Hello, any readers in Arizona and California

>> Thursday, July 31, 2008

UPDATE 2008-08-02--DOWNEY IS TAKING STEPS IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION: For the record, according to Jim, he has received an apology from Downey that meets the conditions he set for the company. Being Jim, I don't think he accepted a half-assed response, either.

This leaves me with a bit of a question about my post here. Most of the reasons for it are obvious, but one (possibly less-obvious) reason for posting it was to thicken the webbing the googlebots would have to cover. Nobody knows how this works, not exactly, but lots of people linking to Jim's comments theoretically raises their page rank, making it more likely people will read his comments on the matter.

If Jim is satisfied with their apology, it seems fair to remove the post and let this bump in the internet go down. The liberal in me believes in forgiveness. And I also believe in rewarding good behavior.

On the other hand, the historian in me and the lawyer in me both believe in preserving the record.

The compromise--for now--is to leave the posting up but with this disclaimer: AS OF THIS DATE, DOWNEY S&L APPEARS TO BE TAKING STEPS IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION. And if I hear more, I'll update accordingly. Ultimately, I may take the post down.

I'm also disabling comments, because at this point I'm not seeking them.

My best thoughts to the Reitmer family, and my thanks to Downey if they're fixing things.




The bulk of my readers, I realize, are members of the UCF and therefore have already read the post and comments at Jim Wright's Stonekettle Station about the actions of Downey Savings And Loan, a bank with operations in Arizona and California.

But the internet is a wonderfully winding place, and it's possible a reader might stray in who hasn't read Jim's post.

The short version is: a young Navy Hospital Corpsman named Steve Reitmer was killed serving his country in Afghanistan. His family received a check from the government to help defray funeral expenses and support them while other benefits are processed. The family attempted to conduct their financial transactions through Downey S&L, which placed a hold on the check.

Downey cited banking regulations, which may or may not be legitimate--there's some difference of opinion on this score, and I don't practice banking law.* What is incontrovertible is that Downey's public response to criticism has been less-than-stellar, and that one or more of Downey's employees have responded to Jim's entry by acting like insensitive assholes. Comments on Jim's blog included this pearl:

Waaa, waaa, I should be able to walk into any institution and get $100,000 or whatever I want because something horrible happened to me. Cry me a river, loser. This is just another example of people trying to bully institutions to get their way, and you're a schmuck for trying to help it. They (Downey) should have behaved better? What in your moronic opinion is better? Handing out cash to people that kick & scream when they don't get their way?


Yes, that's how somebody posting a comment from a Downey S&L IP describes a grieving family whose son died in service to his country--as bullies and losers throwing tantrums.

Lovely.

Now, I'm here in North Carolina. But you might be reading this from Arizona or California, the two states where Downey's website says they do business. So if you're reading this from one of these locales, or if you do business with Downey, I'd ask you to do two things.

First, I'd ask you to read Jim's post on the subject. Actually, I'd ask you to that regardless. And if you have a comment, post it for crying out loud.

Second, I'd ask you to contact your local branch of Downey--this is the thing for you to do if you're in an area where they do business, natch--and ask the manager what he thinks of the whole thing. And if you're not satisfied with the answer you get (well, maybe this is a third thing), ask yourself if you want to do business with these people.

I wouldn't.




*I'm skeptical Downey's claims have any merit. But, assuming arguendo they do, that doesn't excuse Downey employees from acting like assholes and treating a grieving family like shit.


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How the hell does she breathe?!?



I'm speechless. I think I may have friends whose children weigh less than "Princess Chunk". Has anyone checked to see if someone in the neighborhood is missing a dachshund? What was she eating? And how in the name of fuck-all do you lose almost fifty pounds of cat? (Or maybe they didn't: you ever had a cat try to sit on your head? Yeah. There's a dead crazy cat lady in Camden County who suffocated in bed. Or whatever's left of her after "PC" got tired of pushing her food bowl around.)

That's just... just... wow.




On an almost completely unrelated note (well, I guess this clip is also about a ginormous cat, so there's that), here's a Today show clip about the guys who lost their cat on purpose, in a manner of speaking, but weren't forgotten. You may have seen the referenced clip on YouTube--I didn't find out about it until this week, myself. Anyway, I was looking for an excuse to put this up, so why not do it here? Their cat was supposed to weigh a lot.




I can't help noticing that the Elf-cat is similarly aggressively affectionate when he's missed me. I remember seeing a nature program ten or fifteen years ago that noted that one of the remarkable things about cats in general is that there are fewer variations between species behavior-wise than there are in size, color, etc.--i.e. a pack of feral domestic cats behaves more or less the same way a pride of lions does, or a leopard pack.

Anyway, that was the claim. Make of it what you will.

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My new animal mascot!

The bestest animal in the whole wide world is the Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrew. Why?

Because the Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrew subsists on what is basically an alcoholic diet. They apparently consume nothing but fermented nectar from a palm. Nomnomnom. And apparently they're sober enough to find their way home anyway. I also have to assume there are tons of these things running (or staggering) around Malaysia, since there can't be any doubt that even the ugliest Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrews can get laid, though their partners probably regret it in the morning.

There are some vapors in the MSNBC piece about how the alcohol tolerance of Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrews may relate to alcohol tolerance in humans, since Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrews (gosh, I love typing that!) are presumed to share a common ancestor with primates. It's a funny idea that probably has some readers saying "wow," but it strikes me as a bit insubstantial unless you have some other data points besides Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrews and homo sapiens, two very distant cousins--say, for instance, widespread alcohol tolerance among many primates and many tree shrews, suggesting that the trait was present before the lines split. This does, perhaps, suggest a possible experiment in which we ply chimpanzees with mojitos until they volunteer to perform at karaoke night, but one suspects animal rights activists may protest it's cruel to expose chimps to "Afternoon Delight." The song, I mean, and not the practice. Whatever. The bigger risk might be to the researchers: don't you think chimpanzees are probably surly drunks? I do. I think they tend to have a somewhat dour look even when they haven't tipped back a few, or maybe that's because I've only seen them in cages or wearing diapers in movies or in photographs with Michael Jackson.

The fermented brew--the food source for the Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrew--is described as being like beer (perhaps because it's produced through the action of yeast colonies living with the flowers), but it strikes me that fermented nectar might be more like mead, maybe? Perhaps not. What's more interesting than a tenuous link between Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrews and humans through some inebriated common ancestor is the question of this ecological relationship between Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrew, the bertam palm, and the "complex yeast community" that lives with the flower; are we simply talking about the Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrew and yeast colonies finding a niche created by the bertam palm's microenvironment, or have these three evolved together to some degree, perhaps even symbiotically? Of course the MSNBC article doesn't even go there.

(Because, see, science is only interesting to the public if human beings are involved. Distant black holes colliding--only significant if one of them has a trillion-to-one chance of hosing Earth with lethal gamma rays in the process. Dinosaurs wiped out by an ancient asteroidal impact--yes, yes, but will we all die next year from an identical event? Antarctic microbes, you say--do they cause autism? And why should I care about a Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrew unless it shares a common ancestor with W.C. Fields? Narcissists, we are.)

Anyway, raise a glass to the Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrew--he'd raise a flower to you.

...

...

(Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrew!)



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Irony

>> Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Alright. Here's irony for you. Real, honest-to-goodness irony, not the kind of ersatz irony you have in that (increasingly ancient) Alanis Morissette song. (You do know, don't you, that as time goes on people like myself will look increasingly dated by referencing "Ironic" as an example of something that, ironically enough, doesn't have a whole lot to do with irony? I have, I kid you not, represented alleged juvenile delinquents who were born the year that album came out--1995, I checked. Kid you not.)

Anyway, the irony:

Picture, for yourself, a Wiccan, an earnest practitioner of that "ancient" (but not really) faith. She's had a run of good luck, so she does what many religious types do when they're feeling blessed--some folks might say a little prayer, make a little offering; our Wiccan attempts to perform a good-luck ritual involving candles, incense, a cemetery, and a set of swords.

You see where this is going?

Yep, stabbed herself in the foot.

No, I'm not making this up. (Are you kidding? If I made this up, you'd never believe me. Hell, I'd never believe me. I can picture myself deleting the section from a National Novel Writing Month venture or somesuch: "This scene where she stabs herself in the foot during the good luck blessing is too much, nobody's gonna buy this shit." People get on Charles Dickens for his "contrivances" all the time, but guess what: that's right, crap like this happens all the time.)

Let us close out this scene from tonight's episode of The Irony Zone with this delicious bit of understatement:

"It wasn't the first time I performed the ritual, but it was the first time I put a sword through my foot," she [our hapless Wiccan] said.


Well, see, you can feel lucky you don't do this every time.

I guess.

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Perils of intelligence

>> Tuesday, July 29, 2008

So I'm driving to work the other day, riding down I85 with the top down, and I pass by one of those digital billboards--surely you've seen these, the ones with the giant TV screens instead of the antiquated traditional pasted sheets. All that damn Syd Mead coolness in Blade Runner, and I should have known the one I'd live to see would be the damn billboards--vast urban pyramids, nope; everyone dressed like a postpunk noir character, Maltese Falcon-meets-Nagel, nope; awesome dirigibles everywhere, nah; offworld colonies, nuh-uh; flying cars, are you kidding?; big animated digital billboards... oh yeah, we got those. Philip K. Dick, with his sense that the universe was in an entropic death spiral frequently manifested through the increasing ubiquity of chintzy, garrish crap would have been mortified and proud. I can just hear him: "Oh yeah, all those stories I wrote with flying cars, I mean that was just sci-fi horseshit to sell to the editors... but the stuff about pay toilets and right-wing talking heads on TV 24-7, that was the pink laserbeam talkin'."

But I digressinly digress: I was going to mention a particular Lite-Brite billboard screen beside I85. It read:


Stop funding terrorists. Drill domestic oil.
-Anonymous


Just like that, no image, no visuals--the plain statement and attribution, white letters on a black screen, and then on to the next ad in the sequence.

Who the hell is "Anonymous," one momentarily wonders. A concerned citizen? A McCain operative slyly adding a domestic security twist to the campaign's "Blame Obama for gas prices" meme? One of the owners of the clutter of car dealerships just off that stretch of highway, looking at the fleet of increasingly unsalable SUVs? I suppose it doesn't matter.

What matters, I think, is what I was thinking as I rushed past this billboard: that, as so many others have complained, there's no place for intelligence in this soundbite world.

After all, the issue isn't nearly as simple an unnuanced as "drill here." It could be that a case could be made for domestic drilling, mind you. That's not really the issue.

The issue is that energy policy is a tangled, tangled wreck of a mess of a knot, the unentangling of which involves supply-side and demand-side solutions. It wouldn't be enough to simply drill for more oil in the States even if it would be available tomorrow (and not in ten-to-thirty years) and there weren't any concerns about environmental impact: after all, the oil is a finite resource and demand is outpacing any hopes of supply at something like an exponential rate. Factor back in the environmental costs of exposing and transporting toxic, carcinogenic, teratogenic muck that's insoluble in water when spilled, and there's a good case for ending use of oil even if it was more available than water. Drilling is necessarily an incomplete solution on the demand side: you could easily make a billboard saying "Stop funding terrorists, carpool," or (completing the sentence) "support increased funding of mass-transit infrastructure" or "drive electric" or a number of other fill-in-the-blanks options. Make it a Mad-Lib, why not?

And on the supply side, surely any solution to our dependency on foreign oil might as well include alternative energy sources and improved use of resources. Energy-efficient homes and vehicles. Wind and wave farms where geographically feasible. Assorted forms of solar (though it's to be noted that some analysts are becoming worried about world reserves of gallium, used in some types of photovoltaic cell; it's not hard to imagine gallium becoming the petroleum of tomorrow if we're not prudent). And, yes, next-gen nuclear where/when/if feasible--technologies like the pebble-bed reactor show a great deal of promise as far as operational safety goes, although disposal of radioactive waste remains problematic (not insoluble, and some of the problems are political rather than ecological).

So, I'm thinking all this as I drive on down the road, the billboard disappearing in my rearview, and I wonder how much it would cost to buy a few seconds on a billboard to say something along the lines of the above, and that's when my mind shifts to that worse issue, the lack of a place for intelligence in the soundbite world. Because how the fuck do you get all of that on a damn billboard?

Stop funding terrorists: use less power, move into a green home, carpool, ride the yet-to-be-built monorail, support new-tech nuclear, windfarms, solar power, replace your hydrocarbon petrochemical products (i.e. plastics) with alternatives manufactured from soy or other vegetable-based materials, etc....

(Oh, and if we're still struggling, let's have a reasonable discussion about whether the risks inherent in drilling and the limits of the untapped oil reserves, if there really is oil down there, are worth the costs and benefits of procuring said oil. I don't think they are, myself, but I'm willing to talk it through and maybe there's some kind of ground we can agree upon--maybe not.)


Assuming the billboard people don't charge by the letter, like some kind of telegram (kids: telegrams were kind of like text messages before cell phones... like in old movies, when... look, never mind), you'd still have to deal with a pile of cars by the highway as people drove off the side of the road while trying to read your damn message.

How do you compete with six words? Six words is a simple message. Too simple: got no nuance, boys'n'girls. But it's no wonder intelligent folks fail to make their case so much of the time. "Intelligence" may seem a bit snide or arrogant--there are intelligent but thoughtless people, so you can substitute "thoughtless" if you'd like. No matter: the point is there's no way to compete with the message. Sure, you could put up a similarly unnuanced, thoughtless billboard: "Stop funding terrorists, carpool," but let's face it: that's no better (four words versus six, 'tis true, but it's just as dumb a statement).

This is why we're losing, isn't it? All of us.


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Happy 65th, Mr. Wright!

>> Monday, July 28, 2008

I almost missed it. I can't believe I almost missed it. Today is Richard Wright's sixty-fifth birthday. No, not that one. Not that one either. Yes, he is one of these, the seventh on the list, but--look, which Richard Wright did you think I'd be wishing a happy birthday? Yes, the one who's a founding member of Pink Floyd, sheesh!

Amongst Floyd geeks, you have your Roger Waters partisans, who think Waters was Pink Floyd, and your David Gilmour partisans who think Gilmour carried everything. The truth is that Rick Wright is the reason they're both wrong. At their creative peak, the Floyd's creative team consisted of music arranged, largely performed, and largely composed by Gilmour and Wright, and words and demo melodies by Waters. A group effort, in other words. And a lot of those creamy, deep background textures that the melodies floated in front of were almost entirely Mr. Richard Wright's Farfisa Organ (and later Minimoog) drones and piano arpeggios.

It's easy to underestimate Wright's significance to the band. He had personal issues and issues with Roger Waters in the late 1970s that led to his being fired from the band. When Pink Floyd regrouped without Waters in 1986, Wright came back, but the fallout from his 1980 termination meant that his photograph had to be cut from the artwork for A Momentary Lapse Of Reason and he was listed as a session musician. (Indeed, somewhat depressingly, there are two versions of the band photo that appears on the inner gatefold of Lapse: the "official" version shows Nick Mason and David Gilmour, but in the original version of the same photo, Wright stands nearby with them.) Frankly, it's almost fair to say that there are perfectly good Pink Floyd albums without Gilmour and without Waters--but there's not a legitimate Floyd album without Wright; there's only one Pink Floyd album he isn't on, The Final Cut, and... well... hey, let's wish Rick Wright a happy birthday!

In Wright's honor, two cuts. The first is a piano instrumental from Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point. The second is one of my all-time favorite Pink Floyd songs, the Wright/Waters composition "Us And Them," from Dark Side Of The Moon (the performance here is from the P*U*L*S*E DVD, recorded during the 1994 tour), a song that regrettably seems timely as ever.

Happy birthday, Mr. Wright!







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My weekend, redux

More photographs I took this weekend (this was originally intended to post at 7 a.m., but I can't hold it in any longer, and it is now Monday where I am...):














I spent most of the weekend hanging out on the set of Antibody, a short film my friend Nate is making to enter in a local film contest George Romero will be judging in September. Per the rules and title of the contest ("The American Zombie Horror Film Contest"), Antibody is a movie involving zombies. One of whom, the one in the third photograph from the top in the above array, managed to stave off his lust for human flesh long enough to cowrite the script (he was also the subject of the "meth mouth" photo: that was a close-up taken during a makeup test Friday night; think of it as "death mouth" if you'd like...).

Nate gave me permission to document the shoot. When I wasn't painting, acting as a production assistant, or serving as an impromptu grip, I had the privilege of being the film's documentarian. I snapped several hundred pics, some of which are actually in focus.

I feel a compulsion to mention that the last photograph in the series was serendipity, not setup: the clapper happened to be left lying on top of a copy of the script and the shotlist as I was passing by between takes, and all I had to do was point my camera down, frame it, focus it, and click. You just gotta love it when that happens.

More images may follow over the next few weeks as I go through the files....

(Meth mouth... heh... the makeup guys done good.... :-) )

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My weekend

>> Sunday, July 27, 2008

Photographs I took this weekend:












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Your past is my future or your future is my present or dammit I had this all worked out a minute ago...

>> Saturday, July 26, 2008

On Thursday, I'm expecting to be very busy Saturday helping a friend. So I wrote this in your past for my future. Which is less confusing than it sounds. Anyway, however it goes, "Everyone Says 'Hi'"--




Hope you (and your big fat dog) are having/will have/had a good weekend.

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Friday Night Movie

>> Friday, July 25, 2008

Tonight's Friday Night Movie: three animated "Robin" shorts by Magnus Carlsson (perhaps best known for the music video for Radiohead's "Paranoid Android"), including my personal favorite "Robin" ever, "Shopping," in which we learn how someone who is especially gifted in a particular way can receive the respect of his neighbors and--more importantly--free food and special courtesy from grocery managers.


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The girl in my window

>> Thursday, July 24, 2008

Some time in the past few days, a young lady has taken up residence in my near vicinity, and I've found her in my front window quite a lot lately. She's subtle, she is, inconspicuous to the point I tend to forget about her, only noticing when I'm turning all the lights out to go upstairs to bed. And when I do, there she is. She's resilient but flighty, too: I thought storms this week had left her all but homeless and without livelihood, but I've gathered she's prone to wrecking her home and starting over every night even in fair weather. She's there again tonight. I'm not sure if she's watching me or not.

Last night, and the night before, I took a few photos. I hoped they would help me identify her. I wasn't subtle, I was practically in her face, only separated by the glass; the storm window made it hard to get a clear shot of her--often all I got was a photograph of the flash going off--but here are a few of the pics I took of the mystery woman (focus and lighting is poor in all of them--a tiny thing shot through a storm window against the dark night, it's no wonder):











But now here's the question: who is she? She's an orb-weaver, that part is simple. Her house is not a cobweb or a funnelweb, she lives at the center of a nice, flat, relatively orderly spiral when she's at home. That only narrows it down to a few thousand species.

At first I thought she was Araneus cavaticus, the common barn spider. I based the assumption on her markings and, well, the commonness of the barn spider. But then, after looking around some more, I began to lean towards Neoscona crucifera, a common resident North Carolinian, especially after looking at the images on this page (there are four photographs of crucifera in the second section from the top, captioned "Araneidae - Orb Weavers").

Here's the problem: it turns out that identifying a spider based on coloration and markings is a useless effort according to some experts. Identifying a spider really involves a microscope. And I have to admit--aside from the difficulties I might have trying to catch this young lady, I also don't want to intrude on her life much more than I already have. She's beautiful, she keeps to herself and hasn't made any noise or thrown any parties, and if she happens to eat a mosquito or two I will consider her a strategic ally.

(The struggles of an another arachnophiliac photographer can be read about in this article full of pretty awesome photographs. This author got some extremely nice, in focus, unobstructed by glass photographs and consulted a small library of books--and still found it impossible to come up with firm identifications he was happy with. The truth is that there are a lot of spider species with enormous variation within each species, such that identification and classification even challenges the experts.)

Any of you have any thoughts as to who my new neighbor is? Yes, I know I just said identification is nearly impossible, but I'm also willing to put it to a vote: do you think my little friend is cavaticus or crucifera, or perhaps something else entirely? Any guesses...?

(And before anyone makes the obvious joke: to date she has not used her home as a blackboard for messages about pigs or things that are nice. Sorry if that ruins anyone's fun....)

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Neverwednesday Nights

>> Wednesday, July 23, 2008

I only managed to pick up one album by The Godfathers back in the day, Unreal World, but I've wanted to give them some love here on a Neverwednesday. Only to discover that most of their videos on YouTube have linking disabled by request--notwithstanding the fact that most of their catalogue appears to be out of print in the States and people embedding Godfathers videos might, you know, perk up that "Long Tail" a bit.

What makes the whole thing a little more puzzling is that the band isn't exactly defunct: they have a MySpace page, have apparently reunited for a tour, and have re-released their very first album, Hit By Hit, from whence springs this cut--"I Want Everything" (1986):




You might think either the band's label would be doing whatever they could to pimp their back catalogue. I mean, look at this entry: I've included a music video, a link to the band's MySpace page, a link to the band's official webpage, and a link to the Amazon page selling the reissue of their first album. I don't have a vast readership or anything--some UCFers, family members, a few friends, the occasional stray or random visitor--but even if we generously say this particular page gets thirty hits, that's potentially thirty people who maybe never heard of The Godfathers or who'd forgotten about them, and who might be interested in hearing more or mentioning them to another friend. At any rate, it certainly wouldn't hurt, would it?

Indeed, The Godfathers and possibly their label are the only ones who benefit. All I get out of this is a filler entry and the pleasure of maybe sharing a good song with my friends, family and random passerby. I could have just as easily mentioned any other band on any other label or just typed, "off to play Neverwinter Nights with friends, open comment thread."

But it gets better: it's not the band's fault at all. If you go to the band's official webpage and click on the link for videos, you see this message at the top of the page:

Sony BMG have, in their wisdom, withdrawn permission to embed videos on the site so they will open in new window.


The band can't even post their own videos on their own webpage to promote the reunion of their original lineup and reissue of their first album. Think about the next time some label shill talks about how the internet is "hurting the artists." With friends like that, who needs enemas?

I know this is an awful long post. I should start just posting the videos and wandering off. But the fact the labels don't seem to understand that a certain level of admitted copyright infringement is a good thing for business is baffling, since they've been in the business long enough they ought to be able to figure that out. Essentially giving away one song--you know, kind of like radio does--increases the chances someone will buy a record or go to a show or even merely say to someone else, "Hey, I heard this song that made me think of you...." There's a certain risk it won't happen, but the profit margins on music are such that you can write off some loss because it generates sales.

But I digress. Yet again. Watch the video if you haven't already, rock out, and have a good evening. I'm off to play games.


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Hope

>> Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Earlier today, I very nearly posted a bit of snark inspired by a piece in Slate this week about religious bigotry in Saudi elementary school textbooks. And I didn't, because it just seemed bitter and pointless. I'm not even going to link to the article in this post; you can seek it out yourself, if you want. No, I only mention it because this evening I hit Astronomy Picture Of The Day, like I always do, and today's entry was evidence that maybe the species isn't totally fucked after all:




APOD comments, "...few people are able to watch the above video without smiling." And I smiled, and actually I think there may have been something wrong with one of my eyes by the three-quarters mark, just saying. Maybe it's the glass of Riesling with dinner, or maybe we have a shot at being okay; maybe the fact that the capacity for joy is a universal constant is our out. Either way, I'd rather post this than the post I deleted, and I hope you smile.

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Pragmatic contradictions

The other day, answering a question from Janiece about how I got into law, I mentioned that I went to law school because I had an interest in foreign policy and intended to eventually take the Foreign Service Exam--something that never happened, obviously. But it was something that interested me a great deal and I still find interesting.

Now, the other thing that readers know about me is that I am a proud, unabashed liberal. Friends, family, and maybe even some readers will have also gleaned that there's a stubbornly idealistic streak in that liberalism, too. I've been known to criticize the Democrats in Congress, for instance, for not doing things that even I'm willing to concede would be pyrrhic at best. For instance, I've said that the Democrats should consider instigating impeachment proceedings even if they'll be stonewalled and will terminate unsatisfactorily when Bush steps down from office in January, since (a) I think it's morally right and (b) hearings, impeachment or otherwise, might compel testimony and discovery about the Administration's workings and inform public awareness and debate over how this country is run. By the way--and I hate this kind of sniping where someone says something controversial and runs away, but...--by the way, I really don't want to get into a discussion about impeachment pro or con or just stupid; it's not what this post is about and I'd be thrilled to agree to disagree on it for now, since I'm just citing it as an example of how I can be a pig-headed idealist.

And I want to point out that I'm a stubborn liberal idealist on some scores because it's kind of ironic to me that I'm not a liberal when it comes to foreign policy, I'm more of a realist. It's something I sort of hate to admit, because I really loathe Kissinger, who is often looked on as an archetype of political realism in the foreign policy sphere. My liberal instinct is to throw up in my mouth a little when I think about having to deal with genocidal despots and psychotic tyrants as equals, and yet I have to admit I think realpolitik is mostly prudent. If I loathe Kissinger, I loathe Woodrow Wilson--often looked on as an archetype of political idealism in the foreign policy sphere--as much or more; there is not a single good thing you can say about Wilsonian policy towards Mexico, for instance, and while I certainly like the idea of international organizations, the League Of Nations was a joke and Wilson's post-World War I policy an utter failure. (The most you can say in his defense about those last two things, really, is that Wilson had a stroke and can't be held accountable for his idiocy when he was nearly a vegetable at the time.)

I'm thinking about these things right now because of a commentary by Fareed Zakaria in the current Newsweek about Barack Obama's positions on foreign policy. I'm not a huge Zakaria fan--he's a smart writer, he just doesn't usually do much for me--and I almost didn't read the piece, but I'm glad I did. Zakaria takes the usual charge about Senator Obama--that he's a foreign policy naïf--and makes a compelling case that Obama is actually the only realist in the race. He compares Obama, for instance, to George Kennan, the brilliant diplomat and scholar who epitomized the breed of rational, thorough State Department analyst who dispassionately evaluated world events from a perspective far above the morass of politics and storms of ideological strife. (Alas, Kennan's vision extended too far, far beyond what most American politicians were willing to see--or publicly admit to seeing--and Kennan was virtually exiled from policy decisions for decades.)

Critics of Obama like to rhetorically ask why his supporters like him, or accuse us of drinking the Kool-Aid. They don't necessarily appreciate that many of us have reservations about things like Senator Obama's recent vote on domestic intelligence, including his boneheaded decision to vote in favor of telecom immunity (arguably the single most-offensive thing about the bill, since it effectively gives retroactive carte blanche to corporate acts of complicity in illegal acts by the White House and shuts down the discovery of such acts). But there are, nonetheless, things that some of us approve of; I can't speak for all Obama supporters, but I can say that Zakaria's characterization of Obama's stance on foreign policy describes someone who, all other things being equal, I'd vote for. Other things aren't equal, of course, and if McCain were a realist and not an opportunistic dork floundering to adopt the younger George Bush's Wilsonian reckless fecklessness, I don't know that it would cause me to reconsider my vote. But, along with everything else, Obama's pragmatism is just One More Reason to vote for the man, and Senator McCain's rank naïveté is just one more warning on the Do Not Vote For This Man list.

There is a place for moral calculus when it comes to foreign policy, don't get me wrong. Sometimes we should shun or even bomb or invade sovereign states that cross an ill-defined line (nobody should say we did wrong in taking down Hitler in the '40s, or that we did right in tolerating the Khmer Rouge in the '80s because they were enemies of the Vietnamese). But there is no benefit in flinging around the epithet "evil," either, unless you count the domestic benefit of suckering some ignorant bastard into voting for you out of some cartoony image of the world; I don't count it because I happen to be naïve enough to think a politician should put his nation before himself. I don't really know for sure whether the President believes in an Axis Of Evil or not--I actually hope he doesn't and that it's merely a cynical ploy, but I have a bad feeling he has said those words with such conviction, not because he's a stupid man (all evidence to the contrary, he isn't, though he likes people to "misunderestimate" the Yale and Harvard man he is), but because he is a foolish man, however intelligent he may really be beneath the insipid "aw shucks" façade. It doesn't do any good to throw around the epithet because the people you're describing see it the other way around, you know--they think they're good and we're evil, and setting aside the uncomfortable reality that they're occasionally right (again: Woodrow Wilson, Mexico, hell-o-o?), more importantly the name-calling is a barrier to getting anything useful from them. If you've decided we're not going to get anything useful out of them--e.g. they're Nazi Germany, and we're just going to have to kick their asses about it--fine, call them all the names you want to. But unless you're ready to invade North Korea (suggestion: let's not), publicly calling them "evil" isn't going to do anything except embarrass them and make them even bigger pains in the asses than they were when it really would be in our best interests if they'd postpone or even abandon any nuclear weapons programs they might be working on. Yes, the leaders of North Korea are horrible, horrible people and it would be nice if they were more like those wonderful South Koreans; but maybe we keep that to ourselves a bit, no?

And if that's the kind of man Barack Obama is, the realist, and that's the kind of man John McCain is, the idealist--I know what I prefer when it comes to setting my nation's foreign policy agenda. Give me realism, give me practicality, give me a responsible and comprehensive view of a world with America in it and not the illusion of an American world. And if you have any uncertainty at all on the point, I hope you agree we need a practical leader facing the world, not some kind of adventuring Don Quixote tilting at windmills that are likely to strike back at us in one way or another. And if one of your friends is sitting on the fence, point him or her to the Zakaria article, "Here is a smart man, explaining why another man is also smart, please read it."


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The Dark Knight

>> Monday, July 21, 2008

That was spectacular.

If you have an IMAX theater nearby that's showing The Dark Knight, it's absolutely worth it. Director Chris Nolan shot several crucial sequences of the movie using an IMAX camera; there's something uniquely stunning about seeing a tractor-trailer rig flip end-over-end on a screen that's seven stories tall. Discovery Place, the local venue where I saw The Dark Knight this evening, is an OMNIMAX venue with the curved-dome screen: shots of the Chicago and Hong Kong skylines (two of the locations used in the film) enfold and encircle the viewer, offering the illusion of 3D.

Even if you don't have the chance to see the movie in IMAX, it's worth seeing on a normal screen. As Nolan did in Batman Begins, the material is treated seriously but not too. There's a subtle, wry humor that's not condescending; at the same time the movie often feels as sober as Dog Day Afternoon or Zodiac.

There's actually not a lot I want to say about this movie: it was pleasantly surprising in places, and I don't want to spoil any of those pleasures or jolts. Genre pictures in general and superhero movies in particular have their tropes, and The Dark Knight sticks to many of them. But Nolan gets credit for taking several of the rules and breaking them over his knee--no, I'm not going to tell you which ones. I will say that Heath Ledger really is just as good as everyone says he is, and may have offered a definitive Joker for some years to come*; I'll also add that Ledger isn't the only member of the cast to give a damn fine performance and it's a credit to both Ledger and everyone else that Ledger's Joker doesn't steal the film (alright, I'll throw in one more thing on the subject: Gary Oldman gives us another redemptive performance as Jim Gordon after years of lazy, scenery-chewing performances--Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are fine reminders of just how good Oldman can be, kudos).

I'll also mention that there were moments in Knight that disturbed me and moments that scared me and moments that made me sad. And in a movie way, a good way and not just a superhero-movie-ish sort of way. There were moments that made me laugh, and in a generally-good way, but you expect funny moments in a superhero movie. It's the rare superhero movie that can affect you (Spider-Man 2 is one of the few that comes to mind--the scene in the el train is genuinely moving, and Knight laps it). Knight managed to get me worrying about characters' souls. And there are moments in the movie that are genuinely unpleasant in the best possible way, scenes that remind you of how provocative the art of film can be.

On that note I'll point out one very last thing: Knight is also possibly the only superhero movie I can think of offhand that bothers its pretty little head with consequences. Every superhero movie has things exploding, things knocked ass-over-end, broken glass and wrecked cars. It's practically a given that epic battles cause epic damage in superhero movies, but The Dark Knight is the only one I can think of that offers up a running death toll over the course of the film. There are people in those cars, and inside those buildings, people with friends and loved ones who will have to clean up the messes left in the wake of destruction. Knight manages to make it clear that people are playing for high stakes (and sometimes losing), and escalation and the repercussions of escalation become a major theme of the movie before the credits roll. It's not perfectly done--there's a lot of joy in blowing things up in a summer action movie--but it's done well enough for those explosions and crashes to leave a smoldering bad taste in your mouth when characters in a subsequent scene discuss how many of their friends died today.

And that's it, that's all I'll say about it for now. It's good, it's very, very good. I think it's good in a "good movie" way and not just a "good superhero movie" way. (Iron Man and Hellboy II were good superhero movies; The Dark Knight is on a different level entirely.) And you should go see it and you shouldn't wait for it to come out on video, and you should see it on the biggest screen you can if you have a chance.



*Until now, the definitive Joker was... Mark Hamill.

No, I'm not kidding. Nearly everyone raves about Jack Nicholson's terrible performance in the Tim Burton Batman, in which Nicholson bizarrely plays The Joker as somebody doing a Jack Nicholson impersonation: Jack Nicholson as The Joker as Rich Little as Jack Nicholson. I'm sorry, it's horrible. Hamill, on the other hand, did incredible voice work on the animated TV series. Nicholson's performance bleeds into every other "Jack Nicholson is a loud crazy person" role--he might as well shout "Here's Johnny!" as snarl something about dancing with the Devil; Hamill's chortling, mocking delivery ("Baaaats, don't leeeeave me!") sticks with you.

For that matter, I'll take Caesar Romero's Joker (he of the greasepainted-over moustache) over Nicholson's any day of the year....

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Monday Night Movie

I'm off to see The Dark Knight--in IMAX no less! Meanwhile, here's The Casting Call Of Cthulhu... mwah-ha-ha! No, seriously, it's cute--enjoy:


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...now with even more A...

>> Sunday, July 20, 2008

Alright, I got a few more questions from Jeri, so let's give these a shot, eh?

Hmm... how come you've never posted a picture of yourself, even blurry from a distance?


It's a thing. It's not a rational thing. It's not a thing that subjects itself to explanation. It's sort of like the way some people don't like chocolate or are frightened of sharks. Okay, maybe that second one is a bad example. I don't like having my picture taken, so it follows that there are very few photographs, even blurry ones from a distance, in existence for me to post; and even if there were tons of them, like there is with Bigfoot--pictures of me looking over my shoulder as I saunter off behind a log or photos of me looking suspiciously like a cluster of odd shadows between the leaves and branches of two out of focus bushes (it's Bigfoot, I tells ya'!)--even if there were tons of such pictures, I'd probably not post them.

That having been said, I am considering it and haven't ruled out the possibility of allowing one photograph to replace the "AOL Wee Me in perilous and absurd situations" motif that has generated my Blogspot icons.

Why Pink Floyd? Isn't that a few years before your time?


That's something that I'll be coming back to when I get back to the "Oh By The Way" series. Yes, I'm still doing that. No, I haven't dropped it. The next album in the series, though, is The Dark Side Of The Moon, and the past entries have involved about two-to-three hours of listening and writing--no, really, they have, even if the product hasn't been especially brilliant or coherent. And Dark Side is a big album for the band and for me; in fact, it's the first of a run: Dark Side, Wish You Were Here, Animals, and The Wall. And the next album after that would be The Final Cut, which was kind of a big one for me even if it's turned into a kind of footnote in the band's catalogue over the last twenty-five years.

Speaking of Dark Side: it was released in 1973, and was the record that made the Floyd a mainstream band. I was released in 1972, a year earlier. And my parents had impeccable musical taste, both of them--and there's a partial answer to your question right there: I literally grew up with the Floyd. My Mom bought The Wall when it came out, my Dad taped copies of Dark Side and Animals. A Momentary Lapse Of Reason came out when I was in high school. (The Final Cut probably played a role in my staying alive through the same period, but I imagine I'll come back to that, too, at a more appropriate time.)

And here's a help Jeri solve her plot problem question: I need some sort of event that will cause immediate global warming in the course of one summer/fall - to the point that it will not freeze come winter in the arctic and it will happen so fast it will surprise the world. What sort of event can you think of, outside of deus ex machina?


The UCFers with scientific training may have a better answer than I can come up with. As an interested layman, all I can suggest is that there are essentially two mechanisms that come to mind.

The first would be a massive and unanticipated increase in the solar output cycle; while this might reek of deus ex, there's enough we don't understand about the lives of stars that it's sort of in the realm of possibility. Someone out there might even be able to suggest a mechanism.

The second mechanism of accelerated global warming would be an event that pumped more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The only thing is, it seems like any likely event would potentially cause a leavening effect as well. E.g. a geologic event would presumably also release particulates that would have a cooling effect. In fact, it's much easier to think of things that might cause a yearlong winter, like 1816's.

As you're probably aware, global warming is immensely complicated. Feedback loops such as what goes on with oceanic evaporation plausibly cause warming and cooling (the ocean is a CO2 dump, water vapor acts as a greenhouse gas but water vapor also increases albedo), and people bang their heads together over where tipping points might be. You might have to settle for a deus ex after all.

See, that's one reason I gravitate towards fantasy and horror. The simplest mechanism for abrupt global warming I can think of is that it's Cthugha's fault. Dude is made of fire, y'know? Of course it would get hot if his evil worshipers opened a rift in time and space that allowed him to enter our world and, like, burn stuff.

Yeah, I guess that probably doesn't help you very much.

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Speaking of...

>> Saturday, July 19, 2008

...Jupiter's appearance near the moon: yesterday's Astronomy Picture Of The Day is a beautiful photograph of Jupiter rising over a crumbling Roman temple in Turkey. If you don't click on the photograph to get the full panoramic view, you haven't seen the image. Gorgeous.

...flower pr0n: yesterday's Wondermark is pretty funny. "Bee-pokin'," indeed.

...nothing in particular, it's just trés cool news: the rumors about Bioware's top-secret 'til now project are true... both of them. It was rumored that Bioware was working on a sequel to Knights Of The Old Republic, probably the best Star Wars videogame to date. And it was rumored that Bioware was working on a MMORPG, possibly Star Wars-related. Turns out, as it happens, what everybody's feelings were telling them about the always-in-motion future were true this time: Bioware's big project is a Knights Of The Old Republic MMORPG. I'm not an MMORPG player, actually, but a KOTOR MMORPG from Bioware... yeah, that might pull me in like a Corellian corvette about to be boarded by a KDY Imperial-class Star Destroyer....

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...and A

>> Friday, July 18, 2008

I wasn't sure if anyone would ask anything--little did I realize what I was setting myself up for! Alright, let's see what we have so far....




Some posit that within genre fiction fantasy describes change as a result of internal forces, whereas scifi describes change as a result of external forces.

What think you?


That's a new one on me, and I'm not wholly sure I understand the premise. I think the postulate, if I understand it, is that fantasy has a strong tradition of dealing with an internal arc, "the hero's journey," while science fiction has more of a tendency to deal with reactions to technological (or sometimes social) changes, often with simplified characters (e.g. the two-dimensional characters in most Asimov stories are less important to the narrative than the consequences of having mass-produced robot slaves or the mechanical physics of a billiard ball in zero-g).

The knee-jerk reaction I have is to think the postulate is a distinction looking for a difference. That may be because much of the science-fiction I prefer reading tends to be a bit fuzzier on the hard-science side and more concerned with internal journeys--my favorite SF writers include people like Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison, who really couldn't care less why a robot works or how time-travel might operate. But I think my automatic reaction isn't really that interesting.

Here's why: there are two examples that leap to mind as far as challenging the premise that fantasy is about change through internals and science fiction about change through externals.

In the first case, take Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a book that, in my opinion, is hands-down the finest fantasy novel published since The Lord Of The Rings. Strange describes a world that is in flux--the 18th century is ending and new worlds are emerging; while Jonathan Strange is essentially the novel's protagonist, much of the book's plot in fact pivots around how the 18th-century traditionalist, Mr. Norrell, deals with a new world defined on the one side by Bonaparte in Europe and the ebb-and-flow of the Faerie kingdoms on the other. You can frame Strange as a "classic" fantasy by focusing on Jonathan Strange, but that's not actually what the novel is about.

In the second case (we'll come back to Strange in a moment), take Frank Herbert's Dune: Dune has its external forces, to be sure, but the central narrative of the novel is Paul Atreides's coming-of-age. In fact, the "sciencey" elements of Dune are almost incidental--there's some PoliSci and psychology and ecology, but Dune isn't a "hard" science fiction novel at all.

Now here's the interesting thing, I think: superficially, it's probably enough to say that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Dune rebut the postulated "internal"/"external" distinction. But is that right? A more interesting question might be whether the books are what we think they are in the first place--that is, is Strange a fantasy novel and is Dune really science fiction?

I think you can say they're not. Bear with me for a moment.

What is Strange about, when you strip away the elves and magic? Two men with access to a powerful, world-changing force at their fingertips try to come to terms with two alien invasions--the war with the French and the incursions of the faerie king of "Lost-Hope." The characters debate over how a technology--"English magic"--should be used, whether it should be used, whether it should be suppressed and controlled by an elite or made available to the wider public. And what is Dune if it's not a classic hero's quest in the epic-fantasy vein? The prince (well, ducal heir) is exiled from his kingdom and must use guile, magic (Bene Gesserit teachings) and an army of wild men to restore himself to the throne. Ultimately, Dune arguably has far more in common with, say, Michael Moorcock's Stormbringer than it does with Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.

Framed that way, Strange is science fiction and Dune is fantasy, which seems intuitively wrong when you go back to their trappings--faeries and magic in the former and spaceships and atomic weapons in the latter. All of which may ultimately say more about how contingent labels are than it does about real distinctions between forms of speculative or fantastic fiction.

It's interesting. I hope I gave the question an answer it deserved. Thank you.




What do I do about the fact that the new "manager" who was placed between my boss and and my bosses old boss (who is now a bigger boss) is a complete jackass who is making both our lives completely and totally miserable?


Oh my.

I have two answers, and neither is probably helpful. The first answer is to look for a new job with happier coworkers, and the second is to lash yourself to the wheel and grit your teeth.

I actually have to give this lecture sort of often to kids I represent (not comparing you to a juvenile delinquent, just that it's something I've had to ponder and discuss before): that one of the tough things in life is that you often have to deal with people you don't respect or like, but to get through it you sometimes have to grin and bear it--and fake it. In the kids' cases, it might be a teacher or a caseworker; in adult situations, a boss or a co-worker. In your case, the new manager.

You have my sympathy, in any case. It's a tough situation to deal with.




Eric, why did you want to be an attorney? And why criminal defense?


Originally, I didn't.

The original scenario was that I was in college, majoring in History with a minor in Asian Studies, with a strong interest in diplomacy and foreign relations. And the plan was that when I graduated, I'd take the Foreign Service Exam and try to get a job at the State Department. So I looked at the application for the FSE....

Have you ever looked at the application for the FSE?

At the risk of sounding conceited, I consider myself a reasonably smart guy. And reasonably well-educated even aside from the BA and JD.

But the sample questions on the Foreign Service Exam?

Shit.

Those are some hard-ass questions.

So, a new plan emerged: go to law school for three years, become smarter (and acquire another piece of paper to wave around), and then take the exam and go work for State. Except, of course, that's not what happened.

What happened was I was lucky enough to get into the one law school I could afford to attend--in fact, my situation was such that I only applied to one school (yes, I know how insane that sounds) because if I had applied to others it wouldn't have mattered if they'd accepted me.

(As it turns out, after you take the LSAT all sorts of semi-accredited and backwater schools will send you desperate pleas for your attendance--so, technically, I probably could have applied to another law school and been accepted; but not to one I would have actually wanted to attend. I mean, it would have sort of defeated my whole purpose if the paper I'd ended up with said, "Sam's College Of Law-Talking Guys, Poughkeepsie.")

So I went to UNC for law school, a top 25-school where three years of law school cost about as much as one year at Duke, say. And while I was there, I discovered three things:

1) I was pretty bad at the kinds of things that might be useful in the foreign service;

2) I was pretty good at criminal law;

3) Worse yet, I liked criminal law.

Take Contracts, for instance--Contracts and I had an understanding: I didn't like it and it didn't like me. My second semester of Contracts, I got a 1.6 as a final grade, and was informed by someone else that my grade was impossible because under the first-year curve a 1.7 was the lowest grade possible.

I can laugh and point about it because I got a perfect 4.0 in first year Crim Law, and never had anything lower than a 3.-something in any crim-related course for the rest of my career there. I understood the fuzziness, I got my back up over the issues. I don't know why, exactly--it wasn't anything expected. An uncle who went to law school as a midlife career reboot a few years before I went said that the thing about law school was being surprised by the discovery that what you were interested in was never what you thought it would be.

Matter of fact, criminal law was on the list of things I'd never do, along with divorce law (still on the list), and I reassured a lot of people before I went to law school that I wasn't going to be a lawyer, I was just taking some time before the FSE.

Yeah. Funny, that, now that I remember it thirteen years later....

Once I realized, by the end of my 1L year, that Criminal Law was what I was good at and was what I got excited about, there was only one career choice: I still can't imagine the idea of prosecuting anyone, and there's that whole social-worker instinct that often comes with knee-jerk liberalism. I wasn't going to work for a District Attorney's office, I wasn't going into private practice if I could help it. When I got back my bar results, I send letters to every State Public Defender's office in North Carolina.

And there it is.




Right! I think that answers--or attempts to answer--the questions I've received so far. Thanks, everyone, for playing along and humoring me (and giving me something to ramble on about!), and if anyone has any more questions in the next day or so, post 'em in the "Q" thread and I'll edit this post or add an A (pt. 2) post tomorrow! Meanwhile, I hope everyone else is having something like the nice weather we seem to be having today!

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Q...

>> Thursday, July 17, 2008

I've got absolutely nothing.

I'm tired, my brain is numb. I can't think of a damn thing to write about right now.

So I'm opening the floor to questions. If you have any. If you don't, that's okay, too. If you do, I'll answer them in a Friday or Saturday blog entry.

So, shoot. Or don't. Your call.

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A minor moment of coolness in the urban context...

>> Wednesday, July 16, 2008

...realizing that the one bright star visible left of the moon in a sky saturated with light pollution isn't a star....




(Just to be clear, we're not talking about Nunki, in Sagittarius, which I can't see at all in the downtown Charlotte sky. We're talking about the other bright object labeled in the screenshot.)

If I had a tripod, I'd take a picture. Unfortunately, lacking a tripod, any picture I take is merely a bluuuuuuur. Hence the illustration via KStars. (Incidentally, if you're a KDE/Linux user, KStars is a pretty awesome little piece of software. Just saying.)

As for you folks in dark, remote places: look up, and enjoy. And if you have a telescope, it might be worth pulling it out in a little bit if it's a cool, dry night, eh? Those of us city folks will just have to settle for the one or two glittery things we can see, and imagine a spectacle out there somewhere.

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Neverwednesday Nights

I'm afraid I have to bump The Godfathers again, this time in solidarity with the struggling laborers of Alaska, who are being asked to slave away for low wages and forced-barter conditions reminiscent of the old company towns where underpaid textile workers or miners were told they shouldn't complain, since the company was providing them with food and a roof (all taken out of their already-small paychecks, naturally).

Pete Seeger performs Florence Reece's 1931 protest anthem, "Which Side Are You On?":




Stay strong, brother!

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Lucky he didn't do this here in the States--the Bush Administration would have given him an imaginary trial...

>> Tuesday, July 15, 2008

In Tokyo, a man has been arrested for threatening to kill a bunch of people at a nonexistent train station.

Maybe he should have been clearer in explaining that he meant to kill a flock of unicorns with his laser eyes.

On the plus side, it looks like we Americans no longer have a monopoly on hysterically overreacting to things. Yay, us.

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Science that's important!

In the run-up to the release of a big summer movie, the ridiculous tie-ins can be annoying as hell. Even without TV the whole thing can get saturating, bogging you down and making you sick, just sick, of the whole thing and waiting for the summer movie season to just end so that the newsweekly magazines can return to their proper role of terrifying statistically-illiterate Americans with fables of school violence and epidemics of diseases that only four of them will ever catch (and one of them not even that badly, really).

But there are exceptions to any rule. I fully approve of a book explaining the kinesiology of Batman right before (coincidentally, I'm sure!) the opening of The Dark Knight. Sure, it's a little disappointing to realize that becoming Batman takes roughly 15-18 years of training and then only about three years of being at peak and you really ought to retire no later than age 55 or so; on the other hand, it makes Bruce Wayne even more impressive--the dude started fighting crime in 1939 and is still going pretty strong for, what, a guy who must be approaching 100? (Let's figure he's ten when his parents are offed by Joe Chill, then goes right into training. So he's 25 in 1939, right? Which means he was born in 1914? So he's 94? A very spry 94.)

And I also approve of running an interview with the author of Becoming Batman, E. Paul Zehr.

My inclination is to be funny about how all science should be like this--i.e. it should all be about comic books. Of course, the joke lacks credibility coming from me: after blogging about astronomy and biology and computers, nobody is going to believe that my only interest in science is when it's about Batman. So never mind, then. Go read the interview, and I hope you're having a good evening. 'Night!


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Kim McLarin says everything that needs to be said about the New Yorker "flap":


It seems to me that getting offended by stuff like this is like getting offended by a pigeon that craps on your head. What's the point? The incident is all about the pigeon and its natural inclinations. It has nothing to do with you.


Read the rest of Ms. McLarin's comments here. It's a great article, and pretty much says everything that needs to be said about the whole ridiculous business.

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None of my damn business

>> Monday, July 14, 2008

Before he enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or affirmation: -- "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States."

U.S. Constitution, Art. II, sec. 1


The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

U.S. Constitution, Art. VI


There's a story I ran across somewhere--I can't vouch for its accuracy or truth, but it sounds true--that Dwight Eisenhower, legendary general and thirty-fourth President of the United States, was asked shortly after his election what the worst part of being President would be, and Ike bitched that it meant he'd have to start going to church on Sundays. It's the kind of story that reflects a certain admirable irreverence and humantity on Eisenhower's part, but it's also a story that illustrates the kind of silly hypocrisy that religion causes in America's public sphere. Regardless of Eisenhower's religious beliefs, it seems he had better things to do with his Sunday mornings than to make a public specatcle of his faith (like many millions of Americans, I'm sure those things involved sleeping in or knocking a little white ball all over a large grassy expanse with a sort of hooked stick and then following it). The fact that Eisenhower's presidency saw the addition of god-talk to the Pledge Of Allegiance and the coin of the realm only heightens the absurdity--not even irony--of the whole thing.

It's annoying me again because Newsweek's cover story this week is a chronicle of Barack Obama's personal journey of faith or whatever; I have to be honest, I'm not going to say anything about the piece itself simply because I really can't be bothered to read the whole thing. I'm only going to comment on it's existence for the purposes of saying that I don't really care, and neither should you. After all, notwithstanding what polls seem to show, it doesn't actually matter all that much what either Barack Obama or John McCain believe happens when you die or make certain kinds of wishes or where the universe comes from or why we're here.

It only matters at all if there's some reason to think it would affect policy or action if elected: if Obama thought that launching the entire American nuclear arsenal at Jerusalem would hurry up Jesus or if McCain's educational policy was based on burning all texts not directly related to the Qur'an, or if either one of them appeared likely to be blackmailed "fair gamed" by David Miscavige if they moved away from the Church, then it might make sense to care about what they believed. Maybe. I mean, John Kennedy did a pretty good job in 1960 of making it clear he would be everybody's President, and not a Catholic President, and if his duties as President Of The United States ever conflicted with his obligations as a President who happens to be Catholic, he'd step down.

So it's tenuous, is what I'm saying. Would it matter if Obama was a Muslim, or if McCain was a Rastafarian? Really matter?

And then I think, maybe I'm wrong about that. There's a religious component to the same old debate or war or whatever it is over the legality of abortion. And there are all those asshats who want to "teach the controversy" between modern genetics and rambling ca. 5th century BCE Jewish texts. (Hey, who you gonna believe, some dork in a lab or a guy from the Stone Age?)

No. No, I'm not. I should read what I just wrote: "John Kennedy did a pretty good job in 1960...," etc. Regardless of what you think about Kennedy's actual achievements (or lack thereof) as a President, he did point out that there's a bright line between one's beliefs and one's obligations as a national leader. The question isn't, "Hey, do you believe war in the Middle East is a precursor to the end times?" The question is, "Dude, you're not going to let your derranged misreading of the last few pages of the Bible control your foreign policy, are you?" The answer to the first question really doesn't matter if the answer to the second question is a flat "No." I don't care what the President thinks about abortion as long as he's going to uphold whatever the law is; I might care about what kinds of people he nominates to the Supreme Court, sure--but that's really a broader question than abortion anyway. (The real question is how the nominee would decide Constitutional questions: does he respect stare decisis, does he have a legal philosophy and what is it?)

I don't care that Barack Obama is a Christian and he came to his faith through many years of yada yada yada. I wish people would give it a break. I wish people would stop assuming one's church attendance says anything about them other than that they attend church--no, really: if you're a church-goer, how many assholes are there in your church? Be honest. I'm guessing it's close to the percentage in the general population.

Hey, media! I don't care. You can stop. It's none of my damn business. It's none of my damn business and I don't care, and you can please, please, please just stop.

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Flowers, bees, butterflies

>> Sunday, July 13, 2008

Twelve Eleven of the pictures I took yesterday at the USNWC trails:
















EDIT: Looking over these again, I'm kinda thinking "Butterfly 01" and "Butterfly And Bee 02" were the same picture. So I'm deleting one of them. Thanks again, everyone, for the kind comments!

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Probability of a real Saturday post: low

>> Saturday, July 12, 2008

I might have flower pr0n (I prefer to think of it as "borrowing" a page from Michelle's book. That was what I kind of sort of wanted to put up today. I went out to the USNWC trails and took a few pictures, but they're in RAW format and I was playing with the Aperture-priority mode, and I don't know if they're any good or if I'll have to futz with them; and it's almost four p.m. and I'm off to hang out with a friend this evening at five and I kind of wouldn't mind chilling and reading for a bit.

I know: excuses, excuses. But that's how it is. We'll see if the pr0n makes it up tomorrow, or is just too damn blurry for publication.

In the meantime, I'm going to offer a treat and a rank injustice in one fell swoop of embedded video.

The treat: The Zombies, a band that I would describe as the most-overlooked '60s band of all time. To the extent The Zombies are remembered at all, it's for "She's Not There" and "Time Of The Season", a pair of great songs, true, but it's unfair that people rarely look further than that. The Zombies wrote hooks like The Beatles, strutted like The Stones, and thrashed like The Kinks. And weren't really anything like any of those bands. They were originals, kind of ahead of their time, and nobody noticed them that much until they were gone--hell, you could almost call them the '60s answer to The Pixies while flailing around for a comparison (and, like The Pixies, they knew how to milk dynamics in a song).

The injustice: the video I'm embedding is cool, but it's the wrong way to listen to this song. What someone on YouTube did, was they took an old 45 of "Leave Me Be", a fantastic song, and filmed the record playing. Which, as far as I'm concerned, is a pretty cool way to share the song. But the way you should really listen to "Leave Me Be" is to take the tune in the format of your choice--vinyl, CD, even MP3--run it through your home stereo or even a car stereo, and crank the shit out of it. Seriously. That semi-whispered croon over the hushed backbeat and surfy, sparse guitar chords should give way to the roar of the organ and shouted chorus in a way that makes the speakers rattle. It's awesome, it's rock and roll, it's something you should try as soon as you can and thank me later.

In fact, that's why I went looking for this song on YouTube. There's no subtext, feel free to not leave me be (and I'm certainly not missing her). The message today is: this is a really cool song. Enjoy!


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The Return Of The Penis Thieves: "Thief! My genitals are gone!"

>> Friday, July 11, 2008

Back in April, I happened to do an entry about penis thieves. According to Reuters, there was an epidemic of fear in Kinshasa, in the Congo, as citizens complained that their genitalia were being stolen.

It turns out there's an article on the subject in the June 2008 Harper's, "A mind dismembered: In search of the magical penis thieves," by Frank Bures, and (somewhat to my surprise) it's actually more provocative than funny. Well, I think it's funny, too, to be honest, in spite of the lynchings that apparently are a routine follow-up to a penis theft. (It's like stealing horses in the American Old West, it seems: those who are caught rustling penises are strung up without hesitation or mercy. Perhaps the horse was a psychic substitute for the prick--suggesting our ancestors might have been as small as they were great, perhaps?)

Bures has the usual absurd anecdotes, but places the whole idea of penis theft into a larger context of "culture-bound syndromes"--mental illnesses or hysterias that are dependent on the society in which they're found, as opposed to whatever mental illnesses might be universal. All humans, perhaps, are subject to the chemical imbalances we label "depression" but maybe only Japanese humans are victims of hikikomori. (Or maybe not, see the Wikipedia link in the previous sentence.) Fear of penis theft is obviously uncommon in the contemporary Euro-American sphere, but Bures suggests it's shockingly common in Africa, parts of Asia, and maybe in Europe's past (Bures says the infamous Hexenhammer, the Malleus Maleficarum used by European inquisitors as a field guide to the habits of witches warns that witches can steal genitalia--perhaps the poor bastard who was turned into a newt (but got better) ought to consider himself relatively lucky.

It all actually raises some interesting questions about how the mind works, and about culture, and it's a decent enough read. Hope you find it as entertaining and provocative as I did.


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This man must be elected!

>> Thursday, July 10, 2008

How did I miss this? This is why that lying, horrible geek quiz that said I was only 79% geek is right after all. I'm mortified.

Sonny Landham is running for the United States Senate against Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Landham is running as a Libertarian, on a platform that (per his blog) is based on his being:

...a born again Southern Baptist Christian, pro-life, a textualist to the United States Constitution, pro-union member....


Not a lot there that I agree with, frankly, though Landham is against the Iraq war and refers to President Bush as a "traitor" on his website (I'm not sure I'd go quite that far, preferring to stop at "criminal," but I appreciate the sentiment). And Landham himself seems to be a bit of a piece of work--here's an especially revealing chunk of his bio from sonnylandham.com, which appears to be an official Landham site (all punctuation and spelling as in the original, including bracketed text):

Sonny's life was a fairytail until his wife developed serious mental problems, and refused any treatment. During divorce proceedings in 1998, Sonny's wife Belita ran to a women's abuse center, due to her fear of losing money and custody of their daughter, Priscilla. Even though Sonny had never struck his wife or children (Rachel Landham is a step-daughter) [the foregoing statement was made by Belita and Rachel], the fascist women's abuse groups of Kentucky and the federal government through judicial terrorism framed Sonny, and he did thirty-one (31) months in federal prison, before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Acquitted Sonny and ordered his immediate release from federal prison saying " Landham committed no crime…..This case should never have been brought to trial." Sonny now lives in Ashland, Kentucky, where he is fighting many legal battles to get back his children, his reputation, and compensation for the agonizing hell, that he was put through.


...one hopes that "fairytail" is a typo and not an allusion to Landham's earlier career as a porn star, tho' I suppose one never knows. And I suppose one might come off as a little paranoid and bitter in describing a period of one's life in which he spent nearly three years on charges that were apparently overturned. But all of that is irrelevant. Because Sonny Landham is a man who transcends politics, a man who has the ultimate qualification to be elected to political office.

That's right, Sonny Landham was in Predator.

Predator! The film that launched the political careers of Jesse Ventura and (drumroll) Arnold Schwarzenegger! Predator! The film that launched a thousand "Get to the choppa!" jokes! Predator! The starting point of not one but two successful movie/game/comic book/toy/whatever the fuck they'll sell next franchises! Predator!

Alright. Alright, already. I know. Predator is one of those films that straddles the "truly classic"/"alternative classic" line that all-too-many science fiction films (and books, for that matter) land on: a lot of inspired cleverness mangled in the overall execution. A script about mercenaries behind enemy lines who find themselves hunted by an alien--a nice, respectable SF twist on "The Most Dangerous Game"--made into a bit of a joke by wooden acting, studio meddling, and script revisions to give "business" to an overbearing leading man. ("Stick around," Schwarzenegger's character says after he drives a machete through someone, pinning him to a door. Get it? Because the guy is stuck to the door! By a machete! It's a pun!) Oh, and then there's that bit where Our Hero outruns a nuclear explosion. (If that spoiled anything for you, you weren't going to see the movie anyway, so stop whining.)

It's one of those movies that, especially if you're a science fiction fan, you love even while you're laughing at (not with) it. It's awesome. It's stupid. We--the people who love SF--we do it to ourselves, you know. Like we can't help it. We emblazon our classic texts with tri-breasted green nymphomaniacs and hand our serious (and pointed) cultural messages to actors like William Shatner for delivery. Oh, I know, we don't do it all the time, and we're getting better (no nipple-ey ETs on a Vintage Classics PKD edition, for example), and we're finally getting a certain amount of respectability (for mostly the wrong reasons, but there's another post). But, you know, Predator. I went out and bought it on DVD and then I go and make fun of it, which it deserves but some boring evening I'll pop some popcorn and pour a giant soda and huddle in front of it again and treat it with all the seriousness it doesn't quite earn.

Of all the movies that Hollywood might remake or reboot, wouldn't you love to see a tense, boiled-down version of Predator? Set it in Vietnam, during an earlier war (one suspects that's where the movie was meant to take place all along). Make Schwarzenegger's character, Dutch, the laconic, cold-blooded hunter he was probably supposed to be; get rid of all the sub-Roger Moore-as-Bond "witticisms" and the ridiculous notion mentioned early in the movie (and quickly forgotten) that Dutch's squad is carrying all that heavy artillery because they don't like killing anyone on their missions (one suspects that was another sop to Schwarzenegger, to make his character more likable or heroic). Take away the token female character who mainly provides unnecessary exposition (or, if you set the film closer to the present, give her something legitimate to do). The Predator itself--don't change a damn thing. Oh, and the ending: sure, Dutch gets the monster... but nobody outruns a nuclear blast.

But meanwhile (and back on topic!), if you live in Kentucky: vote for Sonny Landham! Sure, the guy kind of comes off as... well... an asshole. But he also managed to live slightly longer than most of the other guys in his squad--I mean, Jesse Ventura was one of the first guys to be wasted and he got to be a governor just like The Ah-nold. I think a man who ritualistically slices his chest open and attacks an invisible extraterrestrial with what's basically a giant cannon deserves to be a U.S. Senator, don't you? Don't you?

(If you answered, "Yes," then you're awesome. High-five. If you answered, "No," then fuck you. What's the matter with you? Go back and answer, "Yes." Damn straight. You're awesome. High five.)

Carl Weathers, where are you now? Your time is nigh.


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