g r o t t o 1 1

Peeve Farm
Breeding peeves for show, not just to keep as pets
Brian Tiemann
Silicon ValleyNew York-based purveyor of a confusing mixture of Apple punditry, political bile, and sports car rentals.

btman at grotto11 dot com

Read These Too:

Steven Den Beste
James Lileks
Little Green Footballs
As the Apple Turns
Cold Fury
Capitalist Lion
Red Letter Day
Eric S. Raymond
Tal G in Jerusalem
Aziz Poonawalla
Corsair the Rational Pirate
Ravishing Light
Cartago Delenda Est

Cars without compromise.

Book Plugs:

Buy 'em and I get
money. I think.
BSD Mall

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12/27/2004 -   1/2/2004
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12/13/2004 - 12/19/2004
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11/29/2004 -  12/5/2004
11/22/2004 - 11/28/2004
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10/25/2004 - 10/31/2004
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12/30/2002 -   1/5/2003
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11/25/2002 -  12/1/2002
11/18/2002 - 11/24/2002
11/11/2002 - 11/17/2002
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10/28/2002 -  11/3/2002
10/21/2002 - 10/27/2002
10/14/2002 - 10/20/2002
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 4/29/2002 -   5/5/2002
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 4/15/2002 -  4/21/2002
  4/8/2002 -  4/14/2002
  4/1/2002 -   4/7/2002
 3/25/2002 -  3/31/2002
 3/18/2002 -  3/24/2002
 3/11/2002 -  3/17/2002
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 2/18/2002 -  2/24/2002
 2/11/2002 -  2/17/2002
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 1/28/2002 -   2/3/2002
 1/21/2002 -  1/27/2002
 1/14/2002 -  1/20/2002
  1/7/2002 -  1/13/2002
12/31/2001 -   1/6/2002
12/24/2001 - 12/30/2001
12/17/2001 - 12/23/2001
Saturday, December 17, 2005
18:12 - Googlin' my heart away

Google for "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego."

(This (via Chris) is cool too.)

14:32 - Give the gift of reduced choice

It's amusing to watch the sudden proliferation of gift cards this year. Every retailer is doing one, it seems—not just REI and Macy's and iTunes and Barnes & Noble, but Safeway and Chipotle and McDonald's. Can you imagine getting a McDonald's gift card? (Their ads try to make airy and vague claims about how you get more than food with one—you also get fun, somehow. I don't get it.)

It's a retailer's dream come true, though. There's nothing they have to make in order to sell one. They can be stocked effortlessly in checkout counters anywhere. And best of all, like rebates, a significant number of them never get redeemed. I noticed that a Borders card I got a while ago proudly said, "No fee for non-usage!" Yeah, like they're going to complain that someone paid them for a gift card that nobody ever used to claim any merchandise. That outcome is in their interest, you know.

This isn't to say gift cards don't make a good gift. What I find funny, though, is the premise upon which they're based. Let's see... you're buying someone a card... that's worth a certain centrally stored amount of money... good only at the retailer advertised on the card.

The card doesn't have to exist at all for a person to give someone else exactly the same largesse. The only reason gift cards exist is the fact that society has declared it gauche to give money as a gift.

The only benefit that a gift card provides over money is a dubious one—that the fact that it's for a certain store will suggest to the recipient that that store might be a good place to buy something he might want, which he might possibly not have considered before. I might get a Fry's gift card and use that as an excuse to go buy some piece of computer junk at Fry's rather than just going ignorantly without. If I'd just received money, I'd have simply put it in my HELOC and forgotten about it. But at least with a gift card you're likely to buy an actual gift with it.

But the bottom line is that gift cards provide all the benefits of money except the LEGAL TENDER FOR ALL DEBTS, PUBLIC AND PRIVATE part. If it weren't for the fact that giving money is considered bad form, gift cards would be laughed off the shelves, because what they really represent is a restricted form of money—money without the choice of where to spend it.

In fact, I even saw an American Express gift card at Safeway the other day. Apparently the idea being that you buy someone a certain chunk of credit on their American Express card. Its slogan? Give the gift of choice..

As opposed to all those other gift cards, of course, with their implicit lack of choice. But if you really wanted to "give the gift of choice", you'd write a check.

Now, again, I'm not saying gift cards make bad gifts; I certainly don't mind receiving them. In fact, for the aforementioned psychological reasons, I would prefer them to getting money, because I know I need to be able to get frivolous items once in a while in order to stay sane. A man cannot live on mortgage payments alone. It's just probably a good idea to retain no illusions about what gift cards actually are.

...Wait. No... actually, scratch that. Sometimes illusions are good things. They sure make shopping easier. I mean, at least a gift card gives the recipient more choice than an actual gift, right?

Friday, December 16, 2005
17:41 - He who laughs last doesn't get the joke

Wow. They sure are making lucid "9-year-olds" these days.

And apparently they're all writing comments on posts like this one. Yeesh! (Here's another example of commenters proving the author's point.)

Via JMH.

Thursday, December 15, 2005
03:33 - Tongue-tied

Before I had the chance to change the channel to something else, I saw the first few minutes of Attack of the Show on G4, whatever it is. Its two hipster anchors led off with a self-consciously earnest-sounding "history in the making" editorial about the Iraqi election that seemed to sort of catch one of them off guard—the guy suddenly went off on a bit of a tirade, out of nowhere, about the Iraqi purple fingers and what significance they have, what a momentous day this is, and so on. The girl picked up on it quickly, kept trying to spin jokes off it, but the guy was focused and serious about acknowledging how huge a milestone this is for Iraq and how exhilarating it is and ought to be for anyone whose pulse quickens a little at the thought of seeing a new democracy being born. "Even after all the Bush-bashing and jokes we've made," he said, "you've just gotta step back and realize what an amazing thing this is." (He then castigated whoever it was who'd created a t-shirt and ad slogan called "Vote & Dye", railing against its tastelessness in exploiting a genuine revolutionary moment for the sake of a silly pseudo-political joke.)

His co-anchor concurred thus: "Yeah... even if you disagreed with... with it, you just have to agree that this is just a tremendous thing to observe..."

And I just had to chuckle ruefully. Even if you disagreed with... what? The elections taking place? Their legitimacy? Whether any of it existed outside the studios producing this sequel to the moon-landing hoaxes? No, just it, apparently. Yet it's an amazing thing to have happen.

Oh, sure, she could have said even if you disagree with certain aspects of the conduct of the war or the idea that this can last or the general idea that war solves global problems, and then the statement would make sense. But you could tell what she was trying to avoid saying: Even if you disagreed with fighting the war to free Iraq, it's still great to see them bringing that freedom to fruition.

Because then she'd have to say In spite of us.

It's a tough rhetorical position to be in, and I don't envy her. It's certainly possible to register a valid opinion that the war shouldn't have been fought, but that seeing parliamentary elections is still a stirring sight. It's just not easy. There aren't too many ways to finesse such a statement, to convey simultaneously that this was a desirable outcome, yet that we were wrong to pursue it. And hipster pseudo-news anchors don't really seem up to the challenge.

Yet I wonder how general in appeal the male anchor's loud, defensive-sounding rant might turn out to be. This might be an opportunity for people in positions like his to start saying "enough is enough"—to back the cause of Iraqi freedom because it's the right thing to do, not because it implies something about your political standing. Now that the Iraqi people have spoken, standing with them doesn't have to mean you're a Bush supporter anymore. Not that it ever did, really. But now there's an excuse to say so out loud.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005
16:31 - Eat the rich

Key word in this story is "mansion".

I'm all for giving people every opportunity and incentive to get rich. But I can't help but be saddened to see that so often it makes people into raving nutters who couldn't relate to another human being if their lives depended on it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005
22:38 - The Japanese invent Tom & Jerry

Well, not quite. It's its own thing. But it is good.

Via Chris.

22:19 - Shut up, Brian

I heard from a friend the other day that a research group from MIT had conclusively proved that cow-tipping was impossible.

"Yeah," I thought, "but at least you get lean meat from it."

Thursday, December 8, 2005
18:51 - Who does the better satire?

Exhibit A, or

Exhibit B.

My vote is in.

UPDATE: Also there's a difference between "fascists" who calmly stand for reelection and fascists who kidnap and murder people.

Wednesday, December 7, 2005
20:18 - Nuance \Nu`ance"\, n. Hypocrisy.

You know—thick-headed knuckle-dragger that I am, this whole "nuance" thing has eluded me all this time. Somehow or other I just never took the time to sit down and figure it all out.

Well, now I get it:

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights understands the concern in Muslim countries over the 12 cartoons of the prophet Muhammad and expects UN experts on racism to deal with the matter. At the same time as Islamic countries in a meeting in Mecca are going to discuss joint action against Denmark, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour has involved herself in the discussion.

The leader of the UN’s work on human rights is saying in plain words that she is concerned over the drawings that Jyllands-Posten printed in September, expressing “apologies” for statements and actions demonstrating a lack of respect for the religion of other people. In a letter to the 56 member countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), she states: “I understand your concerns and would like to emphasize that I regret any statement or act that could express a lack of respect for the religion of others”. In a complaint to the High Commissioner, the 56 Islamic governments have asked Louise Arbour to raise the matter with the Danish government “to help contain this encroachment on Islam, so the situation won’t get out of control.” Two UN experts, on religous freedom and on racism and xenophobia, are said to be working on the case. The Islamic governments have expressed satisfaction with the reply from Louise Arbour.

Two key lines:

"I regret any statement or act that could express a lack of respect for the religion of others."

"...help contain this encroachment on Islam, so the situation won’t get out of control."

The first statement is bland and general, brimming with tolerance and acceptance and brotherhood and all those nice things. A lack of respect for the religion of others! The horror! We must fight all examples of lack of respect for religion.

...Except stuff like this, of course. How many UN resolutions or frantic letters of apology (with implicit appeals for state censorship) were there about it? Or about any of the things the commenters are pointing out, like this and this? Did the UN condemn the lyrics of Imagine? I seem to remember that the orthodox and adult response to those affronted by Serrano was "Dude, it's art. Grow up and get over it."

It's the second statement where the "nuance" comes into play. It's the carefully worded acknowledgment that, um, yes, members of some religions seem to take it far more personally when you do things like print cartoons of their figures, and react far more violently, than others. So much so, indeed, that it's worth sending out UN apology letters to dozens of heads of state and ask Denmark to censor its press. So the situation won’t get out of control.

The nuance in all this lies in being able to say both these things at the same time. Respect for all religions! Except we only really mean the ones that'll kill you if you don't. The rest it's hip and modern to disrespect.

The UN is the smiling, nodding adults agitatedly trying to hush up the kid laughing and pointing at the naked Emperor. They know it's better to keep the illusion alive than to try to hold everyone to the same standards, whether of equal religious respect or of equal secular irreverence. But they just can't say it out loud. That's nuance.

UPDATE: I guess this means we're all pragmatists in some matters, and we're all idealists in others. I suppose I'm a pragmatist when it comes to foreign relations and economics and environmental issues, and I'm more idealistic on matters of civil liberties and human equality. Is the opposite true of those I find myself opposed to? Are the UN, who are apparently primarily dedicated to preserving the status quo, the ultimate pragmatists? Hmm. This is an interesting mental path to tread...

Friday, December 2, 2005
15:49 - About Wal-Mart (but not really)

Good post here (via InstaPundit) about Wal-Mart and its detractors, and an equally good discussion thread that doesn't devolve into name-calling or snarkiness like it always does in real life whenever the subject comes up among my old-growth whole-bean friends.

But that's not what I wanted to bring up. This is:

About the long lines at Walmart: the large W-M recently opened near me (McHenry County, Illinois) has a substantial number of self-scan lanes. These seem to be the wave of the future in large discount and grocery stores.

Undoubtedly we will now hear moans about how automation is destroying jobs.

Undoubtedly. But add me instead to the moan roster about how automation is destroying the shopping experience.

Granted, the auto-checkout kiosks in stores like Home Depot are great; I prefer them to the hands-on kind of checkout when I'm buying toilet seats or PVC piping or presealed bags of screws. But at the grocery store? No thank you.

We're oscillating between Safeway and Albertson's for our shopping these days. They're both open 24 hours. Safeway has the advantage of slightly lower prices and of being closer, friendlier, and more recently renovated to achieve a very upscale interior look, especially in the produce and bakery areas; although they saw fit to replace the indoor shopping cart corral with a miniature Starbuck's, they correspondingly redid the outside fascia and apron area to accommodate them. But Albertson's has a much better selection; what they lack in price competitiveness or interior atmosphere they more than make up for in the quality of their produce, the selection of interesting cheeses, and their unwillingness to stop stocking something useful (like Sriracha sauce) just because enough people seem to want jalapeño-flavored potato chips for them to occupy ten feet floor-to-ceiling at all times (like at Safeway). Who cares if the lighting at Albertson's is glaring, the signage is cheap-looking, and the bakery section is poorly laid out: the peppers are taut and fresh and the pomegranates are huge. Despite their being further away and more annoying to get around in, I'd be willing to switch to Albertson's full-time except for one deal-breaking feature: they're switching to automated checkout.

A number of times lately I've been in there and the checkout area has been staffed by a total of one employee: the one manning the podium at the four-station automated checkout lane. Which means I have exactly one choice for how to check out.

Granted, using the self-scanner is fine for cans and bottles and bags. But what about produce? This is a use case that Home Depot doesn't have to deal with: you have to put the bag of vegetables on the scale, then press a series of slowly responding buttons, each screen triggering a loud, cheery narration—PLEASE SELECT FROM THE ITEMS ON THE SCREEN, OR KEY IN A NUMBER—until you've determined what exact kind of stuff you've got. Are these onions Maui Sweet, Vidalia Sweet, Vidalia, White, or The Kind You Hang On Your Belt? The button icons are no help—they all have the same identical "onion" bitmap, and my onions look nothing like what are pictured. I can't remember how the ones I picked up were labeled. I know it said "Sweet", but there are six "Sweet" varieties to choose from on the screen, probably all priced very differently—leading one to wonder, while standing uncertainly at the kiosk, what's stopping me from prodding the "Potatoes (Bulk Industrial-grade)" button and getting my onions for three cents a pound. Aside, of course, from the kiosk attendant who has to come hovering over everyone who stops by, peer over their shoulders, and point out that you can (in many cases) find a numeric code on the stickers on the vegetables which you can key in directly—which only applies to a few kinds of produce anyway. And that's not even to bring up the fact that it's terribly easy to get the machine into a state of confusion where the attendant has to come over and unjam it to get it to stop braying PLEASE PLACE THE ITEM IN THE BAGGING AREA at you even after you stuck it there and picked it up and put it firmly down several times. Or the fact that if you're at Home Depot, you're shopping so as to solve one particular home maintenance problem, and you're buying maybe five things, ten tops. But grocery shopping? Who wants to scan fifteen dog-food cans, a slab of shrink-wrapped meat, a French baguette, and forty other bits of provisions for the upcoming week—and then try to cram them all into the little weight-sensitive shelf while ten people stack up in line behind you and the kiosk attendant looks on in harried desperation?

Meanwhile, what if the customer is illiterate—or just not comfortable with using the touch-screen system? It's not easy. It isn't the best designed interface in the world even when everything's running smoothly, and it involves many times the patience and concentration of the average ATM visit. Sure, if one of the regular checkout lanes is open, you can just head over there—but again, sometimes that's just not an option, because the only lane they've got open is the automated one. (And last time I was in there, two of the four stations had OUT OF ORDER signs.)

Further to the Wal-Mart discussion, where the commenters point out that the dynamics of the market will determine what kind of business decisions are good for customers and which ones aren't, I cannot bring myself to give my patronage to Albertson's as long as there is this clear and obvious difference between them and Safeway, who make something of a proud point of not having automated checkout. Sure, they've got to staff more checkers; but these checkers get to use the mechanisms of the checkout counter, developed over many decades, in the manner in which they've been proven to work. And the upshot is that the shopping experience—firm peppers or no firm peppers—is vastly superior. If for no other reason than that a trained employee can process a cart full of groceries in about one tenth the time it takes me to do it myself at the automated checkout kiosk, and I'm not furious and behind schedule when I head out to the car. I feel like I've been served, not like I've been serving the company. And that's worth something to me.

Thursday, December 1, 2005
15:36 - Stupid Google Tricks

Man, this is silly. But fun nonetheless.

You know, when people always said they'd end up in China if they dug straight through the Earth, I assumed they were writing from England or somewhere, because US diggers would all emerge in the Indian Ocean. But to end up in China you'd have to start in South America...

Via JMH, via Frank J.

15:19 - Caption-o-rama

I saw this in a local paper over lunch, and it's just one of those things:

Dr Sentamu, who now holds the second highest post in the Church of England, banged on the door of the huge Gothic cathedral with a pastoral staff made from an olive tree grown in Bethlehem before he was allowed to enter.

Several alternate captions leaped immediately to mind:

The bishops inside shouted back, "Not by the hairs on our chinny-chin-chins!"

"You... shall not... pass!"

Newly installed archbishop Sentamu attempts to knock the 95 Theses off the church door using a ten-foot pole.

And given that he's the CoE's first black archbishop, I'll leave it to those more tasteless than myself to do a post-Katrina-coverage "looting" gag...

Monday, November 28, 2005
16:46 - Just wondering

If you buy this, do they make you register it?

Friday, November 25, 2005
14:46 - Sheee-yoot, you alien varmints!

So if the UN can't take control of the Internet away from the US and hand its governance over to China and Cuba and North Korea, at least Canada will be able to formulate the rules by which we make contact with alien civilizations that come by Earth. Because, see, the alternative is letting the stupid Americans shoot their six-guns at 'em the moment they come onto the radar screen, yellin' Get off our proppity!

On September 25, 2005, in a startling speech at the University of Toronto that caught the attention of mainstream newspapers and magazines, Paul Hellyer, Canada’s Defence Minister from 1963-67 under Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Prime Minister Lester Pearson, publicly stated: "UFOs, are as real as the airplanes that fly over your head."

Mr. Hellyer went on to say, "I'm so concerned about what the consequences might be of starting an intergalactic war, that I just think I had to say something."

Hellyer revealed, "The secrecy involved in all matters pertaining to the Roswell incident was unparalled. The classification was, from the outset, above top secret, so the vast majority of U.S. officials and politicians, let alone a mere allied minister of defence, were never in-the-loop."

Hellyer warned, "The United States military are preparing weapons which could be used against the aliens, and they could get us into an intergalactic war without us ever having any warning. He stated, "The Bush administration has finally agreed to let the military build a forward base on the moon, which will put them in a better position to keep track of the goings and comings of the visitors from space, and to shoot at them, if they so decide."

Hellyer’s speech ended with a standing ovation.

Now, totally leaving aside the obvious bizarreness of the guy's premise—and of the fact that it got a standing ovation from the intellectuals in the University of Toronto crowd—this whole thing just acts as a perfect illustration of how one could do a cartoon of global politics today. Sure, it sounds all florid and is full of multisyllabic words, but it all just boils down to some very simple, very simplistic impulses.

The idea in this case being that: Every group, race, and culture on this planet—or off it—has peaceful intentions and must be greeted with peace and accommodation. And the Americans, who are paranoid and trigger-happy and get off on randomly making war for no particular reason, will louse everything up for the rest of us.

Does that about cover it?

Now, it seems to me that even glancing at the details of the allegations makes the whole house of cards fall down. Let's assume, for example, that some alien civilization decides to come here and make contact. Now, that implies that they have faster-than-light capabilities and who knows what other technology, which certainly implies far superior weaponry than we've ever dreamed. So... if the aliens are coming here to make war on us, there's no way to even imagine that having "a forward base on the moon" would give us, who can barely get a satellite into orbit without throwing our economy for a loop, any kind of fighting chance in an "intergalactic war".

So the implication is that the US is not only so intrinsically violent and paranoid as to want to put up defenses in case the aliens should—by some off chance—not come in peace, but that we're so mortally stupid as to think it would do any good.

Know what I think? Some people, indeed the ones most lauded and laureated with the draperies of International Intellectualism, have a worldview that comes straight out of all those sci-fi movies where humans ruin their chances for Enlightenment and Uplift by being primitive and violent animals. Whereas their idea of the US's mindset, or lack thereof, comes straight out of the sci-fi movies where humanity is menaced by an implacable intergalactic plague. Our world is Independence Day and Aliens, theirs is Kodos and Kang and The Day the Earth Stood Still. We're about fending off the Klingons and Romulans, and they're about impressing Q.

Heaven forbid we should be something that didn't come out of a movie script.

All things considered, what business do we have presuming anything about the intentions or nature of any alien civilization? How do we know that disarming ourselves of all weapons is what will make the Alien Masters look kindly upon us? Isn't that just as naïve and presumptuous as the primitive Earthling societies that assumed that what the gods wanted in exchange for good weather and bountiful harvests was human sacrifice?

True, it's no less silly to put missiles on the moon, as though that would do any good if we were invaded by Reavers or Predators. But one has to admit that it's the only solution I've seen that doesn't owe its logical and moral rationale to some campy sci-fi movie. And somehow I have to imagine that if this talk about Bush persuading the military to establish a moon base is more than fantasy, there's a ream of analysis behind it that discusses tactics and technologies that Hollywood hasn't yet guessed at.

Is America's greatest failing, then, simply that we've trained Earth's politicians to think in terms of Hollywood plotlines, instead of weighing what's sensible, rational, and possible like I fantasize we did once upon a time?

(Via LGF.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2005
16:20 - The more things change

Is it just me, or does this look like nothing so much as a modern version of this?

Not in staked-out position, obviously, but in subtlety and skill of execution? And in being a bit of an embarrassment to those people who ostensibly agree with it?

15:53 - 'Tis the season to be guilty

Just this morning I opened up an e-mail I'd received that began, "As we approach yet another celebration of the day my People refer to as, 'Remind me: Just why did we feed those white people so long ago?'..."

And now, via JMH, there's this:

One indication of moral progress in the United States would be the replacement of Thanksgiving Day and its self-indulgent family feasting with a National Day of Atonement accompanied by a self-reflective collective fasting.

In fact, indigenous people have offered such a model; since 1970 they have marked the fourth Thursday of November as a Day of Mourning in a spiritual/political ceremony on Coles Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, one of the early sites of the European invasion of the Americas.

Not only is the thought of such a change in this white-supremacist holiday impossible to imagine, but the very mention of the idea sends most Americans into apoplectic fits -- which speaks volumes about our historical hypocrisy and its relation to the contemporary politics of empire in the United States.

And so on, and so on. One gets the point two sentences into the story, yet it continues on for twenty-one paragraphs all about our country's original sin, and how no amount of good that it did in subsequent centuries can ever raise us as a people from the mire of racist fascist genocidal religious zealots worse than anyone except the Nazis, and even then not really, let alone to a level where we can commit the mortal crime of feeling proud of ourselves for what we are, or seek to spread our national values elsewhere in the world.

I just finished reading Jon Stewart's America: The Book; and while a lot of it was funny, I couldn't help but notice the disturbing fact that certain historical jokes have become sort of obligatory, like pressure valves that keep our history from becoming too dogmatic—one of the biggest cases in point being Thomas Jefferson. The foreword was attributed to Jefferson, for reasons that seemed straightforward enough, as a silly bit of historical perspective; but after two pages of gentle dishing about the state of American politics today, the piece ended with TJ making some comment like "I'm off to enjoy some nice hot cocoa before bed" or something. Aha! A sex-with-slaves joke! The stock epithet that's become associated with Jefferson's name, like "Twice-born Dionysus" or "Charles the Fat". And indeed, in every one of the eight or ten occasions in the rest of the book where Jefferson's name came up, it was with the sole purpose in mind—or at least the sole common effect—of making a sex-with-slaves joke. It got so I could predict an oncoming sex-with-slaves gag the moment Jefferson's name was mentioned. And now I can't help but see such jokes heaving their tired bulk into sight in other parts of pop culture as well; in an episode of Family Guy, when Jefferson pops up in one of those random flashback sequences, it's so he can pose for a "family portrait"—upon which he and his family are joined by a throng of slaves. And thus do we as a culture demonstrate our penitence for following the dictates of such a monster, whose indiscretions and perceived hypocrisies overshadow even the greatest of accomplishments, until they're eventually all we remember of him.

It's as though there's an effort afoot to make it so that nothing we do or say is without its disclaimers and its carefully worded legal boundaries, such that we can't even bring up the subject of a holiday where Native Americans are involved without first offering up a loud prayer at the altar of atonement for the sins of our predecessors, prostrate on a smallpox-infested blanket, baptized in addictive firewater. That certainly seems to be the only way that people like the author of the AlterNet piece are comfortable identifying themselves as members of this accursed country at all.

It's one thing to acknowledge the brutality of history and give it its fair due. But the headlong rush to purge all our holidays—and yes, it seems that every single holiday we have is under siege from one front or another these days, and most of the assailants are coming from the philosophical direction of the author of this piece, the only exception possibly being Halloween—from our calendar seems to serve no purpose other than to try to actively convince ourselves that we're not a country worth feeling proud of. Certainly not worth rewarding with holidays.

This is what I'm talking about with the seemingly pervasive nihilism of the dyed-in-the-wool "progressive" movement. (The guy's a journalism professor; imagine that!) Its goals seem to be to make "progress" through no mechanism less than the systematic destruction of our sense of self-worth, as though only once we're ridden with national guilt akin to what the Germans deal with daily will we be able to redeem ourselves. This guy pretty much says so outright. You can't make "progress" if you already feel like you're where you want to be, after all.

And when I see comments like this one:

Anyone who thinks that if they had lived 300 years ago that they for certain would live, act, and think the same way they do now has their head in the sand. It's very likely that any one of us could have been on the forefront of the "Crush the Indians" movement. Who knows?

The fact is that regardless of how things went down in colonial America - none of us would likely exist had events not occured as they did. I am certainly not going to apologize for my existance.

I'm part American Indian. But you don't see me crying over the past. Two cultures collided and the strongest culture won. That's nature's way. Always has been, always will be.

Get over it.

... All I can do is shake my head sadly, because it's this kind of perspective that really drives people nuts. Someone who should "know better", but persists in clinging to these pernicious fantasies of the modern world being a pretty neat place and America not being half bad after all.

As other commenters point out, Thanksgiving is hardly a holiday that glorifies genocide, like Columbus Day has been successfully wrung into meaning lately. It's a counterpoint to genocide, in fact—a balancing influence, a celebration of the good intentions and spirit of brotherhood that a pretty fair number of early Americans felt toward the indigenous people here. The fact that in later centuries the inevitable culture clashes resulted in the deaths of whole populations can hardly be laid at the feet of the Pilgrims whose positive experience we're trying to preserve. They'd probably be furious that such a message, attributed to them, was now being crushed under a mountain of guilt. And so would Squanto.

And let's not even get into discussing how certain tribal customs documented by those who ran up against them first-hand, like human sacrifice and torture and the mass burning of forests for hunting, are possibly just as well not seen anymore on this continent. Our distant romanticization of the bucolic, pre-European North American wilderness and its peace-loving, nature-worshipping inhabitants gives us a nice myth to luxuriate in, but it's surely no better—and no truer—than the myth that those evil Founding Fathers somehow managed to come up with a pretty neat Constitution that at least in its letter and spirit condemns the very kind of injustice that was and continues to be wrought in spite of it, not because of it.

UPDATE: Oh, and I refrained from wishing my e-mail correspondent a Happy Thanksgiving in my response. Wouldn't want to cause offense.

Friday, November 18, 2005
16:08 - Keepin' it fresh

Chipotle has new cup designs. Just to keep us on our toes, and to keep challenging the assumption some people seem to have that just because it's a McDonald's property there's got to be some deal-killing flaw in it somewhere.

My cup, which discusses secret unlisted menu items, says this:

As you consider your order, we invite you to embrace the variety, wallow in the options, imagine the permutations and combinations. Whatever makes it great for you.

I swear—only Chipotle could get away with making a math joke on a cup.

I love this place.

Sunday, November 13, 2005
02:33 - My country, real or imagined

One of Glenn's readers says:

The patriotism thing is getting a little ridiculous. My impression is that what the left really wants is to make it out of bounds to describe anything as either patriotic or unpatriotic. Thereby making the word, and the concept, obsolete.

Well, sort of. I think the ones who raise a stink over the word "patriotism" really do think of themselves as "patriotic". They just don't mean anything like the same thing by it as most of the rest of us do.

It's not that they hate America. When they say they're doing what they do out of a love for America, as hollow as that sounds on its surface, they really mean it—it's just that the America they claim to love doesn't exist, and never has.

They love the idea of America. They love a nebulous, hypothetical concept, a vision of some America that might come to exist in some far-off future, where all the lofty ideals set forth by the Founding Fathers (who despite being flawed, muddle-headed, hypocritical slave-bangers somehow managed to come up with a few ideas worth building a country to achieve) have been realized to their fullest potential. They want to be able to say "Home of the Free" without any sense of guilt or irony: they want America to converge upon their vision of absolute freedom, where everyone is equal in opportunity and wealth and nobody "offends" anybody else with their pesky little beliefs, where nobody creates divisions in society by selfishly succeeding more than the next guy does, and where "culture" is reinvented every day with the systematic destruction of all the useless restrictions on speech and behavior that any previous generation might have misguidedly invented. It'll be a world where nobody has to work, nobody has to pollute, nobody has to eat animals to survive, nobody has to form corporations or make profits selling goods or services, and nobody has to cut down trees to build a house. And of course there'll be no more wars, because nobody who's truly free would ever choose to fight one. There'll be free access to all kinds of mind-altering substances, we'll all be polysexual and polyamorous and polygamous and have nonstop sex in the streets, and we'll all just laugh and laugh all day long because we're all just so insanely happy. There'll be no need to pursue happiness anymore—we'll have crossed the finish line of Perfect Countrydom, and the aliens will descend to award us all blue ribbons and convert us into beings of pure energy.

That's what a lot of people have deep in mind when they use words like "progress". The Golden Age of America isn't just something we expect to see in the future, as envisioned by David Brin and Bill Whittle: it's the one and only thing worth being patriotic about, and anything short of that vision is just a caricature, a cartoon of the real Platonic ideal that exists somewhere through the looking glass.

The trouble is that it isn't what America is now or ever has been, and so to the people who think this way (or who secretly believe something like it, way down deep, though they might never admit it), being "patriotic" about the America of the here and now means being satisfied with this fatally flawed mock-up of a country that's always been more about 3/5 compromises and KKKs and My Lais and Rodney Kings and Enrons than about any kind of true "freedom". Being "patriotic" means selling out the dream of Super Future America, then, and that—more than anything else—is what's unforgivable.

People who bristle at the word patriotism today, while at the same time ostentatiously and defensively embracing it, don't want to think of themselves as the kinds of people who will accept less than perfection out of a country, and thus they're more prepared to tear the whole thing down and start from scratch than to try to redeem something so tainted with original sin as our America. That's why nobody's protesting too loudly at the presence of Bolsheviks and anarchists in the midst of all the peace rallies: when they say nothing is more patriotic than dissent, they're outwardly thinking in terms of the First Amendment, but inwardly a little voice is suggesting that the only true patriotism is nihilism.

When confronted face to face, I don't think any such person would cop to genuinely rooting for America to be overthrown by Islamists or Communists just to prove a point, just to see us in all our hubris brought low before the forces of the Downtrodden Masses. But when I describe the idealized America as existing in some kind of parallel universe, rather than in the inevitable future, it's because I suspect that the nihilist-patriots believe we're behind schedule in achieving it—that we ought to have made it there by now. They're starting to think we're heading in the wrong direction. We're not on the right track after all, or we'd have made it to Vertiform City already. Every step we take, we just get further off course. So we can't be satisfied with mere "progress"; we have to break on through to the other side, smash it all down and start again, so we can be sure to get it right this time.

Think like that long enough, and paleoconservatives—which comes to mean anyone who believes the America we've got, with all its flaws, is our last best hope for humanity—start looking downright Satanic. They're the only things holding humanity back from achieving Enlightenment and Real Ultimate Freedom, from claiming our birthright in Super Future America.

Am I being too glib here? I don't know; it does feel right, since like so many others on my side of the aisle I spent a goodly number of years thinking along these lines, thinking it'd be dandy for three or four billion humans to just... sort of... you know, die somehow, because it'd be better for the Earth and all. A little bit of smoggy air obscuring the hills across the Ukiah Valley and I was ready to sign on to the auto-homeo-genocide compact. I have to imagine I'm not the only one to have gone through such a phase.

That was life in my boondocks, growing up. I like to think I've moved on a bit from those adolescent fantasies of nihilism; experience in the real world, seeing how rewarding life can be if you work at it, and seeing how much worse it is almost everywhere else on Earth and how much worse yet it's been at just about every other moment in history, and the cold-hearted pragmatic scientist in me knows that there's no better Earth we're ever going to inherit, and no better country we're ever going to have the chance to found.

But some people just don't feel that way. Here's Adult Swim's latest Boondocks bumper madness, courtesy of evariste:

We met Aaron's parents this weekend.
Nice people.
We can see where he gets his pleasant demeanor.
What we don't understand is where the anger comes from.
Oh yeah...
[adult swim]

Booooga! Booooooooga! Watch out, guys—I'm America, and I'm comin' to getcha!

It's my feeling that if [adult swim] and Aaron McGruder are so terrified of what America is today, it's only because we're doing so much right that we won't have to destroy it all in order to redeem it.

We'll never be perfect; we'll never exorcise some demons of our past. But we'll be able to outlive the memory of them, and prove ourselves better than our forebears in the long run, without having to repudiate a word of their most fundamental ideals. We won't be Super Future America—we'll be 99.999% of the way there, approaching it asymptotically forever, never reaching it, but being able to live with ourselves with satisfaction nonetheless.

We won't be able to forget, but we will be able to forgive ourselves. And for some people, that's the greatest, most nightmarish treason of all.

Friday, November 11, 2005
13:00 - Highly localized stupidity phenomena

There's an intersection near where I live—Branham Lane at Camden—where one of the four branches becomes an on-ramp to the I-85 freeway northbound (west). This intersection always flows nicely and seems well designed. I've never seen it backed up or blocked by an accident.

Yet I have seen so many people running red lights there that I'm starting to wonder what protective hexes have been laid over the people in the left-turn-onto-the-freeway lane on Camden that they can do so with such impunity, and whether this can be applied to other, more dangerous intersections.

It's gotten to the point where if I'm sitting at a red light across that intersection, I have a better than 50/50 chance of seeing someone run the red so he can turn and get on the freeway. A few days ago, I was on Camden heading south, and I stopped at the light (first in line); I watched the lined-up cars opposite me take the left turn onto the on-ramp, and then my light went green. But I hung back at the line for at least three seconds, because there were two people still in the intersection, turning left... and when they were finally clear, I still didn't take off, because I knew someone else would go blasting out into the left turn right in front of me, a good three seconds after the light had changed. The cars to the left and right of me surged forward... and immediately they had to slam on their brakes and lean on their horns, because sure enough, someone in a BMW came sailing right through the red light, turning left in front of us, not even particularly hurriedly. He was driving as though his light was green. And yet he would have been creamed if the guys going in my direction hadn't been quick to stop. In fact, if I'd bolted right off the line when my light went green, I'd have been right in the perfect position to become his new hood ornament.

Just this morning I was turning left onto the freeway in that charmed lane, and the light turned yellow as I was clearing the intersection; a few seconds later, I heard horns honking behind me, and in my mirror I saw another BMW sitting confusedly in the middle of the intersection, at a stop, his blinker on, while the cars opposite him threaded their way around him. I couldn't see into the car, and I'm reluctant to anthropomorphize, but I couldn't help but think it looked like some Marie Antoinette figure holding up her petticoats, sneering in contempt as mice ran around her ankles. How dare they!

I'm tempted, one of these days, to take a day off work; I'll go down to that intersection, hide in the bushes next to the on-ramp, and every time I see someone come hurtling out into the intersection against the light, especially if he gets marooned in the middle, I'll hold up a big placard that says, DON'T RUN THIS RED LIGHT, YOU MORON!!!

Not that it would help anything but my sense of wounded justice.

12:37 - It's like being "slightly pregnant", right?

I generally like to assume, when I see some human contrivance that looks totally stupid to me, that there's something I don't know about the story. I figure things are done for a reason. If it looks moronic to me at first glance, I have to remind myself that it probably went through multiple focus groups and marketing review panel meetings, staffed by people making six-figure salaries and with long fruitful careers behind them that could only have happened if they'd done well in school and at least started out life being moderately intelligent—and if not, at least there are others in the room that would have corrected the most glaring stupidities. That way, when I see something like USB 2.0 being officially designated "USB 2.0 Hi-Speed" and USB 1.1 retroactively renamed "USB 2.0 Full-Speed", my first reaction is to try to find corroboration before I believe something could be that hilariously silly. And even if it turns out to be for real, I like to hold out hope that eventually the perpetrators will come to their senses. I find humans are on balance pretty reliable that way, all gut instincts to the contrary notwithstanding.

So when I see something like the new economy cars labeled PZEV... which stands for Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle...

... which I can only assume is like saying "94% fat free" ...

... Or "mostly dead" ...

... I don't know a good way to finish this thought.

Thursday, November 10, 2005
02:53 - Yaay! We won! We won! We... oh.

Hmm. You don't suppose Nissan was waiting for the results of the California election before announcing this decision, do you?

Sorry, guys. I did my part. Hope UAW of Gardena is happy.

13:17 - I'm no art critic, but I know what I hate

What is it with people not comprehending the concept of "journalism" lately?

We've got Mary Mapes, incapable of distinguishing a Microsoft Word printout from a Vietnam-era typewriter page, but steeped in the art of professing wounded victimhood, wrapping herself in the J-word as though it confers untouchability:

Perhaps her greatest fury is reserved for the “vicious” bloggers who pounced on the “60 Minutes II” report within hours—and who she believes provided the map that major news organizations, including The Washington Post, essentially followed.

“I was attacked, Dan was attacked, CBS was attacked 24 hours a day by people who hid behind screen names,” Mapes said. “I may be a flawed journalist, but I put my name on things."

. . .

Despite her career implosion, Mapes hopes to stay in journalism. “It’s what I’m good at,” she said. “I like making a difference."

Saying you're "good at journalism" while being unable to dig up names like Charles Johnson and Scott Johnson sounds an awful lot like Rain Man muttering about being an excellent driver. More hilarious takedowns here and here.

And now, as though to deepen the self-parody, here's the director-general of France's TF1 channel, explaining journalists' duty to political impartiality:

One of France’s leading TV news executives has admitted censoring his coverage of the riots in the country for fear of encouraging support for far-right politicians.
Jean-Claude Dassier, the director general of the rolling news service TCI, said the prominence given to the rioters on international news networks had been “excessive” and could even be fanning the flames of the violence.

Mr Dassier said his own channel, which is owned by the private broadcaster TF1, recently decided not to show footage of burning cars.

“Politics in France is heading to the right and I don’t want rightwing politicians back in second, or even first place because we showed burning cars on television,” Mr Dassier told an audience of broadcasters at the News Xchange conference in Amsterdam today.

“Having satellites trained on towns across France 24 hours a day showing the violence would have been wrong and totally disproportionate ... Journalism is not simply a matter of switching on the cameras and letting them roll. You have to think about what you’re broadcasting,” he said.

Spoken without a trace of irony.

(Via LGF.)

Saturday, November 5, 2005
18:04 - For God's sake, don't change anything! That would threaten "progress"!

There was a guy on the streetcorner today on the way to the store, in a suit and a Schwarzenegger mask, waving a sign that said, "I WANT TO SHUT... YOU UP!"

Clever, I suppose, as long as you're an SNL fan. But for someone who's had to sit through all the interminable radio ads for Proposition 75, which the guy is referring to, it's a little less than persuasive.

The proposition amounts to making it so union members having their dues used for political campaigns is an opt-in process, not an opt-out one. That's it.

Union members would have to give their okay for their dues to be used by the union leaders in political campaign contributions. So allegedly, union members would be given the extra opportunity to have their money used according to their own wishes, if they were to do something so brash as (gasp!) support a candidate or measure other than what the union supports.

But of course that's not the aspect that the radio ads focus on. According to them, this is a nefarious scheme by Arnie to "shut unions up".

Which I guess is an admission that the union members who would now have to take the thirty seconds to check the "opt-in" box on their union mailings are too lazy to do so.

According to the ads, if 75 passes, "It'll be like the bad old days out here. People getting hurt, no health coverage..." why, before you know it, the weekend will be abolished and we'll have eight-year-olds working in textile mills again. All because they made us have to opt-in for the unions to give our money to the campaigns they support.

To a point, it's transparent that there's more behind the proposition than giving union members more choice. Schwarzenegger's stated goal with this proposition, or at least with the agenda of which it's a part, is to break down the impenetrable defenses of the California public teacher's union—so that incompetent teachers can be fired instead of being given Special Person's Tenure. Which might, just might, do something about the fact that California is 46th in the country when it comes to the smartness of our kids.

Wouldn't want those kids to grow up smart enough to be able to make a check mark in a little box on a union mailing. Or read the necessary cheerleading boilerplate on the mailing and decide for themselves whether they agree with it.

Let alone to be able to get good enough jobs that they don't need unions.

UPDATE: It's a shame that 75's proponents can't use any of the argumentative tactics or rhetorical devices that are available to its opponents. After all, if it weren't for the fact that the unions' contributions go by default toward the Democratic side of things, a Democrat governor could have proposed this very same bill and couched it as being all about workers' rights to control their political voices without fear of retribution.

Under an opt-out system, as it is now, the unions don't have to sell the idea of using member dues for campaign contributions to the workers whose money they're using. They don't even have to make it very clear to them that they can opt-out. There's no incentive for them to do so—quite the contrary. And if they sent everyone a mailing with a detachable form with a check-box on it and a signature line, saying, "Please check here and sign here and return the card if you don't want us using your money to contribute to the candidates we like"—it's easy to see why a worker wouldn't want to do so, even if he strenuously disagreed with who or what the union was endorsing. Those little signed cards become an instant dossier of union members who aren't "team players"; if the union in question has even the slightest bullying tendency, it could then go right down the handy list and make life very difficult for everyone who signed his name. And even if they weren't inclined to be so "gangland", the signed cards or the mailings could always be "mysteriously lost". Who's to say the person sent in the opt-out card? The union never received it. Funny, that.

But if the system is changed to opt-in, then the union has to advertise. It has to make sure those mailings get to the members. It has to make sure the members are sold on the candidates or propositions it wants to spend their money on. It has to convince members to let them use that money. And if a signed and checked-off card is "mysteriously lost", why, that's the worker's prerogative, not the union's. A worker who doesn't want to opt-in, and who doesn't want to be identified as a dissenter in the ranks, can exercise that right by simply throwing out the mailing. Who's to say he ever received it? Funny, that.

The unions currently opposing the proposition (using, naturally, all their members' money, as under current rules they can) can't argue from the standpoint of "protecting workers' voices" or "preventing union bullying". Those perspectives aren't on their side. But neither is it on the side of a Republican governor, who nobody would believe would have introduced the proposition for those reasons alone. So they have to go with the "Arnie's shutting you up" angle, and the "We're all going to get our arms chopped off by unsafe power tools and we won't have any health insurance to pay for it" angle. Which are powerful, but disingenuous.

All it'll "shut up" are the people who agree with their unions only by default or against their will. And is that such a terrible thing? For anyone except the union leaders, I mean?

Friday, November 4, 2005
01:01 - Just another day in paradise

Communists rally in San Francisco, France threatens to become the flashpoint of a European civil war, and TBS gathers today's top comics for an environmental-themed stand-up-a-thon charmingly titled "Earth to America".

Good thing it's Friday. I don't know if I could take much more of this cheerful festive atmosphere on a work night.

Thursday, November 3, 2005
18:50 - Prior art


It reads like an Onion parody, but it is real. Here's the :
Process of relaying a story having a unique plot


A process of relaying a story having a timeline and a unique plot involving characters comprises: indicating a character's desire at a first time in the timeline for at least one of the following: a) to remain asleep or unconscious until a particular event occurs; and b) to forget or be substantially unable to recall substantially all events during the time period from the first time until a particular event occurs; indicating the character's substantial inability at a time after the occurrence of the particular event to recall substantially all events during the time period from the first time to the occurrence of the particular event; and indicating that during the time period the character was an active participant in a plurality of events.

I have to say. They have at last invented a way to destroy all cultural development forevermore. That's an achievement of a sort.

That's right: they're patenting storylines now. Well, not even storylines—the means by which to sue over storylines.

If I know my clichés, there will be seven of these granted.

Via Chris.

Saturday, October 29, 2005
05:21 - But is it art?

Of course it is.

San Francisco... the Jell-O Mold.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005
18:23 - Blogbert

Scott Adams is blogging.

The nominees for biggest weasels of 2005 are posted on www.dilbert.com.

Vote now. It’s your chance to embarrass the weasels who most annoyed you during the past year.

At first glance, there seems to be an imbalance of Republicans on the list. That’s because you usually have to do something to be nominated. And Democrats haven’t done much this year, either weasel or non-weasel. The Democrats who did make the list are accused of not doing enough about hurricane Katrina. That’s what people mean when they talk about the exception that proves the rule.

In case you’re wondering, I have no coherent political views of my own. The only thing I know for sure is that I don’t have the information I need to make decisions. That’s the problem with having a degree in economics. Until I ruined my worldview with education, I saw the world in terms of things that worked and things that didn’t. Now when something works well, and the rest of the world is applauding it, I wonder how much better it could have been if we did it the other way. And when a policy turns out to be a huge disaster, I wonder how much worse it would have been if the other side got their way. So let’s all agree that I shouldn’t be voting.

I knew I liked this guy.

There appears to be the promise of many snickerworthy stories to come, along the lines of the one where he explains why a cop in a recent strip was firing bullets out of a donut. (Apparently nobody complained or found it odd. They probably just didn't want to look like they didn't get the joke.) This'll probably be the best bit of officially sanctioned meta-humor since The Pre-History of The Far Side.

17:04 - Grim milestone: 2,000th headline

LGF is keeping tabs on the number of appearances of the words "grim milestone" in the media surrounding the 2,000th combat death in Iraq. From all appearances, including MSNBC banners and photo montages at large newspapers (just scroll), the media here and abroad is giving the "event" plenty of play, and sober reflection makes it hard to justify its newsworthiness on any grounds but "the media wants to manufacture anti-war sentiment". So far Charles is up to 11 sightings with that specific wording alone, and it seems the story is only gaining steam as people start firing up Photoshop and eyeing layouts for the next Time and Newsweek covers.

Well, naturally it isn't enough for MoveOn.org, who sent this mailing today:

Dear MoveOn member,

Yesterday we reached the sad milestone of 2,000 killed in Iraq. But for the most part, the national media are ignoring this tragic milestone. The men and women who died deserve better.

Together, we can help make sure the media report on this moment. At more than one thousand vigils tonight, tens of thousands of us will gather to draw focus to this sad day. We’ve also added to our campaign a respectful and emotional TV ad that honors those killed in Iraq and asks, “How many more?”

How many more headlines do you need, MoveOn.org? How many more?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005
16:17 - At the "Red Table"

In my history classes in high school, when we studied the dark and spooky McCarthy era, the subtext put forth by the teachers and the textbooks was: Of COURSE there weren't any real Communists in Hollywood. Don't be ridiculous. It was all just a big circus put on by paranoid idiots who cared more about establishing their own legacy than supporting free speech. Communists? In America? The very thought was dismissed as absurd.

As it no doubt was in the 1940s; and it left the way clear for idealistic young people, trained under the same assumptions as I was and untainted by life in the real world outside the walls of academia, to board that tantalizingly unguarded train of thought:

A number of actors and directors joined the party in this era or attached themselves to well-known Communist fronts. Cagney, who grew up in poverty, explained his motivation this way: "What the hell did I know about the ebb and flow of political movements…. It all seemed so sensible: take from the overrich, give to the poor. Distribute the wealth…. At the time, left seemed right."

In a sense, it's comforting that so little has changed... but in another sense, it's maddening.

Via Dean.

Monday, October 24, 2005
03:38 - How not to drive traffic

So Audi's slogan these days is "Never Follow".

Well, combined with certain text layout decisions, it can cause some problems. Here's an ad in this month's Road & Track:

Okay then—I won't.

Thursday, October 20, 2005
13:16 - This is a test of the emergency free speech system

Now that's what I call a "demonstration":

Internet collages threatening Denmark and daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten with death and retribution have begun circulating on the internet after the newspaper published caricatures of Muslim prophet Mohammed

Bombs exploding over pictures of Danish daily Jyllands-Posten and blood flowing over the national flag and a map of Denmark are among the images circulating on the internet after the newspaper printed twelve cartoons of the Muslim prophet Mohammed last month.

Daily newspaper Berlingske Tidende reported that the internet collages, posted in the name of an unknown organisation calling itself 'The Glory Brigades in Northern Europe', showed pictures of various tourist attractions in Denmark and stated that 'The Mujahedeen have numerous targets in Denmark - very soon you all will regret this', amongst other things.

Another picture showed soldiers, armed with bombs, over a map of Denmark, with blood spattered over parts of the country.

The front page of Jyllands-Posten featured prominently on many of the four collages. The newspaper has been criticised by Muslims for printing the cartoons, and was forced to hire security guards after receiving hate mail and death threats over the telephone.

The newspaper asked illustrators to make the cartoons after reports that artists were reluctant to illustrate a book on Mohammed for fear of Muslim retribution. The daily's editors said the cartoons were a test of whether the threat of Islamic terrorism had limited the freedom of expression in Denmark.

Got your answer yet?

Via LGF. The cartoons in question are here; I find this one particularly apt.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005
15:52 - Reason #1287 to love Chipotle

It's not just the food that makes Chipotle such an awesome restaurant: it's also the general atmosphere. Irreverent little signs everywhere, expressing sentiments from "Good for your soul and your nasal passages" to "Work where you actually want to eat the food".

Today, the maintenance truck was out in the parking lot (possibly to fix the acoustics? Naaahh); and it had this sticker in its window:

I love this place.

Thursday, October 13, 2005
19:04 - We're through the looking glass here, people

Following on to my reactions to Liberality For All, I suppose it should have stood to reason that there would already be plenty of alt-history angles on the War on Terror, many of them far better executed. One of them, Spiders by Patrick Farley (brought to my attention by Christopher J.), is just such a beast.

It's an immaculately drawn, expertly laid-out web comic that takes advantage of the online medium in ways that put most CSS geeks to abject shame. It's an exploration of the Afghanistan war under circumstances where Gore had won and a number of technological advances, far more sci-fi than what we actually did have, were available to the US military. It's a psychological thriller in a lot of ways, bringing up issues that have only a tenuous bearing on the real world; yet exploring them in intricate detail, to a level where they might have unexpected relevance once such technology actually does become available (even if circumstances are never such that it would be deployed the way depicted). But above all, it's character-driven and very realistic. That's the key.

It has everything that LFA is decidedly lacking, notably subtlety. Yes, it does seem sympathetic at times to the left-wing position, but you could also see it as being sympathetic to the jihadis, or to the hawks here in the real world who understand how impossible the situation the story describes really is. All those positions have rational representatives in the story, and all the positions have critiques in the story too. This is the kind of thing that—like contemporary adult-oriented graphic-novels like Preacher—a reader can make be about anything he wants it to be about.

To me, that's the mark of a really successful piece of storytelling. And it's so complex and so lavish, so character-driven, that I'd put this up with some of the best stuff I've ever seen under big-name labels.

Given some of the author's other stuff hosted at the same site (such as The Jain's Death), I'm sure he does have leftish leanings; but he's skillful enough that I don't mind or care. What's especially interesting is watching his artistic progression, particularly from this early, infantile piece; as the art gets better and more complex, so does the maturity of the thinking behind it—or at least, it becomes better hidden behind a real, live story.

Another example of this kind of progression, which I've pointed out once before, is Kid Radd. It looks like simple fluff at first, but it just grows and grows until it's every bit as impressive as Spiders or any other such project. And it's a complete storyline, too, so it really pays to follow it all the way through.

That's one thing that's going to be really fun about everyone's whole life being documented on the Internet: we can all watch artists develop in the process of creating each piece of work; and like the "dark star" personality-cult described in Spiders, we all get to be both passive and active players in the ongoing narrative of an artist's career.

(Oh, and I suppose it should go without saying that all these people seem to be Mac geeks: the LFA team, Farley... just look how many Macs show up in the art.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2005
11:19 - An overlooked market

I swear, you can't make some stuff up. I just got this e-mail, a typical form-letter link-exchange request from some spammer. I get these all the time, but this one's something special:

From: webmaster@profitinside.com
Subject: Link exchange request
Date: October 12, 2005 2:58:22 AM PDT
To: btman@grotto11.com
Reply-To: webmaster@profitinside.com

I have found your website grotto11.com by searching Yahoo for "8 legged freaks money shot". I think
our websites has a similar theme, so I have already added your link to my website.

You can find your link here:

Your link: http://www.grotto11.com/blog?+1056221946
Your link title: Peeve Farm

I would like you to add our link to your website too.
Our link: http://www.profitinside.com/news/8-legged-freaks-money-shot.html
Our link title: Make Money - 8 Legged Freaks Money Shot
Description: Make money online, earn quick cash

I suppose that'll be the subject of an upcoming CSI episode.

Monday, October 10, 2005
16:25 - Uh.

They didn't have Jim Crow laws in Canada, did they?

Do they want them?

Via Dean.

15:28 - That'll show 'em

Boy, I'm really not even sure what to think of this:

The people of Belgium have been left reeling by the first adult-only episode of the Smurfs, in which the blue-skinned cartoon characters' village is annihilated by warplanes.

The short but chilling film is the work of Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund, and is to be broadcast on national television next week as a campaign advertisement.

The Unicef advert, which shows the Smurfs' village being bombed The animation was approved by the family of the Smurfs' late creator, "Peyo".

Belgian television viewers were given a preview of the 25-second film earlier this week, when it was shown on the main evening news. The reactions ranged from approval to shock and, in the case of small children who saw the episode by accident, wailing terror.

They approved this? You know, I once thought there was something about preserving the integrity of a given artistic canon, especially if the artist is dead and can't say yea or nay; this really feels like a first. I'm speechless.

The short film pulls no punches. It opens with the Smurfs dancing, hand-in-hand, around a campfire and singing the Smurf song. Bluebirds flutter past and rabbits gambol around their familiar village of mushroom- shaped houses until, without warning, bombs begin to rain from the sky.

Tiny Smurfs scatter and run in vain from the whistling bombs, before being felled by blast waves and fiery explosions. The final scene shows a scorched and tattered Baby Smurf sobbing inconsolably, surrounded by prone Smurfs.

The final frame bears the message: "Don't let war affect the lives of children."

It is intended as the keystone of a fund-raising drive by Unicef's Belgian arm, to raise £70,000 for the rehabilitation of former child soldiers in Burundi.

Philippe Henon, a spokesman for Unicef Belgium, said his agency had set out to shock, after concluding that traditional images of suffering in Third World war zones had lost their power to move television viewers. "It's controversial," he said. "We have never done something like this before but we've learned over the years that the reaction to the more normal type of campaign is very limited."

Yeah, well, lots of "art" is praised for it's being controversial these days. Often because it's awful, and there's no other way it would get any attention. Hey, art world? Remember when your goal was to create images that were, you know, pleasing to the eye? Is that even allowed anymore?

Though I guess if there's any lesson to be taken from this, it's an observation on how (if the UNICEF guys are to be believed) people in Western Civilization, particularly in Europe, are really that jaded about war and genocide and human suffering that these are the depths to which the shock-peddlers have to stoop. I don't think we're that far gone in this country, are we? I seem to recall some amazing numbers coming out of the fundraising efforts for the tsunami and Katrina.

But even if so, is it worth compromising cherished cultural icons like the Smurfs to make a political point? I doubt it. Especially since these things never work they way people think they will.

The advertising agency behind the campaign, Publicis, decided the best way to convey the impact of war on children was to tap into the earliest, happiest memories of Belgian television viewers.

Yeah, and in so doing destroyed those memories, just like everyone's halcyon sanctuaries will all eventually be sacrificed on the altar of Making You Think™.

Anyway, at least Tim Blair has a roundup of some people's appropriately incisive reactions. I guess at least that much good has come out of it.

Via Tom Gordon.

13:03 - I'm help-ping!

Something Awful linked to this a little while ago, and after reading the quoted blurb I didn't even follow the link because I dreaded what I might find. Of course, that's usually the case with their "Awful Link of the Day", but this one was something special: a comic book called Liberality for All. It looked like it might be something I wouldn't mind seeing more of, but the part they quoted lent itself without much effort to plenty of their patented ridicule, so I shied away at the time.

A friend drew my attention to it again last night, though, and I went ahead and gave it a more than cursory glance. Apparently there's one full issue nearly ready for release, and it looks (nearly) of professional comic-book quality; it's supposedly "getting major publicity in the talk-radio world", which I guess you could consider a good thing... but that's sort of the problem. As you'll see.

It is the year 2021, tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of 9/11. It is up to an underground group of bio-mechanically enhanced conservatives led by Sean Hannity, G. Gordon Liddy and Oliver North to thwart Ambassador Usama Bin Laden's plans to nuke New York City ...And wake the world from an Orwellian nightmare of United Nations-dominated ultra-liberalism.

Series concept: What if today's anti-war Liberals were in charge of the American government and had been since 9/11? What would that society look like in the year 2021? What would be the results of fighting “a more sensitive war on terror” and looking to the corrupt United Nations to solve all of America 's problems? In Liberality For All , the reader sees a vision of that future where there is only one justified type of war…the war against Conservatives and their ideals.

Huh. Laughing yet? I'm not. Read the synopsis; it's even better:

America’s future has become an Orwellian nightmare of ultra-liberalism. Beginning with the Gore Presidency, the government has become increasingly dominated by liberal extremists.

In 2004, Muslim terrorists stopped viewing the weakened American government as a threat; instead they set their sights on their true enemies, vocal American conservatives. On one dark day, in 2006, many conservative voices were forever silenced by terrorist assassins. Those which survived joined forces and formed a powerful covert conservative organization called “The Freedom of Information League”, aka F.O.I.L.

The efforts of F.O.I.L. threaten both the liberal extremist power structure and the U.N.’s grip on America, the U.N. calls F.O.I.L. the most dangerous group in the world. It seems the once theorized Vast Right Wing Conspiracy has now become a reality.

The F.O.I.L. Organization is forced underground by the “Coulter Laws” of 2007; these hate speech legislations have made right-wing talk shows, and conservative-slanted media, illegal. Our weakened government has willingly handed the reins of our once great country to the corrupt United Nations...

Now, don't get me wrong: I would love to see an accessible fictionalized account of this alternate history, a visualization of the world should certain different events have come to pass, a nicely drawn comic set in a New York dominated by the Freedom Tower and an ascendant UN. I'd love to see a comic that tackles these issues and presents them in a way people can relate to.

But not this comic.

Why not? Well, just look at it. There's a five-page preview available online; give it a read.

In it you see that the intro material and synopsis aren't aberrations from the storytelling style—they are the storytelling style. This story really does center around bioengineered talk-radio host superheroes fighting an underground war against French occupation forces. Everything is peppered with cartoonish labels—"ultra-liberal" and "Orwellian" and so on. "Ambassador Osama bin Laden" and "Vice President Michael Moore" and Fox News bought out and renamed to "Liberty International Broadcasting" (LIB). It might be funny if it were intended to be, but it seems to be totally straight-faced.

In other words, it's a parody of itself right from the starting blocks, and so ham-handed that it may as well be a massive prank by people trying to paint conservatives as just the kind of knuckle-dragging buffoons who would appreciate this kind of slogan-ridden fiction. If its goal is to present a case or win over any readers to its platform, it's going to fail utterly—instead, any readers who aren't already thoroughly in its corner will just point and horselaugh, like Something Awful already has. And who can blame them? I don't have the stomach for this stuff, and I'm sympathetic to what it's trying to say. I'm downright embarrassed for it.

What's really sad is that there are some interesting ideas in here. Much of the storyline would probably be salvageable, if only they took a different, much more subtle tack about it. Lose the explicit "conservative"/"liberal" labeling of everything. Ditch the talk-radio-host crap, which makes it all sound like a big ad for Hannity and Liddy and North and so on. (Honestly. What did these guys do, pay for it?) Don't tell us what's going on, show it—it's as valid a rule in world-building as it is in basic writing courses where you have to train budding authors not to just narrate (for example) how much one character "loves" another, but to demonstrate those emotions through the details of the plot. The same goes for all the atmospherics of this story. A bit less caricature, and a bit more character, would do wonders. I can see something genuinely interesting being made from a world where the transnational progressivists have gained the upper hand and have brought European-style appeasement politics to the US; where bin Laden is treated as an "ambassador" and where street youth vandalism takes the form of nationalistic protest against blue-helmeted UN police on New York streets and what amounts to foreign occupation. But for God's sake, do it with the subtlety and the detailed trickle of back-story establishment that we saw in The Watchmen and Astro City, not with a cyborg superhero named "Reagan" born on 9/11/01.

I remember writing something about this sophisticated when I was a junior in high school; it was from the opposite side of the spectrum, but it was just as Jerry-Lewis-clumsy, the way only something can be that's written by someone who's never experienced life in the real world or a contrary thought.

I honestly can't imagine whose worldview this comic strokes, aside from the truly dim. I was told last night of someone's friend who was pro-war because she had the vague idea that Iraq was directly responsible for 9/11—and that it was located right next to France. Now, I will grant that it does not exactly make me comfortable that the pro-war position just happens to be the default sort of place that society's most ignorant stratum falls into, lacking the interest or capacity for independent analysis that would lead them to make an informed decision, and relying on the fundaments of blind patriotism to assume that whatever we're doing is right. Naturally I don't hold to the idea that the more intelligent and/or educated a person becomes, the more he inevitably shifts to the Left; there are obviously plenty of really sharp cookies at the top echelons of both political traditions, and behind both pro- and anti-war platforms. But does this comic pander to anybody but the lowest rung of the analytical ladder? Does it make a case to anyone who doesn't operate on slogans and epithets or who doesn't get all their political insights fed to them by syndicated radio personalities? It's a shame that it was written by someone who apparently has a pretty good grasp on the issues and how to construct an alternate universe based on all the relevant factors, and who actually had the gumption to get a project like this off the ground; it's just very painful to see the result be something this shallow.

In the end it does nothing but reinforce everyone's stereotypes of the kind of people who would vote Republican: hamfisted, simple-minded, pugnacious nitwits who worship name-branded cults of personality rather than analyze the issues, and whose appreciation of art has its high-water mark at Wheel of Fortune. And in the end, that doesn't help anybody.

UPDATE: If the goal was to create a comic-format defense of the War on Terror, this is more like the angle I would have taken. It's something I threw together in early 2003 when I was pissed off one day, which explains why it's so rough and poorly planned out and why I only got about 3.mumble pages into it. Also I realized it was too Scott McCloud-derivative. I'm not saying it would have been any good, but at least it would have been about the issues.

Also, I just kinda like how Uncle Sam turned out. Hee hee.

Saturday, October 8, 2005
16:22 - The truth's still getting its boots on

Yesterday the news "broke" that Houston, we have confirmation of God in the White House—and of course everyone from incoherent LiveJournal authors to the world's most widely read editorialists pounced. Way too juicy a scoop not to, right?

In Elusive Peace: Israel and the Arabs, a major three-part series on BBC TWO (at 9.00pm on Monday 10, Monday 17 and Monday 24 October), Abu Mazen, Palestinian Prime Minister, and Nabil Shaath, his Foreign Minister, describe their first meeting with President Bush in June 2003.

Nabil Shaath says: “President Bush said to all of us: ‘I’m driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, “George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.” And I did, and then God would tell me, “George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq …” And I did. And now, again, I feel God’s words coming to me, “Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East.” And by God I’m gonna do it.’"

Abu Mazen was at the same meeting and recounts how President Bush told him: “I have a moral and religious obligation. So I will get you a Palestinian state."

Now, it's funny: the last time I heard these quotes being attributed to Bush, it was in those TV ads solicited by MoveOn.org—entries for their "Bush in 60 Seconds" campaign to develop an anti-Bush ad to air during last year's Super Bowl.

GRAPHIC: Pictures Of Hitler
HITLER: (Speaking In German)
CHYRON: We have taken new measures to protect our homeland,

GRAPHIC: Pictures Of Hitler
HITLER: (Speaking In German)
CHYRON: I believe I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator,

GRAPHIC: Pictures Of Hitler
HITLER: (Speaking In German)
CHYRON: God told me to strike at al-Qaida and I struck them,

GRAPHIC: Pictures of President Bush
HITLER: (Speaking In German)
CHYRON: and then He instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did.

BACKGROUND: Cheering German Crowd

That was at the beginning of 2004, which means the quotations were in public view by then—they were first reported by Ha'aretz, on June 30, 2003, right after the meeting in question took place.

So from Abbas' mouth to MoveOn.org patrons' ears. That's the credibility trail.

And now here they come again. Only now it's "the distinguished and highly reliable film-maker Norma Percy" making a new BBC series, filming Abbas and Shaath as they recite what they'd said back in June 2003... or maybe it was just stock footage shot at the time—this part is unclear. If the former, though, it meant that the Palestinians had apparently really rehearsed it well, so as to make a good show of it for Percy's eager cameras, or else the quotes were accurate (or had been mangled by a "helpful" translator). I wasn't about to dismiss either possibility, though the credibility of the source material remains entirely outside the realm of what I'd consider solid.

I did try to dig up commentary from the news stories at the time that would have debunked the quotes; I was sure I'd seen such a thing in the outraged reaction to the MoveOn.org Hitler ad, but no amount of Googling turned up anything substantive. I did, however, find sympathetic articles defending the ads and claiming that the quotes were authentic (though providing little in the way of citations or evidence).

Well, now it's the next day, and the White House has issued its denial, and so has Abbas—so I guess the footage must have been shot back in 2003 after all. And even the people inclined to dismiss McClellan's denial out of hand would surely pay attention to Abbas'.

But that wasn't fast enough for every editorial writer from here to Timbuktu to register their horror anew at the quotes which have been swirling around the toilet bowl of the Internet's seamier underbelly for over two years now. They've just been bumped into the spotlight again, this time by the BBC itself, and I haven't yet decided whether it's sadder that the BBC's very credibility is what's served to renew the world's interest in them—or that that same credibility has sunk to such abysmal levels that this kind of thing hardly even surprises me.

But do go see Tim Blair's latest on the matter, a roundup of all the highly-placed opinionmakers who have given this story the same immortality as the "plastic turkey" and the James Watt "Second Coming" libel.

And for the record: no, I don't think Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet.

Tuesday, October 4, 2005
13:57 - A couple of thin red lines

It's one thing for Piglet to be banned, or a medieval pig statue to not be restored, or an ice cream lid design to be changed because someone thinks it looks like it says "Allah".

But what about the Union Jack?

Chris Doyle, director of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, said Tuesday the red cross was an insensitive reminder of the Crusades.

“A lot of Muslims and Arabs view the Crusades as a bloody episode in our history,” he told CNN. “They see those campaigns as Christendom launching a brutal holy war against Islam.

“Muslim or Arab prisoners could take umbrage if staff wore a red cross badge. It’s also got associations with the far-right. Prison officers should be seen to be neutral.”

Doyle added that it was now time for England to find a new flag and a patron saint who is “not associated with our bloody past and one we can all identify with.”

How tied are Britons to their flag? How deep does it run in their blood? This isn't Winnie-the-Pooh... this is a thousand years of history and culture.

Is this the line beyond which Britain won't be pushed?

Eventually someone's going to have to stand up and say that if we're going to have a secular society, then that means everybody has to stop being offended by perceived religious affronts. And that means everybody. That's the social contract under which we live here in the Western world. If someone can't handle it, he should be politely but firmly shown the door.

Or, if we're not willing to do that... it we're willing to lay down and surrender, not just in the face of everyday citizens' religious complaints, but in the interest of prisoners not taking umbrage... then maybe we as a culture don't deserve to live anyway.

Via LGF.

UPDATE: What would Lord Nelson make of all this?

UPDATE: For reference, here is a post with background on how the "English flag" (the flag of St. George) and the Union Jack are related. Pretty cool, if you ask me. I'd hate to see such a clever contrivance lost to history for fear of stepping on the toes of people who put AK-47s and explicit statements of creed on their flags.

UPDATE: I wonder what George Galloway would have to say about this.

Wait, no I don't.

Saturday, October 1, 2005
18:57 - Man smashes Bowl, Nuke explodes Monkey

Best 17 out of 33!

Friday, September 30, 2005
19:02 - Psychotic Episodes

There's another kind of blogging out there. One that's rarer and more finely distilled than the usual stuff I tend to be used to these days. It's the rehearsed, episodic, often-daily but usually-sporadic sites that consist of story after story after story, often not-work-safe, usually hysterically funny.

Some consist of anecdotes of tribulation. Others (and this is a crucial distinction) are diaries in hell. Some are even entirely fictional and animated, which just increases the awe in which the purported veracity of the rest must be held.

But one thing that most such sites hosted by budding stand-up comedians have in common is that if they let their politics show through, it's never along the same lines as this:

They respond with lots of fancy, meaningless words like "exploitation" and "commodification." They also tell me I need to read Catherine MacKinnon, some Andrea Dworkin, and perhaps even some Michel Foucault. Those names set off a bomb in the bar.

I had tried for a good ten minutes to let it go, but with Red Bull and vodka coursing through my veins, and the names of the anti-christs being thrown around so flippantly, I let loose. Absolutely unleashed. I eventually start throwing out words like "fascist" and "not content to let people live their own lives" and "if you don't like stumpy people hitting each other, don't go see it" and "these are theories that only sound good or important to upper-middle-class-usually-white-people who feel guilty about their status, and have taken enough benefits out of capitalism that they have the luxury of enough leisure time to actually think about this crap and go to $35K/year schools to learn it.”

That's Tucker Max, and it's about as Safe For Work as it gets. It's lewd, it's crude, it's bound to horrify—but at a time when I'm starting to wonder if there's any such thing in the world as an articulate and intellectual comic genius storyteller (well, aside from this one) who revels in ridiculing "No Blood for Oil" buttons rather than in wearing them, I'm scooping this up like manna.

Also it's funny enough to make me gasp for breath while nearby people look at me funny.

The stories appear to be in reverse chronological order, so start at the bottom and work your way up. But read the "Classics" at the top first.

Why won't they give this guy a spot on Comedy Central? ...Aside from the two or three obvious reasons, I mean? He'd be like the Evil Dave Attell.

UPDATE: Nobody's good stories should go unlinked.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005
20:53 - Speaking of "Vernian"...

Seems they finally got photos of a live giant squid in the wild.

Arrr, Squiddy! I got nothing against ye. I just heard there was gold in yer belly.

Via David at Sgt. Stryker.

Monday, September 26, 2005
01:41 - What in the name of crap


What is 3rd Dimensia?

Additional Dimension Adjustment Disorder, or 3rd Dimensia, is a neurological disorder that strikes the brain and brain related functions of those acclimatizing to improved spatial situations.
The telltale symptoms of 3rd Dimensia are befuddlement, soreness, pain, frustration, inactivity, uselessness, confoundation, inability to do things, fear of rooms, and death. Many people ignore these symptoms or mistake them for other, more popular disorders. Left undiagnosed, 3rd Dimensia can cause serious damage to you, your life, or your home.

Up until the late 1990s, it was commonly thought that 3rd Dimensia was only a disorder for patients dealing with 2-to-3-dimensional crossover. But today, scientists and doctors know better. Be warned: 3rd Dimensia does not discriminate. It can strike anyone at anytime.

This site was just advertised with a real live ad on UPN.

Some days I just know there's a hidden camera watching me, and a studio audience laughing hysterically.

UPDATE: Apparently, as one might discover by drilling down sufficiently deeply into the site, it's a front for gametap.com, some kind of Time-Warner-funded service that lets you play classic emulated console games.

Two-dimensional ones. Okay, I guess that makes sense...

13:50 - Super Pol Pot

This (via LGF) is one of those posts that I'm going to bookmark and file away for future reference. Not because of the post itself (primarily), but because of the comment by "cathyf", who says:

Up until about 10,000 years ago, man was a hunter-gatherer. The assumption always seems to be that he survived on the gathering part, while getting the occasional treat of meat when the tribe succeeded in bringing down some food. In fact, those that do mineral analysis of prehistoric bones tell us that our caveman and cavewomen and cavechildren ancestors ate a diet that was about 90% meat.

Then about 10,000 years ago we discovered how to brew beer. This was a huge improvement to our health, because alcohol is a powerful water purification chemical, and so drinking beer, and then later wine, gave us a source of water that was safe to drink. Before that the only source of safe water would have been broths.

So when we started brewing beer, then we started cultivating grain crops to make the beer. And pretty soon we invented bread, which became a staple of our diets that crowded out a lot of meat. We had to create significant property rights -- before this people owned what they carried with them, and so stealing was hard. Once we had lots of real property, we invented war as ways to seize other people's property. And quickly discovered that fighting was a way that you could subjegate others. Women and children were significantly more disadvantaged in the new order -- as hunters they were a far more equal members of the tribe, now they became property. The planting of crops destroyed animal habitat, and the crops had to be protected from the animals tromping through them, so the animals were fenced away from people's property, or they were domesticated. Meat became more valuable, and so access to meat became something that the rich had and their slaves mostly ate bread.

In other words, all of those evil things that the vegetarians are complaining about came about as the direct result of human beings adopting a vegetarian diet. :-)

Probably as a matter of pure serendipity, someone last night in the middle of a conversation that apparently needed to be made less fun forwarded me a link to The Jain's Death, a sequential graphic-novel thing to which my first reaction was: Yay! Let us all wallow in guilt for not throwing ourselves to the ants and the tigers!

In the faltering conversation that followed, where I decided I was decreasingly likely to care what the person thought of me and my intolerant knuckle-dragging beliefs, I mentioned that I'd always thought that leaf-blowers would revolutionize the Jainist economy—except that apparently not having an economy was the entire point of the exercise: Walk Lightly Upon the Earth, and Accomplish Nothing of Consequence—which I suppose would make a fine slogan for lots of people in today's world.

Nihilistic self-loathing isn't just a modern conceit. Every now and then we get these early-Rousseau-esque back-to-the-land fantasies, clothing themselves in moralism and guilt-trips and admonishments to feel bad about even the millions of bacteria you kill with every breath taken in your wretched evil life; and it all sounds just so wonderful, except for that whole "four billion humans need to die to bring about our death-free agrarian ends" thing.

On top of which, exactly how in the hell are you supposed to farm without killing worms under your hoes or exploiting animal labor or anything? It's a beautiful thing to sit by the side of the road and eat oranges and speak blessings over the seeds so that they might nourish life blah blah blah, but unless you grew those oranges yourself through some amazing non-exploitative method, you found them, or you stole them, or you bought them from someone who didn't have such compunctions, like Safeway. Farming, by its nature, instills a sense of the pragmatic. People didn't start whipping oxen because they were sadistic, they did it because it was the only way to plow the fields. You get inured to sentimentality over the Pure Tenderness of Gentle Nature after a while. That sort of thing happens when you have to make your own food. If you don't—if you're sustained by the evil infrastructure of the supermarket, or if your room and board is paid for along with your tuition, or if you're lucky enough to be born among the idle rich—that sentimentality returns and you feel like you can change the world if only you could slaughter all those stupid troglodyte bastards who don't see things your way. As North Korea illustrates so well, it's easy to have a national policy of Self-Reliance™ when someone else is paying your bills.

"Mouthwash would be right out," the guy said, going along with my train of thought. "No killing bacteria allowed. It's like Super Christian Science."

"It's like Super Pol Pot," I said.

...Anyway. It's been a long morning. Sorry to start it off so grimly.

Sunday, September 25, 2005
22:58 - Night on Mt. Hamilton

Last night, through some kind of string-pulling on the part of a friend of mine, a group of us went up to Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton for a seven-hour tour of the facility, including two of the ten or so observatory domes scattered across the ridge at the top of the mountain.

Here's the observatory, the face that looks out over the bay and can be seen from anywhere in Silicon Valley:

And here's the view from there after the sun has gone down:

First we toured the 120-inch reflector, the big dome on the second peak with the late-50s architectural elements like flat metal banisters on cherrywood-paneled staircases in the foyer. Inside is this monster:

Then, once the sun had gone down, we went to the large dome in the main observatory building, the 60-foot-long 36-inch refractor that had been completed in 1887.

Almost 120 years old and still in nightly use. Most of the equipment and furnishings, including the guard rails on the catwalk around the dome and the spiral staircase up to it, are original. So is that gorgeous hardwood floor down there, which is on a hydraulic lift so it rises and descends to give the astronomer access at any height throughout the dome to the end of the telescope. All the hardwood planks are bent into that circular design and lacquered over; when the floor moves up or down, it's with eerie smoothness and quiet.

This is pure Vernian steam-punk chic right here: look at the huge dials on the axial mounts there. The astronomer would have had to call out coordinates to his assistant perched up on the central pier, and he'd turn those big ship's wheels to aim the telescope. "Bring it about to seventeen hours right ascension, Mr. Hawkins!"

Nowadays, the astronomer moves the telescope by hand, using the leverage available at the end and the counterweights at the middle; if you get it going up and away, an astronomer without a lot of body weight gets taken for a ride.

And under the hydraulics in the central pier is where the crazy philanthropist who endowed the place is buried:

We spent until midnight aiming the scope at cool stuff in the sky, ending with a view of the rising Mars.

There aren't many cooler ways for a geek to spend a Saturday night.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005
12:57 - Blank Space Race

It's way too easy to make fun of NASA's latest Grand Aspiration: to return to the moon for only half the inflation-adjusted cost as last time, by 2018. But Mike at Cold Fury does it anyway, since just because it's easy to mock doesn't mean it doesn't deserve it.

This is what it's come to, then? Issuing reassurances to the public that it won't cost us anything in blood or treasure to make sure that the long-ago-hard-won Moon won't become Chinese by default, out of our lack of interest?

On the question of cost, Mr. Griffin said space represented a long-term investment that should not be sidetracked by immediate concerns of tight budgets and crises like Hurricane Katrina.

“We’re talking about returning to the moon in 2018. There will be a lot more hurricanes and a lot more other natural disasters to befall the United States and the world in that time, I hope none worse than Katrina,” Mr. Griffin said at a news conference.

This is the Moon, guys. Remember, the Moon? And you're talking about Katrina? In twenty years Katrina will be a blip, like any other local disaster with a media-friendly name, like Loma Prieta or the Good Friday earthquake/tsunami, and as easily recovered from. I know Mr. Griffin is having to answer questions from a press corps trying to win perspicacity points by raking together disparate nettling counterarguments from all across the news spectrum, as they seem to have discovered that a great way to get noticed is to stump a politician with a question like "Wouldn't you say that Social Security reform is an irresponsible path to follow considering that there have been unusually rainy Octobers in seven out of the last nineteen years that Republicans have been in office?" —and I know NASA may not have had to prepare any answers weighing its own future against Katrina relief, so this might have come as a surprise. I don't know if the guy would have said anything differently if General Honore had had his back. But regardless, this all tells me simply that NASA doesn't know what it's for anymore.

As Steven Den Beste once said, it's a fallacy for someone to say, "Hey, if we can put a man on the moon, then we can damn sure come up with an alternative to fossil fuels," or some such. They're totally different kinds of engineering problems. Putting a man on the moon is something we accomplished with the technology of the 1960s. In brutal honesty, there's not all that much high technology involved in putting people into space. Space didn't require the development of new kinds of physics or the discovery of amazing new sources of energy. There's nothing all that revolutionary about filling up a big tank with liquid oxygen and lighting it on fire. Space is all about math. Lots and lots of math. Whereas the Moon Shot was akin to the invention of the car in the annals of human accomplishment, the development of an alternative fuel source would be more like the invention of the Star Trek transporter.

Space wasn't about conquering Nature or ushering in a new technocratic Future, though those were side effects. It was about something else, something a lot more fundamental and parochial. It was a WPA project in all but name, a way for Americans to unite behind a common purpose that would pay off in scientific dividends secondarily, but grand theater above all. It's What We Can Do if We All Pull Together.

The Moon Shot, as I understand it from the perspective of someone born years after Man last set foot there, was never a practical matter when you came right down to it. It was purely a point of national pride: We gotta get there first. Never mind that there's nothing actually there. It's the principle of the thing. And that sounds terribly cynical, written in today's language... but at the time, it didn't have to be. People actually got behind it. A matter of pure vanity got hearts genuinely pumping, even on the evening news. And yet today, we're so steeped in self-effacing irony and the reflexive recoil from anything that looks like "propaganda" that just to even show reruns of "The Omega Glory" risks losing advertisers. We're too smart for such parlor tricks today. In this atmosphere, the entire point of going to the Moon is wasted.

Sure, I'd like to see it happen. I just don't think anyone—in NASA or in the general public—really knows the visceral, binding power of the concept of going to the Moon in the first place, and now they're just going through the motions as befits our faded interest in that whole anachronistic long-ago Future.

UPDATE: On the other hand, maybe things aren't so grim. Check out this reader e-mail to Dean Esmay, following many similar threads of thought, and Dean's quite compelling response.

I do think we've sacrificed a lot with our mad rush into sophistication and malaise and irony in latter decades; but I can't deny that I'd just as soon live today as back then.

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© Brian Tiemann