Saturday, February 21, 2009

Farewell to a Much-Misunderstood Man(John Updike preferred to be wrong on account of the right reservations than right because of the wrong ones.)
By Christopher Hitchens
Most of the celebrations and elegies for the great John Updike were abysmally bland, praising him as the bard and chronicler of the great American middle (middle-class, middle-minded, and so forth). One obituarist got it more nearly right, saying that Updike seemed like a paragon of the bourgeoisie to some while appearing as a worrying outrider of sexual liberation and subversion to others. A lot depends on how you first come upon an author—at my English boys boarding school in the 1960s, a copy of one of the early Rabbit works (Rabbit, Run) was passed around the dormitory with its covers ripped off as a "hot stuff" illicit text. To this day, I hardly dare go and look it up, but at one point "she" was apparently acting as if she wanted to turn herself inside out, while "he" could feel something like the inside of a "velvet slipper." Oh, sweet Jesus, what was all this? I burned and yearned to know, just as Alexander Portnoy might have done, and was amazed later to discover that both Updike and Philip Roth were considered to be literature in the United States.
Another apparent obstacle in the way of a full appreciation of Updike was his unabashedly WASP-like stance and character. This was never more awkwardly on show than in his much-neglected essay "On Not Being a Dove," which at first glance makes him the least '60s person on record, even while trying—always the worst combination—slightly too hard to be hip:
I went to meetings and contributed to the NAACP and even lent a black man we slightly knew some money that he never repaid—I was all for people getting a break, if the expense to me wasn't inordinate.

This wasn't the way that most people chose to remember that decade, and Updike had landed himself, in addition, with the almost one-man commitment among the literati of being a supporter of the Johnson administration in Vietnam. The essay bears rereading today because, even if it doesn't contain any reasoned defense of the war itself, it does in a mild but brave and ultimately irreducible way insist that the United States is superior to its enemies, both foreign and domestic, and can therefore still be right even when it is in the wrong. (Asked how a "writer" should take a side on the war, Updike at first wished to say that the opinions of writers were of no more value than any other, yet ended by saying that "in my own case at least I feel my professional need for freedom of speech and expression prejudices me toward a government whose constitution guarantees it." So, either don't try to conscript writers, or don't mess with writers who can use understatement to such effect.
On the sole occasion that he and I met properly and had an interview and a conversation, I was mainly interested in the "race" question. Updike had just published Brazil, his first step outside the boundaries of the United States since The Coup in 1978. Both novels dwelt upon exoticism and miscegenation, and the former had seemed to me when I first read it to contain a hint of prescience about the burgeoning Islamist loathing for America. (Read, if you will, the windy and scary diatribes of Updike's Hakim Ellellou, theocratic and military dictator of the land of Kush. They seem to raise the curtain on future screeds.)
Well, said Updike, with his usual and indeed as far as we know utterly unfailing geniality. His opinions on all such matters had undergone a bit of an update since 1978, and indeed since 1968. Of course he wasn't really a WASP to begin with—there can't be a more essentially Dutch name than Updike—but he added with typical diffidence that two of his children had married Africans and that he now had some genuinely "African-American" grandchildren. He appeared highly diverted and pleased by this thought, and I notice that the first edition of his memoir Self-Consciousness, containing that original anti-'60s essay, is dedicated "To my grandsons John Abloff Cobblah and Michael Kwame Ntiri Cobblah." These names, which I would guess to be Ashanti/Ghanaian, make one wonder if President Barack Obama missed an opportunity, and we all missed an experience, in not inviting the whole Updike clan to be present while one of the country's finest writers could still give us an "invocation."
Perhaps Updike was too ill by then. And something seemed to have gone wrong with his confidence toward the end. His 2006 novel, Terrorist, was a failure of nerve as well as a failure of style, making an absolute hash of the profile of a supposedly "home-grown" suicide-murderer in New Jersey. And his all-important "Talk of the Town" piece for The New Yorker about Sept. 11, 2001 (not reprinted by the magazine, I noticed, in its memorial salad of his best contributions this week), came as close as making no difference to saying that this assault on our civil society was not an event that was really worth fighting over. How incongruous of him, after maintaining for so long that Vietnam was a just war, to be so wavering and so neutral when a true crisis came along. And yet perhaps not so incongruous for a man of wry and reserved delicacy and elegance who would prefer very slightly to be wrong on account of the right reservations than right because of the wrong ones.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

My Christian Friend's Worries

A friend of mine, who is a Christian says he is worried about something called the "black swan" event. He has even bought a pistol and many rounds of ammunition in anticipation of chaos if it totally breaks out. I think I should make it clear that my friend is not crazy and he had purchased the pistol for target practice. Is this a realistic assessment by my friend or is he acting on his own beliefs that Armegeddon will break out. This is a little troubling because my friend from Milwaukee is one of the most peaceful people I know. Should I try to quell his worries saying the end of the world is not near, empathize but not generally support his feelings? What do I do?

Other notes:

I think that there is too much money being spent on guns and ammo. This is a truthout column by Annie Miller:

But I'd like to ask the fiscal conservatives: What about your support, year after year, of a monstrously bloated Pentagon budget?
The Iraq war and subsequent occupation, a "pet project" of the Bush administration and consistently financed by most members of Congress, will very likely cost the American taxpayer more than $3 trillion dollars by 2010, when interest on the debt and much-needed veterans benefits are factored in to the costs of the war. Even former President Bush, as reported in the Wall Street Journal in December 2008, acknowledges that increased military spending during his tenure in the White House has contributed to the federal budget crisis.
And just how much has the increase been? In the past eight years, U.S. military spending has nearly doubled; when nuclear weapons spending and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are factored in, the U.S. taxpayer will be footing a Pentagon bill of an estimated $711 billion in 2009 -- approximately $2,300 for every person living in the United States. $711 billion is roughly equivalent to what the rest of the world spends combined on military spending. There is no indication that President Obama plans to cut the military budget any time soon; in fact, he may be requesting some increase.
So what about wasteful Pentagon spending? The moral implications of spending half of every discretionary U.S. tax dollar on "defense" aside, it would seem prudent for the fiscally minded to scour the Pentagon budget to clean up and dispose of wasteful and unnecessary programs. Rep. Barney Frank, chair of the House Financial Services Committee, has spoken out repeatedly about the possibility of shearing 25 percent from the military budget, and has outlined some programs cuts to get there. Where is the support of fiscal conservatives for this proposal?
For those who believe our defense budget makes us safer: An ever-increasing military budget does little but provide security to Congressional incumbents and military contractors. According to the Center for American Progress and its recently published Unified Security Budget, 87 percent of security resources in the 2009 federal budget are being spent on the military. Only 8 percent are dedicated to homeland security, and a paltry 5 percent to non-military engagement. As the old saying goes, "When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail."
National security cannot and should not be defined in terms of our capacity to wage war abroad. National security is when the most vulnerable among us have access to adequate education, health care and housing; when we address the very real and growing threat of climate change; and when those Americans who want to work can support their families with a living wage. It will be achieved when we invest abroad in programs that address the root causes of terrorism including poverty, access to food and clean water, and education. It will be achieved when we make nuclear nonproliferation a priority, and lead the world in helping secure loose nukes and fissile materials, and begin serious negotiation of the abolition of nuclear weapons.
The stimulus' $787 billion is a great deal of money. However skeptical I am about the prospects of the package succeeding in any measurable way, I'd rather have my tax dollars go to "pet projects" that may staunch the bloodletting of American jobs than wasteful Pentagon programs whose primary purpose is to find effective and creative ways to kill human beings

Monday, February 16, 2009

Dawkins Talks About Darwin

Oxford University's former Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, Richard Dawkins, is one of the world's staunchest defenders of the theory of evolution. He is the author of The Selfish Gene and a well known atheist tract, The God Delusion. So how does he assess Darwin's ideas on the 200th anniversary of his birth?
The BBC World Service's Owen Bennett Jones spoke to Professor Dawkins.
RD: "Charles Darwin really solved the problem of existence, the problem of the existence of all living things - humans, animals, plants, fungi, bacteria. Everything we know about life, Darwin essentially explained."
OBJ: "Did he make any mistakes in your view?"
RD: "Yes he made some mistakes. He lived in the middle of the 19th Century, and, obviously, we know a lot more now than he knew. In particular, he got genetics all wrong. Nobody in the 19th Century knew much about genetics, and so naturally Darwin got that wrong. But given that, it's remarkable how much he got right."
OBJ: "But people say modern discoveries in genetics, actually confirm what Darwin was saying...?"
RD: "Very much so, yes, and it's amazing how far ahead of his time he was."
He's controversial amongst people who don't know anything, but if you talk to people who are actually educated, he's not really controversial
Richard Dawkins
OBJ: "Right, so can you explain that to us? Basically, modern genetics confirms the principle, but he got the detail wrong, is that it?"
RD: "Yes, you need genetics in order to make Darwinian natural selection work. It depends upon genetics. Darwin didn't realise how much it depended upon what you could call "digital genetics" - the idea that a particular gene, you either have it or you don't.
"In Darwin's time people thought it was a bit like mixing substances - you've got some male substances and some female substances and you mix them together, and you got child substance. It's not like that at all.
"It's digital. You either get a gene or you don't. Nowadays with DNA of course we know that it's really like computer code, it's like reels and reels of computer tape. And little did Darwin know, he actually needed that for his theory to work.
"But nevertheless he got it astonishingly right. So you could almost say he nearly forecast digital genetics - although he didn't."
OBJ: "Do you believe his belief is compatible with a belief in God?"
RD: "Many people do, because there are plenty of clergymen, bishops, theologians and things who of course go along with evolution. They have no choice; the evidence is overwhelming. I personally think it's rather difficult, but that's my personal opinion and you'll find plenty of clergymen to disagree."
OBJ: "Because Darwin is now a very controversial figure, particularly in the United States?"

RD: "He's controversial amongst people who don't know anything, but if you talk to people who are actually educated, he's not really controversial. There's no controversy about the fact we are cousins of monkeys, cousins of cows, cousins of aardvarks. That's completely non-controversial among anyone who knows anything about science."
OBJ: "Did Darwin lose his faith?"
RD: "Yes, Darwin lost his faith gradually. As a young man he was destined for the church. He was training to be an Anglican clergyman at Cambridge [University], and then gradually throughout his life he lost his faith, partly because of personal tragedy - losing children and things like that, and partly because his science led him to see the superfluousness of a creator. He never described himself as an atheist; he ended up describing himself as an agnostic - the term which was coined by his friend T H Huxley.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Mexico Vacation WOW!

Having a great time in Mexico. I had a Mexican guitar player serenaded Debbie last night at a place called MARGARITAS right across from LOS ARCO MOTEL. Song called Sienti Bieno or something like that. Weather in the 80's. Beautiful days. People are interesting, everyone trying to sell us timeshares. They get pretty aggressive. hotel stays are down here, which makes them more aggressive.
Debbie and I have taken many beach walks. people try to sell you stuff on the beach like hats, blankets, jewelry, etc.
First night, went to a great place on the beach called PONCHOS. ALOT of music and fun. The waiters all know my mother and father in law and they are showing us around to their favorite places. Great to have built in tour guides.
First night it was hard to sleep. Disco across the street blaring until 6am. Yikes. When in Mexico, do as the Mexicans!
Today we are going to the market. Got our pesos today at the bank. exchange rate is 14 pesos for a dollar.

We'll bask in the sun for another five days and then it back to winter in the midwest, to reality.

Bienos Dias,

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Neil DeGrasse Tyson

My brother went to see one of the brightest men in America last night.

Here is the article he sent me:

Face of space Tyson laments Americans' scientific illiteracy

PJ Slinger\ — 2/03/2009 8:27 am \

Neil deGrasse Tyson is one in a million.He said so himself."There are six-and-half billion people on this planet, and there are 6,500 astrophysicists, so that makes each of us (astrophysicists) one in a million," Tyson said Monday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater as part of the UW's Distinguished Lecture Series.It's too bad there aren't a lot more like Tyson, who kept the packed house enthralled with his charisma, knowledge and off-the-cuff humor for more than two hours.Tyson is the 21st century face of space, a mantle previously held by the late, great Carl Sagan. Tyson is director of the Hayden Planetarium and the host of PBS' "NOVA ScienceNOW" program, aimed at educating a new generation of Americans in science.And that is no small task.Tyson pointed out numerous examples of scientific illiteracy in the U.S., including a general lack of understanding and a belief in silly superstitions.On the screen behind him he showed a photo of the inside of an elevator in a tall building, and how there was no button for the 13th floor."We are supposedly a technologically advanced country, and yet people are afraid of the number 13?" he said.And since he was speaking on Feb. 2, Tyson showed a picture of the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil, who supposedly tells the weather future on whether he sees a shadow."Groundhog Day," Tyson said. "Sure, it's innocent fun. But it's a remnant, a celebration of our climatological ignorance."And ignorance is unfortunately the rule, not the exception, when it comes to science knowledge in the U.S., he lamented.He began the lecture with a list of scientific ideas that people assume to be true, including that the sun is yellow, that the North Star is the brightest object in the night sky and that total solar eclipses are rare. He pointed out how the entire list was false, but that because of scientific illiteracy, people tend to believe them because they seem right.He went on to describe each of the fallacies, pointing out that the sun is white, not yellow, that the North Star is the 49th brightest object in the sky and that total solar eclipses happen once every two and a half years."We hold presidential elections every four years, and you never hear them say, 'We have a rare presidential election coming up.'"Tyson, in Wisconsin for the first time, took the audience once around the universe and back home, touching on everything from science, math and world history to, yes, journalism. But at the heart of it all was the fact that scientific literacy in the U.S. is woefully deficient.Tyson pointed out the need for scientific literacy and how it seems to have fallen by the wayside over the past generation or so. He showed photos of the broken levees after Hurricane Katrina, the fallen interstate bridge in St. Paul, the aftermath of two trains that collided, among other photos of devastation wrought by a lack of scientific knowledge and understanding."That's not the country I grew up in," Tyson lamented. "We've stopped dreaming."Tyson showed how the elemental makeup of the universe is nearly identical to the makeup of the elements here on Earth, which he says is a pretty good indicator that we have no special place in the universe. It only makes sense, he said.As he neared the end of the lecture, he brought the audience on a trip through larger and larger numbers, which he called the "Cosmic Perspective." From one to a thousand to a million, a billion, a trillion … all the way up to a sextillion.That's 10 to the 21st power, or, written out: 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. That's how many stars are in our observable universe. And our little planet orbits just one of them.Does this make Tyson feel insignificant?"Not at all," he said. "The universe is in us."

I love that philosophical question. When we hold a rose in our hand, Is the beauty of the rose coming from itself or from us? Is it our perception of the rose or is it the rose itself that is important? Is the world all inside us? There wouldn't be a world without us to perceive it, right, but there has to be a world. Of all people, Deepak Chopra does a pretty good job of describing the rose's beauty being inside us. Very interesting.

10 Ways to be a Great Parent

  1. Be a good role model. Children learn from examples their parents set.
  2. Be respectful of your child's thoughts, feelings and suggestions.
  3. Make your child feel loved with words of praise and with hugs and kisses
  4. Keep your word. If you break it, apologize and make it up to the child.
  5. Encourage your child's creativity. Ask questions to encourage imagination and curiosity.
  6. Build your child's self esteem by recognizing and showing appreciation for all genuine efforts.
  7. Stay involved. Know what's going on in your child's life, both at school and with friends.
  8. Discipline fairly, firmly and with love. Focus on the behavior not the child.
  9. Establish family traditions and make time to do fun things together.
  10. Think positively. By expecting the best, you empower yourself and your child to solve problems and achieve goals.

Other Notes:

Yesterday I started a podcast with my 13 1/2 year old son at --- It's fun. Even though it was a rough draft podcast, it was a great way to find more ways to get to know this very special individual, my only typical son. I would highly recommend a podcast as a way for you and a significant other, son, nephew, etc. to get to know each other better. Sign up for a free podcast at

Hope you have a great week :) I will not be posting probably next week because we will be visiting Mazatlan, Mexico 2/7- 2/15. A well deserved vacation I think. My wife agrees :)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Strange Story from China

AUTHORITIES in eastern China have a new way to deal with residents who complain: checking them into a mental hospital and force-feeding them drugs, it was reported yesterday.
Authorities in Xintai, a municipal region in Shandong province, had forced at least 18 people with grievances, ranging from police brutality to property disputes, into a mental hospital, the Beijing News said.Chinese residents with complaints directed at local governments often travel to "petitions and appeals" offices (also called "letters and visits" offices) in provincial capitals and in Beijing after they have failed to resolve the problem through lower channels. Sun Fawu, 57, a retired miner from Dagouqiao village, was force-fed drugs and given injections during more than 20 days at the Xintai mental hospital in October, the paper said. "My head was always dizzy and I could not stay up," Mr Sun said. He had asked for compensation over spoiled farmland caused by coal mining. He was released only after signing a document saying he was mentally ill and "would not petition again". Checking petitioners into the hospital was in part economics, an official said, as cash-strapped local governments could ill afford to send them to Beijing."Every time we have to send three or five people to Beijing, and pay their food and accommodation, it's not a matter of pennies," the paper quoted one official, Chen Jaifa, as saying.An Shizhi, head of the letters and visits office in Xintai's Quangou township, said officials were under pressure to keep petitioner numbers down."If petitioners bypass local authorities, the head of both the (Communist] party and government get punished," he said.