Wednesday, May 30, 2007

When he has a fire sale, he means it

This used bookseller has found a way to sell his merchandise and make a social statement too:

KANSAS CITY, Missouri (AP) -- Tom Wayne has amassed thousands of books in a warehouse during the 10 years he has run his used book store, Prospero's Books.

His collection ranges from best sellers, such as Tom Clancy's "The Hunt for Red October" and Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities," to obscure titles, like a bound report from the Fourth Pan-American Conference held in Buenos Aires in 1910. But when he wanted to thin out the collection, he found he couldn't even give away books to libraries or thrift shops; they said they were full.

So on Sunday, Wayne began burning his books in protest of what he sees as society's diminishing support for the printed word.

"This is the funeral pyre for thought in America today," Wayne told spectators outside his bookstore as he lit the first batch of books

Via LIS News.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Book Review: The Sorrows of Empire, by Chalmers Johnson

A few months ago, I reviewed Blowback, Chalmers Johnson's take on American military and economic imperialism. The economist and East Asia expert explained how both trigger consequences that the American people are often required to bear, but because military and covert actions are kept secret or hidden, most citizens haven't the slightest clue why these "terrorists" or "rogue states" are targeting them.

Some might say Johnson's book was uncannily prophetic, since it was written in 2000 and one year later the ultimate form of "blowback", the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, occurred. Others--like myself--might have been surprised at the scope and effectiveness of the attack, but few active observers of international politics were surprised that 9/11 happened in the first place.

In Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic, Johnson takes on American imperialism directly. Tracing its history from the Spanish-American War to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Johnson details the string of bases the US military has erected in something like 3/4 of the nations of the world. He also details the personal arrangements American military officers cultivate with the military elite of other nations. These relationships bypass and undermine the usual channels of civilian diplomacy, as these military relationships are not subject to oversight or control by the elected civilian authorities.

Truth be told, the earlier chapters are not as strong as Blowback's thesis. Johnson's expertise in economics and East Asia were evident in the earlier book, but here he delves into somewhat unfamiliar territory, and thus it comes across more as a popular history than a scholarly analysis. Still, the facts he compiles are shocking.

Much like Gwynne Dyer, Johnson failed to predict just how disastrous the occupation of Iraq would become. In fact, few of the major commentators heard before the war and during the initial invasion, whether supporters of the action or its opponents, were able to predict just how badly the Bush administration would bungle the occupation. In this Johnson is not unique. It seems many commentators and analysts believed the Bush administration could be idealistic, or corrupt, or evil, but no one predicted they could be incompetent. Sadly, the last three years have made that abundantly evident.

Johnson saves the best for last, as it is the book's penultimate chapter that features his strongest argument. "Globalization", that capitalist buzzword of the 1990s, is nothing but Western (ie, American) economic imperialism. This rebirth of eighteenth-century liberalism, often dubbed "neoliberalism", brings with it the racism and exploitation that accompanied classical liberalism in the heydays of the British Empire. Johnson feels that Bill Clinton was a far more successful imperialist than George W. Bush:

In accordance with the logic of Sun Tzu, Bill Clinton was actually a much more effective imperialist than George W. Bush. During the Clinton administration, the United States employed an indirect approach in imposing its will on other nations. The government of George W. Bush, by contrast, dropped all legitimating principles and adopted the view that might makes right. History tells us that an expansive nation must at least attempt to disguise what it is doing if it wants to consolidate its gains. It must pretend that its exploitation of the weak is in their own best interest, or their own fault, or the result of ineluctable processes beyond human control, or a consequence of the spread of civilization, or in accordance with scientific laws--anything but deliberate aggression by a hyperpower.

Clinton camouflagued his policies by carrying them out under the banner of "globalization". This proved quite effective in maneuvering rich but gullible nations to do America's bidding--for example, Argentina--or in destabilizing potential rivals--for example, South Korea and Indonesia in the 1997 economic crisis--or in protecting domestic economic interests--for example, in maintaining the exorbitant prices of American pharmaceutical companies under cover of defending "intellectual property rights". During the 1990s, the rationales of free trade and capitalist economics were used to disguise America's hegemonic power and make it seem benign or, at least, natural and unavoidable. The main agents of this imperialism were Clinton's secretary of the Treasury, Robert Rubin, and his deputy (today, president of Harvard University). Lawrence Summers. The United States ruled the world but did so in a carefully masked way that produced high degrees of acquiescence among the dominated nations.

George W. Bush, by contrast, turned to a frontal assault based on the use of America's unequaled military power.

Ironically, "in its spurious scientificity, globalism has proved similar to Marxism, whose roots lie in the same intellectual soil," in that the modern globalists are convinced their path is inevitable and irresistible. Clearly this notion of historical determinism mirrors the dialectical process of Marxist thought.

The notion of the American military-industrial complex as a socialist entity is not a new one: see for example William Greider's Fortress America: The American Military and the Consequences of Peace. Greider, Johnson and others have noted that American defence spending shows little regard for market forces or other considerations of a capitalist economy--indeed, periods of economic downturn seem to be accompanied by increases in American defence spending. Generally speaking, the same arms manufacturers are granted defence contracts over and over again, which brings into question how competitive the awarding of contracts is. The US military has many of the earmarks of a planned economy.

Johnson takes this idea to the next level, quoting Peru's ambassador to the World Trade Organization, Oswaldo de Rivero:

The ideological war between capitalism and communism during the second half of the twentieth century was not a conflict between totally different ideologies. It was, rather, a civil war between two extreme viewpoints of the same Western ideology: the search for happiness through the material progress disseminated by the Industrial Revolution...the cost of the Soviet version of development was shortages and lack of freedom; today, that of the neoliberal, capitalist variant is unemployment and social exclusion.

The book's conclusion summarizes four likely negative results to the American Republic from increasing American imperialism, the last (and most dangerous in his eyes) being bankruptcy. Imperialism is an expensive business and American defense spending is more out of control than ever before. Although Johnson suggests that the American people could still use their civil institutions to reclaim their nation from the imperialists, he isn't very hopeful.

I conclude this review with a recent example of blowback from American interventionism: the Fort Dix Six, Kosovars so pleased with American involvement in their war against Serbia, they decided to show their gratitude by attempting to break into a US military base on American soil and kill as many US soldiers as they could.

And this is why those who favour American imperialism, even for beneficial reasons (there is something positive to be said about the type of society American imperialists give lip service to, even if they don't practice it). The globalization project of the imperialists has empowered the dissident and disgruntled around the world. The Romans, British, Russians, Turks--they didn't have to worry about oppressed subject peoples in the colonies causing major damage in the homeland. At least not until their empires were well on their way to complete collapse. Whereas today, the openness of frontiers and borders and the free flow of information, technology and finance (a direct consequence of globalization) has placed immense destructive power into the hands of dissidents--and we've seen they're quite prepared to use it--and given them the ability to project that force directly into the political, military and economic capitals of the American empire. The American people should fear their rising empire as much as those worldwide. For much like the British empire that preceded it, the American empire benefits the wealthy and powerful, but it is the rest of society that suffers the consequences.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The metal chick wet t-shirt contest continues...

Some time ago, I compared the music videos for Nightwish's "Nemo" and Evanescence's "Lithium". Among the many points of similarity between them, both lead singers (Tarja and Amy) end up submerged in water.

I need to add another video to the list: After Forever's "Energize". Watch lead singer Floor Jansen end up in the water during the chorus:

I don't think otherwise Floor matches up with Tarja and Amy. This video alternates between a forest during an autumnal windstorm, and a burning soundstage. No snow-covered field to be seen. Also, while Floor is wearing pseudo-Victorian goth attire in this video, it's not her usual style of dress. A straight-ahead rocker chick, Floor usually wears sleeveless T-shirts with jeans or PVC pants.

All kidding aside, After Forever rules!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Read two books and call me in the morning

Last night, Dr. Vincent Lam, winner of the 2006 Giller Prize, did a special author visit at work. This was part of our Asian Heritage Month celebrations (which I mentioned briefly last month).

Dr. Vincent Lam, Toronto emergency room physician and Giller Prize-winning author.

The Giller Prize-winning Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures.

Although running a bit late (thanks to the notorious traffic situation of the Greater Toronto Area), no one seemed to notice or make a fuss about it. Dr. Lam began with a brief introduction about himself, then read sections from "Winston", one of the stories in Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. To be honest this is one of my least favourite stories from the book, but it is one with several conflicting emotions (concern, paranoia, suspense, humour) and probably best illustrates the various aspects of the working lives of medical professionals that Lam endeavours to communicate throughout the book.

Afterwards, I read some audience-submitted questions to Dr. Lam, which he answered with candor and good humour, after which he signed books, including a couple for me. Deranged Squirrel (who brought her sister K along), MadJenny and The Blogless One also came out on their night off to see Dr. Lam.

Dr. Vincent Lam signs my copies of his book.

The signed title page.

I found Dr. Lam to be an incredibly nice and approachable person, and wish him every success with his next book.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Two-fisted science stings like a bee! Or an ant, or a wasp...

As kind of an update to my previous post on Two-Fisted Science, here's another entry.

Justin O. Schmidt is an entomologist best known as the author of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, a listing of various insect bites and stings and the relative amount of pain caused.

How did he acquire his data? He let himself get stung by all these insects. On purpose.

Via Retrospectacle.
The mirror has two faces

So I just got back from seeing two bands that are ostensibly from the same scene, but with vastly different approaches. Italy's Lacuna Coil and the Netherlands' The Gathering. Both are female-fronted European goth-metal bands, but couldn't be more different.

We got there too late to see the first opener, Stolen Babies, and only caught the last two songs of In This Moment's set (again, both female-fronted metal bands, but not goth-metal).

This was The Gathering's first night on the tour, replacing their countrymen Within Temptation--whom I would have preferred to see, but The Gathering were quite good. They have more of a slow-paced, somber alternative sound than a true metal sound (though their earlier stuff is heavier). Here's an example; one of their more popular songs, "Saturnine":

Also interesting is how, well, normal The Gathering are. They dress quite casually--jeans and shirts, no weird hairstyles. Like my sister (who was with me) said of lead singer Anneke's outfit, "That's something I would wear". They were very humble in appearance and mannerisms. The guitarist, René, looked like a shy geek (complete with glasses) and the bassist, Marjolein, gave these cute little golf claps to the audience. At one point, Anneke mentioned how their last stop had been New York City: "It was nice, but also, not so nice," she stammered. "But tonight is like bliss for us."

Lacuna Coil was the complete opposite. They were very theatrical with very showy PVC outfits and a fairly impressive light show. The two lead singers, Cristina Scabbia and Andrea Ferro, were incredibly dramatic in their stage presence and rapport with the audience. During one duet, Andrea was on his knees while Cristina towered over him. Of course, being Italian they were gesticulating wildly all the time. Here are some pics from my phone:

Lacuna Coil in blue Doppler Shift.Lacuna Coil in red Doppler Shift

Here's Lacuna Coil playing Jimmy Kimmel Live:

So, it was a pretty cool night, even if both bands stuck pretty close to the recorded versions of their songs and didn't really mix things up much.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Designer guys

Intelligent design:

Unintelligent design:

Just plain stupid:

Friday, May 11, 2007

Star gazing

This evening, the Deranged Squirrel, Mad Jenny, and The Blogless One (AKA JL), went to an author visit (at our library) from the Dean of Canadian science fiction, Robert J. Sawyer.

Alas, poor Hominid--I knew him!

Sawyer read from his latest release, Rollback (which is highly recommended), and fielded questions from the audience. He is a talented public speaker and storyteller, and very well-informed and practiced, nimbly parrying and riposting a question of mine concerning the first novel of his I read, Calculating God, and the Anthropic Principle. Afterward, he autographed two books for me:

The Hugo Award-winning Hominids.Its immediate sequel, Humans.

Click on the photos to enlarge them. As you can see, Robert J. Sawyer is a keen observer of humanity.