Tuesday, March 30, 2004

The Man Who Would Be Secretary
It is amazing the hysteria that has built up regarding the supposed "obsession" Bush had with Iraq from Day 1 of his presidency. Guys like Paul O'Neill and now Richard Clarke throw red meat to the dogs that keep this meme afloat. Bush wanted to avenge his father and take out Saddam! Bush surrounded himself with Rumsfeld, neocons and Iraq haters so that they could begin the war planning right from the start!

Sadly, this line of thinking looks quite shaky after a look back at the 2000 election aftermath. One thing that stands out is the peculiar unmention of Rumsfeld's name during the time that Bush was kicking around names for Sec. Defense. The Associated Press back on Dec 16, 2000 lists Gov Tom Ridge, Sen. John McCain, Richard Armitage and Paul Wolfowitz (who ended up as deputy defense secretaries), former Sen. Sam Nunn (D) and Sen. Dan Coats as names under consideration. Indeed, as the process moved along, Sen Dan Coats became the frontrunner for the top defense job. One report indicates that Sen. Coats and then president-elect Bush did not click during meetings to discuss the defense job and that Bush turned away from choosing the front runner. A closer look reveals that this was due to a growing controversy over Coats' conservative opinions regarding gays in the military. So you would think, if the conspiracy theories about Bush wanting to attack Iraq from day one of his presidency were true, then Sen. Coats (as the guy who was the frontrunner for the Defense job) thepublic record would offer examples of statements of bellicosity towards Iraq. However, the greatest ire Coats' expressed regarding Iraq came during Clinton's 1998 bombing campaign of Saddam's regime. Coats' wrath was not directed at Saddam but rather Clinton for having used the bombing of Iraq as a "Wag the Dog" smokescreen to deflect from the growing Lewinsky scandal.

Why is any of this important? Well, when conspiracists point to the grainy footage of Rumsfeld's meeting with Saddam as some significant proof of a Bush White House interested in silencing the "dictator they built up in the first place", it would help their cause if Rumsfeld was the guy Bush intended to have serve him all along. But since Rumsfeld was for the most part the last choice for the Defense post, it erodes that assertion greatly. O'Neill, Clarke and others (Kerry, Kennedy, et. al.) are rabid with the claim that this administration was about going after Iraq from Day One, and that Bush was going to honor his father and family name by taking down the dictator. Well, if that were the case then certainly Bush would have made sure that the key players to help him with that cause were assembled front and center. Sen. Dan Coats' was a hair width away from becoming Sec. Defense. He was turned away from at the last minute because his nomination had the potential of stirring up controversy. Controversy that Bush was already weathering with another nominee: Sen. John Ashcroft (for Attorney General). Had Ashcroft not been nominated, Coats may have remained as Defense pick (in effect being the bone tossed to the social conservatives). If that did happen, what does that then do to the conspiracy that Bush was itching to go after Iraq right from the beginning? If Rumsfeld is supposedly a key player in the anti-Iraq cabal, why was he so lightly regarded during the time that nominees were being sought?

Monday, March 29, 2004

Meditations on Spring
I love seeing a set of Adirondack chairs set up in somebody's yard. They are great symbols of relaxation, contemplation, and dignity. The gold standard in simple pleasures.

One problem, I find them not very comfortable to sit it. I prefer my hammock.

Friday, March 26, 2004

Man, I don't know what it is, but stories about fast planes and rockets are cool. Yet when it comes to flying in commercial jets, I myself freak just a little bit at every little bump of turbulence. No matter, Tom Wolfe's epic The Right Stuff is a great read about Chuck Yeager (the man who broke the sound barrier), test pilots, and the beginnings of the space program including the Mercury 7 astronauts. The movie based on the book is also great if you don't like reading. One of the interesting things you get out of the book is the tug of war between the Air Force and the newly created NASA. The Air Force's interest was in a space program that was plane based and pilot based, meaning that space flight was attained through the use of fast jets. NASA however believed that the best way to reach space was to build a big roman candle and have the pilot do no more than act as a lever-pulling monkey at the controls. Looks like the monkeys won out....

That's not to say that plane based spaceflight disappeared. I have to say I find it a great investment of money, no matter what the cost, in programs that develop fast jet engines. Just the idea of cruising from NY to Tokyo in 2-3 hours sounds awesome. One of the big "top secret" black projects that stirs up all the Area 51 junkies concerns the Aurora spy plane. I remember reading about this craft in an issue of Popular Mechanics (some Top Secret you say) back in the mid-80s as I waited in a barbershop to get my buzzcut. One of the supposed secrets behind the ability of the Aurora to achieve its phenomenal speed resides in its ability to deflect the wake turbulence it creates so that it resides underneath the plane rather than behind it. The effect of this is that the plane rides the turbulence like a surfer rides the Big Kahuna - rocketing faster forward on a huge swell of energy. Whether or not the Aurora exists, the mere mention of it gets the Russians all paranoid (no doubt Old Europe too I suppose). Well, like John Kerry drones, Bring It On I say. We need more crazy fast jets!

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Theater in the Cube
A newly hired coworker is a walking Imdb. He discovered that I have an open sense of humor and thereafter has proceeded to treat me to verbatim recitations of extensive passages of dialogue from such movies as Caddyshack, Christmas Vacation, Cheech & Chong, From Dusk Til Dawn, Monty Python & the Holy Grail, et. al. I have no idea how to respond to these theatrical outbursts. Man, it's amazing what coffee does to people in the workplace!

Is Growth Evil?
Spiked Online offers an interesting review of Growth Fetish - a book that contends that our fixation with economic growth is making us miserable. We have more, but our lives mean less, etc etc. Its an interesting argument, but I think it's misplaced. Targeting growth as the culprit for unhappiness in modern western life is convenient for the various environmentalists, anti-globos, and neo-Luddites who think that a return to our Noble Savage ways will solve all our problems. Simply cutting back on growth is not going to instantly make us all happy and content. This kind of romantic thinking is entirely misplaced.

The suggestion that modern life is generating greater unhappiness than life during other eras seems to me impossible to discern. Were people happier back in the days of back-breaking subsistence farming before the era of productive machines? Were people happier living in times when polio, smallpox, and other diseases were common scourges? Difficult to say for sure, but I'm not sure if I'm willing to find out (that is if I had in my disposal a time machine to operate). In my opinion growth has eliminated a number of worries that earlier peoples had to contend with. Since we are an imaginative species, forever plagued by the ever present conditions of imperfect information as well as our own mortality, we have simply replaced the concerns of earlier eras with differing ones suitable and appropriate for our modern life. I think a tremendous factor in what drives any sense of unhappiness with our own lives is due to the massive reservoir of information and awareness that we hold regarding the possibilities that are open in life. I think the phrase Ignorance is Bliss is quite appropriate and highlights what I am saying. Any unhappiness that we have is very often a result of our own mental calculations of what we are currently doing and what we could be doing. Indeed, my friend Kreblog recently posted his thoughts regarding some dude who's making a mint after building a better vacuum cleaner. Certainly if we think that some guy has attained the Holy Grail of personal fulfillment and accomplishment simply because he whipped up the better mousetrap, then it doesn't surprise me that our instinct is to think that we ourselves are inadequate. Building a better vacuum? I could do that! Why the hell haven't I done that? Damn, I suck. Heck, who knows though. The guy could have been so singularly obsessed at building the better vacuum that he paid little attention to his wife and she upped and left him. Or maybe his kid was grotesquely mauled during the testing of an intermediate prototype. Perhaps the quest for the vacuum taunted this man in his sleep, conjuring up terrible dreams and producing excruciating ulcers. Who knows, we will never know.

In any case, its our imagination that constantly sizes up our position with others. Are we doing as well as we can? Have we proved ourselves adequately? This trait is quite human. Economic growth did not just magically produce this aspect within us. You see, in an environment of great access to information, our awareness is also expanded. We see so many different ways where people are "making it". We see so many different ways of living life, which means that we question whether or not we ourselves have made the right choices or whether we are making the right choices for the future. Indeed, if there is a prevalence of unhappiness with modern life, its mainly due to the fact that we know of so many cool ways to live life - that knowledge makes us unsure of what we are doing and envious of what we aren't doing. Therefore, if cutting back on growth is the solution to rectifying our happiness deficit, then concurrently we must also eliminate our awareness of the many possibilities that are available in life (meaning that we should begin to employ the memory erasing process pioneered by Lacuna Inc).

Damn, I want to fly, but I don't have access to an airplane. Great, as long as we eliminate the production of the airplane, as well as the knowledge of it, then maybe that will also eliminate that gnawing need that wants to experience flight. Oh wait. Get rid of the birds too. Those damn things make me feel terribly inadequate....

Economic growth increases our information, or abilities, our capabilities, and our awareness. It sprouts new buds and leaves on the ever growing Tree of Knowledge. If what we want is eternal, unfettered, and uninterrupted happiness, it means chopping down the Tree of Knowledge, throwing it in the wood chipper, and then burning the remains to ashes. Is that really a solution at all? Think of how it would suck to be a cancer patient and be told, "Hey bub, give up hope for a cure. We've decided to stop growing, stop progressing." Imagine what life would be like today if such an idea as stopping growth had been undertaken before Jonas Salk's time? Before Guttenberg? Before the Pharaohs? Who knows, though I'm reasonably sure that in that time we'd be pissing and moaning all the same. All because one guy figured out a way to use a piece of vine as a strap that helped him shimmy up the coconut tree to get the coconuts. Damn that bastard. He gets all the girls.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Bring It On
John Kerry drones on that the Bush tax cuts went only to the wealthy. Well, after seeing the size of our tax refund this year, I'll have to thank Bush for somehow considering us worthy of entry into this beneficial category. Now if only he could use some blue smoke and mirrors to make my paychecks appear appropos to this status....

Friday, March 12, 2004

Artistry in Words
I really enjoy the films of David Mamet. The dialogue he writes for his movies is like a buzzsaw - sharp, cutting, and impossible to ignore. In fact, his style of dialogue made an impression on me even before I knew anything about its creator. Indeed, my introduction to Mamet began with the movie Glengarry Glen Ross - a film not soaked with action and special effects, but instead immersed with fantastic performances from Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, and Alec Baldwin (who in one legendary scene hits the proverbial high note of excellence). I must admit that at the time I saw this movie I wasn't interested in the finer points of screenwriting. And certainly the lack of "action" made me think less of the movie. But years later I could still remember the dialogue and certainly the impression that it left on me (pretty much due to that one scene with Alec Baldwin which anyone who has ever seen the movie almost unanimously agrees is brilliant). But given that first impression, I still wouldn't have been able to identify Mamet as the brains behind this and would not have recognized his name had anyone said it.

I will say though that with The Spanish Prisoner, I became cognizant of Mamet's name and signature style. This movie was a real surprise, lead by a great performance from Steve Martin. The Spanish Prisoner is actually the name of a particular confidence game that requires particular elements be followed. I will not give away those points, but needless to say the way Mamet stages this deception is brilliant. Indeed, one of Mamet's ongoing interests is the universe of deception through con artistry, and he has a number of other movies, House of Games, Things Change, Wag the Dog (which he helped write), and Heist. Some of these movies may be familiar though perhaps the name Mamet may be unfamiliar. However, I do recommend taking a look at his work, paying attention to the dialogue he constructs because there is really nothing like it in any other movie currently made.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Journey Through Big Spaces Part One
My wife and I have returned from a vacation spent in Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. I report the following observations:

Las Vegas: Sin of a City
I'm not quite certain what I was supposed to think of Las Vegas before I arrived, but I certainly know what I think of Las Vegas now that I have left - overhyped. The reputation of it being Sin City is legend of course, but I'm not sure it really offers any level of sin above and beyond the normal garden variety available to you in your own town. I mean, how many different ways are there to drink a beer? Is it particularly taboo to drink a beer at 8AM? Sure you can walk around drinking a beer on the streets of Vegas whenever and wherever you like, but so can you in New Orleans and even in Hanover, NH (as some serendipitous students discovered after reviewing town ordinances). Freedom to drink a beer doesn't really qualify to me as overly sinful, unless of course you're walking the streets absolutely shitfaced. But even that doesn't make Las Vegas any more unique than Durham, NH where one can witness that sort of activity most weekends.

Really, the more we experienced Las Vegas, the more we realized how contrived a lot of it was. The gambling is the same as that which can be found at Indian run casinos and the food choices, while overly abundant of course, center around familiar offerings of shrimp, crab legs, seared meats, and plenty of french fries. The architecture and spectacle of the hotels on The Strip is certainly over the top. Any place that offers you a mock Eiffel Tower, Venetian canal, or New York City skyline to gawk at deserves some attention. But even then, there's only so much awe and wonder one can absorb from looking at poured concrete - shaped, formed, and painted to look like the best of something else.

There are two types of amusement parks. There are the cutting edge ones run by Disney, Universal Studios, Six Flags etc which seek to immerse you into the story provided by each ride. By walking through a poured concrete facade of an old west silver mining town as in Disney's "Thunder Mountain", one is not merely riding any old roller coaster but is instead embarking on a larger imaginative adventure (even though it really is just another roller coaster). Then on the other hand there are the old, run down, derelict type of amusement parks that one can find at beach resorts or at once hot vacation spots (like the Jersey Shore, Myrtle Beach, etc). My favorite example of this has to be South of the Border. Its really tacky, cheesy, and pointless when you consider where it is located. But it survives I guess because of the kitsch that it offers. These places can't really immerse you to deeply into the theme that they offer because they simply can't afford the light shows, architectural ornamentation, and spectacle that the big boys can afford. Yet they try as best they can, with all the neon and flickering lights and funhouse music that they can muster up, which in the end can still be entertaining to experience. They survive purely on soul. In the end which experience is going to be the one that dominates when one imagines "theme park"? The imagery of an Islands of Adventure or the kitsch of a Coney Island? One may offer more for the senses to savor, but which one has got the most soul?

With respect to Las Vegas, it aspires to one, but offers you the other. On the one hand it seduces you with the reputation of the Vegas of old - shows, crooks, sin, and kitsch. Yet what you get for the most part when you are actually there is a slickly produced spectacle one finds at the latest amusement parks. Think of Vegas and you think of a bloated Elvis, the Rat Pack, World Series of Poker, lounges, cigar smoke, well healed prostitutes and wide collared suits. Yet you'd be hard pressed to really find that there today. The soul of Las Vegas is centered in the imagery of Frank, Deano, and Sammy. Of Elvis, Wayne Newton, and Tom Jones. Yet if you're on the prowl for a show in Vegas your choices are Celine Dion, Cirque du Soleil, and Blue Man Group. Will people get all misty-eyed nostalgic for these performances as they did for Vegas headliners of old?

Vegas as Sin City earned that rep because it offered easily accessible sin at a time when sin may have been harder to access. Now, whatever sins Vegas may be trading in are no more extravagant than what can be found in your own town or on your own on-demand cable television. Want porn? Go online. Want to get assfaced? Drink an alcopop. Want drugs? Go talk to a high schooler. Indeed, when one wants sin, does one really have to go all the way to Vegas to get it? Not at all. Which in effect makes the "What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas" tagline pure farce. There is nothing happening in Vegas that isn't potentially happening in your neighbor's house. Sin City is no more sinful than Gotham City, Motor City, hell even the Queen City or the Lilac City for that matter. So what is Vegas really trafficking in? Lies. Pure and simple. A well lit, well built, great looking charade - guaranteed to hoover you of significant bucks. You want to hang with Deano and the gang, but they are dead and buried.

But having said that, the spectacle is worth experiencing all the same. The extravagance of many of the casinos is astounding to witness. Caesar's Palace itself is a monument to overindulgence of the senses. Walking the Strip serves up for you a bizarre feast of erupting volcanoes, pirate battle production numbers that look like outtakes from the movie Showgirls, and Mexican immigrants (er, "Guest Workers") shoving all sorts of strip club and escort service advertisements into your hands. In the end, how long you can stand Vegas depends on how long your money or your patience lasts.

Nevada: There's a Reason Why We Nuked It
In truth, the vacation got into gear for us the moment we left the Las Vegas city limits. The drive out of town pointed us in the direction of Hoover Dam and the climb up to the Colorado Plateau - a geologic feature that takes up the better part of three states and is where we would spend the most of our time exploring. Leaving Las Vegas allowed for a first glimpse at the huge horizons that greet the eyes in all directions. The landscape looks a combination of lunar and volcanic: dry, sunburned, and lifeless. Valleys extend for hundreds of miles - with temporary playa lakes residing in the lowest depressions. Jagged sawtoothed ranges fringe the valleys. They are treeless, tinted gray, and cracked with crevasses and erosion. Looking at this terrain I expected to see mushroom clouds blooming off in the distance. There's a reason why this area was nuked.

After an interesting run through some canyons and brief glimpses of man-made Lake Mead, we arrived at the Hoover Dam - one part hydroelectric project and the other part an art-deco shrine dedicated to man's ability to conquer nature. This place was the engineering project of the planet in its time and still astounds today when you appreciate the scale in which it resides and operates. That this engineering marvel is responsible for the growth of places like Las Vegas and Los Angeles for the most part leaves one with a slight feeling of dismay. We built the Hoover Dam and the electricity and surplus water it provided lead to ever expanding cultural enclaves of gambling, porn, chemical excess, Botox, boob jobs, and stardom for mediocre talents like Jim J. Bullock and David Hasselhoff. Once again it all goes back to poured concrete and the demons that are borne in the aftermath....

Route 66 and Northern Arizona: Kicks Few and Far Between

If you ever plan to motor west
Travel my way, take the highway that's the best
Get your kicks on Route 66.
- Bobby Troupe

Indeed, we had two options to get to the Grand Canyon. Take the Interstate for most of the way or take Route 66 for most of the way. Considering we had plenty of time to enjoy the Road Less Traveled, we decided to take Route 66. The legendary road at one time journeyed from Chicago to Los Angeles and was a major artery for traveling to the West. Now, most of the road has disappeared - swallowed up by the interstates in the service of more efficient travel. At 130 miles, the section of Route 66 that we traveled between Kingman and Seligman, AZ is the longest uninterrupted stretch still remaining.

What we saw of Route 66 surprised me, simply because it was nothing like what pop cultural references make it out to be. Perhaps this was because we drove the wrong stretch of Route 66. Expecting a 50's era patina of hamburger joints, drive-in movie theatres, knick-knack peddlers and lots full of classic cars we instead drove through some of the most deserted and beautiful countryside I have ever seen. There were very few towns along the way. This section of the Route attains the height of the Coconino Plateau which is marked by grasslands, sagebrush, pinyon pines and juniper trees. Long cliffs lead in North/South directions marking particular sections of geologic uplift on the plateau proper. This area is as expansive as the desert areas we had seen leaving Las Vegas, but because it resides at a higher elevation it traps moisture and snowfall - allowing for the promotion and survival of the area's vegetation. Route 66 was less a cultural attraction and more a grand scenic byway. We made our way through the Hualapai and Havasupai Indian Reservations with barely a soul to be seen. Needless to say we saw more cattle than people along this drive. The line of the Aubrey Cliffs channeled us towards the town of Seligman and our return to the Interstate for a few more miles Eastward toward Williams, AZ. From there it was 60 miles of driving through sparsely populated lands marked by ponderosa pines and more of the stout pinyon and juniper. Looking at the maps beforehand, I had thought that these areas of Arizona would be desert. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that they were not.

Grand Canyon: Mind the Gap
You are not given any preview what to expect as you approach the Grand Canyon. The views on the way to the canyon from the approach road suggest nothing but a flat plateau in front. Then your arrival at the South Rim greets you with an awesome perceptual readjustment - located in front of you is a gigantic chasm 10 miles wide and 1 mile deep. Its virtually impossible to grasp scale and dimension of the Grand Canyon. Rock benches down into the pit seem like simple strolls away. The colors of the different geologic strata provide a wondrous tableau that demands continuous attention. The play of sunlight on the walls constantly shifts. To look away is to miss out on seeing Earth at its most alive moments. Where you stand is 7000+ feet up and the Colorado River that you faintly see flows at an elevation of 1500+ feet. Between the two elevations is a wedding cake staircase of cliffs and terraces revealing eons of time involved in creating that which you see. The ditch is wide enough, deep enough, and old enough for you to cast into it all your insignificant concerns. It will remain long after you have left.

The collection of buildings clustered at the edge of the South Rim hearken back to a different era of outdoors appreciation. An extension of the Santa Fe Railroad ends here. Its completion ushered in an age of mass tourism to the Grand Canyon - dwarfing and eliminating small scale efforts found on various rim overlooks in the area - efforts conducted by luckless prospectors, homesteaders, hunters, and others who recognized the natural treasure that spread out in front of them. This was the era of Appreciation of the Sublime, where people would travel great distances by train just to simply view an awesome spectacle of nature and soak it in. Some would venture into the canyon of course, but most were simply happy to sit at rim's edge and merely contemplate the scale, depth, and meaning of the canyon. Studios, dining rooms and hotels were built as close to the chasm as possible - ensuring a most comfortable environment for viewing the infinite. The jewel of these constructions was the El Tovar Hotel - intended to be the most luxurious accommodation in the area. Stepping into the lobby of the El Tovar reveals to the visitor the log cabin construction of the interior. The dining room is a broad expanse, with wooden support posts, rafters, and beams. Some of the beams still trap within them the faint odor of Teddy Roosevelt's after-dinner cigars. A large stone fireplace warms the room and up above, various animal trophy busts supervise and watch over the dining herds below. Time travel is the activity not mentioned in any of the guidebooks. Whether it's by trail - traversing the rocky layers of Earth's formative history, or by sitting in the El Tovar as a turn of the century guest, enjoying oneself like earlier guests at an earlier turn of the century the net effect is that you are guaranteed to enjoy the here and now at the Grand Canyon simply because the edges of time have been pleasantly obscured.

(Part Two to follow)