Tuesday, December 30, 2008

History is a Liberal Judge

The Divine Miss M.

Since the death of performer Wayland Flowers in 1988, his over-the-top puppet creation Madame has been seen only sporadically. But with the launch of her new casino tour, Madame is back.
By Lawrence Ferber
The Divine Miss M.

During the 1970s and '80s, a silver-haired Hollywood diva ruled the casinos and cabarets, regularly appeared on TV's Laugh-In and Hollywood Squares, cracked bawdy bon mots with high-rated talk-show hosts, and even starred in her own sitcom, Madame's Place.

Oh…and she was a puppet.

Glammed up in '30s-style gowns, jewelry, and turbans, with a bulbous heart-shaped chin that rivals Popeye's (and Quentin Tarantino's), Madame was the creation of openly gay performer Wayland Flowers, who died of AIDS complications in 1988. After nearly two decades out of the spotlight, and a couple of years warming up with other puppeteers, Madame is making an official comeback on the casino and nightclub circuit with performer Rick Skye pulling the strings in a production titled It's Madame With an E!

Advocate.com recently spoke to Marlena Shell, Flowers's friend and manager and the owner of his numerous puppets, including Madame, Crazy Mary, and Jiffy. Much to our surprise, we got not only Shell but Madame herself (voiced by Skye), talking about her comeback, future plans, and past run-ins with Shari Lewis's Lamb Chop and the ├╝bercloseted Liberace.

Advocate.com: Where have you been all these years, Madame?
Madame: You know how legends are, we never go away. I was holed up in my Hollywood Hills home for a while. Did you see Sunset Boulevard, that old tin can of a movie? I had my butler serving me breakfast in bed, but you can only do that for so many years. I missed my audiences and needed to go back to the stage, so I was clawing my way back up to the top, that's all. And I had to change hands and find someone who was a perfect fit. You don't replace a friend so easily.


Analysis: 'I don't see how this ends well' in Gaza

By Dion Nissenbaum

An Israeli helicopter fires a rocket at a target in Gaza CityJERUSALEM — As Israel clamps down on the Gaza Strip and prepares for the possibility of sending thousands of soldiers into the Palestinian area controlled by the militant Islamic group Hamas, its leaders are facing a diplomatic conundrum: They have clear military goals but no political vision for how to end the confrontation.

"I don't see how this ends well, even if, in two weeks time, it looks like it ends well," said Daniel Levy, a political analyst who once served as an adviser to Ehud Barak, the former Israeli prime minister who's now leading the military campaign against Hamas as Israel's defense minister.

Israel's expanding air strikes already have delivered a costly blow to the Hamas rulers in Gaza by killing hundreds of the group's soldiers and decimating its network of government security compounds.

Beyond that, though, Israeli leaders haven't explained what could bring the violence to a halt. Once the smoke clears, the rubble is removed and the dead are buried, Hamas is still almost certain to remain in control of the Gaza Strip, and its hard-line leaders are already vowing to strike back.

"To the extent to which there's a scenario where Israel wins a tactical round, it will again lose a strategic round," said Levy, a senior fellow at The New America Foundation, a liberal policy institute in Washington, D.C. that's providing ideas and personnel to the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama.

Israel's ongoing campaign is already creating an early foreign policy test for Obama, who's pledged to make Middle East diplomacy an early priority when he takes office next month.



Scientists eager for stem cell policy change

Although President-elect Obama's pledge to change federal policy on stem cell research is not likely to lead to new cures by the end of his first year — or even first term — the scientific community is eager to get moving.

Embryonic stem cell research is one area in which the change that Obama has promised on the campaign trail will provoke an immediate effect.

Once he has acted to ease the restriction on federal funding, researchers across the United States will be free to request funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and to collaborate with colleagues conducting experiments with private or state-government money and those working abroad. "Just with the stroke of a pen, the new president could open up new avenues of research," said Rep. Diana DeGette (Colo.), the lead Democratic sponsor of legislation that would broaden funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Obama has vowed to lift restrictions put in place by President Bush and to enact legislation the current president twice vetoed.

"He would really be signaling that we really are moving in a new direction," DeGette said.


Best 50 Astronomy Pictures of Year 2008

Astronomy is arguably the most beautiful of the sciences. I'm biased, of course, but it's nearly impossible to gaze upon a picture of a galaxy, a moon, a nebula, and not see in it something compellingly artistic. Sometimes it's the color, sometimes the shape, and sometimes it's the knowledge that we can understand the subject of the picture itself.


Science doesn't take away from the beauty of nature. It enhances it, multiplies it.

There are so many incredible astronomical photographs released every year that picking ten as the most beautiful is a substantial task. But it becomes easier when you consider the science behind the image as well. Does this image tell us more than that one? Was the scientific result drawn from an image surprising, or did it firm up a previously considered hypothesis?

Still, there's something to be said for a simple, drop dead gorgeous picture.

So here I present my Best 50 Astronomy Pictures for 2008

Rays from an Unexpected Aurora


This aurora was a bit of a surprise. Possibly more surprising, however, the aurora appeared to show an usual structure of green rays from some locations. In this view, captured from North Dakota, USA, a picket fence of green rays stretches toward the horizon. Mirroring the green rays is a red band, somewhat rare in its own right. Lights from the cities of Bismarck and Mandan are visible near the horizon.

M51: Cosmic Whirlpool

Follow the handle of the Big Dipper away from the dipper's bowl, until you get to the handle's last bright star. Then, just slide your telescope a little south and west and you might find this stunning pair of interacting galaxies, the 51st entry in Charles Messier's famous catalog. Perhaps the original spiral nebula, the large galaxy with well defined spiral structure is also cataloged as NGC 5194. Its spiral arms and dust lanes clearly sweep in front of its companion galaxy (right), NGC 5195. The pair are about 31 million light-years distant and officially lie within the boundaries of the small constellation Canes Venatici.

Young Star Cluster Westerlund 2

Dusty stellar nursery RCW 49 surrounds young star cluster Westerlund 2 in this remarkable composite skyscape from beyond the visible spectrum of light. Infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope is shown in black and white, complimenting the Chandra X-ray image data (in false color) of the hot energetic stars within the cluster's central region. Looking toward the grand southern constellation Centaurus, both views reveal stars and structures hidden from optical telescopes by obscuring dust. Westerlund 2 itself is a mere 2 million years old or less, and contains some of our galaxy's most luminous, massive and therefore short-lived stars.

Merry Christmas from your tree

The GOP winter blunderland


You have to hand it to the Republicans. Seriously. You have to. If not, they'll beat and belittle you, take whatever you have, anyway, and then insist you never had it in the first place.

The nicest thing I can say about the current crop of GOP (Grinches On Parade) ideologues is that they're consistent. With America currently in the shape of an ER patient on a crash cart, Republican politicos still spew their psychotic Bizarro World views; sort of a fragmented funhouse mirror reflection of their already distorted priorities. Up is down. Right is wrong. And if you feel life has you by the short hairs, you're not seeing life the way they do - so it's all your fault.

Take the current collapse of Detroit's auto making industry. In the Republican view, it's not the companies that caused the crisis, it's the greedy union workers who wanted to, damn them to Hell, earn a living wage!

A group of Southern Senators put the kibosh on a vital influx of cash to the automakers because the deal didn't require union workers to trim their salaries to equal those of non-union workers who toil at foreign auto plants in...the South. The Senators, led by Foghorn Leghorn flimflammers extraordinaire Richard Shelby of Alabama and David Vitter of Louisiana, used very quaint language to try to disguise their union-busting bid.

Declared Vitter, "Negotiations on a real restructuring plan failed for one reason only: The union and the Democratic leadership wouldn't agree to any wage concessions by a date certain. None."

Vitter, a Family Values kinda Senator who has, in the past, had trouble keeping his little Vitter critter in his pants whilst around hookers, concluded with a somber, "It's a shame."

Morgan Johnson, president of the UAW in Louisiana, took a less phantasmagorical approach to Vitter's problem with the unionized auto industry. "He'd rather pay a prostitute than pay auto workers."

Now, all of this wage-cutting rumbling could be chalked up to non-political, altruistic reasoning on the Republicans' part. They want to save the country millions of lost jobs, right?

Uh, not really.


Broadband Stimulus Plan: How About Some Data First?

By Ryan Singel


During the Great Depression, the government tried to revive the economy with the New Deal's public work projects, and ended up paying people to dig unneeded ditches.

In today's deep recession, digital age advocates are trying to persuade President-elect Barack Obama to put billions into a nationwide broadband build-out as part of his planned economic stimulus package.

Given that the internet has grown into an indispensable tool for the economy, for people's personal lives and for the nation's political discourse, spending billions to keep it stable and expand its reach is simply common sense.

But how do we make sure that the billions aren't spent creating the 21st century equivalent of ditches to nowhere?

The question of how to spend that money most effectively is largely unanswerable, since almost no one knows anything about the internet's infrastructure and those that do know aren't sharing that information with policymakers or regulators.

In a radio address earlier this month, Obama already signaled that the stimulus package will earmark billions to spur broadband deployment in order to keep the U.S. from sinking even lower than 15th on the list of well-wired countries.

There are many urging that the $800 billion or so economic stimulus plan include money for broader broadband. Higher education IT consortium EDUCAUSE suggests $100 billion (.pdf) be spent on fat fiber optic links to homes, while FreePress, a net neutrality advocacy group, has a $44 billion plan. For its part, the FCC has a pending proposal to open a swath of the airwaves dedicated to free, but filtered, wireless internet.

But the problem is that no one knows the best way to make the internet more resilient, accessible and secure, since there's no just no public data. The ISP and backbone internet providers don't tell anyone anything.

For instance, the government doesn't know how many people actually have broadband or what they pay for it.

In short, how can anyone decide what's the best way to build a bigger information super-highway when the toll operators won't say anything about the current use of the road?


Heaven for the Godless?


In June, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a controversial survey in which 70 percent of Americans said that they believed religions other than theirs could lead to eternal life.

This threw evangelicals into a tizzy. After all, the Bible makes it clear that heaven is a velvet-roped V.I.P. area reserved for Christians. Jesus said so: "I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." But the survey suggested that Americans just weren't buying that.

The evangelicals complained that people must not have understood the question. The respondents couldn't actually believe what they were saying, could they?

So in August, Pew asked the question again. (They released the results last week.) Sixty-five percent of respondents said — again — that other religions could lead to eternal life. But this time, to clear up any confusion, Pew asked them to specify which religions. The respondents essentially said all of them.

And they didn't stop there. Nearly half also thought that atheists could go to heaven — dragged there kicking and screaming, no doubt — and most thought that people with no religious faith also could go.

What on earth does this mean?

One very plausible explanation is that Americans just want good things to come to good people, regardless of their faith. As Alan Segal, a professor of religion at Barnard College told me: "We are a multicultural society, and people expect this American life to continue the same way in heaven."



Churches fall to foreclosure

Houses of God land in bankruptcy amid mortgage crisis

By Suzanne Sataline

EASTON, Md. — The auctioneer told the small crowd huddled outside the Talbot County Courthouse that the property would be sold as is — rectory, bell tower, oak pews and rose-tinted stained-glass windows included.

"Who gives $700,000, 700, 700?" he called out. One man, a representative for a local bank, raised his finger. The auctioneer tried in vain to nudge the price up. "Sold!" he cried. St. Andrew Anglican Church had just been bought by the bank that had started foreclosure proceedings against it. 

"It's probably good for my soul to be taken down a notch," the Right Rev. Joel Marcus Johnson, the rector of St. Andrew, said after the auction.

During this holiday season of hard times, not even houses of God have been spared. Some lenders believe more churches than ever have fallen behind on loans or defaulted this year. Some churches, and at least one company that specialized in church lending, have filed for bankruptcy. Church giving is down as much as 15 percent in some places, pastors and lenders report.

The financial problems are crimping a church building boom that began in the 1990s, when megachurches multiplied, turning many houses of worship into suburban social centers complete with bookstores, gyms and coffee bars. Lenders say mortgage applications are down, while some commercial lenders no longer see churches as a safe investment.


"EMPTY PROMISE": The broken federal commitment behind the Tennessee coal ash disaster

coal_ash_spill_7.jpgWhen Earthjustice Attorney Lisa Evans testified earlier this year before a congressional committee about the looming threat from coal combustion waste, she warned that the federal government's broken pledge to regulate disposal of the potentially dangerous material threatened the health and safety of communities across the country.

Speaking before a June 10 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Natural Resources titled "How Should the Federal Government Address the Health and Environmental Risks of Coal Combustion Waste?," Evans pointed out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in its Regulatory Determination on Wastes from the Combustion of Fossil Fuels published in 2000 that federal standards for disposal of coal combustion waste were needed to protect public health and the environment.

The federal failure to regulate the waste has put 23 states -- including Tennessee -- in a special bind, since their statutes have "no more stringent" provisions prohibiting them from enacting standards stricter than those found in federal law. Without federal action, those states can't regulate coal combustion waste disposal beyond the few obviously inadequate safeguards that now exist.

Yet the U.S. government's commitment to regulate the very real danger of coal combustion waste -- the nation's second-largest industrial waste stream with 129 million tons produced each year  -- remains "an entirely empty promise," Evans testified [pdf]:
EPA and [the federal Office of Surface Mining] are fiddling while ash from burning coal poisons our water and sickens our communities. Inadequate state laws offer scant protection. Federal environmental statutes dictate that EPA and OSM must do what they promised to do and what they have been directed to do -- promulgate enforceable minimum federal standards to protect health and the environment nationwide from the risks posed by mismanagement of coal combustion waste.
Evans' testimony seems almost eerily prescient now in the wake of the disaster that befell an Eastern Tennessee community this week following the collapse of a lagoon holding coal combustion waste from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston power plant. The resulting deluge inundated 12 nearby homes, buried more than half a square mile in four to six feet of hazardous waste, and blocked a tributary of the Tennessee River, which provides drinking water for millions of people downstream.

A strong right-hand man

Measuring Madoff

By Scott Burns

Measuring MadoffMedia accounts immediately labeled the disappearance of $50 billion, masterminded by Bernard Madoff, as "the largest fraud in history." It is a greater wealth loss than having a household name company -- such as Walt Disney, Anheuser-Busch or Boeing -- vanish without a trace.

The loss is mind-boggling. But the figure does nothing to convey the damage this man has done.

One way to measure the extent of the damage is to compare the $50 billion to measures of loss in the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports. In 2007 there were 9.8 million crimes against property in the United States. This included about 2.2 million burglaries, 6.6 million larceny-thefts and 1.1 million car thefts.

I think you'll agree that 9.8 million crimes represent a veritable army of miscreants. In spite of that, our total losses to property crimes in 2007 were a mere $17.6 billion. To be sure, it didn't feel "mere" if you suffered a burglary. The average loss was $1,991. Nor was it "mere" if you were one of the 6.6 million people who suffered a larceny-theft. In those, the average loss was $886.

But when you add all the losses in 9.8 million common property crimes, it's just a fraction of the estimated $50 billion loss attributed to Bernard Madoff.

Perhaps 2007 was an "off" year for theft?

Well, there was a slight decline in the number of crimes, but not in the amount lost. In 2006 the report shows nearly 10 million crimes against property and losses of another $17.6 billion. Similarly, the 2005 report shows nearly 10.2 million crimes against property and a total loss of $16.5 billion.

Add the three years and you get $51.7 billion. Using that value, Bernard Madoff has caused losses equal to all the losses caused by all the conventional thieves in America for nearly three full years.


RNC chairman candidate defends 'Barack the Magic Negro' song

By Rebecca Sinderbrand

The title of the song about President-elect Barack Obama was drawn from a Los Angeles Times column.A candidate for the Republican National Committee chairmanship said Friday the CD he sent committee members for Christmas -- which included a song titled "Barack the Magic Negro" -- was clearly intended as a joke.

"I think most people recognize political satire when they see it," Tennessee Republican Chip Saltsman told CNN. "I think RNC members understand that."

The song, set to the tune of "Puff the Magic Dragon," was first played on conservative political commentator Rush Limbaugh's radio show in 2007.

Its title was drawn from a Los Angeles Times column that suggested President-elect Barack Obama appealed to those who feel guilty about the nation's history of mistreatment of African-Americans. Saltsman said the song, penned by his longtime friend Paul Shanklin, should be easily recognized as satire directed at the Times.

The CD sent to RNC members, first reported by The Hill on Friday, is titled "We Hate the USA" and also includes songs referencing former presidential candidate John Edwards and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, among other targets.

According to The Hill, other song titles, some of which were in bold font, were: "John Edwards' Poverty Tour," "Wright place, wrong pastor," "Love Client #9," "Ivory and Ebony" and "The Star Spanglish Banner."


Corporations need their stuff!