I was so irate earlier, I forgot to mention someting important and unrelated...

>> Friday, October 31, 2008

It's my little sister's birthday today. It may seem overly personal to say this, but she's the best thing my parents' marriage produced and I have no hesitation about saying that publicly. I realize that most readers don't know her and will have to take my word for it, and I hope my mentioning her birthday here doesn't embarrass her, but I do love her to death and wanted to say so.

Happy birthday, Bird. And have a good race this weekend.



The news this morning is that Kay Hagan, the Democrat contending for Elizabeth Dole's Senate seat, is suing Dole for libel over Dole's insane "godless" ad, which accuses Hagan of being an atheist and accepting money from atheists.

This would almost have me regretting my vote for Hagan on the first day of early voting, if it weren't for the fact that that fucking crypto-carpetbagger's desperate resort to outright obvious lies is so much more heinous than Hagan's contention that being called an atheist defames her, that one wishes there were some kind of criminal electoral fraud Dole could be prosecuted for. (No, I'm being serious and not hyperbolic: the Dole ad is far above and beyond the ususal little lies politicians, including Senators Obama and McCain, engage in--the ad goes so far to use a woman's voice saying, "There is no god" in a manner and context that suggests it's Hagan saying it. It's not, though the voice is just similar enough that one who hadn't heard Hagan's voice very often might think so or assume so. That's a whole new layer of deception that goes beyond merely quoting your opponent out of context or misrepresenting his position on a complicated issue.)

I've been an atheist since junior high school. It wasn't an easy position to arrive at, frankly, and there was quite a lot of what is generally described as "soul-searching." I spent a good bit of time--possibly wasted--thinking and pondering and researching and navel-gazing and reading sacred texts and so on and so forth. Fox Mulder's "I want to believe" could have been a motto for me for a good chunk of my teenage years.

So now there's something wrong with my money? There's something tainted about my vote? I've spent my professional career serving other people for low pay and little respect and there's something wrong with my morals?

This isn't new. I didn't want to write about it all that much, frankly, because I'm used to it. Okay, it's also pissing me off. I'm used to it and it's still pissing me off. President George Bush--the elder Bush, not Bush The Lesser--once said he wasn't sure atheists were citizens. You pretty much can't get elected to a major office without going to a church (and the right church, mind you), and people look at you funny when you affirm instead of swearing an oath on a little black book, and I live in a state where it sometimes seems like more cars have little silver fish attachments on their bumpers than valid license plates. You sit out in the cold long enough, you get used to it.

I think part of what's drilling a spike through my ear on this one, though, isn't just that the senator from Kansas pulled this shit, which is typical, but the reaction. Hagan suing. The Charlotte Observer's editorial reaction calling Dole out for attacking the "Christian woman" and citing Hagan's religious life and accomplishments. (The latter being something that, frankly speaking, I have to overlook in most candidates I vote for, choosing not to hold their belief in the supernatural against them.) Where, dammit, is an ecumenical Colin Powell when you need him to point out that Hagan could be a freaking Satanist and it wouldn't necessarily have any bearing on either her fitness as a prospective Senator or her relative superiority (if any1) to the incumbent.

Writing a footnote has cheered me up, actually, and I'm not nearly as angry as I was. So this post has achieved its desired effect on my end. For those readers looking for any kind of closure, I'll conclude merely by saying Ms. Dole can kiss my godless ass, and so can anybody else whose constipated knowledge of history and stunted sense of self thinks that every single voter, contributor, candidate, and/or elected official has to believe in the same magic spirit they do.

1I have to confess that I know little of Ms. Hagan other than that she's a church elder, something I actually don't really care about and learned this week after already voting for her. However, I do know something about Elizabeth Dole: that she's spent most of her adult life outside North Carolina (even while ostensibly representing the state), has consistently voted against my interests, and (perhaps thankfully, in light of the previous point) has taken next-to-no leadership role since her election as Jesse Helms' replacement. In short, Ms. Hagan could be a talking dog, or for that matter even an ordinary dog--perhaps an ordinary dog suffering from some kind of mental disability, even--and be a more fit candidate to represent North Carolina in the U.S. Senate than Senator Dole (I resisted the temptation to put the word "Senator" in quotes). Should it be announced at some point in the future that Ms. Hagan lives in a box and wears a tinfoil hat to keep the "ooky-spookies" from eating her brains at night and believes that only foods with names starting with the letter "d" are non-toxic, I believe my chief question-in-response would be, "Okay, but is the box located in North Carolina?"


Halloween movies month: The Haunting

It might just be the best haunted house story ever made, but then it was based on what just might be the best haunted house story ever written.

Ironically, this isn't the smartest thing Nell does the whole movie.Robert Wise's 1963 The Haunting follows Shirley Jackson's horror classic, The Haunting of Hill House with surprising fidelity, losing only some of the more internal and surreal moments. (Hill House, published in 1959, doesn't feature any drug elements, but a chunk of the book's rush to its ending could probably be best described as "psychedelic," for want of a more-fitting word.) In particular, the movie borrows liberally from some of its source's more poetic passages, in particular lifting lines from the book's famous opening paragraph:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

The Haunting remains one of the most-effectively scary movies ever made, even almost half a century later. It's all atmosphere--no blood, no gore, rather minimalist in its use of special effects (there are a few lighting tricks, and a wonderfully-used bulging door that almost ruptures into splinters before creaking back into its normal shape and plane). Indeed, perfectly, you never see one single ghost in the entire two hour (well, 112 minutes) run of the film. Oh, but you hear them, and it's brilliantly oppressive and disconcerting, especially when you watch this movie in the dark (and you have to watch this movie in the dark). Whatever walks in Hill House bangs on the walls and stomps down the corridors and rattles the doorknobs; it sounds just awful, and if you were one of the outmatched parapsychological investigators spending the week in Hill House, you'd be sleeping in your car every night and damn the cold New England weather. Better to freeze to death or die of carbon monoxide poisoning trying to run the heater all night than to meet whatever the hell it is that's making all that damned racket.

The woman on the right was so traumatized by her night in Hill House, she had to move to England to work as a secretary at an export firm.Nor is it merely the ghosts--if there are ghosts in Hill House--that's left to the imagination, and that's one of the reasons the 1963 The Haunting remains a classic while the 1999 remake remains a forgettable travesty. Are our heroes harassed by the supernatural, or is it mass psychosis? Is the house haunted by one ghost, or several? Who (or what) is more of a menace, the stiff-necked puritanical builder of Hill House, the late Hugh Crain, or his late, shut-in, spinster daughter, Abigail? Or is it just the damn house, and not anything ghostly at all, a house that was just born bad? (The latter conceit, it might be noted, was subsequently borrowed by Stephen King for Christine--perhaps consciously, since King has expressed his admiration for Jackson's novel).

This brings up as good an opportunity as any to rail against remakes of old films that aren't merely "pointless" but are actually sort of insulting to the source material and the viewing audience. I'm not really opposed to remakes generally: one of my favorite movies of all time is a remake of one of my other favorite movies of all time, after all. Indeed, that last comment almost rebuts what I was about to add regarding pointlessness: I was about to write something about how you're unlikely to remake a movie by the legendary Robert Wise better than he did the first time out, but people have made some fine movies ripping off Akira Kurosawa, one of the most brilliant directors in the history of ever.

But the 1999 remake of The Haunting is a rotten film that manages to get everything wrong, and I guess the reason it seems particularly rotten is that you might think a contemporary film could improve on the 1963 film in certain small ways. By which I mean the lesbianism. Might as well just say it. And no, I don't mean the 1999 version should have gone softcore.

It's a pajama party at the mansion!See, the novel and the 1959 adaptation are fraught with sexual tension that could be crammed into the "what's haunting Hill House?" list in a previous paragraph. We're not talking about the "will they or won't they" business that passes for sexual tension these days--you know, Rachel-and-Ross-on-Friends "sexual tension," we're talking about the psychologically damaging, repressed, Freud-would-have-a-field-day kind of sexual tension. The real deal, in other words. Nell Lance, the central character of the story, shows up at Hill House as a virtual runaway, an older woman who has sacrificed a healthy adulthood to taking care of an invalid mother and then sleeping on her hectoring sister's couch after mom's death; once in the company of her fellow investigators, Nell quickly becomes the pivot-point of a damaged and unhealthy triangle: Nell has irresolvable feelings for the group's organizer, Dr. Markway (who's married, but doesn't always act like it) and her fellow guest Theodora ("Theo") has obvious and just as irresolvable feelings for Nell. And this is sort of the psychic pulse for the story: there's a definite sense that it's Nell's stunted and repressed sexual growth that's either waking/powering Hill House or making it seem like something's going on.1

It wasn't completely impossible to have lesbians onscreen in 1963, but it was difficult. So the 1963 film spends quite a bit of time talking around the subject: it's really well-done, with Claire Bloom (Theo) wolfing down Julie Harris (Nell) with every other sidelong glance (when she's not shooting eye-daggers at Richard Johnson's Markway for being the obvious object of Nell's attention), and various allusions to the subtext that finally erupt into Nell accusing Theo of being "unnatural" (the thrust of which is pretty plainspoken in 1963-ese), but nobody can actually come out and state the obvious and the dialogue sometimes gets a little strained. (The significance of "unnatural" may be obvious, but "No, I won't sleep with you" would be a good bit more obvious.)

I swear to God, how many copies of The Necronomicon does somebody need to own?This is an area where you might think a contemporary remake could get right to the point instead of doing an uneasy little dance with the censors. I'm not saying a remake should bed Theo and Nell, because that would actually miss the point of "repressed sexual drives not helpful". But the 1963 version's reliance on code can be a bit frustrating when it's not pigeonholing the movie into its era. But, as far as I can recall from watching the 1999 version (and I have to admit I was having a hard time because I hated it, and was watching on cable, and sometimes flipped the channel, so maybe I missed the part where Theo comes in wearing a rainbow ribbon and says she "knows this bar" in Boston that Nell would just love) almost totally strips out the sexual subtexts of the original story. Nell still likes Markham because he's Liam Neeson, but Theo is mostly just kind of there, and Nell's issues appear to have more to do with child abuse or something than they do with the fact that Nell is basically a little girl in a woman's body.

In other words, a movie made in 1963 is more frank about sexuality (as opposed to sex) than one made after the '70s, even when it's a bit dated with some of its more Freudian semitones. How did that happen? I don't know.

But the 1999 version does add something the original doesn't have: CGI. And lots of it. Fireplaces that eatpeople and ludicrously animated statues and glowy things that beg to be shot down with an unlicensed nuclear accelerator. It's as if the creators of the '99 film watched the '63 film and said, "Wait, I thought this was a ghost story... why aren't there any fucking ghosts in it?" This is probably because in the 1980s ghosts went from being a part of the "unseen spirit world" to being neon-bright translucent jellyfish things. Aside from the fact that glowy ghosts stopped being scary or cool midway through Poltergeist II.2

This is one of the scariest things in the movie. No, seriously.The less said about the remake, the better, and so I've said too much. But the comparison does highlight one of the key things about the original, which is that it really is a psychological horror story as much as it's a haunted house story. What's in the characters' minds, and the viewer's perceptions, are what drives along the original and makes it creepy as all hell.

And that's a fair enough summary to leave you with as the last word: The Haunting (1963)--creepy as all hell.

1Nell, we learn early in the movie, was once at the center of a poltergeist manifestation for a period of time. Readers with a (hopefully) literary interest in the paranormal may recall that one "explanation" for poltergeist activity proffered by parapsychologists is that the mischievous spirits aren't ghosts at all, but the unconscious telekinetic tantrums of a pubescent teen, usually a girl. This isn't really laid out in the movie, actually, but what is laid out is sufficient for anyone familiar with the (koff) "science" to fill in the blanks--Nell was as uptight and repressed as teen as she is as a spinster, and that's why it rained rocks on her house for several days when she was a kid.

2Although I'm a skeptical materialist, and don't believe in ghosts, I have to sit back and think about how convenient it would be for parapsychologists if glowy ghosts were the real deal. Instead of stumbling around with night vision goggles and taking shaky video of a windowshade caught in a bad draft from a poorly-sealed window, they could just say, "Dude, this place is so haunted you can read by it!" I mean, really, can't you just imagine?


Okay, that's pretty cool

>> Thursday, October 30, 2008

A professor from Dalhousie University has figured out that the famous opening chord from the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" was the result of George Harrison's 12-string Rick being mixed with a piano stab from George Martin.

Nobody had ever figured this out in some four-and-a-half decades. And it's possibly the most famous single chord in rock in roll. That chord opens the movie A Hard Day's Night. That chord prompted a huge number of kids in 1964 to go out and buy guitars and form bands of their own. That movie defined, maybe still defines, what it's supposed to be like to be in a band. (Unfortunately, another movie defines what it's really like to be in a band.)

The fact that it took a mathematician with a computer to figure out there was an extra F note in the chord is pretty awesome. Part of me hopes he's right, but I have to admit there's also a part of me that hopes Paul and Ringo are laughing on the phone as they reminisce about how George Harrison went back and played the extra note in an alternate tuning during an early multitracking experiment. That's unlikely, actually, given the gear of the time, but it's awesome to think about.

Anyway, I thought it was pretty cool and wanted to pass it along.


Halloween movies month: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Look what your brother did to the door!I have a terrible confession to make.

It won't seem like much of a confession to some of you--but I think, from some comments I've seen this month there may be a few of you who are appalled and stunned. I suspect one or two of you will think it's no big deal; but it is, it is a big deal.

Alright, enough beating around the bush. Deep breath. Here it goes. Until this month--this week--I had never seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Yes! I'm a horror geek! Am too! And yet, somehow I'd gone thirty-six years without seeing one of the seminal slasher movies of all time. I'm enough of a horror geek, I could have probably faked my way through a conversation: Leatherface, Tobe Hooper, loosely based on the Ed Gein case, recently remade, spawned assorted sequels--including one sequel that was so awful it actually skipped going straight-to-video until somebody realized it just happened to feature a pair of actors who somehow turned out to be Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey about a year after it was made.

I'm ashamed. Sort of.

Puppy!But maybe it's just as well. The folks who did the DVD transfer--and the laserdisc restoration that was the basis for the DVD transfer--did one hell of a job making the low-budget, cheap gear, fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants TCM look about as good as it could. There are things digital restoration can't do--scenes that are forever too dark and others that will eternally be blown out--but there aren't the lines and scars one might expect from a film with TCM's humble beginnings and scruffy early history of drive-ins and late-night picture shows. The negative couldn't have been in that good a shape, honestly, and if the digital team worked from a print, they probably deserve some kind of Nobel.

This is as good a place as any to mention one of the most stunning and unexpected things I discovered about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and I'll ask you not to laugh: TCM is actually kind of a pretty film. I know. That seems ironic, doesn't it? But Daniel Pearl's work on TCM is really, really pretty (it seems Pearl was the DP on the unwatchable Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem the cineamtographer for the beautiful, stark videos for The Police's "Every Breath You Take" and U2's "With Or Without You"--consider the preceding strikethu to be an acknowledgment and repudiation--we're going to pretend Mr. Pearl had nothing to do with AVPR, not one thing, it's all lies). And the camera on TCM dances: it slides gracefully through the tall grass surrounding an abandoned house and trails a victim under a swing and across a yard and up the steps onto a porch like a snake shadowing a victim. They had a forty-foot track they dollied the camera on, and Pearl and director Tobe Hooper used it to create the kind of shots Orson Welles had wet dreams about.

This is quite simply one of the best-shot horror films I think I've ever seen, right up there with, say, Jacques Tourneur's best work. Tobe Hooper has had a spotty record since TCM: his best-known film post-Massacre is, of course, Poltergeist, and stories persist that the movie's producer, Steven Spielberg, took over the shoot during production (for the record, Spielberg has always insisted Poltergeist was directed entirely by Hooper and is entirely Hooper's vision). But you can see why, looking at TCM, Hooper's stock rose: it's not just that TCM is (or was, in 1974) "shocking," it's that TCM looks arty for all its low budget and rough shoot.

Scooby Dooby Doo, where are you?  What?
There's a little more irony in this aspect of the movie, because one of the things you often hear about Massacre is that it's effectiveness comes from it's low-budget, vérité style, the way it supposedly looks like a documentary. And I don't find that to be particularly true at all--I don't recall seeing too many documentaries with these epic tracking shots that sweep broad perimeters around the scene and action, unless you're talking about expensive nature documentaries, and I don't think the people who say TCM looks like a documentary mean that at all. The shooting does enhance the horror, for sure: the epic shots of empty Texas make you painfully aware of just how isolated these people are, how empty and desolate the world is. These people are alone, to the point they're cosmically or existentially cut off. That's not all: the vast empty shots also give you a notion of how a group of people could go so absolutely fucking nuts that killing the occasional stray driver-by and turning him into a sofa could seem pretty normal, a pretty nice way to take up some time with a nice, pleasant hobby, and how you could maybe do that for years and nobody would ever notice because this is a vast empty Texas somebody could drive into and nobody would miss him for years, he'd just be "in transit" and if anyone missed him people would say, "Well, he's probably still driving through Texas," and that would be alright, then.

(Did I mention how beautiful this movie is, how well-shot it is in spite of the cheap and sometimes murky lighting and the fact they shot it on 16mm and the fact they used the wrong film stock because they had no clue what they were doing and somebody gave them the bad advice to use the slowest film they could so they kind of overexposed everything that wasn't underexposed? But it is gorgeous, a gorgeous slasher film of all things.)

Fact: one out of every five teenagers will be brutally murdered by a psycho killerHere's another thing about Massacre, and an important one because of the way this movie has been so badly-imitated over the past thirty-four years and will continue to be badly-imitated. It ties into that existential emptiness I just mentioned. It's a standard trope of the slasher films that the hapless teenagers stupidly do stupid things until the killer, who has come from the hell of contrived plot necessities to do harm to the teenagers hunts all but one of them down. One suspects people got this from the fact that TCM features hapless teens and a relentless killer, but again with the irony: the teens in TCM don't do anything especially stupid except possibly being there, and the relentless killer is on his own turf, just kind of sitting there and hanging out when they come by. Going up to the creepy, remote house isn't a stupid thing to do unless you happen to be in a bumfuck hellish nowhere with nothing but highway and a cattle-processing plant within infinity miles-radius; honestly, most places you'd get lemonade or at least a chance to use the phone. And for his part, the relentless killer really just seems to be taking self-defense to a ridiculous extreme: a deranged psychotic retard's home is his castle, after all, and someone who knocks on the door might be a robber or Social Services or at least lunch-and-a-lampshade, so, you know, that's why the Good Lord invented mallets.

Are you there, God? It's me, Leatherface.Leatherface, the aforementioned deranged psychotic retard, is sort of TCM's hero, not because you're supposed to be rooting for him against the kids (a standard slasher-film trope also found in poor imitators of TCM) but because Gunnar Hansen plays him as a muddled '70s housewife who's simply trying to make it through her day before the boys come home and yell at her... or him... or whatever... for not having dinner already on the table. In one of TCM's finest moments, Leatherface (this is his name in the credits, but one really wants to call him "Edith") looks obviously upset that these kids keep coming up to the house and forcing him to kill them: he storms about, drops heavily to sit on the edge of a bed with his head in his hands, and then apparently forgets what's bothering him. These are obvious acting choices, mind you, not some kind of accidental bravura performance. It's funny and sad and brilliant, and I've got to admit it surprised the hell out of me that TCM's antagonist/antihero wasn't just another soulless Michael Myers/Jason Voorhees type stalking around with farm tools in a gloved hand.

What else can I say? Plenty, actually, but since I just deleted one paragraph for length, I'll wrap it up. A wonderful, funny, pretty, disgusting little movie that transcends nearly all of it's impoverished imitators, and I think I love it.

Note: So I was looking at the bonus materials on the DVD, and noticed that the Italian movie poster for TCM was Non Aprite Quella Porta; this seemed noticeably different from the posters that had assorted obvious variations on "Texas" and "massacre," so I went to Babel Fish and found that TCM's Italian title is:

You Do Not Open That Door

...which is awesome enough to pass along.


Neverwednesday Nights (Halloween Double Feature!!!)

>> Wednesday, October 29, 2008

In honor of this Friday, a SotSoGM Special Double Feature: the best song ever about vampires and the best song ever about werewolves!

Enjoy these sinister songs, boys and ghouls--they're tombs you can really dance to... on prom fright! HEHEHEHHEHHEEEEEE!


Equal time for endorsements!

In the past month, I've mentioned two endorsements of a presidential candidate, once because the endorser made a fine ecumenical statement while offering the endorsement, and once because the endorsement was pretty fucking surreal.

Some regulars, however, interpreted these blog entries as being approvals of the message--that is, they seemed to think I passed along these celebrity endorsements because I thought they were reasons to vote for a candidate, and don't care what the celebrities in question have to say.

Of course, in neither case was that the point of my blog entries. But I will say two things on the subject. First, that for some of us, a celebrity endorsement is less about the endorsee than the endorser. That is to say, for instance, that while I don't think Bruce Springsteen's endorsement of Barack Obama is a reason to vote for Obama, I do think Bruce Springsteen's endorsement of Obama is another reason The Boss is a pretty fucking cool dude in my book. It's important from that perspective. Conversely, knowing (for instance) that Neil Young supported Ronald Reagan in 1980 is something that still has me wondering what the hell Neil was smoking at the time (and yet Frank Sinatra, who supported Republicans all through the last decades of his life, including Reagan, remains an epitome of capital-C Cool as far as I'm concerned; no, I don't know what's up with that, either). Secondly, let me also add that there's not necessarily anything wrong with being swayed by a celebrity endorsement. Take, for instance, John Cleese: Cleese is a smart, educated, traveled, well-spoken, funny guy who has endorsed Obama; voting for Obama because John Cleese is John Cleese might be kind of dumb, but voting for Obama because John Cleese is someone whose opinions, intelligence and expression persuades you isn't any different from finding a college professor or newspaper editor or blogger persuasive just because Cleese is a comedian. No, Cleese doesn't carry any special water with me, personally, I'm just using him as an example: you know for yourself which famous people you think are on the ball and which ones are asstards, and if your impression is that somebody is intelligent and informed, I don't think you should disregard him because he makes a living playing piano, throwing a ball, or writing books about elves with ginormous breasts or whatever.

Anyway, what prompted this post was the realization that I haven't done anything to feature endorsements of John McCain, and I realize that this is probably unfair of me even if the endorsements themselves weren't the point. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness, I hereby offer this link to a recent major endorsement of Senator John McCain's campaign for President Of The United States. I realize there's less than a week left in the election cycle--I hope this post evens things up a little, and placates those who have felt I've been remiss in not acknowledging Senator McCain's supporters. Sorry it took so long, and you're welcome, although, really, there's no need to thank me.


But in Technology Heaven, boys and girls, Betamax will now have company...

>> Tuesday, October 28, 2008

JVC, the last company still manufacturing stand-alone VCRs, has announced that it won't anymore.

If you still have a videotape library and your existing machine breaks, you'll still be able to get a VCR that also plays DVDs. And eventually, you won't be able to get those, either. And sometime after that, you'll only see videotapes in attics and Goodwill stores, next to 8-track tapes and quad records.

I could muse ponderously over how quickly technological obsolescence is hitting these days, how this is another technology that not only came of age during my lifetime, but died during my lifetime just like floppy disks and tape drives. Instead, I will leave you with an animated short that will soon make no sense because it's based on a movie that will soon make no sense that was a remake of another movie that will make no sense that was based on a (pretty good) book that will soon make no sense. So, uhm... enjoy the senselessness. I guess.


Oh, great news--thanks, science, thanks a lot...

Swell. According to some guys at UCLA, I only have about two years left to be brilliant in. Then, after that, I guess I get to spend the rest of my life like that guy in Flowers for Algernon, slowly, inevitably becoming dumber and dumber.

Yes, it's all over. My fate, 'tis written by Dr. George Bartzokis and his research team. My brain will begin to decay into a sodden lump at age thirty-nine, and it will only be a matter of time before I'm trying to interest my friends in Amway™ and regularly voting Republican. I already forget things, and I'm not quite thirty-seven: so imagine what it will be like when I'm forty. I'll probably forget to wear pants to work or something. The humiliation.

And I'm such a young light, I thought. I was starting to think, "Hey, you're not that old. You still listen to college music. You still have time to write some good stories." Well, so much for that nonsense. The myelin sheaths of my brain cells will go all to hell in a couple of years and I'll be too busy buying lottery tickets to even write a decent paragraph. It's the end, I tell you, it's over. In no time you'll be reading my equivalent of Hal's final monologue in 2001: I'll begin talking more slowly and singing a childhood song.

Mourn for me, friends. Today, I'm prete smsrt. butt in 2 yeerz ill bedum


Bill Ayers, right-wing hypocrites, and the Second Amendment

>> Monday, October 27, 2008

I should probably start by making two things clear, so that you don't get the wrong idea and think this is a defense of William Ayers. I'm not really interested in William Ayers, I just have a question, or maybe it's not a question, maybe it's a beam of puzzlement to direct at some of the folks on the right who think Ayers is a despicable person. It's not puzzlement because they're wrong, but we'll get into that in a moment. First things first.

The first thing that I ought to try to get across is that I've spent most of my life considering myself a pacifist. And if I'm not sure I still do, it's frankly bitter resignation more than a philosophical or ethical change: "well, everybody else is violent, so I guess we're stuck with that." I tend to be a pragmatist. I don't believe in God, but if going to church keeps someone from smoking crack, I'm all about the efficacy of Christianity or whatever. If crazy lunatics in various parts of the world are going to shoot each other, I guess we have to have our own people to shoot each other. I suppose I figure if Jesus couldn't convince anybody to embrace nonviolence two thousand years ago, not even people who wear a reminder of his execution as jewelry, what chance does a lefty atheist intellectual have? But I still find real violence repellent and distasteful, and if I'm a bit of a hypocrite in my middle years, it's only because it gets harder to believe in things as you get old and tired and frustrated and resigned; I still believe in other things, don't get me wrong, the flame has guttered but it hasn't gone out. Not yet.

The second thing I ought to get across, though I'd like to keep it short and if it has to get complicated, maybe I could deal with it later, is about the Second Amendment. Typical of my breed, I suppose, I'm not a fan--but I'm also not particularly against it, you should understand. "Ambivalent" is a good word. On the one hand, I have a lot of family on my mother's side for whom guns have provided food; I love my family, and I like the idea of my family members eating, and sometimes they've sent me game over the years and I like that, too. So guns are undeniably good when you're talking about food, for instance. On the other hand, however, although I live in the South, I live in a city in the South, where anybody who is out hunting with a gun is probably looking for a dude who owes them money, or (worse yet by far) looking for somebody like me who might have money and would probably part with it if a gun was stuck in his face. And I'm not a particularly big fan of the self-defense school, the people who blithely buy pistols so they can shoot somebody over a stereo; certainly some people who break into an occupied home do so with bad intent towards the inhabitants, but it's never been clear to me that a gun has an overwhelming advantage for home defense over, say, a baseball bat--and there are some clear disadvantages in my opinion, since a baseball bat is unlikely to ever go off while you're cleaning it. Nonetheless, I also feel that the first Amendments to the Constitution, colloquially called "The Bill Of Rights," ought to be sacrosanct, and since the Second Amendment is in there we're stuck with it. But all this starts to take us off course: I hope it's enough to say that I'm ambivalent about the Second Amendment and we can leave it there for now.

Sort of a resigned pacifist? Check. Mixed feelings about the Second Amendment? Check. Still with me?

I suppose we're not quite done with the Second Amendment, but at least we're getting to the meat now. There are, as you know, a lot of people who aren't very ambivalent about the Second Amendment, they're all for it you know. Why, there are some folks who are so for it they've tried to mandate gun ownership in some places. And there are a lot of reasons these folks are all for gun ownership--the right to hunt I can get behind, and the right to defend oneself I can understand (though I don't think the proponents of this view have thought through things like, for instance, the fact that self-defense is an affirmative defense to a criminal charge, say, for instance, of first-degree murder1). But, of course, the Second Amendment doesn't actually talk about hunting or even self defense. The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution says:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

...which obviously suggests the right is supposed to be about security of the various states and maintenance of local militias. There's been a lot of debate about that, of course, and usually the people who write and end up defending gun control legislation from the NRA in court end up arguing a strong version of that with varying degrees of success. But that's sort of not the point I really want to get at.

The point I really want to get at is that you hear a lot of strongly pro-gun folks, most of them pretty conservative and right-wing folks, arguing another reason for gun ownership, and one that's actually pretty Constitutionally and historically sound. And that's the position that people ought to be able to have guns so they can defend themselves against foreign invasion and/or a tyrannical government, just like the Founding Fathers did when they wrote the Second Amendment in the first place. I have to admit, I think this rationale is obsolete to the point of being laughable, actually--your hunting rifle really isn't going to do much against mobile infantry or an airstrike--but hey, you know, it's legally and historically sound even if it is at least a century behind military innovations.

Anyway, it's not an uncommon rationale, and it's historically sound, and it tracks the language of the Amendment. Sometimes you hear it more loudly than at other times. A lot of people who defended David Koresh, a cult leader, rapist and attempted-murderer who was killed during a tragically botched arrest by ATF agents in 1993, suggested Koresh had a right to defend himself against Federal agents. Ditto from supporters of Randy Weaver, a man allegedly connected to white supremacist groups, whose family was tragically killed during a botched arrest for Federal firearms violations. And even some people who don't necessarily want to defend Koresh or Weaver will say the right to bear arms is the right to stand up against a tyrannical government.

Which makes you wonder why some of the same people have a problem with William Ayers.

Ayers was, of course, a member of the leftist organization the Weathermen, which broke from the Students For A Democratic Society primarily over the issue of militancy. As in, the Weathermen wanted to blow things up and the SDS really didn't. And that's what Ayers did, or tried to do, anyway; the most popular accusations from folks on the right concern a pretty vile plan Ayers participated in to blow up an NCO dance at Fort Dix that was terminated when the bombmakers managed to blow themselves up instead. It shouldn't have to be said that it was a pretty reprehensible plot, not because they were trying to blow up American soldiers, but because they were trying to blow up anybody. And there it is, actually, the point. Because the folks on the right who believe that the Second Amendment protects the right to have guns so as to oppose a hypothetical tyrannical government cannot logically have a problem with blowing up American soldiers.

That's obvious, isn't it? Should America sink to tyranny, who, exactly, do the right-wingers who reserve the right to rebel think they'd be shooting at, anyway? They don't think, do they, that the new "President-For-Life" will come down himself, moustache-a-twirling, to tyrannize them in person, do they? No, the people who will be oppressing them, should it come to that, will be a bunch of fine young American men and women from the National Guard or United States Armed Forces, people who enlisted and are following orders from what they take to be the Constitutional government of the United States or whatever they're calling it at that point.

Do I need to point out that the Founders (and others, such as Noah Webster2) who espoused this interpretation of the right to bear arms had no problem blowing up their own? They were British subjects who renounced their citizenship and rebelled against their rightful King, and had they lost the American Revolution they would have been tried as British subjects and hanged for capital offenses including treason, seditious libel and murder.

I can think it's outrageous that William Ayers was a bloodthirsty punk kid3 because, on the days I'm not so jaded I sigh and wave in a general direction and say, "Oh whatever, blow it all to hell, somebody's going to do it anyway," on those days I'm not so jaded, I think it's wrong to kill people. But at least some of the conservatives who are outraged about William Ayers, or, really, outraged that Barack Obama spends more time gaining votes than he does going around damning William Ayers, or are outraged that the rest of us aren't putting Obama on an exile ship for not going around damning Ayers--at least some of these people have to be okay with killing American soldiers or law enforcement officers in the general conceptual sense or are specifically okay with killing them if the officers happened to be working for Janet Reno at the time.

Ayers believed the country had taken a tyrannical bent and he was entitled to rebel against it--considering this was during the Nixon administration, noted for its criminal acts against American citizens and habit of sneaking things past Congress, Ayers may have been at least partly right about the first half of that. So he took arms against his government. So at least some on the right are, what, outraged that a pinko stole their idea?

Be glad the Greenwich plot failed, enjoy the schadenfreude that the plotters blew themselves up if you must, and get over it already.

1What? First-degree murder? Well, yes--manslaughter is a more likely charge, but elements like "lying in wait" (I refer to North Carolina law here--your mileage, as they say, may vary) can elevate an offense to capital murder. Something to think about if you're hiding behind the bed with a loaded gat in your hand while someone's outside messing with your window. My suggestion would be to call the police, maybe turn on a bunch of lights and yell (from a safe location), "Hey, asshole, the cops are on their way!"

A military force, at the command of Congress, can execute no laws, but such as the people perceive to be just and constitutional; for they will possess the power, and jealousy will instantly inspire the inclination, to resist the execution of a law which appears to them unjust and oppressive.

("An Examination of the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution," quoted here.)

3And I do. I just don't see what it has to do with Obama.
As I've written before, Ayers was the guy for juvenile law in Chicago: all that Obama's connection with Ayers says about Obama is that Obama was a Chicago politician who dealt with juvenile justice issues, same as any other Democrat or Republican or independent in Chicago.



>> Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sunday, and I'm still a little busy. I need to make a trip out to the supermarket and get some kibble for myself for the week--well, not exactly kibble, more like stuff for lunch at work, milk, little things like that. And I'm thinking of pulling into the used bookstore across the street from the supermarket and looking at what they have in term of... well, I don't want to say much, because it might jinx things, but see what they have that might be useful during NaNoWriMo, which starts next weekend.

There are some things I want to get up here, but I'm not sure they'll happen today. There's a post I have percolating about an archaeological find that I found touching, and there's ongoing series that are lying semi-abandoned at the moment, and I may have some photos I'd like to put up at some point though I haven't had the time to take too many pictures lately. I'm sure there's something happening in the world I could say something snarky about.

For anyone wondering about yesterday's business: my cousin's wedding was lovely and my buddy's showing was awesome. I probably have a lot less to say about the wedding simply because my opinion of marriage generally has plummeted over the years, but my cousin's a wonderful woman and her new husband seems like a really cool guy, so best to them. As for the second Charlotte showing of "Antibody" (which I worked on) and the first Charlotte screening of "Altar" (which I didn't, though Nate gave me and a few other people credit for sitting through "shitty rough cuts"), the crowd seemed to react appropriately to both movies, the picture and sound were awesome, I'm pleased with the way both films turned out, and Nate's work stood out above nearly all of the shorts that were shown last night--there were maybe three others among the dozen that were featured last night that were as good. And then there was sort of an afterparty that was more of a late dinner that was a helluva lotta fun, and I left around 1:00 a.m. because I'm an old wuss. All-in-all, a good Saturday.

And this is Sunday's post. If it bored you (and it might have), go read this adorable story about a dog that saved a bunch of kittens from a fire in Australia.

Have a good rest of your weekend, wherever you are!


Not your kids' Saturday morning cartoon

>> Saturday, October 25, 2008

Since I'm a bit busy today, I'm going to leave you to entertain yourselves and watch a cartoon if you want to--the "Captain Sternn" sequence from 1981's Heavy Metal. No nudity, but language and content are at least PG-13, in case you're at work or something. And in the unlikely event you've never seen this, the green bead is Ultimate Evil, not that that really matters....

Have a great Saturday!


This may be the most insane endorsement ad of the whole damn campaign...

>> Friday, October 24, 2008

So insane, matter of fact, I don't even have a snappy comment.


Please comment!

>> Thursday, October 23, 2008

This is what happens when you have to work. You leave your blog unattended, and things just happen to it, and you don't find out until you get a PM from Michelle that leads to checking your e-mail and discovering Michelle and Janiece couldn't leave messages--

In the words of one of my favorite movie characters: "It's not my fault!"

And it isn't, really. No, it's not that Chewie didn't have time to repair the hyperdrive or that I insisted on flying into an asteroid field despite the approximately 3,720 to 1 odds against. (I told you not to tell me the odds!) It's because Blogspot helpfully added a new feature to comments that, although it looks cool, apparently breaks "a heavily-customized Layouts template," as they put it. Which, Giant Midgets is, using a customized version of a very nice design by InfoCreek.

Apparently Blogspot did this yesterday, and I'm not faulting 'em--hey, it is a free (as in beer) service, and a pretty awesome one--but it might have been nice if it had been an opt-in function, since some folks apparently tried to comment and were denied. So, anyway, I changed it back to the old function, and it should work and you should be able to leave comments now.

Sorry 'bout that, and now back to your regularly-scheduled programming.


Breaking news!

And you heard it here, first, at Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets, folks! For the second time in its history, the great state of Virginia is to be fragmented again!

As I'm sure all of you know, in 1861 the state of Virginia was split when some twenty-five counties chose to secede from Virginia, which had rebelled against the United States at the start of the American Civil War, resulting in the birth of West Virginia. Now, it seems history is poised to repeat itself, as suggested by this comment from Senator John McCain's advisor, Nancy Pfotenhauer in an MSNBC.com interview:

"As a proud resident of Oakton, Va., I can tell you that the Democrats have just come in from the District of Columbia and moved into northern Virginia," McCain senior adviser Nancy Pfotenhauer said on MSNBC. "And that's really what you see there. But the rest of the state, real Virginia, if you will, I think will be very responsive to Sen. McCain's message."

Program host Kevin Corke asked Pfotenhauer if she wanted to retract the comment, prompting her to reply, "I mean 'real Virginia' because northern Virginia is where I've always been, but 'real Virginia' I take to be the — this part of the state that is more Southern in nature, if you will. Northern Virginia is really metro D.C."

Other McCain advisors and supporters have made similar comments, leading to one inescapable conclusion: Virginia is about to be officially rent in two, as this map obtained by a Shoulders Of Giant Midgets special investigative journalist shows:

One of the most significant and shocking aspects of this stunning re-drawing of the American map is that this may be the first case of reverse-secession in American history, with the residents of Virginia actually expelling the residents of the new state of Fake Virginia.

It is not clear whether the new, non-contiguous territory will, in fact, be immediately recognized for statehood or will have to go through the process for admitting new states to the Union. A McCain official, asked if the two states would each receive two Senators or would only have one apiece replied, "What--you want to give them representation? We're not even sure they're Americans! Hey, you're not recording this, are you?"

Although we are told by anonymous McCain staffers that they expect to have Fake Virginia severed from Virginia by the last week of October, issues of Fake Virginia's representation (if any) in the Electoral College will apparently be deferred until at least (in the words of our informant), "I don't know, late July, August, maybe not 'til 2010, even--who the hell are you, anyway? That thing isn't on, is it?"

One issue that may slow down Fake Virginia's admission to the United States if it isn't presumptively granted recognition as a state is the appalling lack of basic services in Fake Virginia, particularly where education is concerned. Fake Virginians seem to be completely unaware of where they even live, are unable to locate Fake Virginia on a map, and seem to think that Democratic Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia is leader of their nascent state. Asked to name their state capitol, a bare majority named Richmond, the official capitol of Virginia (although geographically located in Fake Virginia), followed closely in our completely and totally scientific poll by the apparently fictitious twin cities of "Who Is This" and "How Did You Get This Number," neither of which could be located by our interns using Google Earth and the map inserts in the back of the office English dictionary.

We promise to keep you posted as this exciting and earth-shaking story develops.


Neverwednesday Nights

>> Wednesday, October 22, 2008

When I was setting up last week's election-edition Wednesday music video, I stumbled across this stunning rendition of "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" performed at the same festival show as last week's "Electioneering." I've actually shared the studio version and original music video for this song before, but it's a fantastic song and there's something special about this performance, about the way the sun is trying to break through the clouds and rain as Thom Yorke ponders entropy and hope.


The Return Of Radiation Man

>> Tuesday, October 21, 2008

There's been all sorts of madness going on over the past week the blog John The Scientist shares with CW, Refugees From The City.

The real start of the whole mess can actually be found months and months ago, when two gentlemen, Walter L. Wagner and his mysterious sidekick Luis Sancho asked a Federal District Court Judge in Hawaii to issue a restraining order to prevent the Large Hadron Collider from going online. The case was dismissed for the fairly obvious reasons that Europe, where the collider (and, more importantly, CERN, the international European scientific organization in charge of the collider) isn't in Hawaii, and the mere fact that the United States sold some ginormous electromagnets to CERN and asked to watch what happens didn't give the District Court jurisdiction over them, either.

Why does Mr. Wagner hate the LHC? Well, the short and simple answer--ironically, this is the short and simple answer--is that Mr. Wagner and a lot of other people who like physics but don't really understand it as well as they think they do have latched onto the notion that the LHC will spontaneously generate black holes, which will destroy the Earth, and all of their stuff. (The idea that maybe CERN physicists also keep their stuff on Earth and might have a vested interest in not destroying it, seems to escape these concerned citizens.) The longer answer is that Mr. Wagner seems to have a history of... well, we'll come back to that in a bit.

The fact that Mr. Wagner put the court, and CERN, and any number of interested scientists (including Nobel laureates like Sheldon Glashow) to all sorts of trouble, and along the way raised such a fuss that some poor teenage girl in India killed herself out of LHC terror has put out enough people to complain about it, and John The Scientist wrote a blog post about it, "Response," in which he took Mr. Wagner and the CERN opponents to school. I'll go ahead and mention now that that Wagner has spawned a number of other blog entries that are worth reading, from Janiece Murphy's earthy "'Tard Of The Week: Walter Wagner" to Jim Wright's saltier "Walter L. Wagner, Pitifully Insane" to MWT's typically sober "Summary Of The Debunking Of A Crank"; if I missed anyone, I apologize, but the ground zero for all of this was at Refugees, because it was at Refugees that Wagner apparently personally showed up to repeat himself.

No, not exactly defend himself. Repeat himself.

He was preceded by fans, who informed John's readers that Wagner is an expert chess player. Nobody understood how that made him a physicist. And it just got silly from there. A Wagner supporter insisted that Wagner was "Dr. Wagner," based, it turned out, on the assertion that Wagner had a law degree--a Juris Doctor, which (trust me, speaking as an attorney) no lawyer considers a "real" doctorate, name notwithstanding. And then there was Walter himself, insisting that experience as a radiation safety officer made him a physicist, or his undergraduate minor in physics made him a physicist, or maybe it was--I am not making this up, go read the thread at Refugees--the fact, or at least claim, that he, Wagner, had aced the math portion of a standardized test that all teachers in California must pass to be certified. No, seriously, Wagner said this. Or there was the fact he was a researcher on a mid-'70s cosmic ray experiment the results of which have been fundamentally questioned--that is, as a student, he sat with a microscope looking at tracks in plastic blocks that had been floated into the stratosphere by a balloon, and if he saw something he'd point it out to one of the recognized physicists in charge, and as it happens what they thought they'd found they apparently hadn't, to make a long story short. Then there was Wagner's publication history: a published article in Scientific American that turned out, upon further inspection, to be (wait for it) a letter to the editor.

Now, the thing that turned out to be really funny about Wagner insisting that these achievements--which might even be notable ones in a more modest and honest individual--qualified him to do Big Physics was that his claims begged to be dug into. And that was how some of us (well, me, actually, but MWT sort of called my attention to it) noticed this in a New York Times article about Wagner's latest crusade:

Mr. Wagner, who lives on the Big Island of Hawaii, studied physics and did cosmic ray research at the University of California, Berkeley, and received a doctorate in law from what is now known as the University of Northern California in Sacramento. He subsequently worked as a radiation safety officer for the Veterans Administration.

...which inevitably led to a search for the University Of Northern California in Sacramento. Which leads to this Wikipedia disambiguation page, which has two entries: an engineering school and an unaccredited law school that was founded four years after Mr. Wagner claims to have graduated from whatever law school he's talking about. "Unaccredited" means a California resident can't take the California State Bar without taking another test first, and a lot of state Bars won't have a grad from an unaccredited school sit for the test at all. Which is significant because Mr. Wagner eventually claimed, in the Refugees thread, that he actually had taken a Bar (although he says he's not a lawyer now) and even practiced law, although the timeline he sets forth for himself gives about fifteen months, at the very outside, during which he could have practiced. If he practiced. As of this writing, Mr. Wagner can't or won't specify whether the law school he attended really was the University of Northern California, Lorenzo Patiño School of Law, or some other school [WAGNER'S LAW SCHOOL HISTORY IS A BIT STRANGE, SEE UPDATE BELOW], or when he sat for the Bar and in what state.

The most interesting thing about Mr. Wagner's practice of law, however, is that it isn't mentioned in any of the articles about him, not in the Times article, nor the East Bay Express article about another Wagnerian crusade--to save Californian babies from cancer induced by household uranium.

Yes, Wagner's mission to stop the LHC from destroying the world isn't Wagner's first crusade to save the world. It's not even his second. In 1999 and 2000, Wagner filed suits to shut down the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory, which has now been not-destroying-the-world for nearly a decade. And then, after that, Wagner embarked on a quest to eliminate uranium-glazed tiles from households all over his home state of California, described rather hysterically in this East Bay Express article dated August 27, 2003, "Catching Rays With Radiation Man," which is absolutely worth a read--for the laughs, if you're new to Wagner, and for the déjà vu if you've been following the LHC controversy. Here's Wagner's much slimmer 2003 bio, per the Express:

Walter Wagner grew up in the farming town of Salinas, and left for UC Berkeley in 1970 as a biology student....

As a young lab assistant, Wagner got his first chance to handle radiation.... A man of his times, Wagner enlisted in the No Nukes movement, and worked for antinuclear activist Helen Caldecott. But after college, he reevaluated Caldecott's mission. Sounding much like his own critics today, Wagner says the activist's ideologies veered into the fringes of reason, and that her fear of what she didn't know--how radiation and nuclear energy can be used safely to advance science, and thus society--left Wagner disenfranchised. "She's got some good ideas, overall, but she blows a lot of her numbers out of proportion," he says. "It was getting harder to follow her."

Wagner never finished his physics graduate work at Cal, but was hired in 1979 as the head radiation safety officer at the San Francisco Veterans Administration Medical Center. His job was to make sure anyone who dealt with radioactivity--from X-ray machines to nuclear medicine--worked safely....

Yet reporting to his government employers also dragged on Wagner's independent streak: "I was told to kiss ass way too much." He left the VA after five years and hasn't worked for another boss since. Instead, he bounced through a series of science-related consulting jobs, and a brief stint as an earth science teacher at Oakland's Arroyo Junior High.

Thanks to "a little bit of money saved up" over the years, Wagner founded two major projects that dominate his time. He oversees an 88-acre botanical garden in Hawaii, and founded the Monterey Bay Perpetual Endowment Foundation for Wellness.

Possibly, of course, the writer got it all wrong. He probably had "law school" written somewhere in his notes and spilled coffee on it.

The Express account is worth a read--one of Wagner's chief techniques, it seems, was to run up to people's houses, Geiger counter in hand, and ask to be allowed to inspect for radiation. Not surprisingly, this technique had limited success. But it's better than that: Wagner is rejected by the experts, uses shaky math, is anxious over vastly improbable scenarios, and manages to piss off a Navy man. It is indeed, as the old joke goes, déjà vu all over again.

The Monterey Bay Perpetual Endowment Foundation For Wellness is a puzzling entity. You can't find it with Google, well, you can't find it as an existing entity on Google, suggesting it was a bit less perpetual than promised. ("You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.") As of 2005, Mr. Wagner was showing up at at least one conference as a representative of the MBPEFW. So, okay, it was at least that perpetual. But when you try to track the Foundation by its last-known address, 2100 Garden Rd, Monterey, CA 93940-5366, you find that the Foundation For Wellness is no longer listed as a business at that address, although there is a listing for Monterey Bay Botanical Gardens--could this be the "88-acre botanical garden in Hawaii" mentioned in the profile of Radiation Man? Or at least an office for the Gardens, since it's obvious from the aerial photograph on Google that there's no 88-acre garden there, in the office complex on Garden Rd.?

Oh, speaking of the Botanical Gardens: I guess now is as good a time as any to mention the indictments.

From The Register UK, "Botanist sues to stop CERN hurling Earth into parallel universe," by Lewis Page, March 28th of this year:

Wagner... founded the World Botanical Gardens in Umauma, Hawaii, and is now embroiled in a bitter legal battle with the Gardens board. According to the Hawaii Tribune-Herald..., he and his wife were indicted last month by a grand jury on counts of identity theft and attempted theft relating to an alleged attempt to obtain $340,000 from the gardens company.

Wagner contends that the couple were owed the cash, having worked for free at the gardens for years. Having been let go, they then sued the company for back pay.

But the company says the pair failed to notify the directors of the action, with Wagner instead serving the papers on his wife as company treasurer--even though she no longer was. The board says that Wagner then appeared in court as a company officer. He was thus able to gain a default judgement in his own lawsuit's favour, all without the knowledge of the Gardens board. It is also alleged that phony promissory notes were drawn up in an attempt to obtain cash from the company.

Wagner told the Tribune-Herald: "The records show we were in fact owed this money. That case is still in civil court. I also have four sworn affidavits that the promissory notes were not phony."

Well. This is understandably a tender area for Mr. Wagner, and I assume his lawyers have told him not to discuss the matter (that's what I'd tell my client): Wagner has threatened to sue at least one blogger for merely quoting the same passage from The Register UK I've quoted here. I certainly wouldn't want to distract Mr. Wagner from his world-saving by embroiling him in a second lawsuit. Especially when it appears, from the State Of Hawaii's Ho'ohiki court information system that Mr. Wagner may be busy perfecting his appeal of the decision against him in his case against the Gardens. (I hasten to add that the Ho'ohiki system doesn't, as far as I can tell, provide access to documents, and so I am merely drawing an inference from the fact that the appeal is being filed pro se after an order of the court granting the Defendant's--the Garden's--request for attorney's fees and taxable costs--winners don't pay.) And there is the pending nature of--I believe it's case number 3PC08-1-000097.

Let me just emphasize: I practice criminal defense. Mr. Wagner is innocent until proven guilty, and the fact that he's under indictment proves absolutely nothing. No inference as to Mr. Wagner's character should be drawn from the fact he's lost a civil dispute and has pending criminal charges arising from the same business relationship. I've represented innocent men, women and even children who were indicted by a Grand Jury only to have their cases thrown out by a judge or jury. This information is merely shared because I've had to go to some work to try to find out anything more about Wagner, and to try to verify the claims he has made; and while I have been unable to verify where he went to law school [I THINK I HAVE: SEE UPDATE BELOW], I have been able to verify some legal experience on his part. That's all.

At any rate, I said I would come back to why Walter Wagner has it in for the Large Hadron Collider, and the reason, the deeper reason is that Mr. Wagner has, for whatever reason, a history of embarking on these crusades where his wisdom and perceptiveness allow him to realize a significant threat that the entire scientific community, and eventually the entire legal community, disagrees with. Does he like the attention? Does he have this desperate urge to be a superhero? Is it something else? I have no idea. All I can say is, here's what I've learned of the man. I leave you to draw your own further conclusions, and merely ask you to be temperate in your comments--after all, it is quite possible that Mr. Wagner has done reckless and damaging things out of a deep-seated conviction that he is the lone hero standing against an indifferent or actively hostile world, and the welfare of every man, woman and child in California or the world depends on Wagner; that would be a thing to be pitied and wondered at, and so I would suggest we all (myself included) try to muster humility and restraint, no matter how difficult Mr. Wagner sometimes makes it, no matter how comical or insulting his efforts may be.

UPDATE 2008-10-21, 12:55 PM: Mr. Wagner hasn't made this easy. According to Classmates.com, Mr. Wagner started at the McGeorge School Of Law, an accredited school, and finished at Lorenzo, an unaccredited school. So why didn't Mr. Wagner just come clean?

Well, because this is the Google search results page for "McGeorge Law School Walter Wagner" as of this date and time:

Notice the first item, an article from the September 26, 1977 issue of People magazine: "Walter Wagner's Bizarre Courtship: After 21 Months, Gail Morton Has Him Jailed for Harassment"; the title, sadly, sums up the story fairly well. Wagner allegedly began to stalk a fellow student, Gail Morton, leaving unwanted gifts (including, for some reason, his birth certificate), making unwanted phone calls, pounding on Ms. Morton's door for 90-minute stretches, and otherwise wearing out what little welcome he'd begun with. Here's how Mr. Wagner's law school career ended, according to People:

Wagner dropped out of McGeorge and enrolled in another law school in Sacramento to repeat his first year....

Gail went to lawyers only six months after his advances began but got little help. Wagner hadn't broken the law, they said. One suggested she hire someone to beat him up. Then last fall she finally won a civil-court injunction barring Wagner from mailing her anything, telephoning her, following her or appearing within three blocks of her home or school. When Walter brazenly came back to the McGeorge campus anyway, the school had him arrested.

Since then Wagner has been convicted in civil and criminal court of 17 counts of contempt. He is free on $10,000 bail pending appeal of the civil conviction, after serving eight of 75 days in county jail. At his sentencing this week on two criminal counts, he could receive up to a year and a $1,000 fine.

It didn't end there. In 2001, per the 2005 decision in Wagner v. Flippo, (No. C 05-02863 JSW; LEXIS citation omitted):

On the morning of November 9, 2001, Ms. Morton appeared in the Santa Clara County courthouse on client business. She overheard a man asking one of the bailiffs if he knew of an attorney named Gail Morton; when she looked over, she recognized Plaintiff as the inquirer. Plaintiff later drove down to Monterey, the city where Ms. Morton resides, and appeared at Ms. Morton's parents' home. He identified himself as "Zahaenya Wagner" and asked to contact Ms. Morton. That evening, Plaintiff telephoned Ms. Morton's father and left a telephone number where he could be reached. The next day, before leaving Monterey, Plaintiff left his business card at a shop adjacent to Ms. Morton's workplace, and asked the shopkeeper to deliver the card to Ms. Morton in order to make sure she received it.

(internal citations omitted)

A footnote in the opinion adds, "Plaintiff admits to the truth of the facts underlying Defendants' criminal complaint against him."

Ms. Morton notified the police, who tracked down Mr. Wagner and arrested him. "At the time of his arrest, Plaintiff was in possession of several knives and a list containing the names of all of Ms. Morton's coworkers," we're told. However, it seems the prior 1977 injunction against Mr. Wagner had been dissolved in the early 1980s by mutual consent, and the criminal prosecution against Mr. Wagner was dismissed with prejudice by the court.

Mr. Wagner, apparently not knowing when to leave well enough alone, took his victory, spun around, and filed a civil rights action against officials of the State Of California, which was dismissed in the opinion quoted from, above.

And that's how I found out where Mr. Walter Wagner attended law school.

I remain curious as to whether the California State Bar (or any other State Bar) allowed Mr. Wagner to sit for the exam with prior criminal convictions for contempt and (to put it delicately) the history set forth above, and with a law degree from an unaccredited school. I cannot imagine North Carolina would have allowed him to sit for the Bar, certainly not these days: there was some controversy over whether my alma mater, Chapel Hill, should have entered a student with a known (to put it delicately) history knowing that the student would not have been allowed to sit for the North Carolina Bar (as it happened, the student in question went on a shooting spree and killed two people in broad daylight during my first year at Chapel Hill, and so he never had the chance to be turned down by the Bar; still, it was something we all talked about, of course).

I can understand Mr. Wagner's reluctance to come clean. All of this also casts some of his interests in a new light.

It gets weirder, and sadder. Will I update if I come across anything else? You know it.


I'd like to tell you a story, about a little... er... dog, if I can...

>> Monday, October 20, 2008

Here's why people make up stories: because reality, as awesome and spectacular as it is, is clearly insufficient sometimes.

Case in point: the tabloid The Sun is reporting that teenagers in Argentina were harassed by a "creepy gnome." Not only that, but the headline tells us the creepy gnome is back, implying the creepy gnome has been around before and has returned again to strike fear at unsuspecting Argentinians. And the first paragraph confirms:

A NEW sighting of South America’s ‘creepy gnome’ has caused panic among locals after a group of youngsters claimed a ‘midget monster’ ran towards them at night.

("Midget monster"--hmmm... was it a giant midget monster...?)

They even have video, taken from a cell phone, and here is where my heart breaks a little inside: the creepy gnome is pretty obviously a small, black dog. It even barks at them. If this is a hoax, I think it can not only be fairly nominated for worst hoax ever, but included as a general sign of the decline of human civilization: what ever happened to the days of investing time into pocking a gypsum statue of a giant with fake pores or scrounging up a skull and jawbone and filing down the teeth and carefully aging the bones with chemicals for several months? It used to be that a hoax really required some time and thought, involved some investment of time and money and careful patience. Now some asstard with a cell phone films a dog and it's an internet sensation. It's sad, is what it is, although I can't help suspecting the real hoax is on the part of The Sun, as a belated and random act of revenge against Argentina for unsuccessfully claiming some British islands off their own coast--if that's the case, what happened to that whole "good sportsmen" thing you Brits used to be famous for--you kicked Argentina's ass twenty-five years ago, there's no good reason for trying to make Argentinians look stupid now.

But what's really, truly most heartbreaking in all of this is simply the fact that there really should be creepy gnomes that run around growling at people and running away. How cool would that be? You walk in the door, your significant other calls out to ask how your day was, you reply, "Oh, nothing much--gnome growled at me in the driveway, that's about it." It's very Harry Potter-ish, I know. Rowling's Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them informs us that the gnome:

...is a common garden pest found throughout northern Europe and North America. It may reach a foot in height, with a disproportionately large head and hard, bony feet. The gnome can be expelled from the garden by swinging it in circles until dizzy and then dropping it over the garden wall.

(Potterverse fans will recall that de-gnoming the garden is an unpleasant outside chore frequently assigned to Harry, Ron and Hermione whenever they're staying at the Weasleys' and the adults need them out of the way.)

I actually find myself imagining giant mousetrap-like gnometraps, baited with whatever gnomes like to eat, and the gnome trips the plate and slaaaam, although I suppose I don't know how you dispose of a gnome with a broken neck and I guess they might be an attractive nuisance as far as children are concerned. It might only work, then, if you could bait it with something children don't like but gnomes do, but I don't know if gnomes like homework and how do you bait a trap with a nap? And if the thing gnomes mostly like is pizza, well I imagine you'll end up killing or maiming half the neighborhood, so that wouldn't work....

See what I mean? The idea that of growling, creepy gnomes is a helluva lot better than the commonplace notion that it's really hard for a possibly-drunk Argentinian to use a 3-megapixel phone camera to shoot a non-blurry film of a dog late at night.


Supposing the dog wasn't agitated by them? Suppose he was trying to warn them of something--maybe his owner was trapped in a well or there was a robbery in progress--and these fellows with the cell phone were so besotted they thought the dog was a barking gnome and ignored the dog's frantic yaps? That might be....

No, I stand by my previous assertion. A gnome would be better. Possibly because of his hat.


This is why I always liked you, General

>> Sunday, October 19, 2008

From "Powell endorses Obama for president" at MSNBC.com:

[Former Secretary of State, National Security Advisor and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin] Powell also said he was "troubled" by Republican personal attacks on Obama, especially false intimations that Obama was Muslim and Republicans' recent focus on Obama’s alleged connections to William Ayers, the founder of the radical ’60 Weather Underground.

Stressing that Obama was a lifelong Christian, Powell denounced Republican tactics that he said were insulting not only to to Obama but also to Muslims.

"The really right answer is what if he is?" Powell said, praising the contributions of millions of Muslim citizens to American society. [emphasis added]

Thank you, General. Why this hasn't been the number one response by every right-thinking, sound-minded American of every party and none, Obama loyalist or McCain supporter, regardless of creed or color, goes to show how much more this melting pot of ours still needs to be stirred and set to simmer before our actions come within more than spitting distance of the ideals we've set ourselves.

Among the many crimes of the present administration that are beyond prosecution is this: that they took this good, honorable and intelligent man and wasted and abused him. Here's to the hope General Powell gets a third act in American politics.

EDIT 2008-10-19:It seems Janiece has even more reason to add him to her celebrity boyfriend list--the MSNBC article doesn't even have the best lines on the subject in the quote I used above, which I didn't realize until I saw Glenn Greenwald's blog this afternoon.

Here's General Powell's full statement about the "Obama is a Muslim" meme:

I'm also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, "Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim." Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, "He's a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists." This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son's grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards--Purple Heart, Bronze Star--showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn't have a Christian cross, it didn't have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life. Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourself in this way. And John McCain is as nondiscriminatory as anyone I know. But I'm troubled about the fact that, within the party, we have these kinds of expressions.

Thank you, General. Thank you.

The full transcript of the Powell interview is here


Halloween movies month: The Abominable Dr. Phibes

By the end of his life, Vincent Price was synonymous with "scary" for a lot of people. Which was understandable, he spent the biggest chunk of his career playing creepy characters in creepy movies, and doing the occasional bit of voiceover with what can only be described, redundantly in this context, as "a Vincent Price voice." If you've heard the Michael Jackson song "Thriller," you know the one. There's even one writer over at Slate--the writer in question is probably lucky I don't remember their name right now--that seems to have an obsession with Vincent Price (as in Vincent Price, the late actor, not any of the characters Vincent Price played) being scarier than, say, brain-eating zombies or whatever.

That last bit being an example of what was sort of unfortunate about the persona that accreted around Price. By all accounts, he was a genteel and gentlemanly fellow, serious about his craft and also serious about good food and painting in a pretty humble way: he helped sell fine art through Sears and wrote a series of cookbooks aimed at ordinary kitchens. (I think I read somewhere that among Price's several books about cuisine, is one that includes a section on Price's favorite ballpark hotdogs--which to my mind is an example of what makes Price the kind of everyman intellectual that used to be a specially American archetype and icon that now appears to be some kind of anathema.) And even as an actor, Price of course played all sorts of characters: not just villains, but heroes and bystanders and mournful, loving old men (if Price's last onscreen feature role, as Edward's father in Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands, doesn't wrench your heartstrings with it's sweet turn, there really is something wrong with your soul).

Of course, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is the kind of movie that cemented Price's role in the imagination as a pallid, creepy stalker with the devilish voice. It's a movie that Price basically made at least three times, with the sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again and the darker, meaner Theater Of Blood; in all of these, Price plays a man who comes back after being wrongly presumed dead, with a sex kitten at his side, and proceeds to off a sequence of victims according to a theme--in the first Phibes, the victims' deaths are more-or-less inspired by or tangentially-connected to the plagues of Egypt from the Book Of Exodus. One problem that themed-serial-killer movies sometimes run into is the writers' "oh fuck, how are we going to do _______?!" issue, which is why Phibes, for instance, has to be satisfied with somebody being killed with a frog mask and someone else being killed by a plane crash that's kind of caused by rats. Close enough.

I don't know if Phibes is the first movie in this subgenre or not--it's definitely on the early side, though you can find the subgenre's roots in pulps and horror comics of the '50s. The best recent example I can think of, if you're not quite sure what I'm talking about, is David Fincher's Se7en, in which a serial killer offs people with cardinal-sins-themed modes of death.

The funny thing about Phibes--and whenever I say "Phibes" I mean the first one, not the nigh-unwatchable cash-in sequel, which I'm unlikely to refer to by name again--is that it manages the neat trick of being one of the most enjoyable films in its niche by not necessarily being the best from a technical point of view. Theater Of Blood, for instance, is a grittier, better-made movie, but it's also uglier and meaner and leaves a kind of metallic aftertaste. And Se7en possibly falls into the category of "good movies I will probably refuse to watch ever again"; I haven't completely ruled out the possibility of watching the whole thing again, because it really is a great-looking and well-constructed piece of film with a solid cast of actors I like, but I also haven't forgotten how utterly dirty and hollow inside I felt walking out of the sneak preview thirteen years ago that remains the only time I've seen the entire movie (I've seen pieces of it here and there, since then)--Se7en is very good, but relentlessly unenjoyable and sickening.

Phibes is bizarre, surreal, possibly insane. Vincent Price is an obvious casting choice for the lead role, but then you have Joseph Cotten--yes, that Joseph Cotten, the one who was in Citizen Kane (which seems bizarre to me, although his later résumé didn't really keep up with the standards of his early one). The movie is set in an anachronistic 1920s with robots and sophisticated prosthetics. The things that aren't appropriately art deco are jarringly psychedelic (one wouldn't be terribly surprised to see that one of the doors in Phibes' lair leads to Pepperland). There were probably drugs involved at several stages of the making of this movie, but maybe that could already be inferred from its 1971 release date.

And all of that actually works for the movie, that's the thing. Okay, you see a string on a rubber fruit bat early on, and your skepticism is justified. But this is a movie that will eventually have you crying "uncle." This is not a movie you resist, this is a movie that wears you down until you're laughing with it, not at it, and rooting for the characters--all of them, even the demented and vengeful, lovelorn widower Phibes.

The movie's trump card is, unsurprisingly, Price, who plays the movie's protagonist with a mixture of glee and pathos that has you kind of pulling for him in spite of the fact he's a psychotic freak who kills or tries to kill nearly a dozen people who probably haven't actually done anything wrong--whether deliberately or because the pages got lost in a drug-induced haze, it's never clear whether the doctors who "allowed" Phibes' late wife to die (the motive for his killing spree, natch) were malicious, incompetent, or merely unlucky. It's quite possible, actually, that Phibes eradicates the best physicians in the English-speaking world solely because he's an utter fucking loon, and you even have to love the movie for leaving this string hanging loose.

See, there are at least two common mistakes in the movies that have followed in Phibes' footsteps. The first mistake, made by movies that include that sequel AIP made and even Theater Of Blood, is to try to make the villain sympathetic by really trying to cram a justification for his bloody wake down the audience's collective throats. It's nearly inevitable in these sorts of films for the audience to discover that the "victim" of the villainous antihero's revenge was a terrorists communist pedophile who was drunk and stoned and receiving sexual favors from an underage hooker, etc. at the time of the offense that led to this whole thing--the subgenre of revenge horror (which Phibes also falls into) and the dovetailing subgenre of themed serial killer nearly always try to blame the victim--otherwise, an audience who identifies with the killer is... well... let's face it, kind of depraved. (For the record, I haven't always been immune to that siren call.)

The second mistake of most imitators is not having Vincent Price (this obviously doesn't apply to the sequel or to Theater Of Blood). What Price brings to Phibes is beyond value: he plays the character with this uncanny mixture of sorrow, rage, rakishness, humor, irony, and pathos that makes Dr. Phibes as compelling as he is, yes, abominable. You have to feel a little sorry for the guy, no matter how nutty and horrid he is, and you can't help sharing a little of Phibes' satisfaction when an utterly bizarre, slightly Rube Goldberg-ish murder scheme comes together. ("Wheee! It worked--wait--he just totally killed that guy!") It's Price's charisma that helps hold Phibes together so it doesn't just become another merely sleazy B-movie exercise in murder porn.

The writers' ghoulish sense of humor, actually, shouldn't be overlooked, and notwithstanding that last line of the previous paragraph, it's possible to do a very funny movie in which characters keep dying pointlessly gruesome deaths. I actually liked the first Final Destination, a movie in which the skeletal plot and goofy, inchoate premise was solely a justification for increasingly bizarre death scenes. Comedy, to paraphrase Mr. Brooks, is when someone else falls down an open sewer and dies. There is a moment, late in Phibes, when several characters are obligated to discuss which way a screw is threaded, followed shortly by an image I don't want to spoil, that would make Phibes worth a rental or even a purchase even if the rest of the movie sucked, and the rest of the movie doesn't suck. And I will say no more--except: if you still haven't decided what you're watching Halloween night, Phibes wouldn't be a bad way to spend the evening.


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