Thursday, July 31, 2008

New gig.

Cool news from my end: I've been asked to be one of the front-page writers over at Pats Pulpit, a New England Patriots fanblog. Those of you who enjoy my writing about American Gridiron can chase me over there for at least one post a week.

Sorry, though, to those of you who are bored/disinterested/hostile to my football writing, 'cause I'm going to continue to post random thinks on this site as well--if it's in my head and socially acceptable, chances are it's going to show up on this site sooner or later.

I've already got a couple of stories up: Running Down the Line is a snapshot of where I think the Patriots' offensive line stands at the beginning of training camp; Camp Rules is an admonishment to hardcore fans (yes, sadly, like myself) to take pre-season reporting with a grain of salt.

My screen name over there is JohnHannahRules. When I was growing up in Giants country (Connecticut south of Hartford), John Hannah was one of the only things the Pats (then "Patsies") had going for them. Since it was already pretty clear that if I was going to do anything on the football field it was going to be in the trenches, he made a good football role model. I had a poster of him on my wall.

You can find a link to Pats Pulpit under the sports links, right.

Ruby, AK 99768

click to enlarge

July 17, 2008
Click to enlarge.

I did not expect that.

Huh. Sox finally traded Manny Ramirez. Sox give Manny to the Dodgers, pay the last $7million of his contract and give Brandon Moss and Craig Hanson to the Pirates in exchange for Jason Bay. Dodgers also sent some prospects to the Pirates to complete the deal. I don't really care about the Dodgers or the Pirates (if you couldn't tell), so I'm just going to look at this from the perspective of a Sox fan. (Plus, it's a good opportunity to bone up on html for tables.)

Bay is pretty good at Pittsburgh, especially compared to the 2008 regular season Manny:


That compares pretty well. Big Question: can Jason Bay hit as well against AL East pitching as he has in the NL central? Doubtful.

Even so, there's no way Bay is anything but an upgrade in the field, adjustment to the Wall included.

On the other hand, Manny is unquestionably a clutch post-season hitter and one of the hardest working at the art now in the game.

On the other hand, Bay isn't going to be slugging your traveling secretary, or sulking in the dugout during the Yankees series, or demanding to be traded every other year.

Manny is going to hit well out there--probably put on a show, even though he'd be better off as a DH in the AL than an outfielder in the NL (though the pitching over there is worse).

How will Big Poppy react? We can provide good lineup protection for him with Youk, Drew, or even Mike Lowell. If Bay maintains his production, this looks like a pretty clear case of addition by subtraction. Plus, Bay is about a third as expensive as Manny, freeing up some cash (creatively) to go after what we really need: some middle relief.

On Manny's parting words: Yeah? That's straight from his script. See? It says right here: player with noted exceptionalist streak expresses self-importance in tones of a righteous lover, daring the abused spouse to walk. Tra-la, tra-la, we walked.

On the Manny Era: I never had a problem with the guy, really. He was a flake, and if you took him on those terms, all the stories about "Manny being Manny" were boring, bordering on tiresome. When he was happy, he was the best hitter in the game--he even became a decent left-fielder in Fenway. And he very clearly loved playing (when he was playing), which is always joyful to watch. But this was bound to happen. Ever since we got rid of Pedro, Manny's had a hair across 'is arse for management.

So long, Manny. Thanks for the rings, you came as advertised, but this is the right thing for all of us. Kisses.

And you, dear reader, may think this is corny, but it makes perfect sense and I can't get it out of my head. In the words of Green Day,

For what it's worth,
it was worth all the while.

It's something unpredictable
but in the end it's right.
I hope you had the time of your life.

That's en-ter-taaaaaain-ment!

I've been recently captivated by DVDs of an animated series called The Venture Brothers. The fact that it's been out for two years tells you just how "Now" I am. Anyway, if you ever ill-spent your childhood Saturdays watching Johnny Quest and appreciate just how hokey it was, I have a hunch you'll find the Ventures pretty funny.

There's a great essay by David Foster Wallace called "Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness From Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed" that hints at some of what I love about this show.

First of all, you've got to be the kind of person that thinks the title of that essay is a little funny all by itself. Then, you've got to be the sort that thinks Kafka's writing is also funny. If you're American, you probably qualify this by saying "Kafka is funny, but in an unfunny Frenchish way." And only to your friends when you think the DHS isn't listening.

Of course, you also have to be the sort of person who can seriously discuss an animated sit-com featured on Adult Swim by the light of Kafka and David Foster Wallace.

Anyway, the hint is as follows:
It's not that students don't "get" Kafka's humor but that we've taught them to see humor as something you get--the same way we've taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.
So, if you're the sort who finds that very premise "funny" in a (duh) Kafkaesque way, then you'll really appreciate The Venture Bros.

Or you'll just think it's kind of funny.

As everyone knows and Wallace points out, there is no quicker way to kill a joke than to explain what makes it funny. So I'll just give you the premise:

Dr. Venture (pictured above) is a "super-scientist" in the Saturday morning mode. But he's a failure: the no-account son of a truly great super-scientist. Venture has two sons, Dean and Hank, both stupid and caught in a post-50's mindset. It's not entirely their fault, we discover, as they're actually clones -- the "blanks" for which Venture keeps locked up for use as the boys get killed. Which they frequently do.

Venture also has a bodyguard named Brock Sampson, an agent assigned to him from the "Office of Secret Intelligence" to protect the Venture family from the enemies of Venture's father. Sampson is especially hilarious in the second season -- I think the writers caught on to the fact that they had a great foil. He's the only one who seems aware that he's caught up in a very stupid farce. His lines become a kind of exhausted, eye-rolling recitation of the obvious -- which everyone else is missing. Very ably voiced by Patrick Warburton's lugubrious monotone.

Central to the story is Venture's wanna-be nemesis: The Monarch. As in butterfly. He directs his henchmen -- another hilarious side story is the existential dilemma of "henching" -- against Venture for no reason other than he's determined to be someone's nemesis and has picked Venture (with whom he went to college). The Monarch is ever in peril of having his heart broken by Doctor Girlfriend (pictured), a smoking hot (and actually competent) Jackie-O look-like with a disturbingly deep voice.

The show is peopled with all kinds of villains and other wannabe's, mostly farcical representations of Saturday-morning staples, but including a cameo by an Uncle Duke/HST doppelganger. As an example of what I find funny:

The Monarch has been imprisoned and his henchmen cast to the winds. We catch up with Henchmen #21 and #24 (the only ones with names, sort of) at a support group: "Men Before Henchmen." They can't kick the henching habit, and 21 unintentionally subverts the group by encouraging another sad-sack to keep hope alive: his master might not, in fact, have been sucked into a jet-engine.

If you think that's funny, rent the vids. As Zissou says, "If not, then yes."

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Like an Addict, I'm back...

Damn it. I feel like Brokeback Ledger saying, "I can't quit you."

Football season is right around the corner, and like a junkie, shaking and scratching, here I am again: completely incapable of staying away. Even after the sickening absurdity of last season, I still bend down (way, way down) to drink at the firehose that is the American Sports Media Machine.

It has begun. Camp, that is. Coaches love it, fans love it, players hate it with great hate. As SI writer Stefan Fastis discovered, it is a way of life and a living, but the joy is in competition and camaraderie. The everyday, the grind, the lack of security, constant self-doubt, the discomfort and, by about the third day or so, pretty much constant pain--it's not so fun.

And as a conscious individual, I am of course aware of the incredible waste of resources represented by the sport at all levels, not to mention the dubious effects it has on young people.

Yet, here I am, right on schedule.

So, camp. Here are the smartest men on the team:

I'm not kidding. By position, NFL offensive linemen are the smartest guys on the field. As a matter of routine, since about 1970, NFL teams administer a modified IQ test called "The Wonderlic Test" to all players before signing them. (It's named for its developer EF Wonderlic, you perv.)

Because the NFL incessantly quantifies all quantifiable things (and is constantly on the look-out for a means to quantify qualitative things like "heart" or "character" or "desperation"), the scores have been maintained.

Before you get to feeling too high and mighty, here are some average scores for non-football professions:
Chemist: 31
Programmer: 29
Newswriter: 26
Sales: 24
Bank teller: 22
Clerical Worker: 21
Security Guard: 17
Warehouse: 15
So that's your range. Now, as to the beefy guys in the picture? Here are their scores:

Matt Light (LT): 29
Logan Mankins (LG): 25
Dan Koppen (C): 28
Stephen Neal (RG): 31
Nick Kaczur (RT): 29

That's right, smarty-pants. Stephen Neal has the same average Wonderlic score as a chemist. Keep in mind that they take the test during the scouting combine, after a full day of physical evaluations--running, jumping, shuttling, benching, squatting, etc. and etc. Of course, the smart agent has his client prepare for the test. But just as when folks prepare for the SAT, LSAT, GRE, or MCAT, some do better than others.

Big tip o'the cap to Ben Fry, the data visualization genius who does these kinds of representative graphs and charts both in his sleep and for fun, for putting together a revealing graphic on the topic. You can find it here, together with a discussion. I'm swiping the best one to post and beg his indulgence. Offense in blue, defense in red:

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Yukon River Lodge: Part I

This is Part I of a three-part piece I've written about a week spent on the Yukon River, helping to build a wilderness lodge. I'll be posting parts II and III through the week. Click on pictures fo a larger view.

Have you gazed on naked grandeur where there's nothing else to gaze on,
Set pieces and drop-curtain scenes galore,
Big mountains heaved to heaven, which the blinding sunsets blazon,
Black canyons where the rapids rip and roar?
Have you swept the visioned valley
with the green stream streaking through it,
Searched the Vastness for a something you have lost?
Have you strung your soul to silence? Then for God's sake go and do it;
Hear the challenge, learn the lesson, pay the cost.

From "The Call of the Wild," by Robert Service

In the summer of 1980, on a farm in Windham, Maine, Ann and Larry Clark packed their kids in the car for a classic American vacation: Drive across the country. From Maine to the West—a thousand sights to see, America the Beautiful. Young Sam Clark, though, had a singular itch in his nine year old head: Alaska! We’re going to Alaska! Alaska had fixed itself in Sam’s mind from the beginning of the trip. Like Jack’s Magic Seeds, from Maine to Washington, Alaska grew and loomed. “We got all the way to Prince Rupert – you know, in Canada, British Colombia—like 30 miles away. And we had to turn back,” he told me. “I was crushed.” They had run out of summer—school was starting all the way across the continent. Alaska would have to wait.

“Alaska” has never been simply a name. It is an icon, with a mythology that starts with Jack London’s "Tales of the Yukon" and traces a vein through our culture like the gold that induced a swarming generation of prospectors to clamber over its every rock. From Robert Service’s “Songs of a Sourdough” to the Grizzly Man; from Dick Proenneke’s wilderness outpost to the 1150-mile cacophony of the Iditarod; from “the Slope” and Prudhoe Bay to Denali and Chris McCandless and the Devil’s Thumb and the Kenai Peninsula; Caribou and Reindeer to King Salmon and sleek Grayling; from Anchorage to Valdez, to Exxon Valdez: Alaska works a fantasy on the American mind. We seek it, we long for it. There is something missing—it’s in Alaska. Our cultural inheritance, our frontier instinct, somehow knows that the last blank space on the map is Alaska.

Not true, of course. Every inch of Seward’s Folly has been walked on and examined in minute detail for two things at least: Yellow Gold and “Black Gold.” Nevertheless, it retains the lightest population density of all the United States, 1.1 people per square mile. It also retains its mystique. The allure of wilderness there has never died. Since 1958 Alaska has flown the stars and stripes. But in spite of those 50 years, the other 49 states remain “outside.”

A solid line of prospectors marches up and over the Chilkoot Pass at the height of the Gold Rush.

I am flying to Alaska. I am not going to fish, to hunt, or to hike. I am going to bang nails. It is that skill that has gotten me on this plane for free, it is that skill that’s taking me from Boston to Seattle to Fairbanks on jets. It will get me on a twin-prop plane to tiny Ruby. It will get me on a small aluminum boat to motor up the Yukon River. It will help me help two people to build a future together on an isolated stretch of that river, a wilderness lodge. There they will trade “outsiders” brief glimpses of a young, raw world, meals of fresh salmon and open hospitality, in exchange for the means to live in the midst of great, expanded silence.

I never thought a hammer would bring me this far.

From the air, the river valleys of interior Alaska look like a giant, half-drained puddle. The Chena River flows through the city of Fairbanks. West of town, it is joined by the Tanana (pictured) and later, the Yukon. All along this expansive plain, potholes, ponds, marshes and sloughs shine back at an aircraft passenger like so much spilled silver. The topsoil is shallow and the rivers cut their way through it as water drains from a sand-bar on the ocean. Through their post-ice-age lives, the great rivers of interior Alaska have carved alternate courses, often pursuing many options in concert so that from the sky a river looks like a vast, unraveling braid. Its fly-away strands may eventually become one of the countless ox-bow ponds—curiously crescent-shaped slivers of water, connected to the river only through the porous loam of topsoil. Even these ponds have no sure independence, however, as the meandering Yukon may one day reclaim them. Who knows but that one spring’s vicious and inexorable break-up of ice might deposit new sand-bars and shoals, redirecting this massive flood down one of its ancient paths?

At the height of the gold-rush, flat-bottomed stern-wheelers plied this bewildering channel. Raw gold motivated thousands upon thousands of speculators, prospectors and miners. In their wake came more calculating individuals: merchants, salesmen, outfitters. A paying claim is uncertain. What is certain is that men will need clothes, food, equipment, an occasional bath. Women. Whiskey. And not necessarily in that order.

To satisfy these needs, erstwhile prospector, Akron native and determined merchant E.T. Barnette commissioned Captain Charles Adams and his steamship, Lavelle Young, to get him up river to Tanana Crossing. The one rail line to the interior was slated to cross the gold river Tanana at a particular spot—the “Crossing.” Here, at the crossroads of steel and steam, E.T. Barnette would establish a trading-post. Then a town, then a city. He would be rich. Captain Adams would get him to Tanana Crossing; he would take it from there. At least that was the goal. Written in to the contract between them was a more open ended promise: Adams would take Barnett as far as his ship could go.

They steamed the Tanana River for hundreds of miles without reaching the crossing. Balked by shallow water, Barnette persuaded Adams to try the Chena. The going rumor was that the Chena was merely a slough that connected to the Tanana. In truth, it is a river. Barnette didn’t find out the truth on that trip. Again, the shoals of those broad, flat, shallow floods frustrated his aims. The Lavelle was stopped.

Unable to make Tanana Crossing by river and true to the terms of his contract, Captain Adams dumped Mr. Barnette, his wife Isabella and 130 tons of freight on the banks of the Chena river, having brought them all as far as he could.

Figuring that a trading post is where the goods are, Barnette set up shop. The ultimate result was Fairbanks Trading Post, named for Indiana Republican Charles Fairbanks—a political expedience at the request of one of Barnette’s investors.

Barnette’s Fairbanks tottered on the brink of instability, an unruly collection of stores, saloons and streets laid out in optimism, propped up by salesmanship, showmanship and gamesmanship. Finally, consummate conniver E.T. struck a deal with one Judge Wickersham that resulted in the construction of a jail and some government offices. This indicia of legitimacy and order (so far as it went) swung the pendulum from rival Tanana City toward Barnette’s trading post and firmly rooted this speculative collection of miners, traders, opportunists, “last-chancers,” sourdoughs, prostitutes and missionaries to the thin Alaskan soil. To this day, the city remains the last firm outpost of “outside” civilization on the way to Prudhoe Bay.

Two hundred and thirty air-miles west of Fairbanks, on the south shore of the Yukon river, lies the town of Ruby. Once, briefly, over 1000 miners and townspeople lived here. Now fewer than 200 folks remain, mostly Athabascan Alaskans, working mostly seasonal jobs and hunting and trapping. There is a gravel airstrip, and occasional barge service. No roads connect Ruby to other towns.

I flew in to Ruby in a Beechcraft 1900. On its way to Galena with 14 people on board, it touched down on Ruby’s gravel strip and unloaded but two passengers: myself and a woman returning from a trip to the city. I was met at the runway by a Frontier Alaska agent in a Toyota pickup truck. He secured the mail and me and drove me to town—to “The campground” on Front Street.

The campground is a covered picnic area with an open-pit grill on a bluff above the river. It’s a place for local events, and a place to meet your boat. For me, it was a place to find Ann and Larry Clark. They’re Sam’s parents and my main connection to this adventure. I met Ann and Larry because they are trying to preserve that farm in Windham. They need to get value out of it, but they don’t want to see the land and forests they’ve managed for a lifetime turned into tract housing. They want to see it farmed and used; not developed. I’m trying to help them. When they found out that I used to handle a hammer for my living, they invited me to come to Ruby (on their air-miles) for a week in exchange for helping Sam to build a dream by the Yukon River.

Ruby cliffs from the Campsite
Kokrine Hills and Yukon River from the Campsite

Ann and Larry are already at the Campsite when I arrive. I throw my backpack in the boat and we push off from the silty shore. I still have 13 miles to go, this time east, up the river. It is a clear day, around 70 degrees. We pull out into the current.

We are headed to Yukon River Lodge, still nothing but a pressure-treated basement, half decked. It perches on a northern bluff above the river about 13 miles east of Ruby. The property is split by a small stream, unnamed on any map, which is their source for fresh water. Over years, the stream has created a spit of gravel in the river-bottom, forming an eddy that protects a gravel beach. Driftwood has lodged against the spit, a silvering break-water subject to high river whims, yet remarkably constant in form from ice-out in the spring until the river freezes in October. That bluff and spit will be our light-posts, together with a solar array, as we motor northward along the wide breast of the river.

Headed east from Ruby

The Yukon is nearly a mile wide here, but its surface still boils with massive up-wellings and spiraling currents that betray an immense volume of water passing by in seeming placidity. It has been a warm, wet summer—wet near Ruby, warm in the mountains to the east. The warmer it is 500 miles away, the more ice and snow melt, the higher the river. As winter comes and melt turns to freeze, the level of the Yukon will drop and the water will clear to a crystal transparency. When that happens, it will be short weeks before the water freezes, and a month and a half to eight weeks before it becomes a winter highway, traversable by snow-machine and dogsled. In between, Yukon River Lodge will be completely cut off.

Yukon east of the eddy, first night.

But now it is summer and the salmon are running. Well, “running” might be a bit strong this year: the pulses of migrating fish have been uncharacteristically anemic. According to the fish report on KIYU "the voice of the Yukon," only 120,000 Kings are expected to come by Ruby during the week of my visit, and many of these are destined for Canada. There is a limit on what can be taken from the river here, as the natal spawning grounds of many of these fish are still some six- to seven hundred miles away.

Even so, there are prescribed times a fishwheel still can be run, and we pass a working wheel just a mile out of town. Fishwheels are a Japanese import, though of long standing here. They float in the river, held out from shore by a spar and anchored by a cable to something solid on land up-river. Using the current to drive it, the “wheel” alternates paddle, basket, paddle, basket through the water. Fish swimming upstream to spawn—mostly Chum and King salmon right now—are guided toward the wheel by a gate on the shore-side, scooped up in the basket and deposited in a holding box. Finicky (or, as I like to call them, “smart”) fishwheel owners also fasten a bucket to the wheel that scoops up river water and keeps the fish in the box well-doused.

I’ve never seen anything quite like it as we trundle slowly past, its baskets dipping with perfect regularity into the river’s flow. Every trip I take, there seems to be one thing that signals for me that I’ve arrived somewhere new, somewhere distinctly “other” than my life has yet seen. In Alaska, I might’ve thought this would be a wolf, or a Byronic snow-capped mountain, perhaps a grizzly bear. Instead, it’s this simple fishwheel, spinning in a riverine harmonic. I will be on this river for only 6 days.

Monday, July 28, 2008


Howdy. I've been back for about a week and I've got a long, long story about my trip. I don't know if I'm going to put it up all at once or serialize it. We'll see. I'm leaning to the all-at-once, though that's usually better for long-form journals than the web. But hell, I'm not going to publish it. If you'll read it, you'll read it together. The internet never forgets--you can always finish it off later. I want to pretty it up with links and pictures, and that's going to have to wait until tomorrow as I'm all tuckered out right now and it's past bed time.

But just to show you how much I love my gentle readers, and let you know you're not forgotten (no, not ever), I'm going to leave you with a poem that I uncovered in my Alaska reading. I can't even express how relieved I was to find this poem.


The Men That Don't Fit In

There's a race of men that don't fit in,
A race that can't stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain's crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don't know how to rest.

If they just went straight they might go far;
They are strong and brave and true;
But they're always tired of the things that are,
And they want the strange and new.
They say: "Could I find my proper groove,
What a deep mark I would make!"
So they chop and change, and each fresh move
Is only a fresh mistake.

And each forgets, as he strips and runs
With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It's the steady, quiet, plodding ones
Who win in the lifelong race.
And each forgets that his youth has fled,
Forgets that his prime is past,
Till he stands one day, with a hope that's dead,
In the glare of the truth at last.

He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance;
He has just done things by half.
Life's been a jolly good joke on him,
And now is the time to laugh.
Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost;
He was never meant to win;
He's a rolling stone, and it's bred in the bone;
He's a man who won't fit in.

Robert Service, "Songs of the Yukon"

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Lighting out for the territory.

I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.
--Huck Finn
Borrowed Suits will be observing at least 10 days of radio silence as your corresp. heads out to the great northwest. I will be leaving from Boston's Logan airport tomorrow morning early headed for Ruby, Alaska. The flight will go from Beantown to Coffee Town (Seattle), to Fairbanks. I'll layover one night in Fairbanks then hop a bush plane to Ruby. From ruby it's about 5 miles downstream on the Yukon River to the home of the future Yukon River Lodge. Hopefully I won't have to swim.

The YRL is a project started about 2 years ago by Sam and Tamara Clark, seeking their own version of Dick Proenneke's "Back and Beyond."

Sam and Tamara haven't gone that extreme. They're building a lodge on the river to cater to sportsmen and outdoor enthusiasts looking for a spot tight against the Nowitna National Wildlife Refuge. The Yukon enjoys good salmon fishing, among other things.

Even though they're relatively close to Ruby, there are no roads to their place but the river. During early freeze-up and before ice-out, this means the place is as isolated as can be. In the winter they get to town by dogsled and snow machine; in the summer they rely on boats.

I don't expect to be doing too much sightseeing -- though the place itself is beautiful. The time will largely be devoted to building.
Food cache, YRL
I met Sam's parents through my work. Once they discovered that I used to be a nail-banger, they asked if I ever wanted to go to Alaska.

Well, yeah. But I could never afford the ticket.

"Not to worry," they said, "we have plenty of air miles built up. Why don't you come up this summer and help us build?"

I doubt I'd ever get a better offer, so I'm taking it. Expect a full report upon my return. In the meantime, you can check out this quicktime photoessay they've put together and nose around their site for pictures and descriptions.

See you soon.

Monday, July 7, 2008


Lazy blogging means more clips. But I'm guessing that more clips means more happy "readers." So here's a clip, reader:

The Simpsons Voices

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Worth Sharing.

Click picture once to play; twice for source site.

Happy Birthday to Us

Photos of fireworks over Portland, Maine by Josh and Melanie Rosenthal.
Spent the 4th between my folks in New Hampshire and my buddy's house on Long Lake in Naples, Maine.

I feel differently about the Fourth from how I feel about Memorial Day. The Fourth, to my mind, is straight celebration. We were fortunate to have a group of earnest, intelligent and learned men together and thinking along the same lines at the same time, at a moment in western history when it was both necessary and possible to try something new.

Always remember that what they began is an experiment. It need not succeed, and if it does succeed, it need not be on their terms alone. It will be on our terms; your only obligation is to participate.

Ashland, NH, put on a very nice small-town parade--the antithesis of Portland's anemic Memorial Day parade. Yes, that means hokey: the local "Jazzercize" class danced their way down Maine Street. The local bank had a float. Jeremey Hitlz Excavation showed off his 7 new dumpers (a little excessive, Jer). Cons: only the 8 or so firetrucks who assaulted all present by running their sirens pretty much non-stop. Fellas, those things are designed to move people out of the way. 5 straight minutes of them within the confines of Ashland's small streets is painful. By the time they were done I wanted to punch a fireman in the face (sorry, Pete).

Pros: Grand Marshall Alex Ray of the Common Man restaurants, resplendent in red, white and blue, and refusing to honor the time-honored Grand Marshall tradition of riding in an open car. Instead, he circled the parade continuously on his antique high-wheel bicycle.

Other pros: a parade of old cars, including a string of immaculate Rolls-Royces; 2 brass bands pulled along on trailers and playing traditional patriotic fare (King and Sousa); a high school marching band dressed intelligently in khaki shorts and polo shirts; horses (and riders); a pooper-scooper on a bicycle; kids on bikes decked out in colored foil and streamers.

One of my father's hobbies is the New England brass band; he was on one of the floats. After the parade we went back to house for a cookout and, later, mom's strawberry shortcake. Yum.

Later on, I drove over to Long Lake to enjoy the fireworks. As the sun set, boaters began to populate the lake. By dark, the red, green and white dots of their running lights lay sprinkled up the length of the lake, beyond sight. It was beautiful. So were the fireworks.

Side note: the Fourth was also the day after the great battle of Gettysburg, when Lee retreated and Meade failed to follow--probably extending the war by at least a year. I would argue that the Civil War, the reconstruction and the Civil War amendments were at least as important to our identity as a nation -- if not moreso -- as the Revolution. To celebrate that, I'm re-reading bits of "Soul of the Lion," a biography of my favorite American, Joshua Chamberlain: professor, college president, four times Governor of Maine, recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, citizen-soldier of the Union army chosen to receive the surrender of the Confederate infantry at Appomatox Courthouse, where he "startles the world by calling his troops to attention to salute the defeated South."

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Acadia, Sewall, May 2008

Retroactive Immunity, FISA and you (and Obama)

There has been much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands regarding BHO's stated support for the compromise legislation on FISA and telco immunity. I'd have said "pulling of hair," too, but that would automatically dis-qualify me and I have to say I was bummed.

And I'm still a little bummed. But I'm also starting to wonder, in that just-waking-up-what-the-hell-is-that-ringing kind of a way, why? Why would a professor of Constitutional Law decide this isn't such a big deal? And what is it about telco immunity, anyway?

Some of you may know that I used to, you know, be "into" the law. Well here's the problem: in order to sue the telco's, you first have to prove they owe you a duty. Private companies or people can not violate your civil rights. Only the government can do that. And the government almost certainly did, and we should be suing them (us?).

I encourage everyone with a stake in this election (and that's everyone -- literally) to read this very well thought-out essay on the issue at Talking Points Memo. As the author admits, "it's long and pedantic and boring." But since you're reading Borrowed Suits, I'm going to assume that's not an issue for you.

No firm conclusions are reached. In some ways, it raises more questions than answers--one of which is, if all this is true, then why hasn't Obama been more forthcoming about his change of heart?

It also contains this pointed reminder:
Q: "Even if retroactive telecom immunity isn’t so bad, Obama said he would vote against any bill that has immunity in it and I want a president who sticks to his word."

A: Well, if you want a president who takes the attitude that "I said that’s what I’m going to do and by gum I’m going to do it come hell or high water and even if I learn down the road that it’s a stupid thing to do and even if I find out that it’s not working, I’m going to keep on doing it because, by golly, I said I would" ..... then you must have been very happy for the last 7 ½ years.
But in the end, it also begs the question: Why change? FISA works, and that's a fact. It's not the telco immunity that we should be worried about--it's the startling expansion of executive powers to do whatever the hell they want to whomever the hell they please.

No matter your party affiliation, that should molest your equanimity in some way (piss you right the f*ck off).

Let me also say that no matter the whiffling on this issue, I'm very much opposed to immunity--retroactive or otherwise. Qwest, for example, simply told the NSA "no" when they came and asked, "Not without authorization in the form of an AG letter." In response, the government folded up its tents and went away. That alone would seem to indicate that at least some of the other companies didn't bother to decline.

And it may be simple politics on Obama's part. But "the optics" (ugh) are terrible for him and he's so astute politically that there's got to be something more there. I'm just not sure what it is. Uncomfortable.

(Though, when threatened with a President McCain, I quite serene by comparison.)

A-posting we will go.

I was gone on a mini-vacation from Friday through Monday last week. I will soon be leaving on a larger expedition (never fear, photos and story to follow) from July 9-19th. (House-breakers, there's your tip.) So I'm going to post, post, post as much as I can in the time to come (work permitting). Here's a funny:

That's advertising, dear reader. That's advertising.


Courtesy of Deadspin:

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Blood n' Oil -- Follow-up

This is a quick response to a comment on my There Has Been Blood post about the oil companies and their shiny new Iraq contracts. The best layout of these topics is actually in my Memorial Day post from last year. It's worth it to me to make the arguments again, though. The ties are too tight, the cost--in blood and money--too high.

I'm not trying to "call-out" my commenter. He's a reasonable, thoughtful guy. But it's worth looking a little more closely at the way this war has played out, and it's worth continuing to do it because history won't be kind if we fail to learn from it. In a country where people truly believe that a major party candidate is a possibly gay African-born closet-islamist who doesn't recite the pledge to the flag (more later), revisiting the facts is critical. As one of those benighted citizens said, "He's a good speaker, but you've got to dig deeper than that for the truth. Politicians tell you anything. You have look beyond the surface, and then there are some real lies."


Now, I don't claim to know how much influence the oil industry has inside the White House. But I think we're foolish if we think it's negligible. Here's part of the comment that spurred this response:
If Iraq didn't sit on a huge bed of oil, we probably wouldn't have invaded when we did. I do have a hard time saying this is a war for oil. I've been more inclined to believe we went there because we thought he had WMD, President Bush & Co. thought we could bring "peace and stability" to the middle east, and Iraq sits on a big bed of oil. The western oil companies will get their oil and make a nice profit, but the Iraqi government will make a tidy sum as well.
I agree with a lot of this. But the WMD thing was a charade. It was made up. And I'll go along with "peace and stability" (incidentally, not a success), as long as by that you mean "democracy will flow like a river and all we have to do to make that happen is kill the right people." Which by itself is pretty incredibly naive on their part.

Almost every last person involved in the administration who is not currently in the administration has admitted that the Pres, V-P, then-SecDef Rummy and Wolfie conspired to cook the intelligence to make the case for war. This goes for every jettisoned principal from George Tenet to latest traitor Scotty McClellan. Almost every shred of evidence--including the "mobile weapons labs" that were part of the slideshow C.Powell gave at the UN--were ginned up from single-source informants with an ax to grind, and in one case, an international reputation as a con-man. The only people not admitting to this are still gainfully employed by the White House.

I haven't written a comprehensively sourced blog on this since a year ago because, frankly, it depresses the shit out of me.

The "peace and stability" canard is a true beauty of selective sociology combined with a religious (small "r") -- not factual -- view of democracy and how successful democratic institutions coalesce from human populations. The idea itself is not the crystallizing agent the neoconservatives wish that it was. For more reading on how they began to convince themselves of these theoretical underpinnings for the policy of "oil-forward" and "aggressive democracy" dig into information about "The Project for a New American Century," or PNAC.

Led by "liberal" New York Times, no newspapers or reporting agencies asked hard questions (or even follow-up questions to their own softballs) during the run-up to the invasion. Reporter Judith Miller beat the war drum most loudly. It was later revealed that her only significant source was Ahmad Chalabi and that she didn't do any fact-checking. (She was later compelled to quit her job, but not before covering for I. Scooter Libby.)

There was, and is, a lot of complicity on both sides of the aisle to either use public fear to get what they wanted (Patriot Act, AUMF) or to stay out of the way of the zeitgeist lest they be voted out of office or *gasp* labeled un-American or traitorous (see, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, e.g.). Of course, they were too naive to understand that they'd get that label anyway, as Democrats.

The use of fear continues. The recent "compromise" on the FISA legislation is a response to that fear--again either a willingness to exploit it or an unwillingness to stand up to it and make a principled case. Now FISA (which worked just fine, by the way) has been greatly expanded and the only assurance that the government won't spy on you is their say-so. And the telecommunications companies that broke 4th Amendment law in order to help the government spy on you are no longer subject to accountability.

Don't cry for Lukoil and Putin. Their role in helping Hussein circumvent food-for-oil is criminal. It's too bad most of the world has ignored it.
I cry for no oil companies--those run by Russian oligarchs least of all (we have plenty of our own, anyway). But they had plenty of help in subverting oil-for-food. According to the CIA, the list includes Chevron and ExxonMobil to name two off the top of my head. Chevron alone admitted to paying over 30million in kickbacks (while Condi Rice was on its board of directors, no less). It's too bad that we in the west have ignored that.

I pointed out that the Russians lost out on the contract to indicate that the pay-to-drill arrangement involved the deaths of US Soldiers, not Russian ones, and the regime in Iraq understands that.

In a war of straight policy, the first preemptive war fought by the US since before WWI, reasons are paramount. Like Ellerby, Alec Baldwin's character in "The Departed," it makes sense to ask "Cui bono? Who benefits?"

In the case of the Iraq invasion, the press and congress and many Americans' response was Matt Damon's: "Cui gives a shit? It's got a fucking bow on it!"

But who has benefited? Certainly not our over-deployed and under-supplied military. Certainly not our economy, strapped with the largest deficit in its history (both as a raw number and as a percentage of GDP) as a result of a war habit that costs $430 million per day [CNNMoney 6/12/08]. According to the President and Congress, we aren't any more secure--that was their main argument for renewing the Patriot Act and the new FISA "compromise."

According to the AP, on the other hand:

Chevron Corp. put yet another exclamation point on the oil patch's long run of prosperity Friday with a first-quarter profit of $5.17 billion, or $2.48 per share. That was up 10 percent from net income of $4.72 billion, or $2.18 per share, last year.

The performance exceeded the lofty expectations of analysts, helping lift Chevron shares 38 cents to $95.32.

It was the second-highest quarterly profit in the company's 129-year history and marked the most money that it has ever made during the January-March period. That puts the No. 2 U.S. oil company on track for its fifth straight year of record earnings.
AP report, 5/2/08.

The same goes for their buddies around the world. These companies have benefited from an energy policy -- literally a secret energy policy -- formulated by Dick Cheney and their own board members behind closed doors. I'm not trying to be hyperbolic--you can't make this shit up. He literally met in secret with oil industry executives to lay out our energy policy in 2001. When newspapers and interest groups sued to see non-classified documentation of the meetings to understand how our official oil use and development policy was crafted, the case was thrown out of court.

Now we're occupying the largest untapped oil reserves in the world with American soldiers (pretty successfully) policing a religious civil war that we set loose. About the only people set to gain from this situation are American oil companies: I ask again, "Cui bono?"

So, it may not have been the only reason. But it was a big one. And when it comes time for these guys to count their chips when they pack up the boxes next year, it will be the most important one, and the only one that succeeded.

The answer may have a bow on it, but if you're a taxpayer, the box itself is full of a big shit sandwich. Nom nom nom ... tastes great! Thanks, George!