04 December 2014

Oath Keepers

In the last few days, I have noticed some puzzled people on social media circulating the story about “Oath Keepers” in Ferguson standing on rooftops, “protecting businesses against looters”. The story has been picked up by major news media. (And yes, in case you're wondering, it really is them: the OathKeepers.org website says so.)

Who are these guys?

Lefties like me have been looking at them a fair bit lately, and I have been watching related movements for quite some time. They are a loose organization of people in (and retired from) government service as military, police, and first responders who take their name from the oath government employees take to “protect and defend the Constitution”.

To understand what they are about, consider one of their key founding documents, a list of Orders We Will Not Obey:

10. We will NOT obey any orders which infringe on the right of the people to free speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.

As someone who has reposted on this blog a reminder that it is a soldier's duty to refuse an illegal order, I confess that this is a seductive rallying point. It is thus tempting to read them as at least theoretically allied with Ferguson protestors.

But that would be a terrible misunderstanding. Dig this other item on the list:

8. We will NOT obey orders to assist or support the use of any foreign troops on U.S. soil against the American people to “keep the peace” or to “maintain control” during any emergency, or under any other pretext. We will consider such use of foreign troops against our people to be an invasion and an act of war.

Wait, whaaaat? Foreign troops?

This strange statement reflects where these guys are coming from. They sincerely believe that the Federal government is gearing up to suspend the Constitution, disarm the American people, hand over control of the government to the evil forces of the United Nations, and put people who object into FEMA concentration camps. They are conspiracy-theory crackpots, direct descendents of the Clinton-era militia movement which Timothy McVeigh conceived of himself as being a part of when he murdered hundreds of people in a strike against the “oppressive Federal government”. Similar movements crop up whenever there's a Democrat in the White House. (I notice that the list of orders is dated March 2009. What new signs of encroaching government tyranny moved them to write it at that time, I wonder. What could it be?)

These guys expect that within the next few years, they will be fighting in a bloody domestic insurrection against the evil Federal government conspiracy. Consider this post from them last year:

Oath Keepers is Going “Operational” by Forming Special “Civilization Preservation” Teams


Like SF [Special Forces], all Oath Keepers will be expected to learn light infantry skills. They will all be encouraged to attend an Appleseed Rifle Program and shoot to “Rifleman” standards. Just as the Marines say that every Marine is a Rifleman (even the cooks) so will every Oath Keeper be a rifleman. After learning solid rifle marksmanship, they will learn individual movement and tactics, then buddy team, fire-team, and squad movement and tactics (shoot, move, communicate). All of you infantry veterans need to step up and teach these skills to everyone else.


It starts with you, your family, your small circle of most trusted friends, then your neighborhood, your church, your veterans halls in your town, the Sheriff’s posse, the local search and rescue, volunteer fire, etc., and then out to your county and state.

Why we are doing this:

In addition to this being part of our mission anyway, we feel like we are flat running out of time and we need to get as prepared as possible as fast as possible. The Oath Keepers national Board of Directors war-gamed what we think is the most likely move by our enemies to scrap the Constitution.

Their wariness of Federal government power, which they frame as “strict adherence to the Constitution”, can look a lot like a kind of libertarianism. But like other folks on the far right, the appearance of libertarianism is illusory: their problem is with the Federal government, not with government. These are guys who come from government service, and talk a lot about supporting state, county, and city government power against the Federal government.

5. We will NOT obey orders to invade and subjugate any state that asserts its sovereignty.

You are reading that right. Their unorthodox anti-Federalist reading of the Constitution has them siding with the Confederacy against the Union.

That doesn't make these guys Klansmen by another name. Racial bigotry is not foundational to their project, and I am confident that most Oath Keepers would be disgusted to hear that kind of overt racism expressed in their ranks. It's my understanding that they have more than a few people of color among them.

But. This tradition of radical “Constitutionalism” is most relevant to us today for reasons that students of the Civil Rights Era will recognize.

'The Problem We All Live With' by Norman Rockwell

In that struggle, it was Federal authorities which (eventually) stood up for the rights of Black citizens when local Whites and local authorities lined up against them, and it was that fight during that era which revived the school of anti-Federalism found on the American right today which is characteristic of the Oath Keepers. So the Oath Keepers' conception of “proper Constitutional authority” points toward support for institutional racism.

It's not hard to see how that rhymes with the local authorities' unaccountability to the Black population of Ferguson.

So while one might be tempted to imagine from their rhetoric that they would be in Ferguson to protect protestors from harassment by the oppression of government cops ...

10. We will NOT obey any orders which infringe on the right of the people to free speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.
... it turns out that no, they are in Ferguson to protect property from “looters”. Reading the events in Ferguson as “rioting” and “looting” which presents a threat to people's safety and property connects to a credulousness about racist conservative media lies about the Ferguson protests.

Having already developed some familiarity with the Oath Keepers, I was not surprised to learn that a contingent of them had showed up there. I read it as representing a confluence of several aspects of their worldview. They lean toward supporting government, even authoritarian government, when it's local. They are preparing for fighting in the streets of the US, so for them the “rioting” in the streets of Ferguson is a bellwether of the crisis they were founded to handle. Their pseudo-libertarianism is enthusiastic about government as the guarantor of property rights ... but they don't see government as the only agent protecting property, which connects to their gun nut logic justifying vigilante-ism.

Now when I say “gun nut logic” I want to be careful not to tar all gun owners and gun rights advocates as “nuts”. (While I'm generally unpersuaded by those folks' arguments I'm also wary of being too dismissive of them.) I want, instead, to connect the Oath Keepers to a particular strain of pseudo-libertarian pro-gun thought which holds that private gun ownership is not just a right but vitally important to society because “the police cannot be everywhere”, and so the primary means by which one's safety and property is secured is not through government policing but through an armed citizenry. That argument drifts from gun rights advocacy to nuttiness in ultimately endorsing vigilantes.

Vigilante-ism in the US is entangled in our history of racism. Remember who the biggest vigilante organization in American history were. Remember the lynchings of the Jim Crow era. That should give us pause when we hear citizens claiming a responsibility to take up arms to keep the peace. Again, I do not read the Oath Keepers as committed to racial bigotry, but they are engaging in vigilante-ism in Ferguson, which carries the weight of history with it.

David Neiwert, the best journalist working the far-right beat, calls them “Potentially The Most Lethal And Dangerous Of All The New ‘Patriot’ Groups”. Which brings me to the point that my distaste for the Oath Keepers is just from their implicit support for some of the machinery of institutional racism, though that is bad enough. It is that they are a movement who believe that the democratically-elected government is illiegitimate because it has been corrupted by a conspiracy of foreigners and traitors, that the true spirit of the nation needs to be revived through inevitable bloody conflict, which calls for a vigilante movement inspired by martial virtue. As I said about Cliven Bundy, whose cause the Oath Keepers supported, students of history recognize why we should be wary of that kind of politics.

17 November 2014

Lost American institutions

Today I tweeted Jason Segedy's manifesto The Rising Tide, which calls for Generation X to step up as we enter our middle years and reclaim the American public institutions which were destroyed when we arrived on the scene.

My generation has never known an America that had much in the way of authentic community.

We came of age at a time when things were atomizing and fragmenting — our cities, our corporations, our public institutions, and even our very own families.


Now we are becoming middle-aged. And slowly but surely, we are learning that for good or for bad, we are the leaders. We are the system. We are “The Man”.

We still fear that no one is going to come help us. But we also now know that we are on the hook. We know that if we break it, we buy it. We know that if we do break it, we will have no one else to blame but ourselves.

In a Twitter reply, Stacy Lawless calls shenanigans on the age before our own.

That togetherness culture we lost? Was white. Wealthy. Post-WWII. Always been many Americas. What Gen-X lost was not really worth keeping imho — Leave it to Beaver hegemony.

I agree with Lawless about the hollowness of the lost shared institutions of American life because they excluded people of color (and others).

But that's why we need to return to those institutions, and include everybody.

What killed that (White) “togetherness culture” that Segedy describes in America before the era of Generation X? We dismantled it because of White bigotry.

An apocryphal story says that Lyndon Johnson said that signing the Civil Rights Act cost the Democratic Party the South for a generation. Though almost certainly not factual, the story is true. When American liberalism declared itself dedicated to racial equity at public institutions, movement conservatism figured out that it could sell the destruction of public institutions by hinting that Black people benefitted too much from them. And so even Whites who hunger for a stronger public sphere turned against it out of bigotry: if they couldn't keep Black people out of public institutions, then they would rather not have them at all.

Generation X and Millenials like to imagine that we have overcome the bigotry of previous generations, but that's a fantasy: we have plenty of bigotry ourselves. But we are better than previous generations, and the demographics of Xers and Millenials are Blacker and Browner, and we are hungry for a vital public sphere. The time has come for another bite at the apple. We can build public institutions better than the ones we had before, not least in including everyone.

The alternative is give in to the “fear that no one is going to come help us”, that public institutions are impossible, and walk into the neo-feudal neoliberal nightmare that is being prepared for us, thinking that no alternative is possible. But I remain hopeful that we will choose otherwise.

Misreading a story

Yesterday I tweeted a link to a post on Bill Murray Stories. I said:

Bill Murray: the only person in the world who is truly free

I said that because I've long been fascinated by the legend of Pablo Picasso. Late in his career, the story goes, Picasso realized that his fame meant that he could stop handling money. He would go to a fancy restaurant, and when the cheque came, rather than pay it he would draw a little doodle on it and sign it. The restauranteur would be able to sell the cheque with the doodle for much more money than the meal cost ... and likely wouldn't even sell it, but keep it as a memento and curiosity.

It is widely reported that Bill Murray is among the few people who have entered into a similar space, traveling around having little adventures enabled by his fame. This is connected to Murray's eccentric, funny, unthreatening persona.

That persona affected how I read the story, and helped me miss something really important.

Bill said, “Look a wedding — I think we’re all invited”. So we all followed Bill over to the wedding.

That's a setup for a classic Bill Murray Surprise story. He's gatecrashing a wedding. Now here's the bit that I misread:

Bill walks right over to the bride and groom, takes the bride in his hands, leans her over and sorta kisses her, stands her back up and says, “There, now she’s all warmed up for you.”

Picturing Murray, I imagined all this as a quiet, surreal, silly moment. Most of Murray's performances as an actor have him delivering a kind of deadpan calm at his own nuttiness that still winks at us that he knows that we think his behavior is bizarre. And he moves slowly, letting other actors react. So I saw Murray approaching the Bride, her bemusedly accepting his lead into a little faux dancer's dip, him feigning a light kiss on the cheek. When he declared her “all warmed up”, it was funny in my mind because I imagined the joke as being that the “kiss” was deliberately awkward and sexless, making “warmed up” the furthest description possible from the truth. Sweet and silly.

But that reading of the story is not a safe assumption at all. If heard this story about Not Bill Murray, maybe some big dudebro, that story is skeevy as hell. It is, in fact, sexual harassment and assault. He grabbed her and kissed her and declared her “all warmed up for you”? Ugh.

Now Murray is not a big dudebro, he's a slight, scruffy-looking old guy. But picturing Not Bill Murray primes one to think of all the ways that this scene could have been ugly. Real Bill Murray isn't Movie Bill Murray. He doesn't have rehearsals and multiple takes and a director's eye to help him get to the version of this scene that reads as safe and goofy. So while I submit that there are ways that we might imagine that scene which are innocent, there are a lot more ways that are creepy and wrong. And they're a lot more likely.

I don't mean this exegesis as an indictment of Bill Murray. I'm not even certain that any of this took place; there's a very good chance that the story on the website is a misrepresentation, or even an outright fabrication.

I mean this exegesis as an indictment of me. I was bewitched by the legend of Murray's adventures and his persona into being able to conceive of the innocent version of this encounter. And since the author of the post wasn't horrified, I subconsciously presumed that it wasn't horrifying, taking the innocent version as the obvious way to imagine the story. But that's not a safe presumption at all. Why didn't I see it? In large part because I'm a fella and don't need to worry about it, and it took Facebook comments from a couple of women to bring it up for me.

So that's my unhappy reminder of rape culture for the day.


F*%&ing Nolan.

Interstellar stinks. It stinks as only something created by an army of capable people can stink.

It is not a noble failure. It is wrongheaded root and branch. It indicts all of Nolan's films which I have enjoyed as strokes of luck.

It invites comparison to other space films like Sunshine and Soderbergh's Solaris and Mission To Mars and Gravity and — of course — 2001 and it suffers next to each of them.

I left the theater angry.

Mild spoilers ahead.

This was one of those bad movies with a lot of good things in it, so I can confess to a number of things that I liked:

  • Nolan's use of practical effects as much as possible. He is a champ about using practicals — I think my favorite thing about Batman Begins is the palpably real Batmobile. There's still a lot of computer graphics in this picture, but only when really necessary. A lot of stuff was done with models and puppets and real sets, and it makes a difference.
  • Good actors did their level best to sell the script they'd been given.
  • Cooper's reply to the nose-pinching schoolteacher who has a problem with his daughter is delicious. My cinema companion said, “good parenting” because McConaughey delivered it so convincingly.
  • The chase after the drone was fun and quietly science-fictional.
  • Looking into the wormhole and seeing the other side gravitationally lensed through it was cool for a physics nerd like me.
  • Romilly's face when he sees his crewmates again after a long wait tells a lot of story in a silent moment.
  • The first scene when we see Mann is cool. We can smell it coming that this will be an uncredited actor who will give us the character with their persona just by showing up, and sure enough we get the exact right actor.
  • The robot's spinning run is nifty. Really, all the stuff with the robots is nifty; I wanted more of them.
  • The look of the Borges Thing Inside The Wormhole is flat gorgeous. A friend commented that it would make a good setting for a Japanese horror film.
  • The look of the black hole was gorgeous, and the story behind it is pretty great.
  • The use of relativistic time dilation as a plot device on Miller's planet was some proper science fiction.
  • Sound cutting out for the exteriors in space was often really affecting. An old trick, but still a good one.
  • TARS' line “I'll see you on the other side,” is cool in itself, and then pays off a little later in the film.
  • Michael Caine is great.
  • Jessica Chastain's cheekbones. Zowie.


The main problem is that I simply didn't believe the characters. The worst thing about them is we get several people too wrapped up in their own selfish BS. It kept making me think of Sunshine, a movie I love despite the catastrophic misfire of a third act. In Sunshine we have people on a mission for The Only Chance To Save The Earth and they are — as people who would undertake that mission would be — quietly aware of the stakes. They are prepared to make whatever sacrifices they need to for that purpose — compared to the fate of the Earth, their own lives are unimportant — and they've already come to terms with that before we even meet them. They don't even discuss it, it's just part of the silent background, so the movie lets us in the audience do the math and find it noble and tragic.

Even Michael Bey's Armageddon understood this.

But the characters in Interstellar are wrapped up in themselves and do dumb things because of it. It's obviously supposed to be heartbreakingly human, but it read to me as implausible and inhuman. It takes Mann to a place that feels not like honest characterization but absurdly unrealistic behavior which is just there to move things in the way Nolan wants to set up an effects sequence and the next round of plot machinery. I flat did not believe it. Nolan is a chilly filmmaker, and that can be okay, but in this picture I felt like I was in the hands of an alien trying to manipulate my Strange Hu-Man Emotions.

The other big problem is that the film is just not well-crafted on a technical level. There are some striking images, but Nolan doesn't know how to assemble the elements into good cinema. Here's Tony “Every Frame A Painting” Zhou (* * *):

Interstellar confirmed many things I’ve felt about Chris Nolan: he is who he is, I am who I am, and this is where we respectfully part ways.
I’m honestly just not feeling it anymore. I don’t wanna sit through 169 mins of shot — reverse shot, handheld, lazy staging, and loud music.
I wasn’t moved emotionally. I couldn’t soak in the majesty of space. I wasn’t inspired by a single shot. I thought the editing was rly bad.

More particular gripes:

  • There's a heck of a lot of exposition in the movie. Despite it, I still had to work hard to figure out what was going on, supporting it with some outside knowledge of physics, and even with all that I felt lost some of the time.
  • That effects sequence with all the spinning? I sure would have been impressed by it ... had I not already seen Gravity.
  • In fact, Gravity showed what was wrong with a lot of the exterior shots in space in Interstellar. The frame in Gravity always felt like it contained more than I could take in, but in truth it was just a little more than I could process because it never kept me from following the main thing that was happening. In Interstellar there are many shots and sequences that are so busy that I got entirely lost.
  • Speaking of visual noise, the movie is also full of audible noise. Loud music. Loud background sounds. Sometimes the dialogue was inaudible. After the half-inaudible villain in The Dark Knight Rises, you would think Nolan would learn.
  • I do not believe that lady astronauts have time to keep their eyebrows that well groomed.
  • Given Plan B, why did they only bring one lady astronaut? Why were there any boy astronauts at all, in fact?
  • What was up with Topher Grace showing up out of nowhere? Obviously something wound up on the cutting room floor, because I think we were supposed to care about him. Or at least know who he was.
  • The Power Of Love? Really?
  • That amount of forced Closure is M Night Shalaman's signature move. We enjoyed it that one time with The Sixth Sense, but we do not admire him for it.

03 November 2014


Stanislav, eccentric operating system designer of Loper OS, points out the obvious about Apple's unique position in the tech industry.

I argue that Apple now has not one but two monopolies:
  1. A nearly-total monopoly on computer (and pocket computer) systems designed with good taste.
  2. A total monopoly on the Microsoft-free, hassle-free personal computer.

It goes on to say that Apple's exceptionally good and coherent design depends upon Steve Jobs magic, which I don't think is true. Other companies could deliver good and coherent design — in fact, there's a lot of room to do categorically better design than Apple's — but other companies don't. It's not that they don't know how, it's that they don't understand what design is.

02 November 2014

2014 California ballot endorsements

Some friends have asked how I'm voting in the California election on Tuesday, since there are a number of tricky ballot initiatives. So these are my endorsements. I drew a lot on the voting guides from KQED and the reliably-progressive SF Bay Guardian. (Update: After posting this, Peter Merholz pointed me to Pete Rates The Propositions, which makes the surprising and surprisingly persuasive argument that one should vote Yes on every proposition right here. If nothing else, you should check out his discussion of 48 as a witty piece of writing.)

It's worth noting that as a general rule, I'm hesitant to support California ballot propositions, because they create changes in the law that are very difficult to update. This is especially true for propositions which affect taxation and funding. A big part of why California has a budget crisis almost every year is because the accretion of rules and set-asides from past ballot initiatives has made budgeting into a kind of unwinnable Jenga game.

Water infrastructure bond

Proposition 1 — Yes

I think we don't spend enough on infrastructure, and this year's drought is a reminder of California's dependence on complex water infrastructure. One can certainly conceive of a better policy, and better mechanisms for funding it. But politics is the art of the possible, not the art of the conceivable. Without this bond, California water infrastructure will suffer.

Why might one vote No instead?

If you want to strike a symbolic blow against bond issues because you are stupid and think the state should never take on debt, or because you want to strike a symbolic blow against California's water management infrastructure because you read Cadillac Desert, you might want to consider voting No.

State rainy day fund

Proposition 2 — No

This looks likely to pass. I understand the appeal of the idea, nobody serious seems to oppose it, and the legislation seems reasonably well-crafted. But as I'm a crank who is opposed to this budget-by-proposition process, I'm voting No.

Why might one vote Yes instead?

It is an improvement to the ineffectual old law, and the Rainy Day Fund is not a bad idea.

Health insurance rate regulation

Proposition 45 — No

This initiative to tweak California's health insurance regulatory apparatus gives more power to the Commissioner, which might be a good idea. Or might not. It's hard to say.

Again, when in doubt, I vote No.

Why might one vote Yes instead?

Health insurance companies are spending a lot of money to fight this proposition. When it comes to health insurance regulation, you could do a lot worse than run the opposite direction from where insurers are pointing.

Medical malpractice regulation

Proposition 46 — No

This is a bundle of several forms of regulation, including drug testing of doctors.

There's stuff in here to like, but making doctors pee in a cup offends me. And there's a lot going on in the proposition, which spooks me. If part of the policy is good and part of it is bad, it's going to be difficult to dislodge if it passes.

Why might one vote Yes instead?

The core element of this proposition — raising the malpractice suit award limit — is probably a good idea.

Reduced criminal sentencing

Proposition 47 — YES YES YES

This is the key item which I feel excited about. It turns a lot of minor property and drug crimes that are now felonies into misdemeanors. If you're reading me, then you're probably familiar with all the reasons why I would say that the criminal justice system is harsh in the wrong ways, which makes this a welcome change.

Why might one vote No instead?

If you're a vindictive person who supports the racist prison-industrial complex, you might vote against this proposition.

Off-reservation tribal casino

Proposition 48 — No

Allowing casinos is bad policy: there's no stopping people from gambling, but creating a wealthy, powerful corporate entity with an interest in encouraging gambling is asking for trouble. Despite that, I support casinos on Indian reservations because I'm adamant in support of the independence of governance of reservations. But this casino is not on a reservation.

The arguments in favor of this proposition are such weak tea that looking at the official pro-48 website actually made me less sympathetic to the initiative. So again: when in doubt, I vote No.

Why might one vote Yes instead?

Given a horrific history of genocide and oppression, at this point it's a good idea to try to err in favor of giving Native Americans what they want.

State offices — The Democrats

If you know me, you know that I'm a believer in “partisanship”. Saying “I don't vote for the party, I vote for the candidate” isn't a demonstration that you're above bonehead politics, it's a demonstration that you're naïve. Given the options, I'm voting for all Democratic candidates on the slate.

Superintendent of Schools — Torlakson

My trusted informant on school policy tells me, “Tom Torlakson is doing a good job, and Marshall Tuck is a charter school asshole.”

I've been following the charter school movement for some time now. I'm sympathetic to a hunger for serious school reform in the US, but like a lot of progressives I've become very critical of the charter school movement, which reflects not reform-minded educators but rather meddling amateurs motivated by neoliberal ideology.

Gems of Netflix Instant

For now, this is a short list, but I'm putting up this post as a place to keep short reviews of surprisingly-good obscure films available on Netflix Instant View.


I hesitate to say too much, because I saw it on Max Landis' advice ...

go in knowing nothing. no trailer. not even genre.
... which proved to be wise. But my mission here is to provide a review which tells you whether you want to see the movie. It's not for everyone, but it's a terrific little film in its way.

It's sort of a psychological horror film. That is a somewhat misleading genre description, but serves well enough to tell you if you don't want to see the film.

There are no jump scares. No frightening or disturbing images. There isn't even spooky music. Just some scary ideas that the film admirably takes its time setting up for us.

A big part of the charm is its zero-budget cleverness. It was obviously made on a shoestring, very simply shot and assembled using the simple tricks of post-production that a filmmaker on a budget can achieve with cheap software on their laptop. It asks very little of its actors other than being not-awkward on screen, though it gets quietly good performances out of all of its major players. Being able to achieve so much with so little makes it a treat for a cinephile.


A perfect mid-budget science fiction action movie. I've been meaning to write a long post about it for years, but a short review will suffice for my purposes here.

The film is a weird cocktail. Like a good pop song, it revisits a bunch of familiar moves but makes that familiarity not tired but part of its satisfactions. There's dystopian imagery lifted from 1984 and Ira Levin's This Perfect Day, including some great use of location shooting in ugly concrete Eastern European buildings. There's preposterous fight scenes featuring a martial art called “gun-kata” which is exactly what it sounds like, but they work in the context of the film.

Fun to watch, and just smart enough.

The Trip

Part food-porn travel movie, part windy comic actor's showcase, this movie mostly exists to give the wonderful Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon an opportunity to banter, though there's also an affecting core of character drama that sneaks up on you. The bit where they argue over who does the best Michael Caine impression is one of the funniest things I've ever seen.

The Believer

This scary, compelling little film emerged from the director reading about an American neo-Nazi who was Jewish. What could possibly motivate such a person? The film offers a plausible-feeling answer in its protagonist, played by a magnetic and not-yet-famous Ryan Gosling.

The Station Agent

A charming, odd little character study that is the kind of thing one hopes for when going to see a “quirky” independent film. It's full of funny, human performances, low-key humor and drama, and inventive little bits of cinematic storytelling. Seeing it made me smug about knowing what a terrific actor Peter Dinklage is before Game of Thrones made him into a celebrity.

Punch-Drunk Love

Director Paul Thomas Anderson describes this film as his own entry into the genre of “Adam Sandler movies”. And it does star Sandler and it does hit all the notes of Sandler's personal mini-genre ... only it's shot as if by David Lynch, surreal and disjointed and horrifying. Small wonder that few people have seen it.

It's not entertaining, and I'm not sure I even could claim to have liked it, but it surprised and amazed me at every turn, so that I sure am glad I saw it.

30 October 2014

Policy violations

A friend who is a nurse just told me this little story:

Medical Records of a hospital in another city
We require a signed form to release patient data.

But this is for continuing medical care. A signed form isn't required by law.

Medical Records
We require it anyway.

I need these records. It's important. You really want me to have an 89 year old patient rush here to sign a form?

Medical Records

I hang up, call the LA hospital main number and request to talk with the charge nurse at the cath lab.

So, I need these reports and I can't get a patient release, can you FedEx me a CD with the echo and cath studies?

Other hospital's charge nurse
You bet! I'll get that out to you today.

Healthcare in this country seriously wouldn't work without the magical-nurse-to-nurse network!

This reminds me of another story, told to me by an occupational psychologist I once interviewed for a project. He told me about how he was doing an project about the housekeepers that work at super-luxury hotels. So he was interviewing one of these super-housekeepers, and he described this dialogue:

So what is the last thing you do before you leave the room?

Um. You said that you won't be telling my boss about what I say in this interview. Is that really true?

That's right. My report will go to people on the executive team, not your boss, and will combine what I learn from you with several other people I interview. Nothing will be attributed to you.

Can you promise that?


Because I could lose my job.

I promise. It's part of my professional ethics and my agreement with your employer.

Okay. The last thing I do is I lie down on the bed.

That's interesting. Why?

Because there are things you see from there which you don't see from anywhere else. And it's often one of the first things the guest will do when they get into the room after a long trip.

I see. How is your boss knowing about this a threat to your job?

I'm not allowed to lie on the bed! There's an explicit rule about that: no employee may ever lie on a guest's bed.

But you do it anyway.

If I don't, I cannot be sure that the room is clean!

Doing design for business process software, I am often told by the sponsors of those projects that the advantage of those systems will be that policies can be strictly enforced. But every organization works, in part, because people violate policy out of their sense of professionalism.

20 October 2014


We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

You can get that image as a t-shirt. It seems that most people know that quote as Willy Wonka, from the 1971 film adaptation with Gene Wilder.

Through a turn of fate, I never saw the film as a kid. I only discovered it when I was a teenager, the year I was taking English Literature, and I noticed that a lot of Wonka's poetic asides are allusions. Via Christina Wodke, I learn that Thomas M. Brodhead tells us that this did not come from Roald Dahl, but from a script doctor who wrote the screenplay.

When Quaker Oats (yes, the Quaker Oats company!) decided to adapt Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for film, Roald Dahl was asked to write the screenplay. Dahl produced a fairly literal translation of his book that was deemed unacceptable by the studio executives. The young writer and script doctor David Seltzer was then asked to “improve” Dahl's script. The result was a recalibration of Dahl's story with many significant changes (e.g. rival chocolatier Slugworth became a central character in the film as a tempter of the children, etc.) More importantly, Wonka was cast in a darker light, with an ambiguous stance toward the children (as opposed to the sprightly and somewhat avuncular candyman of Dahl's conception.)

In the finished script, Wonka's dialogue is peppered with literary quotations and allusions not found in Dahl's book. They were all introduced by David Seltzer as part of his rewrite of Dahl's screenplay.

Brodhead has tracked down sources for the allusions (including Arthur O'Shaughnessy's Ode, which gives us “we are the music makers”).

17 October 2014


A tweet from Andy Baio informs me that the visual interface style for Yosemite has taken a interesting turn.

In his tweet, Baio complains:

OS X got hit hard by the ugly stick.

The big problem is that Emphasis Blue. Too light and saturated.

I get where it came from. The post-Forrestal visual style introduced with iOS 7 has moved in a more pastel-ish direction, which is obviously carefully considered and likely directed toward the global market. I dislike it, but I recognize that I'm coming from a very particular place in my tastes, so de gustibus.

But aside from taste, as used here that Emphasis Blue is a couple of ticks too strong. This stylesheet makes it look even worse than it is, because there's a greater density of emphasized elements than one would ordinarily use.

More importantly, I badly dislike that the use of Emphasis Blue on selected checkboxes and radio buttons, and on the dropdown and spinner controls. It adds too much strong emphasis to the interface. The more things you emphasize, the less emphasis means and the more it contributes to a sense of interface noise.

But there is something good here, which I almost don't want to point out because when I designed it for a client it was meant to register subconsciously for the user.

I was doing a system that had endless tables and forms full of configurations for a complex technical internet thingy. I'm more an interaction architect / interaction designer than an interface visual designer; I tell potential clients and employers, “My visual design skills are very adequate. I can do icons that are not embarrassing and an interface that reads clearly enough, but there are specialists who can do it twice as well and twice as fast.” But I was the designer on deck for this system, so it was up to me.

So I tried an experiment in a very flat interface language which I'd been thinking about for years. It's obviously parallel to some of the defining patterns of this new OS X interface style:

  • Non-clickable elements have a very light gray background
  • Clickable elements all have a white background, edged in light gray
  • Unavailble clickable buttons et cetera have the very light gray background, edged in gray
  • Text fields have square corners
  • Buttons have rounded corners
  • Data content is in black text, data labels in dark gray text

Here's how my version of it looked:

Looking at it now, it bugs me how cramped that looks. In that system we were dealing with a lot of huge tables of data, so I was trying to make the density as high as possible, plus trying to ring a bit of a “crisp and technical” bell to go with the company's brand. I'm not sure I would do it that way again for that system, and I certainly would not recommend it for a consumer OS.

But I was happy with how it overcame the visual harshness of black text on a white background (which I've also countered in the style of this blog), very happy with how it made it possible to look at the interface and easily pick out what was active and clickable without it adding a lot of visual noise, and delighted with it making form content readable without the usual clutter of text entry box borders.

There was a lot more patterns in the interface system that aren't worth going into here, but I never quite came to a fully satisfactory solution for this principle:

  • Emphasized interface elements all use a consistent emphasis color

Obviously Apple is wrestling with the same thing.

15 October 2014


Samuel R. Delaney reflects on a discussion of Transgressive Sexual Practice he participated in. (There's video!)


Last week at the New School, with bell hooks, M. Lamar, and Marci Blackman, in a conversation on transgressive sexual practices, hooks and the others paid me the compliment of calling me “a sex radical”. I said, sincerely that I didn't think of myself in those terms. (The truth is, at 72 I don't think on my feet as nimbly as I once might have — which is why this elaboration here, a week after the fact.) As I explained, for me, transgression — sexual or any other kind — means there is a line that you have not crossed and that, from somewhere, you must seize the power to overcome the fear of crossing. I have crossed such lines many times in my life — many of them sexual. (And, in many cases, I have decided that it would be better to remain on the side I already was.) If, when I crossed them, what I'd found was five, fifteen, twenty-five or even fifty people there, then probably I would be able to call my own crossing a radical act. But what I invariably found beyond the lines I crossed — and this is what I did not say then — were thousands and thousands of people on the other side, and not only that, they had been there for years and years; in some cases; many of them lived on the far side for all practical purposes. Not only that, but buildings, businesses, whole languages (literary and vernacular) and institutions (legal and illegal) existed and had existed for years to accommodate them. Thus, I never felt I was doing anything unique. In books such as The Motion of Light in Water, Heavenly Breakfast, The Mad Man, and Times Square Red / Times Square Blue, and even Dhalgren, I would write about what I saw or use it as the basis for fiction. But even there, I'm aware that I was never the first to do so. Andre Gide, Bruce Nugent, Paul Goodman, W. H. Auden, James Baldwin, Willa Cather, Wallace Thurman, Hart Crane, Radclyffe Hall, Ned Rorum, John Rechy, Jean Genet, Djuna Barnes, Collette, Henry Miller, Violet Leduc, Sade, Klowsowski, Bataille, Cocteau, Lillian Helman, Wilde and Proust had all preceded me — and many, many others, back to Petronious and Apuleius and Catullus. These were the people who allowed me to do it and without whom I could never have written anything that I wanted to about the world I saw around me. That's why I've never seen my enterprise as radical.

If you are not familiar with Delaney's books: go read them all.

I cannot resist thinking of an old blog post of mine, Swamp, which contains a similar metaphor.

Imagine the world of human experience as a swamp. The swamp has a varied terrain: sandbars, reedy marshy bits, outcroppings of land, shallow rivers, muddy riverbanks, and so forth. Full of interesting stuff, but not entirely hospitable.

Most people live in castles in the swamp. A castle has a controlled environment, defined by the people who live there. It typically has windows and parapets from which the residents can view the swamp, though a few castles are completely sealed off.


Swamp travellers are interested in the swamp, and often are also interested in the different swamp denizens. They may stop in to visit folks in the various castles, carrying news and information around the swamp, picking up supplies, and occasionally deciding to settle down in one for a while, or even forever. They also tend to know the locations of ruined castles where a few eccentric holdouts are living and working.

Terrorism explained

Chainsawsuit explains terrorism in six cartoon panels:

(FYI, I also have my own explanation.)

10 October 2014

It is the soldier

There's this poem you have probably seen or heard before.

It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who has given us freedom of religion.

It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.

It is the Soldier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.

It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.

It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.

It is the Soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.

It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.

The poem was written in 1970 by a guy named Charles M. Province.

It's a well-crafted little poem. It has that plain-spoken American voice that Robert Frost exemplified. The cadences and use of repetition give it a flow that makes it easy to recite.

Let's take a look at what it says.

Those repetitions are interesting. What is important in the eyes of the poem? The Soldier is mentioned seven times, freedom and the flag four times each, rights twice. This is about the Soldier, who gets a capital S to emphasize being an archetypal figure, unlike everyone else in the poem. The poem also concerns the flag, and freedom, and to a lesser degree rights.

What does it tell us about freedom and rights? They are not a product of civil society — ministers, reporters, poets, campus organizers, protesters. They are not a product of democratic institutions — lawyers, politicians. They come from the Soldier. They come only from the Soldier.

When contrasting the Soldier with the protester, we learn more about the Soldier, exploring their virtues. The Soldier's virtues reflect deference to the state and its symbols: saluting, serving, dying ... and in that last, demonstrating specifically martial service, in warfare. Other forms of service have already been dismissed as irrelevant. The protester, in contrast, is described only in their disrespect for the symbol of the state. Not only unimportant relative to the Soldier, as the other figures in the poem, but acting in direct opposition to the Soldier's deference to the flag.

We see that the protester's freedom is something the Soldier “allows”. The implication is that the Soldier might withdraw that allowance at any time.

Perhaps even should withdraw it.


  • Rights and freedoms do not come from democratic institutions
  • Rights and freedoms come from the Soldier
  • The Soldier defers to the state, and to its symbol the flag
  • The protester is the Soldier's opposite
  • The Soldier is the true legislator of society

A military junta would love this poem. But it has no place being repeated in a democratic society, much less engraved on our public monuments under the title “Freedom's Flag”.

01 October 2014


Jenny Trout is conducting a Big Damn Buffy Rewatch. She has some provocative observations:

  1. Sex is the real villain of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer universe.
  2. Giles is totally in love with Buffy.
  3. Joyce is a fucking terrible parent.
  4. Willow’s magic is utterly useless (this one won’t be an issue until season 2, when she gets a chance to become a witch)
  5. Xander is a textbook Nice Guy.
  6. The show isn’t as feminist as people claim.
  7. All the monsters look like wieners.
  8. If ambivalence to possible danger were an Olympic sport, Team Sunnydale would take the gold.
  9. Angel is a dick.
  10. Harmony is the strongest female character on the show.
  11. Team sports are portrayed in an extremely negative light.
  12. Some of this shit is racist as fuck.
  13. Science and technology are not to be trusted.
  14. Mental illness is stigmatized.
  15. Only Willow can use a computer.
  16. Buffy’s strength is flexible at the plot’s convenience.
  17. Cheap laughs and desperate grabs at plot plausibility are made through Xenophobia.
  18. Oz is the Anti-Xander

I don't entirely agree or disagree, but it's very sharply observed.

Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan is a lively writer, and occasionally people pass along him saying things I agree with and saying them well. I'm not above enjoying them.

But I've also followed his blogging and journalism career for too long to praise him. He's a bad journalist and a bad judge of policy and a cheerleader for some truly odious ideas. When friends pass along links to his articles, I grumble.

Finally, Mark Ames has assembled the full brief against him: If Andrew Sullivan Is The Future of Journalism Then Journalism Is Fucked. Even worse than even I knew. Of course.