Day 732

Point-one (.1) score and zero years ago, a weblog crawled out of the ooze and mire. This one. To hold forth on — well, everything (and thus perhaps nothing). Dedicated to the proposition that — OK, we’re still trying to work that out. Platform for random quotings and digressions. Example:

This stupid world —

skinny mosquitoes, skinny fleas,

skinny children.

That’s the Japanese poet Issa, from Robert Hass’s “The Essential Haiku.” And that reminds me of a story I heard yesterday on NPR that acquainted me with a new term for “going hungry”: food insecurity.

The world will little note nor long remember what’s scrawled here, though thanks to the full-enough measure of devotion of you happy few (typical insertion of unrelated battlefield reference) these jottings get enough attention to satisfy. Thanks for reading.

1963

He stood at the southeast window inside a barrier of cartons. The larger ones formed a wall about five feet high and carried a memory with them, a sense of a kid’s snug hideout, making him feel apart and secure. Inside the barrier were four more cartons–one set lengthwise on the floor, two stacked, one small carton resting on the brick windowsill. A bench, a support, a gun rest. The wrapping paper he’d used to conceal the rifle was on the floor near his feet. Dust. Broken spider webs hanging from the ceiling. He saw a dime on the floor. He picked it up and put it in his pocket.

He looked down Houston Street as the motorcade approached, slow and vivid in the sun. There were people scattered on the lawns of Dealey Plaza, maybe a hundred and fifty, many with cameras. He held the rifle at port arms, more or less, and stood in plain view in the tall window. Everything looked so painfully clear.

The President had chestnut hair and the First Lady was radiant in a pink suit and small round hat. Lee was glad she looked so good. For her own sake. For the cameras. For the pictures that would enter the permanent record.

He spotted Governor John Connally in one of the jump seats, a Stetson in his lap. He liked Connally’s face, a rugged Texas face. This was the kind of man who would take a liking to Lee if he ever got to know him. Cartons stamped Books. Ten Rolling Readers. Everyone was grateful for the weather.

The white pilot car turned, the motorcycles turned. The Lincoln passed beneath him, easing left, making the deep turn left, seeming almost to rotate on an axis. Everything was slow and clear. He got down on one knee, placed his left elbow on the stacked cartons and rested the gun barrel on the edge of the carton on the sill. He sighted on the back of the President’s head. The Lincoln moved into the cover of the live oak, going about ten miles an hour. Ready on the left, ready on the right. Through the scope he saw the car metal shine.

He fired through an opening in the leaf cover.

"Libra"

Don DeLillo

Worst Time Waster — Ever

First: I warned you. This is bad. Very bad. Even worse than blogging.

It’s Websudoku.com.

On the other hand, just think how the world might be different if someone had told Bush about that site instead of giving him bright ideas about running for president.

Merry Friggin’ Xmas

The other day, my friend Ted posted something about his alarm with the rising tide of militant Christian fundamentalism. No, we don’t have Bible-thumping extremists setting off bombs in our midst; well, hardly ever. The alarm is over the growing insistence among conservative Christians that their religious views should be adopted as central to our public institutions: not only should their god be recognized in public schools and courthouses, for instance, but he ought to become part of the school curriculum and acknowledged explicitly as our guide in lawmaking. If you happen not to be an adherent of everything these folks believe, too damn bad for you. You’re probably going to hell anyway.

The San Francisco Chronicle has a front-page story on the crusaders’ latest effort: Ensuring that Christmas gets the respect it deserves. The effort features Jerry Falwell’s “Friend or Foe” Christmas Campaign and several other groups:

“Falwell has put the power of his 24,000-member congregation behind the ‘Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign,’ an effort led by the conservative legal organization Liberty Counsel. The group promises to file suit against anyone who spreads what it sees as misinformation about how Christmas can be celebrated in schools and public spaces.

“The 8,000 members of the Christian Educators Association International will be the campaign’s “eyes and ears” in the nation’s public schools. They’ll be reporting to 750 Liberty Counsel lawyers who are ready to pounce if, for example, a teacher is muzzled from leading the third-graders in ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.’

“An additional 800 attorneys from another conservative legal group, the Alliance Defense Fund, are standing by as part of a similar effort, the Christmas Project. Its slogan: ‘Merry Christmas. It’s OK to say it.’

In fact, it’s not only OK to say “Merry Christmas,” you’ll be trampling Christians’ civil rights if you refrain. Ah, the ironies: The poor, abused Christians whose holiday will be spoiled unless the rest of us not only respect it, but let them observe it exactly the way they want to, where they want to — sort of like the people in Berkeley who insist it’s their right to walk the streets naked. Using the courts, a.k.a. Satan’s playground, to give the unbelievers a taste of their own medicine.

The story goes on to report that Target stores are in trouble with another love-Jesus-or-die group, the American Family Association, for allegedly adopting a policy banning the phrase “Merry Christmas” from advertising and in-store displays. Target — which I think does deserve some heat for banning Salvation Army bell ringers from its premises — swears that it has imposed no such ban. No matter — the zealots are boycotting the chain next weekend unless the company gets right with their god and installs prominent “Merry Christmas” signage. Which presents a dilemma: Refuse to shop at Target because of the wrong-headed decision to keep the bell ringers away? Or do all my holiday shopping there next weekend to vote against the Falwell-fundamentalist axis.

The War List

Semi-obsessively perusing the death reports on Iraq Coalition Casualties, I thought about where the Iraq war ranks statistically among U.S. wars. Without going into the peculiarities of the numbers I’ve come across, here’s a list of total killed and wounded derived from the current "America’s Wars Fact Sheet" from the Veterans Administration. The VA actually folds the Iraq casualty figures into a total number for the Global War on Terrorism, which apparently combines casualty figures for operations in both the Afghanistan and Iraq theaters. The one change I’ve made to the list is to use today’s sum of killed and wounded in both theaters from numbers available through Iraq Coalition Casualties.

War  Deaths  Wounded  Total 
Civil War 529,332 420,000* 949,332
World War II 405,399 671,846 1,077,245
World War I 116,516 204,002 320,518
Vietnam War 58,209 153,303 211,512
Korean War 36,574 103,284 139,858
Mexican War 13,283 4,152 17,435
American Rev. 4,435 6,188 10,617
Spanish-Am. War 2,446 1,662 4,108
War on Terrorism 2,330 16,356 18,681
War of 1812 2,260 4,505 6,765
Indian Wars 1,000 (Not reported) 1,000
Gulf War 382 467 849

*Number of Civil War wounded an estimate based on non-VA sources; the VA lists Confederate wounded simply unknown.

One other note about the casualty numbers: The VA lists non-combat deaths for the American Revolutions as unknown, so the total who died in both wars is likely much higher. Also, the VA lists about 87 percent of the U.S. deaths in the Mexican War and 83 percent of those in the Spanish-American War as "other deaths in service" — which includes deaths from wounds that weren’t immediately fatal, disease, accidents, and other non-combat causes. In fact, the VA’s listed "battle deaths" comprise a majority of war dead in only World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the current war.

Open-Source Intelligence

One of the ways in which the United States was and is woefully unprepared for a war anywhere in the Middle East is its lack of Arabic linguists in the ranks of the intelligence and military services. (What I know about Arabic: You read it from right to left. And by the way, salaam aleikum.)

When we invaded Iraq, we came into possession of what’s technically known as a boatload of government papers. Thirty-five thousand boxes’ worth. Millions of pages. And all classified. There may be some amazing stuff in those papers. But having so few people on our side who both read Arabic and have security clearances, there’s no way we’ll ever find out what’s in all those boxes. So instead of an archive that if nothing else might document how Iraq was run in the Saddam era, we have a mountain of worthless paper warehoused in Qatar.

Now, a congressman from Michigan has had a sort of intelligent idea about how to find out what’s in the papers. Open up the entire collection, declassify everything, and put the whole mess online so that all comers — or at least the Arabic readers — can tell what’s in there.

It has the potential to be untidy, but it’s worth a try.

Spidermania

Spider

Two classes of beings frequenting our neighborhood in atypical numbers these days: Mormon missionaries and spiders. The Mormons are less interesting to look at, but they do leave postcards offering to explain the meaning of life. The spiders don’t have much to say on existential and spiritual matters — unless you buy into “Charlotte’s Web,” which I doubt is a true story — but they’re endlessly fascinating to watch if you’re not likely prey. We’ve got at least three big ones that have spun webs outside the house; this one’s next to the front porch (click for full-size image).

[Further research — for instance here and here and here and here — suggests our arachnid visitors are variously called pumpkin spiders, garden spiders and cross orb weavers, aka Araneus diadematus. They’re orb weavers, their venom is of low toxicity to humans, and they’re found throughout Western Europe and North America.]

Happy Holidays, from FEMA

Wonderful news from FEMA to the tens of thousands of people displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita and still living in subsidized motel rooms: The agency will stop paying for most of the 53,000 rooms (all except 12,000 in Louisiana and Mississippi) on December 1. Evacuees, get ready to pay your own motel bill or go find another place to stay.

FEMA delivered the news in a press release on Tuesday that opens with five paragraphs recounting everything the agency has done and all it intends to do for the 150,000 unfortunates still in motels. Not only has it paid out hundreds of millions already just to get roofs over the evacuees’ heads, it wants to do more. R. David Paulison, FEMA’s acting director, is quoted as saying that the agency wants to get people out of hotels and motels and “into longer-term homes before the holidays.”

But FEMA disclosed it has a deeper interest, too: It wants to help people get back in touch with core American values like fending for themselves. “Those affected by these storms should have the opportunity to become self-reliant again and reclaim some normalcy in their lives.”

Only after all that, does the release get to the news: “On December 1, 2005 — the previously announced conclusion for FEMA’s direct payment hotel/motel program — direct federal emergency assistance reimbursements for hotel and motel rooms occupied by evacuees will end. FEMA has an aggressive plan to help place these families in longer-term housing prior to December 1.”

Note that FEMA goes out of its way to say the cutoff shouldn’t be news, because it was “previously announced.” And yes, check the FEMA website and there it is: An October 24 releaseheadlined “FEMA Continues Short-Term Lodging Program for Evacuees.” There, in the third paragraph, is the statement that the motel program would run through December 1. Someone ought to tell these folks what it means to bury the lead.

So, now that it has managed to make its intentions clear, how will the policy work in the real world?

Here’s one sign: In its statement three weeks ago, FEMA said it was paying for about 65,000 motel and hotel rooms. The number is down to 53,000 today, presumably thanks to state and local and volunteer efforts to find longer-term housing for people. That works out to 4,000 rooms cleared a week. Now, the agency wants to clear out 41,000 rooms (the 53,000 total less the 12,000 exempt rooms in Louisiana and Mississippi) in two weeks. Impossible? Perhaps not, despite FEMA’s involvement. Is it likely?

Here’s another sign. FEMA acknowledged a couple days ago that it would be a challenge to even get the word out. The agency had people going around slipping notices under evacuees’ motel-room doors, and it has produced radio public-service announcements to let people know what’s about to happen. If people weren’t even aware of what’s happening in the motel program two days, what’s the chance that FEMA is going to get everyone into the “readily available” longer-term housing (Paulison’s phrase) in the next two weeks?

Here’s one last sign: Look at what’s happening in Texas, where 19,000 motel rooms are occupied by hurricane refugees in Houston alone. The mayor there, Bill White, said given the city’s experience with the issue, FEMA should be seeking its advice: “We have moved more evacuees out of hotels than any other city has ever had in hotels. So we encourage those new to it to ask us, not tell us, how to do it.” Rick Perry, the Republican governor of Texas, said, “My great concern is that there is still no long-term housing plan for the hundreds of thousands of Katrina victims who lost everything.”

What’s going to happen? If FEMA follows through, the problem will be dumped on the states and cities across the country where evacuees wound up. Tens of thousands of people will wind up in shelters again or be put out on the street. More likely, FEMA will take such a horrendous PR pummeling over every aspect of its decision that it will be forced to back off until someone — likely someone outside FEMA — actually figures out a workable plan for getting people into real housing.

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Where We Come From

A tour of cultural history in the arts section of today’s New York Times:

–“My Lobotomy”: A story about Howard Dully, who as a 12-year-old in 1960 underwent a prefrontal lobotomy at the hands of Dr. Walter Freeman, the pioneer and champion of the procedure intended to pacify “disturbed” patients. The story says Dully “was lobotomized … for no other reason than that he didn’t get along with his stepmother, whose long list of complaints about him included sullenness, a reluctance to bathe and that he turned on the lights during daytime.” Dully has produced a radio documentary for NPR, “My Lobotomy,” which will air on “All Things Considered” this afternoon.

–A Critic’s Notebook offering from Margo Jefferson on Constance Rourke and Zora Neale Hurston and their use of “creative nonfiction” to unearth the cultural traditions of white and black America: “They were out to remap the cultural territories; shift the boundaries that separated folk, popular and high art; explore the American character (what we now call the national psyche). … They began in what I’ll call separate but equal neighborhoods. Rourke wrote about white cultural myths and traditions, iconic figures from Paul Bunyan to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Hurston wrote about the roots and characteristics of black American culture: language, folklore, music and dance, the will to improvise.”

–By way of my brother John, a writeup on a $9 million restoration (your tax dollars at work) of a gigantic (27 feet high, 365 feet in circumference) “cyclorama” painting of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. The painting was one of four identical works made in the 1880s as tourist attractions to be viewed in the round, complete with foreground props designed to make the viewing hall merge into the action. One guy in the story refers to the cyclorama (and others like it) as “the Imax of their day.” Like most old art, the Gettysburg painting has been abominably treated — handled roughly, cut up, stored and displayed in wet, leaky rooms.

Sunset, November 14

Ringmountain

Spent the day working in Marin County at the high-end home furnishings retailers that shall remain nameless. I go into the company’s underwhelming suburban headquarters complex, which sits in a little valley between Mount Tamalpais to the west (about 2,500 feet at the peak) and Ring Mountain, an 800-foot ridge to the south and east.

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When I came out of the office, the sun had already sunk behind Mount Tam’s long, high ridge; but it was still lighting up the top of Ring Mountain. I’ve taken to exploring the neighborhood, and found a way to walk up to a trail that goes up to the top of Ring Mountain. Since the light was going fast, I took a picture from the company parking lot, then drove up to the trailhead. Wonderful views in every direction —  south, across the top of the Tiburon Peninsula to San Francisco, north and west to the long silhouette of Mount Tam, north and east across San Quentin, the world’s most picturesque prison setting, into San Pablo Bay.