Monday, December 30, 2013

An invalid defense for vacuuming metadata

Eric Posner's piece "The NSA's Metadata Program Is Perfectly Constitutional" supports its legal argument (a sound one based on existing Supreme Court precedent) with what at first blush seems to be an appeal to common sense. Posner asserts:
People can more easily find out things about each other today than in 1979, thanks to the Web, and so people now expect strangers—including potential friends, mates, and bosses—to know more about them today than they did in the past. People can also more easily share personal information about themselves, and rather than refrain from doing so in order to protect their privacy, they enthusiastically post photos and videos of themselves on Facebook and other social media sites. Thus, it is possible that people’s sense of privacy is also greatly altered, as if the whole country moved from a big city to a small town, trading in the benefits of anonymity and independence for the advantages of community and security.
It's always risky to proclaim, "Thus it is" and make that a crux of your argument. Even if he's right — and I'm far from convinced he is (my sense of privacy isn't "greatly altered") — his argument is irrelevant. The government can mine our social media to its heart's content: that doesn't give it free rein to poke into other aspects of our lives. (Well, there is that nasty Supreme Court precedent, but I think that rests on shaky reasoning. I hew to Justice Marshall's dissent, and I think a lot of other people do, too.)

Posner is simply too eager to convince us we have moved beyond the expectation of privacy. His eagerness betrays his knowledge that the argument holds no water.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Why I love Black Adder

From "Nob and Nobility":
Am I jumping the gun, Baldrick, or are the words "I have a cunning plan" marching with ill-deserved confidence in the direction of this conversation?
... and:
Unless I think of something, tomorrow we go to meet our Maker: in my case God, in your case God knows.
Finally, from "Ink and Incapability":
Believe me, Baldrick, eternity in the company of Beelzebub and all his hellish instruments of death will be a picnic compared to five minutes with me ... and this pencil.

A&E's message

The A&E Network's hit reality TV series Duck Dynasty was in danger for a time due to paterfamilias Phil Robertson's inflammatory remarks about gays and blacks. A&E suspended him from the show for an "indefinite" period shortly after the remarks hit the news. The rest of the Robertson family swiftly declared they would not participate in the show without him.

A&E caved, announcing that Phil would be back when shooting resumed in the spring. That "time of danger" for the show? Not quite a whole week.

If you care, James Hibberd at Entertainment Weekly explains the business reasons for A&E's backing-down.

In spite of all the heated commentary in the national conversation, the dynamics of this situation owe nothing to the peanut gallery. Everything that has happened is the result of actions by the Robertson clan and the network. Yet we in the peanut gallery will have the last word. Will the TV show remain a big moneymaker for the network, or will the audience fall away out of disgust with Phil?

One way or another, a message will be sent to A&E.

A&E already sent its message to us: money speaks louder than anything else.

(On a separate note, why aren't you Christians who aren't white supremacists and homophobes drowning out Robertson and his defenders with your outrage? They've said their views derive from the Bible and thus are literally holy writ. I don't know of a more obscene and self-serving assault on Christianity than that.)

Monday, December 23, 2013

Corporations and religious beliefs

[I started this entry nearly a month ago, but have been struggling to express myself cogently on the subject. I'll try to ensure I've taken current events into account.]

It should surprise no one who has been paying attention that the Supreme Court will be addressing whether corporations can exempt themselves from the Affordable Care Act's rule that compliant insurance plans must provide coverage for contraception. (The rule wasn't part of the legislation per se; it was an operational detail determined by the enforcing agency, the Department of Health and Human Services.) The protesting company is Hobby Lobby, which is privately owned.

(I found "Hobby Lobby: Federal Agent" by Joey Fishkin at the Balkinization blog to be an informative, evenhanded look at the implications of the Hobby Lobby case. Fishkin specifically explains why the Affordable Care Act "changed the baseline" for what employer-provided health insurance means and why employers are less able to assert First Amendment freedoms than they were before the ACA. He reaches similar conclusions to mine, but I wrote the bulk of this entry long before I found Fishkin's piece.)

Attorneys for business owners objecting to the contraception-coverage rule welcomed the Court's decision to take up their challenge.

Kyle Duncan, a lawyer with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Hobby Lobby, said he was pleased that the justices had agreed to resolve the split among the federal appeals courts. “We hope the Supreme Court will vindicate the rights of family business owners,” he said.
The challenges to the contraception-coverage mandate are as absurd a distortion of what it means to be a "person" under the law as anything I've ever seen.

To claim "personhood" for a corporate entity — meaning any group of people, not just a corporation — is a travesty of logic. It's an error that the Supreme Court almost incidentally committed in 1886 in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company. Have you ever read what the Court actually wrote about corporate personhood in that landmark decision? Actually, it wrote nothing on the subject in the decision itself. Here's the sum total of the Court's reasoning on corporate personhood, and it is entirely within the syllabus:

One of the points made and discussed at length in the brief of counsel for defendants in error was that "corporations are persons within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States." Before argument, MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WAITE said:

"The Court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution which forbids a state to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws applies to these corporations. We are all of opinion that it does. "

That's it. There's no explanation as to how the Court arrived at that blunt, unanimous conclusion.

Notice how I referred to the Court as if it had thoughts. That's a mere figure of speech (one I will use again and again in this little screed). "The Court" is an institution comprising human beings. Those human beings each have thoughts. The institution does not. No matter how many human beings comprise a group, that group doesn't think. Neither does it have a conscience, nor ethics, nor experience, nor any of the mental states a human being can experience.

That's the central, inescapable and fatal flaw with the Court's finding that corporate personhood is real.

"Can't the thoughts of the majority be the 'thoughts' of the group?" Sometimes, perhaps, but hardly always. When the thoughts in question touch on a flesh-and-blood person's deepest beliefs, how is it fair that the majority should rule? Just because everyone around me is Methodist doesn't mean I should have to be Methodist. And the patent unfairness of the situation is far worse if it's the sole owner of a business who wants to shape the company's "thoughts" on the subject.

It's astonishing and infuriating that this seemingly unconsidered, incidental remark that isn't even part of a decision has guided the Court's decisionmaking for more than a century. It's way, way past time the Court was required to show its work, so to speak — required to tackle the thorny (il)logic of corporate personhood and to decide what, if anything, that pernicious term means.

If the Citizens United majority had had an ounce of integrity, it would have confronted Santa Clara head-on and would have articulated a defensible standard for how corporate entities should be treated under the law, and along the way would have disavowed the very notion of corporate personhood. At the very least the Court should have explained how corporate entities like Citizens United should be regarded under the law, and should have done so in some way that didn't leave open the possibility — nay, the certainty — that lower courts would have to extend "personhood" to such groups in ways that pervert both the law and good sense. The Court's revisiting of the personhood of corporate entities was inevitable because of its asinine prior holdings. And the worst part of this giant waste of the Court's time? The right-wing Justices will waste even more time twisting the law to suit the ideological axes they're grinding.

Looking at the matter less ideologically, what does it mean for a group of people to exercise religion?

When we think of a group of people exercising religion, we think first and foremost of groups assembled to worship. The people are assembled for the express purpose of carrying out the rituals called for by their religious beliefs. Such a group can be thought to have a religious identity. However, as we saw above, that identity is an illusion, or rather, it is an illusion that "the group" has a fixed identity representing all of its members.

Adherents, in the United States anyway, are free to reject the consensus by leaving the group. Advocates of "religious freedom" for businesses make freedom of association a key defense of their position: if you, the employee, don't like the business' religious stance, you're free to leave. By contrast, the owners can't leave. Thus business owners must be free to run their businesses free from governmental rules that violate the owners' religious principles.

Should this be an acceptable argument?

Consider what the religious-freedom-for-businesses advocates are claiming: the right of a business owner to honor his religious beliefs is more important than the right of his employees to access legal goods and services.

Religious-freedom-for-businesses advocates insist that nobody is preventing employees from accessing those legal goods and services. Advocates simply object to paying for those goods and services out of the business owner's pocket.

Yet that's what happens no matter what if the employee seeks contraception!

Right now, if the employee wants contraceptive products or services, he or she pays for them out of pocket. Under the Affordable Care Act, the employee could purchase them using healthcare insurance. In both cases, the money to buy the contraceptives came from the employer. In neither case is the employer required to purchase the contraceptives directly. Once the employee has been paid — and healthcare insurance is part of the employee's compensation — the employer has no right to dictate how the employee should spend the money. To object to healthcare insurance premiums because the insurance might pay for contraception is as nonsensical as objecting to paying the employee at all because he might use his salary to pay for contraception at the drugstore.

How far can you exercise your right to practice your religious beliefs?

The answer had better stop short of, "where your beliefs affect my beliefs".

Your morality may not be mine. You may hate that. I might, too. Yet if we're to coexist in this wildly varied country — if we're to preserve the spirit and the letter of the social compact that is our constitutional republic — we have got to shape the law so as not to deprive each other of our rights.

To require you to purchase health insurance that covers contraception may seem to you like an intolerable infringement of your rights. I don't understand why: if you object to contraception, don't use it! However, fairness requires that as a business owner (or at least as the person in charge), you may not express your religious belief in a way that denies your employees legally permitted goods and services.

Yes, this is a balancing act. I don't see a way of satisfying the religious beliefs of the business owner and access by employees to a legal benefit without making someone unhappy — without infringing on someone's claimed right. I unhesitatingly come down on the side of the employees who are being deprived of a legal good because I think the employer's freedom to exercise his or her religious belief is afforded enough scope outside the context of his or her business. For this reason, I also think a business cannot be allowed to be a legally recognized venue in which to exercise your religious beliefs.

It may well be that you consciously run your business according to religious tenets. You may deserve kudos for bringing virtue to your vocation. However, your religious belief has to give way if it infringes on your employees' rights. The balance of power already favors the employer; the coercive effect of forcing employees to be subject to their (human) employer's religious freedom would be an intolerable burden on the employees' own First Amendment rights.

The bottom line:

  • Corporate entities are not natural persons.
  • Businesses cannot have First Amendment rights.
Period.

We may choose one day to grant businesses, corporate or otherwise, certain rights that resemble those under the First Amendment. However, the sweeping rights afforded to individual human beings cannot be extended in their entirety to businesses and groups. As Citizens United and the current cases arguing for religious rights for corporations attest, corporate personhood is a dangerous, destructive concept that the U.S. Supreme Court should never have indulged. The Roberts Court's integrity, and fidelity to the spirit of the Constitution, will be judged by whether they return our society to fairness by repudiating corporate personhood as logic and comity demand.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Gun advocates' blind spot

An article headlined, "When the Right to Bear Arms Includes the Mentally Ill" by Michael Luo and Mike McIntire, mentions state-level gun-seizure laws that are stricter than corresponding federal laws. These laws all involve situations in which the suspect is alleged to be mentally unstable.

The stricter state laws do not please everyone.

Gun rights advocates worry that seizure laws will ensnare law-abiding citizens who pose no threat. In Connecticut, with its imminent-risk standard for seizure, the law sometimes “reaches pretty normal people,” said Rachel Baird, a lawyer who has sued police departments over gun confiscations.

“People make comments all the time when they’re angry or frustrated — ‘I’m going to come down there, and it won’t be pretty’ — but if you say that and you own a firearm, it immediately takes on a context that it otherwise wouldn’t,” said Ms. Baird, a former prosecutor.

Baird's implication is that the "context" surrounding the remark isn't justified. Her position is clearly that the gun owner is, first and foremost, an ordinary law-abiding citizen.

Well, guess what? Guns alter the equation. You may be a law-abiding citizen, but in such circumstances what the rest of us have to contend with is that you're a gun owner, and at the moment we don't know how law-abiding you are. "Innocent until proven guilty" doesn't mean we shouldn't take minimal precautions just in case you are guilty, or in this case, mentally unstable.

If you've got a gun, you don't keep it for decorative purposes: you could use it. Sorry if you don't like how that truth affects how law enforcement treats firearms owners when they make threatening remarks, but your right to own firearms doesn't trump my right to be safe.

It's not always easy to tell whether someone is just blowing off steam, or is involuntarily expressing serious mental illness. It's a reasonable public safety measure to deprive that person of guns while the authorities figure out whether he or she is of sound mind.

Innocent people are inconvenienced by the law all the time. It's unavoidable. Being a gun owner doesn't exempt you from inconvenience when the law is reasonably trying to safeguard all of us.

By the way — gun owners, are you still there? Because the rest of the article talks about how little can be done under federal and most state laws to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. So Ms. Baird, relax. The law is still overwhelmingly on your side. Unfortunately.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Idle observation of the moment

When did Slate's home page become such a visual disaster? It looks like content has been vomited at random onto the screen.

"Nelson Mandela vs. his hagiography", Benjamin Fogel

Now that Nelson Mandela's body has had a chance to cool, figuratively speaking, we can appraise him and his legacy with a more objective eye. I found Benjamin Fogel's essay (from Jacobin via Salon) to be persuasively evenhanded. Caveat: I'm not a Mandela scholar. All I know is, Fogel plausibly explains Mandela's sometimes baffling contradictions and seeming lurches in policy direction, not to mention the dissonance between the ideals Mandela putatively exemplified and the realities of South African life.
There were really two Mandelas. The first is that of the revolutionary, the lawyer, the politician, flaws and all. The second is a sanitized myth: the father of the nation, the global icon beloved by everyone from the purveyors of global humanitarian platitudes to even the erstwhile enemies of the African National Congress. This Mandela is removed of his humanity and touted as an abstract signifier of moral righteousness.
It's hard not to be reminded of George Washington and some of the other so-called Founding Fathers of the United States. They, too, were real men with real flaws (and virtues, to be sure) who have been mythologized by those in successive generations who have found the myths more useful than the reality. One day, I'm sure, there will be a story told to South African children about Mandela and whatever the South African equivalent is of a cherry tree.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

One less arrogant fool

Harold Camping is dead.

He's the fellow who spent years crunching numbers in the Bible, coming up with various dates for the Rapture. The best-known of those dates was 21 May 2011, in no small part because Camping took out a lot of advertising for his prediction.

It's not nice to speak ill of the dead, but he was a putz.

His arrogant certainty that the world would end led many in his credulous radio audience to ruin their Earthly lives in preparation for a heavenly one. Yet when his "Rapture 2011" prediction failed to come off, did Camping make restitution to those of his listeners who overturned their affairs because of him? Of course not.

Yes, those snookered listeners were foolish, but Harold Camping took shameless advantage of them in the name of religion.

By the way, how egotistical do you have to be to claim to have cracked the Almighty's secret code singlehandedly — multiple times?

Did even a scintilla of doubt ever cross his mind? Maybe a trace of, oh, I don't know — humility?

I suppose it's kind of hard to walk back the consequences of such hubris. That's why false prophets are reviled.

If you arrogate to yourself special insight into the divine will, you, too, can count on being reviled — like Harold Camping.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

That noise out of South Africa ...

... is a shredder working overtime to destroy all evidence of who hired that bogus sign-language interpreter for Nelson Mandela's memorial service.

NBC News' Alexander Smith reports that the would-be interpreter, Thamsanqa Jantjie, was the subject of a complaint in 2012 for meaningless signing. Apparently, though, the complaint by the Deaf Federation of South Africa didn't stop the African National Congress from using Jantjie for at least one other event, not including the Mandela memorial service.

Nobody can find the sign-language schools he claims to have attended. The South African government now can't even find the agency that employs him. He says he suffered a schizophrenic attack during the service — not before, not after, during — that left him seeing angels.

Whew. If Jantjie is legit, he must have ticked off Somebody Upstairs in a big way to be left looking like such an utter fraud.

The South African government has been embarrassed and heads will roll. The only question is whether Jantjie and the government functionaries who wlll be blamed for this fiasco will wind up in the unemployment line, or in jail.

Friday, December 6, 2013

"Sun City", the video

A while back I waxed rhapsodic about the anti-apartheid protest song, "Sun City". The video is online.

It would be hard to mess up this powerful piece of music, but this video almost succeeds. Many of the singers marching through the streets look as if they know how stagey and inauthentic their lip-syncing is. Worse, the dancing makes them look like they're partying rather than protesting.

Yet intercut with these inept sequences is powerful imagery. An animated fist rips the screen as if it were a poster, revealing in the jagged tears footage from South Africa that includes peaceful protests, police beatings, funeral processions, and oblivious vacationers in the showcase South African resort of the song's title.

I was reminded of the song in the wake of Nelson Mandela's death. He and it have nothing in common except that they're both linked to "South Africa" in my mind. Even so, the song reminds us of what South Africa once was and why Mandela mattered.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

You've probably heard that former South African president Nelson Mandela died today. He was 95.

I don't look for public figures to be heroes. Even Mother Theresa has her detractors and I don't know whether they have malice in their hearts or not. Nelson Mandela, it should be remembered, advocated violence against the South African government, and advocating violence makes me uncomfortable no matter how justified it is. It's much easier to venerate the martyred Martin Luther King, Jr., who steadfastly rejected violence.

But Mandela did something that few of us can imagine doing. After serving 27 years in solitary confinement under harsh conditions, doing hard labor for 18 years of that time (per a report I just saw on The Rachel Maddow Show), Mandela, upon being set free, didn't lead his legions of followers in bloody retribution against the government that imprisoned him. To the contrary, he exerted all his influence to guide his nation in search of reconciliation — between the jailers and the jailed, between blacks and whites.

I like to think King, under similar circumstances, would have acted likewise. But we'll never know. And whatever we like to think King would have done, Mandela actually did it.

As I said, I don't look for public figures to be heroes. But in spite of my cynicism about human nature, I find it impossible not to admire Mandela deeply. I am certain that most of us would not have the greatness of spirit to rise above our bitterness the way Mandela did. I doubt I would. That saddens me. But I try to keep Mandela's example in mind, and hope that one day his example will find its way into my heart.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Don't shop on Thanksgiving

You've probably heard that many big retailers will be open on Thanksgiving. Not just late Thursday night, as in the past few years, but all day.

I'm generally a live-and-let-live type. This business of retailers opening on Thanksgiving, though, crosses a line.

Consider the holidays typically observed in the United States. Per Wikipedia, the most common are:

  • New Year's Day
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday
  • President's Day (which used to be separate days honoring Washington and Lincoln)
  • Easter
  • Memorial Day
  • The 4th of July
  • Labor Day
  • Columbus Day
  • Veterans Day
  • Thanksgiving
  • Christmas Day
Of these, five — New Year's Day, MLK's birthday, President's Day, Labor Day, and Columbus Day — commemorate a person or a symbol (labor) but have no universally observed rituals associated with them: they are, in the main, days most people don't have to work or attend school. Easter, despite the best efforts of retailers, remains a religious holiday and is not officially observed by government at any level (nor privately observed by many non-Christians). Memorial Day and Veterans Day are intended to honor those who served in the armed forces; however, since so few Americans have a personal connection to the armed forces today, in practice these days are, like the first five, mostly just days off from work or school. Christmas, though highly secularized, remains technically a religious holiday.

Only the 4th of July and Thanksgiving are genuinely non-sectarian holidays with defined rituals that almost everyone observes. (Native Americans, for obvious reasons, may be exceptions.) They arose from the nation's shared history. But while shooting off fireworks is a fine old time (provided you aren't highly strung), it's neither terribly solemn nor ennobling. Sharing a meal with those close to you to give thanks for the good in one's life, on the other hand, is both.

Thanksgiving, in other words, is a holiday that everyone can observe and that encourages us to be better people. It's one of the only holidays that can be said to unite us as a country.

Making people work on Thanksgiving shreds that unity. It elevates shopping above our noblest instincts.

This country of over 300 million people lacks the kind of ethnic or religious identity that binds other countries together. We, more than any other nation, identify ourselves by our shared ideals. Some of them, of course, are laid out in the Declaration of Independence and other important documents, but ironically, those ideals are the ones that often cause the most strife when we have to think about how they should be put into practice.

We need Thanksgiving. It celebrates and refreshes our national spirit. It brings us together. And in these troubled times, when we are so viciously split by contentious issues, we need all the reminders we can get that we're one country.

Sacrificing all that Thanksgiving represents for the sake of consumerism is not just crass, it's destructive to our national unity.

But in spite of the holding by the Supreme Court that corporations are people (a holding that looks more and more dubious over time), corporations, unlike actual people, lack moral compasses. We're never going to guilt-trip them into remaining closed so their employees can celebrate the day. We can't pass laws forbidding them to open, either.

That leaves us only the much-vaunted hand of the market.

Send a message to Walmart and the other retailers forcing their employees to work that day. If you care about the well-being of the country, not to mention your family, friends and neighbors, don't shop on Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene", Roy Scranton

I must admit I barely skimmed this longish essay in the New York Times. So why am I bringing it up? Because there's one short phrase that brought me up short, utterly subverting my expectations.

I'm so tempted to lay out the phrase directly, but I think doing so would rob it of its impact: you really should read the whole piece (even though I didn't). Like the payoff in any good story, it needs to be earned. I'll say only that it's part of the third-to-last paragraph.

The essay is a meditation, and I suppose a call to action, on humanity's future in light of climate change.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Rand Paul and citation

You might have heard that Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has been taking heat for unattributed quotations in his speeches and writings from, among other sources, Wikipedia. Jim Rutenberg and Ashley Parker of the New York Times have (more or less) the latest news in their piece, "Though Defiant, Senator Accused of Plagiarism Admits Errors". The headline gives the gist, but what's striking to me are Paul's tone and his obsession with footnotes.
“What we are going to do from here forward, if it will make people leave me the hell alone, is we’re going to do them like college papers,” he said. “We’re going to try to put out footnotes.” He said that “we have made mistakes,” but that they had “never been intentional.”
If he wants to include footnotes in his books, great; it's a fine old tradition, although one that's more common in works by more scholarly authors. The Times article isn't clear on whether Paul is going to apply this new emphasis on footnotes in his periodical pieces or speeches, but it certainly sounds like he will: that would certainly make sense considering that the criticism he has faced surrounds his speeches and magazine articles. And that makes me wonder where his head is.

You see, this article isn't the first time Paul has brought up footnotes. He has blithered about them incessantly since MSNBC's Rachel Maddow first started hammering him about "plagiarism" a week ago. Consider his remarks from this ABC News piece from last week:

“It’s a disagreement of how you footnote things and I think people footnote things differently in an academic paper than they do in a public speech,” Paul told Ramos. “But a lot of time in speeches people don’t take the time to footnote things.”
What's your hangup with footnotes, Rand?

Nobody expects footnotes in periodical articles or speeches. The time-honored way to attribute something in a newspaper article or speech is, "As So-and-So said", or "To quote from such-and-such-book", or ... well, you get the idea. It's not a big deal. If you have a decent education, it's common sense and common courtesy: you give credit where credit is due.

Rand Paul is a medical doctor. We can assume he got a decent education. So what's with the obsession with footnotes in places they don't belong?

I think there's a sneer implicit in offering to source his utterances like a college student. He's saying his critics are those fusty, moldy, disdainful college professors who represent the elitist ivory tower.

He's hoping his sneering will obscure the very basic question of fairness that underlies the charge of plagiarism. Using other people's words isn't wrong in itself. It's when you don't give them the credit for those words that you err. You're stealing from them.

A charitable observer might believe Rand Paul genuinely does not understand what plagiarism is.

On Tuesday, Mr. Paul argued that that did not technically represent plagiarism. “Trying to say someone commits plagiarism, you’re saying that someone is dishonest,” he said. “And, well, it would be dishonest if I tried to say, ‘Oh, I had this great idea for a movie, and this is my idea, and this is a story I wrote in college called ‘Gattaca.’ ”
A couple of problems here:
  • If you quote someone else without crediting them, you are being dishonest. You are plagiarizing. And the intention to deceive — the slur on his character that seems to incense Paul most — is an inescapable conclusion when as many unattributed quotations are found as have been found in Paul's speeches and writings. One or two phrases could be an honest mistake. Not so whole paragraphs.
  • No one said Paul pretended to have written Gattaca. What Maddow said from the beginning was that long passages from Paul's speech were uncannily similar to passages in the Wikipedia entry. (Maddow did herself no favors in the teasers for the story the first night, though: those teasers did imply that Paul was trying to take credit for the movie. It was only in the story itself that Maddow made clear the alleged plagiarism was of Wikipedia, not of the movie.)
Paul, in all likelihood, knows what plagiarism is. I took his blustering as a particularly clumsy effort to muddy the waters. He knew he plagiarized but he hoped low-information voters wouldn't notice.

What if I'm wrong, though? What if he didn't know?

He might honestly not have known his speeches and writings included lengthy unattributed quotations. Many politicians, after all, rely on speechwriters. However, if Paul was ignorant of the plagiarism, that makes one wonder what kind of behavior his staff thought was acceptable? That, in turn, reflects on Paul himself because the boss sets the tone.

The bottom line is, if he knew he was plagiarizing, he lied to us all (twice: once by plagiarizing, once in his denials when confronted with the truth). If he didn't know, he doesn't have an ethical staff — and that reflects badly on his judgment and leadership.

Any way you look at it, Paul doesn't come out of the plagiarism crisis looking good. And all the footnotes in the world can't help him.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

"Sochi Welcomes Gays"

The headline to the article is, "Russia: Putin Says Sochi Welcomes Gays".

Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!!!!

See, Vlad, this is the problem with you ex-KGB types: lacking a sense of humor, you don't know when you're being freaking hilarious.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Card not seeing Ender's Game movie profits?

According to The Wrap, author Orson Scott Card isn't sharing in the profits of the filmed version of his novel Ender's Game. This is of interest to a lot of science-fiction fans because Card's vehemently and oft-expressed anti-gay sentiments have honked off some of the movie's potential audience.
... multiple sources from both inside and outside the companies that produced the “Ender’s Game” film – distributor Summit Entertainment, visual effects company Digital Domain and book-rights holder OddLot Entertainment – tell TheWrap that Card’s fee has already been paid through a decade-old deal that includes no backend.
Card, in other words, has already made all the money he stands to make from the movie. Whether it does well or poorly at the box office makes not a whit of (financial) difference to him.

On the other hand, he's still raking in the bucks on sales of the novel.

If you really want to hit Card where it hurts, boycott his book instead: Card still profits handsomely from the novel, perched at the top of the latest New York Times Best Seller List for paperback mass-market fiction.
The article doesn't cite any sources by name, and anonymously sourced stories don't carry as much weight in my book as stories whose sources are willing to be named. This article could be a carefully placed attempt to ensure the opening weekend's box office numbers aren't hurt by the boycott that has been urged for months. This whole "Card's not making a dime off the picture" business, in short, could be a big lie. Nevertheless, if your sole reason for boycotting the film is to send a message to Card, you might want to rethink your stance.

I wrote about my own ambivalence toward the movie — toward the very idea of filming the novel — in July. My own reason for not seeing the movie hasn't changed: I have too much respect for the novel to imagine anyone could faithfully translate it to film. If the couple of reviews I've read are any indication, the movie doesn't portray Ender in the way I hoped so my decision not to see the movie is the correct one — for me. (It's hard to imagine a movie Ender could be as nuanced and empathetic as the novel's: much of the novel takes place in his mind, a perspective that would be nigh impossible to represent on film.)

Whether you see the movie, think long and hard before you buy new copies of Card's books. Chances are good you can find used copies of the Enderverse sequels (and his non-Enderverse works). Ender's Game itself, unfortunately, will be tougher to find: people who buy the book tend to keep it. It's possible, though, that some of the folks driving the novel's current high sales won't be so enamored of it six months hence and will look to sell it or give it away, so patience might reward you (and allow you not to reward Card).

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Homicide: waxing nostalgic

Thinking about Munch prompted me to poke around YouTube for clips of Richard Belzer's other in-character cameos. While NBC seems to have successfully taken down any snippets of his appearance on 30 Rock, I did find a surprisingly large number of Homicide excerpts — even whole episodes.

If all you know is the pale shadow of John Munch that graced the squadroom of Law & Order: SVU, you need to see him in his original stomping grounds. Munch has gotten a lot more attention than the other Homicide characters only because he survived beyond the end of the show (and the subsequent TV movie). When you see him in his native habitat, you realize he was part of a special breed, one that thrived in an exceptionally well-written environment.

This clip, for instance, finds Munch in a typical moment of down time between cases, or at least between moments of active police work, in the company of his best partner, Stan "The Big Man" Bolander (Ned Beatty) and fellow detective Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson). Bolander and Lewis also figure prominently in the last ten minutes of "Crosetti", a wrenching episode that also featured a brilliantly written and acted exchange between Bolander and Gee about which I wrote a while back. Munch doesn't have much to do in these ten minutes but his brief exchange with Gee about eulogies is classic for the character.

The interactions between Bolander and Lewis show why Homicide, in spite of its flaws (see: Falsone, the Luther Mahoney storyline, all of the seventh season), is so much better than all of Dick Wolf's Law & Order series put together. Wolf fields AAA teams; Tom Fontana & co. played in the big leagues. I've seen the episode several times, but Lewis' reaction to the toxicology report, and Bolander's reaction to Lewis, still break my heart.

Note also how Baltimore is vital to the show's atmosphere in a way that New York never manages to be in any of the NYC-based Law & Order offerings. The outdoor shots in the aforementioned clip from "Crosetti" give those scenes tremendous impact.

I enjoy Andre Braugher's buttoned-up captain on Brooklyn Nine Nine, a character that nothing can discomfit. Nevertheless, I sometimes miss the more vulnerable Pembleton. Here, for instance, we see first Bayliss (Kyle Secor), then Kellerman (Reed Diamond), get under his skin. It's enjoyable to watch him lose his cool, however slightly: it humanizes the super-cop. Nor does Pembleton have to be irritated to show his softer side: sometimes all it takes is a few moments of enforced leisure, as in this interlude with Lewis.

I do love me some Kay Howard (Melissa Leo), too, and when the female super-cop has a real conversation with the male super-cop, it's always a special moment. Here's a quick, quiet, serious chat that directly affects one of Pembleton's investigations. This one, on the other hand, is nominally about one of Howard's cases, but ends up revealing far more about Pembleton's demons. "It's all in the caffeine."

These characters live and breathe and we care about them, thanks to superb writing, acting and directing. That's why the show's fans were and are passionate about it. Few TV shows manage to make us genuinely passionate. All hail Homicide: Life on the Street.

Friday, October 25, 2013

healthcare.gov and its fixers

The ambitious title of the op-ed piece is, "Why the Government Never Gets Tech Right".

I resisted reading it for the longest time — by which I mean a couple of days, an eternity in the news and in information technology. I grudgingly decided to check it out to get the scoop on what has been a terribly confusing, complicated story about what everyone seems to agree is a terribly confusing, complicated endeavor in the guise of a Web site.

I should have my head examined.

No op-ed piece could explain the failures that I have the strong impression even the responsible parties — the contractors who built, and Administration officials in charge of, the site — do not yet understand. What the heck was I thinking?

Even so, I hoped the piece would shed some light. Ah, me. You'd think I would have outgrown such touching naivete.

Clay Johnson and Harper Reed blame

... the Federal Acquisition Regulation, which is more than 1,800 pages of legalese that all but ensure that the companies that win government contracts, like the ones put out to build HealthCare.gov, are those that can navigate the regulations best, but not necessarily do the best job.
Yeah, right. healthcare.gov would be working just fine if only the contracts had been better handled.

Give me a freaking break.

Johnson's and Reed's take would be offensively simpleminded even if we knew why healthcare.gov is so slow and unreliable. But what none of the myriad so-called experts flapping their gums will tell you is that we still don't know why healthcare.gov doesn't work as it should.

Does it arise from difficulty knitting together the information management systems of private insurers with the healthcare.gov front end? Is it trouble with the other government databases and information management systems that healthcare.gov requires? Were parts of healthcare.gov not competently coded? Are there insufficient resources (e.g., processing power, memory, network bandwidth) available?

If you don't understand the problem, don't pretend you can solve it.

If somebody says he knows how to fix healthcare.gov and he's not involved in actually working on it, tell him you'll listen as soon as he extracts his head from his ass.

Johnson and Reed have an axe to grind. The only thing excusing their axe-grinding masquerading as expert advice is, they're hardly alone. Everybody and his uncle — including the most ass-ignorant of Republican lawmakers — is spewing bovine excrement based on absolutely squat in terms of understanding.

Why don't all you putative expert problem-solvers go and get yourselves real jobs instead of spouting off in ignorance? Shut the frack up instead of adding to the confusion.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Munch retires

In the credit-where-credit-is-due department, hats off to Law & Order: SVU for sending John Munch off in style.

I was hard on the long-running TV show, dumping on the performances of former star Christopher Meloni and current lead Mariska Hargitay. My severest criticism, though, I saved for Dick Wolf and his writing staff, who all but destroyed the character of John Munch they inherited from Homicide: Life on the Street. In particular I was ticked off that they disavowed Munch's Baltimore roots and sanded off all his angular edges. After SVU's first few seasons, I wrote, "Munch had become one of Dick Wolf's shadow puppets."

I stopped watching at that point so I don't know how he was treated from then on. I suppose it's possible the writing got significantly better, and/or the producer and his writers got religion about who John Munch really was. I doubt the writing got better: Wolf's shows have a house style and tone that keeps the writing decent if seldom outstanding. To get significantly better they'd have to be different shows. And as for changing their view of who John Munch was, that would have been risky: the SVU audience had come to expect Munch to be the shriveled husk in Benson and Stabler's shadow.

Munch finally hit mandatory retirement, a consequence of Richard Belzer's decision to cease being a regular cast member (there's widespread expectation he'll return for guest appearances). In the SVU episode "Wonderland Story", the squad holds his retirement party. For a Dick Wolf series the episode is practically a swoon-fest, as the first five minutes or so are a paean to Munch. (When longtime Law & Order star Jerry Orbach left that show, his Lenny Briscoe also ostensibly retiring, there was no celebration at all: Briscoe simply looked around the squad room for a moment before walking out the door.) Hargitay's Benson, Dann Florek's Cragen and Ice-T's Fin all say laudatory, if sarcastic, things about Munch's tenure, and Munch is even given a few moments to do a bit of Belzerian standup at the podium.

The quiet crowning moment of that opening, though, comes when Fin presents Munch with a shadow box of his New York and Baltimore badges. As Fin says "Baltimore shield" an unidentified man yells out, "No no no, we ran his butt out of B-more!" It's Clark Johnson, obviously playing his Homicide character Det. Meldrick Lewis. This follows on the heels of Munch's brief mention of two of his ex-wives, seated together at a table; the actresses are Carol Kane and Ellen McElduff, who portrayed two of Munch's ex-wives on Homicide. (None of them is credited by character name, though.) Nice tip of the hat to Munch's origins, and the most one could expect given SVU's pedigree.

Until the end. The last scene features Munch alone at his desk, cleaning it out. We hear his voice muttering, "Did you pull the ident photos?", but his lips aren't moving. Suddenly we're in a different, equally deserted squad room where a short-sleeved, unmistakably younger Munch is riffling through index cards with suspects. It's a scene from Homicide's pilot, "Gone for Goode", in which Munch is trying to prove to his crusty senior partner that he is, in fact, a good detective by going through booking photos (and talking to himself). It's a lovely, surprising second tip of the hat to a great show. (I wonder if one of "Wonderland Story"'s credited writers, Julie Martin, who also worked on many episodes of Homicide, had a hand in the more than usually respectful take on the earlier series.)

Yet one more little surprise awaits: when the phone rings in SVU-land, dragging Munch out of his Baltimore reverie, he picks it up and answers, "Homicide ... I mean, SVU."

It's a tell. For all the years Munch has been in SVU, his heart is still with his erstwhile fellow homicide detectives in Baltimore. You didn't have to say that, Wolf & co., but you did. Thanks, and good job.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Naming things for politicians

The California legislature decided to waste some of its time renaming the western span of the (San Francisco-Oakland) Bay Bridge after former Assembly speaker and former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown.

Brown was a member of the California State Assembly for thirty years and its Speaker for fifteen before serving two terms as San Francisco's mayor. He was a consequential politician in his day, but he wasn't a saint and he engendered his share of controversy. He was a major reason California voters enacted term limits for state legislators: he and others had all but grown roots in the state house. Brown also thinks very highly of himself, even as politicians go: a lot of us were surprised he and his ego fit inside San Francisco's massive City Hall dome. In short, he is something of a polarizing figure around the state.

Plus, he's still alive. Most politicians, even in this age of brazenness, have the good sense to wait until their former colleagues have been dead for a bit before bringing their names up to grace public monuments.

Fortunately for California's Democrats, they didn't have to do the heavy lifting.

The rename, which covers the bridge from Yerba Buena Island to San Francisco, was co-authored by San Francisco Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ting and was a top legislative priority for the state NAACP.

The backing of the powerful civil rights group was one of the key reasons the name change sailed through the Legislature with hardly a peep of opposition. San Francisco’s other Assemblyman, Tom Ammiano, opposed the name change but abstained from the vote.

The Senate vote came after lawmakers on the Transportation Committee had waived a rule against naming roadways for people who are still alive.

As Matier and Ross (the San Francisco Chronicle's political gossip columnists) noted, some of the Bay Area's most powerful Democratic state legislators stayed mum and/or abstained from voting on the resolution. It seems likely that, although they were reluctant to cross Brown openly (he still carries a lot of weight in state Democratic circles), they could see how greasily self-serving this maneuver looks for both the NAACP and Brown himself.

Speaking of Brown, he, as the consummate pol that he is, has had the good sense to display a little humility. A little.

“Let’s be honest,” he said. “In the long run, it will always be the Bay Bridge.

“But for today – I am the bridge.”

He does know how to make self-aggrandizement more charming than it has any right to be, does Mr. Brown.

But yes, Willie — in the long run, it will always be the Bay Bridge. Not least because it unostentatiously does its job, and "unostentatious" is the very last word anyone would use to describe you.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Not enough hurt

As I watch what some genuinely unhinged anarchists on the far right of the political spectrum — call them Tea Party activists if you will, though I'm not convinced "the Tea Party" is a meaningful rubric — are doing to our polity, I'm left with a somber realization. The reason they've been able to get away with hijacking our national government, and many of our state governments, is that the worst excesses of their nihilistic, anti-government agenda have been blunted.

Consider sequestration. It was designed, by both parties, to be as painful as possible so as to spur lawmakers and the President to find common ground on the budget. It didn't work, of course, and we're living with the consequences. But did you remember that sequestration was in place? Probably not, if you're like me and you don't make much explicit use of government services. (Certain so-common-we-never-think-about-them things, like the interstate highway system, are about the closest a lot of us get to genuinely federal services.)

Yet there was one federal function whose sequestration-caused cutback came very close to causing a lot of very high-profile pain: air-traffic control. I had hoped that the media-made spectacle of frustrated business and leisure travelers, not to mention their direct complaints to lawmakers, would put a boot in Congress' posterior. It did, but not in the way I had hoped. Rather than prompting Congress to deal with the budget as a whole, it made House Republicans whip up a special exemption to the sequestration rules that allowed the FAA to restore full funding for controllers. It passed the House, then the Senate, and was signed by Obama almost before the ink was dry.

That lightning-fast compromise, seemingly enacted within a couple of days, pissed me off in no uncertain fashion, because the very visible and vocal pain of sidelined travelers would have been exactly the kind of consequence that Democrats could and should have used to drag Republicans back to reality. Instead, Democrats, including the President, allowed the GOP to do exactly what they wanted: to fund only those parts of government that they liked, or at least that the public wouldn't let them curtail. Meanwhile, the extremely poor, who make for lousy visuals on TV (and who have no lobbyists in D.C.), got screwed in no uncertain terms.

The same lack of pain is on display with the partial shutdown. Notice that everyone knows it's only a partial shutdown. Social Security checks go out, Medicare isn't noticeably affected, servicemembers are being paid, agricultural subsidies are still being paid — all the GOP's core constituencies are being cushioned from the shutdown's effects. If Social Security checks weren't being cut, do you think asshats like Michele Bachmann or Joe Barton would have cheered the shutdown or be minimizing the possible effects of a debt default? Do you think Boehner would be letting himself be led around by the nose by the far right nutjobs in the House? Hell, no: he'd be hearing the screams of his angry constituents without even picking up the phone, and he would be huddling in the Oval Office 24/7 until a deal was hammered out. If we were having a real shutdown, the genuine meaning of federal spending might even penetrate the hardened concrete around the brains of grassroots Tea Partiers.

There could be genuine, lasting (as in permanent) pain on the way if the far right succeeds in triggering a debt-ceiling-mediated default on the national debt. However, it's the sort of pain that will first hit the GOP's big-business wing, and big business isn't, for the most part, driving the nutjobs holding the House hostage. The irrational and ignorant citizenry shouting "bring it on!" won't feel the pain for a while, and when they do — when they discover that interest rates on loans have skyrocketed and that D.C. needs to make really painful cuts to long-sacrosanct, supposedly non-discretionary outlays like agricultural subsidies and, uh oh, Medicare — the reality-challenged idiots that elected the destructive morons who triggered the crisis in D.C. won't make the connection. The right-wing media cocoon will blame it on Obama and Congressional Democrats, I guarantee it, and the half-wits who get their news only from these outlets will continue to fuck over the rest of us by mulishly continuing to behave self-destructively.

Until or unless the scarily-uninformed, more-than-reactionary zealots of the far right actually are made to hurt because of a lack of federal services, they will continue to be shrapnel in the machinery of government — and the rest of us will continue to be screwed over by them.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Another state legislator, another little mind

There's no doubt that state and local representatives are closer to their constituents than Washington politicians are likely to be, both physically and spiritually. Thus it makes me wonder what the people of Payson, AZ are like — and not in a good way — when their state legislator, Brenda Barton, goes on a temper tantrum and compares the President to Hitler.
Someone is paying the National Park Service thugs overtime for their efforts to carry out the order of De Fuhrer... where are our Constitutional Sheriffs who can revoke the Park Service Rangers authority to arrest??? Do we have any Sheriffs with a pair?
The appalling dilution of what Adolf Hitler and the Nazis did proceeds apace as yet another boneheaded public official equates "things that make me very, very unhappy" with the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime.

Yo, Brenda — you're throwing a temper tantrum over the closure of national parks? And you're claiming it's Obama's fault? What, in your world the President is a king and there's no such thing as Congress?

To correct Barton's idiocy is a mighty task. (The word "idiocy" doesn't even begin to plumb the depths of her mindlessness.) It's not just that she ignores the outsized role of Congress in the current fiasco. She honestly expects people to imagine that the National Park Service is an arm of a totalitarian regime. The National freaking Park Service.

And then ... equating the President — any U.S. president — with Adolf Hitler?

You see six million bodies (counting just the civilians) on any U.S. president's tally sheet, Brenda?

Oh wait, you do. I will bet money you do. That's how divorced from reality you are.

I feel thirty IQ points dumber just trying to wrap my mind around the shriveled nubbin that is Barton's.

I have in my mind the image of a grown woman sitting in the middle of the street, having thrown down her rattle and pacifier, bawling, "Obama's a meanie!! I hate him!"

If there are any adults in Payson, AZ, could you look into getting Brenda Barton back to her parents, or to whoever cares for lost and wayward children? The rest of us have real work to do, and she's just getting in the way.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Chicken processed in China: more questions than answers

As I mentioned earlier this month, the USDA has granted permission for chickens raised and slaughtered in the U.S. (and Canada, and Chile) to be exported to a handful of plants in China for processing. The downside of this arrangement for consumers is that the products using such chicken need not identify that it was processed in China.

I was pissed, and so is everyone who reads about the USDA ruling: China's track record for quality control, and more specifically food safety, is abysmal. That's why I was heartened to discover that members of Congress seem to be paying attention.

“Given the well-documented shortcomings of the Chinese food safety system, we shouldn’t allow unmarked meat into our markets that is processed in Chinese facilities that are not subject to food safety inspections,” [Sen. Sherrod] Brown [D-OH] stated in a press release accompanying his letter to [Secretary of Agriculture Tom] Vilsack.
Brown also has specific questions for Vilsack. A couple of most important (as far as I'm concerned) are:
Is it true that poultry processed in China would be labeled upon reaching our shores and possibly subject to re-inspection, but regulatory exemptions for processed poultry and meats allow labeling to be removed before these products are purchased by American consumers? If so, how might the labeling gap be remedied by USDA?

What additional regulatory or labeling steps might USDA take to ensure that American consumers are given all currently available information regarding supply chain safety and country of origin of their meat products (processed and unprocessed)?

Vilsack hasn't yet responded.

Brown wants USDA inspectors stationed at the Chinese processing plants, but I doubt that any inspection regimen can compensate for the reality that Chinese businesses don't take quality control or food safety as seriously as we do.

No, this nonsense about consumers not being allowed to know the origins of the ingredients in processed (or for that matter unprocessed) foods has got to stop. We consumers have the right to know who's handling our food and to have that information unambiguously spelled out on labels. Period.

Time to poke your Congresscritters and tell them to pepper Vilsack with their own questions, or join in asking Brown's.

Emmy for Colbert Report

In an Emmy broadcast that prompted The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Goodman to ask in his live blog, "What did we all do to deserve an Emmys this bad?", there was at least one bright spot: The Colbert Report finally snagged the Emmy for Outstanding Variety Series.
"They say it's an honor just to be nominated, but it's also a lie. Winning is way better."
I prefer The Daily Show to The Colbert Report, but there's no denying that Stephen Colbert is one of the most phenomenally talented people on TV today. He has been doing his high-wire act for eight years now and he's just as astonishingly deft at it as he was on day 1.

Fittingly, The Colbert Report also won for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series. Like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report's writing, while sometimes sophomoric, is generally some of the smartest on TV. This, in spite of having to be carried out under brutal deadlines: the audience, after all, expects incisive commentary on news that happened no more than 24 hours prior to the show's airing. (Letterman and his ilk operate under the same time constraints but aren't expected to find something truly insightful to say: a quick zinger is enough. What they deliver is mild comedy; what Stewart and Colbert deliver is satire.)

I hope you all appreciate just how amazing Stewart's and Colbert's runs on their respective shows have been and continue to be. We are privileged to be watching legendary TV firsthand, and someday, when these shows are no longer on the scene, we will marvel that we took them for granted.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine

The one-liner everyone wants to apply to this new TV show is, "It's the modern Barney Miller". Even the producers get into the act.

The Barney Miller comparisons are predictable but wrongheaded. Barney Miller was the quintessential ensemble show: although Hal Linden was the first-billed star, he served mostly as the eye of the storm for each episode, with other regular cast members and guest stars providing most of the comedic sparks. The show's trademark shooting style, emphasizing long, uninterrupted takes, gave it the atmosphere of a play: performers had room to interact and to react organically rather than through separate reaction shots. The pace and rhythm of the show, along with its severely constrained formula of wacky-victims-and-criminals-of-the-week, make it unique even today among American sitcoms.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine has a completely different structure at its heart. It revolves, at least for now, around Samberg's Det. Jake Peralta, whom some reviewers have dubbed a Hawkeye Pierce type of character for his irreverence coupled with great ability in his chosen profession. Authority, in the form of Andre Braugher's Capt. Ray Holt, inevitably clashes with Peralta. A crew of idiosyncratic fellow detectives and the need to solve crimes now and again keep the show percolating.

That percolating, that need to keep things moving, makes Brooklyn Nine-Nine very much a standard sitcom, albeit a good one, and not a real heir to Barney Miller. The denizens of the ol' 1-2 operated at a uniquely relaxed pace and the humor arose largely from the spectacle of quirky New Yorkers clashing with one another while simply trying to go about their business. The detectives functioned as referees as often as not, and the treat was to see what fresh bits of unexpected weirdness would be brought into the squad room each week for sorting out.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine hews more closely not just to standard sitcoms but to standard cop shows: detectives are supposed to be confronted by criminal mysteries and to solve them. Procedural work gives the detectives the chance to have their own encounters with Brooklyn's civilian population. It's doubtful, though, that these encounters will become the heart of the show as they did on Barney Miller. That's just as well: it takes formidable writing talent to keep that fresh week after week and the writing on the pilot was good, but not outstanding.

So enough with the comparisons. Brooklyn Nine-Nine isn't Barney Miller — but that's okay.

(And now, a word about Andre Braugher. At least one review I've seen expressed a bit of surprise that he works so well in a comedy. However, while it's true that Homicide: Life on the Street was often a grim crime drama, those who know it only by reputation don't realize that black humor was an integral part of the show. Braugher's Pembleton, like all the detectives, was capable of sardonic observations and deadpan putdowns. Braugher's Holt, in the pilot at least, comes off as Pembleton minus the brooding. Holt, in other words, isn't a stretch for Braugher — not yet, anyway.)

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Pope Francis vs. U.S. bishops

AP religion writer Rachel Zoll penned an informative piece, "Pope's blunt remarks pose challenge for bishops", contrasting Francis' recent remarks criticizing the church's focus on abortion and other controversial issues with U.S. bishops' guarded responses.

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan thought the Pope's remarks were directed at everyone, not just Church officials.

"I don't know if it's just the church that seems obsessed with those issues. It seems to be culture and society," Dolan said on "CBS This Morning." "What I think he's saying is, 'Those are important issues and the church has got to keep talking about them, but we need to talk about them in a fresh new way.' If we keep kind of a negative, finger-wagging tone, it's counterproductive. "
Yeah, right, Cardinal Dolan, the ordinary citizen is all riled up about abortion and gay marriage. If one needed a sign that Catholic Church leadership in the U.S. is stuck in an echo chamber — one inhabited by fellow religious fundamentalists of all stripes — his remark was it.

Ordinary people are concerned about a lot of things these days: the economy, the possibility of further conflict in the Middle East, pollution of our air and water, whether twerking is a sign of the end of days. Abortion is one of those concerns, to be sure, but it doesn't obsess us the way it obsesses you and your coreligionists. And telling us that compassion for women who must decide whether to have an abortion is not just misplaced but positively evil, well, what that really tells us is, you guys don't give a shit about women.

Think that's too harsh? Here's what U.S. bishops have said and done in the last ten years.

During the 2004 presidential election, then Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis launched what was dubbed "wafer watch" when he said he would deny Communion to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, a Catholic who supported abortion rights. Other bishops followed suit or suggested that abortion-rights supporters refrain from the sacrament. (Benedict later appointed Burke head of the Vatican high court and elevated him to cardinal.)

By 2007, the bishops revised their moral guide for Catholic voters to put a special emphasis on the evil of abortion, so the issue wouldn't be lost amid other concerns such as poverty or education. The document, called "Faithful Citizenship," warned voters that supporting abortion rights could endanger their souls.

In the 2012 campaign season, it was much more common to hear bishops warning Catholics that voting for a particular candidate would amount to "formal cooperation in grave evil." Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Ill., compared the policies of President Barack Obama to those of Hitler and Stalin. At Mass on the Sunday before the presidential election, Jenky instructed his priests to read a letter saying politicians who support abortion rights reject Jesus.

Endangering one's soul? Rejecting Jesus? Are you guys seriously telling your flock that this one issue, out of all those that face human beings, is the one that can make or break one's fate as a Catholic? For eternity?

You consistently and bullheadedly insist that the most difficult decision a woman is ever likely to face is not a decision at all. It doesn't involve a tradeoff between competing and weighty considerations. To you it's purely a matter of good and evil, and there is no possible good on one side of the scale.

This blinkered, black-and-white morality story you tell yourselves about abortion is intolerably, insufferably cruel. And so are you.

Your absolutist stance on abortion is only one sign of your intolerance. You consistently elevate dogma above compassion. You've decided that rather than adapting to the complexities of the modern world, you will mulishly and incessantly chastise and threaten it for not conforming to your standards. Your words and deeds show remarkably, lamentably little room in your hearts for understanding.

In a perfect world I would oppose prematurely terminating a pregnancy. But this isn't a perfect world. Even worse, the Church stands foursquare in the way of making the world better by firmly opposing contraception as well. For the love of Mike, guys, why? Do you not see the intolerable vise in which your positions on contraception and abortion place so many of your poorest, least powerful adherents? Do you not see the cruel choice you're inflicting on them?

I'm sorry, that was a dumb question. Of course you conservative bishops understand. No one has ever accused you of being stupid. You know what you're doing.

That's what's so appalling. You think punishment is the answer. Not compassion, not preventative help — punishment. In the criminal realm, no less. You know why you're getting pushback from the rest of us? Because you're supposed to keep your self-righteous mitts off our criminal justice system. You don't have a monopoly on morality or rectitude.

Pope Francis, it sounds as if you might be inclined to push the Church in a less confrontational direction. If so, I wish you luck. You have your work cut out for you with the deeply rule- and dogma-obsessed Church leadership in the U.S.

Emmy memorial snubs

It seems that this year, the Emmys have an unwelcome glut of dead stars who should be memorialized.

There's always a quickie montage of the deceased, of course, but the show singles out several stars each year for special memorials. This year, those specially honored will be James Gandolfini ("The Sopranos"), Jean Stapleton ("All in the Family"), Jonathan Winters ("Mork and Mindy", among other things), Gary David Goldberg (producer of "Family Ties"), and Cory Monteith ("Glee").

Among those special honorees, it's Monteith who's raising some people's hackles. It's understandable when you consider that not only had Monteith not won any Emmys, but that three other major stars were left out of the special-memorials segment: Charles Durning ("Evening Shade"), Larry Hagman ("I Dream of Jeannie", "Dallas"), and Jack Klugman ("The Defenders", "The Odd Couple", "Quincy, M.E."). Klugman's son Adam is incensed, pointing out that his father won three Emmys over the course of his half-century career.

One could argue that Durning was better known as a movie star, but not giving either Hagman or Klugman a special memorial segment does seem indefensible. Both men starred in multiple popular and long-lasting TV series, with Hagman especially creating characters that endured in viewers' hearts and minds. (I didn't like either of Hagman's two iconic series, whereas I loved "The Odd Couple", so I'm not a Hagman partisan by any means.) I didn't watch "Glee"; nevertheless, I don't know how you can defend snubbing Hagman or Klugman in favor of Monteith. However promising his career was, he hadn't accomplished a fraction of what Klugman or Hagman had.

Ah, well. I'd rather be thinking about this than the far right's plan to destroy the U.S. economy by shutting down the government.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

It's a bird ... it's a plane ... it's -- a frog?

Courtesy of Talking Points Memo, maybe my favorite rocket launch photo ever.

Could it have been Photoshopped? Of course. However, I choose to believe NASA's assertion that this really happened.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

China now allowed to process U.S. chickens

You may lose your appetite for processed chicken products when you realize the processing might have been performed in China.

Politico apparently broke the story on 30 August. Other outlets like the New York Times picked it up and provided more consumer-relevant context.

The Department of Agriculture on Friday approved four Chinese poultry processors to begin shipping a limited amount of meat to the United States ...

Initially, the companies will be allowed to export only cooked poultry products from birds raised in the United States and Canada.

However, the audit trail will be all but impossible for anyone to follow.
Under the new rules, the Chinese facilities will verify that cooked products exported to the United States came from American or Canadian birds. So no U.S.D.A. inspector will be present in the plants.

And because the poultry will be processed, it will not require country-of-origin labeling. Nor will consumers eating chicken noodle soup from a can or chicken nuggets in a fast-food restaurant know if the chicken came from Chinese processing plants.

Remember that bit about consumers not being able to know whether the chicken came from Chinese processing plants: it will be especially relevant a little later.

I have trouble trusting U.S.-based food processing plants. I have no confidence in the trustworthiness of Chinese food processing plants. China, socially and economically speaking, is still in its Gilded Age. The economic powers that be are unconstrained except when public outrage reaches critical levels. Corruption and fraud in the pursuit of profit are endemic. Only a week ago the Times published a different piece, "Fast and Flawed Inspections of Factories Abroad", which described how Chinese and other overseas manufacturers evade the inspections now required by some Western companies.

Two years ago, honey unexpectedly lacking pollen was found in many supermarkets under many brand names — "[m]ore than three-fourths of the honey sold in U.S. grocery stores", according to Food Safety News. (Removing the pollen from honey makes it impossible to determine the honey's origin.) The technique used to remove the pollen

is a spin-off of a technique refined by the Chinese, who have illegally dumped tons of their honey – some containing illegal antibiotics – on the U.S. market for years.
Furthermore:
Richard Adee, whose 80,000 hives in multiple states produce 7 million pounds of honey each year, told Food Safety News that “honey has been valued by millions for centuries for its flavor and nutritional value and that is precisely what is completely removed by the ultra-filtration process.”

“There is only one reason to ultra-filter honey and there’s nothing good about it,” he says.

“It’s no secret to anyone in the business that the only reason all the pollen is filtered out is to hide where it initially came from and the fact is that in almost all cases, that is China,” Adee added.

There have been other food-safety issues with food (and pet food) originating in China. Quality control simply is not a priority for Chinese companies. If they can get away with dangerous shortcuts, they will.

So why did the USDA approve processing by those four Chinese plants? Politico quotes a plausible explanation given by Food and Water Watch. The group's executive director, Wenonah Hauter, issued a statement linking the USDA's action to U.S. beef exports.

“It’s common practice for government agencies to release information they hope to sneak past consumers on Friday afternoons before a holiday weekend,” she said.

“It has been no secret that China has wanted to export chicken to the U.S. in exchange for reopening its market for beef from the U.S. that has been closed since 2003 due to the diagnosis of a cow in Washington State with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease. Today’s audit report reveals yet again that USDA is willing to allow trade to trump food safety.”

Worse, the reassurances the USDA is giving us sound like absolute bullshit.
National Chicken Council Senior Vice President Bill Roenigk previously told POLITICO that USDA has repeatedly told the group it will ensure the Chinese-processed chicken will be safe.

“We have a concern about safety. But we’ve been assured and reassured by USDA that they will do 100 percent testing on poultry products from China,” he said.

Now we come back to the part about consumers not being able to know whether processed chicken came from Chinese processing plants. If we won't know, how will the USDA know? And the bigger question, because I suspect this will be the case — if the USDA will know which products contain chicken processed in China, why can't consumers know?

Since USDA has seen fit to throw U.S. consumers under the bus, I'll be giving up processed-chicken products of all kinds. For the sake of your health, I suggest you follow suit. The only way to get the USDA and food manufacturers to pay attention is to make this stupid decision a prohibitively costly one.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Hollow assurance

In response to an International Olympic Committee inquiry about its new law banning "propaganda" of what the Russians characterize as "nontraditional sexual relations", Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak assured the IOC that Russia "will comply fully with the Olympic Charter's provision against discrimination of any kind".

The new law

... penalizes anyone who distributes information aimed at persuading minors that "nontraditional" relationships are normal or attractive.

The law applies equally to everyone and "cannot be regarded as discrimination based on sexual orientation," Kozak said.

Of course, what does it mean to "distribute" information? No one seems to know. Russia's government doesn't seem interested in nailing down the details. Convenient, don't you think? That leaves all the room the government needs to apply the law any way it likes.

The IOC was eager to give the Russian government as much credit as possible.

"We have today received strong written reassurances from the Russian government that everyone will be welcome at the games in Sochi regardless of their sexual orientation," [IOC President Jacques] Rogge said in a statement.
But of course, Rogge's statement (and Kozak's too) entirely misses the point.

There was never a question of gay athletes or spectators not being welcome at the Olympics. Russia could neither have won nor kept the bid to host the games if it had threatened to bar gays. That's a stupid strawman issue designed to distract from the real problem.

The real problem is, Russia is telling visitors (and natives, of course) that they'd better watch what they say. They'd better watch what they wear, too. Anything that could be construed as a message is fair game under the Russian law. For all we know, that could include something as innocuous as an athlete acknowledging a same-sex partner at a press conference.

Russian soil, Russian law. The thing is, those of us who aren't Russians deserve better from the IOC than a transparent evasion of the question at hand. We expect that from the Russian government. We should hold the IOC to a higher standard.

And beyond the Olympics, it behooves anyone who gives a damn about decent treatment of other human beings to consider whether doing business with Russia is moral. Visiting or trading with Russia tells Russians that bigotry is acceptable.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

New top-level domains

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is in the process of creating who knows how many new TLDs, or top-level domains — the outermost name components of the ubiquitous Internet domain name, e.g., foo.bar.com. Right now ".com", ".net", ".org", etc., are the only choices; ICANN wants to add new ones like ".app" and ".beauty". The New York Times has an article about the matter. (The article, I should add, incorrectly dubs ICANN "Icann". Forget that idiocy: it's ICANN.)

I can't fathom why ICANN has allowed the domain naming scheme to be mauled in this way.

Existing top-level domains like ".com" and ".net" conform to an organizational scheme that goes from general to specific. At the top level, sites are organized into broad categories like ".gov" for U.S. government sites and ".net" for network providers. The administrators of each TLD were then free to organize that TLD any way they chose, and each subdomain was free to organize that subdomain any way it chose. The University of California, Berkeley, for instance, having been granted the "berkeley.edu" subdomain (or simply domain), could then create more specific subdomains like "haas.berkeley edu" (for the school of business) and "kalx.berkeley.edu" (for the campus radio station).

The choice of the original TLDs was arbitrary, perhaps even capricious. Probably no one outside the U.S. government, for instance, is happy that ".gov" is the exclusive province of the United States government. There's definitely room for improvement in the ad hoc organizational scheme embodied by the existing TLDs. As exasperated as I get with the exhaustively detailed standards promulgated by ISO, I suspect only the kind of painstaking, comprehensive approach that ISO takes to its problems would result in a domain naming scheme that would be robust and extensible. (Of course, ISO solutions tend to have the drawback that they're largely incomprehensible to mere mortals and are a royal pain to implement, thus limiting their adoption. ISO's design for computer network protocols, for instance, is elegant and comprehensive, but to my knowledge the only operating systems that attempted to implement it abandoned the effort more than a decade ago in favor of the rough-and-ready TCP/IP stack.)

Nevertheless, as much as change is needed, I don't see how the equally arbitrary (or capricious) TLDs apparently being suggested by applicants to ICANN today are going to help matters. They'll increase "real estate", as one so-called expert remarked in the Times piece, but that's about all — and increasing real estate benefits the applicants, not the Internet as a whole. That's fundamentally wrongheaded. ICANN should be trying to make the Internet better, not catering to the whims of companies whose short-term profit motive is at odds with the long-term stability and usability of the Internet.

As far as I can tell from an admittedly quick and incomplete glossing of ICANN's documentation of its TLDs expansion project, ICANN didn't start by envisioning any kind of architecture for domain classification. Instead, ICANN laid out technical requirements for supporting what looks like an uncoordinated rush to create a TLD landscape without any structuring principle. If a name can be unambiguously converted to bits that all name servers can handle, it's good.

I suppose that ICANN's vision is in line with how typical Web users see the Internet today: hierarchies are inconvenient at best when massive search engines make data available at the click of a mouse. Why bother memorizing "haas.berkeley.edu" when typing "Haas School of Business" in the browser's search field brings up the business school's site as the first hit?

Yet an absence of structure in domain names can lead to unnecessary confusion. A TLD is supposed to be a generic category within which more specific objects can be found. However, there are all kinds of generic categories. ".car", for instance, might be a fine place for a Ford dealership to ensconce its domain name, but what about a bumper-car manufacturer, or a site devoted to Pullman coaches that wants to have "train.car" in its domain name? Or what about ".love", one of the proposed TLDs? How many kinds of love are there? How useful is "love" as a category?

The drive to expand Internet "real estate" has trumped any concern for why the original domain naming scheme was structured as it was (and is). If hierarchical/categorical naming is no longer important, why maintain the fiction of domain names at all? Why not create a different naming scheme that doesn't trade in the trappings or structure of the existing domain names hierarchy?

Part of the appeal of the existing TLDs is that they serve as a rough (admittedly, increasingly rough) guide to the purpose of their subdomains. The existing TLDs don't organize the world well enough, we can all agree. Yet is the answer to abandon all hope of organization? That seems to be what ICANN has decided.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Words matter

Yelena Isinbayeva, a world-class pole vaulter who happens to be Russian, was widely covered in the U.S. press for her remarks following a competition in Moscow recently. She defended Russia's law banning "propaganda on nontraditional sexual relationships".
“It’s unrespectful to our country,” she said at a news conference Thursday. “It’s unrespectful to our citizens because we are Russians. Maybe we are different than European people, than other people from different lands. We have our law, which everyone has to respect.”

...

“It’s my opinion also,” she said, adding: “You know, to do all this stuff on the street, we are very afraid about our nation, because we consider ourselves like normal, standard people. We just live boys with women, and women with boys.”

She added, “It comes from history.”

She apparently was speaking in English, a detail that might be relevant in that she now claims that her remarks might have been "misunderstood".
“English is not my first language and I think I may have been misunderstood when I spoke yesterday. What I wanted to say was that people should respect the laws of other countries particularly when they are guests,” Isinbayeva said in a statement issued through local organizers of the world championships.

“I respect the views of my fellow athletes and let me state in the strongest terms that I am opposed to any discrimination against gay people.”

She wasn't misunderstood. She insisted on respect for host countries' laws: we got that. She simply seems to regret having said more than that.

She might have meant instead that she expressed herself poorly, but I find that difficult to believe. Her earlier statements were unambiguous and conveyed a consistent viewpoint. Her "clarification" seems to me nothing more than a clumsy effort to back-pedal in the face of international disapproval. She certainly didn't disavow her earlier remarks.

If she sincerely had trouble expressing herself, however, perhaps she (and others) should think about just how easily people can be misinterpreted. In particular, they should consider whether what they label "propaganda" might actually be expressions of identity — the voices of those who simply wish to live without lies and without fear. The voices of those who, right now, must live with both, thanks to the laws passed by their fearful and resentful countrymen.

Russians, of all people, ought to understand that you can't force everyone to march to the same tune. Didn't seventy years of brutal state dictatorship make that clear? Or did they learn the wrong lesson — that brutality is okay as long as it doesn't affect them?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The retrograde Russians

The article is "Gays in Russia Find No Haven, Despite Support From the West".

The Russian government strongly objects to characterizing recently passed laws as discriminatory.

Russian officials say the criticism is unfair and inaccurate. In 1993, Russia repealed the Soviet-era law that made gay sex a crime.

“This is not about imposing any kind of sanctions against homosexuality,” Mr. Putin said, defending the propaganda law at a news conference in June. “This is about protecting children.”

He added: “The law does not in any way infringe on the rights of sexual minorities. They are full-fledged members of our society and are not being discriminated against in any way.”

I'd laugh at that unabashedly bald-faced lie were the consequences not so brutal for gays and their straight defenders.

Still, there's a possible upside I don't think anyone has pointed out: the Russians, at long last, might have found common ground with the most extremely fundamentalist elements of the Islamic world. The 88 percent of Russians who support the laws keep spiritual company with the Taliban (among others). That ought to make the average Russian proud.

Russia and the Taliban, boldly marching toward the Middle Ages.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Stan Ridgway today

I caught Stan Ridgway live the other night at San Francisco's Red Devil Lounge (a cozy spot that I liked very much, by the way).

He put on a good show, but it was a decidedly low-key affair. There are any number of reasons for this, I suspect — not being backed by a major label, an elaborate touring group is likely beyond his reach, for one thing — but the main reason almost certainly is that he simply is no longer young. Midway through the show I realized that he looks like a grandfather. It's startling to realize that he is, or will be, fifty-nine this year.

I miss his more energetic performances of classics like "Camouflage" (and hey, Stan, what was the point of dropping the lines, "Well, I was gonna ask him where he came from when we heard the bullets fly / Coming through the brush and all around our ears / It was then I saw this big Marine light a fire in his eyes / And it was strange but suddenly I forgot my fears"?). I'm happy, though, that his voice remains more or less unchanged, and that he seems to have found reliable bandmates in Pietra Wexstun and Rick King.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear "The Roadblock" and "Knife and Fork", less well-known songs I've always enjoyed. Another pleasant surprise was "Lost Weekend", an unusually relaxed Wall of Voodoo number it has been years since I heard him perform live. It was a hoot to hear him forget a couple of lines from "Drive (She Said)" since I've always found that one difficult to memorize. (In contrast, "Camouflage" is easy despite being twice as long.) "Call of the West" was a highlight, in no small part because it brought out a little of his younger, edgier self.

He also did one or two numbers from his most recent studio release, Mr. Trouble, but I've already forgotten which. This is not to slight the album: I simply hadn't heard it before the show so I wasn't familiar with any of the songs. In fact, based on my couple of listens, Mr. Trouble's new material seems to be top-notch. I share the AllMusic reviewer's disappointment, though, that there isn't more of it: only six of the ten songs are new tracks, the remaining four being from a 2010 live show.

Ridgway hung out at the merch table after the show to chat and to sign autographs. Contrary to rumors I heard many years ago, he seems to be a genial and approachable man; he patiently listened to me blurt out that I'd been a fan since 1986 and was happy to sign my copy of Silly Songs for Kids, Vol. 1.

Ridgway continues to put out intriguing, sometimes fascinating music. I'm quite glad to have stuck with him as a fan for all these years.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Russian law and order

If I had had any plans to attend the 2014 Olympics in Russia, the remarks by Russia's minister of sports would have derailed them.
Russia’s minister of sports, Vitaly L. Mutko, said on Thursday that foreign athletes traveling to Russia for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi would be expected obey a new Russian law banning “homosexual propaganda” or face criminal prosecution.

...

“No one is forbidding a sportsman with a nontraditional sexual orientation to come to Sochi,” Mutko said. “But if he goes out on the street and starts to propagandize it, then of course he will be held accountable. Even if he’s a sportsman, when he comes to a country, he should respect its laws.”

What it means "to propagandize", of course, is up to Russia's government. You know, the one that nice Mr. Putin runs. That nice Mr. Putin who has thrown his lot in with Russia's homegrown versions of that hatemongering asshole, Fred Phelps. Or, to be fair, that nice Mr. Putin who might be a Russian version of Fred Phelps.

I might be able to obey your silly little law, Mr. Mutko, but I could never respect it. Just as well, then, that I have no plans to visit anytime soon. Russia seems to be happily reverting to its baser instincts. If you have Russian travel plans — well, maybe you ought to rethink them.

Ariel Castro a monster?

Infamous Ohio kidnapper Ariel Castro made a statement before being sentenced.
Mr. Castro claimed that he had not forced himself on the women, two of whom were teenagers — ages 14 and 16 — when he abducted them.

“The sex that went on it the house, practically all of it was consensual,” he said. “There were times they would even ask me for sex.”

He insisted that he was neither evil nor violent, but that he had been a victim of childhood sexual abuse and became addicted to pornography.

“I was driven by sex,” he told the court, saying that during some periods of his life he had spent several hours a day masturbating and watching pornography.

“These people are trying to paint me as a monster,” Mr. Castro said. “I’m not a monster. I’m sick.”

A rabid dog is both sick and a monster.

I don't know if you're sick, Castro. But you're a monster.

The rest of us need you locked away for the rest of your existence.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Protest and purpose

I've ambivalent about protest marches. I get that people want to express their outrage, and the marches can bring needed attention to issues. In the case of Trayvon Martin, I'm pissed, too.

What, though, was the point of a Martin protester blocking a light-rail vehicle in San Jose today?

What did the people on that LRV have to do with Martin's murder?

What did the transit authority operating the LRV have to do with Martin's murder?

Another thing: even on a Sunday, people have to work. People have obligations other than work, too. Protesters who deliberately screw with traffic, then, aren't just "inconveniencing" people, as their apologists like to claim. They are adding stress and difficulty to the lives of people who not only did no harm to Martin, but have no power to redress the injustice of his death.

Why piss them off about your protest rather than whatever you're protesting?