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George Starbuck

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I woke up this morning trying to remember a George Starbuck poem: “On First Looking Into Keats’ Chapman’s Homer.” I didn’t remember that it was by Starbuck, but search engines can be helpful, and I renewed my acquaintance. I learned that he died some years back—in 1996, at age 65.

Once in Iowa City, he and I lived in the same precinct, and I recall his support in a precinct caucus for my fervent opposition to ending the draft. (This must have been in the early 70’s, since the draft ended in 1973.) My feeling was that having a substantial part of the military be (in effect) civilians in uniform—that is, a military whose outlook and sympathies were largely civilian in nature—was preferable to have a professional military, whose culture and outlook and interests would tend over time to diverge from those of civilians. A civilian-oriented majority in the military would keep it more in tune with civilian society and would also mean that civilians would be much more wary of sending the military into wars, since they might well find themselves sharing battlefield risks. Starbuck supported that position, but most did not.

At any rate, I got to reading some of his poems on-line. (Most of my books are now gone, but I had several books of his poetry.) For example, take the first half of “A Tapestry for Bayeux,” which uses three-syllable lines:

I   Recto


Over the
   arches a
   making a


   into which,
next to them
eyed, among
twinkling an


anger as
   measured as
knitted the
   eyelets and
yarn of these
   ringbolt and
   cable and


tanktrack and
linking and
garlands and
   islands of
seafoam and
   fretwork: on
turquoise and
red instants


   neatly a
dearth of red.
issue it;
ease into
   smoke from it—
yellow and
   ochre and
umber and
   sable and
out. Or that


man at the
   edge of the
   holding his
inches of
ground and his
order of
   red and his
   angled and
dated. He.


That’s the first half of a poem from his first book, Bone Thoughts, which contains many poems pleasant to read aloud. I could not find “On First Looking Into Keats’ Chapman’s Homer,” but I ended up ordering a few of his books in secondhand copies to renew my old acquaintance.

He was not merely a formalist but also had real passion. The Vietnam War divided and angered the US, a time when many realized that our government was against the people. Starbuck’s poem “Of Late” is from this period, written about the same time he and I were opposing the end of the draft.

Of Late

“Stephen Smith, University of Iowa sophomore, burned what he said was his draft card”
and Norman Morrison, Quaker, of Baltimore Maryland, burned what he said was himself.
You, Robert McNamara, burned what you said was a concentration
of the Enemy Aggressor.
No news medium troubled to put it in quotes.

And Norman Morrison, Quaker, of Baltimore Maryland, burned what he said was himself.
He said it with simple materials such as would be found in your kitchen.
In your office you were informed.
Reporters got cracking frantically on the mental disturbance angle.
So far nothing turns up.

Norman Morrison, Quaker, of Baltimore Maryland, burned, and while burning, screamed.
No tip-off. No release.
Nothing to quote, to manage to put in quotes.
Pity the unaccustomed hesitance of the newspaper editorialists.
Pity the press photographers, not called.

Norman Morrison, Quaker, of Baltimore Maryland, burned and was burned and said
all that there is to say in that language.
Twice what is said in yours.
It is a strange sect, Mr. McNamara, under advice to try
the whole of a thought in silence, and to oneself.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2015 at 8:48 am

Posted in Daily life

How a century-old genocide becomes newly prominent: The Internet

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The internet makes censorship and control of information more difficult, as many authoritarian organizations have discovered. If people can simply search out available information that “authorities” do not want them to see, lots of things that were not exactly secret but certainly well hidden from those the authorities controlled suddenly become readily available. Thus the story of Joseph Smith’s embarrassingly fraudulent “translation” of a manuscript of Egyptian hieroglyphics is easily read by anyone with an internet connection, which has forced the Mormon church to take a new approach. They can no longer simply tamp down the story. Thus the pedophiles and the bishops who protected them become highly visible to anyone who does a few searches, so the Catholic church must finally start to acknowledge the truth.

And thus the story of the Armenian genocide cannot be controlled by the Turkish government. For example, Brian Merchant writes at Motherboard:

My grandfather credits Dirhouie “Medsmir” Chorbajian with the fact that our family exists at all. She was the one who, after receiving word of the slaughter of tens of thousands of Armenians in Turkey between 1894 and 1896, in what would be named the Hamidian massacres after the sultan who ordered them, urged her husband to emigrate to the United States. According to family lore, Medsmir, my great-great-great grandmother, was blunt: “It is time for us to leave.”

She proved persuasive, and the Chorbajian family moved to Massachusetts, and then on to Fresno, California. Less than twenty years later, one and a half million Armenians, among them her friends, peers, and relatives, were systematically deported and killed by the agents of the Ottoman Empire. My ancestors escaped the first and least-remembered genocide of the twenty-first century, which, for a long time, escaped my understanding, too.

If my great grandfather Albert had not changed his last name, from Chorbajian to “Merchant,” which he said was a direct translation, on the day before he wed his Anglo-American bride, it would be stamped on my birth certificate. It would be my byline. I would be Brian Chorbajian. My name would announce my familial legacy, winding back to a Middle Eastern people once nearly wiped entirely from the earth. I would have grown up, in some sense, Armenian.

But it doesn’t, and I didn’t. I emerged a thoroughly white suburbanite with a thoroughly Anglicized moniker. As a kid, I knew nothing of the cultural history of Armenians or the atrocity that drove my forebears to seek refuge in the United States. Throughout high school, I probably couldn’t have pointed to Armenia on a map.

Only now, thanks to my grandfather and some powerful new technologies of remembrance helping to shed light on the Armenian plight, am I beginning to come to grips with the heritage that begat, then transformed my name.

This April marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian genocide. On April 24th, 1915, the Turkish government executed some 200 Armenian intellectual leaders in Constantinople, in what scholars now refer to as a “decapitation strike” meant to hobble the whole people. Thus began the genocide in earnest; the brutal, organized effort to empty Anatolia of its entire Armenian population, through a process the state referred to only as “deportation.”Two million Armenians were forced from their homes, and sent marching through the desert, their final destination grim camps clearly not intended for long-term occupation. One and a half million Armenians died in the process; many from starvation (they often went unfed), many from exhaustion (the old and the young alike marched for days on end), many from disease (cholera ravaged the camps), and many directly at the hands of Turkish officials (shootings, hangings, rape, even decapitation were not uncommon).

The ​US government still refuses to recognize the state-ordained mass exterminations that began in 1915 as a genocide, despite a mountain of supporting evidence and coalescing international agreement—because, to this day, Turkey, a NATO ally, denies that any systematic killing took place at all, and chalks the event up to the cloudy ambiguities of war. The generations-spanning erasure of ‘Chorbajian’ from my own identity, it can seem at times, dovetails with the decades-spanning erasure of ‘Armenian genocide’ from the American cultural fabric.

In late March, 2015, I was on the phone with my 84-year-old grandfather, Alan Merchant, who has been recovering from a difficult surgery. We’d fallen into a long conversation about history, and got to talking about our ancestry, when he repeated the anecdote about Medsmir, which means “grandmother” in Armenian.

“If it weren’t for her, I guess we wouldn’t be here,” he said. There are plenty of occasions on any family tree where you can point to a branch and wonder, if they didn’t do x, would we even… But there are fewer where you can say that, if they didn’t do this, in all likelihood, our family would have been eradicated along with most of an entire race. My grandfather then mentioned the upcoming 100-year anniversary of the genocide, and that was that. The anecdote, paired with the sudden realization that I’d more or less been ignoring, or at the very least, sequestering away to the attic of unpleasant thoughts, 100 years of my own history, made me queasy. I felt like I’d betrayed something, but wasn’t sure what. I resolved to fill in the gaps.

I turned first, of course, to Google.

I spent the next several Sunday afternoon hours on YouTube, on ​Armenia’s online genocide museum, on Wikipedia. I passed the evening with indexed survivor testimonies, sprawling image archives, grainy digitized video; in the desert sweep of the killing fields, with the hanged bodies, the slain poets, and children half-buried in dust. I was reminded again of a history that I had learned of before, but long failed to internalize.

The web, for its part, was keeping pace with my kindled curiosity. So often, when the internet is heralded as a democratizer of knowledge, the words ring hollow when put under scrutiny. But in the case of the Armenian genocide, it’s true. Google the term in the US, and you’ll find that geopolitics have been swept away, and the truth is laid out in hyperlinks. Unlike the US’s craven official stance, or the media’s tendency in the latter half of the 20th century to reduce the genocide question to he said/she said, the search results paint an accurate representation of the current scholarship—that there is no doubt that what occurred was, under the UN definition of the term, a capital-G genocide.

The first hit is a Wikipedia entry that . . .

Continue reading. Photos at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 April 2015 at 4:34 pm

Posted in Daily life, Government

It takes a village to make a village good

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Or: good downtowns don’t just happen by accident, and generally quite a bit of the town is involved. James Fallows passes along a reader’s story of how Asheville NC came to have a great downtown:

Here’s how we got to today’s post: through the past few weeks, I’ve done a variety of items on the attempts of long-challenged Fresno to rebuild its historic downtown.

  • Then a reader from Seattle explained how his town had pulled off a comparable feat. He  pointed out that visitors assumed Seattle just “naturally” looked the way it does now, but in fact the downtown revival was the fruit of at least 30 years of deliberate planning and effort.
  • Then another reader said that planning and effort had only a loose connection to the finished result. Tampa, he said, had tried as hard and as long as Seattle but had little to show for it. Meanwhile elegant little Asheville, North Carolina had apparently drifted its way into a celebrated downtown.
  • Then a reader in Tampa said, Wait a minute! It’s actually nice here too! We’ve even got a Riverwalk. You can read his case in this post.

Now the expected further shoe has dropped, with readers from Asheville writing in to say: We drifted our way into success? Hah! Some “drift!”

Here is a sample, from J. Patrick Whalen, who has lived in Asheville since the mid-1970s. I’m quoting him at length because the issues he mentions connect the stories we’ve heard in every corner of the country. I’m also including some of the photos Mr. Whalen sent, of Asheville before-and-after its recent renaissance.

I saw, with some consternation, the description of Asheville’s revitalization process in the “More on Nice Downtowns” column Tuesday, 4/21.

I’m afraid the reader who wrote in is not very well acquainted with the long hard battle Asheville went through to bring downtown back from the mostly boarded-up deserted place it was in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s to the vital downtown we have now. I will take a shot at summarizing the key elements of that battle, but please rest assured the story is more complicated and there were more participants than I can do justice to in this short note

1) Asheville had a large number of beautiful old buildings built in Art Deco style and otherwise during the 1920’s boom period.

2) When the depression hit, Asheville was devastated. The City itself nearly went bankrupt; an economic pall settled over the area for over 50 years; and there was no reason to do anything other than let buildings stand vacant or underutilized because nothing much was happening.

3) When the interstate came through downtown and the Asheville Mall was built in the 60’s and early 70’s, downtown was effectively dead.4) What followed was basically a 30 year period during which businesses closed and downtown was left boarded up with empty sidewalks. Combined with the long-term economic challenges the mountain area had faced, a profound pessimism settled over the community so that every new idea floated to bring the city back was met with an oft-repeated refrain: “That will never work here – don’t even try.”

5) Some of that pessimism was reinforced when large-scale solutions attempted by city leaders failed. A proposal was floated demolish a large part of the historic downtown and replace it with an enclosed mall. That idea was voted down but in the process local citizens became much more invested in saving and bringing back downtown. Citizen resistance was led by John Lantzius, who was already busy, with his sister, Dawn, renovating buildings, in one of the blocks slated for demolition, and providing low-cost spaces for local businesses. Other large-scale projects were actually completed by out-of-town developers during this period but the projects failed financially.  The large-scale failures were part of the story of the 80’s.

6) However, another part of the 80’s story was that the local citizen reaction to the downtown mall proposal combined with the fact that those failed large-scale projects which were completed also served as sort of  “first buds of spring” to give people a little hope, encouraged some of the remaining local entrepreneurs to hold on and some new ones to take a chance on downtown. . .

Continue reading. Before and after photos at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 April 2015 at 1:05 pm

An impressionistic rendering of the SOTD today

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Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 11.22.14 AM

Created via this site.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 April 2015 at 11:24 am

Posted in Daily life, Software

Should colleges deal with felony crimes—e.g., rape—internally? or involve the police?

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Most colleges (outside of fictional whodunits) will not consider handling a murder as an internal matter, but for some reason colleges often deem themselves qualified to deal with the felony of rape. They have not, however, done a good job: their feeling is unmatched by the facts.

In the New Yorker Margaret Talbot reviews a book by Jon Krakauer that examines a spate of sexual assaults at the university in Missoula, Montana:

Should sexual assaults that occur on college campuses be handled by the school or by the criminal-justice system? Rape is often treated as a matter for the internal tribunals that weigh issues like plagiarism and cheating, even though the investigation and adjudication of other serious crimes—a dorm-room murder, say—would never be handled by a small group of faculty and students with no particular forensic or legal training. One reason is that the Department of Education has pressured colleges and universities to deal swiftly with rape allegations in order to comply with civil-rights law and to make campuses safe for women students. But the other is that people who have been raped are often reluctant to go to the police. These women (and sometimes men) know that their sojourn through the criminal-justice system is likely to be a further ordeal, and they may have little confidence that it will lead to any punishment for the perpetrator. The statistics support that skepticism: only a tiny fraction of reported rapes are successfully prosecuted.

The stories told in Jon Krakauer’s new book, “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town,” remind us of what a brave and risky thing it still is for a woman to report a rape. Krakauer, who has written for this Web site, explores a spate of sexual assaults that occurred on and around the campus of the University of Montana between 2008 and 2012. For several of the women involved, the risk of reporting their rapes felt even more acute because the men they were naming were football players in a town that, like a lot of college towns, is football crazy. The team was the Grizzlies; Missoula is also known as Grizzlyville. Two of the cases eventually went to court. One involved a Grizzly linebacker named Beau Donaldson, who pleaded guilty to having raped a young woman who’d been a childhood friend; she was deeply asleep when he climbed on top of her. The other involved Jordan Johnson, a Grizzly quarterback accused of rape by a woman Krakauer calls by the pseudonym Cecilia Washburn. Johnson maintained the sex was consensual.

By nature, criminal trials are public, probing, and adversarial. They attract judgment from the troll chorus on the Internet, from prospective jurors, from cops, from people around town, many of whom may hold antiquated ideas about what constitutes rape—imagining perhaps that most are committed by marauding strangers when in fact most rapists and their victims are acquainted. The woman who had accused Jordan Johnson had the misfortune of coming up against two particularly belligerent defense attorneys. One of them, Kirsten Pabst, was a former prosecutor. She does not come off well in the book—she crops up earlier as the Missoula prosecutor who declined to bring criminal charges in an egregious case where the University of Montana had determined an accused rapist to be guilty. In Johnson’s trial, Pabst portrayed her client’s accuser as . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 April 2015 at 9:53 am

The Whistleblower’s Tale: How An Accountant Took on Halliburton

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The corruption and dishonesty of modern corporations is striking, but I suppose corporations of yesteryear were equally awful. Jesse Eisinger reports at ProPublica:

The email that ruined Tony Menendez’s life arrived on a warm and sunny February afternoon in 2006. Menendez is, by nature, precise and logical, but his first instinct was somewhat irrational. He got up to close the door to his office, as if that might somehow keep the message from speeding across cyberspace. Then he sat down at his desk to puzzle out what had just happened.

The email was sent by Mark McCollum, Halliburton’s chief accounting officer, and a top-ranking executive at Halliburton, where Menendez worked. It was addressed to much of the accounting department. “The SEC has opened an inquiry into the allegations of Mr. Menendez,” it read. Everyone was to retain their documents until further notice.

Panic gripped Menendez. How could McCollum have learned he had been talking to the SEC? The substance of the email was true. After months of raising concerns inside the company, Menendez had filed a complaint with regulators and Halliburton’s audit committee that accused the giant oil services company of violating accounting rules. But those complaints were supposed to be kept strictly confidential. Did the agency violate that trust? Did a board member? Somebody had talked.

Ten minutes passed, maybe fifteen. Menendez finally could move. He got up, opened his office door carefully and looked out. The floor normally bustled at that hour in the mid-afternoon. It had cleared out. He turned around quickly, grabbed his computer and rushed out of the heavily secured Halliburton complex north of Sugarland, Texas.

Menendez drove around for hours. He doesn’t remember much about where he went or for how long. At some point, he called his wife.

“Ondy,” he cried out to her, frantic. “They outed me!”

As shocked as Menendez was, his wife had seen something like this coming. Tony was a perennial optimist, even naïve. He always thought the company would do the right thing and fix its accounting problem. More jaded, his wife was prepared for the worst. She’d even urged Tony to start secretly taping his bosses.

“Is anyone following you?” she asked. “Make sure.”

Menendez looked around, seeing only a blur of cars pass at the beginnings of evening rush hour. He didn’t think anyone was tailing him. Then again, how would he know? He needed a lawyer – right now. Only months into the best job he’d ever had, he was in the most trouble of his professional career.

Menendez quickly googled “whistleblower” and “lawyer” on his phone and came up with Philip Hilder, the attorney who had represented the Enron whistleblower, Sherron Watkins. He placed the call and got through. Hilder heard Menendez out and then told him to listen carefully. Hilder instructed Menendez not to tell anyone, not even his wife. Too late for that, and he wouldn’t have kept it from Ondy anyway. They were partners.

“Ok. Then don’t talk on the phone anymore. Don’t talk in your office. Don’t talk in your house,” Hilder continued.

“How quickly can you come in to see me?”

I met Tony and Ondy Menendez this past winter, in a suburb less than an hour outside Detroit. Now 44, Menendez speaks earnestly and insistently, with the carefully chosen words one would expect from an accountant. His cheeks carry a tinge of pink and, at the slightest smile, his eyes are consumed by crow’s feet. He hid a bulky frame with a corduroy jacket over a black V-neck sweater.

They told me about their long and agonizing fight against a powerful corporation. It’s a story of what it takes to be a whistleblower in America – and what it takes out of you.

Many whistleblowers come undone after they launch their fights. They have trouble keeping their jobs, their marriages, their sobriety. Even friends who are sympathetic often see them as pains in the ass. They are forever marked by a scarlet “W.” And while whistleblowers naturally start off more skeptical than the average, the experience pushes some into often justifiable paranoia. If you want to know why whistleblowers can seem a little crazy, it’s because anybody who is not a little bit crazy would back away from the ordeal of confronting a corporate behemoth or grinding government bureaucracy.

There’s nothing crazy about Menendez, however, beyond an optimism that persists even when the facts don’t warrant it. Throughout the whole struggle, he just knew that somehow, sometime, the world would come around to seeing he was right about Halliburton.

Menendez grew up in Houston, the son of a jovial construction worker with an eighth-grade education. His father had once . . .

Continue reading. It’s a long article and tells an interesting story: well worth reading in its entirety.

Wouldn’t it be amazing to encounter a corporation that was honest, forthright, and transparent—and actually supported its employees?

Written by LeisureGuy

23 April 2015 at 10:44 am

Posted in Business, Daily life, Law

The coolness test

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My 12-year-old grandson asked for and received a kilt for his birthday, so he’s wearing it to school today. His mom asked if he was prepared for some of kids to be unkind, and he said that he’d just tell them that seeing a boy in a skirt is a coolness test, and they failed.

Definitely a cool kid.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 April 2015 at 10:39 am

Posted in Daily life


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