Friday, February 24, 2012

From The Guardian

Shocking, fascinating, entirely unsurprising: the leaked documents, if authentic, confirm what we suspected but could not prove. The Heartland Institute, which has helped lead the war against climate science in the United States, is funded among others by tobacco firms, fossil fuel companies and one of the billionaire Koch brothers(1).

It appears to have followed the script written by a consultant to the Republican party, Frank Luntz, in 2002. “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”(2)

Luntz’s technique was pioneered by the tobacco companies and the creationists: teach the controversy. In other words, insist that the question of whether cigarettes cause lung cancer, natural selection drives evolution or burning fossil fuels causes climate change is still wide open, and that both sides of the “controversy” should be taught in schools and thrashed out in the media.

(Rest of Article Here)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Charles Dickens: Best Ghost Stories published by Wordsworth Classics

(Book Review)

I came across this book while browsing through the shelves of a used bookstore. My first reaction was to think:
a) Everyone loves Ghost stories
b) Everyone loves Charles Dickens
c) How could you go wrong with a book like this?

However, upon completing the book, I must confess to having a lot of mixed feelings about it. Perhaps some of these less remembered stories are less remembered for a reason.

As always it’s difficult to review - an - anthology book  because the different stories collected here are of varying style, purpose and quality.
(And in fact, this much is admitted in the publisher’s introduction:  “The quality of these twelve stories is inevitably uneven, for they span virtually the whole of Dickens’s creative lifetime, cover a variety of supernatural elements, and were written with varying intentions” p. viii-ix).

Some of these stories I enjoyed immensely. Others were a real struggle to get through, and required me to force myself to keep reading till the end.

The title of the anthology is perhaps a bit misleading. All of these stories involve hints of the supernatural, but not all of them are “ghost stories” in the sense of a spooky tale that gives you chills at night. Some of them are more traditional ghost stories, but many of these stories are morality tales in which somebody learns a lesson about humanity through the intervention of supernatural elements. These morality tales can get a bit repetitive when they are all collected together in one volume.
Most of these stories also lack the sort of surprise plot twist you expect from a ghost story, and have a predictable ending.

And then there’s Dickens’s famous long-winded prose. There are stories in this book where he takes forever to get to the point.
Depending on your patience as a reader, Dickens’s long descriptions, filled with various digressions and dry humor, are either the best thing about his writing, or the most frustrating.
Although I count “A Tale of Two Cities” among my favorite books of all time, some stories in this book had me wondering if I really possess enough patience to read Dickens.
(This may be more reflective on my limitations as a reader than on the strength of Dickens’s writing.)


When I mentioned Dickens’s tendency to describe things to excess back in a high school report on “A Tale of Two Cities”, my English teacher wrote in the margins, “He got paid by the word.” According to this website [LINK], that’s actually not technically true (he got paid by the installment), but I can certainly see where the rumor got started. Take, for example, the opening few paragraphs from “The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain” and see if they don’t read like the author was getting paid for every extra word he crammed in, and every pointless extra digression he took.


Everybody said so.
Far be it from me to assert that what everyone says must be true. Everybody is, often, as likely to be wrong as right. In the general experience, everybody has been wrong so often, and it has taken, in most instances, such a weary while to find out how wrong, that the authority is proved to be infallible. Everybody may sometimes be right, ‘but that’s not rule’ as the ghost of Giles Scroggins says in the balled.
The dread word, Ghost, recalls me.
Everybody said he looked like a haunted man. The extent of my present claim for everybody is that they were so far right. He did.
Who could have seen his hollow cheeks; his sunken brilliant eye; his black-attired figure, indefinably grim, although well knit and well proportioned; his grizzled hair hanging, like tangled seaweed, about his face—as if he had been, through his whole life, a lonely mark for the chafing and beating of the great deep of humanity, but might have said he looked like a haunted man?
Who could have observed his manner, taciturn, thoughtful, gloomy shadowed by habitual reserve, retiring always and jocund never, with a distraught air of reverting to bygone places and time, or of listening to some old echoes in his mind, but might have said it was the manner of a haunted man?
Who could have heard his voice, slow-speaking, deep, and grave, with a natural fullness and melody in it which he seemed to set himself against and stop, but might have said it was the voice of a haunted man?
Who that had seen him in his inner chamber, part library, and part laboratory—for he was, as the world knew, far and wide, a learned man in chemistry, and a teacher on whose lips and hands a crowd of aspiring ears and eyes hung daily—who that had seen him there, upon a winter night, alone, surrounded by his drugs and instruments and books; the shadow of his shaded lamp a monstrous beetle on the wall, motionless among a crowd of spectral shapes raised there by the flickering fire of the fire upon the quaint objects around him; some of these phantoms (the reflection of glass vessels that held liquids), trembling at heart, like things that knew his power to uncombine them, and to give back their component parts to fire and vapour, who that had seen him then, his work done, and he pondering in his chair before the rusted grate and red flame, moving his thin mouth as if in speech, but silent as the dead, would not have said that the man seemed haunted and the chamber too?
Who might not, by a very flight of fancy, have believed that everything about him took this haunted tone, and that he lived on haunted ground?
His dwelling was so solitary and vaultlike—an old, retired of an ancient endowment for students, once a brave edifice, planted in an open place, but now the obsolete whim of forgotten architects; smoke-age-and weather-darkened, squeezed on every side by the overgrowing of the great city, and choked, like an old well, with stones and bricks; its small quadrangles, lying down in very pits formed by the streets and buildings, which, in course of time, had been constructed above its heavy chimney stacks; its old trees insulted by the neighbouring smoke, which deigned to droop so low when it was very feeble and the weather very moody; its grass-plots, struggling with the mildewed earth to be grass, or to win any show of compromise; its silent pavements, unaccustomed to the tread of feet, and even to the observation of eyes, except when a stray face looked down from the upper world, wondering what nook it was; its sundial a little bricked-up corner, where no sun had straggled for a hundred years, but where, in compensation for the sun’s neglect, the snow would lie for weeks when it lay nowhere else, and the black east wind would spin like a huge humming-top, when in all other places it was silent and still.
His dwelling, at its heart and core—within doors—at his fireside—was so lowering and old, so crazy, yet so strong, with its wormeaten beams of wood in the ceiling, and its sturdy floor shelving downward to the great oak chimneypieces; so environed and hemmed in by the pressure of the town, yet so remote in fashion, age, and custom; so quiet, yet so thundering with echoes when a distant voice was raised or a door was shut—echoes, not confined to the many low passages and empty rooms, but rumbling and grumbling till they were stifled in the heavy air of the forgotten crypt where the Norman arches were half-buried in the earth.

Dickens actually goes on like this for another 2 pages before any action happens, but you get the point.
And this is actually very typical of a lot of the stories in this collection, many of which start out with two or three pages of long ramblings before Dickens gets to the story.
A better reader than myself might enjoy these long descriptive passages. Read the above excerpt, and see what your reaction is. If you’re able to get all the way through it without your mind wandering off somewhere else, than you will probably enjoy this book.
As for me, I discovered I have a limited attention span. I need to have lots of things happening in each paragraph in order to hold my attention. I would get a couple lines into these long descriptions, and then my mind would immediately go someplace else. And then I would get to the bottom of the page and realize I hadn’t absorbed anything, and have to go back up to the top of the page and try to read it again. And again. And again. Some of these pages took me forever to get through, and in the end much of this book ended up being a forced march rather than pleasure reading.

And then after working my way through all that description, I was frequently disappointed when the pay off wasn’t very good—when the actual story would be very mundane or predictable.

***********************************************************

The stories collected in this volume are as follows:
1. The Queer Chair
2. A Madman’s Manuscript
3. The Goblins who Stole a Sexton
4. The Ghosts of the Mail
5. The Baron of Grogzwig
6. A Christmas Carol
7. The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain
8. To be Read at Dusk
9. The Ghost in the Bride’s Chamber
10. The Haunted House
11. Trial for Murder
12. The Signalman

Of these stories, I enjoyed “The Queer Chair,” “The Baron of Grogzwig”, “A Christmas Carol,” “To Be Read at Dusk,”, “The Ghost in the Bride’s Chamber,” and “Trial for Murder,” and “The Signalman”. Long-winded descriptions aside, all of these were worth the trouble, although for different reasons. “The Queer Chair” is recommended for its humor, while “The Ghost in the Bride’s Chamber” is more of a chilling tale.

The other stories I had more mixed feelings about, but I suppose that is to be expected in an anthology volume.

Some of these are excerpts from larger works. The first 4 stories, for example, all come from The Pickwick Papers, but you would never know that because they stand perfectly on their own as short stories. (According to the publisher’s introduction, it was apparently Dickens’ practice to insert smaller stand alone stories into some of his longer serializations.)

The only place where the short story did not excerpt itself cleanly was “The Haunted House”. This was apparently from a book that was a collaborative effort between Dickens and several other writers (W). Dickens was given the job of setting up the story, but I never got to see how it concluded.
Everything else stands on its own very nicely.

A Christmas Carol

This is the most famous story in the collection and is often published as a novella in its own right, so I’ll say a few words about it separately.
I think everyone is familiar with this story whether you’ve read the original or not. If you’re anything like me, you’ve seen so many television adaptations of this story that you’ve got the entire plot memorized before you start reading it.

That being said, it’s well written and worth reading, even if you know exactly what is going to happen next. Unlike some of the other stories in this collection, the pacing is pretty good. The characters are very colorful. And the story manages to do (and do well) humor, pathos, and redemption.

As someone who dislikes - Christmas - myself, I fully expected to hate this story, which was the mother of all subsequent sappy Christmas stories—not to mention the story that made hating Christmas equivalent to misanthropy in the popular mind.
But despite myself I found myself enjoying it.

For one thing, the liberal in me enjoyed seeing Dickens’ liberal views on display.
Dickens was no revolutionary, as Orwell  points out clearly in this essay here [LINK], but he was definitely on the side of the liberal reformers of his day.

As the publisher’s introduction sums up the theme of this story, “The virtues of generosity and goodwill to all mankind which are traditionally associated with Christmas are presented as an antidote to the harsh puritan attitude that prevailed in the world of Victorian trade.

Dickens’ message of putting people before profit comes through clearly in his writing.

When confronted with the doomed ghost of his old business partner, Jacob Marley, who is being punished in the afterlife for his greedy business practices, Scrooge says:

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

At other points, the miserly Scrooge (pre-redemption) sounds very much like today’s Gingrich-esque conservative, complaining about the lazy poor people on welfare. When asked to give money to the poor, Scrooge has the following response:

“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman. “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid from what you said at first that something had had occurred to stop them in their usual course,” said Scrooge. “I am very glad to hear it…. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that.”


I also found myself getting drawn into the drama of Scrooge’s life as the spirits take him back and forwards in time to show him what his life used to be like, and what his future will be. The reader feels, along with Scrooge, the intense sorrow of the relationships he’s lost in the past, and the happiness that could have been his.

[Actually some of Scrooge’s life reminded me a little bit of Citizen Kane. Scrooge starts out as a poor child with nothing, goes to be hard working young man, becomes obsessed with money and success and loses track of what is important in life, and then is seemingly fated to die alone. But unlike Citizen Kane, Scrooge is given a chance to change his fate and rejoin humanity.]

It’s true that this story uses Christmas as a setting, but actually the really appealing parts of the story have nothing to do with Christmas, and the story could easily have been re-written without Christmas altogether.

In fact, it is the Christmas sections of the story that are the weakest.
I’m not sure if Dickens amplified the importance of Christmas because he though it would make his story more popular, or if he really believed what he wrote, but the Christmas sections are pretty over the top.
Dickens seemed to believe that without Christmas, society would completely collapse. And yet plenty of societies have gotten along for centuries just fine without it.

At one point the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge around the world to show Scrooge that Christmas is even being celebrated down in the ground in the mines, and in the middle of the ocean in the ships.
What Dickens forgets to mention is that most of the world actually doesn’t celebrate Christmas. (Well, globalization is spreading some of the superficial aspects of Christmas into Asia these days, but it is still not considered a major holiday, and it certainly wasn’t celebrated in Asia in the 19th century.)

But the charms of the story were more than enough to make up for its excessive zeal about Christmas.

According to the publisher’s introduction, it became Dickens’ tradition to publish a Christmas themed story every year, and two others are included in this anthology: “The Goblins who Stole a Sexton”, and “The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain.”
These stories are very similar in theme and plot to “A Christmas Carol” and when included in the same book they can quickly start to feel repetitive. By the time I got to the end of the 3rd story about ghosts showing a man the error of his ways on Christmas I had just about lost patience for the formula.
But that’s the problem of the anthology. Standing alone, these stories are perfectly fine.

Link of the Day
Chomsky on two party system alternatives -- 2/14/12

Saturday, February 18, 2012

More Links:

I listen to the BBC World Service constantly at my apartment. I don't normally link to their programs, but this recent program on America's Poor really deserves to be listened to. It's 25 minutes long, but you can put it on in the background when you're doing something else.

Also while I'm linking around to stuff:
I found this article from Salon.com to be the best I've read so far on the contraception debate:

Freedom of religion is freedom from religion: Obama's contraception compromise is a rare practical solution to America's perennial church-state tensions

Speaking of which--Did anyone else see this Wall Street Journal article in which the Catholic Church is comparing their opposition to insuring their employees for Contraception to the Civil Rights movement?
The full text of original article is no longer online--but the New Republic has excerpted some of the best parts.

At St. Brendan Church in San Francisco, the Rev. Michael Quinn compared the church’s opposition to the contraceptive rules to the civil-rights fight waged by 1950s activist Rosa Parks, who refused to give her seat up to a white man on a bus. “I believe this is our Rosa Parks moment,” Father Quinn told more than 200 parishioners on Sunday. “This is our moment to say this is wrong.”

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

From Salon.com

The Hysterical American Decline by Noam Chomsky

Significant anniversaries are solemnly commemorated — Japan’s attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, for example. Others are ignored, and we can often learn valuable lessons from them about what is likely to lie ahead. Right now, in fact.

At the moment, we are failing to commemorate the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s decision to launch the most destructive and murderous act of aggression of the post-World War II period: the invasion of South Vietnam, later all of Indochina, leaving millions dead and four countries devastated, with casualties still mounting from the long-term effects of drenching South Vietnam with some of the most lethal carcinogens known, undertaken to destroy ground cover and food crops.

The prime target was South Vietnam. The aggression later spread to the North, then to the remote peasant society of northern Laos, and finally to rural Cambodia, which was bombed at the stunning level of all allied air operations in the Pacific region during World War II, including the two atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In this, Henry Kissinger’s orders were being carried out — “anything that flies on anything that moves” — a call for genocide that is rare in the historical record. Little of this is remembered. Most was scarcely known beyond narrow circles of activists.

(Rest of article here)

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

From the Guardian:

With its deadly drones, the US is fighting a coward's war
As technology allows machines to make their own decisions, warfare will become bloodier – and less accountable



These power-damaged people have been granted the chance to fulfil one of humankind's abiding fantasies: to vaporise their enemies, as if with a curse or a prayer, effortlessly and from a safe distance. That these powers are already being abused is suggested by the mendacity of those who are deploying them. The CIA, which is running the undeclared and unacknowledged drone war in Pakistan, insists that there have been no recent civilian casualties. So does Obama's chief counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan. It is a blatant whitewash.

As a report last year by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism showed, of some 2,300 people killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan from 2004 until August 2011, between 392 and 781 appear to have been civilians; 175 were children. In the period about which the CIA and Brennan made their claims, at least 45 civilians have been killed.


At the risk of stating the obvious, it might be worth comparing this to what would have happened if American citizens had been killed in the same way, and by doing so get a sense of how much a Pakistani life is worth these days.
If these had been American civilians killed, I think someone would have gone to jail for involuntary manslaughter at the very least, not to mention several people losing their jobs.
During the Vietnam War, it was quite obvious that the lives of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian civilians were not important to US government policy makers.
Now are we seeing the same thing with the new war?