An open letter to His Excellency, Ambassador Terence P. McCulley

>> Monday, June 24, 2013


  • URGENT REPLY NEEDED‏

AMBASSADOR TERENCE P. McCULLEY (info@live.com)
6/22/13


From:AMBASSADOR TERENCE P. McCULLEY (info@live.com)
Sent:Sat 6/22/13 7:14 PM
To:


(UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO NIGERIA)
Embassy of the United States of America
Plot 1075 Diplomatic Drive
Central District Area, Abuja.
Contact E-mail: ambassador_terence2013@yahoo.com.hk
 
 
 
DEAR BENEFICIARY,
 
THIS IS AMBASSADOR TERENCE P. MCCULLEY. UNITED STATE OF AMERICA AMBASSADOR
TO NIGERIA.
 
THIS PROGRAM WAS LAUNCHED BY THE UNITED NATION AND SUPPORTED WORLD BANK
(IMF). THE UNITED NATION AND SUPPORTED WORLD BANK (IMF) HAS BUDGETED A
TOTAL AMOUNT OF $16 BILLION FOR THE COMPENSATION OF SOME PEOPLE THAT FELL
VICTIM TO ONLINE SCAMMERS. THE PROGRAMS ARE AS FOLLOWS:
 
(1) ERADICATION OF SCAMMING STRATEGIES BY ADVANCE TECHNOLOGY INPUT.
(2) COMPENSATION OF SCAM VICTIMS.
 
THERE IS ABSOLUTELY GOING TO BE GREAT DOUBT AND DISTRUST IN YOUR HEART IN
RESPECT TO THIS EMAIL COUPLED WITH THE FACT THAT SO MANY MISCREANTS AND
IMPOSTERS(SCAMMERS) HAVE TAKEN POSSESSION OF THE INTERNET TO FACILITATE
THEIR NEFARIOUS DEEDS, THEREBY MAKING IT EXTREMELY DIFFICULT FOR GENUINE
AND LEGITIMATE BUSINESS CLASS PERSONS TO GET ATTENTION AND RECOGNITION
 
YOU HAVE REALLY PAID SO MUCH IN THIS DELIVERY THAT MAKES ME WONDER. YOU
ARE A VERY LUCKY PERSON BECAUSE I SHALL BE BRINGING IT MYSELF AND THERE IS
NOTHING ANYONE CAN DO ABOUT IT.
 
CHECK HERE:  http://nigeria.usembassy.gov/biography.html .
PRIVATE E-MAIL: ambassador_terence2013@yahoo.com.hk
 
I SHALL BE COMING TO YOUR COUNTRY FOR AN OFFICIAL MEETING ON TUESDAY AND I
WILL BE BRINGING YOUR COM FUNDS WITH MY DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY THROUGH AN ATM
MASTER CARD OF $10M ALONG WITH ME BUT THIS TIME I WILL NOT GO THROUGH
CUSTOMS BECAUSE AS AN AMBASSADOR TO NIGERIA, I AM A US GOVERNMENT AGENT
AND I HAVE THE VETO POWER TO GO THROUGH CUSTOMS. AS SOON AS I AM THROUGH
WITH THE MEETING I SHALL THEN PROCEED TO YOUR ADDRESS. (SEND YOUR CELL
PHONE NUMBER AND THE ADDRESS WHERE YOU WANT ME TO BRING THE PACKAGE).
 
YOUR PACKAGE OF ($10M) MUST BE REGISTERED AS AN AMBASSADORIAL PACKAGE FOR
ME TO DEFEAT ALL ODDS AND THE COST OF REGISTERING IT IS $175. THE FEE MUST
BE PAID IN THE NEXT 50 HOURS VIA WESTERN UNION OR MONEY-GRAM SO THAT ALL
NECESSARY ARRANGEMENT CAN BE MADE BEFORE TIME WILL BE AGAINST US.
 
YOU SHOULD SEND THE FEE DIRECTLY TO THE CARGO REGISTRATION OFFICER WITH
THE INFO BELOW:-
 
RECEIVER'S NAME: JOHN EMMANUEL
ADDRESS: NIGERIA
TEXT QUESTION: GOD BLESSES?
ANSWER: AMERICA
AMOUNT $175
MTCN.....
SENDERS NAME:
SENDERS ADDRESS:
 
 AS SOON AS YOU SEND THE FEE MAKE SURE YOU SEND ME THE PAYMENT
INFORMATION. MY FLIGHT IS TUESDAY AND I EXPECT YOU TO COMPLY BEFORE THEN
SO THAT THE DELIVERY CAN BE COMPLETED. IF YOU DO NOT COMPLY, THEN IT WILL
NOT BE MY FAULT IF YOU DO NOT RECEIVE YOUR PACKAGE.
 
SIGN
HIS EXCELLENCY TERENCE P. MCCULLEY.
US AMBASSADOR TO NIGERIA
CHECK HERE VIEW MY DATA:  http://nigeria.usembassy.gov/biography.html



Dear Ambassador,

Thank you, thank you, thank you.  I admit I've had my doubts about the administration lately.  All this stuff with the NSA, the ongoing issues with drone strikes, the embarrassment of the IRS screening political non-profits in a way that suggests more partisanship than was likely occurring, all of the political setbacks dealing with the House Of Representatives on various issues from the sequester earlier in the year to the to-and-fro on immigration these days, etc., etc. ad nauseum.  It's hard for a poor progressive Southern boy to know what to do with himself, other than throw votes away on candidates who don't even have a shot at making ballots in actual truly liberal parts of the country.  So getting an e-mail promising that someone from the administration was going to help me deal with miscreants and imposters who have taken over the Internet really made my day.  It was a true ray of sunshine falling upon a path in a cold gloomy wood.

I mean, I really did think the President's only response to the whole question of whether this PRISM program was logging citizens' e-mails was going to be that we shouldn't worry, because the whole process is transparent, thanks to review by the secret FISA Court, which can't tell anyone what cases they've heard and what their decisions were, so fuck you for asking.  I did find this, I confess, a sort of perplexing use of the word "transparency" to refer to something, a process, that is the exact opposite of "transparent", i.e. I believe "opaque" is the word usually used, or "opacity".  Happily, though, it seems like I'm wrong, and that the State Department will be dealing with the NSA "taking over the Internet" (though that's an exaggerated way of putting it; still, thank you).

And yet I found the rest of your missive perplexing, Your Excellency.  On the one hand, you have this infectious unbridled optimism: "I shall be bringing it myself and there is nothing anyone can do about it," you say, clearly willing to run over your President and the national intelligence community.  Only to turn around and write, moments later, "time will be against us".  This isn't a direct contradiction, no, except that it seems to me the only ways time could be an obstacle is through the agency of people; this isn't the sort of thing like milk going sour in the fridge or mold taking over a stale piece of cheese; if anyone tries to tell you that something is too late, that the time has expired for whatever cleverness you have in mind, seems to me you could just say to them, "You can't stop me, mwah-ha!" and you proceed, unstoppably.  (Unless, of course, you're going to stop these miscreants with perishables, which seems... well, I don't want to tell you your business, but it's not what I would have expected.  This doesn't have anything to do with force-feeding all the indefinite detainees remaining at Gitmo, does it?)

Still, for someone who is so wonderfully reckless, who wouldn't even let Congress' Great Orange Hope, John Boehner, stop him (I swear that man must be at least part Muppet somewhere in his family tree), you seem to be daunted by the odds.  You say you need my package registered as an ambassadorial package, and for some reason it will cost me $175.00 despite the fact that nothing and no one will stand in your way.  Again, I don't mean to tell you how to do your business, but it does seem to me you could just go and register the thing yourself.  "Bah," I imagine you saying, Your Excellency, "this man needs his doubt and mistrust allayed by the strong action of progressive government working by and for the people!  This fee shall be waived!  I shall waive the fee!  I shall just carry it through customs, unmarked, and when the TSA workers ask me to step through the backscatter X-Ray pervo-scanner, I shall say, 'Bah!  Out of my way, you wage-slave voyeurs and critics of youthful fad and fashion!  By God, I will have this package through customs or you shall feel my wrath, for I have the veto power to go through customs!  A veto for you, sir!  And you, ma'am!  Veto!  Veto!  Veto!  Begone, or I shall add to my veto a kick in your ass, the likes of which you have not felt since your days as a mewling adolescent!"

And then, really, you don't even have to bring me anything, you know.  Because really, all I want isn't even for the government to stop accruing data that, frankly, I've willingly allowed private corporations who think much less of me to accrue that data for decades, now.  Nor do I necessarily need to know what arcane and mystical algorithms are being used to spider-trawl the data, sifting it through spindly long-legged octo-fingers to see how the strands cross and link.  I would just like some process to assure that if this data is ever used to accuse someone of a crime, the accused has the right to face his digital accuser, to see what digital evidence has been assembled against him and the power to confront it in some kind of courtroom.  It seems to me that there ought to be ways to preserve and screen all of this information, so that it can't be abused (or at least the abuses require so many failsafes to fail that the dangers are negligible).  It seems to me, too, that there are ways to divulge the nature of what's being collected, and even some specifics, without unduly revealing arts and methods of national security.  And there has to be a way to get proper oversight beyond a Congress that the Executive claims was briefed but that, in its turn, claims it didn't understand or approve a damn bit of it.  And to make sure the FISA courts are really doing their job and not rubber-stamping things.  Oh, and to repeal the PATRIOT Act, or thoroughly revise it.  If it isn't too much to ask.  But all that or even some of it would be worth more than a ten-million-dollar ATM card; I don't know what I'd do with it, really, seeing as how my bank puts a much lower limit on daily withdrawals.  Not to mention, I'd likely squander a chunk of it on donations to the ACLU and EFF to try to get across some of the things I just mentioned, so why not get rid of the middlemen and just directly go to the procedural fixes?

Thank you again for all your help!



Sincerely,
R. Eric VanNewkirk


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It's worse when nobody's listening

>> Wednesday, June 12, 2013

I'm going to assume readers are familiar with the whole fracas surrounding the revelation that the government is doing more-or-less exactly what everybody (should have) assumed the PATRIOT Act and FISA re-authorizations of the past decade allowed them to do.  I don't want to get into a recapitulation of the whole thing here.

I also don't want to get into a whole long thing about privacy, which is something I think I've sounded off on in the past (here, for instance; or here).  What I'll just say in brief is that I think the NSA data collection is problematic for a lot of reasons that involve policy, politics and civil liberties but not so much "privacy" per se, which I still think is a mostly outdated concept.  It's worth mentioning that the real issues we're talking about here involve the retention of data that's created by phone companies and online service providers in order to make technologies like cell phones and e-mail work at all, and who has the data, which (prior to the PATRIOT Act and FISA re-authorization bills) was solely in the possession of private companies until those companies destroyed the data, unless a government actor subpoenaed them to preserve it and turn it over.  (Which brings up another point that's being widely overlooked: state and government actors have always had potential access to phone and online records, what has changed isn't the fact of access, but the conditions: a subpoena or warrant can be challenged by the receiving party, doesn't reach to data that's already been destroyed, etc.)

No, what I really wanted to get into is that the business of collecting and indefinitely keeping records raises civil liberties concerns that don't have much at all to do with privacy, if there's still any such thing.  The privacy issue may even be a distraction.

I think we might start with: critics of the NSA collection policies have bounced the adjective "Orwellian" around a good bit, which is unfortunate because it usually reflects a widespread misunderstanding of what was going on Orwell's 1984.  The common perception is that Orwell described a surveillance state where everybody was being watched; this is incorrect.  What Orwell described was a state in which members of The Party, i.e. pretty much everybody in any kind of bureaucratic position, might be under surveillance.  Orwell recognized that even in a somewhat allegorical work, the idea that any government bureaucracy, however wide-reaching, would have the time and resources to monitor everybody was simply absurd; what a totalitarian state might do, however, is foster a paralyzing sense of paranoia amongst everybody who might turn into a troublemaker by giving all of those people a rational basis for thinking they could be under surveillance at any particular point in time, including a point in time in which they were actually making some kind of trouble (however slight).  In 1984, the ruling caste of Oceania knows the ever-present cameras in their Party apartments aren't always being monitored, they just don't know when they're being watched and thus must behave as if they're always watched.  The Proles--who make up most of Oceania's population--aren't really under surveillance at all.  (Furthermore, since there's possibly no longer any actual counterrevolution occurring--it's implied that Emmanuel Goldstein is long dead and was never the traitor Big Brother makes him out to be, an echo of how Stalin used Trotsky after his exile and assassination--the Party must continuously eat itself so that there's an appearance of continuing counterrevolution for the people to unify against: hence the entrapment of impotent misfits like Winston Smith and Julia.)

But if government collection of data that's generated by everybody's acquiescence and consent to participate in technologies (nobody's forcing you to have a cell phone or GMail account, are they?) isn't "Orwellian", is there a better adjective for what might be wrong with it?  There is, and I think Daniel J. Solove nails it in a piece posted at The Chronicle Of Higher Education, "Why Privacy Matters Even If You Have 'Nothing To Hide'":

Another metaphor better captures the problems: Franz Kafka's The Trial. Kafka's novel centers around a man who is arrested but not informed why. He desperately tries to find out what triggered his arrest and what's in store for him. He finds out that a mysterious court system has a dossier on him and is investigating him, but he's unable to learn much more. The Trial depicts a bureaucracy with inscrutable purposes that uses people's information to make important decisions about them, yet denies the people the ability to participate in how their information is used.

The problems portrayed by the Kafkaesque metaphor are of a different sort than the problems caused by surveillance. They often do not result in inhibition. Instead they are problems of information processing—the storage, use, or analysis of data—rather than of information collection. They affect the power relationships between people and the institutions of the modern state. They not only frustrate the individual by creating a sense of helplessness and powerlessness, but also affect social structure by altering the kind of relationships people have with the institutions that make important decisions about their lives.

Kafkaesque.  I've been a fan of Franz Kafka since I was a teenager, and I'm a little embarrassed I wasn't using this word weeks, if not years ago.  Yes.  The common thread through much, most, possibly all of Kafka's fiction is the idea that the universe in fact has a basic, fundamental meaning, an underlying truth and is governed by a rational system: all of which is denied to you; you will not be told the truth (nor will you be lied to), you will not be granted the meaning, you will not be able to see how the system works altogether.  There are rules, you just won't be told what they are.  There are facts, but if you don't already know them it isn't anyone else's responsibility to share them.  Kafka's characters are always on the outside, almost inevitably trying to figure out how to get in: there is a way inside the castle even if you can't get in, there is a message from the Emperor Of China even if you never hear it, there is a crime that has been committed and for which you will pay even if the indictments remain sealed, you deserved to be turned into an insect even if you're not sure why, all of your bad acts and consequences thereof will be carved into your skin although you'll die without ever having a mirror to read what has been written--et cetera.

There is an irony in the collection of metadata that I sense only bothers me, and something people keep saying which I suspect only bothers me.  And at the risk of being labeled merely contrarian I'm going to try to explain what it is and why it bothers me and how Kafkaesque it is (and therefore, perhaps, why the NSA data collection program really is wrong).  At the heart of it is something that critics and defenders and people who are merely blasé about the whole thing seem to agree upon: "The NSA is only collecting metadata--where and when the calls were placed, the lengths of calls, things like that--they aren't listening into the actual calls or recording the contents of the calls."  And they agree, critics and defenders and people who are merely blasé, that this is a good thing.

It isn't.

Now let me see if I can explain why in a sensible way.  Because this seems counterintuitive, because if you're used to thinking about privacy issues in Orwellian terms (properly applying Eric Arthur Blair or not), it seems like collecting data is less intrusive than snooping, and therefore better (even if you also feel the data collecting is wrong).

There are a lot of things that can be done with all this data.  One of them is nothing: the data can be piled up on the server equivalent of the big warehouse at the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, more information than anyone can possibly process even with the use of sophisticated computers.  Aside from the unlikelihood of this scenario, given the leaps and bounds of computer processing power and exponential improvements in software development, it's also a de facto argument for not collecting and keeping the data at all: if it's useless, why do you even want it in the first place?  I think we can assume it's not useless.

Another way the metadata can be used is to connect people.  Kieran Healy wrote a primer if you're interested in how it can be done.  You might do this after you've decided a phone number is suspicious, which is what William Saletan is pretty sure is happening, using the metadata to figure out who might be connected to a suspected terrorist's cell phone; and Saletan is probably right, since another option--preemptively connecting people by defining every local social network in the country--is astronomically challenging (right now, with the resources available, but I assume it'll eventually be feasible if the government's interested in doing it; not that I think that part of it matters all that much if they can).

So if you decide that phone number 1-555-555-5555 is a terrorist's number, you can go back into the accumulated data and figure out all sorts of things from who has called that number or been called by that number and where and when and how.  And you can use that information to build a picture of the social networks around that number, and the networks around those networks, and potentially generate a kind of organizational chart of activity that might be terrorist related.  And that might save lives and stuff.

So what's the problem?

The problem is that you have networks devoid of content and context.

Here is what is going to happen, eventually (if it hasn't happened already).  A government agency will arrest somebody.  They will arrest this person as a matter of public safety, because the way he's embedded in various networks suggests a high probability he's up to something and knows others who are up to something.  They will arrest him to prevent something from happening the government thinks has been planned, or he will be arrested in the aftermath of something that couldn't be prevented.

The government will not want to charge him with a crime.  Not in a standard courtroom.  Because charging him with a crime will trigger certain rights: he will be entitled not to have his own statements used against him unless he was notified of his rights and offered a lawyer (Miranda), he will be entitled to exculpatory investigative materials in the state's possession (Brady), he will be entitled to face his accusers (Crawford), etc.  The government will not want to publicly disclose the tradecraft used to build the case against him, they will not want to "burn" possible undercover or turncoat witnesses by exposing them in court.  The government will want to have no trial at all, or a trial in some kind of tribunal setting in which the suspect has fewer or no rights.

They may not even want to tell the suspect what he's suspected of.

But they will want information.  They may tell the suspect this much, "We know you called so-and-so five times between this date and that one.  What did you talk about?  Who else is involved?  What else do you have planned?"  They may even resort to extraordinary rendition, or at least threaten it: "If you won't come clean with us, maybe you'd like to talk to these gentleman who are here to take you to Yemen when your plane lands over there."

They will do these things because they are good people.  This is the first thing I want you to understand.  They will not arrest someone without formal charges and deny him of his rights because they are evil, cruel, or villainous.  They will do it because they joined a government agency and accepted less pay than they might have earned elsewhere and more stress and longer hours because they wanted to serve their country, wanted to save lives, wanted to stop evildoers, wanted to give something to a thing larger than themselves.

And the second thing I want you to understand is that most of the people they do this to will be guilty as all hell.

But there's going to be this one guy they arrest.  They're going to ask him what he knows.  They're going to tell him what they know.  They're going to say, "We know you called your brother five times between March and June," for instance, and something like, "we know you called him five times before the incident and we know you're connected to a bunch of his associates.  Come clean.  We know you're involved."  And he's going to say, "I know he did a terrible thing, but he was my brother; we never talked about terrorism except one time, and I told him I thought he was making terrible friends and our mother would be ashamed of him.  Maybe I should have called the police, but he was my brother and I didn't know how involved he was, and then after it happened I was scared.  But we only talked about anything like that once, and I told him he was with bad men."

And they will say, "Sure."  And they will lock him up, or send him overseas to a black site or one of our less-scrupulous allies.  And if he ever gets a hearing of any kind, be it a trial or military court or just some kind of kangaroo tribunal, they will say, "He called his brother five times between March and June and do you think they never talked about the most important single thing in his brother's life?"  And he will say (if they let him be heard), "I said our mother would be ashamed of what he might be doing," and they will reply, "Of course he would say that, wouldn't he?  Five times, between March and June."

And what will he do?  How will he fight circumstantial evidence with missing evidence, if he's really telling the truth.  (And we don't know, do we?  If he's telling the truth?)  We have metadata, not data; we have time and place and how long and who else and everything except what he really said.  And he tells us he said something harmless or even tried to talk his brother out of it, but what would you expect him to say, the man's a suspected terrorist.  He'll say anything to save his life, and who wouldn't?  (He possibly even confessed to it, when he was in Yemen.  Or there's the conversation his blockmate swears happened when they were cell-by-cell in the prison camp.)

Here's a kicker.  If the NSA were really listening to phone calls, they might not even arrest the guy.  Would probably bring him in, sure, debrief him: "We know you tried to talk your brother out of this.  You really should have called someone.  Can you think of anyone else we should call?  Here's our card, if you think of something."  Because they aren't, you know, evil, cruel, or villainous; they did, you know, want to serve, to protect.

Do you see what I'm saying here?  Collecting the data without saving the calls is actually worse than listening to the conversations.  Because gods know, listening in is a ridiculous breach of privacy, an insult, an intrusion, a violation.  But it's also the only way you can use the data without relying on inferences that may be incontestable.

We have a ridiculous idea in the post-Enlightenment west.  We have several.  But there's this one: "Better," we say, "to let ten guilty men go free than punish one innocent man."  This is stupid.  If you care about public safety, really care, it's better to randomly murder a hundred people on the off chance one of them might eventually do something terrible.  But we consider that capricious and cruel, the kind of thing tyrants and madmen do.  So we have the former idea, that you're better off sometimes allowing something good to happen to the iniquitous than to allow the terrifying weight of the state to fall upon a single innocent.

I see two ways to protect the innocent here, and I realize I'm utterly mad and everyone will think this is the stupidest thing they've ever read.  The first is to keep nothing, at least not without specific warrants issued upon the basis of probable cause, a mechanism that has mostly worked in America for two centuries.  And the second is to keep everything, so that if a pattern emerges from the data--and patterns will emerge--you can dig deeper and find out whether the pattern means what you think it might; you might, if you're feeling squeamish about someone listening to your conversations, create double-blind mechanisms: e.g. the call is recorded, but no one listens to it without a warrant and/or other appropriate due process.

This is not some kind of modest proposal, some kind of attempt at satire.  As I see it, we have created or are creating a Kafkaesque system in which evidence is collected against people who are not suspected of a crime, for use later if they are suspected, without telling them what the crime they might eventually be suspected of is and without recourse to the law in responding should they ever be made aware of the accusation of the thing that hasn't happened yet.  You are the friend of a friend of someone who is suspected, and both of you are friends of somebody else, and so you're probably a terrorist, but nobody knows all you ever talked about with any of them was sports, or the weather, or how to poach eggs.  Perhaps you knew they were all ne'er-do-wells and the only reason you ever talked to any of them was to discourage them: I hear Christ spent a considerable amount of time hanging out with prostitutes, thieves, rabble-rousers and radicals and have concluded he was a First Century racketeer.  (No, wait: I know what he supposedly said to all of them.)

Keeping half is worse than keeping all, or nothing-at-all.






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Doomsday Nixon

>> Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Why is it that even after half a century, the standard American president is still Richard Nixon?
- David McKay, "Still The One!"
4 Quarters, 10 Dimes, June 10th, 2013.

There is a character in the DC Universe called Doomsday.  I don't know if you've heard of him: he was created in 1992 and has appeared only occasionally since then.  On the one hand, he's not one of these decades-old supervillains like Lex Luthor or Bizarro; although he is old enough to buy booze now (and gosh, do I feel old or what, noticing that?).  On the other hand, he killed Superman.

For a few months, I mean.  Superman got better.  Mostly because the whole thing was a marketing campaign to begin with, although there's also the fact that comics are just really bad at perma-killing anybody: even characters like DC's Barry Allen (the Silver Age Flash) and Marvel's Gwen Stacey (one of Spider-Man's girlfriends) and Jean Grey (sometimes an X-Man and sometimes an X-Man nemesis) who one batch of writers really, really, really honestly meant to kill off for good ended up coming back when a title switched hands and other writers really, really, really wanted the character to come back or a mandate came down from On High that a title needed a sales kick and bringing back so-and-so would do it.  But Superman's death was never one of those, Superman's death and resurrection was always supposed to be a one-two marketing punch, or really a one-two-three: buy the collector's issue where he dies, buy the collectible series where other characters fight for the claim to take over the Superman's mantle, buy the collector's issue where the original Superman comes back.  The whole thing actually contributed to the comics bust of the mid-'90s, but I've already digressed way too digressively.

Doomsday, we were talking about.  Just showed up out of the blue to kill Superman, because that's why he was created, because (1) they needed a new character to market and (2) all the existing villains in Supes' Rogues Gallery had failed to kill Big Blue so many times the writers thought they needed a more credible threat.  (I mean, Luthor's failed to kill Superman so many times now, you have to wonder if his heart was ever really in it to start with.  Maybe it's all just a ploy for attention, like when your cat knocks something over.)  But even when you've just made up a character who shows up out of nowhere and beats the piss out of Superman and then miraculously gets defeated so he can go away again, it's unsatisfying from a narrative perspective; comics (at least these days, since Marvel revolutionized comics narratives in the mid-1960s) are about the mythology, about how all these characters are interconnected and fit into the same universe somehow.  So Doomsday needed a backstory.

It went something like this:

Originally known as The Ultimate, [Doomsday] was born in prehistoric times on Krypton, long before the humanoid Kryptonian race gained dominance over the planet about 250,000 years ago. It was a violent, hellish world where only the absolute strongest of creatures could survive.  In a cruel experiment intended to create the perfect living being, the alien scientist Bertron decanted a humanoid infant (born in a lab in vitro) onto the surface of the planet--where he was promptly killed by the harsh environment. The baby's remains were collected and used to clone a stronger version, a process repeated time after time as a form of accelerated artificial breeding. The agony of these repeated deaths was recorded in his genes, driving the creature to hate all life. Evolving, the child later became able to survive the high temperatures and searing atmosphere, only to be quickly slain by the vicious predators that inhabited the planet. Eventually, he gained the ability to thrive on solar energy without the need for food or air, to return to life and adapt to overcome whatever had previously killed him, without the assistance of Bertron's technology. "The Ultimate" hunted and exterminated the dangerous predators of Krypton. He then killed Bertron himself, whom he had come to identify as an enemy, due to Bertron having "killed" him thousands upon thousands of times.
-Wikipedia, "Doomsday (comics)"

Lots of nerds have poked fun at this story because of its Lamarckism, and not because of, well, everything else about it, starting with there's a planet called "Krypton" with creatures who look like human beings on it.  This is what I love about my tribe: we will accept every absurd premise about a comic book, like there's a humanoid alien who can lift battleships out of the water without breaking them and somehow levitate himself into outer space and he's indestructible unless he's exposed to a rock from his homeworld and he can see through solid objects and shoot heat beams from his eyes, but when a villain shows up who was created by "The agony of these repeated deaths... recorded in his genes... Evolving [to become]... able to survive the high temperatures and searing atmosphere... thrive on solar energy without the need for food or air, to return to life and adapt to overcome what had previously killed him," we say, "Um, yeah, no, evolution doesn't work like that."  And the extra irony here is that evolution worked exactly like that.  Once.

Originally known as a Quaker, Richard Nixon was born in prehistoric times in Yorba Linda, California, long before the Democratic Party gained dominance over the United States about 80 years ago. American politics was a violent, hellish world where only the absolute strongest of creatures could survive.  In a cruel experiment intended to create the perfect candidate, the California GOP decanted a humanoid infant into American politics--where he was promptly killed by the harsh environment. The baby's remains were collected and used to clone a stronger version, a process repeated time after time as a form of accelerated artificial breeding. The agony of these repeated deaths was recorded in his genes, driving the creature to hate all life. Evolving, the child later became able to survive the high temperatures and searing atmosphere, only to be quickly slain by the vicious predators that inhabited Hyannis Port. Eventually, he gained the ability to thrive on pure paranoia without the need for food or air, to return to life and adapt to overcome whatever had previously killed him, without the assistance of the Republican Party. Nixon hunted and exterminated the dangerous civil liberties of the United States. He then killed faith in America's political institutions, whom he had come to identify as an enemy, due to their having "killed" him thousands upon thousands of times.

(It's funnier if you gloss over the fact Nixon won the 1946 California 12th Congressional District election.  Play along, okay?)

In all semi-seriousness, this is the unpleasant answer to David's question, and this is what I thought about when I was reading his semi-serious post about why the Brits and other folks abroad depict American Presidents as Nixonian types in their TV shows and movies.  What if, I thought, the American political system peaked with Richard Nixon?  What if the American political system, with its deranged populist bent, its loving mistrust of its own institutions, its paranoid popularity contests, its naked admiration for corruption and moralistic disdain for the same--what if Nixon wasn't just a fluke of this system, but its preordained outcome, the logical terminal iteration of a historical algorithm our forefathers programmed into our political culture and institutions two hundred years ago?  And what if the British and others show us ourselves in a mirror, clearly, because they recognize on some level that we've saddled ourselves with a system of mutual mistrust and inter-institutional hostility that can't help spitting out Nixon-like leaders until eventually, every so many decades, it produces a Nixonian leader so like Nixon that... well, he's Nixon?  And just to make certain of it (not really intentionally, not because anyone wants Nixon, but because we've created a system that wants Nixon), we have a destructive, Lamarckian electoral system that culls less-Nixonian politicians and reincarnates them as ever-more-Nixonian with every new regeneration?  Or maybe they don't exactly recognize it, but the outcome speaks for itself?

Perhaps the system resets itself, slightly: the Nixon appears to ravage the landscape, punch out a few superheroes, kill Superman, and then, strapped to an asteroid, is disposed of.  We get an ineffectual Carter, two confused and-out-of-their-depths Bushes and an Obama, a senescent Reagan and an oleaginous Clinton while the system works on another perfect political predator; it already exists, understand, it's just having his face ground into glass right now so he learns not to cry, he (or she) is losing a state house seat so that her (or his) hatred can be heated and pounded into a hardened, much-folded edge then chilled and sharpened to such a fine point it can sever ideological atoms.

This is an ugly thought.  That we have an utterly terrible political system that is accidentally designed to deliberately produce Nixons.  So prove it's untrue.  I don't want it to be true.  And yet, here it is, a possible explanation-of-sorts.  Nixon is our destiny.  We will get the Nixon we deserve.  We are all Richard Fucking Milhous Nixon.  Created by ourselves to destroy ourselves.  The agent of our destruction a sweaty, pallid Doomsday in a rumpled business suit.



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A response to a friend's comment about the previous post re: John Lennon, but it was too long for the comment box

>> Thursday, June 06, 2013

John Lennon as a has-been wanna-be. Ha! You really can be funny, sometimes, Eric.

He changed music. Then he changed it again. Then he kept on changing music. Mick Jagger as a strutting banty rooster who should have quit years ago, yes. John Lennon as a has-been? Nope.
- Brother Tom, in the comments (June 6th, 2013).
 


I hope this doesn't seem like I'm picking on you, Tom, because I'm not.  I grokked your comment  and I think it reflects a common feeling that I'm sympathetic to.  But I wrote a response that was longer than the comment box allowed, so I'm making it a post and I hope it's all cool.
 
Coming after Imagine, Some Time in New York City proved a sharp about-face for Lennon fans expecting more of the same when the double album appeared that summer. Critics were not impressed. In a scathing review published in Rolling Stone, Stephen Holden wrote that "the Lennons should be commended for their daring", but not before calling the album "incipient artistic suicide", adding, "except for 'John Sinclair' the songs are awful. The tunes are shallow and derivative and the words little more than sloppy nursery-rhymes that patronise the issues and individuals they seek to exalt. Only a monomaniacal smugness could allow the Lennons to think that this witless doggerel wouldn't insult the intelligence and feelings of any audience." Dave Marsh wrote a mixed review for Creem, writing that "it's not half bad. It may be 49.9% bad, but not half." The Milwaukee Sentinel declared that John and Yoko had produced "another crude, superficial look at trendy leftist politics and have plunged even further into their endless echo chamber." Although the UK release managed a number 11 chart peak, it only went to number 48 in the US. Lennon was reportedly stunned by the album's failure and consequently did not record new music for almost a year.

With Imagine he began affecting attitudes bereft of emotional force. As he turned to petty gossip and didactic social commentary, his gambit of combining simple thoughts with simple music backfired. What was moving when applied to his own life was unbearably pretentious when used to offer aphorisms concerning larger issues.... The album's music might have served as the basis for a good LP if it had been paired with some new lyrical insight and passion. But instead, Lennon has come up with his worst writing yet. With lines like, "A million heads are better than one/So come on, get it on," a listener can only accept or reject them. I've done the latter.
 
 
 
I proffer these examples because the '70s were a rocky decade for Lennon, in which he went from generally good notices and sales for Plastic Ono Band and Imagine to being so ravaged by the critics and doing such middling business on the charts, it's generally considered a factor in his decision to effectively retire from the music industry and be a house husband.  (Which, not incidentally, is basically what "Watching The Wheels" is all about: "Surely you're not happy now you no longer play the game... Don't you miss the big time boy, you're no longer on the ball?")  Indeed, Double Fantasy was itself dismissed with negative reviews--until three weeks after its release, when Lennon was murdered.

Now, I really want to be clear that I think time has been much kinder to these records than the critics initially were.  I was cringing a little, looking for those old, negative reviews and finding much to disagree with, there.

But the thing about that is that I have to consider the real possibility my positive evaluation of much of the material is colored by my grief and anger for Lennon and my sympathy and affection for Ono.  Is it possible that if Lennon hadn't been stolen from the world, our subjectivity would be different?  And I don't see how the answer to that question isn't "yes": I don't think it's possible for a Western listener conversant with the Lennon story (however superficially) to hear these songs without John's awful death lurking in the shadows.

Which was kind of the point of the original piece: I'd happily trade Lennon's life back to us in exchange for "John Lennon hasn't recorded a decent piece of music since 1971."  I wish he were alive and we could complain about him, instead of having his music--including, ironically, tracks that I think are objectively great songs (or as objectively so as art can objectively experienced)--tinted and shadowed by sadness and unfilled potential.
 
I think it's also only fair to point out this is a track that runs both ways: if, as I think, our feelings about John Lennon's solo music are influenced by his death, one wonders how much of the negative reception of Lennon's solo work during his lifetime was influenced by critics' (and fans') feelings towards The Beatles' death.  Maybe John Lennon's work is something that can't be objectively evaluated at all, at least not by us and not in our lifetimes, because we spent one chunk of time listening to Lennon's music as post-Beatles solo recordings and the remainder listening to it as the posthumous evaluation of the late, great John Lennon's music after his tragic death.  Maybe we have to leave it to another generation to be able to listen to Lennon's work and say whether it's good (or bad) because it's actually good (or bad).

Or maybe it's just me.




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John Lennon, "Watching The Wheels"

>> Tuesday, June 04, 2013


I was driving into work the other day when one whatever satellite radio channel I was listening to at the time played the studio version of "Watching The Wheels".  I found myself wishing he was still around so we could hate him, so we could complain about how his new music sucked and his live shows were some kind of disconnected oldies nostalgia act for Boomers to pay too much money to see; I guess I found myself wishing he was Paul McCartney.

I don't know that would be how it would have played out.  Just a couple of years ago, Yoko reincarnated Plastic Ono Band with ex-members of Cibo Matto (including their boy, Sean), recorded and released a record that was brilliant and strange.  Maybe he would have been brilliant and strange, too.  Sometimes someone occasionally surprises you with all the new tricks they've managed to pick up notwithstanding old-dogginess.  Bowie released something wonderful this year; Dylan released something wonderful last year.  Even Jagger (of all people, astonishingly) managed to trot out something kind of special for a new track for the Stones' latest Yet-Another-Greatest-Hits offering.  He was wily, clever, never really satisfied with what he'd just finished; for all I know, he'd be readying a double CD of musique concrète folk hip-hop.  Maybe he'd be completely retired, watching those wheels without bothering to sing about them, playing guitar in private or putting it down to focus on all those goddamn noodly doodles he so loved.

I wondered, as I drove, if he and Yoko would still be together.  Loves of each other's lives, but so much of the time they couldn't stand being around each other, to the point she actually set him up with the woman he had an affair with in the mid-'70s.  (Is it an affair if your wife introduced you to your mistress and suggested the two of you go off and fuck each other silly for awhile?)  I don't know they would have made it.  Now she's The Widow, this is the thing that defines her more than Fluxus, maybe almost as much as "The Banshee Who Broke Up The Beatles".  Grossly unfair, that: she's a widow and she was a key participant in Fluxus, but her whole role in breaking up The Beatles was she happened to be there, it's like blaming a bystander at a car crash, The Beatles were basically over sometime between Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's, it's just they were too talented to crash, could coast a hundred more miles on fumes and drop The Beatles and Abbey Road before skiddering in fountains of sparks down the runway when they finally came to ground on their belly.  But this is something Yoko Ono bears on her back, the scapegoat for the heartbreak of a million fans; I don't suppose it's as heavy as her husband's coffin, though.

He'd still be recording, and it would probably be shit.  I think I know this.  I could be wrong.  But I think it's likely.  When we're lucky, our heroes drag out their careers long enough for us to despise them, long enough we can bitch about how good they were thirty years ago and we wish they would quit.  (When we get really lucky, they persist long enough to astonish; Bowie, Dylan).  The odds would have been so against him.  Most likely he would be milking the goodwill and wallets of sixty somethings, right?  We'd hear something on the radio--on one of the more unfashionable stations, one of the channels devoted to easy listening or soft classics or geriatric pop--and shake our heads and wonder if this was the guy who wrote "Norwegian Wood" or "I Found Out".  Really?  What happened?  We might cluelessly, stupidly, cruelly make some joke about how he should have died when he was in his prime (or the thought might cross our minds if we didn't speak such an unintentionally evil thing aloud), like Kurt Cobain, like Gram Parsons, like Robert Johnson, like Jimi Hendrix or Nick Drake.  Better to be tragic and unfinished than overbaked and passé.  Oh, we'd be such perfect assholes and not even know it, being oblivious to that alternate history where he was murdered on the sidewalk in front of his home, a few feet from his wife, by some little shit with a pistol.  Complaining about how lucky we were because we didn't know we were lucky.  He'd still be recording, and it would probably be shit, but at least he'd still be recording, even if it was shit.
 
No particular anniversary to be mourned or birthday to be celebrated.  No great day in musical history, so far as I know; no great relevant day in musical history, no doubt something happened, sometime, to someone.  Just a song they played on the radio, is all.  They played this song, and I started thinking about him.
 
 
 

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