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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Sunday, 1 January 2006

Topic: Making Use of History

Nomenclature: We Ourselves Are Only Temporarily Modern

Eric Jager teaches medieval literature at UCLA - and is the author of The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France (Broadway Books, September 2004). There he takes us back to 1386, when two knights in full armor faced each other in a duel to the death at a monastery in Paris - the last time the French government authorized a duel to settle a legal dispute.

Ah, so long ago. Those were the days. But things have changed. Don't expect the short and feisty Nicolas Sarkozy and the tall, elegant and intellectual Dominique de Villepin to strap on the steel any time soon.

But have times changed? From the Michael Sandlin review of this book about "14th century France in all its disease-ridden, anarchic, litigious, bellicose glory," where land acquisition and foreign conquest drove the economy, Sandlin comments, "Much like the future of the United States under the rule of Neo-con warlords, one's vocational options in medieval France were few: you either inherited wealth and real estate, or joined the military to help your country acquire further real estate."

That seems to be about where we are now - you're born into the class of people who can, with some effort of course, make it in this world, or you join up, as Lyndie England did when there were no jobs at the local Wal-Mart, and help your country assert control over a key chunk of the Middle East. That's ridiculously oversimplified, of course, but in "cubicle world" - the corporations of America - you find those who can and will rise to some comfort, working for those who started out on third base, as they say. Then there is the underclass - they can join the military, or shuffle along however they can until it's over.

Jager seems to have decided to address that implication of his book, and a bit more, in this, a short column in the New Years Day edition of the Los Angeles Times.

There he argues we are not in the Information Age at all, or the Digital Age or the Connectivity Age, or whatever you choose. This is the New Middle Ages. And he thinks we ought to be honest about it - "With the resurgence of legalized torture, rampant religious fanaticism, widespread poverty and illiteracy, the threat of mysterious plagues, fascination with magic and the occult and suspicion of science, what else would you call it?"

Well, that actually makes sense.

He does mention Barbara Tuchman's bestselling book, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (Ballantine Books, 1978), and wonders about that mirror thing in the title. This isn't the fourteenth century, but we do have our own "disastrous wars, popular revolts, religious strife and epidemic plague." Yep, we've have AIDS for years and the avian flu on the way - the modern plagues - and too, "the fall of communism unleashed civil war and genocide in the Balkans" and "religious extremists seized power in Iran and Islamic terrorists began attacking Western cities, giving dangerous new life to medieval words like 'crusade' and 'jihad.'"

This man may be onto something, and he notes one of his UCLA students recently wrote, "Medieval people were so ignorant, they had no idea they were living in the Middle Ages."

Just so. The same for us.

His main point -
We now use the word "modern" as a compliment, not just for ourselves but also for our latest inventions. But human know-how changes at the speed of light compared with human nature. Has our collective virtue really increased since, say, 1348? Or have we confused technical upgrades with signs of moral progress? Terrorists and identity thieves take to computers with the same enthusiasm as teenagers and bond traders. Tools are only as good - in every sense - as those who use them.

Like our gadgets, we ourselves are only temporarily modern, and that label will be taken from us very soon. What sort of mirror will later generations find in us? The people of the future, looking back on our violent and benighted era, may decide to call us "medieval," so I suggest we just go ahead and accept that the New Middle Ages have begun.
Yep, so it seems. Torture is now effectively legal, and we have our own Crusade - but this time not to take back Jerusalem, the birthplace of our Christ, from the infidels. This time we want these same infidels to stop this religious stuff entirely and form secular governments and play nice, economically. But there is a reason the president used the word "crusade" when all this started after the events of September 2001 - without meaning to he was channeling the "collective unconscious" of western history. He stopped using the word (he's not much of a scholar of history) when his people told him that word "caused issues" in the Middle East, but it was just natural.

As for, on the other side, "jihad" - this time around we want to keep the Muslim hoards out of Toledo, the one in Ohio, not the one in Spain.

And as for "rampant religious fanaticism" we now have dueling fatwa calls on each side - as our Osama, Pat Robertson, calls for the assassination of the elected leader of Venezuela and for God to abandon Dover, Pennsylvania. Sigh. The latter ties into our "fascination with magic and the occult and suspicion of science" - as the State of Kansas, unlike the ungodly in Dover, last year officially redefined science to include the supernatural, so what hasn't yet been figured out and tested by experiment can be taught in public schools as, logically, the obvious work of an "intelligent designer" (the Big Guy in the sky). So stop all that science stuff. Have faith.

A quick aside: Susan Jacoby, in this review of a new book on the Black Plague, mentions this incident -
The Muslims in Spain, whose knowledge of medicine was far more advanced than that of European Christians, could do little, because Islam had declared earlier theories of contagion heretical (since God alone supposedly had power over life and death). Ibn al-Khatib of Granada (1313-1374), one of the last great Muslim intellectuals of the Iberian convivencia, or coexistence, bravely declared that the role of contagion in spreading the plague was "firmly established by experience, research, mental perception, autopsy and authentic knowledge of fact." Not surprisingly, he was eventually imprisoned for heresy, then dragged from his cell and murdered by a devout Muslim mob.
Why does that sound familiar? Well, these days, doing that Darwin and science thing, relying on "experience, research, mental perception," can get you in trouble. You do recall the University of Kansas professor, Paul Mirecki, who planned a course on creationism and intelligent design, then canceled it when the Christian conservatives raised a fuss, and then got a good roadside beating by a few of the anonymous God guys. That was December 6, 2005 - not the Iberian convivencia of the fourteenth century.

This is the New Middle Ages. So don't be ignorant. Use the right term.

Eric Jager, by the way, isn't an angry fellow. He's quite mellow, as you can hear here, where he's interviewed on National Public Radio about the "trial by combat in Medieval France" book.

He's just a careful academic type. He wants people to use the right terms.

Posted by Alan at 18:19 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Topic: Announcements

Happy New Year - from Hollywood to the Catskills to London to Paris

The new issue of Just Above Sunset, the weekly magazine-format parent to this daily web log, is now on line. This issue - Volume 4, Number 1 for the week of Sunday, January 1, 2006 - is the New Year Special.

In commentary on current events note that the last week was supposed to be a slow news week, but it wasn't. From the "outside the law" spying scandal (where specific laws bump up against raw politics and public opinion) to our new ambassador to Britain putting his foot in his mouth - he used to be a car dealer out here in Beverly Hills - to the lobbyist about to blow up congress (sort of) to matters in Uzbekistan, well, there's much here. And of course, along with our discussion, you get pointers to all sort of folks making other assessments of just what happened to us all in the last year. The devil is in the details.

Outside the realm of politics you'll find some year-end notes on some of the oddest assessments of 2005, and some of the extraordinary predictions for the New Year.

At the International Desk, Mike McCahill, "Our Man in London," posts his last column for these pages, as he starts full-time with The Scotsman this week. How will we ever keep up with the London scene? "Our Man in Paris," Ric Erickson, with photos, reviews the unusual snow on the ground there, and shows us late minute shopping for the traditional feast at the New Year - that Soirée de la Saint-Sylvestre.

Bob Patterson is back with his journalist ruminations on the year past and what it portends for the future, and, as the Book Wrangler, puzzles out who might write what in the coming year.

Photography this week includes, from the opposite ends of the continent, snow in the Catskills and surfers on Christmas Day out here. The feature section is backstage shots of the floral floats being assembled for this year's Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena.

The quotes this week were easy - odd things about time and all that, for the New Year - but only the out of the ordinary ones.

And there is, too, a link to a new photo album of sixty-one shots of those Rose Parade floats being assembled, and the scene out there in Pasadena.

Direct links to specific pages -

Current Events ______________________

Untangling Events: The Week the Year Ends
Hollywood Amateurs: A matter of perspective...
Storm Warnings: Rough Weather Ahead
The Year in Review: Too Much Information
Coming Attractions: Getting Ahead on the News

The Unusual ______________________

Year End Notes: 2005 in Perspective, and 2006 Predictions

The International Desk ______________________

Our Man in London: To 2006
Our Man in Paris: This is Snow?

Bob Patterson ______________________

WLJ Weekly: from the desk of the World's Laziest Journalist - "This is working out quite well for them."
Book Wrangler: What Effect Will 2005 Have on Literature?

Guest Photography ______________________

Snow: New Years Eve in the Catskills

Southern California Photography ______________________

Backstage: Building the Floats for the Tournament of Roses Parade
Surf: Christmas Day in Encinitas

Quotes for the week of January 1, 2006 - We Have a New Year

Links and Recommendations - New Photo Album

Do visit the site.

Note this, the Ivory Soap float being prepared for tomorrow's Tournament of Roses Parade - "Generations of Good Clean Fun"

Posted by Alan at 11:56 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Sunday, 1 January 2006 11:57 PST home

Saturday, 31 December 2005

Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

Coming Attractions: Getting Ahead on the News

Between the Tournament of Roses Parade on Monday the 2nd and the Rose Bowl Game on the 4th (the Trojans and the Longhorns) nothing much is scheduled for Tuesday between the two, except for this, as the Associated Press notes here - "Federal prosecutors and lawyers for Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff are putting the finishing touches on a plea deal that could be announced as early as Tuesday, according to people familiar with the negotiations. The plea agreement would secure the lobbyist's testimony against several members of Congress who received favors from him or his clients."

The New York Times puts it this way - "The indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff must decide by Tuesday whether he will accept a plea or stand trial on fraud charges in a Florida case, a judge in Federal District Court told Mr. Abramoff's lawyers and prosecutors in a court hearing on Friday." Or putting it another way - "how far up the chain is he willing to spill the beans to save his own sorry hide from a substantial chunk of time in the federal prison system? How much is he going to pay back in restitution to all those tribal interests that he bilked for his crony pals in Congress and in the Republican money chain?" The hearing should be at 3:30 in the afternoon - regardless of whether the deal is reached or not, presumably to go over with the guy what the ramifications of his decision are, and to take care of any scheduling matters for trial, or otherwise.

We're talking up to twenty criminal cases against congressmen and their staffers. That should be interesting.

But on the last day of the year, it got even more interesting - as it seems Abramoff passed millions from Russian oil and gas interests over to Tom DeLay, the already indicted (on another matter) former Republican house leader. The Washington Post in the last day of the year ran this in the front page - "The DeLay-Abramoff Money Trail - Nonprofit Group Linked to Lawmaker Was Funded Mostly by Clients of Lobbyist."

Say what?

This -
The US Family Network, a public advocacy group that operated in the 1990s with close ties to Rep. Tom DeLay and claimed to be a nationwide grass-roots organization, was funded almost entirely by corporations linked to embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff, according to tax records and former associates of the group.

During its five-year existence, the US Family Network raised $2.5 million but kept its donor list secret. The list, obtained by The Washington Post, shows that $1 million of its revenue came in a single 1998 check from a now-defunct London law firm whose former partners would not identify the money's origins.

Two former associates of Edwin A. Buckham, the congressman's former chief of staff and the organizer of the US Family Network, said Buckham told them the funds came from Russian oil and gas executives. Abramoff had been working closely with two such Russian energy executives on their Washington agenda, and the lobbyist and Buckham had helped organize a 1997 Moscow visit by DeLay (R-Tex.).

The former president of the US Family Network said Buckham told him that Russians contributed $1 million to the group in 1998 specifically to influence DeLay's vote on legislation the International Monetary Fund needed to finance a bailout of the collapsing Russian economy.
That's amusing. And is Josh Marshall comments here, for five years in the late nineties this the US Family Network did little or no public advocacy on behalf of conservative family issues or much of anything else - "It seems to have been run pretty much as a piggy bank and money pass-through by and for a number of DeLay operators - including Jack Abramoff and Ed Buckham." The Marianas Island put in a half million to protect the sweatshops there, the Choctaw Indians tossed in a quarter million; and shadowy Russian oil and gas interests (also Abramoff clients) came up with a million or more - money laundered through a now-defunct British law firm. As the Post puts it, "records, other documents and interviews call into question the very purpose of the US. Family Network, which functioned mostly by collecting funds from domestic and foreign businesses whose interests coincided with DeLay's activities while he was serving as House majority whip from 1995 to 2002, and as majority leader from 2002 until the end of September."

The US Family Network was supposed to be an advocacy group focused on the conservative "moral fitness" agenda. Right. They never actually advocated anything, and there was never a staff - there was just one person. One of DeLay's fundraising letters for the group calling it "a powerful nationwide organization dedicated to restoring our government to citizen control" by mobilizing grass-roots citizen support. He was funning with us. The Marianas Island folks wanted DeLay's public commitment to block legislation that would boost their labor costs. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians - Abramoff's largest lobbying client - wanted help in fighting legislation that would allow the taxation of its gambling revenue. You have to pay for these things.

And it's not just Delay. In April last year, a Federal Election Commission investigation found that the US Family Network had illegally received a half million from the National Republican Congressional Committee (see this). The US Family Network was a slush fund to hand out large blocks of money to congressmen who voted the right way - for what the contributors suggested. Cool. As Marshall notes, foreign and domestic corporations pay money into front groups for favors. "And what happens to the money? Lots certainly goes to personally enrich the chief lobbyists like Abramoff and Buckham. But look closely and you'll see that lots gets pumped back in to the machine - the capitol hill 'safe house', political ads, money to the consultancies that no doubt underwrites other political operations, 'grassroots' and otherwise."

Sweet. So that's how things work. If Abramoff is flipped, this will be big, but he may fall on his sword for the Republicans, or he may mysteriously die before Tuesday.

Stay tuned.

And this was just one day after the Post broke another story with this from Dana Priest (again) - "The effort President Bush authorized shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, to fight al Qaeda has grown into the largest CIA covert action program since the height of the Cold War, expanding in size and ambition despite a growing outcry at home and abroad over its clandestine tactics, according to former and current intelligence officials and congressional and administration sources."

Most of the stuff is illegal and violates treaties we have with the rest of the world - torture, kidnapping, "disappearing" people.

But the rationale is still the same -
The administration contends it is still acting in self-defense after the Sept. 11 attacks, that the battlefield is worldwide, and that everything it has approved is consistent with the demands made by Congress on Sept. 14, 2001, when it passed a resolution authorizing "all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons [the president] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks."

"Everything is done in the name of self-defense, so they can do anything because nothing is forbidden in the war powers act," said one official who was briefed on the CIA's original cover program and who is skeptical of its legal underpinnings. "It's an amazing legal justification that allows them to do anything," said the official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues.
But too many in the CIA are upset by this, or ticked off because it doesn't get us information, alienates our allies, and seems designed simply so George and Dick can get their macho-jollies. Lots of folks are leaking to the Post.

Here's a cool detail of how the "new" CIA works - "The agency is working to establish procedures in the event a prisoner dies in custody. One proposal circulating among mid-level officers calls for rushing in a CIA pathologist to perform an autopsy and then quickly burning the body, according to two sources."

Well, this whole story may not have legs, as they say. It's too Hollywood. We know, from the movies, that's what the CIA does. It's all what folks expect.

Will the matter of the president's executive order to the National Security Agency - that they bypass all existing laws and check out what Americans citizens say to each other on the telephone, what they send to each other in emails, and what websites they visit, without any warrants or probable cause - continue to be of interest? The president flat-out said he ordered these guys to break existing laws and violate the Fourth Amendment and he'll keep them doing it. He said he's allowed, as he's the president and we're at war, and the congress told him to fight it any way he wanted.

We'll see. Friday the Associate Press reported here and CNN here that the Justice Department has opened an investigation into the leak of classified information about this secret domestic spying program to the New York Times. Oddly this is a year after the Administration knew Times was working the story and tried to talk them out of running it. Retaliation? Michelle Malkin, the right-side pundit who has called for internment camps for all American Muslims just as we "rightly did" with the Japanese in WWII, is pleased. She'd like the Times shut down - treason and all that.

Curiously, on the last day of the year, the White House said it had "no role" in the Justice Department's decision to investigate the leaking of classified information indicating that the president authorized this secret government wiretap program (see this). They just did it on their own? Maybe so. Believe what you will.

This story won't die.

On the other hand, its subset will. As reported in Business Week, if you visited the NSA website, until recently you got a cookie. No, not chocolate chip - one of those bits of code was dropped onto your hard drive that allowed the NSA to follow what websites you visited from then on. Some "cookies" are common - they allow you to retain passwords and registration information, and for Amazon and the like, allow Amazon to track what books you've ordered and offer similar good stuff just for you. You can disable all cookies, so you computer doesn't accept them, but that's a pain. Except for the tracking cookies - watching your surfing habits - they're useful. The problem is the government isn't supposed to use them at all. In a 2003 memo, the White House's Office of Management and Budget prohibits federal agencies from using persistent cookies - those that aren't automatically deleted right away - unless there is a "compelling need."

The NSA folks said this was an accident. They won't do it any more. No cookies. The White House website, by the way, has been passing out cookies, too (see this). That'll stop.

By the way, there is software that allows you to block only the bad tracking cookies, not the useful ones. Here the Lavasoft software has blocked 14,967 tracking cookies so far - since July. There are lots of such tools. This issue is minor.

Is Uzbekistan a minor issue?

Friday the 30th there was this in The Independent (UK) - Ex-Envoy to Uzbekistan Goes Public on Torture -
Britain's former ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, has defied the Foreign Office by publishing on the internet documents providing evidence that the British Government knowingly received information extracted by torture in the "war on terror".

Mr Murray, who publicly raised the issue of the usefulness of information obtained under torture before he was forced to leave his job last year, submitted his forthcoming book, Murder in Samarkand, to the Foreign Office for clearance. But the Foreign Office demanded that he remove references to two sensitive government documents, which undermine official denials, to show that Britain had been aware it was receiving information obtained by the Uzbek authorities through torture. Rather than submit to the gagging order Mr Murray decided to publish the material on the internet.

The first document published by Mr Murray contains the text of several telegrams that he sent to London from 2002 to 2004, warning that the information being passed on by the Uzbek security services was torture-tainted, and challenging MI6 claims that the information was nonetheless "useful". The second document is the text of a Foreign Office legal opinion which argues that the use by intelligence services of information extracted through torture is not a violation of the UN Convention Against Torture.
That's curious. Uzbekistan is one of our allies in this War on Terror too, although they are nasty folks, and we probably should have nothing to do with them, as both Fred Kaplan and even mad-for-war Christopher Hitchens point out. Markos at Daily Kos - "The US marriage of convenience with Uzbekistan, perhaps the most repressive regime in the world, gives lies to all the bullshit post-WMD justifications for invading Iraq ('evil regime' and all that jazz). Among other atrocities, Uzbekistan boils its dissidents alive. And no, that's not from Amnesty International or other "do-gooder" organization, but from the State Department's 2004 human rights report."

There's much more here - the documents are all over the web.

Here's an excerpt - "At the Khuderbegainov trial I met an old man from Andizhan. Two of his children had been tortured in front of him until he signed a confession on the family's links with Bin Laden. Tears were streaming down his face. I have no doubt they had as much connection with Bin Laden as I do. This is the standard of the Uzbek intelligence services."

The Brits use these guys. So do we. The coordination between the Uzbek, British, and American governments is quite public (and they have lots of oil and natural gas there too). Last year we gave Uzbekistan half a billion in aid, a quarter of it military aid. Contractors at our military bases there are extending the design life of the buildings from ten to twenty-five years.

A comment from Greg Saunders here -
And this is the standard that we're living under with a President who looks the other way while children are being tortured.

To the fools out there who routinely praise the President for having the "moral clarity" to call terrorists evil, how can you reconcile that with the chummy relationship he's made with tyrants? The lesser of two evils argument doesn't really work when you chide anyone whose view of fighting terrorism is more nuanced than "smoke them out of their holes" and you verbally fellate the President for being "right on the only issue that matters". You're either in favor of moral relativism or you're not.

Of course, coming up with a worldview that's logically consistent has it's troubles, since it would naturally lead to having an open, honest debate about whether or not the United States should be torturing people. Which is why the Administration (and their sycophantic toadies) ignore the substance of the seemingly-neverending stream of torture memos in the hopes of running out the clock (ie. news cycle) with their vehement denials to misstated questioning.

But to take things back to square one, it should be repeated again and again that this would all stop if the President wanted it to. With a phone call to the Uzbek government, he could threaten to eliminate foreign aid until human rights abuses ceased. With a stroke of his pen, he could fire Donald Rumsfeld and replace him with a Defense Secretary serious about curbing detainee abuse. Working with Congressional leaders, he could cooperate with stymied investigations into torture. For the most powerful man in the world, the torture of innocent people could be eliminated tomorrow if he cared enough.

Why he hasn't done any of these things leads us back to the eternal debate about the presidency of George W. Bush. Is he so isolated from bad news that he has no idea about the abuses that are happening on his watch? Is he a callous monster who thinks the torture of innocents is justified by the "greater good" of whatever the hell he's trying to accomplish? Or is it a combination of the two? Either way, I don't know how much longer we can afford to have the reputation of the United States tarnished while we ponder the endless "idiot or asshole?" debate.
All very curious.

But all this is on the blog and in the foreign papers. No American media will touch this. Don't expect a January follow-up.

As for other late-year stories that may or may not have legs, there's this - as with all the stories of the CIA abducting (kidnapping) suspects, sometimes on the basis of a mistaken name, flying them off to countries like Egypt or Syria for some "enhanced" interrogation (torture) - "extraordinary rendition" and all that - it now seems the British government may have been doing the same thing, using Greece as its torture chamber, after last summer's London subway bombing. They're learning from us.

Then there's this (via - a recently-passed house bill, introduced by Representative James Sensenbrenner and praised by President Bush, would subject priests, nurses and social workers who render aid to illegal immigrants to five years in prison and seizure of assets. The word is that it will die in the senate. But it is curious. Compassionate conservatism? Would the seized assets go to the Republican National Committee? Put a band-aid on the scrapped knee of some five-year-old and do five in the pen and lose your home? Interesting. Better check his Green Card first.

The first few weeks of the year should be interesting.

Posted by Alan at 15:48 PST | Post Comment | View Comments (1) | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 31 December 2005 15:57 PST home

Topic: Backgrounder

The Year in Review: Too Much Information

In Year End Notes: 2005 in Perspective, and 2006 Predictions, there was some pretty odd stuff about the year that just passed and what might happen with the new year. But for reference one should note the big events, or what really matters, to some.

William Falk in the New York Times offers the stories of "subtle significance" that didn't get that much press, in Big Little Stories You Might Have Missed.

He opens with these -
A BLAST FROM THE PAST - To find out whether human activities are changing the atmosphere, scientists took ice cores from ancient glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica. Bubbles of air trapped in the ice provided a pristine sampling of the atmosphere going back 650,000 years. The study, published last month in the journal Science, found that the level of carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases that can warm the planet, is now 27 percent higher than at any previous time in that period. Climatologists said the ice cores left no doubt that the burning of fossil fuels is altering the atmosphere in a substantial and unprecedented way.

THE DAY AFTER TODAY - One of the more alarming possible consequences of global warming appears to be already under way. The rapid melting of the Arctic and Greenland ice caps, a new study finds, is causing freshwater to flood into the North Atlantic, deflecting the northward flow of the warming Gulf Stream, which moderates winter temperatures for Europe and the northeastern United States.

The flow of the Gulf Stream has been reduced by 30 percent since 1957, the National Oceanography Center in Britain found. In the film "The Day After Tomorrow," the collapse of the Gulf Stream produces a violent climate shift and a new ice age for much of the Northern Hemisphere. Climatologists don't foresee a future quite that catastrophic, but something worrisome, they say, is afoot.
And he notes that scientists have pieced together, from fragments found in tissue samples, the Spanish flu virus that killed twenty-five million people in 1918 - it produces 39,000 times more copies of itself than regular flu and, in an experiment, killed all the mice being tested in six days. Then they published the flu's genetic blueprint. So who has a home chemistry kit?

He also mentions that, in 2005, scientists developed a vaccine against human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease that is the primary cause of cervical cancer. The vaccine produced total immunity in the 6,000 women who received it as part of a multinational trial. The Family Research Council and other social conservative groups in America vowed to ban it, even though it could virtually eliminate cervical cancer. Vaccinating girls against a sexually transmitted disease, they say, would reduce their incentive to abstain from premarital sex. Oh well.

There's much more there.

Additionally see these:

From AFP - The Year of Unnatural Disasters - and from The Independent (UK) - Review of the Year: Climate Change -

Other summaries of 2005 -

BBC's offbeat stories - The best 'and finallies' of 2005

Business stuff from CNN-Money - Top Tech Stories of 2005

From the San Francisco Chronicle, the top California stories - The 10 Biggest Stories of The Past 363 Days

The top national stories - from The Oregonian here and from The Clarion-Ledger (Mississippi) here

From the mainstream, CNN's "Year in Review" is here and the amazing, in-depth "The Year in Ideas" from the New York Times is here. National Public Radio's top stories, with podcast, are here.

For the Brits, from BBC, most popular stories, among BBC readers - Stories That Mattered to You - in February, Prince Charles to Marry Camilla was the biggest story.

Obituaries of prominent and influential people who died in 2005 from the Associated Press here, from the New York Times here, and from BBC here. Time Magazine's "Persons of the Year" item is here (Bill and Melinda Gates, and Bono) - and Barbara Walter's "Most Fascinating People of 2005" is here (Tom Cruise at the top).

General reviews - highlights of key events of 2005 by month from Infoplease here, and the online cooperative encyclopedia Wikipedia covers most everything from the year here.

Hooray for Hollywood? From the Internet Movie Database a complete index of all 17,337 movies released in 2005 here. Whatever.

For the politically minded, see Eleanor Clift's Biggest Political Lies of 2005 - "Who told the worst political untruth of 2005? It's a shame the list of contenders is so long." And Newsweek offers the twenty-four political cartoons of the year here, and the best quotes of the year here. In that last item you'll find former First Lady Barbara Bush, on hurricane refugees in the Houston Astrodome - "What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them." The White House qualified that remark as a "personal observation."

So much for the year.

Posted by Alan at 12:05 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 31 December 2005 12:13 PST home

Friday, 30 December 2005

Topic: Backgrounder

Year End Notes: 2005 in Perspective, and 2006 Predictions

Tai Moses over at AlterNet has conveniently compiled, for 2005, The Ten Best Top-Ten Lists, saving us all the trouble of all the research involved in finding out what everyone was doing to assess the year.

There we find Merriam-Webster Online has posted the top the most-looked-up words of 2005, and those would be -

1. integrity
2. refugee
3. contempt
4. filibuster
5. insipid
6. tsunami
7. pandemic
8. conclave
9. levee
10. inept

The first one is curious. Why would folks look up "integrity" at all? The word is not obscure. Moses: "I think these people were perfectly confident they knew the meaning of integrity until certain others started throwing the word around like last Sunday's bagels, and so, head in hand, people went back to double-check, only to find that integrity was still integrity and in shorter supply than ever."

Well, yes. Words are thrown around in such a way that up is down, and if DeLay and Cunningham and Frist are men of integrity, one does lose one's bearings. So you look up the word to make sure you're not crazy.

And as you recall, the second on the list, "refugee," was controversial after Hurricane Katrina - the New Orleans folks stuck in Houston shouldn't be called refugees, as that word seemed fraught with overtones. The word "refugee" is often used as shorthand for "political refugee" - someone displaced from his or her homeland because of the action, or inaction, of some malevolent government. The idea was with this "act of nature" the word shouldn't be used, as no one meant these people harm and forced them to seek asylum in another nation - they were just camping out in the next state. Of course you can argue the word was just fine, for just that reason - for these folks their government failed them and all that. Maybe so, and maybe not, but they were seeking some refuge, and why not use the word? That's only logical. We were told that was not logical - these folks were not seeking political asylum from some dictator in a new nation - so folks looked up the word a lot. Can you use it with its unembellished meaning, or is it always political? It seems people almost always use the word in the political sense, and the media stopped using it for the displaced in Texas motels and school gymnasiums. But it was a perfectly good word.

The others on the list may or may not be tied to current events. Some obviously are. But "insipid" in the fifth spot? That's curious.

In any event, skipping over the list of the commonly reported birds of 2005, even though bird watching has become wildly popular in the United States in the last several years (the northern cardinal is tops, by the way), we come to the Top Ten Global 'YouthSpeak' Words for the year.

1. Crunk: A Southern variation of hip hop music; also meaning "fun" or "amped."
2. Mang: Variation of "man," as in "S'up, mang?"
3. A'ight: All right, as in "That girl is nice, she's a'ight."
4. Mad: A lot, as in "She has mad money."
5. Props: Cheers, as in "He gets mad props!"
6. Bizznizzle: This term for "business" is part of the Snoop Dogg/Sean John-inspired lexicon, as in "None of your bizznizzle!"
7. Fully: In Australia, an intensive, as in "fully sick."
8. Fundoo: In India, Hindi for "cool."
9. Brill!: In the U.K., the shortened form of "brilliant!"
10. "S'up": Another in an apparently endless number of "whazzup?" permutations.

For those of us who grew up in the late fifties and graduated from college as the sixties ended, this is just sad. We had our moment when we changed common speech - far out, man - but that became mainstream, and then commercial, and then became quaint, or deeply ironic, or forgotten, or just embarrassing. We got old. The grandkids do that now, and more power to 'em. It's amusing to note. And any child of the sixties who ever uses any of these ten expressions should be ridiculed, even out here in Hollywood. Turn your back. Just walk away. Your moment has passed. Let the new kids play with the language. It's not yours anymore, or at least, this part of it is not.

Moses also covers the top ten Most Commonly Encountered Hoaxes and Chain Letters, and in the age of email that's worth a glance, and covers the Top Ten Baby Names of 2005 - Emma for girls and Aidan for boys (Jacob was tops the previous four years). Aidan? What's with that? We're thinking Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne or what? Does this have something to do with the character Aiden Shaw from "Sex and the City" on HBO? It's a mystery. But it's just a name. Kids adjust.

Moses also points to Popular Science with its list of the The Worst Jobs in Science, where number four is "Kansas Biology Teacher." Ha, ha. Also listed are "manure inspector" and "extremophile excavator." That last one? Visit the Searles lakes here in California, where the US Geological Survey team has been working for years. They discovered the "extremophile" microbe thriving in the arsenic-saturated mud there. To harvest that mud, once thought to be sterile, the researchers deal with days well over one hundred degrees, the salt-caked lakes, and noxious gas - hydrogen sulfide, methyl mercaptan, highly volatile methylated amines. But these microbes eat arsenic and render it harmless. Someone's got to go get some of these and see how they do that. That's worth a read.

What may not be worth a read is the Top Ten Grocery Lists of 2005 - abandoned shopping lists - although some are definitely kinky. You might also want to glance at the Top Ten List of Data Disasters - but just as I typed that my system mysteriously decided to reboot and dump everything I had been accumulating in files on screen during the day. And that's actually true. Luckily most of the software is set to "Auto Recover" and with some fancy searching (the "auto" part is a bit of a joke) I found the files. Sometimes irony is a pain. At least this wasn't like the woman who dropped a ceramic pot on her laptop. Oops.

Other lists? Well, there's the Top Ten Out-of-Print Books for 2005 - those volumes people want and cannot get any longer, so they have to settle for used copies -

1. Sex (1992), Madonna
2. Sisters (1981), by Lynne Cheney
3. The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel (1981), by Felicitas D. Goodman
4. Where Troy Once Stood (1991), by Iman Wilkens
5. The Principles of Knitting (1988), by June Hemmons Hiatt
6. General Printing (1963), by Glen Cleeton
7. The New Soldier (1971), edited by John Kerry
8. The Lion's Paw (1946), by Robb White
9. Dear and Glorious Physician (1959), by Taylor Caldwell
10. The Book of Counted Sorrows (2003), by Dean Koontz

Who knows what to make of that, except Sisters is a steamy tale of lesbian love written, a long time ago, by the wife of Vice President Cheney. The John Kerry book is in demand, a bit, and not really available. That fits.

Moses also recommends the FBI list of their current Ten Most Wanted Fugitives - Osama bin Laden to James J. Bulger. Whatever. And she mentions Parade magazine has an annual list of the World's Ten Worst Dictators, but that isn't out yet, although last year's list is here.

Of course Moses is being humorous.

There are the serious lists, of course. Over at Media Matters, where they are perpetually angry with the right-wing wind machine, you get things like this - Chris Matthews: 2005's Misinformer of the Year and the Most Outrageous Statements of 2005, and the more topical Top 12 Media Myths And Falsehoods On The Bush Administration's Spying Scandal.

Everybody likes lists - but these look backward at the year gone by.

What about the year to come? What about predictions?

Well, the Daily Times of Pakistan tells us this - Giant Asteroid to Hit Earth in 2006. Of this means everything that follows is pointless - Arnold Schwarzenegger will be re-elected governor of California, Internet giant Google will suffer a setback - and Brazil will hang on to the World Cup - unless we're all dead.

It seems the Schwarzenegger thing, along with a prediction the Bush administration will bring back the draft, comes from the website where they use the Torah4U software on the Hebrew text of the Old Testament and the Torah. All this is hidden there, numerically, so we're talking your digital Kabbalah here. In the sixties Rabbi Saul Lieberman of the Jewish Theological Seminary is reputed to have introduced a lecture by Scholem on Kabbalah with a statement that Kabbalah itself was "nonsense," but the academic study of Kabbalah was "scholarship." That was before the software, of course. The software also predicts that August 3, 2006 will be a blood-drenched day - "yet just a mere shadow of the calamity that will befall us in 2010." So stay home.

But it was the psychic Annie Stanton who said catastrophe will come this year in the form of a massive asteroid crashing into the planet. No software. We also learn Anita Nigam from India does sports betting. Pay her and you get outcomes of English football's Premier League matches, but her World Cup prediction is free. Brazil is it.

Those with software - Bill Gray of Colorado University with computer models on global sea-surface temperatures and atmospheric conditions says seventeen named tropical storms, nine hurricanes and five major, high-wind hurricanes in 2006 - nearly twice the historical average in all categories. The co-founder of "Wired" magazine, John Battelle, says "Google will stumble" due to a bad partnership or a legal setback, and also legislators in the United States and elsewhere will take steps to protect citizens against "the perils of unprotected Internet data mining" into their personal lives, including credit and health histories. Bull.

Then there's Alan Caruba from South Orange, New Jersey with this pro-Bush Republican set of predictions (partly wishful thinking) -
Both Israel and the United States will be compelled to launch a preemptive strike against the network of Iranian nuclear weapons and missile manufacturing facilities either in 2006 or 2007 at the latest.

The Palestinians will fail to elect any kind of widely accepted new government and civil war will break out among Hamas, El Fatah, and whatever other terrorist gang has weapons. That's assuming, of course, they even manage to hold elections.

Lebanon will continue its struggle to break free of Syria's grip and will be aided in this effort by the U.N., the U.S. and the European Union. This may lead to the destabilization of the Assad regime.

Turkey will transition from the only successful secular state in the Middle East to one in the control of Islamic fundamentalists. Where previously, its military corps insured against this occurring, it may have too many Islamists in its ranks to prevent it. Admission to the EU will be put on permanent hold and Turkey's economy will plummet. Foreign investment will disappear.

Despite naysayers, Iraq will continue to make progress toward establishing a functioning government and making adjustments to its constitution to avoid splitting apart.

Depending on the level of dissatisfaction among Venezuelans, the assassination or overthrow of President Hugo Chavez may occur. South American nations will continue to elect socialists, i.e., communists, to rule. Expect widespread social discord and unrest. The only winners will be the drug cartels.

The Bush administration will engineer some sort of "guest worker" program that will enable Mexicans to enter the United States legally and push it through Congress. The alternative would be the potential economic collapse of Mexico.

China, while bellicose and building its military, will continue to seek accommodation with the U.S. and world trade partners. Internal problems with growing peasant and worker rebellions will continue to occupy the attention of its political cadres. Japan will begin to rearm in a big way.

Saddam Hussein will be found guilty of crimes against his nation and executed.

Worldwide, al Qaeda will continue to be steadily degraded in its ability to launch major terrorist attacks. Some kind of catastrophic attack, however, should be anticipated against the U.S.

The Republican Party will retain control of Congress, but just barely.

2006 will see another, totally predictable succession of powerful hurricanes. There is no connection between the number or intensity of hurricanes and the so-called "global warming" theory.

A major earthquake causing extensive damage and loss of life is overdue in California.
Yeah, well, maybe. Every Republican hopes for that last one.

But some like California, as with celebrity astrologer Susan Miller here, where she says Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are "just heaven. He's a Sagittarius, she's Gemini, and they're just heavenly together. Saturn was just in opposition to his four planets in Capricorn, which signified that he wanted kids desperately, and Jennifer Aniston didn't realize how much this meant to him, and she delayed having children as she nurtured her career. Angelina provides him with the children he so badly wants. They will make the most amazing family."

And she says Angelina Jolie will eventually stop acting and focus on her work as a goodwill ambassador - "She has Cancer rising which means she values home and family more than anything else. Although the media portray her as a home wrecker, she's really not. She is devoted to the idea of family." And she says the planets indicate it would be "especially wise" for Pitt and Jolie to marry in June.

That's nice. They're pretty people. But as for Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes - "I cannot understand this relationship. There are no links in their chart, no passion. I don't know how it happened. There are pressure points that will come up. She's Sagittarius, he's Cancer ... Sagittarius usually hurts Cancer's feelings by being too direct. The birth of their baby, sadly, could add further stress to their relationship."

Oh my!

As for less important matters, note this:
Fashion Trends: Miller says that with Jupiter in Scorpio, black will remain the color of the moment, and tailored classic "investment pieces" will be what to wear ... until it all changes next Christmas when Jupiter moves into Sagittarius. "There will be all sorts of beautiful, bright colors," she says. "Think purples, royal blues, brocades and rich, luxurious colors. The return to the all-American jeans and crisp white shirt will also happen around December of next year."

The United States: The U.S. is a Cancer-ruled nation because the country was "born" in July. Saturn is in the solar chart of money and resources, Miller says, which forces us to sacrifice or choose between two alternatives. She notes that the country is going to be going through a "renewed sense of realism - we're going to have to push everything back on track and be more practical. We could very well become conservationists, sort of like the Depression babies. We're going to save more, be more aware of what we're spending and not waste money or resources." She also advises that 2006 is not a year for the country to make big gambles in any sense.

Economy: Miller says the markets should stay the same as they are now. They'll be "a little tight, but there should be no big change." She also says that there is no sign from the stars that the housing market will burst this year; it may slow down a bit, but we shouldn't expect a complete crash.

Medicine: According to Miller, 2006 can be a major year for medical breakthroughs, with Saturn in Leo. "When Saturn was in Cancer, we had the big revolution on how we eat," says Miller. "We became more aware of childhood obesity. We abolished the 'super-size' mentality. It led to changing food labels so we knew what we were consuming and we became more aware." With Saturn in Leo this year, she says, "we're looking at the heart, blood. There can be transfusion breakthroughs. Right now, we have issues with blood donation, and it's becoming a long-term problem because young people aren't giving blood. But there can be advances toward developing a synthetic blood. There will be a lot of amazing AIDS research with Saturn in Leo, too, and we could get very close to a cure for AIDS."

Natural Disasters: "We are not done by any stretch of the imagination with water damage and natural disasters," Miller advises. "When (Hurricane) Katrina wreaked havoc on the South, Uranus was in opposition of the sun. Uranus will be conjunct of the sun, opposite a major eclipse on March 14 of this year. This is going to be huge, and there can be a major water disaster or natural disaster somewhere in the world. There could be some contamination of the water supply. We should all be geared for this. At the smallest level, everyone should have flood insurance." She also says that Sagittarians should be especially cautious.
Those of us who are Gemini are now a tad more relaxed.

Nick Clooney in the Cincinnati Post is a bit less serious, with this list, which includes, "American troops will be out of combat in Iraq in time for the fall elections. The president will declare victory to ensure his friends in Congress can obey the 11th Political Commandment; 'Thou Shalt Not Lose Thy Majority.' Cynical, but perhaps right. As is this - "Senator Joe Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, will be offered a cabinet post by President Bush." And this - "Republicans Delay-Frist-Cunningham-Ney-Abramoff will all be convicted of ethical violations. Vice President Cheney will declare they were all secretly Democrats. Fox 'News' will lead with the story."

Here he's just mad as a hatter - "The Reds will win the pennant."

As for political lefties, there's Matthew Yglesias here -
- A serious terrorist attack will occur in Italy.
- Democratic candidates will look much stronger in early September than in early November.
- American troop levels in Iraq won't dip below 100,000.
- A spate of absurd conservative books bashing Hillary Clinton will continue to mask her underlying weakness as a candidate for the Democratic nomination.
- Real - but not nominal - wages for movie stars will fall.
- The Heat will beat the Wizards in four in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
- Canada will get another Liberal minority government.
- Republicans will deny they ever tried to privatize Social Security.
- Conservatives will gloat about Brokeback Mountain's somewhat disappointing box office returns; gay marriage will grow in popularity and gay rights will expand; heterosexual marriage will not collapse.
- Liberals will be sorely disappointed to learn that teaching the truth about evolution polls very badly.
- Supreme Court decisions will leave the constitutional status of abortion unclear, provoking a spate of state-level regulations and a massive new round of lawsuits.
- America will keep inching toward socialized medicine as the ratio of people getting public sector health insurance to having private sector insurance reaches an all-time high.
The Miami Heat?

Whatever. Who knows?

As Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) said - Prudens futuri temporis exitum Caliginosa nocte premit dues - "A wise God shrouds the future in obscure darkness."

That famous writer down in Long Beach, Ray Bradbury, had the right idea - "I don't try to describe the future. I try to prevent it."

But it will be here Sunday.

Posted by Alan at 20:39 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 31 December 2005 07:12 PST home

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