Produced by real boobies!

>> Tuesday, September 30, 2008

And here, on a lighter note, is something I missed. I was going through entries in my RSS reader (I use Brief for Firefox, because even with its flaws it organizes things the way I like/expect them to be organized), and I ran across this entry on Orac's blog, about how PETA sent an open letter to Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream imploring them to replace cow's milk. With human breast milk. From real human breasts.

Now, I'm sure a common reaction to this would be something thoughtful, like, for instance, "Ewwwwwwwwww!" Of course, this isn't really a rational reaction, or I'm not sure it is. I mean, hey, it's breast milk we're talking about here, not puddle scrapings. I haven't tasted the stuff since I was--well, I'd have to ask my Mom when I was weaned (Mom, feel free to leave a comment). So I have no recollection of what it tastes like, but I have been told that it has what was described, if I recall correctly, as a "melon-ey" taste. I think maybe cantaloupe was mentioned. Anyone else who wants to comment on that, preferably with some sort of expertise on the subject, please do: I'm not saying mother's milk tastes like cantaloupe, only that I seem to recall a conversation--I think it was over a vicious game of Spades back in law school--in which a fellow student... well, let's just skip the story, and merely say that I'm pretty sure a "melon" or "cantaloupe" taste was mentioned, and I have no idea whether that's typical or merely reflects a particular diet; I merely wonder what it would do to chocolate.

The milk, PETA tells us:

Storchen restaurant is set to unveil a menu that includes soups, stews, and sauces made with at least 75 percent breast milk procured from human donors who are paid in exchange for their milk. If Ben and Jerry's replaced the cow's milk in its ice cream with breast milk, your customers-and cows-would reap the benefits.

...which seems like it might work for a restaurant, but one has to wonder if Tracy Reiman, the Executive Vice-President of PETA who wrote the letter, has the faintest idea how many millions of pints Ben & Jerry's ships to various stores across the United States, not to mention all the pints in various supermarkets and groceries around the country. I'm not sure how much milk goes into the racks of Ben & Jerry's I see in the Harris Teeter where I do my shopping, but it seems like an awful lot. And we're not even talking about ice cream on sticks and things like that. A quick trip to the Ben & Jerry's website mentions that the company has a 1000-gallon stainless steel blender. Which is... um... well, I'd ask how many breastfuls of milk that is, except Medline says that human breasts don't actually store very much milk.

And Ben & Jerry's is only one producer of ice cream. What about Häagen-Dazs? Pet? Breyer's? DQ? Get everybody on the breast milk express and... and....

Would it be silly to suggest that PETA's apparent advocacy of factory-farming women for their milk is one of the most thoughtlessly anti-feminist, anti-woman proposals since... since... I don't even know when. I just know it's a bit of frightening image, imagining all these women hooked up to the pumps. Gigeresque, really.

It's a dumb publicity stunt, right? PETA's not serious, right? They can't be. Well, they can, but maybe they're not.

I mean, it is possible they're a bunch of boobies.



>> Monday, September 29, 2008

This was going to be a post about how $700,000,000,000 would be the equivalent of a $106.02 handout to every human being--man, woman and child--on the face of the Earth, and then I saw that the bailout bill had failed the House. And then this was going to be about how I didn't know how to feel about the failure of the bailout bill, since it looked like it was going to be a pretty shitty deal for the United States but maybe a necessary one for the economy, but then I saw an e-mail from a friend who works for Wachovia. So I called him instead of sitting down to write something, and it wasn't a good conversation.

Wachovia, the fourth-largest bank in the U.S., has been on shaky financial legs all year, and has piled up a stack of bad debt. So much bad debt and so much shaky business, in fact, that it was formally announced today that the bank was going to be bought out by Citigroup. And that, as it happened, wasn't really good news at all, considering that Citigroup is in a death spiral and it appears that Citigroup's motive for wanting Wachovia was to exploit the $700,000,000,000 bailout plan; this morning, around 10:30 a.m., the article linked to in this paragraph read:

Just a short time ago, Citigroup was under the scrutiny of investors who worried about the possibility of its collapse given its massive exposure to mortgage-backed securities. The New York-based bank has not turned a profit for three straight quarters, and lost a total of $17.4 billion during that period after writing down its assets by about $46 billion. That's the most write-downs of any U.S. bank.

But the government's proposed $700 billion bailout plan could prove to be the deal's silver lining.

While the plan broadly aims to prevent banks from profiting on the sale of troubled assets to the government, there is an exception made for assets acquired in a merger or buyout, or from companies that have filed for bankruptcy.

This detail could allow Citigroup to sell toxic mortgages and other assets it gained from Wachovia for a higher price than the bank actually paid for them.

That's the old news. Now, around 5:30 p.m., the article reads:

Just a short time ago, Citigroup was under the scrutiny of investors who worried about the possibility of its collapse given its massive exposure to mortgage-backed securities. The New York-based bank has not turned a profit for three straight quarters, and lost a total of $17.4 billion during that period after writing down its assets by about $46 billion. That’s the most write-downs of any U.S. bank.

The failure of the government’s proposed $700 billion rescue plan for financial institutions casts doubt on whether Citigroup will be able to rid itself of some of Wachovia’s bad debt. Some expected the bank to take advantage of the plan and potentially sell toxic mortgages and other assets it gained from Wachovia for a higher price than the bank actually paid for them.

Casts doubt, indeed. What Citigroup has contracted itself to buy at this point is quite a lot of nothing, no, less-than-nothing: Citigroup has contracted itself to buy into a black hole, a zero-dimensional point-of-suck adrift in space. Current stock quotes, as I write this, show Wachovia selling for $1.84 (down nearly 82%) and Citigroup selling for $17.75 (down nearly 12%). And these are two of the largest banking institutions in the country.

Wachovia is headquartered here in Charlotte--banking is the main industry here. My friend tells me people were crying in the streets when he left work this afternoon. That it looked like a scene from a post-apocalyptic film downtown, and I imagine he's right. That Wachovia employees were told they had three months.

He pointed out that the people who are hit hard by the failed $700,000,000,000 bailout are middle-class, that the people who caused this catastrophic fuckup will still get their parachutes, and I imagine he's right about that, too. I don't know exactly how to feel about what happened in Congress today, because I never was convinced that this bailout plan was a good one, and I'm still not.

There's a reason I keep typing all those damn zeros when I refer to it, you know: "a billion" has become so commonplace as to be a near-meaningless euphemism. There are around 200,000,000,000 to 400,000,000,000 estimated stars in our galaxy, by way of a sense of perspective; Congress was on the verge of handing over a wad of cash between two and three times that incomprehensible number with minimal oversight (what oversight had been agreed upon put much of the oversight in the hands of the people who would be administering the money at the Treasury Department, wouldn't you know?).

But I'm also imagining my hometown becoming the banking-industry equivalent of Detroit, and it's not that unreasonable a picture. And I'm thinking about my friend getting squeezed. And, frankly, I'm thinking about my paycheck being direct-deposited into Wachovia in, oh, roughly six hours, and thinking about how I need to call the State Employees' Credit Union this week, something I'd not done mainly because I've been banking with Wachovia and it's predecessor, First Union, since I opened my first bank account in high school.

There's a man walking his dog outside, and talking on his cell phone. The sun is bright and shining, and the weather is beautiful. The fourth-largest bank in the United States is publicly trading for about the price of a medium cuppa joe down at the neighborhood coffee shop. I'm reminded of an apocryphal story that turns out to be untrue: that on the Fourth Of July, 1776, King George III wrote, "Nothing important happened today." It turns out this is a sort of narcissistic distortion of history by Americans: George III apparently didn't keep a diary, but his French counterpart, King Louis XVI, wrote the single word, "Rien"--"Nothing"--in his journal entry for July 14, 1789: the day French revolutionaries seized the Bastille. The world spins and circles, and dogs are walked and cats fed, people park their cars and check their mail and fix their dinners, children are asked what they did at school today and everything seems extraordinarily ordinary this evening. But it's been a busy day, and things happened--possibly everything, tout. And I guess I'm hoping it's extraordinarily ordinary tomorrow evening, and the evening after, and the evening after, and the....

But I'm not sure there's any good reason for the hope, and I have no idea at all what anyone is supposed to do about it.


Sunday miscellany

>> Sunday, September 28, 2008

It's a slow, lazy Sunday and that's just as well. The weather finally broke, after a couple of days of rain, but I didn't go anywhere because there's a fuel shortage around here since Ike shut down a lot of the Gulf Coast refineries.

Nobody has a really good explanation of why we're having the problems we are. The news reports say that North Carolina gets a lot of our petrol from the Coast, but it still seems odd as an explanation. And it's been a little dire and a little crazy: gas lines, stations closing down, people getting into fights, traffic snarled and the police called out to stand around in front of convenience stores to keep the peace. A little crazy, I tell ya'. I was happy to get a tank of regular yesterday, after being down to an eighth of a tank for two days, despite the fact the VW Beetle's owner manual says to never ever use regular gas or Awful Things happen.

(Let's see: fuel shortages and gas lines, an extremely unpopular President, conflict in the Middle East, tensions with Russia--holy crap, people, we've gone through a time warp back to 1979! Alright... anybody who hasn't been born yet, don't interfere with your parents unless you want to cause a paradox and thereby cease to exist. Me, I'm going to see if I can catch a show at CBGB and then buy into Microsoft....)

I've spent most of the day hanging out upstairs with the laptop, listening to music. The sound system is upstairs; most of the time when I'm downstairs I listen to MP3s on a 500GB hard drive, served up by a laptop that's down there. I listen to too many MP3s, it's easy to forget what music is really supposed to sound like. I came up here and listened to The Wall and now I'm doing Kate Bush's first five albums on the multichanger (even Lionheart, which I'm not a huge fan of), and they just sound really, really good compared to what I've allowed myself to get used to.

(The Dreaming is up right now, and I just have to say: I love the fuck out of this album. I thought about saying something and not saying something, but I have to say it. It's a brilliant fucking record. Maybe, if I ever get that Floyd series done, I should go through Kate's catalogue the same way. I adore that woman.)

I went through my photos, and worked on five. These are kind of toss-offs; I think I may also upload a pair of them to DeviantArt, but mostly I did these to have something to put up. I'll try to get some new photos over the next week or so if I can.

Bee (12th July 2008)
A photo from the USNWC trails. Other pictures from the same set were previously featured here.

Cat Cloud (7th July 2008)
An overexposed (1600 ISO) photograph of the Elf-cat that I thought was interesting, so I kept it.

Branch And Leaves (25th July 2008)
The USNWC trails again. It was overcast, and the original RAW isn't much brighter than this (it almost looks grayscale even in color). But there's something minimalist about the silhouette that I like.

Spheres (3rd August 2008)
From the TIAA-CREF garden walk with Rose and Petal last month.

Tall Grass (9th September 2008)
The USNWC trails, about a week, week-and-a-half ago.

Like I said, I need to get some new pictures taken. The USNWC trails are basically on my way to-and-from work; if the weather stays clear enough, maybe I can get out there a night or two this week. And I should probably get up early some weekend morning and see if there's anything interesting to shoot in the neighborhood. But anyway, there's--yes, I think we have it--there's a blog post. Hope your weekend so far has been fine and your week is even finer!


Truth in the media

Spotted outside a restaurant yesterday:

Still trying to see if I can come up with a more substantial entry for the day. Might put up another archived photo collection if I find five I like and want to futz with. Meanwhile, hope you're doing a little better than the above news report suggests....


Paul Newman

>> Saturday, September 27, 2008

I learned this morning from Janiece and Michelle that Paul Newman passed away this morning. He was 83.

He had a long, successful career, and starred in two of my favorite movies of all time--Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and The Sting, both with costar Robert Redford and Director George Roy Hill. Redford and Newman talked about getting back together, and were on the verge of doing so recently until Newman had to call Redford last year to say his health was forcing him to retire from the film industry. (It was hard not to have a mix of feelings when I read that last year: Redford and Newman are one of the greatest onscreen pairings in film history, but perhaps it's better that they left us with two nearly-perfect movies and didn't take a chance of breaking the charm with a weak third after they were no longer in their prime.)

For my part in celebrating his life, here are four of my favorite Newman roles:

Butch Cassidy teaches a lesson in winning a knife fight without a knife in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid:

Judge Roy Bean demonstrates good manners before a gaggle of whores respectable married women in The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean:

Frank Galvin, an unbelievably bad lawyer, rises to the challenge in The Verdict:

Henry Gondorff plays a round of poker in The Sting:

Rest in peace, Paul. You were the man.


Prisoners-of-war, politics, and character

Sydney Schanberg is a little bit of a legend--his fieldwork in Cambodia during the civil war there was part of the basis for the Roland Joffé film The Killing Fields (in which Schanberg was played by Sam Waterston). He's an award winning journalist, and the kind of rare reporter who matches the archetype or fantasy of a field journalist: the rugged survivor who is found either being shot at or threatened at gunpoint when he isn't holed up in a local hotel slamming out hard-punching dispatches on a battered manual typewriter. Okay, so Schanberg probably hasn't been out there getting shot at in a long while, but you get the idea--if you were born after, say, 1965 and you ever fantasized about being a journalist, you probably fantasized about being either Bob Woodward or Sydney Schanberg, even if you didn't know Schanberg by name.

So his word carries a little bit of weight with me and it probably should with you, too. I'm just putting that out there up front, trying to establish his credentials, because his September 18 article on The Nation Institute's website is a little sickening if it's accurate, and it's hard to imagine Sydney Schanberg getting it that wrong.

The article is titled "McCain and the POW Cover-up," and the title, though lurid and conspiratorial, pretty much sums it up. There is, probably, more than enough blame to be passed around--Senator McCain is a focus of this story because he (a) happens to be running for President Of The United States (what, you hadn't heard about this?) and (b) because his campaign has made a great deal of fuss over Senator McCain's experiences in a prisoner-of-war camp during the Vietnam War as an indicator of the Senator's character and therefore (one assumes) his character (oh, sure--you hadn't heard any of that, either?).

But let's get something else out there and up front: the pattern of conduct Mr. Schanberg describes mostly occurred while Senator McCain served on a Senate committee headed by Senator John Kerry, a Democrat and himself a former Presidential candidate. I have absolutely no problem condemning Senator Kerry for any failures of the committee he chaired--if any reader would like to go down the well-trodden path of "but what about what he did?!" you're welcome to walk it alone, and try not to be disappointed when I don't bother standing up for Senator Kerry. Along those same lines, Schanberg describes some ignoble conduct on the part of Messrs. Nixon and Kissinger at the Paris Peace Accords in 1973; some focus on this Republican President and his lackey are necessary because they did, after all, conduct the negotiations with the North Vietnamese and President Nixon did tell the American public all the POWs were coming home. Nonetheless, Schanberg writes:

[Senator McCain] has actually been following the lead of every White House since Richard Nixon's and thus of every CIA director, Pentagon chief and national security advisor, not to mention Dick Cheney, who was George H. W. Bush's defense secretary. Their biggest accomplice has been an indolent press, particularly in Washington.

...which inevitably impugns two Presidential Democrats, Carter and Clinton and a press that is somehow popularly perceived as "liberal." Should any readers wish to say "Well, what about Clinton?" I will heartily join--I'm not particularly a fan of President Clinton's, though it's likely for the exact opposite reasons held by any conservative readers (President Clinton promised the left a great deal and delivered rather little, while managing to embarrass himself and by extension us even though, in retrospect, he hadn't been one of us since the 1970s if he ever was). And please, by all means, go slam the press--this blog will still be here when you're done.

(I have no idea how "But he/she did it too!" became such a powerful political distraction. Apparently a lot of people--mostly, I'm afraid, Republican-types, but also quite a few Democrats and even some liberals--were raised badly. My parents, for all their faults, taught my sister and myself that blaming the other sibling went exactly nowhere by way of a defense against allegations of misconduct. When I tried that, I was reminded that I was older and supposedly knew better, and when my sister tried it, my parents told her they didn't care. And then we were punished. In those instances where the other had actually also been bad, blaming the other only resulted in joint and several liability instead of acquittal--small satisfaction at best.)

In short, yes, Democrats are frequently horrible people and blah blah blah--if you need to get that out of your system, please do so now and then we can get back on point.

Let's talk about the Schanberg piece on McCain.

Schanberg's allegations on McCain's handling of missing-POW issues boils down to essentially two points. The first is an allegation that Senator McCain obstructed two attempts to pass a bill that would have made the Pentagon "transparent" with regard to information on missing POWs, and then derailed the legislative side of it entirely by successfully introducing a bill that effectively sealed any information the Pentagon has (by creating a process for releasing files that doesn't actually require any files to be released). Second, Schanberg writes that Senator McCain has engaged in a pattern of bullying and abusive behavior directed towards those who believe the government has information on missing POWs, including the families of missing military personnel who have spoken out on the issue or sought information.

Schanberg makes an impressive case that the Pentagon has information on missing soldiers that it hasn't released. This is really the main issue: it would be absurd to think that all the military personnel who went missing in action in Vietnam ended up in POW camps, and there's a very high probability that some number of the ones who did end up in POW camps weren't released at the end of the war (there's quite a bit of evidence, some offered by Schanberg, that the North Vietnamese kept some prisoners as leverage and that the Nixon Administration had a strong interest in pushing the whole thing under a rug--at the intersection of those two lines you're likely to find POWs effectively "lost and forgotten" by the governments of Vietnam and the United States). For instance, if, as Schanberg states, PAVE SPIKE readings indicate the whereabouts of twenty American airmen, it seems like there ought to be a moral obligation to find out what happened to these men and to secure their release if they're alive or to inform the families if they aren't (rather than rehash Schanberg's description of PAVE SPIKE, I'd prefer to point you to caption "6" under the heading "10 Key Pieces of Evidence That Men Were Left Behind"). It's hard to imagine a reason the Pentagon ought to withhold this information if they have it--strike that: it's hard to imagine a good reason for the Pentagon to withhold such information. Bad reasons abound, starting with the embarrassment of seven successive Presidential administrations beginning with Nixon and ending with the present one. If Schanberg is right about the situation--and, as I've said, I tend to trust Schanberg--then he's also right that it's time for the books to be opened.

The fact that Schanberg's brief has its partisan aspects is insufficient for rejecting it. A longer piece might well indict Senator Kerry and Presidents Carter and Clinton along with Senators McCain and Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush père et fils, and no doubt others. But only one man in this list is running for President. Let's talk about Senator McCain and the Schanberg piece.

When you live by the sword, you die by the sword, or so the cliché goes. When you run a Presidential campaign relying on your character and your military experience, things (if there are any) that reflect poorly on your character and military experience become issues.* If the story of how you were captured in wartime, how you were tortured, and how you were released is important, then surely the stories of other men who were in a similar situation are important and should be pried out of the Pentagon's clutches? And do you not owe them and their families a duty, particularly when you make your brotherhood in arms such a facet of your public persona? And in any case, what kind of man sits at a table during a Senate hearing and yells at a woman for wanting to know where her brother is? For that matter, what kind of man participates in the effective burial of honorable soldiers' service records? What kind of man does so in the furtherance of a disgraceful political policy apparently designed to avoid the admission that a President broke faith and left men behind and then six more Presidents didn't rectify it?

When you loudly declaim your character and make it a central issue, you've opened the door for people to ask whether your conduct has been consistent with your alleged conduct or to offer examples of where your conduct suggested your character isn't what you've said it is. Senator McCain says he's a good and honorable man whose services to his country as a brother-in-arms make him this country's best choice for leadership. Sydney Schanberg has offered evidence and documentation that, if true, challenges that portrayal. So I ask you to read the Schanberg piece and to think about it, though I suspect it is unlikely to change anybody's mind six weeks before the Presidential election. Perhaps, at least, if Senator McCain is elected, and if Schanberg's portrayal of the Senator's actions and manner is accurate, then nobody will be surprised if President McCain is an angry, blustery hypocrite who pays lip service to principles he then betrays. And if the Senator is elected President and proves to be the grave and honorable man his campaign has presented to the world, well then I am prepared to wonder what happened to Sydney Schanberg. But right now, I'm only afraid the smart money is to bet on Schanberg.

*As an aside, this is the sole respect in which Governor Palin's grandchild is a relevant issue. The fact that Governor Palin has a pregnant teenage daughter isn't any of your business, or mine. But, unfortunately, the fact that Governor Palin is running for national office as a "pro-Life" candidate for a party that has made "traditional family values" a central political issue and has held up pregnant teenagers as examples of the alleged moral bankruptcy of a lax and permissive society and yet Governor Palin has a pregnant teenage daughter is everybody's business: if one examines the express beliefs of Governor Palin and her party in light of Governor Palin's family situation, one must conclude that either (a) those beliefs are ineffectual and/or morally bankrupt, or (b) that Governor Pain is ineffectual and/or morally bankrupt--i.e. either her principles have failed her family or her family has failed her principles. If you want to be rude about how you say it, you can reduce this to a question over whether Governor Palin is merely an idiot (for believing what she does when it doesn't work) or incompetent (for being unable to make her beliefs matter in her own household), and whether idiocy or incompetence are automatic disqualifiers for office for either yourself or for the man who nominated you for his second-in-command.


"Remember A Day"

>> Friday, September 26, 2008

On September 23, David Gilmour and his touring band performed Richard Wright's "Remember A Day," from A Saucerful Of Secrets (see also: this previous entry in the "Oh By The Way" series on this blog), the second Pink Floyd album, on the Jools Holland show.

Here's the performance:

Gilmour's band--the folks in the above performance--toured with Wright on Gilmour's last tour and (with the exception of the drummer) toured and recorded with Pink Floyd on albums and tours from 1987 on. The other members of the band are: Guy Pratt on bass ('87-'88 tour, '94 tour, The Division Bell, and Wright's son-in-law), Jon Carin on piano ('87-'88 tour, '94 tour, Live8 performance, A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, Bell), former Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera (Lapse), and Steve DiStanislao on drums.

It's a fine performance. And apparently the first time "Remember A Day" has been performed live. A fine tribute by some of his closest colleagues and friends.

Rest in peace, Rick.


Friday night movie

Seems like it's been a while since we had a Friday Night Movie, and this one caught my attention earlier this week when it was featured at DeviantArt as a Daily Deviation. Kok Joon Wen's "Mimos And The Egg" is a fun animated short that manages to find common ground between classic Warner Bros. (pace, comic timing, and some definite Chuck Jones influence) and classic Disney (notice Kok's nice, lush backgrounds). And it's funny.




>> Thursday, September 25, 2008

Even from the moment he was conceived, Eric knew he was different, that Destiny had something different in store for him... a brilliant scholar and athlete, possessed of psychic powers beyond the ken of science, and empowered by the mighty Cudgel Of Amigonahaftabeatsensintaya given to him by the Gods Of Xyxzyz, Eric became the mighty, the terrible, the amazing...







*See Marvel Annual Spectacular #6-Roy



It's technical

It absolutely gets on my nerves whenever someone says or writes something about criminals getting off on "technicalities." Bugs the hell out of me. It doesn't even have anything to do with my job, which frequently involves noticing these so-called "technicalities" and getting criminals off on them. I hated it when people repeated that kind of mindless jackassery before law school and before the Bar Exam and before I practiced law. I've hated it so long, I can't even remember when I started hating it. It's just about the stupidest thing anybody can say about law or lawyers or the legal system, and anybody who says or writes something like that can almost certainly be ignored because that kind of statement reveals a profundity of ignorance that is staggering in its depths.

See, there's a special term for "technicalities." They're called "laws."

We have these things called "laws," see, and we're proud enough of the fact that much of the time we boast about the "Rule Of Law" and being a "Nation Of Laws" and so on and so forth. Up until the point until someone we don't like very much gets the benefit of those same laws that apply to everybody, and then some people--the proper term for these people is "idiots"--some people, these idiots, start bitching and moaning about technicalities. It's a bit like that horrid Kipling poem (yes, I know, that's redundant) about the soldier and how he's (or "'e's," as Kipling writes it, the letter "H" not having been invented until after 1936, apparently) a hero once a war starts. The police illegally break into somebody's home and steal his child pornography stash, and some people will be appalled at the "technicalities" that result in the case getting thrown out of court, but nearly all of those same people will brag about how smart their lawyer is when he gets their speeding ticket tossed because he noticed the cop signed the wrong box. Kipling had a word for people like that: 'ypocrites.

The best ones, and the most typical ones, are when the "technicalities" in question are Constitutional amendments, generally the ones known as "The Bill Of Rights" that a number of the nation's founders insisted be in the Constitution somewhere or they weren't signing it. A man is denied his right to counsel and an appellate court overturns his conviction--on a technicality, the idiots and ignoramuses say. A woman is illegally searched without probable cause or a warrant, and the trial court orders that the prosecutor can't show the jury the illegally-seized evidence and the prosecutor dismisses the case--another technicality. (Incidentally: prosecutors love to blame the judges for throwing out the case and that's how the media usually reports it, but there's usually nothing in an order to suppress evidence that keeps the State from proceeding with whatever admissible evidence they might still have--e.g. eyewitnesses or legally-obtained physical evidence.) Because, you know, the Sixth Amendment and the Fourth Amendment are mere details, nobody actually reads that stuff in the back, right? As if most people who claim they know their rights usually mean their right not to pay duties when shipping across state lines or their right to make recess appointments when they become president. Some guy on the street says "I know my rights," obviously he means his right to inherit his parents' property if they commit treason. What else could he be talking about?

That's where it usually comes up, but there are the little things, too. The statute granting a court jurisdiction that says a document must be signed in a particular way, rules of notice and sufficiency of pleading and whatnot. One can sort of imagine how these small things can seem picayune to someone who hasn't thought about them at all and is perhaps a bit lazy about it if they do. The question one might ask oneself--the question one usually should ask oneself--is, "What is the point of having some of these laws if there's no remedy when they're broken?" This is how we arrive at a common law tradition, you see, where the appellate courts say evidence or charges or whatever have to be thrown out over some seemingly minor violation: if forms aren't going to be followed, deadlines held to, etc., then why even bother with them? Have you ever hefted a statute book? They're not light. Imagine how much shorter they could be if the law was, "The State can do what it wants whenever it wants."

Our lawmakers spend an awful lot of time, believe it or not, trying to come up with a procedure that seems mostly fair. How often they succeed might be subject to debate, but the point of all these rules isn't merely to have a bunch of rules. (Believe me, most lawyers I know would be pretty happy if the list of rules was reduced to, say, three good ones; in fact, the only people who would be unhappy would probably be the people who sell malpractice insurance.)

For instance, our Constitution has this technicality buried in the Fifth Amendment: "...nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb...." This is the "Double Jeopardy" provision that is so regularly mangled by movies and TV shows that it's a wonder any non-lawyers understand what it means at all.

Now, take a look at that clause again: "...nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb...." How extraordinarily complicated is that? If you said it isn't, then you need to re-read it. That simple clause is insanely complicated. What does it mean when you say "the same offense"? (If someone is acquitted of trying to take a purse at gunpoint, can he be re-tried for simply taking the purse? Or for possessing a stolen purse?) What does it mean to be "in jeopardy"? (If a woman is charged, and then the State dismisses the charge, is that "jeopardy"? Does it matter whether they dismiss the charge before a jury has heard evidence, or if they wait until the jury has begun deliberations but before they announce a decision?) Does it matter who puts the person in jeopardy? (If you're accused of an act that violates state and federal law, can you be tried by both or just one?)

The people who wrote the clause were clearly quite satisfied with themselves: they, at least, thought they knew what they meant by it. And on first read, it does sound rather clear. It's only when you put it in practice that you realize what a huge cock-up it can make of everything. This is why most of the people who make movies and television shows screw it up, in fact, because they can't be bothered to look and see if anyone has maybe tried to parse the language and give it effect at any point in the last two-hundred and eighteen years.

On the one side, you have appellate courts saying, "Well this is what we think it means..." whenever somebody says their Double Jeopardy rights were violated, and on the other side you have the legislatures saying, "Well, okay, here's how we'll make it easy for people to tell whether Jeopardy is an issue...," and that's how all these technicalities, these so-called "laws" come about. When you think in terms of Double Jeopardy, say, suddenly things like when a charge is filed and where it's filed and how far along it gets all become potentially vital--and how do you tell when it was filed and where and how far along it got? So you need rules that define that process and how that process becomes an official record. And that's all just for one clause in one Constitutional provision--the Fifth Amendment contains at least four clauses, several of which contain assorted subclauses (e.g. the Fifth Amendment says you can't be charged for a "capital or otherwise infamous" crime without a Grand Jury presentment, but then there's an exempting subclause regarding military law). And there are eight of those Constitutional amendments, five of which deal directly with the legal system (four primarily criminal, one primarily civil), and just to make things fine and simple, there are all sorts of potentials for conflict between the various rights. (Quick: lurid and inarguably prejudicial news coverage of a criminal case--protected by the First Amendment right of the press not to be abridged or violation of the accused's Sixth Amendment right to a trial by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime was committed?)

It could be simpler. Absolutely and for sure. We could have a system where all evidence seized by police is always admissible under all circumstances, or where the State can retry a bad person as many times as it takes to incarcerate them (or hell, where the State could retry someone before they're about to be released from prison, just to keep them in jail indefinitely on the same offense), or a system where issuance of criminal process is an adjudication of guilt (cop writes you a ticket, you've been convicted; obviously it would save more time if he could just shoot you in the face right then and there, considerably abbreviating the sentencing and punishment phases). These alternate systems are much less technical, but they've also proven rather unpopular in what we like to call "the Free World" (as in, "the leader of the Free World can't just go around shooting people in the face, except for the Vice-President's lawyer").

But we don't have a system like that. We have a system that strives to be fair and to balance the vast, hulking power of the State against poor little schlubs like you and me. Which means process, and procedure, and forms and rules--and for those things to matter, there have to be consequences when they're not followed, otherwise they're just shams and fictions. "The State has to hold a first appearance within a certain number of days, and if they don't they can just hold it later"--what kind of rule would that be? That's the same as not having a rule at all, except it offers the illusion of the Rule Of Law and all that. "A warrant must be signed by a magistrate or judge, and if it isn't, oh well"--what is that? That's nothing. That's a joke. So we--our judges and lawmakers--come up with ways to give our system teeth, and sometimes the result seems unfortunate: the remedy, of course, is to do it right the first time. If you happen to be a cop, and you know the evidence you collect will be inadmissible without certain procedures, then you follow the freaking procedures--it's not rocket science.

Meanwhile, idiots will continue to talk about "technicalities," because "laws" are for idiots and "technicalities" are for the people the idiots don't hold truck with, and I will gnash my teeth. I beg you--don't be an idiot. They're laws. People died so you could have them, you know--even the ones you don't think you'll ever need or use. Show a little respect.


Neverwednesday Nights

>> Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Back when I was in high school, I really tried to like jazz. I was serious about music then--actually, I still am (didja notice?)--and I was serious about being a musician (not so much now, tho' I still play a little guitar, badly, every now and again). So I was earnest about broadening my horizons, etc., and liking jazz and classical.

It didn't really work, though. It never quite clicked. Eventually, it was just a deficiency I learned to accept. Until....

The Columbia House record club was alright as record clubs went, back when it existed. You could sign up for a membership where they didn't automatically send you music you didn't want unless you mailed in a card, and they tended to have pretty good prices on boxed sets. And I guess it was about ten years ago they ran a special deal on the 4-CD Complete Bitches' Brew Sessions boxed set. It was a good enough price that you might as well buy the box as get the normal release, and I'd seen Brew listed on a couple of "Greatest Albums" lists--it was on the greatest rock albums list Rolling Stone ran when I was in high school. So, anyway, I bought it. And I put it on the CD player, and when "Pharaoh's Dance" started....

When "Pharaoh's Dance" started, I said, "Holy shit, this is jazz?" I said it out loud, even though my only company in the apartment was a cat (Elvis's predecessor, Springer; if there's an afterlife, I hope he's scratching up all their furniture right now, that mad, beautiful tom. He's missed, and still loved.) It was the most amazing fucking thing I'd heard in ages.

Turns out, I'd been listening to the wrong shit every time I'd tried the stuff. Sure, Coltrane is alright, great player, Miles's protégé, matter-of-fact; but Miles, Miles, now... Miles Fucking Davis. Shit.

Turned out Euterpe wanted me to listen to cool and bebop and early fusion the whole time and I never got the memo.

I still don't have much taste for classical. It's alright. I don't mind it. But I don't seek it out. But the jazz. Yeah, that's some good stuff. I finally figured that much out.

Miles Davis, "All Blues" from the classic Kind Of Blue, an album that I'm bold enough to say ought to be in any record collection worthy of the label (for the record, this means that I didn't have a record collection until seven or eight years ago, notwithstanding the several hundred CDs, tapes and LPs I had lying around pretending to be a record collection). This performance is from 1964, The Steve Allen Show, and while the sound isn't great, Miles's playing has a fluidity and grace that's missing from some of the later videos appearing on YouTube.


Cancer and the devil, an update

Any regulars may remember a post I wrote last month about the infectious cancer that's spreading through the Tasmanian devil population. Earlier this week, ERV wrote about the devils' cancer in terms of immunology--ERV's speciality--and what the devils' lack of biodiversity means from a technical standpoint. It's worth a read if you're interested in such things: as usual, ERV does a boffo job of explaining molecular biology in simple terms. Have a look when you have a few minutes.


Best. Cosplay. Ever.

>> Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Brought to my attention by the fine folks at Boing Boing, brave and fearless photographer Dot D (Nancy Dorsner) captured this fearsome warrior at this year's Dragon*Con:

Special kudos to the huntress for her boots: it's one thing to take a dangerous beast down for the trophy, but to use as much of the pelt as you can recover shows an honorable commitment to the great circle of nature. You obviously can't tell by looking at her, but I'm guessing she used all the meat as well, and probably the bones for stock.


Palin For President!

(A note: yes, if you read Vince's blog, he beat me to an endorsement of Palin For President. What can I say? Vince and I are two of the most extraordinarily clever, sophisticated, wise and attractive men in the United States, and the only reason we aren't running for President ourselves is that we're continuing to negotiate which one of us is "presidentier." Being a gentleman, he insists I am, and I, being just as much the gentleman, insist he is. Inevitably, bringing up the other's piercing intellect, boyish charms and rapier wit leads to hours of us complimenting each other, and meanwhile the economy continues to tank because--and this is Vince's sole fault--he can't see that his recovery plan is vastly superior to mine....

But anyway: on to Palin For President....)

Palin has religious experience, military experience, knows how to get the upper hand in a debate, and knows how to stand up to aggressors. And Palin has traveled all over the world, becoming a familiar figure on the international stage (Palin's even credited with having a "Palin effect" that favorably impacts local economies)! And just consider where Palin comes from--Palin's a small-town with small town values! Just watch the following campaign video to see the strong case for President Palin:

(Well who did you think I was talking about?)


What I... er... what I didn't do this past weekend... part three... right...

>> Monday, September 22, 2008

Going through the "Antibody" photos, and pruning the virtual rolls down to less than a thousand photos (I shit you not) was useful and necessary and kind of fun. So was futzing with the photographs in GIMP, getting that high-contrast, monochrome, silver platinum-palladium* finish look. It occurred to me over the course of the weekend that some of what I was trying to do had a kind of Anton Corbijn vibe to it, not that I'm saying there's any comparison. I mean, Corbijn is, you know, talented and shit. But whatever. Picking targets you know you can hit is a good way to never get anywhere.

So, it was fun to mess with the shots, and I'm supposed to go to dinner with a friend Monday tonight, um, yeah--tonight. Right. (Wink.) (You just winked.) (No, I didn't.) (You did.) (Wink.) (You just did it again!)

Ahem. Five more photographs from behind the scenes of Nathan Bezner's "Antibody":

*Brain spasm. I meant platinum-palladium finish. Der.


What I'm not doing this weekend, part two

>> Sunday, September 21, 2008

More photographs from the set of/behind the scenes of Nathan Bezner's "Antibody." "Antibody" premiered this past Friday night in Atlanta, at Anime Weekend Atlanta. The next showing presently scheduled will be in Charlotte, NC on October 25th--if you're in the area....


What I'm not doing this weekend, part one

>> Saturday, September 20, 2008

What I'm not doing this weekend is driving to Atlanta for AWA, which is a damn shame. Not because I'm a big anime fan--though, actually, being an animation geek and a science fiction and fantasy geek, there's quite a lot of anime I like a great deal--Cowboy Bebop ranks up there with any SF television series as far as I'm concerned, and I love Satoshi Kon's work, and I really could go on and on. Nor is missing AWA a bummer because I usually go--I've never actually been.

No, the reason it's a bummer is that my buddy Nate premiered his short films "Altar" and "Antibody" last night, the latter being the movie I worked on a few weeks ago. This is something of a departure from plan: "Antibody"'s original raison d'être was a horror festival planned for next month in Charlotte featuring George Romero's work, presence, and a short film contest to be judged by Mr. Romero; much to everyone's consternation, Mr. Romero abruptly pulled out when his next project was greenlit. Mr. Romero's withdrawal, forgive me for putting it bluntly, totally fucked everything up and left quite a few indie filmmakers who'd invested time, money and effort into meeting the contest deadline high and dry. Nate's had a streak of luck, however: he's been able to set up two screenings of "Antibody" and the film he made just before/during "Antibody," one yesterday at AWA and the other next month.

So, why am I not in Atlanta? Because gas is too fucking expensive right now, is why. If premium were still around $3.50/gallon, I probably would be down there. But not only is gas pricey--it's not always to be found. North Carolina, it seems, gets a good bit of its petrol from the Gulf (how this works, I have no idea, but this is the word that has gone around), and at least two gas stations were rationing fuel last week.

I should clarify one thing: today was a beautiful Saturday, and it was good to be home and I was a little productive. (Well, sort of.) Point being, it was a good Saturday, and while Atlanta would have been--what's the expression? ah, yes--while Atlanta would have been fucking sweet, I've had a good day and I'm having a good weekend.

Not really having a blog entry for today, I decided hours ago to post some more photographs from the "Antibody" shoot in honor of the premiere. A portion of today's productivity was culling photographs from the shoot (deleting some of the worst ones) and trying out a film-grain script for GIMP (I wasn't happy with the results or the time it took; I may play with it some more, but in the end I've stuck with the manual "grain" techniques I've learned). Some of the results appear below, with more to come tomorrow.

From the set and behind-the-scenes of Nathan Bezner's "Antibody":


It's funny because it's true

Today's Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal got a pretty good laugh out of me, and I had to share it:

I'll try to get some photos or a real post up later today. Hope you're having weather as beautiful as we're seeing at my locale today, and a good weekend.


Oh, fine, arrr and avast, whatever--

>> Friday, September 19, 2008

I was going to acknowledge "International Talk Like A Pirate Day" the way a fearsome pirate ninja would (in silence, possibly sneaking behind someone and killing them with a hook), but how can I when it turns out--

My pirate name is:

Dirty Tom Bonney

You're the pirate everyone else wants to throw in the ocean -- not to get rid of you, you understand; just to get rid of the smell. You can be a little bit unpredictable, but a pirate's life is far from full of certainties, so that fits in pretty well. Arr!

Get your own pirate name from
part of the network

"Dirty Tom Bonney"? That is a totally sweet pirate name. And when my other leg is lost to the sea and I'm a beggar on crutches in Port Royal, aye, then they can just call me "Dirty Tom."

There's little more to add--well, two things. First: thanks to Nathan at Polybloggimous for the link that let me to discover my Secret Name (and to Janiece, who may have started this ball rolling--I can't quite tell). Second: while I do not dispute that I am in fact Dirty Tom Bonney, I think the questions I was asked to generate this name reflect a strong cultural bias that offends me.

After all, as much as I love the sea (and I do, aye), where are the questions for space pirates?

Do you believe in making prisoners "walk the 'lock"? Do you think an air filtration unit should be replaced prior to probable operational failure or when your (human) crewmembers begin looking bluish? Do you love the smell of ozone caused by plasma beams slashing the air, or do you even notice it anymore? Does your heart soar when you broadcast the Jolly Roger on a jamming frequency? Do you revel in the fond memories of breaking a case of Arcturian Rum with Polymorphous Pete (before he molted and retired to the hot deserts of Rigel-19) and Atomic Annie Aquilliae and the rest of your crew? Do you know somebody with more than five peglegs?

It's lame, is what it is, this failure to keep up with the times. Ocean pirates are, I hate to say it (because I do love 'em), passé. Space pirates are the future. Except for the ones that get caught inside some kind of weird temporal anomaly or whose hyperspatial engines malfunction causing them to end up in the time of the dinosaurs or fighting Genghis Khan or fighting Genghis Khan on dinosaurs. I mean, yeah, okay, those space pirates are yesterday, technically speaking. But that's not the point!

In honor of the pirates of tomorrow, today, I'm offering a short survey to ask the kind of question their so-called pirate quiz should have asked. I can't offer you a clever name, but I can at least make a point on behalf of real pirates:



Even a small, tossed-off piece of work reveals something about an author's mind

>> Thursday, September 18, 2008

MSNBC reports that a new Mozart piece was recently found in a library in France. Ulrich Leisinger, a researcher at the International Mozarteum Foundation, has offered his professional opinion that the piece--a sketch of a melody with the cryptic comment "mehr kuhglocken!" written twice in the margin--is indeed in the Austrian composer's own handwriting.

It seems the piece has been previously examined (as early as the 19th century) but was then lost or forgotten. Naturally, there have been any number of forgeries of "lost" works by famous composers, but this does appear to be the real deal, written sometime between 1787 and Mozart's death in 1791.

It is admittedly more of a curiosity for musicologists than anything else--we're talking about a melodic fragment from an abandoned work. But such things frequently offer deeper insights into the workings of a creative mind, whether it's a greater sense of their work methods and creative process, or yet another indication of an author's peculiar sense of humor and fondness for absurdist pranks and pop cultural references.


How many fingers you got, motherf**ker?

I said, "Look, do you know how many times I said 'shut up' in six years on The Factor? Six."

—Bill O'Reilly, The O'Reilly Factor, Sept. 27, 2004

Well, enjoy your Kool-Aid, sir, and [in] more than nine years on the air, you can count the shut-ups on this program on one hand.

—Bill O'Reilly, The O'Reilly Factor, Dec. 6, 2005

Compliled by Jack Shafer at Slate;
"Bill O'Reilly's 'Shut Up' Revisionism"

So the next time we meet, I will not fail. I will go up to the six-fingered man and say, "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

The Princess Bride, 1987;
Screenplay by William Goldman


Just in case I can't come up with anything else today...

In spite of being, oh, just a little verbose in a friendly forum this week, I've been less than inspired to come up with anything here since Monday. Since I'm not sure I'll do any better today, I'm going to go ahead and offer this for your reflection and appreciation--one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Suzanne Vega, performing her early classic "The Queen And The Soldier" in Paris last year:


Neverwednesday Nights

>> Wednesday, September 17, 2008

No cameras were used to capture the images in the haunting video for Radiohead's "House Of Cards" (off last year's In Rainbows) The video was made with 3D scanning technologies: Geometric Informatics and Velodyne LIDAR.

The computer-rendered results are gorgeous. Hope you enjoy.


Well I think I'm being funny....

>> Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Ladies and gentlemen, friends and neighbors, regular visitors and people who have stumbled in for the very first time--I give you this blog's very first poll!

What is most likely to end life on Earth as we know it?


The great gig in the sky

>> Monday, September 15, 2008

This is a fucking shitty week in a lot of ways. Already. First, I find out David Foster Wallace died on Friday. Then, today I find out Richard Wright, Pink Floyd's keyboardist, passed away from cancer today. He was sixty-five.

This is fucking terrible.

Wright was the quiet one. The one in the corner. The one who left Pink Floyd during the recording of The Wall because Roger Waters was psychologically beating the shit out of him and then quietly sneaked back into the band when David Gilmour regrouped around '85 or '86. He was a clever, eccentric keyboardist, with a gentle voice capable of gorgeous harmonies.

There are people out there who thought Pink Floyd would eventually get back together again. On one level, they missed it, since David Gilmour's last solo tour prominently featured Rick Wright and practically everybody who'd been a regular touring member of the band in '88-'89 and '94, and Dick Parry who'd toured with them in '75, '77 and '94; one Nick Mason short of a full reunion, in other words. On another level it didn't matter: the Floyd had said just about everything they might have said, and while I wouldn't have said "no" to an asterisk or an epilogue or an appendix, it would have been fine to have the Live8 show as a nice little period on the end of the whole thing. Anyway, it was pretty unlikely they'd reunite, though Wright was game for it. And that's really the point, I guess, of this particular paragraph: Rick Wright was game for it, always said in interviews that he hoped it would happen, and it wasn't because he needed the money or needed the work, you got the sense it was just because he liked hanging around with his friends and playing with them in front of everybody. You got the sense whenever Rick said he'd be game for another go around that if Gilmour had said, "Fine, we're playing dive bars for tips," Wright would have been happy as a clam.

You got the sense that he was easily the nicest member of Pink Floyd. Waters is acidic, and Gilmour has claws hidden in his velvet paws, and Nick Mason--well, Nick Mason's always seemed like a nice guy, but his best friend in the band was always Roger Waters, I'm pretty sure good ol' Nick can be as bloody-minded as he has to be. But there was always something soft about Richard Wright. I'm not trying to slag off on the other guys, but Wright... he just always seemed too nice to be in one of the most successful rock and roll bands of all time. Which is probably a big part of how and why he was kicked out and reinstated, actually.

Forgive me, I'm talking my way through this. Foster Wallace had me feeling like I'd been punched and Rick Wright has me feeling like I want to hit something. It's a different kind of shock, I guess. There is something fundamentally unfair about Wright's passing on. It's not that I expect fair. I'm an atheist for fuck's sake, there is no fair. But Foster Wallace, you know, you can say, "Well, shit, just about everything he wrote was about death in some shape or another." The shock wears off and you see it makes sense. Wright, Wright was just the guy off to the side of the stage watching his hands and occasionally looking up with a shy smile during one of Gilmour's solos.

I have the YouTube clip for "Wearing The Inside Out," a song that Rick wrote with Anthony Moore for the last Pink Floyd album, The Division Bell, and I'm actually tearing up a little, so I'll leave you with it and with what might be Wright's most recognizable contribution to the band, "The Great Gig In The Sky" from Dark Side Of The Moon. Rest in peace, Rick. Rest in peace, man.


Reflections on 1984 and Animal Farm, part two

This is the second part of the long rumination on George Orwell's work that I began the other day. I can't promise any of it's particularly deep or original, but I hope I haven't lost your interest.

The most uncomfortable revelation or rediscovery is realizing that the thing most people seem to think of as "Orwellian" is in fact one of the least consequential things in 1984. That would be the technological aspect of it, the constant electronic surveillance through telescreens in 1984 or our own telephones in the GWOT (Global War On Terror) world. Cameras on streetcorners and everyone's e-mail being subject to intercept and airport security and so on are all described with varying degrees of accuracy as "Orwellian" developments because "Big Brother Is Watching You" is an iconic phrase in the book (despite only appearing three times in the novel: twice in the first two pages of the novel and once in the very last chapter of the book) that lends itself to visual references like movie adaptations and artworks. (One also can't help also wondering if the fact that it appears so prominently on the novel's first two pages has also made the phrase memorable for people who were assigned the book in school and quickly lost interest in it.)

But technology isn't really the means the Inner Party uses to hold power in 1984. No, the Party's trump card, actually, is apathy. It's quite clear that no number of hidden microphones, no deployment of two-way televisions would save the Party if the Proles rose up against the political machine. It's even suggested that if the Outer Party (the minor bureaucrats, administrators and party-affiliated workers, including the novel's protagonist, Winston Smith) could shake their terrified indifference and grow backbones, they could change the entire political structure of Oceania. But the Proles don't care and the Outer Party members are cowed into passivity. The ubiquitous surveillance people think of when they think "Orwellian" is anything but total: Winston Smith spends a good bit of his time avoiding the camera in his apartment by simply going around a corner, and the Proles, we're told, mostly don't even have telescreens.

So why doesn't anyone rebel? It's not because the rebellions are observed and quickly nipped in the bud. It's because nobody can be bothered to try.

A nastier version of the same theme shows up throughout Animal Farm: the pigs do well mostly because everybody on the farm is illiterate or an idiot or both. The sheep can easily be induced to mindlessly repeat the last thing somebody said and the horses are merely happy to work even if they can't get past the letter "D". The only intelligent, literate non-pig on the Manor Farm is a fatalistic donkey who is so convinced that everything will always be as it was that he's prone to respond, "Donkeys live a long time," i.e. whatever it is, it's the same old shit somebody else did yesterday. Whether he's right because he's right or it's an example of self-fulfilling prophecy must be left to the individual reader. In any event, 1984 is commonly seen as the uglier book and yet it's perhaps feels the most pity for the underclass; in Animal Farm, the joke is on the workers.

Anyway, I've found it hard to read those parts of 1984 and Animal Farm without the sinking, queasy feeling that the public may be just as stupid and indifferent and/or frightened as Orwell makes them out to be. I suppose that sounds horribly elitist in a bad, bad way, but what else do you make of groups of people who re-elect the worst President in American history based on--well, based on what, exactly? To this date, there are people who apparently believe that Saddam Hussein was involved in the September 11 attacks, that George W. Bush has military experience, and that John Kerry's bravery under fire is dubious, just to name a few things. You don't even need to spy on everybody all the time if everybody thinks everything is just swell, and the few people who don't aren't actually going to do anything about it.

I regret that I've found Orwell to be a good bit more observant and wise than I first took him for. I regret it because these books should be interesting curiosities, relics of the brief years between the dark of World War II and the dim of the Cold War. They should be interesting and depressingly rare examples of a leftist critique of Stalinism; it has to be recognized as a historical fact that many liberals failed to speak out against the evils of Stalin (and, while we're on the subject, Mao and Castro) because the grasping hope they were still fellow-travelers overwhelmed common sense and morality. Orwell should be credited as a left-wing intellectual who hewed to his principles and fairly called evil out when he saw it, and that should be the end of it. Or, perhaps, Orwell should retain some relevance as a teller of cautionary tales--warning us of what life could be like if we don't remain vigilant. What Orwell shouldn't be, but remains, is an observer and commentator on contemporary life and ever-present realities. That is less interesting, I'm afraid, than it is depressing and terrible to contemplate.


This one hurts

>> Sunday, September 14, 2008

I have just read the news that author David Foster Wallace was found dead in his own home Friday. He was forty-six. To get the least-important part of this out of the way, he committed suicide.

Wallace was brilliant, frustrating, funny, playful, too clever for his own good. He's one of my favorite writers. His novel Infinite Jest manages to be a masterpiece and a train wreck at the same time. Impossible to really summarize, it may be the quintessential Wallace piece: a rambling retelling of Hamlet featuring wheelchair-bound Québecois terrorists, tennis prodigies obsessed with simulating nuclear war, amok capitalism, substance abuse, transvestites, and I don't even think I've covered half of it. Oh, and it has nearly a hundred pages of "Notes And Errata" appended to it that are almost another novel in and of themselves.

Then he had a seizure. The floor of the subway car became the ceiling of the subway car and he was on his arched back in a waterfall of light, gagging on Old Spice and watching his tumid limbs tear-ass around the car's interior like undone balloons. The Zuckung Zuckung Zuckung was his high heels' heels drumming on the soiled floor's tile. He heard a rushing train-roar that was no train on earth and felt a vascular roaring rushing that until the pain his seemed a kind of orgasm of the head. His head inflated hugely and creaked as it stretched, inflating. Then the pain (seizures hurt, is what few civilians have occasion to know) was the sharp end of a hammer.

(Infinite Jest, 1996)

Wallace's non-fiction work was a staple of Esquire and Harper's during much of the nineties. He could be conversational and clinical, snarky and sympathetic at once, and his non-fiction frequently displays a self-awareness of the writer's craft that is usually charming (on occasion, it's also self-indulgent, but Wallace's ability to turn a phrase could make even his precocious passages a blast to read).

A major advantage of writing an article about an experience is that at grim junctures like this pre-embarkation blimp hanger you can distract yourself from what the experience feels like by focusing on what look like items of possible interest for the article. This is the occasion I first see the thirteen-year-old kid with the toupee. He's slumped pre-adolescently in his chair with his feet up on some kind of rattan hamper while what I'll bet is his mom talks at him nonstop; he is staring into whatever special distance people in areas of mass public stasis stare into. His toupee isn't one of those horrible black shiny incongruous Howard Cosell toupees, but it's not great either; it's an unlikely orange-brown, and its texture is like one of those local-TV-anchorman toupees where if you tousled the hair it would get broken instead of mussed.... The crowd has a smattering of college-age kids, all with complex haircuts and already wearing poolside thongs. A little kid right near me is wearing the exact same kind of hat I am, which I may as well admit right now is a full color Spiderman cap.

("A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," 1996)

This is terrible news, and I don't know exactly what I should do with it. I really don't. You get to an age where you start expecting people who have influenced you or who you admire will die. And I've never been one to think suicide was a terrible thing, I tend to think it's something a person is entitled to. But this has the same weird abruptness I felt when Spalding Gray left us, the same sense of being punched in the gut while you were just walking down the street minding your own business--it's not just the pain from the blow, but the shocked question that spontaneously pops into your head while you're trying to process the flood of data coming into your brain: What--why did somebody do this to me?

As with Gray, I suppose it shouldn't quite be a surprise: a current of morbidity ran through both artists' work from first to last. Death haunts the edges of most of Wallace's fiction. Shadows, and sometimes utter darkness. Sometimes the despair is overwhelming.

...and the Daddy lifted him like a newborn with his skull in one palm and ran him out to the hot truck and burned custom rubber all the way to town and the clinic's ER with the tenant's door hanging open like that all day until the hinge gave but by then it was too late, when it wouldn't stop and they couldn't make it the child had learned to leave himself and watch the whole rest unfold from a point overhead, and whatever was lost never thenceforth mattered, and the child's body expanded and walked about and drew pay and lived its life untenanted, a thing among things, its self's soul so much vapor aloft, falling as rain and then rising, the sun up and down like a yoyo.

("Incarnations Of Burned Children," 2004)

Do yourself a favor, and pick up a copy of one of Wallace's collections: Oblivion, Girl With Curious Hair, or the nonfiction collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. (There are others, but these are three I can vouch for; I have little doubt the ones I haven't gotten to yet are equally worthy.)


Reflections on 1984 and Animal Farm, part one

I wrote this the other day, and it seemed too long for one post, so I've broken it up to be published over two days. I hope you don't mind.

It had been so long ago since I'd first read George Orwell's 1984 that it seemed worth picking up a book club edition that combined the novel with Orwell's other famous anti-totalitarian novel, Animal Farm; and I couldn't even remember if I'd read the latter book, to be honest. Seen any number of movie and stage versions on TV and in community theaters, come across so many references to it that it felt like I'd read it, certainly. Both novels are ones that any literate--and of course I mean "literate" in the sense beyond being able to read, but "literate" in the sense of having read--person in the English-speaking world could probably quote from whether they've read either of them or not. Anyway, it had been so long since I'd read one or both of them that it was like reading them for the first time all over again, and unfortunately the timing seemed right.

After all, and let's face it, we live in Orwellian times. I don't know if this is new or news or not--that's one of the qualities of an Orwellian epoch. It's possible that our leaders have always been pretty liars and our culture ephemeral, and our memories shallow, and, yes, that Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia. It may well be that Orwell--or Eric Arthur Blair, but it will always be easier to call him "Orwell"--did nothing more than touch a live wire and ground the current in it for a moment. He may not have been prescient, but sort of omniscient, writing not about what could happen but what had already happened and had happened and will happen. You could certainly say that about Animal Farm, the obvious allegory for Stalinist Russia, but you might as well say it about 1984, too.

I can't remember whether I read 1984 late in junior high or early in high school; either way, it comes out to roughly twenty years ago that I must have read it, curiously close to the titular year. I remember not thinking much of it. I seem to recall that at the time, Orwell had mostly been co-opted by the right (yes, I was aware of those kinds of things even that young--I'd have been happier if I hadn't); it was easy enough for them to do, since the communist states, particularly the Soviet Union, were both the obvious models for Oceania and the Manor Farm, and totalitarian communist states like Romania gravitated towards the kinds of horrors you find described in the bowels of the Ministry Of Love in 1984. It was easy to miss the fact that Orwell was a socialist who had fought and been wounded at the front by the fascists in Spain. Orwell's critique of left-wing totalitarians was perhaps uniquely positioned from within the left itself and carried the sting Orwell clearly felt of having been betrayed by self-styled leftists; this may be why it's so damn powerful, actually, since one thing Orwell isn't is smug. The tenets of Animalism and the ideals of socialism are things to be taken seriously, and the betrayal of these tenets and ideals rank among the worst crimes of the pigs of Animal Farm and Inner Party of 1984. Orwell takes the ideological betrayals as seriously as the murders and purges and tortures; physical death is not really as bad as death of the spirit.

I also remember not thinking much of the linguistic ideas behind Newspeak--it seemed to me a bit foolish to claim that an idea can't be formed without the words to phrase them: we all struggle with words all the time, and everyone has thought of something that they couldn't quite describe or think of the word for. On a more mature reading, Orwell's Newspeak is a bit more nuanced than my childhood take on it: the notion is not that an idea can't be formed, but that it's stillborn if it can't be expressed. Furthermore, there's the idea of reducing existing words and thoughts to gibberish--for instance if you could reduce the word "equal" to one limited meaning (referring to size), you could make a statement like "all men are equal" into nonsense. I think there's more to it than I gave it credit for, so there's that surprise.


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