Flitting Specter

>> Thursday, April 30, 2009

Do I even need to link to a news story about Arlen Specter crossing ranks to become a Democrat? By the time this entry posts, the whole story will be done to death, no doubt.

But it seems to me an occasion worth observing, not so much for whatever numerical or strategic gain it nets the Democrats (or perhaps loss--Glenn Greenwald suggests Specter will be another Lieberman, pulling the party to the right without embracing many, if any, classic Democrat positions). No, the thing that's curious to me is that while I don't agree with Specter on a lot, and often had occasion to be disappointed in him when he did talk the talk without walking the walk, Senator Specter was nonetheless the guy I could readily point to as "oh no, there are some good Republican politicians in Washington--Arlen Specter is alright." This is, of course, why Republicans liked to call Senator Specter a "RINO" (a "Republican In Name Only," if you somehow missed that acronym); he was known to step out of sync with his party enough times that Democrats and even a few liberals liked or even sorta grudgingly respected him as a man of principle....

At least relatively speaking, I might say. It's pretty evident that Specter jumped ship when he realized he was going to get bludgeoned in a primary by his party-of-the-last-four-decades. So his principles perhaps take a back seat to his urge to stay in office; indeed, it appears Mr. Specter became a Republican so he could get elected to an office in the first place, switching parties to run for District Attorney in Philadelphia after the Democrat's political machine up there blew him off. But, you know, he's a Senator; was it Mark Twain who suggested Congress comprised America's criminal class, or Will Rogers?

Specter's defection assuredly relegates him from his position as a tolerably-good Republican to routinely-disappointing Democrat, I'm afraid. And meanwhile, who can I point to in the party to say, "Well, there's somebody who's sort of reasonable"? If Specter is only a symbolic and numerical gain to the Democrats (if Al Franken is certified for a Senate seat, the Dems will have a magical sixty votes, which will allow them to absorb all of the psychic energy of every Congress ever and grant them the ability to read thoughts and, at long last, have children and someday grow old and die), he's a devastating loss for the Republican camp, since he may have been the last gentle silverback in the monkey house. I'm sure many Republicans won't see that--the ones who have considered Specter a Judas in their midst for years will be glad he's gone, I'm sure--but his departure really does mean that the crazy, screechy poo-flinging monkeys have finally taken complete control of the Republican party. No, really: the only people who are left are the sort who want the GOP to vote on the Democrats' new name.

Okay, they still have John McCain, but (a) Rush wants him gone, and Rush is sort of the party boss or something, and anyway (b) McCain kinda showed a staggering lack of judgment during the 2008 election campaign.

There's one more point in all of this that the conservatives are likely to miss: Specter's former "RINOhood" and quick embrace by the Democrats is less a sign of how liberal Arlen Specter is than it is a sign of just how centrist/conservative the Democrats really are. There are exceptional Democrats, of course--Representative Kucinich, for instance, is actually a liberal. But the frequent accusation of the right that Democrats are ultra-left socialists or some such is absurd, and if there were anything to it I don't think you'd see any Democrats clambering to embrace Specter's defection. Specter will mostly fit in with his "new" friends because the Democrats are largely the party of the intelligent right and the Republicans are increasingly the party of the lunatic fringe.


Neverwednesday Nights

>> Wednesday, April 29, 2009

One of my favorite redheads with one of my favorite songs. Ms. Tori Amos, "Pretty Good Year," live.


Aww, c'mon, baby, I was only kidding--you know I'd never leave you...

>> Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Two weeks ago:

"There's a lot of different scenarios," [Texas Governor Rick] Perry said. "We've got a great union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we're a pretty independent lot to boot."

Kelley Shannon, "Perry fires up anti-tax crowd"
Dallas Morning News, April 16, 2009.

That was then. This is now. This week:

Gov. Rick Perry today in a precautionary measure requested the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provide 37,430 courses of antiviral medications from the Strategic National Stockpile to Texas to prevent the spread of swine flu. Currently, three cases of swine flu have been confirmed in Texas.

"As a precautionary measure, I have requested that medication be on hand in Texas to help curb the spread of swine flu by helping those with both confirmed and suspected cases of this swine flu virus, as well as healthcare providers who may have come in contact with these patients," said Gov. Rick Perry. "We will continue to work with our local, state and federal health officials to ensure public safety is protected."

Oh, come on now, Governor--where's that independent Texas spirit? You're not going to let a few sniffles get you down, are you? Are you?

Yeah, always the same. They talk big about how awful Washington is and maybe they ought to leave, but one little outbreak of a lethal virus with the potential to trigger a global pandemic similar to the infamous 1918 pandemic that slaughtered more people than the Great War did and they come running back to hide behind Columbia's petticoats. "Oh noes! Save us from the sneezies and wheezies, mommy!"

Y'know, maybe those teabaggers are right about the whole tax thing. Think of how much money we could save if we just shut down the CDC. Yeah. I mean, if you think about it, the CDC is kinda like the first skittering scree on the slippery slope of socialized medicine. Why should I pay for some Texan's healthcare? If those people want to be immunized against influenza so badly, maybe they ought to pay for it themselves, or purchase private insurance to cover it. I'll bet Canadians get vaccines from their government, and you can see how well the Canadian healthcare system works--all the Canadians have to wait in long lines behind old people from Vermont, it's an utter disaster.

Aw, hell, Texas--I'm only joshing you. You know I don't mean it, you can have as many dosage units as you need. America needs you. You're the buffer zone between us and those Mexican drug cartels. Just try to maybe, you know, think about how much you need us next time you want to go running your mouth about how awful we are, eh? Because, y'know, it's possible you need us at least as much as we need you.

Maybe more.

(H/T to Deus Ex Malcontent for the inspiration!)


I tried to come up with a clever title and decided to just hit "publish" instead

>> Monday, April 27, 2009

I try to stay a day or two ahead on Giant Midgets when I can--it just works out better that way, albeit sometimes at the expense of being as "fresh" as I might like to be in principle. Having an entry a day is important to me, as I've said before, tho' I'm quite aware that there are those who say you shouldn't bother if you've nothing to say.

Yeah. Well. Whatever.

Part of the problem is I'm sort of avoiding a subject a little: I'm not quite spent on That Subject Which Has Dominated This Blog Of Late, but I'm a little concerned about hitting one strident note over and over again. And while I'm not spent, I'm also not sure what else I can say about it; hell, Shepard Smith kinda sorta summed up the whole fucking thing in one sentence and an "oops," so I'm not sure what else I'm going to add at this moment. Maybe a later moment, when I'm not repeating myself--but I may be as tired of writing the same thing different ways as some of you may be reading it.

Unfortunately, I haven't had the material for a good post about Wookie-love or the bestest horror movies ever (tho' maybe I can assemble a few thoughts I had today about horror movies into some kind of post later in the week). There may be a little bit of burnout, honestly.

Which is ironic, because I actually got some quality writing in today. Not quantity, it was only about three pages of a thing I've rewritten a dozen times--but it felt like a sprocket was hitting the cutout strip in the right places to get the filmstrip going in a continuous line sans jitter, if you know what I mean. (If you don't, don't worry--it's just me.)

Anyway, there's a chance there may be a few days of music videos and photographs up here. I'll write something like that, and then there'll be a totally awesome streak of awesome headlines that will generate tons of blogfodder (that really ought to be one word, so I'm making it one word--try and stop me). But just in case, you were warned. Things are reasonably well (oh fuck--now I'll have jinxed that, too), there's just doesn't seem to be a lot of shiny stuff lying around my brain at the moment.

That was supposed to be a one-paragraph intro to a Patti Smith clip. If I were smart, I'd just post the above and set up the Patti Smith clip for later in the week, but screw it; I already cut'n'pasted the embed HTML from YouTube. "Dancing Barefoot," acoustic, pretty sweet stuff, hope you like it:


Busy again, have some Nick Cave

>> Sunday, April 26, 2009

Not sure I'll be around the old blog much today, either, so have yourself some Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, live with "There She Goes, My Beautiful World," originally from 2004's Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus. Because possibly the only thing more awesome than Nick Cave is Nick Cave totally kicking it with four backup singers and the Bad Seeds putting the pedal to the floor.


Anyone still here?

>> Saturday, April 25, 2009

Oh. Come on, people! Were you raised by wolves? In a barn? By barn wolves?


The concert footage following is completely self-explanatory.


I like Ike

Hi, I'm still not here. You haven't torn everything up, have you? Aw, hell, how would I even tell a difference.

I'm happy at the moment of writing this because I've been looking off-and-on for a while for something from Ike Reilly to post, and dammit, some YouTuber has finally gone and posted a decent version of "Garbage Day"! Okay, I wish it was "Holiday In New York," but "Garbage Day" is still made out of 100% guaranteed awesome.

So, err--here's The Ike Reilly Assassination. With "Garbage Day." From 2004's Sparkle In The Finish. Rawk!


Because I'm totally changing my affiliation if I can

Okay, maybe I need to become a Democrat.

It seems there's a contingent--I couldn't make this up--of the Republican party that wants to bring a resolution to a vote by the Republican National Committee to... to... I'm sorry, I keep cracking up. Well, here:

"In just a few months, the goal of the Obama administration has become clear and obvious - to restructure American society along socialist ideals," Mr. [James] Bopp said in summarizing the first resolution. The resolution's chief sponsor is Washington state RNC member Jeff Kent, and it calls on the Democrats to be "truthful and honest with the American people by renaming themselves the Democrat Socialist Party."

-Ralph Z. Hallow, "Steele urged to label Obama a socialist"
Washington Times, April 23rd, 2009

If I join the Democrats, can I introduce a resolution calling upon the Republican Party to rename themselves "The Stupid Doody-Heads Who Smell And Are Stupid And Smell Like Doody Because We're Stupid Doody-Heads And We Also Smell Like Pee"? And then they'd, you know, have to start calling themselves that? Or do I have to wait a year or something before I can make the motion? Because I'd probably get bored and forget about it if I had to wait a year. But if I can do it as soon as I change my voter registration, that would be totally sweet.

Do I have any registered Democrats in the audience who would second me?

On a completely unrelated note, I'm pre-posting this partly because I'm scheduled to have lunch with my Mom and then attend a friend's birthday party in the evening, so I'm unlikely to be around today. Try not to wreck up the place any. I think I'm out of beer, but help yourself to the el Mayor and the popcorn is in the pantry beside the fridge. Michelle, you can sit on the sofa if it's not too gay for you. There are movies upstairs. Try not to scare the cat, he's people-shy.

Maybe I'll schedule a music video or something to pop up later in the day. Whether I get to it or not, everyone have a cromulent Saturday, eh?


Friday night movie

>> Friday, April 24, 2009

A tip'o'th'hat to Boing Boing for bringing to my attention this clever little piece of stop-motion animation by Takeuchi Taijin:


Yes, but the real question is whether he has a letter from his lawyer...

>> Thursday, April 23, 2009

ABC News is full of outrage over a recent incident in which Sheik Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, brother of the country's crown prince, Sheik Mohammed, allegedly "tortures" (depending on how that word is defined) a detainee. I'm not sure why ABC focuses on the wrong party, however: clearly the real wrongdoer in this whole affair of state is Bassam Nabulsi, a Houston businessman who (for obvious political reasons--he's a former business associate of the Sheik who had a falling-out with the man) leaked a document (specifically, a videotape) of the alleged incident for his own dubious purposes. Sometimes you have to simply walk away. If Sheik Issa in fact was forced, by the exigent circumstances he was caught in, to engage in any kind of forceful behavior (which, it should be noted, was almost certainly effective in its function, deterrence of criminal projects by enemies of the state), there is no point in dwelling on it--what's done is done, that was the past, and the United Arab Emirates is surely justified in continuing to look forward rather than obsessing over ancient history. And one can only imagine how divisive any kind of politically-motivated bickering might be, when Sheik Mohammed is rightly concerned with his nation's economic progress and has a full plate of foreign policy issues to cope with.

In any event, the UAE issued the following statement: "all rules, policies and procedures were followed correctly by the Police Department." This settles the issue for once and for all, obviously, and hard-left critics of the UAE who disagree have ulterior motives that should be questioned and re-questioned.

It's apparent from the video and the accompanying report that no lasting damage was done to either Mr. Nabulsi (who claims he was tortured) and the alleged detainee in the video. Mr. Nabulsi appears to be doing well in Houston, and one can obviously infer from the video that the detainee in the video also suffered no lasting or permanent harm. Anyway, lots of people are run over by SUVs and survive.

ABC follows up with a story titled, "Clinton Mum on UAE Torture Tape - Despite Pressure to Investigate, No Action Yet From State Department", which seems to have a vaguely-critical tone for some reason I can't quite understand. Again, the UAE has clearly stated that "all rules, policies and procedures were followed correctly by the Police Department." Surely such assurances are sufficient, and anyway why should the UAE be concerned with what foreigners--including Europeans who all-too-easily forget what the UAE has done for them in the past--think of them? There is a strong likelihood, after all, that many of those critical of the UAE are French. And socialists. And French. Anyway, I strongly hope that if Secretary Of State Clinton does show some kind of firm leadership on this politicized issue (that really isn't any of our business anyway), that it's a display of solidarity with a clearly kindred nation.


Shepard Smith for the win

Who knew anyone on Fox News would get something right for once? Shepard Smith totally calls it and drops an f-bomb on live TV:

(Hat-tip to Deus Ex Malcontent!)


Another brief follow-up

I wish I'd written this: Gary Kamiya in Salon does an able job of dismantling the "ticking bomb" rationale for torture that's been offered by Dick Cheney and others.

But in the real world, the "ticking bomb" situation never arises. It is never the case that we know we can automatically avert mass slaughter by torturing someone. Reality is not that neat. Guilt and knowledge are not established in advance. Those whom we torture may or may not be planning nefarious deeds. As the British political scientist Henry Shue pointed out in his classic 1978 essay "Torture," "Notice how unlike the circumstances of an actual choice about torture the philosopher's example [i.e. the "ticking bomb" scenario as framed by ethicists] is. The proposed victim of our torture is not someone we suspect of planting the device: he is the perpetrator. He is not some pitiful psychotic making one last play for attention: He did plant the device. The wiring is not backwards, the mechanism is not jammed: the device will destroy the city if not deactivated." Shue concludes that "The distance between the situations which must be concocted in order to have a plausible case of morally permissible torture and the situations which actually occur is, if anything, further reason why the existing prohibitions against torture should remain and should be strengthened by making torture an international crime."

One point that Mr. Kamiya makes, that has also been made by Philip Zelikow, is that whether or not torture works is actually irrelevant. Torture opponents--including myself--who have said, "torture doesn't work" have overstated their case, but that shouldn't be the point. I concede Mr. Kamiya's and Mr. Zelikow's point without fully withdrawing: they're right, of course, that torture can produce accurate information, and has in some cases; and I have overstated the case when I've said otherwise and am duly chastened. That having been conceded, it frequently doesn't produce reliable information, and one doesn't have to reach too far to find people confessing all sorts of absurd things under torture (the confessions of witches, as during the Salem Witch Trials, ought to suffice as an easy example). A better point, and one that I should stick with in the future, is that torture is unreliable insofar as one can't necessarily determine whether the victim has provided accurate or inaccurate information until it's possibly too late or until the information has been otherwise confirmed or repudiated by non-tortuous means. And there is a second point that needs to be made, specific to the CIA torture program approved by the Bush Department Of Justice: even accepting that torture can sometimes produce reliable results, the CIA program was modeled after SERE which in turn was largely modeled after torture programs devised by the North Koreans and North Vietnamese to intentionally force false confessions for propaganda and disinformation purposes; i.e. even if one is forced to concede that torture might provide truthful answers, the CIA program was inherently flawed by its designers failure to realize the forms of torture they adopted weren't intended to provide truthful answers in the first place.

The "when is it reliable?/how is it confirmed?" question underscores a point made by Mr. Zelikow: that of the relevant questions is "What is the unique value of torture as an interrogation method?" That is, if torture is not necessarily more reliable than FBI rapport-building techniques, why use it instead of techniques that aren't shocking to the conscience?

Mr. Kamiya quotes the following from Ariel Dorfman, and I think it says everything that needs to be said, close to perfectly:

The Chilean writer and human rights activist Ariel Dorfman wrote, "Torture is, of course, a crime committed against a body. It is also a crime committed against the imagination. Or rather, it presupposes, it requires, it craves the abrogation of our capacity to imagine others' suffering, dehumanizing them so much that their pain is not our pain." Torture shatters the lives of those subjected to it, Dorfman writes. It corrupts not only the torturer, but all of society. "Torture obliges us to be deaf and blind and mute."


A dissenter's response

Just a quick note to pass along to those interested in the CIA torture discussion: this week in Foreign Policy, former State Department officer and executive director of the 9/11 commission Philip Zelikow raises some interesting points. Mr. Zelikow's views are particularly relevant because, in his own words:

...in 2005, I circulated an opposing view of the legal reasoning. My bureaucratic position, as counselor to the secretary of state, didn't entitle me to offer a legal opinion. But I felt obliged to put an alternative view in front of my colleagues at other agencies, warning them that other lawyers (and judges) might find the OLC views unsustainable. My colleagues were entitled to ignore my views. They did more than that: The White House attempted to collect and destroy all copies of my memo. I expect that one or two are still at least in the State Department's archives.

And his views are especially interesting in light of his conclusion that the reasoning offered by the Bush DOJ's Office Of Legal Counsel (OLC) can only lead to one absurd, distressing result:

Once you get to a substantive compliance analysis for "cruel, inhuman, and degrading" you get the position that the substantive standard is the same as it is in analogous U.S. constitutional law. So the OLC must argue, in effect, that the methods and the conditions of confinement in the CIA program could constitutionally be inflicted on American citizens in a county jail.

In other words, Americans in any town of this country could constitutionally be hung from the ceiling naked, sleep deprived, water-boarded, and all the rest -- if the alleged national security justification was compelling.

The whole piece is worth a read.


Snark of the day

>> Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Okay, so it's snark of yesterday. I didn't see it until today. Glenn Greenwald has waaaaay too much fun at the expense of Representative Jane Harman (D-CA), who is under investigation for allegedly using her position as ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee to lobby the Bush Administration on behalf of a pair of alleged spies lobbyists. Greenwald gleefully gloats (sorry!):

So if I understand this correctly -- and I'm pretty sure I do -- when the U.S. Government eavesdropped for years on American citizens with no warrants and in violation of the law, that was "both legal and necessary" as well as "essential to U.S. national security," and it was the "despicable" whistle-blowers (such as Thomas Tamm) who disclosed that crime and the newspapers which reported it who should have been criminally investigated, but not the lawbreaking government officials. But when the U.S. Government legally and with warrants eavesdrops on Jane Harman, that is an outrageous invasion of privacy and a violent assault on her rights as an American citizen, and full-scale investigations must be commenced immediately to get to the bottom of this abuse of power. Behold Jane Harman's overnight transformation from Very Serious Champion of the Lawless Surveillance State to shrill civil liberties extremist.

(internal links and emphasis omitted)

Mr. Greenwald goes on to have a bit more (justified) fun at Representative Harman's expense. He's right to: funny how all it takes is one teeny-tiny little criminal investigation into one's own alleged malfeasance to change one's tune about civil liberties. Representative Harman isn't looking at the big picture here! Instead of a divisive and partisan investigation, we must move forward, not backward, upward not forward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom!

Mr. Greenwald's entire post is worth reading, here at Salon.


Neverwednesday Nights

Okay, so I saw this on Boing Boing:

...and I thought, "Wow, that's cute... she's cute. Then I went to her website, where in addition to some of her music, Ms. Micucci also has her acting reel (including some really, really funny scenes she did for a show called Four Kings that I've never seen and was apparently canceled three years ago) and some of her drawings, including this one:

...and now I totally have a serious crush on Kate Micucci. I think I am totally in luff. She also drew this, which makes me want to marry her:

Seriously, that picture made me swoon.

Ms. Micucci is made of awesome.


I might be okay with that...

>> Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I was upset, as y'all might know, with the announcement that the Obama Administration was going to let CIA torturers who acted in "good faith" on bad legal advice off the hook. I'm still not great with that decision, actually: you get a legal memo saying it's perfectly legal to rob certain banks or marry your horse, and see where that gets you.

But I consider it a balm to read that Mr. Obama isn't ruling out prosecutions of the lawyers who originated the bad advice. After all, in some ways those attorneys are more culpable than the people who actually committed the torturous acts. While "just following orders" doesn't cut it as a defense, anywhere, ever, giving the order or justifying the order puts a special onus on you. These lawyers, after all, could have said "no," could have said "you can't do that," could have actually done some legal research instead of trying to hide behind a whole bunch of weaselly "you inform us"-es that suggest that maybe these idiots weren't completely oblivious to what they were doing and were trying to leave open a way to throw other agencies under the proverbial bus. ("Oh, we never said it was okay to torture people, we just said if this was true then maybe a court would find such-and-such." Yeah, right.)

As I've written before, a lawyer has an ethical responsibility not to assist a client in criminal conduct. The torture-memo authors will no doubt claim that they were merely trying to help their client assess the scope, meaning or application of the law: a response that is either disingenuous or so stupid as to defy credulity. These authors knew what they were suggesting and why, and couching their language to try to hide what they knew the purpose of these memos to be doesn't get them off the hook. At the very least, their respective State Bars need to take disciplinary action.

Hopefully, however, it won't end there. While I will be surprised if the Attorney General actually prosecutes, it would be a pleasant surprise were it to happen. It would mean the notion that we are a nation of laws and not of men was coming back into vogue after a too-long absence. In any case, the "Bush Six" and others may not be quite off the hook yet.

We'll see.


The tale of poor Onald

Not sure yet if anything more substantial will appear today, but in the meantime the most recent Dresden Codak is stunning. Codak, for the uninitiated, is perhaps the most lavishly-drawn webcomic since the brilliant and dearly-departed A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible (and if you've never heard of that one, set aside an afternoon and go through their archives, your soul will thank you). Codak is a surreal blend of physics, tragedy, psychology, and surrealism; the longest story-arc in Codak being an epic mix of battling robots, time travel, and human evolution that I'm not sure is understood so much as it's felt. And then every now and then, there are jokes. (Also, Kimiko Ross is a hottie, but that's neither here nor there.) I think I've raved about Codak before (I seem to have an existing tag), but I don't think I can rave enough--and anyway, this one really is brilliant and a standalone piece that doesn't (despite featuring a young Kimiko before her hyper-evolved cyborg days) require you to know a single thing about DC.

I found Codak's tale of Onald Creely, itinerant regret salesman, to be poignant and harrowing; of course it's not about Onald Creely at all, it's about possibility and choice. It's the kind of thing a lot of people wouldn't think you could do in a comic, but when you see it you have to say, "Well how the hell else would you do it?" The wordless final panels form the kind of narrative that's unique to sequential art. Also, there's an extended Asimov reference, which I know is a selling point for some of the regulars around here.

So go! And if you like what you see, read the archives!


A realistic view of human nature

>> Monday, April 20, 2009

Always with the Apocalypse. That's what sells rags, you know? The Earth is about to be destroyed, but not before all your children become heroin addicts and are molested by terrorists who were influenced by violence on the radio and suffer from undiagnosed autism caused by being overweight ad nauseum. And then the press wonders why everybody's getting their news from The Daily Show; well, because they have just as many jokes, but theirs are funny.

So when Newsweek muses on the end of religion in America, one is simultaneously unimpressed and nonplussed by the hysterical reaction in some quarters: unimpressed because this is what the media does, takes one survey and bloats it up into Something Tremendous and people go nuts, and nonplussed because you'd think "Boy-Cries-Wolf" Syndrome would kick in at some point and everyone would say, "Oh yeah, Newsweek, what is it this week? 'The End of Christian America'? Enh."

(The other week, in conversation, the subject of the Washington Post came up and I asked, "Who reads the Washington Post?" It was a rhetorical misstep that was swiftly leapt on, and I can't complain: I mean I read the Post for fuck's sake, it's bookmarked on my smartphone. What I meant though was something like the previous paragraph: not who literally reads the WaPo, but who takes it all that seriously? And I guess there are people who do, but it just seems like it would be tempered by the realization that there's a whole lot of talking-out-the-ass that goes on in the media, and it's one thing to take facts seriously--the release of torture memos, the extent of Somali piracy, the state of the American auto industry--and quite another to take reportage seriously--the death of religion, say, or George Will's latest semi-informed blatherings. In one sense I "read" the WaPo and Newsweek, in that I regularly visit their websites and look at the words and my brain interprets them. In another sense I don't "read" them at all even when I'm looking right at the pages--my brain ascribes exactly the degree of import the words deserve, which is frequently zilch. Who reads the Post indeed.)

But that's a sidetrip, yes? The point of talking about Newsweek is really to get at something silly that was said about Newsweek at another favorite source of blatheration, Huffington Post. As bad as Newsweek can be, HuffPo is frequently worse, though it at least frequently manages a kind of endearing awfulness--yes, a particular post might be moronic and simply wrong, but there's such spirited earnestness that one sometimes ends up vaguely rooting for a writer who possibly spent his or her childhood huffing paint fumes (there's probably a "HuffPo" pun in there somewhere, but I'm too lazy to make it up) before embarking on a semi-successful career in movies, TV, or partial-or-complete nudity. That's a broad brush, I know: some of HuffPo's contributors are brilliant, it's just that the dumb ones somehow tend to stand out.

And they're not all actors. Bruce Ledewitz, who got a bit frothy about the Newsweek article and wrote a response in HuffPo that is sort of the point of the rambling blog entry you're now reading, is a law professor. Mr. Ledewitz is of the opinion that the secularization of America's actually-rather-secular-already culture will have possible ill-effects in the future. "I think raising children without religion is quite difficult," he writes, which doesn't seem false so much as it seems, for want of a better word, meh. And let's make that "meh" truly dismissive: please imagine Frankenstein's monster saying it to a chair with a clumsy, full-shouldered shooing-motion while he looks for a fiancée to defenestrate, perhaps muttering "break later" as he turns.

Indeed, Professor Ledewitz's central point isn't even worth responding to at all, and that actually isn't the point of this blog entry: whether a less-religious culture is healthier or not is something culture will have to determine for itself, regardless of what Professor Ledewitz or I have to say about it. He can point to whatever he'd like to point to, and I can point to the world's various theocracies, and in the end everybody listening will most likely believe whatever it is they believed before we started pointing at things.

No, the real point of this response to a response is Professor Ledewitz's statement that:

But religion by and large does not claim that it makes people good. Instead, religion, and especially Christianity, begins with the proclamation that people are not good. We lie, we cheat, we steal, we cheat on our spouses and we allow a billion people in the world to live on a dollar a day.

Which is more realistic about human nature, Dennett or the classic Christian view? And what, and for that matter how, will you teach your children the truth about such matters?

Oh please. Life is nasty, brutish and short, we are all born in sin, blah-blah-blah. Professor Ledewitz might be surprised to find that Professor Dennett's view of human nature seems to be supported by studies of our biological cousins. Capuchin monkeys may have a sense of justice. Chimpanzees might possess a sense of awe in addition to feelings of empathy, grief and altruism. While we can't quite get into another animal's head, and must be wary of anthropomorphizing and projection, it has to be acknowledged that such feelings may be a part of our cousins' wiring and therefore a part of our wiring, and logically so: after all, our nature is that we are social animals. Like other primates, humans are not necessarily as strong or fast as predatory rivals, or armed with teeth-so-sharp or hide-so-thick. Even a gorilla or chimpanzee, as strong as such creatures are, may find itself quickly overmatched by species that have evolved as dedicated predators--lions and tigers, to cite obvious examples, if not necessarily bears (oh my). But what our cousins are adept at to varying degrees is adapting to environments as a social group. And humans represent a peak, perhaps the acme, of that quality.

Human nature--like primate nature--isn't wholly noble. Chimpanzees fight tribal wars over scant resources, much as we do. The sense that we are part of a group--a family, a clan, a tribe, a nation--necessarily invokes an other, something alien and not-us to which we instinctively respond by protecting our group, frequently invoking fear and violence to do so. But these facets of our nature (a word I don't think too highly of in this context, but Professor Ledewitz invoked it) are not opposites so much as they are manifestations of the same impulse. The instinct to drive off or kill a rival is married to the instinct to protect the members of the family/tribe.

Part of the reason the foregoing is so significant is that it drives a stake through the heart of Ledewitz's cynical assertion: yes, there are people who lie, who cheat, who steal; and what happens to them? They become outcasts, pariahs, they are punished. Even the most liberal and forgiving of us see the man or woman who has broken the implicit social covenant and feels the same upswelling of instinctive rage in the heart that the capuchin monkey who throws down his cucumber might feel watching his brother receive a grape. (There is a popular slander against the bleeding hearts that claims we care more for perpetrators than victims; no, we allow other instincts of pity and fraternity to move us as well, or attempt to moderate our more extreme feelings with reason, experience and education, but believe me, the sense of justice and the instincts for protection and retribution are no less present and accounted for.) The person who tries to live as a lone wolf suffers the fate of lone wolves--and wolves are social pack animals as we are; the lone wolf is unlikely to hunt as well on his own as a pack does as a unit, suffers the psychological wounds of being unable to satisfy his social impulses (ever seen a dog whimper when the family leaves without him?), and ultimately dies cold and alone (sometimes with the teeth of wolves in his throat).

I'm not ignoring the second part of the good Professor's indictment: there are humans who cheat on their spouses and we indeed allow a billion people to live on a dollar a day. These are another apple and an orange, respectively, to the previous apples. The spousal relationship may not be instinctual, but whether it is or isn't, adultery surely is a matter of lying (to the spouse), cheating (breaking the rules you agreed to in your wedding vows), and perhaps stealing (to the extent that any married man or woman might "belong" to his or her wife or husband), no? As for the injustice of poverty (the orange): surely if you accept what I wrote above, it's obvious that allowing people to live on a dollar a day is the perverse result of the same tribal instinct that leads to loving our brothers and sisters. The "tribe", understand, can be and has been redefined, from the family to (eventually) the nation, but it doesn't yet include the planet. The failure to address the problems of others ultimately comes from a failure to recognize them as being the same, members of the extended clan, but we are getting progressively better at this with each generation, I think. Certainly the idea that we are one enormous human family is taken for granted far more often than it seems to have been a century ago, and one can go back farther and find a time when the notion scarcely existed at all. We are not merely products of instinct; we can (and have), for instance, moderate or structure our instincts with culture and reason--channelling our innate tribalism into the forming of non-familial communities like cities, states, religions, nations. There is no reason to think that it's impossible for the "tribe" to someday be universally seen as a human one that spans the globe.

The realistic view of human nature (if there is such a thing) is that it is complex, that we possess instincts that evolved to allow us to function as a pack: we recognize that others have feelings, have a sense of what is fair, feel compulsions to share and support those who are fellow-members of the pack. By-and-large, our instincts tell us that our personal survival follows the group's, because creatures who lack these instincts tend to die and breeding populations of humans in which these instincts do not predominate are breeding populations that decline (usually in the face of successfully cooperative breeding populations); this is Natural Selection 101. That said, these instincts go hand-in-hand with instincts that have detrimental effects, indeed the positive and negative results frequently stem from the same impulses (e.g. the desire to kill an outsider who appears--however falsely--to threaten the pack merely by existing).

I feel obligated to close with one more obvious point (but one that is frequently missed when discussing this sort of thing): none of this has any bearing on the existence of any deity or deities, including the Christian. Regular readers are aware, of course, that I'm openly an atheist and have been for most of my life; but I honestly don't care if you think likely human instincts that are demonstrable in our genetic cousins are the result of God's clever long-term planning or merely a natural result of selective pressures favoring social behavior. That humans are the product of evolution is something that has to be accepted as a given: there is far too much evidence of that. Just as it has to be taken as a given--from physics, astronomy and geology just for a start--that the world is more than six thousand years old. But any religious person who doesn't think his otherwise-omnipotent deity can't craft an intelligent, tool-using civilization by means of evolution probably might download DOSBox and SimEarth in order to truly appreciate the bliss of watching a "species" evolve from a few basic rules.

My issue with Professor Ledewitz's claims isn't an atheist-versus-whatever Ledewitz is issue, in other words. My issue is that his view of humanity is constipated and wrong; if Christianity's view is what Professor Ledewitz makes it out to be, than Christianity is indeed wrong on that score, irrespective of the divinity of Jesus, salvation of Man, or existence of God. We are not the sum of our faults, steeped in Original Sin. We are something far more complicated, interesting, and beautiful.


My latest crush

>> Sunday, April 19, 2009

I'm in love, sort of. Or it's a crush, your call. On an inanimate object, or more accurately the product of an inanimate object; it's not so much the Presto PopLite I love so much as it's the fresh, fresh popcorn.

I got sick of the microwave stuff. So I decided to go back to the late '70s. It's a little bizarre, actually, that last part: when I decided I was going to go for real popcorn again, it was just a little strange that hot air popcorn poppers are unchanged in thirty years. Oh, I know, functionally there's no reason for them to. But just as stereo systems have gone through phases--wood veneer, silver finish, black matte, the iPod look, etc.--surely one might have expected a 21st Century popcorn popper to, you know, have something, what? Futuristic? Contemporary? But no, no the hot air popper looks just like the one my family had when Reagan was President.

I thought about doing the oil thing. It just looked too messy. Okay, the hot air popper comes with the warning that it might eject a superhot unpopped kernel across the room, which I guess is a messiness unto itself. But it seemed easier to clean, and I'm lazy. The two or three times I've done butter (drool) I did it in the microwave so I wouldn't even have to clean the little butter-melter cup on top of the popper (as memory serves, melted butter would cool and coalesce at the 90° angle where the bottom meets the side and was impossible to ever really clean out, forming a crusty residue).

You just can't get good popcorn anymore, it seems. The movie theaters used to be the last bastion, but these days even movie popcorn seems to taste like crap. And Orson help you if you want buttered popcorn (and who doesn't): ask for "butter" and the typical theater will either squirt some sort of hot syrup on top or unhelpfully point you over to a self-serve station offering "BUTTER-FLAVORED TOPPING." Yeah, uh, yum?

But fresh popcorn? Oooooh.

The popcorn popper was around $19.88 from Amazon. And it seems Presto is the company for this, literally: you get a Orville Redenbacher popper and apparently it's just a Presto with Orville's name on a sticker slapped on the side. Nineteen bucks is reasonable--the popcorn is priceless. I mean, it's insane how good the real stuff is.

You can get decent microwavable, sure. But even the decent stuff (like the stuff the Boy Scouts sell every year) had started to taste too chemical, I just couldn't take it.

I'm in lurf, fer sure.

And now I'm off to watch Frankenstein again, with a big bowl o' popcorn beside me. The noms you hear are coming from inside the house....


"I can sum it up in three words: 'Evolution is a lie.'"

>> Saturday, April 18, 2009

Boing Boing turned me on to one of the funniest YouTube videos I've seen in a while: dramatic readings of what are allegedly (and sadly, plausibly) actual, genuine anti-atheist and anti-science comments on Christian fundamentalist forums.

I'm not sure comics could write this. Well. Maybe the State/Reno 911 gang. Maybe.

"If Atheists Ruled The World":


Criminal taxation!

>> Friday, April 17, 2009

As many of you know, I like writing; indeed, it's something I've been trying to do somewhat seriously with indifferent results, and I've even done National Novel Writing Month three years in a row now. Again, with the indifferent results.

I don't know if I really have what it takes to be a professional writer, or if it'll just be something I dabble in with indifferent (let's stick to that word instead of "shitty," which might be more apt) results for the rest of my life. But with that sort of thing in mind, I have a little bit of an interest in the business side of it. So you can imagine my shock and horror when I found out that a part-time writer with only two books under his belt might find himself in a tax bracket where he had to pay 33% of his income in taxes. And it's not like this is an author who's able to quit his thankless day job working for the government, either.

I have to tell you I was shocked and appalled. I mean, I'm not really anti-tax. As I recently commented on a friend's blog, I've always considered taxes to be kind of like the dues you pay to be in a club. This club, it's far from perfect but it has some pretty nice facilities and I don't mind paying to maintain them and make improvements. And I have no problem with a progressive tax system, quite the contrary: it seems to me that President Roosevelt was absolutely right when he said:

The man of great wealth owes a peculiar obligation to the State, because he derives special advantages from the mere existence of government. Not only should he recognize this obligation in the way he leads his daily life and in the way he earns and spends his money, but it should also be recognized by the way in which he pays for the protection the State gives him.

You benefit from the liberties this nation provides, you ought to pay for it. And it isn't just the bodyguards in the form of the national military or police departments (funded with a combination of local and Federal monies): one benefits from public highways, from public education, from public parks, from publicly-funded science and medicine. And, to amplify Mr. Roosevelt's point, it should be clear that the more you have the more you've obviously benefited from the opportunities this society provides. (And all of this is aside from Mr. Roosevelt's argument that progressive taxation on income and inheritance balances the playing field between "the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess".)

But thirty-three percent? For a man who's written a mere pair of books, neither of which (so far as I know) have been optioned for movies or television? A third of his family's income fed to the Federal government, and this is a writer whose wife is pretty much a stay-at-home mom for their two small children, and he's still attempting to work in the public interest sector (which means he's basically paying his own salary, ya just gotta love that). Thirty-three percent, one-third of his gross adjusted income, pfft, gone, probably pissed away bailing out some mismanaged corporation.

I feel for him. I imagine him getting home after being dragged around all over the place--his new job has him travelling all the time and he's been saddled with a ton of crap the last guy left behind when he basically just walked out--and sitting on the bed with his wife while they talk about his literary ambitions having to be put on hold for a while longer. And then she tells him how much they spent on income tax last year and he goes into the bathroom and vomits. Maybe he should have voted for the other guy, he thinks as he wipes his mouth with a corner of toilet paper, staring at himself in the mirror and thinking how much he desperately wants a cig. As if he could afford to start smoking again.

You hear about something like this, and you start thinking maybe those teabaggers who met all over the country this week are onto something. I mean, being hit for one-third of your income like that. That's the kind of thing that has Dick Armey standing erect at the head of a bunch of teabaggers, telling them to open their mouths and to really get in the face of power, don't just lie there! The teabaggers talk about sacking everyone in Washington because the grind is just killing the American taxpayer, and this isn't something they're just dipping in, this is something they're really girding their loins and getting into. So I'm kind of hoping this writer was up there in Washington D.C. this week, really involved in the protests. Because he's really getting hammered by the I.R.S., you know?

And if you don't believe me when I say he's being hit for a third: some asshole posted his tax return on the internet. See for yourself.

(Have a great weekend, everybody.)


The good, the bad, and the ugly news

>> Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Good News: It appears that the Obama Administration has released four memos detailing torture techniques that were authorized at Gitmo.

From the President's statement on release:

First, the interrogation techniques described in these memos have already been widely reported. Second, the previous Administration publicly acknowledged portions of the program -- and some of the practices -- associated with these memos. Third, I have already ended the techniques described in the memos through an Executive Order. Therefore, withholding these memos would only serve to deny facts that have been in the public domain for some time. This could contribute to an inaccurate accounting of the past, and fuel erroneous and inflammatory assumptions about actions taken by the United States...

This is a time for reflection, not retribution. I respect the strong views and emotions that these issues evoke. We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history. But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past. Our national greatness is embedded in America’s ability to right its course in concert with our core values, and to move forward with confidence. That is why we must resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future.

The United States is a nation of laws. My Administration will always act in accordance with those laws, and with an unshakeable commitment to our ideals. That is why we have released these memos, and that is why we have taken steps to ensure that the actions described within them never take place again.

The Bad News: Not surprisingly, the Administration is making a promise it shouldn't keep, specifically the promise not to prosecute the CIA agents who relied on the bad and unconscionable advice of the DOJ. Look, I'm not going to belabor the point: regular readers are familiar with what I've said here in the past and new readers can scroll through easily enough or click the tags applied to this entry. The bottom line is that I do not believe the law on prosecuting torturers is optional, and I am disappointed but not surprised that the Obama Administration will, out of political expediency, dishonor the nation's laws by ignoring their legal obligations under Federal law and the United States Constitution. In essence, the Obama Administration is furthering a criminal conspiracy in not even taking a pass at what our treaty obligations (the law of the land under our Constitution) require us to do.

Perhaps a future administration will do a better job of respecting the law. Though I'd be surprised.

I feel obligated, since our national discourse has become such a grotesque self-parody, to add that I believe the President is doing an exceptional job under trying circumstances in nearly every other area of his Presidency to date. One can be simultaneously supportive and critical of the actions of one's leaders.

One more thing I do have to add: the fact that CIA agents or their designees acted in "good faith" on bad legal advice is stunningly irrelevant. The number of tax evaders who would love to seize that "defense" must be stunning. That what the CIA indulged in was unconscionable should have been self-evident; that it was illegal was apparently obvious to the FBI and shouldn't have been a big surprise to anyone else, either. But even if it wasn't: a legal brief isn't a license to go out and do every awful thing that some lawyer said you could; it might mean the lawyer shares some degree of blame (the consequence of which might be anything from censure by his Bar or prosecution as a co-defendant), but it doesn't give you carte blanche.

Let's hope other countries don't follow our shining example: tyrants, despots and blood-soaked genocidal maniacs have attorneys, too.

From the President's statement:

In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution. The men and women of our intelligence community serve courageously on the front lines of a dangerous world. Their accomplishments are unsung and their names unknown, but because of their sacrifices, every single American is safer. We must protect their identities as vigilantly as they protect our security, and we must provide them with the confidence that they can do their jobs.

The Ugly News: Spain will not, for the moment at least, be picking up our slack. The Spanish courts will not be authorizing a prosecution of the "Bush Six" at this time, the official grounds being that none of them were physically present at the time the incidents took place.

My recollection is that this defense was rather unsuccessful at Nuremberg, but I suppose one shouldn't expect the law not to evolve.

I have little doubt, despite no proof, that this decision had more to do with political expediency and some transatlantic phone calls than it had to do with a sudden realization that Douglas Feith wasn't personally wrapping someone's head in a sheet and pouring water over it to simulate the sensation of drowning. Surely, surely, surely the Spanish National Court didn't think that the torture-advocates would actually get their hands dirty and risk ruining their tailored suits.

"If one is dealing with a crime of mistreatment of prisoners of war, the complaint should go against those who physically carried it out," Conde-Pumpido said in a breakfast meeting with journalists. He said a trial of the men would have turned Spain's National Court "into a plaything" to be used for political ends.

Maybe half of that statement reflects any kind of reality whatsoever: it's certainly possible a trial would have become a circus or "plaything." But alright, then. I really shouldn't have expected more.

The released documents (which I haven't read yet) can be found here.

And now for the part that makes me really fucking proud to be an American:

From Jay Bybee's August 1st memorandum to John Rizzo, Acting General Counsel for the CIA:

You would like to place [al Qaeda member Abu] Zubaydah in a cramped confinement box with an insect. You have informed us he appears to have a fear of insects. In particular, you would like to tell Zubaydah that you intend to place a stinging insect into the box with him. You would, however, place a harmless insect in the box. You have orally informed us that you would in fact place a harmless insect such as a caterpillar in the box with him.

While this is not necessarily the worst technique endorsed by Judge Bybee--all of the techniques the CIA asked about were approved, including "walling" (slamming someone into a wall), waterboarding and stress positions, it is the one that brings me closest to tears for my country. It ought to sound familiar:

'You asked me once,' said O'Brien, 'what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.'

The door opened again. A guard came in, carrying something made of wire, a box or basket of some kind. He set it down on the further table. Because of the position in which O'Brien was standing. Winston could not see what the thing was.

'The worst thing in the world,' said O'Brien, 'varies from individual to individual. It may be burial alive, or death by fire, or by drowning, or by impalement, or fifty other deaths. There are cases where it is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal.'

He had moved a little to one side, so that Winston had a better view of the thing on the table. It was an oblong wire cage with a handle on top for carrying it by. Fixed to the front of it was something that looked like a fencing mask, with the concave side outwards. Although it was three or four metres away from him, he could see that the cage was divided lengthways into two compartments, and that there was some kind of creature in each. They were rats.

'In your case,' said O'Brien, 'the worst thing in the world happens to be rats.'

A sort of premonitory tremor, a fear of he was not certain what, had passed through Winston as soon as he caught his first glimpse of the cage. But at this moment the meaning of the mask-like attachment in front of it suddenly sank into him. His bowels seemed to turn to water.

'You can't do that!' he cried out in a high cracked voice. 'You couldn't, you couldn't! It's impossible.'

'Do you remember,' said O'Brien, 'the moment of panic that used to occur in your dreams? There was a wall of blackness in front of you, and a roaring sound in your ears. There was something terrible on the other side of the wall. You knew that you knew what it was, but you dared not drag it into the open. It was the rats that were on the other side of the wall.'

'O'Brien!' said Winston, making an effort to control his voice. 'You know this is not necessary. What is it that you want me to do?'

O'Brien made no direct answer. When he spoke it was in the schoolmasterish manner that he sometimes affected. He looked thoughtfully into the distance, as though he were addressing an audience somewhere behind Winston's back.

'By itself,' he said, 'pain is not always enough. There are occasions when a human being will stand out against pain, even to the point of death. But for everyone there is something unendurable -- something that cannot be contemplated. Courage and cowardice are not involved. If you are falling from a height it is not cowardly to clutch at a rope. If you have come up from deep water it is not cowardly to fill your lungs with air. It is merely an instinct which cannot be destroyed. It is the same with the rats. For you, they are unendurable. They are a form of pressure that you cannot withstand, even if you wished to. You will do what is required of you.

'But what is it, what is it? How can I do it if I don't know what it is?'

O'Brien picked up the cage and brought it across to the nearer table. He set it down carefully on the baize cloth. Winston could hear the blood singing in his ears. He had the feeling of sitting in utter loneliness. He was in the middle of a great empty plain, a flat desert drenched with sunlight, across which all sounds came to him out of immense distances. Yet the cage with the rats was not two metres away from him. They were enormous rats. They were at the age when a rat's muzzle grows blunt and fierce and his fur brown instead of grey.

'The rat,' said O'Brien, still addressing his invisible audience, 'although a rodent, is carnivorous. You are aware of that. You will have heard of the things that happen in the poor quarters of this town. In some streets a woman dare not leave her baby alone in the house, even for five minutes. The rats are certain to attack it. Within quite a small time they will strip it to the bones. They also attack sick or dying people. They show astonishing intelligence in knowing when a human being is helpless.'

There was an outburst of squeals from the cage. It seemed to reach Winston from far away. The rats were fighting; they were trying to get at each other through the partition. He heard also a deep groan of despair. That, too, seemed to come from outside himself.

O'Brien picked up the cage, and, as he did so, pressed something in it. There was a sharp click. Winston made a frantic effort to tear himself loose from the chair. It was hopeless; every part of him, even his head, was held immovably. O'Brien moved the cage nearer. It was less than a metre from Winston's face.

'I have pressed the first lever,' said O'Brien. 'You understand the construction of this cage. The mask will fit over your head, leaving no exit. When I press this other lever, the door of the cage will slide up. These starving brutes will shoot out of it like bullets. Have you ever seen a rat leap through the air? They will leap on to your face and bore straight into it. Sometimes they attack the eyes first. Sometimes they burrow through the cheeks and devour the tongue.'

The cage was nearer; it was closing in. Winston heard a succession of shrill cries which appeared to be occurring in the air above his head. But he fought furiously against his panic. To think, to think, even with a split second left -- to think was the only hope. Suddenly the foul musty odour of the brutes struck his nostrils. There was a violent convulsion of nausea inside him, and he almost lost consciousness. Everything had gone black. For an instant he was insane, a screaming animal. Yet he came out of the blackness clutching an idea. There was one and only one way to save himself. He must interpose another human being, the body of another human being, between himself and the rats.

The circle of the mask was large enough now to shut out the vision of anything else. The wire door was a couple of hand-spans from his face. The rats knew what was coming now. One of them was leaping up and down, the other, an old scaly grandfather of the sewers, stood up, with his pink hands against the bars, and fiercely sniffed the air. Winston could see the whiskers and the yellow teeth. Again the black panic took hold of him. He was blind, helpless, mindless.

'It was a common punishment in Imperial China,' said O'Brien as didactically as ever.

-George Orwell, 1984.


You're freakin' kidding, right?

Boing Boing recently had a piece on a CNET review of, no, I'm not making this up, $39.00 gold-plated fuses for audiophiles from some company called "Isoclean".

That's right. For thirty-nine bucks you can get a gold-plated disposable component that's designed to self-destruct to prevent electrical overloads from damaging the parts of your sound system that are actually supposed to be worth something. Further proof that some people have more dollars than sense. I mean, seriously: what. The. Fuck?

Wait, wait, wait. It actually gets better. CNET reviewer Steve Guttenberg (no, not the guy from Police Academy, tho' I'll bet he gets that all the time) writes:

Also noteworthy is the fuses' glass body, marked with a direction arrow. Isoclean recommends experimenting with reversing the direction of the fuse to see which direction sounds better (turn the gear off when reversing the fuses).

(emphasis added)

Although it has to be noted that another reviewer, Albert Porter of Positive Feedback Online, writes:

Each fuse is marked with an arrow, indicating the direction the current should flow. Take care to not reverse these, as it harms the sound.

No! Don't reverse the polarities! It's bad! Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light! And God help you if you have your Isoclean fuses running in opposite directions on various components! God help you, sir, God help you indeed.

I shit you not. Isoclean apparently contends that electricity flows through a fuse differently depending on whether the element is running left-to-right or right-to-left.

I truly went into the wrong line of work. I could be a wealthy, wealthy man if only I'd been born without any conscience or scruples and the ability to keep a straight face in any and all circumstances.

It doesn't bespeak well for audiophiles when one--this is Mr. Porter again, and not Mr. Guttenberg, just to be clear--is reviewing the glass tubing encasing a fuse:

Isoclean fuses are precision products; this was evident from the moment I cut away the plastic seal and held it up to the light. I was struck by the jewel-like slow blow element; viewing was easy as the glass housing is exceptionally clean and clear, and, of course, the ends are gold plated.

Yes, Isoclean fuses are precision-engineered so that you can tell whether or not the fusing element has melted, just by looking. That's the kind of fine craftsmanship that one associates with high-end... erm... high-end Hong Kong engineering. I'm trying to decide if that's funnier than it would have been if I could have typed "German engineering," just because "German engineering" is, you know, kind of a cliché, but there you are.

For fuck's sake, they're fuses. They blow. You throw them away. And then you put new ones in.

My brain. It hurts.


That's so weird... in the version I saw, it was Jack Oakie who was just like Mussolini...

>> Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A woman in the crowd says: "We've seen this movie before," Obama is just like Mussolini -- "and look what happened to him."

"Tea-baggers hit Lafayette Park," Salon
Wednesday, April 15th, 2009.

So, hang on a sec... she's trying to say that... Mr. Obama... bit Hitler's weenie... and now it doesn't work?

I am horribly, horribly confused now.

Later, somebody at the tea-bagging ceremony threw something over the White House fence, and everybody had to leave. That's just so typical: there's always that one bad apple who goes and ruins everything for... all the other... bad apples.... Hm. Right.

Move along, move along. Nothing to see here.


An update: the "Bush Six"

An update to some of this blog's pieces on allegations that members of the Bush Administration were instrumental in the commission of torture and war crimes: my sister forwarded me an interesting article from The New Yorker, a "Talk Of The Town" column concerning barrister Philippe Sands, whose book Torture Team: Rumsfeld's Memo and the Betrayal of American Values apparently influenced Spain's recent decision to conduct an investigation into whether six former members of the Bush Administration should be charged with crimes against humanity.

It seems that, in addition to writing the book (which, ironically, it seems some of those under investigation helped write1), Mr. Sands was also consulted by lawyers involved with the filing of the motion to begin the investigation.

The New Yorker piece quotes Douglas Feith, one of those under investigation, who apparently still doesn't quite get it:

Feith, reached on the phone, called Sands’s book "wildly inaccurate." He said, "It’s not a happy thing for the Spanish Court to think of prosecuting Americans for advice they gave to the President of the United States!"

...which makes the whole thing sound like these poor men are being harassed for suggesting Mr. Bush wear a different tie with that shirt or that the fish isn't really that good but the new potatoes are to die for. I suppose Mr. Feith would be just as outraged if an American prosecutor thought of going after someone who offered the late John Gotti advice about corpse disposal or tax evasion. The problem, Mr. Feith, is that the advice you offered your President may very well have been very bad criminal advice--advice that he was immune to the law or that the obvious laws did not apply, advice on how to skirt prosecution, advice that at the very least was unconscionably negligent and at worst constituted a conspiracy to engage in human rights violations.

If the latter, it's quite a happy thing indeed to imagine a criminal against humanity receiving his just desserts. We'll see, won't we, Mr. Feith?

1What the hell is it with these people? It seems hard to believe they were that clueless, but apparently they were/are.


Neverwednesday Nights

The lameass video for one of my all-time favorite Violent Femmes songs (second only, I think, to "Country Death Song")--"I Held Her In My Arms" from 1986's The Blind Leading The Naked.

This is actually the first time I've seen the video, and I have to assume most of the budget for it was spent on beer because I can't imagine how the video was pitched otherwise:

"Well, see, we'll have Gordon spinning around while he lip syncs."

"Just Gordon?"

"Well, Gordon and some random people."

"What about the rest of the band?"

"Well, you two can be in a shot or two, maybe...."


"Look, you have to understand: Gordon's so short, he makes Brian look like some kind of giant. Everybody who's seen a band photo thought Brian was, like, some kind of eight-foot-tall Lurch-guy or something until they saw you live and realized Brian was normal-sized and Gordon was... some kind of midget."


"Well, no--actually everyone who sees your photos assumes Gordon is Brian unless they happen to see a picture of Brian holding his bass. Brian looks more... you know... frankly, Brian looks more like a guy who'd write obsessively about masturbation and suicide than Gordon does. I think everybody kind of assumes Gordon's the drummer at first, which is why he'll be singing in this video. Anyway, we can hide his uncanny dwarfism if we just shoot him by himself."


"Yes, spinning. And we'll have some lights."

Anyway, what were we doing here again? Oh yes: Violent Femmes, "I Held Her In My Arms," a song that sums up much of my relationship history, such as it is. Enjoy!


The Ring Of Gyges

>> Tuesday, April 14, 2009

According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended. Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result-when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared. Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; where as soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom.

Plato's Republic, Book II
(Trans. by Benjamin Jowett)

The conclusion that Glaucon drew from the tale of Gyges was that it is only reputation and fear that make men good, and that if you removed the risk of public censure or punishment, anyone would easily be corrupted and become evil. I don't necessarily believe that, myself. I think there's a lot of things that go into whether one is a just person or not. Some of it's even innate: we are social animals, and some sense of empathy and justice seems to be hardwired into us (and our cousins) as part of our pack functioning. There are people who are capable of doing the right thing when nobody can see them, or when the wrong thing would never be punished. Indeed, I think it's probably safe to say that civilization functions on the basis of billions of people doing trillions of tiny right things that nobody will ever notice.

At the same time, however, it's simply naïve to think that there aren't people who would be tempted by immunity from consequence. Some people are readily corrupted by power. Others are less-easily tempted but will eventually succumb over time to the decay of conscience that can be caused by proximity to moral freedom.

I was thinking about the Ring Of Gyges this past weekend because of an argument I got into with my Dad. He was up from Wilmington--my Grandmother VanNewkirk was in town--and President Obama came up in the conversation, and it inevitably came up that while everybody there--including my conservative, lifelong-Republican grandmother--was pleased by how the President's been doing so far, some of us are more pleased than others. I've had my issues--as you know if you're a regular--with the Obama Administration's persistence in continuing policies of the Bush Administration, including policies that, as Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, candidate Obama said or implied he would end. My Dad and I ended up in a circular argument over the state secrets privilege, and how I'd wish the Obama Administration would abandon the Bush Administration position they've elected to hew to--anyway, it was a friendly, albeit heated, argument, and I think my Dad and I have agreed to disagree, but I spent a bit of Sunday thinking of Gyges and that damn ring he had; maybe Gyges was a monster when he found the ring and the thing just empowered him, or maybe he was an alright guy to start with and the ring took his soul, but in the end he was a traitor and murderer, which is of course the point of the whole thing.

Probably the biggest problem I have with what the Administration wants to do with the state secrets privilege is the fact that it's--forgive me for stating the obvious here--a Ring Of Gyges. While the privilege was originally developed as an exclusionary rule in civil cases--the Executive Branch could claim that something's a state secret and decline to share it with the court--the Bush Administration advanced it as a means of dismissing civil litigation altogether and denying criminal or quasi-criminal discovery to men in Federal custody under the murky label of "illegal combatants."1 Turning the Ring one way makes the State invisible--immune to legal redress.

This is dangerous. It may be that there are leaders who would use the Ring rarely or only for good, but there is no state in which one man rules wisely and forever; in ours, there will be a new President in 2013 or 2017, and however wisely President Obama might govern with the Ring in his pocket, there will come a time in which the Ring will be passed on to a new bearer. And this is assuming Mr. Obama will resist the lure of the Ring and its call to absolute power. It would be better to repudiate the Ring, to return the privilege to what it was once upon a time: rarely invoked2 and then only to hold back as little as possible.

Understand that there is a difference between the partial invisibility that was formerly accorded and the total invisibility that is now claimed. The plaintiffs in Reynolds were still able to sue the U.S. Government, and indeed won a settlement out-of-court. The privilege claimed then was simply that the United States didn't have to reveal certain information. The privilege claimed now is immunity from suit altogether, and at the government's whim.

You have to remember, too, that a "state secret" could be anything. The Supreme Court's presumption in Reynolds was that a state secret was something pertaining to national security, but since the Executive claims the right to invoke the privilege any time it wants to, you must take it on faith that they're entitled to do so. As Judge Maris wrote in the Court Of Appeals Third Circuit decision in Reynolds that the U.S. Supreme Court reversed:

It is but a small step to assert a privilege against any disclosure of records merely because they might prove embarrassing to government officers. Indeed it requires no great flight of imagination to realize that if the Government's contentions in these cases were affirmed the privilege against disclosure might gradually be enlarged by executive determinations until, as is the case in some nations today, it embraced the whole range of governmental activities.

We need to recall in this connection the words of Edward Livingston: "No nation ever yet found any inconvenience from too close an inspection into the conduct of its officers, but many have been brought to ruin, and reduced to slavery, by suffering gradual imposition and abuses, which were imperceptible, only because the means of publicity had not been secured." And it was Patrick Henry who said that "to cover with the veil of secrecy the common routine of business, is an abomination in the eyes of every intelligent man and every friend to his country.

There is no doubt that there are some matters which would be injurious to the country if they were disclosed to the world. There is no doubt that there are legitimate secrets: sources of intelligence, methods of gathering information, perhaps even necessary quasi-legal or illegal acts that have violated treaty obligations or international conventions. But there's no doubt in my mind that allowing government to make itself invisible at will is anathema to a free society. I believe there are compromises: we give security clearances to congressmen and FISA judges, and I do not find objections to in camera review of alleged state secrets by qualified Federal judges to be persuasive or even colorable.3 That this carries risk is undeniable, too, but I find the risk of "gradual imposition and abuses" leading to tyranny to be far more outrageous and unacceptable.

Congress should act accordingly, and strip the Executive of any claim to legal immunity arising from a claim of state secrets. And Congress should go a step further, using its Article I, section 8 powers to establish courts capable of hearing state secrets cases with a reasonable guarantee of maintaining national security needs.

And in the meantime, the Obama Administration needs to abandon the Bush construction of the privilege; if Mr. Obama isn't going to abandon the Ring Of Gyges, he at least needs to reduce it to its former state.

1This seems as good a point as any to cop to an error I made in my argument with my Dad this weekend: while some state secrets cases have allowed for in camera review by a judge to determine whether the privilege may legitimately be claimed, United States v. Reynolds, 345 U.S. 1 (1953), which formally recognized the privilege in American law, makes the privilege something the Executive can claim without judicial review.

Contrary to what many people think, judges show a great deal of deference to the other branches of government--potentially too much. In construing a statute, legislatures are given the benefit of every doubt and the statute is read as if the legislature knew what it was doing even when such a reading challenges credulity. And when an executive action is under scrutiny, judges tend to assume the executive acted in good faith and knew what it was doing.

Reynolds is typical of such: although it subsequently turned out that the United States had no legitimate grounds for claiming privilege, the U.S. Supreme Court took the government at its word and held that the Executive was allowed to withhold information on their say-so, giving the government deference that was subsequently discovered to be undeservedly generous. In fact, personally I think Reynolds was wrongly decided for (as the three dissenters in Reynolds wrote without further comment) the reasons given in the Court Of Appeals opinion; I find Judge Maris' arguments, quoted in the main text, supra, to be uncannily prescient. However, regardless of what I think of it, Reynolds is the law of the land.

In any case, I believe I've said or implied on at least one occasion that in camera review was more frequent prior to the Bush Administration; this was an error.

2In 2006, John Dean wrote, "a recent study reports that the 'Bush administration has invoked the state secrets privilege in 23 cases since 2001.' By way of comparison, 'between 1953 and 1976, the government invoked the privilege in only four cases.'" While I think Mr. Dean's assertion is probably accurate, he doesn't appear to provide a source for it.

3If a judge can't be qualified, how are members of Congress to be given security clearances? Or members of the Executive, for that matter? It seems to me you could progress to certain secrets being so toxic that nobody ought to be aware of them, which is obviously absurd.


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