Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Death Of Saddam

Proving once again the unprovable adage that things happen in threes, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has joined former US President Gerald Ford and former Soul Godfather James Brown in eternal repose this week.

The difference is that Saddam was killed by human hands, fulfilling the execution of a sentence handed down by what history could easily refer to as a kangaroo court some years from now. It will depend on who's writing that history.

Saddam was a brutal dictator who perpetuated tyrannic minority rule, abusing his countrymen to further his personal agenda. A sociopath who started torturing animals as a child, he fulfilled every stereotype of a bloated medieval monarch: raping the Iraqi treasury for his own luxury, handing out death sentences to reduce political opposition, sanctioning torture for fun and profit.

In short, the guy was a real asshole.

The question in my mind really isn't "does he deserve to die", because people deserve to forfeit their lives for a lot less than that. But I actually disagree with Saddam's death sentence on several fronts:

  • I'm not a big fan of the death penalty in general, for almost all of the standard anti-death penalty reasons. I say "almost" because there's so little doubt of the man's complicity in so much vile behavior that the "possibility of innocence" argument holds no sway here. But it is the mark of a larger, more enlightened, and nobler society to rise above the "eye for an eye" sentencing mentality, which could never be carried out here since Saddam had fewer than several dozen thousand eyes. Yes, it's a more viscerally satisfying solution to many, and certainly cheaper, but less civilized, as brutal as the crimes that were committed, and in the end, it's not going to deter the next schmuck dictator from anything.

  • There's no better way than to rally the former Ba'athists and minority Sunnis than to martyrize the guy who gave his life thumbing his nose at the government now occupying their country. As we've been finding out over the last 3+ years, our own leaders viewed the Iraqi attitude toward Saddam through the most naive and sycophantic lenses available. Like it or not, the dude had some sort of a fan club, who now have guns, water bottles filled with C4 and twelve penny nails, and a real grudge against the dudes in the sand-colored uniforms. Killing Saddam is just one more reason for Akbar down the street in old Tikrit to bitch about American propagandizing and finally pick up a rocket launcher aimed at your neighbor's nephew. Or your own nephew. Or daughter. Or husband. You get it.

  • Old Saddam was hardly unique in the universe of dictators. He was only one of a 40 or 50 card set. And not even on the 2002 All-Star Dictator team when we took him down. Compare him to luminaries like the recently deceased King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, Borat's Kazakh pal Nursultan Nazarbeyev, Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il, and Zimbabwe shortstop Robert Mugabe. Do we need to take those guys out, too? Why not? Every word said about Saddam Hussein is true about at least two dozen other world leaders. When does it end? Or is it really--gasp--just political cover to explain away the covert motivations of a simplistic-minded group of Americans who by accident of birth and cynical manipulation of the 2000 elections, blundered their way into power? We can't arrest and kill them all. Nor should we.

  • Someone's going to come back and say that this is the Iraqi government and Iraqi people doing this--that he was convicted in an Iraqi, not American, court, and executed by Iraqi, not American, hands. That, friend, is drinking the Kool-Aid with a big ol' bendy straw. One or two words whispered in Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki's ear by his American handlers determined Hussein's fate. It's not for the Iraqi people's benefit, surely; Saddam's sentencing pales in comparison to the issues faced by the Iraqi government and people today, rent by civil war, trying to pull together security, energy, and transportation infrastructures with hose clamps and duct tape, and getting a meal and drink of clean water. Not killing Saddam doesn't cause a big problem in day-to-day Iraq, so this becomes a symbolic gesture. And right now, the United States of America is running the Iraqi Department of Symbolism.

  • One final point: Saddam wanted to die. He craved martyrdom for himself. In effect, a better punishment would have been to let him rot for his remaining 12 or 15 years of life in an unheated, uncooled 8'x8' cell in an Iraqi prison without access to the media or his followers. Defeated, broken, and irrelevant, discarded in favor of the true future of Iraq. That's how he should have ended, not at the end of a rope.

    Look: at the time of the invasion--and even today's New York Post article about Saddam's execution admits this--Iraq posed no serious threat to American security. No, the excuses were just that, and now this execution is made of as much hot air and bull feces as was the pretense handed to the American public in Q1 2003. He was a monster and bastard, no doubt; but there were more reasons to leave him alive and suffering than to turn him into more fuel for the fire of violence burning in the Middle East.

  • Tuesday, December 26, 2006

    Questions That Really Matter, Volume II

    In my last edition of "Questions That Really Matter", we discovered once and for all that everybody really does hate Ann Coulter, and that 72 virgins await you in Paradise if you arrive there after choking on a chili dog from Jack's on Eagle Street.

    In today's installment, we focus the heatlamp of scrutiny onto America's newest fusion of Chemistry and Dessert: Betty Crocker's Warm Delights. Perhaps you've seen these ads on television. The one I think I remember has some woman sidling into an elevator at her office eating one of these things--the "molten chocolate" variety, if memory serves--and having a censor-friendly simulated choco-gasm in front of a justifiably curious coworker. It's a new product, designed to simulate the hot gooey essence of something actually delicious, but costs less than $3.00 and can be prepared in less time than it takes to chew a couple of Rolaids.

    In the interest of you, the American Consumer, I, along with my wife and our friends P and K, undertook the perilous yet sugar-sweetened task of teasing the truth out of this Question That Really Matters: Can The Single Most Overprocessed Food On North American Store Shelves Today Provide A Satisfactory Eating Experience Without Doing Permanent Damage To Either Human Physiology Or The Environment?

    For our experiment, we went with a one-to-one ratio of dessert varieties to dessert judgment officials. Four out of the seven variations of Warm Delights were selected at random from a local retailer and purchased for the on-sale price of $1.79 apiece. Flavors selected, pictured below, beginning in the upper left and moving clockwise: "Lemon Swirl Cake", "Fudgy Chocolate Chip Cookie", "Cinnamon Swirl Cake", and the aforementioned "Molten Chocolate Cake":

    Each package, when opened, contains a plastic bowl, a packet of powder, and a packet of goo containing 94% pure processed sugar, 5.9% pure trans fat, and 0.1% pure artificial and natural flavoring. You dump the powder into some water, stir, spurt the goo as artistically as possible into the resulting puddle, and microwave for a bit. Let stand to congeal appropriately, and voila--dessert fit for a king, queen, or ace of any suit.

    The panel initially held debate on the question "Does It Even Come Close To Looking Like The Picture On The Box". This topic was not expected to generate much controversy, as anyone who is not blind and looks at pictures of food would probably predict. However, once the panel actually compared fork-based real-life product to that shown on the box, it became fairly clear that we hadn't really looked closely enough at the boxes: there just wasn't that much difference between the two. It was only then did we realize just how bogus and unappetizing the box pictures actually look. Another case of art imitating life. Points off for it, nonetheless.

    Then, the metaphorical rubber met the allegorical road, as the panel actually ingested the results of all our stirring, squeezing, and button-pushing.

    The chocolate-heavy options (the molten cake and the "cookie") had a heavy, doughlike consistency that can most accurately be described as "hot, heavy, and doughlike". Think microwaved Pillsbury dough. The cookie, of course, had that whole thing down in spades, although its chocolate flavor (artificially flavored fudge) was much better than the cake's (artificially flavored devil's food). In fact, the cake was pretty much like eating a supremely undercooked Hostess Chocolate Cupcake drizzled with three year old Hershey's syrup. Neither of the two females present had any sort of choco-gasm. Not even a choco-sigh of contentment.

    The non-chocolate candidates were the Cinnamon and Lemon cakes. I was in charge of spurting the goo on top of the Cinnamon cake, and as can be expected out of any decent clod with a packet of shelf-stable icing, I made a total mess of the whole thing. So artistically it was a failure. The panel, meanwhile, reacted universally with a resounding "Eh", reflecting large-scale indifference. We don't recommend it unless you have a cinnamon swirl cake fetish, not a lot of time, and have to make up your recommended daily allowance of distilled monoglycerides.

    The winner of the competition--the Gold Medalist of our little Special Dessert Olympics--was the Lemon Swirl Cake. It was actually light(ish) and fluffy(ish), and the lemon goo had that great Lemon Life Saver taste that indicates the highest quality artificial lemon flavor. We all went "Hmm" after eating it, and those of us who can raise one eyebrow did so. Our only comment was that there's actually no need to serve this one warm; it probably would be fine completely cool, but waiting for these things to fully congeal and cool goes so far against the Warm Delights ethos that it wasn't even seriously considered.

    So there you have it--dessert just like Grandma used to make, assuming Grandma was a multibillion dollar congolomerate with easy access to cellulose powder, tocopherol, and potassium sorbate as a preservative. Do yourself a favor, and if absolutely must come up with a hot dessert, microwave a Twinkie or something. It's cheaper and your body is probably more used to the chemicals they use.

    Come back some other time for more answers to Questions That Really Matter!

    Monday, December 18, 2006

    Congratulations to Dan Bosley

    Greg Roach called this one even before the November elections. I agreed with him, even though others told me how full of crap I was.

    But Andy Etman scooped me on the news that our longtime Representative in General Court and North Adams native son Daniel Bosley has accepted a position with the Patrick Administration as economic development advisor. Makes a ton and a half of sense. Dan's chairmanship of the JCED gives him a uniquely accurate picture of the economic development needs of the Commonwealth; he was an early adopter of the Patrick vision, and he's certainly spent enough time with the Guv-To-Be to ensure that they can see eye-to-eye on enough issues to make the whole thing work.

    Congratulations, Mr. Bosley. Welcome to the Excecutive Branch. Your invitation to speak at a Rotary Club meeting still stands.

    Sooo....special election anyone? I'm pretty sure most everyone here in the Northern Berkshire Blogging Club and Chowder Society knows who I think would be the best choice for our newest rep. Some hints: she swept the city and towns of the 1st Berkshire District in the Democratic Primary back in September. And she has a blog.

    So, when does this all go down? First, they (whoever they are) have to call the special election. MGL 53.10 says: "If there is a special election to fill the office of senator or representative in congress, all certificates of nomination and nomination papers shall be filed on or before the sixth Tuesday preceding the day of such election", and this Special Election info from the Secretary of the Commonwealth's office says that special primaries happen four weeks before special elections. That leaves 2 weeks between the filing of nomination papers and the primary, then four weeks of the one-on-one campaign.

    This is great news for North Adams, for Dan Bosley, and for the local blogosphere. Me, Wes, Andy, Jack, and Greg, along with Da Snoop, Chris, and the POD will be happy to bring you the running commentary and inside scoop on the race for the new face in the State House. Stay tuned!

    Monday, December 11, 2006

    Las Vegas: Nothing More To Say

    Back home after a very, very long night of travel.

    Every trip I've ever taken to Las Vegas has been just one day too long. Once you've seen what you came to see here, unless you have some sort of business, gambling, or porn agenda, then there's no need to linger.

    The big hotels (sorry--"Resorts"), because of high occupancy rates, have been able to eliminate what made Vegas great for travelers on a budget who could resist the gambling jones: the cheap food, drink, and room rates they dangled to get you to walk through the casinos. Now, they'll nickel-and-dime you as bad as any cheap hotel in the boonies USED to: one thing we noticed during our November Midwest roadtrip is that almost everyplace off the interstates offering you a $45-$75 room rate throws in wireless internet service, a newspaper, HBO, and a hot breakfast to get you to come in. Here in this world-class resort (the Riviera), it's 75 cents for a USA Today, $6 to fax two pages, $10 per day for (spotty) internet service, a per-minute service charge for phone calls. The coffee shop doesn't have a single sandwich under $7 (most are $8.50 and up) and coffee itself is $3.00 a cup. There's a $3.50 service charge on ATM withdrawals. You have to tip to get a decent room or a seat at a show or a restaurant. It's just amazing, what these folks get away with now.

    The Strip is a nonstop construction zone. They're building a huge add-on to the Venetian over a strip mall that you could watch the Treasure Island pirate show from. The Wynn is done now, another monument to big money and even bigger ego. Hooters has opened a "resort", off the Strip, across from the Hard Rock where the San Remo used to be (no, I didn't go in. I wanted to, but was overruled). The Stardust is closed and will probably be blown up live on pay-per-view next month. I'll be interested to see when--or if--enough is ever enough out there.

    But my fascination with the place, while long-standing and oft-indulged, is winding down some. My gambling jones is really nowadays only piqued by picking pro football (damn Seahawks--ONE MORE POINT and they'd have covered to make my six-way super teaser), which is fun but certainly not required to make my life complete. Getting there and back is more of a pain than ever, and there are a whole lot of places I haven't already been to seven or eight times. Thanks, Vegas. It's been fun.

    If you haven't been, though, you should still go. Everybody needs to at least see the place at least once. It really is visually impressive.

    Anyway, Drinking Liberally is tonight at EGL on Eagle Street in North Adams. Tara and I have now been there like four times. The food is terrific, the service is great, Vaal knows what she's doing. A wonderful addition to downtown. Mark my words--after the 7:30 or 8:00 movies let out from the new movie theater there'll be a line to get in the place. Go now while you still have elbow room. Go tonight and we can discuss the Administration's complete inability to deal with the reality of the situation in the Persian Gulf: all you folks who defend our continued presence there--how does your life change if your country "loses" a war 6500 miles away? Is establishing democracy and freedom (as we know it) even a valid concept there? Why the resistance to dealing with Iran and Syria? We have to buy our oil from someone, you know. You gotta pay for the bread whether you like the baker or not...

    Monday, December 04, 2006

    Don't Call Me A Quitter

    For a long time, I smoked cigarettes.

    I started around the tag end of my senior year in high school, right after I turned 17. My father smoked. My mother and aunt and their friends did for a while as well. In fact, my mother was a nurse, and I remember as a young boy visiting her at work. There, I would watch five nurses, in the room behind the nurse's station, all firing up Tareytons and Virginia Slims not 10 feet from where people checked in to visit their ailing friends and family. This is on, God's honest truth, a cardiac wing.

    I was working at an auto parts store where almost everyone who worked or shopped smoked. Most of my new friends were suburban street punks, who would sooner be caught wearing a pink angora sweater than without their blood red and pale white crush-proof box of Cowboy Killers and a Zippo lighter. It was as much a part of the uniformity of townie nonconformity as a clapped-out American car and a problem with authority.

    At some point in college, during the mid-80's after smoking had ceased to be cool around academia, I persevered. I took my personal brand identity from it. It made me a rebel, in an unpleasant sort of way. The way TRUE rebels want to come off. Went perfectly with a post-adolescent identity crisis. So combine bad posture, a persistent negative attitude, poor grooming, and a inability to dress with a cloud of smoke following me down the ivy-covered halls, and you can guess how far I got up the social register. But hey, at least I had an identity.

    At no point had I ever disliked smoking. I just plain enjoyed it. Never really even wanted to quit. I had stopped for a few weeks to try to impress a girl, and that pretty much went as well as you'd think something like that would go. Tara didn't really smoke when I met her, but within a year of meeting me, she was smoking regularly too. Yes, I know, there's a special place in Hell for me, thanks.

    But starting a few years ago, the Tobacco Polizei gained firm control and the last throes of the pro-smoking insurgency had been pretty much crushed. By the time I qualified for my 20-year "Thank You" pin from the folks at Philip Morris (which I never got, mostly because they don't actually give them out), nobody I hung out with smoked, the things cost $7 a pack in Manhattan, and you couldn't smoke anywhere in public anyway (although there is a cool place down on 1st Ave around 11th called Sahara East with an outside garden that will rent you a big water pipe and a plug of flavored Turkish tobacco with your felafel and baba ganoush). And my father, whose first heart attack was during the Carter Administration, went through (and continues to battle with) a series of serious health crises that probably wouldn't have happened had he decided to quit earlier than he did.

    So with all that, combined with Tara's "I wanna quit, so now you have to" speech, a free nicotine patch giveaway by the City of New York, and a Costco-sized bottle of Zyban, my path was made clear. On July 5th, 2005, I joined the health-ridden ranks of the Non Smokers of America. Not quite as much rebellion or brand identity. But, admittedly, less emphysema.

    It was pretty ugly at first. I would get pissed off at people if I didn't like the way their blood was circulating. I couldn't stop eating. I started chewing gum, which I must not have been very good at since I was biting my tongue twice a day. I was a nicotine patch away from shivving some dude for standing in line the wrong way at the Post Office. It sucked. It sucked hard, and it sucked for a lot longer than I thought it was going to. But after six or seven weeks I stopped using the patches, and about a month after that I stopped taking the pills. It took almost a full year for the cravings to go away. Oh, I backslid once or twice along the way, but didn't fall back in.

    It'll be seventeen months on Tuesday, and I'm at the point where I was annoyed when we sat in the smoking section of the Cracker Barrel in Altoona, PA last week. But news of a new smoking wonder drug in Britain just showed up, and my dad is feeling way too crappy for a guy his age. Therefore, today's good deed for the day ought to be for you to grab the nearest person you know who used to smoke and show some support for their efforts. The holiday season is bound to be tough, with more parties, more liquor, and more old friends who you used to smoke with than normal. But just make it one day at a time, don't kill yourself if you backslide for a night, and whatever you do--don't smoke around me while I'm trying to eat my hashbrown casserole at the Cracker Barrel. That's just friggin' annoying.