Sunday, July 15, 2007


Lately I have begun to cringe when I hear students and others say that they have researched a given subject. They mean, most of the time, that they have googled a subject and scanned the first page of returns to find answers to their queries. I cringe because I am more and more frequently guilty of the same careless kind of research. It is all so easy to get an answer.

This kind of feeble effort is a long way from research though. The Oxford English Dictionary provides this definition of research: "the systematic study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions." That is a high standard, expecting a systematic approach that would insure a broad if not deep knowledge about a subject. And then the idea of facts, not opinions. One of the scariest questions I am asked by students who have just gotten a new writing assignment is, "You just want our opinion, right?" The idea seems to be to write what is now regularly called a "reaction paper." This is one by which we say whether we like something or not. That seems to be the end of research: find someone's writing that confirms what I already thought anyway. And so the idea of really finding the facts, and the more difficult need to reach new conclusions, never happens.

Andrew Keen has written a new book that seems, from my research, mostly disagreeable to me. He castigates the millions of bloggers, among others, for not being professional, and for failing the test of research. This presents a problem for me. I like the idea that I can say what I want on a blog, and it is true, my level of research is probably in decline. I haven't read his book and probably won't. The Technorati website had this as a banner a few weeks ago: "70 million blogs. Some of them have to be good." My instinct is to trust that it is better to let us all blather on, Mr. Keen, professional, as well as the rest of us. I'm hoping that this collective talk won't be the cause of the fall of western culture. I feel like I'm one of 300 million Americans, all of us standing on soapboxes in MacArthur Park. I'm hoping this random behavior among us all might lead to some good place we didn't know about before.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


I am listening to the president's news conference spinning his interpretation of the interim report to Congress on Iraq. His words make it clear: this president is utterly incapable of speaking to our whole nation in any meaningful way that might help to create new solutions in government.

One reason why he cannot communicate in this way seems to be that he is unable to think outside of preconceived and for the most part timeworn, hackneyed categories of thought. If he were to talk about this skill he would probably say something like "I know it's important to think outside the box." But by categorizing this important habit of thought as just one more cliche of our dreary lives he would be demonstrating his lack of preparation to be president.

Really, to be president we need someone who has spent her or his lifetime preparing to think critically. The ability to do this requires a lifetime of hard intellectual work, an ethic lacking in and disdained by this president. He works hard enough when he rides his mountain bike or brushes at his ranch. But this isn't the kind of work we need in our president.

The consequence of Bush's intellectual laziness has been grave indeed. We are ruled by a fool who looks at the world and sees those who have a "dark vision" they want to impose on those who are "good people." Those with these dark visions need to be rubbed out. Of course, it is the president who decides whose vision is the dark one. Whoever becomes the next president, I have only one requirement: no ideologues need apply.

I have been reading David Halberstam's amazing book on the Vietnam War, The Best and the Brightest. The book is amazing because Halberstam depicts in compelling detail how the personal habits and personalities of the powerful can influence an entire national tragedy like the Vietnam War or, by extrapolation, the Iraq War. The Kennedy administration was ignorant when it came into power, but some in the administration, President Kennedy among them, were open to learning. And they did learn. Averill Harriman was the archetype of this kind of effective and useful public servant. Unfortunately, there are few Harrimans in the Bush administration.

One of the last things President Bush asserted at the end of today's press conference was his often expressed nostrum that he will act on principle and not on politics. Could we please have a president who believes in politics (real politics, not the debased Rovian version we have been infected with for too many years), who is willing and able to recognize that there are competing visions of the good life and that the role of politics in a democracy is to sort out those competing visions and use language to help make compromises among them? But we need someone who is not only smart (ok, Bush is probably smart enough) but who has taken the time to learn something well (I don't think it matters what field) and who can apply the rigor of whatever study to the complex task of being the president of all of us? Why should we be shocked that the Maliki government can't make compromises when our president disdains compromise?

He has become a truly frightening person--still in command of great power, but obviously unable to see or understand the world in any way that might help make a new peace. I pray that Congress grows enough backbone to act before the president is allowed to damage our nation and the world any further. Even the rhythm of his language is scary--one short, declarative, all-knowing sentence after the next.

I went to look at images illustrating this news conference. This is the photograph that National Public Radio chose to use to illustrate Bush's interpretation of a report that tells a story of failure. The soldiers are Iraqi cadets in training. It is the only one used to illustrate the news conference. What are they thinking, I wonder?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

the last lone ranger

What would this man have to do in order that all good people, democrats, republicans, and independents, might join together to impeach him? He has engineered a slow, lingering coup d'etat and we seem incapable of recognizing what has happened to us and to this flawed but potentially great democracy. Why isn't there a 200 million person march on Washington to send this evil-doer out-- not out of George W. Bush's government but out of our government? This photo was published in today's Washington Post as part of the sobering series by Barton Gellman and Jo Becker on the excesses of power of Vice President Richard B. Cheney.

Friday, June 22, 2007

borders and fences

We spend our energies reinforcing and reinterpreting borders. The relationship between Palestine and Israel. The Berlin Wall. White and colored. The Latino curtain being built on our southern border. Darfur and Sudan. National Parks that preserve the wild and unrestrained commercial development around them. Christians and Muslims. Terrorists (them) and moderates (us). There is substantial archaeological evidence that we are all one people, and we work harder to build fences between us and those we see as different.

In Long Prairie, a small town less than an hour south of us, a business has a large sign in its window admonishing us to "Stop the Invasion." At first, I thought it might be referring to our invasion of Iraq. Then I read the smaller print: stop the invasion of Hispanics from Mexico. The small town of Long Prairie is now 25% Latino, mostly folks from Michoacan who have come to work in the meat processing businesses of the area. But as far as that business owner can see, we're in a war here at home. Even though Long Prairie would be dying if it weren't for the new immigrants.

Vice-president Cheney is making new apartheids too. He has now relocated his office outside of the executive branch of government. We need a fourth branch now, after more than two and a quarter centuries without. So he imagines another border and builds another fence.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

'Tis a muddle, and that’s aw.’

Seymour M. Hersh's series of articles in the New Yorker outline the Iraq war we hear little about. His most recent story, "The General's Report," is about Major General Antonio M. Taguba and what happened to him after he investigated, wrote, and submitted his March 2004 report describing the terrible happenings at Abu Ghraib. One story related by Hersh is especially revealing.

The day before Secretary Rumsfeld was to testify before the Senate in May, 2004, General Taguba was called to a meeting with the Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, Stephen Gambone, General Myers, and General Schoomaker and others. When Taguba entered the room, Secretary Rumsfeld mocked him, saying "Here . . . comes . . . that famous General Taguba--of the Taguba report!"

This story of Rumsfeld's mockery of an honest person who has completed a difficult job embodies the entire muddle of this awful war. Taguba told the truth, certainly one of the most difficult of tasks in Rumsfeld's Defense Department. Taguba was stunned at the reception he received, and he told Hersh that he had believed that everyone at Defense had wanted to know the truth of Abu Ghraib. Hersh's June 25th story is pretty plain, confirming the chain of information flow from Taguba's investigations beginning in January and then his March report. The information Taguba learned became known in the Pentagon and the White House possibly as early as January and almost certainly by March. Rumsfeld's testimony, denying any prior knowledge about Abu Ghraib, was given in May.

Monday, June 11, 2007

signs of the times

I was reading in Thinking with Type by Ellen Lupton recently. The author makes what was for me a really startling comment about how through their history books have been read for their meaning whereas electronic communications today are read for how we are able to use them. For the most part, this seems to be true in my experience.

That helps explain how short the shelf life of information on the web is. Use is closely tied to being up-to-date, and it seems that most communications on the web are headed toward a short life of usefulness, and after that they have little purpose remaining. There isn't much room on the internet for what Harold Bloom calls wisdom literature.

Ms. Lupton's book is most interesting, and useful too. The contents aren't organized in a linear progression from start to end but in an emulation of the web organization we are more and more used to.

death of the commons

Not exactly news, I guess, just one more way of life curtailed. The Washington Post reported this week on the plight of the Hadzabe people of the Yaeda Valley of Tanzania. These hunter-gatherer people are being threatened by a royal family member of the UAE who is leasing their ancient hunting lands from the Tanzanian government so that he can have an uncrowded hunting preserve for his private use. The Hadzabe people have been trying to get along in the changing world for the last many centuries, and they seem resigned to the inevitability of this unfair financial arrangement, but they wish that someone might have thought to ask them what they thought about the matter before it became a fact of their lives. Of course no one did ask them.

To say that I feel sick when I hear of unfairnesses like this doesn't adequately represent my feelings about the matter. In a far less significant level, I resent the dozens of no trespassing signs around my home place here in north-central Minnesota. Tiny insults visible every day remind of the values most important to us. So much, if not all, of the energies of the world seem to be spent on rounding up the resources of the earth, fencing them off from the people who once lived there, and then spending huge sums of people's lives and money guarding the fences. Now we're in the process of agreeing to build a new fence between us and the Republic of Mexico. And we have a similar very costly fence, with openings only for oil, between us and Iraq. And yes, I have a fence around my farm.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

rhetoric and Lizzie Palmer's "Remember Me" video

Two of the three great branches of classical learning are in eclipse, and rhetoric, the study that Cicero regarded as the greatest of the three, is perhaps the most neglected.

As the concluding story on the Fox Sunday talk show today Chris Wallace introduced Fox's "Power Play of the Week," high school student Lizzie Palmer's video-collage of still photographs of American soldiers titled Remember Me. Ms. Palmer's point seems heartfelt to me: remember and respect the service and sacrifice of American soldiers. Her story seems to come directly out of her experience and strikes me as genuine. Ms. Palmer, Chris Wallace tells us, plans to enlist in the Army after high school.

Fox Sunday's motives in use of her video are more complicated. Brit Hume, William Kristol, and Chris Wallace are satisfied to play the video and let its message seemingly remain the heartfelt naive message of Ms. Palmer, to honor the individual efforts of American soldiers. But their primary motive is to require Americans' unquestioning, naive support for the war. Hume, Kristol, and Wallace have no interest in our understanding the war. Their rhetorical intent in showing this video without discussion at the end of the broadcast serves their ongoing purpose of encouraging American sentimental riding-into-the-sunset endorsement of the war. We can't oppose the war on its merits because to do so would be to disrespect the American soldier.

Ms. Palmer's world view as an American teenager doesn't include Iraqi people who have suffered far greater losses in this war than Americans, and it doesn't include any assessment of the meaning of the war--how we got into it, why we are there, and whether we ought to be there. Our schools teach technical skills that allow her to make a very sophisticated video from a technical perspective but they are ill prepared to impart a similarly sophisticated view about the content of such a video, or its relationship to the audience, or what it tells us about its creator.

I accept Ms. Palmer's video as the naive expression of a young person who has powerful and authentic feelings but limited understanding and experience. Fox network's use of the same video for its continuing simplification of the meaning of this war is exploitative and disingenuous.

Friday, June 1, 2007

love and hope

Sally and I are just back from Reno after becoming acquainted with our grandson Tate, now about six weeks old. It was a good thing for us to see, the love of his parents, and it was also good to be able to express our love as grandparents. I'll now (happily) have to change my note about myself on this blog--no longer "virtual" but an in-the-flesh, honest-to-god grandpa. The hope part of this title also applies--what better manifestation of hope could there be?

Saturday, May 19, 2007

local life

It occurs to me that I haven't been much abiding by the avowed subject matter noted in the header to this blog: local life is not much present. Here is a beginning attempt to attend to that deficiency.

Last night thunderstorms brought four-tenths of an inch of rain to the very dry earth. I was noticing earlier yesterday how the grass had already begun to wilt. But tonight the frogs started to sing again after being very quiet during most of a dry spell in the first half of May. There was a strong south wind all day yesterday that led to near calm and mosquito-friendly air by 7:00pm. The rain came just before midnight, while Sally and I talked with friends on main street, Wadena. The town was quiet and mostly dark, and frequent lightning flashed as we drove north toward home.

The weather report suggests that we may have a wetter week upcoming. Let's hope so. It makes me feel better, knowing that some patterns persist in our altered world. I connect the good weather news with good news about our grandson, Tate. We just got word from our son, Colin, that Tate, now nearly a month old, is doing better after a very scary time with liver enzyme issues. All the events, personal and public in our lives, remind me to remain hopeful rather than optimistic about just about everything. I'm still struck by how farmers around here plant when the earth seems so dry that nothing would germinate. And sometimes their hope is rewarded, and after a dry time the rain comes.

The bloodroot pictured above has just finished blooming. The cowslip is in bloom in the ditches and swamps, and prairie smoke is blooming now too, as well as lilacs and chokecherry. Wild plum is already past. This is one of the best times of year here.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

"So are they all, all honorable men -- "

James B. Comey, loyal Republican, loyal to President Bush, shows what a man of honor looks like amongst the toadies of the Bush administration. He has been loyal, I would say to a fault, but when it comes to basic human decency and a commitment to honor his oath to uphold the Constitution and the Republic, he has been steadfast. No wonder that he is gone from this corrupt administration, where the American way bears no resemblance to the foundation laid by Madison, Hamilton, and the rest. If Shakespeare were here today, what a tale he could write.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Cold beauty and no sense of longing

This photograph of Europa rising over Jupiter's horizon is a result of the New Horizons project, a joint effort of NASA, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and the Southwest Research Institute.

This is an amazing project, and these sets of images meant to convey the beauty of space are extraordinary. Even though this photograph in particular is reminiscent of the iconic images of the earth rising over the moon's horizon that have become a part of the visual vocabulary of most of the world, Jupiter seems a very cold, lifeless beauty, not quickening the sense of longing and belonging that the images of earth rising do. Here is a quotation about this image from the New Horizons folks.

"New Horizons took this image of the icy moon Europa rising above Jupiter’s cloud tops with its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) at 11:48 Universal Time on February 28, 2007, six hours after the spacecraft’s closest approach to Jupiter. The picture was one of a handful of the Jupiter system that New Horizons took primarily for artistic, rather than scientific, value.

This particular scene was suggested by space enthusiast Richard Hendricks of Austin, Texas, in response to an Internet request by New Horizons scientists for evocative, artistic imaging opportunities at Jupiter. The spacecraft was 2.3 million kilometers (1.4 million miles) from Jupiter and 3 million kilometers (1.8 million miles) from Europa when the picture was taken. Europa's diameter is 3,120 kilometers (1,939 miles).

The image is centered on Europa coordinates 5 degrees south, 6 degrees west. In keeping with its artistic intent - and to provide a more dramatic perspective - the image has been rotated so south is at the top."

Thirty-five years ago the famed physician, scientist, and essayist Lewis Thomas commented on one of the earthrise photographs in his essay "The World's Biggest Membrane." The essay first appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine and was later included in Thomas' Lives of a Cell (1974).

"Viewed from the distance of the moon, the astonishing thing about the earth, catching the breath, is that it is alive. The photographs show the dry, pounded surface of the moon in the foreground, dead as an old bone. Aloft, floating free beneath the moist, gleaming membrane of bright blue sky, is the rising earth, the only exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos. If you could look long enough, you would see the swirling of the great drifts of white cloud, covering and uncovering the half hidden masses of land. If you had been looking for a very long geologic time, you could have seen the continents themselves in motion, drifting apart on their crustal plates, held afloat by the fire beneath. It has the organized, self-contained look of a live creature, full of information, marvelously skilled in handling the sun.

It takes a membrane to make sense out of disorder in biology. . . . It breathes for us, and it does another thing for our pleasure. Each day, millions of meteorites fall against the outer limits of the membrane and are burned to nothing by the friction. Without this shelter, our surface would long since have become the pounded powder of the moon. Even though our receptors are not sensitive enough to hear it, there is comfort in knowing that the sound is there overhead, like the random noise of rain on the roof at night."

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Orbiting, untethered

Last night we watched The Conformist, Bernardo Bertolucci's 1970 movie about a disconnected man trying tragically and hopelessly to connect. He wants to connect to whatever society is in power, and unfortunately the one in power is the fascist society of 1930's Italy. The result of his choice is destructive and violent to himself and others. The story seems instructive of the Virginia Tech massacre, and generally about our desire to belong to a society that we know, in some part of our being, is corrupt and unsupportable. How hard it is to avoid wanting to be a part of respectable society, whether we're Huckleberry Finn, Colin Powell, George Tenet, or Marcello Clerici. Huckleberry made the heroic existential choice, the others could not. Clearly, it is much harder to act than to read about it in literature [duh!], or look at it in photographs. The literature and the photographs help us to understand. But understanding isn't enough.

This is a photograph of an astronaut's suit with camera and transmission equipment that was used by NASA as part of a student awareness project. No one is in the suit.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Alice through the looking glass

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less." in Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.

I begin to wonder just who has a grip on reality--maybe I just don't get it? Today, the Washington Post reported that "The president said that Gonzales' testimony before skeptical Judiciary Committee senators last week 'increased my confidence' in his ability to lead the Justice Department. Separately, a White House spokeswoman said, 'He's staying.'"

Each day the universe that contains the limits of the surreal for the Bush administration expands further. Can this expansion continue until January of 2009? Or will some force of gravitational morality cause the universe to begin to contract?

`Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall:
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King's horses and all the King's men
Couldn't put Humpty Dumpty in his place again.'

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Rain and a first grandchild

Today I am no longer an expectant grandfather. Tate Bradley Robertson was born into this world yesterday in faraway Reno, Nevada. I can't even imagine what the weather was like yesterday in Reno on Tate's birth day, but In north-central Minnesota yesterday was beautiful, sending much needed rain to what had been a cool and dry month. Last night, with the wind coming up, choirs of frogs insisted that spring was arrived. The frost is mostly out of the ground by now, and the lilac buds have greened and are just about ready to open. The talk of the rain here at the farm was a good respite from a week's talk of tragedy in Virginia and foolishness in Washington.

My wife, Sally, found this nice piece by Thomas Merton about the rain speaking with so much more eloquence than the voices of politics and commerce we hear all around us. I like to think that the way Merton hears the rain in his cabin is kin to how we are able to hear it at the farm too. And that, even though separated by half a continent, we'll be able to help Tate experience a little of our life here in the weeks and years ahead.

"The rain I am in is not like the rain of cities. It fills the woods with an immense and confused sound. It covers the flat roof of the cabin and its porch with insistent and controlled rhythms. And I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world runs by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize, rhythms that are not those of the engineer. I came up here from the monastery last night, sloshing through the cornfield, said Vespers, and put some oatmeal on the Coleman stove for supper. It boiled over while I was listening to the rain and toasting a piece of bread at the log fire. The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone in the forest at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligent perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows.

Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, the rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen."

Friday, April 20, 2007

At the Gonzales hearing

Photographs sometimes mislead and sometimes they tell the whole story. This photograph appeared in the N.Y. Times.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Interpreting the landscape

William Henry Jackson's "Phantom Curve" (late 1800's) and Robert Adams' "Clear Creek Canyon, near Idaho Springs" (ca. 1970). If you click on the Jackson photograph to enlarge it you will be able to see the man standing at the base of (what's left of) the rock formation to the right of the tracks.

Along the Colorado front range

Robert Adams is the most literate of photographers, and his photographs of Colorado and the West remain the most important model of landscape photography for me. This image called "Burning Oil Sludge, North of Denver, Colorado" (1973) is part of a show held at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 2006 called "Robert Adams: Landscapes of Harmony and Dissonance."

Florida landscapes

Clyde Butcher's landscape photography is beautiful--he is regularly compared with Ansel Adams. And the world seems beautiful in his large landscapes and waterscapes of Florida. I would love to be able to look at that world regularly. In fact I do, living in rural northcentral Minnesota.

Do these photographs offer just another perspective on the world or an entirely different way of interpreting the world from David Maisel's work? Mr. Butcher argues that his photographs may lead us to be better caretakers of the beautiful world by helping us become more sensitized to a beauty we miss in our everyday lives. Susan Sontag would argue something quite a bit different. David Maisel's landscapes describe a world where catastrophe like yesterday's mass murder in Virginia happens. That kind of thing doesn't happen in the world of Clyde Butcher's photographs. I love them nonetheless.

Unfortunately, the facts seem to point toward Maisel's vision.
Witness yesterday's massacre and the just-published-report by the
UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that 40% of plant and animal species in the US are in danger of becoming extinct in the next decades. No answers from me on this one I'm afraid.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Post-apocalyptic landscapes

David Maisel's aerial photographs are beautiful and terrible at once. This image is part of The Lake Project which can be looked at here. The Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, where my son Colin works, has a show of his photographs that will be hanging until July 29. The Nevada Museum of Art has a special collection focus on the altered landscape. Colin helped me learn about Mr. Maisel's photographs.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

first post

Spring is arriving in our latitude. The snow is nearly gone today, and eagles--an adult pair and a juvenile--are perching in popple trees along the Leaf river near our farm. The Sandhill Cranes have been back for ten days or so, and we hear them every morning sing their prehistoric clacking song. The ground hasn't settled yet. We're afloat for a time while the skin of earth remans disconnected from the frozen ground below. I continue to hope that Thoreau was right about this flowing time when he proclaimed that all men's sins are forgiven on a bright spring day.

There are only a couple of weeks remaining till new life change arrives for my son and daughter-in-law. Soon they will introduce my wife and me to our first grandchild. If the world hadn't been giving us news enough about spring, our expectation provides confirmation that the frozen time is dead. It's good to wipe away the crust of winter from our eyes and hear and smell the commotion of the world born again.