Monday, January 29, 2007

Dropping in on Earthlings

They seem worn-out, repetitive, even a little passé by now, like a fashion trend from another decade. Even the comedians' quips and the cute newspaper headlines are slightly quaint. I'm talking about UFO reports.

Nevertheless, they still appear. The Chicago Tribune reported (registration required) on Jan. 1, 2007, a sighting at O'Hare Aiprort:
A flying saucerlike object hovered low over O'Hare International Airport for several minutes before bolting through thick clouds with such intense energy that it left an eerie hole in overcast skies, said some United Airlines employees who observed the phenomenon. … The sighting occurred during daylight, about 4:30 p.m., just before sunset.

All the witnesses said the object was dark gray and well defined in the overcast skies. They said the craft, estimated by different accounts to be 6 feet to 24 feet in diameter, did not display any lights. Some said it looked like a rotating Frisbee, while others said it did not appear to be spinning. All agreed the object made no noise and it was at a fixed position in the sky, just below the 1,900-foot cloud deck, until shooting off into the clouds.

"I tend to be scientific by nature, and I don't understand why aliens would hover over a busy airport," said a United mechanic who was in the cockpit of a Boeing 777 that he was taxiing to a maintenance hangar when he observed the metallic-looking object above Gate C17. "But I know that what I saw and what a lot of other people saw stood out very clearly, and it definitely was not an [Earth] aircraft," the mechanic said.
Until recently I had not taken more than a casual interest in UFO phenomena. While by no means a hard-core skeptic, I was repelled by the large volume of quite loony stuff written on the subject — to see what I mean, search under the heading "UFO" — and the nearly inexhaustible claims and theories. It is as though UFOs are similar to Rorschach test ink blots, interpreted according the assumptions and personality anyone brings to them.

I did have some sympathy with whatever serious and level-headed UFO researchers might be out there, since it appeared that they suffered at the hands of the same kind of boneheaded scientists who have held back the progress of psychical research, a field of which I am an amateur devotee. These are the scientists who won't look at evidence if it contradicts their view of fundamental natural laws and what they "know" can and can't be. Robert A. Heinlein compared them to the yokel who saw a rhinocerous for the first time and said, "There ain't no such animal."

Still, I figured I didn't have time to read a dozen books to get my bearings and work out which UFO researchers might be credible and what the evidence suggested. But by luck, synchronicity, mysterious plan or what you will, I happened to run across a copy of Uninvited Guests, by Richard Hall, at a library book sale. The subtitle ("
A Documented History of UFO Sightings, Alien Encounters and Coverups") wasn't entirely promising — conspiracy theories are meat and potatoes to UFO buffs — but I glanced through it anyway. The tone of the writing impressed me as sane, and a glance at the author's bio note told me he'd played major roles in several of the most respected military-sponsored and civilian UFO studies, including the famous National Investigation Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP). So I spent a buck on the book in the hope that this might be the key to the subject that I had been looking for.


Uninvited Guests was published in 1988. Hall has more recently updated it with The UFO Evidence, although it appears from the reviews that he has not basically changed his outlook. Hall strikes me as the right man for the job of collecting and analyzing the bizarre, and often disturbing, evidence of UFO encounters, as well as such alleged phenomena as seeing or being abducted by extraterrestrials. He acknowledges that (as with many psychical phenomena) there is no absolute proof of UFOs or aliens. He agrees that many claimed sightings are the product of unusual natural phenomena or deranged minds.

But — again as in psychical research — unless you believe that hundreds of psychologically normal, not overimaginative and responsible people all over the world are involved in a pointless hoax or were hallucinating for no known reason, they have experienced UFOs.

Hall considers a large number of anecdotes, including stories about bodies of aliens from crashed UFOs kept secretly at military bases. (He's agnostic on that one — there are a few seemingly credible witnesses in the files, but he shows that a video circulated among "saucer" buffs of a supposed alien autopsy is a fraud.) There are discussions of many theories about the nature of UFOs, including such "sophisticated" ones as Carl Jung's that UFOs are some sort of mass projection of archetypes in a contemporary form, or that they are visitors from the past, the future, or a parallel universe. Time travel hypotheses involve well known paradoxes, and Hall quite reasonably points out that to claim UFOs as tourists from "another dimension" or "parallel universe" is logically and scientifically meaningless.

Hall believes that, taking the evidence as a whole into account, the extraterrestrial hypothesis (which UFO researchers abbreviate ETH) is the most likely. He isn't dogmatic about it; it's just that after more than 20 years (at the time of writing) of direct involvement in the subject, checking documentation and reading eyewitness interviews conducted by people known to him to be of sound mind, every other theory requires assumptions that are even harder to swallow than the ETH.

If you are curious about UFO phenomena, but lack the time or inclination for an in-depth study, here are some of the tentative conclusions, observations, and surmises that Hall's book leads to:

1. "Flying saucers" are only one configuration of observed UFO. Most are round (horizontally) and relatively flat (vertically), often with a dome on the top or bottom, sometimes with windows or "portholes" in the dome; but others appear elongated. Some are described as spinning. Color is often silver (matte or reflective), sometimes gray. Colored lights are often reported on the object, and sometimes beams of light emerge from it. Descriptions of size vary widely, from a few feet to hundreds of feet.

2. They maneuver at fantastic trajectories that seem to defy the known laws of physics, and at speeds from hovering to several thousand mph. They may be seen at any altitude but a surprising (to me) number appear near or occasionally at ground level. They play "cat-and-mouse" games, traveling over, in front of, or behind cars or aircraft, often quite close.

3. They are associated with disturbances in electromagnetic fields. In the vicinity of UFOs, engines and electrical equipment frequently stop, then resume when the UFO leaves.

4. Human viewers or experiencers sometimes, though not always, exhibit psychological or physical symptoms afterward.

5. There have been periods of heavy UFO activity interrupted by relative lulls. Sightings go back at least a hundred years, or much longer depending on what evidence you accept, but they started in earnest post-World War II. At first, they just appeared in the sky; then (roughly, in the '60s) began to initiate "close encounters"; later, in the '70s, reports of appearances of aliens and abductions started coming to the fore. In recent years, there have been much-publicized cases of people remembering being probed and studied aboard spaceships, recalled under hypnosis.

6. "Aliens" are often described as little, though not green, men (and sometimes women). They, too, seem to vary considerably in physiology. "Humanoid" is an often-used term. Although most reports speak of creatures only three or four feet high, there are a few reported giants.

What on earth (or not of the earth) are we to make of all this?

Obviously, if UFOs are interplanetary craft, there are many kinds. It also appears that the extraterrestrials, if such they are, are of different species or races.

Why are they here? Their behavior suggests that they are studying us; their motives can hardly be guessed because we don't know anything about their psychology or culture. It is possibly significant that while people who encounter UFOs, particularly those who say they have seen "aliens," are often scared out of their wits, there is little evidence of any overtly hostile activity on the intruders' part. While the ETs have technology far in advance of our own, Hall suspects they are not omniscient. (If they were, why would they need to study humans?) He thinks it possible that even some of the terrifying examinations and occasional damage to equipment might be the result of ignorance or clumsiness ("Oops, that needle in the navel was not supposed to hurt"; "that plane got too close and we didn't mean to damage it").

Hall (and many other UFO researchers) speculate that the UFO crews are preparing us for an eventual meeting, getting us used to the idea gradually so we won't be totally shocked and panicked when the time comes. The evidence so far does indicate that with the astonishing technology available to them, these ETs could clean our clocks with no trouble at all if some War of the Worlds type of invasion was on their minds, and they haven't.

All this, mind you, is speculation. But as speculation goes, Hall's seems to be as sensible as any, and a lot more so than much of it about this perplexing subject.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The world (that's Dar-al-Islam, children) is round (as the Arabs knew in the Middle Ages)

Damn, blast, and bugger. Thought I was doing everything possible to avoid becoming a retinopath. All that lutein and zeaxanthin I've ingested to preserve my peepers, and they're still taking me for a chump. Want a good laugh? I opened up the on-line edition of the Daily Mail from London, and my optic nerves did the shimmy. I imagined I saw a headline that said: "New curriculum will 'make every lesson politically correct.'"

Now, get this: I imagined I read —

Children will be taught race relations and multiculturalism with every subject they study - from Spanish to science - under controversial changes to the school curriculum announced by the Government. In music and art, they could have to learn Indian and Chinese songs and instruments, and West African drumming. In maths and science, key Muslim contributions such algebra and the number zero will be emphasised to counter Islamophobia.

And in English, pupils will study literature on the experiences of migration - such as Zadie Smith's novel White Teeth, or Brick Lane, by Monica Ali.

Okay, I know it's just my eyes playing tricks, but what if it were true? Imagine Dickens's Professor Gradgrind in one of today's British schools.

"Facts. Facts. That's what's what and never you forget it, lads — and I assure you, my colleage, Mrs Snapdragon, is telling her students in the young women's class the same. All human civilisation came from Africa. The Arab Muslims invented numbers. Facts! Back in the third century after Muhammed (pbuh), or what we used to call the 10th century, Arabian astronomers were launching space shuttles while Europeans were walking on all fours and digging for nuts and roots. All of you, barring the multicultural among you — hmm, I guess that leaves Rodney and Charles — are descended from British people who painted their faces blue and enslaved all the world's non-blue peoples. A thousand years of diversity won't be enough to wash away that stain. Facts, I tell you!"

Doctor, my eyes need looking at. And that's a fact.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Is El Presidente backing down on amnesty?

"We need to uphold the great tradition of the melting pot that welcomes and assimilates new arrivals. We need to resolve the status of the illegal immigrants who are already in our country — without animosity and without amnesty." George W. Bush, State of the Union speech, January 23

Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, thinks he perceives signs in the speech that Bush is dialing down the saccharine rhetoric about all those your-land-is-my-land "migrants" and is notably less confident about what he can get in an immigration bill. Beck comments, in an action alert to the e-mail list, on the quote above:
To our President, the tradition of the melting pot apparently means we have to take away the stigma of illegality from those foreigners who have violated our laws to be here!

But here is the place in the speech where the President and his speechwriters obviously got cold feet. What is the term "resolve." Notice that he didn't dare use the terms "earned legalization" or "regularize" or "legalize." But "resolve?" He is not talking about "resolving" the illegal alien problem. No, he wants to "resolve" their "status."

Now, you and I might want to resolve whether the person is an illegal alien, and once doing that, begin deportation proceedings. But I don't think that is what the President wants to resolve. Again, the fundamental problem with Pres. Bush and his advisors is that they believe the problem with illegal aliens is their "status." If they just weren't illegal, they would be wonderful to have, according to them.

To NumbersUSA, the primary problem with illegal aliens is not that they are illegal but that they are here -- all 12 million of them crowding our infrastructures, congesting our quality of life, helping drive the destruction of natural habitat, farmland and open spaces, and driving down wages and benefits in the occupations where they settle. They aren't primarily bad people. But they are 12 million people who aren't supposed to be here. We don't need them. Their presence harms Americans.

But the President wants to "resolve" their status -- which I am sure means that he wants them to remain in our communities forever.
Beck analyzes the other references to immigration in the speech, and the style in which they were delivered. He askes, "Did he look like he really wanted to be talking about immigration on national TV tonight? He got in and out fast. It was almost like he couldn't wait to start talking about energy."

I like Roy Beck and I have contributed to his organization. He understands that "illegal immigration" is a phony issue — if the "illegal" part were all there was, we could solve it in an instant, by making the illegals legal. That, basically, is the argument the president and his masters in the corporate world want us to swallow. But NumbersUSA, as its name implies, puts the focus where it needs to be: on the numbers. Why does our country, whose population has increased by 100 million in 35 years, need another couple of hundred million — a widely quoted estimate of what will happen if the open borders lobbyists get their hearts' desire. Don't we have enough environmental problems already? There's not a one of them that isn't caused, or worsened, by overpopulation.

The only reasons for millions of "guest workers" are to keep labor costs as low as possible for big businesses (while they pass the social costs of a Third World proletariat onto the public treasury) and the belief on the part of both parties that they can buy the votes of a huge hispanic bloc.

It's not a done deal yet, though. And there's hope the American public, which was supposed to be a clutch of suckers and pushovers, is beginning to make even Sombrero George feel the heat.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The last days of free Britain

The recent U.K. Channel 4 "Dispatches" program has received a lot of attention -- except in the country most directly concerned -- but I'm not sure how many people elsewhere have actually seen it; I don't think it has been broadcast anywhere else. But the blog "State of the Oldest Nation," based in India, has made it available on YouTube, at least until YouTube's owner, left-leaning Google, removes it. Click here to view it.

Shocking stuff? To you and me, maybe, but not in the U.K. The media there, other than Channel 4, have scarcely mentioned it and the dhimmi politicians, in a self-debasing contest for the Muslim vote, dare not take any notice. Today's jellyfish Brits can't be bothered to worry about domestic imams who'd like to cut their throats for them. They have more important things on what passes for their minds: binge drinking, gambling, and football, all at the same time if possible.

It's hard to doubt that life has become so awful in the U.K. that most people there would just as soon opt out. Freedom? What a drag. A Muslim dictatorship and sharia law? Bring it on.

Can this be the country that produced Shakespeare and Johnson and Chesterton and countless other credits to mankind, that gave the lifeblood of many of its citizens to stop Hitler? No. It is not that country.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Warning: Unfiltered information

We bloggers are really getting under the skin of the journalistic priesthood. I was on about this just the other day, and here's another viewing-with-alarm newspaper column about how the little minds out in the Republic are in danger from "unfiltered" information — unfiltered, of course, meaning "stuff that journalists can't control." Ben Bova writes:
Anybody can write anything he or she wants to and post it on a blog or a Web site, or send it out as an e-mail message to anyone and everyone the writer knows. Anyone can read as much material as he or she wants to. There are no filters, no fact-checkers, no arbiters of taste or manners, no one to object to abusive language or foul words or just plain lies. …

In earlier eras, communications generally went through filters. There were almost always editors in the loop whose job it was to make certain that the writing — or broadcast, in the case of radio and television — was understandable, factually accurate, and in good taste.

If all editors did was what he says, he might have a point. Actually, few media even bother with such reasonable steps today. How many newspapers or broadcasters actually have "fact checkers"? The game is about getting the story out before the opposition; at most, a newspaper or TV producer might run a story through the legal department if there is any question of libel. Did the "respectable" New York Times check Jayson Blair's stories datelined from places far from where he actually was? Did CBS fact check Dan Rather's phony National Guard document?

But Bova's weaseling goes further. He confuses two completely different functions, copy editing (checking spelling, grammar, following the house style guide, etc.) versus the real "filtering" that goes on in the legacy media: the editors and publishers in corner offices who decide what is legitimate news or opinion that the public is entitled to see, and what is to be withheld. For instance, a couple of years ago an editor on some Pennsylvania rag announced that, supposedly after much soul searching, he was no longer going to publish Ann Coulter's column. The reason: she was an "extremist."

Editors and publishers believe that views — and often, plain facts — that don't fit into a standard ideological template are dangerous, per se. One and all, they imagine themselves to be "centrists" when they actually have their own biases in favor of political correctness, reverse discrimination, the Democratic Party, open borders and various other positions. They are centrists only in that their particular biases are widespread, not necessarily in the country at large, but among other people in their profession.

So they see it as a large part of their mission to make sure that the public isn't exposed to "wrong" ideas that might corrupt them.

There is no reason to have an exalted opinion of the public's ability to assess the truth or make good decisions. But editors who believe they ought to determine what reaches the public are no more wise or objective than anyone else. The editor-in-chief or publisher of a newspaper hasn't spent his life studying history, philosophy, spirituality, politics, the scientific method, the arts, or any other useful discipline. His career history consists of interviewing people who may be pig ignorant, writing stories to meet deadlines, and playing office politics to be promoted to that corner office. But Bova thinks that he and others like him ought to determine what is "fit to print."

Bova was upset because "
my grandson (age 12 at the time) read on an Internet site that the government is lying about the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon. With graphics and supposedly expert testimony, the site purported to show that the Pentagon was not hit by a hijacked airliner, but by a missile fired by the Department of Defense itself. I looked at the presentation and it was pretty convincing, as far as it went. It’s easy to prove a point when you don’t allow any contradictory evidence to be presented."

Yes. Just like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the rest of the mainstream media. The Times allows no uncouth dissent in its pages to confuse tender liberal minds; The Post has one tame "conservative" in George Will.

Bova should have said to his grandson something like this:

"As you go through life, you'll find that the world is full of people with different opinions and different shadings of opinion. There aren't two sides to every question; there are as many sides to every question as there are people with ideas about it. Some opinions will strike you as crazy, others will seem crazy but those who hold them may offer what looks like convincing evidence. You'll discover that for every subject, there is a 'conventional wisdom' — that is, a standard view held by most 'experts' and people who imagine themselves to be experts, like journalists. In controlled media, like newspapers, magazines, and TV networks, this 'conventional wisdom' with slight variations or disagreement on minor points is all you'll hear. When you go on the Internet and whatever other uncontrolled media may pop up in the future, there will be a far wider variety of facts and ideas. There isn't much hierarchy, and anybody can publish what they damn please.

"What you see and read on the uncontrolled media will range from brilliant unconventional insight to dull platitudes to crackpot theories, only there will be no 'higher authority' like in the mainstream media to tell you which is which or keep you from knowing about anything they disapprove of. To reach any tentative conclusions, you're going to have to start from the position that nobody, yourself included, knows all the answers going in. Crackpots are mostly what they seem, but occasionally not. The conventional wisdom is sometimes right, maybe usually, but remember that it's basically just a machine that adds up the votes.

"In short, young man, you're going to have to do what successful cultures have always relied on their citizens to do. You're going to have to think."

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The gang's all here (thanks to open borders)


Los Angeles County is fighting gang warfare, it says.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky joined together at the LAPD's North Hollywood station to unveil a $500,000 program that will assign one probation officer to each of the department's six Valley divisions. The program will begin Feb. 5, they said, and will allow authorities to quickly identify and arrest suspects who violate terms of their probation. … While the mayor and Yaroslavsky focused on violence in the Valley, City Councilwoman Janice Hahn said she may ask voters to approve a parcel tax or sales tax increase to provide $50 million to fight the estimated 40,000 gang members in Los Angeles.
According to the L.A. Daily News, "There are about 100,000 gangsters in more than 1,300 gangs in Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties. They make up less than 1 percent of the population but commit at least half the region's homicides — taking the lives of nearly 3,100 people in Southern California since 1999, more than three times the number of U.S. casualties in the war in Iraq." If you want to see what this looks like in LA's suburban San Fernando Valley, click the interactive map headed "Valley homicides" in the link above and select "For 2006 homicides … " right under the map. Each of those 86 numbered pins shows the site of a gang killing. That's just the San Fernando Valley, which only a generation ago was a peaceful, if uninspiring, middle-class area; to find the real hot spots, you'd need to look at East LA and South Central.

The Daily News quotes
Dr. Gary Slutkin, director and professor of epidemiology and international health at the University of Illinois at Chicago: "It's what we'd call a situation out of control; it's like war ... It's like 'Apocalypse Now."'

Yes, it is; but to the Liberal Establishment, it's business as usual. The response is scripted. Raise taxes to "fight" the gangs; hire more social workers — six, count 'em, six new probation officers.

"A report released last Friday by respected civil rights lawyer Connie Rice criticized the area's piecemeal approach to gang crime and called for a comprehensive solution with a single agency headed by a gang czar with enough 'political clout' to cut through red tape and coordinate prevention and intervention services," the paper reports.

"They are living in a pressure cooker and the way society has managed this group is by adding more pressure," says Dr. Slutkin. "The only way to relieve this is to put something around them that allows them to release it that doesn't push back. Our outreach workers are trained to do that. Somebody has to make sense to them about what's going on."

Sorry, but a half dozen more probation officers and more "prevention and intervention services" and "outreach" aren't going to to make a scratch in the widespread blood sacrifice. I can't imagine what Dr. Slutkin wants to "put around" these young thugs "to release it that doesn't push back" — the sentence is grammatically and logically opaque; but whatever his outreach workers are trained to do, it will be at best a band aid. This is war, and social services don't win wars. Even better policing doesn't win wars. You win wars by eliminating the enemy, one way or another.

No, I don't propose a campaign of killing gang bangers, even though they are all potential or actual murderers. Let's get to the … wait for it … root cause of the problem. That's illegal and legal immigration from Mexico. Sure, there are black gangs (probably having a hard time holding their turf these days) and maybe a few white gangs, but the great majority of these vicious criminals are Mexicans who either got to LA by subterfuge or attained automatic U.S. citizenship by going to the trouble of being born (in a U.S. hospital, at U.S. taxpayers' expense).

Of course, in our p.c. society, you can't acknowledge such truths. So instead of a campaign to deport illegals for any crime, from illegal drug possession to overparking, and damming up the river of "migrants" from Mexico who will not and probably cannot become honest American citizens, we play the same old scratchy record: hire more sociological bureaucrats, concoct more "intervention" programs administered by otherwise unemployable academics, tell the police to police harder and blame them when it doesn't work. Meanwhile, gang homicide continues to vacuum up lives — in many cases, of immigrants themselves. They are victims, all right, but not primarily of the gangs. Our politicians are willing to see them fall to bullets, shotgun pellets, and knives rather than break the code of silence about the real results of "diversity" at all costs.

I am conscious that, under time pressure, these postings are not always as logically watertight as they might be. There are gaps that ideally should be filled in.

When I wrote, "This is war, and social services don't win wars," that might have sounded like hyperbole. While no one can doubt that these gangs are at war with one another, the level of violence, which sometimes spills over into random killings of "civilians" for racial and ethnic reasons, is a war against society. No nation worthy of the name can have "no go" areas in its major cities, gangs that are so large, so well armed, and so organized that they are effectively rebel armies. It may not be their intention, but these gangs with their ceaseless clashing and killing are declaring that they are outside the law, that they make the law of the streets.

We need to acknowledge this reality if any progress is to be made. These aren't juvenile delinquents or mixed-up kids, who can be saved by counseling. They are a criminal subculture without any moral sense, unless you can call loyalty to their own gang morality. Their daily employment is hard drug smuggling and sales, spiced up with homicide now and then.

I would bet money that if the authorities checked every time they busted a gangster, they'd find that more than half of the hispanic ones are illegals. They should be deported forthwith, along with their illegal family members. And while the LA police can't do anything about our insane "birthright citizenship," which ensures that any woman who can make it across the border to bear her children guarantees them U.S. citizenship, California's representatives in Congress should lead the movement to abolish automatic citizenship for the scions of lawbreakers.

But they won't, of course. For various reasons, they want to keep the Mexican influx going. They are accessories before and after the fact. For political and financial advantage, they wake up every morning with blood -- including that of innocents caught in the crossfire -- on their hands.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Trust but verify

To be a critic in the old days, you had to have a list of intellectual credentials as long as your arm and be employed by a newspaper or a magazine. Now, everyone's a critic, and media outlets themselves are in the crosshairs. The burgeoning world of the Internet is filled with people - some qualified, many not - who call themselves media critics. Their stock in trade is, in many cases, abuse, and their targets are the traditional media they'd like to replace.
Nick Madigan, The Baltimore Sun, January 14, 2007

A word in your ear, Nick?

Let me admit, straight off, that although I have two degrees, neither is in journalism or media studies or whatever intellectual credentials it takes to write a column for The Baltimore Sun. I am clearly not qualified to call myself a media critic. And I am not here to abuse you. How difficult your world must be these days, after you have no doubt spent years deciding what is and isn't news, and what criticism may be expressed and what may not. I can understand that it doesn't steady your nerves when those who are not ordained get it into their heads that media people can have unexamined assumptions — "biases" is the term sometimes used — that affect their news coverage.

You lay bare your hurt feelings when you write, "
Some media criticism sites are widely respected within the profession for their care in checking facts and balancing the comments of critics with responses." Please accept my sympathy. No one should have to accept scrutiny or, God help them, criticism from anyone outside their profession! Least of all a journalist. After all, only another journalist knows how tough it is — as one you quote says, "Traditional journalism has dug a bit of this hole itself, with that imperious 'We're delivering the truth to you every day' attitude,' he said. 'We all knew they were putting out what the reporter could cobble together on deadline.'"

That's bad enough for one media person to endure in a lifetime, but I can scarcely imagine your pain when what one of your interviewees calls a "self-appointed critic" isn't just going on about loose ends not tied up under deadline pressure, or even frauds like Jayson Blair and Janet Cooke, but about slanted news. Everyone knows reporters are middle-of-the-road, split-the-difference, anti-extremist types, careful to give each side its due. How could anyone possibly imagine any contrast in tone between "older organizations like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a 'national media watch group' that refers to itself as progressive" and "the Media Research Center, whose self-proclaimed conservatism dictates its denunciations … ."

Fortunately, as you note, there are real media watchdogs, a far cry from those unlicensed bloggers, to point out when newspapers go too far in, for example, shading stories to make illegal immigrants or minority-group killers look bad.
Florin's NewsTrust site aims to spotlight excellence. Funded by The Global Center, a nonprofit educational foundation established by Rory O'Connor, a documentary filmmaker and journalist, News Trust hopes to help support itself by offering media outlets its rating service, which would enable readers and viewers to rate stories based on criteria such as fairness, objectivity, factual evidence, clarity and relative importance.
Thank goodness for "professionally edited" sites! NewsTrust wants to make sure we don't overlook any of the media they've anointed for excellence: magazines like Mother Jones and The New York Review of Books; newspapers like The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Observer; "TV sources" like Democracy Now, PBS, and BBC News; and wire services like Reuters, the Associated Press, and Agence France Presse. Only there's something about all those "top rated" sources — I can't quite put my finger on it. Not to worry at all, though, Nick. I'm one of those unqualified commentators on other Internet sites who are, in your words, "far less careful" than NewsTrust.

Oh, by the way, Nick … that word in your ear. The NewsTrust site spells its name with the words "bumped" — no space in between. Journalists are supposed to notice little things like that, and I can't imagine a copy editor on an excellent paper like The Baltimore Sun messing up your careful work. Please don't take this as criticism. I know you just had to cobble your piece together to meet a deadline.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Flying Fox

flying fox edit

This is a small, "back-of-the-book" ad from an aeronautical magazine of 1949. (The faint secondary image in print-through from the other side of the page.)


It's interesting as a tiny window into another time and place. What can we deduce from this?

1. At least for minor "name recognition" ads in postwar England, the basics of typesetting (as we think of them now) weren't considered very important. None of the lines are centered, even in relation to one another. Kerning, to make letters of different sizes appear to be evenly spaced, never crossed the typographer's mind.

2. On the other hand, the Flying Fox logo is delightful: a quasi-geometric, post-Art Deco fantasy. This was a decade before corporations started going in for meaninglessly abstract logos that were the equivalent of Bauhaus architecture, untouched by human hands. The Flying Fox, as befits a steel manufacturer's symbol, is dignified but symbolizes motion (because the company's products were used mainly in aircraft?) and induces that mythological tingle we feel when kinds of animal are combined, as in a centaur or sphinx.

3. These "electric steels" (I'm not up enough on steel technology to tell you what that means) were made in Sheffield, where "The Full Monty" was set in a post-industrial wasteland. But, obviously, in 1949 the city still had a reason for being: they made things there.

4. The company had very likely been founded, probably in the 19th century, by one S. Fox. His descendants had been bought out by a bigger firm, United Steel Companies.

Googling "Flying Fox Electric Steels" or "S. Fox & Co." yields no useful results. I wonder if anyone in Sheffield today remembers them. United Steel Companies is listed on the site of the Durham Mining Museum; apparently it mined its own coal for its steelworks. It was nationalized in 1947 under Britain's Socialist government, although the board doesn't seem to have changed much from that of 1940, and as we have seen, it was still running adverts in shameless capitalist fashion.

As a note on the bizarre socio-political status of Britain at the time, it can be seen that this government-owned corporation was still headed by a baronet -- the bottom rung of the English artistocracy, but still, an aristo. Nor had the proletariat seen off the Right Honourable
W.S. Morrison, M.C., K.C., M.P. from his director's chair.

The director lists for 1940 and 1947 show where captains of industry lived. J. Henderson was at home at
44 Campden Hill Gate, London, W.8. I can place that: it's in Kensington, still a tony district, and I've been to a meeting of the Society for Psychical Research in the Campden Hill Library. Residences of other board members offer the flavour of Old England: The Manor House, Tittensor, Stoke-on-Trent; High Rogerscale, Lorton, Cockermouth, Cumberland; 4b Fredericks Place, Old Jewry, London, E.C.2 (I bet "Old Jewry" has since passed out of use); Chetwode Priory, Buckinghamshire.

So it was, in the day of the Flying Fox.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Hope over experience

Samuel Johnson described a second marriage as a triumph of hope over experience.

This headline illustrates another such hope:

Islam Urged to Accept Enlightenment

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Provincial reconstruction

Bush is expected to announce plans to double the number of provincial reconstruction teams and call for big new job and loan programs and a renewed reconstruction effort. … Senior U.S. officials are calling for an increase in civilian workers to accompany the expected addition of up to 20,000 troops.
Los Angeles Times, January 10, 2007

With Democrats now in charge on Capitol Hill, a 700-mile fence that swept through the previous Republican-controlled Congress is apt to come under a scathing re-evaluation amid reports of skyrocketing costs and widening opposition along the U.S.-Mexican border. … The growing outcry from local officials parallels renewed concerns over costs following a report that the price tag for building and maintaining the fencing could reach nearly $50 billion over a 25-year period.

Sacramento Bee, January 10, 2007

Tucson, Mexizona, Cinco de Mayo, 2015 — President Jeb Bush-Gonzales has announced a 20 trillion Amero ($50 billion) plan, to be implemented over the next 25 years, to counter the insurgency by Americans in the lawless regions of Southwest Mexico del Norte.

"We've been relying too much on the National Guard to protect Mexican migrants seeking a better life in Mexico del Norte," said Bush-Gonzales in a speech to the National Aztlan Conference of Hidalgos. "Even with 20,000 additional troops being dispatched to the area to counter the dead-ender American loyalists, we need to look at the big picture. This plan will deal with the root causes of disorder — lack of Spanish-language proficiency, Anglo extremists who recruit young men in schools funded by Australians, entire urban blocks without a single taqueria."

The Bush-Gonzales initiative calls for major civilian involvement, including 100,000 social workers to provide counseling and administer welfare payments to the unemployed, who have grown to 90 percent of the state population since the Amnesty Bill (officially called the Guest Worker Bill) was passed in 2007. In addition, they will perform outreach in remote areas of Old Mexico and Central America where residents may not be fully aware of the opportunities up north.

"It isn't enough that our new Mexican Americans aren't doing the work that Americans won't not do," Bush noted. "We need to make sure there aren't underserved populations that are denied the opportunity to not do the work that Mexican Americans are not doing that Americans won't do."

Family values don't stop at the border, the president said, "because there is no border."

Critics scoffed at the idea of building a fence around Southwest Mexico del Norte to prevent intrusions by American militants. "We blew 468,677,200,299,218,348.204.98 Ameros trying to bring hearts and minds to Iraq," said Alberto Q. Indigenos, El Jefe de Ciudads Unidos de Calexico. "Now we need to look after our homies. We must provide jobs programs for gringos so there will be more work they won't do, so there will be more work for our people to not do."

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The list, updated again

This one only covers the first 10 months of 2006, so it's probably shorter than the earlier lists I've linked to. Or not. If you're feeling a little slow today and want more evidence before you jump to any conclusions, try the ones for 2005 and 2004.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Acting our age

It can easily be argued that greatness in the fine arts has come and, mostly, gone. Really: would you claim that anything being done today in sculpture rivals ancient Greece or the Renaissance? That today's "classical" music is on a par with that of the 18th and 19th centuries? That hip-hop rivals songs by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, or Harold Arlen? That contemporary painting -- well, you get the idea.

It occurred to me -- not for the first time -- while watching a couple of movies on DVD last week that the only art form that, as a whole (not just in a few individual examples), is experiencing a genuine, 24-karat Golden Age now is film acting.

The reason for it is a mystery to me. Better acting schools? Better film directors? More demanding audiences? (Nah, not that.) I first began to notice a significant improvement during my last stint as a paid film reviewer in 1990. It wasn't a matter of a few big stars, like in previous eras. (Anyway, most of the stars of, say, the '30s and '40s just had strong personalities they could project on screen, which isn't the same as acting. There were a handful of exceptions, mostly English stage players, but most of the so-called acting in movies until recently was either dull or scenery-chewing obviousness.) More and more, I began to notice extremely professional work, in lead roles, supporting roles, even in bit parts.

Admittedly, now that I no longer watch movies and write about them as a journalist, I'm pretty selective about what I choose to see. Still, even in the mediocre films or downright turkeys that I inadvertently let myself in for from time to time, there are almost always one or more performances that leave me thinking, "Gee, too bad he (she) didn't have a better script to work with."

days 2
Maggie Cheung in "Days of Being Wild"

Wong Kar-Wai's "Days of Being Wild" was the first of my cinematic adventures last week. I've been seeing Wong's movies in reverse chronological order, having first encountered this director's work in his brilliant "2046." Later I caught up with the earlier "In the Mood for Love," and found it, too, exceptional, if not as stylistically and thematically powerful as "2046."

"Days of Being Wild" is from earlier still (1991). An accomplished piece of work, with (once again) the benefit of Christopher Doyle's seductive cinematography, it's nevertheless more conventional than "2046" or "Mood," a love pentangle that's only a step or two above soap opera. (I'm also getting a little tired of Wong's Old Hollywood cliché of dramatizing scenes by shooting them in buckets of rain.)

But lordy, what performances by the five leads, with the
young Maggie Cheung first among equals. They are totally in character all the time, in synch with one another, no excess gestures or blank spots.

Where did such virtuosity spring from? I don't think that China has any tradition of naturalistic, Western-style acting. It's as though it just emerged, ex nihilo. No doubt the potential was there all the time, but it needed the right combination of circumstances, whatever those were. One reason is easy to guess: Wong Kar-Wai is a thumping good actor's director.

Gabrielle 2

In the French film "Gabrielle," Jean Hervey (Pascal Greggory) introduces himself to us via a voice-over in which he self-satisfiedly glides over the past 10 years of his life: how he met his wife Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert), decided she would be the perfect accompanist for his rise in the haute bourgeoisie -- the house has about eight maidservants -- his knack for making money, and how their dinner parties now attract the well-to-do plus some artistic types for a little spice. He arrives at their antique-laden home unexpectedly early to find a letter from Gabrielle informing him that she is leaving him to be with another man. While Jean is digesting that shock, his carefully constructed world having been torn asunder, he receives another: Gabrielle returns. She couldn't go through with it. Most of the rest of the film, based on a Joseph Conrad story, is virtually a two-hander as Jean and Gabrielle grapple with their emotional upheavals individually and together.

"Gabrielle" annoyed me straightaway. The setting, to judge by the clothing, hair, and
décor styles, is Paris just before the Great War -- about 1912. But as Jean walks home from the train station delivering his smug monologue, there are two shots with automobiles dating from the late 1920s. I hate such anachronisms in period pieces. Although this was a comparatively big budget film (Isabelle Huppert doesn't exactly make minimum wage, and the thing was shot in a widescreen 2.35-to-1 aspect ratio), it's possible the production designer couldn't obtain cars of the correct vintage. In that case, though, why not just use carriages instead? There were plenty of them still on the streets, even in ritzy Paris, at the time.

The director, Patrice
Chéreau, plays other silly tricks. The film switches from color to black-and-white periodically, for no discernible reason. He puts continuity information (e.g., "Le lendemain," the next day) in huge superimposed lettering, or sometimes in white type on a black background, as in a silent film. Although Chéreau has made quite a few films before, he still apparently doesn't have the confidence to do without arty gimmicks.

It's too bad, because when he does play it straight -- and, in fairness, that's most of the time -- he knows how to squeeze the maximum juice out of a scene. For one example: Gabrielle is being tended to by one of her maids, Yvonne, but is still so shaken up by her own behavior that she feels a need to reveal some of her feelings to the maid. What follows is a little masterpiece of psychological observation: Gabrielle talks to Yvonne as to another human being; then, as if she remembers their relative social positions and is ashamed at opening up to a servant, turns insolent; then, unable to help herself, asks Yvonne personal questions; again becomes haughty toward Yvonne because of her own breach of the social code. Meanwhile, Yvonne's responses are equally uncertain, from the reverse perspective, not sure how to handle such confidences from her employer.

Mostly, though, "Gabrielle" is about Jean and Gabrielle, each trying to work out what this rupture of their habitual life means to them. They wheel from anger to shame to regret and, in Jean's case, to something like pleading. And while their shifting moods aren't always different from one another's, they don't match at the same time. I don't know how much of the script comes from Conrad's story, but some of it feels bracingly authentic. Both of these characters are, in their own ways, fools for love, but neither understands how to handle love.

French films can be too subtle for their own good, especially when they consist largely of cold, intellectual dialogue. In "Gabrielle," though, the subtlety mostly pays off, because the two leading actors let you know what they're trying to say, even when they can't. And the film respects their ambivalence. It isn't a simple-minded sermon about how repressed these people are and how they'd be sorted out if only they'd learn to express their feeeeelings. Part of the reason you empathize with Jean and Gabrielle is that they continue to honor self-control and dignity, even in the breach.

Greggory is persuasive as Jean, but it's Huppert you'll remember. I must have seen her in a couple of dozen films, but she has never acted better, or been more beautiful -- although she must be well into her 50s -- than here. She delivers a performance of astonishing insight, variety, and depth. Watching her in "Gabrielle" can sometimes tear you up. I mean that, of course, as a great compliment.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Visa lottery: Free tickets to the Promised Land!

U.S. Department of State Form 062236394652,
Notice of Prize: U.S. Citizenship.
Odds of winning: 50,000 out of 6.4 million.

The New York Daily News, a trashy tabloid, carries an "Immigration Advice" column in its print edition (no link that I could find). According to the December 28 column:
The U.S. Department of State reported that it received more than 6.4 million entries for the 50,000 visas available through [the] 2008 Diversity Visa Lottery. … Adding entrants' family members, more than 10 million people are trying to get permanent residence through this year's lottery. The largest number of applicants were from Bangladesh (more than 1.7 million applicants), followed by Nigeria (684,735) and Ukraine (619,584).
In other words, the U.S. government believes the country is so lacking in diversity that it must hand out 50,000 "citizenships" plus thousands of additional "citizenships" for the lucky winners' families every year. I put "citizenships" in quotes because using this terminology turns the very concept of citizenship into a joke: a lottery prize, based on nothing whatever except the desire of millions of people deemed sufficiently diverse to come soak up whatever they can from the legacy of wealth created by earlier generations of Americans. It's a better deal than an Irish Sweepstakes ticket, which you have to pay for (and pay taxes on your winnings).

When I was in New York last week, I rode the city buses and subways. Of the conversations I overheard, perhaps one of five was in English. True, some of the people I heard may have been tourists from non-English speaking countries, but it cuts both ways: some of the English speakers might have been English-speaking, or English-as-a-second-language-speaking, American tourists.

But maybe Bangladeshis, Nigerians, and Ukranians were, as the liberal quota hawks like to say, "underrepresented" in the subway crush. So, based on the logic of social engineering, we must hand out "citizenship" so that every nationality is found in the United States in strict proportion to its percentage of the world population. If, let us say, Madagascar has 0.35 percent of the people on earth, we must send out a dragnet to bring in enough Madagascarans to make them 0.35 percent of the United States population.

A few dozen more Diversity Visa Lotteries and the quaintly termed United States will be … wait for it … the whole world in microcosm! We are the world! All we need to add to the mix is to lure Kofi Annan out of retirement (we can easily offer him a rakeoff to top what he skimmed from UN programs) as our leader, with a few dozen old Brussels hands to write our laws, triple the number of government agencies and quangos, and Heaven on Earth is ours.

Play the planetary lottery. You could win a country as a prize. Hey, you never know.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

(Micro)soft in the head

In today's Wall Street Journal, personal technology guru Walter S. Mossberg kicks off the Great Leap Forward re-education camp on behalf of Microsoft Office 2007's "bold redesign." He's in Mr. Softee's amen chorus, but even he says of Office's "radical revision":
I don't use the word "radical" lightly. The entire user interface, the way you do things in these familiar old programs has been thrown out and replaced with something new. In Word, Excel and PowerPoint, all of the menus are gone — every one. None of the familiar toolbars have survived, either. In their place is a wide, tabbed band of icons at the top of the screen called the Ribbon. And there is no option to go back to the classic interface.
Got that? Remember how you struggled to grasp Microsoft's new programs and operating systems when they began to fence in the range in the early '90s? All those classes and tutorials and remedial reading — "how to" books you paid for to help you understand what was supposed to be so "intuitive" and user friendly with "Help" menus that would leap to your aid the second you typed in a question? (Maybe you found the whole brain circus exhilarating, but quite a few of us turned prematurely gray or had to be gently led off, gibbering, to a care facility for slipped hard disk victims.)

Ah, but we persisted; the prospect of becoming technologically unemployed concentrates the mind wonderfully. We learned what we needed, and came to appreciate some of it. I can't imagine a writer whose quality of life hasn't been improved by word processing.

And now, instead of being permitted by Mr. Softee to relax and enjoy our hard-won computer skills, we're going to be sent back to basic training. More classes fronted by drill sergeant instructors ramming new technobabble into our heads. More hours heads-down in manuals that explain what's supposed to be so much easier to use. More newspaper and magazine columns answering questions from Office Nought Seven
newbies reduced to plaintive desperation: "Every time I go to Level Three on the Ribbon, activate the System Articulation and select Flow Screen, the program spawns Triple Witching Frames and downcompensates a Message Analogue that indicates I have encountered a baseless time error and tells me to come back after lunch. What can I do to correct this problem before the boss gets in a 8 a.m. tomorrow and wants my report?"

Even Mr. Mossberg, the very model of the Digital Wiz, who approves Microsoft's No User Left Unconfused initiative, confesses: "It [the redesign] requires a steep learning curve that many people might rather avoid. In my own tests, I was cursing the program for weeks because I couldn't find familiar functions and commands, even though Microsoft provides lots of help and guidance."

Technology company managers and software designers have a steep learning curve of their own, and a goodly number of them are flat where the curve should be. They never seem to figure out that what 95 percent of users want is not Quantum Leap no. 34, a Bold New Interface, hundreds of new functions, or vast new opportunities to make bits and bytes zip this way and that. Normal people who get out in the sunlight more often than computer techies tend to do want programs that let them perform a few desirable tasks in a manner that is simple, predictable, and consistent from year to year.

Sure, existing Microsoft programs have various irrational characteristics (what bright spark decided that Word's "Shut Down" should be on the "Start" menu?), but anybody who's used the Office software for a while has either learned to deal with the oddities or developed work-arounds. Besides, it's a dead cert that the New, Improved Office with Miracle Ingredient Q-SPRM 475TG will have just as many senseless features and require as many patches as Joseph's coat.

Virtually everyone who works regularly with the old Office suite is comfortable with it and finds that it meets their needs just dandy. Wouldn't it be a real great leap forward if consumers treated Mr. Softee's latest war against people as though its every installation disc had been aged in botulism?

I hope Office '07 turns out to be Microsoft's New Coke.