Saturday, July 30, 2005

Book review--A Pretext For War

A fascinating exploration into some of the darkest corners of our government, James Bamford's A Pretext For War outlines how our intelligence agencies failed (and are continuing to fail) us in our efforts to know just what the hell is going on around the globe. Bamford provides three things in Pretext: 1) an insider's (many insiders, actually) account of how both the NSA and the CIA are completely bereft of useful strategies to fight terrorism--in fact, Bamford's book calls their entire post-Cold War existence into question; 2) a narrative of how, and more importantly why, Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda formed a coherent plan to attack the US on 9/11; and 3) an indictment of the Bush Administration's usage of the virtually inept NSA and CIA to provide the evidence necessary to convince our country that Iraq should be attacked.
These three stories are interwoven so as to make it clear that our intelligence agencies have been out of any loops for far longer than just January 20, 2001. "Ah ha!", I hear the Smirkyslaves say, "It's all Clinton's fault. I knew it because Rush told me so!" Unfortunately for those morons, Bamford goes even further. Just because Bamford's narratives begin in the mid-1990s, he traces the origins of the NSA/CIA sudden uselessness back to the fall of the Soviet Union, which neither agency foresaw. Both of the agencies were formed to fight statist foes, and with the rise of stateless terrorism as a new enemy, neither have been institutionally capable of switching gears to address them. Bamford describes the two floundering and complacent agencies as being filled with both operational cowardice and bureaucratic short-sightedness, and makes the point that neither agency can be trusted any longer. That Bush did so in such a dramatic and deceitful manner shows him and his cronies to be either self-deluded fools or disingenuous liars. Take your pick, Smirkyslaves . . .
Bamford's book relies heavily on anonymous sources--for obvious reasons--and it is here that one can find problems of historicity. We can't really prove or disprove what's being said here, unfortunately. Until documents from the period become available, if ever, or Bamford's witnesses come forward, we'll never know for sure that his stories are accurate. Given that, though, Bamford has woven an internally consistent and logical argument. The proof lies in the narrative that opens the book--a grisly description of what happened inside the Two Towers on 9/11. If the NSA, CIA, and to a lesser extent, the FBI, had been doing their jobs properly, is it possible that known terrorists could have lived under our noses for so long and so boldly openly to effect such an attack? In this case, I would agree with Bamford in saying, "I doubt it."

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

And so it goes

My symptom of the day: a sharp, arthritic pain in my hip joints! Luckily, it affects me most when I try to lay down and sleep, making my previous SOTD, heartburn, seem like a piker in comparison when it comes to preventing me from getting any rest. I'm not sure whether this is a side effect or an effect, but I'm sure that when I speak to my nurse practitioner (I've pretty much given up the idea that I'll ever see a doctor again . . .), she'll have little if any actual news on that front. The Beautiful One suggested (and I had also posited) that this is the "bone pain" resulting from one of the final shots given me during my IV chemo phase, but I'm holding out for rheumatoid arthritis as the culprit. It just seems so right, you know?
Oddly enough, the pain goes away when I stand up or walk, so maybe I'll walk around the world for cancer! Sure beats sleeping, I'd say . . .
This turned out to be the most painful day yet--we finally found something worse than the nausea from day 1! By late afternoon, I was incapable of dealing with the pulsing, shooting pains in my lower back (the hip pain was completely overwhelmed by this new agony), which had prompted spontaneous shrieks of unimaginably unbearable distress. I called the nurse practitioner, who got in immediate touch with the doc. The doc allowed me to take ibuprofen and Vicodin (my first ever dalliance with narcotics, at least for therapeutic purposes. Ahem.), and by evening I was back in stasis. My back is still touchy, but nothing--nothing--like it had been. Whew.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Chemo 1

Well, my first round of chemotherapy is coming to a close today. For my particular kind of cancer, the standard treatment is called "R CHOP", which is an acronym for the 5 major drugs used. All but one of them is given intravenously at the hospital, with the fifth in pill form over the next 5 days. All of the 5 attack the cancerous cells in my body in various ways, and it seems to me that they're doing their job so far. Almost all of the symptoms I had from the cancer itself have gone away for now; I take that as a pretty good sign! The side effects from the R CHOP, on the other hand, have been pretty serious as well, although the main one probably could have been avoided.
The major side effect from the CHO part is nausea, but to counteract that, the doctors prescribe some hardcore anti-nausea drug. Unfortunately, in my case, the docs and the pharmacist decided to neglect to tell me when to take the damn things. The bottle itself said "Take as needed." Seems simple enough, right? However, what it doesn't say is that this particular drug is only effective as a preventive measure--once nausea hits, it doesn't do a damn thing for a loooong while. I found that out first hand my first night of chemo, when I went through 5 hours of some pretty excruciating sickness. On a scale of 1-10 (which is becoming a favorite phrase around the household, lemme tellya), where 10 is OHMYGODIT'STOOLATEI'MGONNAHURLNOW, I was hovering between 8-9 the whole time. Ick. That mistake will not happen again; I'm going to take that stuff as soon as they hand me the bottle!
After that night, things have gotten a whole lot better. The following day, when I received my R at the hospital, I felt great. No effects from the R, no lingering nausea (once the drug finally kicked in, it worked like a charm); yay! The P drug, on the other hand, has kept me down for days with all kinds of weirdness. A major, daylong headache ruined my chances for a nice day 3, and now I've got some semi-permanent vision loss due to the P as well. Luckily enough, a good friend of the The Beautiful One and I had some old prescription glasses to lend me, making yesterday the best day yet--I could see again, my headache's gone (for now, I'm sure), and I had energy to burn.
A little too much energy, as it turns out; I hit last night wide awake and I never got tired enough to fall asleep for more than a fit at a time. In addition, one of the other drugs given to me for counteracting effects makes me go to the bathroom about once an hour as well, so that was no help. Oh well, I think I'd easily trade a night or 100 of insomnia for anything like last Wednesday's nausea. As if I get that choice, right?
Well, I guess I'll save more prosaic or insightful thoughts for another entry, but I wanted to get this report out there for those interested enough to want to keep informed. I want to take this opportunity, though, to express my eternal thanks to The Beautiful One for her unwavering and unstinting support; I don't know what I'd be doing without her help through this, that's for sure. I'm also grateful to our dear friends T & E for just being there, but also the glasses--what a godsend!
I know my mom feels lousy about her bad luck, which will prevent her from helping out as well, but her love showers all she knows, and that's enough for me.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Book review--Everything Bad is Good for You

This book is aimed squarely at those parents and others who share a profound disdain for the "direction" our country is headed based on what they think is a "debasement" due to popular culture. Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You outlines his hypothesis that the main targets--video games, television, and the Internet--of popular culture detractors, instead of contributing to a collective "dumbing down" of our society, are actually increasing the intelligence of people (most importantly children) who participate in playing, watching, or otherwise engaging in them.
The first part of the book details how today's games, shows, films, and other activities are far more complex than those from earlier in the post-World War II era, and that they are continuing to increase in complexity. His observations are so common-sensical as to prevent much argument; who could possibly claim that, tastes in comedy aside, any episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show comes anywhere close to being as richly detailed as any average episode of The Simpsons? The sheer number of allusions or plot somersaults created by The Simpsons' writers on a weekly basis staggers the imagination, but modern audiences have made it one of the longest-running and most popular shows in television history. Television dramas show an even greater leap in complexity--compare Dallas to The West Wing or 24 and you will be left wondering why no one prior to Johnson has pointed out this progression. (And the distance from "Pong" to "The Sims" is so ridiculously great that it barely warrants a mention here.) Johnson even goes so far as to "defend" reality shows such as Survivor, The Apprentice, and even Joe Millionaire as contributing to an improvement in watchers' emotional intelligence and Autism Quotient (a measure of a person's ability to interpret other people's thoughts or feelings accurately), since such shows encourage audiences to "play along" by trying to guess what the show participants will do next or figure out why someone acted in a particular way.
Johnson's argument really comes into focus, however, in the second part of the book, wherein he asserts a connection between this increased/increasing complexity and the improvement in IQ scores over the same time period. This "Flynn Effect", named for a late 1970s study of rising IQ scores by James Flynn, provides Johnson with hypothetical proof of his thesis. Johnson points out the lack of other explanatory phenomena, but also makes his own claims quite lightly. Johnson notes that his theory is just that--a theory-- and that his book is simply an essay designed to provoke research and discussion. What research exists supports his theories, though, and his argument is persuasive on its face. Johnson does not argue that playing "The Sims" will enable a person to actually become a city planner immediately thereafter or that by watching Survivor s/he will be able to read minds, but he does believe that the collateral learning skills acquired by those immersed in popular culture are important and useful in the modern world. More importantly, Johnson's defense of popular culture as a positive good potentially offers a better means by which we might analyze our society, since the prevailing claim that we are in some sort of cultural free fall is clearly untenable--philosophers and critics have been making the same observation for thousands of years. Isn't it time to take a different view?

Saturday, July 16, 2005

The hits just keep comin'

I just got a phone call from Mom--she's broken her hip. Again. I don't know any of the particulars yet; the hospital she's at can't seem to locate her. This is not surprising to me, since this is the same hospital that I'm partially convinced killed my Dad 11 years ago through post-op incompetence. What does surprise me is why Mom would choose to go to that butcher shop for healing, but I'm sure she has her reasons.
My Mom is what the British call "indefatigable". Very little fazes her for more than a few moments, and even though she appears to be a sourpuss to some, I have found her to be the most resilient and encouraging person I've ever met. Throughout my peripatetic life, she has remained a constantly supportive and comforting presence. (I suppose me saying that isn't really news--that's what moms are supposed to be, right?)
My final test (a whole body PET scan) will be run on Monday, with chemo to begin later in the week, rendering me (presumably) completely unable to help with Mom's recovery, which sucks. I was fully able to help out last time, and even though Mom didn't require too much assistance, I think I was at least some comfort to her just for being on the spot. Been a pretty bad year so far, except for the wedding, of course, huh? Sheesh.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005


Last Friday there was a wedding, and it was good. Not too solemn, not too hectic. The Beautiful One's family and mine mixed fairly well, especially for a first meeting. The weather cooperated by remaining breezy, if not cool, and the ceremony was short and full of emotion. While it would have been nice to have been uncancerous, seeing as how I faded rapidly about 3/4 of the way through our celebratory meal, this day was about as perfect as I could have hoped for. I had written a piece for the ceremony, and The Beautiful One thought it might make for part of a nice blog entry, so in its entirety, here 'tis:

I wanted to start this with some sort of quote to match the occasion for which we are all gathered today, but I couldn't figure out a good one to use:

1) "This is the best of times, this is the worst of times." While accurate, this one is also incredibly cliched.
2) "These are the times that try men's souls." No, that'’s a bit of a downer, isn't it?
3) "The times they are a'changin'." Well, even if that'’s universally accurate, it's pretty vague.
4) "Time's article on Ann Coulter was a disgrace to journalism and an abomination to mankind." Perfect!

Well, ok, maybe a nifty lead isn't all that important. What is important, though, is that The Beautiful One and I are here to consecrate our union and to dedicate ourselves to each other. We welcome those of you who are here to bear witness to our mutual love and help us remember that through love we are all enriched. How that love is expressed, or in what ways society gives its own imprimatur to it, is, or should be at least, immaterial. I believe that love is such a personal emotion that anyone outside the bond can only understand but a little of it anyway. So we come together today, in a relatively informal manner and in some unusual circumstances, but with the knowledge that the underlying emotions are as true as if we had rented a huge hall with all the cupcakes we could afford.
The paths The Beautiful One and I traveled to get here have hardly been what anyone could have predicted. For my own part, I have walked down so many false relationship trails that everyone who knows me can be forgiven if they thought I would never figure love out or find someone willing to overlook my occasionally self-destructive past. For each misstep, however, I learned not only what to avoid, which is usually fairly easy to comprehend--—for most people, at any rate--—but also what to cherish in a partner and mate. And when The Beautiful One and I were just starting to get to know each other, over many long and sometimes sleep-inducing phone calls (just teasing, honey!), I was constantly and consistently amazed by how precisely this beauteous woman and I agreed on what we were looking for out of life and love. I knew that The Beautiful One was the right one for me from those phone calls. Convincing The Beautiful One that I was the right one for her, on the other hand, took some doing! Heck, simply trying to find novel ways of saying, "Hey, that'’s what I think, too!" or, "That'’s what I want, too!" was challenging enough.
This all sounds a bit clinical and calculated, I suppose, but the reality of it is that without the heat generated between us emotionally and physically, none of this wonderful parallelism would have mattered too much--—The Beautiful One and I would have become good friends and nothing more. The truth is that The Beautiful One fills my soul with nourishment and my eye with delight. She makes me laugh even as I hunger for her kiss. The contentment I feel knowing that we are together makes up for the times when I knew we belonged together but we weren't, in addition to that whole useless period of my life before I knew her at all. For whatever amount of time I have left in this world I will enjoy it, simply because The Beautiful One is beside me today. I will love her as nobody else can, forever.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Book reviews--Backstory and The Last Honest Place in America

Journalists are often tempted to cobble together some of their columns or pieces, used or unused, in order to produce what they hope will be perceived as a "book". The problems inherent in such an endeavor are obvious; most journalists do not usually write on the same theme or subject for many consecutive days or weeks. So journalists attempting to find enough articles to create a unified work long enough to fit the market's idea of what a "book" should be, must grab pieces written at disparate times and for differing purposes, all the while hoping for some sort of coherent whole to emerge from the process.
Journalists lucky enough to find the time and resources to devote to writing enough material to fill a traditional book, on the other hand, are sometimes incapable of pursuing a sustained theme or tonal consistency. This incapacity is not necessarily due to any attention deficit disorder (lower case, non-official designation), but rather because they are simply not trained to think or write using the longer forms. And even if journalists coming out of school were capable, the daily/weekly grind of publishing articles or columns would most likely soon atrophy either the desire or the skills necessary to publish book-length works.
An example of the former process in operation is Ken Auletta's Backstory. Auletta is definitely capable of putting together a book-length narrative; in fact his book Three Blind Mice was a brilliant interweaving of 3 interconnected yet distinct narratives. Backstory, on the other hand, is a less than successful effort to provide some background on some of the names behind the print news world. This collection of essays spans several decades in its presentation of journalist mini-biographies, although Auletta concentrates mainly on those editors and writers from the 1990s and early 2000s. The essays in and of themselves are consistently engaging, well-written, and illuminating, but the book does not really hang together as a whole. Part of the problem stems from the fact that I remain unsure what kind of coherence Auletta was aiming for. The essays are not put together chronologically by subject or by publication date, nor does it seem as though there is some underlying theme connecting one essay to another, even though Auletta has tacked on linking sentences at the end of each essay.
Marc Cooper's The Last Honest Place in America, on the other hand, while stylistically similar in that it contains a series of discrete essays on different topics, is constructed in such a way as to reinforce Cooper's theme. The last honest place in America, Cooper asserts wholly ironically, is Las Vegas, and each of his essays covers a separate aspect of post-Steve Wynn Vegas. Cooper addresses the hotel/casino business, the co-businesses of prostitution and stripping, politics (another business, seemingly), and of course, gambling, both from a player's perspective and also glimpsed from behind the scenes.
In these essays, Cooper makes it clear that while Las Vegas as a corporate entity presents itself to the world as a glamorous and above-board entertainment and gaming center, a more avaricious Las Vegas exists only slightly below that veneer. This ever-present greed is aimed, moreover, not just at the gullible tourists and gamblers, but also at the citizens and casino employees of modern Vegas itself, whose only functions, apparently, are to serve as lowly paid cogs in Vegas's capitalistic machine. Stories of the decline in civility among both gamblers and dealers, as well as a chapter on the possibly foredoomed attempts to unionize strippers and another noting the rise in the number of minimum-wage jobs where there were once better, make it obvious to the reader that while Vegas might be "honest", it is far from a nice place to make an honest living.
Compounding the ironies, Cooper details his own exciting gambling story that occurred while he interviewed his subjects and wrote the book. Cooper's disdain for what Las Vegas has become is thus juxtaposed against his clear affection for gambling, in addition to the sympathetic portraits he paints of some people whose lives revolve around gambling. While one would think this paradoxical approach would simply weaken Cooper's moral stance, instead it brings into dramatic relief the point that despite all its flaws, Las Vegas still attracts even smart and observant people willing to spend/lose a lot of money.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Announcements and such

The Beautiful One and I are getting married this Friday, if we can find a location and an officiant by then. We've decided to jettison the idea of providing a big, relatively formal ceremony for all of our friends and family at this point, mostly because of the unfortunate physical calamity that has befallen me. (The fact that our chosen spot came back with an outrageously huge estimate for what our wedding would have cost had nothing whatsoever to do with it, I assure you!) Our plan is to get married now and have a nice celebration for our 1st anniversary next July. We hope the extra time will suffice to allow us to actually figure out how to host one of these things--I know I'm no help, because I have never hosted a successful party in my life. In any case, I hope no one takes offense at being excluded from this occasion, because we really are only having our closest family members attend. And since my first visit to the oncologist is only 3 days later, I doubt I'd have been much of a good host this weekend anyway, even if I could stop feeling lousy or coughing long enough to even toast my beautiful bride. So for those of you out there who want to wish us well, feel free to let us know via email or phone whenever you get the urge; thanks to all of you in advance!