Alien skies

>> Monday, January 31, 2011

This video's making the rounds, but I'll share it here because it just makes my heart go thumpity-thump watching it. Brad Goodspeed has created a video in Adobe After Effects showing what several of our solar system's planets might look like if they were orbiting the Earth at the same distance as our moon (or, perhaps, if we were orbiting them, as I imagine the barycenter of an Earth-Jupiter dynamic wouldn't be anywhere inside our little chunk of rock).


This could be the reason that I loved Star Wars more than Star Trek, when I think about it: that Lucas had the budget and know-how to do what Trek couldn't do in its original television incarnation: desert planets with several moons and multiple suns, an inhabited jungle world that was actually the moon of an enormous gas giant that hung in the sky over the trees. These were the vistas I wanted to see, still want to see, though I never will except in my mind and as rendered by artists in various media--film or computer model or paint, whatever they might be using. And watching Goodspeed's film brings that same feeling that same rush: what would a gas giant 240,000 miles (give or take) away from the Earth look like, hanging in our sky (or completely filling it, in Jupiter's case)?

All this reminded me of an old video game, Firaxis' 1999 Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri: it was a good game in its own right, but maybe my very favorite thing was actually in the rulebook, in an appendix where the game designers and their science consultant tried to convey where a habitable planet might be found in a three-star system and what such a planet's sky might look like:

There are limits on the radius at which a planet habitable to mankind might orbit a star. The brighter and hotter the star, the farther out a planet must be to be habitable; the dimmer the star, the closer a planet must be. Alpha Centauri C can have no habitable planets--any planet close enough for life-sustaining sunshine would be quickly ripped apart by gravitational forces. Both Alpha Centauri A and B could have habitable planets, if they weren’t part of a binary system.

But what effect might the two stars have on each other’s habitable planets? As it happens, very little. If a planet were within either star’s habitable zone, it would never come close enough to the other star to be materially affected by it--its orbit would be stable. Take a look at the illustration of our solar system, with the Alpha Centauri binary system superimposed on it. Mentally replace the Sun with Alpha Centauri A. Alpha Centauri A’s habitable zone does not reach much beyond the orbit of Mars, and any planet that close to Alpha Centauri A is always too far from Alpha Centauri B to be affected by it.

Now mentally replace the Sun with Alpha Centauri B. Since Alpha Centauri B is cooler than the Sun or Alpha Centauri A, its habitable zone is even closer to Alpha Centauri B. Again, Alpha Centauri A would never come close enough to perturb a habitable planet around Alpha Centauri B.

The same can not be said for planets at greater distances from either of the binaries. Neither star can have a planet with the orbital radius of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus or Neptune. In fact, once beyond the radius of Mars, the only stable orbits are those that circle both stars.

Even if neither star would perturb each other’s habitable planets, they would still be clearly visible. From a planet circling Alpha Centauri A, Alpha Centauri B would be a tiny, dazzlingly-bright yellow-orange light in the sky. It will be a tiny dot, but not quite a point, and it would be far brighter than any full moon--easily bright enough to read by. It would light up the night sides of any moons in the sky, as Earth does to the Moon’s dark side if you look carefully when the Moon is a crescent. Depending on the geometry at any given time, soon after sunset or before sunrise you night even see "double crescent" moons! Alpha Centauri C would be just barely visible at darkest night as a red
naked-eye star from either Alpha Centauri A or B.

I can't vouch for how accurate that description was or still is eleven years later, I just love trying to get my head around that star in the sky that's so bright you can read by it. Maybe that doesn't seem like much to be excited over, I don't know. To me, though, it's a wonder I can't even describe. When the interwebs were stirred by announcements that Betelgeuse might go nova soon, my first reaction was excitement over the prospect of a spectacular night sky (sadly, all the kerfluffle is "oh noes 2012 Mayan prophecies" related, and Betelgeuse's chances of blowing up remain exactly what they have been, which is the star could blow up tomorrow or any other time over the next million years, which is to say Betelgeuse might have blown up 643 years plus-or-minus up to 146 years or any time in the next million years and it would eventually come to our attention).1

So, anyway, my thanks to Mr. Goodspeed, for feeding my dreams a sight they'd want to see, for offering a view of a strange sky.

1My second reaction when I saw the stories, seriously: "Poor Ford."

The third thing that crossed my mind: "That's really going to screw up Orion, too."

Yep, I'm a geek.


The awesome is made of awesome

>> Sunday, January 30, 2011

Oh wow. Somebody made an Axe Cop live action short.

Before we get to that (sorry!), let me make sure those of you who didn't just pee your pants a little understand what we're talking about. As Axe Cop illustrator Ethan Nicolle explains at the Axe Cop's website, Axe Cop is a webcomic written by Ethan Nicolle's brother, Malachai Nicolle.

Age five.

Malachai describes the adventures of Axe Cop, a police officer who, one day, found "the perfect fireman axe" and thereby, of course, became Axe Cop. Ethan takes these narratives and illustrates them with a superb and deft hand and posts them as a webcomic.

Axe Cop is awesome in the way that only the unpolluted, purely-id-fuelled imagination of a five year old can be awesome. To read Axe Cop is to be taken back to a time in a boy's life when a Dinosaur Soldier eating an avocado can become Avocado Soldier, who shoots avocados out of his hands because, duh, he ate an avocado and that's what can happen.

And now, Peter Muehlenberg faithfully adapts Axe Cop episode 1, featuring the origin story of Axe Cop, to live action:


I would pay to see a full-length feature. I would even pay to see it in 3D. Hollywood, are you listening?

I'm not even kidding.

(H/t to IO9!)


"Did you count the months and years, or did your teardrops quickly dry?"

>> Saturday, January 29, 2011

A gorgeous, beautiful, angry, sad, proud song--The Pogues, "Thousands Are Sailing" (fan video):


I'm so confused, I'm spuddering

>> Friday, January 28, 2011

So, over at Digby's Hullabaloo, there was, um, this:

I think... I think I might need to see Sarah Palin's birth certificate. I don't know where she was really born, but it's becoming pretty clear to me that English isn't her native tongue. Also, this B.S. in Communications she supposedly has from the University Of Idaho? That should have been the tell, shouldn't it? I mean, B.S. in Communications--if that isn't some kind of none-too-subtle joke on the part of Palin's foreign puppetmasters, well... then the alternative is that the University Of Idaho will give any inarticulate jerk a bachelor's degree in Communications, I guess.

Everybody else, I'm sure, will point out how clueless and lost Palin appears to be about what Obama actually meant when he said "Sputnik moment" and her obvious ignorance of 20th Century history. (And her confusion over the difference between "aspire" and "inspire." Communications, they say? Really? Really, really?) Anyway, if you'd like, you can go to the Digby piece I linked to in the first line for that sort of thing. My thing, honestly, was to wonder what in the Nine Hells Palin was talking about when she started babbling about "Spudnut moments", as I'd never even heard of this store Richland, Washington, that apparently is supposed to be the key to solving all of America's problems.

So, of course I went to the Internet, and maybe you already know what I found, since Giant Midgets readers are, as a rule, cosmopolitan sophisticates: the spudnut is apparently some kind of potato flour doughnut from the 1940s. I can only imagine. No, actually, I can't: as an avid fan of the succulent, lard-filled, yeasty and sugar-encrusted Krispy Kreme doughnut, I have no idea what a potato flour doughnut might taste like; I can't even think of a good reason you'd do that to a doughnut, though the fact the spudnut is a German recipe might go a long way towards explaining something. I shouldn't knock it, I know: spudnuts might be very, very tasty, and the fact that people were apparently willing to quixotically pursue spudnuts across North America for decades must say something about their addictive qualities. (Wikipedia, in addition to providing some historical context for the spudnut craze, claims there were also 170 Spudnut Shops in Japan in 1975, which tells us nothing. The Japanese have had 80 kinds of KitKat bar, including Earl Grey, Camembert and grilled corn. Yes, we're talking about candy bars. Yes, "grilled corn" is a candy bar flavor in Japan. No, I don't think that's terribly rational. Yes, that was the whole point.)

The Spudnut Shop Palin refers to is, as I mentioned, the one in Richland, Washington, and has been open at various locations in Richland since 1948, although the parent company the store originally franchised from has been out of business since the '70s or '80s (the previously-linked Wikipedia article confusingly says, "By the 1980s, however, the parent company closed...," leaving some ambiguity as to whether they closed in the '80s or before the '80s; huh). They seem nice enough from their website, which promises, "Before you know it, we'll be greeting you by your first name, and the waitress will be serving up your favorite Spudnut before you even order it." It indeed says something about their work ethic and reputation that they have, in fact, been around since 1948.

But I do have to wonder if Palin is thinking about the larger context of the Spudnut Shops story, as opposed to just considering this one, single store. I raise the question only because of the fact that while more than thirty Spudnut Shops endure (Wikipedia says 35, this website says 37), overall the Spudnut Shops story is the story of a franchise that ultimately failed, going out of business and leaving, out of some hundreds of storefronts (170 in Japan, alone!), a mere three dozen outlets apparently selling their own individual versions of the spudnut. The original recipe for the spudnut seems to have been lost for decades and then recovered, but the original glory of the spudnut, the height of the spudnut's spread and influence, it appears, began in World War II and ended during the Cold War.


One straining for a metaphor might suggest that a "national Spudnut moment" would be a national moment in which our larger organization--our Spudnut Stores parent company--goes belly-up out of business and our founding document--our spudnut original recipe, if you will--is lost for a generation. Lone, individual Spudnut Stores scattered here and there struggle on, some of them thriving while others go out of business and are torn down or replaced by dry cleaners, fast-food joints, florists and ethnic bistros; few of these increasingly isolated survivors, if any, still use the original ingredients and instructions for greatness. Also, lots of people haven't even heard of the stores and their major product is a fried zero.

Okay, so maybe that's a reach. Could be. But reading up on the history of Spudnut Stores and thinking about Ms. Palin's... whatever you want to call that...; honestly, I couldn't help imagining a nation's "spudnut moment" as being a postapocalyptic disaster, small city-states with their own fragmentary homebrew versions of a long-lost Constitution, facing the twilight. As a friend said when I told him about all of this, "Let's have a huge success before spiraling down into a shadow of our former glory." Which probably isn't fair to the small business Ms. Palin inarticulately dragged into the national spotlight, but, I mean, it's right there, you know?

Can a fried potato pastry carry the load of being a new symbol for something something small business patriotism families something hooray America? Should it? Do we even want to know? What I do know is that Ms. Palin has provoked a feeling deep within me, a stirring, a passion, a hunger. A hunger for doughnuts.

Mmmm... doughnuts.


Nine percent odds of survival? That's almost a one-in-ten chance, right?

>> Thursday, January 27, 2011

As long as I'm the only one who can pop the top of a can of catfood, I retain a slight advantage....

Is your cat plotting to kill you?

(H/t to Lili!)



(I assume everybody knows how to play Mad Libs™?)

New research says: [YES/NO/MAYBE]

There are a lot of ways human beings have [COMMON ACTIVITY] over the ages, even from the earliest days when humans were little more than [ANIMAL, plural].

But modern technology has brought many changes, and things that may have seemed ordinary or rare long ago are now commonplace and occur on a daily basis. Indeed, technology has advanced much more rapidly than we have, and humans today must [VERB] in ways our ancient ancestors couldn't possibly have [VERB, past tense].

And so [PROFESSIONAL, plural] working at the University of [PLACE] were curious to learn whether there might be any unanticipated effects. And they were shocked and discouraged to discover that the rapidity with which we [VERB] is indeed having unanticipated effects on our [NOUN, plural].

Investigators began by taking a [ADJECTIVE] [NOUN] and placing it inside a [TYPE OF CONTAINER] with a [NOUN] and [NUMBER] [NOUN, plural]. They were curious as to what, if anything, might happen. Within [UNIT OF TIME, plural], their observations bore [SOMETHING YOU EAT]: the test subject became very [BAD THING] and eventually [VERB, past tense].

But the researchers weren't sure if this initial experiment was a mere fluke, a statistical [NOUN], or just the tip of the [NOUN]. They proceeded, then, to perform the same experiment upon [NOUN, plural], [TYPE OF ANIMAL, plural] and a variety of [GROUP OF PEOPLE] volunteers, and in every instance they observed the same results until they ran out of [NOUN, plural] and the experimental sequence was terminated.

The conclusion, however, was distressing: the experimental situation, although unique and unusual and in fact nonexistent outside a controlled laboratory setting, was directly analogous to [COMMON MODERN ACTIVITY].

Skeptics will point out, of course, that there are obvious differences between the two, but we shouldn't be so [ADJECTIVE] as to [VERB] the results. There are differences, to be sure, but there are also notable similarities, such as the fact that both situations involve [NOUN, plural]. There are also the similar ways in which those in the real world and those in the laboratory setting choose to [VERB] most of the time, not including the occasions they don't.

Researchers have a number of explanations for why we respond in the way we do to these situations. One theory, popular with evolutionary psychologists, is that we learned to [VERB] when we were primitive hominids, unless we didn't (since hominids who learned to [VERB] instead clearly would have a reproductive advantage except in certain situations in which their behavior was disadvantageous). Another possibility is that our cells contain [NOUN, plural] which function in much the same way a [NOUN] does at a [SPORTING EVENT]. Some researchers also offer an analogy based on the movie, [MOVIE], comparing our biochemical response to the main character's memorable habit of [VERB, progressive] whenever he sees a [NOUN].

However, the jury is still out. [PROFESSION, plural] at [PLACE] College, [COUNTRY], have attempted to replicate the earlier results with ambiguous results. And some critics have noted that the population sizes used in the original sample are far too [ADJECTIVE, size] to generalize from.

So, should you take the next logical step, and completely ban [NOUN, plural] from your home and smother your children with a [NOUN] if you catch them [VERB, progressive] the [NOUN]?

The answer is [YES/NO/MAYBE]. The truth is that it is far too early to tell, and causing you to panic seemed like a good idea when I started this blog post, but now that I see the reflections of burning houses in the streets, hear the distant sirens and the sounds of the terrified mob [VERB, progressive] in the streets, destroying every sad [NOUN] they come across, I'm having second thoughts. On the other hand, while I don't strictly have a deadline nor do I get paid for this rubbish, it is fun to pretend that I have to hand it in to a senior editor who will quickly skim it and hand it back with a suggestion that it needs more [NOUN, plural].


Video of the day: worm on a hook edition

>> Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I'm not a big Chris Matthews fan--matter of fact, he's kind of douchey--but he has his moments. And this is one of them (worth the whole nine minutes):

I agree that this is worse than what Palin does. I don't know if Bachmann is motivated by ignorance or malice or some toxic blend of the two, but this is the kind of bullshit historic revisionism you usually hear from white power types and Confederacy apologists who are trying to marginalize contemporary civil rights issues by rewriting American history to say that slavery was a brief aberration and not the great sin of the Founders that culminated in the bloodiest war in American history. No, I'm not accusing Bachmann of being a racist--I have no idea. The problem is that she's parroting an argument used by a segment of American racists. What motivates her? I've no idea. Hanlon's Razor tells us not to ascribe malice where stupidity is a sufficient explanation, but is that an excuse for anything?

Sal Russo squirms and tries to change the subject, repeatedly, and tries unsuccessfully to go on the offensive by accusing Matthews of doing what Russo's trying to do. Matthews says Russo's smarter than that--he's certainly smart enough to cringe and dodge, that's for sure--but wouldn't a truly smart person cut Bachmann loose before she drags him down with her, which is what's happening in this clip, basically?

At some point, the jaw drops, words fail to express, there's little else to be said. I didn't get a chance to see Bachmann's actual surrebuttal or whatever you'd like to call it (properly speaking, a surrebuttal to the Republicans' response to the President's State Of The Union Address--which I thought was pretty good, by the way--would be a Democratic rebuttal to the rebuttal; I guess the teabaggers' insistence on a separate response after the proper response is supposed to show they're on nobody's side, or something), so I don't know how that went. There's talk that Bachmann might run for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2012, so one supposes that her statements on law and history and race might deserve slightly more scrutiny than the ramblings of a bag lady parking her grocery cart beneath a highway overpass. But what do you make of statements that are so far and fundamentally wrong that they can't really even be responded to? And, unfortunately, it's not like we're talking about a slip of the tongue: had Bachmann said the American Civil War began in 1961, or that Apollo 13 made the first moon landing, or that Andrew Johnson fought at the Battle Of New Orleans, it might be worth a short chuckle but certainly not worth an onslaught--such statements would obviously be slips of the tongue, especially if they were caught and not repeated.1 But Bachmann goes on and on and on about how everybody came to America and did just fine and it didn't matter where you were from and the Founding Fathers worked tirelessly to end slavery, ad nauseum.

It's bloody amazing. And people lap up Bachmann's nonsense like milk, do they? That's a little terrifying, actually.

UPDATE, 2011-01-26, 10:36 AM EST:So I just found time to watch Bachmann's speech on CNN. The most obvious observation is that I can only hope there was actually another camera for the Tea Party Express feed on the set, located in the direction Rep. Bachmann kept looking and talking at, and that CNN was being dissed by having to locate their camera off to one side. Because otherwise, that was the worst use of a teleprompter I've seen since the last time I watched Saturday Night Live.

As for substance, certainly Phiala's link in the comments, below is worth a look. But the really odd/amusing thing about the substance of Bachmann's rebuttal is the way it seemed to be a response to some other State Of The Union address the President was expected to give, but didn't, directed to an audience that presumably didn't listen to the SOTU but bothered to tune into the Tea Party Express website. (I don't know how many of them actually saw anything: part of the reason I missed Bachmann's performance last night is that I tried to visit the TPE site hosting it, only to discover the teabaggers hadn't provided enough bandwidth and there was a "too many streams" error.) F'r'instance, Bachmann says the President should support medical malpractice reform, which is one of the bones Obama threw to the right during the speech he actually gave. Similarly, he also talked about an energy policy to reduce dependence on foreign oil; doubtless, Bachmann meant the President should support drilling for domestic fossil fuels, but if so, she might have been clear unless all she wanted to do was codetalk to her base (anticipating a comment: yes, I know--that was exactly all she wanted to do).

For that matter, it seems the President neatly anticipated the teabag crowd's love for talk of American exceptionalism, though he happily framed it in terms of government working with industry and in terms of American ingenuity, as opposed to Bachmann's framing it in terms of the Founding Fathers being magical elves and Iwo Jima (which, if you go back to the transcript at CNN's site, has to rank as one of the whiplashiest non sequiturs in recent political memory). Speaking of which, I thought the President's talk about public-private cooperation and American ingenuity was one of the most effective parts of the SOTU address last night. One of the oddest things (not really) in the far-right's worldview is the idea that every great American achievement came out of the private sector, and then they mention things like the Internet, which everybody knows evolved from ARPANET. Along the same lines, the President mentioned the space program quite a bit in the context of America facing a "Sputnik moment," and surely everybody knows the space program is a massive government program that subcontracts component manufacturing to private industry, a fine example of cooperation if you want to call it that.

One could go on, but I'll leave it at that.

Anyway, Michelle Bachmann may be the strangest public official to crawl out of the darkness in my lifetime. Can't say I'd be sad to see her crawl back into the cave or tangle of tree roots she emerged from.

1For instance, in last nights State Of The Union address the President initially said relief workers assisting the trapped Chilean miners last year worked three-and-four hour days before catching himself and correcting himself to say three-and-four days without rest; it was an obvious slip of the tongue and, sadly, not as funny as President Bush's, "putting food on your family" gaffe et al.; point is, such things happen, to some speakers more frequently than others (see also: Joe Biden).



>> Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Because I somehow wound up talking about Winona Ryder all day and don't actually have a blog post for today: Drop Nineteens, "Winona":


"It's just a step to the right..."

>> Monday, January 24, 2011

See, this is what's awesome about living in the future. You go mucking around the Internet looking for other stuff and find Richard O'Brien doing the Time Warp, again, but this time on an acoustic guitar.

Though, granted, the song is missing something without a spoken bridge performed by Charles Gray (minus a neck)....


"I am a paleontologist..."

>> Sunday, January 23, 2011

My favorite nonfiction writer is the late Stephen Jay Gould.

He was a paleontologist.

Maybe I should have been a paleontologist.

Following up yesterday's post, here's some more TMBG.

Aw, hell. I can't resist. Bonus track. TMBG's second cover version of Hy Zaret's "The Sun Is A Mass Of Incandescent Gas" from Here Comes Science. Odd trivia: turns out Zaret wrote the lyrics for "Unchained Melody" and was the one who translated "The Partisan" into English (made famous by Leonard Cohen).

Anyway, the sun is soooooo hot....


I ain't goin' to work an' you can't make me

>> Saturday, January 22, 2011

On Saturday, I never go to work.

Because that's the kind of weekend this needs to be: They Might Be Giants, "Seven Days of the Week (I Never Go to Work)":

Play hard this weekend, eh?


Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne, "Racing In The Street"

>> Friday, January 21, 2011

Because I read this review yesterday and thought this was interesting:

Springsteen was moving away from kids like the lovers in "Because the Night," who want escape – the heroes of standard rock’n’roll politics, even in punk. He turned towards the viewpoints of people like his parents – his father went deaf (symbolically enough) working on a factory floor – or those even more damaged and hopeless. It wasn’t the guitar sound or the shredded larynx that made Darkness [On The Edge Of Town] seem almost more punk than punk. Its commitment to reality came with a bitter willfulness that was bigger than nihilistic escapism, the way Hank Williams' does (another new discovery for Bruce at the time).

Like his earlier work, though, and in fidelity to rock, it still sought redemption in love. When Bruce had two versions of “Racing in the Street,” one just about the two drag-racing buddies and another that adds a painful love story, he asked a longtime female fan as well as Steve Van Zandt which one they liked better. They both said, “The one with the girl.” Bruce was surprised Van Zandt said so and asked why. "Because that’s how life is: You’ve got a friend, the girl comes along, then you don’t have that friend any more."

The whole review is really worth a read, it's a nice piece of rock criticism. Anyway, because of that, I went browsing YouTube, sort of looking for something else, actually, and found this: Bruce, Jackson Browne, the E Street Band and a full arena, "Racing In The Street, " East Rutherford, NJ, October 13th, 2004:


An open letter to Jackson and Love Ovie

>> Thursday, January 20, 2011

My Proposal To You And For You Only !!!‏

Jackson Ovie 7:21 AM

From: Jackson Ovie (
Sent: Thu 1/20/11 7:21 AM

My Proposal

I would love for you to help me and my younger sister; we are looking a God-fearing person. Let me introduce myself to you. My name is Jackson Ovie and my younger sister Love ovie from Liberia, my consignment containing $45 million dollars is in the United States. The consignment was to be delivering to Mr.kelly smith but we lost him.

The consignments are presently in States. The consignment gets to States through the help of Dr.Dilbert Andy. He got to the States and clear the consignment from the Airport, he called Mr. Kelly Smith to give him the description to is house for the delivery, but his house maid answered the call and told Dr.Dilbert Andy, Mr. Kelly Smith hard a cancer (Leukemia) which lead to his death.

Please I and my sister seek for your assistant; I want you to stand as our God parent / beneficiary to retrieve the consignment from the diplomat. Please when you call the diplomat you will tell him that you are calling in respect of Jackson Ovie and her sister consignment that is in States. Let him know that you have discussed with me immediately.

Please, contact the Diplomat on time and let me know through mail.

Thanks and God bless you.

Jackson Ovie and Love Ovie.

Dear Jackson and/or Love Ovie:

Thank you for your missive. I am sorry to hear about your consignment of $45,000,000 USD being mislaid due to the tragic death of Mr. Kelly Smith from his cancer.

Unfortunately and regrettably, in reviewing your e-mail, I have discovered that it contains certain deficiencies which will make it difficult for me to assist you in these matters. Indeed, your e-mail contains absolutely no contact information whatsoever other than the e-mail account you sent your message from! It certainly doesn't give me any contact information for the diplomat you wish me to consult with; I'm not sure if Dr. Dilbert Andy is the name of the diplomat or a third-party intermediary, and in either case there's no address or phone number for him. Just as crucially, your request doesn't include any information I could present to Dr. Andy or another party to the transaction, nor does it include a mailing address for me to use to contact you after I've spoken to the diplomat (or Dr. Andy, if he's not the diplomat). Hence, I am forced to respond by way of this open letter, and to humbly request your:

1) Full names
2) Address
3) Direct Phone/Fax:
4) Company Name:
5) Profession:
6) Age:
7) Marital Status:
8) PIN numbers:
9) Bank account/routing numbers:

I also must respectfully request that you have no other contact with any other person in these matters and keep them confidential from this point forward. I have been informed by reliable sources that there are individuals in my country who would try to mislead you or cheat you. They are not authorized to deal with you and are not looking out for your best interests.

I will, of course, also need your confirmable bank draft for $150.00 USD to cover any initial outlays, payments to appropriate local officials, basic nonrecoverable fees, licenses, clearances, etc. I realize that this may be an inconvenience or difficult for you, but you should be aware that the $150.00 USD confrirmable bank draft does not actually cover full costs and fees in this delicate matter and I am already fronting you a major portion of the fees and charges in your matter. I would be prepared to front you the entire sum of costs and fees, however my agents in this matter will expect to see signs of good faith on your part and the confirmable bank draft for $150.00 will be a small tender of good faith when I approach those who will be in a position to help me negotiate custody of your consignment from Dr. Andy and/or other parties.

I will also reassure you that nothing about this transaction is illegal. I must caution you, however, that efforts to negotiate with someone other than a trustworthy party by myself could be seen by my government as a violation of anti-terrorist and/or money laundering statutes, and that I have been assured personally by Mr. Robert S. Mueller III, Director of the Federal Bureau Of Investigation, that the Anti-Monetary Fraud Division is seriously investigating consignments such as yours to make sure that there is no violation of American laws. Please remember: I am to be your only proper contact in future transactions in order to avoid an ugly circumstance.

Thank you very much for your anticipated cooperation in advance in this matter, as I urgently await your response.

R. Eric VanNewkirk,
Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets


Or maybe we'd watch Escape From New York, I mean, he's the President, so he'd get to pick...

>> Wednesday, January 19, 2011

I've already shared this on Facebook and Twitter, but it deserves a place on the blog: I was probably going to vote for Obama in 2012, but this image may have sealed the deal:

Please note, the man is at the register, he has cash in hand, and you know the expression on his face is because he's looking at the back cover, saying to himself, "Man, fuck Hayden Christensen, no way that whiner becomes Darth Vader, but I gotta have this for the shelf," but he can't say anything like that because he's the President of the United States Of America and if he says something like that it'll be front page news: "President Critical Of Hollywood" or something like that.

I'm probably being a tad hypocritical here, insofar as I think voting for a President because he's "just like you" is a pretty stupid reason to vote for somebody. And I should admit I kid--when I vote for Obama, it'll be because he's done a lot of things I agree with, even if he's disappointed me so many times. But I will also confess: the fact that he's a lawyer who thinks Marvel Conan comics are awesome does not hurt in the slightest. I mean, this guy may be the first President in my lifetime to whom I might be able to say, if I ever met him, "Roy Thomas did some really sweet stuff, didn't he?" And the President would be, like, "Hell yeah," and then we'd have beers and eat wings and watch Empire Strikes Back.

Okay, maybe not, but if we're going talk about relating to and identifying with a public figure: yeah, Obama's my President in a way none of those other guys were, and yeah, I dig it.

(Photo of President Obama in an Iowa bookstore last year:
AP/Charles Dharapak, via Yahoo News.)


The guns of January

>> Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ten days ago, a guy walks up to his Congresswoman's local meet-and-greet and he shoots her in the head, and he shoots nineteen more people, and six of them die. And then today, three people get shot up in a high school in L.A. Only in America. No, seriously, only in America, because the only other places I can think of with as many people getting shot in the streets are places where they don't have high schools and/or local politicians are thuggish warlords whose idea of a public appearance is roaring down a street in their armed personnel characters.

But don't fret, this isn't a call for gun control. Or gun restrictions. Or making it harder for mentally ill people to get guns. Or making it harder for little kids to get guns. Or restricting the availability of magazines for firearms (not "clips", I was recently corrected) that hold more bullets than anyone could ever use for self-defense unless they were in the midst of some Georgesque (Miller or Romero, take your pick) future. This isn't a call for anything approaching sanity, because Tuscon brought me to a stunning realization about gun control issues:

I don't care anymore.

That's not quite right. But it's close. Let me put it another way that might be more accurate:

My side lost. I'm over it.

I've never favored an outright ban on firearms. I have too many family members and friends who hunt, and some of them have needed to hunt to survive, really. And there's nothing quite as educational as seeing how a historic firearm was used; seeing how a gun was loaded and operated during, say, the American Civil War, provides some real insight into why battles went the way they did and what they must have been like for the participants.

But my honest opinion is that owning a gun for self defense is pretty fucking stupid. There, I said it. I'm sorry, but that is how I feel about it, and maybe you didn't want to know my opinion or you still don't care, but that's how it is.

And then there are "sporting" uses for firearms, which is fine, I don't have a problem with someone going down to the range and squeezing off a few hundred rounds or whatever, but it still remains a little puzzling as to why someone who wants to do that needs "cop killer" bullets or extra-capacity magazines or an assault rifle or whatever. That is, the National Rifle Association takes the position that there's no such thing as a reasonable restriction on what kind of firearms somebody might own, frequently followed by contentions that if someone wants to go skeet shooting with their M61 Vulcan firing depleted uranium armor-piercing rounds, by God, that's what being an American is all about. Which, I'm sorry, I think is pretty stupid. But what do I know, I'm one of those latte-sipping, bleeding heart city-slickers.

Which means--the "city slicker" part, I mean, not the whole effete pinko commie gun-banning commie part of it--that most of the people in my neighborhood walking the streets with guns probably aren't carrying for sport or game, but so they can put it in someone's face and demand their wallet. But, you know, again, we city people aren't actually Americans or whatever, so forget it.

Look, a gun is a tool that was designed to kill living creatures. Some of those tools were designed very specifically to kill human beings, and some of them were designed to kill other animals, but a gun is a killing device. Unlike a car or a pencil. And a gun is a very well-made and efficient killing device, one that requires minimal skill to be effective (it can kill very easily by accident, and many do so each year), which actually sets guns apart from other killing machines like the longbow or the broadsword, which require quite a lot of physical effort and perhaps even some level of skill or training; yes, yes, I know that guns have recoil and if you want to use one well, you should practice, but the gun is the original point-and-click killing device. If you want to kill someone with a bow, you have to pull the string, and hold it, and take aim, and adjust for environmental conditions, and--have you ever done this? It's hard. Killing someone with a gun is so easy an eight-year-old can do it.

I point this out because sane societies regulate other lethal items, even items whose primary purpose isn't lethal at all. Your car, if you have one, may be the most-regulated personal possession you have: it was required to meet federal environmental and safety regulations before it even left the factory floor, is inspected every year to see that it still meets various state requirements, and your privilege to operate it is dependent not only on your age but on your physical fitness to do so--most, if not all, states will restrict your driving based on your vision or susceptibility to seizures. And the state can detain you, impose civil and/or criminal penalties on you, even incarcerate you if you drive around with a taillight out or ragingly drunk or commit some other violation, major or otherwise. Guns, not so much, because you don't have a Constitutional right to drive.

Nor a Constitutional right to own radioactive materials, rat poison, fireworks, or over-the-counter cough medication. Or any number of things, some of which are reasonably banned or unreasonably restricted. (Making it harder to buy cough syrup will eradicate meth labs? Really? Let me know how that works out for you.)

But last year, the United States Supreme Court curiously interpreted the Second Amendment to protect an individual right to gun ownership, not a state's right to maintain a militia. Being someone who isn't a strict constructionist and who believes in a flexible, living Constitution, I can accept that a Supreme Court Justice can read such a right to gun ownership into the Constitution even though the Second Amendment pretty clearly talks about well-ordered state militias and was written in an era when the subject of whether or not the United States should have a professional standing army was a matter of fierce debate. (Related: several of our Founding Fathers--including Jefferson and Madison--would have looked at our professional, volunteer Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines and seen their mere existence as being de facto evidence that the United States had devolved into tyranny.) No, I'm one of those "penumbra of rights" liberals, which is why I'm a little boggled that Antonin "Strict Constructionist" Scalia is the one who wrote the five-four opinion stating that the text of the Second Amendment means lots of stuff the Second Amendment doesn't say.

But here's where I'm different from most conservative pundits: I respect our laws and traditions. The United States Supreme Court says gun control is unconstitutional, well... well, I think that's pretty fucking stupid, actually. But that's the law. Until the Court revisits the subject and reverses itself, which I don't really expect them to during my lifetime, that's the law of the land and I bow down to its authority. Dumb or not, that's all she wrote.

The other gun thing that happened this year, you may have seen, was that a jury acquitted the guy who made it possible for that eight-year-old I mentioned earlier to shoot himself. I don't suppose it would be wise for me to speculate as to their reasoning; maybe the Commonwealth just didn't make their case beyond a reasonable doubt. But in my heart it's hard not to look at that case in much the same way I look at last year's Supreme Court decision: well, there it is, then. That's the kind of country we live in. Oh well. I guess we're unstoppable.

Gun control is a dead issue. Like I said, my side lost. I hope I don't sound bitter over it; I mean, okay, I guess I probably can't help being a little bitter. If I say that now I just hope they make gun ownership even easier so we can all just shoot each other and get it over with, already, well--I hope it doesn't sound mean-spirited.

And this certainly isn't meant to disparage my friends and family who own guns lawfully, and use them safely, and even have good reasons to own and use them. There are things that need to be killed, or at least ought to be, and I can accept that.

But if the consequence of deregulating guns for the sake of Constitutional freedom is that kids and judges die, some by their own hands and some by the hands of maniacs, well, y'know, I guess I just need to take it in stride, right? No sense in getting angry about it, because (a) if it's a bad thing, it's not going to change (and give me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to tell the shit apart, right?), and (b) it's not really a bad thing. I mean, what's more important, that Jared Loughner murdered a nine-year-old girl or that nothing prevented a crazy guy from getting an extra-capacity magazine at Wal-Mart or wherever the hell he bought it from? In the big picture, there will be more nine-year-old girls, but once a God-given right is infringed upon, it's hard to wrest back from the tyrants we choose to lead us.

So, it's cool. I'm not expecting nor asking for anybody to do anything reasonable about firearms. Twenty... hell, ten, maybe even five years ago, I'm sure I would have pulled my hair and gnashed my teeth over it. But The People have spoken, directly and indirectly, too, through their democratic institutions. Given a choice between making it harder for an eight-year-old to blow the top of his head off and making sure that every yokel in the country has the pleasure of firing a submachinegun at least once in his life, the American majority has expressed a preference time and time again. More guns and more bullets equals more freedom, and anything less than unrestricted access to deadly force is the lace touch of tyranny trying to get into our pants to grab us by the short hairs.

Well, okay. No sense in me preaching or getting mad about it. Like the man said, give the people what they want.



Martin Luther King Day, 2011

>> Monday, January 17, 2011

I've posted this before, but I have nothing more profound to add to this year's MLK day. Dr. King:


A sad Peter Gabriel double shot

>> Sunday, January 16, 2011

Writing about Devo yesterday, I found myself thinking about another song: Peter Gabriel's rending "Mother Of Violence."

Maybe that's related to another Peter Gabriel song that's been on my mind since last weekend, "Family Snapshot":

Tomorrow we remember the life of another murder victim, don't we? Mm. Maybe all times are dark times and we just try to hang onto the glimmers of bright that seep through the cracks in the walls. Sorry--maybe that was more of a downer than I meant for it to be.

We pull through because what's the alternative, I guess I'm trying to say. And sometimes the songs give us something to anchor the ropes we cling to while we try to find those lights. Or something.


"Uncontrollable Urge"

>> Saturday, January 15, 2011

I can't shake the suspicion that a lot of people think of Devo as '80s kitsch, and why not? I mean, the biggest hit they had, really, was a song about overcoming your issues that was easily confused for a weird song about sadomasochism--"Whip It." And they wore flowerpots on their heads, which is understandably hard to take seriously.

What a lot of people don't get, maybe, is that the single moment that led to the formation of Devo was an event that occurred when the guys in the band were in college in the early 1970s: specifically, Devo formed--in spirit, at least--on May 4, 1970, before the guys even put together a band. Here's founding member Jerry Casale:

Whatever I would say, would probably not all touch upon the significance or gravity of the situation at this point of time. It may sound trite or glib. All I can tell you is that it completely and utterly changed my life. I was white hippie boy and than I saw exit wounds from M1 rifles out of the backs of two people I knew. Two of the four people who were killed, Jeffrey Miller and Allison Krause, were my friends. We were all running our asses off from these motherfuckers. It was total utter bullshit. Live ammunition and gasmasks–none of us knew, none of us could have imagined. They shot into a crowd that was running. I sopped being a hippie and I started to develop the idea of devolution. I got real, real pissed off.

What's left after something like that, except to go a little crazy, to take it as proven that humanity is on the downslope and whatever poor pinnacle human civilization has to show for itself is a hundred miles behind you? What's left but to go a little crazy and start making angry, minimalist music about the absurdity and horror of modernity while wearing a flowerpot and a ragged painter's coveralls?

Of course that was forty years ago, right, and the guys have since become--and I mean no criticism here--establishment musicians. They write film scores and TV themes and music for advertisements, and it's wonderful, eccentric stuff. Mark Mothersbaugh's stuff is just fabulous and so's the stuff the other members of the band put out on their own or in the various collective combinations that Devo's evolved into. They've earned what they've got, and kudos to them. The question isn't about that, the question is whether they were right in the first place? We've limped on, but was the human race run out nearly half a century ago or are we still in some kind of running to achieve whatever potential we have, albeit hanging on by threads?

I dunno. I guess what I do know is this is a fucking great song. "Uncontrollable Urge":


A quick pimp post

>> Friday, January 14, 2011

My friend Jessica just launched a blog to discuss art and promote her own work, her own work being awesome and available for purchase. Also, half her entries are about the cutest dog in the world, though I suspect that ratio may change as further updates appear.

Why are you still here, go look at her blog! Now!


Though as cold as it is 'round here, I might stay home and let you do it another night...

The Minus 5, "Tonight, You're Buying Me A Drink, Bub":


Early 1966

>> Thursday, January 13, 2011

There's been something I've been meaning to ask my parents, and I'll throw it open here to anybody who was a teenager or adult in the 1960s. In a way it's kind of a hypothetical question, if you want to call it a question, and in a way it isn't.

Let me paint a picture, if you will. It's from a few years before I was born, so my information is secondhand and maybe it could stand to be corrected here and there; okay, so I was a history major in college and a big chunk of my focus was on the foreign policy of the era, but that was a long time ago: anyway, here we go--

Imagine it's early 1966, two years into Lyndon Johnson's first term as an elected President. He's had a good run so far: in 1964, he got Congress to pass the most important piece of liberal legislation since the New Deal, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and set the ground for massive reforms of the economy and healthcare--Medicare/Medicaid, Head Start, and the opening salvos of what would become the Great Society and War On Poverty. The other big thing that happened in 1964 was the Presidential election, in which he slaughtered Barry Goldwater (Goldwater managed to carry six states, including his home state of Arizona), leaving the Republican Party effectively leaderless.

And someone comes up to you, in early 1966, and says: "In, oh, let's say the next eighteen months give-or-take, Johnson's credibility is going to be completely shot. The brush war in Vietnam is going to destroy his administration, and he's going to be such damaged goods politically and so devastated personally by it, he's not even going to run for office in 1968. And the Democrats are going to undergo a complete meltdown. There are going to be riots at the Democratic National Convention, protests in the streets, and just when it looks like the Democrats are going to finally pull it together behind a possible dream candidate, that guy is going to get murdered in a hotel kitchen, of all places, and the whole election will pretty much be in the tubes for the Democrats at that point, if it wasn't already, and the Republicans are going to take the White House.

And what I'm wondering (I guess this is the question, or part of it) is if you're going to say, early in 1966, "Okay, ha-ha, that's stupid, but I'll bite: who are the Republicans going to find, they have nobody, the only guy they could come up with two years ago was Goldwater and thanks to LBJ, everybody thinks he's a psycho. Who are the Republicans going to pull out of their asses in '68?"

And your interlocutor says, "Richard Nixon is going to be the next President of the United States."

And I guess this is the second part of the question: are you going to laugh your ass off? Are you going to say, "Nixon? 'You won't have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore,' that guy? The 'Checkers speech' guy? What's he been doing lately, working for Pepsi or something, isn't it?"

And the person you're talking to says, "Pepsi is one of his firm's clients, yes, but he's also written a couple of books and some magazine articles and giving speeches."

And are you going to ask why Nixon, who has no credibility and is disliked and mistrusted by much of his own party, who can't seem to open his mouth without pissing people off, why is he going to come out of the hole he crawled into after embarrassing himself in the 1962 California governor's race when he's making all that money as a consultant, getting those book royalties, cashing in on his earlier time in the national spotlight? Nixon, why the hell would anybody vote for Richard Nixon? Are you going to point out that if he runs, he's going to take a pay cut just to have all this garbage from his past come up again, the charges of corruption and connections to McCarthyism, give up the money just so he can fend off attacks from within his own party before the Democrats even get to him?

And anyway, are you really going to believe that LBJ isn't going to run again and that LBJ isn't going to crush whomever the Republicans run--and there's no way it'll be Nixon? 1966, remember? There are hints of the credibility gap, for sure, but it isn't a chasm, not yet.

I guess I might have said "questions," not "question," but you get the idea, right?

And I guess maybe you can figure out why I keep thinking about this. There's a certain polarizing political figure on the right, and everybody keeps saying she won't run because she's so divisive in her party, and everybody keeps saying her political career is effectively over, and everybody keeps asking why she'd give up the money she's earning as a private citizen, and everybody keeps saying, anyway, if she did run, she'd be crushed in the general election.

So maybe you'll object that Sarah Palin is no Richard Nixon. Nixon had held national office, been a United States Representative and served in the Senate before becoming Vice-President under Eisenhower, and he'd seen a chunk of the Pacific beyond his own backyard during WWII as a Naval Lieutenant and he had a law degree from a fairly prestigious law school. The books and articles Nixon wrote during the years of exile before (and after) his presidency focused on policy issues and had a certain level of credibility and garnered some measure of respect, enough to be taken seriously even by Nixon's critics. But none of that's really the point.

The point is that look at some of the contingencies of those eighteen to twenty-four months between the beginning of 1966 to the election season of 1968. How many people thought the Johnson Administration would be torn apart by a faraway war in a tiny country, how many people would have guessed LBJ wouldn't even run for re-election? And it's too tragic to want to contemplate, but who would have expected the Democrats' last great hail Mary candidate to follow his older brother not as a President, but as a victim? There's tons of room to argue that Robert Kennedy's bid for the Presidency came too late to make a difference, that the Democrats were too fractured at that point to come together under anyone, and I'm not saying the election would have turned out differently if he'd lived: but we don't know those answers precisely because of an unpredictable act of violence committed by a lone wolf.

And Nixon? Nixon may have been more qualified in his pinkie finger than Sarah Palin for any job in government (and I am not a Nixon fan; it pains me to laud him even by comparison), but in 1966 he was a fucking joke, was he not? A walking punchline for practically everybody beyond a small, diehard corps of Republicans keeping the candles lit for him. At his last major public appearance, he actually, really said the words, "That's your right. But as I leave you I want you to know — just think how much you're going to be missing. You won't have Nixon to kick around any more, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference," which is about as whiny a political suicide note as anyone has ever delivered in the history of politics: I am taking my ball and going home, because I am tired of everyone being so mean to me.

And then he came back.

This is why my teeth ache whenever people write articles with headlines like, "OK, so it's not going to be Sarah Palin in '12..." or write Palin off for 2012; sure, in a rational and well-ordered universe, Sarah Palin has somewhere around a zero percent chance of being elected President in 2012. And in a rational, well-ordered universe, the progressive successor to Franklin Roosevelt doesn't impale himself on a stupid little war that destroys his legacy. And in a rational universe, schizophrenic gunmen don't walk up to politicians and shoot them at close range.

But in our universe?

Sometimes, in our universe, things get just a little fucked.

Sweet dreams.


In which I use a terrible pun to introduce an old live performance by a strange but lovely band

>> Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Boy, howdy: you look out the window at the Charlotte streets in the wake of the big ol' snowmageddon from this week, and even though the whole land is covered in ice, not a single sign nor sight of Björk or any of the guys from Sigur Rós.

See what I did there? See? Ice... land... Iceland, get it, "Iceland" like the country, but I was talking about the land around here being covered in ice, as in, frozen water, right? Ice, land, Iceland? See? Because Björk and Sigur Rós, they're musical acts from Iceland the country, which I was referencing with the, the, what do you want to call it, the play on words, see?

Fine. No, you suck. Here's múm, "We Have A Map Of The Piano," live in Japan back around the time Finally We Are No One came out, I think (ca. 2002):


Something happier than the posts from the last few days...

>> Tuesday, January 11, 2011

And now for something completely different: a cute girl translating last year's best song, Cee-Lo's "Fuck You," into American Sign Language:

On a related note: I now know two words of sign language. That could come in handy sometime, don't'cha think?

(H/t to The A/V Club!)


Dumb quote of the day: missing the point just to be a knee-jerk contrarian edition

>> Monday, January 10, 2011

Any call to cool "inflammatory" speech is a call to police all speech, and I can't think of anybody in government, politics, business, or the press that I would trust with that power. As Jonathan Rauch wrote brilliantly in Harper's in 1995, "The vocabulary of hate is potentially as rich as your dictionary, and all you do by banning language used by cretins is to let them decide what the rest of us may say." Rauch added, "Trap the racists and anti-Semites, and you lay a trap for me too. Hunt for them with eradication in your mind, and you have brought dissent itself within your sights."

-Jack Shafer, "In Defense of Inflamed Rhetoric"
Slate, January 9th, 2010 2011

I read Slate. Actually, that's not wholly accurate in today's fancy-pants Internet age: I have Slate piped to my RSS reader (I use Brief), and I read the stuff that looks interesting, particularly Dahlia Lithwick's stuff (I just have this mad crush on her--I think she's just one of the best law blog/court beat writers out there).

And yeah, I'll read Jack Shaffer's stuff because he's a decent writer and sometimes amusing or even insightful; he's also, along with William Saletan, an example of why I stopped reading Slate for quite a long while and now only screen it through the RSS feed and only visit the site's actual front page when I'm horribly, horribly bored and have already visited everything else that occurred to me to visit. At its worst, Slate is essentially the online magazine of center-left trolling, prone to posting inflammatory ledes over articles that appear to be written solely for the sake of contrariness and the pageviews saying "nuh-uh" loudly enough will bring, questioning the conventional wisdom just to do it, regardless of whether the conventional wisdom is right or wrong.

Shaffer isn't a dumb guy (though the quote above is a dumb quote from a dumb article), but he's a knee-jerk libertarian contrarian to such a boringly predictable degree, I could write his pieces for him. When I saw the above-linked article in my RSS feed, I went and read it knowing exactly what it would say, and frankly I was predictably disappointed that it said exactly what I knew it would, no surprises whatsoever. And I wouldn't be bothering with a response except a good friend of mine mentioned it approvingly, so here we are.

A lot of people, as you may know, have responded to the tragic murder of six people (including a nine-year-old girl and a Federal judge) during an assassination attempt upon a United States Congresswoman in Arizona with attacks on some of the violent rhetoric infecting American politics over the past two years. There have been calls for secession, for "Second Amendment solutions," for "watering the tree of liberty" (a reference to a bloody-minded Thomas Jefferson quote from a much different era), etc., and these haven't just been coming from fringe wingnuts and wackos, such comments have been coming from "serious" politicians. One of the targets of much of the anger and grief over the attempt on Rep. Giffords' life has been Sarah Palin, a former Governor of Alaska who has frequently (because she lacks the imagination or mental agility to vary her comments very much) invoked firearms and hunting metaphors and who published a map of political "targets," including Rep. Giffords, designated by crosshairs--either symbolic gunsights or surveyors' marks, depending on your credulity--on a map.

Palin shouldn't be blamed for what happened Saturday. There is no evidence at this time that the alleged shooter was directly influenced by Palin's comments, or the comments of any other right wing (or, for that matter, left wing) figure. On the other hand, Palin's comments have undeniably been in poor taste, and it's not the least bit unreasonable to suggest that perhaps the comments she and others have made have helped produce a climate where acts of violence are less unthinkable, even to crazy people listening to the voices in their head. For that matter, it seems hard to doubt that the rhetoric directed at Giffords and others has had consequences such as a break-in at the Congresswoman's offices last year.

And here is where Jack Shaffer comes in. Shaffer particularly directs his ire at the Sheriff of Pima County, who was one of the people suggesting the political rhetoric had gotten out of hand when he gave a press conference in the midst of his office's investigation of six homicides and fourteen related attempted homicides/assaults. One might, of course, suggest that even if Sheriff Dupnik is out-of-line or simply wrong about the cause and effect of potentially enticing words and bloody result, he deserves a little more sympathy at the moment than Shaffer's, "Hey, Dupnik, if you've got spare time on your hands, go write somebody a ticket," a remark that knocked Shaffer down several notches in my esteem--it's one thing to be a knee-jerk contrarian always at odds with the conventional wisdom even when the conventional wisdom is onto something, and another to be douchey about it. We expect law enforcement officials like Dupnik to take time out of criminal investigations like the Giffords investigation to talk to people like Shaffer's colleagues in the active press; hey, I don't necessarily like that, myself--I hate to get personal, but as a criminal defense attorney, I wish cops wouldn't say bupkis about an ongoing investigation until after indictments are handed down, but it is what it is, First Amendment, Fourth Estate, public's right to know, yada, yada, yada. Point being, if you're going to expect Dupnik to take time from his busy schedule investigating a fucking bloodbath involving fellow public officials who he may very well know personally you might at least be a little bit respectful in your disagreements with him.

Anyway, Shaffer goes from his issues with Dupnik to someplace far astray, chasing strawmen, and here we come to the dumb quote that launches this blog post. I have yet to see a single commentator saying that violent rhetoric ought to be "policed," which is Shaffer's absurd conclusion. What critics of the violent rhetoric have been saying is that people ought to think about the possible consequences of what they're saying and that the leaders of organized politics have a personal responsibility to discourage irresponsible language from their rank-and-file. Neither of these propositions are unreasonable, neither proposition constitutes any kind of call for censorship, and indeed both propositions are inherent in the Enlightenment ideals of freedom of speech and the press that produced the First Amendment.

The First Amendment has never been a license to be irresponsible in your speech. Never. Indeed, some forms of irresponsible speech are not protected as a matter of law. Libel and slander have never been protected speech. "Fighting words" have never been protected speech. Words that constitute treason or sedition are not protected. Words that incite panic or riot--the famous "You can't just shout 'fire' in a crowded movie theatre" doctrine--are not protected. It has to be said that when Shaffer talks about not trusting anybody to police speech, he's not merely missing the point of those calling for toned-down rhetoric (who are calling for self-policing), he's also very simply wrong as far as American law is concerned: he may not trust the courts or legislatures or newspapers to police speech, but those institutions have, in point of fact, been policing speech for two centuries because some speech simply doesn't qualify for protection, and part of the delicate art of interpreting the First Amendment over two-hundred-plus years has been determining what kinds of speech are protected in the first place.

But let's talk about self-policing and criticism, shall we? Part of the point of protecting speech in the first place, assuming that a particular sort of statement is protected speech at all, is precisely so it can be criticized. Sarah Palin may have a right to tell dissatisfied followers, "Don't retreat, reload!" and such statements may indeed be metaphorical. Are metaphorical, we'll allow: one doubts Palin has the imagination to contemplate any of her audience being crazy enough to mistake her symbolism for a literal call-to-arms. But part of her having that right is everybody else's right to point out how dangerous and stupid her comments are, and to strongly suggest she shouldn't make such statements. Note that nobody is necessarily even telling her to shut up, however much one might wish she would: telling someone to choose different words to make a point is hardly even silencing them, expecting someone to choose their words well is hardly stifling their freedom.

And if individuals or even society as a whole chooses to allow someone to go on saying stupid, dangerous and reckless things but replies in turn by shunning, shaming and criticizing that first speaker, well: that's actually how free speech is supposed to work. The whole idea is that there's a marketplace of ideas, to use one metaphor: and in a marketplace, some products fail, some are even recalled. Similarly, another fine metaphor for the necessity of free speech is that of "sunlight being the best disinfectant": bad ideas--bad words--are exposed to sun and air and wither and die; what is that sun and air if not society turning its collective judgment on toxic expression?

There is no contradiction or tension between saying that I will defend to the death the right of Sarah Palin to foam at the mouth and saying I will oppose to the death the acceptance or even tolerance of what she has to say.

Those who invented the idea of free speech never, ever intended it to be freedom from responsibility for that speech and its consequences. Indeed, in the case of the Founders who enshrined that right in the American Constitution, they were painfully aware that if the Revolution had gone for the British, they would have all been hanged for their speech and were apparently prepared for that. It's certainly hard to imagine Jefferson or Madison whimpering that they were misunderstood or merely spoke figuratively; these men accepted that speech was a powerful thing and their rhetoric affected the world around them, which is why they were thoughtful about their words in the first place.

Shaffer likes being a contrarian, likes, really, being a troll; no, really, I mean if you go back through some of his columns at Slate you can find articles he wrote where there is no explanation for what he says except his page needs the hits. What he's done this time, though, is perhaps more embarrassing, or ought to be: a defense of personal irresponsibility, a castigation of a truly free society. Rational people have never envisioned basic freedoms as a suicide pact nor called for the disembowelment of civilization from within. We are all responsible for the words we use and their effects on others, and are responsible for the world we create with those words. And it remains the responsibility of all of us to care about what people say and to answer wrongful words with righteous ones. This time Shaffer isn't merely wrong; he's morally wrong.

UPDATE, January 10th, 2011: And then, after I wrote that nobody was calling for "policing" of violent speech, Rep. Bob Brady (D-PA) has proposed actual censorship. As David Weigel notes at the link, Brady's proposed legislation is "half unenforceable and half redundant" and as Weigel also says, it doesn't look like it would stop someone like the suspect in custody, Jared Lee Loughner, based on what the public currently knows about Loughner; to the extent it could be a prior restraint of constitutionally-protected speech, it's also illegal.

Otherwise, I think my points still stand. Brady's on the wrong track because speech inciting violence against people is either already illegal or is protected by the First Amendment--but still subject, in that case, to condemnation and criticism. I just wanted to mention it lest someone arriving late or returning wanted to add, "Aha, but what about...."

And my thanks to people who appreciated this piece, by the way. Thank you.


January 8, 2011

>> Sunday, January 09, 2011

I remember I was in law school when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was blown up by a reactionary anti-governmental prick and some of his friends. I remember everybody's first thought was that the bomb must have been the result of extremists from the Middle East; it seemed, you know, like the kind of thing they might do, like the '93 World Trade Center bombing or all those embassies and discotheques in the Middle East and Europe through the '80s, only nobody could figure out what a bunch of Islamic radicals were doing in the middle of fucking Oklahoma, did they get lost, why wouldn't they try to blow up something somewhere people had heard of? (No disrespect meant to Oklahomans, but surely you know what I mean: this is part of the point of living in Oklahoma in the first place, I'd imagine, because you're millions of miles from New York City or Los Angeles or some other Very Important teeming international metropolis.)

Of course, it turned out the reason the terrorists in question had targeted Oklahoma wasn't that they were lost, it was that they were a bunch of regular old Americans with military careers and a liking for right-wing, ultraconservative politics, and they were striking at their local neighborhood heartland to make whatever stupid point they thought they were making about taxes or gun control or the significance of white people or whatever it was. The whole message thing got lost underneath the whole murdered children aspect of it, particularly, along with all the grown-ups the terrorists killed and maimed. Which is why terrorism is damned ineffectual unless your only aim is sowing chaos, but whatever; that really isn't the point of this.

The point, of course, is that something awful happened yesterday in Arizona, and there's at least one dead kid, and some dead grown-ups including a respected Federal judge, and (at this writing) a Congresswoman and several other people (it's hard to tell for sure in all the havoc and noise) are in the hospital. And since it's Arizona and since the Congresswoman was targeted by reactionaries and morons for real and symbolic violence because she's a Democrat and opposed her state's xenophobic and probably unconstitutional approach to illegal immigration, it's been easy to wonder if the usual suspects are to be blamed. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had her office broken into and ravaged and now she's been shot in the face, and it's easy to assume the events are connected. And it's easy to assume, too, that the events are connected to webpages published by or on behalf of the most irresponsible, venal, petty, ill-educated, pathetic, vain, fame-mongering, bubbleheaded, wicked woman in American politics, who published a list of twenty Americans holding public office along with a graphic, which you've surely seen, showing these Americans' approximate geographic locations marked by symbolic crosshairs; this is a woman whose rhetoric has consistently been the talk of violence and bloodshed, talk of "reloading," pathetic talk from a woman who recently made it clear on her now-canceled second-tier-cable show that she wasn't actually all that familiar with firearms and was intimidated by their recoil.

Apparently, she's feeling some heat over this, and she should. It seems her staff can't scrub the Internet of her violent rhetoric and iconography quickly enough. The most surprising part of that, really, would be the probably faulty implication the woman is capable of feeling shame, but the more likely explanation is she's afraid her 2012 campaign just died in the same state her career as a national public figure was born.

But it's too early to blame her.

Not too early to castigate her for her vile, violent, incendiary rhetoric, which was to be condemned at the instant the bits hit her Facebook page. Not too early to condemn the woman herself for being a pathetic creature in human shape, for being the kind of Nixonian political figure that led the paranoid science fiction writer Philip K. Dick to wonder if there weren't robots in our midst already and how would you tell--and to conclude that empathy was the trait that must distinguish people from monsters. (At the risk of sounding flippant at a time of sadness, I am indeed suggesting a certain political celebrity and many of her cohorts would flunk a Voigt-Kampff test, and within the first few questions.)

And her rhetoric didn't help.

But this is the day after the murders and assaults; there is one suspect in custody and police say there's another "person of interest." It may prove that this suspect, if he's guilty, and/or the "person of interest," if he or she is indeed an accomplice, are disciples of the Alaskan huntress. Or it may be that that part of it is an unfortunate coincidence. What we know is that there is a man in custody, and that there were quite a lot of webpages connected to this person, on YouTube and elsewhere, suggestive of someone who was less concerned with taxes or immigration than he was with governmental mind control via grammar and inventing a new currency, who was fixated, too, on some sort of alternative calendaring scheme for years. And that's all. He may have been motivated or enabled by the violent rhetoric of our day or he may simply have lived in Congresswoman Giffords' district and the voices in his head had enough, or it may turn out there's something else entirely going on.

But this is the time for patience and sorrow, not rage. This is the time to listen and watch, the time to put together whatever can be known, and to follow the procedures that men shaped by the Enlightenment wisely saw fit to emplace for these kinds of events: investigation, indictment, trial, and if the evidence is sufficient, sentencing pursuant to the laws of the land. Look, I'm not saying "Don't be angry," and I want that to be clear: I am saying the anger should burn at a low, chill ebb, the anger of those who thirst for truth if it can be pried from the dead jaws of the past, and for justice if it can be coaxed from the turmoil of the future.

Until we have sight of either, let's think of our lost, and of those who are grieving for them, pray for them if that's your way and hope for them if it isn't.


I have bad timing

>> Saturday, January 08, 2011

Got up late, looked outside. It was bright, sunny. Checked the temperature on the computer--cold; still: bright, sunny.

Decided if it was cold and sunny and I wanted to get out of the house for a bit, why not walk up the road and get a hot chocolate and read Hellboy: Darkness Calls before returning home to write (or at least stare at the computer screen before ALT-TABbing my way over to the Internet).

Showered, dressed, discovered clouds were rushing in and a high wind was picking up. One of the hawks that lives in the freightyard across the tracks across the street from my condo was hovering perfectly against the wind, levitating, occasionally beating its wings for two or three strokes to maintain position and then becoming still again. By the time I got the camera, it was gone; flew away, dove to catch whatever small animal was beneath it on the ground, who knows, but it wasn't there. The wind had obviously built strength, though, and I was wondering if I still wanted to bother walking up the street.

Made a Lean Cuisine pizza for lunch. Spinach and mushrooms, tasty for something frozen to bricklike toughness and later made chewable in three minutes by the magic of microwave radiation. The snow flurries were billowing past the window before the pizza had been removed from the microwave oven over the stove.

The temperature outside, in one of those things that seem ironic until you think about the physics, has increased by about ten degrees. But it's still cold and snowy and windy. Trying to decide whether I should go along with the plan, though the snow isn't coming down as heavily now as it was when I began this post.


If you're looking for something to look forward to, the new Decemberists album hits in ten days

And every track they've released so far has been fucking gold (see also).

Counting down... ten... nine... meanwhile, "This Is Why We Fight":


Quote Of The Day: Big Orange Weasel Edition

>> Friday, January 07, 2011

"The state of Hawaii has said that President Obama was born there. That's good enough for me," Boehner, R-Ohio, told NBC 's Brian Williams in an interview to air Thursday night on NBC Nightly News.

Pressed by Williams on what he would say to members of his party who have expressed doubts about Obama's citizenry, Boehner replied: "Brian, when you come to the Congress of the United States, there are 435 of us. We're nothing more than a slice of America. People come, regardless of party labels, they come with all kinds of beliefs and ideas. It's the melting pot of America. It's not up to me to tell them what to think."

No. No, no, no.

Okay, look, see: the difference between a fact and an opinion is that a fact has some kind of objective validity that everybody can agree on while an opinion is something that is just subjectively true for an individual or group of individuals. "Tomatoes are bleh" is an opinion (one I disagree with, myself, but that's not the point). It's alright for somebody not to like tomatoes, that's entirely their loss. But "That milk is a whole month past the expiration date," on the other hand, is a fact that can be checked and verified; "It smells funny and I don't think you should drink it," isn't so much you telling somebody what to think as it is pointing out that their erroneous belief could have adverse consequences.

I mean, okay, I guess you could say that "I don't think you should drink it" is kind of telling the other person what to think and bossing them around a bit. But if the result of your failure to tell them they were making an error of judgment was that they poured a big hunk of reeking curds in their mouth straight from the carton and went to the hospital fifteen minutes later, I kind of hope maybe you'd feel sort of bad about it. Sort of responsible. Because maybe they would have done something stupid anyway, but maybe your thoughtful alertness would save them agonized hours of trying to puke out their entire stomach lining and not getting to go to Disneyland with their family because they were in the hospital and then bedridden all because they exercised poor milk-drinking judgment.

It could happen, you know.

There's really two possibilities, all-in-all, when it comes to the President's birth documentation. One possibility is that it's authentic, that the Certificate Of Live Birth is a legitimate document proving President Obama's birth on American soil, and all is what it appears to be. And then there's the other possibility, which is that there is an enormous and elaborate conspiracy extending nearly five decades and implicating (as participants or patsies) everybody from the newspaper editors who published the announcement of President Obama's birth in the Honolulu Advertiser and Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1961 to Hilary Clinton (who wanted to be President in 2008 and would have readily seized a chance to eliminate her strongest opponent from the running) and John McCain (ditto). And there's a principle of critical thinking called Occam's Razor or the Principle Of Parsimony that suggests that, all things otherwise being equal, if you have two (or more) possible explanations for something, we should lean towards the one that makes the fewest new assumptions so long as it retains sufficient explanatory power.

I.e. the batshit crazy conspiracy theory that involves a half-century of bizarre machinations and apparent sacrifices by self-interested parties and various forgeries and lies and complicities by people and businesses who don't have any apparent reason to be complicit, etc. is a lot less likely than the obvious explanation that there's a lot of evidence that Barack Obama was born in Hawai'i because, as a matter of fact, he was born in Hawai'i.

So, really, you could, Rep. Boehner, if you really wanted to, tell your "birther" colleagues that their belief is irrational and inconsistent with known facts. Pointing out to them that if Senator McCain's presumably capable research team1 had discovered evidence that Barack Obama was a Kenyan national, there would probably be a Republican in the White House now, and do they really think Senator McCain is part of the conspiracy isn't so much a matter of "differing opinions" as it is a matter of "stating the bleeding obvious".

But, see, I suspect you know all that.

See, I think your quote reflects something else.

I think it validates my opinion that you and much of the Republican leadership are cynical, opportunistic, hypocritical and intellectually bankrupt assholes.

See, I think you know the President is an American citizen. But you think the smart play is to humor the paranoid idiots in your party who cling to the irrational belief that a black, left-of-center, Democratic President is such a violation of the Natural Order™ and Way Things Ought To Be™ that it must be the product of some malicious Machiavellian conspiracy of the highest order--no Real American™ would vote for someone who is obviously a Kenyan Socialist (he certainly isn't a white conservative, so what else could he be?) unless they were horribly mislead by Dark Forces, etc. Because you're simply out of ideas, having watched your traditional domestic and foreign policy portfolios repeatedly crack and collapse against reality, you can't just ignore the idjits and move on, and to try educating them or even merely just openly stating that they're wrong would risk alienating them and their votes and campaign donations (or worse yet, triggering yet another rash of primary apocalypses like the ones that cost you Senate seats in Nevada and Delaware last year)---well, like I said, you reckon the smart play is to humor the jackasses.

Should I point out that you're playing a short game, Representative? I won't argue with you that humoring the fools is a smart play--in the short game. But in the long game, what are you doing? Letting these people take over and ultimately finish off your party? Sacrificing whatever credibility you might otherwise have, however little, for the sake of cobbling together a big tent of circus freaks, sideshow carnies, trained animals and ridiculous clowns? And can the country you profess to love so much afford these shenanigans in the long run, really?

I've had some fun at your expense in here, but let's be honest: your comments to NBC were actually pretty disgusting. Here's the rub: I think you're a douchebag, Representative Boehner, but I'd love to be proven wrong. I don't like being right about something like that. I'd like to be able to say, "Y'know what, I really had that Boehner guy pegged wrong--he's kind of alright." (I won't lie: "kind of alright" might be the best you'd get out of me, but it's actually pretty high praise for a professional politician from any party.)


You're off to a fine start, Congressman.

1Granted, the obvious rebuttal to this would be, "If John McCain's research team is so awesome, how come their expert vetting and thorough background check failed to unearth the fact Sarah Palin is obviously a moron?" But I don't think you have to worry about dodging that one: your colleagues-in-question are Republican Tea Party types. They think Sarah Palin is smart because she recalls reading The Pearl, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Animal Farm and "anything by C.S. Lewis" after she had time to think about it and confer with Lynn Vincent (also, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated and Ranger Rick on the periodicals side) (Going Rogue, p. 27). Anyway, they're unlikely to have noticed Ms. Palin's an idiot, so you don't have to worry about them pointing out that Senator Senator McCain missed it, too.


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