Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

30 May, 2012

The Pop-up Book of Phobias

This looks like one neat tome - The Pop-up Book of Phobias.



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First Fledge!

The Dulcinea has been addicted to the hawkcam here in Madison and she noticed that the brood has had its first fledge. I presume the bird has left the nest permanently and is terrorizing bunnies and mice around the Madison area as I type.



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The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes



I was quite looking forward to reading The Somnambulist after having read about it. Then I heard that Jonathan Barnes had written a Sherlock Holmes audio drama called The Adventure of the Perfidious Mariner and that he was a big Doctor Who fan which made me want to read it all the more.

“Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever,” admonishes the narrator in the first paragraph. Describing his own tale as “nonsense” and “wilfully bizarre”, he doubts the reader will believe a word of it. Having warned us, we learn that our humble narrator is less than reliable as he warns, “I ought to admit that I shall have reason to tell you more than one direct lie.”

With such an introduction we are thrust into Edwardian London. The story here concerns Edward Moon, a magician whose fame is fleeting and also a detective who assists the London constabulary on occasion. His partner on and offstage is the titular character, a giant of a man with no hair, cannot speak, and is impervious to attacks with edged weapons. Oh, and he loves milk. The pair are enlisted, or perhaps drawn, to investigate the death of an actor who went up to the see the etchings of a lady of the night but ended up seeing an apparition of his mother and being defenestrated by an eldritch lizard creature.

As odd as all this sounds, things only get stranger. Moon is aided in his investigations by an elderly woman who works at the British Museum. Known only as The Archivist, she furnishes Moon with plenty of information and knows more about things than she lets on. He also meets up with a gentleman named Thomas Cribb who is much older than he appears and seems to have the gift of time travel. There's also a mysterious cult, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his legacy, a mysterious chthonian dreamer, an X-Files-like branch of the British government called The Directorate, two “Prefects” who are summoned from a black address book and are perhaps the ultimate assassins, and more.

I suppose this makes The Somnambulist Victorian fantasy or some such thing. Some readers may be put off by the fact that most of these characters are never fleshed out nor are their fantastic natures explained. There just seems to exist this phantasmagorical shadow world which is known only to a few select individuals. I didn't mind the lack of explanation, for the most part, and was content on letting Barnes construct his world as he saw fit. However, I was disappointed that The Somnambulist himself got rather short shrift. The book bears his name yet he is absent from most of the story. When he is present, he's like Gromit, asking some questions but mostly rolling his eyes at his friend. In Barnes' defense, The giant does return at the end of the story in what is surely an open ending.

I'm reluctant to divulge much of the plot but will say that the mystery of the defenestrated man becomes plural and leads to a grander scheme into which Moon is thrust. The Directorate forces his hand. Cribb seems to know rather a lot and attempts to push Moon in the right direction but ultimately cannot come clean owing to his rather unique temporal position. There's also a Hannibal Lecter type character in Barabbas. Locked up in Newgate Prison, he offers up a clue or two but he also adds to the mystery of our protagonist. Like most of the characters here, we don't find out a lot about Moon. He and Barabbas have a history and there are multiple references to a case of Moon's that apparently went awry but his life is, for the most part, shrouded in mystery. Oh, we do learn that he frequents a brothel with fetish appeal. For Moon, a bearded lady does the trick.

I should also mention that Barnes does eventually divulge the identity of our unreliable narrator in a nice, if unexpected, twist. He gives the reader occasional asides which remind us that the narrator is somehow involved in the plot but we are never truly pointed to the identity of the fabulist. At one point this person admits to having lied to the reader but the trick seems absent from most of the story. I suppose that I could have missed some prevarications but I tend to think that Barnes just decided to leave the ploy mostly unused. This doesn't hurt the book by any means but I'd rather have liked it if there was more unreliability.

If I were to be critical of Barnes then I suppose it would be because his narrative style doesn't seem linked to a theme. Sleeping and dreaming are the most obvious motifs. We have the chthonian dreamer, the narrator's dream in the final chapter, and the title character. But there is also the dream which is not a movie that plays in our heads while asleep. There's the dream as a goal and here the cult dreams to change the world to fit its vision. I suppose having an unreliable narrator can be commentary on this latter type of dream since they are consciously directed.

Regardless of any disjunction between style and theme, The Somnambulist is a wonderful journey into a rather seedy world where the supernatural bleeds into our reality. Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who, especially stories penned by Robert Holmes, Mary Shelley, and H.P. Lovecraft stick out as influences. Barnes' follow-up, The Domino Men, is reputed to be a very indirect sequel to The Somnambulist so that's the next book for me.

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28 May, 2012

Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee





Last autumn I saw Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame and thought it was a hoot. I read about it and discovered that Detective Dee has a long literary pedigree. Diplomat and sinophile Robert van Gulik stumbled upon the stories that comprise this book while stationed in Tokyo before America declared war on Japan. He would spend time during the war translating them into English and would go on to write a series of his own detective stories featuring Dee Goong An or “Judge Dee”.

Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee was written by an unknown author in the 18th century. Judge Dee is based on Di Renjie, a Chinese magistrate who lived in the 7th century. Given the date of authorship, one must dispel the notion that Poe invented the detective genre. However, as van Gulik notes in introduction, Chinese detective novels generally differ from their Western cousins greatly although the stories here are more akin to tales Western audiences are used to.

The introduction is lengthy but informative. It is divided roughly into two parts. The first talks about the conventions of the Chinese detective story genre and how the Judge Dee stories depart from them. Van Gulik notes five characteristics that differentiate the Chinese version from the one birthed by Poe. First is that the bad guy is revealed right away; second is the presence of the supernatural which means that animals and kitchen utensils give testimony in court; next is the attention to detail. There are digressions of various sorts and any official documents mentioned in the story are reproduced in full. “The Chinese reader likes his novels well-populated,” van Gulik says and so they traditionally have a cast list of 200+. Lastly, the Chinese like a detailed description of the punishment the way we Westerners want every detail of how the crime was carried out.

The second part gives the reader some background on the Chinese judicial system of Dee's time. Today, Law & Order tells us that “In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate but equally important groups: the police who investigate crime, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders.” Fourteen hundred years ago in China, magistrates like Judge Dee essentially had both roles. He is the alpha and omega for his district although he ultimately reports to higher authorities.

There are three celebrated cases: “The Double Murder at Dawn”, “The Strange Corpse”, and “The Poisoned Bride”. Dee finds his hands full here as, at one point, he is working on all three at once. “The Double Murder at Dawn” involves the death of a couple silk merchants whose bodies are found just outside the gates of Six Mile Village. Warden Pang, basically the village sheriff, comes to Judge Dee accusing the owner of a hostel, Koong Wan-Deh, of having committed the murders since they were his guests. Of course the mystery is not so easily solved as Koong, upon verifying the identities of the bodies, testifies that one of them was unknown – not one of his guests the previous night.

As I noted above, Dee is his district's top cop and so he travels to the scene of the crime but in disguise, which is another trope of the the genre. Posing as a perambulating doctor, he sets out to find out more about the death of the silk merchant and the unknown man. During his travels he runs into Mrs. Bee who takes him to her home to administer a remedy. There he finds a peculiar situation. Mrs. Bee's son, Bee Hsun, died a year ago yet his widow, Mrs. Djou, doesn't appear particularly distraught. Furthermore, their daughter went deaf and dumb at the same time her father died. Dee surmises that Bee Hsun's death was not by natural causes.

These two cases provide the bulk of the story here with the last one, “The Poisoned Bride”, being dispatched with rather quickly. Here Mr. Hua comes to Dee's compound and rings the gong. (Anyone can bring a matter to a judge's attention by doing so.) Hua informs Dee that his son's bride, Miss Lee, was poisoned by Candidate Hoo, a friend of the groom. This case see Dee entering the upper crust of Chinese society for the first time as Hua is a former prefect and is now basically a university professor.

Going against tradition, we don't find out the identity of the perpetrators right away. But these disclosures don't come out until the very end either. There is a good deal of sleuthing before Dee ascertains who dunnit but there is also a lot more done to find the proof needed to ultimately bring the criminals to justice. The supernatural is minimized here with only two such instances: Dee briefly meets a ghost and has a dream of significance. Neither of these proves revelatory but rather confirm suspicions and gently prod Dee in the right direction. Having said this, I have no problem with the idea of a cat or bamboo spatula testifying in court.

There are much less than 200 characters here and a helpful list of dramatis personae is included. Only one official document is given in full. On the other hand, the torture scenes and the punishments Dee hands out are given in some gruesome detail. There is a beheading, a strangulation which causes eyeballs to pop out, and one criminal is given the “lingering death”, i.e. - sliced into pieces.

Usually when I encounter a non-American tale, I feel like every cultural reference and subtext is out of my reach. Here, though, van Gulik's introduction and translator's notes did a good job of keeping most of the story intelligible to me. He patiently explains how Chinese beliefs in spirits and the afterlife make exhuming a body such a big deal, for example, or how familial obligations can sway a judge to commute punishment so the criminal can attend to supporting family.

The one thing that takes a little getting used to is the style of the text. It is very straightforward with almost no adornment. If Judge Dee walks to a town we are told he walks to a town without any hint as to what he thought about on his journey or any interesting things he saw on it. The layouts of buildings are given but the spaces themselves are not described with much in the way of meaningful detail. Ergo I pictured the towns and buildings in the story as places from movies I've seen. The dialogue is also concise. Characters rarely say more than is needed and, for the most part, witty rejoinders are absent. People are more defined by their duties than their dialogue.

While it was rather odd to read this style, the stories were still engrossing. Aside from the who dunnit aspect, part of the fun was delving into uncharted territory. How would the story conform to and depart from genre conventions? Plus there was the fact that the story takes place in a foreign culture nearly 1400 years ago. How is it different from my own culture?

I'd like to read more authentic Chinese detective stories but am unsure what has been translated into English.
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The Pinball Effect by James Burke





The Pinball Effect is something of a prequel to The Knowledge Web. The book at hand was published just a few years earlier and shows James Burke jumping onto the Internet bandwagon as an early adopter. Both books co-opt the hyperlink but instead of underlined text you click on, you get numbers in the margins which direct you to different pages. The idea here is that, as Burke says in the introduction, “We all live on the great, dynamic web of change” and so a scientific discovery doesn't lead to a single technological advance or change in outlook, but to many. And the story of these multiple advances and changes can better be told by giving readers various jumping off points to follow strands in the web than a purely linear narrative which can only lead the reader along a predetermined path. The medium is the message, in a way.

By way of example, in the first chapter we learn about the German hairdresser Charles Nessler who invented the perm. He was able to do so because of the bounty of borax coming from California. (More than gold could be mined in California, but we'll get to that anon.) Burke digresses a bit to introduce the reader to “one of history's great con men, Johann Sutter” who established a settlement near what is now Sacramento. On 28 January 1848 James Marshall breathlessly made his way to the misnamed Fort Sutter with a yellow rock that turned out to be an ingot of gold and he, along with Sutter himself, kicked off the California gold rush. At this point some numbers appear in the margin which takes you to another chapter which delves into the Michigan pinery and the great demand for railroad ties. There was a rush to get trains out west as everyone wanted to go to California to strike it rich in gold.

I first saw Burke's The Day the Universe Changed back in the early 1980s and have been a fan ever since. After seeing his TV shows and reading some of his books, certain discoveries pop up constantly and The Pinball Effect is no exception. All of these ties and the telegraph poles that followed the railroad needed to be replaced frequently and the solution was devised by a group of people that, judging by the fact that Burke returns to them in many of his works, had a profound impact on the course of human events: 19th century German chemists. No tale from Burke is complete without them distilling coal tar. (The other item without which no Burke tale is complete is the Jacquard loom which eventually gave us the computer.) For the purposes of this line of the story, these guys come up with creosote which, when applied to wood, greatly lengthened the lifespan of railroad ties and telegraph poles. From here readers can jump ahead to another chapter noting how English chemist William Perkin synthesized dyes from coal tar which researchers noticed clung to bacteria. A German named Paul Ehrlich took this and ran with it. In the process, he invented bacteriology.

The Pinball Effect is an enormously fun read. I enjoy the meandering history of the origins of things I take for granted everyday and how a number of discoveries came together to produce them. Burke writes well for the layreader. He gives just enough background so that discoveries have context and, in doing so, keeps the narrative moving and focused. He's like the Howard Hawks of the history of science in this way. There are no asides, just the multitude of directions knowledge takes us. Burke's is the only voice so absent are modern day scientists looking back on their discipline. Plus his droll sense of humor made me laugh on occasion.

My only complaint is that I wish there were more pictures and that they were interspersed in the text instead of being segregated to a series of glossy pages in the middle of the book. It'd be nice to see Mercator's famous map somewhere near the section of the text in which it is mentioned. In addition, certain things that I'd like to have seen illustrated weren't. For example, photos of George Graham's escapement, which made clocks more accurate by making pendulum swings more uniform, would have been nice. No doubt mechanical engineers reading the book would have no problems visualizing Graham's invention but simpletons like me could use a visual aid. Of course, with the Internet it's not hard to find such aids. You can watch the escapement in action here, for example. I suppose this means that Burke's books are prime candidates for e-books enhanced with more photos and video. In the meantime, keep an eye on his Knowledge Web, an educational website dedicated to exploring “information in a highly interconnected, holistic way that allows for an almost infinite number of paths of exploration among people, places, things, and events.”
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23 May, 2012

Loose the Hounds

That's a lotta hounds.



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16 May, 2012

Scott Walker = The Master?



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Peruvian Morning Recall, No Crap on Tap, and A Few More Beer Notes

D'OH!

Central Waters is recalling Peruvian Morning:

On Monday, Central Waters Brewing of Amherst, Wis., announced a recall of Peruvian Morning, its bourbon barrel-aged coffee stout. The brewery didn't offer a lot of details on what happened, fueling some speculation among the beer community.

Not every bottle is bad but apparently enough is to warrant it all being relegated to the drain.

Presumably because we're in media res of American Craft Beer Week, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a couple articles about beer.

"Beer fans have a taste for variety" is a general look at the growth of craft beer in the state while Craft beer gets herbal infusion" looks at a collaboration between Milwaukee Brewing Co. and Rishi Tea, which is also a Milwaukee company.

Milwaukee Brewing Co.'s latest release, O-Gii, gets an infusion of flavor from another local beverage, Milwaukee's Rishi Tea. Brewers Robert Morton and Kurt Mayes began collaborating on creative brews when Mayes, then a sous chef and home brewer, brought in samples of his Imperial wheat beer brewed with green tea and chamomile.

Morton describes the beer as floral and aromatic, and extremely smooth and easy drinking.

Now, Mayes works full-time at the 2nd St. brewery, and his original recipe is renamed O-Gii. It's a nod to "original gravity," the brewing calculation that yields fermentable sugars and estimates strength. The ale weighs in at 9.2% alcohol by volume, yet tastes like honey with a hint of Asian ginger and floral chamomile aromatics.






I recently noticed Chameleon Brewing's beers at the Jenifer Street Market but don't recall them at Woodman's East.

I'll have to seek out some woodruff syrup as a new Chicago brewery, Pipeworks Brewing Co., will be releasing a Berliner Weiss (among other brews) called Learning to Fly.





Lastly, the WORT Block Party will again be featuring No Crap on Tap. The beer list so far:

Great Dane: Hop Rush, Belgian Sunshine, Common Thread

Capital: Mai Bock, Weitzen, Capital Dark

Tyranena: Dirty Old Man, Stone Tepee Pale Ale, Down N' Dirty Chocolate Oatmeal Stout

Lake Louie: Coon Rock Ale, Kiss the Lips IPA, Warp Speed Scotch Ale

Ale Asylum: Sticky McDougal Scotch Ale, Contorter Porter, Hopalicious APA

House of Brews: Saison du WORT

Grumpy Troll: Norwegian Wood IPA, Free World Rocking Pilsner, Eric the Red

New Glarus: Cherry Stout, Two Women Lager, Totally Naked

Vintage II: APA, American Brown, Pilsner

Furthermore, Hydro Street, and Sweet Mullets will also be there, but we don't know what they are bringing just yet!!


I like this list better than last year's as 1) there are more lagers and 2) not everything is 8%+ ABV. It seemed like every beer last year was big enough to be a horse tranquilizer. The weather was 80+ degrees out and all that was on offer was beer meant to be sipped from a snifter next to the fireplace. My bitching apparently worked.
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New Leine's and Finch's in Wisconsin

The word is that Leine's is discontinuing Fireside Nut Brown, a late fall seasonal, and is replacing it with Snowdrift Vanilla Porter, a porter brewed with vanilla bean. While it sounds intriguing, I have a nagging feeling that it's going to be a cloying, syrupy sweet mess like Summer Shandy, Berry Weiss, and Sunset Wheat.

I recently discovered that Finch's Beer Company in Chicago now distributes in Wisconsin. I've not noticed their beer on shelves here in Madison, though I've not looked particularly hard either. Hopefully they do or will in time to get some of this:



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14 May, 2012

Some New Brew Labels

Some new brew labels:





Minhas. I wonder if this is going to be shipped to Canada. I hope so because the Minhas label says "piss water" to me. Any brewery that calls Mountain Creek "premium" doesn't deserve to be called a craft brewery.









Lakefront has a new weiss called Wisconsinite. It is purportedly the first "100 percent 'all local' beer made in the U.S.". Even their Local Acre had imported yeast but this beer features a strain from Wisconsin. In addition to the local angle, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it's only 4.2% ABV instead of being an imperial quad weiss with an ABV of 12%. We'll see how it stacks up to New Glarus Laughing Fox.











Hooligan is a limited release with most of it reserved for southeastern Wisconsin. I presume this means that a small amount will trickle over here.





I tried one iteration of this brew last year at a pre-Great Taste event and it was rather mediocre. I think it was the second batch and that others followed. Not sure which version they settled on for bottling. I am told this is in stores now. I have some Capital Dark at home and the label describes the brewery as being of the "traditional Wisconsin lager" type so why a cream ale? It has apparently displaced Rustic Ale but leaves me still pining for the return of Bavarian Lager.

While I readily admit that I am no aesthete, I do have to say that the label looks too...too...too khaki. I expected the cap to be a mini pith helmet.
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08 May, 2012

The Raven





The title card that opens The Raven tells us that the events of the several days before Edgar Allan Poe was found incoherent on 3 October 1849 remain a mystery. This gives license to director James McTeigue and his screenwriter to invent tales as they will. And they did.

Police respond to the screams of a woman emanating from a shabby tenement but they arrive too late. She is the victim of a grisly murder, her neck slashed so deeply that it leaves her head dangling by the thinnest of threads. Stuffed into the chimney is her young daughter's body. The men in blue are baffled as the door was locked from the inside and the window was nailed shut. All notions of diablerie are dispelled when Detective Fields shows up and discovers that the window was not really nailed shut and instead had spring-loaded locks – just as in a dark tale by Edgar Allan Poe, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue".

For his part, Poe is out indulging his alcoholism by begging for a drink at a local tavern while at the same time letting loose his sardonic tongue which gets him thrown out of the establishment. The next day he visits the offices of The Baltimore Patriot where he finds out that his latest bit of criticism was not published. No paycheck and he is broke. At least he has his love Emily Hamilton, although her father has no love lost for the humble author.

Fields brings Poe into the station ostensibly as a suspect but soon enlists him as a fellow investigator when a second body turns up, this time sliced in two by an enormous pendulum as in his "The Pit and the Pendulum". The hunt is now on for the fiend who is looking to Poe's stories for loathsome inspiration.

Emily's father is preparing for his annual masquerade ball which prompts Fields and Poe to fear that the murderer will attempt to kill again in imitation of "The Masque of the Red Death". Police are on hand but they are unable to foil the killer's plan and dear Emily is kidnapped. The murders continue and the race is on to save Poe's dulcinea who finds herself in a casket buried in a shallow grave.

The Raven reminded me a bit of Se7en, the latter being a favorite of mine. Instead of the 7 Deadly Sins, the murderer here uses Poe's stories and the hero's love interest becomes a target in both. Plus the films have a similar aesthetic. The decaying city in Se7en was shot by Darius Khondji to be a drab place, full of browns and greens. Here Danny Ruhlmann composes The Raven with lots of blacks and greys. Both films have had color leeched from their frames. Poe and Fields have a very different relationship than Somerset and Mills, however.

They make a good team but The Raven is a straightforward murder mystery so there's precious little character development. Fields shows himself early on to be a rational man unwavering in the pursuit of justice and truth. Poe, on the other hand, begins the film as a haughty braggart who is a close acquaintance of John Barleycorn. But, when Emily's life is imperiled, he finds courage that doesn't come in a bottle and the willingness to sacrifice of himself.

All in all, The Raven is pretty by-the-numbers stuff. You've got your mystery and your male hero saving the girl. Ruhlmann's cinematography was plenty moody if a bit hokey in a couple spots (Where'd the light in the casket come from? How can Emily see walls when the casket faces upwards?) And the references to Poe's stories are a nice touch. While there's nothing special about The Raven, it was good fun.



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02 May, 2012

Gose! Gose! Gose!

Here's Widmer Brothers' brewer Ben Dobler talking about their new Marionberry Hibiscus Gose. I thought it was neat that they contacted the brewmasters of the two breweries in Germany still making this stuff - and they were dumfounded that Americans were interested in the style.

Unfortunately I don't think Widmer Brothers distributes here in Wisconsin.





Sam Adams' Verloren Gose is out now. It looks mighty tasty.


Samuel Adams: Verloren from Mike L on Vimeo.

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Tea Party Faves Love Them Some Wall Street Cash

Not surprising. Congressmen who were given the Teabagger stamp of approval for their bluster about the bank bailouts are accepting cold, hard cash from those very same "too big to fail" banks.


Tea Party favorites such as Stephen Fincher of Tennessee were swept into Congress on a wave of anger over government-funded bailouts of banks.

Now those incumbents are collecting thousands of dollars for re-election campaigns from the same Wall Street firms whose excesses they criticized. They have taken no significant steps to curb them or prevent future taxpayer-financed rescues.


Wisconsin's own Sean Duffy (he who can barely scrape by on his $174,000 salary) gets a nod here:

Representative Sean Duffy of Wisconsin, who has received $19,500 from the firms, sponsored a House-passed bill to overhaul the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, one of the cornerstones of Obama’s regulatory overhaul. Republicans opposed its creation and have pushed the change the bureau, which they say has too much power.

John Gentzel, Duffy’s spokesman, declined to comment.

Still, proposals to prevent or help manage a systemic financial crisis like that which occurred in 2008 are non- existent. Republicans on the committee voted this month to repeal the resolution process put into place in Dodd-Frank -- a process House Republicans always opposed -- yet haven’t produced an alternative proposal in the current Congress.




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We Have Iran Surrounded

I had a conversation a few weeks ago with a co-worker about Iran in which we discussed the possibility of the United States and/or Israel attacking that country and what a nuclear-armed Iran would mean. While neither of us were keen on Iran obtaining an arsenal of nuclear missiles, I made the mistake of saying that I can understand Iran's desire to have them. My interlocutor jumped on top of that comment and started lecturing me on the apocalyptic conditions that would prevail should Iran get its grubby paws on nuclear weapons. I'm not sure why he couldn't understand that I wasn't cheering Iran on but rather looking at the world through their eyes and concluding that their pursuit of them was completely logical given how the state of affairs appears from Tehran.

We, along with Britain, helped engineer a coup there in 1953 to topple a democratically elected government and replace it with a tyrant. After the revolution of 1979, things between us and Iran have been sour to say the least. In 2001 we declare Iran to be part of an "axis of evil" and promptly invade Afghanistan. Two years later we do the same to Iraq. So the Iranians find that The Great Satan is on both their western and eastern borders. Today we have quite a military presence in the Middle East as shown on this map.





And now I read that we are amassing a stealth-jet armada near Iran.

The U.S. Air Force is quietly assembling the world’s most powerful air-to-air fighting team at bases near Iran. Stealthy F-22 Raptors on their first front-line deployment have joined a potent mix of active-duty and Air National Guard F-15 Eagles, including some fitted with the latest advanced radars. The Raptor-Eagle team has been honing special tactics for clearing the air of Iranian fighters in the event of war.

The fighters join a growing naval armada that includes Navy carriers, submarines, cruisers and destroyers plus patrol boats and minesweepers enhanced with the latest close-in weaponry.


Plus we have also pledged to help Afghanistan for 10 years after we withdraw troops.

After months of negotiations, the United States and Afghanistan completed drafts of a strategic partnership agreement on Sunday that pledges American support for Afghanistan for 10 years after the withdrawal of combat troops at the end of 2014.

Imagine if Iran had initiated a coup here in the States 60 years ago and then invaded Canada and Mexico 10 years ago. We too would want to bolster our military in any way possible. We too would want nukes as part of a defensive posture.

I really hope we don't go to war with Iran. But I worry because whenever I hear about Iran and its quest for nukes, it's almost always from the view that they're just a bunch of crazies who want to wipe out Israel instead of a country acting in its own geopolitical interest.
|| Palmer, 12:43 PM || link || (0) comments | links to this post

Blood and Oil by Michael Klare





In Resource Wars Michael Klare examined hot spots around the world that were rife for conflict between nations competing for natural resources of various stripes such as water, oil, timber, and minerals. Then 9/11 happened followed by the United States' response and these events convinced Klare that it was oil that had "more potential than any of the others to provoke major crises and conflicts in the years ahead." Thus he wrote Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum.

Although Blood and Oil is a book of geopolitics and has nearly 45 pages of footnotes, it is an immensely readable account of how America became dependent on foreign oil and the dangers this situation poses. Klare's story, chronologically speaking, begins as World War II is raging. At this time America is self-sufficient when it comes to crude. Indeed, we supplied the vast majority of the oil used by the Allies in the war effort which was in the billions of barrels. All those ships, planes, tanks, etc. need gas, after all. But the Roosevelt administration understood that this situation wouldn't last forever and so FDR declared oil a matter of national security. On 14 February 1945 FDR met with King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia and struck what was essentially a deal with the Devil: the United States would protect the Saudi royal family in exchange for unfettered access to the country's oil. Starting here the Persian Gulf area became of paramount concern to the United States and succeeding presidents all made it policy to have controlling interests in the region.

In his State of the Union address in 1980 Jimmy Carter proclaimed that the flow of oil from that area was of "vital interest" to this country and that we would use "any means necessary, including military force" to ensure that the oil flowed. This is known as the Carter Doctrine and, to enforce it, he established the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force which became Central Command under Reagan. In other words, we have a lot of military resources dedicated to that region.

This is because there's a lot of oil in the Middle East. As of 2002 just six Persian Gulf countries had nearly two-thirds of the world's proven reserves underneath them. On top of this we Americans love oil and use millions of barrels a day. Shortly after the end of WWII domestic production was no longer able to keep up with demand and so we began to import more and more oil. Maintaining our industries, our economy, and our way of life requires having a steady supply of oil. This means propping up dictators in the Middle East, selling weapons to them, and offering trainers and advisers. These activities enmeshed us in the politics of these countries as factions hostile to the dictatorships came to see the United States as being aligned with their enemy both at home and abroad, i.e. – Israel.

Just after George Bush was appointed President in 2000 the percentage of imported oil went over the 50% mark and the National Energy Policy Development Group was formed. Although it paid some lip service to petroleum alternatives, its main recommendation for dealing with our thirst for foreign oil from the Persian Gulf was to diversify our portfolio.

Klare spends many pages discussing the Caspian Sea region. There we forge ties with and provide tens of millions of dollars in military aid to countries such as Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan. But, as he notes, “none of Washington's hedge oil producers offer sanctuary from the disorder and strife of the Persian Gulf.” These countries are also ruled by dictators and are vulnerable to the same problems as are oil producing states in the Persian Gulf region. In addition, we must contend with Russia which also seeks to exert its authority in the area.

But Russia is not the only player. China's economy is expanding at a fast rate and it too needs oil. And although not growing at quite the pace, India too is looking ensure a steady stream of oil for its burgeoning economy. Klare also examines other petroleum-rich areas of the world – Latin America and West Africa. He says that American intervention in the former is minor when compared to other regions and virtually non-existent in the latter, but that this situation is changing with Washington looking to invest more in these areas to assure access to oil.

This is the oil part but more and more blood is shed as America seeks to ensure access to the oil of others. There is the blood of American soldiers who are asked to guard pipelines, support murderous regimes, and wage war. And there is the blood of indigenous people who die at the hands of despots, trying to depose them, and at the hands of American soldiers furthering American interests.

To help avoid bloodshed and help stem the effects of global warming, Klare suggests three courses of action. The first is for America is get out of the oil-for-protection racket and abandon such commitments we already have. As he says of the Saudis, “We cannot and should not bear the ultimate responsibility for the royal family's survival.” Secondly he prescribes that we reduce our dependence on foreign oil by developing transportation that requires less of it. This means mandating better fuel economy for cars and trucks, investing in public transportation, and moving towards hybrids and cars that use ethanol. His final recommendation is to transition to what he calls a “postpetroleum economy”. This means investing in alternative sources of energy such as wind, solar, and biomass as well as hydrogen cells. None of this will be easy. These changes will take time, money, and a change of thinking on the part of Americans. But, he cautions, it can be done and it must be done as oil will not last forever.

Blood and Oil is a harrowing book. In order to get at the oil we want, we have our fingers in seemingly countless pies. It boggles the mind to contemplate what could be done here at home with the billions and billions of dollars we spend on our military so it can make sure the oil flows and in propping up dictatorial regimes whose politics are anathema to ours. And there is the toll in human lives which defies monetization.

Perhaps I am just cynical but I don't see we Americans implementing Klare's ideas any time in the near future. For one thing, we seem content with war as long as there is no draft and it is done in the name of fighting terrorism. For another, it will be difficult to convince people to change their lifestyle or pay more to lead it. Let's face it, convenience and waste are two of the hallmarks of the American way of life. Too few of us see first-hand the sacrifices made for and the effects of our lifestyle or consider what Klare calls the “hidden tax” behind our way of life, i.e. - the tax money spent on our military to ensure we have oil. Lastly, I think there is a shortage of politicians who are willing to risk career suicide by trying to move this country away from oil.

To be sure, anything is possible and so I suspect that, when we begin to transition away from oil in earnest, it will be because of a sudden jolt which shakes us from our complacency. For example, when the price at the pump has become exorbitantly expensive or if we start having more large spills on our land and in our waters. Unfortunately, the longer we wait to act, the more painful the transition will be.
|| Palmer, 10:08 AM || link || (0) comments | links to this post

01 May, 2012

Coming to a UW Campus Near You: Drones

Today Salon has an article called "Drones invade campus" which is about how universities are introducing drones into their curricula.

For all the attention given to U.S. law enforcement’s interest in adopting drones, the biggest users turn out to be not police departments, but universities. We learned this last week, when the Electronic Frontier Foundation forced the Federal Aviation Administration to reveal that it had approved 25 universities to fly drones in U.S. airspace. Not that universities were waiting on the FAA to begin working in the field: Last fall, Kansas State University created a degree in unmanned aviation. So far, 30 undergraduates have signed up.

The spreading drone curriculum is, for better and worse, a sign of the coming normalization of drones in American life. Interviews with university officials revealed widespread excitement about the possibilities of unmanned aviation technology, which has the potential to transform fields like agriculture and disaster response. The U.S. military, however, is funding parts of this academic research, and so are leading defense contractors. Whether their intentions are as pure as the universities’ is an open question.


If you go look at that list of universities authorized to fly drones in U.S. airspace you'll find that the University of Wisconsin is among them.

Jeez. I feel badly for future students as they're going to have drones searching out the student sections at football games for those who use profanity and send down a targeted strike. We can only hope collateral damage will be minimal.
|| Palmer, 11:32 AM || link || (0) comments | links to this post