Old nuggets

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Anyone checking the frequency of blogging for this site need not be told that I am not a natural diarist. I keep trying to start a regular compilation of my thought but never quite get in the habit. I have a journal I’ve carted from DC to Stanford to Bensalem to Princeton. With my recent move still unfolding in slow motion in my new apartment, I came across that book, which I have not touched since (at latest) 1998.

Only two pages have any writing, dating from late 1992(!) with the interesting heading “Thoughts on Teaching”. Since that means that those two pages were, in some way, the progenitor of these blog entries — that this little blue notebook is the ur-Mongrel Dogs, I thought it appropriate to record them here, before ditching the book that’s been dogging me for fifteen years.

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Worrisome Phrase

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In reading this AP News story on the upcoming speech by the President, I came across the following:

Bush and his senior advisers are likely to hear the initial thinking from Ryan Crocker, Bush’s envoy in Baghdad
[emphasis added]

Isn’t Ryan Crocker the accredited ambassador to Iraq? Confirmed and empowered, one would hope, by the United States Senate? He’s not some office flunky that Bush sent over to Iraq for a look-see. He’s the full-time diplomatic representative (to an allegedly sovereign nation) of the United States of America, not of George W. Bush. Talk about your imperial presidencies! It’s about as bad as when Bush himself said, of Rumsfeld,

Good. He’s done a heck of a job. He’s conducted two wars, and at the same time is out to transfer my military from a military that was constructed for the post-Cold War to one that is going to be constructed to fight terrorism.

Ominous phrases, both.

Another propaganda poster

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As has been usual, this is another exhortation to “Work to Win”. My “study” of WWI and WWII posters indicates that almost all fell into the “Work harder” or “Buy more bonds” categories. True to form, this poster says, “Victory up here… begins down here“. Overhead are a Retro Rocketship and a DV snub fighter. On the ground, in a vaguely-factory-ish compound, is another Retro Rocketship. It’s not so easy to make clear that this one is being assembled or worked on. I put in a forklift and a repair bot, as well as a guy welding something to the periscope hatch. (He’s hard to see, on the top of the ship.) Actually, I had to go find models for almost everything, as I didn’t have a lot of industrial nick-nacks lying around.


Hidden meanings?

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I don’t know what this means, but I’ve discovered something weird with the iTunes Music Store. I wanted to find a particular song by Bob Dylan called “Dignity”. But the search box won’t find it for me, instead returning an error: “We could not complete your iTunes store request. The iTunes Store is temporarily unavailable. Please try again later.” But if I type in something else — say, “Political World” — it comes back instantly with the relevant hits.

Is iTunes making a comment on postmodern society?

And is the fact that the iTunes Store lacks dignity as disturbing as the fact that MS Word has no problem with “newspeak”?

Dignity Denied

The financial hardship of serving one’s country

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You have to feel bad for poor Tony Snow, Press Secretary to President Bush. You see, Tony really really loves the job — he’s full of passion for it — but darn it, he just can’t afford to fight the good fight anymore. According to reports on CNN and the AP, Tony will have to leave sometime before the Bush administration ends, for “financial reasons”:

“I’m not going to be able to go the distance, but that’s primarily for financial reasons. I’ve told people when my money runs out, then I’ve got to go.”

Oh, by the way, Tony makes about $168,000 each year as Press Secretary. But he can’t afford to stay, because “he felt he needed to make some more money to help his family, which includes children readying for college.”

There’s something both fascinating and sickening to watch these people claim “financial hardship” while pulling in three times my salary after wrecking the economy for anyone earning below $100K. But maybe this is good. Maybe Tony will have a little more sympathy for the people struggling to get by, the ones who can’t go back to Punditlandia and make millions and yet still have the audacious desire to send their kids to college, too.

Not so easy to make it in Bush’s America, is it, Mr. Snow?

The Mongrel Dogs in Transit Hell: Airline Insanity

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I am currently in LAX International Airport. I’ve been here since 10:30 AM and it is currently 9:00 PM. If you knew my itinerary, you’d see that this is the time listed for boarding Continental Flight 1803, nonstop LAX to Newark/EWR. You can probably guess that I am not actually getting on that plane at this moment. You see, it’s raining in Houston.

Now, I am not in Houston. I am not going to Houston. As mentioned, my flight is nonstop and so is not stopping in Houston. Nonetheless, rain in Houston has added about half an hour to my departure time each hour since 4 PM.

(Aside: I’ve received no fewer than six email alerts warning me that the flight will be delayed — although I was also warned that I had to show up at the airport at the printed time, since the airline reserved the right to leave then after all. I’m not exactly what the point of the alerts are, to tell you the truth. I mean, if I can’t leave for the airport any later, than why do I need to know that the plane is going to be held? It’s some sort of weird Calvinist thing: I’m delayed if I do and delayed if I don’t. I can know my fate but I cannot do anything about it. [And if that’s not a true metaphor for a citizen in the hands of corporations, I don’t know what is.] )

Back to my delayed flight. Despite the frenzied pace of email alerts, actually very little information has been shared about why. Apparently, even though — as I said — my flight neither originates in, terminates in, or passes through Houston, I have been bolluxed by the remnants of the tropical storm Erin, which has delayed the plane I’ll be taking, which is for reasons unknown to anyone but God, flying out of Houston.

Now… The people of Houston have known, of course, that there’d be rain in Houston. The people at CNN and Weather Channel and every podunk news outlet in all the land knew that there’d be rain in Houston. Heck, I’ve just spent the past fifteen days at sea and even I knew that there would be rain in Houston. But somehow the airliines, with state of the art equipment and a literally million-dollar information infrastructure, somehow did not know that it would be raining in Houston.

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The Mongrel Dogs at Sea (12): From Arizona to Missouri

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Seven days ago I had the opportunity to relive the American experience in the Second World War in one morning. In reverse. As part of the Regal Princess‘ stop at the port of Honolulu, I took part in a tour of the memorials to the USS Arizona and USS Missouri. In case your command of WWII facts is rusty, the Arizona is a battleship sunk during the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on 1941 December 7 – the date that will live in infamy. The Missouri is part of the American response to that act. It’s an Iowa class battleship, the largest ever built and the last in service. On the decks of the Missouri, on 1945 September 2, the Japanese government signed the papers surrendering to the United Nations. In between, tens of millions of people died – nearly half a million of them American.

For reasons having to do with long lines and scheduling, my tour group actually explored the Missouri memorial first. The Missouri Memorial is, in fact, the Missouri – all of BB 63, anchored and refit as a floating museum. It’s not exactly a WWII monument. During the half century between VJ Day and its decommissioning, the Missouri served as a flagship of the United States Navy. It saw action in Korea, in Viet Nam, and even in the (first) Gulf War. During this span it was modernized and upgraded: the seaplane replaced with helicopters; the machine guns replaced with gatling anti-air. A full complement of Tomahawk cruise missile launchers was installed. In case all of that should fail, though, the Mighty Mo’ kept her main armament, nine 16-inch cannon in three independent turrets.

For all of the intimidating bigness of the battleship, the most stirring part turned out to be the surrender documents. Both copies – American and Japanese – are displayed. I was struck by the contrast of grand and mundane. At one glance are all the grandiose phrases calling for the end of war and the dedication to new peace. But look a little closer and you see the mark of a very human moment, where the representative of Canada, in his nervousness, signed on the wrong line and necessitated a hurried penciled correction. MacArthur insisted that the proper titles be penciled in and each signatory initial next to his correct line. How bizarre – between them, these men had fought the most devastating war ever known, had overseen barbarities of a nature hard to contemplate, had rained down obliteration on entire cities and had sent thousands of men to their deaths to do it. Yet here they were, worried that somehow, a signature in the wrong place could render the document worthless and the exercise moot.

Yet that’s the way of it, isn’t it? Paper covers rock. We think it’s the things that matter, but somehow, it’s the pieces of paper that seem to actually change the course of history. World War I became World War I, in a sense, with the British treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality – dismissed as just a “scrap of paper” by the German High Command. World War II spread to the West and became a World War with the Allied treaty of defense with Poland, again dismissed as just words on a page. In both cases, the powers that derided the words went on to be humbled by them.

The Declaration of Independence. The Constitution of the United States. The Magna Carta and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The Emancipation Proclamation. The Fourteen Points and the Atlantic Charter. Words on a page. Scraps of paper. But nothing more feared by tyrants, more despised by despots. It’s no accident that the Soviet Union registered all typewriters and made private possession of a mimeograph a felony offense.

And here, under glass, on the gently rolling deck of the mightiest warship ever constructed, was a piece of paper that had ended a war because it said so. The history of the war was written in the blood of its combatants – but it was ended through ink. The document contains little in the way of soaring oratory or grand pronouncements. It is a legal thing, a dry thing, a weary thing yet resplendent. That piece of paper recognized a changed reality and so enabled it.

Scraps of paper.

Word on a page.

Paper covers rock.

May it always be so.

The Mongrel Dogs at Sea (11): Solar Sight

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I experienced something today that I’ve heard a lot about but never quite believed in: the infamous green flash. I’d read that, sometimes, during sunsets, just at the moment the Sun sinks below the horizon, it flashes green. However, the conditions are hard to meet and the occurrence somewhat rare. Tonight as the Regal Princess continued steaming east-northeast, I happened to be out on deck during sunset. (I’ve been missing these because I’m slated for “first sitting” dinner and usually it wraps up just a few minutes too late. But today for whatever reason we were done and gone five minutes before rather than after sunset.) The sky was crystal-clear and, though there were some low-lying clouds, they hovered a bit above the horizon. Knowing these were the conditions for the semi-mythical flash, I dug out my camera and took continuous shots of the sunset.

Much to my amazement, I did in fact see the green flash.

It’s not so much a “flash”, really. The sky doesn’t light up green or anything. Rather, the Sun momentarily turns green. The change, from the usual red of sunset, is unmistakable, although the transformation lasts only a moment. Now I’m really interested in what causes this. I suspect it’s a refractory phenomenon having to do with the atmosphere – perhaps something about the color of the Sun’s limb compared to the bulk. I really did not think the story was true; now I have to understand it. It goes to show you that the world is always ready to throw a surprise at you when you think you know what’s going on.

Sadly, I didn’t get a picture of it. I had to choose between watching it on camera and watching it by eye. I was pretty sure that, if the effect was real, I’d still end up missing it in the camera. My camera is just too slow and awkward to capture an instantaneous elusive optical sprite. Also, although I love my digital camera, I’m beginning to worry that I am experience too many things through its mediation and missing out on the real events – as if preserving the memory of a thing was more important than actually experiencing it. If conditions are good again tomorrow or Wednesday, I’ll try to capture the flash, though I don’t have high hopes.

Seeing the flash speaks to me, though I’m not sure what it’s saying. It’s another chunk of life to throw in the broth that is my Convocation speech.

The Mongrel Dogs at Sea (10): Managed Disequilibrium

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Every night, the crew of the Regal Princess find some live entertainment to put on in the grandiosely-named International Show Lounge. Sometimes it’s in-house, like a crew sing-along. Usually, it’s more like a Vegas revue: Sometimes piano, sometimes comedy, sometimes live performance, sometimes old Broadway standards. For the most part, I’ve avoided this like a leper colony. It’s wildly not my usual type of entertainment and is in fact quite explicitly pitched for passengers who have the advantage over me of multiple decades of life experience. Before reaching Hawai’i, I did venture in once to see a so-called comedian, and had my impression utterly confirmed: It was cheap and lazy comedy, based on ancient stereotypes that went well past the border of offensive. It was un-funny.

But tonight I was a little bored after walking around Maui all day and I was having trouble getting the wireless to work smoothly. So I decided to take a chance on tonight’s act, a guy named Greg Kennedy who is, of all things, a juggler. I was not in a receptive mood. I’d more or less written off the hour it was going to occupy. Truth be told, I was ready to be significantly unimpressed. A juggler? In today’s world?

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