Tuesday, January 31, 2006

NSA/FISA wiretapping scandal not going away

President Bush devoted some of his State of the Union speech in a little more revisionism on the NSA wiretapping scandal. It's not going to go away so easily.

J.D. Henderson at Intel Dump did the yeoman's job of reading every word the Bush administration has written in defense of their claim that they can spy on American citizens without warrants. J.D. is wholly unconvinced by their arguments, writing:

The administration also, bizarrely, cites the wiretapping of US telegraph lines by a confederate general during the civil war in support of its contention that wiretapping in time of war does not require a warrant. This is astonishing. The actions of a man who was a self-declared enemy of the United States, who took up arms against the Constitution of the United States and was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of US Army soldiers, is being cited in order to show that the president is not violating the Constitution? I didn't realize that the actions of our enemies could be used to set Constitutional law precedents. But yes, in wartime the military can spy on the enemy. Nobody has suggested otherwise. The enemy is not protected by the 4th Amendment or FISA. We, the People of the United States, are protected - unless, of course, the administration's argument is allowed to stand unchallenged.

The only conclusion I can come to from the document is that the president feels we are the enemy - or at least, anybody he wants to declare an enemy is now an enemy.
Perhaps the Senate Judiciary Committee will have some exciting hearings on this matter, but I'm betting against it. The sooner they put some lipstick on this pig, and leave the scandal properly "investigated," the happier the GOP will be. After all, they've got a lot of trials to get through. However, impeachment is a fool's dream to hope for. The absolute worst that will happen is that Bush will be censured. The party bosses will insist on it.

Speaking of trials, do you find yourself confused about which Republican is in jail, who has plead guilty, etc.? You're not alone: it's like trying to keep track of Liz Taylor's husbands. There's a new, handy guide to all the trial dates and other information at the TPM Cafe Grand Ole Docket. It's all there, from murder to bribery to wire fraud — even to a single, token Democrat (and since he actually is guilty, I guess that makes it a bipartisan scandal by the official rules).

(photo generated by glassgiant.com)

Ten-second job interviews

By accident, I just stumbled over an article on job interviewing for the New Yorker that Malcolm Gladwell wrote in 2000, and eventually turned into Blink That's interesting, because almost every idea in the book is there in the article, several years before the book was completed. The book basically has snappier anecdotes.

Monday, January 30, 2006

SOTU Bingo

President Bush will give his much-anticipated State of the Union address tomorrow evening. I assume it will be typically shabby performance that will be hailed as a "remarkable comeback" almost before he is finished.

Here's a proposed drinking-game/bingo so that we can all play along and enjoy ourselves. You can win by picking a row in any direction. If President Bush does or says all the items specified in your row, you will win a valuable prize. (Which you will award yourself).

I tried to format these squares as a beautiful, lovely, square HTML table, but it was just a horrible nightmare after Blogger got through with it. So, here, as a list of lists, we have: SOTU Bingo!

  • Does weird cud-chewing motion with jaw.

  • Waits for laugh, doesn't get it, looks irked.

  • Uses the phrase "cut and run", as if America's foreign policy should be determined by the hillbilly code of ethics.

  • Mispronounces common, everyday word.

  • Mispronounces common, everyday word in a way wholly different from the way Texans speak.

  • Uses the phrase "economy is strong, and it's getting stronger".

  • Shares heartwarming story of gratitude from alleged citizen.

  • Quotes from letter allegedly written to white house by military personnel.

  • Points to alleged story/letter authors, both grinning and sitting next to his animatronic wife, Laura.

  • Says "9/11" over and over like it just happened.

  • Speaks in a way that makes your thoughts gently, gently wander towards the area of "possible brain damage from cocaine."

  • Points to actual, black Katrina victim in audience who loves President Bush with all her heart. Animatronic wife Laura starts hugging, smiling subroutines.

  • Uses folksy language to slowly explain something that any adult would know, like "democracy."

  • Pauses and weird emphases in the middle in a word that makes you wonder if he's having a stroke as you watch.

  • Explains how a recent letter from a concerned citizen caused him to re-think entire U.S. economy

  • Defends the decision to invade Iraq one... more... time.

There are too many negative accomplishments that President Bush will not mention, so we can't have a negative bingo card, with the many things that he will not say. It's just too depressing. However, if he says or does any of these things, you may color me "surprised."

  • Details how he crapped his pants when Scooter Libby was indicted.

  • Discusses why he is a substantially better president than Nixon.

  • Explains why he would rather clear brush than have sex with his wife.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

You're with us or against us

Fredo, you're my older brother, and I love you. But don't
ever take sides with anyone against the Family again. Ever.
When do you do the right thing? When do you absolutely have to do the right thing, whatever the consequences?

This is a bad time in politics for principled behavior. The Bush Administration has made it known through word and deed that loyalty to Bush always comes first, with loyalty to Republicans a distant second. Any adherence to principle that makes you act contrary to these two primary obligations is likely to get you fired. Take, for example, the quickly neutered DiIulio, who scampered away from his "Mayberry Machiavellis" statement as soon his infamous letter to Esquire was made public.

Some people are having more private struggles with principle and what the Bush administration requires, and they're genuinely tough decisions to make. Alexandra Marks in the Christian Science Monitor writes about the particular bind that employees with high-level classifications face:
Former intelligence officer Russ Tice wants to tell Congress about what he believes were illegal actions undertaken by the National Security Agency in its highly sophisticated eavesdropping programs.

But he can't. He's been warned by the NSA that the information is so highly classified that even members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees - who are charged with overseeing the work of the intelligence community - don't have clearance to hear about them. If Mr. Tice talks at the hearings early next month, he could face criminal prosecution.
There are a number of people stuck in this web. She adds:
According to the Government Accountability Office, the number of government employees coming forward to report allegations of wrongdoing within the government increased 46 percent in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
In addition to lower-level workers, there have been objections at the highest levels to the unlimited extension of executive power that the Bush administration has insisted is its king-like right. Never forget, they're torturing people in your name to assuage their own fear and their own unwillingness to be criticized. Newsweek writes about the brave battles that James Comey, Jack Goldsmith and others waged behind the scenes to get the administration to obey the law, the counterweight to favored opinion-writers like John Yoo, who would gladly allow the United States to break the Geneva Convention, and defined torture so narrowly that, basically, no one who lives through any procedure has been tortured. The entire article is worth reading.
These Justice Department lawyers, backed by their intrepid boss Comey, had stood up to the hard-liners, centered in the office of the vice president, who wanted to give the president virtually unlimited powers in the war on terror. Demanding that the White House stop using what they saw as farfetched rationales for riding rough-shod over the law and the Constitution, Goldsmith and the others fought to bring government spying and interrogation methods within the law. They did so at their peril; ostracized, some were denied promotions, while others left for more comfortable climes in private law firms and academia. Some went so far as to line up private lawyers in 2004, anticipating that the president's eavesdropping program would draw scrutiny from Congress, if not prosecutors. These government attorneys did not always succeed, but their efforts went a long way toward vindicating the principle of a nation of laws and not men.
Most of these battles were waged far away from the public eye, and accordingly, it must have startled some when Harry Reid sent out an email that read in part
I have been in public service for over 40 years and never been as disillusioned as I am today. In 1977, I was appointed chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission. It was a difficult time for the gaming industry and Las Vegas, which were being overrun by organized crime During the next few years, there would be threats on my life, FBI stings and even a car bomb placed in my family's station wagon. What is happening today in Washington is every bit as corrupt as when Las Vegas was run by the mob, but the consequences for our country are worse. These Republicans have created the most corrupt government in our history. Their "K Street Project" is a shakedown machine that would make the mafia blush. We cleaned up Las Vegas, and we will clean up Washington DC.
It's rare to see a staid politician like Harry Reid draw a direct link from the behavior of organized crime to the Republican political machine. But such a comparison has never been more apt. This kind of fighting attitude is the needed tonic to get these incompetent, lying crooks out of office.

(Photo of Al Pacino adapted from fair-use photo found on Wikipedia.)

Hitting and running

Eric Red is a screenwriter of horror and gore films. His films in the 1980s were moderately popular, especially The Hitcher and Near Dark. I did not know until today that they were written by the same person, which is interesting to me, since I found The Hitcher nicely scary, but too graphic, hideously so. In contrast, Near Dark is simply a terrific vampire movie. It should have been more popular than it was.

Near Dark was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who was married to James Cameron at the time. It's interesting to see from the cast how many people in this film would appear as regulars in James Cameron films: Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, and the lovely Jenette Goldstein, forever the fierce Lt. Vasquez.

I never know what to think about Kathryn Bigelow. She is simply a great action director. So many of her movies have striking visual sequences that stick with me for months or years later. She gets fantastic actors, frequently at the start of their film careers. And yet, so many of her movies just don't make sense, like they're a series of separate scenes stitched together with common characters. Point Break and Blue Steel? Terrific looking movies, but ridiculous plots. Strange Days just didn't do it for me. Consequently, I've missed her two last big films. K-19: The Widowmaker had mixed reviews, but many people liked it. But The Weight of Water clearly annoyed some reviewers. (But how can I miss a movie with Sarah Polley and Sean Penn?)

In any case, let's return to Eric Red. Many of Eric Red's films have an emphasis on cars crashing into people, and it turns out he also has some family history in this area. This would pass without comment, except that he killed two people by crashing his car into them. It's a fascinating story.

(via firedoglake)

Friday, January 27, 2006

Photos of nuclear blast, mid-explosion

They're photos taken in the 1950s by special-purpose, one-shot "Rapatronics" cameras. Super neat. Click around for explanations in addition to the nifty photos.

(via the indescribable Zapato Productions Intradimensional.)

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Loathsome people

Another pay-for-play journalist has been unmasked. The contemptible Stephen Milloy, who has long ridiculed every study of the effects of second-hand smoke, along with other studies that big business finds inconvenient, was actually being paid for his opinions. He was paid by Philip Morris (Altria) and ExxonMobile, $92,000 in one year. According to the The New Republic article on Milloy, the alleged journalist has been receiving payola since the 90s. It's not hard to find Milloy's paid opinions on smoking arrayed on his too-aptly-named site, junkscience.com.

The studies on second-hand smoke were the beginning of the end of the free ride for Big Tobacco. Before those studies arrived, everyone was willing to gamely suffer the fumes of the smokers around them. When people learned they could get cancer themselves, the laissez-faire attitude ended instantly. Big Tobacco lost the fight over pretending that nicotine wasn't addictive, and they lost the fight over deliberately interesting children in their product. But they never stop trying to make it more acceptable to smoke, and they never will.

There are five women in my life right now who have emphysema or cancer, or both. One of them has never smoked, for religious reasons, although her husband smoked constantly. Second-hand smoke causes medical problems, as repeated studies show, and simple common sense would tell you.

If you smoke, you should stop. Smoking is not going to kill you, for a quick death would be a blessing. Instead, you will suffer for a long time before you die. There's nothing romantic about it, and I promise that you're not going to feel as devil-may-care about it at the end as you do now, smoking "socially" with your friends outside the bar. The end is all puking and pain, plus the bitter, bitter feelings of the friends and family who will watch you suffer, a long time, until you die. Don't smoke.

And if you're Stephen Milloy, I can only wish that you would suffer for a long time before you die.

(photo from jmanx.com)

Blue skies ahead

Politics seem overheated right now. Liberals are starting to get mad as hell, and they're starting to get on the phones. The immediate factors that I can think of are
It's a topsy-turvy world, and all these events are jumping on everyone's last nerve.

In the long run, the Republicans cannot maintain their grip on power. They're notoriously corrupt as a party now, and when they're not completely screwing the pooch on idiotic initiatives like the Medicare prescription plan, they must actively hide their beliefs in order to stay in office. Lastly, of course, Bush is still incompetent and he is still extremely unpopular, although you wouldn't know it from all the "Bush Bouncing Back in Polls" news articles. We can only hope he has more Townhall meetings, where the animatronic president can terrify the adults with his incessant cud-chewing, jaw-twisting action.

Calculated Risk has a wonderfully cheery graph of the most recent Gallup poll on party identification. The Gallup news release goes on to say:
Overall, in 2005, basic party identification was even -- 33% of Americans each identified as Republicans, independents, and Democrats. When independents' leanings are taken into account, the Democrats gain an advantage -- 48% of Americans either identified as Democrats or leaned to the Democratic Party, while 43% identified as Republicans or leaned to the Republican Party. That represents the largest Democratic advantage since 2000. Democrats have typically held an edge in partisanship in modern U.S. political history, so the recent changes can be thought of as a return to the past.
Environics will release a large poll soon that could possibly explain some of the movement in independents. As Garance Franke-Ruta summarizes it

Despite the increasing political power of the religious right, Environics found social values moving away from the authority end of the scale, with its emphasis on responsibility, duty, and tradition, to a more atomized, rage-filled outlook that values consumption, sexual permissiveness, and xenophobia. The trend was toward values in the individuality quadrant. ...

“While American politics becomes increasingly committed to a brand of conservatism that favors traditionalism, religiosity, and authority,” Adams writes, “the culture at large [is] becoming ever more attached to hedonism, thrill-seeking, and a ruthless, Darwinist understanding of human competition.” This behavior is particularly prevalent among the vast segment of American society that is not politically or civically engaged, and which usually fails to even vote. This has created what must be understood at the electoral level as a politics of backlash on the part of both Republican and Democratic voters: Voters of both parties, Environics data show, have developed an increasingly moralistic politics as a reaction to the new cultural order.

The rest is here. So this is one way to understand what is happening. Mainstream media commentators like O'Reilly, Hannity, Limbaugh and Malkin put forth an aggressive, know-nothing form of journalism/advocacy. They lie ceaselessly, and it works in the short term, because they only have to persuade roughly a third of the population, none of whom is paying too much attention. In addition, this endless parade of nonsense starts to poison the water. Erstwhile liberal or moderate members of the press begin to believe the democrats are inherently weak and evil, and that President Bush is beloved and popular, no matter what the evidence.

Digby analogizes this state of affairs to the anti-semitism in Gentleman's Agreement, the terrific old movie with Gregory Peck. He writes about the beltway media:
Many of us out here in the country are seeing a capital that operates in dozens of ways on a Gentleman's Agreement that Democrats are bad. Our values are wrong, our leaders are dishonest, our philosophy is weak, our policies are ridiculous and our beliefs are immoral. The conventional wisdom is crystalizing into prejudice.
The problem is, this is all foolish prejudice, and it is magnificently beside the point. America is in a losing war, that we were lied into. We Americans torture prisoners now, even innocent ones. Our economy rests on unsustainable consumerism and debt. We're about to install a justice who believes that anything the president does or corporations do is inherently good. None of this is the Democrats fault, and many Democrats in office have done their level best to stop.

The press, by falling for the talking points that Rove issues, is in extreme dereliction of duty, and the old excuse of "we annoy people on the left, and we annoy people on the right" will no longer work to excuse shoddy, indefensible reporting.

Cat photo from PepperLand networks

Second Avenue deli closed

I had thought initially it was just a tough negotiating stance with a ridiculous landlord, but now it looks like the Second Avenue Deli is definitely closed for good. There has been no new news since January 10th.

It was, perhaps, the only restaurant in the world where you could get a nice bowl of soup from a Chinese waiter who could say "Shver tzu zein a Yid." It will be missed.

Here's a typically rude take on the news from those two lovable roommates, Alien and Predator. Kind of incomprehensible if you haven't seen the strip from the beginning, but you've got an hour to kill, no?

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Jesus did not have sex with Mary Magdalene

Leave me out of this

I am horrified to learn that Random House is planning to print more than five million copies of "The Da Vinci Code" beginning in March when it finally comes out in paperback.

It is difficult to understand how this awful book was able to sell 12 million copies hardcover. It is poorly written. The dialogue is didactic and scarcely believable. It uses mechanistic formulas to add suspense. It asserts a great many things, hardly any of which are true, not in religious history, not in art history, not in science. I'm no longer a Christian, so the various assertions concerning Christianity that Brown makes do not offend me per se. Instead, they offend me because they are unsupported by reason or evidence. Jesus did not have sex with Mary Magdalene. Opus Dei is not a group of hardened priest-assassins. And Mona Lisa is not a self-portrait. The entire book, in all its lunacy, is nicely summarized here.

Brown borrowed heavily from books about the early Christians written by Elaine Pagels. These books are popularizations. Some of them discuss alternative meanings of Christianity that can be found in the apocryphal books of the bible, the books discarded when the nascent Catholic church was trying to determine what it believed exactly. It's doubtful if Brown understood the difference between secret texts chosen by a shadowy, powerful cabal, and texts that were discarded in order to choose a particular creed.

And yet, Elaine Pagels writes very interesting books. I particularly enjoyed Adam, Eve, and the Serpent but more relevant to Dan Brown's book is The Gnostic Gospels For many Christians, it is revelatory to learn that the form of their church was not obvious from the beginning, that many strong leaders worked over centuries to keep certain views in and to push other views out.

There are at least three books out specifically debunking The Da Vinci Code, none of which look very good. National Geographic has a short article relating to its documentary on the subject. Here is a nice, gently written article from a Christian commentator, that also gives a short-hand view of Pagel's heretical beliefs.

What is worse, the Da Vinci Code movie is coming out in May. It stars Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou. The movie is written by Akiva Goldsman, who has written several popular movies and one good one (A Beautiful Mind). Generally, though, looking at his movies reveals one stink-bomb after another (Batman & Robin, Lost in Space).

I believe that the movie will be an unmitigated disaster. Goldsman did a fine job of distilling a semi-complex biography of John Nash, and he added a memorable portrayal of serious mental illness; but hardly any of his other scripts show any complexity or wit at all. They will water down the controversial parts of the book. The movie will be reduced to Hanks and Tautou running away from one mortal peril after another, while Hanks tries to keep a running dialogue going about obscure Gnostic texts. Good cinema, it ain't.

Also, while Audrey Tautou is a wonderful actress, she is miscast in the role of Sophie Neveu. This actress is best in intense, soulful roles where her intelligence shines through. You may have seen the wonderful Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain, but have you seen Stephen Frear's Dirty Pretty Things or the fantastic French twenty-something movie L'Auberge Espagnole? (Admittedly, Tautou is a very small part of that movie.)

To sum up, Elaine Pagels = interesting, Audrey Tautou = talented, Akiva Goldsman = in over his head, and Dan Brown = hack.

A very, very rich hack. Sigh.

Friday, January 20, 2006

cure for friday

Dig in.

Can't get enough? There's tons more at flickr.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Iko Iko

The only flaw in this great song is that the author claimed not to know what it meant. I miss Professor Longhair. His version was a little different than this.

My grandma and your grandma
Were sittin' by the fire.
My grandma told your grandma:
"I'm gonna set your flag on fire."

Talkin' 'bout: Hey now! Hey now!
Iko, Iko, unday
Jockamo feeno ai nané.
Jockamo fee nané.

Look at my king all dressed in red.
Iko, Iko, unday.
I betcha five dollars he'll kill you dead.
Jockamo fee nané


My flag boy and your flag boy
Were sittin' by the fire.
My flag boy told your flag boy:
"I'm gonna set your flag on fire."


See that guy all dressed in green ?
Iko, Iko, unday.
He's not a man,
He's a lovin' machine.
Jockamo fee nané


 —James Crawford

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

you stole my idea!

Here's an interesting web site that has side-by-side comparisons of stolen ad campaigns That is, these are different print campaign ads where one or more agencies have more or less stolen the idea from someone else. The site is entirely in French, but the pictures tell the whole story.

Many of these ads are obvious thefts: the original ad will be by a large ad agency for a client with a huge brand, while the later ad is for a small company and by an ad agency you cannot find with Google. It is easy to identify the ad burglar in this type of case.

This type of thievery is not illegal. Although it probably isn't highlighted on the relevant resumes, I doubt the practice is even immoral, not when compared with the casual deceit of advertising in general. (For instance, I used a certain brand of razors for years, and not once during that period did a beautiful model hang about my neck while I shaved, begging me to satisfy her. I kept careful notes and I can back this assertion up in court.)

But what does it mean when all four parties, the two ad agencies and the two clients, are all major operations, all of whom should know better? In that case, it's impossible to tell the difference between a lazy, contemptible thief, and two ordinary, equally conscientious ad writers who just happened to have the same nifty idea at approximately the same time.

Great ideas can occur to multiple people, simultaneously. There are some people who make the case that Einstein did nothing unusual when he came up with the Special Theory of Relativity. They believe that the derivation of E = mc2 was fairly obvious from well-known work at the time, such as the Lorentz Transformation. In this view, another accomplished physicist would have discovered the first theory relatively quickly. To the extent I understand this issue, it seems plausible. I can feel the anguish of those other, forgotten physicists, since I personally invented football's Statue of Liberty play at the tender age of ten. I was devastated to be told, approximately the same day, that other football theoreticians had been on this ground long before me. Science is hard.

It's much easier for great ideas to be invented simultaneously when the constituent elements of these ideas are widely available. Even though the ad comparison site only concerns itself with advertising details, it is clear sign of how much things have changed and will continue to change. An online world is just different, with untold possibilities deriving from the emergent behavior of so many people online and interacting constantly. In the case of the ads, we can not only create the duplicate work, but we have enough capacity to compare the duplicates as they arise.

We can all see and understand the story behind a pregnant model in a swimsuit next to a car — it's a family van now, get it? It's also a gentle meta-joke about the advertising industry's penchant for putting the sexy babe next to the hot wheels. Meta-jokes not only amuse the ad writers themselves, they conveniently flatter the audience for being smart enough to understand the joke in the first place.

Everyone can understand the advertising industry, because our culture is saturated in advertising, and it's basic stuff that appeals to common needs. Consider then how much is happening now that is not generally understood, but is being created in the exact same way by the hyper-connected and hyper-active scientists of the world, each in their respective fields. Astronomical observatories in Australia are automatically sending data to interested observers around the globe. Small hospitals routinely send MRI scans to radiologists at research universities for consultation. What was impossible a few years ago is now routine, even boring.

As a technological optimist, increased connectivity like this makes me happy. There are more Galileos talking to more Einsteins now than ever before, and this number will only increase.

(Original link courtesy of BoingBoing.net)

Sunday, January 15, 2006

On getting fitted for a custom orange jumpsuit

Newsweek has a short article on Representative Bob Ney's latest revelation, that he tried to help Iran evade the U.S. trade blockade.

It discusses how Rep. Ney's humanitarian interest in Iran led him to lobby Sec. Colin Powell to loosen trade restrictions on Iran, which would happen to benefit the gentleman who had just given him a lovely, expensive trip to England in February 2003. Unfortunately for him and his attorney, Rep. Ney was also a little bit shy about revealing his convictions more widely, since he didn't say a single word about Iran in Congress at any point during that year. In fairness, Ney taught English in Iran immediately after college, so it is conceivable that he believes his own defense. Still, he really doesn't want me on the jury.

The article mentions in passing
The Iranian airline deal shows how the Abramoff case is already expanding into a broader investigation into D.C. lobbying practices.
Yes, indeed. This administration and this corrupt culture of K-street lobbyists will go down one brick at a time. I can hardly wait for what comes next. 2006 will be a good year, I think.

(Courtesy of TalkingPointsMemo.com. Updated to fix assorted details.)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Honey, I ate fewer of the kids than is widely believed

My lovely, lovable, weird family is slightly obsessed with the Donner Party (and survival issues in general). Several of us have read more than one book on the subject. This doomed expedition is a fascinating story because of the intense drama and the way that their choices kept racheting down, from bad into worse, and then into inconceivably bad. This is ultimately more interesting than the specifics of the cannibalism — the most common association with the Donner Party. This is because the cannibalism was itself an absolute measure of how bad their decisions and their choices actually were.

The details are amazing. For instance, there are many survival stories recorded in print. There are few such where the guy who went for help had to first join in to fight the Mexican-American war for several months before he could get a rescue party together. Here's a short, modern summary of the events of that winter. Here is a contemporaneous account, a letter by John Sutter (of Sutter's Mill fame.)

The Donner-Reed expedition had split up by the time the heavy snows fell, trapping both parties for most of the winter. The larger group definitely resorted to cannibalism to survive. The smaller group, where the actual Donner family was, apparently did not, according to an analysis of the physical evidence.

This is bracing news to the descendents of people in that second camp.
Descendants of the Donner family say the findings bolster claims they have made for years — that cannibalism was not as rampant as portrayed in sensational contemporaneous newspaper accounts of the ordeal, which only about half the pioneers survived.
I'm sympathetic to the family's feelings, while simultaneously hoping that no paragraph ever written about my family, my ancestors, or my descendents has a sentence in it like "the cannibalism was not as bad as first reported."

Incidently, you may be unaware of Cannibal! The Musical, which is basically a movie that Trey Parker and Matt Stone made instead of going to their college classes. The film is very loosely based on the true story of Alferd Packer, a notorious guide in Colorado who either killed and ate five men he led on an expedition, or alternatively, he just ate them.

Unfortunately, it's really not a very good movie, essentially a student musical. But it is funny, and there are some good songs, most of which you can hear on the movie's web site. I found myself humming "It's a shpadoinkle day" more than once afterwards. Parts of it were casually professional, such as having leitmotives for different characters.

If you do see this movie, I recommend seeing it with friends who can appreciate camp and bad movies. Being South Park fans would be a plus. The enthusiastic application of any mind-altering substances you have at hand would be more than appropriate. Also, stay put for at least the first five minutes, the movie will not be what you think.

(public domain image from ibiblio.org)

Working the ref

Firedoglake closely tracks the way that the GOP has skillfully manipulated the media on the Alito hearings. Face it, they're superlative at what they do. The GOP is not troubled by lying or consistency, and they work like energizer bunnies to cloud any issue that could disturb their lock on power.

No, not energizer bunnies. That's too darn fluffy and endearing. The Republicans work like a hypercaffeinated orc army to ensure that the American public is not widely aware of what their actual policies are. They lie about Iraq and Osama Bin Laden being closely linked, convincing up to 40% of Americans at one point. They lie about Abramoff giving money to Democrats, when there is literally no evidence of this. GOP bill names are specifically designed to be the Orwellian reverse of what their goals are. During the 2004 election, potential Bush voters simply did not agree with Bush on most of his political goals; they mistakenly thought he held the opposite point of view. It's a hideous farce. But you know this.

Journalists, on the other hand, are working within professional guidelines that typically mean that they cannot highlight the truth, falsehood, or even the likelihood of any issue without a source to say it for the reporter. Without a opposition party to throw grenades and hissy fits in appropriate amounts, reporters will frequently let right-wing assertions go unchallenged.

What is worse, they are also boxed in by the knowledge that complaining letters will come streaming in over the transom like ICBM missiles in a war game when a reporter so much as cocks an eyebrow to indicate that perhaps it's less than perfectly ideal that our president is a callous ignoramus who breaks laws and sanctions torture. It is not objectivity at all when "objective" reporting presented only within the rules of a game where the Democrats cannot or will not fully participate, and when the individual reporters as well as their businesses are viciously threatened for telling the truth. But you know this.

In any case, we are here now. It looks like the waiting is over soon for Alito, and he'll be the next Supreme Court Justice. Leiberman has hinted at a filibuster, as has Kennedy, but I just don't think this will happen. Despite his mealy-mouthed, shifty, and frankly unbelievable performance in front of the Judiciary committee, Alito didn't say anything that would torpedo him. And why would he? He's probably been preparing non-stop for these hearings for three months now.

It also looks like the waiting has just begun for Roe v. Wade. Now we enter the next phase of this fight, and it's going to be worse than the sixties with integration. My father-in-law strongly disagreed with me when I said Roe was destined for removal with Bush's reelection. Although he didn't vote for Bush, like a lot of people, he believes simultaneously that these radical conservatives can be elected, cut taxes until we have trillion-dollar deficits, bust existing laws and centuries-old traditions, and yet somehow, everything will still stay more or less the same.

Nope, not any more. The anti-abortion movement called in all their chits with the Harriet Miers debacle, and now they're going to get exactly what they want. The newest justice is against abortion, behind any corporation, and for a President God-King who is not bound by any laws that Congress may determine. Perhaps Alito will also find someday that President Bush also agrees with President Andrew Jackson who said(*) "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!"

We are on the brink of a new era. But you know this.

(*) allegedly

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

if you annoy me, you'll go to jail

Well, ok... In truth, that's quite unlikely in practice. But it's possible!

It is now illegal to "annoy" someone via any kind of telecommunications facility. There is no tort created by this new law (I think), so you'd have to persuade a prosecutor that you were sufficiently annoyed for them to file site. It's just a sloppy criminal statute that accidently criminalizes parts of free speech. Heaven only knows what they were thinking, but it sure is interesting that if I have a web site that happens to "annoy", say, a corporate "person" named WalMart, then it's suddenly illegal. Given Congress's history with bad laws relating to telecomm, that's probably no accident. At first glance, this law could not withstand a harsh look from any court inclined to follow the First Amendment, although we can only hope that no one is instant-messaging members of that court 30 times a hour during their deliberations.

The details of the law are here.

Slashdot has also covered this issue of crank blogs.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Abramoff/Scanlon pleas brought to you by slutty manicurist

DC Media Girl, whose only faults in the whole wide world are
  1. She doesn't post very often.
  2. Her site doesn't offer RSS feeds for her blog.
found an unexpected little tidbit in the Abramoff/Scanlon bribery scandal. Scanlon was apparently ratted out by his ex-fiancee, Emily Miller, who was bitter about Scanlon's impending marriage to a manicurist. Miller had worked as a press secretary for Tom Delay. Later, she was apparently the minder appointed to make sure Colin Powell didn't say anything the administration would not approve of, in addition to playing a minor role in the 2000 voter scandal in 2000.

Who is this mystery woman, this manicurist trollop who has unhinged the most magnificent fund-raising machine the world has ever known? Is she a Democrat? Does she do french tips? Did Scanlon plead guilty to keep his fragile flower off the witness stand? Will she be the Fawn Hall of this decade — after all, sometimes you have to go beyond the written law? And most importantly, were the intellectual underpinnings of the neoconservative world acquired from Max Shachtman and Leo Strauss — or from the collected episodes of Dynasty and Knots Landing?

Inquiring minds want to know. A restless world awaits, nay, demands answers.

Half-full territory

How bad was the decision to invade Iraq? You might be an optimist, and choose to take hope in the recent, relatively peaceful and credible elections. That was good news, of a kind.

Here's a random fragment from one of Bush's happy-talk speeches about the progress being made in Iraq.
The people of Iraq are now seeing some of the tangible benefits of their new democracy. They see that as freedom advances, their lives are improving. Iraqis have approved a bold constitution that guarantees the rule of law and freedom of assembly, and property rights, and freedom of speech and the press, and women's rights, and the right to vote. They see their freedom increasingly being defended by their own soldiers and police instead of foreign forces. And they see that freedom is bringing opportunity and a better life.
It's a glorious story, and it would be fantastic news if it were true. Because of this fantasy, howwever, American and Iraqi lives are being thrown away in a fruitless PR campaign to maintain the president's sense of self as a person who is never wrong, and who does not change his mind. The Iraqis hate and distrust us, and desperately want us to leave. The neo-Baathists blow up Shiites and then blame it on the ubiquitous al-Zarqawi to keep their hands clean. The Kurds will cooperate until it no longer makes sense; they don't believe in anything except achieving their own state, even if it means that Kurdish soldiers in the Iraq army will even kill their Arab colleagues.

We could have waited for a long time. The final report from the CIA showed that there were nothing more than high hopes (large PDF file) for reviving a WMD program once the sanctions ended. (Shorter HTML versions of the report are here.)

Statistical models of pre-war Iraq showed that the likelihood of a coup in Iraq was high. Everything in the model still applies today, and many factors is even intensified in the chaos that rages there. (My friend Aaron Belkin wrote this op-ed and the original journal article it is based on.)

Now, where are we? What have we accomplished?

The war will cost 1 to 2 trillion dollars, ten times the original estimate. Iraq is on the verge of civil war, according to an American General

What have we gained for these sacrifices? Nothing. We will wind up holding ashes.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

ten gigapeople

The Economist magazine has an interesting story on the history of wheat, and its historical importance to our entire species.

IN 10,000 years, the earth's population has doubled ten times, from less than 10m to more than six billion now and ten billion soon. Most of the calories that made that increase possible have come from three plants: maize, rice and wheat. The oldest, most widespread and until recently biggest of the three crops is wheat[...]. To a first approximation wheat is the staple food of mankind, and its history is that of humanity.

Yet today, wheat is losing its crown. The tonnage (though not the acreage) of maize harvested in the world began consistently to exceed that of wheat for the first time in 1998; rice followed suit in 1999. Genetic modification, which has transformed maize, rice and soyabeans, has largely passed wheat by—to such an extent that it is in danger of becoming an “orphan crop”. The Atkins diet and a fashion for gluten allergies have made wheat seem less wholesome. And with population growth rates falling sharply while yields continue to rise, even the acreage devoted to wheat may now begin to decline for the first time since the stone age.

Although we — that is, our species — will have some extra calories to manufacture, somehow, before the projected peak population of 10 billion people is reached, it should work out for us. Due to globally declining fertility, we are no longer in a straightforward Malthusian scenario, much less the one that could directly lead to the terrible acting in Soylent Green. At the end of the story, the articles switches off on a side-track of discussing Genetically Modified food as unjustly persecuted by foolish luddites, a persistent theme at The Economist whenever GM is the topic. I do hope it is not being paid for that opinion.

I tried to find a good population simulator, but all the ones I found were pretty uninspiring. Instead, here's a nifty Java applet that simulates zombie infections of a city population. Click on the black applet, and press "g" to make the zombies green and more visible. Or read the instructions.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead

However, General Ariel Sharon is still hanging on, barely.

For some reason, this news story reminded me that you can listen to the streaming broadcasts of BBC radio, either live or in a short series of archives. It's a really fantastic service, with news in many languages, and radio shows that cover music, news, comedy, and documentaries. I may have been the last Beatles fan in the world to learn that Brian Epstein was gay, but thanks to a BBC documentary, I have been fully apprised. The music comes in every conceivable category, from Techno to Welsh Folk. Check out Rob da Bank's show as a worthy success to the great John Peel.

The sound quality is only ok, and they've made it clear they won't improve it. However, that just means you won't be blocked by your administrators for listening at work, so dig right in.

My goodness, Wikipedia really does have everything. I wonder if I can find my old high school yearbook in there.

Sha na na na, sha na na na na

Fig. 1: A strong contender for January's worst news graphic

Information Week says that employment prospects for "IT pros" will not be so bad this year, and even suggests that some companies are actually considering paying more money. Well, that's something to try if you've tried everything else, I suppose. I love the poorly-done graphics that came with this one-page article, one of which is shown above. If you ever tried to explain passive-aggressiveness at the job to someone, this graphic could be a good start. Technically, someone did deliver the graphic they were asked for...

Computerworld also has a warm, fuzzy feeling about 2006. Here's a summary of the 12/27 article, "What Tech Skills Are Hot for 2006?"
Contrary to the widespread fear that offshoring initiatives are bleeding the U.S. IT job market dry, 2006 is shaping up to be a banner year for technology hiring. Through 2005, only 5% of U.S. IT workers had lost their jobs to offshoring, while job postings on Dice.com for developers, project managers, and help desk technicians all rose by 40% or more from January to September of 2005 compared to the same period a year earlier. A recent survey found that the four most sought-after skills in 2006 will be application development, information security, project management, and help desk skills. Most of the jobs going overseas involve basic coding, enabling U.S. companies to catch up with their backlog of projects, which has increased the demand for developers with Java and .NET skills.
(NB: I did not write the summary; it is from the ACM, which also has a little more on specific job areas. )

On the other hand, if you have an H-1B visa, then the current job situation is a little bit closer to indentured servitude. H-1B visa holders are paid at 75% of the average salary for programmers who are US citizens or residents. If you lose your job, you must immediately leave the country. Also, you are required to stay with the original company for six years. It hardly matters what the law says (it requires parity in salaries). The economic temptations are just too much for the business, and the individual programmers, chiefly Indian, Chinese and Filipino, are in an impossibly poor bargaining position.

The H-1B situation is wrong on many levels, yet it will continue for the forseeable future. As frightening and destabilizing as outsourcing might be, particularly for comfortable, middle-class professionals like myself, maybe it's a viable path for these other countries to raise their standard of living adequately. I hope so. This is going to be a difficult century.

Friday, January 06, 2006

What, no fucking ziti?

Former Congress Duke Cunningham wore a wire before he plead guilty.

The story is only a few paragraphs that simply speculates about who he might have spoken to. Paragraphs that will go off like grenades in assorted offices around DC.

However, it did have this high school moment.
An FBI spokesman declined comment. Asked whether Cunningham, an ace Navy fighter pilot decorated for his service in Vietnam, had worn a wire, the spokesman said the response from a higher-up was, "Like I'd tell you."
One plus of this story: I've gotten my ability to be absolutely amazed back. I thought I had lost that facility. Phew.

There are too many fevered discussions on this to cite, and really there are no details to analyze. He wore a wire, some people we've never heard of just plotzed and immediately called their lawyers. Just check on Technorati later.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Why I am getting out of the Marines

No, no, not me. This guy. It's sad what this misbegotten war is doing to the military, to everyone.

I could never be admitted into the USMC for health reasons, but I've always been a fan of their sheer guts and skill.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Howdy Doody defense

As is well known, Congressman Bob Ney is named in the indictments of Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon.

Here's the key paragraph for Rep. Ney in Scanlon's indictment. Lobbyist A is Jack Abramoff.
From in or about January 2000 through in or about April 2004, SCANLON and Lobbyist A, together and separately, sought and received Representative #1's agreement to perform a series of official acts, including but not limited to, agreements to support and pass legislation, agreements to place statements into the Congressional Record, meetings with Lobbyist A and SCANLON’s clients, and advancing the application of a client of Lobbyist A for a license to install wireless telephone infrastructure in the House of Representatives.
That's the indictment. Here's the second half of this criminal duo confessing in Abramoff's plea agreement (PDF). (His indictment was similar).
In exchange for those things of value, from in or about March 2000 through in or about April 2004, defendent ABRAMOFF, Scanlon and others, together and separately, sought and received Representative #1's agreement to perform a series of official acts to benefit defendant ABRAMOFF's business, clients and others, including but not limited to, agreements to support and pass legislation, agreements to place statements into the Congressional Record, meetings with defendant ABRAMOFF's clients, and advancing the application of a client of defendant ABRAMOFF for a license to install wireless infrastructure in the House of Representatives.
The specific crime Abramoff is confessing to here is "Bribery and honest services fraud of public officials." Honest Services fraud, in just this count of the indictment, means that we, the public, have been defrauded of the honest services of our representatives.

Powerline is not going to take this lying down. They are fantastically propagandistic in discussing the plea agreement. They say this is mostly smoke and is a "purely private matter". They strongly imply that the prosecutor was simply out to get members of Congress. Motives are unstated; presumably all the Powerline readers know who is out to get them.

Powerline approvingly quotes the statement from Congressman Ney's office
Congressman Ney has never done anything illegal or improper and the allegations in this plea agreement do not change this fact.
Not being an expert in propaganda, I looked up some citations to see how to classify the series of misrepresentations made by Powerline. Ultimately, I think they're combining the techniques Glittering Generalities and Euphemisms. So it's a "purely private matter" when two lobbyists in a crooked enterprise get a Congressman to help them purchase a mobbed-up casino. What public interest would be served by investigating a trivial issue like that? Will there be a moment in the next year where we're not dumbstruck by the irony of the hysterical prosecution of a sitting president for a series of blowjobs, in contrast to this blithe dismissal of a wide variety of real crimes?

Look, the evidence for this part of the indictment is not hard to find.

Here are the Ney's two comments relating to SunCruz.
Incidently, Gus Boulis was murdered in February 2001, although sadly, this is not part of the indictments or pleas in this case.

So Rep. Ney was unaware of what Abramoff was doing?! Right. It's the Howdy Doody defense. He was unaware that someone's hand was up his ass, making him say things.

(cross-posted at http://dailykos.com -- not sure how these cross-siting things ought to go...)

He looked fast even in slo-mo

On any given day, I really don't care about football. Don't watch it, don't read about it, couldn't tell you which teams are on top. I didn't even know the Rose Bowl was today. But I did grow up at my grandfather's knee watching college football, and I was absolutely transfixed tonight by the USC game against the Texas Longhorns, #1 and #2, respectively. Every minute seemed to top the next, and both teams kept on making one fantastic play after another. Vince Young was unbelievable. Texas was down by 12 with five minutes left to play, and they came back to win. How in the world do you stop that guy?

Plus side of the game: Vince makes up for not getting the Heisman. (Who did get it? Was Jesus playing college ball this year?) Man, he was in the running for both 2004 and 2005? Ouch!

Minus side of the game: I stayed more than an hour and a half extra at the gym watching this thing, and I'm going to be moving like an unwrapped mummy tomorrow. Maybe I can just sit and look thoughtful on the company couch for eight hours.

movie shorts, animated by bunnies

yep, you read it right the first time.


Redrum! Redrum!!

I am keenly looking forward to the bunny Brokeback Mountain.

award envy

When I went to school, my university didn't even have a Computer Science program. They didn't add one until two years before I graduated. This is quite understandable. Computer Science hardly reckons back to the Greeks, like nearly everything else one might learn at school. Socrates never talked about the lambda calculus.

My hero, Alan Turing, didn't come up with the formal idea for a programmable machine until 1936. Ada Lovelace didn't consider programming until the 1830s. Incidently, she was clearly the first hacker, since
  1. She was starting nearly a century before the first theory arrived,
  2. She was working on programs in her head from spec, before the hardware had even been built
What is saddest of all, she was born in an blighted age that was decades before Cheez Doodles and Red Bull. They probably didn't even have good coffee back then. Poor dear, she was working from sheer talent.

Getting back to my original point, the one I haven't told you yet, I just learned that if I was a lawyer, I would be eligible for an centuries-old award, the Order of the Coif. Through an unusual chain of events, I have discovered that I know someone who has this award, a lovely and talented person who richly deserves it.

Still, now that I know about it, I am envious of the sheer age of this award, and of its deeply weird name. I do not have the Order of the Coif, and I never will have one. I am eligible for the Order of the Thinning Hair, but as far as I am aware, that just increases the odds that strangers will ask you for directions.

President Ted Baxter

Here's a great, optimistic post from Steve Gilliard. He compares Bush to Nixon, and finds Bush greatly wanting, basically the idiot front man for powerful groups. As someone in the comments points out, when Bush nominated Harriet Miers, his erstwhile allies didn't even make a pretense of respecting him. They just wanted someone who would definitely drop Roe v. Wade. If you like the post, definitely check out all the comments.

Either way, I really hope that Steve is correct. It's been a long six years in America, and we really can't afford to have a president this incompetent and venal for much longer.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

what is he DOING back there?

(This is for my friend Jeff in New York.) People in the San Francisco bay area know all about the very funny Don Asmussen, who has done the "Bad Reporter" editorial cartoon for the SF Chronicle/Examiner/SfGate.com papers as they combine and divide like amoeba. He combines pop culture and current politics in a surreal, unpredictable way. Only about 10% of the strips will be about San Francisco. I have no idea if he's popular or not. I love him, but his work is odd enough and frequently offensive enough to all sides that they probably get regular complaints.

The cartoons are amateurish at first glance, the kind of thing that seemingly anyone might draw. And sometimes he will do a few dud comics in a row. No one's perfect. But then, he also has the unparalleled ability to just knock it into orbit. A unique and remarkable talent.

He's friendly at responding to email, too.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

There's a short, informative, but mostly fatuous article at Newsweek on the FISA/NSA wiretapping scandal. It's by Evan Thomas and Daniel Klaidman, with assists from three other reporters, including Issikof.

The article takes a "boys will be boys" approach to the scandal, discussing how multiple presidents have reached for similar far-reaching powers in times of war. The article's author's quickly reach conclusions on the significance of the scandal, describing it only as "pushing the boundaries of the law". Later, they describe objections to widespread, illegal, warrantless wiretaps as "predictably partisan" and "histrionic."

Fine, fine, call me histrionic and partisan, make me write bad checks: I don't think any president should be able to ignore any inconvenient law or any part of the Constitution. I don't think members of the president's staff should be able to wiretap political opponents, as Governor Bill Richardson now believes happened to him, with domestic phone calls to Secretary Colin Powell. The complete list is, as described, breathtaking.

In words that must be comforting to Middle America, the Newsweek reporters also conclude that the Bush administration did "did not throw away the bill of rights". Apparently, this is so simply because members of the administration, the ones who were eventually overruled or coopted, objected to it strenuously when it was first introduced.

That's a very interesting, morally flexible point of view: when a government is being briefly thoughtful about violating our rights, it's somehow freed itself from later criticism, or at least criticism that isn't "histrionic" and "predictably partisan". Using the same reasoning, I could say that Stalin wasn't such a bad man, because there were people like Trotsky and Bukharin who objected to some of his tactics at some point before they were assassinated or killed after show trials.

Here are the key paragraphs for me in the Newsweek article:

At the Justice Department, it was a former prosecutor, James Comey, who forced the White House to back away from the so-called Torture Memo, which appeared to give intelligence agencies a license to use any interrogation method that did not cause the extreme pain associated with organ failure. Comey was the No. 2 man at the department at the time. Although the details are unclear, it appears that Comey's objections were also key to slowing the warrantless-eavesdropping program in 2004 for a time. According to several officials who would not be identified talking about still-classified matters, Comey (among other government lawyers) argued that the authority for the program—the 2001 "use of force" resolution—had grown stale. It was time to audit the program before proceeding in any case, Comey said.

But in March 2004, White House chief of staff Card and White House Counsel Gonzales visited Ashcroft, the seriously ill attorney general, to try to get him to overrule Comey, who was officially acting as A.G. while Ashcroft was incapacitated. Ashcroft refused, and a battle over what to do broke out in the Justice Department and at the White House. Finally, sometime in the summer of 2004, a compromise was reached, with Comey onboard: according to an account in The New York Times, Justice and the NSA refined a checklist to follow in deciding whether "probable cause" existed to start monitoring someone's conversations.

As nearly everyone has pointed out, they could have asked Congress to modify the FISA act immediately after 9/11. They could have asked in 2004, when the FISA court apparently started modifying warrants and when their own staff and cabinet members started to balk.

Why didn't they ask? The single most valuable insight in the article:

The executive branch is always reluctant to ask Congress for permission if, by the very asking, that means conceding that the legislative branch has the power to say no.

Got it. It's a simple rule, one that that every delinquent teenager knows well. What mom doesn't know, mom can't yell at me about.

Firedoglake has more.

The image is courtesy of the Church Sign Generator, a truly addictive site.

Happy New Year 2006!

Here is a series of beautiful pictures by a friend of mine.
I'm on there, just once, but trust me, that's no reason to recommend it.

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