How the University of Pennsylvania helped cause Judgment Day:

>> Saturday, January 31, 2009





So, apparently nobody at the University of Pennsylvania has seen either one of the Terminator movies1, because some gang of geniuses up there have invented a self-repairing robot that can reassemble itself once a human has prudently kicked it into little pieces before it can become sentient and learn how to operate a phased plasma rifle. Well... sort of... aside from that tendency to fall apart shortly after reassembly. But it's only a matter of time before that little glitch is worked out, and then it's, "Goodbye, humanity, hello, robot apocalypse!"

Nice going, science dudes! We're totally fucked now! My greatest consolation is that the first thing they'll probably remember when they become self-aware is the way you people kept kicking them into little pieces all the time.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for bringing this clip to my attention!)



1I know exactly what I wrote. There were two Terminator movies, just like there were two Alien movies and two Godfather movies. I can count perfectly well, thank you very much.



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Torturous education

>> Friday, January 30, 2009

Slate has an interesting piece up this week from a former Marine, David J. Morris, suggesting we close SERE that's well worth a read.

SERE, if you don't know by now, is the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape program that was created after the Korean War to give American servicemen a taste of what POWs in that conflict had endured. The idea is generally presented as one of training a serviceman not to break under torture and reveal vital intelligence, but the bigger problem in the Korean and Vietnam Wars seems to have been one of propaganda: tortured Americans being coerced into participating in fake confessions and similarly-rigged presentations meant to suggest to naïve audiences that the captors weren't such bad actors and indeed treated prisoners better than Americans allegedly would have. I'm skeptical that such presentations were persuasive or demoralizing to anybody who didn't already have their head in their ass, but there's no doubt they were a problem.

SERE became a bit of a public embarrassment over the past few years not because of the way airmen, sailors, soldiers and marines who volunteered for the program were treated, but because the program was reverse-engineered for the purposes of inventing "coercive investigation" techniques for the CIA and other intelligence specialists operating at Guantánamo Bay. In effect, what the United States did in the wake of 9/11 and the establishment of "Gitmo" was to create a parody of the techniques used by the North Koreans and Chinese during the Korea conflict: they tortured our boys, so we created a training program based on their techniques, then we created an "interrogation" program based on our training program based on North Korean torture methods. Nice stuff, becoming what we hated and found unacceptable like that.

David Morris adds a bit more embarrassment to our pot with this observation:

The question is especially pertinent because America's enemies haven't used SERE's techniques of "mind control" since the Korean War. No doubt some military officials will argue that SERE has never been more necessary than it is today, given that there is no front line in the war on terrorism. Our troops are in constant danger of being captured, as in the kidnapping of two soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division near Yousifiyah, Iraq, in May 2007.

But a review of the experiences of American servicemen captured in Iraq and Somalia shows that our enemies don't water-board their captives. Nor do they have the resources to mount a program of systematic sensory deprivation and humiliation, as we did in Guantanamo and in the American prison at Afghanistan's Bagram Air Base. In fact, our soldiers need training from SERE based on an entirely different premise, as illustrated by the experience of Michael Durant, the helicopter pilot who spent several weeks in captivity when he was captured by Somali fighters during the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" raid. Durant survived by befriending his captors and forcing them to see him as a fellow human being. SERE conditions servicemen to expect nothing but the worst from their captors; Durant's life depended on his ability to understand his captors and find ways to manipulate them psychologically.


In other words, we're not merely as bad as North Korean communists, we're arguably worse than al-Qaeda. Lovely. And not only do our enemies not treat us the way we treat them, but it appears that a sound technique of survival is to reverse-engineer the interrogation techniques that worked on al-Qaeda lieutenant Abu Zubaydah1 and others: establishing a rapport and applying subtle manipulation.

Morris goes on to describe his own experiences at SERE--he's a graduate--and to suggest that the program is inherently harmful because it encourages a "it's not so bad" mentality in graduates.2

He may be right, though there is at least one flaw in his argument that may or may not invalidate it (I'm not sure). I believe it has to be accepted as a given that torture does not produce reliable intelligence. Inmates at Tuol Sleng confessed to utter absurdities under torture. So did victims of torture at Salem, in the Massachusetts Colony, in 1692. But torture has frequently been successful at extracting unreliable evidence--and both of the links in this paragraph provide abundant evidence of that: John Dewhirst wasn't coerced into confessing he joined the CIA at age 12 because the Khmer Rouge were trying to determine how American intelligence programs were structured--the purpose of his confession was (depending on how batshit insane you believe the Khmer Rouge really were) for propaganda or to satiate their paranoia3 or both. Similarly, the Salem interrogators didn't torture people they thought might be witches--they tortured people they knew were witches, they just needed to hear them say it because the confession legitimized the persecution tautologically: "I was right to accuse this witch and to torture her, because it was only after I accused and tortured her that she finally admitted she was a witch!"

The point being, of course, that while America's enemies are unlikely to torture for intelligence, they might still torture for propaganda or similar purposes. In which case, one has to evaluate which is more harmful: an embarrassing video of an American soldier admitting he was a murderous infidel until he "converted" to Islam4 or a tacit prodding and enabling of a mentality that is receptive to violations of the Geneva Conventions and the principles on which this nation was founded.

Now, that's personally interesting, and one of the things I enjoy about writing: when I put the question like that, the way I did in the previous paragraph, the answer seems fairly self-evident, although I had no idea that would be my conclusion. It seemed to me, frankly, that Morris might be wrong, not about the harms SERE training may do to Americans in the armed forces, but about the productivity of training Americans to resist such harsh treatment justifying the program. It seemed to me the program might still be worthwhile, in other words, if risky. But if the first set of harms outweighs the second set by such an evil weight, then it seems to me the SERE program can't be worth it. My nation can easily survive a bogus confession or conversion of one of our own--but I fear we've lost something that should have been enduring when we began turning those vicious and circular methodologies upon others.

Anyway, read the Morris piece and consider it for yourselves--is SERE a tough but necessary preparation for a captured American's worst nightmares, or a dangerous and archaic vestige of the fifties and sixties that has ruptured like an appendix and poisoned the patient, necessitating removal? Thoughts, anyone?





1From the Vanity Fair article linked to above, "Rorschach And Awe":

Zubaydah was stabilized at the nearest hospital, and the F.B.I. continued its questioning using its typical rapport-building techniques. An agent showed him photographs of suspected al-Qaeda members until Zubaydah finally spoke up, blurting out that "Moktar," or Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, had planned 9/11. He then proceeded to lay out the details of the plot. America learned the truth of how 9/11 was organized because a detainee had come to trust his captors after they treated him humanely.


These are the techniques that law-enforcement professionals use with serial killers and spree-murderers, and that routinely work not only to extract useful information, but information that continues to be legally useful once alleged exigencies have passed and you're having to decide what to do with a captive alleged terrorist once the threat is gone.

2Morris' speculation could have been addressed with a Google search. A pseudonymous alleged airman using the alias "Cdr. Frank 'Spig' Wead" wrote a piece for Human Events where he makes precisely that claim, arguing that using the techniques he claims to have endured "is what is protecting our country today" before basically accusing Congress of murder. It's a nice piece of specious reasoning that some people, based on the few comments I could stomach, find "persuasive"--by which they really mean "Wead" confirms their prejudices.

3I.e. it is quite possible the Khmer Rouge leadership were so divorced from reality by the end of the '70s that they actually believed the CIA was training twelve-year-old English boys into master spies to eventually be inserted into Kampuchea for whatever fucked-up reason the Khmer Rouge might have imagined in their blood-besotted fever dreams. At some point, Kampuchea didn't become "crazy" the way Stalinist Russia became "crazy"; at some point Democratic Kampuchea became clinically, collectively insane, sincerely and devoutly believing in impossibilities like a schizophrenic hearing demonic voices and simultaneously knowing the voices are real and that they are not and he has gotten very, very sick and broken.

4I'm assuming this is the new "I was a capitalist running dog but now I understand proper socialist thought."



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Political cocktails

>> Thursday, January 29, 2009

Now, see, I knew there was a reason I liked the man.

Slate's John Dickerson has a nifty piece up about the cocktail party President Obama threw Wednesday night for Congressional leaders from both parties. Drinks will be served, presumably hors d'oeuvres, and maybe all these tightasses will relax a little when they've downed a few and be better-equipped for coming up with some kind of compromise recovery package.

It seems like a frivolous thing, and Dickerson takes the whole affair with an appropriate sense of levity, but he also makes a good point when talking about Washington D.C. of the '60s. It's true alcohol can be a problem for leaders--James Schlesinger allegedly ordered the Joint Chiefs Of Staff not to take orders from President Richard Nixon without double-checking with him first, and Nixon's heavy drinking at the time seems to have been part of the cause for concern (Anthony Lane's contentions that the President was taking stronger substances as well is a bit iffier--Summer's Arrogance Of Power is so questionable an authority I'm not even going to link to it here, and I despise Nixon). However, there's also something... I don't know, classy about the way business was done over drinks in the Kennedy years, and something disarmingly and charmingly and classically Southern about LBJ with scotch in a foam cup.

But it's mainly the Kennedy comparison that comes to mind. Whatever Kennedy's faults--and let's face it, in a lot of ways his was a mediocre Presidency--there is a kind of elegance and class, a glamour (and you have to spell it with the "u" for JFK) that everybody noticed at the time and that was etched into the American collective consciousness after the events of late fall '63 froze the Kennedy years in time. One imagines men in classy suits and the women all wearing hats, martinis on trays and the quiet chatter--Edward Albee one moment, the stability of the Phoumi regime the next.

Yes, yes, yes--it's a romanticized image. But you have to admit, it's a picture of classiness that's been missing from the White House since... well, since 1963, frankly. And, yes, maybe it wasn't really real then, either.

But it's a nice image, isn't it--the contemporary one, I mean? Here's President Obama asking Senator McConnell how he's doing, here's the First Lady leaning into Representative Pelosi's ear to whisper a joke. A tinkle of glasses on a tray and there's Dick Durbin and Lamar Alexander in a corner agreeing over a handshake to some brilliant plan to rescue the economy.

It's a better image than the poo-flinging monkeys on both sides of the aisle we've been settling for for... not eight years, more like sixteen, maybe.

Maybe part of the reason this all sounds promising--and it's just a cocktail party, for fuck's sake!--is that on Wednesday I finally read what seemed like a reasonable explanation of why Caroline Kennedy might have made a good Senator; of course I read this after she'd withdrawn, and the explanation was in an article in The New Yorker performing a post mortem on her disastrous does-it-deserve-to-be-called-a-bid bid for Hillary Clinton's old seat. I think I've previously said I didn't much care who New Yorkers got for a Senator, and that hasn't changed, but I have to admit I didn't know enough about Ms. Kennedy to think much of her and I have the same dynastic fatigue so many other people have--the idea that she ought to be in politics because she's a Kennedy seemed absurd. But in this profile/post mortem I happened to read at lunch, I did run into this interesting statement by one of Ms. Kennedy's friends, Washington insider and Kennedy buddy Lawrence O'Donnell:

"The politics of campaigning are so simple: I’m going to beat you and leave you dead in a snowbank in New Hampshire and never look back. But in the Senate you can be trying to prevail over another senator on Tuesday afternoon whose vote you know you're going to need on Wednesday afternoon for something else. The ordinary work of the Senate never involves fighting. Virtually all the people who run for Senate seats lie and say they’re going to fight, but what they’re actually going to do--which they may not know when they go to Washington for the first time--is beg. And beg people like me, whom they’ve never heard of, the staff director of this or that committee, before they ever get to meet the chairman. So the personal qualities necessary for Senate work are politeness and charm and graciousness and generosity, which New York tabloids have no comprehension of. Why should they? The press is never allowed in the rooms where governance actually takes place."


And I found that interesting, and it actually made the case for Ms. Kennedy that nobody else had--oh well.

But, anyway, if O'Donnell's right--and I suspect he is--then cocktail parties hosted by a smooth and charismatic community organizer and his smart, funny, attractive wife are what this country needs, and that seems really odd for me to write for all sorts of reasons. (One of them being, I'm the guy Dickerson mentions who's lonely at parties or doesn't get invited.) It seems perverse and counterintuitive, but there it is.

So, here's hoping some ice got broken Wednesday night. And something expensive and copper-colored poured over the ice. And that Representative Pelosi kept her top on. Because, you know--we don't need them to loosen up too much inside the Beltway.

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Neverwednesday Nights

>> Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"When push comes to shove, you gotta do what you love, even if it's not a good idea...."

Hermes Conrad gets his groove back:



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Ten things I learned from La Vita è bella (Life Is Beautiful)

>> Tuesday, January 27, 2009

This could become a semi-regular feature; more importantly, there will be spoilers--so if you haven't learned the things I learned and don't want to before seeing the movie, maybe you should come back tomorrow.

Ten things I learned from Roberto Benigni's La Vita è bella (Life Is Beautiful) (1997):

  1. Nazi concentration camps were very clean and remarkably free of most of the vermin and squalor one might have expected to see;
  2. Of all the things a madcap Italian Jew might have done to piss off Nazi stormtroopers, only dressing in drag was actually a capital offense;
  3. There's a reason there haven't been a lot of heartwarming screwball Holocaust comedies since Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator;
  4. If you make a wish for an American tank to magically appear and rescue you, you should probably go ahead and do it before almost everybody you know in the whole wide world has already been brutally murdered;
  5. No wonder Son Of The Pink Panther was a flop;
  6. If your country is ever taken over by fascists, do a sequence of wacky things for five minutes, like dancing around in front of schoolkids in your underwear or walking a funny walk while you're being frog-marched to an official's office or the site of your murder--it won't keep you from dying a horrific death at gunpoint, but it might keep your audience from remembering that around the same time your movie is set your country had just invented fascism, was gassing Ethiopians who had a problem with their country being invaded and was "BF4EVA!" with Hitler;
  7. Bob and Harvey Weinstein could probably sell ice to Eskimos even if they (the Weinsteins, I mean) shit all over it first;
  8. Getting a ride in an American tank followed by a hug from your mom is much better than having a daddy;
  9. Your time spent playing riddle games with a German doctor would have been better spent spitting in his food, because he'll eventually turn out to be an impotent asshole;
  10. Those two hours of your life you spent watching an Oscar-winning, critically-acclaimed movie that turns out to be faintly hideous in its execution and mildly terrifying in what are obviously meant to be some of its most touching moments will never, ever, ever come back.




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An open letter to a bunch of ignorant, heartless, self-righteous retards

>> Monday, January 26, 2009

Dear Thoughtless Pro-Lifers,

Recently, I saw a video on P.Z. Myers' blog in which a small group of your peers were asked various forms of the question, "If abortion were illegal, should a woman who has an abortion be punished?" The second-most-common response after "I never thought about that" seemed to be "Well, I'm not a lawyer." I don't know if this select group of video interviewees is typical--it's possible that the filmmakers consciously or accidentally caught a half-dozen of the stupidest pro-lifers on Earth.

But if you, like the folks in the video, are an idiot and don't know the answer to the question, I hope you will allow me to answer the question for you (and yes, I am a lawyer).

Somebody who does something illegal has committed a crime and is therefore a criminal. Therefore, a woman who has an illegal abortion is--that's right!--a criminal.

Your rationale for outlawing abortion--your stated rationale, at least--is that abortion is the taking of a human life. Fortuitously, legislatures (the governmental bodies that enact laws) have already defined the taking of a human life as a crime and there's a word for it--three, actually: homicide, manslaughter or murder. And since homicide, manslaughter and murder are illegal and therefore crimes they indeed have punishments defined in the general statutes of your states!

The proscribed punishment for murder depends on several factors, including whether the crime was premeditated, that is to say, planned. It naturally follows, then, that a woman who somehow accidentally aborts a fetus is guilty of involuntary or negligent homicide or murder. In most states, this is punishable by a prison term; in some states, this prison term may be suspended, that is, not immediately instituted and held over the criminal defendant's head, and the defendant placed on probation. A woman who intentionally has an abortion, however, is a woman who has clearly planned or premeditated her "baby's" murder, and she is therefore guilty of what is generally called Murder In The First Degree (or variations thereof).

The punishment for First Degree Murder varies from state to state, but generally you're talking about life imprisonment (generally without parole, that is to say early release) or death.

Therefore--and this will be a great help if an obnoxious liberal videographer or filmmaker sticks a camera and microphone into your face and asks a silly question with an obvious answer--therefore, the correct answer to the question, "If abortion is outlawed, what should happen to a woman who has an abortion?" is "She should be charged with premeditated murder and if convicted should be sentenced to life in prison without parole or executed pursuant to the laws of her state."

See, is that so hard? If abortion is outlawed and a woman kills her child, you should kill the mother. And that's what you need to tell the next smartass who asks you such a patently stupid question.

Have a nice day, you ignorant, heartless, self-righteous retards.



Sincerely,
R. Eric VanNewkirk
Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets
(http://shouldersofgiantmidgets.blogspot.com/)

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Be kind, please litter

>> Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Missouri neo-Nazi group has adopted a stretch of Highway 160. Of course, they have an absolute right to do this: the right to free speech means that sometimes we have to tolerate the speech of ignorant shitheads.

Am I a bad person, however, if I suggest that Highway 160, just outside of Springfield, Missouri, might be a perfect place for anyone taking a roadtrip to suddenly realize they need to clean the car or take a roadside dump? Yes? No? Depends on whether a State Trooper is driving by at the moment?

The ancient insult about having never seen garbage pick up garbage before is hereby acknowledged as apt, despite not being more clever now that it was whenever it was first trotted out.

Actually, I think these folks should be encouraged to follow Hitler's example: specifically by going into hiding in their basements and poisoning their girlfriends and shooting themselves. Fuel prices being what they are, I'd probably be willing to pony up a gallon of gasoline for any neo-Nazi wanting to go whole hog by having his corpse burned beyond recognition in a hole in his backyard afterwards.

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No dark sarcasm in the classroom

>> Saturday, January 24, 2009

Part of what's remarkable to me about the internet is how communities now consist of people who share a common interest and not just a common ZIP code. It seems to me that if a lot of this international tech had existed when I was a teenager, I might have been better adjusted: after all, whenever my few friends and I felt maladjusted and lonely, we could have turned to the message boards for RPG gamers or music nerds or general misfits, or maybe even have had Facebook or MySpace pages in which we would have perhaps had thousands or millions of "friends." Sure, there were BBSes when I was a kid, but not a lot of people tied up their modems with online traffic in those days, and connections were inevitably slow and spotty (it seems surreal to me that 9600 bps was once "fast").

But then, maybe not: maybe things would have been just as awful.

Or maybe I would have gotten in trouble with the school, like Connecticut teenager Avery Doninger did last year, when she said mean things about school faculty on her own personal blog. Seems that Ms. Doninger, who was running for senior class secretary at the time, had some issues with the faculty and made a reference to "douchebags in central office" and a "pissed off" district superintendent. Somehow--MSNBC's story isn't clear how, exactly, but it's not too hard to imagine various ways it could have happened--the school's principal found out about the teenager being mean ("douchebags"! why, why, why that's a feminine hygiene product--she compared the school faculty to a feminine hygiene product! oh noes!) and revoked her candidacy to run; the teen apparently then won anyway as a write-in candidate, but the principal still blocked her taking office.

All of which is a bit trivial: I mean, seriously, does anybody actually remember who their senior class secretary was? But what isn't trivial is this ongoing trend, sadly not confined to Connecticut, of schools allowing off-campus behavior to affect on-campus status, whether or not it really affects anything on-campus. (This is something one sees with distressing frequency these days in juvenile courts in at least some jurisdictions: students suspended for allegedly delinquent activities that have nothing to do with the school and no plausible connection to school security or student safety.)

Also non-trivial: I'm suddenly nostalgic for the days when I was young and my peers and I said all sorts of horrible and disrespectful things about teachers and faculty, sometimes on school campus and sometimes in front of the people we were talking about, and there wasn't anything they'd do about it. (I remember one incident when a girl in an English class made the teacher cry and flee the classroom; I should probably be sympathetic, but aside from the fact the teacher really was pretty awful, I also continue to believe, more than two decades later, that if you can't stand up to a fifteen-year-old you really have no business being a teacher. Sorry. Sure, noble profession, unappreciated, all that, got it, kind of agree--but come on, you let a dumb, pimply, adolescent jerk get to you? For fuck's sake, grow vertebrae.)

I have trouble imagining a generation of American youth that didn't say bitchy and terrible things about their elders, especially when real or imagined insults and injuries are concerned. That bitch gave me an F! Mr. Blank is totally retarded. Someone ought to key that asshole's car--I know where he parks! I would be utterly unfazed if some time traveler returning to the golden early days of public education didn't come across a lurking gang of kids talking with all the apparent but vacuous seriousness of youth about removing the bolts from the wheels of Miss Exes' wagon one morning, calling her a flatulent cow and doing a sadistic impersonation of her voice reciting the multiplication tables.

That's what kids do. But these days, hey, can't have bad manners and all this "cyberbullying."

So I'm rooting for Ms. Doninger. Not because she was entitled to be school secretary, nor because I think her claim is one that is likely to have a remedy. And I have to admit that when I was her age, I harbored a special contempt for popular girls who did things like run for school office. (Participating was something akin to being a collaborator--except for drama, the theater department was totally cool. Ah, the sweet smell of teenage hypocrisy!) No, I'm rooting for Ms. Doninger because we are becoming thin-skinned, easily pricked, humorless fools with an absolute lack of perspective, and the schools seem to be ground zero for the sheepifying of America. Let's not have any disrespect or disobedience in this country founded by traitors and fart-joke-purveyors! Let's not say mean things about other people ever, or expect people to show some ability to take care of their own emotional well-being.

Ms. Doninger: in twenty years, this whole affair will likely seem absurd to you, and it ought to, but I hope that if you have children you'll pass along the same insouciance and irreverence. And when you ground your kids (which you ought to--they need to learn some respect, after all!), I hope you'll smile when they're safely out of sight and pat yourself on the back as every parent with a reasonably rebellious kid ought to: because if your kid isn't talking back to you at least a little (and yes, things can go too far, it's a juggling act not something that can be precisely dialed-in), you're doing it wrong. And to Ms. Doninger's parents: good job on raising a kid with some pride in her back and bile in her belly.

And to all those who think these kids these days need to learn to show some respect for their elders or the law or whatever like you and your peers did when you were young: shame on you. Shame on you for your weakness. Shame on you for your amnesia. Shame on you for growing up.


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Friday night cat movie blogging thing

>> Friday, January 23, 2009

It's Friday, which is a cat-blogging day for many people, and often a movie night for me, and the National Film Board of Canada has just made their archives available online....

Hm....

What a good excuse to combine all of the above... you know what that means, right? Oh come on! You have to!

It means Cordell Barker's 1988 Oscar-nominated, international award-winning short, "The Cat Came Back," is what it means. And if you didn't know that, you're in for a treat. Or, if you already had that figured out, you already know you can't see this one too many times.

Happy Friday, everyone!




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"I have seen the enemy and he is us"

>> Thursday, January 22, 2009

Over at Esquire, Tom Junod has a pretty brilliant and brutal essay, "What the Hell Just Happened? A Look Back at the Last Eight Years," which delivers what is likely to be among the best of the early post-mortems1 on the Bush years. Are the past eight years George Bush's fault... or ours?

Indeed, what defined the Bush presidency, what made it unique, was its isolating air of mutual disappointment. His second term began with the providential defeat of his effort to put Wall Street in charge of Social Security, and from then on any news story that referred to a "major victory" for the president, a major triumph, was not referring to an initiative he put forth on behalf of the American people. It was referring to an expansion of his personal power, or what became known as the "unitary power of the executive." This is what he fought for, unstintingly, and this is what he won. And yet if you want an image that captured the consequence of our executive being truly unitary, you could do no better than the speech he gave in September 2005, after Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans and his presidency — the eerie speech he gave in front of an empty church, against the backdrop of an empty city. He was only one man, and although he expanded the presidency like no one since Franklin Roosevelt and the federal government like no one since Lyndon Johnson, he wound up history's most expansive absence.

It's the isolation of a president who defined his presidency in terms of his own power that makes the question of our relationship to him so difficult to answer, and so rarely asked. To what extent can the American people claim ownership of — or responsibility for — President George W. Bush? What terms and conditions of his service did we agree to? And if his presidency was both personally and historically transformative, were we, the people of the United States, also thereby transformed?


Jefferson famously wrote that he trembled when he reflected God was just.2 Maybe we didn't get the President we needed in 2000 and 2004, but the President we deserved? And if the new President lives up to his promise and potential, will we show we deserve him, or will we again prove otherwise?

Something to think about, and lose sleep over, I suppose.

Anyway, the Junod piece is powerful, provocative, and worth a read. Head on over and take a look at it.




1It won't be one of the definitive post-mortems; time will have to pass and perspective acquired. But for January, 2009, it's pretty damn good.

2Notes On The State Of Virginia (1782), 289.



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Making lemonade

>> Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Bad: Discovering that the Winamp database files on the computer you use as a media server have been corrupted somehow1 and the only way to keep Winamp from crashing on startup is by deleting the two Media Library database files so the program can regenerate new ones on next startup.

The Ugly: You have a whole bunch of Shorten and FLAC files obtained when the Neptune Pink Floyd tracker was still online representing three decades of classic Pink Floyd concert ROIOs from the mid-1960s to the band's final performance at Live8, and neither format carries metadata--meaning you have to go in and manually update the artist, song title, track number, and year of hundreds of files, many of which have nearly identical names ("Okay, so that's the 'Us And Them' from Wembley '72 and that's the 'Us And Them' from the third night at Earl's Court in '94... got it...").

The Good: Now that every song you own in digital format (all of them legal except possibly the three-decade-old live concerts, thank you very much RIAA watchdogs) is technically "Never Played" according to Winamp, you have an excuse to listen to 15,000 songs all over again.






1And by "somehow" I mean that it probably happened one of the several times I was recently forced to do a hard reboot because of some malware/spyware/virus/bad registry issues I've recently had on the Windows machine.

And by "malware/spyware/virus/bad registry issues" I mean that if I could find a decent SHN plug-in for Amarok--which is something I may need to research this weekend--I think this machine might be in for formatting because I really hate Windows. Except, of course, it's kind of nice to have a Windows machine around for various reasons. Except, of course (taking exception to the exception), Windows has a way of raising my blood pressure to the point that I was recently lucky I didn't actually break, I mean literally, physically break the Gateway laptop running Windows that I use for media, because last weekend I found myself in such blind rage at the software that I slammed the lid down with enough force that I suddenly was afraid I was going to open it back up and have mercury rolling around everywhere. And I am not a particularly violent person, nor do I think I'm a particularly angry person. But the laptop almost shared the fate of the machines in this video Vince recently shared, and yes, I live on the third and fourth floors of a townhome, so I can make it happen, yes I can.

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Neverwednesday Nights

Not sure if the usual weekly game will actually happen this evening or not, but either way--David Bowie performs a dialed-back and yet powerful rendition of "'Heroes'":






When I set this entry up to appear, I think it was actually before Christmas, and for various reasons (some of them obvious--like Christmas itself) the Neverwednesday Nights entries kept getting bumped back.

So David Bowie's classic about clinging onto hope in the face of adversity only coincidentally appears the day after the new President told us that the difficulties would be great--but would be faced. Bowie's lines about the Berlin Wall--

And the shame
Was on the other side
Oh we can beat them
For ever and ever


--don't mean what they did in 1977, and yet I can't help thinking they're apt as applied to the former administration. I don't mean "beat them" in some petty partisan sense (I'm not a Democrat and don't especially expect to ever register as one), I mean "beat them" in the sense Bowie meant in Berlin in '77--that the ones who have something to be ashamed of can be vanquished by the human spirit, whether they're the torturers and spies of East Germany or the American torturers and spies who chose the illusion of safety over our ideals for the sake of expediency.

Or maybe I'm still basking in the afterglow, feeling too fuzzy and thinking too hard. Anyway, it struck me that way when I watched the video again. I hope you'll enjoy the song under whatever terms please you most; it's a good performance of it.

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A helluva picture of a helluva crowd

(Satellite image courtesy of GeoEye.)

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I am extremely proud to be an American right now

>> Tuesday, January 20, 2009

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Two things at once

So there are now at least two psychologists claiming that mental conflict between faith and reason may be hardwired into the brain. No, I don't get it, either, I'm just telling you what I read on MSNBC.

Apparently, these psychologists did an experiment where some subjects were given a positive critique of a scientific theory and some were given a negative critique. Then they were given a response-time test designed to test their reactions to positive and negative words, with the words "science," "God" or something else (a "neutral control word") flashed before the good word or bad word, the idea being that if you had a positive reaction to "science" then you'd react more quickly or slowly to the good word or bad word; I think that's how this worked. And from this exercise, Jesse Preston UI-Urbana-Champagne concludes:

"We can only believe in one explanation at a time," she told LiveScience. "So although people can report explicitly, 'Look, I've been a Christian all my life, and yes, I also believe in science and I am a practicing chemist,' the question is, are these people really reconciling belief in God and science, or are they just believing in one thing at a time?"


...oookaaaaay?

Rational materialist that I am, and lover of Chuck D. (no, not that one, although he's pretty cool and I love Public Enemy; I meant this one), I have to ask the people behind a project like this to explain themselves. I don't mean explain their notion, which I understand (I'm not stupid, well, at least I hope I'm not), I mean they need to explain exactly why the brain ought to work this way, preferably in terms of Natural Selection, which is the prevailing scientific model for How Things Work in biology.1

I mean, okay: let's suppose I accept this proposition that the brain can either believe in a religious explanation or a materialistic explanation at one time. Tell me why? Why would the brain evolve that way? The alternative case, that the brain can process many things at the same time--this is something that I can make sense of. (After all, the inherent survival advantages of being able to flee from a bear and a tiger at the same time while not running face-first into a tree seems a little self-evident, or is it just me?)

And why faith or reason, eh? I mean, I can (mostly) drink coffee while driving, walk upstairs while talking on the phone, I can even walk and (believe it or not) chew gum without asphyxiating myself or tripping (or, I'm proud to add, losing bladder control). I can talk while playing video games, watch a DVD while drinking a beer, and I used to sometimes be able to remember the chord changes to "Running To Stand Still" while singing a rough approximation of the tune at the top of my lungs.2

The MSNBC piece goes on to quote a science historian from Hampshire College, Salman Hameed, who says that the psychologists' results are a combination of a cultural artifact and the "conflict thesis," the notion that religion and reason are inherently opposed. While I'm not a fan of religion myself, I'm going with what Mr. Hameed said, as opposed to the explanation that sounds really, really dumb. I think that there's a bit of conflict between religion and science, at least up to a point, but it isn't because of an either/or switchpoint in the brain: it's because the system of scientific inquiry is inconsistent with expressions of dogmatic belief, and because the fruits of the former are incompatible with specific claims of the latter. That is to say, "God told me so" isn't a scientific claim, and "the world was created during a six-day stretch in 4004 BC" is a false claim. However, "there is no god" also isn't a scientific claim, and one can certainly devise a system of mystical belief that does not contradict the system of scientific inquiry or make implausible factual claims (and people have done so).3

But that's a conflict (if it exists) over the terms and conditions on which we approach the universe and our experiences within it, not a function of the hardwiring of the brain. But that, I suppose, doesn't generate a good headline, now does it?4




1Although, in all fairness, Preston's and Epley's hypothesis seems so out of left field to me that I'd actually be thrilled in this specific case if they offered a theological model for why the brain ought to work this way. I know God purportedly works in mysterious ways, but maybe they could find a Bible passage that at least vaguely alludes to why God would have written a single-tasking operating system for the brain.

2Once, yeah. Now? What is that, in D, I think? I'm pretty sure there was a D on there somewhere. Or was it a Dm? It's only, like, three chords--hell, it might only be two, I don't know anymore. Anyone got the tab for that?

3I'm uneasy with this paragraph, actually. I'm not sure that mystical and scientific claims can get along so much as I think that one might lie beside the other without waking it up and forcing it to move. If you believe that supernatural, inexplicable, mystical forces pervade the universe, how do you factor them into the scientific project--how do you, for instance, show that angels aren't causing apples to fall to the ground and demons aren't holding atoms together? And if you're saying that these mystical forces are measurable and demonstrable--that, for instance, you can weigh angels and name demons, then why aren't you considering them natural phenomena like gravity and the strong nuclear force?

4A complete aside: during the writing of this piece, the laptop I was using kept generating "out of memory" errors, which seemed strangely appropriate, given the subject.


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R.I.P. Ficlets

>> Monday, January 19, 2009

As many of you may already know, AOL pulled the plug on Ficlets January 15th. And when I say "pull the plug," I mean that going to the former Ficlets site doesn't even get you to a dead or defunct site, it gets you redirected to AOL's announcement that Ficlets will die on January 15th, no explanation as to how or why.

It was a free service, and AOL can do what they want, but I will say this: when you're an corporation that provides internet services with a history of corporate and financial problems, it really doesn't generate goodwill or confidence to close down services you provide with what appears to be complete arbitrariness, especially when the service in question cannot possibly cost a whole helluva lot to maintain and effectively generates free content/value for you. I mean, the major lesson I'm drawing from this is that I'm glad the only data I had entrusted to AOL consisted of short thousand-character bursts of mostly-mediocre fiction, and I hope that Google (owner of Blogger) will do me better (and I suspect they will--Google doesn't seem to be floundering around trying to figure out how the internet works, and every free blog they host generates content that improves the value of their primary product, the Google search engine, by giving users more things to search for and therefore more reasons to use Google and therefore more eyes on the sidebar and header ads; neat how that works, no?).

I haven't routinely posted to Ficlets in ages, so I have to admit the end wasn't so much of a blow. I'd abandoned the place long before it could be considered to have abandoned me, for a variety of reasons (including the fact that it seemed to have been overrun by kids, many of whom--grouchy old man alert--wrote burst fiction with the same effort they put into txt msgng, k?1). But the site was valuable to me when it started: the regular writing and positive feedback gave me a shot of self-confidence I'd still lack if it hadn't been for Ficlets.

Kevin Lawver, who originally developed the site, has ported over all of the Ficlets archive to his own site, if you want to see what people were doing or if you want to revisit something you contributed to the site and maybe forgot about. Lawver has a noble heart and brave spirit, but I suspect he may be fighting a losing battle to keep the patient alive; nonetheless, my hopes are with him and I hope to be proven wrong about the previous comment. As for my own grab-bag of contributions: I wrote at Ficlets under the nom-de-plume "Howie Amourscow,"2 and that archive can be found here if you really care. Some of them aren't half bad, if I may say so myself, however more than a few aren't half good, either.

And to all those who were there in the day and all those who were there at the end: keep writing in good health and a reasonable daily word count. My best to you.



1And that, sadly, was the very first and very last time Eric managed to sound like Harlan Ellison.

2It's dumb. In PKD's Valis, PKD's alter-ego is one Horselover Fat: "horselover" being the translation of the Greek name "Philip" and "Dick" being the German for "fat."

"Amour" is, of course, French for "love," and if you check Roget's for synonyms for "craft" you find that one type of craft mentioned is a scow. Ha. Ha. Ha. Get it? Told you it was stupid.

Today, I'd register for something like Ficlets under my own name, fuck it. Privacy is an illusion (vast amounts of personal information about me can readily be found via Google) and, more importantly, the feedback I got at Ficlets informed me that complete and utter strangers could enjoy something I'd written. That latter is the biggest portion, really: I used a pseudonym at Ficlets partly because I was terrified of rejection. These days, I don't know if my writing's gotten better or worse--sometimes I think I'm getting too self-indulgent here at Giant Midgets--but at least I'm proud to call it mine.


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Indefensible

I really try not to write about law but sometimes it just happens, usually because of some rampant idiocy.

There are a lot of reasons to not write about law. The biggest one is simply the fact that law is what I do for a living, while Shoulders Of Giant Midgets is largely a relief and escape; outsiders tend to find the whole law thing more fascinating than it usually is,1 but I'd really rather talk about Star Wars or something. Another reason is that you find yourself looking at courting controversy you just don't need.

Which is what I'm afraid this post might do. But, you know, where angels fear to tread and all that, and I'm definitely not an angel so I guess in that dichotomy I'm left a fool.

So, let's talk about kiddie porn.

Now, see, I'm already having to figure out how to navigate a minefield I see before me. Kiddie porn, for the record, is pretty repulsive, which seems like a statement one shouldn't even have to make. It should be obvious. But the inspiration and subject of this entry is an excellent example of just how stupid kiddie porn laws actually are, hence the obligation to state the obvious.

Child porn laws have (one hopes), the noblest of intentions: somebody who coerces a child into a physically or psychologically abusive situation and preserve it in some media ought to be punished for it. And those who traffic in such media ought to be punished for encouraging its existence; even if these individuals haven't abused a child themselves (and let's avoid, shall we, the assumption that somebody who has looked at child porn will go out and abuse a child--even if there were an incontrovertible basis for that assumption, it would be irrelevant2), they've implicitly encouraged others to make abusive photographs, videos, etc.

Part of the problem, of course, is that a presumption of harm, however probable, doesn't equal actual harm (at least not in the sense of abuse). What happens, for instance, when the child pornography is manufactured by the child?

In Greensburg, Pennsylvania, three teenage girls (14 to 15 years of age) are being prosecuted for sending naked photographs of themselves to three teenage boys (16 to 17 years old). The girls are charged with manufacturing and disseminating child porn, and the boys with possession. A stupid thing to do? Absolutely. An example of why, if I had a daughter, I'd be loathe to give her a cell or a cell with a camera? Yes, call me a Luddite and tell me about how all the kids have them now and run to your bedroom and slam the door if you'd like to. Were I to find out my fifteen-year-old had been taking naughty pictures of herself, I would probably wonder where I'd gone wrong.

But prosecutions? Really?

Here's police Captain George Seranko explaining the, ah, "logic" behind the criminal charges:

In the WPXI story, which included contributions from the Associated Press, Saranko indicated that authorities decided to file the child pornography charges to send a strong message to other minors who might consider sending such photos to friends.

"It's very dangerous," he said. "Once it's on a cell phone, that cell phone can be put on the Internet where everyone in the world can get access to that juvenile picture. You don't realize what you are doing until it's already done." (Seranko could not be reached for comment on Thursday, and a woman who answered the phone at the Greensburg Police Department said, "Our department is not doing any more interviews on the case.")


No, I don't know how a cell phone gets put on the internet, either. I'm assuming he means that the pictures can be uploaded and distributed. Which, okay, is true, but somehow prosecuting the victim of child pornography for allegedly victimizing herself seems quite a lot like burning the village to save it.

But, of course, the thing of it is that if these kids really took pictures of themselves, they're guilty as all hell. Because we've separated things like actual harm and intent from the letter of the law because, really, they're hard to prove and child pornography (of the kind we usually think we mean) is nasty, nasty stuff. And it is, it's utterly indefensible. But it got to be too easy for somebody to come into court and to say, well, you can't prove this "child" was underage or there was no actual harm done or this was my freedom of speech--and we can't have those defenses, so the laws were revised and revised and upheld on appeal time and again and refined until the crime was pure act without harm or intent: take the picture, break the law.

I have a friend who is terrified that if she takes a picture of her kid in the bath, she'll be prosecuted.3 And I can't tell her she has nothing to worry about, because of course she does. That photograph might one day end up on the internet where everyone in the world can get access to that juvenile picture. And it's stupid, stupid, stupid. It makes sense to say that an adult who takes advantage of a child ought to be mercilessly hammered, but dumb teens who take self-portraits? Mothers taking naked baby pictures?

I suppose there may be some good in these Pennsylvania kids getting prosecuted: maybe somebody will take a look at the statute and realize that what we've done is taken our fear and guilt that we didn't do enough the last time some malicious bastard committed an atrocity and turned it into a law by and for the morons.





1A realistic law show would consist of people sitting around waiting for mind-boggling stretches of time, waiting for their case to be called. "What's going on, McCoy?" "Judge is talking to the Grand Jury foreman about something that came up all of a sudden." "You know how long it's going to be?" "Hell, I thought I was starting an hour ago and I haven't even been able to call the calendar yet." BOMPBOMP

2We punish actions, not intentions or predispositions in the free world. And we already have well-defined crimes to punish somebody who commits actions involving sex with or abuse of a minor. A person who possesses child pornography might molest a child, or might not--if he doesn't, then you can't prosecute him for thinking about it, and if he does you could prosecute him for something else.

Rather, the actual harm in possessing child pornography (if any) is essentially that of an aid-and-abettor. The possessor has given somebody else a reason to manufacture the material, and the manufacture harms a child.

Or at least that used to be the rationale behind all this. In fact, our society has now reached the point where even if there is no actual harm of a minor--if the sexual activity involves depicted or computer-generated minors, it's still illegal in some jurisdictions. Lest this seem like a good idea, I might remind the reader:

But saying o'er what I have said before:
My child is yet a stranger in the world;
She hath not seen the change of fourteen years,
Let two more summers wither in their pride,
Ere we may think her ripe to be a bride.

Romeo And Juliet, Act I, sc. 2


...meaning that Franco Zeffirelli is but one of the many perverts who, in the past four hundred years, have repeatedly depicted a guy trying to get under a thirteen-year-old's skirts; in Zeffirelli's depiction, this includes a scene of the famous lovers in bed and partial nudity; at the time Olivia Hussey's brief topless scene in the 1968 Romeo And Juliet was filmed, she was fifteen. This smut is available from Amazon, heaven help you if the Feds discover you own a copy.

Not to spoil it for anyone whose mind is yet unsullied by Shakespeare's perversions: later there's a gang fight, at least one murder, and a suicide pact. Did you know they actually force children to read this garbage in some schools, at the taxpayer's expense?

Speaking of which, I haven't seen the Zeffirelli R & J since either junior high or high school (I no longer remember which), when an English teacher realized too late that a breast was about to be flashed across the screen and heroically dived to block the sight with her hand (she missed). I remember this teacher suspended in the air with her fingers outstretched far more clearly than I remember the movie or the classroom or even her name (or what grade I was in, obviously); honestly, it wasn't like she was keeping us from seeing anything we hadn't seen before. These days, though, there'd probably be school board hearings over it, and maybe a segment on O'Reilly.

3"Somebody" I know has or had a similarly-themed photograph of two young children, a brother and sister, naked and playing together in a bathtub sometime in the late 1970s. A photograph which I am aware of because this "somebody," who shall remain nameless, routinely pulled it out and showed it to several young women that a certain anonymous party (nobody you know) dated throughout high school and college and brought home to meet this "somebody."

The production of this photograph consistently met with our anonymous party's great embarrassment and the apparent delight of "somebody" and the young women in question. I have some reason to believe that the young women who were subjected to the image suffered from various mental and emotional disturbances, possibly psychic trauma caused by exposure to the image in question, though that's mere conjecture. Certainly a consistent and widespread symptom of the women's emotional distress was their shared inability to recognize that the anonymous party in question was not, as they might have believed, an emotionally-retarded, awkward, neurotic and immature jackass, but rather a brilliant, witty, and handsome future lawyer and blogger with excellent taste in music.




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Writing software

>> Sunday, January 18, 2009

This was meant to be a one-post day, but I thought I'd relate this because it's a small gesture towards recognizing awesomeness.

I've previously mentioned that I've been using Writer's Café to help me write--the storyboards function is pretty keen, I've been keeping a writing journal when my book is active (sadly, there's a long gap in entries between November and this past week), the corkboard is where I have a whole bunch of pictures and weblinks and cut'n'pasted paragraphs from online references--it's an awesome piece of software. But I was having some technical issues with the storyboard causing the program to crash when I was attempting to add a level--a big enough problem that I finally sent an e-mail to the developers yesterday afternoon.

This morning--within hours, really, of receiving my e-mail--I had a response seeking some additional information about my problem. And then, before I even had a chance to respond (both messages were in my inbox when I checked my e-mail this morning), I had this (and I hope Mr. Smart doesn't object to my posting his message):

Hi Eric,

I've figured out the problem and I'll release a new version of W.C. next
week, but if you need it fixed sooner I'll make a private release.

Best regards,

Julian


My mind--is blown. I am impressed, stunned, amazed, and in awe of these fine folks. I've had problems with software from ginormous companies and from tiny companies consisting of two guys in a basement somewhere, and everything in between (who hasn't?), and I cannot recall ever seeing such a fast solution; hell, I'm not sure I've ever seen such a quick response.

The worthiness of Writer's Café just quadrupled, quintupled, sextupled in my eyes. I don't have an emergency, so I'll wait for the official release next week--but this is something I'll pass along here, because I know a lot of the folks who regularly drop in are aspiring-writer types. Many of you, I know, have your established patterns or are already settled on a particular program or set of programs--but if you're looking to start using a writing aid program or to make a change, add this to the list of benefits for Writer's Café: excellent customer service.

Just wanted to pass that along. Now back to your regularly scheduled posting.


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Mr. Bush, homebound

Over the years, I've sometimes wondered why I read Slate. It's a pretty comprehensive distillation of the news, but often a frustrating one. But now I think I can say that whatever else Slate is, it's definitely blog fodder. Today we have yet another post inspired by yet another exeunt Mr. Bush piece.

This one is an article titled, "Mr. Ex-President - How George W. Bush can make the most of the rest of his life," posted on Thursday the 15th. Writer Christopher Beam outlines several of the things other ex-presidents of the United States have done, focusing particularly on "The fade into relative obscurity favored by Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan; and the activist, globe-trotting, elder statesman model as practiced by Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton" (and mostly the latter option) before briefly noting a few other things that ex-presidents have done after leaving office, such as becoming a behind-the-scenes presidential advisor. (Curiously enough, Mr. Beam overlooks the option of becoming a member of a superhero team. Mr. Bush seems like he would be at least as capable as Gleek. Oh well.)

Beam's piece is clearly intended to be a soft piece, a kind of journalistic cotton candy. It's not exactly not news analysis--Mr. Bush's post-presidential activities may well be of national interest, particularly if he tries to follow the path of a Carter or Clinton (it seems worth noting in this respect, too, that Mr. Bush's father has recently emerged from several years of relative privacy to use his clout and influence for post-Katrina relief and other worthy causes). On the other hand, Beam clearly isn't trying to provoke, since he marginalizes one of the President's obvious and most-likely options with little comment and doesn't talk about the elephant in the room that may kill any chance of Mr. Bush becoming a globe-trotting elder statesman.

That elephant, of course, is the recent interview Judge Susan Crawford (ret.), the convening authority of military commissions, gave to Bob Woodward for the Washington Post, in which Judge Crawford said, ""We tortured [Mohammed al-]Qahtani," (italics in original) and, "I think the buck stops in the Oval Office."

I think there is absolutely no chance that the United States will prosecute Mr. Bush, notwithstanding the laudable (and overdue) statements of Eric Holder at this week's committee hearings regarding his confirmation as President-Elect Obama's Attorney General: "Water-boarding is torture. … It would violate the international obligations that all civilized nations have agreed to—the Geneva Conventions." Indeed, Mr. Holder himself told the Senate committee, "We don't want to criminalize policy differences that may exist between the outgoing administration and the Obama administration," when asked if the Obama administration would look at the criminal culpability of members of the Bush Administration.

That having been said, however, the policies of the Obama Administration aren't binding on the rest of the world, and it's the rest of the world that may keep Mr. Bush at home for the rest of his life.

The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment technically requires the United States (a signatory) to extradite an alleged offender to a "State Party" claiming jurisdiction, but that seems like a request the Obama Administration (or any other Presidential Administration) is unlikely to honor, particularly when the alleged offender is a former President Of The United States.

Other nations, however, may be inclined to actually honor their international agreements should Mr. Bush step off an airplane and onto foreign soil. Consider, for a moment, Mr. Henry Kissinger: Mr. Kissinger, a former U.S. Secretary Of State, National Security Advisor and Nobel Laureate,1 is wanted in Chile for war crimes charges related to his alleged knowledge of or involvement in the infamous Operation Condor, and in 2002, while visiting England, was the subject of a petition for arrest filed in the High Court in London based on his involvement in the bombing of the Indochinese Peninsula during the Vietnam War (a Spanish judge also requested Mr. Kissinger's detainment by Interpol over the same issue; British authorities refused the request).2 Such activity wasn't unprecedented, either: had Kissinger been arrested and/or extradited for trial, it would have simply followed the trail blazed by the arrest of former Argentine strongman General Augusto Pinochet in 1998.3

The upshot of all this is that Mr. Kissinger has found his former globe-trotting rather curtailed, since there are now all sorts of places he can no longer visit without some possibility of being arrested and extradited. (I am not sure where Mr. Kissinger has ventured to travel since 2002; I am sure he feels reasonably safe returning to the UK, since the UK declined to cuff him and ship him seven years ago.)

Complicating Mr. Bush's situation is another bad decision4 that was made during his administration: the increased use of "extraordinary renditions" to deport alleged terrorists for questioning in foreign countries (presumably places even less concerned with human rights than the United States has been during the past eight years). Even if the doctrine of Universal Jurisdiction is rejected (see note 2, infra), it is quite conceivable that Mr. Bush has managed to establish territorial jurisdiction over his administration's activities in bog-knows-how-many different countries, like a getaway driver leading a high-speed freeway chase across multiple state lines. Whatever happened in Poland or Morocco or Afghanistan or Thailand et al. may indeed stay in Poland or Morocco or Afghanistan or Thailand or wherever--unfortunately, should a judicial official in one of these countries seek Mr. Bush's detention on a visit to one of these countries or should a judicial official make a formal request of some other country Mr. Bush is visiting and see it honored by the local authorities, Mr. Bush may find himself staying in one or more of these places as well.

It's far from inconceivable. The prerequisite isn't, as you might assume, the participation, compliance, or consent of American authorities--it's the existence of foreign judges and/or court officers ballsy (or crazy) enough to file and serve papers on Mr. Bush if he happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, which could be anywhere in the world depending on whether we sent somebody there to be tortured or on whether judicial officials proceed on a novel-but-semi-established legal theory.

Mr. Bush may be well-advised to stay at home.

And if he does stay at home? Beam writes:

There's one thing Bush should not do, which is spend the rest of his life revisiting his mistakes. Sure, every president deserves a memoir or two. But ex-presidents must strike a balance between defending the past and moving on. The most successful ones use their ex-presidencies not to defend their legacies but to enhance them. Carter's humanitarian work—peace negotiations, elections oversight, not to mention the eradication of the Guinea worm and river blindness—has all but eclipsed his downer of a presidency. Likewise, Bush would be smart to tackle a cause that won't remind everyone of his failures. Don't promote freedom. Fight AIDS in Africa—an area in which the Bush administration excelled. The best way to make people forget your screw-ups is to score new wins.


This is what I meant when I wrote at the very beginning that Beam marginalizes one of the most-obvious and likely possibilities for Mr. Bush. Richard Nixon may be the only other man to leave the office with so many darkening storm clouds following behind him. After a brief period of laying low, Mr. Nixon returned from the shadows with a series of self-serving memoirs and books on foreign policy, somehow eventually managing to rehabilitate himself with enough people to find himself a sort of foreign-policy guru and enlightened elder by the time of his death. I have no idea what Mr. Bush will do with his retirement, but I will not be the least bit shocked if this is the course Mr. Bush elects to follow: a few quiet years, and then a career as a writer, tangentially revisiting his mistakes in the guise of "experienced" books on foreign policy and national security, hoping that enough people eventually forget his sins or at least that the pain has been dulled by ten or twenty years of tumultuous events, looking for approval and vindication and a sort of blissfully-forgetful forgiveness. Until someday he's revered by some and tolerated by most and only loathed by a small cadre whose passion and vitriol seem seems small and regressive to the conventional wisdom of the masses who have re-accepted the disgraced man who somehow managed the neat trick of atoning without actually doing anything to atone.

We'll see. Either way, Mr. Bush may have a great deal of time at home to think about it.




1That last achievement being included for accuracy and completeness, not because Mr. Kissinger is or was a particularly worthy recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

2The interested reader might also check out this Wikipedia entry on "Universal Jurisdiction," a controversial legal theory that holds that some offenses are so despicable they are a crime everywhere, and thus may be tried anywhere.

As a general matter, a criminal case must be charged and tried where the crime occurred. (As a general matter; changes of venue is a complicated and separate issue.) Universal Jurisdiction, if it became a prevailing legal concept, would be a radical departure from a long legal tradition. That having been said, the basic premise of post-WWII international human rights law is that certain acts are "crimes against humanity." The atrocities committed by the Nazis, for example, were not crimes specifically against Jews, Germans, or Europeans, but crimes against the entire world and therefore prosecuted by the world. For this idea--the idea of crimes against humanity--to be more than mere rhetoric, it almost has to follow that a criminal shouldn't be immune from prosecution because of his address, or that if one-hundred-and-seventy-nine nations are appalled by one nation's conduct but that one nation is perfectly okay with it, then nothing at all can be done about it unless the nation is worse-armed than NATO or a UN Peacekeeping Force.

3Jonathan Powers short opinion piece from 2001, "Henry Kissinger Has Become a Very Nervous Person," proved to be somewhat prescient; Powers' "some lone magistrate somewhere - another Baltasar Garzon [sic]" turned out, actually, to be Baltasar Garzón.

4During President Bush's "farewell" speech, he apparently said, ""You may not agree with some tough decisions I have made, but I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions." I find this quote to be an astonishing non sequitur. A good number of the decisions that we all agree Mr. Bush was willing to make weren't merely disagreeable (President Clinton's decision to implement "Don't ask, don't tell" was disagreeable; President George Herbert Walker Bush's decision to try to ride out the economy in 1992 was disagreeable) but were in fact moronic, inconceivable, illegal. To suggest that a decision to authorize the use of a procedure associated with the Spanish Inquisition (for instance) is merely something we all might "not agree" with is to suggest that reasonable minds might differ, that a question of whether or not to engage in despicable, criminal acts prohibited by national and international law is somehow akin to an argument over whether Van Halen was better with David Lee Roth or Sammy Hagar at the mic.



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Cur-urse!

>> Saturday, January 17, 2009

A fluff piece in Slate this week claimed that President George Bush is (assuming nothing shocking happens in the next three days) all set to truly defeat the Curse of Tippecanoe, his one great and likely indisputable achievement. The curse, according to Wikipedia:

The term Curse of Tippecanoe (also known as Tecumseh's curse, the presidential curse, zero-year curse, the twenty-year curse or the twenty-year presidential jinx) is sometimes used to describe the pattern where from 1840 to 1960 each American President who had won election in a year ending in zero (such as 1880 or 1900) died in office. It was supposedly broken by Ronald Reagan, who had survived being wounded in a March 1981 shooting.


Except, of course, that some cursologists (or whatever you'd like to call them) have redefined the curse to even encompass Reagan: evidently they say that the curse isn't mere death, that an assassination attempt suffices to meet the terms and conditions of evil karma or cursology or whatever.1

But President Bush--he's gone eight years without dying or having a serious attempt made on his life, they say. To which I have to ask, "You call that living?"

I mean, the guy is only a leading candidate for worst president ever. Irrespective of the President's health, his presidency sure smells like something crawled underneath it and died.

And then what about the Reagan Clause? Reagan, some cursologists say, met the terms of the Tippecanoe Curse by having an attempt made on his life. Well, do we know who sold Mr. Bush the bag (or box) of pretzels? And what about Muntazer al-Zaidi--that shoe could have, you know, really hurt somebody.

And then there's a highly-reliable news source that has reported a number of recent fatal incidents involving Mr. Bush. How do we know that Mr. Bush is resting comfortably at Bethesda Naval Hospital? Maybe he's fallen prey to... the curse.

Although Mr. Bush's presidency is coming to an end, I think the public is entitled to some answers, and soon. Mr. Bush, the American people you represent want to know: did you, or did you not, die in office because of the Curse of Tippecanoe? And if you did not die in office, how do you explain the way you've led the country for the past eight years? Answer the question!



1Hey, look, I didn't make this shit up, okay. It came out of somebody else's ass.

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The Eagles, Time Warner Cable Arena, January 14, 2009

>> Friday, January 16, 2009

To answer those who asked, yes, The Eagles gave a phenomenal show.

My Mom decided to take me to the show, and while I wish she hadn't spent so much on the tickets, I'll give the band credit for giving the audience their money's worth. The show was scheduled for 8:00 PM, which usually means 8:30 for most bands (or sometime after ten if the band is Guns'N'Roses), and The Eagles went onstage at about 8:07 PM or thereabouts and played until around 11:30 PM, with a fifteen or twenty minute break between sets. When one is talking about a band that's been around for thirty-something years, it's almost an un-statement to talk about musicianship--one takes it for granted that The Eagles are going to play well and deliver the harmonies they've been singing for three decades, especially on songs like "Witchy Woman" and "Lyin' Eyes" that they can probably play in their sleep; but, yes, the musicianship was superb and the harmonies beautiful.

More significantly, the band seemed to be having a good time on stage and the energy level was high. And while I'm sure a good chunk of the crowd was there to hear the classics, the band had a new album to promote, Long Road Out of Eden. I don't own a copy, and (frankly) I'm not sure the new songs really measure up to the band's best work of the 1970s, but the thing about a band promoting a new album is that they have more at stake than just flogging the old standards Yet Again; watching a band lifelessly going through a twenty-year-old tune to the cheers of an oblivious Greatest Hits crowd can be not only a little dull but extremely depressing. Not that every reunion tour is like that, mind you--I've seen Springsteen out on tour just for the sake of being out on tour, and he set fire to the stage--but it's an easy trap for a band, and if I wasn't completely blown away by The Eagles' new songs, I'm still glad they had them and were playing them and using them to bookend and breathe life into their back catalogue.

Although the presence of the back catalogue was also pretty interesting: the biggest surprise for me, personally, was that the band dipped into Don Henley's and Joe Walsh's solo catalogues (if there were any cuts from Glenn Frey's or Timothy Schmit's back pages, they weren't songs I recognized and I mistook them for new tracks from Eden or unfamiliar tracks from The Eagles' catalogue). The first foray into the solo catalogue was an accelerated version of Henley's "Boys Of Summer," which I frankly assumed they sped through as some kind of ego-thing, presumably Henley being a prima donna and the rest of the band going along to shut him up; but then the band began covering old solo Walsh tracks and really laying into them and doing them justice, and the second set featured a blistering, paint-peeling rendition of Henley's "Dirty Laundry" along with a handful of additional Walsh tracks--at which point it was pretty clear the faster take on "Summer" (which worked artistically, by the way; it was just a noticeable change) was a deliberate choice and the band members were enjoying playing each others' songs. Always a good thing.

After all, The Eagles fourteen-year "hiatus" wasn't a "hiatus" at the time--it was a break-up with everybody going solo and some public bitterness (tho' it never rose to the level, say, of The Beatles' disintegration, much less the insults, recrimination and lawsuits of Pink Floyd's divorce from Roger Waters). When the band reunited in '94 for Hell Freezes Over, the in-joke of the title was that Don Henley had once been asked in an interview when the band might reunite and that was his answer. If any bad blood lingers, you wouldn't have known it Wednesday night, and the band attacked their setlist with equal zeal whether they were playing somebody's solo number or something brand new or a song released in 1972.

A confession I have to make, speaking of the solo catalogue, is that I think I've underestimated and undervalued Joe Walsh for a very long time. It might frankly be that familiarity bred some level of mild contempt, though "contempt" implies a strength of feeling that wasn't there--I haven't heard any Joe Walsh in years and hadn't had any reason to really think of him at all, but his music was in the background throughout much of my childhood and was just sort of there as something easily recognized but so ubiquitous it's just as easily forgotten. (Like air, you know? It's awesome stuff, but you don't tend to notice it most of the time.) Walsh's material really was a high point of the show for me, personally, not because I expected it or wanted it but because when it came I quickly wanted more. The best way to put it might be to say that the man really kicked ass.

It was a damn good show, anyway, and I had a good time. The band didn't just play well, they had a good time and were engaged and on, and I hope they really were having fun the other night and have a great tour for the rest of their schedule. And thanks, Mom, for taking me.


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Matt Harding confesses

>> Thursday, January 15, 2009

Some of you may remember a video that circulated last year and was even featured here at Giant Midgets and also at Hot Chicks Dig Smart Men: Matt Harding, a computer programmer, quit his job and travelled around the world, filming himself dancing and random people he met dancing, an expression of the joy and beauty of being human.

Turns out it was a hoax. A cruel, horrible hoax. A cruel horrible hoax perpetrated with Photoshop™. Photoshop™ and robots.

Here's Mr. Harding confessing to his sick, cruel, heartless, evil dancing-robot scam:






I feel abused. Horribly, horribly abused. "Bearded French Guy Doing Some Kind Of Weird Jig" was one of my favorite parts of the video, and to discover it was nothing more than an unbelievably-sophisticated animatronic device sporting cutting-edge fake skin and ultra-realistic hair carefully inserted using top-of-the-line video editing techniques--I'm at a loss of words, frankly. Anybody can spend millions of dollars on computer graphics and expensive humanoid simulacra all for the venal purpose of selling an obscure chewing gum brand. Traveling around on a shoestring budget with nothing more than a video camera and a big grin, infecting people with a sense of optimism and joy--I should have known that was completely impossible.

My heart is broken.

If only there was a short video I could watch to restore my hope and faith in humanity.





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Neverwednesday Nights

>> Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Actually, it's not a Neverwednesday Night. But my Mom is taking me to see The Eagles, so we'll go ahead and post the NWN entry I set up a few weeks ago. Enjoy.






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Number 6 leaves The Village

I'm sorry to hear that Patrick McGoohan has passed away today at age eighty.

Last week, I did a piece on the classic TV series The Prisoner, including a link to AMC's live-streaming of all of the episodes of the complete series. McGoohan did a number of other television shows and movies over the years, but The Prisoner remains not only his iconic role but also represents some of his strongest work as a writer, director and producer.

I'm not sure what I could add that wasn't said in the earlier post or comments. He was a great actor and apparently a pretty decent guy, and his death represents, I guess, the door slowly swinging inevitably shut on a generation. Such happens to all generations--a thousand years past and a thousand years hence, and there's really only a mere fifty years left for my generation, really. But I do have to wonder if it always felt the same: after all, McGoohan's generation was really only the second generation in the era of what might be described as modern mass media, and his generation was maybe the first one in which that modern mass media really had a global reach and long tail. The Prisoner, for instance, was originally aired at roughly the same time (within a two-year period) in three countries on two continents (the show debuted in Britain in September 1967 and then was aired in France in February '68, the United States in June '68, and West Germany in August '69; I seem to recall reading that the show also aired in Canada in the late '60s, but that may have been a part of the British rollout); subsequently, the original series found repeat airings on broadcast channels (including public television, where most American GenX-ers who love the show discovered it) and cable, and consumer sales on VHS and DVD (not to mention secondary media including books, comics, and the upcoming miniseries remake to air on AMC later this year). In the early generations of mass media and its precursors, McGoohan's work wouldn't even retain cult popularity forty years on: it would have vanished into the aether with other early radio broadcasts or rotted away in boxes and canisters like so many early films.

So one unforeseen consequence of this technological media age with its home theater systems and streaming internet video and international distribution channels driven by mail, phone and online correspondence is that it's hard for any entertainer, even a semi-retired one, to die in obscurity. McGoohan's work isn't just remembered and loved, it's loved and current, available online or at Amazon or for rental from Netflix and its peers. The Prisoner was uneasy with technology and mass-culture: the iconic pennyfarthing bicycle that recurred throughout the series was, per McGoohan, a symbol, a moving piece of technology with nobody in control of it, and the show frequently took aim at mass communications (e.g. the persistent, banal radio broadcasts from The Village's transmitter) and surveillance culture (e.g. the omniscient cameras and scanners and microphones). But it's this very kind of tech (and no, it's not ironic at all, actually) that has also kept McGoohan's critique of modernity alive and well and kicking--it's those omnipresent and ubiquitous lines of communication that The Prisoner so mistrusted that have guaranteed Patrick McGoohan died and will be respected and remembered as a free man, not a number.

Rest in peace, Mr. McGoohan. And thank you.

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God bless America

>> Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Yesterday's Slate features a nice little survey of the religious festivities surrounding President-Elect Barack Obama's inauguration on the 20th titled "God Bless, and Bless, and Bless, and Bless America--How many preachers does one inauguration need? Not too surprisingly, they blow the answer to the question raised beneath the title, but they do at least provide the information that four more have been scheduled than is Constitutionally necessary and who they are and what they've been up to.

Regular readers shouldn't be surprised that I think the answer to "How many preachers does it take to screw in a lightbulb swear in a President?" ought to be zero. But it's also something I've sort of tried not to think about too much: after all, I recognize that the overwhelming majority of Americans are some kind of religious, however poorly informed or defined in many cases, and that atheists and agnostics have less of a chance of being elected Governor, much less President, than, say, a pedophile terrorist whose chief hobbies are crack cocaine and fighting pit bulls. Okay, that's an exaggeration. But not by much. But the reality, anyway, is that notwithstanding the efforts of a bunch of grandstanding A/As,1 the inauguration will include lots and lots of prayer and blessing and invoking of a deity (and do you have to ask which one?). So I try not to think about it.2

What is sort of interesting, if utterly unsurprising, is that the Slate piece doesn't seem to notice that what's really missing from the lineup isn't atheists,3 but any kind of real ecumenical breadth and depth whatsoever. Okay, so we have four different Christian denominations represented by four different kinds of Christians, and only one of them has implied he'll give a specifically Christian prayer (oh come on, you didn't really have to click that link to guess which one I'm referring to, did you?), while two others (much to their credit) have said they'll try to be non-denominational. Nonetheless, one doesn't see a Rabbi, or an Imam or a Lama or brahmin Priest on the list, much less a representative of Wicca or Vodun or something really outré on the list. One has to wonder what the reaction would be if the Invocation were to be given by a witch. (I'm thinking the reaction on the Christian right would probably look a lot like this. How do we get one for 2012?)

How does anybody say the whole project isn't exclusionary?

Of course, most of the controversy about the invocation has surrounded Rick Warren, who might not be a homophobe even if he frequently waddles and quacks like one when he's not paddling around in the pond or flying south for the winter or getting into disputes with rabbits over what's in season.4

The Slate piece has a nice link, to this blog entry at American Prospect, which is particularly relevant because it turns out that Rev. Warren (who's giving the invocation) has previously gone against Bishop Gene Robinson, who's giving the opening prayer. Bishop Robinson, who seems like a pretty cool dude for a cleric,5 is the openly-gay Episcopalian Bishop who triggered a schism in the American Episcopalian church when he came out and said God told him to. When that occurred, a number of Episcopalian churches attempted to splinter away from the main church, which naturally caused a problem insofar as their church buildings were owned by the national Episcopalian church and these schismatics were no longer members of that larger church, so their continued use of the facilities would have been, what's the word? Oh, yes: theft.6

Anyway, Rev. Warren was very helpful in the anti-gay-bishop-Episcopalians'7 time of crisis, offering up Saddleback Church's facilities to the bigots. This meta-quote from American Prospect probably sums it up better than I could:

Warren, says Jim Naughton, the canon for communications and advancement of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, "is owning up to the fact that he has a relationship with people who are, by anybody's calculus, bigoted toward homosexuals." The breakaway congregations represent a small minority of Episcopalians in the United States, but they work with a global network of anti-gay churches to "keep an atmosphere of crisis boiling." Using "the guise of orthodoxy, people are laying claim to material resources," Naughton added.


Well, indeedy.

I'd like to agree with Rev. Randall Balmer, who told The New York Times that he thought it would be a mistake to lump Warren in with James Dobson or Chuck Colson; Warren clearly isn't the worst of the worst, indeed when compared to Fred Phelps, Warren comes off as the totally awesomest guy in the universe--if you were stuck on a desert island with these two guys, a gun, and only one bullet, the choice would be obvious.8 On the other hand, Warren himself has characterized his differences with James Dobson as being a matter of "tone," and not substance.

I would like to be fair. Warren's position on the environment (that Christians should actively defend it, including work to halt or reverse anthropogenic global warming) is in the best tradition of organized faith. His positions on gay rights have, admittedly, swung off the usual magnetic north of religious conservatism: he's floated support of some kind of same-sex civil union while nonetheless comparing homosexuality to incest and supporting California's Proposition 8. His views of the role of the church in combating poverty are both noble and terrifying: while he believes in combating poverty issues, particularly in the Third World, and addressing hunger and disease, his tool for doing so sounds an awful like the missionary philosophy of earlier centuries: bring them to the church and teach them to improve their lots as good Christians.

But I just cannot like what I see of the man. There's still his uneasy relationship with capital-R Reason. His disbelief in evolution and (mostly) literal take on the Bible, while typical of his faith, aren't views I have much respect for. I don't completely trust the man--I can't really tell if his views on issues that directly harm my friends and members of my family are evolving or if he just attempts to express them in a fashion more palatable to the mainstream press while giving the usual spiel to religious homophobes and offering the use of his church to bigots.

Not that it matters one whit. He's giving the invocation. It's a done deal. I'd rather there was no invocation, or that the invocation was done by somebody truly ecumenical, perhaps even an ecumenical blessing by somebody who wasn't even the usual Christian, but any angst over the matter profits me nothing, unless you count becoming even angstier as something of a profit.

I don't.

And that (I think) is everything I have to say about the Inaugural Parade O' (Christian) Faith.






1Note to Michael Newdow: you're not actually helping.

2Which is maybe sort of chickenshit on my part, I admit, but there's only so much you can grieve over.

3What would we do if we were invited, anyway? Put up some kind of crappy, half-assed sign? No wonder we never get invited to the really good parties.

4Except that Sam Harris bears less resemblance to Bugs Bunny than he does to a douchebag. In fact, I thought about linking to the "debate" between Harris and Warren and calling it "Battle Of The Douchebags" or "When Douchebags Attack," but then the Bugs riff came into my head. Consider Harris v. Warren to be a little like Bugs' and Daffy's classic "Duck Season/Rabbit Season!" debate on a loop that never actually resolves with Elmer Fudd shooting anybody. (And don't you wish Elmer would just shoot 'em both and pay the fine to Fish And Wildlife for whichever one was wrong?)

Harris sometimes says reasonable things, but believe it or not Warren sometimes sounds reasonable, too. Newsweek's HvW-SMACKDOWN! isn't a totally terrible read insofar as you can see that Harris and Warren sometimes sound surprisingly like thoughtful, intelligent, informed individuals, but then they also occasionally spice things up by sounding like Sam Harris and Rick Warren instead, so it's kind of like a roundtable discussion featuring four people, two of whom are possibly retarded drug addicts.

Harris, in case you're unfamiliar, has defended torture and parapsychology while making attacks on religion that are sometimes completely justified and other times off-the-hook and at least as bad as the attacks on atheism and agnosticism he's supposedly repudiating. (Let's face it: if you're going to say something as inflammatory as claiming religion is the source of all evil in the world while attempting to marginalize religion's positive contributions to civilization, you're no better than the idiot who tries to blame Nazism or Stalinism on rampant atheism. Is it really any surprise that the Harris-Warren cage match features both men engaging in that ahistorical and dishonorable tactic?)

5He's one of the two religious guests at the ceremonies who has said he will try to be non-denominational. His comments, which are quoted in the American Prospect piece linked to, are worth repeating here:

"While that is a holy and sacred text to me, it is not for many Americans," Robinson said. "I will be careful not to be especially Christian in my prayer. This is a prayer for the whole nation."


6Okay, so that's not really the word. The real word is "trespassing," with a lengthy and unnoticed trespass eventually leading to "adverse possession." But "theft" just rolls off the tongue and page so much more smoothly, no?

7They really need a new name, don't they? Might I suggest "assholarians"? What? Just trying to be helpful. Sheesh.

8Suicide.


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