31 May 2005

Deep throat

Golly. Via Warren Ellis I learn that Vanity Fair has finally let the cat out of the bag about the identity of Woodward & Bernstein's Watergate source Deep Throat, and the Washington Post has confirmed it. Turns out it was W. Mark Felt, the #2 guy at the FBI.

This kinda reminds me of a roundtable discussion I read involving a lot of comic book writers who observed that actually, if the average superhero gets his mask ripped off by a villain, it won't compromise his identity; it's unlikely that anyone will recognize him. I thought I knew the Nixon cabinet pretty well, and I never heard of this guy.

Personally, I was fond of the theory Haldeman floated in his book, that it was Al Haig --- a theory so crazy that it just might be true. Only it turns out ... not so much.

In fact, it seems that all the cool kids had already guessed, and I was too out of touch to know it. Timothy Noah, for instance, says I told you so. At least I know that Sir William Gull was Jack the Ripper, so I'm not completely clueless.

And if you're wondering what the heck I'm talking about, Wikipedia, as usual, explains.

Corporate sponsorship

Brian Flemming is troubled that a new Schwarzenegger campaign commercial has some pretty blatant product placement. That's right, major campaign contributor PepsiCo has their products right in the frame in the ad.

But actually, let's not forget that RU Sirius thought of it first.

Let's call this new party the ‘The Revolution®.’ (Note to Richard and the Disinfo crew: I was gonna call it the ‘Alternative Party’ but instead I'm changing the name to The Revolution®, because I really like the chicken burritos [without the onions] at Taco Bell®. And I figure that if they're advertising revolution right now, it's gotta be mass market. I know ... lame. But hang with me for a moment. I wanna get some votes in this election, not just please a handful of too-hip-to-breathe compatriots with pictures of Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme and Antonin Artaud on their computer monitors. I want millions of votes. And I figure; if we can have an ‘alternative music’ (snicker), if we can have an ‘alternative culture’ that's embraced by Volkswagen® and Jordache® jeans, why can't we have an ‘alternative’ political party and get at least half as many votes as Eddie Vedder sells CDs? Are you following me? Am I making sense here? I think this makes sense. We can hype The Revolution® in the context of 90s content-free bohemianism. “Get a cappuccino at Starbucks® and then Vote The Revolution®!”; Voting radical as a fashion accessory. How can it miss?)

Perry Farrell can organize the campaign tour. Reebok® and Nike® will battle Coke® and Pepsi® for the opportunity to endorse. In fact, this may be an ideal way to avoid the trap of being beholden to dozens of wealthy and powerful financial contributors. We will instead be beholden to just one sponsor. Let's say it's Reebok®. I agree that, for instance, if I'm elected President I will wear Reeboks® everywhere. I wear the logo on my t-shirt during State dinners, press conferences, etc. We paint the Reebok® logo on the front of the White House. During the inauguration ceremonies, Monica Lewinsky will appear wearing naught but a lovely pair of Reeboks®. Replace the stars on the flag with the Reebok® logo. We give Reebok® all of the advantages that other politicians give all their contributors. But then we're free to screw all the other mega-corporations if and when we see fit.

Looking further down the road, I can imagine sponsorship replacing taxation ...

Flame bait

Tim Maroney explains why he is not a Christian.
I am not a Christian. In my discussions of this fact with Christians, I have repeatedly run into a major misunderstanding. The Christians assume that if I believed the Bible were true, I would become a Christian; that is, they believe that my reason for not being a Christian is that I don't believe in their god. This is not the case.
Ah. It brings back memories of when I was a snot-nosed young atheist confusing the heck out of evangelical Baptists in college, who had never met an unbeliever who had made a real study of their scripture. The wise Mr. Moroney admits as much about the essay's tone.
An example of my "angry young man" phase. I have outgrown the anti-Christianity of the piece, and now feel that Christianity is no better or worse than most other religions overall.
Just so. It's a more emphatic essay than is really necessary or polite. But the writing is clear and vigorous, and a treat to visit if you ever went through a similar phase.

30 May 2005

Memorial day


Picking February 24th of this year entirely at random:

Specialist Jacob C. Palmatier, age 29
Staff Sergeant Daniel G. Gresham, age 23
Staff Sergeant Alexander B. Crackel, age 31
Specialist Michael S. Deem, age 35

More names

29 May 2005

Serious about national security

Patrick Nielsen Hayden says it for me about the flak we Iraq war doves are still taking.
The reason so many in the Democratic "base" are infuriated over being lectured by the likes of Peter Beinart and Joe Biden about the need to "get serious about national security" is that the people delivering the lectures are precisely those who were wrong about one of the most important national security questions of our time.
It's a read-the-whole-thing thing.

28 May 2005

Steady job

One of the more arcane things I've been reading lately is Lounsbury, the blog of some dissolute expat bloke who does some kind of corporate thing in the Middle East and North Africa. ("MENA," in global corporation speak.) He posts about a lot of things, including occasional unsystematic critiques about ideas of the Arab & Muslim world he sees in the Western press.

I was stuck by this story about one little example of how cultural ideas of political economy are very different in the Arab world.

One evening coming from a party in Zamaalek and heading off to Maadi where I lived, I struck up a conversation with the taxi driver, a garralous older sort. I was curious as to his background as he spoke excellent and refined Arabic --- we spoke in high register dialect / low register modern standard --- and after the usual banter, hit upon business. He in fact was an industrial engineer. Chemical engineer in fact. Trained in Egypt, of the 1960s generation (i.e. flowering of the Nasserist period). Now I was puzzled, since he indicated he had a fine job as an engineer as Revolution Whatever Plant, and here he was driving taxi as well in the evening. Recall while I followed the two day weekend, his job did not. He indicated he needed the extra money for his family --- although he had a fine and well placed job in state industry. Well, that really puzzled me --- my sensation was he was the competent type, in fact the idea went through my head I knew people in the private sector that might want an experience chemical engineer who clearly seemed to be hard working (two jobs, bloody hell) family man of some deep education. So I asked him right out, why was he working in the public sector --- noting I was a man of the private sector (usually enough to get younger people with no qualifications at all to inquire after a job, even as a driver).

Oh no. Not the least bit interesting to him, not at all. Too uncertain. Too insecure. No, my neat as a pin, apparently hard working driver-industrial chemical engineer prefered the saftey of the government job, its apparent permanent security, its saftey and dirt pay which obliged him to drive cab at night to make ends meet to the private sector. Nevermind such an engineer might make ten times his public sector pay (or so, of course I am not sure my read of him was right).

A fascinating reminder of how the effects of culture are vast and subtle.

27 May 2005

The magic word

It seems there's a new organization, After Downing Street, named in reference to the memo I talked about a bit ago. Here's how they describe themselves.
A coalition of veterans' groups, peace groups, and political activist groups announced a campaign today to urge that the U.S. Congress launch a formal investigation into whether President Bush has committed impeachable offenses in connection with the Iraq war. The campaign focuses on evidence that recently emerged in a British memo containing minutes of a secret July 2002 meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top national security officials.
The magic word is, of course, "impeachable."

26 May 2005

A thousand words

BAGnewsNotes does some fascinating close readings of news photos. Here's a taste of the style.
So, the obvious question is: Why would you put an image of the President waving from the doorway of Airforce One on Airforce One? (Especially, when you know it forms the backdrop for Mrs. Bush's trip kick-off meeting with the international press?)

(Of course, there are those of you who would answer: Why not? And, there are others who would answer: What's the big deal, anyway? If you're going to hang out with me at the BAG, however, you have to give up the notion that anything is arbitrary.)

To answer the question is to also understand why I couldn't invest much interest in the actual trip photos. The answer is that the Bush's view travel like the ugly American. Which means, the travel has little to do with where they went, whom they met, or what they might have learned, so much as that they went and were seen as having gone.

The flier shows a boy weighing a gavel in one hand and a bible in the other. In casting a skeptical eye on the gavel, he seems to be concluding that any affiliation with the judicial system (through the pursuit of public service) would put him in conflict with "higher" Christian beliefs.

As a visual allusion to the scales of justice, the poster sets up an either/or relationship between Christ and the law.

Before one can consider the logic of this dichotomy, however, the image adds another layer, implying that the ultimate judgment here belongs with the Christian public (or, to their children). Which institution is more legitimate, however, is already determined. Despite the fact the bible is likely to be heavier, the hand positioning implies that the weight of evidence comes down more strongly against the law.

Another way bias is introduced is through the use of lighting ...


25 May 2005

Today's quote

Joss Whedon on his student films.
My biggest concentration was gender studies and feminism. That was sort of my unofficial minor. That was what all my film work was about, but at the same time, somebody bringing the knee-jerk feminist agenda to a text can be the most aggravating thing in the world. Especially if you're a feminist, because you're like, "You're the person that everybody makes fun of. You're the reason why we've got no cred."
Whedon, in case you don't know, did a little TV show about a teenage girl taking back the night.

24 May 2005


For the benefit of those of you who will laugh at this, I got spam today that caught my eye with this as the subject line:
Re: [93/93]: Get what you need
Alas, this message seemed to think that I needed Prozac and Viagra, rather than my HGA.

(Those of you who didn't laugh, never mind, it's an inside joke.)

Today's quote

From John Holbo, a new term that I feel confident I will be able to use.
Zizek heavily favors what might be termed 'Tholian Web arguments': intellectual formations so potent (apparently) that they would only be needed against the most formidable targets; yet so delicate, disruptable and tardy to deploy that they could only be efficacious against targets that are immobilized and defenseless - possibly because the captain is trapped in another dimension. Liberalism, for example.
He uses it in his later essay Begging the Question, Zizek Edition.
Zizek simply. Does. Not. Argue. He asserts. He stands on his assertions, spinning Tholian webs around helpless, a priori false liberalism.
Makes me glad that I don't feel like I have a dog in that particular fight.

23 May 2005

Star Wars: The story so far ...

I passed this on to some friends, to prep them for Episode III. They found it useful, and recommended that I post it here.

For those of you who lack vivid, detailed memories of the last two Star Wars installments — or who simply blocked them out, to dull the pain — I offer this little synopsis of the story so far.

Episode I

The Trade Federation places the beautiful planet Naboo under seige, overrunning the planet with a droid army.

Senator Palpetine and young Queen Amidala of Naboo plead their planet's case before the Galactic Senate on the city-planet Coruscant ... but the Senate, unwieldy with its thousands of senators, is slow to act against the Trade Federation.

Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and his Jedi Padawan (apprentice) Obi-Wan Kenobi discover that the child Annikin Skywalker, enslaved on the desert planet Tattooine, has an unprecedented amount of “midichlorians,” meaning that he has the potential to be a very powerful Jedi knight. They free Annikin, but cannot free his mother Shimi, who says that her son was immaculately conceived.

Jinn, Kenobi, and Amidala raise a local army on Naboo and, in a stroke of luck, defeat the Trade Federation.

Jinn and Kenobi defeat lightsaber-weilding assasin Darth Maul, but Jinn also dies in the fight. Yoda realizes that Maul is a Sith, a student of the dark side of the Force. The Sith order was thought to have died out long ago, but the appearance of Maul reveals that they have survived. This implies a lone surviving Sith, as it is their practice to have a single Sith Master training a single Sith Apprentice at any given time. The Jedi resolve to keep an eye out for this surviving Sith Lord.

Senate Chancellor Valorum loses his seat over the Galactic Federation's bungling of the Naboo crisis. The Senate, belatedly sympathetic to Naboo's plight, selects Naboo's Senator Palpetine as the new Chancellor.

Kenobi presents Annikin Skywalker to the Jedi Council for training. In spite of signs that Annikin is the fulfillment of a prophecy that a Chosen One will come to balance the light and dark sides of the Force, Yoda is skeptical that the Jedi should train him. But Kenobi insists on taking Annikin as his apprentice.

Episode II

About ten years have passed. Amidala, now Senator for Naboo, suffers a series of assasination attempts. Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi and his headstrong apprentice Annikin Skywalker are assigned to protect her.

In the course of detective work to understand who lies behind the assasination attempts, Kenobi discovers that someone has commissioned an army of clone mercinaries for the Galactic Republic.

Spurred by visions of his mother's death, Annikin Skywalker returns to Tattooine, but is too late to save her from torture and death at the hands of Tuskan raiders. Annikin freaks out and murders all the Tuskan raiders he can lay his lightsaber on.

Kenobi's detective work leads him to the stronghold of the Separatist movement, including the Trade Federation, lead by Count Dooku. Kenobi is captured, and Annikin (with Amidala in tow) rushes to his rescue. They too are captured, but the Jedi knights come to their rescue. The Jedi are outnumbered, but the clone army, under Yoda's command, comes to their rescue.

Annikin and Obi-Wan confront Count Dooku, who reveals that he has powers deriving from the dark side of the Force. Annikin, reckless in the ensuing fight, loses an arm. Dooku and the other Separatist leaders escape.

In the face of the threat from the Separatist movement and its droid armies, the Senate votes Chancellor Palpetine emergency war powers. He uses these powers to raise an Army of the Republic composed of clone soldiers.

Annikin, now with a prosthetic arm, weds Amidala in secret on Naboo. Revealation of their marriage would mean Annikin's expulsion from the celibate Jedi order.

I wish I had thought of this

Via Neil Gaiman I learn the solution to his sock trouble. It's BlackSocks.com, which has a cool business model.
Blacksocks is the inventor of the revolutionary sockscription™. This is how it works: You choose between black mid-calf or knee socks. Once you place your order you will receive your first delivery within a few days. Then the remaining deliveries depend on your chosen frequency 3, 4 or 6 times per year ...
And the website has cool sock-oriented Flash animations.

So count me in; I have knee-highs on the way. And if you tell 'em I sent you, I get more.

22 May 2005

Dialogue dialogue

For readers' convenience, I've created an index of dialogue with Demondoll2001 so you can see the full progress of the discussion
Some time ago, I posted a piece about some of the challenges of deep interracial dialogue. More recently, DemonDoll2001 stumbled across the post and made some interesting, pointed comments about it. I responded there, and dropped her a line --- might we stir up some interracial dialogue ourselves? She said yes, and picks up from our exchange on the original post.

I invite the brave to read the next round of dialogue ...

DemonDoll2001 responds to that previous post:

I'm sure I have blind-spots, too. Who doesn't? I'm glad to hear that that is not your blind-spot, however.

Yes, we bring our past experiences to our conversations. But I wasn't making any accusations, Jonathan. I was simply stating what I have seen in the past. Most "white" people I have met in the past were insincere when they said they wanted to become anti-racist. I think they felt guilty, but at the same time, I think they were comfortable with how their lives were, and they did not really want to change and become "anti-racist", because that would require having to change how they lived. Most adults get set in their ways by the time they reach a certain age, and they don't want to change. That goes for anyone, not just "whites".

As for the term "PoC", it's just too broad for my liking, but it serves the purpose of this conversation, so I will continue using it. "White" is another term I dislike. I don't like color-coding people, and of course, race is a social construct. Middle-Easterners used to be seen as "white" in the early 1900s, but as society changed, they came to be labelled as non-white later on. What is white but an arbitrary category?

Having said that, I'd love to have a conversation about race with you. I think I could definitely point out some things about race that you may not have noticed. And I'm sure you could give me a perspective which I myself lack. So, what do you say? Are you game?

I'd like to pick up on a couple of things in that reply, DD, that relate to some things I've been thinking about for quite some time: the level and type of commitment that Whites should have to antiracist practice, and the language of "color" in reference to race. I'll take the language first.

The specific language we use to refer to race is, of course, highly loaded. "People of color" is semantically indistinguishable from "colored people," but culturally very different; strangely, though they mean the same thing, it does not mean the same thing to say them. The first signals familiarity with a certain contemporary rhetoric of antiracism, while the second echoes the langauge of the Jim Crow South. I think we share a certain discomfort with this arbitrariness --- which as you say, points to the arbitrariness of race itself as a cultural invention.

One way I tend to respond to this is to avoid the odd, currently fashionable term African American. It seems that every couple of decades we have to come up with a new term for this racial flag --- we can walk back from African American to Afro-American to Negro to Colored to the Word We Dare Not Use, feeling more awkward as we take each step, and encounter the roots of retro-sounding organizations' names: the United Negro College Fund, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

So for this category, I tend to use "Black," as it is so old and metaphorically rich a word that it feels, to me, like it transcends changing fashion in language. Yes, it is a strange word: to be called Black is not, after all, to be the actual color black. Just as to be called White is not, after all, to be the color white. I like that strangeness, a little wink at the cultural artifice at work.

I wish I could come up with a suitable corresponding word for "Asian," which I use for lack of options. Thanks to Edward Said's wonderful and influential book Orientalism, we cannot help but hear the racism lurking in the word "Oriental." "Yellow," obviously, is utterly unacceptable, far too laden with racism. But "Asian" is a poor substitute --- it is very awkward that we use it in reference to people with the distinctive features of southeast Asia, but not the Indian subcontinent, the steppes of Russia, Persia or Arabia or the other parts of the vast continent of Asia. But lacking a viable alternative, I use "Asian" in this strange way myself.

Likewise, I feel stumped looking for a replacement for "PoC," short for "person of color." We need some term for all people in America culturally marked as not-White. I use it with no enthusiasm, until better language comes along.

But the more interesting question is White antiracist practice. What kind? How much?

I think that it's important to start by underlining the important distinction between practice at the society scale and at the individual scale. There is need for both, but they need different kinds of action. This discussion started with some comments of mine about the individual scale, and I'd like to focus there, but I think in order to do so it's necessary to first set things things up about the broad social scale.

At that level, we see explicit and implicit institutional mechanisms of racism: bank redlining, differential police enforcement, poverty, and on and on. These compel institutional remedies --- government regulation, police oversight, education and antipoverty efforts, and so forth. Whites as a class have a responsibility to accept the costs --- financial and social --- of these institutional changes. And this links to Whites as individuals needing to embrace the necessary scale of these efforts, rhetorically and politically. There is some room for discussion and disagreement about what kind of effort will be effectively antiracist at this scale. But I affirm that there is no room for disagreement about what amount of effort is warranted: there is a lot of work to do, and a moral imperative to undertake it.

At the individual scale, however, things get murkier.

Yes, I've just said that Whites need to say that big efforts at the social scale are warranted, and to politically support those efforts. That's where the small and personal meets the large and social. And needless to say, too many Whites don't do even that much. But that's just part of the picture.

Many Whites just about break their arms patting themselves on the back for their lack of personal racial prejudice. There is a grain of truth to that self-congratulation: I think it's fair to say that two generations ago there was a widespread and accepted level of prejudice among Whites that really doesn't exist any more in its breadth and acceptance. That is a great cultural victory, and I think that Whites can rightly claim to have policed it themselves ... driven by a forceful and much needed wake-up call from PoCs.

But too many Whites think that their personal responsibility ends there. As you say, DD, this is in large part because of unwillingess to change. But I think that it is also because of a shared failure of imagination on all our parts about what kind of change is necessary and appropriate. And this is because the problems are hard.

For instance, sheer ignorance is a powerful mechanism in racism in action. But it's a tricky one to act against. Combatting one's own ignorance is difficult ... and potentially a bottomless pit, impossible to address as fully as one ideally would want to. How does an individual White person learn the things that will overcome their ignorance? How does this need for wiser Whites fit together with PoCs' understandable fatigue with undertaking the educational process? If PoCs' can't always help, is it even possible for Whites to undertake it themselves? And how far does it go? How much need a White individual learn about Black culture? Latino culture? The history of race in America? How finely do we slice it? The Latino experience, for instance, is not monolithic after all --- if I live in San Francisco, how much should I have to understand the experience of Cuban immigrants who are concentrated in Florida?

Nobody, it seems to me, has fully satisfying answers to these kinds of questions. We don't even have a good context in which to talk about them. Which is why an experiment like this dialogue is so appealing --- to try to find that context, to look for those answers.

So. Asking your personal opinion, DD --- I'm White and I want to be more effectively anti-racist as an individual. What do you think are the most important things I can do? Where to start?

21 May 2005


I'm fascinated by the cargo-cult scientism of this creationist museum.
We pray that one day thousands will walk out of the museum and not just say 'wow, that’s a great museum,' but 'wow, the Bible really can be trusted, and now I’m better equipped to defend it.'
See, it's museums that validate the findings of the sciences!

20 May 2005

Yet more torture

More horrific news from The New York Times about US soldiers torturing people. I'm sorry to do this to you, but here's a taste.
At the interrogators' behest, a guard tried to force the young man to his knees. But his legs, which had been pummeled by guards for several days, could no longer bend. An interrogator told Mr. Dilawar that he could see a doctor after they finished with him. When he was finally sent back to his cell, though, the guards were instructed only to chain the prisoner back to the ceiling.

"Leave him up," one of the guards quoted Specialist Claus as saying.

Several hours passed before an emergency room doctor finally saw Mr. Dilawar. By then he was dead, his body beginning to stiffen. It would be many months before Army investigators learned a final horrific detail: Most of the interrogators had believed Mr. Dilawar was an innocent man who simply drove his taxi past the American base at the wrong time.

There's lots more, it's very bad, and I think it's important for clear-eyed Americans to read it. Or at least the bits that Digby at Hullabaloo excerpts in his post about the story.

And when you're up for it, read what Jeanne at Body and Soul has to say.

We've gone mad. And it makes me afraid, considering what Abraham Lincoln said in his greatest speech.

if God wills that ... every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
Indeed. Just recently, I found myself saying in another forum
I advocate taking the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay prisons, letting everyone out of them, leveling the buildings, salting the earth where they stand --- and sending everyone involved in the military chain of command, all the way up to the President of the United States, to the Hague to stand trial for war crimes. Because nothing less will undo the propaganda coup we have handed to al-Qaeda. That's doing what's necessary. War and torture and dismantling our civil society are taking the easy way out, by comparison.
But seeing this most recent news, I dread that even if we had the strength to turn away from torture, to repudiate it, to accept the justice of the International Criminal Court, we have simply gone so far that we can not come back.

Very guilty pleasure

Via Kira April, a pretty clever bit of meta-slash literature.
Sulking, they sit in silence for a moment. Then Spike says, softly, "So, you can't shake your canon's slashy undertones, either?"

"The way I'm always trying to get his attention," Draco groans.

"Obi-Wan this, Obi-Wan that. And I think maybe he loves me, too," Ani sighs. "And not entirely in a brotherly manner."

"Yeah. Buffy was just a way to get back at him for dismissing me for nearly a century," Spike adds.

If you read that and just didn't get it, then count yourself lucky, spare yourself the pain, and don't click the link.

19 May 2005

Bandwidth protocol

It's considered rude to use an image on your website that it hosted by someone else's server. If the person publishing that image pays charges for the bandwidth they use, or has a limit on how much bandwidth they may use each day, your usage of the image costs them this bandwidth every time someone looks at your page.

One solution to this problem is to host the image yourself. That's what I do when I want to use an image on this blog. I have an account on flickr, which is a terrific, and free, image sharing site, so I download the image I want to my computer, upload it to flickr, then get the necessary address from flickr for the image. That way, any bandwidth pulled for the image is my responsibility.

Via Ben93, I now learn a nifty trick for solving the problem. It seems that the nice folks at PlanetLab are offering a clever public image cache service.

Let's say you want to use an image at

Instead, use a modified URL with an address that actually points to PlanetLab by inserting a change in the address
Violá! Folks will now pull the image from the generous folks at PlanetLab, rather than from foo.com.

Ben93 has a tip for using this:

It helps to preview the posting before you hit post as this gets the caching service to do the initial fetch of the picture, which can be slow, before your posting appears to the public. Sometimes you need to wait a few minutes and re-preview it before everything will appear as it should, and some web servers will not play ball with the cache, and this is how you weed those out.
Of course, before long Google is going to host everything on their Big Server Farm in the Sky, so this problem will go away ...

18 May 2005

Sith review roundup

"Mixed" seems like an inadequate word to describe the reviews for Star Wars Episode III: Return of the Sith. The picture is practically a Rorschach test for movie reviewers.

I have a bushel basket full of reviews if you want 'em ...

Geek prince Harry Knowles, in a long spoiler-laden review, is delighted.

I’ve wanted to see Obi-Wan fight Vader on that Lava Planet since that issue of Starlog in 1978. My 6 year old reading comprehension grasping for every word of every article I could get my grubby little hands on. For me, the origin of Vader has been the Holy Grail of my geek soul. That story most coveted, but yet untold. I’m 33 years old now. 27 years lay between me and that boy that dreamt of that fight --- but right now, he’s on my shoulders and we’re slapping high-fives.

The imagery in Revenge of the Sith --- The turning of Anakin, the annihilation of the Jedi, the expulsion of Yoda, Obi-Wan vs Anakin, Palpatine revealed, the birth of the twins, Alderran, the adoption of Luke, what became of the droids… These are all near religious iconography in the minds of children raised in the ways of the Force
Revenge of the Sith is a masterpiece. The final piece of the puzzle Lucas first presented me at age 6. 27 years later, the Jigsaw is complete and damn if it isn't just damn near the most tragically cool thing I’ve ever seen put to film. We won’t see another like this. This is it.

Harry's review is characteristic of the raves that geek reviewers are giving. But God bless him, Harry also has some sharp words for the Jedi in his review, expressing his disappointment with Yoda's behavior, paving the way for my revisionist retelling of the story.

Meanwhile, A. O. Scott of The New York Times expresses relief that the movie delivers what you'd hope for, if no more than that.

This is by far the best film in the more recent trilogy, and also the best of the four episodes Mr. Lucas has directed. That's right (and my inner 11-year-old shudders as I type this): it's better than Star Wars.

Revenge of the Sith, which had its premiere here yesterday at the Cannes International Film Festival, ranks with The Empire Strikes Back (directed by Irvin Kershner in 1980) as the richest and most challenging movie in the cycle. It comes closer than any of the other episodes to realizing Mr. Lucas's frequently reiterated dream of bringing the combination of vigorous spectacle and mythic resonance he found in the films of Akira Kurosawa into American commercial cinema.

To be sure, some of the shortcomings of Phantom Menace (1999) and Attack of the Clones (2002) are still in evidence, and Mr. Lucas's indifference to two fairly important aspects of moviemaking --- acting and writing --- is remarkable.

On the flip side of the same sentiment, Stephanie Zacharek, as usual, is worth waiting through the big dopey ad at Salon.
I suspect this picture is pretty close to what fans were hoping for, and for their sake, I'm glad it's markedly better than the two that preceded it.

But Revenge of the Sith is still crap.

She dares to actually look at the film's politics.
Clearly, the hope is that moviegoers will find it rousingly topical. At one point Padmé, furious that the Senate has been so easily steamrollered by Palpatine's slimy promises, cries out, "This is how liberty dies --- to thunderous applause." Anakin, as he's becoming less Jedi knight and more dark knight, snarls at Obi-Wan, "If you're not with me, you're against me." Obi-Wan shoots back, "Only a Sith lord deals in absolutes."

Funny, but all Lucas knows is absolutes. Revenge of the Sith doesn't work as a political statement because for all the lip service Lucas pays to democracy, he barely seems to know what it is. In the Star Wars series, democracy may be the alleged goal of the Republic, but what the movies really value is order: Democracy -- the genuine kind, which means you just might get stuck with a president you don't like -- is too messy and complicated for the Star Wars worldview. The very scale of these movies prevents anything but the most obvious moral readings: Preoccupied as they are with good and evil, with so little gray in between, the Star Wars movies are more like faux Wagnerian epics that have been clumsily retrofitted with democratic ideals. They ask us to tremble in the face of their greatness even as they claim to be on the side of the little people. Lucas doesn't realize he can't have it both ways.

Roger Ebert doesn't go there --- he simply accepts it as a movie about its own special effects.
Episode III has more action per square minute, I'd guess, than any of the previous five movies, and it is spectacular. The special effects are more sophisticated than in the earlier movies, of course, but not necessarily more effective.
The lesson, I think, is that special effects should be judged not by their complexity but by the degree that they stimulate the imagination, and Episode III is distinguished not by how well the effects are done, but by how amazingly they are imagined.
Last, but not least, Anthony Lane of The New Yorker is gloriously vicious.
What Lucas has devised, over six movies, is a terrible puritan dream: a morality tale in which both sides are bent on moral cleansing, and where their differences can be assuaged only by a triumphant circus of violence. Judging from the whoops and crowings that greeted the opening credits, this is the only dream we are good for. We get the films we deserve.
And he doesn't like Yoda, either, so I'm down with what he has to say.

Rotten Tomatoes has more, if you want 'em.

I'll be hitting a matinee Saturday.

Little signs of progress

In the course of reviewing the silly action movie XXX: State of the Union, Roger Ebert notices that there's cultural progress in black liberation in action movies, at least.
Once all action heroes were white. Then they got a black chief of police, who had a big scene where he fired them. Then they got a black partner. Then they were black and had a white partner. Now they are the heroes and don't even need a white guy around, although there is one nerdy white guy in XXX who steps in when the plot requires the ineffectual delivery of a wimpy speech. So drastically have things changed that when Ice Cube offers to grab the president and jump off a train and grab a helicopter, all the president can do is look grateful. Oh, and later, in his new State of the Union speech, our nation's leader quotes Tupac, although he doesn't know he does.
Wage and education pairity it ain't, but every little bit helps.

17 May 2005

The Deliverator

I've just discovered that the dazzling opening chapter of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash is available online. In the unlikely event that one of my readers has not read the novel already, go read the opening and see why it has my highest recommendation.

15 May 2005

Today's quote

Brad DeLong again.
It's acceptable in academia to be a Democrat. It's acceptable to be a libertarian. It's simply embarrassing to be a Republican.

14 May 2005


Friends will tell you that I have a good sense of culinary adventure. My time as a vegan taught me to enjoy a number of hippie foods that most folks think are gross. Lately I've gotten hooked on Kombucha, which is basically rotting mushroom tea.

When I went on a short jaunt to Japan a few years ago, my guide asked me what I was willing to eat. "I'll eat anything you put in front of me," I promised, "except nothing with eyes looking at me, and no natto."

Thanks to Thomas Roche, I now know about Steve, Don't Eat It! And Steve eats natto.

13 May 2005

Not a review of Star Wars

Soon, Roger Ebert will post his review of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, which will displace the strange placeholder which sits on his website now.

But the strange placeholder is so charming, I feel a need to preserve it for future generations.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
-- Lewis Carroll, "Jabberwocky" (1871)
Beware the Sith, my son! The jaws that bite, the vorpal light sabre that swooshes.... O, the Sith, they are a vengeful lot! Some Star Wars fans may recall that the third installment of the original trilogy (i.e., 1983's Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi) was initially titled Revenge of the Jedi -- and some pre-release posters were made up with that name -- but George Lucas, in his wisdom, realized that Jedi aren't into the whole revenge thing, and had them simply return instead. The Sith, though -- they are vindictive with a vengeance! Sith, O Sith, whyfore art thou so beastly and cruel and so chummy with the Dark Side of The Force and all? The better to practice most spiteful villainy, perhaps?

Lucas has described this film as the "darkest" of the Star Wars pictures. It is, after all, as everyone knows, The One Where Anakin Skywalker Becomes Darth Vader (which is probably, indeed, what they'd call it if it were an old episode of Friends). It is also said to be the last Star Wars picture. Will all the pieces fall into place? Will it be able to re-polish some of the franchise's tarnished lustre, after the generally disappointing response of many fans to previous prequel Episodes I and II? Is Revenge of the Sith a prequel or a sequel or both, considering that, chronologically speaking, it takes place before Episode IV (aka the original Star Wars) and after Episode II? And will it be any better than the Matrix sequels? You'll find out for yourself May 19...

(Jim Emerson)

Q: How many Sith does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A: Nobody can tell. The singular is the same as the plural!

By the way, the advance buzz is good. But I still feel skeptical. Not that it will stop me from seeing the picture.

12 May 2005


I missed the anniversary of the Abu Ghraib scandal breaking. Arthur Silber of The Light of Reason was on the case, and comments on what Rush Limbaugh had to say in honour if the day.

Don't read immediately before or after eating.

As Digby reminds us, twenty million Americans listen to him each day.

And if you really want to suffer, go read Sy Hersh's latest on the state of Iraq. We are not making friends. Reading it, Ken MacLeod reminds us

You know how this stuff ends? It ends with your cities in rubble, your capital occupied, and your leaders hanged.

11 May 2005


Metaphilm has a witty article about continuity geekery.

If Scotty witnesses Captain Kirk’s death at the beginning of Star Trek VII, it is extremely troubling to some of us — those who care, those who have intellectual integrity and the discipline of logic! — if Scotty is awakened from suspended animation approximately seventy years later in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and asks whether Captain Kirk is still alive. Scotty should know that Kirk isn't! Something is wrong! It doesn't add up — yet it must! It must!

For you see, any story must have a certain amount of internal coherence if we are to achieve suspension of disbelief. And we must achieve suspension of disbelief. For most people, that just means that a given fictional universe must hold together for the space of two hours: if the main character in a conventional romantic comedy, possibly some movie for girls featuring Meg Ryan or someone like that, says at the beginning that she is an only child, she should not have a sister present at her wedding at the end of the movie. Stories like that — about boring, conventional people with their petty love affairs and their tawdry sex antics, people whom one could not trust when the chips were down and an Imperial Battle Droid were attacking your spaceship! — are relatively easy to keep consistent. It is only the grandeur and majesty of a fictional universe the size and complexity of one like the Star Wars universe, the Star Trek universe, the DC Comics universe, or the Marvel Comics universe (and perhaps soap operas) that is truly difficult to maintain.

Yet sometimes the editors and writers responsible for such series barely care about maintaining continuity, so busy are they with more mundane tasks such as writing entertaining dialogue and coming up with interesting new characters.

I confess that I'm a sucker for this kind of geekery myself. And I am convinced that the fascination of trying to rationalize these kinds of inconsistencies into perfect Continuity is the explanation for how the Catholic church held the attention of the most brilliant people in Europe for a thousand years — keeping Catholic dogma in a continuity is a fiendishly complex problem.

Of course, not only geeks need this set of intellectual tools.

Ali once said that he felt great pride, after years of telling his wife Michelle about DC Comics' system of parallel timelines (Earth-1, Earth-2, etc.), when the two of them watched an episode of The Odd Couple together and Michelle, on realizing that the episode contained an explanation for Oscar and Felix's first meeting that contradicted the explanation given in a previous episode, said that the newer episode must take place on “Earth-2.” Ali beamed, “My work here is done.”

So for those of you inspired by the article, let me also explain the useful concept of “retcon,” retroactive continuity, in which we create a midrash which explains how earlier events actually do correspond to later events. Reflect on the disappearance of Ritchie Cunningham's older brother “Chuck” on Happy Days and the mystery of Klingons' foreheads.

Then, for Real Ultimate Power, check out John Holbo's long and incredibly fascinating ruminations on myth and storytelling.

09 May 2005

I don't want a pickle

MKB has some fine words about riding a motorcycle.
Some of that connection is because the rider has no physical separation from the surroundings. Some of it is simply due to presence of mind. It takes a whole lot more skill to operate a motorcycle than to operate a car, and the cost of a mistake is a whole lot higher, so motorcyclists had better be attentive.

...which leads me to another reason I ride. Fear. "Aren’t you afraid?" my Aunt Madeleine asked. Of course I am. The day I stop being afraid and start approaching riding in a cavaleer way, it will be time for me to stop. The fear of crashing keeps me doing the things that make me safer.

In addition to inducing mindfulness, fear has it’s own value. While I don’t enjoy bowel-loosening terror, I do enjoy facing up to my fears and overcoming them. I see so many people whose llves are stifled and dominated by fear. Arguably we all are at one time or another. I am convinced that regularly spending some time owning my fear and facing up to it makes me a stronger person in the rest of my life.

He also has some other interesting things to say, plus a lovely quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance, the book that originally got me motorcycle dreamin'.

08 May 2005

Smoking gun

Perhaps you've heard about the secret Downing Street memo by an aide about UK Prime Minister Blair's meeting about Iraq policy. If not here's the key bits. I've emphasized the real kickers.
C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.
The Foreign Secretary said he would discuss this with Colin Powell this week. It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran. We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.

The Attorney-General said that the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action.

AlterNet talks about the implications, reminding us, for example, that
In the following months, "the case" would be buttressed by a well-honed U.S.-U.K. intelligence-turned-propaganda-machine.
Not news if you've been paying attention, but creepy to have so explicitly confirmed.

06 May 2005

Today's quote

Here in San Francisco, I have had countless people tell me with a straight face that building housing increases housing costs. Yglasias knows better:
the affordable housing activist and the real estate developer should be friends!
He's right! Go read him and see.

05 May 2005


Via wicked Warren Ellis I learn that recent textual scholarship reveals that the Number of the Beast from Revealation was originally 616. The best part of the little UK Independent article I linked: Magister Peter Gilmore of the Church o' Satan, heir to crafty Anton LaVey's throne, saying
By using 666 we're using something that the Christians fear. Mind you, if they do switch to 616 being the number of the beast then we'll start using that.
And since you're undoubtedly wondering, I looked up the 616 area code. It refers to that latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah of .... southwest Michigan.

04 May 2005


I've never just done a link entitled just read this, but I can think of nothing else adequate I can say. And as Patrick Nielsen Hayden advises, you must read the comments.

03 May 2005

CD Baby

I placed an order from CD Baby a while ago and got this charming confirmation email.
Your CDs have been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow.

A team of 50 employees inspected your CDs and polished them to make sure they were in the best possible condition before mailing.

Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CDs into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy.

We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of Portland waved 'Bon Voyage!' to your package, on its way to you, in our private CD Baby jet on this day, Sunday, March 6th.

I hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby. We sure did. Your picture is on our wall as "Customer of the Year". We're all exhausted but can't wait for you to come back to CDBABY.COM!!

Which reminds me to plug some music I've bought there that I love. CD Baby lets you spool out a little taste of the tracks, so you can see if my tastes match yours.

Hands Upon Black Earth

A few years ago a buddy of mine handed me a disc of music he had done. I looked forward to the usual creative challenge of coming up with something nice to say about it. This turned out to be entirely unnecessary: a week later it still hadn't left my CD player at work --- I must have listened to it a hundred times. I don't have the electronic music vocabulary to describe it. The page for it says biomystic . electropysical . digital . audio . magick

Um, okay. I'd say it's spooky, lively, and dense. But writing about music is like dancing about architecture, right? So if that sounds at all appealing, go give a listen to the MP3s.

Biblical Digital

Buying HUBE, I stumbled across this dreamy, structured miracle. The page says "Tribal chants of Sioux warriors, Hasidic Jews, and Tuvan monks are remixed over lush, electronica; at times delicate, at times thunderous." That makes it sound like some limp New Age music.

It isn't.

The Balls (with Storm Large)

In a completely different flavour, I'll just quote what I said about these guys a little bit ago.

Storm is a lead singer
The Balls are a cover band
nuclear weapons are explosive
So there you have it.

02 May 2005

Darth Vader's inner life

Some of my friends know that I have my doubts that the Jedi are the good guys in Star Wars. Inspired by David Brin's notorious critiques of Star Wars, I've started entertaining thoughts of writing a revisionist Star Wars novel, along the general lines of Maguire's Wicked or Gardener's Grendel.

Brin, for instance, observes that in The Empire Strikes Back, everything that Yoda told Luke was either a lie or categorically misjudged. I notice that in The Phantom Menace we learn that the Jedi rob parents of their children, don't object to slavery, fought a genocidal war against a sect with different religious practices, and even cheat at dice. And so on. There's another side to the story to tell.

I learn via DeLong that someone is publishing Darth Vader's blog. It's very clever, though I think it's trying to do too many things at once: the mix of Star Wars midrash with mockery of blog writing conventions with goofy humor doesn't always stay aloft. But it's fun. And there are some moments of true brilliance comparable to what I would like to do.

I told him I had reason to suspect the hidden rebel base would soon be in our grasp. In other words I lied. To my master. My quest became less the search for the Alliance and more the search for a single man.

Why did I allow my judgement to become so twisted? I gave myself twenty lashes before I was certain: I wanted in some way to love him. It made me sick to think about. Love is a path of meat, where the Sith is the path of the mind. I had rejected my old identity --- it had burned from me, hanging from my body in sizzling cobs.

There is no such man as Anakin Skywalker!

(And yet, there is such a man as his son.)

This is a reflection of the thing that Lucas seems not to understand about myth. They are stories for children, yes, but not only stories for children. Eventually we grow up and figure out that Theseus is a selfish misogynist, Red had reasons to want to tarry with the wolf, Romeo would have been a faithless husband, and Batman is pretty sick in the head. The myth is not diminished by these adult readings; the potential to read on different levels is what makes it myth.

01 May 2005

Trust fund

Folks may recall the President hinting that the treasury bills in the Social Security Trust Fund are worthless.
"A lot of people in America think there is a trust that we take your money in payroll taxes and then we hold it for you and then when you retire, we give it back to you," Bush said in a speech at the University of West Virginia at Parkersburg.

"But that's not the way it works," Bush said. "There is no trust 'fund' just IOUs that I saw firsthand," Bush said.
"Imagine," Bush said in his speech. "The retirement security for future generations is sitting in a filing cabinet. It's time to strengthen and modernize Social Security for future generations with growing assets that you can control that you call your own assets that the government can't take away."

[Emphasis mine.]

Setting aside that this statement is arguably a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, in a recent speech the President seems to have changed his mind pretty abruptly about the usefulness and security of Treasury bills as an investment vehicle.

In a reformed Social System, voluntary personal retirement accounts would offer workers a number of investment options that are simple and easy to understand. I know some Americans have reservations about investing in the stock market, so I propose that one investment option consist entirely of treasury bonds, which are backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government.
[Emphasis mine again.]

Which is it, Mr. President?

By the way, I found that latter quote by way of DeLong, who explains why, with the interest clawback built into the administration's proposed system, a person who does this will lose money --- not just in real inflation-adjusted dollars, but in face value!

If you don't understand the clawback system in the President's proposal --- and you're not alone --- I have an explanation of the Bush plan from Big Media Matt.

And more on Social Security

DeLong offers us a fairly detailed discussion of what will and won't work in Social Security reform, provided by Peter Orszag of the Brookings Institution in testimony to the Senate Committe on Finance. It's full of crunchy bits.
Under the Administration's proposal for accounts within Social Security, workers receive payroll revenue today, but pay the payroll revenue back, plus interest at a 3 percent real rate, at retirement through a reduction in traditional Social Security benefits. In effect, the individual accounts represent a "Social Security line of credit." Workers drawing upon that line of credit have payroll revenue deposited into their individual account today, but then owe the funds back, plus interest, once they retire. The system is thus similar to a loan from the government to workers. At best, assuming that all the loans carry the government's borrowing rate and are fully repaid, the accounts do nothing to improve solvency within Social Security over the long term --- as even the White House has acknowledged.
it is hard to see why, unless they were subsidized, the loans should be particularly attractive, especially to higher earners. Indeed, a Goldman Sachs analysis recently concluded that, "In essence, the 3% real rate offset represents a loan from the federal government to the accountholder to fund the personal saving account. This is not an attractive proposition."
We as a society must decide whether this $700 billion is better used to provide larger after-tax inheritances to wealthy children or to reduce any benefit reductions necessary to restore solvency to Social Security
Mmmmm. Tasty policy debate.