29 June, 2006

War crimes

The U.S. government wanted to prosecute Osama bin Laden's driver, a dude named Hamdan, for war crimes. They wanted it so bad they went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to promote their interpretation of Congressional, Constitutional and U.S. treaty requirements. Oops - the court decided that the war crimes tribunal was itself a war crime, as it violated the Geneva Conventions. It's nice when hubris runs into itself, at least a little bit.

Press credentials

The news has been wall-to-wall debates over whether the New York Times should lose its White House press passes because of its treasonous act of reporting on this "secret" organization along with the Wall Street Journal and L.A. Times. Leave aside the fact that this is the most ridiculous demagoguery ever: it is getting tremendous traction among the kind of people who vote in cable-TV call-in polls and is almost certainly a more popular idea than the idea of leaving Bush in charge of the country for another week.

I'm not going to argue against this idea. Plenty of smarter people have. Instead, I like to think about what would happen if they did lose their press credentials. I think it would be the best thing to happen to them since the Pentagon Papers. They now dedicate at least one reporter for half of every workday to sitting around in a crumbling little room transcribing non-denial denials and noncomittal assents from a guy who doesn't know, doesn't even want to know, squat about turkey. It's worse when the POTUS travels, as they have to send some fancy-pants reporter along to see -- usually nothing. It's partly what the wire reporters call deathwatch: you just need to be there in case the guy gets shot. But as far as news, it tends quickly to turn into stories about what the press was interested in or how the grounds are kept at Crawford, because the president and his flaks don't provide information. They barely provide entertainment. I doubt that a picture of the president on the cover of a newspaper sells as many copies as a picture of a pretty sunset.

Meanwhile, the White House press corps does more for the President than he does for them. They continue to quote his lies, put his ugly mug on the front page, and otherwise treat him like a celebrity and important character rather than the pathetic pawn he is. He needs them to prop up his image more than they need him to improve sales or to enhance truth.

Instead, that $100,000+ a year top-notch high-speed reporter could be spending day after day pursuing news containing has both information and entertainment value. Sell papers and support democracy at the same time.

Does Sy Hersh have a White House press pass? He might, but you can't tell from his stories. Still, he has helped the New Yorker become a serious news organ while exposing some of the worst crimes in Iraq, such as Abu Ghraib. How about it?

Why not give up the little plastic cards? The White House soon will learn -- they are much better off keeping you inside than forcing you to go out and write real news.

$600,000 and $1.25 will get you a bagel and cream cheese

But it won't get you a good review from Andrew Bacevich. He reads liberal hawk Peter Beinart's new The Good Fight so we don't have to:
The Good Fight is insipid, pretentious and poorly written. At points it verges on incoherence. As history, it is meretricious. As policy prescription, it is wrongheaded. Beinart has perpetrated his fraud twice over.
I just wish Beinart would set me up with one of those $600,000 advances. For that kind of dough, I'd happily be insipid, pretentious and almost incoherent. Hell, I do it here for free.

26 June, 2006

Read a book!

One of the problems with being poorly-read is that the occasional flashes of insight you might have on any particular subject are fragmented and disconnected, and at best represent pinpoints of understanding in what is most probably a vast corpus that has been explored and assembled into a huge body of knowledge and theory by hundreds of people, most of whom were far more clever than you are.

Exemplis gratia: I was about to write something for myself relating to something else* when it occurred to me that there's really no mode of writing or speech that allows you to actually write to yourself. You're always writing to an imagined audience, maybe of a necessity since the whole enterprise of speech and writing involves communication, and one can't very well communicate something to one's self without a touch of dissociative identity disorder.

I thought this was a clever bit of insight, and I was about to congratulate myself on it and explore it further when it occurred to me that someone else had probably thought of it sometime in the fifteenth century and written a treatise on the subject. This was so disheartening that I immediately gave up thinking about it. Most of my interesting trains of thought are wrecked in this fashion.

* No, you can't know what.

$39,000 more for the USPS

Yes, the U.S. Postal Service, beleaguered by e-mail, abandoned by lovers, relegated to sadly delivering bills, jury summonses and credit card solicitations, still has a niche: carrying misinformed whackjobbery to the United Nations. The good news is these windnuts just donated $39,000 to one of my favorite institutions, one which they consider flatly horrible -- the ever-leveling democratic Post Office.

19 June, 2006

Draw the blawger

I was just reading my daily dose of Jonathan Schwarz over at Tiny Revolution and it occurred to me that I had a mental image of what he looked like. This would be normal at a blerg like Bob Harris' or Saheli*'s, where there are photos of the blawgers, but I do it with everyone. When I saw Tom Tomorrow at a book reading, I was suprised at how little he looked like his characters. I expected him to be a white man in a plain beige suit with slicked down hair, sort of a much geekier Tom Wolfe, and to be a bit short and squat. I won't ruin the surprise for everyone, but let's just say I was right. He was white. Similarly, I met regular commenter Saurav, who to my eyes was much more hyper, rather than laconic, than I expected, and just generally more of a clean-cut New Yorker rather than a dreadlocked chain-wielding punk. Among other differences.

What about the rest of us? What do we look like? Describe your favorite blawger-you-never met. I want to know. Later I'll post my description of Schwarz.

Trouble in Oaxaca

A news search for the term "oaxaca" is informative: following a teacher's union strike in Oaxaca City, three thousand cops attacked demonstrators, apparently opening fire on the crowd and killing up to eleven people. There are zero wire service reports about this; the only place it's being discussed is in places like Pacifica, NarcoNews, Indymedia, etc. I only got this from my friend Nancy who happens to live there. One presumes that stories like this go unreported all the time. Just banal, routine violent repression of working people.

18 June, 2006

More porn please

If the FCC has a comment line where I can demand more smut on TV and radio, I would like to know what it is. This isn't for my own benefit, as I have no trouble finding sweaty bodies to watch. I am just concerned about the good people at the American Family Association. They need this info, fast.

As it stands, they are using their Internet bandwidth broadcasting video recordings of the most banal, soft-core porn -- from prime time -- to their eager, hungry audience.

Clearly, the "Family" folks are desperate. Maybe there aren't good video stores in their small towns, or maybe they haven't quite figured out the Internets. Or even more likely, they can't wait through the dullness of prime-time dramas and the bizarrely psychadelic commercials (fairies coming and touching you in the sleep? a woman's head projecting from your shoulder at all times? a guy with a bunch of stuffed fruit on his head playing cards in the park with people who are trying not to notice? Acid, anyone?) to see action considerably more tame than what I saw today at Coney Island. (Speaking of which, is there a V-chip for the beach?) Instead they go to the Cliff Notes version for the juicy bits. (Via This Modern World.)

The problem comes when they write the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to request more concentrated and revealing porn in prime-time. They keep messing up and using the complaint line, a practice that recently landed CBS with a $3.3 million obscenity fine.

Please, help the Families. Find us the "more porn, please" line at the FCC!

14 June, 2006

Nazi punks, fuck off

Punk ain't no religious cult
Punk means thinking for yourself...

You'll be the first to go
You'll be the first to go
You'll be the first to go
Unless you think

13 June, 2006

The one about the iPod

I realized yesterday that I had never made my iPod rant here, and what else is a blog for, after all? So here it is.

Sometime back I came to the bus stop and had an epiphany forced upon me. Everyone had something attached to their ear - some had cell phones, but most had those familiar thin white wires, myelinated axon fibers running directly from their ears to their vital nerve centers: the small white boxes in their pockets. Each one of them was being fed their own private stream of sound, covering them in an invisible shell, hermetically sealing them off from the world around them, from the very people they were brushing shoulders with. At that moment I got down on my knees, laid my axe on the ground in front of me and raised my arms to the heavens, swearing by the name of Dyaus Pitr that I would never, ever join that cult.

I am, of course, not the first to note the ill effects of isolation caused by iPods. Andrew Sullivan has a very nice column on the subject in the Times Online, and a private school in Sydney went so far as to ban them. Quoth the principal: "It's important for kids to be talking to one another at school, socialising and being part of a community. That's why they come to school, to be connected."

iPods are an exemplary phenomenon, a poster-gadget for the alienation our society seems to encourage; as a single manifestation they're probably not, in and of themselves, worthy of close attention or ire. But I've always tended to latch onto particular archetypal examples as actual demons - the GAP as the embodiment of monotonous, sweatshop-produced trendwear, or SUVs as destroyers of the environment. This instantly makes my statements weaker, since the implied action (stop wearing GAP clothing, driving an SUV, and listening to an iPod) is not going to stop the problem. It is only indicative of it. Social isolation would continue exist even were everyone to take the buds out of their ears; everyone isn't going to magically start talking to their neighbors or the guy standing next to them on the bus. But iPods do make things incrementally worse, and it's really the death of a thousand cuts that we should fear. Catastrophe rarely emerges directly in front of us, roaring and tearing things apart like Godzilla. Usually it sneaks up upon us from behind, so quietly and gradually that we barely notice that the buildings have crumbled, the flood waters have risen, and we're standing ankle-deep in flotsam and rubble.

There's a whole host of choices available to us these days that allow us to defect to the hermetic world. Blogs, for example - you can read what you want and ignore what you dislike. Even the opinion you dislike usually comes through the baleen curtain of some ideologically aligned blog - you only have to listen to the echoes, never to the actual source sound. These kind of choices are always easy to make - why would I, indeed, choose the unpleasant, the difficult world that stings me and causes me discomfort? Better to gather the warmest bits of the world around myself and build a nice, soft cocoon, of the sounds I like, of the people I like, of the opinions that are like my own, of the world that is the way that I want to see it, and not as it actually is.

So this is the way we're going to go: each to our own quiet depths, alone and dead to each other. Bye. Nice knowing you. I'll see you in your YouTube video clip.


Noah, over at Max Udargo's blog, has been chronicling his ordeals building that damn ark. Check it out in case you haven't, yet. Parts one, two, and three, so far.

10 June, 2006

Be there or be clothed

The don't-miss-it event of the day. It should already be underway in Australia, sweeping the planet toward western North America, where it will disappear into the ocean ... until next time.

09 June, 2006

One tongue moves, but he speaks with the other!

I've come across a few Colbert-style faux-conservative satirical blogs lately. I like Conservatives for American Values a lot - unfortunately their sidebar seems to have vanished, but you can check out some of their older posts (e.g. "My Boss is Gay"). Also check out Jon Swift, who attracted my attention with "Ann Coulter Tackles the Menace of Widows and Grieving Mothers". Know any others?

06 June, 2006

The nubile beauties of Rigel 6B will never be mine

WARNING! This post may contain descriptions of hot tentacle sex!

Mimic is one of the Wikipedia articles I started a long time ago (you can see my original revision here) which has never quite been whipped into proper shape. Recently someone raised the issue of covering self-mimicry, that is, when a creature mimics another bodypart or object, like a leaf or an eye. In the course of reading around on the subject, I stumbled upon this rather beautifully-written essay about mimicry which rather neatly illustrates a rather important but unappreciated evolutionary principle.

The Viceroy and the Monarch, respectively.
The essay outlines Nabokov's* critique of Batesian mimicry in the Viceroy butterfly. The conventional tale goes that the Viceroy mimics the Monarch butterfly, thus successfully avoiding predation because the Monarch is bitter and unpleasant to birds. As it turns out, though, the Viceroy itself is bitter and unpleasant to the taste (which Nabokov verified by direct taste-test), which removes the alleged impetus for selection. A more likely source of the apparent mimicry is the fact that butterfly bodyplans impose constraints on the evolution of wing patterns; there is not, in fact, infinite variation available, but a specific number of constrained patterns that can evolve. The odds that two highly simliar bodyplans will emerge merely by chance is therefore much higher.

This underscores the idea that evolution is constrained both by physics and by history. By now you may have already noted that no creature has evolved the ability to teleport or phase through rock. But there is a kind of inevitability imposed by biological history as well. The mammalian body plan, for example, established some 200 million years ago, means that we're committed to a certain evolutionary path, deviation from which is enormously difficult.

So, for example, cetaceans have diverged remarkably in their 50 million years of evolution away from the artiodactyls who are their evolutionary sisters, to the point where it's faintly ridiculous to imagine that the mountain goat and the whale are not that distantly related. In that time, though the cetacean body plan has shown remarkable plasticity, it has also remained constrained in significant ways. Most notably, though cetaceans spend their entire lives in the ocean, they still cannot extract oxygen from the water, like other sea-dwelling creatures do. This, presumably, is because the mammalian commitment to a heart/lung system is fairly robust, and redeveloping gills simply requires too much reengineering of structure to be evolutionarily feasible. That is, the evolutionary landscape can be explored if adaptations do not have intolerable fitness penalties. Whales are warm-blooded and have large brains and bodies; their survival is contingent on maintaining these, and they have adapted to do so by developing thick blubber coats. Giving up on these for gills seems unlikely to happen.

On the other hand, observe the incredible plasticity in form amongst vertebrates, which can elongate their spines, lose limbs and digits, reshape skulls, etc., with relative facility. This, because the gene system that regulates the development of the body (e.g. Hox genes and other homeobox genes) can be tweaked with relative ease to produce phenotypically dramatic shifts in body size and shape. This means it would be comparatively easy, for example, for humans to evolve fins and webbed toes - lengthening the bones in the fingers and toes is a snap, as is disabling programmed cell death in the skin that normally grows between the digits in the developing embryo.

Most significantly, this teleology makes it next to impossible for any Earth-bound creatures to escape fundamental truths of life on this planet: the genetic code, the twenty basic amino-acids, ribosomes, and nucleic acids as information carriers.

It also means that it's extremely unlikely any extraterrestrial life we encounter will operate along similar principles.

If life has multiple points of origin across the universe, it is likely that there will be, at the very least, subtle differences in the biological molecules employed by alien lifeforms. Even assuming they use similar polymer-based mechanisms for encoding genetic information, it's unlikely they'll use deoxyribose sugars or the specific purine/pyrimidine bases we use. More importantly, the complement of amino acids (if they are used at all) will vary. Even the chirality of amino acids (all Earthling amino acids exist as L-enantiomers, for reasons unknown. Maybe coincidence.) could have significant effects.

Sorry, ladies.
So when we encounter an alien, even if they're carbon-based, proteinate, oxygen-breathing, sugar-metabolising multicellular lifeforms like us, it's extremely likely they won't resemble us at all biochemically. What this means is when Kal-El french kisses Lois Lane, he's probably introducing a whole host of compounds into her mouth that she's unable to process biochemically, and that might even be highly toxic to her. Akin to kissing a drum of oil. The wages of sin in this case could run the gamut of most kinds of poisoning you can think of. Even the dust produced by alien skin cells flaking off would be toxic, blessedly killing off allergenic dust-mites, but also instantly inducing lethal coughing fits as soon as you walk into your alien buddy's studio apartment.

As for sex? You can forget it. Even assuming that anatomical incompatibilities don't render you unable to perform the act or make it exceedingly unenjoyable, short of wearing a full-body condom (including the mouth) there's no possibility of you groping and fondling a strapping Klingon warrior or cuddling with Oola the Twi'lek dancing-girl. Melding sensitive membranous flesh together might result in subsequent necrosis and organ failure in both parties, which seems like a high price to pay for a close encounter.

* Yes, that Nabokov. In addition to being one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, he was also, annoyingly, an equally distinguished lepidopterist. Fucker.

Although apparently some biologists who consult for Marvel Comics think that these developments are due to arrive any day now.

02 June, 2006


I don't know if I ever got around to writing up my recanting of my stance on election fraud in the 2004 presidential race - at the time I was quite disparaging of the idea, and I wrote to a number of friends and mailing lists that they should give it a rest and concentrate on more important things (like why half the country still thought it was a good idea to vote for Bush).

Sometime back I read a nice refutation of the argument made against exit polls, based on simple statistical arguments. Essentially the claim made by Edison/Mitofsky (the exit polling organisation) was that there was a substantial skew caused by the (unexplained) tendency of Bush voters to be more reluctant to respond to exit polls, compared to Kerry voters. In fact, the opposite turns out to be the case; in strong Kerry districts the response rate was 53%, while in Bush districts it was 56%. There were a number of other similar arguments which demolished the weak thesis put forward by Edison/Mitofsky to explain the fact that the exit polls failed so dramatically.

But you should all read the long article Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. wrote on the subject for Rolling Stone - here. It's astoundingly comprehensive, and contains some pretty shocking details. What's most depressing is that I expect absolutely nothing at all to come of it.

Grassroots defense

We recently had a discussion on here about how to reform democracy in the shell of current systems. One day as I gritted my teeth over it, I burrowed into City Lights Books' basement, grabbed the first book I saw, bought it, and was pleased to find it addressing this exact topic.

Who Defended the Country? is about how to reclaim democracy in national defense. It is the best exposition I have seen on the ethics and practicality of using decentralized, democratic forms to mount an effective, consensual defense.

The book uses United Flight 93 as a metaphor for the entire country. On Flight 93, author Elaine Scarry points out, the passengers went through five necessary and sufficient phases in the decision to give their lives for a cause. They identified their enemy and determined the enemy's capabilities; they gathered information about the broader world (the WTC attack) through phone calls; they verified that information through multiple sources; they consulted with outside advisors and with one another to decide on a course of action; they voted; they prepared themselves for action; they took leave of their loved ones; they acted.

It took 23 minutes.

Meanwhile, Scarry accurately points out, today's military relies on centralized authoritarian decisions without consent of those who will fight, much less those are being dragged along (citizens, allies). Instead, we are supposed to let the President, or maybe even a field commander, decide to use a weapon of mass destruction like a fuel-air explosive or a full nuclear arsenal.

The justification for centralized decisionmaking, Scarry says, is the "argument from speed." She rightly points out that not only does centralized decisionmaking undermine democracy by eliminating informed consent in the most life-and-death decisions, it is also slow. The Department of "Defense" failed to stop any planes on 0.8181.* (And like she says, had fighters reached the planes, who could justify ordering them to shoot a plane down? No military allows orders that open fire on hundreds of fellow soldiers; why allow such an act on civilians?) Later, with the U.S. on high alert, the military still missed the kid who crashed a Cessna into a Tampa office tower, the folks who cruised around over Washington, D.C. in their private plane, and Richard Reid the feckless shoe-bomber. When it comes to aerial assault, grassroots action by people on the ground is much more effective.

This reminds me of the story of the Finnish farmers. In World War II, they did a job on Russian planes with their rifles. After pilots crashed, they went out and killed them face-to-face. Not to say I approve of killing ill-defended individuals, but rather than a person sitting at home on familiar territory is the best judge of when and how to fight back.

So maybe if you want to defend the country, the best things you can do are learn to defend yourself (physically, mentally). Develop local groups to deal with crises from car crashes to invasions (that is, from most probable to least). Learn to run a quick and effective democratic meeting.

Maybe instead of football and ROTC, our schools should teach people democracy and self-defense. Thoughts?

*It is with relief that I note how long it's been since I've made this
joke. Does that mean we, or at least I, are getting over it?

That rendition stuff is going great

The people in charge in Washington started grabbing suspects and throwing them in a hole after 9/11 because they were wimps. They thought our system of due process couldn't handle these guys. They were so ahistorical they thought they were living in a whole new world, one with bigger badder threats than ever, one that required something new and different. Rendition, Gitmo, the "black sites."

Now, yet another likely Al-Qaeda member gets freed because evidence from these enemy combatants is useless in court. Add him to the list that already includes Mounir el Motassadeq in Germany and quite possibly some characters here in the U.S.

Toughen up, Washington. Just because you can't take a punch doesn't mean the rest of us can't. We don't need your panicked "defense" that leaves us in more danger than we were before. Time to realize that the tough, manly, honorable response to violence is to defend yourself and then keep doing what you were doing before, like James Bond straightening his tux and returning to his cocktail.

01 June, 2006

No, today is Memorial Day.

Military cemetaries make me tear up. Their silence* always feels appropriately embarrassed. What can you say to a kid you send to die, emotionally if not physically? Here, have a free tombstone?

So Memorial Day, when I biked to Presidio National Cemetary, I expected to find myself sad as usual at the grassy hillside of rank and file. Instead, I found myself irritated. Not just my usual Memorial Day irritation at the most violent, aggressive nation on earth taking a day to play victim while ignoring those it has killed. I'm used to that feeling. This was a new, improved irritation.

Each grave was decorated with its own American flag. Ten thousand or more fluttered like pinwheels in spring sunshine, looking as cheery and disposable as a raver picnic. Salt in the wound.

There's no greater betrayal of democracy than offensive war. Nobody signs up and enthusiastically donates her or his life for Empire and Conquest. While I'm sure some died happy to know that they helped defend the country against Mexican depredation, Spanish -- um, sinking of the Alamo, Japanese invasion (which even happened!), Communist dominos, or more 9/11s, we're not citizens when we're dead. We're dirt, just like the rabbit I saw on a trail earlier, its entrails being devoured by flies and ants just hours after being crushed by a mountain bike. We're the same dirt no matter what country we called home.

For a country to try to reclaim these corpses, after betraying them by drafting or duping them to die in wars that were, beneath the public rhetoric, almost all aggressive, is like a murderer showing up to a funeral. For the reclamation to be so cheery and parti-colored is like the murderer offering everyone ham canapes.

Of course it's not just the military that screws the pooch on Memorial Day. I also saw mourners visiting graves in fancy Lexi and Mercedeses ("Thanks for dying so I can drive a fancy car!") and I saw a man on a beach with a big flag and a boombox playing bombastic John Philip Souza marches, all brass and snares and the joy of the military machine. I'll take less of that and more Taps, please.

Forget official Memorial Day. Remember the dead of all sides, every day.

* Golden Gate National Cemetary excepted. It's in the flight path of an airport and next to a freeway. Some cemetaries are beyond embarrassment.

A growth to be happy about

I think it's obvious that Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, is an absurd temperature gauge of our economy. But for more than a decade, I haven't been able to put my finger on what it is that's missing. Here's a brainstorm that you smarter people can kick around.

I think the problem is that GDP shows only what is in the money economy. If something isn't monetized, like fresh air or sunlight or a lover's kiss, it has no value in the GDP. Conversely, an oxygen tank, lightbulb or prostitute's blow-job is part of the GDP. So we need a measure that accounts for the full range of wealth and income, not just the part that happens to go through a cash register.

I think we should come up with balance sheets for our geographic areas that resemble those for business, in which businesses need to account for inventory and physical plant. In business, such a balance sheet accompanies the income statement -- the equivalent of the GDPs and net savings rates that geographic areas frequently calculate.

A geographic area's balance sheet should include its resource base, including water, fuel, educated citizenry, public health, and so on.

Each year, along with reporting the increase or decrease in monetary wealth for the place, government should also report on changes in resource wealth, including both cultural and natural resources. And unlike most U.S. accounting, it should mark those resources to market. That is accounting jargon for this: The inventory should calculate how much the country's fresh water, educated citizens, topsoil, and so on are worth TODAY, not how much they were worth when they were purchased or conquered. (For various reasons, most companies need to be conservative in their estimates of wealth, so they say a good is worth what they paid for it. That's goofy when it comes to geographic administrative areas.)

Under such a system, scarcity (e.g., drought) would increase the present value of a resource (e.g., water). That way in a drought, a place will have to be more careful in spending its water, as reducing its supply in an aquifer will do more to reduce the place's reported net assets in a drought than in a flush period.

Increases in national/city/planetary wealth could be credited to the GDP. So services provided "free" by nature, families, and public services would get credit for increasing people's income as they really experience it. A politician or central banker could get credit for increasing cash income or for increasing the plenitude of resources, especially scarce ones.

If anything, free services have a higher felt value than those that cost money, due in part to the cheapening, desensitizing effect that money has on all relations. It would be good to credit our free services in our accounting of wealth and income.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?