October 9th, 2008


The Men Who Stare at Goats

Jon Ronson's The Men Who Stare at Goats is one of the best books I've read this year. Unfortunately, it's rather hard to describe. Ostensibly it's about US military intelligence's attempts to create psychic/supernaturally powered soldiers ever since the 1950s, but it's also so much more than that.

Ronson, a British journalist and documentarian, keeps the tone light and conversational throughout the book, making it a joy to read. There are parts that will have you absolutely roaring with laughter: Major General Stubblebine, a highly placed military official, continually smashing his face into the wall of his office because he's convinced if he concentrates hard enough he can walk through it (remember, this is all true!); the secret program where soldiers tried to hone their psychic-assassin powers by trying to kill goats just by staring at them (which is where the book gets its name); Ronson's lunch with 1970s celebrity psychic Uri Geller, who claims to not only have been a psychic spy for the CIA but also claims to have been reactivated for the War of Terror.

Invisibility, levitation, astral projection, walking through walls, staring goats to death -- it's all real, and it's all funded by special ops. Not that any of it actually works. The psychic spies who tried to locate Manuel Noriega when he was in hiding kept getting it wrong. (Or maybe it was Noriega's counterspell, which involved putting slips on paper in his shoes inscribed with his enemies' names. I am not kidding! I think this was my favorite part of the book.)

It's all hilarious, until suddenly it's not. It gets very dark, actually, when you realize all these cockamamie special ops programs -- none of which actually worked, remember -- were reactivated for the War on Terror, just like Uri Geller. Remember all those vague Terror Alerts Tom Ridge used to issue back in the early days of the color-coded chart? Ronson suggests they might have been based entirely on the fantasies of "remote viewers," psychic spies who reported visions of mushroom clouds over Boise. And remember those horrible pictures that came out of Abu Ghraib? Ronson discovers some vague clues that it wasn't interrogation taken too far by a handful of bad apples, that it was in fact a psy-ops operation under military intelligence that the public wasn't supposed to learn about. Those pictures were intended for other prisoners to see, no one else. (We also learn from one solider stationed in Abu Ghraib that the prison was haunted "like the Overlook Hotel...It was like the building [famous for prisoner abuses under Saddam Hussein] wanted to be back in business.")

An absolutely amazing book, and highly recommended. You will not believe the shit special ops has tried to develop for military use! And really, none of it is working. Ronson blames a lot of the failures of the War on Terror on the government's over-reliance on this completely screwed up Jedi Warrior bullshit. As I said, it's all hilarious until you realize it's real and fully funded by the US military. Then it becomes scary.

Kath & Kim

Only fifteen minutes into the pilot episode I feel entirely confident in passing judgment on this new sitcom, remade from an Australian series, as the worst, most unfunny thing NBC has aired since the U.S. remake of Coupling. It's completely awful.

Don't get me wrong, it's fun to stare at Selma Blair's cute bellybutton, but even that's not enough to fill thirty minutes. And I love cute bellybuttons!

I give Kath & Kim four episodes before it's canceled and replaced with reruns of My Name is Earl or The Office. Also, an executive will be fired. Mark my words.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go delete it from my DVR's series manager. And the first episode isn't even over yet.