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Sometimes, it just gets weird...

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My newest client, a non-profit, had it's opening fundraising event for the summer tonight at a mega-church.  I've never geen to a mega-church before and, other than a very large congregation, wasn't entirely sure what defined a mega-church.  Tonight, I think I figured it out.  This is what I saw:

Coffee-Shop.  Not an urn with paper cups and non-dairy creamer next to it.  No, think Starbucks.  Really.  A large Starbucks at that.  Really.  With cookies and energy bars. 

Bookstore.  It isn't a large bookstore but, then again, there are very many large bookstores left anyway.  Books.  Magazines.  CDs.  DVDs.  Many.  Lots of Bibles, of course.

The facility is very large.  When I entered the main room of the church, there was a band playing Christian rock-and-roll music.  The band is flanked by two very large video screens with a third behind the band.  The lyrics for the songs being sung are closed-captioned on the video screens.  It's a three-camera production with studio-level production quality.  There's a light show.  There's smoke trailing tendrils through the lights.  The music is loud.  Everyone's standing.  Hands are raised.  People are singing along.  There is swaying.  There is applause. 

Then there's a skit.  The skit is all about the three charities the church is pledging to support this summer.  The first is a pledge to help 20 local schools.  The second is a food drive for children.  The third is the charity I'm supporting:  The Red Window Project.  Red Window helps people who have escaped human trafficking by educating them and preparing them for careers. 

After the skit comes the sermon.  I had the very good fortune to hear a well-prepared, well-delivered sermon on Galtians, specifically, why the law (Jews) is obsolete and is replaced by grace created when Jesus died on the cross and saved us all and we don't have to do anything at all to receive this gift and we don't have to obey the law. 

Okay, I feel singled out.  Jews are gravely mistaken, etc., etc., etc.  I am doomed. 

And after the sermon?  That's it.  Show's over.  No closing song.  A closing prayer?  Yes. 

Several thousand people were present.  Afterwards, they're buying coffee.  The cookies are available for a free-will donation. 

There are two satellite churches.  One's in Walnut Creek and the other is in Brentwood.  They've been connected to the event via a video feed.  I have no idea how many other congregants are participating in all of this but the number be very, very impressive. 

The congregants in the main church in Livermore have arrived in casual dress.  The men wear Hawaiian shirts and shorts.  The women are wearing a much wider variety of dress.  Some are wearing flowing summer dresses reaching the ground.  Others are wearing those pants that are hemmed mid-calf.  The day has been summer-hot.  It was the first hottest day of the year. In Livermore and Pleasanton it reached 100 in the sun.

It was a good experience for me.  There wasn't much "gray" area regarding the philosophy or theology for me.  --That is all. 

Figured something out this morning...

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I rode to / from my 6.45a meeting.  That's about 9m (considering I got lost once).  After I got back home, I felt like I was going to throw up.  And that's when I had my realization:  That's how this exercise thing works.  It's so strenuous people can't eat. 

Tags:

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1956. Second US production of Waiting for Godot. Broadway. Bert Lahr (the cowardly lion) and E.G. Marshall (12 Angry Men, The Defenders...) headline the cast. And, as it is said, the rest is history. Samuel Beckett didn't have to worry ever again about putting food on the table.

Writing.

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I'm taking a break from writing the book to write to you.  You know how it is with writing.  Before I sit down I need to fix myself a beverage.  Then I need to light a scented candle. Then I need to adjust the window shades.  Then I sit down and turn on the computer and while it's starting up, I start to wonder if I should eat dinner now, early, or later, which could be problematic as I don't like to eat close to bedtime.  When the computer finally is standing up straight and tall, asking me for instructions, I need to make a quick check of my email.  There are probably a couple missives I must respond to Right Now.  After that, I'll open the document and find my place in it.  By then, I need to refill my beverage and while I'm in the kitchen I notice the ice maker needs to be thawed and re-started so I take care of that right now because I need ice while I'm writing.  Once that is done I can sit down at my desk and start to work on my book and I get a text from daughter number one and I can't ignore that so we exchange about two dozen texts before I can return to my writing.  I take a look at the screen get a grip on what needs to be done next and then I have to use the bathroom thanks to those two beverages.  While I'm up, the sun and moved and the shades need to be re-adjusted before I can sit back down and continue writing.  Writing drives me to be a good home maker.  Instead of writing, I'll vacuum, dust, polish, scrub, wash, dry, fold, put-away.  Instead of writing, I'll have long debates with myself about which radio station I should listen to.  Stoppard has his own ritual.  He sits in a nice reading chair, opens his notebook, arranges eight cigarettes on the arm of the chair, and when he's done smoking them, he's done for the day. 

But overall, I'm glad to write. 

This will be a new experience...

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I just scheduled my first two trips on the Americans with Disabilities Act bus.  They're simple trips, to and from a couple of doctor appointments this week.  If all goes well, this will become a regular part of my transportation repetoire.  Reservations are set for Wednesday and Friday.  --Fingers are crossed. 

I finally figured out...

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Why I get so depressed and anxious about most of the culture I walk through ever day: 

I'm surrounded by the banal, the ugly and the thoughtless.  It isn't so hard to select something beautiful and interesting instead of its opposite.  We could be constantly surrounded beauty and elegance.  Instead, this is the exception these days, not the rule. 

I Don't Want a Lover

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I Don't Want a Lover.

I don't want a lover.

Infatuations fall out of fashion.

I don't want someone who's beautiful

Because a pretty thing is like a sweater:

Moths feast on it during the summer and

Come autumn I might want something new.

Besides, pretty things don't keep me warm

When bitter winter winds creep under the door.

I don't want a living doll with that empty head

Who can't banter and joke and rhyme.

It's the empty pot makes biggest racket

When struck with a spoon.


And I especially don't want someone who's perfect

Because she'll eventually regard me with contempt

As all my flaws are found out and examined.

This is What I Want:

A Friend:

Because a true friend will always be there,

Holding an umbrella,

When the rain begins to fall.

A Partner:

Because a true partner will always have my back

And I will always try to protect her from adversities.

An Artist:

Because surely artists collaborate with God

And create beautiful work never before imagined,

Making this world a much better place.

And I want a Teacher.

Someone who'll instruct me

Because I have so much left to learn.

And perhaps I can return the favor in my own way.

If I am ever blessed by someone with these qualities

Only then will all the earth melt away

From a fiery passion

Kindled from respect and admiration.

And I will be complete.


Just finished listening to...

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... The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.  It wasn't as tragic as I thought it might be, but it was still rather damn sad.  In many places, the book reminds me of Brideshead Revisited, especially as it describes the halcyon days of priviledged youth and the unfortunate end some lives reach.  Even the theme of traditional religion. 

All in all, I enjoyed it and may even read it. 
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image from www.newyorker.com The photo to the left explains the popularity of the Hipstamatic application for the iPhone.  But other than that, it's a photo of Joyce Carol Oates and her beloved husband Raymond Smith from outside their home in Windsor, Ontario in 1970, about nine years after they were married. 

The photograph is from Ms. Oates personal collection and was posted to The New Yorker's website to accompany the publication of Ms. Oates memoir of her husband's death -- and I highly recommend you read the article from the December 13, 2010 issue.

Ms. Oates has a special place in my heart for three reasons. 

1.  Most importantly, she is an amazing writer who has has proven she can write anything, froma Gothic Romance to a study on the sweet science of boxing.  Her writing is lovely and stories always capture my imagination.

2. & 3.  She's ... odd, prolific, and oddly prolific.  I was blessed with the opportunity to cross paths her a couple of times.   My first job in NYC was at E.P.Dutton, one of her publishers.  One publisher was not enough to keep up with her.  While I worked at Dutton, she published two sizable novels, Bellfleur and Angels of Light.  Inbetween, there were the short stories, criticism, novellas and her work on husband Smith's journal,  Actually there was so much work to published, she put two different pen names to work in addition to her own.  Oh, and the poetry.  Oh, and there was her own literary journal, The Ontario Review.  --Oh, and there was the full-time gig at Princeton.  Because she was so busy, and because her audience isn't really susceptible to media hype, Ms. Oates didn't do many interviews, but she did a radio interview while I was there that was organized by one of my bosses, Jean Rawitt.  Ms. Rawitt returned to the office following the interview and the legendary Lois Shapiro, the director of pulicity at Dutton (and latter The Free Press), asked Ms. Rawitt how it went.  Apparently, according to Jean, the interviewer asked Ms. Oates how it was she was able to produce such a prodigious volume of work.  Ms. Oates replied that it wasn't hard at all, she just typed up what the voices in her head had to say.  --And that was the end of the interviews for a while. 

And I admire someone who, in the course of their profession, transcends this grey, slumbering realm and enters into another world that is obviously more alive and vibrant and, of course, imaginative and vivid.  And this is how I usually select my favorite artists.  Can an ordinary human, scuffling around here in the shadows, create art on the order of Moby Dick? The Ring of the Nibelung? Bach's Cello Sonatas?  Leaves of Grass? The second side of Abby Road?  Obviously, I don't think so.  At the very least, these works result from -- at least -- a dialog between the artist and a higher power and, more likely, a visit to this other realm where, like this Prometheus, she steals some fire and, on return to here, some spark survives.  And the artist tends after the ember until she's able to fan it into flame. 

Ms. Oates is a wild and uncontrollable force whose gusts ignites all those tiny sparks she tends to with such loving care.  I've always worried about her because, she's so small, so thin-boned, those gust would snap her or that such flames would consume her.  But, just like the thin-boned bird, her wings carry her above us all.  Amen.

Because I'm Obsessed....

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image from upload.wikimedia.org There is a rumor that Billy Crudup will appear in a revival of Arcadia that might open in New York early next year.  Crudup appeared in the original Lincoln Center production in 1993 playing Septimus and completely stole my heart as Belinsky in Coast of Utopia. 

Now you know.  We can make a weekend of it and see both Arcadia and the Julie Taymor production of Tempest.  It would be grand I'm sure.  Who's in? 

It could have very well been this line...

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... from Jumpers that made me fall hopelessly, deeply and endlessly in love with Tom Stoppard:

It was precisely this notion of infinite series which in the sixth century BC led the Greek philosopher Zeno to conclude that since an arrow shot towards a target first had to cover half the distance, and then half the remainder, and then half the remainder after that, and so on ad infinitum, the result was, as I will now demonstrate, that though an arrow is always approaching its target, it never quite gets there, and Saint Sebastian died of fright.

If I knew I was this stupid...

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Oh, gosh...... I'd probably eat a bullet. 

This just in:  Einstein's Theory of Relativity is a left wing conspiracy. 

The latest debate erupted when Conservapedia.com posted a definition of relativity charging that it was part of an ideological plot, and then added a list of counterexamples it says disprove Einstein’s theories. The postings were picked up by the liberal blog TPMMukraker (tpmmuckraker.com) and then went viral.

Conservapedia is the creation of Andrew Schlafly, the 49-year-old lawyer son of Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-abortion activist. He has a degree in engineering physics from Princeton University and a law degree from Harvard Law School. Schlafly, who did not respond to repeated attempts to interview him, founded Conservapedia three years ago — reportedly because he feels that Wikipedia (the dominant online encyclopedia and one of the most visited websites in the world) has a liberal, anti-Christian, anti-American bias.
  [more]

So, let's get this straight:  A good degree from a good school is no guarantee one isn't completely insane or stupid. 

True Confession.

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One of my favorite movies is Holiday, 1938, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon.  I cry every time I see it.  Hepburn navigate the path between loving sister, eccentric daughter and muse with such eloquence and affection and class. 

Two years later, they would come together again in the widely praised (justifiably so) Philadelphia Story and rock the world.  Holiday foreshadows that movie and more. 

Hepburn was already a star in the firmament having appeared in Little Women and Bringing Up Baby (again with Cary Grant), the movie that immediately preceded Holiday. 

They were an amazing team and I will insist that they were the best couple on screen. 
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image from dailyexhaust.com The New York Times continues its crusade / jihad / words of warning about our new digital culture in yet another series kicking off in today's paper, penned by the inexhaustable Matt Richtel. Actually, Mr. Richtel did some promotional media appearances before today's story, notably an appearance on Fresh Air. (Highly recommended.)

We have crossed the Rubicon between accumulated anecdotal evidence and into the land of science. Observe:

“Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories,” said Loren Frank, assistant professor in the department of physiology at the university, where he specializes in learning and memory. He said he believed that when the brain was constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process.” [more]

I've noticed this line of reporter before and will continue to track it as I have a very deep, lifelong and generational interest. Furthermore, the idea strikes me as completely correct and valid based on my own personal experience. I recently participated in an unplanned separate from my devices and I re-discovered something important in my life: reading books. Now, some of you who know me might find that to be a rather bizarre comment as I've spent my life surrounded by and immersed in books. But, for about the past year, I've had difficulty sustaining my attention long enough to blaze through a book as I did in days gone by. Well, this cherished skill has returned, and I plan on keeping it this time.

Please listen to Mr. Richtel on Fresh Air and decide for yourself.

By the way, this meme is creeping into popular culture too. I've been enjoying the new AMC series, Rubicon and it's all about intelligence analysts. Now, one might guess that, in the 21stC, this work would be done on hydra-headed computers connected to multiple DS3 feeds. Wrong. Aside from the occasional conversation with a computer technician who's literally locked in a cage as if he's a feral animal, all the real work is done on pads of paper and pencils.

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image from www.chrishorner.net We are blessed with an amazing selection of amazing recordings of Mahler's symphonies.

The first one that comes to mind is the insanely wild Bernstein / Columbia complete recording. Completests will note that Berstein's second recording of the complete Mahler Symphonies for Deutsch Gramophone is better only on the merit of its sonic fidelity.

The next one that comes to my mind is by Bernstein's protege, Michael Tilson Thomas and I don't think I'm including that here just because Maestro Thomas is the home town team. This version is more thoughtful than passionate and perhaps that's because Maestro Bernstein had a monopoly on passion.

A recent issue of the Forward includes a story about Mahler on the occasion of a his 150th birthday and EMI's release of a sixteen-disk collection of Mahler's complete works with no less than nine, count them, nine comparative performances of "I Am Lost to the World." The EMI edition, Mahler: The Complete Works, 150th Anniversary Box, is price only at $48.18 at Amazon and strikes me as a bargain, especially in light of the fact the conductors for the set include Simon Rattle, John Barbirolli, Otto Klemperer, Klaus Tennstedt and George Szell. That's a line up that would do the Yankees proud.

I haven't read many reviews yet of this edition, but am confident it's a good investment and as soon as I'm able to scratch together the investment, I'll let you know what I think.

Parsha Re'eh.

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This I have prepared for Congregation Beth Emek.  I'll be co-leading a service in a couple of weeks.


Parshat Re'eh:
This week, we study Parshat Re'eh beginning in Deuteronomy chapter eleven, verse twenty-six and continues through chapter sixteen, verse seventeen and this is a summary of the parsha:

Moses instructs us to absolutely destroy any remnant of idolatry lingering in our habits and beliefs and we are to work just as hard building our strength to perform all the mitzvot. Building on this theme in the third and fourth aliyot, Moses tells us to be vigilant about pagan practices to ensure they are not incorporates into our worship and Moses goes on to warn us about false prophets. In the fifth, sixth and seventh aliyot, Moses enumerates the mitzvot including the observance of Pesach, Shavout and Succot. This is the exposition of the drash but, as I am an English Major, I noticed repeated words scattered throughout the drash that ring like a set of chords repeated in a piece of music establishing a leitmotif so, like Hansel and Gretel, I followed this trail of bread crumbs to see where it would take me. Herewith: breadcrumbs:

Deuteronomy 12:7:
And there you shall eat before the Lord, your God, and you shall rejoice in all your endeavors you and your households, as the Lord, your God, has blessed you.

Deuteronomy 12:12:
And you shall rejoice before the Lord, your God you and your sons and your daughters and your menservants and your maidservants, and the Levite who is within your cities...

Deuteronomy 12:18:
But you shall eat them before the Lord, your God, in the place the Lord, your God, will choose you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, and the Levite who is in your cities, and you shall rejoice before the Lord, your God, in all your endeavors.

Deuteronomy 14:26:
And you shall rejoice, you and your household.

Deuteronomy 15:16:
Seven days you shall celebrate the Festival to the Lord, your God, in the place which the Lord shall choose, because the Lord, your God, will bless you in all your produce, and in all the work of your hands, and you will only be happy.

Deuteronomy 16:11:
And you shall rejoice before the Lord, your God, -you, and your son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant, and the Levite who is within your cities, and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are among you, in the place which the Lord, your God, will choose to establish His Name therein.

Deuteronomy 16:15:
And you shall rejoice in your Festival-you, and your son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are within your cities. You shall hold a festival of the Lord your G-d seven days, in the place that the Lord will choose; for the Lord your G-d will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy.

So there's a whole lot of joy in this parsha, more joy than any other drash we read during the year. Now, let's put this drash within the context and continuity of our Jewish experience and open the calendar to find out how this drash might inform our understanding of this season and vice versa and we find the Re'eh is exactly eighteen days following Tisha B'Av, the absolutely darkest day on our calendar. How dark is it? Well, it's like this: Tisha B'Av marks events ranging from Hashem's decision to make us wander in the desert for forty years to the destruction of the first and second temple to the mass deportation of the Jews from the Warsaw ghetto with a whole lot more grim stuff literally shoved in for good measure. Temple Isaiah in Lafayette observes Tisha B'Av by sitting on the floor reading the book of Lamentations by candle light and Chabad breaks the Tish'a B'Av's fast by eating hard boiled eggs dipped in ashes. Yum.

Tisha B'Av kicks off the period that peaks with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and concludes with Succot, and you'll remember Succot is described in this week's parsha. Right now we are living within a period of time marked on one end by the destruction of the finest home our people will ever, never have, the authentic Temple in Jerusalem, and on the other end of the time scale, we build a flimsy house that does absolutely nothing to shelter us from Hashem's elements. This is a period that includes some celebration but is mostly associated with, at the very least uncertainty, tension, discomfort. And for those who really immerse themselves in the Days of Awe, we might wear a kittle, something like a shroud to remind us Hashem is reviewing our very physical and spiritual continuity. Joyful? I think not. Presented with the difficulty of understanding Re'eh's commandment to be joyful ; grim holy with the despair of Tisha B'Av I followed the path every Torah student takes to the teachings of all the rabbis ever.

And this what I learned from Rabbi Alan Lew of San Francisco and author of a book about the Days of Awe call This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared. Tisha B'Av reminds us that Jews are separated from the other peoples of the world because, among other reasons, no other people have suffered so much for so long as us. While, on its own that's some cold comfort, we must follow the thought to include the obvious fact that we are here today, in the splendor of Pleasanton and our beautiful shul. We have survived and, perhaps that's a tiny spark of light.

But there's more. Re'eh reminds us of the mitzvot, what we – you and me and every other Jew alive or dead – received at Sinai. God appeared to us. All of us then and now and the covenant between us and God was signed and sealed, not through an intermediary as is uniformly the case with the world's other religions, but directly with us. But wait, there's more.

Rabbi Isaac Luria was a 16th century rabbi in the sacred and mystic community of Safed says this about the mitzvot and how we are to perform the mitzvot: G-d teaches us that performance of His commandments must be accompanied by a greater joy than the joy one feels for all the material blessings G-d has bestowed. It is not enough merely to serve the Lord and obey His commandments, we must do so joyfully. Rabbi Luria points out that our material possessions, including our health and our emotional well being is but a brief moment that will certainly pass. So, instead of investing our joy into a house of cards, better we should find the certainty of our spiritual life because G-d has certainly set us on a path – our mitzvot -- and this must fill us with a joy greater than any other. We are told to travel down that path, perform the mitzvot, and that should double our joy. The way is difficult, extremely difficult, and, honestly, we don't know where this path will take us. But it is our path and our work and, because life is not about standing still, we must dance on down the road in joy.
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Esther-dysonIf one is very, very blessed, there will appear two or three teachers who will completely change our view of the world and point us towards undiscovered continents of understanding and wisdom.  So, I've been especially blessed.

Esther Dyson, through her writings and conferences, taught me more about information technology that I could have imagined.  But more than just that, she taught me how to think.  And even more than that, Ms. Dyson taught me how to think about thinking. 

On this day in 1951, Ms. Dyson was born in Zurich and this small corner of the world has never been the same.  So I will join my voice with Juan and Alice and wish Ms. Dyson a very happy birthday and wish her many, many more. 

Thanks for everything. 

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image from www.realc.emory.edu Some time ago, I was blessed to attend the "marathon" production of Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia, three plays about the intellectual underpinnings of the Russian Revolution.  It was another life changing event for me. 

My favorite character in the plays is Vissarion Belinsky, a Russian literary critic who was a friend of Alexander Herzen and Mikhail Bakunin.  In the first of the three plays, Voyage, Belinsky is vacationing at Bakunin's family estate.  He's amazed by the contrast of the culture and the wealthy and the 500 serfs in service to his friend's father.  Early in his stay at the estate, he's drawn out and reveals his purpose and perspective.  It was a gift to receive this in the first act of the first of three plays that would stretch out all afternoon and evening.  I you like what follows, I'll be posting the second monologue as soon as I get it typed up. 

Mikhail Bakunin: You said we had no literature.

Vissarion Belinsky: That's what I write. We haven't. We have a small number of masterpieces, how
could we not, there are so many of us, a great artist will turn up from time to time in much smaller countries than Russia. But as a nation we have no literature because what we have isn't ours, it's like a party where everyone has has to come dressed up as somebody else – Byron, Voltaire, Goethe, Schiller, Shakespeare and the rest … I am not an artist. My play was no good. I am not a poet. A poem can't be written by an act of will. When the rest of us are trying our hardest to be present, a real poet goes absent. We can watch him in the moment of creation, there he sits with the pen in his hand, not moving. When it moves, we've missed it. Where did he go in that moment? The meaning of art lies in the answer to that question. To discover it, to understand it, to now the difference between it happening and not happening, this is my whole purpose in life, and it is not a contemptible calling in our country where our liberties cannot be discussed because we have none, and science or politics can't be discussed for the same reason. A Critic does double duty here. If something true can be understood about art, something will be understood about liberty, too, and science and politics and history – because everything in the universe is unfolding together with a purpose of which mine is a part. You are right to laugh at me because I don't know German or French. But the truth of idealism would be plain to me if I had heard one sentence of Schelling shouted through my window by a man on a galloping horse.  When philosophers start talking like architects, get out while you can, chaos is coming. When they start laying down rules for beauty, blood in the streets if from that moment inevitable. When reason and measurement are made authorities for the perfect society, seek sanctuary among the cannibals... Because the answer is not out there like America waiting for Columbus, the same answer fro everybody forever. The universal idea speaks through humanity itself, and differently through each nation in each stage of its history. When the inner life of a nation speaks through the unconscious creative spirit of its artists, for generation after generation – then you have a national literature. That's why we have none. Look at us! – a gigantic child with a tiny head stuffed full of idolatry for everything foreign … and a huge inert body abandoned to its own muck, a continent of vassalage and superstition, an Africa of know-nothing have-nothings without a notion of a better life, or the wit to be discontented drunk or sober, that's your Russia, held together by police informers, and fourteen ranks of uniformed flunkeys – how can we have a literature? Folk tales and foreign models, that's our lot, swooning over our imitation Racines and Walter Scotts – our literature is nothing but an elegant pastime for the upper classes, like dancing or cards. How did it happen?  How did this disaster befall us? Because we were never trusted to grow up, we're treated like children and we deserve to be treated like children – flogged for impertinence, shut into cupboards for naughtiness, sent to bed without supper and not daring even to dream the of the guillotine...


Yes – I've got off my track, hell and damnation … excuse me … it's always happening to me! … I forget what I'm trying to say – I'm sorry, I'm sorry … Every work of art is the breath of a sing eternal idea. That's it. Forget the rest. Every work of art is the breath of a single eternal idea breathed by God into the inner life of the artist. That's where he went. We will have our literature. What kind of literature and what kind of life is the same question. Our external life is an insult.  

But we have produced Pushkin and now Gogol. Excuse me, I don't feel
well.

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image from folk.uio.no Jakob Nielsen.  You're already familiar with him and his work because you've been paying attention to web design issues during the past ten years.  He's carved our a well-deserved reputation for knowing more about web design than anyone else.  Period.  

So, I was Very Excited when I discovered Mr. Nielsen turned his high beams onto the subject of eBooks because, as you know, dear reader, eBooks make my short list of interests / obsessions. 

Here's a link to Nielsen's report, and, below are some of the salient points:

(Love this...)  On each device, we asked each user to read a short story by Ernest Hemingway. We picked Hemingway because his work is pleasant and engaging to read, and yet not so complicated that it would be above the heads of users.  (Yes, that would be Hemingway, not too complicated.) 

The iPad measured at 6.2% lower reading speed than the printed book, whereas the Kindle measured at 10.7% slower than print. However, the difference between the two devices was not statistically significant because of the data's fairly high variability.
  (Hooray for books!)

Most of the users' free-form comments were predictable. For example, they disliked that the iPad was so heavy and that the Kindle featured less-crisp gray-on-gray letters. People also disliked the lack of true pagination and preferred the way the iPad (actually, the iBook app) indicated the amount of text left in a chapter.

I didn't seen anything metric on trying to read in sunshine, which is where the Kindle is supposed to shine over the iPad, but it might appear in the full report on in the next report.

Godspeed, Mr. Nielsen.  Godspeed. 



 

Jumpers. Changing My Life.

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In 1977 I sat down in a small theater on the campus of the University of Missouri - Columbia, watched the play Jumpers and was changed for life.

This was just five years after the play opened at the Old Vic with Diana Rigg in the leading role and a mere three years after the play opened on Broadway at the Billy Rose Theater. 

Somewhere in the dark, middle of the U.S., I sat in the theater and was transfixed.  This was, by far, the smartest thing I ever experienced.  It was a perfect melange of the smartest things from history.  For example:

It was precisely this notion of infinite series which in the sixth century BC led the Greek philosopher Zeno to conclude that since an arrow shot towards a target first had to cover half the distance, and then half the remainder, and then half the remainder after that, and so on ad infinitum, the result was, as I will now demonstrate, that though an arrow is always approaching its target, it never quite gets there, and Saint Sebastian died of fright. 

It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting.

How the hell do I know what I find incredible? Credibility is an expanding field... Sheer disbelief hardly registers on the face before the head is nodding with all the wisdom of instant hindsight.

Language is a finite instrument crudely applied to an infinity of ideas, and one consequence of the failure to take account of this is that modern philosophy has made itself ridiculous by analysing such statements as, "This is a good bacon sandwich," or, "Bedser had a good wicket."

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The thread on personal productivity is vividly colored and more like a rope really.  Recently (let's say during the past five years) the topic leader has been Getting Things Done, penned by author in recovery David Allen. Now, there's a new book that looks like it might step into the bright and favorable light of public approval. 168 Hours by Laura Vanderkam was reviewed in yesterday's WSJ and the notice was both favorable and interesting.  Joseph Tartakovsky, the reviewer, could help himself from taking a few sly pokes at Ms. Vanderkam's POV:

What does have intrinsic worth? Exercise, for one, and efficiency itself. While waiting on a Chef Microwave to cook, Ms. Vanderkam is "in the habit of dropping to the floor and holding a plank pose." She counts minutes, literally, suggesting that we make calls while doing dishes, "pray" while waiting for the elevator, or "study a painting" in the moments before a conference call.

Mr. Tartakovsky also makes the point that the book could have made a great article in Real Simple magazine. 

Other notices have been less qualified.  Seth Godin writes, "We so often live our lives day by day. Laura wants us to think about doing it hour by hour. Living this mantra by example, she gets more done in a day than most of us do in a week."  And Publishers Weekly has this to say, "But given that the author seems to be targeting a very rarefied echelon of upper-middle-class working moms (like herself), the book might have very limited appeal. More alienating, though, is her insistence on pummeling the life out of life. Vanderkam's vision may yield plenty of time to pursue worthy activities, but it's a life leached of color or spontaneity."  Ouch.  Yes, from what I've read of the book, one will need to be in that "rarefied echelon of upper-middle-class" to effect Ms. Vanderkam's suggestion.  Nevertheless, it looks like important material to consider. 

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image from www.kerrywaghorn.com The Charter 97 website brings us news that that Sir Tom and cohorts have taken to the streets to protest against censorship in Belarus.  Observe:

Britain’s theatre community comes out against oppression and censorship in the “last dictatorship of Europe”.

Sir Tom Stoppard and actor/director Sam West Has led a protest of high-profile theatre practitioners outside the Belarussian Embassy at 6 Kensington Court, London, W8 5DL on Thursday 1st July at 11.30am.

They presented an open letter to President Alyaksander Lukashenko of Belarus calling for greater democratic freedom and for an end to censorship of the Internet. Other signatories include Mark Ravenhill, Howard Brenton, Alan Rickman, Laura Wade, Caryl Churchill, Henry Goodman, Henry Porter, Simon McBurney, Simon Stephens and Lyndsey Turner.

“We urge you to allow the people of Belarus the right to express and share their opinions freely, whether this is on the internet or not. We urge you to use your powers to prevent any further repression of citizens who hold alternative, and oppositional, beliefs to you. We urge that the practice of physical abuse and intimidation against any citizen, including those who dare to hold alternative and oppositional points of view, be stopped. Finally, we urge you to protect the right to freedom of assembly in accordance with Article 21 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights to which Belarus is a state party,” – the letter says.
  [more]

Sir Tom has worked very hard on human rights issues and this is but another example of his great work. 

Rabbi Winer

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This is a picture of my rabbi playing a mandolin with one of his kids. 

Brilliant News. Kingdom.

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Received an update notice from Hulu today.  The second and third seasons of Kingdom have been posted.  I'm already making my way through the fourth episode of the second season.  Given enough time today and I'd knock it all back at once. 

And if you haven't tried it yet, then you've missed something special and should catch up straightaway.

WSJ: Hamlet's Blackberry. Really.

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Today's Wall Street Journal brings us a review of another book to shelve next to Clay Shirkey's Cognitive SurplusJaron Laneir's You Are Not a GadgetNicholas Carr's The Shallows and a couple of other books I need to find out about. 

David Harsany reviews the book and writes this:

It convincingly argues that we've ceded too much of our existence to what he calls Digital Maximalism. Less scold and more philosopher, Mr. Powers certainly bemoans the spread of technology in our lives, but he also offers a compelling discussion of our dependence on contraptions and of the ways in which we might free ourselves from them. I buy it. I need quiet time. [more]

So, I haven't read the book yet, but it seems to me to be a worthy addition to the ever lengthening list.

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I really don't. Really. The family would stage a revolt if another new title appeared on the bookshelf in my studio. But...

The New York Times Sunday Book Review recently published a notice about a new book by Mr. Joshua Cohen, Witz. Doesn't these make the title seem appealing:

More than 800 pages long and the result of nine years’ labor, Joshua Cohen’s third novel, “Witz,” is a deliberate act of excess that’s also an exercise in omission — the product of a negative aesthetic that emphasizes what isn’t there. In telling the story of the last Jew alive, for example, Cohen omits the word “Jew.” And within the loose skeleton of a coming-of-age story, he negates the premise of growth through experience by having his central character be born “full size, at full intelligence . . . with glasses and hairy.”

...

This anarchic energy recalls Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, but what really distinguishes “Witz” is its language and Cohen’s vigorous assault on the sentence as a unit of simple communication. [more]

Let me know if you've read this title and what you think of it.
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One of the lovely items we like to repeat to each other is that we have an un-natural ability to be smart, funny and accomplished. From what I can tell, it's probably true.

A recent article in The Forward delves into the notion:

I wanted to talk about the comedians you focused on in your series. What are some facts we don’t know?

DS: Jack Benny met his wife at the Marx Brothers’ Seder. He was a violinist for Minnie Marx, the mother of the Marx Brothers, because they were a musical act. Every one of them was working the Borscht Belt. We’ve never had that over here, this captive Jewish audience needing an endless supply of talent to entertain them in the summer months.

And Jerry Lewis was born Joseph Levitch in Newark to Russian Jewish parents, right?

DS: I don’t think any of them were born with [their stage] names. [more]

Taking a Shot at "To Kill a Mockingbird"

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image from www.michaeldstover.comI'm not sure what one receives in return for attacking a beloved work of American fiction, but then I'm not Allen Barra, author of a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, who has some rather unpleasant things to express about To Kill a Mockingbird.  For example:

In all great novels there is some quality of moral ambiguity, some potentially controversial element that keeps the book from being easily grasped or explained. One hundred years from now, critics will still be arguing about the real nature of the relationship between Tom and Huck, or why Gatsby gazed at that green light at the end of the dock across the harbor. There is no ambiguity in "To Kill a Mockingbird"; at the end of the book, we know exactly what we knew at the beginning: that Atticus Finch is a good man, that Tom Robinson was an innocent victim of racism, and that lynching is bad. As Thomas Mallon wrote in a 2006 story in The New Yorker, the book acts as "an ungainsayable endorser of the obvious."

It's time to stop pretending that "To Kill a Mockingbird" is some kind of timeless classic that ranks with the great works of American literature. Its bloodless liberal humanism is sadly dated, as pristinely preserved in its pages as the dinosaur DNA in "Jurassic Park."

Harper Lee's contemporary and fellow Southerner Flannery O'Connor (and a far worthier subject for high-school reading lists) once made a killing observation about "To Kill a Mockingbird": "It's interesting that all the folks that are buying it don't know they are reading a children's book."

Fifty years later, we can concede both that Harper Lee's novel inspired a generation of adolescents and that Flannery O'Connor was right. 
[more]

Well that's certainly harsh.  I'm not ready to wage an argument with Mr. Barra, but I do wish he wasn't so harsh about a book that most of America has read.



 



 

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We go down round
The far side of the tracks
Lolitas playing dominoes and poker
Behind their daddy's shacks
Vacant-eyes, glue-face boys
On a pearl splashing glass
If they give us any flack
If they come up on our ass
We'll just give 'em the go-by
The Cadillac pass

Take me now
From the blue and pale room I'd follow
Through the faces and the traces of
Treasure I keep hearing inside me
Madmen throw their voices
From pretty boys
And from the best ones
You pick up connections
As they hand you your directions
To the Western Slope

I lied to my angel so I could take you downtown
I'd lie to anybody there was nobody else around
And I know what people say about me
But I lied to my angel and now he can't find me

I'm sorry
I saw him
I saw him
Laughing
I could hear them
Laughing
Alive
I could hear them

E. A. Poe
And Johnny Johnson
If you dial in
They're calling from the Western Slope
Who's the thin thread of light
That keeps you strangled in the scenery
That follows my voice - can you se me?
Then follow my voice

Who raised this banner?
That no one hears - The Jack
Beneath the axis
Digging under the current
Someone's trying to get back
But who's qualified to retrieve
The soul's enduring song?
From the grottos of her eyes
And the clashing stars

E. A. Poe
And Johnny Johnson
If you dial in
They're calling from the Western Slope
Who's the thin thread of light
That keeps you strangled in the scenery
That follows my voice - can you se me?
Then follow my voice - see me?
 

My Heart, The Real Thing

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image from www.timesonline.co.ukThis summer, the Livermore Shakespeare Festival presents Romeo and Juliet and, as previously mentioned on this feed, Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing.  Interestingly, The Real Thing is in revival at The Old Vic.  Here's a snippet from the Times review:

This is a quality revival of one of Stoppard’s finest, full of art, love and wit. It’s also full of humour, a less showy and kindlier thing, which ought to be etymologically related to “human” and “humane”, but sadly isn’t. There’s a sharp eye for foibles and failings, and a generous, forgiving sense of the human race as a community of lovable losers.  [more]

I can scarcely wait to see how it is staged in Livermore this summer.  The festival is becoming known for a striking sense of design.  Last summer, A Midsummer's Night Dream was staged as steampunk and it was striking and original and added much to the play.     

I've volunteered my cricket ball and bat to the production. 

 

And here are some wonderful lines from scene five:

In Scene V, Annie, an actress who has taken up the cause of a young soldier, Joe Brodie, sentenced to six years in jail for scuffling with police at an anti-nuclear missiles demonstration, tries to get Henry, her playwright husband, to help her produce a play the soldier has written in jail:

    ANNIE: No, what do you really think?

    HENRY: Oh, really think. Well, I really think writing rotten plays is not in itself proof of rehabilitation. Still less of wrongful conviction. But even if it were, I think that anyone who thinks that they're bored with Brodie won't know what boredom is till they've sat through his apologia. Not that anyone will get the chance, because it's half as long as Das Kapital and only twice as funny. I also think you should know better.

    ANNIE: You arrogant sod

    HENRY: You swear too much.

    ANNIE: Roger is willing to do it, in principle.

    HENRY: What Roger? Oh Roger. Why the hell would Roger do it?

    ANNIE: He's on the committee. (HENRY looks at the ceiling) It just needs a bit of work.

    HENRY: You're all bent.

    ANNIE: You're jealous.

    HENRY: Of Brodie?

    ANNIE: You're jealous of the idea of the writer. You want to keep it sacred, special, not something anybody can do. Some of us have it, some of us don't. We write, you get written about. What gets you about Brodie is he doesn't know his place. You say he can't write like a head waiter saying you can't come in here without a tie. Because he can't put words together. What's so good about putting words together?

    HENRY: It's traditionally considered advantageous for a writer.

    ANNIE: He's not a writer. He's a convict. You're a writer. You write because you're a writer. Even you write about something, you have to think up something to write about just so you can keep writing. More well chosen words nicely put together. So what? Why should that be it? Who says?

    HENRY: Nobody says. It just works best.

    ANNIE: Of course it works. You teach a lot of people what to expect from good writing, and you end up with a lot of people saying you write well. Then somebody who isn't in on the game comes along, like Brodie, who really has something to write about, something real, and you can't get through it. Well, he couldn't get through yours, so where are you? To you, he can't write. To him, write is all you can do.

    HENRY: Jesus, Annie, you're beginning to appall me. There's something scary about stupidity made coherent. I can deal with idiots, and I can deal with sensible argument, but I don't know how to deal with you. Where's my cricket bat?

    ANNIE: Your cricket bat?

    HENRY: Yes. It's a new approach. (He heads out into the hall.)

    ANNIE: Are you trying to be funny?

    HENRY: No, I'm serious. (He goes out while she watches in wary disbelief. He returns with an old cricket bat.)

    ANNIE: You better not be.

    HENRY: Right, you silly cow-

    ANNIE: Don't you bloody dare-

    HENRY: Shut up and listen. This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It's for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you've done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly... (He clucks his tongue to make the noise.) What we're trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might ... travel ... (He clucks his tongue again and picks up the script.) Now, what we've got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting 'Ouch!' with your hands stuck into your armpits. (Indicating the cricket bat.) This isn't better because someone says it's better, or because there's a conspiracy by the MCC to keep cudgels out of Lords. It's better because it's better. You don't believe me, so I suggest you go out to bat with this and see how you get on. [quoting from the play] `You're a strange boy, Billy, how old are you?'`Twenty, but I've lived more than you'll ever live.' Ooh, ouch! (He drops the script and hops about with his hands in his armpits, going `Ouch!' ANNIE watches him expressionlessly until he desists.)

    ANNIE: I hate you.

    HENRY: I love you. I'm your pal. I'm your best mate. I look after you. You're the only chap.

    ANNIE: Oh, Hen... Can't you help?

    HENRY: What did you expect me to do?

    ANNIE: Well...cut it and shape it...

    HENRY: Cut it and shape it. Henry of Mayfair. Look - he can't write. I would have to write it for him.

    ANNIE: Well, write it for him.

    HENRY: I can't.

    ANNIE: Why?

    HENRY: Because it's balls. Mary's part is the least of it - it's merely ham-fisted. But when he gets into his stride, or rather his lurch, announcing every stale revelation of the newly enlightened, like stout Cortez coming upon the Pacific - war is profits, politicians are puppets, Parliament is a farce, justice is a fraud, property is theft... It's all here: the Stock Exchange, the arms dealers, the press barons... You can't fool Brodie - patriotism is propaganda, religion is a con trick, royalty is an anachronism... Pages and pages of it. It's like being run over very slowly by a travelling freak show of favourite simpletons, the india rubber pedagogue, the midget intellectual, the human panacea...

    ANNIE: It's his view of the world. Perhaps from where he's standing you'd see it the same way.

    HENRY: Or perhaps I'd realize where I'm standing. Or at least that I'm standing somewhere. There is, I suppose, a world of objects which have a certain form, like this coffee mug. I turn it, and it has no handle. I tilt it, and it has no cavity. But there is something real here which is always a mug with a handle. I suppose. But politics, justice, patriotism - they aren't even like coffee mugs. There's nothing real there separate from our perception of them. So if you try to change them as though there were something there to change, you'll get frustrated, and frustration will finally make you violent. If you know this and proceed with humility, you may perhaps alter people's perceptions so that they behave a little differently at that axis of behaviour where we locate politics or justice; but if you don't know this, then you're acting on a mistake. Prejudice is the expression of this mistake.

    ANNIE: Or such is your perception.

    HENRY: All right.

    ANNIE: And who wrote it, why he wrote it, where he wrote it - none of these things count with you?

    HENRY: Leave me out of it. They don't count. Maybe Brodie got a raw deal, maybe he didn't. I don't know. It doesn't count. He's a lout with language. I can't help somebody who thinks, or thinks he thinks, that editing a newspaper is censorship, or that throwing bricks is a demonstration while building tower blocks is social violence, or that unpalatable statement is provocation while disrupting the speaker is the exercise of free speech... Words don't deserve that kind of malarkey. They're innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they're no good any more, and Brodie knocks corners off without knowing he's doing it. So everything he builds is jerry-built. It's rubbish. An intelligent child could push it over. I don't think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you're dead.
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image from static.guim.co.uk Mark Lawson has written a very satisfying article about Mr. Stoppard in anticipation of the London revival of The Real Thing.  Should it be of interest to you, you can see what will surely be an inspired production of the very same play in Livermore, California.   (And you can read more about that here.)

Here are just a couple of teaser quotes from Mr. Lawson's story which I highly recommend you read here.

He also does uncredited script-doctoring on Hollywood movies, "about 
once a year": most recently he worked on Paul Greengrass's The Bourne
Ultimatum. "The second reason for doing it is that you get to work with
people you admire. The first reason, of course, is that it's overpaid."

What he craves is a new play. By his age (72), Beckett and Pinter were
content with one-acts and fragments; Stoppard is still aiming for two
acts and three hours, interval drinks and last-train tickets.
Inspiration, though, is intermittent and mercurial.

The Real Thing occupies a pivotal position in Stoppard's output. It was
the work that converted those who had found the plays in the first phase
of his career – Rosencrantz, Jumpers, Travesties – too coldly
intellectual in their spinning-off from literary, philosophical or
political history. Stoppard was congratulated on his first drama of the
heart rather than the head, although a few admirers regretted this shift
in emphasis.

Amazingly, just today I realized I have two different audio productions of The Real Thing.   I've written before about the production by the Los Angeles Theatre Works, but then, while I was combing and grooming my files, I found a different production by the BBC.  ...More to come on this. 

J. D. Salinger, ע״ה

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image from si.wsj.net It would be entirely inappropriate for me to not mention the passing of J. D. Salinger especially as he has an important influence on my own writing.  But I'm an odd fan.  Catcher in the Rye is my least favorite of the Salinger canon.  Nine Stories, Raise High the Roofbeams... and Frannie and Zooey all appear on my list above Catcher in the Rye. 

For me, Salinger captured the isolation and frustration of gifted people making their way through a world that didn't quite live up to their exceptions and hopes.  In less capable hands, this friction between the world of the mind and the world of the real could come off as essentially elitist.  But Salinger was able to present different ways people can deal with that friction, from something self-destructive as a bullet to the brain to simple mental breakdowns, to finding a way to pass in this world.  Being smart, really smart wasn't necessarily an asset in Mr. Salinger's work. 

My guess is that Salinger will become part of the Canon.  My second daughter is taking her turn at Steinbeck's The Pearl.  How that became part of the curriculum, I'll never know.  I can hope that one day Steinbeck's seat will be vacated and Salinger can enjoy the view from he orchestra. 

Classy behaviour?

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As all my dear friends know, I cast a rather wide net as I fish for notices about Tom Stoppard.  I have discovered productions of Jumpers in far away provinces of Canada etc.  Today the net dragged in a clipping from The London Evening Standard, not exactly in the first tier of the London press, but nevertheless, it's published in London so it published a notice about one Miss Lucy Prebble (excellent name!) who has written a musical about ...  the decline and fall of Enron.  I kid you not.   Not only that, but it has sold out out its run in the Royal Court Theatre and it moving over to the West End's Noel Coward theatre and ... I'm breathless .... it will be opening on Broadway and is going to be made into a movie. 

Bethatasitmay, our favorite, Mr. Tom Stoppard must have had a fine seat in the orchestra for one of the performances.  (Perhaps he had forgotten to update his Netflicks wishlist.)  Anyway, the story goes that Ms. Lucy Prebble received a note from Mr. Stoppard.  Here's the relevant portion: 

When I'm introduced, people say,' – adopts bored tone – “Oh, hi” and then when they know what I wrote, they turn round and say,' – adopts voice of gushing excitement – “Oh, hi!”' The other day, she received a card of congratulation from Tom Stoppard. I jumped up and down when I got it. He didn't need to do that. It was classy behaviour.'

Now, let's snick a peek at Ms. Prebbles:

image from i.thisislondon.co.uk
Okay.  It may have been "classy behaviour" on the part of Mr. Stoppard, but somehow, especially after seeing the snapshot long and tall drink of water, I'm not entirely convinced our Mr. Stoppard was solely impressed by her writing skills. 

Cry Wolf...

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This morning, I had the pleasure of listening to one of my many favorite radio shows, Forum, on KQED-fm. The host of the show, Michael Krasny, was away and I can't recall who was sitting in for him but that's not the point. The guests today were John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation and co-author of "The Death and Life of American Journalism " and Robert McChesney, professor of communication at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and is other half of the co-authoring team.

Here's to the segment.

As an engaged, professional witness to the mass slaughter of media and unsettling effects it has on some of the people I most admire, the topic interested me and during the interview, the authors repeatedly made the point that there is a four to one ratio of public relations people to journalists and the authors used this fact to leverage their point that journalism in the United States has a knife at its throat.

Excuse me, but as someone who attended the University of Missouri School of Journalism and practices and performs the Dark Arts of public relations for far too many years, I have come to know many journalists and many public relations .... people. So I was not impressed by this cited fact. In fact, it made me giggle when I thought "I wouldn't break a sweat until the ratio is something on the order of twenty to one." And I started to think about creating a series of jokes along the lines of "How many public relations people does it take to write a press release..."

Now, at this juncture, it is important for me to point out that I am not damning the entire population of my profession because I have met many very intelligent and creative and wonderful individuals along the winding way of my career and I treasure their friendship and they know who they are. Instead, I'm just pointing out that there is no one in my profession who deserves to be celebrated and honored such as I.F. Stone, R.W. Apple, Hunter S. Thompson, Morely Safer, Amy Goodman, Bob Woodward and the thousands of unknown scribes who cover car wrecks and write the words set in agate type on the sports page.

And it would behoove you to listen to the aforementioned interview as the authors express their astonishment that is was completely SRO @ Powell's Bookstore in Portland, Oregon. One might think that the crowd suddenly appeared out of thin air instead of the work of some public relations person.

Please. Spare me.

I have a shaky confidence in the American people and their olfactory ability to sniff out bullshit even when it's served to them on the fine china of corporate.america. I have mixed opinions about this week's decision of our Supreme Court that corporate.america has the same right to speak as any individual. On the one hand, I believe that corporate.america has the right to pay me huge amounts of money to better express its point-of-view. On the other hand, my previously stated shaky confidence in the American people's ability to tease out the fact from fiction and opinion is exactly that, shaky. Afterall, this is the same public that eats up heaping helpings of entertainments that should surely insult our so-called intelligence. Perhaps the pursuit of Unobtanium in Avatar is a wake up call to us that coporate.america has pegged us as suckers. Money ≠ Speech.

Perhaps we will never get our fill of lurid and debased entertainments that do their level best to undermine our self-respect and civilization. As for me, I will remain optimistic about the uncontrollable internet as a medium so vast that is has room for perfectly positive expressions of our humanity, the Better Angels. In Elizabethan England, the choice of entertainments were bear-baiting and Shakespeare. And Jane Austen's day, the novel was still looked down and many Well-Respected people disparaged it as a waste of time and energy. From that point of view, the internet would make their minds quail, quiver and dissolve.

Perhaps Beckett puts it best: "I can't go on. I must go on." And we can also rely on the trusty, never rusty apothegm, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

In the meantime, Amazon has delivered to me The New York Review of Books edition of Edmund Wilson's history, To the Finland Station with a foreword by Louis Menand and I will soldier on.

My New Undertaking.

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Email to the Rabbi...

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Rabbi, On January 15 I'm suppose to lead services.  And it's a family service.  Peter Cohen and Ken Bravmann asked me to lead the service and Sandi Phillips reminded me that it's a family service.  So, as they have an interest in my performance, I've copying them on this email.  And I'm also copying Abby just because. 

Rabbi, I know that you know about all this already because I asked you if I could use a sefer Torah as part of chat that night.  I asked you if I could take out a sefer Torah, uncover it, leave the belt / sash on it and not unroll it or open it at all.  And you said that was ok.  Thanks.

Well, you kind of bought a pig-in-a-poke (which is an expression from the late Middle Ages according to Wikipedia's fascinating definition of the expression.)  So, to allay any misgivings and I'm sending you a copy of what I've prepared for a lesson that night and it is below.  Please read it with an eye to making it better.  I'm completely open to suggestions. 

<talk>

(Ask children to gather together on the floor in front of the pulpit where I will sit on a stool holding sefer Torah.)

This is the sefer Torah. 

On this scroll is written the five books of Moses:  Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  The person who writes the sefer Torah is called a sofer and it takes her about a year to finish one scroll and writing a sefer Torah is one of the 613 mitzvot we've been given.  The sofer uses a quill from a bird that she dips into black ink and she carefully draws each of the 304,805 letters that come together to tell the story of our people.  

But tonight, we are not concerned with the ink and the quill.  Tonight, we're going to learn something about what the sofer writes on.  Now, I know that this looks a lot like paper, but it isn't like paper at all.  

(Prop #1:  Old paperback book with yellow, musty pages.)

This is a book made out of paper and, as you can see, the pages are turning yellow and brown and they smell funny and they are becoming brittle.  Do you know what brittle means?

(Prop #2:  Small can of Pringle potato chips.)

This potato chip is brittle which means that it can easily break, crumble and fall apart and God-forbid that this is something that should happen to our sefer Torah.  So, instead of paper, the sofer uses parchment which is completely different from paper.  Parchment is made from the skin of animals.  In order get rid of all the hair and flesh, parchment makers sometimes took their animal skins down to the river, stretched them out on frames and then put them in the water and let the fish eat away all the parts that aren't needed.  

So, when properly prepared and when properly cared for, the parchment of a sefer Torah will last for hundreds of years, in fact, according to Wikipedia, there's at least one sefer Torah we know of that is 800 years old.  But remember what I said, a sefer Torah will last that long if it's properly taken care of and that's what we're going to find out more about right now.  
So let's talk about skin.  

(Prop #3:  Sephora blotting paper.)

This is blotting paper and women and men use it when they don't want their skin to look shiny.  Here, take a piece and stick it on your forehead.  What is it that the blotting paper is blotting up?  Oil.  Our skin needs a little bit of oil so it won't become too brittle and that's why we have chapstick.  If we don't use chapstick on a windy, dry day, our lips become all crusty and might even start to bleed.  Or, maybe you fathers and mothers use handcream so their paws don't become chapped and rough.  But whatever the case may be, we take precautions or we administer cures.  

So now we have a puzzle:  What is it that we do to a sefer Torah to keep the parchment flexible?   You already know the answer to this because you've seen us use Torah before.  What do we do with the sefer Torah?

(Children guessing goes here.)

That's right:  we use the sefer Torah.  We handle it,  We touch it.  We read it.  We roll it from one end to the other every year and then back again and again and again.  And we take great care not to touch the side of the sefer Torah where the works are written by the sofer because we don't want to smudge the ink and make it hard to read, but we know it's ok for us to touch the other side of the parchment and, in fact, it's good for us to touch the other side of sefer Torah because the oil from our hands keeps that parchment limber and soft.  

Now, here's the interesting part:  What does the sefer Torah teach us?  Well, when we read through Torah we find lots of instructions for us to follow, but there are two that I think are more important than all the rest.  God does not want us to have a stiff neck and God doesn't want us to have a hard heart.

If we have a stiff neck it's hard for us to look around and appreciate all that God has given us.  If we have a stiff neck we may not see something dangerous that's headed our way or something splendid on the other side of the street.  And having a stiff neck is another way for us to say that we're stubborn, that we don't want to try new things, new things like the lessons Torah can teach us or the lessons any new idea can teach us.  We all need to be less stubborn and more open to new ideas and especially open to the new ideas we find in Torah.  

And what do we know about having a hard heart?  Well, we know that Pharaoh had a hard heart and that's why he wanted to keep us as slaves in Egypt.  It was because of Pharoah's hard heart that he couldn't feel how much we suffered and how much we yearned for freedom.  And it's really important for us to have a soft heart and try to understand what other people are thinking and feeling and that means we need to look and listen.  We need to spend more time looking and listening.  We need to spend twice as much time looking and listening than the time we spend talking and we know this because God gave us two ears and two eyes and just one mouth.  

And if we read Torah we will learn these lessons and our necks won't be stiff and our hearts won't be hard.  And if we read Torah, as much as we can, we will keep sefer Torah alive for hundreds of years to come. 

</talk>
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Tikkun magazine and Rabbi Michael Lerner tend to galvanize an audience.  Whether one agrees with him or not, at least he's consistent.  In the November / December issue of Tikkun, Rabbi Lerner pens an editorial under the title above.  His position on the war isn't surprising and his arguments are well-defined and actually ground that's been walked over for several years now.  Here's a case in point:

The whole notion of a war on terrorism is fundamentally misguided. Terrorism is a tactic used by people who do not have the powerful armies of the world at their disposal, and hence they will use homemade or stolen weapons against those who they believe to be oppressing them.

That dog's been hunting for quite some time.  Of course we're fomentingI a new generation of terrorists be doing exactly what we're doing now:  Kicking in doors in the wee, small hours of the morning, rousting people out of their home without regard for their dignity, and propping up a government that isn't favored by the people.  (We can work out the parallels between Hamid Kharzi and Jean Baptiste Ngo Dinh Diem at a later date.)  

Rabbi Lerner draws in another well worn line of argument when he writes, While claiming to bring democracy, we've simply imposed governments that agree to protect American corporate power.  Again I think we've paced over this ground before, at least since O. Henry coined the expression, banana republic at the end of the 19th century.  

I think there are deep and profound reasons rooted in Halacha that convincing argue for the United States to immediately end it's wars of empire around the world.  I'm disappointed that Rabbi Lerner didn't use his pulpit to bring these to light, but respect him for directly addressing the situation. 

Here's a link to the entire article. 

image from api.ning.com

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image from www.tabletmag.comWell, Tablet magazine is certainly doing a good job of sustaining my attention.  Afterall, I just blogged about it here scarcely a couple of days ago.  This time, the headline that caught my attention was what you read above. 

My own experience is very similar to the author's.  The religious dimensions of yoga have never been pressed upon me.  From my first yoga teacher, Carolyn Love, to my last, Beryl Bender, none have brought up the religious aspects of yoga.  In fact, for me, yoga seems to reinforce at least one important aspect of  my Judaism:  kavana, doing things with the right intention.  Yoga helps me focus on being present in this moment.  Without being present, we walk through life as if in a dream.  But by being present, we are required to content with what is in front of us.

Here's an excerpt from the article:

I explain to Srinivasan that the approach may be similar—even some of the text and ideas may be similar—but that only proves my point that yoga is a religion. “There is yoga in every religion,” he responded. “Yoga means ‘union’ or ‘absolute consciousness’ with God. Don’t look at the differences; look at the similarities. Yoga is beyond words or institution. When you use the word ‘religion,’ people want to know what books you read, what language you speak.” He also says that though some sects of yoga won’t even use the word God, the tradition is similar to monotheism. “We’re all talking about the same God,” he said. To him, the statue of Ganesh at the front of many yoga studios is the same God to whom Jews pray. “Don’t confuse the map for the actual place,” he said. “God is everywhere. There is no conflict here. There is respect for that diversity. To explain God is to limit God.”

My experience is the yoga can be complimentary with Judaism and sometimes even enhance the experience.  That's why, a couple of years back, I organized our opportunity for a yoga break between Yom Kippur services,

Here's a link to the article.



 

Danah Boyd: All Hat, All Cattle.*

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Ms. Danah Boyd is one of the rarities on the social media scene:  She knows what she's talking about and she's smart.  She isn't just an observer, she's a participant.  And she's been a participant for Quite Some Time.  And, she knows how to back up and see the big picture.

Case in point:  In December, Ms. Boyd spoke at Le Web and SuperNova and her topic was all about visibility.  Here are a couple of aspects that, I think, prove my point:

Your sense of what people do with social media is highly dependent on what you consume, how you consume it, and why you're there in the first place. So is mine. The world you live in online looks different than the world I live in. And it looks different than the world that an average teen lives in. And it looks different than the world Lady Gaga lives in. And it looks different than the world that people from different cultural backgrounds experience. Our worlds are different, even if the interface gives us the impression that they're the same.

What social media does is allow us to look in on these people's lives. Or, more accurately, see the traces of one aspect of their life. Public genres of social media give us the ability to access worlds that are different than ours. Regardless of where we are in the world, we can see the experiences of people who are different than us. But are we even looking?
...Not everyone shares our values and, perhaps we should accept this. But I would argue that we should be informed so that we can make change that we want to see in this world. We have the power to build these systems. Rather than being shaped by our imagination of what we think will be, we can be informed about how the world is. And use that to drive the creation of systems in order to make change, in order to help create a world that we want to live in.

So we think about the digital society that we are creating, I invite you to think about visibility. What can you see that you couldn't before? How does this make you feel? And what are you going to do about it? Perhaps its time that we embrace visibility and take a moment to look. Take a moment to see. And, most importantly, take a moment to act.

Here's a link to her entire speech. 

*By the way, just in case you didn't "get" the headline, there's an expression I've heard in Texas countless times.  When referring to someone who has the truck, jeans and the shirt with the pearl snaps and the Resistol hat, but doesn't have any cows, someone might comment that, "He's all hat and no cattle." 



 



 

Color me surprised...

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Let's go!

 

As I skipped through the pages of this past Sunday's New York Times Book Review, I reached the final article, an essay that's usually worth the look.  And this week did not disappoint. 

I can't remember when I became attached to Fowler but I suspect it has something to do with one of the many articles I've read about the inner workings of the New Yorker.  But it had to be during my undergraduate days because the fly-leaf is inscribed with my name and student ID number.  One of my dearest friends from those halcyon days sent me a gift of three books, one being The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and this book I've torn through and have re-read several passages already.  What's fascinating about the book is the comparision and contrast is makes between English and other languages. 

 

Let's go!

 

And what we find is that few, precious few of the wise people in positions of influence put their foot down and try to stomp out a certain type of usage.  For example, I recently became obsessed with the usage of "more: and "over."  Example:

The charity raised more than $3,000 for the orphans.

The charity raised over $3,000 for the orphans.

If you look it up in any book you'll probably find the same thing I do:   The second construction is not correct, but if you try to change it people will think you're a prig so get over it. 

Stoppard on the State of West End Theatre.

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Tom460x276

Not much I can add to this except it's one of the precious few video clips I have on him. 

[more].

Eilu D'varim

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Ed
I wrote the following for an upcoming issue of Hagafen.  ...Don't think I'm spoiling the issue by posting it here now. 

Eliu D'varim is a portion of our Shabbos morning liturgy that follows
V'haarev Na and precedes Kaddish D'Rabanan, the opening section
of theservice.

Eilu D'varim is a list of nine mitzvot that have been singled out of
the 613 mitzvot and the Decalogue.  You know this portion of the
service because we never omit it.  This is how our Mishkan T'filah
presents the words:

These are the things that are limitless, of which a person enjoys the
fruit of the world, while the principal remains in the world to come.
They are:  honoring one's father and mother, engaging in deeds of
compassion, arriving early for study, morning and evening, dealing
graciously with guests, visiting the sick, providing for the wedding
couple, accompanying the dead for burial, being devoted in prayer, and
making peace among people.  But the study of Torah encompasses them all.

Eliu D'varim is extracted from the Jerusalim Talmud, Peah 1:1 and these mitzvot were
singled out because none of them have a minimum or maximum measure
attached to them.  Anyone who has even dipped her toe into Leviticus
knows there is a very precise measure of grain or oil or number ofbirds that are
placed before Hashem on the altar.  Talmud takes theprecision of the measurement
of mitzvot to an profoundly arcane level.  And even in our folklore, we're precise about
the number of times we must spit to avoid the kenahura.  Given the amount of genetic
research being done these days, I'm surprised that our pronounced
pattern of OCD hasn't been traced back to chromosomal gap.


Be that as it may, we have nine mitzvot that have no duration or
distance or depth or breadth attached to them.  According to Rav
Hertz, the author of one of the most prominent English language
siddurs, "the amount to be given was left to a man's own generous
impulse."

What I hear in these words is a call for us to strive for Character in
addition to Custom.  Character is a tricky word these days and the
usage I'm applying has fallen down the list of definitions, but I'm
sure you've heard the word used in the context of "he is a man of
character."  In the third edition of the American Heritage Dictionary
we find this in the fourth definition:  moral or ethical strength.

We all can live by the rules and most of us do most of the time.  When
we break laws and are caught, there are consequences.  How we observe
the mitzvot is our constant struggle:  We listen to the radio on
Shabbos and veal might not be kosher.  These are the mitzvot that we
will struggle with in our own hearts and in our community because it
is in our bones to struggle, as Jacob struggled in the cave.

But there is no struggle, just as there is no measure, to the mitzvot
of Eilu D'varim.  There is no debate that the enumerated mitzvot must
be done.  When I think of the mitzvot of honoring one's father and
mother, I think of my uncle-by-marriage, Stanley Nightingale.
Stanley's brother, my father-in-law, Harvey Nightingale managed a
successful psychological clinic in Brooklyn and was able to move his
parents into a modest home on Staten Island and provide a nurse during
the week.  Stanley was a clerk in an office at Columbia University and
lived near where he worked on the Upper West Side.

And every Friday afternoon, Stanley would take the subway down to the
Battery, take ferry across the harbor, take the bus up the hill and
spend the weekend with his parents.  He would shop for food for the
week, tidy up the house, do the chores, sleep on the couch and then on
Sunday night, take the bus down the hill, the ferry across the harbor,
the subway up to the upper west side.  And he did this every week,
every week for decades.  And every weekend was just a bit worse than
the one before.  His mother, Molly, sank ever deeper into her
Alzheimer's; and his father, Harry, who grew up on the Lower East Side
watching out for the Irish kids ever ready to pummel him with bricks,
became ever more enraged.  Harry Nightingale did not go gently into
that good night.

And Stanley was always there.  He devoted his entire life to parents.
Sometimes we would say that Stanley needed to "get a life," but we all
knew Stanley was performing that mitzvot without measure.   And we all
wondered:  when our time came, would we be able to measure up to
Stanley's character, a character without measure.

But you don't find God in Eilu D'varim.  When we speak about things
without measure, God's infinity comes to my mind.  But I figure God
can take care of Herself.  God's probably more interested in seeing
if, left to our own devices, we can take care of each other.  If we
can help someone, someone near and dear, or someone we see on the
sidewalk, then maybe we'll gain just a little more ground towards that
horizon constantly ahead of us.
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image from www.nytimes.comYitzhak Ahronovitch, the captain of the refugee ship Exodus, whose violent interception by the British Navy as it tried to take thousands of Jewish refugees to Palestine in 1947 helped rally support for the creation of the state of Israel the next year, died Wednesday in northern Israel. He was 86.

...As a young man, he was a member of Palmach, the Haganah’s strike force, The New York Times reported in 1961. In World War II, he sailed on British and Norwegian merchant vessels.

Captain Ahronovitch was 23 when he took the helm of the Exodus. On July 11, 1947, he picked up the refugees at Sète, in southern France. On July 18, as the ship neared the coast of Palestine, the British Navy intercepted it. Captain Ahronovitch tried to break through, but two British destroyers rammed the ship.

link to story

image from www.thejc.com

Tablet / Avatar / Chanukah.

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image from www.tabletmag.com

Goodness knows you have better things to do than to monitor the pulse of all things Jewish online.  That's my job ... until a better gig comes along.  In the meantime, I've come across a new blog from an old friend.  You might know about Nextbook already.  It's a hybrid book publisher, website/blog, podcasting station and as if they didn't have their hands full already, they've taken on a new venture I think bears some attention, Tablet.

A recent post caught my eye:  Judah’s Avatar, Watching James Cameron's CGI epic and reconsidering the Hanukkah story.  Well, honestly, screencap from the movie is responsible for my eye pausing long enough to get my attention and actually read the mashup movie review and new perspective on Chanukah.  Here's a sample:

I won’t spoil too much, because I’m expecting everyone to see this movie. Let’s just say that Avatar lets you walk a mile in the broad prehensile feet of a proud race whose connection to their ancestral land is in danger of being brutally severed. Cameron draws on several real-world scenarios, sometimes ham-handedly, sometimes movingly, sometimes both at once. Politically minded viewers will recognize parallels to Afghanistan, Iraq, Native Americans, colonial Africa, and present-day Gaza. But I think what allowed me to empathize so easily with the blue guys was that they reminded me of yet another people—my own. What is it like to belong to a tribe whose central shrine has been ravaged, who live in fear of persecution, who zealously—perhaps overzealously—guard their fragile slice of holy land? I don’t have to guess. I already know.

And, through the blue guys, for the first time in my life I found myself empathizing with the Maccabees. They were right about some things, at least: Antiochus was a tyrant, and he did not seem open to diplomacy. The Maccabees saw only one way to stand up to power and they did so bravely. If it weren’t for the Rambo Jews, who knows? Perhaps the rabbis would have been killed off, the Hellenized Jews would have named their uncircumcised sons Alexander, and Judaism would have become nothing more than a memory.

Here's a link to the entire story.

WSJ: The Rabbi and Frank Lloyd Wright

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image from s.wsj.net Fascinating article from the December 22, 2009 edition of the Wall Street Journal.
Wright called the sanctuary's chandelier, made of panels of colored Plexiglas and resembling a three-dimensional kite, a "light basket," Emily T. Cooperman, preservation director of the Beth Sholom Synagogue Preservation Foundation, says. He ultimately opted against stained-glass windows. "Let God put His colors on, for He is the great artist," Wright declared. An ingenious interactive display demonstrates the results: Visitors can navigate through 360-degree views of the synagogue's interior and exterior at different times of day and during each of the four seasons.
Here's a link to the rest of the article. 

I heard the news today, oh boy.

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I heard a disturbing story on NPR today. It was a story that grew out of an article by John Arquilla on the Foreign Policy website entitled How to Lose a Cyberwar: Why is America still letting online jihadists run amok? The premise is this: the U.S. isn't doing all it can to in the fight against terrorism in what the author describes as "battlespace" and the quote marks are his. The author believes we probably aren't listening as closely as we can to online dialogues and colloquies so we can learn about intent and action. The author also believes that the U.S. should disrupt communications between al Quaeda plotters and planners. The author, John Arquila, is a professor of defense ananlysis at the U. S. Naval Postgraduate School and author of Worst Enemy: The reluctant Transformation of the American Military. He is the author of eight books, including one in 1996 entitled, The Advent of NetWar.

Clearly, Mr. Arquilla is a man of considerable substance on this issue. He was profile on Wired's website as one of the national security advisors to the Obama campaign.

In my little world, this story was juxtaposed with another story on NPR about President Obama will "produce" (what does that mean) millions of emails that the previous administration said were missing and unrecoverable. And I tried to imagine the email administrator for the White House and what his life was like. Do you think he did daily back-ups? Would you?

So here we are in the final few days of 2009, running around trying to find out if the White House was backing up its Exchange server, and we need to quickly create new soilders who are combat ready for the NetWars. I see a gap.

My belief is that neither Mr. Arquilla nor the current administration are being candid with us. Both parties are intelligent and probably well intentioned people, but they both seem to be missing an obvious fact you and I already know. Given the NSA's budget, I'm certain White House emails are backed-up onto slabs of obsidian etched with a laser and stacked beneath Mout Rainier. And concerning cyberwarriors, I'm under the impression we already have a military academy established just for that purpose called 4chan.

"This is all one big overblown latke"

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image from graphics8.nytimes.com
From the NY Times:
But to the dismay of some administration officials, the plans for next week’s party — one of the hottest holiday events for the nation’s Jewish elite — have been overtaken by feverish debate over the size of the guest list, the language on the invitations and what this says (or does not say) about Mr. Obama’s relationship with Jews.
...
“Hanukkah is a wonderful holiday to celebrate, but that’s not the whole ballgame, by any means, in terms of outreach to the Jewish community,” said Susan Sher, one of the president’s two liaisons to Jewish groups.
Do you even have to ask why Obama has to have two liaisons to Jewish groups?
Link to the entire story.

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