Wednesday, December 27, 2006

If We Knew Then What We Know Now, Would It Make Any Difference?

P.Z. Myers got me to thinking.

Last Monday evening, my mother called me with the news that my paternal grandfather had shot himself. His health had been getting increasingly worse over the past 15 or so years, various heart and lung ailments stemming from years of smoking and unsafe working conditions. He'd been using an oxygen tank since I was in high school and even sitting in front of the television exhausted him physically.

I never was close to my paternal grandfather, not in the way I was with my maternal grandfather, my Poppaw Bean. As a small child, I worshiped Poppaw Bean and despite the last five years of his life lost to Alzheimer's, I cried when they laid him in the clay some 13 years ago. But Poppaw Thompson, it just wasn't the same. Part of it lay in the fact we lived in Northeast Mississippi, near Tupelo, and Poppaw Thompson lived in Jackson, a miserable four-hour drive at best. Most of it, though, had to do with my with just the Thompson knack for emotional distance. We're private people who manage to wear our hearts on our sleeves. When we move, we move on. We don't dwell.

Poppaw Thompson was pretty much the same way. Shortly after my paternal grandmother died - six weeks before I was born - he married an old flame and helped raise her youngest daughter. That was that. One would think that caused a rift between him and the old man, except there were issues between my father and his mother. I don't know what they were or why they happened. He doesn't want to talk about it, I never knew her, and the most I can get from my relatives is she was a "pretty, unpredictable woman who smoke and drank constantly". No one wants to talk about it, so I let it go.

My mother tried to bridge the gap. She comes from a tight-knit hillbilly family, most of who still life within a square mile of the hill where they were all born. She's all about roots and old pictures and family heirlooms that are financially negligible but rich in memory. After my brother and I left home for college and Momma retired from teaching (my dad's been disabled and unable to work since 1977, on top of being injured and exposed to Agent Orange in 'Nam), my folks made regular trips down to Jackson to visit, but it never changed. It just wasn't the same as being immersed in my mother's family.

It was just different, and my mother still doesn't understand that. She tries but I don't think she ever will. It's part of what makes Momma what she is, just like her big, ready-for-hugs greeting to every child she meets and her habit of telling complete strangers stories they won't get because they haven't know her or me or some distance, yet fondly remember relative for the past 30 years. My mother's family are loud and squabbling and thin-skinned and big-hearted and completely mad and lost in time. My father's people, well, if one day follows another, things are okay for them. My brother and I are a conflicted combination.

My brother and I left Athens early and drove to Jackson to be with my family and my father's people, many of whom I hadn't seen in almost 20 years. Some I'd never met before. Some I didn't know existed. It's odd. My father rarely talked about his father's people, apart from one favorite aunt that, apparently, more or less raised him. However, as much as he apparently had issues with his mother, he loved her people. Of all my father's family, I know them the best and I still have fond memories of my Uncle John and my Uncle Sam and my Uncle Dallas, a whole wad of characters and all gone, too.

My grandfather's people were like him, and many of them commented that they never got together except for funerals. Things were said about a family reunion, but I doubt it'll come across. That's just how they are. It's how I am. It's why I haven't spoken to most of the folks I knew in Gainesville since I left or why I haven't talked to most of the people I went to school with. It isn't a lack of love that causes the distance, it's just that peculiar family trait. It's not like Momma's people, and even though I am my father's son in that respect, I don't understand it. I can't. It just is.

During the funeral, the preacher - a second cousin of mine who previously did not number in my recollections, which is a helluva note - said he remembered my grandfather as a kind, gentle man who always took the time to listen. That's how I always knew him, as well, as that warm, gravelly voice on the other end of the phone who was just pleased to hear from me. Most of my life, I've felt my family and friends expected far too much from me, more than I could ever hope to deliver, but Poppaw Thompson just listened.

I understand Poppaw's decision to do what he did, why he made it. He told my step-grandmother he was tired of living the way he was, and before she could reach a phone to call 911, she heard the shot. I understand, though I'm angry with him for not giving us the chance to say goodbye, especially that aforementioned step-daughter's daughter, who worshiped the ground he walked on. He was in pain, the medication dulled his senses, he just wanted peace, he wanted to call his time. I understand. I wish he hadn't have done it, but I understand.

Momma was five minutes from calling them when my step-grandmother told him the news. Momma and Daddy were going to make a quick visit before my brother and I came home for the holidays. I'd planned a trip to New Orleans and was looking forward to telling Poppaw T. that I'd come for a visit sometime in March. Both of us can't help but wonder, if we had just said something sooner. If maybe I'd been a better grandson, if I'd tried harder to ignore the lean towards my father's emotional distance for my mother's wide-open heart. If. If. If.

I worry about my father. He's been disabled for almost 30 years, but the past few have seen a marked downturn in his health. Momma can't help but cry when she tells me how listless he is these days, how he doesn't hunt or fish anymore, how all he does is stare at the TV. She doesn't know what to do and I don't know what to tell her. He doesn't want to talk about it. All I can offer is professional therapy but I'm not holding my breath on whether or not it ever happens.

A very wise friend of mine once told me, "Life is people you love hurting you and never even knowing what they'd done or even that they'd done it." It's a dark outlook, but there's truth to it. The best we can hope for, the best we can do, is love each other as much as possible despite what we do to each other. We must live with our regrets, but we also get to live with the better memories. I'll always cherish the memories of my grandfather's voice and I'll always regret I didn't hear more of it. That's life.

Here's to you, Prof. Here's to your dad and my poppaw. Here's to all y'all.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Has Science Gone Too Far Or Not Far Enough?

I love science. I'm fascinated with string theory and cosmology. Various aspects of evolutionary theory provide for endless hours of amusement. The depth and scope of time involved in various geological studies is, quite simply, awe-inspiring. I just wish I understood all even half of it, but that just means there‘s always something new to learn. There's always something new to learn. I'm also quite concerned about the continued dumbing down of our culture. The idea that learning something for any reason other than profit is a waste of time bothers me to no end, and it seriously bothers me to see people wallow in ignorance over the simplest topics just because looking it up and maybe learning something would take time out of their busy schedules. The amount of faith, trust and, above all, money some people put into complete horse hockey like psychics, astrology and other forms of psuedo-scientific quackery worries me something fierce.

You may've heard about this. Way it goes, some kid named George Deutsch has got a bunch of scientists all riled up over some iffy statements he made to a subordinate in his position as public affairs officer for NASA. Here's the money quote:

In October 2005, Mr. Deutsch sent an e-mail message to Flint Wild, a NASA contractor working on a set of Web presentations about Einstein for middle-school students. The message said the word "theory" needed to be added after every mention of the Big Bang.

The Big Bang is "not proven fact; it is opinion," Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, "It is not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator."

It continued: "This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA. That would mean we had failed to properly educate the very people who rely on us for factual information the most."


Like I said, lots of folks are bent way out of shape over this, as well as Mr. Deutsch's qualifications for the job he has. In short, he has none. The boy's a recent journalism graduate from Texas A&M and apparently his only qualifications for the gig is that he served as an intern for the "war room" on Bush's 2004 re-election campaign. He's also a bit of a lulu, apparently.

Let's review. An unqualified political appointee issues a vaguely threatening missive to an actual scientist, warning said scientist not to get to fancy with his science talk and reminding him that, yes, religion must be respected. In the process, he gets it all wrong. Not only that, he's definitely a hard-core Bush partisan. The excellent Pharyngula has more on this story, as does Phil Plait's killer Bad Astronomer site and the excellent physics blog Cosmic Variance.

Okay, a couple things. Yes, the Big Bang is "just a theory", but that isn't the same thing as an "opinion". In the scientific world, a theory is derived from evidence and observation. It's testable. It's falsifiable. It's not some wild conjecture. Theories are challenged and tested against. Some fall by the wayside; some stick around despite some folks' best attempts to foil 'em. So, in other words, scientists aren't just making shit up when it comes to wacky stuff like string theory or expansion theory. They spend a lot of time on it because believe you me, there’s little more your average scientists likes better than to prove some other scientists wrong.

Number two, some serious bells of warning should go off when this kid tries to shove in the much discredited theory of "intelligent design by a creator". No, it isn't NASA's job to say there wasn't a creator, but it's also not NASA's job to give credence to unsubstantiated, unscientific political hoo-hah. Science, despite what Mr. Deutsch may think, isn't a religious issue. It has nothing to do with religion. End of story.

Personally, I've got no use for religion whatsoever. I'm interested in the history of various religions and their respective places in culture, and of course given today's political climate, it does one good to keep up with the various goings on in the churches and other houses of worship. Otherwise, it's complete rubbish to me, and personally I see no need to "respect" an ideology that thinks that not only am I doomed to ever-lasting torment because I don't follow its particular fairy tale, I deserve such damnation. That being said, hey, if faith gets you through the hard nights, that's jake with me. It just doesn't belong in science. Science isn't trying to replace religion. They're two different things and are in no way incongruous with each other. I don't know of any way to make that any simpler.

And for what it's worth, this isn't just a "knee-jerk, anti-Bush" reaction. After the disaster that is Michael Browne and the recent revelations of the Bush administration leaning on dissenting voices when it comes to little things like global warming, I personally think it's quite logical to be a bit perturbed by the news of one lone Aggie making a fool out of himself and the Bush administration. This isn’t serving the public. It’s pushing an agenda that the antithesis of NASA’s purpose - informing the public on scientific matters - and dangerous not only to the intelligence of the body public, but possibly our physical well being to boot. Furthermore, it’s another example of how shoddily the U.S. government is run, how little thought the Bush administration puts into political appointees (paging John Bolton), and how little the powers that be are really interested in anything but political maneuverings. But after five years, is anyone really surprised?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Man's Singing My Song, Son...

Check out Joe Bageant's "Revenge Of The Mud People". It's often a wonder to me that nearly ever facet of American progressives, from mainstream Democrats to your harder core leftists, have pretty much given up hope on white rural working-class poor, especially considering the success of past progressive policies. Sure, poor crackers ain't the most oppressed segment of society, but it's a life definitely full of more bleak prospects than makes one is comfortable. And I will freely admit it's a group that seems to give easily to those who thunder hatred and loathing of some "Other" as the Orwellian source of all their problems rather than, you know, the guys who are actually running things.

Still. I have to think that if you don't give people hope, they'll turn to fear and loathing much easier. There's at least some power in it.

I Don't Have Much Evidence Of Anything, Actually

Blame it on Amanda at Pandagon. Then read the blog, it's pretty damn good. Anyhow, Ten Views I Hold Without Evidence:

10. Somewhere, if I just look hard enough, I'll find a message board/chatroom/comments section/whatever where politics and current events can be discussed and political ideologies can clash in a respectful yet passionate manner without either side ever bringing up something that happened 30 years that makes the other side look bad even though it has no connection whatsoever to anything at all going on today.

9. Eventually, a stable, active and, above all, influential political party will arise from the great unwashed that will focus solely on what affects the people rather than big corporations. It will remain untainted of "Big Money" politics and useless, empty "family values" hoo-hah. It will represent the interest of all Americans' basic human rights as put forth in the Constitution. And it will nominate candidates who don't come off as chat-room loons to the vast majority of the population.

8. A new network or national publication will sweep the nation with pure, uncut journalism. Reporters will stick to the facts rather than just swapping gossip, and pundits will explain but not opine. Stands, however, will be taken. This network/publication will recognize its role as watchdog of the public trust, and will not kowtow to the interests of advertisers or the well connected.

7. The broad scope of religious belief in this country will no longer be tied to the voices of hate and separation. Religions of all faiths will reject the idea of "us versus them", and will show the true power of their faith through their deeds and actions. No longer will "I'm a deity-fearing individual" give a person moral carte blanche.

6. Atheists, agnostics and other non-believers will no longer be seen as "lost" or "confused" or "angry". Like believers, they'll be judged on how they act on their philosophy instead of getting pity for not "know the Lord/Allah/Buddha/Bob/The Goddess".

5. Education and critical thinking will make a comeback. Teachers, researchers, theorists and other assorted persons will have to fight off promises of wild monkey sex from legions of admirers, and Sylvia Browne will have to get a job at a gas station. Anyone who ever says anything along the lines of "Well, the consortium of Science Industry CommieNazi Power Elite are just trying to suppress information on the wondrous gifts laundry balls can bring humanity" will be slapped good and hard.

4. One fine day, people will no longer worry about anybody's sex life but their own. All women aren't crazy, and all men don't think with just their respective tallywhackers. This new-found freedom from worrying about who is potentially boning who (and how) will eek out into the rest of the cultural sphere, bringing a new-found awareness of people as simply people, rather than "men versus women" or "straight versus not-straight", and people will cut that shit out.

3. Swamp Dogg is America's greatest living pop musician. Willie Nelson is probably a holy man and if not worshipped, he should at least be given all the free pot he can smoke.

2. Elvis is still the best there ever was. He rules, even in spirit, mightily atop an iron throne looking down from the jagged peaks of Mount Awesome, and one day, all will recognize.

1. This is the best shape humanity’s ever been in, but it ain’t the best of all possible worlds. Not by a long shot. That’s still to come.

But I have been wrong before.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Earth Rolls On...

I'm sure he enjoyed the ride. If you dig on Southern Soul music - and who has any use for someone who doesn't - check out D.A. Pennebaker and company's Only The Strong Survive. Pickett's in it, still raunchy, and it's a good time all 'round.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Keeping America Safe From Table Daintzers

Nice to know the CIA is keeping busy. Apparently, a stripper at Atlanta's famous Clermont Lounge was questioned at some length by agents of the CIA. No, seriously.

Officials from one of the world's most powerful and prominent intelligence-gathering agencies, a group that not only fought America's Enemies during the Cold War but also almost single-handedly shaped the directions of countries in Latin America and throughout Asia, apparently have the time to irritate go-go girls. Now, in that august agency’s defense, there were some questions. Tabby Chase did also work as a dominatrix and held political beliefs that ran counter to Red State America. Can't have that, of course. She was also known as someone who didn't just love the president to pieces, and probably worst of all, was trying to hook up with a group that brought a circus to kids in war-torn Iraq. That, of course, is just flat-out unAmerican.

Now. Keep all that in mind the next time you hear someone say the only people who have to worry about the government investigating their lives are people who are breaking the law.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Year Of The Cock, Indeed...

Ya know, I've been vacillating of whether or not 2005 was a good year or a bad year. But, some thoughts...

POLITICS


Still as ugly and nasty from all sides as it's been since 2000, the world of dirty deeds done expensive as hell in Washington is taking a much weirder turn of late. The wire-tapping fandango has got me all confused. The White House has been for the past couple of years by-passing the laws of the land to tap the phone of people living in the country - and here's the bad part - without warrants, even though a 1978 law allows warrants for wiretapping a phone for national security reasons allows to be granted for up to 72 hours after the tap draws blood. This is illegal. The New York Times apparently found out about this sometime last year disturbingly close to the November Presidential election, yet sat on the info at the request of the administration.

I'm still unaware of just how this hit the public consciousness, beyond rather suddenly, just before Christmas, but it's out and being talked about. The President has basically told his critics to jump on if they're feeling froggy. Why? Because it's all in the name of Fighting Terror!, and that means maybe spilling a little Constitutional milk to save the American pie, and anyway he's the President so there. And, no, they aren't gonna be forced by the mean ol' liberals to actually back any of this up. We just have to take the president's word. I'm serious.

The vast majority of people paying attention are at different levels of concerned, if my judgment's anything to consider, and both sides of the ideological spectrum do recognize that desperate times do occasionally call for desperate measures, but aren't sure if that particular axiom qualifies in this situation. Should the president have this much power, even in wartime? And does the War On Terror - a tactic, not a state or nation or even an agreed-upon group or ideology - even qualify? If we're fighting terror, when does it end? When all the soldiers are out of Iraq? How long is long enough? And if the president can disobey a law if he feels it's necessary - which is about the only justification Bush is giving - where do we draw the line? Why should we trust the president, any president, just on his or her word, especially given the government's rather unpleasant past concerning secrecy, lies and spying on its own people? And more specifically, I’m supposed to trust this guy? Come on.

Personally, I'm of the opinion that the very first person who has no choice but to follow the letter of the law is the person charged with enforcing it. No excuses and no exceptions. There is, of course, a very vocal minority of folks who are totally in favor of domestic spying sans warrants, and indeed, are convinced the president has the moral purity and clarity - indeed, he's the only man since Jesus to posses such - to undertake such a firm stand against civil liberties, and the fact that a similar move by a Democratic president would have them howling for blood is just something an anti-American terrorist lover would say. But I try to avoid those people these days, just for peace of mind. These people aren't well and they frankly do not have our best interests at heart.

Anyhow, weird year politically. I have no idea where it's going, if the fear and loathing will get worse, or if the public is had about enough of the horseshit. I've no idea if the Democrats will even be worthy of loathing or if the Republicans will regain their sanity and collective moral compass. I've no idea if the Libertarians or Greens will be worthy of taking seriously, or if Roy Moore will lead off the real loons and leave the rest of us in peace. Personally, I'm just ready for everyone, everyone to cut the shit.

POP CULTURE


I have no idea. Seriously, I haven't been paying attention. The only current events I keep up with that aren't pure politics are religion, and that's just politics in fancy dress. A new pope, Intelligent Design and a war on Christmas. Sure. I do know the White Sox won the World Series for the first time since the Big Bang, and apparently nobody gave a damn, poor bastards. I also know about Tom Cruise making an ass of himself on "The Today Show", but that's just because Scientology is fucking hilarious. I know the economy is if not exactly shaky, per se, it still isn't quite stable, but I don't know enough theory to really say nor do I have enough cash to really be able to worry too much about it.

The new "Dcotor Who" was okay, and the only movie I saw that came out this year - theatre or home release both, if I recall correctly - was The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, which was likewise okay. The Terry Schiavo boondoggle was an embarrassment to the species and prime example of why human beings maybe shouldn't be allowed to handle sharp things. Hunter Thompson did what he apparently felt he had to do. Lots of famous folks died, but so did a lot of non-celebrity-type folks, and the Earth continues to roll on. Astronomers found two great big rocks out past Pluto, and some physicist somewhere, if memory serves, has managed to stop, more or less, a beam of light. That's neat. I haven't read any books published this year, haven't played any video games, and, apparently, I look like that Bo guy from "American Idol".

To the best of my recollection, the only new music - as in, not a compilation or re-release - I bought this year came from The Chasers, Donnie Chambers, and The Dictatortots, all locals. I have absolutely no idea what's "hot" in mainstream music, apart from brief snatches of country radio, and I'm equally clueless when it comes to "non-mainstream" stuff, whatever the hell that is. Nor, frankly, do I care. It's not some sort of statement on the quality of modern music that all I've been listening to this year is country music from my childhood and earlier, soul music predominately of the Southern variety, and rock & roll and rhythm & blues from before The Beatles. It's not a conscious statement, anyway; I have no control over my subconscious.

ESCHATOLOGICALLY


Nature, in her infinite wisdom, took this year to remind us just why she's often referred to as a "mother". The year started on the bad foot with the tsunami that swamped Southeast Asia just before Christmas 2004, and things basically went downhill from there. Of course, we saw the longest hurricane season on record, with 26 named storms. Katrina. A horrible natural disaster exuberated by bureaucratic incompetence mendacity, partisan mendacity, and cultural shit-assery. It was not our finest moment, and we really don't seem to be even trying to make ourselves look better. An earthquake in Central America followed one in Pakistan that I've heard to as "wiping out a generation". Hyperbole, perhaps, but it was ugly. Uncontrollable fires in the Western United States and killer tornadoes in the East. And according to this month's National Geographic, amphibians all over the world are in danger of extinction and it's not (totally) our fault.

But, remember: there's nothing to global warming, and you're a class-warfare-waging, anti-capitalist enviro-whacko tree-hugger if you even suggest otherwise.

PERSONAL


Hell, I don't know. I really haven't found anything better to do than what I'm doing, but it's no big deal. I'm enjoying myself, at any rate, and I admit I probably don't look as hard as I should, but that's how it goes. My thirtieth year on this planet came and went, but I was busy reading about zero-point energy. I quit drinking for no real good reason other than it'd gotten boring. I don't know for sure, but I really don't see myself starting again. I'm a little bit better on bass and guitar than I was last year, but I really don't have much inclination to do either. Nor, despite this rather lengthy missive, do I have any real desire to go back to writing for a living or any other attempts at publication. Still single and still couldn't be bothered to do otherwise.

My folks are still making me laugh, and apart from a bad turn for both health-wise, they're still watching baseball. My brother is still doing his thing in his own peculiar way, which is the only way to accurately describe the experience. My maternal grandmother's still watching the world go by, and my paternal grandfather is hanging in as best he can. My uncles and aunts are all alright, probably the best shape they've ever been in, group-wise. My cousin Lacey, the baby of my bunch of cousins, got married this summer. Lots of folks I know had babies. My cousin Jamie is working on his second. People I haven't talked to since high school are still experiencing life. My friends are still my friends despite me not really making it easy for them to maintain the position, which probably says something pretty good about humanity somehow or another.

Good year or bad, I can't say. However, if this is any indication, I personally have good vibes for the Year of the Dog.

Music For The Masses, Naturally

I'm not real sure if it should be held against them, as it might be the wishes of their label, but if this is for real, Coldplay is even wankier than I thought. Long story short, the band's new CD has been manufactured in such a way that it can't be burned or copied - though I'm told there's easy ways around that, generally involving a magic marker - and a DRM certificate included that sets some more restrictions.

Among other gems, the DRM - which is only visible after the CD jewel case is opened - notes "(t)his CD can't be burnt onto a CD or hard disc, nor can it be converted to an MP3". Also, because of the anti-piracy measure, the CD "may not play in DVD players, car stereos, portable players, game players, all PCs and Macintosh PCs." Why all the hubbub? Quality, of course. It‘s just to ensure the glassy-eyed drama queens that make up the vast majority of Coldplay's fan base get the purest whine possible. Sure.

Now. I'm not a fan of Coldplay by any stretch of the imagination, nor do I really have any venom for them. Call it a case of them just not being interesting enough to me to warrant a reaction. Still, if it's their doing, it's some serious Rockstar Bullshit, as bad as Garth Brooks' nonsenseconcerning used CD's back in '93. I won't defend illegally sharing files, but trying to tell a listener what he or she can and can't do after it's been purchased is the height of out-of-touch greedy jackassery. If it's the doing of Virgin Records, well, I wouldn't be surprised.
Thanks to Atrios

Friday, December 23, 2005

Just Three More Days...

As little use as I have for Christoper Hitchens in general - he's always come off as a pompous twit more in love with his own ability to turn a phrase than anything else - I gotta admit this gave me a chuckle. Ah, me...one day I'll understand how a majority can claim to be the by fiat rulers of a country while at the same time claim to be oppressed.

Next stop, Peaceful Valley, Mississippi. Y'all all have a good weekend. Tell everyone you love that you love 'em, and that's good enough for me.