Saturday, August 31, 2013

Syria Does Not Exist

It seems the "President" of Syria has jumped the shark and started to use poison gas on his own people.  The Assad family first seized control of Syria more than 40 years ago and has no intention of relinquishing power as long as it has one citizen left it can murder in the name of stability. 

Using chemical weapons on your own people is an offense that must be punished.  The only problem is that the only real opposition in Syria to the murderous bastard president is the Muslim Brotherhood--an entire bucketload of murderous bastards who hate the United States.   While personally, I would advocate that America enjoy a cold one and do nothing but watch the carnage until there was no one left, evidently, our government feels the need to deliver a message to Syria.

I like the US military, but I think it does a poor job as a postal service.  In my opinion, trying to communicate with crazy people by bombing them will work about as well as baptizing a cat.

About a century and a half ago, Queen Victoria had a similar problem with the looney leader of Bolivia, General Mariano Melgarejo.  General Melgarejo had seized power just a few years  before.  While a crowd was gathered in the square in front of the Palace of Government to chant "vivas" to the former leader, Melgarejo came out onto the balcony, dragging the freshly murdered
corpse of the president, while proclaiming, "The president is dead!  Who Lives Now?" 

The assembled crowd promptly--and wisely--began chanting, "Viva Melgarejo!"

As dictator, Melgarejo was ignorant, brutal, and crazy--the hat trick of bad leadership.  When Brazil sent a peace offering of a beautiful horse, he had the animal stand on a large map of Bolivia while he traced a line around the horse's hoof.  All the land enclosed within the circle was given to Brazil as a reciprocal gift.  When told about the story about Caligula's making his horse a general, Melgarejo promptly made his horse a general in the Bolivian army.

General Melgarejo admired the French--mostly because he didn't know any.  When he heard that the Prussians were attacking France, the dictator ordered the entire Bolivian army to be sent to defend Paris.  When one of the dictator's two-legged generals tried to explain the problem of crossing the Atlantic Ocean, Melgarejo exclaimed, "Don't be stupid!  We will take a short cut through the brush!"

In 1870, General Melgarejo held a banquet to honor his new mistress.  When a British diplomat was offered a glass of chicha, he politely refused and said he preferred chocolate.  Obviously, the diplomat knew that chicha is made by partially chewing corn kernels, then spitting them into a jug to allow the fermentation process to start.  (The saliva helps break down the starch.)

Infuriated by the snub, the dictator forced the diplomat to drink an enormous amount of chocolate, then tied the poor man to a donkey and paraded him through the streets of La Paz.  When the embarrassed diplomat returned to England, he promptly complained to Queen Victoria.  The queen, showing only a little more understanding of geography than the dictator, promptly demanded that warships be sent to Bolivia--only to learn from the Prime Minister that Bolivia was landlocked and had no coast.

This may be a good point in the story to admit that much of this story--like a lot of Latin American history--has a fairly high concentration of bullshit.  Who knows how much of this is really true?  I can tell you, however, that Bolivia is one of the few countries on the planet that Great Britain has not invaded.  On the map above, the countries in white are those that have not (yet) been invaded by Great Britain.

Furious, Queen Victoria ordered a map to be brought to her.  Studying the map, she quickly located Bolivia and drew a large inky 'X' across the country with her pen.

"Bolivia," the queen announced imperiously, "does not exist."

As far as I am concerned, this is as good a message to President Assad as bombing a few civilians who already hate us.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Pope Marcus the Second

This has been a solemn week at Enema U.  We have had a long series of orientations and convocations, I have heard the school fight song played reverently in lofty chambers.... and somewhere it suddenly dawned on me:  I work in organized religion.  Actually, to be specific, being a professor is a lot like being the pope.  Please consider the following evidence:

Professors are infallible.  At least as far as my students think--I can burp in class and three students will write it down in fear that it will be on next week's test.  Students today never challenge authority.  Not only will they believe everything on the internet, but after fifteen minutes of blurry PowerPoint slides, a couple of maps and a few B&W photos of famous dead white men, I can get a class to believe that George Washington bombed Hiroshima.  That is speaking ex cathedra! 

The job is for life.  As soon as the Council of Cardinals (more commonly known as the Committee for Promotion and Tenure) votes in approval and tenure is granted, there is very little chance of removal from office.  Some departments on campus have less turnover than the House of Lords or Congress--with pretty much the same result.  After a few decades of stagnation, quite a few professors become about as spontaneous as stalactites.

We all drive the Popemobile.  Well, most of them are actually Toyota Priuses.  Prii? Prions?  As far as I am concerned, it takes religious fervor to believe that an electric golf cart with weird windows is really a car.  And the Prius is worse.  Actually, this is a very common religious tenet among faculty.  After careful study of the sacred text (The Gospel According to Rachel Carson) you will learn that living the perfect life (No Nukes!  No Fracking! No Exxon!) will return us all to a sustainable Garden of Eden.  (No Fracking Way!)

We spend our days in contemplation and reading.  Ah, the pursuits of the mind.  We slowly walk in unison through the cloisters to the library.  If you listen carefully, you can hear our chant:  Deus bonus est, Deus bonus est, Domino finem fecerit pizza.

Now that you mention it, we speak Latin.  Go to any graduation and look for the faculty--we're easy to spot.  "We be wearin' satin and speakin' Latin".  The school motto, Veni, Vidi, Velcro (I came, I saw, I stuck around) is prominently displayed.  The campus is lousy with Latin inscriptions.  A few of us even know what they mean.

We dress alike.  Papal robes.  Caps and gowns.  We all look like we are wearing some old woman's ugly dress.  The Pope has a better hat, but the faculty don't have to wear ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz.

During our sermons, people try unsuccessfully to stay awake.  Now this is a problem that I personally do not have in my classes, but I hear that some of my associates have had a few students drift off during their scintillating lectures.  While history is never boring, evidently quite a few historians are

A ago I took a required class in Medieval European Architecture.  Meeting in the afternoon for two and a half hours, the class sat in the dark, looking at endless slides while the professor monotonously droned, "And here we see another fucking old Carolingian church..."

Or at least, that is what I remember before I fell asleep.  The only other place I can remember being this bored was church. 

Neither the pope nor faculty are likely to get laid.  Not only is this officially frowned upon, but as a group, we professors just aren't very cool.  (There evidently haven't been any really cool, sexy university professors since the 1960's!).  For the faculty, sex on campus is unlikely (except for those who teach Animal Husbandry).

And, last but not least, just like any other organized religion, we take people in when they have nothing but beliefs, and force them out when they begin to know something.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Damn! The Summer is Over!

Classes start up again this week.  Don't get me wrong--I love teaching and I love being in  the classroom and I am very fond of my students (Most of them.)---But the end of summer does bring a few changes, not all of which are welcome.

Other than the calendar, the first sure sign of the start of a new school year is the traffic in town.  About 10% more cars double the noise---and damn near triple the number of accidents in town as a lot of teenage drivers---suffering under a massive overdose of testosterwrong---suddenly return to the town's streets.  The noisy combination of large engines with small mufflers is evidently  the basis of the mating cry for the flowers of American youth:  Blooming Idiots.

Enema U is buzzing with the usual "new" news: 

We have a new coach, Kareem de Blé, who has promised that all of the university's problems will disappear as soon as we win a few games---and this can be easily achieved with just a little more funding.  It is the same old story---the team needs more funding if it loses and deserves more funding if it wins.  (Not that we know much about the latter).

Fresh from the unqualified---or at least unmeasured---success of online education, Enema U has a new program that we are eager to implement ASAP:  Speed Teaching!  Students will spend five minutes per classroom---more than enough time for the professor to hand out printed copies of the PowerPoint presentation and a list of readings that the students couldn't care less about.  When the bell rings, the students have ten minutes to either make it to the next class or simply skip the class as usual and get another cup of overpriced coffee from the increasingly misnamed bookstore.

And we have New Regents!  Nothing improves a university more than fresh political appointees from the governor.  Experience has certainly taught us that political appointees are at least as competent at leadership as lapdogs are suited for hunting.

There has been a flurry of self-important email pronouncements from on high, or as the university quaintly calls them, the Lukewarnings.  Most of the Lukewarnings are short announcements concerning important campus activities such as yet another parking lot closure, the library holding a book burning to raise funds, a progress report on the Biology Department's ongoing quest to breed fat-sucking mosquitoes, and the Department of Internet Control Kabal (ICK) holding yet another class on Effective Teaching Online.  That course, of course, is only taught in a "bricks and mortar" classroom .  Mainly, the Lukewarnings reveal the recent appointments of several new executive vice-presidents

You would think, in an institution where hundreds of faculty members are desperate to publish one more article dealing with such weighty topics as "The Social Mores of Post-Industrial Female Irish Bartenders", lest they, too, should perish, that we could could change the rules just once and grant tenure to the first faculty member who succeeds in writing a program identifying the name and job function of all of the university's currently existing vice-presidents.  Or at least complete the first volume.

Most exciting of all, this time of year, the calendar begins filling up with Committee Meetings.  I can never sit through the beginning of a committee meeting without remembering the old story about one of President Eisenhower's Cabinet meetings.  After the meeting had been underway for a few minutes, Eisenhower suddenly slammed his fist down on the tabletop and exclaimed, "Goddammit!  We forgot the silent prayer!"

University committee meetings are usually the reverse of this---there is a lot of silent praying going on---usually for an early adjournment.  Unfortunately, there is not much chance of any committee's either coming up with any new ideas or even reaching a decision.  Committee meetings never actually achieve consensus---the talk just slowly dwindles after everyone becomes engrossed with playing the mental game of "Whom Shall I Strangle First" and stops talking over one another.  This is the universal signal for adjournment.

And, of course, after a summer where we were constantly a few flying monkeys short for a faculty meeting, we suddenly have a quorum.   There are many, many, great faculty members at Enema U---but there are only two types:   Those whom you would like to have a drink with, and those who make you want to drink---a lot!

I have never really understood the need for faculty meetings, so I only show up because of an undying hope that we will "vote someone off the island".  One candidate I definitely  would vote off would require a rather large barge, but in the meantime, with 7 billion people on this planet, I simply refuse to let one jackass screw up my day as often as he does the faculty meetings.

But even surly-undertoned faculty meetings, where overly-polite professors are too tolerant to stifle perennial rudeness, have given me a valuable insight that I should share: 

No matter how bitter I sound right now, I'll get over it all as soon as I get back into the classroom.

***A small note.  Recently a kind and wise president of a state university passed away.  This man, who had given the better part of his life for the betterment of the university, rode the elevator up to heaven with a recently deceased pope.  When the elevator got to heaven, a host of angels singing hosannahs picked up the scholar and carried him through the golden streets of heaven, which were lined with former students, each cheering the man's entry into his just reward.

The pope, feeling a little neglected, asked God what all the fuss was about.

"Well," God said.  "We get popes up here all the time, but we rarely see a teacher like that man."

He is missed.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Legend Creates Reality

Television shows are usually a very poor depiction of reality, especially shows that are supposed to be based on actual events.  You could run a divining rod over most of these shows and it would never find a fact to twitch over.  This is strange, since history is fascinating.  Every war, every scandal, every love affair that has ever occurred is history.  This probably flies in the face of your memories of history class, but trust me--history isn't boring.  Historians are boring.

One method of enlivening history is simply to lie and when it comes to depicting the Wild West, having a good imagination is a lot easier than research.  For a few writers, the truth is pretty much an unwelcome stranger.

Ned Buntline was one such writer.  Ned wrote the dime novels that distorted the West, making up wild tales with only the briefest accidental brush with reality.  His books include The Black Avenger of the Spanish Main and Buffalo Bill and His Adventures In the West.  While both are great reads--neither is even remotely true. 

Interestingly, the story of Ned Buntline is about as fascinating as his yarns.  Buntline was one of several pen names used by Edward Zane Judson, whose real life was far more colorful than most of his novels.  Buntline/Judson went to sea as a midshipman in the age of sail, served in two wars, and fought a duel for which he was tried for murder.  His acquittal angered a local mob, who lynched him--but his friends managed to cut him down and save his life.  Curiously, today he is probably best remembered for supposedly inventing the Colt Buntline--a gun the author neither saw nor even heard of during  his lifetime.

Stuart N. Lake was another writer who never let the truth get in the way of a good story.  Lake wrote the scripts for John Ford's My Darling Clementine and Winchester '73, but it was his 1931 biography of Wyatt Earp that made him, and the relatively obscure lawman famous.  In Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall, Lake created the prototype of the heroic western lawman.

While the book is a wild exaggeration of the true life of Earp, one clever invention in it was to  take on a life of its own.  In the book, Lake wrote that Ned Buntline placed an order with Colt Firearms for five custom Peacemaker revolvers, each with a 12-inch barrel and a detachable shoulder stock.  Buntline then supposedly gave the revolvers to the five most colorful lawmen of the time: Wyatt Earp, Charlie Bassett, Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman, and Neal Brown.  Lake asks us to believe that Buntline's gifts are in gratitude because these  Dodge City peace officers had made the west "colorful" enough to give him a living as a writer.

According to Lake, most of the men cut the barrel extensions off their revolvers to make them easier to carry, but Wyatt Earp kept his a foot long.  Then, when he wasn't shooting bad guys with the gun, he was knocking them senseless--using the pistol as a club.  Lake also tells us that Earp could draw his revolver--with a barrel that went down to his knee--still faster than any desperado could slap leather with a normal-sized gun.

Unfortunately, the story is simply not true.  Buntline never ordered any such gun, and while Colt advertised that it would make a barrel at any length--at a dollar an inch surcharge--it made no pistols in the 19th century with 12-inch barrels.  Nor were those five lawmen all in Dodge at the same time, and Buntline was back east at the time, and,... well, you get the idea.   While it is a great story, and many people have tried to prove it true, there is no proof that Earp ever owned such a gun. 

Through the efforts of such men as Buntline, Lake, and Zane Grey, the Western took off as a standard in the movies, and eventually, on television.  From 1955-1961, Hugh O'Brian played Wyatt Earp weekly in The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.  The popular television show hired none other than Stuart Lake as the technical advisor.  Naturally, shortly into the first season (in a script written by Lake) Ned Buntline presented Wyatt Earp with a Buntline Special.  O'Brian/Earp carried the long clumsy revolver for the next six years.

And suddenly, the gun really did exist!  Demand for the gun convinced Colt Firearms to begin production of a .45 caliber Peacemaker with a 12-inch barrel engraved with the legend: Buntline Special.  They have been periodically manufactured ever since.  Not to be outdone, there was even a toy version made for children.  Today, no fewer than four firearms companies make working "reproductions."

At the end of one of one of my favorite movies, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, a beloved, aging politician, played by Jimmy Stewart, has just confessed that the true hero of a famous gunfight was actually the character played by John Wayne.  This confession would  completely change the popular history of the event.  The newspaper editor takes the notes from the confession and destroys them.

"This is the West, Sir," he says.  "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

And sometimes, after a century and a half, the legends actually become reality.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Something, Somewhere, Needs Shooting

More than forty years ago, I had a cramped, overpriced, and ugly apartment on the Gulf Freeway in Houston.  That apartment had almost exactly the same layout as a motel room, and being located on the freeway, it was about as noisy—well, out the front door anyway.  The back side was much quieter—my balcony overlooked the largest cemetery in Houston.

To be fair, there were certain advantages to living next to a cemetery.  It was always quiet—very few loud parties were held there---and I always had fresh flowers for my dates.  At the start of every semester, after paying tuition and buying required textbooks, I was so broke that food became a luxury item.  I eventually shot—and ate—every duck from the cemetery pond.  Ornamental ducks do not taste very good, but hunger is the best sauce.

When I moved into those apartments, the chief attractions for me had been the location and the pool.  I had never lived anywhere with a pool, and could easily imagine myself studying next to the pool, swimming my way through freshman calculus.  I think I may have swum in that pool twice.  The only people who regularly enjoyed that pool were the Houston Police Department.  For traffic control purposes, the city had put a large CCTV camera on a pole next to the freeway.  Remotely operated, the camera could swivel and turn up and down the freeway looking for accidents and traffic jams.

Watching a freeway on a television monitor is probably pretty boring, so it probably isn’t all that surprising that the camera spent most of the time aimed at the pool, instead.  I didn’t mind—my desk was situated so that I could look out the window at that pool, myself.  What I did mind, however, was the number of times I watched the camera slowly panning back and forth, focusing on the apartment windows.  Watching the girls in a public pool was fair game, but playing Peeping Tom with bedroom windows was not!  One night during a noisy thunderstorm, the camera was destroyed when someone shot it with a load of duck shot.

That was forty years ago, when it was much easier to stop unwarranted government spying.  Today, I’m not certain exactly what—or who—needs shooting.

I don’t care how many supposed terrorist attacks have been subverted, my government does not have the right—morally or legally—to monitor what I do on my cell phone or on the internet.   Prove to me that monitoring my cell phone, specifically MY CELL PHONE, has stopped a single terrorist attack ….or stop violating my rights!

My rights under the Fourth Amendment guarantee “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures…”  What can be more unreasonable than the government seizing the data and searching databases on every single person in the country?

Nor am I very happy about my medical records.  The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) guarantees that my medical records are safe.  Giving those records to the Internal Revenue Service insures that they are not.  Why does the government have a right to seize and maintain my medical records?  Why do they want to turn over all of our records to an agency that has proven it can’t be trusted with a potato gun?

Starting in the fifteenth century, there was an English court of law known as the Star Chamber.  Meeting in secret, and often without the knowledge of the accused, this court exercised enormous power, eventually becoming a political weapon against the enemies of the crown.  Among the abuses was the ability of the prosecutors to present secret written evidence.  This is a fairly apt description of today's Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court that oversees the actions of the National Security Administration.

This is the court that has authorized the continual collection of all cell phone data, domestic and foreign.   To be sure, a warrant allowed this—not surprising when you learn that since 1979 the government has requested 33,949 such warrants.   To date, all but 11 were granted, and 4 of those were still partially granted.  (What in hell were the other 7?  Requests to strip-search dead nuns?)

The FISA court is usually a single judge, appointed by the government, to perform oversight on the government, for the government.  The court operates in secrecy, with no possible civilian scrutiny.  Each judge is appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the appointment requires no confirmation or oversight by the Congress.  After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the Patriot Act extended the powers of this court to allow domestic espionage on U.S. citizens. 

The abuses of the Star Chamber strongly influenced the writing of the 5th amendment.   I guess if we can trash the 4th amendment, it’s not much of a stretch to ignore the 5th.

A last note:  No matter what I write about, I get hate mail—that's fine since I usually correct the grammar and spelling and return the missive with a grade.  I can already predict the content of much of this week's mail: "If you have nothing to hide, why object to the search?"  Ignoring the fact that none of this charade is keeping me safe—or that I have no desire to trade freedom for safety—I know the correct response:

“If I have nothing to hide, why do you need to search me?”