Monday, November 30, 2009

Karebear in Kenya

And here's a picture of Mom in Kenya with a bunch of kids that I guess she met while on her mission trip. Just thought it was a cool picture.

Weekend Wrap Up; A Bit o' Football Blogging

Hey! Hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving holiday! Mine was nice, and went by way too fast. Thanks again to the McBrides for feeding the Steans clan!

Above are some pictures that I took while out at Mom and Dad's place this weekend. I had a nice time hanging out with them at their hacienda.
Also among the standout events of the Thanksgiving weekend was the UT-A&M game. Man, that was a dogfight. With A&M racking up 532 yards of offense, there were times when the Aggies looked unstoppable and where Texas's defense looked like one of the most overhyped units in the country. Even now, it seems like Texas got extremely lucky, with a kickoff return run back for a touchdown, a potential A&M touchdown picked off in the end zone (one of our few interceptions), and an easy, crucial A&M field goal choked away. A&M played really well, and if they can maintain or improve upon that level of play next year, I think they're going to be pretty formidable. And Texas better figure out how to fix the holes in its defense, or that Nebraska game could get away from them (and I would bet that those Nebraska coaches are studying the tapes of that A&M game pretty carefully to see how the Aggies moved the ball for so much yardage against the Horns).
Anyway, I don"t talk football on the blog very often, but I've watched every UT game this season, and that A&M game was our most nerve wracking one so far. Kind of bad timing for UT to start showing its weaknesses, given the fact that we've got Nebraska coming up next for the Big 12 championship. Oh well, maybe the A&M game was a good wake up call for the Horns. I hope so.
Also, I haven't really watched any NFL football this year, but I was over at Ryan and Jamie's, so I ended up watching a good part of the Tennessee-Arizona game. Vince Young pulled of a classic last second, 99 yard drive, finishing with a touchdown, to win the game and apparently keep the playoff hopes alive for the Titans. Even though I'm not much into NFL football these days, it was fun to see ol' Vince Young pull off that kind of a win for the Tennessee fans.

Anyway, not much else to report right now, I guess. I put up my blue Christmas lights on my house yesterday. My neighbors also have lights, but other from the two of us, our street isn't looking very festive this year. Maybe that will change somewhat this week.

Maybe more later. Peace.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Ben Thompson; Blood Meridian

Some random stuff today. First, did anyone else know that Austin, at one time, had its own resident champion gunfighter/sharpshooter? He was named Ben Thompson, and there was a story about him on ashow called Sharphsooters on the History Channel this weekend. Thompson was a private in the Confederate army, and later fought in Mexico. He was imprisoned for two years for murder, having learned that his brother-in-law was abusing his sister and then subsequently killing him, but when he got out of prison, he apparently decided to play it straight (well, sort of straight- he still shot and killed a number of men in his post-prison years). He owned a saloon in Austin called the Iron Foot Saloon, and became City Marshal of Austin in 1881. He was later murdered at a theater in San Antonio by old enemies (Thompson's story is kind of complicated, but interesting. If you're so inclined, I recommend at least checking out the Wikipedia article).
Anyway, Thompson was featured on this program about sharpshooters because he challenged "Wild" Bill Hickok to a contest of shooting ability while Hickok was passing through Austin, and apparently managed to hold his own against Hickok, using only a pistol while Hickok used a much more accurate rifle. Supposedly Hickok was impressed by Thompson, and the two became friends, with Hickok presenting Thompson with a fancy, decorated pistol as a show of respect.
Anyhoo, I just find this Thompson guy interesting. I'm not sure whether or not I had heard much about him before, but even if I had, I'm sure I never heard about his service as marshall in Austin and the shooting contest with Hickok. Just kind of some cool, local flavor. If I had the money, I'd buy a site on Congress as close as possible to the location of the original Iron Foot Saloon, and open up a new version of the place on the same site (a little updated with live music, but with Thompson's portrait in the place and his story on the menus).

In other news, I finally finished reading Blood Meridian this weekend. Blood Meridian is a Cormac McCarthy novel from the mid eighties, and there are some who say it's his best book. I found it interesting, and definitely well worth a read (especially with so many people describing it as an American classic- it was picked as one of Time Magazine's 100 best novel of the last 70 years and selected by critics in the New York Times as one of the best novels of the last 25 years). All of that being said, it wasn't really my favorite Cormac McCarthy book.
Blood Meridian is the story of a young kid (he grows up, sort of in fast forward toward the end of the book, but for most of it he's less than 16 years old) who becomes embroiled in wars with the Native Americans along the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850's. He joins an irregular army unit who set out to fight the Indians, but who are quickly massacred, and following his escape, he falls in with the Glanton Gang, a group of American scalphunters who are collecting Indian scalps in order to collect bounties paid by the Mexican government. Eventually the Glanton Gang descend into sheer banditry and the murder of Indians, military, and civilians alike.
Many of McCarthy's books feature significant amounts of violence, but in Blood Meridian it truly reaches prodigious heights. This was actually one of the problems that I had with the book. I don't mind violence in my books- I really, really liked No Country for Old Men, which had plenty of violence in it- but the violence in Blood Meridian was so ubiquitous and vividly brutal that it sort of lost its meaning after a while. McCarthy's repeated, scrupulous, matter-of-fact descriptions of savagery seemed to become almost cartoonish and ridiculous after a while, or, at the very least, their constant presence eventually diminished their impact until I found myself reading through them without much response at all. Surely one of McCarthy's points in writing the book was to tear away some of the romanticism that modern Americans have imposed upon our recollections of the old west, but in trying to make his point, it just sort of felt like McCarthy was almost going too far in the other direction. Surely there were massacres and murders and scalpings and torturous deaths that took place during this time and place, but Blood Meridian paints the west as being a place of misery, chaos, and desolation to the exclusion of almost all else, which, in turn, seems just as questionable as the whitewashed revisionism which McCarthy seems to be railing against.
Another reason I had a hard time really connecting with the book simply came from McCarthy's writing style in this particular book. McCarthy writes in Blood Meridian with what I consider to be an overly verbose and yet sort of distant manner. He carries on and on with descriptions of landscapes and horses and towns and what have you, but he does so in a style that's almost overly poetic and a bit melodramatic. Other times, in the midst of actual conflict and dramatic tension, his level of description drops off to almost nothing (don't mind the soarse writing in order to build tension when it's appropriate, but it felt sort of jarring after reading pages and pages of descriptions of the desert). I definitely got the feel that McCarthy was "swinging for the fence" in terms of trying to write an American epic (his writing is detail oriented in terms of depicting an expansive Western setting), but he doesn't do a whole lot in giving the reader any kind of substantive detail regarding the novel's characters, who remain mostly underdeveloped and who often feel more like symbolic stereotypes than real people.
Blood Meridian definitely has a lot to say, much of it seemingly focused upon the foundation of bloodshed that our country was built upon and the inherent human tendency toward violence (a tendency which, as McCarthy points out, seemed to flourish in the lawlessness and disorder of america's westward expansion), but as a novel with interesting plotpoints and characters, I'm still not convinced that Blood Meridian is McCarthy's best. (gotta say that Judge Holden ranks up there as a truly memorable character, but even The Judge often seems more like a symbol of profound, interminable, and intricate evil than a genuine flesh and blood person). Between McCarthy's writing style and all of the violence and gore, at times Blood Meridian just felt like a Segio Leone movie on LSD (or maybe PCP?).
The whole novel, in my mind, read out more like a violent, chaotic parable than the telling of a tale that was meant to be believed (yes, I know this is a little ironic given the fact that the murderous Glanton Gang actually existed and did some very bad things). Anyway, my opinion, of course, doesn't make this novel a bad one- I'm just saying that this wasn't my favorite McCarthy book.
Still, if you want to read a book that will make you ask serious questions about the sort of moral depravity was involved in the struggle to establish our country, or if you're inclined to question what sort of actions men might find themselves committing when given the opportunity to conduct themselves in an ethical vacuum (or when they're outright encouraged to commit questionable acts in an ethical vacuum), then this might be your book.
This book has a lot to say, but I still favor No Country for Old Men, and, as an epic of the American west and the frontier experience, I would probably say that I prefer Lonesome Dove (although the simple fact that I'm comparing Blood Meridian to these other books probably demonstrates that I thought it was an important book- just not my favorite).
Anyway, I'm still very glad I read it. It got me thinking, so it was definitely well worth the time.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Turkey Day, Fantastic Mr. Fox, White House Party Crashers

Hey! Hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving!

Mine was good. The McBrides (Jamie's family) were kind enough to have the Steans clan out to their house, and they were really great hosts. Very good food and good company. It was really nice of them to have us. Judy made a really good meal!
On Wednesday night I went to see Fantastic Mr. Fox with some friends. I really enjoyed it. I liked the animation a whole lot, thought the voice acting was good, and really liked the plot and the dialogue. The movie is based upon a Roald Dahl novel that I've never read, but somehow, despite the fact that the movie was about talking animals, it still seemed like a classic Wes Anderson movie. Like most of his films, Mr. Fox is a movie where there's a whole lot of emotion and feeling in the movie (with characters struggling their way through experiences of inner conflict and change), but the movie never really gets bogged down in a lot of sentimentality. It maintains a constant sense of humor and, as with most Anderson movies, conspicuously avoids melodrama. The movie will probably appeal to kids because of the animation and because of a sort of secondary storyline about Mr. Fox's son, Ash, but the movie seems to definitely be directed at an adult audience as much or more than children.
Anyway, I really enjoyed the movie, and I recommend it.
Well. that's it for now.
Wait. What's up with this nutty couple who managed to sneak themselves into the White House's state dinner this week? Like Balloon Boy's parents, apparently this couple are also aspiring reality TV stars. Anyway, not only did they get past security, but apparently they managed to get their picture taken with President Obama.
Can I just ask what the hell is going on with this whole reality TV star thing? Apparently there's something about the idea of appearing on reality television that makes the whole thing appeal to a certain type of person whose personality profile includes just the right combination of extreme narcissism and jackassishness.
I hope these people get convicted of some sort of federal charge for misrepresenting themselves to White House security (I mean, they don't have to go to prison forever, but something). I mean, in an age when we've got people shooting up military bases and when everyone is pretty twitchy about this whole terrorism thing, it's just not that cool to make a game out of slipping past White House security.
Anyway, not the most important story ever, but these reality TV wannabes are getting pretty ridiculous, aren't they?
Okay, now I'm gonna go.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

Hey! I know that it's really just Thanksgiving Eve, but I thought I'd go ahead and post today because I wasn't sure how busy I would be tomorrow.
Once again, I'm thankful for a lot of stuff this year. I'm thankful to not only have a job, but to have one that I actually find some meaning in. I'm thankful for being pretty healthy. I'm thankful for friends and bandmates (and bandmates who are friends) who, despite being pretty busy, still find the time and willingness to hang out and share their company on a pretty regular basis. I'm thankful for family members who are willing to continually open their lives and share them with me. I'm thankful for having a good dog. I'm also simply thankful to be living in a country which has presented me the resources, freedoms, and opportunities to enjoy a high standard of living and to generally live my life in the way that I choose. (I know I complain about the American political system and American cultural trends a great deal, but Mom has just returned from her mission trip to Kenya, and once again she has stories of the people who live there in conditions of poverty, but who are very thankful for every meal that they eat, every possession that they own, and every opportunity that presents itself. Those kinds of stories sort of put things in perspective.)
Anyway, I hope that everyone has a great Thanksgiving! Eat lots, be safe, and enjoy the time off work!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Steanso Finally Gains an Interest in Hunting;

Hey! Only a few more days 'til turkey day. Still trying to be thankful...

A good, lifelong friend of mine, Larry Lee Thweatt, has recently made me aware of a wildlife protection group that is desperately in need of our respect, admiration, and support. The Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy is an organization established "To investigate and conduct research regarding the existence of the unlisted primate species known as the sasquatch or bigfoot; to facilitate scientific, official and governmental recognition, conservation, and protection of the species and its habitat; and to help further factual education and understanding to the public regarding the species, with a focus mainly in, but not necessarily limited to, the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana." Believe it or not, "The Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt non-profit scientific-research organization, as recognized by the Internal Revenue Service, comprised of volunteer investigators, scientists and naturalists." The group is dedicated to carrying out investigations and field research relating to the existence of the sasquatch in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, as well as carrying out informational meetings on the subject. Investigational techniques include the study of tracks, the use of trap cameras, hair traps (designed to snag bits of hair for testing), and the collection of observation reports (apparently with some effort put into trying to corroborate the observations).
Man, I gotta believe that this is an organization that is more than worthy of our time, effort, and hard earned dollars, Adventurers! The web site for the conservancy is very professional looking (shockingly professional, actually), and it seems like these people are dedicating themselves to the sasquatch hunt with a high degree of earnestness, thoroughness, industriousness, and enthusiasm. I'm not sure that I ever could or ever would find a sasquatch, but I'm already sold on the idea of tromping around in the woods with my friends while looking for one! (not sure about the guidelines in terms of whiskey consumption while on a sasquatch hunt. Hoping there's some flexibility on that...)
Anyway, the whole thing seems like as good a reason as any for a shopping trip in the camping section at Academy, followed by an adventurous foray into the wilderness. Also, I'm fortunate enough to have a big, tall brother who we can dress up in a sasquatch suit. That way we can lure in sasquatches who are looking to mate (and Roundball already comes with his own musky, sasquatch-like smell which probably already contains sasquatch mating pheremones! Plus, in the wee hours of the morning, toward the end of one or two of his parties, I'm pretty sure I've seen him do some sort of sasquatch mating dance. So we got that going for us).
Imagine the glamour, adoration, and fame that we'll undoubtedly experiece when we emerge from the wilderness with a sasquatch in tow! (we're gonna need tasers if we're going to bring in a live sasquatch. Also, giving my friends tasers to shoot at each other will just liven things up). I'll have to get my hair cut before my photo shoots for Scientific American and Discover magazines....
So just think about it. You don't have to make a decision right now, but just mull it over. I think that the people who really put some thought into it will eventually feel the need to be a part of Steanso's Sasquatch Hunters...
Thanks for the link, Lee. You know me too well.

That's not much, but it's all I have time for today! Have a good one!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Weekend Update; Article on Mental Health in Criminal Justice; Catholics in Politics

Hey! Hope everybody had a good weekend! I'm going to work on trying to be appreciative and thankful this week. Seems like a good time for it...

As you can probably tell from the pictures, I did some pretty fun stuff over the weekend. The photos are from the UT-Kansas game on Saturday night. The picture on the left is of Colt McCoy and all of the Longhorn seniors as they made a sort of victory lap around the field to celebrate their last home game. It was pretty cool to watch. Those guys have given the UT fans an awful lot of wins over their college careers, and they've got a lot to be proud of. The other picture is of Dad, Ryan, and Jamie at the game. This was my first time to go to a UT game with Jamie, and I think we all had a pretty good time.
Sunday I ran some errands with Ryan, and had a band practice in the evening. Jim Gillespie's mother passed away this week, so my thoughts are with him (and, obviously, he didn't make practice). That would be a rough thing to go through at any time, but I feel especially bad for Jim and his family, given the timing right before the holidays.
Eric was sick, so he didn't make practice, either. So it was just Reed, Frank, and I, but we played a Wilco song (Misunderstood), worked on an Amy Mann song (High on Sunday), and played a new song that I wrote that doesn't really have a name. That doesn't sound like a whole lot, in retrospect, but we probably played for about an hour and 20 minutes (and I guess we just did some jamming in there, too). We also spent time talking about the dangers of heroine addiction and whether or not little kids should watch scary movies.

What else? I was glad to see the health care reform bill at least move to debate in the Senate. I know that this by no means guarantees a final bill, but it's one more hurdle crossed, and it's nice to know that at least the thing managed to avoid a GOP fillibuster in order to reach this stage.

A friend and coworker sent me this Yahoo News article about mental health cases in the criminal justice system, and it's pretty much directly relevant to what I do in my current job. The article discusses the financial costs and personnel costs that are associated with the handling of mental health cases by police officers, jails, and courts, as well as a few of the solutions that are being implemented in order to try to divert some of these people away from the jails (the article specifically mentions some of the mental health crisis teams that are now being used to respond to incidents involving mentally ill people, and here in Travis County both the Sherriff's department and APD now have such units). Anyway, the article sort of alludes to the fact that there's just a big gap in the system in terms of dealing with people who have significant mental health problems. We no longer really have long term mental health institutions (our mental health hospitals these days are pretty much stabilization centers, designed to get people stabilized and out of crisis, but then to return them as quickly as possible back into the community- often creating a revolving door sort of effect), and the few mental health hospitals that we have are extremely underfunded and overburdened. They have far more patients than they can handle, and they typically operate with long waiting lists. Patients who are in crisis get picked up after becoming involved in incidents, but when the mental hospitals can't take them these people are rerouted to other hospitals, which are typically poorly equipped to handle the problem. Many of these people end up simply being booked into the jail on charges related to whatever caught the attention of the police in the first place (the cases I see are misdemeanors), and then these people are treated by the jail staff (jails in many places having now become the primary, de facto, mental health care providers for their communities).
Many of these people don't really belong in jail, but at the same time the primary job of police and law enforcement is to protect the members of the community, so we end up with a situation where the mentally ill have to be treated and stabilized somewhere so they won't continue to be a danger or a disruption to the community.
Anyway, it's kind of strange for me, knowing that if we had a better system, the workload connected with my job would fall away to a lot less cases (I mean, if we could actually provide appropriate long term care for a lot of these people, they wouldn't be getting arrested and I would only be dealing with a much smaller percentage of the mentally ill population).
But this article is good, and most of the issues in it are things that I deal with pretty directly on a day to day basis here in Austin.

And there was a story this week in the news in which Patrick Kennedy revealed that a leading Bishop in the Rhode Island Catholic community, Thomas Tobin, had asked Kennedy in 2007 to stop taking communion if he intended to continue supporting abortion rights in the political arena.
I find that pretty offensive. I find it intolerant, and frankly, pretty archaic (does the Catholic church really think that this is the best direction to take in order to remain viable?). I understand the importance of religious doctrine within the church, but 1) I think the role of the church is to persuade and exhort its members in terms of the importance of adherence to doctrine- not to bully, strongarm, and extort, and 2) while I think it's fine for the church to preach its religious doctrine to its members, I find that direct engagement in political action by the church violates the boundaries of the social contract that we've established for such institutions within our culture. If Catholic bishops are going to start lobbying and leaning on people in terms of their political beliefs (and apparently they are- we already have the Catholic Church mounting what are, effectively, lobbying efforts to keep abortion funding out of the health care reform bill), then I think it only fair that we revoke any tax exemption that they receive for being a strictly religious institution and that we start categorizing as we would any other organiztion that was trying to push a poltical agenda (and asking them to comply with the same fund raising, taxation, and other guidelines that other political organizations follow).
Anyway, I've read that not all Catholic bishops are in agreement with some of the more politically acive clergy who have recently been getting so much attention, so I'm guessing that this is actually even a somewhat divisive issue within the Catholic church.
I'm not very impressed by what I've been seeing lately from them, though (wasn't it just last week when I was talking about how I find religion a lot more attractive when it involves helping other people as opposed to when it involves being judgemental?).

Well, I think that's it for now. Hope your day is going okay!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Peruvian Fat Gang

Hola, amigos!

Well... I had dinner last night with Jamie and Ryan. Jamie made some kind of chicken pasta thing that I thought was pretty good, but I'm not sure how much Jamie loved it herself, so not sure when we'll see it again.

And here's a something that you just don't hear about all that often: police in Peru have made four arrests thus far after uncovering a gang that has been killing dozens of people and selling off their fat tissue, presumably for cosmetic uses in Europe. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I've realized that there are people in the world who might want to abduct and kill me (I'd be a goldmine to these people!).
Apparently the gang has been carrying out these murders for decades, using fake job offers to lure people (apparently up to 60 of them) to their deaths in remote parts of Peru. The human fat tissue apparently can fetch as much as $15,000 a liter, and members of the gang have supposedly provided detailed accounts of how the fat was removed before being sold to European cosmetics companies through intemediaries in Lima.
So there's something to think about. Next time you look at one of these actresses with the big, puffy, cosmetically enhanced lips, you can take a moment out to wonder if they were made from the butt of some overweight, dead Peruvian who's lying on the floor of a jungle somewhere. This is one of those weird deals that just makes me amazed at the bizzarre worldwide web of cause and effect relationships that we live in. Some rich person in Europe decides they need to get a cosmetic enhancement, and next thing you know some sad peasant in the wilds of South America ends up on the nasty end of a machete.
Crazy world.

Well, as you can probably tell by this random post, I don't have a whole lot today.
Maybe more later. Hope everyone has a good weekend!
Go Horns!!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Mom in Kenya; Continuing Changes in Iran; U.S. and Karzai- BFF?

Howdy. Hope stuff is ok.
Not too much to report. Ate some Mexican food with Ryan and Jamie last night. Talked to my dad, who has been in touch with my mom, and it sounds like she's doing well on her mission trip over in Africa. Apparently the Kenyans remembered her from her last visit out there and greeted her very warmly, so she was sort of touched by that. Hope she stays safe and keeps up the good work.
I'm sure I've said this before, but it's nice to see people going out and doing service work to help people as part of their Christian belief system. It seems like a lot of the stuff related to religion in the media these days is pretty negative (recent examples that spring to mind range from the violent Islamic fundamentalism of Nidal Malik Hasan to Catholic bishops who have questioned the religious faith of church members and political leaders who support pro choice positions). So, anyway, my point is that it's just nice to see some people out there who are helping other people as part of their religious beliefs (and yes, I'm sure the volunteers are pretty happy to talk to the people about their church and their religion while helping them at the clinic, but it sounds like the help offered is just meant to be good outreach- aid is in no way contingent upon participation in religious activities. On her last trip they worked with a significant number of Muslim people, for instance). Anyway, I hope the trip is a happy, successful one.

In the news, there's an interesting story in Newsweek about potential changes in the Iranian religious/political leadership structure. Apparently there is some conjecture that Iran's current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, may be the last Supreme Leader to rule the country. The Supreme Leader of Iran is the country's most powerful political figure and cleric, a figure presumed to be endorsed by God who serves as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the leader of the country's intelligence network, and the figure who holds the power to declare war and peace. He also plays a key role in selecting and confirming presidential candidates (Iran's current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is pretty much considered to be Khamenei's boy).
Apparently the violent suppression of peaceful protests after the last election has left left a large number of Iraqi clerics deeply troubled about the corrupting effect of the absolute power inherent to the role of a Supreme Leader (the office being more formally referred to as the velayat-e faqih), and there are rumors and suggestions among clerics that the office itself should be dismantled and abandoned following the passing of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
It'll be interesting to see how these sort of sentiments continue to develop and take shape, and even more interesting to see what sort of new power structure might arise if the position of the Supreme Leader is removed. It seems like Iran is moving toward something that looks more like a real democracy, albeit at a pace which is far slower and more gradual than many might like. It might sound a little crazy right now, but I can actually imagine a future in which Iran might actually be something of an ally, with an interesting government that does a better job of genuinely representing the will of its people while still incorporating aspects of the Islamic religious heritage which are so deeply ingrained within the country's culture and heritage.
But maybe I'm just nuts.

And following an election which was riddled with fraud (the opponent eventually withdrew) and in the face of numerous charges of high level corruption within the top levels of his government and administration, Afghanistanian President Hamid Karzai was sworn in today for a second term. I can't believe that in the entire country of Afghanistan a better man can't be found to fill the office of president than this clown. Karzai's own brother has been accused of being heavily involved in drug trafficking, one of Karzai's anti-corruption task forces has already been disbanded because it turned out that it was being led by a man who had previously been imprisoned on drug charges in the U.S., and only yesterday Karzai's minister of mines was shown to have accepted $30 million in bribes relating to a deal with a Chinese state firm and copper mining. And these things are surely only the tip of the iceberg.
Nonetheless, the U.S. sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Karzai's inauguration as a show of support. Arrrrgh....
Once again the good ol' U.S.A. is aligning itself with questionable, shady people in order to consolidate our own power so we can wage a highly questionable war in someone else's country (note: I don't question the moral underpinnings of this war the same way that I've questioned Iraq, but I do have serious doubts about whether we can really turn Afganistan into a safe, stable place, as well as questions about whether the enemy that we initially went there to fight- namely, Bin Laden's Al Qaeda network- is even still in the country). Does this alliance with Karzai bother anyone else? I just have these visions of us helping to solidify Karzai's power base, and then later having him, in turn, ally himself with some of our enemies. Other exciting possibilities include the chance that he might become despotic and ruthless toward his own people, or that he will merely continue to cynically exploit the people of his country, making himself and his personal allies wealthy and powerful while exploiting the resources of his country and leaving it in terrible shape (and given the allegations of drug smuggling, bribery, and corruption by those around Karzai, one could argue that he's probably well on his way toward fulfilling this last hypothetical already).
Anyway, there's no one else who could run for president? Afghanistan is a decent sized country. I find it hard to believe that they have no one better suited for the job than Karzai.

Well, that's it for now.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sarah Palin's Book Tour; Newsweek Grows More Political

Hey, guys! Hope everyone is doing okay. Last night I mostly just hung out, but Eric stopped by (he was in my 'hood), and we talked about Venus Fixer and music and stuff.

Well, it's no big secret that Sarah Palin has a new book out (called Going Rogue), and she's launching into a supporting book tour filled with speaking engagements. Anyone who ever glanced at this blog during our past presidential elections knows that I'm not a big Sarah Palin fan. I don't buy her folksy, woman-of-the-people schtick, and in addition to disagreeing with her ideologically on a number of issues, I really just don't feel that she has the intellect, education, or the judgement to be president (I think these are concerns about Palin that many Americans have, but which Palin tries to ward off as being solely the criticisms of nerdy, ivory tower intellectuals and east coast elitists).
Anyway, despite my concerns about Palin, or oddly, perhaps because of my concerns about Palin, I think it's probably a good thing for the Democrats that Palin seems interested in a candidacy for the 2012 election. I think Palin is too radical and anti-intelllectual for many mainstream, moderate Republicans, and I think there's a strong possibility that we might end up seeing her running as a third party conservative before this whole thing is over. This, of course, could end up splitting the conservative vote and weakening the GOP, which in turn would be good for the Democrats. And the Democrats, frankly, could use some infighting on the conservative side, especially given how much of our own infighting goes on within the Democratic ranks (the block, lockstep solidarity of the GOP is often what gives it a strategic advantage over the Democrats, who rarely seem to be able to achieve a rapid consensus in order to get things done).
The other reason I think it might be a good thing if Palin ran is that people on the left really hate her. When a president is trying to win a second term, there's always a danger that the voters who initially supported him won't feel as energized and supportive the second time around. There's a worry that 4 years with a Democrat in office may make left leaning voters lackadaisical and disinterested. Meanwhile, the opposition on the right will have spent four years whipping its voters into a frenzy- mobilizing them to go out and remove the great, Satanic Democrat from office.
Palin, however, provides a great Satan on the right. Leaders on the left don't even seem to need to whip up opposition to her candidacy. Palin's speeches and interviews, all on their own, seem to be enough to rile up and annoy many people. A wide range of voters, from moderate centrists to voters on the far left, seem to really have a passionate dislike for Palin, and I honestly feel like the anti-Palin sentiment might be strong enough to get some people off their sofas to go vote against her when they otherwise might just stay at home and sit the election out.
So I hope Palin's book sells well and that she continues to receive encouraging support from her base. You go, Sarah!
In a side note, I've been feeling that over the last couple of years Newsweek (which I receive at home) has been becoming more overtly liberal in both its reporting and its op ed pieces. I'm obviously a liberal/progressive or whatever you want to call it (I like to refer to myself as a civil liberties defending, social contract supporting rationalist, but I guess that's too cumbersome for most), but I still get annoyed when I feel like news sources are trying to tell me what to think. Newsweek makes pretty clear delineations between its opinion pieces and its news stories, but it just seems like the magazine increasingly has less news and more and more opinion. Even when I may eventually reach the same conclusions as their writers, I would like to see more of an in depth exploration of the facts- not news presented as argument with a thesis to prove. This sentiment might be part of why I'd make a poor Repbulican. Aside from my general dislike of Glen Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, etc., I'm not a big fan of having my news delivered along with snide comments that tell me how I should be viewing the accompanying facts. Personally, I think a lot of progressives feel this way, and I think this probably accounts for a lot of the ratings discrepancy between MSNBC and Air America's progressive talk radio format versus the much higher rated Fox News and conservative talk radio shows.
I'm guessing that Newsweek's increasingly overt political tone is a result of the magazine's attempts to redefine itself in the internet age. In a time when we have 24 hour cable news channels and internet news feeds which can instantly deliver some pretty detailed news stories directly to your iPhone or laptop, it's got to be difficult to justify the existence of a news magazine that covers news sotries in a once-a-week format.
Still, I'd rather see more investigative journalism or more in depth coverage and analysis as compared to the new trend toward focusing on opinion and analysis. It's probably a lot cheaper, though, to pay a guy to sit at a desk and type up his opinions than it is to pay a guy to fly around the world to Afghanistan and Iraq and other places in order to carry out the time consuming process of running down leads, carrying out interviews, and doing the other hard work that's required for true investigative journalism. In a world where competition is increasingly stiff, revenues are down, and where magazines are in competition with free news outlets on the web, I can see why magazines might tend to opt for opinion pieces as a way of keeping readers engaged.
But I don't really love that idea.
Anyway, that's it for now. Maybe more later.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Norah Jones

So last night Ryan and Jamie came over for dinner, and I made a kind of tortilla soup for them. I'm not sure that what I did qualifies as genuine cooking, but it was a hot meal, and we stayed in for it, so I'm counting it, anyway.
What else?
On my drive in this morning on NPR I heard an interview with Norah Jones about her new album, The Fall. I like Norah Jones's voice, but I would never really claim to be the world's biggest Norah Jones fan (her songs are almost a little too soft and soothing for me on most days). Anyhoo, I was pretty surprised to hear Jones talking about the fact that she's always been a big Tom Waits fan. Apparently she loves the rough, spartan, growl-infused music of Waits, and she went on to say that she actively sought out some of the people who had been involved in the engineering and production of Waits's 1999 album, Mule Variations, which she considers a classic (as do I).
I was impressed to hear that Jones was impressed by Tom Waits. Now I'm actually much more interested to hear her new album (although I'm pretty sure that Jones isn't going to sound like Waits. Her soft, smooth voice is pretty great, but it's just miles and miles away from the coarse vocal sounds that apparently helped to inspire her).
Anyway, I just found the story interesting.

Man, I just don't have much today. I've tried- I really have. I've read the news sites and wracked my brain, but I don't think I have much else today. I'm also feeling strangely warn down and tired.
So have a good day! I hope you Austinites are enjoying the cooler temperautres and brilliant, blue skies!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Weekend Update; Monsters of Folk; Batman: Arkham Asylum; Obama in China

Hey, guys! Hope ya'll had a good weekend.
Mine was pretty good. On Friday night I joined some friends for the Monsters of Folk show at Stubb's (to the right is a blurry picture of Jim James- normally of My Morning Jacket- doing some singin'). The show was good.
Monsters of Folk came through and played at the Paramount some years back, and I couldn't help thinking during some of the stretches that involved a number of slower, mellower songs that MOF might be a little better suited to play at a place which might have slightly better acoustics, seats to sit in, and a theater environment which might keep the drunk people around you from wanting to talk through the songs (Stubbs was sold out on Friday night). But the music was good, and I really enjoyed the show (and although there were a fair number of quieter, slower songs, they played a mix of different material).
Saturday I got up, put on my burnt orange, and went over to watch the UT-Baylor game with Jamie. Ryan was out of town, so it was just Jamie and I watching the game, and by halftime it was clear that Baylor was getting steamrolled. We went out to lunch at the half and watched the rest of the game at Waterloo Icehouse.
Saturday night I hung out with Chris Griego, and we ate burritos and watched Army of Darkness. I've seen that movie a bunch of times, but it had been awhile, and it's a classic.
Sunday I took Cassidy to the park, and somehow just sort of goofed off, I guess (well, I ran a couple of errands, but mostly goofed off). Still reading Blood Meridian, watched some DVR'ed TV, played some XBox, and went out to dinner at Maudie's with Jamie. Ryan got back from Vegas last night, so I look forward to hearing how his trip went.

One of the things I frittered away my Sunday on was a bit of Batman: Arkham Asylum on my XBox. It's a pretty cool game. I haven't really been regularly reading comic books for a while (although in high school I was more into them, and Ryan still keeps me somewhat updated on major developments), but it seems like this video game is based pretty solidly upon the comics as opposed to the movies or the cartoons or whatever. Paul Dini, a regular writer of the Batman comics, helped to write the dialogue and plotlines for the video game, and as a result, the game does a good job of retaining the feel of the Batman from the comic books.
The artwork, gameplay, dialogue, and voice acting in the game are all really solid. Early in the game there were occasional moments when I would feel like my character in the game didn't seem to have all of the resources and abilities that the Batman of the comics might have, but these instances started to subside once I started unlocking various gadgets and moves.
Anyway, it's a cool game. Probably one of the better superhero games that I've played. The fighting scenes, in particular, are really well done, with the action sometimes shifting into slow motion or switching to cut scenes in order to highlight a particularly well executed attack or defense (plus, there's a lot of cool creeping and climbing around and attacking from the shadows, as well there should be in a good Batman game).
Arkham Asylum is just another big step forward in the ability of game designers and programmers to not only provide an entertaining game in terms of playability, but to tell a well crafted story at the same time. Arkham Asylum is fun to play, but I can't help but think that it would be almost as much fun to watch- just to see how the story plays out.
So that was the weekend.
Before going to bed last night I watched a bit of live coverage of a speech that President Obama was giving to students in China. The president gave what was, in my opinion, an extremely good speech. He did a good job of striking a delicate balance between challenging China on policies affecting human rights (including freedom of religion and freedom of speech-specifically calling for free, unrestricted access to and use of the internet), while at the time striking a fairly conciliatory tone (stating, for instance, that the U.S. welcomes China as a robust economic partner in the world community, and that the two countries need not become adversaries or rivals). Obama also pointed out the need for cooperation between the U.S. and China in a number of areas, including, but not limited to, the need to reduce carbon gas emissions and control global warming.
Anyway, it's always hard to tell how well the president's speech translates when he's having to communicate through interpreters, but I thought he did a really job of addressing some of the issues that U.S. has with the Chinese in terms of their human rights policies while actually managing to retain a fairly collegial tone. In essence, he kind of spoke over the shoulders of Chinese political leaders and directly to the Chinese people, trying to convey a message that the U.S. isn't so much interested in judging or criticizing China as it is concerned with the welfare and well being of its people (and that we will only really feel like the Chinese are living in a healthy society if we know that its people have the freedom to do things like freely speak their minds and freely practice their religions). Obama combined this message with an admission that the U.S. has historically had its own serious problems in granting civil liberties, but that it had made great strides forward in this area over the decades (with the president holding up his own presidency as a measure of proof that progress has been made). In short (and this is going to come off as more patronizing than our charismatic president made it sound), he gave them a variation on the old "we're not angry- we're concerned" speech that parents give to teenagers who are running with the wrong crowd. Knowing that the Chinese government typically responds to criticism of its human rights policies by decrying the U.S. as arrogant, hypocritical meddlers, I thought Obama's speech was kind of brilliant.
Anyway, we've all learned by now that Obama isn't going to turn out to be the perfect president, but it's also become quite undeniable that he does certain things extremely well. One of the areas where he excels is in speaking to people in a way wins them over, motivates, and energizes them. It may not be the most important quality that a president can have, but it is clearly an important skill, and even moreso at a time when we're struggling to win back international trust after 8 years of very unpopular foreign policy.
So I watched Obama's speech last night right before I went to bed, and I went to sleep happy with the face that our current president is presenting to the rest of the world on our behalf. That was kind of a nice thing.

Friday, November 13, 2009

9/11 Trials in New York;

Hey! Not too much to report.
I got around to watching Wednesday night's Glee last night. I still really like that show. The show isn't exactly subtle and at times it can be unapoligetically cheesey (this week's episode wasn't exactly subtle in its message about empathy for handicapped people), but I still find it was extremely well done. And, of course, Jane Lynch continues to impress me.
I also watched Fringe last night. I'm still enjoying it, as well. It's pretty far out, and probably not for everyone, but I like it.

And it sounds like five people involved in the 9/11 attacks, including "mastermind" Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, are going to be tried in federal court in New York for their involvement in the attacks. Critics have voiced opposition to the plan, both because of the perceived danger involved in trying these men on U.S. soil (there are theories that the tiral could generate further terrorist attacks) and because of concerns involved with trying accused terrorists in a federal court (as opposed to a closed military proceeding- some of the concern surrounding the use of federal court for the trials involves the use and possible release of confidential information during the trial).
Personally, I'm a little worried about the possibility of some kind of attack arising in relation to this sort of trial, but if experts are reasonably sure that the trials can be conducted safely, I think we should go ahead and carry them out in New York's federal court. I think that a public trial in the same city that suffered the bombings might do some considerable good in helping to heal some of the scars that our country still suffers as a result of 9/11.
Furthermore, I think it might be good to show the American people and the rest of the world that we aren't so afraid of terrorists that we're afraid to even try them in one of our normal federal courts.
There's no doubt that the 9/11 terrorists did some awful, terrible things, but I feel like subsequent to that event we have built up terrorists in the popular American psyche as being some kind of super powered monsters of almost unstoppable force. The truth is, these guys are just men, and simply criminals at that. They pulled off a well executed attack which unfolded in spectacular, devastating fashion, but these guys weren't super ninjas or specially trained elite military forces or anything. They were just a handful of guys who recognized some weaknesses in our security structure and exploited everyday, banal items for devastating effect (they managed to change the course of history with box cutters and passenger jets).
Following the attacks, I feel like the strength, might, and menace of terrorists (using "terrorist" here as a sort of general term) became somewhat exaggerated when some of our leaders realized that they could get more political mileage out of all-powerful, omnipresent, viciously evil, shadowy/undetectable beings than they could out of a simple story about poorly funded, moderately trained men who capitalized on American vulnerability and ineptitude in order to carry out their attacks. Funds are easier to appropriate and wars are easier to start when you're fighting an unknowable, demonic enemy than when you're fighting a bunch of clever, but all-too-human criminals.
Anyway, all of this being said, some hardline Muslim revolutionary could potentially set off a bomb or something as a show of opposition to this trial, but, frankly, this same thing could happen no matter where these men are tried (and, sadly, as we saw at Fort Hood recently, it doesn't necessarily take a trial in order for terrorists to suddenly inflict politically motivated violence against American citizens).
But I think trying these men in New York is a good thing. It might provide a greater sense of justice for Americans in the aftermath of 9/11, and our willingness to try these cases in New York shows both our citizens and people around the world that we aren't going to be cowed by the threat of terrorism.
As for the use of a civilian court as opposed to a military tribunal, in general I'm in favor of that, too. I think Americans need to see what's going on in this trial in order to gain a sense of justice from it, and I think that the use of a federal court will lend some transparency to the proceedings, thereby helping to reassure our citizens and the rest of the world that we're still a country that operates under the rule of law- even in the face of atrocities as evil as terrorism.
As for the confidentiality issues, the 9/11 attacks occurred 8 years ago, and it will probably be another year before the trial.
I have a hard time believing that there's much in the way of classified material that could leak out of this thing and cause new problems for U.S. intelligence agencies. If there are such issues, hopefully they can be worked out before trial. A judge will have to make rulings on confidential material to see if it should be released for the trial, weighing the need for the evidence against any possible national security concerns that might be involved.
Anyway, I think the trial is a good thing.

Well, that's it for now. Have a good weekend!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Roundball v. Sin City

Almost forgot to mention that Ryan is also headed out into one of the dark places of the earth. While Karebear is living in a hut, dodging malaria and fitting Kenyans with glasses, Roundball will be gambling away his money, drinking 'till his liver begs for mercy, and generally making a fool of himself with his friends until the Vegas locals round them up and drive them out of town. While Roundball is certainly on a different sort of mission than Karebear, he's no less in need of luck, and I bid him Godspeed!

Busy; Off to Africa

Pretty busy today, so not much blogging time. We had a really good Crack practice last night. Unfortunately, I screwed up, and it didn't get recorded. There seems to be some kind of inverse relationship between the quality of a practice and the probability that it will be successfully recorded.
My mom is off to Kenya today for her second trip to work in an optometry clinic with members of her church. Once again, I love her and I'm proud of her and I hope the trip is a big success!
Well that's all for today. Have a good one!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Happy Veteran's Day!!

Happy Veteran's Day!! I'm not a veteran, myself, of course, but a number of people people in the Steans family have served in the armed forces, several of them having served combat duty during wars. My own dad, Rick Steans, was in the air force during Vietnam, grandpa Ross served in the army during World War II, serving in campaigns from North Africa to Italy to D-Day (he did a landing in an unpowered glider during D-Day). My uncle, Robert Steans, served in the Air Force for a number of years, and then worked as a civilian with the air force for a number of years. Even now, retired from government service, he continues to work closely with the military, although in a private capacity.
Anyway, I want to wish a happy Veteran's Day not only to the veterans in my own family, but to all of the people out there who have served our country through military service. I'm not going to wax poetic or anything, but I really do feel a genuine debt of gratitude to the people who have been willing to serve our country in the armed forces.
Hats off to you guys (and ladies!).

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cell Phone Brain Cancer; Fort Hood Memorial

Hello! How's everybody doing?
Nice dinner last night with Ryan and Jamie. We just went to Cherry Creek for some shrimp and catfish, but it was good. I also played some guitar and tried to work on some new songs. It kept me entertained, but I didn't come up with anything very exciting.
Headline on CNN today asking questions about whether cell phones cause brain cancer. Even though I use my cell phone as much as anyone, I've had some nagging doubts about this issue for a long time. As we've increasingly moved toward wireless technoologies, it's just seemed like there's eventually got to be some kind of consequence for filling the air around us with all of this additional radiation. I read an article somewhere about a month or two back reporting on some kind of study claiming that smartphones (iPhones and Blackberries and so forth) give off even more radiation than regular phones, and that because of this they pose an even greater risk to our health than regular mobile phones.
Arrgh. It's all kind of scary. One more thing to worry about, I guess. Hope I happen to have a cancer resistant head.
Also, today was the memorial service at Fort Hood for the people killed in the recent shootings. I feel really bad for them. I'm still confused and really saddened by that whole thing.
Well, I don't have very much to say, and it's been a busy day.
Travis County is shut down tomorrow for Veteran's Day. I'll probably/maybe still post something tomorrow, but I just wanted to say a happy Veteran's Day ahead of time in case I don't end up posting tomorrow!

Monday, November 09, 2009

Weekend Update; House Passes Health Care Reform Bill; Paranormal Activity

Hola! Happy Monday! (it could happen...)
I had a pretty good weekend. I went to the Texas-Central Florida game on Saturday with Mom and Dad. Texas won that game pretty decisively, but still somehow managed to slip into the number three spot behind Alabama. Arrgh. Well, Alabama and Florida still have to play each other, so if Texas remains undefeated (which is by no means a sure thing- has anyone else noticed that A&M is starting to come alive? They lost to Colorado this weekend, but they played a good game and barely lost- and this is after having won the two games prior), a loss by either one of those teams should just about guarantee Texas a spot in the top 2.
Anyway, after the game I went with my folks and Ryan and Jamie to Brick Oven for some pizza.
I spent most of our rainy, dreary sunday just hanging out around the house. I read about half of Blood Meridian (The Pope has recommended this book to me at least twice now, so I figured I better get around to it), and last night I had band practice with Mono Ensemble (or is it Mono Quartet when only four of us show up?). We practiced with Jim, Frank, Reed, and myself, and we mostly played covers, but we sounded okay. We haven't been playing on a regular basis for a few months, we're playing some new material, and we're playing without our usual band leader, so we're a little rusty, but things are clicking along. It's good to be making music on some kind of semiregular basis with the guys again.

Over the weekend, the House of Representatives managed to pass a health care reform bill that contained many cost control measures, put restrictions on cases where coverage could be curtailed or denied, and included provisions for a public option. The Republicans immediately went on the offensive, decrying the bill as expansion of big government and wasteful government spending. (no word on how those sentiments gel with their pro-war positions on Iraq and their defense of expensive, failed military initiatives like an unproven missile shield program in Poland and the continued production of the F-22 fighters, which were initially costing $339 million per aircraft, but which were predicted to eventually drop to the bargain basement price of $138 million per plane [sorry, Dad. I'll admit that it is a really cool plane, but oh, so expensive]).
Anyway, as I understand it, the passage of a fairly strong House Bill was never really in doubt. There are simply enough Democrats in the House to get things passed despite Republican opposition (even if a few Democrats go off the reservation and don't support a bill). The Senate is where the real battle is going to take place, and that makes me nervous. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid just doesn't seem to have a lot of forcefulness or charisma in him, and I think he could probably learn a few things from Nancy Pelosi about how to get the troops in line (although, admittedly, Reid has a tougher job ahead of him). As I've said before, I think The white House also needs to just unleash Rahm Emanuel to go do some arm twisting of these "Blue Dog" Democrats who've been taking buy offs from the health care lobby for years. I think a few not-so-veiled threats about well-funded primary opponents and possible vetoes of pet projects for their respective constituencies could probably help get these guys in line. the Democrats love the idea of having a tent that's big enough to contain many different points of view, but when you're consistently facing unified opposition, the lack of a unified front means that it's very hard to ever get anything accomplished. The Democratic Party probably contains more diversity of ideology than the Republican camp, but there are still certain principles that should be at the core of being a Democrat. The right to a certain basic, essential, human standard of living is at the core of the Democratic belief system, in my mind, and I think that if a person wants to claim party membership and affiliation as a Democrat, then this is one of the times when I think they should be pressured to step up to the plate and support the party position. I wouldn't feel bad at all about pressuring Democratic Senators on this issue. The Republicans lean on their membership in this sort of way on almost every issue, and while I don't think the Democrats should really go that direction (even though it makes for a more efficient legisaltive body) I do think there are critical moments when it's important to be able to get the troops in line.

What else? I went and saw scary movie Paranormal Activity this weekend. It was pretty good. Pretty much exactly what I expected, I guess. There's not a lot of depth to the movie, but it does a good job of slowly, incrementally building up suspense, and it manages to accomplish the somewhat difficult task of presenting a "realistic" ghost/demon story (by realistic, I mean that the thing starts with the sorts of bumps and mysterious noises that we all occasionally hear in the night, but then the spookiness escalates from there). Anyway, I enjoyed the movie. It managed to be scary and filled with tension, despite a lack of blood and gore (well, a relative lack, anyway). When I walked out of the movie, I was actually wondering if it would keep me up that night. No dice, though. Apparently my own laziness and sleepiness outweighs any sense of creepiness or fear of the supernatural that might keep me up at night. (and this despite the fact that my house was actually reported to be haunted by the lady who sold it to me. Her grandmother passed away in my house, and I was told that the previous occupants occasionally heard the sounds of her ghost roaming around. Personally, if the lady is still around, I hope she's doing okay, and Cassidy and I wish her the best. I've never heard anything supernatural, though.)

Anyway, that's about it. Maybe more later. I sort of doubt it, but maybe.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Bit More on Ft. Hood

The more I read about the Ft. Hood shootings, the more it sounds like they were politically/religiously motivated and premeditated- not the act of someone who psychologically "snapped". That makes the whole thing that much more troubling, in my mind. Hasan had his med school paid for by the army and treated soldiers for years before doing this. I understand that he had major ideoogical conflicts with the military, but, of course, that does little or nothing to explain the shootings (going AWOL or suffering a dishonorable discharge aren't great ideas, but they sure trump a massacre any day). Now I'm wondering if Hasan was talking to or working with someone else when he planned this thing. I'm betting he didn't go from choosing a life in the U.S. military to becoming a violent Muslim extremist by forming his views in a vacuum...

Friday, November 06, 2009

Kitten Mittens

Hey, guys.
Happy Friday.
Last night I went over to Ryan and Jamie's to have dinner with them along with Heather, Matt, and Nicole. Jamie made a nice dinner with jambalya and salad. We also watched the latest episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

I think I may have posted that clip before, but it's a classic.

I just wrote the other post about the Fort Hood shootings, so I'm going to leave it at that. Maybe more later.

Have a great weekend!

Fort Hood Shootings and Nidal Malik Hassan

I have to admit that I've been watching some of the coverage regarding this shooting spree that took place at Fort Hood in Killeen. It's a terrible, tragic event, no doubt. I can't get my head around the fact that Nidal Malik Hasan, the shooter, was a psychiatrist.
It's sort of common wisdom that people in the mental health field don't and shouldn't diagnose and treat themselves as patients. Given the obvious problems with objectivity and so forth, I get all of that. Still, I guess I'm pretty shocked that a psychiatrist didn't have enough self awareness and insight to seek help when he began to feel the sort of rage building up in himself that led to this sort of rampage.
Hasan dealt every day, apparently, with soldiers who were suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other significant mental health issues, and surely one of his primary pieces of advice for those patients must have been for them to try to remain very aware of their own emotions and to seek immediate help if they began to feel an inclination toward harming themselves or others. I'm pretty sure that sort of advice has got to be pretty fundamental when dealing with people suffering from PTSD and/or depression.
Anyway, it just really floors me that someone could spend their professional career trying to help people overcome the psychological trauma inflicted they'd suffered in a war zone, and then turn around and violently, horribly attack people from that same population.
Ready for my ten cent, bullsh*t analysis of the situation? (and I readily admit that I might end up being way off base- I'm just making guesses based off the little info I've read so far)
Hasan, as the media has already seized upon, was a Muslim, and told friends and family that he had serious reservations about an upcoming deployment to Iraq where he might be called upon to fight fellow Muslims. I have a feeling that this issue of Islamic allegiance was probably part of the story, but not all of it. Hasan also spent an awful lot of time talking to soldiers with PTSD and hearing story after story about the violence and carnage that these soldiers had witnessed in war zones. I would imagine that this not only contributed to his apprehension regarding his upcoming deployment, but that the experience of constantly hearing these horrible stories (and seeing the accompanying emotional and physical damage which they inflicted) probably had a significant impact upon Hasan as well. In order to actually receive a PTSD diagnosis, my understanding is that a person has to actually be present to witness a traumatic (usually violent) event. Hasan didn't have PTSD, but I still have to wonder what effect there must be upon a person who constantly hears these sorts of gruesome stories in vivid, excrutiating detail from people who lived through them. I would imagine that eventually, repeatedly going through these sorts of horrifying stories with suffering soldiers would begin to have some sort of impact on the care provider. The fact that many of these stories involved people who were Muslim, a population which Hasan apparently claimed to share an affinity toward, probably only aggravated the experience of repeatedly hearing these tales. If nothing else, Iraq and/or Afghanistan would start to literally sound like the stuff of nightmares- some kind of hellish, violent place that kept producing the emotional and mental devastation that Hasan was dealing with on a daily basis back here in the states. Hasan had been hearing terrible, awful stories about the war zone for years, and then he was told that he was going to have to go over there.
And, as mentioned, on top of the horror of hearing all of these stories, Hasan had an additional horror to contend with. The enemy that he was supposed to be fighting in Iraq were people who shared (at least on some level) his own religious beliefs. Hasan had made comments to a number of people, apparently, that he was very uncomfortable with the idea of fighting (and possibly killing) fellow Muslims.
I'm not sure exactly how much or how often Hasan had tried to protest his deployment (the military culture surely frowns upon complaints about such things, so I'm not sure how much he might have publicly expressed his reservations), but I think most of us assume that the military probably isn't very flexible when it comes to entertaining complaints about having to go to a war zone. Understandably, the military really can't afford to pay a whole bunch of sympathy to soldiers who simply decide that they don't want to go to war. If we let soldiers say that they'd rather not go to war, we would probably be short a soldier or two.
But Hasan, having already spent an inordinate amount of time hearing about the horrors of Iraq and Afganistan and also having strong religious reservations about going to fight against fellow Muslims may have been in a position where his anxiety and resentment just turned into an emotional pressure cooker. With his protestations falling on deaf ears, his animosity toward the seemingly indifferent military may have grown until he finally just sort of lost it and exploded. I think Hasan sort of came unlgued because he didn't feel like the military was taking him seriously when he protested his deployment. (and things like a recent negative performance review and other unknown factors may have contributed to the resentment)
Who knows? I could easily be totally wrong about all of this stuff. Maybe it was more of a traditional workplace rage thing where he couldn't get along with people in his workplace, and he just went postal.
At any rate, I'm not making excuses for Hasan. I'm just trying to understand what happened. As I said, it truly shocks me that a psychiatrist would do such a thing.
My deep, sincere sympathy goes out to all of the victims and their families.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Ongoing Saga of the Murder of Jennifer Cave

Well, I'm not going to blog much today. I didn't get around to writing anything last night, I haven't had time to write anything today, and I don't have all that much to say, anyway.
There's an article in the Austin American Statesman today that talks about a new appeal for Colton Pitonyak. (for those who don't keep track of grisly Austin crime stories, Pitonyaak was convicted of killing and dismembering a young woman named Jennifer Cave before fleeing to Mexico with a different woman named Laura Hall. He was captured in Mexico with the help of Mexican authorities. Hall was convicted of felony evidence tampering for helping Pitonyak try to clean up the crime scene, including possibly helping to chop up Cave's body). Apparently Pitonyak's new lawyers, Joe Turner and Chris Perri (whom I know pretty well) are now claiming that Laura Hall was the person who actually murdered Jennifer Cave, and they've provided statements from women who were in group therapy with Hall in jail who say that Hall admitted during group therapy sessions to killing Cave.
I don't believe that Pitonyak is innocent in this murder, but it wouldn't surprise me a bit if Hall played a substantial part in the killing. Having seen her interviews on TV, watched a bit of her trial, and having watched her scream at her parents out in front of the courthouse (who were just about the only friends that she had left in the world at the time), I have to say that I just find that woman really creepy.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The Italians Make a Crime of Rendition

In a case that I consider kind of fascinating, an Italian court has convicted 23 Americans of kidnapping and other charges related to the rendition of a Muslim cleric who was abducted from the streets of Milan in 2003. Rendition, for those who don't know, is a practice that has been used by the CIA and other American agencies to abduct terrorism suspects and remove them to other countries for interrogation (typically to countries that are more open to the use of more aggressive, intense interrogation techniques). Among the sentences handed down were an eight year sentence for former Milan CIA station chief Robert Seldon Lady and 22 other five year sentences for other Americans. Diplomatic immunity was granted to three other high ranking Americans, including the CIA's former Rome station chief. None of the Americans were present for their trial, and all were convicted in absentia. They remain fugitives in the eyes of the Italian government. Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, known as Abu Omar, is a Muslim cleric who was snatched from from the streets of Milan and flown out of an American air base to Egypt, where Abu Omar says he was tortured. Abu Omar is accused of having preached violence against Americans in his sermons and of having recruited terrorists to travel to Iraq in advance of the American invasion. He was under surveillance by Italian authorities at the time of his capture.

I don't want to condemn the actions of the CIA agents who carried out this operation under orders, and I don't want to treat terrorism or terrorists with any less seriousness than the matter deserves. That being said, I just don't think it's right for American agents to go snatching foreign citizens off the streets of foreign countries just because we feel entitled. As usual, I try to turn the situation around and imagine how the U.S. would feel if foreign agents were executing similar actions within our borders. As a hypothetical example, if Israeli agents had been snatching American residents or American citizens off of American streets (without any kind of notice or permission) because of alleged crimes against the Israeli people, we would probably have a huge problem with that sort of thing (seizing Americans without due process so they could be sent to some other country to be interrogated and tortured is, hopefully, something that our government would seriously frown upon). Extraordinary rendition is a terribly arrogant practice which not only violates human rights, but which shows a serious lack of regard for the legal rights and autonomy of other countries. If we, as Americans , have a suspicion that a foreign citizen is a terrorist who poses a serious threat, it's incumbent upon us to seek some knowledge and cooperation from other countries before we go around grabbing and torturing people (well, I don't think we should really be torturing people at all, but most people who read this blog have already heard me ramble on about that a lot). Failure to gain that sort of international cooperation constitutes the "might makes right" sort of foreign policy that turned the public sentiment of many foreign countries against us during the Bush years (and I know there are people who say they don't care what the rest of the world thinks of us, but those people, quite frankly, are just being stupid. To put it very simply, we may not absolutely need any particular country at any particular time, but to have a large number of nations turn against us economically, politically, and perhaps even militarily [at least in terms of lending their support] would be an extraordinarily bad thing).
Anyway, Amnesty International is applauding the convictions in this case, and I support them as well. You can't just fight terrorism by becoming terrorists yourselves, and extraordinary rendition (illegally kidnapping people who are still only suspects in order to secretly torture them) is a terrorist act. I'm sorry, but I demand better from my government and my intelligence officials.

The New V

'Ello! Hope everyone's doing well. The weather in Austin has been pretty incredible over the last couple of days.
So not too muc th report. Jamie made a fish dinner for us last night that was really good. Thanks, Jamie!

I also hung out and watched the new version of V with Ryan and Jamie last night. I'm still not sure what to think about this new version of V. I watched the original V miniseries and series when I was a kid, and I remember really getting into it. I also watched a good chunk of that original series last weekend on SyFy, and while it didn't hold up quite as well upon viewing it as an adult (the dialogue often seems incredibly stilted, the acting is mediocre, there's an enthusiastic use of early 80's style racial stereotypes, and the thing is often shot pretty poorly), the basic plotline and themes of the story continue to be intriguing.
[spoilers, I guess, for people who haven't learned about V over the last several decades]
V is, for people who don't know, a series that's about a bunch of aliens who come to Earth, initially pretending to be our friends and proclaiming a desire to help humanity in many ways, but, of course, in the end turning out to be aliens that are actually lizard people in disguise who want to consume humanity as food and deplete our natural resources. The original V series was loosely based upon the Nazi takeover of Germany before World War II. The Nazis, like the alien Visitors from V, initially presented themselves as friendly allies who had nothing but the good of the German people at heart. Like the Visitors, the Nazis offered benefits to the German populace that might otherwise seem out of reach (a stable economy, a powerful military that could provide strong national defense and security, etc.). It was, of course, only after the Nazis were well entrenched politically that their more aggressive and ruthless ambitions became known.
I have a couple of questions and concerns about the new series. First of all, the pacing is much more rapidfire and, in my opinion, sort of rushed as compared to the original series. In the original series, they took much more time to instill a growing sense of dread in the audience as we slowly came to realize that the visitors were not what they seemed (starting with small clues about their reptilian nature: that they feel cool to the touch, they don't eat cooked food, their presence seems to scare animals, etc.). This new series has pretty much skipped over any sense of dramatic tension that might have been involved with the population slowly coming to realize the true nature of the Visitors. In the first episode the aliens have already come to earth, ingratiated themselves with Earth's leaders and government, have taken control of the media, have established a chain of command involving human supporter lackeys, and have already been discovered to actually be bad/scary aliens with bad intentions. Oh yeah- and the initial stages of a human resistance movement have already begun. This all occurred within the show's first hour. As Ryan pointed out when we talked, the director/producers may have just decided to shorthand all of this stuff because they're assuming that the audience will already know the truth about the aliens in light of the initial miniseries from the 80's. Still, I can't help wondering what the point of telling the V story really is if you're not going to pay more attention to some of these themes. Given how quickly the show rocketed through all of these plot points, it doesn't really seem like there was much point in having the aliens show up in disguise at all. Why not just have them show up as an extremely powerful invasion force that simply occupies the planet by force? You could still tell the story of a resistance movie this way. The answer, of course, is that a show without an outright invasion wouldn't be able to call itself V and cash in upon the nostalgia value of the original series.
A show with a straightforward invasion couldn't sell itself as V, but I'm not sure that the direction that they're taking this new show leaves it with much of a claim in regard to resembling the original series, either. It's sort of annoying because I'm not sure that it would have made much difference that the audience already knew that the show was dealing with lizard aliens. The tension in the show doesn't come from the audience finding out the truth- it comes from watching the human characters as they figure out what's actually going on.
I was also, of course, annoyed that the show made such a point out of showing the aliens using universal health care services as a means of currying favor with the same population that they would ultimately seek to destroy. Seems like this reference to our current White House and the Democrats was heavy handed, lacked any kind of subtlety or grace, and was ultimately very misguided. I know that there probably are some conservatives out there who genuinely believe that Obama is some sort of alien infiltrator who has come to conquer the American people and inflict harm under the guise of kindness. At the end of the day, though, I think this is a huge stretch. It seeks to make a point that's as fictitious, fantastic, and nonsensical as the work of science fiction in which it appears. These are the same sort of sentiments that have resulted in people questioning the president's place of birth, insisting that he's a foreigner, labelling him as a Communist (and/or a Socialist or a Fascist), and generally fearing him because he's a minority leader who speaks logically and eloquently. The original V miniseries was a work of fiction that served as a metaphor to describe a historical event that had already taken place. This new version of V seems to be a fiction that's built upon another fiction- it feeds upon paranoid fantasies about a government that's looked upon with suspicion for working to provide health care, repair the economy, and which refuses to play into the ready-made traps of conservative, vitriolic media outlets. It all seems really lame and poorly thought through. For one thing, we've seen what happens with presidents who simply want to push their agenda upon the American people. We had 8 years of it under Bush, and it didn't involve much subtlety, diguise, or gestures of goodwill toward the people. Nowadays aggressive leaders just issue presidential orders, mandate things by presidential decree, and hide behind privilege when people push back.
They don't allow their key initiatives to get hung up while trying to pick up votes from the opposing party (i.e., allowing Olympia Snowe to control the health care debate in the pursuit of bipartisanship). Instead, modern presidents who get the totalitarian bug just do what they want and worry about the consequences later (e.g., Guantanamo, torture, rendition, wiretapping). The Bush White House wasn't V. It was Independence Day. It was War of the Worlds. (okay, on one of the rare occasions when it actually needed some support from an outside group, the Bush White House might have seems a little like the aliens from V. In front of the U.N. Secutriy Council, when they needed to get a resolution passed in support of the Iraq War, the Bush White House lied about Iraqi WMDs and the threat they supposedly posed to the world. We offered ourselves up as the white knights who would fix the fictitious problem. That was pretty V-like).
Anyway, I'll probably watch a few more episodes to see if/how they can turn things around, but I have serious reservations about the new V series.

Well, I just spent a lot of time on V, but now I gotta run. Maybe more later.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Blogs and the Brain; Angry Voters;

Howdy! Not much to report. Last night I hung out with Cassidy, did a bit of reading, sprayed a tree or two for bugs, and got a little bit depressed about how early it's getting dark after our weekend time change.

There was an article on CNN today about digital diaries and whether they "mess up your brain". It caught my attention since my blog is, in most ways, little more than a digital library. Turns out that the writer was concerned about the human brain becoming weaker and less efficient as a result of people using digital diaries to record the details of their lives instead of relying upon their own memory. Seems like it was kind of a dumb concern in the first place. After all, while the digital aspects of diary keeping may be new, diaries and personal journals in written form have been around for centuries (millenia?), and many, many successful, prominent people have used them to chronicle their activities and thoughts. While I can see that there might be some general concern about people relying upon computers and search engines to instantly access data (as opposed to learning things and committing them to memory in a more traditional way), I've always thought that writing down events and ideas actually helps me to organize my thoughts and to make sense out of them more easily.
Anyway, there may be some sort of legitimate concerns among educators about the electronic crutch that computers provide for students when it comes to the memorization or assimilation of facts (after all, if people don't have a certain degree of factual knowledge in their heads, they're not going to be able to readily identify things and make comparisons and otherwise synthesize knowledge in a way that leads to new insights- there's a theoretical danger that people without a large, internal knowledge base will not recognize that something is important or relevant enough to look up, let alone be able to recognize the ways in which it might be similar to or different from other items). Diaries and journals, however, are mostly a collection of dates, events, and details. Their intrinsic value comes, primarily, from their use as a memory aid or as means of preserving the chronological order of events. In my experience, the process of making entries helps to sort of reinforce those memories and make them easier to recall at a later date, and my blog entries tend to serve more as just a trigger that helps me access memories, as opposed to a vivid account of what I occurred (meaning, the blog entries may help me to access stuff, but I think most of the work in remembering still comes from me).
And I'm rambling.
So much for the blog helping me to keep my thoughts organized.

There's also an article in CNN about how anger could be a driving force in gubernatorial and other elections across the country today, a force which could mean trouble for Democrats. So people are angry and they're voting against Democrats. I understand that people are angry, but the rage against the Democrats continues to seem nonsensical to me.
Many people are mad about the economy. Democrats didn't create the economic mess that we're in. Obama inherited it, and then he implemented an economic recovery plan that seems to have helped to avert a larger disaster. He didn't particularly want to spend that kind of money, but he felt that he didn't have much choice (and Bush had already taken over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and given AIG $85 billion in federal bailout money. Most thinking voters would realize that this meant even the Republicans saw a need for significant economic intervention as well). There was a significant lack of regulation and oversight in the financial sector prior to the crash, but these problems had gone unaddressed under 8 years of Republican leadership (although, to be fair, it sounds like some of these problems were already starting to emerge under Clinton).
And voters are angry about health care reform. There are a lot of people who simply fear change, and they're not interested in educating themselves enough to understand the issues. I keep seeing people on TV who claim that we have the best health care system in the world, but who fail to address the fact that we spend far more per patient than other countries, have a shorter life expectancy, fewer doctors per patient, fewer people covered by insurance, and are still one of the few industrialized nations where people suffer financial ruin and bankruptcy when they get sick. These same angry people keep claiming that we can't reform healthcare without making it a disaster, but they ignore the fact that many other countries have already implemented alternative healthcare systems while keeping their patient satisfaction levels as high or higher than those experienced in the U.S.. Do these people think we're just that much more incompetent than all of these other countries?
There are a hundred other things that get the conservatives fired up, but in the end, I just think that most of the "reasoning" amounts to smoke and mirrors. There's very little logic in the anger. Mostly the anger is about fear of change. Americans are easily spooked by the idea that things may become different, but in the meantime I think we're suffering for that fear.
In the end, though, change is inevitable. The question is about how bad we're willing to let things get before we are honest with ourselves and see the need for it.

Gotta run.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Dia De Los Muertos; Weekend Update; Flaming Lips: Embryonic

Hey! Hope everyone had a good Halloween weekend! I also hope everyone is having a good Dia De Los Muertos. I don't exactly celebrate the holiday in any official way, but it's still a good opportunity to take a few moments out to reflect upon the important people who've passed on in my life (among them, my grandparents, Jeff, Liz, and other family and friends). These people, of course, all still remain important to me, and personally I think it's cool to have a day to fondly, warmly commemorate important people in your life who have died. Dia De Los Muertos is supposed to "take the sting out of death", helping people to remember the dead without suffering a whole bunch of accompanying pain and sorrow, and I like that idea.
The weekend, as I said, was pretty good. Friday night I went to a party to see Eric's band (well, Eric's other band besides Mono Ensemble), Venus Fixer. Venus Fixer sounded really good. They played fast, loud, aggressive music that was fun to dance to and really good for a party. There were lots of people in cool costumes, too (somehow, even though it was on the night before Halloween, it didn't occur to me that this was going to be a Halloween party. I guess I was just thinking about going to see the band).
At one point Mad Max hijacked the Venus Fixer set, but no one seemed to mind.
Anyway, Venus Fixer rocks. Hard. You should check them out sometime.
Saturday, of course, was Halloween. Saturday night I went over to Ryan and Jamie's for their Halloween spooktacular party. It was fun! I wore a kind of crazy mask that I got at Walgreen's, and helped Ryan and Jamie hand out candy. They had a ton of kids trick or treating on their street (far more than I've ever had), and a lot of the neighbors were all sitting out on their front porches in costumes handing out candy. It was a little Norman Rockwell-esque, and it made me realize that we just don't have all that many events anymore where neighborhoods all come together to celebrate and do fun things in one another's company (heck, most of us don't even know very many of our neighbors). That's a shame, and it's cool that Halloween is still helping to keep a bit of that sentiment alive.
Anyway, Ryan and Jamie threw a fun party, which was made even more fun by the UT victory over OSU. I was happy to see UT win so decisively because before the game one of my friends sort of spooked me by talking about how this game could end up being a surprisingly difficult hurdle for the Horns (I won't say who it was that predicted a close, hard fought game, but his name rhymes with Figment Room).
Anyway, we all had a good time and there were lots of cool costumes.
Here we see Reed and Ryan dressed as Green Lantern Corps interns.
Jamie, Julia and Nicole (the Supergirl and Uhura are easy to spot- Melanie Daniels from The Birds is a little harder to pick out in this photo)
Juan as a knight from The Holy Grail (Steven, at left, is from Mad Men)
Ryan and Nicole.
Yesterday I got up and went to Juan in a Million with Ryan and Jamie before settling in for a lazy day of guitar playing (some of it outside to enjoy the great weather) and television (I watched a good portion of the original V miniseries, which was played in its entirety on SyFy). Last night we had a sort of band practice with Reed, me, Jim, and Frank. We played mostly covers, but we managed to stumble through fairly successfully without Eric, which was a feat in and of itself.
What else? I've been listening to The Flaming Lips' newest album, Embryonic, and I really like it (thanks, Eric!). It's got some crazy, sort of psychedelic sounds in it, and it's just one of those records that takes you on a sort of strange journey if you listen to it from beginning to end (which I did last night as I was going to bed). The Flaming Lips have gone through a number of different reinventions of themselves over the years, but in many ways this album harkens back to their younger days, when they were a bit more unconventional and exploratory. Still, in my opinion, this is a fun album to listen to, despite being a departure from their more recent recordings. I like it. It's good for the Flaming Lips to remind people that beneath some of their more radio friendly, catchier tunes, the freaks still remain who made this band so original and unique in the first place.
Well, I guess that's about it for now.