Thursday, December 31, 2009

For the fallen

By Donald Sensing

Within a 2d Infantry Division memorial to the slain, photo-documented by the indispensable Michael Yon.

Read the whole thing.

Keeping Their Vigil

By Daniel Jackson

The Rabbis of Old felt that those who make their living tending to sheep out in the hills at night could not be trusted to make an oath about the disappearance one of their charges--"Honest, Master Jesse, there were lions and bears that took that sheep." No rabbinic court would force them to make an oath since everyone knows what mutton stew tastes like during those long winter night vigils near Bethlehem.

Hence, Master Jesse sent son David to check up on the flocks AND those watching (who must have been the only honest ones in history since son David became profficient in driving them off).

For years, I have often wondered exactly WHAT those professionals do out on the hills when no one is watching.

This is clearly the result of too much time on ones hands.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Tiger's and Elin's last conversation

By Donald Sensing

From the Sense of Events secret cams, what really happened just before Elin "went clubbing."

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The barn doors closed perfectly . . .

By Donald Sensing

... after the horses disappeared over the hill.

π in the Sky

By Daniel Jackson

Who said there is no such thing as a "pie in the sky"?

It's Sundog season. A mass of cold air came in from the southeast yesterday signalling cold and wet weather ahead producing this halo in the afternoon as the sun dipped towards the western horizon.

My brother, Tom, the hydrological engineer, insists that star and atmospheric shots have ground reference points, so I took a second shot for him.

I set off to follow the halo westward and got another image near Beit Guvrin, in the foothills of Judea.

The winter wheat is doing just fine.

Somewhere near Ashtod, the sun set and the halo effects disappeared. I found myself in an orange grove with the Rosetta Stone of all industrial warnings.

There are five languages warning not to drink the water; but, no one except Brother Tom could possibly find a spigot to open.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Flight 253 hero Schuringa to be prosecuted

By Donald Sensing


WASHINGTON, D.C.--The hero of Northwest Airlines Flight 253, lauded by passengers as the man who first reached would-be bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, will be arraigned this week under federal charges, the US Justice Department announced today.

Dutch citizen Jasper Schuringa was sitting a few seats away from Abdulmutallab when he heard popping and saw smoke and a glow coming from Abdulmutallab's seat. Schuringa was the first passenger to understand that Abdulmutallab was endangering the aircraft. He leapt over intervening seats to tackle and subdue Abdulmutallab, joined very quickly by other passengers.

Abdulmutallab has already been charged with attempting to destroy the airliner.

In announcing the pending charges against Schuringa the Justice Department spokesman said that after being treated for his burns, Abdulmutallab told a federal agent that Schuringa had slugged him in the mouth. Abdulmutallab pointed to his swollen lip as evidence of the assault.

"It's now well established in anti-terrorism operations that you cannot just go around slugging murderous terrorists in the mouth," said the spokesman. "What's fair for Navy SEALs will be fair for Mr. Schuringa. The law is the law." He added that Attorney General Eric Holder had approved charging Mr. Schuringa with assault.

The spokesman's reference was to the pending court-martial of three Navy SEALs facing assault charges related to their capture of Ahmed Hashim Abed, the terrorist who planned the March 2004 ambush, killing and mutilation of four American contractors in Fallujah, Iraq. The contractors' burned bodies were then hanged from a bridge in the city. After being captured by the SEALs last month, Abed claimed that his fat lip was caused by one of the SEALs punching him in the mouth. Military officials arraigned the three SEALs earlier this month on multiple charges, including assault.

"After eight years of human-rights abuses," said the Justice Department spokesman, "including who knows how many incidents of terrorists getting punched in the mouth, we are finally showing the world that the United States will no longer mistreat people who want to blow us up. We are making it very clear that no terrorist should fear getting a fat lip. Jasper Schuringa crossed a line by brutally hitting Mr. Abdulmutallab in the mouth, and he will have to pay the price for his inexcusable violence."

This post is satire.

Darn decent of Obama

By Donald Sensing

As you know, I have been far more critical of President Obama's politics and policies than complimentary. But when the man does something right, it deserves recognition. And on Christmas Dqay he did something right - he and Michelle, vacationing in Hawaii, went to Kaneohe Marine Corps base and visited the troops.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Five Jewish Women

By Donald Sensing

The Gospel of Matthew 1:1-6, 18
1 A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham:
2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,
3 Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram,
4 Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon,
5 Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse,
6 and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife. . . .
18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.

Matthew begins his gospel with the Jewish genealogy of Jesus. Unlike Luke’s genealogy, which traces Jesus’ ancestry all the way back to Adam, Matthew stops at Abraham. Also, only Matthew mentions any women in Jesus ancestry. Besides Mary, there are four. They are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.

Let’s hear the story of each of these women.

Tamar’s Story

My name is Tamar . My story is told in Genesis, chapter 38. I was widowed at a young age when my husband, Er, died. He was a wicked man, so the Lord shortened his life. Er’s father, Judah, told Er’s brother Onan to lie with me so that I could have a child to inherit Er’s estate. But Onan didn’t want to father a child who wouldn’t be his own, so he didn’t carry through with his duty. Not long afterward, Onan died. We think he died because he did not carry out his responsibilities, which was wrong in the eyes of the Lord.

Judah then said to me, “Live as a widow in my house until my young son Shelah grows up.” So I went to live in Judah’s house. After a long time Judah’s wife died. When Judah had recovered from his grief, he went to Timnah, to the men who were shearing his sheep.

When someone in the household told me Judah was on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep, I took off my widow’s clothes. I covered myself with a veil to disguise myself, and went to the village of Enaim. Enaim is on the road to Timnah.

You see, Judah’s third son, Shelah, had now grown up. But Judah had not given me to him as his wife. Without a husband and children, I would be destitute in my old age. No one would be obligated to care for me. Everyone knew it was a terrible fate for a woman to grow old alone.

When Judah saw me, he didn’t recognize me because of the veil I was wearing. In fact, he thought I was a prostitute. Not realizing that I was his daughter-in-law, he went over to me by the roadside and said, “Come now, let me sleep with you.” “And what will you give me to sleep with you?” I asked.

“I’ll send you a young goat from my flock,” he said. I replied, “I want something as collateral for your payment until it arrives.”
Judah said, “What collateral should I give you?”

I answered, “Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand.” That would be something like your modern drivers’s license and house keys. So Judah gave them to me and he slept with me. As the result, I became pregnant by him.

After I left, I took off the veil, put on my widow’s clothes again, and went home. Meanwhile Judah sent the young goat by a friend in order to get his collateral back, but of course, he did not find me.

About three months later someone told Judah, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant.” Judah said, “Bring her out and have her burned to death!”

As I was being brought out to be burned, I sent the collateral to Judah with the message, “I am pregnant by the man who owns these. See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.”

Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.” He never slept with me again.
When the time came for me to give birth, we discovered I would have twins. As I was giving birth, one of the twins put out his hand; so the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his wrist and said, “This one came out first.”

But when he drew back his hand, his brother came out, and she said, “So this is how you have broken out!” And he was named Perez.
Then his brother, who had the scarlet thread on his wrist, came out and he was given the name Zerah.
Perez, the firstborn of Tamar, was the father of Hezron. Hezron was the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon. Salmon was the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab. . . .

Continue reading

Thursday, December 24, 2009

No senators were bribed to vote for health care

By Donald Sensing

A lot of pixels have glowed about how Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) was "bribed" by Harry Reid to vote for Reid's health care bill. Nelson had objected to certain abortion provisions in the bill. But Reid's payola to Nelson was huge.

Nelson secured full federal funding for his state to expand Medicaid coverage to all individuals below 133 percent of the federal poverty level. Other states must pay a small portion of the additional cost. He won concessions for qualifying nonprofit insurers and for Medigap providers from a new insurance tax. He also was able to roll back cuts to health savings accounts.
Commentary's Peter Wehner wrote yesterday,
As these backroom deals become more and more widely known, anger will swell up among voters. It is bad enough to jam through a bill on a strict party-line-vote against overwhelming opposition from the public; for it to have happened only because various Members of Congress were (legally) bribed will magnify the intensity of the opposition.
What bribes? No one was bribed, certainly not Nelson.

I want you to help me burglarize a house but you say no. So I offer you $100 to help. Here are two scenarios of how you get the $100:0:

1. I pull out my wallet and hand you a $100 bill. You take it and help me break into the house.

2. I tell you I am going to mug a passerby, steal his wallet and give you $100 from it. You say, "Okay," watch me mug a man, then you take the money I stole and help me burglarize the house.

In case 1, you've been bribed. In case 2, you're an accomplice to robbery.

That's what Nelson is, an accomplice. Reid didn't bribe Nelson with Reid's own money. He bought him with your money and mine. Nelson knew the estimated $100 million package he was being awarded for Nebraska and other goodies would be exacted from taxpayers. He knew in advance that Reid would mug you and me for it. Nelson just held out until the mugging got enough loot to get his vote.

There are no unwilling yes votes here. There are just Democrat senators who were smart enough to hold out for a bigger cut of the swag than others. And the others are now realizing what suckers they were.
Sometimes there's nothing more amusing than hardcore liberals realizing they've been had. How do you feel now, suckers?
The Senate health reform bill is packed with lumps of coal for New York's Christmas stocking. ...

New York ended up on the short end as Senate brokers showered cash on states whose senators were among the last holdouts before Democratic leaders locked up the 60 needed votes.

New York's best hope now is emergency surgery to undo the shafting before the bill becomes final.

A health care overhaul passed by the House last month is more generous to the city and state, and negotiations over the differences start in January.

Under the Senate plan, the biggest rewards go the states that, unlike New York, have been Scrooges to the poor in need of medical care.

"We are in a sense being punished for our own charity," Paterson said Monday.

Paterson was also bitter that states like Massachusetts and Vermont, which were also generous, got last-minute deals that erase their extra costs.
Well, as bloggers are observing now with increasing frequency, when you can't tell which guy at the table is the sucker, that means it's you.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Old Men and The Sea

By Daniel Jackson

The Captain of the Exodus died yesterday in Hadera. He was 86. Born in Danzig, Ike Aranne came to the British colony when he was ten, went to sea at 17, and eventually working his way through to First Mate in the British Merchant Service.

He left this world on his final voyage from Hadera, not far from where I made this image earlier in the month. I pray he finds a seat among the Just at the Heavenly Table in Gan Eden.

In an interview last year with Ruthie Blum Leibowitz, Captain Aranne recounted his first command.

It was the first ship of which I was captain. Six months earlier, I had become first officer - and I had four months missing to becoming a captain. But, because it was a boat from Honduras, where they didn't give a hoot about such regulations - I could do it. If that same boat had carried a British rather than a Honduran flag, there's no way I would have been made captain, because to become captain required seven years seatime, and I only had six and a half. [He is referring to the fact that after the ship was purchased by the Hagana from the American navy, which had anchored it, following its service in the allied invasion of Normandy, the Honduras consulate gave it permission to sail under its flag.]

We had a commander who was sent by [head of the Jewish Agency for Palestine who would become first prime minister of Israel] David Ben-Gurion. His name was Yossi Harel. [The character Ari Ben Canaan, played by Paul Newman, is loosely based on him.] He died a year ago. He was a politruk brought to the ship to supervise us Palmahniks whom Ben-Gurion considered to be a bit nutty. And we told him he could go f---k himself. He was a guy who didn't even know what the inside of a ship looked like, let alone how it worked - though later he would go on to study naval architecture. Anyway, he got it in his head that the ship was going to sink. I told him he was talking nonsense - that the ship was not sinking.

This is the voice of a real captain. When asked why Harel thought the ship was sinking, Aranne answered with typical mariner aplomb.

Because the British rammed it 20-odd times, so water began seeping in. But I tried to explain to him that the ship itself wasn't damaged at all. You see, this ship - originally called The President Warfield - was built for shallow water. [Named after the president of a shipping company in the Chesapeake Bay, it was originally a luxury liner that sailed between Baltimore, Maryland, and Norfolk, Virginia, during the years 1928-1940. In 1940-1, it was converted into a troop and supply ship for the British navy. Then it was assigned to the US navy, where it took part in the allied invasion of Normandy. It was the short draft of the ship that caused Aranne to notice it in the first place at the ships' "graveyard" in Baltimore in 1946, and purchase it for the Hagana for the purpose of bringing Jewish refugees to Palestine. Its short draft is precisely what would enable it to get close enough to the coast of Palestine unhindered by boats that could sail only in deep water.]

Anyway, the point is that Harel was not a seaman, and didn't know anything about it. But he thought the ship was going to sink, and Ben-Gurion told him to surrender. So he surrendered.
[The bracketed items set off in italics are Ruthie Leibowitz's helpful annotations.]

While most folks remember the Exodus from the movie, the ship had a special place in my family. It attained legendary proportions--my father had been the first choice.

The story is that my father was a master mariner was home from the sea, which means as every sailor knows he was looking for his next ship. A skipper of merchant vessels and LST-795 in WWII, Mel Jackson in 1946 tried to start an inter island freight and mail service in the South Pacific with the Schooner Effie M. Morrissey.

He left New York full of promise southbound with a fair wind, seen here shooting the sun (center) with his brother, Sidney (left) who came along for the first leg of the trip. But, a bad stern and lots of dry rot put an end to that plan. It broke his heart. So, he was in New York looking around for his next berth.

The story goes that he was approached by the Haganah for two reasons: He was a Master Mariner with an American Passport and he was Jewish. Would he like a job to help out "the Cause"? He was told to go to a newsstand and buy a paper, which he did. His eyes at this point in the story would grow wide with awe and wonder when he recounted how a black car pulled up and two of the "biggest guys I have ever seen in my life" jumped out, grabbed him under the arms, and lifted him off the ground into the back of the car, blindfolded him, drove around for an hour, took him inside some building with the windows blacked out and a glaring light in his eyes. They repeated the process when the interview was done.

The Deal was he was to pick up a ship in Marseilles, filled with contraband refugees, and set sail for British Palestine. If for some reason the arrangements or any other part of the plan was discovered by British Intelligence, everything was off and another ship and crew would be used.

For whatever reason, my father did not go; but, the story forged a major part of my Jewish family heritage. On those occasions when we were sailing together, he would bring it up, wistfully.

He went on to sail as captain several times, including on the C2 Twilight. In 1948, he got a plumb command out of San Francisco but it turned out to be the great Pacific Coast shutdown of 1948--he'd been hired as a strike breaker and was told by the First Mate, carrying a picket sign, in no uncertain terms NOT to cross the line.

He used to tell me, when we were alone on the water someplace, with a gleam in his eye, that on the drive back across the country, some place near Elko, Nevada, he decided to "make an honest woman out of your mother". When he got back to New York, he married my mother, moved to Florida, finished his BA, went to Harvard, and became the Curator of Maritime History at the Smithsonian in 1969. He never looked back except to the time in 1947 when he was asked to take a part in returning the Exiles to The Land.

I always wondered who took command instead. Now, I know.

Blessed is the Righteous Judge. God should send comfort and peace to his family, and to all mourners in Israel.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Dear Jim

By Daniel Jackson

James Carter requested forgiveness for "any negative stigma he may have caused Israel" over the years. Using the traditional formula for expressing reqret from the Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah liturgy of confession, James said he was sorry for giving Israel a bad name.

"As I would have noted at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but which is appropriate at any time of the year, I offer an Al Het for any words or deeds of mine that may have done so," Carter wrote, referring to the prayer said on Yom Kippur in which Jews ask God for forgiveness for any sins.
Yawn. Abraham Foxman, of the director of the Anti-Defomation League, sums up the general reaction.
"We welcome any statement from a significant individual such as a former president who asks for Al Het," Foxman said. "To what extent it is an epiphany, time will tell. There certainly is hurt which needs to be repaired."
Jim needs to understand that in Jewish Law and practice, the mere expression of words is not enough. Words are words, but deeds matter. What Jim needs to know is that in Jewish Law, verbal abuse is equivalent to physical abuse. Words DO hurt and are the equivalent of sticks and stones.

In fact, the laws governing the process of T'shuvah require that the person seeking forgiveness first express a desire to correct the wrong and then, on three separate occasions when presented with the same opportunity to damage (as before) not only refrains from damage but actively seeks to do the opposite. Like Foxman, this is something I want to see.

Finally, Jim really has shown his total lack of understanding of the Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah liturgy of confession. The focus of the confessional prayers are to "get right" with God; they do not, however, expiate our obligations to get right with our fellow people. Damages to person additionally involve God. To get right ONLY with God defeats the purpose of the confession.

I would suggest that Jim take more than a homiletic view of Psalms 115 verse 16, which from the Hebrew loosely translates that "The Heavens, the Heavens are for God; but the earth He has given to personkind." Damages against people involve getting right with people.

Unlike Lust, verbal abuse is open, costly, and inflammatory. Jim's hateful speech has had indirect and quantifiable damages. Asking God for forgiveness is a start. But unless Jim wants to commit the Sin of making a False Oath before God, he had better step up to the plate and make atonement to his fellow people.

The Rabbis of Old would have demanded that Jim start with his most recent written trash. A public repudiation and recall would be a good start. Why not build a hospital in Sederot or personally liberate Gilad without setting free murderers and terrorists?

So, Jim; what are you really made of?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Airlines to face new fines

By Donald Sensing

The Obama administration has notified airlines that beginning 120 from now they will be fined more than $27,000 per passenger when an airliner sits on the tarmac for more than three hours.

The new rules released by the Transportation Department would prohibit airlines from leaving passengers stuck on a runway for more than three hours, and would require that passengers be provided snacks and water during such delays. Airlines would be fined $27,500 per passenger for violations. Currently the Transportation Department issues fines for tarmac delays on case-by-case basis.
Exemptions from the fine will be allowed for safety or security reasons.

I'm undecided whether the fines will be a good idea. On the one hand, a lot of delays like that really are the airlines' fault. Consider, for example, morning departures from Los Angeles.
At any given time, the most number of runways dedicated to take-offs is two. But if you look at airline schedules, there are currently more than 35 take-offs scheduled for 8 a.m. each morning. Assuming at least a two- to three-minute minimum time separation between each take-off, you don’t have to be a member of Mensa to figure out that a lot of folks will not be taking off at 8 a.m.
So why do airlines schedule so many flights to leave at exactly the same time, knowing that it is impossible for all them to do so?

Continue reading after the jump.

Last day of Fall, 2009

By Daniel Jackson

This can't be good: I leave the house and immediately think of the Mamas and the Papas.

Of course, "all the leaves are GONE" here, but BROWN here.

Nevertheless, the late afternoon skies are a thing to behold.

The new moon gives just a hint of the month to come.

Oh well, the times, they are a changinG.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Chanukah Tour with Travelujah

By Daniel Jackson

Last week, as part of my work with the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, I attended a day-long tour of Chanukah related sites sponsored by Travelujah, a Christian faith-based social network that connects people to the Land of the Bible.

The tour started at the Neot Kedumim Biblical Landscape Reserve, examined several historical sites associated with the ancient city of Modi'in, the home of the Maccabbees, culminating in a visit to an ancient synagogue from the first century CE. I was the featured speaker at the last site.

Neot Kedumim is absolutely impressive when one considers that all of the trees visible on and adjacent to the reserve were planted since the state of Israel was established.

Centuries of overgrazing and firewood consumption denuded the landscape of foliage; indeed, many parts of the region still suffer from the same ecological tragedy of the commons.

Since independence, the folks at Neot Kedumim have painstakingly replanted the 620 acre site with trees, bushes, and grasses that thrived during the Biblical period. Every species mentioned in the Bible can be found growing throughout the reserve.

Most relevant to Chanukah is the impressive display of olive oil production technology. After looking at the different means of crushing, pressing, and extracting olive oil, it is not difficult to understand why the Maccabbees were interested in finding clean, pure oil to burn in the menorahs of the rededicated Temple.

The earliest methods of crushing olives was in a trough carved from the bedrock; the olives were crushed by feet and roller and the oil was collected from basins next to the site.

Later methods utilized large grindstones donkey powered.

The mash made by the grindstone was collected in net bags, stacked one on top of the other, and crushed in a large press.

This one here is from the 19th century but the technology was clearly known in Biblical times.
The donkey was especially patient.

The location of the tombs of the Maccabbees as well as where the site of their hometown of Modi'in lies is far from certain. Dr. Shimon Gibson, the renowned archaeologist, was on hand to discuss these issues as well as suggest several possible contenders. We visited the three main sites. After ruling out the first, we traveled to his personal favorite on a hilltop next to the modern city of Modi'in.

According to the Talmud, the city of Modi'in was the jumping off point for pilgrims heading up to the Temple in Jerusalem. Leaving from the central market in the morning, pilgrims would walk through these hills and could reach the Temple by early afternoon with enough time to make their afternoon offerings.

Josephus writes that Shimon, the surviving Maccabbee brother, built a large tomb structure in Modi'in to honor his father and brothers, which could be seen by ships at sea. From Professor Gibson's site, looking west, the sea is clearly visible.

The Deputy Mayor of Modi'in arrived and took us to different site. Adjacent to that site are the foundations to an ancient synagogue from the First Century CE. The site is closed but for this occasion, the Deputy Mayor opened it for the group. In fact, we were told that this was the first group to visit the site.

There, it was my turn to discuss the Maccabbees from textual sources, Christian and Jewish, as well as the spiritual significance of Chanukah in contemporary terms.

We learned about the events surrounding the Chanukah story from selections from the Book of Maccabbees, Josephus, and the Talmud. Our discussions focused on the lack of reference to the Chanukah lights in the first two sources and the lack of reference to the military victories in the latter source.

The rabbis were not fans of the Hasmonian dynasty that emerged from the Maccabbees; however, the timeless theme of the Light of the Torah was seen as an eternal miracle, renewed after neglect and persecution, that was clearly of Divine origin.

For me, it was an incredible honor and experience to give one of the first rabbinic talks in this synagogue in almost 2000 years.

Many thanks to Elisa Moed for inviting me and to Shmuel Jackson for carrying my books and handouts (and the last two images).

Friday, December 18, 2009

Avatar first impressions - the Sioux win this time

By Donald Sensing

Lengthy update added and some new text in the previous body also.

I went with two-thirds of my kids to see a 9 a.m. showing of Avatar - the 3D Imax version. Since I have to leave again shortly, a full review will have to wait. But here are snapshots.

First, the story line works, though it is exceedingly simple and derivative. Alfred Hitchcock always said that before you get a cast or a crew, you have to have a good story. So what is the story line of Avatar? It is: boy meets girl, boy wins girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Which is to say that the story lines in both the love story thread and the grand concept are wholly unoriginal. I don't mean that adversely, just to point out that the story takes you no place you haven't already been, many times over. But Cameron makes it work anyway.

In the meantime, there is a huge war going on. So the grand concept is this:

Sioux Indians Na'vi aliens of Jewish descent living on an extraterrestrial Black Hills called "Pandora" are rescued from oblivion by Kevin Costner Sam Worthington, as Jake Scully, who survives his first contact with the Na'vi by the intervention of Pocohontas Neytiri, a Na'vi woman. Meanwhile, Robert DuVall Stephen Lang, as a one-dimensional colonel in command of the white strike force, plays opera drinks coffee while helicoptering in to blow up the Na'vi.

The Sioux win this time and everyone lives happily ever after. Except the white guys, who pretty much don't live, period, happily or otherwise.

I said "white guys" because the cast of this movie makes NASCAR look like a melting pot. After the movie ended, the three of us could identify only one, count 'em, one black actor, and his role vanished after the first few minutes. There are a few Hispanic actors, including a human heroine, but apart from the blue Na'vi there really are no characters of color in the film.

Whoops, time is short. Quick hits:

1. The 3D works well, but not perfectly. I'd like to see the movie again, but in 2D, mainly to avoid the sometime technical distractions of the 3D process. The theater issued a motion-sickness caution at first, but it never bothered me, and I didn't notice anyone else bothered, either.

2. Extra points if you can explain why I said the Na'vi are "of Jewish descent."

3. There are rips in the music track evocative of "Enemy at the Gates" and "Glory." As James Horner is the composer for those two movies, too, it's not surprising; Horner has something of a reputation for reusing his work. But this is not a bad thing. I like his work. I think the soundtrack for "Glory," for example, is deeply moving in many places. It's closing credits perfectly cap the movie. So at least Horner had to good sense to reuse some of his best work.

4. The special effects are so incredibly well done and so well integrated into the whole movie project that you hardly remember you're watching a movie "set" that usually is nothing but special effects. There are several simply breathtaking sequences of flying on Pandora. The individualization of the Na'vi characters is superb, too. It is well that the FX are so fantastic because the story line is so templated and every character (including Scully and Neytiri) so shallowly scripted that without the FX the movie would probably be rather boring.

5. Probably should explain that the white guys are all former Marines or former soldiers in the employ of a company strip mining "unobtanium" on Pandora. What is unobtanium, you ask. Wikipedia:

Unobtainium is a facetious term for any extremely rare, costly, or physically impossible material needed to fulfill a given design for a given application.
So it's not Cameron's invention; he probably used the term as an inside joke. Unobtanium serves the role of Hitchcock's "McGuffin" - a dramatic device that causes the conflict of the story. It's worth $20 million per kilogram back on earth (of which probably $19.999998 million is charged to transportation and labors costs!).

Overall, I give the show

eight out of 10 raging mad Marine colonels of the clan of Jarhead.

Update: Is Avatar really a left-wing fantasy about the evils of imperial Amerikkka? Jeffrey Wells thinks so:
The political import of Avatar -- and there's no waving this aspect away because it's right in your face start to finish, and especially in the third act -- is ardently left. It is pro-indigenous native, anti-corporate, anti-imperialist, anti-U.S. Iraq War effort, anti-U.S.-in-Afghanistan (and anti-troop-surge-in-that-country, or strongly against the thinking of President Barack Obama and Gen. Stanley McChrystal), anti-rightie, anti-Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld, etc.
I don't think all that is in the movie to the degree that Wells claims - I suspect he's seeing the movie through that kind of lens and hence is being much more eisegetical than exegetical. But let's remember that movies are meant to be individually interpreted.

My take is that the grand concept line that I explained above is deliberately modeled on the Indian Wars of the Old West. That accounts for a cast that is almost as white as wind-driven snow - with modern sensitivities Cameron couldn't bring himself to fold into the mercenary army a paradigm of the all-black Buffalo Soldiers cavalry unit of renown.

More discussion (with spoilers, be forewarned!) after the jump.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

December Night in the Judean Hills

By Daniel Jackson

The annual arrival of the Geminid meteor shower put everything on hold. That was fine for Sunday and Monday nights, but last night I just wanted to check out the Judean Hills above the Dead Sea. Began my investigations about 2300 hours.

Yep. Still there after all these years.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


By Daniel Jackson

In the Mishneh Torah, the great rabbi Moses Maimonides explains both the reason and obligation of Chanukah.

When the Jews overcame their enemies and destroyed them, they entered the Sanctuary; this was on the 25th of Kislev. They could not find any pure oil in the Sanctuary with the exception of a single cruse. It contained enough oil to burn for merely one day. They lit the arrangement of candles from it for eight days until they could crush olives and produce pure oil.

Accordingly, the Sages of that generation ordained that these eight days, which begin from the twenty fifth of Kislev, should be commemorated to be days of happiness and praise [of God]. Candles should be lit in the evening at the entrance to the houses on each and every one of these eight nights to publicize and reveal the miracle.

[Mishneh Torah, Laws of Chanukah, Chapter 3, Halachah 2 to 3]
So, after lighting our menorah, I ventured up to Gefen Street to see how my neighbors lit.

All lit properly.

The highway in the background is Route 60, which traces the Way of the Patriarchs from Shechem (Nablus) to Be'er Shevah. Efrat is on the Hevron--Bethlehem segment, as seen here.

I never noticed until tonight that my neighbors, to "glorify the mitzvah", built a special window for their menorah.

If they could, they would keep the lights on their front porch all year long, too.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Chanukah Somayach

By Daniel Jackson

Tonight is the first night of Chanukah as well as Shabbat. I cannot take a picture of the menorah ablaze; so, here's the pre-game version.

Have a great week end--more light is on the way!

Why there will be no Christmas Kindle

By Donald Sensing

The idea of reading eBooks appeals to me because I am out of library space in my home. I could get yet another bookshelf but there is really no place to put it. Earlier this month my older brother received a Kindle for his birthday. I haven't seen it (or any other) yet, but he described its utility to me a some length on a phone call. My wife had already asked whether I might want one for Christmas -- she's tired of finding books I am reading laying around; I might have a different book for most rooms in the house. I have no problem following three or four books at one time so I just leave one in the den, another in the living room, one in my home office and one in the ... well, you know.

So eBooking has a certain attraction. I can have many different books on the electronic reader with the Kindle keeping track of which page I am on in each. But would the Kindle be right for me? I scoped the reviews of the three main readers and pretty quickly rejected the Sony eReader. Reviews said it wasn't near up to the Kindle's snuff.

But Barnes & Noble has a new e-reader called the Nook that reviewers said was kicking the Kindle's pedestal and maybe knocking it over. I'm not getting a Nook, either, but I think its feature set is superior to the Kindle's. And B&N has a million ebook titles while Amazon has "only" 360,000 for the Kindle. Obviously I'll never exhaust either catalog but it comes down to the breadth of choices.

Kindle and Nook both have a free reader for both PCs and Macs. I installed both vendors' downloads and they are very good. Although a notebook computer's screen is not the e-ink used by the two e-readers, the typeface and clarity of the PC readers' display was superior to that of most web pages.

Both Amazon and B&N also offer a free e-reader download for the iPhone and iPod Touch. I downloaded B&N's reader onto my son's Touch (with permission), downloaded a free book and was very impressed again with the clarity of the display the readability. Obviously, not as much text per screen, but a flick of the finger from right to left turns the page with the silky smoothness Apple has perfected for its handhelds.

But wait, there's more! B&N also has a free e-reader for Blackberry. (Amazon's is "coming soon.") So I installed it onto my Tour. I was surprised again at how well the text displayed. A press of the trackball turns the page instantly. Because the Tour's screen is so small (but thankfully hi-res) I pressed the trackball a lot to get through the first chapter of Dracula -- it was 96 screens long!

Once a book is added to your accounts library at either vendor, you can download it to any device registered on the account with no additional charge. So I have my small library available to read on either my computer or my Blackberry. The Kindle even lets you sync between the Kindle and your computer so that if you stop reading a book on page 75 on the Kindle, you can pick it up right there on the computer. I didn't see this feature on B&N's site for the Nook.

However, neither a Nook nor a Kindle will be under the tree for me this month. Their drawback is that they are single-purpose devices. Reading books or mags is all you can do with either of them. (They also will play sound files of various sorts.) Frankly, at $259 and $249 respectively, they are just too limited in capability for the price.

For $15 more than the Nook I can get a 32gb iPod Touch from Amazon, download both the Kindle and Nook's readers to it free, and read away with great ease. I can buy books from both vendors rather than be limited to the vertical-only vending for either device. And the Touch will do a lot more than serve as an e-reader. (I'd get an iPhone but am slaved to Verizon, besides, AT&T's 3G coverage ends 40 miles from my home.) The Touch's wi-fi works for full web browsing. The Kindle does not have wi-fi. The Nook does, but only for downloading eBooks, not for browsing. (Both the Kindle and the Nook download materials over a built-in cell phone connection no extra charge.)

The Touch will store and play music, of course, as do the e-readers but also movies and there is a ginormous library of apps, including Documents to Go for word processing and office software functions. And I can watch TV on it with my Slingbox. In short, the Touch is not as good a reader than either the Kindle or the Nook, mainly because of screen size, but has so much more total capability for basically the same money that I can't make sense of getting either the Kindle or the Nook.

What do you think? Comments on, please read comments policy.

Update: Here's a hands-on review of the Nook that generally agrees with my impressions, although I have never touched one. One thing the review points out is that despite the overall size of both Kindle and Nook, the reading area of their screens is only about the size of a 3 by 5 index card, which is not much larger than the screen of a Touch or iPhone.

Update: Glen Reynolds emailed this morning, "I actually like my iPod Touch better" than the Kindle.

A commenter gently reproves me for my observation that the Kindle and Nook are single-purpose devices. What do you think a printed book is, he asks. Except there is no book on my shelf that I paid $249 for. I don't dispute that the Kindle and Nook are e-reader hedgehogs ("the hedgehog knows how to do only one thing, but it does it extremely well"). For me that is simply too much money to buy in to read eBooks when there is a free and almost as good alternative.

As for the optical advantages of e-ink, I'll not dispute it but OTOH, reading several chapters on my Blackberry didn't bother my eyes. Haven't tried it on the PC reader. Maybe the Blackberry's display, though backlit, is closer to e-ink than to my notebook PC's display, I dunno.

However, the many comments are generally very informative and insightful. Anyone considering buying an electronic reader would do well to consider them.

G-Man: Corruption destroying America's soul

By Donald Sensing

A 27-year FBI agent specializing in investigating graft and corruption by public officials says that it's getting worse in America.

Special agent John Gillies, who has led major anti-corruption drives during his 27-year career with the bureau, focused his words primarily on crooked financiers and unscrupulous officials. ...

Gillies described corruption as the number one crime in the US and disclosed that public corruption investigations had jumped by 20% over the last five years and 25% in the last year.
And "transgressions" by Tiger Woods don't help matters, says Gillies.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

It's Okay, Guys, We Still Love You

By Daniel Jackson

Those paragons of neutrality, the Swedes, have been pushing everybody's buttons recently with their blueprint for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Most Israelis have tuned out the static, except for those paid to listen. Last Tuesday, however, Israel retaliated with such force that the fallout has seriously rocked Israeli society to its core.

Earlier Tuesday, Foreign Ministry officials responded with harsh criticism to the European declaration, saying that Sweden, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, had failed.

"The peace process in the Middle East is not like IKEA furniture," one official said, making a reference to the do-it-yourself Swedish furniture chain. "It takes more than a screw and a hammer, it takes a true understanding of the constraints and sensitivities of both sides, and in that Sweden failed miserably."

I have spent hours reassuring the couch, chairs, and cabinets in the Living Room that we still loved them and we were not going to send them away.

On the other hand, the bookshelves in the Study brood in shame.

Nice going.

Taking Stock

By Daniel Jackson

I got to thinking about life expectancy on the eve of my sixtieth birthday. Back in graduate school, life expectancy was bandied about as an indicator of how well societies take care of their own. It's sort of like a society IQ with all of the caveats, dirty laundry, and defenders that goes with those indicators of, well, something. So, too, with life expectancy at birth (or, for that matter, age specific life expectancy.

I have been researching life-table estimates of end-of-life health care costs using the Human Life-Table Database. Lots of countries to look up and compare estimates of life-expectancy at birth. I took the latest life-table available and sorted the countries in descending order for men.

It's really hard to think of Russia and Ukraine duking it out with Greenland for better quality of life--and losing--but, then again, Greenlanders are better on ice. Aside from the relative position of Israeli Arabs and US white men, there really are no surprises here other than how poorly Israel's neighbors are distributing wealth and services to their polity.

Sobering reading; but par for a 60th birthday.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Around Ben Yehuda Street

By Daniel Jackson

Today was a glorious day. The sun shown through broken clouds, the rain held back until late afternoon, and the temperature was moderate. A perfect day to wander about Ben Yehuda Street.

I came downtown to Ben Yehuda Street to get the sensor on my camera cleaned (I'm a wimp, it's true) and to visit my buddies Michael and Max at Pomeranz Book Sellers.

What I love about Ben Yehuda Street is there is always someone singing, playing, schnorring, or just plain lolly-gagging about.

There used to be a guy in sack cloth, with long white hair and a matching beard--even a large sign that read REPENT. But I haven't seen him in a while.

Back in 2001 to 2003, this place was a battlezone. Suicide bombers regularly chose this location as their final destination. There was supposed to be a Starbucks around the corner, but it never opened. They thought it was too dangerous. Except for them, everyone else stayed. At the end of this street, and to the right was the S'barros Pizza where some dude walked into to a full store and killed a dozen people. S'barros rebuilt the place and reopened.

It was my practice in those days, to come downtown as soon as possible and walk around Ben Yehuda in solidarity. Then the Fence went up. No more suicide bombers. But, my solidarity to the place continues.

I meandered past the Cafe Hillel on Hillel Street, resisting (successfully) to go inside to grab an Americano.

Instead, I made tracks to visit Max and Michael. Max was on the phone and Michael was in the back dealing with an order, so I ran upstairs.

I love coming to Pomeranz Books if only to oogle the book covers. Yeah, yeah; I know you cannot judge a book by its cover; but, the symphony of book jacket colors is a thing to behold.

As long as I stay out of their way and do not talk to them, they can get their work done, they'll let me stay.

Otherwise, we laugh too much, talk too loud, and drive customers away. Then the boss, Shira, tells me to shoo. Michael is married to Shira.

Later, guys.

Monday, December 7, 2009

68 years

By Donald Sensing

reposted from Dec. 7, 2005

Last May my wife and I traveled to Oahu. On Memorial Day Sunday we visited the USS Arizona Memorial. The ship was sunk on Dec. 7, 1941, along with many others.

This is the original ship's bell of USS Arizona, recovered from the sunken vessel and now on display at the entrance to the National Park Service pavilion across the channel from the memorial, below.

Looking from the visitor's pavilion to the site of the sunken Arizona, topped abeam by the memorial.

A forward turret barbette of USS Arizona projects upward from the water. Across the channel is the hospital ship Mercy. Oil still seeps from the battleship; the oil spots have been nicknamed "black tears of the Arizona." A half million gallons of fuel oil are estimated to have sunk within the vessel. At the present rate of seeping a quart per day it will be centuries before it all leaks out. The oil bunkers seem to be in good enough condition not to spring large leaks for decades, minimally, and probably a few hundred years.

Read the rest here.