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.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Book Review: The Secret Supper

The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra *****

If you are expecting another Da Vinci Code you will almost certainly be disappointed by The Secret Supper, which is not the same kind of fast-paced popular thriller. For one thing, it is set in the 15th century, during the creation of the Last Supper, and that alone slows it down. Also, it is more driven by character development than plot - not to criticize Brown's book, but there is a different emphasis, as well as a different vantage point on some of the same theories.

Father Agostino Levyre is sent to Milan by the Inquisition to investigate allegations made by a mysterious corresponent known to them only as the Soothsayer. According to the Soothsayer, the Duke of Milan and Leonardo da Vinci are conspiring to enshrine heretical ideas in Leonardo’s works, in particular the Last Supper, and Father Agostino must discover both the truth or falsity of the allegations and the identity of the Soothsayer. Sierra’s writing talents (and those of his translator, Alberto Manguel) are buttressed by his previous scholarly work in this area. In the process the inquisitor finds himself undergoing his own spiritual transformation.

At least one other reviewer at Amazon felt that the subject matter was too esoteric, but I would hope that readers would be inspired to do some more delving into the transmission of previously unknown traditions from Byzantium to the West in the fifteenth century and the possibility that “heretical” movements that had supposedly been wiped out survived into the Renaissance and influenced Leonardo. Recommended reading: The Albigensian Crusades by Joseph Strayer and The Perfect Heresy by Stephen O'Shea, which I've just started but seems to be very well-written.

He's got a lot of nerve (not!)

Here is one of those things I really wish I’d written (excerpts below), although I couldn’t have since I don’t have the patience to listen to or read as many of Dubya’s talks as this guy obviously has. It kind of reminds me of the prince in Shrek, who tells the army he has put together to assault the tower and win the princess (paraphrasing), “Many of you will die in the assault, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.”
He said it after a cabinet meeting. He said it in Wheeling, West Virginia. He said it at the "Mike Sodrel for Congress and Indiana Victory 2006 Reception." He said it at the National Republican Congressional Committee Dinner. He said it at the Georgia Republican Party President's Day dinner. (The "unnamed official" said -- well, the reporter who gave him cover wouldn't say where he said it.)

In all these comfortable, safe, even plush locations, he said it. But he didn't demonstrate it. What was he talking about? "Nerve."
This particular buzzword's going to bring him down. It's "bring it on," squared. Here's a man who's spent a lifetime losing his nerve, who blinks in thinly disguised panic when he's asked a question that's not in the script.

This pathetic tactic lights the President from within like an X-ray, revealing his nature for the entire country to see: The President is a weakling.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Immigration Part 2

One reason I like blogs better than letters to the editor (and this has happened with my more well thought-out ones too), is that you can have second thoughts and clarify your ideas. Now I’m hoping that I didn’t unintentionally sound like I was endorsing Dubya’s guest worker program, because I don’t think that companies should go out and bring people over unless they absolutely cannot find anyone in this country to do the jobs, which I doubt. My proposal was more an after-the-fact penalty (in addition to any fines, which as I said I don’t think work on their own) on the employers. As was pointed out by Randi Rhodes on her show today, there also has to be work done on the other end of the “pipeline,” making Mexico, in particular, a place where people can stay and earn a decent living for their families.

I used to buy into the idea that undocumented workers do the jobs that Americans won’t do, but now I have some major qualms about that. In some cases it might be true, but if it ever was on a large scale, a couple of things have changed in the past several years. First, as someone else pointed out on the radio, they’re not just picking vegetables anymore; the number of industries hiring people who are here illegally has expanded. Secondly, the economy and the job market have gotten worse, so that people might be willing to take jobs now that they weren’t twenty years ago. Also, it would make a big difference if they were offered a decent wage, but that’s the sticking point.

I’m really not sure what kind of work Americans are supposed to do - On Point had a show on last week about how everything except service jobs is eventually going to be shipped overseas, and they want to bring people in to do those. Then the rest of us, I suppose, will be excoriated for being lazy bums. Of course, they will presumably give us those service jobs if we’ll do them for next to nothing, but in that case we will end up as a country with a very few very wealthy and a majority of poor people. Evidently they’ve forgotten Henry Ford’s insight - that you have to pay people enough so that they can buy what you’re providing, or you’ll have a very limited base of people to sell to.

Then of course we have to look at what to do with the people who are already here. The idea of deporting them all is ridiculous and unworthy of this country, although not of our present leadership. The only thing that’s protecting them now is Dubya’s loyalty to his corporate base. It would be a long haul (although it might provide work for quite a few Americans), but I think they should be looked at, if not on a case-to-case basis, at least not as a homogenous mass. Are they the kind of people we want to have as citizens? Are they attempting to assimilate, or would they if given legal status? Are they people who are willing to work hard if their work is rewarded? Do they have family here who can help them out?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

My proposal for immigration reform

Of course, when I send well-thought out, brilliant letters to the News they don’t get published, but when I dash something off on the spur of the moment and send it via a website that I connected to by e-mail, then I get a call from them. Well, I’ve been told that they will only publish you every 60 days, so there go the other ones I’d thought of writing - assuming they do print this one.

It seems to me that the main problem is that companies (as well as individuals) want cheap labor, whom they can treat any way they want because their employees will never report them for fear of being deported. The solution to this is to make any undocumented immigrant legal the minute they’re hired. Whoever hired them becomes their sponsor and is therefore responsible for them. (I know that this would require some finessing since I’m sure a lot of these people are paid off the books, so there would have to be a way for them to prove to the INS that they are working for someone. I leave that up to the lawyers. It would also have to be well publicized, since it wouldn’t work if the employees didn’t know about it.) This eliminates two things - the incentive that the employer has for hiring the person and the fear of being deported that keeps the employee from reporting substandard wages, conditions, etc. Fining the employer does nothing, since they probably just rack it up to the cost of doing business and go out and do it again. With my idea the employee doesn’t get deported, has a chance of becoming a productive, taxpaying legal immigrant and if they’re in danger of going on welfare, become disabled, etc., the employer becomes responsible for them.

I know there are a lot of people who foam at the mouth at the idea of “rewarding” people for coming here illegally, but I’m sure there could be some way in which additional hurdles could be put in their path before, say, they could become citizens. Considering the hardships that some of them go through, maybe more in some cases than those who wait their turn, I don’t think it would be that big a deal and anyway, if this could be enacted and enforced the numbers would go down drastically - though the price of fruits and vegetables might go up quite a bit.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Book Review: Love, Sex and Tragedy

Love, Sex and Tragedy by Simon Goldhill *****

The title sounds like either a soap opera or a really tacky popularization of history, but this book is an erudite and eminently readable examination of the multiple cultural threads that connect us to the ancient world, in areas from politics to entertainment.

The “love and sex” part is somewhat graphic, with several pictures of artifacts which, while in common use in the ancient world, could never be put on public display in museums lest they shock our oh-so-sophisticated 21st century sensibilities. In this first section Goldhill also talks about the real meaning of “Greek love,” which comes off as much more restrictive than modern gay rights activists would like to portray it, as well as the role of ancient statuary in creating the ideal of the male body, and the multitudinous ways in which the poetess Sappho has been “used to express female longing in a man’s world.”

The next section deals with Christianity and the ways in which it could not help being influenced by classical culture and philosophy, which at its most austere could have a lot in common with Christian ideals, in spite of itself. Goldhill’s comparison of the “adventures” of the early Christian St. Thecla, a follower of Paul, to racy Greek novels is fascinating. He also discusses more highbrow subjects, such as the importance of more accurate translations of Greek in the Renaissance (notably by Erasmus) to the breaking of the Catholic Church’s monopoly on scriptural truth.

In politics, as Goldhill points out, our debts to the classical world are many and so are our differences with it. After explicating the background and workings of the original democracy, he recounts the harsh criticism it attracted from such significant figures as Plato. He notes ironically that Socrates, for whose death Plato blamed Athens, never would have been allowed into Plato’s Republic.

Where entertainment is concerned, Goldhill seems to feel that we have abandoned some of the best aspects, such as the communal feeling that he attributes to the the Great Dionysia, the Athenian festival at which the great tragedies were staged, while retaining the worst, such as the fascination with violence epitomized by the gladitorial games. He does tell a wonderful story of tragedy working its magic in the modern world, when an audience in Northern Ireland, attending a performance of Sophocles’ Electra after a week of sectarian violence, insisted on remaining afterwards and discussing the devastating effects of revenge both on societies and the individual.

The book ends with a look at the story of Oedipus, in both its ancient and modern (Freudian) manifestations, and the importance of knowing our origins. From Clark Gable’s bare chest to George Washington as the Roman farmer/dictator Cincinnatus, from Mussolini’s appropriation of the fasces of ancient Rome to the Passover seder as Greek symposium, they are all around us.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Pedaling backwards as fast as we can

Here is a very disturbing story about the teaching of evolution (not!) in Arkansas. Long, but worth the read. By the way, these people are in violation of their own state educational standards, although I'm sure that they'll fix that if they can – by changing the standards, of course, a la Kansas.

I keep meaning to write some of that "original material" that is supposedly copyrighted at the bottom of the page, apart from book reviews, but it just never seems to happen.
Teachers at his facility are forbidden to use the “e-word” (evolution)with the kids. They are permitted to use the word “adaptation” but only to refer to a current characteristic of an organism, not as a product of evolutionary change via natural selection. They cannot even use the term “natural selection.” Bob feared that not being able to use evolutionary terms and ideas to answer his students’ questions would lead to reinforcement of their misconceptions.

But Bob’s personal issue was more specific, and the prohibition more insidious. In his words, “I am instructed NOT to use hard numbers when telling kids how old rocks are. I am supposed to say that these rocks are VERY VERY OLD ... but I am NOT to say that these rocks are thought to be about 300 million years old.”

As a person with a geology background, Bob found this restriction hard to justify, especially since the new Arkansas educational benchmarks for 5th grade include introduction of the concept of the 4.5-billion-year age of the earth. Bob’s facility is supposed to be meeting or exceeding those benchmarks.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Book Review: Year of the Hyenas

Year of the Hyenas by Brad Geagley ****

When the body of a blind, elderly priestess turns up on the opposite side of the Nile from where she lived, the mayors of the eastern and western halves of Thebes are at loggerheads, each declaring the crime to be in his own jurisdiction. As a compromise, the vizier appoints Semerket, a misanthropic, embittered "follower of Set" who has no respect for anything but the truth, to investigate the death.

In the process Semerket, who is trying to get over the loss of his beloved wife to another man, finds mystery and intrigue enough to drive her from his mind, at least temporarily. The "harem conspiracy" to kill Ramesses III and place his son by his wife Tiya on the throne is a historical fact, and Geagley imaginatively reconstructs the circumstances surrounding it. Interestingly, there is an article in the March/April 2006 issue of Archaeology magazine that discusses the possibilty of an unidentified mummy found in 1886 being the prince who was to have benefited from the conspiracy, and only a couple of months ago I was reading a book called Affairs and Scandals in Ancient Egypt which discussed the rivalry between the two mayors and the organized tomb robbing that is also dealt with in Year of the Hyenas.

In addition to the painstaking historical detail, Geagley also creates interesting, believable and sympathetic characters, from the young Crown Prince whose succession is endangered to Semerket himself, as well as women such as Queen Tiya herself and the promiscuous, frustrated Hunro, whose dream is to leave the tomb-makers' village and set herself up in Thebes.

One of my only criticisms is that someone must have informed Geagley that it was obligatory to have at least one graphic sex scene, which only detracted from the plot and could easily have been deleted.

Friday, March 17, 2006

More on Africa's new ocean

This is a really cool story, with pictures yet, although it’s hard to tell exactly what you’re supposed to be looking at in some of them. It gives a lot more information than the original article, which I posted a link to some time ago. It's nice to read once in while about something happening in the natural world that isn't an imminent disaster caused by human activity. That's one reason why I like to post these stories, along with the other ones about discoveries of new species, etc. Click on title to read whole story.
A Continent Splits Apart
By Axel Bojanowski
Normally new rivers, seas and mountains are born in slow motion. The Afar Triangle near the Horn of Africa is another story. A new ocean is forming there with staggering speed -- at least by geological standards. Africa will eventually lose its horn.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Will anyone notice?

Salon has now published all 279 photos and 19 videos that it possesses from the Army’s internal investigation of the abuses of Abu Ghraib. Of course the biggest issue in the so-called “mainstream media” is whether the NY Times correctly identified the prisoner in the iconic photo of the man standing on the box with his arms outstretched.

Update (3/19): The answer to this question, obviously, is no. Even Buzzflash hasn't had anything on it since the original posting.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Thank you, Senator Feingold!

It’s good to know that at least one Democrat has the guts to stand up to Mr. 36% Approval Rating, but in the meantime all of his colleagues (except Harkin, at the moment) look pathetic. The description of their all avoiding the reporters who want to ask whether they will support Feingold’s resolution for censure reminds me of the scene in Fahrenheit 9/11 where Michael Moore is asking the members of Congress whether they’re willing to sign their kids up for the army. “Cowering“ fits them perfectly. Well, Americans were starting to trust Democrats more than Republicans to protect them, but after this display of sniveling pusillanimity, that may change. If these people won’t even stand up for principle on a largely symbolic vote, what will they stand up for?

Here’s a link to a great article by William Greider (excerpt below). We need more ”embarrassments“ in the Senate, and the House too!
The Nation -- Senator Russ Feingold is an embarrassment to the US Senate, which makes him an authentic hero of the Republic. The Wisconsin senator gets up and says out loud what half of the country is thinking and talks about every day. This President broke the law and lied about it; he trashed the Constitution and hides himself in the flag. Feingold asks: Shouldn't the Senate say something about this, at least express our disapproval? He introduces a resolution of censure and calls for debate.

Well, that tore it in the august chamber of lawmakers. Democrats scurried away like scared rats. And Republicans chortled at the thought. You want to censure our warrior President, the guy who defends us every day against terrorist attacks? Let's have a vote right now, the Republican leader demanded. Yuk, yuk.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Happy Purim!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

A hollow creature indeed

I love this quote from James Carroll’s column in Monday’s Boston Globe. He’s the author of Constantine's Sword, by the way, and I would finish that book if only I would stop getting piles of them out of the library.

If this were a novel or a play, we would watch with a certain empathy, alert to revelations of our own inevitable implication in deception and self-deception. None of us is innocent, and it is to wrestle with that fact of our condition that we read books and buy theater tickets.

But the present American story is not a work of literature. From all appearances, the president is not a candidate for the role of ''Bush" because a narrative that unfolds across the terrain of an inner life requires an inner life, and Bush shows no sign of having one.

Even a character flaw presumes a depth of character that the president seems to lack. What interior conflict can there be for a man who attributes all failures, all mistakes, all crimes to those around him, as if he himself (alone of all humans) is blameless? Where there is no capacity for shame, there is none for insight, much less transformation. Without the secret struggle against the self, there can be no drama, only pathos.

As for us, the beholders of this narrative, there can be no suspension of disbelief, no identification, and no recognition of our own fate being rescued by a confrontation with the truth. On the contrary, since this is not literature but life, there is only the increased awareness of the danger into which the world is plunged by having such a hollow creature in the position of ultimate power. (emphasis mine)

Monday, March 06, 2006

Book Review: The Subtle Knife

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman *****

Twelve-year-old Will Parry is on the run. His father, a retired soldier and explorer, vanished in the Arctic soon after he was born, and now mysterious men (government? military?) are after the letters that he sent to Will’s mother during his last expedition. Determined to find his father or at least what happened to him, Will leaves his emotionally fragile mother with a friend. He returns to his home to find the men there, and one of them is killed. Fleeing from the house, cat lover Will follows a strange cat through a “hole” in the air, and finds himself in another world.

This is the opening to The Subtle Knife, the second book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. In Cittagazze, the spectre-haunted world where Will ends up, he meets Lyra Silvertongue, the protagonist of The Golden Compass, and they form an uneasy alliance that will mature into a deep and abiding friendship. Will’s natural gentleness, as well as the cautiousness and sense of responsibility he has been forced to develop in “parenting” his childlike mother, provide a counterweight to Lyra’s weaknesses of impulsivity and recklessness, while she prods and sometimes bullies him into action, as well as giving him some of the nurturing he has lacked in his life.

Will finds himself, after a violent fight in which he is forced to kill a man, the possessor of the “subtle knife,” which can, in addition to cutting through any earthly surface, also cut windows between worlds. The two children will use the knife and Lyra’s alethiometer (the “golden compass” of the first book), to pursue their self-appointed quests, finding his father in Will’s case and discovering more about the mysterious “Dust” in Lyra’s. Along the way they are caught up in an escalating revolt against the church authorities and “the Authority” in heaven led by Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel. (I do not believe that Pullman means “the Authority” to be God, but the twisted, desiccated “God” that many people have unfortunately replaced Him with.)

Not only do many of the wonderful characters from the first book (Serafina Pekkala, Lee Scoresby, Mrs. Coulter) make an appearance, but several new ones who will play vital parts in the denouement of the story are also brought in, most notably Mary Malone, a physicist in our world who has lost her Catholic faith. She is enlisted by Lyra to explain the mysteries of Dust, but ends up being far more important in the scheme of things. Angels and Gallevespians (tiny people who ride dragonflies and make excellent spies) are also introduced.

This is a book that is filled with adventure and heroic sacrifice, as well as friendship, loyalty, and abiding questions about good and evil.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Book Review: Finding Darwin's God

Finding Darwin’s God by Kenneth R. Miller *****

Subtitled “A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution,” this book is a thoughtful and serious attempt to resolve the question of whether a sincere Christian (or adherent of any other Western religion, which is his main focus) can also accept Darwinian evolution. In the first chapter, Miller recounts his religious Catholic upbringing, his introduction to Darwin (dogged by warnings that he was reading a “dangerous” book), and his later decision to enter the field of biology.

The next part of the book looks at the development of the scientific method and the theory of evolution, as well as painstakingly and devastatingly refuting the three major schools of opposition to it. He shows that the proponents of these “alternatives” misunderstand and distort science, continue using obsolete arguments long after they are debunked, and make no effort to do scientific research of their own while demanding that their ideas be accepted as science. He also argues that they present profoundly flawed pictures of God, as evidenced by his chapter titles: “God the Charlatan,” “God the Magician,” and “God the Mechanic.“

Miller also tackles head-on the most legitimate beef of the anti-evolutionists, the use of ”Darwinism“ by many scientists to attack religion and to claim that if nature can be explained and understood, God is proven not to exist or life proven to be purposeless. He feels that it is as wrong to make these claims as it is to attempt to use science to ”prove“ that God does exist.

The final third of the book is devoted to a passionate and well thought out case that acceptance of the truth of evolution is not only not a bar to a sincere and committed religious outlook, but can be, in conjunction with other areas of science, an affirmation of it. I won’t try to summarize or do justice to his argument here, but I believe that many who are more traditional than I am will find it convincing. I don’t think that Miller will convert any atheists to his point of view, but that is not his purpose. What he is doing is reaching out to believers and offering them a place at the table instead of antagonizing them and pushing them away, without compromising his scientific integrity. His obvious enthusiasm for science and love of God make him a perfect person to do this, and given that people are most belligerent when they feel that their core beliefs are being threatened, it seems to me to be a very sensible course to follow.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Movie Review: Mirrormask

Mirrormask ****
Screenplay: Neil Gaiman
Starring: Stephanie Leonidas, Gina McKee Director: Dave McKean Rating: PG

Helena Campbell is an artistically talented teenager who is part of a circus family and wants to “run away to real life.” When her mother becomes seriously ill after they have an argument, she naturally feels responsible. During the night before her mother's major surgery, she wakes up in a weird, phantasmagoric land based on her own drawings, where the "balance has been upset" and the Queen of Light lies in a deathlike sleep as shadows destroy her kingdom. Only Helena, with the help of a rogue named Valentine, can wake the Queen, as well as returning to her own world, where an "anti-Helena" is wreaking havoc with her life, by finding a mysterious "charm."

There is obviously a lot of psychological symbolism in this film, but the creators are not in your face about it. I think that many people will recognize the portrayal of the inner turmoil that teenagers often face as they attempt to separate from their parents while still maintaining a loving relationship. Of course, betrayal, forgiveness and redemption are themes that will resonate with viewers of any age.

Not surprisingly, with the involvement of Neil Gaiman and Jim Henson Productions, the conception of the alternate reality, as well as its realization on film, is awesome.

Friday, March 03, 2006

South Dakota abortion ban

As you may know, the South Dakota legislature has passed a law that would ban virtually all abortions in the state. Read more here.

A couple of recent articles by Jane Hamsher (here and here) on the Huffington Post slam NARAL and Planned Parenthood for using the issue to raise funds but not being there when the chips were down (i.e., to stop Scalito), but Planned Parenthood does have an easy-to-use tool for sending a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Use it. I plan to.

The phantom reader

Even though I don’t have a clue whether anyone apart from myself is reading this blog, I’ve noticed a definite difference between the mindset of someone writing just for him/herself and writing, at least theoretically, for public consumption. It’s subtle, but every so often I hear a little voice in my head, when thinking of a topic, saying, “But is anyone really going to be interested in reading that, however fascinating you personally may find it?” I’m sure that this pressure increases as a writer (or performer of any kind) gains a larger audience, often leading to charges of “selling out.”

It seems to me that there is a fine line to walk here. On the one hand, I would like to connect with people who care about at least some of the things that I care about, and I suppose you can stay true to yourself without dumping everything in your brain on the whole world, but I would also like to explore topics that may bore others out of their minds, so if anyone’s out there I hope you’ll just skim past those and that there is enough here that does interest you to keep you coming back.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

We never could have anticipated...

You name it – planes being flown into buildings, levees being breached - except that it turns out that all of these things were anticipated, and finally, here is the smoking gun on the levees: a video of a briefing session from before Katrina hit

As someone somewhere has said, the administration and its spokesrobots in the media will spin it by saying, "Oh, they just said that the levees might be 'topped,' not actually broken through." Of course, if a Democrat were making that claim, the same people would immediately label it "Clintonian."

Anyway, I'm sure their main concern will be finding out who leaked the tapes, one of which they had told Congress they didn't have "because no one hit record." Good to know there are some patriots in this government who are fed up enough to get this stuff out.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Support our troops - bring them home!

The results of the first-ever poll of the soldiers on the ground have to be seen to be believed. An “overwhelming” 72% think we should leave within the next year (why do they hate America?), but this is the scariest part.
Nearly nine of every 10 - 85% - said the U.S. mission is "to retaliate for Saddam's role in the 9-11 attacks," while 77% said they believe the main or a major reason for the war was "to stop Saddam from protecting al Qaeda in Iraq." (emphasis mine)
I have mixed feelings about Mike Malloy on Air America, but one thing I agree with him on - whoever is feeding them this B.S. is evil! Not even that many civilians ever thought that, and it should be common knowledge by now outside of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh’s show that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11 and despised bin Laden. Even Dubya has admitted it - on videotape - so the only way they could think so this overwhelmingly is if they’re getting it from their superiors.