over time as much as place. For all the territory that we conquered in World War II, we were not able to control the subsequent history. Even over a shorter time period, control dissipates. In the 1980s, we aided the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan and enjoyed their victory over the Soviet army. But in a few short years, those we favored came to threaten us. On the other hand, the Middle East nation whose people most admire the United States are the Iranians, who have tired of the Islamic revolution after two profitless decades.

    Perhaps the President really knows what to do and must do it to preserve what is good. But my fear is that he does not know and that what he wishes to do will unleash events that will go as much awry as ever, yielding decades of more terror.


    Tomorrow, we'll be returning to our Pottermania feature as we gear up for 7th heaven. The Paper of Record is so excited that its movie critics are "dissecting" Harry.

    Sunday, July 15, 2007

    On the Way Toward an Open Source Society

    Listen to today's post (m4a file, right-click to download, 4.5MB)

    This week, we will continue with our Harry Potter feature, and I'd like to explain some of the reasoning behind this. In my own book about the Potter phenomenon, I attempted to show that Harry's path of growth through his years at Hogwarts starts from a point of domestic oppression (every story opens with Harry at the home of the odious Dursleys), where no feeling lives but cold calculation reigns alone; and leads gradually toward a place of inner balance, where Harry's action is guided by a coalescence of feeling and thought (Professor Dumbledore's lesson, which is delivered in a theme-and-variations format throughout the series).

    What does this have to do with politics or culture or the media? Well, everything, in my opinion. Even among the lefties in the political world, feeling has taken a pretty rough going over: it has been isolated in a demonic polarization of intellect and intuition that have left both faculties at war in the media, among the pundits, and eventually within ourselves. We need to correct that polar misconception if we are to make the right choices for the future of our democracy. So here is an excerpt from a book I'm working on, called The Open Source Society, which I've adapted to this purpose and this moment.

    The rules of evidence and the activity of intuition are not mutually exclusive. Your brain and your heart are not meant to compete for primacy within the living self. They are meant instead to work as a team, as a single functional unit of cooperative leadership. This is a principle that has guided the best scientists, the most influential artists, the greatest thinkers, and it even supports the actions and decisions of good corporate leaders and businessmen. They let feeling, the action of their inner senses, lead them to a deeper understanding of relationships and situations; and this is the direction they follow on the path of objectivity that intellect and the executive functions of decision and action travel.

    Error comes in when we try to arrive at an intuitive conclusion without seeking objective clarification first. It is a very common human error—I can say so confidently, having made it several times myself. The principals of our current government in Washington commit this fallacy quite regularly, nearly to the point where it might often be mistaken for policy. Past governments have also done it: perhaps you can remember the phrase "nattering nabobs of negativity" that was written by the New York Times columnist William Safire and spoken by Spiro Agnew, back in the Nixon years. Today, similar accusations are leveled against various straw men captured in phrases like "the liberal media" and "some among the pundits" and "left-wing critics." In fact, we gave a couple of examples of this yesterday.

    The consequences of such practices of incomplete and sloppy judgment can be far more severe than the kind of bland stupidity that we heard from Tucker Carlson and Mike Huckabee. For workers who are oppressed into the silence of conformity or the pain of unemployment, there is a range of suffering; depression, anxiety disorders, and even physical illness can result; and productivity is compromised. If that is the case for corporate employees, you can just imagine the implications when the same fallacy is committed by the leaders of powerful nations. In fact, we have seen the results: wars founded on fancy; economies ruined by misguided intuitions; diplomacy undermined by false suspicion.

    Intuition is meant to lead you to evidence. It asks the right questions, raises the right issues, and targets the appropriate direction for intellect and action to follow in their unique way. To adapt an old expression, the heart steers and the mind rows. The self cannot endure in truth and balance any other way.

    Saturday, July 14, 2007

    The Neocon MSM: Painting Targets

    Here's your mainstream media view of what a man should be: "Well, everybody knows that a book club is no place for a man."

    That's Tucker Carlson, who is the property of General Electric. Well, men, are we anti-book, or should we be? Are book clubs only suitable for women? If so, then I say let's get the matriarchy going today.

    But surely the actual candidates for 2008, the subjects of these punditry rants, are not quite so deluded? Think again: here's Mike Huckabee, taking aim at the only part of Michael Moore that he can see or understand:

    Michael Moore is an example of why the health care system costs so much in this country. He clearly is one of the reasons that we have a very expensive system.

    Well, I'm fat too, Huck: wanna take a personal shot at me? Does a 38" waist make a person a non-entity in the nation you would rule over? And make sure you get the line straight: you have to create certainty, as you did with Moore ("He clearly is..."); and as Carlson did with members of book clubs ("everybody knows..."). This way, the opinion is elevated into propaganda: there can be no disagreement.

    It's the neocon / mass media way of belief, and there can be, of course, no other.

    Friday, July 13, 2007

    Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Predictions for Book 7

    I haven't read any of the "what-will-happen-next" books, in part because I have an axe to grind with them: if people weren't so obsessed with what's to happen next, maybe there would be room in the market for what I've done with the Hogwarts metaphor. But also, I just don't find that stuff very interesting. Blind, clueless speculation: it does nothing for me.

    So naturally, here are my predictions for Book blind and clueless, I am sure, as the next man's.

    Snape and Voldemort

    Harry lives. Snape dies in the final battle, defending Harry and saving his life. Snape kills Voldemort and dies doing it.

    Dumbledore does not return except as a painting in the Headmaster's office; he was truly killed on the astronomy tower, but not by Snape. Malfoy's wand, it turns out, was a horcrux: that's how he was able to stop Dumbledore back in the death scene from Book 6. The "Snape" who killed Dumbledore was someone else, maybe Voldemort himself, on Polyjuice potion. This will all be revealed in the course of the story to Harry, who will finally learn the truth about Snape and at last break his long delusion about him, and learn something about the consequences of hatred.

    Hermione and Ron become lovers, and get married. Hermione becomes pregnant with Ron's baby.

    Neville finally realizes vengeance against Bellatrix. But he cannot kill her. He is too strong, too human, for that. He obliviates her and she will spend the rest of her life in a pleasant dementia at St. Mungo's with Gilderoy Lockhart.

    Ginny and Harry become a unit again, and are married. After Ginny's parents are killed in the final battle, Harry and his wife go to live at the Burrow. Harry, like his mentor, is offered the Minster for Magic job (Scrimgeour dies in the final battle); but refuses and accepts the position of Headmaster at Hogwarts instead.

    The final battle takes place in the locked room at the Dept. of Mysteries, which contains the Mirror of Erised. The great old mirror now contains the glass from Sirius' mirror that Harry had received from him and broken at the end of Book 5. Sirius communicates to Harry from that mirror, exactly as he had promised. He reminds Harry that Kreacher is his elf, and that he can command Kreacher to kill Voldemort.

    But Harry learns this as he knows that one last horcrux remains to be found and destroyed: this is the order he gives Kreacher. Kreacher dies attempting to do so, but fails because he cannot bring himself to kill a part of Voldemort, even under an order to do so from his "master," Harry. Kreacher commits suicide rather than go through with that task. The horcrux in question is the sword of Godric Gryffindor, which was given a slice of Voldemort's soul when Dumbledore was murdered. Kreacher himself had hidden the sword, on Voldemort's orders, in Harry's own trunk. Minerva McGonnigal, the head of Gryffindor House, has followed Kreacher to the boys' dorm and witnesses his lame effort to destroy the sword/horcrux. After watching Kreacher kill himself with it rather than destroy the sword, McGonnigal succeeds in doing so, and perishes in the effort, poisoned by the final object-fragment of Voldemortian soul, as she destroys it.

    Dobby also joins the struggle, and organizes the house elves to take on (appropriately) the giants. The werewolves are defeated when Fenrir Greyback is killed by Harry. The dementors are defeated by the centaurs, who take them prisoner to the Forbidden Forest, where the black demons mutely learn divination by the stars from the hoofed astrologers, and find that star-gazing is just as nourishing to a dementor as soul-sucking.

    Thursday, July 12, 2007

    Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

    Crime, failure, corruption, deceit. Everything's normal in Washington.

    So much for the news. Now on to Harry Potter.

    I went with my 13-year old daughter to a midnight showing of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Tuesday night, and whether or not you're a Potterphile, this is a movie to see. It's sleek, beautiful, fast-moving, funny, dramatic, and endearing; and the acting, as always in these Potterflicks, is of the highest caliber in the world. I was stunned at the new arrivals on the Hogwarts set: they could have turned the planet sideways and shaken out every odd girl on it, and not found a more perfect Luna Lovegood than Evanna Lynch. Amazing. Imelda Staunton does Umbridge with an ideally superficial evilness—she evokes Ardendt's famous phrase, "the banality of evil." Helena Bonham Carter is a wonderfully psychotic hottie.

    You'll have a lot of fun watching this film, unless you're such a Pottermaniac as to insist on having all your favorite literature transplanted to the reel. The fifth book on which this film is based is the longest in the series, and the movie is the shortest (by a few minutes). So naturally, much of the sub-story has been eliminated and some of the main story compressed. Examples:

  • No hospital scenes: St. Mungo's didn't make it into the set design. Neville tells Harry about his parents' past in the Room of Requirement.

  • The attack on McGonnigal is eliminated. Surprising, this one, because it's such a cinematic scene: the kids are on the astronomy tower, taking a live exam in that class at midnight, when the Umbridgean assault on Minerva M. (outside Hagrid's hut) occurs, and the lovable half-giant gets into the fray as well. But it's not in the film.

  • A crucial conversation with Nearly Headless Nick at the end of the story is removed. I guess too much talk of death in a movie can be seen as depressing, but I thought the scene with NHN is essential to an understanding of the Potter metaphor as a whole.

  • Quidditch and "Weasley is our king": gone. No time for sport in this movie, which is too bad, because the development of Ron's character depends on his experience as keeper of the Gryffindor Quidditch squad. Another crucial Ron-experience that's missing is the encounter with the pickled brains at the Ministry during the climactic flight/battle sequence.

  • No train. The Hogwarts Express is absent. We meet Loony Luna as she is sitting on a carriage at Hogsmeade, reading her upside-down Quibbler.

  • So if you haven't gotten used to the fact that film and literature are two separate art forms with different approaches to delivering the message, then you may find yourself fuming in your seat at this film. Yet I found that, as with Cuaron's treatment of the Azkaban story (number 3), this movie is enlivened by the liberties it takes with Rowling's tome. There is speed, action, intensity, and spectrum to this presentation of the fifth stage of the Potteriad, and it works, by and large, because it lets the images and their connection speak. At the same time, Rowling's insight on the easy decadence of the state is emphasized in the film; there are a couple of moments where the audience gasped at the targets being so squarely hit in this era of Bushian corruption.

    That said, the movie rather misses the mark on its overall theme, which it presents as the struggle between the light and the dark within the human self, and the necessity to choose the light. It is Dumbledore's message to Harry during the possession scene in the climactic battle, and Sirius reinforces this lesson, quite literally, to Harry at Grimmauld Place.

    The lesson I took from the book, and which I presented in my own book about the Potter universe, is that it is excess rather than darkness that threatens the living self. There can even be an excess of light, as in the images of the state that Rowling gives us. Read the chapter about Harry's first encounter with the Ministry offices, for example: there are light-words sprayed all over the page in the depiction of the great lobby at the Ministry's entrance: "golden," "glamorous," "glittering," and the like.

    This, of course, is also the lesson of the Pensieve (which also fails to make its appearance in this film—the flashback to Snape's schoolboy torments is made in the context of the Occlumency lesson). Dumbledore uses the Pensieve as a means of discarding excessive thought; and Harry always finds himself inwardly clarified after every encounter with the magic bowl of reflection.

    So the film tends to oversimplify this lesson, making the entire affair into a monumental struggle of light and dark, while Rowling's theme is much more nuanced and layered: excess is the distortion that must be cleansed, so that the natural glow of humility and truth can be revealed.

    The movie is also, compressed as it is, Harry-centric. This is odd, because among the kid performers, Rupert Grint (Ron) and Emma Watson (Hermione) actually show greater maturity and depth to their artistic progress than does Dan Radcliffe (Harry). In Rowling's story, of course, the case is quite different: the maturation of characters like Ron, Neville, Ginny, and Hermione is actually given more emphasis than Harry's development. There are clear artistic reasons for this: Ginny, for example, is to play a big role in Book 6 (and presumably 7 as well)—in part as Harry's next lover.

    But a film can't capture all of this (I sometimes wonder whether a long-running TV series in the BBC Upstairs/Downstairs tradition might have been a better dramatic medium for the Potter tales). Yet on the whole, there is far more takeaway than sacrifice in this film: the portrayal of the State in the setting of the Ministry offices (which are positively Orwellian) and the character of Umbridge; the unforgettable casting of Luna; the spectacular CGI set-pieces, highlighted by the Weasley twins' fireworks show during final exams; and the developmental arena of the Room of Requirement all contain images and impressions that will make you long and fondly remember this movie.

    Tomorrow: predictions for Book 7

    Wednesday, July 11, 2007

    Geek Wednesday: Uncle Bill's Signing Statements

    Most of our readers are all too painfully aware of this scenario: Congress passes a bill--let's say it's a bill that reaffirms a renunciation of torture as policy, and mandates universal adherence to the standards of the Geneva Conventions. Not only is the bill passed; it is endorsed by an overwhelming, veto-proof majority of Congress.

    So the Bush-Cheney-Rove tyranny machine is in a bit of a pickle: veto said bill and be exposed for the despots that they truly are, or swallow hard, sign it and live with it.

    The machine, of course, discovered a third option: sign the bill and add a P.S.: "does not apply to us." Simple, straightforward protection. It's the legislative equivalent of a pre-nup agreement: you can marry me but you can't have my money or my assets. You can pass laws but we don't have to abide by them.

    Now we introduce to the discussion (speaking of pre-nups) Mr. William Gates, departing CEO of a small firm based in the great American northwest. He and his minions have seen the GPL version 3 and scribbled into the margin: "does not apply to us."

    Well, what would you expect? Our culture has for decades been settling under government by corporations; now that we have a truly corporate government, the lines between power and profit, the top dog and the bottom line, public good and private wealth, the corporation and the republic, have been erased. Whether it's Suse Linux or Habeas Corpus that's left holding the empty bag is merely a fleshing out of detail; the principles are the same.

    I've been doing some installs onto Parallels 3.0 on the Mac Book. I've installed the following:

  • Windows XP Home (SP2): after a successful install and several good sessions (during one of which I actually activated and registered the install with MS), I opened it to discover a login prompt which I'd never seen before. There had been no prompt for creating a user during install, and the PW field that came up identified me as "Owner". I tried blank and then "owner" (same as ID) as the PW, but no joy. I've got a support request in with Parallels to see what's up from their perspective. Too bad, because before this came up, I was very impressed with the performance and especially the "coherence" feature, which allows you to access Windows apps and open files in winapps while you're in your OS X GUI, while XP runs in the background. Very cool while it lasted.

  • Mandriva Linux: I installed the latest "Spring" version, but the display was very grainy and poor. I tried adjusting gamma, changing the resolution on the monitor (only one choice was available, neither of which suited the Samsung 22" display I use), but NG.

  • MEPIS Linux: Installed version 6 of Simply MEPIS 32 in Parallels and it failed to make a connection with the cable modem, even after I'd set it to both Automatic / DHCP and Manual / Fixed IP. Strange, because MEPIS instantly responds to most any network protocol automatically from its installation on my Wintel machine.

  • Ubuntu 7.04: Tried to install the Feisty Fawn onto the MacBook in Parallels, but got the "can't find RSDB" message at the outset, and the screen collapsed into a scramble of Ubuntu doodoo from there. Completely failed to load the live cd, let alone install.

  • Knoppix Linux live cd: This was very neat--a live cd that loaded beautifully into a working and fully-loaded KDE environment complete with GIMP, Open Office, Firefox, T-bird, and more. The most promising Linux I've seen for running on a virtual machine.
  • Tuesday, July 10, 2007

    A Brief Course in Literary Occlumency

    Artists, like the rest of us, need growth. Otherwise, art becomes orthodoxy, just another brand of fundamentalism.

    That's why I am not signing the Waterstones' "if-you-killed-him-bring-him-back" petition to J.K. Rowling. Today, Rowling gave her response to the petition—the familiar "we'll see" line that every kid and most parents know so well.

    I think we will, in fact, see a Book 8, and for a number of reasons. Rowling has already indicated that she may write one for charity, as she did with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Quidditch Through the Ages. Another reason is far more prosaic: Warner Bros. will soon be on their tear-stained knees before her, begging for something, anything, to help keep the Potter mania alive through movies six (2008) and seven (2009, we presume). It will take a while to build that theme park, after all.

    For the rest of this year, however, there will be enough magic in the air: movie five (I'm seeing it tomorrow), Book 7, the dvd later this year, and the paperback of 7, probably in the spring or summer of next year. That will take us to movie 6, and it's around then, or soon after, that we may see a Book 8.

    Here's another reason: numerology, one of the classes they teach at Hogwarts.

    So I fully expect to see a Book 8 (maybe on 8-8-8, August 8, 2008). It will not likely measure up to the quality of suspense and perhaps even workmanship of its seven predecessors; yet I will buy it and read it. Meanwhile, however, I will not demand anything of this artist who has given, and received, so much. I'd be far more interested in seeing where her path of growth takes her from here.

    Later this week, a small review of movie 5, and some predictions on Book 7.

    Monday, July 9, 2007

    Rove's True Home: Ass-Spin

    When you've been arrogant from the beginning, you'll be arrogant to the end. No one should be surprised at this. Shocked again, for the gazillionth time these past 7 years, but not surprised.

    Sorry about the pun in the title there, people of Aspen (many of whom were doing a sotto voce boo while Rove spun). Obviously no reflection intended on you--just on KR.

    Sunday, July 8, 2007

    Monday with McKenna: The Quality of Mercy

    The Brooklyn Bridge and the NYC skyline, from the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights (click to enlarge)

    It's working; we're being heard at last. Isn't it an amazing coincidence that these GOP Senators are coming back to Washington with a fresh mindset about Iraq?

    No, it's not a coincidence at all. These politicians have spent a week at home, hearing it from you—the disgusted, angry, despairing citizens of this nation—and they're finally seeing where their bread is buttered. Keep it up, people: just think how you'll feel when those kids start coming home, alive and whole, because you put the pressure on the pols to make it so. Every call you make, every email you send, every time you make a pest of yourself to the powerful, you're bringing us a little closer to a life-saving tipping point. Once again, keep it up.

    Now I know I promised the opening of our Harry Potter week today, and now I will break my promise. Perhaps you're thinking, "this blog should be knocked off the web." Well, come back this time next month and you'll see that some wishes do come true.

    First, though, Terry sent me the following over the weekend, and it deserves a hearing in its natural Monday slot. My worthy blogging partner does like to inspire debate—you can inscribe your ripostes to the comments. I'll simply say that those guys Clinton pardoned didn't start any wars, decloak any CIA agents, or cook the books on any intel. Yet I will agree with Terry when he argues that not merely is the Libby pardon an aberration of justice, it does not even meet Shakespeare's famous definition of mercy. Mr. McKenna:

    Mercy and justice: they live parallel lives. Wherever one is, the other cannot be far behind.  In my college days, I remember a Jewish professor telling us (in a history class at Cooper Union) that Christians go overboard with mercy, that Jews were much better balanced and so favored justice.  Not being too familiar with Jewish law, I didn’t know what to think.  I still don’t – but also still think of mercy as the central gift from Jesus’ ministry.
    Shakespeare said this:

    The quality of mercy is not strained, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath: It is twice blessed: It blesses him that gives and him that takes... Mercy... is enthroned in the hearts of kings, It is an attribute to God Himself. And earthly power doth then show likest God's when mercy seasons justice.

    Now we are faced with the spectacle of Bush’s pardon of Scooter Libby. 
    If we compare his pardon to the Clinton pardons, Scooter is a more worthy figure.  Yes Scooter was deceitful, but at least he believed he was serving something larger than himself.  The Clinton pardons were pure excesses of venality and partisanship, mere favors to big contributors.  Hillary’s brothers even made money on the deal (I forget the details, but trust me on this one).   
    So Bush’s pardon was less disgraceful than Clinton’s many pardons. 
    But let’s reflect on the pardons of a different era.  During the civil war, President Lincoln was routinely faced with having to sign off on the execution of a soldier who had deserted and was caught.  Lincoln understood that these men were guilty, be he also understood, “there but for the grace of god go I.”   Nearly to a man he pardoned them.  Of course Lincoln was a man of mercy.  I think it is also clear that justice was served.  If we look to Shakespeare, who does not agree that the pardons evidenced Lincoln’s kingly heart.  This American King granted life to the lowest of his subjects, the lowly soldier about to die.
    George Bush was faced with many executions during his tenure as Texas’ governor, for Texas leads the list when it comes to executions.  And often he received a request for clemency.  But not once did his hard heart bend and grant a pardon.  But then, we knew that he did not have the heart of a king. 
    Yet now when faced with the spectacle of a 30 month jail sentence for Scooter Libby, for this successful example of the white ruling class, George Bush’s hard heart melted, and a pardon issued forth.
    Justice?  Hardly.

    —T. McKenna

    Saturday, July 7, 2007

    When Journalists Do Their Jobs

    Imagine a world, for just a moment, in which journalists actually do their jobs. Imagine a nation where not 70% or 60% or 40%, but 0% of Americans ever believed that Saddam and Osama were partners in conspiracy making nuclear weapons in a cave; imagine a world where the carnage in Darfur trumps Anna Nicole's rotting corpse and Paris' prison; where Coulter is a skeletal nobody on the Internet on a site made in Netscape Composer 4, whose monthly visitors would all fit comfortably into a toilet stall. Imagine a media whose guiding principle is the search for truth; whose primary instruments are questions and energy; whose representatives are defined by their willingness to search the past and the dark corners of power, and not stop until truth emerges, naked and blinking under the light of journalistic effort.

    This week, I found evidence of three such seekers. There are more of them out there, working every day. You'll rarely see them on TV, and you'll have to go to the inner sections of the newspaper or the less-trafficked corners of the Internet to find them. But they are out there. To find them, you just have to be like them and dig a little.

    Bob Herbert is probably the most responsible, grittiest journalist in New York City. He's an op-ed writer, fer Chrissake, and he does more shoe-leather investigative journalism in a week than the combination of the rest of the mainstream media does in a year. This week, he effectively exposed the rankest, foulest corruption imaginable within the NYC Police Dept., and presented the story and his evidence. Then he challenged Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly to get busy and fix the department's rotten members, and take the shields off the racists and perverts in the NYPD.

    Ladies and gentlemen, you can scour every newsroom in the country and you won't find a journalist more worthy of the name than Bob Herbert. If you don't subscribe to Times Select yet, he's worth the annual $50 all by himself.

    Eric Alterman is a different kind of journalist. He's a blogger with an academic pedigree and a talent for research and writing that has made his four books all bestsellers. He's researching another one now, and found this old speech from George McGovern—he recommends that you replace the word "Vietnam" with "Iraq," and the number 50,000 with 3,500 and you'll get the idea of how important it is for us to read this now:

    Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land -- young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes.

    There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes.

    And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.

    So before we vote, let us ponder the admonition of Edmund Burke, the great parliamentarian of an earlier day: "A contentious man would be cautious how he dealt in blood."

    Finally, there's the man in that video, Keith Olbermann, who on national television called for the resignations of Bush and Cheney. How does this guy keep his job, you ask? Olbermann's show is one of the top-rated newscasts on cable; he keeps fat advertising dollars flowing into MSNBC's bank account, that's how. But he manages that by actually doing his job, which is to scratch the surface of power with a razor-honed pickaxe. Olbermann knows that if you truly, as the old saying goes, comfort the afflicted with an unbending search for truth, then the comfortable who may be afflicted by that search will pay anyway.

    None of these guys is some socialist crazy trying to pull down the pillars of American government, or a shrill Medusa psychotic like Coulter; nor is any of them some P.T. Barnum showman like Bill O'Reilly. Nope, they're just three journalists, trying to do their jobs as well as they can.

    Like I said, there are more of them, and all we have to do to honor them is to find them, and listen, regularly and often.

    Friday, July 6, 2007

    Being Green in Brooklyn

    The scene is Prospect Lake, Brooklyn, NY; the music is from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana (Quicktime movie, 2:09, 1.3MB, click to view)

    Friday Reflection: From the Rightful President

    Hey everybody, free beer at Terry's house (wmv, 8MB, click to view)

    Here's a must-read on the Libby denouement, with some historical perspective, from Eric Alterman.

    We'll feature Al Gore's new book again in the Friday space today. But first, a glance at the near future here as we prepare to sail back to the Land of Unwanted Blogs:

  • Legilimens!: Starting Monday, Harry Potter all next week. I don't care what's on the news, it doesn't matter anymore. If we're going to have corruption, let's have some fun with it, by god. I'll offer my prediction for Book 7's key events, and I'll have a review of the new film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

  • Presidential Picks: Since we won't be around for the fun next year, Terry and I will leave you with our respective faves for the succession. The question on my mind is, "who could be worse?" Now there's a challenge.

  • The Best of DR: Before we leave you for good, we'll cull through our archives and pick out some goodies from the past 34 months of blogging. If you have any nominations, give us a shout in the comments or send me an email.

  • And now, more from the man who wouldn't have ruined our democracy if SCOTUS hadn't negated his rightful victory:

    There was then, there is now, and there would always have been, regardless of what President Bush did, a threat of terrorism that we would have to deal with. But instead of making it better, he has made it worse. We are less safe because of his policy. He has created more anger and righteous indignation against us than any leader of our country in all the years of our existence as a nation.

    Part of the explanation for the increased difficulty in gaining cooperation in fighting terrorism is Bush's attitude of contempt for any person, institution, or nation that disagrees with him. He has exposed Americans abroad and Americans in every U.S. town and city to a greater danger of attack because of his arrogance and willfulness, in particular his insistence on stirring up a hornets' nest in Iraq. Compounding the problem, he has regularly insulted the religion, the culture, and the tradition of people in other countries throughout the Muslim world.

    He has also pursued policies that have resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent men, women, and children, all of it done in our name. President Bush has said repeatedly that the war in Iraq is the central front in the war on terror. It was not, of course, the central front, but it has unfortunately become the central recruiting office for terrorists.

    The unpleasant truth is that President Bush's failed policies in both Iraq and Afghanistan have made the world a far more dangerous place. (pp. 181 - 182).

    Thursday, July 5, 2007

    An Aria from the Next Dimension

    Some deaths remain in the news for weeks (Anna Nicole comes to mind) for no discernible reason; others are barely noticed, even though the life that has been transfigured could be richly celebrated over a month's worth of daily columns.

    Beverly Sills, the extraordinary soprano who died Monday, is a case in point. Her life touched millions of people who became interested in opera through her direct influence. Sills, mainly in her work with the New York City Opera, poured a fresh charge of energy into opera, and gave it new life. She made that art appealing and affordable to countless visitors to Lincoln Center. I should know: I am one of them.

    Back in the 1980's, I was making enough money to afford a subscription to a box at the Met. I would take my girlfriend along; we would dress up for every show, knowing that when we stepped through the curtain and into the box, folks would look to see if we were someone famous. It was fun, but a little disconcerting.

    I always felt more at home in the balcony of NYCO than in that box at the Met. For that, I credit Beverly Sills, who made it her mission to give opera the same life and simple human energy that you could get from a Broadway show or a play or a television sitcom. To be sure, it was still opera: the singers were first-rate, the musicianship professional, but there was a familiar passion to the performances that gave them life.

    I can recall a performance of Carmen some 20 years ago, featuring a hand-picked Sills protege who sang the famous Habanera with a unique sizzle. As she sang the refrain, she lay back on a bench on the set, parted her legs and let her hand stray suggestively between them. It was an electric moment that was kind of revelatory for me: Sills had brought open sensuality right onto the stage, made the story live in a way that perhaps no one else had ever tried.

    That's how she lived, too: pushing boundaries, exploring alternatives, making mistakes, and always seeking more from the art, to make it a truer experience for those of us who came to watch and listen.

    Sills was able to make opera popular because she transcended all the received truths and formalities of opera, mastered and then challenged its traditions, and transformed it into something poignantly direct and human. Those of us who love opera will miss her; but in some dimension to which our ears are not tuned, I'm betting they're hearing a hair-tingling, crystalline Cleopatra this week.

    Good night, Bubbles, and thanks.

    A Downpour of Silence

    You would think that with everything that's going on in the world—you know, bombs ripping apart the flesh of innocents in Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Pakistan, Afghanistan (to name only a few)—that the popular ardor for fireworks might cool a bit. And you would be wrong. The fireworks mania has continued apace, with the usual results.

    Here in Brooklyn, it's never a good sleeping night, yet sometimes Nature helps out. I was settling in for a long night of listening to the pops, screeches, and booms of the amateurs in the neighborhood, when just after midnight, a blessing: a heavy downpour of rain.

    Now in our culture, rain is typically demonized as "bad weather." Turn on the local newscast and witness the labels being applied to Nature: precipitation is bad, sunshine is good. Our mass media imagine that we're not smart enough to discern any finer shades of meaning than that. Or maybe it's just that they're not.

    Same as how they portray political contests: Mitt is a real candidate, because he looks like one. Kucinich? Too short, too dumpy, not an ounce of stud in him. Unelectable.

    And so we get bombs. Literal bombs, in places near and remote. Figurative bombs, in the seats of high power. It's all about the choices we make as citizens, and the decisions we make to accept or reject the lies and half-truths broadcast to us over the boxes in our living rooms.

    Bombs are not fun, nor are they pretty, except via a projection of our minds. Bombs are dangerous: they can make sleep difficult, or they can make it permanent. Perhaps what we need in the Middle East are cloud seeders rather than troop surges, so that the bombs are more frequently enveloped in the watery silence of rain. I can only tell you that it sure worked here, last night: the rain came down and the fireworks were silenced.

    Wednesday, July 4, 2007

    Geek Bless America

    The new Harry Potter game: Non-violent, engaging, fun, visually and sonically beautiful. Available for both Mac and Windows. Can't go wrong with this one, Moms and Dads.

    Geek Wednesday: Confessions of a Mac Fanboy

    The Communication Declension:


    Since when do people have so much to talk about, so endlessly? Are we turning into a giant and ceaseless session of Congress, sliding into a vortex of Sunday spout-show on a collapse into C-Span hell?

    Maybe that's why I love geeks and musicians: they work in languages that can't easily be spoken, but only understood.

    Anyway, the big news from last week is this: another corporate devil has climbed into bed with Uncle Steve. AT&T (your world, the NSA) now joins Nike. But if you'd like to try out the iPhone as a WiFi device and iPod, you can, thanks to some code from reverse-engineering uber-geek Jon Lech Johansen, who writes one of the more entertaining and informative geek blogs I've read.

    Yet the Apple momentum is now in juggernaut force: later this month, expect to see new iMacs—arguably the best desktop hardware out there. And we're 3 months away from Leopard, with its new previewing, file management, backup, and workspace features. All dizzyingly cool, but let me add a few admittedly petty recommendations:

    click graphic to enlarge

  • Can we fix the traffic light? You know, the window control buttons that correspond to Windows' dash-square-X protocol? I don't care that Apple has them on the left side of the window (anyone who knows me knows I lean left, anyway), but should I need a Geiger counter to find them on a laptop display? Make them big and easy to get to...not like in Windows, but more like Linux/KDE.

  • Here's a lesson straight from Windows: for god's sake, can't we have the ability to resize a window in all corners/sides? Apple gives you one (lower right).

  • Re-naming files: This is a big one, because we do it all the time, especially those of us who take a lot of pictures. You unload your camera's contents into iPhoto and want to give the files unique names. Here's how it works now:

    You drag the picture to the desktop.
    You select the file "P7004305839045.jpg" or whatever, and hit Enter. You're ready to edit.
    But the whole file name is overwritten as soon as you start typing, so you have to remember to put the correct extension in at the end.

    Why not set the default so you're overwriting only the file name prefix, but not the extension? The current one (in this case .jpg) can remain, and if the user wants to change the format, he can but doesn't have to. Make sense?

  • Make friends with the Penguin: OS X has a UNIX / BSD core and runs X11. Google has a Linux version of Picasa (and now, of Desktop); Firefox, Opera, Real, and other major software providers make Linux versions of their major products. So how about a Linux-friendly version of the Boot Camp drivers? And can't Apple make Linux versions of Safari, Quicktime, and iTunes? They're all free for Windows users: what's the problem, Steve? Can't afford the geeks to do it with? The day I see a Linux version of iTunes, I'll know you're serious and sincere in what you say about DRM.

  • Death by a thousand charges: Two dollars to get an 802.11n driver; $30 for Quicktime Pro every time there's an upgrade (I've paid that twice so far, for v6 and v7, in the space of less than two years); $100 for dot-mac when Google gives me equal or better features NC; $100 a year to get to the front of the line at the Genius Bar. Do your shareholders have you handcuffed to continue this money-bleed, in exchange for them looking the other way when someone on exec row fiddles with dates on stock prices? Be careful, Steve: it could alienate people who might otherwise be attracted to your good stuff.

  • I can say for a certainty that it's beginning to alienate this one-time Mac fanboy. Much as I love Apple hardware and OS X, and as much as I'll take a long, close look at those new iMacs later this month, the likelihood is that my next desktop machine will be a PC running Linux.

    Tuesday, July 3, 2007

    There But for the Grace of God Scoot I...

    Here's where we stand in our great nation today: if you question or criticize the government and its actions, you will be duly branded a traitor in virtually every public forum available to said government and its slave media. But if you actually do something treasonous—i.e., compromise national security by exposing the identity of one of your government's secret agents—you will be elevated and rewarded; and if some activist judge or an attorney we forgot to fire happens to catch you and prosecute you, no problem: you will escape the velvet chains of minimum security prison, thanks to the beatific hand of the Compassionate Conservative. Of course, it helps if Congress happens to be occupied with another vacation or else running for President.

    Prime Minister Stoltenberg, I'm ready now—give me a call.

    On Keeping a Dead Body Upright

    Before he ever told the first of his innumerable lies to the people of America and the world, George Bush had to lie to himself.

    A lie--let alone a compulsive habit of lying--needs constant support, which comes from lavish expenditures of physical and mental energy. In short, a lie takes a lot out of you, because it demands unceasing attention. A friend of mine once told me, "lies have short little legs--they can't go very far on their own power."

    So a lie must be dressed up, ornamented, disguised, and above all, carried. And an entire network of lies, such as the Rove machine has manufactured these past six years—that requires an unending and vigilant maintenance program of ever-increasing complexity. You need an entire department, a full arm of your bureaucratic machine, to uphold and coordinate your lies.

    It is much like the effort involved in keeping a dead body upright. All the while, as you pour more and more energy into keeping the program of falsehood standing--as you sacrifice your life-force to the cultivation of the superficial--the core slowly and silently rots.

    This is the course of inner death, the story of sacrifice, the discordant song of suicide.

    Monday, July 2, 2007

    The Perils of Plutocracy

    Want a quick read on how sick and benighted our political culture is these days, and why Al Gore's new book is so timely and critical?

    Just have a look at what the MSM is gushing over this morning: Obama is taking the lead. In the polls? At the caucus before the caucus? Heaven forbid, on the issues facing our political nation?

    No: in the money, silly. After all, isn't that the only thing that matters?

    It's all here and here and even here (shame on you, BBC—I expected better of you). Clearly, there's a place for this sort of thing—but on the front page, in your headline?

    As I've said before here, money is marvelous stuff, and even capitalism has its virtues*. But if it becomes your primary signpost in the search for leadership, you are planting the seeds of self-destruction. Has the grim experience of corporate tyranny these past six years years taught us nothing? When you wed your future to a plutocrat, you get plutocracy. Sometimes, if you're lucky, a benign plutocracy, such as Rome had with Augustus, or as we had with our nation's founders or more recently, during the Clinton years. But after Augustus came Nero and Caligula; after Washington came Adams (and his odious Alien and Sedition Act, a gun that still smokes before our immigration-challenged society); after Clinton came...well, you know that story.

    Yet our mass media, supported, it seems, by the Supreme Court, think that the corporate dollar is the only leader worth following. Is it any wonder that the politicians, ideological sheep that they are, follow along? Yet imagine the good that could be done with all the hundreds of millions raised by the candidates pursuing the magic moment of broadcast message—if only we could turn off the TV set and ignore the propaganda of plutocrats.

    *As I've also mentioned before, capital is the virtue concealed within capitalism--in this case again, it's the tail that makes the dragon: the -ism.