Friday, April 30, 2010

Roller-Coaster Ride From Hell

This has been some kind of week; it's like the cosmic floodgates of crazy opened wide and unleashed a deluge, nearly drowning us in bizarre behavior and really bad things. I know that Mercury is in one of its frequent, damnable retrogrades until May 13, and that usually means strangeness and perversity will prevail, but Mercury must be retrograding itself clean out of the Solar System because tons of weird shit have been happening all over.

Oh, speaking of "shit", we heard that word, or variations of it, echoing off the august alabaster walls of Congress as Senate hearings into the vile machinations of Wall Street raged on for five hours. The leaders of various financial firms got their buns raked over the coals by angry Senators, but they must have been wearing asbestos underwear because they didn't seem to be much phased by the whole ordeal. Maybe when you know you're making 50 million dollars this year you don't need to take some crotchety old man with a gavel seriously. I think that Wall Streeters know that their lobbying money has bought them protection from any meaningful reform, especially because the people trying to navigate the country out of the crippling, damaging recession are the very same people who caused it. So they don't have anything to worry about.

Very disturbing story about an environmental catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico as a British Petroleum oil rig spews over 200,000 gallons of crude oil a day into the rich seafood beds and delicate wetlands ecosystem off the Louisiana coast, a truly special and unique part of the world that can't seem to catch a break when it comes to natural disasters. I wonder where that shithead Sarah Palin is now - we don't seem to be hearing a lot from her on one of her favorite subjects, offshore drilling. Who can forget her childish, simplistic chant of "Drill, baby, drill" at last summer's Republican convention, and the sight of all those wrinkled, pinched faces of the dessicated old people madly cheering her on. If I could, I would ask her, "Hey Sarah, how's that drilly-spilly thing working for you?" We'll see how far offshore drilling goes now.

And we're having our own shitstorm here in Arizona, as the whole nation goes ape shit (yes, I'm going to use that word as much as I can, while I can). The local news shows babble on breathlessly about the economic "backlash" this bill will cause us. In sonorous tones they announce the conventions that are being canceled left and right. The first convention canceled was for some immigration lawyers' group, so that wasn't exactly a horrible shock. But hotel owners are already declaring Armageddon and claim to be teetering on the edge of ruin. Various big-city governments, most notably San Francisco, Dallas and New York, have cut business ties with our fair state. But we've seen this before - Arizona caught all kinds of crap when it refused to honor Martin Luther King. Despite all the dire predictions, over 60% of Arizonans approve of the new law and Governor-Without-A-Mandate Jan Brewer's approval rating has gone up around 15 percentage points. What does that say about us, that we somehow invite and look forward to economic ruin? I guess this little psychodrama has to play itself out and by next week everybody will have moved on to the next manufactured crisis, and life here will return to relative normalcy. People have very short memories, especially when it comes to disasters.

I hope we can get some rest this weekend and nothing awful happens for a couple of days, at least. It would be just our luck that some flashpoint in the world will pop off, like North Korea or Iran, and all of a sudden everybody's attention will go over there. Either that or some dimwitted Hollywood starlet will make another public appearance without panties or someone will uncover a nest of 50 new Tiger Woods mistresses or some shameless trollop will parade around in a bikini with Nazi tattoos on her butt. And everyone will be interested in that.

Mercury, give us a break and un-retrograde yourself. We can't stand much more of this cosmic craziness.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Arizona: But It's A Dry Stupidity

I have to admit that living in Arizona these past 17 years has been a great experience for me. I've grown to love the enormous diversity and tremendous natural beauty of this state. From the intensely colored sunsets to the out-of-control summer monsoon storms that come barreling like a freight train down the Mogollon Rim straight into the valley, there is something for everyone here when it comes to weather. It is truly a miraculous sight to see the pure white of the San Xavier del Bac Mission emerging from the shimmering layers of heat and the muted colors of the desert south of Tucson; you can see my photos of the Mission on my website here. Arizona is dotted with wonderful, picturesque towns and cities like Sedona, Tubac, Jerome, Payson, Prescott and so many more. The cool, fragrant pine forests of Flagstaff on a bright, crystal-clear morning are unforgettable, as is our Wonder of the World, the Grand Canyon. The mixture of cultures, including Anglo, Hispanic and Native American influences, form an occasionally unstable but invariably rich and fascinating pastiche of art and color. An area so blessed with natural resources, history and culture must have something wrong with it, you might speculate. And you would be right.

The Republican party has held sway in this state for a long time (it seems like centuries). In the last decade it has been completely hijacked and taken over by its far-right, ultra-conservative faction, and that has shown up in Arizona state politics. A couple of weeks ago the Republican-dominated state legislature passed a law which allows anyone with a gun permit to carry a concealed firearm on their person without a previously-required concealed weapons permit. The Republicans have long been the bottom bitch of the NRA and the gun lobby so this is no major surprise. What is a bit startling is the prospect of so many badly-educated, mentally unstable people packing heat under their enormous flabby bellies. I don't feel one iota safer now that any of the meth-heads and alcoholics you see stumbling down the hot sidewalks every single day just might be hiding a pistol. But the Republicans had to bow down and pay tribute to their puppet masters in the NRA, so that's what we have to deal with every day now.

Another sideshow in this never-ending Cavalcade of Idiocy is the so-called "birther bill" making its way through the legislature. This bill would require anyone running for national office on the ballot in Arizona to present proof of citizenship. Proponents say it's needed for all office-seekers to prove they are qualified for the office, but it is a cheap, cynical and badly-concealed back-door attack on Barack Obama. The "birthers" in this country will just not give up their debunked, ridiculed notions that somehow Obama is not a U.S. citizen and has no claim to the Presidency. How sad and pathetic that the birthers still hold on to these childish notions and the Arizona legislature gets right in line behind them. This just adds to the general perception in America of Arizona as a dust-choked, sun-baked nest of batshit-crazy paranoid schizophrenics who see vast, interconnected webs of treachery and conspiracy everywhere they look.

But the biggest thing that has, in the national view, catapulted Arizona to the upper-echelon levels of mean-spirited insanity has been something called the "Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act," a noble-sounding but totally misleading title for SB1070, a new set of laws that give local law-enforcement great latitude and great responsibility to enforce federal immigration laws, and allows them to demand proof of citizenship from anyone in the state of whom the police feel a "reasonable suspicion" that they might be here illegally. Now exactly what this "reasonable suspicion" is, no one knows, but I'm pretty sure it has something to do with having brown skin and speaking Spanish.

Opponents of SB1070 were quick to point out that it could easily be viewed as a massive infringement by big government on the personal liberties of people. You'd think that would be tailor-made fodder for the Tea Party movement, as one of their tenets is the evil, pervasive intrusion of government in every aspect of life. If so, why aren't they protesting along with all others at the State Capitol? Where are the obese, sweaty white men in stupid costumes and the senile, confused old people doddering around with their hilariously misspelled signs? The stony, deafening silence of the Teabaggers in the wake of SB1070 speaks volumes to the innate ignorance, duplicity and hypocrisy of their movement. Could it be that their strident, anti-government, all-American populism does not extend to people who came here from other countries?

No one who lives here disagrees that undocumented immigration is a huge problem. Twenty-five years ago it was considered a regional problem affecting mainly the states that share a border with Mexico. Everyone in Montana and Vermont and Wisconsin felt it didn't apply to them and thought it was something that Arizona, California and New Mexico had to deal with, and there was little pressure for Congress to come up with a national solution. Since then, everything has changed: undocumented immigrants have shown up in every state of the continental U.S., taking low-paying, labor-intensive jobs that most Americans don't want, and it has become a national security issue in our post-911 world. Recent estimates state that as many as half-a-million undocumented immigrants reside in Arizona, and this sizable fraction of the population has been criminalized by SB1070. Blame for this new law has been spewed far and wide, but the lion's share has to go to the federal government, which has completely shirked its responsibility to come up with a coherent, effective national immigration policy for so many years. Something had to be done to address the issue, but is SB1070 a overreaching, misguided attempt to do something/anything? The lawsuits and court challenges to this bill are only just beginning and this drama will be unfolding for a very long time into our future.

It's very depressing when you live here and witness so many selfish, cruel and small-minded people continually get elected to state-wide office. It seems that voters intentionally go for the most reactionary, hateful and unqualified candidate there is (J.D. Hayworth, I'm talking to you). Maybe it's due to how poorly-educated and unsophisticated so many people are in this state, or the idea that Arizona is somehow a safe haven for crackpots and crazy people from all over the country. Stupidity just attracts more stupidity - as any personal appearance by Sarah Palin will clearly show - and somehow the dumber you are, the more media attention you will receive. Normally really stupid people would be grudgingly tolerated as some unfortunate genetic consequence of human inbreeding, but when they become state legislators and start writing their mental illnesses into laws that affect us all, then they become a really big problem.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Lost In Space?

News came this week that NASA's Constellation program is being stopped. Constellation was supposed to be the next generation of space shuttles. The current shuttle program is scheduled to end after 3 more flights. After that, NASA will have to rely on Russian rockets to get material and personnel back and forth to the International Space Station. It seems that the trend now is toward unmanned, robotic space missions to the moon, Mars and beyond. Manned missions have become too dangerous and expensive.

Actually, it seems to me that space missions have always been dangerous. A couple of days ago was the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission, which very nearly ended in horrendous disaster as a fuel tank exploded on the command module. It was only through the raw, sheer courage and grit of the onboard team and many more support personnel on the ground that the astronauts were safely returned to Earth. You would think that after 40 years of technological improvements it would be less dangerous to go to the moon now. So, what's changed?

Unfortunately, it's the "expensive" part. Things are so much different now. Everything is much more costly, and the recent recession and the dizzying, catastrophic bail-outs have dried up the supply of ready cash. A manned mission to Mars would cost billions. In fact I remember reading a story a while back which suggested the next mission to Mars would be a one-way mission; that is, astronauts would leave Earth and go to Mars without any intention of returning, since it would be impractical to carry enough fuel for the return voyage. As chilling as that is, Mars remains our next frontier, with the moon and all its recently-discovered water deposits a close second.

Robotic probes certainly have done very well in expanding our scientific horizons. The Cassini probe to Saturn has returned many thousands of astounding photographs of the most beautiful planet in the Solar System. The MESSENGER spacecraft has revealed the sun-blasted surface of Mercury in incredible detail. And most exciting is the New Frontiers mission to the vicinity of the dwarf planet Pluto and its moon Charon, speeding along at over 70,000 mph and set to reach Pluto in 2015. And who can forget the Hubble Space Telescope, which has revolutionized our view of the universe and consequently, our view of ourselves.

But manned missions to space and to the moon have been such a rallying cause, a way for the entire world to unite and experience the wonder of exploration not as a collection of separate nations but as a species, a race, a planet. People who were alive at the time will always remember when Neil Armstrong took his first step onto the surface of the moon in 1969. Even the normally unflappable Walter Cronkite was clearly overcome with emotion and, for a while, speechless. That only happened to him one other time that I recall - when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

The scientific work behind the space effort was directly responsible for hugely important advances in science, engineering, technology and medicine, to name a few fields that have benefitted. Without manned missions we would not have the surreal and amazing picture of space-suited astronauts jauntily hopping across the lunar surface in gravity one-sixth that of Earth, and raising a pole with a slightly-crumpled American flag, as if it were flapping in the breeze. And the famous photograph of the "big blue marble," taken of the planet Earth as it hung motionless in the infinite blackness of space, all flawless and serene and most of all, small and insignificant. It was the perfect picture for the times, and really changed a lot of minds about the fragility of the planet we inhabit and the grave importance of taking care of it. You could argue that the current "green" movement got its start with that famous picture.

I'm sure that future robotic missions will continue to rewrite the pages of science but somehow, there is not the personal impact of following a number of brave men and women as they take tentative, dangerous steps off our planetary cradle and into the cold and the dark of space. Neil Armstrong took a "giant leap" for us, and it seemed as if we were there with him. We don't get that kind of buy-in with a robot. I don't fault Obama for making the tough call - maybe we should blame the greedy dirtbags in Congress and on Wall Street which have brought misery to so many and nearly plunged the entire world into a deadly serious financial depression. But by "oursourcing" our tradition of exploration to machines, we lose a little bit of the best side of humanity. I hope we get back into space again, soon.

In other news, the level of batshit-craziness in the world took a giant leap with the recent pairing of Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann in some ridiculous, stupid Tea Party flatulence festival. It's hard to put up with the hokey, phony folksiness of Palin. It's even harder to understand how anyone could take her seriously, being that she is so far beyond idiotic it's not even funny anymore. But Michelle Bachmann is even more profoundly mentally ill than Palin. Bachmann is truly ignorant and a menace to anyone who has the least interest in saving the tradition of meaningful political discourse in this country. Some women think that having these two dimwits on the national stage is somewhat of a triumph for women's rights but ladies, take it from me, it does the worthy cause of women's liberation a grave disservice. It is not an advancement if women set themselves up to be as stupid, venal, obnoxious and vile as men. It is not raising your gender up to new heights - by emulating and imitating all that is petty, ignorant and loathsome about men, you do nothing but lower yourself to their level. And that is not liberation.