31 May 2004

Memorials

For Memorial Day, a quote from our master memorialist, Maya Lin, who gave us the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington DC from an interview with her in The New Yorker.

Lin has a simple view of what the disputes boiled down to: she was the only one who understood that the design would work. She expresses no surprise that the memorial has been almost universally accepted as success, even by some of its most obnoxious early critics. She always knew that she was right. When the wall was being constructed, the fund's project director, Robert Doubek, asked her what she thought people would do when they first saw it. “I think he wanted me to say, ‘They're gonna love it,” ’ Lin told the Times, when she recounted the story. “And I said something like ‘Well, I think they're going to be really moved by it.’ What I didn't tell him is that they are probably going to cry and cry and cry.”

The assumption in the article is that a memorial that “works” is one that hurts. Not everyone shares that assumption. But the article is correct: we should feel at least a brush with the pain of loss as we memorialize our fallen soldiers.

30 May 2004

Public good

The tech industry is full of libertarians who think that government meddling only causes trouble, and the free market would take care of all of our needs if we just got rid of that pesky, wasteful government. This isn't even true of the tech industry itself: Google demonstrates that government investment in public knowledge infrastructure accomplishes things that private investment would not.
What is not widely known is the contribution that federal research funding played in creating Google. Google was founded by Larry Page and Sergei Brin --- two computer science graduate students at Stanford University. Stanford was one of a number of universities that received funding under the ''Digital Libraries Initiative''
...
Larry Page was funded under the DLI as a graduate student researcher, and Sergei Brin was supported with an NSF graduate student fellowship.
...
Google was also prototyped on equipment paid for by the federal government's Digital Library Initiative.

29 May 2004

Today's quote

Here's Kenneth "The Threatening Storm" Pollack describing a Certain World Leader.
[He] has a number of pathologies ... he is an inveterate gambler and risk-taker who regularly twists his calculation of the odds to suit his preferred course of action. He bases his calculations on assumptions that outsiders often find bizarre and has little understanding of the larger world. He is a solitary decision-maker who relies little on advice from others. And he has poor sources of information about matters outside [the country], along with intelligence services that generally tell him what they believe he wants to hear.
Who do you think he's talking about?

28 May 2004

Wheels within wheels

Brad DeLong points out that the Guardian reports that the CIA is thinking we've been played by the Iranians.
An urgent investigation has been launched in Washington into whether Iran played a role in manipulating the US into the Iraq war by passing on bogus intelligence through Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, it emerged yesterday.

Some intelligence officials now believe that Iran used the hawks in the Pentagon and the White House to get rid of a hostile neighbour, and pave the way for a Shia-ruled Iraq.
...
"It's pretty clear that Iranians had us for breakfast, lunch and dinner," said an intelligence source in Washington yesterday. "Iranian intelligence has been manipulating the US for several years through Chalabi."

Larry Johnson, a former senior counter-terrorist official at the state department, said: "When the story ultimately comes out we'll see that Iran has run one of the most masterful intelligence operations in history. They persuaded the US and Britain to dispose of its greatest enemy."

As the man said, the question is not "are you paranoid?" The question is, "are you paranoid enough?"

Choice

Bitch magazine is super-cool. Dig this new article about the semantics of "choice" in pseudo-feminist rhetoric.
The word’s primacy in the arena of reproductive rights has slowly caused the phrase "It’s my choice" to become synonymous with "It's a feminist thing to do" --- or, perhaps more precisely, "It is antifeminist to criticize my decision." The result has been a rapid depoliticizing of the term and an often misguided application of feminist ideology to consumer imperatives, invoked not only for the right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy, but also for the right to buy all manner of products marketed to women, from cigarettes to antidepressants to diet frozen pizzas.
Plenty more good stuff in the Bitch archives, too.

Sontag

Susan Sontag risks asinine misreadings from the right to bring you her thoughts on Abu Ghraib. It's so complex and good, I refuse to excerpt it, since you should go read the whole thing.

(A belated thank you to the brilliant and gorgeous Thorn Coyle for passing this one on to me!)

27 May 2004

Whoops! So sorry!

Just guess: who is this unsigned editorial talking about?
Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all.

New York Times 26 May 2004

Yep! They're talking about themselves, the New York Times! The alleged flagship of the supposedly "liberal" media. Salon has more.

Paranoia will destroy ya

Conspiracy theories flourish in an environment where good information is not available ... like our media environment in which the Bush administration has the press corps cowed. Most conspiracy theories are wrong, but under these circumstances they're tempting. So:

Need a little extra paranoia today? Then play Osama bin Lotto!

My money's on 10 October --- fill the airwaves in the run-up to Election Day ...

You had to be there

A very odd story from Long story, short pier, by way of A 20'x20' Room. It's, you know, the sort of thing you'll like if you like that sort of thing.

If you do like that sort of thing, there's a good chance that you'll really like the punchline at the end.

... we were headed off elsewhere, we found the Resistance and Morah didn’t want to talk to them since she thought she was dead, too, and there was some more stuff with red dust and giant metal bugs and an ancient city, and the important thing here aside from the fact that we did in the end manage to stop the red dust from swallowing pretty much the entire world is that in the course of fighting off an attack by the soldiers from one of the city ships that fly across the sky ...

26 May 2004

Art

You may not have heard of the Museum of Bad Art. It's more than just a joke --- though it is, of course, mostly that --- there's something valuable about looking at how bad art works, just as there's value in criticism that looks at how good art works.

And their online gallery is a classic addictive web-procrastination tool.

Antiwar meme

I just received this chain letter from my mother.
When Norway was occupied by Germany in 1940, Norwegian women began to knit red caps for children as a way of letting everyone know that they did not like what was happening in their country. The result was that whenever Norwegians left their homes: to go to the store, to work, etc, they could see that the majority opposed what was going on in their country.

Many of us strongly oppose what this administration has done and we need to recognize each other very easily so we can see that thinking people are still the majority.

Please wear RED every Friday between now and election day. Wear a little or a lot --- just be sure that when you leave your house to go about your day --- to work, to school, to the store, to the gas station, wherever you go in your daily routine --- that everyone who sees you will see that you are wearing red because you don't approve of our current administration's policies.

I think it's an elegant idea. Pass it on.

25 May 2004

Today's couplet

Amazing what you find in the pages of The Economist. On the subject of rock 'n' roll lifestyle, Ted Nugent tells us that he's wiser than Jerry Garcia.
Jerry got high and Jerry is dead
I went hunting and I'm still Ted

Blather

Reading opaque contemporary academic theory-head writing is a vice of mine. I love it when Donna Haraway says stuff like

The evidence is building of a need for a theory of ‘difference” whose geometries, paradigms, and logics break out of binaries, dialectics, and nature/culture models of any kind. Otherwise, threes will always reduce to twos, which quickly become lonely ones in the vanguard. And no one learns to count to four. These things matter politically.
and I'm not afraid to admit it.

But.

For every sentence of difficult theory-head prose which says something incisive like that, there's an entire Routledge book that doesn't seem to say anything at all — beyond being a kind of eruption of ugly lefty academic poetry.

Mark Crispin Miller, himself a lefty academic, has some ideas about where this stuff comes from.

The merciless abstractness of the prose, with its consciousness-defying sentences, dependent clauses tacked onto (and tucked into) dependent clauses, and almost every word a ponderous multisyllable, inhibits us from noticing how much of all this work is merely self-obsessed and self-promotional. Theory's heavy leftish filigree, moreover, even has its audience, and the likes of Roger Kimball, thinking that the stuff is radical. Such affectation is especially important in an institution as completely out-of-it, politically, as the academy, whose members mostly never go to “meet the people where they are,” because they don't have time, and don't know how, and probably don't even want to, since the institution won't award them any brownie points for doing it. Thus shunted off into the furthest margins, the theorists wax “political” as if to reassure themselves that they are where it's happening, and that they do make a difference — but their peculiar view of “power” prevents them from connecting, ever, with reality as most people inhabit it. Indeed, that view induces them to see that very failure as itself politically progressive. Since “power” so values clarity and logic, good grammar and a solid argument, it must be really right-on to do sloppy work.

Of course, he can't manage the trick without using “scare quotes” on a few problematic “words,” but I forgive him.

(Also: Miller is a vigorous critic of our president, most notably in being the author of the smart, serious, and scary book The Bush Dyslexicon, which I cannot recommend highly enough.)

24 May 2004

Google's ten things

On their corporate information pages, you can see a list of ten things Google has found to be true.
  1. Focus on the user and all else will follow
  2. It's best to do one thing really, really well
  3. Fast is better than slow
  4. Democracy on the web works
  5. You don't need to be at your desk to need an answer
  6. You can make money without doing evil
  7. There's always more information out there
  8. The need for information crosses all borders
  9. You can be serious without a suit
  10. Great just isn't good enough
There's lots more about each of these points there. Not anything that would surprise anyone wise, but strong stuff for the general shape of the industry.

An exercise for the student: Which of these things does Microsoft know?

An advanced exercise for the student: Which of these things does Microsoft mistakenly think that they know?

23 May 2004

Get your war on

It's political, incisive, made with clip art, full of bad language, and funny as hell. I cannot describe the majesty of Get Your War On.

The most recent installment delivers the goods, though my favorite remains the bit when Kissenger was named chair of the commission to investigate 9/11.

22 May 2004

Seder

My seders are not like this. Mostly not, anyway.

The Four Questions (re-written for a Lesbian Feminist Santa Cruz Seder that strangely is NOT vegetarian)

Deja vu all over again

O people of Baghdad remember that for 26 generations you have suffered under strange tyrants who have ever endeavoured to set on Arab house against another in order that they might profit by your dissensions. This policy is abhorrent to Great Britain and her Allies, for there can be neither peace nor prosperity where there is enmity and misgovernment. Therefore I am commanded to invite you, through your nobles and elders and representatives, to participate in the management of your civil affairs in collaboration with the political representatives of Great Britain who accompany the British Army, so that you may be united with your kinsmen in North, East, South, and West in realising the aspirations of your race.

Sir Stanley Maude, 19 March 1917

I can't imagine why the Iraqis have trouble trusting our good intentions.

21 May 2004

I know the feeling

It's a dilemma we all face.
I've either got to narrow the scope of things I claim to have an informed opinion on, clone myself, acquire a staff, or give up sleep.

Brad DeLong

Hitch

From Long story; short pier, a weblog full of strange stuff, this gem:
Roz Kaveney knew Christopher Hitchens. And you, sir --

Oh, my. Here’s Andrew Sullivan quoting Christopher Hitchens, holding forth in Scarborough Country last night on the subject of Michael Moore:

But speaking here in my capacity as a polished, sophisticated European as well, it seems to me the laugh here is on the polished, sophisticated Europeans. They think Americans are fat, vulgar, greedy, stupid, ambitious and ignorant and so on. And they’ve taken as their own, as their representative American, someone who actually embodies all of those qualities.
And here’s what Roz has to say about that:
This is, after all, a charming effete fop with an interest in alcohol who has become the house ex-lefty of a lot of American right-wingers who think that all European intellectuals are self-hating, effete wits.
Chin-chin.

20 May 2004

Today's quote

Mind you, she said it in New York City, not in a place like where most Americans live.
Our songs and cities are the best things about us.

Jane Jacobs

Read!

You have likely seen those American Library Association posters with celebrities holding books under the big injunction Read. It turns out they have an online catalogue of the posters, which is strangely fascinating, because obviously some of the celebs have chosen their own books and others have just taken whatever was issued to them. It seems Tim Robbins is reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, and ''Weird'' Al Yankovic has been working on Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. Hawking himself has a biography of Marilyn Monroe tucked into his chair --- make of that what you will.

What of Mel Gibson and Christina Ricci? You'll have to go find out for yourself: I promise it's worth the trip.

19 May 2004

Today's quote

Remind the DJ or band that they work for you, and they'll damn well play anything you want. For some reason I think this may be less of a problem at gay weddings. Thank God.

A Quick Note to About-To-Be Married Gays and Lesbians

Today's quote

You know, back in 2000 a Republican friend of mine warned me that if I voted for Al Gore and he won, the stock market would tank, we'd lose millions of jobs, and our military would be totally overstretched. You know what: I did vote for Al Gore, he did win, and I'll be damned if all those things didn't come true.

James Carville

Rhetoric

I'm feeling mighty pleased about the gay marriages happening back East right now. As the culture battles rev up again, Pandagon has a good comment for us lefty culture warriors.
We need to win this one softly, respecting beliefs that stand in our way but quietly circumventing them with pictures of loving couples and arguments based on shared values. When the right is able to create divisions and spin our winning arguments into the loser's lasting shame, they come out ahead. We gain our victory but they harden, and occasionally expand, their constituency. The only way to break that cycle is to avoid arguments that shame the other side. When the Weekly Standard and the talking heads begin making offensive and clearly specious arguments against gay marriage, you know their aim isn't victory but provocation. If they can provoke one prominent Democrat to overreact and unleash a retort belittling traditionalists, they'll have won the day. As Jonathan notes, tradition isn't always logical, but that makes it no less real. Conservative strategists understand this, it's time we did as well.

18 May 2004

Valentine's Day in May

More wedding pictures, folks!

Old skool cyberkultur

So in the process of looking for something else entirely, I stumbled across this site of old cyber-stuff, apparently last updated in 1997. Most of the files are plain text.

There's an FTP Guide to VR sites from 1993. (For my young readers: ''VR'' stands for ''virtual reality,'' which is 1993-speak for the Matrix, and was thought to be the Next Big Thing right before the Web came along.)

There's an email from Adam Curry telling the sad tale of mtv.com. While Curry was running it, "The site quickly became a frequently accessed 'hangout' on the net, with an average of 35000 accesses daily from Mosaic clients alone.'' Thirty-five thousand hits a day! Wow! (Mosaic was a web browser from before Netscape was a company. Pages came up with a gray background by default, and you had to shovel coal into the back of your computers about once an hour or so.)

There's lots of stuff about Gender in Cyberspace. A long article by Sandy Stone, before she went to go work for Microsoft. An interview with Brenda Laurel (before she worked for Purple Moon) from Mondo 2000. An article about the LambdaMOO ''rape'' from The Villiage Voice.

There's an article called ''Fiction That Bleeds Truth'' about cyberpunk going mainstream from the pages of bOING bOING. (It was a print publication back in those days, boys and girls, so it had real pages.)

There's even samples of spam so old that the spelling and formatting are good, and there's no mention of Nigeria, Viagra, or pornography of any kind. (At the time Nigeria was a country, and pornography had been invented ... but Viagra had not.)

It makes me feel like an old man.

17 May 2004

Judicial activism

Fifty years ago today — within living memory — the United States Supreme Court overturned local law and custom in the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education.

Segregation of white and Negro children in the public schools of a State solely on the basis of race, pursuant to state laws permitting or requiring such segregation, denies to Negro children the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment — even though the physical facilities and other “tangible” factors of white and Negro schools may be equal.

  1. The history of the Fourteenth Amendment is inconclusive as to its intended effect on public education.
  2. The question presented in these cases must be determined not on the basis of conditions existing when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted, but in the light of the full development of public education and its present place in American life throughout the Nation.
  3. Where a State has undertaken to provide an opportunity for an education in its public schools, such an opportunity is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.
  4. Segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race deprives children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities, even though the physical facilities and other “tangible” factors may be equal.
  5. The “separate but equal” doctrine adopted in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, has no place in the field of public education.

Today, the political Right in the US expresses great concern with what they call “judicial activism,” as demonstrated by the Warren Court which made this decision. As Thomas Sowell's essay Judicial Activism Reconsidered (the #2 ranked Google result for “judicial activism” at the time I write this) says:

If no authorization is needed for judges to introduce “change,” neither is it needed for generals and admirals to do the same — as in fact happens in a number of countries. Judges can conduct limited coups d'état surreptitiously, while a military coup is usually overt and sweeping. Nevertheless, the dangers to constitutional government are no less real in the long run from judicial activism — both because of the cumulative effect of small usurpations and because small usurpations both generate pressures and provide the precedents for larger usurpations by others with different social visions.

The claim that judicial activism is necessary to rescue us from bondage to the past — from having the writers of the Constitution “rule us from the grave” — defies both logic and history.

Such sober concern with the potentially overwhelming power of judges to usurp democratic governance! But surely that anti-judicial-activist article doesn't question the logic of the Brown decision, with its merits so obvious today?

Take another look at item b from the Brown syllabus above, then this from Sowell's article:

Advocates of judicial activism often refer to changes which have taken place, and others deemed desirable, as reasons for going beyond the original cognitive meanings of laws, including the Constitution. According to Justice William J. Brennan:
Those who would restrict claims of right to the values of 1789 specifically articulated in the Constitution turn a blind eye to social progress and eschew adaptation of overarching principles to changes of social circumstances.
According to Justice Brennan, “the genius of the Constitution rests not in any static meaning it might have had in a world that is dead and gone, but in the adaptability of its great principles to cope with current problems and current needs.”
....
Social changes — even changes of a profound and far-reaching nature — do not of course necessarily require changes in the U.S. Constitution. Many statutes and state constitutions serve as instruments of change, as do an ever-increasing number of administrative agencies at all levels of government, and an ever-expanding galaxy of private individual and corporate arrangements. The proposition that publicly desired changes are thwarted for lack of institutional instruments, so that judges are the public's last resort, not only flies in the face of this evidence but is also inconsistent with the courts' plummeting prestige as they putatively carried out the public's otherwise thwarted desires for change.

Oh. I guess Sowell does think that Brown was a bad idea. Not to worry, though. Mr. Sowell feels confident that other institutional instruments in, say, Arkansas, would have brought about school integration just as well. I find myself less confident, but I suppose reasonable people may differ.

Surely Mr. Sowell and most other commentators on the Right in their vigilance against judicial activism do not intend anyone to interpert their critique as meaning anything like the article “Judicial activism causes crime.”

Fraudulent, or at least speculative, Supreme Court opinions contemporaneous with the surge in crime rates not only made it a lot harder to lock up criminals, they also supported many other causes of crime.  They ruined our urban public school systems. Failed public schools lead directly to an increase in the criminal population.

Surely the sentiment that integration “ruined our urban public school systems” is rare on the Right. Surely discomfort with school integration is not at the root of the Right's objections to “judicial activism.” Surely there's some other explanation for all of the inbound links to “Judicial activism causes crime” that make it rank #1 on a Google search of “judicial activism.”


Update: It turns out that conservatives are quite comfortable with judicial activism for their causes.

16 May 2004

Doggerel sequels

Everyone knows the question
How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
For years I have known that this question does in fact have the traditional answer
Well a woodchuck would chuck what a woodchuck could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood.
Recently I learned that there is a sequel to Gelett Burgess' immortal poem
I never saw a purple cow
I never hope to see one
But I can tell you anyhow
I'd rather see than be one.
It seems that Mr. Burgess lived to rue the fame of his little doggerel, and eventually wrote
Ah yes I wrote ''The Purple Cow:''
I'm sorry now I wrote it.
But I can tell you anyhow,
I'll kill you if you quote it.

15 May 2004

Simulacrum

If you like paragraphs like this one
Baudrillard's concept of simulation is the creation of the real through conceptual or "mythological" models which have no connection or origin in reality. The model becomes the determinant of our perception of reality --- the real. Homes, relationships, fashion, art, music, all become dictated by their ideal models presented through the media. Thus the boundary between the image, or simulation, and reality implodes (breaks down). This creates a world of hyperreality where the distinctions between real and unreal are blurred.
then you'll be appropriately spooked and fascinated by this photograph.

14 May 2004

Stem cells

Another demonstration of our president and public being terrifyingly scientifically illiterate is the blocking of stem cell research. When people finally catch on to what this is about, our policy will change and we will embark on some very aggressive funding. Stem cells are the #@*!! Holy Grail of new medical technologies --- the applications we can think of now are like science fiction, and there's good cause to think that a decade or two of new research and development will make those ideas look like asprin and band-aids in comparison.

Here's a recent taste:

The procedure is fairly simple. Doctors take stem cells from the patient. These are unique in their ability to form any of the tissues that make up the body. By carefully nurturing the stem cells in a laboratory, scientists can nudge the cells down a path that will make them grow into a tooth. After a couple of weeks, the ball of cells, known as a bud, is ready to be implanted. Tests reveal what type of tooth --- for example, a molar or an incisor --- the bud will form.

Using a local anaesthetic, the tooth bud is inserted through a small incision into the gum. Within months, the cells will have matured into a fully-formed tooth, fused to the jawbone. As the tooth grows, it releases chemicals that encourage nerves and blood vessels to link up with it.

Tests have shown the technique to work in mice, where new teeth took weeks to grow. "There's no reason why it shouldn't work in humans, the principles are the same," said Prof Sharpe.

The Guardian 3 May 2004

Today's quote

On Wolfgang Petersen's film Troy:
Homer's estate should sue.

Roger Ebert

13 May 2004

What now?

Matthew Yglasias has collected an interesting list of pundits' proposals for what we should do about Iraq. Get out? Hand over power to whom?

Don't hope for a miracle. He doesn't have any good answers. We're screwed.

For myself, I think that we broke it, we bought it. The US needs to be prepared to shoulder the costs of whatever solution we come to. And we have to displace GWB as President, as anything done on his watch cannot hope to have any legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis or the world.

newWitch

So some time ago, I read this
SPECULATOR TIP:

The first person to create and launch a mass market glossy magic magazine for young women will become as rich in the first decade of 21c. as the creators of Loaded magazine became in the last decade of 20c.

Grant Morrison, 15 November 2000

and wished I had the money and know-how to do it. Too late now.

Today's quote

One also must remember --- and this is very important --- that it is simultaneously the case that states with high mean incomes support Democrats while people with high incomes support Republicans.

Matthew Yglesias

So profound that I'm not sure what it means. There are facile explanations that come to mind, but I suspect that there's a whole subtle world of stuff going on supporting this phenomenon.

12 May 2004

Cuteness, and punk rock

By way of Amygdala, I bring you this very thoughtful article about the unstoppable wave of cuteness rushing out of Japan.

It is characteristic of subcultural style that it should resist the interpretations of outsiders. The signs emblazoned across the bodies of these Japanese teenagers speak in code to those who inhabit the same world of meaning; that, in one sense, is the point. But more than this, the broader ‘meaning’ of style is not something that can be read off its surface. If cute means anything, it isn't going to be what it seems to mean. It isn't, for example, necessarily juvenile to dress like a child. Nor does dressing up at the weekend necessarily betray a desire to be ‘someone else’. Most important, the deliberate dumbness ... doesn't necessarily mean they have nothing to say, or that they are saying nothing by acting dumb.

Cute culture has thrown Richie and other writers off track because it doesn't conform to what the baby boomer generation expects of youth culture. Cute is not rebellious — at least not in any obvious way. It isn't cool. It doesn't seem to be about sex. It doesn't want to overthrow capitalism — cute is hooked on brand-names. It is cosy, not angry.

I love that first sentence. It's a subject I've alluded to before.

Another example: My soul sister Alysse tells a story about taking her mother to a punk show, as a way of educating her mother about what it was that her sister was getting into. Mom was, at first, horrified by the mosh pit: all those kids crashing into each other, seemingly trying to knock each other down.

“Watch what happens when one of them falls,” says Alysse.

This takes a while to spot — the energy in a good pit is powerful, but much more controlled than it appears to the unfamiliar eye. But in time some skinny punk takes a spill ... and almost before he hits the ground there are half a dozen strangers' hands helping him up. And mom Gets It.

Brotherhood. You're not supposed to be able to see it from the outside. Subcultures are like that.

Pens to Afghanistan

I know, I know: yet another plea for charity. For obvious reasons, though, I find this one is too poetic to resist.
When I first mentioned on my blog that I was going to be deployed, a large number of you asked how you could help me, what I would need for Afghanistan. The truth is, there's not much. However, I just went on my first mission with a civil affairs group and found a way you might be able to help me out.

It seems that the children of Afghanistan want nothing more than they want a pen.

It was explained to me that the villages through which I traveled (near Kandahar, where I'm based) are so poor that a pen is like a scholarship to these children. They desperately want to learn but, without a pen, they simply won't. It's a long story. I won't bore you with it. Trust me, though, when I say that it would be a big deal if even a few of you could put up the call for pens for me ...


Oh, goody! Atrios picked up this story.

11 May 2004

Sanctimonious fraud

If you hate Joe Lieberman the way I do, you'll enjoy this recent screed from Michael Bérubé.
Lieberman, for his part, has always struck me as a member of the religious right dressed up as a ''New Democrat.'' He's very concerned about ''moral'' issues like violence in video games, and he's sad that discussions of God and spirituality have been banished from the public sphere (to which I always reply, exactly what public sphere do you inhabit? As Richard Rorty once put it, an atheist can't get elected to any office higher than that of dogcatcher in this country). And let's not forget his important partnership with Lynne Cheney as co-director of the right-wing Association of College Trustees and Alumni and his consistent pattern of alignment with wingnut conservatives in the culture wars.

But now here comes a profound moral crisis ...

10 May 2004

Saddle up

One more post about the Recent Unpleasantness.

Ken MacLeod has a poetic call-to-arms for lefty boomers that you should read.

Something within you has become harder and colder this week. You've glimpsed the bestiality and the decadence, in the system's nerves like a venereal disease. It's sick, and there is something sexual in its sickness, something warped beyond therapy. The oiled skin of a gladiator, the lusty roar of the arena. A line from Cornford, whom you haven't read for years, slides beneath the surface of your mind. ''The painted boy in the praetorian's bed.'' Camphor and pincers, piss and blood. You're in this rotting system, you're part of it. You pay the soldiers. Civis Romanus sum.

Laws

In the spirit of Newton, Kepler, and Murphy, Edge asked a bunch of smart people for Laws, and got a bunch of cool responses. Here's a taste:
Miller's First Law of Offspring Ingratitude
People who don't understand genetics attribute their personal failings to the inane role models offered by their parents.

Miller's Second Law of Offspring Ingratitude
People who do understand genetics attribute their personal failings to the inane mate-choice decisions made by their parents.

Hut's First Law
Any attempt to define what is science is doomed to failure

Brand's Law
Information wants to be free.

The rest of Brand's Law
Information also wants to be expensive.

Ogilvy's Law
Many well defined manifolds lack unifying centers that define or control them.

  • Just because some things are genuinely sacred does not mean that there is a god.
  • Just because a corporation or a country seems to be hierarchically structured does not mean that any single leader is really in charge.
  • Just because some behavior is conscious and intentional does not entail a "ghost in the machine," a homunculus, or a central intender.
  • Just because evolution appears to be directional, from less order and complexity toward greater order and complexity, that does not presuppose either an alpha-designer or an omega-telos.
Bunnell's Second Law of Retrievability
Everything is stored somewhere. The secret to retrieving things is simply finding out where they are stored.

Skoyles' Law of Literacy
A society develops democracy to the degree that it writes social, legal and religious ideas using the syntax, vocabulary and pronunciation of everyday speech, rather than that of a professional, literary or dead language.

Myers Law of Writing
Anything that can be misunderstood will be.

Kelly's First Law
Power, understanding, control. Pick any two.

Rushkoff's Law of Media
True communication can only occur between people with equal access to the medium in which the communication is taking place.

Simonyi's Law of Guaranteed Evolution
Anything that can be done, could be done ''meta.''

09 May 2004

Today's quote

With the possible exception of Bill Gates, Dick Cheney is the smartest man I've ever met.

John Perry Barlow

Via a fascinating old post from Calpundit.

Geek test

Okay, see if you laugh at this item from Wired News which I found via Low Grade Panic.
If you take a close look at the form Google filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the exact value of its planned offering is $2,718,281,828 dollars ...
Did you laugh? If not, this may help.
... which some would immediately recognize as the mathematical constant e.
Didn't laugh? Congratulations, you're a human being!

08 May 2004

How to write dialogue

On the 10th Anniversary DVD for Resevoir Dogs, Quentin provides a meandering rapid-fire interview (well, monologue) in which he tries to explain where his style of dialogue comes from.
Have them sound like real people --- like me, and my friends, and just other people --- and make references that other people make, that movie characters don't necessarily make. And talk about shit other than The Plot, alright? Most of us don't talk about The Plot in our lives. We talk all around things, and we talk about bullshit, and we talk about things that interest us.

Gangsters don't just talk about ''gangster plot'' related stuff, and just polish their bullets, and talk about this murder or that murder. They talk about songs on the radio. They talk about the chicken dinner they had last night (or that they're having this moment) and this girl, and they ... well, sometimes in gangster movies they talk about a girl. But that's about it. They don't talk about just stuff.

Quentin Tarantino

07 May 2004

More homework

For those with strong stomachs, first take a look at the photograph here, then read this comment about it, then see what Rush Limbaugh had to say about it.

Then you're ready for David Neiwert's long, distressing essay Rush, Newspeak, and Fascism. It's long, but it's a good read. I've been meaning to encourage y'all to read it for a while, now. Today, having seen the quotes from the wingnut press about the Iraqi prisoners (and there's seemingly an infinite supply of irresponsible rhetoric on the right) it seems essential.

Do it now

Brad DeLong keeps the best weblog there is, hands down. Links to the best writing in the blogosphere. Intelligent left-leaning politics. Funny stories about his kids. Lucid explanations of esoteric economic theory. Witty Socratic dialogues. It's all there.

I know I keep plugging his blog, but particularly right now his blog is on fire with links to smart stuff all over the blogosphere, mostly about the crisis over US soldiers torturing Iraqis, and the Iraq situation. This is ''run, do not walk'' level stuff. Read everything he's posted in the last two days, especially Timothy Burke's primal scream.

Ratings

With a tip of the the hat to Mr. Conner, I say, ''Do not put a picture of a parrot on your flag! (This goes for you too, Guatamala!)''

And if you liked that, you may need Lore's Book of Ratings

Bad CEO

The political meme-du-jour in the blogosphere is Kevin Drum's ''Bad CEO'' essay.
Bush styles himself a "CEO president," but the world is full to bursting with CEOs who have goals they would dearly love to attain but who lack either the skill or the fortitude to make them happen. They assign tasks to subordinates without making sure the subordinates are capable of doing them --- but then consider the job done anyway because they've "delegated" it. They insist they want a realistic plan, but they're unwilling to do the hard work of creating one --- all those market research reports are just a bunch of ivory tower nonsense anyway. They work hard --- but only on subjects in their comfort zone. If they like dealing with people they can't bring themselves to read all those tedious analyst's reports, and if they like numbers they can't bring themselves to spend time chattering with distributors about their latest prospect.

And most important of all, weak CEOs are unwilling to recognize bad news and perform unpleasant tasks to fix it --- tasks like like confronting poorly performing subordinates or firing people. Good CEOs suck in their guts and do it anyway.

The Decembrist has an excellent follow-up on this subject, which captures --- in spite of his protestations that he knows little about business culture --- the character of weak CEOs I've known and takes Drum's comparison to the Bush administration a step further.
A writer followed the CEO of Avon Products around for several days ... [and] revealed, inadvertently ... that it is perfectly easy to sit at the top of a large organization, make dozens of ''decisions'' a day, and yet never really grapple with the issues the company faced. The Avon CEO's day consisted of meetings at which teams from various parts of the company essentially pitched him for authorization to spend more money or take more time on some project.
...
Neither the CEO nor the author seemed to show any recognition that ''the company was a dog,'' since the business of selling cosmetics door-to-door didn't have much future. For all the decisions, the CEO was as helpless to change his company as the worst-paid, part-time salesperson.

It was ... a revelation to me that someone could reach the top of an organization and yet be so completely passive and imprisoned within the assumptions of that organization's culture. There's all the bluster of leadership, all the ''I'm the one who has to make the tough calls,'' all obsession with the stock price as if it's an impeccable barometer of success, but underlying it all, just drift, not mastery.

Now as I pointed out a while ago, Teresa Neilsen Hayden actually made this point over a year ago.
I recognize that behavior. Lord help me, I’ve seen it done. It’s one of the tactics you can use if you’re in an executive-level job that’s beyond your abilities, you have to have meetings with underlings who know more than you do, and your only concern is to save face while making sure they’re giving you what you want.

Update: D-Squared Digest offers us more on the theme with his One Minute MBA.
Good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance
... if stock options really were a fantastic tool which unleashed the creative power in every employee, everyone would want to expense as many of them as possible, the better to boast about how innovative, empowered and fantastic they were. Since the tech companies' point of view appeared to be that if they were ever forced to account honestly for their option grants, they would quickly stop making them, this offered decent prima facie evidence that they weren't, really, all that fantastic ...

Fibbers' forecasts are worthless
... Not only that people who want a project will tend to make innacurate projections about the possible outcomes of that project, but about the futility of attempts to "shade" downward a fundamentally dishonest set of predictions. If you have doubts about the integrity of a forecaster, you can't use their forecasts at all. Not even as a "starting point" ...

The Vital Importance of Audit
... companies which do not audit completed projects in order to see how accurate the original projections were, tend to get exactly the forecasts and projects that they deserve. Companies which have a culture where there are no consequences for making dishonest forecasts, get the projects they deserve. Companies which allocate blank cheques to management teams with a proven record of failure and mendacity, get what they deserve.

I hope I don't have to spell out the implications of this one for Iraq ...

06 May 2004

Senate

I have this little fantasy about restructuring the United States Senate. There are articles in both the latest Harper's and in Slate a little while ago (and later, in the New York Times) arguing that we should just abolish the Senate altogether, because it defies the “one man, one vote” principle of equal representation. I agree with the critique, but I have a better idea for the Senate than abolition.

One of the problems with representative democracy as practiced now is that the representatives all speak for blocs of population determined geographically. When people hack the geographic representation system to give representation to minorities, it's called “gerrymandering” and derided as an abuse of the system. It is an abuse ... of the spirit of geographic representation. But it is not necessarily an abuse of the spirit of representative democracy.

Indeed, the American left has worked hard in the last few decades to redistrict government at various levels to create districts that give local majorities to racial minorities, bringing more color to the faces seen in the halls of government. Much lefty ink has been spilled asserting how this is essential to a truly representative political process. Here in San Francisco, this kind of redistricting of the electoral process for the city Board of Supervisors is widely regarded as a great progressive victory.

Geographic divisions are a logical way to group people for representation, for a number of reasons, but need not be the only way. Contemporary communications and transportation technology mean that there are are a number of significant populations with coherent interests who are distributed across the entire country: not just ethnic minorities but also religious minorities, cultural minorities, political minorities. These populations deserve representation.

For instance, there are seven million motorcyclists in the US. Proportionately, that means ten Bikers in the House of Representatives. I don't necessarily mean ten congresspeople who are bikers, I mean ten who represent the interests of a hypothetical Biker Party. A whimsical example, sure, but I'm not entirely sure that bikers have politics any less coherent than Democrats.

Granted, strong parlimentary representation of minorities can be a bit of a scary proposition. One of the characteristics — a virtue, though also a weakness — of our winner-take-all existing system is that it favours centrist representatives, which makes it easier to get work done. At 435 members, building effective voting coalitions in a House of Representatives teeming with Greens and Libertarians and other fringe players would be a headache.

But then consider the Senate, with only a hundred senators and strong traditions as a deliberative body. A hundred people can get to know each other and talk things through in a way that an organization of four hundred plus cannot.

I propose that we should fix the number of senators at 100, but allow them to be chosen in a nationwide election with completely open write-in ballots. The hundred candidates who get the most votes comprise the Senate. That opens the door to anyone who could scrape together three million votes. Think about that. I'm not sure who would end up in our Senate, but I think they would be a more interesting crowd than we have now.

Sure, one could argue, that means that Pat Robertson is sure to be in the club, and I admit that I don't want that. He already weilds a hefty measure of political power, though, so I'm not sure that this is a new problem. A few nutty Green, Libertarian, evangelical, socialist, and who-knows-what-else senators asking pointed questions would be good for the political discourse. Or at least a lot more fun.


Update: There's an added wrinkle which I've long thought about but didn't include when I first wrote this up, as it seemed like a confusing complication, but as I grow ever more concerned about the un-democratic quality of the Senate the more important I think this becomes: under this scheme Senators should not have equal votes, but rather should hold voting power proportionate to the number of votes she received in the election. Thus the most popular senators would have stronger votes, matching their greater popular support.

That raises the possibility that more frequent elections for the Senate would be a good idea; senators would tend not to lose their seats but would see their strength wax and wane over time. Perhaps the Senate in this scheme should stand for election every four years, off-cycle from the President. If we kept elections for the House of Representatives biannual, those elections could be off-cycle as well, so that you could have a national election every year:

  • 2012: President
  • 2013: House of Representatives
  • 2014: Senate
  • 2015: House
  • 2016: President

That might make the problem of it always being campaign season in America even worse, but that's a problem that needs a different set of solutions having to do with media and money.


The New York Times has a great infographic showing the problem.

05 May 2004

Stupidity vortex

Jim Henley reminds us that our legislators are dangerously technologically illiterate.
Stop Thinking! It's for the children! Protecting Children from Peer-to-Peer Pornography Act of 2003 makes peer-to-peer file trading illegal:
(a) ACTS PROHIBITED- It is unlawful for any person to distribute peer-to-peer file trading software, or to authorize or cause peer-to-peer file trading software to be distributed by another person, in interstate commerce in a manner that violates the regulations prescribed under subsection (b)(2).
Still in committee, from what I can tell.
I propose the Protecting Children from Bleeding to Death Act of 2004:

(a) ACTS PROHIBITED- It is unlawful for any person to distribute knives or other tools with sharp edges, or to authorize or cause tools with sharp edges to be distributed by another person, in interstate commerce in a manner that violates the regulations prescribed under subsection (b)(2).

Blimp

From a funny yet tragic tale of of the conflict betwixt man and blimp:
The blimp which was up until this moment a fun toy here embarked on a career of evil.
Via uber-blogger Brad DeLong.

Sadr

More information you won't get on television: the Christian Science Monitor has a fascinating long article about the story of militant Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr.

It turns out that Sadr's opposition movement dates back all of the way to his father's opposition to the Ba'ath regime under Saddam, so his political credentials and determination are unshakeable. And he is an Islamist, whose ultimate goal is a cleric-led government like in Iran.

For his supporters, the stand-off with the Americans is evidence that he's on the right path. ''The tyrants always fear the ones who are most just, must good,'' says Ali Yassawi, sitting in the movement's main office in Sadr City, the sprawling Baghdad public housing quarter that is a hot-bed of Saddriyun, or Sadr supporters. ''At first I wasn't sure about Moqtada, but just like the father, our enemies are fighting against him. This proves he's on the right path.''
...
While the family fought Hussein, and now stands against the US, their oppositionist position has always had one objective: To bring the rule of wilayat al faqih, or the rule of the jurisprudent, to Iraq, patterned after Iran's theocracy. ''In difficult situations like the ones we faced under the regime of Saddam Hussein, people will always look for leaders who stand up for their rights,'' says Imam Hazim al-Araji, a cleric close to Moqtada. ''The Sadr line showed themselves to be the ones willing to stand up to [the] regime, and suffered for it. The people really respect this.''

04 May 2004

Spring

3Jake has an aching description of what a guidance counselor sees at your local high school, come Spring.
Right around late May, things settle back down and everyone waits for the year to end. The mating rituals have mellowed and people have paired up or pared down. They are focused on final exams and end of the year parties. But Spring is rough. Really rough.
And my advice about talking to the brokenhearted boys, 3Jake? Tell 'em the truth. Yes, they will love again, and as impossible as it seems it will be every bit as strong, and they will even be happy again. But it won't be the same, it can never be the same again. And they can be sure that they will never, ever forget.

It probably won't help. Still, they deserve to know the truth.

Ewok apocalypse

Admit it. You hate 'em.
This document does not advocate or condone the extinction or betrayal of Ewoks, it merely reports upon a physical situation and the acts involved.

The circumstances at the end of Return of the Jedi lead inevitably to an environmental disaster on the Endor moon. The explosion of a small artificial moon in low orbit sends a meteoric rain onto the Ewok sanctuary, on a scale unmatched since Endor formed. Through either direct atmospheric injection of small particles, or showers of ejecta from large impacts, the atmosphere will be filled with smoke and fallout causing a gargantuan nuclear-winter effect.

The page has more information than you could imagine, detailing the specifics of the horrid little teddy bears' deaths.

03 May 2004

Today's headline

Holy doublethink, Batman! Patriot Act Suppresses News Of Challenge to Patriot Act, in the Washington Post.
The American Civil Liberties Union disclosed yesterday that it filed a lawsuit three weeks ago challenging the FBI's methods of obtaining many business records, but the group was barred from revealing even the existence of the case until now.

The lawsuit was filed April 6 in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, but the case was kept under seal to avoid violating secrecy rules contained in the USA Patriot Act, the ACLU said. The group was allowed to release a redacted version of the lawsuit after weeks of negotiations with the government.

''It is remarkable that a gag provision in the Patriot Act kept the public in the dark about the mere fact that a constitutional challenge had been filed in court,'' Ann Beeson, the ACLU's associate legal director, said in a statement. ''President Bush can talk about extending the life of the Patriot Act, but the ACLU is still gagged from discussing details of our challenge to it.''

If you think about the direction in which our courts are headed, we are in very hot water here.

Fallingwater

Teller, of ''Penn and Teller,'' turns out to be a pretty good writer. The man should have a blog. I was particularly pleasantly surprised to discover that he had done a terrific little essay about Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater.
I've xeroxed pictures out of architecture books. I've read the philosophy of floorplans. I've even drawn my own. But I know little about materials, nothing about construction. So here I am, trying to be Jefferson, the gentleman architect, emulating Palladio; but deep down, I doubt I'll come up with Monticello. To get workmanship like that you need slaves.

Nevertheless, when I realized that my show would be playing in Pennsylvania near Fallingwater, the legendary home Frank Lloyd Wright built for the Pittsburgh department store tycoon around 1938, I decided I'd have to see it. Not that I could afford to build a single room of it. Nor that I would even have the slightest notion what was holding it up.

If you're a fan of the duo, or have an interest in magic, I also particularly recommend his acceptance speech for the Magician of the Year award, in which he tells the Secret Origin of Penn and Teller.

02 May 2004

Condemned to repeat

The Agonist has a fascinating long post talking about the crystalization of Iraqi resistence to US occupation in which he starts by talking about the very early stages of the Vietnam war.
We had promised to back reunification of Vietnam, and instead, Dulles backed a strong man by the name of Diem. Much like Chalabi of our own day, he had connections, they thought they could do business with him. Instead of allowing elections we backed his rule in Vietnam, which handed out concessions to his close friends. It sparked a guerilla insurgency that Diem dubbed ''the Vietcong.''
He then starts to produce some very disturbing figures to unpack the nature and capacities of the current Iraqi resistence in Fallujah.
Fallujah, clearly, is connected with the old al-Tikriti network of supplies, and has found means of recruiting former military personnel --- both Saddamist and former resistence --- to their cause, they have military cadres from Syria and other Islamic countries. Sadr's military consists of green recruits, has no foreign military cadres. In the last two months however, the increasing use of SAM-7, that is to say, shoulder fired Surface to Air Missiles --- shows they have gained a connection to outside supply.

If the experienced commanders and fighters from Fallujah are allowed to train and cross pollinate Sadr's access to recruits, then within a year we will see the same transformation in Iraqi resistence that occured in the Vietcong in the 1959-1962 period.

Need I add that this is exactly the kind of thing that has been totally invisible to me this last week when I was dependent upon television to follow events in Iraq? I cannot describe the despair this inspires, thinking about how our political system is predicated on elections held among citizens informed by this worse-than-useless medium.

I'm not saying that all American citizens should agree with this argument. I'm not sure that I agree with this argument. But I am saying they should be hearing arguments of this complexity. And it's difficult to believe that most folks dependant on television are even aware that arguments of this complexity even exist.

Here's the Agonist's punchline:

The inevitable conclusion is that current policy is creating the conditions by which reactionary elements from the old regime can be being rehabilitated, and that their natural course of alliance is with the newly energized and violent groups that are springing up in the wake of US occupation. That this combination could easily lead to a military coup later in the cycle, one which will then impose a government of similar characteristics to Saddam's, though without the expansionist tendencies. Since oil is necessary, the US and others will be forced to do business with this regime.

West

The presumptive winner of the 2004 Jonathan Korman Award for Title Cleverness is Avishai Margalit and Ian Buruma's essay ''Occidentalism.'' (For those who don't get the joke, the title plays off of Edward Said's smart and important book Orientalism, which talked about the Western myth of the East.)

The rest of the essay is as stupefyingly clever as you would hope.

The East does not begin at the river Elbe, as Konrad Adenauer believed, nor does the West start in Prague, as Milan Kundera once suggested. East and West are not necessarily geographical territories. Rather, Occidentalism, which played such a large part in the attacks of September 11, is a cluster of images and ideas of the West in the minds of its haters. Four features of Occidentalism can be seen in most versions of it; we can call them the City, the Bourgeois, Reason, and Feminism. Each contains a set of attributes, such as arrogance, feebleness, greed, depravity, and decadence, which are invoked as typically Western, or even American, characteristics.

01 May 2004

Google divination

I just did a web search on ''tangled up in blue,'' for no really good reason, and got this New York Observer article, ''That Wild Mercury Sound,'' dated today.*
I think the title question is important. It has to do with something I think Mr. Dylan said to me in the course of that 1978 interview: I think he told me that he got the title of the song from a lost weekend he spent listening to Joni Mitchell’s classic Blue album, which predated Blood on the Tracks by three years. In effect, Mr. Dylan had been tangled up in Blue before writing ''Tangled Up in Blue.''
...
And then there’s the question of whether, even if he said it, he meant it. I don’t know, it makes sense to me: There’s a new kind of Dylan songwriting on Blood on the Tracks, one that he’s described as a shift from the kind of ''unconscious'' songwriting of the Blonde on Blonde period to the more conscious artistry of ''Tangled Up in Blue,'' which plays with time schemes and rhyme schemes in a way Joni Mitchell does quite artfully when she doesn’t tip over into self-parody. I’m not a big fan of "Blue," the Joni Mitchell song (my all-time Joni Mitchell fave is "Amelia"). Nonetheless, I could see Mr. Dylan getting rapt or wrapped up in Blue.
I interpert this peculiar little synchronicity as a sign that I need to tell you about the article. So there it is: it's pretty good.


* Looking again, I see that the Observer tricked me --- the article isn't really dated today. But still, it's really good.

Pirkinning

Imagine a group of fans deciding to do a Star Trek / Babylon 5 parody in which a Federation starship goes back in time to the present day and the crew uses their superior technology to conquer the world. No, wait, you don't have to imagine it. It seems that we're not far away from seeing the first feature-length fan parody with special effects better than the shows it imitates.

Oh, and get this --- it's made in Finland, so the dialogue is all in Finnish! How good is that?