"Security" versus whatever

>> Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Over at Salon, law professor Daniel Solove has a piece up in which he, "The author of a new book on the privacy/security debate identifies five false arguments that erode personal freedom." Sorry. It's just easier to cut-and-paste the article's tag and I'm feeling lazy.

What I found interesting, or odd, or disagreeable about the piece, anyway, wasn't Professor Solove's critique of various spurious claims that get offered as justifications for government encroachments on people's lives; the civil libertarian in me isn't the least bit happy about any of that. No, what I found interesting (or odd or disagreeable) was that Solove keeps framing the issue in terms of security versus privacy, as opposed to security versus liberty or some concept along those lines. No doubt he's sort of merging the two, considering privacy as a liberty interest.

This might be fine as far as it goes, the problem being that I'm not sure it goes very far. The problem, you see, is that I suspect "privacy" has become something of an outmoded concept. Put another way, the government really doesn't need provisions of the Patriot Act to surveil me, they just need access to Twitter and Facebook. Oh, and this blog. And, really, there's a ridiculous amount of stuff they can dredge up via Google if they really want, including a nice shot of the front of my residence as it appeared whenever the Google Maps car cruised past. And that's all the readily available public information: there's even more they can get if they wanted to go around to the various services that collate and sell the demographic, contact and purchasing information about me that's been collected by various supermarkets, magazine publishers, banks, online retailers, various utilities, assorted businesses I've dealt with such as auto dealerships, etc.

We've gotten to a point, tech-wise, where the digital world has become this enormous virtual open-air forum in the classical Roman sense (and not just as usually applied to the specific context of an online discussion thread) where everybody in the world's your neighbor and can see you walking around or can look into the vestibule of your domus if you happen to live along the perimeter or nearby. And we can get into all the ways you or someone you know might be living off the grid of choosing what you share or taking such-and-such steps, but the truth is (if you'll forgive the stretching of the metaphor) that all you're really talking about there is whether someone is living in a villa urbana or villa rustica or perhaps even out in the barbarian hinterlands (Gaul? Britannia?), not about the fundamentals of how the modern world has reconstructed itself around electromagnetic information.

Thing is, if you think about society at an earlier time consisting of small, close communities where everybody had a good idea of what everybody else was doing much of the time, and society now consisting of a vast, close community where everybody has a good idea of what anybody else is doing much of the time (too many people to keep track of everything, all at once, of course), then it starts to seem that the timeframe in which society consists of a large number of people where almost nobody knows what most other people are doing is a historically brief frame that sort of embraces the centuries from the Enlightenment to the end of the Twentieth Century--the epoch in which people came up with the idea of privacy as a right, basically. The "Age Of Privacy" might well be an aberration that's mistaken for a norm, I mean, because the aberrant epoch just happens to coincide with the era in which we started thinking about these kinds of things and setting out our definitions and so on.

The upshot of this being that I think arguments about whether privacy is being sacrificed for security are missing a boat that is slipping away from the dock--or might even be out of the harbor by now. If practically everybody is out in the open almost all of the time except for a handful of curmudgeons and paranoiacs who aren't really even participating in modern society in a particularly meaningful way, whither privacy? Does it still mean anything at all, and to whom?

The question, it seems to me, isn't so-called "security" (complete with scare quotes) versus "privacy" (ditto), it's "security" versus liberty (no scare quotes needed, italics for emphasis). Think about it this way: "Even if the government can easily collect data from, say f'r'instance, every American's public Facebook page, should they?" and I think you have a much more insightful and relevant question about a citizen's relationship with government. I.e. it isn't about the liberty interest formerly labeled "privacy" out of a lost cultural tradition in which people's personal lives were mostly segregated from their public lives, with curtains and doors shut between, no, it's about liberty interests in general, about whether someone ought to worry about whether or not his government cares about the various things he might have been doing in public so long as none of them are hurting anybody else.

I think my concern is this: "liberty interests" covers a broad umbrella of things including activities that ought to be public, such as freedom of speech and association, many of which are likely to be permanent interests, some of which may be expanded interests in the digital era (e.g. the Internet removes the entry barriers that might have once kept someone from disseminating a political pamphlet that he wrote--instead of having to purchase a printing press, or later a mimeograph machine, or later spend money at a copier place, one can type up one's rant--perhaps even using a publicly accessible computer at a library or using a cheap smartphone, obviating the need for even a cheap computer--and post it to a blog, whereupon the server hosting the blog becomes capable of distributing an infinite number of copies to any device accessing the hosted file). "Privacy," on the other hand, covers a small number of things, many of which have been mooted by ordinary household gadgets, sometimes with an unwitting waiver by a citizen who's simply staying current with the times (e.g. if you have a cellphone, somebody or something knows where you--or at least the cellphone and possibly your other pair of pants--are at all times the phone is on: that's how the service provider knows how much to charge you for calls; of course, you can choose not to have a cellphone, or to leave it off most of the time--choices that are increasingly impractical as time goes by, unless you mean to be some kind of hermit).

Another way of putting all this might be to say that I don't care, for instance, if the government knows that I'm politically a democratic socialist or that I spent much of a weekend afternoon with my girlfriend at a coffeeshop and I had a chai shake while I was there--I put all of these things on Facebook, myself, on the off-chance a friend or family member actually cared and because it amused me to do so. I don't care if the government knows what I read or what movies I've seen lately or what music I've recently purchased--let your eyes stray to the right of this column and that information is posted directly on this blog, if you were even the least bit curious. What I might want to know, though, is why the government might care that I followed my chai latte with a cherry-vanilla Italian soda that I shared with the significant other or that my reading list has included some comic books; I can't say "it isn't their business" because I've made it anybody's business--but what's it to them, I might indeed wonder. It's not that I'm worried about my privacy to read what I want, go where I want, associate with who I want; it's that I'm free to do all of that so long as I'm not hurting anyone else in the course of it; i.e. it's my liberty or freedom that's at stake. My privacy? Feh.


Return of the things you stumble upon on YouTube

>> Monday, May 30, 2011

A Facebook exchange with an old friend led to a stumble across Yet Another Awesome Thing that would've been lost to semiobscurity but is now right there, on the YouTube, to be treasured forever and ever and ever. In this case, a clip of David Bowie performing "Heroes" in 1978 with a backing band that includes the amazing Adrian Belew playing the guitar part originated by Robert Fripp, who would subsequently hit up Belew to join him in a band that was originally going to be called Discipline but quickly morphed into King Crimson v. 4.0. Inevitably and quite rightfully, "Heroes" would end up in future King Crimson setlists (as you may already know, assorted members of Crimson v.4--Fripp, Belew and Tony Levin--would also put in time through the various decades as session and touring support for The Bowie, an awesome orgy of rock'n'roll incest and inbreeding if there ever was one).

Do I need to mention that this is awesome? Because this is awesome:


A quick Memorial Day post

If you have a chance today, try to remember the living, too.

(H/t to Jim Wright for pointing out the CNN story.)


She couldn't spell, but she sure could sing

>> Sunday, May 29, 2011

Oh, let's go for something cheerful, why not? The late, great Kirsty MacColl, "Happy":


Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds (featuring Kylie Minogue), "Where the Wild Roses Grow"

>> Saturday, May 28, 2011

A bit of random psychopathic violence to start (or finish, or bisect--all depends on when you dropped by) your Saturday: some Nick Cave and the band along with Ms. Minogue, recreating a vicious and bloody tableau on 1996's Murder Ballads.

Am I the only one who takes the line about "planting a rose 'tween her teeth" as an evocative reference to the rock and not a wildflower? Sorry, just had to put that out there.


When being a science-fiction fan impedes comprehension...

>> Friday, May 27, 2011

So, I'm cleaning out the ol' spam folder when I come across this in a political e-mail:

T. Boone [Pickens] may claim that fracking is safe, but can he prove it?

Sure, sure, sure, I know: they're talking about a controversial fossil fuels extraction procedure.

But that definitely wasn't the the first thing I thought of.

Oh, and to answer the question on Mr. Pickens' behalf: just make sure you take appropriate precautionary measures; have fun, but don't be stupid, 'kay?


We Are Animal, "1268"


Quote of the day--facing the true face edition

>> Thursday, May 26, 2011

And that is why, in my view, we cannot ignore Gingrich even if his campaign is doomed to fail. His campaign, with all of its narcissism, mendacity, intellectual incoherence, and duplicity is the Republican Party in its purest, least adulterated form. By looking at Gingrich we are not avoiding how the Republicans will choose their issues, or even their candidate: we are looking at their methods, ideology, goals, and tactics in their ultimate nature.

-Jonathan Zasloff, "Why Gingrich Matters",
The Reality-Based Community, May 20th, 2011
(emphasis in original)

Pretty much. Partisanship, underhanded political tactics, extreme rhetoric and so on and so forth aren't new and in fact go back to the beginnings of the Republic, and this makes it hard to put a finger on why the current political climate in America seems so toxic and has seemed that way for such a very, very long time. I mean, any time you point to something specific, it's usually not too hard to find something equivalent or even worse occurring some time in the course of the last two-centuries-and-change. (Members of Congress insulting each other on the floor--at least nobody clubbed anyone else almost-to-death with a walking stick, right?)

But I think maybe Zasloff is onto something. What has changed is the sense that one side in particular isn't playing in good faith, isn't serious, is willing to respond to a national tragedy with blackmail threats, even, if it counts as "winning" even an inch in some battle that's pretty much incidental to, well, probably just about everyone else's concerns over the country's prosperity. What happened to politicians zinging each other and then rolling up their sleeves to effect some sort of actual compromise in which both sides give up something and both sides gain something? When you think about it, doesn't it seem like that sense of being in it together started to dissolve around the same time Representative Newt Gingrich was playing chicken with the Federal budget in the '90s?

No, Zasloff is, unfortunately, right that we can't just ignore Newt Gingrich. Whether Zasloff is right that Gingrich more-or-less invented the modern GOP or whether Gingrich is merely the embodiment of the Republican Party's sins (their attic portrait, perhaps?), he's the face of the GOP today. He sure as hell ain't Eisenhower, anyway.

(H/t Digby.)


Other Lives, "Tamer Animals"

>> Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Quote of the day--I'M not stupid, YOU'RE the stupid edition

>> Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On May 21, this last weekend, this is where the spiritual aspect of it really comes through. God again brought judgment on the world. We didn’t see any difference but God brought Judgment Day to bear upon the whole world.

-100% accurate end of days prophet Harold Camping explaining how he was right about last
weekend's Rapture all along, you're just dumb,
as quoted by San Francisco International Business Times,
"Harold Camping says to wait and watch till October 21", May 23rd, 2011



>> Monday, May 23, 2011

I do not think I am capable of ceasing to be amazed by what's floating around out there these days, out on there on the Internet. This has to be the greatest era-to-date to be a music fan: I can remember a time, not so long ago, when the best a fan could ever hope for might be, might be a grainy videotape, maybe. An audio-only cassette taped from somebody who taped an LP somebody had found in a sort of iffy-none-too-scrupulous music store on a dodgy back shelf, a recording pressed from someone's third-row reel-to-reel or surreptitious line off the soundboard. I remember when you counted yourself blessed to hear about rumors: "A friend of mine says there's a recording of a 1973 show that's unbelievable, he didn't hear it himself but a friend of his heard it."

Now? Now I get onto YouTube looking for filler because I don't have anything to write about, and here's a shockingly high-quality clip of Pink Floyd performing "Cymbaline" (from the More soundtrack) at Abbaye de Royaumont in 1971. This is the kind of thing, when I was in high school, nobody knew it existed.

It's the kind of thing where I don't know if the band knew there was still a clip floating around--I'm not kidding, I can't even count the number of times I've seen an interview with a member of Pink Floyd in which someone said something along the lines of, "There was a camera crew, but I don't know what happened to the footage."

Of course, one reason now is a golden age and then was a time when being a fan could frequently feel like crawling through the desert with a sandpaper tongue towards desultory shadows of imaginary waters is that the Internet fosters violations of intellectual property. A friend, Steve Buchheit, linked today to a blog post by an unhappy writer complaining about how piracy hurts artists; that's not entirely a whole 'nother topic, is the thing: while David Coe is focused on the distribution of illegal copies of officially-released work, the same intellectual property issues apply to the illegal copies of never-released work or out-of-print works. Different rock bands have different attitudes towards bootlegged concert recordings (the long career of The Grateful Dead is probably due almost entirely to fostering a fan culture built in large part around trading ROIOs), of course, but the legal default is that unauthorized recordings are illegal and winked-at recordings are, at best, a grey area.

I'm not bringing this up because there's an obvious parallel between sharing a YouTube video of a 40-year-old Pink Floyd show and distributing a copy of somebody's novel they published yesterday, although they're technically the same thing as far as the legalities are concerned. But it seems inoffensive, cool even, to be able to say, "I love this band and here they are as they were close to their prime and as they can't ever be seen again," while uploading somebody's Brand New Novel seems pretty damn wrong at a gut level. The point being, part of what's a mess about the intersection of law and technology we're in is that these things are technically exactly alike and yet they're completely different in terms of how they feel, the effects they have, the intent of the people involved in the illicit acts, etc.

I don't really have anything here, I'm just riffing. And I don't know if there's an actual answer to any of this. I don't know how you come up with a regime that allows fans to share their love of a creative force while keeping those same fans from sort-of-accidentally cheating it.


Going back to the video: it's pretty cool to see Pink Floyd doing a show in a medieval church. Two years later, Dark Side Of The Moon would come out and ruin everything--I kid, sort of, but one of the unfortunate consequences of DSM's success was that the band would end up playing coliseums and stadiums, which had all sorts of ill effects on the way they worked, their relationships with the fans and their relationships with each other, plus, they were always struggling to scale the technology to the venues--adapting a lightshow that works in a civic auditorium so that it can be seen by nosebleeders in a football stadium is a real bitch, and most arenas built prior to the '80s or '90s had sports in mind, not acoustics, so there was that problem. Things would fall apart by 1979, but here's the Floyd when they were still a team.

A further note for those of you who aren't familiar with live versions of "Cymbaline" from, errr, all those illegalway ootlegs-bay, ahem, floating around online: this is a truncated version of "Cymbaline"; the person who posted it (or someone) did a nice job of fading out in the middle chunk of sound effects, but the song proper picks up and repeats after that and was normally around ten or twelve minutes when played live (I'd say offhand). I wouldn't say a casual listener is missing a darn thing--it's just another run-through of the last couple of verses--but I thought I'd acknowledge it's (not) there.


What?! You're still here?!

>> Sunday, May 22, 2011

So, you weren't Raptured, were you? Mm-hm. Somebody was very naughty. You should be ashamed, dear reader, deeply, deeply ashamed.

To be honest, I wasn't really planning on being around to do a blog entry, meself, so here's a classic bit o' Suzanne Vega, "Blood Makes Noise":


Breaking: "Rapture" occurs at 6 P.M. EST May 21, 2011, exactly as promised!

>> Saturday, May 21, 2011

It's a religious experience!


Quote of the day--it's a helluva time to be looking for a new job edition

>> Friday, May 20, 2011

"This hasn't come through in the news reports, but I'd say 85 to 90 percent of the staff doesn't believe what [end-of-days prophet Harold] Camping says. We're coming to work next week."

-an unidentified employee of Family Radio,
as quoted by Justin Elliott, "Live from the end of the world",
Salon, May 20th, 2011.

Employees should be advised that while yesterday was a paid day off, Rapture time must be logged as vacation or accumulated sick leave (or both). See Wanda in HR if you have any questions or need forms.


I'm looking forward to it because I think it's time I had some time alone...

OMG! OMG! The world ends this weekend, hooray! Last one into The Rapture is a rotten egg!

I kid, I kid. All'y'all have fun and say "hi" to Jesus for me, 'kay? Maybe drop by the blog tomorrow before you go, if you have time between all your packing and finding someone to feed your fish while you're gone or whatever, though if you're too busy, hey, I totally understand. Don't forget your toothbrush.

It's the end of the world as we know it, it's the end of the world as we know it, iiiit's the
end of the world as we know it, and I feeeeeel fiiiiiine....


A brief history of the "short fat old man" defense

>> Thursday, May 19, 2011

The prosecutors say that Mr. Strauss-Kahn "forced" the complainant to have oral and other sex with him. How? Did he have a gun? Did he have a knife? He's a short fat old man. They were in a hotel with people passing by the room constantly, if it's anything like the many hotels I am in. How did he intimidate her in that situation? And if he was so intimidating, why did she immediately feel un-intimidated enough to alert the authorities as to her story?

Retired Comedy Central quiz-show host Ben Stein,
"Presumed Innocent, Anyone?" The American Spectator, May 17th, 2011

There are many fine, arcane points of the legal system as it has evolved in the United States from ancient roots in the English common law. Indeed, even fairly well-known elements of our laws, such as America's Miranda warnings and the insanity defense under American and British common law are widely misunderstood and might be described as "arcane." But one of the most fascinating, least-known and most-complicated points of American law is the short fat old man defense, which will be the focus of this blog post.

The short fat old man defense is what the legal system terms an affirmative defense. An affirmative defense, such as self defense or insanity, is one in which the burden of proof is shifted from the prosecution to the defendant. That is, in most instances the entire burden of proof is upon the state: for instance, if malice is an element of the crime, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant acted with it, and the defendant is under no obligation to prove that he didn't (although he may present rebuttal evidence against the state's evidence if he wishes). In an affirmative defense, on the other hand, it is up to the defendant to prove all elements of the defense beyond a reasonable doubt: for example, if the defendant is arguing self-defense, he must prove all of the elements of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt and the prosecutor is under no obligation to disprove anything (though he most likely will offer any evidence he has that rebuts the self-defense claim).

While the general public seems to think that affirmative defenses crop up frequently and are abused, the reality isn't nearly as clean-cut. Note that under the American system of justice, a defendant has a constitutional right to not testify. This may be a crucial tactic for a defendant--even a completely innocent one--who has a bad record that might turn a jury against him (the prosecutor might not be able to introduce the defendant's record at all unless he testifies, at which point the prosecutor might be able to ask the defendant about his past for impeachment purposes) or who might otherwise make a poor witness on the stand (perhaps he's of a nervous disposition, or suffers some disability that could lead him into confusion that a jury might mistake for inconsistency). Furthermore, and under many jurisdictions' procedural rules, a defendant may derive some tactical advantage from not presenting testimony (e.g. in some states, a defendant who doesn't present any evidence may get to make the final closing statement to the jury, getting in the last word on the case). But an affirmative defense necessarily requires a defendant to present some kind of evidence, and that evidence may be of a nature that only the defendant himself can offer; e.g. while an insanity defense might be presented entirely through experts with no direct testimony from the defendant personally, in a self-defense case only the defendant can testify he felt threatened by the alleged victim's actions (who else could say how the defendant felt?). This can create all sorts of tactical or strategic headaches for an attorney, and there are frequently instances where a viable self-defense claim (for instance) might appear less attractive than simply falling back on a defense based on deficiencies in the state's presentation (i.e. reasonable doubt).

A defendant who wishes to exercise the short fat old man defense must offer proof beyond a reasonable doubt of each of the following elements:

  1. He is short
  2. He is fat
  3. He is old
  4. He is a man

Failure to prove even one of these elements invalidates the entire defense. It is not sufficient to merely be a fat old man, for instance--you must also prove you are short. The fourth element of the defense remains controversial under contemporary Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection and Due Process jurisprudence, but in all states with the sole exception of Washington, one must also prove beyond a reasonable doubt that one is a man; the fact that this is a nigh-impossible hurdle for around 50-51% of the population may explain why the defense has fallen off in popularity since the 1970s; furthermore, five states (Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Arkansas) have strictly construed "man" to be a male over the age of 18; meanwhile, Texas defines "man" as "a male of any age... who has completely consumed one serving of an alcoholic beverage, lassoed a steer or colt, and completed an act of fornication with an unrelated female of consenting age in a bordello... prior to entering matrimony" (c.f. Texas v. Jenkins (1938), in which a ten-year-old was found by the Supreme Court Of Texas to be a man for the purposes of the Texas capital sentencing statute despite stipulation by all parties that Mr. Jenkins had "[never] shaved his chin, which... remains softer than a lady's silk gloves...").

The first recorded instance of the short fat old man defense occurred in England in 1705, in a case called In the Matters of Huggins. The opinion is brief but illuminating--here we find it quoted in its entirety:

It is found forthwith: that he hath Such diminished Stature he doth not play at dice by Tossing but by putting his Back to work and with much Pushing and Efforts at last makes them to Move; that he hath such Breadth that he Must perforce Produce a most curious squeaking were He to perambulate Backwards; that he hath possessed such Advancement of Years that he must Meet his most Holy Saviour upon the Very Instant should this Court requireth of him upon his Honours that he must behave as if he Were another Whose age is Equal with his Own. A verdict is entered of Nonsuit and the Prisoner hereby discharged.

No less an authority than Blackstone would subsequently write:

It cannot credulously be thought that Higgins stands for the proposition that one's guilt or innocence may only be proportional to one's height, lest we conceive that no dwarf might be convicted of crime, however offensive he might be in the Creator's eyes. The matter of Higgins may only be comprehended in light of his diminutive lack of height in combination with the other factors perceived by the jurists in his case, to wit that Higgins was also more ancient and massive than other men in his jurisdiction.

While the definitive knowledge of his actions has been obscured by Time's uncertainty, we must also credit the notion that his alleged crime was unusually vile and must have been a capital offense, for it is only logical that Higgins' size & age made his hanging a terrible inconvenience or would have strained the backs of horses or the headsman. It might further be reasoned that his age was only an incidental matter of little bearing, mentioned solely because of the jurists' pity for this Higgins.

Blackstone's reasoning was partly accepted and partly rejected by American courts in later years. In Commonwealth vs. Stagger (1806), the Massachusetts Supreme Court agreed that hanging a short, fat man would be inconvenient, but added, "We cannot accept Sir William's argument that age is incidental to these matters, for we often find the elderly present complications to the judiciary, such as an inability to hear their last rites and a propensity for boring their minders with lengthy reminisces of how all situations were much improved in their all-but-forgotten youth." In 1852, in the much-cited case of Hormacher v. Gibbons, the New Hampshire courts gave Habeas relief to a prisoner who alleged that while he'd been tall, skinny and "in the prime of his manhood" at the time of his arrest, by the time of his sentencing he'd lost both legs to frostbite in his poorly-heated cell, gained a "substantial" (though unspecified) amount of weight from overeating because he had little else to do while awaiting the hearing of his case (and in any event could no longer pace his cell after the loss of his legs), and a great number of years had passed; Gibbons both confirms (in dicta) that all the American states at this time followed the Higgins rule and that the defendant's Article 15 right to due process and Article 18 right to proportional punishment under the state constitution had been violated by the trial court's refusal to allow Gibbons the benefit of the short fat old man defense. By 1907, most states had come to similar conclusions applying their own state constitutions, usually quoting the New Hampshire court's decision in Gibbons (sometimes in its entirety: the South Dakota decision State v. Murdoch (1942) indeed appears to be identical to the Gibbons opinion with the names, dates and fact pattern changed with a telling exception on the third page of the opinion, where the state is referred to as "South Hormacher").

Curiously, however, after 1932, defendants' appear to have relied less and less upon the defense, with only five cases (including the above-mentioned Murdoch) on record from 1932 to 1976. The most notable of those cases, a 1948 case out of New Jersey called State v. Odetti might illustrate the reason why. From an article in The Newark Star-Ledger (October 12th, 1948):

The dullness of the morning's proceedings was broken by the furor that erupted when Judge Hawkins inquired as to whether there would be any defense motions filed prior to jury selection. Mr. Robert Thompson, Mr. Odetti's counsel, stood and informed the court that while no pre-trial motions were planned, he wished to reserve the right to file further motions should new evidence justifying them appear during the State's presentation. The court agreed and asked if there would be anything else, and this was when Mr. Thompson dropped his bombshell.

"I wish to offer notice in open court," Mr. Thompson said, "of intent to produce proof that my client is a short, fat, old man."

Assistant to the District Attorney Arthur Grant appeared to expect the defense statement. Mr. Odetti, however, was apparently unprepared for his lawyer's announced strategy. He climbed onto the defense table using his chair for a stepladder and had to be brought down and restrained by three bailiffs and the clerk.

"I am not short and I resent being called fat!" the elderly defendant shrieked at the judge on the bench.

Judge Hawkins appeared unmoved. When order was restored to the court and a bailiff had restrained Mr. Odetti by sitting on him, the Judge quietly said: "This court takes judicial notice, sir, that you are short and fat. Your age will be a matter for the jury to decide upon. Restrain yourself or I will have the bailiff restrain you. Let the record reflect that notice of short, fat, old has been given by the defense in open court on this date."

Mr. Odetti could not be reached for further comment following the hearing, although reporters tried kneeling.

In 1976, attorney F. Lee Bailey attempted to argue during his closing in the Patty Hearst case that his client had been turned into "the psychic equivalent of a short, fat old man by the SLA's insidious brainwashing." The state's objection was sustained and Bailey's last-ditch attempt to sneak the defense in was abandoned. Some sources have claimed Bailey wanted to give notice of the defense during the O.J. Simpson criminal trial, suggesting that Simpson might be made shorter by the use of "some kind of prosthetic device or binding," but Barry Scheck's argument that the defense should focus on chain of custody issues and problems with the LAPD's collection procedures won out after a mock jury presentation suggested that jurors were likely to view Simpson as "I guess he's not that young, but he's a pretty big guy, isn't he?"

If Dominique Strauss-Kahn's attorneys follow Ben Stein's suggestion and run with a short fat old man defense, this may become one of the most exciting criminal trials in several decades. Strauss-Kahn is probably in the strong financial situation he'll need to procure experts on stature, weight and age. One expects, as well, that technological advancements will be brought to bear, with experts being called upon to explain concepts such as body-mass index (BMI) and possible state motions to have DNA testing performed to confirm that Strauss-Kahn is in fact an XY-chromosome male and not a sufferer of a genetic disorder such as Klinefelter's syndrome. The Strauss-Kahn affair might open a door into an exciting new realm of criminal procedure--or close an old one. We wait to see what happens with bated breath.


Quote of the day--politicians who learned rhetoric from Star Trek episodes where Kirk destroys a computer with a logical paradox edition

>> Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Any ad which quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood, and because I have said publicly, those words were inaccurate and unfortunate, and I'm prepared to stand up and--when I make a mistake, and I'm going to on occasion, I want to stand up and share with the American people that was a mistake, because that way we can have an honest conversation.

But... but if quoting you accurately is a falsehood, then the quote wasn't accurate... but if the quote wasn't accurate... it wouldn't be what you said... but if it was what you said... it wouldn't be accurate... but if it was quoted accurately then it was a falsehood... but if it was a falsehood, it wouldn't be accurate... but if it was accurate, then it was a falsehood... but if it was a falsehood--


Yep. The man's brilliant. In his mind.


"Aristotle was not Belgian."

Otto: Apes don't read philosophy.

Wanda: Yes they do, Otto. They just don't understand it. Now let me correct you on a couple of things, okay? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not "Every man for himself." And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked them up.

I'm confused. Sort of. I came across something the other day that broke my brain a little, and I think I'd like your help, if you can help me, though I strongly suspect you can't. I could be wrong. I've been wrong before. I've been wrong a lot.

But let me rewind a little, back things up a little. Two words will give you some idea of the nature and scope of my problem. And those words would be "Newt", which is a small amphibious salamander, and the other word would be "Gingrich", which is the name or title or species (I'm not entirely sure which) of a short, squat, potbellied green hominid who sneaks into Who houses and heists their holiday ornaments, meals and hors d'œuvres. (No? That's not quite right? Well, you'll admit it's close enough.)

I jest, I kid. I meant to be slightly serious here, but I already wandered astray a little. I didn't want to be wholly serious, because the subject of this post doesn't deserve it.

Here's the thing I wonder, but it isn't my question (my question, when I get to it, the thing I need help with, isn't a rhetorical question like the one I'll raise in this paragraph). The thing I wonder is how on Earth anybody considers Newt Gingrich an intelligent man. Okay, I understand Gingrich has the accoutrements of intelligence. He went to Emory and Tulane, which are good schools, and he received a M.A. and Ph.D. from the latter, titles and documents that say he studied and labored and wrote and read and thought (supposedly, allegedly); documents that implicitly claim he went before academics in his school and field and argued with them to defend a thesis and satisfied them with the force of his mind. And then after he got his doctorate, he went and taught college classes for several years before getting into politics. His curriculum vitae doesn't sound like that of a stupid man.

Newt Gingrich personally, on the other hand, does sound like a stupid man. It's a bit mind-blowing, really. He writes books and he quotes things, and you read or listen to what he says and it reminds you of that bit from A Fish Called Wanda about apes reading philosophy. Wanda calls Otto an ape and he protests that apes don't read philosophy; well, they do, they just don't understand it.

To be fair, Gingrich's intellect isn't universally admired. Lots of people point out he's a bit stupid. And some of the people who praise Gingrich's staggering genius are folks like Jonah Goldberg who make Gingrich look like Leonardo da Vinci. I mean, of course Jonah Goldberg thinks Newt Gingrich is a mental giant, if Jonah Goldberg's mom hadn't been a fairly important literary agent at one point in her career, Jonah would probably be somewhere flinging semen on the other inmates. But even smart people will sometimes credit Gingrich with some kind of intelligence. My friend Jim Wright recently wrote:

Now, it would be disingenuous to call Gingrich an idiot. He’s anything but – and there’s a fine bit of irony for a millionaire history professor and author with a doctorate from Tulane to be accusing other people of elitism, but again I digress.

Jim's a bright guy and it's hard to imagine he's being generous to Gingrich, considering everything that precedes and follows that one digressive sentence, but he's also wrong. Sorry, Jim. It's not disingenuous to call Gingrich an idiot because listen to what the guy says.

Which brings us to today's blog post. I was reading bits and pieces on the Internet the other night, and I come across this excellent blog post Jonathan Bernstein wrote back in February, before Gingrich officially threw his hat in the presidential circus ring. It's a good piece, and I suggest you take a look at it if you have time; I agree with everything the author says and wish I could give a tip'o'the hat to whomever pointed me to it, because I can't figure out how I got to it. Anyway, the post was written in response to a February New York Times piece, which Bernstein does a pretty good job of tearing apart, and I was enjoying the hell out of it until I got to this mental roadblock, which is worth quoting in full:

Meanwhile, the only substantive quotation in the article is gibberish: speaking of religion, Newt says that "To a surprising degree, we are in a situation similar to Poland’s in 1979...In America, religious belief is being challenged by a cultural elite trying to create a secularized America, in which God is driven out of public life." The second part, about the cultural elite and driving out God is fairly normal Christian conservative rhetoric. Newt's special part is the first part: that USA 2011 is just like Poland in 1979. The Newt touch is to add the veneer of Serious Intellectual Heft to whatever he's saying. Often, it's with citations to some trendy book he's adopted; here, it's a fatuous historical analogy. As usual, the "analysis" doesn't bear more than a second's thought (Poland? In 1979? How? Has the US been a Soviet client for thirty years, and we haven't noticed it?). It's not supposed to; the purpose of these things is to remind everyone, or at least the gullible, that Newt is an "ideas man."

So I agree with Bernstein that (a) there's only one substantive quote and (b) it's gibberish and (c) it's typical of Gingrich's pseudointellectual posturing to polish whatever turd he's pushing out with "the veneer of Serious Intellectual Heft"--I mean, I agree with everything Bernstein is saying in that paragraph. Where I hit the roadblock is, dammit, I overthink it, I start trying to figure out what the hell Gingrich is referring to. Because he has to be referring to something, right?

Maybe there was some kind of context missing from Bernstein's version of the Gingrich comments. A clue as to what he meant in the original passage in the Times piece:

On a recent winter night here [Columbus, Ohio], Mr. Gingrich, 67, stood on stage at a Catholic school with his wife, Callista, and introduced a film they produced about the role Pope John Paul II played in the fall of Communism in Poland. As Mr. Gingrich looked out over a crowd of 1,300 people, he warned that the United States had become too secular a society.

"To a surprising degree, we are in a situation similar to Poland’s in 1979," he told the audience, which had gathered at a banquet for Ohio Right to Life, one of the nation’s oldest anti-abortion groups. "In America, religious belief is being challenged by a cultural elite trying to create a secularized America, in which God is driven out of public life."

So he's talking about the Papal visit in 1979?

Let me see if I have this straight: not only, as Bernstein remarks, is Gingrich saying that the United States in 2011 is like Poland in 1979, but he's saying, basically, that Poland was "being challenged by a cultural elite trying to create a secularized [country], in which God is driven out of public life."

Let me cop to this: I recall jack about Polish history. Poland was invaded a lot, I've got that down, repeatedly demolished by all of her neighbors. Joseph Conrad, one of my all-time favorite authors, was Polish, and so was Copernicus, who revolutionized one of my favorite sciences. And that's about all I've got aside from vague memories of the covers of the issues of Time I nicked from my parents in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which was how I sort of remember Pope John Paul II being Polish and how I remember that Solidarity and Lech Wałęsa, were big honking deals around that time.

So, y'know, I go looking up Polish history online, hitting the Google and the Wikipedia, Otto, and guess what? I don't think Aristotle was Belgian.

First of all, Poland wasn't just a Communist country and Soviet buffer Warsaw Pact state in the 1970s. It was a really Catholic Communist country and Soviet buffer Warsaw Pact state. It was a Pact state in which the Catholic church was visible, active, and prominent enough in the worldwide church for the Archbishop of Kraków to be elected Pope in 1978. The following year, the Polish Pope returns home, and according to Wikipedia a quarter of the country's population goes and sees at least one of the guy's outdoor masses. As far as I can tell, this secularized government that's turning away from God treats the Pope like an honored guest and the country's intellectuals... are all Catholic dissidents and/or members of organized labor (I can't help thinking about how much the Republican Party adores organized labor). And then the next year a Catholic labor union forms that eventually wins free elections and brings down the communist government.

Okay, so I'm one of these people who thinks the godless country Gingrich rants on a bit about sounds like a wonderful ideal to strive towards. I'll cop to that. But--and here, finally, is that question I said at the beginning of this post was blowing my brain out--what the fuck is Newt Gingrich talking about when he describes Poland as being this secularized nation led by intellectuals turning the nation from God? Of all the countries in the world, the country Gingrich describes sounds like almost the complete opposite of 1979 Poland, or am I missing something? Poland wasn't one of those "godless Commies" countries you were always hearing about back then, it was the godly communist country where everybody loved the Pope who used to be their fucking archbishop.

So, dear reader, what am I missing? Please, point me to a link. Send me to an article. Give me a succinct explanation of what the hell Newt Gingrich is talking about. Because, the way I see it, there's only two possibilities: (1) I don't know what the hell I'm talking about and every place I looked it up was horribly misinformed, (2) Newt Gingrich is an idiot who pulls shit out of his ass and has no idea what he's saying or just doesn't care, which is almost the same thing. I mean, I guess it's possible that Gingrich is the Jedi Master of Polish history and he just didn't care whether what he was saying was accurate, but that doesn't make him any less of an idiot, it just makes him a different kind of idiot, one who is indifferently dishonest and doesn't worry about being caught as opposed to one who just doesn't comprehend squat.

If it's #1, please, please tell me. I'd be happy to know. Otherwise, I'm standing by my gun: Newt Gingrich may be a well-read ape, but he's still an ape.


Bag of Freys

>> Tuesday, May 17, 2011

It's hard to resist poking a finger into Freygate even after all this time and even though the conniving little weasel at the heart of it all doesn't really deserve the publicity. But the thing of it is... well, I suppose the real thing of it is that sometimes you just can't resist the urge to stick your fingers into a suppurating wound, no matter how disgusting it is and how much you know that it probably isn't healthy.

But the other thing of it is that it's still sort of amazing how, after all this time, everybody seems to misunderstand what really happened and why so many people got their underwear in a twist over it. This is what I was thinking about when I was reading Mary Elizabeth Williams' piece in Salon the other day about Frey's recent reappearance on Oprah Winfrey's show. Williams seems to be fixated on Frey's lying, seems to be holding Frey's deceitfulness against him, and even mentions an old bit of harrumphing from Slate's curmudgeonly contrarian supreme Jack Shafer over David Sedaris' embellishments. She writes:

For Frey to be inspired, as many writers have, by the heavily embellished storytelling of Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac makes sense. Have you ever read "The Autobiography of Mark Twain"? It's brilliant. But those authors Frey so admires were working in a very different era and within a different set of literary constraints. The memoir of today comes with an expectation of truth--one that, by the way, anybody who's heard of Google can check up on. Even if you're David Sedaris, writing in the vein of broad humor, when you slap the word "nonfiction" on a book there are going to be stick-in-the-muds out there who expect your work to not be fiction. As in made the hell up.

Hm. Maybe. But not so much.

Okay, let me preface what I'm about to say by admitting that I haven't read A Million Little Pieces and I'm not likely to. I'm not likely to for two reasons, neither of which has anything to do with Frey being a charlatan. The first is that, sorry if this is your thing, but: I don't generally find harrowing tales of one man's descent into the depths of addiction and eventually inspirational triumph over his inner demons to be all that interesting as a genre, personally. I don't really want to knock it, because I'm sure quite a lot of people would point to genres I do enjoy and call them crap, and they might be right, hell, but we all have our own things. My things don't include harrowing tales of one man's descent/inspirational triumph, fictional, nonfictional, metafictional, quasifictional, pseudofictional, hemifictional, bicuriousfictional or whatever; the very thought of those kinds of books bores me, no matter how well they might be written.

Oh, which brings us to the other reason I'm not likely to read Pieces: I have read excerpts and several flaying reviews that focused on Pieces' actual literary qualities or lack thereof over the shockingness and movingness and heartwarmingness and alleged power of this harrowing true story. And the impression left by the the excerpts, and given by the reviews, and buttressed by the story of the book's submissions, is that Frey's main offenses are to literature, not against the truth. Apparently, it's a pretty shitty book.

That submission history I alluded to last paragraph: so Frey himself has now confirmed what people had been saying for a while and what I thought was common knowledge--that the book was submitted to publishers as a work of fiction and none of them would bite on it. Because, you know, apparently, it's a pretty shitty book. Stereotypical, two-dimensional characters (something that tipped off some early skeptics of the book's veracity), overly-precious prose, clichéd harrowing descent/inspirational triumph plot arc, etc. I can only (sort of) address one of the items on the list: I can't say anything about the plot or characters, but the excerpts I've read contained some pretty awful prose.

But, anyway, this gets us to the real reason people were angry about Freygate, I think. I mean, apparently this book's literary qualities as a piece of fiction or nonfiction are pretty nonexistent, and if the book isn't true than it's just another unpublishable novel about some creep hitting rock bottom and scraping himself up again. Maybe you saw something different, but it's not like any of the good reviews I saw of Pieces focused on James Frey's powerful voice and masterful technique or whatever. All the good reviews I saw were about how disgusting Frey's rock bottom was and how moving and inspirational his eventual triumph over adversity were. This was what what the book was offering, this is what people wanted: a train wreck with a happy ending, look at all the blood in the wreckage but at least nobody really got hurt, blahblahblah.

And this is why the unraveling of the "true story" claim embarrassed the publisher and humiliated the rubes. Someone--Frey (definitely), his agent (probably), his publisher (most likely)--made the cynical and apparently correct call that people would read (or at least purchase) any old crap as long as it claims to be true. The prurient interest is a powerful thing (hell, my own interest in Frey has a certain rubbernecking quality to it, though as a writing casualty, not a drug casualty). They're embarrassed to be caught out in their complete and utter contempt for their customers. And then here's Oprah Winfrey, thinking she's the media age equivalent of one of those wealthy socialites from another century who hosts literary salons, and it turns out she can't tell a literary masterpiece from an implausible pile of crap, either, that she's as big a sucker as anyone. Here are the critics who didn't catch on, who are supposedly writing reviews because they're discerning readers and trustworthy tastemakers, all pulled in and conned by the Fiji mermaid under the big top. And then there are all those readers who got sucked in by Oprah and the critics and whomever else--all those people who bought the book because they were told it was a good book and who don't want to admit that it wasn't and that what kept them turning pages was the subliminal delight in witnessing a man's alleged degradation, decay and mortification.

I mean, who wants to admit that.

It's hard not to be reminded of the outrage that erupted when it turned out Milli Vanilli were a bunch of sessions players publicly fronted by a pair of lip-syncing pretty boys who couldn't carry a tune. It was absurd, the outrage, because if you really liked that shitty, bland, generic bubblegum, what did it matter whether it was being performed by a bunch of invisibles in a West German bunker studio somewhere? No, what really roiled people was that at some level, I think, they knew the music was sugar-shelled crap but they liked the idea of Milli Vanilli, of these pretty men dancing, and when you took that away and broke it down and said, okay, so you have these two models dancing and you have this forgettable, slickly-produced pop music made by a bunch of normal-looking session people you've never even heard of, neither of those two things by themselves was the equal of what people wanted to pretend they were enjoying and people felt cheated. Which was kind of stupid: if you liked the dudes, they were still dancing, and if you actually liked the music... well, no accounting for taste, but if you liked the music, it remained what it was.

Did people like the book A Million Little Pieces or did they like what they thought it was, some guy who totally fucked himself up and went into rehab. Answer the question with the number of people who said they didn't care if Frey was a lying wank and who sounded like they meant it. Not many. No, most people were pissed.

You know, this is also where we get into why the David Sedaris comparison that Williams makes is inapposite. It's not a double standard over memoirs, it's the same standard: Sedaris is offering you something more than the truth of the story, if you were even looking for truth (which seems a little silly, but, hey, sake of an argument and all that). David Sedaris' writing style isn't anything flashy, though it's utterly perfect; his work is written, really, to be read aloud, and it's the straightforward deadpan of the raconteur who's pulling your leg a little. The conventional comparison might be to Twain, but you know Jean Sheppard is really the better reference point. What I'm trying to get across here is that you don't have to believe a single thing David Sedaris says to enjoy his writing; it doesn't matter whether or not it's labeled as "nonfiction" or "fiction" or whatever. It's right there in the tone and style, which is pleasant to read, that what you're reading is a tall tale told by someone who is stretching things a bit for the sake of a funny or touching anecdote. Take it with a grain of salt.

Take any memoir with a grain of salt. I mean, Williams may get stoked with umbrage over Frey's self-serving comparisons to Kerouac et al. and his general implication that all memoirs are fictional at some level, but he's actually right about that. He has to be, necessarily so, because the truth about memory and perception is that some component of memory is the brain's invention and perception is inherently subjective. The brain isn't an always-on-when-awake video recorder, it's a clump of meat that evolved to keep us from being eaten by tigers or falling out of trees to an early death, and if it drops pieces of conversations, misplaces dates, or fills incorrectly fills in a missing shirt color, well, it's sort of amazing it manages to remember anything, much less perform mathematical calculations, write sonnets, build rocketships or spell "Mississippi". Claiming the fact doesn't make Frey a dick, what makes him a dick is that he's using that factual claim to justify his selling a meritless piece of rehab porn to a bunch of marks who are now too embarrassed to admit they got off on his dark account of a wrecked life.

They're angry because they were cheated. Who reads Sedaris and feels cheated? (Quite the contrary, I find myself astonished on those occasions when I find out there was some kind of truth to something he wrote.) Who reads Twain and feels cheated? Who reads Miller and feels cheated? Different eras or standards doesn't enter into it; people read Frey for one reason, basically, and they were embarrassed when their reason turned out to be a sham, a Disneyworld version of a slum, a ghetto Potemkin village.

Frey, of course, has landed on his myriad feet and scuttled onward in life, effectively using the same species of techniques that made A Million Little Pieces a bestseller. With the whole Full Fathom Five venture, Frey proves he's learned his lesson: to wit, that one doesn't have to be a terribly good writer, or even write a damned thing at all, in order to have a lucrative career in writing. All one has to do is give the rubes what they want, and they'll give you movie production deals.

The adage, it happens, was wrong: you don't have to build a better mousetrap to get the world to beat a path to your door if you can find a shiny way to market the same shitty old one.


"Spy In The Cab"

>> Monday, May 16, 2011

Weary and wordless. Have some Bauhaus, dear friends.


"Black Guitar"

>> Sunday, May 15, 2011

Fan video for Blonde Redhead's haunting "Black Guitar", using clips from L'année dernière à Marienbad:


Sherlock Holmes and Jonah Hex

>> Saturday, May 14, 2011

I was at a conference this past week. This meant that I was in a hotel room, which meant that there was a television with cable. This isn't a small deal: I have a television at home, but it's old and the only thing it's plugged into is the DVD player. I was in a hotel room with television and cable and I was feeling horribly uninspired and unable to write, and there this mad device was, right there in front of the bed you could lie on with a glass of Baker's bourbon on the rocks, passively watching crap on the telly.

So I watched some crap on the telly.

Which wasn't entirely a bad thing, either, aside from the lack of getting words on a screen, I mean. At least one of the pieces of crap I watched was one I might otherwise have rented. I was a huge Jonah Hex fan as a kid, or maybe "admirer" would be a better word because I only remember having one late-'70s comic and regrettably missed the issues Joe Lansdale wrote in the 1990s (when I technically was no longer a kid, but still). (Also, Joe Lansdale is seriously one of the greatest horror writers in the History Of Ever, and if you're not familiar with any of his work, you really need to check it out.) Anyway, I have a deep and abiding fondness for that scarred-up cowboy, and I would rent the 2010 Jona Hex in spite of its terrible reviews but for the fact that I watched the last half of it in a hotel room in Raleigh, NC, and now I don't have to.

In almost the same breath, I have to mention that the following evening I saw the 2009 Sherlock Holmes, or all of it except the first five minutes of it, and while I wasn't actually planning on renting that one (in spite of another lifelong fondness for the character--renting every Sherlock Holmes movie ever made would take me more years than I'm likely to have left on this Earth, and I have no intention of departing anytime soon), again, now I don't have to.

So this hotel-room television with cable saved me, like, $6.98 or something like that. $7.98, maybe. Or several hours of download/upload time on a torrent site if I wanted to be unscrupulous and was just that intent on seeing either of these movies, neither of which was any good for many of the same reasons.

That's not really fair to Sherlock Holmes, which at least has the dubious virtue of being competently made by people who seem to have cared after a fashion for what they're doing, as opposed to Jonah Hex, which comes off as an out-of-control project made incompetently by a lot of people who were sort of indifferent to the project at some point. Sherlock Holmes isn't mailed in by anybody, you can say that much for it, if you care to say anything about a movie that is so bland and uninspired that it doesn't really deserve to be talked about too much. Which is the irony of what I'm writing, actually: I don't have anything to write about today and Sherlock Holmes is mildly annoying, so here I am writing a review of a pair of movies that wouldn't be worth the trouble if writing this blog post happened to be particularly troublesome. And I'm not sure if that gives you any reason to read this, dear reader, but we might as well be candid about the stakes, eh?

So, anyway, what these movies have in common, at least, is that they are a pair of depressingly bleh action movies built loosely around pop culture brand names, with notable actors in the leads and lots of money spent on depressingly unconvincing CGI, not just in the depressingly inevitable and uninspired obligatory fight scenes but in the underwhelming and standard-issue blue/grey re-creations of the 19th Century settings these depressingly contemporary movies are ostensibly set in. You may have noticed a lack of variety in the adverbs employed in the previous sentence, a theme or motif, if you will. Hex and Holmes are depressing movies, the kinds of movies that leave one prone with one's booze turning to water in one hand and an unused remote control in the other, wondering when, exactly, the mass-suicide of pop culture took place.

Or maybe I'm depressed because I never thought I would reach a point in my life when I was sick of action movies. Which is an inaccurate statement. I'm sick of the action movies everybody with the possible exception of Christopher Nolan is making these days. And classic action movies? My appetite for From Russia With Love, for instance, remains unwhettable. Gosh, I could possibly watch that movie several nights in a row, it's clever and bright and fun and remains interesting on several viewings, as opposed to the pair of adventure films I watched this week, which weren't interesting on one viewing.

I wasn't terribly irritated by Jonah Hex, possibly because of all the shit reviews it got during the week it was in theatres or possibly because, as much as I may love the guy, he's still (at the end of the day) just a comic book cowboy. I mean, one doesn't go into a movie like that with high hopes, know what I mean?

But Holmes annoyed me. Okay, I'll admit it wasn't a film I had any interest in to start with at all. But with such low expectations, I might have enjoyed it more; I didn't find it bad enough to turn off, would be another way to put it, and watched it through to the end even though I was ready to have dinner about thirty minutes before the inevitable fight in perilous places. As I said before, it was competent.

The thing is, see, Sherlock Holmes (note the lack of italics--we're talking about the character) is as good an example as any as to why a healthy public domain is vital to pop culture. I know some critics were irked by an American playing Holmes as an action hero in an action movie, feeling that was "unfaithful" to a character who has been portrayed in various media (off the top of my head, here, and not an exhaustive list) as a sulky teen, a somewhat addled old man, a complete nincompoop, a psychologically-damaged drug addict, an underground terrorist/assassin, a robot, a time traveler, and a space traveler in adventures set in various centuries in which he's gone against criminals, Nazis, aliens, Jack The Ripper, cthuloid monstrosities from other planets/dimensions, devils, demons, holograms, Dracula, the existential terror of 20th Century industrial mass murder and has been teamed up with superheroes, spies, astronauts, chrononauts--a lot of these portrayals, naturally, being worse than anything Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ever came up with and more than a few of them being better, and not a lot of point in complaining about fidelity to the stories or character at this stage in the game. And if Sherlock Holmes (the movie, now) took extensive liberties with Sherlock Holmes (the character) and friends, gods know the movie might be as entertaining as Young Sherlock Holmes or Without A Clue (not a good movie at all, but a guiltily pleasurable one) or even any of those Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes where Brent Spiner dressed in Holmsian drag and matched wits with the Enterprise's holodeck.

But the 2009 Holmes doesn't take any liberties, naturally, nor does it bother overmuch with fidelity. Put another way, it has neither the qualities that made the Basil Rathbone films entertaining nor the Jeremy Brett series enjoyable. No, the Robert Downey, Jr. Holmes adaptation goes for a safe, middle-of-the-road, let's not piss off any of the merchants approach; there are times the 2009 Holmes almost looks like it wants to riff on the (old) idea that Holmes and Watson are, in fact, gay lovers, but any time Downey and co-star Jude Law start getting a little too fey, somebody remembers that an action-adventure movie about a gay couple might lead to some family values organization protesting McDonald's or Burger King or whomever it is who's going to be selling the Sherlock Holmes glasses and kid's meals (Taco Bell, maybe), and God knows, we wouldn't want that, would we? And that's as brave as the movie gets, really. There's also a brief moment when it looks for about three milliseconds like they're going to kill off Watson, which would be a bit interesting, wouldn't it, but in the next scene Watson's in bed and the next scene he has a little scarf serving as a sling and then the next scene after that the sling's completely gone (he was just in an explosion, mind you, one of those enormous action movie explosions whose equivalent in real life would flay exposed skin, melt clothing into boiling flesh everywhere else, ignite hair, rupture eardrums, shatter bones, and generally be a complete catalogue of multiple horrible fatalities, but that in action movies--yawn--causes one to wobble a bit in slow motion while one's hair gets temporarily mussed, unless one happened to have enough advance notice to be leaping--again in slow motion--away from the Explosive Event Of No Real Consequence).

That approach is consistent throughout, really: Holmes is the most Goldilocks movie I think I've seen in years, careful to be inoffensive and anxiously skipping away from anything that might turn away anybody in its ceaseless effort to entertain a wide holiday audience without risking its middle-of-the-road PG-13 rating. Here's a movie that references Holmes' cocaine use (because you have to have that for the Holmes fans) in a way that's so glancingly obscure that there's no way a parent could get upset on behalf of his or her preciouses' innocence being despoiled. Ditto for any sexual tension between Holmes and Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), whose inclusion in the movie can really only be described as another sop to fans (sure, she's important to the plot--and she could pretty much be any pretty woman on Earth with an alleged history with Sherlock Holmes, said history being another bit of generic Hollywood shorthand, because why else would Sherlock Holmes be interested in solving a mystery unless there was a generic, sexless, bloodless romantic subplot attached to it). There are supernatural elements, but nothing too supernatural, and there's a mystery, but nothing too puzzling or convoluted--yep, a nice middle balance, not too hot and not too cold. Suspense (but not too exciting) and humor (but not too funny) and drama (but not too serious) and the whole thing could be enjoyed by a very dull and boring eight-year-old, or (more likely) his dull and boring parent who is concerned that anything too violent might make him uncontrollable and anything too clever might bore him and anything too romantic might trigger puberty early and anything too exciting might keep him up at night. Or, perhaps most likely: this is a movie carefully calibrated for a committee of studio executives who have in mind a hypothetical parent like the one just described, with a hypothetical eight-year-old (ditto), and these film execs Sherlock Holmes was made to placate aren't so much worried about whether the product is any good but whether alienating anyone with the product will damage the tie-ins and toys and fast food promotions and the opportunities to make the whole thing a franchise to sell all this crap to the general public.

And that's depressing.

I mean, it's not like the committee that manufactured Sherlock Holmes (and the one that assembled Jonah Hex) is the first group of people to make a movie solely to make money. It's called "the film industry" for a reason, right? But it at least seems like it used to be that someone had the idea that the way to make the money was to make the best movie you could with whatever you had to work with, and then people would want to see it because, you know, it was a good film. I mean, you look at the background to the making of A Hard Day's Night, and basically the movie got made because United Artists had a record division that was losing money and the studio execs wanted primarily to make a movie that would sell a soundtrack album (they'd be able to work out a licensing deal with whomever the band was signed to--UA was able to get The Beatles interested, so they made a mutually advantageous arrangement with EMI/Parlophone); but while it was considered sort of incidental as to whether the movie was a lasting success, it wasn't incidental or optional that the movie be as good a low-budget toss-off as they could produce, and it almost went without saying that making a movie about that music all the kids were listening to was inherently, almost designedly going to alienate much of the film-going public (i.e. all the old people complaining about all that racket the kids these days listen to).

Okay, so probably nobody immediately working on Sherlock Holmes and Jonah Hex was saying, "Fuck it, let's just get a take, put it in the can and do the next scene." Presumably, Robert Downey, Jr. and Josh Brolin wanted to make good, entertaining movies. I'm just not too convinced that anyone who was actually in charge cared whether these movies were all that good so long as they seemed likely to be financially successful, and in the case of Holmes it's pretty clear that they wanted to make sure the movie was one-hundred-percent safe and boring.

And I just don't know how many more of these lame-ass adventures in advertising I can take. It just brings me down, man.


Pigs fly...

>> Friday, May 13, 2011

Presented without perceiving a need for comment beyond this--London, May 12th, 2011, res ipsa loquitur:


Call it fluff and unite against it if you want...

>> Thursday, May 12, 2011

May 18th, 2011: Strangeness. Okay, this is the post from May 12th, 2011, which ended up being mislaid in the Blogger madness on that day, when Blogger went read-only and lost tons of posts and comments. This filler post went up because I was at a conference and then was sucked into the cybervoid; that part I understood--computers crash, things go wrong, files vanish. What was weird is that it shows up as a draft today on the 18th.

I guess that would be great if this had been my epic exegesis of my really deep thoughts about the ineffable profundities of the great mystery of the enigma, but I was out of town and this was a filler post. But it's back, I like Aimee Mann, and the hole in the Giant Midgets timeline is vexing (I've updated daily for several years now with only a few missed posts--most, if not all of them, back when I had a broken wrist in 2009), so I'm re-posting and post-dating this. Cheers.

Oh. The post title, by the way, references comments made by Jim and Nathan under the May 11th filler posts; I think Jim's is still there but Nathan's was lost to posterity.

Call it fluff and unite against it if you want...

...but I'm in Raleigh, NC, attending a conference, plus I'm suffering from some awful writer's block I'm afraid, and this is an old Aimee Mann song, "Pavlov's Bell":



>> Wednesday, May 11, 2011

I'm going to be a bit busy through three next few days; I'll try to keep up with the daily posting schedule, butt there may be a good bit of fluff. E.g. some classic Thomas Dolby from way back millions of years ago, when a "cell phone" consisted of a little box with a tiny pterodactyl in it that flew your messages back and forth. Sometimes he'd complain about how tired his wings were and you'd know your minutes were up.

"One Of Our Submarines Is Missing":


They must think they are so talented... and that we are so dumb...

>> Tuesday, May 10, 2011

1974 was, no possible argument, Mel Brooks' best year as an artist. No, look: sure, he directed a string of absolutely brilliant comedies starting in 1968 with The Producers in 1968 and ending with History of the World: Part I in 1981, but 1974 was the year that started with the release of Blazing Saddles in February and ended with the release Young Frankenstein in December.1 That's a damn good year.

It comes to mind because there's a scene in Blazing Saddles that is replaying in my mind when I read the news this morning. The scene (we'll get to the news in a moment, but you may be able to guess what it is before then) is one that I'm a little self-conscious in trying to describe: the movie's protagonist, Bart (Cleavon Little) arrives in the racist little town of Rock Ridge to take on the suicide mission of serving as the town sheriff; upon his arrival, however, he finds a less-than-warm welcome, shall we say, and a confrontation with the townsfolk he resolves by pointing a gun to his own head and holding himself hostage.2

You may have guessed that I've been replaying this scene over and over in my head since learning this morning that John Boehner is demanding major concessions from the President in exchange for keeping the United States out of financial default. May the gods help us if pointing a gun to his/our own head and threatening to blow his/our head all over this town actually works. We can't possibly be this stupid. Boehner can't possibly be this stupid. Can he?

I have to confess to feeling a perverse hope that Obama calls their bluff and the Congressional Republicans actually refuse to back down. This is not a good urge, being a member of the same family of urges that causes one to pop a blister just to watch it leak or pick at a scab or tempts one to do something really drastic like jump off a cliff or out a window because one wonders what free fall would feel like for several seconds. Although, perhaps, a little more malicious than curious in this instance because part of the urge is to get in the faces of the people who voted for these putzes in the first place and scream, "See! See! This is why we can't have nice things! You're the reason! You are! You're the reason we keep ending up neck deep in shit! Happy now? Huh? Are you?" This is hardly a nice desire. There might even be some actual physical kicking that accompanies it, which makes it even worse. But you may get the idea. You may share the feeling.

I also have to add that when Boehner does things like this, I really find it impossible to believe in his good faith, which is actually distressing. Let me elaborate on that: I hated Ronald Reagan as President (for instance) because I found his policies despicable, foolish and hurtful. But if you'd asked me, I'd never have said his policies were the result of bad faith; that is, I'm still reasonably sure that Reagan's awful ideas were the result of his sincere but horrifically misguided ideas about how America should work and how the place could be improved upon. Reagan's vision of America has little resemblance to my vision of what this country ought to be like, but we were (and I mostly still am3; he, of course, is dead now) both wanting the best for our country. And you can maybe work with someone like that, maybe (maybe) meet them halfway somewhere or at least agree to disagree about how to get to similar-ish goals.

But Boehner? He's holding the gun to everybody's head--again--and wants to fuck poor people and the middle class while refusing to end the free rides for his corporate overlords... and I can't believe he's acting for the betterment of his country or for any other goal than wrecking the place up a bit if it gets a few more dimes in somebody's pockets. And maybe that's horribly unfair, but I'll be damned if he acts like he wants to prove me wrong.

We're not dumb enough for him to pull this one off, are we? Are we?

1I'm afraid that it's not coincidental that the three best movies of that run--The Producers, Saddles and Young Frankenstein--also represent Brooks' entire feature film collaboration with one Gene Wilder. The Twelve Chairs, Silent Movie, the often-overlooked-and-underrated High Anxiety and History Of The World are all wonderful in their ways, but don't hold a candle to the sublimity of the Wilder films.

As for the post-History epoch... I'm sorry, Spaceballs was terrible. And, sadly, it wasn't Brooks' worst film; everything that Brooks has directed since 1987 has been painfully worse than whatever preceded it, as if Brooks was purposely challenging audiences who said the last film was his worst thing ever. And if you're going to try to rise to the challenge of defending any of these unfunny travesties--well, y'know, maybe you should go on YouTube and dig up the "Puttin' On The Ritz" scene in Young Frankenstein and watch it again and note just how sly and off-kilter it is.

And, you know, apparently Brooks wanted to cut that scene because he didn't think it was funny, and Wilder fought him over it. And so, to placate Wilder, Brooks left it in for a test audience, planning to cut it later on--except the audience roared during the scene and Brooks had to go back to Wilder and admit that Wilder had been right all along, that the scene was funny. Which maybe tells you a lot about Brooks' sense of humor and suggests what's gone wrong with Brooks' later comedies; that Brooks' sense of humor is broad and Borscht-ey, versus the sly conceptual stuff someone like Gene Wilder brought to his Young Frankenstein draft or the lacerating wit Richard Pryor delivered at the Blazing Saddles script meetings.


2Do I even need to mention the clever way this scene comments on and ruthlessly mocks and eviscerates Caucasian stereotypes of African-Americans as either perpetrators of or victims of violent crime, as if those are the only acceptable social roles for blacks (especially in 1970s America)? No? Well, I guess I did anyway.

3Okay, so I'd be lying if I didn't acknowledge--as you might glean from what I'm saying supra about the debt ceiling--that there are times I almost want to see us get a nosebleed because, honestly, it would just serve us right. Which I sort of hate to admit, but I'm being honest here. Not because I hate my country--quite the contrary--but because I get so disappointed and disheartened and angry sometimes, and there are times when you really just lose patience and throw everything down and say, "Well, fine, if you won't listen to reason, you deserve what you get!" And then unemployment goes up another tenth-of-a-percent or someone's kid gets shot up overseas, or some girl leaves her kid in a bathroom trashbin because she couldn't get reproductive care (or an abortion) or someone goes to prison for trying to make ends meet and I didn't mean it, I didn't mean it, I didn't mean it, I take it back, can I take it all back?


An open letter to EnlargeYourSnake

>> Monday, May 09, 2011

GuaranteedGrowth Within ThreeWeeks or Your$$ Back!‏


From: EnlargeYourSnake (xxxxxx@xxxxxxx.com)
Sent: Mon 5/09/11 2:51 AM

The onlyHerbal MaleEnlargement Product that is Proven Successful in ClinicalTrials!
Doctor-Approved andReccommended.. Nothing to lose and lots to gain!

Dear Sir or Madam,

When I saw the header on your missive, I confess I was extremely excited and eager, and filled with raised expectations--until I opened the message and read further. Still, being indefatigably the optimist, I thought I would inquire further before I abandoned all hope; you may, after all, have an alternative.

Specifically, I would inquire of you whether you have any of these "herbal" products that might be suitable for female snakes, or whether you only have concoctions suitable for male Serpentes?

I shall endeavor to provide additional information in the hope it will assist you in replying to my question, although it is quite possible your answer will still be a flat "no." It happens that I am in possession of a rather large member of the species Eunectes murinus, colloquially known as the green anaconda or water boa, although those prone to vagueness will sometimes refer to a specimen of E. murinus merely as an anaconda and those prone to exaggeration will refer to murinus as a "giant" anaconda. Such grandiose nomenclature, I regret to say, hardly seems applicable to my dear Emma, who is a mere twenty-five feet in length and shows no sign of growing any larger at the present time (naturally, I suppose that some folks less-versed in herpetology, such as my vicious shrew of a wife or that intolerable and idiotic Mr. Hodgins whom those cretins running the Bank have seen fit to install over me as a so-called "supervisor" might find Emma large or frightening as it is, but this merely reflects their ignorance of the subtleties of serpentine magnitude).

When I purchased Emma from a circus gentleman (I do not believe they enjoy the term "carny") some years ago, Emma was a mere twenty feet in length, but I was assured she would gain considerably in size. I suppose I shouldn't complain--there was some difficulty in transporting the sweet lass from the trainyard to the old house I was able to purchase with the funds I'd secreted from that meddling harridan I only married because I thought that would quell her rabid persistence (instead, it only diverted it, I'm afraid, to long accusations about ineptitude at work and negligence in running household finances, and lengthy tirades about what other husbands do for their women, and an insistence that I abandon the collection of notable serpentia I had acquired over a forty-year lifetime of amateur herpetology). Moving Emma was a challenge not just for her considerable (and yet, I find, inadequate) mass, but because there had been some issue with Emma being falsely implicated in the disappearances of several small children last seen lurking about the Snake Tent. (Anyone who knows anything knows that snakes have such a slow metabolism that even a twenty-five foot long green anaconda could eat, at most, one child in a several week period and any other children mislaid by their parents almost certainly had run off to join the circus, as I might have, myself, had I not found myself forced into a less-than-advancing clerical job at a prominent bank by my rotten father's ill health and nagging demands of my vile mother, either of whom might have been cared for by my brother, were he of a more familial bent).

Anyhoo, Emma did gain somewhat in size in the massive heated pool I was able to set up in the basement of the old out-of-the-way house I procured, and indeed she thrived on a diet of dogs, goats, and the occasional neighborhood... well, enough about that, the point is that Emma thrived, but only up to a point. For several years now, she has stood at a mere twenty-five feet in length, and I confess that I am perhaps even giving the dear thing a few inches in the tail. I do not want to imply that the sweet girl has disappointed her adoptive father in any way, for she is of sweet temper and good disposition, and eats whatever I set before her and enjoys a good swim in her basement pool and is most lovely when she suns herself beneath the heat lamps. But a few more feet and a bit more girth would be tolerable, especially as that rotten Hodgins denied me a rise again last month and the wife happened to come across a bill referencing the power and water expenditures at the other house and had the gall to pester me about whether or not I had a mistress. A few feet, yes, and a proportional increase in the size of her head and expanse of dear Emma's jaws would be a wonderful thing.

Consider, as a benchmark, perfectly arbitrary, that my brother, Thomas, is five-seven and a bit stout in the belly; Mr. Hodgins is obviously taller but much thinner, and my wife almost as wide but much shorter (my parents have shrunken in their old age and are considerably smaller than my wife). I'm sorry. Where was I? Oh, yes: let us consider an arbitrary unit of mass to be called a "Thomas." At her present size, I believe that Emma might be able to comfortably get her jaws around a half-Thomas, or perhaps even a three-quarters Thomas. But I fear that a morsel of such size might strain the elastic muscles of her throat and jaw; I would be happier, I think, if she were, let us say, forty feet in length and could easily swallow one Thomas or possibly even one-and-a-quarter Thomases. Hypothetically and arbitrarily, that is. One might just as easily dub our unit of measure a Pauline or a Hodgins, but a Thomas seems like a useful reference point.

Alas, if your snake enhancement techniques are only applicable to the male of the species, my discreet inquiry (and I hope you understand the quiet nature of this inquiry) might be all for nought. Please reply at your earliest convenience if you have any suggestions whatsoever. And might I add that, given the discreet nature of inquiries regarding increases in the size of one's snake, it might be appreciated if you destroyed this message after responding. A man's vanity might be at stake, and while I am pleased with the size of my snake, one could certainly do with a larger one to improve upon one's pleasure.

R. Eric VanNewkirk
Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets


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