31 March 2005


Theresa Marie Schindler Schiavo

Ghost in the political machine

Brain and mind, dead in 1990 from bulemia. Body, dead in 2005 from cardiac arrest resulting from removal of her feeding tube.

And is that Woman all her crew?
Is that a Death? and are there two?
Is Death that Woman's mate?

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Nightmare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.

The naked hulk alongside came,
And the twain were casting dice;
"The game is done! I've won! I've won!"
Quoth she, and whistles thrice.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Part III

I mourn for Ms. Schiavo's mind, her body, the Republican party's mind, and the American body politic.

Not for children

Rivet Pep Squad points us to a very strange Flash game about working as a shrink in an insane asylum for plush toys.


She has some hints about gameplay. So check it out. If that's your sort of thing.

Speaking of which, that game reminds me of another game, John “Unknown Armies” Tynes' Puppetland: a storytelling game with strings in a grim world of make-believe.

The skies are dim always since the Maker died. The lights of Puppettown are the brightest beacon in all of Puppetland, and they shine all the time. Once the sun and the moon moved their normal course through the heavens, but no more. The rise of Punch the Maker-Killer has brought all of nature to a stop, leaving it perpetually winter, perpetually night. Puppets all across Puppetland mourn the loss of the Maker, and curse the name of Punch — but not too loudly, lest the Nutcrackers hear and come to call with a sharp rap-rap-rapping at the door.


Punch and Punch's Boys now rule Maker's Land with hearts of cruelty and a lack of mercy. All puppets exist to serve them. The puppets toil for hours on end making new clothes, new homes, new food, new toys: whatever Punch and his boys want.

At least, almost all of the puppets do so.

Across the great lake of milk and cookies lies the small village of Respite. The village is run by Judy, who once loved Punch but does so no more. She knows better than anyone the cruelties he is capable of. She knows the evil that lies in his twisted heart. In her little village she runs a freehold of puppets who have escaped from Punch's clutches. They have avoided the terrible Nutcrackers, fled the cruelties of Punch's boys, and made their way to Respite where Judy's small group of free puppets look towards the day when Punch will be brought down ....

Dedicated readers may recall that I also plugged his provocative meta-game POWER KILL. As I said then

It's less a playable game than a disturbing question in the form of a game, intended to get you thinking about why roleplaying games are the way they are, and why we enjoy them.

So check that one out, if you've ever done any dice-and-bad-acting.

30 March 2005

Billmon's new technique

Once known as one of the funniest, snarkiest political commentators in Blogistan, Billmon of Whisky Bar has moved into humour so dark it no longer makes you laugh. His main technique for the last seveal months has been the simple juxtaposition of quotes. Here's an example.
One in three U.S. high school students say the press ought to be more restricted, and even more say the government should approve newspaper stories before readers see them, according to a survey being released today . . . Asked whether the press enjoys "too much freedom, " not enough or about the right amount, 32% say "too much," and 37% say it has the right amount. Ten percent say it has too little.

USA Today
U.S. students say press freedoms go too far
January 31, 2005

And what's so frightening is that we're seeing the beginnings of the first post-9/11 generation --- the kids who first became aware of the news under an "Americans need to watch what they say" administration, the kids who've been told that dissent is un-American and therefore justifiably punished by a fine, imprisonment --- or the loss of your show on ABC.

Bill Maher
Kids Say the Darndest, Most Stalinist Things
February 18, 2005

Nearly all children nowadays were horrible. What was worst of all was that by means of such organizations as the Spies they were systematically turned into ungovernable little savages, and yet this produced in them no tendency whatever to rebel against the discipline of the Party.

On the contrary, they adored the Party and everything connected with it. The songs, the processions, the banners, the hiking, the drilling with dummy rifles, the yelling of slogans, the worship of Big Brother --- it was all a sort of glorious game to them. All their ferocity was turned outwards, against the enemies of the State, against foreigners, traitors, saboteurs, thought-criminals.

It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children. And with good reason, for hardly a week passed in which The Times did not carry a paragraph describing how some eavesdropping little sneak --- "child hero" was the phrase generally used --- had overheard some compromising remark and denounced its parents to the Thought Police.

George Orwell

Of course, this is a technique that I pioneered, and no doubt Billmon will we crediting me any day now.

29 March 2005


From the AP wire, we learn this:
At least 108 people have died in American custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of them violently, according to government data provided to The Associated Press.
9Driver at the Roachblog helpfully gives us some scale.
When I did my seven year hitch in the Navy, the gold standard for horrible, communist, totalitarian, non-Geneva convention deadly bastards who you never wanted to get captured by was the North Vietnamese.

They were happy if you died in your cell. They tortured. They hated. They abused just for perverse commie, Stalinist fun. They were the worst. Worse than Nazis, even, because the Nazis at least sometimes pretended to be civilized about POW treatment. The North Vietnamese didn't even pretend.

So how many American POWS died while captured by the insane and lawless North Vietnamese during the entire Vietnam war? One hundred and fourteen. From all causes. What killed the 108 (so far) reported in our custody?

Of course, they were terrorists, so they don't count, right?

28 March 2005

Maybe we can save the world

Via Yglasias I learn of Daniel Drezner's excellent post on eliminating the worst of world poverty.

Apparently a bloke named Jeffrey Sachs has sat down and asked what we can do for people around the world who are living on less than a dollar a day. That's the threshhold of "extreme poverty," which means going to bed hungry every night, not having a place to sleep that's warm and dry, doing without shoes, catching malaria because you can't afford a mosquio net, and so forth. There are a billion human beings living like that right now: roughly one out of every hundred people who have ever lived. Sachs looked at what kind of aid works, what kind doesn't, how much it really costs. He's assembled a set of programs that, taken together, ought to reach everyone under that dollar-a-day threshhold, do the stuff that most needs doing, and nudge them out of extreme poverty. The price tag: about $150 billion a year.

Okay, it's a lot of money, but it's not an inconceivably large amount of money. My totally uninformed guess would have been an order of magnitude more. Granted, Sachs could be just plain wrong: his plan is predicated on the lessons of past failed aid efforts, but that doesn't mean there aren't new mistakes out there to make. Still, is there any justification for not trying?


Breakdancing goths! What is this world coming to?

27 March 2005


When I was a teenager, I went on a school trip to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. The spiffy building they have now was not yet completed, so the collection was in a big warehousish space, known as the “Temporary Contemporary.” Between the charms of the name, and it actually being a pretty good space for art, many wags in LA said they hoped they would never finish the real building.

It was my first real exposure to contemporary art, and yeah, I thought it was mostly pretty dumb. (I have a finer appreciation for contemporary art now, though I still think it's mostly pretty dumb.) Three things stand out in my memory.

One was a vivid purple plank leaning against the wall. The title was something like “Purple Plank”. I thought it was stupid. I still kind of think it was stupid. But I remember that thing, and everyone I've even spoken to who went to the museum during that era remembers it, too, so that's ... something.

One was a set of four canvasses, each painted a single colour. The first was a vivid chlorophyll green. The second was a bright yellow, tinged with a bit of green. The third was a rust color. The last was a pale grey. They weren't quite solid colors: there was some texture and fine-grained combining of colours. There was that strong wow, look what you can do with paint sense about it. So I wanted to like it, but what were they paintings of? I looked at the title card, and laughed. “Seasons”. Okay, yeah.

The last thing that stands out in my memory was a big Warhol Campbell's soup can print. At the time, it seemed dazzling in its dumbness. It's a can of soup. So what?

Three or four years later, I'm in the grocery store, and there's an aisle with a long row of Campbell's soup: little perfectly matching red and white soldiers, all in a row, one after another after another after another. I pick one up, and notice for the first time how elegantly designed the can label really is. Nice. Then I realize that there's a factory out there somewhere, making these adorable little sculptures — but that isn't even the intent. The point is the soup. The handsome package is just an afterthought.

Boom. That's what Warhol was trying to tell me. I wouldn't have noticed if I hadn't seen his print years earlier. It was just ... time-release art.

Art is supposed to change the way you see; show you something the artist noticed and add it to the way you perceive things. Warhol explained that to me.

26 March 2005

Today's quote

Word up, Professor DeLong.

Here in the United States, we are all children of Thomas Jefferson. God does not give us rulers. Instead, God gives us rights: to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We then institute governments to secure these rights, and they derive their just powers from our consent, not from God's decree. Moreover, it is not the YHWH of Revealed Religion but instead "Nature's God" and Nature itself that are the source of these rights.

He says this in the context of a long post where he observes that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has said that “government comes from God.”

25 March 2005

Shame and politics

I've been resisting the flood of commentary out here in blogistan about the Terry Schiavo story. But Timothy Burke got the better of me with a very disconcerting post that draws on his professional-grade expertise in modern Africa.
If they had shame, they’d be embarrassed, chagrined, mortified that the highest legislative body in the country and the President of the United States can find the time to have a special Sunday session and work out high-level compromises to save a single life, any single life. How about all the other people who died last week who could have been saved? What about the people who don't have quality health care who died or were hurt? Why not have a Sunday session to help them pay their bills? Why not have a Sunday session to help a man who’s losing his house, help a woman who can’t buy her medications, help a child who can't get enough food to eat? What makes Terry Schiavo Citizen Number 1, the sleeping princess whom the King has decreed shall receive every benevolence in his power to grant? It isn’t even a serendipity that the King's eyes happened to alight on her as he passed by. Serendipity I could deal with: if the President happens to read a letter from some poor schmuck and it touches his heartstrings and he wants to quietly do something, he tells an aide to look into it, he puts a twenty in a White House envelope and sends it on, ok, it happens. Serendipity wouldn’t be shameful.

This is, and it’s being done so brazenly that I think it suggests that the point of ultimate shamelessness is fast approaching.

What does shame have to do with Africa? Go see what Burke has to say, or let me spoil the key bit ...
A key consideration in fighting an oppressive system or regime is whether that system can be shamed in any way, whether there is a ghostly, residual presence of some sense of obligation or inhibition, some hidden commitment inside the regime’s architecture that makes it vulnerable. The problem I’m grappling with is, "Under which historical circumstances do the rulers of a particular system, or the elites who support the rulers, concede to the inevitability of change and reform?" Because it does happen.

Two of the examples I give in the article are late colonial British officials in Africa and white rulers and citizens in the waning years of apartheid in South Africa. In both cases, I argue, it was possible to shame them, to force them to leave an opening for reform when the gap between the conceptual underpinnings of their rule and the reality of it was overwhelmingly hammered home. I don't mean to undercut the brutality of either set of rulers, their inhumanity, but both groups had made certain kinds of rhetorical and conceptual commitments at the base of their authority that opened up a kind of hemophilia in their rule, a slow bleeding wound. Both systems left artifacts lying around within their architecture of authoirty that could be used against them. Gandhi's challenge to the British in India is another such instance, and much of the civil rights movement in the United States another. Such tactics work only against a system which is still capable of feeling shame, which can be called out in terms of the gap between what it says it is and what it actually is.

The contrast I observe in the article is with certain postcolonial regimes in Africa. There’s no reservoir of shame left in certain kinds of autocracies: Idi Amin, Sani Abacha, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, Omar Bongo: it doesn’t do any good to protest non-violently in the streets, or write polemics, or embarrass them at diplomatic functions. There is no restraint left, no sense of nagging chagrin or worry. Attempts to shame those regimes by their own citizens usually end in their gulags or in flight into exile, though sometimes the pot boils over into uprising, the kind of uprising where there are only two conclusions: the autocrat or the crowds dead, because there is no restraint in between. Attempts by outsiders to shame these rulers end in raucous laughter or in perhaps in ghastly pantomimes of official concern if sufficient pressure is brought to bear by other governments.

So where are we right now in the United States on the shame-o-meter?

Not a comforting question.

24 March 2005

Sleeper comes true

First the Orgasmatron, now these:


Dr. Melik: [puzzling over list of items sold at Miles' old health-food store] ... wheat germ, organic honey and ... tiger's milk.
Dr. Aragon: Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or ... hot fudge?
Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Those were thought to be unhealthy ... precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
Dr. Melik: Incredible!
Investigators from the University of L'Aquila in Italy found that after eating only 100 grams, or 3.5 ounces, of dark chocolate every day for 15 days, 15 healthy people had lower blood pressures and were more sensitive to insulin, an important factor in metabolizing sugar.

In contrast, eating roughly the same amount of white chocolate for the same period of time did not affect either blood pressure or insulin sensitivity.

This is not the first study to demonstrate potential health benefits of dark chocolate, which contains high levels of a kind of antioxidant called flavonoids. Research shows that flavonoids that can help maintain a healthy heart and good circulation and reduce blood clotting, which can lead to heart attacks and stroke.

Dr. Claudio Ferri and co-investigators explained that flavonoids help the body by neutralizing potentially cell-damaging substances known as oxygen-free radicals, which are a normal byproduct of metabolism.

An assassination attempt succeeded in blowing up the Leader except for his nose. A cloning plan will restore him, after which all dissident factions will be eliminated.
With the help of the Catholic Church, Australian researchers have successfully grown adult stem cells harvested from the human nose, avoiding the ethical and legal problems associated with embryonic stem cells.

Australia bans creating human embryos to harvest stem cells but scientists may use embryos left over from IVF (in-vitro fertility) treatment. Stems cells harvested through other means, such as from the nose, is legal.

Head researcher Alan Mackay-Sim of Griffith University said the adult stem cells taken from inside the nose could potentially be used to grow nerve, heart, liver, kidney and muscle cells.

What's next? A twelve-foot banana?

Watchmen in preproduction

So it turns out that this Paul Greengrass bloke who is going to direct Watchmen is a more interesting bloke than I imagined. There's a fascinating three part interview with him at Cinematic Happenings Under Development and it is quite encouraging.
A film works in a different way, I think, to the plates of a graphic novel. In its way I think you can suggest depth of a different kind. I absolutely do want, intend and believe that we will bring to screen a Watchmen world that has depth and allusiveness. That it has that kind of richness and texture of the graphic novel.
In many ways the Doctor Manhattan of the graphic novel -- when I read that story now, I find myself feeling that Alan Moore was many, many things but one of the things he was is a prophet. There’s an odd kind of a mismatch in the graphic novel between the world where there is this great power underpinning it called Doctor Manhattan and the bi-polar world. When you look today, we live in a uni-polar world. In many ways we live more in Doctor Manhattan’s era, I think, then we did then.
You can’t expect people to say, "Paul Greengrass is making a film and it’s going to be great because he did Bloody Sunday and Bourne Supremacy is quite a good film." We can fuck this thing up. Of course we could. You never know. It’s like cooking. It’s like any human endeavor. You have to set out with some vision, with passion for the material, with humility and with a listening ear. And you have to start. That’s what you have to do, start and say you believe you can do this and carry the community and reach a big new audience. If I didn’t believe that I wouldn’t start. All I ask is to be judged when the time is there. As I know I will be!
He talks like someone who knows what he's doing. So I've got my fingers crossed; it might just work, after all.

23 March 2005

Separation of Church and State

A nice reminder from Tom Toles of the problem alluded to by James Madison:

Notwithstanding the general progress made within the two last centuries in favour of this branch of liberty, and the full establishment of it in some parts of our country, there remains in others a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Government and Religion neither can be duly supported. Such, indeed, is the tendency to such a coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both the parties, that the danger cannot be too carefully guarded against.
The emphasis is mine.

22 March 2005

Via Warren Ellis

Today's quote

Jamie Donohoe at Politic Worms fantasizes about a dialogue with a student.
"What's an Anglo-Saxon?"

"A large, bearded man who used to roam the earth pillaging villages so he could leave us words!"

Better than the answer I would have given, certainly.

21 March 2005

Hunter redux

All month I've been running across little elegies for Hunter S. Thomson and adding them to my link list in my obit for him. If you're at all interested in HST, go back and walk through my index of links: his death inspired a lot of people to eloquence.

Volokh recants

A little bit ago I ranted and rant-quoted about a post by Eugene Volokh which advocated punishing particularly heinous crimes with death by torture, at the hands of victims and their families.

Volokh has changed his mind. Has he decided that a civilized people should recoil from torture, even when our anguish tempts us to reach for it? No, it's the paperwork.

attempts to impose the punishments would logjam the criminal justice system and the political system

So I suppose we should thank the merciful gods for red tape, then. Because the professor doesn't seem to find convincing the argument that torture is, y'know, evil.

Bitch, Ph.D. and Obsidian Wings have wise things to say. And Skelly at Arbitrary and Capricious illustrates the point, quotes judiciously, links profusely, and needs better web design.

State-controlled media

Cartoon from the magnificent Tom Toles

Zachary Roth further explains

Numerous local television stations across the country presented, as news items, video news releases prepared on behalf of the Bush administration touting the benefits of the new Medicare law. The pre-packaged segments included public relations agent Karen Ryan posing as a reporter.
In another missive, Roth explains
If you connect it all up, you could say that the government is paying the media outlets. But there are enough steps in the chain that HHS can appear to have clean hands. It's laundering, basically.
Oh, whoops, that wasn't even what the cartoon was about! The cartoon was referring to Jeff Gannon, a "journalist" working for Talon News, aka GOPUSA. Who are they? Kos has the scoop on Gannon and GOPUSA.

It's a good thing we don't live in one of those totalitarian states where the state runs the media. Yep.

20 March 2005


Spring is sprung,
The bird is on the wing.

But that's absurd!
The wing is on the bird!

Grant Morrison

Grant Morrison is the snarky Brit comic book writer who's into magick who isn't Alan Moore. I almost like his work. It's surreal and full of occult references and history. It's hard not to like a guy who writes a story in which the supervillains are the Brotherhood of Dada and their secret weapon is a painting of a painting of a painting ad infinitium called The Painting That Ate Paris.

And yet.

Morrison's writing always seems better in my memory than when I sit down to try to read or reread his work. Keeping surrealism aloft is hard: if you're not a genius, it devolves into a jumble. And Morrison's writing is usually a case in point.

Dedicated Miniver Cheevy reader Fionn points us to an interview with Grant Morrison on Suicide Girls in which he claims ... well, see what he claims ...

The Wachowskis are comic book creators and fans and were fans of my work, so it's hardly surprising. I was even contacted before the first Matrix movie was released and asked if I would contribute a story to the website.

It's not some baffling 'coincidence' that so much of The Matrix is plot by plot, detail by detail, image by image, lifted from Invisibles so there shouldn't be much controversy. The Wachowskis nicked The Invisibles and everyone in the know is well aware of this fact but of course they're unlikely to come out and say it.

It was just too bad they deviated so far from the Invisibles philosophical template in the second and third movies because they blundered helplessly into boring Catholic theology, proving that they hadn't HAD the 'contact' experience that drove The Invisibles, and they wrecked both Reloaded and Revolutions on the rocks of absolute incomprehension. They should have kept on stealing from me and maybe they would have wound up with something to really be proud of - a movie that could change minds and hearts and worlds.

I love the first Matrix movie which I think is a real work of cinematic genius and very timely but I've now heard from several people who worked on The Matrix and they've all confirmed that they were given Invisibles books as reference. That's how it is. I'm not angry about it anymore, although at one time I was because they made millions from what was basically a Xerox of my work and to be honest, I would be happy with just one million so I didn't have to work thirteen hours of every fucking day, including weekends.

In the end, I was glad they got the ideas out but very disappointed that they blew it so badly and distorted all the Gnostic transcendental aspects that made the first film so strong and potent. If they had any sense, they would have befriended me instead of pissing me off. They seem like nice boys.

Yeah, Grant. They certainly "stole" your narrative technique: scramble a large number of half-formed deep ideas, like a febrile kid shuffling Tarot cards, and hope that at least some of them come out to mean something.

Still, there's some fun stuff in there, especially if you're familiar with Mr. Morrison. And for those of you who are, I cannot resist sharing this quote.

It's best to know the truth because people have a lot of weird ideas about what I do with my time.
I bet.
The Invisibles was mostly stuff that was actually happening to me. I was up on a sacred mesa in New Mexico doing acid with a medicine man and all that. The dialogue for that whole sequence, in fact, was based on tape recordings I made of conversations I had with my friends on the mesa. A lot of stuff went straight into the book, such as going to Ladakh or Ulruru or San Francisco sex clubs.

Oh, that sure clears things up. What were the weird ideas about what you do with your time, Grant?

19 March 2005

Bananas and barometers

I have two long quotations for you, on the nature of organized learning.

Come see ...

Jamie Donohoe, reflecting on American education, transcribes J.M. Coetzee's novel Elizabeth Costello, telling the tale of some very real science.
Let me recount to you some what the apes on Tenerife learned from their master Wolfgang Kohler, in particular Sultan, the best of his pupils ....

The man who used to feed him and has now stopped feeding him stretches a wire over the pen three metres above ground level, and hangs a bunch of bananas from it. Into the pen he drags three wooden crates. Then he disappears, closing the gate behind him, though he is still somewhere in the vicinity, since one can smell him.

Sutlan knows: Now one is supposed to think. That is what the bananas up there are about. The bananas are there to make one think, to spur one to the limits of one’s thinking. But what must one think? One thinks: Why is he starving me? One thinks: What have I done? Why has he stopped liking me? One thinks: Why does he not want these crates any more? But none of these is the right thought. Even a more complicated thought—for instance: What is wrong with him, what misconception does he have of me, that leads him to believe it is easier for me to reach a banana hanging from a wire than to pick up a banana from the floor?—is wrong. The right thought to think is: How does one use the crates to reach the bananas?

Sultan drags the crates under the bananas, piles them one on top of the other, climbs the tower he has built, and pulls down the bananas. He thinks: Now will he stop punishing me?

I recommend going to see what Jamie has to say, including more of that story.

Now compare and contrast, class, with this story, which I first heard as a high school student. I thought it was only a legend, but then in the hallway of my college's physics department, I saw the original article taped to a professor's door.

Angels on a Pin
A Modern Parable
by Alexander Calandra
Saturday Review
21 Dec 1968.

Some time ago I received a call from a colleague who asked if I would be the referee on the grading of an examination question. He was about to give a student a zero for his answer to a physics question, while the student claimed he should receive a perfect score and would if the system were not set up against the student: The instructor and the student agreed to submit this to an impartial arbiter, and I was selected.

I went to my colleague's office and read the examination question: “Show how it is possible to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer.”

The student had answered: “Take a barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower the barometer to the street and then bring it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building.”

I pointed out that the student really had a strong case for full credit since he had answered the question completely and correctly. On the other hand, if full credit was given, it could well contribute to a high grade for the student in his physics course. A high grade is supposed to certify competence in physics, but the answer did not confirm this. I suggested that the student have another try at answering the question. I was not surprised that my colleague agreed, but I was surprised that the student did.

I gave the student six minutes to answer the question with the warning that the answer should show some knowledge of physics. At the end of five minutes, he had not written anything. I asked if he wished to give up, but he said no. He had many answers to this problem; he was just thinking of the best one. I excused myself for interrupting him and asked him to please go on. In the next minute he dashed off his answer which read:

Take the barometer to the top of the building and lean over the edge of the roof. Drop that barometer, timing its fall with a stopwatch. Then using the formula S =½at², calculate the height of the building.
At this point I asked my colleague if he would give up. He conceded, and I gave the student almost full credit.

In leaving my colleague's office, I recalled that the student had said he had many other answers to the problem, so I asked him what they were. “Oh yes,” said the student. “There are a great many ways of getting the height of a tall building with a barometer. For example, you could take the barometer out on a sunny day and measure the height of the barometer and the length of its shadow, and the length of the shadow of the building and by the use of a simple proportion, determine the height of the building.”

“Fine,” I asked. “And the others?”

“Yes," said the student. “There is a very basic measurement method that you will like. In this method you take the barometer and begin to walk up the stairs. As you climb the stairs, you mark off the length of the barometer along the wall. You then count the number of marks, and this will give you the height of the building in barometer units. A very direct method.”

“Of course, if you want a more sophisticated method, you can tie the barometer to the end of a string, swing it as a pendulum, and determine the value of g at the street level and at the top of the building. From the difference of the two values of g the height of the building can be calculated.”

Finally, he concluded, there are many other ways of solving the problem. “Probably the best,” he said, “is to take the barometer to the basement and knock on the superintendent's door. When the superintendent answers, you speak to him as follows: ‘Mr. Superintendent, here I have a fine barometer. If you tell me the height of this building, I will give you this barometer.’ ”

At this point I asked the student if he really did know the conventional answer to this question. He admitted that he did, said that he was fed up with high school and college instructors trying to teach him how to think, using the “scientific method,” and to explore the deep inner logic of the subject in a pedantic way, as is often done in the new mathematics, rather than teaching him the structure of the subject. With this in mind, he decided to revive scholasticism as an academic lark to challenge the Sputnik-panicked classrooms of America.

This article reprinted in full without permission for the purposes of discussion and review, as permitted by Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976

Something to think about.

18 March 2005

Cold warrior

George F. Kennan
Winner of the Cold War

I learn from Ezra Klein that we just lost Kennan. I hadn't realized that he was still alive.

I'd been thinking about finding something good about him and linking it here --- I was kvetching earlier today about Republicans repeatedly claiming that Reagan won the Cold War. It wasn't Reagan. It was Kennan. Ezra Klien summed it up nicely.

Historically astute readers will know his as the author of the "containment" doctrine, which essentially guided our foreign policy through the Cold War.
But wait: there's more.
What most won't know, what I didn't know, is that Kennan felt his strategy significantly overapplied. As he conceived of it, containment was meant to protect a few spots of great national interest, not become a global policy to plug socialism wherever it uncorked. If we'd followed him, then, there would have been no Vietnam, no Bay of Pigs, fewer national embarrassments.
I didn't know that either. An even bigger hero than I thought. Though I'm sorry that this should be the occasion that they should publish the "something good about him," the Los Angeles Times have an obit for him. And Daniel Drezner has some interesting observations as well.

More of my obits

Yet more torture

Nicked directly from Busy, Busy, Busy

Shorter Professor Eugene Volokh:
Something the Iranian Government and I Agree on
Killing I like, but public torture followed by slow, agonizing death really gets me off.
Shorter Professor Glenn Reynolds:
Eugene Volokh
Shorter Max Boot:
When Tenure Jumps the Track
The tenured professoriate ranges from socialist to communist, and, Ward Churchill.
See Also: via Clayton Cramer's BLOG and Crooked Timber.

See Also II:

Bloody hell. I've linked approvingly to Volokh. He showed no signs of being a madman. Now he's turned into a rhinoceros?

Update: Yglasias makes some interesting comments about Mark A. R. Kleiman's interesting comments, notably centering around Kleiman's observation

It's a deeply sick fact about American politics that opposing the cruelty of our prisons and favoring measures to identify the innocent imprisoned are regarded as fringe-liberal positions. And it is noticeable how few advocates of capital punishment are also advocates of aggressive measures to free the innocent.


Update: Volokh recants but I'm not reassured.

Was W right all along?

So there have been all of these encouraging little steps toward democracy in the Middle East, and pundits are claiming victory for the Bush Doctrine. It's all sounded to me very much like the "Reagan won the Cold War" claim that conservatives love, because he was there when it ended. (Credit where credit is due: as I have conceded before, though Reagan didn't win the Cold War, he did fail to screw up its conclusion, which is a significant acheivement but not the same thing.)

Middle East expert Juan Cole, who maintains the terrific blog Informed Comment, has an article on Salon explaining why W doesn't get the credit. Since I know that some of my readers want this information but hate clicking over to Salon and suffering through their ads, here on my blog I have reprinted the article in full without permission for the purposes of discussion and review, as permitted by Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976.

(BTW, I can't resist plugging that another place to get ongoing discussion of the current situation in the Middle East from an informed Western observer is Abu Aardvark.)

Democracy -- by George?
President Bush and his supporters are taking credit for spreading freedom across the Middle East. Here's why they're wrong.
By Juan Cole

March 16, 2005  |  Is George W. Bush right to argue that his war to overthrow Saddam Hussein is democratizing the Middle East? In the wake of the Iraq vote, anti-Syrian demonstrations in Lebanon, the Egyptian president's gestures toward open elections, and other recent developments, a chorus of conservative pundits has declared that Bush's policy has been vindicated. Max Boot wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "Well, who's the simpleton now? Those who dreamed of spreading democracy to the Arabs or those who denied that it could ever happen?" In a column subtitled "One Man, One Gloat," Mark Steyn wrote, "I got a lot of things wrong these last three years, but looking at events in the Middle East this last week ... I got the big stuff right." Even some of the president's detractors and those opposed to the war have issued mea culpas. Richard Gwyn of the Toronto Star, a Bush critic, wrote, "It is time to set down in type the most difficult sentence in the English language. That sentence is short and simple. It is this: Bush was right."

Before examining whether there is any value to these claims, it must be pointed out that the Bush administration did not invade Iraq to spread democracy. The justification for the war was that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and links to al-Qaida -- both of which claims have proved to be false. And even if one accepts the argument that the war resulted, intentionally or not, in the spread of democracy, serious ethical questions would remain about whether it was justified. For the purposes of this argument, however, let's leave that issue aside. It's true that neoconservative strategists in the Bush administration argued after Sept. 11 that authoritarian governments in the region were producing terrorism and that only democratization could hope to reduce it. Although they didn't justify invading Iraq on those grounds, they held that removing Saddam and holding elections would make Iraq a shining beacon that would provoke a transformation of the region as other countries emulated it.

Practically speaking, there are only two plausible explanations for Bush's alleged influence: direct intervention or pressure, and the supposed inspiration flowing from the Iraq demonstration project. Has either actually been effective?

First, it must be said that Washington's Iraq policy, contrary to its defenders' arguments, is not innovative. In fact, regime change in the Middle East has often come about through foreign invasion. Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser intervened militarily to help revolutionaries overthrow the Shiite imam of Yemen in the 1960s. The Israelis expelled the PLO from Lebanon and tried to establish a pro-Israeli government in Beirut in 1982. Saddam Hussein briefly ejected the Kuwaiti monarchy in 1990. The U.S. military's invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam Hussein were therefore nothing new in Middle Eastern history. A peaceful evolution toward democracy would have been an innovation.

Has Bush's direct pressure produced results, outside Iraq -- where it has produced something close to a failed state? His partisans point to the Libyan renunciation of its nuclear weapons program and of terrorism. Yet Libya, hurt by economic sanctions, had been pursuing a rapprochement for years. Nor has Gadhafi moved Libya toward democracy.

Washington has put enormous pressure on Iran and Syria since the fall of Saddam, with little obvious effect. Since the United States invaded Iraq, the Iranian regime has actually become less open, clamping down on a dispirited reform movement and excluding thousands of candidates from running in parliamentary elections. The Baath in Syria shows no sign of ceasing to operate as a one-party regime. When pressured, it has offered up slightly more cooperation in capturing Iraqi Baathists. Its partial withdrawal from Lebanon came about because of local and international pressures, including that of France and the Arab League, and is hardly a unilateral Bush administration triumph.

What of the argument of inspiration? The modern history of the Middle East does not suggest that politics travels very much from one country to another. The region is a hodgepodge of absolute monarchies, constitutional monarchies and republics, characterized by varying degrees of authoritarianism. Few regimes have had an effect on neighbors by setting an example. Ataturk's adoption of a militant secularism in Turkey from the 1920s had no resonance in the Arab world. The Lebanese confessional political system, which attempted to balance the country's many religious communities after independence in 1943, remains unique. Khomeini's 1979 Islamic Revolution did not inspire a string of clerically ruled regimes.

Is Iraq even really much of a model? The Bush administration strove to avoid having one-person, one-vote elections in Iraq, which were finally forced on Washington by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Despite the U.S. backing for secularists, the winners of the election were the fundamentalist Shiite Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Nor were the elections themselves all that exemplary. The country is in flames, racked by a guerrilla war, a continual crime wave and a foreign military occupation. The security situation was so bad that the candidates running for office could not reveal their identities until the day before the election, and the entire country was put under a sort of curfew for three days, with all vehicular traffic forbidden.

The argument for change through inspiration has little evidence to underpin it. The changes in the region cited as dividends of the Bush Iraq policy are either chimeras or unconnected to Iraq. And the Bush administration has shown no signs that it will push for democracy in countries where freedom of choice would lead to outcomes unfavorable to U.S. interests.

Saudi Arabia held municipal elections in February. Voters were permitted to choose only half the members of the city councils, however, and the fundamentalists did well. The other half are appointed by the monarchy, as are the mayors. The Gulf absolute monarchies remain absolute monarchies. Authoritarian states such as that in Ben Ali's Tunisia show no evidence of changing, and a Bush administration worried about al-Qaida has authorized further crackdowns on radical Muslim groups.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak recently announced that he would allow other candidates to run against him in the next presidential election. Yet only candidates from officially recognized parties will be allowed. Parties are recognized by Parliament, which is dominated by Mubarak's National Democratic Party. This change moves Egypt closer to the system of presidential elections used in Iran, where only candidates vetted by the government can run. The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and most important opposition party, is excluded from fielding candidates under its own name. Egypt is less open today than it was in the 1980s, with far more political offices appointed by the president, and with far fewer opposition members in Parliament, than was the case two decades ago. As with the so-called municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, the change in presidential elections is little more than window-dressing. It was provoked not by developments in Iraq but rather by protests by Egyptian oppositionists who resented Mubarak's jailing of a political rival in January.

The dramatic developments in Lebanon since mid-February were set off by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The Lebanese political opposition blamed Syria for the bombing, though all the evidence is not in. Protests by Maronite Christians, Druze and a section of Sunni Muslims (Hariri was a Sunni) briefly brought down the government of the pro-Syrian premier, Omar Karami. The protesters demanded a withdrawal from the country of Syrian troops, which had been there since 1976 in an attempt to calm the country's civil war. Bush also wants Syria out of Lebanon, in part because such a move would strengthen the hand of his ally, Israel. Pro-Bush commentators dubbed the Beirut movement the "Cedar Revolution," but Lebanon remains a far more divided society and its politics far more ambiguous than was the case in the post-Soviet Czech Republic and Ukraine.

On March 9 the Shiite Hezbollah Party held massive pro-Syrian demonstrations in Beirut that dwarfed the earlier opposition rallies. A majority of Parliament members wanted to bring back Karami. Both the Hezbollah street demonstrations and the elected Parliament's internal consensus produced a pro-Syrian outcome obnoxious to the Bush administration. Since then the opposition has staged its own massive demonstrations, rivaling Hezbollah's.

So far, these demonstrations and counterdemonstrations have been remarkable in their peacefulness and in the frankness of their political aims. But rather than reference Washington, they point to the weakness and ineptness of the young Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who made the error of tinkering with the Lebanese constitution to extend the term of the pro-Syrian president, Gen. Emile Lahoud. Although some manipulative (and traditionally anti-American) opposition figures attempted to invoke Iraq to justify their movement, in hopes of attracting U.S. support, it is hard to see what these events in Lebanon could possibly have to do with Baghdad. Lebanese have been holding lively parliamentary campaigns for decades, and the flawed, anonymous Jan. 30 elections in Iraq would have provoked more pity than admiration in urbane, sophisticated Beirutis.

Ironically, most democratization in the region has been pursued without reference to the United States. Some Middle Eastern regimes began experimenting with parliamentary elections years ago. For example, Jordan began holding elections in 1989, and Yemen held its third round of such elections in 2003. Morocco and Bahrain had elections in 2002. All of those elections were more transparent than, and superior as democratic processes to, the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq. They all had flaws, of course. The monarch or ruler typically places restraints on popular sovereignty. The prime minister is not elected by Parliament, but rather appointed by the ruler. Some of these parliaments may evolve in a more democratic direction over time, but if they do it will be for local reasons, not because of anything that has happened in Baghdad.

The Bush administration could genuinely push for the peaceful democratization of the region by simply showing some gumption and stepping in to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. There are, undeniably, large numbers of middle- and working-class people in the Middle East who seek more popular participation in government. Arab intellectuals are, however, often coded as mere American and Israeli puppets when they dare speak against authoritarian practices.

As it is, the Bush administration is widely seen in the region as hypocritical, backing Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and of the Golan Heights (the latter belonging to Syria) while pressuring Syria about its troops in Lebanon, into which Kissinger had invited Damascus years ago. Bush would be on stronger ground as a champion of liberty if he helped liberate the Palestinians from military occupation and creeping Israeli colonization, and if he brokered the return of the Golan Heights and Shebaa Farms to Damascus in return for peace between Syria and Israel. The end of Israeli occupation of the territory of neighbors would deprive the radical Shiite party in Lebanon, Hezbollah, of its ability to mobilize Lebanese youth against this injustice. Without decisive action on the Arab-Israeli front, Bush risks having his democratization rhetoric viewed as a mere stalking horse for neo-imperial domination.

Bush's invasion of Iraq has left the center and north of the country in a state of long-term guerrilla war. It has also opened Iraq to a form of parliamentary politics dominated by Muslim fundamentalists. This combination has little appeal elsewhere in the region. The Middle East may open up politically, and no doubt Bush will try to claim credit for any steps in that direction. But in Jordan, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere, such steps much predated Bush, and these publics will be struggling for their rights long after he is out of office. They may well see his major legacy not as democratization but as studied inattention to military occupation in Palestine and the Golan, and the retrenchment in civil liberties authorized to the Yemeni, Tunisian and other governments in the name of fighting terrorism.

17 March 2005

Okay, I can't resist

This news item is the confluence of so many wonderful things.

Victorian hysteria treatments


Science fiction wireheads


Woody Allen



Condi's boots redux

You may recall me quoting some folks about Condoleeza Rice's notorious black outfit with the high boots. It seemed like a bit of fun, teasing the Washington Post for reporting on the Secretary of State's lively fashion choices so breathlessly. It seems I wasn't the only person struck by the story; it spread all over the blogosphere. A lot of folks are using this other photo, which puts a bit of a different spin on it.

The soldiers, the flag, Condi in black striding toward us, her arm extended. Am I the only one thinking, "show us what you're really saying, and raise that arm a bit higher"?

So I'm just a bit squicked that the right side of the blogosphere has, in writing about this little story, favored this second photo and with it taken to Ann Althouse's comment

These boots are made for running for President
Mind you, I'm speaking as a bloke who habitually wears a black suit and boots. I like the idea that it makes me look "presidential." But quoting Billmon's snarky comments about the use of soldiers in campaign appearances, this imagery should give us pause.
Why not do something fun to entertain the crowd -- like having the troops parade in formation past the leader on his podium. What would be the harm in that?

And if the troops are going to parade, why not have them salute? Of course, using the standard military salute might be a little obvious. So why not create a new party salute --- like, say, banging a clenched fist on the heart, or, better yet, extending a stiffened right arm, fingers pointed towards the leader in a gesture of obedience and respect.

Imagine the effect it would have on the crowd --- all those handsome young heros, marching in perfect lockstep, showing their loyalty to their commander in chief. And if the leader were to give the party salute back, expressing his dedication to the sacred cause of defending the homeland ...

Hah! Let's see the Democrats try to compete with that!

It looks more and more like the Democrats may have to, doesn't it?

16 March 2005


Jeanne at Body and Soul gives us a rundown of the latest US torture news --- and some chilling reflections on what it means to have "latest US torture news" to run down.

Lots more good stuff in other posts, too; I'm adding Body and Soul to my blogroll.

Once kool, ever kool?

My colleague Scout has a story to tell about Kool-Aid.
Purplesaurus Rex is the shit. Completely created out of chemicals that are all startlingly nothing like anything a right thinking person would put in their body voluntarily. Hence the marketing to children. The thing is, Purplesaurus Rex ceased to be a product of the Kool-Aid empire over 7 years ago. When I discovered that it was soon to be extinct, along with all the other mutant animal named flavors, I made a mad grab for the entire stock of my beloved beverage ...
The question emerges, though: how long is the shelf life of Kool-Aid? Long enough, it seems.

15 March 2005


Perhaps you know about LostFrog.org, the site for the quest for Hopkin green frog. Of all the photoshop mod jokes, for some reason Hopkin charms the most. Perhaps it's the plaintiveness of the central plea, no less mysterious than "all your base are belong to us" but with meloncholy, rather than arrogance.

Thanks to the delightful Dangerine, I now know the Secret Origin of Hopkin green frog.

It’s a different ending to the story than I expected or had hoped for, certainly; but on another level, it means that Hopkin will remain forever lost, justifying and extending the mounting need for Hopkin-related photoshop tomfoolery.

But is this really the truth? I prefer to believe.

And I'm sure there's a joke about Samuel Beckett in there somewhere.

14 March 2005

Rock 'n' roll lifestyle

Indri at Waterbones offers a poignant memoir of loving Adam Ant back in her innocent youth.
By the time he came on stage I was completely hyperventilating. I couldn't look at him at first. I had to look at the shadow he was casting against the back wall. That's Adam's shadow, I told myself. In a moment, I will be able to follow it up to him.

And when I did ...

I have several little observations in the wake of the story.
  1. It's an old story.
    People say some stranger has arrived, some wizard, a conjurer from the land of Lydia --- with sweet-smelling hair in golden ringlets and Aphrodite's charms in wine-dark eyes. He hangs around the young girls day and night, dangling in front of them his joyful mysteries.
  2. A few years ago, I was caught in a minivan traffic jam. Many of the minivans were decorated, so I knew they were on their way to the 'NSync concert. Inside, I could see 'tween-aged girls festooned in fan t-shirts, warming up with songs on the CD player. Girls already a-glow with anticipation, moms gamely singing along, wishing their daughters' crushes would remain so safely distant forever.
  3. There's another bit where Indri says that when her love for Adam faded, she ...
    ... started fixating on Peter Gabriel, who sang about things that meant something, even if I didn't know what that something was ...
    ... which reminded me of Neil Gaiman's wonderful observation about listening to Lou Reed and David Bowie as a teenager: he couldn't figure out quite what the lyrics meant, but he was sure they were about sex somehow.
  4. In the story, I show up in a small rôle as part of the bookend narrative device, under the name "AX." I must correct the story in one small way: I never actually heard the Cake song --- I made a comment about "affording my rock 'n' roll lifestyle" and one thing led to another. So the Cake song is an homage, and I'm obviously an old, old man for never having heard it.

Roads and resentment

Shortly after the election, I wrote this.
We dug deep into our pockets and gave money to the Democratic party. We gave our time to organizations. We went out to the swing states and worked door-to-door. The progressive wing didn't grumble and try to pressure the party; we pandered to swing voters every way we knew how. The Republicans ran a buffoonish candidate who didn't even win the election last time; we ran an articulate, politically moderate war hero candidate.

And still we lost. What more does it take?

Around the same time, Timothy Burke wrote an an answer, The Road to Victory Goes Through the End of the Democratic Coalition. It's a long PDF, but worth your time.

I've been thinking about what he says ...

Burke agrees with my fundamental frustration.

We really lost: it's got nothing to do with rain or electronic voting machines or Ralph Nader or Fox News. John Kerry ran the best campaign he could, and he was a reasonable enough standard-bearer for the Democratic Party as it stood before November 2, 2004. It's a matter of cold, hard numbers. The old Democratic coalition got all of its people to the polls, it got all of its people mobilized, it got angry and motivated and had a razor-sharp focus on a single goal, and it lost.
I could quibble. The story of electronic voting machines, and other chicanery in Ohio, remains spooky. Fox News is the most dramatic manifestation of a huge breakdown in the functioning of our media. I think Kerry made some bad mistakes, in not mobilizing to respond to negative campaigning fast enough.

But the point remains correct: the Democrats cannot win simply by trying harder. A more fundamental shift will be necessary. Looking over what some smart lefties have said, he sees a tough decision to make.

There are two roads.
One ... amounts to choosing the traditions of communitarianism and "moral values" within the history of the American left and making them the glue that cements together an opposition to Bush.
The glue that could hold this alliance together, and bring back some red-state expressions of communalism and values from the brink of the politics of resentment, would effectively be the declaration of a permanent truce in the long culture war, a truce guaranteed by the near-total devolution of authority over values, culture, morality, and rights to localities.

I lightly proposed the bifurcation of the United States into Bicoastia and Heartlandia in an earlier essay. Here I am dead serious: such a devolution is a necessary precondition of a successful alliance against the politics of resentment, against the slide towards a proto-fascist mobilization. Those on the left joining such an alliance would have to know that its price is conceding to all localities profound powers of self-governance. The old Democratic coalition in this configuration must surrender gun control. It must surrender abortion rights. It must surrender affirmative action. It must surrender rigid enforcement of church-state separation. Not surrender those things in its own communities: that would be the terms of the bargain. To each his own, to every state and town, its own values. This is not so strange as it might sound: we have dry towns and wet towns, towns with strong anti-pornography zoning and towns with strongly permissive zoning. It would extend those covenants as a matter of principle across the spectrum, to virtually everything but the most pasic of rights enforcement.

Who loses in this alliance? Basically, anyone who does not share the majoritarian values of their own community. In blue-state communities, the red-staters would lose, and vice-versa. Who lose of the old Democratic coalition? Basically, the cosmpolitan educated elite gets thrown overboard. Who else loses? I think the business classes, white-collar elites, and suburbanites. Because most of them want access to multiple value systems.

Okay, that's bad. Dark lefty humor to the contrary, I hesitate to see the country split like that. As it happens, I'm ready to give up on gun control, and even some boneheaded manifestations of affirmative action. But Burke is calling for a lot of letting go. Philosophically, it means standing by while Jim Crow laws are reinstituted, if it comes to that, and I don't think I can swallow it.

Plus, reading Digby a lot lately, he's convinced me that this option isn't really available. The resentment of red America is so deep that "live and let live" isn't enough. Consider this post of his about resentment, where he quotes an American president talking about red America, saying

The question recurs, what will satisfy them? Simply this: We must not only let them alone, but we must somehow, convince them that we do let them alone. This, we know by experience, is no easy task. We have been so trying to convince them from the very beginning of our organization, but with no success. In all our platforms and speeches we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone; but this has had no tendency to convince them. Alike unavailing to convince them, is the fact that they have never detected a man of us in any attempt to disturb them.
Who is this talking? Why, it's Abraham Lincoln in 1860, on the campaign trail before being elected for the first time. Yet it sounds like he's talking about the culture wars today. Lincoln goes on:
These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly --- done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated --- we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas' new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.
That's right. Here in San Francisco, we can only hold wedding ceremonies for the people they approve of. Across the Bay in Berkeley, we can only teach classes with subjects they approve of. If blue America makes movies they don't like, we're shoving vulgarity down their throats. If blue America asks why we have have gone to war, we have dishonored our troops. And on and on and on.

I'll grant that it was blue America that changed American culture in our communities, but it was red America that declared it a culture war. Why would they call it off if we haven't surrendered?

Burke does offer a second path.

It is a soft libertarian road, characterized by an intense commitment to the universal enforcement of constitutional rights, by an uncompromising protection of free speech, free assembly, to the restraint of the power and capacity fo the federal government, any government, to intrude on the rights of its citizens. But this road also has to abandon the strong version of the welfare state, to throw overboard strong regimes of governmental regulation of business, to subject governement intervention in economic and social issues to very strong needs-tests and very intensive assessment of effectiveness. The rhetoric of this road would have to strong favor meritocratic visions and conceptions of social mobility and economic policy.
Tempting: my civil libertarian impulse is fierce, and I'm willing to make common cause for it with folks whose libertarian streak runs wider still, to economic libertarianism that I think is silly at best. And the left does need to run a tighter ship about asking whether proposed interventions in society actually work.

But this is still a tough pill to swallow. It means not policing the ways in which capitalism fails. It means surrendering on health care. It means surrendering on poverty. I could accept those surrenders, given that I'm financially successful enough that this stuff isn't a big problem for me. But the stakes are huge for a lot of Americans; I see this road as abandoning my responsibilities as a citizen for my fellow citizens. And the consequences for the environment are really scary. We're already eating the seed grain with our shared resources --- this route would make things even worse.

I wIsh there were a better option on the table. But there isn't one impressing me right now.

13 March 2005

Storm trooper Elvis

In the spirit of the stormtrooperette from an earlier post of mine, I offer you Storm Trooper Elvis at Kitten With A Whip via her site. (Warning: Kitten's photostream is not only unsafe for work, it may be disconcerting to my more delicate readers.)

He reminds me of my short tenure at Rennaisance Faire. There was a bloke there who would come as Rennaisance Elvis: very well made period-ish Elvis garb plus the sideburns and sunglasses. When I passed him, I would exclaim “God save the King!” He never failed to say, “Thangyou ... thangyou verra mudge ...”

Buffy resource

If you need the kind of website that says things like this
Buffy and Faith dance subtextily together
or this
Once More, With Feeling
In which dark secrets are revealed in retro-pastiche and breakaway pop tunes.
or this
In which Angel, suffering from the Flashbacks of Doom, decides that the examined life is not worth living.
then you need Buffyology, which offers brief episode synopses, complete transcripts of dialogue, and indices of things like the longest monologues, every character ever to appear on the show, and episodes featuring dairy products.

I should say, though, that it's no substitute for the recaps at Television Without Pity, which defy description. So I'll give you a typical sample.

Giles proudly reads Buffy's SAT scores. They exposit that Giles is going on a retreat in the woods for a few days. Buffy teases him about how much stuff he's bringing: "Giles, you pack like me." I hope that doesn't mean he's packed a little purse in every hideous color of the spectrum. He hands back the scores, and says he expects Joyce is pleased. Buffy: "She saw these scores and her head spun around and exploded." Giles looks perturbed. "I've been on the Hellmouth too long. That was metaphorical, yes?" Hee. Buffy says yes, and that her mother "started all this crazy talk about [Buffy] going to college ... maybe someplace else." Giles shocks Buffy by saying that he agrees. He explains that she needs to think of her future, and that with Faith on hand she might be able to "move on, for a time at least." Buffy processes that, and Giles suggests they discuss it further when he returns. Which, unfortunately, will not be in this episode. He asks her not to do anything rash. She senses there's a hidden meaning, and asks for clarification. He asks if she's planning to see Angel, and she says yes. He looks warily at her, but she assures him, "Nothing's gonna happen."

The Ironic Segue Fairy makes a quick appearance as we cut to Willow telling Xander, "Something's gonna happen."

Bloody hell. Now I want to go out and get myself a copy of Season Five. But every time I buy a new season, I get closer to There's No More ...

12 March 2005

Life on Mars

Holy Copernican revolution, Batman! Another little bit of evidence!
A pair of NASA scientists told a group of space officials at a private meeting here Sunday that they have found strong evidence that life may exist today on Mars, hidden away in caves and sustained by pockets of water.

The scientists, Carol Stoker and Larry Lemke of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, told the group that they have submitted their findings to the journal Nature for publication in May, and their paper currently is being peer reviewed.

What Stoker and Lemke have found, according to several attendees of the private meeting, is not direct proof of life on Mars, but methane signatures and other signs of possible biological activity remarkably similar to those recently discovered in caves here on Earth.

I know, I know. It's easy to get too worked up about this stuff. But still: Cool.

If there's life on Mars, then it's not a weird fluke only found here --- it's everywhere.

11 March 2005

Dick 'n' Butch

I don't know why I'm passing this on.

Take jokes that aren't funny. Add photographs that aren't funny. You get Dick 'n' Butch, web photo comics that aren't funny.

Yet it is somehow fascinating that someone has made the effort.

Expensive lies

So once again, DeLong wrestles with bullshit and comes up victorious. But at what price?
I had to spend my time bringing the reporter's knowledge of the debate back up to the level it was at before Mankiw's misinformation had dragged it down. And I like my time. I have things to do with it.
It's a troubling comment. It makes me think back to Teresa Nielsen Hayden's magnificent "Common fraud" essay, in which she concludes
Deceiving us has become an industrial process
If you didn't read it before, check it out now. When I plugged that essay last time, I said
It's scary because it reminds me that the level of critical reading that TNH demonstrates here, the critical reading that I like to think that I do, the critical reading that is necessary to use the 'net and be a good citizen in a democracy and so forth, is really really hard.
The other aspect of this, that I think I didn't emphasize enough at the time, is the problem that DeLong points to. With truth, as with material things, it is easier to destroy than to create. Clever lies are tricky to defeat, demanding hard, time-consuming work by smart people. And even then, people often only remember the lie. The enemies of truth can win a lot through attrition and exhaustion.

But truth does have the advantage that it is truth.

10 March 2005

Poor planning

From World Tribune.com, via DeLong.
U.S. war planners, practitioners and the civilian leadership conceived of the war far too narrowly. This overly simplistic conception of the war led to a cascading undercutting of the war effort: too few troops, too little coordination with civilian and governmental/non-governmental agencies and too little allotted time to achieve success.
What liberal wimp is undercutting our war efforts by saying such things? Major Isaiah Wilson, the official historian of the U.S. Army for the Iraq war and war planner for the Army's 101st Airborne Division until March 2004.

09 March 2005

Today's quote

Roger Ebert says some interesting things in his negative review of Be Cool.
The Rock could have played another character at right angles to himself --- for example, the character played here by Harvey Keitel as your basic Harvey Keitel character. Think what The Rock could do with a Harvey Keitel character.
Maybe it's just me, but that made me laugh out loud imagining it.

There's also a very good comment about why the dance scene with Uma Thurman and John Travolta works in Pulp Fiction and doesn't work in this picture.


Alan Greenspan has been confusing the heck out of me by publicly endorsing Bush administration madness. Brad DeLong explains what's going on.
I am not terribly surprised that Greenspan has not been helpful ---- according to my lights of helpful --- on fiscal policy. For Alan Greenspan is three-faced. He is:
  1. The superb monetary policy technocrat
  2. The Randite --- the long-time disciple of Ayn Rand --- who believes that in a good society government spending would be less than 5% of GDP.
  3. The Republican team player.
The Greenspan we saw for the most part in the 1990s was the superb monetary technocrat ...
A child of the '90s, I thought that #1 was really #1, and forgot that the other two were at least as important to him, if not more. I'll not make that mistake again.

08 March 2005


The new trailer for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is mostly reassuring. It looks like the picture might display an actual sense of whimsy. And more significantly, you get a taste of Alan Rickman performing the voice of Marvin the Paranoid Android. So that's good. And casting Sam Rockwell as Zaphod Beeblebrox makes up for giving him only one head.

Also, the trailer is kind of a meta-trailer, which makes me happy. It's not quite as cleverly meta as the classic Comedian trailer, but it's close.

Update: Erikred observes that Zaphod does have a second head, and points to a better copy of the trailer as well.

Gulags in England, too

Brian Sedgemore speaking to the House of Commons tells us that things are looking scary over where they speak English properly, too.
How on earth did a Labour Government get to the point of creating what was described in the House of Lords hearing as a "gulag" at Belmarsh? I remind my hon. Friends that a gulag is a black hole into which people are forcibly directed without hope of ever getting out. Despite savage criticisms by nine Law Lords in 250 paragraphs, all of which I have read and understood, about the creation of the gulag, I have heard not one word of apology from the Prime Minister or the Home Secretary. Worse, I have heard no word of apology from those Back Benchers who voted to establish the gulag.

Have we all, individually and collectively, no shame?

Apparently not.

07 March 2005


Thanks to Clive Thomson at Collision Detection, my blog life is now complete: there is a Saville Row bespoke tailor's blog. And check out what Clive has to say about why suits oughta be geek chic.
After all, suits have many of the things that geeks particularly appreciate: Intense levels of engineering, an obsession with structural elegance, physics, totally wicked gear that's used to create them, topographic geometry, and materials science that burrows right down to chemistry and --- these days --- nanotechnology. And when it comes to ties, my god, you've got the most awesomely realized application of knot theory on the planet.
The only thing is, did I really need something new to make me lust even more for a bespoke suit? I think not.

06 March 2005


So Yezida reports that she has seen this email making the rounds.
The Americans who support our troops, are the silent majority. We are not "organized" to reflect who we are, or to reflect what our opinions are.

We would like to start a grassroots movement using the membership of the Special Operations Association, and Special Forces Associations, and all their friends, simply, to recognize that Americans support our troops. We need to inform the local VFW's and American Legion, our local press, local TV, and continue carrying the message to the national levels as we start to get this going. Our idea of showing our solidarity and support for our troops is --- starting Friday, and continuing on each and every Friday, until this is over, that every red-blooded American who supports our young men and women, WEAR SOMETHING RED.

Word of mouth, press, TV --- let's see if we can make the United States, on any given Friday, a sea of red much like a home football game at a University.

What's astonishing about this is that it's a mutation of a antiwar meme that didn't quite catch on last year --- I plugged it here on my blog --- saying to do the exact same thing. Interestingly, the oppositionalist history of the symbol has been lost in the translation. The antiwar version of the email, which ran last year, opened with this:
When Norway was occupied by Germany in 1940, Norwegian women began to knit red caps for children as a way of letting everyone know that they did not like what was happening in their country. The result was that whenever Norwegians left their homes: to go to the store, to work, etc, they could see that the majority opposed what was going on in their country.
Perhaps this reflects a recognition on the part of the authors of the later email that supporting our troops and opposing the war are compatible ideas. That must be what they had in mind.

British super heroes and stuff

Warren Ellis is my third most favorite snarky British comic book writer. Which may sound like faint praise, but I like comic books a lot, almost all of the ones I like are written by snarky Brits, and my first and second most favorite snarky British comic book writers are Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, so the competition is fierce.

I should warn you that you may not want to click that link to his web site. Ellis has a very sick mind.

He also has a complicated love-hate relationship with superheroes, the elephant in comics' living room. F'rinstance, his book Planetary is based on the premise what if the genre kitch of the 20th Century all really happened? --- Godzilla and James Bond and Hong Kong ghost cops with a gun in each hand and the 50 Foot Woman, all well-kept secrets. The villains are superheroes, the Fantastic Four. He has a scene in which the pulp heroes of the '30s --- Doc Savage, the Shadow, Tarzan, and so forth --- duke it out with the Justice League of America --- Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and their pals. Doc Savage is the sole survivor, and Ellis is winking at us. Wouldn't it have been better that way?

Well, as readers of this blog know, I have great affection for superheroes, so I'm not sure.

Anyway, Ellis just posted a couple of great little essays about two all-time great British super heroes, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond.

He praises my man Jeremy Brett for being the greatest actor to take on Holmes' mantle.

Jeremy Brett found his way into his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes by giving the original stories the first close reading they’d had by an actor in many years. He found this line: "Holmes wriggled with pleasure in his chair." And that was it. He was in. His pale, spidery, twitchy and explosive Holmes made everyone before him look stupid.
Holmes was not charming. Holmes was a prick, frankly. A colossal misanthrope with a fair amount of gynephobia, immensely arrogant, ripping the piss out of Scotland Yard’s detectives, not averse to telling a policeman that his head may as well be a large ornament, and generally fucking with anyone who crosses his path. Holmes would not be a pleasant dinner companion.
And he confesses a strange desire to make a Bond movie himself, though for inspiration, like Jeremy Brett, he wants to turn back to the novels.
The books are notably less spectacular and far more low-key than the films. Dr No was a crazed guano millionaire and had no nuclear missiles, spaceship-eaters or any of the good stuff we associate with Bond Villains. Tiger Tanaka’s great test of Bond was making him compose a naff haiku. It’s often quite bland stuff, great long travelogues and pages describing banquets and furniture. In the guts of it, though, is Bond as a scarred man with clear psychological damage, often on the edge of being removed from service by M on mental health grounds. It’s made stridently obvious that being on the 00 detail of the Secret Service is a job that fucks you up.

Bond is not a superman. He prevails because he is quite simply nastier and more determined to wreak utter bloody havoc than the next guy.

It gets you thinking. Many of my favorite fictional characters are pretty unpleasant people. What's up with that?

Anyway, Ellis has more interesting things to say on these subjects. And the digressions are cool too: in one of the essays (I won't say which) he makes this nasty, profound little observation about the medium of film.

Film ... curiously, cannot survive without taking on works from other media. As Coppola, himself a collapsed writer of original works, said, "[Even Scorcese] needs that perfect book."
Not quite true: you have, say, Truffaut at the high end or George Romero at the low end, making truly novel cinematic creations. And film can feed on itself, films borrowing from other films. But it is strangely close to true, and I don't know why.

05 March 2005

Storm Large and the Balls

To San Francisco and Los Angeles readers: Storm Large and the Balls are coming to town. I may have to miss 'em, but you don't.

Tue 3/8Sweetwater saloon, Mill Valley 10 PM
Wed 3/9 Bottom of the Hill, SF 11PM 18+
Thu 3/10Bourbon St., Concord 10PM
Fri 3/11Molly Malone's, Los Angeles 10PM
Sat 3/12Molly Malone's, Los Angeles 11PM

Storm is a lead singer like The Balls are a cover band like nuclear weapons are explosive. Go.