Lightning reviews

December 30, 2008

From time to time I want to start posting some “lightning reviews” of books I have read recently (and perhaps some other material I have viewed/heard, as well). This is a bit of a writing exercise, intended a) to get me to read more; b) to get me to blog more by actually writing something about everything I read; and c) to exercise my mental muscle by forcing me to say everything I want to in about 250 words and half an hour. So, with no further ado, here are the first three.

Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Knopf, 2006)

Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were relatively unknown prior to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, and even so it was the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in 2000 that made them household names. Of course, it was the 9/11 attacks that turned them into Public Enemy #1 in the public consciousness. But few people probably know where these people came from, who could plan or execute such an audacious terrorist attack on the West.

The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright tracks the history of al-Qaeda, primarily through the intertwined stories of four people: bin Laden himself, of course, the son of a Yemeni construction mogul, who fought alongside the Mujahedeen and Afghanistan, but transferred his hatred from the Soviets to the U.S. after the Saudis permitted the latter to establish bases on their soil during the 1991 Gulf War; Ayman al-Zarqawi, medical doctor, co-conspirator in the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, and leader of the terrorist faction al-Jihad, which later merged with bin Laden’s al-Qaeda; Prince Turki, the head of Saudi intelligence who had been a friend to bin Laden, but was later compelled to confiscate his passport and expel him from Saudi Arabia; and John O’Neill, the FBI special agent who fought tenaciously to get the Bureau to recognize the threat al-Qaeda posed, only to die in the destruction of the World Trade Center. Wright began researching The Looming Tower almost immediately after 9/11, and his narrative is woven together from hundreds of interviews conducted with many principal figures. This book is well worth reading for its insight into the principal newsmaker of our day.

Francis A. Schaeffer, The Church at the End of the 20th Century (IVP, 1970)

As influential as 20th-century theologian Francis Schaeffer is, it’s easy to dismiss his cultural critique as dated. After all, not only did he die in 1984 – before most current university students were even born – but his peak period of influence was in the 1960s and early 1970s. He was writing about hippies, fercryinoutloud! But of course that would miss the extent to which Schaeffer’s prophetic voice continues to be heard. Schaeffer sparked the evangelical Protestant concern with activism, particularly on the abortion issue, for example. His books remain in print, and his students, such as Os Guinness, continue to speak as he did.

And when you read the following, from The Church at the End of the 20th Century, you would think he had a contemporary student newspaper in front of him and was reading the headlines:

[The New Left] derives from what, as i said, Ginsberg pointed out: Someone needs to make the posters. . . . It explains the change in the campus revolution from Winsconsin and Columbia onwards. . . . One of the leaders of the Sorbonne revoluation spoke over the French radio. Another student called up on the phone and said, “Give me a chance to speak.” But the answer was “No, just shut up – I’ll never give you a chance to speak.” The same thing is happening wherever the New Left takes over . Here is the complete opposite to the origianl Free Speech movement – a few hundred tell thousands they must be still. (p. 32)

Schaeffer sounds like he could be talking about Stalinist student unions and campus speech codes. He being dead yet speaketh, indeed.

Overall, The Church at the End of the 20th Century is an analysis of the church’s response to the intellectual and social Zeitgeist of the late 20th century. The culture might have changed, but the issues are still the same. Well worth reading, but if you’re unfamiliar with Schaeffer, I suggest reading two earlier books first, The God Who is There, and Escape from Reason, which lay down the philosophical and theologial framework for all his later writing.

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (Harper Regency, 2000)

Chef Anthony Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential might discourage you from ever wanting to eat out again, but it shouldn’t. This tell-all memoir-cum-exposé of the food-service industry details Bourdain’s career (often fueled by an excess of drugs and alcohol); a few tips on the things you need to cook like a pro or why you should never order the fish special on a Monday; and character sketches of some of the more colorful characters he has worked with. The oddest of these is “Adam Real-Last-Name-Unknown,” an eccentric and highly litigious baker with a dubious immigration status and a preternatural flair for making delicious varieties of sourdough bread. A novelist couldn’t invent characters like this. On the other hand, Scott Bryan, chef of the New York restaurant Veritas, is praised as an excellent chef and the consummate professional – a foil for the markedly wilder Bourdain.

If you’ve seen Bourdain’s travelogue program No Reservations, then you know from his profanity-laced commentaries that he advocates for simple, unpretentious local fare prepared simply with regional ingredients. Conversely, in Kitchen Confidential he seems to have a speical hatred for the celebrity chef; one oblique reference to Emeril Lagasse labels him a “schlockmeister with a catchphrase and his own line of prepared seasonings.” Bourdain is the anti-celebrity chef, albeit one with his own TV show. I wonder if he grasps the irony.

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The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light

December 25, 2008

For unto us a child is born,

unto us a son is given:

and the government shall be upon his shoulder:

and his name shall be called

Wonderful,

Counsellor,

The mighty God,

The everlasting Father,

The Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

If you feel so inclined, why not sing along [PDF] courtesy of Kelvin Smith’s UntraveledRoad Music Collection?

Merry Christmas, all.


This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper

December 22, 2008

Late last week, the newspaper headlines were trumpeting the coming of “Snowmageddon,” purportedly the mother of all winter storms, which was set to hit Ottawa on Friday and Sunday. (I love the term “Snowmageddon,” and have since tried to use it in at least on sentence daily.) This is the same winter storm that dumped snow on such unlikely places as California and Nevada and walloped Toronto early Friday morning.

Fortunately, for Ottawa’s sake, it missed, and both storms, though blustery, were not enough to cause any serious hardship. Faithful Readers may remember my posting this picture back in March, after a record-breaking snowstorm shut the city down for a couple of days:

Imagine something like that, only without the snow, and you’ll get an idea of the Snowstorm to End All Snowstorms. There was a lot of bluster, but not a lot of white stuff on the ground, and the roads were basically bare, at least in the centre.

My church choir presented its annual Christmas cantata this Friday and Sunday – the exact two days that we got the bad weather. Our choir director was worried when he heard the weather forecasts, because it was this time last year when the Sunday cantata was snowed out. He decided to present the same program this year because so many people never got a chance to hear it last year – including myself, as I wasn’t at the Friday night performance. This year, nothing got canceled, and the cold and blowing snow wasn’t enough to keep people away. (I really wouldn’t want to practice the same program for a third consecutive year.)

Which isn’t to say that the weather hasn’t been nasty. It’s been consistently about -15°C for the past week, and usually quite gusty. Thanks to the 12-day-old-and-counting bus strike, I need to walk a considerable distance to go about my usual daily business, and that often means a long walk home against the wind. Even a half-hour long hot shower isn’t always enough to thaw me out afterwards.

So I’m really, really glad Snowmageddon fizzled. Hope you Nevadans enjoyed your winter wonderland while it lasted.


Majel Barrett Roddenberry, 1932-2008

December 19, 2008

“First Lady of Star Trek” Majel Barrett Roddenberry, widow of series creator Gene Roddenberry, has passed away at the age of 76, of complications due to leukemia.

In the original pilot of Star Trek, Barrett played “Number One,” the emotionless second-in-command of the Enterprise. The network despised the character, and for the second pilot, much of her character was folded into that of Mr. Spock, who became the new first officer. Barrett herself was recast in a recurring role as Nurse Christine Chapel, who ironically harboured a secret crush on Spock. She was romantically involved with Gene Roddenberry at the time, and married him in 1969. In subsequent incarnations of Star Trek, she lent her voice to the shipboard computer, as well as a recurring role as Deanna Troi’s mother on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. In one of Peter David’s New Frontiers novels, he cracks a clever in-joke about the number of roles she played, which took me two reads before I caught it. I have heard that Barrett completed the voice work for the ship’s computer for next year’s new Star Trek movie, as well.

After Roddenberry’s death, Barrett brought two of his further ideas to fruition as executive producer: Earth: Final Conflict (in which she also had a recurring role) and Andromeda, both of which, interestingly, were Canadian. Additionally, she made a significant guest appearance on “rival” series Babylon 5, as though to say it was all right for fans of Star Trek to like B5.

Science fiction has lost a treasure. Rest in peace, Mrs. Roddenberry.


Congrats . . .

December 18, 2008

. . . to Andrea Mrozek and team from ProWomanProLife for winning the “Best New Blog” category in the Canadian Blog Awards.

I first discovered this blog in March 2008, during the blowup at York University over the debate to be held on the legality of abortion. Since then it has become one of my must-read blogs, and has escaped mention on my blogroll only because I’m in the midst of an unnecessarily delayed facelift.

Based on the premise that the pro-life position is wholly compatible with women’s rights, ProWomanProLife is an excellent and thoughtful contribution to the pro-life blogosphere, and everyone should read it.


The bus strike, 1 week in

December 17, 2008

Even though I rely on public transit to get around, I’ve said nothing about the bus driver strike that began at 12:01 am last Wednesday morning. I thought I’d sit tight and see what transpired.

Well, the first thing that transpired is that it turns out I don’t rely on public transit to get around. At least, not much.

At the beginning of 2006, OC Transpo hiked the cash fares to $3.00, while increasing the cost of tickets and monthly passes by a considerably smaller percentage, to encourage people to use them. Then, this summer, citing increased fuel costs, they hiked the passes too. A monthly pass is supposed to be the economical choice for frequent riders, but now that’s only true if you ride the bus for more than commuting back and forth to work every day; any less than that, and bus tickets (which also increased, but only a dime to $2.00 per regular fare) are your best bet.1 Additionally, a bus transfer entitles you to ride any route, in any direction, until it expires – there are no prohibitions on stopovers or return trips as there are with some cities’ transit systems. It is perfectly possible, with some planning ahead, to go out, do your business, and return home on the same fare.

So, feeling that the municipal government was probably screwing me over, I stopped buying a monthly pass this April. I work at home, obviating the need for a daily commute. And within the hour that I consider a reasonable walking time, give or take a few minutes, I can reach:

  • half a dozen supermarkets
  • two branches of my bank
  • five branches of the public library, including the main branch
  • two university libraries
  • a hospital with emergency services
  • three malls
  • a Wal-Mart
  • downtown Ottawa
  • the Byward Market

My church is the only place I frequent that is outside of walking distance, and usually I can catch a ride with my roommate because he’s also going. In addition to the fresh air and exercise (I’m sure I’ve shed a few pounds), doing my daily business on foot has been an opportunity to get out of the house and listen to music or podcasts free of the distractions of other housemates, the television, and so forth. By limiting bus use to long distance and bad weather, I cut my transportation bill in half or more. That extra 20 or so kilometers of walking each week has been nothing but an improvement to my quality of life.

Now, with the drivers on strike, I’m getting it from both ends. My understanding is that the one sticking point in the negotiations, over which neither side is willing to budge, is scheduling. (Gee, I wish I had a job where I could choose my own shifts.) So both sides are pretty much idiots. But even with no buses going anywhere, frankly, I haven’t much noticed.2 Heck. Maybe when spring comes again and I’ve dropped a few more pounds and built up my leg muscles, I’ll switch over to biking, which would extend my range four times or more. What have I got to lose?

Who knows, maybe more disaffected transit users will follow suit. Inevitably, some marketing drone will then realize that the only solution to plummeting ridership is to increase the fares yet again. Way to go, OC Transpo. Keep up the good work.

Footnotes

1 Harpernomics footnote: Admittedly, I have not calculated the advantage of using the passes when you factor in the tax break.

2I’m speaking only of my particular situation, of course; I realize not everyone is in the same situation as me.


Toys for Tyrants?

December 16, 2008

There are certain places around the world that I am convinced are loci of all sorts of foolishness. Berkeley, California comes to mind as the capital of hippy-dippy weirdness, as do Idaho and Michigan, home of various “militias” and “survivalists.” Another such locus is Austin Texas. It earns its wings as a Nexus of Nuttiness for housing not one, but two high-profile nuts.

One nut is Texe Marrs, who never encountered anything that wasn’t a grand conspiracy meant to usher in the New World OrderTM. (For example, Marrs has actually argued that vaccinations are a ruse to inject citizens with mind-control nanobots to be controlled by low-frequency transmissions from giant dish antennas disguised as World Cup soccer stadiums. No, you weren’t dreaming that you read that.)

The other nut is, of course, talk-show host Alex Jones. Like Marrs, Jones is no stranger to the grand-scale conspiracy theories – he pretty much spearheads the whole 9/11 “truth” movement, after all – but if a Marrs theory is a buffet table of global intrigue, Jones seems to prefer his conspiracies portioned out in little snacks like dim sum.

Here is an example from Friday’s program. Alex tries to reveal the true purpose of the Marines’ Toys for Tots program, which is to “acclimate the public” to seeing armed soldiers in the streets of the New World OrderTM:

I have to hand it to the Marine sergeant he spoke to: despite all of Jones’ attempts to bait him with multiple items of conspiracy wingnuttery, he didn’t bite, and managed to plug Toys for Tots about four or five times. (Talk about keeping cool under fire!)

Jones’ broader argument appears to be that frequent appearances of military personnel in uniform: in schools, at sporting events, doing Toys for Tots, and so forth, is nothing but a “brainwashing” campaign intended to get the public used to seeing the military in the streets. After the clip posted to YouTube, Jones intones, “The troops bring you toys,” in a nasal, sarcastic tone, as though Marines had never collected toys for children before. Toys for Tots began in 1947 and went national a year later. The program has been going on for 60 years, so the claims made in the program that seeing uniformed military personnel in public is unusual, just don’t hold water. They should be at least as familiar as a bell-ringing Sally Ann volunteer. Besides, who doesn’t know at least one soldier?

Have a woo-woo Christmas and a whackadoo New Year.