Saturday, September 20, 2008

An Excursion Into The Scary

As is my wont at this time of year, I am taking some time away from the crappy Presidential campaign (all McCain gaffes all the time; is Obama even a candidate?), to explore various and sundry topics of the paranormal. I did this last year and got some interesting responses. I am opening comments to any honest stories of realsppoky encounters you might have had - no crap, silly things, but really scary stuff, mind - but first I a couple videos. Yesterday morning I spent watching videos of Ghost Hunters that were uploaded to YouTube. A couple actually seemed interesting enough, although not really scary, and I thought I'd share one with you.

Now, this one is not from the TV show, but purports to be from a man videotaping his house. After an initial discovery of something strange on his home video camera, he took to taping as much as possible. What follows is one of two videos he made. This one, to be honest, kind of scares me. I am well aware it could be a fake, but if so, it is a well done fake. Anyway, any stories of scary sounds, sightings - I love that kind of stuff. This is an area where I have a pretty open mind - I am open to skeptics, and to the possibility we are dealing with something real. My own experiences have been few, one very frightening, the others more interesting than really scary.

Saturday Rock Show

Motorhead is an easy band to make fun of. Most of their songs are short, fast, and relatively simple (although I think that simplicity is deceiving). In Lemmy, their lead singer, they have perhaps the ugliest leader in rock. They have been dedicated to being loud, fast, more than rude on occasion, and providing nothing more or less than fun for their fans for decades. On their album Overkill, however, the last track, "Capricorn", is different. I remember the first time I heard it. I thought it was so different, and so good. I offer it here, from their live release, No Sleep Til Hammersmith:

Socializing Failure

I have few thoughts on the collapse of the big investment banks and the roller coaster on Wall Street and around the world. I am waiting to see what happens, if and/or how the proposed rescue attempt by the Fed and Treasure passes and plays out, and if it is at all possible to have an honest discussion about what has led us to this point. I realize there are all sorts of important things to talk about in a Presidential campaign - lipstick on pigs, "respect" and "deference" to candidates, and all the other crap that's swirled around - but it might just be important for someone, somewhere with a louder voice and larger audience than my own to say, "You know, the government does stuff that's important, that impacts our lives, and while some of it is difficult to understand, most of it isn't, but it isn't talked about because some 'expert' somewhere says that people are too stupid to understand it." It might even be true that, on average, the details of the financial disruption this week are beyond the public as a whole. Yet, since it effects most people in some way or other (people have pensions, 401(k)'s; shoot, I've been buying a share of my company's stock a week through their employee stock purchase plan) the issue of whether or not some reader will write in and complain about how difficult it is to understand all the arcana of investment banking and financial instruments, I think an enterprising editor might just feel it important to get some information out there.

As for the proposed bailout (remember, it isn't a done deal, Congress holds the purse strings and even the Republicans in Congress, who loathe Bush now and are not too keen on McCain, either, are more than miffed at the way the proposed AIG bailout was handled), and all the talk of firms being "too big to fail", all I can say is, "bunk". No business is so large that it shouldn't be allowed to collapse, especially if it made poor investment choices, worked under a shoddy business model, or simply ignored prudence and financial wisdom and sought ever greater returns on more and more marginal investments. With the attempt to pump hundreds of billions of dollars to companies that have already proven themselves unable to manage these sums of money wisely before us, a good question might be, "Why are we tossing good taxpayer money after bad private money?" Of course, the answer usually is, "Because they're too big to fail!" I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want my investment adviser telling me to invest in a company about to tank in order to keep it from tanking.

Other than re-imposing Glass-Steagall, buffing up the SEC and reinvigorating the Anti-Trust division of the Justice Department, I really have few thoughts on what should be an on-going response to our current financial woes. In respect to Glass-Steagall, it should be noted that this Depression-era limitation on banking and investment was long hated by many in the Republican Party, although most banks and financial institutions not only learned to live with it but welcomed the security it provided. It was essentially repealed in 1999 by the Gramm-Leach Act (yes, that's right, Phil "Whiners" Gramm, who not only authored this bill, but a whole series of corporate and financial bills that led to Enron and other disasters; as Gramm has a Ph. D. in economics, he is a poster child for why I am not impressed with someone who has an advanced degree; he is still just as stupid as a dead snake). The financial markets were pretty stable and investment houses were quite solid for decades. It took only nine years for them to piss it all away once Glass-Steagall was gone.

Think about that.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Small Towns

I've been taking a breather the past few days because (a) I realized I was far too plugged in to the day-to-day ups and downs of the Presidential race for anyone's good, including my own; and (b) my family, specifically my children, wanted some time with their old man. This post has been brewing for a while, so if it's irrelevant to our current moment, the only thing I can say is that it still needs to be said.

In her acceptance speech, Gov. Palin quoted Westbrook Pegler on the many vaunted virtues of folks from small towns. This theme is an old one in American politics, particularly in recent years as the culture wars have continued apace. It has been a staple of American political culture that urban life not only depersonalizes individuals, it strips them of the values cultivated by family and community. As someone who grew up in a town of around 5,000 people, and who spent his early adulthood in the Washington Greater Metropolitan Area (as it is officially known, encompassing both Washington, DC, its VA and MD suburbs on up to Baltimore and its environs), I can speak to this directly, but have chosen, instead, to use a piece of writing to point up the ridiculous idea that small town folks are inherently more virtuous than city-slickers.

I realize people might chuckle, but 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King is the perfect vehicle for examining the question of the virtues of small town people. If this seems odd, or even absurd, please bear with me as I defend my choice of writing.

This book concerns vampires in a small town in Maine. I first read it in 1978 or so, picking up my sister's copy. The book made me an instant fan of King's writing. One of the things that attracted me to the book, and brings me back time and again to it, is the image he creates of small town life. Growing up in Waverly, I knew the people of whom he spoke. I knew the life of the town. Except for the One Haunted House in town in the book (The Marsten House, which is a real house in Maine, and where the author resides), Jerusalem's Lot could have been Waverly. When I was in college, I realized that the novel was as much about the social psychology, including deviant sociology, of small town life. The characters in the book, even now, do not seem so much caricatures or types as real people I have known - drunks, gossips, outcasts, dedicated teachers who slog through life either beloved or ignored by their students, the whole milieu of middle school life with its social code and hierarchy, the hidden secrets so many people wish to hide, whether criminal or simply marginally deviant. One of the points I think King was making was that small towns would be the perfect place for a vampire to assume control (indeed, the vampire in question, Barlow, makes the point in a general way) because, unlike the rarefied air of urban life, the pressure points in small town life are much more vulnerable. Except for those secrets that lie so far deep, or are so well-hidden, everyone knows most of the life of everyone else, and the guesses at the parts not known are usually pretty good. The extra-marital affairs, the secret sexual longings, the shady business deals, the lives teetering and petering out towards hopelessness and meaninglessness - these are well-known and the topic of much discussion and analysis. A vampire, with the need to puncture the bubble of bonhomie in order to intrude itself in to this fragile web of denial and deceit, would find such a place congenial.

That's what frightened me most. I could easily see my little hometown falling under the spell of a Barlow very easily.

While many in recent years have reverted to a certain series of platitudes concerning the inherent virtues of small town life, I think 'Salem's Lot is a good antidote to the idea that small town life produces people necessarily more virtuous than suburban or urban population centers. The book reminds us that, in fact, the vices, crimes, and desires of residents of small towns are far more visible, and the cracks in the facade we create around our rural communities are far more vulnerable, than in cities.

This is not to say the opposite of Gov. Palin's obviously rhetorical point, viz., that small town folk are somehow inherently more morally vicious than others. Rather, it is to say that small town folks, like everyone else, are a wonderful mixture of good and bad. The major difference, for me, is this - the crystal walls we build around our lives in small towns is much more easily penetrated. Rather than an opaque wall around our private lives, being crystal it is not only more prone to shattering, it also means our private lives are much more visible to those outside.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Richard Wright, RIP

One of the founding members of one of the most influential rock bands of all time died yesterday after a long battle with cancer. Along with Nick Mason, Roger Waters, and Syd Barrett, Richard Wright produced an album in 1967 - Piper at the Gates of Dawn - that rivaled The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band (recorded in the same studio at the same time) for sheer inventiveness. Initially inspired by a combination of the blues and LSD, as well as the limited familiarity with the electronic instruments they were using, Pink Floyd managed some seriously creative music. After Syd Barrett's psychosis reached the unmanageable stage, a childhood friend of his, actor and model David Gilmour, was brought in first to stand in for him in concert, then to replace him full time. The band fiddled and faddled, including producing a couple movie soundtracks and an interesting concept LP, Atom Heart Mother, until 1973's Dark Side of the Moon was released. Giving Roger Waters the room to lead the band maight, in the long run, have given the band both commercial success and internal turmoil, but it also produced a certain amount of darkly wonderful music. When Waters left, the band seemed to end, regrouping under Gilmour's leadership for two more studio releases, A Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell and a combo live CD/DVD, Pulse. Ironically enough, I was watching Pulse on Sunday night, then got a flash email about Wright's passing. Here's "High Hopes", from their last release.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Dow Drops 500 Points

This can only be good news for John McCain.

Adding that McCain's latest line - "fundamentals of economy are strong" = "don't pick on the workers" - makes as much sense as "We've already won in Iraq so we have to stay there until we win". Obviously, employees are still working hard at their jobs, people still need stuff, and all that other day-to-day economics stuff still goes on. When billions of dollars in value disappears in a day, threatening even more losses in the days ahead, however, that kind of empty platitude doesn't mean much. I think people should be reminded that Herbert Hoover tried the same line over and over again, and look where he ended up.

Plugging The Local Church

I haven't done this in a while. A couple years ago, Lisa tossed aside the lectionary and started what for lack of a better word could be called "topical preaching". She has done nothing but a series of worship series since, structured around thematic material. The current worship series is call "Worship is . . ." Yesterday's was particularly good, and you can download and listen by clicking here.

By the way, if anyone out there has any insight in to how to set these up as downloadable podcasts, use the "contact" button on the PGUMC homepage to get in touch with our tech person. That way, you don't have to sit and listen to the thing while you download it.

Thanks ever so much.

Monday Music

OK, it's official. Between the stinking weather and the stinking election - how in the world is John McCain ahead, when all he can do is lie? - I am depressed. There is no better cure for this kind of blues than, well, The Cure.

"Boys Don't Cry"

"Let's Go To Bed"

"Just Like Heaven"

More Of This, And Much Harder (UPDATE)

Here's Obama's new ad. It's OK, but we need about ten variations on this theme in the next five days.

UPDATE: Let's get those outside groups in on it!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Let Us Remember Those In Most Need

I have been obsessing recently with the whole political race, and was reminded, politely enough of course, that there was a little bit of weather in Texas.

I think we should all remember those in need right now. Not just in silent prayers. We should dig as deep as we can to help out. This was bad, much worse, I think, than people anticipated. The fact that there are boats blocking I-45 should be a nice symbol of the road ahead for first responders and others seeking to assist those in need.

Texas needs our help. There are people hurting right now. I think it would be a nice gesture if we all sent a bit that way. Even, perhaps, if not now at some future time, volunteered to go an help rebuild. God knows they just might need it (remember New Orleans?).

Every Woman A Runner-Up Queen

Serendipity plays a part in life. I am currently reading David M. Kennedy's magisterial Freedom From Fear: America in Depression and War, 1929-1945, part of the Oxford University Press series of books on American history. Kennedy, a historian at Stanford, has read and considered everything from economic theory to social and internal migration patterns, absorbed it, and offers a wonderful account of this most turbulent half-generation in American history.

In the early years of Roosevelt's first Administration, there emerged two men more than any others who posed real threats not just to his leadership, but to the course America would take. The first was the Limbaugh-like Radio Priest, Father Coughlin. The other was the colorful, bombastic, autocratic King of Louisiana, Sen. Huey Long. It is difficult to remember the way he captivated the country. Ruling the entire state as his own personal fiefdom, Long in 1932 and 1933 was both Governor and Senator. Refusing to leave his perch in Baton Rouge, he didn't take his seat in Washington until he had maneuvered a replacement. Even then, the entire apparatus of state politics was his to command, and he was ruler in all but name.

He wrote a couple books, too, offering promises not just to the people of Louisiana, but to all Americans, quick, easy nostrums that ignored the harsh realities of economics and politics. He understood in a visceral way that his moment had struck. He treated Roosevelt with disdain, calling him "Frank" in meetings where he refused to remove his hat. He was moving to unseat the President in 1936, not with himself but a conservative Republican who would then create an opportunity for him to run in 1940. Like Joe McCarthy and Tom DeLay (two other near-autocratic politicians), Long had much of the Senate intimidated. Roosevelt felt that he, along with Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur, was among the most dangerous political threats in the country at the time. Long's plans died with him when an assassin's bullet took him down in 1935, so we will never know if Roosevelt could outclass him on the national political stage.

I was thinking of the Long phenomenon yesterday as I considered the contemporary Palin phenomenon. Objectively, considering her actual record and her almost constant lying about everything from earmarks and going to Iraq to the on-going Troopergate scandal, taken as a whole she is a most unworthy candidate for high national office. Yet, she offers a case study in the ways in which a certain amount of physical attractiveness, a certain charismatic presence, an understanding of creating a folksy mythology about oneself can all play a part in creating an image that allows an individual to ignore the dirty realities that might intrude upon it. With that in mind, and with a generous tip of the hat to Josh Marshall for the link, I would insist that you read this piece in The New York Times in its entirety. Here is just a bit:
an examination of her swift rise and record as mayor of Wasilla and then governor finds that her visceral style and penchant for attacking critics — she sometimes calls local opponents “haters” — contrasts with her carefully crafted public image.

Throughout her political career, she has pursued vendettas, fired officials who crossed her and sometimes blurred the line between government and personal grievance, according to a review of public records and interviews with 60 Republican and Democratic legislators and local officials.


Interviews show that Ms. Palin runs an administration that puts a premium on loyalty and secrecy. The governor and her top officials sometimes use personal e-mail accounts for state business; dozens of e-mail messages obtained by The New York Times show that her staff members studied whether that could allow them to circumvent subpoenas seeking public records.

Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska professor, sought the e-mail messages of state scientists who had examined the effect of global warming on polar bears. (Ms. Palin said the scientists had found no ill effects, and she has sued the federal government to block the listing of the bears as endangered.) An administration official told Mr. Steiner that his request would cost $468,784 to process.

When Mr. Steiner finally obtained the e-mail messages — through a federal records request — he discovered that state scientists had in fact agreed that the bears were in danger, records show.

“Their secrecy is off the charts,” Mr. Steiner said.

State legislators are investigating accusations that Ms. Palin and her husband pressured officials to fire a state trooper who had gone through a messy divorce with her sister, charges that she denies. But interviews make clear that the Palins draw few distinctions between the personal and the political.

Last summer State Representative John Harris, the Republican speaker of the House, picked up his phone and heard Mr. Palin’s voice. The governor’s husband sounded edgy. He said he was unhappy that Mr. Harris had hired John Bitney as his chief of staff, the speaker recalled. Mr. Bitney was a high school classmate of the Palins and had worked for Ms. Palin. But she fired Mr. Bitney after learning that he had fallen in love with another longtime friend.

“I understood from the call that Todd wasn’t happy with me hiring John and he’d like to see him not there,” Mr. Harris said.

“The Palin family gets upset at personal issues,” he added. “And at our level, they want to strike back.”

From the same TPM post comes a link to this piece in The Washington Post, covering Gov. Palin's tenure as Mayor of Wasilia.
Palin took office as mayor in October 1996 with a show of force. She fired the museum director and demanded that the other department heads submit resignation letters, saying she would decide whether to accept them based on their loyalty, according to news reports at the time. She clashed with Police Chief Irl Stambaugh over his push for moving bar closing time from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. and for his opposition to state legislation to allow people to carry guns in banks and bars.

In notes that he took during a meeting in Palin's first week on the job, Stambaugh wrote that the new mayor told him "that the NRA didn't like me and that they wanted change," according to the Seattle Times, which reviewed the notes at a federal archive in Seattle. Stambaugh was fired on Jan. 30, 1997, partly, the mayor said, because he had not taken seriously her request for a weekly progress report "on at least two positive examples of work that was started, how we helped the public, how we saved the City money, how we helped the state, how we helped Uncle Sam." Stambaugh filed a wrongful-termination suit, which he lost.

Palin also differed with the librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons. The Frontiersman reported at the time that Palin asked Emmons three times in her first weeks in office whether she would agree to remove controversial books. The librarian said she would not. The McCain campaign has confirmed Palin's questions but said that she never demanded removal of any specific books. Palin also fired Emmons on Jan. 30 but reinstated her after an uproar.

Although the town had a $4 million surplus, Palin cut the museum budget by $32,000, and the three older women who worked there quit instead of deciding which would have to go. But Palin dipped into the budget to create the deputy administrator slot, which some council members complained was at odds with her small-government stance. She told city officials not to talk to reporters.

A recall effort in early 1997 fizzled out, but hard feelings lingered. "Working in small towns, I had never seen someone come in and clean house like that in such a precipitous manner. It was pretty scary and emotional," said Dvorak, the city planner, who left after eight months.

Deuser, the former city attorney, said it was upsetting to hear the McCain campaign refer to Palin's takeover as a matter of getting rid of the "good ol' boy network."

"They were just good public servants who did a really admirable job and deserved better," said Deuser, who was replaced in 1997.

To call these reports "unsettling" is to couch one's feelings in euphemism. While the Times story in particular notes that Gov. Palin has much support across Alaska, it should be clear from a reading of the records contained in these stories that this woman, as I have said previously, is a thug, pure and simple. As Josh notes in the post recommending these two article, Gov. Palin is "a small-minded person who populates her administration with cronies and grade-school friends, fires those who dare to criticize her and uses the power of her office to pursue personal vendettas. In other words, someone in the habit of abusing official power who should not be let within a mile of being president."

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