21 May 2014

Arturo Prat Don't Give a Shit

Today, May 21st, Chileans celebrate the heroics of a guy named Arturo Prat, known in some circles as "the honey badger of the seas." Those circles are mainly located in and around my home, but I hope it'll catch on.

In 1879 Chile and Perú were at war against each other, a nasty and long war for land, copper and saltpeter known as the War of the Pacific. The border areas between Chile and Perú were particularly rough during the war, and one day, a naval battle off the coast of Iquique, Perú, found two rivals of very unequal power facing off against one another. On the Chilean side, a very old wooden corvette named Esmeralda, and a slightly more modern wooden schooner called the Covadonga, captured from Spain some time before. On the Peruvian side, the exact opposite: an ironclad monitor called the Huáscar, a fast all-iron ship with a huge turret, and cannon almost eight times heavier than Esmeralda's humble weapons. Next to the Huáscar came the Independencia, a regular corvette, but, but with a coating of armor that protected it (I refuse to call ships "she" or "her," which I think is fucking moronic and everyone does it just because they are sheep. Yes, I'm talking to you.) Prat commanded the Esmeralda, and it and the Covadonga were imposing a blockade of the port of Iquique, a blockade that the Huáscar and Independencia came to end.

The battle didn't pit all four ships against each other simultaneously, but split off between two encounters: the Independencia chased after the fleeing Covadonga (more on that a little later) and the Huáscar, right in front of Iquique, just a few hundred yards from the beach (the Pacific Ocean is quite unforgiving there, just a little bit of beach and then huge precipices) against the Esmeralda.

It is hard to conceive of two more unequal foes than those two. The Huáscar and the Esmeralda were kind of like The Mountain and The Imp, and if you don't know what I'm talking about, you're probably one of those who refers to boats as "she." Ahh, but perhaps what the Esmeralda lacked in power and weaponry, it made up for in speed? Not even close, it was slow, and the Huáscar one of the fastest ships in the world at the time. In short, the Esmeralda was shit, just utter shit. 

But you think you're so clever, you're thinking that you can tell when a story of certain defeat is going to turn into a story of unlikely, against-all-odds victory, and the reason why I'm writing a blog post 135 years after this battle happened is that it resulted in one of the greatest victories in naval history.

Let me disabuse you of that notion right now.

That place in the sea, just a few hundred yards off the coast of Iquique, Perú? Today the Esmeralda lies right there, at the bottom of the ocean, where it was sent that day, nearly its entire crew down with it. And on the Peruvian side? I think one dude lost a shirt button and another one may have spilled coffee on himself, and not much more.

But it was the way they fought that put them in the history books. When they saw the ship they were facing, the indestructible behemoth with the fearsome reputation, Prat sent the Esmeralda towards it. At first the Huáscar's guns didn't do much damage because they were firing from too far away, since they erroneously thought the Esmeralda had torpedoes (yep, they had torpedoes in 1879, I absolutely shit you not.) When they started to get more accurate, Prat positioned the Esmeralda between the Huáscar and the city of Iquique, so that any shots from the Huáscar that missed went into the city and killed the Huáscar's own countrymen behind. So the Huáscar started shooting in a parabolic angle, firing into the sky so the shots would fall on the Esmeralda. While all the shots from the Esmeralda bounced harmlessly off the Huáscar's hull, the shots from the Huáscar that did hit were causing a carnage in the Esmeralda. Sailors decapitated by cannon balls, a boiler that exploded and not only killed a bunch of people, but also made the Esmeralda practically immobile, the human toll about the doomed corvette was growing and the Huáscar's commander, a legendary sailor named Miguel Grau (known as the Gentleman of the Seas due to his ethics and chivalry), wanted to put an end to it.

No one in their sane minds could have blamed Prat had he surrendered. The battle was lost and the blockade lifted (so his mission had already failed) and with an immobile ship and ammunition that could not penetrate the enemy's hull,  it was a textbook case of a battle already lost. 
A probably inaccurate rending of the Esmeralda's sinking on May 21st, 1879

But Arturo Prat, true to the moniker of "honey badger of the seas" that will someday be his, had other plans. Or better said, came up with other plans when he saw what was happening.
Captain Grau decided that he had had enough, and he would ram the Esmeralda. He backed that ass up, placed the Huáscar perpendicular to the Esmeralda, and went full speed ahead, to ram the wooden corvette with its all its iron might. 

At that moment, as he saw this mountain of steel come straight at his crippled vessel, Arturo Prat ordered a white flag raised and surrendered his ship. Just kidding. That's what any normal, sane person would have done. But this dude had a different idea. He though "great, when the two ships crash against each other, I can just jump on the other ship and fight there man to man." So he grabbed his sword and gun, and when the two ships collided, this motherfucker jumped on the other ship, like it was nothing. With the smoke from the fire and the deafening noise from steel crushing wood, only two sailors saw or heard Prat's call to board the enemy ship, and one fell straight into the water, the other made it to the other ship and was gunned down shortly thereafter. So Arturo Prat was fighting the enemy in their own ship, all by himself. He was wounded almost immediately, but he kept going. He killed a sailor that ran at him (the Huáscar's only casualty in the entire battle, while the Chileans would lose 143 dead and 57 taken prisoner) before finally being shot and killed. 

On the second ramming attempt, twelve Chilean sailors boarded the ship and suffered a similar fate. The Esmeralda sank to the bottom of the Pacific.
The encounter between the other two ships was treated by history as a separate battle, the Battle of Punta Gruesa, and the Chilean ship Covadonga, which seemed to be running away, led its pursuer Independencia to shallow waters, where it got stuck, at which point the  Covadonga turned around and shelled it mercilessly until it surrendered.

But the Naval Battle of Iquique was a turning point in the war. While technically a Peruvian victory (the blockade of Iquique was indeed lifted) they lost the Independencia, an important ship, while Chile only lost a very old wooden corvette. But most importantly, Chile gained a hero. The tale of Prat's bravery so moved the Chilean people, that they began to support a war towards which they were previously lukewarm, and enrollment in the armed forces went up, possibly enough to change the course of the war. Chile would end up winning the war a few years later, taking huge parts of previously Peruvian and Bolivian land, and leaving Bolivia landlocked. If Chile is today a rich, prosperous nation, and Bolivia an extremely poor one, it has a lot to do with the outcome of this war, of which this naval battle is its most famous focal point. 

I despise war, jingoism, and that moronic assumption that soldiers are automatically heroes. They are not. They rarely are. And it would have been nice if Prat's valor had only cost him his own life and not sent 150 other men to their deaths. Yes, the sailors of the Esmeralda are in the pages of naval lore, and songs were sung about their courage but, as Robb Stark said after the Whispering Wood: the dead won't hear them.

Oh, and Iquique, Perú, the port city that Arturo Prat died to keep Peruvian forces from reaching? Today it is Iquique, Chile

Prat was only 31 years old, and a lawyer by trade. By now, you probably picture him as some sort of 19th century Rambo/John McClane superhero. Yet thin and balding, this is what he looked like.

01 June 2013

Amy Marcellus

Amy Marcellus is a friend of mine, someone with whom I worked shoulder-to-shoulder five days a week for three years, which happened to be the most important three years of my life, during which I became a father. She was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer last January, and has undergone surgery, a double mastectomy, and chemotherapy. A few months younger than me at 36, she belongs entirely to my generation, which strikes much too close to home. I wrote a little bit about her on this blog last year, when she witnessed her boyfriend Brandon senselessly killed in front of her by a gun-toting idiot who started a confrontation and then used a gun to end it (and got away with it thanks to Florida's Stand Your Ground law.) 

I have learned much more about Amy now at a distance than I did in all those years of close proximity. In the space of 10 months her life was shattered to a point almost unimaginable to others, from seeing the man she loved being killed in front of her, for no reason, no purpose (and with no justice) to being diagnosed herself with a life-threatening illness, yet I have not heard or read one single word of self-pity from her. Seriously, not one word. I find this astonishing. I was always annoyed by that whole "you are so brave" thing being said to people facing illnesses, as if they truly had a choice. But now I see it. There's a great bit of dialogue in Game of Thrones where 7 year-old Bran asks his father "can someone be afraid and still be brave?" and Lord Stark answers "that's the only time someone can be brave". I myself don't know that it is the only time, but it sure as hell is a good time for it.

Her friends are having a big benefit for her today in upstate New York, with the purpose of raising money for her. If you can't go, please donate whatever you can here. All you need is your debit card.
If you can't give much, just ten dollars would be appreciated. Can't do ten? Five dollars would be fantastic still. It's super simple to donate, and you can leave your name or do it anonymously. And if you could help us share this (you could repost this or you could just link to the GoFund page with a brief explanation, on Facebook or Twitter), that would be enormously appreciated too. Even if you're reading this after June 1st, you can still give.

Thank you so much for reading this.

Here's the website again:  http://www.gofundme.com/2w3ua8 

20 September 2012

Obama bribes Orly

via my friend @D_R_Bastiches:

You know that Obama Campaign email everyone got, inviting you to a dinner with the President? As in, the email everyone but EVERYONE in America (anyone who ever contributed to the Obama campaign, or to any Democratic candidate, or anyone who ever drew a breath in the continental United States during the Obama Administration) got? Orly Taitz thinks it was meant for her. Oh yes she did:

the mass email Orly thinks was her personal invitation to dine with a frightened President Obama, surely to beg her to cease her efforts to unmask him as a gay Kenyan communist redistributionist.

13 September 2012

What Can Joshua Treviño Teach Us About Humility?

So this happened:
August 15th: The Guardian announces the hiring of murder advocate Joshua Treviño.

Later that same day Treviño, responding to criticism of The Guardian's move, acts like an arrogant asshole.

August 24th: Upon realizing that they had just hired an amoral sociopath, and seeing that no article of his would ever be free from the stench emanating from all his previous writings, The Guardian takes a page from the Harriet Miers saga and fires Treviño's ass for something supposedly unrelated.

September 13th: The Guardian publishes an article by Max Blumenthal, who apparently has something that Treviño desperately wants, if Joshua's abrupt departure from all things Internet at the very moment of his firing is any indication.

Lesson: don't be a dick in victory, or you may be humiliated beyond expectation in defeat.

21 March 2012

On Florida's stand-your-ground law.

In the early hours of Tuesday, March 6th, 2012, just a few days after Trayvon Martin was executed by child-murderer George Zimmerman, a man named Seth Browning shot and killed a man named Brandon Baker in Palm Harbor, FL.
Not only do I live in Palm Harbor, not only was Brandon murdered in front of the home where I lived for two and a half years (until I moved out to get married and start a family) but I had known Brandon for quite a while. His long-time girlfriend Amy was first a friend and then a coworker for many years. His twin brother Chris dated another friend, and independently from them, I've known their sister Brandy for more than eleven years. It is always expected to call the deceased a good man, but Brandon genuinely was one. He was warm, he was polite, he was hard-working, and he was the nucleus of a group of people who really needed him and loved him. I know this doesn't sound like much, but he never failed to ask me about my son, about my family, always in a way that made me comfortable to go into details, which doesn't usually happen when one dude asks another dude about his child just to fill a gap in the conversation. I have mastered the art of not being seen by acquaintances at the supermarket, mall or sporting events (my loathing of small talk and chit-chat make this necessary) but I never avoided Brandon and actively sought him if I saw him. In short, I thought he was a good man long before his death.

At first sight the killing of Brandon Baker and that of Trayvon Martin don't have a lot in common. Brandon, at 30, was seven years older than his killer, probably a couple dozen pounds heavier, and the same race. But that's where the dissimilarities end. According to news reports, Brandon was driving erratically when Browning, an off-duty security guard (read: wanna-be cop, vigilante, just like Zimmerman) chased after him, presumably to write down his license plate. With the vigilante tailgating him, Brandon pulled over (within sight of the safety of his home, actually on the side road leading to the apartment complex where he lived) and went to confront Browning (who for some reason had also stopped his car. Why? If all he wanted was to get a license plate, why couldn't he just get it and leave?) and was soon joined by his brother Chris, who had been driving behind them the whole time, with Amy in the passenger seat. Instead of just leaving, seeing how he had no business there whatsoever, Browning pepper-sprayed the twins, and then pulled a weapon he was licensed to carry (just like Zimmerman) and shot Brandon, killing him.
Like Zimmerman, Browning was interrogated but never charged. All the information we have of him comes from a previous arrest (h/t @JC_Christian) and he will be cleared by the same stand-your-ground law that has allowed Zimmerman to escape punishment. Let us be clear: Seth Browning sought this conflict, he created it, he invited it, he shot someone and stole a life, yet he is (and will continue to be) a free man. In fact, his freedom is not even in dispute.

This isn't a post meant to highlight that "it happens to white people too, and why isn't CNN covering their story?". Not at all. Trayvon Martin was a child, out on a candy run and on the phone with his young girlfriend, a child that was brutally executed by an animal who will hopefully someday get what he deserves. Brandon was a fully-grown adult who had been driving erratically (I'm told he too was on the phone with his girlfriend, with whom he just had a fight and who was riding closely behind him, and that that was the source of his erratic driving, but it's possible he had been drinking, which makes his situation much more serious than Trayvon's, but never worthy enough of him losing his life) [UPDATE: Brandon was not driving erratically nor was he on the phone, and phone records confirm this] and as far as I can tell, the police did not cover anything up or lied to the press or Brandon's family.
No, this is a post to highlight the insane brutality of the stand-your-ground law, which turns every yahoo with a gun into a potential vigilante, all he (or she, but let's face it: he) has to do is claim he "felt threatened" (a claim as subjective as "it's cold outside" or "purple is my favorite color") and then he can commit murder with impunity. That this law was wholly owned and pushed for by the NRA is so obvious that it barely needs telling.

If you think that these two murders are not enough, check out this other horrifying story, in which a man was shot and killed in front of his eight-year old daughter. Find out why he was killed, by reading the first three paragraphs, and if the reason doesn't send chills up your spine, you are not human. Just like the other two killers, this man waited for police next to the corpse of his executed victim, and was questioned and released.

There cannot be hope for this country while its citizens are being openly slaughtered with impunity and their murderers sheltered by laws passed by pusillanimous cowards wholly owned by the NRA. It's just not possible.

20 September 2011

Troy Davis, Blackwater, and Justice Not Served.

If Troy Davis wanted to be a criminal and get away with it, being at the scene of a murder in the South while flagrantly sporting black skin was certainly a dumb thing to do. What Mr. Davis should have done, of course, was get a job with Blackwater.  Had he done that, Mr. Davis could have gotten away with things such as  multiple murder, weapons smuggling, child prostitution, money laundering and tax evasion, and there would have been no need for bothersome consequences such as convictions and imprisonment.
In September of 2007, seventeen unarmed Iraqui civilians were murdered by Blackwater employees with no provocation, for the hideous crime of being in the way of a State Department convoy that, to be fair, must have been in a pretty big rush. Machine guns, grenade launchers and perhaps even a helicopter were used to slaughter these enemies of freedom.
So what happened to the five Blackwater employees who were charged with weapons violations and voluntary manslaughter (not murder) in a 35-count Justice Department indictment? Well, they had given statements to the State Department that could have been used against them in the prosecution, but since State would have summarily fired them had they refused to give said testimony, their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination were deemed to have been violated and a federal District judge tossed the charges out. This year the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit opened the door for the Justice Department to revive the prosecution of four of the five men originally indicted, but the DOJ has yet to act on it. There is, however, no doubt that the justice system has worked in the favor of these despicable murderers, and society freely accepts that if testimony was coerced out of a person, such testimony is invalid even if tossing it out benefits a clearly guilty party or otherwise hinders their prosecution, so important is the value of clean, clear, convincing testimony in a court of law.

Troy Davis was convicted of murder and sentenced to death on the strength of the testimony of nine witnesses who claimed to have seen him commit the murder (no physical evidence ever linked Davis to the crime, and the murder weapon was never found) and I will be the 1,000,000th person to remind you that seven of the nine witnesses have recanted their testimony; the eight person is Sylvester Coles, who has been implicated in the crime himself, thought by some to be the actual killer.
While it might seem arbitrary to link the Blackwater prosecutions to Troy Davis, they showcase the unequal treatment given to testimony considered to have been tainted, a difference that post-conviction is extraordinary; nobody is arguing the veracity of the Blackwater employees' testimony, simply that the statements themselves were improperly collected, and while there is no evidence of coercion either, just the appearance of impropriety and even a hint that the statements were not entirely voluntary are enough to toss the entire testimony (and with it, the whole case) out, even when it means leaving seventeen murdered people with no justice (and also, of course, leaving the murderers of seventeen people go unpunished). If even the hint of involuntary testimony is enough to toss a case out, what about the recanted, repudiated testimony of seven out of the eight uninvolved witnesses whose testimony was not just important but actually crucial in sending a man to death row? Yes, Troy Davis had been convicted, but that is another arbitrary distinction, since the ultimate goal of the justice system should be the application of justice, and not the relentless defending of the State of Georgia's conviction rate.

There's a story arch in the TV show 'The West Wing' in which an assassination attempt is made on President Bartlet's life, and later on they find out that it had actually been an attempt by white supremacists on the life of Charlie, the president's body man, a black young man who was dating the President's daughter.  Long after the fact, when Communications director Toby Ziegler meets with the President and they discuss how they can't shake off what happened, Bartlet says "We saw a lynching, Toby. That's why it feels like this". If Troy Davis is executed, it'll take a long time for many of us to get over the disgust we will feel with our system, our society and even our country, which is expected whenever a flagrant and appalling miscarriage of justice takes place; but the fact that it will be an innocent black man killed by a State with a long, troubling history of racial hatred despite the absolute lack of any convincing evidence, despite the recanted testimony of virtually everyone who testified against him and even the testimony of jurors who convicted him in the original trial, will make it feel like a lynching. That feeling won't be going away any time soon, and the trust eroded by this awful, disgusting and unfair betrayal of justice might not ever be recovered.

18 September 2011

An Australian looks into what we pay for our healthcare

My Australian friend Toby is fascinated with the health care debate in America, especially by the enormous disparity between what we pay and what we get in return, and he has written a post with all the numbers. Take it away, Aleksandr Ivanovich:

 "...in 2008, the US spent $7220 per capita on healthcare (all figures in 2011 USD).  This represents 17.4% of GDP.  More than half of that is what Americans are paying privately.  Every woman, man and child in the US forked out more than an average $3610 for private healthcare and almost the same again indirectly through tax.
Second place in the staggering statistics department goes to the Netherlands, who spent $4241 per capita, or 12% GDP.  Unlike the US, the Netherlands has a universal health care system, and only about one-sixth of that is in the private sector.
In twenty-third place is Australia, possibly the best match for the US in health after Canada.  After all, Australians eat roughly much the same amount of rubbish, watch a similar amount of terrible television and speak (mostly) the same language (but without the weird accents).  Australia’s figures for 2008 are $3445 per capita or 8.7% of GDP, below the OECD average of 9.5% GDP.
Keeping in mind this total is the private and government sectors  combined per capita, and yet it’s less than what the US pays privately per capita.  Despite this, Australians on average live longer and have better health outcomes than Americans.  The OECD data demonstrates Australia’s universal healthcare system is more efficient than the US private fend-for-yourself system and more effective.  Surely that can’t be right?  Believe me, the healthcare system in Australia isn’t exactly a shining beacon of efficiency, no matter how hard or magnificently those at the coal face work.  How can such a sector, two-thirds funded by governments (i.e. Australian tax payers), be better than the equivalent private sector in the US, the land where the consumer rules?..."

17 September 2011

Hey Ron Paul, what about the children?

Paul Krugman nails Ron Paul and his fans' passion for death, but what about the children?

"The day after the debate, the Census Bureau released its latest estimates on income, poverty and health insurance. The overall picture was terrible: the weak economy continues to wreak havoc on American lives. One relatively bright spot, however, was health care for children: the percentage of children without health coverage was lower in 2010 than before the recession, largely thanks to the 2009 expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or S-chip. 

And the reason S-chip was expanded in 2009 but not earlier was, of course, that former President George W. Bush blocked earlier attempts to cover more children -to the cheers of many on the right. Did I mention that one in six children in Texas lacks health insurance, the second-highest rate in the nation? 

So the freedom to die extends, in practice, to children and the unlucky as well as the improvident. And the right's embrace of that notion signals an important shift in the nature of American politics."