Thursday, December 25, 2008

Charles Dickens — The Man Who Reinvented Christmas (essay by Michael Pastore)

A Christmas Carol book cover, Zorba Press Edition

Charles Dickens —
The Man Who Re-Invented Christmas

(c) by Michael Pastore

It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.
— C.D., A Christmas Carol (1843)

In the year 1812 (on February 7th), Charles John Huffam Dickens was born into a world not so very different from our own. War raged around the world: in that year the U.S. declared war against Britain; and Napoleon would march an army of 550,000 into Russia then limp back to Paris six months later with merely 20,000 men. In 1812, too, the arts were flourishing. Beethoven completed his 7th and 8th symphonies; Goethe finished his remarkable novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship; the Grimm brothers first gave us their now-famous fairy tales. And Lord Byron brought “Byronic unhappiness” into our lexicon when he published the first parts of his poem Childe Harold, about a man so bored and disgusted with English society that he tries to flee himself by roaming the European world.

What connects us most to the era of Mr. Dickens is that throughout those hard Victorian times his world was shocked by an unprecedented invasion of technology and rapid change. During 1782 to 1812 — in the 30 years before Dickens’s birth — England was pummeled by scores of inventions that transformed daily life: the steam engine, the oil burner, the threshing machine, the steam-powered rotary motor (which powered cotton-spinning factories), the nail-making machine, the flax machine the cotton gin, the preserving jar for foods, the first horse-drawn railroad, lithography, electricity from a cell, muskets with interchangeable parts, the submarine, iron trolley tracks, the steamboat, street lighting by gas, the isolation of morphine, and rockets introduced as military weapons. And perhaps something that might have better been left undiscovered: techniques for canning food.

The thirty years that followed (1813-1843), during Dickens’s growth to manhood, were no less inventive. Here the world acquires the steam locomotive, roads made from crushed stone, the kaleidoscope, the stethoscope, new chemical elements, the flat-bed cylinder press, electromagnetism, thermoelectricity, sound reproduction, iron railroad bridges, waterproof fabric, Portland cement, the galvanometer, Ohm’s Law, photography, the typewriter, matches, the telegraph, the reaping machine, the bicycle, rubber, hypnosis, ether for anesthesia, and scientific proof that the sperm is essential to fertilization.

Paradise, though not yet lost, grew more difficult to find, as the rural life was yielding to the burgeoning urban existence. Wisps of resistance to this new mechanized culture began in 1811,, when the Luddites in Northern England rebelled by destroying the new machines which whirled their jobs away. Resistance was futile. For better and for worse, the English world welcomed this Industrial Revolution which so much influenced Dickens’s life and literary work.

The life of Dickens! A dickens of a life! He enjoyed, we believe, a merry childhood, and like the young Goethe, one of Dickens’s favorite games was inventing dramas in a little puppet theater. But at age 12 (in 1824) his idyll was disrupted: his debt-crushed father and his entire family were locked into a London prison, and poor Charles was sent to work for six months in a factory.

Dare I say “fortunately,” a law passed in 1819 ordered that the maximum working day for juveniles in England could be no longer than 12 hours. Nevertheless, the factory-work experience traumatized Charles, and initiated his lifelong commitment to children and to the poor.

Released from slavery, young Dickens soon learned stenography, then worked as a reporter, then relished the blaze of literary fame that greeted his first two books Sketches By Boz (1836), and Pickwick Papers (1836-1837). Most of his novels initially appeared in installments in periodicals: the most affordable — and suspenseful — method for reaching the average working-class reader. Dickens wrote a number of Christmas fables, including A Christmas Carol (1843), The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), (1846), The Battle of LifeThe Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (1848). His major works include: Oliver Twist (1837-38), Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39), (1840-41), The Old Curiosity ShopBarnaby Rudge (1841), American Notes for General Circulation (1842), Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44), Pictures from Italy (1844), Dombey and Son (1846-48), David Copperfield (1849-50, his own favorite novel), Bleak House (1852-53), Hard Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1855-57), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), (1860), The Uncommercial TravelerGreat Expectations (1860-61), Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), and the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870).

With each wonderful book his fame and fortune blossomed. The writer flourished, but the man behind the books lived a full but not always so happy life. Unlucky in young love, he was rejected by Maria Beadnell; and when twenty years later she agreed to a secret meeting, the famous author’s great expectations were dashed as he found her uninteresting and overplump. (The sobering reunion is described in Little Dorritt, under the guise of Arthur Clennam’s encounter with Flora.) In 1836 Dickens married Catherine Hogarth, who would mother his ten children. One year later his 17-year-old sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, died suddenly, and Dickens — who may have loved and desired her — grew hysterical with grief. By 1856 Dickens was prosperous enough to buy his dream house in the country. But two years later his wife left him, and scandal tweaked England’s ears when his sister-in-law Georgina remained in the household to take care of the kids. Gossip-critics tell that Dickens’s affair with a much younger actress, Ellen Ternan, satisfied neither her nor him.

Yet Dickens the writer never ceased to fill the world with laughter and good cheer. For Dickens had the mind that Baudelaire envied when he wrote: “Genius is childhood recaptured at will.” He not only retained his childlike genius, but these powers were focused and intensified because he used them for a higher purpose: to fight for the salvation of the children and the poor. In all his works, his humor and his fictional personalities remain with us. Why? His children characters come burdened with the troubles of adults; his adult protagonists are blessed with the exuberance of children. The themes blazing through his dozen dazzling novels, the whole of his humane philosophy, are all epitomized in the fabulous story A Christmas Carol.

Dickens composed A Christmas Carol in 1843, between mid-October and the end of November, in a mere six weeks. Unlike his serialized novels, he wrote this story all at once. The process moved him deeply: Dickens could not rest while he wrote this tale. In a letter to a friend he said that while writing the story he “wept and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself in a most extraordinary manner in the composition; and thinking whereof he walked about the black streets of London fifteen and twenty miles many a night when all the sober folks had gone to bed.”

This classic Christmas story starts with Ebenezer Scrooge, a mean wretch, who feels no compassion for other people, and holds no interests in life except one: to accumulate more wealth.

Listen as the Ghost of Christmas Present heaps a sorrowful warning on the troubled head of Ebenezer Scrooge.

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with the freshest tints, a stale and shriveled hand, like that of age, had pinched and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked; and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless that writing be erased.”

Chaplin in The Gold Rush
It’s hard to tell if concern for others motivates our late-blooming hero, or if it’s fear which turns the trick. Scrooge worries about these immanent ignominies: his own solitary death, his neglected grave, his wasted life, and his eternal prospects — ala his colleague Marley — of wandering the Earth as a ghastly spirit, alone, tormented, with no opportunity to be relieved, remembered, or redeemed. At the climax of the story, filled with dread, hovering above the headstone he knows will be his own, Scrooge cries out to the unholy Ghost:

“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”

Scrooge transformed himself: Can we? ... The poor and the needy are still with us, all around us, helplessly sinking deeper into the economic mire. Dickens’s answer is remarkable. And Scrooge’s question remains the burning question of our burning times.


Michael Pastore is the Editorial Director of Epublishers Weekly, and the the author of more than a dozen books of fiction and non-fiction, including the forthcoming The Tao of Information: How to Simplify Your Life, Keep up with Technology, and Harvest the Internet’s Essential Facts and Ideas in 30 Minutes a Day. (Zorba Press, Spring 2009). Pastore has recently edited a new paperback edition of A Christmas Carol — along with Dickens's other Christmas stories (Click here to learn more).

This essay is copyrighted. You may reprint it on your blog or website, if you give us the credit we deserve: add the tag, "From Epublishers Weekly."
To reprint this essay in a print publication, or in other electronic sources, contact us by email. Thanks. -- MP

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Distracted &mdash by Maggie Jackson (Book Review)

Distracted by Maggie Jackson book cover

The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age
By Maggie Jackson
Hardcover, 327 pages, $ 25.95
Published by Prometheus Books, 2008

Is our planet Earth plummeting into another Dark Age, a mire of disintegration and self-destruction, lifeless and loveless, where not a spark of defiance fires the human soul, where no children laugh, no birds sing, and no swift shoes are flung at lamely-ducking presidents?

One expects this sensational warning in modern films. But when alarms are sounded from beyond Hollywood — from some our best and most sincere minds — it is time to face the problem and closely pay attention. Jane Jacobs (Dark Age Ahead), Jared Diamond (Collapse), Martin Rees (Our Final Hour), Charlene Spretnak (The Resurgence of the Real), and Albert Gore (An Inconvenient Truth) have all written non-fiction works warning us about unpleasant things in our possible or probable future. Distracted, by Maggie Jackson, is an important contribution to this growing genre. With clarity and compassion, Jackson explores the dangers of our hi-tech lifestyle, describing how and why our world is darkening, and providing some illuminating hints about what we might do to reverse the dangerous trends.

Distracted by Maggie Jackson book cover
A much-quoted bumper-sticker in our town (popular in the pre-Obama era) reminds us:

“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

Attention is the key, says Jackson: a lack of attention (distraction) is the essence of our problems, and our hope for the future depends on cultivating “a renaissance of attention.” Jackson explains psychologist Michael Posner’s a definition that divides attention into three “networks”: orienting, alerting, and the executive.

Jackson travels around the U.S.A. to observe people and to talk with researchers connected to her theme. All the while, she quotes many useful literary sources, old and new, including the greatly misunderstood play by Capek (R.U.R.); the eerily prescient science fiction story by E. M. Forster (The Machine Stops); and Mary Shelley's saga of a dysfunctional monster (Frankenstein). I have been studying this notion (ABC: Attention, Being fully in the present, Concentration) for more than a year, and I thought that I could not be surprised with information new to me. Happily, I was very wrong. Jackson introduced me to the French science fiction author, Albert Robida (1848 to 1926). Robida wrote a short story about the future (the year 1965); interviewed about his predictions, he said (and he is talking about us):

Modern Times film: stuck in the gears

“Their every day will be caught in the wheels of a mechanized society to the point where I wonder how they will find the time to enjoy the most simple pleasures we had at our disposal: silence, calm, solitude. Having never known them, they shall not be able to miss them. As for me, I do — and I pity them.”

Robida wondered then, and — more than a century later — I am wondering now. But for pity there is no time. Quickly we must turn down the noise, simplify our lives, learn the art of attention, and cultivate our minds.

—Michael Pastore

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Walt the Plumber, or: Is Writing Books For Famous Writers Only?

Walt the Plumber

"The monstrosity of her pretensions touches the highest point of the ludicrous."

Those words are from George Gissing, describing one of the comic characters created by Charles Dickens. Gissing's barb defines the essence of today's publishing crisis: anybody and everybody believes that they can — without skill, practice, concentration, devotion, sacrifice and years of sustained efforts — write a worthwhile book.

Those of us who work at the writer's trade do not commit the opposite folly of believing that we could pick up a violin, for the first time, and play it with the unabashed virtuosity of Perlman, Paganini and Sarasate.

This problem is wittily discussed in a recent New York Times essay by Timothy Egan. (Here is the link to the essay: it is free to read, however you will need to register with the NY Times before you are permitted to read it:

Egan's essay (called =Typing Without A Clue=) begins this way:

The unlicensed pipe fitter known as Joe the Plumber is out with a book this month, just as the last seconds on his 15 minutes are slipping away. I have a question for Joe: Do you want me to fix your leaky toilet?

I didn’t think so. And I don’t want you writing books. Not when too many good novelists remain unpublished. Not when too many extraordinary histories remain unread. Not when too many riveting memoirs are kicked back at authors after 10 years of toil. Not when voices in Iran, North Korea or China struggle to get past a censor’s gate.

Joe, a k a Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, was no good as a citizen, having failed to pay his full share of taxes, no good as a plumber, not being fully credentialed, and not even any good as a faux American icon. Who could forget poor John McCain at his most befuddled, calling out for his working-class surrogate on a day when Joe stiffed him.

With a résumé full of failure, he now thinks he can join the profession of Mark Twain, George Orwell and Joan Didion.

Point well made. And the remainder of the essay sweetly captures the frustrations of every genuine author struggling to survive.

There is, however, another side of the argument, perhaps best summarized by Karl Popper, who wrote:

"If you want a democracy, you need to put up with some of the chaos."

Many of us cannot imagine how Plumber Joe can have a significant story to tell, or tell it in a captivating manner. At the same time, we do not want to bolt the door to every unknown and unpublished literary voice.

Consider the plight of some women and men, initially ignored or scorned, and now recognized among our finest writers:
  • In 1855, Walt Whitman set type at his friend's printing company, then paid for the printing of the first edition of his unappreciated masterpiece Leaves of Grass.
  • With the help of his wife,William Blake — considered by his contemporaries to be a madman, and now regarded as one of the world's great poets — handcrafted all his books in his own workshop at home.
  • Some other once-ignored now-famous writers who have self-published include Benjamin Franklin; Henry David Thoreau; Mark Twain (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn); Carl Sandburg; Rudyard Kipling; William Strunk, Jr. (The Elements of Style); D.H. Lawrence; Gertrude Stein; Beatrix Potter; the Bronte Sisters; John Galsworthy; Edgar Allan Poe; Robert Browning; George Bernard Shaw; Samuel Butler; William E.B. Du Bois; James Joyce (Ulysses); Anais Nin; and Virginia Woolf.
Publishing in the past was motivated by a balance between culture and commerce. Publishers wanted to make enough money to survive, but money was not the only thing, nor was it the most important thing. Once, the job of the publisher was to discover the finest books, and offer these books to the reading public.

Fortunately, there are a number of contemporary publishers who have stayed true to their calling and professional integrity. But many — and the cynic might say "most" — have not.

In theory, there is a system in place to separate the wheat from the chaff, the writers from the plumbers. The great gates to literary stardom are guarded by a hardhearted breed of businesspersons known as "literary agents." Admirably, a group of these agents have joined together, and formed an organization called the AAR (The Association of Authors Representatives) to protect authors from exploitation from members of their species who have lower ethical standards.

Years ago, inflated with youthful hopes and nearsighted optimism, I mailed a letter describing my novel to an agent in the publishing capital of the world. To my shock, within 6 months I received a reply from this agent. The reply — which of course had been mailed to me in my Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope — was nothing more than a glossy flyer promoting his new book. Though I laugh at this incident now, at the time I was mad as hell. It is petty to mention names, however I must say that I was very gratified this week to discover that the very book which had once been so nefariously promoted, is now available for free online, via Google Books.

Agent Book

But let us return to our original dilemma. Given the choice between two universes, one realm that published big-name authors only, and another world that published a wide variety of authors — great, awful, good, bad, and everything in between — I will choose the second world every time. That world of equal opportunity — where everyone has the chance to be published — is vastly more chaotic, more enlightening, and more fun.

— Michael Pastore

Thanks for the ping, to one of favorite blogs, Arts Journal:

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Frengly Means Online Translation For 25 Languages

Image from Frengly.comEvery day brings us a flood of new releases and updates of downloadable software and "Web 2.0" software, which lets you do things on the web: manage your tasks, edit a photo, create and share a docoment, and on and on. ... Many of these offerings are free; and many of them (whether free or not) immediately fall into the category that one Internet author has called "cool but useless".

Yet, as Spinoza reminded us ("All excellent things are both difficult and rare.") a small number of these tools are not only cool and fun to use, but incredibly useful. The latest of these prizes is a website called Frengly, found at

Frengly is an excellent, superbe, ausgezeichnet — and free! — online translator that translates to and from more than 25 languages, including:

  • English
  • French
  • German
  • Spanish
  • Italian
  • Arabic
  • Bulgarian
  • Chinese (both Simplified and Traditional)
  • Croatian
  • Danish
  • Finnish
  • Hindi
  • Greek
  • Korean
  • Norweigan
  • Polish
  • Romanian
  • Dutch
  • Swedish
  • Portuguese
  • Japanese
  • Russian
  • Hebrew
  • Czech
  • Vietnamese
  • Slovakian
In general, whenever you use a machine (or software) to change languages, you might want to check for accuracy before sending your translated message. Here's how I check: after using the website to translate from, say, English to French, I then use the website to translate back from the (just-translated) French, to English.

This avoids embarrassing mistakes like the one I made today, when I tried to tell some French friends: "I hope that you are thriving." ... The website transmogrified that phrase into: "I hope that you are booming."

Quel dommage! ... But I'm sure that I will be forgiven avec un sourire -- with a smile.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Tricky Living by Russ Walter

The brain is a terrible thing to waste. Brain scientists tell us that our brain is divided into two main parts: left and right. The left half is our rational, logical and technological brain. The right side is the creative, artistic, intuitive brain.

Happiness depends on developing both areas: we need a balance. The inventor who creates a Frankenstein monster, and then fails to nurture and educate his monster — is lacking in right-brain capabilities. The philosopher who looks up at the clouds then falls into a pothole, or the romantic artist who neglects his material well-being — is neglecting the messages from the practical-minded left brain.

For 30 years, Russ Walter has been giving us the best of his left brain, by publishing The Secret Guide to Computers. The hilarious contents of Russ's right brain are now available in another book by Russ (co-authored with his wife Guang Chun), called Tricky Living.

In this 2nd edition of Tricky Living Russ waxes poetic (or doggerel-etic) about diverse topics, including Health, Daily Survival, Government, Intellectual Life, Arts, American Cultures, Foreign Cultures, Morality, Sexuality, and much more. Time and again — and again — the book made me laugh out loud. Tricky Living is a delightful goulash of humorous (and sometimes serious) facts, opinions, observations, anecdotes, quotations, and advice.

To learn more about the book, or to buy it at the lowest price, visit Russ's website at

Tricky Living
Tricks to Master the Modern World
2nd edition for 2008
by Russ Walter and Guang Chun Walker
Paperback, 143 pages, $ 10

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Buy Nothing Day 2008

What: Buy Nothing Day
Where: In the USA, and more than 60 countries worldwide
When: Friday, November 28 (in North America); November 29 in other nations

Year after year, on the Fridays after Thanksgiving, my father would enact a strange personal ritual. Returning home from work, he would throw his newspaper against a chair with great force, then hand me a bag of soft pretzels, and finally collapse on the living room couch with a glazed look in his deep brown eyes. He was totally exhausted from his work on this day, the busiest shopping day of the year, the day that signaled the abandonment of all human reason with this motto: "Let the Christmas Shopping Rush begin!"

There is a solution to this unthinking chaos, and it begins with the concept "Less is more." ... Simplicity is the watchword of the new greener life. And what could be simpler than -- for one day -- slowing down the never-ending frenzy for buying things?

Shockingly, over the past 20 years, the per capita consumption in the United States has risen 45 per cent. The goal of Buy Nothing Day (BND) is not to consume less: it is -- for a mere span of 24 hours -- to buy nothing at all.

Scott and Helen Nearing, founders of the back-to-the-land movement, would eat no solid food one day every week, believing that this action (or: non-action) improved their physical health. Victims of advertising overload, we can hardly conceive of one day per week without buying something. This project seeks to improve our financial -- and perhaps, psychological -- health, but giving up not one day per week, but but one day per year.

I will be spending my November 28 re-reading two books that encourage less buying and more being. Zenlightenment! is an anthology of quotations from the world's best books. To Have or To Be is a classic by Erich Fromm. If the books are not available at your local library, ask your reference librarian if you can request the books via an inter-library loan.

For more information about Buy Nothing Day (BND):

WikiPedia Article:
BND page at Adbusters

(thanks to Adbusters)

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Earth-to-Obama: The Biggest Challenge Yet

Hokusai: Carp leaping up a cascade

Michael Tobias, our guest essayist this week, has written a passionate Open Letter to President-elect Obama. America needs to feed our hungry, to repair our financial system, and to help the middle class. Yet to be a truly great nation -- and a compassionate, forward-thinking nation -- we will need to focus on the essential goals which Dr. Tobias so eloquently describes.

"Earth-to-Obama: The Biggest Challenge Yet"

A Letter to President-Elect Barack Obama

November 18, 2008

Dear President-Elect Obama,

Congratulations! You now have a remarkable opportunity to enrich America’s environmental stewardship at home, and her influence abroad. Here are three suggested arenas for urgent action.

First: Biology Matters Most.
Our nation’s economic woes are an offspring of malfunctions at the very core of the planet’s life-support systems. We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction spasm in the annals of biology. This fact is not on most lawmakers’ radar screens. Yet, it makes the present, and projected effects of global warming pale by comparison: at current trends, we will lose between 40-and-60% of all life on Earth by the end of this century; a staggering 43,000 individual populations of plants and animals going extinct every day.

Since passage of the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, over 100 North American species have gone extinct. Despite this, the U.S. Government seems reluctant to take science at its word and grant protection to the more than 280 new candidates for the endangered species list.

By some estimates, global biodiversity is valued at about $400 trillion per year. This currency is the air we breathe, the water we drink and the neighborhood and neighbors we love. It is imperative that the U. S. finally ratify the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, a far-reaching outgrowth of the Rio Environmental Summit of 1992. America is virtually alone in the world of nations for not having ratified a treaty whose goal is the protection of life on Earth.

Second: A Population Policy.
Demographic trends and their consumption fallout, are huge factors in biodiversity loss. The United States of America has no population policy. Yet, U.S. census data forecasts a population of 500 million people in the U.S. by the end of this century; and a worldwide population of between 9 and 13 billion people. The Earth’s biological resources cannot sustain such numbers. We need compassionate guidance and legislation to curb this runaway population explosion - a formula for poverty and ecological disaster. Tax incentives for people choosing to have small families, or to adopt, would be an appropriate first step. Another would be an Executive Order reversing the Reagan/Bush “gag order” that denied women throughout the world assistance to obtain the fullest range of family planning services.

Third: Kindness to All Creatures, Great and Small.
America’s reliance on violence as an economic driver and political instrument of persuasion is surely not the best model of compassion to pass along to future generations. In ecological terms, human violence is disastrous. For example, Americans kill and profit by the lives of over ten billion animals each year just in the United States. Most of these are slaughtered in questionably “humane” circumstances. Most Americans may not be ready to “go vegetarian” as was the recommendation of the Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. But, a more non-violent administration could give tax support to companies that choose not to kill. Why not acknowledge the true cost of killing for our food? Scientific and medical communities acknowledge that meat-eating constitutes not merely a health issue for humans, but a huge burden on fast-shrinking fresh water resources. Meat production undermines our ability to divert plant foods and compact units of protein in greater abundance to the hungry (nearly a billion worldwide). Moreover, livestock emit their own considerable contribution to global warming in the form of methane gas.

By promising to bring a puppy to the White House for your family, you remind us of our close bonds with other species. That “mutt” symbolizes for many a path of peaceful reunification.

America cannot solve all of the world’s problems at once, nor can it stand by in worried isolation. But the United States of America has the power to promote virtue and true conscience. Extending the olive branch to all creatures great and small is our only way to realize true environmental security.

Kindest regards,
Dr. Michael Tobias
President, Dancing Star Foundation

Michael Tobias' latest feature film documentary is entitled "HOTSPOTS" now playing on public broadcast stations across the country. ( Tobias' latest book, co-authored byJane Gray Morrison, was formally launched this Summer at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., and is entitled, Sanctuary: Global Oases of Innocence. (

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Open Office Now Available for Mac

Open Office version 3.0 has been released, with great news for Mac Users: it now works natively on Mac OS X. It's still free, although the Open Office team would appreciate your support via a donation in money or time. The free Open Office suite contains tools for word processing, drawing, creating spreadsheets, databases, and presentations. The word processor exports to PDF (and many other useful formats), and imports many file formats including MS-Word documents, RTF, text, and XHTML.

Download Open Office 3.0 here:

To install OO version 3 on your Mac, you'll need to meet these minimum System Requirements:

  • Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger) or higher
  • Intel Processor
  • 512 Mbytes RAM
  • 400 Mbytes available disk space
  • 1024 x 768 or higher resolution with 16.7 Million colours
You can also get a free "Getting Started Guide" which teaches the basics of OO version 3, here (PDF file):

... and OOdles of information about OO, here:

Another excellent (and free) office suite for Mac is NeoOffice. NeoOffice earned my donation when, thanks to its large number of importable file types, it eased my transition from a PC to a Mac.

Open Office, of course, works on all major platforms: Mac, Linux, and PC.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Then I'd Be Satisfied With Life

Euphoria at the Obama victory! It's everywhere: the whole little town of Ithaca is radiant, giddy, renewed, inspired -- we are singing in the shower and we are dancing in the streets.

So this week's post is a diversion from our usual insightful commentary and deep ideas: it is simply silly.

The photo is a picture of George M. Cohan, who wrote the song's original words in 1902 (see below for the contemporary words).
Click on the video to hear the song (performed by Tiny Tim), and see a shopping cart debacle.

Then I'd Be Satisfied with Life
(original words by George Michael Cohan)

All I want is 50 million dollars
And seal skins to protect me from the cold.
If I only knew how stocks would go in Wall Street
And were living in the mansions built of gold.
If I only owned the Pennsylvania Railroad
And if Tuesday Weld would only be my wife
Oh, Tiny!
If I could only stay sixteen forever
Then I'd know that I'd be satisfied with life.

All I want is wheatgerm for my breakfast
A Champagne fountain sizzling at my feet
While Rockefeller waited on the table
And a barrel's band playin' while I eat.
If I only owned Western Union cable
And if Tuesday Weld would only be my wife
Tiny, I love you!
if I could only stay sixteen forever and ever and ever
Then I'd know that I'd be satisfied with life.

Hello, my dear friend,
Don't run away from all this world,
It's a great big beautiful world
With fabulous happy faces around
Well, I can see this one over here, you lovely thing,
Why, it's beautiful, it's clean, and it's calm and it's modern,
If I can have them all, why, I'll tell you, I'll tell you
Then I'd know that I'd be satisfied with life.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Obama Is Our President

Obama! ... Barack Obama has been elected the 44th president of the United States. The American people have voted for world peace, for economic justice, for a green economy, and for genuine change.

Here is the text of Obama's victory speech in Chicago, at midnight.

Obama's Speech on November 4, 2008

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

Its the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen; by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different; that their voice could be that difference.

Its the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled - Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America.

Its the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.

Its been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.

I just received a very gracious call from Senator McCain. He fought long and hard in this campaign, and hes fought even longer and harder for the country he loves. He has endured sacrifices for America that most of us cannot begin to imagine, and we are better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader. I congratulate him and Governor Palin for all they have achieved, and I look forward to working with them to renew this nations promise in the months ahead.

I want to thank my partner in this journey, a man who campaigned from his heart and spoke for the men and women he grew up with on the streets of Scranton and rode with on that train home to Delaware, the Vice President-elect of the United States, Joe Biden.

I would not be standing here tonight without the unyielding support of my best friend for the last sixteen years, the rock of our family and the love of my life, our nations next First Lady, Michelle Obama. Sasha and Malia, I love you both so much, and you have earned the new puppy thats coming with us to the White House. And while shes no longer with us, I know my grandmother is watching, along with the family that made me who I am. I miss them tonight, and know that my debt to them is beyond measure.

To my campaign manager David Plouffe, my chief strategist David Axelrod, and the best campaign team ever assembled in the history of politics - you made this happen, and I am forever grateful for what youve sacrificed to get it done.

But above all, I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to - it belongs to you.

I was never the likeliest candidate for this office. We didnt start with much money or many endorsements. Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington - it began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston.

It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give five dollars and ten dollars and twenty dollars to this cause. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generations apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers; from the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth. This is your victory.

I know you didnt do this just to win an election and I know you didnt do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime - two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century. Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us. There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how theyll make the mortgage, or pay their doctors bills, or save enough for college. There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair.

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America - I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you - we as a people will get there.

There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who wont agree with every decision or policy I make as President, and we know that government cant solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And above all, I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way its been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years - block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.

What began twenty-one months ago in the depths of winter must not end on this autumn night. This victory alone is not the change we seek - it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you.

So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. Let us remember that if this financial crisis taught us anything, its that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers - in this country, we rise or fall as one nation; as one people.

Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long. Let us remember that it was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House - a party founded on the values of self-reliance, individual liberty, and national unity. Those are values we all share, and while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress. As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, We are not enemies, but friends...though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn - I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too.

And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world - our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down - we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security - we support you. And to all those who have wondered if Americas beacon still burns as bright - tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.

For that is the true genius of America - that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one thats on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. Shes a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing - Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldnt vote for two reasons - because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.

And tonight, I think about all that shes seen throughout her century in America - the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we cant, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

At a time when womens voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.

When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.

When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that We Shall Overcome. Yes we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.

America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves - if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?

This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time - to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth - that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we cant, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people:

Yes We Can. Thank you, God bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America.

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Friday, October 31, 2008

A Halloween Surprise Promotes Fair Trade

Imagine, for a moment, answering your door on Halloween night to this scenario: a smiling child hands you a shard of chocolate. Not an ordinary chunk of chocolate, but a bit made with chocolate that has been grown and harvested by workers who are not under-age, not under-paid, and not exploited in any manner.

Sponsored by a human rights group called Global Exchange, this game of Reverse Halloween is now in its second year. You can find out more about this new twist on a weary ritual, by visiting the website of Reverse-Trick-or-Treating, at

The website tells us more, including this ...

Thousands of costumed trick-or-treaters across all fifty states in the US, as well as Canada, are turning the traditional Halloween ritual on its head; for the second year in a row, it is the trick-or-treaters who are handing out chocolate...hundreds of thousands of Fair Trade Certified™ chocolate samples to raise awareness of: the persistent problems of poverty in cocoa-growing communities; the use of exploited child labor in the cocoa fields of countries like Cote D'Ivoire, which produces 40 percent of the world's cocoa; and environmental damage from unsustainable farming practices.

Participants will reach out to nearly a quarter of a million households in the United States and Canada in a single night with their important message: Fair Trade Certified™ chocolate provides Americans, who consume nearly half the world's chocolate, with a path toward resolving these problems.

Z. And here is the rest of it.
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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Baseball: Phillies Win World Series 2008

Wednesday, October 29, 2008 &mdash 9:58 p.m.

Philadelphia fans are now howling in the streets, after the Phillies defeated the Tampa Bay Devil Rays tonight, 4 to 3, to win the fifth and final game of the 2008 World Series. Starting Pitcher Cole Hamels was named series MVP; and relief pitcher Brad Lidge continued his record of perfection, getting his 48th save of the season, in 48 tries. Great pitching and defense won the series for the Phillies, and some timely hits by the lesser-known players aided the cause.

The Phillies have been playing baseball for 126 seasons: the team was founded in 1883, and called the "Quakers". The last (and only previous) World Series victory by the Phillies happened 28 years ago, in the year 1980. The last sports championship for the city was a basketball triumph by the 76ers, in 1983. After 25 years of losing, Philadelphia fans have a lot of celebrating to catch up on tonight.

"In Northeast Philadelphia, thousands more gathered at the intersection of Frankford and Cottman Avenues, where city workers had greased the light poles to keep fans from dangerous, inebriated ascents. Instead, fans climbed onto the roofs of cars or onto the shoulders of their parents and waved towels and held up signs that said, "Finally," or in the local vernacular, "Phinallie." A dog walked about clad in a Phillies cape."
New York Times article

Most of the experts and oddsmakers were dead wrong when they picked the Rays to win. The experts forgot about the all-important psychological factors that make the vital difference. Like the 2007 Phillies who rejoiced after beating the Mets for the N.L. East crown, the Rays must have been elated to knock out the powerful Boston Red Sox -- and like last year's Phillies, they celebrated too soon.

The Phillies got hot at just the right time, winning 24 out their 30 final games, and going undefeated in their home stadium. The Phillies' post-season playoff record was a remarkable 11 wins and 3 defeats. The name of the game is "team" -- and the Phillies excelled in unselfishness. When Brad Lidge struck out the last batter to end the World Series, he fell to his knees, raised his arms to the sky and shouted: "We did it!"

The New York Times stories about the victory are here:

For Phillies and City, Title Is Worth the Wait

25 Years of Frustration, Popped Like a Cork

Rain or Shine, a Champion Again

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

NY Times Editorial Board Endorses Obama for President

The NY Times editorial board writes:

Barack Obama for President

Hyperbole is the currency of presidential campaigns, but this year the nation’s future truly hangs in the balance.

The United States is battered and drifting after eight years of President Bush’s failed leadership. He is saddling his successor with two wars, a scarred global image and a government systematically stripped of its ability to protect and help its citizens — whether they are fleeing a hurricane’s floodwaters, searching for affordable health care or struggling to hold on to their homes, jobs, savings and pensions in the midst of a financial crisis that was foretold and preventable.

As tough as the times are, the selection of a new president is easy. After nearly two years of a grueling and ugly campaign, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois has proved that he is the right choice to be the 44th president of the United States.

Mr. Obama has met challenge after challenge, growing as a leader and putting real flesh on his early promises of hope and change. He has shown a cool head and sound judgment. We believe he has the will and the ability to forge the broad political consensus that is essential to finding solutions to this nation’s problems.

In the same time, Senator John McCain of Arizona has retreated farther and farther to the fringe of American politics, running a campaign on partisan division, class warfare and even hints of racism. His policies and worldview are mired in the past. His choice of a running mate so evidently unfit for the office was a final act of opportunism and bad judgment that eclipsed the accomplishments of 26 years in Congress.

Given the particularly ugly nature of Mr. McCain’s campaign, the urge to choose on the basis of raw emotion is strong. But there is a greater value in looking closely at the facts of life in America today and at the prescriptions the candidates offer. The differences are profound.

Mr. McCain offers more of the Republican every-man-for-himself ideology, now lying in shards on Wall Street and in Americans’ bank accounts. Mr. Obama has another vision of government’s role and responsibilities.

In his convention speech in Denver, Mr. Obama said, “Government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves: protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools and new roads and new science and technology.”

Since the financial crisis, he has correctly identified the abject failure of government regulation that has brought the markets to the brink of collapse.

The Economy

The American financial system is the victim of decades of Republican deregulatory and anti-tax policies. Those ideas have been proved wrong at an unfathomable price, but Mr. McCain — a self-proclaimed “foot soldier in the Reagan revolution” — is still a believer.

Mr. Obama sees that far-reaching reforms will be needed to protect Americans and American business.

Mr. McCain talks about reform a lot, but his vision is pinched. His answer to any economic question is to eliminate pork-barrel spending — about $18 billion in a $3 trillion budget — cut taxes and wait for unfettered markets to solve the problem.

Mr. Obama is clear that the nation’s tax structure must be changed to make it fairer. That means the well-off Americans who have benefited disproportionately from Mr. Bush’s tax cuts will have to pay some more. Working Americans, who have seen their standard of living fall and their children’s options narrow, will benefit. Mr. Obama wants to raise the minimum wage and tie it to inflation, restore a climate in which workers are able to organize unions if they wish and expand educational opportunities.

Mr. McCain, who once opposed President Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy as fiscally irresponsible, now wants to make them permanent. And while he talks about keeping taxes low for everyone, his proposed cuts would overwhelmingly benefit the top 1 percent of Americans while digging the country into a deeper fiscal hole.

National Security

The American military — its people and equipment — is dangerously overstretched. Mr. Bush has neglected the necessary war in Afghanistan, which now threatens to spiral into defeat. The unnecessary and staggeringly costly war in Iraq must be ended as quickly and responsibly as possible.

While Iraq’s leaders insist on a swift drawdown of American troops and a deadline for the end of the occupation, Mr. McCain is still taking about some ill-defined “victory.” As a result, he has offered no real plan for extracting American troops and limiting any further damage to Iraq and its neighbors.

Mr. Obama was an early and thoughtful opponent of the war in Iraq, and he has presented a military and diplomatic plan for withdrawing American forces. Mr. Obama also has correctly warned that until the Pentagon starts pulling troops out of Iraq, there will not be enough troops to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Mr. McCain, like Mr. Bush, has only belatedly focused on Afghanistan’s dangerous unraveling and the threat that neighboring Pakistan may quickly follow.

Mr. Obama would have a learning curve on foreign affairs, but he has already showed sounder judgment than his opponent on these critical issues. His choice of Senator Joseph Biden — who has deep foreign-policy expertise — as his running mate is another sign of that sound judgment. Mr. McCain’s long interest in foreign policy and the many dangers this country now faces make his choice of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska more irresponsible.

Both presidential candidates talk about strengthening alliances in Europe and Asia, including NATO, and strongly support Israel. Both candidates talk about repairing America’s image in the world. But it seems clear to us that Mr. Obama is far more likely to do that — and not just because the first black president would present a new American face to the world.

Mr. Obama wants to reform the United Nations, while Mr. McCain wants to create a new entity, the League of Democracies — a move that would incite even fiercer anti-American furies around the world.

Unfortunately, Mr. McCain, like Mr. Bush, sees the world as divided into friends (like Georgia) and adversaries (like Russia). He proposed kicking Russia out of the Group of 8 industrialized nations even before the invasion of Georgia. We have no sympathy for Moscow’s bullying, but we also have no desire to replay the cold war. The United States must find a way to constrain the Russians’ worst impulses, while preserving the ability to work with them on arms control and other vital initiatives.

Both candidates talk tough on terrorism, and neither has ruled out military action to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program. But Mr. Obama has called for a serious effort to try to wean Tehran from its nuclear ambitions with more credible diplomatic overtures and tougher sanctions. Mr. McCain’s willingness to joke about bombing Iran was frightening.

The Constitution and the Rule of Law

Under Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the justice system and the separation of powers have come under relentless attack. Mr. Bush chose to exploit the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, the moment in which he looked like the president of a unified nation, to try to place himself above the law.

Mr. Bush has arrogated the power to imprison men without charges and browbeat Congress into granting an unfettered authority to spy on Americans. He has created untold numbers of “black” programs, including secret prisons and outsourced torture. The president has issued hundreds, if not thousands, of secret orders. We fear it will take years of forensic research to discover how many basic rights have been violated.

Both candidates have renounced torture and are committed to closing the prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

But Mr. Obama has gone beyond that, promising to identify and correct Mr. Bush’s attacks on the democratic system. Mr. McCain has been silent on the subject.

Mr. McCain improved protections for detainees. But then he helped the White House push through the appalling Military Commissions Act of 2006, which denied detainees the right to a hearing in a real court and put Washington in conflict with the Geneva Conventions, greatly increasing the risk to American troops.

The next president will have the chance to appoint one or more justices to a Supreme Court that is on the brink of being dominated by a radical right wing. Mr. Obama may appoint less liberal judges than some of his followers might like, but Mr. McCain is certain to pick rigid ideologues. He has said he would never appoint a judge who believes in women’s reproductive rights.

The Candidates

It will be an enormous challenge just to get the nation back to where it was before Mr. Bush, to begin to mend its image in the world and to restore its self-confidence and its self-respect. Doing all of that, and leading America forward, will require strength of will, character and intellect, sober judgment and a cool, steady hand.

Mr. Obama has those qualities in abundance. Watching him being tested in the campaign has long since erased the reservations that led us to endorse Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primaries. He has drawn in legions of new voters with powerful messages of hope and possibility and calls for shared sacrifice and social responsibility.

Mr. McCain, whom we chose as the best Republican nominee in the primaries, has spent the last coins of his reputation for principle and sound judgment to placate the limitless demands and narrow vision of the far-right wing. His righteous fury at being driven out of the 2000 primaries on a racist tide aimed at his adopted daughter has been replaced by a zealous embrace of those same win-at-all-costs tactics and tacticians.

He surrendered his standing as an independent thinker in his rush to embrace Mr. Bush’s misbegotten tax policies and to abandon his leadership position on climate change and immigration reform.

Mr. McCain could have seized the high ground on energy and the environment. Earlier in his career, he offered the first plausible bill to control America’s emissions of greenhouse gases. Now his positions are a caricature of that record: think Ms. Palin leading chants of “drill, baby, drill.”

Mr. Obama has endorsed some offshore drilling, but as part of a comprehensive strategy including big investments in new, clean technologies.

Mr. Obama has withstood some of the toughest campaign attacks ever mounted against a candidate. He’s been called un-American and accused of hiding a secret Islamic faith. The Republicans have linked him to domestic terrorists and questioned his wife’s love of her country. Ms. Palin has also questioned millions of Americans’ patriotism, calling Republican-leaning states “pro-America.”

This politics of fear, division and character assassination helped Mr. Bush drive Mr. McCain from the 2000 Republican primaries and defeat Senator John Kerry in 2004. It has been the dominant theme of his failed presidency.

The nation’s problems are simply too grave to be reduced to slashing “robo-calls” and negative ads. This country needs sensible leadership, compassionate leadership, honest leadership and strong leadership. Barack Obama has shown that he has all of those qualities.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Barack Obama: The New Yorker's Choice for President

History will be made on November 4, as Americans choose whether to move bravely toward a sustainable future, or to continue a descent into barbarism in many realms: economic, environmental, educational, and social.

The New Yorker essay on October 13 (The Choice), is powerfully written, and signed "The Editors", although it is not difficult to detect the shrewd hand of Hendrik Hertzberg pushing the political pen. The essay begins with these words:

"Never in living memory has an election been more critical than the one fast approaching—that’s the quadrennial cliché, as expected as the balloons and the bombast. And yet when has it ever felt so urgently true? When have so many Americans had so clear a sense that a Presidency has—at the levels of competence, vision, and integrity—undermined the country and its ideals?"

Read the entire essay here:

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Does McCain Understand Modern Economics ?

Washington D.C.

Before slinging any more mud at Barack Obama, the McCain campaign might want to explain McCain's ties with a convicted felon, and McCain's history of bad judgment about the American economy. McCain has been a strong supporter of de-regulation and non-regulation: letting the big corporations do almost anything they want to do. That bad judgment caused the famous S&L scandal (discussed in this video), and it caused the current meltdown: the worst economic crisis since America's Great Depression.

Here is a video that every undecided voter should watch, then verify:

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Friday, October 03, 2008

Is There Big Money in Selling Domain Names?

Is it still possible to make money buying and selling Internet domain names? ... The business of domain name speculation is a strange admixture of the California gold rush, a hockey brawl, and a geek-filled remake of the film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad Mad World.

Domaineering is a chaotic business, and a complex one. By the end of the first quarter of the year 2008, more than 14 million new domain names had been registered, and the grand total of all domain names registered exceeded 162 million. The .com TLDs were by far the most popular; with growing demands for domain names that end in .de (Germany), .cn (China), .net, .uk (United Kingdom) and .org. Other popular domain names end in .info, .nl (Netherlands), .eu (European Union), and .biz. According to a recent study (The Verisign Domain Name Industry Brief), the enormous growth "is driven by continued global Internet adoption." Roughly 75% of all domains that are purchased are renewed; and if a domain name has a web site on it (think: the game Monopoly with houses) then it is even more likely to be renewed.

But can you make any money buying and selling domains? ... If you are planning to invest in a name — or wondering if you should do it — your first move is the easiest: pick up and read a copy of David Kesmodel's book: The Domain Game.

The Domain Game
How People Get Rich From Internet Domains
by David Kesmodel
Paperback, 192 pages
Publisher: Eurocom Books

An interesting read from start to finish, the book covers the history of domain name speculation, the players who risked a lot (of money and time) and came up smiling, and a closing chapter with advice about how to play this intriguing game. Kesmodel does a superb job of explaining everything important about the business: from cybersquatting to typosquatting; from the big sales to the tremendous disappointments; from pay per click advertising to the cunning Karl Rove who — before the Bush election — bought up a number of Bush-related domain names, including some insulting ones.

The domain name industry is still young, and Kesmodel does not shy from exposing some of its questionable practices. "Domain tasting"is one of these: a domain name registrar will buy up thousands of names, hold them for a few days, and then return the least valuable of these for full credit, before the 5-day credit window expires.

The book is well-documented with references, and it tells the story of the domain name game by telling the stories of the people who invented it — most of whom were able to turn enormous profits.

Whether or not there's money to be made today, by the small investor, is an unanswered question. But by reading The Domain Game — learning how the system works, and following the author's advice in the last chapter (and following up with the resources in the second appendix)— you'll enter this mad, mad, mad, mad aspect of the Internet armed with useful knowledge, and the best possible chance to hit it big.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Tagging - People Powered Metadata for the Social Web (review)

Tagging book cover

In the year 2001, I read a modest review in the New York Times about a Windows-only bookmark manager called PowerMarks. This software permitted you to save bookmarks, and then to add a number of "keywords" — now known as "tags". Five minutes after testing it, I was convinced: this multiple tagging system was, by leaps and bounds, the best way to manage website bookmarks.

The system intrigued me. The fact that I could add multiple tags meant that one chunk of information could be virtually placed into many different categories — categories of my choice. Think how simple it would be to find your real-world books, if you could place one book on many different bookshelves: Thoreau's Walden could be placed on an "Author" shelf, on a "Non-fiction" shelf, on a "Favorites" shelf, on a "Read-soon" shelf, on a "Nature" shelf, on a "Transcendental" shelf, and so on. With tidbits of electronic information (not real-world stuff), tagging makes this miracle of organization happen.

Seven years after PowerMarks, tagging is now immensely popular, and used all over the Net. You can tag your website bookmarks using (or its alternative, Ma.gnolia). You can add labels to your Gmail emails. Tag your Flickr photos and YouTube videos and SlideShare PowerPoint presentations. For your made-of-paper books, you can sort your book titles using tags on Library Thing. Everybody is getting into the act: Facebook has a tagging system; and Photobucket; and even Mac computers (with the Leopard operating system) let you tag individual files on your computer using colored labels.

Tagging is popular for four reasons: it is simple to do; it helps you to find information; and it connects you with other tagged media — and with other people who tag.

There's more to tagging than you might imagine; and the big picture about this flourishing practice is all explained in a very readable book, Tagging, by Gene Smith.

People-Powered Metadata for the Social Web
Published by New Riders, 2008; Paperback, 208 pages

Information professionals should certainly devour a copy; as should anyone involved in developing tagging systems. My interests were simpler and more self-centered: I wanted to create my own personal tagging technique to survive the boundless chaos comprising the text documents, photos, audio files, videos, bookmarks and ebooks, all strewn randomly inside my one-terabyte hard drive.

Bookmarking your favorite websites does not solve your problem: it simply creates a different problem. After your first 1,000 bookmarks, sorting these bookmarks into folders becomes a silly exercise, and finding what you need becomes a hopeless chore.

The solution — the way to find your needed information — is by intelligent use of tagging. Smith's book explains how tagging works; why it is important; how to manage your information with tags; and how tagging develops online communities. The book competently describes the meaning of metadata, tag clouds, geotagging, machine tags, Cory Doctorow's metacrap problem, pace layering, "the stream", and other essential concepts in the tagging galaxy. I was especially impressed with the theme, running throughout the book, of "tagging's tension points" — different aspects of tagging systems that pull in opposite directions. (For example: should users be able to create their own tags, or should we be restricted to using the tags built-in to the system?).

The book concludes with three "Case Studies" as Appendixes. Editorially speaking, I would have shuttled them out of the Appendix region and made three additional chapters; in any case, these three chapters are interesting studies of social bookmarking, media sharing, and personal information management. I had to laugh when I learned that the bookmarks were invented by the programmer Joshua Schachter, which he created in order to track and tag his "20,000 bookmarks." (And you thought that you suffered from information overload …) Another light moment in the book is the paragraph about the tag "defective by design":

"Activists have also used tags as their means of express, creating a new kind of metadata-driven political speech. The Free Software Foundation, for example, launched a tagging campaign on that encouraged people to tag products that used digital rights-management software with "defectivebydesign." More than 1,000 people have used the tag on a variety of products, including MP3 players, DVDs, and video game systems. It remains one of the more popular tags on Amazon."
Smith's new book, Tagging, will help you to understand this valuable practice, and help you to think about how you might organize and label your personal information with greater efficiency. And it may do for you what it did for me: it opened my eyes and expanded my range of interests. Before reading the book I was thinking only about tagging my own data. After reading it, I am newly interested in the benefits of media sharing, and tagging's social dimensions.

== Story Links ==

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Hadron Collider Kaleidoscope: Is Humanity At Risk?

On September 10, 2008, the Hadron Collider (located in an underground tunnel in France and Switzerland) fired two protons that traveled 27 kilometers (17 miles). The protons were traveling clockwise; in a few months additional protons will be sent counterclockwise. The goal is to re-create the conditions immediately after the "Big Bang", an enormous explosion that created the Universe. If successful, scientists will see the astronomical equivalent of the missing link, the "god particle."

"Just be very careful that you do not misspell 'Hadron', by reversing the inner letters."

This project could be a miracle of friendly collaboration between international scientists, and the greatest technological experiment in human history. Or, it could be a playtoy for intellectuals, a vain exercise to swell the egos of researchers. Is there any proof of the latter theory? Just be very careful that you do not misspell "Hadron", by reversing the inner letters.

After the protons completed their journey, project leader Lyn Evans said: "My first thought was relief. This is a machine of enormous complexity. Things can go wrong at any time. But this morning has been a great start."

Asked whether this experiment could create any hazard to humanity, the chief spokesman for the project replied: "It's nonsense."

Yet, this is a machine of "enormous complexity." Projects of this scale should be coordinated and approved by an international body of scientists who are trained in a branch of philosophy that might be called "Technology Ethics." The goal would be to ensure that the technology is safe and humanizing, that the new technology has far more potential for good than harm.

There is no governing body, of course. But there are voices crying in the techno-wilderness. These voices (the saner among them) do not question progress (which is essential), they question the goals of scientific progress. Not everything that can be done, should be done. Not everything new is an improvement. We must make every reasonable effort to ensure that the light at the end of the tunnel is not the beam of an oncoming train.

One highly-regarded scientist who has asked us to pause and to reflect, is the Royal Astronomer of Great Britan, Martin Rees. His book (published in 2005 and reviewed below) advises us to be aware of dangers, consequences, and unintended effects.

Our Final Hour
A Scientist's Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind's Future In This Century -- on Earth and Beyond
by Martin Rees
Published by Basic Books, Paperback, $ 15; Hardcover, $ 25

Reviewed by Michael Pastore

In the heart of his Journals, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) wrote these anxious words:

"Thank God men cannot yet fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth. We are safe on that side for the present. It is for the very reason that. some do not care for these things [the natural world] that we need to combine to protect all from the vandalism of a few."

Even the prescient genius of Thoreau could not imagine how briefly we would saunter on that safe side. Had he lived to the age of 86, Thoreau would have seen the first manned flight in a power airplane, in 1903, by Orville and Wilbur Wright. Twelve years later, the German engineer Hugo Junkers constructed the first gas-engine airplane designed for war.

Technology advances breathlessly, with unexpected speed, never pausing to consider how the exciting discoveries of today will impact the quality of human life tomorrow. A new book that tackles this issue with balance, integrity and insight is Martin Rees's Our Final Hour.

If the author's name rings a bell, it might be for his one his earlier books, or it might be that you've been following the future on a website named Longbets. Check in to that site -- at -- and you will see that Rees has made a prediction which tops the list, because it has generated the most response. Rees is willing to bet one thousand dollars that by the year 2020, "bioterror or bioerror will lead to one million casualties in a single event."

Before reading Rees's book, I had five main areas concerns for the world's future: nuclear war; global warming and the resultant species extinction; overpopulation; the spread of AIDS; and the growing wealth gap between the very rich and the very poor.

"Although the odds of disaster are small, the risks are extremely high ... "

Our Final Hour explains and explores threats to survival which are less publicized and potentially more hazardous. The first threat -- which astonished me completely -- is the danger of experiments in particle physics. Scientists enjoy watching heavy atoms crash against each other, which breaks these atoms into smaller particles, and releases energy. Although the odds of disaster are small, the risks are extremely high: physicists have discussed that there is a possibility that these experiments could "rip the fabric of space itself" -- and create a vacuum that would suck in and destroy not only the Earth, but the entire galaxy. This explains the book's subtitle, how our technology threatens not only all Earthly life, but things beyond the Earth.

Another promising but perilous development -- the benefits of which have received loads of mawkish praise -- is known as nanotechnology. Atoms will be assembled into complex machines smaller than molecules, machines that might build things, replicate themselves, or travel inside the human body to perform microsurgery. Rees states that these devices "could have disastrous or even uncontrollable consequences if misapplied." Nanobots might replicate themselves unendingly, and devour everything in their paths. Something akin to the Star Trek episode "The Trouble With Tribbles."

In the next decades, the most pressing of all dangers will be the threat of bioterror and bioerror. Rees argues that these threats are imminent because -- unlike detonating a nuclear warhead -- it takes only one deranged or incompetent person -- one person alone -- to create and release the lethal weapon (bio-organisms) that could kill millions.

The everyday news is providing even more strength for Rees's claims. After the book was published, an envelope containing ricin was found in the U.S. Senate, which closed the Senate for a day on February 4, 2004. Ricin can be concocted easily from castor oil seeds, with a recipe located on the Internet. Ingesting a mere ten micrograms of ricin is fatal.

Just six days later, on February 10, the New York Times printed a story about the U.S. government plans to spend 1.7 billion dollars to develop high-security "hot labs," to study and find antidotes for the world's deadliest germs and bio-weapons. Today, February 18, the news brings yet another example of technology gone awry. At an event designed to boast about Russia's military prowess -- a ballistic missile self-destructed a few seconds after being launched from a Russian submarine.

"The theme of this book," writes Rees, "is that humanity is more at risk than at any earlier phase in its history." And the heart of the work is the author's plea to create intelligent discussions about these issues, to question how to manage this new age abounding in knowledge, and rife with crackpots who would unthinkingly apply this knowledge to murder their enemies. Rees states that scientists alone should not be the ones to decide whether or not to pursue dangerous experiments: the general public must be educated to make informed decisions.

Our Final Hour is far more than another trumpet of approaching Doomsday, it is a wise and sane call for science and technology to serve humanity, not to enslave us. Science must advance not recklessly, but with the utmost caution, planning, and responsibility.

--Michael Pastore

== Story Links: Hadron Collider News (after this post was written) ==

Collider halted until next year

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

William Shatner autobiography - Up Till Now

Up Till Now — The Autobiography
by William Shatner (with David Fisher)
Hardcover, 358 pages, $ 25.95
Published by St. Martin's Press, 2008

William Shatner, best known as Captain James Tiberius Kirk on Star Trek, has written a hilarious autobiography, the funniest show-biz tell-all since Act One by the legendary Moss Hart. Much of Shatner's book features anecdotes from his 50-year career on stage, screen and television. Between the funny stories you'll find glimpses of Shatner's personal lives, his four marriages, his friendship with Leonard Nimoy, tips about the art and craft of acting, and his long struggle to make a living in the acting profession. The sixteen pages of photos (near the middle of the book) show Shatner in some of his classic and classiest moments: as Alexei in The Brothers Karamazov; gaping at a monster destroying a plane's wing in a popular episode of The Twilight Zone; on the deck of the Starship Enterprise with the enterprising crew members; and dressed as a pink flamingo in Boston Legal, where he portrayed the brash attorney, Denny Crane.

If you like Shatner the actor, you'll love Shatner the man. Inspired by a collaboration with author-filmmaker Michael Tobias, Shatner experienced a transformative moment at the foot of Mt. Everest, and then became a dedicated environmentalist. His nonprofit work ranges from contributions to a summer camp for needy Los Angeles children, to funding Friendly House, a treatment center for alcoholic women. His energy and efforts, preparing for his day's work, were peerless; his commitment to quality was rare. He writes:
"And I treated each of those parts as if they were equally significant; my work ethic is such that I never made a distinction between an important job and an unimportant job."

Hold on to your chair -- or you may exit laughing -- when Shatner describes his meeting with Koko, an unusually large and surprisingly amorous female gorilla. Humor pervades the book, yet there is no shortage of tender moments. Shatner's description of the death by drowning of his third wife, Nerine, is thoroughly heart-breaking.

Shatner has the courage and good sense to laugh at himself. Again and again, he does. He even laughs at his critics, including one who had the bad judgment to describe an early performance of Captain Kirk as "wooden." (There can be no greater insult than calling a performance "wooden", unless the character being played is named Pinocchio.) Always, Shatner is passionately driven: nothing can stop this determined man from working: his inner fire is undimmed by failures, by fiascoes, by advancing age. The spirit of the book reminded me of some words by Hokusai, from a work titled, The Art Crazy Old Man:

"When I reach [the age of] a hundred my work will be truly sublime, and my final goal will be attained at the age of one hundred and ten, when every line and dot I draw will be imbued with life."

Shatner's acting has always been light years away from "wooden". And his superb autobiography is far more than a good comedy. The book reveals the whole man, a man imbued with warmth and sincerity, compassion and playfulness.

Michael Pastore

== Story Links ==

William Shatner's Website

Hollywood Charity Horseshow

Friendly House (Shelter for Women Alcoholics)

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