Growing luminous by eating light.
December 2001 - February 2002 archive.
        Tell all the Truth but tell it slant--
Success in circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

(--Emily Dickinson)

Electrolite front page

PNH & TNH home page
Making Light

Check here if you want links to spawn new browser windows.

"Peace means something different from 'not fighting'. Those aren't peace advocates, they're 'stop fighting' advocates. Peace is an active and complex thing and sometimes fighting is part of what it takes to get it."
(--Jo Walton)

"We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us happy is something to be enthusiastic about."
(--Charles Kingsley)

"Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature."
(--Teresa Nielsen Hayden)

"Just because you're on their side doesn't mean they're on your side."
(--Teresa Nielsen Hayden)

"Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die."
(--Anne Lamott)

"See everything, overlook a great deal, improve a little."
(--John XXIII)

"You will never love art well, until you love what she mirrors better."
(--John Ruskin)

"They lied to you. The Devil is not the Prince of Matter; the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt. The Devil is grim because he knows where he is going, and, in moving, he always returns whence he came."
(--Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose)

"Details are all that matters; God dwells there, and you never get to see Him if you don't struggle to get them right."
(--Stephen Jay Gould)

"For every complex question, there's a simple answer. And it's wrong."
(--H. L. Mencken)

"But this kind of deference, this attentive listening to every remark of his, required the words he uttered to be worthy of the attention they excited--a wearing state of affairs for a man accustomed to ordinary human conversation, with its perpetual interruption, contradiction, and plain disregard. Here everything he said was right; and presently his spirits began to sink under the burden."
(--Patrick O'Brian, Master and Commander)

"For a Westerner to trash Western culture is like criticizing our nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere on the grounds that it sometimes gets windy, and besides, Jupiter's is much prettier. You may not realize its advantages until you're trying to breathe liquid methane."
(--Neal Stephenson)

"And after the fire a still small voice."
(--1 Kings 19:12)

"History is the trade secret of science fiction."
(--Ken MacLeod)

Some weblogs
I look at:

[General weblogs]
From Left Field
Outside Counsel
Inappropriate Response
The Sideshow
USS Clueless
Nick Denton
Boing Boing
Through the Looking Glass
John Ellis
The Illuminated Donkey
Plastic Language
Pigs and Fishes
Unqualified Offerings
Little Green Footballs
Off the Kuff
New York Notebook
Ken Layne
Talking Points
Making Light
Unintended Consequences
This Modern World
Sneaking Suspicions
Natalie Solent
What She Really Thinks
The World After WTC
Charles Stross
Andrew Sullivan
Leslie Turek
24-hour Drive-thru
Matt Welch
The Fly Bottle
Oliver Willis
Mind Over What Matters

[Particularly specialized weblogs]
Arts and Letters Daily
Moby Lives
Shouting 'Cross the Potomac
Blog Watch II
Media News
Obscure Store
The Bull Moose
Sgt. Stryker's Daily Briefing
Iberian Notes
Muslim Pundit
Christianity Today

[Collaborative weblogs]

[Personal journals]
The Bleat
Aries Moon

[Political mailing lists]
Red Rock Eater
Viridian Design

Thursday, February 28, 2002
[3:45 PM | permanent link]:

Glenn Reynolds is right: Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (D, SC) has no business grandstanding about "cash and carry government" when he's a bought-and-paid-for servant of the people who want to make it illegal (you heard right) for you to buy a computer that doesn't include copy protection systems controlled by Big Entertainment.

(I justify kiting links from Instapundit on the shaky grounds that I probably have a couple of dozen readers who never look at it. Actually, I just wanted to attitudinize. What's a weblog for?)

[3:30 PM | permanent link]:

Maybe it's just me, but isn't Reuters the wire service that was unwilling to call Al Qaeda "terrorists" because doing so amounted to taking a political position?

This being the case, it's remarkable to see the headline and lede on this Reuters story at the New York Times site: "Indian Mobs Avenge Train Fire, at Least 40 Dead."

AHMEDABAD, India (Reuters) - Hindu mobs avenged the deaths of 58 people in an arson assault on a train, attacking Muslims on Thursday in a rampage in which at least 40 died and forced authorities to call in the army to try to restore order.

Maybe I'm entirely off-base, but it seems to me that "avenged" isn't a synonym for "retaliated". If you say that Indian mobs "retaliated" for something, you're describing what happened; if you say they "avenged" something, you're taking a whole bunch of moral positions at once--not just in the dispute between Hindus and Muslims, but also in a much broader discourse about the relationship of justice to revenge.

I dunno, maybe that's exactly what Reuters meant to do. Hard to square it with all their hand-wringing about the word "terrorist," though.

Wednesday, February 27, 2002
[11:30 PM | permanent link]:

It'll probably be gone by the time you read this, but you know, not in a million years did I ever expect to see T-Bone Burnett and Ralph Stanley on the front page of the New York Times.

I haven't paid attention to the Grammys in years, but these look like a startlingly good bunch of choices, which is to say, they wouldn't make a dog laugh. Of course I'm down with all the awards for rootsy American stuff like Ralph Stanley and Alison Krauss and the O Brother soundtrack, but I'm also struck by this from the Times story:

But perhaps the biggest message to the industry came from the classical field: Sir Colin Davis won a coup for the London Symphony Orchestra when his recording of the Berlioz opera "Les Troyens" won awards for best classical album and best opera recording. The honor is especially significant since the album was released on the orchestra's private independent label, LSO Live, which was formed in part in reaction to the neglect by major labels of classical music.

I'm not deeply knowledgeable about classical music, but go LSO. You don't have to make extravagant claims for classical's potential popularity in order to reflect that the people who decide what we do and don't want to hear are the same geniuses who have been resisting digital music with every weapon at their disposal. More and more, the traditional recording industry looks like, not just an oligarchy, but a really stupid oligarchy.

[10:35 AM | permanent link]:

Via Ken Layne, an article by one Henry Copeland which is, to my mind, the best of the many overviews of the Blog Phenom we've all been reading lately.

No claims that blogging will replace the New York Times tomorrow, but some smart insights into what works about the medium:

e) Chronology. The blog's diary-like stacking of events is easy to take for granted but may be a key virtue. Traditional publishers, scrambling daily to make room for cargo-loads of fresh-arriving news, shove their old product into fathomless database warehouses, from which it can be later extracted only with search equipment. I think the blog's chronological news presentation fits better with innate human story-telling (aka information-processing) habits.

Which fits in with my suspicion that (alternate reading: caters to my prejudice that) human beings are wired for Story the way we're wired to read tiny shifts of facial muscles, and the most compelling bloggers aren't necessarily those with the most insightful analyses or even the best links (although both skills help!); the most successful are those who get the reader invested in their own ongoing story.

Which doesn't, it should hardly be necessary to explain, have to mean endless discussions of what-I-had-for-breakfast. Although some people could write about breakfast, or their hangnails, or tape dispensers, and I'd keep reading.

Tuesday, February 26, 2002
[3:15 PM | permanent link]:

Sic transit gloria cow.

[1:30 PM | permanent link]:

Why did I ever drop Oliver Willis from my list of blogs in the column to the left? Here he is with a right-on diagnosis of the repetitiveness afflicting quite a few of the self-identified "warblogs" and "anti-idiotarians." (Nor has Electrolite, a mere occasional fellow traveller in those circles, been immune to the ills that Willis describes.)

[T]he coolness of blogging is more than the whole "warblog" thing. Already 90% of the warblogs are caught in an endless echo chamber where they just friggin' parrot each other (hell, a bunch of them are doing it right now with that very same Sullivan article).

I almost fell victim to this too, but to remedy it I just started linking to pictures of Britney and it cleared that up.

I've always enjoyed the capacity of online conversation, at its best, to break out of the pre-set categories of established political discourse, the usual "liberal" versus "conservative" scripts. One of my favorite blogs is by a vehement libertarian isolationist, even though I'm neither. Of course the process of people discovering likeminded fellows inevitably involves some esprit de corps, and I don't mind being listed on Charles Johnson's site as one of the "anti-idiotarians", even if I don't agree with every word written by Charles Johnson. (A fine fellow who is forthcoming with HTML help for the helpless, and besides, I am indeed firmly opposed to idiots. Firmly.) But it's good to have some perspective. Including the historical perspective to realize that blogging wasn't invented by two dozen people in the week after 9/11.

[11:10 AM | permanent link]:

Via Sneaking Suspicions, another one of those annoying, oversimplified, insufficiently-nuanced, and addictive web personality tests--this time, the Ethical Philosophy Selector.

Once again it's time for all my friends to gasp in amazement at the revelation that my strongest correlation is to Aquinas (100%). Followed by Mill (97%) and Aristotle (83%).

[8:10 AM | permanent link]:

Gary Farber comments cogently on a New York Times story about increasing numbers of attacks on French Jews. According to the Times:

One government report says acts of violence against Jews have increased from one in 1998 to nine in 1999 to 116 in 2000, the most recent figure available. Other anti-Semitic incidents, ranging from threats to arson, went from 74 in 1998 and 60 in 1999 to 603 in 2000.

But some Jewish groups say that even those numbers fall far short of the actual situation, with many Jews afraid to report incidents and some officials quick to classify attacks as ordinary misbehavior by young toughs.

What seems indisputable is that news that a synagogue has been firebombed or that stones have been thrown at Jewish schools has become commonplace.

Evidently the response of at least one French Muslim leader is to urge people to be quiet about it:

"I hear all this talk," said Said Kamli, the director of the mosque in Amiens, a town north of Paris with large Arab and Jewish populations. "But I do not feel this all around me. If there are really big numbers, then of course we must sound the bell of alarm. But my fear is that the problem will grow bigger if there is too much talk about it. The kids will start hearing that kids in another town are doing these things and they'll start doing it too."

As Gary points out in his Amygdala remarks,

This is extraordinary reasoning. Was or is the answer to, say, white anti-black racism in America for the majority population to keep as quiet as possible about it, and not discuss it, for fear of inspiring children to be racist? Or was and is it to stand up and discuss racism and point the finger at it and label it and denounce it?

Let's return to the Times story:

In Garges-les-Gonesse the distinctive blue schoolbus that takes children to a Jewish school in nearby Aubervilliers has been attacked three times in the last 14 months, when there were dozens of young children aboard.

The first time, a knife was thrown through an open window, the bus driver said. The second time, three men used their car to block the bus from moving. Then one man smashed a window with a tire iron while another menaced the driver with a gun, telling him he was not in Tel Aviv. Recently rocks were hurled at the windows, smashing one of them.

"I keep trying to tell the kids it's nothing," said the bus driver, Saadoun Hanoufa. "But of course they are scared. No one wants to live like this."

What was it that Guardian editorial explained? Ah, yes, that:

Fears about a rising tide of anti-semitism in western European countries, including Britain, stem in part from an over-defensiveness among non-Israeli Jews who dislike what Mr Sharon does, but resent the current torrent of international criticism even more.

Let's see. It's not really happening, and we'd better not talk about it or more of it will happen. And also, it's not really happening and mostly it's just "over-defensiveness" by Jews who resent criticism of Arial Sharon. (You know how they get. They're so touchy. And so clannish.)

But there are so many other ways to say it's not really happening. We've only just gotten started! Perhaps the Guardian editorial board could have a little seminar--no, a teach-in--with Said Kamli.

Monday, February 25, 2002
[1:00 AM | permanent link]:

1001 Things to Do with Liquid Nitrogen.

Put on a rubber surgical glove with a hot dog (sausage) stuck in one of the fingers. Put the hot dog in the liquid nitrogen and then, to the amazement of your friends, smash your "finger" with a hammer. Comment: Keep in mind which finger... [...]

Freeze a can of shaving cream and then peel the can away from the cream. Put the canless cream into someone's car. Let the oven-like heat from the car's sitting in the sun defrost the shaving cream. 2 cans will fill an entire car.

Saturday, February 23, 2002
[2:15 AM | permanent link]:

The world needed the Gibbon-O-Matic. Thanks to Gary Farber's Amygdala for pointing it out.

[2:10 AM | permanent link]:

MORE MORAL GUIDANCE FROM THE GUARDIAN: It's such a relief to read in today's leader that:

Fears about a rising tide of anti-semitism in western European countries, including Britain, stem in part from an over-defensiveness among non-Israeli Jews who dislike what Mr Sharon does, but resent the current torrent of international criticism even more.

Ah yes, those "over-defensive" non-Israeli Jews. Certainly there couldn't possibly be any other reason to worry about rising anti-Semitism in western Europe. It must be all about Ariel Sharon.

I mean, who can imagine people in western Europe being anti-Semitic? Why, it's just impossible to conceive of. Must be "over-defensiveness." Thanks ever so much, Guardian, for setting us straight.

Friday, February 22, 2002
[10:10 PM | permanent link]:

Why I love Canadian news: According to this too-brief story in the Globe and Mail, the Northwest Territories' legislature has, for the second time in recent years, decided to drop their search for a new name for the territory.

The plug was pulled on the first such effort in 1999 when a public opinion poll suggested that the most popular name was Northwest Territories and the second most popular was Bob.
[6:25 PM | permanent link]:

At Sneaking Suspicions, Delaware Assistant Attorney General Fritz Schranck posts the best example yet of a burgeoning subgenre of blog writing:

Dear Mr. Abbas Bundu:

Thank you so much for your intriguing e-mail, which I received last night.

It is so interesting to hear from someone with whom I have so much in common, and especially when that person offers to include me in a mutually beneficial transaction.

I'll stop there. You must read the rest, or the terrorists have won.

[6:15 PM | permanent link]:

Linking headline on Slate today:

Computer games that turn kids into racists, and other Web opinion and gossip

Which leads to their "Other Web Sites" section, which features a link that reads:

It's all fun and games until someone becomes a skinhead
Wired News reports that white supremacist and other hate groups are using computer games to recruit kids.

Which leads to a Wired News story. What does the story (headline: "Games Elevate Hate to Next Level") actually say?

Well, it says that "Hate groups are increasingly using racist and anti-Semitic computer games to recruit young people, the Anti-Defamation League charged in a report released Tuesday."

And it says that "National Alliance chairman William Pierce said that computer games are just another advertising vehicle for his group, which started out publishing racist tabloids in Washington, D.C. in 1974."

And it says that one group has sold a couple of thousand copies of these yucky games, and another group that gives away such things for free claims 12,000 downloads from their web site.

What's missing? Why, any evidence what so ever to demonstrate that one single solitary person in the history of the entire world has actually been "recruited" to the political cause of any of these nitwits by means of a computer game.

None of which prevents Wired News from declaring that "Games Elevate Hate to Next Level." Remember? Their headline? None of which prevents Slate from declaring that someone has "become a skinhead" as a result of these "fun and games". And none of which prevents them from declaring on their front page, in a headline, that these games "turn kids into racists."

Declarations made without a shred of evidence. Not a shred, not a story, not a single individual to point to.

Back to the Wired News story, in its last graf:

"Basically they're free advertising for us," Lauck said. "Young people get these games because they're entertaining and they're not supposed to have them. They get them and spread them all over the place."

But in fact we don't know if "young people get these games" and if they "spread them all over the place." All we have to go on is the claim of some neo-Nazi nincompoops, a very credible bunch, to be sure. In fact, for all we know, the (so far) tiny distribution of this tripe is entirely among committed white-power pinheads.

What we do know, though, is who does "spread them all over the place": credulous journalists at both Slate and Wired News.

Gee, maybe I'll phone Slate and Wired News and announce that I intend to convert America's youth to Free Soil Vegetarianism by standing on my head. Better yet, I'll get the Anti-Defamation League to Point With Alarm while I do so. Free national press coverage! No evidence required!

This is what we get when "journalists" can't tell the difference between an unsupported assertion and a demonstrated fact. And we wonder why crazy people so consistently manage to set the news agenda!

[4:15 PM | permanent link]:

Lives there a soul so dead that it isn't rooting for the escaped cow?

[1:10 PM | permanent link]:

On the other hand, no newspaper is all one thing. Jeff Jarvis:

The next time you complain about the media and make fun of the media and whine about media bias and conspiracies, remember what the media really is at the source: guys with guts asking questions it takes guts to ask, guys like Daniel Pearl.
[12:25 PM | permanent link]:

(Let's see if we can do this without sounding like the Weekly Standard blog parody.)

The Indianapolis Star has an article about antiwar protestors at Indiana University facing some pretty nasty harrassment, up to and including being having their signs set on fire and getting shot at with BB guns. (Yes, at Electrolite, it's all-Indiana University, all the time.)

The Wall Street Journal's online "Best of the Web" feature (which Jim Henley's Unqualified Offerings never fails to refer to as "Best [Neocon Approved Items] Of the Web") links to this article and quotes from it, including the part about the protestors being shot at, and remarks "We strongly disapprove of the vandalism, of course, but it's nice to know that these peacenik wackos are a beleaguered minority, even on campus."

Thomas Nephew comments in his blog Newsrack:

To headline this with "The kids are all right" is incredible for a paper by grownups for grownups. [...] I know, BB guns are not likely to injure people--but to those blowing it off, imagine if your son's or daughter's eyes were involved. Why should these protesters have to wonder if that's a BB gun or not someone's pointing at them? Why should these protesters have to fear anything at all in expressing their political opinions? Why should a leading national newspaper encourage the yahoos who are doing this? With all due sympathy for the Wall Street Journal on a terrible day for them, this is writing they should be ashamed of.

What Nephew said. I haven't seen much I agree with from the current round of college anti-war protestors. But the reason I'm for a militant response to fundamentalist murderers is that I'm opposed to the idea that it's OK to assault people merely because they disagree with you. If the Wall Street Journal wants to establish that they belong in the same moral category as Osama bin Laden, well, clarity is a good thing. Meanwhile, I'll take even the flakiest student antiwar protestor over this kind of braying declaration that might makes right.

[9:50 AM | permanent link]:

More on Japan:

(1) Via the comments of an attendee reported by a mutual friend, I gather that the biggest subject of conversation at Davos was, not terrorism or Islamic fundamentalism, but "the black hole of Japan and how everything's going to be sucked in there someday."

(2) Michael Weholt writes to recommend Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan by Alex Kerr.

[I]n the 1980s American states, beginning with Maine, began one by one to prohibit the hard stabilization of the shoreline; in 1988, South Carolina mandated not only a halt to new construction but removal of all existing armoring within forty years. In Japan, however, armoring of the seacoasts is increasing. It's a dynamic we shall observe in many different fields: destructive policies put in motion in the 1950s and 1960s are like unstoppable tanks, moving forward regardless of expense, damage, or need. By the end of the century, the 55 percent of shoreline that had been encased in concrete had risen to 60 percent or more. That means hundreds of miles more of shoreline destroyed. Nobody in their right mind can honestly believe that Japan's seacoasts began eroding so fast and so suddenly that the government needed to cement over 60 percent of them. Obviously, something has gone wrong.

The ravaging of the Japanese countryside--what the writer Alan Booth has called "state-sponsored vandalism"--is not taking place because of mere neglect. "State-sponsored vandalism" is the inexorable result of a systemic addiction to construction. This dependence is one of Japan's separate realities, setting it apart from every other country on earth.

At ´80 trillion, the construction market in Japan is the largest in the world. Strange that in the dozens of books written about the Japanese economy in the past decades, it is hard to find even a paragraph pointing out the extent to which it depends on construction. And even fewer observers seem to have noticed the most interesting twist: that from an economic point of view the majority of the civil-engineering works do not address real needs. All those dams and bridges are built by the bureaucracy, for the bureaucracy, at public expense. Foreign experts may be fascinated by Sony and Mitsubishi, but construction is not a sexy topic for them, and they have largely ignored it.

There's more; the whole sample chapter, linked above, is riveting, and I want to read the rest of this book.

(3) Charles Stross writes to point out a Guardian article he blogged a while back, about the upcoming demographic crisis of the industrialized world; if this stuff is true, it's easy to see Japan's current troubles as just the first act of a long play.

(4) Time's web site has a reasonably decent thumbsucker on Japan's accelerating progress down the drain. I gather this is from their Asian edition, not the version of Time seen in the US. So if this really does become a mega-story that affects all of us, and you hear the predictable plaints about how it seemed to come "out of nowhere," remember that the American media itself didn't think Americans would be interested. (The US cover of Time this week is about that globally important issue, Olympic figure skating.)

(5) The Economist also has a big feature on this developing story, all written in that perfectly-machined Economist style that leaves you feeling intelligent and well-informed, and then an hour later you're ignorant again.

(6) The best and clearest piece I've read about the immediate crisis, though, comes from a newish blog, Lagniappe, which I found via "Charles Dodgson's" excellent Through the Looking Glass. Lagniappe is subtitled "Science, Business, and Culture," and its author, Derek Lowe, appears to be a working commercial chemist with a lively interest in macroeconomics.

Japan's problems are different from Argentina's, but one difference is that they're worse. For example: the Japanese are still saving their money like they used to. In fact, they're saving (not spending) so much of it that their economy is actually deflating, starving for demand. The resulting gloom further convinces consumers that times are bad. Then they pull back on spending even more to batten down the hatches, and so it goes. NPR reported recently that Japanese gold bullion dealers are doing a brisk business, which is flat-out perverse when you consider that gold is supposed to be a hedge against inflation. But that's the gloom for you.

And where else can all the money go? A lot goes into bank instruments that pay the closest to zero percent ever seen in an industrialized country. For businesses, overnight rates are so low that transaction costs actually make deposits money-losing propositions. You'd be better off putting your yen in a hollow tree. The Japanese central bank has lowered interest rates until they've run out of room; they have no leverage left.

All those piles of deposits (coupled with essentially free credit) should be setting off huge capital spending by businesses. But companies are pulling back, reeling up the slack, because no one seems to want to buy any products. And the banks themselves? Here we get to the real rot. The money is pouring in, true, but you don't make a profit by paying interest to people, even miniscule interest. You make money when you lend it out, of course, but no one's borrowing. The only place Japanese banks can lend money is overseas, where there are at least real rates of return.

Meanwhile, the same banks are carrying older loans on their books that no mustard is ever going to cut, to steal a phrase from James Blish. Businesses and banks used their inflated stock portfolios and real-estate holdings as collateral; now that those have wilted, there's nowhere to turn. Huge sums were loaned out domestically during the boom, and even in the first years of the decline (when no one thought it could last for long.) Those massive hoards of cash, impressive though they are, still can't measure up to the even more massive piles of outstanding debts.

The banks have refused to face reality and take the write-offs. The Japanese government has refused to face reality and let some banks go out of business. Instead, in a team effort, the banks went to the government for aid, and they got it. And a few years later, they came back for some more, and they got that. The same (remarkably roomy) hat will be passed again very soon.

Read his whole post; it's all good. I don't hold with the more starry-eyed claims that blogging will overthrow the mass media tomorrow, but Lowe's piece runs rings round either Time or The Economist for both clarity and verve.

Thursday, February 21, 2002
[7:50 PM | permanent link]:

The increasingly-essential Ted Barlow has written a short play that nicely encapsulates the wisdom and forethought of Nader supporters.

[7:10 PM | permanent link]:

Via LGF, another story that reminds us of what we already know:

NATO authorities who raided a Saudi aid agency last fall found computer files containing photographs of terrorist targets and street maps of Washington with government buildings marked, a senior U.S. official disclosed Thursday.

The October raid of the Sarajevo office of the Saudi High Commissioner for Aid to Bosnia also netted a computer program explaining how to use crop duster aircraft to spread pesticide, and materials used to make fake U.S. State Department identification badges and credit cards, the official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Okay, it's possible that this unnamed "senior US official" is blowing disinformation up the news media's ass, as part of some complex intrigue we'll all eventually understand when Seymour Hersh exposes it in the New Yorker in 2015.

If that's not the case, though, remind me which countries comprise the "axis of evil", again?

[6:15 PM | permanent link]:

Matt Welch discovers a handy list of 1,355 people who have lost their minds.

[5:45 PM | permanent link]:

Instapundit linked to my post below about the Indiana college students objecting to the Thomas Hart Benton mural in the teaching auditorium. Glenn Reynolds agreed with my amazement; later, he updated his squib to include a comment from one of his readers, Eugene Volokh. I hope nobody's offended if I simply quote Volokh's whole note; his points are worth addressing and I don't want to do them an injustice by trying to condense:

I agree that the quoted sentence goes too far, when read on its own. But note that the context was a complaint (actually, a pretty well-reasoned complaint) about material that's posted by the university itself, and a call for the university to move the material to a different place.

I think that a university, like many other institutions, might well want to care about the sensitivities of its students -- both as paying customers and as fellow seekers of knowledge -- in deciding what to put up (or leave up) on its walls. You and I, for instance, probably care about our students' sensitivities when we're teaching, and while we don't shy away from material just because it might be offensive, we probably do choose our mode of presentation to minimize unnecessary offense. In context, it seems to me that the student is simply, and not unreasonably, calling on the university to do the same thing.

I agree that you can make this argument, and I'm not entirely unreceptive to it. What I'm really unsympathetic to is prissiness, the idea that if we just try hard enough we can eliminate all occasions of offense to anybody's sensibilities, and that moreover, crusading against the possibility of any such offense constitutes important and meaningful political action. The trouble with "someone might be offended" is that it's a trouble ticket that, in practice, never gets closed.

Beyond that, the notion that "education shouldn't come at the expense of someone's feelings" seems to me to display a misunderstanding of what education really is. Certainly, many of my most valuable and enduring educational experiences, in school and out of it, involved challenges to my sensibilities. If it never offends us, I'm not sure it's truly "education" so much as entertainment. (Which I suspect is the problem with too-wholeheartedly buying into a model of students as "paying customers"--in some senses they are, and yet most people would agree that a university that was as responsive to its students' immediate desires as, say, an amusement park would be in a very real sense not fulfulling its mission as a university. But that's another argument altogether.)

What I'm quite certain of is this: if the worst thing that happens to a college student is having to look at a mural depicting the foolish and brutal behavior of 1920s Klansmen, then they're having a very happy college career indeed. And if nothing more personally offensive happens to them in school or in life beyond, they are truly blessed.

Wednesday, February 20, 2002
[12:35 PM | permanent link]:

There's a little of everything in New York City, but it's still boggling to contemplate that a neighborhood within walking distance of my own apartment is home to a small community of former slaves. Yes, this is the twenty-first century. Here's the brief but heartbreaking article in the Voice.

Understand, according to the Moorish-dominated government of Mauritania's leader Maaouya Ould Sidi Ahmad Taya, the problem is merely one of "unfortunate vestiges." Too bad about those people who seem still stuck in those "vestiges." No doubt it's just a coincidence that all the slaves are black sub-Saharans while all the slave owners are Moors. (Amazing, those vestiges.) The real problem, see, is those darn activists who insist on "jeopardizing our national unity." Anyway, evidently Taya figures he can go ahead and ban anti-slavery groups inside Mauritania, since he has a warm letter from George W. Bush praising him as a "friend" of the war on terrorism.

Granted, hyperpower or not, we can't solve all the world's problems simultaneously, and vigorously pursuing any kind of global goal, whether a war on terrorism or a crusade for clean water, is going to mean offering insincere diplomatic praise for some unpleasant people. (Demonstration number 5,271,009 of Jeanne DeVoto's observation that How The World Works Isn't A Secret.) Still, given our own rather fraught history with this very issue, you'd think some political tactician in this Administration could see the benefit of pointedly remarking that we don't actually feel all that friendly to regimes that support and sustain the continued enslavement of, um, black people.

Jesus H. Christ, conservatives, this issue has a giant neon sign blinking NO DOWN SIDE on it. Get on board.

[11:50 AM | permanent link]:

At Indiana University, students are lobbying for the removal, from an auditorium, of a Thomas Hart Benton mural about the history of Indiana, because among its several panels is a depiction of Klan members burning a cross.

The mural was painted for display at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair; Benton's aim was to present an unsanitized picture of Indiana history. And as recently as the 1920s, the Klan was a power in Indiana.

To quote student editorialist Alexis Silas:

The University's mission is to educate, and perhaps this controversial artwork is educational. But education shouldn't come at the expense of someone's feelings.

Every so often, someone says something that perfectly epitomizes and encapsulates a whole universe of falsity. There's one.

Tuesday, February 19, 2002
[8:20 PM | permanent link]:

Two more web sites chronicling insane "zero tolerance" policies in the public schools. It's beginning to look like the petty authoritarianism that characterized public schools when I was in them in the 1960s and 1970s was actually a golden age of lassez-faire tolerance. I persist in being an optimist about the general improvement of Most Things, but I have a growing suspicion that on the subject of raising kids, as a culture, we have gradually, over the last thirty years, gone barking mad.

From "The Zero-Tolerance Follies" by Bill Bickell:

An Arkansas first-grader has been suspended three days for pointing a chicken nugget at a a teacher and saying "Pow, pow, pow" (presumably, the school regulations call for one day of suspension per "chicken nugget pow"). Justifying the suspension, the principal said it "depends on the tone, the demeanor, and in some manner you judge the intent. It's not the object in the hand, it's the thought in the mind. Is a plastic fork worse than a metal fork? Is a pencil a weapon?"

At "Losing My Tolerance for Zero Tolerance", Randy Cassingham comments on an episode at a Colorado school where a 10-year-old girl was suspended for "sexual harrassment" for asking a boy several times whether he "liked" her; also, an 11-year-old boy in Yorkshire who was suspended for addressing an Australian boy with the dread racist phrase...wait for it..."g'day, sport." (You can't make this stuff up.) Writes Cassingham:

The little girl wasn't sexually harassing a little boy, she was being a little girl, trying to learn how to deal with the opposite sex--a trial-and-error process (don't you remember?) where the errors shouldn't be treated as a felony. The six-year-old boy wasn't using or selling drugs, he was sharing candy. Sharing candy! And the British lad wasn't making light of a fellow white boy's ancestry, he was trying to greet a potential friend in a way that was familiar to him.

Calling every botched encounter between genders "sexual harassment" tells true victims of that crime that their experience was similar to a schoolyard crush. Calling sharing "drug use" tells children that there's no difference between giving a friend a lemon drop and selling him heroin cut with rat poison. And calling the use of vernacular "racism" demeans people that suffer from horrible crimes: the denial of their ability to live and make a living. And it tells the people that are not involved in these issues that really, these things are just trivial things, nothing to worry about. This racism stuff is not a problem, drugs aren't a scourge, and sexual harassment is just consenting adults with unequal paychecks.

[7:50 PM | permanent link]:

From Forbes, via Instapundit, a quietly alarming piece on just how much we should be worrying about Japan's slow-motion economic meltdown. Answer: a lot.

Independent Strategy, an analytical outfit in London that's headed by David Roche, a columnist for FORBES GLOBAL, says: "There is no record of any government being able to repay debts equal to several times the annual output of its country in real money. Japan will be no exception."

I'm pretty good at sussing out agenda and bias in straight political journalism; less so in business reportage. I would certainly love to have someone convincingly explain how this piece is actually grinding some partisan or ideological axe. Because it certainly doesn't look like it. What it looks like is, Japan is in deep shit and could easily take the rest of us there too, on very little notice.

[7:40 PM | permanent link]:

I was at Boskone. Unusually, I was so busy that I never even set up the laptop to get our email from our hotel room; I certainly didn't post anything to Electrolite. Sorry about that. Back now.

What did I do there? Hung with old friends. Chatted with writers. Served (along with the excellent Lojo Russo) as emergency stunt guitarist for The Flash Girls. Simulated intelligent conversation on several panels. (Tom Whitmore: "Have you ever noticed that Humbert Humbert is an Umberto echo?") The usual. Also as usual, Boskone's sponsoring group, the New England Science Fiction Association, continues to run the most impressive "small press" in science fiction, and as usual I came away from their table with somewhat less money and a bunch of well-produced hardcover books.

Now if I can just get rid of this cough that won't quit, I can get some work done.

Tuesday, February 12, 2002
[1:20 PM | permanent link]:

Reuters headline: "Bush Aims to Cut Illegal Drug Use By 10 Percent"

Yes, we've all been hoping he'll cut back.

Monday, February 11, 2002
[11:30 PM | permanent link]:


How I voted, and why:

Dagny Taggart: Frances McDormand. If you need a strong female character who's a blonde, Frances McDormand is it. (If you need a brunette, you have Frances McDormand dye her hair.) Also, she's really good at keeping a straight face.

Francisco D'Anconia: Chow-Yun Fat. The character of Francisco D'Anconia must somehow be cooler than any other character in the movie. Chow-Yun Fat can do that. He's also called on several times to perform superhuman feats of coordination. Chow-Yun Fat can do that too.

Hank Reardon: Charles Durning. Hank Reardon has to come off as complex and intelligent and sympathetic, but in the end recognize that he's lost everything through his own actions. Charles Durning can go to town on that.

John Galt: Alan Rickman. John Galt has to steal the show while not doing anything to justify his gloryositude. It works in the book because Ayn Rand's rigging everything for him, but it would take supernatural intervention to make him the dominant role in a live-action movie. Enter Alan Rickman, the man who could make himself the central character if he were playing a piece of furniture. Also, if I have to listen to someone reading a ridiculously long speech, I want Alan Rickman to be the one reading it.

[10:30 PM | permanent link]:

"A -- STILL A." Mindboggling Web site of the day: Atlas Shrugged, The Movie, The Unofficial Website.

Offering you, yes you! Stop fingering your rabbit's foot, I'm talking to you! Offering you the chance to vote on which stars of stage and screen should have the privilege of portraying Ayn Rand's immortal characters.

Our vote is already cast. Who but the ravishing Frances McDormand as Dagny Taggart? And who better than John Turturro as the mysterious John Galt?

Of course, this does tend to imply a Coen Bros.-directed version of Atlas Shrugged. I particularly look forward to the climactic speech, to be staged as a film-noir underwater ballet.

UPDATE: Teresa has voted for Francisco D'Anconia to be played by Chow-Yun Fat, which suggests an entirely different approach to the movie. Clearly, further research is indicated.

FURTHER UPDATE: Teresa has now voted for Alan Rickman as John Galt, thus coming perilously close to describing a movie I would actually go out of my way to see.

[11:45 AM | permanent link]:

JOHN M. FORD (him again) has been gazing into the abyss:

Top Ten Online
"Which Member of This Group Are You?"

10. Members of the 1919 Chicago "Black Sox" Team
9. Characters from Don McLean's "American Pie"
8. Streets With No Name
7. Former Soviet Republics
6. Yes/No Statements from the Minnesota Multiphasic
5. Verses of "The Twelve Days of Christmas"
4. Products They Don't Make Anymore
3. Short-Lived Elements
2. Signers of the Declaration of Independence
1. The 95 Theses

Leading Answers To Date: Shoeless Joe, The King, Avenue of the Americas, Uzbekistan, "I have never had the desire to play with dolls," Five Golden Rings, A Studebaker, Americium, Button Gwinnett, Anything To Do with the Sale of Indulgences

[3:35 AM | permanent link]:

OPERATION INFINITE CREAM PIE: I'm glad we're rebuilding the Pentagon. Really I am. But I have to wonder whose idea it was to call this reconstruction effort the "Phoenix Project". Yes indeed, there's a phrase guaranteed to remind us all of everything that's wholesome about American military power! Okay, I suppose it could be worse. We could have called the rebuilding project "My Lai"...

No doubt this is another piece of careful, nuanced PR from the folks who thought up the monicker "Operation Infinite Justice," and couldn't understand why much of the world looked Really Pained when they proudly announced it...

Honest, Ossifer, I really do think the world is better off with an American military than it would be without one. But sometimes I think its PR people, like NASA's, should be put into a very small paper bag, just prior to recycling the bag.

Sunday, February 10, 2002
[9:30 PM | permanent link]:

ICONOGRAPHY: Apropos of nothing, Dean Allen's always-interesting blog Textism links to a page I never looked for before: the professional resume and portfolio of designer Susan Kare. Designer of, well, much of the modern language of the GUI world: the Mac trash can, busy-wait watch, system bomb, application diamond, MacPaint tool palette, and system fonts; the original Mac control panel; the Windows 3.0 control panel; many of the original Windows 3.0 icons, the Windows solitaire cards...

It's an understated presentation, but kind of overwhelming. "Hi, I invented everything you look at all day long. If you're very lucky, you may be able to hire me," it does not actually say, but might as well.

Very much worth a browse if you appreciate good design. I was particularly struck by the original Macintosh control panel from 1983, with its tiny yet perfectly functional touches of whimsy: the two ends of the keyboard-responsiveness scale are marked as "fast" and "slow" by means of tiny silhouettes of a tortoise and a hare. I'd forgotten how important, how transforming this sort of thing seemed back then. Come to think of it, it still does.

[8:40 PM | permanent link]:

AVRAM GRUMER responds to my remarks in an earlier post:

Patrick is taking me to task for my "too much spare time" crack about the American Family Association:

I'm sure Avram means this to be a winking ha-ha, but it only works as a joke if we accept that the foolishness of the American Family Council is a symptom of too much freedom, and that the solution is to reduce their freedom.

No, Patrick, it's a form of criticism of the actions of the AFC. Criticism, as you know, does not always carry with it the message that the criticized party's scope of free action should be forcibly reduced.

Except, of course, when it does. No, saying that someone has "too much spare time" isn't quite a call that their "scope of free action should be forcibly reduced", but it is undeniably an assertion about the particular nature of the problem. Call me literal-minded, but it seems to me the actual problem is that the American Family Council are malicious nitwits, not that they have freedom and spare time.

Criticism isn't censorhip, and it's not imprisonment or forced labor or regulation either.

Indeed not. But the particular words in which we cast our criticism have meanings, and we don't get to just handwave them away by appealing to the distinction between criticism-in-general and the exercise of force. Saying that someone has "too much spare time" is more than just criticism; it's an assertion that they ought not have freedom.

[2:15 PM | permanent link]:

THE LESSONS WE TEACH: The stories on Zero Tolerance Nightmares will break your heart. All over the country, bright kids are having their lives blighted by moronic rules that require draconian punishments for offenses such as accidentally bringing a plastic knife to school, or giving a fellow student a Tylenol.

A mindboggling column by Washington Post metro columnist Marc Fisher talks about recent events on this front in Virginia. Evidently not even a series of obvious injustices of this sort were enough to get the Education Committee of the Virginia House of Delegates to moderate that state's "zero tolerance" school laws:

[A] procession of lobbyists representing principals and school boards defended zero tolerance as our last line of defense against terrible children eager to turn schools into war zones. A member of the Henrico County School Board, desperate to save a system that teaches children the opposite of discretion, even played the terrorism card, arguing to lawmakers that plastic utensils are a primo tool for budding hijackers.

Marrs's bill died in a 13 to 8 vote. [...]

[C]hildren like Benjamin Ratner are being treated with utter idiocy. When Ben was in eighth grade at Blue Ridge Middle School in Loudoun County in 1999, he was suspended for four months because he took a knife away from a schoolmate who told him she was considering suicide.

The school board called Ben's action "noble" and "admirable." Then they threw him out of school. Zero tolerance, kid; you had the knife.

Ben's family sued to reverse the insanity -- and lost. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that federal courts have no say on zero tolerance policies, but Judge Clyde H. Hamilton praised Ben's "common sense" and called him "the victim of good intentions run amuck."

"The panic over school violence," Hamilton wrote, "has caused school officials to jettison the common sense idea that a person's punishment should fit his crime."

Both of these links are from Joanne Jacobs' weblog on readjacobs.com. Jacobs is a pro-vouchers, pro-charter-schools activist with a lot of libertarian-leaning views. I've long been disinclined to support the dismantling of public education, and I'm broadly mistrustful of the notion that the solution to any kind of public-sector rot is to privatize it. (I think it was Arthur Hlavaty who observed the symmetry of anxiety between lefties and righties: left-wingers worry about the world winding up run like insurance companies, and right-wingers worry about everything winding up run like the Post Office.) On the other hand, it's hard to read about the kind of thing reported here without wanting to roll the tumbrils.

[12:15 PM | permanent link]:

JOHN M. FORD writes:

Sidenote on those jolly old elves at the IOC...they have found the "only suitable site" for a rowing pool at the Athens Summer Games. It's the battlefield of Marathon.

Yeah, that Marathon. Still an active archeological site, but hey, what the hell, it's not like it was the Elgin Marbles or something.

I suppose they're going to have to rename that 28-odd-mile running event the "Brundage."

UPDATE: Apparently this controversy has been going on for a year or so. Teresa went and found this New York Times story from last July about it.

[10:55 AM | permanent link]:

TOO MUCH TIME, ONE MORE TIME: As noted on a bunch of other blogs (Ginger Stampley was first, I think), the invertebrates at the American Family Council are outraged over the special-edition Dr. Pepper cans that say "One Nation...Indivisible" above a picture of the Statue of Liberty, because the words elided in the ellipses are "Under God".

Avram Grumer writes in his fine weblog Pigs and Fishes, "Thus we learn that, despite what Cory Doctorow says, some people really do have too much spare time."

I'm sure Avram means this to be a winking ha-ha, but it only works as a joke if we accept that the foolishness of the American Family Council is a symptom of too much freedom, and that the solution is to reduce their freedom. I don't think Avram, a kindly and tolerant fellow, actually thinks that; I think he was just looking for a chance to make a wisecracking nod toward Cory's remarks.

But Cory's point was that the nastiness implicit in the assertion that "some people really do have too much spare time" isn't sanitized by framing the assertion as a joke. Cory was right the first time. Even as meta-gag from someone I like as much as I like Avram, it's still a turn-off.

Playing at personal authoritarianism as a comic riff can be very funny, particularly when it incorporates elements of self-parody, and when I become Supreme Dictator of Earth all of you will come to understand and acclaim my every word on the subject. But "some people really do have too much spare time" doesn't work even under cover of joke for the plain reason that too many people who claim to be joking when they say it really aren't.

[10:10 AM | permanent link]:

JUST-IN-TIME SLEAZE: Lots of businesses and pressure groups strive to "game" the federal government's legislative and regulatory apparatus. If Enron was more thorough about it, this impressive Washington Post piece suggests how:

They called it "the matrix" -- a computer program that brought a scientific dimension to Enron's effort to seduce politicians and sway bureaucrats.

With each proposed change in federal regulations, lobbyists punched details into a computer, allowing Enron economists in Houston to calculate just how much a rule change would cost.

As Josh Marshall puts it:

The numbers generated out of this influence-peddlotron were then used to determine when the big-money lobbying machine should be kicked into gear. It all amounted to what the management consultant types might call total quality corruption.
Friday, February 8, 2002
[8:25 PM | permanent link]:

IN THE FUTURE, we will all have near-infinite unmetered broadband, and we will all use it to disseminate and take yet more personality tests. Which John Cusack Character Are You? I'm sure all my friends will expire of shock at the news that I am, yes, Rob Gordon from High Fidelity.

[10:35 AM | permanent link]:

INTIMATIONS OF NORMALITY: Longtime readers of Electrolite will recall my fondness for British "parliamentary sketches." When the great Matthew Parris retired from the form, I feared for its future, but Simon Hoggart is up to the Parris standard:

The ritual humiliation of Jack Straw is now part of British life. It's like the way they still burn an effigy of the Pope in Lewes, Sussex. It may not be an appealing sight. You might even find it offensive, but you can't deny that it's a cherished old tradition, and it's fun to warm your hands at the blaze.

The topic was, as ever, Gibraltar, and the government's attempts to cut a deal with Spain. Mr Straw was universally reviled [...]

Hugo Swire said that if the Gibraltarians rejected the deal then "the negotiations should be taken off the agenda, once and forever!"

Mr Straw either wasn't listening or chose to misunderstand. "I can't rewrite history!" he raved. "He is like Arthur Andersen! He wants to shred the record!" We began to worry.

When they burned Protestants, gaolers sometimes strapped bags of gunpowder to the victims so that the end would be quick and merciful. We yearned for high explosive to put Mr Straw, a decent man, out of his misery. But his agony continued.

[12:15 AM | permanent link]:

OH WHAT A BIG DEAL THIS IS: The New Republic has a sharp parody of Bob Woodward's latest umpteen-part series in the Washington Post.

At 9:05 a.m., Bob Woodward strode into the Washington Post newsroom. It had been less than 24 hours since the paper's undaunted executive editor, Leonard Downie, had given Woodward the monumental task of documenting nothing less than the Bush administration's response to nothing less than the September 11 attacks. But Woodward walked with a spring in his step. The night before, chatting with Attorney General John Ashcroft in the greenroom before their appearances on "Larry King Live," enjoying a Diet Coke and some slices of pineapple, Woodward had offhandedly mentioned the story, and already the calls were coming in. But perhaps Woodward's comment to Ashcroft was not offhanded at all. He was no novice in this town. He knew how leaking begins.

"Matalin, Powell, Rumsfeld, and Tenet all phoned to say they'd like to talk to you for the story," Woodward's researcher Jeff Himmelman said as he handed Woodward a sheaf of message slips, "and Karl Rove's been holding on line three for the past hour. He said he'd wait until you got in."

"The word's out on P Street, kid," Woodward said. "Now watch how this is done."

It's hard to remember that we used to take this guy seriously.

Thursday, February 7, 2002
[10:45 PM | permanent link]:

MOTE AND BEAM: Via Nick Denton, an interesting challenge to American free-market cheerleaders from, interestingly, Horst Kohler, managing director of the IMF. Kohler points out, not that this should be news, that the US has all kinds of tariffs and trade barriers propping up domestic industries, and that these have direct and dire effects on some of the poorest countries on earth. What he doesn't go on to discuss is the extent to which liberals who claim to care about the world's poor nonetheless fall into line with a lot of this, as do many so-called conservatives who rhapsodize about free markets. (For examples of both, see the blogiverse, passim.)

Writes Denton,

The US should shut up about the virtues of free markets, and stop acting surprised that most of the world is resentful towards it. First remove tariff and other trade barriers to imports from the developing world. Confront those domestic agro-industry, textile and steel lobbies. Shame the congressmen in their pay. Then the US will have the right to lecture the world again about this wonderful Western system. What about American jobs? Well, think about American *lives* in an unfair and insecure world.
[8:40 PM | permanent link]:

OUTRAGEOUS SHRINKWRAP LICENSES, PART 5,271,009: Slashdot links to this story about how New York State is suing Network Associates, makers of the various MacAfee programs, for attempting to impose a "restrictive covenant" that forbids its users from publishing reviews of their software without their consent. Evidently this isn't just unenforced boilerplate; MacAfee has threatened particular publications with lawsuits for daring to, imagine that, review their stuff.

Two things. If the AP story linked above is reasonably accurate, first, I'll certainly never use a MacAfee product again. Not because they're behaving like louts, but the kind of software they make (antiviral utilities and other tools that make deep changes to your system) is the sort of thing where you really want to trust the maker's integrity, and a policy like this is a clear indicator of no such integrity. If you're harassing your customers for reviewing your products, you've obviously got something to hide.

Second, kudos to New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer for bringing this suit. Here's his office's press release, which cites Consumers Union and Lawrence Lessig.

[6:40 PM | permanent link]:

NOT DEAD YET. I haven't gone missing again; I'm just sick as that dog that all the sick people are sick as. Coughing, lightheaded, congested, lungs on fire. At the moment the bulk of my cognitive energy is focussed on remembering the difference between "must sit up to cough" and "too tired, must lie down."

Tuesday, February 5, 2002
[1:00 AM | permanent link]:

UH OH. I'm Bleys.

Monday, February 4, 2002
[10:40 PM | permanent link]:

HOLY COW! Is Enron chairman Kenneth Lay on the lam?

[9:25 PM | permanent link]:

AND THE HORSE YOU RODE IN ON: According to this Guardian story, US Winter Olympic organizers are being warned by the International Olympic Committee to "tone down overt shows of patriotism during the opening ceremony" and "not to honour the victims of September 11."

I'm pretty tired of every two-bit entertainment event incorporating a weepy tribute to September 11, myself. And yet, somehow, seeing this line of guff from the corrupt, Fascist-sympathizing greedheads of the IOC, a bunch of leathery vampires who can be relied on to leave no authoritarian boot unlicked, I find myself suddenly hoping that the Salt Lake Winter Olympics organizers stage a double-length patriotic extravaganza starting with the Cowboys cheerleader line and ending with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Just to spit in the IOC's impertinent eye.

[Via Jeff Jarvis, who had much the same reaction.]

[10:00 AM | permanent link]:

I'M INDEPENDENT-MINDED, YOU'RE AN OBSESSED NERD: Outstanding rant by Cory Doctorow on Boing Boing, politely calling bullshit on all of us who've ever declared, in response to evidence of someone's passionate creativity and/or obsession, that someone has "too much spare time."

As Cory points out, what we're really saying is that passions and obsessions that don't match ours are "so meritless that their specific shortcomings don't even warrant discussion," and that we categorically dismiss their exponents' "ability to distinguish between the worthy and the unworthy."

Maybe this irks me so much because everything I care about is dismissed as a waste of time by most of world, or was, until recently: Science fiction, the Internet, blogging, gadgetry, vintage tchotchkes, Disney parks, etc. Really, is there anything fulfilling about life that didn't start out on the fringes, didn't start out as a waste of time? [...]

The genuinely disruptive, novel artifacts are by definition unpredictable. This fact is at the core of the doctrine of Fair Use: We don't know what innovations the world may come up with in the future, but we know that the fewer restrictions we put on tomorrow's innovators, the higher the likelihood that they will come up with something marvellous that will be to all our benefit.

Which is a good utilitarian argument for cutting slack for people who build ten-foot sculptures out of bottle caps, or compile bibliographies of obscure pulp writers, or make hilarious movie collages purporting to be Howard Hawks's 1940s movie of The Lord of the Rings. A healthy culture runs all kinds of experiments, not all of which are conducted by officially-credentialed seekers of pre-approved knowledge.

But there's an issue here that goes beyond utility, beyond the possibility that the bottlecap-sculptor might stumble onto an advance in materials science that proves useful in the broader world. The fact is that the right and the ability to follow strange muses without fear of the neighbors or permission from the authorities is what the whole enterprise of modern civilization is about, or bloody well ought to be. When we look at the Web page where someone has re-animated Monty Python scenes in Lego blocks and exclaim that he or she has "too much time on his hands", I'm not sure there isn't a rather unattractive element of authoritarianism in the mix. I certainly know that when I say it, I'm sure to myself that I'm Just Joking, but down deep there's a little inner martinet that genuinely wishes he could force people to use their spare time as he sees fit. And who's really enjoying the opportunity to express a kind of nasty power fantasy that he normally wouldn't be able to get away with.

In fact, I find that this inner martinet is at his strongest when I feel like I don't have as much spare time and energy myself as I would prefer. Which suggests--not that this is a new insight--that petty authoritarianism's greatest enabler is the sin of Envy. (Which, as Aquinas pointed out, is the worst of the Seven Deadlies because it's entirely bereft of enjoyment for the sinner.)

Sunday, February 3, 2002
[10:50 AM | permanent link]:

OUCH: Jim Henley, usefully confusing the issue:

We are told by many this week that, as Charles Krauthammer puts it, "the real war, is not about last Sept. 11. It is about preventing the next Sept. 11--and in particular, a nuclear, chemical or biological Sept. 11," and we are told that the way to do this is to make war on countries that are potential threats--e.g. have programs to acquire nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, a general hostility to the US, Israel, the West--whether or not they have done material harm to the United States or give evidence of planning to do so. Is this international impulse congruent with the domestic impulse to ensure perfect safety through gun control and the sort of behavior modification characteristic of what conservatives long since nicknamed "the Nanny State?"
[9:45 AM | permanent link]:

OSAMA IS SEVERIAN'S MOTHER: Also, Ginger Stampley's weblog passes another test of a truly excellent blog, by sending me off to a bunch of other good sites I'd never noticed before, notwithstanding that all the cool kids probably knew about them already. In particular I'm pleased to discover Jim Henley's Unqualified Offerings, which instantly commends itself to me with a post that ventures a startling speculation about the relationship of Osama bin Laden to the Saudi establishment with specific reference to Gene Wolfe's brilliant science-fiction quartet The Book of the New Sun. I'm not going to spoil Henley's post; go read it.

(I don't normally use Electrolite to push books I've been involved in publishing, but here's an exception. The Book of the New Sun is one of the the strangest and most powerful works our genre has ever produced, and it's in print from our own Orb imprint as the omnibuses Shadow and Claw and Sword and Citadel.)

[9:30 AM | permanent link]:

TEX MIX: Ginger Stampley's weblog What She Really Thinks deserves a wide readership. She's smart and funny on a bunch of subjects, but I'm particularly taken by her recurring commentary about Houston, Enron, the Saudis, and other subjects "close to home" for a Houston native who describes herself as an "oil brat."

Here's a bit from some recent observations about the Saudis:

[Justin] Raimondo misses another important factor in the anti-Saudi backlash: most Americans with direct experience of Saudi Arabia, even those in the oil business, despise the Saudis. I did some expat time when I was a teenager, but I never had to live "in the compound", for which I was infinitely grateful, because of the stories I heard about the way Americans, especially women, were treated. This sort of feeling has been waiting to be tapped for a long time. The congruence of events that now allows the majors to derive some political benefits from it is dumb luck on their part.

I'm always suspicious of single-cause explanations, and that's Raimondo's problem: he's married to the Rockefeller theory coming in. If he looks for information to find Big Oil support for the current wave of anti-Saudi sentiment in this country, he'll find it. That doesn't mean he's not missing other sources.

Raimondo also assumes the Saudi government has monolithic interests. All politics are local, and you can't get much more local than trying to get ahead of one of your 50 brothers in the great race for succession and oil bucks. Once you realize that the interests of the Saudi government are just that, individual interests, the liberalization picture looks a lot more interesting. The eternal question cui bono? is a good one, and applies equally to the Saudi end of the Saudi-Big Oil relationship. Who has an interest in breaking that supposedly happy couple up? Find out, and you may well have a motive for Saudi princes to support Osama bin Laden [...]

I don't know enough about the current internal politics of Saudi Arabia to tell who the winners and the losers will be (except for Prince Bandar, who is definitely on his way down), but it's going to be difficult to do serious political analysis of the liberalization issue without finding out cui bono?. And I'm certain you can't analyze either the official and unofficial relations between Osama bin Laden and members of the Saudi royal family or, equally importantly, the social, political and economic factors that helped to win bin Laden the hearts of the Saudi suicide hijackers, without better answers to the question than we currently have.

Elsewhere, in a pair of posts (initial grumpy outburst here, nuanced followup here), Stampley responds to what sounds like a pretty superficial Salon thumbsucker about what a terrible place Houston is. My own background inclines me to the same prejudices that inform the Salon piece, but I understand Stampley's reaction entirely: she's both annoyed with the Bay Area magazine for its condescension--

The whinging Salon reports, and to be fair to the subjects, I'm sure the most damning quote from each person was picked out to get a totally negative article about the city, reminds me a lot of all the damn carpetbaggers who came down here in the early 80s and then were miserable when the bust hit. That's the risk of being a wildcatter. (Enron is clearly a matter of fraud, which is different.) How many times did Glenn McCarthy make and lose a fortune? More than once, and that's OK. Enterpreneurship may well be the triumph of hope over experience, but I'm not sure that Salon is in any position to be making cracks about that right now.

--and for the fact that they couldn't be bothered to dig for the really interesting dirt:

There really is a crying need for investigative reporting into the web of social and political connections that ground the way big-league business is done in Houston (and in Texas generally).

No major media outlet in the state, and certainly not Houston's Leading Misinformation Source, is going to do that kind of reporting. Hell, the Chronk won't even carry such backgrounders on the Enron scandal when the New York Times runs them, and that's where they're getting about half their stories anyway.

I spent years as a kid in Phoenix, Arizona, and I've spent even more years of my adulthood in New York City. Both are places that offer outsiders endless chances to put together wise-sounding critiques out of pre-made packets of warmed-over cliche. The cliches are true enough, but you wind up wanting to open a jumbo can of whup-ass on them--wanting to say both "Piss off, carpetbagger" and "No, the real story is over here, can't you see that?"

Saturday, February 2, 2002
[6:45 PM | permanent link]:

MATT WELCH: STILL TERRIFIC. He came back from Europe while I wasn't reading anybody's blog, so now that I am, there's a pile of new Welch all over his site. I particularly liked this, which made me keep pinching myself to make sure I hadn't written it myself.

General applause, too, for this piece:

...[B]efore you write off the deepest of the bluest counties on that famous electoral map of the U.S., keep in mind that intellectual conformity within like-minded groups is a distinctly non-partisan phenomenon. The same people who have skewered the anti-war Left while seeing their own battlefield predictions come more or less true could just as easily get it dead wrong next time, if they choose to gloat and preen instead of rigorously challenging their own assumptions.

And let us not forget why these enclaves were carved out in the first place--as a reaction against the most stifling of Red America's culture and misuse of power. Trash Berkeley and Frisco all you want (and I've wanted to a lot these past months), but I'll continue to happily visit those two kooky cities several times a year for as long as I'm anywhere near. Good bookstores, restaurants, redwoods and history still tickle my brain more than any Wal-Mart or Waffle House ever did.

But the kind of closed systems you'll find there almost always end up blocking out new ideas. If there are any positive outcomes from this season of enclave-bashing, surely one of them must be that the feedback loops on the Left have been forever infiltrated by thousands of new thinkers who aren't easily dismissed as water-carriers for the Empire. Another, hopefully, will be the rejection of bullshit ideas that have for too long received a political bye from progressives who know better. All in all, it's a grand opportunity for healthier debate to win out over wound-licking alienation.

Meanwhile, those throwing barbs at Berkeley had best beware: too much back-slapping among like-minded quasi-pundits on a hot streak can lead to the same distorted groupthink you criticize today. If you dismiss all noises coming from your left as the sound of crazy people, you'll be missing out on some valuable intelligence. Here's hoping the expat enclaves will rise to the occasion.

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FROM ONE GENERATION TO ANOTHER: The confrontation between Dick Cheney and the GAO is catnip to Watergate criminal and part-time pundit John Dean, who contributes a lucid piece to Findlaw examining the history of the GAO (notorious straight-arrows), the untenability of the Cheney position (widely acknowledged by just about everyone, so long as they're speaking off the record), and the rather grave Constitutional balance-of-power issues that would ensue if the GAO actually loses. Of course, Dean can't resist the slow-moving softball that the entire issue is for him in particular:

Cheney says he is refusing to provide information to the Congress as a matter of principle. He told the Today Show that he wants to "protect the ability of the president and the vice president to get unvarnished advice from any source we want." That sounds all too familiar to me. I worked for Richard Nixon.

Hey, if you were John Dean, you wouldn't have been able to resist, either.

Dean's piece is also valuable for clarifying just how limited the GAO's request for information has been, despite the Administration's determined efforts to portray it as a wild-and-crazy fishing expedition.

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VIA GARY FARBER'S EXCELLENT BLOG Amygdala, an LA Times story about an elderly grandmother in Vermont and her past:

As the sun dips behind the Vermont tree line, the family sits down to dinner and the talk goes in a thousand directions--books, politics, the Red Sox. Eventually the conversation turns to Grandma, and the Nazi she gunned down.

She was born in Holland and she spent the war hiding Jewish children. At one point she was arrested and tortured by the Nazis. She married an American serviceman and came back to the US with him. They raised a family. Her children didn't know much about her past until 1981, when Israel's Yad Vashem, the official Holocaust authority, honored her as one of the "Righteous Among the Nations."

It's a stunning story, full of movie moments. People will read about her and feel better about the human race, and I guess that's okay. But what I'm mosty struck by is this:

People want to know where this 81-year-old woman gets her grit. She eludes the question the way she once eluded her pursuers. "There's nothing you can tell somebody that's going to make them less fearful," she says in her faint Dutch accent. "I was scared stiff all the time during the war."

It's not really a movie-moment kind of thing to say. The message is: what grit? I was scared to death, just like you would have been.

One gets the sense that the reality of this woman is more evasive and delicate than this newspaper feature, or any movie, could quite convey. We're left curious and grasping at scraps of rhetoric that sparkle and fizzle out, leaving behind the overwrought smell of cliche. Heroism is mysterious.

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HAPPY NEW YEAR! Also Happy Groundhog Day. Okay, I was gone for a while. Mostly because I got terribly behind at work. And I don't know about you, but if I'd delivered my novel to my editor, and weeks and months went by without him commenting on it, and meanwhile that same editor was posting commentary to his weblog all the while, I'd probably feel slighted. A bunch of writers I work with have been waiting a while to hear from me about this or that book, and it got to the point of feeling untenable. To my sensibilities, anyway. When I stopped posting to Electrolite, I stopped posting in other online forums as well, for pretty much the same reason.

I'm still pretty behind on editorial work. I've always been a slow reader and a slow thinker about what I've read. Much though I admire those tough-as-nails book editors who can digest a 500-page manuscript and spit out two to ten pages of hardnosed critique in a day or two, for me it usually takes longer. Add to that a year full of major and minor calamities (2001, annus horribilus) and some unexpected increases in my responsibilities at work, and it's been enough to tip me from "swamped" to "foundering."

I haven't caught up on everything and there are certainly people still waiting to hear from me about this or that, but I think I've bailed enough water that I'm back to merely "swamped," so I'm going to gingerly post a little this weekend to Electrolite. Besides, there's just too much interesting stuff on the web and in the world.

Monday, December 17, 2001
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"WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION": Bad guys may use them on your city--or mine. Raised on decades of Cold War chiliastic panic, people like me tend to view that prospect in world-ending terms. But given the limits of what the current crop of bad guys can probably assemble, it's entirely plausible that most people outside the immediate radius of horror would have a good shot at staying alive.

All of which is the gist of an email that retired Army sergeant Red Thomas wrote to several friends on October 6. It's become one of those "emails heard round the world." Here's a link to one of the many places (in this case, the Bay Area Skeptics' site) it's been reprinted on the Web.

The effects of a nuclear bomb are heat, blast, EMP, and radiation. If you see a bright flash of light like the sun, where the sun isn't, fall to the ground!

The heat will be over in a second. Then there will be two blast waves, one outbound, and one on its way back. Don't stand up to see what happened after the first wave; anything that's going to happen will have happened in two full minutes.

These will be low yield devices and will not level whole cities. If you live through the heat, blast, and initial burst of radiation, you'll probably live for a very very long time. Radiation will not create fifty foot tall women, or giant ants and grass hoppers the size of tanks. These will be at the most 1 kiloton bombs; that's the equivalent of 1,000 tons of TNT.

Here's the real deal, flying debris and radiation will kill a lot of exposed (not all!) people within a half mile of the blast. Under perfect conditions this is about a half mile circle of death and destruction, but, when it's done it's done. EMP stands for Electro Magnetic Pulse and it will fry every electronic device for a good distance, it's impossible to say what and how far but probably not over a couple of miles from ground zero is a good guess. Cars, cell phones, computers, ATMs, you name it, all will be out of order.

There's more. Some people, including some military people, are mad at this guy, and challenge various of his facts. The Bay Area Skeptics posting above includes some corrective footnotes and links to some other views. Here's a Washington Post story about Sgt. Thomas and his critics.

It's an interesting issue. Thomas admits that there are errors and overgeneralizations in his original email. But his main point seems to me correct. One of the luxuries of regarding nuclear attacks as "unthinkable" is that it spares us having to think about what it would be like to be in, say, midtown Manhattan if a smallish nuclear device were detonated downtown, or in the harbor. What it would be like: it would be horrible. What would be needed immediately: lots of rational people who grasp that what's at hand isn't the end of the world. In such an eventuality, and let's pray it never comes to pass, Sgt. Thomas's common-sense attitude may turn out to have been a wholesome piece of advance planning for the imagination.

Some people always think that discussing these things amounts to an effort to play down their awfulness. It's not. If even a small nuclear weapon (or "dirty bomb") ever goes off in a city anywhere, it will be a ghastly calamity. It's rational to fear such a thing. But the diffrence between fear and terror is specificity. Understanding the scope and likely limits of a terrorist-sponsored nuclear attack may make the difference between the unboundedness of terror and the specificity of fear. Knowledge is power.

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OUT ON THE EDGE OF DARKNESS: Yusuf Islam, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, is reissuing his old work and donating some of the proceeds to a September 11 victims' fund. Here's a story (spotted by blogger Tim Blair) in the Sidney Morning Herald:

Of the attack on the World Trade Center, he said he was "horrified that this was a terrorist action being committed under the slogan of Islam. The people weren't going to war; they were going to work. These kind of incidents, I have no reference for them. Not in the Koran". He has decided to divide profits from the box set between September 11 victims and a charity he administers, Small Kindness, for refugees and rebuilding in Afghanistan.

"It is a time for Muslims to reflect on how we have almost been forced to be radical in the absence of a clear expression of middle Islam. The large silent majority have left it up to the radicals to speak on their behalf. The moderate voice needs to be heard, which is in the Koran, in so many verses indicating mercy, peace, justice, tolerance, patience. All these virtues have to come into focus."

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I CANNOT READ THE FIERY LETTERS: On January 15, 1967, the New York Times ran an interview with J.R.R. Tolkien, whose international celebrity was still a relatively new thing. It's reprinted on the Times's web site. Of immediate interest to longtime members of science-fiction fandom is a brief mention of Tolkien's Hugo award (actually, technically an "International Fantasy Award," but who's counting):

In the fifties, World Science Fiction called Tolkien the best fantasy-writer of the year and gave him a model rocket. "It's upstairs somewhere," Tolkien thinks. "It has fins. Quite different from what was required, as it turns out."

Tolkien never attended a science fiction convention, but this suggests he might have had little difficulty grasping the essential idea:

"And have you been to England's oldest pub, the Trip to Jerusalem? It is carved out of the solid rock of Nottingham Castle. I went to Nottingham once for a conference. I fear we went to the Trip to Jerusalem and let the conference get on with itself."

Saturday, December 15, 2001
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NEXT, FIBONACCI FEWMETS: Further evidence that the Web is hardwired to the collective unconscious, and that the collective unconscious is even sillier than we thought: The Prime Number Shitting Bear.

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BE STILL YOUR BEATING HEART: I've temporarily given up on CSS, which is why the type now looks more like it used to. I'm coming to the conclusion that CSS is in fact the right way to handle a page like this, but that it has to be designed in from the start, not deployed as an afterthought to define two or three specs out of many. So I need to rebuild the template for this page from scratch. Meanwhile, I've temporarily reverted to straight HTML, with its lack of leading control, as an act of mercy for the people whose browsers still couldn't legibly parse this page.

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IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE: Ralph Klein, Premier of Alberta, paid a midnight drop-in visit to an Edmonton homeless shelter. "I wasn't drunk," he said later. "I was in good spirits." Those good spirits evidently led him into a loud exchange of views with several shelter residents, in which he exhorted them to "get jobs."

At least one of them had just returned to the shelter from his job at a nearby gas station. "I don't drink or do drugs and he's telling me to get a job when I already have one."

Says the Edmonton Journal, "The incident will likely refocus attention on the premier's reputation for enjoying alcohol."

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SECRET ARMIES: Amazing what you can conceal in a burqa.

Friday, December 14, 2001

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IT STILL MATTERS: Nicely-sourced Daily Howler, nailing Howard Fineman for praising George W. Bush for the same qualities that he'd previously used to attack Al Gore. When Bush changes his outfit four times in a day, it's because he has a keen sense of what's appropriate to what circumstances, but when Al Gore did it, it was because Al Gore was (twirling motions next to head) unsure who he really was, he had problems, if you know what I mean and I think you do.

Let's say it again--all the way back to 1988, Gore had sometimes appeared in casual clothes, and he'd sometimes appeared in blue suits. The conduct itself is utterly meaningless; everyone behaves in this manner. But now, Fineman says it shows Bush's mastery; then, the conduct showed Gore was a nut. The comfortable courtier has skillfully changed on the subject of change of attire.

Meanwhile, Avram Grumer, in his December 10 weblog entry, details the contradictions and impossibilities in GWB's account of himself during the first hour of the 9/11 attack. Sure, Bush's remarks were off-the-cuff, and I'd be hard-pressed to precisely reconstruct my own chronology during that first hour or two. But you just know that if it had been Al Gore whose recollections got jumbled under stress, it would have been taken as further evidence of Al Gore, Habitual Liar.

Why does this Bush-Gore-2000-yadayada still matter? Because a lot of Americans, including plenty of us who agree that international terror is a real enemy that needs to be fought, still don't trust the media that behaved like this during and after the 2000 election, and we certainly don't trust the politicians who benefitted from it.

Since September 11, we've seen plenty of mindboggling nonsense from people who claim to be on the "left," notwithstanding that they often seem more interested in defending the enslavers of women and the exalters of tyranny than they are in noticing what's actually going on. It hasn't escaped our notice that in two months, the United States military liberated more women than a lot of lefty ideologues have liberated in their entire lives. Hell, a lot of us knew even before September 11 that rather a lot of "cultural leftism" was badly tarnished by a streak of soft bigotry in which various values important to a functioning society--valor, honor, loyalty, things like that--were devalued and dismissed. But a clear-eyed vision of the dishonesties of the left doesn't blind us to the chicaneries and mendacities of the other side. Bullshit is bullshit, and smells the same on both sides of the road.

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The tape was chilling, though--to hear The Guy on the Right drone on about how this was just like that time in the Koran, that time a dozen hundred years ago, when something like this sort of happened and then Allah interfered and they won, hurrah--well, some have compared it to a tape of Hitler in the bunker in 45, but Hitler never sat around predicting that Wotan would turn aside the allies. These guys sound like they’re discussing events in a favorite comic book or Star Wars movie. This isn’t theology. It’s Dungeons and Dragons.

Wednesday, December 12, 2001

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DEFENDING WESTERN CIVILIZATION: As Jacob Sullum points out in a piece in Reason, the primary argument for the Bush/Ashcroft tribunals is that terrorists who seek to destroy our institutions don't deserve to benefit from them.

If we're going to take it for granted that anyone the president thinks might be connected to Al Qaeda is a vile, vicious murderer, there's no need for any sort of trial. Just put a bullet in his head and be done with it.

But if we allow for the possiblity that someone suspected of complicity with terrorism might actually be innocent, we need some sort of procedure for determining whether he really did what the government says he did. The controversy over military tribunals is about what that procedure should involve--a question that has nothing to do with how we feel about terrorism. [...]

In thinking about military tribunals, people tend to imagine Osama bin Laden himself on trial. Already convinced of his guilt, they are not terribly concerned about making sure that he enjoys all the benefits of due process.

Imagine, instead, some guy you've never heard of, a U.S. resident from a Middle Eastern country who is picked up because he happened to attend the same mosque as a member of Al Qaeda. Before this man is imprisoned or executed, anyone who cares about justice will want some assurance that he really is a terrorist.

(Sullum also makes the point, which can't be made frequently enough, that what Bush and Ashcroft want doesn't actually resemble the Uniform Code of Military Justice, despite the fact that they seem to have convinced much of the lapdog media, using excluded-middle rhetorical tricks that wouldn't fool a ten-year-old, that what they're proposing are "military tribunals." Which is a side issue to what I'm trying to say here, but bears repeating several times a day.)

At this point, roughly two-thirds of the country's editorial cartoonists have done the cartoon showing Johnnie Cochran defending Osama Bin Laden, usually declaiming some clever variation on "if the [blank] doesn't [blank], you must [blank]." While, in the background, a Cartoon Media Circus boils over with arms, legs, TV cameras, scantily-clad babes, etc. (If you don't believe me, go over to the Cagle cartoon index and start counting the cartoons this describes.) The point is that standard American justice is a failure, and morever, obviously we know Osama bin Laden is guilty, so why the heck should we give him a Public Forum and a Fancy Lawyer, huh?

Well, we do know that Osama bin Laden is guilty, but as Sullum lucidly points out, the argument isn't about Osama bin Laden, it's about whether people you and I don't know anything about are guilty. That's why we have public trials, right of appeal, rules of evidence, and the like. Not in order to make life nicer for people who are guilty, but in order to figure out, to a reasonable degree of confidence, who is and isn't guilty. (And not because cops and prosecutors are all evil, but because cops and prosecutors are all human, and make mistakes, just like you and me.)

These procedures and rules of evidence are part and parcel of the same Western heritage of scientific rationality that we often see defended by the more sensible voices on the cultural and political Right: the idea that reality is best understood by rigorous processes of discovery, not by wishing, hoping, and pretending. So it's disappointing when some (not all) of those same people take an attitude toward criminal justice that has all the intellectual integrity of New Age crystal-gazing.

Tuesday, December 11, 2001

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ANOTHER HAMBURGER FOR RACE-MIXING COSMOPOLITANISM: I meant to link days ago to Michelle Cottle's "White Hope," from the New Republic, a brief and unsettling account of the increasing convergence of views between domestic neo-Nazi racist dingbats and the various overseas Islamic terrorist groups:

Not surprisingly, globalization has emerged as the ultimate bogeyman for racial separatists of all hues. And while the Jews are seen as the root of this ugly trend, America (as Zionist lapdog) is considered equally guilty. Racialist groups, says Potok, "have come to see the United States as the global spearhead of multiculturalism and multiracialism." Far from wrapping themselves in the American flag like Klansmen of generations past, says Potok, today's white suprems are burning it. "They are very much in the same camp as the Taliban in a sense. They see culturally and racially disparate nations being steamrolled by the American monoculture of McDonald's, strip malls, and multiracialists. Bin Laden speaks of American culture reaching into the farthest corners of the world. American Nazis see the same thing, and they've become decentralists." Witness the skinheads who rioted at the WTO conclave in Seattle, and the high praise the entire melee elicited from white suprems like Matt Hale.

Next time I'm eating fast food in a strip mall, I'll remember that, crummy though the experience may be, at least it's part of something that people like this just hate.

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BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU ASK FOR: Provocative and very interesting mini-essay by Glenn Reynolds on his Instapundit site yesterday: "Dissing International Law." He decries the kinds of claims about international law being made in this war by high-profile watchdog groups--for instance, Amnesty International apparently claims that the verbal grilling to which John Walker was submitted may have constituted "torture," which leaves even a longtime Amnesty-supporter like me wondering what word they plan to use for actual instances of, you know, torture. But his main thesis is that this kind of "overclaiming" threatens to undermine the important process of building a stable edifice of globally-respected international law:

In ordinary times, when the stakes are low and no one is paying much attention, claims that international law somehow commands the result that these groups want may often work. But now people are paying attention, and the absurdity of many of the claims being made in the name of international law is obvious.

The likely result is that international law--and particularly international human rights law--will enjoy far less prestige in the future. If you believe, as I do, that having good law governing warfare and human rights is a good thing, then this loss of prestige is a bad thing. Governments will be less constrained in the future--even by actual, as opposed to imaginary law--because the watchdog groups will have blown their credibility

Reynolds is himself a lawyer and a writer on legal issues, and gives every indication of having a more-than-casual grasp both of the law and of the politics inside the practice of law.

[8:40 PM | permanent link]:

BULLETED BULLETS: Just in case you don't read BoingBoing (and why wouldn't you?), which linked to this less than four hours ago, here's something you need to see if you've ever been the helpless victim of don't-give-a-damn hotel service and if you've ever been subjected to a tedious PowerPoint presentation. In the early hours of November 15, 2001, Tom Farmer and Shane Atchison, two business travellers from Seattle, were denied rooms in a Houston "DoubleTree Club" hotel at which they had "guaranteed, confirmed reservations." The night clerk was surly and unhelpful. Events went from bad to worse. Farmer and Atchison have now filed a complaint with all the entities involved and their corporate masters...in the form of a PowerPoint presentation.

We Are Very Unlikely to Return to the Doubletree Club Houston.

Lifetime chances of dying in a bathtub: 1 in 10,455 (National Safety Council)

Chance of Earth being ejected from the solar system by the gravitational pull of a passing star: 1 in 2,200,000 (University of Michigan)

Chance of winning the UK Lottery: 1 in 13,983,816 (UK Lottery)

Chance of us returning to the DoubleTree Club Houston: worse than any of these (And what are the chances you'd save rooms for us anyway?)

Which only hints at the rich vein of straight-to-the-point, Powerpointishly-crisp graphs, charts, comparisons, and "talking points" to be found here. This made me laugh harder than almost anything this week.

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CONSPIRACY THEORY, A BRANCH OF UTOPIAN LITERATURE: It is, you know; there's nothing so reassuring as the notion that, somewhere, powerful people are secretly in charge. Unfortunately, the more we look at this plain we're on, the more we tend to the conclusion that it's darkling as all heck out there. In Slate last week, Seth Stevenson dissected the notion that the US's military action in Afghanistan was actually in service of a secret plan involving an oil pipeline. Among other things, Stevenson showed how the polemical core of the theory did a one-eighty after September 11, from "we're supporting the Taliban so we can build this pipeline" to "we're attacking the Taliban so we can build this pipeline." He also demonstrated, with copious links, the extent to which the progressive press is just as prone to the echo chamber effect, just as capable of magnifying flakey data into widely-accepted "fact," as any bunch of right-wingers drunk on visions of Whitewater, Paula Jones, and Vince Foster. He concludes:

What's absurd about the pipeline theory is how thoroughly it discounts the obvious reason the United States set the bombers loose on Afghanistan: Terrorists headquartered in Afghanistan attacked America's financial and military centers, killing 4,000 people, and then took credit for it. Nope--must be the pipeline.

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TERESA ALERT: She lives!

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STATE OF THE SEVAGRAM: John Farrell asks if I ever intend to comment here on current aspects of science fiction book publishing, since that's my day job and all. I've got no policy against writing and posting remarks of that sort; I just haven't had anything to say on the subject lately that wasn't "inside baseball", more or less. However, about a year ago, Darrell Schweitzer did an wide-ranging interview with me about current industry issues, for the Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America, and it's now up on the web. Notwithstanding that they misspell my name, Darrell did an excellent job of making me sound coherent and sensible.

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ESSENTIAL ASHCROFT LINKS: All the other weblogs have linked to these and plenty of others, while I've been relatively quiescent for several days, but here are three of the best pieces about tribunals, Ashcroft, etc. In the New York Times, William Glaberson does a good roundup on the difference between regular old military tribunals--which are not the travesties of justice that some people fear--and the special arrangements that Bush and Ashcroft want. Over at Spinsanity, there's an excellent analysis of the way the Administration is deliberately blurring this very distinction. And on the AP wire, columnist Richard Reeves weighs in with language rather blunter than one usually sees on newspaper Op-Ed pages.

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HAPPY HOLIDAYS: Various Middle Eastern television channels, including several in Egypt, are screening a thirty-part dramatization of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. MEMRI quotes the Egyptian weekly Roz al-Youssuf, in its issue dated November 17, 2001, offering "quotes from the Protocols that the series addresses", various nefarious plans that worldwide Jewry are purported to have under way:

"We will act to establish a state to be a superpower that will rule the world"; "[When we rule the world], we will damage its morality with pornography, prostitution, and drugs, and we will corrupt the world of the Gentiles"; "We must choose someone corrupt [for the presidency of the superpower] and when he resists us - we will expose him." In this context, Subhi noted, "We all remember what happened to President Clinton and to other presidents throughout history."

The series will also reveal "advice" reportedly taken from the Protocols, such as: "Feed a dog, [but] not a Muslim or a Christian" and "Kill a Muslim or a Christian and take his house as your house and his lands as your lands." He also raises such questions as, "How can a country like America collaborate with the Jews when it is familiar with the Protocols' directives against it [America]?"

In the Atlantic, Jack Beatty nicely sums up what's been going on for years in the "friendly" Arab countries that broadcast this kind of offal:

Egypt, under threat from Islamic terrorism, has been governed under a state of emergency virtually since 1967. A glance at the Human Rights Watch report on Egypt for last year reveals a political tourniquet: suspects arrested and held without being charged, dissidents tried by military courts, parties outlawed, opposition candidates from Islamic parties jailed on security charges just before elections and thus kept from winning office, torture used to extract confessions, political prisoners dying while in custody. The U.S. gives Egypt $1.2 billion in military aid every year, and doubtless Egypt uses a considerable amount of that to keep the tourniquet tight. Egypt exports the terrorists the repression produces, but not before its state-dominated media has taught them to blame the misery and backwardness of Arab nations on the U.S. The terrorists then attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We are not a wicked nation but, as long as we subsidize this fated cycle, we are a stupid one.

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THE NEW WORLD: It's been three months.

Monday, December 10, 2001

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Someone at the official Italian government web site is placing far too much faith in automatic translation:

Alemanno Giovanni

Been born to 3 Bariums March 1958. Conjugated, a son. He resides to Rome. University diploma of scientific maturity, studies in Civil engineering and building. Entrepreneur. Journalist publicist. In 1990 he constitutes the society of services "Euroservice", operating in the field of the services dell.edilizia and the juvenile job. Honorary member of the Room of the commerce and dell.industria of the Argentine. It has founded l.associazione of social participation and cultural "cultural Association of Area". Collaborating dell.associazione not governmental "Movement community", dell.associazione of voluntary service "Modavi", the association cooperative "Still", member of directive of the center the studies "Cepet". Member of the committee of direction of the salary of the political present time and cultural "Area". Coautore of the book "the roots and the plan". Enrolled to the Msi and then to National Alliance. In years Eighty, he has been provincial secretary of the Forehead of the youth. In occasion of the electoral consultation of 1990, for I renew of the regional Council of the Lazio, has turned out first of the elect ones with more than 29,000 ballots than preference. From 1988 to 1991 he has been national secretary of the Forehead of the youth. Already responsible national of the Department social Initiatives and problems of the job of An, ago part of the Direction and national political dell.esecutivo of An of which he has been Coordinator of the economic and social Political. In the 2000 she has been the organizational responsible of the electoral campaign of Francisco Storace for the Presidency of the Lazio Region, is responsible of the political program of the candidate to Mayor of Rome Antonio Tajani. In XIII the legislatura it has made part of 11^ the permanent Commission (Public work and private). First signer of fifteen bills in parliament, cofirmatario of 115 bills in parliament. Elect in May 2001 to the House of reprensentative in the college 21 Lazio 1. Torna indietro

My new ambition is to be national secretary of the Forehead of the youth.

(Thanks to Mike Weber and Anna Feruglio Del Dan.)

Saturday, December 8, 2001

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I solved the Netscape 4 problem, mostly, via a clever hack described on Charles Johnson's Little Green Footballs site. The ancient freemasonry of science fiction fandom has a saying that "all knowledge is contained in fanzines." Today, all knowledge is contained on the Web. (The cautionary corellary, of course, is that not all the knowledge in fanzines, or on the Web, is true.)

Viable Paradise student Scott Janssens pointed me to a very informative article, "Why Don't You Code for Netscape?", which led to another, equally eye-opening piece, "To Hell With Bad Browsers," on the same site. It's pretty clear that Netscape 4 is increasingly the bane of web design. Netscape 6.2 is hugely better and just as free on all platforms; likewise Mozilla 0.9.6; meanwhile, MSIE 5 for the Mac is a fine piece of work, while lightweight browsers like K-Meleon (for Windows) and Galeon (for various *nices) combine up-to-date compliance with impressive speed. In fact, I hadn't realized the extent to which, counter to what you hear in casual talk, the browser world seems to be actually converging on useful standards rather than running off in all directions. Looks like a good time to stop using Netscape 4.

[1:45 PM | permanent link]:

As I've mentioned before, I code this page entirely by hand, using the tiny amount of HTML I've picked up from peering at web pages and other people's source code. This morning I decided it was time I dragged myself into the brave new world of 1997 and learned a little bit about style sheets. I had already decided I wanted to make some adjustments to the typography in this right-hand column, so figuring out how to do so with a simple "style block" whiled away a couple of hours.

I'm not a programmer or a professional coder of any kind; I just know how to read how-to documents, which can get you a fair distance. However, there does come a point when you wish you had an expert handy. What I'm noticing is that my type faces and sizes look all right in the Linux browsers I use (Mozilla, Netscape 6, and the best browser in the world, Galeon), and after a little tweaking (changing my font-size statements to "80%" rather than "small" or "x-small"), they look fine in MSIE 5.5 for Windows and only a little smaller than I'd prefer in MSIE 5 for the Mac. But predictably enough, everything looks butt-ugly and huge in Netscape 4.7 for Windows. My stats tell me that nearly twenty percent of you still use some version of Netscape 4, so maybe somebody can clue me in to how to make my type render better in that browser without making it illegible in all the others.

Friday, December 7, 2001

[4:25 PM | permanent link]:

To those [...] who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of goodwill to remain silent in the face of evil."
--John Ashcroft
Testimony to the United States Senate
December 6, 2001

Who has the Attorney General of the United States accused of "aiding terrorists"? Let's see:

"I believe that we might be partly laying the groundwork to undo what will be an inevitable military victory if we subvert the principles that the United States has always espoused for justice."
--Jimmy Carter

"The war mandates changes that we shouldn't contemplate in peacetime. The priority right now is to prevent more massacres of American citizens. But you'd have to be brainless not to realize that many of these measures can be improved, amended, and corrected after a healthy debate."
--Andrew Sullivan

"The Bush plan to try terrorists nabbed abroad, and maybe foreigners arrested here, in closed-door trials and with a lower burden of proof is an extraordinary departure from established constitutional principles [...] But government of the people is based on checks and balances and the understanding that we can protect our liberties only if the people's business is conducted in public."
--The Los Angeles Times

"Our country's enemies only have to spread the word that the United States government has issued plans that ostensibly permit trying non-citizens suspected of terrorism in secret military tribunals and that it is refusing to release the names of hundreds of people it rounded up as possible suspects after Sept. 11. Those accurate reports alone are enough to give pause to many of our friends, and to stoke anti-Americanism."
--The New York Times

"The best ammunition America's enemies have had since the war started is evidence that we don't take our own liberties completely seriously."
--Jacob Weisberg

"It is perfectly fine for Ashcroft to point out those instances when Chicken-Little civil libertarians exaggerate and distort, and maybe it's even permissible in those instances to observe that such talk is counter-productive, and perhaps gives ammunition to rococo anti-Americanism or whatever. But to say, in a prepared statement, that those who believe our Constitution requires eternal vigilance from an active and skeptical citizenry, are somehow only a shade better than traitors? This is a vile, vile slur."
--Matt Welch

"Mr. Ashcroft may not like the criticism. But his job is to defend dissent, not to use the moral authority of his office to discourage people from participating in one of the most fundamental obligations of citizenship."
--The Washington Post

I'd like to know which of the above are "aiding terrorists," according to the Attorney General of the United States. The Washington Post? Andrew Sullivan? Jimmy Carter? Me? You?

I'm an American. My wife and I stood at the intersection of Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues on January 20, 2001, in the freezing rain, holding a sign reading WE WILL NOT GET OVER IT. And we had an American flag in our front window before September 11, 2001--the flag of that great nation of free people who don't bend the knee. That nation is worth fighting for. We have seen it in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps.

Remember what we've seen. We must fight people who pilot airliners full of innocent men and women into buildings full of office workers. And we must fight overweening officials who recklessly attack loyal Americans. Be swift, our souls, to answer. Be jubilant, our feet.

Wednesday, December 5, 2001

[9:50 AM | permanent link]:

A sharply-written weblog I hadn't seen before, Ginger Stampley's What She Really Thinks, also notes the Virginia Postrel comments quoted below, and adds:

My anecdotal oil brat experience agrees. I knew people who lived "in the compound", as we used to call it, and by all reports it was a miserable experience that drove people--especially women--to drug abuse and alcoholism, generally on illegal homemade hooch. I remember a story in currency in the expat community in the early 80s; it's probably apocryphal, but carries a good sense of how the Americans in Saudi felt about their hosts and the extreme version of Islam they practiced.

The story goes that a woman living in Saudi with her husband went out with a skirt that was too short and that the mullahs whipped her legs for it. The man, who was a good ol' boy, was incensed, but could do nothing. However, within a few weeks his tour of duty was over, and the man put his wife and children on the plane to the States. Then the man went out and found the mullah and beat the crap out of him with a baseball bat, before getting on a plane himself to get out of the country.

Two points about this story. First, while it's a story about a Saudi offense against a woman, it's not related from a "feminist" point of view. The husband avenges his wife's maltreatment at the hands of the mullah. Second, every time I heard this story, it was related to me with great satisfaction, as if the beating of the mullah made up for a host of slights the Saudis inflicted on Americans they invited into their country to work for them.

American disdain for Saudi Arabia has been around for a long time if you knew where to look. The political class simply hasn't deigned to notice it until now.

[9:15 AM | permanent link]:

Locus Online, the web page of the science-fiction industry's newsmagazine, runs a picture of this year's Viable Paradise SF writing workshop. We're proud of Our Kids. (Never mind that some of them are older than us or have PhDs. One of the perks of being an instructor, even if only for one week a year, is that you get to talk about your "kids.")

The same Locus web page also lists this year's SF and fantasy titles among the New York Times's annual list of "Notable Books of the Year." Even in this disintermediated age, the New York Times has immense clout among booksellers, so the annual "Notable Books" list is a big honking deal inside the book industry, notwithstanding that actual readers don't pay tons of attention. Having transcended worldly pride and ambition and graduated to a more spiritual state I of course have not noticed that my line at Tor Books published five of the twelve titles deemed Notable, nor that my wife and colleague Teresa Nielsen Hayden edited two of them. (I'm pleased for the authors, too, but they get their names on the covers and praised in reviews and so forth. Editors mostly get to count coup in the bar and on obscure personal web pages.)

[9:00 AM | permanent link]:

Scientists are finally making headway on the counterintuitive "Brazil nut effect," by which the larger bits in a mixed container tend to rise to the top. (Link via Honeyguide.) Teresa and I remember noticing this some years ago in the yard of the house we lived in on Staten Island. Steven Gould helpfully explained that the larger pieces rose to the top because they were more strongly attracted by the largest gravitational force in the Solar System, the Sun. I was impressed with the scope and power of Steve's scientific reasoning. "I guess that's why you're one of those Analog writers," I said.

[8:10 AM | permanent link]:

Virginia Postrel makes some excellent points about the Saudi regime. Here's one of them:

By now, lots of people have commented on Saudi Crown Prince Abd Al-'Aziz's reported complaints about "the unjust attack being waged these days by the foreign media against the Saudi kingdom. I mean foreign papers, and you know who is behind them..." [...]

Here's a news flash, courtesy of my Thanksgiving visit to South Carolina. Even without allowing a single You Know Who to enter their kingdom, the Saudis have spent decades convincing Americans they're oppressive fanatics. They hired American construction companies to build their infrastructure. That brought American expats, who brought their families--including their wives. The wives spent their time in Saudi Arabia as virtual prisoners. Bad will ensued. The expats returned home and spread the word.

In other words, you don't need the New York Times to find out the Saudi regime is awful. Bible Belt word of mouth is enough. And people are talking more than they used to.

Tuesday, December 4, 2001

[11:55 PM | permanent link]:

Keith Thompson writes to say, "My house has a .sig quote."

[8:40 AM | permanent link]:

Editorial in the Guardian:

When the Israelis killed a senior Hamas figure just as the US peace envoy, General Anthony Zinni, began his work, they made it almost certain that there would be a response from Hamas. It may well be that Hamas would have staged suicide operations, at this time or later, whether or not a leader had been killed by the Israelis. But there must be a suspicion that some Israelis wanted General Zinni to have a first hand view of terrorism, which might then shift the view of Mr Arafat in Washington.

It's really hard to read this as anything other than an imputation that Israel cunningly arranged the murder of 25 of its own citizens in order to score points with the US. Those devious Jews, they'll do anything.

Ariel Sharon is certainly skilled at the uses of provocation, but it takes a special sort of thinking to suggest that "the Israelis" arranged this weekend's attacks and were delighted to receive them. This kind of victim-blaming resembles nothing so much as that of the abuser who, afterwards, constructs angry rationales explaining how their victim actually caused their own beating in order to be able to claim the moral high ground. It resembles all too well the kind of anti-Americanism we've seen enough of lately: a worldview in which only some people are actors, and everyone else is an acted-upon victim. Even when they're killing us, it's our fault, because we have the power of action and the responsibility of moral choice, and those other people don't.

As Teresa points out, what's notable about this sort of representation is that it makes all the parties to it--those charged with an impossible level of power, those cast as improbably powerless, and the rest of us trying to make sense of it all--a little bit stupider.

Monday, December 3, 2001

[7:15 PM | permanent link]:

No substantial new posts today--computer-related looniness at work, and I have a gig with the fabulous Lori Behrman tonight. I do have to apologize to the fabulous Alison Scott for attributing the original Foundation/Al-Qaeda story to fabulous Ansible, when of course it first appeared on the fabulous Plokta News Network. What was I thinking?

Perhaps I was distracted by World Bank Wants to Help Afghans Amass Staggering Debt Burden. "The World Bank this week said it plans to extend loans to rebuild Afghanistan once a new government is installed, a pledge bank officials and Afghan opposition leaders agree virtually ensures that the war-torn country's economy will become stable when penguins fly."

Sunday, December 2, 2001

[11:50 PM | permanent link]:

Okay, here's It, revealed at last: the "Segway," "a complex bundle of hardware and software that mimics the human body's ability to maintain its balance. Not only does it have no brakes, it also has no engine, no throttle, no gearshift and no steering wheel. And it can carry the average rider for a full day, nonstop, on only five cents' worth of electricity."

And here's a picture.

I'll take two, please. (The first consumer models will be, it's said, available in a year.) I love the idea that the City of the Future might turn out to be full of something that looks like a pogo stick on wheels.

[3:25 PM | permanent link]:

From the FBI press release concerning wanted fugitive Clayton Waagner, suspected of responsibility for sending dozens of hoax anthrax letters to women's health clinics:

Waagner is also known to be a heavy smoker and gambler and to drink Crown Royal bourbon.

One hopes the FBI is better at marshalling other facts about Mr. Waagner and other dangerous persons. Crown Royal is a Canadian whiskey, about as similar to bourbon as it is to Laphroaig.

Not the most important detail, perhaps, but if it's important enough to put in the press release, it's important enough to get right. If we're going to be giving these characters unprecedented powers, I'd like to think they're a little more on the ball.

[11:45 AM | permanent link]:

Jonah Goldberg in the National Review:

The Spanish, drawing deeply from their rich and storied two-and-a-half decades' experience of democracy, are mumbling loudly about whether they will extradite 14 members of an al Qaeda cell to the United States. Brave members of the European Union, who feel the need to remain anonymous, explain that none of its 15 member states will violate the prohibition on extraditing anyone to a nation that uses military tribunals or imposes the death penalty.

Principled opposition to the death penalty--imagine that. Of course, this opposition is shared by, hmm, let's see, the Pope, whose moral aura William F. Buckley's National Review likes to invoke when it's convenient, which it clearly isn't in this case.

What's particularly notable in the above, though, is the slur on Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, a brave man who, having grown up in a dictatorship and risked his skin to prosecute Basque terrorists, probably knows more about the value of democracy and the cost of preserving it than Jonah Goldberg ever will. I don't agree with Garzón's entire position on the current crisis (he's on record with some poorly argued the-West-must-bear-its-share-of-the-blame comments), but from his record as a prosecutor and judge who's unhesitatingly busted even his own political allies, it's clear that this is a man of substance whose career epitomizes the very values through which the West stakes its claim to value as a civilization...and the True Grit needed to defend those values.

Christopher Hitchens, in this week's Nation, isn't responding directly to Goldberg's foolish remarks, but he might as well be:

Apparently unimpressed by those who maintained that the Al Qaeda death squads were trying to utter a cry for help about the woes of the world's poor (a dismal song I must say I haven't heard being sung so much lately), Judge Baltasar Garzón has put the Spanish wing of this gangster network into custody. We know this judge is not soft on crime, because he helped open the new era of universal jurisdiction by issuing a warrant for the arrest of General Pinochet. He has now gone one better, by telling Attorney General Ashcroft that arrest and detention work only when they are used to enforce the rule of law. No country that respects these norms will deliver prisoners to a country that does not respect them. Military tribunals that take evidence in secret and that have the power to impose the death penalty are, by definition, not up to recognized international standards. Perhaps Ashcroft learned these techniques of jurisprudence from the abattoir regimes, like those of Chile and Guatemala, that the American right has so long defended. It will be very interesting to see how this near-perfect confrontation plays out. Of course, those who were soft on the original crimes will get correspondingly less of a hearing as the debate goes on.

[11:15 AM | permanent link]:

Evidently the Washington Post, for a time one of the great American newspapers, has nothing better to do than run long feature articles about how hilariously foolish people in those boring non-bicoastal states are.

This is amazingly repellent. We learned in the 1990s that newspapers like the Post had hocked their souls. But this is even worse. Like the article on how kids who like Harry Potter need to be beaten up, this isn't even amusingly mean. It's just dreary. What's wrong with these people? And why should we grant them any credibility on issues that actually matter?

[11:00 AM | permanent link]:

Iraq. Big hairy question. Huge Bush I blunder. It's obvious that Saddam Hussein is working overtime to get "weapons of mass destruction," and it's also obvious that Saddam is more willing than the average evil dictator to, well, use them. Moreover, there's arguably as much hard evidence connecting 9/11 to Saddam as there is connecting it to anyone else. Given his record, I'm not at all convinced that the usual logic of deterrence would prevent Hussein from, say, shipping a nuke to New York City in a container vessel, if he thought he could get away with it.

I don't yet have a position on what we should do about it. But I'm reading some interesting stuff on the question. Here's Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman in Slate arguing that, for now, we should leave Saddam alone. Here's a response to Chapman by Andrew Sullivan. Here's a New Republic cover story that begins with the assumption that the Bushoids have already decided to attack Saddam, and reports on purported splits and arguments within the administration on the question of how to go about it. (Interesting concluding point: "Toppling Saddam, particularly with the aid of the Iraqi opposition, would topple a few legacies in Washington. And if there's one imperative more important than keeping Iraq intact, it's keeping intact the reputations of our statesmen. No matter how wrong they happen to be.") And here's a piece arguing for military action, published in, of all places, the Observer. I'm particularly struck by author David Rose's comments about

[...] the thinking which underpins the Iraqi quietists' position. For our friends in Damascus, Riyadh and the Emirates, 'the overriding nightmare is that America would impose Western-style democracy on the region, starting with post-Saddam Iraq.'

This classification of democracy as a 'nightmare' has precedents. For most of the Cold War, Latin America either languished under pro-Western, murderous fascist autocracies or endured insurgency from murderous pro-Western guerrillas. Democracy, the Western foreign policy experts argued, was too good for the Hispanics. Today, most of the continent is relatively democratic, with an absence of death squads and political prisons.

We need to make an analogous paradigm shift in policy towards Iraq and the Islamic world. Democracy is not too good for Arabs and Muslims, either, and Iraq, with a long secular tradition, and a big, well-educated middle class, ought to be an ideal place to establish a bridgehead. Haltingly, step by step, its neighbour Iran is already moving of its own accord in the same direction. Making that shift helps to determine what we should do. The answer is not the military coup pursued with futility by the CIA throughout the 1990s; nor the replacing of one tyrant with another. Nor is it to pick a fight over the refusal to allow renewed weapons inspections, to bomb heavily yet again and then withdraw. It is to support democratic forces which already exist, in the shape of the Iraqi National Congress.

The foreign policy Arabists have briefed the media that the INC is a disorganised, divided rabble. In fact, it is supported by the overwhelming majority of Iraq's liberals and intellectuals, and has become by far the best source of information on what is actually happening there.

Finally, on the European front, there's this gem in the Frankfurter Allgemeine spotted by Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs:

Mr. Schroeder, in concert with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, has warned the United States that an attack on Iraq could crack Mr. Bush's international anti-terror coalition. Germany itself would deploy troops to an Iraqi mission under one condition--that the Iraqi government approved the mission.

As Johnson writes, "Picture the Bizarro Saddam Hussein, issuing an invitation to Germany: 'Me want German troops to attack! Will open borders to make easy!'"

[10:05 AM | permanent link]:

Spinsanity just gets better and better. Here, with actual attention to the details of that "logic" stuff, they take apart Gore Vidal's sad performance in the December 17 issue of The Nation, demonstrating that in his attacks on the New York Times's coverage of the NORC-administered recount, Vidal actually proves exactly nothing; rather, he spits out jargon, invents agendas, and builds conclusions on pre-existing, unearned assumptions--all rhetorical tricks we've come to expect from right-wing "talk radio" liars. (Ironically, as Spinsanity points out, there's a perfectly good case to be made against the Times's spin on the recount report, and Mickey Kaus made it.)

Prior to posting the Vidal dissection on Friday, Spinsanity ran a three-part (here, here, and here) analysis of a recent column by syndicated Boston Herald columnist Don Feder calling "liberals" "America's homegrown suicide cult and the real threat to our nation's survival." Examining each element of Feder's piece, Spinsanity showed it to be an omnibus of the techniques of modern rhetorical battery--assertions which function as colorful exaggerations in one paragraph and are then used as sober background fact in the next; stereotypes mustered in order to validate unearned generalizations; and, just as in the Vidal piece, wholly invented agendas:

Invented agendas are perhaps one of the most dangerous tools in the modern pundit's arsenal, as they allow him or her to simulate actually engaging the arguments of an opponent. [...] Feder's column is typical of a new breed of political punditry that relies on manipulating the emotions of readers in order to lend credence to exaggerated and destructive generalizations about political opponents. Using a few shreds of evidence, most of which is distorted, he builds to broad, unsupportable allegations about all liberals. Feder simulates a rational argument by using the conventional structure of arguments supported by evidence, but twists that evidence and laces his argument with labels and emotional jargon. By priming his audience with both a traditional structure and deeply negative emotional language, he makes his absurd conclusion seem like the natural extension of his phony logic. Such tactics form the core of the new generation of aggressive, irrational political punditry.

Italics mine. Please don't read only this sample; check out the whole (brief) three-part analysis. It couldn't be clearer that we have to learn to recognize this kind of thing--and recognize that we're all doing it, at least some of the time--if we want to continue to have a civilization.

[8:15 AM | permanent link]:

Good Village Voice piece--more descriptive than prescriptive--about the homeless people, we'll never know exactly how many, who almost certainly died in, under, and around the World Trade Center on September 11.

I remember the orating Mr. Mann. I didn't know he had appointed himself mayor of the WTC. Out of the same respect that made "missing" flyers into memorial tablets, it's good to read this piece and remember that these were ours too, and their loss our loss.

There was this one lady named Arlene, and another named Maryann. A shoeshine guy named Jack. A guy named Keith. An elderly woman named Rose sat by the PATH train bathroom. Marvin, a tall, gray-haired man with a dark complexion, stood around tower one every morning, there by the N train, regular as a dripping faucet.

Carlos, a tall Jamaican some called Ras, wore his hair in dreadlocks and thoroughly cursed any social worker who tried to move him. When people asked him his problem, he rubbed his goatee and explained that it wasn't homelessness, it was spiritual. Once in a while, the neatly dressed beanpole Mr. Mann came striding through the concourse. The self-appointed mayor of the World Trade Center, he assigned himself the task of delivering grand, free-floating oratories to passersby. He was scheduled to meet with the president of the United States soon.

They all used the World Trade Center as a place to sleep, panhandle, or pass the time before September 11. They all remain unaccounted for.

[12:30 AM | permanent link]:

Enron Admits It's Really Argentina. Now Massive Ineptitude, Corruption Make More Sense, Analysts Say.

[12:25 AM | permanent link]:

The story about Al Qaeda being named after Asimov's Foundation, first published in the November issue of Dave Langford's essential British science fiction gossip sheet Ansible, has now made it all the way down to the far less reputable New York Press.

[12:15 AM | permanent link]:

Those of you alert to this sort of detail will have noticed that there are now permanent links available to each individual post here. I'm doing all this by hand, armed with only as much HTML as I can divine from peering at my betters and stealing like crazy, so please let me know if something doesn't work. Coming soon: I make a hopeless mess with RSS.

Saturday, December 1, 2001

[11:50 PM | permanent link]:

I'm going to be lazy, and simply quote the latest post on Steven Den Beste's U.S.S. Clueless weblog in full, just to give you some sense of why it's become one of my daily reads since 9/11. I don't know this guy personally, I don't agree with all his politics, but on issues involving the military--war and peace--this is someone who gives every indication of knowing his stuff, in a down-deep, self-educated, deeply thoughtful kind of way. The web is crawling with this kind of grass-roots knowledge, and it's every bit as useful and reliable as any mainstream news source--which is to say, there are no guarantees, but there's knowledge to be had if you go armed with judgement and savvy. And the stuff on the web comes from human beings with human passions, rather than corporate entities as "vast, remote, and unsympathetic" as any Martian tripod.

I think that the biggest reason I hate reading news reports filled with body-counts is not just because it suggests that the way you keep score in a war is by how many bodies you pile up, but also because it papers over the fact that every one of the dead--on both sides--was a real person, with hopes and dreams and a mother somewhere. The deaths in war, even of our enemies, are not to be celebrated. They are necessary, but they are a tragedy. Part of why an efficient war is the best kind to fight is not just because it saves lives of our own soldiers, but also because it saves those of our enemies in the long run. A rapid war decreases the toll.

The death of every soldier in a war is a tragedy--but how much worse of a tragedy must it be when he dies for nothing, with no way whatever of affecting the outcome? I honestly think that the biggest criminals in this war, the most evil men of all, are not the Taliban or even the leaders of al Qaeda. I reserve a place in the lowest pits of hell for the teachers in Pakistan who convinced the boys studying with them to run away and fight holy war against the Great Satan. (That's us, in case you hadn't recognized yourself.)

"Our teachers have categorically stated that jihad can only be launched against an infidel army occupying an Islamic state, and Afghanistan never fit that criteria," said Qari Salim Jan, 21, a member of a radical religious group called Lashkar-i-Taiba. "Afghanistan is essentially an intra-Afghan Muslim battle with an infidel army perched up in the skies."

And against the weapons and tactics that we've been using in Afghanistan, the young men of Pakistan who ran away to fight Jihad had about as much chance as mounted knights against tanks. Their sacrifice was for nothing. Sending 10,000 Pakistani teenagers to Afghanistan only increased the body count. The greatest crime you can commit against a soldier is to send him to a completely useless, meaningless death; a man who dies should die for a reason.

To the south, on the edge of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, in the dusty village of Hattar, another mother recounted a similar tale. "I feel happy that he was martyred," Iqbal said as she cried big wet tears that spotted her brown head scarf.

I don't believe it. I don't think she was happy at all. Islam be damned, I don't think any mother is happy when her son dies. But I think she had to say that or be persecuted by those around her. It's what she was supposed to say, and she knows it. So she mouths the words, but her tears tell the truth: she wishes he was still alive, and home with her.

The Pakistani Jihadi were volunteers. I cry for them. (I have tears in my eyes as I write this.) Intrepid and eager to fight, they ran away, got themselves smuggled into Afghanistan--and then discovered that they'd been lied to. They found out that there was no glory in this war. They discovered that they were fighting other Muslims, and that they had no chance at all, none whatever, of bagging an American. The only Americans they saw were ten miles above them, dropping bombs. They discovered that the Taliban were not holy men, but corrupt thugs who had sold their souls to al Qaeda. And they found out, moments before their deaths, that no amount of courage could protect them from cluster bombs dropped from 50,000 feet, and that God wasn't going to show up on the battlefield and fight along side them.

The United States was, and is, right to fight this war. I feel regret that they died, but no guilt for the US having killed them. But the "holy" men in Pakistan who sent sent those young men across the border deserve no mercy. If Musharraf persecutes them, it will be no more than they deserve.

Den Beste's quotes are from this article in the Washington Post.

All contents copyright 2001, 2002 by Patrick Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.