Friday, June 29, 2007

Friday Reflection: Alterman on Gore; Gore on the Cult of Dominance

We're going to hand over our Friday section to Al Gore today, but first some perspective from a consistently lucid source of political insight (and my nominee for the next White House Press Secretary), Eric Alterman:

The very idea that a candidate like George W. Bush--extremist, incompetent, unprepared for office, addicted to cronyism and incapable of admitting even the simplest human error--could have been held by so many reporters to be a better choice for President than the two-time Vice President, Senator, Representative and environment and nuclear weapons expert, to say nothing of his central role in the Clinton Administration's successful two-term presidency, would be laughable were its consequences less tragic. And yet in that election, the media made Al Gore out to be a liar because so many reporters chose to misreport his remarks or take them out of context. To top it off, they made a joke of their maliciousness, mocking Gore for alleged mendacities that were largely the results of their carelessness and deliberate misrepresentation.

Now, with that as background, what follows is from Gore's The Assault on Reason.

It is deeply disturbing that the [Bush] administration so frequently uses the work dominance to describe its strategic goals. It is disturbing because an American policy of dominance is as repugnant to the rest of the world as the ugly pictures of those helpless, naked Iraqi prisoners [at Abu Ghraib] being so "dominated" has been to the people of our country.

Dominance is as dominance does. Dominance is not really a strategic policy or political philosophy at all. Rather, it is a seductive illusion that tempts the powerful to satiate their hunger for still more power by striking a bargain with their consciences. And as always happens sooner or later to those who shake hands with the devil, they find out too late that what they have given up in the bargain is their soul.

Next week, we'll be offering more brief excerpts from Al Gore's book. If it's not on your summer reading list yet, I'd strongly suggest you make it so.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

AI: Critical Action Alert

Once again, a man is facing the death penalty amid a mounting body of evidence that sharply calls his guilt into question, and AI is asking that we get involved to prevent a tragic miscarriage of justice. This needs to be done now; then we will have to raise the issue with state and national legislators as to why such medieval practices are allowed at all in 21st century America.

My Kingdom Fjord a Norse

An Open Letter to Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg of Norway:

Dear Jens (you can call me Brian):

As you may have heard, the government of my native country is in the grip of a tyranny such as it has not witnessed in at least 30-odd years, since we effectively flushed Nixon down the Potomac. Today, our Supreme Court ruled against school desegregation. The Chief Justice explained the ruling by writing, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” You just can't imagine how humiliating it is to live in a nation where such idiocy is exalted and sits in the highest thrones of power.

In other words, our government, in all of its four branches (Executive, Legislative, Judicial, Cheney), is as drunk as Paris and as solipsistic as CNN covering Paris. There is no end in sight--it's only likely to get worse, what with Rudy and Mitt and Hillary as the front runners to the succession. In short, I feel like that woman in the famous painting by your countryman.

So I'm asking what it might take for you to consider me for citizenship of your great nation. Here are a few points on how I might easily fit into your social order:

  • I wouldn't take up much space--just me and a little black cat

  • I wouldn't dare take any of your beautiful blondes, unless it was OK with you

  • I have always preferred Fjord over Chevy

  • I like cold weather and actually have a kind of reverse SAD (I get grumpy and dismal in the summer and euthymic in the autumn and winter)

  • I'm a big Harry Potter fan, so I would fully support the Witches' Convention now being held in your country. I also look forward to your next hosting of the Quidditch World Cup, and would throw all my energy and ability behind the preparations--you know, creating portkeys, chasing Death Eaters, selling Omnioculars--you name it, I'll do it for you.

  • Please consider my request, and I'd love to hear from you if you have any questions.

    Wednesday, June 27, 2007

    Geek Wednesday: Recommended Reading About Tech

    Geek Wednesday: Recommended Reading

    Today we offer a few recommendations on where to get your geek on. Whether you write code for a living or use your computer for email and web browsing, the following resources are invaluable for keeping up on what's really happening in technology.

    Slashdot: If you go noplace else for geek news and tarball fights, go to Slashdot every day. I read their newsfeed often, just to check out some of the "departments" that Zonk, Cmdr Taco, and the rest of the gang find for their stories. For example, Zonk files the story of the NSA brownouts under the "war-on-terror-doesn't-include-juice dept."

    But make no mistake about what's there: this is real journalism, and these guys are true wordsmiths. The proof is in the geeking: you can learn more about what's really going on in tech from ten minutes at Slashdot than you can in an hour of searching and surfing. They have sections on politics, IT, book reviews, science, hardware, and more. But the best thing about the Slashdot editors and writers is that they rarely if ever take themselves seriously. Think of them as the Jon Stewart of geekdom (there is no higher compliment I can make).

    Ars Technica: I read this online geek journal regularly because it features excellent hardware reviews and also contains one of the best Apple-related blogs I've seen (Infinite Loop).

    C-Net: For tech news and some excellent political analysis of tech-related issues, this site is a must-bookmark. I usually spend a few minutes a day on it, though you could explore it longer than that for its extensive reviews, downloads, interviews, and video clips. My favorite among their writers is Declan McCullagh, who consistently offers quality journalism and insight, straight from Washington. And how many other reporters working in that town do you know of who even deserve to be called journalists?

    Those 3 are the essential sites for geek news and insight; and you'll find plenty more if you get into it. I keep a tab on my iGoogle page marked "Geek", and have many tech sites bookmarked there. Here are a few notable ones:

  • Wired: if you like a broad reach for your techno-news, this is a great choice. Science-related stories of all types (many of which are also covered at Slashdot), and a bright, creative, glitzy interface.

  • Download Squad: fresh news about the latest software, all the time; and sometimes they break a story or provide a perspective that you'd be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.

  • Tech Republic: if you do a lot with Windows and MS Office, this is a good site to check out occasionally for articles, tips, and guidance.

  • PC World: I tend to get lost amid the thick forest of zdnet (PC Magazine), so to keep up on activities in Pee-Cee Land, I rely on PC World.

  • Times Tech: The New York Times has a very robust tech section that's often worth checking out. This week, of course, Mr. Pogue has been busy with his new iPhone. Like Mossberg and the rest of the reviewers so far, he says it's generally up to its pre-release hype. Maybe it's a sign of the fact that I'm shutting down shop here that I care so little about it all. Or maybe...well, never mind.

  • Engadget is where you get your updates on all the new gear, with detail that you're not likely to find in most other places.

  • The UnOfficial Apple Weblog: This is the best Apple-related site I know of, because they don't care who they offend, and don't mind tweaking Uncle Steve's nose once in a while.

  • MacWorld But for the Mac fanboys, there's MacWorld. Take their rah-rah Steve act with a grain of salt, and you'll find some valuable reviews and tips in there. Mac Addict is also good, too; I think they changed their name to Mac Life--whatever.

  • Linux Insider: if you're into Linux and aren't satiated by the Linux page at Slashdot, check out the Insider regularly. And remember what I've been telling you for about a year now: this is the next big wave in tech. Linux, not Intel-Apple, will re-create and transform tech in both the enterprise and consumer realms like no other merely corporate force out there--as long as it remains true to its open source roots and identity; for that is where the future awakening now stirs from its long sleep. So even if you don't use Linux or other open source software, it wouldn't hurt to stay informed about the development model that could well transform government, business, education, and society as a whole.
  • Tuesday, June 26, 2007

    "These People Scare Me"

    Here's a quote of the week from our former ally in incompetence, Mr. Tony:

    A lasting resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue is essential and I will do whatever I can to help such a resolution come about.

    Such as throwing your weight behind a tyrannical war of occupation in the region—right, T.?

    But let's leave that matter with some praise for the land of Harry Potter: it is a great day for England. They have flushed out their monster; we are still groaning under the oppressive weight of ours.

    I have been critical recently of the Huffington Post's inclusion of a gossip section, presumably as a revenue-generating instrument. What follows is an encouraging development. They have recently removed the gossip page, replaced it with an "Entertainment" section, and generally upgraded their site. So if you care about being truly informed on where this benighted democracy is heading, a bookmark to HuffPost is essential. No other big-time uber-blog would be likely to give a fellow like Mike Gravel prominent air space; but Huff did it today. Here's a sample of why we need to hear a lot of Mr. Gravel over the next 15 months or so, no matter whether you think he's electable or not:

    Of course we can continue to compartmentalize ourselves from the truth, remove the troops and blame the rubble on the Iraqis. We can feed the collective fantasy that our good intentions and heroic efforts were thwarted by the cowardice and incompetence of others. But if that's what we take from our experience in Iraq, we will never learn the true lessons and we will be condemned to repeat the same mistakes.

    The inability to admit a mistake and assume responsibility is not just a morally bankrupt way to walk through life; it is a dangerous and deadly way to lead a nation.

    Monday, June 25, 2007

    Urban Pastorale

    Pictures from the weekend: the scenes in this little movie are all from Prospect Park. You wouldn't know it was Brooklyn if I didn't tell you (click graphic to view video)

    Sunday, June 24, 2007

    The Paper of Record Drops the Gloves

    I read the New York Times every single day, and I can tell you that it is NOT a liberal publication—not like the (old) Village Voice, Mother Jones, or The Nation. In fact, the Times led the mass media pack in uncritically repeating the lies of the Bushies, back before this I-Wreck ever began. But on Sunday, the Times finally took off the gloves and swung bare-knuckled and straight: the full text is here, and here's a brief sample:

    President Bush has turned the executive branch into a two-way mirror. They get to see everything Americans do: our telephone calls, e-mail, and all manner of personal information. And we get to see nothing about what they do.

    Everyone knows this administration has disdained openness and accountability since its first days...Vice President Dick Cheney sets the gold standard, placing himself not just above Congress and the courts but above Mr. Bush himself. For the last four years, he has been defying a presidential order requiring executive branch agencies to account for the classified information they handle. When the agency that enforces this rule tried to do its job, Mr. Cheney proposed abolishing the agency.

    The Times could now take the next step, and neutralize a good deal of the lousy karma it generated for itself in the Judy Miller days, by joining tens of thousands of American citizens and a growing list of members of Congress in this:

    Friday, June 22, 2007

    Friday Reflection: Don Mayer on Health Care

    Today I'm turning over the Friday Reflection to Don Mayer of Small Dog Electronics, one of the premier VAR Macintosh dealers in the country. He's no pundit or MSM op-ed specialist, but after you read his piece on universal health care, I think you'll agree that he has written the most closely-reasoned and lucid piece on this issue that you're likely to find anywhere.

    There is a renewed interest in addressing health care reform on both the state and national levels. This focus may be enhanced by Michael Moore's new film "Sicko" that starts next week. Much of the legislative efforts have been concentrating on the uninsured. I think this is a valid first-step as it is the uninsured that create the cost shift that helps to escalate insurance premiums for the rest of us. On the other hand, it is a band-aid for a health care system that is barely on life-support.

    We are about to get our renewal rates for our health insurance policy and we expect a significant increase of something in the neighborhood of 15-20%. This is clearly unsustainable. The rising cost of health insurance premiums is perhaps the single most uncontrollable element of business overhead and is forcing companies to make difficult choices like dropping or reducing coverage. When this happens, the costs of health care is either absorbed by the business, or shifted to families, state programs, or back onto those who are insured and those employers who continue to provide insurance. Increased health insurance premiums means businesses have reduced capacity to invest money in their business for expansion, to raise employee salaries, or to increase other benefits like retirement plans, etc.

    As a businessman that provides health care coverage for my employees, I know very well about the rapid escalation of the cost of providing health care for my staff. When I first started in business over 30 years ago, when I founded Northern Power Systems, I was able to cover an employee and dependents for about $1500 a year. Today, coverage that is not even as comprehensive will cost me in excess of $11, 000 a year.

    The employer has become the “payer of last resort,” picking up the costs of uncompensated provider care, whether it results from inadequate reimbursement rates or inadequate insurance coverage for people needing health care. As a business owner, no longer do I make hiring decisions based solely upon my company’s need for growth and development. I must consider carefully the impact of the rapidly escalating health insurance premiums as I make each new hire. Sometimes the cost of those “taxes” can equal 50% of an entry-level worker’s salary.

    I have intentionally used the word “taxes” because in the health care debate it really all comes down to money. Businesses that do the right thing are paying a health care tax to insurance companies. The dollars I need to spend on providing health care to my employees, who could not get affordable coverage in any other way is a tax, call it a premium but it barks just like a tax! It’s a standing obligation I have, is my contribution to a defined social need. But the “health care insurance tax” that I pay is very different from the other taxes I pay. Unlike other taxes, a) not everyone pays this tax, although everyone benefits from it; b) there is no rational allocation of the tax burden; c) the burden is not distributed through a transparent democratic public debate process; and d) as a “health insurance taxpayer” I have no influence on the administration or governance of the public good that is funded by the tax. I would much rather pay taxes that are determined through a democratic process, with democratic oversight of the disbursement and delivery system, to fund health care, than continue to be subject to unpredictable, opaque and rapidly escalating health insurance “taxes”.

    Additionally, employer-funded health insurance has impacted the competitive marketplace, making the decision NOT to provide coverage a strong competitive advantage in bidding for contracts. Employers that do not provide coverage shift their employee’s health care costs to those of us who choose to act responsibly, thereby doubling the adverse competitive impact. Other employers hire part-time or seasonal workers to avoid this premium/tax, still others “dumb down” coverage with very high deductibles and limited coverage that encourages Vermonters to avoid medical care even for chronic conditions.

    Ending the employer-based funding of health care will stimulate economic development by reducing the tendency of employers to offer part-time jobs to avoid health care costs, will give employees the freedom to change jobs without fear of loss of health benefits and will eliminate this contentious issue as a labor-management dispute.

    The huge administrative load created by our current "Rube Goldberg" "system" of health care in the USA is absorbing millions of dollars to have patients and medical providers fight with insurance companies for coverage. You get an explanation of benefits that needs a lawyer to interpret and the insurance companies are motivated to deny coverage to increase their profits. It would be one thing if our method of providing health care to our citizens produced the best health care in the world, but it does not.

    It is time to scrap employer-funded optional health care and provide everyone with access to health care as a "public good" that is publicly-financed so that everyone pays their fair share and everyone receives top-quality health care. This is really the only solution to health care that is feasible and has been demonstrated to be effective throughout the world. There are 27 industrialized nations in the world and 26 of them provide universal health care. We should be ashamed that the USA is the one that does not.

    —Don Mayer, Small Dog Electronics

    I found the above piece in Don's "Soapbox" section of his company's e-newsletter, "Kibble and Bytes," which you can subscribe to yourself here. And if you're shopping for a Mac or iPod, by all means buy from smalldog. Mind you, I don't get a dime for this: smalldog doesn't do affiliate advertising. But wouldn't it be nice to buy something from a guy you know is good and has great ideas?

    Thursday, June 21, 2007

    Dear Mr. Hillary: Go Whack a Mole

    Dear Hillary: if I were to get your gender wrong, does that mean we'd be electing Bubba again in 2008? I could think of several worse outcomes than that...But seriously, ma'am: I know that image and theme songs are more important to you than policy and all that stupid wonkish stuff, but sometimes you just have to sweat the details.

    I posted a comment to Norm Jenson's excellent blog on the prospect of yet another Ralph Nader presidential bid. Just some common sense advice for a guy who seems to need it...

    I have a rare television (well, actually a video) recommendation: Frontline's program Endgame, which aired earlier this week, is now online. One warning: I watched it Wednesday evening, and didn't sleep very well that night. Some of the war scenes are pretty graphic and intense.

    But it's important to see that stuff, because the rest of the mass media is busy playing "Whack-a-Mole" with the entire Iraq scene. Watch as Stewart keelhauls their asses for it, as only Stewart can.

    Another warning: you might find the Frontline film pretty hard to swallow in some of its message. Are these people seriously trying to raise Condi to the level of neglected military genius—or was I simply imagining things? I must have been imagining wonder I'm quitting this blogging stuff: it's making me whacky as a mole.

    Wednesday, June 20, 2007

    A Tribute to Geeks

    Before we get to our tribute to geekdom, here's your daily dose of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin:

    People who say "same-sex marriage makes me uncomfortable" should probably remind themselves that comfort has nothing to do with the issue and that, often as not, change is discomforting. I think those of us who are straight people really need to sit down quietly and compare our own discomfort with the discomfort of gays and lesbians who for years have been excluded, isolated, silenced, abused, and even killed.

    Geek Wednesday: It's All Geek To Me

    Deep Geek Thought of the Day, from ancient Chinese philosopher Txt Tzu: "In my opinion, the "H" in IMHO is unnecessary. Every opinion should be humble."

    Better Geek Mousetraps: Ever get sick of trying to read those gray-scrawled "I'm not a robot" verification fields in an online form? Here's the best alternative I've seen so far (thanks to Dr. Vrai for the tip).

    We have called this segment of the blog "Geek Wednesday," but not because I am myself a geek. I do not, by any stretch of the imagination, merit that designation.

    A geek, after all, is a professional who writes code, administers systems, or manages complex architecture; a geek is a person who can speak and act with expertise on technology. To be a real geek means having a grasp of a technical specialization while also maintaining a broad perspective on the industry—an informed view of the vast landscape of technology.

    But a fellow like me, who writes about tech as the news cycle determines and as my admittedly narrow personal experience allows—such a fellow can relate to geeks outside the sphere of zero and one. Guys like me will try to grasp the unique culture of technology and its seemingly infinite range of personalities and voices.

    I've come to know geeks by making my living amid their company, and by revealing some enthusiasm and support for their work. I may have also detected a certain social potential of geekery; a potential that reaches past the pabulum of "we're all connected" and the obsession with gear and electronic toys from the Blackberry to the Wii.

    I see the geek community as a new grassroots; a foundation upon which the social order at large can be regenerated, in a model that I call The Open Source Society. Whether or not I am right in this is not the point here; I may well be, as I have often been, completely off the mark on that. But one point can be confidently expressed here, and it relates to the overall quality of character among geeks.

    The geeks I have known have revealed to me a modesty and light-hearted competence that I haven't seen so commonly among other professional classes such as marketers, managers, and certainly among executives. Where others might encounter a geek and see evidence of a skill or a specialization—a dba, an architect, or a developer—I see a life that also happens to exude talent. Where a corporate executive may perceive a tool whereby profit can be made or a project deadline met, I have seen a glowing orb of personality, a well of humility.

    I can assure you, this comes from no special skill of judgment on my part: it comes from the heart of the geek's experience, the common culture that arises from their combined and nearly endlessly variant uniqueness. Geeks, for example, tend not to take themselves as seriously as members of other professional classes do. Maybe they know how quickly, easily, and inexplicably things can go all wrong. Maybe, as the WordPress developers assure us, "code is poetry"; and I know for a fact that any life lived poetically is deeper, richer, more essentially human.

    The reasons and the causes matter less than the lived reality. In these little Wednesday columns, I have laughed at the geeks, and they have laughed back. We all know that, in an era of war, genocide, tyranny, and the undermining of democratic principles around the world and especially here in America, the latest Apple toy or Internet gamble is matter for mirth rather than fury—tech often provides a welcome note of comic relief to the unceasing flow of tragedy in all the news besides.

    So before we shut down Geek Wednesday in this forum, here's my tip of the silicon to the geeks: you are the most vibrant, amusing, inquisitive, and warm-hearted group of people I've encountered in my quarter-century tour through corporate America. Perhaps, after all, code is poetry. In some future lifetime, I hope to find out for myself.

    Thanks to Nearly Redmond Nick and the other geeks who have contributed to this forum. May your every randomly-accessed memory be clear, loving, and pure 64-bit light.

    Tuesday, June 19, 2007

    On the Destruction Express

    I'm offering something today that I've had lying around for a little while; it's to eventually appear somewhere in my new book about The Open Source Society. But first, your daily dose of Rev. William Sloane Coffin:

    It's not them and us: it's just us. And all of us are careening toward nuclear war. In World War II, six million Jews were herded into boxcars, stripped, shot or gassed, and incinerated in ovens all over Eastern Europe. But on the trains the great majority never guessed their destiny. We're on such a train to an even greater incineration and haven't the eyes to perceive it.

    The Ass in the Lion's Skin

    AN ASS, having put on the Lion's skin, roamed about in the forest and amused himself by frightening all the foolish animals he met in his wanderings. At last coming upon a Fox, he tried to frighten him also, but the Fox no sooner heard the sound of his voice than he exclaimed, "I might possibly have been frightened myself, if I had not heard your bray."

    Aesop's story of the Ass in the Lion's Skin has something to teach us about how quality is perceived and treated in the corporate culture. Most companies like wearing the skin of quality, but few choose to pursue its substance.

    Quality is given the same kind of lip service in corporate America that it receives from advertisers of consumer goods. "Quality is job one," rang the old Ford ad. "The quality goes in...before the name goes on," Zenith assured us in its ads for consumer TVs.

    Curiously, though, you would be hard-pressed to find many mentions of the word "quality" in most modern advertising. As in the corporate realm, the image of quality is far more important than its substance. We like to talk about quality, but rarely is it pursued, let alone practiced. Our culture much prefers quantity. How much you have is our benchmark for success, more than the intrinsic value of what you are.

    Yet there's even more to the problem than that. For to be defined by one's possessions is misfortune enough; to be measured according to their mere quantity, however, is disaster. Yet we have heard our own President refer proudly to his supporters as "the haves and the have-mores," who he fondly calls his "base." This attitude from the putative leader of the free world represents a painfully regressive step in human evolution.

    Still, this is hardly a problem to be blamed on one individual or even a single institution. The underlying attitude is pervasive in our culture, and thus, it can only be successfully addressed at the individual level. You cannot legislate a society to transform its attitudes toward excess; institutional compulsion is more likely to compound the problem than ameliorate it: the history of prohibition in a nutshell.

    This being the case, what we need is a broad picture of the problem with quality in our culture, so that we can as individuals discover its traces within ourselves, within our lives. This process in itself frequently points the way toward a transformational solution that will guide the culture. This is, I think, the most natural process: the changes made uniquely within each person lead the society forward.

    In our advertising, we are far more likely to find the words "get more" than any term that describes "quality." In America, More is better; Bigger is better. In our current era, we've taken the matter well beyond the point of balance: we speak of "extreme" in everything from sports to drain openers; "ultra-" is one of the most-used prefixes in advertising; and "more" is virtually ubiquitous. We have wrapped ourselves in a cult of More; defined ourselves by Excess. Today, it seems there is no longer any such thing as too much of a good thing. In fact, we frequently don't even bother to ask how "good" the thing may actually be, so long as there is lots of it.

    When we conflate excess with success (they sure sound alike, don't they?), then quality becomes an accident, a bonus if present, though more likely a necessary sacrifice to quantity. This is true of consumer goods: why not "get more" by snatching up 3 Wal-Mart personal computers for the same price as you'd pay for one Mac or higher-end PC? If a 30-inch TV screen looks great, then 60-inches must twice as great.

    As you might expect, the breath of this cult has also entered the corporate realm. In my own professional arena, Information Technology (IT), there is a domain known as QA (Quality Assurance), which is theoretically responsible for applying thorough, controlled testing of software developed or purchased and customized by the company. In practice, however, QA is usually under-resourced, generally ignored until the last possible moment of a software project, and is allowed laughably brief amounts of time to do its work. This is such a universal state of affairs in corporate America that you can fairly predict the course a conversation with a QA Manager might take, well ahead of time.

    For in software development and in consumer products, quality is tested and verified mainly by the end-user. So if you buy a product and find that it doesn't work or is so loaded with bugs or deficiencies as to be essentially useless, welcome to QA in the modern age. This is a model that most corporations adhere to, and is based largely on the unquestionable success of the Microsoft corporation in selling buggy, insecure, hair-pullingly dysfunctional software whose myriad defects are revealed only by the general public that pays a very high price for the stuff.

    So, corporate America, when it comes to quality, is the ass that wears the lion's skin: it pays regular lip-service to quality, and will cloak itself in a quality-referenced Mission Statement or advertising slogan. But when it comes to actual practice, your average corporation is very much still an ass. If you listen closely, you can hear the braying before you put your money down.

    Sunday, June 17, 2007

    "Has a Bush the Buddha-Nature?"

    Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY

    There's a video over at YouTube from Mike Gravel that may cause many Dems to look down their lorgnettes and sneer. To them, I say: get over yourselves. I think the guy fully recognizes he's an outsider with no chance to win in this political culture defined by the obsession with appearances. And guess what? That's a voice we need in the campaign. In short, we need a Zen-candidate: a guy with a serious, eloquent message (if you've heard him speak, you know he's got that), but who also is ready and willing to spit right in the eye of every Madison-Avenue self-image machine out there--Hillary's, McCain's, all of them.

    And now, our moment with William Sloane Coffin:

    ...evil is not so much the work of a few degenerate people or groups of people as it is the result of the indifference and negligence of the many. With spiritual arrogance goes the itch to destroy. History warns that the best is always a hair's breadth from the worst, and that heartless moralists in the corridors of power are those who start inquisitions.

    Saturday, June 16, 2007

    Coffin on Grounding the Demonic

    The residents of my garden mock my landlady's territorial claims

    As we continue to prepare for our Kevorkian moment here on the blog, we offer another slice from the wisdom of William Sloane Coffin. Today, a unique interpretation of a famous but oft-neglected piece of Christian teaching.

    "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also." This doesn't mean, however, that we're supposed to be doormats for others to walk on with hobnailed boots. It's my experience that people seldom want to walk over you until you lie down, so it's better to stay standing. Turning the other cheek means, "Be a lightning rod; ground the hostility." When you are insulted, call the other's attention to the hurt but do not retaliate in kind. Try--and believe me it is hard--try not even to resent it, for our job is to get to each other, not at each other. You know as well as I do that when enmities dim, lives glow all the stronger.

    Friday, June 15, 2007

    The Clear Heart of Civil Disobedience

    I can't think of a better way to wind down this blog than with the words of William Sloane Coffin, who died a little over a year ago. What he left behind, in books like Credo, from which the quotes you'll read are taken, is the same kind of insight we've tried to highlight here in our Friday Reflection space, through a variety of voices and genres. Like Martin Luther King, Coffin showed us that social awareness and civil activism are at their brightest and clearest when they arise from that deep mindfulness that is often known as spirituality.

    We'll begin with Coffin's reflections on prejudice.

    As a man I consider myself at best a recovering chauvinist. As a white person I am a recovering racist, and as a straight person a recovering heterosexist. To women, African Americans, gays, and lesbians, I am deeply grateful for stretching my mind, deepening my heart, and convincing me that no human being should ever be patient with prejudice at the expense of its victims.

    Thursday, June 14, 2007

    In the Granite Forest

    The place is just two hundred yards behind the building where I live. It is called Greenwood, and it's one of the larger of our nation's burial grounds. Of course, it should be called Granite Forest, for there is more of stone than there is of wood in that vast field of bodies.

    Every time I walk past Greenwood, I wonder: could people be so lacking in trust of the universe and the realities of the formless, that they must leave behind these massive rocks and tablets in the ground where their dark matter rots, free of the light that now lives in another dimension? Is this as firm a grip as they could take of memory?

    2500 years ago, Lao Tzu told us something different:

    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.

    Wednesday, June 13, 2007

    Geek Wednesday: The Secret Browser

    Geeks: Comment at will on the following statement:

    A pure microprocessor would transcend spatial realms and exist only in the dimension of time.

    So...magical, Secret Steve pulled a Windows browser out of his hat yesterday at WWDC. What of it?

    Secrecy has its price: when you have kept your enemies in the dark, you also tend to leave your friends unaware. So Safari 3 is showing its security slip, and getting a lot of "incompatible browser" messages in Windows today. I found one in a good place to be incompatible, if you're a browser.

    Too bad, because there's no faster or more efficient browser on the Mac platform than Safari. If Steve had at least let the rumor mill work a little over the past few weeks, enough to let the major sites and services tweak their settings to be ready for a new player in the Wintel online game, then maybe Safari would be getting better press than it's receiving so far. And if he hadn't waited until two weeks ahead of his telephone's big day to let the developers know when and how they can write apps for the thing, then we wouldn't get the storm of half-baked, poorly tested code that bleeding edgers of the iPhone are likely to see in two weeks. I wouldn't touch that thing if you gave me the $500 to buy it with. Well all right, Mark: if it brings world peace and does oral sex, then I'll take one.

    But guess which browser that phone will be running? Yep, Safari. Think there's some virus writers and hackers out there getting their knives ready? Here's a tip, Mac users--in fact, a whole group of them:

  • Camino is the Mozilla Mac-friendly browser, and sports a lovely interface, a multi-layered bookmark bar (which Firefox itself still lacks), and zesty page load times. Very nice.

  • There's always Firefox itself. In my experience, it runs best in Linux, good in Windows, and fair on the Mac. But it's worth having in your applications folder, because web browsing is no longer a one-trick pony, after all.

  • Opera is perhaps the most visually pleasing browser, certainly for the Mac, and it has a host of usability features and community applets, such as a blogging portal and excellent forums, that set it apart from the competition. Highly recommended.

  • Shiira is another really pretty Mac browser with some great usability features and toys built in. Definitely worth a look.

  • Finally, there's OmniWeb. Costs 15 bucks for an ad-free version, but for the quality, reliability, speed, and features, it's well worth it.

  • You can always run Safari on your Windows box...if you dare.

    Coming Soon: I just installed a 64-bit version of MEPIS Linux onto the MacBook, and will be going through it the rest of this week. While we await a stable version of Vista and the October release of Apple's 64-bit OS, this offering from MEPIS is intriguing: a working 64-bit OS that is ready now. The high res drivers loaded without incident last night, so if I can get Linux to recognize the MacBook's webcam, I should be able to capture some video of MEPIS-64 in action. So check back later this week to see what we came up with. I can tell you so far that it was the fastest install of a full-blown OS that I've seen: under 15 minutes to load the KDE with a full GUI, OpenOffice, GIMP, Firefox, Evolution, a suite of utilities, drivers, games, and miscellaneous productivity packages. Pretty amazing so far.

    Saturday, June 9, 2007

    A Comment from Lao Tzu

    Lao Tzu's remarks on the past six years (Quicktime video, 1.4MB, click to play)

    Friday, June 1, 2007

    A Fizzling Finish (and Friday Reflection)

    I have worked in technology for a number of years, and really grown to like it. It is a continuing, fascinating lesson in impermanence and human frailty. Servers fail unaccountably; projects lose their direction and momentum just as management is extolling their inevitable benefits; code that worked yesterday sputters and degrades into dysfunction today. So it is perhaps only fitting that a blog should close not with a flourish but a fizzle, which is exactly what this one will be doing over the next few weeks.

    A hard drive is known to last an average of 5 years. Statistics on server life show that 10 years is the most that can be expected out of a busy machine that's always on and connected. Chipsets and circuit boards are similarly short-lived.

    Meanwhile, silk scrolls from the time of Lao Tzu--some two and half millennia old--are still readable; papyrus rolls from Egyptian and Greek antiquity are legible. Bound books that are hundreds of years old can still be easily read. Even I have a few books that are more than a hundred years old in my library.

    I will add, however, that I also have a few floppy disks left that are over 10 years old and still readable. It's just that there aren't any computers made anymore that come equipped with the hardware to read them.

    After all, it is not the physical medium of a message that makes it endure. Homer, legend has it, was a blind poet who simply sang his poems out loud to audiences. Someone or other among his listeners found enough of value in those songs of the wrath of Achilles to write them down, and someone else in turn copied these, and so on. It is doubtful that the true author of the Iliad and the Odyssey ever knew or expected that his poems would be read in other languages, thousands of years after him.

    More recently, it was Lincoln who claimed that the world would "little know or long remember" the words of what has become one of the most quoted, printed, and memorized pieces of political oratory ever. The words that deserve to endure, somehow do.

    Will something--anything--of what we have written here these past three years endure? I would be willing to make a very large wager against it. A blog is, by its very nature, not the kind of writing that is meant to be remembered or cherished long after its time. Its proper voice is the casual voice of today, speaking to the events and for the people of its day. Its very quality comes from its easy digestibility, its smooth brevity and simple takeaway.

    A good blog is also designed to lead the reader away from itself. We embed links into our work that we think will better enlarge or illustrate the points we are attempting to make. If you're writing an effective weblog, you are giving readers short and clear statements of fact or opinion, and leading them elsewhere for further research and experience.

    Personally, I have used this blog as a laboratory and a gym: it is where I try out ideas, forms, and approaches, or simply exercise my writer's brain. I have always made an effort to do this while also delivering something useful and rewarding for the general reader. It can't be a nice experience to spend your time and energy just watching someone else work out.

    Judging by our traffic, which (according to Google Analytics) remains at around a hundred visitors per day, it is possible that I have failed. The comments section is generally left bare, and the financial maintenance of the site has been a slow but continuous leak. If I were to go on walking such a treadmill while pretending there was progress, then wouldn't I be just like Bush and his handlers, or Joe Lieberman in Baghdad the other day—talking up an invisible improvement while wrapped in a flak jacket and a heavily armed squadron of men and equipment?

    All right, it is true: I wouldn't. No one will die, no orphans or widows will be made from my futile postings here. So on to the real reasons: there is work to be done, life to be lived, and more books to be written. I'm getting fat, and sad to say, typing 60 words per minute does not equal 60 burnt calories per minute. The older we get, the more do our bodies ask our attention. It is time I started listening.

    So I offer a final Friday Reflection, below, and you will no doubt find a sporadic post here and there between now and when the hosting period ends, in August. Like I said, it has been a valuable lesson, which is perhaps as much as we can ask of our experience. My gratitude goes out to my co-writer, Terry McKenna, who I am sure has a future in punditry, should the mainstream media ever decide that a reasoned tone of truth and eloquence would be preferable to the current climate of shrill and demonic ignorance. And I am, of course, very grateful to the few who have come here regularly to read our work.

    There is a story told of the Buddha, from one of his many lifetimes before he became the Buddha. In this particular strand of his successive, merit-building reincarnations, he appears as a fellow who encounters a sick lioness with a cub. Both animals are starving and near death. The Buddha, or whatever person he was at the time, feels such compassion for the creatures that he offers his own body as meat for the mother lion. But she is too weak to even bite the arm he offers her. So the Buddha finally picks up a sharp rock, cuts his arm open, and holds it to the lioness's mouth, so she can lap up the blood from the wound. The blood of the Buddha has the desired effect of restoring energy to the mother lion, who soon recovers enough strength to kill and eat the Buddha. And thus the lioness and her cub were saved from death, and the man who gave them his life was carried further up the karmic mountain, to the brink of the summit of supreme realization.

    Whether or not any such pinnacle of enlightenment is possible, I do wish for our sick, frail, and benighted democracy a visiting Buddha, who might offer it blood—but not the blood of innocents or children. Just the vital fluid of truth and autonomy.

    Friday Reflection: The Message of the Bird

    One day last week, during an outdoor press conference, a bird took a shit onto the President. He wiped away the blessing with his bare hand, thus prompting many comedians to marvel anew at this man's talent for the bizarre (Bill Maher wondered how Bush could imagine that he is not descended from apes).

    It made me wonder how the Deluder--oops, the Decider, that is--could think that anyone is estranged from the Earth, but instead is a son of that parochial God or a daughter of this insular revolution.

    We are all children of the Earth. Food, water, every sustenance and shelter known to us in our lives, comes from the Earth. No matter whether we may credit this God or that Prophet; this Messiah or that Savior; this nation or that Law with our life, there is, after all, no god but the one that lies under your fingernails after you've filled your hands with earth.

    We can best love god, our nation or its people, by honoring the Earth upon which all these find their life, from which they all draw sustenance. Every life, every nation, every belief, is nourished on the grain and fruit of Earth.

    So it is as our native peoples have taught us: the Earth is our Mother. And our father, and our ancestors. This is all we can be sure of; what we can all agree upon, no matter which god we may follow; what Bible we might read; or what nation's laws we may obey.

    Today, our species is on a path to self-annihilation. Scientists, naturalists, and most teachers of Earth-spirit agree that this is so. Some of them have said or written that the universe will not suffer nor the Earth lose by our species' annihilation. I do not agree.

    To be sure, the universe will carry on without us; there can be no disagreement on that point. The Earth, in all likelihood, will survive without us as well. But there will be diminishment of the whole, just as there is with the extinction of any species. There will be loss. The Earth-spirit will suffer; for there will be no hands left to touch the Earth, and less consciousness to love it.

    The less gravitational attraction there is in the universe, the more entropy will be found. Less love, more chaos. For what reason are we born here but to add to the whole, to endow the cosmic heart with the oxygen of our uniqueness?

    Therefore, if you would like to perform a ritual that will nourish god and draw its blessings, try this: dig up a small patch of earth with your bare hands, and then put your religion down in the hole you made. Bury your belief. Then, ask the Earth to complete your sacrifice, and thank it for accepting your offering. Before the end of the year, your blessing will be answered with abundance, as long as you don't wait in expectation.

    This is the principle of quantum gravity in action: give ego to god, and accept the blessing of truth in return. It is how love works in the way of Nature. In fact, it works any way you choose to work with it yourself: if you elect to follow the God of the Bomb and the way of death, you may well fool the squealing infants who call themselves journalists. But the birds will not miss you.