Oh, one other thing that's been bugging me, tangentially related to recent events...

>> Thursday, July 30, 2009

Bud Light? Dude. Bud Light?!? For fuck's sake, Mr. President. I'm really, really, really disappointed in you. Seriously. It's piss in a glass. You might as well have been drinking that non-alcoholic crapwater Biden was gulping down. I'm not saying you have to be an IPA guy like myself or anything... but Bud fucking Light? I thought you were inviting Gates and Crowley over to drink beer. WTF?

Mr. President, I believe we need to have a serious policy discussion. This simply will not stand.


This is damn interesting and worth a read

I've done a couple of entries on race this week, so it seems pretty damn fitting to link to a really provocative LiveJournal post that Dr. Phil brought to my attention (thanks, Dr. Phil!). Rawles writes about J.J. Abrams Star Trek and the significance of the new movie's Uhura-Spock relationship. (I realize that a lot of the regulars 'round here will have already seen Dr. Phil's post; this is for the benefit of the ones who haven't.)

Rawles has several good points, one of which is that the background of the viewer is going to affect how one sees the relationship in the movie. I have to admit I tended to see it as something that was a "contemporary" touch--"sexing things up," sort of--that wasn't inconsistent with minor hints dropped in the original canon but wasn't necessary, either. What hadn't occurred to me, and I think Rawles is dead-on with this, is that the original series' Uhura's interaction wasn't "professional" so much as it was conspicuously neutered. After all, the original Star Trek certainly had the white women--specifically and recurringly Yeoman Rand and Nurse Chapel, aside from various one-shot women-of-the-week in assorted episodes--inappropriately engaged with male crewmembers. If Nurse Chapel can throw herself at Spock, or if Yeoman Rand can flirt with Kirk, it does seem a bit odd that Lt. Uhura is always at her station, a perpetual bridesmaid-of-sorts.

That said, there's also an irony there: I think Rawles is right that there's a conspicuously racist subtext in Uhura's neutrality, but in terms of gender-roles (as opposed to race relations) it's Nichelle Nichols who's really the pro on the Enterprise. Her isolation may have been the result of '60s (and perhaps contemporary) racial attitudes, but she's also the female crewmember who isn't going to have to sue Kirk for sexual harassment (or, possibly, paternity). Is "invisibility" the fair asking price for gender equality, one has to wonder? It's not fair for the beautiful Nichelle Nichols to be ignored as a woman because she's an African-American woman, but, by the same token, it's not exactly fair that Grace Lee Whitney is evidently fair game for every walking gonad on the Enterprise (or a lady-in-peril, i.e. rapebait, in more than one episode of the original series where she beams down to a planet or some hostile masculine force like Charlie X comes aboard).

On the balance, I'm going to say Rawles has opened my eyes and I agree with her, but I'm going to admit that there are reservations. I suppose that what Rawles may prove is that gender and race in America are a completely fucked scene. Regardless, if you didn't see the link at Dr. Phil's, go read it now, okay?


Being in the majority

>> Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Here's the problem: some things seem like they should be talked about even when the subject isn't exactly worth the effort. Take, for instance, the recent statement made by stand-up comic and TV/radio talking head Glenn Beck that:

[President] Obama has exposed himself as a person with "a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture."

This is the sort of thing that, on the one hand, just seems to ask for a rebuttal or critique while, on the other hand, seems a waste of effort. After all, Glenn Beck appears, from what I've seen, to be an idiot with mannerisms and quirks suggestive of mental illness. I confess I'm not a listener or viewer or regular reader of his shtick, so maybe what I've seen online misrepresents the man, although an earnest attempt on my part to listen to Mr. Beck's response to the furor over his racism accusation ended in laughter a mere three minutes into his whatever-you'd-like-to-call-it. Hell, for all I know his entire shtick is shtick, "Glenn Beck" being a role he plays in public for the rubes.

So, anyway, I came across articles and outrage over Mr. Beck's statements when I was reading the news, and a funny thing happened.

See, my first thought when I read Mr. Beck's line was to laugh at the idea of "white culture," because, frankly, I just have no idea what that even is. Seriously. I mean, I'm aware that there are ethnic subcultures in the United States, based on history or geography or religion or whatever, and there are surely differences between what an African-American in the Deep South and an Italian-American in New York might consider "home cooking," to cite a ready example, but "white culture"? What the hell is "white culture"? Being a white dude, I'd sort of be curious to know what I'm missing or taking for granted or whatever. Is there a Dummies book for me? Records I ought to own? Do we have 'zines for this like there used to be for the alt scene when I was in high school and college?

And that's the line of thought that led to the funny thing. Because while I was thinking about that, I gradually came to wonder, "What if Glenn Beck was right?" I don't mean that I think he is--I think the notion's actually a bit improbable considering that Mr. Obama's mother is white, his grandparents who pretty much raised him were white--I mean, put it that way and Mr. Obama is practically the nation's not-first white guy lawyer President; no, Mr. Beck's assertions are as paranoid and implausible as most of what dribbles from his mouth. But hypothetically what if Beck were right, I wondered, and Mr. Obama was a racist who hated white people and "white culture" (let's pretend, for the moment, that "white culture" makes sense, too)? I wondered this, and I tried to imagine how, exactly, it would change my life in any way, shape or form.

And I couldn't think of one.

This, it occurred to me, is another example of what it means to live in the majority (and what, in contrast, it means to live in the minority). A majority leader who hates a minority has the backing of majority lawmakers and majority law enforcement and majority courts--he has a lot of potential options when it comes to hurting the minority in all sorts of areas of their lives. Indeed, if his minority-hating values are shared by a majority within the majority, his power to discriminate against and harm the minority is almost boundless. Hell, active hatred isn't even required, the majority leader can do all sorts of damage simply through ignorance, coming up with and enforcing laws and rules that don't affect anyone he knows but are to the detriment of a smaller group he doesn't even think about.

And the minority leader who hates the majority? What is he going to do about it, exactly? Supposing for the sake of a discussion about race that Barack Obama really does hate white people, hates them with a passionate vengeance, obsesses over them during every waking hour and rolls with terrifying nightmares of them during his restless sleep? What is he going to do? Get the mostly-white Congress to shut down white businesses? Send the mostly-white Army out to kick in white people's doors and roust them from their beds? Have the mostly-white judges in the mostly-white courts seize whites' real estate? Order the mostly-white police to arrest any white person on sight if the white doesn't produce travel papers or isn't wearing some identifying article of clothing or is out past curfew on the streets of mostly-white neighborhoods?

The fact is that President Obama could be filled to the brim with a fierce hatred of whites--he isn't, but if he was--and he still wouldn't be able to do a damn thing about it, not even with all the power of the Presidency Of The United States behind him. And that's part of what it means to be in the majority. And it's also why minorities are frankly justified to mistrust the majority; majorities have power that cannot be taken away while they remain a majority, and there's power in numbers that a minority, by definition, cannot have.

This is not something for minorities to understand--it's something that can be sensed by instinct the first time someone from the majority acts despicably towards a minority or even the first time a member of the majority takes his inherent immunity and privilege for granted. No, it's a lesson for white people.

It raises an obvious question, you know: what the hell are bigots like Beck and like-minded fools frightened of? Their thoughtless fears are manifestations of a particularly ignorant paranoia. If it didn't have such potential for ugly consequences it would almost be laughable: "Yes, black socialists are going to kick in your doors, take away your guns and then make you wait in line to see a doctor." Only almost: it's hard not to read the gun as a Freudian symbol for potency and the real fear as being those entwined bugbears of the racist mind--miscegenation and rape.

We aren't as bad, as a culture, as we were a hundred years ago, or even fifty. In time I hope that one majority will emerge, a realization that we are a single species; in the meanwhile, if race is, scientifically-speaking, a spurious distinction we continue to make out of history of bad habits and the tribalism of European colonialists, we can at least address the obliviousness of the majority that doesn't recognize its status and the idiocy of fools like the frothing Mr. Beck.


Rare times I regret not watching TV....

>> Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Bill, I hereby publicly forgive you for Star Trek V.


Plush wisdom

The second-wisest Muppet in the entire universe, after Yoda, is Cookie Monster, who astutely observed this fundamental truth, to wit: "'C' is for 'cookie,' that's good enough for me."

What more does one need to know? Just saying.

That is all. Carry on.



>> Monday, July 27, 2009

So, I've been trying really, really hard not to say anything about the recent arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. since my sister sent me an e-mail about it shortly before it hit the web and became a Sudden Big Deal. I have a lot of respect for Professor Gates, he seems like a good guy, and reservations about cops, but I wanted to wait until things settled before I said anything, if I said anything. I kind of figured, actually, that the truth of what happened was probably in the middle of things somewhere, and that there was probably some degree of blame to be directed the Professor's way and some to be levied against the cop.

I'm a bit surprised today to discover that I was right to wait and wrong about the blame. I'm talking about the news today that the person who called the "break-in" at Professor Gates' home apparently never mentioned the race of the men she saw, which gives a credibility to the profiling claim that I frankly didn't think it had. Really, I was inclined to think this was anything but a profiling case, and maybe I was pretty wrong.

Let's rewind, just in case you missed it. The story goes something like this: Professor Gates, an esteemed Harvard professor, comes back home from a trip to China. He finds that the front door of his house in Cambridge is stuck, possibly from a robbery attempt, so he and his driver try to force the door. Failing, the Professor goes around and lets himself in the back. Meanwhile, a woman working in the neighborhood sees two men forcing the door of a residence, and calls 911; according to an AP report:

The caller, Lucia Whalen, says she saw two men pushing on the door of the house. She tells police she is not sure if the men live there or not. When pressed for a description by a dispatcher, she says one of the men may have been Hispanic.

A Cambridge police officer, Sgt. James Crowley, shows up and asks Professor Gates for identification, which the Professor produces. Professor Gates evidently accuses the officer of hassling him because he's black, the officer continues to insist on ID and, per the same AP account, a recording released by the Cambridge Police Department reveals:

Sgt. James Crowley said he was with a man who claims to live in the house and with identification showing he was Gates. Crowley said the man was not cooperating and told the dispatcher to "keep the cars coming."

There are further words between the Professor and the Sergeant. The Sergeant finally leaves, and Professor Gates apparently follows, and is arrested on his front porch for Disorderly Conduct, not for breaking into his own home (as has often been reported). The charge is subsequently dismissed.

Now, let's cover a few things right away: Disorderly Conduct and Resisting Arrest are basically bullshit charges--while there are incidents where the charges are legitimate, I suspect most defense attorneys and even a few honest prosecutors will agree with me that these two charges are red flags, charges that officers file to cover their asses when they've crossed a line or someone is threatening their badge, the very mistake Professor Gates made.1 So I wasn't really that inclined to put much stock in the Sergeant's version (with its deliciously improbable and hard-to-credit account of code-shifting) to begin with. That having been said, I was also inclined to think Professor Gates was probably not as meek as he and his lawyer have portrayed it--my guess is he was pretty pissed off, justified or not--and certainly the main photograph from the arrest that has circulated appears to show the Professor yelling on his porch.

Anyway, what was clear before today was that while this might have been a case of an arrogant Harvard prof having an unfortunate run-in with an arrogant cop, it wasn't racial profiling in any meaningful sense: until today, the account was that Sgt. Crowley was responding to a report of two black guys breaking into a house and when he gets to the house, he finds a black guy inside; it would be reasonable for him to at least see if the person he finds is a possible suspect, just as it would be reasonable if the report were two white guys breaking into a house to investigate a white guy inside. Where we'd be talking about "racial profiling," the practice of targeting minorities for harassment or investigation solely or primarily because of race without reasonable suspicion or probable cause, would be if the report was two white guys breaking into a house and the officer harasses a black guy (who therefore clearly isn't his suspect) anyway, or if the report was two guys breaking into a house, I don't know, maybe one of them is Hispanic and then the officer harasses a black guy--

Oh. Wait. Ouch. See what I mean? If Crowley has a report of one or more black dudes doing something at a location and therefore investigates one or more black dudes at that location, it's not profiling. It might be lamentably lazy investigation, or an indicator that race remains too big a consideration in our culture and eclipses potentially more-useful descriptors like height or hair color or even clothing (not to mention really good, individualized details like scars and tattoos), but it isn't a "racial" thing, at least not in any kind of discriminatory sense. But if Crowley has no mention of a suspect's race or a contradicting description, and he singles out a black guy anyway--well, that's a fucking problem.2 And that's starting to look like that's what happened.

The best benefit-of-the-doubt I can give Sgt. Crowley would be if the 911 operator introduced the "two black men," although it fails to justify Crowley's apparent arrogance in continuing to express suspicions about Gates' identification and claims of residence.

That last point is pretty critical, actually: regardless of whether or not the officer is a racist or behaved in a racist manner, I'm personally satisfied that he acted like an arrogant fuck who went in with a scenario all sketched-out in his mind and then got pissy when his ass wasn't kissed as wetly as he'd hoped (or at all). I advise people to be polite to cops: aside from the fact that it's generally good to be polite to people, cops have guns and Tasers and mace and handcuffs and the ability to lock you up for all sorts of things that a jury may-or-may-not believe you really did. Professor Gates might have been well-served if he'd bitten his tongue until the guy left. That said, the good cops I know are, among other qualities, officers who know how to react to somebody giving them a hard time with grace and humor; I'm also satisfied that even if Professor Gates was belligerent, Sgt. Crowley could have defused the situation very quickly by taking everything in stride, but (for whatever reason) didn't do so.

Actually, that's one of the reasons I ended up commenting on l'affaire Gates: the New York Times has this annoying headline, "Cops 'don't get paid to be publicly abused'". Horseshit. Of course they do, just like people who work in customer relations, food services, the DMV renewal line, or any other public job. Maybe they don't get paid enough, and I'm not saying anybody should abuse anyone else, but the bottom line is that a job that brings you in contact with dozens or hundreds of people a day is statistically inevitable to bring you into contact with assholes (not that Professor Gates, who seems like a decent guy, is one of them). And police officers have a job that brings them into frequent contact with not just life's assholes, but with people who maybe aren't assholes when they're sober or on their meds or fully-rested but who become assholes when they're drunk, nuts or exhausted. That's part of the job description, tough if you can't deal with that. An asshole who doesn't need to be wearing a badge is thus quoted by the Times:

"I wouldn’t back down if there's a crowd gathering," the Brooklyn officer said, in part out of concern of sending a message of weakness that could haunt another officer later. "We’re a band of brothers. We have to be there to help each other out. If there’s a group and they're throwing out slurs and stuff, you have to handle it."

...and a finer example of the siege mentality that leads to officers perjuring themselves to cover for an out-of-line colleague or trumping up a Resist charge out of a citizen exercising his Constitutional rights you're unlikely to find. Meanwhile, an officer who is likely a credit to his profession:

"We don't get to tell people what they want to hear," said the Los Angeles officer, who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid being quoted on duty. "Whether we’re giving them a ticket or responding to some conflict between a husband and wife, we're not dealing with people at their best, and if you don’t have a tough skin, then you shouldn't be a cop."

Bingbingbingbing! We have a winner! Hey, it's a tough job. I wouldn't want to do it either. But an elephant's hide is part of the business, and if you don't have it, you're in the wrong line-of-work.

Here's the most disturbing paragraph in the whole Times piece, by the way:

The line of when to put on handcuffs is a personal and blurry one, varying among officers in the same city, the same precinct, even the same patrol car.

What. The. Fuck. "Blurry"? No, the line is "Do you have probable cause to make an arrest?" that's where the fucking line is, mon frere. I'll grant you that the U.S. Supreme Court hasn't always been effective in explaining what that actually means, so if you want to say that, well I feel your pain, I do. But if you don't know that the wriggly blurred line is probable cause to make an arrest, apply for a fucking job in North Korea, already. Seriously.3

This was the other thing that set me off today and prompted this post: Representative Thaddeus McCotter, a Michigan Republican, is apparently all set to introduce a resolution calling for President Obama to apologize to Sgt. Crowley. Again with the periodized what-the-fucking. First, let's just say that while the President's initial take may have been premature, the latest news certainly seems to be shifting the douchiness meter against the Sarge, sorry. He was just coming off as an arrogant, out-of-control cop who handled a tense situation badly, now it's starting to look like maybe he really is a bigot, too. Secondly, even if you do give Sgt. Crowley's account more credit than it seems due, what the President originally said was:

"I don’t know–-not having been there and not seeing all the facts--what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two that he Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home."

...and you could certainly agree that it wasn't exactly brilliant of the Cambridge Police Department to arrest one of the nation's most prominent African-American scholars on the porch of his home after some sort of "misunderstanding" about what he was doing in his own house. Whether the Cambridge Police Department in general or Sgt. Crowley in person were right or wrong, the net result is mostly embarrassing to the Cambridge Police, a department that apparently has been criticized before for racial insensitivity; in short, at the very best the whole affair is a kind of "own goal" the Cambridge Police scored on themselves (at worst, of course, it's rank racism).

But thirdly, and most importantly: what the hell is it with the Republicans and resolutions to put words in other people's mouths? First it was that business with them wanting Democrats to rename themselves the "Godless Anarchist Socialist Fascist Rim-Jobbers" or whatever it was, now it's "Hey, betcha I can make you apologize!" Betcha you can't, jackass. Rep. McCotter, if you want to pass a resolution supporting Sgt. Crowley, or supporting Cambridge PD, or supporting cops in general, or, hell, calling the President a smelly poo-poo head, fine, whatever, knock yourself out.4 But this "resolve that you say blah" crapola was lame when you guys did it at your convention or bake-off or whatever you called it. It's less becoming in the halls of Congress, and you ought to pull your head out of your ass and smell the shame. Sheesh.

1Professor Gates asked for the officer's badge number, which he's evidently entitled to under Massachusetts law. Nonetheless it's a bad idea to say this even if you can under your local laws--you're telegraphing that you're planning on filing a complaint, and more than a few officers will go into ass-covering mode at that point, and will look to preemptively charge you (say, for instance, with Disorderly Conduct) so that they can go on to claim your complaint is merely retaliatory.

If you're going to file a complaint, don't say you're going to file a complaint, just do it.

There are other ways to get the officer's identity, particularly if you're dealing with a smaller police department. A phone call might suffice, particularly if it comes from your attorney. You might be able to simply ask the officer for his business card if he has one. Or you might be able to ask for a copy of the police report, depending. If all else fails, rely on memory before you send a coded message that you're calling the guy's boss first chance you have.

2Christopher Hitchens, in a piece of rare perspicacity, recounts a classic example of profiling along these exact lines:

I was once mugged by a white man on the Lower East Side of New York, and then, having given my evidence, was laboriously shown a whole photo album of black "perps" at the local station house. The absurdity of the exercise lay not just in the inability of a half-trained and uncultured force to believe what I was telling them, but in the certainty that their stupidity was helping the guilty party to make a getaway.

3That paragraph in the Times pissed me off. Can you tell?

4Preferably with a brick, ya jerkoff.


Because it's been three days since I posted, my wrist bugs me, and I have nothing much to say...

>> Sunday, July 26, 2009

Have some Charmparticles--"The Magnificent Sky, I Leave And Am High" from Alive In The Hot Spell:


Ah, whiff of sweet, cheezy pop ephemera, thank you for existing when I needed you!

>> Thursday, July 23, 2009

Here's where the satellite radio justifies itself: after a long day, wrist achy and body punked out from having two inches of metal pulled out yesterday, just feeling utterly crummy, having to drive home through a thunderstorm that's laying out solid walls of rain, and you don't know what you feel like listening to, so you start surfing through a hundred stations. And on one of the heavy metal-themed channels, you find yourself bopping along to Ace Frehley's 1978 cover of "New York Groove," a song that was huge when you were six, a priceless bit of pop ephemera you haven't heard in probably well-over-twenty years, maybe even thirty.

It's total cheez, with a "z" and no silent "e," but it cannot, will not, shall not be denied.

One more day to slog through and it's the weekend, pfwew!


Chris Matthews is generally kind of a douche, but he does have his moments...

>> Wednesday, July 22, 2009

...like this one, where he offers to mail Congressman John Campbell a copy of President Obama's birth certificate:

Matthews is, of course, absolutely right for a change: the proposed law is a bit of symbolic posturing to cater to the whacko nutjob arm of the right wing, and won't shut them up one bit. Obama's birth certificate has been produced, and they yammer on, much like people yammer on about the moon landings being faked despite displays of moon rocks or Oswald being an innocent patsy despite a document trail of his purchase of the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle identified as the murder weapon and his attempt to murder a police officer during his arrest with the same pistol used to murder Patrolman J.D. Tippit the same day. Conspiranoiacs can't be shut down by the production of facts and use of logic. Should they ever acknowledge President Obama's birth certificate, it will be to call it a fake. Damn clever of the mysterious "them" to forge a document forty-seven years in advance. That's what I call "foresight."

Anyway, the video's fun and worth watching; nothing like humiliating a ridiculous twit who lacks the self-awareness to realize he's a ridiculous twit who's being humiliated....


Not exactly blown away...

EDIT - AUGUST 25th, 2009: After a month, I think this post has drawn all the intelligent comments from real people it's likely to. Unfortunately, the word "blown" seems to be drawing spambots and deleting their posts is boring me, so I'm closing comments on it. Sorry. I'm sure I'll write about religion again, and you can comment there.

Here's the original post if you still want to read it:

Nathan brought this to my attention: a USA Today piece describing an alleged trend of atheist "de-baptism" ceremonies in which atheists who have been baptized have their baptism "blown away" with a hairdryer. (Thanks, Nathan!) Y'know, people--I'm talking to my fellow atheists, here, and agnostics, so this may not apply to you, Dear Reader--people, this is the kind of thing that makes us look and sound stupid, the reason some people insist atheism (or agnosticism) is a "religion". Engaging in a ritual to demonstrate how little you need rituals isn't enlightened, it's just pathetic. Please stop. You're embarrassing us.

A related piece by USA Today's religion writer, Cathy Lynn Grossman, blathers:

The de-baptizing trendlet, zipping around among atheist gatherings and college campuses, supposedly offers people a jokey way--if you see thumbing your nose at major world religions' rites as funny--to blow away the waters of their original baptism and renounce their childhood faith.

--which is worth mentioning just because, yes, thumbing your nose at major world religions' rites is pretty funny, and not just to us eternally-damned heathens. More than a few religious humorists have gotten mileage out of Communion and Confessional jokes, and not just on a sectarian basis (e.g. Catholic jokes about Catholicism or Baptist jokes about Baptists are frequently funnier and more pointed, and Judaism has been fodder for Jewish comedians for millennia). But never mind that, your former church isn't going to have a fit over your renunciation of your childhood bath or remove you from the rolls. Indeed, most likely they will reply, if at all, with one of those annoyingly condescending "hope you wise up and embrace Jesus" messages, only the condescension will be entirely earned for a change--I mean, why do you even care if your old church thinks you're baptized, anyway? They're wrong about nearly everything else in general, right? So who cares if they're wrong about one piddling detail like whether or not they think you're going to Heaven? You're not, so there it is.

(I have much the same views, actually, about the furor over the Mormons hobby of baptizing dead Jewish people. Let 'em have their dumb fun; sure, I can see where it's insulting, but they think they're helping, and anyway we're talking about people who believe God left them a message on invisible golden plates in a language that could only be translated once and by sticking your face into a hat with a magic rock inside it. No, seriously.)

The worst types of atheists are the angry ones--and I don't mean the strident or vocal ones. Putting a Flying Spaghetti Monster icon or "Darwin Fish" on your bumper is one thing (or ought to be--Thomas Lessl's claims give one pause), as is buying ads for the sides of buses. And keep the books and blogs coming. There's no reason an atheist ought to be silent or passive or shy. No, the "angry ones" I'm talking about are the atheists who are motivated by some profound anger at a God they don't believe in, who evince obvious feelings of having been betrayed by a church or sect as if that's a piece for or against a deity either way. They're the worst kind not because of their obnoxious behavior--which doesn't make them easy to love, by the way--but because their attitude and behavior betrays a fundamental belief that most atheists and agnostics claim to share: that their position is one arrived at through sensible faculties and reason rather than emotionalism or blind adherence to (or rebellion against) tradition.

As one of the folks quoted in the main USA Today article says, "leave the ceremonies to the religious." Can I have an "Amen," brothers and sisters?


Hairy-handed gents run amuck no more

>> Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Professor Brian Regal has accused Charles Darwin of driving the common lycanthrope to extinction.1 Professor Regal's proposal is that Darwin's Theory Of Evolution made the existence of werewolves so illogical that Bigfoot and other apemen replaced werewolves as "wildmen of the woods" in the popular imagination.

"The spread of the idea of evolution helped kill off the werewolf because a canid-human hybrid makes no sense from an evolutionary point of view," he says. "The ape-human hybrid, however, is not only evolutionarily acceptable, it is the basis of human evolution."

Granted that it's hard to really critique a notion when it's presented in a digested bit'o'news like that--maybe the prof really has his werewolf lore down--but I'm not inclined to buy in. The problem, as I see it, is that traditional werewolves were not generally viewed as some kind of natural creature at all; up until relatively modern times, as I understand it, the traditional werewolf in western cultures was a fellow who made a deal with Satan in which he was granted the power to become a wolf whenever he dressed himself in a wolf hides. An obvious root for the legends are the Nordic berserkers, warriors who allegedly dressed up in bear or wolf pelts and went completely nuts (you know, berserk) on their enemies' asses. Also frequently ascribed as a root for werewolf legends are mental illness and/or physical disabilities such as porphyria. Certainly, some of the "true" accounts of "werewolfery," if not completely apocryphal, appear to be possible early descriptions of sociopathic serial killers or sex offenders--a strange and shunned individual whose behavior leads to suspicions he trafficks with demons is subsequently found to have killed women or children in the region when angry and suspicious townspeople hammer down his door.

I won't pretend to possess a great deal of expertise, more of a lay interest, really, but I don't recall any "true" European accounts that involve werewolves allegedly hanging out in the woods, unless the accused werewolf just happened to have a house or hovel in the forest, away from the prying eyes of townspeople. What I'm getting at, really, is that the werewolf of folklore isn't really analogous to Bigfoot or other fabulous apemen.

So why don't people believe in werewolves anymore, if they ever really did all that much? Western populations have become increasingly secularized, for one thing, and even among religious segments of the population, belief in a personal Satan (one who makes appearances to hand out magical wolf hides) is on the decline. And aberrant mental (or physical) states have been increasingly subject to medical and scientific attention since well before Darwin--in the West, attempts were being made to treat mental illness as illness by the 18th Century and the first European madhouses had been chartered before Darwin even boarded the Beagle.

In short, one suspects that Europeans stopped believing in werewolves for much the same reasons most of them stopped believing in vampires and fairies and unicorns. Indeed, one has to note that, in a way, nobody has stopped believing in werewolves, but rather the nature of the belief changed in ways alluded to in the previous paragraphs: people no longer believe in actual werewolves, but they've sought explanations in psychiatry and medicine for people who think they're werewolves or have been mistaken for werewolves.

For whatever it's worth, Wikipedia provides a nice rundown of some of the best werewolf traditions. Take a gander--does this sound like a creature that's been "replaced" by Bigfoots and Yetis?

1H/T to The Skeptic's Dictionary!


Understatement of the day (in history)

>> Monday, July 20, 2009

There has been a drastic change to my life.

-Neil Armstrong, explaining his decision to leave NASA
(quoted in Paul Farhi "One Step Was Plenty,"
Washington Post, July 20, 2009)


Boldly going and gone

Forty years ago today, people landed on the moon. The next day--forty years ago, tomorrow--Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder of the lunar module, The Eagle, and took a little stroll. It was probably a day after that--forty years ago, Wednesday--that some paranoid asstard began wheeling his arms around and screaming, "Fake! Fake!" but to hell with that guy.

I wasn't around at the time, so I can't regale you with tales of sitting next to the flickering black-and-white hearth and breathlessly watching the events of 1.28 seconds in the past. When I was a wee little kid, though, I wanted to be an astronaut (not that unusual a childhood fantasy, I know), and so I was fascinated with all of it six or seven years in the past. I had an Apollo 11 record, I recall, that reproduced the audio feed and had some cheesy tribute music to go with it, light jazz instrumentals, that kind of thing, and I played the tracks that were just the Apollo 11 audio 'til you could see daylight through the vinyl. (Okay, that last part's exaggeration, but you get the gist.)

It was an epic thing, humans boldly going where no one had gone before. And at the time it still seemed that humans would keep boldly going--the idea of moonbases and space stations didn't seem that far-fetched if you were a naïve little tyke in the mid-'70s, oblivious to the realities of politics and budgets and such. Heck, I think adults probably fell for it, too: I mean, consider the 1968 classic, 2001. Eight years later, you sort of have to shake your head at how far off some of the movie ended up--no moon bases, no bigass wheels in the sky, no Pan Am--but at the time (a year before Apollo 11) the things Messrs. Clarke and Kubrick threw up on the screen had to be pretty straightforward linear extrapolations; land a man on the moon circa 1969 and surely you can have a permanent station there in thirty-two years, hell, that's about how long it took to go from a crude biplane made from bicycle parts to the Heinkel He 178(thirty-six years, to be exact), at which point we were well into the age of flight in general, trans-Atlantic, trans-Pacific, trans-Arctic, you name it.

If we were in space for the right reasons, the epic reasons, I think we'd have all the awesome stuff. But we weren't, not really. I hate to take some of the sparkle away, but let's face it: we were mostly on the moon not as a species achieving its destiny as we were there as Americans telling the Soviets to eat it. I'm honestly not trying to piss on the party--the lunar landing was a human pinnacle despite some of the baser motivations; no, it's that the baser motives are (I think) a big part of the reason we haven't had a parade for the returning Discovery astronauts back from their Jupiter rendezvous--once we'd rubbed the Soviet Union's face in it, there really wasn't a good reason to spend gazillions on going back again and again, and we ended up scaling back the plans for a permanent space station until all that was left was a delivery vehicle with no real mission and a disturbing tendency to explode. The Space Shuttle is, sort of ironically, kind of an example of why I'm not sure we physically belong in space.

See, we didn't exactly follow the linear projection Kubrick and Clarke sketched out; we got ourselves into politics and budgets and all that, and we never really had all that good a reason to go in the first place, and so we didn't make any sort of straight progression from those early unmanned Apollo flights that were in progress while 2001 was being made to Pan American spaceplanes taking bureaucrats up on routine business trips into the sky. And I guess where I'm going with this is that while my heart is with all the people who want to finally go back to the moon and to Mars for the right reasons, for the epic human adventure and the romance of discovery, my brain keeps telling me that we've set ourselves too far back to really justify the expense and risk to human life.

One of the funny things about the way the manned space program got sidetracked into a sort of oblivion is that various agencies never gave up exploring the universe and boldly going where no one had gone before and all that. But they didn't send people to do it--people who need to cart their food and water and precious air, people who can die of up to about a dozen different things at once if abruptly exposed to the intensely hostile environments of deep space or the lunar or Martian landscapes. We have these doughty explorers with names like Voyager, Ulysses and Cassini, Spirit and Opportunity, and they're doing good science and witnessing exotic vistas for us, and bless 'em but if they all died tomorrow the grief would be fleeting because we can build more.

I was thinking about this last bit this morning while listening to Buzz Aldrin for a few minutes on NPR. He was talking about getting a critical mass of humans onto Mars, and made the point that the people who got off the Mayflower didn't sit around waiting for the return ship to take them back, they were there to stay and live, and it's a good point as far as it goes. Buzz Aldrin is a hell of a guy, and if I disagree with him, which I sort of do, it's a disagreement filled with respect and admiration, and even envy for what he's seen and done. I agree with him that it would be neat to have humans living on Mars, there to stay and hopefully prosper. It would certainly give the species a shot if we Earthbound humans manage to wipe ourselves out or get creamed by a celestial event like the rock that beaned the dinosaurs but good sixty-five million years ago. The problem is that I think the comparison to the Puritans falls through when you consider that all the ways they could have died en route or upon arrival would have been individual, slow, and not inevitable, with the exception of their ship sinking in bad weather at a particularly inopportune place (and bear in mind there are places the Mayflower could have sunk with a decent probability of survivors washing up on one shore or another). A gasket blows at Mars landing and pfft, literally pfft, there goes everyone in a puff of sweet, sweet air.

For the money and trouble we'd spend trying to keep them from suffocating on vacuum or their own waste gas, or starving or dying of thirst or from exotic cancers caused by insufficient radiation shielding--for all that, how many 'bots could we scatter through the solar system and eventually the galaxy? I'm not immune to the romance of human feet kicking up the dirt of an alien place, but I also have to wonder why the seeds we scatter shouldn't be made of metal and silicon? We could be boldly going not merely where no one has gone but where no one could go, not if they were human-sized and human-shaped and needed to breathe and eat and drink and find something to do with their piss and shit.

A common objection to this line is that humans on-site can respond and react to events more quickly. This is true at the moment, let's concede; the time-delay in a round-trip radio signal to Pluto, at its very closest, is around ten hours. We could exchange news with our little friend twice-a-day, basically, and if something happens in the meantime who would know? The bitch is, of course, that the same thing would be true if it was some guy out there instead of a robot. If we put people on Mars, there will be around a three-minute delay in each direction, more than enough time to listen to a perfect pop song. But, more significantly, I think we're on a better track when it comes to smart machines than reliable manned space travel; I don't know if we'll ever create an AI or if true AI is even possible, but we are making strides every day in building software that can react to changes in the environment and make and respond to predictions with surprising accuracy. Our 'bots are going to take increasingly better care of themselves with less intervention from us.

I don't know. Like I said, my heart wants to go. But my head says there's no need to do it person.


Wherein Eric talks about his car radio and ends up apologizing to his parents

>> Wednesday, July 15, 2009

I figured I had a choice: I could spend something like $350 to get a new car stereo or around $180 to activate the satellite radio preinstalled in the Bug and get a one-year subscription to Sirius. When I upgraded the radio in the old Bug it made sense, because the 2004 had a tape deck I didn't need and no built-in way to use my iPod, which I wanted (sure, I could have gotten an adapter, but the short-range radio ones never work well and the tape-head ones are a pain in the ass--not that any of this matters anymore, of course). But the 2008 has an AUX jack in the dash and a built-in Sirius receiver, and VWs tend to have pretty jamming factory preinstalls (if I remember correctly, they used to be licensed from Bose, not sure if they still are)--so I went with the satellite radio ("SDARS"), what the hell? Cheaper in the short term, and everyone I know with SDARS is an addict, and theoretically it was the easier choice although in practice I still ended up at the dealer to have the module replaced (covered under warranty, however).

Anyway, I've been happy with it for the past few days I've had it. The places you get dropouts in a city are a little unpredictable, but it's a nice, clean signal otherwise.1 The thing that's been a little distressing, however, is discovering that one of the channels I've been listening to more frequently, "1st Wave," is categorized as "Classic Alternative."

Classic? Classic? I'm too young to be listening to anything that's classic, unless it's actual classical music or something my parents got me into, like when I taped their old Beatles and Rolling Stones albums in junior high. That's "classic." "1st Wave" plays a lot of stuff I bought in high school, R.E.M., The Smiths, a lot of goth and New Wave, some punk, stuff like that. This morning on the way to work they played a Go-Gos song from 1981 ("Skidmarks on My Heart") that I have loaded on my freaking iPod right now (along with the rest of Beauty And The Beat2). Okay, so that was twenty-eight years ago that the Go-Gos album came out and I was actually in the third grade at that point--and that's really not helping.

Classic? Classic?

I have to wonder if this is how my Dad felt, oh, about twenty-eight years ago, actually.3 My Mom, though she listened to a lot of rock, mostly listened to Country then and now, which meant that a lot of the music she likes was old or sounded old even when she was young or it was new; I imagine, perhaps incorrectly, that this maybe lessens the blow of realizing you like oldies. But my Dad--I have to imagine he's gone through the same "what-the-fuck?" experience I've been having listening to "classic" (classic?!) alternative. He listens to a lot of contemporary stuff, I don't want to give the wrong impression. But was there a sinking feeling sometime in the '80s or '90s when he realized that the radio station playing all those awesome deep cuts from the '60s and '70s was playing "Classic Rock"--classic, great Chronos help us?

I was bopping along happily to my golden oldies when I suddenly imagined some younger person in the car--let's say an imaginary child of mine4, had any of those awful college relationships resulted in spawn--asking me what the hell is this shit. "What is this?" my child would ask, with a bit of sneer and upturned nose that would clearly imply the omitted-but-explicit "the hell" and "shit." And I would try and miserably fail to explain that two, maybe three decades ago, this sound was the essence of what it meant to be alive and young, alive and in love, alive and angry, alive and sad, alive and horny, alive and alive and alive. That "this (shit)" was what you cranked up and blasted in your first car when you were sixteen, "this (shit)" was what you rushed home and turned your TV on for, punching in on the keypad or twiddling on the dial to MTV because "this (shit)" was everything meaningful in the world for three minutes and forty-four seconds.

That mental picture took the bop out of my happy for a few moments, I tell you. I wondered if I did that to my Dad sometime long ago, or even my Mom; more likely my Mom, now that I think about it--I didn't really start to appreciate Country and Bluegrass until college, and there have been times when my Dad's musical tastes were arguably ahead of my own, actually.5 Regardless, my apologies to both of you. If I was snotty, I was also young, and had no idea I'd end up feeling old.

Maybe I'll listen to "40s on 4" on the way home tonight. That ought to put things into perspective for everybody except my grandparents.

1There are two good FM stations in the Charlotte area, WFAE and The Eagle. The first, an NPR affiliate, has a pretty strong signal these days but suffers from interference in some parts of the region. The latter is run out of a community college in Gaston County and isn't always accessible in Charlotte, though I was recently surprised when a friend was able to pick up a solid signal in north Charlotte.

The rest of Charlotte radio is pretty much shit, the usual Clear Channel cesspool you'd expect in most urban areas. Fifteen minutes of commercials every hour, flavor-of-the-week bands, the Same Old Shit.

2The Go-Gos being, of course, one of the best-and-underrated surf-punk bands of all time, and infinitely better than those goody-two-shoes, The Bangles. I kid about the latter bit, of course: The Bangles are perfectly cromulent. But the first part, seriously, the Go-Gos were basically a surf band with a charming dose of that "What The Fuck Are We Even Doing On Stage" aesthetic of a lot of punk and garage bands, and I love them forever and to the death. Jane, call me sometime; if you're ever in town, I'll buy you a coffee if you don't mind being gazed at adoringly.

As a further aside, I love that "cromulent" shows up in Blogger's built-in spellchecker.

3I feel like I'm throwing you under some kind of temporal bus, Dad. Sorry about that. For whatever it's worth, he's very young to have a son who's nearly forty.

Sorry. Guess that didn't really help, either.

4"Sweet Child O' Mine," a classic Guns'n'Roses tune, came out in 1987, during the summer before I began the tenth grade. I was fifteen. I'd imagine you can hear it on Sirius channel 15, "Classic Rewind ('70s & '80s Classic Rock)".

5Nonetheless, Camper Van Beethoven, David Lowery's first band, is objectively superior to Cracker, his second. I'm sorry, some things are just simply true and you should learn to accept them.


Dresden Codak solves the "junk DNA" mystery...

>> Monday, July 13, 2009

...in yesterday's installment. See, I knew the stuff was there for a reason. It all makes perfect sense.



>> Sunday, July 12, 2009

Just got out of Duncan Jones' Moon. I don't want to say too much about it, because I think it might be a little better to go into it cold (I was prepared for a minor, early plot twist--I don't think it was spoiled for me, exactly, but I don't know if it would have been a surprise, if you see what I'm saying).

I will say that I think it's very, very good, and that I think a lot of the regulars who come 'round Giant Midgets would enjoy it greatly. I walked out thinking it was what the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick would have called "the proverbial good science fiction movie." Of course, as soon as I thought that, it also occurred to me that we SF fans maybe complain too much and there are more "smart" science fiction movies than we usually remember to acknowledge, perhaps because they get sort of drowned out in the zeitgeist-or-whatever by the big dumb explodey SF movies.

Moon isn't as epic or cosmic or grand as 2001 (the "proverbial good science fiction movie" that Messrs. Clarke and Kubrick, of course, made), and I would have been happier in the last five minutes if they'd gone for a darker ending, but it does have points of comparison somehow--the mining facility in Moon could easily be over-the-next-rise from Clavius Base and has the same lived-in-future aesthetic that Kubrick pioneered in 2001. (And Kevin Spacey's performance as GERTY owes a little to Douglas Rain; Kubrick and Clarke failed, however, to realize the significant role emoticons would play in AI/human relations, one of several extremely clever touches in Moon that leads to a surprisingly affecting moment in the film.)

I'll also say that part of what makes Moon interesting is that it's a very intimate story in which the SF elements are integral and yet peripheral: that is, it's not a story about moon bases or AIs or robots--it's an entirely a story about a guy--and yet it's hard to think of how you'd translate the story to the Middle Ages or the Victorian Era or last week; the SF elements are vital but not distracting, and you quickly come to take them for granted in a good way.

There's also, unless I saw something that wasn't there, a classic-SF in-joke in a computer password, but I'll let you keep an eye out for that yourself.

See it, or rent it. I think you'll like it. I did. And that's all I'm going to say about it for now.


Traveling light

>> Saturday, July 11, 2009

Much to my surprise, since I'd received e-mails and a phone call saying it would be horribly, horribly late, the Dell netbook I recently ordered showed up on Friday. A full verdict isn't in, but I think it's going to do what I needed it to, and that would make it a success.

The cons are easy. First, I'm a little concerned about the battery life on this thing, which looks like it may be around two hours, which seems a bit low for a little bitty 10" thing running an underpowered processor. That may be a flaw in my expectations, or it may be something where I simply need to play with settings until I'm maxing how much I can juice out of the battery.

The second big con isn't really addressable: the trackpad on this thing is pretty terrible. To maximize surface area, the buttons are built into the pad itself, which means you can jog the mouse out of position while trying to click. This would mostly be an issue for right-clicks, but for the fact that the pad is surprisingly unresponsive to taps (left-clicking on the pad itself). And if you don't turn off the horizontal and vertical scrolling regions, you will quickly find yourself going crazy.

The pros are what seems to be a solid Ubuntu 8.04 installation and the ability to travel light. For the former, I recommend (if you get a Dell) turning off their desktop and going with the default GNOME (Dell makes it happily easy to switch between them, actually). The distro is quirky in that Dell decided to give everything generic names: Firefox is billed as "Web Browser" and (at least in Dell's desktop mode) OpenOffice.org's word processor is called "Document." But a rose under any other name is truly as sweet--it's Firefox and OO.o, however they're billed. You also end up with Fluendo installed, which means you get a pile of licensed multimedia codecs pre-installed and configured, which neatly deals with what we'll call a "legal grey area" for experienced users and a major problem for light users who are intimidated by what's under the hood.

As for traveling light--this thing is tiny, and a big part of what I personally needed, especially with the bum wrist, was something I could tuck under my arm or easily use on my lap. The big Dell, my primary system, is a desktop replacement, and while I'm liable to still sometimes load it into a backpack and haul it up the road (especially when I want to work on photos--though, I was surprised to find, the netbook has GIMP installed on it), it's nice to have something I can slip in a sleeve and carry like a book. (Indeed, I'm typing this up at the coffee shop, having been out and about running errands.)

There are the usual issue/nonissues with a netbook: the light processor and limited memory, for instance, or the half-size keyboard. If you're smart, you buy a netbook knowing full well that's part of the package, and that the machine is not a laptop replacement, much less a desktop replacement.

I look forward to seeing if I can get some writing done with this thing. We'll see how it goes. If not, it'll be my own damn fault, and at least I'll be able to surf the web more conveniently.


Google threatens to drink Microsoft's milkshake. Or not.

>> Thursday, July 09, 2009

I think I recently mentioned that one of my pet peeves is people referring to an applications suite as an "operating system." I mention this simply because it sort of explains my annoyance at a bit of silly hoopla this week, namely the misleading and essentially false announcement that Google is releasing a "new" operating system for netbooks to compete with Microsoft Windows. They aren't.

Well, they are putting the Google logo on an operating system, yes. And they are competing with Microsoft by doing so. But the Chrome "OS" isn't new in any sense of the word--as others have pointed out, the Google Chrome OS is a Linux distro. From the horse's mouth itself, The Official Google Blog:

Google Chrome OS will run on both x86 as well as ARM chips and we are working with multiple OEMs to bring a number of netbooks to market next year. The software architecture is simple — Google Chrome running within a new windowing system on top of a Linux kernel. For application developers, the web is the platform. All web-based applications will automatically work and new applications can be written using your favorite web technologies. And of course, these apps will run not only on Google Chrome OS, but on any standards-based browser on Windows, Mac and Linux thereby giving developers the largest user base of any platform.

I.e., Google Chrome is a Linux distro that uses a lot of cloud-based applications. In other other words, I'm guessing that you can probably get a fair simulation of the "Chrome OS experience" by loading a light distro like DSL, installing Chrome, and running Google Docs.

Conversely, is there going to be any reason (aside from the hardware limitations of netbooks) you can't subvert the shiny Chrome "experience" by installing the Chrome OS and then installing Firefox and, say, OpenOffice.org? I'm thinking, uh, no.

I like Google (mostly). (Pssst--and thank you again, el Googster, for making Blogger available for free; big hug, guys.) And I'm all for things that spread the use of Linux. Google making Linux more accessible and less-intimidating is, methinks, a good thing. But it's also not exactly explosive news. This really is the emperor turning out to be parading commando. I don't suppose "Google Announces Linux Distribution" makes for as nifty a headline as "Google Threatens To Drink Microsoft's Milkshake," so I know why this is being pimped up the way it is, but it's irritating. And you have to wonder, too, if it will backfire--one can imagine Linux developers and users being irritated at Google's me-too-ism and Windows users being frightened away if Microsoft points out the obvious (something which isn't guaranteed--based on the ads they've been running, I don't think any of the marketing firms Microsoft has used to date could sell oxygen to a dying astronaut).

So I don't mind if Google succeeds. Just remember that if you try the Chrome "OS" and don't like it, Shawn Powers and the folks at Linux Journal can show you how to install a new GUI over Chrome without any losses of data or major changes to your core OS.


Searched the world over, and it was right there next to them the whole damn time...

>> Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Over at Slate, Jack Shafer previews NBC's new series, The Wanted, a program in which NBC reporters track down alleged war criminals with the help of an elite team of experts in... uh... stuff. Mr. Shafer doesn't seem to think much of what he's seen, but this paragraph in Shafer's piece caught my attention:

The first episode of The Wanted, about Mullah Krekar, will air July 20. An NBC press release bills it as "a groundbreaking television event" that "sets forth on an international hunt for an accused terrorist." In the next paragraph of the release, David Corvo, executive producer at NBC News, says he wants the series to illuminate an overlooked story. "It is surprising how many people with serious accusations against them are living openly and avoiding any sort of judicial process," Corvo says.

(emphasis added)

You don't say, Mr. Corvo, you don't say:

The only thing that confuses me is why NBC is paying for film crews to travel to Norway and Germany when they could just have someone from their L.A. offices drive up to Berkley, which is a helluva lot closer. Mr. Shafer doesn't address this point, so maybe I'm missing something about the complex world of investigative journalism. Or maybe they're holding off so they have something special for sweeps week--if that's the case, maybe I'll even have to get cable or a digital converter box or something.


"Shot In The Back Of The Head" and "Pale Horses"

>> Tuesday, July 07, 2009

I'm really kinda groovin' on Moby's new single, and the video is kinda interesting and disturbing in a good way.

He appears to be on an animation kick: "Shot In The Back Of The Head" is followed here by another single from the new album, "Pale Horses," which has a pretty cool, dreamlike animated video. I'm liking both of these more than anything I think I've heard from the Mobester since Play way back when; think I'll need to pick up a copy of Wait For Me then.

(H/T to Boing Boing)!

POSTSCRIPT: Just downloaded it from Amazon, think I'll listen in bed while I read and have a nightcap.

POSTSCRIPT II--MUCH IS EXPLAINED: Oh, well of course the video to "Shot In The Back Of The Head" is surreal and disturbing-in-a-good-way--turns out it was directed by David Lynch.

The album, by the way, is quite good. If Moby is your cup of tea, that is... ;-)


Robert Strange McNamara, 1916-2009

When I was in college, I majored in History and minored in Asian Studies out of a desire to try to understand what happened in Cambodia during the Vietnam War, perhaps out of a larger desire to understand the problem of Evil. I suppose in retrospect, then, that my undergraduate education can be considered in many ways a fundamental failure, yet another passionate young leftist trying to grapple with the insoluble problems of the cosmic and eventually ending up in law school. (The alternative, obviously, was to go on and get a PhD. in something, and end up teaching somewhere, and just as the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, so too it's greener in the alternate-history parallel universe, unless it's the one where the Nazis won WWII. That one just sucks all the way around, man.)

I mention that bit of increasingly-faded history merely because I've found myself undecided about whether or how to write about the recent death of Robert Strange McNamara, Secretary Of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson who's considered the "architect" of the Vietnam War as if the Vietnam War wasn't the product of politics global and domestic and indigenous. My wrist hurts and my brain is too foggy, and ultimately McNamara's ghosts are foggy and shrouded. It's not a simple thing to write about. Robert McNamara is exactly what all his critics said he was and he got a bad rap he didn't deserve, and there's an irreconcilable contradiction. He wasn't what his critics said he was, is the thing, and he deserved hell for all the bad decisions he made one-after-the-other; and there we are, back at the contradiction we started with.

It was fashionable, a few years ago, to compare McNamara to Donald Rumsfeld, which was understandable when you look at them as technocrats who thought a war could be won by numbers, but completely unjustified when you remember that McNamara was smart and had a conscience, and that really isn't to slam Rumsfeld as much as it sounds: McNamara was the italicized kind of smart, and one might still concede Rumsfeld was an ordinary kind of smart while granting that McNamara was, by all accounts, the kind of smart that can be intimidating, kind of frightening. And maybe Rumsfeld even has a conscience, I don't know, but I know that there are a lot of accounts that McNamara wept over what he'd wrought, not just the soldiers' lives that had been expended on policies he helped craft but over what those policies have done to this country and its politics over the years, and I haven't heard of Rumsfeld crying any tears. I think I said in a comment I left at Jim Wright's blog some distant time ago that McNamara seems like the kind of guy that if a Vietnam vet had slugged him, he would have responded by saying he deserved it; McNamara accepted responsibility, maybe even when he shouldn't have--John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson could have said "no" at any time (sort of; except they couldn't, not really, dammit, see... and I said it was complicated, and I didn't want to get into it, so forgive me, I won't).

This was supposed to be a short post pointing you to a Salon piece by Michael Lind that I actually think is very, very good. And that's what you should be reading. It answers as many important questions as my college education did, but it also makes some good points, just like my college education did. I hope you'll find it as perceptive as I did.


Good publicity

>> Monday, July 06, 2009

Some idiot once said, "There's no such thing as bad publicity," a moronic statement if there ever was one. He of course meant that even bad publicity gets your name "out there," but let's be honest: do you really want your name "out there" if it's attached to "kiddie porn connoisseur who got his ass thrown into a Vietnamese prison for screwing a twelve-year-old"? Duh, obviously you'd be better off just quietly and anonymously collecting your royalties from American sporting events.

I'm thinking about this because of Alaska's gift that keeps giving, yes, Governor-Soon-To-Be-Mrs. (GSTBM) Sarah Palin, who announced last week she was stepping out of the harsh glare of scrutiny that she was forced into when somebody pointed a gun to her head and forced her, unwillingly and unblinkingly, to accept Senator John McCain's invitation to be the Republican nominee for Vice-President, not to mention the trauma and horror she's suffered ever since an evil villain tied a bomb to her kid (I don't know which one, just pick one--wait, better not make it the one Letterman got in trouble over) and made GSTBM Palin appear in public at those fundraisers and on television and in front of that decapitated turkey, etc. I'm not sure what I have to add to what others have already said about GSTBM Palin's abrupt and mysterious announcement, aside from the fact that it sounded suspiciously like Poochie's last words, thus I await the imminent announcement that GSTBM Palin died on her way back to her home planet, and that I'm still confused about GSTBM Palin's evident confusion about what it means to be a "lame duck"--she's only about halfway through her first term, after all, so I don't know why she didn't just finish her term and not run for re-election. Perhaps she meant she really has an actual lame duck at home that she's caring for until it can swim or fly on its own, in which case perhaps Northern Exposure was a far more realistic portrayal of everyday life in Alaska than I ever would have suspected or feared.

The first thought, inevitably, is that there must be something scandalous afoot, from which another shoe will (proverbially) drop, although Salon's Joan Walsh makes the point that GSTBM Palin doesn't exactly need a special reason to quit:

Personally, I don't think there had to be a looming scandal for Palin to make this odd decision. I think Sarah Barracuda has actually been Sarah Barraquitta, as a friend quips, for most of her life, moving through five stays at four different colleges to get her degree, leaving her oil and gas commission post after just more than a year, and now stepping down as Alaska governor because it's no longer fun.

Fair enough.

Anyway, GSTBM Palin's resignation announcement was followed by a letter from GSTBM Palin's lawyer threatening to sue the internet, or what looks pretty close to it, for defamation, and this is where we get back to the whole "no bad publicity" thing, because frankly I hadn't heard of half the things attorney Thomas Van Flein mentions in his press release. Okay, okay, I confess: I fell asleep sometime after the turkey video became an internet meme for a couple of weeks, I hadn't heard anything about "Housegate" and some kind of arena-dealy until Van Flein's memo came out.

Almost immediately afterwards, several unscrupulous people have asserted false and defamatory allegations that the "real" reasons for Governor Palin’s resignation stem from an alleged criminal investigation pertaining to the construction of the Wasilla Sports Complex. This canard was first floated by Democrat operatives in September 2008 during the national campaign and followed up by sympathetic Democratic writers.1. It was easily rebutted then as one of many fabrications about Sarah Palin. Just as power abhors a vacuum, modern journalism apparently abhors any type of due diligence and fact checking before scurrilous allegations are repeated as fact.


To the extent several websites, most notably liberal Alaska blogger Shannyn Moore, are now claiming as "fact" that Governor Palin resigned because she is "under federal investigation" for embezzlement or other criminal wrongdoing, we will be exploring legal options this week to address such defamation. This is to provide notice to Ms. Moore, and those who re-publish the defamation, such as Huffington Post, MSNBC, the New York Times and The Washington Post, that the Palins will not allow them to propagate defamatory material without answering to this in a court of law. The Alaska Constitution protects the right of free speech, while simultaneously holding those "responsible for the abuse of that right." Alaska Constitution Art. I, Sec. 5. http://ltgov.state.ak.us/constitution.php?section=1. These falsehoods abuse the right to free speech; continuing to publish these falsehoods of criminal activity is reckless, done without any regard for the truth, and is actionable.

Um. Okay, then. So some websites are reporting that GSTBM Palin is under Federal investigation, and her lawyer says she isn't under investigation, and this has something to do with GSTBM Palin is alleged by some, let's see if I understand this correctly, to have diverted supplies or funds from the building of a civic arena to the building of a new house? Which, again, the Palin camp denies. Must be some house. Does it have a concession stand? That might be a clue.

The larger question here is why Mr. Van Flein thinks it's a good idea to drag this bit of bait across the trail like this. I mean, not all liberals read Daily Kos and I assume not all Alaskans read Shannyn Moore, and frankly if MSNBC, the Times and the Washington Post did a story on this, I missed it (as I'm sure others must have). As for HuffPo, I mean, they'll publish anything; HuffPo is the reason Alec Baldwin thinks he has a political career and Jenny McCarthy has a TV talk show (Alec, here's a free hint: when the "three a.m. phone call" attack ad is going to feature you yelling at your little girl, it's time to give it up; seriously, man, loved you in The Departed and Beetlejuice remains an all-time-fave, but give it up).

There's two more things about defamation suits, which is why it's usually pretty funny when someone threatens one.

First of all, truth is a defense. Not only is truth a defense, but there's the Oscar Wilde thing. For those who have forgotten the story, Oscar Wilde's boyfriend's father, the Marquess of Queensberry (same one who helped establish rules for hitting people in the face, wotta guy) accused Wilde of being a sodomite, which was technically true; nonetheless, Wilde decided to sue for libel, and the Marquess brought in a lengthy procession of male prostitutes to testify that, er, yes, indeed Mr. Wilde had engaged in sodomy. Inevitably, not only did Wilde lose his suit, but based on the testimony produced by the defense, Wilde found himself prosecuted and imprisoned as a felon in Reading Gaol, wrecking his reputation and health and prematurely ending the career and life of one of Victorian Britain's greatest intellectuals, writers and humorists.

Leaving aside the fact that England's laws were barbaric (and the fact that the Marquess of Queensbury, by most accounts, was a cretinous douche), the real object lesson of Wilde is that he really did it to himself. He knew perfectly well what he was up to, and regardless of whether it should have been criminal, he knew perfectly well that it was. He had far more to lose by pressing his case than he could possibly have gained, and indeed lost everything he had for it. If there are skeletons in Sarah Palin's closet--and I have no idea whether there are or not--they're liable to come out during a defamation trial. And whether there are skeletons or not, what can she gain from such a trial? It's hard to think of anything at all.

The second thing about defamation cases is that if somebody's a public figure--and a Vice-Presidential nominee is indubitably a public figure--there's an "actual malice" standard. GSTBM Palin would have to prove that not only were these statements about the house and arena and the misappropriated whatevers untrue but that all the mean, nasty, horrible bloggers who said it was true knew it was all false and published anyway, or just didn't even give enough of a shit to do any checking whatsoever ("reckless disregard"). That's a high standard, a very high standard, and as long as somebody repeating the claims reasonably believed they were true, I don't see Palin winning.

Of course, here's the funniest thing: there is, as it turns out, another way to repeat the allegations against GSTBM Palin that doesn't really fall under either of those issues. Suppose Palin has an attorney who issues a press release repeating a series of claims and then debunking them, threatening to sue people for defamation over them: one might well quote from the press release, commenting on how one hadn't heard these allegations before now and making some observations on defamation law. Such a commentary wouldn't be defamatory, methinks, in spite of the repetition of allegations of wrongdoing set forth by the very attorney threatening to sue people for repeating the allegations of wrongdoing. Bit of a Zen puzzle, sort of, maybe.

And there you are.


July 4, 2009

>> Saturday, July 04, 2009

The verse Bruce doesn't sing:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn't say nothing;
That side was made for you and me.

We are the government, the rulers, the judges; we are the posterity for whom the blessings of Liberty were ordained.

Happy Fourth-Of-July.


Left turn at the highway

>> Friday, July 03, 2009

So I think I managed to get a little sunburned anyway.

But that's really somewhere in the middle of things, isn't it? You're looking for context, and of course that's missing if I start there. To start more properly: I stopped by Scott and Rose's for a few minutes today. My laptop was in the bug's trunk, because I was thinking when I got home I'd pull it out of the trunk and walk up to Smelly Cat instead of going upstairs to get my stuff and then walk to Smelly Cat--you can call that lazy, if you want, whatever, I call it thinking ahead. So, anyway, there I am driving back from Scott and Rose's, top down, iPod plugged in, and I'm about to get on I77, and I think:

I could go north on I77.

Wait--most of you are still missing context. Most of you don't know that what I'd have done if I wanted to go home is, I would have gotten on I77 South to head into Charlotte.

I could go north on I77, take it up to 421, and go to Boone for a few hours.

Boone, NC is up in the Appalachian Mountains, for those who don't know, and it was my hometown for about two years when I was in college at Appalachian State University. There are a couple of ways you can get there from Charlotte, but the two that are most-used are to take I85 to 321 or take I77 to 421. And so there I am, about to get onto I77, and I have a choice, I can stay in the lane I'm in and turn right or I can go up to the next light and turn left.

So I went up to the next light, and I turned left.

I'm sitting here at Grateful Grounds in Boone, just kind of hanging out for a little bit. I probably should have gone to the Beanstalk up the street, which has been around since I was in college, but I kind of liked the parking better up here. Okay, maybe I am lazy, I could have walked another block and all, but anyway, this is where I ended up with a latte and a muffin, just kind of chilling on my day off. I don't have my camera here, or maybe you'd get pictures; or maybe not--either Blogger or my browser is acting funny about uploading images right now. In maybe another hour I'll head down the mountain.

When I was a kid in high school, my buddy Vardell would drive all of us up here in his white VW bus. His folks had an old family homestead in Blowing Rock. And then I roomed with him for a year during college, after which I guess we weren't really friends anymore. Anyway, it was kind of funny coming into town in a much smaller VW, and the iPod (set on shuffle and perhaps responding to some psychic vibe) brought up "Pretty Persuasion"; R.E.M. was practically obligatory driving music in the '80s, as anyone who was there might well imagine. And then it dealt up "Apeman," which I have to admit was never one of my favorite Kinks tunes, and I think is probably my least favorite cut off of Lola versus Powerman and the Moneygoround but it was a favorite of Vardell's in college and he'd crank it coming up or down the mountain. Believers in Fate would make something of it, but I have to confess there was a P.J. Harvey track that came up between R.E.M. and The Kinks, and she wasn't around when we were in high school and I don't think any of our crowd were listening to her in college in the early '90s, either (I wasn't, and I was maybe the cutting-edgingest, musically speaking, in my set); I left that out because it was slightly more interesting to, what with the two tracks around the P.J.H. having a personal significance in this particular geographic locale. We're our soundtracks as much as we're anything, I suspect--who we are at any given time might be deducible from what we were listening to. (Since the music playing when I drove into town was between eleven and thirty-nine years old, and the track from my youth was twenty-five years old, I'm afraid one thing that can be deduced is that I am getting old. And the fact that this observation strikes me as better than the alternative only tends to confirm that, eh?)

Oh, the sunburn. I stopped on my way out of Charlotte and actually bought some sunscreen. Apparently not very well, which I can attribute to the broken wrist.

Anyway, what did you do today? Anything special?


For Jim, wherever he may be...

>> Wednesday, July 01, 2009

...because we fully expect you to keep your promises, Chief.


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