Monday, August 31, 2009

Hoping Kennedy's death eases the insanity in the health-care debate

In another blog posting for the Straits Times, I weigh in on the health-care debate, taking a cue from something Chris Dodd said about how everyone, in Ted Kennedy's honor, should just take a deep breath and talk about health care rationally, minus all the death-panel idiocy.

Not that Leaner readers need much convincing that the American health-care system is in serious need of an overhaul, however it happens, or that all this babble about death panels is nonsense, but here and here are a couple stories to push that argument even further (which didn't make it into the blog post). The first one embodies everything wrong with insurance companies; the second is just a tragic tale of how burdensome health care is in its current form.

As for the blog posting itself, the conversation developing in the comments is refreshingly worthwhile. Have a look.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

While we're free-associating, more Bill Hicks!

In searching for the YouTube link at the bottom of my last post, I ended up taking a pretty thorough journey down Bill Hicks memory lane. It reminded me that I had forgotten to watch the David Letterman clip from January featuring Bill's mother, Mary Hicks.

The brief backstory is that Bill was scheduled to appear on Letterman back in 1993, months before he passed away, but Dave, in a heavy-handed act of censorship, decided Bill's material was not appropriate for the show and cut the segment.

Fifteen years later, Dave decided to make amends and had Bill's mom on and showed the cut segment. Mary is very sweet and Dave honorably acknowledges his mistake and repeatedly apologizes for it. It's actually quite moving.

Here is Dave's intro, followed by the bit with Mary and Bill's never-before-seen Letterman segment:

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Not gonna be such a good night for Muslims in Malaysia

The Black Eyed Peas are scheduled to play a concert near Kuala Lumpur on September 25, but the Malaysian government has banned all Muslims from attending the show. It seems the fact that the show will be sponsored by Guinness beer goes against Islamic law, which prohibits the consumption of alcohol.

The show is only allowed to go on at all because authorities think it will be good for tourism. Not for Muslim tourists of course; even Muslims that live outside the country are legally forbidden to consume booze there -- and to go to the show. (No beer will be sold at the concert either.)

Black Eyed Peas fans are not the only ones to feel the wrath of Malaysia's strict booze laws. A model who is visiting Malaysia was recently convicted of drinking a beer. For her transgression she was to face four lashes with a bamboo cane (her caning has been suspended until after Ramadan). She wants it to be a public caning, to set an example to other Muslims.

As for the Black Eyed Peas, I have a deeply ambivalent attitude toward them. They mostly just make me depressed. Their first two records are great. But the fact that the first track on their first record, "Fallin' Up" off Behind the Front, contains the lines "Is it 'cause we don't wear Tommy Hilfiger or baseball caps?/ We don't use dollars to represent, we just use our inner sense and talent", their Dr. Pepper commercials were a little hard to swallow when they came out. It's only gotten worse.

I bristle at the idea of accusing artists of "selling out". There's nothing wrong with success, however you define it. Black Eyed Peas know how to write hits (I doubt they play "Fallin' Up" very often these days), but I can't say I dig their music these days.

I think the late great Bill Hicks said it best:

He also said it here, but less directly. "It's only your dignity. Suck it!"

**UPDATE** Looks like the BEP show in Malaysia is back on. Score one for the moderates.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

ESPN starting to cover disc golf

At a loss for anything else to write about, I thought I'd direct your attention to a solid article from ESPN's page 2 website about disc golf. (Page 2, of course, used to be the realm of Hunter S. Thompson in his later years. One can only imagine what his gonzo take on disc golf would have been...)

Every year, it seems, disc golf is deemed "the fastest growing sport in America" or something to that effect. Whether that's true or not any given year is hard to say. People are probably more financially strapped this summer than in summers past, and as folks search for low-cost entertainment, well, there are worse places to end up than a disc golf course.

The ESPN story does have its requisite introductions to the game, the obligatory hat tip to the "long-haired hippie" cliche and the standard disc golfer bluster -- one tournament director is quoted saying "Who's to say in 20 years [disc golf] isn't conventional golf?" No need to get carried away. Disc golf will always exist on the fringes of the sports world. Still, it's nice to see a major sports media organization like ESPN give some serious attention to it.

There are even a few things in this story that I didn't know about. I didn't know, for example, that there was some $2 million floating around in PDGA tournaments last year. And I had no idea that Dave Feldberg teaches a for-credit class on disc golf at the University of Oregon (cue underwater basket-weaving reference). All I can say is that I hope part of the class involves taking a field trip to Whistler's Bend in Roseburg, one of the best courses around, in my opinion.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Probing the gray areas of racial profiling

Here's something I wrote last week following the little furor over Obama's comments on the Henry Louis Gates affair. It's a tale long-time readers will already be familiar with.

I hesitated writing it because I wasn't sure the extent to which it would perpetuate certain stereotypes. I decided it was OK, though, because my point is that racial profiling is rarely a clear-cut issue; it so often falls into that uncertain gray area. Even what at first seemed like a clear-cut case of profiling with the Gates/Crowley incident turned out to have far more shades to it than first appeared. But we should stare hard at these gray areas, because that is where our prejudices really reveal themselves.

Still, some commenters found my story offensive because I supposedly perpetuate a racist myth. Others are offended that I condemn Crowley for being a racist (which is simply not true). Not sure how to reconcile the two sides, but I tried to write it in a way that rejects the notion that I was mugged because of the race of my perpetrators. It was merely situational, but highlights the thorniness of the issue.

The incident I recount in this story is something that happened, a real-world application to the utopian ideal that we can and should always look beyond the superficial. If I had taken one look at the gentlemen who mugged me, evaluated their appearance and run the hell away, wouldn't that in itself be racial profiling? Is that acceptable, and if so, where do we draw the line?

Conversing with them and expecting the best may have been naive, but it was also a conscious effort not to make prejudiced judgments. What was the "right" thing to do? I'm still not sure. But some of the nasty comments are sure, however -- sure that whatever I did, it was wrong. Ah, the conundrum.

You want to find a racist in this story, how about this guy?

Monday, August 03, 2009

Launching a new address

Welcome to the unceremonious launch of a new web address for the Left Coast Leaner. The address of the old site was going to change anyway, plus it wasn't a very good address to begin with.

Things should be much cleaner and smoother here on Blogspot. Much nicer software. Hope I retained some eyeballs. Also hope to move over some archives from the old site, for nostalgia's sake.

Also, I'm trying out this Adsense thing. If anyone finds it offensive or intrusive, please let me know. I don't expect to make any cash from it, but hey it's worth a try.

Thanks for reading!

Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields: A morning basking in past brutalities

I've been spending more time travelling than blogging, lately. I should be staying put here in Singapore, for a while anyway, but for now I'm going to use this space to regurgitate some of what I've seen.

It's not all interesting, but some of it is. Back in June I took a trip to Cambodia. I was told before I left that Cambodia is a place where things rarely go according to plan. Even though I had no firm plans going in, I still found this to be the case.

The first part of my trip, in which I play "genocide tourist", can be summed up here. Read that for more explanation about the material below.

The rest of (this part of) the trip will be told through pictures (and some text):

This is the inside of one of the classrooms-turned-torture chambers at Toul Sleng prison (S-21). Hard to imagine what unspeakable acts happened to poor souls shackled to that metal bed, tortured into unconsciousness. Outside this room is a set of tall wooden poles. It's like a gallows but without the mercy of death. Prisoners would be yanked off the ground by their arms, behind their backs not over their head. Once the prisoner passed out from the pain, he would be lowered to the ground where his head would be shoved in a cauldron of rancid water, often contaning human waste, to be shocked back into consciousness.

These are some of the thousands of pictures of condemned inmates. The utterly terrified look of the guy on the bottom left pretty much sums up how I think I'd feel if in their position.

These are some paintings by Vann Nath, one of the 10 or fewer prisoners to survive out of the 15,000 or so detained at the prison (see some more of his paintings here, depicting the varieties of torture and murder inflicted at Tuol Sleng). Vann Nath recently testified at the ongoing genocide tribunal. Pay particular attention to the painting on the right (hint, note the water can)...

Look familiar? Looks an awful lot like waterboarding to me. That means the tactics the US has employed in the "war on terror" to extract information are comparable to the brutalities favored by the Khmer Rouge. Let it be said, indisputably: waterboarding is torture.

Part of what makes Tuol Sleng so chilling is its dirt and grittiness. This is not a Disneyland ride. I have no official confirmation, but if those aren't blood stains underneath where there were once shackles and countless suffering prisoners, I have no idea what they are.

In case anyone had the idea to plunge off the third floor of the cell block to end with a quick and relatively honorable death, three-storey sheets of barbed wire were stretched across the front of the building. That's the courtyard in front.

Finally, this is not at Tuol Sleng but the "Killing Fields", which likely more people have heard of. It's where most Tuol Sleng prisoners were hauled and finally executed, usually with a club to save bullets. The fields themselves, formerly an orchard, are not much to look at. Some exhumed mass graves, now grassy ditches scarring the earth. A lot of skulls too. It's all about the vibe there, just dwelling for a moment on the unspeakable acts and thoughtless murder committed just 30 years earlier on that very spot. The thing that represents this perversion of nature more than anything else is above: the killing tree. Guards would bash the heads of children against the base of the trunk and dispose of them that way. This glorious, benevolent entity twisted and turned into a tool of destruction ... it really just gets me, eats at my conception of nature. I sat in the tree's shade and pondered this paradox. It still haunts me.