Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Holiday doorways

I went for a drive after the snowstorm and took photos of some interesting doorways decorated for the holidays. They're like public greeting cards from the people inside.

Best wishes for the holidays and a prosperous New Year.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The admitted outlaw

In his ABC interview this week, Vice President Cheney said that he knew the Iraq War was unprovoked and that he personally approved illegal interrogation techniques. He admitted on national television that he broke the law — not just petty misdemeanors, but serious international war crimes.

Is it just hubris that made him do it, or something more sinister? Could it be a calculated strategy to get it on the record so that President Bush will be forced to pardon him?

This man is a calculating, arrogant, fascist outlaw.

And I do use the word fascist correctly:

Fascist — someone who supports or advocates a system of government characterized by dictatorship, centralized control of private enterprise, repression of all opposition and extreme nationalism.

The laws that Cheney admits to breaking are among the ones for which the Tokyo War Crimes Trials sentenced Japanese military and government officials to life imprisonment and death:

Count 1: as "leaders, organizers, instigators, or accomplices in the formulation or execution of a common plan or conspiracy .. to wage wars of aggression, and war or wars in violation of international law."
Count 27: waging unprovoked war against China.
Count 54: "ordered, authorized, and permitted" inhumane treatment of Prisoners of War (POWs) and others.
Count 55: "deliberately and recklessly disregarded their duty" to take adequate steps to prevent atrocities.

Will he get a walk?

What kind of a man

When my son, Brian, was about four, he was extremely inquisitive. As a matter of fact, he still is.

We were in line at a supermarket checkout, and Brian was sitting in the shopping cart basket. A uniformed African-American mailman was in line in front of us.

Brian looked at the man and then turned back toward me. In that loud voice that’s so typical of four year-old boys, he asked, “Hey Dad, what kind of a man is that?”

The mailman looked back at me. We made eye contact.

I hesitated for a moment. In my most liberal, politically correct voice, I responded, “Oh, he’s a regular man.”

The postman watched with amusement.

But Brian insisted. “No Dad, what kind of a man.”

“Oh, he’s just an ordinary man,” I answered.

I was just starting my some-people-have different-colored-skins-but-we’re-all alike-inside speech when Brian interrupted me. “But what kid of a man. Is he a policeman or a fireman?’

“He’s a mailman,” I replied.

The postman smiled wryly and emptied his basket on the counter. He didn’t look back as he paid for his groceries and walked out of the store.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Why literacy matters

As a member of my local School Board, I was appalled to learn that 40% of the students in our little northern New England school read below grade level. So I looked on line to see how we compared to other schools around the country. It appears that we’re above average in this dismal statistic.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center reports that nationally 34% of fourth grade students fall below basic reading level and 27% of eighth graders.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading scale has measured the knowledge and skills demonstrated by fourth and eighth grade students since 1992. Their 2007 results show that both grade levels have shown only slight improvement during that period. Fourth graders’ average national score has stagnated between 213 and 221 on a scale of 0-500 where 208 is basic proficiency, 238 is proficient and 268 is advanced. Eighth graders' average national score has ranged from 260 to 264. We’re just treading water with our children’s education.

A 2007 National Endowment for the Arts study found the following discouraging statistics:

Our young people are reading less
Teens and young adults read less often and for shorter amounts of time compared with other age groups and with Americans of previous years. Less than 1/3 of thirteen-year-olds are daily readers — a 14% decline from twenty years earlier. The percentage of non-readers among seventeen-year-olds doubled over a 20-year period — from 9% in 1984 to 19% in 2004.

Our young people are reading less well
Reading scores continue to drop among teenagers and young males.
Reading scores for twelfth-grade readers fell significantly from 1992 to 2005, with the sharpest declines among lower-level readers. Reading scores for male twelfth-graders are 13 points lower than for females, and that gender gap has widened since 1992.

Adult reading scores for almost all education levels have deteriorated
From 1992 to 2003, the percentage of adults with graduate school experience who were rated proficient in reading dropped by 10 points — a 20% decline.

The NEA study also found that American fifteen-year-olds ranked fifteenth in average reading scores for 31 industrialized nations behind Poland, Korea, France, Canada and others.

The decline in reading ability and habit has huge implications for the future of the United States. Young Americans with poor reading skills have lower levels of academic achievement and do less well in the job market. They suffer a lack of employment, lower wages and fewer opportunities for advancement. They weaken our ability to compete in a world economy.

In addition, new technologies are changing what it takes to be literate. Just as 25 years ago, we had no idea about what changes the Internet would bring to society, we don't know what skills will be needed 25 years from now.

But the real danger that this growing semi-literate class of Americans poses is that they can’t fulfill their democratic responsibilities. Being a responsible citizen of a healthy democracy demands reading and problem solving. Twenty-first Century political, technological and social issues require the ability to cope with complexities.

Semi-literate citizens can’t understand the implications of international trade agreements, the need for regulating investment banking or subtle changes to the Constitution.

Semi-literate voters can’t differentiate between lies and truth. They’re susceptible to simplistic explanations and clich├ęs — confused by ambiguity and nuance. They leave our democracy vulnerable to being split into insular, antagonistic factions.

I’ve spent 45 years in marketing and advertising. Political marketers are very skilled at what they do — far more so than most Americans realize.

They know how to create sophisticated political campaigns that use highly manipulated images to “brand” their candidates. They’re experts at substituting reassuring slogans and dramatic personal narratives for real ideas and policy. And they know from years of experience how to gather and use demographic data to precisely target their message. They are master propagandists.

Today’s political campaigns are carefully constructed to eliminate the need for literacy. They’re designed to engender strong feelings of euphoria, empowerment and collective thinking.

They’re based on style and emotion, not content or reality. They’re fine-tuned machines that subliminally alter public mood, emotions and impulses. Their goal is to manipulate the semi-literate into a state of mindless loyalty.

These political campaigns work because an uninformed electorate will blindly cast its ballots for catchy slogans, scripted narratives and contrived sincerity. They depend on public ignorance.

Political leaders in a semi-literate society don’t need to be competent, sincere or honest. They only need to appear so. They merely require a narrative, which may be completely at odds with reality. And they don’t want to dilute that narrative with truth.

The consistency and emotional appeal of the narrative is what counts. The ability to repeat it again and again and to have the media repeat it in endless news cycles turns it into truth.

The foundations of democracy— the ability to think rationally and draw independent conclusions, to express dissent when common sense indicates something is wrong, to separate truth from lies, and to appreciate other points of views— are all based on literacy.

We must insist that our young people be proficient at reading and acquiring knowledge. We must equip them to cope with propaganda. We must help them acquire the inquisitive and critical minds that will serve them in circumstances we can’t predict. We must give them true literacy.

Our recent experience with an Administration that tricked us into unprovoked wars, dismantled key parts of the Constitution and raided the national treasury for the benefit of it’s cronies should be a wake up call. The all-powerful United States of America was taken for a ride by a group of greedy political extremists. The next time we might not wake up until too late.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Eagle and the Fox

This is my favorite of Aesop’s Fables. It suggests the relationship between the United States and the Middle East over the last fifty years.

An Eagle and a Fox became close friends and decided to share a home. The Eagle built her nest in the uppermost branches of a tall tree, while the Fox crept into a hole at its foot, where she raised her young. Not long after, the Eagle, needing food for her own offspring, swooped down, seized one of the Fox’s cubs, and carried it back to her nest. The Eagle did not fear retribution because of her lofty dwelling, but the Fox snatched a torch from a nearby altar and set the tree on fire. The helpless Eaglets were roasted in their nest and fell down dead at the bottom of the tree, where the Fox gobbled them up in sight of their mother.

The tyrant may not fear the tears of the oppressed, but he is never safe from their vengeance.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Artist in Wood

John Long calls himself an "artist in wood", and that’s not hyperbole. A self-taught artist with no formal training, John creates masterful wall sculptures from old weathered barn boards. His unique work combines his obvious appreciation for New England architecture with superb design skills and excellent workmanship.

John uses only “as found” materials. He uses the wood’s naturally weathered colors to render his compositions and its naturally weathered textures to create the illusion of depth and perspective. His work is both decorative and artistic.

And what a paradox that while John uses antique materials to depict antique buildings, his work has a stark graphic quality that is fresh and contemporary.

John exhibits at art and craft shows throughout New England. You can also see and purchase his work on his website at www.artistinwood.com.

Friday, December 5, 2008

War Whores

Why are the mercenary privateers working in Iraq
called military contractors and not war whores?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Photographers Journal

Richard Chase is far and away the best portrait photographer I've worked with. In addition to his technical expertise, what makes Richard so good is his ability to empathize with his subjects.

This is superbly illustrated in his blog, “A Photographer’s Journal”. Some of the images are beautiful. Some are disturbing. All of them express his appreciation for the human form.

But it’s his visual/written portraits that will captivate you. Richard is also a skilled writer. His honest and sensitive descriptions reveal as much about his models as his photos do -- and a great deal about Richard as well. I particularly like his portraits of Hannah and Dan.

(These images are Richard Chase’s property. They may not be copied or reproduced in any way without his written permission.)

You’ll find Richard’s blog at http://richardachase.typepad.com/home/. He also shoots commisioned portraits. You can find samples and contact information on his website at www.richardachase.com.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Another bailout

I’ve been a car guy ever since I can remember. One of my earliest recollections is riding my tricycle on the sidewalk out to the corner of Main and Faxon Street in Nashua when I visited my grandmother. I’d sit there and try to name every car make and model that passed by… and I could name most of them.

My favorite toys were cars. I built dozens of plastic model cars, laboring over the paint and finishing touches. I created my own custom cars and hot rods out of parts from different model kits. And I spent many a study hall in Junior High School drawing cars.

At fourteen, I bought a 1932 Ford school bus that had been cut down into a doodlebug. The chassis was shortened so that the rear wheels were right behind the driver’s seat and the body removed from the windshield back. I drove it on the back roads around our house long before I got my drivers license. It was followed over the years by a long string of cars in various stages of modification and deterioration.

My favorite cars were the fastest ones – a 1956 Chevy convertible with a modified later model V8, a 1967 Volvo with a fully modified engine and suspension and a 1984 Volvo Turbo coupe.

While it’s not as fashionable in this green-oriented age, I still like fast cars. I love the sound and feel of a V8-powered car under full throttle acceleration.

I say all this to preface my opinion that the Big Three automakers shouldn’t get a no-strings bailout. I like cars. I just don’t like the way the car companies are run.

Don’t get me wrong. All three are capable of producing some of the best cars in the world.

But in the last fifteen years, they’ve gotten fat and lazy like their high-profit, flagship SUVs. They sold the buying public on a myth that bigger is better, because bigger was more profitable for them. They let both labor and management costs get out of hand because their profit margins were so high.

They fought tooth-and-nail against any government regulation on fuel economy because that would mean investing some of those profits into new technology. They didn’t want anyone tampering with their cash machine.

Let’s face it. For all their climate control, passive restraint, anti-skid and satellite navigation technology, 2008 cars are not that far removed from 1908 cars. Most still use front-mounted, gasoline powered, pollution producing, internal combustion engines. They’re still a very inefficient means of transportation for one or two people. And they’re burning up our finite supply of petroleum and polluting our finite supply of breathable air at alarming rates.

A 2008 Chevy Cobalt gets about 22 mpg city and 30 mpg highway. A 1982 Citation got about the same. So did my 1979 Plymouth Horizon, my 1966 Volkswagen Beetle and my 1958 Volvo. Not much progress there.

American carmakers got trounced by the Japanese in the 1970s because they produced big, inefficient, gas guzzling behemoths — the very same mistake they made again thirty years later. You could see it coming more than five years ago.

Now we have little choice but to help the car companies because they’re such a big a part of our economy that we can’t afford to let them fail. But we must remember that we helped them along by buying their ridiculously oversized and inefficient vehicles. We helped them become big and fat and lazy.

So we must insist that any taxpayer assistance come with strings — lots of strings. They must control labor and management costs, invest in new technology and become responsibly run companies.

If they can’t agree to these kinds of stipulations, we should let court-appointed bankruptcy trustees help them sort things out.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Buried Treasure

My brother, Kelley, and I loved playing outdoors when we were kids. We lived on an old farm with a big weathered barn surrounded by acres of fields and woodland. Except for an occasional steer or lamb that our family raised for meat, we didn’t use the barn much. It was really our giant playhouse.

On a rainy day, the barn was a dry place to play. On a hot summer day, the lower level was dark and cool. And the barn always had that wonderful smell of wood, hay and animals. Swallows swooped in and out the big open door during the day, and bats fluttered out at dusk.

On the main floor, my father hung a swing of strong sisal rope from one of the upper beams. The swing made a creaking sound as I sat on the plank seat swinging higher and higher. If I pumped hard enough, I could touch the edge of the hayloft with my toe.

The ancient barn was a three-dimensional maze of stairways, stalls, ladders and lofts. There were dozens of places to hide… numerous ways to sneak up on each other… and several heavy plank doors that slid open and closed on iron tracks.

To my brother and I, it was a frontier town, a pirate ship and a medieval castle. We ran, climbed, jumped and fought mock battles with Indians, pirates, gangsters and German soldiers. We sometimes even let our little sister, Krissie, join in our games.

Sliding down the hay chutes from the main floor to the mangers below was a quick get away from imaginary foes. The chutes were just the right size for a young boy, and the insides were worn smooth from years of hay passing through.

There was an old workshop on the lower level with the name Yatchy painted in red letters on its faded blue door. We cleared off the workbench and swept the concrete floor to make Yatchy our private clubhouse. With homemade wanted posters on the walls it became the sherrif’s office. With the addition of an old telephone, it became a police station.

It was there in Yatchy that I spent hours drawing detailed maps of our land and buildings. I gave adventurous-sounding names to all the landmarks. The old chicken coop in the back yard was the Miner’s Shack. The path down the back field past the huge boulder was the Big Rock Trail. The small pit next to the path where some gravel had been removed was Dry Gulch. And the sluiceway at the ancient saw mill site in the woods was Dead Man’s Gorge.

But it was a treasure map from a box of Wheaties that gave me the idea to bury some treasure.

A gold-trimmed, plastic cigar box from the attic became our treasure chest. My brother and I filled it with play money, our best marbles and small rocks that we painstakingly painted with gold paint. It looked good, but we weren’t satisfied. When my older sister, Karen, was visiting a friend, we raided her jewelry box and made off with her costume jewelry and some old foreign coins. Our treasure chest looked great!

Dressed as pirates and armed with wooden swords and shovels, Kelley and I went into the field beside the house to bury our treasure. The grass was already up to our knees. We found a suitable spot and carefully removed the sod.

“How deep do we have to dig,” Kelley asked.

“At least six feet. Pirates always bury treasure that deep,” I replied with authority.

We dug for a long time. It was a hot summer day, and we were soon sweating.

“Isn’t this deep enough,” my brother asked.

“You don’t want anyone stealing our treasure, do you?” I warned.

We kept digging.

I was beginning to realize just how deep six feet was as I climbed down into the hole to dig deeper. When I was up to my chest in the ground and having difficulty lifting the shovels full of gravel to the top, I decided we had gone deep enough.

The gravel at the bottom of the hole felt cool as I set our precious treasure chest in place. After refilling the hole, we placed the sod back in place. No one would ever know.

Back in Yatchy, I drew a map with the location of the treasure precisely paced out from the stone wall at the edge of the field. I used colored pencils and old-fashioned lettering and then crumpled it up several times to make it look old and worn. It was a work of art. I stuck it in my pocket and went into the house for supper.

I forgot about the map until a few days later when I saw my jeans on the clothesline. In the pocket was a wad of damp paper that fell to pieces when I tried to unfold it. My beautiful map was destroyed. Fortunately, I remembered the directions for finding the treasure.

My sister made a big fuss about her missing jewelry, but my brother and I played dumb. We decided it was best to let the treasure cool off for a while. Days, weeks and months went by; and then it was winter. Late in the following spring, we decided it was safe to dig up the treasure. Again armed with swords and shovels, we ventured into the field.

We found the rock in the stone wall that marked the starting point and paced thirty paces straight out and then eighteen paces to the left. We dug down three feet. No treasure.

So we dug deeper. Still no treasure.

We paced the distance again. Maybe it was eighteen paces out and thirty paces to the left or thirty paces out and eighteen paces to the right. We tried them all with no success. After several hours we gave up.

My brother and I spent many hours digging in that field over the next few years. When friends visited, we continued the search. We tried many combinations starting from different rocks in the wall. None produced results. As far as I know, our treasure is still buried somewhere in that field.