"All day long I think of things but nothing seems to satisfy..."

>> Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Janiece Murphy has brought to my attention that I've been busted. Totally, completely busted. My cover is blown.

So it is time to confess. Yes, as Mr. James Tankersley writes on his blog, I am a member of the Uniformed Counter-Intelligence Force, an elite squad dedicated to debunking those who question the safety of CERN's Large Hadron Collider.

I remember my recruitment well. I was in Vienna, after the war, dissolute and wondering what to do with myself. I still had some of the money I'd been given when I was cashiered out, but to be honest I was squandering it on a French prostitute named Bette Ormond and slug after slug of greasy gin martinis at a dive called "The Bison," served by a man of indeterminate loyalties named Olaf. (I think, before the Berlin Wall fell, Olaf had been one of theirs, but then a man I knew named Dmitri who was normally a reliable sort when it came to those kinds of matters, always insisted he was one of ours. Perhaps, like so many in those crazed days, he wasn't anyone's but his own. I never had much use for that type; it's not so much that I'm a patriot, or naïve, it's just that I don't believe in sitting on fenceposts. My father, who was deeply averse to profanity of any kind, used to tell me to "Poop, or get off the pooper," and I took that to heart even if it sounded kind of retarded.)

Anyway, I was in The Bison, slugging back another one of Olaf's horrible martinis, and I was thinking about how Malcolm had died in that botched op in Kinshasa, when a man walked in who I hadn't seen before. He was clearly an intellectual, you could tell from his refined air and eyeglasses; at first I thought the moustache was some kind of crude disguise, but later I'd find out that was his thing, his trademark. He sat down at my table uninvited, and my hand subconsciously went to the .22 in my jacket pocket. It's a girly gun, but it's easy to get past customs and in my experience if you're in an interior situation up close and personal where you'd need more firepower, you're already dead. I've known too many guys who strutted around with some huge cannon under their jacket like they wanted to be Clint Eastwood, and nearly every one of them ends up getting knocked off by a guy on a rooftop six-hundred yards away or is "coincidentally" standing next to a car when it explodes; if they want you, they'll get you, I'm saying. But if you're in a little dive with lousy electronic jazz piping out of a boombox on the bar, a little pea-shooter is enough to slow somebody down while you get out and do an E.T. to find out who wants you dead this time.

Anyway, he sat down, this guy. I could tell he didn't want to kill me.

"I'm Nathan," he said. "I want you for the UCF."

I tried to run my brain through the abbreviations and acronyms, staring into his eyes the whole time. I swear, I'm straight, but this Nathan character had laser eyes, eyes that could bore a hole in diamond. If he'd told me to go get him a drink or watch his dog for the weekend, I probably would've and I'd only just met him. He had one of those accentless voices a deep ops guy has, too: I was willing to bet he could pass as a Parisian in France and as someone born in Jiangxi Province on the phone (later, I'd learn he spoke a dozen languages flawlessly, but usually pretended he was from New York even though nobody was sure he really lived there).

"Yeah, sure," I said, mostly to stall. He pinned me to the wall with that stare and told me I was lying. "Okay, you got me," I replied, "I'm lying. I've never heard of your finking UCF. What gives?"

"In a few years," he says, "CERN will initiate a project to generate captive black holes to be used as a superweapon."

"You're full of doody," I said, even though I could tell he believed every word of it.

"Think about it. The wars of the past have been fought with bigger and bigger weapons. A battleship race was one of the causes of World War I. World War II was won by the nation with the biggest bomb. But bigger and bigger weapons are expensive and impractical. The largest nuclear weapon in the former Soviet arsenal is a plutonium bomb the size of a split-level ranch house, the dumb fucks built it just so they could say they did, they had no idea how to deliver it." He noticed my slack jaw and stunned stare, "No, seriously, it's sitting in the middle of an open field outside Krasnoyarsk, nobody knows what the hell to do with the goddamn fucker."

"You said a no-no word," I managed at last. "You said a lot of no-no words."

"We can teach you how to say those. You'll be able to use them conversationally, on the phone, with your parents, to impress women. What the hell, you spend all that money on that French slut just to talk?"

"Oh no," I said, "we make humpy-hump like crazed weasels."

"Whatever," he said. "Oh, and we'll show you that, too: we send coded messages through the website of a writer of bathroom-humor jokes and music reviews who we're going to graduate to being a major science-fiction author in just a few years." He checked his watch. "So, we'll teach you to curse, give you millions of dollars in taxpayer funds, all you have to do is sell your soul to the weaponmasters at the CERN collective. And if you say 'no,' of course we'll have to kill you with extreme violence and say it was a heart attack. You in?"

"Heck, yeah," I said, "I'm tired of hanging out in this poopy bar and drinking these pee-pee martinis."

And that was how it began.

We've been active publicly for about a year now, engaging in a propaganda operation to discredit those who would keep us from selling the black holes CERN has been producing since the LHC went online (the "quenched magnet" story was just that--a cover that Janiece Murphy and I came up with after one of the black holes breached containment and almost turned the planet inside-out until three physicists bravely sacrificed their lives getting it into a magnetic bottle; production of black holes has been nine times what we expected in the meantime). We produce microscopic black holes and we sell them to the highest bidder, and every now and again somebody will ask what will happen if another one gets out and isn't contained, and I tell them to fuck the fuck off because I really loved those fucking profanity fucking lessons fucking. (Jim Wright was a phenomenal instructor, even if he did have to garrote that one guy who kept trying to use "cock" as an adjective.)

But sometimes I have second thoughts. What if one of the black holes does escape? I have dreams, nightmares, really, that the world is being pulled out from under my feet, and I look back as I'm trying to run against the wind and there, behind me, are the men whose executions I've planned, the men whose deaths I caused with those aforementioned well-placed snipers and car bombs, and some of the ones whose deaths I didn't plan but knew would happen--women and children and old people who were acceptable collateral damage for the greater good--and behind them is a black hole, growing and glowing and spitting off tendrils of high-energy X-rays that I can somehow see in the dream, and I wonder if we're doing the right thing.

And then I think, enh, I'm getting rich.

But now I've made this confession. Mr. James Tankersley has outed me: yes, there is a conspiracy. Yes, we're paid by tax dollars. And yes, they'll probably kill me for saying this. Sometimes I wonder what really would have happened if I'd said "no" to Nathan in Vienna. Sometimes.


Why, I agree absolutely...

Hm. It seems a recent poll shows that the celebrity Americans would most prefer to have as a neighbor is Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Believe it or not, I'll agree completely.

Now, if my address happened to be 1602 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington D.C., 20500 instead of where I'm presently living, then I would feel a whole helluva lot differently about the whole thing. But as things stand right now? Sure, she can live across the hall in my condo building. Whatever.

Just saying.

UPDATE 10:13 AM: ...and then I saw this. And as much as I want to say it's a joke, I'm not sure it is; it could be, sure--but if it is, the humor is so dry and straight-faced I'm not sure it works. Okay, the blog entry on Palin's grandson and the one on sex toys are so foamy (and look at this one on surrogate moms), I'm leaning towards parody; but I'm not one-hundred-percent sure. These people might merely be, you know, insane.

Anyway, it sorta goes along with not wanting Governor Palin in the White House... although if her fans are any indication, her next residence might be a cave in the hills somewhere....


It is December 30, 2008, and Walter L. Wagner, the Radiation Man, is still under indictment

>> Tuesday, December 30, 2008

It is December 30, 2008, and Walter L. Wagner, the Radiation Man, is still under indictment.

I know--a petty thing, perhaps, to be mentioning while we're here at the end of the year. A day before New Year's Eve, that symbolic time when we all get together with family and friends and flush out the old and ring in the new; toasts, champagne, downtown squares filled with revelers while everyone at home--in America, at least, I can't say what they do elsewhere--turns their televisions and eyes towards New York and that big ball coming down in Times Square. Why, then, write a blog post about how it is December 30, 2008, and Walter L. Wagner, the Radiation Man, is under indictment in the state of Hawai'i for Attempted Theft In The First Degree and Identity Theft In The First Degree?

Well, dear readers, as some of you know for yourselves: Walter L. Wagner is a vexing and obnoxious man, for one thing. His history of prior dealings with one poor former fellow law student over a thirty year period, for one thing, speaks for itself. For another thing, there's his foolish crusades against science, be it the Large Hadron Collider or the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (nine years since a lost-space accident and counting!). There's the ego on the man, what with the way that he has claimed that acing a teacher's certification exam, publishing letters in Scientific American, being a radiation safety technician and a student tech on a thirty-year-old cosmic ray experiment makes him an expert physicist; he also, to my personal ire, has boasted in comment threads about his legal skills--which admittedly, as a law-school graduate, must be better than the average pro se appellant's--notwithstanding the fact that he's had an appeal denied for failing to clearly state the grounds for appeal and another case thrown out for failing to prove that Switzerland is in the United States. Then there's the way he files suit after suit--my own personal opinion is that he abuses the hell out of the legal system, but in all fairness the one court that found Mr. Wagner to be a vexatious litigant was reversed on that particular score.

At this point, hell, Mr. Wagner is vexing simply by being Mr. Wagner. And so I can't help some sense of schadenfreude over this fact: that as of December 30, 2008, Walter L. Wagner is under indictment.

But it's not wholly schadenfreude. There is some public service in this, I think. See, if you go to LHCDefense.org, the "official" site for "Citizens Against The Large Hadron Collider" and apparently affiliated with Mr. Wagner himself, there is a plea for funds at the bottom of his "Take Action" page. You can mail your checks to an address in Hawai'i--why, the very state Mr. Wagner frequently resides in, where (as of December 30, 2008) he is under indictment for Attempted Theft In The First Degree and Identity Theft In The First Degree! And there is a method of paying through PayPal, with an e-mail address: "linda.sales@hotmail.com"; by an amazing coincidence, Walter L. Wagner's wife, Linda Wagner, is also under indictment (current as of December 30, 2008) for... Attempted Theft In The First Degree and Identity Theft In The First Degree! (Oh noes!)

Along with this plea for funds, we find this worrisome disclaimer on the LHCDefense.org site:

This organization is currently seeking tax-exempt status, which would make your donation tax deductible. Thank you for any support you lend to this cause, we hope to bring you a tax incentive in the near future and will inform you of any change in our tax status.

Troublingly vague, no? Do they mean they're actually applying for 501(c) status, as one assumes, or do they mean something else? And why are donations made online made to a Hotmail address? And a Hotmail address like "linda.sales@hotmail.com," to boot?

I've tried to find out more about LHCDefense.org's charitable status online, and I just can't. The cautious charitable person might... well, yes, he might actually donate to something appropriate and useful, but that wasn't what I was going to write; no, what I was going to point out was the obvious fact that the prudent donor likes to see that a charitable organization takes money into some form of trust and that a useful portion of his donation goes to the cause and doesn't get devoured in administrative costs (or, for that matter, in the personal legal fees of the fund's administrators). The cautious donor wants assurances. Not long ago, I put up a link for a charity run my sister participated in; when a friend insisted on researching the charity in question, I wasn't offended--if anything, I was relieved to know my sister hadn't been tricked into participating in a scam of some sort; in any case, I didn't expect intelligent people to simply throw money at a cause on my say-so. I trust my sister, but why should somebody out there in the aether trust either of us?

The informed donor, then, upon considering the usefulness of donating to the LHCDefense fund (yes, let's assume he sees these lawsuits as useful and not as a waste of the court's time or a provocateur of harmful fears--a teenager in India apparently killed herself over fear of the LHC and I've seen teary-eyed, frantic forum posts in various places from people who have been scared witless by the thought that the Large Hadron Collider would eat the world)--anyway, this informed donor would surely want to know something of how the fund was being run and by whom and for whom, and this hypothetical donor (you weren't thinking of donating, were you?) would surely want to know that two people attached to the fund and/or the solicitation of monies for the fund were, say it with me... still under indictment, as of December 30, 2008, in the state of Hawai'i for Attempted Theft In The First Degree and Identity Theft In The First Degree.

Mr. Wagner and his Missus are, of course, innocent of Attempted Theft In The First Degree and Identity Theft In The First Degree until proven guilty.1 I have no idea whether or not either of them actually committed Attempted Theft In The First Degree and/or Identity Theft In The First Degree. I am given to understand that Mr. Wagner says that this is all the result of politically-motivated lies from somebody who successfully defended himself from another civil lawsuit that Mr. Wagner lost and is allegedly appealing; being personally familiar with how much prosecutors enjoy inserting themselves into civil disputes (not at all), I can only imagine that once Mr. Wagner successfully prevails upon the Hawai'i prosecutors with the injustice of his situation, they will simply dismiss the charges and perhaps join his crusade against whatever new radiation-or-elementary-particle-based hazard looms minutely on the horizon. Or not. Meanwhile, the Hawai'i courts have, as far as I have been able to determine, continued to deny Mr. Wagner's motions to dismiss (can they not see the injustice of trying Mr. Wagner on the basis of these charges that have been motivated by nothing but a successful civil litigant's thirst for vengeance upon poor Mr. Wagner!) and it seems Mr. Wagner waived his speedy trial rights, possibly in consideration of permission to leave Hawai'i for Utah without having another bench warrant issue for revocation of his bail (the last one, happily for Mr. Wagner, seems to have been recalled last July).

In the meantime, while we breathlessly await Mr. Wagner's trial and hope that donors to his LHC legal fund aren't deterred by the fact it's not presently a tax-exempt charity and the donations possibly go to his wife (we're not sure--but linda.sales@hotmail.com? I mean, come on), this fact must be stated as the one thing we all know with certainty:

It is December 30, 2008, and Walter L. Wagner, the Radiation Man, is still under indictment.

1This means, of course, that a finder of fact has not yet heard the prosecutor's side of things and determined beyond a reasonable doubt whether or not the facts thus presented rise to make a legal case for Attempted Identity Theft, Identity Theft In The First Degree, or some lesser-included offense. A person might, to present a purely-hypothetical example, brutally murder his ex-wife and a hapless waiter, only to have the finder of fact (e.g. a jury) conclude that insufficient evidence had been presented by incompetent prosecutors and racist police officers. And yet a subsequent finder of fact in a civil case--applying a less-stringent burden of proof--might still later find that the person in fact was responsible for two deaths and must therefore part with... oh, I don't know, for the sake of a purely-hypothetical illustration, let us say he has to part with a valuable football trophy or something along those lines as partial restitution to his victims' families.


Five photos, volume XV

>> Monday, December 29, 2008

Blue Ridge Parkway, November 7, 2008.


In honor of a dispute which ended much this way on a friend's blog...

>> Sunday, December 28, 2008

First, there was somebody whose response to everything was contradiction supported by no new information or information at variance with independent, objective claims and observations, and then this was soon followed by the sensation of being hit on the head. Sometimes, as the WOPR concluded, the only way to win is not to play. At least we'll always have Python to put it into perspective.



Plenty of nothin'

>> Saturday, December 27, 2008

Seeing as how I have absolutely nothing, please enjoy this classic Kids In The Hall sketch in lieu of an actual blog entry:


I hate to agree with him, but I'm kinda leaning towards "ham," too...

>> Friday, December 26, 2008

The day after Christmas, yes, but why not a blast from the past since I'm actually coming back from my Mom's today. Surely you've seen it--the classic five-minute-short from 1995 that launched a franchise worth gazillions of dollars--movies, toys, clothing, video games, albums, more than a dozen DVDs and counting.

And if you haven't seen it....


From 1995, Trey Parker and Matt Stone's "The Spirit Of Christmas," their remake of their 1992 video "Christmas card" (oh, and if you're at home with sensitive relatives or at the office, one word of advice--headphones):


Good cheer and happy holidays!

>> Thursday, December 25, 2008


Christmas future

>> Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Apologetic Edit: Apparently, Hulu videos aren't viewable in the 90+% part of the world that isn't the United States. Sorry. To those of you in the rest of the world: a happy holiday season!

Happy X-Mas Eve! Lock your doors! Try not to die a horrible, violent, toy inflicted death!


That's no Wookie, that's my wife!

>> Tuesday, December 23, 2008

One of the most distressing things about the Star Wars prequels is realizing that the problem isn't so much that Lucas "lost" it so much as maybe he never had it. Or maybe he did--I'm trying to process what I just read at StarWars.com.

They've put up an old interview from 1998, with the authors of the script for The Star Wars Holiday Special, that legendary bit of pop ephemera from 1978 that marked the first appearances of such classic Star Wars characters as Boba Fett, Lumpy, Ackmena and Chef Gormaanda. (Pop quiz! Not all of those are classic Star Wars characters! Which one doesn't belong?) I have murky memories of actually watching the Holiday Special when it aired--or at least the first half; my parents, miserable creatures that they are, made me go to bed halfway through and somehow neglected to anticipate that the Special would become a quasi-mythical piece of pop-cultural kitsch and therefore failed to purchase a VCR in anticipation of the program's airing. (That's two strikes!) But I did see the debut of Boba Fett, though of course nobody knew who he was for another three years, and remembered seeing at least some of the show during the lean years when Lucas attempted to deny that it existed at all.

But perhaps I'm avoiding the subject. My poor brain had gotten used to a Star Wars installment featuring Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur, and Jefferson Starship. And then, today, I read this comment from script co-author Lenny Ripps (bracketed comments in the original, emphasis added):

RIPPS: To me, it didn't come together. The ideas were all right but I'm not sure that they belonged in the same room. What was interesting to me was that Lucas started talking about Star Wars as if it was a real world. He said things like "Well, you know Han Solo is married to a Wookiee, but we can't say that." Now that was 20 years ago [in 1998], so my memory may be wrong. [As outrageous as Ripps's recollection sounds, there is evidence supporting it. Pat Proft corroborates it and an early draft of the Star Wars script (January 28, 1975) has Han Solo living with a furry female creature who he kisses. Proft also remembers learning that Han was raised by Wookiees, which is verified on pages 46 & 131 of Laurent Bouzereau's Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays.]


Hang on. Let me get my head together and rephrase that.


I knew about the "Han raised by Wookies" thing--I mean, everybody knows that was one of the ideas Lucas played with at one point. But Han was married to a Wookie?

What the hell would their kids have looked like?

I mean, until you're old enough to realize that the Force was strong with Sir Alec Guinness in real life, you know that Han Solo is the baddest-ass good guy in the original Star Wars; as it is, coming in second to Obi-Wan Kenobi is a helluva accomplishment.1

But I'm having to reconsider that: if Han Solo was at home getting Wookie Love, we-he-he-hell, that puts things in a new light, doesn't it? Han Solo may have been more of a man than anyone ever thought.

Of course, if Chewie was Han's "wife," then Star Wars really was ahead of its time in a whole lot of ways.

But who says this idea was ever really abandoned--maybe this is the plot of the next Star Wars novel: Han is married to Leia, they have the Jedi twins and all that, when Han's first wife, who he's still married to shows up on their doorstep. Not happy with Leia, either, one imagines.

A friend I mentioned this to just now says the tagline could be, "Wookies mate for life." Tagline, hell--there's your title: Lifemate.


Han Solo being married to a Wookie is either the awesomest idea in Star Wars history, or the worst--it might be both, an idea that loops around and eats its own tail Ouroboros-like.

I'll get back to you if when I know for sure.

1Obi-Wan is the biggest badass in the original Star Wars. I'm not knocking Han Solo, who I idolized for years. But you get a little older, you start noticing that Obi-Wan is one cool sonofabitch, the closest thing the movie has to a Samuel Jackson. Seriously.

Let me illustrate. There's a scene in Star Wars--and by "Star Wars," of course I mean the movie that later was renamed "A New Hope" but shall always be simply Star Wars to me, like it was in 1977--there's a scene, anyway, where Obi-Wan is getting ready to run off to turn off the tractor beam, and he's telling Luke to stay behind in the control room with the droids and Han and Chewie. Obi-Wan puts his hand on the boy's shoulder as he presses the door control, passing on some wisdom or advice or something--and here's the thing: they're in the middle of the bad guys' super-fortress starbase planet-destroying moon-sized Nest Of Evil, and Ben opens this door... with his back to it. Finishes talking to Luke, and then, he just sort of glances over his shoulder to see the hallway is empty.

And the way Alec Guinness does it isn't that Obi-Wan is a dumbass who's going to get himself shot. No, the way Sir Alec does it is basically, "I'm a motherfucking pimp, and if some punkass stormtrooper is at the door to shoot me when I open it, they're going to have to fucking wait until I'm finished talking to my slightly-retarded protégé, here." The man is cooler than cool. He knows that if a stormtrooper sees Obi-Wan-Fucking-Kenobi standing with his back to the door, that stormtrooper is going to be too busy soiling his body armor to shoot him in the back. Kind of like when Verbal asks how you shoot the devil in the back in The Usual Suspects--"What if you miss?" he whines to Inspector Kujan. Damn straight. In Kenobi's case, the answer is, "He cuts your fucking arm off if you miss, is what happens. You wanna spend the rest of your short miserable life with one fucking arm, you 'tard?"


Five photos, volume XIV

Blue Ridge Parkway, November 7, 2008.


Cheney gets something right

>> Monday, December 22, 2008

"If you think about what Abraham Lincoln did during the Civil War, what FDR did during World War II. They went far beyond anything we've done in a global war on terror," the vice president contended.

That's true: FDR and Lincoln went the extra mile and actually, you know, won their wars, albeit posthumously.

In the most-ironic statement in the piece, Cheney compares himself to Osama bin Laden:

[Cheney] Thinks bin Laden is alive but questioned whether he is still effectively running al-Qaida. "He's been holed up in a way where he's not even been communicating and there are questions about whether or not he's even running the operation," Cheney said.

Cheney also "strongly disagreed" with Vice-President-elect Joseph Biden's claim that Cheney is "the most dangerous vice president we've had probably in American history." I hate to admit it, but the Vice-President does have a point:

Aaron Burr was a better shot.


Five photos, volume XIII

Blue Ridge Parkway, November 7, 2008.

Photos from the fall, yes, and winter has started. Not that you'd know it around here--Friday, it was 68F° when I was coming home and I had the top down. We'll see whether winter arrives this week or not.

I'm on vacation this week, and there are things I could blog about at some length and might. The "Oh By The Way" series hasn't been abandoned, despite the fact the last entry appeared back in early August (I enjoy writing them, and love the music, but sitting down and writing one takes a minimum of two hours and, well, I'm on vacation). There was also a news item last week about a group of psychologists who--not really that surprisingly, at least in terms of their results--confirmed Stanley Milgram's most famous set of experiments--that's something I'd sort of like to write about and might, but then again it's depressing as all hell in a lot of respects (and, well, I'm on vacation). And there's probably other things I could write about around here.

But there's also time I'll be spending with friends and family, because that's the time of year it is. And I really do need to end my break with the NaNoWriMo book--I took a few weeks off after November 30th, and not really on purpose. I have some time to get back to it (because, well, I'm on vacation).

So, five photos today, and probably more over the course of the week. In the meantime--I hope you like pretty pictures, and while I'm not the biggest fan of the season (as some of you know), I do hope everybody is having a wonderful [insert name of Solstice holiday of your choice] season.


Well if I'd known it was that easy, maybe I would have filed to adopt one...

>> Sunday, December 21, 2008

Via Cracked, Summer Of Tears brings us the worst parents ever--even worse than the ones who named their kid after Hitler:

Hope you're having a decent weekend. If you're a parent, maybe you can go play Frisbee with your kid or something.


Well I hope Michael Lind will remember...

>> Saturday, December 20, 2008

I was born in the South, lived here my whole life and went to college and law school down here, and I call myself a Southerner, though I think you'd have to call me a "New South" Southerner or maybe a "New Southerner" if that didn't make it sound like I'd moved down here from Buffalo two years ago. To say you're a Southerner frequently conveys the impression that you love Jesus and NASCAR and you vote Republican, none of which is necessarily true even among older and more traditional Southerners.

But even if that stereotype was true: I'm a born Southerner who's never voted Republican in a major election. I believe the good guys won the Civil War and we're all better off for it. I wish that FDR--one of our nation's greatest Presidents alongside Lincoln--hadn't left the millworkers high in dry when they tried to organize in '34. I don't believe in God or have much time for Jesus and I've never watched more than thirty seconds of a NASCAR race. And notwithstanding the reference in the title of this piece, when I think "Southern rock" I tend to think R.E.M. and the B-52s before I think of Skynyrd; maybe that's a generational thing. Of course, I grew up and lived in what could be the most "New South" of all the "New South" places in the "New South"--the "Newest South" or "New Southiest" if you'd like--a city of skyscrapers and banks, and the time I've spent on a farm or in the country might well be measurable in days out of thirty-seven years, so maybe that has something to do with it. I'd say it's a generational thing, except that this is a subject that always reminds me that Hal Crowther is a godlike being, and I could be wrong but I'd be pretty surprised if Crowther has a copy of Fables of the Reconstruction on his CD shelf (many years ago, Crowther did write a beautiful essay on how he hated Nirvana but thought he understood Kurt Cobain--it was a fine example of how you can respect something even if you don't like it, and one of the many examples of Crowther's depths; I believe the article is in Unarmed But Dangerous if you ever see a copy.)

All of which isn't the point. The point is that I was reading Salon on the internet during lunch earlier this week, and there was a man named Michael Lind who was saying a lot of things about the Southern Republicans who killed the auto bailout that made it sound like Lind had his ass stuck in 1863 and his head wedged up inside it at an awkward angle. The piece is called "The economic Civil War," and I wish I could totally hate it instead of mostly hating it, because Lind accidentally manages to suggest one or two reasonable things for entirely wrong reasons; I guess it's another case of the proverbial broken watch being right twice a day.

Lind's basic thesis, although he doesn't mention it and probably thinks his thesis was something else, is that Americans (by which he means New Englanders, probably New Yorkers, and definitely a few people from industrial Midwest states like Michigan) are good and foreigners (especially Nips and Krauts, natch) and hicks (i.e. Southerners, but he probably would keep his eye on rural Midwesterners just in case) are horrible people--the foreigners because they're, well, they're un-American by definition, and the hicks because they're too dumb for their own good, except for the Machiavellian ones who hold elected office (they're too selfish and evil for anybody's good).

Now with the help of Nissan, Toyota, and BMW, the South is trying to replace Detroit as the center of U.S. automobile production, using low wages, anti-union laws, and low taxes to benefit from the outsourcing of industry from societies more advanced than the South, like Japan and Germany. The economic Axis is collaborating with the neo-Confederates against their common opponent -- the American Union. If they succeed, the losers will be not only non-Southern regions in the U.S., but the majority of Southerners of all races, whose interest in decent wages, good education, and adequate public services have almost always been sacrificed to the greed of the well-connected few by Southern statehouse gangs

What, you thought I was kidding? I'm not even sure I was exaggerating.

It crosses the mind that maybe Lind is engaging in a little bit of Swiftery, engaging in a bit of modest proposing or maybe just trying to roleplay the part of some sort of weird left-wing/John Bircher (!) chimera, a misbegotten melding of a pro-labor Yankee progressive intellectual with a xenophobic, frightened, backwards-looking America-firster--an unholy composite with all the logic and naturalness of an illustration from a 16th-century travelogue ("Here Be Michael-Lyndde," reads the script written in the blank space on the map three inches southwest of Prester John's kingdom). If the piece is satire, I have to confess: I failed to get the joke. Rather, the piece reads as if Lind was merely being stupid.

Aside from the not-so-subtle bigotry, Lind apparently feels compelled to perpetuate that "real America" nonsense that normally pops out of the mouths of Republican morons like Nancy Pfotenhauer, except this time it's from the other side. That makes it no less offensive or stupid, of course: Detroit is no more or less American a city than Chattanooga. Lind talks about the "Southernization of America" versus the "Americanization of the South," and you have to wonder who he thinks this form of divisive politics plays to. Howard Dean and Barack Obama went to some trouble to establish and vindicate (respectively) a "fifty-state strategy" or the closest approximation to it they could manage, and I happen to think it went rather well. What makes Lind's article even more flummoxing is the way that phrasing the matter using the language of the Republicans' divide-and-divide-some-more strategy marginalizes everybody, even progressive Southerners; it's irritating enough when I have to insist that progressive urban intellectuals are still real Americans, thank you very much, without having to also waste my time reminding other progressive urban intellectuals that progressive urban intellectuals in the South are still real Americans, thank you very much. Lind does, eventually, sort of nod in our direction, writing that the "neo-Confederates" might prevail "If a non-Southern majority, controlling the White House and Congress, with the support of at least some moderate Republicans... along with the support of Southern populists and progressives, is too timid..."; unfortunately, it's so little so late and in such a smirkingly elitist tone that he manages to make us sound like some kind of Vichy collaborators instead of loyal Southerners who have fought the good fight for generations. (If my efforts and hopes for a slightly left-of-center White House and Congress have resulted in people like Lind taking over, I may need to look at Canadian residency requirements after all, and here I thought we'd won.)

It's sort of because of that last bit that it becomes ironic that Lind manages to say a few things that would sound sort of sensible if he wasn't muffled by the thick folds of ass his head is buried in. Lind advocates making the national minimum wage a living wage, which I agree with although it has nothing at all to do with Southern auto workers who are paid an hourly rate that's not that much less than what their unionized counterparts get in Michigan (the major compensation difference between union and non-union autoworkers isn't in their hourly wage, it's in their benefits and pensions).

Lind goes on to talk about raising environmental standards and safety regulations, which is a wonderful principle although I'm not entirely sure why Lind bothers to mention it: he makes it sound like we're all barefoot and living in piles of filth down here, and while I've frankly never been to Detroit I was never given the impression by anything I'd ever seen that it was actually a clean and green city. Lind goes on and takes a shot about "preventing America's own internal rogue states from gaining any advantages by flouting national [safety and environmental] standards"; I'd call it a cheap shot but it's so random and uninformed that it doesn't even rise to the level of a cheap shot--who the hell are these rogue states? Does Lind think factories in New Jersey don't sometimes cut corners on health, safety and environmental regs, or that there are no environmentalist groups in North Carolina taking corporations to court over the heights of smokestacks and the number of scrubbers they ought to have? More fundamentally, the issue isn't really whether a particular factory is "flouting" regulations (although many do across the nation), because the regulatory bars are frequently lowered by the national leaders in Washington during Republican administrations--following the minimum regulation isn't "flouting" anything, rather it's following the law to a sick degree and the problem is with the laws and their enforcement, not the factories' adherence to the laws. And, anyway, while I'm painfully aware that some factories and mills have substandard adherence to those few rules, would Lind like to name one? It's not enough to wave your hand and just figure that you're enlightened readership knows which ones you mean when you're making allegations like that: which automobile factory in the southeast is Mr. Lind accusing of flouting, or is this something we're all supposed to just know about already because we think it's true?

Lind has a proposal for revenue-sharing, but he doesn't give any numbers. I don't have a problem with his principles: I'm a tax-and-spend liberal and make no bones about it. The only people who don't believe in raising taxes and spending them are diehard ultra-libertarians, usually Ayn Rand disciples; anybody who's intelligent can figure out that fire departments, police departments, highways and national defense are generally good ideas--the real question isn't whether to tax and spend but how much to tax and what the money should be spent on (I don't have a problem with spending money on public education, public art, public parks, etc., but I can understand where reasonable people might differ on these sorts of specifics, whether to fund them at all or to what degree). He talks about creating national financial institutions for this, and I don't have a per se objection to such things on general principle, but I do wonder whether Lind might have smoked a rock or two while writing. Personally--and I know there are several regular readers who strenuously disagree--I don't have a problem with a mixed economy or socialist institutions; e.g. socialized medicine is, in my opinion, a good idea whose time was sixteen years ago. And a national industrial policy of some kind might be a sound idea depending on how it's implemented. But the necessity of Lind's proposed institutions, or why Mississippi needs them more than, say South Dakota (or, for that matter, more than Michigan, the proposed recipient of an automotive bailout) remains a little baffling.

There's one more begged question in Lind's piece that deserves to be addressed. Lind takes it for granted that the Southern Republicans who scuttled the automotive bailout did the wrong thing, never considering that they may have done the right thing for the wrong reasons. After all, there is an industry that, to the frustration of many of us on the left, has flooded its market with unsafe, environmentally-polluting, toxic, inefficient, wasteful products; and this is why so many liberals can be found driving small, safe, reduced-emissions and/or fuel-efficient vehicles made by automakers from Japan, South Korea, and Germany. Many of us would have been happy to drive a safe, clean fuel-efficient vehicle made by Ford or GM or Chrysler had any of those companies been willing to manufacture something as awesome, say, as a Toyota Prius for an affordable cost, and none did. And although we're lefties, many of us thought we were doing the good capitalist thing (ironic, no?) and voting with our dollars: surely, if there's no market for gas-guzzling SUVs, the American automakers will adapt and produce something that is like a Japanese car only so much more awesome that buying American is good for the country and the planet and just plain cool.

Which is why you'll find some antipathy for the bailout even among those of us who like unions and are sorry that all those union workers may be out of a job: while it's a bit regrettable, actually, that we find ourselves in a convenient alliance with some awful conservatives, we weren't (and aren't) pleased by the thought that after years of rewarding good engineering and punishing bad carmakers, we might be obligated to essentially buy a car that we'll never drive or even see--our tax money going to corporations that need the money precisely because we didn't want to give it to them. Lind doesn't pay any attention to the question of whether these companies deserve to survive, treating the automakers' fates as being somehow inextricably tied to the fates of the blue states. It seems to me that this would be the real issue that might be discussed, as opposed to trying stupidly to play the politics of division from the other side of the table.


Majel Barrett has left us

>> Friday, December 19, 2008

I just read Majel Barrett, a.k.a. Majel Roddenberry, a.k.a. Majel Barrett-Roddenberry has passed away at age 76. As a nerd, I felt it was worth mentioning, worth lighting a mental candle for a few moments.

She was, of course, Nurse Christine Chapel on the original Star Trek (Dr. Christine Chapel by the time of her appearance in Star Trek: The Motion Picture), and the voice of the Enterprise's computer (and practically every other computer in Starfleet) in every or nearly every incarnation of the franchise. It appears J.J. Abrams may have done at least one thing right for certain in his Trek reboot: Ms. Barrett-Roddenberry apparently had just recently completed voice work for the role of the Enterprise's computer in the upcoming film.

And while Lwaxana Troi would be one of my top nominees for Most Annoying Character In The Trekverse, it's only fair to mention the role for honoring Barrett with an onscreen role in Star Trek's first and best television resurrection.

There's not a whole lot I can say: she's not a person I knew a great deal about, but she is a person whose face and voice became almost instantly recognizable through her constant presence in the background of my life. I'm not a Trekker or a Trekkie (and if I have to pick Trek or Wars, I'm a Wars guy without thinking), but I know without looking it up that the original Enterprise 1701 had a crew compliment of around 435 (some sources vary) and was originally commanded by Robert April. So there is something missing, I guess, now that she's passed on.

Rest in peace, Nurse Chapel.


Rules of the game

Over at Slate earlier this week we have a piece by Milan Markovic titled "Lawyers Aren't Special - Why it's legitimate to investigate the Bush lawyers who may have approved war crimes." Markovic doesn't waste much time dismantling the rather self-serving arguments of various commentators who have argued that the attorneys who gave the Bush administration bad advice about violating Federal laws prohibiting torture ought to be immune from investigation and/or prosecution.

One or two of Markovic's arguments are a little spurious (for example I find his analogy between the standards applied to soldiers and the standards applied to civilian lawyers a bit dubious), but I'm a little surprised his conclusion isn't self-evident. Well: surprised and not-surprised. I'm not surprised that a number of government lawyers have defended former DOJ attorney and memo-writer John Yoo and others, considering that their defense coincidentally could save their own bacons one of these days. Nor am I surprised that the general public and media really don't have any kind of real grasp on what lawyers do and how legal ethics work. (The fact that most of what Americans know comes from legal shows where heroic attorneys engage in shady practices every week for the sake of their innocent clients or to send vicious predatory criminals to prison--whether or not the show is produced by Dick Wolf largely seems to determine whether it's the defense attorneys or the prosecutors who are heroically shady--doesn't help any.)

In the United States, there are basically two ethical traditions currently in force. Up until 1969, legal codes of ethics were a hodgepodge, but in '69 the American Bar Association1 promulgated a Model Code Of Professional Responsibility (CPR) that was adopted by most states. In 1983, the ABA noted certain places where the CPR could be clarified and issued the Model Rules Of Professional Conduct (RPC), which was adopted by most states (Wikipedia says that New York remains the sole CPR jurisdiction).

The argument that people like Mr. Yoo shouldn't be investigated, sanctioned or prosecuted can be summed up be passages like this one from a recent piece by Jack Goldsmith in the Washington Post:

But we should also recognize the costs of these investigations. Second-guessing lawyers' wartime decisions under threat of criminal and ethical sanctions may sound like a good idea to those who believe those lawyers went too far in the fearful days after Sept. 11, 2001. But the greater danger now is that lawyers will become excessively cautious in giving advice and will substitute predictions of political palatability for careful legal judgment.

This argument isn't merely wrong, it's retarded. Here's why: every single licensed lawyer is subject to second-guessing of any of his decisions under the threat of criminal and ethical sanctions. This isn't a novel proposition, rather it's a cornerstone of the entire project of regulating the legal industry through a self-regulating supervisory body under an ethical code of conduct such as the versions of the CPR and RPC adopted in some form or another by every state in the country.

Here's one thing no lawyer can do, whether he's in a CPR state or a RPC state: a lawyer cannot advise his clients how to go about breaking the law. He can advise a client as to the legal consequences of a course of conduct--e.g. a tax lawyer might advise whether a particular investment will cause a tax liability or instead be deductible, but he can't tell his client how to dodge taxes. A criminal lawyer can tell a client what will happen if he makes a statement to police or how a piece of evidence might be admitted by a judge and considered by a jury, but he cannot tell a client how to commit a murder and get away with it. It's admittedly a fine line at times--a lawyer can't tell a witness not to show up, but certainly can point out how a witness' presence helps or hurts the other side's presentation of evidence. But no advice on actual lawbreaking, no way, no how, hell no.

Take Model RPC 1.2(d), "Scope Of Representation" (some version of which can be found in any RPC state's ethics code):

A lawyer shall not counsel a client to engage, or assist a client, in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal or fraudulent, but a lawyer may discuss the legal consequences of any proposed course of conduct with a client and may counsel or assist a client to make a good faith effort to determine the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law

There are similar provisions in the CPR.

A treaty that has been ratified by the U.S. Senate is the law of the land. A lawyer may advise the President on the meaning of the treaty, the validity of the treaty, the scope of the treaty, or the consequences of violating the treaty--but he can't tell the President how to violate it and get away with it. Mr. Yoo and others may argue, of course, that the infamous "torture memos" engage in the former and not the latter--I disagree, for whatever that's worth, but they're entitled to defend themselves and their licenses to practice or freedom from fines or imprisonment if they've broken the law. But what they're not entitled to argue is that yes, they're lawyers who are engaged in the practice of law, only they're not actually subject to any of the disciplinary rules of the Bar they're admitted to; and they're certainly not entitled to pretend the law doesn't apply to them, to claim that even if they're in the absurd situation of having committed a crime they can't be censured or disbarred for, they shouldn't go to jail, either--not unless they have some recognizable claim of immunity that trumps everything else (good luck with that).

A lawyer who has a question about his ethical obligations is expected to consult the Bar, not to flaunt the rules and (sort of) apologize later. Those who would worry that Bar Ethics Committees might be consulted about national security concerns might consider that such questions can be phrased very generically, and they might consider the obvious problem for apologists: one doesn't need to get into the contents of intelligence operations to ask a Bar ethics committee a question like "May a lawyer write a memo for his client in which he tells his client how he may commit acts which violate the letter or spirit of a law that would otherwise apply to the client?" Even a layman who has read the above-quoted rule 1.2 is likely to guess what the answer to such a query is going to be.

The ABA comments to Rule 1.2 go a little further, even, clarifying among other points that an attorney cannot "knowingly assist a client in criminal or fraudulent conduct." This is crucial, of course, because even if somebody like Yoo were to argue that he was merely explaining the law and what it didn't cover, you would have to have fallen off the proverbial turnip truck yesterday to believe that Yoo didn't know what the administration was after--his memos and those written by others at Justice weren't an explanation of the Geneva Convention, they were an explanation of how to circumvent the Convention.

Furthermore, 1.2 isn't the end-all of the ethical rules, and the rules that go along with 1.2 and address similar concerns don't make the torture writers and their apologists more sympathetic. Rule 1.16(a)(1), "Declining Or Terminating Representation":

Except as stated in paragraph (c) ["When ordered to do so by a tribunal, a lawyer shall continue representation notwithstanding good cause for terminating the representation"], a lawyer shall not represent a client or, where representation has commenced, shall withdraw from representation if:

(1) the representation will result in violation of the rules of professional conduct or other law....

Do you get that? The ethical obligation of a lawyer who is asked to do something that violates ethics or the law--say, for instance, authoring a memo to explain how the law might be circumvented--is to quit. Easier said than done? Well tough shit, that's how it goes when you're a licensed attorney. If you want a job where there's not a list of ethical rules you have to follow to keep your ticket to keep working, I hear there are many fine opportunities at Starbucks.

Of course I'm flip about that. I've practiced law eleven years, now. If I'm accused of breaking the rules, I expect to get a letter from the State Bar. If the charge has merit, I've been informed I'll be sanctioned. All this fucking whining I'm hearing from the former DOJ officials who are pissing and moaning that the same rules every other fucking attorney in the fucking country operates under does not fill me with one single subatomic scrap of sympathy. They make you take an ethics class in law school and they make you take a section on the Bar and they make you take periodic "professional responsibility" classes to keep on keeping on, and you're going to claim some privilege because your client is special and because following rules is hard? I don't think so.

Let me summarize my response to Yoo, his peers from DOJ, and his apologists: fuck you.

Excuse me. Let's get back to a dispassionate discussion of rules, insofar as a dispassionate discussion is possible. Rule 2.1, "Advisor":

In representing a client, a lawyer shall exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice. In rendering advice, a lawyer may refer not only to law but to other considerations such as moral, economic, social and political factors, that may be relevant to the client's situation.

This is actually a double-whammy against the torture advocates and apologists. First, because an attorney is permitted to advise his client, and indeed should advise his client that even if something is legal it might be a bad idea: "Yes, Mr. President, you could take this position, except that doing so would break with several centuries' moral and ethical progress and make you a horrible monster who would deservedly be remembered as such in every history book." Or more succinctly, "Dude, why are you even asking me if you can do that, what are you, some kind of fucking evil lunatic?" Second, look at the last part of that quote from Goldsmith up there:

...the greater danger now is that lawyers will become excessively cautious in giving advice and will substitute predictions of political palatability for careful legal judgment.

Greater danger? Is he kidding? It's not an either/or, substitution kind of thing: a lawyer has an ethical duty to take politics into account as part of comprehensive legal advice. If a course of action would score political points but is illegal, "careful legal advice" would be to tell the client that doing something will score points but be illegal. If a course of action would be arguably legal but immoral and might cause friction with the Other Party in the legislature, then "careful legal advice" is to say so. Goldsmith's argument is so stupid it's actually incomprehensible.

There's a story that comes to mind here, one of those apocryphal things you read somewhere in law school and never can track down later. The story I'm thinking of goes something like this: a prospective client goes in to see The Great Jurist--an attorney then in practice who later went on to the Supreme Court or a seat on the Appellate Bench somewhere and made a national name for the sagacity of his opinions (I wish I could remember which Great Jurist this allegedly was; I don't think it was Oliver Wendell Holmes, but then maybe it could have been). The prospective client, we're told, sits down with The Great Jurist and sets out an account of hardship and conflict with an old business associate or a neighbor or a family member or one-time friend or somebody, and The Great Jurist listens and nods, politely interrupting now and then to ask the occasional pertinent question. And at last the prospective client reaches an end to his tale and asks, "So, do you think I have a case?"

And The Great Jurist nods and says, "Yes, I think you have an excellent claim."

"You'll take my case?" the prospective client asks eagerly, leaning forward.

"Absolutely not," The Great Jurist says. The prospective client is dumbfounded.

"But you just said I had an excellent claim?" he asks, baffled.

And The Great Jurist replies, rising to his feet to see the prospective client to the door, "Oh yes, you do--and you'd be a complete jackass if you pursued it."

That is "careful legal advice," not just whether or not a client can do something, but whether he should. And whether or not he should, well morality and politics and such aren't merely incidental, why, they're essential elements of being careful and thorough. The attorneys at DOJ who wrote torture memos were never obliged to tell their clients what the clients wanted to hear or hoped to hear, they were ethically obligated to tell their clients what they had to hear, ought to hear, needed to hear. And even if, somehow, a diligent lawyer concluded there was a loophole in the laws against torture, an ethical lawyer would have been obliged to point out all the ways in which torturing prisoners or almost-torturing prisoners would be a bad idea. Even if the DOJ lawyers concluded that waterboarding or stress positions weren't "technically" torture, even if, they were still obligated to point out that a Federal Court might disagree, that the Hague might beg to differ, that journalists might criticize the decision and large segments of the American population might be disgusted, that other nations might look at our "not really torturous" acts and find us reprehensible and wicked and what problems might arise from that.

Did Mr. Yoo or any of these DOJ lawyers ever point out any of this? Did they ever say, "Stop!" or how about even "Wait!"?

Model RPC Rule 8.1, "Misconduct":

It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to:

(a) violate or attempt to violate the Rules of Professional Conduct, knowingly assist or induce another to do so, or so so through the acts of another;

(b) commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer in other respects....

I believe that a number of DOJ lawyers violated their states' versions2 of this rule. But let's say I'm wrong in my conclusion--there's still a colorable claim they've done so that needs to be investigated. If these lawyers did violate their ethical obligations, they deserve to be sanctioned for it (including a possible revocation of their licenses to practice law). And if they've violated the law, I don't think there's a forgivable argument for immunizing them from prosecution.3

They knew the rules when they agreed to play.

1The ABA, by the way, is a policy, advocacy and trade organization, not an official, licensing or disciplinary organization. Publications such as the CPR and RPC were released as models, a list of rules arrived at after much deliberation and submitted to the State Bar organizations--mandatory licensing organizations under state charters that regulate the practice of law--to be adopted wholly or in part as they saw fit, with any changes or amendments they might choose. Most states adopted one or the other set with few or no changes, so that one can refer to "CPR states" or "RPC states," because the ABA did the hard part of debating rules and wordings and soliciting opinions and advice, but no state had to.

I feel obligated to cover this in part because of a scene I saw on a television show several years ago, a show I will not name although it was a spin-off from a very popular show about a teenage vampire hunter featuring her vampire-with-a-soul ex-boyfriend and the main bad guys on the show were an evil law firm controlled by demons; anyway, there was an unintentionally comic scene in an early episode in which one of these bad guys was threatened by someone who was going to report the evil lawyer "to the ABA," a threat which has all the force of Cardinal Ximénez ordering Biggles to produce the soft cushions. It was hard to take the rest of the episode (or the rest of that first season, frankly) as seriously as a show about a moody pretty-boy vampire who refuses to kill humans (even if they're Los Angelenos) ought to be taken.

2In North Carolina, by way of example, Model RPC Rule 8.1 is actually codified as Rule 8.4; every state has a version of this rule, but not always in the same place.

3I can think of unforgivable arguments, like, "Oh, well let's move on instead of getting lost in partisan bickering"; that argument may be pragmatic, I'll concede, but it's utterly amoral and suggests the law exists only to punish those who are trivial and powerless--such arguments are tyrannical at heart.


Neverthursday Nights

>> Thursday, December 18, 2008

When awesomeness collides: David Bowie (who is made of 99 and 94/100ths awesome) performs his cover of the Jonathan Richman (composed of 98.239~% awesome) song "Pablo Picasso" (which has a provable awesome-to-not ratio of 7:6) live:

Bask in the awesome. Get it on your hands and rub it in your hair.



>> Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I can't make this crap up. Maybe somebody else can, but this is supposedly a true story. See, I'm checking out the news feeds, and I run headlong into this one from MSNBC: "3-year-old Hitler can't get name on cake."

Yes, that's the headline.

It seems that there's this utter jackass in New Jersey, a man named Heath Campbell, who, along with his wife, decided to name his son "Adolf Hitler Campbell." Now the child is turning three, and--in a not particularly surprising turn of events--Mr. Campbell finds it difficult to persuade a local ShopRite to produce a birthday cake emblazoned with the name, "Adolf Hitler," presumably in the context of some happy statement like, "Happy Birthday, Adolf Hitler!"

Mr. Campbell, who named one of his other children "JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell" (no, really, that's what the MSNBC article says), is quoted by the MSNBC article as saying "he liked the name and because 'no one else in the world would have that name.'" Well, no shit he liked the name: considering the name he gave his daughter, Mr. Campbell appears to be an antisemitic white supremacist douchebag.

One has to pity baby Adolf, of course. The child is going to be raised by a man who, from all appearances, is not merely a bigot, but also a moron. I presume he intends to homeschool his child, who otherwise will find himself tortured and abused within seconds of his entry into kindergarten--and heaven help the poor boy when his classmates figure the name out and join in. At the very, very least, one must assume that if the boy attends public school (and I doubt Herr Campbell will allow his darling boy to attend school with all those people's kids, but still) that there will actually be one elementary school in New Jersey in which a sixty-year-old ditty is pulled out of oblivion and given new currency:

Whistle while you work
Hitler is a jerk
Mussolini bit his weenie
Now it doesn't work

Here's a child who will be having nightmares about being castrated by the Macy's Parade Bullwinkle float for his first nine years on Earth. Probably will cause a lot of bed-wetting, I'm thinking.

I'm also thinking karma will be sweet indeed if Adolf Hitler Campbell acts out in his rebellious teenage years by insisting his friends call him Abraham Cohen and dating a black girl.

Mockery seems justified and is the easy route, but let's take a moment and somberly recall what the original Adolf Hitler accomplished in his fifty-six years as a boil on humanity's ass: the Nazi party murdered something like nine million people--this is a conservative estimate--during the Holocaust, four-to-six-million of whom were singled out for torture and death because they happened to be more-or-less Jewish (six million is a conventional figure for Jewish deaths, and figures for the Holocaust in toto run as high as seventeen million depending on the source; eleven million total is a conventional estimate). These are the people the Nazis and their proxies rounded up and put in death camps; of course there were actual soldiers killed in combat--Russia lost something like nine million soldiers killed outright and nineteen million civilians, mostly against the Germans, and then there's the hundreds of thousands lost by the Americans, British, and French. Oh, but wait, you know you can actually do even better if you're running the numbers: after all, the German war was a suicidal, stupid, doomed effort that could only have succeeded if the Germans had overwhelmed the Allied powers with such rapidity that the Allies chose to surrender in shock instead of fighting--in a protracted war (which is what Hitler got his country into), the vast manpower of the Soviet Union and the vast industrial resources of the United States meant that Germany was ultimately fucked-by-math as long as either opponent had the will to fight (and they did). Accordingly, while it may seem perverse to blame all the six million-or-so German soldiers and civilians the Allies were obligated to kill putting the Nazis down on Hitler it's also only fair--his war, his choices, if he hadn't been around none of that shit would have happened. (Assorted numbers may be found here, by the way.)

Herr Campbell is quoted in the MSNBC piece as saying, "They need to accept a name. A name's a name. The kid isn't going to grow up and do what (Hitler) did." Well, gosh Campbell, you ignorant jerkoff, we can only hope your son doesn't manage to get millions and millions and millions of people needlessly killed. Unfortunately, I would have to say that his father's behavior suggests the deck is cruelly stacked against Little Adolf Hitler and he's unlikely to make much of himself for good or ill.

Nice going, Campbell. Your kid's three and you already broke him.


On the occasion of the late Philip K. Dick's eightieth birthday

>> Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I saw a few days ago that today would have been Philip K. Dick's eightieth birthday if he hadn't died in 1982, and that seemed worth noting here since PKD has been one of my favorite writers for a long time.

Not just my favorite SF writer, if he's that, but one of my favorite writers in general, up there with Don DeLillo or David Foster Wallace or T.C. Boyle. He wasn't a perfect writer, by any means, didn't necessarily have the literary firepower of those other guys I just mentioned (DeLillo, for instance, can write a passage about riding the subway that makes your teeth ache and your tongue taste steel and ozone, words that connect right below your sternum and knock the wind right out of you). But the kind of humanity that PKD bled out onto the page counts for something even with his stylistic limitations and sometimes-predictable tics. DFW, whose suicide earlier this year wounded me, was always a compassionate writer, but PKD--is it silly to say that I love PKD partly because he clearly loved me and every other person who walks has walked will ever walk the face of the Earth (or anywhere else, for that matter)?

Love isn't always easy. PKD wrote like a man who didn't always like individuals (and who on Earth likes everybody?) but loved each and every human being. It's a familial thing--you mostly love or ought to love your relatives even when one of them does something terrible or is basically a rotten person; the fact that someone is rotten doesn't stop them from being blood, and that's something essential about PKD, that he understood there's a human family and we're all blood.

I said something a moment ago, what was it?--ah yes: "Not just my favorite SF writer, if he's that...." PKD was proud of being a genre writer and his work was published almost entirely in SF magazines or by SF imprints, and most of his writer friends were SF writers and PKD loved being an SF writer, unlike, for instance, the late Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote quite a lot of science fiction but tended to chafe when he was accused of doing it. And I'm happy to call PKD a SF writer because I happen to love SF, myself, and PKD's books frequently have robots and other planets and rayguns and other trappings of science fiction. But the funny thing about all that is that PKD had a hard go trying to be a genre writer--not with the technical side of it: PKD could churn out the words (fueled partly by a speed habit that wrecked his mental and physical health) and recycle plots or concepts like anyone trying to make a living being paid by the word. But in spite of being prolific, frequently at the expense not just of his stories but of his own life (he was unsuccessfully married five times, had sometimes-difficult relationships with his kids, and, as mentioned, a notorious drug problem centered around things that would keep him upright at his typewriter), PKD didn't write the kinds of optimistic or technical or sparkly SF that would get quick approval from John W. Campbell and his ilk. Things got better when the SF New Wave came along in the mid-'60s (PKD's work fits nicely with writers like Ellison and Brunner), but by the time Dangerous Visions came out, PKD was in the final decade-and-a-half of his life.

The other thing about PKD as a science fiction writer is that if he came along today, he probably wouldn't be published as SF. Writers like DFW, Boyle, DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, et al. have published "mainstream" novels with just as many "science fiction" elements as PKD's best work--books with alternate histories and doubled realities and weird technologies that are just sort of present but aren't really what the book is about. Some of this is because PKD had more influence outside his field than any of his peers--Jonathan Lethem or Michael Chabon may write a "mainstream" story or novel with a "phildickian" vibe, but only SF writers write something Heinleinesque or Asimovian. But part of this is that PKD didn't write science fiction, at least in a classical sense, at all.

That's not a knock on SF--I love SF, remember? And the distinctions that are frequently made between genre and mainstream lit are often bogus. And, to be honest, I'm happy to call some of the "mainstream" books by Pynchon or Vonnegut or DeLillo "science fiction novels."

But PKD didn't write "science fiction" that was ever about science. I'm not sure, off the top of my head, that he ever touched any of the classic themes of science fiction: technology will save humanity, technology will doom humanity, aliens sure are different from humans, aliens sure are just like humans (in an allegorical way to illustrate some larger point about humans), wow this planet is awesome, eek this planet is scary, the future is cool, the future is just awful. I don't think I left any of the big ones out, and I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a pre-New Wave SF novel or story by anyone other than PKD that didn't slot itself into one of those (I'm not saying there isn't one, just that it would be hard to find).

Consider, as an illustration, this contrast: Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov both wrote a lot of novels and stories with robots in them. (Asimov probably wrote more, but then Asimov wrote more of almost everything than anybody else, and apparently without resorting to methamphetamine. Asimov was a machine. Possibly a robot.) But none of PKD's novels and stories with robots are actually about robots, and pretty much all of Asimov's are: nearly all of Asimov's robot stories could be described as logic problems about AI and computing--if a robot must follow this set of instructions, how will a robot interpret those instructions under this set of environmental conditions and stimuli?

PKD, on the other hand? Not so much. I don't think he ever wrote a novel about robots that was about robots.

But if PKD's stories about robots aren't really about robots, what are they about? They're about what it means to be human, with the "robot" being a sort of philosophical framework for the questions PKD had about what that means, if anything (and PKD, like me, is sure it ought to mean something). It doesn't actually matter, in a PKD story, how robots work or where they're made or what they're made of; what matters is they have this state of robotness, of being not-human or artificial. PKD's robots are otherwise human-like in varying degrees, depending on whether PKD is trying to understand empathy or spirituality; but then some of PKD's humans are inevitably otherwise robot-like as he pokes around in that same sandbox. Is artificiality determinative of whether a creature has a soul? That might be the big question embedded in every single story PKD wrote that happens to have an artificial person in it.

Of course, having said all this, it's typically vexing of Dick that he perversely won his Hugo--as much SF street cred as a man could ever hope for--for a novel with practically no science fiction elements to it whatsoever. Take from that what you will.

Science fiction or not, he was one of the most humane writers of any generation, and in the end I think it's that quality more than the mystery and paranoia and mindfuckery of so much of his work that makes it really compelling. I mean, yes, a man floating to the ceiling in the middle of a conversation and exploding does make a compelling and unforgettable image, but in the end it's really about how much we empathize with the ordinary losers who populate those stories, people who are really very much like us but we love them anyway.

Happy eightieth, PKD, and thank you for everything.

POSTSCRIPT: if you're looking for a way to celebrate PKD's life, might I suggest you see if you can find a copy of "Roog," a classic short story that's been anthologized here and here, and elsewhere; "Roog" is a strangely funny and sad horror story about a dog and the morning garbage pickup that captures a lot of what really made PKD brilliant--that empathy and compassion, that ability to shift perspectives and to understand what a subjective reality might look and feel like. Wander down to the library, or pick up an anthology with it down at your bookstore. Or, as I plan to do this evening, pull it off your shelf and re-read it. Seriously, check it out.


Massively meh

>> Monday, December 15, 2008

Here's what I would like to know today: what the hell is wrong with me?

I suppose I ought to clarify: that was what's known as a rhetorical question. What this means--the fact I have to clarify, not what a rhetorical question is (which I'm sure you know)--is that I have to say "Oh yeah, rhetorical" because I'm quite aware that there are a number of people who visit this blog somewhat regularly who would be happy to actually answer that question. Some helpfully, some less so.

I should also clarify something else: I actually know what is wrong with me, I'll just be damned if I can figure out why. What's wrong with me is I feel massively meh. It's a bit like having the bleahs or the aarghs or whatever the hell it is that afflicted all the Peanuts characters and made them bitter and sad. Well, maybe not that last bit; what probably made Charlie Brown and his friends bitter and sad was they spent their entire lives living with their parents and never hitting puberty. I suppose fifty years of elementary school would make me sigh a lot and hallucinate that my doggy was a WWI ace.

One of my symptoms, aside from walking around with an unusually large chip on my shoulder all day, is a bit of writer's block. You might have noticed this, or maybe not--it seems a good number of the recent entries on Giant Midgets have been photoessays, even after the excuse of NaNoWriMo technically ended. That last bit has added significance, because technically I'm still writing that novel: I even printed up a copy of what I have so far and was set this weekend to go through and get my bearings, figure out my structure in a more aware and knowing way and really get at the meat.

I played video games instead, or watched the rain outside.

It could be the shorter daylight hours, or the fact the weather has been too cold or wet for me to really feel like hitting the USNWC trails, or maybe it's been the shock of going back to work after being off a week for Thanksgiving or the shock of waiting to go back on vacation for the last two weeks of the year. Or it could be I'm just a whiny git with no good reason to be whining.

I actually had two things I was looking at during lunch, even, thinking, "Well, I guess I could write about this." They were both pieces on Slate, one about smoking and one about NASCAR, but then I realized that I didn't care about one of those things enough to start writing and I didn't care enough about the other to end the piece I started and played with like a little kid pushing Brussels sprouts around on his plate.

So this could have been another photo thing. I have something like a hundred more photos to sift through from my drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway a month ago and I've taken a few pictures of the cat that I haven't even downloaded from the memory card to the WD Passport HD all my pictures are currently living on. Instead I decided to do an entry about being... hm... not sad, or depressed, or angry, but just massively meh. Because, one, this blog is partly a writing essay even if it often doesn't look like it (e.g. when an entry is nothing but photographs) and two, in case somebody was wondering where the writing had gone (which doesn't seem likely, but you never know).

So. Meh. And not just a little meh. Lots of meh.

Massively meh.


Five photos, volume XII

>> Sunday, December 14, 2008

Blue Ridge Parkway, November 7, 2008.


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