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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Wednesday, February 1, 2006
17:18 - Here's a stupid thought

This has been bugging me for a little while.

We've all pretty much consensually determined that a secular society is better than a religious one, right? (I'm being mildly facetious here; bear with me.) It's reached the point where we've banished all mention of God from public offices and schools, we avoid telling strangers "Merry Christmas" lest we "offend" them with our amiable well-wishing, we force religious groups to explicitly accept members from other religions (however often that situation might come up), and we all wring our hands and act scandalized when the President says "God bless America" at the end of a speech.

It all but logically follows, because life is in fact pretty damn good in this day and age, that the less religion there is in public society, the better off we all are. Right? And the irreligious find plenty of reasoning herein for feeling more and more comfortable having left faith behind on the sidewalk many years ago.

Well, here's something I can't help but wonder:

The entire concept of justice and due process as we know it is founded on some pretty shaky principles: namely, that we can take a person at his word, as long as he has sworn an oath. We don't care what book a person places his hand on to swear—we just care that he has sworn.

Well, what is an oath to the nonreligious?

What's stopping a person from lying to a court if he thinks he can avoid charges of perjury?

The whole point of an oath was that it bound a person to the truth by virtue of punishment by a higher power if he lied. It took the onus of proving a witness' credibility off the human jurists. A person on the stand, after putting his hand on the Bible, would feel genuinely, honestly uncomfortable lying—not to say that he'd be actually incapable of doing so, because he believed that the oath meant what it said, and that he'd commit himself to hellfire if he lied. And as a result, a trial could be assured to be more truthful, with less effort on the part of the judge and jury to determine who was lying, than would otherwise be the case.

Well, what are we doing nowadays? This country is still plenty religious, but how do the aggressively secular countries deal with this issue? Do they still go through the motions of swearing people to the truth in court, even when they know it's a meaningless gesture that doesn't faze a would-be perjurer in the least? In other words, when the only punishment one fears is the one that can be doled out by a human organ—and an easygoing, rehabilitation-oriented one at that—what incentive is there to tell the truth if one thinks he can get away with a lie?

Now, I'm not naïve about this; I understand that even a couple hundred years ago, you couldn't exactly put a criminal on the stand, say "Do you swear to tell the whole truth" etc., and expect him to wobble and sweat and finally just spontaneously break down and confess. Someone who's willing to break laws or act as an accomplice to someone who does isn't going to feel much compunction about the fate of his immortal soul. It's about as silly as yelling "Stop thief!" at a purse-snatcher, as though he'll freeze in his tracks, turn around, and shuffle back to return the purse with a downcast moping apology.

But there's got to be a reason why we think it's worthwhile to bother swearing people to oaths. As society becomes less and less overtly religious, there are bound to be consequences of some kind in how the rule of law is perceived; because when people only fear the punishment of fallible and gullible humans, and no longer feel their lives governed by something higher and omnipresent, who wouldn't do more of the illicit stuff that only God could see?

09:44 - Now that's journalism

Regarding the whole Jyllands-Posten cartoons debacle, I posted the following last night at Tim Blair's:

There’s not a better illustration of the entire mindset of the stunt than this one by Arne Sørensen.

It seems to me that there are two possible purposes behind Jyllands-Posten’s sponsorship of this stunt: a) to prove their belief that Muslims are too mature to overreact to something like this, or b) to prove their belief that Muslims just need a match struck and they’ll explode and take all of the Western world with them.

The former seems far-fetched. It’s possible, as we all know of newspapers too blinded by moral relativism to have any idea what kind of backlash this would have sparked. But this doesn’t feel like that’s the case. I suspect it’s the latter.

And if it’s the latter, it’s succeeded beyond all imagination. Because now the whole world knows what happens. That poor cartoonist in his self-portrait sketch-- he tries to shield the paper (with its studiously inoffensive drawing) from prying eyes, but look how much good that does.

And what Leftist can help but sympathize with him?

I’d love to hear the Leunig/Rall/Fisk/Moore/etc reasoning that exonerates Hamas and its obviously popularly supported boycott versus the poor guy at the writing desk.

In other words, this may be a tipping point, where the Western Left finally realizes how fragile and precious a thing freedom of speech is, and that there are in fact some things worth fighting to defend.

And we’ll have Jyllands-Posten to thank for it.

Well, now look what's happening. Germany, Italy, Spain, and France are already recognizing that tipping point. Whether the newspapers reprinting the cartoons represent widespread popular opinion or not, they're consciously turning this issue into a bigger—much bigger—conflagration, one in which the long-anticipated clash between the diametrically opposite concepts of freedom of speech and religious law will finally occur in a forum that Westerners can't ignore: our own newspapers.

Eventually it'll show up on the evening news. The mainstream media won't be able to ignore the matter any longer, or refrain from publishing the cartoons without asking themselves uncomfortable questions about whether they're rank hypocrites of the highest order, affecting a sanctimonious stateless moral rectitude when it comes to politics and war, but meekly hiding when it comes to a story that touches on sensitive religious matters.

Sooner or later, our media decisionmakers will realize that allowing themselves to be intimidated by Islamic fundamentalism, and allowing themselves to be constrained by laws and guidelines that forbid ridicule on religious grounds, would forbid the ridicule of Christianity—one of our most cherished modern pastimes.

Besides which, they won't be able to ignore obvious outrages like, say, all people of Scandinavian descent being ordered out of the Gaza Strip, even if by some previously unknown terrorist group (hey, look where Hamas' career took it). And it's only going to get worse, too, now that the rest of Europe is joining the fray. Eventually the apologists for this kind of brittle cultural chauvinism will have to reluctantly take sides against it. CAIR will overplay its hand. And there'll be a whole groundswell of protest art—this time, braving all the inevitable comparisons to Nazi portrayals of Jews, and taking a stand against political correctness now that the stakes have been made clear to us. And who knows where it will all lead.

It may be too much to predict that we're witnessing the beginning of the great European cultural upheaval we've all been expecting. It won't be pretty, but it's better to have it happen sooner than later, because postponing it will just make it all the harder for everybody when it does happen.

UPDATE: Oh. Never mind, then.

Monday, January 30, 2006

This is good stuff right here.


Saturday, January 28, 2006
10:53 - iTunes Moment of Zen

Search the iTunes Music Store for "moby". You get this among the results:

I guess it's obvious what's "abridged' about the first one, huh?

(Spotted by Chris.)

Thursday, January 26, 2006
17:28 - It Came from Planet Earth

Wow. The things SomethingAwful finds. Here's a quiz to find out if you're a Transhumanist.

Doesn't this read like something a college freshman would come up with some late night, the moment he realizes that his financial aid is secure and he doesn't have to bother with getting along with his parents anymore?

It's mildly fascinating, from a sociological point of view. This stuff isn't your typical Leftist utopianism, though it certainly shares some of the same hooks for appealing to young "intellectuals"; it's more like a big rationalization for the kind of people who read too much sci-fi as kids and now would like to see nothing more fervently than a robot-driven future planet where people stroll around matte-painting-like city squares clothed in tunics. It appeals to people who have discovered that it's cool to be cynically misanthropic, and are convinced that "morals" are stupid, hedonism and drugs are awesome, religion is revolting, eugenics is great, Hitler deserves to be quoted (and referred to as "a famous German statesman"), and "loved ones" is a term that should be put in quote marks. It's like a weird kind of Zen that applies to society as a whole: salvation of the species through extinction of the soul.

This page takes the form of a "quiz" that's really just a list of statements of purpose, and you're invited to submit whether you agree with them or not. There's no mixing-up of answers or anything—the more you agree, the more of a Transhumanist you are (and, of course, the more "Enlightened"). For consensus with statements that can barely conceal their rage at concepts like "wage slavery" and "the masses" is a crucial part of human evolution, you see.

I. Reason (rational thinking) is good because it leads to practical, useful results. If applied systematically, it can significantly improve the quality of one's life. Irrationality is (potentially) dangerous and inefficient, and should therefore be avoided as much as possible.

I dunno, man, you lost me there! Geez. They start it out with such a patronizing softball, you feel like a moron for not agreeing with every word of the thing. I'm sure that's by design.

II. Most "traditional" morals and ethics should be rejected as they, instead of being useful tools for personal growth and empowerment, only make life more difficult than it already is. From a rational individual's perspective, the "good" is that which serves his enlightened self-interest (open-ended existence under the best possible conditions), and the "bad" that which is detrimental to this goal.

Typical boilerplate for capturing the libertine college-student demographic, full of kids on state education grants lining up for prepaid dinners between mind-expansion sessions in the carven-oak library. Quick! The kid reading this is probably newly horrified at his religious family back in Iowa. He's weak! Hit him again!

III. Religion is a crutch for the weak & ignorant, and a handy tool for the manipulative. Or, in the words of Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger: "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful."

Ooooo! A Roman philosopher quote! Now the reader thinks he's part of an elite club of intellectuals as well as being smarter than the average dope in flyover country. You've got him eating out of the palm of your hand! One more dig and you'll have him for sure:

IV. There is absolutely nothing wrong with hedonism, as long as it doesn't get you killed or into serious trouble. Indeed, one could say that pleasure and happiness are the most logical (interim?) "meaning of life" -- the only things in this universe that are intrinsically good and valuable.

"Don't harsh me, maaan! I'll have sex with who I want to and take whatever drugs I want to!" He's all yours! Now start laying on the thick stuff....

V. The human condition (the way our bodies and minds currently work) needs to be improved, if only to eliminate the terminal degenerative process called "aging". But why stop there -- we should strive for nothing less than "godhood", or to become "persons of unprecedented physical, intellectual, and psychological capacity. Self-programming, self-constituting, potentially immortal, unlimited individuals'' -- Posthumans. This philosophy is called Transhumanism, by the way.

Yeah, it's also called things like Naziism and Marxism. One thing that's common to just about all dictators—whether you're talking about Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, or whoever, from whichever side of the spectrum—is that they all believe that humanity needs to be "perfected". Hitler thought he could do it by weeding out the inferior specimens; the Marxists thought they could do it by engineering the hell out of human interactions. Which way does Transhumanism plan to do it?

A reader with some perspective should be seeing this as a big red flag, but after all that stroking leading up to this point, it's unlikely that anyone will see any of this coming, or want to look for any holes in it. But just in case: better shore up the sympathetic ear with another one of those inarguable axioms he'd be a fool to doubt:

VI. Reason, science, and technology are the best tools for improving the human condition.

Well, duh, says the college student. All's right with the world. Okay, what's next? Maybe something that puts this "reason" thing to the test?

VII. Survival should always be a major point on one's agenda, as being alive is a basic prerequisite for everything else [that you want to do or experience]. Death means the definitive end of freedom of choice; it is the ultimate oppressor. Consequently, nothing is worth dying for. Any ideal, no matter how lofty it may seem, which requires your death -or involves extreme and unnecessary risk taking- is by definition irrational. Only your subjective experience (consciousness) matters; what happens after you die (real, permanent death, not cryopreservation, for example) is of no importance to you.

Ahh, here we go. How logical! What an unassailable thesis! Only your subjective experience (consciousness) matters. Well, sure! Who wants to die? And because the universe revolves around me, why should I care about anything that happens outside my own frame of observation?

By this point, the sympathetic reader is far too eagerly gobbling this up to care about such concepts as "dying so that others might live", or "dying so that others might be free", or any of those other reasons why hopeless dupes have kept throwing themselves before the train wheels of history in the interest of defending some concept larger than themselves, or people they love more than they love safety and comfort. But such things as the pillboxes of Normandy and the village greens of Massachusetts are far away from the mind of a college kid on his own away from home for the first time. But just in case:

VIII. Some might mistakenly interpret the above as a glorification -or at least tacit approval- of cowardice and "spinelessness". Nothing could be further from the truth. One should never actively seek martyrdom, but when an enemy threatens one's possessions, "loved ones", freedom, way of life, or very existence, he should be fought with courage and tenacity -- "to the last bullet and beyond", if necessary. Caution is good, but cowardice is rather uncool and ultimately counter-productive. To quote a famous German statesman: "Whoever wishes to live, he will fight. And whoever, in this world of eternal strife, refuses to defend himself is not deserving of life."

A one-two punch. First it reassures the kid that hey, if your so-called "loved ones" are important enough to you that you find it worth your while to defend them, the Transhumanists won't judge you poorly for it. Just as we don't judge poorly a quotable "German statesman" just because he killed a bunch of people. See how enlightened we are? See how free from the intellectual shackles of your "traditional" history?

It goes on and on from here; the author really goes to town. Let's find a few of the juicier bits:

XI. The true (and arguably only practical) purpose of philosophy is to ensure that reason, science, and technology get the respect and support they deserve. Everything else is essentially mental masturbation, for only science and technology can give us the means to fundamentally understand and improve ourselves and the world around us.

Where was it I kept reading about a social system wherein any activity that wasn't directly beneficial to the State, or the Revolution, or whatever, was to be avoided as a criminal waste of resources and effort? I keep forgetting whether these things happened in 1984 or in one of the socialist nightmare states that it so accurately predicted. This statement, with just a few words altered, could have come straight from the pen of O'Brien.

XV. There is no reason to remain forever stuck on Earth; space exploration and colonization are the wave of the future. In fact, off-planet colonies could be our only hope if some future (nano-)accident or conflict makes the Earth uninhabitable, or if the global socio-political climate becomes too oppressive.

You mean if society doesn't appreciate the efforts of well-meaning tall pasty guys with wild eyes who go around to nursing homes trying to saw off people's heads so they can freeze them? To do otherwise is "barbaric", says Point XII.

Besides, off-world colonization is the only way to achieve those matte-painting cities, isn't it? Too much ugliness here on Earth. Too many poor people. Too much religion. Too many people who'd never score high enough on this enlightenment quiz to come along on the colony ships. Right?

XVII. Unless we destroy ourselves first (or get wiped out by a natural disaster), the pace of technological progress is likely to accelerate enormously during (the first half of) this century, culminating in the birth of superhuman intelligence, which in turn will trigger a period of even faster and more profound social and technological change, after which nothing can be reliably conceived; the Singularity. It will effectively mean the end of life as we know it, and perhaps of (biological) life period.

XVIII. The best way to survive and benefit from the Singularity is by personally becoming (part of) the (group of) Superintelligence(s) that will trigger it. One should realize the original Transhumanist ideal by pro-actively bootstrapping oneself towards ascension rather than placing one's fate in the hands of "Friendly" AIs or "benevolent" uploads.

So, wait, hang on—you're saying Microsoft will bring about the downfall of humanity?

XX. The state (society) shouldn't outlaw activities like drug use/sale, prostitution, pornography, gambling, euthanasia, and abortion (the traditional "victimless crimes") -- or indeed even old-skool duelling, killer game shows, and consensual cannibalism. No matter how stupid, dangerous, "shocking", or "perverted", as long as it doesn't actually harm anyone against his will, it shouldn't be illegal, period. One has every (moral) right to ignore any law that violates the above-mentioned principle (at one's own risk, of course). Or, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas: "Lex malla, lex nulla"; a bad law is no law.

More nihilistic hedonism, justified by quotes from more Latin-speaking philosophers. Does it completely fail to occur to these people that sometimes certain practices are made illegal by society not because of some vile and deliberately counterproductive medieval superstition, but because it makes society work better that way? I'm not saying things like porn and euthanasia should be abolished, but to suggest that prostitution and gambling and drugs aren't things you want to bother trying to keep out of a pleasant civil society—or that abortion is a "victimless crime"—strikes me as an effort by the author to shoehorn a lot of personal grudges into a philosophical framework that works only if you don't question it, and then only tenuously.

And what's this "old-skool" spelling all about? Is this like saying cowardice is "uncool" up in Point VIII?

XXI. Enlightened, individualistic people choose to remain childfree as they don't (strongly) feel the selfish gene-driven urge to procreate, don't bow to pressure from family/friends/society, and don't see the point of taking on this additional socio-biological burden. Especially for women, the refusal to have children is a very empowering act, as society's pressures to start a family are usually greater on women than on men, and the (negative) impact of procreation on their health and personal lives is generally greater as well.

If this guy were writing this in the Seventies, he'd be talking about Population Bomb, wouldn't he? Too bad the consensus that the Earth is hopelessly overpopulated seems to be coming under fire, and the declining birth rates all over Europe and first-world countries all over the world (and their negative impact on those countries' economies and standards of living) tells us something about how "enlightened" someone is who decides, because he's just such an evolved Transhuman, not to bother having any kids. These days, choosing to have a baby is looking like a downright empowering decision, at least in the First World, where it goes without saying that readers of a quiz like this are coming from.

XXII. Love really is (just) a (highly addictive) drug, sex a rather cumbersome way of getting off, and marriage an archaic pseudo-religious bonding ritual. They tend to cause (a lot) more trouble than they're worth, which is why smart people will generally (try to) avoid them. Better use your imagination and lend yourself a hand.

Cute. This is apparently way better than the "mental" version of the same thing (Point XI).

And does anyone else hear "I'm a loser who can't get laid" squeaking from behind the author's keys here?

XXIV. Work, (aka wage slavery), can and should be reduced to a bare minimum -and ultimately even abolished altogether- by means of thorough streamlining and advanced automation of both the public and private sectors. Indeed, if we take the USA as an example, "merely" getting rid of all superfluous government employees (i.e. up to 90% or so), cutting the absolutely monstrous military budget down to size, and ending the immoral, insanely expensive War on Drugs would free up more than enough funding to lay down the foundations for a sustainable "work-free paradise" (as opposed to the Socialists' "workers' paradise") where everyone who genuinely can't or doesn't want to work is entitled to a decent basic income and essentials like quality healthcare, housing, and broadband internet access. Of course, in order to prevent "systemic overload", foreign freeloaders would have to be kept out, and the domestic ones actively discouraged from (over)breeding. Incidentally, the guaranteed basic income / freeloader management combo would also take a big, and probably permanent, bite out of crime and other poverty and low IQ-related unpleasantness. In other words, a win-win solution!

XXV. Since the above-mentioned model probably won't be put into practice anytime soon (at least not in any "major" country), one must fight against wage slavery on a personal level by looking for relatively easy, preferably automated sources of income, and by protecting one's earnings by means of offshore accounts, multiple citizenships, and/or (other) legal loopholes. In most "civilized" countries, taxes have become absurdly high and complex anyway, so avoiding them whenever possible is almost something of a "moral" (not to mention rational) imperative.

I hardly know where to begin with this stuff; it really just fisks itself. This is presumably the core of the philosophy: the idea that if we just kill off the government and the military, we'll suddenly have enough wealth that everyone can put on those tunics and swish around the spotless concrete squares like in Romance paintings of Plato and Aristotle. Sustainably, somehow. I'd love to know how that works.

Marx had his "labor theory of value"; it's laughable on its face, not that it doesn't have its adherent nations. But that's not what this guy has in mind, apparently. He's got some vision of wealth that just sort of comes from magic-land; presumably he's one of those who wonders why the government can't just print cash and fly to Mars. Otherwise I don't get how he thinks cutting expenses will somehow free up all of humanity to enjoy free health care and broadband Internet access, forever. Unless... unless he only means for the Enlightened. Yyyyyeah. That would have to be it. Keep out those "freeloading foreigners", first of all, see. And keep the "low-IQ" contingent hidden away underground, presumably turning a giant vertical shaft that powers a generator, grunting and yelling under the whips of the overseers. Hey, as long as life on the offworld colonies is idyllic, who cares about the people doing actual work and creating actual value for society, right?

It's always interested me to see how at every point in history, no matter how "wealthy" a nation was, whether measured in terms of gold or beaver pelts or fishing waters or tributary lands, there was always enough daily drudgery to go around. Sure, a "wealthy" country could afford to make technological advances, and Rome and England and America and Japan have all had their part in that. But in those countries even the most indolent of the independently wealthy upper class depended on wealth to get where they were, and they were still constrained by the realities of daily life. There's never been enough of a surplus of wealth just lying around for a country's king to just decree, "All right, everybody—free vacation for a year!" Funny, that. You'd think it might have happened once or twice in history, wouldn't you?

XXVI. Generally speaking, people get the kind of society and government they deserve. As Havelock Ellis once put it: "It is the masses; the ignorant, emotional, volatile, superstitious masses; who rule the world. It is they who choose the few supreme persons who manage or mismanage the world's affairs." If truly rational people were a majority rather than a (small) minority, many of today's problems, such as those caused by warped political and religious ideologies, simply wouldn't exist. This is direct proof that the masses are indeed "stupid" (incapable of effectively pursuing their enlightened self-interest).

Yeah, the abject failure of democracy in America, Canada, England, and most of the rest of the Western world is direct proof that people are too stupid to rule themselves. As everyone knows, the entropy of society increases way faster in democratic countries than in totalitarian ones, and democracies invariably fall apart, while only countries with a strong centralized government dictating all aspects of life have shown any hope of spurring human advancement.


XXIX. Both lefty PC, postmodernist, tax-happy, minority-worshipping, tree-hugging, 1st and 2nd Amendment-hating, envious Liberalism and right-wing, gung-ho-patriotic, bible-thumpin', environment-destroying, blindly xeno and homophobic, sexist Conservatism are ridiculous extremes, and basically just two sides of the same old rotten coin called "primitivism". These undead, walking fossils are an affront to 21st century civilization, and the sooner we bury them, the better. May the Singularity cast them into Hades, where they belong!

Not Hell, of course, because that would be superstitious and backwards.

XXX. The war on Iraq was the diversionary tactic / personal vendetta of a cowboy president urged on by self-serving, manipulative (foreign and domestic) pressure groups, executed by cynical mercenaries and gullible youths, and supported by knee-jerk "patriotic" simpletons. Incidentally, this latest conflict has once more made it painfully clear that the only true (international) "right" is the right of force, and the only true (international) "law" the law of the jungle.

Color me surprised. <yawn>

XXXII. There is nothing wrong with the idea of eugenics if it means making people stronger, healthier, smarter, better looking, and longer-lived by means of selective breeding, genetic screening, and abortion/postnatal termination of seriously defective specimens. Indeed, had common sense-based selective human breeding been practiced systematically in the past, as has been done with many domesticated animal and plant species, humanity could have been spared a lot of misery, and would now probably be significantly more advanced. Eugenics isn't merely an "acceptable" choice; it is in effect a logical and moral imperative for any (truly) responsible parent and "civilized" society.

XXXIII. The -unfortunately- rather widespread PC belief that just about any mental and/or physical degenerate has a ("God-given" or otherwise) right to breed freely is, if not outright sanctimonious, at least naive in the extreme, and ultimately harms everyone; not just the children who are born into misery, and their idiot parents who are unable (and sometimes outright unwilling) to support them, but society as a whole through overpopulation, crime, poverty & financial parasitism, and a general devaluation of human life. In most countries you need a license to drive a car, shoot a gun, fly a plane, or -even- catch a fish, but any fool can have truckloads of children (who will have their inevitable, often negative impact on society) without taking any test whatsoever. What is wrong with this picture?

Oh, nothing. Just our primitive ideas of basic human freedoms. Nothing. Never mind.

XXXV. Cooperation with like-minded people is highly advisable, especially for someone who agrees with most of the above. To quote Benjamin Franklin: "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

This is the only remotely sociable thing the author has said; naturally, it applies only to those people who have filled up the "Y" column on the quiz from top to bottom. It's good old tribalism, just with a new definition of the tribe: those people who loathe their fellow humans so much that they'll try any alternative before making the best of our human world under the rules it has built up for itself over thousands of years. Just when we've got it better than ever in the past, it's now apparently time to concede defeat in the game of natural evolution, and it's time to bring out the winnowing tools. Otherwise the Vulcans will never pick up our warp signature in time and we'll be condemned to life in a primitive meaty backwater forever.

What's that? You say you like certain things about life in a meaty backwater?

Well, phooey on you, then. Go have your phony "sex" and enjoy your sham "love" and eat your pathetic Earth "pizza". When the spaceships descend, you'll be sorry!

10:05 - Fine, be evil; see if I care

Go ahead, call me a hypocrite if you want.

No, it doesn't thrill me that Google is cozying up with China, like Yahoo! and Microsoft have done lately. But I don't think I can get along without Google Earth.

Seriously. This is a "cold dead hands" kind of thing.

Some people have World of Warcraft; I have Google Earth. And I just won't look at China if that helps...

Wednesday, January 25, 2006
19:17 - That sheep may safely graze

I'm sure there must be some significance to the fact that the pervasive reaction to things like this so often seems to be that the situation can only be rectified by rebellion.

Because there's no way a majority of intelligent adults made a decision like this of their own informed free will. Not here, not there, not anywhere. Nope—it's obviously a failure of democracy, not a joyous expression of it. So it's to be revolution, to rally the true rulers of the country and lead the poor misguided sheep of the greater populace from their folly—or else accept the death of freedom forever.

It makes me so tired.

I was watching a CSI episode the other day in which Nick Stokes was going through the locker of a teenage kid who had rented a jetski on the lake and subsequently gone missing. Stokes found the kid's wallet, opened it up, looked at various credit cards and pieces of ID, counted the $30 or so in currency, catalogued the wallet's contents, and put it in an evidence bag. It was only a few minutes later that I realized just how remarkable a thing I'd just seen: a TV show in which a character representing the police finds a wallet full of money—and he examined and bagged it, instead of helping himself to its contents. (It would have been so easy! Who'd ever know? It's the prerogative of the police! So many justifications!) And that wasn't even the remarkable part: the remarkable part was that this was presented as a completely unremarkable happenstance. It just passed on by, not as a plot point, just a bit of detail to flesh out the scene. Just another day at the office: pursuing truth, upholding the rule of law, taking home an honest paycheck.

Does anyone even grasp what a marvelous time in human history this is? Or how precarious and fleeting, historically, the situation where we can afford the luxury of living by the rule of law? Where we not only don't see the law itself as a rough set of clumsy guidelines that can and should be skirted by anyone with half a brain, but we fetishize it in hit TV shows?

Or where people routinely elect their government in a process that follows perfectly orderly rules between contestants who are ultimately in it for the same reasons, and where even if it entails a shift in power, it means nothing in the long run but that the names on the news crawl are going to change?

Dean Esmay had similar thoughts the other day. I was about to let it all just pass on by, but it seems that some people are determined not to let this moment in history slip past without layering on some unseemly hyperbole.

If people had even an inkling of what "rebellion" really entailed, especially in a country like the USA or Canada, they wouldn't dream of bandying the word about so freely.

Saturday, January 21, 2006
20:57 - I always thought they had a certain pallor

Hey, CodePink? I can do crappy Photoshops too; look:

(Original, via Tim Blair.)

14:23 - We like the cars, the cars that go boom


The Merc will be trundlin' itself down the western coastline from Portland, Oregon to San Jose, California sometime around 1/18/06 and will make a return trip up the western asphalt a week or so later.
If ya see/saw the car fire an email my way lettin' me know where and what ya think!

This morning it was parked right along Capri's habitual daily walk route; the website address was written on the trunklid in red electrical tape, so I looked it up.

I wonder if it was just coincidence that he parked it across the street from a guy who is reknowned in my circles for having retro-engineered vehicle after vehicle, from a van that had its own IP subnet back in the early 90s to a Toronado whose flip-around headlights had been replaced by tubes containing launchable Estes-powered missiles, controlled by a switch on the dashboard?

I sent off an e-mail to find out. I love teh Intarweb.

Monday, January 16, 2006
21:55 - Mr. Butts' Opus

Is it just me, or are those "Truth" anti-smoking ads really getting—not just sanctimonious and condescending, like they always have been, but completely illogical as well?

This latest one features the familiar megaphone guy in the city streets loudly informing people that methane—methane! Like from cow butts!—is found in tobacco smoke. "Maybe the Marlboro Man would feel more comfortable riding... a cow?" he smirkingly asks.

And this proves... what?

I'll bet there's carbon in cigarette smoke too. And you don't wanna know what kinds of places you find carbon.

I'm no fan of smoking. If you'd asked me in high school, or even just a few years ago, how I felt about cigarettes, I'd have cheerfully signed a ban-it-and-cart-'em-all-off-to-camps petition. But: hey, "Truth" people? Your smarmy and transparently cynical attitude has made me just about do an about-face in the interest of preserving one of our dwindling examples of free will and the personal responsibility that comes with it.

At least they segued right into the "Butt Out" episode of South Park, where the kids face the evil Rob Reiner and his anti-smoking terrorist tactics.

"Wow, it's like—smoking gives people just a little bit of joy, and you get to take that away from them! You're so awesome!"

Thursday, January 5, 2006
11:11 - Open request to the auto service industry

Would it be too much to ask if once, just once, you could perform some service upon my car without adjusting the seat and the mirrors?

You're installing tires. You're driving the car from the parking lot to the garage with the rack and back out to the parking lot; you're not screeching out onto the town with a buddy like in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. (I love my car, but it's not that cool.) You don't need to scoot the seat up six notches so I can't even cram myself in between the seat and the steering wheel when I've paid and am ready to move on with my day; I like to know where the little notch was that I had the seat before, and when I have to adjust it myself it never feels right even when I know it's in its accustomed slot. It always takes several miles to get used to it again. And what, do all service places exclusively employ hobbits or something? Is it that hard to reach the pedals from where my seat is?

Maybe it's a union thing.

Tuesday, January 3, 2006
22:27 - Children of the 80s, Unite

"A musical tale of the greatest battle to ever occur ever." It sure is.

Via Mark.

Monday, January 2, 2006
18:30 - It's so sensible, it must be fatally flawed

Lance was talking about something over the weekend—a possible scheme for solving, or at least alleviating, our power consumption problems.

The problem in question is that most forms of power generation produce power at constant rates, particularly forms like hydroelectric dams and geothermal plants where there isn't any consumable fuel to worry about depleting. Yet power consumption rises and falls over the course of the day, since by its nature "consumption" is the same thing as "demand", and the power plant has to bring more of its available current online to meet demand, and disconnect it as demand falls.

They can't store power. If they could, there would be a whole lot more of it available. Instead, dams and turbine plants have to essentially waste the power they're producing for half the day just because nobody wants it at that precise moment.

The problem apparently is a lack of good ways to store such power. You can't just hook up a bunch of NiCds to a charger and expect to do anything useful with them. But what's wrong with setting up giant, house-sized flywheels made of concrete? You could spin them up using the power produced during the off-peak hours, and the cities could drain from them during peak hours. It would even out the supply side (like a capacitor) and reduce the need for power plants to have to respond quickly to fluctuations in demand. And it would probably reduce by at least half the amount of power generation infrastructure we'd need to have running, as more and more of these flywheels could be built to store up power in little unobtrusive buildings that could even be dressed up to look like cute little houses with white picket fences and everything. And just think—when Jehovah's Witnesses come to the door, they'd be answered by a GIANT SPINNING PIECE OF CONCRETE. Converting that kind of power would be really fun to watch.

Has this been done before? If so, what hideous disaster occurred that prevents it from being widely discussed today? If not, why not?

I won't even presume to break Steven Den Beste's "DWL" edict on something like this, but I'm sure he of all people knows...

UPDATE: What I'm hearing is that the major problem is containment; the flywheel has to be in a vacuum, and that's awfully hard to maintain efficiently at large sizes (and all failure modes are spectacular—picture a fifty-foot-diameter concrete barrel rolling through downtown LA on the way to the ocean). And yeah, I do remember reading about the experiments they did on flywheels in cars; if I recall correctly, they went very fast down the straightaway on the test track, but when the driver tried to turn, the car had other ideas and torpedoed through the embankment in a perfect straight line...

UPDATE: SDB responds:

A house-sized flywheel made of concrete would fly apart if spun fast enough
to store the amount of energy you're describing. Concrete has tremendous
compressive strength, but terrible tensile strength. (That's why it has to
be steel-reinforced when used in bridges and similar structures.) You'd have
to make such a flywheel out of something which had decent tensile strength,
likely steel. So let's run some numbers, based on the simplification
assumption of a wheel with virtually all its mass on the outer rim, storing
its power as kinetic energy. And because we're just trying to get an idea of
the problem, we'll use rough numbers and estimates for a first order

The state of California uses power at rates which vary between about 25
gigawatts and about 40 gigawatts (and that's daily fluctuation). So in order
for an energy storage system to make any significant difference, it would
have to be able to store enough energy to be able to produce two hours of
power at 2 gigawatts. In other words, about 14 terajoules.

Just to pull a number out of my ear, let's assume that the rim mass of the
wheel is 50 metric tons, or 50,000 kilograms. The formula for kinetic energy

e = 1/2*m*v^2

v = sqrt((2*e)/m)

So the rim velocity turns out to be 23.7 km/s. That's 63 times the speed of
sound. It's also twice the escape velocity of the earth. That's really

Pulling another number out of my ear, let's assume that the radius of the
flywheel is 10 meters. Then the circumference is about 63 meters, which
means the flywheel would rotate 375 times per second. What kind of bearing
can spin that fast, for hours (or weeks) at a time with negligible energy
loss, supporting that much weight, without failing? I don't think anyone
knows how to design such a thing.

And what kind of containment housing do you put that sucker in, which is
capable of preventing anything from escaping if the bearings fail or any
other kind of catastrophic failure takes place? Pretty much any significant
mechanical failure of this system will be catastrophic. For instance, that
wheel has better be damned well balanced, because any imbalance at all will
cause the system to shake itself apart at speed.

Flywheels which can be supported by feasible bearing technology wouldn't
store enough energy to make any difference unless you used thousands of
them, which would be grossly expensive.

This is another idea which looks really good as long as you aren't the one
who has to implement it. (And I haven't even talked about the efficiency,
the percentage of the energy going into the system which can come back out
again. Nor have I bothered to calculate whether the centripetal force on the
flywheel described above even exceed the tensile strength of steel, though I
would bet that it would.)

As to hydro power, I'm afraid you've got it totally wrong. It is extremely
easy to control the output of a hydro plant. In fact, it's easier than for
any other large source of power we currently use.

Shows what I know.

UPDATE: Be all that as it may, here's the story on what sparked the discussion in the first place. (And here's a company that might be able to make it work.)

UPDATE: Chris M. says:

SDB's back-of-the-envelope calculations are OK, but designs for modern flywheels for power storage actually *don't* put "virtually all its mass on the outer rim". The modern designs are somewhat bell-shaped and run at extremely high speed. As for bearings, the usual bearing is a magnetic one for almost zero friction.

He also notes this press release on recent advances made in the field.

Meanwhile, Bob P. says:

I agree with SDB...to make a decent difference you would need an energy storage system that stores 2gigawatts for 2 hours, not 120kw for 20 secs !

If you calculate how many of the pentadyne systems it would take to store 2GW for 7200 seconds you get

2GW/120KW * 7200/20 = 6 MILLION

With 33 million residents that means one of these pentadyne thingies for every 6 people !

Yeah right as we say down here...pehaps pentadyne has been set up to extract research grants from gullible lefties who can't do math

Heh. (Boy, this must be how Glenn feels.)

17:21 - ...As possible under the circumstances

From time to time, people bring up the weird idea of what would happen if the US and Canada were to merge. It's always seemed like a rather silly idea to me, though I have to admit it's always had a certain appeal—not because I think it would be cool for the US to be bigger or to avoid having to whip out the passport eighteen times on the way to Alaska and back, but because it would imply that someone wanted to be part of the US. I'm not above a little plaintive wishing-people-would-like-us-that-much.

I don't begrudge the Canadian people wanting to preserve a culture distinct from America's, even though it grates after a while to never hear the words "American culture" except from a northerly direction and accompanied by an eye roll or sneer. But I do find myself thinking, in this modern age where fragile cultural blocs are—like it or not—growing more important than national identities, that it's not entirely encouraging for whole TV shows to be generated whose purpose is to reinforce national differences, like Atomic Betty, whose original premise (which seems to have been dropped for the series' larger production) was to be uniquely Canadian in character... and thus, as far a the rest of the world is concerned who is accustomed to seeing movies and TV shows with North American accents and assume they're from Hollywood or New York, to establish itself as "not from down South". Nice idea, guys, and I don't want to sound parochial here, but I can't help thinking that such a thing would look to inimical forces overseas rather like a case of infighting between what are supposed to be friends than an expression of justified national pride.

We've all established that racism is bad, m'kay, but cultures are still fair game for studying under microscopes and characterizing with sweeping generalizations, if we're not interested merely in putting them all in bell jars in museums for the amusement of the schooled; but something I don't see very much of is any interest in Western culture. My high school taught "World Cultures & History" instead of the more traditional "Geography"; it was a great class with an amazing teacher, but needless to say there wasn't any component in it that explained what our culture was all about. Yet we did study "the Middle East" and "Southeast Asia" as broad cultural paradigms, along with units on Russia and China, where we learned all about exploding televisions and how to read Cyrillic. We didn't study Yemen and Iran and Egypt and Morocco all separately; we considered them in the contexts of the cultural values that bound them together. I daresay that if this class were taught in foreign lands, it would have a unit not on "American culture", but on what looks to outsiders like a shared history, language, accent, and set of traditions spanning all of this continent north of the Rio Grande. As much effort as the National Film Board and CBC put into ensuring that Canadian pop culture has a character disctinct from ours, I daresay the differences from thirty thousand feet, to someone not in the industry, are largely academic. It would be interesting, then, from a cultural standpoint, to consider the US and Canada at the very least as a "North American culture" bloc, and in so doing to at least establish that it would be nice for us not to have to be so wary and suspicious of each other as to inject national differentiation within that bloc into children's cartoons.

So at least from the cultural point of view, having a single unified country in non-Latin North America seems to make some sense. I know Canadians aren't pleased by the idea of American culture overshadowing their own uniqueness, and political unification would surely be the very antithesis of what any Canadian with a shred of national pride would want to see. But as a thought experiment it's still interesting. And as to how it would potentially affect the political equation in the proposed greater nation, Paul Denton runs the numbers.

The upshot: it wouldn't have that big an effect on anything, really. So even for those people who seem to passive-agressively want to see some kind of unification just because it would ensure a more liberal America, Paul's numbers suggest that it'd be far too small a payoff for far too high a price. I'm inclined to agree.

Mind you, I wouldn't go storming around waving placards in protest if Canada decided of its own accord that it wanted to join the US, whether precipitated by some massive Quebec-shaped upheaval or what-have-you; it would certainly be nice to get that vote of confidence after all the backbiting that has taken place over the past few years, and it would be uniquely nice if everyone on this continent had a single national interest to bind us in the face of the global power struggles that don't appear to be getting less likely to erupt in coming years. But it'd be nicer still for there to be the two countries that there are now, just seeing a little more eye to eye.

10:57 - Once again, I'm the only one here

I don't think anyone around here knows what days are supposed to be off work.

It's been a bizarre few days anyway. Two nights of wind storms nearing 50 mph, blowing trees down and rain sideways and knocking out power and cable and Internet service all over the place. One weakness I've discovered of having both your TV and your Internet come through the same cable is that if it goes out, all possible entertainment options are eliminated.

So I went and saw King Kong. Damn good, I say. Though not pleasant if you've got a bug phobia. Heh. It's unmistakably a Peter Jackson movie; not just because it's well over three hours long and feels every minute of it, but because the color balances all have a very LotR-like cast to them, all jagged rocks with overbright/undersaturated gray washed over them. I wonder if it's because they're still using Alan Lee (once a Tolkien calendar artist, and not my favorite of them) as the conceptual artist and they keep slavishly matching the matte paintings and CG sets to his dingy watercolors? Not that I'm complaining; I think it's a very effective—uh—effect, and a welcome change in a movie landscape where everything these days seems to be gloomy and oversaturated at the same time. Also Jackson's signature "climactic moment" directing is in evidence—you know, where the sound all drops to silence, dialogue (including screams) issues noiseless from slow-motion lips, and you hear only soft and distant music while a couple of exaggerated foley effects clatter in the foreground, like an arrow glancing off a rock or a foot scuffing as it loses purchase on a rock or building. I think Jackson can claim that style as his trademark, if not his invention.

The lavish period-ness is just a joy, though. Oh, the Times Square of 1933, in all its gritty December neon-Depression glory, in the age where Broadway was a place where you wore a tux or evening gown, and where stages and sets and balconies—while certainly no more objectively grand than the ones running the headline shows there today—look like something from a planet designed by the Magratheans for a batty old theatre-loving galactic tycoon. This movie plus The Aviator would be a nostalgist's dream doubleheader.

And though some people seem to think Jack Black's acting was subpar, I think it was an unexpected hoot to see him in a pseudo-serious role for once. His character (the opportunistic filmmaker who captures Kong and brings him to New York) almost qualifies as the protagonist, and almost qualifies as the villain; the fact that we see him as both, and alternately recoil at his heartlessness and sympathize with what seems like his genuine attempts to be honest and brave and dutiful and to grab at a once-in-a-lifetime chance to win at a game in which he seems at first to be in over his head, is a great credit to both the writing and the acting. He's not just a one-sided moustache-twisting caricature we all love to hate, like he easily could have been—his motivations come from real character that we can all relate to. (And who doesn't feel sick at heart, petty as it all was, to see his busted camera and ruined film?) The acting is a little bit goofy, but so's the character. I'm just as glad to see such a non-standard role thrown at us. (Likewise with the real male lead, the writer, who looks anything but the part, with his huge crooked schnoz and his hooded eyes, who's presented in direct counterpoint to the ostensible leading-man of the group, the square-jawed movie star, who says, "Heroes don't look like me in real life... they've got bad teeth, a bald spot, and a beer gut. I'm just an actor with a gun... who's lost his motivation." Marvelous.)

People keep saying how the movie industry's carping about low ticket sales this year ought to tell them something about the low quality of movies lately. Well, with movies like King Kong, and Narnia, and several other genuinely monumental achievements in recent years of moviemaking, I'm having trouble seeing what I'd do better were I in their shoes.

Heh. Well, the motion-sensitive lights just went off, so I guess people's absence here is to be taken seriously. What a perfect opportunity to get some work done.

UPDATE: On the other hand, for every grand achievement in entertainment, there is always something embarrassingly stupid to go with it...

Tuesday, December 27, 2005
23:25 - Winning friends and influencing people

You know, even the most self-critical of Americans might have to experience just a leetle twinge of umbrage upon hearing this. You think?

Especially in light of stuff like this.

UPDATE: Then again, maybe he just took "Blame Canada" way too personally, and now it's payback time. It was a joke, Mr. Martin! A joke!

22:12 - Turkey sandwich OF THE GODS

It's the most perfect possible way to dispense with holiday leftovers. It's very easy, but the steps must be followed exactly, or you'll awaken an undead army that you'll then have to fight off using only your 21st century wits and chainsaw hand.

Start with some seeded, presliced French rolls, like these ones. In fact, it has to be exactly these ones. The seeds are a critical ingredient, so don't make the mistake of grabbing plain old sandwich rolls. I'm pretty sure the preslicing has a positive effect on the taste too.

Apply a thin layer of mayo, and some slices of good assertive cheddar. Note that this will be an open-faced sandwich, so prop the thinner side of the roll up on the rim of the plate to keep it from folding shut.

Thin-slice the turkey. It's very important that the turkey be cold, on the dry side (for flakiness), and freshly cut off a real turkey. Cold cuts won't do at all. It has to be real white-meat turkey from a real bowl of leftovers.

Give some to the dog; he's waiting so patiently.

Arrange the turkey slices on the sandwich. For extra spontaneity points, just sort of pile it on, like the hair-net ladies did in the high school cafeteria line where I developed my long-standing taste for this thing.

Add some sliced black olives...

...And pickles to taste.

Enjoy! (Note: you might have to be me for this last step.)

19:00 - I been there


Wow. I'm not the only one who got one of these...

Worth every strained back muscle, though.

Monday, December 26, 2005
10:35 - Merry merry

I hope everyone's Christmas was merry. Mine certainly was. Rainy, but merry.

I've got plenty to do (apparently this isn't an "official" work day—the doors are locked—but everyone's here anyway), so in the interim you could do far worse than consult Scott Adams on the subject of holiday cheer. In fact, you could do far worse than read his entire blog, which in its short life has managed almost every single day to present something worth observing: a masterful rhetorical trap, a thought-provoking argument, a hilarious anecdote or kooky theory. This guy's still got it.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005
09:51 - At least the trains run on culture

Remember this?

AVC: Right, right. Culturally, how do you feel about it?

AM: It may sound weird, but I don't really look for culture, particularly in an American city. I went to Havana, and I was like, "Wow, there's culture everywhere!" I don't think the American government has a lot of respect for culture. That was one thing that I did notice when I went to Cuba was that artists are paid to be artists, and poets are paid to be poets, and musicians are paid to be musicians by the government. The government—and I'm not saying that the Cuban government's perfect—but the government does place a value on culture. Much more so than here, where culture is just a matter of commerce. So, you know, I don't really look for that, and I don't expect to find it in any city. You know, I'm not crazy impressed with New York. I mean, I don't buy into that whole thing: Everyone in New York is all sophisticated, and they're into art and sophisticated things, and everyone in L.A. is just shallow entertainment people. I think people are just shallow across the board.

AVC: You mentioned going to Havana. What was it like meeting Fidel Castro?

AM: It was really cool. It's cool because it's Fidel, and it's a world leader, and there's so much history behind the man and who he is in this hemisphere. And then at the end of the day, he's, I think, just like a big mayor. There's only, like, 11 million people in Cuba. He's a big mayor. He just talked a long time, and he talked and he talked and he talked and he talked... and he talked. I think it was about four hours. But I guess that's part of the Castro spirit. But, you know, it was cool, and Cuba was fantastic, at least just in terms of... Not to romanticize or glorify it, but just seeing a place that had not really been touched by the hand of American capitalism. Because it's a genuinely different place. A lot of times when you travel, things start to feel the same from place to place to place, because the same people own everything all around the world, you know?

No wonder Aaron McGruder is the fresh hotness of the Turner empire:

Ted Turner: "I am absolutely convinced that the North Koreans are absolutely sincere. There’s really no reason for them to cheat [on nukes]....I looked them right in the eyes. And they looked like they meant the truth. You know, just because somebody’s done something wrong in the past doesn’t mean they can’t do right in the future or the present. That happens all the, all the time."

Wolf Blitzer: "But this is one of the most despotic regimes and Kim Jong-Il is one of the worst men on Earth. Isn’t that a fair assessment?"

Turner: "Well, I didn’t get to meet him, but he didn’t look — in the pictures that I’ve seen of him on CNN, he didn’t look too much different than most other people."

Blitzer: "But, look at the way, look at the way he’s, look at the way he’s treating his own people."

Turner: "Well, hey, listen. I saw a lot of people over there. They were thin and they were riding bicycles instead of driving in cars, but–"

Blitzer: "A lot of those people are starving."

Turner: "I didn’t see any, I didn’t see any brutality...."

— Exchange on CNN’s The Situation Room, Sept. 19.

Dictators know who their friends are.

UPDATE: Okay, I kinda didn't want to ruin the sheer impact of the direct quotes with too much blathering on my part, but—in the pictures that I’ve seen of him on CNN, he didn’t look too much different than most other people?! What is this guy, an infant? I'm completely at a loss as to how someone can say something like that with a straight face, on national TV no less. How does such a toddling naif get to be in such a position of financial power? Did he free a genie from a lamp or something? Geez Louise.

Saturday, December 17, 2005
16:12 - Googlin' my heart away

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

(This (via Chris) is cool too.)

12:32 - 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
15:41 - 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
01:33 - 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
14:31 - 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
20:38 - The Japanese invent Tom & Jerry

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

Via Chris.

20:19 - 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
16:51 - 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
18:18 - 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
13:49 - 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
13:36 - 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.

13:19 - 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
14:46 - Just wondering

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

Friday, November 25, 2005
12:46 - 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
14:20 - 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?

13:53 - '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
14:08 - 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
00:33 - 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
11:00 - 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.

10:37 - 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
00:53 - 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.

11:17 - 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
16:04 - 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
23:01 - 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
16:50 - 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.

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© Brian Tiemann