Hawking Up Hairballs

Friday, March 28, 2008

More Autism Nonsense

Yet further proof that jocks are idiots. There may be the occasional athlete who is intelligent and sensible, but it's a case of the exception that proves the rule. What causes me to bring this up? Well, former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie was in Atlanta to help an autism organization raise money. He has a son who is autistic. A reporter from the local paper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, asked Flutie a number of questions. One of them was whether or not he thought there was a connection between autism and vaccinations. He said that he wasn't a doctor so he don't know what it was, but that there was something going on. As he put it regarding his son Dougie, "All I know is at two, Dougie's shooting hoops and talking smack. Next thing you know, he's tripping over toys." A two-year-old shooting hoops? Yeah, right. And talking smack? What the hell are you talking about Flutie? You're a bozo, Doug, and I'm sacking you, planting you on your back. Correlation doesn't necessarily imply causation. Educate yourself before offering opinions.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Human Smoke

Nicholson Baker's latest book is Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. Baker is the author of ten novels, if my count is correct, but this is a work of non-fiction, consisting of a series of vignettes gleaned from newspapers and contemporary sources in the years leading up to the War and ending on Dec. 31, 1941. Baker doesn't make any arguments as such. He just presents his vignettes and lets the reader draw his own conclusions. He makes his point in the selection of items to include, and his perspective is pacifist. He seems to believe that all wars are horrible and inexcusable, and that there are no good guys to found among the combatants. All are culpable, even in a conflict like World War II.

The book has been well received by some, but it has been harshly criticized by others, particularly those who feel that it was necessary to fight World War II. William Grimes, a book reviewer for the New York Times, is one of those. He found the book muddled and infuriating. I found it neither. It was informative, though it grew tedious. After three or four hundred pages, these short vignettes come to seem the similar, falling into a handful of categories. Nonetheless, I thought that the book was well worth reading.

Most who are critical of the book advance the usual argument that Hitler had to be stopped, given what he was doing to the Jews of Germany and Eastern Europe. Baker dwells upon two points that run counter to that argument. The first is that neither the British nor the Americans were much concerned about the fate of those Jews. Roosevelt, for one, repeatedly refused to expand immigration quotas so that Jews could immigrate to the U.S., even when that was still possible. Baker also seems to believe that, if the British has negotiated an end to hostilities after the German conquest of Poland, the Holocaust would never have taken place. This may well have been true. Hitler wanted to negotiate after his conquest of Poland, and a deal probably could have been struck. How long would it have lasted is another question. Hitler had a history of these seizures. He took Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938. It would have been hard to believe that he could be trusted.

The pivot around which Baker's book turns is the viability of pacificism. Would a refusal to fight lead to peace? Sure, if the refusal was widespread on both sides of the conflict. Unfortunately, the world doesn't work like that. In practice, the logic of pacificism is a hard one. This is made clear in a couple of quotations from Gandhi in the book. Here's one that struck me. He's talking about the prospect of a German invasion of the British Isles. "If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them." Like I said, it's a hard logic, and how does it really differ from war? In either case, mass killing is the result.

Though I'm a pacificist myself by inclination, the just doesn't work in the real world, and the truly sad thing is that, once a war starts, both sides lose. Not only are the soldiers, and possibly civilians, of both sides brutalized, but look at what war does, even to the society of the winners. The main effect of World War Two within America was to establish the military as an overwhelming force in our society. Dwight Eisenhower saw it. When he was president in the 1950's, he warned against the military-industrial complex, but it was too late. That complex was already too strong to rein in.

One thing I hadn't realized before reading Human Smoke was how widespread ant-Semitism was in the West at that time. Baker quotes the public, anti-Semitic remarks of a number of prominent figures. Franklin Roosevelt himself was an anti-Semite, not of the virulent Nazi variety, but a bigot nonetheless. For example, while a lawyer in New York City in 1922, he noticed that one-third of Harvard's freshman class was Jewish. At the time, he was on the college's Board of Overseers, and he brought the issue up with them. To quote Roosevelt from Baker's book, "It was decided that over a period of years the number of Jews should be reduced one or two percent a year until it was down to 15%."

And while I'm on the topic of Roosevelt, he dearly wanted to get into the war, but there was little public support for entry, so Roosevelt engaged in a series of provocations. As Henry Stimson, his secretary of war, wrote in his diary on Nov. 25, 1941, "The question was how we should maneuver them (the Japanese) into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves." They didn't expect an attack on Pearl Harbor. They thought it would come in some place like the Philipines.

As for Winston Churchill, it's clear that he was a brute, and a fascist by temperament, a man who absolutely loved war. He was a fervent admirer of Mussolini. As he said in Oct. 1937, "It would be a dangerous folly for the British people to underrate the enduring position in world history which Mussolini will hold, or the amazing qualities of courage, comprehension, self-control and perseverance that he exemplifies."

I could go on, but I will close with an anecdote which made me smile and shake my head. In October 1941, Heinrich Himmler, German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop, and Mussolini's son-in-law, Count Ciano went hunting together. Ciano shot 620 pheasants, Ribbentrop 410, and Himmler 95. It sounds like those boys would have gotten along famously with Dick Cheney.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Yadda Yadda

I used the title above because I don't want to have to write the name of Tod Wodicka's novel more than once. It's All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well. As you can guess from the snide remark, I didn't much like this book. The New York Times reviewer, Janet Maslin, made it sound like it a quirky, comic novel, and that's probably what Wodicka intended, but it doesn't measure up.

Here's the set-up. The main character, one Burt Hecker, is a sixty-three-year-old widower who has made a mess of his life. He has found reality so difficult to deal with that he long ago retreated into the world of medieval re-enactments. He has pretty much lived as his medieval character, Eckbert Attquiet, for years. That means dressing in the proper garb, a dagger-edged, taffeta tunic, and sandals. It also means only eating period food, and drinking mead. Lots of mead. Burt has also become a drunk, and it's only made things worse for him.

Burt is estranged from his two grown children, and Wodicka's novel is the story of his attempt to come to some sort of reconciliation with them. In the end, he fails. And you know what? I didn't care. That's the biggest problem with Yadda Yadda. Burt is such a pathetic loser, and so incorrigibly so, that I didn't much like him. I kept thinking that he was only getting what he deserved. It could have been a much better novel. Burt kind of reminded me of the Ignatious J. Reilly character from A Confederacy of Dunces, though a Reilly who'd grown old and unfunny. There should have been some great comic possibilities in such a character, but Wodicka failed to find them. The book jacket says that Wodicka lives in Berlin. Maybe it was the climate there in Germany, cold and overcast, with that Nazi past lurking in the background. It wouldn't seem to lend itself to much comedy that isn't political.

As for the other characters, they weren't really likeable either. Burt's two children, a daughter and a son, both come off as whiny and self-involved. His mother-in-law, with whom he has never gotten along, seems like she was cribbed from the evil grandmother character played by Cloris Leachman in the TV comedy, Malcolm in the Middle.

I'm being hard on Wodicka's book, and that's not the fashion these days, especially among the younger generation. They favor the anodyne approach to writing reviews. If you can't say anything good, don't say anything at all. That seems to now apply to the Times' Books section. (Except in the case of books like Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke. But more on that in a future entry.) I went back and re-read Maslin's review after finishing Yadda Yadda. It seemed to me that she was trying to say positive things about the book, even though she didn't much care for it. Of course, that just may have been my biases at work. In any case, I will now read the Times' reviews more carefully before deciding whether or not I want to spend any time with the book under consideration.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Waffle What?

Every year in Atlanta, thousands of people turn out to participate in the Peachtree Road Race on the morning of July Fourth. It's a 6K race that has been held for a good thirty years or more. So, it's what you might call a tradition. It's not up there with Confederate Memorial Day, but it's still a tradition. Anyway, here I am, checking out the Atlanta Journal Constitution's web site, something I do every morning. Right there on the first page of the site is an ad for the race, and it informs me that its sponsor is Waffle House restaurants. Say what? I had to grab the edge of the table for fear that I would fall out of my chair. That couldn't be right. I exited Internet Explorer, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. I figured I must have entered some alternate universe by accident, someplace where the world as we know it had been turned upside down. I reopened Internet Explorer and tried again, but it was still there. Sponsored by Waffle House restaurants.

Talk about money poorly spent. Unless they've transformed themselves recently, it's more likely that the Waffle House restaurants would be picketed by the American Heart Association than that they would be frequented by runners. Sit down there and order an egg-white omelet or something of that sort. At best you'd be laughed out of the place. At worst, you just might find the waitress's pencil buried in your eye. The chain's management really should have a talk with their marketing people. Wouldn't they be more likely to scare up business by advertising at someplace like NASCAR events? Or maybe at one of those dog fights conducted by former Atlanta Falcon quarterback, Michael Vick. Perhaps they could sponsor some sort of an all-you-can-eat contest, one with a regional theme. The person who can down the most barbecue pork gets a free defibrillator and fifty percent off his of first ambulance ride to the emergency room.

I haven't eaten at a Waffle House in decades, and that's no exaggeration, so maybe I'm off-base here. Maybe the CEO is a dedicated marathoner. Maybe they've added fresh fruit to their menus. There might even be low-fat, vegetarian items on the menu now. But, the Waffle House? Naw.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

More Dexter

I've watched the last episode of the first season of "Dexter". If I'm not mistaken, Showtime is presently showing the second season. I don't know if I'll watch it when it comes out on DVD. I can't imagine the series having legs, and I'm not referring to the main character's penchant for dismembering his victims. In the final episode, Dexter rescues his sister from a serial killer who happens to be his brother. See, the show's producers already getting ridiculous. There's a cop who doesn't like him and has nebulous, though not well-founded, suspicions about him. As I mentioned earlier, Dexter framed his girl friend's ex-husband on a drug charge. At the close of this last episode, she finds her ex-husband's shoe in the yard, leading her to wonder whether Dexter had indeed framed her ex. There's your set-up for the next season. The cop will undoubtedly continue to bird-dog him, and the girl friend's suspicions will grow, but it doesn't sound promising to me. The problem is the nature of Dexter's character. He's a psychopath. He's not going to form any new meaningful relationships, or he shouldn't anyway.

One thing has been nagging me as I've watched the series. Julie Benz, who plays Dexter's girl friend, looked so familiar to me, but I couldn't remember where I'd seen her before. Just last night it hit me. She was in As Good As It Gets, the romantic comedy starring Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt. Benz's role was little more than a walk-on. Nicholson played Morris Udall, a very successful writer of romance novels, and Benz was the gushing receptionist at his agent's office. When Udall was visiting the office, Benz told him she just had to ask, "How do you write women so well?" Udall responds with, "I think of a man, and I take away reason and responsibility." Call me a misogynist, but that made me laugh, especially with the deadpan way Nicholson delivered the line. It's strange though that I should remember Benz from that role. She wasn't even on-screen for a full minute.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Mercury Nuts

John McCain has joined the mercury nut brigade. On Feb. 29, at a town hall meeting in Texas, McCain said that there is "strong evidence" linking the mercury-containing compound thimerosal to the recent rise in autism in the US. Beginning way back in the 1930's, vaccine manufacturers began adding thimerosal to their products as a preservative. When some people began to speculate that there could be problems with the additive, manufacturers discontinued the practice. That was in 1999. However, numerous scientific studies in both Europe and the USA have failed to show any causal connection between thimerosal and autism.

Unfortunately, something of a know-nothing movement has grown up among a lot of the parents of the autistic, blaming their children's condition on the chemical. They have been given a lot of press time too. The actress Jenny McCarthy, who has an autistic son, firmly believes that his condition was caused by vaccination, and she's made herself something of a spokesperson for the position. She's been on the Oprah Winfrey Show, among other venues, and everyone knows that, if Oprah gives something her imprimatur, it must be right. Now, comes John McCain, endorsing this nonsense.

This movement could have tragic consequences. Those parents who are influenced may not be inclined to have their children vaccinated, and that's just short of criminal. Whatever negative consequences there might be to childhood vaccinations, and there are a few, all children should receive them. The positives far outweigh any possible problems. I had measles when I was seven years old, and it caused me to contract mastitis. It wasn't pleasant, but children don't have to worry about that anymore. There's a vaccine for measles. I'm also old enough to remember the fear of polio. There were kids in my school who wore braces after contracting the disease. That is a thing of the past, and we're better off for it.

So, how did this movement come about. I attribute it to ignorance. A number of parents, including McCarthy, noticed that their children began to show the symptoms of autism shortly after receiving their vaccinations. They put two and two together and came up with three. They made the jump from correlation to causation. But just because the onset of autism happens at about the same time as vaccination, that doesn't necessarily imply a causal connection. The fact of the matter is that it is coincidence. Autism tends to show itself at about the same age as when children receive their vaccinations. It's the nature of the condition. Then why has there been an increase in cases of autism in recently years? The most widely accepted opinion is that the medical profession has become better at diagnosing it. I tend to agree with that assessment, at least until other evidence becomes available. In the past, those who were mildly autistic were often just thought of as a bit odd and lacking in social skills. Now they are diagnosed.*

The drug companies and the medical establishment must bear the blame for this sort of phenomenon. They are constantly pushing drugs upon us for conditions that are largely the creation of their marketing departments, conditions like Restless Leg Syndrome and Fibromyalgia.** The FDA has largely abandoned its role as an advocate for the public, and it seems like every few months a drug is being withdrawn because of negative side effects. Is it any wonder that people don't trust what they're told by their doctors?

* Whether or not the condition is over-diagnosed, I can't say, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was. That seems to happen a lot these days, and it's in the interest of the medical establishment to extend the definitions of the conditions they treat. That way the drug companies can sell more product, and those who specialize in treating the various conditions can extend the reach of their specialties.

** Fibromyalgia was discovered and named by a physician in the early 1990's. He has since concluded that he was wrong, and has repudiated his discovery. That hasn't stopped one pharmaceutical company from pushing a drug for its treatment in TV ads.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


Last year, the Showtime channel started a series called "Dexter". I saw some of the advertisements for it on other channels, but I don't subscribe to Showtime, so I didn't see the series itself. I didn't think I would like it anyway. The character Dexter was a serial killer who worked for the Miami police department. That sounded kind of lame to me. Did they arrest some serial killer, then let him off if he would help catch others of his ilk? I couldn't see that as a premise that would work. It really sounded like a crock to me.

Still, a couple of people I know who subscribe to Showtime told me that it was really good. Then, a few weeks back, they started showing the series on CBS on Sunday nights. I watched the first episode and I must confess that I'm hooked. The first season is on four DVD's that are available from Netflix. I've already watched the first three, and the fourth will get here Wednesday. I will probably watch it in a single sitting. The premise of "Dexter" isn't anything like what I had thought it would be. The character really is a psychopath, who cannot empathize with others, and he's a serial killer as well. He straps his victims down to a table and cuts them up while they're still alive. When he's finished killing his victim, Dexter chops up the body, puts the pieces into plastic garbage bags, and disposes of them at sea.

In spite of all that, I find myself liking the character of Dexter. It's what the show's producers are aiming for, and they've been successful. Lots of people apparently like the show and the character. I asked myself how the producers were able to pull that off. For one thing, Dexter may not be on the side of the angels, but he's standing with the good guys, and he has principles. He only kills people who have gotten away with murder themselves, in one form or another. To emphasize that point, Dexter is shown turning down the opportunity to kill people who are not guilty of heinous crimes. For example, Dexter is dating a woman who has two children. Her husband is in prison on drug charges. He was a big-time junkie and he used to beat his wife severely. He gets out of jail, and starts threatening his ex-wife. He wants to come back into her life, and she doesn't want him to. He's demanding unsupervised visits with his kids. He's constantly on the verge of violence. Dexter finally intervenes. He knocks the guy out, hauls him back to where he was staying, and lays him down on the bed. You're expecting Dexter to kill the man. Instead, after injecting him with heroin, Dexter calls the cops, who find the hubbie high and with the needle still in his arm. He goes back to prison for life for violating the three strikes rule. As Dexter said, he needed to go away, but he didn't deserve killing.

Now, I have to say that the show's producers also cheat. In the first few episodes, Dexter says that he's only dating the woman he's seeing because he wants to appear normal. He likes the fact that she had an abusive husband because she's no longer interested in sex. Several episodes later, sex does enter the picture, and it's clear that Dexter does have affection for her. Likewise, he cares very much for his step-sister. That doesn't fit with the sort of psychopath who kills people the way he does. Of course, for narrative purposes, he has to care about someone, so I don't really hold that against the show. I might also add that Michael C. Hall does a masterful job of portraying Dexter. He really seems to have gotten into the character. He can be amiable one moment, and kind of creepy the next. It's very convincing.

All that said, I'm still left feeling uneasy. I should be disgusted by the show. No matter what these people did, this guy doesn't have the right to judge them and kill them.* And that right there is the pivot around which the show turns. Without really meaning to do so, it deconstructs the archetype of the good-guy vigilante. Hollywood churns out picture after picture starring the likes of Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal, John Claude Van Damm, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold the Governor, etc., administering their own brands of vigilante justice. However, these guys are warriors. They kill because they have to, not because they enjoy the act of killing in itself. A vigilante like Dexter puts the archetype in a different light. When he kills, he isn't just getting rid of the bad guy. He really is killing, up close and personal. It doesn't make you feel any better to know that his victims are bad guys. It calls into question the archetype itself.

We in the USA are particularly enamored with the good-guy vigilante. It's often the role in which we see ourselves on the international stage. The Bush administration certainly bought into that image when it invaded Iraq. We kicked ass and took names, disposing of Sadaam and his minions in quick order. We saw ourselves as the heroes in an action movie. Hell, Bruce Willis was even a big supporter of Bush and the war. Unfortunately, things rarely work out the way they do in the movies. Reality proved a lot more intractable than the reality that the Busheviks thought they were creating. Now, several years later, after Abu Ghraib and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, the war is more in the spirit of Dexter than the Hollywood action boys.

* I might also mention that, in real life, it's often not so clear who's really a bad guy. I don't think that there are many killers of the sort that Dexter disposes of walking around on the streets. As is mentioned in the show, the FBI estimates that there are about 50 serial killers at large in the US. Miami would seem to have more than its share, given that Dexter ferrets one out for himself in just about every episode.