31 July 2004

Negative review

Ebert really didn't like The Village.
Eventually the secret ... is revealed. To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes. It's a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from It Was All a Dream. It's so witless, in fact, that when we do discover the secret, we want to rewind the film so we don't know the secret anymore.

And then keep on rewinding, and rewinding, until we're back at the beginning, and can get up from our seats and walk backward out of the theater and go down the up escalator and watch the money spring from the cash register into our pockets.

I have noticed that if Ebert merely dislikes a movie, his review is relatively brief and straightforward. But if the picture actually arouses his ire, the review becomes longer, more eloquent, and funnier. My quote is but a small sample of what he has to offer on this subject.

Shrodinger's Knight

Geekiness warning: follow this link only if you are interested in dice + bad acting, or narrative games in general. You know who you are.

30 July 2004

Quadruple entendre

John Kerry opened his speech at the Democratic National Convention saying
I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty.
which, by my count, is meant to be read on about four different levels. Cool.

The start was the high point, but the speech did a number of smart things, as one of Clinton's speechwriters presciently described a few days ago.

He should explain what he learned about America from commanding a gunboat in the Mekong Delta. As he said in his announcement speech last September: "We were no longer the kid from Arkansas nor the kid from Illinois. We were Americans --- together --- under the same flag, giving ourselves to something bigger than each of us as individuals." Look for Kerry to explain that, now as then, Americans are "all in the same boat"--and that the nation's leadership ought therefore to do a better job inspiring unity and purpose.
For those of you at all inclined to do so, now is a good time to give money to the campaign. Under the campaign financing rules, the convention "resets the clock" for fundraising and makes the DNC the best place to give money for the Kerry campaign now. (And in the name of general lefty goodness, of course, MoveOn PAC gives money to good candidates in close races across the country.)

Comic book movies

All in all, the recent wave of comic book movies have treated us better than we had a right to hope for. The two X-Men pictures were smart and fun, playing well with the background of the comics and making the transition to film well. Hugh Jackman, bless him, nailed the impossible role of Wolverine. The two Spiderman pictures likewise came through with flying colors. Heck, I'd have been happy with the Spiderman "coming attractions" trailers alone.

I have the good, the bad, and the coming attractions in more detail...

Not that it hasn't been a mixed bag. Ang Lee's Hulk didn't quite work, but it was a noble failure that had its moments. Daredevil was a turkey --- Ben Affleck? --- but even it had charms: the inspired casting of Michael Clarke Duncan's Kingpin, the inspired performance of Colin Farrell's Bullseye, and the inspired motorcycle-leathers style of DD's costume. Apparently Catwoman is also a turkey, as the filmmakers felt that they didn't need anything beyond Halle Berry a bullwhip and torn leather. (Yeah, I know: they were almost right.) And okay, the less said about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen the better, but at least it put money in Alan Moore's pocket, which is a good thing.

But surprise, surprise: Hellboy delivered in spades. It was lively, fun, gorgeously shot, somehow managed to look like Mike Mignola's art, and was chock full of the amazing Ron Perlman, the only actor on Earth who becomes subtler and more expressive when when you put a few pounds of prosthetics on his face. Maybe someday I'll come back in a later post and sing the praises of Hellboy some more; in spite of a bit of limp screenwriting in the ending, the film is a gem.

So this just makes a comics lover want more, and it is more we shall have.

We have third installments coming for both X-Men and Spiderman, done by the same people. We have a director's cut of Hellboy coming on DVD, with a likely sequel there too.

Better still, we have a proper Batman movie being shot right now. Will wonders never cease?

Christopher "Memento" Nolan is directing Batman Begins. Looking at the trailer, it's obviously heavily inspired by Frank Miller's dark, gritty Batman: Year One comic. The cast boggles the mind. Michael Caine is playing Alfred! Even if you aren't Batman lover enough to know who Jim Gordon and Ra's Al Ghul are, you have to be impressed that Gary Oldman and Ken Watanabe will be playing them. (And as someone who thought the only way to cast Ra's was to get in a time machine and scoop up Omar Sharif when he was thirty years younger, I stand corrected.) Plus we get Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, and a bushel basket of good character actors, with Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne.

It gets better. Neil Gaiman has scripted a picture called MirrorMask that's in post-production now. Dave McKean, the mad genius artist who did all those Sandman covers, is directing. Jim Henson Pictures is producing it, and the budget is low --- down to neither of them getting paid --- which is good news, because they're keeping control. Neil says that when he previewed it to the Sony people responsible for distribution, an exec said "That was like Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast ... on acid ... for kids ... "

So I feel just a tiny bit of anticipation for that one.

Last up, for our sins, it seems that rumors of the death of Constantine were, alas, greatly exaggerated. Keanu Reeves plays shadowy un-super-heroic occultist John Constantine. It's a bit of an odd casting choice considering that in the comics he's a ragged, chain-smoking, working class Brit with blonde hair. Other than that, they haven't changed a thing. Except to give him a big gun. And take away his trenchcoat. And give him a love interest. And add a few explosions.

You can't have everything.

29 July 2004

B. D.

I've been reading Doonesbury for almost 20 years now. But I've effectively been following the strip for the 34 years since its very beginning, as I discovered it by finding reprints of early strips at the library.

The virtues of Doonesbury are well known. The writing is witty, the commentary on politics barbed, the cast of characters rich and layered after so much time. But in the last several years, though I still read it every day, my enthusiasm for the strip has waned.

Last year, an article by Jesse Walker in Reason put its finger on why: it just has not been as good as it used to be.

Consider one issue where Trudeau's opinion hasn't changed but his tone has: gun control. First examine this 1981 exchange between the strip's resident outlaw and a flunky from the National Rifle Association, set in a Washington bar:
Springfield: Duke ... it's me, Springfield! From the N.R.A., remember?
Duke: Oh ... Springfield, what's the idea of sneaking up on me like that? I coulda blown you away!
Springfield: I'm sorry. That would have been your right.

Now jump to 1993, as a giant cigarette and a giant bullet prepare to lobby Congress.

Mr. Butts: Still on a tear, Mr. Dum-Dum?
Mr. Dum-Dum: Hey! The N.R.A. never rests! The gun-control nuts keep trying to slip the Brady Bill past us! But it ain't gonna happen! No way! We've been shooting our way out of tight squeezes since 1871! And look at the results! Over 70 million happy gun owners ready and able to defend our way of life!
Mr. Butts: Wow ... are we safe yet?
Mr. Dum-Dum: Not yet. Tragically, many children are still unarmed!

I disagree with Trudeau about gun control, but I still think the first strip is funny. The second one just hectors us. It isn't controversial so much as it's annoying.

He's right: the strip isn't as consistently witty as it used to be. Part of Walker's criticism is that Doonesbury has become self-referential:

In 1972 the strip was engaged with the world; in 2002 it is engaged with itself.

I mean that literally. In 1972 Doonesbury rewarded intelligence; in 2002 it rewards familiarity with its own mythology and conventions. In 1972 it trusted readers to know the politics and pop culture of the day; in 2002 it trusts us to understand that a floating waffle represents Bill Clinton, a floating bomb represents Newt Gingrich, and a floating asterisk represents George W. Bush. The strip has grown so self-referential that it makes jokes about its own self-referentiality, with Sunday strips devoted to charting the relationships among the characters.

He has a point. But lately, Trudeau seems to have gotten his mojo back in the recent sequence about B.D., and as we'll see, the self-referentiality makes possible what I think is the most powerful, poignant moment in the history of the strip — one of the greatest moments, indeed, ever managed in the painfully limited four-panel medium.

For those of you unfamiliar with Doonesbury, B.D. is a major cast member who has been with the strip from the very beginning.

He was originally a lunkheaded college football player ...

who provided a conservative foil for strip's lefty politics.

He dropped out to serve in Vietnam ... bringing his football helmet with him so we could recognize him.

As time went on, B.D. took other jobs.

As a cop:

A soldier again, in the first Gulf war:

As a football coach:

Back to Iraq again this year:

Things got interesting a few months ago: B.D. was shot in the line of duty. It was sad, and scary.

When I saw those strips, the suspense was powerful. Was B.D. going to be okay? Was he going to die? The next day, we learn what happened to him, with Trudeau cleverly using the language of the strip to underline the point. It's a brilliant move: in that last panel, his injury isn't the first thing you see, giving it more impact. The same device makes it clear that things will never be the same.

Interested in what happens next? You can read the Doonesbury archives starting that day. The B.D. storyline has been both wry and serious, often both at once.

If you start reading the strip now, you're not alone — this story thread is still alive a couple of months later, and it's the most interesting stuff to happen to Doonesbury in years. Perhaps ever. The story made the cover of Rolling Stone. And it has inspired the ire of folks like Bill O'Reilly, which I have to take as a good sign.

Shorter Bill O'Reilly
Dissent Stinks if it Exploits the Pain of G.I.s

Turning actual human beings into mincemeat while waging an unprovoked war is one thing, but maiming a beloved cartoon character to make a political point is way over the line.

Commentators on the right are responding to Doonesbury again! Keep it up, Mr. Trudeau.

28 July 2004

Who's responsible?

Barbara Ehrenreich makes some pointed comments about the relationship between our principles and our new gulag archipelago.
Today, those who believe that the war on terror requires the sacrifice of our liberties like to argue that "the Constitution is not a suicide pact." In a sense, however, the Declaration of Independence was precisely that.

By signing Jefferson's text, the signers of the declaration were putting their lives on the line. England was then the world's greatest military power, against which a bunch of provincial farmers had little chance of prevailing. Benjamin Franklin wasn't kidding around with his quip about hanging together or hanging separately. If the rebel American militias were beaten on the battlefield, their ringleaders could expect to be hanged as traitors.

Katherine R, posting at Obsidian Wings, adds this observation ...
We do not need to take anywhere near that kind of risk, or any risk at all. Our leaders answer to us --- slowly, reluctantly, and only when they think it puts their re-election in danger, but in the end they do answer to us. We have a say in all this. We do not have to become this kind of country. We do not have to torture people or send them to torturers. We do not have to let Jefferson's eloquent phrases become empty slogans mouthed to justify anything. We do not have to put up with this shit.
... reminding us that, in a democracy, we all have moral responsibility for our nation's actions.

26 July 2004

They just can't handle freedom

I have for you a long-for-the-web overview of the Iraq war. It ends in a question:
Imagine yourself an Iraqi. You've suffered terribly under a ruthless dictator. The Americans invade your country under false pretenses. They promise democracy but don't organize elections. They appoint exiles to rule you, exiles who spend most of their time out of the country and the rest in a few highly protected areas. The occupiers break into your homes in the middle of the night and arrest your men, who then disappear, with no accountability. They shoot Iraqis at roadblocks and from convoys. They declare war on the second most popular man in the country, announcing his death in advance. They open the economy to US corporations and give them sweetheart contracts, ignoring local business. Then they write hundreds of laws and establish commissions limiting any future government. They build permanent military bases on your soil. Then they turn your country over to a former associate of Saddam Hussein, also a former CIA agent, known for his ruthless brutality. Imagine that was your country.  What would you do?
Via Holden at Eschaton, who picked out the money quote above.

Today's quote

From the convention floor today:
You know the old saying: you win some, you lose some. And then there's that little-known third category.

Al Gore

He said some more funny things, and then a lot of serious things, too.


Whaddaya know! A serious history of both the myth and the reality of ninjas.

Of course, that's not what you want. You want things 9-year-olds think about ninjas. You want the little-known Star of David Ninja Shuriken (which comes with instructions that only the crafty can find.)

You want cool ninja t-shirts. There's plenty. I have for you ninja pirate, only a ninja can kill another ninja, skateboarding ninja, "got ninja?", fractal ninjas (have more points), and killer coding ninja monkeys do exist, plus instructions for how to wear a t-shirt the ninja way.

Bonus for latecomers: Ninja Massage Therapist!

25 July 2004


Brad DeLong is maddened yet again by our press corps praising by faint damnation.
Powell's presentation relied heavily on the claims of one especially dubious Iraqi defector, dubbed "Curve Ball" inside the intel community .... Nobody inside the U.S. government had ever actually spoken to the informant --- except the Pentagon analyst, who concluded the man was an alcoholic and utterly useless as a source.
After reading Powell's speech, the analyst decided he had to speak up .... The CIA official quickly responded: "Let's keep in mind the fact that this war's going to happen regardless of what Curve Ball said or didn't say," he wrote. "The Powers That Be probably aren't terribly interested in whether Curve Ball knows what he's talking about."

The saga of Curve Ball is just one of many wince-inducing moments ....

Wince-Inducing Moment? Wince-Inducing Moment!? WINCE-INDUCING MOMENT!?!?

I wince when I hear George W. Bush try to pronounce "nuclear" or "Abu Ghraib." I wince when my daughter does a belly flop off the diving board. I wince when one of my students misses an easy question in class. One winces when Georgie seeks praise for his skeet shooting, or when Muffy misses her serve again.

When a Deputy to the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency --- or somebody at that level --- refuses to do his job, saying that he is not going to provide intelligence to the Secretary of State because the Secretary of State is uninterested in whether what he is about to say to the United Nations is true or not, it is not appropriate to "wince." It is appropriate to be outraged.

Part of his excellent ongoing coverage of our need for a better press corps.

24 July 2004

Aye, robot

Peter David managed to enjoy I Robot in spite of it doing violence to the spirit of Asimov.
Think of it not as I Robot, but Robots of the Caribbean, wherein the Three Laws of Robotics aren't so much laws as they are ... guidelines.
See, everything is improved by a reference to pirates.


I just bought myself a new motorbike.

The thing that struck me in the process of buying this new bike is what a strange sort of decision it is to pick a motorcycle. To me, the whole point of riding is that it's a full sensory experience. You're not sitting in a cage with a wheel in front of you watching the world go by on television, you're exposed to the world and tangled up with this powerful machine, so you need to find a machine with which you feel a personal affinitiy.

A bicycle has some of that physical immediacy: it's a lever that connects your body to movement through space. It's not as fast as a motorcycle, but the relationship between the movements your body makes and the movements of the fusion-of-body-and-machine is even more intimate. There are variables in choosing a bicycle, like what kind of gearing you want, but mainly you just ask yourself how you want to use the bike and find one that's as sturdy as you need and as light as you can afford. On a motorcycle, there's the way the suspension works and the way the weight is distributed and the engine's power curve and the gear ratios and so on. Every motorcycle feels different.

Sure, a car or a sailboat or a forklift have a lot of variables in how they feel, but the way they feel isn't as immediate and intense. When you drive a car, you don't shift your weight to do it. When you sail a boat, you don't have hurricane winds in your face. When you turn a forklift, it doesn't put whizzing asphalt within arm's reach. How a motorcycle feels matters a lot. How a motorcycle feels is the point.

So it's quite a decision.

My old bike, a red ’92 Honda Nighthawk 750 named Katherine Hepburn, has been sick for some time. She has 60,000 miles on her — a lot for a motorbike. Her rings have been going, so her power and fuel efficiency are fading. In recent months, she's started running hotter, burning a bit of oil, and stalling when she's cold.

I've been riding Kate for six years, and like the feel of her very much. I decided to bite the bullet and spend the money to rebuild her engine. But my mechanic, a deeply honorable man at Subterranean Cycles, told me, “I cannot in good conscience take your money. Knowing what that will cost, you should just go get a new bike.”

Behold the benefits of bringing a six-pack of Anchor Steam every time you pick up your bike.

Sad for Kate, sad for me. I really love Kate: she's served me well and taken me a lot of places. But also happy for me. I get to buy a new bike! Which one? Which one?

The fools at Honda discontinued the Nighthawk this year, so I can't just replace Kate with a shiny new version of herself, which I might have done.

A few considerations dramatically narrow the field. I favor an upright riding position, and these days, the market is dominated by zip-zip sportbikes which put the rider in a painful crouch and whoa-dude cruisers which lean you back too far. Plus, I have a philosophy that God intended motorcycles to have an air-cooled engines. Most bikes nowadays are water-cooled, with big radiators on the front: decadence and unnecessary complication, I say. I want shaft drive, as the chain has failed on me twice riding Kate and I never want to experience that particular adventure again. So not many options.

My presumptive choice was the BMW R1150R: simple and rock-solid, but a step up from the simple and rock-solid Nighthawk. Heated handgrips, anti-lock brakes, gratuitiously well-engineered suspension, and little touches like a clock on the dashboard.

I rented one last year, when Kate first took ill, and in an empty parking lot I got a taste of that suspension and braking system. I braked as hard as I dared and the BMW didn't even break a sweat: the brakes were smooth and the crazy German suspension meant the bike didn't rock on her springs a bit. I braked a little harder than I dared, and she still had plenty more. It was so good it was a little weird.

On the freeway, she hummed along at a cool 70 so smoothly that I dreaded to contemplate what her top end would feel like. On city streets, she gave me all the accelaration I wanted. My riding is spirited, but not all that fast by biker standards. So though the R is not a sportbike, she's significantly more than I am used to with Kate, and all the power I would realistically need. On city streets, she was a touch heavier than I was used to, but nimble enough, and I remember growing into a heavier bike when I first went from little Lazarus to Kate.

So I liked the R, and BMWs have one other special thing going for them: the odometer. An old car's odometer often rolls over to 00,000.0 at a hundred thousand miles, but any new car you buy today rolls over at a million. Motorcycles are like old cars, with 5.1 digit odometers — except for BMWs, which roll over at a million. Reliability. When you see a picture of some mud-spattered lunatic on a 4,000 mile ride through Africa, the lunatic tends to be sitting on a BMW.

On the other hand, I'm no longer so dependant on my bike for daily transportation, so I don't have to be quite so obsessive on this point. More poetic options are tempting. As with so many things, brains are the most important thing, but that doesn't mean I'm blind to beauty.

As I alluded to earlier, I've been fascinated by the sheer beauty of the Moto Guzzi V11. The Guzzi speaks not only to a sculptural aesthetic, but to an engineering aesthetic as well. The transverse V-twin engine is unique to the Guzzi marque and has a “yes it's weird but consider the advantages” charm, like the Wankel rotary engine, a kneeling chair, or my computer keyboard. I'm a sucker for that stuff.

So I dropped in to Munroe Motors to have a look. And the V11 is indeed gorgeous beyond words. And as expensive as the BMW. And racier than I really want or need. And bigger than I want or need. And doesn't have the little comforts of the BMW, like the hot grips or anti-lock brakes. So for that money, I'd go for the BMW.

But while I was there I got a look at the Guzzi Breva 750. I don't have a good photo of my own, so you'll have to settle for this photo of the same make and color I nabbed from the web.

Though I don't know how helpful that is. I didn't really take to photos of the Breva when I saw them on the Moto Guzzi website, but in the flesh — er, steel ... aluminum ... composite stuff — the bike is quite lovely, if not quite so stunning as the V11. To a biker's eye, at least, it's distinctive-looking in a good Moto Guzzi kind of way. More importantly, it is smaller and a third less expensive than the V11, if actually a bit less bike than I was imagining getting.

So I looked at some reviews on the web. They were positive, though hardly glowing. Reviewers for motorcycle magazines are people who ride obsessively and want to try a lot of different bikes, and so they like performance, performance, and performance. Most reviews said something about “a good, fun bike for first-time riders.” But at the risk of the other bikers calling me a sissy, they said that for what I saw as all the right reasons: comfort, versatility, and reliability.

I stopped back at Munroe and asked for a test ride.

She was light! At 420 pounds dry, the Guzzi is 40 pounds lighter than Kate, which doesn't sound like much but feels like a lot. I think having a lower center of gravity must also contribute to that, not only in the way the engine is mounted but also in being all-around lower and smaller. The BMW is higher and heavier than the Nighthawk; this was the opposite, and rolling down city streets I felt as though I could have weaved between the cars like an action movie hero. She didn't have quite so much power as I expected — in her prime, I think Kate had a few more horses than the Breva — but part of that is probably the relatively narrow powerband. Keeping her revs where they needed to be, I could move plenty well ... and paying attention to that stuff is fun.

MKB, with his shiny new zip-zip GSX-R, will probably laugh when he reads this stuff. His bike is 65 pounds lighter still, has its center of gravity about eight inches off the ground, and delivers a bit more than twice the horsepower. But because of the sportbike hunched-over riding position, his wrists hurt. Mine don't. While his bike's engine goes buzz-buzz-buzz, the Guzzi's sings.

It felt good sitting on her. I bought the bike. I'm a happy man.

Now I just have to figure out what her name is. My original plan was that my next bike would be named after Lauren Bacall, Betty for short. (Ms. Bacall's birth name was Betty, and she still used the name with friends after she took “Lauren” for the screen.) When I realized I was buying an Italian bike, I thought maybe she needed to be Sophia Loren. I know, Katherine Hepburn wasn't Japanese, but my Nighthawk is red, so don't argue my logic. But “Sophia” doesn't sound right either, so now I don't know.

Another ride, and I'm sure she'll tell me.

Update: “Betty” it is. Sexy.

23 July 2004

CEO shortage strikes nation

Kevin Drum expresses puzzlement over why real wages for the working class have dipped this year in spite of strong productivity growth.
The labor market is a slave to supply and demand just like any other market, right?

Odd, then, that CEO pay rose 27% in 2003, isn't it? Did the supply of CEOs shrink last year? Did demand skyrocket?

Via Conner.

Arabian candidate

Krugman strikes again.

In the original version of The Manchurian Candidate, Senator John Iselin, whom Chinese agents are plotting to put in the White House, is a right-wing demagogue modeled on Senator Joseph McCarthy.
So let's imagine an update .... the enemies would be Islamic fanatics
Who knows? The Arabian candidate might even be able to deprive America of the moral high ground, no mean trick when our enemies are mass murderers, by creating a climate in which U.S. guards torture, humiliate and starve prisoners, most of them innocent or guilty of only petty crimes.

At home, the Arabian candidate would leave the nation vulnerable, doing almost nothing to secure ports, chemical plants and other potential targets. He would stonewall investigations into why the initial terrorist attack succeeded.
President Bush isn't actually an Al Qaeda mole, with Dick Cheney his controller. Mr. Bush's "war on terror" has, however, played with eerie perfection into Osama bin Laden's hands.

Not to say I told you so, but this is very much what a lot of antiwar lefties like me feared and predicted.

(Illustration by the amazing Paul Conrad.)

Today's quote

Via poorheather:
I'm looking for backing for an unauthorized auto-biography that I am writing. Hopefully, this will sell in such huge numbers that I will be able to sue myself for an extraordinary amount of money and finance the film version, in which I will play everybody.

David Bowie

Get well soon, David.

22 July 2004

Politics, epistemology, rhetoric

I recently stumbled across an article in the Village Voice in which the reporter recounts some surreal conversations with conservatives.

I open the floor to the question of why they personally revere George Bush.

Ponytailed Larry, who wears the stripes of a former marine gunnery sergeant on his floppy hat, bursts into laughter; it's too obvious to take seriously. “Honesty. Truth. Integrity,” he says upon recovering.
"One of the reasons I respect this president is that he is honest. I believe that after eight years, the dark years of the Clinton administration, we finally have a man in the White House who respects that office and who speaks honestly."

I ask why so many liberals believe the administration lies, if there might be anything to the suspicions. What about the report of the Los Angeles Times that morning, that the State Department dismissed 28 of the claims the White House demanded Colin Powell bring before the U.N. as without foundation in fact?

Delores: “You make mention of a paper in Los Angeles that made such and such a report; well, that doesn't mean it's accurate or complete or unbiased.”

Why do these folks feel that way?

To a reader like me, that stuff is just stupefying. To my eyes, the three characteristics of Bush and his administration are the Iraq invasion catastrophe, the terrifying disregard for civil liberties, and the unremitting, reflexive lies. As a fair-minded person, I find myself experiencing epistemological vertigo. How could someone interpert things in a way that so contradicts my own understanding? Either they are deluded or I am. And a thoughtful person knows how many opportunities there are for self-deception and must guard against them.

But Bush's pattern of lies is not debatable. Consider this stunning example: Bush explained his decision to invade Iraq, in a joint press conference with Kofi Annan, saying, "We gave him [Saddam Hussein] a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in." Hans Blix's UN team entered Iraq to begin a series of weapons inspections on 18 November 2002; Bush made this statement 14 July 2003. “Honesty” and “integrity” are not the words that I would choose to describe anyone who could say that.

So how is this possible? I submit that Bush does something with successfully signifies honesty and integrity to conservatives.

Linguist George Lakoff talks about this. He talks about it at length.

Over the last 30 years [conservative] think tanks have made a heavy investment in ideas and in language. In 1970, [Supreme Court Justice] Lewis Powell wrote a fateful memo to the National Chamber of Commerce saying that all of our best students are becoming anti-business because of the Vietnam War, and that we needed to do something about it. Powell's agenda included getting wealthy conservatives to set up professorships, setting up institutes on and off campus where intellectuals would write books from a conservative business perspective, and setting up think tanks. He outlined the whole thing in 1970. They set up the Heritage Foundation in 1973, and the Manhattan Institute after that. [There are many others, including the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institute at Stanford, which date from the 1940s.]

And now, as the New York Times Magazine quoted Paul Weyrich, who started the Heritage Foundation, they have 1,500 conservative radio talk show hosts. They have a huge, very good operation, and they understand their own moral system. They understand what unites conservatives, and they understand how to talk about it, and they are constantly updating their research on how best to express their ideas.

Bush, like the entire Republican rhetoric machine, is speaking using a sophisticated vocabulary that conservatives recognize as reflecting their values. The Republican party is very deliberate about this stuff.

More specifically, for evangelical Christians, Bush is visibly one of them. I don't think that this is simply deliberate; Bush is clearly a genuine evangelical, and speaks that language. PBS' Frontline did a sophisticated documentary on this, "The Jesus Factor," with interviews with major evangelical leaders, footage of Bush, and commentary by some very smart people. Check out the terrific website for the documentary: it has the whole program available online, plus interview transcripts and lots of other goodies.

Notable in that program was the story of the Iowa caucuses during the 2000 primaries. In the Republican debate, the moderator asked the candidates a viewer's question about which political philosopher or thinker the candidate identified with. Steve Forbes picked my own favorites: John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. John McCain went for the Founding Fathers and Teddy Roosevelt. Alan Keyes was also down with the Founding Fathers, using it as an opportunity to wink toward strict constructioninsm. Bush's answer?

Christ, because he changed my heart.

... long pause ...

I think that the viewer would like to know more on how he has changed your heart.

Well, if they don't know, it's going to be hard to explain. When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as the Savior, it changes your heart. It changes your life. And that's what happened to me.

Doug Wead, an evangelical leader who advised the elder Bush's campaign, describes that moment as powerful for evangelical viewers.

I think that was instinctive, and genuine ... It may have helped him, because of the fact that it was so obviously uncalculated to evangelicals. I mean, the media elite and non-evangelicals see that statement, and they think it's calculated. The evangelicals know it's not calculated. They know it didn't help him, so they tend to believe it's true.

With that kind of resonance, Bush projects honesty and trustworthiness and virtue to his base, and that's what his base will see no matter what he actually does.


Antoun points me at the fascinating essay Superlegitimacy: passion and ecstasy of a Tokyo train driver, which talks about Japanese culture from an alienated Western perspective.
Westerners in Japan often find the things they see spectral, uncanny, plastic. This is because there's a constant sense that, despite similarities to (or simulacra of) western forms, the social organization of Japan is radically different from what we know in the west. On a superficial level, Japanese cities look like western cities, their parks like our parks, their trains like our trains, and so on. Nevertheless, this 'likeness' is an illusion. 'A train' is a western invention adopted by the Japanese in the 19th century. But when we look at, board, and ride a train in Japan it would be foolish to see it as anything like a western train. It's a set of Japanese etiquettes and assumptions travelling through space. It only looks like a train. Soon, explaining the deep otherness of the superficially familiar things he sees around him, the visitor finds himself saying things like this:

That x only looks like an x, something I know well. In fact it is a manifestation of y, something I don't.

I have no idea how wise the essay really is about Japanese culture; I only know that it's consistent with what I saw in just a few short days there. And it's a good read.

21 July 2004

20 July 2004


Whenever I think of culture shock, I think of this disconcerting passage from Samuel R. Delaney's science fiction masterpiece Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, in which the narrator tells a story about being an interstellar diplomat.

I never go into a butcher outlet anywhere on Velm, or anywhere else for that matter, no matter the geosector, without recalling the first time, during my fifth trip offworld, that I was dining with my employer1 and her spouses for my third job1. (The feathers on everything; the very unsubtle music.) I was charmed when they served the meal on narrow plates, about three inches wide, curved around in a circle. You worked your way along from portion to portion — cunning I thought — eating with your fingers; though getting the tastes and smells so confused with one another would never go at home. There was the meat; and I began to tell them about the butcher outlets on Velm, and just what the cloned longpig I'd been raised on was, realizing as I spoke they were a little shocked. I picked up my own bit of roast, bit down — something hard was in it ...

Then I realized: Bone!

This had once been walking around with a skeleton inside. Although I didn't, many times when I've told the story, I've said I left the table.

Different things shock different people.

Fantasy and moral clarity

Ursula K. LeGuin rocks the house. I just stumbled across "a few grunts" from her about fantasy literature.
Some assumptions are commonly made about fantasy that bother me. These assumptions may be made by the author, or by the packagers of the book, or both, and they bother me both as a writer and as a reader of fantasy. They involve who the characters are, when and where they are, and what they do. Put crudely, it's like this: in fantasy, 1) the characters are white, 2) they live sort of in the Middle Ages, and 3) they're fighting in a Battle Between Good and Evil.
She goes on to unpack these three points, most notably observing that contrary to popular belief, The Lord of the Rings is not really about a Battle Between Good and Evil. Speaking to that third point, she has this timely thing to say ...
Immature people crave and demand moral certainty: This is bad, this is good. Kids and adolescents struggle to find a sure moral foothold in this bewildering world ...
... which serves as a jumping-off point for ever-pointed Yezida's ruminations on the danger that "moral clarity" brings.

In comments, Kira alludes to LeGuin's famous Bryn Mawr Commencement Address. It's long and good and full of zingers like this ...

You came here to college to learn the language of power --- to be empowered. If you want to succeed in business, government, law, engineering, science, education, the media, if you want to succeed, you have to be fluent in the language in which "success" is a meaningful word.
... and is very much the sort of thing you'll like if you ever like that sort of thing.

19 July 2004

Strange brain tricks

Check out this crazy thing. Sure enough, I can't do it.

More importantly, the categorizations in this guy's blogroll are the coolest ever. Update: No longer true. When I get time, I'm ripping off his idea.

Say hello to the new boss

Just like the old boss:
Iyad Allawi, the new Prime Minister of Iraq, pulled a pistol and executed as many as six suspected insurgents at a Baghdad police station, just days before Washington handed control of the country to his interim government, according to two people who allege they witnessed the killings.
A former CIA officer, Vincent Cannisatraro, recently told The New Yorker: "If you're asking me if Allawi has blood on his hands from his days in London, the answer is yes, he does. He was a paid Mukhabarat [intelligence] agent for the Iraqis, and he was involved in dirty stuff."

Sydney Morning Hearald 17 July 2004

The story isn't getting picked up by much US media, natch, but Holden at Atrios is on the case.

Update: more on the story:

[Morning Hearald journalist Paul] McGeough cites the opinion of former CIA case officer, Reuel Marc Gerecht, who told the New Yorker: "He [Allawi] was a very effective operator and a true believer. Two facts stand out about Allawi. One, he likes to think of himself as a man of ideas; and two, his strongest virtue is that he’s a thug."

In the first three weeks of the interim government, Allawi's unelected and despised administration has assumed the power to impose martial law, ban demonstrations and monitor citizens' phones and email. He has declared his intention to recruit the military and intelligence operatives of Hussein's regime and this week announced the formation of a secret police agency to "annihilate" opposition. He is already being contemptuously referred to in Baghdad as "Saddam without the moustache" or "America's Saddam".

Far from denouncing the Bush administration for establishing a US-protected police-state in Iraq, commentary over the past week in the New York Times and the Washington Post has lauded Allawi for his reputation for sadism and ruthlessness ....

So I was wrong: our press isn't ignoring the story.

Magick smackdown: The motion picture

Via my extensive contacts in the world of the occult, I learn that there's a film in the works, Revolt of the Magicians, telling a fictionalized version of the young Aleister Crowley's break from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

If you think about it, it's pretty astonishing that Uncle Al has apparently never been portrayed on film, with the possible exception of turning up in a movie of sketch comedy with his name misspelled in the credits, or in the form of the character "Oliver Haddo" in a nearly-forgotten silent film adaptation of Somerset Maugham's The Magician.

Even if you don't believe in magic, Crowley's biography boggles the mind. He was one of these larger-than-life Brits like Sir Richard Francis Burton or Lord Byron. He was a childhood chess prodigy. He was one of the great mountaineers of his time. He wrote poetry. He traveled the world. He had lovers of both genders --- during the Victorian era. He was in an occult secret society together with heavy hitters like William Butler Yeats. And then there's the actual occult stuff: even if you stick to the historically verifiable events, you have all this great secret society / mysterious manuscript / declaration of a New Aeon stuff. We now have two good biographies on the shelves: Kaczynski's and Sutin's. How could you not make a movie?

One wonders if Revolt will be the treatment that one would hope for. There's a fly-by-night scent in the air. The film has an impressively lame website. I'm talking 1994 lame. It's not bad in the "I hired an incompetent graphic designer with delusions of grandeur" way, or the "I hired a teenager who put in a lot of gratuitous spinning icons" way --- it's bad in the "I just built my first website typing HTML into Notepad, but I was in a hurry" kind of way. And the producers apparently make reality TV shows. Or try to: everything they list on their website is in pre-production. A web search reveals only that they have published a direct-to-video Corey Haim slasher movie. Not inspiring.

On the other hand, and this is a big other hand, Lon Milo Duquette is credited as one of the two screenwriters. Duquette is a good writer and a serious occultist. His The Chicken Qabalah of Rabbi Lamed ben Clifford is the best (and funniest) concise introduction to qabalah I have read, his My Life with the Spirits is likewise a wry autobiography of occult practice, and he's written a bushel basket of very serious occult books. He's heavily involved in the OTO, Crowley's initiatory organization, so knows about as much about Crowley as anyone and understands that the man was an egocentric shmuck but hardly the sinister figure of legend. So who knows?


Just what you need: an index of cool "404 not found" messages.

18 July 2004


A funny little Platonic dialogue.
Snoop: I know what its mascot should be .... The Carrboro Communists.

Lex: Oooooh. I like it.

Snoop: The Fightin' Commies.

Lex: The marketing possibilities alone are almost limitless.

Snoop: Yeah, I figure the football team could be called the Red Menace. They'd, you know, wear red uniforms.

Lex: Sure. With a hammer and sickle and a star on the helmets.

Snoop: And instead of having their last names on the backs of the jerseys, all the jerseys would just say "labor."
If you're laughing --- and again I know who you are out there --- follow the link: there's a bit more.

17 July 2004

Breaking of the vessels

Bob Dylan, perhaps in kabbalist mystic mode, teaches us that everything is broken.

Broken lines, broken strings,
Broken threads, broken springs,
Broken idols, broken heads,
People sleeping in broken beds.
Ain't no use jiving
Ain't no use joking
Everything is broken.

Broken bottles, broken plates,
Broken switches, broken gates,
Broken dishes, broken parts,
Streets are filled with broken hearts.
Broken words never meant to be spoken,
Everything is broken.

Seem like every time you stop and turn around
Something else just hit the ground

Broken cutters, broken saws,
Broken buckles, broken laws,
Broken bodies, broken bones,
Broken voices on broken phones.
Take a deep breath, feel like you're chokin',
Everything is broken.

Every time you leave and go off someplace
Things fall to pieces in my face

Broken hands on broken ploughs,
Broken treaties, broken vows,
Broken pipes, broken tools,
People bending broken rules.
Hound dog howling, bull frog croaking,
Everything is broken.

In that spirit, I offer you a heartwarming little parable passed on by the aptly-pseudonymed Heartsdesire. Ordinarily, "heartwarming" is not territory I enjoy &msash; I hear you laughing out there! — but this one has a little allusion to good design, and is worth a peek if you at all enjoy parables or heartwarmingness.

16 July 2004

Every man and every woman

Warren Ellis has another dark poetic situationist rant about the conflict between our humanity and what Bucky Fuller called grunch.
Society is not your friend. It doesn't care about you.

We're logs for the steam engine of society.

Shove us in and burn us up to keep the wheels turning.

So throw the machine into reverse.

See, there is no massive world conspiracy to keep things crappy.

There's a business plan. There's a million business plans.

And they're based into coercing you into buying their products.

And cheating the other people who have products to sell you.

There are no secret chiefs. There are no space aliens or supernatural entities running things.

Just governments. And governments are essentially incompetent.

In Britain, there are government cameras on the roads. Big Brother, right?

But most of them don't have any film in.

That's not a competent Scary Government.

But an incompetent with a gun can still kill you. That's why they're dangerous.

Running a war badly still gets people killed.

So you know what we need to do?

We need to become the Secret Chiefs, and the space aliens, and the supernatural entities.


I'm not quite in a foul enough mood today to entirely believe this sentiment. But after a week wandering the office parks and minimalls of America, I'm close.

15 July 2004


This understated comment ran in the Lexington, Kentucky Herald-Leader on Independence Day.
It has come to the editor's attention that the Herald-Leader neglected to cover the civil rights movement. We regret the omission.
Via Athenae at Atrios, who muses about what contemporary stories will merit similar corrections in a few decades.

14 July 2004

Great Wall of China

Via Collision Detection I learn that you can check out a current satellite picture of the site for Black Rock City. At the moment I write this, the road network is already visible, there's a fair bit of of stuff in place in and around Center Camp, significant stuff in place at the Man himself and in a couple of places on the far side of the Man's Land, plus a handful of scattered specks in the otherwise empty City.

I'm not going this year, and strangely, more than almost anything else this makes me wish I were going.

Liberte, egalite, fraternite

Happy Bastille Day, everyone. Party like it's 1789!

Today's quote

Via Aoibhill:
The ultimate end of all revolutionary social change is to establish the sanctity of human life, the dignity of man, the right of every human being to liberty and well-being.

Emma Goldman

If you don't know who Emma Goldman was, spend a minute with her WikiPedia entry and improve your life. Although of course my witty, sophisticated regular readers know all about her, I'm sure.

13 July 2004


You know I try to take it easy on the silly little animations, but this one addresses a very important problem.


The lovely Waterbones points out a terrific Lego diorama of a Greenpeace protest. Not to be outdone, I offer you Bible stories, mobius strips and other mathematical forms, Escher's Relativity and Ascending and Descending, a globe, and a strange museum of horrors.

But most amazing of all is a dark, brilliant Lego sculpture by a Polish artist. I won't tell you what it is: you'll recognize it immediately. There are more pictures in the series, reminding us that everything in our world is reproduced in pixelated form in Legoland.

12 July 2004

Insert Jerry Lewis joke here

From Bérubé, who also has some wry observations about soccer.
French popular music sucks. It actually sucks in so many ways, in so many genres, that I could not keep proper track of its promiscuous modalities of inadequacy. A friend suggested to me that the French never made the categorical distinction between "rock" and "show tunes" that is fundamental to Anglo-American popular music, so that French pop sounds more or less like Barry Manilow. But that doesn't explain the travesty that is French hip-hop. Nor does it explain the curious fact that although experimental French art and literature have in fact rocked almost continuously for the past 175 years, no French music of any kind has really mattered to the rest of the world since the mid-thirteenth century, when the hot new musical form known as the "motet" took Europe by storm. I welcome your theories about this. (Before anybody gets all weird with me about Berlioz and Satie, all I have to say is, two exceptions in 750 years prove the rule. And the incomparable Django Reinhardt wasn't French, he was Manouche.)
But hey: what about MC Solaar, who raps in French? If that's not a mutant superpower, what is?

11 July 2004


Clive "Collision Detection" Thomson is fond of asserting that computer games are an art form well-suited to political propaganda.
A political game hits with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but that's the point; like a political cartoon, its simplicity tries to clarify the issues.
He's on to something. A couple of weeks ago, I spent a good chunk of time playing an epic game in which you take on George W. Bush. The game plays with the conventions of computer games, as well as lots of pop culture references, and is often very funny: You can fight as an '80s hero, for instance --- Mr. T or Hulk Hogan. In between the action scenes, there are some great infographics and animations of pure political stuff, like how the Bush administration has rigged the tax system for the benefit of the rich.

10 July 2004

On the road again

FYI: I'm going to be on the road for work again this week, which means my posting may or may not be as regular as usual, depending upon the amount of internet that have out in St. Louis. All you addicts may have to hang tough.

Today's quote

Pointed out to me by MKB: What Larry Flynt said in an interview with Salon, about Rep. Bob Livingston calling him a "bottom feeder" for threatening to reveal Republican congressmens' extramarital affairs during the Clinton impeachment hearings.
Yeah, that's right. I'm a bottom feeder. But look what I found when I got down there.
He's the defender of Jessica Lynch's honor and he's called for a national day of prayer. Larry Flynt is a great American.

09 July 2004

Naming convention

My way of Mr. Conner, I offer you a website listing bad baby names. Lots of bad baby names. With commentary.
Part I: Brought to You By the Letter Y
Part II: God Wants You to Name the Baby After Him
Part III: Easy to be Scarred
Part IV: Babies or Blotter Acid?
Part V: Big Chief Mucous Stink
Part VI: When You're in Love, the Whole World is Welsh
Part VII: Jesus' Mom is No Saint
Part VIII: Of Thee I Scream
Part IX: Bad Baby Names From You!
Part 10.1: More Bad Baby Names From You! (revised)
Part XI: Even More Bad Baby Names From You (confirmed sightings edition)!
Part XII: Baby's Got a Bad Bad Combo
Part XIII: Fellow Collectors
Part XIV: Voyage to the Bottom of the BBS
Part XV: Flights of Fantasy
In a hurry? Check out the Worst Of page!

08 July 2004

The Chairman's open house

A parable of electronic media intersecting with culture, from Bruce Sterling. Looking again years later, the only version I could find is nearly illegible, so I'm reproducing the whole thing here.

Microsoft Campus, 1:30 PM, May 21, 2004

Hi. Well, it's nice to be back with you weird crungie (?) characters once again.

Yeah, you know this book has a lot to say to people in your industry. It got blurbed...I almost said it got “blogged”...but it got blurbed by Howard Schmidt, your former chief security officer and Bill Gates is a minor character in the book. At one point, he offers my hero a job. And it is a book about computer security among other things. It's basically about a...it's a Mr. Smith goes to Washington story about a techie that decides to join federal service after 9/11 because his family has a long history of technical service to the United States government and complications ensue.

It's got a villain and a superweapon. It's a technothriller and technothrillers kind of require villains and superweapons because otherwise there is no reason to keep turning pages. But although it is a great superweapon and I stole it from the best guys in the business, I really put some intellectual effort into it and I thought it was a nifty keen kind of weapon o' mass destruction style nifty technothriller superweapon, absolutely nobody is interested in it.

Nobody is patting me on the head about my ingenious superweapon, the labor of love that I invested in this because nobody believes in WMD anymore, frankly. It is just a sci-fi vaporware notion.

What people are interested in is the book's take on Federal computer security and it is a mess. I think anybody who's got e-mail has to know that Federal computer security is a mess but I never expected in my life to see it as bad as it is now. It's just a debacle and it didn't help that the capo of cyber security for the Bush Administration was Richard Clarke, but he was. And the guy blew up like thermite right in front of the congress and every camera in the business and it's just a crying shame.

So I have some rather harsh things to say about the state of law and order in cyberspace in this book. People ask me about it. Is it really this bad and the answer is “yeah, it is pretty much this bad.” My story is a parable. It is the exaggerated, anime kind of cartoon version but it is all about real issues that people are facing online, out on the net every day.

I could go on and on about it. In fact, I am going on and on it because I've got to go to Gartner. They're doing one of their gigs, consulting gigs in Washington and I'm supposed to go down there and talk to all these people about how screwed up it is and get this off of my chest, a kind of hammer and tongs style version and it is an unpleasant task but they already paid me so I'm going to have to go.

Maybe I'll learn something. I mean, I commonly do when I go to Washington. I just went to Washington. This is the last day of a very extensive book tour to support this book. And guys are sidling up to me at these signings and saying:

“Yeah, it's worse than what you say. I've read it and you're right. It's terrible.”

“So what agency are you from?”

“I'm from under the hill...”

“You mean to say you're from the NSA, sir? You're from under Fort Meade?”

He just sort of sidles away, leaves diagonally...

Be that as it may, I want to try to get a little closer to the fire here. I don't want to spend my entire time pontificating about public affairs because I have to do that in Wired every month. I want to try to get a little more hands on with the subject and I've tried to do this with a few audiences on my way here but you guys are the absolute target demographic for this personal crisis I'm facing. You e-mail me, send me e-mail, bruces@well.com. I've actively soliciting ingenious responses to this really sort of personal crisis that I'm facing.

So now I'm going to background the problem for you here, ok? Now, in Austin, which is where I live, we have this social event every year which is called “South by Southwest.” South by Southwest has three wings. It's a cultural conference. It's a festival, I guess you would call it. There is South by Southwest Music where garage bands show up from all over America and all over the planet, really, looking for an A&R guy and a record deal. You get a wristband and you wander around in a drunken haze down sixth street listening to bands.

There is South by Southwest Film, which is kind of the coming thing in Austin lately because we have got real film directors in town. Richard Linklater lives in Autin and he's making a film adaptation of Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly. Richard Rodriguez spends a lot of time in Austin. He's mister Spy Kids and he's doing all of this stuff. Sandra Bullock lives there and Quentin Tarantino shows up with his posse. It's a very odd thing, like having your town infested with Sumatran fungus. There really didn't used to be any movie people in Austin but now there is there is a little movie scene in my hometown and it's kind of adorable and fun to watch.

Then there is the third part, which is my people here, which would be South by Southwest Interactive which is the geek set in my town, right? It used to be South by Southwest Multimedia and it's not like an industry gig. These people are cyberculturati. These are weblog guys, meetup guys, vaguely political online organization characters, Electronic Frontier Foundation fellow travellers, EPIC guys, computer game designers, SIGGRAPH habitues, washed-up former virtual reality visionaries, dazed sort of half-conscious linux programmer loonie free-software characters, and science fiction writers.

So I've gone to this every year since they started it because I knew the organizers and these are just people out of my milieu. So every year I have a party here at South by Southwest. It's my Open House Party. It's a very “Information Wants to be Free” kind of party. I just go there. I'm always booked to do something: I'm on a panel. I give a speech or something and traditionally I end my speech by just inviting the whole audience over to my house for free beer. “Aw boys, we're all going over to my house for free beer!” They show up. It's not difficult to give away free beer. I don't know why people think that this is expensive. If you just price it out, a keg of beer, you can get someone really drunk for seventy-five cents. Plus people bring their own beer. They bring lots of liquor.

My organizational principle for this party, which has been going on for just donkey's years now, is that you can bring anything you can carry and anyone that you trust. Right? Strangers show up and that's kind of the point. It's not like I hand out little laminated cards and say “Yes, you can go by the novelist's house.” It's just that we literally throw the doors open and people just show up.

There's never been an incident. People have a really good time. You can't predict who's going to be there. I really enjoy talking to people that don't know that I'm the host. They are like “God, this guy's taste in art, what's with this?” I like to attend my own party and that's kind of a thrill for me.

It's just a little social thing that I do. It's fun and it's sort of our big social outreach for my wife and I. It's what we do to kind of pitch in and give back a little bit. It's pleasant and it costs us just a few hundred bucks. It's nothing like a budget breaker. It's not the cost that's any kind of trouble. You can make two or three hundred people really happy for the cost of...I don't know...a laser printer or something. Why not? Right? It's not a big problem.

Well, this year, I did have a big problem.

This year I had a problem because there were 200 people in my audience and I say “Ok, everybody is going over to my house for beer!” and they say “Yay!” and 600 people show up at my party. They weren't the people in the audience. Half the people in the audience normally attend because it's on the last day and a lot of people leave anyway. They showed up and some kind of flash mob thing occurred.

There was some kind of electronically assisted gathering happening at my house. Because people were showing up and they were showing up in buddy lists. It wasn't just the usual foot traffic of one and two people. There would be at half-past one...there were sudden clusters or armadas of taxis coming in from two or three directions and people would get out of the taxis and are name-checking each other and sort of clustering together and coming into the party in a mass.

Guys are phone-camming the party. It's like “He's not kidding, look there's a keg here!” and off they come. Actresses are showing up, which is sort of interesting because there is never much cross-over into the film thing. Guys are coming up and saying “Bruce! Your party's full of hot chicks!” There are girls in lingerie tops with stiletto heels. They aren't actually partying. They're not eating. They're there to display themselves so they kind of swan anorexically through this crowd of unix sysadmins and they're, like... They're awe-struck. Somebody had told them that it was sort of necessary to go make the scene at the novelist's house and they sort of arrived in a bloc, united by phones, I assume, and then departed.

So it was lively and they were a very well behaved group. There was no...they were very sweet, kindly people except more and more of them started showing up. So around 1:45, the cops show up and I'm in there pontificating as is my wont. Someone says “Gee Bruce, the police are out on the porch and I think you'd better come see this.”

So I go out there and it's one cop. He's an Austin cop. He's a very nice guy but he wants to see some I.D. so I'm handing this over. He says, “So Mr. Sterling, is this your home?” “Yes, officer.” “Well, Mr. Sterling, we are receiving noise complaints from your neighbors and let me just tell you the drill here. I'm giving you a verbal warning and if I have to return, I'm going to have to write you up a citation. If I have to return a third time, I'm going to have to take you downtown.” I'm talking to this guy and I say, “Well, that's very interesting officer but what if you take me downtown and people continue to arrive at the party? Because they aren't being issued invitations. They are just sort of arriving spontaneously. What are you going to tell these 600 people when there is no host and you've arrested him?”

He didn't like that question. I didn't like the question either because it was kind of loud. “Gee, Officer,” I told him, “We're not playing loud music. It's a very well behaved crowd. This is South by Southwest.” Well, it was half past one and he said, “You're not playing music but you're talking and people can hear you talking two blocks away.” They could here us talking two blocks away. There was uproar. These people had a lot on their minds. They were talking about politics and current affairs. They weren't talking about business because there isn't any in their line of work but they had a lot to confess to one another. They were crying on each other's shoulders, whatever.

So I hustled them all inside the house, got them off of the porch, it was beautiful weather. Packed them into the house, shut the doors. That was when the spontaneous self-organization happened. This was a little weird. I've never witnessed...I've had big parties. This party was 50% bigger than last year's party. Last year was maybe 350 people. This year was 600 easy. So it's half past one and I'm down to, maybe, 175 people but they're all inside the house and our house is on an open plan. There is a kitchen, a big room, a bathroom and so forth. Well, normally, people just wander from room to room with their drinks and beer or whatever. This time, they are moving en masse.

There is this outbreak of herd behavior. It's packed. It's packed like it is in here and people just start moving along the room. There is this spontaneous emergent order. They're actually... ...swirling around the house and you don't get to get out of the way. They are coming in all these groups and the people in front of them see them coming and they're moving and the whole thing begins jostling in this spontaneous crowd flow, which is hairy because if someone yells “Fire” in a situation like that, there is going to be real injuries. I'd never seen that happen in my house before.

So, this is my problem, right? I have reached some kind of critical limit in these parties. You keep adding quantity and eventually there is a qualitative phase change here. They were nice about it and finally I got them to leave. I just announced that all of the liquor had been drunk and they left. There were no casualties and it was fine.

But that's not what concerns me. What concerns me is next year's party. Because I don't have any way to define the proportions of this party nor do I have any security mechanisms in place, nor do the police. Which is kind of interesting.

So, I'm now going to read to you, some of the suggested technical solutions......for what is really a microcosm of the organizational problems with the global internet, ok? Because this is my personal incarnation of what is really a much larger problem, a problem that scales up.

What is the problem here? The benefit is that I'm bringing in strangers. It's like I'm reaching out and touching someone but the downside is that I'm bringing in strangers and they can reach out and touch me. The benefit is that I'm breaking the boundaries of my narrow circle of acquaintances but the downside is that I'm breaking the boundaries of my narrow circle of acquaintances. The plus side is: this is a really popular party but the downside is that this is a really popular party! I'm now hovering at the edge of a potential dystopian development where I can get one guy that shows up in order to wreak mischief and can hurt a lot of people in some sort of cascading effect. I don't have any...Well, let's just talk about possible solutions. I think I've defined the problem sufficiently. It's a problem that you ought to recognize. So, what do I do?

Here's one solution: Go Professional.

I'm a very popular guy. Why don't I just start a bar? It will be “Bruce's Cyberpunk Bar.” This is what you do and there are hundreds of these things in Austin. People come in and they get the beer and they pay you for the beer. You get an insurance license and you rent a building. You hire employees and you establish some kind of formal relationship with the police. You card people when they show up to make sure it is legally possible for them to drink. Maybe I could hire bands! This is like the AOL/Time-Warner version of what was formally this kind of freeware, open, loosy goosy, kind of...you know? Why don't I just do that because it's certainly been done? This is the standard way of handling the subject. Well, yeah, ok, but then I'm a bartender. I'm a guy that owns a club and I don't really want to own a club because it is a lot of hassle and most of them go broke. I don't mind doing it once a year but, Jesus, every day? Five times a day? Weekends? I've got no weekends and I'm a bar guy suddenly? I'd never get to go out in daylight because I'm down there managing all of these drunks. I don't think so. That's not really it.

Solution number two: The Party Emergency Response Team.

Well, I've got pals who basically show up for these parties. There is a hardcore set of dudes who really get it about Sterling's parties. These are sort of the core recruiters. They are the sysadmins of the Sterling scene. Maybe I could deputize these guys. They are my closest buddies. Maybe they aren't at the party but I can make an emergency response team for guys that get it about my parties. I can brief them about it and maybe I'll give them a semi-uniform style thing. I'll get a buddy list of my own and it will be like “It's getting out of control, call the PERT!” and they'll rush in. Maybe they'll just start phoning people, I don't know. They don't have the downside of being actual cops. They don't have to wear a badge or be, sort of, really accountable in any way. They're just like a private militia...there sort of like Blackwater or something. A private military company.

Basically, it's the CERT except its the PERT and they're there to react immediately when a party goes out of bounds. Well, I kind of like that idea actually because it kind of suits my organizational style but the downside is: I'd have to join it. Then I'd have to worry about their parties. Do I really want to get up out bed at 2:00 AM when I could be watching Bollywood movies and pile into my car and drive over to Sixth Street. “How did you let your friggin' party get out of control?!” Do I want to go put out the fires and other people's parties? I'm not going to able to just do it by myself. The CERT is a cooperative group. What kind of dues am I going to have to pay to belong to this org? I don't go to that many parties. I mean, I only have one. I don't want to go to parties all of the time, especially parties that are no damn good.

Ok, well, now I've got a more subtle solution. This is the Rand solution here. A sort of Arquilla and Ronfeldt groovy, Advent of Netwar, solution.

If you've ever read these Rand guys, Advent of Netwar, rockin' book! September 12, 2001, I called these guys up. “Man! You are futurists of the first water! You were predicting states would be attacking non-state actors and that all hell would be breaking loose. You guys are something else!” Well, they got a lot of credit for that: Arquilla and Ronfeldt.

So, anyway, what Arquilla and Ronfeldt say in their Rand futurist analysis of how to deal with an out of control network is we can't have a war on a network because states are hierarchical and networks are distributed. What you need is a counter network. A counter network. Just like Advent of Netwar.

So here's my plan. I have plants at the party. Who are there secretly and sort of organized with one another. And they aren't really made clear to the party members that they are there at all. They are covertly there. They are covertly organized. They have secret handshakes and recognition symbols.

What is their job? Their job is to monitor the party and see if enthusiasm is moving into an area of untoward radicalism. So they don't do anything blatant. What they do is stage small but effective party spoiling scenes. Women would be especially good for this, I think, because no one ever thinks women are capable of political organization. You get a woman from your counter-network to just sort of burst into tears spontaneously at the party and just sort of start muttering to herself something along the lines of “That bastard! I can't believe he would dump me right in the middle of Bruce Sterling's party! Call my mother!” A little cluster comes around and they are patting her, trying to bring her down and people say “Aw man, this is a bad scene here. What's with the chick over there, man?”

Or you might have a guy that gets kind of boisterous at the party and have someone who gets really boisterous at the party who joins them but feigns he's on PCP or something. So if one guy starts misbehaving, this guy's like an agent provocateur. He's just stumbling......he's taking the edge off the growing enthusiasm, sort of like the carbon rod in the nuclear pile.

Well, I'm giving serious attention to that one actually.

Ok, now there's the architectural solution.

Maybe it's a technical problem, ok? I can engineer the kegs because the kegs are the locus of the party organization. So let's just say, maybe my kegs are too low-tech and what I need is a keg firewall. It's measuring the amount of fluid that is coming out of the kegs and is the party is getting too boisterous, they just start busting out air. “Hey man, the keg's not working! The keg's not working at Sterling's house. Aw man, the keg's are dry.” and then they leave and then the kegs just spring back up. They're just sitting there, watching network traffic, and if it gets too heavy, the kegs kick out. Or you could have keg mirror sites at someone else's party and it just pops up on the keg that says “Hey, you're being slashdotted here! Why don't you go to Fourth Street? There are lots of kegs there!” Have appealing little pictures of the kegs moving around on them. Maybe webcam photos. “Oh, this party is so much fun over here! Why don't you go to that party?”

Ok, that's sort of a techy solution but then I'd have to wire up the kegs. The guys that I rented the kegs from might not like my new interface on the keg and people might accuse me of making darkness the standard. The keg tap might not interop quite right with other kegs. The guy might have badly formulated his kegs and I get sudden bursts of people from other parties and I don't really want the guys from their party to use my site as a mirror site. What if I had to debug the kegs? What if flaws are discovered and the patches have patches? I don't know.

Then there is the Transparency International solution.

This is a kind of NGO solution, the democratic solution. When I go next year and invite all of the people to my party, I could make a clean breast of it. I could say, “Look, I'd love you to come to my house and have a really nice time but I have to make it clear to you that we're facing a potential political crisis at my house. It's time for me to level with you, the party people. I'm just going to have to appeal to your personal sense of responsibility as citizens to come to my party and not screw it up for anyone else. I want you to watch one another, police one another. I trust you. I don't want to enforce anything on you. I want to devolve the party down to the grassroots level. It's up to you, you, you. This is your party, not merely my party. You are the community to whom I'm trying to appeal. You need to assemble as a community. Hold hands with one another, support one another. If you're too tired to chew, pass it on.”

Maybe, maybe.

Now there is one other possibility, and we're getting a little hairy now, this is kind of pushing the limit of parties.

If there is a bad incident at a party, I'm worried about future parties because I think it may be necessary to have a War on Parties. I might put magnetometers into the doors, check people's bags, make them take off their shoes. We'll just get some terror theatre installed around the party. We'll have orange netting, I.D. badges which have your legal name on them rather than the name by which you are known at parties. I may have to make it clear, as the host, that I carry a gun. I am allowed to carry a gun in my own home in Texas. We have an open weapons law. I could just wear a uniform and carry a gun. I don't think they'd get too out of bounds if the host had a gun. If one gun wasn't enough, I could carry two guns. That's a possibility.

Another possibility, Total Party Awareness.

I think it would be possible to install video cameras and monitoring equipment throughout the home. I think it would be good to have people sign a disclaimer when they arrive at my party consenting to be video taped and to have their remarks at the party recorded. Now, I think that this would have a very calming effect on the party. In fact, I'm not sure that that gathering would even be classifiable as a party but I could probably pack a lot of people into an area like that.

Another possibility, legal disclaimers.

I'm thinking party shrinkwrap. You just don't get a beer unless you break the shrinkwrap. There is something written on the beer that is really long and kind of inexplicable but you are required to take some small moral action before you drink the beer. Put your name on it, I don't know.

There is a literary solution. Sharecropping the party.

I did have some guys show up. “This party's great! Why don't you have our corporation sponsor your party, Mr. Sterling? We've got this really cool building downtown and there is lots of empty space. We'd love to have you put your name on our corporate party.” Bruce Sterling (C) (TM) (R) presents Intel's Blast 2005!!! I'd just be renting out my celebrity like the billboard for somebody else's organization. They'd pick up all of the tab and presumably hire thugs, give people free shit, you get mouse pads or whatever. The upside is that they'd handle all of the hassle for me and they'd probably put on a better feed than me but the downside is that all of my friends would accuse me of becoming a corporate sellout. I would be sheltering under their profit driven organization. And who knows?

The last solution, which is probably an underestimated possibility, I could ask a charity for help.

I could make my party a fund-raising event for somebody that is morally unimpeachable. Red Cross. Greenpeace. I could have my choice. There are lists of charities. Right wing charities. Left wing charities. Hip charities. Dodgy charities. Sobbing-into-your-handkerchief March of Dimes crippled kids charities. Children dying of obscure illnesses. Anti-AIDS. Whatever. Whatever demographic that you want to hit, there is some kind of NGO and you ask for money. It is a community leader thing. “Well, I have this resource among my friends and it is time for us to go out and see to it that this particular intractable social problem is somehow dealt with.” I don't know but I'm sure that it would mellow the scene out considerably. Because, (a) most people just want the free beer. They don't want to get hit up for ten bucks by some nitwit with a clipboard and (b) also it lends it a kind of moral gravity. “Oh look how mature the party host is here, he's angling for a seat on the city council. He's moving from party animal to community leader. He's going to build us a music museum or some god-forsaken thing.” Well, it works!!!

Now those are all that I've managed to think of but I'm sure that's not the entire possible gamut of methods by which I could deal with this. My situation is quite serious. It really is a conundrum. It's a security problem. It's a societal problem. It's a social, cultural, literary problem. It's a personal problem of my own. My credibility is at stake here. Although I've written a book about computer security which goes into agonizing detail of the intractability of some of these difficulties, I can't solve the problem within my own damn home. I have no solution. And who's got it?

Who has got it?

If you tell me, I will publicize it. If you will think about it, I will be happy. If you will send me e-mail, I will take you with utter seriousnesses. It's a funny problem but a real problem.

Thanks for your attention.

I don't know what solution he finally came to.

07 July 2004


You may or may not know about the googlebomb technique, which has reminded the world about which candidate is unelectable, which candidate is a miserable failure.

Athenae at Atrios suggests that, in response to the growing Republican mutterings about how John Kerry is a rich elitist we also remind America that our current Presdent is himself very wealthy. Join the fun!

Today's quote

Mighty Matthew Yglesias tells us what he didn't say on TV about about Fahrenheit 9-11.
While Moore has done us all a great service by bringing to light the footage of the president not reacting to the second WTC attack, he fails to make what I think is the most important point here: The President's own aides have such a low opinion of Bush's leadership capabilities that they didn't think it was immediately necessary -- or, perhaps, desirable -- for him to take charge of the situation right away.
That's certainly not what would have happened in the Bartlett White House.

06 July 2004

Qapla' !

Submitted without comment: a blog written entirely in Klingon.

Product endorsement

I think I may need a Katherine Hepburn memorial candle.
There isn't much I can say about Katharine Hepburn that hasn't already been said, except this: She is why when I was a little girl I dreamed of being a smart businesswoman with a clever boyfriend and my own apartment instead of some fairytale princess in a frou-frou dress who needed rescuing all the time.

Guess whose dreams came true.

Or at least, I admire the pitch for it on the catalogue page.

05 July 2004

More Independence

For those of you who didn't get enough Declaration of Independence action yesterday, Xnoubis points out a cool video of Hollywood actors reading the Declaration of Independence from the Declare Yourself "hip celebrities 4 democracy" website.

Morgan Freeman delivers the goods in the introduction, proving once again that the presidency is his for the taking if he ever decides he wants it. “Scholars believe Jefferson intended for the Declaration to be performed, and not just read. ... It's a safe bet the Continental Congress never had in mind a performer like me.”

And forgive me using this opportunity to rant, but this reminds me of something that really bugs me. There's a wingnut meme that the left is uncomfortable with patriotism. It's just not true. What bothers lefties like me is “patriotism” of the creepy “my tribe can beat up your tribe” variety. But when it comes to the iconography, legends, and ideas of America, the left's patriotism is strong. Check out that video: you want to make a little movie about the Declaration, and Whoopi Goldberg shows up.

My personal example is The West Wing on TV, a romantic lefty fantasy of working in government. First there's all of the God Bless America stuff in the show itself: the parade of Immigrants With A Dream, of Ordinary Americans whose Heroism Shines Through, of Public Servants who take their Obligations to the American People Very Seriously. But more symbolically, there's the opening credits to the show. Okay, a third of it is the usual hero shots of the cast adorably looking into the middle distance. But the other two thirds? There's black and white pictures of presidential iconography: the oval office, motorcades, and the Presidential helicopter Marine One. And there's American flags waving in the background, and plenty of 'em.

I have them on DVD now, and I watch the credits every time because I love that stuff. I'm not proud of it—it's silly and shmaltzy and I feel a little silly doing it—but I'm not ashamed, either.