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September 30, 2004
Extraordinary rendition
Posted by Teresa at 10:31 AM * 87 comments

From Obsidian Wings:

The Republican leadership of Congress is attempting to legalize extraordinary rendition. “Extraordinary rendition” is the euphemism we use for sending terrorism suspects to countries that practice torture for interrogation. As one intelligence official described it in the Washington Post, “We don’t kick the sh*t out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the sh*t out of them.”

The best known example of this is the case of Maher Arar. Arar, a Canadian citizen, was deported to Syria from JFK airport. In Syria he was beaten with electrical cables for two weeks, and then imprisoned in an underground cell for the better part of a year. Arar is probably innocent of any connection to terrorism.

As it stands now, “extraordinary rendition” is a clear violation of international law—specifically, the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Degrading and Inhuman Treatment. U.S. law is less clear. We signed and ratified the Convention Against Torture, but we ratified it with some reservations. They might create a loophole that allows us to send a prisoner to Egypt or Syria or Jordan if we get “assurances” that they will not torture a prisoner—even if these assurances are false and we know they are false.

Last month Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Congressman, introduced a bill that would clearly outlaw extraordinary rendition. But Markey only has 22 cosponsors, and now the House leadership is trying to legalize torture outsourcing—and hide it in the bill implementing the 9/11 Commission Report.

These are excerpts from a press release one of Markey’s staffers just emailed me:
The provision Rep. Markey referred to is contained in Section 3032 and 3033 of H.R. 10, the “9/11 Recommendations Implementation Act of 2004,” introduced by House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL). The provision would require the Secretary of Homeland Security to issue new regulations to exclude from the protection of the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, any suspected terrorist - thereby allowing them to be deported or transferred to a country that may engage in torture. The provision would put the burden of proof on the person being deported or rendered to establish “by clear and convincing evidence that he or she would be tortured,” would bar the courts from having jurisdiction to review the Secretary’s regulations, and would free the Secretary to deport or remove terrorist suspects to any country in the world at will - even countries other than the person’s home country or the country in which they were born. The provision would also apply retroactively.

This provision was not part of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, and the Commission actually called upon the U.S. to “offer an example of moral leadership in the world, committed to treat people humanely, abide by the rule of law, and be generous and caring to our neighbors.” The Commission noted that “The United States should engage its friends to develop a common coalition approach to the detention and humane treatment of captured terrorists. New principles might draw upon Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions on the law of armed conflict. That article was specifically designed for those cases in which the usual laws of war did not apply. Its minimum standards are generally accepted throughout the world as customary international law.” These standards prohibit the use of torture or other cruel or degrading treatment….

Rep. Markey said, “When the Republicans 9/11 bill is considered in the House, I intend to offer an amendment to strike the torture outsourcing provisions from the Republican bill and replace it with restrictions restoring international law as provided in my bill. It is absolutely disgraceful that the Republican Leadership has decided to load up the 9/11 Commission bill with legislative provisions that would legitimize torture, particularly when the Commission itself called for the U.S to move in exactly the opposite direction.”
There is no possible way for a suspect being detained in secret to prove by “clear and convincing evidence” that he will be tortured if he is deported—especially when he may be deported to a country where has never been, and when the officials who want to deport him serve as judge, jury and executioner, and when there is never any judicial review. This bill will make what happened to Maher Arar perfectly legal, and guarantee that it will happen again.

Markey’s staffer wrote to me that “this bill could be on the House floor as early as next week.”

To everyone: Please, please, please write to your Representative and tell him (or her) to vote against the bill and/or for Markey’s amendment.
Let’s talk about torture. As any professional can tell you, as an intelligence-gathering mechanism, it’s worse than useless.

Consider that commonly invoked scenario where terrorists have planted a nuclear device in a city, scanning for radiation is mysteriously not an option, and you have some prisoners in custody who may or may not know the location of the device. Those who like the idea of torture always ask whether it wouldn’t be justified to torture those prisoners for information.

The practical answer is: no, it wouldn’t. Someone who’s being tortured will tell you anything, and they’ll suddenly develop a real talent for figuring out what exactly what you want to hear, and giving it to you in detail. Using intelligence obtained under torture can actually lower your chances of finding that hypothetical device, because all your guys will be out there trying to track down fictional leads invented by your prisoners, instead of working on finding the device via conventional investigative methods.

Remember Abu Ghraib, and the reports that some of the humiliations visited upon the prisoners there are in fact techniques taught to US and UK special forces? (That’s “taught” as in “direct hands-on experience, giving and receiving.”) It’s supposed to prepare them to withstand such treatment if they’re captured.

What I said at the time was that I happened to know that those reports were correct. I also said I wasn’t going to explain how I knew it. That’s still my position.

What I will say is that there’s an aspect of that training that the media didn’t fully understand. As my source explained it, the exercise is a double-blind setup. Having the designated prisoners learn to resist severe interrogation methods is only half of what’s going on. The other half is that the designated interrogators are told in advance that the prisoners have been given certain pieces of target information. Their task is to elicit that information during interrogation.

The trick is that the designated prisoners haven’t been given that info. However, once the exercise is in progress—I gather it’s unpleasantly realistic—they make it up anyway. These are tough guys. They know they’re supposed to be resisting, but they break anyway, because that’s how torture works; and when they do, they start talking.

At the end of the day, the interrogators will have accumulated a mass of realistic-sounding intelligence on the subjects they were told to investigate. At that point they get to find out that the prisoners had no such information, and that none of the intelligence they’ve gathered is valid.

That is, the designated prisoners are learning what torture can do. The designated interrogators are learning what it can’t do, which is elicit reliable information.

There are only two real uses for torture, revenge and intimidation; and in my opinion, revenge can’t be the intended use. It doesn’t work at a distance. Privately torturing someone who’s been held in the United States, and whom you think may have some kind of ties with the other side, is not going to have any deterrent effect on guys in the field in Iraq. They may well take it as permission to torture our guys, but they will not be deterred.

That leaves intimidation. Who’s supposed to be intimidated by this—the guys who’re already in our hands? That’s pointless. They’re plenty intimidated already, as well they should be; and if they aren’t, further threats aren’t likely to move them.

Who remains to be intimidated? Everyone else. The rest of us.

Before this administration, you knew that even if you were completely and utterly framed, even if you had every dirty trick in the book thrown at you, there was a theoretical limit to what they might do to you. You could be slandered, imprisoned, ruined, the works; but you’d still be sort of a human being, and there’d be a chance (however slight) that someone would figure out what had happened to you, and that eventually you might be freed.

That was then, this is now. Bush & Co. have already been holding prisoners incommunicado, without legal counsel, without charges being filed, without anything. Don’t kid yourself that this is all being done to hardened terrorists. So far, the administration’s conviction rate on prosecutions for terrorism has been a big fat zero, even when the prosecution’s had every advantage it could grab; and those are the cases they felt confident enough to take to trial. It’s clear that many of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib were picked up almost at random. What evidence we can glean says the same about Guantanamo. Bush & Co. have gone after their supposed terrorists with all the restraint of kids hunting for Easter eggs.

They aren’t careful, and you aren’t safe. You’re just unprosecuted. Same goes for everyone you care about, and everyone who’s dear to everyone you care about.

That’s where we stand now. Extraordinary rendition takes the last limitations off what can be done to you.

In American English, “being sold down the river” is still one of our favorite ways to say we feel betrayed. The phrase goes back to slavery days. Slaves in the Upper South might be worked hard and treated badly, but on the big cash-crop plantations of the Deep South, they simply died. Since it was more cost-efficient to replace them than to change the way the plantations were run, the Upper South exported a steady stream of slaves to that market.

This meant that no matter who owned them, or how well they behaved, slaves always lived with the possibility that they or their loved ones could go that route. If their owner needed to cash out, or if they disagreed in any way, or if their growing children just got big enough that they were expensive to feed but profitable to sell, they could go down the river. It had to have colored their every interaction with their white owners: You just watch yourself, because there’s no limit on what might happen to you.

I don’t know about you, but extraordinary rendition intimidates me.

By the way, I can think of one other use for extraordinary rendition. If you’ve kept somebody locked up for a long time on grounds that turn out to be groundless, it’ll be embarrassing to go on keeping them, and even more embarrassing to let them go. But if you ship them off to some hellhole in Syria and they never come back, they cease to be a problem. The same goes for prisoners who are in bad shape, maybe bad enough to die. If they die in Syria, it’s not your fault, and nobody’s going to look real hard at the corpse.

Write your representative.

Open thread 29
Posted by Teresa at 12:24 AM *

My name is George Nathaniel Curzon / I am a most superior person …

September 29, 2004
Look quick, before it goes away
Posted by Teresa at 10:20 AM *

Someone is offering to sell his unfinished manuscript on eBay, and has set a starting price of $150,000. The author figures that if someone like John Grisham or J. K. Rowling were to buy it and put their name on it, everyone would buy a copy anyway, so it’s worth the price.

What follows is his take on it. I’m afraid the paragraphing is mine:
I am a first time writer and have two more chapters to go, to complete my story. It’s fiction, a coming of age story that would be most enjoyed by adults. It’s a fascinating read that I had a couple of english teachers read themselves, telling me that they could not put my book down after the first chapter. It’s filled with suspense, along with fear and anxiety.

The story focuses on three 10 year old children, two girls and one boy. The story also focuses in on one of the father’s dealing with nightmares, which are somehow linked to his childhood, past. Everything comes to an end with a absolution and a twist, making sense in a reality way. I had a english teacher tell me that this story would be a great one to watch, in a movie format.

So what is this all about? Well here is the deal. I am putting my manuscript up for auction only to real popular writers and authors, which names are already known. Of course if just the ordinary joe wants to buy my script well, that’s ok too. My manuscript may seem expensive to ordinary people like me, but to a real author like John Grisham>The Client, The Firm, and A Time to Kill well if he bought my manuscript for 150,000 dollars and put his own title on it and copyrighted it, putting his name on the book as the writer, how much do you think he would profit from it? Well over 150,000 dollars I assure you, seeing that most of his books go right to the theaters immediately.

So that is why I am selling my manuscript mostly to well known authors and whether Oprah Winfrey reads this or Stephen King or the ever so popular J.K. Rawlings, if they bought my book for my price and put there name on it as the author, everyone will pick up the book and read it, because these authors have already earned a reputation.

Now I have actual pictures of my manuscript and a legit publshing Co. that will put my book in print for 695.00 dollars. The book will then be advertise to over 25,000 different book stores through the internet only. That sounds great right? But having a new author’s name on my book, … how many people will actually buy it? 3 mabe 100 mabe and if I’m lucky, a 1000. However I heard John Grisham self published his first book and the movie Legally Blonde, was also a self published book. So it also may sky rocket and people may buy over a million of my books, but it’s a long shot and I don’t want to take the route for now.

I also know this is a long shot, but I am throwing out there anyway, to any well known writer that can profit from this! For J.K. Rawlings or Stephen King to buy my manuscript and put there name on it, they can’t lose and neither can I. 150,000 dollars can sure help my family get me out of this apartment we have been living in for 9 years and finally get a house for my three children. A well known author can put my book in print and make over 2 million dollars with ease! We both win this way!

I have pictures and let me assure you that my manuscript is not yet copyrighted or even titled yet. Let me also assure you that this is a story that is fully typed and formatted for print and will probably add up to 450 pages, or so. I also had my family and a couple of english professors read my manuscript, all of them giving me thumbs up on the fascinating thought processing fiction, I put into this. I literally wrote over a 1000 pages and thrown it away, because I want to get this one story, right.

I have now spent about one year on this manuscript and have about two more chapters to go to complete, for publication. This is a serious book, one to be reconcile with. It’s emotional and heartfelt story that entertains from beginning, to end. If interested in buying my manuscript and of course if you are, you probably want to read it first, I will give you my address so you can come over and read it for yourself, or I can come to you with the manuscript, so you can read it. I will never give my writing out over an email address. That will only put me in danger of someone stealing my story and putting there name on it. I will do everything possible to come to you if it’s easier, so you can read my story. I will give you my email address so you can tell me if you are interested. Then we can set up a time to meet.

Warner brothers Co. and Paramount Pictures payed John Grisham 600,000 dollars for the rights to his writing of The Firm, so they could make a movie out of it. Paramount pictures if you are reading this, I believe my story is strong and willful just like all of John Grisham’s films. You can have my script for 150,000 dollars, that’s a bargain for your company. Serious inquires only please! Pictures are shown at the bottom and the last pic is an actual paragraph written by me, on chapter 6. So if you can excuse me, I have a story now to finish! Good day and good bidding!
Six photos accompany the offer. One of them is a closeup of the author’s own handwritten annotation at the top of a letter he has received. It says:
This is a legit company that has contacted me, asking me to let them put my book in print for a fee of $698.00. I don’t want to go this route. This would be my last option.
The next photo shows the letter itself:
Become a Published Author in 2004
Let this be the fall that AuthorHouse turns your manuscript into a professional grade, bookstore-quality paperback book and makes it available through the world’s largest brick and mortar booksellers and online retailers.

Publish with AuthorHouse for $698 and get all these benefits!

When you publish with AuthorHouse, you get all the benefits of publishing, with the leading provider of publishing and marketing services for authors. Our Standard Paperback Publishing Package includes:

Text formatting Full-color cover design
On-demand printing of your bookstore-quality paperback
ISBN number and bar code, which all books need to be sold by booksellers
In addition, your book is available for order through more than 25,000 retail outlets worldwide, on the Internet via,,, and through the AuthorHouse online store. Even if you still need to put the finishing touches on your manuscript and might not be able to send it right now, call me, toll free, at 888.519.5121 ext. 338 or email me at and I’ll guide you through everything that you need to know. Please mention Promo Code LP40902.


[Craig?] Patton
[something] Representative
As I’ve said before, I don’t have anything against self-publishing. I’ve done it myself. I’m doing it right now. What I do mind are outfits that make their money by bunco-steering naive writers into vanity publishing deals that can only leave them sadder and poorer.

Whatever you think of his writing, the fact is that this guy has done a lot of honest work. Does he really think his book is publishable, and that with Grisham’s or Rowling’s name on it, it would easily be worth $150,000? Never doubt that he believes it. Every author with a book in the slushpile thinks their work is publishable. They literally can’t tell that it isn’t. If they could, they’d have written different books.

What does he want? Nothing out of the ordinary. For nine years he’s been living in an apartment with his three children, and he’d like to be able to give them a house to live in. That’s a Jimmy Stewart/Normal Rockwell kind of aspiration. And what has he gotten? A letter from AuthorHouse, formerly 1stbooks, offering to publish his book for only $700. You know the man hasn’t got it to spare.

The AuthorHouse letter is a small masterpiece of mendacity. Yes, they can physically turn his manuscript into a professional-grade trade paperback. No, they won’t turn it into a professional-grade book.

When they say they’ll make his book “available through the world’s largest brick and mortar booksellers and online retailers,” by which he thinks they mean his book will be stocked and shelved by all those stores, they actually mean that if someone special-orders his book through a retail bookstore, Ingram will send them a copy.

See the list of services they offer? Notice that editing and proofreading aren’t on it. If this guy takes their bait, his book will go out just as he wrote it. I’ll bet they’ll make him write his own cover copy, too.

The other thing missing from this scenario is any opportunity for this author to discover that AuthorHouse is currently the subject of a class action lawsuit brought by their dissatisfied authors. I believe the plaintiffs are charging misrepresentation and non-delivery.

Bottom line: How typical is this author? Absolutely typical, with two exceptions. One is that he’s trying to sell his manuscript on eBay. That’s a creative move.

The other reason he’s exceptional is that he’s given some serious thought to AuthorHouse’s offer, and realized that since nobody knows who he is, he’s not likely to sell more than a handful of copies. Give the man major credit for that one. I’ve seen a lot of writers with heavy-duty degrees and professional credentials who couldn’t spot that problem on their own, and stuck their fingers in their ears and chanted “na na na na na na na na na na” when someone pointed out to them.

September 28, 2004
The Earth Seen from the Sky
Posted by Teresa at 12:01 AM *

The La Terre Vue de Ciel website is a collection of extraordinary aerial photographs, most of them taken at relatively close range. I picked up the link from Rahoi, who thinks this picture is the greatest photo of all time. My favorite from the collection is this perfect alluvial fan. Also, this river island. And this small boat in a stand of drowned trees.

The pictures aren’t labeled, but they’re readable. You stare for a while at what looks like an abstract pattern, then suddenly say “Oh, those are runoff channels in loose vocanic ash. That’s a big sandbar. Those bowls are lined up there in place of their owners, awaiting their turn at the well. How poor do you have to be to mark those painstakingly divided fields in land that’s almost bare rock? Those guys are drying something underneath the palm trees. Okay, they’ve laid out about a zillion carpets on the ground; wonder why?

With some, you have to look closely. And if anyone will tell me what this one is all about, I’ll be much obliged.

I’ll admit I’ve been stashing some away in memory as useful bits for genre fantasy: a fortified city in a wasteland. Ruins in the desert. The distribution of an old village. A rigorously geometrical mud-brick city.

All this and more. Check it out.

September 27, 2004
More linguistic markers
Posted by Teresa at 10:00 AM * 82 comments

We have some useful additions to the list of linguistic markers that are characteristic of publishing scams:

6. Actively looking for new authors.

This is a mating signal used by subsidy publishers. Actual meaning: Actively looking for new suckers. It goes without saying that real agents and publishers are looking for new authors, so they don’t say it. The reverse holds true: people who do say it aren’t real agents and publishers. Credit for this one goes to Charlie Petit.

7. We respect your unique artistic vision.

Mris added this hopes-and-dreams variation, saying
I have never once met a serious writer who told me about his/her unique artistic vision. Maybe they’re out there, but I’ve never heard it. But I’ve heard lots of non-writers, including some who sounded scammy, talking about respecting a writer’s “unique artistic vision.” Blerg.
I’ve seen it used by vanity/subsidy operations. I took it to mean “We never reject anything;” or, alternately, “Don’t expect us to do any editing, bucko.”

8. We aren’t a vanity press—we do POD publishing.

This is another one of Charlie Petit’s contributions. POD is a printing technology, not a publishing model. There are perfectly respectable publishing companies that use POD technology—Wildside Press being the obvious example—and quite a few vanity and subsidy publishers who use it as well. A company that tells you that since they’re POD, they can’t be a vanity publisher, is deliberately muddying the water. I recommend CP’s comments on the subject.

9. Here are some famous authors who have self-published their work…

Never get your advice about self-publishing from a source that feeds you a long list of famous authors who were supposedly self-published. Medium-length lists are bad too. They’re all variants of the same original list, and are a marker for bad advice about self-publishing.

Where did this original list come from? This is predictable: it was compiled by a guy who markets a book about what a swell thing it is to self-publish your work.

I have a prime example of it here, from The Self-Publishing Hall of Fame:
You could stock a superb college library or an incredible bookstore just from the books written by the some of the authors who have chosen to self-publish: Margaret Atwood, L. Frank Baum, William Blake, Ken Blanchard, Robert Bly, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lord Byron, Willa Cather, Pat Conroy, Stephen Crane, e.e. cummings, W.E.B. DuBois, Alexander Dumas, T.S. Eliot, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Benjamin Franklin, Zane Grey, Thomas Hardy, E. Lynn Harris, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, Robinson Jeffers, Spencer Johnson, Stephen King, Rudyard Kipling, Louis L’Amour, D.H. Lawrence, Rod McKuen, Marlo Morgan, John Muir, Anais Nin, Thomas Paine, Tom Peters, Edgar Allen Poe, Alexander Pope, Beatrix Potter, Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, Irma Rombauer, Carl Sandburg, Robert Service, George Bernard Shaw, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Upton Sinclair, Gertrude Stein, William Strunk, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoi, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Virginia Woolf.
Such nonsense. I could bore you silly going over that list in bibliographic detail, as well as the longer, annotated list you can find further down on the same page. Here’s the summary version, to give you some idea of the quality of the information:

i. It’s just plain unreliable. For instance, Ernest Hemingway didn’t pay to have his first book published. Three Stories & Ten Poems was published by Contact Editions—not a terribly commercial outfit, but it was a legitimate small press.

ii. The list goes to absurd lengths to include all possible cases of technical self-publication. William Blake, Benjamin Franklin, Galileo Galilei, Thomas Paine, Alexander Pope, and Mary Randolph don’t belong in the same category as someone whose much-rejected first novel has been published by iUniverse.* The second, longer list is further padded by the inclusion of asst’d conventional publishers: Peter Pauper Press, Little Blue Books, Zagat Survey, Prima, Hoover’s Inc., Princeton Review, O’Reilly & Associates, Gale Research, Lonely Planet, Top Shelf, Image Comics, and the Old Farmer’s Almanac (1792); also Kelly Link and Gavin Grant’s Small Beer Press, and Gavin and Kelly’s magazine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet.

(I’m trying to withstand the lure of the particular. It’s hard.)

iii. It lists a slew of conventionally published bestsellers which happen to have had a self-published first edition. Those are hardly triumphs of self-publication. It also lists a great many famous authors who at one point or another had a book privately printed. That’s misleading. If you’ve heard of Louis L’Amour, it’s not for his 1939 poetry collection, Smoke from This Altar. If you’ve heard of John Grisham, it’s not because you bought one of the copies of his first novel that he sold out of the trunk of his car.

iv. I think it’s funny that the thing lists Mark Twain and Stephen King. Bad move. Those two are genuinely instructive cases. Mark Twain was already the most popular writer in America when he got tired of dealing with his publishers and decided to go into the business for himself. He published his own works, and he published the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, which turned out to be one of the first great American bestsellers, and he managed to go broke anyway. Stephen King was already a stupendously successful author when he decided to experimentally publish The Plant online. He found that though people would read it, getting them to pay for it was something else again. He discontinued the experiment and went on being a stupendously successful, conventionally published author.

You’re getting the picture? This is the literary equivalent of those “make money fast” come-ons that list all the surname-deprived people who’ve made pots of money through their scheme. Self-publishing, the royal road to riches and fame!

The author list isn’t so much an indication of a specific scam as it is a warning that you’re in the land of overhyped and underinformed self-publishing advice. Think of it as a road sign on the information highway that says CLUELESSNESS IN PROGRESS HERE.

Addenda: Scrivener’s Error turns out to have demolished the same list of authors. Have a look.

19 November 2004: Jenna Glatzer of the Absolute Write message board has identified another characteristic trope:
[A]ll the “think outside the box” and “elitism” and “outsiders” stuff … is it just me, or have the regulars noticed that every fringe and scam company uses this wording when defending themselves?
She then addresses a clueless publishing wanna-be:
What you are doing is NOT new and nowhere near as revolutionary as you think. It’s been tried before many times, and the reason it still seems revolutionary is that it’s never worked.
Spot on.

September 25, 2004
More on the Lovecraftian far right
Posted by Teresa at 11:27 AM *

Avram Grumer has pointed out that Charlie Stross’ novelette A Colder War is available in its entirety online. It’s the Oliver North/Guns for Hostages scandal, seen from the viewpoint of a CIA bureaucrat, in a universe in which the entire Cthulhu Mythos is real.

September 24, 2004
Miskatonic announcements
Posted by Teresa at 07:15 PM *

Shrillblog, written by contributors identified only as Aleecia, Faisal, Christopher, brad, and andrew, is normally devoted to tracking former moderates as, one by one, they crack and start ranting about the iniquities of Bush and his administration.

Recently, however, this “brad” fellow (ho yus we are deceeved i think not) went off his head and committed something fairly perfect:

Professor THIDWICK will not meet his class in “Modern American Politics” this morning, or indeed any morning. In partial explanation we offer this note, written by him in the pre-dawn hours:

I begged the Dean not to make me teach “Modern American Politics” this semester. I knew that in order to teach it properly I would have to delve into the secrets of the Bush administration. I knew that I would learn THINGS THAT HUMANS (as we say in these post-sexist times) ARE NOT MEANT TO KNOW. I feared that this would drive me insane—into shrill unholy madness. And so it has.

But up until now I have still able to teach my course. I am proud of that. Far gone in shrill unholy madness as a result of the incompetence, mendacity, malevolence, and disconnection from reality that I am, I could still communicate with my students in English and. Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Krugman R’lyeh wagn’nagl fhtagn! Aiiiiiii!!!

Apologies. The fits come and go. They come more quickly now. By proper effort of will I can sometimes. Ph’nglui mglw’nafh. Stop them. There. But I fear that tonight I have taken another step, and will no longer be able to intelligibly communicate with humanity. I have learned more. So shrill as to be inaudible to human hearing. But the dogs will still hear me, for a while at least.

While preparing tomorrow’s lecture I came across this: a letter from Michael Scheuer, the head of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit from 1996-1999:
Michael Scheuer: In the CIA’s core, U.S.-based Bin Laden operations unit today there are fewer Directorate of Operations officers with substantive expertise on al-Qaeda than there were on 11 September 2001. There has been no systematic effort to groom al-Qaeda expertise among Directorate of Operations officers since 11 September. Today, the unit is greatly understaffed because of a “hiring freeze,” and the rotation of large numbers of officers in and out of the unit every 60-to-90 days—a process in which experienced officers do less substantive work and become trainers for officers who leave before they are qualified to support the mission. The excellent management team now running operations against al-Qaeda has made repeated, detailed, and on-paper pleas for more officers to work against the al-Qaeda—and have done so for years, not weeks or months—but have been ignored.
Fewer officers with substantive expertise on al-Qaeda than on September 11. Aaaiii! Nyarlathotep! Aaaiii! No systematic effort to groom al-Qaeda expertise since 11 September. Aaaiii! I can see them approach! Yog-Sothoth! Paul Wolfowitz! Aaaiii! The al-Qaeda unit understaffed because of a “hiring freeze,” Aaaiii! They are here! All of them! Shrub-Crawfordath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young! Donald Rumsfeld! Aaaiii! Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Krugman R’lyeh wagn’nagl fhtagn! Aiiiiiii!!! Rotation of large numbers of officers in and out of the unit every 60-to-90 days. The trans-dimensional door! The Opener of the Gate! Richard Cheney! Aaaiii! Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Krugman R’lyeh wagn’nagl fhtagn! Aiiiiiii!!! The Keymaster! Gozer! The Lesser Shoggoths! Experienced officers do less substantive work and become trainers for officers who leave before they are qualified to support the mission. The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man! Drowned R’lyeh surfaces! Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Krugman R’lyeh wagn’nagl fhtagn! Aiiiiiii!!! Sigourney Weaver! He Who Must Not Be Named! Richard Perle! The Young of Shrub-Crawfordath! Why do they hate America so? Rand Beers tried to warn us! Condi Rice! Eldest of All the Shrill, save us!!
Professor THIDWICK’s disability leave is expected to be of indefinite duration.
Like so many of us, I’m a fan of H. P. Lovecraft’s work; but while I appreciate HPL’s finely calibrated descents into gibbering horror, his usual occasions for this—
foreigners a tiny breach in natural law
the narrator’s relatives
words with too many consonants
all of the above
—have never struck me with the same kind of reason-oversetting terror they held for H. P. Lovecraft.

So thank you, brad. Now I finally know how that feels.

September 20, 2004
A brief note on linguistic markers
Posted by Teresa at 11:45 AM * 293 comments

This is a segment of a larger piece, the working title of which has been “Ambient Misinformation about Publishing and Writing, and the Cultivation of the Reader Mind: A Rant I Didn’t Get to Deliver at Noreascon.” It has occurred to me that I could write about this one for a very long time without exhausting the subject.

Certain words and phrases are like little genetic markers for scammers. Here’s a non-exhaustive list, non-exhaustively explained:

1. “Giving new writers a chance.” Also: “Helping new writers.”

While agents and publishers frequently do just this thing, they don’t talk about it in those terms. For them, it’s always a specific new book, a specific new author. Making judgements about which book and which writer they’re going to work with is the heart of their job. When you hear someone talking in an indiscriminately general fashion about giving a chance to new writers, there’s something wrong.

Same goes for “helping new writers.” There might be legitimate projects aimed at helping new writers as a class, but the business they’re in isn’t agenting or publishing.

2. “Traditional publishing.”

This term came in with PublishAmerica. It’s their little way of suggesting that they’re a conventional publishing house, which they aren’t. Publishing houses refer to what they do as “publishing.”

3. “Professionally edited manuscript.” Also, “No publisher will look twice at a manuscript that hasn’t been professionally edited.” Also, any of the numerous variations thereon.

The part about publishers automatically rejecting manuscripts that haven’t been professionally edited is a flat-out lie. Anyone who tells you that is either a scammer, a complete ignoramus, or a naif who’s been keeping bad company.

Publishing houses care about the text. They don’t care whether you paid someone else to go over it.

This lie has been spread by scam agents who bunco-steer their clients into the hands of unscrupulous (and often unskilled) “book doctors,” most of whom do a perfunctory surface-level edit, charge the client dearly for it, and pay a kickback to the agent. The client and manuscript are then sent back to the agent, ready for the next round of fleecing.

There are some genuine freelance professional editors out there. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I don’t know any who take referrals from agents.

4. The terrible odds that you’ll get published.

Hearing about this from someone who supposedly works in publishing should make you wary. People who really work in publishing know that the chances of any single manuscript’s being published, expressed as the proportion it represents of the total slush pile, is a completely meaningless figure. The majority of the manuscripts in the slush pile have zero chance of getting published. The rest have a greater-than-zero chance. The good ones have a very good chance indeed.

This and other dubious “facts” about the unlikelihood of your being published are spread by vanity/subsidy/misc. scammy operations. They want you to despair of your own chances of getting published, and go with them instead.

The other source of this dubious wisdom is writers who’ve repeatedly had their submissions rejected. While they are speaking from experience, you have to remember that their experience consists of submitting stories and books that nobody wants to buy. Your own manuscript might not share that fate. The only way you can find out is by submitting it and seeing what happens.

5. Hopes and dreams.

One seldom hears real agents, editors, or publishers talk about the author’s hopes and dreams. What they talk about are the author’s books.

Scammers are forever going on about hopes and dreams because (a.) all aspiring writers have them; (b.) the writer will take it to mean the scammer truly understands them (as opposed to understanding that this is a common characteristic of aspiring writers); and (c.) it spares the scammers having to say anything specific about manuscript submissions they haven’t actually read.

September 18, 2004
Posted by Teresa at 08:00 AM * 67 comments

The heavy weather just arrived. It had been predicted for c. 0600, but I woke up to nothing more than damp sidewalks and a gray sky.

A couple of minutes ago, we had some preliminary rolls of thunder, nothing much. Then lightning flashed overhead. Then it did it again.

Now the rain’s coming down in sheets, and we’re getting three and four lightning flashes in a row. It occurs to me that our new home is just downhill from one of the highest points in Brooklyn.

How is it where you are?

Note: Mike Fitzgerald, all’s well here as of 8:40. We’re getting a bit of runoff from the front area and rather more runoff from the garden, but the drains are handling it, and the basement is dry.

Update, 10:00: I spoke too soon. Shortly after I posted the foregoing, our television let out several beeps and advised us that we were now under a flash flood alert. Then the rain really came down.

That was impressive.

I went downstairs. In the basement, we had water coming in at the foot of the stairs to the back yard—not coming down the stairs, but leaking down from the top of the doorway. Naturally, as soon as it hit the floor it headed straight for the nearest stack of book boxes.

Buckets. Towels.

While Patrick moved the boxes, I put on a rain poncho and headed for the back porch, where standing water was getting deeper at an alarming rate.

Here’s the setup: the area directly adjacent to the back of the house is paved, and is a couple of feet lower than the rest of the yard. Then there’s a retaining wall broken by two sets of steps, a paved walk that goes around the yard a couple of feet in from the fence line, and a second and higher retaining wall six or seven feet from the back fence. Under normal rainfall conditions, runoff comes down the steps from the two ends of the walkways, and vanishes down a drain set into one side of the paved area.

Unfortunately, leaves and other bits of yard waste kept blocking the drain. I first tried using a push-broom to clear them, which didn’t really work, then scooped them out by hand, which sort of worked only I had to keep doing it over and over again, and the water was continuing to accumulate. So then I had Patrick hand me down my restaurant-gauge pasta strainer from the kitchen, cleared the leaves one more time, and slapped the strainer mouth-down on top of the drain. It worked. I was relieved.

The weather’s clearing now. Relatively speaking.

September 16, 2004
Feeling safer yet?
Posted by Teresa at 12:00 PM * 77 comments

The latest issue of Crypto-Gram (subscribe/archives), Bruce Schneier’s monthly newsletter about security issues, discusses the U.S. government’s new Trusted Traveler program:

If you fly out of Logan Airport and don’t want to take off your shoes for the security screeners and get your bags opened up, pay attention. The U.S. government is testing its “Trusted Traveler” program, and Logan is the fourth test airport. Currently only American Airlines frequent fliers are eligible, but if all goes well the program will be opened up to more people and more airports.

Participants provide their name, address, phone number, and birth date, a set of fingerprints, and a retinal scan. That information is matched against law enforcement and intelligence databases. If the applicant is not on any terrorist watch list, and is otherwise an upstanding citizen, he gets a card that allows him access to a special security lane. The lane doesn’t bypass the metal detector or X-ray machine for carry-on bags, but avoids more intensive secondary screening unless there’s an alarm of some kind.

Unfortunately, this program won’t make us more secure. Some terrorists will be able to get Trusted Traveler cards, and they’ll know in advance that they’ll be subjected to less-stringent security.
True. If we could spot terrorists in advance, we wouldn’t be going through these gyrations in the first place. And even if the Trusted Traveler program guaranteed absolute identification of its cardholders—which I sincerely doubt—if the person in question hasn’t previously been identified as a terrorist, all it can do is tell you afterward who the guy was who took down the plane. Besides, Trusted Traveler cards can only be as secure as the other ID the bearer uses to prove that he or she is the cardholder. Anyone can buy a forged driver’s license or passport. Any proof of identification that doesn’t involve permanent visible body mods can be hacked.
Since 9/11, airport security has been subjecting people to special screening: sometimes randomly, and sometimes based on profile criteria as analyzed by computer. For example, people who buy one-way tickets, or pay with cash, are more likely to be flagged for this extra screening.

Sometimes the results are bizarre. Screeners have searched children and people in wheelchairs. In 2002, Al Gore was randomly stopped and searched twice in one week. And just last month, Senator Ted Kennedy was flagged—and denied boarding—because the computer decided he was on some “no fly” list.

Why waste precious time making Grandma Lillie from Worchester empty her purse, when you can search the carry-on items of Anwar, a twenty-six-year-old who arrived last month from Egypt and is traveling without luggage?

The reason is security. Imagine you’re a terrorist plotter with half a dozen potential terrorists at your disposal. They all apply for a card, and three get one. Guess which three are going on the mission? And they’ll buy round-trip tickets with credit cards, and have a “normal” amount of luggage with them.

What the Trusted Traveler program does is create two different access paths into the airport: high security and low security. The intent is that only good guys will take the low-security path, and the bad guys will be forced to take the high-security path, but it rarely works out that way. You have to assume that the bad guys will find a way to take the low-security path.

The Trusted Traveler program is based on the dangerous myth that terrorists match a particular profile, and that we can somehow pick terrorists out of a crowd if we only can identify everyone. That’s simply not true. Most of the 9/11 terrorists were unknown, and not on any watch list. Timothy McVeigh was an upstanding U.S. citizen before he blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building. Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel are normal, nondescript people. Intelligence reports indicate that al Qaeda is recruiting non-Arab terrorists for U.S. operations. Airport security is best served by intelligent guards watching for suspicious behavior, and not dumb guards blindly following the results of a Trusted Traveler program.
Bruce goes on to point out that frequent fliers and first-class passengers already have access to special lanes that bypass long lines at security checkpoints, and that the computers never seem to flag them for special screening. Thus, he says, “The people who could use the card don’t need one, and infrequent travelers are unlikely to take the trouble—or pay the fee—to get one.” Personally, I’m wondering whether the “Trusted Traveler” program is actually an attempt to salvage the “no fly” lists. They’ve been coming in for a lot of criticism. You may have heard about them when Ted Kennedy raised the issue:
U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy said Thursday [19 August] that he has been repeatedly misidentified on a terrorism watch list when he tried to board airliners between Washington and Boston.

The well-known Massachusetts Democrat was stopped five times as he tried to board US Airways shuttles because a name similar to his appeared on a list or his name popped up for additional screening.

“If they have that kind of difficulty with a member of Congress, how in the world are average Americans, who are getting caught up in this thing, how are they going to be treated fairly and not have their rights abused?” Kennedy asked Homeland Security undersecretary Asa Hutchinson. …

Kennedy said he was stopped at airports in Washington and Boston three times in March. Airline agents told him he would not be sold a ticket because his name was on a list.

When he asked the agent why, he was told: “We can’t tell you.”
“Trusted Traveler” cards would be a cosmetic non-fix for a seriously broken security system. Here’s the ACLU’s page about no-fly lists. Bruce Schneier’s been on this one too:
Imagine a list of suspected terrorists so dangerous that we can’t ever let them fly, yet so innocent that we can’t arrest them—even under the draconian provisions of the Patriot Act.

This is the federal government’s “no-fly” list. First circulated in the weeks after 9/11 as a counterterrorism tool, its details are shrouded in secrecy. But because the list is filled with inaccuracies and ambiguities, thousands of innocent, law-abiding Americans have been subjected to lengthy interrogations and invasive searches every time they fly, and sometimes forbidden to board airplanes.

It also has been a complete failure, and has not been responsible for a single terrorist arrest anywhere. Instead, the list has snared Asif Iqbal, a Rochester businessman who shares a name with a suspected terrorist currently in custody in Guantanamo. It’s snared a 71-year-old retired English teacher. A man with a top-secret government clearance. A woman whose name is similar to that of an Australian man 20 years younger. Anyone with the name David Nelson is on the list. And recently it snared Sen. Ted Kennedy, who had the unfortunate luck to share a name with “T Kennedy,” an alias once used by a person someone decided should be on the list.

There is no recourse for those on the list, and their stories quickly take on a Kafkaesque tone. People can be put on the list for any reason; no standards exist. There’s no ability to review any evidence against you, or even confirm that you are actually on the list.

And, for most people, there’s no way to get off the list or to “prove” once and for all that they’re not whoever the list is really looking for. It took Kennedy three weeks to get his name off the list. People without his political pull have spent years futilely trying to clear their names.

There’s something distinctly un-American about a secret government blacklist, with no right of appeal or judicial review. Even worse, there’s evidence that it’s being used as a political harassment tool: environmental activists, peace protesters, and anti-free-trade activists have all found themselves on the list.

But security is always a trade-off, and some might make the reasonable argument that these kinds of civil- liberty abuses are required if we are to successfully fight terrorism in our country. The problem is that the no-fly list doesn’t protect us from terrorism. …

Any watch list where it’s easy to put names on and difficult to take names off will quickly fill with false positives. These false positives eventually overwhelm any real information on the list, and soon the list does no more than flag innocents—which is what we see happening today, and why the list hasn’t resulted in any arrests.

A quick search through an Internet phone book shows 3,400 T Kennedys living in the United States. Adding “T Kennedy” to the no-fly list is irresponsible, especially since it was known to be an alias.
One has to assume that all those other T Kennedys have been getting bumped off flights, too, along with everyone else whose name resembles a name on the list. But now, from the Washington Post via the Contra Costa Times, we have good news and bad news for the victims of no-fly lists. The good news is that travelers have found an easier way to get off the list. The bad news is that their method works at all:
For more than a year and a half, Rep. John Lewis has endured lengthy delays at the ticket counter, intense questioning by airline employees and suspicious glances by fellow passengers. Airport security guards have combed through his luggage as he stood in front of his constituents at the Atlanta airport. An airline employee has paged him on board a flight for further questioning, he said. On at least 35 occasions, the Georgia Democrat said, he was treated like a criminal because his name, like that of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., appeared on a government terrorist watch list.

While Kennedy managed to get security officials to end his airline hassles after three weeks of trying, Lewis had no luck for months. Then he found his own way around the security mess. Lewis added his middle initial to his name when making his airline reservations. The computer system apparently didn’t flag tickets for “Rep. John R. Lewis,” and the hassles suddenly ended.

“The ‘R’ is the only thing that has been saving me,” Lewis said from Atlanta Friday.
That is, we’ve been letting innocent travelers be seriously hassled and inconvenienced, which in some cases will have amounted to denying them the right to travel altogether, by a system so unsophisticated and poorly designed that it can be stymied by changing one letter in your name. It’s about as effective as those plastic owls people put up on their roofs to scare away pigeons.
Hundreds of passengers—possibly thousands—have contacted the Transportation Security Administration complaining that the government’s secret watch lists are unfairly targeting innocent travelers and causing travel headaches. Just last month, more than 250 passengers sought to be removed from the list. But even more disconcerting, some of these travelers and security experts say, is that the system can be easily circumvented by a simple adjustment to one’s name. …

Some passengers who were told that their names matched others on the watch lists said they have been tipped off by airline employees who were embarrassed and apologetic about having to delay them when the passengers were known to the employees. …

The TSA said that last month, 258 passengers filled out forms requesting to be removed from the government’s watch lists. It said it could not say how many to date have made similar requests or actually ended list-related hassles.

Once a passenger submits additional identification such as a birth certificate or passport to the agency, the TSA sends updated information to the airline and a verification letter to the passenger.

The TSA warns, however, that even when a traveler arrives at the airport with the letter, delays may still occur.

Rep. Lewis said that he filled out the form and received a letter from TSA that verifies his identity but that he doesn’t want to use it. “I’m not sure why I would have to go around carrying something like a pass,” said the congressman, who is known for his civil rights record. “It reminds me of South Africa.”
I’ll say this for the airline employees: They may be circumventing a security system, but they’re doing it because they remember what the system was supposed to do.

For some time now, I’ve been collecting stories about stupid security measures. What I find creepiest about these stories is that in most cases, the people enforcing the measures clearly don’t believe that the people they’re harassing are terrorists or potential terrorists, or that the security measures will actually stave off terrorist acts—but they’re enthusiastically enforcing them anyway.

September 15, 2004
Risk assessment
Posted by Teresa at 04:16 PM * 105 comments

It may have been written in 2001, but Hurricane Risk for New Orleans, from the American Radioworks site, is an unpleasantly prescient look at New Orleans’ vulnerability to a major hurricane:

Think about the great cities in this country, and one of them will be New Orleans. On a recent evening, a scientist pulls up in the French Quarter. Joe Suhayda takes a plastic rod out of his trunk and he proceeds to show us what could happen the next time a hurricane hits New Orleans.

“OK, this is tool that I have a range rod,” explains Suyhayda. “It will show us how high the water would be if we were hit with a Category Five Hurricane.”

Which would mean what?

“Twenty feet of water above where we are standing now,” says Suyhayda.


A Category Five Hurricane is the most powerful storm on a scientific scale. Suhayda plants the rod on the sidewalk next to a 200-year-old building that’s all wrought iron balconies and faded brick and wooden shutters. Every click marks another foot that the flood would rise up this building.

I can’t believe you’re still going.

“Yeah, still going,” says Suyhayda.

Until a couple months ago, Suhayda ran a prominent research center at Louisiana State University. They’ve developed the most detailed computer models that anybody’s ever used to predict how hurricanes could affect this region. Studies suggest that there’s roughly a one in six chance that a killer hurricane will strike New Orleans over the next 50 years.

Suhayda is still extending his stick as he describes what he is doing, “It’s well above the second floor, just about to the rooftop.”

It’s hard to comprehend.

“Yes,” agrees Suyahada, “it is really, to think that that much water would occur in this city during a catastrophic storm.”

Do you expect this kind of hurricane—this kind of flooding—will hit New Orleans in our lifetime?

“Well I would say the probability is yes,” says Suyahada. “In terms of past experience, we’ve had three storms that were near misses—that could have done at least something close to this.”

Basically, the part of New Orleans that most Americans—most people around the world—think is New Orleans, would disappear.

Suyhayda agrees, “It would, that’s right.”
The piece doesn’t quite draw conclusions, but it works its way around to some interesting questions.

Addenda: There’s another storm revving up behind Ivan: Tropical Storm Jeanne, currently slamming into Puerto Rico, with wind speeds only a few m.p.h. too slow for it to qualify as Hurricane Jeanne.

Here’s the Times-Picayune’s take on things.

Note: It’s midnight-thirty, and I’m not seeing any recent reports from New Orleans. Anyone out there know what’s happening?

September 10, 2004
Posted by Teresa at 02:36 PM * 182 comments

I’ve been ruminating about a one-liner that’s been floating around the meme pool since lord knows when. You’ve probably heard it a thousand times:

By the time you retire, there’ll be nothing left in the Social Security retirement fund.
It’s untrue, of course; but for those who aren’t aware that it’s untrue, it’s profoundly frightening.

We’re set up to be a cooperative society. We believe that by working together, we can as a people be richer, safer, smarter, and happier. However, this cooperation requires a certain basic level of trust. The belief that you could be left penniless in your old age, after a lifetime of contributing your regular fraction to the public good, creates a huge breach in your sense of trust.

It’s not the kind of idea that turns you into a monster overnight. I’m inclined to believe that the commonest reaction to it is dull, low-level grief: you thought life in America would be better than this. Still, if that’s what you have to look forward to, you’d better get while the getting’s good. You’re going to need that money.

Meanwhile, you find yourself resenting calls on your generosity. True, you’re probably a lot better off than the people you’re being asked to help; but you’re not comparing them to your present self. Lodged in your heart there’s an elderly, needy, cast-off version of you, whispering that when the time comes, nobody’s going to pay to help you. Children stop looking like our hope for tomorrow. Instead, they’re the heartless little bastards who’re going to let you live on dogfood in your SRO until a heat wave finally does you in.

The other thing about believing there’ll be nothing left when you retire is that it makes you far less likely to scream in outrage over the long-term looting of the national treasury. After all, you already know you’re not going to get any of that.

It’s not inevitable. I think we need to say so, early and often.

Open thread 28
Posted by Teresa at 01:43 PM *

I heard this great line at the worldcon. Now if only I could remember it …

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