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28 February 2005

Peter Benenson dies; founded Amnesty International

I disapprove of dying, and so I am not going to junk up this blog with obituary notices, or take much heed of people who do this thing of which I disapprove. I do not believe dying is an achievement worthy of chopping down forests. I plan not to do much of it myself.

Freud said nobody really believes he's ever going to die. I'm with Freud. I'll call him up tomorrow and tell him what a smart guy I think he is.

But I have heard rumors, some credible, that we all have to go sometime. If that's true, then a question has to be asked: Was it a Good Life? Or was it a Worthless Piece-o-Crap Life that just fucked up the neighborhood and made everyone miserable, like Donald Trump's?

In my high school Latin class, above the blackboard, Miss Murphy posted

The Oath of
the Young Men of Athens

We will pass this City to those who come after us
not only not less,
but greater and more beautiful than we found it.

It meant utterly nothing to me at the time, me being 16 and an idiot. (The Young Men of Athens swore it at 17.) But every day for a year I had to face and read it, I remembered it, and it's grown on me. (SWMBO tells me it's also the model for the oath of the Girl Scouts.)

Here is a guy who just died (I disapprove, he should not have), but who left Earth a better place than he found it. Because he got angry and outraged, and used these passions creatively, we on Earth don't have to be quite so embarrassed and ashamed of this planet now.

When the Aliens finally land and ask, "What do you folks do for fun around here?", we're going to have a lot of explaining to do. But we won't have to explain quite as much really nasty crap as we used to, before this guy got really pissed off and decided that one human being could do something to change it.

You'll find a trading card for Portugal's Antonio de Oliveira Salazar in Vleeptron's earlier post about America's Friendly Dictators. Salazar's PIDE secret police sentenced the two students who drank a toast to liberty aloud in a cafe to seven years in prison. This vile piece-o-crap is dead now, the Earth is a better place, and I approve.

* * *

The New York Times
Monday 28 February 2005

Peter Benenson, 83; Founded Amnesty Group, Dies

by Robert D. McFadden

Peter Benenson, a British lawyer whose outrage over the imprisonment of two Portuguese students for drinking a toast to liberty spawned the human rights organization Amnesty International in 1961, died Friday in a hospital in Oxford, England. He was 83.

The cause was pneumonia, said Brendan Paddy, a spokesman for the London-based organization.

What Mr. Benenson first envisioned as a one-year letter-writing campaign on behalf of "prisoners of conscience," who were being persecuted for their beliefs, eventually grew into the world's largest human rights organization, with 1.8 million members, chapters in 64 countries and a perennially powerful voice against torture, unjust imprisonment and the death penalty.

Amnesty International, which won the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize for "defending human dignity against violence and subjugation," has campaigned for decades against violations of the rights of women, children, political prisoners, minorities, religious groups, workers and disabled people, among others. Today, it is fighting the execution of child offenders in Iran, warning of human rights violations by Nepal and demanding the release of prisoners at the United States detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

"Peter Benenson's life was a courageous testament to his visionary commitment to fight injustice around the world," the organization's secretary general, Irene Khan, said in a statement. "He brought light into the darkness of prisons, the horror of torture chambers and the tragedy of death camps around the world."

Educated at Eton and Oxford, Mr. Benenson was a passionate advocate for human rights in fascist Spain, British-ruled Cyprus and repressive South Africa. He was almost 40, a bowler-topped barrister on the London Underground in 1961, when he read a news item about two Lisbon students sentenced to seven years in prison for toasting freedom in Portugal, then under the dictatorship of António Salazar.

In what he called "The Forgotten Prisoners" and "An Appeal for Amnesty," which appeared on the front page of The Observer, a British newspaper, he wrote about the two students and four other people who had been jailed in other nations because of their beliefs.

"Open your newspaper any day of the week, and you will find a report from somewhere in the world of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government," he wrote. "The reader feels a sickening sense of impotence. Yet if these feelings of disgust all over the world could be united into common action, something effective could be done."

He called for a one-year campaign of letter-writing to repressive authorities, demanding enforcement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations in 1948 but was widely ignored. The result was an outpouring of letters, telegrams and publicity that swelled into a permanent campaign and the formation of Amnesty International.

In its early years, Mr. Benenson ran the organization, provided most of the money, traveled widely to investigate cases and promoted its causes in journals and newspapers. He stepped down as the leader in 1966 after an independent investigation did not support his claim that the group was being infiltrated by British intelligence.

But he continued to have an active interest in the organization's affairs, helped to found and support similar groups and observed Amnesty International's 25th anniversary by lighting a symbolic candle outside St. Martin-in-the-Fields, the church off Trafalgar Square where he had first envisioned the organization. Its logo is a candle wrapped in barbed wire.

Peter Benenson was born in London on July 31, 1921, the son of a British army colonel. He was tutored privately by the poet W. H. Auden and began his first campaign at Eton - for better food. At 16 he organized fund-raising for orphans of the Spanish Civil War, and later raised money to get two Jews out of Nazi Germany.

After service with the Ministry of Information in World War II, he became a lawyer, was an official observer at the trials of trade unionists in Franco's Spain, advised lawyers for defendants accused of resistance to British rule in Cyprus and prodded London to send observers to Hungary during the 1956 uprising and to racially divided South Africa during a treason trial.

For his role in founding Amnesty International, he was recommended for a knighthood by various prime ministers, but always demurred, responding with a litany of human rights violations that, he said, needed more urgent attention. In the 1980's, he became chairman of Association of Christians Against Torture, and in the 1990's he organized aid for Romanian orphans. He also founded a group to aid victims of celiac disease -- a faulty absorption of gluten in the intestines -- which he had.

Mr. Benenson's family issued no statement. Amnesty International, which announced his death, listed his survivors as his wife, Susan; a son, Joe; a daughter, Manya Scarffe; and two daughters by a previous marriage, Natasha Benenson and Jill Ackroyd.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

27 February 2005

e-mail to a Canadian artist pal about to go to the Netherlands for the first time

Hi Hi M*** --

Here, I'll tell you about the first time I ever went to Amsterdam. First I'd been to the UK where I felt comfortable with my language, and knowing a lot about it and its history. That was more than okay and everything but I wanted for the first time to pretend to be brave and go to the Continent. I hate planes and love trains and ferries, so I took the Harwich overnight ferry to the Netherlands, and from there a quick one-hour morning train trip to Amsterdam Centraalstation.

Of course I spoke no Dutch, and have utterly no family connection with the Netherlands, I had no friends or anyone I could phone and pretend was a friend, and knew nothing about the place except some of the Naughty Bits that get so much tabloid play.

Oh I am such a rube and a hayseed and a tourist and a gawker. I used to be embarrassed about that, but now I just gawk comfortably and if sophisticated people laugh, God bless them. But Centraalstation -- Jeez! what a totally thrilling place, EVERYTHING is going on there. If I hadn't got a grip eventually, I would never have walked away from it and found a hotel, I would have lived at Centraalstation for a month.

It was end of summer, a nice day outside in front of the train station and there were some very fascinating Inca musicians from Peru performing, and I watched them while I was standing next to this college-age backpack couple, and we started to chat. They seemed a little triste, not as happy as they should have been. They told me finally why they were unhappy.

They were London art students. When the term had ended, they had a summer's worth of mandatory homework. First they were supposed to go to Amsterdam and do the museums for a week, and then they were supposed to move on to Italy and spend all the rest of the summer among the art treasures of Italy.

They fucked up. They hadn't been able to force themselves to leave Amsterdam all summer. Now they had one week left to cram All Of Italy's Art Treasures into their eyeballs. And they were heartbroken that they had to leave Amsterdam.

I've still never been to Italy or Greece or Spain, or anything but railroad corner shortcuts through France -- and I feel embarrassed, even a little ashamed of that. Like the art student couple -- I just can't get out of the Netherlands.

I don't do prostitutes, but I do smoke That Stuph, but That Stuph, you can get it anywhere (and where can't you get prostitutes?), and it can't begin to explain why I've been back to the Netherlands seven times since, and have such a hard time going elsewhere.

I've been Elsewhere (Berlin to see U**, Prague, Scandinavia, Iceland, a lot of UK), and loved it all, but Amsterdam and the Netherlands -- it's just a mystery why and how it grips my mind and my soul so forceably and keeps compelling me to go back, and why I feel so sad when a year goes by and I'm too broke or stuck by circumstances to go to the Netherlands again.

Of the Visual Arts -- you will drown in beauty. Not just INSIDE the museums. You will have a hard time getting INSIDE the magnificent museums, you will be constantly distracted on every street and canal by the architecture, the colors, the centuries of adoring preservation. Practice in advance not to be angry or ashamed of yourself because you booked yourself a whole day inside the Riijksmuseum, but you never managed to get there, you blew the whole day drinking coffee and talking to people and gawking. Those are the wonderful days, really. The museums will always be there.

The sneaky thing the Dutch have done to me isn't Rembrandt or Van Gogh. They are CIVILIZED and long ago settled on a Permanent Plan of TOLERANCE for all. (Actually it's a Temporary Plan, an emergency war measure during their century-long war for independence from Spain, around 1500. After they got their independence, they were immediately going to rescind Tolerance, like every other place in the world, but they decided to let it go for another year and see what happened. They've just never got around to rescinding it, it seems to work so nicely for them, making them strong and prosperous -- and drowning in beauty for the eye and the spirit and soul.)

And they are SMART. There is No Violent Crime in the big cities, but there is an Odd Danger for tourists. There is a Car Street, and then a Sidewalk for Walkers, and then a Dedicated Bicycle-Only Lane, and if you don't watch your clueless pedestrian ass, a careening bicycle will smash into you. EVERYONE gets to work and around town on bicycles. If you're Bicyclish, cheap rentals are everywhere, it's a great flavor of touring a great city. (The entire nation is perfectly flat, a crummy old 3-speed will do perfectly.)

Oddly enough, the state religion, the Dutch Reform Church, are notorious, there and in North America, for being somewhat priggish and puritanical and scowlingly Calvinist -- it's a mystery why such a strait-laced culture could have evolved such a wild and wooly city like Amsterdam. (Haarlem's even whackier.)

But as you chat and read and ask, you see why. Like every other puritanical society, they tried Banning Everything, and that just led to violent pimps and corrupt vice squad cops and all sorts of nasty underground uncontrolled vices. The Dutch understand that, in a huge busy port city with thousands of horny visiting sailors with lots of cash, the same Human Stuph is going to happen anyway -- so they permit it, they regulate it, they tolerate it and shape it so there are no child prostitutes, the adult prostitutes have free health care and pensions, it's impossible to get unsafe sex, there are no predatory enslaving pimps, and the cops aren't enemies, they have a cop culture of helping people. Imagine: Like in kindergarten, the Policeman really IS your friend!

My town, Northampton MA, is quite famous as one of the Lesbian centers of the world. Our Mayor is an Out Lesbian, and we, like many other places, declare ourselves Welcoming and Hospitable to Gays and Lesbians.

But I've only been to one place on Earth that built a big-ass MEMORIAL STATUE and PUBLIC PARK dedicated to Gays and Lesbians -- Amsterdam. After the Nazis rounded up all the Jews and Left-Wingers and Slavs, they got around promptly to gassing homosexuals, and the Amsterdam Monument speaks to that suffering and sacrifice and holocaust. It's a HUGE tourist magnet.

A pal set me up with lunch with a former student of his in Amsterdam. She and her lover, when they were in their twenties, had multiple passports, they could have lived anywhere in North America or Europe, and they'd both seen lots of places. But they immediately settled in the Netherlands, which has legally recognized Same-Sex Marriage for at least a decade or more. Why screw around with other places that dick around with tormenting or insulting or bothering you with less? This couple is certainly not going anywhere else.

I'm a Jew. So's the Mayor of Amsterdam, his name is Cohen. Amsterdam has about 28 mosques. Jews, Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, Atheists -- THEY ALL GET ALONG WITH RESPECT! It's The Dutch Way. I think it's Paradise, Utopia. Compare it to the Middle East. Same kinds of human beings, same difffering beliefs -- but people are neighbors in the Netherlands, not neighbor-killers.

It ain't perfect, lately they've been having some sad political problems, they're having their own fears about terrorists and the usual Fox News crap that scares people. But the Dutch Way is still Light Years of Tolerance beyond the USA, France, Germany (Berlin notably excepted), Austria, Italy. And I'm certain their electorate will swing back to Full Tolerance very promptly. Their memories of the Nazi occupation are still fresh and very bitter.

I finally dragged C****** to the Netherlands. She liked just about everything (despite her lifelong suspicions of people who won't speak English). But she's a gardener and went apeshit for the tulips. The entire county planted in nothing but multi-colored tulips (that was Holland's first Get-Rich industry) -- ride through it on a train, it is the most beautiful Human-Made Wonder you will ever see. The big Tourist Cliche is Keukenhof, a huge floral park in the middle of the Tulip industry. No matter how unenthusiastic you may be about hypergardening, a day at Keukenhof will just please and tickle you so.

You pulled my chain. I am So Sorry. But I do love the place so. And these things are Intimately Personal, so it may not happen to you as it happened to me. But I do hope you get to go soon, and I do hope you are touched and moved by some of the wonders that have touched me.

I'm so disgusted with my USA in recent times, I have a Scheme (wife willing) to try to move there, to expatriate there, at least to the end of our Conservative Scoundrel Times. The American poet Robert Lowell did his 1950s Right-Wing Scoundrel Times in Amsterdam. I'm a novelist -- expatriating, it's the thing to do! And the food is sooooooooooooo delicious! Have dinner at t'Zwaantje (The Swan).

Oh, btw, everybody nearly everywhere in Holland speaks perfect English. It's annoyingly hard to get them to speak Dutch to you. I'm good with lingos, but learning Dutch is double-hard.

So glad you like Vleeptron!


PS. I have an artist pal and I was deluging her with my love for the Netherlands, and she asked, "How is the Netherlands for artists?" Well -- my experience in the USA and I guess Canada is that trying to be an artist is sort of a lifelong torment or punishment or drubbing.
The Netherlands -- an artist is a Respected Person, mothers tell their little children to respect the Nice Art Lady, everyone understands that Artists are a tremendously important part of what makes a society Great. Amsterdam's arts and music scene is alive, vibrant, thrilling, spontaneous, authentic. If you want to dance and play your first night in Amsterdam, check out the Melkweg, the biggest hottest Performance/Art/Music joint. I saw Yoko Ono shrieking her lungs out there one night.

26 February 2005


Originally this was titled "How to catch a unicorn," but people have not been leaving many comments, so I thought if I re-titled it with VIRGINS in the title, I might get a little more traffic.

This is authentic Medieval lore.

A unicorn will only get close enough to let a person see or touch the unicorn if the person is a female virgin. Right away, this explains a lot about why unicorns are seen so rarely.

Back at the castle, the king expresses a desire for a rare and beautiful unicorn horn, so the royal hunters search the castle for a virgin. They find an attractive young virgin and explain their plan. They will give her a nice fat little bag of gold if she will come into the forest with them. All she has to do is sit quietly under a big tree for a few hours. She accepts this proposal, they all go into the forest, the hunters hide in nearby bushes, the virgin sits down under the big tree.

Eventually a unicorn very timidly steps into the clearing and approaches the virgin, whose virginity unicorns can recognize instantly by their magical powers. The unicorn lies down, places its head gently in the virgin's lap, and then falls blissfully asleep.

The hunters leap from the bushes, slay the unicorn with spears and knives, and rip the horn out of the unicorn's head. Then they all go back to the castle and give the virgin her nice fat little bag of gold, and a little extra for the dress that got hot unicorn blood and entrail juices all over it.

And this is why unicorns are so rare, though unicorn horns hang above many royal fireplaces: The unicorn makes the fatal mistake of confusing inexperience with innocence.

* * *

There are several surviving spectacular tapestry groups depicting la chasse du licorne. If you're North Americanish, or USA Right Coastish, there's one in New York City, in the magnificent authentic stone-by-stone re-construction of a Medieval European shack called The Cloisters, so now you know what kind of a joint this used to be somewhere in Europe in the Middle Ages and up until around 1900, when an American gazillionaire had it shipped back with every stone numbered, like a 3D jigsaw puzzle, but one intended to be solved very quickly, easily and efficiently, especially at a time when New York City was teeming with very cheap immigrant labor, and there were as yet no labor laws.

In fact proposals for child labor laws were denounced vehemently in Congress, because they would create a nation of unemployed layabouts, slugabeds, urchins and ragamuffins. Hard work is character-building for the young. In one of the Wapshot novels, John Cheever recounts a tale in which two New England boys visit their Yankee farmer uncle, who promises them a fine (but unspecified) reward for a day of hard farm labor. Coverly and Moses work brutally and nastily hard all day, and at the end of the day, their uncle takes them to the well, fills the dipper, and says, "Here's your reward, boys -- Adam's Ale!"

(Please note the ", which is my temporary punctuation mark, the Ill-Remembered Quotation Mark.)

Abraham Lincoln said, "My father taught me to work hard, but he never taught me to like it." I think I got that one nailed, he really said exactly that. If you know better, leave a Comment. If you validite my memory, leave a Comment. If you like chocolate, or vanilla (both domesticated by the Aztecs), or Little Penguin Wine, leave a Comment.

Anyway, back to The Cloisters. It's way the hell uptown, past Sugar Hill, in Washington Heights. Not the best part of town, but if you want to see the Medieval Cloisters, and the thousands of spectacularly gorgeous treasures in them, that's where you have to schlep. The Cloisters is an out-building of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that's who runs The Cloisters.

I went to college a bus ride away from The Cloisters, and worked in that neighborhood renting cars (piece-o-shit Chryslers and a now-extinct Detroit brand which were even worse) one summer. One of my co-workers we called Rex, guess why. One day I incautiously went into the wonderful cheap Italian friendly lunchcounter next to the rent-a-car place with a Big Red Hickey on my throat, and 30 Neighborhood Types just went carnival apeshit humiliating public about it.

(Green makeup is often effective to cover up a Big Red Hickey, Green + Red = Caucasian Flesh Color. Victims of domestic abuse also commonly use this trick of complementary-color makeup. This is one of the important lessons I learned while my parents were burning a mountain of cash so I could study Theater at a pretty slick private university in NYC. They must have been on some kind of drugs. I certainly was.)

The first time I visited The Cloisters, I was horrified! Hundreds of magnificent ancient statues, their beautiful faces had been all smashed in with hammers or tire irons -- the neighborhood gangs of Washington Heights (I knew all about NYC youth gangs from "West Side Story") had broken in at night and smashed all the Medieval statuary!

Well ... close. Not accurate, but close. These statues had been mostly hosed up by the gazillionaire in Northern Europe, and when the Reformation came to Northern Europe, religious statuary, of the Virgin Mary, of the Saints and Martyrs, of the Apostles, of the Disciples, was suddenly deemed to be idolatry, and mobs of -- well, neighborhood gangs, led by religious reformers, smashed all the porphyry, obsidian and wooden faces of the statues. The time to call 911 and save the statues' faces was about 1500.

But in a 13th-century cubicle stone chamber deep in the bowels of The Cloisters, on the four large walls are the four huge panels of The Unicorn Tapestries (Brussels, circa 1500). The pretty young virgin, the unicorn snoozing blissfully with its head in her lap, the brutal hunters leaping out ... it's all there, gorgeously, ethereally, the work, I imagine, of fifty maids a-weaving steadily for several years. It's a guaranteed Half-Hour In Eyeball & Soul Paradise, or your money back. I think admission to The Cloisters is a donation at your own personal goodwill and discretion. So don't just go in without paying something. That makes you a schnorrer, and probably worse, you are certainly not a mensch. In fact I think you're a schmuck.

While students at the nearby college, my roommate and I cooked up a scheme. One morning around 10:30 we would arrive in a white ACME RUG CLEANING SERVICE van, and, in white working uniforms, with embroidered first names on our pockets (LEO and MIGUEL, I seem to recall), would stroll into The Cloisters, roll up the unicorn wall rugs we liked so much, carry them back out to the van, and drive off. And hang them in our Bronx college student apartment, I imagine, or use them as rugs and walk and party on them, we were college students and so hadn't worked out all the details. But we weenied out and never did it.

While in NYC, another famous Virgin Site are the stone lions guarding the New York City Public Library on 42nd Street, where Barbara Tuchman researched The Guns of August and her other wonderful books (my particular fave: The First Salute, no, it's The Zimmerman Telegram, no, it's A Distant Mirror). Every time a virgin walks past the lions, they roar. This is a Documented Fact.

In another branch of the NYC Public Library you can see the original Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, and Kanga in a glass case in the Children's Room of the Donnell branch, across the street from The Museum of Modern Art. Recently Members of Parliament have made irate speeches demanding their stuffed animals back, but we've got them for now, catch 'em while you can. The original Christopher Robin is Not There, and you know why.

Smith College, an all-women college a few blocks down the street from me, taught or still teaches a course on The Cult of the Virgin -- the world's collected lore and myth, religion, literature and art about the special condition of being a female virgin. From a medical standpoint, being a female virgin has all the significance of still having your tonsils, but you got no idea how many people of both sexes have been beheaded or burned at the stake or disemboweled or drawn and quartered or gelded (Abelard) for Virgin-Related Crimes and Monkey Business. And more than a few nasty lengthy wars over Virginity, Was She or Wasn't She, Whether It Was Very Special or Not. One of The Smith College Radio Babes took the course and told me about it. (No math pre-requisite, and very little early-morning waking required.) She thought it was pretty interesting. I'm not sure if she was a virgin that semester or not, I don't know from which side of virginity she was studying all this lore.

The Smith Main Gate -- if a Smith woman ever accidentally forgets, or is real drunk or something, and walks under it, she'll never get married. If you are in high school shopping for real good colleges, be careful, it could accidentally happen to you on your campus-shopping visit, if you get accepted and you end up going there.

Anyway -- are you a unicorn? Have you ever confused Innocence with Inexperience? Did hunters leap out at you while you snoozed in a pretty young virgin's lap and rip your horn out? Sucks for you.

Oh -- about those pesky child labor laws commies finally crammed through Congress during the New Deal ... Walmart just consented to a deal with the US Labor Department. Walmart admits no past wrongdoing, but pays a fine of about $300k. Walmart promises not to let underage employees work around huge dangerous potentially arm-ripping and disembowling machines in the warehouse anymore. In exchange, the Labor Department promises to notify Walmart 15 days in advance before starting any future Labor Department investigation of child labor violation complaints.

Is that a deal, or what? Is our government safeguarding our kids, or what? Does my town police department offer a deal like that? I'll promise Not Ever To, if the Police will promise to call me 15 days before they come over to see If I Did It or I've Been Doing It.

25 February 2005

when Body my good / bright dog is dead

Hunter S. Thompson's remarkable illustrator, Ralph Steadman, has posted a beautiful something about Thompson's passing. From other sources, it seems that Thompson's physical health was failing, or he dreaded that it was.

This poem, one of my favorites, is in memory of him. Life isn't all about having an enormous teenage erection that lasts all night, and perky tits and a heart-shaped ass. There are stages of Life beyond that, and if they lack high-speed car chases, they have their own kinds of Beauty and Dignity and even, with a little luck, some Wisdom. Todd and Tifani may not realize or acknowledge it, but they need some of that Geezer Wisdom to save their clueless teenage asses.

And Thrills. Thrills I could not possibly have had when I was young. For one thing, you need the fucking brains and experience to know where some of the really spectacular Screaming Intense Psycho Thrills are to be had. (They are not to be had in Euro-Disney or Las Vegas or Six Flags Over New England.)

If he was in pain, I would have brought him Lethe. But he made a choice all of us have, a choice each of us has a right to have. On Vleeptron, or in Oregon, or in the Netherlands, you can do it when you've just had enough, and it's perfectly legal, and if you need a health professional to help you, that's considered part of a health professional's healing oath.

* * *
by May Swensen

Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen

Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt

Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead

How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye

With cloud for shift
how will I hide?


The Horror! The Horror! (also: Prince's NAACP Award, etc.)

In the upper right corner of my Blogspot blog (and yours too) is a button labelled Next Blog, and in some kind of addled fog I spent an hour late last night clicking it repeatedly to read as much as I could of 40 or so of my neighbors' blogs in the new galaxy of cyberspace called the Blogosphere.

The Horror! The Horror!

Oh, well, the Sorority Girl and the fellow who has devoted his life to binge drinking and the Expert Day Trader and the many bloggers in very tight personal relationships with Jesus are probably bored to screaming tears or repulsed to vomiting with my adventures riding the Zeta Beam to Vleeptron. They can just Bite Me, and obviously I am just Biting Them, but I don't think I'll be biting too many Next Blogs much more. I have a sensitive digestive tract and nervous system.

Sorority Girl (I think her name is Muffy or Buffy or Twinki or Sylli or Ayrehedde or Feloni) posted that she just read a new study about sorority girls on USA campuses which say that bizarrely high percentages of sorority girls (women? must I say women?) engage in inordinately high rates of sexual promiscuity, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, abusive relationships with Todd from the Football Team, and I don't know what-all, but it's all self-destructive behavior and probably isn't helping them bring their organic chem or quantum mechanics grades up to a C by semester's end.

Color her shocked and dismayed, certainly very disappointed, with her Greek sisters.

In fact there are no hints on SG's blog that any of these sweetie-pies ever go to any classes whatsoever. There were lots of photos of her sorority house bedroom, some with the bed made, some with the bed unmade, and a nice photo of the bathroom she shares with six or seven of her closest sisters (LOTS of bottles of Goop). She has a very nice patchwork quilt.

Another Blogeusse reports this week that she is devastated. She just bought Tori Amos' latest CD (or whatever tangible or intangible form new music is sold in these days), put it on the Victrola, and was horrified to discover it sucks bigtime.

Call me a prophet or a visionary, but I thought Tori Amos' music sucked bigtime ten years ago. (For one thing, I thought it was a direct rip-off of Kate Bush. I have had one major stiffy for Kate Bush since the first time I heard her shriek "Wuthering Heights." It got a lot worse after I SAW her on a video. Be Still My Heart. Donald Sutherland was in one of her videos -- ya think they ...?)

In my Legendary Unsupervised Totally Free Bachelor Decade I was briefly dating one sweetie-pie who was trying to drag my sorry superannuated ass to a Tori Amos concert, but fortunately we broke up before the concert date. We did not squabble about who should get the mega-pricey tickets; I handed them to her gingerly with a set of sterilized barbecue tongs, with my blessings. (Every Sunday night she also made me sit next to her and watch "Touched by an Angel." I really don't like plots constructed around giving adorable spaniel puppies or little freckled 6-year-old boys named Mikey terminal leukemia.)

I am not the first Horny Old Fart to discover that the fundamental problem with Age-Inappropriate Romances is The Music. I am trying to listen to Die Zauberflote, and she is turning the volume on my stereo up to 11 and out comes stuff about my homies in the hood popping a cap in my bitch 'cause she's a ho. Clearly this is some sort of Excruciating Fingernails-on-a-Blackboard Punishment from a Disapproving, Scowling God.

God, please note: I am happily and permanently married now to a wonderful Age-Appropriate musically tasteful, brilliant and beautiful woman. Don't make me listen to any more gangsta rap or Tori Amos or Lilith Faire stuff ever again please.

I am sure she is a certified Geezerette now, too, but ya know who I really liked? Joan Osborne. I thought "One of Us" was just a startlingly original lyric and song.

And somewhere lost in an old dead inaccessible hard disk is an .mp3 cover of it done by Prince, or, as he was called at the time, The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, or TAFKAP, or just an ineffable guy wearing a gaudy Ankh-ish sorta thing around his neck.

That cover RAWKED!!!! It's not on any of his albums, and I had to track it down all over the Internet until I finally found a Swiss Guy who is the World's Greatest Prince Fan, and he had it. I had to beg for it in an e-mail entirely in French, which I sincerely hope he enjoyed. (HAHAHAHA LE STOOPID AMERICAIN IS TRYING TO BEG ME FOR A PRINCE SONG EN FRANCAISE WHICH HE SPEAKS COMME LE MERDE HAHAHAHAHA I WILL FIRST PRETEND K JE NE COMPREND PAS HAHAHAHAHA) Anyway, Jean-Claude sent me the .mp3 and IT FUCKIN RAWKS!!! IT FUCKIN RAWKS!!! and I want it again so bad so if you happen to have Prince's cover of "One of Us," SVP sendez cette au moi vite vite merci beaucoups.

Prince (that's what he calls himself again these days) is about to get a huge Image Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). (February, the shortest month of the year, is the USA's Black History Month. I am not the first horologist of either skin tone to notice this.)

Can you remember a single Prince song that involved the Joy of Firearms? Driveby shootings? The need to discipline enslaved females with regular doses of abusive violence? Gang violence? Fear? Intimidation? Murder? Prisons?

No way. Prince is/was all about romance and love and lighthearted incurable satyriasis and voluntary multi-racial orgies in Minneapolis and Having A Wonderful Time. Totally non-violent guy.

Musically -- Beyond Original, Beyond Brilliant, he created an entire New Musical Universe.

His outfits: I rushed right down to k-Mart and bought The Prince Collection, sox to scrotum bulge cup, and I have been looking exactly like Prince ever since, so if you're ever in Northampton and you see a perfect Prince doppleganger, all in deep purple velvet supertight pants, pierced and pouting and marcelled, only he's Caucasian, come on over and introduce yourself, that's me!

And if you send me that Prince .mp3 of "One of Us," pal, mon ami, mein Freund, mi amigo, you've just earned yourself a Free Vleeptron Entire Pizza with Double Anchovies and Pineapple, even if you are Swiss.

The world's greatest Prince fan is Swiss -- go figure.

Well, for a decade or so, if you wanted to find the Internet's premier Parliament Funkadelic George Clinton fan site, you had to click into some weird-ass sleeper cell in Hamburg DE. (Crazy Dredlock George produced Prince's pay-per-view Y2K Millennium Eve music special, when he sang "1999" for the Very Last Time, and that fuckin rawked too! Best fuckin Millennium Eve I ever had!)

I GOT to spend more time in Hamburg one of these days!!! Been im und aus der Banhof, and while waiting for my train, around the block (past SEX KUTIE WORLD and LIVE HIER SEX SHOW) for some tourist sauerbraten (not bad!), but I GOT to get out and see der Stadt! What the fuck goes on there??? How the hell did Hamburg get like that?

I hope the War on Terrorism ends well, but I really hope it doesn't turn Hamburg into some sort of Smiley-Face Euro-Disney. UNESCO should step in and make sure Hamburg stays Hamburg forever. Marseilles, too, I guess, but I've never been there, maybe it's all movie hype.

Too late for Interzone, it no longer exists and it's got (some) laws now.

24 February 2005

The poem that rescued the wisgeer's ruined cottage

Fooey! A very nice piece of Free Software called Hello which allowed me to post images to this blog has crapped out and failed after just a few weeks. I have sent an e-mail to its Makers, asking for repair help, and so I should be able to post new images to Vleeptron perhaps by the end of 2009.

Meanwhile, in lieu of the Actual Image of this lovely poem, I will just type in the text. The poem is by the 17th-century Dutch poet Dirck Camphuysen. In the tiny dorp of Rijnsburg, there is a lovely ancient cottage at the corner of Spinozalaan and Camphuysenstraat. Around 1890, it was a toppling shambles headed for the wrecker's ball, when a scholar found it, and spotted this poem in a ceramic plaque at the crumbling front door.

The scholar had read a letter from the 17th Century, in which a visitor to the cottage's upstairs tenant had included the text of the ornamental poem by the front door. Thus the cottage in which the great wisgeer Benedict / Baruch Spinoza dwelt was rescued from destruction and oblivion, and you can visit it this very day, as I did (you take a local bus a few stops from Leiden), and took a photo of the wonderful poem that saved the wonderful cottage where once dwelt the wonderful wisgeer (in the wonderful nation).

I also prevailed on a gaggle of suspicious bicycling Dutch schoolgirls to hold my camera and photograph me standing next to the poem. If Hello ever works again, I'll post these marvelous images, and you will be able to see why I am so often mistaken for Richard Gere.

A post or two ago, I mentioned Weltschmerz ("world pain"), the sensation in one's spirit and soul from comparing How the World Could or Might Be, with How the World Really Is. (Don't try this at home, especially if you have loaded firearms in the house.) Camphuysen described Weltschmerz this way:

Ach! waren alle Menschen wijs,
En wilden daarbij wel!
De Aard waar haar en Paradijs,
Nu isse meest een Hel.

Oh! If but all men were wise,
And desired only well,
The Earth would live in Paradise,
Now it's just a Hell.

I cannot thoroughly or clearly explain why in recent years I have become so fascinated with Spinoza (1632 - 1677).

Well, actually, yes, I think I can give it a partial, interim whack. Of Spinoza's own philosophy and thoughts, I would be nervous to take an undergrad exam and hope for a B- or C+, because many documents (my Permanent Record) attest to my career as one of the crappiest, laziest students in the history of higher education.

But I stalk and haunt this dead filosoof -- another house he lived in, Domus Spinozana, is still available to visit in Den Haag, in a vibrant and delicious Muslim neighborhood -- largely because, for me, Spinoza embodies the spirit (geest) of Tolerance -- intellectual, religious, ethnic, political -- which arose in the Netherlands before Spinoza's lifetime and has endured ever since. While Spinoza lived, he would have been hanged or burned for his ideas in most other nations in Europe and the rest of the world. Once a mob gathered outside his Rijnsburg cottage -- the landlord, a surgeon, told them they should be ashamed of themselves and they left -- and once Spinoza was stabbed, but his cape deflected the blade. He kept the cape as a souvenir of a rare lapse of Dutch tolerance.

What got everybody all hot and murderously bothered? Would you pull a shank on me if I told you I believed that God and Nature are one and the same? Probably not -- but a lady Episcopalian minister once got real hot under the collar when I told her I was fascinated with and admired this theology. One can still find little corners where Spinoza's pantheism is still hotly refuted and condemned as authentic heresy.

Spinoza is often credited with inventing the first system of ethics which does not depend, as an ultimate foundation, on God's punishment for disobeying the system. Spinoza proves his ethical system the way Euclid proved his geometry, with clearly expressed definitions, one logical step at a time, and Heaven or Hellfire have nothing to do with it.

Upstairs in the Rijnsburg cottage, Spinozahuis, you can still see Spinoza's tools for polishing glass lenses. He supported himself as one of Europe's finest lens-grinders in order to keep his thoughts independent from the influence of universities or princes who might employ or seek to sponsor him. His early death was probably due to breathing in glass dust from the polishing process. There's buzz that he and the daughter of his surgeon landlord were sweeties. A bust in the garden shows him, surprisingly, to be a handsome and rather dashing, almost piratical figure.

Spinoza moved to Rijnsburg in 1656, at the invitation of the surgeon, a member of a non-conformist Baptist sect, when Amsterdam's Portuguese synagogue read the Anathema over him and excommunicated him. This is what was read out before Spinoza and the congregation:

"With the judgment of the angels and the sentence of the saints, we anathematize, execrate, curse and cast out Baruch de Espinoza, the whole of the sacred community assenting, in presence of the sacred books with the six-hundred-and-thirteen precepts written therein, pronouncing against him the malediction wherewith Elisha cursed the children, and all the maledictions written in the Book of the Law. Let him be accursed by day, and accursed by night; let him be accursed in his lying clown, and accursed in his rising up; accursed in going out and accursed in coming in. May the Lord never more pardon or acknowledge him; may the wrath and displeasure of the Lord burn henceforth against this man. load him with all the curses written in the Book of the Law, and blot out his name from under the sky; may the Lord sever him from evil from all the tribes of Israel, weight him with all the maledictions of the firmament contained in the Book of Law; and may all ye who are obedient to the Lord your God be saved this day.

"Hereby then are all admonished that none hold converse with him by word of mouth, none hold communication with him by writing; that no one do him any service, no one abide under the same roof with him, no one approach within four cubits [about six feet] length of him, and no one read any document dictated by him, or written by his hand."

Anathemized, excommunicated, mobbed, stabbed, feared, detested -- only one place on Earth was safe for Spinoza to live, polish lenses and dream, and write and publish a little: the same place Descartes had found refuge for his fireplace dreaming (though his philosophy was banned from being taught in the Netherlands while he lived).

And dreamers ever since have been safe in the Netherlands, dreamers, refugees, artists, eccentrics, loonies, atheists, Muslims, homosexuals, Jews ... The only historic rupture in Dutch tolerance was during the German military occupation of World War II. Tolerance resumed fully and promptly upon the German army's disappearance in 1945.

The more I visit and snoop around the Netherlands, the more it seems like Vleeptron to me. I keep looking for its ugly, cruel, nasty, inhumane side, but never seem to find it. But I am just an ignorant American tourist in the Netherlands (though over and over and over again), and perhaps you are a real Dutch person, or just know dirty nasty stuff about the Netherlands and the Dutch people that I don't. Make me wise, post your Comments here.

And I for my part will have more to say about Vleeptron on Earth, the world's best sovereign impersonation of Utopia I have yet found, and I've been a place or two. Oddly enough, the Netherlands does all this Tolerance Stuff while ruled usually by a Queen, but a King may be coming in the future. The current Queen is Her Majesty Beatrix, and I have particularly warm feelings for her because of This Very Nice Thing she and her family once did in one of her royal possessions, the Caribbean island of Curaçao.

23 February 2005

Dr. Gene Scott's gentle fund-raising style, and his Sermon on Sin

I have been designing a new typographical punctuation mark, in the spirit of the Interrobang, a punctuation mark I sincerely think is badly needed: The Ill-Remembered (but nonetheless Authentic) Quotation Mark. I am too lazy to actually research many authentic quotes to get them right, but I have near-remembered a lot of stuff that actual people actually said, and I think I should have a way to slightly misquote them without outraging the world's Perfectionists and Picky-Pickyists.

Here are two examples, and until I design my new dingbat, we'll use " but colored red.

There I was pretty sober watching The Dr. Gene Scott Show -- officially "Dr. Gene Scott on Hebrews" -- on early Ur-Cable (or UHF channel 788) in the middle of the night, circa 1980, when I got off work, and he Said These Things, and I heard him Say These Things, and so okay, I didn't videotape or Tivo them, but I will stake $100 that if Gene wasn't finished being alive, and read this, he would say, "Yup, that's pretty goddam close to what I said, close enough for gummint work, have a Cuban seegar, son."

First of all, we need to reference, as a comparison baseline, the fund-raising solicitation styles of other famous, infamous, notorious televangelists. As the 1-900- number pops up on the screen, can you see those Smiles? Can you see them Praying For You? Can you Feel the Love? Can you hear the Cheesy Holy Choir Music? Bless your soul.

Here was Gene Scott soliciting funds:

"Goddam it, if you are a son-of-a-bitch who is WATCHING these programs, and hearing these Scripture lessons, and you are NOT tithing -- if you are NOT sending me one goddam tenth of everything you own -- then you are a THIEF! And you are stealing from GOD! And you will BURN IN HELL forever!"

Jeez, I heard that and was reaching for my checkbook and trembling before I caught myself. This was one scary telethon solicitor, the Anti-Jim-&-Tammy-Faye-Bakker.

And thus endeth the comparison to the Bakkers. The IRS and the FCC and various state and federal law-enforcement agencies and grand juries snooped around and chased and harrassed Dr. Gene Scott all over the map for decades, and never even slapped him with a parking ticket that stuck. He died screaming over the airwaves with his 300 Tennessee Walking Horses and his gaudy crucifix on, no jail or handcuffs ever stuck to Gene.

And then there's Gene's Sermon on Sin I'll never forget:

"The preachers all say, 'Don't sin, it'll make you so unhappy, sin makes you feel so bad, sin's just awful.' Well, that's just a big Load of Crap and everybody knows it! Sin is FUN! Liquor! Drugs! Fornication! Those things are just nothin' but lots of FUN! That's why everybody's been doing all that stuff since time began! You think people drink and fornicate and do drugs 'cause it makes 'em feel bad?"

22 February 2005

Dr. Gene Scott

Dear John,

You may read my thoughts about [Hunter S.] Thompson on the world's newest brilliant blog

You are the first to inform me of the passing of Dr. Gene Scott. In his own meshugineh way, he meant as much to me as Thompson did. He certainly got my complete attention as much as Thompson ever did. Who could glimpse and hear Gene Scott, and then just turn away?

Have you read the full AP obit? What. A. Guy.

[He was also the only televangelist I ever saw who would merrily spend an hour on his TV show blasting the crap out of pheasants with shotguns, or berating and abusing his employees by face and name.]

We just got back from a week in Curaçao. In a splurt of bad last-minute packing, it was our first trip to the Caribbean in which I didn't bring a cheapo sleazoid short-wave radio. There's lots of hot stuph on short-wave in the Caribbean -- but in recent years this was where I had annually re-connected with Gene's noise and hiss and static after he vanished from cable. If I'd packed better, I might have had the thrill of hearing one of his last rant sermons and curse-fests. Under the Curaçao moon, Gene might have been condemning me to Hellfire Everlasting, and that was always a late-night tropical treat for me.

Gene was no dummy. No way I could have ended up with any kind of PhD from Stanford. As for the directions into which he focused his intellectual brilliance -- well, he screamed and snorted about exactly the same sorts of things that Newton did for the bulk of his intellectual life, and then there was Napier, the frothing Scottish anti-Papist and, on the side, inventor of logarithms. To name just a few. Pascal was regularly abandoning accursed mathematics for Revealed Religion and the Truths that Await in Heaven & Hell.

Perhaps what we should fear more than any other thing is the Colorless World of the Future, the world that is coming where all human personalities reek of Velveeta and Miracle Whip and Wonder Bread and The Carpenters' Greatest Hits.

They say these are Billy Graham's final days. Him I won't miss at all. (Truman detested him as a self-aggrandizing scam artist.) What did he ever say that wasn't ambivalent and ambiguous and open to any possible Smiley-Face interpretation? What single memorable word did he ever once say to perhaps a billion people who gave him their undivided attention? Maybe all religion is a form of nonsense, some mild, some dangerous. But it didn't sound like nonsense when Gene shrieked it. This was Serious Stuff, Or Else.


21 February 2005

Hunter S. Thompson

In lieu of saying much directly about Hunter S. Thompson's death, I'll tell a story which I suspect may have some bearing on this monstrously unhappy event.

In his autobiography "Disturbing the Universe," the physicist Freeman Dyson talks about his first post-college job, as a low-level scientist working for the British Air Ministry during World War II. He was paired in a tiny office with a young Irish scientist.

They were researching a troubling problem. When an American bomber was shot down over Europe, nearly every member of the crew managed to escape and parachute to safety, but when British Lancaster bombers went down, they crashed with almost no survivors. Dyson and his colleague quickly discovered the reason: American bombers had sufficiently large escape hatches, while the Lancaster had been built with a much smaller escape hatch, and in the minute or two during which escape might be possible, a handful of men wearing bulky parachutes couldn't all escape out the tiny hatch.

The solution was equally clear: Retrofit a larger escape hatch. Dyson and his colleague submitted this action plan up the chain of command.

It went nowhere. Nothing was done. They heard nothing back from the Air Ministry, for months, which dragged on for years. The death rates were unchanged.

As they tried to bring the life-and-death problem to the Ministry's attention, they did get informal hints about why the Ministry was so reluctant to take action. There was a culture of Royal Air Force combat commanders which didn't want to make it too easy to escape an injured plane. The plane might not be doomed; perhaps heroic crew efforts might enable it to recover and complete its mission or limp back to base. The too-small escape hatch was serving as a sort of Mandatory Courage Machine, forcing the crew to stick with their damaged plane and do what they could to save it.

As Dyson realized the hopelessness and stupidity of the Ministry's non-response, he became deeply depressed, and sank into paralytic inaction.

The Irish guy, on the other hand, just got angrier and more outraged and furious. He stalked every colonel and general and marshal and civilian authority in the Ministry, he went out of channels, he violated the chain of command, he chased officials on the golf course, he forced them all to listen to him and read his detailed scientific reports. No matter how much trouble he got into, no matter how often he was warned to behave, no matter how foolish or clownish he seemed to others, no matter how little he got out of his efforts, he never gave up.

Eventually he won. The Air Ministry finally and grudgingly agreed to enlarge the escape hatch, and the new, safe hatch actually went into service on Lancasters -- a few months after the end of the war. (There are lots of other ways for a bomber to fail and fall than enemy fire.)

It was a lesson Dyson never forgot: Depression accomplishes nothing for anybody. Anger is (or can be) a Creative Force that can actually change important things in the world for the better.

* * *

There are few people past or present I have admired more than Hunter S. Thompson. He didn't just amuse or thrill me. I think his written insights into American politics, from Nixon to the present, deserved the Nobel Peace Prize and/or the Nobel Letters Prize, they were so uniquely explosive with moral passion and a ceaseless screaming demand for a better world. To America, he compares very forceably and substantially to Germany's "Gruppe 47" writers like Böll and Grass, who took upon themselves, in 1947, the task of rescuing, salvaging and resurrecting the German language from two Nazi decades of soul-destroying political gibberish.

Now, if we are lucky, someone else will have to rescue American English from "No Child Left Behind," and say bluntly that it's code for Fuck Poor and Black Kids.

If the America Thompson was ceaselessly describing and critiquing had changed the way he thought it should, this would be a far greater society than the corrupt, dysfunctional shithole it has degenerated into. Thompson's vision would be an America Americans could authentically take pride in, an America which non-Americans would admire, rather than despise and fear.

Those tempted to respond with critiques of Thompson's clownish, carnivalesque side should aim them elsewhere, not at me. I admired this side of him every bit as much as I admired his brilliant political and social insights. I don't know what true human freedom is any better than anyone else, but I know it when I see it, and Hunter S. Thompson was a very Free American -- with no one else harmed or put in fear by his free American living, and millions gratefully served.

Throughout Thompson's career, the most elite, prestigious members of the American press corps, those who have shot to the top of both print and electronic media, have channelled nearly all their efforts into Dignity, Fine Tailoring, Fine Hairstyles, Team Playing, the limo lifestyle -- and Freedom-Kissing the anuses of the Great Figures of Political Power with polite, unembarrassing softball coverage. They have done all this at the expense of journalistic courage, clarity and truth. Since Nixon, they have become terrified of losing access to The Great Men in Congress and the White House. They have helped get us into this mess.

Thompson never gave a flying fuck about any of that, about what he looked like, about how he was perceived by politicians or other journalists, about civility, about kissing anybody's ass, about access. (Actually, he had plenty of access; a lot of politicians are well-educated and smart and of the generation that mainlined Thompson's books and columns back in college; even lots of Republicans loved to answer the phone for Hunter S. Thompson, and considered chatting with him a rare cultural honor.)

Is that what they mean by Gonzo Journalism? I just always thought Thompson's stuff meant truth, savage honesty, and courage, which I thought good journalists were all supposed to be doing to begin with. If you wanted a shelf of the finest and most influential American social and political journalism from 1965 to today, who else's books would all be there? Who else's political writing from this era will survive a century from now? Who else will anyone spontaneously and enthusiastically want to read?

Gary Trudeau's "Uncle Duke" was a cartoon lampoon of a figure Trudeau clearly admired and loved as much as I do. Every naughty thing Uncle Duke did around the world he did only because of the currupt, greedy, racist and vile spheres our foreign and military policies had created. In a decent, responsible America, Uncle Duke would have vanished as an effective comic figure, Trudeau would have had no use for him.

* * *

My story about Dyson ... I suspect Thompson succumbed (temporarily, but that's all it takes when you have liquor and firearms in the home) to the despair every decent, intelligent, insightful, sensitive person has been slimed with since November 2000. The Germans, who need many more words for "depression" before they prescribe a pill, have a word, Weltschmerz -- "world pain" -- which is defined as the feeling one gets from comparing How the World Could Be with How the World Actually Is. Only the ignorant and insensitive -- the Fox News crowd -- can escape the caustic effects on the spirit from the 2005 comparison of worlds.

Do not despair that he died. Rejoice that this remarkable firestorm of rage, anger, celebration and freedom lived and wrote and lived so wonderfully and so fully. Health Tip: Drink less, and if you have firearms in the house, take them out of the house and keep them locked at the firing range.

20 February 2005

America's Friendly Dictators trading cards

Augusto Pinochet of Chile:
Still crazy (and still free) after all these years.

One very familiar modern variety of the Absolute Despot, certainly in the Americas, is the Dictator, a genuine "off-with-his-head" autocrat.

I personally think dictators are terrible people, and everything the USA stands for should totally reject the whole idea of dictators. The USA should be doing everything in its diplomatic and economic power to topple dictators.

But that's just my opinion. U.S. Presidents, their administrations, and the U.S. State Department have been cozying up to and supporting dozens of these medal-festooned and gold-braid-strangling creeps consistently for the past century. One particular American institution that helps train the worst of Latin America's dictators, death-squad torturers, genocidists and military juntas is The School of the Americas, at the US Army's Fort Benning, adjacent to Columbus, Georgia. More about SOA later.

Here's a WONDERFUL introduction to an earlier generation of America's Friendly Dictators, in trading-card form:

Since I first stumbled on the Internet with my first steam-powered computer, this has been just about my all-time favorite website. In my whole lifetime, it is a High Water Mark in the intersection of journalism, education, humane politics, and great art. Cops tried to bust these people for another of their trading card series, America's Serial Killers. (Now serial killer shows are as common on TV as cooking shows.)

Just linking to these cards, I think, deserves the whole intellectual property fruit salad:

Text © 1990 Dennis Bernstein & Laura Sydell. Art © 1990 Bill Sienkiewicz
Eclipse Enterprises, P.O. Box 1099, Forestville, California 95436

If you like these cards. I've seen the set offered for sale, in original condition, on the web at very reasonable prices.

(If you don't like these cards ... well, let me know why. I'd love to hear that.)

Oh. Well. That was Then, This is Now. No more dictators -- certainly not backed and aided and supplied by the United States of America, which now only exports Freedom and Democracy.

More about Our Friendly Despots & Dictators -- TNG soon. You don't need a rocket ship to Mongo to find some really whack sovereign absolute (and homicidal) rulers, and once every year they drop in to have dinner at the White House and pose for grip-and-grin photos.

This isn't a Bush-bash. They smiled and posed with Bill and Hillary, they smile and pose with George and Laura, and whoever comes after them, Democrat or Republican -- Say Cheese!

What Part of Yes Don't You Understand?

Do not make She unhappy with you.

I wish at this time to say a few more words about Autocratic Despotic Tyrants and Absolute Monarchs. Whether we like it or not, whether or not we wish they would go away and never come back, they infest our consciousness and our dreams. Our brains are a nest of avenues, alleys and grand plazas down which Kings, Emperors, Tsars, Tsarinas, Melechim, Empresses and Queens, all with the power to deflower you or have you drawn and quartered in five minutes, wander unrestrained and unembarrassed.

Gilgamesh, a semi-historical real-lish sort of King of Uruk from around 2600 BC, spent his evenings down at the House of Brides to deflower his pick on the eve of their weddings to Some Other Guy. You think that sort of crap ended a millennium or two ago? Later I will see if I can find you some Documented Smut about the Grand Fromage who was despoting in Kuwait around the time we were putting him back on his satin cushions during Desert Storm. If you have the documented smut (it began as a New York Times story) close at hand, don't be shy, ship it to moi.

Kings, Soldans, Pharaohs, Emirs ... absolute monarchs whose Word Is Law ... this is mostly what most of us have ever known since we began organizing and specializing.

Democracy, councils and commissions, republics, parliaments ... these are all New Toys & Gimmicks from Last Week. They might not last, we don't know yet. I like them personally, but that's not the same as saying: Representative Rational Humane Accountable Government Where Everyones' Rights Always Matter is here to stay.

Iceland -- around 1000 AD, a sort of Viking Horseback Battleaxe Gangland -- began settling things with a democratic parliament, the Althing, which it held each summer at an absolutely nifty place where two mid-Atlantic tectonic continent plates are ripping the ocean floor apart. Iceland continues to do its parliamentary democratic business to this day (though the Althing moved downtown into more permanent quarters; they are Post-Tent now and run all year).

Then Athens, of course, and that Democracy Thing, that was around 500 BC. The Roman Republic and Senate, they had a pretty good run before they shifted to an Emperor who was usually also a God. Caligula made his horse a Senator. (For all the really smutty lurid details, check out Suetonius' "The Twelve Caesars," translation, I think, by the poet Robert Graves, who then wrote the novel "I, Claudius." Claudius was the kinder, gentler absolute despot who followed the assassinated Caligula.)

But mostly what we get is guys, and the occasional gal, who can slice our heads off or heave us off a cliff largely because they had a bad night's sleep on a lumpy mattress. Or they can say stuff like, "Her, bring that one to me now."

You can critique this shit, but you can't make it go away or pretend that's not what we know best and most. And you can kill Caligula, but an hour later, there's a new guy, with all the same off-with-his-head powers. And a new one after him.

I don't mean to ignore the ladies in this historical discussion. My favorite, a fairly recent babe, was Queen Christina of Sweden (at least two movies in English, one with Garbo). René Descartes was a man who detested the cold and slept, as often as possible, until noon. He fell on hard times -- metaphysics and analytic geometry just weren't paying the bills -- and took a job as teenage Queen Christina's math tutor. He got to Stockholm in January 1650, Her Royal Highness announced she would take her royal lessons at 4:30 in the morning, Descartes was dead by 11 February. Later she said she was sorry.

But the hottest of all is SWMBO ... She Who Must Be Obeyed.

Ah, hell, rent the video. Ursula Andress is "She," or Ayesha, a 2000-year-old Queen, of Roman origins, hidden in a mountain enclave way up the Nile. She looks damn good for 2000. Anyway, when anyone annoys She in the slightest, She gestures with one hand, and the Palace Guard tosses the annoying person, typically a screaming virgin priestess, down a volcano hole. This is one hot ripping yarn intended for 14-year-old British schoolboys by H. Rider Haggard, and just a click away:

"Rumpole of the Bailey" (by John Mortimer) is a 65-ish criminal defense barrister in London married for æons to Hilda. Behind her back and out of earshot, he refers to her as "She Who Must Be Obeyed." (He had once been a 14-year-old British schoolboy.)

Plato was quite blunt about the situation: Any ruler with unlimited powers must inevitably become a violent homicidal paranoid maniac and sexual degenerate. It comes with the territory.

Ordinary humans with ordinary romantic and sexual desires quickly become used to "No," or "I don't think so," or "Go away or I'll call the police." The autocratic tyrant has never heard No.

Bad things happen to ordinary humans who act on their ordinary homicidal desires. The autocratic tyrant -- well, Henry II was drunk one night in 1170 with his buddies, and yelled, "Will no one rid me of this pesky priest?" About 48 hours later, four heavily armed dudes assassinated the Archbishop in Canterbury Cathedral. (They would have murdered
Thomas à Becket quicker, but they had to cross the English Channel to find him first.)

This month the King of Nepal appears to have dismissed the constitutional government and swept aside all representative councils and made himself an Autocratic Monarch. He's under a lot of stress; Nepal has a decades-long and very effective and violent Maoist Guerrilla insurgency problem. The current king got his job after a disgruntled prince walked into the royal dining room one night and did all his family with a machine gun.

I need to eat now, but I'm not finished with this. I'm going to tell you about Emperor Bokassa I, and see if I can scare up some good stuff about Papa Doc Duvalier, President-for-Life of Haiti. And if you know any real cool Absolute Despotic Monarchs and Tyrants you would like to share cool tales with, please send them this way. Paul Bowles has some cool stories about le Roi du Moroc (the late father of the current king).

19 February 2005

the thrills & delights of interglobal air travel

While rescue crews were chipping New Englanders out of blocks of ice during the recent never-ending cold snap, SWMBO and I managed to escape to Tropical Climes for a week. To do this, we had to fly on two large aeroplanes and do the Homeland Security Terrorist X-Ray Dog-Sniff Lambada in three airports. Though I was a bit distracted and disoriented through the whole forced-march ordeal, I tried to pay attention, and as far as I can tell, our Safety in Airports and the Skies is now the responsibility of 114 separate new paramilitary and law-enforcement agencies, all of whose employees are required to have graduated from Junior High School and to have minimum I.Q.s of 80.

I have no hips to speak of, and so when I was required to remove my belt, while holding all my pocket belongings in my arms, my trousers began to fall to my knees as I staggered to a chair where I was instructed to remove my shoes. I have been in undignified and uncomfortable and anxious situations -- the day I was drafted, and in various living rooms being scrutinized by the parents of my high school dates. But the Nueva Aeropuerto Lambada is about the worst.

As far as I can tell, Miami International Airport is now under the direct management and supervision of the Clown Division of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey.

Our hosts in the stratosphere were American Airlines. Fruit juice, coffee and soft drinks are still free, but if you want anything solid, or booze, or earphones to watch the movie, bring lots of cash. I think they are also charging for those itty-bitty pillows.

There were some new security wrinkles since the last time I went through this ordeal. Sky terrorists, apparently, are logical and thrifty fiends and always buy second-class one-way tickets. Anti-terrorism experts have concluded that their first move to skyjack an airplane is to try to sneak into First Class and use the First-Class bathrooms in the front of the plane, by pretending to have to go real bad while the Second-Class bathrooms in the rear of the plane -- both of them -- are Occupado. So we were given two stern new instructions over the public-address system:

1. Second-Class passengers are now forbidden from even thinking about using the First-Class bathrooms. Evacuating in your undies is prefered.

2. For three hours, keep your ass parked always in your seat. No standing, no stretching, no deep knee-bends in the aisles, and particularly, no loitering near the bathrooms or the galley.

I've never paid for a First-Class seat, but once I was forced against my will to go forward and endure First Class on a transatlantic flight. Have you ever wondered what First Class is like? Well, I can tell you, I've been there. The flight attendants (both sexes) are topless and all about 23 years old, and they sit in your lap and wiggle and giggle while they pour your cappucino or 12-year-old single-malt Scotch. The bathrooms have claw-foot bathtubs with bubble bath, and can accomodate two. A masseur or masseuse is available on request. There's a never-ending buffet of paté and Beluga caviar, and the jeroboams of Champagne are French.

Here is a joke circulating among the Fabric Arts community:

Q. Why can't you bring knitting needles on an airplane?

A. They're afraid you'll knit an Afghan.

Oh, hell, well, I'm a pretty tough old bird and I can endure just about anything. But on the flight home, we were subjected to a torment that most people won't ever have to endure until they arrive in Hell Everlasting: A movie called "Wimbledon." The gorgeous adorable lovers, Kirsten Dunst and some vapid lox named Paul Bettany, are both world-class tennis stars, he a bit on the washed-up side, she rocketing to the top. I didn't pay for the earphones, so had to endure this piece of talentless crap in mime. Several people jumped out of the airplane 20 minutes into the film. You think you've seen boredom? Not until you've tried to watch a movie all about championship tennis.

I am happy to report that one of my all-time favorite actresses, Eleanor Bron, is still working, unhappy to report that it was in this piece of drek, as Bettany's loving and supporting mom who never lost faith in his ability to make tennis balls go over a net. Sam Neill also had the thankless task of being Dunst's superprotective multimillionaire father.

These eugenically selected Caucasian superathletes were given the imaginative names of Peter Colt (a Brit) and
Lizzie Bradbury (a wisecracking American babe with ... you'll never guess this ... an attitude).

Here, let me spoil the whole thing for you: Against all expectations, Bettany wins the Men's Singles championship, gives his racket to the 14-year-old ball girl who has developed an unhealthy drooling crush on him, marries Dunst, they reproduce (probably by unartificial insemination), and teach their adorable infants -- a boy for you, a girl for me -- to play tennis on the rooftop court above their Manhattan penthouse.

By the way, American Airlines no longer provides breathable air on its aircraft, at least not in Second-Class. You can find more people wheezing, coughing, sneezing and gasping in a small sealed intimate space, but you have to go to a big-city influenza quarantine hospital to find them.

More later about where we went -- which was one picante screwy loony loco meshugine place. Want a hint? Okay, here's a hint. The local authorities want everyone to know that

Ku droga nunka mi ta salbá,
pero lo mi wordu uzá ...
gará ... i te asta matá.

This time, first correct reply ... okay, the pizza slice again. I am working on how to actually get the pizza slice to the winners. I am thinking something involving coupons. Your suggestions deeply appreciated.

17 February 2005

Helium II: real cold weird nifty mystery goop

When I was around 11 or 12 an aunt, who had heard I had a scientific bent, sent me for my birthday a Time/Life big colorful hardback book entirely about Hot Leading Edge Science Stuph (circa 1959).

I do not mean to make fun of it; quite the contrary. It's not easy to communicate Deoxyribonucleic Acid or C.N. Yang's prediction that Parity could be violated to 12-year-olds, but these science editors, or perhaps one deranged author, were giving it a solid whack, they treated the reader with respect and dignity, and they got my undivided attention.

I believe the book was a gift from my Aunt Nathalie, who Came With the Comet, more about which later. This was a very interesting and intelligent woman who provided me with portals to very rare and interesting things on several occasions.

I just posted something about my Nephew Kwak. Now Kwak has this long-time school buddy who I got to meet one time over dinner. He was a grad stu at nearby Enormous State U. He had fallen bigtime into the lifelong need to find out New Stuph about Helium. This was only the second time I had ever been in a room with a Helium Expert before.

But I knew a whole bunch of Neat Stuph about Helium, particularly its extraordinary, bizarre, outre, weird-ass, counter-intuitive, counter-experience behavior at low temperatures. Time/Life covered that sucker real good with lots of amazing pictures. One of Helium's nifty tricks instantly seared into my brain forever.

(Okay, I'm going to have to draw an image now. I had one, but it doesn't seem to have survived the catastrophic transition from sick dying wheezing tubercular Old Computer to Dubious Questionable New Computer. Look above this post for the image.)

At a temperature just a smidge above Absolute Zero, helium takes a liquid form called Helium II. It doesn't seem to like being at two different heights, so it creeps UP the inside of its tube, and then OUT and DOWN the outside of the tube and flows down to join the stuff at the lower height, until the heights are the same.

Have you ever seen any other stuff do this? Milk? Vinegar? Molasses? Extra Virgin Olive Oil? Jolt Cola? I don't think so.

Also note that this highly screwy, animated activity takes place just below 2.17 degrees Kelvin. (Zero Kelvin, or Absolute Zero, is the temperature at which all molecular movement practically ceases.)

So now, many decades later, I am finally talking to this young Todd who knows his low-temperature Helium, and I ask him if I have remembered this wowsy thing correctly, and if it is Really True, and he says: You bet! He and his Helium pals down at the Lab do it du temp en temp when they want to see something Real Geeky which is a real crowd-pleaser (like when they're trying to impress a new date).

The problem is that they really don't have much of an understanding of why Helium II can do this weird trick. You got to be up to your doctoral eyeballs in quantum mechanics and Bose-Einstein Condensates to even ask, and even then you don't get very many satisfactory answers.

So I lean on Helium Boy really hard and manipulatively and he promises to invite me over to the Lab the next time they are going to put on this Helium II Carnival Trick. But the creep never does, and now he has left the university for a new high-class job in the administration of science. I am sure it is an important job, and he will be real good at it.

But I wanted to see the Helium II climb over the top of the tube.

Well, the heck with him. Someday I am going to see Helium II do its crazy thing, the same way I am going to see Anak Krakatau or Kick Em Jenny.


Now if YOU happen to have access to a bunch of Helium at frighteningly low temperatures, and you are willing to do this Neat Helium II Trick for me -- well, by gum by jimminy, invite me over to your Mad Science Lab, show me the Nifty Trick, and you've just earned yourself a Free Dinner! (You have to eat it with me and answer all my dumb questions about Helium.)

* * *

Oh -- like, who cares about low-temp liquid Helium? Well, one other Nifty Trick that low-temp Helium does is that it has No Electrical Resistance or Impedance -- no Ohms, no Mhos, it just lets them electrons flow through it without offering any hostile opposition whatsoever.

Now the way we move huge amounts of electric power from generating point (Niagara Falls generators, e.g.) to user point (New York City, e.g.) is through a network of huge, thick overhead copper wires and transformers. They got resistance, there's no getting around that. So inevitably, transmitting huge amounts of electric power results in losses -- the technical term is hysteresis loss -- of around 15 percent.

(I think I remembered that number right -- but CLICK ON COMMENTS!)

It just all goes wasted, dissipated away as heat. You can never run your toaster oven or flat-panel HD TV or your George Foreman Grill or your X-Box or sex toy off this wasted heat.

One way to recover the wasted power is to transmit power through an underground channel of liquid low-temp Helium. You shove 50 gazillion watts in at Niagara Falls, and you get 50 gazillion watts out again at the other end in New York City, loss-free.

Nobody ever talks about this when they're talking about how to provide lots of electricity without poisoning the atmosphere or building new Chernobyls. Recovering 15 percent of our previously wasted electric power is Not Chopped Liver.

Meanwhile, we're running short of Helium. Most of it comes from mines in Texas and Oklahoma, and there's just a finite amount of it down there.

Once we mine it and then use it to fill kiddie and Valentine's Day balloons and the Fuji Blimp, it leaks out into the atmosphere, and it floats up (only Hydrogen is lighter), and then floats out into space and is Lost Forever. Helium is NOT a renewable resource. It's an Inert/Noble gas, and that means it can't chemically bond with any other atom or molecule, so there's no way to store it chemically, like in Helium Fluoride or something like that. It's just always Free Helium, always trying to Escape Out Into Space.

So maybe you can start pushing the Save The Helium meme around, see where that gets us. Maybe we could fill all kiddie birthday and zoo balloons with cheap, renewable hydrogen instead. (If a kiddie birthday balloon catches fire, it won't hurt the kiddie -- it's not a Hindenburg kinda scenario. There'll be a big POP! and then some water vapor, because when hydrogen burns, it combines with oxygen and makes water.)

So write your Congressperson and Senators about your concerns about using liquid helium to transmit electric power, and about our dwindling Helium supplies.

At first, their Robot will reply: "Thank you for sharing your concerns about helium with me. I am always interested in my voters' concerns."

But after they get 300 Helium Complaints, they will still be just as dumb as rocks and clueless, but now they will be worried that they might not get re-elected over this crazy Helium thing. Congresspeople and Senators worry about not getting re-elected the way you and I worry about losing a foot or a testicle.