blog-O-rama archive
february 2003

ann maria bell



The world-wide protests on February 15 were effective because they were just that: world-wide. Mass actions speak louder than words. Millions of people in the streets in city after city around the globe were an unequivocal statement of the breadth and depth of opposition to Bush's war drive.

This coming Monday the Lysistrata Project will turn the words of Aristophanes into a global action against the war. Activists and artists in 52 countries will gather for over 800 public readings of Lysistrata for a creative demonstration of the international opposition to the war. From their press release:

On March 3, 2003, the Lysistrata Project will present worldwide readings of Aristophanes' bawdy ancient Greek anti-war comedy Lysistrata . To date, 821 play readings are scheduled in 52 countries and in all 50 U.S. states to voice opposition to the war on Iraq; those numbers increase hourly. Readings will raise money for charities working for peace and humanitarian aid in the Middle East.

Lysistrata tells the story of women from opposing states who unite to end a war by refusing to sleep with their men until they agree to lay down their swords. Powerless in their society, with too many of their sons and husbands being slaughtered in battle, the women take the only tactic available to them: a sex strike.

Fast-forward 2,400 years: swords are now weapons of mass destruction. Faced with the prospect of massive loss of human life -- both Iraqi and American -- Lysistrata Project participants world-wide take a new tactic and add their voices to the mounting clamor of global anti-war protests.

In Madison, Lysistrata is being presented at the Bartell Theater, 113 E. Mifflin St. at 7:30 PM (Monday March 3). Suggested donation in 10$, with proceeds going to peace groups. It looks like my mother will be attending a reading at the Unitarian Church in Westport CT as well! Check the Lysistrata Project website for a reading near you. The Village Voice has an interesting article about the beginnings of the project.



think global, act loco

If I had to choose just one word to describe the state of the world right now, I'd choose depressing. After that, I'd choose frustrating. And then scary. Or maybe scary should come before frustrating. Or maybe scary comes before both frustrating and depressing. In any case, I'd have to get pretty far down the list before I'd get to amusing.

But amusing is high on the list for some other people. Swami Beyondananda's State of The Universe Address gets its 'optimystic' view from looking at the bigger picture. (Beyondananda is happy to report that the Universe continued to expand in 2002.) Closer to home, he notes:

And -- say what you will -- President Bush has made great strides on behalf of minority representation. Never before have we had a President who was looking out for a smaller minority.

The full text of the State of The Universe Address is really quite funny and worth a read. Can't resist another excerpt, here's what the Swami thinks about the War on Terrorism:

Like the War on Poverty. Remember that? I'm happy to report that it's finally over. The poor people have all surrendered.

Thanks to Eric Thompson for sending Swami Beyondananda's speech down the wire.


america's finest news source

Headline articles from The Onion, have followed the trajectory of Bush's war drive since he was, um, since he became president.

Bush: Our Long National Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity is finally over. 18 January 2001

Bush Vows to Defeat Whoever It Is We're At War With 26 September 2001

Bush Won't Stop Asking Cheney If We Can Invade Yet. September 11, 2002

Bush Seeks U.N. Support For 'U.S. Does Whatever It Wants' Plan 2 October 2002

Bill of Rights Pared Down To A Manageable Six 18 December 2002

Point / Counter-Point:
No Blood for Oil vs. Exactly How Much Oil Are We Talking About?
19 February 2003


war takes lives, peace takes brains

The anti-war demonstrations around the world have inspired some good one liners:

George W. Bush: proof that empty warheads can be dangerous

Don't blame me, I voted with the majority

One nation under surveillance.

How did our oil get under their sand?

WWJB: Who would Jesus bomb?

Read between the Pipelines

Bush is an agent of Sauron. We hates him.

Smart weapons, Dumb president.

A village in Texas has lost its idiot

The demonstrations that I've been to in Madison so far have had lackluster chants. Worse yet are the dirge-like renditions of "all we are saying, is give peace chance," which I particularly dislike because it's not all that I'm saying, not by a long shot. Here's a much more upbeat alternative:

Sung to the tune "If You're Happy and You Know It":

If we cannot find Osama, bomb Iraq.
If the markets hurt your mamma, bomb Iraq.
If the terrorists are Saudis and the banks take back your Audi
And the TV shows are bawdy, bomb Iraq.

My Stone Soup making friends from California tried out this chant:

No one can win, so stop running up the score,
Let's make Soup, Not War

One last chant:

Bush is a moron, don't let him get his war on.


bel canto

I once recommended the book Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card to my friend Andrew. I really enjoyed reading Ender's Game. Ender's Game won the Hugo and the Nebula awards. Ender's Game regularly appears on "best SF novel" lists and discussions. Orson Scott Card liked Ender's Game so much that he wrote the entire story again from the point of view of another character ( Ender's Shadow). As a computer-programming, video-game playing, anime-watching uber-geek Andrew is smack of the middle of the Ender's Game demographic.

The only problem was, Andrew didn't like Ender's Game.

No matter how hard I tried to explain to Andrew why he ought to have liked it, Andrew did not like Ender's Game.

Which brings me to Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Bel Canto received the Orange Prize for Fiction and favorable reviews in numerous respected national and international publications. Bel Canto was a national bestseller and a popular selection for reading groups all over the country. Bel Canto was chosen from hundreds of suggestions to be the 2003 selection for Dane County's Read it, Share it program, which is why I checked it out of the library and read it.

Read it, Share it is a great idea --- an annual community-wide reading event that seeks to "develop a community of readers who share a sense of the importance of reading, writing, and expressing ideas" and "encourages people who have shared a common reading experience to discuss it, in both formal and informal conversation." In addition to sponsoring discussion groups and lectures, "Read it, Share it" gives away buttons so readers can identify each other and strike up casual conversation.

The only problem is I didn't like Bel Canto.

Somehow I can't imagine myself walking up to someone with a "Bel Canto -- Read it, Share it" button and saying "I kind of thought it sucked -- what did you think?"

So if you happen to be wearing one of those buttons, you can stop reading now, before I tell you what didn't I like about Bel Canto. First, a quick synopsis, cribbed from the "Read it, Share it" website:

Bel Canto takes place in the Vice President's house in an unnamed South American country. What begins as an over-the-top dinner party attended by international businessmen and the beautiful opera singer Roxane Coss quickly turns into a hostage situation. The terrorists' plan goes awry when the President they are intent on kidnapping misses the dinner to view his favorite soap opera. When the government refuses to give in to their demands, the terrorists keep Roxane and 57 men captive. As the weeks drag on, a pleasant domesticity, enlivened by Roxane's glorious singing, begins to blur the lines between captive and captor. Loosely based on the 1996 raid on the Japanese Embassy in Lima, Peru, Bel Canto is, according to Ann Patchett , "95% made up, but the most heartbreaking details are true. The ending, for example."

The romantic lead of Patchett's novel is the opera singer Roxane Coss --- not only does her singing immediately transport any and all listeners into a woozy rapture, but her personage causes every single person who comes within five feet of her to swoon and obsess on the smell of her hair. So great is Roxane's attraction that her diabetic accompianist dies for lack of insulin, rather than leave her side. So great is Roxane's self-absorption that she doesn't remember he is a diabetic until he slips into a coma, despite the fact that he was clearly sick for almost a day. The amazing effect that Roxane has on other people is discussed at length -- as to the inner workings of such a diva, Pratchett is silent. I found Roxane Coss to be unbelievable and unlikeable in turns.

The rapturous descriptions of opera, the transcendental force of Roxane's singing, left me similarly unmoved. When I was nineteen years old I lived with two opera fanatics, one a composing student at Juilliard and the other the house manager at the Metropolitan Opera. They tried. The opera playing on the living room stereo started at breakfast contined at full volume until way past my bedtime. They took me to performances of La Boheme and The Tales of Hoffman, with box seats and professional commentary. It just didn't stick. I've heard opera and I don't like opera. Yet Patchett would have me believe that not only the hostages who came to see the original performance but each and every member of the guerilla movement involved in the takeover is instantly and unconditionally transfixed every time the opera singer opens her mouth.

Worse, Patchett dismisses the entire musical tradition of the Andes in a single offhand sentence. I can't recall the exact insult without the book, but the guerilla leaders' preference for their own indigenous music is treated as a politically motivated, aesthetic mistake. I first encountered Andean music on a six month trip in Peru and Bolivia in 1987 and found it accessible and engaging. In the rural areas where Patchett's terrorists purportedly come from, traditional Andean music was popular with people of all ages, with audiences clapping their hands in the distinct rhythms of each type of song. Members of well known groups like Savia Andina and Los Kjarkas are superstars in their own countries. Dismissing this tradition with an offhand remark undermines Pratchett's credibility.

While many reviewers claim that Bel Canto explores the transcendent power of art and music, Patchett's musical premise struck me as contrived and elitist. People from other cultures are no more likely to be entranced by their first experience with European opera than Americans and Europeans are to be entranced by their first experience with Chinese opera --- to suppose otherwise is to indulge in a primitive form of cultural egocentrism.

I had a similar problem with the portrayal of the guerillas (relentlessly refered to as 'terrorists'). I appreciate that such organizations are largely populated with young soldiers, but Pratchett seems to have recruited a bunch of American teenagers and dressed them in fatigues and worn out combat boots for her fictional rebel army. In my travels, the Indians of the Altiplano impressed me with their apparent stoicism --- both adults and children were able to endure lengthy bus and truck rides without complaint, casual conversation or even routine fidgeting. (I, unfortunately, do not command these skills.) Consequently, I was irked by Pratchett's portrayal of Beatriz, one of two female guerillas involved in the takeover, who watches tv, complains when asked to cut onions, and chews compulsively on her ponytail. I simply cannot imagine a native-born Quechua speaker "giggling." Only shy, book hungry Carmen struck me as remotely believable native of the Andes. Pratchett's much praised research efforts don't seem to have extended beyond opera and a bare outline of the political events linked to the takeover of the Japanese embassy in Peru in 1987 that inspired the book.

My personal experiences have no doubt sensitized me to the descriptions and personalities of the guerillas. More to the point, the character of Roxane Coss and the role played by her singing failed to convince, or even interest, me as a reader.

I suspect I would have found last year's "Read it , Share it" selection (Caucasia by Danzy Senna) more to my liking. Or one of the books on the short list for "Read it, Share it" 2003. And I'll try again next year.


islam explained

The public library had several books about the Middle East, Islam and U. S. foreign policy on the 'new nonfiction' shelves last time I went. I grabbed a couple and have just read Islam Explained by the Morrocan/French writer Tahar Ben Jelloun. The delicate geometric pattern on the cover and elegant typesetting printed on cream colored paper disguise the book's light tone and elementary approach: Ben Jalloun proceeds in a dialogue format, with the first chapter, "September 11 Explained to Children," based on a conversation with one of his own children. The rest of the book is a fictional dialogue in which the author tries to "explain Islam and Arab civilization to my children, who were born Muslims, as well as to all children whatever their nationality, their religion, their language, or even their hopes."

While the material is accessible to older children, I don't think they are the intended audience for the book. The tone of voice and level of presentation are on target and Ben Jalloun's fictional conversation partner stays in character --- but there's a subtle difference between "Islam Explained to My Children," as the book was originally titled, and "Islam Explained for Children." The literary tactic of allowing the reader to listen in on a bedtime conversation between parent and children is quite effective, and allows the author to present the history of Islam and Islamic civilization at a very basic level without insulting. It also gives Ben Jalloun licence to filter out the weary cynicism of adulthood and focus on what he thinks is best about Islam. Fortunately, he does not abuse that licence -- his presentation is not sugar-coated or overly moralistic.

Ben Jalloun favors an open, inquiring Islam. He draws his vision from the "era of great Arab intellectuals" when the Arab empire led the world in learning and science, translating and preserving the works of all the cultures they encountered and founding great libraries called "Houses of Wisdom" where scholars met to study and debate. He attributes the success of the Arabs to their openess:

Let's say the Arabs had understood something simple: to advance, to enrich yourself, you should not close up your house, but open the doors and the barriers, go out towards others, take an interest in what they have written and in what they have built. The Arabs wanted to advance, and for that they needed to learn what the ancients of other countries had already done. The intelligence of the Arabs lay in being modest and accepting the fact that the scholar is someone who begins by saying, "I know nothing."

Naturally, Ben Jalloun mentions that we use Arabic numerals and that Arabs introduced the use of zero and invented algebra. But the most interesting information about Arab contributions to mathematics comes at the very end of the book, in a list of English words originating in Arabic. The author includes the letter 'x' in the list, even though it is not part of the Arabic alphabet. He explains that Arab mathematicians called an unknown amount chai, literally, "thing," which was abbreviated as "ch" and transcribed into old Spanish as "x." Ben Jalloun's account not only shows why x is the default notation for a variable but also explains what it means to say "the Arabs invented algebra" --- they invented an abstract mathematics based on the ability and willingness to deal with unknown quantities, an approach that is absent from Greek mathematics built on the concrete forms of geometry.

Ben Jalloun finishes with two quotations from the prophet Muhammad that express his vision of an Islamic culture open to ideas and respectful of learning:

"The study of science has the value of the fast, the teaching of science has the value of a prayer."

"From cradle to grave, go in search of knowlege, for whoever longs for knowledge loves God."

In addition to Islam Explained, Tahar Ben Jalloun is the author of Racism Explained to My Daughter and several prize winning novels. Islam Explained is published by The New Press, a publisher that "operates in the public interest rather than for private gain" to publish "works of educational, cultural and community value that are often deemed insufficiently profitable."


Of course the people don't want war... That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it's always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it's a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.

-- Hermann Goering, Adolf Hitler's Deputy Chief and Luftwaffe Commander, at the Nuremberg trials, 1946 from "Nuremberg Diary" by G M Gilbert


leaders of the weenie patrol

The demonstrations this weekend against Bush's reckless drive for war were nothing short of awe-inspiring. It was absolutely brilliant the way that organizers across the world were able to coordinate on a single day for protests --- the impact of each individual demonstration was multiplied by the people on the streets everywhere. I spent far too much time this weekend surfing the news at Google, reading each new account as the protests travelled across the time zones.

In the United States, while people take to the streets in the millions to voice their opposition to Bush political leaders willing to take a stand against war are conspicuous by their absence, at least on a national level. The spinelessness of the Democrats puts several species of jellyfish to shame. They are the undisputed leaders of the weenie patrol. Like deer frozen in the headlights of an oncoming car, they just stand there, afraid to articulate any alternatives to Bush's warmongering or to oppose his relentless attacks on civil rights, the environment, abortion rights, you name it. You'd think the Democrats would have learned a lesson from the last presidential election, when Al Gore's unwillingness to defend his position on the environment, his pathetic attempts at pandering to a nonexistent political center, probably cost him the election.

The resolution that gave Bush the authority to attack Iraq, passed by the House and the Senate in October 2002, had substantial support from from Democrats which included the Democratic leadership in both the House (R. Gephardt) and Senate (T. Daschle). In the Senate 29 Democrats voted for the measure, while 21 Democrats and 1 Republican, voted against it. In the House, 126 Democrats and 6 Republicans voted against, while 81 Democrats voted for.

The success of this weekend's protests and the Democrats' abysmal track record show that the only way to keep Bush in check is from the bottom up, by building on the recent success of the anti-war movement and preparing for action should the Bush attack Iraq. As Jesse Jackson told the record setting crowd in London: "It's cold outside but our hearts are warm. Bush and Blair can feel it. Turn up the heat people, turn up the heat."

Building a broad, active anti-war movement will make sure that Bush knows he cannot act with impunity --- relying on elected representatives would be a pointless step backwards at this point. Even so, it's nice when the occasional Democrat evolves beyond the condition of a political jellyfish. In a speech last Wednesday, Senator Robert Byrd from West Virginia, took the Senate to task for "sleepwalking through history." (text of Byrd's speech) While people around the world struggle to comprehend the ugly reality of Bush's impending war, Byrd notes that "We stand passively mute in the United States Senate, paralyzed by our own uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events." Byrd points out that Bush is attempting to set a precedent for a new regime of expanded military action across the globe:

The doctrine of preemption -- the idea that the United States or any other nation can legitimately attack a nation that is not imminently threatening but may be threatening in the future -- is a radical new twist on the traditional idea of self defense. It appears to be in contravention of international law and the UN Charter. And it is being tested at a time of world-wide terrorism, making many countries around the globe wonder if they will soon be on our -- or some other nation's -- hit list. High level Administration figures recently refused to take nuclear weapons off of the table when discussing a possible attack against Iraq. What could be more destabilizing and unwise than this type of uncertainty, particularly in a world where globalism has tied the vital economic and security interests of many nations so closely together?

Sen. Byrd was also one of the few elected politicians willing to take a principled stand against a war in Iraq back in October when the resolution condoning Bush's agenda was being voted on, as this account from CNN shows:

Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, attempted Thursday to mount a filibuster against the resolution but was cut off on a 75 to 25 vote.

Byrd had argued the resolution amounted to a "blank check" for the White House.

"This is the Tonkin Gulf resolution all over again," Byrd said. "Let us stop, look and listen. Let us not give this president or any president unchecked power. Remember the Constitution."

Congress may have issued Bush a 'blank check' when it passed the resolution authorizing a war on Iraq, but with the coordinated actions of millions of people across the globe we can still prevent him from cashing it.


What I would say to Mr. Blair is:

stop toadying up to the Americans
and listen to your own people, us, for once.

Elsie Hinks 77, wife of retired Church of England priest


learn to live in peace --- or be destroyed

I got an email last week about one of the scientific experiments that went down with the Columbia and its crew. The experiment, called "Growth of Bacterial Biofilm on inorganic Surfaces during Spaceflight" or GOBBSS, investigated the ability of bacteria to grow on inorganic crystalline material in zero G and while exposed to high levels to radiation. The larger scientific issue in question is the "panspermia hypothesis", or the idea that life on earth emerged in part as a result of the introduction of micro-organisms from other planets.

The GOBBSS experiment also had another, more immediately relevant, goal --- to promote cooperation and understanding between Palestinians and Israelis. A Palestinian biology student, Tariq Adwan of Bethlehem and an Israeli medical student, Yuval Landau of Petah Tiqwa, worked together as part of the scientific team that designed the experiment and worked on monitoring and analyzing its results. The Planetary Society sponsored the GOBBSS experiment, and worked in cooperation with Seeds of Peace, an organization active in building bridges and understanding between Israeli and Palestinian youth, and The Peres Center for Peace, founded by Nobel laureate Shimon Peres to promote peace and progress in the future Middle East. Two members of NASA's Astrobiology Institute consulted with the students on the experiment.

Amazingly, the box containing the experiment may have survived the crash and been recovered. Even with the radical change in experimental conditions the scientists involved still hope to recover useful data and insights from the GOBBSS experiment. I hope that the progress on the experiment's other goal proves to be equally durable. My thanks to Adee Horn for the sending the original article.

I, of course, would like to think that scientists, being rational and committed to the pursuit of knowledge, have a unique contribution to make to world peace, the betterment of humanity, etc. Unfortunately, the first, and so far only, piece of evidence that came to my mind in support of this claim is from a movie, and a science fiction movie at that. A classic from the 50's, The Day the Earth Stood Still opens with a flying saucer landing in Washington D.C. carrying an ambassador from outer space. As the ambassador Klaatu disembarks from his ship he states: "We have come to visit you in peace, and with goodwill" and is promptly gunned down, setting the tone for the rest of his visit on earth.

Earth's political leaders are so distrustful of each other that they can't even organize a meeting to hear Klaatu's message. Finally Klaatu manages to make contact with a scientist who agrees to organize an international gathering of scientists to hear the message from the alien planetary federation. Unfortunately, Klaatu is betrayed and gunned down a second time, but with the aid of alien resuscitation technology manages to deliver his message to the scientists before parting.

I saw the movie years ago --- what struck me about the synopsis I read at tauspace was the social and political climate depicted in the movie:

The name of the game is paranoia; it spills out of every corner. We have the obvious stuff -- the people . . . talk incessantly of plots and cover-ups -- the radio is full of exaggeration and distortion -- the military are keen to clamp down on anything and everyone.

Hmmm. Sound familiar?

Ron Daniels, a prominent Black activist and executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, draws the connections in an essay reprinted at

. . . this war is also about creating a climate of 'permanent crisis' -- using the war against terrorism and the pending war against Iraq as a pretext to stifle dissent, ignore the social and economic needs of people in this country and roll back many of the gains won during the civil rights movement.

In a vivid illustration of Daniels' point, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision that allowed the City of New York to deny a permit for a march to the United Nations, a planned part of this Saturday's anti-war demonstration, because "greater restrictions are allowed in times of 'war'." (read more about this decision.)

Like Noam Chomsky in a previous entry, Ron Daniels sees the anti-war movement growing: "Opposition is building momentum at a pace that must be causing alarm in the White House." Madison had a great turnout for a 'pre-emptive peace day' on February 1, with organizers estimating 8000 in attendance. My housemate Julie is flying to New York for this weekend's demonstration (frequent flyer miles are good for something after all) and many more Madisonians are going by bus --- Bill's Aunt Anita will be heading there from MA. There are actions planned all over Wisconsin, but the one organized in centrally located Wausau is a great opportunity to stop preaching to the choir in Madison and broaden the support for the peace movement -- 1:00 PM in the 400 block park -- downtown Wausau, WI. MadPeace is organizing a picket (starting at 10:30 AM) and peace carnival (starting at 12:30 PM) in Madison on the Library Mall.

This war will not make us safer, it will not improve the lives of the Iraqi population, and it will undermine the only institutions we now have, however flawed, for the peaceful resolution of international affairs. The time to end Bush's war is now --- before it starts. As Klaatu, the ambassador from outer space, said as he returned to his space ship:

Your choice is simple:

Join us and live in peace,
or pursue your present course and face obliteration.

We will be waiting for your answer.



After months of looking at the bare frozen ground or at a pathetic, temporary, half inch of snow, iwe're finally getting some real snow in Madison. Wind gusting off the lake has already dumped several inches, and there's no sign of stopping yet, a real blizzard. It looks like I'll get to go cross-country skiing after all.


from the tell-me-something-I-don't-already-know dept.

no matter what UN inspectors say about Iraq ---


Some BBC news from last Friday that didn't quite make it to the US --- Prime Minister Tony Blair's government released a 19 page intelligence dossier which purported to document Saddam Hussein's attempts to hide weapons of mass destruction. As it turns out, not only was a large part (~10 pages) of the document plagiarized from a paper written by a grad student in California, some of the claims were based on 12 year old data, a fact that was acknowledged in the original source but which is missing entirely from the government report. With all the finesse and foresight of an undergrad with a fast internet connection and an impending deadline, the British government report actually replicated some of the typographic and grammatical mistakes of the original document.

Meanwhile, another British intelligence report, this one top secret and intended for the Prime Minister and other senior government officials but leaked to the BBC news, concludes that there no current links between al-Qaeda and Iraq, in part because of their ongoing ideological differences.

Of course, none of this had any impact on the remarks that Colin Powell made to the UN last week, which praised the plagiarized British document and reiterated the same claims of an al-Qaeda Iraqi link. The Bush administration's drive for war is so relentless that mere facts will not stand in the way --- providing counter-arguments to the rationalization-du-jour has become an intellectual labor of sisyphus. Geov Parrish writing at notes:

The problem all along with a level-headed assessment of the Bush Administration's myriad justifications for an overt invasion and "regime change" -- justifications that have been frequently shifting, at times contradictory, and often demonstrably false -- is that they have been in the service of a predetermined conclusion. Regardless of whether a decision to invade had been made, and when, there's never been a question that Bush and his circle of hawks have wanted war, the bigger the better, and that the question in their minds was less whether it was justified than how to sell it to allies and to the public.

In response to the Bush Administration's single-minded pursuit of war, I've pulled together a few radical perspectives and analyses, put forward by people not afraid to call it like they see it. Tom Morello, one of the founding members of Rage Against the Machine and now with Audioslave, spells it out in an article in this month's Rolling Stone:

The dream of the Bush administration is to install a puppet government in Iraq that will kowtow to U.S. interests. Iraq has the second-largest proven oil reserves of any country in the world. Controlling that oil will give us leverage over other countries dependent on Iraqi oil. It's a huge poker chip. You can just feel Bush's frustration, that he just can't get this war going. They're like drooling dogs looking at a steak.

Morello's political activities are detailed on the website It currently links to an interview with Noam Chomsky in the UK newspaper The Guardian which at least gives some cause for hope. Chomsky notes that: "There's never been a time that I can think of when there's been such massive opposition to a war before it was even started."

The Onion, which really is "America's Finest News Source," was onto Bush's obsession with Iraq back in September with an article headlined "Bush Won't Stop Asking Cheney If We Can Invade Yet." For a radical perspective backed with sharp analysis checkout the website for the International Socialist Organization --- which, incidentally, is where I got the headline for today's entry "no matter what the UN says --- Bush wants war." Thanks to Robin Morris for sending along the BBC article about the plagiarized intelligence dossier.


what I'm reading: I'm 1/4 of the way through Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. I wouldn't have picked this book out on my own, but it's this year's selection for the "read it, share it" program in Madison. It hasn't engaged me yet --- the main characters so far are the wealthy & powerful guests at a party in an unnamed South American country (Peru) and a charismatic female opera singer that entrances everybody with her singing and persona. I was subjected to quite a bit of opera when I was 19 but never developed a taste for it --- the raptorous descriptions of how the singing affects all the audience members, including the guerrillas that are hidden in the air conditioning ducts waiting to kidnap the president, doesn't ring true for me and the way that every person who comes within 3 feet of her swoons is plain old irritating. I'll let you know if it gets better later.


american haiku

a whole day passes



so, how cold is it?

There's something not quite right about how this temperature business works. The other day the temperature dropped from 20 F to 10 F and Bill concuded that it was half as warm. But he's got a point --- 20 F is a little colder than 30 F, but 10 F is much much colder than 20 F. Conversely, everyone who has experienced 'springtime' in Madison knows that 40 F is really not much warmer than 30 F. Even with the "wind chill factor" factored in, the way temperature is measured misses the mark --- it just doesn't seem to answer the questions that really matter here in Madison, e .g. "will I get frostbite on more than 10% of my body if I walk to the mailbox?" and "is the current condition outdoors best described as cold, really cold, inhumanly cold, ludicrous or %$!#@!* freezing?"

They got it right for measuring sound --- decibels use a logartithmic scale, so every increase of 6 decibels represents a doubling of the pressure waves, which corresponds closely to our perception of the sound being twice as loud. (There is also a separate perceptual scale for loudness, measured in sones.) There is no measurement of heat that allows us to say that it's twice as cold as it was yesterday. And whether it's Fahrenheit, Celsius or Kelvin, the measured temperature does not correspond well with our perception of heat and cold.

So how could I develop a perceptual scale to measure how cold it is? First, there's the actual rate that I lose heat, affected by the temperature, the wind, what clothes I'm wearing, how much I'm wearing under my clothes (i.e. how many layers of fat), and the ratio of volume to surface area. Then there's how much heat I'm generating, my rate of metabolism, how much I've eaten today, how active I am currently, the general quality of my circulatory system. And finally there's psychological factors to be accounted for --- just like an object loses heat proportional to the difference between the temperature of the air and the temperature of the object, I feel colder in proportion to the temperature difference between Santa Cruz, CA and Madison, WI (currently 60 F and 7 F, in case you're wondering).

I don't know how to work all these factors into a coherent answer the to the question "how cold is it?", but I am certain that I have singlehandedly spent more time thinking about it than all of the inhabitants of Santa Cruz County added together.


Yesterday I walked through the zoo on my way to ice skating outdoors at Vilas Park. One of the great things about Madison's zoo is that it's free (as in beer) and located in the middle of a large park. Most of the zoo inmates were on either vacation in Florida or holed up in the motel rooms that the zoo rents for them whenever the temperature drops into the single digits. When the temperature is in the double digits the zoo simply issues leg warmers for the ostriches, neck warmers for the giraffes, and cozy angora sweaters for the capybaras.

The Bactrian camels looked warm enough with their thick winter fur --- they are native to the mountain deserts of Mongolia where winter temperatures can drop down to -20 F. The seals swam underwater, only sticking their noses out of the water to breathe. The polar bear was quite at ease, sniffing the winter air, lounging in the sun, rolling over on the ground to scratch his back, and rubbing his nose with his paws. It's amazing how much a polar bear rolling on its back looks like a man wearing a polar bear suit.

I forgot to wear my polar bear suit to go ice skating, so when the wind kicked up as I was walking over to the lagoon even my groovy nepali-style hat with earflaps couldn't protect me. I skated doggedly for about 35 minutes --- it wasn't the least bit fun, but as my mother would say "it builds character".


what I'm listening to: Gillian Welch, Time (The Revelator) (no downloads but check out the video for "Revelator")

what I'm reading: 1) The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups by Mancur Olson, and 2) Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, this year's selection for Madison's "read it, share it" program.


pop quiz:
which former world leaders made these arguments against occupying Iraq?

"Trying to eliminate Saddam, extending the ground war into an occupation of Iraq, would have violated our guideline about not changing objectives in midstream, engaging in "mission creep" and would have incurred incalculable human and political costs.

"Apprehending him was probably impossible. We had been unable to find Noriega in Panama which we knew intimately. We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq.

"The [Desert Storm] coalition would instantly have collapsed, the Arabs deserting it in anger and other allies pulling out as well.

"Under those circumstances, there was no viable "exit strategy" we could see, violating another of our principles.

"Further more, we had been self-consciously trying to set a pattern for handling aggression in the post-Cold War world. Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the United Nations' mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression that we hoped to establish.

"Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land. It would have been a dramatically different -- and perhaps barren -- outcome."

President George H. W. Bush and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft

from their joint memoir A WORLD TRANSFORMED, page 489 (Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 1998) (read a review) many thanks to James Wheaton for sending me this quote.


Today is groundhog day. It's raining and overcast, so local weather forecaster jimmy the groundhog, a resident of Sun Prairie WI, thinks winter is on its way out. Yahoo! weather, on the other hand, predicts single digit temperatures starting on Tuesday.

I watched the movie Groundhog Day several years ago, after seeing it voted the "#1 Buddhist movie" on several websites. It seems a strange choice, a Bill Murray comedy/romance, but it got my vote too. The obvious reference is to reincarnation --- the main character lives the same day over and over again. A less obvious link to Buddhism is how he ultimately breaks the cycle: by developing compassion for and helping the people around him, even though they will be in the exact same situation of needing his help again tomorrow. A Buddhist Interpretation of Groundhog Day goes into more detail.

The Matrix was also a top contender in the "favorite Buddhist movie" sweepstakes. The premise that conventional reality is a collective hallucination fits with a Buddhist perspective. The choice that Neo is offered between the red pill, insight into the way things really are, and the blue pill, continuing his existence forever unaware of nature of reality, is a more subtle parallel with Buddhist philosophy (although his messianic status as 'the one' is orthogonal to a Buddhist approach.) I bought Bill a book for Christmas that takes a philosophical look at the matrix: The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real. (review at I look forward to reading it and seeing the movie again, probably after Bill regains control of his brain, currently a wholly owned subsidiary of the almost-but-not-quite finished textbook on telecommunications.

American Beauty got plenty of votes, but I think the the connection with Buddhism is tenuous. It does provide an unflinching look at the numerous ways that people create suffering for themselves.

Most of the lists that I find now feature movies that are explicitly about Buddhism, with the usual suspects being Seven Years in Tibet, Kundun, Little Buddha, Himalaya, etc. The Cup is not just about Buddhism, it was written and directed by the eminent Vajrayana Buddhist lama, Khyentse Norbu. It's a very funny portrait of a group of young soccer-obsessed monks who are desperate to see the world cup on TV. The Cup manages to show the humorous side of every character, from the highest abbot to the youngest monk. I recommend it highly.

I can't seem to find most of the lists I looked at originally, except for this one at living dharma. The web is a transient changable collective hallucination. Sound familar?


When ships to sail the void between the stars have been invented,
there will also be men who come forward to sail those ships.

Johannes Kepler 1571-1630        

Crew of mission STS-107, 16 January 2003.


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