Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

“What James Abbey saw were the tiger’s eyes. He had never seen such eyes in any photograph or film, ever. And he understood now that the tiger’s eyes are not susceptible to being recorded on film. Abbey thought this was just. In twenty or eighty years, however long it will take, when the last of them is dead, or inbred so much in zoos that they’re no longer what they were, people looking at the films and photographs will think they’ve seen the tiger’s eyes, but it will not be so. The people won’t know, and the tiger doesn’t need them to know, that the stare of the tiger will be gone from the world utterly.”

Michael Ventura
The Zoo Where You”re Fed to God
[top photo: Siberian tiger, bottom: Bengal tiger.]

Once More Unto the Breach

In the wake of the financial reform bill passing into law on Thursday (which you might have missed since it apparently wasn't news) a Business Day section news analysis in the NY Times says this:

"Mr. Obama has done what he promised when he ran for office in 2008: he has used government as an instrument to try to narrow the gaps between the haves and the have-nots. He has injected $787 billion in tax dollars into the economy, provided health coverage to 32 million uninsured and now, reordered the relationship among Washington, Wall Street, investors and consumers."

And a bit later in the piece: “They clearly made a decision that political capital was something that should be used, not saved,” said Steven Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist who worked for years as a senior leadership aide on Capitol Hill. “The reality is, he talked before the election about what he wanted to do, and he’s done it. He didn’t trim his sails, he didn’t change his philosophy. He didn’t compromise. The test will come in the fall: can he and Democrats in Congress make the case to the American people that what he did was the right thing to do?”

At the moment, the politics seem to be against it, and the piece suggests that the Obama administration may have to scale back from now on. Apart from the assertion that Obama hasn't compromised--he has of course-- that's the current conventional wisdom, which of course could change in an Internet minute.

But though the political test should be the next elections, when perceptions can be measured against electoral results, in politics such perceptions can change things so they can't get that fair test. For example, it wasn't an electoral test that caused FDR to slow down and scale back New Deal programs, so that the bracing momentum of change slowed nearly to a stop early in his first term. It was the politics and the noise. Though the next congressional election actually bolstered FDR and brought on the "second" New Deal, some say the Depression lasted longer than it should have because that first boldness wasn't maintained--and given the opposition and public opinion, perhaps could not have been.

The immediate test is likely to be the energy and climate bill, which is the next big piece of legislation on the agenda--and it's likely to come up fast. It has a history already, being declared dead and undead several times, and here's the latest analysis.

Though President Obama has been talking about the need for this legislation at every opportunity, it's usually been in conjunction with something else. What I will be looking for is a big statement just about this topic, and most particularly a major speech on the moral issue of the Climate Crisis.

Though there are various good reasons why the Recovery Act, health care and Wall Street reform had to come first, the fact is that climate and energy policy are more important to the long term future than all three put together, and for the near future they are just as important as any of them, in terms of the U.S. economy, national security, you name it. Not to mention the planet. So despite the bruises of the battles just past, this one has to be fought and won.

(Meanwhile, here's blackwaterdog's comprehensive diary with lots of videos on the 18 months of Obama accomplishments, unmatched (says more than one observer) since FDR.)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Dreaming Up Daily Outgoing Mail

Dear Suddenlink: My cable TV bill has doubled in the past few years, with no increase in service, not to mention no better quality of programming. Instead I received from you today not one, not two, but three pieces of mail: three glossy pieces of cardboard, each measuring 6 inches by 11 inches, all advertising services I have never shown the slightest inclination of being interested in. So now I know where my money is going--not only to pay for your advertising, but now that paper recycling is no longer done for free here, to pay the garbage company to haul away your obscenely wasteful "communication."

You should also know that far from enticing me to buy your obscenely expensive premium services, your advertising has provided even more impetus to my reevaluation of retaining any of your services. Why should I be paying you every month, not only to advertise new ways of getting more crap, but for the channelsful of horrifying imagery I now receive?
Sincerely yours,

It's Really Getting There

Another set of polls and more cries of Obama failure. On the one hand, Joe Klein writes that it's baseless panic--that the polls showing a drop in confidence in Obama show even less confidence in Congress, and even less than that in Republicans. What's driving poll numbers down is the economy.

On the other hand, John Dickerson writes that the White House, and President Obama specifically have been ineffective in communicating their successes.

Faithful readers of this site will likely not be surprised that I think they are both right. But that the White House itself believes that economic anxieties are responsible for less than stellar poll numbers is perhaps part of the problem. Because while that is true, it is only part of the truth. For various reasons (or unreasons), the very real and very large Obama accomplishments aren't getting through as they should be. While as Klein notes, Obama is still more popular and trusted than anybody else, he should be clearly seen as such. Why isn't he?

Evidence that accomplishments and what they are doing for ordinary Americans isn't getting through is clearest in poll numbers on the Recovery Act. The latest CBS poll says only 23% believe it has helped the economy. Another poll's result claimed that less than 10% believed it has created any jobs.

That's beyond disconcerting--it's frightening. But for the moment, let's stick with disconcerting. So the administration claims to have created or saved between 2.5 and 3.6 million jobs with the Recovery Act, and a Seattle Times report flat out says: "A growing body of independent economic analysis suggests the stimulus package has boosted jobs and kept people off the unemployment line." So why isn't that the headline--not just in the newspaper, but in voter perception? Why isn't America cheering the President on?

Apart from the likelihood that a lot of Americans are, there are two factors I see. One is that the White House really hasn't been very good at communicating their successes. Unfortunately I don't know why, or what they should be doing. The second applies in particular to the Recovery Act: although the spending has both saved jobs and created jobs as well as seeding new industries, especially in clean energy, and is otherwise benefiting the American economy and society long-term, it apparently isn'tt building stuff that makes a big impression.

The actual success in its time of FDR's Works Progress Administration and other such projects has been inflated in historical recollection--FDR backed off under fire after little more than a year--but that's a different topic. The immediate and enduring imagery of those FDR projects had to do with large numbers of men with shovels, with big solid granite buildings and cement bridges being built, and land being very obviously cleared and landscaped for parks.

These projects not only made for great photos, virtually immune to misinterpretation, but they made immediate local impacts where they happened. So in this sense the cablemouths bloviating about building roads and bridges to get people back to work have a point. Those projects are visible and obvious, and more of them--as well as visually bigger projects--should have been financed early by the Recovery Act, and communicated every step of the way.

Instead, a lot of money went to dire necessities--like keeping the states from running out of money to pay for Medicaid, and to keep police and fire fighters working. That was necessary, but it's hard to take a picture of somebody not losing their job.

Money also went to where GOPers hearts are: helping the private sector, rather than creating public jobs. So it's hard to even identify or quantify the jobs created there, let alone show them on TV. Or else the number of jobs or type of jobs created at a specific clean energy manufacturer, say, aren't as visually impressive as big assemly lines. As the Seattle Times story said:

"The Recovery Act appears to be stimulating private investment and job creation at a time when the economy needs it most," Christina Romer, chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers, says in testimony prepared for a hearing of Congress's Joint Economic Committee later today.... "I suspect the true effects of the act will not be fully analyzed or fully appreciated for many years," she said, adding that most experts agreed that the stimulus had had a "significant, beneficial impact on employment and output over the past year."

It was important to put that money to work to keep the current economy from getting worse while laying the groundwork for the future, again particularly in seeding a clean energy economy which is crucial to U.S. competitiveness even in the near future, as well as helpful to civilization having any future. I've got no problem with all that being either less than visible or not "fully appreciated for many years." But somebody should have figured out that some of that money had to go to high profile projects, not even for political reasons but to bolster the morale and confidence of the American public. Either that wasn't done, or it hasn't been effectively communicated.

There is however another contributing factor that neither Klein or Dickerson notes. And it is that for any number of reasons and mostly unreasons, we're in a terrible, unfathomable downward spiral of the spirit, of the collective intelligence, that may not stop soon. It may not be dark yet, but it's really, really getting there.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Captain Future Sez

Hey kids, tired of dodging screen-obscuring pop-up ads that are increasingly hard to kill just to read a few paragraphs on the Internet? Bothered by idiots jumping around in the side panel while you're trying to read? Weary of the same stupids ads about weight loss miracles disgused as news stories on the sites you depend on for actual news? Well, here at Dreaming Up Daily we don't go in for any of that. No pop-ups, no alarming messages from bogus virus killers, and most of the time, no ads at all! Sure, the content gets depressing at times--but we're up to the challenge, right? And we talk about dreams as well as nightmares. We have some fun, too. So count your blessings and come around often, for a superior Internet reading experience. And drink your Ovaltine!

Consequences: Heat

For the past several years, commentators have concentrated on various consequences of climate change, especially sea level rise. And there's been equally admirable attention to the chain of consequences and their interactions. All of this has been and will be necessary to scope the dimensions of crisis, especially those effects that aren't obviously connected. Last winter there also had to be discussion of counter-intuitive consequences, like more snow in certain places.

But oddly perhaps there's been little discussion of the most obvious consequence of global heating: heat. But with heat waves in the U.S. a new report from Stanford is very timely.

"Using a large suite of climate model experiments, we see a clear emergence of much more intense, hot conditions in the U.S. within the next three decades," said Noah Diffenbaugh, an assistant professor of environmental Earth system science at Stanford and the lead author of the study... Diffenbaugh concluded that hot temperature extremes could become frequent events in the U.S. by 2039, posing serious risks to agriculture and human health.

"In the next 30 years, we could see an increase in heat waves like the one now occurring in the eastern United States or the kind that swept across Europe in 2003 that caused tens of thousands of fatalities," said Diffenbaugh...

The study used two dozen climate models to calculate the likely rise in temperatures of approximately 2 degrees C. Applying their findings to powerful computer simulations for the future, the study found a heat waves equal to the most intense heat wave experienced between 1951 and 1999 is likely to occur five times between 2020 and 2029 in the western and central U.S. The decade after 2030 is likely to have at least seven such intense heat waves. Heats waves equal to the longest and worst are likely to happen three times in the eastern U.S.

"By the decade of the 2030s, we see persistent, drier conditions over most of the U.S.," Diffenbaugh said. "Not only will the atmosphere heat up from more greenhouse gases, but we also expect changes in the precipitation and soil moisture that are very similar to what we see in hot, dry periods historically. In our results for the U.S., these conditions amplify the effects of rising greenhouse gas concentrations."

Besides harming human health and agriculture, these hot, dry conditions could lead to more droughts and wildfires in the near future, he said. And many of these climate change impacts could occur within the next two decades – years before the planet is likely tor each the 2 C threshold targeted by some governments and climate experts, he added."

"The results were surprising," the Stanford University News story said, though it's not clear who was surprised. These findings are consistent with others, including the UN climate panel reports. They suggest that at minimum the beginning of the transition from Climate Crisis to Climate Cataclysm at mid century.

But in the real felt context they also suggest the consequences, viscerally. There is a new book on air-conditioning that appears to be the beginning of a discussion that will become more and more pertinent. My own vivid recollections of severe heat waves in Pittsburgh suggest the range of difficulties. My life became a quest for air conditioning. I had one room air conditioner that I moved from bedroom to office and back. On the worst days, I spent as much time as I could in air conditioned public areas--restaurants, movie theatres. It was often too cold, but that was better than the literally suffocating heat.

Air conditioning requires electrical power, which currently contributes to the greenhouse gas pollution that creates future heat waves. It's a causal feedback loop, otherwise known as a vicious circle. This is one issue that is better faced when cooler heads can prevail, and not because they are the elite that can afford air conditioning.

There are consequences in where people live as well as how. All of this lies within the lifetimes of many alive today. Not to mention what's going on right now. (Make that right right now.) Fortunately some people have been thinking about these problems and devising solutions. But so far, there is not the public will or atmosphere to beginning dealing with these problems before everyone gets too hot under the collar to think straight. If on some other level we haven't already passed that tipping point already.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Word Cup

I heard a CNN reporter say that Spain had "clinched" the World Cup. This is a now common misuse of the word as applied to sports contests. When the Giants are in first place by five games over the second place team with four games to play in the season, they have "clinched" the division championship, even though they have not yet won it, because there are still games to play. "Clinched" means that mathematically you will win.

But Spain won the final game (or "match") in the World Cup. So they didn't clinch the Cup. They won the World Cup.

So who cares? When you misuse a word like this, you lose its meaning. If "clinch" is substituted for "win," how do you describe the situation previously described by "clinch?"

Another such fashion is in basketball reporting, in which announcers talk about "shot attempts." What is the difference between a shot attempt and a shot? The distinction used to be between a shot and a made shot. So what in the world is a shot attempt? Somebody tries to shoot but fails--the ball falls out of his or her hand? It's a different sort of word problem--an unnecessary addition that clots things up, and confuses meaning, in the guise of saying something meaningful.

It's useful to make these points in a sports context because, for all the ribbing that sportswriters and announcers take about their verbiage, they have a tradition of careful and precise use of language. For example, one of the last bastions of the correct distinction between "less" and "fewer" is ESPN's SportsCenter. In sports, the distinction between quantity and number is still important.

That distinction is important everywhere, but it is slipping away because we're losing words. Dip into a Jane Austen dialogue and within a sentence or two, it is clear how words name distinctions of feeling and perception that would go unrecognized without the precise words to describe them.

Headline: Mockingbird

On Sunday I posted a lot about To Kill A Mockingbird on the 50th anniversary of its publication, mostly re-purposing old posts at Stage Matters and Boomer Hall of Fame. But for the Monday give-it-to-me-in-a-Twitter post, here's the "takeaway" (apart from the Harper Lee quote):

The second theme, which follows from the first and is explicitly stated as a lesson to the children in the novel, is that of cultivating empathy and understanding by trying to see the world from the other’s perspective (as Scout does finally when she stands on Boo Radley’s porch at the end), by metaphorically living in someone else’s skin, walking in their shoes. This is a lesson about life and specifically about race. It remains the most crucial lesson in our public as well as private lives, and so this too accounts for this novel’s standing.

There are a lot of reasons, or sources of arguments against racism, which animate different people to different degrees. But the principle of empathy was very powerful in the late 50s and early 60s among whites who saw the Civil Rights movement mostly from a distance. As it came closer to home, if empathy was well established, then barriers to racial equality were easier to overcome.

Empathy is likely to be a key necessity, a community and civilizational survival skill, in the difficult future, as it is today in various political wranglings with real consequences for real people, who often aren't party to the "debate."

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

' an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books.”

Harper Lee

(photo: Mary Badham and Harper Lee. More about the 50th anniversary of To Kill A Mockingbird in posts below.)

Remembering "To Kill A Mockingbird"

Today—July 11—is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of one of the most beloved and enduring American novels of the 20th century, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

Upon publication in 1960 it became immediately successful, and won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It remains among th top 10 best selling novels from then until now. It is one of the five most assigned novels in American schools, and American librarians recently voted it the best novel of the twentieth century.

It was of course inspiration for the 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Only Lawrence of Arabia could deny this movie the honor of Best Picture. It is still among the most popular and acclaimed movies of all time. A few years ago the American Film Institute named Atticus Finch—the character Peck played-- as the greatest film hero in the history of movies.

(That's Harper Lee with Gregory Peck in the photo, at the time of the filming. This appreciation continues after the next photo.)

To refresh your memory of the story: Atticus Finch is the widowed father of the tomboy Scout (Harper Lee’s self-portrait) and Jem (Scout’s older brother). Atticus is a lawyer appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a young black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. This event is based partly on a case of her father’s, and partly on the infamous Scottsboro Trials of young black men falsely convicted of raping a white woman, also in the 1930s, when Harper Lee was about the same age as her fictional stand-in, Jean-Louise, known as Scout.

Harper Lee transformed memories of her childhood: her father was the inspiration for Atticus Finch, Truman Capote became Dill, her brother Edwin and cousin Jennings became Jem, and Boo Radley was perhaps based on someone else in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama (as discovered by the director of a University of Alabama production of the stage version, who visited Monroeville.)

In Monroeville in the 1930s, a rich man’s son was caught joyriding in a stolen car. His father persuaded the sheriff not to arrest the boy, but to leave the punishment up to him. He imposed three years of house arrest, but it turned into a life sentence when even after that time the young man found he could no longer face leaving the confines of his house, except at night. He became an object of mystery and fear in the neighborhood. At least according to the local story.

Nelle Harper Lee left Monroeville for college, then law school in her father’s footsteps, though she stopped just shy of completing her degree. Instead she went to New York, where she worked as an airline reservations clerk and assisted her childhood friend, Truman Capote, in researching the book he took full credit for, In Cold Blood, also a classic, about two murderers in Kansas. Catherine Keener plays her in the 2005 film Capote (photo above), and looks very much like Lee’s 1960s photos.

She began writing in earnest in the mid 50s, returning frequently to Alabama to nurse her ailing father. One Christmas in Manhattan, a songwriter friend and his wife gave her a unique gift—a year’s income, to support her writing. (The songwriter was Michael Brown, who made his reputation and probably his fortune producing industrial musicals for clients like DuPont and Woolworth.) She used it to write the first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird.

The novel was innovative in several ways. Through the narrative voice Harper Lee developed, she solved a perennial problem for writers: how do you accurately portray events from childhood to reflect both the feelings and perceptions of the time, and the fact that you’re looking back with the knowledge and insight of an adult?

The wedding of a kind of fictionalized memoir describing the texture of childhood and a particular place and time, with a courtroom drama involving an important social and political issue, was itself a synthesis that violated the rules. But in Lee’s telling, both elements gave power to the other. The somewhat languid mood of much of the early parts of the book (it takes place over three years) gradually quickens into page-turning drama.

Lee’s first submitted version of the work was reportedly more of a series of linked stories. But her publisher insisted on a more unified novel. Lee was able to achieve this partly by following in linear time the education of the young girl, Scout and her brother, Jem, and partly by weaving a few important themes throughout the book.

The first was about innocence, both of children and of “the mockingbird”—the innocent who only sings and does no one any harm—which applies to both Tom Robinson, the accused black man Atticus defends, and to Boo Radley, the neighbor who lives in darkness, the stranger in their midst who receives their projections of violence, and is therefore a source of fear.

He is different (and a kind of artist, who creates sculptures and leaves them for the children to find, along with talismans of his own “normal” childhood). He is literally unseen, and so represents the aspects of people we are blind to, because of our preconceptions. This obviously applies to race, and there is also a strong theme of class in the novel—which cuts both ways. (It can be argued that Atticus has his own class prejudices.)
The second theme, which follows from the first and is explicitly stated as a lesson to the children in the novel, is that of cultivating empathy and understanding by trying to see the world from the other’s perspective (as Scout does finally when she stands on Boo Radley’s porch at the end), by metaphorically living in someone else’s skin, walking in their shoes. This is a lesson about life and specifically about race. It remains the most crucial lesson in our public as well as private lives, and so this too accounts for this novel’s standing.

This theme is reinforced in other ways throughout the novel, notably by the brief story of Mrs. Dubose, a surly neighbor who insults everyone, including Scout and Jem, and says harsh things about Atticus. When Jem loses his temper and destroys her garden flowers, Atticus sends him to Mrs. Dubose to apologize and make restitution. Mr. D. requires him to read aloud to her everyday. When she dies, they learn that she was always in pain and addicted to morphine, which accounted for her harsh behavior. She decided she would die free of her addiction, and Jem reading to her was a way for her to bear the pain. It’s another example of assumptions and projections contradicted by understanding, as well as a story of redemption and the power of simple acts to do good.
As the Civil Rights Movement came to fruition in the early 1960s, the book struck a chord. So did the equally classic 1962 movie version, which in addition to Gregory Peck at the height of his fame, had quite a pedigree behind the camera. Alan Pakula produced it (though only his second feature as a producer, he later produced Klute, Sophie's Choice and other hits, as well as directing All the President's Men, etc.) Robert Mulligan directed, Elmer Bernstein wrote the musical score, and the screenplay was written by Horton Foote, the Texan playwright, who had written extensively for television drama and later wrote many acclaimed movie scripts, including Tender Mercies for Robert Duvall. Duvall’s first movie role was Boo Radley.

Harper Lee was a consultant on the movie and present for the filming (mostly on a backlot in California.) She and other participants formed lifelong friendships on that set. She and Gregory Peck in particular remained close. As she watched the first scene being shot she was seen to shed a few tears: he reminded her so much of her father. For his part, Peck’s grandson Harper Peck Voll is named after Harper Lee.
Young Mary Badham, who played the six year old “Scout,” also kept in touch with Peck for the rest of his life. She felt close to him immediately on the set, and between takes would be seen hanging onto him in his lap. She called him “Atticus” ever after.

A wide search for children to play Scout and her brother Jem was conducted in various southern cities, but the actors selected, Badham and Philip Alford as Jem, lived within a couple of blocks of each other in Birmingham, though they’d never met.

Mary Badham was herself a “tomboy,” as was her character, and the girl that Scout was based on—Harper Lee. She acted for several more years, and was in one more notable movie (This Property is Condemned, based on a Tennessee Williams play, written by Francis Ford Copolla and starring Robert Redford and Natalie Wood.) She gave up acting by the late 60s but returned to it in recent years. While Harper Lee has long been reclusive, refusing most appearances, it was often Mary Badham who represents this movie when it is honored and shown at festivals.
The movie streamlines the story of the novel by collapsing the events into a single year. It very carefully tells the story from the children’s point of view, even in shot selection. Though the subplot of Mrs. Dubose (played by the accomplished actor, Ruth White) was shot, director Mulligan felt it sidetracked the momentum of the film and most of the scenes were cut. It’s said her performance was brilliant.

There are so many indelible images, performances and moments in this movie. Mary Badham was remarkable, especially in a scene of Peck as Attticus putting Scout to bed and talking of her mother (added to the film and not a scene in the book), and then of course in one of the most moving scenes in any film—when she sees Robert Duvall behind the door, and recognizes him, and with a luminous smile says, “Hey, Boo.” Her face in this film is absolutely unique.
And of course, Gregory Peck, who could express so much with presence, gesture and nuance—with a tilt of his head and a raised eyebrow. The makers of this film understood and complemented this power. They allowed him to react without speaking; in a key scene, in which he learns that his client is dead and he must tell others of this, we see him mostly from the back.

This style worked very well for Harper Lee’ story, which needed a delicate touch on screen. That her novel got such a near-perfect movie has helped keep the novel alive.
Ultimately, it is the book itself, which is Harper Lee’s achievement, justly celebrated today. Though she attempted a couple of other books, this is the only one she published. She lived a quiet but full life in New York and in a house full of books back in Monroeville, Alabama. Now in her 80s, she lives nearby. In 2006, Harper Lee reaffirmed her dedication to writing and the written word, in a letter to Oprah Winfrey. "Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books.”