Saturday, September 22, 2007

Oh Please Oh Please

There comes a time when the urge to post overcomes the fear of jinxing the team.

We've won nine of the last ten games.

We're a game and a half back of the Mets for the division championship.

We're half a game behind the Padres for the wild-card slot.

In an insanely tight National League, we're showing toughness and tenacity, and we're winning, even if it takes extra innings to do it.

Oh God. It could happen. We could actually go all the way. And even if we don't, we've played a hell of a season.

But wouldn't it be perfect, wouldn't it be so totally Phillies, if we actually ended up with championship rings in the year that we also hit the landmark of ten thousand lost games?

Friday, September 14, 2007

REVIEWS: Sarah Caudwell and the Murder Mystery

Eleven days ago, a friend of mine posted this quotation:

"You will be interested to hear, Hilary, that it had a most remarkable effect—even on Selena after a very modest quantity. She cast off all conventional restraints and devoted herself without shame to the pleasure of the moment."

I asked for particulars of this uncharacteristic conduct.

"She took from her handbag a paperback edition of Pride and Prejudice and sat on the sofa reading it, declining all offers of conversation."

- Sarah Caudwell, The Shortest Way to Hades

Clearly an author after my own heart.

I've already tracked down and read two of Caudwell's four novels, and I've ordered the other two. They are classic British whodunits: gently witty, mannered little mysteries. The amateur sleuth is Professor Hilary Tamar, an Oxford don of enormous erudition and indeterminate gender, and the sleuth's sidekicks are a group of young barristers. (A brief dictionary of British legal terms may be useful to those unfamiliar with the British terminology of solicitors, barristers, chambers, and clerks.

The Shortest Way To Hades (1985) is a murder mystery written in a voice reminiscent of Miss Manners. Instead of realism, it offers a delightful escape and some wicked intellectual pleasures, including dramatic irony. Although the characters lack depth, they are far from stock characters; most of them are, in their own polite way, quite subversive of stereotypes.

The Sibyl In Her Grave (2000) was published posthumously, and it's a far more accomplished, complex, and subtle book. Beneath the prim voice, there lies a warm acceptance of the varieties of human sexual behavior and a deep understanding of both friendship and love, including a particular variety of exploitive and destructive love. The dramatis personae include an elderly vicar, several financiers, a fortune-teller and her wretched drudge of a niece, a lovesick carpenter, and a physiotherapist specializing in pains of the lower back. There is also Aunt Regina, a retired interior decorator with a warm heart who occasionally hints at having had an adventurous life.

Especially given the artistry of her final novel, Ms. Caudwell's early death from cancer was a real loss. A classically educated barrister specializing in finance, she might seem like a stock character from the Golden Age of detective fiction, except that during those halcyon years her father was a prominent Communist journalist/soldier fighting in the Spanish Civil War and her mother was a nightclub singer in decadent Weimar Berlin. Just like Sally Bowles from Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories, for the very good reason that Jean Ross was the model for Sally Bowles—and thus for Liza Minnelli's character in Cabaret.

Jean Ross must have been a remarkable woman; she was also the inspiration for the classic song, "These Foolish Things.") But Jean Ross, the prototype for his fictional Sally Bowles, . . . turns out to be somewhat less vulnerable than portrayed by Julie Harris in I Am a Camera and Liza Minnelli in Cabaret. Says Isherwood: "Sally wasn't a victim, wasn't proletarian, was a mere self-indulgent upper-middle-class foreign tourist who could escape from Berlin whenever she chose." Perhaps not the easiest mother for an intellectual daughter, but also possibly a pleasure to spend time with -- something like Aunt Regina, in fact.

Caudwell's father, Claud Cockburn, sired another daughter (by his first wife) and three sons (all radical journalists like Daddy). He may not have been present much during Sarah's upbringing, since his eldest son by his third wife is only two years younger than she is. But surely some of his talent was passed on to her; in addition to decades of radical left reporting, he wrote Beat the Devil, source of the John Huston/Humphrey Bogart movie, and several other novels.

(Note for Mitford-spotters: Esmond and Decca took shelter in his apartment when they eloped together.) [Note for everybody: I hope to hell there's a dropped line in that essay, because I do not want to think about "stuffy Lord Redesdale giving birth to all those sparky girls."]

Her half-siblings (and their descendants) apparently share the family wit and activism: Her half-sister Claudia Flanders, OBE, was an advocate for the disabled. Her half-brother Alexander Cockburn has written columns for the Nation and the Wall Street Journal. Andrew recently published a slender but scandal-packed biography of Donald Rumsfeld. And youngest half-brother Patrick has written a number of books, including what looks like a fascinating exploration of polio, which includes a class analysis of the disease.

Life in the shadow of such powerful parents and talented siblings can be difficult. I have no idea whether Sarah was the quiet child or the one all the rest admired (or both). What I do know is that she wrote at least one good light mystery novel and one superb mystery novel. Her complete bibliography also lists several short stories and two acrostic puzzles.

It's not enough.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Scam Alert!

I got a juicy email this morning, promising me a chance at a good job:

Your online resume recently caught my attention, and I’d like to ask you to apply to fill one of the Public Relations Manager positions we currently have open. World Voice News is experiencing tremendous growth on a local, national and international level, and we’re looking for qualified candidates to help us meet our needs.

For this particular position, we’re looking for someone who has extremely strong written and verbal communication skills and two years of work experience. The ability to tailor a pitch to a particular media outlet is important, as is a strong knowledge of traditional and online resources for media contacts. Familiarity with network marketing and a bachelor’s degree in public relations are both preferred. If you do join the WVN PR team, you’ll be responsible for capturing media attention for the company and its clients, gaining positive exposure and enhancing visibility and credibility.

We offer a competitive compensation package, including an annual salary starting at $45,000 and ranging up to $60,000. Rapid advancement is possible for superior candidates. Our PR Managers are also eligible for medical, dental and optical insurance, paid vacation, tuition reimbursement and an expense account.

If you are interested in joining World Voice News as a PR Manager, please click on the link below and fill out the online application. If the link doesn’t work, copy and paste the address into your browser to go to the webpage.


I’ll contact you within one or two business days of receiving your online application. I look forward to discussing this position with you in more detail.

James Elkin
World Voice News

But the salary seemed wrong, I'd never heard of the business, and I am not a publicist. So I Googled and discovered that World Voice News is a phishing scam. Some victims have been blizzarded with spam, while others may have suffered much more serious losses.

Privacy experts and security officials at the job sites agreed that the three Web sites in question are "particularly clever" and "very slick." Internet Solutions, for example, requires users to create a password. Dixon said this was probably a ploy to collect access codes for online bank and e-commerce accounts. Most people use the same password for everything, security experts said, and criminals know that. . . . . The Instant Human Resources' Web site . . . required him to enter his name, address, phone number, and Social Security number and create a password.

Nasty stuff, whether you become a victim of identity theft or develop carpal-tunnel syndrome from deleting Viagra ads.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Fire Season

September is often the hottest time of the year in Northern California. During the cool, foggy summer, every morning starts with a soft overcast known as the marine layer, which may take hours to burn off. Although the bright summer days are never spoiled by rain or drizzle, they tend to stay cool. But September has the same exuberant sunlight without the swaddling layer of cloud to limit its force. During day after day of brilliant blue skies, the temperature climbs into the 80s or 90s or higher, and playful winds may gust to 30 miles an hour. It's still not as bad as the East Coast, where such temperatures are often accompanied by dead calm, high humidity, and nights that never cool off.

But this idyllic weather carries an implicit threat. The woods and hillsides are parched after a hundred days without rain. The heat dries them still further. A campfire, a stray cigarette, a lightning strike in the mountains (where thunderstorms occur), or a hot engine parked on tall grass can make a forest or a hillside explode into flame.

"Explode" in the right word, too: the chaparral that covers so many hillsides is a dense thicket of chamise, toyon, manazanita, and scrub oak bushes, all waxy with combustible oils, and they burn like Molotov cocktails. Grass fires burn out quickly; chaparral fires at least offer space to fight the flames and only moderate amounts of fuel per square yard. Although forests catch fire relatively slowly, the enormous amounts of available fuel mean the fire can keep burning in the same space for a long time. Moreover, the fire itself changes the weather, creating patterns of airflow that feed and spread the flames. The result is a blaze that can consume tens of thousands of acres of forest—as well as the animals and people who live there.

The names are beautiful: Cherry. Grouse. Mariposa. Stevens. Fletcher. Bayne. Banner. Streets in an upscale development? The roster of a Montessori kindergarten? No, they're a few of this year's California wildfires.

Other fires sound like a series of bodice-rippers, a multigenerational saga of brooding men and passionate women: Moonlight Fire. Lazy Fire. Snow Fire. Italian Fire. White Fire. Honey Fire.

I don’t even want to think about what kind of books would be named after the Lick Fire, the Wallow Fire, the Tar Fire, the Seven Eleven Fire, or the Highway Fire.

Right now, the Bay Area is getting smoke from two great fires: the nearby Lick Fire south of San Jose and the Moonlight Fire, 200 miles away in the northeast Sierra.

The smoke rises and spreads. This week's sunsets have been ominously orange; the morning skies have been gray with smoke, the sun a brassy glow behind the haze. Asthmatics wheeze and clutch their aching chests, and people with allergies sneeze, cough, and wipe their burning, teary eyes.

The Lick Fire (named for the nearby Lick Observatory) is burning just a few miles from my old house in southernmost San Jose. Like the Uvas Canyon fire, which I blogged five years ago, it's a chaparral fire burning in low hills. These can generally be brought under control within a few weeks; the timber fires in the steep slopes and high valleys of the Sierra Nevada can rage for months.

The Moonlight Fire is a timber fire in the Sierra Nevada.

It started on Labor Day; during the week it has grown from 300 acres to more than 42,000 acres. A team of 2300 firefighters are bulldozing firelines, dropping fire retardants from planes (when the smoke clears enough to permit), and out on the steep slopes fighting the fire, which is chewing up forest and the logging debris--dried-out branches, bark, needles, and sawdust--known as slash.

At that, it's dwarfed by the Zaca fire, which burned from Independence Day until the day before Labor Day. It destroyed 240,207 acres—more than the size of Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, DC, Scranton, and Manhattan combined. Oh, it also destroyed one outbuilding.

Many of these fires are wildland fires—and the acreage consumed is astonishing partly because California, home to one of every eight Americans, still has so much wildland left. But as California’s population grows and spreads, more people are moving into the red zone where wildland and cities meet. That puts more people and property in the way of fires.

The forest in the days after a fire looks devastated beyond hope of recovery. (Note the red fire extinguisher: that's a color photograph.) And if the fire burned too hot--if there was too much fuel accumulated, if it had been too many years since the previous fire--the soil can be sterilized completely. Then the result is hopeless devastation.

But fire plays an essential role in California’s ecosystems. (These days even Smoky Bear is in favor of "prescribed fires," which used to be called controlled burns.) A few years after a fire, a burned-over forest looks like a neglected graveyard. Acres of blackened stumps stand like rickety tombstones amid fountains of exuberant saplings. Without fire to clear the way and awaken seeds, no new growth could occur. Rebirth is the gift of fire.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Katrina versus Dunkirk

It's not difficult to tell the difference between "You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie" and "This was their finest hour."

Nor between the chaos, hunger, and scandals in the aftermath of Katrina, and the brilliant coordination of Naval ships, civilian craft (often sailed by Navy officers), and volunteer fishermen and yachtsmen who rescued hundreds of thousands of French and British soldiers in the evacuation of Dunkirk in June 1940. Or even, to give recent and American examples, the rescue efforts at the Oklahoma City bombing and the Minnesota bridge collapse -- in both places, locals on the spot rushed in and helped with no thought of danger or reward.

But it's useful to know that we won't have to contend with the Dunkirk spirit any longer. Not satisfied with gutting programs that would mobilize the Federal government in disasters, or heading them up with people whose qualifications go beyond laughable and into absurd, FEMA has now proposed a plan that would keep volunteers away from disasters.

To be fair, I can imagine situations in which volunteers could be counterproductive. But I know that even untrained volunteers can be of great help in cleaning up after a disaster. Moreover, the FEMA response has been consistently useless -- which is not surprising, really. This administration has made it 100% clear that they loathe any central government (except the kind that legislates private sexual behavior), so performing government functions well has to be the lowest possible priority for them.

But I would have thought that they would encourage volunteerism if only to spare the pockets of the taxpayers. Then I spotted the kicker: "Construction and demolition companies want to see a disaster ID card program succeed."

And who gets the contracts for cleanup? Everybody's favorite corporation, of course.