Poetry is dead (again)

>> Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Oh no! All the depressed teenagers in America have abruptly vanished!

No, wait. Nevermind. No, poetry is dead (again) because Newsweek says it might be, and Newsweek heard it from the National Endowment For The Arts, and the NEA got the news from a survey. Fiction is on the rise, you see, but poetry readership is at its lowest point in sixteen years.

A leaflike survey
Blows past on cold wind, crumples
Powder underfoot

That is, I regret to say, the best I can muster. In high school and even into college I wrote quite a bit of, to borrow a phrase from Morrissey, "such bloody awful poetry." Now I can sort of cobble together bad haiku, especially if it concerns Dungeons And Dragons, which isn't even a parody of a sham of an art, but more of a now-that's-just-sad-isn't-it.

But I digress. Just how bad is poetry's imminent demise? Well, even Newsweek is obligated to point out:

Of course, poetry has been supposedly dying now for several generations. In 1934, Edmund Wilson published an essay called "Is Verse a Dying Technique?" Fifty-four years later, Joseph Epstein chimed in with "Who Killed Poetry?" and former NEA chairman Gioia gained fame with a 1991 piece titled "Can Poetry Matter?" In answering their titular questions, all three to some degree concluded that poetry's concentration in the hands of specialists and the halls of academia was bad for the art form's health.

Former poet laureate [Donald] Hall, who published an essay called "Death to the Death of Poetry" in 1989, has heard it all before. "I'm 80 years old," he says. "[For] 60 years I've been reading about poetry losing its audience."

This before helpfully concluding that "poetry seems likely to persist, in one form or another." Really? You think? Are you sure?

Oh, honestly: the Newsweek article is just filler, really, but with a self-important and eye-catching title, "The End of Verse?" They go on a bit about the NEA study and then conclude with, in effect, "or maybe not," which is a bit meaningless. It's the long-awaited/dreaded demise of poetry we're talking about, not the likely extinction of Tasmanian devils from a plague of cancer, after all. Poetry has been dying for years, centuries, probably. In ten or fifteen years expect another announcement: "Poetry is really, really dead and we mean it this time."

There is one pertinent observation I'd like to make, though. A chunk of the Newsweek article is about efforts to rescue poetry.

The dismal poetry findings stand in sharp contrast not only to the rise in general fiction reading, but also to the efforts of the country's many poetry-advocacy organizations, which for the past dozen years have been creating programs to attract larger audiences. These programs are at least in part a response to the growing sense that poetry is being forgotten in the U.S. They include National Poetry Month (April); readings, lectures and contests held across the country; initiatives to get poems into mainstream publications such as newspapers; and various efforts to boost poetry's presence online (poets.org, the Web site of the Academy of American Poets, even launched a mobile version optimized for use on the iPhone).

Here's an unsolicited tip: making something the intellectual equivalent of eating your Brussels sprouts is about a good way as I can think of to kill it deader than Bobby Van Winkle's musical career. Seriously. If you want to keep grown-ups away from something in droves, set up a lecture series where participants talk about how vital and relevant it is. Do you know who shows up for those kinds of things? People who already think poetry is vital and relevant, that's who. And newspapers? Really? Yeah, that's a thriving industry that's swiftly adapting to the new millennium, alright.

Do you want to know why fiction is surging? I hate to say it, because it's a little embarrassing and I'm not a fan. I mean, she's alright, and I thought she was great in The Color Purple but her talk show kinda gives me hives. Yeah, her. Ms. Winfrey. Oprah.

I'm not really knocking The Big O (no, not the robot, I'm still talking about Ms. Winfrey--and I'm not talking about orgasms, either): Denis Leary, of all people, did a pretty surprising defense of her in Playboy a few months ago that made some points about Ms. Winfrey's awesomeness that I'm not prepared to dispute. Not that Denis Leary's opinion means that much to me, just that it was a fairly persuasive piece and I don't think Bill Hicks wrote it. Anyway, I'm not knocking Ms. Winfrey, and in fact I'm giving her a bit of credit here: I do think she's done more than probably any other individual out there to make reading fashionable and fun. Some people might say Jeff Bezos deserves a slice of credit off that loaf, but personally I haven't actually seen a real physical Kindle (and yes, I know people who own one--they're all far away and all I've seen are pictures), but I've seen plenty of "Oprah Book Club" logos stuck on paperbacks tucked into purses or tucked beneath women's arms.

Enough to explain the NEA surge? I couldn't say, and anecdotal evidence isn't really evidence. But even if the surge consists entirely of women buying "Oprah books," the more important points are (1)that reading has a way of being contagious--people see other people reading a book, that makes it okay for them to read, too; and (2)that Ms. Winfrey did it by making books--relatively serious and ambitious books, if not necessarily Great Books books, too--a part of pop culture again.

Which brings us around the long way to the point: if you really want people reading poetry, oh great and mighty NEA, don't do any more of these fucking seminars nobody wants to go to except the people who already go to them. No, if you want people interested in poetry, find your Oprah. It might even be Oprah. You get the ladies on The View or (heaven forbid!) Glenn Beck, say, talking about poems they like, you'll get your surge. (And no, I'm not convinced Glenn Beck ought to be the voice of dirty limericks, much less poetry, I'm just trying to proffer a f'r'instance for you.)

But making poetry like homework? That shit is doomed to failure. We've done homework. We didn't like it. No thank you. Pass.

UPDATE--MARCH 31st, 2009: By a bizarre and unexpected coincidence, today's Salon features "The poetry of Glenn Beck". I stand corrected on Mr. Beck's status in the realm of verse--apparently he should be the voice of poetry.


Tonight the part of Baltasar Garzón will be played by Baltasar Garzón

>> Monday, March 30, 2009

I saw this in the news previously, but didn't realize until today that it was worth posting, and not just because of the recent struggles to come up with writing topics. No, actually it just dawned on me today that this was the kind of thing where maybe some people missed it in the news, or that it's the kind of thing you really need to do a follow-up for.

Back in January, I wrote a post titled, "Mr. Bush, homebound," commenting on the fact that international law might make it difficult for former President George W. Bush to travel if he were accused of war crimes, since other countries might well be obligated to arrest and try him for violations of the Geneva Conventions, particularly if the country in question adopted the doctrine of "universal sovereignty," a legal theory that holds that some offenses are so against humanity in general that they can be tried anywhere, even if the offense took place in some other part of the world and didn't involve citizens of the sovereign. In a footnote to that rant, I mentioned one Baltasar Garzón, a Spanish judge famous for instituting proceedings against former Argentinian barber Augusto Pinochet and attempting to do so again against former Secretary Of State Dr. Henry Kissinger.

The recent new development is that the Spanish courts have begun an investigation to determine whether or not charges of human rights violations can or should be brought against former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, former undersecretary of defense for policy Douglas Feith, former Cheney chief-of-staff David Addington, torture-memo authors John Yoo and Jay Bybee, and William Haynes, a former lawyer for the Pentagon. And the Spanish judge who has agreed to appoint prosecutors to conduct this investigation? Baltasar Garzón, yet again. A man who seems to be zealous enough to pursue allegations like these to wherever they might lead.

There's a question as to whether any of these men would be tried even if indictments are returned as a result of the prosecutors' investigation. It's quite possible, for starters, that no country would be bold and crazy enough to extradite any of these men to Spain if they travelled abroad (and it's a given that the United States won't extradite anyone to Spain). Nonetheless, it seems "stay home" is far sounder legal advice than anything Messrs. Yoo or Bybee ever wrote down for their clients. Or, if any of these men were jonesing to visit Spain, they might do it now and quickly before Judge Garzón gets anything back from the investigating prosecutors.

Life may get interesting for the men who instigated America's torture policy for eight years. And not the good kind of interesting, either.


Sunday blather

>> Sunday, March 29, 2009

It's a mission of this blog to publish everyday. Some would say that's a bad thing, that you ought to publish when you have something to say. And I can see where that's completely reasonable from a reader's point-of-view: when I write an entry like this one, kvetching1 over being at a loss for words, I'm arguably wasting your time, though frankly I don't see why you can't stop reading any time you want. (Great, now I've lost my entire small audience.)

But what this does accomplish, from my end of it, is that I am engaging myself in this "blogging" activity, which may mean writing something, which hypothetically translates into me, I don't know, maybe mobilizing myself to go do whatever "real" writing I'm supposedly engaged in. (Or encourages me to share photos I took. Although I guess I can't see what a YouTube video does, except maybe spread some of my love for whatever.)

No, I'm not sure it actually works that way, either.

I did try. Normally, actually, I'm pre-posting and I'm ahead (this is part of Giant Midgets normally updating 'round midnight). Yesterday, though, yesterday I struggled. I tried, I really did. The folks who license the patent on MP3s did something interesting and stupid and useless (nothing mean, in fact they were trying to be helpful), and I started a post about that... nope. There were some bits of political outrageousness that got my dander up... nothing came of that, either. So I find myself at one p.m. today with no new entry up, and no likely entry for Monday right now (maybe another Five Photos entry will be on its way, I guess).

Not sure what's going on, why the juices aren't flowing as they should. Yesterday it rained all day, a miserable torrential rain that kept me in for much of the day, though I did stop on Central Avenue for a nice old-school breakfast at John's Country Kitchen on Central after picking up a package at the Post Office. When I got home, coffeed up and everything, I was raring to write and instead ended up finishing Spook Country2 and playing a videogame all day. It wasn't even a good videogame session: turned out the Neverwinter Nights module I was playing--which looked excellent--didn't actually have a path for evil characters and I suddenly found myself at a point where the module became unplayable. So it was just kind of a wasted day, not a bad day, but an ineffectual one, if that makes any sense.

It was supposed to rain all week, but today's storms didn't show up. It's sunny and windy, and so I wrote off my omelet plans in favor of a bowl of oatmeal and a trek down to Smelly Cat for an out-of-the-house experience and maybe we'll see if I can get something done. I've been doodling with a kind of generic fantasy story--the horror novel was just out of control, so I've put it on the back of the stove (I think I mentioned that last week). I can't really tell if the current story is stupid or not. I have a feeling it might be, but I think it's more important to try to write something stupid if the alternative is not writing.

And that, dear readers, or reader if I've lost some of you, or dear howling oblivion of cyberspace, if that's all that stuck it through to the penultimate paragraph, is where we're at today. And I do apologize if it wasn't erudite or clever or funny, but it did get me typing for ten or fifteen minutes.

Hope you're being more productive than I am, and good Sunday, everybody.

1Say, "kvetch" is Yiddish, right? So should I italicize it as a foreign word? "Kvetch" instead of "kvetch."

I oughta write a style manual for myself one of these days.

2By the way, and this is so fucking strange: I knew William Gibson told The Onion a while back that he had "stopped" writing SF (those quotation marks will make sense in a moment). What I hadn't quite grokked was that he's still writing the exact same kinds of books he's been writing for twenty years. I mean, he had a great comment to exactly that effect, but it wasn't until I closed the cover on Spook Country that I really got it--it's classic Gibson, but now the world's caught up with the guy.

How long 'til his stuff essentially becomes historical fiction taking place in the present, I want to know.



>> Saturday, March 28, 2009

There is a great divide in America that I think will never be healed, that will plague this country forever. I wish it wasn't this way, I wish there was some way for people to come together, if not in some form of agreement at least to some level of tolerance and mutual respect. But I don't think it's possible, I fear the wounds are too deep and the division too profound. Common ground will never be found between people who think the Three Stooges are funny and people who don't.

Actually, I have to make a confession of sorts: I remember watching the Three Stooges obsessively when I was a kid, but now I can't actually remember if they were funny or not. Surely they must have been--why else would I have spent so many half-hour blocks planted in front of the TV in the afternoons, watching the Stooges attempts to enucleate one another or bludgeon each other with kitchenware? But then you find that all-too-many of the things that seemed funny or charming before you turned ten aren't even nearly-so on the wrong side of eleven. The Stooges' antics somehow aren't as indelible to me as the antics of some of their black-and-white comedy-team peers: I remember Laurel and Hardy's efforts to get a piano up a hill or Bud Abbott's fraying patience with Lou Costello over--well, almost everything, but specifically, let's say, over a baseball lineup--more vividly than I remember any of the Stooges' setpieces. Or maybe that's not quite true: maybe there's an existential quality to the Stooges' routines--maybe it doesn't really matter why Curly Howard is slapping his face or how Moe Howard came to have the septum of Larry Fine's proboscis pinched betwixt a pair of pliers, no, maybe these things are things in and entirely of themselves, things that simply are like spacetime or the cruft you get under your toenails.

I just don't know.

To some degree, this may belie the premise of my first paragraph: there are two kinds of people in the world, those who understand that the Three Stooges are funny and those who are sadly confused, except that actually I may be a kind of practicing agnostic who qualifies as a third type, somebody who thinks the Three Stooges are funny but doesn't really believe it. (I've been given the impression by some Jewish friends that they have a similar sense about God.)

The reason this has come up is that I was just reading that the Farrelly Brothers, who are either comic geniuses or two people who suffer from some kind of weird humor-autism that tragically isolates them from other people, appear to be getting close to finally realizing their effort to make a Three Stooges movie after something like a decade of work. They even, it seems, sort of have a cast, with Sean Penn set to play Larry, Jim Carrey in negotiations to play Curly, and Benicio Del Toro eyed as a likely Moe; it strikes me as risky to cast only one comically-gifted actor as a Stooge alongside a pair of notoriously unfunny people better appreciated for their serious roles--I'm just not sure Del Toro can carry an entire comedy by himself, no matter how funny he was in The Usual Suspects.1

The Farrelley Bros.' Three Stooges movie apparently won't be a biopic, as you might expect or hope, but rather appears (from the descriptions) to be more of a rebooting or "updating," i.e. more in line with something like The Brady Bunch Movie than Auto-Focus (this is especially disappointing when you realize that a movie about the Three Stooges becoming addicted to homemade porn would have to be the must-see movie of the decade). This has to be considered a Very Bad Idea, but that's hardly rare in Hollywood (and probably never has been, let's be honest). You wonder what they're thinking out there, only to realize that what exists as "thought" among higher mammals and possibly a few really old rocks is almost entirely replaced among the Hollywood set by the results of meetings in which participants try to anticipate the future by superstitiously mumbling over the entrails of previous box-office receipts and the tossed bony rectal thermometers of pop culture like the New York Times bestseller lists. There will be a Three Stooges movie because the Three Stooges were/are popular, and therefore somebody might go see this movie.

The idea that you might make a good movie and get people to watch it because it's good, as opposed to making a movie that attaches itself to a known brand and if we're lucky it will be good and if not maybe people won't notice it sucks for two weekends, doesn't really seem to occur to anybody. But, you know, oh well. It's a Wallace Beery wrestling picture, what else do you need to know?

So get ready, get set: eyeballs will be poked, noses pinched, ears tugged, and priceless vases broken on foreheads in a theater near you, 2010.2

1This shot being so cheap I'm nearly-but-not-quite apologetic and feel obliged to explain and elaborate: I think Jim Carrey is actually a decent performer who was quite effective in The Truman Show, an under-rated and overlooked movie, and strong in other roles including his turn as Andy Kaufman in Man On The Moon. But the only really funny movie Carrey was in was Dumb And Dumber (okay, I kinda laughed at the first (and absolutely not the second) Ace Ventura--which I'm only copping to because there were witnesses present)--and Carrey isn't the funniest thing in Dumb (that would probably be Jeff Daniels).

Carrey's tragedy, if making bazillions of dollars in Hollywood can be considered in any way tragic, is that he's a lightweight character actor trapped in a manic comic's career. He does some things extraordinarily well, actually--sensitive souls who only display a limited emotional range (but with surprisingly poignant depth within that small range, c.f. Truman or Kaufman), but he's really not especially good at the thing he's famous for.

Let's face an ugly and somber fact while we're dwelling on this: much of Carrey's career trajectory was set by the fact that while he was one of the least funny performers on In Living Color, he was one of the whitest. There, I said it. That's really not so much a slam against Carrey as it is against all the rest of us: we really should have given the bulk of Carrey's career to David Alan Grier or the show's creator, Keenen Ivory Wayans, but we didn't, and I have to suspect melanin had something to do with it (I would love to be wrong). Had Carrey not been Color's breakout star, maybe we'd be seeing his better work and maybe Grier wouldn't be a semi-obscure B-lister.

2So I type that last line, and I look at it, and of course I can't help feeling my heart sink even deeper: 2010! The year we make contact? Not so much. But we get a Three Stooges movie probably nobody really wants to see.

Yeah, suddenly Sir Arthur looks a lot less prescient, doesn't he?


Friday night movie

>> Friday, March 27, 2009

In honor of Nathan's recent behind-the-scenes challenge, I present my favorite species of amphibian in my favorite animated film by my favorite director of animation (and several of you no doubt already know what follows even without the YouTube screenshot):

(Happy Friday, everybody!)


Joss Whedon plays with dolls

>> Thursday, March 26, 2009

I'm not sure it's actually even worth writing about, but it's bugging me.

Last Saturday I was over at a friend's--we were getting a crowd together for an epic game of Arkham Horror--and I found myself subjected to an episode of Joss Whedon's latest-and-not-greatest television show, Dollhouse. This was an experience I'd managed to avoid: I don't have cable, don't have bunny ears; my television is plugged into the DVD player and if I really want to watch a TV show I buy or rent the DVDs (or, ahem, occasionally resort to, er, other methods).

This was something that started as a combination of budget, laziness, and disgruntlement with the cable company (which now, ironically, provides my internet service since I became even more disgruntled with the phone company), and it turned into a lifestyle choice. It's a little amazing that you really don't miss TV, even if it means missing out on some good TV shows or having to wait around to see how a series turns out. You find yourself spending the time you would have spent with the television on in the background doing things like reading or writing, or even something like playing a video game, which is at least an interactive activity.

So I'd managed to not see Dollhouse, which turns out to be not-good-TV that isn't-being-missed. This was episode six, I think I was told, and it was actually written by the man hisself, Joss Whedon, which surprisingly turned out to be a bad thing: plodding, predictable plotting and lousy dialogue aren't exactly things anybody has usually associated with Mr. Whedon, but they were in abundance in the forty-seven minute travesty I was subjected to via the miracle of TiVo.

This isn't meant to be a review of Dollhouse, though, as it is to bring up what I found most disturbing about what I saw (as opposed to the merely disheartening fact of the bad writing)--you can Google Dollhouse, I think, and read quite a few bad reviews written by professional television critics who have seen more than a single episode. And, anyway, I tend to think of first seasons as mostly disposable anyway: relatively few shows have good first seasons, fewer still have first seasons that are better than the second seasons. Writers and actors haven't found their strides, characters haven't really begun to come together, the show's themes or story arcs frequently aren't even clear to the people making the show during the first season. There are inevitably exceptions: Galactica had a spectacular first season that subsequent seasons didn't necessarily live up to, and Carnivàle comes to mind as a show that had a spectacular first season followed by a faintly awful second (and final season).1

Anyway, the fact that Dollhouse was bad was disheartening; what made it vaguely repulsive, and shockingly so coming from Whedon, was the show's treatment of women. The premise of the show, for those who have somehow missed it, is that there's a high-tech whorehouse from which mindless sex-slaves (of both genders, but the show seems, at least from the episode I saw, to inevitably focus on the women) are rented out to johns for pleasure or for more nefarious purposes such as assassination, infiltration, etc. Through the magic of skiffy, the women (and token men) of The Dollhouse can be mentally reprogrammed with personalities (characters they'll play during tonight's adventure), skills (now they know Kung-Fu) and secret messages. For some reason an FBI agent played by Helo Tahmoh Penikett thinks this is bad (gee, really?), and is obsessed with a programmable zombie hookerbot cleverly named "Echo" (see, she blankly "echoes" whatever personality her pimps program her with, so it's... yeah) and played by Faith Eliza Dushku (who is still unbelievably hot, yes, but whose performance in Dollhouse sometimes makes Arnold Schwarzenegger look like Olivier). There's some token moralizing via man-in-the-street interviews and Mulder-or-whatever-Penikett's-guy-is-named, but it eventually rings a bit hollow when the show seems to luxuriate in Dushku and Penikett bloodlessly bashing the crap out of each other or the inevitable bedroom scenes.

And this is where the show gets repulsive. How bad is Dollhouse? Dollhouse is so bad it has you wondering what the hell is wrong with Joss Whedon and whether Buffy The Vampire Slayer was the most misunderstood show on TV--and this is also where yours truly is having the hell bugged out of him, because I may not actually give a shit, frankly, about Dollhouse, but Buffy was appointment television for me for about five years and I still care more than a little bit about it.

See, watching Dushku and Penikett whale2 on each other, and the way in which the camera made love to the whole scene (as opposed to the lackadaisical shooting of, say, scenes that actually furthered the series' plots--"Oh, we'll just put the camera over there and point it at the actors until they're finished talking"), I found myself wondering if Joss Whedon likes watching women being beaten. I mean, there may be multiple fetishes here: he might like watching women hit people, too; but there was definitely a sense of aggression present that somehow didn't seem warranted ("And now she's slammed into the hood of the car, just because"). And that led to me wondering if Buffy, which always seemed like it was a show about an empowered female character, wasn't really a show about Buffy Summers getting hit a lot, rationalized or justified by the fact she's a superhero and can take a few blows to the face every week.

This line of thought also raises another unpleasant spectre: I've long felt that Whedon has an absurd theory of drama that prohibits characters from being happy, but now I have to second-guess myself. Is the reason that Whedon subjected Buffy, Willow and other female characters to various personal indignities because he didn't know how to make a healthy or happy relationship a part of good drama, or because he impulsively had to humiliate, embarrass or emotionally-destroy the women? Even the writing choices that affected male characters--e.g. Xander on Buffy or Wash in Serenity--seem to be choices that affect a female character as much or more, leaving her dead, wounded or in pain in every instance I can think of.

And then I found myself wondering if all of Whedon's creations were all dollhouses: shows in which a woman (an actress) is reprogrammed to be a sex toy, punching bag and dominatrix to be put through various fantasy scenarios at Whedon's whim.

I found that really disturbing thing to contemplate.

The problem is that if Dollhouse maybe isn't a show that hates women, it is a show that doesn't think very highly of them. I suppose that Whedon would say that he's exploring themes of identity, but television shows like The Prisoner managed to construct episodes around somebody having his personality reprogrammed on a routine basis without icky-feeling scenes of physical or psychological exploitation.3 One problem may simply be a gender problem: television shows and movies in which a man changes identities4 are unlikely to deal with the sex angle because we're a predominantly straight culture--but this may beg the question of why, if Whedon is mostly interested in identity, he didn't simply do another show about a man who is reprogrammed every week, as opposed to a show about a woman, or why the woman in question has to be routinely programmed to fuck her employers? In other words, Dollhouse is a questionable vehicle for what it ostensibly wants to do in the first place: this is a show about women-as-toys whether it dresses itself as high-concept or had chosen to openly revel in it's own crassitude like a two-a.m. Cinemax offering.

So I have to wonder how much I still respect Whedon as a writer, tell you the truth. Or maybe I'm just reading too much into what, by almost all accounts, is a really terrible TV show.

1It may be mere coincidence that Ron Moore, one of the geniuses behind Galactica, was an associate producer and writer for Carnivàle during the first season (and wrote the series' strongest episode) but left before the second.

2Or wale; various dictionaries describe the etymology of the alternative usage of "whale" as unknown, but it's hard for me not to believe the origin isn't a misspelling or alternate spelling of "wale"--which has several meanings including to whip or to raise welts (as if by whipping)--that entered common usage in the 18th Century.

3I feel obligated to point out that not only am I not a prude, but I enjoy sex and violence in my entertainment. Including, yes, porn, for which I have a healthy appetite. But even someone who enjoys porn can tell you that there's porn in which participants at least appear to be consenting adults who are enjoying (or pretending to enjoy) sex and porn in which participants appear to be victimized, and that the former is enjoyable while the latter is unpleasant or even revolting.

4SF or non-: similar themes of self identity are dealt with, for instance, in The Departed.


Neverwednesday Nights

>> Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Modest Mouse, "Fire It Up." 2007's We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. Having a good Wednesday? I hope so.


Five photos, volume XIX

>> Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Five more images from the files:


New Mexico joins Western civilization

>> Monday, March 23, 2009

Last week, New Mexico joined Western civilization, outlawing capital punishment.1 Now if we can just get the remaining states to follow suit.

With the rash of DNA exonerations over the past decade-or-so, and plenty of scientific evidence accumulating that central tools our criminal justice system depends on are simply unreliable, and considering the fact that it's always been true that the process isn't about what really happened so much as it's about what a jury thinks happened, it's not all that clear why anyone would think it was a good idea to have the institution of the death penalty. I mean, let's leave aside the question of whether anyone deserves the death penalty, and just say for the sake of an argument that there are rat bastards who don't especially deserve to live: do you really trust government to figure out who those people might be?

This may seem like a weird argument from a liberal, but conversely it's no weirder than conservatives who don't trust the government to write checks entrusting the government with human lives. And the consistency, such as it is, in my question is this: I do trust government to write checks to highway contractors and people dependent on welfare and school districts and such because if they screw up--and they do screw it up sometimes--at least nobody is dead as a result. Usually. And if it's just money, sometimes it's fixable, sort of, maybe. Convict the wrong man based on questionable testimony and send him to Death Row, there's no takebacks and do-overs. You're done. I guess you can send an apology letter to the families.

While we're on the subject, my favorite line in the news article is this:

District attorneys also opposed the legislation, arguing that the death penalty was a useful prosecutorial tool.

This is, of course, completely true. The death penalty is a useful tool for prosecutors, and getting rid of it does burden the State. But before capital punishment proponents, if there are any in this crowd, get too eager to say, "Aha!" let's talk about Alford pleas.

Allow me to tell you a story: once upon a time (1963), there was a man named Alford who was accused of taking up his shotgun, telling everybody within earshot he was going to shoot a man, and then going over to the man's house and shooting him.2 And so the State Of North Carolina took ol' Alford to court and they told his lawyer that Alford had a choice between taking a plea to Second-Degree Murder and taking a prison stretch or taking his chances in front of a jury. And Alford, being a bit smarter when he was sober, said, "I ain't shot no man, but... [I'll plead] guilty because they said if I didn't they would gas me for it...."3 And this led to a bit of a brouhaha over whether a man could plead guilty without saying he really did it, and it went all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States, and ol' Justice Byron White and five of them black-robed titans of American law said, in so many words, that they could see the sense in saying you were guilty of something you say you didn't do if you were going to get gassed if a jury thought you did.4 Which you might think would be grounds for saying maybe we shouldn't ought to gas people if juries can't always be depended on to sort out who we should and shouldn't be gassing, but that isn't what the U.S. Supreme Court decided. Sure Justice William J., Brennan leaned towards "maybe killing people by mistake" is a bad idea, along with Justices Douglas and Marshall, but those gents always leaned a little starboard anyway. No, what the Supreme Court held was that there was no difference between saying "guilty" and saying "no contest" if you knew what you were doing, and a man who didn't like the thought of trying to hold his breath in the little windowed room in Central Prison probably knows what he's doing.5

So it's legal to say you're guilty of things you didn't do if you have a good reason for it,6 and a good reason for it might be that you're afraid that a bunch of eyewitnesses who may not know what they're talking about might talk a jury into thinking you're a guilty man. And if you're charged with First-Degree Murder in a capital punishment state, your life expectancy declines precipitously (you'll live longer in California, where they like to give people appeals and due process, than you will in Texas, where they don't).

Hence those prosecutors in New Mexico being upset that an arrow is being pulled from their quiver with the pending abolition of the death penalty. See, what this means for them is that instead of being able to go and indict a guy for First-Degree murder, planning the whole time on offering him First-with-life or Second-Degree if he'll just do them the courtesy of saving them the trouble of a trial, holding death over his head as a threat if he doesn't--instead of that, they'll now have to be more discriminate in their indictments and plea offers. Oh, no doubt they'll still indict some folks on First-Degree while planning on offering Second, but for some of those defendants there won't be enough of a difference between thirty-year sentences and the rest of their lives (around age forty, frankly, it starts becoming about the same thing actuarially-speaking).

In short, yes: abolishing the death penalty means that prosecutors will, in some cases, actually have to prove to a jury that a man is guilty before they convict him. Which is sort of how the whole thing is supposed to work to start with.

So, New Mexico has joined Western civ, making it a little less of a good idea and a little more of a reality. We may get there yet.

1No European nation's laws currently authorize the murder of convicted criminals.

2Cigarettes and whiskey and wild, wild women will bring you no good.

3400 U.S. 25 (1970) FN2.


5These days, of course, we North Carolinians stick a little pin in your arm and it's just like going to sleep... and having a heart attack.

6In case anyone wonders: yes, I do a lot of Alford pleas. Doesn't mean I always like it. But you frankly have to sometimes tell a client that their story is unbelievable if it's true, and while it's ultimately their decision (and it always is the client's decision), you have to ask is it worth the risk of a lengthy jail sentence when the district attorney is guaranteeing probation or agreeing to tie the judge's hands to doling out one sentence instead of several consecutive sentences. Or a situation in which there are other benefits to pleading out: e.g. one offense may have requisite sex-offender registration requirements while another, similar charge has no such requirement.

There are times, too, when an Alford plea serves as a compromise that allows a defendant who did something wrong to save face by accepting consequences without accepting guilt.

Still, it's not really a plea that makes anybody happy, even when they routinely use it.


Sunday note

>> Sunday, March 22, 2009

It's chilly--54 F°--but it's obviously Spring: every bird in town is trying to get laid. They're singing, flirting, chasing each other around, doing little dances in the air. Beautiful day.

I walked up to the Smelly Cat in the hopes maybe I could get some writing done; plus, it's just one of those days you don't want to be in the house, you know? Even if I fail to get anything done (unlikely), there's still the niceness of sipping a latte while listening to The Clash over the café speakers ("London Calling," proof you can write a kickass rock & roll song with, like, basically two notes, if they're the right notes; and now The Who's "My Generation" has come up on their speakers, an apt follow-up actually), looking up at every now and then at the art that's on sale on the walls.

I think I have the new Ubuntu installation mostly workable as a workspace. Here's what it looks like at the moment:

There's still miscellaneous issues--DigiKam is still not wanting to allow me to open .NEF photos directly into GIMP with a right click (there's somebody reading that line to whom it makes sense, trust me). Amarok doesn't want to start automatically at startup in the tray (I can run it as a starting service, but it fully opens instead of opening in the tray, which is where I want it); some of these are basically peeves. I can work around DigiKam acting funny or maybe even use Google's Picasa browser (which isn't bad, though it's clearly a WINE port and not a truly native app), and just starting Amarok even when I wasn't necessarily going to use it was just a waste of resources. And then there are some things that are just quirks. But we're up and running.

Hope everybody else is having a nice Sunday afternoon, wherever and whenever you are.


You can't buy History's verdict

I'm going to put people in my place, so when the history of this administration is written at least there's an authoritarian voice saying exactly what happened.

-George W. Bush on his memoirs, March 17, 2009;
as relayed via Slate's "Bushisms Of The Day" featurette.

Do I lose the internet if I go ahead and translate that as "It'll be like Mein Kampf, only with more pictures!" Yeah, yeah I do: it's totally wrong on multiple levels, because it exaggerates Bush's awfulness while minimizing real horror, and substitutes snark for real thought. But you have to admit it's a kind of funny thing to say. Isn't it? Well I made myself smirk, so screw you.

On a more serious note, the quote is kind of typical of one of the things that was wrong with the prior Administration, and more generally wrong with a lot of folks' sense of what History actually is. The quote is so typical of an Administration that infamously, according to journalist Ron Suskind, belittled the "reality-based community," claiming "We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do," that one has to assume the former President's statement isn't ripped out of any kind of context. One suspects Mr. Bush indeed believes he can write a memoir that will set forth the definitive version of his eight years, which nobody will ever be able to doubt or question (except, perhaps, partisans).

It doesn't work that way. Some historical things may be relative certainties: the day an armistice was signed, the identity of the England's monarch in 1854, the location of battle. Other "facts" that might seem objectively knowable aren't because the evidence is open to interpretation: was a death natural or murder, did this explorer really go where he said or did he lie, who acted first? And then over all of that is interpretation, speculation, inference. After all, we may agree upon the years of the Great Depression and still argue inconclusively over whether Keynesian economics prolonged the crisis or shortened it (and let's not, please: I use this as an example, not to invite lengthy bickering in the comments thread over a matter upon which I suspect most readers already have their minds made up). It's the interpretive part that makes history interesting: knowing, for instance, that the Nazis invaded Poland on August 31st, 1939 isn't as interesting as a discussion over whether appeasement was a foolish, craven policy or a desperate necessity dictated by domestic and colonial politics. Facts are frequently the boring part, which is why so many students get gulled into thinking history is "boring" (facts are, obviously, easy to test). But it's the interpretive part that's also endless, eternal, mercurial: some historical questions simply don't have an answer, only answers.

It's possible that history will look back favorably upon George W. Bush. I can't imagine it, but then that's why there's a difference between the historical and the contemporary. I lack the distance to say how the events I'm immersed in will appear in a century or more. Conversely, Mr. Bush's brief in his own defense may become a reference for future historians, but it's unlikely to define or confine their interpretations of the era.

But that certainty of Mr. Bush's, that he can define reality and offer the "authoritarian voice saying exactly what happened": I find it galling and intriguing. "Intriguing" in this context not necessarily being a good thing. Rather, I find his certainty puzzling, baffling, strange. There's a question I've been asking myself over and over again in reference to the issue of what to do about the torture of detainees during the Bush epoch: why didn't President Bush pardon anybody? Surely he knew, by the end of his term of office, that at least some people believed crimes occurred that were committed by government officials, possibly acting under the authorization and guidance of highly-placed Washington officials (including, perhaps, himself). And yet he pardoned nobody.

I keep wondering why. Is it because he is so convinced he and his did what was just and necessary--convinced of his own innocence--that the thought of a CIA officer or Secretary Of Defense or President Of The United States on trial not only doesn't cross his mind but can't cross it? Is it because he has become so used to his own immunity--he has, after all, spent a good portion of his life evading the consequences of drunk driving and draft dodging--that he doesn't think any of "his" people (by which I mean the political elite of both parties, the insider's club of professional politicians and hidden players) will ever turn on him? And never mind that President Obama seems unlikely to act on allegations of his predecessor's malfeasance--suppose a future President of either party decides in sixteen or twenty-eight years to clear the national conscience; unlikely, maybe, but possible. Does Mr. Bush perhaps want a trial--does he think he'd be vindicated, or that it would become nothing more than a partisan shit-flinging party that would ultimately benefit some sort of Rovian agenda? Did he think that pardons would be an admission of wrongdoing? Or a sign of weakness? Is he so opposed to pardons on general principle (he signed a mere 189 pardons during his entire time in office) that he thought he'd take his chances?

I honestly don't have any idea. And if pardoning oneself seemed distasteful, the thing is that he didn't pardon anybody in his administration or acting on his administration's behalf. It's not like he pardoned a gang of CIA officers and soldiers while falling on his own sword: if Mr. Bush's domino falls, it will most likely be the last one in a long chain that starts in an interrogation room and winds its way through the Justice Department before tumbling into the Oval Office.

Or, perhaps, it really is as simple as thinking he can dictate terms to history. There will be no executioner, because Mr. Bush will be his own judge and jury while he pleads his own case before a rapt and passive gallery. Is that how it is? Really?


Like you're surprised...

>> Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Center For American Progress has recently posted a forty-question quiz, "How Progressive Are You?" based on a recent pair of reports the Center has produced.

My results will shock and astonish regular readers, for sure:

This makes you extremely progressive. The average score for Americans is 209.5.

This not only puts me nearly a hundred points above the mean score for "Liberal Democrats" (whatever they are), but more than a hundred points over the means for "Liberals" and "Progressives." Yes, ladies and gents, I am apparently, according to The Center For American Progress, more progressive than a Progressive. I am a Meta-Progressive, if you will, Progressivsaurus Rex. Tell me you're shocked.

And I possibly could have scored higher if only I'd known how to parse this item:

The primary responsibility of corporations is to produce profits and returns for their shareholders, not to improve society.

Is that a normative statement or a positive one? I mean, I'd like to think that corporations are capable of being socially responsible and doing good (if I'm still any kind of socialist, I'm one of those mixed-economy socialists, you know, French, basically), but as a positive statement I think the above item is pretty generally false. For that matter, it's even debatable as a normative statement insofar as the specific financial purpose of the corporate structure is to generate profits and shareholder returns; i.e. whether it's subjectively a good or bad thing, it is the corporation's responsibility as an institution. Of course, even that's more complicated than it looks at first glance--there's nothing to keep shareholders from forgoing financial rewards in exchange for the satisfaction that comes from achieving a worthy social goal (i.e. the investors may agree to repurpose the corporate framework), but how often does that happen?

So, you know, I gave it a "5" because I had no idea what the hell they were getting at. Coulda been a zip, coulda been a "10," meh, I took the average. There were one or two other questions kind of like that, but that was the one that stood out enough for me to go back through to make sure I had the wording right.

Should I make anything of this result? Although it's essentially meaningless, I can't help deriving a certain smug satisfaction out of being to the left of liberals. O'course it also goes along with my godlessness as being a reason I couldn't ever hold a public office. Still, it's nice to have a dumb internet quiz tell you you're still a little bit the radical lefty you were in your younger and more dashing days. Thanks, dumb internet quiz!


No post was published on March 20, 2009

>> Friday, March 20, 2009


Five photos, volume XVIII

>> Thursday, March 19, 2009

I had a chance to go through a few images on the big ol' hard drive full of pics. I still haven't really had a chance to sort through the gigs of photos from the snow we had around here, and there are a couple of sessions from the USNWC trails (there are always sessions from the USNWC trails), and there are (naturally) cat photos in the mix, along with the odd experiment in long-exposure night pics.

So here's five more images from the files. Hope you enjoy.


Neverwednesday Nights

>> Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Holy shit.

It's Radiohead.

Covering The Smiths.

"The Headmaster Ritual."




>> Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Anne Applebaum, at Slate:

But the political rights and wrongs of this failed policy are no longer the point. What matters now is that our laws be enforced. America is not and never was a fascist state, and the CIA prisons were not the Gulag. These 14 prisoners were not tortured as part of an ordinary and accepted routine, in other words, but according to special rules and procedures, set up at the highest level of government by leaders who surely knew that they were illegal, or they would not have limited them so carefully. What we need now, therefore, is not an endless, politicized circus of a congressional investigation into every aspect of George W. Bush's White House but a very specific, carefully targeted legal investigation of the CIA's invisible prisons: Who gave the orders to use torture, who carried the orders out, what exactly was done, who objected? The guilty, however senior, should be named, forced to testify, and called to account—because the rule of law, and nothing else, is what makes us exceptional.

I actually don't have much to add to that, but I thought it was worth passing along. This isn't about politics or partisanship, this is about being a nation of laws and seeing to it that the laws are enforced. Nor is this about peripheral issues like the reasons we went to war in Iraq, say: whether the invasion was wise or necessary or justified, and whether the justifications proffered were actual reasons or merely rationalizations, and whether various officials lied or were misled or telling the truth as best they could--these things are irrelevant to whether agents of the United States engaged in torture in violation of Federal and/or international law and who authorized any violations that might have occurred.

We cannot say we have a government of laws, not of men, only to selectively enforce whatever laws we choose whenever it's expedient to do so--these things are exclusive. We are either a nation of laws or we are a lawless state. I still cling to the hope we will prove to be the former.


They're starving for pizza!

Image via GlobalSecurity.orgWell here's a bit of insanity: it seems that the first pizza parlor in North Korea has just opened for business. As if that isn't amazing enough, it doesn't appear that they kidnapped any Italians to open it, either, which is a bit surprising (I guess the North Korean restaurant business is nothing like their film industry and educational system).

This is a country, of course, where the majority of the population is starving. They're dependent on foreign aid for what food they do have available. At night, basically the entire country goes dark, darker than rural China to the north, even. Hell, one suspects North Korea is like the Talking Heads' snarky description of London:

Dark, dark in the daytime
People sleep, sleep in the daytime
If they want to
If they want to

...only moreso. Assuming the current crazy guy lets them sleep.

Is there really a more insane place on Earth at this point? I don't merely mean awful or horrible. I don't really mean kind of eccentric or wacky. I don't just mean governed by one or more incompetents or lunatics. I mean that North Korea at this point has to be the most bugfuck-crazy nation in the world, and at this point it has to be the citizenry, too, since one imagines that the only reasonable way to cope with a country where nobody eats, but hey, oh look, we have a new pizzeria down the block, isn't that fucking swell, that's modernization for you, one imagines the only reasonable way to cope is to pretty much totally lose your mind.

I mean, hell, how else does one explain the lack of a coup at this point? Surely, one would think, there would come a point when a couple of generals would look at each other, shrug, and shoot Kim Jong-il in the face--I'm not an advocate of violence, not really, but what the hell? Now they could have a pizza party afterwards, and doesn't that just sum up how nuts the whole thing is right there?

But no, no coup. Instead... cooking school! Here's how they learn how to become restaurateurs in North Korea, according to the above-linked BBC article:

Italian chef Ermanno Furlanis was flown to North Korea in 1997 along with special pizza ovens.

In 2004, he described to the BBC how he had given lessons to three army officers who took copious notes and asked detailed questions such as how far apart olives should be placed on each pizza.

I can only hope he told the generals to make sure they were precisely 3.62 centimeters apart and not touching any pepperonis. At that point, what else are you going to say to a question like that as asked by a note-taking North Korean officer, presumably in full uniform and everything? I would have told the poor bastards to keep a ruler handy and to make sure the shredded mozzarella is aligned at perfect right angles in a crosshatch pattern.

Is your mind boggling? Mine is. It's boggling like mad.


This is a just a test...

>> Monday, March 16, 2009

...if this were a real post, I'd actually say something a little more... something.

No, see, here's what's going on: I'm in the process of installing Ubuntu, remember? And getting things to work. And one of the things I'm trying out here is a blogging widget for the upper taskbar in GNOME. And that's where I'm typing this now.

Will it prove to be worth the trouble? No idea.

Incidentally, for those who might be interested in such things: DigiKam prompted me to go for a bastardized system. I'm running Ubuntu with GNOME, but I've installed the KDE libraries after all so that I can use DigiKam and Amarok and a smattering of other useful KDE apps, including KStars which is more fun than anything else.

It's a kind of neurotic thing on my part that I would have rather stayed native, using nothing but GNOME apps on a GNOME system. It just seems wrong somehow to have KDE installed and basically not to be using it. But, you know, DigiKam just rocks the socks off of F-Spot, it just does. F-Spot may get there someday, it's a younger program and I wish them well. But DigiKam is pretty damn pro by comparison.

Now if I could just get the DigiKam "open with" menu to work with GIMP when right-clicking on an NEF file....

Alright, let's see what happens when I hit "post entry."


A brick to the face

Photo by Matteo Borrini / APHere's something you don't see every day. This is the skull of a woman with a brick wedged into her mouth. Why? So she would starve back to death.

Or at least that's the theory of a team of archaeologists who have concluded that this is a vampire's skull. Or rather that somebody who dug up the grave in the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance thought she was a vampire, and took the logical step of filling the corpse's mouth with something to keep her from feeding on the living.

During epidemics, mass graves were often reopened to bury fresh corpses and diggers would chance upon older bodies that were bloated, with blood seeping out of their mouth and with an inexplicable hole in the shroud used to cover their face.

"These characteristics are all tied to the decomposition of bodies," [archaeologist Matteo] Borrini said. "But they saw a fat, dead person, full of blood and with a hole in the shroud, so they would say: 'This guy is alive, he's drinking blood and eating his shroud.'"


To kill the undead creatures, the stake-in-the-heart method popularized by later literature was not enough: A stone or brick had to be forced into the vampire's mouth so that it would starve to death, Borrini said.

-Ariel David
"Dig unearths female 'vampire' in Venice"
MSNBC (AP), March 13, 2009.

There are so many vampire legends, one shouldn't be surprised to hear a new one. There are, if I recall correctly, Greek vampires who were born on Christmas Day (an obvious slight against The Lord, and a sign that one is on the road to Satan's Kingdom from day one), Wikipedia mentions traditions in which a corpse that is jumped over by an animal becomes a vampire, there are vampires who can't cross running water and those who can, vampires who are just plain folks by daylight, vampires with counting fetishes, etc., etc., etc.

But this one was new to me. And it seems obvious, really, now that I think about it. Of course you have to fill the vampire's mouth with something, lest it continue to consume. It's already dead, so the stake through the heart accomplishes little. Cutting off the head might be insufficient: some vampires are essentially all head. It does seem a little puzzling that the technique is so crude as a brick in the face--one might thing filling the mouth with sand would be more efficacious, though it also seems likely that that's a legend somewhere, too. (One recalls, here, that zombies are not to be given salt, hence the alleged custom among some bokor of sewing a zombie's mouth shut: however salt was expensive--a mere taste is all you need to send a zombie back to the grave--and filling the vampire's mouth with salt would be overkill, no?)

It seems that a "shroud-eating" vampire in Italy was considered immobile, perhaps consuming its feast of blood through some magic not requiring it to leave the grave. In this case, a brick would be expedient, one thinks: after all, part of the problem one sees with the brick is the matter of why a vampire wouldn't just reach up upon awakening in the evening and pry it out of her jaws. Then again, this brick between the jaws would almost certainly break things; should the vampire lack the regenerative powers we ascribe to the generic version of the species these days, her blood-drinking nights may be behind her if her mouth hangs open broken-jawed and slack.

This is a disturbing image, I realize, but the serious horror student thinks of these things, and the aspiring writer wonders how they might be used. Already I find my mind going back to my abandoned vampire novel and wondering how I might use this if I come back to it: perhaps the fearful vampire killer lugs around a dufflebag full of masonry, just in case? Perhaps a grotesque scene in which somebody revives with a brick in his mouth and must endure something awful as a consequence?

It's also interesting, you know, to think about the people who did this. This bit of insanity wasn't mere "ignorant superstition" as far as they went, but a necessary defense mechanism in compliance with the natural laws of the world as they were understood at the time: "Ah, yes, I see: we have a vampire, we should put a brick in her mouth so she starves." It may not have been quite as lackadaisical as that--no doubt discovering a vampire in your midst was alarming, after all. But once the initial shock wore off, the next steps were as obvious and normal as taking your child to the doctor once you've recovered from the shock of seeing what the thermometer says when you pull it out of his or her mouth. Or calling the police, locksmith and credit card companies after coming home to a broken window and wide open door. Indeed, thinking on that last bit: do you think these folks were indignant when they discovered the bloated corpse in the grave? "What the--a vampire in my town, how dare they! I... I feel violated."

So I give you this, today, for your consideration: a long-dead Italian woman, probably buried sometime around the middle of the 16th century (up to 1576) and unburied sometime around 1576, when it was probably discovered that she was fat and had eaten away part of her burial shroud so her mouth would be free to harass and slay the living. Whereupon she was, perhaps, staked, and then had a brick shoved in her mouth. File it away, forget about it, write about it: it belongs to you now, and isn't just mine anymore.



>> Sunday, March 15, 2009

Right, so I'm using Ubuntu now.

Next step, getting things to work again. Without breaking them again.



Happy GNOME...?

After trying the solutions Shawn and others suggested (thank you, zoot and Mnemonic, for taking the time to advise a stranger on the interwebs, and thank you yet again, Shawn, for being awesome) for solving the issues I'm having with KDM and KDE on startup, I've hit a wall and I'm taking it as a sign.

It's been no secret I've been unhappy with KDE4. I just can't quite like the Plasma interface, sorry. This obviously isn't a knock on Linux, either, for those of you who are running PCs and Macs: the beautiful thing about Linux is choice, and the fact that I can choose from literally dozens of graphical user interfaces as opposed to having to use the trade dress selected by Apple and Microsoft to protect their intellectual property is a good thing. The folks at KDE made some major decisions to change the way the interface would work, some of those choices are actually pretty great and some of them, enh, not so much; overall, those choices aren't for me. But that still leaves me with dozens of options.

(There are a lot of things that go into the interfaces Apple and Microsoft give you. Some of them are good things, based on research on how people use computers or would like to. Some of them are middling things, based on habits and traditions. But there are other things that are based purely on business. Neither Apple nor Microsoft are in a position to secure patents on windows-based interfaces, a virtual "desktop," a mouse-driven interface, etc., but they can secure trademarks on the way these things look, and that's what they can sell and keep other people from selling. This is why neither company can afford to allow too much by way of customization--if Apple's or Microsoft's look becomes generic, they might be finished.)

So I'm dropping the K from my -buntu, and I'm going to install Ubuntu on the Linux partition. Which is what I'm likely to be doing the rest of this cold, wet Sunday afternoon. (Hm... and maybe drinking some hot chocolate.)

Meanwhile, since I'm moving to GNOME, have a song about a gnome set to some old home movie footage of the Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, performers of this little tune from their first album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn:


Status report, revised

>> Saturday, March 14, 2009

Oh. Hooray. I've somehow cleverly convinced Kubuntu not to launch X on startup. That's swell. That's just fucking swell. Oh, I know X is there, with all my configurations and everything, because I can manually start it from the command line. But making it come up on it's own....


All I want is happy Kubuntu.

Alright, I've fucking had enough. I'm going to play video games now.


Status report

Writing is hard, y'know. That's a no-brainer, dumbass statement to make, but that's where we're going to start today because, dammit, writing is hard.

So the thing I've been working on writing-wise, or not working on (since it's been a hard clog) is being put on hiatus and I'm going to try writing something else for awhile and see how that goes. I'm not abandoning the book I started last NaNoWriMo--I have well over fifty thousand words in it, notes, research, a bunch of virtual note cards in Writer's Café; I fully intend to come back to it.

But it's in a rough place right now. I need to step away, before I start hating it.

Meanwhile, getting things set up on the new machine remains a challenge. I'm still not fully acclimated to the KDE4 desktop, DigiKam is still being a problem child, and I have heaps of settings and files I need to copy over from the old computer.

This is why we still have no photographs up from the snow day in Charlotte two weeks ago or anything else I've shot in the meantime. And I owe my sister some photos from Christmas--Bird, you haven't been forgotten.

I think this sums up the status report at the moment. Otherwise, I'm fine. Things seem to be reasonably well; I've been tired, partly (I think) because of the Daylight Savings adjustment or readjustment. I remain confused, to be honest, about whether we're "on" or "off" Daylight Savings when we've sprung forward or fallen back--every time I think I have the whole thing sussed out, I manage to misprogram a piece of consumer electronics and have to reconsider the whole thing. It's possible it's not me at all, that it's all them: it may be that no two pieces of gear treat Daylight Savings the same way because the programmers don't know either.

But when the worst piece of drama you have to bitch about is that you've had difficulties reprogramming your machines and doohickeys and apparati, I imagine that's not too shabby.

Right, so: writing's bad, energy's low, machines are conspiring against me, but other than that everything's not too bad. Is that the summary? I think it is. How are you today?



>> Friday, March 13, 2009

Anticipating being too tied up to put together a proper Friday post, I'm going to do something awful to you, or something awesome: I'm going to expose you to an insanely catchy song, for which you will thank me or spend the weekend cursing me. The latter seems quite possible, since you will probably only be able to sing the refrain. Sorry. But it really is a great tune.

"Iechyd Da," by Gorky's Zygotic Mynci:

"Iechyd Da" is a Welsh toast that means (I've been told by a CD insert), "Good Health." Somebody on the internet translates the lyrics thus:

Good health my pretty friends
Good health, good health
It's late it's time for bed
Good health, good health
What is behind the door
Good health, good health
What is behind the door
Good health, good health
Oh, health

Those girls are pretty
Good health, good health
Those girls are pretty
Good health, good health
Mistakes, throw to the sea
Good health, good health
Mistakes, throw to the sea
Good health, good health
Oh, health

Sometimes simplicity is the best, isn't it?

An official video can be seen here
, but the sound quality is pretty awful (which is why I went with the fan video, above).

Iechyd da, everybody, and have a great weekend.


Suppose I am a turnip

>> Thursday, March 12, 2009

Suppose I am a hamster. Using my four paws, I would climb up into a wheel and run around in it all day. I would sniff around my cage for pellets of food dropped through the wire mesh on top, using my pink, twitchy nose to detect savory, rock-hard lumps of processed vegetable protein that I would gnaw upon with my constantly-growing front teeth. I would pee in the same corner all the time and cover it with shredded newspaper. Also, if my mate had pups, I would eat them.

Suppose you are a beach ball. You will not read this post (assuming you haven't stopped already). You are spherical, and full of stale air. Your only protuberance is an invertible nipple that can be extracted for inflation or pushed into your brightly-colored, slightly sticky plastic side. A little boy will throw you at his sister, and she will go tell on him. Or a college student might co-ordinate a motel-swimming-pool volleyball game during spring break, easily using you in lieu of a real volleyball.

Suppose al Qaeda branched out from crashing airliners into American cities. Using small arms, explosives, or biological, chemical or nuclear weapons they could seize control of apartment buildings, stadiums, ships, trains or buses. As in the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, texting and mobile email would make it easy to coordinate simultaneous assaults in a single city.

Ah, the joy of the contrafactual hypothetical! Suppose you are a rock. Suppose I am another rock. Suppose we are all rocks. Suppose the right thing, and it is likely an imaginative individual unmoored in morality and indifferent to the law can justify nearly anything. Choose a frightening and provocative contrafactual hypothetical, and perhaps people will stop listening to everything else you actually say and nod their heads at the end of the spiel and ask you where to sign. Suppose that I have a gun. Suppose I am in your room, standing over your shoulder while you read this. Suppose the gun is pointed at the head of a puppy--no, not an obnoxious puppy that yaps all the time and won't stop ruining the carpet, this is an adorable puppy with enormous brown eyes that practically paper-trained himself; also, you are wearing brand new white shoes.

In the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, strikes on New York City and Washington, D.C., these were hypotheticals no more. They became real scenarios for which responsible civilian and military leaders had to plan. The possibility of such attacks raised difficult, fundamental questions of constitutional law, because they might require domestic military operations against an enemy for the first time since the Civil War. Could our armed forces monitor traffic in a city where terrorists were preparing to strike, search for cells using surveillance technology, or use force against a hijacked vessel or building?

-John Yoo, ibid.

It is a curious definition of the word "real" that supposes things that aren't true and then says these things aren't hypotheticals. For that matter, it is a curious use of the words "scenarios" and "possibilities" that treats them with broad and radical measures that undermine bedrock Constitutional principles.

The attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, involved a scheme proposed in 1996, with preliminary steps towards execution actually being initiated in 1999 and the actual terrorists involved entering the United States early in 2000. And, of course, there's a very strong argument that the subsequent success of these terrorist cells had more to do with missteps by the FBI than with the suave success of the al-Qaeda agents.

Naturally, the likelihood that al-Qaeda shot its collective wad on September 11th, 2001 is something that only emerged in the post mortems. On September 12th, perhaps, it was harder to tell signal from noise. Perhaps more planes were about to be hijacked, or an apartment block about to be seized by nefarious men with small arms. Then again, certain possibilities should have seemed obviously improbable on the spot: surely if al-Qaeda was on the verge of somehow acquiring a nuclear weapon on September 10th, somebody would have contacted the cells to tell them to cancel their flight plans, something "better" was in the works. And if al-Qaeda's 9/11 masterstroke involved nineteen guys, give or take, hijacking four airplanes, what would be the odds of al-Qaeda members taking over an apartment building or stadium with small arms? How many men does it take to seize a stadium, anyway, one full of twenty thousand pissed off Americans still horrified and angry about that last shit your guys pulled? How many rounds of ammunition are your guys carting, anyway?

Which brings up one other point that seemed obvious immediately after September 11th, 2001, that has repeatedly gotten lost in further discussions: the 9/11 attacks worked, in some large degree to the extent they worked at all, because the al-Qaeda terrorists cheated, and broke the time-honored pact between hijacker and hostage that dates back to near the dawn of aviation. You take us prisoner, we sit tight, you try to figure out how to get this plane to Cuba; or something along those lines, anyway. We'll huddle in the back and cry and pray, and you'll wave your weapons around and possibly get shot to pieces when we have to land to refuel. Later, we will be on the Today show (you won't, because you will be in custody, or dead). This is how things work, you see, or how they worked before the September 11th hijackers exploited this ancient symbiosis to keep the passengers pacified while they slammed the planes into large buildings. It is no surprise at all (and no diminishment of their bravery or sacrifice to say it's no surprise) that the passengers on Flight 93 rose to the occasion when they discovered, via cell phone, that their hijackers intended to breach the contract. Indeed, when you know your hijacker is intent on living, being a sheep is the most rational thing you can do; conversely, the most rational thing you can do when he's a murderous, suicidal religious psychopath is to be a wolf.

Later, if you're evaluating the prevention of terrorist attacks, this is something you take into account: will al-Qaeda terrorists armed with boxcutters take over another plane and crash it into something? No, for several reasons, not the least of which is we're all onto that trick now. "Fool me once, shame on, shame on you. Fool me, you can't get fooled again," as they say in Texas and probably Tennessee.

And however much you may be in a fog of war on September 12th or September 13th, surely by the time you're writing legal memos in October in which you claim that the Posse Comitatus Act only applies when you say it does you have some better idea of what constitutes a realistic threat. Suppose terrorists armed with biological weapons are in downtown Boston. Suppose that SPECTRE has captured two nuclear submarines and stashed them in an underwater base in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean somewhere in order to start a nuclear war between the superpowers. Suppose that my cat can talk, but he only speaks in a Cantonese dialect and the two words of Chinese I retain from college are in Mandarin (since I can constantly thank him, our conversations are extremely polite, however limited).

One wonders how in the world somebody like John Yoo doesn't have the sense to be quiet, how he goes along writing idiotic and indefensible defenses in places like The Wall Street Journal? One wonders, too, if the Journal continues to publish such essays because they agree or merely because Mr. Yoo is the author of notorious and discredited legal memorandums for the previous President, and so the fact he's disingenuous and quite possibly a total idiot is newsworthy. (If Mr. Yoo is not himself an idiot, he thinks his readers must be; actually, these aren't exclusive possibilities, now that I think about it.)

Mr. Yoo proposes that the Civil War would have been unwinnable had Fourth Amendment protections been applied to contested territory. One might agree with this proposition while still wondering what it has to do with anything in this present universe. Suppose that al-Qaeda brings in thousands of sleeper agents. Suppose one April day these al-Qaeda agents decloak to fire upon Fort Sumter; suppose they convince the legislatures of various states to secede from the Union. Suppose they use a mind-control ray to do it. Suppose they have orbital superlasers. Suppose they are being led by General Zod and that Superman will not respond to the President's desperate pleas for help because he has used the red crystal to remove his superpowers so he can have sex with a human woman. Suppose the sex was hot but couldn't be included in the final cut because the movie needed a PG rating.

The problem with Mr. Yoo's suppositions isn't that they're wholly irrational within the funhouse context of any bizarre scenario he draws up. I imagine Mr. Yoo, who might be missing career opportunities in the alt-history subgenre of science fiction, could come up with a scenario in which repealing the Third Amendment of the United States Constitution seems like a boffo idea or one in which all cats must wear diapers lest America fall into a dark twilight of feline-fecal decay. The problem is that his suppositions are themselves a post-facto funhouse context to advocate what he thought the Bush Administration wanted to hear: you want grounds for military operations on American soil? Suppose there are terrorists fighting in the streets! You want to hold people indefinitely and torture them for information? Suppose they are planning a catastrophic something-or-other. Suppose they might do these things, how awful it would be! Let's do something illegal and dangerous now to avoid the improbable and far-fetched might.

Realistic threat assessment goes out the window when you do this. Suppose the terrorists unleash chemical weapons in a major city subway system used by thousands of people every day! Yes, suppose they do, I wonder what would happen--perhaps they'd kill more than a dozen people and injure more than fifty--and this would necessitate massive repeals of civil liberties? Suppose the terrorists acquire a nuclear bomb! Do you have any idea just how difficult that would be? The truth is that as conceptually "simple" as a nuke is, actually obtaining or building one, and then transporting it and arming it and detonating it, is something that only roughly a half-dozen nations have been able to do during a sixty-year period and after expending vast amounts of money, sweat, and intellectual labor.

It's not that these things are impossible, mind you, and I'm certainly not saying that. What I am saying, of course, is that a few minutes' rational thought begins calling into question whether a low-probability possibility is worth sacrificing foundational civil liberties that actually define a nation--we are, after all, not a nation by ethnicity or faith, but a nation united by a notion of what an idealistic state ought to look like. Yoo's failures, then, aren't just failures of professional responsibility and basic human decency, but failures of reason in the face of monstrous, nightmare-black, mindless panic. Should al-Qaeda procure Sarin and set it loose in a public place, could they kill and harm more people than Aum Shinrikyo? Maybe, maybe not, but you don't see Mr. Yoo mentioning--now or ever--that a terrorist attack using chemical weapons isn't just a scenario, but an experience that can have its measure taken. Or that maybe the odds of common ordinary citizens just sitting there with a reasonable expectation of survival during a terrorist seizure of a plane, train, ship, bus, paddleboat, bicycle or child's rollerskates have dropped to zero in light of the realization that the social contract has been unilaterally revoked by one party. Or that telling the President he may use the Army as a police force is okay and even legal so long as he doesn't use the magic words "police force" is an atrocious and irresponsible idea (if only because it's still bad and embarrassing advice even if he doesn't act on it).

Suppose you are an intelligent, rational, reasoning creature.


Neverwednesday Nights

>> Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Smiths, "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out," from the classic The Queen Is Dead. Being run over by a truck has never sounded more romantic.


Errrrrrm... aaaahhhhh... uhhhhhhh....

>> Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Um, yeah, I got nothing. You get The Apples In Stereo.

I'm just going to say: while I think they're still awesome, they're just not the same without Hilarie. I know, I know. It's just how I feel, okay?


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