Archive for August, 2009


A recent avalanche on one of the book mountains that stud the terrain around this place unearthed a copy of Oriana Fallaci’s Interview with History. I hadn’t looked into the thing in years. 2660066230055596006MtpIpf_fsReacquainting myself with Fallaci’s 1972 interviews with Golda Meir and Yasir Arafat, I was first surprised and then amused by the frequency and fervor with which these individuals declared that they and their peoples would “never” do this or that. Because so many of those “nevers” have, in the intervening 37 years, actually come to pass.

Dialogue on Israel and Palestine is today as spiked with words like “no” and “never” and “always” and “forever” as it was in 1972. I thought it might be worthwhile to review some of Meir’s and Arafat’s once-upon-a-time “nevers,” as a hopeful illustration that never, even in this fractious sliver of the planet, does not have to mean forever.



Burnt Offerings

Take heed to thyself that thou offer not thy burnt offerings in every place that thou seest.

—Deuteronomy 12:13 

Excited they were, the officers of the Lancaster, Ohio police department, with their newly issued tasers. So, the day after they were armed with the fry rods, officers encountering Daniel Wood—a well-known local substance-abuser, who’d been arrested some 50 times on minor charges—well, they figured they’d give ’em a try.

Problem is, Wood had been inhaling aerosol fumes. And so when they shocked him with 50,000 volts of electricity, they also set him on with fry rods

“Clearly,” said Police Chief David Bailey, “this is not the way we’d hoped to get started.”

It’s not like the officers didn’t known any better. As set forth here, an Australian man recently exploded into flames—suffering third-degree burns to his face, neck, chest, and arms—when he was electrified after sniffing gasoline.

And during four months of training, Lancaster officers were exposed to a six-page policy paper that decreed that tasers “shall not be deployed in an atmosphere where flammable fumes are present or on indivudals that are known to have come in contact with flammables[.]”

Oh well. At least Wood lived. Unlike the thus-far unidentified man who was electrocuted Thursday for fleeing an officer in a Los Angeles County subway station. Or Craig Prescott, who in April was fried to death in the Stanislaus County Jail.


Aquatic Exceptionalism

America is the strongest and most prosperous nation on earth,” Nately informed him with lofty fervor and dignity. “And the American fighting man is second to none. America is not going to be destroyed.”

the rulerThe old man laughed indulgently. “Rome was destroyed, Greece was destroyed, Persia was destroyed, Spain was destroyed. All great countries are destroyed. Why not yours? How much longer do you really think your own country will last? A million years? A half million? The frog is almost five hundred million years old. Could you really say with much certainty that America, with all its strength and prosperity, with its fighting man that is second to none, and with its standard of living that is the highest in the world, will last as long as . . . the frog?”

—Joseph Heller, Catch-22

When Worlds Collide

Okay, so they can’t even get along out there in space.

In the constellation Phoenix, a star and a planet are hissing and spitting at one another. The planet Wasp-18b, ten times the size of Jupiter, races around its sun, Wasp-18, in less than a day. The two worlds are so close—less than 1.9 million miles—that the fiery planet causes tremendous plasma tides on the Those tides in turn are warping the orbit of the planet, and will, within 650,000 years or so, cause Wasp-18b to sidle in past “the Roche limit,” at which time it will begin to break apart, and finally plunge into its own sun.

At least that’s the theory of Coel Hellier, a professor of astrophysics at the UK’s Keele University, who, with a motley crew of co-authors, soberly reported in Nature what USA Today has elected to describe as “an ever-closer tango of death.”

Its size—10 times bigger than Jupiter—and its proximity to its star make it likely to die, Hellier said.

Think of how the distant moon pulls Earth’s oceans to form twice-daily tides. The effect the odd planet has on its star is thousands of times stronger, Hellier said.

Or maybe the theory is bollocks. After all, earth observers don’t know very much about far-off planets yet. In fact, when I was a lad—not that long ago—terran astronomers had not perceived any planets outside our own solar system, and many thought they didn’t exist anywhere else at all. Wrong. To date, 373 planets have been detected outside our own system; Wasp-18b is “yet another weird one in the exoplanet menagerie,” says planet specialist Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution.

Some people are calling Wasp-18b a “suicide planet”; one heavy-breathing astro-blogger has even dubbed it “the red hot planet of doom.” Others are less exercised. University of Maryland astronomer Douglas Hamilton, for instance, questions whether Wasp-18b is actually bent on suicide. He suggests instead “that some basic physics calculations that all astronomers rely on could be dead wrong.”

Folks should know soon. As explained here, if Wasp-18b is indeed offing itself, in a decade its orbital period should be 28 seconds shorter. If it isn’t, “then theorists will have to retool their ideas about the inner workings of stars.” Stay tuned.

The Music Never Stopped

In the coming days and weeks, we will be subjected to indelicate recountings of the life of Edward Kennedy that will linger over his flaws as a man. We know what to expect from the wingnuts—Sean Hannity announced months ago that when coming homeKennedy died, he would refuse to mourn him as “a great American”—but such a reference also appears even now, as I type this, in the front-page slug on the New York Times website: “a disciplined liberal lawmaker with a sometimes-stormy personal life.”

Last month, in a Black Kos diary, people were envying the Kossack Robinswing because she had met Miles Davis—a man also know for his “sometimes-stormy personal life.” Robinswing had a very wise reply:

“Meeting him for real,” she said, “happens with his music.”

And so it is with Senator Kennedy. The real Ted Kennedy was in his music. Which, as William O. Douglas once expressed it, was all about using his considerable powers to try to help “the miserable, the sick, the suspect, the unpopular, the offbeat.” He was a rich man’s son who considered lost and suffering people his “base.” And through a personal life riven, as all human lives must be riven, by missteps and failures, in his public life, for those people, his music never stopped.

I don’t have anything else to say.

Senator Kennedy does, though.

Come, Little Donkey, Come

The paper rustled under his swishing priest’s robes, and I told him we were crossing a field of promises. I told him the eschatologies seemed to me like a bunch of hay dangled in front of a donkey to induce him to go on pulling a cart. “But mankind needs to set its sights on something lofty and distant,” said Adolf. “Think of the strength that the attraction of heaven gave to people in the Middle Ages.”

“Yes,” I said. “The donkey pulled the cart. It thought it was pulling the cart heavenwards, and soon it would reach paradise, where there were no loads to carry, evergreen pastures, and the beasts of prey were friendly companions.round and round But gradually the donkey realized that heaven was drawing no nearer, it grew tired, and the hay of religion no longer induced it to step out bravely. So lest the cart come to a halt, the donkey’s hunger was switched to an earthly paradise, a socialist park where all donkeys will be equal, the whip will be abolished, where there will be lighter loads and improved fodder, but then the road to this Eden turns out to be just as long, the end is just as far off, and the donkey becomes stubborn again. But in fact, he was wearing blinkers the whole time, so that he never realized that he was just going round and round, and that he wasn’t pulling a cart but a carousel, and perhaps all we are is a sideshow on a fairground of the gods, and at the end of their day out, the gods have forgotten to tidy the carousel away, and the donkey is still pulling it, only the gods have forgotten all about us.”
                                                                      —Death in Rome, Wolfgang Koeppen

Peasant Palate: Salad Days

hotIt’s hot, dry, and still here. Daytime temperatures monotonously in the 90s, or above. Swamp-cooler relief only. I would like to cook, but simply looking at the stove makes me weep. The other day I wanted some beef jerky, but, remembering that cooking it requires racking the beef six hours in the oven at 200 degrees, I realized that trying it now would be a form of suicide. Every day, these days, I feel like this guy.

So, it’s salad time. Vegetably things that do not (usually) require the application of heat. Follow the “furthur” for seven salad recipes; hopefully, dishes you’ve not already grown weary of. Know, for instance, that the French have a penchant for decreeing a dish a “salad” even if it’s really a mountain of cheese or a mass of writhing squid tentacles. Be prepared for some of these.


When I Worked

August 2009
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