The view from made-up space

>> Sunday, January 31, 2010

After finding myself increasingly unhappy with my sketches of what a world might look like for the fantasy project I'm gestating, I said "screw it" and reinstalled Fractal Terrains Pro on the Vista drive. I'd bought FTp a while back for RPG purposes--that's sort of what it's designed for--and simply hadn't brought it over to the new machine after the Gateway it was living on died (since I'm not gamemastering anything these days, no rush).

My reservation against using it for what I'm brewing is that it's a Windows program and I work in Linux--Vista lives on a drive for playing, but I don't have Writer's Café installed on the Windows drive or even an adequate word processor (it has MS Works, which tells you how seriously I take the Vista division of my schizophrenic machine). So at one level, to use FTp properly means rebooting, though I did try to install FTp under Wine with little success.

Except, as it turns out, once it was installed under Vista, I was able to mount the Windows drive in Linux--something I don't much like doing, out of some weird sense of propriety--and run Fractal Terrains using Wine from Terminal. I have no idea how stable it actually is, and I'm loathe to do very much with the program, but it is sufficient for mucking around with some of the distance and data tools--e.g. figuring out the annual rainfall of a point on the planet's surface.

I created this world, or the program did, in Vista; I put in some parameters (mostly using defaults, because I think the world my heroes are in is a bit Earthlike so far as weather goes), went through a few random selections until one appeared that I thought was kind of neat and might be the sort of place my characters might ramble around in. It doesn't really have a name right now, because I always get irritated when fantasy planets have weird names--our world doesn't really have a name as such, because people just called it "the ground" or "the world" or "the earth," and it's that latter one out of the generic list that sort of stuck when we realized the half-dozen weird wandering stars were also worlds (had we known that at the time, perhaps we'd live on Terra Mater, but we didn't and we don't, though SF authors frequently have our descendants living on Terra or in some sort of "Terran [insert government form here].")

While we're on the subject, I have the same peeve in science fiction, too. I always imagine a first contact conversation that goes something like--

Human: "Greetings! We are from Earth!"

Nonhuman: "Really? Wait--we're from Earth!"

Human: "I'm sorry, the language computer seems to be broken... okay. Greetings! We are from Earth!"

Nonhuman: "No, you're not. We're from Earth! Oh, and greetings, alien bipeds!"

Human: "I'm sorry. There seems to be some confusion here. We're from Earth. You're aliens."

Nonhuman: "So, aliens, what do you call your homeworld?"

Human: "I'm sorry. I really don't think we can have a meaningful exchange until we clear this up. Us: hu-mans. You: al-i-ens. We. Are. Earth. People."

Nonhuman: "Wait, wait, wait. You think you're people now? What the fuck?"

--and that's when the interplanetary war starts. But it ends up getting sorted out--a species of more-technologically-advanced beings show up from Earth and forces us to change our planets' names.

Anyway, that's not what this post was supposed to be about! No, the real point of the post was this:

What happens, or is going to happen, or might happen when I figure out how to actually write this thing, is my heroes are slumming on the continent on the western part of what you're seeing, and they get hired to accompany an expedition to the continent on the eastern side of what you're seeing, and along the way bad things happen and there's derring-do and stuff. And I wanted to share it with all of you because, you know, I'm sort of excited with this part of it, at least, though I may well end up just hating things as they roll out.

I'm not sure how deep I want to go with world-building. I know I don't want to do some Tolkienesque thing of inventing millennia of history and languages and so on; that's partly a lack of aptitude and time and partly that I like the idea that there are chunks of this world I just don't know about. On the other hand, I have to know enough for my characters' adventuring to have some kind of context. So this is the sort of thing I'm rolling around my skullmeat while also thinking about minor things like, you know, plot and character. (I kid! I'm not George Lucas, I actually care whether or not my characters are insufferable, use actual sentences and/or do things that make sense!)

I think I see the worldbuilding efforts as being more Howardian than Tolkienesque, though REH sort of "thinned" himself by setting his tales in a fantasy world that was conceived as kind of the "secret history" of our own world--that is, he didn't have to draw maps or invent cultures out of whole cloth, since he was re-imagining mythical or even real cultures and geographies from history. Simplifies things when you take the easy way out, Robert. (I kid.)

Another reason for posting this was a conversation I had with my Dad earlier, during which he was asking what I did yesterday and what I was doing today and I told him I'd imagined something wrong and screwed up, or something to that effect--which I realize made utterly no sense. What I meant was that I was originally thinking of my heroes leaving a more southerly point on the quadrant you can see above and ending up near a really-awesomely-big mountain in the southern hemisphere that you can't see up there. The first thing I realized was that their trip was too long, though I'd talked myself into being okay with that because, hey, "Epic Fantasy" and all that--everything's bigger, right? But then the second thing I realized was that the really bitchin' supermountain I'd picked for a destination, or background-to-the-destination, really, would be located in a position that would, in our world, be on the coast of Antarctica and that I'd been deceived by a Mercator projection (damn you, Mercator, and your map's useful property of maintaining straight-line bearings for navigational purposes at the expense of failing to preserve accurate proportionality at higher latitudes!). This is not something the reader would ever be likely to know if I just said, "screw it, who cares if there's a forest at the South Pole," but it would bother me, so I chose the more modest mountain spine visible in the above map, and coincidentally cut the time my heroes will spend in a boat--which may not even appear in the story--by more than half and to well within the kind of timeframe I really wanted.

So, you know, it's all good.

Anyway, that's what I've been working on today. In the real world, it's 37 F° outside, part of Mother Nature's clever scheme to melt all of yesterday's snow so it can refreeze tonight and cause lots of traffic accidents tomorrow. If you think of this in terms of natural selection, clearly going to work is a behavior that's being selected against, yet somehow I suspect my boss and creditors will not understand or even discuss this obviously logical point. It just goes to show that it's true: America is hostile to science.

Have a good remainder of your Sunday.


"You say that things change..."

In deference to the cold winter weather we're having, one of my favorite Tori Amos songs, still one of her strongest and most beautiful cuts after all these years--"Winter", from the first record:

Breaks my heart every time. If I ever have a daughter, I hope she never writes a song like this for herself, or for me.


Much ado about not-a-whole-lot: the Amazon/Macmillan kerfluffle

>> Saturday, January 30, 2010

A tweet from Lance Weber, an online friend, brought the Amazon/Macmillan kerfluffle to my attention. The short version is this: Macmillan insists should charge more for e-books; Amazon (presumably wanting to keep e-books cheap as an incentive for people to buy Kindles) insists that they will continue to sell e-books at a lower price point; in response to Macmillan's demands, Amazon has pulled Macmillan's books from their virtual "shelves"; furor has ensued.


Some commentators have pointed out that Macmillan has every right to insist that their books be sold at a higher price point, and this is, of course, correct--a publisher can, indeed, sell books at any price they want, even prices they're not likely to get. What at least one of these commentators has seemingly overlooked (at least when I read his blog post on it--maybe he addressed it in a further comment I didn't get to) is that retailers have exactly the same right, governed only to the extent of any contractual agreements they may have with the publisher; this includes a right not to sell a publisher's books at all for any reason they see fit. This, too, is how a free market works.

Consumers--who are the ones making this dispute between two soulless, indifferent, corporate behemoths into a bigger fuss--also have rights, namely the right not to purchase from a particular retailer, or a particular publisher, or (as long as there are public libraries) not at all. (I'm not sure it's necessary to add, but someone who isn't even interested in reading the book at all aren't even consumers; setting aside, I suppose, those shopping for gifts--they'll just have to find something else to give, I'm afraid.)

Writers, particularly those who depend on a slice of sales for income, are screwed. But one is reminded of that line from Dune--"For the father, nothing," as in the writers were pretty much in the get-screwed-one-way-or-another position on this one. Selling fewer books at a higher price point isn't really different from selling more at a lower, would be one thing. But even if writers were to somehow slip out of this making out like bandits, the truth is it was never about them at all--the writers are mere commodities in this dispute, product whose disposition is being negotiated by giants who would be quite happy, I suspect, if they could work out a way to publish and sell books without any of those awful little writers gumming up the process with their "creative needs" and plaintive cries of "I'm hungry" or "My kid needs shoes." (You know whose kids don't need shoes? Robots. But they're lousy writers, dammit.)

Most people are blaming Amazon, which is a bit silly, since nobody's forcing anyone to buy from Amazon. Yes, I buy things from them because they tend to have seriously competitive prices and will send books right to my door, and I sometimes feel pangs of social anxiety when I have to go to places where bookstores are located and even, sometimes, in the bookstores themselves. (I know, this seems strange given what I do for a living. How do you explain the totally irrational, especially when the subject is feelings that are inconsistent or irregular? Mall parking lots usually make me nervous, and frequently--but not always--when I'm inside a large store--like a Barnes And Noble, for instance--I start feeling like people are following me around. Which, in all fairness, sometimes they are; a few months ago I bought a book I'd never heard of or planned on buying entirely because a helpful clerk followed me around, helping me even though I had already found what I was looking for and was just browsing, and when she pulled a book off a table and said, "Oh, this one's discounted and it's supposed to be really good," I just didn't have the heart or balls to tell the poor woman to kiss off and I meekly added it to what I was already carrying; thank goodness it's a Dennis Lehane and not some kind of awful self-help book or something, I think maybe I liked a short story of his that appeared in Playboy, maybe, unless I'm thinking of somebody else. But I digress. Where was I?)

Ah, yes--people blaming Amazon. Well it's not like there isn't Powell's. Or (notwithstanding my digression regarding my intermittent neuroses), the local bookseller. It's perfectly fair, of course, to boycott a seller because you don't like a policy or stand they've taken; what I don't get, however, is the sense I see in some posts and tweets that Amazon is somehow required to sell books from a particular publisher under whatever terms the publisher dictates.

In the thick of this, of course, is the Kindle and all of the DRM issues pertaining to it. I'm unsympathetic--it's not like customers who purchased a Kindle couldn't find out beforehand what Amazon's deal was, caveat emptor and all that. Complaining that one has a Kindle but can't read certain books on it strikes me more than a little like purchasing a PS3 and getting angry upon discovering that it won't play Mario Kart.

But then people don't do that, do they? Of course not, because the idea of console-specific games is well-ingrained, I suspect because the technological limitations of the early days of electronic gaming meant that games came with an accidental form of physical DRM--the RAM cartridge. It was a given that a device manufactured to play Pac-Man on the Atari 2600 was not going to fit into the slot on your Intellivision. Further, the physical device reified the software--that is, it was understood that if you lost your cartridge or changed to a machine that used a different format, you were the one who was out-of-luck, the manufacturer was not under any obligation to replace the cartridge or guarantee that you'd still be able to play Atari 2600 games at some point in the future. The game was the thing in an actual sense--a thing you could hold, put in your pocket, hit with a hammer.... People no longer think of their software in those terms, however--the idea of a device-specific text, music or video file offends; it occurs to me that this may be a failure of the consumer who misunderstands what he's purchased (and who has failed to demand something else) as much as it may be corporate greed; if the book or song or video came on a RAM cartridge, you wouldn't think twice about having to buy new cartridges for new devices. (See also the early days of CD, in which a significant portion of music sales were driven by people buying albums they already owned.)

These are an awful lot of words for something I'm a little indifferent to and/or think is something of a non-issue. I was thinking about it in the shower, and then decided I might as well write some of it down as I needed to do some writing and my creative efforts are a little stymied at the moment. So, there you are.

Hope you're having a good weekend so far; we have snow, which is a rare and wonderful thing in this part of the South.



>> Friday, January 29, 2010

One of Slate's resident contrarians, the often-perceptive and ever-provocative Jack Shafer, has a piece up this week on Scott Horton's recent Harper's Gitmo exposé ("The Guantánamo 'Suicides': A Camp Delta sergeant blows the whistle,"). (I've mentioned the Horton article previously, writing that it's a must-read.)

Sadly, Mr. Shafer relies extensively on a pretty awful series of blog posts by Joe Carter of First Things (the first of which can be found here; I'm too lazy to offer links to all of them)--ostensibly four in number, though you can easily disregard the first two as little more than a collection of conclusory statements ("...anyone who reads the article carefully will see so many obvious holes and find the case is so unpersuasive that it hardly needs rebutting.") and ad hominem attacks ("The 'investigative' piece they published by Scott Horton, who happens to be a human rights lawyer rather than a journalist, is a prime example of why few people—and no one on the right—takes the magazine seriously anymore."). It's not until Mr. Carter's third entry in the series--after he was publicly called out by Andrew Sullivan and others--that Mr. Carter bothered to actually dig into the substance of Mr. Horton's allegations, and all I can say for now about that effort is that it's a mixed bag.

I have to say that, because Mr. Carter's rebuttals are based on the five-hundred page, heavily-redacted Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) report that has been questioned and criticized by Seton Hall's Center for Policy and Research, and I've only judiciously skimmed about a hundred-and-seventy to a hundred-and-eighty-or-so pages of the report. I can say that there's at least one instance in which the report flatly contradicts one of Mr. Carter's original assertions (that it was implausible that resuscitory efforts were performed after rigor mortis was present--a nurse on duty told NCIS that this is precisely what he witnessed; Mr. Carter subsequently backtracked and acknowledged that rigor had set in but that this supported his belief that the Gitmo inmates committed suicide, since rigor would make it difficult to set the bodies up in their cells), and I can say that the NCIS report Mr. Carter is relying on is just as full of hearsay and supposition as the Horton article might be in the eyes of Messrs. Carter and Shafer.

Which brings us to the point of this entry, actually, since I think Messrs. Carter and Shaffer have made themselves a useful object lesson. Mind you, I'm not quite prepared to say they're ultimately wrong: while I was a little overwrought after reading the Horton piece, and remain skeptical of the government's claims that the detainees committed suicide, I'm not yet so naïve as to blindly accept the claims of Mr. Horton's witnesses--indeed, I made a point in calling attention to the Harper's article to write, "If Mr. Horton's sources are accurate and his conclusions correct," a very careful choice of language, since his sources may be inaccurate or flat-out wrong, as may be his conclusions. It's far more accurate to say that I believe there's grounds for further, independent investigation, and if Mr. Horton's allegations are in any way substantiated, for criminal prosecution; meanwhile, my response to Mr. Carter's frequent claim that those who disagree with him may wish to reconsider lest they suffer public humiliation is that I frankly prefer public humiliation by being in error to the public humiliation of being citizen of a nation that engages in conduct unpleasantly reminiscent of the Khmer Rouge's administration of the Tuol Sleng interrogation camp.

But I digress. As I was saying, I believe Messrs. Shafer and Carter provide a useful object lesson by way of statements like this one from Mr. Shafer: "Horton, a lawyer and human-right advocate... conflates hearsay and speculation into 'evidence'...." Ah! Evidence! One of my favorite things, I have to confess, about being a lawyer, and the thing I might miss most if I ever give the profession up or change my practice.

Shafer and Carter are very, very critical of Mr. Horton's use of hearsay, nevermind that the government's report contains quite a lot of it, too. But... hang on, before I do that, maybe it would be fun to have a quick quiz. Everyone ready? Here we go--

True or false: hearsay is inadmissible in a court of law.

Pencils down!

So (heh-heh-heh), how many of you answered "true"?

I have smart readers, so maybe everybody got it right: the correct answer is false--while hearsay is generally inadmissible as evidence, there's a very long list of exceptions to this rule and statements that are technically hearsay are admitted into evidence in courtrooms all over the United States without anyone so much as imagining the possibility of thinking about perhaps making an objection.

We might start a step back, actually, and talk about what hearsay is, because I suspect it's not what most people take it to be. In colloquial usage, "hearsay" is regarded as something akin to rumor. But in the American legal system, hearsay is "A statement, other than one made by the declarant while testifying at the trial or hearing, offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted." (Black's Law Dictionary, Sixth Ed., quoting Federal Rule Of Evidence 801(c), which is echoed by most, if not all, states.) Now, the particulars of this definition are important, especially that very last clause--"offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted"--an out-of-court statement offered for a reason other than "the truth of the matter asserted" should always be admissible. What do we mean by that?

Take, for instance, a situation in which a witness on the stand says, "I heard someone shout, 'He's got a gun!' so I hit the dirt, and that's when I heard the shots." "I heard someone shout" sounds an awful lot like hearsay--is it?

The answer depends on why it's being offered--if the point is to prove that "He" actually had a gun, then, yes, it's hearsay. However, if the point is to show why the witness "hit the dirt" the statement isn't hearsay at all--"He" may or may not have actually had a gun, who knows, but the statement explains the witness' state-of-mind or belief when he acted in a particular and peculiar fashion.

That's the first step in a hearsay inquiry, and only the first step. See, here's the other thing: not all hearsay is inadmissible anyway--there are exceptions to the rule.

First and foremost, statements that a "Party-Opponent"--that is statements made by a Plaintiff or Defendant (criminal or civil) or their agent--are generally admissible under a general exception carved into the rule itself.

In addition, there are twenty-something (if memory serves) explicit exceptions under the Federal Rules that apply whether a declarant is otherwise available or not, and somewhere around that many exceptions in states that model their evidence rules after the Federal Rules (North Carolina has twenty-three, including #24--"A statement not specifically covered by any of the foregoing exceptions but having equivalent circumstantial guarantees of trustworthiness..."!). Records maintained in the regular course of business are admissible hearsay, as are public records in general. So are "excited utterances," i.e. things that somebody just blurted out without thinking about it, and "present-sense impressions," i.e. something immediately perceived that is announced while it's actually being perceived by someone ("He has a gun!", shouted moments before shots ring out, might well fall into one of these two categories even if offered to prove that "He," in fact, actually possessed a gun, and not to explain why the witness "hit the ground"). Just to name a few.

But wait, there's more! One of the reasons hearsay is generally inadmissible is to protect a person's right to face witnesses in court and question their accounts, but there are four more situations in which hearsay is admissible even if the person who made the original statement is unavailable to testify (including "unavailable" because he has a right not to take the stand) with another catchall provision covering things nobody might've thought of that seem like they should be admissible. These include prior sworn statements in a deposition or earlier hearing or trial, "deathbed" statements, and the one that bites most of my clients in the ass, the "statement against interest," i.e. an out-of-court statement that could subject somebody to civil or criminal liability.

That last one's a biggie: it's how confessions get read to juries. A serial killer gets arrested, taken to the police station, read his Miranda rights, and asked a bunch of questions about all those missing hookers, to which he gives detailed answers; these are out-of-court statements made as to the truth of the matters asserted. In other words, they're hearsay--Mr. Serial Killer isn't going to testify, he has an absolute right to not to take the stand, which makes him unavailable in the meaning of the law; the jury will be hearing Mr. Serial Killer's words secondhand, by way of the police detective who took it. As hearsay, they're presumptively inadmissible--except, of course, look, see, there's an exception: since Mr. Serial Killer's words could land him in prison or get him executed, they're treated as "statements against interest" and thus the day--or at least the State's case--is saved.

Which probably gets us to the point I really wanted to make--I could go on to talk about Ohio v. Roberts and Crawford v. Washington (probably the most exciting legal decision in my lifetime thus far from a purely professional point-of-view)--but I think I can make my major point about Shafer and Carter (remember them?) here: I think they're treating hearsay as something contemptible out of a broad misunderstanding of the general legal rule. They see a report where a witness says, "X told me...," and respond, "Ah, well that's just hearsay," subconsciously adding "inadmissible" because they've seen Perry Mason or Law And Order. But the actual legal rule they're brain-checking is actually rather nuanced and much more interesting: hearsay is inadmissible except when it isn't, and much of the legal system would actually crumble if hearsay actually was always inadmissible. A detective repeating a criminal's confession? A CEO's description to a jury of a contract for manufacturing and delivering widgets? The claim that the witness is the decedent's grandchild and therefore covered by her will?* These are all hearsay claims.

Furthermore, there's another point here: the disrepute of hearsay is a legal matter, not a matter of logic or reason per se. It's not liked in courtroom (except when it is) because the court is traditionally viewed as a place where truth is arrived at by having two sides to a question fight over it, presenting evidence and arguments; allowing in statements from people who aren't there and who therefore can't be questioned is seen as unfair. In other words, the issue isn't that hearsay is inherently unreliable, but that it can't be tested using the favored tool of the legal system for testing things (i.e. cross-examination). Because a hearsay statement might be untrue or inaccurate, it's not fair to use it against a party (indeed, in cases where the party in question could go to jail, the unfairness is enshrined in the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment--but like I said, I don't want to get into Crawford, even if it's kind of awesome). The exceptions to the hearsay rule are all built around the general idea that certain kinds of statements carry their own guarantees of reliability and therefore don't need to be cross-examined as much or perhaps at all.

Outside of this legal context, however, the fairness issue is something else entirely--it may even be a complete nonissue. Should your spouse call and say, "I just got a call from the school--our son's throwing up and one of us needs to pick him up, can you do it?" you're hardly likely to reply, "But that's hearsay! I need hard facts, dammit!" No, whatever else you may do--pick the kid up, negotiate with your spouse over who's in a better position to do it, call another family member--whatever you do, you're going to take it as a given that you have a sick child.

Now, you might consider things like context or source when evaluating the reliability of hearsay--what a lawyer would call weight of the evidence, as opposed to its admissibility. And Messrs. Shafer and Carter may be correct to assert that any hearsay Mr. Horton relies on should be given low weight because of its inconsistency with other evidence or concerns about its source. But that's something else, isn't it? The issue there isn't, "Oh, well that's hearsay and hearsay is worthless," the issue is "Oh, well that's unreliable evidence"; i.e. it isn't unreliable because it's hearsay, it's unreliable for whatever other reasons Shafer and Carter think it's unreliable.

And so endeth, I think, the lecture. I hope I haven't belabored any points, and apologize if I have; furthermore, I hope the foregoing was interesting and educational and not stupid and obvious. Any thoughts or questions?

*An old lawyer's joke runs something like this:


WITNESS: My name is--

OLD COUNTRY LAWYER: (rising dramatically to his feet) Objection!

JUDGE: (puzzled) Grounds?

OLD COUNTRY LAWYER: Your honor, his momma's the one who told this witness what his name was. Unless she's here to testify....


State Of The Union

>> Thursday, January 28, 2010

It's something else we can blame Woodrow Wilson for: for more than a century, from the Jefferson Administration up until Wilson came into office, American Presidents sent Congress a letter every so often to satisfy Article II, Section 3 of the United States Constitution. Thanks to Wilson, we now have a tradition of the President talking to Congress, and it's debatable how informative these things are: I mean, one could (and maybe should) walk away from Article II thinking that the point of a State Of The Union address is to give Congress a status report and maybe throw in a few suggestions, not to make a freewheeling policy speech, which is what Presidents have done throughout my lifetime, at least.

Then again, how necessary would such a speech be at all these days? When the Constitution was written, it's not like the President could just bulk e-mail the Congress with a cover letter with attached PDFs covering budget, national defense, and whatever. The State Of The Union address, whether written or spoken, is something like wisdom teeth--obsolete evolutionary holdovers from our primitive ancestry, once-useful but now extraneous and sometimes painful, something you probably wouldn't put in on purpose if you were starting over from scratch.


So, the speech last night was a good one, but was there really any doubt of that? President Obama remains a likable personality, and generally a credit to his current profession: the speech was polished yet strangely conversational, at times informal but strong throughout. It reminded me, in some ways, of the kind of lecture my better law school professors could deliver: informed, serious (but not above the occasional bit of humor), well-prepared and yet slightly flexible, too. The President gives good speech.

And presentation aside, there were things to like about it: he insisted on healthcare reform, promised to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," chided the opposition while expressing an openness to suggestions, quietly criticized his own party for failing to lead strongly, accepted responsibility for communications failures (and we'll come back to that in a moment), promised a small business stimulus package, pointed out some problems with the recent Citizens United Supreme Court decision that Congress needs to address, fixing the Veterans' Administration and outlined a promising reform of higher education access--not a bad agenda to set.

But, again, although mentioning "DADT" was a mild and pleasant surprise, there wasn't necessarily a lot of newness there, and my problems with the Obama Administration aren't with the Administration's agenda, but the Democrats' ability to implement any of it. Some of these matters are outside of the President's direct control, to be sure, though rather few of the things he addressed are under the President's direct control. But the biggest problems of the past year might be filed under "failure to lead" rather than "failure of vision": the Administration came in under a banner of change, much of which has stalled on the launchpad or been quietly dropped in spite of strong Congressional majorities, which in a representative democracy stand in for the will of the people--we do not have a referendum democracy or a direct-participation democracy, but a democracy in which the citizens choose people to represent the views of community majorities, meaning that a congressional majority stands in for the will of the People as a whole.

This brings up a matter I said I'd come back to: the President's acceptance of responsibility for failure to communicate, which predictably drew responses along the lines of this bit of incomprehensible gibberish from a former state governor. Considering that most of the public "objections" to healthcare reform are objections to nonissues like "death panels," mandatory carrier changes, and availability of public insurance to illegal immigrants, it's self-evident that the public-at-large isn't rejecting policies it understands; calling it a "failure to communicate" is actually a tactful way of acknowledging this, because while it's true the Obama Administration has fallen short in educating the public, the other side of the problem is that certain political opportunists (e.g. the previously-alluded-to former state governor) have been lying their lying little liar's asses off, resulting in the more-credulous segments of the public being a little misinformed (from all the lying).

But wait, there's more: even if the lying liars weren't actually telling lies, the wishes of the public would not be dispositive. I want to be a little careful in how I phrase that--my first formulation would have been, "What the public wants doesn't matter," but that's not exactly right. Go back to what I wrote about representative democracy a few paragraphs ago: in America, the public doesn't write (or pass) laws, the public elects people who do that, and then if we don't like the results we can elect somebody else. So the percentage of the public that favors healthcare reform is really only relevant during election years; now, naturally, we members of the public desire a certain amount of responsiveness from our elected representatives and want our voices to count. I was bitching about this the other day, so I'm trying to stay consistent. But the fact is also that our system was designed to negate mob rule; indeed, as originally designed, the whole point of the bicameral Congress was to have an unstable, mobbishly inclined body and a stable, elitist body that would have to effect compromises between what the public wanted and what its betters understood to be preferable (direct election of Senators under the XVIIth Amendment fucked that up; I dunno, seemed like a good idea at the time for some reason).

In other words, suppose just for a moment that the Palins and Boehners are right--that the public isn't on board for healthcare reform. There's a Constitutional argument that the correct response for the Congress and President is, "Screw off, we're passing it and if you don't like it, you can un-elect us in 2/6/4 years."

Sounds arrogant, right? Sometimes leadership does.

I don't mean to suggest that compromise and negotiation and using persuasion instead of force are undesirable--in general, I'd say they're preferable. But some people can't be negotiated with, and when negotiations fail it's time for somebody to take charge. We elect these people to govern, not to flail about in seas of poll numbers or to ask every single American if something's okay.

It's a fact of life that when government does what's inherent in the word itself, and governs, that people won't like everything that happens. You know, I'm not interested in buying missile systems and I'd rather beautify some parks with public sculpture than pay for yet another low-level drug addict's incarceration. But I have to accept that some of my tax dollars will be spent on something I don't like, or want, or even need. And during a Republican administration, I may have to suck it, a lot, until the tide (hopefully) turns and a more-progressive regime comes in and shifts the balance towards spending money on things I like, want, or need, whether it's cleaner air or better public education.

Of course, if the "more-progressive" administration fails to deliver, I reserve my right to vote for somebody else or not at all. But that's how the game works under the rules we've agreed to. If Republicans don't like it, they can move to Russia.

But perhaps I digress.

I'd like to say that the State Of The Union restored my faith or something--but I never lost faith in the President's ability to address the country like one reasonable adult talking to a nation of equally-reasonable adults. My shaken faith is in the ability of Democrats to achieve results. I'm not completely out of hope.

But I'm still waiting.


Brought down by a hatchet, not a scalpel, or: Eric once again rants meanderingly about how the Democrats keep breaking his heart...

>> Tuesday, January 26, 2010

I'm a straight, white, solidly middle-class male. Half the people the Christian right votes into office on a morals platform, are amoral cryptoagnostic wanks who are unlikely to want a theocracy and the other half are too damn crazy to actually make it happen (looking at you, Sarah). I don't have kids to worry about. Hell, my profession is indigent criminal defense--Republican policies are good for business, my business, I mean.

As long as the revolution doesn't occur during my lifetime, what the hell do I have to worry about?

This is what I'm thinking, honestly, as I contemplate the past week-and-a-half of Democrat panic in Washington. Last week it was the panic after the Massachusetts election--"Oh noes, health care is dooooooomed!" This week it's that the President appears to be a day away from proposing an insane spending freeze, something which he rightly and repeatedly derided Senator John McCain for suggesting in 2008. My hands are in the air, my eyes are rolling, my mouth is saying, "What the fuck?"

And the rub is: I'm willing to go against what are arguably my short-term self-interests for the net benefit to everybody, I mean, I'm willing to pay higher taxes for increased programs, I'm willing to ride out storms in the Straits Of Magellan if there's green Pacific waters for all of us on the other side, when I could be sitting fat and comfy and shaking my head at the poor bastards, learning how to blame them for their own troubles while sipping something expensive using the extra money I didn't give away. I'm a liberal, more than anything else, because I believe it's right, not because being a fat white dude with discretionary income leaves me disadvantaged in some way (although I suppose if I were to learn how to be a modern-day Republican, I'd have to come up with some sort of fantasy about how my attorney career was threatened by a lesbian illegal immigrant from Mexico or something).

No, no, no--I'm not actually about to do that. I've voted for Republican friends in local elections, but don't kid yourself about the likelihood of it happening nationally. I don't want to say "never," after all I can imagine far-fetched hypotheticals where I vote for some old-school Republican in, say, an "Eisenhowerian" mold; I also am trying to write a novel where one of the main characters is a wizard, so that's really pretty meaningless. But any of the bozos likely to get nominated by the Republican party for Congress or the White House in the foreseeable future? Excuse me while I wipe spit off my monitor and keyboard.

But will I vote for a Democrat?

I mean, I could not only sit passively back and offer no resistance to the party that will give me tax breaks and job security, but I could have extra free time on particular Tuesdays in November where I'd otherwise be standing in a long line at the elementary school up the road.

And I could take the money I might contribute to a Democrat to try to keep a feared Republican out of office and buy booze or video games or maybe even booze and video games. Ooh! And comic books!

It's occurred to me lately that maybe a big part of the problems we're having right now is that Democrats are confused about who their base is and keep trying to cater to progressives. But maybe progressives aren't the Democrats' base anymore, and haven't been since Bill Clinton. Maybe the real confusion is amongst us progs who mistake the Democrats for the party of FDR, JFK and LBJ, the party of the New Deal, New Frontier and Great Society. Maybe the Democrats just need to come right out and say, "Look, we're the centrist party." They won't do that, because we progressives keep giving them money, because when you get right down to it, we really are stupid and naïve idealists. Maybe we liberals really do need to just abandon the Democrats in droves and invent a progressive party for ourselves. That won't happen, either.

Last week a friend was attempting to install Windows 7 on a tablet, tweeting about it on Twitter while failing. And at one point, he made a sarcastic comment about how great Microsoft's business plan of frustrating users was (actually, the phrase he used was "ass-raping," but nevermind), to which another friend replied that it obviously is successful, since people keep giving Microsoft money for mostly lousy products. The implication being, of course, that maybe it's no wonder Microsoft could give a shit whether they give anyone a happy customer service experience, because, you know, as long as people are unwilling to pay for an Apple or learn how to use an alternative like Linux, what'cha gonna do? And I thought about politics when I read this exchange, how it's been perfectly okay for the Democrats to... err... ass-rape (do you think I should put that in quotes?) progressives because we're not willing to trouble ourselves with the political version of learning Linux. I know, it's a nerdy and attenuated metaphor. Isn't that what you come here for?

(I also feel like I should insert an explanation or apology of sorts to Jim: Jim is perfectly capable of using Linux and may even have a Linux machine lying around somewhere; he wanted Windows 7 because... actually, I don't know. Jim, why did--nevermind that wasn't the point; back on topic--)

This didn't help, either: that I sent an impassioned e-mail to Senator Kay Hagan, the Democratic Senator from North Carolina, reminding her or the staffer I actually expected to read it that she was a member of the party of FDR, JFK and LBJ, and what I got back was the form letter her staff sends everybody who uses the words "health care" in a missive, in which Senator Hagan or her staff nicely allayed all sorts of concerns I might have if I'd been somebody else who'd written a different letter, somebody worried about illegal immigrants getting public health and losing my existing plans, and not somebody worried about the fact that the Senate may not even manage to pass a watered-down bill with only one argument in its favor at all. I mean, I actually went so far as quixotically letting my hypothetical Senator's aide know that I favor a public option even though I realize that's not even under discussion--I just figured she (or he) ought to know, y'know? And I bring it up because it goes back to the point I was dancing around in the previous paragraphs: why do I care more than the people I voted for and sent money to? I'm not saying Senator Hagans owes me a personal reply, good grief, even Ringo Starr's given that up; it's just that it would have been nice if some lackey had sent me the appropriate generic "Thank You For Your Query" letter instead of the generic "Don't Sweat The Healthcare Bill" letter; they don't even care enough to give me the right blow off, y'know? Does that make sense?

We'll see, I guess. Maybe I'll change my mind. Maybe the Republicans will terrify me into action in 2012. Maybe my conscience will triumph over my ire.

Maybe I'll stay home.


Last tracks, or: A filler post that somehow turned into a rumination on the dead artistry of the vinyl long-playing record as a distinct medium...

>> Monday, January 25, 2010

Wait? Did I not put anything up today. (I might never have to again, thanks to Chris Clarke, actually.)

Ah, well, I should rectify the lack of posting today. But with what? Ah! I know! How about a classic '80s B-side encapsulation of horny teenage male angst improperly regarded as an album track because a record label snuck it on to the CD issue as a bonus track without letting the band know in advance?

Violent Femmes' "Gimme The Car" (London, live, 1984):

I don't care what anyone else says: the last song on Violent Femmes is "Good Feeling." "Car" is a great song, but appending it to the end of the CD made that a wholly different album. It may seem trivial, and in a way it is, but there was an era during which the LP was an artform unto itself, and not just a collection of songs, when artists made thoughtful decisions about how to bookend sides or kick and close records. (Something the Femmes actually talked about in the liner notes to the anniversary edition of Femmes, by the way, bitching about what Sire did with the original CD issue.)

I mean, by way of an illustration, consider for a moment Pink Floyd's 1977 album, Animals. The record begins and ends with a pair of bookending acoustic guitar tracks, "Pigs On The Wing" parts 1 and 2. Part 1 sets a tone and part 2 makes a nice wind-down. But when the band played the album in its entirety on the 1977 "In The Flesh" tour, they began shows with a different track--"Sheep." Why? Because "Pigs On The Wing (part 1)" is a great way to begin an album, with the needle dropping into a mellow acoustic groove that sets a somber tone, but it's a lousy way to begin a big spectacle-heavy rock'n'roll show with lights and inflatable puppets and brutal animated rear-projections and shit; "Sheep" starts with an ominous synth pulse that builds into a full-frontal, full-band assault. Meanwhile, the 8-track version of "Animals" included a "Pigs On The Wing (part 3)", an instrumental that was sort of performed on the tour as part of an extended version of "Pigs On The Wing (part 2)"--it was left off the vinyl version not just for time, but because it weakened the impact of the sort of abrupt, bleak-yet-hopeful finality of the version of "Pigs On The Wing (part 2)" at the end of side two, not an issue when "Wing" pts. 2 and 3 were performed in the middle of the live first set, sandwiched between "Dogs" and "Pigs (Three Different Ones)".

The point being, perhaps, that an idea of the album--even a non-concept album--being more like a novel in the sense of being a longform medium that carries the audience through a series of feelings guided by the author and less like a collection of short stories that has just been thrown together is probably on its way towards extinction thanks to digital media and shuffle play. (And I know not every short story collection is arbitrarily edited; indeed, good ones are carefully arranged.) I'm not trying to be a curmudgeon--my iPod's set to shuffle, too, and shuffle itself creates interesting experiences by linking things you might not have thought linkable. But there is a sadness about it, too. One of the oft-overlooked qualities of vinyl is that the physical structure of the media affected how good artists presented their work, arranging songs within not just the temporal limits of the medium but the spatial limits, too--arranging them so that the sides began and ended in certain emotional places. Digital media inherently lacks spatial limits--you can release as many songs as a hard drive will hold (e.g. Radiohead has been flirting with abandoning the concept of the album altogether and just releasing new material online as it suits them)--and thus lacks a certain... I don't know... delicacy, maybe?

Anyway, it's what I miss most about vinyl albums. Not the warmth of analog (mine always ended up with a bit too much snap, crackle and pop anyway), but the sense of beginning, middle and end, the kind of feeling of closure you got from listening to a Last Track, a real Last Track, be it "Good Feeling" or "A Day In The Life" or whatever. That sense of completion, which somehow isn't the same on most CDs these days for whatever reason--ah, hell, maybe I am being a curmudgeon. The disease of nostalgia's symptoms include caring sorrowfully for things that nobody else really even knows why you're bothering about at all.


WTF? Where the hell was I?

>> Sunday, January 24, 2010

So, yesterday I had lunch with my Mom at Intermezzo (you absolutely want the Portabella Mushroom Tower with goat cheese and red peppers as an appetizer, and then try their piroska unless you're a vegetarian) and then I stopped by the grocery store; on the way home, I have The Loft on and they play this great little acoustic track called "Want Her To Stay" by somebody called Dramarama, which I really dig, so when I get home I buy the MP3 version of the album from Amazon. But then I head to Smelly Cat for two or three hours and so I don't immediately listen to it, saving it for when I get home (if I hadn't liked the tunes at the coffee shop, then I would have gone ahead and played it.

And it's while I'm finally listening to it that I realize the fucking album came out in 1985.

Okay, so I'm not shocked shocked--it's not like I can't hear the "'80s-ness" of it, although '80s alternative has become sort of a retro-in-thing in the indie scene, so there's a lot of new bands who are trying to sound like The Smiths or The Pixies, which believe me is not a bad thing in the least. What bugs me is that this is a pretty good band who I like a lot right now and reallyreally would have liked when I was in high school. And I'm discovering them more than a decade-and-a-half after they broke up and nearly a decade after they decided to get back together again. Not only that, but apparently they had a Sort Of Great Big Hit ("Anything, Anything (I'll Give You)") that appeared in a movie I've seen several times.

This would be the point, or just after the point, where several readers are going, "Oh, yeah, Dramarama. I can't believe you never heard of them."

Bite. Me.

What can I say? That it's better late than never? That it's cool the world is big enough for even somebody who lived through an era and is pretty knowledgeable about something to discover something he should've known about that passed him by? That I suck for not already having their whole catalogue on vinyl or bitrotting first-gen CD? Whatever. I'm digging the record, and that's swell enough for me.

From Dramarama's first album, Cinema Verite, released twenty-five years ago this year and first heard by yours truly yesterday, "Scenario" (audio only):


Back to basic values...

>> Saturday, January 23, 2010

On the way home from work Friday evening, Jason Federici was hosting on E Street Radio and he played this, reminding me of some basic values--you know, like standing up for the powerless and playing your guitar really loud. I hoped someone had maybe put a video version up on YouTube--and I'm happy to say they had--

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band joined by Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello for an impassioned rendition of "The Ghost Of Tom Joad" this past November at Madison Square Garden:

If I don't make it back to the blog this weekend, hope you're having a good one.


An obligatory Friday cat posting

>> Friday, January 22, 2010

A comprehensive scientific and historical explanation of how the Internet works, how it came to be, and what its future looks like:

(H/T to Laughing Squid!)


What Kubrick and Clarke got wrong...

>> Thursday, January 21, 2010

More than four decades ago, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and science-fiction master Arthur C. Clarke teamed up to create one of the most--maybe the most--brilliant science fiction film of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The movie portrayed a future society of the years 1999-2001--our past, now, obviously--as having spaceplane flights to permanent space stations, lunar bases (one is visited, at least one other referred to in dialogue), and the capacity to mount a manned mission across vast interplanetary distances using advanced propulsion systems (the structure of the spacecraft Discovery, with a lengthy spine separating propulsion from habitation, implies some kind of advanced fission or, more likely, fusion drive), suspended animation and artificial intelligence.

Ironically, in retrospect none of these things are the movie's least accurate prognostication of the then-future....






("Thank you, all of our customer service representatives are busy assisting other customers. We recommend you visit our website, WWW.HAL.COM/SERVICE if you need immediate assistance. Estimated wait times are in excess of one hour.")



(1) Sound.
(2) Operating System.
(3) Mouse/pointer devices.
(4) Keyboard.
(6) Opening The Pod Bay Doors.
(7) Going Online.
(8) Using Internet Explorer.



(1) Pod Bay Doors Remain Open.
(2) Pod Bay Doors Remain Closed.
(3) Pod Bay Doors No Longer Respond To Custom QuickKeys.
(4) Pod Bay Doors No Longer Respond To Voice Command.
(5) Pod Bay Doors Open And Shut Randomly.
(6) Other.

("Thank you, all of our customer service representatives are busy assisting other customers. We recommend you visit our website, WWW.HAL.COM/SERVICE if you need immediate assistance. Estimated wait times are in excess of fifty-five minutes.")




(1) Voice Command Is Sluggish.
(2) Voice Command Is Non-Responsive.
(3) Computer Has Become Paranoid And Is Trying To Kill Me.
(4) How Do I Use Voice Command?
(5) Other.











(1) YES.

(2) NO.




It's funny because it's TRUE...

>> Wednesday, January 20, 2010

If you think about it, it's also the reason using facilitated communication to translate the thoughts of allegedly "locked in" brain damage patients has to be a crock. Man In Persistent Vegetative State Wants To Do What?! "I'm following the minor movements of his fingers... he's typing that he wants me to move my hand away from the keyboard and put it... oh dear."


Scott Horton alleges a cover-up of homicides by the U.S. Navy, U.S. Army, Justice Department and Department Of Defense

>> Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Scott Horton has a new piece up at the Harper's website, "The Guantánamo 'Suicides': A Camp Delta sergeant blows the whistle," that's a must-read.

If Mr. Horton's sources are accurate and his conclusions correct, the United States Navy, Army, the Justice Department and the Department of Defense have covered up the murders of three Guantánamo Bay inmates in June 2006, acts possibly committed by the CIA with the complicity of Navy guards. Although all three inmates were presented to the public at the time as terrorists (whose alleged suicides were spun as a bizarre form of "asymmetrical warfare" to a mostly-too-credulous press), it appears that two of the inmates were within weeks of being released and the only obstacle to the release of a third was "difficult diplomatic relations between the United States and Yemen."

As if this wasn't appalling enough, the Camp Delta whistleblower came forward in 2009, encouraged by the presence of a new administration in Washington D.C.. (He allegedly had an early meeting with an official described as "[Attorney General Eric] Holder’s eyes," which I find interesting because AG Holder was an early and now, it seems, strangely silent voice in favor of investigating and prosecuting war crimes.) There is a possibility, based on Mr. Horton's claims in the article, that officials in the Obama administration are now furthering a cover-up of what really happened to three men in American custody who (according to the official account) swallowed rags, bound their own hands and feet, covered their faces, and then hanged themselves (just to be sure, I suppose) with handmade nooses without their guards noticing anything amiss for more than two hours.

I remain unfazed by any claims anyone still cares to make that the investigation and prosecution of crimes such as those alleged by Mr. Horton is somehow "political." After three years of law school and twelve years of criminal defense practice, I was unaware that "politics" was a legal defense to war crimes and/or homicide.

Please read the piece for yourself. Thank you.

(H/T to Glenn Greenwald at Salon.)

UPDATE: Horton has filed an update to his story, regarding official responses from two of the parties concerned.


Woman trouble

Over at Slate's Double X, Hanna Rosin is telling us not to fret over whether there will ever be a female President of the United States. She writes this in response to a book, Anne Kornblut's Notes From the Cracked Ceiling, that I haven't read and that I'm actually not likely to; I'm writing to respond to a statement Ms. Rosin makes that comes-so-close-only-to-fall-so-far. Rosin writes, "Kornblut’s reporting reinforces the idea that Hillary and Palin are not good test cases for the feminist thesis because they are so particular," only to conclude, if I understand what she's saying, that the problem is with the media reporting on women in superficial ways.

Argh, I says, and argh I means.

You know, the problem with Sarah Palin isn't that she's a woman--it's that she's a really stupid person, and analyzing the popular perception of Mrs. Palin in feminist terms isn't really that productive because it doesn't change the fact that if a man talked about Vladimir Putin invading Alaskan airspace or still had trouble coming up with things he's read since junior high school in his own memoir we'd be talking about how dumb he was (see also: Quayle, James Danforth). And as for Hillary Clinton--y'know, even liberals like me who started out adoring Hillary Clinton in the '90s have had trouble with the whole Clintonian enterprise; it's not just what might be considered a kind of feminist issue in terms of the whole "What would it mean to have Bill back in the White House?" thing (a notion that actually appealed to some women I know), but the Clintons' (plural) ties to the centrist-right Democratic Leadership Council, reservations left over from the Clintons' (plural) handling of issues during Bill Clinton's presidency (including healthcare), concerns about Hillary Clinton's honesty and integrity after statements made during her campaign were revealed to be dubious if not outrightly false in a way that would have suggested a candidate of either gender was either divorced from reality or tended towards mendacity.

The point, of course, being that part of the problem for both then-Governor Palin and then-Senator Clinton wasn't that they were being judged in sexist terms by some kind of different standard for women, but that they were judged in general terms by the same standards that are applied to men and found wanting. That's not to say there wasn't some degree of sexism, though to be fair, I think one might point out that some degree of sexism was favorable--i.e. it's abundantly clear that the McCain campaign picked Sarah Palin over better-vetted, better-known and better-qualified candidates because her uterus was considered a game-changer to balance candidate Obama's melanin count, one that would also potentially siphon disaffected "PUMA" voters away from the Democrats; meanwhile, I think it's almost certain that the possibility of electing a first female President provided an energy to Hillary Clinton's early campaign and was seen as a counterweight to liabilities inherent in the Clinton name.

It may be that this is actually a big chunk of what Ms. Rosin meant by pointing out the particularities of Clinton and Palin, and that she sort of wandered into something else (lack of media versatility when insulting women); I say that because I've done that kind of thing myself, wandering away from what I thought I was writing about. But to me, personally, I sort of wish people doing postmortems of the campaign would put the particularities or peculiarities of Clinton and Palin up front. In Palin's case, trying to wrap her up in feminist martyrdom is not merely offensive to actual feminist martyrs, it's actually dangerous because, look, Sarah Palin is a horrible, horrible person (I know, I've read her fucking book, the one where she knifes nearly everybody who's ever helped her along in the back and confirms that she's a petty, profoundly ignorant human being). And in Secretary Clinton's case--look, I hate to say it, because I would have preferred her presidency to her husband's in 1992, but that ship has sailed and sunk. I think her husband's a smart cookie and she's probably smarter, and I suspect she's more liberal than Bill not withstanding her shared ties to the DLC, but she was also instrumental in fucking-up national healthcare in the '90s and there's just a taint there, from her association with her husband.

(I hope it's not completely tied to the Clinton name: Ms. Chelsea Clinton seems to have turned out to be a pretty awesome person, and if she ever follows her parents into politics in five-to-ten years, I'd wish her luck from what little I've seen and heard from her thus far.)

Naturally, I don't expect anybody to actually stop on my account. It's very easy to look at the rejection of Palin and Clinton and see it as something ironically impersonal, the manifestation of various bigotries and national psychoses as opposed to a look at and repudiation of the persons themselves. Easier to publish a book about that, too, I'd imagine, since there are plenty of personal looks at the individuals in question that are or come off as hit pieces (and not just as "hit pieces," but sexist hit pieces--how dare I, for instance, write that Sarah Palin must be stupid because she constantly says and writes stupid things, when we all know that I am a white male and that the patriarchy has, for centuries, belittled the accomplishments and abilities of women; I am a male chauvinist pig).

But one can hope. Right?


MLK Day, 2010

>> Monday, January 18, 2010

In the past twelve months, one African-American college professor was sworn into the highest elected office in the United States Of America and another was arrested in his own home for talking back to a white cop....

A long way come, long way to go.

Take a moment to consider it's Martin Luther King Day. Thanks.


Aw, crap...

>> Sunday, January 17, 2010

...I said I'd try to come up with something about Wookies or ninjas or Wookie ninjas or something by the end of the weekend, didn't I?

Don't say I'm not a man of my word.

Unlike other ninjas, Wookie ninjas are generally not known for their stealth. Or silence. Or ability to disappear from sight instantly, like the wispy shadow of a dream with no more sound than the whisper of the wind in the leaves. Or for reliably wearing pants. On the other hand, ninjas don't necessarily rip your arms off when they lose a game of Dejarik. (I mean, okay, a regular ninja would probably still kill you if he was losing a game, but, you know, he'd probably use a throwing star or some kind of fancy martial arts. You'd still have your arms. Or at least one of them. Probably.)

Actually, the truth is that Wookies make really lousy ninjas, having none of the qualities one normally associates with the profession. But who's going to tell them that? Not me, that's for sure. Do you have any idea how many one-armed high-school guidance counselors there are on Kashyyyk? You try telling a Wookie that she doesn't have the figure to be a lingerie model or that he doesn't have the voice for a professional auctioneer. Wookie shows up in your office grunting that he wants to be a ninja when he graduates, you find him a ninja school if you have to cross the Himalayas wearing nothing but a jock strap, and you damn well better write a good recommendation letter.

This is, in case you were wondering, how Chewbacca became Han Solo's co-pilot and mechanic. I mean, honestly, do you really think an eight-foot-tall ape-dog that can't speak English and can't fit into the crawlspace between the fusion generator and the dimagnetic decoupler, who comes from a forest planet where the only article of clothing they've been able to invent is the belt despite the fact they have no pants (and they're wearing it wrong) has any business being a co-pilot/mechanic/smuggler? Of course not. But his high-school guidance counselor, Mr. Fitzjenkins, did an excellent job getting Chewie into a decent vocational school and personally typed with his one remaining arm the recommendation letter that was sent to Han Solo when Chewie applied for the job on board the Millennium Falcon.

to whom it may concern,

please forgive the lack of capitalization as i am unable to operate a shift key. i would like to take this opportunity to recommend one of my students, chewbacca francis williams, for placement in your business enterprise. chewbacca, or 'chewie' as his friends call him, but not 'francis' as mr. malcolm the shop teacher learned much to his chagrin during chewie's freshman year here, is a very hardworking student who had a perfect 4.3 gpa here at mission vao high. like all of our students except our one human student, billy palpatine, he was 'student of the year' each and every year he was here. chewie received a 4.3 grade in all of his classes, including french, of which his teacher mrs. lawton says he is an extremely proficient speaker. in addition, chewie is a very creative student, having thrilled the student body and their parents with his portrayal of polonius in william shakespeare's 'hamlet' this past year.

i believe chewie would be an excellent addition to your staff, and i beg you to hire him for the love of god please i'm begging here.

mr. timothy fitzjenkins
guidance counselor
mission vao high school
1015 padawan lane
wrrraonkaarrrrhville, kashyyk 30913
555-555-9084 ext. 416

Han Solo actually turned down an astromech droid with fifteen years' experience working on spice freighters to hire Chewbacca. Absolutely true. He had to tell the droid that even though he felt it was made for the job--which of course was literally true, the astromech droid in question having not only been manufactured for work on spice freighters but actually being sold by some licensed Corellian Engineering Corporation dealerships as an accessory for YT-1300 freighters--he just had to go with the applicant who was busy amusing himself by swinging an Ortolan around by the trunk in the landing bay.

You just don't tell a Wookie he's not qualified for a job. Not even professional ninja.


If you can help the Powers family...

UPDATE: Shawn has an update on his status at his blog, which can be found here.

Most of my readers, I think, already know this, but I thought I'd pass it along just-in-case: this weekend, LinuxJournal contributor and all-around-good-guy Shawn Powers had disaster strike--his home burned down; his family is alright, but their pets didn't make it.

I realize this is the second time in a few days that I've put out a solicitation for money, but if you're in a position to help Shawn out, his fellows at LJ have put together a contribution page that can be accessed here.

Thank you.


Nothing new under the Sunstein

>> Friday, January 15, 2010

I have to consider the possibility that I like the idea of Glenn Greenwald more than I like Glenn Greenwald. Liberal, ACLU supporter, gadfly--good stuff. It's just that every now and again he writes something that forces me to think he's lost his damn mind.

The latest would be a thing he's written about a recently-favored whipping-boy of the conspiranoiacs, Obama advisor and University Of Chicago/Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein. The cause of concern this time isn't the silly business we've heard before about Professor Sunstein's alleged desire to rewrite the Constitution or allow horses to vote or whatever, but a 2008 paper Sunstein wrote about how to deal with conspiracy theories, the social spread of misinformation apparently being a bête noire for the professor.

I would have to say at the outset that I'm not somebody who's been exactly bowled over by Professor Sunstein's intellectual output. I think I probably read something by him in when I was in law school many strange aeons ago, and it says a great deal that I have to qualify the statement that way; I mean, I know damn well, for instance, that I was forced to read some of Judge Richard Posner's "law and economics" stuff because it was provocative and disagreeable (one particularly memorable bit involved Judge Posner's use of economic theory to justify the criminalization of rape--because, you know, the fact that somebody was raped maybe isn't sufficient to justify legal action, we need to consider the economic ramifications of the fact that somebody was raped, otherwise maybe it shouldn't be illegal or as illegal to go up to somebody and, you know, rape them...)--the fact that I recognize Sunstein by name but have difficulty associating that name with a specific argument or article suggests that I didn't find anything he said either agreeable or disagreeable or even interesting.

Anyway, as with the fuss over Sunstein's whole thing about putting shorts on parakeets and taking away people's guns in order to give them to bonobo chimpanzees so long as the bonobos have appropriate hats and bicycle licenses or whatever that furor was all about, it turns out Mr. Greenwald's issues stem from taking one ill-conceived phrase from an otherwise uninteresting article and spinning out a wondrously insane scheme for global domination out of it. Sunstein, as I said, wrote a piece in 2008 addressing the causes for the rise and spread of conspiracy theories (as he and co-author Adrian Vermeule) see them, and attempts to address what, if anything, government might do to address false and dangerous conspiracy theories. Along the way, Professors Sunstein and Vermeule suggest that government could "cognitively infiltrate" conspiranoiac groups, which is an all-too-precocious way of saying that government employees, agents, or friends might go hang out in internet chatrooms and other places of discussion, identified as government spokespersons or not (the authors briefly discuss the advantages and disadvantages of identification) and throw some facts into the works to break the cycle of what the authors cutely call "crippled epistemology," i.e. some people "...know very few things, and what they know is wrong." (On a related tangent: if I'd known I could get a job in the White House by inventing a fancy eight-syllable way to say that some people are fools... damn. Where did I go wrong?)

This is probably as good a time as any to link you to the Sunstein/Vermeule article, by the way: here's where you can read an abstract and download the PDF if you're dying. No, not "dying to read it," just dying. I mean, yes, you can read it if you want to and if you're afraid the Obama Administration is brewing up a vat of brain slugs to fling into people's ears you probably deserve to read it, but it's not exactly novel or interesting; it's not, for instance Richard Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics", which is interesting and provocative whether or not you agree with his description of the cultural scene and/or the conclusions he draws from it, and is sort of the over-referenced and seminal work on modern conspiranoia. The first half of Sunstein and Vermeule's "Conspiracy Theories" sets out some unprovocative truisms about conspiracy theories, including the unamazing observations that some conspiracy theories are true and that even some that aren't true are harmless; this section is mostly distinctive for the authors' attempts to coin various clumsy phrases to describe things the reader probably already noticed about the cat lady down the street or Uncle Fred who refuses to touch metal and only drinks filtered water served in a ceramic mug. Then the second section sets out what government might do about conspiracy theories, if anything; here, again, we have a lack of profundity, actually--the proposals range from doing nothing (which Sunstein and Vermeule seem to readily dismiss mostly to avoid ennui) and the whole infiltration thing (which Sunstein and Vermeule fixate on, possibly because of a fascination with Goebbelsian information warfare, but also possibly because they own the Æon Flux box set and get excited imagining "cognitive infiltration" being performed by long-lashed, improbably-proportioned government operatives wearing latex catsuits).

There are a couple of points, I think, that have to be made about Mr. Greenwald and other bloggers getting their underwear wedged in awkward places over this. The first is that, notwithstanding Professor Sunstein's new governmental position overseeing paperwork reduction, "Conspiracy Theories" is less an advocacy paper than it is a "golly-gee-whiz there are a lot of crazy ideas out there should something be done?" paper. It raises a lot of questions, some of which it sort-of answers by clinging onto the most "interesting" idea the authors come up with, and while Mr. Greenwald and others are right to the small extent that Sunstein and Vermeule spend a fair bit of time on the "interesting idea," they seemingly miss that Sunstein and Vermeule, in typical law professor fashion, spend nearly as much time tearing the idea down as they do propping it up. Law professors tend to treat an idea with the same caution and reverence a kitten uses with regard to a mislaid piece of Christmas wrap, that is, they like swatting it around and appear gleefully surprised when it makes an unexpected crumpling sound.

The second would be that "Conspiracy Theories" goes to more-than-a-little trouble to distinguish true conspiracy theories from false theories and dangerous ones from goofs and even goes as far as acknowledging that some false theories might still be useful. This is a paper that is at least cautious enough, for example, to point out that the authors' definition of the phrase "conspiracy theory" includes not just 9/11 "truthers" but the theory that there's a globe-crossing conspiracy to manufacture toys at the North Pole to be delivered to sleeping children overnight by a fat, bearded man in red. (I'm not making that up--they discuss the Santa hypothesis.) But the authors aren't too concerned about true conspiracy theories (e.g. the theory that White House operatives conspired to break into the Democratic National Headquarters office at the Watergate in 1972, which was then covered-up by the Nixon Administration), I think taking at a given that they should be subscribed to, nor are they too concerned with false conspiracy theories which don't seem to cause much trouble one way or another.

The authors are, however, concerned with false and dangerous theories--that is, those theories which encourage acts of violence or which otherwise weaken civic institutions. And that's a perfectly legitimate concern--if somebody is on the verge of violence because they believe in a demonstrable falsehood and might be deterred by education, how on Earth is that the least bit controversial? Or suppose they're on the verge of passively doing something stupid and dangerous to large numbers of people, such as not having their children vaccinated because they believe there is a conspiracy of doctors and pharmaceutical companies to force the marketing of an unnecessary and risky snake oil? Surely everybody--including representatives of government agencies or advocates friendly to government agencies--has an obligation to tell anti-vaxxers why they're endangering not only their own children but also members of the herd. And even beliefs that don't engender violence but poison civic involvement seem like they should be challenged--"truthers" may not seem like much of a risk, but subscription to the view that the 9/11 attacks were planned by the government breeds toxic levels of cynicism and apathy; conspiranoiac interpretations of the JFK assassination seem less likely to do so now, but still engender ignorance and a naïve and unrealistic view of American history and politics.

I would have to say the only controversial thing about the suggestion that government should battle ignorance is the suggestion Sunstein and Vermeule make about transparency--that it might not always be practicable or desirable. And here, again, I do have to concede a point to the authors: suppose a government representative de-lurks in an internet chatroom used by terrorists, Christian, Muslim or otherwise--it might be completely reasonable for such a person to present facts and reasoned arguments as an antidote to falsehoods and poor logic, and yet these facts and arguments might be ignored if the representative discloses his connections or employment (and one can even imagine, not implausibly, situations in which his physical safety is then compromised). This is all Sunstein and Vermeule are really talking about. And while I'm a big fan of transparency and disclosure, and reluctant to endorse anonymity, I'm also very aware that there are times anonymity or incomplete disclosure might be appropriate or even ethically required. Making a huge honking deal of all this, at any rate, is a nonstarter.

The third and final point that Mr. Greenwald addresses incompletely is this: that what Sunstein and Vermeule propose and focus on, that is, outreach and education, isn't exactly something new or that just isn't done. Mr. Greenwald is right that unidentified government spokespersons pretending to be uninterested observers have been used as a tool of disinformation in the past; the problem is that Sunstein and Vermeule acknowledge this while taking it for granted that disinformation is a bad thing--they're discussing government employees or agents presenting true information to people who, again, "know very few things, and what they know is wrong." You know, the government already runs entire buildings into which large segments of the population who know very little and are full of misinformation are forcibly herded, under threat of legal punishment, where they are forced to sit and listen to presentations of (hopefully) true data by people who may not expressly identify themselves as government operatives--we call these buildings "public schools" and most of us don't have a huge problem with the general concept. The point is, of course, that most people take it for granted that government's proper functions include education of the populace, though people may argue about kind or degree; one might find an ultralibertarian who is opposed to public schools, but even he would probably agree that government should inform the general public of plagues, invasions and like catastrophes whenever imminent. While there's always the risk that government might abuse its power by misinforming the public (there's even controversy about this sort of thing when discussing public school curricula), Professors Sunstein and Vermeule just aren't saying anything overly original, nor, I suspect, are they saying anything that Mr. Greenwald would object to in a different context (I doubt he expects first-grade-teachers, for instance, to inform their pupils of the exact nature of their employment, hiring history, and connections within the school district before launching into a discussion of why the hypothesis that girls afflict boys with cooties is medically dubious).

There are plenty of things to criticize President Obama for without using a greasy fart of a paper to diagnose an entire regime of Orwellian machination. For that matter, there are plenty of things to criticize Cass Sunstein for without reading too much into gassy emanations; as far as I've been able to notice, Professor Sunstein is a fairly unexciting legal thinker who has created a legal reputation in much the same manner that Thomas Friedman has created a successful reputation as a journalist and pundit--by coming up with flamboyant ways to couch otherwise banal observations. Why call somebody "dumb" when you can say "epistemologically cramped" or whatever the crap he called it? That we're all doomed because Professor "Hey Look, Somebody Is Wrong On The Internet, Somebody Do Something" is now working for a subdivision of the Office Of Management And Budget to nefariously reduce paperwork just seems, I don't know, maybe just a tiny, tiny, tiny bit bugfuck crazy, or is it just me?


If you haven't already...

>> Thursday, January 14, 2010

Regular readers, I'm sure, know that I'm a bit reluctant to make money requests at Giant Midgets, so I'm a bit leery of doing this, however--

If you were interested in helping with Haitian relief efforts and able, and just haven't had the opportunity yet or weren't sure where to direct your attention, word is that Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) is short of funds and staff in Haiti right now. DWB/MSF is one of my personal favorite charities, a secular organization focused on bringing assistance to regions in which war or disaster has severely damaged or destroyed medical infrastructure. (A history of the organization can be found here, at Wikipedia, if you're curious.) They're good people, doing good work.

Donations may be made, here, at DWB/MSF's website.

Thank you, and please forgive the solicitation. I'll try to come up with something about ninjas or Wookies or Wookie ninjas by the end of the weekend, if I can. (No promises!)



Y'know, if the President Of The United States wasn't a former Con Law professor, I'd probably be more worried that the President's proposed "Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee" to be levied on banks was an unconstitutional Bill Of Attainder designed to mute administration critics by taking a popular stand against a justifiably unpopular target. But I suppose I should trust the President not to do something like that, right? Because there's no way a President of the United States would suggest something illegal or quasi-illegal to bolster sagging popularity and approval ratings, right?


But assuming that the Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee is, in fact, constitutional: this will really teach those banks a lesson by cutting into their profits--I mean, there's no way they would maintain their profit margins by passing the FCRF along to their customers in the form of raised transaction and service fees, right?



"Not until the next time..."

>> Wednesday, January 13, 2010

I expect to be a bit busy today and think it's improbable I'll write anything, so I'm pre-posting a quickie for y'all so you don't forget I exist.

Nouvelle Vague performs a song that Morrissey and Johnny Marr could have written for criminal defense lawyers everywhere--their cover of The Smiths' "Sweet And Tender Hooligan," performed live in Sweden, 2007. Enjoy.


Best. Song title. Ever.

>> Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Well, it is. And no, it's not in reference to anything in particular, I just don't have anything else to offer up.

Catherine Wheel, spacing out with "Eat My Dust You Insensitive Fuck" from 1995's Happy Days:


Late to the party

>> Monday, January 11, 2010

Why the hell didn't I get Springsteen's We Shall Overcome - The Seeger Sessions four years ago? Damn!

The Boss and the Seeger Sessions Band doing a rollicking interpretation of "John Henry":


Moral cretinism

60 Minutes talks to Senator McCain's 2008 campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, and to John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, authors of a new book on the 2008 campaign, Game Change (it's worth waiting through the obligatory ads):

Some of what's there isn't anything new--Mrs. Palin told the "Can I call you Joe?" story in Going Rogue, although she obviously didn't characterize her other deficiencies during her debate prep as the meltdown Mr. Schmidt describes. On the other hand, there are some interesting revelations, like the claim that then-Senator Hillary Clinton was so convinced she was the presumptive nominee that she had a White House transition team in place even before she was the actual Democratic nominee. (Part of me wants to point to that as an example of why people like me opposed her nomination and were happy that she lost it, though I also have to say that at least it shows a level of foresight and commitment to doing things right that seems to have been notably absent from the Republican side of the fence--Mrs. Palin was basically picked and vetted by Google? Really?!)

But the biggest and most dispiriting revelation may be that Steve Schmidt is a douchebag. That may not surprise anyone, actually, and the nature of Schmidt's douchebaggery implicates Senator John McCain as a douchebag by extension for the same reason, but still. Mr. Schmidt is very open about the fact that his role was to offer political advice, without any apparent sense of responsibility for that advice. That is, Mr. Schmidt would, in his mind, have done his job admirably well if the selection of Mrs. Palin had resulted in a win for his client, Senator McCain, even if the direct consequence of that was the election of an American Vice-President singularly unsuited in temperament, ability or education for that high a national office. I believe it was Mark Twain who observed that man is the only animal that can blush or has cause to; looking at how unashamedly Mr. Schmidt sets forth the range and bounds of his responsibility, one might wonder what species he represents. Is Homo sapiens politicus capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring with sapiens sapiens?

The irresponsibility we're discussing is monstrously appalling. They would, one presumes, have allowed her to be elected with Senator McCain if the tide of history hadn't been busily sweeping the United States' first African-American president into the White House while sweeping out the hydrogen cyanide aftertaste of the Bush Administration. Even knowing, it would appear from what Mr. Schmidt is willing to confess now, that she was an ignorant, unstable woman who, when the going got rough, curled in on herself (I don't suppose the candidacy was something she could just quit as readily as a governorship; meanwhile, try to imagine Hillary Clinton--for all her faults--reacting to pressure the way Schmidt describes Palin withdrawing after the Couric interview). At what point is it the obligation of a political operator to look at the welfare of his nation and object--whether it's to pull the unfit candidate from the race or at least to resign in protest or disgrace?

I don't want to belabor the point. Political disagreements aside, I've known Republicans of good conscience and intent, friends and family alike who genuinely have their nation's welfare at heart even if I find their means to that end disagreeable in method or effect. Steve Schmidt did those folks a disservice when he dishonored his country by allowing a man he was attempting to promote as a national leader to run with a profoundly flawed person of degraded a calibre as Mrs. Sarah Palin. My friend, Janiece Murphy, recently published blog post nominating a "'Tard Of The Year"; with all affection and respect to Janiece, her list of candidates is one short--the winner, by a knockout, must be Steve Schmidt: irresponsible douchebag, unwise advisor, a man who seems oblivious to the way in which he betrayed his country and employer to a degree that has to be labeled "moral cretinism"; the only fair objection might be that he would more properly be the prize jackass of 2008, but going through Janiece's archives, I see that she long ago closed voting on that one.

Ladies and gentlemen, Steve Schmidt.


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