Thursday, September 29, 2011

Rocket City Rednecks

The National Geographic Channel has a new reality series, Rocket City Rednecks.
In each episode, we'll see how they apply redneck ingenuity with advanced engineering and physics to creatively solve real-world problems... and have a little fun, of course!
I watched most of a couple of episodes. As I expected, it's like Mythbusters meets the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. In principle that's not a bad recipe, but like any recipe the key is to get the proportions right. In the episodes I've seen, they're not.

The joke, obviously, is that nobody expects guys who sound like hillbillies -- guys who are actually hillbillies -- to have earned advanced degrees in physics and engineering. That's a sophisticated premise ... not. Call me politically correct, but I already believed an Alabama accent didn't automatically mean you were stupid. (A Valley Girl accent, on the other hand, does. Go ahead, prove me wrong.)

So the unspoken joke at the heart of the show doesn't work for me. That leaves the actual science content. What there is of it is okay. There's just damned little of it.

Mythbusters isn't a science show, but it does try to explain the principles underlying whatever's happening. It benefits from having a narrator who can deliver exposition over footage of the hosts working, so they can get things done while not leaving the audience mystified. Rocket City Rednecks doesn't have a narrator, and it's easy to see why: the producers want the hosts to do all the explaining so we hear their accents, reinforcing the lame joke, "The rednecks can think!"

Unlike Mythbusters, RCR is only a half-hour, so if the latter want to take on big topics they have significantly less time to explore all the ramifications. The two RCR episodes I saw took on huge challenges: protecting soldiers from improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan, and coming up with a replacement for fossil fuel-based propellants in rockets. The challenges are both met by the end of the half-hour, but only on the terms the hosts themselves set for those challenges. Left unanswered in both cases is the question, "But would this approach work for real?"

Take the IED-armor problem, for instance. The issue is that although fighting vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan are sufficiently well-armored to protect the troops within against direct injury from IEDs, the armor is so heavy that it makes the vehicles prone to flipping over and crushing the occupants. The RCR crew came up with an ingenious alternative armor based on the principle of absorbing the energy of the blast rather than deflecting it. They used beer cans to create a crumple zone for a pickup truck's undercarriage. To test, they detonated plastic explosive under the truck, leaving a dummy in the driver's seat to gauge the injury potential to vehicle occupants.

It all sounded good, and the dummy came out with only a few scratches, but I couldn't help wondering whether the test was a reasonable simulation of the actual situations the soldiers face. There was no mention of whether the explosion they triggered was similar in magnitude to what real troops face. There was no mention of how damage to the dummy might correspond to injury to a person, or how to measure the damage. There were probably a lot of other important considerations I'm overlooking.

I wouldn't care so much about these failings except that the hosts set themselves a problem that is not only tough, but is extremely important to their audience. These guys weren't screwing around trying to determine what candies worked best with what fizzy waters to generate those spectacular geysers of soda on YouTube. They were trying to develop a better armor for this country's soldiers. That's no disposable project good for only a few laughs and some shots of collapsing racks of beer cans. It's an endeavor that deserves real care and thought. If the RCR guys put that thought into their work, it didn't show up on camera.

RCR is a victim of high expectations: it needs to live up to the level of scientific content established by Mythbusters (a not very high level, I should add), and it needs to live up to the expectations aroused by each episode's mission statement.

Another problem: the seriousness of the challenges in the two episodes was grotesquely at odds with the foolery on camera. I like seeing funny mistakes, like the ones Adam Savage makes on Mythbusters. But humor works well on that show because it doesn't pretend to be serious. I'm sure somebody, maybe everybody, on RCR thinks the same: hey, this is just a bunch of guys trying to have a little fun. But if that's the case, why take on deadly serious problems like better armor against IEDs? Why raise hopes that they might develop a renewable fuel source for NASA (not to mention the rest of us on Earth)?

The tone is decidedly off on Rocket City Rednecks, and that's a shame because we need more shows that make science accessible and fun. I hope the hosts can turn things around because it would be nice for them not merely to subvert other people's expectations ("Huh ... self-identified rednecks can do math and science"), but mine, too -- by making a TV show that doesn't pander to our desire to mock others and actually makes its viewers a little smarter.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Food shows

Nothing timely or relevant about this except that I finally did the five minutes of Web searching needed to answer the question, "What does notoriously opinionated TV personality and former chef Anthony Bourdain think of my favorite Food Network personalities, Alton Brown and Ina Garten?" (I completely understand if you give not the slightest damn. I shouldn't either, but I do.)

It turns out that Bourdain has had nice things to say about both of them. On Brown:
How did Alton slip inside the wire--and stay there all these years? He must have something on them. He’s smart. You actually learn something from his commentary.
From the context I think Bourdain is talking about Brown's duties as host of Iron Chef America, but I won't watch that. No, Brown's true home is his own show, Good Eats, in which he explains how and why cooking works as it does.

And on Garten (aka "the Barefoot Contessa"):
I watch Ina Garten. She actually cooks well. I have no understanding of her alternate universe. I don't wanna stay at her house. I think her friends are creepy.... But when Ina Garten cooks mashed potatoes, those are some damn good mashed potatoes.
He has said kinder things about Garten elsewhere, but I chose the friends-bashing quotation because as much as I like Garten and her show, her friends' on-camera appearances diminish my enjoyment considerably. They live in a world that's not just foreign, but repellent, to me.

I should clarify my characterization of Brown and Garten as my "favorites". It's not so much that either of them is my ideal host or even my ideal cook. They just stand out from their network cohorts by not being cut out of the same toothy-grinned, desperately bubbly mold. Perhaps I could learn something from Giada or the Neelys or Rachael or Fieri, but I never will because I can't watch more than ten seconds of any of them without needing to vomit.

Unfortunately, Food Network is a whirling cesspool of crap, and it keeps producing more of the same sorry waste material. It doesn't just showcase vomit-worthy hosts whose main qualification is alleged telegenic charm, it turns the process of finding and molding such people into vomit-inducing TV as well ("The Next Food Network Star"). I would cheerfully delete the channel from the list I monitor were it not that Brown and Garten keep teaching me science and techniques.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Smile Train still sucks, 26 September 2011

Oh look: another solicitation from Smile Train. "Passing Stranger, make one gift and we'll never ask for another donation again."

I've had a sufficiently irksome afternoon that I think I'll start a new intermittent blog topic, akin to my currently on-hiatus check-in on Halliburton's fracking page. Every time Smile Train sends me a begging letter, I'll piss on it here.

Smile Train, fuck you and the horse you rode in on. You are a shitty "charity" whose overhead probably doesn't bear close inspection. After all, once anybody gets in your godforsaken sights, you never let go, in spite of written requests. And even though you're too cheap to provide postage-paid return envelopes (a smart move, as I otherwise would have sent you a number of postage-paid bricks by now), it has to cost a pretty penny to send out those obnoxiously personalized entreaties every four months or so.

Once again, don't send a penny to the unscrupulous assholes operating under the rubric "Smile Train". And again, to you, Smile Train, a hearty and well-deserved "fuck off".

The Berkeley College Republicans' bake sale

I've been trying to work out whether the U.C. Berkeley College Republicans' planned bake sale is good satire or not. (The link is to Nanette Asimov's article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the most up-to-date account I found.)

The group posted its plans for the "Increase Diversity Bake Sale" on Facebook.
The Republicans' posting describes five price levels for their bake sale, with pastries described as "White/Caucasian" going for $2, "Asian/American American" for $1.50, "Latino/Hispanic" for $1, "Black/African American" for 75 cents, and "Native American" for a quarter. A 25-cent discount is offered for women.

"If you don't come, you're a racist," the post declares.
That the College Republicans intended their posting and the sale itself as satire is indisputable: they've said as much. The bake sale is slated to take place at the same time as a call-in to support a California state bill, SB 185, that would allow the state's two public university systems "to consider race, ethnicity and gender in student admissions". (At present, the university systems are prohibited from considering these factors.) The bill awaits Governor Jerry Brown's signature or veto.

The prices for the bake sale clearly are intended to poke fun at the idea of unequal treatment of different groups. I think they muddied the waters by using price as the distinguishing characteristic, though. Making the items for sale equivalent to ethnic or racial groups, and attaching prices to those items, evokes not only the unsettling image of selling human beings, but also raises in that already distasteful context the question of whether the prices are supposed to indicate the human beings' relative worth -- as assessed, of course, by the Berkeley College Republicans.

I'm not saying that was the BCR's intended meaning. I'm saying that it's a possible interpretation because BCR casually attached prices to common ethnic and racial designations without understanding -- likely without even considering -- the unsavory connotations of doing so.

I doubt any of the organizers thought the metaphor through, and that, perhaps, is what's most troubling about the whole exercise. BCR comes off not only as humor-impaired, but tone-deaf. It might not care: frequently those who are certain they're correct revel in broaching taboo subjects and otherwise outraging the mainstream (Chris Rock, for instance). But if you want people to keep listening to you, it helps to understand how to insinuate your point of view into the cultural conversation without driving everyone else off.

It would have been a better-fitting analogy to have announced that BCR would take race, ethnicity and gender into account when considering to whom to sell the baked goods. That's pretty much what BCR is saying the new bill would allow.

On the other hand, my suggestion wouldn't have garnered BCR anywhere near as much publicity. That, I'm sure, was a major consideration.

A BCR spokesman on KTVU's 10 O'Clock News broadcast tonight said that, contrary to the Facebook posting, all customers would be charged the same price -- but the listed prices would be as in the post, so as to preserve the group's point. (Regrettably, I couldn't find the video on KTVU's web site.)

The Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) Senate weighed in on Sunday.
The bill that emerged from the student senators did not punish the group, or even name it, but referred to the power of a separate Judiciary Council to defund any campus group found to be discriminatory.

"The ASUC," the bill reads, "condemns the use of discrimination whether it is in satire or in seriousness by any student group."
Yeah ... you know, it's hard to condemn any tactic that is employed under the rubric of "satire". Satire, after all, isn't meant to be taken seriously.

And by the way, did ASUC make a cogent response to BCR's facially valid point that SB 185 would restore unequal treatment of applicants on the basis of race, ethnicity and gender? (I can't tell because the admins of ASUC's Web site introduced a scripting error that botches a database query when searching for recent student senate bills.)

What is the compelling interest in distinguishing candidates on a basis, or bases, other than their academic performance and potential? I'm not saying there isn't a compelling interest, but nobody seems interested in explaining what it might be.

This is the main problem with all the criticism of BCR's posting and the pricing scheme at its heart. The critics are outraged and offended, but they don't tend to say why with any clarity: they simply cry "racism!" and apparently assume their reasoning is so obvious, it need not be verbalized. BCR and its supporters can easily dismiss the huffing and puffing as irreflective, knee-jerk, hypocritical liberal political correctness run amok.

And they may be right. Honestly, I look at the heart of this tempest in a teapot and think, "The pricing scheme's not funny, it smells of privileged youth that knows nothing of genuine racism -- but it's not worth wasting a whole lot of energy fighting." Like a lot of conservative-leaning humor, it falls flat with a loud thud. (I started off this post undecided as to whether BCR's price list was good satire. I guess I've decided it's not.)

The compelling interest in distinguishing between candidates on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender, by the way, is creating "a multifactored, diverse student body", to quote SB 185. That's a worthy goal in my book, because outside college, we're balkanizing ourselves into like-minded enclaves, both physical and virtual. It's not a bad idea to bring young adults of different backgrounds together so their core unexamined beliefs can be tested against others' beliefs, and against the reality of a diverse world.

BCR's critics could learn something here, too. Instead of reflexively shouting "Hurtful!" when they see what comes off as unfunny attempts at satire, they might take a second look and ask, "Do these guys, in spite of their lame humor, have a point?" Again I say that BCR made a point that has gone unchallenged, its critics having limited themselves to branding BCR racist without explaining why. These critics should look deep inside themselves, figure out why exactly BCR's dopey publicity stunt pissed them off, and either explain their anger in some detail or recognize that their anger might have roots outside BCR's immediate action. Come to think of it, they should explain those external factors too, so we can all understand a little better why they reacted as vehemently as they did -- and maybe discover that our own unconsidered words and actions contributed to the problem.

All this thinking is a lot of work, yet without it, we get useless shouting matches like the one BCR incited.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Who falls for Nigerian frauds?

You know the ones: so-and-so is a wealthy and desperate Nigerian (a deposed monarch, in some cases) who needs a trustworthy foreigner to help him smuggle millions out of the country. If only the foreigner would help by advancing some nominal sums for expenses, the foreigner would reap a substantial chunk of the at-risk millions.

The whole thing sounds so preposterous, I can't believe people have fallen for it. Yet as noted by Barbara Mikkelson at snopes.com, a lot of people have. They probably still do.

LongReads resurrected a 2006 New Yorker piece by Mitchell Zuckoff profiling John Worley, a psychotherapist who fell hard for the Nigerian scam. Kind of ironic, a specialist in human behavior succumbing to a pretty basic manipulation of human behavior, but there it is.

I was struck by a plaint of Worley's wife:
“They knew they couldn’t go after the Nigerians, so they just get the person they can reach. They’re trying to stop people in America from getting involved in it by making an example of my husband,” she said. “Why don’t they assign an F.B.I. agent to go after the people who scammed my husband? Where’s the justice?”
Is she kidding?

Granted that at the time she said all that, she had just dropped her husband off to start his two-year prison sentence. That, and the large financial toll the whole affair took (and probably is still taking) on them, must have been terribly difficult to bear, and for both she has my sympathy.

But her husband's role was neither passive nor carried out under duress. He didn't break U.S. laws to end genocide or to rescue orphans. He was after a substantial chunk of cash. There's nothing wrong with wanting cash, but there's a lot wrong with breaking or helping to break domestic and foreign laws to get it.

That's where the justice is.

I want to see the Bernie Madoffs of the world get their just deserts, too. But sometimes, justice is imperfect. And sometimes, you can't control a disease by killing the germs: you have to make the population immune to it. If jailing John Worley inoculates a few people against this particular brand of corruption, society will be the better for the experience.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

R.E.M. calls it quits

R.E.M. was never my favorite band. That comes as a bit of surprise to me, actually, considering that on my short list of perfect albums, R.E.M. contributed two: Murmur and Reckoning. No other artist has made more than one.

R.E.M. is the reason I started listening to alternative/indie/call-it-what-you-will music. I'm not talking about "Rock of the '80s", as the more aggressively promoted and synth-heavy sound of stations like the Quake (98.9 FM, KQAK) used to be called. No, I'm talking about truly independent music made by and for people who were sick to death of the constipated sound of mainstream rock in the early 1980s. R.E.M., though I didn't know it at the time, harkened back to a more melodic strain of music-making from the '60s and early '70s -- more specifically, to the likes of the Byrds and Gram Parsons. The sound was infinitely more appealing than anything else you could hear on the airwaves, and rekindled my then-waning interest in music.

The first single I remember was, of course, "Radio Free Europe" (the Murmur version). Damned if I know, even today, what it's about. Damned if I care, either. As obsessed with lyrics as I generally am, they really don't matter if it's an R.E.M. song: the jangly, echoey sound is all I need. Thirty years later, "Radio Free Europe" still sounds a little odd, a little abnormal -- and still sounds great.

If I had to rank the first five albums from favorite to least favorite, they'd be pretty much in release order. I suppose I never stopped hoping the band would go back to what AllMusic's Stephen Thomas Erlewine called the "strangely subdued variation of their trademark sound" on Murmur. That strangely subdued variation was to be less and less evident on each successive album.

I think what I like about Reckoning is what I sense as Don Dixon's and Mitch Easter's contributions to the sound. All I know is, Murmur and Reckoning sound more alike than any of their subsequent albums, and Dixon and Easter are the most prominent common contributors other than the band itself.

Fables of the Reconstruction and Life's Rich Pageant boast memorably distinctive songwriting but not the same kind of foreboding that suffused Murmur and tinged parts of Reckoning. By the time of Document, R.E.M. had signed to Capitol and I was on the verge of diving headfirst into indie hipsterdom, which denied the possibility of anything worthwhile being issued by a major label. R.E.M. and I thus parted ways, though I appreciated the melancholy send-off of "Welcome to the Occupation".

Occasionally R.E.M. would pop up on my radar, notably for the single "Man on the Moon", but essentially they were done with me and I with them. Lest you think this was unjustified pique on my part, let me say that although they were now playing to a mass audience of which I did not want to be a part, I wished them nothing but the best: they had toiled in the college music scene for years and were entitled for their hard work to pay off. It could be argued that R.E.M. created the college music scene, in fact. At the very least, the band made it a viable path to mainstream success for their contemporaries and followers.

R.E.M. announced it was breaking up yesterday. I take the band members at their word when they say the dissolution was amicable and mutually agreed. Unlike many successful groups (the Rolling Stones come to mind), I never sensed that the members of R.E.M. were locked in ego-driven death struggles. Like true artists, they simply recognized that they had said all they could say through this vehicle. I don't doubt we'll be hearing from them again, but separately rather than together.

Thanks for the music, guys, and best of luck for the future.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Scotland Yard steps in it again

When last we heard from Britain's best-known law enforcement organization, the Metropolitan Police Service ("the Met" to native Britons, "Scotland Yard" to the rest of us who can't give up our Sherlock Holmes references), it had just lost its two top men to the News International phone-hacking scandal. Nevertheless, its two investigations into the matter carried on: Operation Weeting, focused on the phone-hacking itself, and Operation Elveden, centered on police corruption arising from alleged payments by News International to police officers.

Last Friday, 16 September 2011, the Guardian reported:
The Metropolitan police are seeking a court order under the Official Secrets Act to make Guardian reporters disclose their confidential sources about the phone-hacking scandal.
British newspapers exploded with denunciations of police overreach. Take, for instance, this 19 September editorial in the Telegraph:
The Act is a serious piece of legislation devised to deal with offences against the state: so why is it being used by the Metropolitan Police to force reporters to reveal their sources in the News International phone-hacking scandal?
Even outspoken critics of the Guardian, like the Daily Mail's Richard Littlejohn, took up the cudgels on the Guardian's behalf:
Attempting to use the Official Secrets Act to interfere with a legitimate journalistic investigation is outrageous. How dare the Yard claim that this information was not in the public interest? How dare they try to put the frighteners on reporters?

...

You can’t have a free society without a free Press.

This isn’t just an attack on the Guardian, it’s an attack on us all.
(The Guardian compiled a long list of supportive quotations from rival publications and public figures.)

On 19 September the Met issued a statement concerning its "production order". The statement read in part:
It has been reported that officers from Operation Weeting are in some way misusing the Official Secrets Act in relation to their inquiry. This is not true.

The application for a production order against the Guardian newspaper and one of its reporters is part of an inquiry by officers from the MPS Directorate of Professional Standards (DPS) Anti Corruption Unit, NOT Operation Weeting.

This application was made under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE), NOT the Official Secrets Act (OSA).

The OSA is only mentioned in the application in relation to possible offences that may have been committed in connection with the officer from Operation Weeting who was arrested on 18 August this year on suspicion of misconduct in a public office relating to unauthorised disclosure of information.
This Yank understands the foregoing to mean, "We're not demanding you tell us which copper spoke to you because you violated the OSA. We're demanding you tell us which copper spoke to you because s/he violated the OSA. And you have to comply because of PACE." (Forgive my barbaric American accent.)

So the Met's clarification boiled down to, "You got the details wrong." The Met was still seeking to compel the Guardian's reporter to reveal the name(s) of (a) source(s). That the order was being sought by a different group of Met officers and under the authority of a different statute than that reported by the press doesn't in the least diminish the chilling effect.

As of earlier today (21 September), the Met had suspended its attempt to obtain the production order.
In a sign that the statement was a postponement, rather than a legal retreat, a Met spokesman said: "The CPS [Crown Protective Service] has today asked that more information be provided to its lawyers and for appropriate time to consider the matter. In addition the MPS has taken further legal advice this afternoon and as a result has decided not to pursue, at this time, the application for production orders scheduled for hearing on Friday 23 September. We have agreed with the CPS that we will work jointly with them in considering the next steps."
The Met nevertheless will have to explain itself to the House of Commons' Home Affairs Committee on Friday.

This reminds me irresistibly of the Thomas Drake prosecution in the U.S. Drake was jailed and charged with leaking "government secrets" to the press. The secrets in question were evidence of about a billion dollars wasted by the N.S.A. on an outsourced software project. Although Drake was eventually released with a slap on the wrist, he still endured what the judge in the case called "four years of hell" in jail.

Both Drake and the Guardian's reporter were pursued by government agencies embarrassed by press revelations. It's beyond question that the attempt to punish whistle-blowing is contrary to the public interest. What remains to be seen is whether the Met will accept that fact.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

NYC cultural faux pas

Courtesy Kottke, a bunch of answers to the question, "What are some cultural faux pas in New York?" If I had to summarize the spirit of the responses I've read so far, it would be, "This busy, crowded place is our home and it's tough for us to get to where we need to be and to do everything we need to do in a timely fashion without killing each other. As a visitor, please understand this pressure and don't make things worse."
... we're used to running around our Habitrail in a systematic way. If you upset that, then it's bad. But it's worse if you can't seem to realize what you're doing. The sidewalks and subways are our highways. It's like driving too slowly or something if you lope around, walking four-abreast. It drives us crazy when you walk 3 or 4 abreast, arm in arm as if terrified of this place. Be situationally aware and ease up.
Situational awareness: exactly.

I confess to having a New York City attitude wherever I am. I have scant patience for those who are oblivious of the people in their immediate vicinity. Intellectually I understand that these people may be enthralled by the surrounding architecture, unfamiliar smells, exotic native denizens, etc., but it doesn't make me any happier that they're blocking the sidewalk when I'm running to catch a bus.

Oh, and there's a special circle of hell reserved for those who lean against stanchions (poles) on public transit. The rest of us want to hold them, dipstick. (Sadly, these idiots tend to be lazy, inconsiderate locals in my experience.) And you, standing in the aisle with the stuffed backpack, try taking it off so when you twist and bend to see whatever it was that caught your attention outside, you don't smack somebody with your outsized turtle shell.
If you find yourself in a subway station that is deep underground, and there is a longer-than average escalator ride back to street-level, please take a few seconds to take in your surroundings and exercise whatever skills of perception you may possess, however meager they might be. Hopefully, after a short amount of time, you will notice that on the escalator, those who wish to stand for the duration of the ride do so on the right side, and those who wish to walk their way up do so on the left.
I'll bet most people's experience with escalators is in malls, so permit me to explain that in cities and airports, escalators are almost a form of transit in themselves: they're part of the commute. You can understand, then, that a lot of people who use them are in a hurry. It seems to be common practice across the country to stand on the right so others can climb on the left. If you're visiting an urban area, get with the program. (Some places even have put up signs codifying this practice.)

Faith-based charities

Peter Laarman's essay in Religion Dispatches, "Topple Church-State Wall to Save Labor?", takes on a piece in the journal Democracy by Lew Daly.
Daly illuminates little-known intersections between Catholic thought and US social history. One would have been pleased with just this much, but then Daly can’t resist grinding his axe in an unfortunate way. He wishes everyone to know that rights-based liberalism is the primary source of trade unionism’s current woes.
In short, Daly links the downfall of organized labor in the U.S. to overzealous prohibition of religious activity in the public sphere.

After taking on specific parts of Daly's piece and noting significant omissions (mention of which would have undermined Daly's argument), Laarman directly addresses Daly's vision:
Daly appears to believe that were we to just do away with the fusty constitutional barrier, the religious associations and religious organizations that would spring forth to glorious, tax-supported life would be as solidaristic as the ancient church-based models he lauds. But would they? When I look at the faith-based takers of our tax dollars, I’m not seeing a bunch of Franciscans or Discalced Carmelites, I’m seeing social conservatives who are madly in love with laissez-faire economics—with radical individualism in the economic sphere, if not in personal life.
In theory, funding faith-based charity work with tax dollars sounds like a win: the government doesn't have to set up its own soup kitchens, the charities get to do what they already do except on a larger scale (or at least without being dependent on the vagaries of individual donors), and costs might be a lot lower since I assume those who work for these charities are not paid, whereas directly government-administered assistance organizations have to hire their workers. Regulations prohibit the faith-based charities from proselytizing or denying assistance to anyone on the grounds of religion (or, presumably, on any other legally proscribed basis).

But of course, theory and practice diverge.

Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State wrote in an opinion piece in February 2010:
One year after Obama announced his version of the faith-based office, civil rights and civil liberties groups such as mine are still fighting Bush-era battles over tax funding to religious groups that proselytize, job discrimination on religious grounds in public programs and lack of accountability.
The job-discrimination issue, you might be surprised to learn (I was), was legislated into existence during George W. Bush's term: see the Community Services Block Grant Act of 2003, Section 679(b)(3), which references 42 U.S.C. 2000e-1. The combination makes it legal for faith-based charities to discriminate in their hiring. The ostensible reason is so organizations don't have to violate their religious convictions by, e.g., hiring gays if their faith condemns homosexuality.

The federal government sacrificed this nation's principles in order to entice reluctant religious groups to accept federal tax dollars. Was this sacrifice worth it?

You're asking the wrong person, because George W. Bush's infatuation with letting religious groups gorge at the federal trough appalled me.

The ban on proselytizing by such groups is a legal fig leaf. The idea of a conservative administration, or a timid, centrist one like Obama's, actually enforcing the ban is ludicrous. Who polices these soup kitchens and counseling centers? If reports surface of violations of the ban, who investigates them? And even if solid evidence is found of violations, who punishes the violators, and how?
When Americans United urged the Department of Justice (DOJ) to discontinue Bush-era funding for four fundamentalist groups that openly discriminate and proselytize, DOJ attorneys brushed aside the request. These organizations, they assured AU, had been told not to violate the law.
Now we know how well the law is enforced.

So Bush's professed faith in faith-based charities struck me from the beginning as nothing less than a calculated attempt to subvert the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. That he succeeded, and that Obama so far has done exactly nothing to roll back this abuse of power, speaks eloquently to the power conservative religious organizations wield in this country.

You'll excuse me if this nonbeliever doesn't cheer as his tax dollars go to religious groups he despises, while they work hard with their nonfederal dollars (ostensibly nonfederal, anyway) to make him even less welcome in this supposedly tolerant land.

Faith-based charities may be doing good with federal money, but the price is just too high.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

On the DC Comics reboot

I feel a little silly writing about DC Comics' latest reboot (for the second time, in fact): I'm jaded enough that it looks like nothing more than another stunt to boost DC's flagging sales. Yet a small part of me, the part that would still be collecting comics (mostly Vertigo) if money, storage space and time permitted, always hopes that "this is The Change That Won't Be Undone".

That part of me forced me to point you at Scott Tipton's 7 September 2011 Comics 101 column, in which he wistfully reflects on what DC is sacrificing with this latest revamp of its entire comics line.
As comics fans nationwide try to get their head around what's happening and what's never happened in the DCU [DC Universe], let's take a moment to bid a fond farewell to something that presumably will not be a part of the new regime.

Legacy.
The "legacy" to which Tipton refers is the seven or eight decades of stories and character histories that were part of the DC Universe's internal history, the history of which its characters were aware. Apparently, DC has taken that awareness away. It's a clean slate in which neither the characters nor readers have to care what some hack comics writer facing a deadline whipped up decades ago.

The clean slate has its advantages for writers, of course: now they don't have to know decades of comics history before they can tell a story. But Tipton sees a downside.
Some of my favorite books simply could never have happened under the current plan. Case in point: STARMAN.
(If you're unfamiliar with James Robinson's simply terrific comic series, I strongly recommend you correct your oversight.)

I appreciate Tipton's point, and Starman is one of my favorite books, too. It's worth asking, though, what DC comics fans are really giving up.

I've read a small number of Golden and Silver Age DC comics in reprints. They ... how can I put this delicately ... lacked sophistication. The artwork was, by modern standards, sketchy, if you'll pardon the pun. As for the stories -- well, they made the artwork look pretty sharp by comparison.

Remember, too, that the comics I read were those DC thought so important or of such high quality (for their time) that they deserved to be republished. The rest, presumably, were even worse.

All those mediocre old comics became grist for Robinson's mill. From them he wove new stories that, while respectful of and arising out of the primitive source material, were sophisticated and smart enough to be enjoyable to adults. He took characters who never had much depth, a lot of them going all the way back to the Golden Age, and gave them enough complexity that you could care about them. This is a lot harder to pull off than grim'n'gritty, as in The Dark Knight. (I appreciate the latter as well -- just not as much as Starman.)

It would be a mistake, though, to imagine that Robinson's work is typical of the quality of DC's attempts to keep its older characters alive and kicking. At least, it wasn't typical as of when I stopped collecting over a decade ago. Only Alan Moore's two-issue valentine to the Superman mythos, "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?", was of comparable excellence. For the rest, well, you needed to be a hardcore addict of continuity to enjoy them. Most writers didn't want to play with second (or third, or fourth) stringers like Starman and the other denizens of the Golden Age; most of those who did, didn't do awe-inspiring jobs. Over 75 years, only a handful of writers, including Robinson and Moore, managed to make enduring works out of all that history.

In short, the vastly greater part of that "legacy" Tipton mourns the loss of isn't all that exciting when you take a close look at it.

Maybe setting it aside isn't so bad.

Responding to "An Open Letter to Atheists"

Paul Wallace's essay, "Believing in Johnny Cash: An Open Letter to Atheists", talks about the human need for stories, and questions how atheists get along without them -- that is, without the stories that reveal "the truth" to us.
If you cannot accept that stories may have something to do with what’s really real, you end up with a single-ingredient offering of solid irony. That is, you end up with the story based on the premise that all stories are false. That galling story, the necessary and logical result of seriously not taking stories seriously, just isn’t good enough.

More importantly, this doesn’t match life as I know it and live it every day. Nor, I dare say, does it match the lives of anyone who has ever lived. Is this not a piece of evidence worthy of consideration?
At first I had a hard time even discerning what Wallace was talking about, because "irony" in my mind is inextricably linked to humor and there's nothing funny about Wallace's essay. Only after checking a dictionary did I realize that he meant "the expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect", except without the "humorous" part.

Okay, so, where is this all going in Wallace's mind?
I have long suspected that some atheists may be ill at ease with stories.
Um, okay. How about defining "stories"?
In my use of the word, stories are interpretations of the facts. (Therefore scientific theories, being interpretations, are themselves stories of a kind. But I am thinking of interpretation in the less radical, more colloquial sense of the word).
Those "clarifications" leave me more confused than before. I could stand for him to define "interpretation", and to explain what the "less radical" and "more colloquial" senses of that word are. Unfortunately, he doesn't, and I'm left to grope for his meaning.
What I propose is that no one lives, or can live, or has ever lived, within the circle of empirical science. I propose that no matter who we are or what our beliefs might be, we have always had to deal with the question of interpretation. And that question is not whether to interpret, but how. No one fails to interpret. Interpreting is what human beings do.

Put another way, we cannot avoid believing in stories. We can only hope to choose the best ones. How to do this? I propose that good stories are stories that tell the truth, and bad ones are ones that do not.
I find myself wanting to yell at Wallace: "Interpret what? What is it about scientific theories (and, provisionally, hypotheses) as interpretations that is insufficient for human needs? Please, stop dancing around the issue and make yourself clear!"

I must reluctantly conclude that I can't follow his reasoning. At least, I can't claim I have a firm grasp of it. I'll hazard a guess as to his train of thought, though.

Stories are interpretations of facts, but in Wallace's mind they aren't limited to scientific theories (or hypotheses, presumably). Leaping beyond facts, though, doesn't mean stories, good ones anyway, can't pass along (or, if you will, "reveal") truth. Apparently these truths, to Wallace, can't always be traced back to scientific facts.

I think that the crux of whatever it is he's saying is to be found in his discussion of how one might interpret the message of Johnny Cash's song, "A Boy Named Sue".
The humor here is delivered atop a dark urgency—there’s more here than laughs.

Or is there? When you find yourself captivated by a song like “A Boy Named Sue,” is it because it points you toward the truth about real fathers and sons? If so, perhaps one small truth contained in Cash’s song may be expressed: Fathers always come to fear their sons.

Freud may nod approvingly, but does this small truth (if it is indeed true) stand on its own, cut off, independent of all else? Or might it, if we dwell on it and ask some questions about it, take us to other truths—perhaps bigger, perhaps smaller—about the world? Or is it related only to mere neurons and chemical reactions and so makes us laugh for a time but is ultimately about nothing at all?

And if you think this is the case (and here I’m addressing myself to my confirmed atheist readers)—that the only true truth is energy and matter in motion—how did you come to believe that? I’m betting that you came to believe it because you believed in the truth of another story.
So, one small truth is, "Fathers always come to fear their sons". I don't know if science has proven that, but I think the statement at least is scientifically testable. Ergo, the statement would not be unacceptable to someone who only accepted facts (if it could be proven).

"Does this small truth ... stand on its own, cut off, independent of all else?" I confess I don't see the point of this question. What does it have to do with his argument?

"Or might it ... take us to other truths ... about the world?" Again, I feel like screaming: "Like what? Give me a hint about these possible 'other truths'! What in the hell are you talking about?"

"Or is it related only to mere neurons and chemical reactions and so makes us laugh for a time but is ultimately about nothing at all?"

Louder this time: "What in the hell are you talking about???"

How did we get from "other truths" to neurons and chemical reactions? What in the hell is the connection in Wallace's mind between these things?

Is Wallace trying to imply (since he certainly isn't saying anything straightforwardly) that our emotional reactions to art are a form of truth that is beyond scientific inquiry, and therefore cannot be investigated by watching neurons and neurochemical reactions?

That's the most complimentary interpretation (there's that word again) I can find of his frustratingly muddy and vague prose. And assuming that's what he's really saying, I must conclude that we're on ships heading to different ports, metaphorically speaking.

What Wallace seems to be asking is, "How can you atheists, who deny stories altogether, see these truths that can only be borne by stories?"

My response: "Who's denying stories? Atheists deny certain kinds of stories, ones that attempt to assert as real supernatural beings and events for which there is no scientific evidence."

Wallace is trying to link seeing and believing in a small (purported) truth about human nature conveyed in a song with seeing and believing in a larger (purported) truth about all of existence, conveyed in religious texts. In Wallace's mind, it is apparently impossible to understand or to accept the smaller "truth" if you deny the bigger one. To be true to their school, so to speak, atheists must deny both. Or perhaps they just can't help denying both, being apparently professional naysayers.

Wallace's is an exceptionally stupid argument, so stupid that I have a hard time believing he believes it. The essay, I think, is trollbait. Nobody could be as confused and as misinformed as Wallace appears and still have enough brain cells to breathe.

You wasted my time, Paul, but I'll give you this: I thought for a while you were sincere.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Giving patriotism a bad name

Anthea Butler's 5 September 2011 report on Sarah Palin's appearances in Iowa and New Hampshire make a critical point.
It’s tempting to take issue with Palin’s assessment of the Tea Party as being in the tradition of Abolitionism and the Civil Rights Movement (what with claims of Tea Party racism), but it risks overlooking the crucial frame she’s creating, setting up the Tea Party not as “terrorists,” but as underdog patriots trying to gain their country back.
That's the power of the Tea Party: its followers are motivated by the best of intentions. The tendency of many (including myself on multiple occasions) to dismiss them as ignoramuses only strengthens their resolve and deepens their bitterness toward their critics.

No, it's long past time to challenge one of their core beliefs: they're the only patriots in town.

I'm a patriot too, guys. I believe we can and we must do better at living up to our ideals and at being better, kinder people.

You and I probably don't agree on much in the way of how we should do that. You might consider me a hopelessly trusting idiot who can't say "no" to anybody, and you might be right -- but don't you dare think I'm not as solidly devoted to this country as you are. And don't you dare characterize what you're doing as "taking the country back". You haven't "lost" it. You simply haven't convinced a lot of us that you know best how to fix a lot of our problems.

You are doing a disservice to us all by attempting to claim sole ownership of "patriotism". It's divisive and it's petty. Stop that heinous practice, and then maybe we can have a real conversation.

An untrustworthy CA: DigiNotar

In August 2010 I first wrote about certificate authorities, or CAs.
The only reason rogue CAs haven't flourished is that only a few CAs at the top of the certification chain matter. Verisign, for instance, will not risk its reputation by certifying anything other than the "real" Macy's. It also will decertify any intermediate CA (that is, any CA whose own identity is verified by Verisign) that, by certifying bogus identities, abuses the trust placed in it.

However, other CAs can and do operate at the top, and it's not clear which of them can be trusted. Some of them might have an incentive to issue bogus certifications, on behalf of criminal organizations, for instance. Others might just be sloppy.
In December 2010 I wrote another entry about CAs, specifically, untrustworthy ones.
In theory, a MITM [man-in-the-middle] attack should be exceedingly difficult against an SSL (or rather, TLS) connection. However, if you can subvert the CA so it's willing to issue fraudulent certificates for you, you have solved 90% of the MITM problem. Your CA can issue a certificate attesting that you are amazon.com, or Bill Gates, or whoever you need to be; the end user will verify that your CA "confirms" the certificate belongs to Amazon or Bill Gates or whomever. Neither the end user nor Amazon (or Bill Gates, or whoever) will detect your successful MITM attack.
At the end of August 2011, we learned that a Dutch CA, DigiNotar, issued over 200 bogus certificates to unknown parties thought to be connected to the Iranian government.

According to the New York Times, DigiNotar was not corrupt, but rather, sloppy.
DigiNotar, which is owned by an Illinois company called Vasco Data Security International, did not make the attack particularly difficult, according to a report by Fox-IT, a security company that was commissioned by the Dutch government to investigate. The company’s critical servers contained malicious software that should have been spotted by antivirus tools, the report said, and the servers related to certificates were all protected by just one weak password. DigiNotar did not respond to requests for comment last week.
DigiNotar cares so little about security and trustworthiness, it cannot even enforce proper security procedures internally. Thanks for playing, DigiNotar. You can get out of the business now.

The thing is, it's all but certain DigiNotar's not alone in its cavalier attitude toward the business of identity certification. The only reason we found the problem is that one of the bogus certificates was for Google, and Google's own browser, Chrome, happens to include the hash of Google's public key(s) for encryption in the binary image. Of course the public key associated with the fraudulently issued certificate didn't match. Whether it was ignorance of Chrome's public key pinning, too-great ambitiousness on the attackers' part in trying to spoof Google's identity, or both, the discovery of the fraud was a lucky break. We can't count on such lucky breaks.

The X.509 model relies too heavily on a single point of failure: the CA. The way to get around that is to require multiple inputs into the mechanism that decides whether another party is who or what it says it is. When a bank wants to determine if a caller is who he or she claims to be (i.e., a genuine customer), the bank asks a series of questions (I imagine, though I don't know for certain, that it's a randomly chosen set of three or more from a much larger number of known facts about the person) only the correct person should be able to answer. (As we know from the high incidence of identity theft, this system isn't perfect. However, it's the best practical solution we have in the real world.)

There are subtleties and hidden assumptions in this identity-checking model. First, the bank's human phone operator is trained to notice hesitation or other oddities in the responses that might indicate the person isn't who he or she claims to be, even if the answers are nominally correct. That sense of "something's not quite right" could trigger more identity-checking.

Second, identity-checking over the phone tends to be one-way: it's the call recipient who is trying to verify the identity of the caller. That's because we regard the phone system to be infallible in its operation. When you dial the number for your bank, you don't wonder whether you'll reach someone else: you know you'll reach the bank. While it's certainly possible to attack the phone system in a way that would allow your call to the bank to be redirected, the difficulty of doing do is so great that we assume it just doesn't and won't happen. (Governments have the ability and might have the desire to redirect calls, but even for them it would be a tall order to do so for a large financial institution.)

No such trusted infrastructure exists within the Internet. However, there is one characteristic of Internet communications that can be used to help detect false identity: most of the parties communicating on the Internet have no interest in furthering third-party fraud. That is, while I might be interested in portraying myself as someone out of my fantasies in a chat room or on Facebook, I have no interest in helping Iran (or the U.S., or a cracking ring) pretend that it is Google. I would therefore have no objection to sharing my process to verify Google's identity, that is, how I verified what "the party claiming to be Google" presented as its certificate.

Such a crowdsourcing approach allows one to build up a history of (putatively) successful verifications of a given party's identity, and provides one with increasing confidence that if one is presented with a given certificate, it's genuine. It also allows you to detect a certificate that is different from the one everyone else has seen in the past. The new certificate might or might not be fraudulent, but at least you know you got something different and can act. This is as close as the Web gets to the bank phone operator's ability to notice "something's not quite right". And at the moment, this is our best hope for fixing our overreliance on the honesty and efficacy of CAs.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a commentary piece from which I obtained much of the information in this post. Bruce Schneier's brief 1 September 2011 blog entry provided links. I also recommend reading the commentary to that post if you want to understand more about why this is such a difficult problem to solve given the Internet's current design. Finally, the crowdsourcing approach to verifying identity wasn't my idea: it's mentioned in the EFF piece, which in turn references the Perspectives Project. Check out Perspectives' home page for a simple explanation of the problem and how crowdsourcing would work within the Internet's current design.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Stop commemorating 9/11

Tom Englehardt's "Tear Down the Freedom Tower", posted on 8 September 2011, caught my eye because not many have had the courage to call this country out on its colossal and costly mistakes over the past decade. Englehardt and TomDispatch certainly have done so more often and with greater force than most, too. (I must admit, I think TomDispatch more often comes off as shrill rather than passionate, making it difficult to recommend the site to the less committed.)
Ask yourself this: ten years into the post-9/11 era, haven't we had enough of ourselves? If we have any respect for history or humanity or decency left, isn’t it time to rip the Band-Aid off the wound, to remove 9/11 from our collective consciousness? No more invocations of those attacks to explain otherwise inexplicable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and our oh-so-global war on terror. No more invocations of 9/11 to keep the Pentagon and the national security state flooded with money. No more invocations of 9/11 to justify every encroachment on liberty, every new step in the surveillance of Americans, every advance in pat-downs and wand-downs and strip downs that keeps fear high and the homeland security state afloat.
[links omitted from quoted text]

I thought my own thoughts on the subject were a little bitter, but they can't hold a candle to Englehardt's. Unlike me, he had the patience to distill his thoughts into a well-linked, wide-ranging review of what this nation wrought in the wake of the attacks. Did the tenth anniversary (or more accurately, its commemoration by the press and political class) leave you a little queasy, but you can't figure out why? Englehardt's piece may help you to understand.

"Protect Our Right to Anonymity", Jeffrey Rosen

I don't usually link to editorials, but those of us who value our privacy are vastly outnumbered by the rest of you who have made social media such a rip-roaring success so we have to work hard to redress the imbalance. Rosen's New York Times piece points out that if the Supreme Court backs the police's warrantless use of a GPS device in United States v. Jones, it will open the door for law enforcement to conduct warrantless tracking and surveillance in many different contexts.
For what’s at stake in the Supreme Court case is more than just the future of GPS tracking: there’s also online surveillance. Facebook, for example, announced in June that it was implementing face-recognition technology that scans all the photos in its database and automatically suggests identifying tags that match every face with a name. (After a public outcry, Facebook said that users could opt out of the tagging system.) With the help of this kind of photo tagging, law enforcement officials could post on Facebook a photo of, say, an anonymous antiwar protester and identify him.
The Volokh Conspiracy has a good brief summary of the government's reasoning in support of the police's actions and the Fourth Amendment issues in question.

I have a trait common to introverts: I like my privacy. I think that my wishes, since they don't interfere with anyone else's, should be respected. Nevertheless, consider for a moment why privacy matters to you even if you think it doesn't.

Should it be easy for somebody, cop or not, to find out that you ducked out of work early to meet your lover, rather than because you were ill as you claimed?

Maybe you object to that example because it involves lying to your coworkers, sex outside marriage and, if you're already married, adultery. I say that the only ones who have the right to know what's going on are you, your lover and if applicable your spouse (certainly not the police, no matter what regressive laws are on the books), but okay, let's try a different scenario. Do others have the right to know that on Saturday mornings you drive to your therapy session, rather than rake leaves or shop or whatever else people assume you do?

You have an old high school friend with a drug problem. The cops think he has gone beyond using and could lead them to a major dealer. They know you drive him to his outpatient counseling and want to know if you take him elsewhere too, so they tag your car with a GPS device (it's cheaper than assigning officers to follow you 24/7), not bothering with a judge and warrant. It turns out your friend has no connection to the dealer, but the cops now have a record of your (technically illegal) work distributing food to the homeless in your car. Is it right that the police gained their information in this way?

What do you do that you don't blazon forth to the world?

Do you have habits or fetishes that don't harm anyone else, but that you'd rather keep to yourself?

Do you think that your lawful movements are your own business?

I don't think anybody leads a fully public life. I don't think anyone could stand to lead a fully public life. Yet that's where we're headed unless we start pushing back against the loss of our privacy that is happening one little law and court case at a time.

Monday, September 12, 2011

"In Love With Death", Jim Dwyer

Don't be misled by the title: this is a beautiful collage of a few small, telling vignettes from throughout the last decade, all touching on a single theme:
“How to resist falling in love with death was the question,” she said. “Depression and despair is one way of falling in love with death. Violence and aggression is another way.”
The stories are of ordinary people who resist falling in love with death. They set a great example for the rest of us.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

An obscene statement

I haven't read or seen most of the 11 September 2001 remembrances; there are so many, who could? Unfortunately, I had the misfortune of running across Esquire's reposting of "The Falling Man", an article by Tom Junod accompanying a famous, or infamous, photograph of a man who leapt from one of the World Trade Center towers.

The photo is shocking, but one can accept it intellectually as a moment inadvertently frozen in time: the photographer didn't stage it, he just happened to capture it. The picture's terrible impact was not by design.

This accompanying text, originally from the September 2003 issue, was not inadvertent.
Although he has not chosen his fate, he appears to have, in his last instants of life, embraced it. If he were not falling, he might very well be flying. He appears relaxed, hurtling through the air. He appears comfortable in the grip of unimaginable motion.
Junod goes on in the same vein for a long, long paragraph. I cannot bring myself to quote the rest. I could not even bring myself to read the rest of the piece.

To wax so lyrical about a human being's last, terrible moments of life is obscene.

How can any thinking, feeling person find joy in that image?

How inured to suffering and devoid of empathy must you be to see "comfort" in a fatal fall?

The passage in question is nothing more (or less) than the most degraded kind of exploitation of an innocent man.

I can't convey the depth of my disgust for Junod and the editorial hierarchy that permitted this grotesque rape in prose form. Even worse, they call the article of which that appalling paragraph forms a part one of the "greatest Esquire stories ever published".

If so, I shudder to contemplate what Esquire's editorial board rejected.

Rumsfeld vs. Zakaria

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was Fareed Zakaria's guest this morning on CNN.

I admired Zakaria's polite but firm determination to keep Rumsfeld from spewing his usual, probably by now instinctive talking points. Zakaria, for instance, asked Rumsfeld if he had any regrets about his time as defense secretary; Rumsfeld, after his usual condescension cloaked as folksiness ("My goodness, of course everyone has regrets"; "that's a typical journalist's question"), started down a well-worn path, invoking his "regret" that "young men and women are hurt, some of them killed" in military operations. Before he could complete that thought, though, Zakaria gently corrected him: "Those are feelings of sadness, not regret", and again pushed Rumsfeld to answer the question. Thrown off base, Rumsfeld claimed the Bush administration should have been more explicit in declaring Islam the enemy, and cited Cold War administrations' willingness to define the Soviet Union in that way. His approving citation of Eisenhower in this regard, though, prompted Zakaria to challenge him on the overwhelming size of the U.S. defense budget: Eisenhower regarded the military-industrial complex with great suspicion and worried about it growing too large.

Rumsfeld, it transpires, wants it all as far as defense is concerned. He wants the U.S. to be able to deter conventional attacks from nation-states and to be able to deter insurgencies. I don't know how the U.S. would "deter" insurgencies in other countries, but even if you generously assume Rumsfeld meant that the U.S. should have the ability to defeat such movements if it decided to engage them, the question arises, exactly why should the U.S. play the role of global cop? A related and possibly even more important question today is, can the U.S. afford to play that role?

Those are questions for which Rumsfeld has no patience. He is unabashedly enthusiastic about U.S. hegemony, viewing it as a net positive for the whole world.

That's a matter of faith, in my opinion. You can cite examples of positive effects of U.S. hegemony as expressed through military operations, but you can certainly cite examples of negative effects, too. And just as my objections will (would) never sway Rumsfeld, his objections to my strong desire for less military intervention will never sway me.

Zakaria pushed Rumsfeld to say whether the Bush administration's interventionist militarism had been worth the cost, pointing out bluntly that everything must be subject to a cost/benefit analysis. I don't remember even the gist of Rumsfeld's response, but I know I would remember if he had tackled the question head-on.

Rumsfeld is uninterested in piffling details like whether an action is justifiable in advance according to its foreseeable costs and benefits. Instead, he seeks ex post facto justifications -- friendly fallout, if you will -- when challenged on past actions. He is perfectly happy, for instance, to cite the unforeseen benefit of Qadafi's renunciation of nuclear weapons to bolster his assertion that the invasion of Iraq was justified. Left hanging in the air is the question, "But why did you want to go into Iraq in the first place?" (By now, we know that the Bush administration had no publicly palatable answer. Indeed, its confused and everchanging justifications for the invasion have left a lot of us wondering if one of the early, seemingly crackpot explanations -- Bush 43's desire to surpass his father, Bush 41 -- actually is true.)

Rumsfeld is unwilling, or possibly unable, to revisit past thoughts and actions with an eye to identifying possible errors. In Rumsfeld's mind, he commits no errors of any consequence. He looks at everything through the prism of his own certitude. It's no coincidence, I aver, that such unconsidered sureness was the worst characteristic of the Bush administration as a whole: I don't doubt that Rummy was a comfortable fit for his boss and his cronies.

Such an unwillingness (or inability) to assess his own thoughts and decisions in light of their consequences makes Rumsfeld an extremely untrustworthy source of information. Not only does he often make bad decisions, he commits the worse sin of not learning from his mistakes. We can't trust his self-serving and possibly deluded "reflections". This was the most important information Zakaria elicited in his interview.

Ten years later

Has it been ten years already?

Well, no, I can't say the time has flown by, actually. It has been a slow and painful ten years. After an all too brief period in which Americans were united in horror, fear, grief, and finally resoluteness, we turned jingoistic and vindictive. Did we take our cues from the Manichaean world view of the irreflective George W. Bush, or had that ugliness always been present, waiting for the right excuse to emerge? I don't know. All I know is, we did Osama's work for him by changing who we were.

Oh, and we killed and tortured a bunch of people in the process. Can't forget that.

In the wake of the attacks, fear and horror were entirely understandable. I haven't forgotten the thud of my heart falling into my stomach multiple times that morning. I came to life a little earlier than usual when I realized KCBS wasn't following its usual tight schedule. Where was the business report at 6:25? What about the traffic at 6:28? Uh oh. It's never a good sign when they forego the routine. Usually it's for a significant quake. I hadn't felt anything, though.

Why did they sound so disorganized?

The special report at 6:30 gave me the gist: planes had hit the World Trade Center in New York. Holy crap. I bolted out of bed and turned on the TV.

Shots of the towers, black smoke billowing, intercut with replays of United flight 175, the second plane, smashing into the South Tower. In the most shocking close-up you couldn't actually see the impact due to the camera angle but good Lord, I swear you could see the resulting shockwave. And of course, the smoke and dust flying into the sky.

Then -- what the hell? A plane nailed the Pentagon?

What in the hell was happening?

Who was behind this?

How many more planes would hit, and where?

Damage at the Pentagon was still being assessed when everybody cut away to the most devastating development of the morning. Without warning I found myself watching the South Tower collapse: slowly at first, but gathering horrific speed and power like a locomotive getting underway -- headed straight down.

One of the tallest buildings in the world, gone in just a few seconds. Only a tremendous, choking dust cloud marked its passing.

How the hell did a plane, even a big jet, bring down an entire skyscraper? The plane was tiny compared to the tower! (Days would pass before experts reconstructed what happened.)

When the North Tower followed its twin to destruction half an hour later, I was completely numb. No, not merely numb: I was in a state of total disbelief. I had seen, but I could not believe that what I had seen was real. It was days before it all sank in.

So I understood the fear, and the horror, and the grief. We've had a lot of time to get over all three, though. We've had a lot of time to think about where we should be putting our energies.

I wish I could say we used that time wisely.

Thousands of U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan and Iraq. (We may never know how many civilians were killed.) Casualties from combat in Iraq are especially galling since we knew goddamned well that (a) there was no evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the 11 September attacks, and (b) Dubya was ready to move heaven and earth to topple Hussein no matter what.

The Iraq invasion put paid to the tremendous goodwill and sympathy the rest of the civilized world showered on the U.S. It also ended any hope that the country could remain unified behind a common purpose. Oh, and it added trilions to our national debt in large part because the G. W. Bush administration didn't give enough of a shit about paying it down even to consider higher taxes. To the contrary, Bush's imperviousness to common sense and blind devotion to fiscal ideology even made him push through tax cuts.

To this day, the Iraq invasion makes me so angry that I almost hope there is a Hell so the feckless architects of that catastrophe will suffer the consequences of their savage instincts. I'm talking to you, Rummy. And you, Dick. And yes, you too, George. (Wolfowitz and undoubtedly other second-echelon hatchet men should face judgement right alongside all of you as well.) I'd rather have a trial right here on Earth, but it's a fool's hope to imagine the Obama Justice Department will even contemplate it.

The home front hasn't fared well either, and that's almost entirely due to our own misguided efforts. "Patriot Act", "homeland", "war on terror" -- Orwellian-sounding terms for concepts against which the author of 1984 tried to warn the English-speaking world back in 1948. "Homeland" -- isn't that uncomfortably reminiscent of "fatherland", a term permanently stained by Hitler? We had a perfectly good term already available: "domestic". And "war on terror" -- as I said before, that's a boneheaded expression befitting a boneheaded, extraordinarily infantile idea, that one can wage war on "terror".

Employing such provocative and loaded language coerced the populace into a fit state of unquestioning obedience. Challenges to the call for unity were rendered implicit challenges to the welfare of the entire country. In other words, protesting the Bush administration's curtailment of civil liberties in pursuit of a futile and illusory increase in safety implicitly became a near-treasonous act.

We let fearmongers persuade us that every shadow was cast by a terrorist. We literally let ourselves, as a nation, be terrorized. Tell me, how exactly didn't that play into the hands not only of bin Laden, but of every other would-be terrorist out there? What do you think "terrorists" seek?

Why in the hell didn't people see that we finished what Osama started?

The 11 September 2001 attacks were despicable. Unfortunately, so much of what this nation did in response was no better. That, perhaps, is the greater tragedy.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Links before I sleep

A few links to stories that I found interesting, sans (much) comment:
  • "Man, Woman and Original Sin: A Response to Al Mohler", Morgan Guyton
    It’s time to jettison forever from Christian doctrine the abominably stupid idea that God blames people today for the actions of some random historical figure named Adam. There is a more Biblically accurate and compelling way of explaining original sin.
  • "The Legislation That Could Kill Internet Privacy for Good", Conor Friedersdorf

    "An overzealous bill that claims to be about stopping child pornography turns every Web user into a person to monitor."
  • "Good Leaders Acknowledge What Can't Be Done", Jeffrey Pfeffer

    "Even when things clearly aren't going right, strong psychological tendencies keep the average leader from admitting it and correcting course." And yet, a really good leader has a responsibility not to keep pursuing failed strategies.

    Of course, the trick is figuring out when strategies are actually failing, and not simply taking a little longer than expected to work.

What's with all the Religion Dispatches links?

A fair enough question. It started with Mark Juergensmeyer's essay of 24 July 2011 in which he asked the question, "Is Norway's Suspected Murderer Anders Breivik a Christian Terrorist?" (That, if memory serves, came from LongReads.) There's considerable resistance in some circles to calling him that, but Juergensmeyer's bottom line is, "If bin Laden is a Muslim terrorist, Breivik and McVeigh are surely Christian ones."

At the foot of the article were links to other articles, one of which was a provocatively titled piece, "There is No Religious Freedom: A Lesson from a 'Pastafarian' Stunt". I'm a fan -- or would that be an adherent? -- of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, so I had to read it.

It seems that Nico Alm, an Austrian who also happens to be a Pastafarian, wanted "to challenge the religious exemption to the regulations barring head coverings from official ID photographs" under Austrian law. Much to his surprise, he was issued a driver's license bearing a photo of him wearing a colander, the FSM church's approved headgear. To say that this calls Austria's laws on the subject into question is something of an understatement.

Austin Dacey's account of the incident does a nice job of explaining why religion-based exemptions to state laws are not simply a bad idea, but ultimately unnecessary. Rather than giving religious institutions and adherents special cut-out rights, a proper restraint in the exercise of state power affords all the protection religious institutions need (or deserve, in a nation that promises freedom of worship as the U.S. does). Dacey goes into greater detail on why religious freedom is not necessary in a piece coauthored by Colin Koproske from Dissent magazine, quoted in the blog "Secular Conscience".

If you've never heard of the Church of the FSM, it was established almost by accident as a challenge to one of Kansas' battles over teaching creationism in public schools. It elegantly and hilariously demolishes the logic, if that term can be used, behind creationist thinking. R'amen.

Speaking of dominionism

Further to the previous post, Religion Dispatches also has an illuminating conversation between Sarah Posner and Anthea Butler that gives a good deal more background on and context to the dominionist movement.

One takeaway point is, it's all about the money.

Dominionism concerns are not overblown

I hadn't heard of Lisa Miller's "Be not afraid of evangelicals" in the Washington Post before Religion Dispatches ran a response to it by Peter Montgomery.

Montgomery's piece is a good, thoughtful response that emphasizes the false equivalencies that Miller draws. I only have a couple of points to add.

Miller wrote:
This isn’t a defense of the religious beliefs of Bachmann or Perry, whatever they are. It’s a plea, given the acrimonious tone of our political discourse, for a certain amount of dispassionate care in the coverage of religion.
On the basis of that passage, and that passage alone, I'll assume Miller was well-intentioned. And she made a valid point:
Certain journalists use “dominionist” the way some folks on Fox News use the word “sharia.” Its strangeness scares people. Without history or context, the word creates a siege mentality in which “we” need to guard against “them.”
Yes, there's a certain risk of polarization in making the same kind of irresponsible attacks on dominionism as Fox News has on Sharia law. However, Miller should have scratched a little deeper. There's a huge difference between the risk from dominionism and the risk from Sharia law: at least two Republican presidential candidates can count on support from dominionist religious leaders. One of them is the Republican front-runner, Perry.

Do you see a mainstream candidate for any public office in the U.S. who can count on any Sharia-advocating clergy?

I'll contest another of Miller's contentions:
Evangelicals generally do not want to take over the world.
You can argue on a narrow basis that evangelicalism isn't about seeking political power, and you can quote the bit about rendering unto Caesar that which is due unto Caesar. However, evangelical Christianity is all about conversion. If you will excuse the geekiness of the analogy, evangelicals' mission is akin to what Star Trek's Borg seek: to assimilate all arond them.

From where I sit as a non-believer, evangelicals' mission can't help but to be a grab for power because for them, religion is not allowed to remain a private matter. Your soul is their business. That, alas, leads to overzealous concern for whether the state is sufficiently protective of your soul, and protective in only the right ways. The Defense of Marriage Act and its numerous state-level counterparts are only the most public manifestations of evangelicals' coercive powers (or do you think there are any but religious-based objections to gay marriage?).

Miller had a good point to make, but she overplayed her hand.

Raymond Scott, 2011

Happy birthday, Mr. Warnow, er, I mean, Mr. Scott. I must admit, I'm sort of glad you're not around to see your birthday darkened by the shadow of 11 September 2001. On the other hand, if you were around, you'd be 103, and that would be quite a milestone.

Check out the Raymond Scott Archives for more info ... and play "Powerhouse" in Mr. Scott's honor.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Random musings of the day

Between planning for a trip, reading various 11 September 2001-related articles that might or might not be interesting enough to mention here, watching a surprisingly entertaining early effort by Robert Preston (Big City, also Betty Garrett's first role), and catching up on the rest of the news, I don't find myself much motivated to write about anything in particular. Nevertheless, a few random thoughts came to mind that I'll share because, well, I can.
  • I'm slightly befuddled by the air of sentimentality accompanying some of the remembrances of the twin towers. Didn't most people loathe them? I seem to recall that a lot of people considered them sterile, ugly, Johnny-come-latelies to the skyline, undeservedly taking the spotlight from the Empire State Building.
  • I wish I hadn't chickened out of asking the cutlery guy how to tell if my kitchen knives are hopelessly dull. I didn't want to find out I needed hundreds of dollars worth of new cutlery, but cutting veggies tonight was a more frustrating exercise than it should have been.
  • I like Anthony Bourdain, but it's way past time he dropped the ordinary-Joe pretense. A lot of doors are opened by the lights and cameras, and most of the rest are courtesy of local fixers his producers line up. Stop pretending you're just one of us, Tony: you're a celebrity, however minor, and that gets you places we'll never see and experiences we'll never have.
  • I wish I had seen Jonathan Rauch's "Caring for Your Introvert" in the Atlantic back in 2003 when it first appeared. It would have saved me a lot of bad decisions and wasted time. (At some point I'll compose a paean to The Introvert Advantage, easily the most important book I've read in years.) Introversion is so poorly understood, you should read Rauch's piece whether or not you think you're introverted.
  • McCoy Tyner is one of our national treasures. He blows me away with every performance. (By the way, to whomever maintains his site: you might want to freshen it up, hmm? He has had releases since Guitars, I'm pretty sure.)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A hopelessly optimistic sentiment

Real Clear World posted an article by Scott Stewart entitled, "Why al-Qaeda Is Unlikely to Execute Another 9/11". I don't consider his assessment of the likelihood of another large-scale attack like that one to be hopelessly optimistic. I don't have an opinion one way or the other about how likely it is that al-Qaeda can or will do so.

No, what I consider hopelessly optimistic is the idea that the U.S. might take Stewart's closing admonition to heart.
Indeed, despite the concept of a "war on terrorism," the phenomenon of terrorism can never be completely eliminated, and terrorist attacks can and will be conducted by a wide variety of actors (recently illustrated by the July 22 attacks in Norway). However, as we've previously noted, if the public will recognize that terrorist attacks are part of the human condition like cancer or hurricanes, it can take steps to deny the practitioners of terrorism the ability to terrorize.
Denying the ability to terrorize -- I remember a few pundits making that point in the immediate aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks. At the time I held out a faint hope that the magnitude of the devastation and the terrible attendant loss of life might shock people into realizing that an eye-for-an-eye strategy was likely to escalate the affair into a neverending cycle (Israelis and Palestinians, anyone?), and that a far superior response would be to continue living in defiant openness and freedom. My faint hope went on life support when George W. Bush started bandying about the infantile expression "war on terror", and flatlined when we attacked Iraq with overwhelming public support.

So while I agree with Stewart's final point, I think -- no, I know -- that if the elementary truth that "terrorism can never be completely eliminated" didn't penetrate the brain of the body politic ten years ago, it never will. We're condemned to carry on this stupid, futile, and wasteful "campaign" until this nation wises up. I won't hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

Live TV is hard

I didn't think I'd be mentioning a Guardian article that seemed to be about a sports commentator who committed a series of terrible gaffes on live TV, but this made me laugh out loud:
Andrew Neil, who presents the live shows The Daily Politics and This Week for the BBC, says that, with experience, live is pretty easy – as long as all goes smoothly. "You earn your money when it doesn't. I once had to open an edition of Despatch Box with the words, 'Welcome to the programme. There's no autocue, the studio lights are off, and none of the guests has arrived yet. Other than that, everything's going swimmingly.'"
I have tremendous respect for those who do live TV. From doing live radio I know how hard it is to cope with snafus when the audience can only hear you. I can't imagine having to do it without being able to relieve tension by sweating and gesticulating wildly.

The experts' advice on coping with disasters like Mr. Neil's? "Admit it." I agree. After all, you have nothing else with which to fill the time.

(Thanks to LongReads for the link.)

Monday, September 5, 2011

Star Wars

Star Wars is on in the background. (No, it's not A New Hope, no matter how relentlessly Lucasfilm wants to bludgeon that Orwellian rewriting of history into our skulls.)

Tonally, there's something quite different about the 1977 original when compared to its five temporal successors. It's quieter and calmer than any of them except Empire. It has more non-moving camera shots, including my favorite, that of Luke staring at Tatooine's two suns while obviously pondering when and how he would ever escape his dreary life.

Little moments like that make Star Wars a better, sturdier film than the others (again, excepting Empire). I loved that we finally saw a real space battle between seemingly hundreds of ships in Return of the Jedi, but when you get right down to it, what everyone takes away from the film is the nauseating cutesiness of the Ewoks, even though they don't appear until about halfway through. As for the prequels, they're thoroughly unsuccessful attempts to meld high-concept political intrigue with kid-friendly incessant action and the occasional thud of leaden attempts at humor (poor C-3PO's "This is such a drag" being possibly the nadir of the writing for the entire series, even taking Jar-Jar Binks into account). The prequels show what happens when a creator has no check on his creative ambitions -- and, I regret to add (because George Lucas seems like a nice fellow), no taste.

Star Wars has a touch of street-toughness in it, courtesy of Han Solo. That can't be said for any of its 'quels. They all aspire to what I think of as a more operatic sensibility, where high tragedy is the order of the day. When you have characters of such enormous, supernatural power as the Emperor and Yoda, that sensibility is inescapable, and it's not bad in itself. However, Lucas didn't seem to embrace the high tone his story demanded.

The actors cast in Star Wars were perfect for what I'll call the scruffy feel of the film. The trouble is that none of those actors works well within the more elevated tone of the other films (or to which the films aspire, anyway). Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford do a creditable job in Empire but Mark Hamill's Luke comes off as pouty and self-absorbed when he isn't brooding and self-absorbed. Jedi is worse, as both Hamill and Fisher have to speak lines that are bad imitations of subpar Shakespeare, e.g., their conversation in the Ewok forest before Luke hands himself over to Vader and the Emperor. The dialogue is terrible and the actors aren't skilled enough to overcome it.

As for the prequels, while the older actors acquit themselves with as much honor as could be expected under the circumstances (i.e., given the scripts), Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman can't sustain their troublesome roles with anything approaching believability. Christensen's poor diction and lack of vocal affect are particularly obnoxious: he is a troubled teen from a mediocre afterschool TV special rather than Hamlet. Lucas evidently had an irresolvable conflict in his mind between the dialogue he wrote and the actors he envisioned speaking it, and his films suffer as a result.

Star Wars feels less deliberately constructed to pander to an audience than any of its successors. It set out to be a movie, not a brick in a mythic tower. That's why it endures and will age better than any of its successors.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Do you know where your data lives?

The UK's Register reports that Apple's forthcoming iCloud service runs on both Amazon's Web Services and Microsoft's Azure cloud service.

This may well be an interim measure for Apple: it isn't spending a billion dollars on its own data center as a lark, after all. It does, however, remind us that you can't always tell who actually has physical access to your information, or to the disks and servers that hold that information.

Suppose that, like certain certificate authorities, some cloud service providers eventually get a bad reputation for preserving data privacy. Can you ever be really sure your data doesn't reside on their systems?

Perhaps you're mindful that we routinely "trust" our common carriers, AT&T, Verizon, et al., not to pry into our communications, and yet we have evidence that at least one of those carriers is unworthy of that trust, having facilitated U.S. government monitoring of Internet traffic. What, then, should we expect from Microsoft, Amazon, and ultimately Apple?

Granted, most of your data isn't confidential, or at least most people won't deem it to be: much of what these services want you to store in the cloud consists of photos, music, and movies. It's worth remembering, though, that once it's in the cloud, you have no control over who might be able to access it.