Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Gone at Last

The campaign ads have stopped,
no more flyers in the mail.
We can go back to normality,
Iowa greatness no longer hailed.

Cafes will serve only the regulars,
Hotels will clean many rooms;
restaurants will clear empty tables,
snowy streets will get groomed.

For the caucus circus has left town,
on the road to the next willing victims;
Smiles on the streets outweigh frowns,
Winners can grin and say “We licked 'em!”

Memories of a democratic experience resonate,
As we view the coming general election and speculate.
The candidates will keep strutting and pontificate
on why they should be chosen by a gullible electorate.

But no longer here in these parts, no longer here.
  • end

Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Surprise Candidate

“A mouse in every dish!”

“Unlimited kibble!”

“String and wand toys in every home – lots of them.”

“Catnip with every meal!”

“Leave my paws alone – no more de-clawing.”

Callie Wilson has the best interest of cats everywhere foremost on her mind. Humans too, especially if they are cat owners. But she is impartial, and will welcome dog owners to the negotiating table.
A vote for Callie is a vote for a brighter future! Callie for President! Attend your caucus on Monday, Feb 1st. Thanks for viewing this political message.

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Monday, January 25, 2016

Getting Closer

Another day, another three flyers in the mailbox.
Ads all over the place, caucus fever pitch.
Constant reminders to support someone.
What a circus...

What gets me is all of the promises
and accusations thrown about.
When the winner does get in,
everything will go out the window.

The new president will don his
firefighters hat and try to simply maintain
our huge democracy in an insane world.
Whatever it takes to maintain the status quo,
or at least keep us from self-destruction.

Oh yes, and then to make his or her
mark on history somehow.

Promises? Those are for fools.

Late-breaking news: A billionaire
egomaniac is thinking of jumping in.
Just what we need to roil the waters.

Stay tuned ;-)

Friday, January 22, 2016

Coat of many Hatreds

Two young boys play in dirty, dusty streets. Both of their families have been forced to live in a ghetto against their will. They wear tattered clothes, with few products being available. Their meals are spotty at best. Their brethren walk around looking lost and emaciated. Every so often, a body is carted from the streets. Someone else has gained release, and final freedom from this human-created hell on earth. The boy's education is far from guaranteed, but even at their young age they have been schooled in the cruel capriciousness of human nature. Perhaps they must be conniving and sneaky to steal an extra bit of food from an unsuspecting person in their midst.

One of the boys would live in the Warsaw ghetto around 1939. He would be Jewish, forced to live there with all of the others in Poland. The death camps had not yet been constructed. His family was forced to live hand to mouth – it is a wonder many survived as long as they did. The Nazis cared little. They would have preferred them all to drop dead.

The second boy lives in present-day Gaza. He lives among the highest concentration of people in the world. His family has very few rights. If they own a car, they can only drive on certain roads. If they have land, they are most likely being encircled by Israeli settlements. If the boy gets mad and throws a rock at an Israeli soldier at one of the many checkpoints they are forced to go through, he can be detained by the Israeli military, and spend up to four years in prison. His living conditions are indistinguishable from those of the Warsaw ghetto in the late 1930's. Only his captors, the captors of all of his people, are not the inhuman Nazis, but rather the same people who had suffered so much death and despair underneath Nazi rule. The persecuted have become the persecutors.

This whole situation has complex beginnings. In 1948, the UN mandated the creation of the state of Israel. They sent the Jews to Palestine, so they could have their own land. The only problem was, Palestine was already occupied, by Jews, Muslims, and even some Christians. Sparsely occupied, but occupied, nevertheless. So when the Jewish started to arrive in large numbers, residents were displaced, and were less than happy about this. Understandable. But Israel had defined borders, and many Palestinians re-settled outside these borders, in the West Bank and Gaza. Then, there was a war in 1967. As a result of that war, Israel occupied these two territories, the West Bank and Gaza. They eventually had to pull back out. But Israel enforced heavy new restrictions on the people living there.

Sympathy for Israel and the Jewish people runs strong, especially here in the US. What they suffered at the hands of the Nazis was horrible, and they get a lot of sympathy for that, and for further aggression by Arab states. The Arabs and Persians do not want Israel around – many would like to see it eradicated. So the sympathy is understandable. But at the same time, many Palestinians have been robbed of their ancestral lands. Were they compensated, or offered compensation? If not, why not (by the UN). So their anger is also understood. But few seem to care about their plight.
The average Palestinian must wait hours at a checkpoint, if they work outside Gaza. They endure frequent harassment and harsh conditions. And yet some of them manage to hope for a better day. Their few cities in the settlements are devastated by a war-incursion in the summer of 2013. They seem to live on dust and hopes. Even getting an allotment of water is expensive and intermittent for them. If a Palestinian does build a new house, it must have a water storage tower on the roof. They never know when they will get water. What water they do get, they are charged a higher rate for than Israelis pay.

Since the Jews have been so mistreated, is is perhaps understandable they are filled with a systematic rage against the outside world. But these are not the Nazi perpetrators, they are the poor people who were living there to begin with. Still, there is historical precedent. The settlers who came to the US and displaced the natives. The Spaniards and the Indians in Mexico and South America. Various others throughout history. Stronger forces come in and displace weaker ones. Some things never change.

(Conditions in the Warsaw, Poland Ghetto in 1940)

- end

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Rolling in the Mud Again

More people running than in 2012,
Over a dozen republicans alone.
Every one promises they know
what to do about the problems we face.

It seems like they are a bunch of egomaniacs,
arrogant enough to think they can be president.
Perhaps it takes a touch of hubris to believe
one can land in the White House and take up residence.

The ads are coming thick and fast now,
my mute button is getting worn out.
They accuse each other of lying or worse,
Strutting about and flouting their clout.

Like that congressman I'm gonna kneel and pray,
That time moves fast until the big election day.
Then there will be no more ads to listen to;
regular product ads will be closer to the truth!


If we build a huge border fence, what happens when US residents want to visit Mexico?
Do we still expect a warm welcome?

If we abolish the IRS, how do we pay the national debt?
How do we pay for defense, social programs, and all of the other things we need? Donations? Bake sales? Yeah, right.

Do we just let people die wholesale, including veterans, by not funding any kind of medical care whatsoever?

What kind of society will we become? And what happens when the congressperson's own families are impacted by cutting all of the government programs. Careful where you cut there, buster, you're hurting my kids now. ??

Whoever gets in will have reality to face, Congress to deal with, and a council of advisers to deal with every day. Good luck, Mr. politician. You'll need it.

- end

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Looking Super Today, My Friend

You can't hardly go to a movie theater nowadays without encountering another super hero movie. Once the province of comic books, superheroes have taken over modern media with a vengeance. Makes one wonder if there will ever be human capabilities approaching the fictional superpowers. Humans have already shown the miracles accomplished by our “regular” brains and hands. Should we be filling our young people's minds with superpower wish fantasies? Isn't it better to stress what can be accomplished by the use of what capabilities we have now?
There is a TV series called “Heroes” which tells the story of seemingly ordinary people who find they have extraordinary abilities. Some can fly, or move things with their hands. Others can read minds, implant thoughts, throw lightning or flames out of their hands. One can even stop time itself, freeze events, and walk through the scene to retrieve an object, or deflect a bullet, or rescue a friend from falling. If you have seen this series you know who I refer to. (I'm not stating names to protect myself against the super-lawyers.) The series is fun to watch, great escapism, and full of drama and tension. But one finds oneself thinking how nice it would be to have just one of those powers, or “abilities.”
And if a military could gain those powers, oh my. There were some episodes that touched on attempts to give troops super-powers. In real life, our troops here in the US are trained so thoroughly that they come out very capable human beings indeed. They can go without sleep, they can run fast, fight, fix things, solve problems. One could argue that their human powers have been increased to a level far above the ordinary citizen, and thus they have in effect “super powers.” But not all people come out of the military equally, especially if they have endured repeated deployments in say, Iraq or Afghanistan. Their abilities are offset by the traumas they have suffered. Some end up addicted to drink or drugs, and thus suffer a loss of even normal coping skills for day-to-day living.

But the myths endure. The “Marvel Avengers” movies draw huge crowds, and even bit-player superheros (left over from the comics) attract some interest. Perhaps this speaks to something inside us all. We wish we could do more, be stronger, faster, do better in life. This is understandable. We struggle with financial issues, relationship problems, interruptions and stress at work. The world seems like it is getting more and more complex. The rules keep changing, and we must wobble-walk ourselves through day to day hassles and problems the best we can.
But if one thinks about it, Evolution has made us into superheroes compared to our very early ancestors. Thanks to better nutrition and medical knowledge, we live twice as long, or longer, than they do. The average life expectancy up to the late 1800's was early 40's. (see http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0005140.html ). Now many live into their 80s and 90s. We are taller and stronger than our forebears. If you look at clothing from earlier times in museums, it looks like it was made for children. Education lasts longer. Kids now must master computers, and other technical know-how not foreseen a couple hundred years ago. Of course, now they do not need to know how to shoe a horse or attach a buggy, unless they want to as a hobby.
In the sports world, runners have long since surpassed the 4 minute mile, once thought to be impossible. Records have been set in everything from swimming and running to baseball and basketball. Many of these achievements have been reached because of technological assists and innovations. (IE wearing tight goggles to aid in swimming longer distances, or improved running shoes for marathoners. ) (see http://bmb.oxfordjournals.org/content/87/1/7.full )

One could even argue that doping and performance enhancing drugs are a form of technological advancement. Not using these substances sets athletes back onto a level playing field, but one that is a long distance behind what had been reached with the enhancers. The enhancers themselves sprang from human ingenuity and a desire to win at any cost. Are they any less valid at pushing our species forward? Probably not welcome in a sporting event, but nevertheless they still pushed us past some performance boundaries effectively.
Even though we may not feel like heroes, thanks to our technological infrastructure we live like gods. We fly thousands of miles instead of plodding twenty a day on horseback, or five on foot. We perform heart surgery and add decades to lifespans. We ride in capsules up to breach “heavens firmament” and visit our ISS outpost there. As far as a culture like ancient Egypt is concerned, we have reached “heaven” and built an earth colony there. Farfetched, but still true when you think about it. We hold in our hands a (smartphone) device to talk to anyone, most anywhere in the civilized world. We can ask a question of our device and get an answer in seconds, or minutes at most. Ancient peoples would possibly either worship us, or try to kill us out of fear.

In the “Heroes” series, and on the movies, Superheroes face moral dilemmas. Whether or not to intervene in 'normal' peoples lives and problems. Whether or not to undermine other superheroes. They judge each other, and find flaws. (Even mythological gods had flaws.) But unless they were the villain, they usually came down on the right side of things. In Guardians of the Galaxy, the main character subsumes his own personal mission, partly out of necessity, to help save the galaxy. There is usually some kind of sacrifice, even on the part of the hero. So contemporary moral values seep through. Even Hellboy, a devilish sort of hero from a different production, has a noble mission, a good side, as well as some conflicted feelings.

This mirrors human dilemmas to a large degree. We face many difficult decisions and moral quandaries. We are perhaps comforted that even Superheroes must pick their way through mental minefields and dilemmas. It reminds us we are not alone, and that our decisions affect the outcome to a large degree. We must go on fighting the good fight, no matter the mistakes that were made yesterday or last week. Wish that we may, we must make do with human powers only.

It is interesting to watch the “Heroes” people work out their problems. Hollywood writers have outlined and elucidated hypothetical problems and solutions faced by people with extraordinary abilities. A man that can read minds, renouncing any use of his ability to keep the playing field level. After faced with a pressing need, he finally relents and uses his powers. He “fell off the wagon.”
The Villain in the series actually struggles with his hunger to take powers from others, and at one point, becomes 'good.' He swears off using his power for a time, then is forced by circumstance to become evil again, to survive. A company chases down and imprisons some, then they escape. Opponents end up helping each other against a common enemy. And on and on the drama goes.

In real life, first responders, like Firemen and Policemen, are increasingly called heroes. Their occupation is certainly dangerous, and yes, they save lives, and get the bad people. But the term of Hero is thrown about quite a bit nowadays. The First Responders are compensated well for their work. To me, a true Hero is one who rises above their common station, who goes out of their way to save a life, or come to someone's aid. Now they are even calling a football bowl the “heroes bowl.” Our military members are called heroes whether they did anything heroic or not. Again, they do have a particularly dangerous job. But the title of “Hero” is one that is earned, not conferred wholesale.

Perhaps the true heroes are the common people. Those are the ones who must live with decisions by government and business leaders, and make them work. So if the government decides to implement a new parking scheme in an area of town, or raise parking meter rates, or implement snow route changes, for some imagined good outcome, it is the public who must endure.

Some thoughts on series with supernatural characters. In any show or movie, when one character has a supernatural ability, and reveals it slowly, and to maximum effect, it makes for a great show. But when you have most everyone there with some kind of ability, the effect is lessened, diminished. Everyone is throwing their weight around, and not much is being accomplished. But judicious use of powers at opportune moments to drive the plot forward can be great. There was a movie made years ago, called The Watchmen. It was about a group of heroes who administered some kind of justice on a large metropolis. They had disbanded years before. One person murdered their leader, and the rest of them reluctantly came back together to combat this new threat. It was wonderful. Mysterious, dark, suspenseful. Superhero suspense done right is a joy to behold.

But there is all kinds of material out there. The dark, twisted, conflicted hero, the anti-hero. That is the fun of watching these shows and movies – you never know what writers will come up with next. The Conventions add to the excitement. You can buy autographs of your favorite actors (in some cases), even though it may cost you two weeks pay. You can dress up, or see others dressed up, or buy toys and trinkets. It is all a marketers dream. The superhero genre may never go away.

Someday, when human beings, through technology and evolution, fly around and throw things using telekinesis, we will have to invent new, even more powerful heroes. It should be interesting to see what we come up with then.

Thanks for reading.


For further study:

“Heroes” is a TV show produced by Tailwind Productions in association with Universal Media Studios. and aired by NBC Corp.

“The Watchmen” is a movie produced by Warner Brothers, from the graphic novel.

“Hellboy” wiki info

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Toughest Job - International Relations

One of the most difficult professions today has to be that of a diplomat, or ambassador. Even though time periods in the past have seemed incredibly difficult, like say, World War II, or the Vietnam Conflict era, times today are at least as difficult, if not more so. We find ourselves fighting a war on terror, but mired down in various regions of the Middle East and the Far East. Our enemies seem elusive, ghostlike. Some of them used to be co-operative, like elements of the former Iraqi army. Our enemies nowadays are religious fanatics of the worst kind, wanting to die to go to heaven, and take lots of innocents with them. To be a diplomat under these circumstances would be difficult on a good day.

There have been times in the past that have seemed dark indeed. During the days of the cold war, any incident might trigger nuclear saber-rattling on the part of the US or Soviet Union. For example, during the Yom Kippur war of 1973, there were supposedly Soviet nuclear weapons being moved towards the area of fighting between Israel and Egypt. The US went on worldwide nuclear alert, and soon, these same weapons were detected moving back where they came from. Or the time in the early 1980's , when a technology malfunction caused the US to temporarily go to high alert, only to find out it was all a mistake, not any Soviet threat. Nerves were jangled quite often in those days, and diplomats probably got many tense phone calls, or made them, to calm things down.

The hostage crisis in Iran, precipitated by the Islamic Revolution there, is another example. Some Americans managed to escape roving bands of Iranians by hiding in the Canadian embassy. The staff there helped them conjure up an escape plan, where they posed as a musical group, and assumed new identities. They made it out, with much assistance from the Canadian Embassy. Only one example of Ambassadors putting their own fingerprints on history, and averting loss of life in the bargain.

When the Soviet Union fell apart around 1991, affiliated states went off on their own. Old rivalries, quashed during the Soviet era, re-surfaced, Thus, Yugoslavia broke apart, and so did Czechoslovakia. The Baltic states fought ethnic cleansing battles. The Serbs, Croatians, and others were at each others throats. NATO finally had to step in and enforce the peace, bombing Serb tanks and positions in the process. International relations, once a black-and-white affair between the West and the Soviets, was now a multi-hued quagmire, worse than a Louisianan swamp. It seemed that the USA had more work than ever on its hands, keeping the lid on a fractured world. The war between NATO and the Serbs in the early '90's resulted in American national guard troops being stationed in Slavic lands for the first time ever.

Around this time (1990), Saddam Hussein's Iraq invaded Kuwait. The US had to send troops to expel Hussein's army, and then specialists to put out the oil fires. More work for the diplomatic corps, too. As the 1990's progressed, the US restored relations with various Soviet satellite countries who were newly independent. For example, Mongolia, Bulgaria, and even Albania. Poland became a close ally of the US. But as time went on, and the new Russian Federation strengthened under Vladimir Putin, new warning signs arose. Things were no longer going to be a cakewalk for the US. More issues arose for diplomats to sort out. 

In 1998 terrorists tried to bomb the World Trade Towers in New York. That was a wake-up call. Then-president Clinton launched some cruise missiles at their training camps in Afghanistan, then called it a day. But Al-Queda was not finished. They finally got the “job done” by crashing airplanes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in 2001. After that, the US entered a virtual state of war with all terrorist groups. This was a new situation. Not like a contained conflict on a certain land area, this was a continuous conflict with shadowy groups that moved around, nearly everywhere. So diplomats around the world now had a new task, that of fighting terrorism, added to their schedules. Given some of Pres. Bush's speeches, like the one where he said “either you are with us or you are against us,” the atmosphere was grim. Two years after the attacks, in 2003, we invaded Iraq, supposedly because they were seen to be supporting terrorism. 

We succeeded in unseating Saddam, only to unleash a quagmire. The three different tribal factions in Iraq (Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds) lost their Hussein-inflicted containment, and began fighting each other. After conquering the country, the US attempted to “train” the Iraqi army. Then we pulled most of our troops out, leaving a power vacuum. Immediately, the factions went at each other, the central government did little or could do little to prevent it. So extremist groups took to the field, and now (in 2015) we see ISIS controlling a large swath of Syria and Iraq, attempting to establish a new Caliphate or religious state. You can't establish diplomatic relations with an illegal state, founded on territory stolen away from legitimate states. Especially one that tortures or murders anyone who opposes their brand of religion. All you can do is try to contain them. Or evict them by any means from their stolen territory. Perhaps the US is to blame because of the 2003 invasion, and perhaps it is the Muslim extremists who are to blame. After all, it was them who attacked us on our soil to begin with. But in any case, international relations are being strained quite a bit by this one.

Russia's rise from a fractured state to a world power once again has been slow and steady. Vladimir Putin and his supporters have consolidated their grip on power, and established new ground rules. While Russia has a parliament, and is on the surface a democratic society, it is only skin deep. The reality is more like an autocratic, totalitarian government. But Russia has a long history of heavy-handed governments, rounding up and torturing its own people. Stalin was pretty good at this, even executing his own generals before the second world war. Nowadays, Russia is definitely a force to be reckoned with. I do not envy the diplomats who must deal with this new, assertive superpower-once-again. With thousands of nuclear weapons, millions of troops, and lots of ships and aircraft, Russia simply cannot be ignored or downplayed. But it seems that every time the US and Russia are going to play nice together, some international incident crops up to make that impossible. The latest is Turkey, a NATO member, shooting down a Russian fighter jet. The diplomats must be working overtime on that one.

But a quasi-state like ISIS or ISIL is a common enemy of all the forces involved. They would do away with all trappings of the modern society, and revert to some medieval religious dictatorship. Women would be robed and masked all the time, LGBTers just executed. Their religion would be forced on everyone, under threat of torture or death. Just when it seemed that perhaps all of the major world powers, even China, would gather forces to eliminate this scourge, some incident happens to spoil it, like the aforementioned jet being shot down. Diplomats, man your phones.

A recent event where diplomats actually lost their lives was in Benghazi, Libya a couple of years ago. A small staff was manning a US Consulate there, headed by a popular, affable FSA. Suddenly there was an attack, and everyone inside was killed. At first it was said that a mob had stormed the facility. But later it came out that the attack was planned, coordinated by a branch of Al-Queda. There was a lot of finger pointing, including blame placed on then secretary-of-state Hillary Clinton. Funding requests for more embassy guards in the past were turned down by Congress. Nevertheless, some of those same fossilized congressmen blamed Clinton. In any case, it was a terrible tragedy, illustrating just how risky it can be to be an international diplomat. 

The unrest and fighting in Libya stemmed from the overthrow of Mumahdar Gaddafi, the then-strongman leader. While his overthrow was seen as a positive at first, all of the factions fighting each other soon became a problem. Oil exports shrank, and societal structures broke down. And religious extremists moved in to fill a power vaccuum. The movement to unseat Gaddafi stemmed in part from the “Arab Spring” uprisings in Egypt. People took to the streets to overthrow a long-established corrupt government there. These successes spawned copycat movements in other states, including Libya. Diplomats all over the region must have been spending a lot of sleepless nights reporting on events and occurrences. Not to mention trying to protect American citizens and/or interests in the region. International relations put to the test. Who do we talk to that is in power now, when power is changing hands so fast. A democratically-elected government in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood as the majority was quashed by the military almost immediately after it was elected. The Muslim Brotherhood was disbanded by edict. And a new government was put in place. Some democracies are better than others, I guess. The US was put in the position of dealing with various governments in Egypt, in rapid succession!

Pakistan is another touchy example. There is basically a military dictatorship there (could be wrong). There are human rights violations, there is a state-sponsored terror organization to undertake battles in the Punjab, a region contested over with India. Pakistan also has a nuclear arsenal. We have diplomatic relations with both India and Pakistan, and must get along with both, even though they hate each other, and have fought several wars. After many years of hunting, the US finally found Osama Bin Laden, the head of Al-Queda. He was living in a comfortable villa in Pakistan. The Paks knew we wanted his head badly. They have intelligence apparatuses, they are not dumb. And yet they claimed ignorance. But, we have to get along – easier than fighting yet another war with someone. Diplomats, take your vitamins.

Every time I think we surely live in the most complicated age of international relations ever, something else happens to add to the complexity. Today's terror miasma makes the post WWII world look downright simplistic. It even makes the world wars look simple by comparison. Thank goodness we have a lot of computers to help us figure things out, otherwise we would be completely lost. The International diplomatic corps has to really be nimble on their feet to stay on top of things, and keep relations on a positive course. Here is hoping they succeed, and keep our world from self-destructing. Thanks for reading. 

 - end