Servant of the Secret Fire

Random thoughts on books and life in the reality-based community

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Location: New York, United States

The name I've chosen comes from "Lord of the Rings," when Gandalf faces down the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. My Hebrew name is Esther (which is related to the word for "hidden" or "secret") Serafina (which means "burning"). This seems appropriate because although I don't usually put myself forward, I do care very passionately about a lot of things. Maybe through these blogs I can share some of these passions, as well as less weighty ideas and opinions, with others.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Well, at least they tried

25 votes was pretty pathetic, though. And I'm extremely disappointed in Senator Byrd, who has always claimed to be such a defender of the Constitution! I guess he got tired of carrying it around in his pocket - he can file it in the circular file now. After all, as Dear Leader says, it's only "a damned piece of paper."

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman *****

I can’t count the number of times I’ve listened to (never read) this book in the past three or four years. (I highly recommend the audio version, which is performed by the author and a full cast.) I cannot praise the whole trilogy too highly. What it is, essentially, is a secular humanist mythology (although I think Pullman would be very comfortable in Reconstructionist Judaism), in which an inversion of Paradise Lost, fragments of gnosticism, and the “many worlds” theory of quantum physics are among the many things that provide grist for the mill of Pullman’s wonderfully creative imagination. It’s also been referred to as the “anti-Narnia,” although in my view that is unfair. Pullman has been openly critical of the Narnia series and has a decidedly uncomplimentary view of organized religion in general, and his critics may certainly carp at the malignant, monolithic Church in the series; however, I think that he presents a positive vision for living in this world, where so many, particularly young adults, at whom the series in generally aimed, have been appalled at the excesses of fundamentalism and the anemic responses of “mainstream” religion.

One unique feature of Pullman’s world, or at least the alternate version in which The Golden Compass is set, is that every human being is accompanied through life by a manifestation of his or her soul, usually of the opposite sex and always in animal form, called a daemon. During the early years of a person’s life, her daemon can take many different forms, but during the teen years when her personality becomes fixed, her daemon will “settle” in a single form, often indicating the type of person she is. The idea of the daemon has been referred to by many as Pullman’s most brilliant innovation, although of course it has roots in traditional cultures.

Whether as an ironic nod to Narnia or not, The Golden Compass begins with a wardrobe. Lyra Belacqua, an orphan who has been placed by her uncle Lord Asriel in the care of the scholars of Jordan College, Oxford, is trapped in the retiring room and is forced to hide in the wardrobe. She hears her uncle give a presentation to the scholars about the aurora borealis and a mysterious substance called Dust, which only seems to be attracted to adults. As we learn later, the Church, a curious amalgamation of the worst elements of Calvinism and Catholicism, considers Dust to be the physical manifestation of Original Sin, and the race is on to either control it or destroy it. Lyra’s quest to find her kidnapped friend Roger, to deliver the alethiometer (the Golden Compass, or truth-measurer of the title) to her uncle, and to discover the nature of dust will take her to London, through the Fen country of England, to the northern reaches of Europe, and finally into the “other world” behind the aurora.

Lyra, as it turns out, is pivotal in this struggle, and her allies include the Gyptians (Gypsies); armored bears, an intelligent and warlike species of polar bear; witches, a fierce and long-lived race of women from the far north, and Lee Scoresby, an aeronaut from Texas. Her antagonists include the Church, mainly a group known as the General Oblation Board; the beautiful, seductive (to children, in a non-sexual way, as well as to adults) Mrs. Coulter, and, in the end, Lord Asriel as well. Until the middle of the second book I was unsure which “side” he was on, but that is one of the wonderful things about this series, and one of the dangerous things, to those who like their morality black and white. There is no absolute good or evil, alliances shift with events, and the reader is left to find his or her way through the maze, together with Lyra.

I believe that Lyra herself is one of the great characters in literature. She is alive, insatiably curious, passionate, and deeply flawed. At the beginning of this book, she is a “coarse, greedy little savage” in the words of her creator, and her main talents are what J.K. Rowling would call “skiving off” her lessons and lying. Her strengths are a fierce loyalty to her friends and to her sense of what is “right,” a comfort in her own skin that is remarkable for someone who has received very little nurturing in her life, and a natural knack for leadership. Many people might object to her lying and defiance of authority, but of course a “good” girl would never have been sneaking into the retiring room in the first place, much less had (or survived) the other adventures that Lyra ends up having, and even by the end of the first book she has learned and changed a great deal. Before the climax of The Amber Spyglass, she will have learned the importance of truth in a most painful way and will be well on the way to becoming a strong, passionate woman.

This is one of those books that can be enjoyed as an adventure story at a relatively early age (though not before 10 or 11 at the least) but read later in life as a profound commentary on good and evil, death and the soul, free will and destiny. It literally takes my breath away every time I read it.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Shame on you, Senator Reid!

Reid admits Democrats can't block Alito

"Everyone knows there is not enough votes to support a filibuster," Reid said, referring to the procedural roadblock that some Democrats said should be used to put off a vote on Alito.
Whatever happened to “I have not yet begun to fight.” You haven’t begun, yet you’re already conceding defeat! Supposedly some Democrats don’t want to support a filibuster because they’re afraid they’ll “look bad.” (insert whine here) I hate to tell them that they can’t look much worse than they do right now.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Press corruption

Call it by name.
There is no more clear-cut example of the press's corruption than than the spectacle of the scripted presidential press conference, where reporters repeat lines scripted by Rove for no greater reward than seeing their own faces on live television. That's what the national press corps has become: vain camera hounds selling their professional integrity for the next on-camera shot, the next exclusive, the next moment of attention from Scottie.

Brilliant Republican comment of the week

From MSNBC:

Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., an abortion rights moderate, said part of the reasoning for his vote for Alito was to ensure the judge’s support crosses ideological lines when it comes to abortion.

“I think it is important for Judge Alito have supporters who favor a woman’s right to choose, so that he does not feel in any way beholden to or confirmed by people who have one idea on some of these questions,” said Specter, who has been criticized by abortion rights supporters for his Alito support.

Uh, Senator... if you think that who votes for his confirmation is going to influence the way he votes on the Supreme Court, maybe he shouldn’t be there.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Torah Commentary

Since I've been so incredibly bad the past few weeks at posting a finished commentary on each portion, I've decided to start putting some of my random thoughts and musings about each week's reading (we're concentrating on the fifth aliyah this year at Temple Sinai) up on Turning It, which has until now contained only finished divrei torah. Please check there if you're interested in that aspect of the blog.

Another alternative to evolution

I’m listening at the moment to a discussion on the Dover, PA decision disallowing the teaching of “intelligent design.” Since I just finished The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I would like to propose another “alternative” theory. If the ID’ers are willing to let this one be taught too, I’ll support them. (I’m sure this has to have been suggested somewhere, on the Internet or otherwise.)

I demand that the schools also teach the “Douglas Adams” theory, which states that the earth is actually part of a giant experiment being run by white mice (actually, aliens who are incognito among us as white mice). It certainly makes as much sense as a literal interpretation of Genesis 1, possibly more, since it is explained how the building of planets is commissioned and carried out, including coastlines, which are probably constructed using the principles of fractals and chaos theory.

Judiciary Committee Vote

Unsurprisingly, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted on party lines to send Alito’s nomination to the full Senate. If the Dems don’t feel justified in filibustering this one, they might as well shut up shop and leave the government to King George. This is a man who has a paper trail 20 years long and a mile wide, yet all he has to do is say, “Those were my personal opinions and I won’t let them influence my decisions,” or “I just said that to get a job, but you should believe what I’m saying to get this job.” How can believing “strongly” that the Constitution doesn’t protect the right to choose abortion be a personal opinion, and if he does believe it so strongly how can he not let it influence his opinion? The “pro-lifers” like to compare abortion to slavery - what kind of morality would permit someone who believed that slavery was against God’s law to “put that aside” when cases involving it came before him?

Also, about the so-called “unitary executive” theory - Alito claims that his interpretation of that theory is different from the standard one. Did any senator ever bother to ask him if he can cite any writings or speeches in which he explained that interpretation and drew a distinction between the way he interprets it and the way most other people seem to? If not, I would think it’s safe to assume that he does mean the same thing by it that others do - that the President is virtually a dictator.

Especially with the wiretapping revelations and Dubya’s most recent “signing statement” stating that he can essentially ignore the law when it comes to torture, if these don’t constitute the “extraordinary circumstances” under which senators can filibuster under last year’s agreement, I don’t know what does.

Mapping the Worlds of Harry Potter

Mapping the Worlds of Harry Potter Edited by Mercedes Lackey *****

This is probably the most enjoyable of the several different books of essays on the Harry Potter books that I have read. Perhaps it’s because the contributors are, themselves, fantasy and sci-fi authors, which may give them a unique insight. Another possible reason is because this is the first collection to cover all of the books through Half-Blood Prince.

Of course, as with any compilation of work by several different authors, the quality of the essays is uneven at best. The contributors stretch to come up with original ways to look at the series and, inevitably, they sometimes fail. The ones that fell the flattest, in my view, were “The Proper Wizard’s Guide to Good Manners” (Roxanne Longstreet Conrad) and “Harry Potter and the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Counselor” (Mercedes Lackey).

At least, however, those two essays were near the end of the book. Throughout my reading, I never changed my view that the first essay, “Harry Potter and the Young Man’s Mistake” (Daniel P. Moloney), was the one with the profoundest insight and most thoughtful probing of the pitfalls that Harry faces in his final struggle against Voldemort. Honorable mention also goes to “Harry Potter and the End of Religion” (Marguerite Krause) and “It’s All About God” (Elisabeth DeVos), which should be mutually exclusive but, surprisingly, don’t seem to be; “Hermione Granger and the Charge of Sexism” (Sarah Zettel), which should (but won’t) dispose of that one once and for all; and “Why Killing Harry is the Worst Outcome for Voldemort” (Richard Garfinkle). All in all, a very enjoyable and satisfying read.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Saturday Cat Blogging


Shadow: "Is there no place where I can be safe from the paparazzi?"

Chris Matthews, Joe Biden and Bin Laden

I heard a lot about Sen. Biden's big mouth and pontificating during the Alito hearings, but the one time he should have opened his mouth was the one time he didn't.


Although I haven't read all the blog coverage, etc. on Matthews' comment likening Bin Laden to Michael Moore, in what I have read I haven't seen one mention of the most disgraceful thing about it. Matthews was talking to Biden when he made that comment, and what was Biden's reaction? Did he protest at the outrageousness of the comparison? Did he sit, utterly speechless at it? No, he LAUGHED, and then went on to say that he thought the tape was directed more at the Muslim world. He evidently doesn't mind a patriotic American citizen being compared to a man with thousands of American deaths on his head. He thought it was FUNNY.

Michael Moore's revenge Go for it, Mike!

Monday, January 16, 2006

The real winner of the 2000 election

I'm watching Al Gore on C-Span talking about our constitutional crisis - he was going to be introduced by former Rep. Bob Barr, who was one of the guys leading the impeachment charge, but I guess he was supposed to do it over some sort of video feed and they lost it. (Of course, the NSA probably had Bill O'Reilly cut his mike or something.) At least that shows it's a bipartisan thing. As he points out, Dr. King was illegally wiretapped and the FBI tried to blackmail him into committing suicide, so this is a perfect day to talk about it.

He makes some really good points. If the President can legally do all the things that Dubya has claimed that he can do, what can't he do? I hope he doesn't get a knock on his door in the middle of the night - he's obviously an "enemy of the state," the state being, ala Louis XVI, "moi," or "me" as Dubya would say. He certainly wouldn't want to use any French!

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Saturday cat blogging


Shadow has had a rough day today. The landlady stopped by to make a minor repair and I knew she was coming up the walk when Shadow growled and took off. She finally came out from under the covers on my bed about half an hour later. You'd think that I regularly let people in to beat and abuse her. I have to try to notice what she does when the mailman does the same thing - I don't know how she can tell whether someone is actually going to want to come in the apartment or not. Another mystery of cats, I guess.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Cool! But don't run for your beach towel.

Click on title for link to story.
New Ocean Forming In Africa

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, Dec. 10, 2005
Researchers announced that a new ocean could be forming in the northeast region of Ethiopia. The scientists added that it could take up to one million years before the ocean is fully formed.

Picking up the gauntlet

Click on title to read entire article - very long, but excellent in laying out its case.
The Impeachment of George W. Bush

by ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN

[from the January 30, 2006 issue]

Finally, it has started. People have begun to speak of impeaching President George W. Bush--not in hushed whispers but openly, in newspapers, on the Internet, in ordinary conversations and even in Congress. As a former member of Congress who sat on the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon, I believe they are right to do so.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Rereading Dune

Actually, I'm relistening to it - I don't think I've actually ever sat down and read the book. Even though I've listened to it probably five or six times, it still amazes me anew every time. It's probably the only world that I've found that is anywhere near as fully imagined as Middle-Earth, with a complete history, religion (or mythology in the case of Tolkien), etc. Although I have read quite a bit of criticism of Brian Herbert's prequels, evidently he got some of the ideas from his father's notes, so obviously FH thought a lot about those things. (I actually enjoyed the three that take place immediately prior to Dune, at least on their own terms. Obviously they can't compare to the original and I found a lot of annoying little inconsistencies, but they were generally entertaining stories and gave some insight into the previous relations between the characters.)

The theme that I personally find most powerful, I think, apart from the good old-fashioned "plots within plots," is the examination of the messianic impulse, particularly from the point of view of the "messiah" himself. The picture given of Paul's prescience and his struggles with it and with his destiny seems intuitively true. The idea of seeing innumerable different paths, flashes of how some of them will end, as well as the parts that he cannot see is the only way I can imagine such a thing without its being omniscience, which I think would be impossible in a human being, even the Kwisatz Haderach.

A question that was just asked in one of the tapes I listened to tonight is one that I've always found fascinating: To what extent does the prophecy influence the future? Paul tries to change the circumstances of his vision just a little by adding his birth name to his Fremen name and becoming "Paul Muad'dib," but what if he had chosen a different name altogether, or done any (or all) of a hundred other things differently from what he had foreseen? Of course, then he presumably would have foreseen the results of that, too. This is where I start getting dizzy!

I also find it interesting to try to trace back the allusions and the imaginary history of Herbert's universe from the words and names Herbert uses, such as the Atreides line itself, which obviously refers to the House of Atreus in ancient Greek mythology and drama. And in fact, the family drama played out does seem to me as if it could come right out of Greek tragedy, particularly the character of Duke Leto and the whole idea of Lady Jessica being (unsuspectingly) the daughter of his mortal enemy.

I've only actually read (or listened to) the first three books of the six, but eventually I hope to get through the whole thing.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Alito confirmation hearings

Of course, I have to get in my 2¢ on this. A lot of things seemed to be very frustrating in my life today, and this was up there in the top five, at least. I got to hear what I assumed were the last two opening statements, which, as always, were just opportunities for the senators to do some grandstanding in front of the camera. One Republican was going on about how some 80% of "children" with Downs syndrome were being "killed" through abortion and how it's so important that we "take care of the weakest among us." This, after they just made huge budget cuts to the programs that help "the weakest among us" while insisting on more huge tax cuts for the richest among us.

One thing I would do if I were in charge of one of these committes is to eliminate the opening statements. I also wouldn't allow any blathering on about the candidate's "story" - which, of course, is always about how he started from nothing, poor but honest parents, born in a log cabin, etc. He (since Alito is male I'll stick to that gender) should only be allowed to mention it if it's relevant; for example, if he wants to claim that he understands the lives of regular people (ha!). No congratulations from the senators on making it this far or how wonderful his family looks. No families, period - at least not in camera range. Maybe over to the side if they want to watch, but no shots of them or comments from the "news" people on how cute their kids are. If the senators aren't going to use their question time asking questions, they shouldn't be allowed to use it making speeches about their pet issues, not even the ones I agree with. If they want to take a couple of minutes to make a point about why something is important, that's one thing - but they should only be talking half of the time or less. All this would either cut the length of hearings down a lot, or else maybe they would spend the time on substantive matters. End of rant.

So many books, so few brain cells

It's very frustrating - I've got all these wonderful books, but my brain seems to have turned into mush while I wasn't paying attention. For some reason I'm finding it very hard to concentrate on anything with any depth to it. Then, of course, I went to a library sale over the weekend and came home with about 10, most of which are that type, though a couple are lighter reading. Examples:

The Aims of Argument: A Text and Reader - Fun!

The Meaning of Death - More fun! It does seem to be a subject I've been thinking more about since my mother's passing last September, though. Maybe eventually I'll post some of those thoughts. This book contains a bunch of essays from a host of different disciplines and angles.

Biblical Archaeology: The New York Times Library of Jewish Knowledge - Maybe a little out of date on the latest discoveries, but there seems to be a lot in there on lifestyles (What is a cubit? type questions).

A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity - This may be more light reading. From what I've seen glancing through it and checking out the reviews on Amazon, it seems to be written in an unusual style - "lively, provocative and irresistably entertaining," according to the blurb on the back, although the reviewers on Amazon seem to be divided as to how successful it is.

I'd also like to finish Constantine's Sword, which was brought to my attention again at last week's Talmud class when Rabbi Rosenfeld mentioned that he was reading it.

What I am reading is a historical mystery called No Dark Place and a Regency novel called Brightsea, the main attraction of which is the presence of some of the more obnoxious characters from Sense & Sensibility.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Click on title for entire article. You may need to watch an ad to get access. A couple of extremely disturbing excerpts are highlighted below.

Bush's war on professionals

The president is determined to stop whistle-blowers and the press from halting his administration's illegal, ever-expanding secret government. But it may be too late.
By Sidney Blumenthal


Jan. 05, 2006 | New ranges of secret government are emerging from the fog of war. The latest disclosure, by the New York Times, of domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency performed by evasion of the special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court surfaces a vast hidden realm. But the NSA spying is not an isolated island of policy; it is connected to the mainland of Bush's expansive new national security apparatus....

During his first term, President Bush issued an unprecedented 108 statements upon signing bills of legislation that expressed his own version of their content. He has countermanded the legislative history, which legally establishes the foundation of their meaning, by executive diktat. In particular, he has rejected parts of legislation that he considered stepped on his power in national security matters. In effect, Bush engages in presidential nullification of any law he sees fit. He then acts as if his gesture supersedes whatever Congress has done.

Political scientist Phillip Cooper, of Portland State University in Oregon, described this innovative grasp of power in a recent article in the Presidential Studies Quarterly. Bush, he wrote, "has very effectively expanded the scope and character of the signing statement not only to address specific provisions of legislation that the White House wishes to nullify, but also in an effort to significantly reposition and strengthen the powers of the presidency relative to the Congress." Moreover, these coups de main not only have overwhelmed the other institutions of government but have taken place almost without notice. "This tour de force has been carried out in such a systematic and careful fashion that few in Congress, the media, or the scholarly community are aware that anything has happened at all."

Not coincidentally, the legal author of this presidential strategy for accreting power was none other than the young Samuel Alito, in 1986 deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. Alito's view on unfettered executive power, many close observers believe, was decisive in Bush's nomination of him to the Supreme Court.

Last week, when Bush signed the military appropriations bill containing the amendment forbidding torture that he and Vice President Cheney had fought against, he added his own "signing statement" to it. It amounted to a waiver, authorized by him alone, that he could and would disobey this law whenever he chose. He wrote: "The executive branch shall construe Title X in Division A of the Act, relating to detainees, in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief and consistent with the constitutional limitations on the judicial power, which will assist in achieving the shared objective of the Congress and the President, evidenced in Title X, of protecting the American people from further terrorist attacks." In short, the president, in the name of national security, claiming to protect the country from terrorism, under war powers granted to him by himself, would follow the law to the extent that he decided he would....

Startlingly, Risen reports that on the eve of war, the CIA knew the U.S. had no proof of weapons of mass destruction, the casus belli, the justification for preemptive attack. The agency had recruited an Arab-American woman living in Cleveland, Dr. Sawsan Alhaddad, as a secret agent to travel to Baghdad to spy on her brother, Saad Tawfiq, an electrical engineer supposedly at the center of Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program. Once there, she won his trust and he confided there was no program. He urged her to carry the message back to the CIA. Upon her return, she was debriefed and the CIA filed the report in a black hole. It turned out that she was one of some 30 Iraqis who had been recruited to travel to Iraq to contact weapons experts there. Risen writes, "All of them … had said the same thing. They all reported to the CIA that the scientists had said that Iraq's programs to develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons had long since been abandoned."

Not willing to contradict the administration line, CIA officials withheld this information from the National Intelligence Estimate issued a month after Alhaddad's visit to Baghdad. The NIE stated conclusively that Iraq "is reconstituting its nuclear program." Risen writes: "From his home in Baghdad in February 2003, Saad Tawfiq watched Secretary of State Colin Powell's televised presentation to the United Nations about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. As Powell dramatically built the American case for war, Saad sank further and further into frustration and despair. They didn't listen. I told them there were no weapons."

Mining disaster in WV

My heart goes out to the families of all the miners, including the one who, last I heard, was in critical condition, and from what I've read so far I am just appalled at the callousness and/or ineptitude of both the mining company and the media.

First, although the company may not have been responsible for the report that the miners had been found alive getting out in the first place, how on earth could they have let those people be deceived for three hours? Coudn't they have gone out and said, "We're sorry, but we don't have any solid information - what you heard was mistaken"? (I'm not sure about the punctuation there.)

Secondly, the media is not covering themselves in glory in 2006. Didn't they learn anything from Katrina, when they reported rumors as fact and ended up with egg on their faces when most of the rumors turned out not to be true? Shouldn't they have tried to find someone who knew for sure, or reported that in the absence of official statements (which, as far as I know, had not been given), this was unconfirmed?

One gut feeling that I have is that this is just another example of the melding of news and entertainment. The idea of a "miracle," of people in terrible danger being rescued at the last minute against overwhelming odds, fit right into their storyline. And where does this storyline come from? Hollywood! Of course it doesn't hurt that something similar did happen only a few years ago. Maybe they should be a little skeptical, though? They are supposed to be journalists, after all!

Some thoughts on last week's Torah portion

Unfortunately, I have yet to write any of this down in a coherent form.

The fifth aliyah of parashah Miketz is packed with undercurrents of emotional intensity. Joseph has his brothers at his mercy, although they still don't know who he is. He toys with them, accusing them of being spies, and when they protest, demands that they bring Benjamin back with them as proof that they are telling the truth about their family. Interestingly, the first words of the aliyah (at least in English) are, "If you are honest men." The irony is that we, they and Joseph know that they are honest, at least in what they are telling Joseph, but he and we know that they have not been honest in their past lives.

The crucial part of this aliyah for me is what happens during the time the brothers arrive home and the time they set off for Egypt again with Benjamin. What is going on emotionally with Jacob, with the brothers, and with Benjamin himself? What kind of relationship, if any, has Benjamin had with his much older half-brothers? Are any of Jacob's wives still alive, and where do they come into the story? What about Dinah? What is going on in Simeon's mind, imprisoned back in Egypt? Maybe the reason it's so hard to do anything with this part of the story is because there is so much there.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Clearing the fog on domestic spying

mediamatters.org has an excellent roundup on the excuses that are being propounded on the talk show circuit and elsewhere for the Bush domestic spying program here:

Top 12 media myths and falsehoods on the Bush administration's spying scandal

Summary: Media Matters presents the top 12 myths and falsehoods promoted by the media on President Bush's spying scandal stemming from the recent revelation in The New York Times that he authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to eavesdrop on domestic communications without the required approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court.