Saturday, December 8, 2018

Why We Can't Have Nice Things...

It's the holiday season again, the most controversial time of the year. I've blathered in this space endlessly about my preference for using the greeting "Merry Christmas" rather than the insipid "Happy Holidays", but have had a change of heart. Much of that is thanks to a president who turned "Merry Christmas" into a political slogan, vowing to bring back the greeting (not that it ever went anywhere), as one of his many absurd campaign promises. But fear not, this is not a rant against the current POTUS, heck it's Christmas, er I mean holiday season after all.

The tradition of a winter holiday goes back oh, about a million years or so as people rejoiced when they noticed around the day of the year we now call December 25th, that the sun began reversing its inexorable path lower and lower in the sky that started in late June. Long before Copernicus explained exactly why this happened, there was no reason to believe that even though this cycle repeated without fail every year, one December 25th, some capricious god might just make the sun keep disappearing below the horizon earlier and earlier each day until eventaully it would not reappear again the next morning, plunging the world into complete darkness.

Naturally this yearly "rebirth" of the sun was cause for great relief, joy and merrymaking, a very ancient tradition that goes on to this day. It never occurred to early Christians to celebreate the birth of the founder of their religion, as accounts of his birth are scant in their sacred texts. We owe the observation of Christmas to a Roman Emperor, converted to that new fangled religion, who decided the meaning of that ancient celebreation would change. 1,682 years ago at this writing, Emperor Constantine decreed that the Winter Holiday instead of being devoted to the rebirth of the sun, would be devoted to the birth of the Son, and a new tradition was born.

Truth be told, only the meaning of the holiday changed, not the spirit or practice of it. You name it, almsgiving, evergreen trees, the exchanging of presents, a general feeling of good will and merriment, tidings of comfort and joy, in other words virtually everything that we associate with the celebration of Christmas, with the exception of the particulars relating to the birth of Christ and perhaps Elf on a Shelf, existed long before Mary and Joseph supposedly made that harrowing journey to Bethlehem. So in a sense, replacing the greeting  Merry Christmas with Happy Holidays is nothing more than replacing an old tradition with an even older one.

This year we have a new holiday controversy. Every year at this time, we are bombarded with holiday themed music. There are the traditional Christmas carols, those beauiful sacred songs that deal specifically with the birth of Jesus such as  Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht, (Silent Night)Joy to the World and Adeste Fideles (Oh Come All Ye Faithful). To be honest, there isn't one of these that doesn't move me to tears when played in the right context. For the record my current favorite of these is Es Ist ein Rose Entsprungen (Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming), written by the German Renaissance composer Michael Praetoris. These songs make no bones about what they are about and for the most part, out of respect for believers and non-believers alike, tend to be kept at an arm's length from popular culture where the former may see them as being profaned, while the latter may see them as innappropriate in a society that supposedly has no official religion. I think most of us are cool with that.

The songs we do hear over and over again are the purely secular traditioinal carols that center around the celebration of the holiday, rather than the sacred aspects, such as Carol of the BellsDeck the Halls and Jingle Bells. These too when played in the right context evoke in me a sense of joy and merriment as they were intended. Unfortuantely much of those intended emotions have been siphoned off for those songs having been appropriated by commercials and overplayed in shopping malls during the three months before Christmas in this country.

Then there are the pop music holiday songs.  Certainly one of the most famous of these is Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas which unlike your typical holiday fare, deals with emotions that can make this time of year particularly difficult for those of us who are suffering. The poignance of that song was magnified by the fact that it reached the height of its popularity during the Second World War where its themes of separation and loss rang true for everyone who listened to the song. Unfortauntely much of those honest sentiments have been lost through the years by the changing of the original lyrics to more upbeat ones (for example the line: "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow" was changed at the behest of Frank Sinatra to make the song less depressing, to "Hang a shining star upon the highest bow"). The song has also suffered greatly from over-playing, I challenge you to walk into a grocery or big box store this time of year and not hear at least two different  renditions of it. This incessant playing of HYAMLC makes me think to myself: "I might have a friggin merry christmas if only you'd stop playing that goshdarn song!", not the intended response I'd imagine from its creator.

Pop music Christmas songs may or may not have anything to do with the holiday itself, sometimes merely referring to winter is enough to qualify it as a holiday song. To the best of my knowlege, Frosty the Snowman doesn't mention Christmas, Hannukah, New Years Day, Winter Solstice, or any other seasonal holiday at all.

Neither does the least Christmasy Chrsitmas song of them all, Baby It's Cold Outside. The song was written on a whim by the famed Broadway comper Frank Loesser in 1944 to be performed as a duet between the songwriter and his wife Lynn Garland for a party in New York City. The couple sang it late in the evening indicating to the visitors that it was time to leave. According to the Wikipedia article on the song:
Garland wrote that after the first performance, "We become instant parlor room stars. We got invited to all the best parties for years on the basis of 'Baby.' It was our ticket to caviar and truffles. Parties were built around our being the closing act." In 1948, after years of performing the song, Loesser sold it to MGM for the 1949 romantic comedy "Neptune's Daughter". Garland was furious, and wrote, "I felt as betrayed as if I'd caught him in bed with another woman."
BICO won the Oscar that year for best original song. Since then it has gone on to become a popular music standard, having been recorded by hundreds of diverse performers from Red Skelton to Ella Fitzgerald to Lady Gaga.

If by chance you don't know the song, it's a call and response between two people, for the sake of argument let's refer to them as the persuader and the persuadee. The couple are at the home of the persuader after a date. The role of the persuadee, usually but not always sung by a woman, begins the song indicating it's time to go home, to which the persuader, ususally but not always sung by a man. responds that the current outdoor climatic conditions seem to indicate that it would be more prudent for the persuadee to remain. What we can deduce from the lyrics is that the persuader has an alterior motive other than his partner's health or general wellbeing, for convincing the persuadee to stay. It is probably fair to assume that the persuadee is on to the persuader's real intentions. The song continues with the persuadee listing a litany of reasons why it would be beneficial to leave. Those arguments are inevitably met with the persuader's arguments to the contrary.

There is no definitive conclusion to the story other than the last line, where the couple sings in unison the words to the song's title, implying that the persuader was ultimately successful.

To the song's defenders, it is a clever, well written, integral contribution to the classic American Songbook, a cute, harmless, old fashioned novelty song that describes a very natural part of the human condition, something that virtaully all of us have experienced in one role or the other, or both, at some time in our lifetimes.

To its detrators, BICO is a song that promotes date rape.

Much to you the reader's consternation I'm sure, I'm going to equivocate here, as I so often do, and say both sides have a point.

One could easily listen to the song and be perplexed as to what all the fuss is about. After all, practically every intimate relationship begins with one partner being the persuer and the other the persued. Had every encounter like this one in the history of the world ended after the first line of the song when the persuadee says "I really can't stay", there would indeed be very few of us around today to talk about it.

On the other hand, in light of recent events in the news regarding public figures who have been outed as criminal sexual predators, and the attention that has brought to the issue, there are indeed a few cringe-worthy lines in this song.

Date rape is a complcated matter. Many would argue that as far as sex goes, there is a fine line between the fine art of persuasion, and rape. But that's not really true, there is a very definitive line, the word "no".

In BICO, the persuadee says no twice to the persuader:
I ought to say no no no sir (But baby it's cold outside)
follwed immediately by:
 At least I'm gonna say that I tried.
Here one could say the persuadee is doing everything possible to remain "respectable" by rejecting the persuader's advances, but in reality those attempts are disingenuous.

The second time, the persuadee is more definitive:
I simply must go (But, baby, it's cold outside) 
The answer is no
It doesn't get any more definitive than that, but yet there is more equivocation in very the next line:
The welcome has been (How lucky that you dropped in) 
So nice and warm (Look out the window at the storm)

To today's ears, the cringiest line comes in the third verse:
The neighbors might think (Baby, it's bad out there) 
Say what's in this drink
Clearly we have Bill Cosby and his horrrific crimes to thank for us now until kingdom come, equating that somewhat comical line with date rape drugs.

It would be easy to say lighten up on the song, it was written over seventy years ago when attitudes about sex and dating were much different than they are today.

On the other hand, culture and ideas of propriety may change but basic human nature does not. Date rape and drugs that facilitate it are nothing new, they just weren't talked about openly seventy years ago. That is not to say that back in the day, it was considered acceptable for a man to take advantage of a woman who is chemically incapacitated. Watch old time Hollwood movies and you will often find references to that theme; one that comes immedaitely to mind  is this wonderful scene from The Philadelphia Story:

So is Baby It's Cold Outside a shout out to date rape? Well if I were a juror on a trial and presented with the evidence of the lyrics to the song and its history, I'd have to rule that no, it is not.

Yet many people today are offended by the lyrics and who am I to say they don't have that right?. Some radio stations in the US and Canada have decided not to play the song out of respect for listeners who have called and written to complain about it. Again, that is their right. Does this amount to censorship or trying to whitewash history? Absolutely not. Despite not being able to hear it on certain radio stations, good or bad, BICO is not going away anytime soon, nor will it ever.

Here is my favorite verion of the song:

In the end I have to say that like the debate between Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, let's live and let live. If you're offended by the song, don't listen  to it. If you like it, be willing to defend it logically while accepting the fact that people are going to disagree with you.

That's a pretty simple soltion isn't it? Culture wars be damned, let's simply agree to disagree.

In conclusion I have one thing more to say:

Happy Holidays!

Friday, November 30, 2018

Pictures of the Month

State Street Subway, November 20

Near North Side, November 17

Noth Kimball Avenue, November 16

Rogers Park, November 6

Thursday, November 29, 2018

A Marvelous Order

I've written in this space before about Jane Jacobs, the writer, activist and visionary whose work, including her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, helped set in motion the revival of urban America that continues to this day. Less often have I menntinoned her chief nemesis, Robert Moses, perhaps as close to an oligarch as this country has ever produced. He was a man who wielded the kind of unchecked power that folks like the current president could only acheive in their most perverse dreams.

As the chief builder of the greater New York metropolitan area between the 1920s and the 70's, Moses held a number of positions as president or comissioner of several New York State authorities and commissions, holding many of those posts concurrently. Much of his rise to power came during the early years of the Great Depression where he was in the position, where others weren't, to set into motion great public works projects with the funding of federal relief projects such as the Works Progress Administration (the WPA). During that time, Moses was responsible for the creation of several of the recreational amenities that New Yorkers continue to enjoy including millions of acres of public parks and beaches, and hundreds of playgrounds in the city of New York. But what Moses is probably most remembered for today are the thousands of miles of bridges and highways that were built under his watch.

For a time, Moses could simply will his projects to completion as in addition to his vast political acumen, he was in lock step with the sentiment of the day that progress was the key to building a better world, and that new ways of doing things, were inevitably better than the old ways.

The conflict between Jacobs and Moses arose over Moses' proposal to decimate her neighborhood of Greenwich Village in Lower Manhattan, first with the southward extension of Fifth Avenue which would have bisected Washington Square Park, and then the building of the Lower Manhattan Expressway. The LOMEX would have connected the Williamsburgh and Manhattan Bridges which span the East River, with the Holland Tunnel under the Hudson, which connects New York City to New Jersey and all points west. The expressway would have levelled much of the Village, SoHo, Little Italy and the area now known as TriBecca not only with the roadway, but also the massive high rise apartment buildings that would have flanked it.

Now if you've ever braved New York's infamous crosstown traffic, (heck Jimmy Hendrix even wrote a song about it), trying to get from Brooklyn to New Jersey or vice versa thgough Lower Manhattan, you can appreciate the demand for such an expressway. On the other hand, if you've ever walked through the Village, one of the most urbane neighborhoods in the country, AND have experienced first hand the utter destruction an expressway brings to a neighborhood, you can understand the opposition to it.

Jacobs whose house was directly in the path of the proposed expressway, had already written Death and Life  which itself followed  Jacobs' long and distinguished career as a writer covering a number of subjects including architecture and urban planning. Her thoughts on the subject ran directly counter to the prevailing wind of the new urbanism promosted by a disparate lot from Frank Lloyd Wright, to LeCorbousier, to Robert Moses. Crossing such titans of the industry was no easy challenge, especially given the fact that Jacobs had no formal training in urban planning. Moses famously referred to Jacobs, who became the major thorn in his side, as "that housewife."

By taking on the elite city planners and politicians and eventaully winning the battle, Jacobs has been called David, to Moses' Goliath. On the surface, such a battle is almost operatic in scope. Enter composer Judd Greenstein who is currently hard at work completing an opera on that very subject called A Marvelous Order.

Here is the transcript of an NPR On The Media piece on Greenstein, the opera's librettist, Tracy K. Smith, Jacobs and Moses. In the interview of Greenstein, the composer admits that all opera composers, himself included, are in the myth making business.

But the real stoy is no myth. Jacobs, hardly in the role of the biblical David, was every bit Moses' equal and then some. Perhaps a more likely comparison for her is the character of the girl in Hans Christian Andersen's story, The Emperor's New Clothes. Jacobs understood that progress simply for the sake of progress led nowhere, or worse. She must have thought of urban planners of her day the way Nelson Algren felt about Chicagoans who
live their lives like a drunken 'L' rider; he may not know where he is going, but the sound of the wheels under his feet lets him know that he is going somewhere. 
By the time Moses and Jacobs were battling over the fate of Lower Manhattan, there had already been twenty years or so of lab tests of the new urbanism, and the results were less than promising. Cities all over the country were decimated by well intentioned projects in the name of progress. In central Paris, one of the few neighborhoods to not have been raped by Baron Haussmann's urban renewal project of the mid-nineteenth century, the lovely Marais, was alsmost destroyed with the intention of being replaced by dozens of Corbousian high rises  In New York City, the seed change away from progress at all costs came with the destruction of one of that city's most beloved landmarks, Pennsylvania Station. The McKim Mead and White masterpiece was replaced by the ultimate temple to banality, the current iteration of Madison Square Garden. That event more than any other served as the inspiration for that city's preservation movement. After that, bold new public works projects that sacrificed the city's soul were met with resistance.

By that time, Jane Jacobs' was more than a voice in the wilderness. Hers was the voice of a prophet. And Moses and the rest of the urban planners of his era who shared his vision of a bold and beautiful future of highrises wrapped by superhighways, were in reality, just like Anderson's emperor, altogether naked.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Ugly and Uglier...

Once again in the category of things stumbled upon while looking up other things, I came across this list found on the site of Architectural Digest, of what in its writer's opinon are the 31 ugliest skyscrapers in the world. As with any such list, one can debate until all hours the merits (dubious as they may be) of most of the entries. They say "one man's trash is another's treasure", and many of the buildings listed have won presitgious, non-dubious awards for their splendid design.

At the risk of exposing myself to humiliation, I have to admit that I actually like some of the buildings on the list. Munich's BMW Headquarters with its four bundled, cylindrical towers for example, appears to pay homage to Chicago's iconoclastic architect, Bertrand Goldberg. The author's comment on the building is this:
(It) was designed to look like a four-cylinder automobile engine. And while that was a novel idea, the end product appears more childish than anything.
Maybe it's just me but I think we can all use a little more childish design and a lot less dour, authoritarian architecture, which this list is full of. Take the 1955 Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science ,listed just above the Munich building. Designed by Lev Rudnev, the foremost pracitioner of Soviet, Stalanist architecture, the Warsaw building evokes American skyscrapers of a generation earlier such as Cleveland's iconic Terminial Tower, which itself was inspired by the Renaissance top of the campanille of the Cathedral of Saville. But Rudnev's building looks as if he took the enormuos boot that puncuates the intro of Monty Python's Flying Circus (complete with sound effects)  and squished Terminal Tower down to half its original height and twice its girth, taking away all that is thrilling and lovely about that building and leaving us with a ponderous structure with all the charm of an old Soviet Politburo meeting. That said it is still one of the better buildings on the list in my opinion.

A much more charming govrnment building (which isn't hard), is the National Fisheries Development Board Building, in Hyderibad, India, which is built appropriately enough, in the shape of a fish. It's interesting how two buildings devoted to governmental bureaucracy could not be any more different.

Carrying on the long and glorious tradition of "buildings that resemble the things they sell" is the former Longaberger Company Headquarters, in Newark Ohio, built in the shape of a giant picnic basket, handles included. The key word here is "former", as the picnic basketmaker fell on hard times at the turn of this century and vacated its made-to-order headquarters for much more banal digs in the company's manufacturing plant down the road. Which begs the question, who, other than a picnic basket company, would want to occupy a building in the shape of a picnic basket, a company that manufactures ant repellant perhaps?

Some of the buildings on the list are ugly by virture of their being built in the wrong place. A good example is the Montparnasse Tower in Paris, which is a perfectly fine if forgettable Modern pile that would be right at home say on, Sixth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, but not so much in the French capital. The same can be said for New York's Met Life Tower (formerly the Pan Am Building), also on the list, whose construction blocked one of the best vistas in the city,, up and down Park Avenue. Had it been built practically anywhere else it would have been met with a "whatever" rather than universal scorn and derision. Contrast these two buildings with Trump Tower Las Vegas, a truly hideous gold clad building matching its namesake owner the Presi... (OK I won't go there), which fits in perfectly with its tacky surroundings. One I suppose could pick a list of the 31 ugliest skyscrapers in the world and never leave Vegas. The hard part I imagine would be to single one out, sort of like sorting out the smelliest dead fish among many washed up on a beach a week after a storm.

Buildings with giant gaps in their midsections (sorry I don't know the technical term for them) have been all the rage in the last twenty years, I suppose giving architects and structural engineers a platform to display their daring high-wire acts. Two on them appear on this list, the Elephant Building, yes because it looks like an elephant, in Bankok, and the chock-a-block Mirador Building in Madrid, which could be described as Le Corbusier meets Moishe Safdie.

Having a wacky color scheme seems to be a criterion for entry on the list and several buildings that would not even have been runners up were it not for their coat of many colors paint job.

Frankly I don't find any of these buildings (with the exception of Trump Vegas) particularly odious, the worst I could say about them is to sum it up as a friend would: " I wouldn't say no but I wouldn't say please."

However for me there is a special place in hell reserved for Brutalism, that very seventies style of architecture which encouraged its followers to use any material they chose, as long as it was concrete. This movement for better living through solidified aggregate compound meant that architects could use that very plastic material to create any shape they desired, each one it turned out being uglier than the one before it. It seems nobody in that decade could get brutal enough, college campuses who were unfortuante to have boasted building campaigns in that era are chock full of them. In the hands of  designers who had a highly refined understanding of balance and form like Harry Weese, and the afore mentioned Bertrand Goldberg, these buildings could be nothing short of inspiring. But in less capable hands, the vast majority of them. Brutalist architecture was just well, brutal.

One skyscraper on the list, a structure that combines all the criteria that make for a truly hideous building, is 375 Pearl Street in lower Manhattan. It's also known as Intergate Manhattan, and also as it is listed in the article, the Verizon Building, but it should not be confused with a great Art Deco building sometimes referred to by the same name, located about a half-mile west on the Hudson River side of the island. The ugly Verizon Building was built as a telephone switching tower in the seventies, combining all the worst qualities of Modernism in its severely pared down understatement which includes the bare minimum of fenestration , and Brutalism in its chosen material. Given the purely functional nature of the building, its design probabaly makes sense. The problem is, this building sits on an even more promenent site than the former Pan Am Building, right at the foot of the Manhattan side of the of the Brooklyn Bridge. Which means 375 Pearl Street in all its banal glory, sits prominently right in the heart of one of the most magnificent vistas anywhere in the world, the lower Manhattan Skyline as seen from the great bridge.

Yep, bulidings just don't get any worse than that in my book, in every sense of the word, hands own the ugliest building in the world.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

A New Day

As I am often wont to do, this morning, which happens to be the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I picked up my phone and went directly to my Facebook feed. Feeling my blood pressure rise as I read countless news reports chronicling yet another disgusting turn events behind the wheel of the so called "leader of the free world", a friend's post caught my eye. It simply said, "turn off your phone and find something to do."

I took that to heart and turned on the radio, not the news, but the local classical music station.

Here is what they are playing as I write this:

Ah J.S.Bach, in the hands of a great master. It could have been Brahms, Mozart, Scarlatti, Handel, Shubert, Satie, my beloved Beethoven, or any number of composers whose work leaves me with the feeling that after all is said and done, no matter how crappy the world may seem, life is still worth living.

That's truly something to be thankful for, a good way to start the new day.

Thank you Brabant for the inspiration, and happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Election Day

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy made this public service announcement on the importance of every American to come out to vote in the mid-term election of November 6th of that year.


That message was as true then as it is today. Conincidentally, November 6th was the date of the mid-term election held this week.

Heeding JFK’s message about involving the entire family in the process, my seventeen year old son,  himself not old enough to vote, worked last Tuesday as an election judge. It was a long, hard day from five in the morning to nine that night. He did not have one rest period during the day, the only break came when our alderman stopped by to deliver sandwiches

I showed up to vote about two minutes after the polling place opened at 6AM. There were already about ten people ahead of me. When our little group was admitted into the room where the voting booths were, I pointed out to the woman I had struck up a convrsation with that that was my boy sitting at the end of the table. Having children of her own, she understood how I felt whn my son handed me my ballot. Unfortunately for him, he jumped the gun as I had yet to pass muster with the woman checking the validity of my signature. Sternly she told him that he couldn't give me the ballot until she gave him the OK. I gave the balllot back to him and two seconds later, she gave him the OK, and he gave it to me for the second time.

My son wore the tee shirt given to him by the people who trained the prospective high school student election judges that read: “Democracy is a verb.” I don’t know what his English teacher would think of the shirt but I couldn’t have been prouder.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Picture of the Month

Michigan and Monroe, October 17

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Zeiss Mark VI

I gleefully entered the digital world in 1987 when I got my first CD player. Having been tortured for years with the delicate nature of 12" vinyl albums which typically show signs of wear after about five playings, at least with my less-than-delicate handling of them, the idea of a relatively indestructible medium that could take a licking and keep on ticking, thrilled me to no end. There were a few drawbacks as some discs simply wouldn't play on my finicky machine. I always thought that CD's sounded pretty great, contraary to the musings of audiophiiles who claimed that they missed the infinite gradations of sounds that digitally sampled music was lacking. The biggest loss for me and no doubt millions of music lovers with the decline of vinyl was the loss of the 12" canvas that record covers provided graphic designers, artists, and writers of album notes to ply their trade. I could write a book on the joys those things brought me as a young music enthusiast. Album notes and art didn't go away with the new dominance of the CD, but with the new six inch format, it was never the same.

The great conversion to digital in my own medium of photography, took longer. I bought my first digital camera, a point-and-shoot which I never considered to be more than a toy, in the late nineties. I was still shooting with a 4x5 view camera well into the first decade of the 21st century until it dawned on me that most of my images were ending up on a computer screen rather than in print form. At that point I gave up the tremendous expense of film and processing in favor of the convenience and practicality of digital photography. As digital resolution gets better and better every year, there are fewer reasons to shoot film, although many people still do. I probably would too if I didn't have a family that needed me at home rather than in the darkroom. As for image quality, well nothing will ever comapre to a fine gelatin silver black and white print made by a master of the medium such as Ansel Adams, but the truth is, the photography world moved beyond Uncle Ansel, as we called him in school, decades ago.

With every great invention, something is lost. Five years ago, I wrote about how most of us gladly give up quality for convenience. That's what the digital revolution is all about, and there is precious little than any of us can do about it, even if we wanted to, which most of us don't.

Anyway the other day I was stopped dead in my tracks by something that made me long for the good ol' days of analog with a vengeance. Some of my colleagues and I took a lovely field trip for a behind the scenes trip to the Adler Planetarium, which included a visit to one of their "sky shows." The first time I attended on of these shows was back in the seventies when I was still in high school. The centerpiece of the show was the most magnificent machine I had ever seen, a Zeiss Mark VI planetarium projector.

To give you an idea, here is a video produced by the Morehead Plaetarium and Science Center as a tribute to their Zeiss projector upon its retirement in 2011:

I could also write a book on the magnificence of this machine, maybe I will some day, but not today, this video should give you a pretty good idea. Suffice it to say the commanding presence of the Zeiss Mark VI rising into place in the center of the room was one of the highlights of a visit to any planetarium.

But that is only half the story. The Zeiss VI was capable of projecting an image of the nighttime sky on a planetarium hemisphere that was indistinguishable from the real thing. Actually is was far better than the real thing, at least here in Chicago where light pollution obscures all but the brightest stars and planets.  It was at a sky show at the Adler Planetarium where I fell in love with astronomy.

Well you no doubt can see where I'm going here. A colleague who used to work at the Adler told me that like the Morehead machine, the beautiful Adler Zeiss Mark VI was retired in 2011. But I had either forgot or refused to believe it, and assumed I'd be seeing my old friend after many years. So when I waked into the great hemisphere that is the planetarium the other day, I nearly cried when I realized that the marvelous piece of art and technology was no longer holding court in the center of the theater. I tried to reassure myself that they no doubt would have replaced the machine with a digital system that performed at least on a par with the old one.

I couldn't have been more wrong. The image projected by the new state of the art planetarium projection system looked well, like an image. Sure it would be good enough to learn the constellations  and it works OK as a backdrop for the images used for the sky show, but no one would ever confuse it with the real thing.

And then there's was the machine itself. Wikipedia has a table on the status of most of the Zeiss Planetarium projectors ever made and their fates. Most of them are retired. Why are they retiring them? According to my friend, the powers that be felt the new digital system would provide much more flexibility as far as the kind of shows they could produce, "enhancing the visual experience" in current day audio visual marketing-speak. The old machines also took a lot of upkeep to keep them going and required a specially trained person to operate them which I'm sure was another major factor in the reasoning to retire them.

Such is "progress".

But gosh those old machines sure were something.

Oh well once again, those were the days.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Critical Judgement

If you stand at the corner of the world in which I stand, you would think the upcoming November 6th election is a fait accompli, a runaway victory for Democrats and maybe the two or three Republicans in the country who distance themselves from the current president. After all the feeling goes, who would vote for anyone who supports a bigoted, misogynistic, narcissistic shell of a man who lies incessantly, openly embraces dictators, courts white supremacists, and publicly mocks women who are victims of sexual abuse, while through his words and deeds, dismisses cherished institutions of this nation such as the system of checks and balances, the free press, the constitution and democracy itself?

Well the truth is, lots of people support this president, and one of the big reasons it seems, at least by my understanding of it, is that they hate political correctness and snooty people who think they are better than them. On that, perhaps they have a point. Someone recently asked the following uninformed, snooty question on the answer website Quora:
Why is the Democratic Party so unpopular with Americans who haven't graduated from college?
The questioner received a sensible, articulate, and long-winded response from a Trump supporter that began with this:
I am a Southerner—that oft-maligned species of American some on the Left like to assume is just one step away from a family reunion and a marriage. I come from a long line of people who never earned a college degree.
He goes on to correct the misconceptions the presumed Left Wing questioner has of Right Wing people:
The overwhelming majority of people on the Right are not racists. Nor are they stupid. They are not homophobic. Nor are they anti-science. They are not misogynistic. Nor are they nutty religious fanatics clinging to their guns.
I agree with that wholeheartedly but have one question for the writer. Many people who belong to what you describe as the "overwhelming majority of people on the Right", have left the Republican Party out of disgust for the party's kowtowing to this president. Take away those qualities you mentioned that do not define you, and what is left to justify your supporting Donald Trump who is the very personification of those values?

OK there's the economy which is doing well at the monent. Yet the current president inherited this economy from his predecessor who himself inherited an economy that in 100 years was eclipsed in severity only by the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 30s. Yet Trump supporters who have an incredibly selective memory will go to their graves arguing that Barack Obama drove the economy into the ground while Donald Trump raised it back from the dead, even though facts prove otherwise.

There's North Korea with whom the current president claims we were on the verge of war before he took charge. Again there is little to back up that claim as North Korea and its despotic leader had nothing to gain and everything to lose by starting a war against this country. One could reasonably argue that Kim Jong-un out-maneuvered Donald Trump during their summit Singapore last summer, by gaining credibility on the world stage that would not have been possible had the Preident of the United States not granted it to him. Clearly the POTUS was smitten by Kim and his absolute control over his people; he said so himself. Unfortunately for Trump, his love for Kim seems unrequited.

There are immigrants, who Trump bends over backwards to scare his base into believing are the proverbial bogeymen hiding under their beds at night. Despite the fact that the previous administration detained and deported a record number of illegal aliens up to that point, this president continues to make the ludicrous argument that Democrats support open borders, and the people who will cross them and rape your daughter before they murder you.

We've just been through the contentious confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh where indignant Republicans claimed that a very reasonable investigation into alleged criminal behavior in his past, was nothing less than character assassination. The Republicans managed to convince their base that the Democrats, simply by daring to ask Kavanaugh tough questions at his job interview, disregarded the rule of law and common decency. Meanwhile the president while claiming to take the high ground, openly mocked the woman who accused Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her, while his adoring public, allegedly so concerned about common decency, laughed out loud at her.

There are the trade tariffs that ostensibly are in place to influence the purchase of American products but whose side effects are threatening to handicap or destroy far more American companies and jobs than they protect.

There are the tax cuts, crumbs thrown to Trump's working class base who stands to gain little as opposed to the rich for whom the cuts will be a windfall. In the meantime, to relieve the trillion dollar debt those tax cuts will in no small part contribute, the Republicans are actively pursuing the cutting of "entitlements" that we, the working and middle class people of this nation have paid into our entire working lives, such as Medicare and Social Security.

Given the glee with which so many working and middle class Trump fans, be they college grads or not, defy reason and verifiable facts by supporting policies that clearly work against their own interests, it's small wonder why Trump detractors, college grad or not, question their intelligence.

These are merely a handful of issues that Trump supporters cling to that are so soft they can be cut with a butter knife. However there is one issue that is not. It is the 1,000 pound gorilla in the room, abortion. I know this will rile many of my left wing friends, but while I don't see eye to eye with "pro-life" people, I get where they are coming from. It is not  religious fanaticism that leads people to oppose abortion, even though many "pro-life" folks are religious fanatics. Nor is it sexism, people who believe that women do not have the right to choose what they do with their bodies, although many pro-lifers believe that as well.  It is perfectly logical, in my opinion, to oppose abortion on the grounds that the act is the willful taking of a human life, in other words, murder.

Some “pro-choice” people would refute this argument claiming that an unborn child is not a human being, therefore abortion cannot be murder. But that argument requires so many leaps of reason that it runs counter to logic and science, ideals so called “progressives” claim to value.

Where I philosophically split with "pro-life" people, is my resolute belief that moral laws and statutory laws are not one in the same. Simply put, no matter how much we would like to, we cannot legislate against actions simply because we find them morally objectionable.

Please bear with me on this one.

Moral laws are absolute and perfect, black and white, pure and simple. Human life is far from that and as imperfect beings, humans have no business judging others' morality, just as the Bible tells us. Nevertheless in order to maintain an orderly society, human laws are relevant and necessary; society in fact has the moral responsibility to wherever possible, enact laws that protect the most vulnerable among us. At the same time, human law must reflect human life in its many shades of gray, and there is no issue in our world today with more shades of gray than abortion.

For what it is worth, I believe that the moral and ethical burden for the decision to terminate a pregnancy must lie not with the state, but with the parents of an unborn child, both the mother and the father. Through a simplistic lens, that would make me "pro-choice" and I grudgingly accept that label. That said, I would add that depending on the circumstances, while abortion may or may not be a moral or ethical choice, it is always a terrible choice to have to make.

But what about protecting the right to life of the unborn, after all who could be more vulnerable than an unborn child? Well here's the dilemma, nearly everyone agrees that abortion is acceptable in the case of a pregnancy posing a grave risk to the life of the mother. Yet are those unborn children less entitled to the "right to life" than other unborn children? If so, who then is to determine which criteria are necessary to deem a pregnancy dangerous enough to warrant an abortion?  On top of that, who gets to decide whether any given pregnancy meets those criteria? After all with every pregnancy comes a certain amount of risk to the mother.

What about pregnancies that are the result of rape or incest? Most people would make an exception in those cases as well. Will every woman seeking a legal, state mandated abortion without a signed affidavit from her doctor declaring her pregnancy to be life threatening, be put into the position of having to claim she was raped? What kind of evidence will she need? Will she have to bring the case to court? Once again, who will be the arbiter to decide if these claims are worthwhile?

In my book, the only one who could justly arbitrate such cases is God. Short of that, the state with its imperfect laws, is simply inadequate insofar as determining where to draw the line between which abortions are moral and which are not. Therefore the only way to practically legislate abortion is to either ban it entirely with no exceptions, or keep it legal. The former choice is harsh and draconian; imagine telling your daughter that her only chance to live is to terminate her pregnancy, which unfortunately is illegal. Too bad, sayonara, nice knowing you kid.

So we are left with the latter.

My views on abortion and the law have been formed over at least forty years of internal philsophical struggle, and soul searching. I realize my conclusion, at least as it stands today, is far from satisfactory, and accept the fact that many people on both sides would take issue with it.

But it's the best I've got. For me, abortion is a painfully complicated issue. For others, it is not. For some, the right to life trumps all other rights. For others, a woman's body is inviolate, the right to do as she sees fit with it is absolute. In either case, there is no in-between, no listening, no consideration, no compassion for the other side.

For people on either extreme of the issue, politically speaking, abortion is a deal maker or beaker. That is precisely why millions of pro-life Trump supporters, many of them, conservative Christians, look the other way at this president's countless moral transgressions. And it is why any Democrat who proclaims him or herself to be "pro-life", might as well give up politics and open up a hot dog stand.

I'm not sure if there is any compromise possible on the abortion issue, but in order to heal this country, and our seemingly intransigent divisions, we have to try. We can begin by listening to the arguments of the other side, no matter how objectionable they may seem, and use critical judgement to question our own strongly held beliefs.

For "right to life" people that means considering that the most productive and effective way of saving the lives of unborn children may not be by making new laws, but through compassion, education, and a philosophical change of course, including giving up the resistance to birth control (other than abstinence). They must learn how to advocate not just for the unborn, but also for the support of struggling families. As Sister Joan Chittister said:
I do not believe that just because you're opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don't? Because you don't want any tax money to go there. That's not pro-life. That's pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.
For "right to choice" people that means also changing course, coming to terms with the fact that abortion is more complicated than an issue of women's rights alone, it is a life and death issue as well. It is understanding that responsibility walks hand-in-hand with every right. As I said above, abortion may be a choice, but it is a terrible choice that no one should ever take lightly. Right-to-choice advocates should be willing to educate people to choose wisely.

The greatest threat to the United States right now is division. Sadly there are politicians including the current President of the United States, who do not have the best interests of this country in mind, who thrive on exploiting our division and nurture it any way they can for their own gain. The abortion issue is a prime example. All Americans of a sound mind and a good will, on both the right and on the left, must say no to the politics of divide and conquer.

The way to start to do that is listen, and hard as it may be, to not demonize people who have different opinions. Right-to-lifers aren't necessarily relgious zealots intent on placing every womb under a magnifying glass and pro-choicers aren't necessarily satnaist baby killers. Once we get beyond those stereotypes, put aside our prejudices and listen to what the other side has to say, maybe we can even learn a thing or two from people who think differently from us.

We may not agree, but if we can learn to agree to disagree, we will have come a long way. If we can somehow make headway in that direction with an issue as contentious as abortion, there is probably no issue we can't tackle. Given the lessons we have learned over the last two years of this administration, I truly believe that is the only way this nation can survive.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The World Series

It's that time of year again.

Not exactly my two picks for the World Series this year, I was really rooting for a Cleveland/Milwaukee series. But as a friend reminded me the other day, this matchup is one for true baseball history geeks, between two franchises with tremendous histories, both of whom were there from the beginning, or almost the beginning of their respective leagues. Which led me to wonder if the Red Sox and the Dodgers ever met in the World Series. I didn’t think they had, but they did, once. To give you an idea how long ago that was, Babe Ruth was pitching for one of the teams. It was 1916. Four years later the owner of the Red Sox, theatrical impresario Harry Frazee, needed money to finance his new play, No No Nanette, so he decided to sell his ace pitcher who wasn’t so bad with the bat to the Yankees. Thus began what Red Sox fans called “the curse of the Bambino”, the beginning of an 86 year World Series championship dry spell. A friend of mine orginally from Boston just lost her grandfather who at 101 went to his grave cursing two people, Hitler and Harry Frazee.

Of course we in Chicago know about losing sports teams so there is little sympathy in these parts for those “long suffering” Boston fans. Dodger fans, at least the original ones back in Brooklyn knew a thing or two about dry spells as well. “Dem Bums” wouldn’t win a Major League World Series until 1955 (they joined the National League in 1891) when they finally beat those damn Yankees.

After posting this on Facebook, another friend reminded me that the last time the Red Sox and the Dodgers met in the World Series, the Dodgers weren't even known as the Dodgers. In 1915 they were generally referred to as the Robins. Needless to say they didn't play in Los Angeles either.

It was back in the day when teams had nicknames rather than the officially sanctioned, trademarked brand names they have today. If I’m not mistaken, the Brooklyn "Trolly Dodgers" nickname was coined before they built Ebbets Field, when their old ballpark was near a major crossing of trolley lines which fans had to dodge in order to get to the park. The less than awe-inspiring name Robins was in honor of their manager Wilbert Robinson. Other nicknames for the team in its early years were the Bridegrooms, because a number of members of the team had reacently gotten married, and the curious Superbas, not after a cigar, but apparently after a well known vaudeville act at the turn of the century. I'm not quite sure what the relationship between the act and the team was, from all indications there was  none, perhaps they just liked the name. My all time favorite baseball nickname was the Orphans, the nickname the team that currently plays on the north side of Chicago was once referred to after the departure of their long time player-manager and all-round terrible human being, Cap Anson. The current name of that team was inspired by a comment from a sports writer at spring training, waxing poetic about the prospects for the "new cubs" in the Chicago National League team's 1904 lineup. I suspect any name was better than the Orphans.

And speaking of the Chicago Nationals, they are the answer to the question of who was the last team the Babe Ruth led Red Sox beat to win the World Series. It was the 1918 Series. They say the Cubs intentionally threw that series just as the White Sox more famously did the following year. Ah sweet home Chicago!

Don’t really care who wins this one, just hope it goes seven games.


I didn't get my wish, Boston won the 2018 World Series in five games.

Wouldn’t say this series was one for the ages but for me there were two takeaways. The best team in baseball won, which is always satisfying, and Chris Sale struck out Manny Machado for the last out which was purely delightful.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Sons and Daughters

An article published on a right wing web site the other day began with this:
I have two sons. One is in his 20s, well on his way into adulthood. The other is 16 and, given the way the Brett Kavanaugh nomination process is headed, walking a tight rope between college preparation and jail. 
As President Donald Trump noted in recent comments about the runaway train called Supreme Court Nomination, it’s “a very scary time for young men in America.” 
Yes, it is. This is no joke. The sons of America are facing some dire straits.
Having a 17 year old son of my own, I know a little about parental concern for a young man about to become an adult. We've been blessed with a son who has a good sense of self-preservation and an understanding of the difference between right and wrong. We'd like to think the latter at least is partly a result of good parenting but perhaps we're giving ourselves too much credit. Suffice it to say, his good character is a blessing.

While I don't feel he's walking a tight rope between college preparation and jail, I still worry. I worry about his future. Of course I want him to be successful in whatever endeavor he chooses to pursue, but I also want him to develop meaningful relationships and to lead a happy life. On top of all that, my desire for him is to be a good person, empathetic, trustworthy and generous, the sort of person people admire for his integrity at least as much as for his professional acumen.

My boy is a pretty good student but has inherited his parents' tendency for day-dreaming which at times proves to be a challenge in school. Hopefully he'll be going off to college next year and I worry about things like how we'll pay for it, how he'll handle being away from home for the first time, how we'll handle him being gone, and how he'll do in school without his parents being around to give him that little push every now and then.

I worry about his safety. We live in a neighborhood where there is occasional gang violence. Every day I walk past a cross making the spot where a month ago, a young man who had just come to this city to study at Northwestern University was caught in the middle of gang crossfire and was killed.  Last week a masked man roaming around an adjacent neighborhood shot and killed two people for no apparent reason. At this writing he is still at large.

Like every parent who has ever cared about his or her kids from time immemorial, I worry constantly about my boy.

Given all that, I have to chuckle about the comment in the quote above about American teenage boys today facing dire straights because of the chance that someone in their future might concoct a cockamamie accusation that might harm them. I laugh because from every indication, the woman who wrote the article quoted above is white. I know this to be true because no black parent without a profound sense of irony would ever write that. The truth is that black people understand the real possibility that their sons might be falsely accused of committing a crime, often with dire consequences, as has been the case in this country for centuries. But typically for a white parent in this same country, that concern is a little like worrying that one day your son will be struck by lighting, possible, yes, but highly unlikely.

Unlikely that is unless your boy is the type of person given to tempting fate. If you walk around a golf course during a thunderstorm wearing metal spikes and swinging a metal golf club as the heart of the storm is directly overhead, you stand a much greater chance of being transformed into a pile of carbon dust, than if you don't. Likewise if you are a male high school or college student who blindly follows a hedonistic crowd who openly partakes in drunken debauchery and cares not a trace about decency, right and wrong, respect for women, or other people who are outside of their little clique, then years later claim you were just doing what everybody else did back in the day, you might stand a chance of finding yourself in the same position that Brett Kavanaugh found himself in last week.

Easy for me to say as I was something of an outsider during high school and college and avoided much of that collegial decadence. That's not to say in my life I never drank myself into a state of unconsciousness, or did things that I should never have done while in an altered state. That is precisely why I don't believe Kavanaugh's testimony during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings regarding his drinking, He said point blank under oath that while at times he drank to excess during his wild years, he was never beligerent, or ever drank so much that he passed out, two things several of his classmates at Yale and at Georgetown Prep vigorously deny.

As for his accuser, I can say that like her, I too have experienced traumatic acts as a victim of violent crime, and can recall certain details perfectly while forgetting trivial matters such as dates or how I got home. In other words, her testimony made perfect sense to me.

Does that mean I believe that Kavanaugh attempted to rape Christine Blasey Ford back when the two were in high school? Well let me just say this: only two people in the world know the truth about what happened that long ago night, (perhaps only one of the two since Kavanaugh may have been too drunk to remember), so all we have to go on is her word against his. In my book, her testimony was credible, while his had holes in it the size of the state of Texas.

That in itself does not mean he is guilty. Sexual assault cases, especially after a long period of time, seldom have corroborating evidence; typically they amount to one person’s word against another's. But it bears repeating over and over that Brett Kavanaugh was not on trial, he was interviewing for a job. A no vote on his confirmation was not a guilty verdict, it was simply expressing the belief held by perhaps one hundred million Americans, thousands of lawyers who make up the American Bar Association, forty eight senators, and one former Supreme Court Justice who happens to be a life long Republican, that Brett Kavanaugh’s sense of entitlement, his tantrums, his display of raw fury,  his disrespect for the confirmation process, his bending of the truth under oath, and above all, the political partisanship he displayed at his hearing, proved beyond a reasonable doubt in all those minds that guilty or innocent, his temperament makes him unqualified to sit on the Supreme Court.

Yet to listen to the Republicans who supported Kavanaigh's confirmation, you'd have thought he was the victim of a terrible injustice comparable to the Spanish Inquisition. Last night during a ceremonial swearing in ceremony at the White House, President Trump apologized to Kavanaugh for all the bumps in the road he faced during what turned out to be his successful confirmation:
Those who step forward to serve our country deserve a fair and dignified evaluation, not a campaign of political and personal destruction based on lies and deception,.. 
What happened to the Kavanaugh family violates every notion of fairness, decency and due process,..

(Everyone in this country) must always be presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty...
You, sir (speaking to Kavanaugh), under historic scrutiny, were proven innocent,
Those are all fine sentiments indeed, until you stop and think about them.

I suppose one could forgive the president for his obvious ignorance of the rules of evidence, due process, and the presumption of innocence outside of a court of law, because he is not a lawyer. On the other hand, the man standing right behind Trump’s right shoulder, Brett Kavanaugh, newly appointed into the Valhala of this country’s most esteemed lawyers, could have reminded the president for example that in no way did his hearings and the flaccid FBI investigation the president ordered, prove Kavanaugh's innocence. Maybe he just forgot to remind him.

As far as "fairness, decency and due process" are concerned, this is entirely new ground for Donald Trump. Just ask the Central Park Five.

Far more appalling than the president's pathetic lack of understanding of the rule of law is his claim that the accusations against  Kavanaugh were based upon "lies and deception."

He may not know squat about the law but Donald Trump does knows more than a little something about being accused of wrongdoing. Over twenty women of all political stripes have come forward to accuse him of sexual abuse. On top of that he is on tape not only admitting, but bragging about sexually assaulting women. Yet he vehemently denies any wrongdoing. He has publicly stated that every one of his women accusers is a liar, so it shouldn't come as a suprise that he is now calling Christine Blasey Ford a liar as well.

In Trump's world view, it is men who are the victims of feckless women, not the other way around. Here are his comments from above in their full context:
It's a very scary time for young men in America when you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of. This is a very difficult time.
After he said that, Trump was confronted by a reporter who asked him if it is a difficult time for women as well. No, he said, "women are doing great."

Well Mr. President I have a little news for you. I also have a daughter. Because of that I can assure you that women in this country are not doing great. I have the same hopes and dreams for my daughter that I have for my son. I also have all the same worries and a few more. For starters, I worry that my daughter will be subject to the same kind of treatment that people like you have inflicted upon women. Believe me, it's a sad situation when I wouldn't allow the President of the United States to come within one hundred yards of my daughter any more than I would let any other self-proclaimed, unrepentant sexual predator. It really saddens me that my daughter sees the president of my beloved country and his Republican lackies caring so much about winning at any cost that they would not take the time to properly vet a candidate for the most important job in the nation, (yes even more important than yours Mr. President), who has had a very credible charge of a serious crime brought against him. And it sickens me to think that the biggest lesson my daughter has learned from you is that if a young woman like her dares to speak out about sexual abuse, she too could be publicly slandered, ridiculed, humiliated and laughed at by the President of the United States and the sorry people who blindly follow him.

But Mr. President there is cause for hope. You and all your white male Republican senators who couldn't contain their glee after winning this battle, are old and won't be around for long. There is a new generation of people who will take your place who don't necessarily believe that men have the privilege to treat women like cattle. Many of the new generation's leaders in fact are women. They and the fifty plus percent of the population who are also women will not forget your disrespectful and disgusting actions in regard to them over the past few weeks. Remember the march on Washington, the one with all the pink pussy hats that drew at least twice as many people as your inauguration? Believe me that's going to look like a walk in the park compared to what's coming.

True, Brett Kavanaugh is relatively young and could be on the Supreme Court for a long time. Of course one never knows how a justice will rule once he is on the bench. If he was sincere last night about not being as much of a partisan hack that he seemed to be during his confirmation hearings, maybe, just maybe he will contribute to rulings that will truly benefit the people of this country, not just the powers that be. Regardless, he will forever be under a microscope and as long as he sits on the bench, every vote of his will be closely scrutinized. If he upsets enough people, especially women by voting to take away rights they have held for decades, another, less friendly administration to him, probably one headed by a woman, could re-open his attempted rape case. Supreme Court justices can be impeached too you know.

Whatever happens with Kavanaugh, the tide is turning. For the past year, my daughter has proudly worn a tee shirt that proclaims "The Future is Female." It clerarly pisses off friends of ours who happen to support you. They don't say anything because I have the distinct feeling that deep down, they too begrudgingly believe it's true.     

Perhaps you're right about these being scary times for men. Everything that you and your cronies hate is about to come true. Maybe not in November, perhaps not even in 2020, but one day, thanks to you, old white men like us will become irrelevant in this country. You and your actions have emboldened the revolution. Remember the bit about hell having no fury like something or other? It's coming Mr. President; you've briefly put off the empowerment of women and minorities that you and your supporters are so fearful of, but it will rebound with a vengeance and there will be nothing you or your friends can do to stop it.

From the lion's share of women I know, my wife and all her friends, my daughter and her friends, my mother and her friends, from all my female colleagues, most of my friends, family, and female acquaintances, from just about every woman I have ever known in my life, I have a message they wish to convey to you Mr. President. That message is this:


You have left quite a mark, or perhaps more accurately, a stain on this country, one that thanks in large part to your noble efforts, will be washed out with the rest of the dirty laundry sooner than you can imagine.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Photographs of the Month

Blue Whale Skeleton, Natural History Museum, London, September 25

Natural History Museum, London, September 26

Paddington Station, London, September 27

Natural history Museum, Oxford, September 27

Facadectomy, London, September 28

London Calling--

I answered.

Platform 9 3/4, King's Cross Station, London

The Realm of Possibilities

I understand the legitimate concern over a person's reputation being destroyed by an unverifiable, scurrilous accusation. Furthermore it is not out of the realm of possibility that an individual with an axe to grind, might fabricate such an accusation, or convince someone else to do so. I can think of few worse injustices than to be destroyed by an intentionally false accusation.

Then there is the problem of diametrically conflicting stories. In jurisprudnece there is a well known phenominon referred to as the "Rashomon effect", named after the Akira Kurasowa film based upon the contradicting testimonies of multiple people who witnessed the same crime. However in the Rashoman effect, there is at least one point of agreement in the conflicting testimonies, the event itself.  What happens when there is not even an agreement that the event in question actually took place? Still more problematic is when there are only two witnesses, an alleged victim, and an alleged perpetrator.

Oh yes, what happens when the alleged event in question took place decades ago, meaning any kind of physical evidence of the alleged crime has long since vanished?

Such is the case in the latest episode of the ongoing saga of the current administration, known as the Kavanaugh affair.

In case you're reading this hot off the press, you probably don't need any further explanation and can skip the following five paragraphs. However if you've come here after digging around this blog's archive a few years after the fact, you might need a little reminding.

For years the swing vote on the US Supreme Court was Justice William Kennedy who sometimes voted with the four predominantly liberal justices and sometimes voted with the predominantly conservative justices As such the Court was seen as for the most part, ideologically balanced. Upon Kennedy's retirement a few months ago, the task of submitting a candidate to the Senate to confirm his replacement as it always does, fell upon the shoulders of the president. The president selected Brett Kavanaugh, a solidly (some would say excessively) conservative judge currently serving on the Federal bench. Clearly with Kavanaugh's record, the balance of the SCOTUS would shift dramatically to the right should his nomination go through. This is especially troubling to many as a solid conservative Court could potentially review and overturn previous SCOTUS rulings, thereby revoking rights that people have held for decades, most notably Roe vs. Wade which guarantees every American woman's right to obtain an abortion with no questions asked.

This particularly contentious issue is probabaly the single biggest reason why Donald Trump won the support of tens of millions of conservative religious voters who collectively held their noses as they overlooked his many obvious moral transgressions, simply because he promised to appoint judges who would vote to overturn Roe v Wade.

With a majority Republican Senate, the president's pick is almost a certainty to be appointed justice, a job for life. Not surprisingly, Democrats are doing everything in their power to stall the nomination of this particular judge, in anticipation of the next general election a little over a month from now, where the Democrats have an outside chance of winning back the majority in the Senate. This may sound like obstructionist politics at its worst, but Democrats are simply following the precedent of the Republicans who during the waning months of the Obama administraton, refused to even consider the nomination of Merrick Garland, President Obama's candidate to fill the seat of the late Antonin Scalia. As Scalia was solidly in the conservative camp, Garland had he been approved, would have shifted the balance of the Court to the left. 

The hearings to confirm Kavanaugh were going along swimmingly for him until near the end when it was revealed that a woman had come forward to accuse the potential new justice of sexually assaulting her in the early eighties when both of them were still in high school. Kavanaugh's accuser eventually agreed to make to her name public and testify before the Senate committee in charge of the appointment hearings, This past Thursday, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford gave a stirring account of her accusation that thirty years ago Brett Kavanaugh tried to rape her but could not, because he was too drunk to figure out how to remove the one piece bathing suit she wore underneath her outer garments. She then respnded to questions from the ten Democratic senators on the committee. Rather than question her themselves, the eleven Republican senators on the panel yielded their time to Rachel Mitchell, a Republican prosecutor from Arizona, who grilled Dr. Ford on the stand as if she were the accused in a criminal proceeding. The second half of the day was devoted to Judge Kavanaugh who gave an impassioned defense of himself, then responded to questions from the Deomocrats as well as the Republicans who used their time to heap praise upon the judge and condemnation upon the Democrats, accusing them of deplorable actions all in the attempt to discredit a fine judge.

The following day it was decided (I won't go into why, that's a blog post and a half all to itself) that the FBI would conduct a week long investigation into the matter before it goes to a vote before the full senate.

I also won't go into guilt or innocence, or the long list of social issues brought about by this case for the simple reason that these issues have been dealt with significantly elsewhere for the past two weeks.

Rather what I would like to address, is what amounts to the nitty gritty of this case, namely this: is Brett Kavannnaugh qualified to be a Supreme Court justice? As has been pointed out correctly by numerous folks, the  whole confirmation process amounts to nothing more than a job interview. Granted the job of replacing the swing vote on the Supreme Court, a tenure that could last forty years or more, is perhaps the single most important job in this country. But the hearings are a job interview nonetheless.

What they are not, is a criminal proceeding. This past week, we've heard the term "due process" bandied about over and over by Kavanaugh supporters who insist that he is innocent until proven guilty and that the burden of proof of his guilt, lies with his accusers. This is nonsense. Kavanaigh is not on trial, he doesn't stand to lose his liberty as a result of these hearings. He only stands to lose his chance, at least during this go-around, to be a Supreme Court justice. Consequently these hearings which will provide guidance to the entire Senate, are not a means to determine whether or not Brett Kavanaugh  tried to rape Christine Ford thirty five years ago, but rather to look at all the evidence presented, and determine if there is a credible reason there to reject his nomination for a seat on the bench of the highest court in the land.

With that in mind, I think it would be helpful to break the testimony down to all the possible conclusions that can be drawn from it. As the testimonies of these two individuals are diametrically opposed, to me there are three conceivable scenarios which themselves can be broken up further.

  • The first conclusion that can be drawn is that Brett Kavanaugh tried to rape Christine Ford in the early eighties.
  • The second is somewhere in the middle; there was physical contact between the two individuals, but the intents of the victim and the perpetrator at the time are in dispute. 
  • The third possibility is that Kavanaugh is innocent of the accisation.
I have a strong opinion which of the three is the most likely, but frankly my opinion on the matter is irrelevant. What is significant is to examine each scenario to determine if any or all of them are worthy enough to disqaulify Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court.

Let's examine each of them one by one:

Case one: Dr. Ford's accusation is true; Brett Kavanaugh while in a drunken stupor tried to rape her. If you take her testimony to be true, there are two possibilities. either Judge Kavanaugh was so drunk at the time that he cannot remember what he did that night, or he is simply lying. Is the latter case a justification for dismissing Kavanaugh's nomination? Hell yes, without question, both for the original crime committed and for committing perjury in the Senate hearings. What about the former? Again, without question. A person is accountable for his actions whether drunk or sober. If someone charged with vehicular homicide tries to use the defense that he was so drunk at the time that he didn't know what he was doing, he would suddenly find himself charged with two very serious crimes. Before the Senate committee, Kavanaugh admitted to serious drinking in high school and college but refused to admit that he had a drinking problem. He claimed to never having drunk himself unconscious. Several of his classmates at Yale beg to differ, saying he was less than forthcoming about his drinking, which was according to them, prodigious. If this is true, Kavanaugh obviously has deeper problems than not being our next Supreme Court justice.

Case two: Physical contact between the two took place, but it was not a serious as Dr. Ford's allegations claim. Since neither Dr. Ford nor Judge Kavanaugh claim having had a consensual relationship, the scenario is unlikely. However the possibility has been brought up by defenders of the judge, namely Fox News who imply that their contact was indeed consensual,  so it may be worth examining for a moment. There is a recent precedent for a public figure accepting charges of sexual assault brought against him. That public figure was US Senator Al Franken who admitted inappropriate conduct with his accuser, just not the extent to which she claimed. Frankin openly called for an investigation into the matter, something his accuser, for reasons known only to her, claimed was not necessary. Faced with increasing pressure from his own party, Franken resigned from the Senate. Kavanaugh missed the boat with this possible excuse as in his sworn testimony, he unequivocally denied having had any physical contact with Dr. Ford. Should he bring up a consensual relationship with Ms. Ford up at a later date, he would be admitting that he lied under oath, which of course would be immediate grounds for his dismissal. Kavanaugh also is suspect because during the hearings he avoided the question of whether he supported an FBI investigation of the matter in order to clear his name, while Dr. Ford openly supported an investigation.

Case three: Brett Kavanaugh is innocent. If you believe him, there are a few possibilities. One is that Christine Ford was sexually assaulted as stated in her testimony, but is mistaken about the identity of her attacker. The other possibility is that she is making the whole thing up. At this point for fairness sake, it must be pointed out that fraudulent reports of rape are rare, but not unheard of. Again there is a precedent for a public figure to have been falsely accused of sexual abuse, in his case of a minor. The name of the falsely accused individual is Joseph Cardinal Bernadin, a former archbishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago. The pain that Bernadin suffered during the period after the accusation was well publicized, as was the grace of the Cardinal in his forgiveness of his accuser after he admitted that he lied. As a fellow Catholic, Brett Kavanaugh should have been intimately familiar with Bernadin's grace during this particularly painful period of his life, and used his example as a model of how to react during a time of adversity. Unfortunately he did not. It is said that none other than Donald Trump coached him on how to behave at the hearing. He told the judge to get mad. Turns out Kavanaugh was a good study, in his opening statement before the Senate subcommitttee on Thursday, Kavanaugh ranted, raved, scowled whined and pouted, throwing temper tantrums accusing the Democrats of character assassination, and conducting a "calculated and orchestrated political hit" on him. What made his mentor the proudest was no dout Kavanaugh's mention of Bill and Hillary Clinton. His remarks were filled with self-pity and indignance in the fact that a man of his stature, should be subject to such treatment. It has been a cliche of late to use this term but for lack of a better description, white male privilege oozed out of every pour of Brett Kavanaugh last Thursday, and it was ugly.

Giving the judge all the benefit of doubt, and assuming that he is innocent of the accusations against him, Brett Kavanaugh did not act like a judge the other day let alone a Supreme Court justice, During the most important job interview of his life, he acted like a spoiled rich kid. Kavanaugh responded to reasonable questions with spite, bitterness, disgust, and above all in his claim that Dr. Ford's accusations were nothing more than a Democratic conspiracy to discredit him, he displayed an unacceptable political bias for a potential justice. What more reason does one need to reject an applicant for a job? Typically when someone blows a job interview, he does not get the job. My suggestion to the members of the Senate who are in a position to hire the next Supreme Court Justice is this, look for someone else.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

In the Year 2019

We watched Blade Runner the other night, the classic 1982 sci-fi thriller set in a future Los Angeles. The plot of the movie revolves around a police detective reluctantly coming out of the shadows to "retire" four replicants, genetically engineered humanoids, who had recently escaped from forced labor on a colozined planet and returned to earth, intent on causing mayhem while in search of their creator. The movie directed by Ridley Scott, was a loose adaptation of the 1969 novel by Phillip K. Dick called, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. The film is visually stunning, combining old school film-noir with pre-digital special effects which hold up amazingly well 36 years after its release.

But for me the most compelling part of the film and especially the book are the moral and ethical questions raised about the implications regarding unchecked technology, and its impact on both the environment and ourselves.

That said, there was one nagging part I simply could not wrap my head around. The dystopian future portrayed in the film, takes place in the year 2019, (2021 in the book), which happens to be at this writing, next year. Now depending upon your point of view, we may indeed be living in a dystopian world at the moment, but not exactly the world of Blade Runner.

I understand artistic license and can easily see why P.K. Dick and later Ridley Scott would choose to set their stories in the not too distant future. Assuming that many of the people who would have seen the movie when it first came out would still be alive in 2019, the story has a far greater sense of urgency than were it set say, 200 years in the future. The same could be said for classic works set in a dystopian future such as George Orwell's 1984 (published in 1949) As it is, these works have kind of a Dickensian poignance, harkening to Scrooge's question to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come:
Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be only?
Experiencing Blade Runner today as well as other works of fiction whose future setting is now the distant past, we can breathe a collective sigh of relief, realizing that these visions of the future did not come true, at least not exactly, not yet. We still have a chance if we heed the warnings. It goes without saying that's a big if.

The interesting thing about stories set in the future is what they tell us about the time in which they were created. Fifty years before Phillip K. Dick's novel was published, biplanes were all the rage and no one had yet dared to fly an airplane across the Atlantic. In 1969, a commercial supersonic jet made its maiden test flight. The Concorde which went into service in the early seventiescould fly between New York and London in about three hours, less than half the time it took a conventional jet liner. 1969 was also the year we first landed on the moon. Given the advances in aviation in those fifty years, there was no reason to believe that the advances in the next fifty would not be equally dizzying. But here we are fifty years later and commercial supersonic travel has been scrubbed. A human being hasn't left earth's orbit since 1972. Today it takes as long to fly from New York to London as it did in 1968, before Concorde. And if an American astronaut needs to travel to the International Space Station, he or she needs to hitch a ride aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket.

Nor do we have flying cars. No vision of the future would be complete without flying cars and Blade Runner is no exception. As with aviation, automotive technology grew by leaps and bounds during the fifty year period before the publication of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Ford Model Ts dominated the roads in 1919 and would still be in production for another eight years. In the fifties, the United States built its Interstate system of highways which would forever alter the landscape of America. The automobile and the infrastructure that supported it, changed the way we lived, how we built our communities, and allowed our great centers of humanity and culture, our cities, to crumble.

For most of the Twentieth Century, The Western world was in love with technology. There was great promise in the freedom that the Machine brought to mankind, the automobile being only one example. That reverence for the Machine could be found everywhere in the twenties and early thirties from fine art to film, music, industrial design and especially architecture. Art Deco masterpieces, such as the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings in New York are perhaps humankind's greatest monuments to the Machine Age, and the hope for a brighter future, all made possible through the wonders of technology.

But there were also detractors in the arts who were willing to burst the technology bubble during the heart of the Machine Age. One of the most popular bubble-bursters was Charles Chaplin and his 1936 film, Modern Times. The film must have seemed hopelessly reactionary to audiences of that era, not just because it was a silent film made eight years after the debut of "talking pictures." *, but also for its denouncement of technology's contribution to the de-humanization of human beings.

Here is the most famous scene from that movie:

It turned out that rather being a reactionary, Chaplin was far ahead of his time. Five years later, Europe was at war and Chaplin, still working in the United States, made his most important (if not his most beloved) film, The Great Dictator. As life would never be the same again after that war, it is appropriate that The Great Dictator marked the final appearance of Chaplin's beloved signature character, The Little Tramp. Equally telling is that for his last appearance, The Tramp finally spoke, in this case as the humble doppelganger of a brutal dictator, Adenoid Hynkel, also played by Chaplin, who himself bore a likeness, (at least in his character's facial hair), to a real-life dictator. Or was it the other way around?  Anyway at the end of the film, Chaplin, who could just as well have been playing himself, gives a poignant, impassioned, gut-wrenching speech renouncing not only cruel immoral, dictators, but the abject failure of society to succeed in using technology for the betterment of humankind:

Charlie Chaplin saw before most, how technology, along with the better living it promised, might also bring us untold misery. The future would prove him right as World War Two gave us mechanized suffering and killing the likes of which the world had never seen, culminating with the droppping of nuclear bombs over two heavily populated cities in Japan, the dawn of the nuclear age. It wouldn't be long before people came to the realization that human beings would one day have the power to destroy all life on this planet.

Yet we clung to our blind devotion to technology and the promise that if we believed in it, life would only get better. World War Two was so horrible that when it was over, people fell hook line and sinker for any scheme to create a new and better world. Over the years in this space I have explored two such utopian schemes devised by world reknowned architects. Both the Swiss Le Courbousier, and the American Frank Lloyd Wright proposed we toss everything we knew about building places to work and live in the garbage and start with a clean slate. Each architect came up with a utopian scheme diametrically opposed to the other in many ways, but both relying heavily on on modern techology to bring about their ideals. Le Courbousier's uptopia, Radiant City was a densly packed urban environment where each function of the community would be distinctly separate, and everyone would live in apartment buildings reaching to the sky.

By contrast, Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City was a horizontal rather than vertical plan where agrairian life would be integrated into everyday life, where each family would be given an acre of land of their own. In 1945, FLW wrote:
To look at the plan of a great City is to look at something like the cross-section of a fibrous tumor.
To him, cities as they had been built for centuries, was rendered obsolete by new technologies such mechanized production (which would one day presumably do away with the dehumanizing assembly line that we saw in the first Chaplin clip), electronic communication such as the telephone, telegraph and radio, and of course the automobile. Beacuse of these technological advances, the centralized city would, or should be a thing of the past, replaced by sprawling communities connected by highways where people would have the freedom to travel as they wished in their personal transportation devices, which Wright envisioned one day, be able to fly, as we can see here in this rendering from his 1959 book, The Living City:

The city of the future according to Frank Lloyd Wright, complete with flying cars
Le Courbousier's and Wright's vision of the future never materialized exactly as their creators envisioned, yet many of their concepts took hold and we continue to live with them today in the form of massive urban housing projects which were directly inspired by the Radiant City, and suburban sprawl, which owes its existence in no small part to the vision of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Needless to say, more than half a century later, neither housing projects nor suburban sprawl turned out to be answers to all our problems, in fact in many cases, just the opposite. For the past thirty plus years or so, we have been undoing both the Courbousian and Wrightian utopias as fast as possible, in some cases with dynamite:

I was around in the sixties when the dream to build faster cars and rocket ships able to take humans to places where "no man had ever gone before" was still the was still the most potent vision of the future. After July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong uttered the words "Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed", nothing seemed impossible. Yet for all its glory, the significance of our mission to the moon could best be summed up by the words of the last man to climb aboard the lunar module to blast off the surface of that dead planet. Eugene Cernan said after he returned to earth: "We went to explore the moon and in fact discovered the earth."

It's no accident that the environmental movement got a big push after the first photographs of Earth from outer space were made public. For the first time ever, we saw our planet as it really is, a small refuge of beauty and life cast adrift in a vast sea of emptiness. Above all for the first time ever we were unequivocally reminded that Earth and all its bounties, are finite. We were also reminded that the moon was not a good option. Those photographs showed to us in a very tangible way how much we needed to rethink the stewardship of the only home we have.

Needless to say, we won't be colonizing other planets anytime soon. While the subject was not directly addressed in Blade Runner, in the P.K. Dick novel that inspired it, there was a particular urgency to relocate earthlings to Mars as the story takes place after WWT (World War Terminal), which redered Earth practically unihabitable. A recurrent theme in the book are television "weather" forcasts which predict motion of nuclear fallout clouds rather than rain clouds.

Thankfully we have thus far avoided nuclear armageddon, however there is a less dramatic, but just as dire threat to the health of our planet. The conservation of our planet by curtailing pollution and conserving its resources became a rallying cry during the seventies. The conservation part really hit home after the supply of fuel was curtailed by the oil producing nations of the Middle East causing world-wide gasoline shortages, resulting in staggering price increases. Those who were not moved by the philosophical arguments of the environmental activists, were certainly moved by the hit to their pocket books. For the first time since World War II when gasoline was rationed for the war effort, Americans understood that conservation of resources actually worked to the benefit o hte nation. In that effort, nationwide speed limits were reduced in order to conserve fuel which led to another fringe benefit, reduced highway deaths. Consequently, automotive and aviation technology since then have moved away from speed and in the direction of efficiency and safety.

Obviously, technology has not stopped advancing in the past half century, it just shifted direction. Rather than transportation, the earth-shattering technological achievements of our time involve medicine and the computer among others. As we look with hope to the future with the help of these technoligal advances, there is a caveat. We must always remember that every technological innovation is a double-edged sword. Every tool we make no matter how wonderful it may seem, can be used to benefit mankind, or to harm it. With every new technological innovation, new ethical issues arise and we must be ever vigilent to use technology wisely.

Blade Runner's vision of 2019 did not become true, at least not yet, in part because of the work of visionaries like Charlie Chaplin and Phillip K. Dick who warned us of not being blind to the moral consequences of absolute faith in the wonders of technology and progress, and to not be afraid to learn from the lessons of history.

We still have a lot to learn if we hope to prevent life from imitating art. Interestingly enough, Blade Runner 2049 came out last year. I only saw dribs and drabs of it on a recent plane flight but from what I could tell, it's even more bleak than the original. I'll be 90 in 2049, and if I'm still around, I might just have a look at it to see how much came true. If that happens, I'll be sure to keep you posted.

* Modern Times like its predecessor, Chaplin's 1932 film City Lights, has a soundtrack. But with the exception of a musical number sung by Chaplin, and the occasional mumbled commands of the all-knowing and seeing boss of the factory projected on a future-like television screen, all the dialog is conveyed through title cards as in true silent movies.