30 April 2006

Social democrat

John Kenneth Galbraith
1908 - 2006


I'll let Brad DeLong say it better than I could.

If there were justice in the world, John Kenneth Galbraith would rank as the twentieth century's most influential American economist. He has published several books that are among the best analyses of modern U.S. history, played a key role in midcentury policymaking, and advised more presidents and senators than would seem possible in three lifetimes.

A helpful reader informs me that the New York Times also has a long obit.

Jane Jacobs and Galbraith in one week. They say these things come in threes. We don't have many other public intellectuals of that stature to spare.

Dark comic strips

They're gloomy, dirty, and cruel. But most of them are very clever. Have fun!

29 April 2006


Via Gary Farber's Amygdala, I learn of a survey of intellectual property weirdness that includes this gem:
For including a 60-second piece of silence on their album, the Planets were threatened with a lawsuit by the estate of composer John Cage, which said they'd ripped off his silent work 4'33". The Planets countered that the estate failed to specify which 60 of the 273 seconds in Cage's piece had been pilfered.
Intellectual property law has gone mad.

28 April 2006


A rogue mathematician named Shea Zellweger has created a new logical notation he calls the logic alphabet.

We need a better set of signs for and, or, if
These three are themselves only a small part of the 16 binary connectives.

As a big math nerd and symbol nerd, I fell in love after looking at this for all of five minutes. The fundamental structure of the system is immediately apparent—as is its superiority to ordinary logical notation.

The 3-d "chessboard" above is a kind of diagram of the relationships of the different symbols, which should properly be rendered in 4-dimensional space. I couldn't resist doing a mapping of my own, taking advantage of an obscure hypercube projection that I learned in high school and have been obsessed with ever since.

Since Zellweger is a maverick, with no academic math credentials, his system has had almost no impact on the world of mathematics. But the art world has taken a little interest, because some of the artifacts of his work are so beautiful. So I discovered him through a science-art museum that Indri of Waterbones turned me on to, and they in turn point to a fascinating interview with Zellweger in the art and culture magazine Cabinet.

his notebooks (made between 1953 and 1975) have remarkable visual appeal, passing through phases reminiscent of Russian Constructivism, outsider art, concrete poetry and pop

In the Cabinet interview, Zellweger asserts a kind of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of mathematics ...

Yes, you only see the symmetric patterns in the system when you look at the whole thing with all 16 elements together. When you use only a few, you don’t see the beautiful crystalline structures. My notation is designed to highlight these wonderful patterns, not obscure them, as most notations do.

... and goes on to make interesting comparisons with the cool math manipulatives used in Montessori education.

Today's question

Jeanne at Body and Soul asks
Do you ever get the feeling Jimmy Carter just took the stupid little job of being president for a few years as a stopgap on his way to a real job?
Yeah, actually, I get that feeling all the time. Jeanne was asking in reference to a New York Times story that could make you cry.
Guinea worm, a plague so ancient that it is found in Egyptian mummies and is thought to be the "fiery serpent" described in the Old Testament as torturing the Israelites in the desert.
Now, thanks to a relentless 20-year campaign led by former President Jimmy Carter, Guinea worm is poised to become the first disease since smallpox to be pushed into oblivion.
Mind you, this is the guy that, as I observed recently, made it to many conservatives' Ten Worst Americans lists.

Carter isn't the only President for whom the Presidency is arguably a second-string résumé item. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote his own epitaph, which doesn't bother to mention the Presidency among the three achievements for which he wanted to be remembered. And as I've commented before, I think we're currently grooming a commissioner of baseball.

27 April 2006

B. D.'s recovery

I posted a while ago about the turn Doonesbury has taken with B. D. injured in the Iraq war. It's remained a recurring element of the strip, and in recent months, he's been wrestling with post-traumatic stress, grudginly seeing a counselor at the VA hospital.

If you have an interest in the strip but haven't looked at it lately, now would be a good time to catch up. In the last couple of weeks Trudeau has obviously chosen to try to take a four-panel strip as far as it can possibly go.

Paper Buddha

From an origami "life of Buddha" series on an amazing origami site, via Apostropher.

26 April 2006

Today's quote

J.A.C.Brown, from Social Psychology of Industry:
If managers' orders were completely obeyed, confusion would result and production and morale would be lowered. In order to achieve the goals of the organisation workers must often violate orders, resort to their own techniques of doing things, and disregard lines of authority. Without this kind of systematic sabotage much work could not be done. This unsolicited sabotage in the form of disobedience and subterfuge is especially necessary to enable large bureaucracies to function effectively.
Found as the header in a delightful discussion of work-to-rule strikes, via Jim Henley.

25 April 2006

A giant passes

Jane Jacobs


We just lost Jane Jacobs. Ninety years old, and working on yet another book.

She didn't need to be. She secured her claim to greatness for having written The Death and Life of Great American Cities forty-five years ago. To my mind—and many others'—it's the most important book about urban design ever. And, dear to my heart, she was a great dilettante. She was smart about subjects that defy categorization and demand synthesis, and she got there by virtue of paying attention and doing her own homework, rather than by virtue of any formal qualifications.

I blogged a link to a terrific web post about her a while back. If you didn't check it out then, you missed out. Now might be a good time; you'll see why I mourn her passing.


Today is Yom Ha'Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

I presume that you've heard of the Holocaust already. Let me offer you a thing about the Holocaust you may not know, and a few other things about genocide worthy of reflection.

First is that you may know the figure of 6 million dead in the Holocaust. That's actually a misleading figure. The Nazis killed 6 million Jews plus, in the same processes of concentration camps and mass executions, at least 4 million other folks they didn't like. That includes: Poles, Russians, and other Slavs ... Roma ("Gypsies") ... communists and other political dissidents ... Jehovah's Witnesses, Freemasons, and other religious minorities, as well as antifascist Christian clergy ... lesbians and gay men ... and on and on. About ten million total, maybe more depending on how you count.

Second, there's this observation about the Nazi concentration camps from Hannah Arendt, writing in The Origins of Totalitarianism. (Chapter 12, Part III)

Torture, to be sure, is an essential feature of the whole totalitarian police and judiciary apparatus; it is used every day to make people talk. This type of torture, since it pursues a definite, rational aim, has certain limitations: either the prisoner talks within a certain time, or he is killed. To this rationally conducted torture another, irrational, sadistic type was added in the first Nazi concentration camps and in the cellars of the Gestapo. Carried on for the most part by the SA, it pursued no aims and was not systematic, but depended on the initiative of largely abnormal elements. The mortality rate was so high that only a few concentration-camp inmates of 1933 survived these first years. This type of torture seemed to be not so much a calculated political institution as a concession of the regime to its criminal and abnormal elements, who were thus rewarded for services rendered. Behind the blind bestiality of the SA, there often lay a deep hatred and resentment against all those who were socially, intellectually, or physically better off than themselves, and who now, as if in fulfillment of their wildest dreams, were in their power. This resentment, which never died out entirely in the camps, strikes us as a last remnant of humanly understandable feeling.

The real horror began, however, when the SS took over the administration of the camps. The old spontaneous bestiality gave way to an absolutely cold and systematic destruction of human bodies, calculated to destroy human dignity; death was avoided or postponed indefinitely. The camps were no longer amusement parks for beasts in human form, that is, for men who really belonged in mental institutions and prisons; the reverse became true: they were turned into "drill grounds," on which perfectly normal men were trained to be full-fledged members of the SS.

That quote comes from a brilliant Arthur Silber essay cycle on torture as a tool of state violence in which he plumbs the unwholesome depths of our current American madness on the subject.

Third, via Dionysus Devotee, a poignaint reminder about the Armenian genocide. According to legend, Hitler exhorted his commanders on the Eastern Front to ruthlessness by asking, "Who remembers the Armenians?" If you don't, you ought to follow the link and find out.

Fourth, if that isn't bad enough for you, I have an old post about Rwanda and Iraq for you which I think really is worth your time if you didn't read it the first time around.

Film school

Okay, remaking trailers we've done soundtrack, editing, and voiceovers; now let's look at transitions in Sleepless.

In case you were wondering

Some of you may recall the "Alien Autopsy" footage, supposedly of the pilots of the spacecraft which crashed at Roswell. There was a hokey but cunningly executed "documentary" done about it about ten years ago.

Some of the creators have at last stepped forward and admitted that it's a hoax. So you know.

(Of course, the Men in Black probably made 'em do it ...)

24 April 2006

MUNI haiku

There's a website devoted to haiku about San Francisco MUNI buses and streetcars. Of course.

There are classic tropes of public transit ...

Waited forever
And then you showed up for me
Seven in a row

... some San Francisco lore ...

At Castro Station
expensively dressed men all
exit the Muni

... some teasing of tourists ...

the smug pleasure of
boarding a cable car and
flashing a Fastpass

... and more. My own offering is about the #15 bus:

Chickens cluck in bags
En route to the sizzling wok
And look! A live pig!

For, oh, how I love the #15 as it winds through Chinatown!

It reminds you that Chinatown is more than an artifact of the San Francisco Department of Tourist Propaganda, but a real, functioning Chinese city since before the time of Emperor Norton I. There have been times when I've been the only person on a crowded bus who wasn't having a conversation in rapidfire Chinese. I can't count the number of times I have seen Chinese women who look to be a spry 650 years old boarding the #15 with weird vegetables and live chickens in big brown paper bags. I've daydreamed that if you just know the trick to doing it, you can step out the back door at the right stop on the #15 and find yourself walking along the banks of the Yangtze. And yes, I really have seen a live pig on the #15 ... only the once ... but I swear, the driver didn't even shrug when he saw it.


A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times Magazine ran a long, fascinating, horrifying article about abortion laws, and their enforcement, in El Salvador. It's like a dystopian feminist science fiction novel.
El Salvador, however, has not only a total ban on abortion but also an active law-enforcement apparatus — the police, investigators, medical spies, forensic vagina inspectors and a special division of the prosecutor's office responsible for Crimes Against Minors and Women ...
Medical spies. Forensic vagina inspectors.

It's stirred up a lot of talk in the lefty blogosphere, as you might expect. Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings used it as the touchstone for a tour de force defense of the logic of abortion rights. Hilzoy observes, importantly, that the law in El Salvador has a lot more logical and moral consistency than the rhetoric of pro-lifers do in the US. If "abortion is murder," as pro-lifers commonly assert, won't we need to throw women receiving abortions in jail for life for committing first degree murder? And thus have law enforcement apparatus devoted to catching these women, including medical spies and forensic vagina inspectors? Few pro-lifers, in my experience, have even thought about these questions, much less composed answers to them.

I particularly want to point to the way Hilzoy debunks the "pro-life" rhetoric that makes me most angry, the nonsense about objecting to "abortions of convenience."

Sometimes the reason for an abortion is simply that the woman recognizes the enormous responsibilities that motherhood entails, and does not want to accept them at a given point in her life. As I said earlier, this is not a matter of "convenience". When you have worked towards a given career for years, and having a child and raising it responsibly would force you to give it up, for instance, that is not "convenience"; that's the entire shape of your life. When you are not married, and you cannot raise a child alone, that is not "convenience". When you already have more children than you can really afford, and having another would place an enormous strain on your limited resources and perhaps on your marriage itself, that's not "convenience". When you are fifteen years old and not remotely ready for parenthood, that's not "convenience".
I would take that a step further, and assert that in all but the first case that Hilzoy cites there, these examples reflect a truly adult sense of moral responsibility. As an adult, one forsees what it really means to accept a new duty, chooses only to take on those duties which one can truly fulfill, and then commits fully to those duties which one has chosen. To simply accept a duty without regard to whther or not you can truly fulfill it is not morally responsibile or adult—it's adolescent. When I reflect on women going for back alley abortions in El Salvador today or in the US two generations ago, accepting terrifying personal risk rather than take on the duties of raising a child they're not prepared to care for, I see these women as being deeply responsible. What could possibly be more responsible than risking your own safety to avoid bringing a baby into the world whom you cannot care for? How could one possibly see that act of courage and responsibility as a matter of selfish "convenience?"

I strongly recommend taking a little time to read both Hilzoy and The New York Times Magazine; if you only have time for one, go for Hilzoy, who quotes many of the key passages from the El Salvador piece.

Then, after all that philosophy, consider this point about the actual pragmatics of abortion policy from the essay on Lawyers, Guns, and Money about the El Salvador story: "Should We Ban Abortion For Non-Affluent Women? That Is The Only Question." Because of course, even in El Salvador, in practice affluent women can get abortions if they wish.

(And I just can not bring up this topic without also pointing to Joe Bob Briggs' immortal response to pro-lifers.)

23 April 2006

Internet neutrality

Consider this headline:
Gunowners, Moveon, Instapundit, and Vint Cerf Unite
If you know who MoveOn and Instapundit are, then you know that they don't have a lot of philosophical overlap—you might get them to agree that kittens are cute, and that's about all. So what has them sharing the love in this headline? The issue of network neutrality on the internet, which is currently up for regulatory legislation, and the most important thing that has faced the development of the 'net since some very smart folks got together to invent it in the first place.

The headline is from a page with a cool little two minute video explaining the issue. SaveTheInternet.com and Matt Stoller have more. I know this sounds geeky, but this is a tech question that ultimately has deep political implications. 'Net neutrality is the technological underpinning that helps make the 'net an engine for both technical innovation and free speech. It's a big deal.

I love science

I determined the mass of the Earth once in the lab. Um, assuming Newton was right about gravitation, that is. Which Einstein showed he wasn't. But close enough.

This is cooler than that. I learn that the internet teaches us how to determine the speed of light using a microwave oven, an ordinary ruler, and chocolate. I'm in favour of any science that in which you can eat the experimental apparatus afterward, or any example of chocolate-based technology.

21 April 2006

John Locke, Marxist?

Last year I was looking for the context in which John Locke first used the description of the fundmental rights being “life, liberty, and property”. I failed. It's a little baffling — he did say it, right?

I can tell you that it's certainly not in Two Treatises on Government, because I've searched it. I did, however, stumble across this little shocker. Libertarians and conservatives often talk about property rights being absolute, but Locke points to at least one major exception here.

But we know God hath not left one man so to the mercy of another, that he may starve him if he please: God the Lord and Father of all has given no one of his children such a property in his peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods; so that it cannot justly be denied him, when his pressing wants call for it: and therefore no man could ever have a just power over the life of another by right of property in land or possessions; since it would always be a sin, in any man of estate, to let his brother perish for want of affording him relief out of his plenty. As justice gives every man a title to the product of his honest industry, and the fair acquisitions of his ancestors descended to him; so charity gives every man a title to so much out of another’s plenty, as will keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise: and a man can no more justly make use of another’s necessity, to force him to become his vassal, by with-holding that relief, God requires him to afford to the wants of his brother, than he that has more strength can seize upon a weaker, master him to his obedience, and with a dagger at his throat offer him death or slavery.

That's Book I, Chapter IV, Paragraph 42; the emphasis is mine. How far is that, really, from “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”? Take that, libertarians!

And while we're at it, Infinite Perplexity tells me that Adam Smith favours progressive taxation!

What's a conservative to do?

Update: Digby catches Thomas Paine talking like a Marxist.

Update: Corey Robin catches Adam Smith talking like a Marxist.

Imagine that.


President Bush's approval rating is 33% according to the latest poll.

From Fox News.

Via Mark A R Kleiman, who has a few choice words.


Jim Henley makes a one-word post ... and the comment thread gets out of hand.

Nerdy good fun

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking: I need a web comic adapting transcripts of writers speaking at bookstores into comic book form published on the web. Well, via Scott Kurtz of PvP, I've got you covered with Stripped Books.


20 April 2006

Pretentious video games

Ordinarily, photoshop whimsey from Something Awful gets real old for me real fast, but these made me laugh out loud. Guess I'm pretentious.


Digby sums up who's behind all the partisanship in Congress and elsewhere.
The Democratic party did everything it could to alleviate the culture war and the partisanship in the 90's by electing southern moderates to the white house and helping the Republicans pass a lot of legislation born of major compromise of Democratic principles. Nothing was good enough. The culture war raged, not on the basis of policy --- there was much in Bill Clinton's policies for a Republican to love.
Now, I've heard it said that the Democrats screwed the Republicans on bipartisanship in the '60s and '70s, and that this is payback. I'm not equipped to evaluate that claim. Whether true or not, today there appears to be no point in reaching across the aisle.

19 April 2006

Worst Americans

A while back, Alexandra von Maltzan at All Things Beautiful proposed an interesting blogging subject. Who would you say are the ten worst Americans in history?

Interestingly, I stumbled across this via Captain's Quarters, an evidently very right-leaning blog. The Captain's Quarters list goes:

  1. J. Edgar Hoover
  2. John Wilkes Booth
  3. Benedict Arnold
  4. Nathan Bedford Forrest
  5. Stephen Douglas
  6. Richard Nixon
  7. Joe McCarthy
  8. Aaron Burr
  9. John Walker, Jr.
  10. Jimmy Carter

What's interesting here is not that I choke on Jimmy Carter—who turns out to be a very popular choice among right-leaning bloggers. (Jimmy Carter?!?) Rather, it's that I can get behind at least half of these choices. Nathan Bedford Forrest, yep. Benedict Arnold is a respectable choice, sure. Tricky Dick and Tailgunner Joe, oh yeah. Hoover, hell yes.

I did some surfing around, and interestingly there's a lot of overlap in folks' choices, whether they're left, right, or sideways. Hoover almost always makes the list. Maybe they go for Jefferson Davis instead of Nathan Bedford Forrest, but it's it's obvious that they both represent the same basic target. And so on.

But there's one who seems conspicuous by his absence from most folks' lists: Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb.

If you're going there, you might ask why not Oppenheimer, father of the atom bomb? Oppenheimer acted out of fear that Hitler would get the Bomb first, came to regret his deadly invention, and fought the rest of his life for nuclear disarmament and sanity. Oppenheimer is a tragic figure, not a villain. And the H-Bomb really is categorically worse than the A-Bomb. The original A-Bomb is horrific, yes, but the H-Bomb literally has the power to kill the entire human species.

Teller was not only the mastermind of the development of the H-Bomb, he was a great advocate of its development. It truly might not have happened without him. He went on to advocate for countless examples of the worst arms race madness of the Cold War, from extensive nuclear testing to enormous weapons stockpiles to the Star Wars defense system. He helped destroy Oppenheimer's political influence by contributing to claims that he was a "security risk." He advocated using nuclear bombs as tools to strip-mine the American southwest. Each step of the way he played it for his own enrichment and aggrandizement, turning the original Faustian arrangement between scientists and the American military that happened at Los Alamos into a permanent fixture of American society.

He definitely makes the list.


19 April 1993: Waco
19 April 1995: Oklahoma City

David "Orcinus" Neiwert connects the dots with 9/11 and the war in Iraq in his excellent series of long posts "Oklahoma City, 9/11, and the Face of Terror:"

  1. The Apocalyptic Asymmetry of April 19
  2. Waco in Iraq
  3. The Murrah Mystery

18 April 2006

Today's quote

This may seem obvious.
A non-running computer produces fewer errors
But it's from a New Scientist article about a quantum computer in a superposition of wave states between on and off, so the one thing it ain't is "obvious."


Neil Gaiman has instructions for you. He knows what he's talking about.

You might already know some of this stuff, if you were paying attention to the stories you were told during your childhood.

If you weren't paying attention to those stories at all, then these instructions might not do you any good.

17 April 2006

Clive Owen

Since Bogart, Mitchum, and McQueen are no longer with us, I think I can claim that Clive Owen is the maximum supercool movie actor alive. If you've only recently discovered Mr. Owen thanks to Inside Man, or maybe Sin City, see if you can't hunt up Croupier, a little noir gem in which you get to hear his real accent. Or maybe even a highbrow movie with him, like Altman's terrific Grosford Park.

"Wait ... his real accent?" you ask. Yeah, Clive Owen is a Brit. (His name is Clive, for goodness' sake.) I'd say he has the best-ever American accent by a British film actor, too, were it not for the immortal Bob Hoskins.

Nuclear Iran

Via Yglasias, I note that James Fallows has a fascinating article about wargaming a confrontation with Iran about their development of nuclear weapons.
The experts disagreed on some details but were nearly unanimous on one crucial point: what might seem America's ace in the hole—the ability to destroy Iran's nuclear installations in a pre-emptive air strike—was a fantasy. When exposed to "What then?" analysis, this plan (or a variant in which the United States looked the other way while Israel did the job) held more dangers than rewards for the United States. How could this be, given America's crushing strength and wealth relative to Iran's?
At best, it would slow Iranian nuclear projects by a few years. But the cost of buying that time would likely be a redoubling of Iran’s determination to get a bomb—and an increase in its bitterness toward the United States.
Yglasias reminds us that Fallows has some crediblity, by virtue of being prescient about Iraq.

16 April 2006


In honour of the holiday, I offer you my favourite scene in Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods. The character Shadow is accompanying Wednesday—the American incarnation of Odin—in visiting the goddess Easter in my own San Francisco ...

They reached a sidewalk coffeehouse, went inside, sat down. There was only one waitress, who wore her eyebrow ring as a mark of caste, and a woman making coffee behind the counter. The waitress advanced upon them, smiling automatically, sat them down, took their orders.

Easter put her slim hand on the back of Wednesday's square gray hand. “I'm telling you,” she said, “I'm doing fine. On my festival days they still feast on eggs and rabbits, on candy and on flesh, to represent rebirth and copulation. They wear flowers in their bonnets and they give each other flowers. They do it in my name. More and more of them every year. In my name, old wolf.”

“And you wax fat and affluent on their worship and their love?” he said, drily.

“Don't be an asshole.” Suddenly she sounded very tired. She sipped her mochaccino.

“Serious question, m’dear. Certainly I would agree that millions upon millions of them give each other tokens in your name, and that they still practice all the rites of your festival, even down to hunting for hidden eggs. But how many of them know who you are? Eh? Excuse me, miss?” This to their waitress.

She said, “You need another espresso?”

“No, my dear. I was just wondering if you could solve a little argument we were having over here. My friend and I were disagreeing over what the word ‘Easter’ means. Would you happen to know?”

The girl stared at him as if green toads had begun to push their way between his lips. Then she said, “I don't know about any of that Christian stuff. I'm a pagan.”

The woman behind the counter said, “I think it's like Latin or something for ‘Christ has risen,’ maybe.”

“Really?” said Wednesday.

“Yeah, sure,” said the woman. “Easter. Just like the sun rises in the east, you know.”

“The risen son. Of course—a most logical supposition.” The woman smiled and returned to her coffee grinder. Wednesday looked up at their waitress. “I think I shall have another espresso, if you do not mind. And tell me, as a pagan, who do you worship?”


“That's right. I imagine you must have a pretty wide-open field. So to whom do you set up your household altar? To whom do you bow down? To whom do you pray at dawn and dusk?”

Her lips described several shapes without saying anything before she said, “The female principle. It's an empowerment thing. You know?”

“Indeed. And this female principle of yours. Does she have a name?”

“She's the goddess within us all," said the girl with the eyebrow ring, color rising to her cheek. “She doesn't need a name.”

“Ah,” said Wednesday, with a wide monkey grin, “so do you have nightly bacchanals in her honor? Do you drink blood wine under the full moon while scarlet candles burn in silver candleholders? Do you step naked into the seafoam, chanting ecstatically to your nameless goddess while the waves lick at your legs, lapping your thighs like the tongues of a thousand leopards?”

“You're making fun of me," she said. “We don't do any of that stuff you were saying.” She took a deep breath. Shadow suspected she was counting to ten. “Any more coffees here? Another mochaccino for you, ma'am?” Her smile was a lot like the one she had greeted them with when they had entered.

They shook their heads, and the waitress turned to greet another customer.

“There,” said Wednesday, “is one who ‘does not have the faith and will not have the fun,’ Chesterton. Pagan indeed. So. Shall we go out onto the street, Easter my dear, and repeat the exercise? Find out how many passersby know that their Easter festival takes its name from Eostre of the Dawn? Let's see—I have it. We shall ask a hundered people. For every one that knows the truth, you may cut off one of my fingers, and when I run out of them, toes; for every twenty who don't know, you spend a night making love to me. And the odds are certainly in your favor here—this is San Francisco, after all. There are heathens and pagans and Wiccans aplenty on these precipitous streets.”

Her green eyes looked at Wednesday. They were, Shadow decided, the exact same color as a leaf in spring with the sun shining through it. She said nothing.

“We could try it," continued Wednesday. “But I would end up with ten fingers, ten toes, and five nights in your bed. So don't tell me they worship you and keep your festival day. They mouth your name, but it has no meaning to them. Nothing at all.”

Tears stood out in her eyes. “I know that,” she said quietly. “I'm not a fool.”

“No,” said Wednesday. “You're not.”

14 April 2006

Patrick Califia

Patrick Califia's essay Whoring in Utopia is in the running for the most powerful cocktail of serious, thoughtful, wry, dirty, and truly radical writing I've ever read.

Even people who are supportive of sex workers' rights often assume that prostitution would somehow wither away if women achieved equality with men or industrial capitalism fell on its blemished, bloated face. Whoring, like other deviant and thus "problematic" sexual behavior, is assumed to be an artifact of sexism, American imperialism, racism, insane narcotics laws, Christianity, or whatever institutionalized inequity has the pontificator's knickers in a twist. While large and sweeping social change would probably alter the nature of sex work, the demographics of sex workers, and the wage scale, along with every other kind of human intimacy, I doubt very much that a just society would (or could) eliminate paying for pleasure.

It's my favourite bit of his writing. But he's done plenty more worth reading if you're serious about thinking seriously about sex. A friend of mine once bravely confessed to me that she was discovering some things about her desires that she found troubling. My first word of advice to her was read all of the Califia you can get your hands on.

I bring this up because I learn via Christa Faust that Mr Califia has suffered a heart attack, and could thus use both love and money. I'm guessing that at least a few of my readers know his work well enough to want to spare a bit of both: follow that link for details about where you can send a cheque, or even just a card.

And if you don't know his work that well, but you could use a new smart, dirty, challenging book—and really, who couldn't?—I cannot recommend highly enough putting a few shekels in his pocket the old fashioned way by buying one of his books.

Aw, shucks

One of the cultural divides between Red and Blue America is that here in Blue America, we tend to be suspicious of anyone who talks entirely without irony, while in Red America folks respect a certain kind of direct sincerity. I confess to being deeply Blue in this regard, but I know that it's really mainly a cultural style thing, as both attitudes have their own pitfalls.

Putting on my ill-fitting Red America glasses for a minute, I couldn't help but be charmed by these life lessons from Scott Cranford, the Official Superman of Metropolis, Illinois.

(Warning to my mother: his spelling is not so super. Don't blame me.)

Here are a few tips I like to remember when portraying the Man of Steel. I find they work pretty well in every day life, too.
  • Stand up strait. Shoulders back!
  • Always be positive. No matter what the situation, find the good in it and concentrate on solutions.
  • Never raise your voice. Calm sets a tone and relaxes people.
  • Treat everyone as equals and expect the same.
  • Believe in the potential of my fellow person and genuinely wish great things for them.

That's from an article where Mr. Cranford describes going on a Goodwill Tour visiting kids on military bases, many of whom have parents in Iraq. On another day, I might be unable to overcome being creeped out by the pro-war boosterism inherent in the project, but my sympathy for those parents' dedication and those kids' troubles trumps that.

And Cranford is a stand up guy for taking on what must be a very, very tough gig. He seems to be up to the job, though: when kids ask him for a demonstration of his superpowers, he has a pretty crafty answer.

I thought back to George Reeves. Unlike other actors who portrayed Superman, he actually made public appearances and met with children first hand as the Man of Steel. He knew the impact the character had and felt a responsibility to find something unique in every child to make them feel special. From him I'd learned that even if I'd met hundreds of children that day, the child in front of me was meeting me for the first time. That lesson kept me going.

When asked to use my superpowers, I'd say, “I promised the Army I wouldn't and when you make a promise you have to keep it.”;

Sounds like he's worthy of wearing the cape, no?

Nuclear Iran

Billmon at Whisky Bar talks about about the possibility of a nuclear attack on Iran.
Even by the corrupt and debased standards of our times, this is a remarkable thing. The U.S. government is planning aggressive nuclear war (the neocons can give it whatever doublespeak name they like, but it is what it is); those plans have been described in some detail in a major magazine and on the front page of the Washington Post; the most the President of the United States is willing to say about it is that the reports are "speculative" (which is not a synonym for "untrue") and yet as I write these words the lead story on the CNN web site is:
ABC pushes online TV envelope
ABC is going to offer online streams of some of its most popular television shows, including Desperate Housewives and Lost, for free the day after they first air on broadcast TV.
It appears our long national journey towards complete idiocy is over. We've arrived.
Billmon's post is long, brilliant, and depressing. Check it out if you like that sort of thing.

13 April 2006


Bloody hell. It seems it's a lock now. The neutrino does have mass.

This means that the Standard Model is well and truly hosed, which we kind of already knew. More importantly, the poetry of a massless particle is lost to us forever.

Fire in the desert

Via Wil Wheaton, I learn of Dark Miracle, a long web essay about a pilgrimage to Los Alamos to figure out why the scientists made the Bomb.
In a surreal town, the Black Hole is the most surreal spot. A sign outside reads BLACK HOLE MUSEUM OF NUCLEAR WASTE. The parking lot is full of old desks, rackmounts for electronic equipment, filing cabinets, chairs, even a (presumably decommissioned) missile or three. A small display shows Ed's plans for a 'Doomsday Monument' of two obelisks, commemorating all the deaths from atomic power over the years.

To go inside the Black Hole, you pass through an old military security gate, and you are greeted by the ticking sound of a Geiger counter, marking off the background radiation. This may prepare you for what you see.
Ed is getting up in years and is rather hard-of-hearing; he has a posse of cronies who help him organize and run the Black Hole on a volunteer basis. They sit outside the place and talk about the sort of things that old men talk about: the weather, local politics, thermonuclear war and its discontents, the tensile strength of various metal alloys.

He doesn't quite get the answer to his question, but it's a good piece of work nonetheless.

12 April 2006


Most of the lost Gnostic text the Gospel of Judas has been recently recovered by the National Geographic Society, and they are just now making it available. There are maddening gaps in the text, but what survives is astonishing: full of mystical imagery ... and a defense of Judas.
Jesus ... said to him, “... you will grieve much when you see the kingdom and all its generation.”

When he heard this, Judas said to him, “What good is it that I have received it? For you have set me apart for that generation.”

Jesus answered and said, “You will become the thirteenth, and you will be cursed by the other generations—and you will come to rule over them. In the last days they will curse your ascent to the holy [generation].”

Jesus also tells Judas:
.... you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.

In a synchronicity, I was reading a little bit of poet Elinor Wylie a few days back. She was hugely popular in the 1920s and has since been almost forgotten; it's possible that I may be the last person living to have some of her poems by heart. All of her poems have vivid imagery, and several wrestle with theological questions. Reading her earlier this week, I transcribed one of those to publish here, perhaps as a provocation on Œster. But in honour of this new document from the Gnostics, I'll put it up now.

Peter and John

Twelve good friends
Walked under the leaves,
Binding the ends
Of the barley sheaves.

Peter and John
Lay down to sleep
Pillowed upon
A haymaker's heap.

John and Peter
Lay down to dream.
The air was sweeter
Than honey and cream.

Peter was bred
In the salty cold:
His hair was red
And his eyes were gold.

John had a mouth
Like a wing bent down:
His brow was smooth
Ahd his eyes were brown.

Peter to slumber
Sank like a stone,
Of all of their number
The bravest one.

John more slowly
Composed himself,
Young and holy
Among the Twelve.

John as he slept
Cried out in grief,
Turned and wept
On the golden leaf:

“Peter, Peter,
Stretch me your hand
Across the glitter
Of the harvest land!

“Peter, Peter,
Give me a sign!
This was a bitter
Dream of mine—

“Bitter as aloes
It parched my tongue.
Upon the gallows
My life was hung.

“Sharp it seemd
As a bloody sword.
Peter, I dreamed
I was Christ the Lord!”

Peter turned
To holy Saint John:
His body burned
In the failing sun.

In the failing sun
He burned like flame:
“John, Saint John,
I have dreamed the same!

“My bones were hung
On an elder tree;
Bells were rung
Over Galilee.

“A silver penny
Sealed each of my eyes.
Many and many
A cock crew thrice.”

When Peter's word
Was spoken and done,
“Were you Christ the Lord
In your dream?” said John.

“No,” said the other,
“That I was not.
I was our brother

11 April 2006


Funny cartoon. Well, funny if you're a feminist.

Who says we don't have a sense of humour?

10 April 2006

Nuclear Iran

Seymour Hersch at The New Yorker reports that Bush is determined to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons ... and is seriously considering nuking them to do it.
A government consultant with close ties to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon said that Bush was "absolutely convinced that Iran is going to get the bomb" if it is not stopped. He said that the President believes that he must do "what no Democrat or Republican, if elected in the future, would have the courage to do," and "that saving Iran is going to be his legacy."

One former defense official, who still deals with sensitive issues for the Bush Administration, told me that the military planning was premised on a belief that "a sustained bombing campaign in Iran will humiliate the religious leadership and lead the public to rise up and overthrow the government." He added, "I was shocked when I heard it, and asked myself, 'What are they smoking?' "

Recall that Hersch was ahead of the curve on the Abu Ghraib story. Read the whole horrifying thing. And may Providence save us from the President's messianic certainty.

09 April 2006

Secret chief

I swear, I've been trying to lay off the magickal mystical posts, but the Book of the Law snuck up on me. Today marks the second of the anniversary days marking the three days of the writing of the Book of the Law.

Yesterday, Yezida turned up some very lovely Star Goddess quotes for the occasion, and I knew some Thelemites who were out there reading Chapter I of the Book, toasting the Star Goddess, Nuit, and celebrating in deference to her injunction:

Be goodly therefore: dress ye all in fine apparel; eat rich foods and drink sweet wines and wines that foam!
I myself was at an early seder for the -4th night of Passover, and chuckled as several people entirely unfamiliar with Nuit reported being in a mood to use champagne for the cups of wine. Wines that foam!

Plus, I got a surprising email from a decidedly un-mystical friend. He stumbled across the tale of Paschal Beverly Randolph as a result of a Google misfire, and passed it on to me, saying, "This seems like someone obscure enough that you probably already know about him, or if not, should know about him." I'm pleased that folks think that the obscurity of a historical figure is a reason to suspect that I know about them, but I must confess that this time I've been caught utterly in the dark.

Dig this quick bio, from the link above:

A free man of colour born in the state of Virginia in 1825, he was an orator and spokesperson for the Abolitionist cause before the Civil War. He was also a well known spiritualist and trance-medium, and a world-traveller in the best Victorian fashion, who visited England, France, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, and other regions in search of esoteric wisdom. His investigations into Rosicrucianism led him to the then highly controversial field of sex-magic, and along the way he also wrote a definitive treatise of the use of hashish as an aid to trance possession (1860), and an equally important book on clairvoyant scrying with magic mirrors (1860). As a medical doctor and occultist, Randolph attempted to transcend the coercive racial stereotyping of 19th century America ....
... and also founded the oldest Rosicrucian order in the US here in my home town of San Francisco, hung out with Alexandre Dumas and Abraham Lincoln, ran a business selling New Orleans Magnetic Pillows, wrote about fifty books and pamphlets. Without quite making it to his fiftieth birthday. Zowie. Colour me fascinated by the astonishing Mr. Randolph.

A scholar named John Patrick Deveney has written a biography of him, in which he argues that Blavatsky, Reuss, and Crowley were all influenced by this guy. Pretty astonishing considering that I had never heard of him, but it's plausible, given the little bit I now know.

Which brings me to why I feel a little bit stalked by the Book of the Law. Consider this aphorism of Randolph's:

Will reigns Omnipotent; Love lieth at the Foundation
My occultist readers are undoubtedly chuckling, because the Book of the Law tells us:
Love is the law, love under will
So happy anniversary, Book of the Law, and nice to meet ya, Paschal Beverly Randolph. Good to know that the world is still full of suprising weird stuff.

The god of the Jews is a desert god

Qubitum tells a tale of religious syncreticism from Burning Man.
Seeking more on this Rebbetzin, I found an interview with her by Jay Michaelson, whom I remember fondly as one of my favorite interviees on the playa, even if it was the first step in a day of overextension and insufficient hydration that ended me up the medtent with an IV drip in my arm during the Burn. He wouldn't let tape the interview or take notes in his presence because it happened to be the Shabbas. But he would let me walk with him over to another camp where he was headed for a Vipassana meditation sit. "And there’s a data point for you right there," I remember him saying.
The Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross is speaking tomorrow night next month together with Mr. Larry Harvey in my fair city.

08 April 2006

As if you didn't know

If you haven't seen it yet, you should know that the New York Times reports on another British government memo that reveals Bush and Blair determined to invade Iraq when we were still supposedly try to exhaust every possible diplomatic option.
The memo indicates the two leaders envisioned a quick victory and a transition to a new Iraqi government that would be complicated, but manageable. Mr. Bush predicted that it was "unlikely there would be internecine warfare between the different religious and ethnic groups." Mr. Blair agreed with that assessment.

The memo also shows that the president and the prime minister acknowledged that no unconventional weapons had been found inside Iraq. Faced with the possibility of not finding any before the planned invasion, Mr. Bush talked about several ways to provoke a confrontation, including a proposal to paint a United States surveillance plane in the colors of the United Nations in hopes of drawing fire, or assassinating Mr. Hussein.

Via Digby, who writes well about the layers of incompentence and mendacity which this further demonstrates.

07 April 2006


Dr Yvan Dutil talks about sending messages to space aliens. He's neither crazy nor joking.
The only other serious attempt was the transmission from Arecibo in 1974. Many companies claim to send interstellar messages but essentially they are no better than using cell phones or CB for this job. Even the 2000 edition of the Cosmic Call from Encounter 2001 using the Mir space station is worthless.

The main drawback of the Arecibo message is its lack of resistance to the noise. Even at the time of the transmission it was known for a long time since Carl Sagan as pointed this out in the sixties. Also, the message is much too short and do not contain any redundant information. Therefore, it is impossible for the reader to cross-check his deductions.

Finally, the target chosen was very bad. The globular cluster M13 is a very unlikely place to find planets and life.

Dr Dutil has produced some very cool-looking message images. Check 'em out.

(Oh, and I cannot resist pointing out that Googling on the subject reveals that some folks would argue that the Arecibo message worked just fine, since grey aliens wrote back—in wheat!)

06 April 2006

Jane Jacobs

The other day, I found myself ranting about Jane Jacobs to some folks who were talking about making the city better by planting more trees. I like trees as much as the next guy, but I don't see them as the key to a great city. Jane Jacobs will tell you, the key is mixed use zoning, because people like to live near where they work, they like to shop near where they live, and they like to go where there are other people.

If you don't know who Jane Jacobs is, you ought to, and the 2 Blowhards offer a a terrific introduction. And if you do know who Jane Jacobs is, then you will definitely enjoy the JJ quotes, as well as Michael Blowhard's comments.

I'm forever tinkering with, and never quite finishing, a posting about urban renewal. Major themes: what a horror it was, and how underknown it is today. I'm not entirely sure of my judgment in the matter, but I suspect that urban renewal may have been a self-inflicted American disaster on a par with the Vietnam War. Before laughing at me, consider the tally. Thousands of communities were destroyed. Millions of people were forcibly relocated. So many of these people were black that black people joked about urban renewal, bitterly calling it "Negro removal." Tens of billions of dollars were spent in an almost entirely destructive fashion. We did this to ourselves—can you imagine? Anyway, we're still living in the shadow of this gigantic mistake, just as we're still living in the shadow of Vietnam.
So either way, click the link.

05 April 2006


I did some work for an insurance company this year, and learned a number of interesting things. It turns out that most of the time, when patients think their insurer is trying to screw them, they aren't—it's actually that the insurer is trying to screw the doctors and other providers. When a doctor joins an insurer's network, they sign a long and complicated compensation rules package saying what they will get paid for each proceedure. The rules are deliberately obfuscated, so that the insurer can later say, "well, because that surgery is covered under both paragraph 324 section 78 subsection B and paragraph 187 section 32, you only get paid the cost of the oxygen plus $280, instead of the $1500 you thought ...." This why what's covered is so confusing.

Of course, I wouldn't put it past folks doing stuff like that to do other "cost controls." Via Ezra Klein, I learn of a lawsuit against Blue Cross for trying to screw customers.

They allege that Blue Cross scours years of medical records after expensive claims have been submitted, looking for innocent misstatements and omissions to use as pretext to rescind coverage and escape expensive bills.

The suits also accuse Blue Cross of using a vague, confusing and ambiguous medical history questionnaire in an effort to trick applicants into making mistakes that the company can use later to dump them.

It's a good thing we're keeping health insurance in the efficient private sector, eh?

The price of loyalty

Andrew Sullivan, now that he's flipped a bit and decided he doesn't like W after all, says that the Bush Administration is too tired to think.

The Washington Post says Card gets up every day at 4.20am, gets to his office at 5.30am, has his first staff meeting at 7.30am and works flat out until he gets home at 9pm. He takes calls at home until 11pm. He has kept this schedule for more than five years.

Yeah, any presidential administration works hard, but nobody gets a break under Bush.

To give you a sense of his longevity, the previous two two-term presidents, Reagan and Clinton, had eight chiefs of staff between them.


I have a long follow-up post about how thoroughly terrible Andrew Sullivan is.

04 April 2006


Some folks are fond of pointing to some fragmentary scientific evidence that people heal better when someone prays for them. In case you havn't heard, it turns out that it just ain't so.
Prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery, a large and long-awaited study has found.
Because it is the most scientifically rigorous investigation of whether prayer can heal illness, the study, begun almost a decade ago and involving more than 1,800 patients, has for years been the subject of speculation.
At least 10 studies of the effects of prayer have been carried out in the last six years, with mixed results. The new study was intended to overcome flaws in the earlier investigations.
Surprise, surprise.

Update: The Wild Hunt pointedly perceives problems with the protocols of this production from a polytheistic perspective.

03 April 2006


I know I'm a couple of days late, but this little item of April Fool satire has such sharp teeth that I have to link it.
"We will be attacked on the basis of Article II Section 1, and on Amendment XXII," McIntyre writes. "Thus it is absolutely crucial that the anticipated Executive Order for a Continuity Presidency make no mention whatsoever of a 'Third Term.' This will eliminate appeals to Amendment XXII, and leave us free to focus our attack on Article II Section 1 alone. Thus, the Executive Order has got to be framed as a necessary — and Congressionally authorized — extension of the President's Second Term, so that we can base our arguments on the Joint Resolution and Article II Section 2.

"Above all," McIntyre warns, "we must emphasize that the 2001 Joint Resolution, in which Congress empowered the President to 'use all necessary and appropriate force ... to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States,' and Article II Section 2 of the United States Constitution, give the President ample authority to issue an Executive Order for a Continuity Presidency for the duration of the GWOT, to exercise fully his mandate to protect the American people from harm."

If you're following the administration closely, it's eerie how well this story fits in with other real things we've heard.

02 April 2006

Is it a 'game,' or is it 'art'?

Via Monkeyboy's Linkblog, I learn that Penn Gillette (of Penn & Teller) once designed the computer game equivalent of Andy Warhol's notoriously dull film Empire.

01 April 2006


Via Monkeyboy's Linkblog, I learn of The Cure for Information Overload.

Obviously, it borrows from some ideas that have been kicking around the web for a while. But there's some subtle, sophisticated commentary about the blogosphere in it, and the little wink toward Jorge Luis Borges is priceless.

New Google solution

In case you haven't heard about elsewhere, Google has added yet another tool.
When you think about it, love is just another search problem. And we’ve thought about it. A lot. Google Romance™ is our solution.
Just what I needed today.


MKB is troubled and fascinated by Teletubbies, as perhaps he should be. I respond:
Teletubbies is possibly the most daring work of science fiction ever put on film. It takes place in a utopian alien civilization, set in a surreal landscape, with no human characters. The ritualistic social mores of that civilization, and its technological and industrial underpinnings, are never directly explained or explored. It utterly breaks from the western, Aristotilian model of storytelling with its lack of obvious conflict and eerie repetitions. "Again, again!"

Yes, Un Chien Andalous abandoned narrative, but it mostly focuses on recognizable human experience. Yes, The Dark Crystal gave us a non-human world, but it stuck to a very standard quest narrative. I can think of no other work of film that abandons so many familiar signposts. The show is a work of genius, a truly unique vision.

I'm being funny, yes, but I'm not kidding. It is deeply fascinating because it is made for the human brain ... but not the adult human brain.

If you've never seen it, believe us that we do not exaggerate in our astonishment at it.