Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Run, Al, Run!

Al Gore is not running for President. At least, he has yet to say he will, and has said on numerous occasions that he doesn't want to or won't. (See here, here, and here for some of the recent denials.) That would be a major blow to anyone who cares fondly about the United States, in my humble opinion. Al Gore won the election 6 years ago; there's almost no reason to believe he wouldn't win again--regardless of his opponent--due to the low regard most Americans hold the Republican Party and its denizens. (See here, here, and even in the Wall Street Journal for some of the poll results lately.) He has seemingly shed his wrongly-formed image as a wooden wonk, witnessed by his recent appearance on Saturday Night Live, and his speeches and work lately have been fiery and pointed. Anyone seeing his movie--and all of you should go see it--"An Inconvenient Truth" will come away from it feeling that this is the man who should have been President for the last 8 years. Gore has his finger on the pulse of many of the more "liberal" ideals a majority of Americans actually hold dear, he has complete national name recognition, he has served this country in a whole host of elective offices over the last few decades, and even the truly progressive Daily Kos readership overwhelmingly would support (and probably work for) a Gore candidacy.
It is almost inconceivable that he wouldn't run, given all this, except for the abominable drubbing he took at the hands of the media in 1999-2000. I can certainly understand his reluctance to jump in this time around--who would want to suffer the slings and arrows of that ignorant, disserving mob of slobbering idiots for a second time? On the other hand, I think that that experience will make Gore even more valuable a candidate for those of us who value honesty, candor, and intelligence. For one thing, there isn't any mud left to throw at him, and most of the garbage strewn at him back then has been thoroughly vetted and debunked over the past 5 years anyway. Heck, the bulk of the posts at The Daily Howler (see sidebar for link) since 1999 have revolved around delineating how grossly the mainstream press misled--or even aggressively lied to--the public regarding Gore and his place in American history and culture. Gore's public persona since 2000 has been scrubbed clean of "politics", I think; only a diehard rightwing polemicist would think he has anything but straightforward concern for the environment upon watching his movie, for example. Anyone hearing, seeing, or reading his speeches since his campaign should be impressed by his devotion to the public good, and that quality is certainly in short quantities among our current political actors, even in the Democratic Party.
We need Al Gore to run for President, even if only to provide the Democratic Party (or any people farther to the left) the opportunity to shore up its "bench" of qualified and honest public servants. More to the point, though, a Gore candidacy and Presidency would help immeasurably to heal the wounds of what will have been 8 years of misgovernance, fraud, corruption, death, and disaster. He has been outside of politics during the most heinous period in our government's history (and therefore has none of the potential stigmas that might be attached to him thereby), and I believe he has the abilities to convince even the most reluctant citizen to help reverse the present course of our policies and do the right thing by his/her fellow Americans.
He is not perfect, of course, but who among us is? Some of the Clinton economic policies have hurt our nation (think NAFTA, of course), and he will need to address those errant moves to satisfy many on the left. He made grievous mistakes in his previous campaign, but he acted honorably all the way down the line, unlike any Republican in (and many out of) office that opposed him. I think he has learned from his past actions, though, which has made him a better politician and also a better man, unlike all of the Republicans in power presently who incredibly continue to kowtow to Smirky's insane and wildly unpopular agendas. Gore is the most experienced person available to us, but more than that, he is also the most capable.
We need a President who cares about something other than his cronies or the self-serving wealthy. We need a President who understands more than single syllable words. We need a President who can take us in a better direction, returning the United States to its historical position as exemplar to the world of the best in humanity. We need Al Gore, and we need him now.

Thursday, May 25, 2006


My family played games. Lots of games, all the time. From Chutes and Ladders and Candyland to Monopoly, Sorry, and Parcheesi, along with a wealth of card games, we spent most of our free time gaming. Mom and Dad didn't believe in spending money eating out, and moviegoing was, for one reason or another, not something we did (probably also because of their thriftiness, which put my sister and me through college--a good tradeoff, that's for sure). One day, when I was 11 or so, my mom and I went to a garage sale held by our church and I saw a game that looked unlike anything I had ever played before. The boxtop merely had the word "D-Day" on it, with some stark red and black graphics. I believe it was selling for $1, and mom shelled out the buck for me.
"D-Day" opened up a new world for my gaming pleasure. Wargames, of which "D-Day" is one of the acknowledged classics, are relatively faithful simulations of military events. The game is set up to recreate the situation at some point in time, but once the game begins, each player is free to try maneuvers or strategies that did not happen in real life. (Not to be reflexive or anything, but wargames that tried to replicate the actual tactics and strategies used by the real-world commanders, usually by restricting the player to historical moves through semi-coercive rules, became known as "simulations", while those that allowed more freedom to experiment went by the more generic term "games".) Objectives to determine both players' possible victories are known before the game begins, and for virtually all wargames, some luck is introduced by means of die rolling at many points in each turn (usually to figure the outcomes of battles).
The complexity and richness of these games was intoxicating to someone already enamored of history as I was/am, and even though I had no one with whom I could share this passion (wargaming was, even at its height in the late 1970s, not too popular a pastime), that was hardly an obstacle to my enjoyment, since solitaire gaming was usually possible for most of the games. There were a large handful of companies that made wargames, on topics ranging in time from the ancient world to the modern and even some set in the future. Most of the companies produced fairly cheap game components--thin cardboard counters with low gloss finishes and unmounted mapboards being standard. One company stood head and shoulders above the others in production value, however--Avalon Hill, the makers of "D-Day".
Avalon Hill games were always boxed (a not inconsiderable plus--many companies merely provided ziplocked bags!), the mapboards were always mounted handsomely (just like regular gameboards), and the printing on all the components was colorful and vibrant. I became a rapid and faithful convert to AH gaming, sneering disdainfully at other companies' releases as amateurish and unworthy of my hard-earned cash (although my growing interest in the American Civil War, fed only rarely by AH games, led me to buy from them as well). If AH made a wargame on any subject, I usually bought it, and I even bought some that were non-military based as well, to my ultimate satisfaction in a couple of cases.
Wargames are serious affairs, hobbywise. Most of these games have rulebooks that could choke a horse, in density if not always in size (and some in both), and the time it takes to set up and play a single one is measured in hours and days, especially when playing solo. Having little else to do with my free time (other than reading) as a young adult, this posed no obstacle for me, although finding the physical space to lay out the game did, especially when our family got a cat that liked to "play hockey" with the pieces.
As the years wore on, though, I became more active socially, which left me less and less time to devote to my hobby, as often happens. By the time I left for college, I had no time at all to play wargames, having moved on to Dungeons and Dragons during school, and working full time (or going to grad school) after graduation. I have kept my games, though, and every now and then when I visit my mom, I'll go downstairs to where the game shelves are and gaze fondly at my collection, wishing I had the time (and convenient space) to indulge myself. A couple years ago, I noticed that The Avalon Hill Game Company had declared bankruptcy a few years before that, and a pang of nostalgic sadness filled me. I was the cause! (Well, not just me, but people like me who had "grown out of" playing [or more accurately, buying] games.) Hasbro bought the remnants of AH, including their catalog of games, but in the face of economic realities, will almost definitely not be reissuing or supporting any of the wargames. In fact, they are simply using the AH name as a branding device to lend cachet (seriously!) to their line of quasi-wargames aimed at children or families.
I don't know what point this essay was supposed to have, so please forgive my indulgence in maudlin self-pity . . .
All-time favorite AH games (notice that wargames aren't even capturing the top spots):
1) Rail Baron, which is kind of a combination of Monopoly and Railroad Tycoon.
2) Kingmaker, which covers the Wars of the Roses, is pretty unique. Players control various factions of nobles and try to gather enough strength (and kill enough royalty) to crown a single King (or Queen) to rule the land. Originally published by another company, AH bought the rights to it and improved it markedly.
3) Chancellorsville, the first standard wargame on the list here, was the first game I had that incorporated the quality of personal leadership in a game. For example, if Stonewall Jackson commands a batch of troops, they will move more frequently than those under James Longstreet (a somewhat balky, albeit ferocious fighter).
4) The Civil War. Victory Games was a subsidiary of AH that produced this gem covering the entire CW. The interplay of economics, strategic vision, and interesting leader effects color this grand scale approach to the War.
5) Jutland. Modeled after what is known as "miniatures" wargaming, which is an older type of gaming involving figurines representing troops, or in this case, ships, "Jutland" has no gameboard (but still has cardboard pieces). "Jutland" covers the only major ship battle of World War I.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Show

The show was pretty darn good. Even though Dream Day didn't play many of my favorite tunes, they were so obviously having a good time playing--and they certainly played hard! An early highlight for me was when they completely shredded "Bagdad's Last Ride" from Beet. Rick Rizzo, the lead singer/band leader, enjoyed pointing out the line he had written almost 20 years ago, "Your uniform stands for the green dollar bill", clearly indicating his disdain for Smirky and the Gang.
The audience roared its approval throughout, and in good bar band fashion, when the band ran dry, a couple of beers made their way to the stage. The ultimate highlight for me, though, was the second song of the encore, when the band covered one of my all-time top Joy Division tunes, "Isolation". Rizzo apparently plays this for his solo shows, but Eleventh Dream Day rocked the house down with this version. What a terrific night! The absence of more of their songs I would have liked to have heard simply makes me want to see them again; I hope they give me the chance.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Flying to Chicago/Eleventh Dream Day

Ick. Waking up at 5:30 is no fun, especially when you don't get to sleep until 4! As I was packing my laptop for the trip--the last thing I did--I discovered that the cat had played a nice trick on me. She has this ugly habit of playing with the keys, ripping them out of their places and leaving pieces of keyboard lying all about. It requires delicate hands and eyesight to put them back, and at 5:50AM, I had neither. I was lucky in that the "W" and the "\" keys hadn't been to messed up and snapped back into place without too much stress. The other key She played with, though, required all my patience and skill to replace. Unfortunately, I ran out of time, so it remains in pieces at home. Fortunately, it's a key I don't use. Unfortunately, being out of time, I hurried out, leaving an important travel companion behind--my iPod! That's no fun at all.
The flight was relatively uneventful, but my hotel doesn't have shuttle service to O'Hare, so I had to rent a car; a completely unnecessary expense. Oh well, it's just money, right?
The point of this quick trip to the Midwest? To see a concert by one of my all-time favorite bands: Eleventh Dream Day. Never heard of them? I'm not surprised.
Back in the mid-1980s, I used to go to Rhino Records in Westwood quite often. I had a good friend/ex-co-worker who worked there, and Westwood used to be the place to go to see movies on the big screen. One day I went in and saw a display for a new band that was going to play a show there later that afternoon. The display described the record as sounding Neil Young-like, which caught my eye. Good news: I bought the album (yes, it was an actual LP!). Bad news: I didn't stay for the show.
Eleventh Dream Day is a band seemingly cursed. They have all the talent in the world, yet have inexplicably never caught on with enough people to "make it". They even got signed to a major label based on rave reviews of their first couple albums, but in the time before Nirvana, bands that were noisy and guitar-driven needed to have big hair and no talent to sell records, so their label dropped them. After wandering the indie wilderness for another few years, Eleventh Dream Day stopped recording regularly as their members went their separate ways, trying new projects. Every 3 years or so, though, they have gotten back together to record a new album, do a few shows in the Midwest and east coast, then split up again. I have never gotten a chance to see them live--even at their "height", they didn't come out west too many times. The combination of my illness last year, the release of their latest album last month, and the announcement of a few dates caused me to drop everything to see them this time around. This could be my last chance, for any number of reasons (not all of them morbid), and one thing I realize is that I don't want to leave things undone if I can at all help it! Anyone who likes Neil Young at his Crazy Horse-wildest should do themselves a favor and check them out (although until their latest, their sound mellowed drastically, to the point where most of the songs are more like tone poems). I'm sure most of their CDs are available in the cut-out bins of your local used CD store, or on eBay for little dough, which tells the tale, doesn't it?

Monday, May 15, 2006

A full week

I will be writing from the road later on this week, as I head to Chicago for a whirlwind trip to see Eleventh Dream Day. Today marks my second post-chemo doctor's visit, but since my PET/CT scan won't be until some other day, my anxiety about it is somewhat muted. I don't know what oncologists are looking for from blood draws (or, at least, what my oncologist is looking for); if they can tell you've got cancer from a blood sample, what're all the scans for? I get that they want to make sure other systems haven't begun to shut down if one is really sick, but what about those of us lucky enough to be in remission or even cured, who are presumably in decent enough health? (I know I'm just showing my ignorance, but I know if I talk about the obscene domestic spying issue, they'll shut down my blog for sure!) More later on . . .

Monday, May 08, 2006


My father and I had a very difficult relationship. We screamed at each other nearly as much as we talked to one another, and we almost invariably disagreed about anything and everything. Part of the problem lay in the fact that we had quite similar approaches to dealing with the world, and it wasn't all that productive. Dad and I acted as if we lived in a world we both thought should be, not necessarily the one that is. To that end, we refused to suffer fools all that gladly or play political games at work, which caused both of us immeasurable frustration (and psychic pain due to career dysfunction as well).
Dad was a brilliant computer programmer, but not that good a communicator apparently--not a singular fault in that community, of course, but IBM in the 70s and 80s was becoming a company less and less concerned with quality programming and more interested in retail sales and marketing. The managers were no longer being culled from the ranks of programmers and analysts, and Dad had risen as high as he could among the ranks of programmers. He was the guy called upon to fix entire systems constructed poorly, for example; he was "loaned out" to other companies needing expertise on a number of occasions. Within IBM, however, his career path had stalled as those less skilled than he rose above him. This understandably made him fairly bitter toward a company he had given his immense talents, hard work, and devotion to, and when they had him forcibly retired after 27 years, I'm sure a part of him broke.
Perhaps as a function of seeing Dad so miserable (or maybe just a burgeoning self-awareness that my severe naivete was useless in the real world), I decided that I would attempt to learn all I could about the real world and all its denizens. I stopped taking math classes after the 11th grade, thereby rejecting my paternal genetic predisposition toward becoming another Griest engineer-type. I threw myself into learning the "liberal arts", which had always baffled me previously when asked questions needing more than regurgitation of memorized facts. Actually thinking about what authors were trying to say, or what people meant when they spoke or wrote, was incredibly difficult for me, but this was the challenge I set for myself. I wanted to understand people, not things.
I don't know if my rejection of his "skill set" hurt Dad; I guess I assume in some way he was hurt, but he never said anything to me about it. In fact, I can't remember a time when he spoke of his feelings to me at all. I, on the other hand, bled all over my friends and family with my emotions, probably causing many to reject me (or even question my sanity or good intentions)--I had simply found a different method from Dad's of intimidating and alienating people. I continued to strive to learn how to behave, however, to the extent that I think by now I might have enough savvy to be not only a good person, but also a decent friend and a reasonably insightful one as well.
When Dad was forced to retire, he sank into a real depression of the likes that he had never given himself the time to feel. I know he would have eventually pulled himself out of it; he had too much drive to lie around watching daytime TV forever. I like to believe that he would have devoted time to learning how to relate to people as I had done, because he fundamentally had a kind, good heart with a razor-sharp humor that probably surprised and definitely delighted those few who got to see and hear it. (The one thing Dad and I shared about which we had no "issues" was a love of sports; our sole bonding experience was when we would watch any sporting event and call out the cliches before the announcers would invariably use them to describe what was happening on the field. A good time would be had by all . . .) I also like to believe that he would have been incredibly fascinated with the Internet and website construction, I can only imagine the brilliant pages he would have been able to build.
I can only imagine it, because Dad died before the Internet reached the public just a few short years later--he also died before his granddaughter was born, before I met TBO, before he could do any recovering from IBM at all, before he could figure out what he would do with the other 30 or so years he should have had (his parents both lived into their 90s, as had his mother's parents). His sudden death robbed him of what probably would have been the happiest years of his life, and robbed me of being able to try helping him understand me so that we could have stopped the fighting between us. I can't miss the anger between us, or the frustration, or the disagreements. What I do miss is the possibility of mending our relationship, or even better, building one anew. I missed out on the chance to have an actual loving relationship with my father, and that sucks. IBM ironically freed him to pursue a new, more satisfying direction for his life, but death cheated him, and that is tragic.
I'm sorry Dad. You deserved better.
Alan, father of bryduck
d. 5/8/1994 (Mother's Day)

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Book review--State of War

While anonymous sources are usually not part of a historian's bibliography, sometimes when writing on subjects that involve current events, and especially when writing "insider" works designed to expose illegal or just plain ignorant acts, these are the only sources available. And when the history being written is that of the Bush Administration's culpability in ignoring and cherry-picking the intelligence reports that they used to influence public opinion on the matter of what our nation should do after 9/11, it becomes quite clear that only anonymous sources--or those willing to commit career suicide--would be willing to disclose their knowledge and opinions.
That being said, I was quite surprised how many people actually go on the record in James Risen's account of the CIA's role in providing intelligence to Smirky and the gang. State of War reveals just how much intelligence was ignored (or simply conveniently and cynically disregarded) not just by the higher-ups in the intelligence community or the Administration, but also by the rank-and-file operatives in the CIA. Risen details how Smirky, Rummy, George Tenet, and anyone else in a position of power fostered an entire culture of self-censorship among the organization's analysts and intel gatherers. Inconvenient truths, such as the fact that Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons programs, as well as his biological and chemical weapons efforts, had been destroyed (almost completely inadvertently) at the time of the first Gulf War, as proven by UN inspections during the 1990s--they found nothing not because Saddam was proficient at hiding them, but because there was nothing to find!--were simply allowed to be swept under the rug in favor of unreliable/hysterical/unsubstantiated rumors and planted stories by interested parties (think Chalabi).
One of the most remarkable chapters in Risen's book contains the story of Sawsan Alhaddad, an Iraqi-born American citizen pressed into undercover service by the CIA. Sawsan was sent back to Iraq in 2002 to interview her brother Saad Tawfiq, who had been one of the scientists working on Saddam's nuclear program. Saad impressed upon Sawsan the utter incoherence of the CIA's line of questioning, which had to do with the location and inner workings of Saddam's current WMD programs, insisting that no such programs existed:

Sawsan tried to continue with her list of questions, but they all seemed to Saad to be the product of some fantasy. We don't have the resources to make anything anymore, he told her. We don't even have enough spare parts for our conventional military. We can't even shoot down an airplane. We don't have anything left. If the sanctions are ever lifted, then Saddam is certain to restart the programs. But there is nothing now. (pg. 103)

That Sawsan's report was completely ignored by her handlers reveals the sickness that had taken hold of the CIA by 2002.
Risen's account jibes with Bamford's A Pretext for War (which I reviewed here), another "insider" account of the failure of our intelligence agencies. Both books tell the same story of utter incompetence, but Risen provides an actual rationale for those agents who refused to do their jobs properly--whistleblowers were not only ignored, but censured and exiled within the organization. Smirky and his goons simply didn't want to hear any reports or evidence that didn't fit their agenda (as the "Downing Street Memos" allude to). As the saying goes, "a fish stinks from the head"--no one with an interest in retaining their position (or even their paycheck) was able to do their job properly for fear of reprisal from above. This air of fear and willful ignorance does not excuse these agents for their complicity in our war crimes, I would argue, but it does help us place the blame where it belongs: squarely at the feet of Smirky and his cabinet.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

This is rich

A co-worker turned me on to this story. The Justice Department is charging a Mississippi man with violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Dog bites man? No . . . he's an African-American Democrat, allegedly violating the voting rights of whites! That's right, Smirky's goons are saying that whites are being discriminated against--in the Deep South! This is the very epitome of all that's going wrong in our country; not one case of voter discrimination against blacks has been filed since--anyone? anyone?--that's right, 2001 (ring any bells?), but now that Republicans are on the run, even in Alabama, cries of discrimination are now heard? What an unbelievable, yet entirely believable, pile of crap. Up has been down for over 5 years, but this may take the cake, at least as far as outlandishness. Alabama whites discriminated against? Give me a freakin' break. Grrrrrr.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Colbert in the bear's den

Stephen Colbert is easily the smartest comedian in the business today (apologies to Jon Stewart, but I'm guessing he would agree also). As of Saturday night, he is also the bravest. At the annual White House press dinner, Colbert, who plays a right-wing pundit on his show The Colbert Report, absolutely killed both anyone from this Administration and all those reporters who are enabling them. His devastating satirical tribute revealed Colbert's admirable fearlessness directly in the face of what had to have been an overwhelmingly hostile (or at least ignorant) audience. (For those of you without a broadband connection, here is a transcript of his assault.) Unsurprisingly, the useless mainstream media (whom Colbert appropriately lambasted) chose not to comment on his performance for the most part, leading their stories instead on the insipid Bush impersonator that immediately preceded Colbert. (Editor and Publisher, though, got it. As they usually do.) My guess is that his comedy went right over the heads of most in attendance; his interviews on The Report are sometimes wincingly painful because of the interviewees not being in on his joke. In any case, kudos are due to Colbert for his biting humor, but more importantly, his brazenness in taking on the Administration and their press lackeys on their own turf. If only non-comedians would become this intrepid . . .