Sunday, April 27, 2008

Denver Could Be a Real Riot

What are the chances of a riot at the Democratic National Convention in Denver this August, and who would riot and why?

A lot has been said about Al Sharpton promising "trouble in Denver" so I went back to find the original quote. Sharpton was a guest on Bill O'Reilly's The O'Reilly Factor TV show. O'Reilly asked him what would happen if the superdelegates picked Clinton in a backroom deal, overturning Obama's leads in delegates and the popular vote:

Sharpton: Well, you not only would see people like me demonstrating, you may see us talking about whether or not we can support that ticket.

That audio clip was played on the Rush Limbaugh radio show:

Rush: OK, what does demonstrating mean? The Reverend Sharpton is the one who put this notion out there.

And during the same show:

Rush: Call Al Sharpton, Lisa. He's the one that established the whole concept of trouble brewing in Denver if he didn't get his way.

So, I don't see that Sharpton actually used the word "riot" or said there would be "trouble in Denver." That was Rush paraphrasing him, and now, all over the internet, people are quoting Sharpton as threatening a riot or promising "trouble in Denver." But it was Limbaugh paraphrasing Sharpton that somehow got turned into an actual quote.

I don't mean to place myself in the uncomfortable position of defending Al Sharpton. Rush may well be right that Sharpton means to imply "trouble" and "riots" without actually saying anything more than the word "demonstrating," which always happens at conventions anyway.

Rush, for his part, has said about rioting in Denver:

Rush: Now, I am not inspiring or inciting riots. I'm dreaming. (Singing to the tune of White Christmas) "I'm dreaming of riots in Denver."...But the fact is that the Democrat Party has members in it that have already said, "There will be riots," or something to that effect. Al Sharpton.

The possibility of Sharpton causing "trouble" in Denver is real for no reason except that Obama could be denied the nomination by the superdelegates. The feeling is growing, especially after the Pennsylvania primary, that Obama can't win the white vote in the general election. And I think the reason is that when the primaries started, white voters wanted to believe that Obama was the heir to Martin Luther King Jr., but now, after revelations of his association with William Ayers (the terrorist from the Weather Underground), his pastor Jeremiah Wright, and the fallout over bittergate, whites now see him as more like Malcolm X, and that is unacceptable.

Even so, it may be too late for Democrats to not nominate Obama, given the uproar that would likely result, and the loss of the black vote--even though he may already be terminally damaged and a guaranteed loser in November.

Recreate68 is the closest anyone is coming to openly threatening riots, although their website doesn’t use that word. They do invoke the year 1968, the year of the Chicago riots at the Democratic National Conference. They do invoke the word “revolution” as well. To quote from their website:

In 1968 there existed a spirit of change, the Paris Rebellion, Prague, Chicago, Vietnam, etc. People believed, around the world, that they were capable of taking over the institutions that controlled their lives. The smell of revolution was in the air. Over 1 million college students openly identified as revolutionist. People believed that through mass participation in the movement, it was possible to wrest control from the elite power-holders. They were not willing to accept the loss of their human and civil rights…We intend to recreate that need for change and mass participation in the events that shape and control our lives. We intend to recreate that revolutionary feeling and pick-up where our predecessors left off.

That's as close as you can come to threatening riots without actually using the word. Meanwhile Denver is importing additional security to "protect the city" during the convention.

The Silver Lining of Global Food Shortages

The UN food agency chief warned of civil wars resulting from the global food shortages. Sub-Saharan African countries are said to be most at risk. Yet, it is those same countries that would benefit most from regime change, as their leaders, corrupt to the core, are primarily responsible for the sad state of their citizens even after 50 years of humanitarian aid from the western world. Starvation? No. Regime change? Yes.

Global rice prices have doubled over the past year, and the finger is pointed at China and India for buying more and more food from abroad. Yet, those two countries are experiencing an explosion in diabetes and obesity.

Wal-Mart in the US and some British stores are rationing supplies of rice to protect dwindling supplies. Ted Turner predicted mass cannibalism by 2040 as a result of food shortages caused by global warming. Meanwhile, some Americans are hoarding food in anticipation of higher prices and shortages.

Yet, millions of Americans are obese, and so are millions of people around the world. The World Health Organization said over 75% of men and/or women over the age of 30 are overweight in countries such as Egypt, Argentina, Turkey, Greece, China, India, and South Africa. And the obesity of Americans is already well-known.

A "food shortage" would be a good thing for many people who eat too much. The vast majority of people I see on a daily basis in public places are overweight. Rising prices and scarce supplies would serve to jolt these people into healthier lifestyles.

The results of food shortages would be similar to the results of global warming. People who eat too much would be forced to eat less--a net benefit to their physical health. Unfortunately, those who already get too little to eat would suffer even more. As for global warming, the number of people who die in parts of the world that are too cold would decrease, but sadly the number of people who die in parts of the world that are already too hot would increase. So I see trades and balances in "food shortages" just as there are for global warming.

Of course, if it gets to cannibalism, we're all in trouble.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Smiley Face Murders

Two retired New York police detectives say they've discovered a link between the drownings of at least 40 men in 25 cities in 11 different states. The symbol of a smiley face was found at the various locations where the bodies went into the water. A nationwide criminal network is suspected of the murders.

How did the members of this network meet, if they really are from different parts of the country? Could they all have known each other at one time? This would suggest they went to school together or attended the same gathering--a music, political, or social festival. It could be they all come from the same geographic area and simply travel around the country seeking victims.

Many like-minded individuals first meet each other on the internet. This group could have met in a chat room or on a message board, thought of a plan, and moved their discussion to email or phone and they agreed to meet in person or made plans for killing their intended victims, even though each person may live in a different part of the country.

What motivates a network like this? They could be "unaffiliated" and simply share an evil mentality and desire to be serial murderers, perhaps having read about famous killers. They could also be Satanists or members of another religion. It's possible they are Islamist terrorists and are executing a plot hatched by their masters abroad.

Precious little is available on the idea of a criminal group meeting over the internet to engage in serial murder. Most crimes involving the use of the internet (other than cybercrime) are individual adults soliciting underage kids for sex, or adults soliciting other adults with a crime as the end result of the eventual personal encounter.

UPDATE: 8/29/08: A Smiley Face Victims Investigation Fund has been established to fund the efforts of Gannon and Duarte, and gather signatures to get the FBI involved in the investigation. A fundraiser will be held Sept. 5 in Latham, NY. Bill Szostak, who started the fund, plans a big announcement in October. Police in Albany say the death of Joshua Szostak was a “tragic accident.” Otherwise, there hasn’t been much news lately about the Smiley Face case.

UPDATE 5/29/08:
This morning Megyn Kelly, on the Fox News program America’s Newsroom, interviewed an investigator about the disappearance of Brandon Swanson, a 19-year-old from Marshall, Minnesota whose abandoned car was found in a ditch May 14 and hasn’t been heard from since. Gary Peterson, the investigator in charge of the Swanson search (he also led the search for Nick Garza, who was found dead Tuesday), said Swanson had been talking on his cell phone to his dad and the call ended abruptly. His phone continued to ring for several days afterwards. “Something interrupted this young man’s journey and we’ve got to find out what it was,” he said. Peterson can’t say if there is a connection to the Smiley Face deaths because he hasn’t been to the scene yet but will be there tomorrow. Peterson said he has a list of 104 missing young men who suddenly disappeared and some are found later in a river. “There is something that’s happening to these young men, be it an organized gang or some sort of a drug that renders them helpless.” Police say these are college kids getting drunk on Saturday night and they fall into a river, but “if they are so inebriated then how are they able to walk for a mile or two miles?”

UPDATE: 5/21/08: CNN prominently placed a story on their website with some noteworthy details. Nine of the deceased attended the University of LaCrosse. Detectives Gannon & Duarte believe the victims were given a drug that can’t be detected by an autopsy and were sometimes physically abused—the water washing away the evidence. But of course, all that is conjecture since there is no evidence to back it up. Duarte speculated on a profile of the killers “The type of person that would be the opposite [of the victims], not smart, someone not good in school, maybe doesn’t have a job, not popular.” A second congressman, Mike McNulty (D-NY), has asked the FBI to reopen the case.

UPDATE: 5/18/08:
The Mirror (UK) writes about the case and says the killings “bear a striking similarity to the cult Watchmen comic book series” in which a murder (or murders) was committed and the body found next to a blood-stained smiley face, which is a recurring symbol in the series.

UPDATE: 5/16/08:
Greta Van Susteren on Fox News hosted an extensive segment on the Smiley Face case. The death of Chris Jenkins, originally thought to be an accidental drowning, has been reclassified as a homicide. The Chief of Minneapolis Police was interviewed and said he has suspects, and “we know what we need to get those people charged.” The Chief isn’t sure if these suspects are affiliated in any way with others across the country, or if the other drowning are related, but told Gannon and Duarte the police need evidence to support that idea. He has “very good leads” on the suspects—not enough to bring charges yet, but enough to reclassify the case, and the coroner was supportive as well.

Mark Fuhrman, former LA Police Detective, was interviewed for his opinion. He saw the autopsy report and “I saw nothing that is even remotely close to a homicide.” The Jenkins case was an accident that was turned into a homicide “because of a jailhouse snitch.” The smiley faces can’t be tied to the deaths. That graffiti, he added, has been around since the 1960s and isn’t uncommon. Fuhrman said the smiley face is a common sign to put on ecstasy tablets, and ecstasy combined with cocaine or alcohol causes an overheating of the body, suggesting this might cause a person to dive into a river. Another guest pointed out there was no evidence ecstasy was present in the Jenkins case. Fuhrman closed his comments by saying “the investigators are too close to the investigation and they’ve lost their perspective.”

UPDATE 5/7/08: Searchers found a smiley face somewhere in the vicinity where Nicholas Garza was last seen alive, although it’s unclear from the story the distance between the place where Garza disappeared and the smiley face. That smiley face is supposedly similar to the ones found near other supposed victims in other cities. But is there really any connection? If a serial killer gang existed, wouldn’t they make it easier to find their “calling card” and link it to their crimes? Otherwise, why draw them? So far, it just doesn’t make much sense. Police are skeptical and say the smiley face is two years old. People magazine has a story advertised on its cover (no online link to the story yet). In the story, the police chief of Eau Claire says he asked Gannon and Duarte for specifics, but “I heard theory or conjecture, not evidence.” Police found a smiley face somewhere near the place where Tommy Booth disappeared. Gannon & Duarte now have their own website, but it is extremely disappointing in that there is very little information available there. I suspect people with an interest in their theory are expecting much more.

UPDATE 5/1/08: Law enforcement officials around the country remain skeptical of the Smiley Face serial murder theory. Albany police believe a smiley face near the place where Joshua Szostak was last seen is a prank. Iowa police believe Abel Bolanos’ drowning death was accidental and not a murder. South Bend police doubt Chad Sharon’s drowning death was anything but an accident. An editorial in the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram criticizes the two retired detectives, accusing them of presenting “shoddy” evidence and suggesting they are exploiting the victims’ families for their own purposes.

UPDATE 4/30/08: The FBI issued a statement late yesterday rejecting the Smiley Face murder theory. A New York Police Commissioner said there was no evidence linking two deaths in NY to serial killers. All the supposed victims were male and 93% were white, according to an Ohio-focused story. Gannon and Duarte suggest as a link that many of the victims have high GPAs, athletically-inclined, and well-liked, but it seems unreasonable on the face of it that murder victims would be selected based on those criteria, and at least one of the killers would have needed to know the victims personally and be familiar with their academic records and social status. A smiley face has been found in at least 12 of the crime scenes, so it would be helpful if the detectives would provide all the photos together on a website for comparison and commentary. At this point, the ball is in the court of the two detectives to provide more evidence linking the smiley faces with the victims, and the victims with a gang of killers. Apparently there are no marks on the bodies that would link them.

UPDATE 4/29/08:
Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner writes a letter to the FBI asking that they reopen the case. Minneapolis Police say they don’t have enough evidence to support a criminal prosecution, and they can’t confirm the Smiley Face murders theory. The New York Daily News has a story focusing on the NY angle.

UPDATE 4/28/08:
The Fox News story (see below) says the FBI and others don’t agree the drownings are linked and the work of a gang. I think that would depend whether there is evidence suggesting the victims were tortured, as has been suggested, and if so, were they tortured in the same way. And are the smiley faces the work of the same hand? A smiley face isn’t exactly an uncommon graffiti, and their appearance somewhere near the scenes of the crimes could be a coincidence. The public hasn’t been given enough information to know the answers to these questions. Shepard Smith discussed the story on Fox News today and a story is on the front page of their website. The Chicagoist has a story ("Did a Serial Killer Group Hit Chicago?") about Brian Welzien, who drowned in Lake Michigan several years ago, although from the story, I dont see that anyone found a smiley face near his body. And from KSTP: "Jenkins Investigation Goes National."

UPDATE 02/10/10: Several young males in the Midwest have gone missing recently but there is no "smiley face" link to any of them. It is unknown if foul play is involved. The missing include Jonathan Lacina, Sylvester McCurry, and Eric Peterson.

UPDATE 02/14/10: Police have closed the Dan Zamlen case and found no evidence of foul play. His mother found a street sign nearby with "smiley face" graffiti on it, but police said they found no connection.

UPDATE: 02/17/10: Serial drowner on the loose? The body of Craig J. Meyers was pulled from the Mississippi River in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Police believe alcohol is responsible for the area drownings, not foul play.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Nuclear Terrorism and the Fate of Humanity

Is nuclear terrorism preventable? Or is it simply a matter of time regardless of what we do?

Clifford May, writing in the National Review ("Thinking the Unthinkable"), opined that not enough is being done to stop another 9/11, and listed several prominent commentators with a pessimistic view of the topic.

Michael Levi, writing in Foreign Affairs ("Stopping Nuclear Terrorism"), said this is a "grave threat," and said there is no "perfect defense," but instead counseled the use of "imperfect tools" as part of an integrated defensive system.

In his paper "Preventing Nuclear Terrorism," Ken Berry said the U.S. and Russia bear the greatest responsibility for stopping nuclear terrorism because they possess most of the world's nuclear material, and he mentioned the Litvinenko case as an example of how easy it is to pass radiological material across national borders.

An article in US News & World Report a couple years ago said the U.S. government is monitoring Muslim sites in Washington, DC and other cities for nuclear radiation levels.

Stories about suitcase nukes already brought into the U.S. by way of the Mexican border made the rounds a couple years ago, but if terrorists really had usable nukes within our borders, they would have used them by now.

In his book Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, Graham Allison presents a ten-point program for countering the threat of nuclear terrorism, but I am left unconvinced that his program is realistic or achievable, thereby negating the idea that it is ultimately preventable.

Earlier this year, in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, William Perry, and Sam Nunn called for a nuclear-free world, which surely must be one of the most difficult tasks in the modern world to not only achieve, but to sustain. Realistic? Not any time soon.

How long can the U.S. stay one step ahead of the terrorists and prevent them from detonating a nuclear bomb within our borders? Twenty years? The other threat on the horizon is an artificially created killer virus that could wipe out all human life on the planet.

A nuclear war between the U.S. and China or Russia would result in far more casualties than just one terrorist nuke, and the threat to humanity would be much greater.

Stephen Hawking, the famed astrophysicist, recently spoke at George Washington University and speculated on why we haven't discovered any advanced intelligent beings anywhere else in the universe. Intelligent life seems to be extremely rare. Is it because the conditions necessary to develop advanced life forms are rare--combined with the possibility that once aliens are smart enough to beam signals into space they are also smart enough to build nuclear bombs.

Do any and all advanced civilizations in the universe eventually destroy themselves with nuclear and/or biological weapons? It would be helpful if only we had God's view of the universe and knew the statistics that have already played out: how many civilizations reached the nuclear stage and how many survived? Is the answer zero?

Is the Earth playing out a Greek tragedy in which the final result seems inevitable? Can we one day develop a fool-proof, invincible system for stopping a terrorist attack with nukes before they achieve the ability to produce that attack? Can we stop China or Russia from destroying us? It is a race for our survival. Can we win it? Has anyone anywhere in the universe ever won it? Of course, it makes just as much sense to ask whether any civilization has ever lost it.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Zawahiri's Press Conference

Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri decided to play Dear Abby and invited online questions from jihadists. The questions and answers have provided information to counter-terrorism groups, such as the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Their website includes a new report, "The Power of Truth," as well as all the original questions.

Commentators have noticed Zawahiri's contradictory statements on the killing of innocents, a thorny issue and one that the jihadists have expressed discomfort. Zawahiri can say al Qaeda doesn't kill innocent people, but the jihadists know they do, hence all the questions about it. Zawahiri said if it happens, "it is out of necessity," but the reasons for the "necessity" are what are really being questioned.

Zawahiri did not address many of the questions, and was evasive on others. Some questioned why al Qaeda has not struck Israel, and his response seems unpersuasive. Commentators have suggested Zawahiri has a strategy to discredit Iran in the eyes of jihadists by suggesting they are engaging in a quiet deal with the US on Iraq.

Given that many of Zawahiri's responses are evasive, untrue, and filled with bluster, the question must be asked whether he has committed a mistake with this online press conference.

Has Zawahiri damaged the cause of himself and al Qaeda? The idea was to allay fears, rally the troops and appear strong, but many of his responses seem as if they would be unsatisfactory to jihadists. Wasn't this exercise a failure? The questions and the answers suggest a deep chasm between al Qaeda and the jihadists. How long can it be before Zawahiri and al Qaeda are no longer seen as leaders of the worldwide jihad movement? The methods and objectives of al Qaeda seem at odds with his questioners.

A new report claims Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden are in Waziristan and can do little except buy their survival from local tribal leaders--although some experts are questioning that judgment. If Waziristan isn't a good home, then why stay there. But then, where would they go that would be safer?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Masque of the Digital Death

Reading the commentators who extol paper and proclaim its immortality, I think of the entire scenario in terms of Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”:

Digitization encroached on all aspects of life. Nothing on Earth could escape its grip. But the Paper Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. He gathered the most vociferous paper advocates from around the world and brought them to his abbey. They bolted the gate shut so no one and nothing could enter or leave.

It was folly to grieve or to think. The paper people spent their days and nights in constant revelry. A toast to paper! Hear! Hear! Paper is eternal! They drank and they danced, they read out loud from the Paper Prince’s extensive collection of paper books, until the midnight tolling of the grandfather clock in the furthest chamber caused them all to hesitate for a moment, but with the end of the chimes they resumed their gaiety.

A masked figure appeared at the party holding what appeared to be an ebook reader. Outraged, the Paper Prince and his paper courtiers chased the figure to the furthest chamber where it turned and held up the reader for all to see, and one by one dropped the revelers. And digitization held illimitable dominion over all.

Paper is not permanent, paper is not forever, paper is not eternal—but you knew that already. I think everyone accepts that, except for a handful of librarians and book publishers. Yes, it will hang around in a much smaller way for a long time, but that’s beside the point. Paper currently dominates the book market. Bowker estimates roughly 300,000 book titles published per year in the US alone. Paper is Prospero—I mean, paper is king. But the long-term trends are clear and there is no persuasive reason to believe they will or should reverse themselves.

William Powers’ paper “Hamlet’s Blackberry: Why Paper is Eternal,” has left me even more convinced of the eventual death of paper, as I find his reasoning and conclusions unsatisfactory and unconvincing.

Sadly, it is the people within the book industry itself (librarians, publishers) that are often the most short-sighted when peering into the future, as the ones I read seem to look into their crystal balls no more than a few years or decades ahead, while I think in terms of millennia or billenia (does God think in terms of mere decades or centuries? Then why should I?). How will we read or produce paper books if forced off the Earth at some distant point in time and relocate to a planet incapable of growing trees or paper. Producing technology such as workable computers under such circumstances is a far safer bet.

Written communication existed long before paper and will exist long after. My own prediction for the date of the Death of Paper is 4,000 AD, give or take a few centuries.

I prefer reading a novel on my Sony reader to a paper book. I’ve read supposed experts on the internet who say there is no one like that, but they are transferring their own likes and fears onto everyone outside themselves. I’ve come to enjoy the portability and the compactness of the reader, as opposed to a cumbersome book. Yes, I prefer the reader to even just one print book, but of course it holds many and I can decide at a moment’s notice which of a hundred books to read.

A broader selection of ebook titles is needed, but publishers are starting to come on board—Penguin most recently. Ebook evangelists spill a lot of e-ink discussing an ePub standard for ebook files instead of the proprietary formats used by the Sony Reader and Amazon’s Kindle. Of course that would be a great idea and it’s a fun topic to think about and imagine how much easier everything would be, but it’s not happening anytime soon. The market needs to grow considerably before the time is ripe—and it will.

In the meantime, a toast to paper! It has served us well, but nothing inside the universe is eternal and eventually we’ll have to say goodbye as we move forward and say hello to new modes of communication.

The Olympics Have Always Been Political

At the risk of stating the obvious, there has not been an Olympics in modern history that wasn't political in nature. The games are a celebration of the entwining of sport and politics. The competitors represent countries, not themselves. The games are a public relations marketing bonanza for the home country. The Soviets, for one, used the games as a means of justifying their inferior political system to the world.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has now voiced his opinion cautioning against any mingling of the Olympics with politics. I doubt few people expect any real honesty from the leader of the UN anymore, but without politics, there are no Olympic games as we know them. Calls are growing for President Bush to not attend the Beijing games, but without the involvement of the world's politicians, why not just cancel the games? You can't have one without the other. Boycotts and political protests are common for no reason except that the Olympics are so thoroughly political and probably couldn't continue to be held if all vestiges of politics were somehow forcibly removed.

When Ban advised against mingling politics with the Olympics, he meant there should be no unsanctioned politics. The unstated undercurrent:

Politics are acceptable when introduced by the Olympic Committee, the host nation, or by other nations of sufficient magnitude (the US, Russia, etc.) that the politics is part of the power interplay between that country and the host nation.

Unacceptable politics is that introduced by "non-state actors" such as the Free Tibet activists. Their politics serve to undermine those on the acceptable list and diminish their power, and that's what it's all about--who has the power and the right to use it, and who doesn't.

Not only are the games irrevocably political, they are also religious. Christian church representatives have traditionally boycotted the ceremony of the lighting of the Olympic flame for the summer and winter games because a prayer to the pagan god Apollo is invoked.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Vince Flynn and the Thriller Genre

The thriller has come to dominate the fiction bestseller lists in recent years. For me, there is a huge difference between a thriller and a murder mystery, although I noticed Patrick Anderson in his book The Triumph of the Thriller lumps them both in. I would have thought by now that everyone recognizes a large and growing division between the two genres and would keep them separate.

A definition for "thriller" isn't easy to construct, as Thriller Press makes clear. But some common attributes come to mind:

1. A hero whose job it is to defeat the bad guys.
In military or political thrillers, this person is often given a background including previous experience in the CIA, FBI, Secret Service, Navy SEALs, Green Berets, etc., as this sort of resume lends gravitas to the hero. But in other types of thrillers, the hero could be an archaeologist, symbologist, professor, and other academic backgrounds.

2. Current real-world events play a central role.
The Israel-Palestinian conflict, secret religious cults, eco-terrorists, Islamist terrorists acquiring nuclear bombs, and similar plot twists.

3. The central idea could possibly be true or could happen, although it hasn't happened, or we don't really know if it's true or not.

Dan Brown exploited this with the Da Vinci Code, suggesting a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

4. Unbelievable plot elements.

I can't think of any thriller I've ever read that didn't include at least several of these, therefore it must be part of the genre.

5. A resolution where the hero wins in the end.

Although this can take several books to happen.

Are there more? No doubt. But I would like to see more commentators separate thrillers from mysteries as I see them as very different products.

I recently read Vince Flynn's Separation of Power and tried to figure out how a thriller works. What it needs to work, what it must include, and what it leaves out. I finished the novel with unanswered questions.

Flynn is quite a different writer from Tom Clancy, for example. Clancy will constantly place an object under his microscope and give his readers a level of detail few other writers can match. Flynn doesn't do that. He is a "surface" writer. He doesn't stop the narrative to give us an encyclopedia article about a piece of military equipment. He moves the narrative along, so he is easy to read in that respect.

Like other thrillerists, Flynn seems very poor when writing about relationships. In this novel, his dialog between Mitch Rapp and Ann Reilly is painful to read as it is nothing but cliches. And the character of Donatella Rahn, an ex-flame, almost destroys the entire novel, as she is so unbelievable as to almost upset the tightrope balance between the reader's suspension of disbelief and the author's weaving an aura of reasonable plausibility. At least a hundred times, Rapp asks Rahn to tell him who hired her. He sounds like a frustrated adolescent rather than a superhero. You just can't have your hero ask someone to "please tell me who hired you" a hundred times and expect readers to think of him as a strong person.

The idea that Saddam Hussein could have built a nuclear facility under a hospital seems plausible enough, but Flynn crosses way over the line of believability in so many other plot twists, especially during the last 50 pages or so. I found it all wildly implausible, but then, plausibility is something that isn't always needed in a thriller. Saddam and his hospital nukes, ok. Evil members of Congress, ok. The plausible stuff provides cover for the fantasy plot elements. And that seems to be fine with readers, as Flynn is one of the most popular thrillerists going, and his Mitch Rapp novels are now headed to Hollywood.

Flynn left me puzzled. A lot of what he writes seems plausible enough, but a lot of it isn't even close, either. So a thriller seems to operate on two levels and needs some parts to be believable while others are rather implausible. The two co-exist somehow, and the result is obviously a success.

Friday, April 18, 2008

World Domination As a Breeding Contest

The Vatican, somewhat ominously, announced recently that there are now more Muslims than Catholics in the world. A spokesman lamented that Catholic families are having fewer babies compared with Muslim families. A few years ago, Pope John Paul II encouraged Italians to have more babies and reverse the declining birth rate.

Vladimir Putin championed a 10-year program in Russia to reverse the slide in the birth rate by offering financial incentives. There are many more examples of leaders of western nations beseeching their citizens to have more babies.

In the current clash of civilizations, Islam is not considered a threat to the west because anyone perceives that it has a superior culture, or ideas that would be accepted by the west. Mohammed is a particular problem, and it is likely he will never be accepted by the west, his child bride being just one example. Islam is a threat not because of ideas but because of breeding. Muslims are moving to the west and outbreeding us. The endgame on the horizon says Muslims will outnumber those of a Christian and democratic heritage which would then be replaced with a Muslim/Sharia way of life.

It was recently announced in the news media that China and India will have the world's largest economies by the year 2050, outpacing the United States. China and India, not coincidentally, are the two most populous countries on the globe.

World supremacy, in terms of economies and cultures, is boiling down to a breeding contest, and the leaders of the western nations understand that they are on the losing side of it. As this outcome proceeds over the coming years, how far will western countries go it trying to reverse this outcome? Doing nothing more than beseeching the public to have kids isn't going to get the job done. But "interfering" with how people have babies and how many, in some sort of concerted, planned way, is viewed as against the western tradition. How far should governments go? Financial incentives? Much more than that?

If the idea is to retain supremacy and control, and keep China and India from becoming the new rulers of the world, reversing the birth rates would necessarily need to become the central issue for western democracies--more so than unemployment, social security, the economy, global warming, and so on. Future candidates for political leadership would need to voice detailed programs on how to compete--and win--in the modern world breeding contest. And any "revulsion" about initiating such programs would need to be overcome. A greater sense of urgency can be expected as 2050 marches ever closer, and as China, India, and the Muslims encroach further on western territory.

Will it happen? Is breeding the dominant issue of the next 40 years? Current trends tell us that those who breed the most inherit the Earth. How badly does the west want to hold onto power?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Mystery of Plain Label Books Solved!

Last year I wrote about Plain Label Books, which appears on the Google Books site. After looking further into the scant information available about that outfit, I've concluded that it's like Gertrude Stein's quip about Oakland: "There's no there there."

I think Plain Label Books (PLB) is a one-man outfit, owned and operated by one Daniel Oldis. He apparently took a bunch of digital book files from Project Gutenberg and put them all together on a CD, adding a few books of his own composition, and offered it for sale. It is available now at the Cafe Press site.

Google Books apparently purchased this CD from PLB, and they loaded the contents onto their own full-text book site. Why? It offered them digital copies of thousands of public domain books, allowing Google to quickly bolster its holdings while its own library digitization process rolled along.

I see no mystery in PLB, and the only question is about Google's behavior. Why keep the PLB covers on the books? Either there were legal reasons for that, or they decided they didn't really care to take the time to change them all to something like "Google Label Books." Sometimes, it's best to let someone else have the credit. And that's how PLB became famous beyond its dreams. Thousands, nay, millions of people around the world check out the Google Books site and many of those visitors see the PLB covers and wonder what's up. The answer is--nothing. Just Google cutting a few corners, that's all.

Realizing that there is nothing but a plain, blank slate behind this little business reminds me of Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone's vault and finding empty bottles, and little else. That's all there is? No dead bodies? No treasure trail? To paraphrase Eliot, the world of this little story dies not with a bang, but a whimper.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Spy Fiction

Spy novelist Charles McCarry has written about his career as a spy novelist in a recent article called "Intelligence in Fiction." McCarry's books were published back in the 70s but he is apparently undergoing a sort of renaissance because of the quality of his writings. The Tears of Autumn was an early JFK assassination conspiracy novel, suggesting the Ngo family of Vietnam killed him in revenge for the murders of the Ngo brothers.

Intelligence work, McCarry tells us, is much different than that portrayed in novels, and bears no resemblance to its popular conception in the public's mind as a sexy, high-status occupation. On the contrary, intelligence is exceedingly boring. I suppose we could draw from this that the genius of writers like Ian Fleming was to turn the reality upside down and make something exciting where such did not really exist. The library profession awaits its own Ian Fleming.

Another article on spy fiction, "Spy Fiction, Spy Reality," written by another author a few years ago, criticized Tom Clancy and those of his school for neglecting the bureaucratic realities of the spy business, as Jack Ryan is never hassled over travel vouchers or caught arguing with headquarters whether he has the proper authority for a recruitment. Readers such as myself would answer, but that's why it's a thriller--Clancy and others mercifully leave out the boring details so that we may be encouraged to turn the next page. Novelists know it isn't cold, hard reality their readers want. The spy novelist or thrillerist spins an aura of reasonable plausibility and the reader enters into a willing suspension of disbelief.

McCarry touches on the subject of American leftists of the 1930s and 1940s eager to betray their country by offering their services to Soviet intelligence. And it reminded me of the current situation, where intelligence is so much in the news, in relation to the legal ability to eavesdrop on terrorists, or the legality of waterboarding, or the legality of Guantanamo, that has drawn so much national angst as a result of liberal elements in our modern society. The rights of terrorists, and their ability to operate freely to conduct terror, seem unlikely topics of prominent debate, especially so close after 9/11, or perhaps precisely because of 9/11. As an example of liberal coolness to intelligence, former CIA director James Woolsey said he could never get a one-on-one meeting with President Clinton during his tenure in that office.

Obama, Hillary, and others from the left side of the national stage continue the adversarial stance to the Intelligence Community that has always marked the left--not in the sense of spying for the Russians, but operating from a mindset that harmonizes--I would think uncomfortably and all too often--with the known policies and objectives of America's terrorist enemies, as well as those of states who see themselves as the enemies of the U.S. and the idea of democracy.

One doesn't need a background in espionage to write good spy novels, McCarry, an ex-CIA employee, says, but it does seem that way sometimes, when one thinks of the most famous writers, such as John Le Carre and Ian Fleming. McCarry makes the point that those didn't work in the business had a big hand in creating the conventions of the genre and that would seem to work in the favor of authors without a flashy resume.