Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Someone explain fact vs. fiction to Rush Limbaugh

Here's why Rush Limbaugh thinks Idris Elba can't play James Bond:
“James Bond is a total concept put together by Ian Fleming. He was white and Scottish. Period. That is who James Bond is, was.”

...

Limbaugh went on to compare the casting to the idea of George Clooney and Kate Hudson starring as Barack and Michelle Obama in a presidential biopic.

Rush? Buddy?

Barack and Michelle Obama are real people.

James Bond is fictional. That means he's make-believe.

Not real.

For some fictional characters, like Huckleberry Finn or Othello, race matters. A lot. For others, not so much.

In the "not so much" category we can include characters whose main attributes are saving the world, looking good in formalwear, drinking martinis and bedding any gorgeous woman who crosses their path.

You added, “[T]hat’s not who James Bond is and I know it’s racist to probably point this out.”

"James Bond" is whoever the movie producer says he is. You can push back by urging your audience not to watch the movie, but if you want more of a say, you'll have to buy the rights to the character.

You did get one thing right, though: your attitude is racist. You're batting .500, better than usual for you. Then again, racism is kind of your thing.

I think Elba would be wasted on a Bond film: he's a terrific actor who deserves top-notch scripts, and Bond films aren't exactly Shakespearian. As a terrific actor, though, Elba's entitled to do a movie for the payday now and again. I doubt The Wire or Luther have made him so rich that he can afford to turn up his nose at a blockbuster. So I hope he does get to play Bond, and makes a nice chunk of change out of the deal. It would be icing on the cake, of course, if Rush's head exploded as a result, but in the spirit of the season I'll refrain from hoping too much for that. (Though speaking of the season, I have to ask: Rush, you do realize that given the time and place, Jesus Christ almost certainly was a brown or black man? ... Oh my, do I hear splattering?....)

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Colbert sheds The Report

I'm not going to summarize the final episode of The Colbert Report. A thousand others already did that, some of them (but surprisingly, not all) better than I could. I simply couldn't think of any better title for a post mentioning Willa Paskin's reflection on why Stephen Colbert, the performer, didn't kill off "Stephen Colbert", the character.

Her argument makes sense, although if Colbert the man had killed off the character, you can bet that he could have come up with a plausible (or at least funny) way of resurrecting the character if it were necessary.

As I mentioned, thousands of others have described the finale and/or their reaction to it and to the series as a whole. I'll confine myself to mentioning a few things that struck me only a day or two later.

Colbert wouldn't be human if he weren't a little sorry to say goodbye to the familiar surroundings of the past nine years, the place where he cemented his place in TV and pop culture history. He let that show for a few moments at the end of the episode as he stared into the camera. I've never seen him look so vulnerable or wistful.

After thanking "the Colbert Nation", he burst out with a disarming grin and a boyish, "That was fun!" It was obviously a completely sincere exclamation, and it gave just a taste of the warm and genuinely nice man who by all accounts lies beneath the Colbert character.

He continued, "Okay ... whew. Okay, that's the show. From eternity, I'm Stephen Colbert." Then he quietly put a bow on not just nine, but seventeen years of brilliance with one word. I won't spoil it; watch it for yourself. (Stay through the credits: not only is the theme music different (a Maureen Dowd piece might explain why), but there's one last recurring joke just before the very end.)

If you're cynical, you'll observe that Colbert got his cake and ate it too: he put his show to bed without having to kill off his character.

Maybe. But you know what?

The guy who pulled off one of the greatest long-running performances in TV history deserves it.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Regarding The Interview, Sony couldn't win

Sony Pictures won't release the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy The Interview.

The movie's depiction of the assassination of North Korea's Kim Jong-un pissed off somebody enough to crack into Sony's internal computer network, steal 100+ TB of data, destroy much of the data in those computers, release embarrassing and/or sensitive internal messages and personal information to the public, then threaten to commit mass physical violence at theaters that showed the movie. (The North Korean government disclaimed direct responsibility but suggested that patriotic sympathizers might have been responsible.)

Sony, battered and demoralized by the onslaught, initially ducked the question of whether to call off the picture's release: it let theater owners decide whether they wanted to show the movie. Four of the biggest theater chains bailed out, joined by smaller chains throughout the U.S. and Canada. Faced with a lack of outlets, Sony had the excuse it needed to shelve the movie completely.

Nobody outside North Korea is happy.

The film’s collapse stirred considerable animosity among Hollywood companies and players. Theater owners were angry that they had been boxed into leading the pullback. Executives at competing studios privately complained that Sony should have acted sooner or avoided making the film altogether. To depict the killing of a sitting world leader, comically or otherwise, is virtually without precedent in major studio movies, film historians say.

And some Sony employees and producers, many of whom have had personal information published for the world to see, bitterly complained that they had been jeopardized to protect the creative prerogatives of Mr. Rogen and Mr. [Evan] Goldberg [with Rogen, the film's co-director].

On the superficial Hollywood-buzz side of things, Kevin Polowy's "Hollywood Slams Controversial Decision to Shelve 'The Interview' " sums things up as well as any report. It quoted tweets from various Hollywood celebrities.

Judd Apatow: “I think it is disgraceful that these theaters are not showing The Interview. Will they pull any movie that gets an anonymous threat now?”

Daman Wayans, Jr.: “We do not negotiate with terrorists. We just do exactly what they say.”

(Incidentally, are Apatow, Wayans and the other critics ready to cover the theater owners' legal bills if anything happens?)

So, yeah. I think that about covers who's pissed. Now: how did this happen?

There are a lot of ways to chew on this mess.

Working backwards: were theater owners too quick to bail out?

The multiplex operators made their decision in the face of pressure from malls, which worried that a terror threat could affect the end of the holiday shopping season.
And:
Once the hackers threatened physical violence, the film’s cancellation became almost inevitable, even though Sony spent a day steadfastly maintaining its plans for the release and premiere. Since the Aurora, Colo., theater shootings in 2012, Cinemark had fought lawsuits with a defense that said the incident was not foreseeable — a stance that would have been nearly impossible with “The Interview.”
I'll get back to this issue at the end.

What about Sony? Should it have killed the movie in the script stage, mindful of the unprecedented killing of a sitting world leader?

Put yourself in the shoes of Amy Pascal, co-shair of Sony Pictures Entertainment and chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment Movie Group. Your job is to make movies that make money. This project lands on your desk. The executive summary reads:

Seth Rogen's and James Franco's characters are sent to kill Kim Jong-un.

PLUSES: (1) Who doesn't despise North Korea? (2) Rogen's and Franco's movies have made a lot of money.

MINUSES: (1) The lawyers normally go apeshit when we use real people, especially living real people. However, we're talking Kim Jong-un (see PLUSES (1)). (2) If we nix this pic, Rogen and Franco will never work with us again (see PLUSES (2)). (3) If we push too hard to change the script, Rogen and Franco might never work with us again (see PLUSES (2)).

Enjoy.

What would you have done? Bear in mind that you're on the hook to shareholders at the end of the day, and that the fallout might not have stopped with losing Rogen and Franco: other talent might decide to turn up their noses at working with Sony out of a sense of solidarity with Rogen and Franco, or as a stand against perceived censorship.

Should Rogen and Franco have been smarter or less controversial about this script? Maybe. On the other hand, the same perception of self-censorship that undoubtedly gave Sony Pictures' management pause undoubtedly was on Rogen's and Franco's minds, too.

I'm hearing "cybersecurity" experts talk about this as a national-security threat, which seems to me a gross overreaction insofar as it gives the impression that Sony's problem is the nation's problem. It's not. Sony Pictures put itself in a bad position because it ignored information security. The extent of the break-in is in large part the fault of Sony Pictures' management's failure to take infosec seriously, and if Amy Pascal or anyone else is going to lose her job, that should be the reason. (Incidentally, Slate published a piece by David Auerbach that argues the crack-attack was an act of "cyberterrorism" and that claims, "In terms of security, Sony Pictures wasn’t terrible, but just average. It’s likely that comparable amounts of damage could have been inflicted on many companies via the same vectors of attack." That's depressing.)

That said, if this fiasco puts a fire under Congress' ass to take critical infrastructure protection seriously, good. We're twenty years overdue.

Now, let's get back to the theater owners and the owners of the malls where many of the theaters are located.

Some have claimed that the crack-attackers' invocation of "9/11" in their threat of physical violence against movie theaters sent everyone into a panic. I think the New York Times piece got to the heart of the matter when it mentioned the Aurora, CO theater shooting, or more specifically, the legal fallout. However, I'm not going to criticize the theater or mall owners. Their response was and is rational under the circumstances.

The problem is that the American public expects perfect safety, and is willing to sue if it doesn't get it.

Don't get me wrong. If earlier generations hadn't screamed bloody murder we'd still be faced with a host of workplace-safety and consumer-safety problems: our food would be tainted, our cars dangerous, etc., etc. However, raising Cain about easily preventable dangers that can be mitigated by companies that want to do business is one thing. Going nuts over a vague threat by anonymous crackers is something else.

It's brain-dead, is what it is.

Think for a moment. North Korea's animosity toward the U.S. is not new. Sanctions have crippled the North Korean economy for decades. If North Korea were able and willing to punish the U.S. with a physical attack on our shores, don't you think it would have done so by now?

I'm assuming the North Koreans aren't able to mount a credible physical assault on U.S. territory (yet: they're almost certainly working on it). Yet even if you assume they are able, they've clearly been unwilling to mount such an attack in the face of crippling sanctions. Would they undertake one as some kind of overwrought revenge against what by many accounts is a mediocre movie? They have to know that any such attack would be tantamount to suicide for the Kim government, because the U.S. wouldn't hesitate to strike back hard.

You might argue that the threat might be carried out by suicidal sympathizers not under the North Korean government's control. That seems exceedingly unlikely. No North Korean capable of carrying out the attack could have done so without government support or permission. Yet a North Korean would not be allowed to carry out, or even to arrange, a physical attack against the U.S. for the reasons I've already mentioned. And how many technically sophisticated crackers exist who sympathize with North Korea, yet aren't North Korean or working with the North Korean government?

Another suggestion has been made, that the crackers aren't supportive of Kim Jong-un per se but are outraged by the highhandedness of Hollywood breaking the taboo on portraying the killing of a living leader. That's a pretty weak argument. It's clear the crackers were motivated solely by the affront to Kim, not any more abstract or general principle.

So who exactly would carry out a physical attack?

"Oh, but if it's even possible, we have to do what's best for public safety." Well yes, in theory we do. On the other hand, public safety would be optimized if each of us lived in a bombproof shelter and drank only distilled water. In practice, every public-safety measure is a tradeoff between safety and the need to keep daily life going.

The thing is, Americans are too intolerant of risk and too invested in a 100%-safe environment. We scream bloody murder and we sue left and right when the environment isn't as safe as we think it should be (except when it comes to gun ownership, curiously enough).

Yes, a threat was made. How credible was it, though? Not very, if you think about it. The thing is, no one thought about it, or if someone did, he or she realized there was not enough upside to defy the threat. You get points for putting public safety first, not for doing business as usual.

The risk-reward equation weighed in favor of releasing the film, except that we, the public, are abysmally bad at understanding risk.

Yet if Sony had insisted on releasing the film, it would have been excoriated for any act of violence that occurred — because, again, we're too damned timid. In fact, that timidity likely would have kept a lot of people away from the movie even if it had been released. So all that militated against Sony standing up for free expression, however banal, and releasing it.

Sony couldn't win.

R.I.P. Richard C. Hottelet

The last of Edward R. Murrow's proteg├ęs died Wednesday morning (17 December 2014) at the age of 97.

Hottelet, as with his fellow "Murrow Boys" and Murrow himself, was known mostly for his work as a correspondent during World War II. I knew him from a different context, though: he was one of the memorable, iconic voices from my childhood. I was a strange child in that I actually enjoyed listening to the local newsradio station, which happened to be a CBS affiliate. Hottelet's was one of the voices that emerged from the speaker seemingly every morning. I was too young to understand anything he said (I knew some of the words but didn't have the context or sophistication to appreciate their meaning), but I knew that he was A Serious Man. He and his fellow stentorian voices (at the moment the only other name I remember is Douglas Edwards) exuded dignity and maturity. They likely contributed to my fierce desire to grow up, to be an adult and to shed the silliness of childhood.

I have to add that the name "Hottelet" fascinated me for years. Knowing him only from radio, I never saw the name spelled out. I puzzled for years as to whether anyone could really have such a "bumpy" name, a name that sounded like a cart rattling over cobblestones.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

When religion is evil

The Pakistani Taliban massacred 145 people on Tuesday. The dead included 132 children.

The Pakistani Taliban are the same bunch that tried to assassinate Malala Yousafzai because she advocated for girls' educations. They also have "burned or bombed over 1,000 schools". They wage war on education because educated people recognize how warped and irrational the Pakistani Taliban are.

They have very few apologists outside their own ranks. To those apologists, however, I say: no.

As in, there is no defense for what the attackers did.

Nothing can justify such a slaughter. Nothing. Certainly not the grotesque perversion of religion that they call their faith.

The Pakistani Taliban's "religion" is not compatible with civilization. It is irredeemably evil.

The barbarians who committed, aided, abetted and supported this atrocity must be treated like the rabid animals they are. They must be caged — or put down.

The real "don't ask, don't tell"

George W. Bush was not fully briefed on the torture that the CIA was employing on select prisoners.
The emails, memos, reports and other documents examined by the Senate committee collectively portray a White House that approved the brutal questioning of suspects but was kept in the dark about aspects of the program, including whether it really worked.
At one point the CIA, through Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, asked Bush for permission to use "harsh techniques on Abu Zubaydah".
When Mr. Bush asked what kind of techniques, Mr. Gonzales replied, according to the book, “Mr. President, I think for your own protection, you don’t need to know the details of what’s going on here.” Mr. Bush agreed, saying: “All right. Just make sure that these things are lawful.”
I can see the CIA, and his senior staff, tacitly agreeing to keep Bush in the dark on some matters. What the above remark, quoted in 500 Days by Kurt Eichenwald, makes clear is that Bush was willing to be kept in the dark.

"Don't ask, don't tell" wasn't just a military policy, it seems.

Was this a resopnsible attitude on Bush's part? Is it ever a responsible attitude on any President's part?

My first instinct is to say no. I agree with Harry Truman that the buck stops at the President's desk. If I were the big man, I'd feel responsible for everything my administration did, so I would insist on knowing what my people were doing.

The counterargument, hinted at in Gonzales' ominous "for your protection", is that sometimes dirty work needs to be done but the boss shouldn't suffer for it. The feeling seems to be that the country will like the sausage but would rebel if it knew how the sausage was made.

As a cautious person I sympathize with the counterargument, but I think it misses the bigger picture. Who are we, if on the one hand we claim the moral high ground, but on the other, we torture people in ways that we insisted were war crimes when perpetrated by the Japanese in World War II? In fact, wouldn't we consider them war crimes if they were used against U.S. troops or civilians today?

Can the ends always justify the means? I'm not sure they can. We have to assume risk if we're to abide by our principles, or those principles mean nothing. And those principles aren't just ideals toward which we strive: they're the very essence of the soft power that makes other nations want to be on good terms with us. Without that soft power, the U.S. would be nothing more than another thuggish country throwing its military weight around. Much of the world already thinks that's what we have become.

That's not how I want others to think of us. That's not what I want my country to be.

That's why torture is wrong. That's why its defenders are wrong. That's why acknowledging our wrongdoing is essential. And that's why Bush's willful ignorance on the subject must be publicly declared an abrogation of his duty as President.

We have to reclaim our national soul.

Monday, December 15, 2014

This is why atheists are resentful

There are still bans on atheists serving in government in seven states. The U.S. Supreme Court declared such bans to be unconstitutional in 1961. Secularists are looking to remove the language from the states' constitutions.

Not everyone is on board with the effort.

Christopher B. Shank, the Republican minority whip in the Maryland Senate, said that while he believed in pluralism, “I think what they want is an affirmation that the people of the state of Maryland don’t care about the Christian faith, and that is a little offensive.”
There is an enormous blind spot in many people's minds that allows them to equate secularism with hostility to Christianity. Shank has that blind spot in spades. Moreover, he misses the point that the government of Maryland cannot speak for the people of Maryland on the question of whether those people "care about the Christian faith". Do you understand the First Amendment, Mr. Shank? You don't sound like you do.

Removing the patently unConstitutional language from the offending states' constitutions would say nothing about people's attitude toward Christianity (or any other faith, not that Shank appears to have thought about that, either). It would say that faith and government shouldn't be entangled. That's no more — and no less — than we should all expect.

Like the fatuous resistance to removing the ill-considered phrase "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, the resistance to cleaning up the unenforceable and discriminatory language from state constitutions is rooted in nothing more than reflexive and thoughtless prejudice against atheists (and secularists generally).

It's disgraceful that the ridiculously easy and necessary cleanup remains undone after more than half a century.

Enough inexcusable excuses. Enough stalling. In fact, just plain enough. Enough.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Lindsey Graham on maturity

As noted by Talking Points Memo, "Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) managed to get under Sen. Lindsey Graham's (R-SC) skin with a speech Friday night bashing CitiGroup's deep ties to Washington and a provision in a government spending bill rolling back part of Dodd-Frank."

Here were the remarks TPM saw fit to quote from the Politico piece that was TPM's source.

"You have every right to vote no and argue to bring the bill down. If there’s something you don’t like, welcome to democracy."
and
"If you follow the lead of the senator of Massachusetts … people are not going to believe you are mature enough to run the place. Don’t follow her lead. She’s the problem.”
He was a condescending twit in the first case and a stick-figure caricature of an elder statesman in the second. Graham has no monopoly on petulant, unSenatorial behavior, but his shrill and would-be lofty criticisms of what he doesn't understand — the FBI, Russia's invasion of Crimea and Crimea again, to name but three that seriously irked me — are no longer funny. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. It's Graham who is the problem, not Warren.

Ted Cruz is clearly the Senate's reigning asshat (see here and here for just two reasons why), but second place is no longer a lock for James "climate change isn't real no matter what real scientists say" Inhofe. It seems like every time Graham opens his mouth, something stupid comes out.

Let me put it in simple terms for you, Senator Graham: you and your GOP colleagues pushed your far-right agenda too hard for even normally milquetoast Democrats to suffer. What you wrongly (and tellingly) interpreted as childishness was actually principled outrage. It's the same sentiment fueling protests across the country against police brutality of minorities. You had better pray that the masses don't make the connection between the different abuses you and your far-right cronies are perpetrating on them, or the GOP will be swamped in subsequent elections. Your regressive agenda hangs by the slimmest of threads, rhetorically speaking: it depends entirely on keeping the masses ignorant of its true impact. Your worst nightmare is a smart and persistent pol like Elizabeth Warren, who just might wake the public up.

Friday, December 5, 2014

"Why Poor People Stay Poor", Linda Tirado

Slate excerpted a section of Linda Tirado's new book, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America (no link because there's no seller I care to promote).

I don't disagree that individual initiative and self-discipline are needed to improve one's lot. However, what frustrates me is how many who preach that gospel think that's all you need. It's not. Lifting yourself up by your bootstraps has always required resources to make your gumption pay off, and the days when those resources came from the wilderness (i.e., essentially for free and solely by the sweat of your brow) are long gone for most of us. I can't emphasize strongly enough how much you need to read this excerpt, if not the full book, if you're inclined to wax sanctimonious about the "sinful" or "lazy" poor.

As Tirado makes amply clear, "It actually costs money to save money."

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The homegrown defective airbags

Since I own a Honda vehicle, I've been paying a little more attention than I normally would to an automotive story that keeps bubbling up with worse and worse news. The Japanese company Takata manufactures airbags that have injured or killed a number of people worldwide. It seems that the malfunctioning airbags can explode and rupture, sending metal shards out — essentially making the airbag more of a grenade than anything else.

Not all of Tanaka's airbags are prone to this failure. However, as I learned in a New York Times article about a possible expanded Japanese car recall, "Problems with driver’s-side airbag inflaters have been found in units made in a Takata plant in LaGrange, Ga., that is now closed." And "problems with the passenger-side units involved the amount of propellant used and the way the inflaters were handled and stored, carmakers said. Those units were made in Washington State and Mexico."

How ironic, that this furor which is seemingly over Japanese cars has its roots in our own country. I guess we're back to the 1980s, when Japanese manufacturing was ascendant while American-made goods, notably cars, suffered from mediocre quality.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Darren Wilson and cop culture

A narrative has developed among those who think Darren Wilson should have been prosecuted for shooting Michael Brown. The narrative gets its force from Wilson's testimony to the grand jury that ultimately decided not to prosecute him. Wilson repeatedly characterized Brown as a threateningly large menace who put the officer in fear for his life.

Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall distilled the essence of this narrative as well as anyone. He mentioned a possibility I hadn't considered but which on reflection I should have: Wilson might be temperamentally unfit to be a cop.

A lot of the police-brutality cases over the last five or so years suggest Wilson isn't alone. That, in turn, raises a question that Marshall didn't ask but that Radley Balko did in the Washington Post in September, long before the Ferguson grand jury's decision: if Wilson and other trigger-happy guys shouldn't be cops, doesn't that mean something is wrong with the departments hiring them?

Balko writes specifically about one infamously out-of-control officer (whom Marshall also cited in his piece), but the point obviously applies generally:

If Groubert’s actions were due to poor or inappropriate training, poor hiring practices by the South Carolina state police, or a police culture that conditions cops to see every interaction with a citizen as potential threat, sending him to prison isn’t going to change any of that. Individual cops who abuse their authority should certainly be held accountable, and a system that consistently held them accountable would be something of a deterrent. But focusing only on the individual cop in a case like this lets the police agency that hired and trained him off the hook.
Exactly. This is very likely bigger than Wilson or Groubert.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Calorie counts in restaurants

The Food and Drug Administration announced that restaurants will have to provide calorie counts for their foods and beverages. The rules will also cover grocery and convenience stores.

California already requires that some restaurants, notably fast food chains, post calorie information. In theory this is a good thing. In practice — well, it doesn't work as well as I'd like.

One problem is, the calorie counts are damned near impossible to read if your vision isn't very good. I'll admit, that may just be me. As the population ages, though, more of you are going to find your vision coming closer to mine. (Sorry about that.) The point is, if you can't read it, you probably won't pay attention to it.

The bigger issue is, the calorie counts may not matter to the majority of customers even if the information is legible. I pay close attention to the nutritional information in processed foods at the market. When I'm at a restaurant, though, I'm hungry and I don't much care about calories. My main defense against nutritional suicide is that I long ago weaned myself off fast food chains. I was lucky I had the option. If I didn't live in an area with a decent selection of non-chain restaurants serving not-too-unhealthful food, my hunger and my laziness would have doomed me to drive-thru dining.

Am I arguing against the new FDA rules? No. They might help, and I don't think they can hurt. However, don't get your hopes too high that they'll have a dramatic effect on the obesity epidemic.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Hagel out as Defense Secretary

Chuck Hagel will step down as Secretary of Defense.

The decision was characterized as a mutual one by Hagel and President Obama, but I think this speaks volumes:

Mr. Hagel, a respected former senator who struck a friendship with Mr. Obama when they were both critics of the Iraq war from positions on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has nonetheless had trouble penetrating the tight team of former campaign aides and advisers who form Mr. Obama’s closely knit set of loyalists. Senior administration officials have characterized him as quiet during cabinet meetings; Mr. Hagel’s defenders said that he waited until he was alone with the president before sharing his views, the better to avoid leaks.
Obama, whatever his other merits and flaws, is not comfortable with those who don't have a longstanding relationship with him. He's no Lincoln, who assembled his much-vaunted "team of rivals" to give him as broad a range of perspectives as possible. Intellectually Obama probably respects the need for differing points of view, but as a practical matter he has shown little stomach for having them represented among his closest advisors.

It's no secret that Obama has had a mixed record on foreign affairs. If the administration's foreign policy woes could be laid at the feet of an unprepared or undisciplined military, that would be one thing, but they can't. Nor has Hagel been irresponsibly cavalier in his management of the armed forces (unlike, say, Donald Rumsfeld).

Hagel, though, has made his share of gaffes articulating (or, more commonly, failing to articulate) administration policy, and that has made him a less effective spokesman for that policy than Obama would like. That failing alone justifies his dismissal, regardless of how well he has done his job behind the scenes. However, the message his dismissal sends is that Obama is casting about for relief from his woes, and he's not thinking very hard about what will do him the most good. Again, the military has not been primarily responsible for the administration's foreign policy troubles.

What Obama needs to fix is a troubling disconnection between rhetoric and action. An unfathomable failure to foresee the likely consequences of its rhetoric often means the administration is caught flat-footed by events. Syria is a prime example, Russia another.

To address the disconnection, Obama has to look long and hard at his national security and intelligence machinery. The most recent House committee report on the Benghazi attack implicated not the military or even the Administration (directly), but rather, the intelligence services' analysis of what was going on at the time. That's just one example of what's wrong.

Obama, however, will also have to look in the mirror. He hasn't been an effective salesman for his own foreign policy. Nobody seems to think his administration has a philosophy guiding its foreign policy. That may be unfair to the administration, but ultimately it's up to Obama to convince us otherwise. That failure is solely his. Firing Hagel isn't a great start to addressing that failure.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ted Cruz the disingenuous twit

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) called out Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) for an inaccurate — some would say, flat-out wrong — characterization of the Obama administration's support for net neutrality as "Obamacare for the Internet". In my old job, we'd call that phrase "content-free", meaning that it carries no useful information — like much else Cruz says.

Franken, showing far greater respect for Cruz than I can muster, corrected his colleague by saying (correctly) that favoring net neutrality simply means favoring the status quo. Franken, however, used the phrase "keep things exactly the same".

Out of context, "keep things exactly the same" can be good or bad; that's why context is so important. In this case, the context was that Franken was talking about how Internet traffic is handled today: nobody's data is given preferential treatment. Opponents of net neutrality want to provide data pipelines that would provide better service (for some definition of "better") for a fee. Supporters of net neutrality, including Franken, think that creating tiers of service, differentiated by quality (and price), would not benefit the majority of Internet users.

Cruz, using the classic rhetorical trick of seizing his opponent's words rather than his meaning, made "keep things exactly the same" sound like a defense of ossification and a desire to stymie progress. Cruz made Franken seem as if he were defending the long hegemony of the old rotary phone.

In fact, what Franken was defending was the open Internet that has fostered innovation, enabling new businesses and business models that have had an incredibly disruptive effect on our world. (Remember, Republicans and free-marketeers in general hail "disruption" as vital to keeping the market honest: gotta keep those fat-cat established businesses on their toes!) On the other hand, the kind of tiered Internet Cruz favors would preserve the current hegemony of some of the biggest players in the market — notably, the major Internet service providers who also own content providers. Comcast, for instance, owns NBCUniversal. Guess whose on-demand programming could be counted on to stream more reliably than Netflix's (over Comcast's network) if net neutrality is abolished? How much would Netflix have to pay Comcast in fees to be delivered at the same quality as Comcast's own content? How much more would that end up costing consumers?

Did Cruz address any of this? Of course not. Opponents of net neutrality make noises about "new products and services" that tiered service would stimulate, but they've been stingy with details. Even so, Cruz could have advanced some such argument, if he were truly interested in arguing the merits with Franken.

However, Cruz isn't interested in a debate. He's only interested in catering to his low-information base, the ones who will smile at the seemingly clever wordplay that paints Franken as a stodgy, big-government apparatchik standing in the way of progress. Never mind that Cruz is simply wrong on that score; what's worse is, Cruz's audience is blissfully unaware that he's nudging them toward a costlier world in which big ISPs can extend their current marketplace advantage into the indefinite future by erecting prohibitively costly barriers to entry into the marketplace. An outfit like Facebook would never have gotten off the ground in such a world. The next Facebook won't, if Cruz has his way.

Cruz could be a moron, I suppose. My bet, though, is that he knows his rejoinder to Franken willfully missed the point. He's simply bereft of shame.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Reminder: don't shop on Thanksgiving

Once again, we're faced with a number of large retailers opening all day on Thanksgiving. The New York Times piece notes that some retailers are publicizing their family-friendly decision to stay closed that day, but the backlash against Thanksgiving-as-shopping-day doesn't seem to have stopped any of last year's corporate culprits.

As I wrote last year:

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.

(Read the whole thing. It was a good post, if I say so myself.)

So again, I say to you:

If you care about the well-being of the country, not to mention your family, friends and neighbors, don't shop on Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Colbert smacks down Gohmert

Speaking of dangerous stupidity, Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-TX) received the other kind of "Colbert bump" on Stephen Colbert's 28 October 2014 episode. It made me feel warm all over. After a few snippets of Gohmert's diseased ravings, Colbert summed up thusly:
People have said to me, "Stephen, you gotta understand, you don't even know your history. You're dumb. You're dense. You're a mental midget with the IQ of a butter dish whose mind is a black hole that sucks all surrounding thought into it in an infinite singularity of pure stupidity. Stephen, I'm surprised you can even dress yourself. I bet you have to rub peanut butter inside your lips to remember to open your mouth to breathe! I have never met, and I hope to never meet again, a man so pervasively, astoundingly, unyieldingly ignorant!"

To which I say, "Well then, you haven't met Louis Gohmert."

Left unsaid, unfortunately, was what Gohmert's presence in the U.S. House of Representatives says about those Texans who vote for him. They, too, need an epic smackdown.

The dangerously stupid response to Ebola

Once upon a time, there was a mandatory quarantine order if you entered New York or New Jersey after visiting west Africa.

Then there wasn't.

Talking Points Memo has the sorry details in a piece entitled, appropriately enough, "The Blundering Rise And Epic Fall Of The Christie-Cuomo Ebola Quarantine".

The crux of the epic failure here seems to have been the politically motivated decision, taken without consultation with one another (so far as I can tell) by Govs. Cuomo and Christie, to enact the mandatory quarantine. The decision also was taken without consultation with, well, seemingly anyone. In particular, local officials, the ones who would be responsible for doing the dirty work, knew nothing until the governors' official announcements. The poor conditions in which the first victim of the policy was held were, in other words, the result of a last-minute scramble to accommodate an order no one knew was coming.

But what we have here is more than a failure to communicate. What we have here are a couple of prominent elected officials playing to the fears of their most ignorant constituents. The governors defied the best scientific evidence and, at least in Christie's case, proudly stigmatized the health care workers who are our best hope for containing and eventually suppressing the outbreak in west Africa.

A popular meme on the right these days is, "I am not a scientist". The problem is, that's never where the proud know-nothings stop: they always add a "but ..." and proceed to say, and in this case do, stupid things because they're playing to stupid, uninformed people.

Hey, guess what? If you're not a scientist (or a doctor, or somebody else who knows something), you don't know more than them about what they do. So stop pretending you do, Governors. Stop saying and doing stupid shit! Stop playing to the dumbest in the crowd and do your goddamned jobs. Do the things that will objectively make things better, not what your most ignorant constituents bleat.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Don Young the braying jackass

Rep. Don Young (R-AK) addressed a high school assembly Tuesday. It didn't go well.
Zachary Grier, 17, a senior at Wasilla High School, asked Young during the assembly why he still opposed same-sex marriage, even after a court struck down Alaska's ban on same-sex unions. Young responded by asking Grier, “What do you get when you have two bulls having sex?” When Grier answered that he didn’t know, Young told him: “A whole lot of bull.”
This is the remark that has gotten a lot of media attention. It's asinine, no question, and Young's attitude is patronizing to boot — ironic, considering how much smarter these kids are than he.

However, this is the reason Young should be kicked in his posterior until he begs, borrows, or buys a clue.

Even more shocking, Grier said, was the way Young talked about suicide less than a week after a high school classmate took his own life. Young told the assembly of about 130 students that suicide was caused by a lack of community support, which angered a close friend of the deceased student. When the student interrupted Young to say that wasn’t true, the congressman called him a “smartass,” Grier said.
Strike that — Young doesn't need a clue, he needs a fucking heart.

Don Young sure as hell wasn't closer to that student than the classmate was. He has some goddamned nerve not just being on his fucking soapbox, but then smacking down the student's grieving friend like a heckler at a comedy club.

I get the feeling Young thinks what he did is tough love, telling hard truths to ignorant young people. It's not. What Young said and did was simply heartless. He thought he knew more than his audience did. He was cruel out of moronic arrogance.

This isn't the first time Young has been an arrogant, ill-mannered boor. Back in 2011 I commented on a contretemps during Congressional hearings on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A witness had the temerity to interrupt Young in order to correct Young's misstatement of his name; Young, with the self-righteousness only a lifetime in Congress could bring, retorted, “I'll call you anything I want to call you when you sit in that chair. You just be quiet.” At that time I wrote:

Don Young, if you were anywhere near as smart as the people who testify at Congressional hearings, you'd have a real job. Instead, you're a sorry little man desperate for respect, and you use your public office to extort it from people during hearings.
Apparently Young is a sorry little man desperate for respect when he's outside the halls of Congress, too.

Young would be lucky if he had the brains of the "smartass" who interrupted him. Alas, he's just an ass(hole).

[EDIT: To clarify who Don Young is (representative of Alaska) and to include a prior reference to him in another post.]

Friday, October 17, 2014

R.I.P. Sista Monica

Monica Parker, who performed as a blues and gospel singer under the name Sista Monica, passed away on 9 October 2014. She was 58.

You probably haven't heard of her, but she got some exposure here in the Bay Area. She had a powerful voice, one I liken to Shirley Johnson, and I absolutely loved it. KCSM's Kathleen Lawton dedicated the first forty-five minutes of "Crazy 'bout the Blues" tonight to Sista Monica and it was glorious (though sad). She absolutely owned her songs with her big, muscular, confident pipes.

She left us too soon, but at least her voice will remain with us.

25 years ago today: Loma Prieta

It doesn't feel like that much time has passed. It still feels like a "just yesterday" event. But no, twenty-five long years (to the day) have passed since the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. It was the most recent moderately big quake to rock the Bay Area; with apologies to the residents of Napa, their jolt earlier this year just wasn't in the same league.

Four years ago I set down my memories of the day.

The Bay Area has become a magnet for cash-flush newcomers. It would be a good thing in the long run if these well-off folks would invest in making their homes (and for companies, their offices) quake-safe. There are a lot of older buildings that still aren't ready for the next big one: witness the damage in Napa. If gentrification is going to happen, there should be some kind of upside.

As for the rest of us, the twenty-fifth anniversary of Loma Prieta is as good a time as any to take stock of quake preparations. Ready.gov has a list of steps, as does the USGS. Bay Area-specific info is available at the Bay Area Earthquake Alliance's site.

Even if you don't live in California or other states known to be quake-prone, you should take a look at the quake preparedness tips. According to the USGS, of the fifteen largest quakes in the contiguous 48 states, three of them happened in New Madrid, Missouri and one in Charleston, South Carolina.

No, he can't

Professor Sophia A. McLennen's piece in Salon (I relapsed and checked it out today) is "Bill O'Reilly finally admits it: I'm really obnoxious!". The title says it all. But McLennen (and apparently Jon Stewart) wants more from Bill:
Maybe this exchange with Stewart will lead him to come out as a rational human being. Stewart closed the interview saying, “You, Bill O’Reilly, can lead the flock of the Fox faithful to a better place.”
Yeah, um ... no. One guy isn't going to counteract Fox News' relentless anxiety-inducing, "other"-demonizing propaganda.

Anyway, he's not even going to try. O'Reilly's not about to bite the hand that feeds him. He made his peace with who he is (or plays) a long time ago.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Supreme Court fears free speech

The New York Times article is "First Amendment Limit: The Supreme Court's Plaza", by Adam Liptak, the paper's Supreme Court correspondent.

The piece is an unflattering depiction of a Supreme Court that holds the First Amendment's protections to be absolute — except on the Court's own steps. The prohibition on political speech within the building or on its grounds stands in sharp contrast to a number of decisions the Court has issued protecting speech that many consider odious (protests at military funerals and anti-abortion activists confronting patients outside abortion clinics, for instance).

The Court's stance unavoidably raises the question: what are the Justices afraid of?

Liptak demolishes the two primary reasons proffered for the ban: the fear that the Justices could be improperly influenced by the protesters, and the fear that, even if the Justices aren't influenced, the public might think they were. Without using the word, Liptak effectively calls these reasons stupid.

The unavoidable conclusion is, the Justices don't particularly like free speech near them — probably because free speech can get boisterous and messy and loud. It might disrupt their gentle sensibilities. Poor things. They just don't have the robust constitution of the average poor woman seeking an abortion, who can skip blithely past a gauntlet of screaming, borderline violent anti-abortion protesters calling her a murderer.

But here's Liptak's most damning finding.

The Supreme Court is not even particularly consistent in how it treats speech on its plaza.

In a sworn statement in 2012, Timothy Dolan, deputy chief of the Supreme Court’s police force, conceded that “the court allows attorneys and parties in cases that have been argued to address the media on the plaza immediately following argument.” The court also occasionally permits “commercial or professional filming on the plaza,” he said.

It seems that people with power or connections can use the plaza.

Nice reputation, that. I'm sure it makes you proud, Chief Justice Roberts.

The Court's attempts to justify hypocrisy have never worked out well: Dred Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson, Korematsu v. United States — these are shameful blots on the Court's history. The broad ban on political speech on the Court's own doorstep doesn't rise to that level of infamy, but it's not a rule in which the Justices should take any pride, either. It brands them cowards and hypocrites, unwilling to suffer what they (or at least the reactionary majority in their recent cases) righteously deem as politically necessary medicine.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Stop the country, I want to get off

The New York Times article is "From Mid-Atlantic to Midwest, Voters Express Frustration and Fatigue".

From one West Virginia farmer, talking about Washington, D.C. politicians:

“I want to see our political leaders standing out here with us, finding out: Why is it that our tomato crop failed this year?” he said. “What can they do to help us next year? Why is it that the local print shop had to lay off 12 people this year?”
What makes this guy think anybody in D.C. should be able to answer his questions? It's for his local pols to act as the interface between him and D.C.

Here's an Indiana church worker:

“Instead of being a country that’s leading from behind, I would like to see us spearhead an all-out assault on ISIS,” she said, referring to the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that controls large portions of Iraq and Syria and has claimed responsibility for the beheadings of two American journalists. “I would like to see every one of them dead within 30 days. And after we’ve killed every member of ISIS, kill their pet goat.”
She "said she got much of her information from Fox News". Color me shocked.

Is the average resident of this country as self-centered as the West Virginia farmer, or, worse, as outright stupid and belligerent as the Indiana church worker? I'd like to think not. I believe this country could not have accomplished all that it has if we, the people, were as idiotic as some of those quoted in this piece. Why, then, are the idiots so prominent these days? Two reasons: first, they're eager to be squeaky wheels; and second, reactionary media like Fox News have expanded their numbers and their general level of agitation.

This is why our politics are so screwed up. We are fighting against an astonishing amount of sheer stupidity, and that fight is sapping much of the energy that might otherwise be directed in useful, fruitful directions.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Casablanca endures

I'm watching Casablanca for the umpteenth time, this time on TCM. I own it; I can watch it any time I like. I ought to go to bed: I have to get up early. Yet here I sit, enjoying every well-remembered moment.

"You played it for her: play it for me!"

"You despise me, don't you?" "If I gave you any thought I probably would."

These and a hundred other lines are so well-known, they ought to come off as parody in the original. Yet they don't: they're as meaningful and emotionally resonant as the writer and director intended them to be.

It's a brilliant film that has outlasted the norms of acting and storytelling that it so beautifully showcases. Why? I don't enough about film to say. I'm just delighted it has.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Institutional trust

So on the one hand, we have effusive praise for the expertise and efficiency of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, particularly in how it is handling the threat of Ebola entering the U.S. from travelers coming from western African nations, notably Liberia.

On the other hand we have the U.S. Secret Service. Putatively one of the best protective agencies in the world, it's now being rocked by daily revelations of incompetence.

These agencies do crucial work. We expect them to do it well. We need them to do it well. Every time one of them screws up, it erodes our belief in the possibility that any big institution, but especially government, can work well.

That's a powerful incentive to hide malfeasance, especially in our blame-first media environment. That's apparently what the now-ex-Secret Service director tried to do, until she was caught out by the press and had to 'fess up.

We need these agencies to come clean not just with us, but with themselves. The Secret Service, for instance, seems to be under the impression that its lapses are being overblown. Those who think so are wrong, and they need to understand that. As the saying goes, the first step is to admit you have a problem.

These agencies aren't perfect and they will make mistakes. What counts is how they respond. Earlier this year the CDC was rocked by its own scandal, it apparently having lost track of a cache of the smallpox virus kept for research purposes. After a week or two of uncomfortable scrutiny, the story died down. I'm pretty sure that's because no more losses have been uncovered; I doubt any more losses could have been concealed. The result? We're all looking to the CDC to keep Ebola from getting a foothold in the U.S. We trust the agency.

The Secret Service is going to have to work its ass off to regain the same level of trust. And it had better succeed. It's not just the Presiden't life on the line, it's trust in governmental institutions as a whole. After all, if the Secret Service can't live up to expectations, what agency can?

Monday, September 29, 2014

"Why bad bugs hit good people", Nick Arnott

A reflection on the mortifying iOS 8.0.1 update that Apple had to withdraw after it broke critical functionality, including phone service, on the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. Arnott is not writing as an Apple insider, but rather as a quality assurance (QA) lead at another company who knows how hard the job is.

If you've never written software, you might wonder why it's so hard to avoid bugs, or software errors. Bugs typically arise as unexpected side effects of otherwise reasonable-sounding changes to important functionality. The problem is that the engineer doesn't have a good enough mental model of the project. Sometimes that's because she simply has an incorrect understanding of it, but it's far more likely that the project is simply too big for anyone to keep all the details in her head at one time.

How do you find bugs? Well, you have to put the software (and/or hardware) through its paces, which is the job of QA. To do QA properly, you have to try out all the edge cases: you have to do the nutty or extraordinarily dumb things that some ordinary users do. In my experience, QA never has enough time to do edge-case testing well. Even if they got the time, users are amazingly creative and keep coming up with new (strange) ways of (mis)using the product.

Arnott's pretty sympathetic to the Apple engineering and QA staffs, and I'm inclined to agree with him. If you want to know why you should too, read his piece.

(I completely understand if you don't feel like giving Apple the benefit of the doubt. If my car stalled after I drove away from the mechanic, I wouldn't feel too sympathetic toward him. Having written code for a living, though, I know how problems can slip by, especially in a deadline crunch.)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Perspective on smartphone security

Apple's iOS 8, the latest release of its iPhone/iPad operating system, will encrypt much of the device's contents if you use a passcode or password to access the device. This has sent law enforcement into a tizzy.
“Apple will become the phone of choice for the pedophile,” said John J. Escalante, chief of detectives for Chicago’s police department. “The average pedophile at this point is probably thinking, I’ve got to get an Apple phone.”
Even F.B.I. director James Comey got into the act. From the New York Times article:
At a news conference on Thursday devoted largely to combating terror threats from the Islamic State, Mr. Comey said, “What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to hold themselves beyond the law.”

He cited kidnapping cases, in which exploiting the contents of a seized phone could lead to finding a victim, and predicted there would be moments when parents would come to him “with tears in their eyes, look at me and say, ‘What do you mean you can’t’ ” decode the contents of a phone.

“The notion that someone would market a closet that could never be opened — even if it involves a case involving a child kidnapper and a court order — to me does not make any sense.”

Director Comey should stop watching 24 reruns. His tone-deaf and frankly idiotic remarks merely fuel the substantial mistrust of government that exists among even law-abiding and generally patriotic citizens like myself. (Note, though, that there's a compelling argument that Comey's bluster is just that, bluster, a theatrical performance to hide the fact that the N.S.A. actually would have no difficulty breaking Apple's encryption. I think that's at least as plausible as the other leading hypothesis for Comey's remarks, i.e., that he's an incompetent moron.)

Comey's argument rests on the assumption that it's not merely normal, but proper, for law enforcement to be able to access the data in your personal computing device with no impediment other than gaining physical possession (and a warrant, at least in some jurisdictions).

That assumption is wrong.

I repeat: that assumption is wrong.

Moreover, the real reason for the encryption has nothing — nothing — to do with thwarting law enforcement. I'll get to that shortly. First, though, let's think through the principles here, rather than getting caught up in the technology.

Consider a different law enforcement need: access to your home. If law enforcement needs to get inside your home, officers or agents obtain a search warrant, present it to you and you reluctantly permit them entry. If you refuse, they can legally break the door down.

Your personal computing device must be subject to the same protections. It is no less personal a domain than your home, even if it is as easily taken from you as your wallet. (Incidentally, rifling through your wallet shouldn't automatically be legal for police, either. I don't know what the current law is on that.)

What ticks off law enforcement is that there's no widely available battering ram right now for the average personal computing device. (On the other hand, many people are dumb enough not to have some kind of passcode protecting their device. This is the equivalent of leaving the front door unlocked.) Law enforcement has relied for ease of access on the indifference of device and software manufacturers. They have not made widespread encryption the default behavior on their devices. It has been available for some time, but it has been used only in limited contexts — to protect passwords, for instance. To encrypt your own data, especially on iOS devices, has not been terribly easy. With iOS 8, it will happen with minimal effort.

Law enforcement is obviously disgruntled that its job has been made that much harder. But does that justify demanding, or at least petulantly whining, that the front door to your personal computing devices be incapable of being locked?

That's what this really comes down to: law enforcement wants your digital front door to be not merely unlocked, but incapable of locking.

Put so baldly, that's quite a startling position, isn't it?

Would we accept police demands that our front doors not be capable of locking? Of course not. Do we accept that locked doors protect criminals and terrorists as well as you and me? Yes. We may not like it, but we accept it.

Why do we accept that tradeoff? Because we need locked doors. Even if you live in a low-crime area and you typically leave your door unlocked, you like to know that you can lock it if need be. Most of the time it's not the police trying to break into your home.

And that brings me to the real reason for the new encryption feature: our personal computing devices can be stolen. We need to be confident that the thief can't gain access to our personal data. This might include names, addresses, phone numbers, birthdays, voicemail and text messages, maybe even confidential information like your credit card numbers. If it's a phone, it might serve as a token for near-field communications payment systems or the new Apple Pay system. Phones can also serve as the second leg of a two-stage authentication system for login. The loss of a smartphone these days can be a disaster.

Every security measure is a tradeoff. For the device-encryption question, we could probably do extensive studies to determine whose interests are a higher priority to society. Or we could default to preferring the rights of law-abiding citizens over the limited number of high-stakes cases that depend on unfettered access to personal computing devices.

You may be tempted to believe that the consequences of a lost or stolen phone are purely financial, and therefore the possibility of saving innocent lives that Comey holds out should unconditionally take precedence. At first blush, that's a compelling argument (if you buy into the distinctly TV-show-ish premise, which I find difficult to do). But if we truly lived according to that principle, we'd give up our privacy altogether. After all, a crime like kidnapping requires that the kidnapper be able to operate invisibly. We could eliminate the possibility of kidnapping simply by making it impossible for any of us to live our lives without scrutiny.

That, of course, is not how most of us want to live. So we do our best to reduce the possibility of kidnapping without shredding our right to live our lives freely. Is it a good tradeoff to let the kidnapper keep his secrets on his phone, if at the same time hundreds or thousands of law-abiding citizens can breathe a little easier because their stolen phone won't result in their lives being open to the thief? Kidnapping is a rare event and it's hard to imagine that the key to cracking the case will lie solely in the putative kidnapper's phone. I therefore say that wholesale encryption on personal computing devices is, on balance, a good thing even if it makes law enforcement harder. After all, law enforcement would be easier with unlocked doors, too.

Matthew Green has a slightly different take on why Apple introduced the encryption feature. He points out that any back-door access maintained for law enforcement can't be guaranteed to remain accessible solely to law enforcement, so customer data could be opened up to criminals through that back door. Apple therefore understandably prefers not to be the arbiter of such access, and so has made it technically impossible to violate its customers' privacy. Green's is a good argument. I still think, though, that some of the impetus is customer demand. The San Francisco Bay Area is a hotbed of smartphone theft and Apple's employees themselves likely have been victims, or they know people who have been victims. The issue has also received extensive coverage from local media outlets. All this would have influenced both engineers and managers to make this feature a priority.

Whatever the impetus, the new encryption feature is a good thing.

We have been conditioned since 11 September 2001 to make national security a priority. This has resulted in our law enforcement authorities having a warped perspective on how our lives should be lived. It's long past time we pushed back. The new encryption feature in iOS 8 is one way to do so. Heaven knows that if we permit gun sales to be as lax as they are, there's no good argument in favor of restricting encryption on our personal computing devices. Don't let Comey or anyone else distract you from the real point. It's not about national security. It's about personal security.

Cars are not safes

I've lived in an urban area and tourist mecca my entire life and certain habits have become automatic. One of them is never to leave anything in my car. May I strongly recommend that you adopt that habit too, especially if you visit urban areas and/or tourist meccas?

I'm always surprised by how many people think of their cars as mobile safes. They blithely leave backpacks and purses in plain sight in the passenger compartment, or, if they're a bit more security-minded, in the trunk.

Newsflash: the only thing keeping somebody from breaking into your car is laziness. Thieves will break into a car for just about anything. Somebody once broke into mine to take a paperback book.

Aren't they scared of crowds? Not really. How many streets are that busy? And even on busy streets, how many people will interfere, even if they notice anything's amiss?

Good thieves are efficient. Among a bunch of parked cars, they'll first target those that aren't empty. An empty interior is the first and best deterrent to a break-in.

What about the trunk? Well, if you can open the trunk from a lever next to the driver's seat or by folding down the rear seat backs, your valuables are no safer than if you left them on your seat. However, if you must leave stuff in the car, it's the best option you've got.

Put stuff in the trunk just before you leave your current parking spot. Thieves hang around parking lots and sidewalks to see who's putting goodies away. Leave right after you load your trunk and you literally remove their chance to steal from you. On the same principle, don't draw attention by opening your trunk when you park.

Are these precautions obvious? I thought so. But on the news I heard about a couple from Hawaii who left their backpacks in their rental car while they stared out at a beautiful view. The packs were stolen, of course. Hawaii being one giant tourist attraction, you'd think Hawaiians would know better. And they probably do — but vacations make fools of us all.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Easy targets

I like The Daily Show. Search this blog for "Jon Stewart" and you'll see I've made that clear.

Thursday night's show was unusually pointed, which is usually a good thing. The targets, though, were almost beside the point: Fox News and the Washington Redskins.

For Elmer Fudd to be an entertaining foil for Bugs Bunny, the writer has to do more than make fun of Elmer's denseness. By the same token, for Fox News to be a good target for Stewart's satire, the show has to do more than point up the network's hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is as fundamental to Fox News' DNA as stupidity is to Fudd's. (There's a large component of willful stupidity to Fox News too, but that's beside the point here.)

And to hold up Redskins diehards as utter morons incapable of empathy or understanding, well, the entire media beat you to it, guys. There was absolutely no twist to Jason Jones' piece. Even incorporating the Redskins fans' mortified reactions as quoted in the Washington Post didn't tell us anything new, unless you count finding out that there are still people who don't realize that appearing in a Daily Show segment is not likely to enhance your reputation.

Yeah, I still get a bit of a charge out of Stewart telling Fox News to shut the fuck up. It's still a bit gratifying to be reminded I'm on the right side of history regarding the name "Redskins". But I expect more than just a bit of entertainment and gratification. You guys have set the bar high for exploding my assumptions and making me think. You didn't exactly leap over it Thursday night, though.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Kanye can go to hell

I'm not sure Kanye West is intrinsically a more self-centered piece of shit than other major pop stars, but he did pull a classic self-centered-piece-of-shit pop star tantrum in Australia a couple of days ago, halting his show because — gasp! — not everyone in the audience would oblige his demand to stand up and dance during one of his numbers.

Turns out the two — yes, two — non-compliant audience members couldn't stand: one was in a wheelchair and the other had a prosthetic leg. Once Kanye verified their bona fides, he carried on.

To Kanye's fans: stop enabling him. Stop buying tickets until he stops being a self-centered piece of shit.

To Kanye: go fuck yourself. You are there to entertain them, asshole. They decide whether to oblige you by standing up — or even showing up. Why don't you show some gratitude to your audience for being there, you entitled piece of shit?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

R.I.P. iPod

Tuesday, 9 September 2014, was the day Apple pulled the plug on the non-computer product that redefined the company.

The iPod wasn't the first portable music player with a hard drive. It was, however, the first one that the public embraced in a big way. That's hard to remember today, when the company is far better known for phones and a still-unreleased watch, not to mention those by-now almost-afterthoughts, computers. But a music player is built into every one of those still-shipping (or soon-to-be-shipping) products because of the success of the iPod.

You probably don't lament the demise of the iPod, or rather, of the iPod Classic, the iPod with the hard drive. There are other iPods still being made, for one thing. More importantly, you probably have your music on a smartphone these days and the idea of a standalone music player is kind of weird, or at best quaint.

However, a few of us mourn the loss. Hard drives may seem quaint, but the storage costs are quite reasonable compared to flash memory. The iPhone 5s maxes out at 32 GB of storage, the iPhone 6 at 128 GB; the last iPod Classic held 160 GB. Plus, that iPod Classic was (forgive me for relying on memory: it has been a while since I looked at the price) somewhere in the range of $250-300, whereas the 64 GB iPhone 6 is $299 and the 128 GB iPhone 6 is $399. You can argue that you're buying more than a mere music player for that money, but sometimes all I want is a music player!

I have a large music library and sometimes I want as much of it with me as I can. I don't want to access my music over the network, as music subscription services require. On foot, on transit or even in a car, the network simply isn't accessible; even if it's available, it's often undesirable to take advantage of it (access is costly or untrustworthy).

In short, the iPod Classic still very much has a place in my life.

The Los Angeles Times' Michael Hiltzik wrote a nice valedictory to the iPod Classic. He linked to three other elegies, only one of which, from Forbes' Hugh McIntyre, is worth reading.

I'm disappointed and unhappy that Apple has washed its hands of the iPod Classic, and in some respects, of me.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Star Trek movies

I've been a Star Trek fan for as long as I can remember. I grew up watching reruns of The Original Series and I've watched all of the movies, even the Next Generation ones. As much as I liked TOS, and as good as some Next Generation episodes were, the movies are a decidedly mixed bag.

First, the Next Generation movies. They're uniformly mediocre. The stories fail to involve the audience: it's impossible to care about what happens.

Next, the J. J. Abrams reboots. 2009's Star Trek is a hoot in spite of the story's criminal violations of physics. 2013's Star Trek Into Darkness is a different story (ahem). It's loud and visually impressive, but the storytelling is a mess: too much happens for any of it to have an emotional impact on the audience. I also think the characterization of Spock is way, way off, especially in his confrontation with the villain.

That leaves the six movies starring the cast of The Original Series.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a stately bore. The best that can be said is that the crew is good at their jobs. (That's a greater compliment than you might think: keep reading.)

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is most people's pick for the best of the bunch, and looking at it dispassionately I have to agree. My only criticisms are the inconsistencies between the movie and its precursor TV episode, "Space Seed", and Kirk's unaccountable failure to follow (sensible) procedure before the Enterprise's first encounter with Khan and company. This is the first obvious instance of what I call "competence rot", but it won't be the last.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is necessary from a continuity standpoint, but as a standalone movie it just lies there, not terrible, but not particularly great, either. On the plus side, the competence rot afflicts not Our Heroic Crew, but their would-be pursuer, the captain of U.S.S. Excelsior. Indeed, Sulu and Uhura will never fare better than this movie: they are badasses.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is my favorite of the bunch, but I have to admit it's pretty silly. Its saving grace is acknowledging the silliness and maintaining an appropriately light tone throughout. Unfortunately, in keeping with that light tone, competence rot is widespread: Chekov is implausibly idiotic throughout, reaching a nadir of idiocy during his interrogation by government agents; Scotty heedlessly passes along future technology; Spock repeatedly sticks out like a sore thumb even though he is a careful and cautious observer by nature and should easily have been able to keep a lower profile.

On its release, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier displaced The Motion Picture as the worst of the original cast's movies, hands down. Competence rot is at parodic levels: Scotty bangs his head on a bulkhead immediately after boasting of his categorical knowledge of the ship's layout; Sulu and Chekov get lost on Earth; Uhura loses her head (not to mention her good taste) and falls for Scotty, of all people. The topper? The entire crew misses the approach of a hostile ship. This is a flaming wreck of a movie that, in spite of stiff competition from a couple of the Next Generation films, remains the leading contender for the worst Star Trek movie ever.

I suspect Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was made because nobody wanted Star Trek V to be the original cast's final appearance: it would have been just too embarrassing for all concerned. Except for being their last hurrah, however, The Undiscovered Country isn't a particularly distinguished entry in the series: it's workmanlike but clunky. Competence rot is as embarrassing and widespread as in Star Trek V, maybe even more so. Chekov is a moron who doesn't know what happens if you fire a phaser onboard the Enterprise and can't carry out an investigation; Uhura doesn't have the vaguest grasp of the Klingon language, in spite of the Klingons being the Federation's main enemy for decades; McCoy doesn't know Sulu has his own command even though Sulu has been a captain for at least three years at the time the movie opens. Spock even (deservedly) suspects himself of losing his grip when brooding in his quarters. You know competence rot is bad when the characters comment on it.

Man ... I didn't realize the Trek movies were such a sorry lot until I wrote all this down. It's a testament to the blind loyalty of people like me that even the low quality of most of these films hasn't stopped them from making a lot of money.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The flip side of your Second Amendment rights

A so-called militia member got himself shot at by a Border Patrol agent yesterday.
Border Patrol spokesman Omar Zamora said agents had been chasing a group of immigrants east of Brownsville Friday afternoon when an agent saw a man holding a gun near the Rio Grande.

The agent fired four shots, but did not hit the man. The man then dropped his gun and identified himself as a member of a militia. Zamora said no other details were immediately available.

Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio said, "We really don't need the militia here." He mentioned the several law enforcement agencies already in the area and added, "[The militia's presence] just creates a problem from my point of view, because we don't know who they are."

This was a foreseeable outcome of the Second Amendment obsession afflicting a segment of our population.

I've repeatedly grumbled about armed civilians creating fear, uncertainty and doubt among the rest of us. In "A cop's take on the Aurora tragedy" I imagined a police officer's confusion on arriving at a scene like the Aurora, CO, movie theater shooting if there are multiple armed persons in the crowd:

Which of the gun toters was the aggressor and which were merely defending themselves? Do the gun toters themselves know? What if, in the heat of the moment, the true aggressor diverts law enforcement's attention to a self-defender: "That guy in the tan jacket just started shooting!"
My concern primarily has been the possibility of a free-for-all erupting in an otherwise peaceful, ordinary environment. I hadn't considered the possibility that Second Amendment absolutists could intervene in already tense situations like the border crisis. (I suppose some if not all of Cliven Bundy's idiotic supporters are Second Amendment absolutists, but he is enough of a cancer on the body politic that it hardly matters whether he and his cohorts are gun nuts too.)

The so-called militia member in Texas had the good sense to recognize that he was the one creating fear, uncertainty and doubt in the situation. Maybe that's how Second Amendment absolutists intend things should always play out. I'm not that sanguine. I could just as easily imagine a less cautious or more belligerent self-anointed militia member taking a more aggressive stand. In this case, for instance, the so-called militia member was on private property. Someone with a greater sense of grievance against the government, a not uncommon state of mind among Second Amendment absolutists, might have decided that the Border Patrol agent was trespassing, or at the very least threatening a private citizen's safety on private property — actions that would justify shooting back, or even shooting preemptively.

Anyway, I'm sure somebody among the Second Amendment absolutists will turn this incident into a rallying cry — against putatively overzealous government agents, for instance. But for those of us living in the real world, this incident is just another reason to shake our heads sadly and lament whatever delusions have led some of our neighbors to adopt such an extreme interpretation of the right to bear arms.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

An art review sans context

I mentioned my boredom with the then-upcoming Chuck Jones exhibition about six weeks ago. Today the New York Times published a review of that exhibition by Ken Johnson. The review appears under the rubric of the "Art & Design" section of the paper, a point that raises expectations that the review doesn't meet.

Context is important in any discussion about art. Nobody produces art in a vacuum: every artist is at the center of a web of influences. While every artist deserves to be taken on his or her own merits, it's inevitable that a critic is going to judge that artist in part on how he or she measures up against contemporaries and the influences that loom large in the artist's work.

It's context that is lacking in Johnson's review. He knows about 20th century art movements: he references Pop art, Cubism, and Surrealism in the course of explaining Jones' cartoons' visual style. However, he doesn't seem to know much about the history of the animated cartoon in the United States. Beyond a parenthetical mention of Tex Avery, the acknowledged father of Warner Bros. cartoons' unDisneyesque house style (visual and attitudinal), Johnson's review acknowledges no one else who made animated shorts. There's not even the seemingly obligatory mention of Walt Disney. The conclusion to which the casual reader is inevitably drawn is, Jones was a creative genius who came up with his innovations on his own.

That was, of course, not so.

Jones was certainly conscious of high art and probably welcomed its influence on animation more avidly than some of his colleagues. However, Jones, in spite of his flirtation with modernist art in some of his early- to mid-1940s cartoons (such as The Dover Boys of Pimento University from 1942), didn't lead the charge. In fact, what happened was that a new studio, United Productions of America (UPA), experienced great success with its cartoons in the early 1950s. UPA's house visual style was significantly different from the highly labor-intensive, lush imagery produced by existing Hollywood animation studios. Dimensionality was not as important; "realistic" depth of field was not a priority; smooth movements were not always required; and the "classical" character and background design principles that most studios had inherited directly or indirectly from the Disney studio were eschewed in favor of principles that drew on those 20th-century modernist movements Johnson cited.

UPA's success forced existing studios to reckon with its work, almost certainly in part because UPA's budgets were smaller than those at other studios. (You could plausibly claim that the change wasn't an artistic one, but a financial one.) To varying degrees the veteran studios and their creative staffs incorporated some of UPA's design principles into their own work. At Warner Bros., all three unit directors (Jones, Friz Freleng, and Bob McKimson) switched over to flatter backgrounds, not-quite-as-full animation, and modified designs for the studio's flagship characters. Jones unquestionably adapted more effectively than his colleagues: cartoons like One Froggy Evening and What's Opera Doc? would never have occurred to his fellow directors in their wildest dreams. But Jones didn't bring about the change in graphical style. (His handful of 1940s cartoons that flirted with modern art almost certainly inspired the UPA animators and directors, so he did play an important part in the industry's evolution. Johnson, however, omits these details entirely and so leaves an entirely wrong impression that Jones was singlehandedly responsible for the sea change in visual style that swept through Warner Bros. Johnson also, of course, fails entirely to mention that the change affected every other studio as well.)

On the comparatively nit-picky side of things, this statement irritated me a lot:

Like the artists at other animation studios, Chuck Jones and his teams put a lot of effort into ensuring that his characters would remain consistent and stable.
The trouble is the casual mention of "his teams". By the 1950s, cartoon production at Warner Bros. was consolidated into three teams, each centered on its director. Each team included a writer and senior animators. Most of the time there was no cross-pollination between the teams. (There was a practice of presenting each cartoon's story to the whole studio before animation began, however: this allowed for creative input from everyone.) Johnson's vague reference to "his teams" makes it sound as if Jones ran the whole animation staff, which he emphatically did not.

This statement also bugged the bejesus out of me:

Another recurring theme in Jones’s cartoons has one character in unending pursuit of another, endlessly elusive, one.
It's true, but wrongly implies that Jones' cartoons were uniquely fixated on the chase. You hardly need to be a cartoon scholar to know that many hundreds of Hollywood cartoons were highly stylized and adorned chases.

As I pointed out earlier, Jones was one of many at Warner Bros. who were responsible for the tremendous legacy of the animation studio's collective output. His achievements were of course unique, but they weren't more important than anyone else's at the studio, which is the impression Johnson's adulatory but uncontextualized review leaves. Jones' peers at Warner Bros. and in the industry deserve better than they've received at the hands of uninformed reviewers like Johnson.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Curse you, Banzai!

Thirty years ago today, a weird and wonderful movie went into general release in the U.S.

I still get a kick out of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Just watching the end credits — which you may only do if you've already seen the whole movie — is enough to make me smile. It may be a so-called cult classic, but it puts to shame every bigger-budget blockbuster I can think of.

Kevin Smith is a big fan, too. But I admit, it's not to everyone's taste.

My prediction: somebody, one day, will write a book about that watermelon.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A quick take on Ferguson, MO

I've paid little attention to the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, where protests are ongoing over the police shooting of an unarmed African-American teen. However, having seen some of the coverage today, I am longing to ask the town's authorities a question.

Do you guys have any idea what's happening to you?

I don't mean, "Do you know why people are protesting?" You're clearly aware of that. No, the question is, "Do you know how you're coming across to the rest of the country?"

It's dicey to reach conclusions based on national media coverage of local stories. Reporters parachuted in from heaven knows where, who have little or no knowledge of local conditions, often do embarrassingly bad jobs of delivering accurate information. But when the events involve the reporters, as they do in the case of a Huffington Post reporter arrested by police, I feel confident the reporter got it right.

Here's what this non-local, more or less disinterested passing stranger thinks of the situation.

You, the authorities (police and civil) in Ferguson, look like you're straight out of Andy Griffith's Mayberry, only without the laugh track, gentleness or common sense.

Most police forces aren't ready to handle a story that catches the national eye, it's true. But even the most insular one should know that moving in on, and roughing up, the national media is a dumb idea, a spectacularly dumb idea.

And any elected official has to know how dumb it is to antagonize the media.

So why are you, the authorities in Ferguson, MO, acting like you live in the nineteenth century, when nobody more than ten miles outside town would ever hear about the heavyhanded "justice" the sheriff was administering? Why don't you understand that everything you do is being scrutinized under a microscope, and what the rest of the country sees is not pretty?

And now you're using tear gas. Ho boy.

Here's the message you're sending: "We don't give a shit about answering your questions about the death of an unarmed teenager."

You're in over your heads — way over. You've lost the public relations war and you're at risk of losing all control over your town.

Do something different. Your current strategy isn't working.

Monday, August 11, 2014

R.I.P. Robin Williams

I don't care about meeting a lot of famous people. But Robin Williams was an exception. I wanted to meet him, to probe that unbelievably agile mind — and yeah, maybe to share a laugh, just the two of us. That would have been a heck of a memory to have.

That's not gonna happen. Williams died today at age 63. The cause of death is suspected to be "suicide due to asphyxia", which sounds like "he hanged himself".

Having escaped the fate of his friend John Belushi, it seems unjust for Williams to have taken his own life. Yet of course, none of us knows what was going on in his head. I can't help wondering if he thought his best days were behind him, something that occurred to me when I saw the ads for his 2006 film RV.

Is the price of a lightning-fast, incredibly facile, improvisationally gifted mind a corresponding abyss of personal darkness? Maybe.

Is that darkness too high a price? Maybe. Williams' family and friends probably think so right now.

As a final thought, my favorite Robin Williams performance wasn't in a movie or on a comedy club stage. It was his appearance on Inside the Actor's Studio. I think James Lipton asked fewer than a dozen questions in the broadcast episode, yet Williams made close to two hours of often hysterically funny performance art out of them (and if memory serves, those two hours were edited from five or six hours of actual time on stage).

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Hannity must be on Colbert's payroll

After Stephen Colbert suggested Sean Hannity could be replaced by a five-year-old child, Hannity went off on the satirist.
First of all, he’s not as funny as Jon Stewart. Stephen Colbert will have the lowest-rated late night show. There are issues that just aren’t funny. Terrorism isn’t funny. I didn’t see the bit. I won’t see it. I don’t care.
He rose to the bait. Unbelievable. And he came off like ... well, like a five-year-old in the process, fulfilling the gag. Could Colbert have scripted a better response?

Hannity is secretly being paid by Comedy Central. That's the only explanation.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

When a moron is in charge

Tim Torkildson is a lot more sanguine about his firing than I would be in his place. Heck, he's a lot more sanguine about it than I am.
This week I was fired for writing a blog about homophones for an educational website.

“I’m letting you go because I can’t trust you” said Clarke Woodger, my boss and the owner of Nomen Global Language Center. “This blog about homophones was the last straw. Now our school is going to be associated with homosexuality.”

As Torkildson noted in his blog, homophones have nothing to do with homosexuality. Nothing. Really. Look it up.

But maybe the greatest (?) part of the story is that the boss didn't act precipitately. Oh, no.

“I had to look up the word” [Woodger] continued, “because I didn’t know what the hell you were talking about. We don’t teach this kind of advanced stuff to our students, and it’s extremely inappropriate. Can you have your desk cleaned out by eleven this morning? I’ll have your check ready.”
Yup: he investigated the matter, then unjustly fired Torkildson.

Woodger owns a school that bills itself as "America's English Language School", yet he doesn't know what a homophone is. Worse, even after he supposedly finds out, he still thinks it has something to do with homosexuality.

If you know a student at that school, you might want to advise him or her to reconsider his or her enrollment. After all, the guy running it doesn't sound terribly conversant with English.

In fact, he sounds like a moron. Which is not the same as sounding like another word but having a different meaning, which is what homophone means. No, Woodger sounds like a moron because, well, he might be one.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Another tech company plays with its users

First it was Facebook. Now it's OKCupid that has confessed to conducting secret experiments on its users.
One experiment linked users up with people who were deemed a bad match — a 30 percent compatibility rate based on OKCupid’s algorithm. OKCupid labeled these bad matches as being 90 percent compatible to see if people could “like” each other even if they had nothing in common.
Again, a tech company changed how it selected its deliverables. Again, the public is pissed.

OKCupid showed even less concern for its users than Facebook. Facebook filtered out some of the information it ordinarily would have shared, but it didn't provide false information. OKCupid subverted its core functionality: it gave outright false results.

OKCupid asked a valid question, but it pursued an ethically indefensible strategy to find the answer. There are protocols to follow when you experiment on human subjects. Reputable scientists know about these protocols. Are there any reputable scientists at OKCupid? It doesn't seem so.

The obvious followup question: is OKCupid a trustworthy company?

Well, it came clean: give it credit for that. But its post-facto confession doesn't excuse its deceit. The confession doesn't make up for whatever fallout resulted from its tampering.

What OKCupid traffics in isn't maintaining old relationships, but creating new ones, one of the most deeply personal areas of anyone's life. Sure, the end user ultimately decides whether a relationship is viable. However, just because you're ultimately responsible for spitting poison out before you ingest it, doesn't mean you want food companies to disguise garbage as edible food. That's what OKCupid did.