November 24, 2001

Great, NOW they tell us. The below travel warning was issued by the State That's right, November 23. Was this just sitting around on somebody's desk for a few months? I can't bear to think of how many unfortunate tourists have blithely visited Afghanistan recently, not understanding the dangers that may arise.

Afghanistan - Travel Warning

November 23, 2001

The Department of State strongly warns U.S. citizens against travel to Afghanistan. U.S. forces are engaged in military action against the remnants of the Taliban regime and the terrorist Al-Qaida network. Afghan opponents of the Taliban regime are also engaged in military operations in several parts of the country. Travel in all areas of Afghanistan, including the capital Kabul and all major cities, is unsafe due to military operations, banditry, and the possibility of unrest given the fluid political and military situation. Several foreign journalists have been murdered in recent weeks. An estimated 5-7 million land mines are scattered throughout the countryside and pose a danger to travelers. Much of the country is also facing an acute food shortage.

November 19, 2001

Who is David Still? Perhaps David Still is you.

November 18, 2001

Rachel and I stayed up until 5:00 a.m. last night to see the Leonid meteor shower, and it was easily the most spectacular astronomical event I've ever seen. My experience with this type of event -- whether eclipse, comet, meteor shower, etc. -- has invariably been disappointing, with clouds, timing, or too big a build-up conspiring to leave me bored and cold in the middle of the night. But last night's meteor shower was wonderful, with literally hundreds upon hundreds of meteors exploding across the sky like God's fireworks. I am very glad we decided to brave the cold and exhaustion to witness it.

November 16, 2001

Bert Part 2: the Power of the Internet: Oh, Lord, please let this be for real.
Speaking of the media, the amazing events of this past week have created a situation strangely similar, yet opposite, to what happened two months ago. In the days after September 11 it was painful for me to look at a newsstand or open my mailbox to see the magazines produced before the 11th. They seemed to mock me with their ignorance and smiling celebrities, making me feel ridiculous for reminding me that just a few days ago I would have cared about such things. During those first few 24-hour news-watching days, I kept those new, yet somehow ancient, documents out of my sight.

Well, the vagaries of the publishing cycle are striking again, as the New York Observer and other assorted magazines reach my mailbox and the newsstand, once again helpless and ignorant about the events that took place between its creation and public appearance. Nicholas von Hoffman's article in this week's New York Observer has received the most attention, due to its timing (it reached the newsstands earlier this week) and because of Andrew Sullivan's implementation of the Von Hoffman Awards (for "the most prophetically challenged pieces of media war-wisdom so far"). Some choice bits:

"The war in Afghanistan, the one he should never have declared, has run into trouble. Just a few weeks into it and it’s obvious that the United States is fighting blind. The enemy is unknown, and the enemy’s country is terra incognita. We have virtually no one we can trust who can speak the languages of the people involved. With all our firepower and our technical assets and our spy satellites, it looks like we don’t know if we’re coming or going.


Even with the timid and occasionally treacherous help of the Pakistanis, we are flying in fog. We go to the right, we go to the left; statements are issued and then modified. It’s nuts. No sooner had Congress and the President gone to war against Osama bin Laden than we broadened the fight to include the Taliban. Next there was the talk that the citizens of Afghanistan, the land of the woebegone and woebegotten, would turn against their masters, accept Christian baptism and embrace Americanism. Our lunacy has reached the point of scattering sheets of paper around Taliban installations on which is printed a picture of firemen raising the American flag with the legend "Freedom Endures."

We are mapless, we are lost, and we are distracted by gusts of wishful thinking. That our high command could believe the Afghani peasantry or even the Taliban would change sides after a few weeks of bombing! This is fantasizing in high places. In the history of aerial bombardment, can you think of a single instance of the bombed embracing the bombers? Bombing always unites the bombees against the bombers, and—duh!—guess what the reaction has been in Afghanistan? You don’t need to speak Urdu to figure it out, which is good since none of us does."

And so on, and so on. Perfect reading material to enjoy this week while watching footage from Kabul.

November 15, 2001

James Lileks posts another ridiculously good Bleat today, this one largely dealing with the Media Elite (or the Meedyalete in its one-word formation), but also delving into the left's Vast Conspiracy, race, Russia, and the uselessness of treaties. The whole thing's worth reading (well, you might not care that much about his computer backup), but here's an excerpt:

Saw a press conference yesterday - a journalist asked Stuffles about reports that the Taliban was going into the mountains to mount a guerrilla war. "Are we prepared for such a war?" he asked. What a stupid question. It’s a knee-jerk reiteration of the Meedyalete’s favorite trope: we got spanked in Vietnam, and hence would get spanked again whenever we tiptoe "in country." Nicholas Von Hoffman’s stupendously wrong column this week had the same idea: We are, he said, "increasingly fogged-out and disoriented by the unconventional struggle of people who don’t fight by the rules taught at the Army War College." Yes, I’m sure the last 30 years at the Army War College have been spent ignoring the lessons of Vietnam, because they’re all stupid, and they want troops to die.

The real question would be "how are we prepared for such a war," which leads to a discussion of the balance of forces, the Taliban’s supply-line problems, the fact that our troops will be better fed, warm in the winter, eagle-eyed in the night, connected to a highly responsive logistical network, and on the offense instead of the defense.

But that’s not what the reporter asked. Perhaps later he wondered why he asked such a stupid question. Perhaps his colleagues did as well. And perhaps this helps explain why the Meedyalete are also in a state of despair: having spent all their lives snickering at the concept of "military intelligence" as an oxymoron, some now have a sneaking suspicion that the men and women who assemble an army halfway across the world might actually be as smart as the people who put together newspapers halfway across town.

If such a thing is true, then there is no God.

Hmmm, apparently there's sort of Harry Potter movie coming out. Has anybody heard about this?
Murph has sent me links to two really cool 19th century scrapbooks on Ebay this week. The first, Morbid 1886 Murders Horrible Deaths Scrapbook, is 156 pages of newspaper clippings about "murders, suicides, horrible accidental deaths and just about anything having to do with death and dying." The seller counts over 700 clippings, each a portrait in horror, pasted in the book by some sick bastard with lots of spare time.

The second, another scrapbook from the same seller, is over 100 pages of newspaper clippings from the 1894 baseball season, with articles about the labor situation, "killing the umpire," throwing a curveball ("some people are foolish enough to doubt that it can be done"), and plenty more. They both look fascinating and tempting.

Speaking of strange and wonderful items for sale, there's a fine site called Who Would Buy That? features a constantly updated selection of bizarre items on sale to the highest bidder.

November 12, 2001

James Lileks' range of writing is too varied for me to consider him a warblogger, but he has definitely produced some of the most insightful and crispest commentary I've read about the war during the past few weeks.

I had already been familiar with Lileks' work, mostly his syndicated columns and his "Institute of Official Cheer, including The Gallery of Regrettable Foods ("Where the past comes to life -- so we can promptly beat it to death again."), when I came across his Daily Bleat on his website. The Bleat is essentially Lileks' diary, dealing first and foremost with his attempts to keep his daughter Natalie ("The Gnat") away from Barney, and if he has time after that, with his commentary on whatever's on his mind.

So a long section about Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library, coffee makers, or a hilarious description of the Dramatic Typing in the new show "24" will be followed by something like this:

"A number of people have sent me some URLs for sites that show Afghan casualties. I appreciate the links, but I’m not certain what I am supposed to do with this information. It’s odd how the very people who often decry the superficiality and image-driven nature of modern culture are often the first to use pictures to change minds. Well, I do know this:

I’m sure the people behind these sites had one devoted to opposing Taliban atrocities prior to 9/11 - in fact, I don’t doubt that they had extensive sites concerning Taliban atrocities. Surely a person of their evident smarts knows the difference between killing civilians as a deliberate matter of state policy and killing them, by error, in the prosecution of war; if the latter bothers them, the former must have occasioned all sorts of website protests. I’m sure the makers of these sites would have put up extensive collections of dead-body from the WTC collapse if the US had not gone to Afghanistan. I’m also sure that they prefer sanctions and diplomacy - unless those sanctions actually hurt civilians, in which case they’d have to be lifted.

I know these things must be true, because the people who make these sites surely do not believe in a moral equivalence between the US and the Taliban. They’re much too smart for that . . ."

What really got my attention was this past Friday's dissemination of "Virtuous Defeatism: [the belief system that says] since it is impossible to do the perfect thing, scorn must be poured on anything that does not attain perfection." It's too long to excerpt, but it's about the third or fourth really strong piece by him in the last few weeks, a string that would make The Bleat worth reading even without his digressions about the creepiness of Dr. Seuss.

On a lighter note, CheapoVegas is an invaluable site for anybody planning to visit Fun City. Hilarious from top to bottom, with dozens of hotel reviews, a pile of trip reports, and hints on where to eat, sleep and gamble for mere pennies a day.
No great insights here regarding this morning's American Airlines crash in Queens, as the eerie surface similarities to September 11 must have been the first thing to involuntarily jolt everybody's thoughts. As I'm guessing was true for most people, I was sitting in the same spot here at work, at almost exactly the same time, when I first heard the news from the same co-worker, followed by some frantic web and radio news searches. Of course, the main difference is that on September 11 my immediate reaction was that something insane and life-altering had happened, whereas this morning it was that a horrible accident -- but only an accident -- took place.

And I suppose this reaction is natural, given the circumstances, but what does it say of me that I can feel even the slightest sense of relief after a plane carrying hundreds of people crashes into a crowded city, based only on the thought that the signs seem to point to human or mechanical failure as opposed to malice? Is it because if I can see these 300 deaths being random it makes me feel somewhat safer, or at least as safe as I did yesterday? Too many thoughts for a busy Monday morning.

November 10, 2001

The votes have been counted, and next year's Convergence 8 Goth-Fest (the annual net.goth convention and music festival, the largest gothic/industrial gathering in North America) will be held in.....Montreal, handily beating Las Vegas, among others. Like most right-thinking people, I've always loved goths, and it's good to know that if I have a hankering to see hundreds, if not thousands, of them, they'll all be conveniently located, albeit in Canada (my guess for the reason behind Montreal's popularity: a legal drinking age of 18).

For all your goth news, check out, if only for the credits: " is maintained by a volunteer army consisting of Fross, Xthlic, Raphrat, Orienell & Macross."

Cool! I've received my first ever link yesterday, from the estimable Matt Welch War Blog. Unfortunately, Gostats picked just this exact moment to shut down, meaning I can't see if anybody has actually clicked on the link to see my site.

I'm guessing not, since it wasn't a particularly impressive letter, just a brief paragraph commenting on his link to this fairly easy-to-criticize Norah Vincent editorial in the L.A. Times, Intimidation Is a Form of Censorship:

"Yanking advertisements from network television shows should also be unconstitutional. This happened recently to Bill Maher, host of the late-night talk show "Politically Incorrect" [...]
Why do I believe that rescinding ad revenue constitute censorship? Don't advertisers have the right to advertise when and where they please? Because Maher's show depends on advertising money for its survival, the advertisers were not just registering their discontent (they could have done that in a written statement), they were knowingly jeopardizing the show and thereby attempting to silence the speaker by forcing him off the air."

This type of reasoning has been a big part of my political shift in recent years, since in its attempt to create a seemingly better present it ignores the obvious consequences. Besides the huge issue of the advertisers' First Amendment rights, if companies are not allowed to rescind advertising due to her interpretation of the First Amendment, shows like Politically Incorrect would simply never get on the air at all, since corporations wouldn't take those kind of risks knowing there was no way out. To me this is similar to the demands after the first few anthrax cases that Bayer's Cipro patents be canceled, ignoring the future negative consequences in pharmaceutical development. Too many of the political arguments I've seen during my life can be ignored after asking the questions "What would happen in the future if this strategy were adapted?" and "Would the good things we have now exist if this strategy had been adopted?"

Anyway, Matt Welch and Brian Hoffman (also on the letters page) do a far better job of discussing this issue than I just did, so just go read those.

November 09, 2001

Life During Wartime: Adoring Portraits of Scumbags Is it just me, or is it a little disturbing that Michael Phillips of the Wall Street Journal visited the USS Peleliu, a warship with 2200 Marines serving on it, and could find nobody better to write about than this prick:

"Entrepreneur sells computer services to restless shipmates
ABOARD THE USS PELELIU, Nov. 9 — Pfc. Bob Winter, trained as an infantry scout, saves his most warlike instincts for business. The 21-year-old Marine has built a thriving commercial enterprise on board this 844-foot amphibious assault ship, providing computer services and software to comrades desperate for entertainment.
When a fellow Marine tried to horn in on his sector of the shipboard economy, the king of the Peleliu rudder barons didn’t sit idle. He refused to sell a piece of copying software to one would-be competitor. And not long ago, he wiped out another upstart’s computer hard drive by selling him a virus-laced version of the ultraviolent game "Ultimate Doom." "I thought it was a rather ironic fate," Pfc. Winter says."

It goes on like this for quite some time.....

Every time I come across an article like this John Leo column, and I've been seeing a lot of them these days, I miss my college years a little less:

"People on the left are now starting to get caught in the anti-free-speech policies set up in the last 20 years to silence dissent. These are the speech codes and anti-bias and anti-harassment policies based on the idea that hurting anyone's feelings is a form of assault. The policies were applied selectively, almost always against conservatives and Christian groups. Now college administrators, responding to a tidal wave of patriotism, are starting to turn these policies against the left."

I've also been reading the site of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization devoted to protecting the rights of free speech on campus. The section on September 11-related issues, is particularly interesting.

November 07, 2001

One of my favorite singer-songwriters, Lyle Lovett, has just come out with a greatest hits collection, which has got me a bit sad. It's not the collection itself, but rather the continuing string of non-original releases that Lyle seems content to continue. The album does feature two new songs (a somewhat grubby marketing technique that I believe Billy Joel, another favorite of mine from way back, invented), but that just underscores the fact that these are his fist two new songs in five years.

Along with the greatest hits, his releases have been Step Inside this House, a collection of covers (which is truly wonderful); an instrumental movie soundtrack; and a live album. In 1996 he released an album of original songs, but before that he released I Love Everybody, made up of songs written before his recording career began. That makes five out his last six albums with essentially no newly written material, a depressing development for this amazing songwriter.


November 01, 2001

Here's a weird connection I just came across, involving my favorite author and a very fine band (especially their collaboration with Billy Bragg on the Mermaid Avenue album: Note: This fall, the band Wilco will reproduce the first chapter of The Franchiser in the liner notes of their new CD. I might have to go pick that up.

As long as I'm here, let me link to a Rick Moody essay about Elkin, and a Stanley Elkin interview. Both links were taken from the Center for Book Culture site.
I've come across some interesting sites about Henry Darger, one of the most fascinating and bizarre figures in 20th century art. Darger lived his life almost completely alone, working as a janitor for most of it, having no family, friends, or money to speak of. There would seem to be nothing to distinguish Darger from any one of millions of people who pass through this world without a trace, except, unbeknownst to everyone around him, Darger spent the bulk of his life creating a massive work of literature and art.

The work was a 15,000-page epic entitled "The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, as caused by the Child Slave Rebellion." Darger also created hundreds of watercolor paintings to illustrate the story. It was a massive undertaking, one for which Darger was the sole intended audience, a work only discovered after his death.

The story (mystery, really) goes far deeper than the brief sketch above. Suffice it to say that he is the reason I sometimes look twice at people I pass on the street, wondering what secret worlds reside in their minds.

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