>> Thursday, December 31, 2009

I have to admit, I'm a little out-of-sorts today. Part of me feels like I ought to be compelled to ring in the New Year....

And part of me wants to just treat today like Thursday.

I've resisted doing the year-in-review or decade-in review post because its been an awful year and an awful decade, and anyway everyone else has done theirs. It's improbable that my review of the decade would be any better than anybody else's. And regular readers have seen what happened to my car and wrist this year, or have suffered through my moans and groans about faltering creative input.

(As for New Year's resolutions, aren't they obvious? I'd like to be nicer, and write more, and whine less.... And I have an ill feeling beggars are more likely to ride, but whatever.)

Just how weak is the end of this decade? Pedantically, it isn't. The end, I mean. You know, the "year one" thing and all that means that the first decade of the 21st Century began in 2001; it's just that it sounds absurd to say that 1930 was the last year of the "Roaring Twenties" or that The Fifties came to an end on the first day of 1961. 2010 will be the first year of the "Tens" or "Teens" or whatever we call them, even if it's not technically a new decade....

But what to call the abortion of 2000-2009? "The Oughts" is too cute, "The Naughts" is too British and "The Naughties" is too cute and too British. I think "The Zeros" is probably about right, or, better still, do we even have to talk about them at all?

(Answering my own question: yes, sadly--after all the damage the Bushites did during their eight-out-of-ten years, we may be stuck talking about The Zeros for many years to come.)

Thursday, however: nothing wrong with a Thursday. You're a mere day towards mortality, not a year or decade closer to the final chapter and epilogue. Thursday is just another day--usually nothing to celebrate, nothing to mourn, yessireebob, it's just Thursday, la, la, laaa.

So I'm thinking, really thinking--maybe, instead of going out to dinner or hanging with friends, maybe... maybe, just take it as a Thursday.

It's named after Thor, you know. Thor is awesome: he was the Norse god who wrestled The Incredible Hulk to a draw that time Hulk and Namor joined forces to fight The Avengers.

But Happy New Year's Eve if you'd like.


Weak speech

>> Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Lyndon Johnson saving the Democrats from Republican slogansI'm not surprised: the Republican party is using an idiot's failed attempt to blow up his crotch (and the airplane the crotch was traveling in) to attack the Democratic President Of The United States. Apparently, the fact that the President took a few days to personally address the situation, and perhaps the fact it happened at all, is Really Unbearably Awful and a sign of how Democrats are weak on defense and weak in the supposed "War On Terror" (it's still a meaningless phrase, no matter how often it's repeated) and so on and so forth, ad nauseum. Former Vice-President Dick Cheney made the ludicrous statement, "[President Obama] is trying to pretend we are not at war," which seems to sort of lead one to puzzle over exactly why Mr. Obama just sent all those troops to Afghanistan, where there's actually, you know, a real war going on, remember?

Here's what's probably not going to be said by the mainstream media nor by the Democrats in their own defense: the GOP's rhetoric on this matter is part of a tradition of historic irresponsibility on the part of the Republican party, and endangers American lives.

No, seriously. And here's why:

The historic fact of the last century is that the Democrats were the War Party: every major war this country was involved in and the majority of the minor wars the United States got into, the United States was led into war by Democrats, sometimes with heavy Republican opposition:

Occupation Of Veracruz: Woodrow Wilson (D)
World War I: Woodrow Wilson (D)
American North Russia Expeditionary Force Campaign: Woodrow Wilson (D)
World War II: Franklin Roosevelt (D)
The Korean War: Harry Truman (D)
The Vietnam War: John Kennedy (D)/Lyndon Johnson (D)*
Operation Urgent Fury (Granada): Ronald Reagan (R)
Operation Just Cause (Panama): George H.W. Bush (R)
The Gulf War: George H.W. Bush (R)
The Kosovo Conflict: George H.W. Bush (R)/William Clinton (D)**
Somalia: William Clinton (D)

(I think that list is reasonably complete, perhaps overly-so, since I included Granada.)

That's the historic reality; the political reality is that since the middle of the 20th Century, Republican rhetoric has been that the Democrats are "soft" on national defense, notwithstanding, for instance, Democrat presidents leading the United States into two World Wars over the objections of Republican isolationists.

The watershed year for Republican rhetoric was 1949, the year a popular and well-organized communist movement led by Mao Zedong drove the last forces of the incompetent Kuomintang (KMT) regime of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek out of mainland China. The Chiang regime had been a darling of American politicians, especially within the Republican party, and the United States had poured startling sums of money and materiel into Generalissimo Chiang's regime in spite of the fact that much of it ended up in the hands of regional warlords who were outside Chiang's faltering control or even in the hands of Mao's Chinese Communist Party (CCP), captured from poorly-supported KMT forces or diverted with the help of corrupt KMT officials. China was a lost cause, at least under Chiang, but Chiang (and his American-educated wife) was personally popular with members of the United States Congress and powerful conservative media figures like Henry Luce. Given that American politicians refused to acknowledge that Chiang was a vulnerable leader, that Chiang's administration was riddled with corruption, and that the Chinese Communist movement was well-led and had made itself popular with the lower classes, the only "logical" conclusion was that the collapse of the KMT regime on the Chinese mainland must be the result of an American failure of resolve in dealing with the menace of Soviet Russia (further ignoring, of course, that the USSR and CCP had a tense-at-best relationship and that the CCP accepted Soviet money and materiel willingly but not gratefully or graciously--border conflicts through the '50s and '60s between the USSR and People's Republic Of China (PRC) would escalate to a brief shooting war by 1969).

The charge that the Democrats were soft on communism stung at home, and drove much of domestic politics through the fifties and sixties. Dangerously so: Democrats John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were both members of Congress (JFK in the House, LBJ in the Senate) when the Chinese mainland fell and Republicans seized upon the opportunity to make political capital out of it, and were (of course) in Congress when President Harry Truman was accused of providing insufficient military and moral support when PRC-supported North Korean forces invaded South Korea; a decade later, when, as presidents, JFK and LBJ were faced with the "expansion of international communism" on the Indochinese peninsula, they surely remembered the bitter debates of the Korean War and "Who Lost China?" campaign waged in the press and election years of 1950 and 1952. The fact that the United States became entangled in the Vietnam War after President Dwight Eisenhower left office can be directly attributed to the fact that the Democrats in office in the 1960s were sensitive to a domestic environment in which Republicans could make political capital out of accusing Democrats of weakness--it is possible, I would say even likely, that John Kennedy and certainly Lyndon Johnson would have evaluated their military options differently had they been unafraid of their party appearing "weak."

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Republican charge that Democrats were soft on communism was necessarily transmuted to a charge that Democrats were soft in general--a charge that has been repeated so thoroughly and often that it's become a part of the conventional wisdom even though it's historically inaccurate. It even remains a viable charge in places where you would think cognitive dissonance would cause somebody's head to explode--the idiots at Conservipedia, for instance, accuse Democrats of being "ambivalent about terrorism and insufficiently patriotic" while simultaneously implying that the Democrats are warmongers.

The danger in this accusation is that it creates a political calculus wherein the party on the defensive--in this case, the Democratic Party--has an interest in escalating military responses for the sole purpose of rebutting the allegation of weakness. To use the Vietnam example, at least one reason LBJ was convinced that the United States couldn't afford to "lose" in Vietnam was the effect that such a loss would have on Democrats running for national office, including his own chances of being re-elected as President. (Conversely, and ironically, this also means the accusing party--in this case, the Republican Party--has little to lose in losing a war--it took a Republican, Richard Nixon, to abandon Vietnam.) The major problem with this political calculus, unfortunately, is that while it counts votes, it doesn't count American lives--i.e. the lives and health of the soldiers, sailors and pilots who actually have to go and get themselves shot at for appearances' sake. (Nor, while we're at it, does a count of voters at home necessarily consider the costs in wealth or to foreign opinion--the latter being something we need, notwithstanding the George W. Bush administration's feelings that America can somehow exist on an international stage without needing anything from any other nations.)

Dick Cheney is in charge of exactly jack shit these days, so the fact that he can influence less-thoughtful American voters by making an empty accusation of weakness is not something he has to give much thought to, though it would certainly be moral of him to think about whether such accusations are likely to provoke extreme attempts by Democrats to deflect the accusations with actions that may endanger American lives or liberty. The behavior of Mr. Cheney and others of similar ilk is amoral, not because it's partisan, but because it's thoughtless and fails to consider what ought to be an anticipated consequence of said behavior.

There are, of course, ways to criticize the President Of The United States and/or the Democrats; and it is more than fair for Mr. Cheney et al. to engage in thoughtful critiques. One way to do so might be to offer up alternatives that don't undermine the President's credibility in a way that may provoke the President to do something rash and awful--Mr. Cheney might say, for instance, "The President ought to do x to buttress our national security," rather than Mr. Cheney's preferred, "Why doesn't he want to admit we're at war?"--a statement that is inflammatory and false (the President has referred to America being at war in Iraq and Afghanistan). And if Mr. Cheney actually cared about America in a meaningful way, he'd do that; I suspect Mr. Cheney would say he cares about America if you asked him, but the reality is that he cares about his party more, however he rationalizes it by telling himself that what's good for Republicans is good for America.

Republicans have the same rights as anyone else in this country to exercise their freedom of speech in nearly any way they see fit, of course--there are few prohibitions on what they may say, and if they aren't using "fighting words" or shouting "fire" in movie theatres or spreading obscenity, they otherwise may say or publish what they will. "Can" and "ought," however, remain different things entirely, and the fact that Republicans can accuse Democrats of "weakness" doesn't mean they should. Unfortunately, I fully expect that rather than engage the public with thoughtful statements about what they think should be done differently, or even supportive statements about what they think might be done the same, the Republicans instead will engage in meaningless but dangerous statements that will continue the political calculus of Democrats feeling obligated to prove they're as tough-or-tougher-than the next guy.

Even if it kills someone.

*Vietnam is, of course, complicated, and readers may note that the Eisenhower administration (R) provided substantial foreign aid to the French and, later, the South Vietnamese, as well as the first American military and intelligence "advisors" on the ground. On the other hand, the Eisenhower administration was notably reluctant to involve American ground troops for combat purposes, and the JFK and LBJ administrations are credited with the escalation of American participation in the war and it's more than fair to call it "LBJ's war."

**Again, history is never simple: the first troops to Kosovo were ordered by President George H.W. Bush in December, 1992, but the war is mainly associated with President Clinton, who took office the following month.

EDIT: Looking at the list of American military campaigns, I realize I somehow omitted the first Gulf War--not on purpose, it was on my mind while I was trying to make sure I had accurate dates on Kosovo, and it just slipped away from me. My bad.

In the course of adding Gulf I, I noticed that I'd also omitted two of Woodrow Wilson's "forgotten" campaigns, the American Expeditionary Force incursion into Russia during the Revolution there, and Wilson's invasion of Mexico. The latter is an especially egregious oversight on my part--Wilson's Mexico policy was absolutely appalling and an example of the kinds of historical misconduct we Americans routinely forget about, only to be puzzled when foreigners who remember our history better than we do don't like us or suspect our motives. President Wilson, perceiving Mexico (then in the throes of the Mexican Revolution) as a failed state, used a semi-comical misunderstanding between a group of American sailors and Mexican revolutionaries as a justification for sending Marines to invade and occupy Veracruz--quasi-legally bypassing Congressional approval, meanwhile. (He did, at least, ask before he sent the Marines in--but then ordered them in before Congress could get back to him).

We tend to forget our war with Mexico, but it poisoned our relations with one of our two nearest neighbors for most of the 20th Century, and the occupation of Veracruz was at least as significant as, say, the occupation of Granada under a Republican.

If I've overlooked another notable American war of the 20th Century, feel free to let me know, and I'll add it (or explain why it doesn't count).


Your theme music for the day...

Mr. Sinatra, "The Coffee Song" (1946):


"The Ship Song"

>> Tuesday, December 29, 2009

I just can't think of anything much to say, plus my wrist is being kind of achy and I think I just want to go watch a movie or something. So, here, have one of Nick Cave's sweetest songs, "The Ship Song":


Thoughts on Avatar

>> Monday, December 28, 2009

It seems like everybody, or just about, is doing blog posts about Avatar these days, so I guess it only seems appropriate for me to offer up my thoughts. Sure, it's jumping on a bandwagon and all that, but what the hell?

On the balance, naturally, I like Avatar. After all, if a short, old, fat genius can score with a buxom faerie princess, presumably there's hope for me, right? He's clever, quick-witted, resourceful and forgiving. His compassion extends to evil assassin robots and traitors. He loves his mother. He likes going barefoot, which I kind of dig, though I suppose that's kind of a wizardly privilege (I mean, other people who step in radioactive sludge mutate or have their feet fall off, but Avatar can probably just twinkle it off--so you might consider the barefootery kind of ostentatious and rubbing it in). He's a nice guy, all-in-all, really.

But he's not perfect. First of all, he's a package deal--I mean, no Avatar, no Blackwolf, and no Blackwolf means that the inhabitants of Scortch would probably keep mostly to themselves, not to mention the Nazi propaganda would stay in those caves. Also, Avatar has his character flaws: he's stubborn, easily pricked, and he cheats at magical duels to the death. (Okay, so the last one I sort of understand; still, it kind of makes him a little bit dishonorable and kind of a hypocrite, right?) And you have to wonder about the ethics of Avatar's relationship with Elinore: technically, he's her teacher and yet he's sleeping with her--isn't that a pretty obvious conflict-of-interest? It would certainly be frowned upon by any schools still eking out an existence in the irradiated wastelands, and probably grounds for dismissal from the faculty.

I suppose I do identify with Avatar, when all is said and done: I'm funny and smart (if I do say so myself), but I'm also stubborn and a little irascible. Also, I wouldn't kick Elinore out of my bed, heaven help me, even if it did compromise the whole teacher-student dynamic. I even have a beard now, although it's obviously not nearly the length of Avatar's awesome growth. And I'd probably shoot my twin brother in the face if I had to, especially if he had some kind of creepy skeleton-arm thing going on, I mean, what the fuck is up with that? Is that a dad's-side-of-the-family thing or something?

And as an old Ralph Bakshi fan, I'm obviously happy that one of his better-done characters is suddenly and unaccountably popular again. I know Bakshi's wanted to do a sequel to Wizards for years--maybe now that everybody's blogging about Avatar and doing Google searches for Avatar and talking about Avatar, maybe now the money will be forthcoming at last. He deserves it, he's been burned by studios too many times.



I wonder if the local arthouse will show a zombie flick?

>> Sunday, December 27, 2009

Okay, I have no idea what the people in this trailer are saying, but io9 is right--the trailer for the French zombie film La Horde looks really freaking sweet:



Last night, a friend showed me Don Hertzfeldt's Oscar-winning 2000 animated short, "Rejected," which I don't think I'd seen previously. That seems improbable, but there you go--things like that happen.

Since I've previously shared Hertzfeldt's classic, "Billy's Balloon," here, it only seemed right to pass along the disturbing goodness of "Rejected," an insane collection of unbelievable and increasingly surreal and funny segments connected only by the creator's wonderfully askew mind. It's inspired stuff, and I hope you enjoy; myself, I was rolling around on the floor when my friend showed this to me.



Happy short, bitterly cold early winter festivals season!

>> Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The cat wanted to participate in this year's seasonal-greetings thing, but I'm a little suspicious of his motivations. (You might need to click on the above image to see just what I mean.) I have a feeling he's possibly been using my computer when I haven't been looking, and just last week I received Opening Cans Without Opposable Thumbs For Dummies from Amazon, a book I don't recall ordering or see much need for at the moment, though it's possible I ordered it while my wrist was broken and it was on backorder all this time.

As secular and irreligious as I am, I have concerns with the cat's commercially-themed message, too, but I'll let it pass. Ignorance can be bliss, and if I don't know what he's up to, I won't have to lie about it later, right?

But seriously... I expect to be away from the blog the next few days, doing Xmassey things with family, so happy whatever-you-celebrate this time of year, or have a nice day if you celebrate nothing. It's all good, y'know? If there was indeed a historical Jesus, it's often been pointed out there's no possible way that shepherds would have been doing shepherdey things in December--if some sort of holiday miracle occurred, it would have happened in the springtime. The early Christians adopted the pagan solstice holiday and pagan customs like putting up a gear tree and getting drunk a lot because in those days Christians actually had worse holidays than we atheists do. Meanwhile, the other prominent winter holiday this season, Chanukah (or however you'd like to spell it) is a bit of an oddity, a celebration of a Jewish civil war that's been turned into a sort of alt-Christmas for various reasons.

But nevermind the history, which you likely know. I guess what I'm trying to say is, have an adequate Festivus, and don't forget to tell your loved ones how much they've disappointed you this past year.

Or defenestrate a friend for Ookymaas, it's all good.



For MWT:

>> Tuesday, December 22, 2009

In response to yesterday's blog entry, MWT asked "Meanwhile, where's your obligatory cat pic?"

Well, I don't know if it's obligatory, but seeing as how you asked and I have nothing else to post today, here, here is a picture of my cat:


Who's a pretty blog! Yes you are! Yes you are!

>> Monday, December 21, 2009


Alright, so that's not exactly the most dignified way I could have announced what you've presumably already noticed: that Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets has undergone a massive, belated makeover. Notice, notice, notice. Hopefully, you like? Ja, ja?

There are a number of reasons this should have been done a while back. First and foremost, although I really love dark backgrounds, I'm as aware as anyone (and, yes, have been--sorry) that white text on a dark background increases eyestrain. Have known it since, sadly, shortly after making the decision last year to go with a dark theme. And I've been meaning to do something about it for a while, even before a tongue-in-cheek plaint on Twitter from a friend about somebody else's dark, eye-straining blog. And I'll be honest, the change, which, again, was overdue, I know, was largely the result of having free time this afternoon to spend a few hours picking a template and transferring things over, otherwise I would have put it off again.

Which brings us, not-at-all-paradoxically, to another reason for the change and the lateness of the change: the previous template was pretty awesome in a lot of ways, but easy customization was not one of them. As big a reason for making a change as the readability of the blog was to switch over to a template that should be easier to edit by somebody as clueless about HTML and CSS and the rest of it as anybody. "Werd," the template you're looking at, should be (and already has been) easier to tweak using Blogger's GUI when it comes to colors, column layouts, etc. Which is nice, though I do have friends (e.g. Michelle) who were superabundantly awesomehelpful when it came to modifying headers and things (and yes, those really are words, you can look 'em up). The sad confession I must make about the help I received in customizing the previous incarnation, however, is that whereas my friends sent me wonderful e-mails explaining in thorough detail the snippets of code and what they would do and so forth, all my brain was really able to parse was, "it's MAGIC!"

I know, I suck. I'm sorry. I'm smart about other things. Honest.

Along with all that, there's also the fact that while the previous look was (in my opinion) cool, it was also (and still my opinion here, of course), so very, very, very 2008. Which in internet years is like being really, really, really old, like stinky geezer who always wears the same undershirt every day and has socks with garters old. Which, actually, ties into all of the above: blogs have evolved, Blogger has evolved, etc.

So: the newest version of the blog should be easier for you to read and easier for me to run. Hope you like the new digs.

Oh, and happy solstice, everybody!


The story is fun again

>> Sunday, December 20, 2009

(This piece discusses the Jon Ronson book The Men Who Stare At Goats and the film version of the book released earlier this year. I've tried not to be spoiler-ey, but I can't promise I succeeded; if you're trying to maintain a total tabula rasa to either the movie or the book, or both, you might want to skip this entry. You've been duly warned.)

I just read Jon Ronson's The Men Who Stare At Goats in a blitz--started around noon and finished it around four p.m.; it's not a hard read, Ronson's prose being what I'd call "sprightly."

Ronson's book had been on my "to get" list since it came out in 2004, when reviews and excerpts suggested it would be a hell of a fun read (which it is), what with it's take on the kind of lunacy and paranoia that sometimes infects even otherwise ostensibly sane men. The book, for those of you who don't know, offers a kind of summary history of the U.S. Army's flirtations with paranormal and New Age stuff: remote viewing, psychic warfare, nonlethal weapons, et al. Some of it being really funny stuff if you set aside the taxpayer expense of it; e.g. the book starts with a description of how, one morning in 1983, Major General Albert Stubblebine III, then the Army's chief of intelligence, decided to walk into the next office:

He stands up, moves out from behind his desk, and begins to walk.

I mean, he thinks, what is the atom mostly made up of anyway? Space!

He quickens his pace.

What am I mostly made up of? he thinks. Atoms!

He is almost at a jog now.

What is the wall mostly made up of? he thinks. Atoms! All I have to do is merge the spaces. The wall is an illusion. What is destiny? Am I destined to stay in this room? Ha, no!

Then General Stubblebine bangs his nose hard on the wall of his office.

Damn, he thinks.

The title of the book itself comes from another series of military experiments involving ESP: the "men who stare at goats" did so literally--in an attempt to think the goats to death by psychically stopping the animals' hearts. Which, allegedly, worked this one time except Mr. Ronson first has a bitch of a time tracking down the man who allegedly did it. And then when he does track down one of the men who says that, yes, he killed a goat with his brain, what he's able to demonstrate to Mr. Ronson is a videotape of himself making a hamster act "weird." (Hamsters being ideal test subjects, we learn, because the doughty psychic warrior really, really, really hates hamsters.)

Anyway, the book had been on my list for awhile. The impetus to finally go and buy it at last came earlier this year the same day I saw the movie version starring George Clooney and Ewan McGregor, which I thought was really funny and sort of guardedly recommended to some friends; in the plus column, the movie is really, really funny, especially for the first two-thirds or so--the reservations come mostly from the film's final act, which is sort of stupid and you feel like the screenwriter maybe felt he'd written himself into a corner with the way he fictionalizes the events and characters of Ronson's book.

I'm really having to reconsider the movie though, having read the book now. It's nothing to do with the usual issues you have with movies based on books. No, reading the book, I'm finding myself mildly horrified by something subtle and awful that the movie does with the book's subject matter.

See, the book starts off very, very funny--the above passage about the Army general trying to walk through a solid wall and banging his nose is from the first few pages of the book, and the first half of the book is hysterical, as Mr. Ronson finds himself plummeting down this absurd rabbithole in which the loopier ideas of the '60s counterculture weirdly merge with the missions of the U.S. military and intelligence establishment, not to mention the conservative culture and politics of '80s America (at one point, Ronson tells us, the aforementioned General Stubblebine meets resistance from General John Adams Wickham when he tries to demonstrate spoon-bending at a party--not because General Wickham thinks the idea is stupid, but because Wickham, who later went on to receive a commendation from President George W. Bush for his efforts in creating "the Presidential Prayer Team," was concerned that Stubblebine's efforts smacked of Satanic influence and conflicted with Deuteronomy 18:10-11's prohibition against witchcraft). But as Mr. Ronson's research progresses, he finds himself butting up against harder and uglier and decidedly unfunny absurdities: alternative warfare techniques suggested during the '70s and '80s, such as the use of sound and music to influence or incapacitate enemies on the battlefield, morph, over time, into interrogation techniques used at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo; before that, psychological warfare aspects proposed alongside goat-staring and wall-walking find themselves deployed on the "battlefield" of Waco, Texas, during the ill-starred FBI and ATF face-off against the Branch Davidians. Ronson stumbles into evidence that even the crazier aspects of the Stubblebine era were reactivated in the aftermath of September 11th, with government agencies polling psychics and remote viewers for tips and leads of Al Qaeda activity.

Most surprisingly, however, the rabbithole leads Mr. Ronson into the past, to 1953 and one of the direct antecedents of the U.S. Army's psychological warfare: to the CIA's awful MK-ULTRA program and the death of Frank Olson, who either had a bad trip on LSD and went window-diving from a 10th-story hotel window or was pushed after being hit in the back of the head with a blunt object in order to keep Olson, a chemist, from divulging information about MK-ULTRA, "Artichoke" (a pharmacological interrogation program) and/or other projects the CIA had him tangled up in (some witnesses have suggested that Olson was having deep moral qualms about his involvement in torture or possibly even assassination in the weeks prior to his death).

In 1975, after The New York Times claimed that the CIA had engaged in covert experiments using Americans as test subjects, President Gerald Ford (who, as a U.S. Representative, had served on the Warren Commission) created the U.S. President's Commission On CIA Activities Within The United States, better known as "The Rockefeller Commission" after the commission chair, Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller. It was the Rockefeller Commission that broke what became, technically, the second version of Frank Olson's death, that it was the result of LSD experiments gone horribly awry (the first version being the original official account that Olson was depressed and either fell or jumped). Writing about the Rockefeller Commission version, Ronson describes a conversation he had with Frank Olson's son, Eric Olson:

"The old story [that Frank Olson had a bad LSD trip] is so much fun," Eric said, "why would anyone want to replace it with a story that's not fun [that Frank Olson was murdered]. You see? The person who puts the spin on the story controls it from the beginning. It's very hard for people to read against the grain of what you've been told the narrative is about."

"Your new story is not as much fun, " I agreed.

"This is no longer a happy, feel-good story," Eric said, "and I don't like it any better than anyone else does. It's hard to accept your father didn't die because of suicide, nor did he die because of negligence after a drug experiment, he died because they killed him. That's a different feeling."

But in the end, Eric Olson fails to gain much headway after he has his father's body exhumed and a forensic examiner finds evidence of blunt-force trauma inconsistent with a fall on Frank Olson's corpse, and holds a press conference to announce these results to the world:

Eric hoped his press conference would, at least, change the language of reporting the story. At best, it would motivate some energetic journalist to take up the challenge and find an unequivocal smoking gun that proved Frank Olson was pushed out a window.

But in the days that followed the press conference it became clear that every journalist had decided to report the story in much the same way.

Eric had finally found "closure."

He was on the way to being "healed."

He had finally "laid his mystery to rest."

He could "move on" now.

Perhaps we will "never know" what happened to Frank Olson, but the important thing was that Eric had achieved "closure."

The story was fun again.

This is where we get back to what, maybe, is possibly really awful about the movie version of The Men Who Stare At Goats, and why I really need to rethink it. See--and I don't want to spoil anything here, so I'll try to be vague--the ending of the movie version also has a sequence involving the liberal use of LSD. Unlike the Ronson section dealing with the use of LSD, however, the movie's LSD sequence doesn't involve a civilian government employee falling, jumping or being pushed out of a tall building's window after having his beverage spiked with acid as a result of an amoral (or perhaps even immoral) mindset that cannot distinguish between can and should; the movie's version of an LSD spiking is played for laughs, with no harm done, no foul, indeed it's quite the contrary, with everybody being better off for it.

In other words, the makers of the movie decided to make the story fun again. Instead of Ronson's point, which is that notions that are absurd and silly on the surface may have horrifying consequences when implemented as real-world projects, we have "oh, look how goofy all these people are." The Men Who Stare At Goats, the movie, is The Men Who Stare At Goats, the book, completely defanged and venomless. Whether or not Mr. Ronson is right that there's a straight-line between a man trying to walk through a solid object and a man being blindfolded in a shipping container in Iraq and having psychologically debilitating lights and music blasted at him for endless hours at a time, there's a provocative and challenging claim being advanced that the reader has to grope with. The movie, on the other hand, is just goofy fun up through a dumb and completely-fictional ending that wouldn't have been out-of-place in any number of post-Caddyshack '80s comedies in which the tightasses have "loosening up" thrust upon them by laid-back heroes.

In which case, I don't know how to feel about the movie. It's one thing to take liberties with a book, which isn't really what we're talking about here. It's another thing to subversively take something that's actually really serious and turn it into a harmless self-parody that everybody can just have a laugh over before getting back to their lives. The former isn't, ultimately, that big a deal however much fanboys (myself included) might fret over how Legolas is depicted or whether Count Fenring's absence is ultimately a death-blow to the movie. The latter, however, is a particularly disingenuous, evil and poisonous form of propaganda. If Mr. Ronson's account and conclusions are right, The Men Who Stare At Goats ultimately isn't funny at all; I found myself, in reading the book, to go from chuckling over every page to reading in fascinated horror at what Ronson was describing, even when I was otherwise familiar with the events he describes. If Ronson's right, then one reason to be vigilant and serious about stupid ideas, even ones that are advanced with the best of intentions, is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions and cemented with dumb ideas.

But if we're content with the movie's "based on real events" version?

What a fun story.


It's seasonal?

>> Saturday, December 19, 2009

Hey, it is a song set during the Christmas season in North Carolina....

Okay, I'm an asshole for bringing you down on the Saturday before Christmas. It's still a gorgeous song.

Ben Folds Five, "Brick":


Thank you, Mr. O'Bannon

>> Friday, December 18, 2009


That's what I thought when I brought up Twitter and saw a tweet from Deus Ex Malcontent's Chez Pazienza memorializing the passing of Dan O'Bannon at age 63.


Here's the Dan O'Bannon movie everybody knows: the one where he told Ronald Shusett about this crazy, insane idea he had about a crew of astronauts--real blue-collar guys, not your usual Star Trek types--who land on a planet where one of them (a man, though the genders of the rest of the crew are optional) is raped and impregnated by this really disturbing alien monster, and gives birth through the chest to this awful thing that eats the crew. O'Bannon and Shusett sit down and they pound out a script, which bounces around until it finally comes to the attention of a Holywood production team consisting of director Walter Hill and some of his friends, and they end up eventually putting together a budget and hiring an advertising guy named Ridley Scott to direct. And this movie, Alien, of course it ends up being one of the craziest, most original horror-SF movies ever made, this crazy haunted house-in-space thing full of primally disturbing quasi-sexual imagery set against the most plausibly industrialized version of space travel ever imagined by anybody; space truckers (well, oil riggers, more like it) who bitch about their salaries and find themselves being assaulted by this phallic-mouthed Lovecraftian horror that only exists, like the shark in Jaws, to eat and make babies, babies that explode out of human chests in a grim parody of birth. It's so basic, so fundamental, and so original, something nobody had ever really thought of doing before or doing like that; there's are a lot of reasons that franchise refuses to die, but maybe one of the biggest and most important is that the very first movie in the series remains so brilliantly plausible and horrifying.

But that's not my favorite O'Bannon moment, or my favorite O'Bannon collaboration.

Back in film school, at USC, O'Bannon, already interested in writing and special effects, ends up joining forces with this aspiring director/writer obsessed with surfing and Howard Hawks, a guy named John Carpenter. And for a student film, they do this insane little no-budget hourlong 2001 parody about a gang of astronauts--blue collar guys again, working stiffs (there are a whole lot of precursors to Alien in this thing)--who go around blowing up "unstable systems" for no really discernible reason except it's their job. Carpenter and O'Bannon wrote the script for Dark Star, Carpenter directed, O'Bannon oversaw the crude but effective SFX, and O'Bannon also--this is my favorite O'Bannon thing right here--got in front of the camera in the role of Pinback, a hapless fuckup who nobody likes. There's an alien intruder in Dark Star, too (another one of these pre-echoes of Alien) that runs amok, but it didn't sneak aboard, no, Pinback (the moron!) thought it was "cute"--an observation that plays nicely off the fact that the creature in question is in fact a tomato-colored giant inflatable beach ball with absurd little latex-glove feet.

But the apotheosis of Pinback is his mess of a video diary. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Dan O'Bannon:

O'Bannon would go on from Dark Star not just to Alien but also to working on the SFX crew of the original Star Wars (the one you kids call "Episode IV") and several other films, to write a number of movies, and to direct a couple. Alien sort of eclipses everything because it was so something else entirely and no doubt Mr. O'Bannon was probably tired, sometimes, of being "the Alien guy"; his resume beyond Alien wasn't anything to sneeze at, from his contributions to Heavy Metal magazine (including "B-17," a piece that was adapted for the first Heavy Metal film) to his riffs on the Living Dead 'verse that exists parallel to George Romero's--the now-iconic zombie obsession with/refrain of "BRRRAAAAAINNS," my friends, is pure Daniel O'Bannon; Romero's undead are simply flesh-eating ghouls).

Dan O'Bannon was one of those people I wanted to meet one of these days, and now he's gone and I can't. On top of whatever wonderfully ooky things he might have still offered to the world, especially to those geeky niches obsessed with things fantastic and horrible and science-fictioney, it's awful that I can't walk up and thank him for making my life more beautifully, wonderfully disturbed and interesting and weird than it could have been without him. I have to note that O'Bannon's career, starting roughly in 1974 with the official release of Dark Star, intersects rather nicely with my life (I was born in '72): throughout my life, Dan O'Bannon has been a constant presence out there, making weird shit up--there's a sense in which I actually grew up with Dan O'Bannon, his career blossoming as I came of age in time to enjoy it. Fuck, he'll be missed.

I just would have loved to thank him.


Monitory policy

>> Thursday, December 17, 2009

Oh, now this is just precious: the FBI is sending me e-mail. It seems they have "Investigated by the help of [their] Intelligence Monitoring Network System" and discovered that I am having an illegal transaction! Oh no! With "Imposters claiming to be governors of the Central Bank Of Nigeria, officials of some banks and organisations in Nigeria, some of them even claim to be from the Federal Bureau Of Investigation"! Oh no, no, no!

Fortunately, it seems I'm not in trouble! And thank goodness for that--I don't know how I'd ever survive a Federal Grand Jury indictment! No, it seems the FBI has heroically managed to intercede on my behalf with the Nigerian Federal Ministry Of Finance and they're going to give me some kind of ATM card that has $800,000.00 in it.

I'm rich! All I have to do is send "Mr. Paul Smith" a bunch of personal information and send them my $250.00 and a PIN (hey, maybe I can use the PIN on my current ATM card, just so it'll be easy to remember!), and I end up richer than Uncle Pennybags! Does anybody have any advice on where I can get a really good cane and tophat?

There's only one thing bugging me, though: the e-mail from the FBI is from their "Anti-Terrorist and Monitory Crimes Division." Now, if you're like me, you might look at that and think that "monitory" isn't a real word--that it's a misspelling of some other word. And if you did, you'd be wrong, just like I was (hey, I'm rich enough to admit my mistakes). Turns out that "monitory" is a word dating back to the 15th Century:


1. serving to admonish or warn; admonitory.
2. giving monition.


3. Also called monitory letter. a letter, as one from a bishop, containing a monition.
(definitions courtesy of

So it would seem that the FBI has some kind of division that is dedicated not merely to anti-terrorism efforts (this, one would suspect in the post-9/11 milieu) but also to crimes involving threatening letters from bishops. This seems curious, no? Is this perhaps one of these situations where a small, obscure sub-bureau is arbitrarily lumped in with a larger, or has one of the major Christian sects become a threat on par with al-Qaeda? "Agents Clarke and Vogt, we need you to head down to the Episcopalian church on Broad and see what you can turn up--we've got an anonymous tip that there's going to be an angry letter about an ecclesiastical offense sent to one of the commercial airlines."

Damn bishops, with their funny robes and big hats. Always acting like they're archbishops, lording it up over the priests, always walking around diagonally everywhere. Once saw a stinking bishop have to zigzag around for thirty minutes before he could get himself lined up just so he could scuttle through a damn revolving door. Funniest damn thing you've ever seen.

The best part of the notice from the "Feds," however, is that we have--yet again--one of these bits about forwarding e-mails from other scammers to the originator of this one:

Note: Do disregard any email you get from any imposter or office claiming to be in possession of your ATM CARD, you are advised only to be in contact with Mr. Paul Smith of the ATM CARD CENTER who is the rightful person you are suppose to deal with in regards your ATM CARD PAYMENT and forward any email you get from imposters to this office so we could act upon and commence investigation.

This is where I wish I had a honeypot e-mail address set up: it would be a real hoot to see if I could set some of these guys against each other. Or maybe not--they may be crooks, but I'd sort of hate it if a bunch of 419ers ended up shooting each other in a turf war I'd started. Still, if you can imagine: "Mr. Smith, I'm afraid that before you got a hold of me, I'd already given all this information to Mr. Paul Obi, who I now understand from your message to be a scammer--here's his contact info...." Mr. Smith, please meet Mr. Obi; Mr. Obi, may I present Mr. Smith. Of course, for all I know, they could be the same guy. I guess I'd be sort of alright if he shot himself.

Anyway, if you happen upon this post, Mr. Smith (may I call you Paul?): I fully believe you really are working for my best interests in your clumsy way, but I'm afraid that by notifying the United States Federal Government, ironically enough, you've inadvertently prevented my application for my ATM card. You see, if I actually take possession of the $800,000.00 ATM card, I will have to report it as income, and it's going to rocket me right up into a pretty awful tax bracket and I have no way of deflecting the blow; and I can't just take the money "under the table," obviously, since you've told the FBI about it, and I'm pretty sure that Mr. Persichini plays tennis with the Master Grand Auditor Of The American Republic on alternating Tuesdays--if he were to mention it, even accidentally, it would be the nipple clamps and car battery for me for sure, and I wouldn't like it even a little bit, it's just not my scene. I suppose you can blame the Democrats if you're looking for a scapegoat, Paul, since it's a well-known fact that they insist upon taxing lawfully stumbled-upon Contract/Inheritance payments, thereby giving lazy rascals such as myself no incentive to stoke the economy by laboriously sending money and personal information to foreign countries via unencrypted e-mail to people I've never heard of. It's a crime, really, which is why I will have to seriously consider voting for somebody who thinks the Earth is younger than beer, that global warming is a scientific conspiracy, that the state of Hawai'i needs to produce Barack Obama's birth certificate (I mean the other one, the Kenyan one) and that the proper function of government is to regulate vaginae, not corporations, the next time we have a big election and I have the opportunity to insist at the polls that living in a society with laws, public highways, national parks, an advanced military and other perqs should cost me absolutely nothing out-of-pocket, thank you very much. I'd be rich if it wasn't for them, anyway, those awful socialists; in any case, I must regretfully decline your assistance and your ATM card, Paul, and hope you and the FBI's crack team of monitory experts will forgive me for wasting your time, however inadvertently.


I'm not paying Ted Alvin Klaudt a damn penny

>> Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The New York Times is reporting that a former South Dakota state representative, Mr. Ted Alvin Klaudt, has come up with a new way to keep his name out of the press: he's claiming his name is copyrighted and trying to assess a half-million-dollar license fee for use of his name in news stories.

Mm-hmm. Sure.

And why might Mr. Klaudt be interested in keeping his name out of the press? He's a former state legislator--they love press, right? Even bad press is still publicity, right?

Well, maybe some publicity is just really, really bad. According to the Times:

Klaudt was convicted in 2007 on four counts of second-degree rape for touching his teenage foster daughters' breasts and genitals in phony examinations he said could help them sell their eggs to infertile couples. He was sentenced to 44 years in prison for rape and 10 more years after pleading guilty to two counts of witness tampering.

Naturally, this reminds me of last month's news about convicted German murderers Wolfgang Werlé and Manfred Lauber and their efforts to have information about their convictions removed from Wikipedia. Yet again, you have somebody I'd never heard of actually making themselves newsworthy by indulging in a misguided effort to keep themselves out of the news. I actually don't much care about Mr. Klaudt, for instance, but I care rather dearly about freedom of the press, intellectual property and Fair Use principles--and if a person were able to suppress potentially newsworthy or public information, such as the fact that a former lawmaker has been convicted of serious felonies--that would be a horrible blow to the basic principles of a free, post-Enlightenment, liberal society, and I'm not exaggerating the least bit--our democracy was founded on the idea that the public has a right to know certain things.

So, congratulations, Mr. Klaudt: you made yourself a matter of national, public interest through your effort to censor coverage of yourself, and turned yourself into an illustration of several legal principles, including the fact that names cannot be copyrighted and may only be protected as trademarks to the extent used in commerce, and that even if a name could be copyrighted, accurate reporting of newsworthy events would almost certainly have to be protected under the common law of Fair Use, not to mention the fact that the connection of a name with criminal convictions is also a matter of public record.

Speaking of which, by the way: South Dakota does not have online access to inmate records. Many states do (including North Carolina), but the South Dakota Department Of Corrections FAQ notes that there are conflicting laws about whether such information may be made available online, and that an attempt to clarify S. Dakota law was defeated in the SD legislature a number of years ago. That having been said, the SDDOC webpage lists two phone numbers--(605) 367-5190 and (605) 367-5140--which evidently may be called by anybody wanting to ask how Mr. Klaudt is doing (I haven't tried it myself, but you're welcome to see what happens, and I'd be curious as to what happens if you call and ask after Mr. Klaudt).

Furthermore, Mr. Klaudt, the facts of your case are set forth in the South Dakota State Supreme Court opinion State v. Klaudt (2009 SD 71; 772 N.W.2d 117; 2009 S.D. LEXIS 139) (2009), which I just got finished reading over at LexisONE, Lexis' free legal research site (registration required). As with all court opinions, the SDSC's unanimous opinion, including its recitation of the factual basis underlying their opinion, is a matter of public record.

And here is where I will wrap things up, actually; normally, I'd quote a few choice passages of a court opinion just to make the point that court opinions are in the public sphere, for all to know. But the factual basis in State v. Klaudt is actually pretty fucking vile and I really don't want to reprint the full factual basis here nor any substantial portion of it. (Regular readers will immediately recognize how bad something must be if I don't want to get into the details of it; having been duly warned, they're welcome to dig up the opinion themselves if they really must know more than what's in the summary from the Times excerpted above.) Suffice it to say: it's a public record, and I very much doubt the state of South Dakota is going to pay Mr. Klaudt a single thin dime for the privilege of reporting the official findings of their own legal system.

Mr. Klaudt, if you ever get around to reading this (do they give you internet access in prison?): you were just a horrible, horrible person prior to this latest stunt. Now you're a jackass, too. Well-played, sir. Goodnight.


Clearly, I have arrived

Great news, everybody! The entire city of Charlotte is now following me on Twitter!

Clearly, I am totally awesome. And I couldn't have done it without your support. Thank you. I promise not to let my newfound fame go to my head--I will always recall how I once was one of the little people who aren't followed by major metropolitan regions, how it was before I became the idol of adoring urban corridors.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.


"A public service announcement--with guitars."

One of the albums I was listening to yesterday evening--The Clash's From Here To Eternity, a compilation of bitchin' live tracks, including this PSA:

A long time gone, and Joe's dead, and they're still the only band that matters. Go figure.


Wait... this wasn't what Santa meant for to happen AT ALL...

>> Tuesday, December 15, 2009

From SMBC:


Lazy jackasses who ruin it for everyone

Here's a petty annoyance I hate: you go to a blog, you read some interesting post, you want to leave a comment--and then discover the blog has obstacles between you and easy communication. There's an unreadable CAPTCHA you have to type in, there's a moderation policy that delays the posting of your comment, that kind of thing.

Which is why I'm really sorry any of you who want to leave a comment are going to have to start dealing with that.

Deleting the comment spam left by lazy, stupid, fucking jackasses who want to ruin the internet for everyone for the sake of putting a few dimes in their pockets hasn't been an enormously onerous task, but it has become something I'm doing every day now, and I'm finally bored with it. This isn't a hugely trafficked blog--maybe a hundred hits on a really good day--but the spambots still hit it, and it's not even just the old posts anymore (if it were, I'd solve the problem by activating the moderation for old posts option instead of using CAPTCHAs, which suck). There was even a brief period when responding to the occasional odd spam as if it came from a real reader was mildly amusing.

I have no idea whether comment spam actually even works for the mentally-defective asshole jackasses who engage in pissing all over the internet. It must at least work for the cretinous, ass-residue dolts who write the software that allows people to engage in it. But does anyone ever actually click on a link--or, in most cases, actually copy-and-paste a non-HTML web address from a poorly-spelled, grammatically-dubious ad into their address bar? I'm not just asking rhetorically: if some sub-moronic, drooling, basement-dwelling, fat, greasy, scum-fucking jerkoff who engages in comment spam happens to come across this post, I would love it if you tried to flail around defending your alleged "right" to make a "living" by vandalizing other people's virtual real estate--because I really want to give you an eyeful of what I really think, you ignorant shittard.

As for the rest of you readers, regulars and odd visitors alike: I'm sorry I've been forced to put a small fence up that you have to unlatch a gate for to get in and hang out. It stinks, and I don't like it either. But if you have a blog yourself, you understand: some people are destroying a communications and social tool that has made the world wonderfully smaller for the sake of pennies. I appreciate your patience, and I hope the new policy won't deter you from dropping a line now and then.

R. Eric VanNewkirk
Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets


Sunday; weather and work, coffee and tunes

>> Sunday, December 13, 2009

I braved the cold and grey and rain to come up to the corner to see if I could (1) get out of the condo for a bit and (2) grapple with the short I'm writing and maybe write a letter to my aunt and read a thing a friend sent, a little children's story he'd done up and wanted me to look at. I'm glad I did. It's good to be out, and the grey's gone away and the sun's come out, remarkably enough, defying the expectation of the meteorologists I'd consulted who seemed to be agreeing it was going to be rainy all day. (Suck it,!)

I've done the letter, looked over the file my friend sent, and now I'm listening to The Decemberists, chugging coffee from a travel mug I bought to replace the one that died charging a cement doorstep earlier this week (that's a clever way of saying I shouldn't have put it on a slanted surface while picking up a package outside the front door--I suppose I shouldn't blame the victim). Now I'm grappling with the short--I have a bit of slightly crappy writing and I need to get around to the editing, but I'm having a tough time deciding between the Hollywood ending and the more, I dunno, existential ending. Grapple, grapple, grapple. I suspect the Hollywood ending is more satisfying but also more fake, but the more, for want of a better word, existential ending is one that feels like it sort of cheats the reader by building up to a, "oh, and then nothing happened, see ya'." So, y'know... grapple, grapple, grapple.

And that's my Sunday thus far. Hope y'all are having a good Sunday and all that.


Completely the wrong season, so sue me...

>> Saturday, December 12, 2009

I thought to myself, "Self, you could set this up to actually run on the Fourth Of July instead of running it in the middle of frickin' December."

And then I told myself to fuck off.

Despite the cold, despite the season, despite the month--because it's been running through my head since I heard it on the radio the other day; Bruce Springsteen, "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)."

Y'know, despite the title and the references in the song, winter is the time of endings and introspection. Just sayin'.

Anyway, hope you're having a good weekend.


Suitably impressed

>> Friday, December 11, 2009

I really shouldn't be comparing a failed vice-presidential candidate to the leader of the free world, but it was impossible to help it while I was reading Fred Kaplan's analysis of President Obama's Nobel acceptance speech in Slate this afternoon.

Nevermind whether or not the President deserves the Nobel Peace Prize after a mere year of work on the international stage in which his outstanding foreign policy accomplishment is likely to prove to be escalation of the war in Afghanistan. I'm still not convinced the President deserves the award, but then it seems reasonably clear that he isn't, either, and I suppose those crazy Norwegians can do whatever it is they want with Alfred Nobel's estate when you get right down to it. And, for that matter, nevermind (at least for the moment) whether the President's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan is necessary or a grotesque mistake (I hate to say it, but I think he has to do it, even if I don't really like it at this point). No, what stands out right at this moment is this:

Read in its entirety, Obama's speech seems a faithful reflection of another theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, who, during World War II and the Cold War that followed, sought to reconcile the principles of Christianity with the imperatives of national defense. In his influential 1952 book The Irony of American History, he wrote that American idealism must come to terms "with the limits of all human striving, the fragmentariness of all human wisdom, the precariousness of all historical configurations of power, and the mixture of good and evil in all human virtue."

Obama's speech doesn't mention Niebuhr, but back in April 2007, early on in the presidential campaign, David Brooks asked Obama whether he'd ever read Niebuhr. The candidate replied, "I love him, he's one of my favorite philosophers." Asked what he took away from Niebuhr, Obama answered, "I take away the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world"; that "we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate these things, but we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction"; that "we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism."

I wish I'd stop thinking about the ex-governor of Alaska, but I can't help reading the above and recalling Mrs. Palin's flummoxing by Katie Couric when she was asked what she reads, or Mrs. Palin's inability in Going Rogue to cite any major literary influences beyond C.S. Lewis (gah!) while regularly misattributing quotes to Plato (instead of Philo) or John Wooden (instead of John Wooden Legs).

I mean, here's then-Senator Obama casually discussing one of the 20th Century's most-esteemed theologians, contrasted against a then-governor not even being able to name a newspaper she reads (as somebody pointed out--I wish I remembered who to give credit to--the correct thing for a conservative who's running for office to do when presented with the question "What do you read?" is to say "The Wall Street Journal" and move on; it doesn't even have to be true, you can totally fake it with that reply). I don't think I've read any Niebuhr.

It raises another issue (and I may be turning this into more than I meant to when I started, but oh well), namely that it's hard to comprehend why significant swaths of the American public will embrace somebody like Palin who's so obviously proud of her ignorance, which she spins as "commonsense conservatism," and is meanwhile eager to attack somebody like Obama who's pretty obvious a literate and intelligent guy, regardless of how you might feel about his politics. Indeed, a common talking point for some conservatives is that the President is a celebrity or received support merely because of charisma and not substance, a claim that seems divorced from reality the moment you hear Mr. Obama pointedly refuse to give a simple answer to even a stupid question (one recalls the full video clip that catapulted "Joe The Plumber" to undeserved fame, in which then-candidate Obama attempted to give a lawyerly answer to the question Joe posed, laying out the different ways the man might be affected or unaffected depending on this and that).

Here, indeed, is a related question: certain conservatives posit that liberals are only motivated by a sort of class jealousy, wanting to take from successful people solely, they would suggest, to punish those people for being successful; how is it, then, that we seem to fall for candidates who are better than we are, while they fall for candidates who are "just like them." I have no idea whether the President would really be fun to have a beer with (although, to be honest, sitting around discussing "just war" theory over beers is actually the sort of thing I've been known to do with friends and family over the years), but I really do appreciate that he's read Reinhold Niebuhr to the extent that when a random question about him comes up, he can do more than parrot the question as a statement followed by a vague and meaningless catchphrase. I imagine if I met the President and he said something smart, I'd feel more awed than intimidated, and then certain chattering fools would say I'd been stricken with "Obamamania" or whatever it is they're calling it now.

Anyway, I read those paragraphs in the Kaplan piece, and what else can I say? I was suitably impressed.


"The show has begun"

Not sure quite what put me in the mood for Portishead last night, but it was just the right thing. You know, if I was making a spy movie, I'd totally want them to do the soundtrack.

I'm never sure how to pronounce their name, though--if I'm not mistaken, it's one of those old Anglo-Roman names that's not pronounced the way it's spelled. Or not obviously the way it's spelled--I mean, it's not like it's Welsh, a language I'm convinced was invented solely so an entire nation could cheat at Scrabble ("'Wylllyxllwiawyn'? Of course it's a word, it's the little bump at the end of your nose; now, with the triple letter square, that comes out to... lessee... carry the ten....")

Portishead is named after their hometown, which sounds like a tribute, except I believe I once heard an interview with them where they confessed they only picked it only because it was the most depressing word they could come up with.

Portishead, "Humming," from their eponymous second album:


Carol Elaine's wish is my command...

>> Thursday, December 10, 2009

Over at Random (but not really), Michelle is asking people what their favorite Christmas songs are. Mine, as it happens, is a Christmas song about a pair of Irish immigrants, one a drunk and the other a junkie, fighting on the holiday, and begins with the immortal line, "It was Christmas Eve in the drunk tank." Make of that what you will.

Although it also closes with the exchange:

I could have been someone--

Well so could anyone. You took my dreams from me when I first found you.

I kept 'em with me, babe, I put 'em with my own
Can't make it all alone--I built my dreams around you

--lines that cause something funny to happen to my eyes just typing them. Probably wandering allergies. Stoopid allergies.

But, yes, it's The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl, "Fairytale Of New York." In the comments at Random, Carol Elaine said she would have to check it out--her wish is my command, the music video is below. The song has seen release a few times for both acts: the original release is on The Pogues' If I Should Fall From Grace With God, their masterpiece and one of those albums You Really Must Own; it was also released by the late Ms. MacColl on her best-of retrospective, Galore, with the added bonus that Galore also includes her other major collaboration with The Pogues, the version of "Miss Otis Regrets" that they originally recorded together for the Red, Hot and Blue benefit album (it's also a wonderful collection in general for those looking for an entrypoint to Ms. MacColl's catalogue).

Now, the best Christmas song ever!


"Each feather, it fell from skin"

One of my latest crushes: The Decemberists, performing "The Crane Wife 3" live in Boston, 2006. The video is shaky, but the sound quite good.

"The Crane Wife" is a Japanese folktale echoing a number of archetypal themes. The story, as I would retell it, goes something like this:

Once upon a time, on one of the smaller islands, there was a very poor but very kind fisherman.

One night, after bringing in the nets, he heard a sound in the reeds that tore his heart, and he couldn't help but go and see what it might be. It took him a while, but following the sounds he found a wounded crane, unable to fly, lying with her wings spread upon the ground.

Although the fisherman could barely feed himself, he knew that cranes bring good fortune; too, even if she had been an ordinary bird, I think he would have done what he could, for such was his nature. So, he brought the bird home and nursed her back to health until she was able to fly away.

Many months later, there was a knocking at his door, and when the fisherman answered, he was stunned to see the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in his entire life, tall and graceful, with a long neck and ivory skin, and he was smitten instantly. Not even knowing what he was saying, the fisherman told the stranger at his door that although he was poor and could not keep her as she deserved, he would marry her in his next heartbeat if he could.

Much to his surprise, the strange, beautiful woman instantly said yes, she would marry him. The fisherman was shocked; he stuttered, he even argued with her--did she realize how poor he was, and how a woman such as she surely had parents who could arrange a match with a wealthier, more successful man? But the woman said she was an orphan, and she mysteriously insisted she had come to this very house hoping the inhabitant would take her in again--a statement that baffled the fisherman and he mumbled something to that effect with a fat tongue and clumsy lips, but the woman wouldn't elaborate.

And so they were wed.

Time passed, and of course the couple found themselves so very poor. The fisherman was lamenting this fact to his bride when she surprised him again: "I am a little skilled with a loom," she said, "and I shall make a blanket for you to sell in the market that I think will put us even. But you must honor some strange requests--I find that I am nervous when I am watched, and so I will shut myself in the back room while I work, and you must never see me at the loom or ever disturb me, and only leave my meals at the door which I will take when you are not around."

This was strange, indeed, but the fisherman loved his wife, and so he agreed to the odd conditions. Shortly thereafter, then, his wife went into the back room, and he did not see her for some days. When she emerged, in her slender arms she bore the softest, finest blanket he had ever seen or touched, and he was amazed. And when he took the blanket to market, he found it fetched more than even he would have guessed.

Time passed, and of course the money from the blanket and meager sales of the fish the fisherman caught ran short, and the couple found themselves again wondering how they would make their expenses for the next month.

When the fisherman's wife suggested she could make another blanket, the fisherman nervously said, "I wonder--when I took the last blanket to market, so many people asked if I had any more to sell... if you made two blankets this time, we would not only be able to pay our bills, but perhaps we could even have a little extra for some of the things we talked about needing if we could afford to replace them."

His wife quickly agreed, and returned to the back room. The fisherman did not see her for several days, and she emerged with two blankets this time, both of which were perhaps even finer than the one she'd made previously. The blankets each sold for more than the first, and the fisherman was surprised to find that there were even people from distant villages who had come to the local market after hearing rumors of the fineness of the first blanket his wife had made.

And so the couple could pay their bills, and buy a few necessities they'd been avoiding the purchase of, and made some repairs that had been deferred, and life was a little more comfortable for the couple than it had been, and they were very happy for a time.

But as time went on, the fisherman found that there were always more things that they needed, and then there were things that they wanted. And so he suggested that his wife spend more time, and more, and more making blankets that they could sell. And although she became wan and weary looking, and he saw less and less of her, and when he did see her she recoiled quickly and wincing strangely when he would touch her, still he continued to ask her to work at her loom and always she acquiesced without a moment's hesitation.

And the fisherman and his wife became very wealthy, and they expanded the fisherman's hut until it was a sizable house, almost like one a noble might have lived in, and the y had many fine things.

But as time went on and the fisherman spent more time home, counting money and receiving important guests and less time and then no time casting his nets (so he could hardly be called a fisherman anymore, and we only use the word so you know who we're talking about), he became so, so, so curious about his wife's. He wondered why his wife insisted upon such secrecy. And he even told himself, sometimes, maybe even honestly, though I don't know, that if she could pass her technique along, perhaps train some of the local girls to work the loom, perhaps they could even spend more time together and she wouldn't need to work so much.

So it came to pass that the fisherman decided he would spy on his wife--perhaps if he looked in, he said to himself, she would not need to be so nervous in the future. He might tell her (he thought) that he'd watched her in secret and she had no need to be shy, or (and this made him feel guilty, and he quickly tried to put it aside) maybe if he was able to observe his wife's technique, he could instruct someone himself.

But most of all, he was simply curious.

One night, then, the fisherman sneaked over to the door of the room where his wife was at work, and he slid the door open a tiny crack, and he looked inside. What he saw shocked him--he didn't see his wife anywhere, but inside the room, working the loom, was a crane! The fisherman quickly saw, too, the secret of the blankets' softness, for the crane was plucking feathers from her own wings and breast, and weaving them into the silk on the loom as she worked.

The fisherman was so surprised he sat down suddenly and let go all the breath he'd been holding to stay quiet--whichever of the sounds the bird heard, or both, she suddenly turned her head and saw the small crack in the door, and the fisherman beyond it, and with a clatter of her great wings she rushed through the door, pushing the fisherman aside and fleeing outside, where she launched herself into the air and became first a shadow against the moon, then a speck, and then the bird was gone from the sight of any mortal eyes.

The fisherman never saw his wife, nor the crane again.

The old man I heard this story from, who claimed he was from the village where this happened, or a village near, or perhaps he knew somebody from the island where the village was--anyway, he told me that when the fisherman died, he left a sizable estate to his heirs, but then in his next breath, he told me the fisherman died impoverished and poor.

I suppose the old man must have had something mixed up, as old people sometimes do.


Reading Rogue: So did anything good come out of reading that horrible book?

>> Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Okay, so something good did come out of reading Sarah Palin's Going Rogue: Janiece felt sorry for me and gave me jam. And apple butter, which I'm not sure if it's technically jam or not. But I love apple butter. A lot.

Thank you, Janiece. Thank you thank you thank you thank you.



>> Monday, December 07, 2009

Over at Salon, Emily Holleman takes on a recent claim by some pundits that President Obama's administration has some kind of shortage of people with private sector experience; as Ms. Holleman writes, this claim simply isn't true, with President Obama indeed drawing some 78% of his appointments from the private sector. The false statement that fewer than 10% of Obama appointees have private sector experience appears (unsurprisingly, I have to say) to be based on a subjective estimate that was subsequently withdrawn by its author.

What Ms. Holleman doesn't address, however, is that the correct answer to the conservative punditocracy's claim is actually, "so what?" This is the thing I find most interesting about the criticism, personally: that it's yet another example of the right's fetishization of the corporate or business sector, a point-of-view from which business experience would appear to be a sole qualification for holding an administrative (or any other governmental) position.

Understand, please, that I'm not knocking private sector experience. Nor am I knocking the idea of filling the bureaucratic ranks with people with business experience--if they're qualified for the job. Indeed, I'd even say that having a range of people with a variety of experiences (public sector, private sector, or some combination thereof) is, all other things being equal, preferable to having a monolithic body of advisers and administrators who all come from one sector or viewpoint.

However, when I read what some conservatives were saying about an alleged shortage of private-sector appointees in the Obama Administration, I couldn't help thinking of the man whose picture appears next to the first paragraph of this piece. For those of you who don't recognize him, the man in the thumbnail is a former president of the Ford Motor Company, Robert Strange McNamara, who led the corporation during one of its most successful eras and is often credited with saving Ford from a massive slump that threatened the company's existence during the middle years of the 20th Century. He might well have been the best Ford executive ever. Brilliant guy. Savvy businessman.

Oh yeah, after he left Ford, he became John Kennedy's Secretary Of Defense, a job he kept through Lyndon Johnson's administration until 1968. They had a war. You may have heard about it. (SPOILER ALERT!) It didn't go very well.

Seriously, though? Donald Rumsfeld's signature accomplishment as Secretary Of Defense under George W. Bush may be that he managed to steal the title of "Worst Secretary Of Defense In American History" from Mr. McNamara. Robert McNamara was widely considered the hands-down worst Secretary Of Defense in history until Rumsfeld; I'll bet even Otto Eisenschiml would have agreed.

McNamara's chief qualification was--wait for it--that he came from the private sector. Kennedy, a wonk, recruited McNamara because McNamara was King Wonk, a man who would apply the business principles he'd used to return the Ford Motor Company to its glory days to national defense, and kept around by the infamously insecure LBJ because McNamara was so goddamn smart. And let's be crystal clear about something: for all of JFK's and LBJ's faults, they were both decent judges of character and of men's mettle--the problem with Robert Strange McNamara wasn't that he wasn't the man Kennedy and Johnson thought he was, the problem with RSM was that he was exactly the man they thought him to be. RSM was probably one of the goddamn smartest sons-of-bitches (as LBJ might put it) to ever sit down in the Pentagon. But he was the wrong man for the wrong job. The Vietnam War wasn't a problem anybody was going to solve statistically, McNamara's deep analyses and computer simulations were worse than useless. Fighting the Vietnamese wasn't the least bit like selling cars. Or running the World Bank, for that matter, where McNamara acquitted himself well after he was shoved out the door of a moving train by an exhausted, exasperated Lyndon Johnson voluntarily retired from the Pentagon.

The point should be reasonably obvious, shouldn't it? Private sector experience--not even really, really, stellar private sector experience--is not, in and of itself, qualification for any cabinet position. There really shouldn't be any question of whether President Obama (or any other president) has hired "enough" people with private sector experience, the question should be whether or not those people are qualified for the jobs they're being asked to do for the next four-to-eight years. If they're all former CEOs but they can hack it, fine, and if they're all lifelong Federal and State bureaucrats who can hack it, fine; and if they can't hack it, to hell with them, wherever Mr. Obama found them.

As for the fetishization of private sector experience by some conservatives--it's stupid, to put it plainly. It's not defensible in any way, deriving from deep-seated prejudices and faulty assumptions about the way things work. It's not the stupidest thing some Obama critics have said (that would still be a toss-up between "death panels" and "he's from Kenya"), but it's a bit more mischievous insofar as it's one of those things that almost makes sense if you don't think about it; I mean, CEOs order people around and manage money, and government bureaucrats boss people around and deal with taxpayer funds, so they're almost exactly the same thing, right, just like manufacturing and marketing automobiles is almost exactly just like the civilian side of prosecuting a war against a popular indigenous insurgent movement with strong foreign support? Or not.

If you're the least bit susceptible to this bit of foolishness, then the next time you see someone saying it on TV or hear it on the radio or read it a magazine or newspaper, I want you to come back here to Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets or click on this link for the Omigoditshuge Bigass version, and I want you to recite the following mantra 'til cured:


And maybe slap yourself a few times. Okay?


"It was punk, yeah, it was perfect, now it's awful."

>> Sunday, December 06, 2009

We could get analytical about why this song's been on my mind, or we could just enjoy one of my favorite psychotic bad girls. Love ya', Courtney. Hole, "Awful," live and a little too fast--but you know it all comes out okay in the end:


"My God, it's full of stars..."

>> Saturday, December 05, 2009

If you haven't seen the December 5th Astronomy Picture Of The Day, a panorama of the night sky over the Himalayas, you really should take a look--it's absolutely spectacular, and not something you're likely to ever see for yourself unless you're a Sherpa. (In which case, hi, how's it going? Weather holding up alright out there?)


Reading Rogue: "The End"

And in the end
The love you take
Is equal to
The love
You make
-The Beatles, "The End"

Jim Wright suggested I should write a post titled "Sarah Palin Made Me A Better Liberal," and if I had more energy I would; maybe I still will at some point. But right now, I am just so grateful that this damn book is over. I am finished with Going Rogue, finished with Sarah Palin's hatchet job against everybody who kept her from being handed one more undeserved and unearned boon or who gave her something and had cause to regret it, done with Sarah Palin's banal hypocrisies, done with the way Sarah Palin pretends to be thoughtful by pulling stray greeting-card platitudes from Google searches, done with reading something three times and feeling forced to fact-check it only to discover it's unprovable at best and openly deceitful at worst, done, done, done.

But just to say this much: that Sarah Palin possibly has made me a better person, if not a better liberal, at least in the short term, because after wading through her awful book I would like to make some effort to be more considerate and forgiving of people around me than Sarah Palin is, more thoughtful than Sarah Palin is, more informed than Sarah Palin is, I'm even worrying about the quality of my writing. Sarah Palin has proven to be surprisingly inspirational as a cautionary fable.

Jim also pointed me, in a tweet earlier today, to this entry from yesterday's Augusta Free Press, and it didn't tell me much I didn't already know from suffering Going Rogue, aside from the not-really-surprising revelation that the unnamed, unqualified, ineffectual, incompetent, lazy state legislative director who constantly undermined and sabotaged Mrs. Palin's gubernatorial efforts, who is described at one point as wandering around the capitol with his shirttail poking through an unzipped fly (p. 151), is actually a high school classmate of Sarah's named John Bitney who was a "top advisor on Palin’s 2006 Alaska gubernatorial campaign." It's sad that I'm not the least bit surprised that the target of so much of Mrs. Palin's wrath was a schoolmate, counselor and probably a friend--she treats so many former friends and supporters that way in Going Rogue, what's one more? The Free Press story is worth a read, it's pretty much dead-on.

On the last album they recorded together, The Beatles' penultimate message to the world was a touching-but-simple statement about karma and the need to be good to one another. It wasn't a novel statement--every major religion has some version of the Golden Rule, really--but, "In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make" is probably as well as it's ever been put. For all its talk of family, community, patriotism, and God, in the end Going Rogue is a shockingly loveless book.

I suppose, as I wrap this up, I might as well mention the last portions of the book--Palin's account of being the target of an organized sabotage campaign by liberal Democrats, which led in turn to her decision to resign (for her family, she says, and because of all the groundless ethics complaints filed against her), and then her obligatory statement of belief in chapter six, and then her epilogue, with it's final line that is sure to fill her loving supporters with joy while striking a sinister chord with every other human being on the planet: "...I'll pull out a road map--I want to show Piper the way to Michigan." (This is a reference to Mrs. Palin's continuing complaint that the McCain campaign pulled out of Michigan when it became clear that Obama had a double-digit lead in state polls and that the Democrats also had an insurmountable edge in their campaign funds, at which point rational heads in the McCain camp decided to focus the campaign's limited resources on closer states, dismissing Palin's quixotic insistence that there was a point to letting her campaign in the state.1) Chapter six is a collection of stock Republican talking points, the predictable and occasionally self-contradictory yammering about small government, deregulation, low taxes, a random shout-out to Israel, hooray Reagan, and critiques of the current administration (some of which, predictably, are incoherent or factually-challenged). Whatever.

Some conservatives talk about a so-called "Palin Derangement Syndrome" (I started to offer an example, but, y'know, you can just Google it if you really want to read a Fox News editorial or Michelle Malkin rant, I'm running on fumes at this point), which is their clever way of rebutting any and all criticisms of Sarah Palin by claiming it's the critic's wackiness and rank bigotry that keeps him from appreciating the Sheer Awesomeness Of Sarah. It's a tautological rebuttal, and therefore not worth wasting much time on: because it's self-evidently irrational to criticize Sarah Palin, to criticize Sarah Palin is self-evidently irrational. It doesn't matter if she's brought a criticism or even an outrageous attack upon herself by getting in over her head, or acting ridiculously, or saying something stupefyingly stupid, because if you weren't suffering from PDS you wouldn't think her behavior was outrageous or foolish or cretinous at all. So it isn't her, it's just you.

I will freely admit I didn't go into Going Rogue with the most open mind in the world. I'm human, and I believe very strongly in my moral first principles, and my politics are almost entirely opposite to Mrs. Palin's and her religious faith is alien to me. But for all the mean things I've probably said about her, and all the cheap shots I'm sure I've taken, I don't think I really despised her or felt anything like the weary detestation of Sarah Palin I've arrived at this week; it's still not hatred, only because that would require me to put forth more effort than Mrs. Palin's book demonstrates her to be worth. I knew that she was not the most-educated or experienced person in the world, and I was amused by her ridiculous public war against her grandson's nineteen-year-old father, and I thought she was a bit of a hypocrite for various reasons, and I knew she sometimes made things up in speeches (c.f. her lie about "death panels"), but I had no idea that she was so petty, vindictive and small. Sarah Palin isn't a bitch, she's a diseased tick riding a bitch's back. I merely didn't like her, I didn't feel the exhausted loathing I now possess.

I could be wrong, but I don't think it's an irrational dislike if you've gone to the trouble to hear someone out, in their own words (or at least the words attributed to them), and decided that you have a well-informed and thoroughly considered antipathy towards them.

I am glad I am finished with this book. I have a short story to finish, other books to read, things to do. There may be another post, possibly I'll bring over the #readingrogue thread from Twitter and paste it in, but honestly? If I never have to mention Sarah Palin, it will be too soon.

Oh, and Stone's Runination IPA is excellent.

1In a response to one of the posts in this series, Janiece Murphy referred to Mrs. Palin as, if I remember correctly, a poster-child for the Dunning–Kruger Effect. Mrs. Palin's absurd fixation on Michigan is a classic example of how right Janiece is: Palin acts as if campaigning for the presidency of the entire United States is somehow akin to campaigning for mayor or governor in a largely rural, largely depopulated state. She even claims that she suggested the VP campaign make little guerrilla campaign stops "the next time we had an official event near Michigan... just do a quick trip across the border to snap one off-the-record photo at a café or gas station, maybe hold a quick grassroots rally." It's the kind of suggestion you might expect from somebody who only thinks they know what they're doing. The people who killed the idea were veterans of national political campaigns, but, as always, Sarah knows better.


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