Friday, April 30, 2010

Where special effects serve the story

I saw the movie Avatar last evening, the last night it was available at the closest discount movie complex (not in 3D). I was impressed! They got their $280M money's worth (and earned over $2.8 billion). The computer generated aliens and the world they lived in pushed the standard for those kinds of characters and images. The world, in the best traditions of science fiction, was well thought out with the implications for various features logically exploited. The movie didn't spoon feed or data dump explanations of how the world worked but merely showed how people expected to act in that environment and assumed the audience would figure it out. All of that in service of (and not overshadow) a rollicking good story. Well done!

As many others have noted the basic outline of the plot is not new. Dances with Wolves told a similar story maybe 20 years ago. This is not a problem -- most romantic comedies follow the same plot outline.

However, like many reviewers, I give it an A-, not an A. The gung-ho military and corporate people in this movie treat the aliens in the same manner those of European descent treated Native Americans. One can get tired of this and wonder why we didn't learn anything from our national history. Considering how gays are treated -- we're subhuman -- it is obvious we didn't learn that lesson. We've just changed the target. In addition, there are some sequences that show a lot of military violence (which go on too long). We haven't learned anything on that front either.

The rights of a person vs. the rights of a belief

Yet another response to my postings on nuclear and non-carbon forms of energy. This one is from my niece and, alas, it got tossed in the spam folder where it remained hidden for a few days.

She sent me a link to an article of a wind turbine that sidesteps the NIMBY issue. It is a horizontal cylindrical turbine that is installed along the ridge of a roof. I like innovative solutions like this. Alas, the disadvantages are that it won't be all that high and can't turn into the wind.

The NPR program The Story did an episode today about wind. It featured Pete Ferrell, who put a wind farm on his Kansas ranch, and Mike Cianchette, who worked for a wind company in Maine.

A judge in Britain ruled on a gay discrimination case in a manner that I hope gets attention around here. A sexual therapist refused to take gay couples as patients because it went against his religious beliefs. A couple sued under Britain's anti-discrimination laws. Once you get through the legal language the judge said fine, you are entitled to your religious beliefs, but secular law can't be based on them because religious beliefs are so varied. That means discrimination of a person is more important than discrimination of beliefs. The right of a gay person to be treated fairly in all manner of public accommodation trumps the religious belief of the person providing the public service.

Back in January the Hawaii state House refused to consider a civil union bill already passed by the Senate and did it in such a way to make the whole chamber look like a bunch of wimps.

They redeemed themselves today by considering the bill on the last day of the legislative session -- and passing it! The governor likely won't approve it, so the question is whether she will veto it or allow it to become law without her signature. If vetoed, it passed by wide enough margins in both chambers to override a veto.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Much better choice

Mark Twain, American novelist and humorist, died 100 years ago last week. During all the noise over replacing U.S. Grant on the $50 bill with Ronald Reagan (eeww) I've been thinking the better move would be to put Twain on the $1 bill (or maybe the $2) and move the displaced person to the $50.

That's one strong containment vessel

I got a fourth response to my postings on nuclear energy. This was from a guy named Pete. He provided two links. The first is to a news release by the Nuclear Energy Institute dated December 23, 2002. The NEI used computer modeling techniques (related to what I did with my former employer) to study what would happen if a commercial aircraft was flown into a nuclear reactor. They used a variety of strike points on the reactor and on the airplane. In all simulations, the containment vessel was not breached. There was no leaked radiation. Even though reactors were built before the idea of using planes as missiles, the reactors were designed to withstand hurricane and earthquake as well as explosions within the reactor. They also studied the pools where fuel and spent rods are stored.

That leaves the engineering geeks among us wondering how the designers of reactors managed to keep things so secure. How about containment vessels with walls four feet thick packed with reinforcing bars. Photo here. Another factor is that reactors are a lot smaller than the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

So don't allow terrorism to deter us from using nuclear energy as we move away from carbon.

Here's another idea proposed by the nuclear industry (though I don't have the link anymore). Instead of building reactors the size we've come to know, we could also build many reactors that are perhaps 1/100 or 1/1000 of conventional size. A lot harder to hit and a lot less disruptive to local environments.

I agree with Antonin Scalia? Amazing

Last year the Washington state legislature passed an everything-but-the-name marriage equality bill. The Fundies threw a hissy fit and gathered enough signatures to require citizens vote on the referendum. They were looking to do in Washington what California had done the year before. Washington voters told the Fundies they like that law and approved keeping it.

Along the way, the Fundies said that in spite of Washington law we're not telling you who signed our petitions. Those mean gay people will intimidate us. We would be subjected to "uncomfortable conversations." It just wouldn't be safe. (Pardon me while I shut off the irony alarm.) Besides, signing petitions is like voting, to be done in secret. It's all about free speech.

Lovers of democracy note that free speech doesn't mean anonymous speech and doesn't shield a person from the consequences of their views. Uncomfortable conversations are a good idea. Openness in democratic processes prevents corruption.

So even though the vote went against the Fundies, this disclosure case remains and yesterday was heard before the Supremes.

During the hearings it didn't take long for Scalia to interrupt the defendant, saying such things as democracy is not for the faint-hearted, it requires civic courage, and the First Amendment does not protect against civil discourse -- or nasty phone calls. This implies it will be difficult to get 5 votes for the Fundie point of view.

Alas, there is still Roberts and Alito. The vote probably won't be 9-0 in favor of full disclosure. Alito asked the attorney on the gay side whether he'd be willing to give out the home addresses of the firm's lawyers so people could show up for some of those uncomfortable conversations. The attorney replied the addresses are already public. Roberts suggested that petition names be kept private if the signers faced a real threat. And who gets to decide what a "real threat" is? Where to draw the line between an uncomfortable phone call and being bashed as many gays have been?

Since I've written a lot about some of the anti-democracy moves by the GOP I've wondered what the Supremes would make of this case. If they didn't like democracy allowing petition gathering to remain secret would be a step in that direction.

This was the last case in which Stevens heard oral arguments. The case will be decided sometime in June as the court season ends.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

How far back did you say you want to go?

Essayist Terrence Heath notes the mantra of the Tea Party folks is to "take back our country." The obvious questions are: From whom? or perhaps To when?

If we want to take our country back to a particular time, when was that golden age? Most think it would be the 1950s, the last time straight white males were firmly in control and women, gays, and minorities knew their place.

But maybe it was the 1880s -- a time of minimal government intervention. You kept every penny you earned because there were no taxes (not that you had many pennies because of no minimum wage). You didn't have to get a license from the government to practice many professions (not that a doctor could do you much good anyway). No Social Security (too bad if you didn't save for old age). No regulatory agencies to be funded from the federal budget (no need to worry about retirement because your 7-day, 12-hour job in the mine usually killed you). At least slavery had been abolished by this time.

But some are even nostalgic for the 1780s. Except they don't remember their American Utopia was built on the backs of slaves.

Put it another way, their idea of a great America was fine for the straight white male. But not for anyone else. If a white male tells a black male how wonderful it would be to go back to the 1950s he's likely to get strange looks.

Which means they want to go back to a time when straight pale males had privileges and that depended on other people not having them.

Even if others did have them privilege isn't what it used to be -- a lot of jobs have been outsourced. Minorities get the blame but it was other straight pale males that implemented those policies.

So their country is gone. But they are welcome in our country -- the one that values diversity and equality and opportunity for all. Just leave the hate behind.

Why support from the fierce advocate is important

According to David Mixner, House staffers for Dems in heavily gay districts are getting concerned about Obama's inaction (and some would say obstruction) on gay issues. It was Obama who raised expectations. These are issues with broad popular support. The longer the prez. fails to act, the uglier the debate. Failure to pass major legislation may mean gay voters sit home in protest on election day.

Any spare crocodile tears?

The head of MassResistance, the Massachusetts organization battling gay marriage is quite upset with this year's crop of candidates for governor. All three -- Democrat, Republican, and Independent -- favor gay marriage and abortion rights. What's a bigot to do when he gets to the voting booth and nobody is on his side?

About that praise for nuclear energy…

Wow! I got three responses to my posting on nuclear energy! I don't think I've ever gotten so many on one post. I'll respond to a few of the points that were mentioned.

Anonymous asked why we aren't already installing solar panels on top of most buildings.

The simple answer is: money. And the reason why there isn't enough money: politics. There are various power companies and state governments who are working out ways to finance solar panels. I think one of the programs works like this -- the customer takes out a loan through the power company to install the panels. The loan is paid back through the difference between the size of the old electricity payment and what the customer is now actually using. Sounds like a fine idea to me.

My concern with solar is would we be able to cover enough buildings fast enough to make a difference in a climate crisis?

My friend and debate partner lists three objections to nuclear power.

1. NIMBY, big time.

For those not up on their acronyms, this means Not In My Back Yard.

I agree. In the same way I wouldn't want to be next door to a wind farm (I hear they're noisy). Michigan is debating how close to put turbines to scenic areas. Is it good enough to put turbines in Lake Michigan six miles from the coast? I also wouldn't want to be next door to a coal plant. But I'm sure we can find a place for a nuclear power plant the same way we can find a place for wind turbines.

2) No progress for decades in nuclear waste management. Nevada site in use in my lifetime? I doubt it.

This concern was also mentioned by my third responder.

I've heard there is at least a little bit of progress on waste management -- not in the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, but in processing the spent rods into more fuel, or at least less waste. It may not be an ultimate solution, but it is progress.

And my big concern:

3) Security risks. What would be the consequences of terrorists flying a jumbo jet into the concrete enclosure of a nuclear power plant's reactor? I can't be sure, but I'm guessing major damage, very likely a breach and lots of collateral debris-driven damage inside the shell. Radiation leaks. And the power plant offline for a sustained period, perhaps forever. At least, we should be asking these questions and demanding real answers. This is potentially among the worst-case and therefore most tempting targets for terrorism. There is no meaningful defense, unless you believe (as I do not) that we will never again see planes hijacked and used as missiles.

The same hit on a conventional power plant (of any kind) would also be catastrophic and take the plant out, but it would not turn the area into Chernobyl.

The nuclear industry loves to assure us it is all soooooo safe. I don't believe them for a minute.

If it is such a great target, why haven't they? I'm quite aware that is a rhetorical question that won't get us very far.

Perhaps another way to look at it (and I won't claim to be right) -- The purpose of terrorism is to instill terror. What instills more terror, striking a building in the middle of a city or striking a reactor where few people live? I think it would be the building. For the same reason the underwear bomber didn't attempt detonation until near the city of Detroit where there would be lots of witnesses of a plane falling from the sky.

But you are right. Security is a risk. Then it becomes a discussion of whether the risk of a terror attack outweighs the risk of a climate crisis. Whether we'll get a useful discussion of security risk is another matter.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Lead

A few days ago Obama gave a speech in support of Barbara Boxer's reelection. Members of Get Equal heckled him, urging him to do something about Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT), the military ban of gays. He says he's for it and working on it and wondered why they were mad at him and not the Fundies?

Could it be because you, sir, are the roadblock and not the Fundies?

Dan Choi is back, chained to the White House fence. This time he brought the same friend as before and four more. One of them is Autumn Sandeen (whose blog entries I read), a transgender woman who has retired from the Navy. She could very well lose her pension to fight to repeal a law which will not affect other transgender military personnel -- they're covered by different rules.

Strangely, the Lafayette Park police (across the street from the WH) shooed the press away from covering this particular demonstration, not at all a normal practice. Some think this was directed by the WH and want to know why.

As the military protesters were getting out of jail we hear that Obama does not want to pursue repealing the DADT law this year -- and had told gay rights organizations back in January that he would not. This is just after the State of the Union address when Obama said that he would work to repeal DADT this year. Since then those gay rights groups have assured us that DADT repeal is on track and not to hassle the prez.

The number discharged under DADT in 2009 (under Obama's watch) is at least 443. That brings the 17 year total of those dismissed to at least 13,425.

This has other gay organizations and many individual gays mighty annoyed with Obama. We're all aware that with elections in November the chances of more GOP seats in both houses goes up and the chances of repeal go down. We're also aware that this is one gay-friendly change that a large percentage of the country (even a large percentage of GOP voters, just not the ones who tend to control primaries). Fortunately, it looks like repeal is working its way through Congress anyway.

However with a change so popular, Obama's lack of leadership on the issue will be noted by lots of people, putting his reelection at a disadvantage. This appears to be an issue where he has the politics all backwards.

Yes, Obama has done a few nice things for gays. His recent directive on visitation rights in hospitals is one of them. But pundits note that all these issues, though they would not have been enacted under Bush, are now so bland that many anti-gay groups are ignoring Obama's efforts. Which means Obama isn't leading on our issues and certainly not being our fierce advocate.

If you want to click on only one link this one is it.

Power for my computer

I usually find George Will's columns in Newsweek to lean way too far to the Right. But this one isn't about politics and he has a good point.

Obama wants 20% of America's power generated by wind. That would require 186,000 turbines, which would cover an area the size of West Virginia (having just crossed the state twice, that's a big area). Our existing 25,000 turbines kill at least 75K and maybe 275K birds a year. What would 186K turbines do?

Solar? It's contribution now is tiny and needs lots of surface area to be meaningful.

Biomass? Its advantages disappear if the stuff has to be hauled to the plant.

In the meantime electricity consumption has been going up (5% now powers computers).

What does that leave? Nuclear. We all get nervous at the word. But how many Americans have died in the 55 years of using nuclear to generate electricity? Zero. Deaths from coal? Just check news reports for the last month, which is far from an isolated incident.

That's why we should support Lamar Alexander's campaign to build 100 new nuclear plants in the next 20 years.

But if you can't raise taxes…

If we're not supposed to tax the rich because they're busy creating jobs, and we're not supposed to tax the middle class because they're actually working those jobs, who is left to tax to get rid of this huge gov't deficit? Why, the 47% of Americans who don't pay any income tax because they are too poor. The broad airplay of this story couldn't possibly be because of a conservative bias in the mainstream media. Jon Stewart explains it all for us.

An improvement that isn't good and one that is

I've developed quite a backlog, so some topics I'll only touch on briefly.

Some conservative Christians no longer accuse gays of causing hurricanes or the end of Western Civilization, no longer shout at us, or no longer declare we're a menace to children. It's even cloaked in kind and gentle language, such as saying, "We're sinners too." While this is a vast improvement, it still isn't good. The problem is they still see homosexuality as a sin. They assume that gays share their beliefs about being gay, such as "homosexuality is acting out on ungodly temptation to sin."

These same Christians are surprised when we don't thank them for this insight. We're not gay because we do gay things. We're gay because we are inherently drawn romantically and sexually to people of the same sex. Christians respond by saying, "We say we're sinners too! What more do you want?"

We want you to acknowledge it isn't a choice, it isn't a sin, we aren't required to a life of celibacy, and our loves are as vital as yours. That's how you can be tolerant, accepting, and compassionate.

Cool! The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) has abolished all of its anti-gay policies, effective immediately. This includes reinstating pastors who were fired for being gay. All of the votes were overwhelmingly in favor and there were no drawn out public battles where each side tried to depict the other as sub-human. Now for the rest of the mainline denominations…

Monday, April 19, 2010

They need us

David Mixner, gay rights activist, has heard the gay media campaigns that say gays are just like straights, except in the gender of who they love. We're just like you and therefore you shouldn't discriminate against us.

Mixner, who has been an activist for 50 years, no longer buys that argument and thinks the public doesn't either. Gays are not like straights. We've lost friends to AIDS and suicide. Our predecessors were subjected to lobotomies as recently as the 1950s. We were the target of police stings and our names were printed in the newspapers for public shaming. Our experience is different from straights and we should celebrate that difference. When AIDS flared, we created new health care systems. Our talents can benefit other areas of society. We're not like them. They need us.

A benefit to procreation

My friend and debate partner asked me to share my thoughts on this article from the New York Times. It is a look into the research on homosexuality in animals. I've encountered most of the basic ideas before, but even with the length I read it all. There are a couple new ideas which I'll share.

Much of the article is about Laysan albatrosses in Hawaii. The researcher, Lindsay Young, noted many nests under the care of two females instead of a male and female pair. Young is very careful in describing what she found to make sure she isn't imposing the human perspective on what the birds are doing. It's a wise move, but the article shows how difficult it is to pull off.

One reason why homosexual behavior in animals was dismissed for so long is because it is so difficult to reconcile such behavior with what we know of evolution. That same difficulty has been noted with human homosexuality and debated extensively. Another researcher, Paul Vasey, says the answer for a particular species does not necessarily translate to any other species. Each one may have developed its own evolutionary reason for same-sex pairing.

The difficulties of gays and evolution got me thinking about the Fundie insistence that marriage is only for procreation. When considering behavior through the lens of evolution the major question is how does a certain behavior benefit procreation. And Fundies don't believe in evolution?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Save the Earth, There's no Planet B

The title is the text of a bumper sticker I picked up today.

I attended a day-long workshop in Lansing today, titled, "Justice for Earth Days." It was put on by the Boards of Church and Society and the Social Action Gathering of the United Methodist Women, both of the Michigan districts of the United Methodist Church. There were five presentations, a few booth displays, and a panel discussion. I'll share some of my notes and links (though I haven't looked at the links yet).

The host acknowledged that the speakers would be "preaching to the choir" -- we already had an interest in environmental and social justice issues or we wouldn't have been there. But after the preaching, the choir has to perform and these speakers would help with the performance.

First up was Tyler Edgar, Associate Director of the Climate and Energy Campaign, National Council of Churches. She actually attended the Copenhagen climate conference last December.

It might be hard for Americans to pay much attention to the rising climate crisis because the effects will be felt first in poor countries. So think of it this way: America was pretty good at helping after Katrina (though New Orleans hasn't completely recovered yet almost 5 years later -- there's a new TV drama about it). Now consider having to help clean up from one or two Katrinas every year. There may not be more hurricanes, but they will be stronger. How about helping resettle 50 million environmental refugees by 2050? Consider that 100 million live within a meter of sea level. Food security will be an issue. Many areas in Africa already have drought problems and inexpensive solutions can make a big difference. The problems in Sudan began over food security.

There were two parts to the Copenhagen Accords -- how to lessen the severity of the climate crisis and how to adapt to the changes. What can we do? The block at the moment is Congress. A climate bill will be introduced in a week and both Michigan senators haven't stated their support (it may not be officially introduced yet, but it has been discussed by senators for a good long time now).

National Council of Churches Eco Justice.

Michigan Climate Action Plan

Next up was supposed to be Lana Pollack, president of the Michigan Environmental Council. She's been nominated for a job in Obama's administration, but since the Senate hasn't taken up her confirmation she is not allowed to give lectures. Instead, her husband Henry spoke. He is a geophysicist who has worked with Al Gore. He wrote the book A World Without Ice about how ice regulates our climate.

The crowd at this event was mostly older than me. Pollack said it's because his generation already dealt with recycling in WWII, so no big deal. The Localvore idea isn't all that strange either. They called them Victory Gardens.

Here are some of the ways that Michigan will likely be affected by climate change. Sugar maples, the tree that is a big part of Michigan's tourist-drawing fall color, will die out. Lakes, especially the Great ones, won't have as much of a protective ice cover and will be subject to evaporation for more of the year. Water levels will drop (they've been dropping for a couple decades already). Warmer water means stronger storms and changes in types of fish and in bird migration paths. Less ice and snow (and the tourists they draw) with winters more like northern Kentucky and summers like northern Arkansas (and our family thought summers on St. Louis were bad). Farmers will have to adjust their growing schedules and which crops to plant. Cities will have to deal with more residents with heat stress.

At the moment our country is so polarized we won't listen to the message if we don't like the messenger. If scientists brought us the faulty science of evolution then there is no reason to listen to them about a climate crisis. Church people can step in and get the message across with less hostility.

The climate crisis needs a political solution. The League of Conservation Voters has a politician scorecard. It is better to talk about an enlightened energy bill than to talk of a climate bill.

Earthwords has daily scripture from the environmental point of view.

The target level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 350 parts per million. We're already at 390 ppm and gaining about 2 ppm a year.

Before lunch was Julie Lyons Bricker, director of Michigan Interfaith Power and Light, an organization that helps congregations become more energy efficient and sustainable.

45% of American energy is used by buildings (and we thought the big culprit was transportation). 75% of American electricity is used by buildings. It makes sense to make buildings as green as possible. Bricker talked mostly about benefits of MI-IPL membership, including energy audit and software to document effects of building changes and assistance with energy use in member homes.

Michael Way and Lisa Hardesty led off after lunch. They are from Bronson Health Care in Kalamazoo, which is one of the greenest hospitals in the country.

In the 1990s Bronson Hospital needed to build a replacement facility. At the time all of their waste was incinerated. They decided to build so the incinerator could be shut down. Their goals: Produce less pollution -- in all manner of materials work to dispose less. Recycle as much of the remaining disposed material. Conserve energy -- mostly behavior changes. Use green building designs -- include interior gardens. A green building is healthier for patients. Use sustainable food from local providers.

If you buy strawberries out of the local season, they probably came from Mexico and took 4 weeks to get to Michigan. How much preserving chemicals were added to make the berries seem fresh after 4 weeks in transit? Food transport uses more energy than the transport of any other commodity. Local food is much better for patients (and everyone else). Their efforts have boosted local growers who no longer let their greenhouses be idle over the winter.

Employees now come to the green team and say such things as, "Now that we've gotten recycling going for that material, what about this one?"

The final speaker was Fred Keller, CEO of Cascade Engineering. Yeah, this is a business that makes things out of plastic.

Sustainable means we meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability to meet needs in the future. There are three parts: social, ecological, and financial. They drive each other and are not zero-sum.

Let's rethink capitalism, which has these flaws: (1) it is destructive of nature, (2) it widens the gap -- 5% own more than the other 95%, (3) it doesn't promote happiness. We should shift from consumption to personal relationships and from self-interest to service. Our consumption should not drive someone else's impoverishment.

Cascade also began a program to help get people off welfare. The state provided an on-site social worker (getting people working was saving the state a million dollars). But that meant the senior staff of the company had to adjust their perceptions of the poor and minorities.

One of the displays in the booth room was about plastic shopping bags. There are at least a half-trillion of these things made worldwide each year. It doesn't do much good to recycle them because it costs 100 times more to recycle them than to make them. They're good at escaping from landfills and causing all kinds of havoc with wildlife. Be Drastic, Cut Plastic and use reusable shopping bags.

Another display talked about how toxic it is to make plastic and when plastic finally decomposes. It suggested ways to avoid plastic:
* Don't use Styrofoam cups.
* Don't buy anything disposable that has plastic in it, such as razors and pens.
* Don't buy plastic decorations, such as fridge magnets.
* Reuse plastic items until worn out, such as tablecloths, cups, food storage bags (I always considered the second use to be unsanitary).
* Buy plastic that has been recycled and can be again.
* Avoid plastic wrapping, if not possible send the wrapping back to the manufacturer with a note of complaint.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Making sure democracy doesn't work

The GOP and various other groups on the Right have been tossing around the word "fascism" so much and so loudly that your average man on the street has no idea what it really means other than it has some vague connection to the Nazis, it's really bad, and we had better make sure it doesn't come to America.

Another word may soon get the same treatment. The word is sedition and was used in the indictments against the Hutaree, a group based here in Michigan and arrested because they were conspiring to murder a cop and then blow up the funeral in an attempt to provoke the populace to rise up against the government. So let's go straight to the dictionary:

Sedition: Crime of creating a revolt, disturbance, or violence against lawful civil authority with the intent to cause its overthrow or destruction -- Brittanica Concise Dictionary

Last August I wrote about fascism based on the writings of Sara Robinson. Though the Tea Party people have gotten noisier, Sara hasn't written much lately on the issue (due to, I think, health problems). While I was away she wrote an essay about this latest step the Right has taken. Some of her thoughts:

For 40 years conservatives have been delegitimizing the idea of democracy. It has been the core of their politics. In power they mismanage and defund. Out of power they refuse to participate, thwarting the democratic process. To win elections they use violent, polarizing language, calling their opponents the embodiment of evil. This is a gradual and corrosive undermining of democracy's institutions.

The natural question is why would they want to do that? Don't conservatives want to conserve what they have? Well, they do. I note this war on democracy started about the time of the great Civil Rights bills of the mid 1960s. Up through the 1950s, straight white men were in power and minorities -- especially blacks -- and women knew their place. Giving more rights to blacks meant that blacks had more access to power. Some cities (like Detroit) soon had black mayors. Put it bluntly, white men were trying to conserve their hold on power and began to see they could no longer reliably do it through democracy. I wrote more about this last August.

So appealing to the Right by saying, "Why can't we be more civil?" won't work. That polite request is meaningless when the mob is surrounding your house with torches in hand.

It is one thing to talk about government overthrow. That's protected by the First Amendment. It's quite another to begin to act on that talk, actively planning and implementing overthrow. The Right has been dancing along that line for some time now, openly advocating sedition. They're doing it through eliminationist rants: the opposition is evil scum and must be violently exterminated for the virtue of the country.

It's one thing to have a black mayor of Detroit. Most of the whites have fled anyway so those who remain deserve whatever local (mis)government they get. It's quite another to have a black president. We (the pale males) can't have that.

I wonder if the erosion of gun laws and the insistence of the primacy of the personal right to carry a gun is part of the intentional effort to say democracy doesn't work. I say that because guns are now showing up at rallies. Their presence caused a stir last August, but not much is said anymore. But those guns are important to the process. The gun-toters may carry their weapons out of fear (and they are very afraid), but they also intimidate and show the owner means business -- the time for talking is almost over and democracy is futile. In addition it appears they are into target acquisition. Some of the more religious have called it mapping the demonic activity of every neighborhood, so they can pray over it. Those houses of demons include government offices, places of worship that aren't conservative, homes of Muslims and pagans, homes of cars with Obama stickers, etc. and they don't intend to stop with prayer. They're saying we know what needs to be cleansed if you don't hand over the keys to the halls of power peacefully.

A primary step in counteracting sedition is to be able to identify it. It's now happening around us. An example: Conservative Oklahoma lawmakers have called for creating an anti-government militia with Tea Party help. Their complaint is the federal government is infringing on state's rights (didn't that issue get settled in 1865?).

Another aspect of diversity

With the retirement of Supreme John Paul Stevens we have a chance to make the Supremes more diverse. The current court has two women, one Hispanic, and one black. We're getting there. Except in terms of religious diversity. With Stevens gone the rest of the Court is six Catholics and two Jews. This is in a country that is predominantly Protestant (for those who list a church preference) and Protestantism is much more diverse than Catholicism. A liberal Protestant is quite different from a conservative one.

That means we have only one flavor of Christianity on the Court. One way that might come into play: bring a gay marriage case before the Court; is the anti-gay side blinded by church doctrine or are they merely representing the natural order of things?

Leah Ward Sears of the Georgia Supremes is reportedly on Obama's short list as a replacement for Stevens. She seems to have a lot in one package -- she's female, black, and leans to the left. But on a crucial issue (at least to me) things don't look so rosy. What's her position on gay marriage? She carefully hasn't said. However, in her writings, she has implied: (1) marriage is about children, (2) "parents" are defined as the biological mother and father, (3) biological mother/father/child families deserve preference, and (4) all other structures are destructive to that special status. One wonders what she thinks of adoption. Does all this sound familiar? It comes straight out of many anti-gay playbooks.

Can you say cruel?

Constance McMillan of Fulton, Mississippi created a storm when she asked to bring her girlfriend to the senior prom and to be able to wear a tuxedo. The school canceled the prom (making McMillan the target of her fellow classmates) rather than agreeing to the request, and implied the parents are thus free to put on a prom and discriminate any way they want to. McMillan and the ACLU sued. The judge said McMillan's rights were violated, but canceling the prom was legal.

So the Fulton Country Club put on the prom. When McMillan and her date arrived it was clear the real prom was somewhere else and this one was for her and a bunch of other "loser" students, seven in all. At least nobody picked on them during their party.

Several students gloated on their Facebook pages on how they pulled one over on the queer. Why not? They had such fine examples in their parents and the town clergy. The kids were surprised at the internet blowback -- various gay people were very clear and pointed about how cruel the kids were.

Maybe if we deny it long enough it will go away

The child molestation scandal in the Catholic Church is spreading. Lisa Miller in Newsweek shares some insights about what is going on. The Western Democracies value the individual, the Church values the community (I personally wish we valued community a bit more than we do, though, as Japan demonstrates, it is possible to overdo it). The Church seems to be living in a 17th century world and has ignored the way women have been integrated into the workplace and public life. Women are almost completely absent from the Church power structure. In a closed society of the Church hierarchy, many men believe they have been put in their position for a reason -- meaning they are entitled to its perks. The Church, because it represents God, cannot be seen to have a scandal among its representatives, though it would be better to excise the bad elements than to hide the problem.

Miller's solution is to get more women into the Church's positions of power under the belief that a woman, especially a mother, would have handled the whole scandal differently. In a companion piece, George Weigel isn't convinced. He cautions that women have been known to be molesters, that public schools have had similar scandals, and they also have the instinct to deny a scandal exists even if it keeps a perpetrator in contact with kids. He notes the USA Church, since its own scandal, now responds swiftly and appropriately (by secular standards) to keep kids safe from predators. Even getting rid of the celibacy rule doesn't protect kids because a lot of molesters are married. At the moment, it is the Catholic Church that is deep in scandal, made more severe and newsworthy because it is so large and so global.

Making things happen in a gridlock

Ezra Klein of Newsweek reported that with the Senate in such a mess and unable to enact legislation we have a strange and disturbing side-effect. Congress is abdicating it's lawmaking duties to unelected agencies. Examples: The stalled cap-and-trade bill leaves the Environmental Protection Agency ready to act. Congress acted one stimulus package, but since that seems insufficient the Federal Reserve is doing its own stimulus. What to do about the national debt has been turned over to a bipartisan committee (though they will only recommend).

But why is this bad? We progressives appear to be getting what we want. However, the EPA is not understood, not accountable and not very transparent. It can't come up with compromise solutions or sweeten the deal with tax breaks. In the case of the EPA it could be politics. Lisa Jackson, its head, is quite willing to jump into the battle and impose a solution but is aware that she is being used by Obama as a threat -- get that climate bill done or I'll unleash the EPA.

How did we get into this mess? Ah, this is where it gets interesting. We'll start with the filibuster, which is actually an accident of senate rulemaking. Alas, it has become a primary way of controlling the senate (the number of filibusters in just 2009 equals the number from 1950 through 1969). The majority party can't act like a majority. Next is the ideology of the two parties. Both used to have members across the whole gamut of conservative to progressive. Now we have conservative purity in the GOP with Democrats encompassing the rest. In the process politics has become a battle of the minority making the majority fail so that it can be the majority the next time. Neither is governing.

How to get back to a functioning Congress, to get the party in power thinking beyond the next election? Get rid of the filibuster and similar rules, such as holds, but have them go into effect 8 years from now when we don't know who will control Congress. We need a Congress that will legislate, not allow agencies to legislate for them.

Pretty highways

The music project took less time than I anticipated. The tax forms are filled out, the check written, and all is in the mail. On to other projects, like telling you about all the things I've read about in the last couple weeks and haven't had time to write about.

First, the long-awaited trip report.

After attending the last in the series of Lenten Bible studies on April 1, I had lunch and pulled out of the driveway by 12:15. It took 7 hours to get to Charleston, West Virginia, putting me in Columbus during rush hour. The slowest traffic was actually in Nelsonville, Ohio.

Friday morning I took US-60 up the New River valley southeast of the capital. It's an industrial area and appears to be quite poor. My goal was the famous bridge over the New River Gorge near Fayetteville.

After lunch I was back in the car to drive to my cousin's house near Charlotte, NC. There were many redbud trees in bloom along the highway, especially in North Carolina -- which gave me something to look at while stuck in a backup due to an accident.

Cousin and family are doing well. I had the honor of reading bedtime stories to the 3 year old boy. We colored Easter eggs that evening and he tried to use a white crayon to decorate a white egg and was convince the crayon didn't work. His sister, age 6, was usually sweet, but knew how to antagonize her brother.

Saturday we all went to Rock Hill, South Carolina, which the guide book suggested was a pleasant place to visit. Other than a nice garden (which we found almost by accident) the town doesn't have all that much to offer. One reason for going is to check off another state in my lifetime list of those I've visited. In this trip it was West Virginia and South Carolina (though my only previous visit to North Carolina was sitting on an airplane at a gate at the Charlotte airport). The only state left is North Dakota.

The house got more full when Cousin's in-laws arrived Sunday morning rather than the originally anticipated Tuesday afternoon (yes, they were told in advance). The Easter crowd was complete with Cousin's former Michigan neighbors who have also moved to North Carolina.

On Monday we visited David Stowe Botanical Gardens in Belmont (where Cousin lives). The kids enjoyed the many fountains, especially the one with streams arching over the walkway. After lunch in downtown Belmont we drove around Charlotte. Since both Cousin and his wife work from home he hadn't seen much of Charlotte since his move there last August.

I headed north on Tuesday morning -- and hit another backup in NC. This time it was road construction. Once into Virginia I took the Blue Ridge Parkway on to Roanoke. It's a relaxing drive, but a bit early in the season. The famed flowers weren't in bloom and the service areas (food, restrooms) weren't open yet. I spent two nights in Charlottesville.

Most of Wednesday was at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home. Even then I didn't see all the exhibits in the visitor center. I took the tour of the main house, then one of Mulberry Row, which looks at the plantation from a slave's point of view. One slave, Peter Farley Fossett, didn't think slavery was all that bad -- until Jefferson died and he was sold to a cruel master. Fossett later wrote about his experiences. At the bottom of the hill is Michie Tavern (not related to Jefferson). That tour talks about the hotel industry in 1810. That evening I explored a bit of Charlottesville, including the part of University of Virginia built by Jefferson. Charlottesville hit a record high of 90 that day which was the earliest they've been that hot. Fortunately, the humidity wasn't high.

I traversed the Skyline Drive of Shenandoah National Park on Thursday. I stopped at nearly all of the 75 overlooks, though I didn't take photos at each one. The weather report predicted thunderstorms around 5:00 and I didn't want to still be on the drive then. I did the 105 miles in 6.5 hours, heading to the town of Luray at 4:30 -- when the rain began.

Luray Caverns, which I toured Friday morning, are among the most highly decorated (greatest number of stalactites and stalagmites) caves. Instead of guided tours they offer audio tours and I took my time. In one room they have a musical instrument in which soft mallets tap stalactites that produce the proper pitch. It seems an overkill that the big console has enough controls for 1650 notes, but only 37 are used (and many of them aren't working right now). Outside the cave is a Garden Maze, which was an enjoyable way to get lost.

From there I drove US-33 across the hills of southeast West Virginia and across the state to Marietta, Ohio for supper and Cambridge for the night. The air was much less hazy than when in was in Shenandoah.

I visited a few Amish furniture stores in Sugarcreek Saturday morning to get a replacement desk chair. There are a couple possibilities, but it will have to be ordered. I was home by 4:00, plenty of time to get to a Detroit Symphony Orchestra concert that night (I already had the ticket).

While I was gone my magnolia tree bloomed and began to fade. The forsythia around the house is in full bloom.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The view from the hill was pretty good!

Yes, I'm back. Alas, I have a couple pretty important projects due in the next several days (the second one is taxes), so I'm not sure when I'll be able to give you a trip report.

The first big project is to revise a composition. The director gave me two weeks to make the change, but I already had a 10 day vacation scheduled in the middle of that time. I did take the score with me to consider how it might be done, but I still have to fire up my music editor and play with possibilities.

I'll be back soon.