Neverwednesday Nights

>> Wednesday, May 27, 2009

My very favorite Wilco song is also possibly Jeff Tweedy's very saddest lyric. "Via Chicago"--a song about a man disintegrating, trying to hold himself together and failing--starts with the harrowing lines,

I dreamed about killing you again last night
And it felt alright by me


...and only gets darker on its way to its desperate last verse, while the music gets increasingly chaotic, the song's lyrical turmoil spilling into the melody and arrangement.

This is a live version from Barcelona, and while the Spanish subtitles are a minor distraction, the sound quality is worth it (at least until the unfortunately-clipped end). The original version can be found on Summerteeth, arguably the band's best offering to date.








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"Dammit, Jim, this man needs a doctor!"

>> Sunday, May 17, 2009

Last night, going with some friends to Borders Books, some idiot in a pickup truck ran a red light and slew the noble VW Bug and sent the five people in the truck, three of my best friends, and me to the emergency room at Carolinas Medical Center.

I'm home, and fine except for a fractured wrist. Keep my friend Samantha G. in your thoughts--she underwent surgery for multiple fractures this morning.

The next time someone tries to tell you a little car isn't safe, tell 'em you know someone who was driving a VW Beetle when some maniac in a truck practically sheered off the engine compartment and four people opened the doors and walked away.

Anyway, there probably won't be too many posts this week, maybe nothing unless something was pre-posted to go (like this morning's Zeppelin clip). Hopefully we'll be back soon. Oh, and typing with your off-hand is a bitch.

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And now something else...

Let's keep it simple: Zeppelin performing "Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp" (from III, if you really had to ask), live at Earl's Court in '75. Hope you folks are having a good weekend. Now get down:






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The tragedy of King Richard

>> Saturday, May 16, 2009

Former Vice-President Dick Cheney insists that there are documents that should be released that will demonstrate that torturing prisoners elicited vital information. It's a drum he's been beating regularly the past few weeks. Of course, there are those who would say it doesn't matter. And there are those who have observed that torture has a way of eliciting what the torturer wants to hear, even if it's completely false. But let's assume, for the moment, that torturing detainees in our custody really did result in information that Mr. Cheney knows is valuable--what on Earth might it be?

Joe Conason at Salon has suggested a possible answer, and damned if it doesn't make sense. Too much sense, actually: Mr. Conason suggests that the vital information elicited from the detainees under torture was the "proof" of a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, and of a connection between Hussein and the September 11th, 2001 attacks on America. Conason writes:

In one report after another, from journalists, former administration officials and Senate investigators, the same theme continues to emerge: Whenever a prisoner believed to possess any knowledge of al-Qaida’s operations or Iraqi intelligence came into American custody, CIA interrogators felt intense pressure from the Bush White House to produce evidence of an Iraq-Qaida relationship (which contradicted everything that U.S. intelligence and other experts knew about the enmity between Saddam’s Baath Party and Osama bin Laden’s jihadists). Indeed, the futile quest for proof of that connection is the common thread running through the gruesome stories of torture from the Guantánamo detainee camp to Egyptian prisons to the CIA's black sites in Thailand and elsewhere.


The weakest rationales for the war in Iraq were always the ones front-and-center. There's no rational argument you can make in Hussein's favor--he was an awful despot, and those who have staked their support of the Iraq war (e.g. Christopher Hitchens) on the morality of deposing a heinous war criminal and liberating a country have a point, at least in the abstract. Pragmatically, of course, one can wonder about the wisdom of nation-building exercises, or the ability of American forces to engage in such missions, or the ability of as untalented a leader as Mr. George Bush to execute such a mission (one supposes, for instance, that his father--with decades of experience in diplomatic and intelligence circles as well as a respectable military career in his youth--would have been better suited for such a task, and we all know that he chose not to undertake it, which says something in itself); and one can certainly point out that however one goes about rebuilding a nation, if it's even possible, that the manner of the Iraq invasion and occupation serves as an excellent lesson in UR DOIN IT RONG, EPIC FAIL.

But of course that's a bit moot, since that's not how the war was sold: the war in Iraq was sold as a matter of imminent threat, with Saddam Hussein on the verge of selling weapons of mass destruction that subsequently couldn't be found to a putative ally he didn't like. In a democracy, you don't really get points for misleading the public as to the reasons for doing something and then going back and saying, "Well, at least it was morally justified, sort of." It's that whole ends-justifying-the-means business that keeps tripping up so many Bush apologists and war-proponents. Had these folks been the dominant voice at the time--had the Bush Administration said, "Hussein's a really terrible person and we want to get rid of him because everybody will be happier in the long run," one suspects the general response would have been along the lines of, "Well, that's nice in theory, but no thanks, not right now maybe later." Certainly the response wouldn't have been Congress abrogating much of its own authority, or one of the most respected men in America being sent to the U.N. to humiliate himself; had an invasion gone on, perhaps it would have been preceded by a national dialogue, careful planning, and the recruitment of a truly multinational alliance to provide not only immediate military support but long-term financial support and guidance.

But oh well. So much for that.

Mr. Cheney's insistence--and his President's insistence--that there was a link between Hussein and September 11th remained fanatical long after any rational person had stopped giving the thought any credit whatsoever. Indeed, I suspect many of us had ascribed the devotion to that tired-out credo to an insulting political cynicism, a willingness to tell an utterly stupid lie over and over again on the assumption that Americans are so stupid they'll believe anything, especially if they've heard it twice. (And some of us, I think, have been frightened by the possibility that this cynical take on the American intellect isn't a gross underestimation.) But perhaps we--or at least, I--haven't given Mr. Cheney enough credit.

Suppose you are the Vice-President. There is this awful attack on American soil that completely derails the agenda your administration was embarked upon--shrinking government, isolationism, education, deregulation. And it occurs to you, for whatever reason, that this attack was more than just a lucky strike by crazed, stateless jihadists; the brain looks for patterns, seeks meaning, and embraces conspiracies as a result. The 9/11 attacks, you think, can't be a set of proverbial lone gunmen doing the unthinkable--just as so many people will embrace ridiculous global conspiracies to explain the JFK assassination rather than the obvious, because the idea of a twitchy little nutjob with a mail-order rifle getting off a lucky shot on the beautiful, smart, heroic leader of the free world seems wrong (Avalon is destroyed by Mordred with the help of epic magicks, not by some peasant with a sling who basically misses his first two-out-of-three casts1). Surely, then, America's enemies must be behind the attack. But who? Who has ties to the Middle East, a reckless disregard for consequence, has made threats of retaliation? Alright, that's a longer list than it should be, but Iraq's near the top of it, no?

So you tell the CIA to prove it. Find the trail. It has to be there. And when they come back and tell you it's not--damn that wily bastard to hell for covering his tracks so well! But you'll have him, yes you will. So you tell the CIA to go back and find the evidence, because it has to be there. It's like a noise you hear inside the walls of your house, from the plumbing or ducts, but you can't trace it down. It's like the vibration you're feeling through the steering wheel of your car, but it goes away whenever you ask somebody if they can feel that. It's there.

And then one of the detainees admits it, because he'll admit anything. He'd admit to the Sharon Tate murders, to borrow a line from Jesse Ventura. He'll admit to being a CIA plant, like the victims of Tuol Sleng did. He'd admit to being a witch and signing his name in the Devil's book if you asked him to, just to make it stop. Because that's what people do under torture.

So now you're armed with the confession. And who's going to tell you otherwise?

And if this is the scenario that played out--and who knows if it is? But if this is the scenario, then we have another argument against torture, don't we, or another dimension of one of the same arguments? We often talk about what torture did to the alleged witches at Salem without paying as much attention to what it did to the torturers--having found their witches, they descended into paranoia. Their deepest, darkest fears had been revealed as truths, the witches confirmed it themselves. It's possible that Dick Cheney's world is a terrible, mad world, where the myths, rumors and lies he's lived with for nearly a decade are now bedrock truths. The torturer and the victim become locked in a cruel symbiosis, the broken victim believing the lie he told and the broken torturer believing the "proof" he's found--and it came so hard, took so long to come to, but isn't that in and of itself part of the proof?

Perhaps Cheney's crusade of the past several months--finally leaving his seclusion to appear seemingly everywhere--isn't cynical politicking or an attempt to rehabilitate his or his President's legacy, but a sincere, delusional effort to save the world. Somehow, I'm reminded of the legendary CIA counterintelligence chief, James Jesus Angleton, who became so obsessed with the finely-threaded web he'd wrought, he inevitably became snarled in it himself; speculations become facts, lies become truths, the shadows you see approaching are your own, coming to meet you headlong.

One could feel sorry for him.

Almost.




1Many have tried to claim that Oswald's accuracy was too uncanny for him to have fired the lethal shot, or, some have (absurdly) claimed, any shots. Leaving aside the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald's record in the Marines suggests that he was quite a good shot when he wanted to be and a mediocre shot when he didn't care (this pattern of effort and laziness being typical in all of Oswald's endeavors, including his defection and his marriage), Vincent Bugliosi and others have pointed out that Oswald's first two shots didn't hit what he was aiming at: his first shot missed the motorcade completely, and his second shot hit Kennedy in the upper back and passed through his body--which sounds like a hit, until you realize that Oswald was almost certainly aiming for the President's head. "Close," as they say, "only counts in horseshoes." In assassinations, not so much--just ask Claus von Stauffenberg.


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Weekend AWWWWWWW!!!


Let's Be Friends is a photoblog consisting entirely of odd animal "friendships." And it's so cute you may want to have some insulin handy.

Hope everybody has a great weekend!


(H/T to Boing Boing!)


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Oh noes! It's the real-life ticking time-bomb scenario!

>> Friday, May 15, 2009

Yet another example of Tom Tomorrow's rampant awesomeness:


(Comic ©2009, Tom Tomorrow, via Salon)


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How to make a kinda shitty week better

>> Thursday, May 14, 2009

(At least this worked for me Wednesday on the drive home from work.)

  1. Observe that the weather is a lovely high-'70s °F;

  2. Put the top down or raise the sunroof or moonroof and/or just roll all the windows down;

  3. Take your shoes off;

  4. Pop in a copy of Klee's Jelängerjelieber, a.k.a. Honeysuckle and skip to track 11, "Keine Zehn Pferde";

  5. Drive fast but not fast enough to actually get pulled over, and

  6. Listen to this (it's not a real video, just the song):




Actually, step #6 is the only one that really matters. And no, I have no idea what the hell she's saying. Enjoy!


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It's a good thing Jesse Ventura isn't President

>> Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I covered Guantanamo and a few other subjects.

And I'm very disturbed about it.

I'm bothered over Guantanamo because it seems we've created our own Hanoi Hilton. We can live with that? I have a problem.

I will criticize President Obama on this level; it's a good thing I'm not president because I would prosecute every person that was involved in that torture. I would prosecute the people that did it. I would prosecute the people that ordered it. Because torture is against the law.

-Jesse Ventura, appearing on Larry King Live,
Monday, May 11th, 2009


Y'know, the lovable thing about the former Governor of Minnesota is that while he's kinda batshit crazy, he's also made of win and always has been.

More Ventura, same interview--Ventura describes his experience being waterboarded at SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training) when he was a Navy SEAL:

It's drowning. It gives you the complete sensation that you are drowning. It is no good, because you--I'll put it to you this way, you give me a waterboard, Dick Cheney and one hour, and I'll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders.


Mr. Ventura, shine on, you crazy, bald bastard, you--you really are the man.


(H/T yet again to Glenn Greenwald's Salon blog for the info and the transcript!)

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Neverwednesday Nights

In a sense, "High Hopes" is the last Pink Floyd song: it's the last track on the band's final studio album, The Division Bell, and of course it's an elegy for lost youth. And the lyrics, written by guitarist David Gilmour's wife and collaborator Polly Samson, slyly reference a number of early Floyd tracks (e.g. the "burning bridges," the "myriad small creatures," "running before time"--that being a sort of literal joke--et al.).

Even without that, it's simply a gorgeous song. And while many don't rate the post-Roger Waters Floyd too highly, "High Hopes" just ranks with the band's best cuts; if you were to put together a single-disc "best of" compilation, you just couldn't not include it.

The video, directed by longtime Floyd visual partner Storm Thorgerson (he designed or co-designed all but three of Pink Floyd's album covers) is a mix--I'm not sure all of it works. But parts of it are brilliant--in particular, one should note that the giant bust being carted around towards the end of the video is that of Syd Barrett, the founding member who was lost to mental illness in 1968, making way for Gilmour's place in the band. (And Barrett and Gilmour were themselves old friends who busked across Europe together as teenagers.)

All that, and a beautiful lap-steel solo by Mr. Gilmour that you really ought to listen to.

"High Hopes":






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Descent: Journeys In The Dark

>> Tuesday, May 12, 2009

This weekend the old gang dusted off Nate's copy of Descent: Journeys Into The Dark and gave it another whirl. Descent is an RPG-lite: it's a semi-cooperative boardgame that takes its major tropes from Dungeons And Dragons, with one player taking on the role of "Overlord" and the remaining players taking on the roles of a party of individual characters exploring caves that the Overlord assembles out of tiles and places plastic enemy monsters on. The layout of the caves and the placement of monsters and the objective for the party to achieve (and the Overlord to obstruct) is found in a booklet of adventures that comes with the game (or additional scenarios may be found online or purchased from the publisher, Fantasy Flight Games. The party wins a game by killing the adventure scenario's Big Bad (or accomplishing some objective within the map layout), the Overlord wins by killing the players' characters enough times to make them cry (characters respawn, however the party starts with a number of victory points and may earn more, but loses them whenever a character is killed; if the party loses all their points, they lose the game).

It's this last semi-competitive bit that truly sets Descent apart from traditional RPGs and settles it in in "RPG-lite" territory, really. One could, if one really wanted to, play a game of Descent in character (in our two sessions, the nearest thing to "roleplaying" merely consisted of me making funny voices for the two characters I played, but still). But the real beauty of an RPG is that if it's played properly, the gamemaster is mostly a neutral or even pro-player referee. True, the gamemaster (e.g. the "Dungeon Master" of Dungeons And Dragons) decides what kind of threats the players may be facing--monsters, traps, non-player-character antagonists, architectural obstacles and diplomatic barriers--but part of the gamemaster's mandate is to make sure everybody has as much fun as possible, not to kill everybody (unless that's somehow part of the fun), and an RPG session in which players are hopelessly stymied by a puzzle or get improbably hacked to pieces by rabbits is likely to be an utter failure for all. There are, of course, gamemasters who will actively try to kill off their players' characters on purpose (as opposed to trying to kill the characters for a challenge, and rejoicing inside when the players defeat the challenge), but those folks are doing it wrong, and here's why: since a gamemaster controls the universe, it's perfectly within his or her domain to decree that the entire gameworld was abruptly destroyed by a hurtling asteroid made of pure strange matter, killing all of the players' characters instantly; since that's the case, why should he or she bother doing the same thing with kobolds?

Anyway, we'd retired Descent for a time because it tended to generate some bad blood. There was a sense that the game was a bit unbalanced, but after trying it again this weekend I think the sense was more that we'd been playing it wrong on both sides, and that the balance tends to shift back and forth a bit. The one game we brought to completion, the endgame actually was a little tense and came down entirely to die rolls, which was a good thing in context: it was the result of the character party and Don, the Overlord, all playing fairly well with a comparable number of mistakes on both sides but mostly doing the things each side and each player had to do for or against the team. So I think I can say it ended up being fun--there was, in all candor, one bit of frustration that led to some raised voices, but it blew over pretty damn quickly and I think everyone will be willing to give the game another shot. Which is especially cool for Nate, who was the one who purchased it, since it is an eighty-buck game (hey, all those little plastic fiddly bits in the box get to be expensive).

It also got everybody jonesing for some real tabletop RPG action, so we may try to get some things started along those lines while one of the crew is back in town. The biggest problem with tabletop RPGs is that, being inherently social in nature, you need to have a number of people to game--there's really no point in trying to run something with fewer than three players (not counting the gamemaster) and four or five (not counting the GM) is roughly ideal. With some of the usual suspects around here scattered around the country or bogged down with the struggles of parenthood, we haven't quite had the numbers we've needed, which is a shame.

Indeed, Descent itself really requires more than a few people to play: while you could have a two-player game (one Overlord, one player controlling three-to-four characters all by himself), that's really a bit pointless. You need at least four and five would have been preferable, I think, if we'd had the fifth. That's not unusual for a really good game, of course.

Anyway, it was fun. Dice were rolled, trash was talked, I was turned into a monkey and spent the last two turns cooling my heels in town while the wizard tried not to die and the tank was bounced around the chamber he was in like a racquetball by a giant; and yet good prevailed, or at least the greedy treasure hunters properly vanquished the humongous monstrous fellow who was trying to keep his stuff for some reason (how dare he!) and a hypothetical number of beastwomen and beastchildren surely gnashed their teeth and wailed that their beastmen came home in small bags suitable for carryout. Also, a bunch of skeletons died. Again. And Jessica kept falling into pits, or at least her little plastic wizard kept being put on top of a pit marker, which was symbolically the same thing. A good run, indeed.


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I'm so glad the recession is over...

>> Monday, May 11, 2009

...because surely that's the only reason a group of Representatives has found the time and energy to introduce House Concurrent Resolution 121: "Encouraging the President to designate 2010 as 'The National Year of the Bible'".

Dear Christians: the next time you want to ask what we atheists get so angry about, take a nice long look at incidents of political grandstanding like H. Con. Res. 121. You'll have politicians wasting everybody's time on a showy, meaningless, offensive gesture calculated to show off their self-righteousness and religious prejudice and draw irate responses that will allow them to act all faux offended. "Oh," they can whine, "this is an example of how we Christians are persecuted all the time."

Resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring), That the President is encouraged--

(1) to designate an appropriate year as ‘The National Year of the Bible’; and

(2) to issue a proclamation calling upon citizens of all faiths to rediscover and apply the priceless, timeless message of the Holy Scripture which has profoundly influenced and shaped the United States and its great democratic form of Government, as well as its rich spiritual heritage, and which has unified, healed, and strengthened its people for over 200 years.


American Muslims are people of faith underwhelmed by your "Holy Scripture," and American Jews only believe half of it. There are American Hindus and American Buddhists. Dare we even mention American Wiccans? American Scientologists? And, oh yeah--all the atheists and agnostics.

Tell ya' what, pals--I give, you win. America is a Christian nation--it's the official State religion now. So Washington gets to decide what your church is like. There will be statutes defining what a church is and who God is and what the sacraments are and resolving all former disparities in doctrine about the Trinity, the Mother Of God, whether declaration of faith in Christ is sufficient for salvation or it must be joined with works.... No, no--this is what you people wanted, you wanted us to be a Christian nation, so let's make it official. Religious doctrine will be decided by the Secretary Of The American Faith, who as a cabinet position will be appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. Hearings start as soon as Mr. Obama narrows his short list down. All churches shall be Christian churches, Christianity being defined by a bunch of career bureaucrats in D.C.

No, shut up. You won, didn't you hear me? We're going to give you exactly what you fucking want and see how long 'til you choke on it.

Who has a stopwatch?

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The MOL was a spacerat...

I think this was brought to my attention by Boing Boing, or maybe not: NOVA's hourlong program about the early days of space espionage, "Astrospies".

The Americans had MOL (the "Manned Orbiting Laboratory"), the Russians, Almaz. And then both were trumped--the MOL before it was even launched, apparently--by unmanned spy satellites. As with civilian exploration of the outer planets, so too with the military exploration of our own: a robot could do a man's job better, cheaper and more safely. But in the meantime, a secret space race was underway.

It's a fascinating story, and worth checking out. If you have a slow connection, you can watch the show in chunks or read the transcript PBS courteously provides (this assumes you haven't already seen it on your televisions). Anyway, it's worth a look.

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Star Trek

>> Sunday, May 10, 2009

Friday night, I went with a gaggle of friends to see the new Star Trek movie in IMAX. In short: it's very, very good and everyone in our little party liked it a lot. It has a few bits that are "good-movie good" and a lot more that's "good-in-terms-of-Star Trek-movies good," which of course says a lot less since saying a movie is better than Nemesis or The Final Frontier is really kind of redundant (those two movies fail on every level except, perhaps, minimal competence--I don't remember seeing the boom mic in either of them).

I don't want to say too much about the movie's plot or who's in it: Star Trek is wily enough to have some things that would be spoilers and--better yet--for some things that you expect to come off as really cool; e.g. McCoy's first appearance on screen is something where you know who he is as soon as you see him, but there's still a little thrill when the introductions get underway.

It's a fun ride. The great or terrible news about it, depending on how you feel about this sort of thing, is that it's Trek in full-blown space opera mode. Finding the "science" part of the "science fiction" label in the new movie is about as easy as finding a Higgs boson with a pair of pliers; personally, I call this a very good thing indeed, because the occasionally-vaunted "science" you find in the earlier movies and TV episodes consists of somebody saying something nonsensical about tachyons followed by a wizard casting a spell that wraps up the previous forty-three minutes in about thirty-five seconds. (One has to wonder what can't be solved by using the emitter array to generate a beam inverting the polarity of the tachyon flow.) No, as far as I'm concerned, Trek is far better when it's Horatio Hornblower or The Enemy Below in space.

There was a time when something like J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot would have been offensive to me on some primal level. I think there are two things that primed me for acceptance, though, beyond just mellowing out in my advancing age and caring a lot less about dumb things that don't matter very much and I have no control over anyway. The first is that, quite frankly, recent official entries in the Trekverse have simply sucked; Enterprise was so utterly unwatchable it doesn't even merit an IMDB link. The second is that unofficial entries--specifically New Voyages (now re-dubbed Star Trek: Phase Two--have been surprisingly good.

New Voyages or Phase II isn't necessarily great, mind you, but it's been good and getting better; a group of Trek obsessives decided to make the "lost" fourth and fifth seasons of the original series (canceled three years into the Enterprise's famous "five year mission"), but with a bit more wherewithal than most: enough to draw in a list of actors and writers that's included Walter Koenig, George Takei, Grace Lee Whitney, the late Majel Barrett-Roddenberry herself, D.C. Fontana and David Gerrold. The last couple of episodes were better than anything I ever saw Enterprise offer up, not that that's really saying anything. But the point is: I think I was sort of used to the idea of other people playing Kirk and Spock and the gang well before going in to see the Abrams Trek.

The new cast acquits itself well, and the really cool thing is that they don't just do the obvious thing and do imitations of the original actors, which would make the whole thing a parody of itself. The nearest thing to an impersonation you see in the new cast is Simon Pegg's Scotty, and Pegg somehow pulls off the neat trick of out-Scotty-ing James Doohan (nothing against the late Doohan, who was a decent actor and apparently a really genuinely awesome human being; no, really it's that the character was always sort of a cartoon-Scotsman to begin with). The weakest link might be Chris Pine's Kirk, but that's possibly due more to the movie's plot more than anything else. The writers' conception of the character is solid, Pine's portrayal is well-thought-out and suitably recognizable yet different--think of Daniel Craig's riff on James Bond as a f'r'instance, with a swagger recalling Sean Connery's version of the character and yet it's not really anything like Connery at all--that's sort of what Pine manages with his take on Kirk; no, the problem is that the movie's plot only has 126 minutes to get Kirk from A-to-C and there's some whiplash involved--but you should see that for yourself.

One of the things I was also really impressed by was the way Abrams managed to pull off a kind of neo-retro look for the franchise. Star Trek: The Motion Picture put everybody in pastels and The Wrath Of Khan introduced those dignified burgundy uniforms, and then there was a decade-or-two of color-coded jumpsuits; Abrams puts everyone back into the original color-coded overshirts (men) and miniskirts (women) from the original 1960's series, and damned if it doesn't work for some reason and actually looks cool. The Enterprise looks like a mashup between the original series ship with its tubes and curves and an iMac, and somehow perfectly captures the vibe and aesthetic of the original series without looking old and dated (well, almost, and this is interesting: actually the iMac look is a little dated already, but that ends up being a good choice in that it sort of uses the '90s to equalize pressure between '67 and '09, if that makes any sense).

(Also on that note: after the movie, I pointed out that one of the things I learned from Star Trek is that apparently Steve Jobs takes over the world at some point in the future. To which a friend responded I was wrong, or it would have been called the iFederation. Heh. Maybe you had to be there.)

And I was grooving on the props: the Type-2 phasers look like Type-2 phasers, the medical instruments look like salt shakers--only cool, futuristic, high-tech salt-shakers that also cure cancer and detect herpes. Abrams' "reboot" really is a reboot, going back to what was kind of cool and interesting about the first television show and amplifying it. One of Paramount's taglines--"This isn't your father's Star Trek"--is an utter lie. It is your father's Star Trek, only much, much shinier.

So it's awesome. And that's the best place to leave it for now, because saying much more about what's great (and a few things about what's admittedly not-as-great) really would get into things that will be more fun for you to see for yourselves.

So have some fun and go see it already!


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Fun in very small places

>> Saturday, May 09, 2009

this photo sucks because i took it with my cell phone before going to the dealership, but it's illustrativeNo, sorry: the title is a little bit of a lie, or half a lie at least. There's no fun here, and it's not nearly as naughty as you might have been hoping. Here's how I broke down and did something that feels vaguely emasculating, though I'm trying to keep it in perspective by telling myself I am exercising that special gift of homo sapiens sapiens, Reason.

I was coming home from Star Trek last night, or really this morning around midnight, and there will certainly be a post about the movie showing up this weekend (short version: it's good), when I saw a police car make a U-turn after I drove past and get in behind me. There is perhaps something sad in the reality that the primal fear our ancient ancestors surely experienced out on the veldt when a lion happened to perk up his ears and yawn is now associated with Crown Victorias, vehicles that seem to have been designed with a particularly delicate and attenuated aesthetic for sheer ugliness, but there you go.

Anyway, it turned out I had a burned-out driver's side headlamp, and the officer was very nice not to ticket me, but of course being pulled over is simply an unpleasant experience no matter how polite and professional the cop is. It's actually not that hard to understand why some people speed off or leap out of the car and run: the rational chunk of your grey meat is telling you that the worst thing that will happen is a citation that you'll have to mail in with a money order, which will suck but it's not the end of the world, while the rest of your brain is screaming something along the lines of (if it could be put into words), "Arrgh! Lion! Lion! Run away! It's going to eeeeeeeeeeat yooooooooooooou!" This is called a "fight or flight" reaction, which is a little misleading for hominids since our obvious deficiencies in teeth, claws and good thick hides give a certain preference to finding a tree to climb, though I suppose wanting to throw a rock or poke with a stick does come close behind, the adoption of tools quickly and inevitably leading to genocide and the Mona Lisa, or perhaps to meeting a vast Hershey's bar in outer space. But I digress.

When I got home, of course I pulled out the owner's manual to see what kind of bulb I'd need to get in the morning (or later in the morning, technically... look, you know what I mean). I've had a driver's license since I was sixteen and have changed plenty of headlamps and even replaced an entire assembly or two in my time though I don't think it was lined up properly--anyway, not a big deal until I hit my first hitch: rather than advise me of what kind of bulb to buy, the owner's manual suggested I go to the dealership.

Well, don't be ridiculous. Go to the dealership to fix a lightbulb? To hell with that. So I popped the trunk to see what kind of bulb I would need. And here is where I noticed an... issue.

When I first bought the Bug, one of the things that impressed me was the marvel of German engineering under the hood--the engine compartment of the New Beetle packs everything in gorgeously, compactly like some kind of elegant mechanical puzzle.

It turns out that this is awesome to look at but much-less-awesome when something is going wrong. I couldn't even see how to get at the back of the headlamp assembly, much less pull the bulb.

So naturally I went to the internet.

Turns out that you can indeed change the driver's-side bulb yourself. First, according to various online sources, you have to pull the battery, which may or may not (probably not) require a special tool. Then you have to remove a clip that, according to at least one commenter, has a 100% failure rate when you look directly at it in good lighting. That last bit also may not be true, since another poster on another thread said changing the bulb is a simple and easy process (and don't believe the lies that it isn't), though his conception of simple apparently involves various silicone gels and/or graphite powder that you will have to remove or apply at various points while you're prying the bulb out of its nook behind your removed battery.

So I call the dealership.

Brian tells me they can do it in forty-five minutes, which is a full five hours and fifteen minutes less than one time estimate I read. I tell him that's a lot less time than most of the online sources I looked at said for doing it yourself, and Brian's reply is, direct quote, "It's not fun." (There's the lie in the title, again!) So I bring the car in. It's eighty freaking bucks, but I might also spend that much on gels and lubes and adhesives--and now we're back to making the whole thing sound fun again. More than anything, I'm paying not to take a major SAN loss from repeated failed rolls against the puzzle-box-horror of my car's engine.

So I'm at the dealership typing this. I feel, as I said, a little emasculated to have been brought so low so quickly. In theory, changing a lightbulb is among the most simple tasks a human being can perform, hence the ancient joke-pattern of:

"How many [despised ethnicity/creed/profession]s does it take to change a lightbulb?"

"How many?"

"One to change it and [number > 1] to [engage in behavior based on offensive stereotype]!"

"Hahahahahah! That's bigoted!"


What can I say? Does my resort to paying somebody to do something I hypothetically could do myself make me less of a man or more of a human? (Division of labor! Civilization! Capitalism!) Is the answer to the previous question simply, "yes"?

POSTSCRIPT: It was only about $70 in the end, which somehow made it feel like a bargain.

I'm now at home waiting for somebody to come and repair the chip in my windshield that occurred yesterday morning on the way to work. That, at least, will be covered in full by the fine folks at GEICO.

Have a great Saturday, folks.


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The best word ever

>> Friday, May 08, 2009

I've long held the erroneous opinion that the best word in the English language was "fuck," since it is by far the most versatile word our language has to offer. It's a noun, verb, adjective and, obviously, an expletive. "I fucking fucked that fucking fucker," is a grammatically-correct and complete construction, though it's admitted that the various meanings of the word may leave some doubt as to meaning--was the fucker actually fucking when he was fucked, or is he merely fucking, and was he alive or dead after he was fucked? So the sentence is vague, yes, and one would need some context to know who might be congratulated or who might be mourned; nonetheless, it's essential correctness is unquestionable.

So "fuck" is a perfectly wonderful word. However, it isn't the most wonderful word in the English language. The evidence has been entirely before me for most of my life, and yet I didn't have the epiphany until the other day. Rather, I knew of the wonderful qualities of the best word in the English language--its compactness, its self-reflexive, Ouroborors-ish nature, and its unique poetic quality--but it didn't occur to me that these individual facts added up to a point of some minor consequence, that the best word in the entire width, breadth and depth of the English language is:


ORANGE


Consider this, the most crucial thing about the word orange: this is a word that can only be used as a noun or as an adjective (i.e. it lacks fuck's inherent versatility and flexibility), but the noun is defined only by the adjective--an orange is a fruit that is orange--and the adjective is only really defined by the noun--orange is the color of oranges. Further, as is well-known, orange is a word which has no rhymes, at least none that aren't proper nouns. And one must suspect that even those names that rhyme with orange must have come into being long after Westerners discovered the fruit, and were adopted by people trying too hard to distinguish themselves and seizing upon the idea of rhyming themselves with orange as a futile slash at fame.

Actually, there's one minor inaccuracy or flaw in the previous paragraph, but not really: orange can, of course, also be used as an adjective to describe flavor and not just color. Only here again we come upon the word chasing its own tail: what does orange taste like? Orange is the flavor of oranges, a kind of fruit that is orange.

No doubt some will entertain the objection that orange can be defined as a yellow-red or red-yellow color, but really: do either of those hyphenated constructions do justice to actual orange. If I ask for yellow-red or red-yellow, I'm bound to get something other than orange, whereas if I ask you for orange you will give it to me. We all know precisely what orange is and what is orange within a few nanometers of wavelength.

We're told that orange entered the English language in somewhat the same fashion as algebra--from the Arabic, in which one finds the word nāranj. This is an oversimplification in a way: the Arabs derived the word from Persian and the Persians from Sanskrit, and English actually came into the word via the French who got it from the Spanish but left the "n" off the front for whatever reason; I'd like to think it's because of the negatory meaning of ne in French, and that the French realized an orange is something, not a nothing as might be implied if one called it something sounding like ne orenge ("Non," the Frenchman says, "c'est l'orenge, non ne orenge, idiot," or something along those lines--it's been at least twenty years since I last used French for anything, and then I only used it on a test in high school. So excuse me if my usage is utterly orange with rust.) But Arabic seems to me, without research, to be the crucial link, since the Arabs surely gave the word to the Spanish during the seven centuries the peninsula belonged to the Moors. Anyway, it lets me point out how vaguely similar "orange" is to "algebra," kind of.

Regardless of whether the word comes to us via Arabic or from some strange planet vibrating at a strange frequency in a wavelength of 600 nanometers, it is what it is, and the only thing it is is orange, and it is the perfect word. Read it, and weep in joy and frustration, reverence and awe, fear and loathing, love and tender respect.

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Epic fail

>> Thursday, May 07, 2009

Real quick: Joe "The Plumber" Wurzelbacher has told Time that he's quitting the GOP.

Now, let's be honest: on the one hand he's doing the Republican party a favor. I mean, the guy is a total doofus. On the other hand? Yeah, if you're the Republican party and you can't keep your semi-official 2008 presidential mascot, I mean, what the hell? At that point, you might as well go ahead and auction off your website to a store that sells ribbons, balloons and those kazoo-things with the paper tubes on the end that uncurl when you blow on them. Jeez. At this point I have to think the Republican party would be better off if they closed all their doors and absconded in the middle of the night, only to reappear a few days later in fake moustaches claiming to be the brand-new "Repubigan Party".


(H/T yet again to Deus Ex Malcontent!)


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Things that make you go, "WTF?!?"

Have you ever wondered what Dirty Harry would have been like if it starred the brilliant Stephen Fry as "Dirty" Harry Callahan? Yeah, me neither. Which is one reason this clip of the genteel and very British Mr. Fry firing a .44 and quoting lines from the movie may or may not blow your mind. Personally: mind blown. Maybe that's just me.




(H/T to Ectoplasmosis, thanks!)


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Neverwednesday Nights

>> Wednesday, May 06, 2009

One of my all-time-favorite Pixies songs: "Gouge Away," live in London, 1991. Enjoy.




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Low tolerance

>> Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Carrie Prejean is the gift that keeps giving, it seems. I had no blog entry for today, and now I have one, and one that allows me to use another bikini photo, one that is more flattering to Miss California (I have to confess--and I realize some of you will think I'm crazy--I'm just not that into the generic bronzed blonde, sorry). Maybe Ms. Prejean should get her own tag? Nah.

Some thanks is also due to Dave, our regular commenter under the nom de plume Leanright, since this post started as a response to a comment he left under yesterday's post, and started getting longer and more serious until it merited (or at least justified) a full post. Don't worry, Dave--I think you'll be unscathed. The pertinent part of Dave's comment (there's more, but this is what opened a door) read:

We can stop throwing around INTOLERANCE to discredit some group. Both side of each issue show intolerance. Perhaps Prejean is "intolerant" of gays and the issue of marriage (although her answer was stated as HER opinion and not an attack), But Hilton is also "intolerant" due to his criticism, NOT of her opinions, but of HER in general. Calling her a "bitch" is an attack. SHE did not "attack" any individual; she merely answered a question she was asked with honesty. Perhaps to win the crown next time, "NOT" standing up for her beliefs would be the best course of action. You may not agree with her, but you can't fault her for expressing what she feels about the issue.


Believe it or not, I'm not necessarily fond of using "intolerant" as a pejorative label. But that's because I think there are some things that shouldn't be tolerated at all or at least not very much, including the kind of vapidity characterized by Ms. Prejean. There are extremists on the left for whom "toleration" appears to be a mantra that stifles thought, but the fact is that some things simply are intolerable. There's a famous story told of General Sir Charles James Napier's reaction to the Hindu custom of sati, and while I'm loathe to have to agree with an imperialist Brit stomping all over a subjugated indigenous people (and advocating capital punishment while he does it!), I have some sympathy for the sentiment he's said to have expressed:

You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.


...because I have no personal doubt in my mind that a respect for a woman's right to exist as an autonomous human being trumps whatever right Indians may have to their religion or culture. And lest one think this is a white Westerner kind of bigotry: I have no objection to prosecuting American Christian cultists who allow their kids to die by choosing prayer over science and find child abuse statutes that exempt such doddering malfeasance on religious tolerance grounds to be morally indefensible and utterly repugnant.

Anyway, back on topic: Ms. Prejean has a right to her opinion, and a right to express it; I have a right to call her opinion vapid and worthless. I'm not going to call her "intolerant" because being "intolerant" isn't necessarily a bad thing--but I will call her stupid, and stupid is necessarily awful. To the extent her opinion might even be at least colorably... defensible, for lack of a better word, she doesn't even really defend it, expressing herself in confused terms befitting a five-year-old.

Here's what she said, per the L.A. Times, and it isn't as bad all that bad though it's not the least bit good:

Well, I think it's great that Americans are able to choose one or the other. We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And you know what, in my country, in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anyone out there, but that's how I was raised, and that's how I think it should be between a man and a woman.


First problem, actually, is that she has her one lonesome fact wrong: Americans aren't able to choose "same-sex marriage" or "opposite marriage" as they see fit. Same-sex marriage is legal in three states, will become legal in a fourth in September of this year, and was briefly legal in California until last year. A number of states have bothered to put specific bans against same-sex marriage in their constitutions, while others have specifically banned it legislatively. Here's what Ms. Prejean's "land where you can choose" actually looks like, per Wikipedia:



You can click on the image to get a better look at the map key. Oh, and by the way: did you happen to also remember that under the Defense Of Marriage Act (signed into law by popular conservative-whipping-boy William Clinton, by the by), no same-sex marriage is recognized as legal by the Feds even in the states where it's legal? And actually, if you look at the color key closely--yep, that's right: in a few of those states, even under state laws same-sex marriage isn't even legal where it's legal. Glad we could clear that up. Yep, that's choice in this great country for you.

Now, for the rest of it: it's no doubt true that Ms. Prejean was raised the way she was raised and that's how she thinks it should be. What can you say to that? It isn't how I would raise my kids, if I had any; then again, I'd like to think I'm wise enough and way-cool enough to raise my kids to challenge me when they were old enough to stand up for themselves--as much as I'd be upset if a child of mine became a hard-right-wingnut, having a kid who is able to disagree with you (or agree with you on his or her own terms) is a mark of success in my book. The one thing that would break my heart harder than a child of mine repudiating some of my core ethical beliefs would be a child of mine blindly accepting them. Of course this is hypothetical--I'm not even dating. But you get the idea.

So what we have with Ms. Prejean is a false statement made out of ignorance bonded to an opinion which she's likely given utterly no thought too. Who cares if Ms. Prejean is tolerant--I'm not, and I see no reason to be non-judgemental, patient, or even nice. (Okay, as far as that last goes, maybe I ought to be nice on general principles... I'm thinking about it... still thinking... still thinking... hrm....)

Yeah. No. I'm going to stand by "insensitive moron with bad fake boobs."

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At least it gave me an excuse to use a bikini photo I found online

>> Monday, May 04, 2009

I've had, just so you know, a slightly crappy morning. It could be worse--oh, it could be so much worse. But it hasn't been good, no.

Anyway. So, I'm sitting around waiting for something, and I'm reading Salon on the old smartphone while I'm waiting, and I find myself reading the latest entry in one of Salon's newest features, "Ask A Wingnut", in which a "real live conservative and former Bush official" answers questions for lefty readers of the lefty news-and-opinion site. It's cute, shallow and cute, mainly because there's a kind of watching-pandas-at-the-zoo vibe to the whole exercise of a former Bushie writing anonymous responses to questions that are really more the equivalent of tapping on the glass then anything, but "Glenallen Walken" (that's the wingnut's nom de guerre) seems to know he's playing the role of a singing, dancing monkey in the middle of a minefield in enemy territory, and he does get a few points for cheerfully agreeing to jive and shuffle for our amusement.

Anyway, the piece isn't worth that much consideration, except this comment did draw my attention:

America remains a center-right country. Its economic values are still based on the values of the capitalist system. And our social values are equally center-right, as could be seen as so many people rose to the defense of Miss California, Carrie Prejean, after she stated her opposition to same-sex marriage in the Miss USA pageant. She may have lost the crown, but I think she won the country.


Now, it may well be that America is a center-right country. I'm not too sure about that--an awful lot seems to depend on how a pollster frames a particular question, actually--but regardless of where most Americans are on the political spectrum, what's really funny about the above quote is how reality-challenged it is, and how it highlights a problem that the GOP doesn't seem to be aware of.

You all know about the Prejean vs. Hilton mess, I'm sure. If you somehow don't, I'm sorry to have to let you down. I'm afraid it wasn't:


Please join us for a historic discussion featuring noted death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean (author of Dead Man Walking, the basis for the award-winning 1995 film) and hotel financier Conrad Hilton (founder of the Hilton chain of hotels and resorts), as they discuss politics, faith and personal responsibility in a moving and challenging intellectual debate.


No, no such luck. It wasn't even the humble nun taking Mr. Hilton's great-granddaughter by the ear for a stern Catholic-school thrashing, which no doubt would have been a pleasure to watch. No, Prejean/Hilton '09 consisted of Miss California, Carrie Prejean, appearing at Donald Trump's Miss America knockoff, "Miss USA" (clever, the way he they twisted the name and made it different, see?) and being asked a question about gay marriage by über-obnoxious celebrity blogger Perez Hilton. To which Ms. Prejean gave a predictably clueless response involving "opposite marriage," which used to be called "divorce" back where I come from and when I was five, but, you know, whatever.

Now, I hated to bring this whole thing up at all. I mean, I was sort of proud that my blog was one of the billions of blogs that wasn't sullied with the epic battle that occurred when the rapier-witted Hilton set his subtle, elegant trap for the quick-thinking Prejean, a trap he surely spent months working on, consulting with the world's leading ethicists and theorists in multiple disciplines ranging from marital history to biology to linguistics (if I'm not much mistaken, I believe Mr. Hilton spent two entire months mastering Koine Greek so he could study early versions of the Pauline epistles).

But "Glenallen's" comment made me laugh because it misses two crucial points about l'affaire des idiots that have nothing to do with gay marriage at all. The first is that there are a good many of us who are quite happy to defend Ms. Sunshine's right to believe and say whatever the hell she wants to, who also think she's frankly an insensitive moron with bad fake boobs. Prejean can say and think whatever she wants to--that's the nice thing about living in a free country, and while I know there were many who jumped down her throat, I'm more than willing to defend her, or, more accurately, her right to say stupid things. The second point is that Perez Hilton is a preening, talentless jackass who has captured the essence of celebrity for himself--he's famous for being famous--by talking about celebrities--who are themselves famous for being famous. It's very meta, if you want to give it more thought than it's worth.

The point being, of course, that there are plenty of people who leapt to Prejean's defense and onto Hilton's back who explicitly disagree with the socially conservative/popular Republican stance on gay marriage. "Supporting" Prejean doesn't necessarily mean what "Glenallen" wants it to, nor does attacking Perez Hilton. This kind of thing isn't that unusual, and is one of the reasons the Republicans are in trouble: they frequently seem to conflate defense of a person with defense of a position (or vice-versa), oblivious to the reality that many nuanced individuals from the left and the right subscribe to the view attributed to Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

And now I've given that whole business far more time than it deserved. How are you, today?

CORRECTION: Dr. Phil correctly points out that Miss USA isn't Donald Trump's knockoff, but predates Trump's involvement. Indeed, it seems Miss USA was started in 1952 by a swimsuit company, after a 1950 Miss America winner refused to pose in a swimsuit. Anyway, the snark has been amended in the original sentence. Thanks, Dr. Phil!

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A sickhouse on Pooh corner...

>> Sunday, May 03, 2009

(H/T to Boing Boing!)

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News photo of the week

>> Saturday, May 02, 2009



That, my friends, is an amazing image. In my head, the photo is actually a still from the awesomest lo-budget superhero movie ever yet to be made. "Yes, Silverflame," Blackhawk drawls, "The Venger has struck again and left his calling-card. It's the mayor's daughter who's in danger this time." Jump-cut to a McMansion standing in for the Mayorial Residence, where ski-masked goons with SMGs are jumping out of a pair of cars with Michigan rental tags (despite the fact that The Venger is an evil billionaire and the movie is ostensibly set in New York)--cue action theme!.

But please, don't let the bizarre reality of the scene--masked fighters behold the Mother Of God on a cooktop!--or my imagining hamper you any. In the tradition of Marvel Comics' classic No-Prizes, I hereby offer an Imaginary Awesome Thing to the reader who submits the best caption to the above image. The Imaginary Awesome Thing will be announced in the comments and telepathized instantly to the winner anywhere in the universe he or she chooses to collect it.

(Yes, I'm cheap. More importantly, I'm also lazy. Sorry.)

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Krauthammer's psychopathic utilitarianism

>> Friday, May 01, 2009

This started as an update to today's intended post, but grew long enough to justify breaking up. You should probably read that post first, before you come back to this one.




Charles Krauthammer addresses some of these points in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post today, and unsurprisingly seems to draw the wrong conclusion. But what really makes his piece rich is the following bit of amoral Machiavellian posturing:

Some people, however, believe you never torture. Ever. They are akin to conscientious objectors who will never fight in any war under any circumstances, and for whom we correctly show respect by exempting them from war duty. But we would never make one of them Centcom commander. Private principles are fine, but you don't entrust such a person with the military decisions upon which hinges the safety of the nation. It is similarly imprudent to have a person who would abjure torture in all circumstances making national security decisions upon which depends the protection of 300 million countrymen.

(emphasis added)


It's that mentality, which is simply, plainly cretinous, that explains why America has frequently gotten the leaders we deserve and not the leaders we've needed. "Private principles are fine, but...." Yes, clearly: why would you want a President or Congressman to have scruples? Never mind the irony of the specific fact that the central theme of Mr. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign was that he would restore honor and character to the White House--there's no need to tar Mr. Bush with Mr. Krauthammer's blatant assholery, even he doesn't deserve it and it's only fair to consider that Mr. Bush may, like Lyndon Johnson decades before him, have agonized over the moral consequences of his bad decisions (I am trying to be even-handed, here, and give Mr. Bush some small benefit-of-doubt that may be unearned). No, consider what Mr. Krauthammer is saying as a matter of general principle: it's okay for moral people to exist as marginal characters, like conscientious objectors, just don't give them any actual responsibilities because they'll only mess everything up. (Actually, maybe he's onto something: Richard Nixon was raised a Quaker, and we all know how that turned out; then again, there's no evidence Mr. Nixon actually learned anything from his spiritual upbringing, so nevermind.)

In essence, Mr. Krauthammer's specious argument is a rationale for electing psychopaths to office. After all, if the safety of the nation at the expense of its soul is the only consideration, then where do you draw the line in Mr. Krauthammer's ends-based (a)moral calculus? A psychopathic President and Congress will not merely be willing to order torture and send men and women in uniform to their possible deaths without flinching, but together are presumably capable of taking all other steps necessary for national security: spying on citizens, rounding up undesirables, establishing work camps where the counterproductive efforts of dissenters and minorities can be channeled into useful production of matériel for the mother state, and mass executions if necessary for the general welfare. Mr. Krauthammer isn't defending George Bush, he's defending fascism, making an argument with unplumbed depths that even former Vice-President Cheney wouldn't have contemplated.

Leaving aside the point that Mr. Krauthammer's "facts" are largely wrong--e.g. there's no reason to think establishing a rapport with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would have failed, since it doesn't appear to have been tried at all before the CIA turned to waterboarding Mr. Mohammed one-hundred and eighty-three times in March, 2003 (i.e. a year-and-a-half after Mr. Krauthammer's "aftermath of 9/11")--the bigger issue is really that his entire apologetic for torture is immoral and wrong, wrong, wrong. And it's baffling that seemingly-moral people will make similar arguments as if they're self-evident: I know few (if any) people who will claim that the end justifies the means in any other context, but as soon as one raises the "ticking time bomb" canard, otherwise empathic, rational and generally decent human beings will totally lose their shit. Utilitarianism has never been so in, but one doubts John Stuart Mill would find any comfort there.

Krauthammer is just as galling when he writes:

(To call some of the other "enhanced interrogation" techniques -- face slap, sleep interruption, a caterpillar in a small space -- torture is to empty the word of any meaning.)


To which one can only reply with the uncivil, "What a total asshole." Mr. Krauthammer disingenuously ignores the fact that torture involves a methodology and routine, and is not merely one simple small act administered once. Indeed, here are other things that are not torture, per Krauthammer's moronic attempt at duplicity: pinpricks, tiny little shocks from a battery, having to hold your arms at an awkward angle, leaky faucets, and the inconvenience of being a little chilly. Accordingly, the iron maiden, electrocution, stress positions and being hung by the arms, the water torture (name notwithstanding), and being hosed down while naked and left in a dungeon are not torture and calling them that is to empty the word of any meaning. Thank you, Mr. K.; where were you when the Ceauşescus needed you the most?

One reason that bit of blather might get more attention from me than it deserves: as I've written in this space before, the thing that gets me most about the caterpillar business is how downright Orwellian it is, echoing the climactic scenes of 1984 in Room 101, in which Winston is presented with the "worst thing in the world." In his case, it's rats; in Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's case it was bugs. The horror in 1984--and the scene is truly a horrific scene--is not that Winston is ever in any real physical danger: Orwell's description makes it quite clear that the small cage into which Winston's head is bound is gated so the rodents can't get anywhere near Winston's face, and anyway it certainly wasn't Oceania's point to have a dissident's face ripped to shreds. No, the horror that Orwell understood and conveyed to a forgetful posterity is the horror of getting inside another person's head and using it to break their soul (Winston betrays the woman he loves within seconds; that's only a spoiler if you're too innocent to be reading the novel in the first place--there's no room for a happy ending in 1984). Orwell's state is a dehumanized one, and Room 101 is the singular, iconic, beyond-all-redemption symbol of the how and why of Oceania's fundamental, nightmarish inhumanity. Is that really what Krauthammer would have us become?

Krauthammer gets one thing right, wrongly: he closes with an indictment of Congressional leaders like Representative Nancy Pelosi for knowing about torture, saying nothing then, and being outraged now. He says Pelosi et al. should have said something then, by which he clearly really means they should shut up now. He's right that they should have said something then, he's right that there's some shallowness or hypocrisy in only laying claim to a conscience now. And that is a national shame and that's a reason Congressional leaders who stood idly by should be investigated and, if merited, censured by their respective legislative body or criminally prosecuted if their actions or inaction rose to such a level as to incur criminal culpability. I suspect that Mr. Krauthammer, being a jackass, mistakes outcry for partisanship; on the contrary, if Democrats behaved unethically or committed crimes, they should be held as accountable as anyone. And if the nation sinned by ignoring what was done allegedly for our sakes and in our names, our sins must be expiated, not buried.

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Right is right (but maybe the reasons are wrong)

I managed to get through much of the week without a torture post, but this is worth pointing out so I hope you'll bear with me.

There appear to be a number of talking heads--both on the right and on what is ostensibly the left--who seem to be under the misapprehension that any investigation into the torture of detainees that occurred over the previous eight years is inherently a partisan investigation. For instance, in the Washington Post, David Broder wrote:

One administration later, a different group of individuals occupying the same offices has -- thankfully -- made the opposite decision. Do they now go back and investigate or indict their predecessors?

That way, inevitably, lies endless political warfare. It would set the precedent for turning all future policy disagreements into political or criminal vendettas. That way lies untold bitterness -- and injustice.


And in Newsweek, Jon Meacham wrote:

Conservatives tend to believe that this would amount to a criminalization of policy differences, possibly leading to the prosecution of officials who believed they were doing the right (and authorized) thing. Liberals are longing to take the Bush regime to account, and fantasize about Dick Cheney in the dock.


Which, naturally, misses the point--it's not about policy differences (except, of course, that the "policy" in question was an organized conspiracy to violate Federal and international law), and it isn't about putting Mr. Cheney in the dock (though, naturally enough, if probable cause exists to charge him with a felony than that is surely where the former Vice-President belongs). Frankly, "policy" is really immaterial when you get down to it--why somebody broke the law is only a defense where specific intent is an element of the crime (e.g. an act is a crime if done "knowingly" or if it is done "with malice"), and the Convention Against Torture is reasonably clear that motive (or results) are immaterial (i.e. Shepard Smith is right not to give a "rat's ass" for whether torture produces results, since the law doesn't give one either); I would also be quite satisfied if a thorough criminal investigation into the torture programs exonerated Mr. Cheney--the point isn't really about Mr. Cheney (or Mr. Bush) at all, the point is about the responsible parties whomever they might be (while I think it would be difficult to get Mr. Bush off the hook, since he was the Commander-In-Chief at the time and ultimately responsible for all acts of his administration, I actually can imagine that the odious Mr. Cheney might not bear responsibility or be indictable).

That the meme that this about partisanship has taken such a firm hold strikes me as a strong symbol of the decline of American democracy and the ideals of nation of laws, not men (or parties). I don't give a rat's ass (thank you again, Shepard Smith!) whether someone who authorizes and/or engages in torture is a Democrat or a Republican, a soldier or a bureaucrat, ensconced in Washington D.C. or stationed at an obscure military base in Szymany, Poland. I don't care if he or she is a one-armed, gay, Native American, Libertarian, sub-adjutant to the assistant advisor to the lieutenant of an undersecretary at the Department Of Nine-Pins Bowling who believing good faith that waterboarding someone nearly two hundred times was legal, healthy, and yielded excellent advice that not only prevented a thousand terrorist attacks but also pointed out the eventual path to curing AIDS, cancer and racism while incidentally sketching out a quick and trouble-free to make excellent poached eggs and a tasty-but-low-cal hollandaise sauce; a crime against humanity is a crime against humanity.

Which brings us to a bit of clueless stagecraft this week: apparently thinking this whole affair is one of partisanship, House Republicans are calling for a release of CIA documents to establish what Democrats knew, and when they knew it.

Of course I agree, one hundred percent.

Because if Democrats in Congress broke the laws regarding torture, they should be prosecuted. And if Democrats in Congress knew of and/or tolerated a torture program to an extent that's not prosecutable, of course the public should know and if some form of censure is appropriate, then yes, it needs to be undertaken so we can do what has to be done to prise some justice out of this long national travesty, to redeem our shame to whatever small degree. If there hasn't been an appropriate focus on the role Democrats played in this, it's not because of partisanship, but rather because the previous Republican administration had their hands on the tiller. This is no different, actually, from the fact that war crimes prosecutions after World War II focused first on the national leaders bearing responsibility and slowly descended down through to others bearing less responsibility (even when those others took a more direct, hands-on role in atrocities, e.g. camp guards).

This has never been about revenge, or politics, or differences of opinion. This has always been about that favorite word of so many Republican politicians: character. Specifically, the character of our nation and whether we truly are a nation of laws where the President (or the august Senator, or the senior Congressman) are citizens first and foremost. Citizens, unlike royalty, are subject to the same rules as every other commoner, and we are (or used to be) a nation of commoners (and damn proud of it, too, and justifiably).

Here is the single stupidest thing David Broder says in the Post editorial linked to, above:

Suppose the investigators decide that the country does not want to see the former president and vice president in the dock. Then underlings pay the price while big shots go free. But at some point, if he is at all a man of honor, George W. Bush would feel bound to say: That was my policy. I was the president. If you want to indict anyone for it, indict me.

Is that where we want to go? I don't think so.


Actually, Mr. Broder, yes it is. If Mr. Bush is indeed a man of honor, he would step up and take responsibility for breaking the law. He might reasonably, heroically even say, "I did what I thought I had to to make this country safe, and in doing so I broke the most important laws this nation has on the books, and I fully and knowingly accept the consequences for doing so, including imprisonment, because this is a nation of laws and I am as subject to them as any other man who breaks the law for whatever reason, however justified." (Notice, please, that the former President could take responsibility even without admitting he'd done the wrong thing, if he really wanted to be a man of honor.) It won't happen--that's the fantasy, not Mr, Cheney slumped in the dock (or, since this is America, in a chair amidst his team of ace defense attorneys).

And I hold the elected representatives of the then-opposition party to the same standard. Should it be the case that a Representative or Senator condoned or abetted torture, I don't think resignation is unreasonable. Should it be the case that a Representative or Senator somehow authorized or approved torture, then prosecution is not out of the question; let me make sure it's clear that there's no "waffliness" in that prior clause: should probable cause exist to believe an elected or appointed official of any rank or branch of government broke Federal law, they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent possible. (Note here that one might have a reasonable suspicion that member of Congress may have broken the law, but lack probable cause to seek an indictment; this is not unlike the case where Mr. Cheney is concerned, where it's reasonable to suspect Mr. Cheney pushed for torture but there may be insufficient evidence to support probable cause that he was legally responsible, and therefore insufficient grounds to indict. This is why we have criminal investigations, of course, to clear up whether or not there are grounds to prosecute and sufficient evidence if the grounds exist.)

The House Republicans no doubt expect hypocrisy from those who want to see the law obeyed; they assume we're partisan Democrats out for blood and will withdraw once our "cherished" representatives are on the hook. Au contraire. Open the files. Sunlight disinfects. And justice purges.

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