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Hack of the month!

By • on August 22, 2013 at 3:12 pm

This photo was taken on a highway in rural western Colorado this week (via KUSA-TV Denver). A welcome, 21st century update to the art of billboard defacement!

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KEXP program notes update

By • on June 26, 2013 at 1:19 pm

Apologies to folks for our having not been able to continue posting our program notes in recent weeks. Both Maria and I have run into time problems in the rest of our lives – specifically, that we haven’t had any – to lay out and combine our notes in a way that’s useful to others.

We’re working on a more streamlined format that might be more sustainable. Stay tuned!

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Two Book Reviews: “2312″ and “The Yellow Birds”

By • on April 17, 2013 at 5:12 pm

My first impression of “2312” by Kim Stanley Robinson is that the author could use a good editor, or needs to take up short-form poetry to sharpen his descriptive skills.  Much of the book is repetitive and does little to propel the narrative or bolster the main themes.

And yet…I haven’t read a book in decades that reminds me of the best long-form science fiction of the Silver Age (’60′s and ’70′s) like this book does.  Robinson looks forward to an era when humans have populated and terraformed Mars, Venus, and the moons of Saturn, when space-flight within our solar system is common, and human lifespans have more than doubled.  And, of course, the main theme of the novel is not just whether humanity can grow up as it grows outward, but what will humanity become–what will being “human” mean–when people can incorporate genes from animal species and alien bacteria into their bodies, and even implant quantum computers into their brains.

In one passage that falls in the center of the book, Robinson riffs on the similarity between a linked group of quantum computers and the human brain.  He asks:  “if you program a purpose into a computer program, does that constitute its will?  Does it have free will, if a programmer programmed its purpose?  Is that programming any different from the way we are programmed by our genes and brains?  Is a programmed will a servile will?  Is human will a servile will?  And is not the servile will the home and source of all feelings of defilement, infection, transgression, and rage?…could a quantum computer program itself?”

The difference, of course, is that humans “programming” themselves with their own brains is how we might define “free will.”  But Robinson nicely illustrates that our free will is limited by physical externalities: our physical bodies, the environment around us, the society in which we live, and the deceptively remote influence of historical forces.

And so this big, sprawling work brings us back around to a question that lies at the heart of most American fiction:  how self-reliant and self-actualized do you really need to be?  In the end, don’t you need other people–a connection to human society–as much or even more than your personal, individual freedom?

For that, the book is worth the time it takes to read all of its 560 pages.  And Robinson does provide many beautiful descriptive passages like this one of Titan, the terraformed moon of Saturn:  “True sunlight and mirrored sunlight crossed to make the landscape shadowless, or faintly double-shadowed–strange to Swan’s eye, unreal-looking, like a stage set in a theater so vast the walls were not visible.  Gibbous Saturn flew through the clouds above, its edge-on rings like a white flaw cracking that part of the sky.”  I just wish the book were as condensed and strking as this lively passage.

On the other hand, even short novels can have  their flaws.  So much praise has been given to “The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers that I was puzzled to find it lacking in many ways.  The story is simple:  a young soldier goes to war in Iraq, having made a promise to the mother of one of his platoon mates that he would bring him back home alive–and we learn how impossible that promise is to keep.

It’s a first novel written by a young poet, and it contains many of the elements of good poetry:  archetypes, vivid metaphors, wrenching themes, alternating stanzas that lead us eventually to a final reveal, and a strong central voice.  But it doesn’t quite hold together as a novel.  Archetypes, when used in a longer narrative format, quickly become uninteresting stereotypes—for example Sterling, the hard-bitten sergeant whom everyone agrees is the perfect soldier.  And we never get attached to the younger soldier that the narrator has promised to protect (conveniently named Murph, as if he were a cute, stuffed toy unable to hold his stitching intact in a hostile environment).

So instead the book becomes an exploration of the soul of its narrator, and succeeds on that level.  Its poetry reminds us that the young men we send into war are not machines, not the brutal automatons that the army wants them to be, but young people full of life and the urge to experience beauty and a sense of purpose.  As the narrator says of himself and Murph while they’re getting ready to be deployed: “Being from a place where a few facts are enough to define you, where a few habits can fill a life, causes a unique kind of shame.  We’d had small lives, populated by a longing for something more substantial than dirt roads and small dreams.  So we’d come here, where life needed no elaboration and others would tell us who to be.”

But a novel is not just the poetry of its language and the insights of one narrative voice.  And sometimes the metaphors in this book stretch to the breaking point and beyond, as when the narrator struggles for an image to describe what it’s like to fly home as one of the survivors of a pointless war.  His words are buffeted by so much turbulence that the reader eventually loses the sense of what he’s saying or what the character is thinking.

We also never get a sense of the every day routine of deployment in Iraq.  In the midst of so much lovely metaphor, true description was strangely lacking.  Less poetry and more straightforward narration would have served the story better.  Fortunately, the novel is short in length so that the reader isn’t asked to stay involved with the characters too long.  And the disjointed narration lends truth to its overall message, presented as a sudden insight the narrator has after going AWOL in Germany:  “I realized, as I stood there in the church, that there was a sharp distinction between what was remembered, what was told, and what was true.  And I didn’t think I’d ever figure out which was which.”

I can’t say I liked “The Yellow Birds” as much I expected to.  And I find the high praise that critics and other writers have given it to be more an expression of their guilt over not condemning a war that was obviously unnecessary, than a clear-eyed look at the qualities of the book itself.  Nevertheless, I think everyone should read it in spite of its flaws, and take the opportunity to get inside of a mind that’s been battered and torn by war.

 

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Your “representatives” at work

By • on April 17, 2013 at 2:17 pm

Senate Republicans have successfully blocked expansion of background checks for gun purchasers – a measure that polls say 90 percent of Americans support.

The ever-present gulf between what the US public wants and what our elected “representatives” actually do has never been so wide, nor so obvious.

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PA judge strikes down fracking companies’ rights to privacy, corporate personhood

By • on April 17, 2013 at 9:38 am

Last week we covered a California court case in which a judge halted a BLM land sale for fracking, a precedent-setting acknowledgement that fracking has unique and dangerous environmental impacts. This week, it’s Pennsylvania, where a judge has ruled that under state law corporations do not have the same rights as actual biological people.

The ruling came in a case where local media outlets wanted to unseal the confidential settlemenrt of a lawsuit in which landowners were paid $175,000 after suing fracking companies over environmental damage to their land. It’s a big development, nationally and not just in Pennsylvania, because companies have been using invoking their so-called privacy rights to seal settlements that contain information on the environmental damage they cause – and Pennsylvania, as one of the states where fracking started earliest and has been most widespread, could offer a telling glimpse of the longer-term impacts involved. Thus far, hard science on the environmental costs of fracking has been difficult to come by, because companies have been withholding the information needed to study it. This week’s ruling is a major crack in that secrecy.

The judge’s ruling also directly took on the concept of corporate personhood, saying that that federal legal standard did not apply under Pennsylvania’s state constitution. Chances are, the companies will appeal on the grounds that federal law trumps state law – but as the majority of the lawsuits over fracking have been in state court, it’s likely to be a delaying tactic, rather than a serious attempt to overturn the ruling.

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Explosions at Boston Marathon

By • on April 15, 2013 at 5:15 pm

This is ugly, and likely to get uglier.

Two people are confirmed dead and at least 125 injured – many seriously – after two bombs went off in quick succession near the finish line to the Boston Marathon this afternoon. The scene was a bloody mess (with hundreds of media outlets and cameras conveniently nearby), and the location and timing – Tax Day, and Patriot Day, a state holiday, in Massachusetts, plus the Newtown families sitting nearby – make the conclusion of a terrorist act pretty unavoidable.

That said, the last thing anyone should do is jump to a knee-jerk, emotional reaction. (Of the major media outlets covering this non-stop, Fox News is by far the most gory and hysterical.) We know what happened; we don’t know who or why. The immediate media reaction in the hours after the 1996 Oklahoma City bombing was to assume Arab terrorists. The emotional reaction to 9-11 gave us the Patriot Act four days later, a new war the following month, and a second war whose commencement took 18 months purely due to logistics. Emotions in the wake of an incident like this are a dangerous thing, and I say that as a former elite-level marathon runner who has long worried, far before 9-11, about the potential for mass casualties at a sporting event from some nut or group looking for a lot of attention. Here we are.

Today sure seems a lot like an amateur act, not the work of international terrorists; police disarmed at least one other explosive device that failed to go off. It feels more like the bomb found on the route of Spokane’s MLK Day parade a couple of years ago. If a perpetrator or perpetrators are found and they turn out to be right wing radicals – for example, responding to the alarmist rhetoric on the far right about gun control in the wake of Newtown – it would surprise nobody who’s been following the ever-more-violent extremism of the far right, and the reaction sure will be interesting. Or, it could be some random mentally disturbed dude, ala Tucson, who wants attention and knows how to make IEDs.

But for the time being, let’s wait and see what investigators discover – and remain vigilant for anyone in the media or elected office who tries to use this crime to demagogue for their pet cause.

One more thought – how sad is it that I can refer in the above paragraphs not just to 9-11 but four different cities – Newtown, Spokane, Tucson, Oklahoma City – where the city is enough for most readers, in context, to identify what happened there. Manhattan, Aurora, Blacksburg…the United States is fast developing a geography of violence.

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For those you who think that vile racism in America…

By • on April 9, 2013 at 11:21 pm

…among elected officials (or anyone else) is strictly a problem of the Deep South, check out this.

In a county that is exactly three percent African-American, don’t expect the inevitable recall campaign (already underway) to get any real traction. Instead, Commissioner Gile really ought to borrow from the tradition of a certain non-white culture and fall on his sword, or perhaps, given his culture of origin, the sharpened muzzle of one of his hunting rifles.

But he won’t. And why should he? According to audio tapes of the incident, not only did his fellow commissioners fail to challenge his language choices, but many in the room laughed. He’s not the problem – the culture that spawned and continues to enable him is the problem. He’s just a symptom. And the Alternate Universe that comprises (but is hardly limited to) modern US conservatism is permeated with guys – and women – like this.

Oh, and somebody really ought to tell the good (sic) commissioner that in 2013 “some of my best friends are…” is truly a contemptible excuse.

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Peace Activist Trainee program for high school students

By • on April 9, 2013 at 5:29 pm

Once again this year, our good friends at Western Washington Fellowship of Reconciliation are offering a great four-week summer training program for budding high school activists, and the application deadline is fast approaching.

The 2013 summer Peace Activist Trainee (PAT) program will emphasize building organizing skills, as well as meeting activists and working on a variety of peace & social justice issues.

Students receive a $500 stipend while learning how to create lasting change.
The dates of the program are Monday July 8 through Thursday August 1, 10 am to 3 pm.

For a (current) high school sophomore or junior, it’s a month that really could change their lives! For more information, check out the WWFOR web site here. The application deadline is May 15. For questions, call WWFOR at 206-789-5565 or e-mail pat@wwfor.pat.

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Sequestration in WA

By • on March 1, 2013 at 7:54 pm

Here is the White House summary of impact of sequestration on Washington state. It’s a staggeringly high price to pay for the latest tantrum by our modern-day Know Nothing Party.

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Taliban protests sequestration cuts

By • on February 27, 2013 at 9:02 am

As Supreme Leader Mullah Omar explains here, it will devastate their budget – along with the Afghan “government” budget, the private wealth of senior members of the Karzai regime, and the Pentagon’s and CIA’s Afghanistan field operations, all of which are basically the same thing.

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