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August 31, 2006
Posted by Teresa at 11:40 PM *

Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus is one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read. Basically, it reviews the current state of knowledge of pre-Columbian life in the Americas, and makes the argument that those vanished civilizations were far more advanced, populous, and aggressively technological than has generally been believed. As it says in the introduction to an interview with Mann (the body of which is unfortunately available only to subscribers):

For years the standard view of North America before Columbus’s arrival was as a vast, grassy expanse teeming with game and all but empty of people. Those who did live here were nomads who left few marks on the land. South America, too, or at least the Amazon rain forest, was thought of as almost an untouched Eden, now suffering from modern depredations. But a growing number of anthropologists and archaeologists now believe that this picture is almost completely false. According to this school of thought, the Western Hemisphere before Columbus’s arrival was well-populated and dotted with impressive cities and towns—one scholar estimated that it held ninety to 112 million people, more than lived in Europe at the time—and Indians had transformed vast swaths of landscape to meet their agricultural needs. They used fire to create the Midwestern prairie, perfect for herds of buffalo. They also cultivated at least part of the rain forest, living on crops of fruits and nuts. Charles C. Mann in “1491” surveys the contentious debate over what the Americas were like before Columbus arrived—a debate that has important ramifications for how we manage the “wilderness” we still have left, if indeed it really is wilderness, untouched by the hand of man.

I will admit that I’ve always thought there was something funny about the idea of two whole continents inhabited only by drifty, timeless Indian tribes that stayed small, and evidenced very little technological development from millennium to millennium. As far as I know, human populations will pretty infallibly outbreed their local resources, causing them to abandon the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and go over to settled agriculture, animal husbandry, and the invention of gods, beer, and labor-saving devices. So why was the Western Hemisphere full of bitty semi-nomadic tribes living on prime agricultural land?

Charles C. Mann addresses that question, and others I would never have thought to ask. Happily, an earlier version of 1491 was published as an article in The Atlantic Monthly, and is available online:

In May 30, 1539, Hernando de Soto landed his private army near Tampa Bay, in Florida. Soto, as he was called, was a novel figure: half warrior, half venture capitalist. He had grown very rich very young by becoming a market leader in the nascent trade for Indian slaves. The profits had helped to fund Pizarro’s seizure of the Incan empire, which had made Soto wealthier still. Looking quite literally for new worlds to conquer, he persuaded the Spanish Crown to let him loose in North America. He spent one fortune to make another. He came to Florida with 200 horses, 600 soldiers, and 300 pigs.

From today’s perspective, it is difficult to imagine the ethical system that would justify Soto’s actions. For four years his force, looking for gold, wandered through what is now Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas, wrecking almost everything it touched. The inhabitants often fought back vigorously, but they had never before encountered an army with horses and guns. Soto died of fever with his expedition in ruins; along the way his men had managed to rape, torture, enslave, and kill countless Indians. But the worst thing the Spaniards did, some researchers say, was entirely without malice�bring the pigs.

According to Charles Hudson, an anthropologist at the University of Georgia who spent fifteen years reconstructing the path of the expedition, Soto crossed the Mississippi a few miles downstream from the present site of Memphis. It was a nervous passage: the Spaniards were watched by several thousand Indian warriors. Utterly without fear, Soto brushed past the Indian force into what is now eastern Arkansas, through thickly settled land—“very well peopled with large towns,” one of his men later recalled, “two or three of which were to be seen from one town.” Eventually the Spaniards approached a cluster of small cities, each protected by earthen walls, sizeable moats, and deadeye archers. In his usual fashion, Soto brazenly marched in, stole food, and marched out.

After Soto left, no Europeans visited this part of the Mississippi Valley for more than a century. Early in 1682 whites appeared again, this time Frenchmen in canoes. One of them was R�n�-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle. The French passed through the area where Soto had found cities cheek by jowl. It was deserted—La Salle didn’t see an Indian village for 200 miles. About fifty settlements existed in this strip of the Mississippi when Soto showed up, according to Anne Ramenofsky, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico. By La Salle’s time the number had shrunk to perhaps ten, some probably inhabited by recent immigrants. Soto “had a privileged glimpse” of an Indian world, Hudson says. “The window opened and slammed shut. When the French came in and the record opened up again, it was a transformed reality. A civilization crumbled. The question is, how did this happen?”

The question is even more complex than it may seem. Disaster of this magnitude suggests epidemic disease. In the view of Ramenofsky and Patricia Galloway, an anthropologist at the University of Texas, the source of the contagion was very likely not Soto’s army but its ambulatory meat locker: his 300 pigs. Soto’s force itself was too small to be an effective biological weapon. Sicknesses like measles and smallpox would have burned through his 600 soldiers long before they reached the Mississippi. But the same would not have held true for the pigs, which multiplied rapidly and were able to transmit their diseases to wildlife in the surrounding forest. When human beings and domesticated animals live close together, they trade microbes with abandon. Over time mutation spawns new diseases: avian influenza becomes human influenza, bovine rinderpest becomes measles. Unlike Europeans, Indians did not live in close quarters with animals—they domesticated only the dog, the llama, the alpaca, the guinea pig, and, here and there, the turkey and the Muscovy duck. In some ways this is not surprising: the New World had fewer animal candidates for taming than the Old. Moreover, few Indians carry the gene that permits adults to digest lactose, a form of sugar abundant in milk. Non-milk-drinkers, one imagines, would be less likely to work at domesticating milk-giving animals. But this is guesswork. The fact is that what scientists call zoonotic disease was little known in the Americas. Swine alone can disseminate anthrax, brucellosis, leptospirosis, taeniasis, trichinosis, and tuberculosis. Pigs breed exuberantly and can transmit diseases to deer and turkeys. Only a few of Soto’s pigs would have had to wander off to infect the forest.

Indeed, the calamity wrought by Soto apparently extended across the whole Southeast. The Coosa city-states, in western Georgia, and the Caddoan-speaking civilization, centered on the Texas-Arkansas border, disintegrated soon after Soto appeared. The Caddo had had a taste for monumental architecture: public plazas, ceremonial platforms, mausoleums. After Soto’s army left, notes Timothy K. Perttula, an archaeological consultant in Austin, Texas, the Caddo stopped building community centers and began digging community cemeteries. Between Soto’s and La Salle’s visits, Perttula believes, the Caddoan population fell from about 200,000 to about 8,500—a drop of nearly 96 percent. In the eighteenth century the tally shrank further, to 1,400. An equivalent loss today in the population of New York City would reduce it to 56,000—not enough to fill Yankee Stadium. “That’s one reason whites think of Indians as nomadic hunters,” says Russell Thornton, an anthropologist at the University of California at Los Angeles. “Everything else—all the heavily populated urbanized societies—was wiped out.”

The story of the settlement of the Americas isn’t one of pioneers finding themselves in an untouched Eden. They were resettling a post-holocaust landscape.

Read the article. Buy the book. Any one of its subsections is worth the price of admission. This is salted peanuts for the worldbuilding turn of mind.

Tiresome technical issues
Posted by Patrick at 12:08 AM *

We’re aware that individual archive pages for posts with many comments are cutting off long before their end. For instance, Open Thread 69 appears to cut off around message 175, even though there are actually over 440 comments there. Our hosting service has been contacted. Any insights from the rest of you would be welcome as well.

Update, August 31, 7:46 AM: fixed.

August 30, 2006
Further instances of astroturf in blogs
Posted by Teresa at 05:43 PM *

See posts in: Sivacracy,, Pandagon, Blanton’s and Ashton’s, Dr. Peter Rost, Watch Me Sleep, and Deconsumption (twice).

Sivacracy also comments on posts at Newsrack Blog and Making Light.

Two of the well-paid and well-connected firms who are orchestrating professional astroturf comments on weblogs are NetVocates and The Rendon Group. The latter is scarier.

If you want to get some idea of the resources being devoted to falsifying and suppressing legitimate public discourse, consider that paid professionals are being hired to post agenda-pushing comments on midrange blogs.

Baseball stats
Posted by Patrick at 02:58 PM * 33 comments

Fulfilling a promise made to two successive Worldcon business meetings, and in response to widespread complaints that it’s not always known who edited which books, I’ve just now posted a list of recent and forthcoming SF and fantasy titles edited by people named Nielsen Hayden. This is now linked from Making Light’s sidebar (down under “More What”) and also off of our home page that nobody ever reads. We’ll update it as time goes on. If any other SF and fantasy book editors put similar lists on the internets, we’ll be glad to link to theirs from ours.

August 29, 2006
Rumsfeld On Confusion
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 06:03 PM * 124 comments

In unusually explicit terms, Rumsfeld portrayed the administration’s critics as suffering from “moral and intellectual confusion” about what threatens the nation’s security.

I’m not a bit confused.

Donnie, chum, you personally are one of the major threats to our nation’s security.

Two from after the Hugos
Posted by Patrick at 01:57 PM * 29 comments

Thanks to Kathryn Cramer, a couple of shots from a very good night for Tor Books. More here.

Campbell winner John Scalzi (in official Campbell Tiara) and Hugo winners Robert Charles Wilson and David G. Hartwell.

Robert Charles Wilson, Tor publisher Tom Doherty, and Spin editor TNH.

Slicing and dicing the Senate
Posted by Teresa at 11:27 AM *

From the weblog Ascription is an Anathema to any Enthusiasm, which is big on graphical representations of statistical data, comes Slicing and Dicing the Senate (via). It displays and explains a series of charts from, titled The Current U.S. Senate: Optimal Classification Estimates of Ideal Points and Cutting Lines for the Last 50 votes.

Don’t that just sound like salted peanuts? But it really is interesting:

Each point on the charts represents one US Senator; they don�t move. The idea of this technique, �Optimal Classification Estimates�, is to reduce each legislator to two numbers and them pin them onto that graph. It�s extremely reductionist, but it works. The lines slicing thru the chart illustrate how voting proceeds on various bills. A line running from top to bottom reveals that a bill was decided largely on economic issues; while a line running left to right is a bill that was decided on social issues. The Democrats on the left are economically liberal, i.e. they tend to look out for the weaker and more numerous economic actors. The Republicans on the right are economically conservative; look after the economically large, but few.

Because the majority of my readers live in the United States: for “weaker and more numerous economic actors,” read “you; as in, you personally.”

The chart on the right shows how well the model works. The handful of points shown there are Senators whose votes didn�t fit the model. …

The model is extremely accurate: around 95% these days. Amazingly, you don�t actually need two axes; you will get 90% accuracy with a single axis that runs almost top to bottom, but slices slightly at an angle. You can see the entire Senate sorted into that ordering here. For example Joe Liberman isn�t the most conservative Democratic Senator; there are a handful who are more to the right than he is.

I�ve written about this model before, and I keep coming back to it because it totally changed the way I think about politics. It�s all economic; all the noise about social issues never actually flows thru into the legislative agenda.

That’s a profound point. I’ve strongly suspected it was so, but didn’t have the numbers.

This also explodes the idea that there’s no real difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. That’s what Enthusiasm was writing about in that earlier essay. There is a difference. It is durable and consistent. Republicans make a lot of distracting noise about social issues that command the attention of many middle-class and working-class families; but when they turn from talking to acting, they cater to a small number of very rich people. Odds are, none of them are you.

August 28, 2006
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 11:11 AM * 104 comments

Shall we talk about Levels of Consciousness? We shall!

One of your main clues about how sick or injured someone might be is their mental status. Altered mental status tells you that Something Big Is Going Wrong. We little emergency workers use mnemonics to help us keep all this stuff straight (because at two in the morning, with freezing rain dripping down your collar, you just might miss a step otherwise).

First stop on the Mnemonic Express is AVPU. That stands for Alert/Verbal/Painful/Unresponsive. All that “alert” means is “looks at you.” Normally, when you walk into the room, someone will look at you; the eyes will track. That’s the A in Alert. V for Verbal means the guy’s eyes open when you talk to him, but drift closed else. P for Painful means that if we do something noxious to the patient (rubbing a kuckle — hard — on the sternum; pinching the big strap muscle under the armpit) that his eyes open, but otherwise not. U for Unresponsive means Elvis has Left the Building. Nothing we do (and we can get really obnoxious if we have to) will get a response from this person.

After level of alertness, we come to Orientation. Orientation is to Person, Place, Time, and Events. Those are in the order that you can remember them. Does the person know his own name? Who you are is the last thing that goes. Does he know where he is? Does he know the time (this can be in general terms), the day? The month? The year? Last is Events, as in “What happened?” How did this guy come to be lying in a ditch at two in the morning with freezing rain falling on him?

There “I was coming back from Pittsburg down 145, doing around 50 mph when I felt the back end start to slide. I jammed on the brakes, and it spun. The back of my car hit a tree, and after that I opened the door and got out. Then I started felling really tired, so I lay down here” is a lot better answer than “I don’t know.”

You abreviate these in this manner: Alert and Oriented is A Ox4. A patient who responds to Painful stimuli and only knows his name is P Ox1. The patient I talked about in the hyperthermia post was A Ox2: Looked at us as we walked up, knew who she was and where she was, didn’t know what the day (or the season) was, or what she’d been doing that day that led her to be sitting in her garden surrounded by EMTs. Unresponsive is just U. U folks aren’t oriented at all — they just lie there and won’t talk to you. On a scale from Good to Bad, this is over on the Bad side.

(The joke version of AVPU is Alert, Vomiting, Puking, Upchucking. That’s a lot more … well, welcome to EMS.)

Okay, so now you know the Levels of Consciousness (abbreviated LOC). (This is the first part of the Glasgow Coma Scale, of which I may write more later. Level of Consciousness is also the last step of Rapid Triage: Ask the patient his/her name and what happened. If the patient does not reply or answers inappropriately, Red Tag.

Now we get to the fun stuff: figuring out why a person might have an altered LOC. If you know why, you might have a shot at fixing what’s wrong. There is (as you might have suspected) a mnemonic for that. It’s AEIOU-TIPS.

Taking it from the top: A stands for Alcohol. This is pretty obvious: Alcohol will alter someone’s mental status; that’s what it’s for. (If you go to an automobile wreck after midnight and you don’t find a drunk, keep looking: You haven’t located all of your patients yet.)

E is Epilepsy (or any seizure-disorder). A person who’s just had a grand mal seizure will have an altered level of consciousness. Also under E: Environment. Too hot or too cold can make people goofy.

I is Insulin. A person who’s having a diabetic problem may have an altered mental status. Either too much or too little sugar in the bloodstream will slow you down.

O is Overdose. This can be fun drugs; your heroin or ecstasy. Or it can be your prescribed drugs (Granny takes her meds, forgets that she took ‘em, and takes ‘em again), or your accidental poisonings (Junior gets into Mommy’s purse and eats an entire bottle of Flintstones Vitamins). One of the more interesting ones I remember was a guy whose significant other was planning to kill herself with an overdose of pills. Thinking fast, he grabbed the pills right out of her hand and — didn’t throw them down the sink or out the door. He swallowed them himself. (Alcohol was also involved.) Or there was the guy who had a headache, so he took a couple of his dad’s Lasix tablets. This didn’t help his headache (which you wouldn’t expect anyway — Lasix is a diuretic) so he took a couple more. Then more after that. Then the whole bottle. He was pretty dehydrated when we got to him. And he had an altered mental status.

When you think about Overdose, think also about Underdose. Granny forgets to take her pills at all. Or, when the money runs out, folks can’t afford to refill their prescriptions. That happens more often than I like to think.

Think about drug interactions while you’re thinking about Overdose/Underdose. A guy who took nitroglycerine after taking Viagra will have a way altered mental status.

U is for Uremia. This is, essentially, Pee on the Brain. The kidneys aren’t functioning, toxins build up, bad things happen to Mental Status. (The hyperthermic lady I mentioned above had uremia — when the nice nurses at the hospital put a catheter into her bladder the urine return looked like thin molasses.)

On to TIPS:

T is for Trauma. Someone hits you upside the head, your mental status can really change, really fast. Or, someone hits you upside the head and you get a slow bleed, your mental status can change three days from now. We keep asking “Did you fall? Did you hit your head? Did you get knocked out, even for a second?” For that matter, someone who’s bleeding out from a severed artery — that person’s mental status is going to change and not in a good way. With internal injuries someone can bleed out entirely into his abdominal and pelvic cavities without a drop of blood showing on the outside. Hypothermia fits here. Granny breaks her hip and lies on the floor all night — the reason she may not remember might be because she’s cold.

I is for Infection. A high fever will change someone’s mental status, as will the assorted toxins that are floating around in the bloodstream. Watch for UTI (Urinary Tract Infections) in little old ladies. If you can’t figure out what else is going on, think about infections.

P is Psychiatric. Not a lot we can do about this in the field. But mental illness can manifest as altered level of consciousness.

Last comes S for Stroke. A blood clot in one of the arteries in the brain can cause a person to be less than A Ox4. As can a bleed in the brain. Neither one is conducive to long life and good health. S can also stand for Space-Occupying Lesion: a tumor. Something organic is going on with the brain. The signs and symptoms will depend on how big it is and exactly where it’s located.

Bottom line: any time someone around you is showing signs or symptoms of altered level of consciousness and it isn’t just bedtime, consider calling the nice EMTs. Altered mental status can be the very first sign that something serious is wrong.

Copyright © 2006 by James D. Macdonald

I am not a physician. I can neither diagnose nor prescribe. This post is presented for entertainment purposes only. Nothing here is meant to be advice for your particular condition or situation.

Creative Commons License
AVPU by James D. Macdonald is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.

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Index to Medical Posts

August 27, 2006
Hugo Award results
Posted by Patrick at 03:28 AM *


Our incoherent congratulations to John Scalzi, David G. Hartwell, and Robert Charles Wilson, plus many other friends and associates. Also, AAAAAAIEEEEEEEEEEE!

August 26, 2006
Posted by Patrick at 05:14 AM *

Bruce Schneier on what the terrorists want.

My only disagreement with Bruce is where he says “I am not saying that the politicians and press are terrorists”. Bruce may not be saying that, but I am. Entire political parties and media networks are embarked on an explicit program to make us afraid, in order to gain power and status thereby. This is the very definition of terrorism, and they are terrorists, who deserve to be treated as such with all due diligence of public sentiment and the law.

August 25, 2006
The Needleless Haystack
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 08:35 AM * 65 comments

To what should be no one’s surprise:

No Terrorist Threat on Aborted Flight

HAARLEM, Netherlands — Prosecutors said yesterday they found no evidence of a terrorist threat aboard a Northwest Airlines flight to India that returned to Amsterdam.

They are releasing all 12 passengers arrested after the emergency landing.

Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations, asks a pertinent question in the Sep/Oct 2006 issue: Is There Still a Terrorist Threat?
On the first page of its founding manifesto, the massively funded Department of Homeland Security intones, “Today’s terrorists can strike at any place, at any time, and with virtually any weapon.”

But if it is so easy to pull off an attack and if terrorists are so demonically competent, why have they not done it? Why have they not been sniping at people in shopping centers, collapsing tunnels, poisoning the food supply, cutting electrical lines, derailing trains, blowing up oil pipelines, causing massive traffic jams, or exploiting the countless other vulnerabilities that, according to security experts, could so easily be exploited?

One reasonable explanation is that almost no terrorists exist in the United States and few have the means or the inclination to strike from abroad. But this explanation is rarely offered.

When we combine that commonsense observation with the legal framework of treating international terrorists like pirates, we could do away with most of the unAmerican nonsense that the Bushites have burdened us with.

A return to rationality, a return to our core values, could start this November with voting the conservatives out.

August 24, 2006
Le travestie exécutif
Posted by Teresa at 12:12 PM * 84 comments

From USA Today, though there are scores of other sources that tell the same story:

Nearly half of New Orleans was still under water when President Bush stood in the Crescent City’s historic Jackson Square and swore he would “do what it takes” to rebuild the communities and lives that had been laid to waste two weeks before by Hurricane Katrina.

“Our goal is to get the work done quickly,” the president said.

He promised to spend federal money wisely and accountably. And he vowed to address the poverty exposed by the government’s inadequate Katrina response “with bold action.”

Yeah yeah yeah. He did the same thing at Ground Zero: came in for the photo shoot, did some posturing, made a lot of promises, then went back home and forgot all about it, except for the parts he and his cronies could usefully exploit. (See also: Mission Accomplished.)

The victims of 9/11, including the firefighters he posed with, didn’t get anything like the promised help. Meanwhile, Bush used 9/11 as his excuse to go to war with Iraq (none of the 9/11 suicide bombers were Iraqis), take out Saddam Hussein (who had nothing to do with the attack), and bring in appallingly repressive programs and legislation that don’t actually address any of the real security issues.

Which, as they’d tell me in New Orleans, is about par for the course.

A year after the storm, the federal government has proven slow and unreliable in keeping the president’s promises. “This is not something that is going to be able to be accomplished in 365 days,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

“Not everything can be accomplished in 365 days” does not excuse “Next to nothing has been done in 365 days.”
“The president has set the federal government on the course to fulfill its obligations.”

You know the guy in the meeting who, when asked to report on the progress he’s made on his part of the project, says “I’ve made some preliminary phone calls”? You know how that actually means he hasn’t done a damned thing since the previous meeting? “Setting the federal government on the course to fulfill its obligations” is just like that.

The job of clearing debris left by the storm remains unfinished, and has been plagued by accusations of fraud and price gouging. Tens of thousands of families still live in trailers or mobile homes, with no indication of when or how they will be able to obtain permanent housing. Important decisions about rebuilding and improving flood defenses have been delayed. And little if anything has been done to ensure the welfare of the poor in a rebuilt New Orleans. …

CLEANUP: The job still isn’t done. More than 100 million cubic yards of debris have been cleared from the region affected by Katrina. So far the government has spent $3.6 billion, a figure that might have been considerably smaller had the contracts for debris removal been subject to competitive bidding.

Working through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA gave each of four companies contracts worth up to $500 million to clear hurricane debris. This spring government inspectors reported that the companies—AshBritt Inc. of Pompano Beach, Fla., Phillips and Jordan Inc. of Knoxville, Tenn., Ceres Environmental Services Inc. of Brooklyn Park, Minn. and ECC Operating Services Inc. of Burlingame, Calif.—charged the government as much as four to six times what they paid their subcontractors who actually did the work.

Ever wonder how well-connected businessmen siphon off public monies? One of the most popular ways is to enter into lucrative government contracts to provide goods and services, and then not deliver, or deliver stuff that’s not to spec. Their government buddies who gave them the contracts in the first place omit to prosecute for non-performance. A lot of Katrina-related contracted-for relief aid seems to have worked that way.

HOUSING: In his Jackson Square speech, Bush said his goal was to “get people out of shelters by the middle of October.” By and large that goal was met, with all but a few thousand of 270,000 Katrina evacuees out of shelters by mid-October.

Not that the feds did all that much to get them out.

But that didn’t solve the monumental housing problem created by Katrina. Most of the people who had been in shelters went to hotel rooms, with FEMA picking up the bill. About 50,000 families who had evacuated to other cities were promised a year of rent assistance, though in April FEMA began cutting off some who the agency said did not qualify for the program. More than 100,000 families moved into trailers or mobile homes parked either in the yards of their damaged houses or in makeshift compounds.

Meanwhile, FEMA flailed and flip-flopped on its contracting policies for trailers, mobile homes and other temporary shelter. The first big contracts were handed out non-competitively to four well-connected companies—Shaw Group, Bechtel Corp., CH2M Hill Inc. and Fluor Corp. Then in October FEMA director R. David Paulison promised to rebid the contracts after Congress complained that smaller companies, especially local and minority-owned firms, should have a chance to compete for the work.

A month after that, FEMA said the new contracts would not be awarded until February. That deadline came and went, and then in March a FEMA official announced that the contracts weren’t going to be rebid after all.

They stonewalled as long as they could.

A week later FEMA reversed itself again, giving up to $3.6 billion in business to small and minority-owned firms. “I promised Congress I was going to bid them out, and that’s what I’m doing,” Paulison said.

But they couldn’t hold out forever.

REBUILDING: Despite Bush’s Jackson Square promise to “undertake a close partnership with the states of Louisiana and Mississippi, the city of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities,” state and local officials had a hard time reaching a deal for federal aid to help residents rebuild their ruined homes. In January the administration rejected a $30 billion plan for Louisiana as too expensive. The White House also balked at subsidizing the reconstruction of homes in flood plains, a policy that would have excluded all but a small fraction of Louisiana homeowners whose houses were significantly damaged.

First: Bush & Co. haven’t made it a policy elsewhere to refuse to help reconstruct homes in disaster-prone areas elsewhere, from the California hillsides to the Florida coast. They were downright lavish with hurricane aid in Florida, a few months before the 2004 elections. “No rebuilding in flood plains” has definitely not been a general policy.

Second: There is going to be a city at the mouth of the Mississippi. The amount of bulk freight that travels over our system of navigable rivers would be enough to guarantee that, though the main reason is of course that New Orleans wants to be there. Given that the city’s going to exist, parts of it will be built on floodplain. Those areas are not going to stand empty. They will continue to be vulnerable to flooding. That’s what the levees and other flood-control structures are all about.

We can’t rebuild New Orleans without attending to those areas—which, let me repeat, are not going to stay vacant. All we can do by refusing to help is further oppress the poor, afflict the helpless and miserable, and fail to treat others as we would like to be treated.

Bush doesn’t care about the drowned districts. Nobody who’s important to him lived there, and there’s no glory to be had from fixing a mistake he was responsible for. The inhabitants aren’t rich and powerful, and they aren’t going to sing his praises no matter what he does. But last time I looked, those things weren’t supposed to be the measure of our national willingness to help each other out.

The state finally won funding in July for the $9 billion ‘Road Home’ program, which pays homeowners up to $150,000 either to repair their damaged property or rebuild elsewhere in the state. People who leave the state are eligible for a 60% buyout. The money, which is being distributed through escrow accounts to prevent fraud, is just becoming available a year after the hurricane.

You can save a lot of grant money simply by delaying handing it out. Over the course of a year, people die, or become incapacitated, or lose their necessary documentation, or make other arrangements. You can save a lot of grant money just by delaying giving it out, because the weakest and most marginal of the entitled recipients will drop out. Of course, they’re also the ones who need it most.

LEVEES: The federal government hasn’t broken any promises with regard to flood protection—mostly because it has assiduously avoided making any.

Yeah. They’ve been that way about real anti-terrorism security measures, too. A million bucks for photo ops, but not one cent for prevention.

White House Katrina recovery czar Donald Powell has said that the administration intends to wait for the completion of a $20 million U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study, due in December 2007, before it decides whether to enhance the flood protection system in southern Louisiana enough to resist a Category 5 hurricane.

Global warming—which is happening, which is not a theory—is going to mean more and bigger hurricanes over a longer hurricane season. It makes perfect sense to plan a flood protection system that will resist a Category 5 hurricane.

A preliminary draft of the study released in July was widely criticized because it omitted five projects that state officials say should be started right away.

We’ve seen this one before. You know why one of Bush’s first official actions, when the magnitude of the disaster became known, was to state for the record that no one could have foreseen it? It’s because they had been warned about exactly that possibility, in detail, long before; and they’d nevertheless stripped funding for levees and other flood control measures in that area.

There is no guarantee whatsoever that New Orleans won’t get hit again this year.

At the same time, it focused on a massive levee that would stretch hundreds of miles along the Louisiana coast while paying only lip service to the critical task of shoring up the state’s vanishing wetlands, which provide a natural barrier to hurricane flooding.

Protecting wetlands means saying “no” to wealthy real-estate developers with coastal projects in mind; whereas there’d be all kinds of contracts to hand out if you built a giant levee along hundreds of miles of Louisiana coast.

The federal government has committed about $6 billion since Katrina to repair and improve the Big Easy’s existing levee system. The first goal was to bring the levee system back to “pre-Katrina” levels by the beginning of the 2006 hurricane season on June 1. That goal was largely achieved. The next step will be to make improvements that will bring the system up to what is variously called Category 3 or 100-year protection by 2010. But planners and state and local officials say that the levees need to be brought up to Category 5 protection, a level that would cost up to $30 billion, if people are to have confidence moving back to areas destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Well, funny thing. Residents don’t want to build in areas that are excessively vulnerable to flooding. Could be they really do understand the issues.
POVERTY: Bush offered three proposals in Jackson Square to help combat poverty around the Gulf Coast region. Two of them never went anywhere—the creation of “worker recovery accounts” that would help evacuees find work by paying for school, job training or child care while they looked for employment, and an Urban Homesteading Act that would give poor people building sites for new homes that they would either finance themselves or obtain through programs such as Habitat for Humanity. A third proposal, the creation of a Gulf Opportunity zone, did come to pass. Signed by President Bush in December, the legislation gives $8.7 billion in tax breaks to developers of low-income housing projects, small businesses and individuals affected not just by Katrina but by hurricanes Rita and Wilma as well.

It’s a tax break, Rita hit Texas, and Wilma hit Florida. In this, at least, the man is consistent.

Pasta with Sausage
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 08:25 AM * 64 comments

So, there you are. The ingredients in the pantry include pasta and sausage. You have one family member who Doesn’t Like tomatoes. What to do?

Answer: Google on Recipe +pasta +sausage -tomato. See what turns up. In our case, what turned up was this:

Pasta with Sweet Sausage and Cream recipe
  • 8 Sweet Italian sausages, removed from their casings
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cups of heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons Cognac, optional
  • 1 pound shell pasta

Place sausages and minced onion in a saucepan and cook over low heat until sausage is lightly browned.

Break up the meat with a fork as it cooks, so it is crumbly.

Add cream and cook until thickened.

Heavy cream will never curdle, so it doesn’t matter if the cream comes to a low boil.

It will thicken more quickly.

Add cognac.

Stir sauce gently through cooked pasta and serve.

Hurrah! All the ingredients were on hand. Made same. Served it forth.

This was met with Instant Approval and a demand to Have It Again.

Note: While the recipe says “cognac optional” it is not, in fact optional. At the very least some variety of Strong Spirit is needed to make the cream behave properly.

[Recipe Index]

August 23, 2006
Our discourse. Falsified.
Posted by Teresa at 05:54 AM *

Am moving at a dead run here, on my way to Worldcon, but most earnestly recommend Thomas Nephew/Newsrack Blog’s “Their voice. Amplified.” or Why I’m banning 151.200.70.* comments, on astroturf operations aimed at weblogs.

See you in Anaheim—

TSA Gumbo Surprise
Posted by John M. Ford at 02:07 AM * 68 comments

Okay, kids, here’s the Final Extreme Amateur Chemistry Exam Question:

If you are disposing of random liquids specifically because some of them might be Very Bad Chemicals, you should:

A. Observe the disposal rules … like, on the nutrition label or somewhere.
B. Wrap them in Macy’s paper and leave them on the street.
C. Call FEMA and webcast the explosion.
D. Dump them in a big common bucket and breathe deep.

Up where I live, the answer is a resounding “D.”

I’m just glad that Elise flew out to Anaheim the night before.

Though I will give them credit for saying clearly that it appeared to be entirely accidental, which is the Minnesota-Nice way of saying, “Try to make a tsimmis out of this, Chertoff, and you’ll have to grin to see daylight.”

August 20, 2006
How to throw a large room party at a science fiction convention
Posted by Teresa at 10:09 PM * 263 comments


a box of black plastic trashbags three or four rolls of paper towels, minimum
a sponge with a scrubby side
dish detergent
small paper napkins
very small, shallow, insecure paper plates
plastic serving utensils
serving containers
a cheese and veggie knife
a bottle opener
a corkscrew
cash on your person, preferably in small bills
common sense
a bottle of Ibuprofen
willing minions
An extremely good idea:

While you’re out shopping, buy one or more cheap electric fans. If you only have one and you have a suite to cool, put it in a doorway facing outward.

Also nice:

A few packages of folding paper fans (sold by novelty companies, usually in packets of twelve) can do a lot to civilize things. A convention party that isn’t too loud and too hot isn’t half trying.

Less hyperthermia and less dehydration means more good conversations.


Get in as early as possible. Turn the thermostats to “Lunar nightside” and the AC to “Siberian blizzard”. You’re going to have a lot of radiant bodies in the room. Start laying down a basal layer of cold now.

Give yourself prep time: order dinner from room service.

You have a moral obligation to feed your party prep minions, if you have them.

If you’re in a very nice suite, remove any fragile ornaments to the top shelf of a closet. Remove all the phones (except for one, if you’re sure you’ll need it) to a dresser drawer or closet shelf. If you’re staying in the room, secure your possessions.

Optional: rearrange the furniture. If you’re using the big conference table for refreshments, move the chairs away. They’ll do more good over by the sofa and easy chairs, and removing them will keep social maladroits from sitting there and chowing down on your munchies.

Fragile little antique side tables. No good can come of them. Put them somewhere safe, where drunks can’t sit on them.

If your suite features some attractive nuisance like an oversized jacuzzi, easy access to the swimming pool, a microwave with a large viewing port, or [fill in here], do your best to block it off. Otherwise you’ll spend the rest of the evening trying to keep your guest from drowning, tracking water through the suite, slipping on wet floors, generating amusing lighting bolts, generating disgraceful anecdotes, monopolizing the bathroom, et cetera.

Pianos are a particularly attractive nuisance. If you have one, close it up, put on its cover, and turn it so the keyboard’s up against a wall. Spare your guests the embarrassment of having to be told to STOP PLAYING CHOPSTICKS NOW, or possibly GET YOUR STICKY-HANDED CHILD AND HER ALL-DAY SUCKER AWAY FROM THAT MUSICAL INSTRUMENT, or even IF THOSE ARE YOUR PEANUT SHELLS IN AMONGST THE STRINGS, YOUR AGONIZING DEATH IS IMMINENT; but mostly NO MORE CHOPSTICKS STOP IT STOP IT STOP IT AAAAARGH.

If you want to make sure you get everything back into its original position at the end of the evening, take a photo before you start.

If you have a really big suite and can spare the space, designate one small bedroom as prep, storage, and party staff decompression space.

See whether the windows open. You’ll want to know later on. Even a couple of inches can make a huge difference in a room’s livability.

Have a designated lost & found box or drawer. People leave the damnedest things behind at parties.

Check with the committee before taping stuff to walls and doors. You don’t want to have to replace their woven grass wallpaper. If the hotel has a no-stickum policy but you’re desperate to put up a few bits, stick them to the mirrors. Masking tape is always better than cellophane tape. (If you’re using Duct Tape, you’re with General Technics, and don’t need my advice.)

By report, 3M now makes a soft plastic sheet that will cling to just about anything, and can have signage or decorations taped to it. These supposedly come in pads, and can be had from any large office-supply outlet. They still shouldn’t be stuck on woven grass wallpaper.

Most hotels have strict smoking policies. Follow them. (You too, Norman.) If you’re not in a nonsmoking zone but you don’t want smoking anyway, put up signs to that effect. If you can spare a room for a smoking area, put up a sign for that too. Don’t send asthmatic minions to clean or restock the smoking room.

Go ahead and ask the hotel for more and bigger wastebaskets. Lord knows you’re going to need them. Line them with black plastic trashbags before the party starts. If you’re rich in closet space, lay trashbags down on the floor of one closet and stage your bags of garbage there as they accumulate.

If you need a protective covering for the floor, you’re holding the wrong sort of party, and you’re going to scare the hotel just by asking for it.


General principles:

At successful parties, people don’t tend to move a lot. If it’s crowded, they can’t move. If it isn’t crowded, they’ll get into absorbing conversations, and they still won’t move. It is thus important to not feed them stuff that requires them to dispose of the remains. Only an exceptionally tidy fan will step away from an intense conversation to dispose of cherry stones, citrus peels, apple cores, cheese rinds, candy wrappers, paper collars, little toothpicks, or other detritus. It is likewise important to locate dips or salsas immediately adjacent to the snacky bits that are meant to be dipped in them.

If you have a multi-roomed suite, distribute your munchies throughout the rooms, so that people don’t have to abandon their conversations to go in search of sustenance.

Don’t put everything out at once. It’ll be messy and excessive, and encourage raiding.

Oversized portions will be absentmindedly consumed by your cheerfully distracted guests. Do everyone a favor: buy smaller sizes.

Never serve anything you wouldn’t eat yourself. It shows a lack of respect for your guests. You want to make them feel special, and welcome, and at the same time keep them just a bit on their toes. If you cheap out with indestructible cookies, off-brand sodas, and canoe beer, it’ll take the sparkle out of the evening. Buy less of better stuff, if your budget’s tight. If you run out, people will either leave or they won’t. Either way, you’ll have a nice party.

If there’s no corkage waiver, think twice before sneaking a bunch of party supplies past the hotel staff. That trick worked a lot better in bygone days when rooms weren’t put on credit cards the minute you checked in. If a decent party is impossible, pass the word around that on a specific night, you and yours are going to be holding down a corner of the bar. On the night, bribe the bartender to turn the TV down.

How to bribe a bartender: First, make sure no one else is within earshot. Then, say “How much would I have to bribe you to turn down the music?” Be cheerful and ingenuous. Have the money ready. Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to use a credit card.


You’re not feeding people. You’re amusing them.

If it melts or goes limp in a warm room, perhaps you shouldn’t serve it.

When you’re dealing with non-fans, the purpose of fancy exotic fruits is to decorate fruit-and-cheese platters so people can feel swankier while eating the same seedless green grapes they always eat. If you lay on the same spread for fans, the exotic stuff will get eaten. And discussed.

Further ruminations on fruit.

Meat-based munchies are expensive, greasy, and not really necessary. You can maybe put out a few slices of hard sausage, stuff like that. You don’t have to serve lox to the teeming hordes.

Remember to pick up serving dishes when you’re buying party snacks. If naught else availeth, get disposable aluminum roasting pans.

For pete’s sake, go ahead and buy the made-up fruit platters, carrot sticks, celery sticks, and broccoli and cauliflower bits. You’re at the worldcon. Don’t waste half a day of it doing finicky food prep, unless it’s the only way you can make your budget stretch.

Costco is your friend.

If you want to make your crudites last longer, don’t put a container of ranch dip next to them. Do the crudites-and-ranch-dip thing if you want to use them as a buffer for your sliced summer sausage, chocolate-dipped strawberries, miniature cream puffs, and other fast-moving goodies.

I have never seen a convention party eat an entire wheel of Brie. I have likewise never seen a party leave more than a scraped rind of Mimolette. I’m just sayin’.

If you put out smaller dishes of mixed salted nuts, people will be quicker to finish picking out the cashews, almonds, and pecans, and will actually get some of the peanuts eaten before you come around to refresh the bowl.

A few bags of inexpensive seasonal candies (jellybeans, conversation hearts, whatever) and small hard cookies (ginger snaps are always good for this) will make a good show, and will greatly lessen your chances of running out of refreshments. If they wind up having to be thrown out afterward, it’s no great loss. Note: small hard candies are okay; larger ones are not. You can’t talk around them.

Very small insecure paper plates will enable your guests to load up a handful of cookies or veggie bits and carry them off to wherever they’re conversing, but won’t encourage malfeasants to carry off a half-pound of chocolates when they leave.

Don’t mix haploid and diploid M&Ms. In general, don’t mix snacks. Every time you mix two snacks together, you increase the chances that the entire combination is now untouchable for some people.

If some snacks are kosher, low-sugar, low-salt, or otherwise a special concession to difficult diets, label them so that everyone else will leave them alone.

Get plain, basic crackers. At a good party, nobody’s paying attention to the crackers.

Go light on the excessively smelly foods.

People who have fragile teeth, and who aren’t familiar with the interesting properties of Corn Nuts, Jolly Rancher candies, or other dental hazards, can get themselves into a world of trouble. Best not to put that stuff out.

Consider labeling blazingly spicy snacks like wasabi peas.

This probably won’t come up, but something alchemically awful happens when you combine those glossy little Japanese rice cracker snacks with Clamato juice. It’s not unhealthy; it just makes you want to scrub your tongue off with a Brillo pad.


As you know, Bob, one of the most distinctive features of fannish convention parties is the bathtub full of ice, sodas, and beer.

Some people hold that if you have two bathrooms, you should put the beer in one bathtub and the soda in the other. I’ve come to disagree with this view, as it can be difficult to reach one bathroom, much less get to two so you can bring back the other sort of drink for your sweetie.

Mid-afternoon is not too early to make arrangements for ice for the bathtubs. Make sure you know how big your hotel’s ice tubs are before agreeing on a number and price. Make very sure you specify delivery times.

Consider lining the bathtub with a cheap plastic shower curtain or some black plastic garbage bags to prevent scratching and other damage.

If you have plenty of ice and then some, open the bathtub stopper. If what you have is no more than you need, or perhaps a bit less than that, close the stopper. Your guests will have to do some fishing around in cold water, but at least the drinks will be chilled.

If you’re late getting your drinks into the ice, adding some water to the mix will make them get cold faster.

Dumping ice in a bathtub is fast. Laying down a proper assortment of soda and beer takes longer.

Restock often. Stack the extra six-packs under the bathroom sink to make restocking easier. Save the cardboard sixpack containers. You’re going to need them to hold the empties.

Single-serving cans and bottles of soda, beer, and cider are just about perfect. If you’re serving other beverages, have someone from the home team do the pouring. It keeps everyone out of trouble.

If you’re pouring beverages from larger containers, you’re going to need A LOT of glasses. Get the little ones that are about the size of an old-fashioned glass.

Do not serve alcohol to minors. Ever.

Hard liquor isn’t a good idea unless (1.) you’re holding a relatively quiet party for people you already know; or (2.) you’re doing the pouring and serving yourself. The aforementioned tendency of partygoers to become immobile means that people who are near the hootch can wind up having way too much to drink. Particularly dangerous: that state where you’re overheated and thirsty, but a bit too drunk and distracted to realize that drinking what’s in your glass will not help.

Very dark, heavy beers sound like a good idea when you’re buying supplies, but lighter brews like bitter, ale, pale ale, and Corona-with-a-lime will go over better when the party heats up. Cider’s increasingly popular, and always disappears fast. Don’t forget to pick up a couple of sixers of non-alcoholic beer, even if you don’t know who’s going to be drinking it.

It never hurts to have a bit of string to tie the bottle opener to some handy projection.

You’re allowed to smack anyone you catch using a drawer pull to open a bottle.

Soda proportions:
4-6 parts Coke or Pepsi
2 parts Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi
2 parts lemon-lime soda
2 parts flavored unsweetened selzer, if avail.
1-2 parts orange, root beer, ginger ale

If you don’t want the whole convention showing up, don’t announce your party in the daily newsletter. If you don’t want strangers knocking on your door, don’t put a party sign on it.

If you’re giving your party for a specific group, be courteous to confused fans who show up thinking it’s a general occasion. It costs you nothing to be polite, it’ll spare them a great deal of painful embarrassment, and you won’t have to hear about what awful elitists y’all are for the rest of your days in the SF community.

How to issue a semi-general invitation without putting it in the daily newsletter: As soon as you know your date, place, and time, start telling it people and asking them to pass it on. If you’re terribly terribly organized, you can have it printed on a bunch of little paper squares to press into people’s hands as you pass them in the hallways.

You never know for sure how many people are going to show up.

A useful formula for occasions when you need to seriously ingratiate yourself with the hotel staff: “We know that your people will be going to a lot of extra effort for this convention, and believe me, we’ll be properly appreciative when they do; but right now we’d just like to show some of our appreciation in advance.” Optionally: “We’d just like to show some of our appreciation in advance. What would be a good amount?”

If you’re having a really big party that’s open to all, you have to have someone at the door at all times. People who’ve been looked at and greeted are far less likely to misbehave.

Chances are you’ll also have to have someone periodically go up and down the corridor outside, clearing a path and telling people to keep the noise down. Noise in the corridor is likelier to get a party shut down than whatever’s happening inside.

Circulate, tidy up, refresh, refill, consolidate. Then do it again. Bus the party as you go. If you wanted to sit still and have a good time, you should have gone to someone else’s party.

A guest who has prematurely gone to sleep on a prime piece of couch real estate should be gently wakened, and if possible offered an escort to their room.

You can allow or discourage children. It’s your choice. What you can’t allow is parents leaving their children unattended at your party while they slip off elsewhere.

Do not agree to take responsibility for parcels, art, mysterious brown paper bags, etc., which belong to people you don’t know well.

Public lewdness, illegal drugs, foul language, zero tolerance. It doesn’t matter whether they still have their clothes on. If what they’re doing reads as sex, they have to leave.

Living organisms may not be brought in on a leash. Pets are right out, too.

Be a little wary of partygoers who aren’t wearing convention badges, especially if they don’t look like convention attendees. They may be perfectly all right, but you need to know who they are, and let them know they’ve been noticed. Shaking hands and asking their names will usually do it.

If you didn’t intend to hold a gaming party or music party, you’re not obliged to give space to displaced musicians or gamers, unless you like the idea. In general, unless you’re hosting a music party, don’t play music.

Never allow anyone to turn on a TV unless there’s something specific and limited you all want to watch, or there’s an emergency blowing up, or something epochally historical is happening. When the show or the news cycle is over, turn it off.

Don’t hesitate to quietly and good-humoredly shush a conversation group that’s getting raucous.

Loud drunks, combative arguers, unpleasant acting-out, impromptu huckstering, people who Need To Get A Room, etc., can all be handled the same way: a light hand on the shoulder, a pleasant half-smile, and the words “Not here.” If they look confused, or disinclined to admit that they understand what you’re saying, add a specification and repeat the message:
“You’re getting a bit loud. Not the place for it.”

“Argument. Take it somewhere else.”

“This is not the Dealers’ Room.”

“You need to find a room. This isn’t it.”

If someone makes you uncomfortable, go with your gut.


Agree beforehand about when you’re going to close up shop, bearing in mind that if 0300 comes and you’re stuck fast in a discussion of Kirkegaard’s recipe for chocolate chip banana bread, you and the minions might want to renegotiate.

Work out in advance who’s responsible for shutting down and cleaning up after the party. If you don’t realize that you’ve all gotten exhausted before you start shutting down the party, you’ll hate each other before you’re finished with cleanup.

If party guests offer to help clean up, smile and say, “Why, thank you!” and give them a task. There’s no such thing as too many helpers.

It’s fairly effective to make a cheerful announcement that anyone who’s still around after the cutoff time is volunteering for the cleanup crew. If they go, that’s good. If they stay, that’s even better.

If you have a lot of leftovers, offer them to your minions. If they don’t want them, give the leftovers to the convention for the consuite, or for redistribution to other parties. If you’re far from home, “leftovers” includes the electric fan.

If you just have the suite for one night, don’t count on being able to get in and reclaim stuff next morning unless you’ve made specific arrangements to do so. Otherwise, pack it out or kiss it goodbye.

Put the furniture back where you found it. Same goes for the ornaments and phones. It spares the hotel a few minutes’ panic before they find all that stuff you stashed on the closet shelf.

You don’t have to recycle your bottles. It’s enough to leave them tidily stacked in their cardboard six-packs. Let the hotel or the staff have the bottle deposit.

TIP THE STAFF. No matter how tidy you are, the aftermath of a big party is still going to be a chore for the chambermaids.
(Thanks for additional observations and suggestions to Madeleine Robins, Don Fitch, Bruce Adelsohn, CHip Hitchcock, Christopher Hatton, and P J Evans.)
Note: Two years ago, we posted assorted bits of advice for writers attending their first SF convention. It’s as useful now as it was then.

[Recipe Index]

Posted by Patrick at 08:59 PM * 48 comments

Behind the cut, our schedule for LACon IV, the 64th World Science Fiction Convention, this coming Wednesday through Sunday.

Back when IBM had balls
Posted by Teresa at 01:34 PM *

A writer identified only as nm, over at the IBM Power Architecture zone editors' notebook, has responded to the fuss over the 25th anniversary of the IBM PC by writing a love letter to the IBM Selectric typewriter and Selectric Composer:

Also forgotten in all the hubbub, and also relegated to the “attic,” is the IBM Selectric—which would be celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, if anyone had remembered it. Er, and also if '45 years' were considered, you know, significant.

It's an interesting historical retrospective, and I'm not just saying that because they linked to me.

The Selectric was a wonderful machine, the pinnacle of typewriter development. I still miss its keyboard, which has never been bettered. The Selectric taught me how solid engineering sounds and feels, which has been useful to me ever since. (I bought my Honda Civic, a year-old floor model, because in some indefinable way it felt like a Selectric. It ran for fourteen years, until it was smashed to pieces in a hit-and-run while parked. Feeling like a Selectric is a good thing.)

In my social circle, the Selectric stuck around as long as mimeography did. There was never a better machine made for cutting a mimeo stencil. Its clean impression also took well to xerox reproduction. You could even photoreduce your typed copy without sacrificing too much readability. I can't recall anyone lusting after a different brand of typewriter. To get an idea of the Selectric's ubiquity, consider Courier, that typeface everyone uses for their manuscripts. Courier was originally a proprietary Selectric face.

The typewriter begat the Composer:

Then—forty years ago, in 1966—the Selectric Composer, which is really the machine responsible for giving the Selectric line its desktop-publishing reputation, upped the ante with its ability to produce justified, camera-ready copy using neither molten lead nor digital electronics (but that was sort of hard on the operator—for instance, for centered headings, each of the lines of type had to be centered by measuring carefully, doing some math, then advancing the carrier to just the right point on the page).

The IBM Composer was indeed hard on the operator, and I was using the user-friendlier mid-70s model. Still, it had the astonishing property of allowing you to set reasonably professional type in a non-industrial setting. That was revolutionary: civilians could set type, and they could take the resulting repro to any printer that had an offset press. Flexibility! Power!

The machine wasn't exactly cheap, but small publications could afford one, which meant they could set their own type on their own schedule without paying for it by the column inch, and without waiting for the next business day to get their corrections made. To get a different font in a different type size, all you needed to do was change your type ball.

It's hard to remember now how few typefaces a small-town newspaper might have had in the days of linotype. You could put out a newspaper with two basic text faces (one of them smaller, for want ads and obits), a couple of display faces for ads and headlines (one serif, one not), and a little collection of ornaments and rule lines.

After offset printing came in, if you didn't want to go to a full-service type shop, you could use sticktype (a.k.a. Letraset, Chartpak, Zipatone, dry transfer lettering) for the fancy stuff. You rubbed pre-printed transferable lettering onto paper from a see-through plastic sheet. The technology is now the province of scrapbookers and modelmakers, and good riddance to it. The stuff cracked and peeled and got distorted during the transfer process. It shrank if exposed to heat. You were forever running out of essential letters. You had to be an expert to get it laid down straight, with correct spacing. In those days, being a professional graphic artist required some serious manual skills. If instead of hiring a graphic artist you did it yourself, it generally looked like crap.

The Selectric Composer meant that readers couldn't reliably estimate the budget of a piece of printed matter just by looking at its type. It put the means of production into the hands of a much wider range of people. One lone crazed weirdo with a collection of type balls, working from his or her kitchen table, could put together a publication whose professional appearance was limited only by its creator's care, intelligence, and sense of design.

The classic example is the first Whole Earth Catalog, which was put together by Stewart Brand and his cronies on a kitchen table, using a rented Composer. They never got the hang of the machine's two-step justification process, which was why the Whole Earth Catalog had that artsy flush-left, ragged-right column design. I remember how different that book felt when it came out. It had been produced by people who were intimate with their text, who were living with it. And there was so much text: a small fortune in typesetting charges, if they'd gone that route.

So, yeah, Selectrics changed the world. Printing technology is forever doing that. How many remember now that the era of the pulps, that wild flowering of the American dream machine, was birthed by the advent of linotypes, high-speed presses, and cheap wood-pulp paper?

But the biggest single distinction of the old IBM machines wasn't their superb engineering or their groundbreaking technological advances. Of all the repro systems I've ever come in contact with, IBM typewriters and composers were the ones their users loved. They were powerful and reliable and easy to use. You felt like they were on your side. I didn't see anything to equal the affection their users felt for them until the Macintosh came along.

It's hard to see those machines fade from memory. It makes me suspect I may be mortal as well. But in their day, they were grand.

August 19, 2006
Open thread 69
Posted by Teresa at 04:24 PM *

“Whenever a social mass phenomenon is ascribed to a mere stupidity of the men participating, this apparent stupidity in reality is merely the stupidity of the observer and critic.” —Karl Kautsky, Foundations of Christianity, trans. Henry F. Mins*

And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the New York Times
Posted by Patrick at 10:48 AM *

The New York Times Book Review covers Julie Phillips’s James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. Notably, this is the front cover review on the print version (distributed with tomorrow’s paper). I can’t recall the NYTBR ever giving the cover position to a genre SF novel, much less a biography of a genre SF writer.

Also notably, at no point does the review apologize for taking SF seriously; it just assumes that Tiptree’s work is worth talking about.

August 18, 2006
The Exploding Shampoo Plot
Posted by Teresa at 10:54 PM * 52 comments

Caroline has helpfully decreed that the name of the recent quasi-terrorist non-event is The Exploding Shampoo Plot.

It’s a fine memorable descriptive name. Everyone should use it.

The Terrorists Have Already Won
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 04:36 PM * 31 comments

What has been lost in the reporting on the London Liquid Terror Bombers is this:

Senator Joe Lieberman suffered a catastrophic loss in the Democratic primary in Connecticut, and the Iraq War is still FUBAR.

Don’t let the terrorists distract you from reality.

August 17, 2006
Nothing to hope for but fear itself
Posted by Teresa at 11:28 AM * 56 comments

I’m a fan of The Register (motto: Biting the hand that feeds IT), a tough, cynical, technologically savvy news site that does a lot of original reporting. If you haven’t seen it already, allow me to recommend their article, Mass murder in the skies: was the plot feasible? (Short version: “No, and we laugh derisively at your stupidity.”)

Binary liquid explosives are a sexy staple of Hollywood thrillers. It would be tedious to enumerate the movie terrorists who’ve employed relatively harmless liquids that, when mixed, immediately rain destruction upon an innocent populace, like the seven angels of God’s wrath pouring out their bowls full of pestilence and pain.

The funny thing about these movies is, we never learn just which two chemicals can be handled safely when separate, yet instantly blow us all to kingdom come when combined. Nevertheless, we maintain a great eagerness to believe in these substances, chiefly because action movies wouldn’t be as much fun if we didn’t.

Now we have news of the recent, supposedly real-world, terrorist plot to destroy commercial airplanes by smuggling onboard the benign precursors to a deadly explosive, and mixing up a batch of liquid death in the lavatories. So, The Register has got to ask, were these guys for real, or have they, and the counterterrorist officials supposedly protecting us, been watching too many action movies?

We’re told that the suspects were planning to use TATP, or triacetone triperoxide, a high explosive that supposedly can be made from common household chemicals unlikely to be caught by airport screeners. A little hair dye, drain cleaner, and paint thinner—all easily concealed in drinks bottles—and the forces of evil have effectively smuggled a deadly bomb onboard your plane.

Or at least that’s what we’re hearing, and loudly, through the mainstream media and its legions of so-called “terrorism experts.” But what do these experts know about chemistry? Less than they know about lobbying for Homeland Security pork, which is what most of them do for a living. But they’ve seen the same movies that you and I have seen, and so the myth of binary liquid explosives dies hard.

Better killing through chemistry

Making a quantity of TATP sufficient to bring down an airplane is not quite as simple as ducking into the toilet and mixing two harmless liquids together. …

A long, knowledgeable, pungent description of the technical difficulties follows. For further commentary on this same problem, see the recent comment thread on “I got your cold equations right here.”

As The Register goes on to summarize their analysis:

So the fabled binary liquid explosive—that is, the sudden mixing of hydrogen peroxide and acetone with sulfuric acid to create a plane-killing explosion, is out of the question. Meanwhile, making TATP ahead of time carries a risk that the mission will fail due to premature detonation, although it is the only plausible approach.

Certainly, if we can imagine a group of jihadists smuggling the necessary chemicals and equipment on board, and cooking up TATP in the lavatory, then we’ve passed from the realm of action blockbusters to that of situation comedy.

It should be small comfort that the security establishments of the UK and the USA—and the “terrorism experts” who inform them and wheedle billions of dollars out of them for bomb puffers and face recognition gizmos and remote gait analyzers and similar hi-tech phrenology gear—have bought the Hollywood binary liquid explosive myth, and have even acted upon it.

We’ve given extraordinary credit to a collection of jihadist wannabes with an exceptionally poor grasp of the mechanics of attacking a plane, whose only hope of success would have been a pure accident. They would have had to succeed in spite of their own ignorance and incompetence, and in spite of being under police surveillance for a year.

But the Hollywood myth of binary liquid explosives now moves governments and drives public policy. We have reacted to a movie plot. Liquids are now banned in aircraft cabins (while crystalline white powders would be banned instead, if anyone in charge were serious about security). Nearly everything must now go into the hold, where adequate amounts of explosives can easily be detonated from the cabin with cell phones, which are generally not banned.

Action heroes

The al-Qaeda franchise will pour forth its bowl of pestilence and death. We know this because we’ve watched it countless times on TV and in the movies, just as our officials have done. Based on their behavior, it’s reasonable to suspect that everything John Reid and Michael Chertoff know about counterterrorism, they learned watching the likes of Bruce Willis, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Vin Diesel, and The Rock …

For some real terror, picture twenty guys who understand op-sec, who are patient, realistic, clever, and willing to die, and who know what can be accomplished with a modest stash of dimethylmercury.

You won’t hear about those fellows until it’s too late.

The Register has been covering this beat for a while now. See their earlier articles on Homebrew chemical terror bombs, hype or horror?, and Amazing terror weapons: the imaginary suitcase nuke.


From The Nation: Fear and Smear, on the symbiosis between Muslim terrorists and American politicians, and Bush & Co.’s increasingly desperate reliance on scaring American voters into supporting them.

The nexus of politics and terror from MSBNC’s Keith Olbermann. Same subject, only he traces specific correlations between terrorism scares and the advantages Bush & Co. have derived from them.

In general I don’t approve of weblogs duplicating entire articles, but it’s useful for keeping the complete text available. the Tennessee Guerrilla Women site has Paul Krugman’s “Uses of Fear” (originally in the NYTimes) on Bush & Co.’s history of fearmongering, and their neglect of real security issues. I love the last two paragraphs:

Above all, many Americans now understand the extent to which Mr. Bush abused the trust the nation placed in him after 9/11. Americans no longer believe that he is someone who will keep them safe, as many did even in 2004; the pathetic response to Hurricane Katrina and the disaster in Iraq have seen to that.

All Mr. Bush and his party can do at this point is demonize their opposition. And my guess is that the public wont go for it, that Americans are fed up with leadership that has nothing to hope for but fear itself.

Available in Richard White’s weblog, “My 2 Cents,” is the full text of Dan Froomkin’s piece in the Washington Post on how the White House timed their attacks on Democrats as being “weak on security” to coincide with announcements they knew were coming about the supposed terrorist plot.

Ned Lamont has been a major target of Bush & Co.’s latest piece of terror-opportunism. From ABC News:

Democratic Senate nominee Ned Lamont, the anti-war candidate who toppled Sen. Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut primary, says he was surprised by Lieberman and Vice President Dick Cheney’s claims that his victory could embolden terrorists.

“My God, here we have a terrorist threat against hearth and home and the very first thing that comes out of their mind is how can we turn this to partisan advantage. I find that offensive,” Lamont said in an interview Sunday with The Associated Press.

After British officials disclosed they had thwarted a terrorist airline bombing plot on Thursday, Lieberman warned that Lamont’s call for a phased-withdrawal of troops from Iraq would be “taken as a tremendous victory” by terrorists.

Cheney on Wednesday had suggested that Lamont’s victory might encourage “the al-Qaida types” who want to “break the will of the American people in terms of our ability to stay in the fight and complete the task.”

Lamont said Lieberman’s swipe at his candidacy “sounded an awful lot” like Cheney. “It surprised me,” he said. “It seemed almost orchestrated.”

No kidding. The amount of energy and gratuitous nastiness the administration has expended on Ned Lamont, and the matching Carolrovian tone of their and Lieberman’s rhetoric, has convinced me of one thing: Lieberman wasn’t just suborned, he was turned. It seems almost unfair that someone who looks so much like Senator Palpatine should be acting like a cardboard villain. I haven’t seen the like since the days of “Nixon can’t possibly be as shifty as he looks.”

More on the non-believability of British reports:

Bellatrys has contributed links to three superior articles on this subject. One’s from Bloggerheads, and makes the Exploding Shampoo Plot sound even thinner and more contrived.

The other two links are to essays by Craig Murray: writer, broadcaster, former British Ambassador to the Cenetral Asian Repuublic of Uzbekistan. He really knows his stuff. His essays are attempts to reconstruct the true story. Here’s the first, The UK Terror plot: what’s really going on?, 14 August; and the second, Hitting a Nerve, 17 August.

Counterpunch is definitely not my favorite news source, but Christopher Reed’s article about the contradictions and improbabilities in the official stories about the Walthamstow terrorist plot, and the convenience of its timing, sounds plausible to me.

Monsters and Critics is likewise dubious about the story.

Here’s another underrated news source: the World Socialist Web Site. They do solid news analysis that doesn’t assume you’re stupid, but also isn’t opaque if you haven’t been following eight or ten newspapers a day. Personally, I don’t care whether their site has “Socialist” in its name. They give good explanation. Anyway, they’ve run long chewy articles on The politics of the latest terror scare (15 August) and Contradictions, anomalies, questions mount in UK terror scare (17 August).

Just to make the whole situation smell a little riper, here’s AmericaBlog pointing out that the extremely credible Seymour Hersh, in his latest article in The New Yorker, says the Bush administration gave Israel the green light to attack Lebanon earlier this summer. That is: before the Hezbollah kidnappings that supposedly prompted the attack. These idiots haven’t learned a thing. They’re still exploiting supposed terrorist threats as a cover for cooking up insanely ill-conceived wars in the Middle East.

Here’s the Seymour Hersh article itself.

And, finally, the Washington Post discusses the increasing—no, breathtaking—extent to which Bush, and even more so Cheney, have been contriving to shake off the press corps that would normally accompany them. Instead, they’re flying around the country unscrutinized, on taxpayer money, in order to speak to closed-door gatherings of their contributors and other staunch supporters.

Previous administrations brought the press along. If you’ve been running on memories, augmented by TV shows like The West Wing, you’ve probably been assuming they still do. Not so. As in so many other areas, Bush and Cheney have stealthily rewritten the rules.

I swear, this feels like summer reruns. Bush and Cheney are off pursuing other activities, while we’re getting treated to the same old episodes of Terrorist Threat Tonight. I feel slighted. We’re Americans, dammit. We’re supposed to be worth the trouble it takes to generate a few first-rate new deceptions.

August 16, 2006
Gather in the Hall of the Planets
Posted by Patrick at 08:43 AM *

The Middle East? Warrantless wiretapping? Lamont versus Lieberman? No, the important controversy roiling today’s blogosphere is the question: Is Pluto a planet?

John Scalzi’s daughter expresses her opinion of Scott Westerfeld’s anti-Pluto advocacy. In the process, an effigy of Scott is consumed by a plush Cthulhu doll.

The real Scott Westerfeld responds with facts and stuff, in a lengthy post entitled Cthulhu can Eat Me.

A committee of the International Astronomical Union proposes to leave Pluto with its “planet” status, while also granting planethood to Ceres, Charon, UB313, and parts of Union City, New Jersey. Kevin Drum is unimpressed.

And in the hardbitten world of astronomical taxonomy, feelings run high. Defending the proposal, Dr. Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute observes, “Nature is much richer than our imagination. Life is tough, life is complicated.” “Get over it,� adds Dr. Stern through gritted jaws.

Meanwhile, planet-hunter Geoffrey W. Marcy of UC Berkeley is dismissive: “I am not attending the I.A.U. meeting, nor do I care about the outcome of any vote about whether Pluto and Xena are ‘planets.’” Bravely said, but if I were Dr. Geoffrey C. Marcy I’d be keeping a safe distance from little girls with stuffed eldritch gods.

August 14, 2006
Pretend tough
Posted by Patrick at 08:51 PM * 162 comments

Pandagon’s Amanda Marcotte comments on the news that TownHall dingbat Mike S. Adams is, like fellow pretend tough-guy Dick Cheney, a fan of “canned hunts”:

Im digging deep in my brain and trying to find an example of a more pathetic display of grabbing at masculinity than the canned hunt and nothing comes to mind. Men who go on canned hunts (like Dick Cheney) remind me of nothing so much as guys who go to strip clubs and convince themselves that the stripper really liked him and he could totally get with her if he wasnt paying her. Except even sadder for some reason.

Guns are fun. Meat is delicious. But, dudes, you guys are sissies.

Hard-won convenience
Posted by Patrick at 10:52 AM * 40 comments

Huge thanks to Making Light reader and Javascript pro Dori Smith, who spent quite some time last night fixing the stylesheet selector now featured on Making Light’s upper right.

It now appears to work with modern browsers. Predictably, Microsoft Internet Explorer is another matter. As far as I can tell, it works on the final Mac version of MSIE, but it doesn’t save the setting from session to session; whereas on MSIE 6.5 for Windows, it saves the setting, but the user has to set it separately for the front page and for archive pages. Your mileage may vary.

Fig. 1: The Dori Smith Monument in the Fluorosphere Picnic Grounds
The bronze plaque with her portrait plus the full text of her code fixes is on the other side of the pyramid, facing the picnic area. The photo was taken from this side to avoid having to include the freeway overpass and various billboards that are two fields away in the other direction.

August 13, 2006
An odd thought concerning Ralph Nader
Posted by Teresa at 08:52 PM * 75 comments

It’s been a long time since Ralph Nader’s done more than inflict flesh wounds on the big corporations. He still Does Stuff, but he doesn’t really make them bleed.

More to the point, it’s been quite a long time since I’ve seen the big corporations go after Ralph Nader. Lately I’ve been writing about astroturf disinformation campaigns, a subject I’ve also written about in the past.

Corporate America has in some cases sponsored decades-long propaganda campaigns—for instance, the one that puts forward the false claim that Social Security is broken and there’ll be no money in it when you retire. They’ve funded that one for thirty-odd years. The grand campaign for “tort reform” (real purpose: to limit the ability of small non-corporate plaintiffs to bring suit for deaths, injuries, and other harms caused by corporate negligence) has not only run for decades, but has been pursued via scores of diverse and seemingly unrelated front organizations. That’s an expensive campaign conducted on a broad front.

Given the scope and attention to detail of other astroturf campaigns, Ralph Nader ought to be the focus of a significant amount of unwanted attention from that quarter. He may not currently be a big threat to corporate America, but he’s been one in the past. That should be enough to get the disinformation about him flowing. And yet—isn’t this odd?—I can’t remember seeing anything substantial or effective being promulgated in that vein.

We’re known by the company we keep, and by the enemies we make. We don’t know exactly who Nader hangs out with, but we do know his stock portfolio: literally, the companies he keeps. Names that pop up there include Occidental Petroleum, the Limited, the Gap, Wal-Mart, and Halliburton, plus various defense contractors, other oil companies, and a big ol’ hunk of Bristol-Myers Squibb.

As for the enemies Nader makes? A long, long time ago, he distressed the hell out of the auto industry; but I was a little kid when that happened, and now I’m a great-aunt three times over. The last major set of enemies I saw Nader make was the American left and center, and the Democrats as a whole, back in 2000. The corporations Nader personally invests in couldn’t have been happier with the results.

There’s only one area where I trust the big corporations: I trust they know where their own interests lie. If so, then one of the things they appear to know is that Ralph Nader is not their enemy.

Addendum: Avedon Carol, in The Sideshow, responds to my speculations with some speculations of her own, on a subject that’s near and dear to my heart: the ban on Cylert.

August 12, 2006
I got your cold equations right here
Posted by Patrick at 10:07 PM * 181 comments

Scientist and Analog book reviewer Tom Easton, whose blog was just now pointed out to me by Jane Yolen, observes the terrorist potential of catheters and diuretics. “You want to ban containers of liquids? People are containers of liquids.”

Addendum by Teresa: Meanwhile, The Daily Kos is pointing out that the Bush Administration Cut Funding For Explosives Detection.

Typography and Its Discontents
Posted by Patrick at 09:55 PM * 95 comments

Norman Rockwell's 'The Debate' Some of you are probably aware that Teresa and I have a long-running disagreement about Making Light’s default type size. Teresa likes to see as many words as possible on screen at any given time. I prefer to be able to see actual letterforms and words without experiencing insane eyestrain and headaches. Since Making Light was Teresa’s blog before it was anyone else’s, so far she’s won.

Of course most modern browsers allow the user to increase the type size, but for whatever reason (probably mistakes deeply encoded into our heavily-messed-with front-page template), that screws up our page layout.

It would be ever so much nicer if we simply had one of those setups by which users who agree with me could click a button which reset Making Light to use an alternate CSS stylesheet that specified a larger type size in the center column. Unfortunately, I’ve tried the canonical recipe here, with no success. Surely someone among our readers can help? I honestly don’t want an explanation of principles as much as I’m hoping for a Quick Fix.

“The flying shards of a better tomorrow”
Posted by Patrick at 09:15 PM * 99 comments

If you haven’t yet seen the Daily Show segment from earlier this week starring “Middle Eastern Affairs Correspondent” Aasif Mandvi, you’ve been missing one of the most withering things shown on television in years.

Clarion West
Posted by Patrick at 01:55 PM * 9 comments

I just now noticed that Clarion West has announced its slate of instructors for 2007. I’m happy to have been invited back; the 2003 workshop was an outstanding experience. For information about Clarion West, read their FAQ and watch their website for 2007-specific information.

August 11, 2006
Schwarzenegger’s security theater
Posted by Teresa at 11:33 PM * 50 comments

New heights of fake-security folly have been achieved in California, where Governor Schwarzenegger has ordered 300 members of the National Guard to cool their heels for a week or more at San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, and San Diego airports.

This is supposedly in response to a recent terrorist plot discovered in London, which plot wouldn’t have been stopped by having National Guardsmen hanging about at the airports. Gov. Schwarzenegger hasn’t yet explained what kind of terrorist attacks he does expect will require this level of staffing.

No intention of playing fair
Posted by Teresa at 01:58 PM * 40 comments

Common Cause (ack, pthui!)* has released its second list of groups which are ostensibly untethered think tanks and public interest organizations, but which are actually controlled and funded by telephone and cable companies. (The first list came out in March.)

For instance, one of the groups outed in the latest list is Hands Off the Internet. From the sound of it, you’d think they were net neutrality activists. In fact, it’s just the opposite: HOTI is backed by the telecommunications industry, and it pumps out anti-net-neutrality disinformation:

For example, one print ad attempts to frame the Hands Off the Internet message in pro-consumer terms. “Net neutrality means consumers will be stuck paying more for their Internet access to cover the big online companies’ share.”

Unlike real grassroots public-interest groups, it doesn’t have to worry about finances. It has big corporate money behind it:

In a single month, HOTI spent $693,658 on television advertising alone, according to independent researchers at the Campaign Media Analysis Group. That’s more than $20,000 a day on TV commercials. The group has also been running full-page ads regularly in papers like The Washington Post and Roll Call.

If there were ever a case where you can prove the dishonest intent underlying astroturf organizations, it’s this one. If all the telecommunications industry wanted to do was get their message across, they’re the one group in the United States that’s absolutely guaranteed to be able to do it. I mean, they’re the freakin’ telecommunications industry! But that’s not what they did.

These corporations didn’t invent or build the Internet, or the World Wide Web; but now that there’s real money to be made from it, they want to get a chokehold on it. Their long-term goal is the usual one: to maximize their profits without having to create new value.

If you’re new to this idea, imagine there’s a rule in Monopoly that says you can pay $5,000 to have a rule changed. The first one or two players who got big enough to buy rule changes could guarantee they’d always make money and never take a fall, and that the other players would stay poor and powerless forever.

When it comes to net neutrality and other bandwidth ownership issues, the telecommunications industry has never had the slightest intention of playing fair. They don’t give a damn about democratic institutions or the long-term public good. Like all the other corporations who do astroturf-based propaganda and disinformation campaigns, they think democracy and open public discourse are for little people and losers like you and me.

List #1:
Consumers for Cable Choice
Progress and Freedom Foundation
American Legislative Exchange Council
New Millennium Research Council
Frontiers of Freedom
Keep It Local NJ
Internet Innovation Alliance
Hands Off the Internet
The Future… Faster
Video Access Alliance
I’ve said this before, and I desperately wish I weren’t certain that before long I’ll be saying it again: Deceiving us has become an industrial process.

August 10, 2006
The point
Posted by Patrick at 07:06 PM * 249 comments

George R. R. Martin demonstrates his membership in that portion of America that has not, in fact, gone stark raving mad:

Step by step, year by year, the TSA and its predecessors have taken away more and more of our freedoms, subjecting millions of perfectly innocent travellers to searches and interrogations and other hassles in the vague hope of catching hijackers (in the old days) and terrorists (these days). Even if it worked, the price would be too high, but of course it does not work. It has never worked.

The mindrot that leads to where we are is on full display in one of the comments to George’s post, where someone writes “I think it’s ironic that people say that these security measures aren’t helping, after a terrorist plot is thwarted.” As if the British had caught these guys by confiscating their toothpaste at Heathrow. In fact, from what we’re told, it appears this plot was rolled up by the traditional method, which is to say, weeks and months of hard slogging police work. And yet somehow this means the rest of us now have to submit to yet another expansion of intrusive, degrading security theater. Here’s a clue: the intrusiveness, the degradation, are the point. That hopelessness you feel? It’s what your rulers want.

Posted by Teresa at 12:39 PM *

What’s a dunsail? Anyone know?

August 09, 2006
Articles we stopped reading
Posted by Patrick at 11:38 PM * 64 comments

Laura Miller in Salon:

Take the case of James Tiptree Jr., who for a few years during the heyday of science fiction’s “New Wave,” in the 1960s, wrote stories that combined, in the words of […]

As usual, if there’s a way to be stupid about something, Salon will find it.

Julie Phillips’ Tiptree bio is fantastic, perhaps the best biography ever written of a modern science fiction writer. But Tiptree was part of science fiction’s “New Wave” to roughly the same extent that the Allman Brothers Band was part of the British Invasion.

I swear to God, I want Salon to be good, I subscribe and I try to support them, and every time they write about something about which I have actual personal knowledge, they get out the big red rubber nose and the oversized shoes. I have to conclude that they’re just as retarded when they cover anything else.

(Yes, I know this is a common perception of the media in general. I know how that works and how it feels. Salon is worse.)

AuthorHouse Found Guilty
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 10:48 AM * 114 comments

AuthorHouse, formerly 1st Books, is a notorious vanity publisher. As reported by Miss Snark, quoting from PW Daily:

PW reports: AuthorHouse Ordered to Pay Up
by Claire Kirch, PW Daily — 8/8/2006

The Kansas district judge presiding over the defamation lawsuit brought by romance writer Rebecca Brandewyne against AuthorHouse ordered Friday that the POD subsidy publisher pay Brandewyne $200,000 in punitive damages. Brandewyne’s co-plaintiffs in the suit, her parents, also were awarded punitive damages of $20,000 each.

This past May, a Wichita jury found AuthorHouse guilty of publishing a book, Paperback Poison, in November 2003 by Brandewyne’s ex-husband that libeled her. The jury awarded Brandewyne $230,000 in actual damages (PW Daily, May 16).

In his 14-page decision, Judge Jeff Goering asserted that AuthorHouse ‘acted towards the plaintiffs with wanton conduct,’ in publishing Paperback Poison, despite the fact that Gary Brock, the book’s author, had informed AuthorHouse during contract negotiations that iUniverse had rejected the manuscript on the grounds of possible libelous content.

Like many other vanity houses, AuthorHouse has never shown any evidence of actually reading the books they publish. Imagine their surprise when they discover they’re still liable for the contents. I do wonder how the suit against PublishAmerica, brought by folks who claim they were libeled in PA’s White Trash Tales of the Paranormal, is coming along.

Yesterday’s man
Posted by Patrick at 10:41 AM *

“There are no prizes for second place in American politics.”
—Joseph Lieberman on “Meet the Press,” November 14, 2004

Nothing’s Too Good For Our Boys In Uniform
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 09:48 AM * 35 comments

…but we haven’t figured out how to give them less-than-nothing yet.

From USA Today:

Center for war-related brain injuries faces budget cut

By Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY
Congress appears ready to slash funding for the research and treatment of brain injuries caused by bomb blasts, an injury that military scientists describe as a signature wound of the Iraq war.

House and Senate versions of the 2007 Defense appropriation bill contain $7 million for the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center — half of what the center received last fiscal year.

Proponents of increased funding say they are shocked to see cuts in the treatment of bomb blast injuries in the midst of a war.

“I find it basically unpardonable that Congress is not going to provide funds to take care of our soldiers and sailors who put their lives on the line for their country,” says Martin Foil, a member of the center’s board of directors. “It blows my imagination.”

The Brain Injury Center, devoted to treating and understanding war-related brain injuries, has received more money each year of the war — from $6.5 million in fiscal 2001 to $14 million last year. Spokespersons for the appropriations committees in both chambers say cuts were due to a tight budget this year.

Hey, gotta pay for Paris Hilton’s tax cuts somehow.

Zitnay asked for $19 million, and 34 Democratic and six Republican members of Congress signed a letter endorsing the budget request.

Remember, kids, the Republicans support our troops!

Preliminary research by the center shows that about 10% of all troops in Iraq, and up to 20% of front line infantry troops, suffer concussions during combat tours. Many experience headaches, disturbed sleep, memory loss and behavior issues after coming home, the research shows.

The center urged the Pentagon to screen all troops returning from Iraq in order to treat symptoms and create a database of brain injury victims. Scientists say multiple concussions can cause permanent brain damage.

The Pentagon so far has declined to do the screening and argues that more research is needed.

“The Pentagon” here means the civilians at the top — Donnie Rumsfeld and his gang. And what better way to make sure that needed research is done than by cutting the budget of the people doing the research?

August 07, 2006
The What-Me-Worry President
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 05:48 PM * 128 comments

We’ve been talking about possible civil war in Iraq for years. Many of us recognized, when death squads started roaming the land and the Golden Mosque in Samarra was blown up, that civil war was in fact in progress.

Now the serving generals are saying “civil war” in public:

WASHINGTON (CNN) — Under tough questioning from U.S. senators, the head of U.S. Central Command acknowledged Thursday that Iraq could descend into civil war.

“I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I’ve seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and that if not stopped it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war,” Gen. John Abizaid testified at a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Ain’t no “could” about it, John. Try “has” for a better fit.

Let’s look across the Atantic:

LONDON, England (CNN) — The UK’s outgoing ambassador to Baghdad has warned government ministers that a civil war in Iraq is more likely than a successful transition to democracy, according to a news report.

William Patey also predicted the division of Iraq along ethnic lines, in a confidential memo addressed to the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, Defense Secretary and senior military leaders.

Patey’s warning was contained in his final diplomatic cable, leaked to the BBC, before leaving office last week, the BBC reported.

“The prospect of a low intensity civil war and a de facto division of Iraq is probably more likely at this stage than a successful and substantial transition to a stable democracy,” Patey wrote.

So, civil war, not only predicted by us scruffy hippies who only happened to be right about everything so far (when you have to match words against reality), but by top guys in America and Britain.

What’s George Bush say about that?

You know, I hear people say, Well, civil war this, civil war that. The Iraqi people decided against civil war when they went to the ballot box.

Comforting to know that, because we “went to the ballot box” in 1860 and 1864, there was no American Civil War from 1861 to 1865.

The Cunning Old Bastard Has Fitted a Yale
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 12:42 PM *

My name is Chubb, that makes the patent locks:
Look on my works, ye cracksmen, and despair.

Imagine my surprise to discover that the general solution to the pin-tumbler lock has been discovered. That includes the locks on your car, on your house, on your mailbox … all of ‘em.

That solution is the “bump key.” What it is: a key blank with all the pin positions cut down to their lowest points. This is placed in the lock, put under a bit of torsion, and the end of the key struck smartly with an object, say the handle of a screwdriver. The key then turns, the lock opens.

Unlike standard lockpicking (which takes skill and practice, and leaves detectable marks on the lock), 80% of folks who try this, folks with no experience with lockpicking, can manage to do it on the first try leaving no forensic evidence that the lock was opened by anything but a legitimate key. And it’s quick: about as fast as the homeowner using that legitimate key.

All you need is a bump key that’ll fit in the keyhole to start with. I’m told, and I’m foolish enough to believe, that you can buy ‘em over the ‘net. Given the proper key blank and a file you can make one yourself at home. Subdivisions where all the locksets were bought from the same contractor and thus have the same keyblank are particularly vulnerable; every house can be opened using just one bump key.

Here’s a paper (.pdf) explaining how it works; here’s a video of a lad demonstrating the technique.

“Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy!”
Posted by Patrick at 10:01 AM *

From this morning’s New York Times:

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Monday, Aug. 7 — One of the soldiers accused in the rape of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and the killing of the girl and her family said the incident took place after a morning of cards and whisky, when a member of his unit began pestering the group to kill some Iraqis, according to testimony today from an army investigator.

Some of us wondered about that particular rallying cry back when it was all the rage. But I don’t think we expected reality to lay on the irony with quite such a large trowel.

August 06, 2006
You Can’t Dance to It …
Posted by John M. Ford at 10:30 PM *

… and so prose SF has been left behind by, well, The Future.

SF was never supposed to be predictive. No, really. (Despite the Discovery Channel series that’s about to launch, which has astoundingly condescending ads — “Either they were crazy, or they were from the future!”) Prescience sells, because everybody would like to have it, or at least access to it, but specific prediction has always failed, because, well, it always does. Verne famously got ticked at Wells for making bleep up, pointing out that Wells had no Cavorite to hand, while he had used an entirely plausible cannon to launch three buckets of soup to the Moon.

The issue, among those who chose to make it one, was that SF was about thinking on possibilities for the future, that tomorrow would not be like today; at the very least, there would be more horse manure in the streets and an iron-armored, steam-driven Darth Tweed. Some people tried to see radically different things (or at least radical from standard Western viewpoints — I’m thinking of Cordwainer Smith here), but not many of them thought that they were describing the future. That was left to people who would be insulted to be called fiction writers.

And now we have a culture where many — though by no means all — people don’t need to be told that Tomorrow Will Be Different; they know that, and quite a few of them look forward to it. Now, there are degrees of this; technological change is easier to grasp than scientific change. The advantage of having a phone in your pocket with one-button 911 is obvious, even if you have no clue how cellular communication, or for that matter the 911 system, operates. Accepting the evidence for global warming is in a different mental department. Indeed, the connection between basic science and applied technology is vague in many people’s minds. And developmental time frames are all bent outta shape. There are still people who cannot comprehend why there isn’t a vaccine, or a morning-after cigarette, for HIV, and an awful lot of them seem to read The Economist.

I have great respect for Bruce Sterling, but I find it amusing that he claims that magazine SF is “worse than dull” because it clings to “literary-culture values,” when literary culture has been crapping on genre fiction for its entire history. If he means that it is constructed as prose, and not hypertext or a music video, I will take that as a valid point, but there are things that prose can do that visual media require both far more effort and vastly more artistic acuity to put across. What they are good at is transmitting extremely simple ideas; the villain kicks a dog, the hero grumbles at the outrage and shoots him. This is great if your goal is to sell a million movie tickets. It ain’t particularly good for the development of complex thought. Or, indeed, any thought at all.

But then, I’m old. And I don’t have a phone in my pocket, though I do have an electronic medical device pluged into my skin. Call it selective futurism.

[Moved, by request, from the “Making Light: Your Source” thread.]

Making Light, Your Source for “Total Eclipse of the Heart” Blogging
Posted by Patrick at 07:35 PM * 26 comments

Chad Orzel interrupts his pursuit of science to remark on recent posts around here. After linking to fully eleven more online handmade videos based on the immortal Jim Steinman song, of which this Teen Titans version isn’t even the strangest, Chad whirls around, ninja-like, to dispatch Charlie Stross’s plaint that nobody writes near-future SF any more:

This is what you have to compete with. Presented with revolutionary, world-spanning communications technology, and the ability to instantly retrieve information from an astonishing array of sources, and send it to any of a truly mind-boggling number of people, this is what we use it for.

Futurism never stood a chance.

Three, four
Posted by Patrick at 04:15 PM * 52 comments

Revolver; cover art by Klaus Voorman This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of, quite possibly, the most transformational single album in modern popular music. Ray Newman, author of the self-published Abracadabra! The True Story of the Beatles’ Revolver, observes:

Revolver is one of the greatest albums of all time, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Revolver has appeared in the top 10 of lists of “the greatest albums of all time” in Rolling Stone magazine (2003), NME (1975, 2003), the Guardian (1997), the Times (1993), Channel 4 television (2005) and on many other occasions. The company it keeps varies—Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones was voted the 5th best album of all time by NME readers in 1985, but hasn’t featured since—and its position on the list changes: sometimes it’s below Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but in recent years it has more often been above, creeping towards (and occasionally achieving) the top spot.

Why this should be is well covered in an excellent post from By Neddie Jingo!, of which this is just a taste:

If Rubber Soul, from late 1965, marked the moment that the Beatles began to see the world through the eyes of adults, then Revolver gives us the world as seen by adults who know they are going to die. […] But if Revolver acknowledges the inevitability of death, the album as a whole resoundingly rejects nihilism. It offers solace in adult romantic love, in psychedelic insight, in the innocence of childhood, and a healthy dose of Doctor Robert’s cynicism. […]

If you listen carefully to a collection from Revolver’s period like Rhino’s Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts From The British Empire & Beyond, it becomes immediately apparent how astonishingly divisive the psychedelic experience was in the mid-Sixties. I haven’t done a careful count, but an amazing number of the delicious obscurities in that collection set up an “us-and-them” division—“us” being those who’ve had their eyes opened by LSD and “them” being the Squares who haven’t. […] But it’s Revolver’s crowning achievement that it rejects this then-fashionable division in favor of universality. The abject Eleanor Rigby and the hopeless Father Mackenzie feeling his faith dying, these are not people who going to be “saved” by an impregnated sugar-cube—these are desperate people in need of human compassion. The miserably depressed lover of “For No One,” the fragmenting mind, desperate for the innocence of childhood, of “She Said, She Said”—no glib oh-wow-man insight will work miracles for these people. The “state of mind” of these damaged individuals is far, far more complicated than “rain or shine,” and the Beatles were immeasurably compassionate—adult—to present them to us in the painfully divided year of 1966.

Tappan King once observed that it’s the destiny of most powerful pop-cultural creations to trace an arc from gnosis to wallpaper. A lot of stuff from the Sixties is now on the downside of that curve. Revolver isn’t. It still stings.

Debate, right now
Posted by Teresa at 12:40 PM *

Go to Our own Jim Macdonald is debating PublishAmerica’s champion on the radio this afternoon. As the show’s host Ed Horrell describes it:

The debate is on for Sunday.

Jeff Miller, aka Alien Enigma, will debate Jim Macdonald. We are going to take on a few topics, but the basis will be Jeff’s reasons for declining other publsihers for PA.

Each is providing me quesitons to choose from. I will add my own. They will individually be asked the quesiton, given one minute to answer, and then the other will be given one minute to respond.

Though I am giving them most of the show, I don’t know if we will take calls or not. If so, the call in number will be state during the show.

You can listen live at The show is Ed Horrell and Talk About Service. It will also be available for later listening via my podcast and archives if you miss it. It is broadcast live at noon CDT this Sunday.

Click where it says “Hear us now on the Internet!”, then click where it says “AM990 Family Values.”

Turn around, bright eyes
Posted by Teresa at 10:05 AM *

This post started out as a comment in the Hurra Torpedo thread, but Patrick thought it should be removed to the front page as a separate post.

What happened was that the conversation had wandered away from Hurrah Torpedo’s version to the original Bonnie Tyler video for “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, which you may want to re-watch. Julie L. had posted:

Meanwhile, an analysis or two of the original video for the song. Because you can never have enough pirouetting ninjas.

So I said: Julie, funny you should mention the Bonnie Tyler video of “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” I’ve been re-watching it, trying to imagine what the hell its makers had in mind.

I can’t agree with that analysis you link to. Those mysterious young men aren’t her accusers. They’re so wrapped up in whatever it is they have going on that they barely register her presence. (There is sexual tension present. It’s all between the boys.) Their non-reaction to Bonnie Tyler’s character makes me think she must be on the staff of the institution where the video takes place. This makes her the traditional uninvolved but centrally placed narrator, and sets the stage for a tale of the worldly fantastic.

The school or institution where she works is privileged, obviously well-to-do, and has been around for a while. The students have some kind of group mind/Midwich Cuckoos thing going on that makes their eyes glow in the dark and greatly increases their speed, strength, and coordination.

As the group’s telepathic linkage becomes stronger, the accompanying gift of careless precision of movement manifests as group fantasies: Let’s pretend we’re ninjas! Let’s do gymnastics in the dark! Let’s put on our best rocker duds, and sing and dance our way up the main staircase! (Good riff. Starts out being weird and mystifying and kind of cool, then gets creepier and creepier.)

Bonnie Tyler’s character, who’s probably the school nurse or something, is torn between concern for her charges, who have falllen under this creepy influence; a more general worry about the nature and intentions of whatever is gestating here; and, eventually, fear for her own safety.

Normal communication with the outside world will of course have been cut off. The only way to get a message out is via the carrier pigeons belonging to the one nerdy young student who’s a holdout from the group mind. (Note: he may be a were-pigeon.)

All we’re missing is the climax, resolution, and denouement.

I don’t have cherished sentimental memories of 1980s rock videos. What I remember is sitting there in a constant state of low-level astonishment, trying to figure out what the bleep was supposed to be going on in them. For instance, why did so many videos entirely consist of scenes of the singer’s girlfriend desperately trying to get away from him?

What I do cherish is Scraps DeSelby’s take on 80s videos: “It’s a good thing that acid and MTV came along in different decades.”

August 04, 2006
Sentence du jour
Posted by Teresa at 08:10 PM * 73 comments

My nominee for Memorable Sentence of the Day is in a news story from my home town. See if you can spot it.

Posted by Patrick at 10:19 AM * 74 comments

Steve Gilliard reminds Billmon that despair is a luxury only some can afford.

August 03, 2006
Laugh harder
Posted by Patrick at 09:34 PM *

Mark Frauenfelder thinks this is a “great” blog post:

My favorite conspiracy theory is the one that says the world is being run by a handful of ultra-rich capitalists, and that our elected governments are mere puppets. I sure hope it’s true. Otherwise my survival depends on hordes of clueless goobers electing competent leaders. That’s about as likely as a dog pissing the Mona Lisa into a snow bank.

Remember, “clueless goobers,” you don’t deserve a voice in how you’re ruled; rich cartoonists and hipster bloggers have spoken, and they agree.

Sure, it’s a joke. It’s the joke the mugger makes while he’s cleaning you out.

August 02, 2006
Hurra Torpedo
Posted by Teresa at 11:03 PM * 56 comments

Hurra Torpedo, Total Eclipse of the Heart. Mystery and simplicity. Norwegians. Re-somethinged 80s rock. Patrick showed it to me and I fell in love with him all over again.

More than this I cannot say.

(Okay, except that the guy stirring the pot looks like Tollund Man. But that’s all.)*

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