Friday, April 27, 2007

ABC 20-20 "My Secret Self: The story of transgendered children".


Barbara Walters hosted a sensitive hour on ABC 20-20 this evening April 27, 2007, "My Secret Self: The story of transgendered children." ABC News has a correlated news story "I'm a girl -- Understanding transgender children: Parents of transgender six-year-old girl support her choice" by Alan B. Goldberg and Joneil Adriano, here. The report related a number of cases of children as young as two or three presenting convincing evidence that they believed themselves to have the opposite gender. The idea that there is a biological basis for this seemed overwhelming. This is different from homosexuality, where the person is attracted to members of the same sex but perceives himself or herself as in the appropriate sex.

The show presented the idea of a child embarassed in private about his own body, and there was a time when I had those feelings. Later the report showed a teenager changing from female to male, and dealing with all of the medical issues, such as hormone therapy.

The problem of bullying and teasing by other children and peer teens is common, as it is for gay children and also children with Aspergers. All of these situations are different clinically, but all of them invoke the idea of moral judgment in some people. Catholic and Vatican morality has sometimes insisted that people are born with these issues in order to force them to grow closer to God, and that "different" people have a moral duty not to become overly focused upon themselves compared to others. It's always possible to rationalize this kind of thinking.

Related blog posting on treatment of boys with Asperger Syndrome and homosexual teens, here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Oprah on NBC's airing of the VPI materials


Today, April 24 2007, The Oprah Winfrey (in ABC – Disney) show discussed the controversy over NBC ‘s (Universal) airing portions of the “multimedia manifesto” of Seung Hui Cho. The link is here. Brian Williams and Steve Capus explained that they showed only a small portion of the material and agonized for many hours before deciding to show any material at all. Other networks quickly announced, late last Wed (Apr 18) that they would not continue showing any of the material.

A forensic psychiatrist called the airing of materials like this a “social catastrophe” and claimed that it (through progressive and repeated desensitizing exposure) incites sociopaths who want to get fame with their notorious deaths, taking others with them. Frankly, it seems to me that this is the same mentality (both narcissistic and quasi-spiritual or fanatical) that goes on with Palestinian attacks and with 9-11. The psychiatrist said that there is a big difference between schizophrenia and the kind of narcissistic sociopathy seen with attacks like this.

But a parent of one of the victims in the Columbine tragedy insisted that some of the materials were useful and could help prevent future incidents. The show indicated that the Columbine materials have never been aired (although I think some were included in Michael Moore’s film).

Back in the 1990s, there had been considerable controversy over publication by The Washington Post (and I believe The New York Times) of the screed-like manifesto by Theodore Kaczynski.

Media reports describe the text portion of Cho’s mailing as an incoherent “rant,” with no identifiable pattern of intellectual reasoning or ideology as is normally studied. There were a few passages about hatred of rich people and of Christianity, as reported or played by the media. A couple of sentences sounded like the rage against hedonism that he wear about from radical Islam. The material in at least one of the short “screenplays” by Cho suggest that he might have been abused before or early in adolescence.

I recall the broadcast by Osama bin Laden on October 7, 2001, when President Bush announced actions in Afghanistan, long before the controversial war in Iraq. This sounded like a rant. Even more objectionable was video of bin Laden broadcast on December 13, 2001, when he gloats about the falling of the World Trade Center. (That was the day that I was laid off.)

Of course, people do have “grievances” against those “better off’ than them, and often these “complaints” reflect personal shame that the speaker feels has been forced on him or her. I recall repeatedly hearing this sort of raging indignation from radical people (usually on the far Left, such as the Peoples Party of New Jersey) early in my adulthood. One cannot take one’s “lifestyle” for granted or remain smug when one hears these things repeatedly. It is well to pay attention to what is going on (even ancient historical grievances such as those from radical Islam, or especially the concern over the confiscation of property in Palestine).

For that reason, I was at least concerned to know what Cho had said, however objectionable it seems. (The same, sad to say, goes for Osama bin Laden.) If he had mentioned my own domain name (doaskdotell.com, discussed elsewhere in blogs) and somehow been disturbed (however irrationally) by the innuendo of anything I write and put in public on the Internet, I would want to know about it.

Monday, April 23, 2007

CNN Investigative Reports: Chasing Life


CNN Special Investigations ran a one-hour report “Chasing Life” on Sunday, April 22. An early scene where a conveniently smooth-chested young man jobs and treadmill-rins with extensive electrocardiographic leads (maybe a Holter monitor) adhered to his chest provides a visual clue for the debate to come. Later the lean ascetic young man talks about his restricted calorie diet, and the show gets into a discussion of laboratory experiments on animals that indicate that severe calories restriction may extend life span.

Dr. Gabe Mirkin used to advocate his severe fat restriction on his radio talk show in the DC area back in the 1990s. He would also ask callers "What are your numbers?", a narcissistic concern (of a "health nut") that would seemingly contradict the more collective concerns that seem to be surfacing around longevity today. As for the severely restricted diet, this is nothing new. There are legitimate questions whether laboratory experiments on animals would hold true for homo sapiens in the real world. Perhaps heavier levels of nutrition contribute to fighting inflection. It does seem that excessive fat, however, is associated with many cancers.

Longevity has steadily increased with medical technology and more attention to personal health. Past generations, accepting high red-meat fat diets (as proof of conquering hunger) and cigarette smoking, accepted a natural life span that ended shortly after job retirement, and perhaps two or three decades after reproduction stopped. Elderly family members could be cared for at home without controversy because their long life in a position of dependency was unlikely; a natural end of life tended to occur sooner.

That has obviously changed in the past three decades or so. Longevity raises both the question of length of life, and of longer life with quality, particularly independence. The show presented a man of 95 still able to live alone.

The show discussed genetics, lifestyle, and location, especially people living in “Blue Zones” like Costa Rica are certain areas of the California central valley. One factor that seemed to support extended life-span with reasonable self-sufficiency is socialization or social cohesion with friends and especially extended family – “kinfolk”. Too much “independence” – an illusion created by technology – is not necessarily such a good thing for longevity. The moral value of socialization comes back into consideration, like it or not. The longevity of some family members can depend on the dedication and attention of others in the clan. Tribalism, it seems, can cut both ways.

This observation will certainly not be lost in the cultural wars. The right wing has been quick to point out the sharply reduced life spans for male homosexuals. This reduction of lifespan has been reversed somewhat – in fact, a lot -- by better therapies for HIV and safer behaviors. But the fact remains that for some people, having children and extended family, with all of the emotional shell that family can provide, means they will have a support system that gives them some context apart from their own actions and may give them a reason to try to live longer.

Picture: Quarry (like a strip-mine) at Gore VA on US-50

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Epic of Black Gold


This film is a four part series from French National Television. The Epic of Black Gold is directed by Jean-Pierre Beauerenaut and Yves Billon, and runs at 208 min, digital video. The production company is Alliance-Atlantis along with Historical Planet. It was shown at the Washington DC International Film Festival in unused AMC theaters on Wisconsin Ave. on April 21. Website is here.

The documentary traces the history of the oil business back to the late 19th Century with John D. Rockefeller, who eliminated competition until the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The early oil boom at Spindletop is documented, and the United States is unique in the libertarian concept that underground mineral rights belong to the land owner rather than to the state. The discovery of oil in the Middle East is documented.

The film does a good job of summarizing the oil shocks. There is Oil Crisis I, the Arab Oil Embargo following the Yom Kippur War that starte on Oct. 6, 1973 (a day that I remember well, coming back to New York from a camping trip in NW New Jersey). Oil Crisis II came about because of strikes in Iran after the Shah was driven out, but preceded the hostage crisis. The counter crisis occurred in the 1980s as the OPEC members had a price war, leading to the real estate recession in Texas.

The film makes a great point that we are nearing the "glass half empty" moment on oil supply soon, as oil production will peak. The economic growth of the last century was driven by oil, and the world is not ready to replace it yet.

The film has many live clips from the early 20th Century, as well as on location video of modern Saudi Arabia.

I would expect to see this film offered on cable in the US film. It is in English, with many interviews in French with English subtitles.

There is another shorter film "A Crude Awakening", directed by Basil Gelpke and Ray McCormack, offered from Netflix, and it provides a particularly grim view of future decline in oil production. Both of these films are also discussed here.

Do not confuse with the film Black Gold, about the international coffee business, reviewed here.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

PBS: America at a Crossroads


This series "America at a Crossroads" will consist of eleven films, the first of two hours duration, the others one hour each, broadcast from Sunday April 15 through Friday April 20 2007. Robert MacNeil narrates. Here is the schedule link:

The first part was "Jihad: The Men and Ideas Behind Al Qaeda", written and directed by William Cran, with the production company Paladin Invision.

The film traces the ideology of radical Islam back to the life of Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian theologian who became repulsed at Western materialism and "individualism" after World War II. He would eventually be imprisoned and die in Egypt during political changes, such as Nasser's assent. But his writings, with their focus on "virtue" (often discussed in The Weekly Standard back in 2002) would "inspire" future radical Islamic movements. The film would trace Dr. Al Zawahiri, and then Osama bin Laden himself. During the past half hour the 9/11 attacks are shown briefly, and then there is an interesting seqeunece on location in Karachi (the old capital of Pakistan, on the Indian Ocean) where a major terrorist was arrested in 2002. This is interesting inasmuch I have been told of meetings that had taken place in Karachi in 2000. The tribal areas on the Afghanistan - Pakistan border are shown.

The film notes that Osama bin Laden was criticized by his own "people" that he did not give warning to the Americans that they would be attacked on their homeland on 9/11. The film notes that there have been as many as six "warnings" since then, and that there have been threats to use weapons of mass destruction.

The film presents the war in Iraq as a development that bin Laden wants, to draw America out and force it to become overextended, and play "on the road" or be like a chess player faltering after becoming overextended when pressing a kings-side attack.

Part 2 is called Warriors, asking "what is it like to be a soldier in Iraq?", and it presents two different units on deployment in or near Baghdad in 2005. Over time, there are casualties and losses. The LTC in charge of one of the units reads Harry Potter novels for escape. He seems to have consider autonomy to negotiate with local tribal leaders and there is an impressive scene in a well-to-do Iraqi's home in the war zone.

Part 3 is called Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, and is a project funded by the National Endowment for the Arts where soldiers write about their service and experience on duty. The point is made that the foot soldier has as much to say as the commander, and may have more freedom to say it without creating a conflict. Toward the end of the film there is a funeral in a small town in Wyoming. Blogging in the field by military people has been controversial because of security concerns, and it can't be too personal. There is still "don't ask don't tell."

Part 4 is called Gangs of Iraq, a Frontline series documentary that shows how sectarian violence has undone much of the progress in trying to install democracy in Iraq. The underlying assumption had been that the Iraqi army would take over security and internal combat, but many units have refused to fight against fellow "tribesmen" ever since major "pacification" of Iraq started, so American and British forces remain burdened with the fighting.

Part 5 is called The Case for War: In Defense of Freedom John Richard Perle is interviewed. Mr. Perle indicates that he has always been a Democrat, even if he sounds like a neoconservative. He indicates that major Democrats had supported intervening in Iraq until the war started to unravel some time after the quick fall of Saddam Hussein, whose evils Perle discusses. He also discusses American intervention in Bosnia and Sarajevo, where we asked for nothing in return.

Part 6 is called Europe's 9/11. Most of the documentary traced the history of the Madrid train attack (including graphic video of one of the explosions) on March 11, 2004, back to a cell from Tunisia. Some of the contacts were in remote areas in northern Spain. The later part of the program discussed the assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. Some Muslims deeply resent the permissive western culture.

Part 7 is called The Muslim Americans. American Muslims have long been integrated into the mainstream, compared to Europe where colonial history and ties to the colonial homelands seems to maintain a tribal mentality, as documented in Bruce Bawer's recent book "While Europe Slept". A good part of the documentary dealt with the serious issue of racial profiling.

Part 8 is called Faith Without Fear where Irshad Manji talks to one of Osama bin Laden's former bodyguards. Manji insists that Islam must accept "offense" in order to avoid discrimination and in order to grow. Her counterpart insists that she is trying to define Islam when Islam defines itself. She criticizes overly tribal consciousness, whereas other speakers reflect the idea that a common faith must not be breached because religion is the one experience that everyone has. She is shown skydiving.

Part 9 is called Struggle for the Soul of Islam: Inside Indonesia covers the October 2002 attack on a Bali disco, but goes on to develop Sunni Islamic culture, which was established by trade, not conquest. Indonesia accepts transvestites and cross-dressers, but it also has a religious vigilante group called the "FBI" which imposes religious sharia law on everyone. There was a discussion of a prostitution sweep and of a controversy over pornography on Bali. As elsewhere, many Muslims here see democracy as antithetical to faith forming the basis of life and source of all virtue and "meaning".

Part 10 is called Security versus Liberty: The Other War. In a story about "retail" and "wholesale" (NSA) wiretapping, the film shows the bricked interior of headquarters of the Electronic Frontier Foundation on Shotwell Street in San Francisco, which I visited myself in Feburary 2002 (I was a subplaintiff against COPA as a member of EFF). EFF was involved in a class action suit against telecommunications companies including AT&T in providing communications records to the government. Then the film covers the FBI Albany "to catch a money launderer" sting against a pizza shop owner, where he was encouraged to accept money associated with fake weapons for a fictitious attack plan, because the government wanted to get at someone else who knew the shop owner. The businessman probably did not have a propensity to launder money unless tricked. The film also covers the Connecticut library fight over expanded use of National Security Letters under the Patriot Act. The film discusses the very low self-serving bar for government demands for the information, and even more serious is the "gag order", a kind of repudiation of "do ask do tell" in saying that the librarian could not reveal that the existence of the letter (even on a blog like this one). The gag order prevented the library board from being able to tell anyone about the lawsuit. Library Connection and the ACLU filed a lawsuit in 2005 against the gag order and lack of judicial supervision of the NSL's. A federal judge in Connecticut overruled the gag order and the government appealed. A new NSL provision with a new Patriot Act went into effect in March 2006 (it allowed discussion with lawyers) and the librarians were able to talk about the whole case. The mysterious email and NSL were eventually withdrawn.

Frontline rebroadcast this on Nov. 27. The director was Hendrick Smith. It's interesting that Bush thinks that FISA courts apply only to long term monitoring. The scare at Las Vegas (screening records of applicants in Vegas -- are they really casino dealers?) The concept of a "driftnet" is mentioned. FISA was passed after a Nixon era Operation Shamrock.

Part 11 is called The Brotherhood and documents The Muslim Brotherhood, which purports to be more an organization of Muslim charity and promotion of "family values" than a group with political power. The film covers the brotherhood in Egypt (and the writings of Sayyid Qtub) before going on to Germany, showing Mohammed Atta's apartment building and discussing Mamoun Darkazanli. The journalists are Mark Hosenball and Michael Isikoff.

Two more episodes (Nov 26 2007) are documented here.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Galapagos: National Geographic


Galapagos (National Geographic Channel, 180 min, UK, first aired March 18, 2007, narrator Tom Hewitt, producer Patrick Morris) is a documentary film about the Galapagos Islands, in three one-hour segments. The three segments tend to overlap, presenting fascinating animal life living nowhere else on earth. The segments also point out that much of the Galapagos will sink into the sea, as volcanism creates other small islands. The documentary also explains the unusual climate, divided into “wet” and “dry” seasons, the dry time being surprisingly cool because of the Humboldt Current.

The second hour simulates the visit of Charles Darwin (Richard Wollocombe) with Tom Hiddleston as his voice. Darwin, over many years, documented the fact that organisms develop to fit the circumstances of a specific environment. This seems to contradict the relgious idea of special creation (maybe not as clearly intelligent design). But the concept of “survival of the fittest,” which Darwin meant as descriptive, probably took on its social meaning partly because of contemporary British philosopher Herbert Spencer, and even his ideas are often misrepresented, as one can see by studing the wiki articles.

Visit the NG blog on this series here:

The TV schedule is here.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

ABC News covers Asperger's Syndrome


ABC News covered Asperger’s Syndrome today (April 4, 2007) on both World News Tonight and later on Nightline. Asperger’s Syndrome is considered to be a “milder” form of autism (or pervasive developmental disorders) although that characterization is misleading. The ABC story is here. WNT continued the topic on April 5.

The show presented two male students: an attractive 20-year-old in college, and a middle school kid age 12. Both reported being bullied, especially in middle school. The show characterized persons with Asperger’s as often highly verbal and intellectual but with poor physical coordination skills and often social non-reactivity, difficulty fitting in to common social situations and emotional distance as others view the person. The younger student had been placed in a structured program where he has supervised interactions from other volunteer students who do not have Asperger’s. Both persons were quite effective in speaking on television. Some weeks ago, an autistic (but successfully treated and educated) high school student who had helped his team win a basketball game appeared on national television, and that student was now amazingly poised when appearing in public.

A friend of mine, when I visited him in Rhode Island, told me instantly when we met for dinner that I had Asperger’s. Lack of body language, various speech patterns, etc. Probably true.

What is different is that someone like me can build a self-contained intellectual world. There are emotions, often related to ideas, art, music, and numbers (even chess openings), but they are hidden from other people in a way that reminds one of relativity in modern physics. The other observer sees someone who does not connect to or emphathize with others in a straightforward way.

The bullying is a “tribal” attempt by the “majority” to force those who are different to “conform” to their expectations, not only of competitive performance, but of ability to share common practical and social burdens. The bully may perceive the Asperger’s person as “malingering.” Until relatively recently, only more progressive school systems would implement programs to stop bullying, possibly because of a subliminal belief, even among many teachers and school administrators, that the Asperger’s patient exhibited a moral failure and should be brought into conformity and into “paying his dues” by other kids. So the “unusual” kid is placed in a very difficult position of being perceived as an “enemy.”

The WB series “Smallville” has developed the theme of a teenager who is “different” and must keep his difference secret, while having powers and abilities that are unusual and that would make “normal” people feel defensive.

There does not seem to be any clear connection between Asperger’s and sexual orientation, even though one can imagine theories that one expects to find a correlation. It does not really seem to work that way.

Oprah Winfrey continued the topic of autism on Thursday April 5 with an hour show on autism; here is her link with details.

On Good Friday April 6, ABC's "The View" (with Barbara Walters and Rosie O'Donnell) has a one hour segment "Autism Speaks" and interviewed several parents, and presented one ten-year-old kid who had largely come out of it. The show pointed out that in most states parents are entitled to free special education from the public school system, and early "ABA" behavioral treatment services. The mild end of PDD's leads to the "geek" personalities that gave us our computer revolution, said one older female person who had dealt with autism and now had a Ph D at the end. The web reference is here.

In February, CBS 60 Minutes had run a program about a connection between autism and special gifts; blogger link is here:

Here is the link to Zoli's Blog about Jason, the autistic teen who played a sensational basketball game for Athena High School, Greece NY.

Monday, April 02, 2007

PBS: Three Faiths


On Monday, April 2, 2007 some PBS stations (such as MPT in Annapolis, MD) broadcast the frist of a two-part series (two sixty minute segments) of a film (PBS Connecticut, Auteur Films) by Gerard Krell, "Three Faiths, One God: Judaism, Christianity, Islam." Part 2 is broadcast the next night.

The interviews with imams, rabbis and priests mapped out parallels among the Abraham-based faiths, especially between Islam and Judaism, which actually have strikingly similar religious law in many areas (like marriage as a contract), and where many of the disputes are about historical narrative (which son did Abraham almost sacrifice?) The historical rift between Muslims and Jews could have started when Mohammed lived in Medina, which was populated by Jews, who accepted him as a sage but not as a legitimate prophet. Christianity could not accept the idea of a major prophetic figure after Christ. But many rituals in Islam, even the hajj, have paralles in Judaism. And the encampment during the hajj is supposed to be a preview of the afterlife.

The second part had a meeting between Muslim and Jewish women, each saying what the people in the other faith should not say, what was abusive. The second part did start with the history of Islamic civilization in Spain, which would, with Judaism, be driven out by the Crusades. Other commentators discussed the idea that religion claims to be absolute, and that each faith must deal with the paradox of more than one absolute in a monotheistic context. Karen Armstrong (UK) was one of the main speakers. The story of Cain and Abel was presented in each faith.

I remember that back in the 1950s American University's Dr. Edward Bauman wrote a book called "Gospel Parallels" with columnwise comparisons. A similar web device should exist to compare the precise beliefs of various faiths. The three systems of faith are more alike than they are different. Another site should diagram all of the major historical events that cause religious conflict. There is much written about this in many sources (like a recent issue of Time that analyzed the sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq, comparable to analysis of the problems with Northern Ireland a generation ago), but there are few resources that pull all of this together in ways to make it easy to understand. The Wiki sites are a place to look. There is a tendency for very religious people to want to "hear" only about their own system of belief.