Saturday, December 30, 2006

Book Review

Inspired by MadJenny, I've decided to review a book here from time to time, when I actually get a chance to read them (I've been pretty good of late). Given my tastes, expect a lot of:

  1. Non-fiction, especially history, politics, philosophy, religion, war and technology

  2. Graphic novels and comic collections

  3. Genre fiction, especially speculative fiction

Ignorant Armies: Sliding into War in Iraq by Gwynne Dyer (2003)
Dyer wrote this book in three weeks over the period when the Bush administration was moving towards the invasion of Iraq. Dyer, a Canadian journalist based in London, specializing in international politics, is probably best known for his CBC series War and its companion book. His column is published in newspapers worldwide. I had the pleasure of seeing Dyer speak while I was an undergrad (despite being in the middle of finishing two fourth-year papers and working on very little sleep and very much espresso), on the topic of NATO's bombing campaign in Serbia and Kosovo. For the record, Dyer considered the campaign a great success, and perhaps the only time in history when a military action was won solely through air power.

Ignorant Armies of course turns out to be a fairly prophetic piece, its main weakness is that even a seasoned commentator like Dyer could not predict the incredible bungling the Bush administration and the Pentagon in this conflict. Dyer's focus is more on the effect a US invasion of Iraq would have on the global order, fearing a diminishing of international law and the legitimacy of the United Nations.

In both this and its companion work, Future Tense: The Coming World Order?, Dyer advocates on behalf of the UN. While many commentators criticize the UN for failing to save the world, Dyer maintains this was not its original purpose. In his view, the UN has succeeded in the primary goal of its founders: to prevent another war between the major world powers. While the world since 1945 has seen no end to violence, such violence has been contained to smaller-scale wars and terrorist actions, and not the total mobilization of world powers towards a war footing. The UN and the international order has done this in two ways, basically by saying: a) wherever national boundaries are drawn now is where they will stay; it is no longer legitimate for nation-states to acquire territory by force, and b) no state has the right to intervene in the internal affairs of another. Violations of either are in theory to be punished by the UN or its Security Council. In practice, especially in the post-colonial era, this was not always upheld (a little thing called the Cold War tended to make Security Council consensus a pipe dream), but it was upheld enough that the major powers more or less followed these protocols, and the smaller powers lined up behind either the Americans or the Soviets, and for the most part, followed suit as well.

Unfortunately, the non-interference directive above means the UN has not always been successful in upholding another one of its founding principles--the universal protection of human rights. However, it has perhaps blunted such activities as compared to pre-1946. The Civil Rights Movement in the United States certainly did not eliminate racism, but it did succeed in making racism a dirty word. In the past, racist rhetoric was common, even accepted at face value. Today, being openly racist will destroy you in the public eye, and probably cost Virginia Senator George Allen reelection. No one wants to be known as a racist, even if they are one. Likewise, although genocide and ethnic cleansing still occur, they are almost universally condemned. Whether the political will exists to do anything about it, or whether the great powers consider dealing with it worth violating the other founding principle of the international equilibrium (the sovereignty of nation-states), is another matter altogether.

However, just as racist rhetoric seems to be on the rise again, so too is the kind of imperialism and eliminationism we saw in the pre-1946 world. So-called experts and political leaders now speak openly of imperialism and ethnic cleansing, and this frightens Dyer. Should the international order collapse, the great powers would fall back on alliance-systems and imperialist spheres of influence, the kind of order that resulted in the brutality of colonialism from the Renaissance up until a few decades ago, and two savagely destructive world wars.

Focused on this possible outcome, Dyer speaks less about the occupation of Iraq. (For any educated onlooker, the invasion's success was a foregone conclusion.) It's likely he (like many others) could not predict such blunders as the disbanding of the Iraqi army; trusting Iranian stooge Ahmed Chalabi; recruiting the inexperienced children of influential neoconservatives to rebuild Iraq's social institutions, despite their ignorance of the Middle East and their intent to use Iraq as a laboratory for their political agendas, regardless of the efficacy of such ideas; and ignoring the State Department's input into the project completely.

Ignorant Armies is a short and riveting read, but ultimately fell short of predicting the true outcomes of the invasion of Iraq.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Sometimes, being a librarian is rewarding

I got a really interesting question through the library's email reference service. I really went to town trying to answer it, and I'm quite proud of the result. I'll reproduce the question and my response below, concealing identifying details:

Major Beatles fan, here. Aside: (In fact, I had the distinct thrill of seeing them perform in the Kaiser Kellernightclub in Hamburg, Germany before they hit the bigtime. Raunchy, goofy, loud, loutish, obscene? Yes to all of that. Electrifying? Charismatic? Yes to both. It was easy to see that the four moptops had "star material' written all over them)

My question : I want to find information on the death of Beatle George Harrison in 2003. You will no doubt recall that the news media provided the world with all kinds of post-mortem details after John Lennon was shot to death. One papparazzi even snapped a photo of Lennon dead on the table. We all learned that his body was cremated, the urn containing his ashes rests in the home of Yoko Ono, and that a special area in New York's Central Park was dedicated to him and given the name "The Imagine Circle."

However, did you notice that there was hardly any media coverage of Haarrison's death. We were told in most accounts that he expired in Los Angeles at a friend's house. The media reported nothing (that I can find) on the disposition of his bodily remains; memorial service or death rights that may have been performed for him. Was he creamated or buried? Isn't that a curious thing. I tracked down one account from a website about baby boomer cultural practices around death, which I paste into this window : "...generation long into self-actualization and self-expression is now processing death on a gut level as it moves through middle age, as illustrated by the recent departures of boomer heroes George Harrison and Ken Kesey. Kesey, a pillar of the '60s counterculture, commanded a parade of his compatriot Merry Pranksters in his honor. Harrison, the "mystical" Beatle, sought eternal rest in the Ganges River."

What? Did someone just dump "Harry" into the Ganges and let him float away, or sink? I knew that Hindus consider ablutions in the Ganges a holy practice, but I've never heard of dumping bodies into the river to float away, sink, and rot.
What happened to Harry's body? I have been unable to locate any mention of a memorial service for him.

Did Harrison's family deliberately keep informaation about his death out of the media? He had a sister living in the US. Did this sister "manage" news about details of his passing?

Can you suggest a source where I might be able to get these details?

And my response:

On to your question--it does seem that there is some mystery surrounding George Harrison's death. Harrison's death was late November 2001, only two months after the September 11th attacks on New York and Washington, and about a month into the NATO operation in Afghanistan, so perhaps Harrison's death did not receive the kind of media saturation it would have under different circumstances.

Time magazine's obituary gives the official story that he passed away at a friend's house from cancer.

The Melbourne (Australia) paper The Age had this article on the release of Harrison's will. It also notes that Harrison was cremated but his ashes were not released into the Ganges river as expected.

The web site "The Smoking Gun", known for presenting scans of important documents of celebrities, politicians and other public figures (e.g., marriage licenses, mug shots, etc.) posted George Harrison's death certificate but noted that the listed address doesn't exist.

A couple of reports noted an official complaint about the erroneous address listed on Harrison's death certificate.

However, this BBC article claims the complaint lead to an investigation by the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office, and that the address was corrected (but not revealed in this article).

The prevailing theory for the false address is noted in the BBC article: "It is thought the first address was given on the certificate in an attempt to deter memorabilia hunters and tourists."

Marc Shapiro's biography, Behind Sad Eyes: The Life of George Harrison (available through [the library system I work for]), notes the following details about Harrison's death:

  • George was checked into New York's Staten Island University Hospital in early November 2001.
  • Reportedly, Paul McCartney had a six-hour visit with George in the hospital.
  • Friends and family were of the opinion that George had resigned himself to dying, and only continued to receive cancer treatments to extend his time with his family.
  • On November 15, George, his wife Olivia and his son Dhani flew to LA. George continued treatments at UCLA Medical Center.
  • While in LA, the Harrisons stayed with friend Gavin de Becker (who later reported the death and the erroneous address).
  • George passed away November 29, 2001 at 1:30 pm.
  • George's remains were cremated hours after his death at Hollywood Forver Memorial Park. George's ashes were returned to London, where two members of the Hare Krishnas performed formal Hindu rites.
  • Shapiro then states Olivia and Dhani brought George's ashes to the Ganges and immersed them in a pre-dawn ceremony.

A Rolling Stone article from June 6, 2002, counters many of the claims about Harrison's death:

Harrison's Mysterious Last Days

It's been six months since GEORGE HARRISON died after a long battle with cancer, and there are still many mysteries about his last days. According to sources close to Harrison, reports that Hare Krishnas were present at his deathbed, that his ashes were spread on India's Ganges River and that he left $30 million to the Krishnas were all false.

Questions have also been raised by those close to Harrison about the conduct of Staten Island University Hospital's Dr. Gil Lederman, who treated the ex-Beatle last fall. Following Harrison's death, Lederman gave a number of television interviews commenting on Harrison's religious beliefs, personal values and whether he was in pain at the end. “George actually spoke with Dr. Lederman very little,” says family friend Gavin de Becker. “But Dr. Lederman mounted a press tour exploiting George in the most shameless way.” Lederman did not return calls for comment, but a representative of the New York State Department of Health confirmed that the doctor's statements to the press could be considered misconduct.

De Becker himself came under scrutiny when a Los Angeles district attorney accused his office of falsifying the address on Harrison's death certificate. An investigation later determined that no impropriety had occurred. “They still don't know where George died, and they never will,” says de Becker. “Which proves that even a very famous man can lead a private life and have a peaceful, private death.”

Another Rolling Stone article from February 5, 2004 (abstract acquired through the EBSCOHost database, available through our web site: [URL]), reported that Harrison's estate sued his doctor at Staten Island University Hospital:

Eliscu, Jenny
Source: Rolling Stone; 2/5/2004 Issue 941, p10-10, 1/5p, 1c
Document Type: Article
Subject Terms: HARRISON, George
MEDICAL ethics
ACTIONS & defenses

Abstract: The article reports that the estate of the musician, George Harrison has filed a $10 million lawsuit against a doctor who allegedly, mistreated him during the days leading up to his death in November 2001. The doctor, Gilbert Lederman of Staten Island University Hospital, New York, is accused of giving interviews that violated confidentiality and of forcing the bedridden Harrison to autograph a guitar. According to the suit, the doctor brought his kids to the home where Harrison was convalescing.

This People magazine article from February 25, 2002, allegedly reveals the actual address where Harrison died:


Section: Scoop
When George Harrison passed away at 58 last Nov. 29, the death certificate said the former Beatle had died at 1971 Coldwater Canyon Road in Beverly Hills. The only problem: There is no 1971 Coldwater Canyon Road there. Now, after an investigation, the L.A. District Attorney's office has determined that the death actually occurred at 9536 Heather Road, a Los Angeles house once rented by Harrison's ex-bandmate Paul McCartney. (The certificate has since been amended.) Gavin de Becker, whose firm provided the erroneous address, calls the probe "a big waste of money and time." Civil rights attorney Gloria Allred, who filed the complaint that spurred the investigation, disagrees: "No one has the right to falsify public records. There is no celebrity exception in the law."

Here's the map to the address.

That's what I'm able to find. I hope it helps to answer some of your questions.

If you have any further questions please reply directly to this message or contact [phone number].

Thank you for using [our email reference service]. And thank you for a very interesting question! It was a lot of fun to try and answer it.

Update: This map shows that the false address on Harrison's death certificate was just around the corner from the actual house where he died.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Stop dicking around

Via The News Blog comes this charming tale.

Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer had this to say on Skeptic magazine's podcast, Skepticality, regarding religion versus science:

A lot of people say things like, "scientists are always changing their minds"; "science keeps changing" like it's a weakness. But that's science's strength...the fact that religion doesn't change--that they pride themselves on not changing their dogma...if you don't bend, you're going to break.

Even on the subject of religious dogma, why are the religious so off-base? This article hits the target dead on (emphasis mine; scroll down to the heading entitled "Sex Talk"):

On the other hand, look at how much energy many religions put into discussing sex. Although there are a lot of Biblical condemnations of sexual sin, some simple word counts will show that there are at least as many condemnations of economic injustice. A search of the New International Version found 79 occurrences of “adultery” and its variants. “Prostitute” and its variants occurs 74 times, but the majority of those verses refer not to sexual sin but to religious apostasy. On the other hand we find 126 occurrences of “oppress.” “Steal” and its variants occur 50 times and “rob” 28 times. “Poor” occurs 178 times. So why don’t we hear a lot more sermons about, oh, cheating on taxes and expense accounts than cheating on spouses? Or more sermons about the evils of poverty than pornography? Why does homosexuality, mentioned directly only a couple of times in the Bible, merit so much more attention than cheating the poor, which is mentioned dozens of times?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Compare and Contrast:

Finland's power-metal conquerors, Nightwish, performing "Nemo":

America's baroque-pop darlings, Evanescence, with "Lithium":

  • Video set in snowy landscape
  • Heavy, distorted guitar riffs and thundering drums backed by piano and strings
  • Female singer fronting heavy rock band (Tarja Turenen of Nightwish; Amy Lee of Evanescence)
  • Singer ends up immersed in water in this video
  • Singer known for:
    • Long, black hair
    • Snow white skin
    • Trained, melodious voice in a rock/metal context
    • Unique, period-inspired outfits
    • Massive falling out with co-founder(s) of band (Ben Moody left Evanescence; Tarja Turenen was fired from Nightwish)
Because MadJenny brought it up:

Learn more about Crosby and Bowie's "surreal" collaboration.

Friday, December 15, 2006

A Christmas Classic

Just in time for the holidays, it's Ragin' Rudolph!

Fun with Film Editing

Thanks to MadJenny for this one:

Funniest thing I've seen in a while. In fact, maybe funnier than this one:

Thursday, December 07, 2006

L is for Lemur, that's good enough for me

M & R's baby has finally arrived! Congratulations!