May 2008

I’m a little more off the grid than I planned to be, so blogging will be light this week. Be back soon..

Frenchman poised for ‘Great Leap,’ a 40-kilometer-high adventure

He has spent two decades, and nearly $20 million, in a quest to fly up 40 kilometers to the upper reaches of the atmosphere using a helium balloon, just so he can jump back to Earth again. Now Michel Fournier says he’s ready at last to make his “Great Leap.”

Depending on weather conditions, Fournier, a 64-year-old retired French Army officer, will attempt what he has dubbed Le Grand Saut (The Great Leap) on Sunday over the plains of northern Saskatchewan, Canada. He will climb into the gondola of a helium balloon that when inflated resembles a giant jellyfish. A two-hour journey will take him to 130,000 feet – higher than any balloonist has been before.

At that altitude he will see the blackness of space on the horizon and the curvature of Earth below, and experience weightlessness. Then he plans to step out of his capsule wearing only a pressurized suit and a parachute, and plunge to Earth in a mere 15 minutes.

If successful, Fournier will fall longer, farther and faster than anyone has in history. Along the way he will accomplish other firsts, breaking the sound barrier and records that have stood for nearly 50 years.

So yes, there are old parachutists and bold parachutists, and there are old, bold parachutists. Godspeed Michel Fournier!

In Pajamas Media, he describes his battle for freedom of thought and expression:

Today a French court ruled that I did not defame France 2 when I said that its news report was a staged hoax. Because I refused to be brainwashed, I was sued for defamation.

Our victory today was a victory for freedom — the freedom to think and to speak one’s mind; the freedom to question what one is told; and the freedom to disbelieve the solemn pronouncements of others when the individual concludes that his reasoning is correct and that the state and the state-run media — and all of the institutions they represent — are wrong.

The al-Dura lie is an assault on our ability to think, to criticize, to evaluate, and finally to reject information — especially the right to reject information on which we base our most cherished assumptions. One of Europe’s most cherished assumptions is that Israel is a vicious Nazi-like entity that deliberately murders Palestinian Arab children. Moreover, polls conducted in Europe have identified Israel as the greatest threat to world peace, greater than Iran and North Korea, Pakistan and Syria. The al-Dura hoax is one of the pillars on which these assumptions rely.

It is ironic that I, a private individual, had to lecture one of France’s most influential TV stations in order to demonstrate that a child cannot move; lift his head, arm, and leg; stare at the camera; and still be considered “dead” a good 10 seconds after the newscaster tells us “the child is dead.” One need only look at France 2’s own footage to realize that the “death” scene was faked.

My only objective was to correct this error. However, on the part of the French media, it turned into a titanic battle against critical thinking and freedom of thought and expression…

Richard Landes and Fausta have more.

As expected, Charles Enderlin of France 2 is sticking to his story, and most of the media is ignoring Karsenty.

Michele Catalano is back, published in Pajamas Media, discussing the case of Lori Drew, the 49-year-old mother of two whose MySpace prank resulted in the suicide of a 13-year-old girl.

Lori Drew, the mother of Megan’s former best friend, created “Josh Evans” for the sole purpose of interfering in her daughter’s social life. Drew claims she started the charade just to see if Megan was saying anything about her daughter on MySpace. Why it became mean, cruel, and vicious is something only she knows. She has made excuses for her actions, but none that excuse the abhorrent behavior that literally crushed Megan’s spirit and led to her suicide. A grown woman posted messages as a teenage boy, saying hurtful, horrible things to a 13-year-old girl that she knew was suffering from depression to begin with. How did she know? Because Megan went on vacations with that family. They knew she took medication. She was the best friend of their daughter. And yet this mother decided to interfere in her daughter’s life to the extent that she became a part of, and a cause of, so much teenage drama.

There were immediate cries for justice and punishment. Someone needed to be held responsible for Megan’s death and the public outcry indicated that they wanted Lori Drew’s head. But did she commit a crime? While her actions were certainly despicable and vile, were they criminal?

I met someone like Lori Drew..

When I was about 10, my mother’s co-worker and friend, Eileen*, a psychiatric nurse, invited me over her house to play with her daughter, Anna**, another only child.

While we were sitting in the basement den, watching reruns of “The Munsters,” and eating white powdered donuts, Anna casually mentioned that she had a crazy aunt living in her attic. According to Anna, this aunt, her mother’s sister, had to be locked up in the room upstairs, hidden away, for many years because she was cannibal who ate children. Anna told me how scared she was of the crazy aunt in the attic. The whole story started her crying, and I felt awfully sorry for her, having to live in a house with a cannibal upstairs. I asked her what they fed her cannibal aunt. She held up a donut and looked through the middle of it.

Anna’s tears stopped and she smiled. “These” she said. “Want to help me feed her?”

“No” I said, partly because I was scared, and partly because the cannibal aunt story was sounding more than a little cheesy. First of all, Anna stopped crying pretty fast. Also, I’d listened to Eileen and my mom talking a few times, and she never mentioned a sister. Eileen might have some really good reasons not to mention her, but then I remembered that they’d just moved into their house. Some of the moving tags were still on the furniture. The aunt couldn’t have been locked in the same upstairs for years.

In fact, I remembered that Eileen’s family moved fairly often. It would take a lot of work to set up an attic prison for a cannibal aunt. Even if they did have a mobile cannibal aunt prison, it just didn’t sound like something they could have kept secret after all those moves.

Anna’s response to my expressed doubts was to say “You’re chicken”.

I was, but the story still sounded like b.s.

Anna said, “I’ll prove it to you.” She took me upstairs, past her mother, who was working in her office. Eileen waved as we walked by. I carried the donuts. Anna carried a note pad.

We reached the attic door. The upstairs was brightly lit and freshly carpeted. The door to the attic was painted a sunny yellow. But there was, inexplicably, a small slot cut into the bottom of the door.

We sat crouched beside the door, arms wrapped around our legs. Anna slid a donut through the slot, then giggled into her skinned knees. I heard sniffing, then slurping behind the door.

Anna was nearly exploding with giggles by then, the kind that come from trying not to laugh. I smelled dog breath and figured out her dumb trick.

“You jerk, that’s just a dog” I said, but then I heard the wicked cackles behind the door. That was no dog.

There really was someone behind the door. Anna didn’t have any brothers or sisters who would be playing a trick on me – she didn’t even know any other kids in town, because she just moved there. So who was that?

“See, I told you.” Anna said. She scribbled a note asking her aunt if she was hungry. She slid the note through the slot. After a few demonic laughs the same piece of paper came back out, covered with what looked like drool. Anna read, nearly weeping with laughter. She said, “my aunt writes that she smells fresh meat”. There was something written on the paper, but I was too busy running away to read it.

Terrified, I stumbled downstairs and bolted for the front door. Eileen, the mother and the nurse, was running behind me. She was laughing, just like Anna.

“We fooled you” they both laughed.

Anna said. “That was mom. She was just pretending”

Eileen, the 30+, respectable, employed adult, was apparently the mastermind of this plot. There was a fire escape that led from her office to the attic, and the previous owners had a pet door built in the door upstairs for a cat. She and her daughter came up with the cannibal aunt story and planned this all out before I arrived.

Their confession freaked me out more than the idea of a cannibal aunt. A mom plotting with her kid to scare the wits out of a 10 year old? My kid-brain couldn’t process the idea that a mom would do something like that.

However, my brain could process the fact that Eileen was a psycho bitch, and there was no way I was spending another minute in that house.

My mother was upset that I walked home without telling her where I was, and she thought I over-reacted, but Eileen didn’t come over much anymore. When she did, I’d leave the house. I didn’t play with Anna anymore, but I did feel sorry for her, having a crazy mom.

So, yeah, shunning is the nicest thing we as a society can do for our Lori Drews.

* Not their real names

Todd Seavey on atheism and (not versus) faith:

And for all their rather mean-spirited insistence that we non-religious folk are myopic and self-absorbed (and nasty and hollow and what have you), it seems to me that religious people — aside from the gullible portion who believe sketchy reports of concrete miracles being observed throughout the world (bleeding statues and what have you), which would at least in principle constitute empirical evidence — tend to be the ones who think they can base plausible beliefs on little more than the deep internal wells of their own emotions and their own certitude. No scientist would be so arrogant and self-aggrandizing as to say “My theory must be true because it fills my heart with joy!”..

On the need to talk about these things:

…And so if one must probe a believer’s thinking — and I honestly don’t seek to do this as sport on a regular basis, but believers keep talking about the topic, and it would be unethical not to respond — one will usually find them implicitly or explicitly falling back on, essentially, a “Don’t make me sad” argument for continued belief. And no decent person wants to make anyone else sad…

…Just as it would be wrong to teach children that nothing that makes them sad (even in the short term) can be true, we are not helping to foster mental adulthood in our religious acquaintances by pretending that our desire to avoid saddening them is itself proof of the validity of their beliefs. I can happily stay off the topic if people don’t want to talk about it — and, wisely perhaps, most people don’t — but if they insist on doing so, they will not get my submissive pretense of assent. And even the most intellectually-sophisticated religious believers I’ve known (take for example Read Schuchardt, whose lecture on religious symbolism I’ll attend Thursday next week, 6:30, at the Albert Ellis Institute at 45 East 65th St.) have tended at some point to hint at believing out of fear of the imagined emotional alternatives: despair, loss of purpose, inability to make decisions, immoral impulses, etc.

Why not address such fears directly instead of clinging to something that wards them off at the price of abnegating one’s reason and skeptical faculties, like a child clutching a teddy bear? Not that one cruelly relishes being anti-teddy-bear, of course. (I like Pooh, who is not so unlike a Narnia character.)

More here and here

People have been calling Bill O’Reilly’s bit of temper here ‘rage’.

They don’t know their Irish. O’Reilly didn’t leap over his desk, drop-kick the camera and throttle the teleprompt writer while swearing to salt his lands and bestow eternal vengeance upon his descendants.

That wasn’t rage, it was hardly a hissy fit.

..featured in the New York Times:

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Jane Novak, a 46-year-old stay-at-home mother of two in New Jersey, has never been to Yemen. She speaks no Arabic, and freely admits that until a few years ago, she knew nothing about that strife-torn south Arabian country.

And yet Ms. Novak has become so well known in Yemen that newspaper editors say they sell more copies if her photograph — blond and smiling — is on the cover. Her blog, an outspoken news bulletin on Yemeni affairs, is banned there. The government’s allies routinely vilify her in print as an American agent, a Shiite monarchist, a member of Al Qaeda, or “the Zionist Novak.”

They also call her a “docile pupil of a monkey monk – and a non-tummyist”, proving that the Yemeni government may not be immune to the lure of khat…

The worst of her many offenses is her dogged campaign on behalf of a Yemeni journalist, Abdul Karim al-Khaiwani, who incurred his government’s wrath by writing about a bloody rebellion in the far north of the country. He is on trial on sedition charges that could bring the death penalty, with a verdict expected Wednesday.

Ms. Novak, working from a laptop in her Monmouth County living room “while the kids are at school,” has started an Internet petition to free Mr. Khaiwani…

…Nor does she have any background in Middle East studies. One of her opponents in Yemen accused her of being a Zionist member of Aipac, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “I had to Google it,” Ms. Novak said with a chuckle. “I didn’t know what it was.”

It was after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that Ms. Novak, who used to work not far from the World Trade Center, first took an interest in the Arab world. “I thought it would be a good idea to write in the English-language Arabic press on subjects we could all agree on, freedom of the press, equality, stuff like that,” she said.

In 2004, she started her blog,, adorned with a Stars and Stripes logo, and soon wrote an article defending Mr. Khaiwani, who was in prison. He wrote her a letter of thanks, addressing it to “Jane Novak, the American journalist and political analyst.”


Sign the Petition to Protect Media Freedom in Yemen

Yemeni journalist Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani

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