September 19th, 2014 2 Comments

Ancient algebra


ISIS, the International Society of Islamic Swine, has been getting some bad press lately, but a headline caught my eye recently that made me think that maybe these fellows aren’t as bad as they seem. The headline, from various news sources, notably The Times of India (not, I admit, my ordinary news source), states that ISIS has banned math and social studies. I don’t know much about social studies—I can’t recall ever having had a course in social studies during my checkered academic career—but when I was in school, I would happily have signed on the dotted line with any organization that banned math, especially if said organization banned algebra.

Now, I know this doesn’t outweigh beheading people, or slaughtering people wholesale across much of the Middle East, but you must admit it is a good first step at rehabilitating their image. It’s an act of Christian charity—perhaps that’s not the right phrase, under the circumstances, but you know what I mean—that goes to show that ISIS has a softer, gentler side, that their hearts are in the right place, that they’re trying to make amends.

There is a certain irony, perhaps, in an Islamic organization banning algebra, since it was invented by Arabs. I believe both algebra and the concept of fractions had their roots in ancient Babylon, which goes a long way to explaining why Babylon no longer exists. Algebra is the only black mark I know of against the otherwise admirable Persian philosopher and poet, Omar Khayyam (as in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a poem which helped me endure many a painful math class, and gave me solace afterward in detention) who apparently frittered away much of his time writing about algebra when he could have been writing more verse.

I have always subscribed to Irish math myself, where two-plus-two may equal three or five or nothing whatsoever, and I have managed to totter through my six decades without ever once having felt the need to express myself with elementary, abstract, or linear algebra, and I plan to keep that record unblemished for the next six decades. I don’t wish to know the value of x. X hasn’t done anything to me, and I’m perfectly content to let it maintain its air of mystery. We all have our little vanities, and if x wishes to appear aloof and unknowable, let it.

Now we just have to get ISIS to extend its tolerance and understanding to some other areas of life, like just about everything you can think of.


Country Matters of the Pungent Variety

September 16th, 2014 12 Comments



I slept with the window open last night and some predator, almost certainly an owl, set off a skunk much too close to the house. The smell was enough to wake both my bride and me, and Darleen—burying her head under the covers—proclaimed bitterly that it smelled as if the owl had taken the skunk directly outside the bedroom window, possibly even in the bathroom. I was tempted to laugh at her, but I didn’t want to spend the rest of the night on the sofa. My poor little hothouse flower doesn’t know what a skunk smells like when it’s really up close and personal. As, for example, when it sprays you. I do.

While we were still living in Germany, my mother and father had an adventure right out of one of those macabre pre-World War Two books or movies like The Old Dark House, only with a happy ending. My sister and I were away at our respective schools and my parents took a vacation by themselves in England. Somewhere, on some desolate moor or common, on a dark and stormy night, their car died (a Jaguar, natch) and they had to hike across country through a driving rain to the only light they could see. It turned out to be an ominous and forbidding old stone farmhouse, but as soon as the door opened it became considerably less o. and f. The place belonged to a very affable farmer and his wife and five bullmastiffs who all took turns trying to lick my parents to death. The dogs, that is, not the farmer and his wife.

Both my parents loved dogs, but my father in particular thought life without a dog was like a meal without wine or a day without sunshine, and he had a special weakness for the bully-breeds, bulldogs, mastiffs, boxers, and here he was surrounded by five of the bulliest of the bully-breeds. Our beloved old one-eyed boxer had died only a year or so earlier, one of the bullmastiff bitches was pregnant, and the upshot was that long before any mechanic arrived to fix their temperamental car, money had changed hands. Six months later a bullmastiff puppy from the farmer’s “R” litter arrived at the Cologne airport.

Roger, for so the farmer had named him, was an affable, lazy old schmoo. He looked intimidating as hell, but in the normal course of events his attitude was, much like my father’s, “Wherever two or three are gathered together, let’s have a party!” When events became abnormal, however, he became a very different kind of dog. It only happened twice that I know of, but both times he lived up to the bullmastiff’s justly earned reputation as a guardian. For the most part, however, he was just a big old happy-go-lucky slob.


After he retired from the Foreign Service, my father became the director of a small museum out in the country in Virginia, Gunston Hall, the home of George Mason, the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights which eventually became the model for our Constitution’s Bill of Rights, so many of which are so flagrantly ignored by today’s administration. One of my chores in those long ago days before security systems and alarms and electronic communication, was to walk Roger around the place late at night, just to make sure everything was safe and secure. Roger and I were ambling down a path not far from the house one very dark night, when suddenly he growled and started to run. Being a Bear of Little Brain, and thinking I was a lot tougher than I really was, I ran after him. I could hear, rather than see, him stop, so I skidded to a stop too, and then I heard a faint hissing sound.

Before I could even process what it might have been, the spray hit me. Hit both of us, actually. The only good thing was that I was so close to the skunk that he only got me from about the waist down. I had to throw away a pair of suede boots and a perfectly good pair of blue jeans. Poor Roger, on the other hand, hand to be repeatedly bathed, and even after all that he had to spend the night on the porch.

They are sweet dogs, bullmastiffs, but not prodigious intellects. One night later that same summer, my parents had long since gone to bed, Roger and I had already done our late-night patrol, and I decided to let him out into the fenced yard for one last leg-lift before I went to sleep. I was brushing my teeth when I heard something outside. It was Roger, engaging in a rematch with a skunk, but unfortunately, this skunk happened to be right by the air-conditioning intake, and a minute later, my father, my mother and I all flew out of the house in our pajamas, my father lighting up the night with a string of profanities that probably still drifts through the woods of Mason’s Neck like phantom fairy lights. It was weeks, and I mean literally weeks, before the smell eventually faded from the house enough that you could walk in there without your eyes watering.

You can see why I’m not terribly sympathetic to Darleen’s grumbling about distant smells drifting down the hill.


American Exceptionalism

September 7th, 2014 15 Comments



Many years ago, while I was still earning my bread and butter in the gilded jakes, I made a very bad decision to do what turned out to be one of the three worst movies ever made. Ever. In part, I agreed to do it because it took me to countries I would normally never have been able or likely to visit. The first of those was Namibia.

We started filming just outside the tiny town of Walvis Bai, one of only two towns on the Skeleton Coast that have fresh water, hence their existence. The actors with the biggest roles (it’s hard to dignify such a dreadful film by saying “stars” in connection with it) were put up in private vacation cottages overlooking the famous bay and the countless tens of thousands of pink flamingoes that fed there. Most of the crew were put up in hotel rooms, but the town was so small that some had to be boarded out in private homes. Then there was the issue of the roughly three hundred black extras. Namibia was still South-West Africa back then, and still a protectorate of South Africa with its infamous system of apartheid. Renting rooms in white homes for black extras was not an option.

The producers of this horrible film were contemptible, despicable crooks (think The Producers, without the charm or the talent), but to give them their due, they did their best to come up with a solution. We were actually filming in the nearby pink sand dunes (as famous as the pink flamingoes) and they rented an enormous tent, hundreds of cots and piles of blankets, another cooking/dining tent, rows of portable toilets, rows of portable showers, water trucks, the whole nine yards. Voilà!

It didn’t work. The young black men were from different tribes and not only would they not sleep or eat with each other under a common canvas roof, their animosities ran so high that even after more tents were rented and pitched far apart from each other among the dunes, the American stunt coordinator had to sleep out there also, with a walkie-talkie tuned to the local police station in case war broke out. When it came time to film a large battle scene, the show’s armorer passed out rifles (firing pins removed) to all the extras and to my stunned amazement, some of the extras immediately, without hesitation and right there in front of God and everyone, pointed their rifles at rival tribesmen and hopefully pulled the triggers, something I wouldn’t have believed if I hadn’t seen it.

That was my first experience of tribal hatred and how deep it can run.

Some years later, I was in Cape Town, South Africa, sitting at the bar in the Mount Nelson Hotel only a few months before it burned down, and I fell into conversation with a very elegant lady who turned out to be a doctor. There had been a tribal skirmish on the border between Chad and Sudan, and the male population of an entire village had been slaughtered, the women and children led away as slaves by the simple expedient of punching a hole in the hand of each and stringing the group together with a wire cable. The event had made headline news in South Africa, and it came up as the doctor and I talked. I told her of my experience in Namibia.

“Oh,” she said, “That’s not uncommon. I had to fire a nurse once because she refused to treat a little boy who came from a different tribe.”

A few years later came the horrific events in Rwanda, followed in short order by equally horrific events in Bosnia.

All of this was followed by the events of 9/11 and America’s war on Iraq. It just so happened that I was then reading a biography of Captain Sir Richard Burton, the great British spy, explorer, scholar, author, warrior, scientist, and linguist. I happened to read a passage where he was quoted as saying that as a spy he was in the greatest danger not from being discovered as an Englishman (he spoke too many Arabian tongues too well for that), but from being mistaken for a member of a rival tribe. He talked about how one tribe had a different protocol for peeing than another tribe, and that to use the wrong protocol in the wrong place was to invite death. I remember reading that and thinking to myself that all the optimistic talk in Washington about post-war nation-building might be a trifle Pollyanna-ish.

I’m not bashing President Bush more—or less—than President Obama. Both men, and just about all Americans generally, appear to be equally ignorant of history, and both men appear to be equally blinded by American exceptionalism, albeit in different ways. When it comes to our foreign policy, American exceptionalism is perhaps America’s greatest weakness, and it comes directly out of America’s greatest strength.

On the Great Seal of the United States, on the back of every coin, is the de facto motto of our country, E Pluribus Unum, “out of many, one,” and it is precisely why America is so exceptional. Russian Jews fleeing pogroms, Irish peasants fleeing starvation, desperate Mexicans looking for work, Italians, Germans, Japanese, Indians, Chinese, Scandinavians, from every corner of the globe, every race, every religion, every culture, and speaking every language, our parents or our ancestors have poured in with one desire: to be an American. Consider World War Two, when this disparate people came together to fight a common enemy. E Pluribus Unum. Of course we’re exceptional.

But unfortunately, that tends to color the thinking of those of our elected officials who haven’t read their history. Did George Bush really think he could create a unified Iraq? On this morning’s news, Barack Obama talked about unifying Iraq and went even further, talking about building a coalition between sects and tribes whose mutual animosity goes back to 570AD on the religious front, and back seven- to ten-thousand years on the tribal front. Are both these men so blinded by American exceptionalism that they think such things can be achieved in the space of a few months or years? Doesn’t anyone read any history anymore?


Democracy in Action

September 3rd, 2014 22 Comments

Michael Bloomberg


There’s an interesting phenomenon going on in Washington State. It’s called Initiative 594.

Washington, like other states, allows citizens to place new legislation onto a ballot in the form of either initiatives or referendums for popular vote; it’s an involved process, but anybody can do it, and it can be used either to propose a statute or to amend a constitution. On the face of it, this is the essence of democracy in action. But because it is a process open to anyone, it is consequently also open to exploitation by anyone. In fact, in a news report on another, unrelated Washington state initiative, the news agency referred to the man spearheading that particular initiative as, “an initiative entrepreneur,” a phrase that contains a multitude of negative implications that his work is designed for personal gain, not public good.

Ballot initiatives can be good or bad or any mixture of the two, always keeping in mind that the road to hell is paved with the unforeseen results of what seemed like a dandy plan at the time.

As an example of a bad ballot initiative, consider the ban on mountain lion hunting in California that was passed into law about twenty-five years ago. The mountain lion was not an endangered species in the state, but by using emotional arguments, backers of the initiative were able to gather enough votes from the state’s enormous urban population to get the ban passed, and the key word here is “emotional.”

The California Department of Fish and Game employs scientists and wildlife experts to determine the population numbers of all the given species within the state as well as the various methods of manipulating those populations for the carefully balanced good of both the various species in question and the public, and hunting is one of the best and most effective tools to achieve that balance. Too many deer for sustainable viability in a given area? Increase the number of deer tags for a season. A stressed herd due to drought? Reduce the number of tags for a season. Scientists and wildlife experts are the ones who have the necessary expertise to make those determinations, not an emotionally charged urban public. In the case of mountain lion, there were enough of them that the state had to manage the numbers by selling hunting tags, a system that provided the state the control it needed as well as being a source of vital income to the most underfunded Fish and Game Department in the nation.

The ban was passed, and now the state must pay professionals to kill more mountain lions annually than were ever taken by hunters before the ban, a perfect example of a lose-lose proposition and the result of unforeseen consequences that come when science is trumped by emotion.

So what is wrong with Washington State’s Initiative 594? Essentially, it is a gun-control initiative, so from my point of view there are innumerable things wrong with it, but that isn’t what bothers me. What bothers me is that is that it is an initiative crafted and backed by a gun-control organization using the funding of a handful of billionaires including, among others, Bill Gates, LA Clippers’ new owner Steve Ballmer, and—most alarming—former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

What a minute. What the hell does Michael Bloomberg, who lives in New York, have to do with gun control in Washington State?

My point exactly.

His Honor has spent virtually millions of dollars of his own vast fortune in an (up to now) unsuccessful attempt to influence both the laws and the outcome of elections in states as varied as Virginia, Wisconsin, Colorado, and now Washington. And what I find most appalling about this is that it is the precise opposite of any definition of democracy. It is bad enough that billionaires should attempt to buy the legislation they want in their own states (think Bill Gates), but to attempt to buy the laws or change the constitution of a state where said billionaires do not even reside smacks of the worst excesses of plutocracy. To take this to its illogical extreme, if Bloomberg can do this in Washington, what’s to prevent, say, Carlos Slim Helu from taking out dual citizenship and then buying whatever legislation he might want regarding immigration and border control along the Mexican-American border?

In the meantime, the backers of Initiative 594 have clearly taken Joseph Goebbels famous dictum to heart (“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”) and are busily lying through their teeth and selling their legislation-push as a grassroots organization (because of course there are so many grassroots billionaires), while decrying the National Rifle Association as a “well-funded” lobbying organization. Excuse me? Five million ordinary people contribute an average of five dollars each to an organization to represent them, and that’s damned as a totalitarian use of money, but a single billionaire tries to do the same thing on his own and that’s democracy in action? I don’t think so.

You may be rabidly anti-gun. You may think Initiative 594 is the hottest thing since pancakes. But no matter what you may or may not think about that specific piece of proposed legislation, I urge you to think very carefully about the potential effects of allowing billionaires to determine the laws of the land, because the next time, it might be a piece of legislation you may not like.


Officer Involved Shootings

August 21st, 2014 22 Comments

Turnbull 1911


In the aftermath of the Ferguson, Missouri shooting, Wolf Blitzer on CNN asked an officer why police can’t shoot warning shots in the air, and why officers can’t be trained to shoot to wound instead of shooting “to kill.” (His words.) And this morning, in the aftermath of a man with a knife being shot by two officers in St. Louis, Ashleigh Banfield asked an officer essentially the same question about shooting “to kill,” along with questioning why a stun gun wasn’t used instead.

Both of these questions by veteran reporters come on the heels of a reporter for the Huffington Post tweeting a photograph of foam ear plugs and inquiring if they were rubber bullets.

It is easy to poke fun at people trying to make sense of things about which they are ignorant. God knows most of the questions I ask about computer and internet issues must make me seem like a nineteenth century moron to the vast bulk of computer users out there. No one can know everything about everything; no one can know even a little about everything. We all do the best we can, and the Wolf Blitzers and Ashleigh Banfields do a hell of a lot better job than most journalists could ever dream of doing.

But their questions reflect a tremendous misunderstanding about a topic that is red hot with emotion right now.

Approximately one hundred million Americans own guns. That mean that the other almost two hundred and twenty million Americans who do not own guns are going to have no idea of the reality or the use or effect of firearms. Unfortunately, those who are unfamiliar with firearms will have completely unrealistic perceptions (consciously or unconsciously influenced by popular entertainment) of what can or cannot be done with a gun, or the effect being shot will have.

Consider Mr. Blitzer’s first question. Where will the bullet from that warning shot come down? A hundred years ago, in a rural area, the odds were very good that bullet would come down harmlessly in a field. Now, in an urban or even a suburban area like Ferguson, those odds are greatly diminished, and the odds of it killing someone are greatly increased.

Consider Mr. Blitzer’s second question. No offense to Mr. Blitzer, who is a very capable journalist, but practically every single time a law enforcement officer shoots someone, the “shoot to wound” question will be trotted out, and if that isn’t a reflection of too many John Wayne movies, nothing is.

A handgun is a defensive weapon intended for use at close range and the best of them are nowhere near as accurate as non-shooters believe. Out to fifty yards, from a stationary position, a good shot, taking his time, can consistently hit a human-sized target, but there are problems even with that scenario. A bad guy isn’t necessarily stationary, and even hitting a target as large as a human being is far more difficult if that target is moving. The police officer frequently doesn’t have the luxury of standing still and aiming carefully, and shooting a moving target while you are in motion is very, very difficult. Now reduce that target to the size of a shoulder say, or a leg, or—always a popular choice with those who learn from television shows—a handgun that will be shot beautifully out of the hand of the bad guy without even seriously injuring said hand. Go to a range and try those things someday and let me know how it works for you.

Those are just the simple mechanics of the thing. There are other issues involved. Emotions, for one. A bad guy, the worst bad guy in the world, is still a human being, not a target, and it takes a lot—a lot—of training and mental preparation for a normal human being to shoot another.

Which brings me to the officer who might have to shoot someone. Cops are not Hollywood super heroes following a script where they know they’re going to live happily and get the girl, the gold watch and everything at the end. They have all the same emotions you or I would have when they are being shot at or confronted, and that includes fear. What do you think happens when you are terrified and have adrenaline pumping through you by the gallon? You get tunnel vision for one thing. You lose all sense of time. You cease to hear normally or even at all. Your extremities, in particular your hands (including the one holding the gun) become icy cold. You begin to tremble. You have trouble breathing, and breath control is critical to shooting with any degree of accuracy. And perhaps most significant of all, you lose fine motor control, i.e. the small muscle control necessary to perform precise actions. No matter what anyone tells you, or what you see in the movies, these things happen to everyone, no matter how well-trained or how experienced. Fear is normal. The only difference between a cop and you or me is that the cop has to saddle up anyway, no matter how scared he might be.

As for Ashleigh Banfield’s question about the police shooting of the man with a knife in St. Louis., consider a stun gun, or Taser, as they’re known. They are not always effective. On an unarmed suspect, a Taser would have been the wise choice; on a man armed with a knife, not so, and this is why:

The rule of thumb, depending on which law enforcement agency is doing the talking and training, is usually either twenty-one feet, or twenty-five feet as being the closest you should ever allow a potential assailant with a knife to get to you. At Scott Reitz’s International Tactical Training Seminars in Los Angeles, Scott has rigged up a track with a human silhouette target on it. The track is twenty-one feet long. The drill is for students to draw, fire, and hit the target before Scott can pull that target close to them. Before the first students step up to the line, Scott does a demonstration where a young man runs the same distance. The day I was there the young man was a stunt man, and he was able to cover the twenty-one feet in the same time it took Scott to pull his target along the track, approximately one and a half seconds. The difference was that the target stopped; the young man’s momentum carried him on and would have carried him right over anyone standing in front of him. So twenty-one feet is a damned critical distance even if you are a trained shooter, with very fast reflexes, and advance warning of the attack. Most people can’t do it.

But now consider that assailant with a knife. Do you really think a bad guy high on drugs or adrenaline or both is going to be stopped by a single bullet? It is impossible to predict how a man will react when hit by a bullet, never mind a man who is high on rage or chemicals or both. When I was shot, the first bullet spun me around, but it certainly didn’t knock me down or drop me or incapacitate me. Even after a second bullet (where I did go down on my own volition to play dead) I was able to get up and walk home. Every hunter knows it is impossible to predict how an animal will react even when shot fatally. Elmer Keith (a famous writer about firearms and hunting back in the old days) told a story about shooting three bullets, all perfectly placed into the heart of grizzly bear, three bullets that turned the bear’s heart into hamburger, but the bear still charged him, running over a hundred yards so quickly that Keith had to dive out of the way. I spoke to a highway patrol officer many years ago who emptied his handgun into an assailant, with at least three of the bullets being fatal, and the assailant still picked him up and threw him over his own squad car. You cannot predict or be certain.

As an historical note, John Browning developed the M1911 .45 at the request of the Army precisely because so many soldiers were being killed by Moro Islanders armed with a kalis (think either short sword or long knife) even after the Islander had been shot six times with a .38 caliber revolver.

But the basic fallacy of Mr. Blitzer and Ms. Banleigh and so many journalists and non-gun owners is that police are taught to “shoot to kill.” No one teaches that. All training schools, whether for law enforcement or for civilians, teach you to shoot to stop the threat. If one bullet does that, fine. If, like that highway patrolman, you have to empty your gun, so be it. If stopping the threat means the bad guy runs away in fear, uninjured, great: the threat has been stopped. If he’s still trying to shoot you as he lies bleeding to death on the ground, you haven’t stopped the threat. But stopping the threat is the goal, not killing.

Finally, in response to a lot of police bashing by a lot of people (and I am most outraged by politicians currying favor and sewing dissent by pandering over this issue) I would point out that the percentage of bad cops to good cops is the same as the percentage of bad guys to good guys generally. If a politician were fool enough to judge all black residents of Ferguson by the actions of the opportunistic criminals in the crowd, that politician would be rightly run out of office, but condemning cops and police departments generally has become a national pastime. The average cop is no better or worse than the average citizen, but there is a crucial difference, and that is that the average citizen doesn’t have the courage, the physical skills, the necessary mental skills, the disposition, or the rudimentary understanding of human psychology of the average cop. The police do hard, dangerous work that the rest of us won’t and mostly can’t do, and they deserve better than to have political curs and jackals snapping at their heels in times of trouble.


At the Movies: Chinatown

August 20th, 2014 3 Comments

Chinatown poster


I hadn’t seen Chinatown since it first came out in 1974, but I watched it the other night and was, once again, stunned.

Movies are, by definition, collaborative, so it’s hard to know who should get the credit for Chinatown. The script is, in theory, where everything begins, but as anyone who has ever spent more than ten minutes in Hollywood knows, scripts are frequently only considered rough outlines, mere suggestions of a possible storyline to be changed, manipulated, altered, or simply discarded at the whim of the—pick one, or all—director, star, producer, studio executive, or possibly the stunt coordinator. (A flagrant example: The Harvey Girls, originally intended as a straight-forward Western set to star Clark Gable and Lana Turner, was abruptly changed, on the heels of Oklahoma’s success, into a musical with Judy Garland and John Hodiak. Go figure.) The bottom line is that writers in Hollywood are given considerably less respect than the panhandler loitering outside the studio gates.

(Old Hollywood joke: Did you hear about the starlet who was so dumb she slept with a writer?)

Robert Towne wrote the script. In case you’re unfamiliar with Robert Towne, he wrote, in addition to Chinatown, The Last Detail, Shampoo, and Tequila Sunrise, garnering a lengthy list of award nominations and winning an Oscar for Chinatown. He also wrote a bunch of Mission Impossible Tom Cruise vehicles and a slew of other films I haven’t seen. He knows what he’s doing, but precisely because movie making is collaborative, who can say if Chinatown would have been as brilliant if it had been directed by someone else? Woody Allen, for example, probably wouldn’t have been a good choice. As it is, Roman Polanski created movie magic, but Polanski made changes, changes Robert Towne didn’t like back then and, apparently still doesn’t like today.

Mr. Polanski may have his personal issues, but no one can deny he is a stone genius when it comes to directing. Just consider some of the films he’s made over the years: Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Tess, The Pianist, The Ghost Writer, and those are just a few.

The performances in Chinatown are as brilliant as you would expect, from Nicholson and Dunaway down to small roles that linger in your mind even after the film is over (a snide little twerp of a clerk in the public records office; a secretary who wisely distrusts Nicholson; a cop who mocks him with a gesture; little roles, walk-ons, made memorable). The look and color of the film, the sound effects, everything is magnificent, but the reason I’m dwelling on Mr. Towne and Mr. Polanski is because of the ending.

It’s one of the most debated endings in movie history, with some people loathing it, and others—self included—loving it. Mr. Towne allegedly wrote an essentially happy ending. Roman Polanski changed it into the darker ending and, presumably, is responsible for the famous last line, a line that has long since passed into common usage as a tag line for any unpunished governmental malfeasance: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

The movie is based, loosely, but not all that loosely, on the historical facts surrounding the development of Los Angeles. Very briefly, Los Angeles is the metropolis it is today because a handful of venal politicians, unscrupulous and dishonest businessmen, morally bankrupt newspaper publishers, and public figures and public servants, all made themselves unimaginably rich by stealing land and water, sometimes semi-legally, mostly by graft, embezzlement, fraud, and swindling, occasionally by murder, stealing that land and water from, essentially, you and me. (All of these events were chronicled by the late Marc Reisner in Cadillac Desert, published some ten years after the movie was made, and one of the most brilliant books I’ve ever read. If I told you a history of water rights, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Army Corps of Engineers, was a good read, you’d probably think poor old JP was getting a little gaga; in fact Cadillac Desert is so well-written it’s like a mystery novel, one that will keep you up late at night turning pages to find out what happens next.)

But it’s the tone of Chinatown that is so extraordinary, with its dark sense of menace and manipulation, its complex and multitudinous layers of corruption and obfuscation that Nicholson’s character must peel back to get near the truth. And Nicholson’s character is no glittering knight on a white horse: Jake Gittes is a sleazy private investigator lining his pockets by taking ugly photographs of husbands and wives doing athletic things in beds with people other than their spouses. He is crude, foul-mouthed, amoral, uninterested in his clients or their problems other than cashing their checks. And even after he gets sucked into the vortex his quest for truth is motivated by nothing more than a desire to clear his own name and screw the guy(s) who set him up.

So, a happy ending for this dark film? A United States Congressman buys cocaine from an undercover cop and is allowed to resign his seat without ever spending a day in prison. A United States Senator is convicted of income tax evasion and not only doesn’t have to serve time, he actually gets reelected to two more terms in office. The head of the largest and most influential bureaucratic governmental agency in America violates the law and lies under oath to Congress and is allowed to resign with pension and benefits. A United States Senator tries to ruin an American citizen and drive him out of his family business in order to cement an illegal deal with a foreign government… Those too are true stories, and the list goes on. And you want a happy ending?

Forget it, Jake. It’s Hollywood.


Stephen King: On Writing

August 13th, 2014 23 Comments



I haven’t written any reviews lately because I’ve been on an ancient history kick: the first three volumes of the Will and Ariel Durant series, The Story of Civilization; Herodotus, The Histories; Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War; Polybius, The Histories; bits and pieces of Suetonius, Xenophon, Lucretius, occasional forays into Ovid and Homer to remind myself of this, that or the other, additional brief dips here and there into even more obscure and tangential associations:

Cruel, but composed and bland,

Dumb, inscrutable and grand,

So Tiberius might have sat,

Had Tiberius been a cat.

It’s been fun, and I plan to keep marching along down the highways and byways and shady lanes of man’s consistent folly and brutality and his occasional bursts of brilliance and magnificence, but I have no intention of reviewing the likes of Herodotus and Polybius. I may not be the brightest bulb in the tanning bed, but I’m not that arrogant a fool.

However, I took time out recently to read Stephen King’s On Writing, an interesting pastiche of a book, partly a combination of instructions on the craft of writing and partly a memoir. It is, in fact, accurately subtitled, A Memoir of the Craft.

I suspect many writers, probably most, have lives that are duller than dirt. After all, a writer of fiction spends most of his time sitting inside his own home, inside his own office, inside his own head, a sequence which may make for ecstasies of excitement among the readers of his books, but one which is not calculated to cause the average observer to do much other than doze off. The only notable exception to this rule who springs to mind is Hemingway. No matter what else he might have been, or what you may think of his writing (uneven, ranging from the best of the best to the worst of the worst) he combined a naturally adventurous spirit, enormous personal physical courage, and a capacity for marrying well that allowed him to indulge in various adventures such as safaris and deep-sea fishing. Couple all that with the fact that he also wrote as a war correspondent, and his life makes for great reading. He is, however, the only post-World War Two writer I can think of about whom that is true.

Since Stephen King is, by his own admission, severely, chronically, and habitually anal compulsive about his craft, it is proof of his genius as a writer that On Writing is as entertaining as it is.

I had forgotten how good King can be. On Writing is, to be honest, the first book of his I’ve read in a long, long time, but it brought back my own memories of the first of his books that I ever did read, back around 1980. It was The Shining, and I read it in the safety and security of my own tiny little hillside home, my very first house, in the Hollywood hills overlooking the back lot of Universal Studios. I was training for my second-degree black belt and thought I was a lot tougher than I really was; the house was buttoned up for the night; my wife and son were peacefully asleep in their beds; and that damned book scared me so badly I sat up until three in the morning to finish it, and then had to go from light switch to light switch to make it the bedroom. Oh, yeah, I was a tough guy alright.

But that’s good writing.

On Writing doesn’t provide the thrills and clammy sweat of most of his work. What it does is provide a very candid glimpse into his personal history and his triumphs in overcoming a childhood of grinding poverty, and an early adulthood of chronic alcoholism and drug addiction. Perhaps all this is known to his legions of fans, but it both caught me off-guard and inspired me, which is, of course, why he chose to tell his story the way he did. If he can overcome that degree of alcoholism and addiction (he claims to have no memory of writing Cujo) then by golly, Junior, you too can get your life in order regardless what your problems might be.

Woven through the personal inspiration theme are his comments and observations and suggestions for those people who have succumbed to the writing illness. (It’s like addiction, only different.) Most of it is very, very good advice, and like Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird, it combines practical nuts-and-bolts advice with humor, charm, and encouragement. If I have a criticism (and who the hell am I to criticize Stephen King?) it’s that he tends to assume his work habits and goals will work for everyone. He talks about making sure you don’t leave your desk until you get your daily two-thousand words down. Say what, Steve?! Two-thousand words? I go through periods where I’m lucky to get two-thousand words down in an entire week.

Which brings up another small criticism. King recommends getting the story down as quickly as possible (two thousand words a day quickly) and worrying about the polish later. That’s fine for him, but as even he points out, some authors prefer to polish as they go, reworking each sentence before they go on to the next one. The point is, each of us works differently, and what works for Mr. King might not work for you or me or Malcolm Brooks or Donna Tartt.

King also does a very funny send-up of writing classes, the frightfully serious and studious kind of instruction where students read each other’s work and criticize it for the—theoretically—edification of the writer. King’s advice (and, for what it’s worth, mine) is that such classes are complete waste of time. First of all, who made the guy or gal at the next desk God and gave him or her a pipeline to the taste and Weltanschauung of the reading public? More importantly, who taught Homer to write? Who taught Shakespeare, Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, Hemingway, Faulkner? The only way to learn how to write, as King points out, is to write and read, read and write. Do it obsessively, do it constantly, and then read and write some more.

And one of the books you should read is Stephen King’s On Writing.


A Horse Is An Accident Looking For A Place To Happen

August 11th, 2014 15 Comments

telephoto 020 (Small)


An old Marine Corps joke:

Question: “What happens if you lock a Marine in a padded cell with a bowling ball?”

Answer: “In twenty-four hours he will either lose it, break it, or (insert fine old Anglo-Saxon verb meaning to copulate) it.”

Horses remind me of that joke. Just before he left our place with lots, I mean lots, of our money in his hand, our vet responded to an anguished question from my bride by saying that if he were going to use a place to demonstrate the proper care of horses, in particular what kind of fencing is best, he would use our place.

You can already tell where this going.

Darleen woke me bright and surly Sunday morning, shortly before the break of dawn, to announce that her mare Rosie, had cut herself to ribbons. It was only a slight exaggeration. By the time I got my clothes on and made it down to the barn, Darleen had already rinsed the dirt out of the cuts with Betadine, but blood was still flowing out of two of the cuts, one fore, one aft, but what stunned me was that all four legs were cut to some extent. If you live with horses long enough, you’ll see everything, as well as some things that are technically impossible, so I’ve seen my fair share of leg cuts from horses that got themselves hung up in a fence, but all four legs? That high up?

It struck me as so odd that while we waited for the vet, I walked the fence line in the pasture where Rosie spent the night. I suspected it was a case of her getting hung up, but part of me honestly thought it might have been an attack by an animal—some moron’s dogs running loose, perhaps a starving and desperate mountain lion—because all four legs, and cuts that high up, struck me as out of the ordinary.

Nah. It was just routine, run of the mill, par-for-the-course horse behavior.

It took me a while to find the damage because the portion of the fence where she had gotten herself hung up (think “tangled) was the portion I was most proud of, the one part where I had managed to put up horse-wire (the safest equine fencing there is) and railroad ties over uneven ground, but keeping the horse-wire up high enough that even if a horse were dumb enough to lie down right in that particular spot, and even if she were able to compound her stupidity by rolling into the fence, there would always be enough space between the ground and the bottom wire that she couldn’t possibly get hung up.

(If you read the above sentence again, you’ll see an excellent example of human frailty and stupidity in anyone imagining he can ever come close to overestimating a horse’s ability to get itself into trouble.)

I have no idea how she did it.

The bad news is that the money Darleen and I had earmarked for our first vacation in over ten years is now in the hands of our vet. (Emergency call; ranch visit; Sunday morning; tranquilizers; pain-killers; surgical procedure; stitches; bandaging and vet-wrap supplies; tetanus booster; penicillin; bute (an oral pain-killer for horses); multiple and varied topical cleansers, antiseptics, and fly-repellents; and of course the special, dreaded getting-your-vet-out-of-bed-on-his-day-off-when-he-could-be-lingering-with-his-wife fee, a fee that has been known to cause stronger and richer men than I to burst into tears and curl up into the fetal position.

The good news is Miss Rosie will be fine. Her owners’ nerves are shot, their checking account depleted, their sleep-deficit quotient is on overload, and Pete the Boxer missed his morning walk, but she will be fine.

Now I have to go fix the (insert adjective form of fine old Anglo-Saxon word meaning to copulate) fence.


Your Government Is Here To…Oh, Never Mind

August 7th, 2014 14 Comments


This stuff is great! This is the kind of stuff no one, except possibly Mel Brooks, could make up. This is the headline from USA Today, hardly a bastion of conservative governmental criticism:

“619 Billion Missing From Federal Transparency Site.”

I kid you not. The story goes on to say:

“A government website intended to make federal spending more transparent was missing at least $619 billion from 302 federal programs, a government audit has found.

And the data that does exist is wildly inaccurate, according to the Government Accountability Office, which looked at 2012 spending data. Only 2% to 7% of spending data on is “fully consistent with agencies’ records,” according to the report.

Among the data missing from the 6-year-old federal website:

• The Department of Health and Human Services failed to report nearly $544 billion, mostly in direct assistance programs like Medicare. The department admitted that it should have reported aggregate numbers of spending on those programs.

• The Department of the Interior did not report spending for 163 of its 265 assistance programs because, the department said, its accounting systems were not compatible with the data formats required by The result: $5.3 billion in spending missing from the website.

• The White House itself failed to report any of the programs it’s directly responsible for. At the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which is part of the White House, officials said they thought HHS was responsible for reporting their spending.

For more than 22% of federal awards, the spending website literally doesn’t know where the money went. The “place of performance” of federal contracts was most likely to be wrong.

That’s a problem, said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

“We live in a world in which information drives decisions,” Carper said. “And, given the budget constraints that our government faces, we need reliable information on how and where our money is being spent.”

Golly, Mr. Carper. Do you really think so?

The headline is, I admit, slightly misleading. The website is not actually missing money itself; it is missing data on government spending, partly because the vast bulk of government, including the White House, either didn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t report their spending, and partly because government follows the laws of nature which state that whenever anything becomes too big it gets unwieldy and inefficient and ultimately unable to survive.

If the government doesn’t even know where our money (that’s yours and mine, Baby) is going and how it’s being spent, if it can only account accurately for between two to seven percent of its spending, maybe the solution might be to work on increasing efficiency and oversight. Just a thought. But what do you want to bet some bright boy in the White House or the Senate or Congress will suggest we throw some more money at the problem to try and fix it?


Puppies In a Bucket

August 2nd, 2014 15 Comments

Puppies in a bucket (Small)


An absolutely gratuitous photograph of puppies in a bucket, in this case, Cardigan Welsh corgi puppies from Coedwig Cardigans, posted for no other reason than to make you smile.

Top of Page