Thursday, July 31, 2008


The Unbearable Lameness Of Being A Neocon, Pt. I

Once upon a time, in a valley far, far away, I was an anti-communist, and for fun, I mapped Soviet advances through the world in tints of red. They completely controlled 8 other countries; 6 more they ruled by proxy; over 15 were solidly under their sphere of influence; a dozen or so were struggling against communist-funded insurgencies; 10 had signed mutual cooperation treaties, and a few, which I festooned with pink candy stripes, were teetering on the fence. I was among the last crop of prospective Cold Warriors, when the Soviet Union was at its largest and all foreign policy exercises were performed with red magnifying glasses, so we could cast a leviathan into something pythonically vast.

Every graph, every veracious view proved the pernicious, creeping ideology of the Enemy was jeunesse doree, about to break through and burrow like syphilis into our closest allies and dearest resources. Above all, it was impossible to argue with the maps, which responded to questions and had inexhaustible vocabularies of 3 words: you...are...losing. The maps were all-pervading, and if you asked your professors or classmates, "So...what are Malaysia's prospects," they would refer to the arbiter of all things geopolitical and it would say, "You are losing." You could ask the map any question at all, such as, Is Greece really still in the balance? "You are losing." Will I get an 'A' in this class? "You are losing." Was the movie 'Red Dawn' made by homosexual communist sympathizers? "You are losing."

Panic is a conventional wisdom. Few wiser heads dared predict or intuit how quickly and soon the Red Tide would recede, and given that, you'd think forgiving the people who came to be called Neocons would be easier. It is not, no, decidedly not. In no small part that's because they're still wonderfully positioned to screw up the world yet more, are collectively unrepentant and unreformed, and have always been transparent fools. No one seems to even understand what they are or where they came from, and although the stars of their uber-nationalist lunacies may be setting, they might not be, and are still high in the sky. Why were such twittering machines, these ungainly and vacuous intellectual monstrosities, ever allowed to ascend so far?

There's a story, of course. The far right, having shot itself in the foot, ever-desperate and facing irrelevance, searched for a magical narrative. Once they found it, they became the loudest voices in American anti-Soviet policy circles, drumbeating the idea that strong religions, whether Christian or Muslim or Jew, were the best way to thwart communist threats. Surprisingly, amongst much that was ludicrous, this was not. The Soviets were quick to compete with and suppress religions, being structures inimical to themselves wherever they went, so the idea had solid on-the-ground basis.

For example, the Catholic Church was playing a strong, probably indispensable role in Poland's Solidarity movement, eventually tempting the Vatican into a radical departure from tradition by naming its first Polish pope. Hence, it was understandable the US would embrace fundamentalist Muslims and Jews as anti-communist, pro-stability allies, particularly when newly vertiginous waves of Christian fundamentalism were swelling, and I rode their crests and troughs off the strongest American point-break.

Reagan was the embodiment of pro-religious foreign policy prescription, so his sympathizers engaged with the Iranian mullahs well prior to his election to strike deals: arms for the return of American government hostages, to be consummated after his victory, and access for selected companies. They found much to like, and each side immediately shared an intuitive understanding of the other, not perhaps as fondly as Republicans would get along and actively cooperate with al-Qaeda operatives and Muslim Brotherhood surrogates during their formation in Pakistan, but the mullahs and the Reaganites were deeply religious social radicals who had wandered long in their respective wildernesses, outcasts who were brought back in triumph by resounding activism and majorities.

Few in wider policy circles cared much about Iran beyond its oil, and it was always Jimmy Carter's misfortune to take the phrase "we will not negotiate with terrorists" seriously. The mullahs had been toughened by austere decades of Western repression, any human rights issues were not a concern, nor were the finer points of comparative religion. By contrast, Carter and the Democrats had probably set events in faster motion by regularly undermining Iran's Shah over human rights abuses. With the proxy overthrown, from a Reaganite viewpoint and from nearly everyone else's it was better to have unpredictable Khomeinist mullahs in charge of Iran than an unpredictable, democratic, Bambi-tastic government within easy reach of Russian weapons and aid. The mullah regime could be relied upon to quickly purge the communists, and Reagan policy was to leave it alone until further notice. As for the Shah, Beverly Hills had always suited him best.

Under Reagan, rapprochement with pious forms of islam was followed through on as policy all over the Mid-East, most aggressively under Bill Casey in the mid-1980s. The notion was seen as straightforward and sensible, and it was (so to speak) orthodox. It was pointless to argue against, and even if a far-right insurgency were not in the middle of joyously taking over a government, it's always hard to argue against the quick fix.

With monacle-wearing hindsight, it's easy to see predictable consequences of encouraging the rise of disparate theocracies in whereabouts considered absolutely critical to US interests. And it's easy to notice that the stage set of "Dances with Mullahs" is where the struggling Neocons and their simple-minded Kantian philosophical frameworks of aggression first responded to a casting call and won some parts in a major play, 'Morning in America.' It's where they learned their lines, fine-tuned their performances, and were richly rewarded. When the show closed down, they departed to work on another production, which I'll pick up on in Part Two. Say what you want about Neoconian acting quality, but those stage props, sheesh!--they're to die for.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


High Crimes, Misdemeanors, And Venn Diagrams

Slate has an interactive chart up which maps a few of the current administration's scandals. Bruce pointed me to it in the comments section of "Evil Is As Evil Does," and although Jon noted it doesn't include the treason of outing Valerie Plame, it's still pretty useful. You can scroll over it, click on the names and get nifty little summaries along with cases for and against prosecution.

I'm linking to it because it may prove fairly handy about a year from now, when most Congress-critters should start to feel pretty secure that the dossiers on their call girls, corruption, catamites, and kinks won't be leaked to the press by the departed Bush Administration. (I'll bet the most enthusiastic piling-on will come from the Pug side of the aisle.) Note the chart position occupied by former Bush chief counsel, loyal friend, and Justice Department goat-herd Albert "Abu" Gonzales. As Slate notes, "all roads lead to Gonzales," and any future reincarnation of the congressional post-Watergate Church Committee, an event highly likely to occur, will assuredly focus on him. As Cheney explained his reasons for invading Iraq: "It's doable."

Speaking of Cheney, unfortunately he and other officials in the Bush Administration aren't particularly vulnerable to domestic prosecution for their actual crimes. I believe that pursuing them on that basis would be a very bad idea. It's very difficult to prove intent, and their predictable defense would be, "We were motivated by our unequaled patriotism." They would however seem very vulnerable to obstruction of justice charges, which in part would explain their motivation, one might say obsession, for destroying millions of their own emails and documents, and marking everything from old laundry receipts on up as Classified.

Congress just voted Karl Rove into contempt for not bothering to show up to a required hearing. Karl's response: "What are you pansies gonna do, piss yourselves?" Congress doesn't have much if any authority right now, and won't until after January 9th, 2009. It seems likely that at least a few scapegoats will suffer for their Eichmannesque conformities, and some testimony will be collected in exchange for (perhaps) getting jail time for Mr. Gonzales, who after all is a minor, not very well-liked outsider. Then I would expect blanket immunity a la post-apartheid South Africa and pronouncements that "our long national nightmare is over." And everyone will know the big fish are still swimming free. How to extract justice from them?

Civil suits, both domestic and international, will be filed. Cheney, Libby, Rove, and Armitage face at least one remaining civil suit from Valerie Plame and her husband, Joe Wilson, who have re-filed after their first was thrown out on national security grounds. They'll find the judicial environment much more favorable under a different President. Then, displaced Iraqis, friends of the environment, soldiers' families, innocent people tortured and imprisoned for years, class actions, and dissatisfied contributors can seek damages on everything from depleted uranium to wrongful death.

Probably the best, most enduring way of getting at BushCo officials is by convincing other countries to indict them for war crimes, since in international courts under those charges, outcome rather than intent is the issue. The burden of proof would be on the defendants, "crimes against humanity" covers a lot of ground, and it should not be difficult to find widespread enthusiasm for such a project. What happened in Iraq meets the UN's technical definitions of genocide, with more than 25% of a nation or ethnic group within it killed or displaced. With the right organization and marketing, it could become the international equivalent of a Yellow Ribbon campaign, only in reverse.

Donald Rumsfeld, Gonzales, and former CIA Director George Tenet have already had charges filed against them in Germany, which allows universal jurisdiction; why not include the other malefactors? No need to stop at Germany, although not all the countries of the world need to participate. Just the ones you'd want to travel to. Hmmm. Maybe some enterprising bloggers will get together and coordinate a web-based effort to make this happen. What would be a good name for it?

(Graphic credit to Mike Votes at Born at the Crest of Empire, link on right margin.)

Close Encounters Of The Forty Ton Kind

I ran across a site called Earth Touch while eating lunch. It's a web network for wildlife photos and videos, which are downloadable in HD format. A diver named Barry Skinstad provided this compelling account of the world's biggest mammal, along with a bunch of pictures:

A female whale, seemingly enjoying the company, links up with me and follows me around, careful not to swipe me with her huge fluke.

This morning, after an easy launch, we headed out to sea near Cape Infanta, on South Africa’s Western Cape coast.

In great conditions, with no current to speak of and clear water, I jumped overboard to do some snorkelling, albeit somewhat apprehensively with all the whale activity around, wondering what I would do if one swam up to me.

The boat was drifting about 300m (984ft) away when, out of the blue, a huge black and white shape emerged.

As it got closer I realised that this was the head of a gigantic 40 ton (36 tonne) whale, and the white markings were the callosities, or patches of rough skin, that had formed on her face and head.

At first I froze, afraid to move a muscle, as this massive mammal swam right up to me. But as we came eyeball to eyeball, it dawned on me that she meant me no harm.

After a few minutes I realised that she seemed actually to be enjoying my company. Every time I moved away she followed; every time I dived to the bottom she followed me down and lay on the sand next to me, and as I resurfaced she followed me again, breaking the surface next to me and then just lying there, apparently happy to have me by her side.

It was impossible to get away.

The rules about getting up close to whales are always top of mind, but thinking back on it afterwards, she was the one that found me and seemed to adopt me.

What struck me about this experience was how gentle she was and how she knew exactly where I was at all times during this encounter. Whenever I drifted past one of her flukes she would tuck it under her belly so as not to strike me with it, then turn and position herself so that I was next to her massive head. She seemed to be quite content to have me hovering in the vicinity of her watchful eye.

There are no words to adequately describe this amazing encounter – simply put, the most incredible experience of my 25 years of being in the sea.

Not sure what kind of whale it was--it looks like a humpback.



Obama Compels The Republicans To Do His Will

To bowdlerize Bismarck, politics are "the continuation of war by other means," and continuing with Clausewitz, no other human activity is so "continously or universally bound up with chance." Winning is only half the battle, and while those whims mull whether he'll ever be sworn in, last week a leader threw himself into a Presidential vacuum and plugged it. Plugged it tight. As one Berliner said, speaking for the world, "We know there is a different America. He is the President in our hearts." As a practical matter, America's foreign policy framework changed last week, and although the change agent also visited Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, France, and England as well as Germany, the symbolism provided by the last nation was resoundingly clear.

The crowd in Berlin stretched for over a mile down two avenues radiating from the Victory Column, and the park in the Tiergarten Zoo was packed full to listen to the Senator. Newspapers estimated 200,000 people were there, but those streets are wide, and you could easily fit 200,000 people into a mile on any one of them. It looked at least half a million, if not a million. JFK didn't draw that kind of crowd in Germany. Reagan didn't. Hitler didn't. On the same day, his opponent John McCain cut a stark contrast, holding a presser in front of Schmidt's Fudge Haus in New Hampshire next to scandal-brewing Pugbot Lindsay Graham, who visibly cringed when McCain refused to allow a question from a Wall Street Journal reporter. The was no audience, only reporters. Even before the Berlin speech, the Republican campaign had expressed "frustration" over Obama's trip, and George Bush Senior helpfully explained from a golf course, "we're a bit jealous, is all."

Republicans have been compelled to triangulate towards Obama's Mid-East proposals, seeking to minimize differentiation between him and their candidate. After Obama's 16-month withdrawal plan received public endorsement from Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki in the German weekly Der Spiegel, the White House suddenly announced its agreement to a year-and-a-half timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, following with a spokes-general PR campaign: not as many troops are needed on the ground because the Surge has worked so well, so they can now take the fight to the Taliban. And of course, the State Department opened direct, albeit secret, negotiations with Iran, signaling the decisive internal demise of one Richard B. Cheney.

The rub in cleaving to all these new positions is clear: while fairly effective in blurring leadership differences, they're also doing Obama's bidding. He's where the leading is coming from, and the Republicans are abandoning policy agendas once held maniacally sacrosanct. How desperate must they feel? Hopefully this can begin to counteract blogsphere disgust over Barackian moves to the center-right. Naj is enraged over his refusal to acknowledge Iran's right to nuclear power, Bruce is ticked that Nader is being ignored, Zoey & Me hisses and spits over FISA, Orcinus bemoans recent softening on gun control. You know what? I agree with all of you, and there's a reason for my living in the closest thing to Denmark you can find in the US. Now, please hear me out for a minute.

Above, I compared politics to war--admittedly the Berlin backdrop provoked my subconscious, but there is much to be gained by analyzing politics in a military framework. I view them as two poles on the same continuum, and both are very dirty disciplines. To wit, Clausewitz again, and he could just as well be describing politics:
Kind-hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed, and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed: war is a...dangerous business.
Each deals with primordial emotions, competing social structures, and tidal waves of chance, so I see little strategic difference between politics and war, and indeed one activity eventually leads to the other. Politics is the art of mustering collective will to enact change, and it necessarily starts at the margins and works toward the center. To succeed, you have to learn to move elliptically, you have to work in curves, and I say that as someone who changed an entrenched academic bureaucracy, led a movement against its will, and amongst other threats, received personal cease and desist orders from my state Attorney General. (Which I ignored.) To succeed and weld the changes into place, I had to compromise on most issues, punt on others, kiss butts liberally, repeat myself almost constantly, and endure the enmity and traps of people far more powerful than me.

Change is possible, but demands enormous sacrifice and patience, and frontal assaults on the ramparts of What Is are the most expensive kind, to be resisted above all others. Change is probably best achieved when it feels like experimentation, or even better, play. It's harder to notice then, more fluid, more adaptable, more capable of faith. It has to arc around the straight, and in so doing may better obey how the world is really structured, versus our conception of how structure should be. If you ever come upon a straight line of trees in the forest, you know they were planted by humans. We love to think in straight lines, and there are no straight lines in nature. Everything including light curves and disperses, matter agglomerates in ragged scattered orbits, and likewise the process of making good decisions is shamanic and arcane--competing factors aren't either/or, and in the moment it's difficult to distinguish the chaff from the
coup de main.

The human mind is wired for pattern recognition, the crowd is achingly predisposed to scarce simplicities, and when our theoretical searches for them prove fruitless we flourish easy answers out of entropies like fake bouquets from magician sleeves, glossing over immovable objects and irresistible forces. Rather than reject cheap tricks and accept factual ambiguities, "What pretty flowers," we exclaim, for results must be obtained. And they can be; the problem is that the work of obtainment, and the obsessive practice with prestidigitation required, is far less appealing than dramatic reveals and magic wands.

If I were in charge of getting us out of Iraq, I would first reassure the generals in the Pentagon their budget is in no danger. I would then point out that Iraq obviously was not the source of terrorism, and hold up perfidious Taliban as the real enemy. I would propose shifting troops from Iraq into Afghanistan, sign a long-term security agreement with the Iraqi government in the context of oil access, and then proceed to empty Baghdad of soldiers, sending two home for every one sent to Afghanistan. Not, I admit, that sending soldiers to Pakistan's spongiform border will solve any problems; it is an oriental screen behind which an Iraqi withdrawal can take place, face can be saved, and appearances of weakness along with their deadly domestic and international consequences can be obscured.

In Afghanistan, the objective of my soldierings would be to shower the supporters of the Taliban with cash, roads, and schools. Wherever resistance is encountered, my tactic would be the only one which has ever worked in the area: bribe the tribes. Bribe them into submission, then declare victory and get the hell out. Our presence there is probably harmful, but can be enlarged as a short-term, tactically sound, useful sleight of strategic hand. Although mine is an elliptical path to incomplete extractions, it curves in the right directions and would probably work. This is exactly what Barack Obama appears to be doing, and he is already forcing Republicans to bend to his will. That he has achieved such a feat beneath the radar but in plain sight of the national press is extremely significant, and I think worthy of further faith and investment. He is proving highly effective and probably downright brilliant. The cheering troops, the embassy staff in Baghdad giving a standing ovation, the world leaders with newly relaxed body language, the city of Berlin. They all see it, too.

That said, I don't know if Obama will give Iran a fair deal, will be able to rein in a burgeoning domestic police state, will ever implement Ralph Nader's badly needed prescriptions for this nation, or if he'll get fewer Americans to shoot each other. Much less our military to stop shooting people around the world. I do know that each issue is a very tall order, the resistance to change is enormous, and each is in the realm of fightin' politics. If he takes a Clintonian approach to them, he will lose just like
they did on Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell and Health Care. That stuff won't fly and them dogs won't hunt. All you can realistically do is point out a different reality, move the ball a little at first, take reasonable positions that are hard to deny and impossible to dislodge once gained. You keep building from there, and then you might win.

(Note: had worked on this post awhile, so it was first filed out of sequence.)

(Update: Bruce at the River Blog responded to this post, and eloquently, even patriotically explains why it's smart to support both Ralph Nader and Obama.)

Thursday, July 24, 2008


Like Mama Always Said, "Evil Is As Evil Does"

Syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak, a.k.a. "The Prince of Darkness," was cited by police after performing a hit-and-run on a pedestrian with his black Corvette in downtown Washington, D.C., Wednesday morning. Novak, a press chum of Karl Rove, was a willing pawn in the White House's decision to blow the cover of its most important spymaster in the Mideast, the CIA's anti-WMD operative Valerie Plame. (I suppose executive privilege covers treason, too.) Novak claims he didn't notice a man splayed across his windshield after hitting him in the crosswalk. Police let him go with a $65 ticket. He would have gotten away scot free but for a bicyclist who chased him down and physically blocked his car:
Politico reporter Jonathon Martin saw Novak in the front of a police car with a citation in his hand; a WJLA-TV crew and reporter saw Novak as well. The pedestrian, a 66-year-old male, was hospitalized at George Washington University Hospital with minor injuries according to DC Fire and EMS. Novak was later released by police and drove away from the scene.

“I didn’t know I hit him. I feel terrible,” a shaken Novak told reporters from Politico and WJLA as he was returning to his car. "He's not dead, that's the main thing." Novak said he was a block away from 18th and K St. NW, where the accident happened, when a bicyclist stopped him and said, "You hit someone." He said he was cited for failing to yield the right of way.

The bicyclist was David Bono, a partner at Harkins Cunningham, who was on his usual bike commute to work at 1700 K St. NW when he saw the accident happen.

As he traveled east on K. Street, crossing 18th, Bono said a "black Corvette convertible with top closed plowed into the guy. The guy is sort of splayed onto the windshield.”

Bono said the pedestrian, who was crossing the street on a "Walk" signal and was in the crosswalk, rolled off the windshield and then Novak made a right into the service lane of K Street. “The car is speeding away. What’s going through my mind is, you just can’t hit a pedestrian and drive away,” Bono said.

He chased Novak half a block down K St., finally caught up with him and then put his bike in front of the car to block him and called 911. Traffic immediately backed up, horns blared, and commuters finally went into reverse to allow Novak to pull over.

Bono said that throughout, Novak "keeps trying to get away. He keeps trying to go.” He said he vaguely recognized the longtime political reporter and columnist as a Washington celebrity but could not precisely place him.

Novak, 77, has earned a reputation around the capital as an aggressive driver, easily identified in his convertible sports car.

In 2001, he cursed at a pedestrian on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 13th streets Northwest for allegedly jaywalking.

“’Learn to read the signs, [bodily orifice]!’ Novak snapped before speeding away,” according to an item in The Washington Post’s Reliable Source column.

Novak explained to the paper: "He was crossing on the red light. I really hate jaywalkers. I despise them. Since I don't run the country, all I can do is yell at 'em. The other option is to run 'em over, but as a compassionate conservative, I would never do that."

Saturday, July 19, 2008


There's No Place Like Rome...There's No Place Like Rome

Davo over at Wombat's Waffles (link at right) put up the picture of the Catholic leader, perfectly accessorized with bold red Prada shoes. Nothing against gayness, pontiff, but Nathan Lane's outfits in the American remake of La Cage aux Folles weren't as flaming as those goddamned shoes:
"Why, what are you insinuating, my son? Straight non-pedophiles wear shoes just like these all the time! And nothing supernatural whatsoever occurs when I click the heels together. Now kiss the ring before I spank you."
Seems the pope, whose online screen name is PBXVI, was visiting Oz this week because around 40 active Catholics live there. To paraphrase the guy in Sling Blade, "Some folks just need drillin,' hrrmmm." If I have offended any Catholics, god be with you, and please feel free to comically eviscerate what is technically still my religion. Mormonism.

Friday, July 18, 2008


Hole In The Head

Awhile back Vincent of A Wayfarer's Notes offered to write a post on the case of Phineas Gage, who survived a famous brain injury, the study of which led to advances in neurological theory. Vincent is a deft and deeply thoughtful writer, so I begged him to whip up a post. I then forgot all about it until he gently reminded me of its completion, and below he muses beautifully on the conjoined dualities of our brains and intellects, our possible souls and animal selves, all while peering through the hole in a man's head:
Phineas Gage was swift, capable, responsible. He was physically fit and a leader of men. These qualities made him at the age of 25 a supervisor on a Vermont railroad construction project and might have helped him rise through the ranks to a senior management position in that branch of engineering. But the smooth track of his life was shattered in a single instant.

A certain part of the terrain was littered with huge rocks. It had been judged less costly to blast them with gunpowder and build a straight railroad, than to detour round them. It was 1847 and Alfred Nobel being only 14 had not yet invented dynamite. The established blasting method was to drill a deep hole in the rock, pour in gunpowder, poke in a fuse (a long string made of gunpowder wrapped in paper) and cover with sand or clay. This had to be firmed up by tamping with an iron rod, so that the force of the exploding gunpowder would radiate in all directions, and not just back up the drilled hole, as from a gun.

On this particular occasion, Gage was preparing a number of blasting-holes. He found it a monotonous routine, something he could do with only half his attention. He was interrupted by a question from a fellow-worker, which took longer than anticipated to resolve. When he resumed, he forgot he hadn’t yet added sand to the current hole. He tamped the naked gunpowder with his iron bar. It sparked against the rock and set off the powder like a flintlock gun. The bar shot out with the force of a cannon-ball, passing through his skull. That single moment is the basis of his enduring fame.

My own introduction to Phineas Gage was The Omnibus Believe It Or Not, by Robert Ripley. I was seven or eight, and must have skipped the boring sentence where it said that “[the crowbar] made its exit at the junction of the coronal and parietal sutures ...” I was more influenced by the accompanying drawing, which showed the bar at the moment of passing through, going into his skull on one side and emerging at the other. For nearly sixty years I carried a mental image of Gage staggering along a track for assistance with the crowbar still in his head, though in truth it had passed through swiftly and out the other side, taking bits of brain with it.

So when the story of Phineas Gage came up again in a book I’ve been recently reading by Antonio Damasio, it was familiar, like a Bible story woven into the fabric of my imaginative life. As for Damasio, my connection with him goes far beyond any academic interest in neuro-science. David Mickel put me on to him after my miracle cure from chronic fatigue syndrome. That illness was the great rock which blocked the track of my life. Must I curve around it, accepting its permanence? I didn’t know until a time when with all the force of my survival instinct I cursed it and rebelled against my fate. Dr Mickel’s therapy was the blasting process, miraculously sudden and effective, like a single explosion. Later, when I went to Edinburgh to study with Dr M himself, he recommended The Feeling of What Happens, by Antonio Damasio, whose earlier and more significant book I’m reading now: Descartes’ Error. It starts with an account of how Damasio’s wife Hanna, using Gage’s damaged skull preserved in the Harvard Medical School, made a computer simulation to work out which areas of his brain had been destroyed.

Gage was a living miracle, but it’s well-known that his survival had a dark side. All his basic faculties were intact but his personality was changed for the worse. To his friends he “was no longer Gage”. The detective work was to discover, comparing Gage with modern cases, the functions of the brain-cells destroyed by the passage of the tamping iron. We now know that they were from the region which processes emotion.

For centuries it had been assumed that emotion was the enemy of calm rationality but Damasio discovered that to be wrong. The new unemotional Gage was unable to make sensible decisions about how to run his life. He couldn’t get his old responsible job back. He was virtually unemployable after the accident, but not through what we normally think of as “brain damage”, i.e. loss of “intelligence”. You can read his doctor’s notes in this Wikipedia article, for an account of his personality change.

Why is the book called Descartes’ Error? The reasons are quite deep. I am just giving a summary here. Descartes, the “father of modern philosophy” saw mind and body as profoundly separate, with a single interface or bridge in the pineal gland. To Damasio, there can be no mind without body; no thinking without an awareness of the physical, whether it be our own body-awareness or an interaction with the outside world.

His idea, derived from neurological observation, changes everything. It makes religious theories obsolete: not completely wrong for they posited the existence of soul and God as the unseen source of the wonders perceived with senses. In Damasio I see a line between arid theology on the one hand and arid atheist science on the other.

Damasio is too erudite for me to explain further. I have understood his ideas not through the study of his books but the reintegration of my own self following a miraculous cure. I have had to find my own language to describe it. I have said in this blog that man is an animal, despite being overweighed with a huge intellect, like an elk with antlers, or a peacock with a gorgeous tail. I have discovered my own animal nature. My passions are governed by survival, my ecstasies induced by Nature, for I am its child, sucking at its teats. I am nourished by the paths that lead out from cities, and the ancientness of the open sky.

I was educated with a bit of Latin and less Greek; forced into team games---soccer and cricket---as sole recognition of body. The headmaster viewed all deviant behaviour as incipient homosexuality. We must act as a pack of hounds, with him as chief huntsman. My rejection of competitive pursuits was seen as primitive, uncouth and shameful. I took refuge in solitary dreaming, out in the ploughed fields digging up fragments of clay pipes, discarded by the ploughman when they broke; or trying to bring down birds from the sky with a slingshot I’d invented, made from a springy stick with clay stuck to the end.

I tried in adult life to hunt with the pack. I allowed marriage and children to force me into well-paid desk-drudgery. I tried to find in religion, or rather its mystical soul, a language and guide for the unruly impulses I felt.

But how could religion work, when it was based on supremacy of soul over body; all life’s treasure leached away into the abstract realm? Religion was and is a cruel assault on a child’s mind. Like corporal punishment, its use has diminished here in England, to be replaced by the atheistical religion of science, capitalist economics and modern medicine; which is far worse. I’m for “spirituality”---except that it’s wrongly named---and always have been: but not for “beliefs”.

Phineas Gage was the first martyr and saint of neuro-science. Damasio does more to explain what makes us tick than any psychology or theology I have read. But it can never make experiential religion or mystical awareness obsolete. For we possess the gift of direct knowledge, beside which science, for all its “evidence-based method”, is as speculative as theology.

Nothing in the laboratory tells us as much as our own primitive awareness. If someone tells of the visitation of an angel, or the voice of God heard on a lonely mountain-top, why should I not respect that? How else express an experience, but as it appears to you? Life is no less awe-inspiring, experience no less mystical, when we get closer to understanding the body and brain, whose soul is in every cell and neuron.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

In Praise Of Warrantless Wiretapping

People have been disillusioned or angered by Barack Obama's vote for the latest FISA bill. Brother Tim, for example, Zoey & Me, and Still Life Living are in those camps, and they're thinking bloggers who deserve more explanation than the press or Congress is likely to give. I will attempt to shed some light on the murk, and because of my past work and circumstances am in position to do so. First, let me lower your expectations: only 30% of Americans believe in evolution. Roughly the same percentage of people who've gone to college. The smart thing for liberal-leanin' people is to lay in the good liquor and ammo, secure the perimeters and wait for things to get worse. We could very well fail on rolling FISA back.

While strongly supporting enhanced privacy rights and being part of a "Get FISA Right" group which generates hundreds of mails to the Obama campaign per day, I know the fight for privacy rights must occur over a long term, can best be fought in context of an intrusive, ineffective, irresponsible government, and that an enhanced, up-to-date rights package will eventually be won. Here and now, pertinent details make the controversy far less black and white than one would think. In short, the eavesdropping has been longer and far more extensive than commonly known--so extensive by now that voting the FISA bill down wouldn't have actually changed any surveillance practices. To a slight extent, the new bill slightly reigns in, or procedurally formalizes, what was happening.

You probably remember back in late 2001 when the national press announced the terrorists had been recorded on September 10th of that year, relaying code words to each other like "the match is set for tomorrow." At the time, I found the admission very curious. How did the government come by those recordings? If they had been monitoring the terrorists that closely, you'd reasonably suppose, gee, maybe they also should've stopped them from hijacking four planes, killing a few thousand people, and toppling the towering symbols of American might. Whatever you believe really happened, somehow the government was subsequently able to find the digital impressions of those terrorist calls and reconstruct them. Either way, it denotes a powerful ability to reach out and touch someone.

America has devoted tremendous resources to collecting data about its enemies, and collection has gotten steadily easier. The only distinction between a phone call and an email is they're encoded differently. Both pass through network backbones and have to be routed to specific addresses; a
s you know by looking at any phone bill, every call leaves a precise record. The record is logged by a router, and your digital signals are even reported back to you, as is any transaction made with a credit card or online. So if the NSA is tasked with monitoring conveniently amorphous foreign enemies like al-Qaeda, there is no feasible way to do its job without also spying on American citizens who come in contact with its members, wittingly or not. Griping about the tragic, mystifying dearth of good hummus in America could be plotting the next 9/11, and the whole surveillance needs snowball on from there.

I'm not saying the NSA or its new offshoots are only monitoring al-Q or legitimate threats, nor that I agree with Obama's vote on a surveillance bill. I'm saying the poor quality of debate and dim understandings of what the surveillance constitutes are vital problems to be addressed. My purpose is to point out the gap between the ease of monitoring and the difficulty of limiting it in ways which preserve the spirit of the Constitution, and allow the country to reasonably protect itself while respecting and newly defining rights.
While most Americans don't want to be spied on, most Americans also fully support the notion of spying on al-Qaeda, or as they might call it, "Uppity Muslims." There's tremendous tension, national existential tension and unanswered questions balled up around how to properly eavesdrop.

While 20,000 or so Obama supporters like me don't like it, I believe that Obama honestly thought voting for FISA was the right thing to do, and I have to admit that when he did, he followed the collective will of 300 million Americans. He said he would filibuster against it because of telecom immunity, and he voted against that part. He said this law does not strike the right balance, he voted for it because it was better than the previous status quo, and he would redress it from a better position in the Oval Office. I believe each of those points.
My biggest frustration over his vote was that I think it was a tactically weak move.

Obama is a very smart, principled, ambitious man who happens to be a politician. He's a consensus-builder, has portrayed himself as bi-partisan, and because he wants to get the power to serve his veiled biases, he's pragmatic. Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich, Ralph Nader hold idealistic appeal, but they couldn't have gotten elected in 1860 much less now. And speaking of which,
Abraham Lincoln refused to promise to end slavery after he secured his party's nomination. Yet he ran on an anti-slavery platform! Abolitionists, the progressives of pre-bellum America, hated him for it. Who now argues it would have made no difference to America if Stephen Douglass had been elected instead of Lincoln? Washington, Jefferson, FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, Reagan, and other presidents were pragmatic ideologues. I'm not saying we should grant Obama the stature of Washington, FDR or Lincoln based on what we've seen. I'm just saying we should not write him off for playing necessary politics, the kind all our other presidential candidates had to play.

His mistake on FISA does matter, and we're not going away. He knows that, and nodded encouragingly to us to keep going. It's so easy to get discouraged, so natural to be disillusioned, and living memory says we should be. But this is the only open game in town. We have to build outriggers onto this sinking democracy which can also function as patios, and reacting disproportionately to a relatively small leak in a pontoon isn't very productive. Plugging this one will be really simple. Once the Pugs realize Obama can spy on them, they're going to help us win this issue with rifles and plasters, outcries and buckshots, and we'll see just how fast the ambivalence of strange bedfellows can turn passionate.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Parallels & Differences Between JFK-Nixon And Obama-McCain

On July 15, 1960, John F. Kennedy accepted the nomination of the Democratic Party for the presidency in a speech he delivered in an outdoor football stadium, the Los Angeles Coliseum. The recent announcement that Barack Obama will follow that precedent when he accepts the Democratic nomination at Invesco Field in Denver on August 28 is but one among many echoes from that momentous election 48 years ago that can be heard reverberating in this one. In addition to the numerous similarities, however, there are a few critical differences. Both the parallels and the divergences are instructive in assessing how the 2008 Election is likely to unfold.

Similarities
1. Both Kennedy and Obama emphasized change, and in some respects the change they
represented is similar. Some aspects of that change, however, constituted a double-
edged political sword.

2. "Every American election," Theodore White wrote in The Making of the President,
1960, "summons the individual voter to weigh the past against the future." The past,
White said, is the identity and beliefs, including prejudices, that the voter carries with
him. "And the future consists of his fears and dreams."

3. Obama represents a new generation of leadership, as Kennedy did. Kennedy often
stressed this theme of generational change in 1960.

4. Kennedy represented not only Americans of Irish ancestry and Catholics; he was the
first person descended from the ranks of the millions of non-WASP immigrants who had
swelled the American population from the 1840s onward, to reach the presidency.
They would vote for him because he was breaking the barrier for them, too.

Joseph P. Kennedy foresaw this dynamic when he told his son four years before JFK's
election that his victory would show that "this country is not a private preserve for
Protestants. There's a whole new generation out there and it's filled with the sons and
daughters of immigrants from all over the world and those people are going to be
mighty proud that one of their own was running for President. And that pride will be
your spur."

Very much the same dynamic will be aiding Barack Obama in this year's election. His
election would break through the glass ceiling for all sorts of heretofore excluded
groups. All the talk of Latinos not wanting to vote for an African-American (talk
that is now very much belied by poll numbers) goes out the window, because the
feeling will be, if a black or mixed race man can be elected president, someone from
our group can, too. This feeling is likely, as the disappointment over Hillary Clinton
not winning the nomination dissipates, to be widespread among women as well as
minorities.

5. The other edge of the sword:

Although it is a fact that is now generally forgotten, anti-Catholic prejudice was every
bit as powerful in 1960 as anti-black prejudice is in 2008--quite possibly it was a
stronger force (not as strong as racism was in 1960, but stronger than racism is in
2008).

6. "The intertwining of religion and politics laced all through the history and traditions of
America," Theodore White wrote. "Now, in September, the old echo of fear was
slowly being amplified--not only in the border states of Tennessee and Kentucky, but
in downstate Indiana and Illinois, in the farm belt, above all in the South. . . .[T]hese
gut-Democrats were disturbed by this candidate of Roman Catholic faith; and if they
were, so were millions of others.

Substitute "race" for "religion" in the above description of the intertwining of religion
and politics in 1960 and we have precisely the biggest hurdle that Barack Obama faces
in 2008.

7. Kennedy was critical of the loss of American prestige around the world during the
preceding eight years of Republican administration.

Nixon complained that JFK, by declaring that American prestige was at an all-time
low, was "running America down and giving it an inferiority complex."

Change the names and these positions sound exactly like one of the main arguments
this year.

8. Nixon stressed his experience against Kennedy's youth and inexperience. The same,
of course, is John McCain's principal selling point against Barack Obama.

Nixon said that the times were too grave for America to try inexperienced leadership;
McCain says the same.

9. In 2008, as in 1960, Republicans sought to focus the election on foreign policy and
national security. "If you ever let them [the Democrats] campaign only on domestic
issues, they'll beat us--our only hope is to keep it on foreign policy," Nixon warned.

10. JFK became, especially after the first presidential debate, the first political celebrity of
the TV age. Huge crowds, including "jumpers" (young women who leapt into the air
when they saw him) surged around him. Kennedy was a "rock star"--a political Elvis.
All of this, obviously, applies now to Barack Obama.
Differences
1. Nixon was a Republican who was relatively young, trying to succeed the oldest
president up until that time, a member of his party who was very popular.

McCain is a Republican who is the oldest presidential candidate, trying to succeed a
younger president, a member of his party who is very unpopular.

2. Dwight Eisenhower had ended a war and "waged peace" for seven-and-a-half years.

George W. Bush started a war and waged war for five-and-a-half years.

3. Ike remained popular. His silence through much of the campaign hurt Nixon, and his
entry into the campaign in its final days helped Nixon.

The opposite is true of Bush, whom McCain needs to keep quiet and out of sight
throughout the campaign.

4. The conventional wisdom this year is that "the future" is Obama's issue, as it was
Kennedy's in 1960. In that year, Nixon claimed the past.

Nixon ran on the "Peace and Prosperity" that he said the president of his party had
produced during the preceding eight years.

McCain can hardly run on the "War and Recession" that the president of his party has
produced during the past eight years.

In 2008, then, the past is as much Obama's issue as the future is.

This comparison of 1960 and 2008 suggests that Barack Obama is in a stronger position this year than John Kennedy was in 1960. But before Senator Obama orders inaugural invitations, he should look at a significant cautionary note in Kennedy's experience in 1960.

For all the advantages the rock star Kennedy had over Nixon, who was literally "the man in the gray flannel suit," a Nixon surge in the last ten days of the campaign nearly defeated JFK.

"How did I manage to beat a guy like this by only a hundred thousand votes?" a baffled Kennedy wondered after the election.

The answer seems to have been fears welling up from deeply ingrained prejudice combining with concern over Kennedy's inexperience. For all the advantages that Barack Obama has this year--advantages that ought to produce, and may well actually produce, a landslide victory for him in November--the same two problems that nearly led to Kennedy losing to Nixon are lurking just below the surface of the 2008 political landscape.
There's still a "Seller Beware" dynamic in play--even when the seller is a master salesman with a vastly superior product. That is the lesson of 1960 that Barack Obama and his campaign must keep in mind from now through November 4.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


Huckleberry Finn's Opus And Time Magazine's Feature Of Mark Twain

The editors of Time, buffered like the rest of us upon litanies of atrocity, searched last week for something we could be proud of, and they settled on Mark Twain, who they put on the cover. The main article, written by Roy Blount, Jr., opened like this:
What, if anything, about this benighted moment of American life will anyone in the future look back on with nostalgia?
The nostalgia is this: a country produced a humorist, thinker, and moralist who took the pen-name of Mark Twain. As a young man, the restless, traveling parent-less Sam Clemens from Hannibal, Missouri hitched a boat-ride down to New Orleans, where he schemed to go to South America for to make his fortune smuggling cocaine back to the US. Not finding a ship quickly enough, he signed on as a steamboat pilot's apprentice and went back up the Mississippi. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, he signed up briefly for the Confederacy, and pistolled an innocent horseman down in the darkness by his nervous bivouac in the woods. He stood over the man's body, trying to yearn him back to life, and he left the service soon thereafter to light out for silver mining in the territories where he became a yellow journalist.

That's a common story we, all of us Americans as ancestral flotsam, come from. Sam was like any of our other over-reaching rough young opportunists who didn't fit, a printer, a digger, a Billy the Kid, an adventurer who was just another searching inconsiderate who wanted something better. But with this kid there was a twist, and somehow his glimmerings of conscience kept steadily growing, aided by an ability to embroider yarns, to write and observe and express himself in print.

Eventually, in 1884, he wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a semi-autobiographical or imagined examination of his childhood. For its sublime, honest, between-the-lines treatment of the turbulent, existential relationships of race, space, and the roiling cultures of an emerging country--themes which haven't calmed down by a long shot--it is the crowning achievement of American literature. I'm not sure if I've ever read a greater work, more accurately plumbing and surveying, more celebrating, capturing and penetrating, including all of Shakespeare's.

I have some inklings of what personal introspections, meditations, and unsparing intellectual braveries it took to write it. Not surprisingly, Twain said it took him the longest of all his books to write. It called all the fundamental assumptions of his boyhood appropriately into question, yet in many if not most high schools in my country today, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a forbidden work. (It makes liberal use of the language which was common at the time of its writing and subject, and of a pejorative word referring to color and race.) Quite simply, this is a cultural crime. Banning such a masterpiece is like burning down trees because they might one day burn, for Huck Finn is nothing less than the secret code and avatar of our national salvation.

In the story, a desperate, regularly abused and abject Huck Finn spreads blood on the ground and makes it look like his father, the notorious vagrant drunkard Pap Finn has killed him and dumped him in the river. At the same time, Miss Watson's slave Jim escapes her ownership because he longs to see his family, and the two wind up on the same mid-stream island. They elude the search parties sent to find them, and then take a raft down the Mississippi. There are misadventures, and Huck is tormented now and again by the legal and moral questions of sheltering an escaped slave. On page 100, he considers the temporal and eternal consequences of going against social and heavenly conscriptions, and decides that he solemnly will risk Hell for harboring a slave.

We gradually begin to realize that Jim is a thoroughly wise and moral man, about the only one we meet in the book, and that he's the best father figure Huck has ever had. At the end of the story, we learn that Jim earlier shielded Huck from the sight or knowledge of his biological father's dead body in the wreck of a gambling house that was swept down the river on a flood. Jim tells Huck to great relief that he's not condemned to return to his father's wrathful fists in St. Petersburg (Hannibal), and Huck may live with Tom Sawyer's family. Jim, having reached a providential freedom, takes his leave to go see his his wife and children at last.

It was Twain's intention that Jim, a slave, was Huck's better father, and if you closely read the story of their journey down the central, massive, live-giving river of our country, their mutual regard for each other gathers steadily until it starts to get unmistakably loud and finally hints of something greater. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a beautiful story, but it was intended even more as an allegory, you see, about the people in our country eventually becoming equal, about the rightness of them loving each other without reference to ownership, poor circumstance, or color.
Twain knew that respect and love could be shouted down by present and future crowds, but a beautiful story can't. He sheltered his meditations in impervious armor, and we can be proud of that.

(Note: this version edited for errors regarding points of plot.)

Missile Droop

As usual on weekends, blog time was limited, and although I'd much rather be writing about recent experiences driving shiny new cars and dodging drunken boaters on Lake Union, I've been bursting to point out the visual evidence of how our government's propaganda machine has lost its remaining shreds of self-respect. The Drudge Report and other parrots reported in the past few days that Iran had performed Shehab-3 ballistic missiles tests to defy our peace of mind and threaten a budding nuclear strike capability. Small problem: the pictures used to play up the story were of surface-to-air missiles with maximum ranges of 60 miles.

Long-range ballistic missiles fire straight up. Short-range surface-to-air missiles shoot up at an angle. News outlets and government sources who continue to rage for respect used pictures of missiles shooting up at angles to portray Iran as firing its 2,100 mile range Shehab-3s. Fake, fake, fake, fake.

It may be that Iran fired some of its ballistic honkers, but if so, it doesn't matter anymore and my taxpayer dollars are very sad, because they paid for the equivalent of sideshow geeks biting the heads off chickens, chewing Coca-Cola glasses down into small triangular shards, and blatantly demanding money before the inevitable oncoming rushes of my bloody, regretful carbon humanum.

Whatever inept dipshits gave these pics to news agencies should be disgraced as ignorant, unprofessional, and betraying an egregious stupidity. If the Iranians actually fired some ballistic missiles, which is doubtful, there are satellite images fully recording their trajectories. In the absence of those pictures, these articles are just bluff-bellicose negotiating-stance crap, a neo-borscht of transparently failed diplomacy.

Freedom From Memory & How Google Makes Us Stupid
"Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave?” So the supercomputer HAL2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowman, having nearly been sent to a deep-space death by the malfunctioning machine, is calmly, coldly disconnecting the memory circuits that control its artificial brain. “Dave, my mind is going,” HAL says, forlornly. “I can feel it. I can feel it.”

I can feel it, too.

I’m haunted by that scene in 2001. What makes it so poignant, and so weird, is the computer’s emotional response to the disassembly of its mind: its despair as one circuit after another goes dark, its childlike pleading with the astronaut—“I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m afraid”—and its final reversion to what can only be called a state of innocence. HAL’s outpouring of feeling contrasts with the emotionlessness that characterizes the human figures in the film, who go about their business with an almost robotic efficiency. Their thoughts and actions feel scripted, as if they’re following the steps of an algorithm. In the world of 2001, people have become so machinelike that the most human character turns out to be a machine. That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.
(I've been thinking the same as more and more of my interactions are conducted with multi-tasking pancake people. The above is excerpted from a recommended article by Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic. Read the rest.)

Saturday, July 12, 2008


Goodbye From The World's Biggest Polluter

How Bush wrapped up the G8 meeting in Japan:
The American leader, who has been condemned throughout his presidency for failing to tackle climate change, ended a private meeting with the words: "Goodbye from the world's biggest polluter."

He then punched the air while grinning widely, as the rest of those present including Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy looked on in shock.

Oddly, I applied that term specifically to him earlier in the week immediately after asking myself, "Who is the world's biggest individual polluter?" After thinking about what should be done to limit continuing damage he will cause as an ex-President, this last debacle elicits the right solution. It's so simple, it's so obvious--for the good of America, as a gift and courtesy to humanity, cutting out his tongue is an absolute necessity.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Telcos Get Their Precious Immunity

Here are the Senators who voted for the Feingold amendment, which sought to strip immunity from the bill:

Akaka (D-HI)
Baucus (D-MT)
Biden (D-DE)
Bingaman (D-NM)
Boxer (D-CA)
Brown (D-OH)
Byrd (D-WV)
Cantwell (D-WA)
Cardin (D-MD)
Casey (D-PA)
Clinton (D-NY)
Dodd (D-CT)
Dorgan (D-ND)
Durbin (D-IL)
Feingold (D-WI)
Harkin (D-IA)
Kerry (D-MA)
Klobuchar (D-MN)
Lautenberg (D-NJ)
Leahy (D-VT)
Levin (D-MI)
Menendez (D-NJ)
Murray (D-WA)
Obama (D-IL)
Reed (D-RI)
Reid (D-NV)
Sanders (I-VT)
Schumer (D-NY)
Stabenow (D-MI)
Tester (D-MT)
Whitehouse (D-RI)
Wyden (D-OR)
"I sit on the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, and I am one of the few members of this body who has been fully briefed on the warrantless wiretapping program. And, based on what I know, I can promise that if more information is declassified about the program in the future, as is likely to happen either due to the Inspector General report, the election of a new President, or simply the passage of time, members of this body will regret that we passed this legislation. I am also familiar with the collection activities that have been conducted under the Protect America Act and will continue under this bill. I invite any of my colleagues who wish to know more about those activities to come speak to me in a classified setting. Publicly, all I can say is that I have serious concerns about how those activities may have impacted the civil liberties of Americans. If we grant these new powers to the government and the effects become known to the American people, we will realize what a mistake it was, of that I am sure."
Statement of Senator Russ Feingold

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


World Leaders Solve Global Food Crisis Over 18-Course Banquet

Bloody typical.

Friday, July 04, 2008


The Future Of American Surveillance: Obama's FISA Firestorm

As America waits to die and be reincarnated, there's a storm raging in Obama's core base and it's one I'm part of. An interest forum was started on "My Barack Obama" over his support for the renewed Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, one which renders telecommunications providers immune from any civil suits arising from illegal surveillance of US citizens. In 6 days the group, aptly named 'Senator Obama--Please Vote Against FISA' grew to over 20,000 members.

Just as internal dissent crested, Obama responded by re-clarifying his position on July 3rd, basically saying that 1) the revised FISA is an improvement over the Patriot Act, 2) we need to have something like it, and 3) he'll work to strip telecom immunity from it later. Obama's response was pretty good--his subtext even says, "stay up in our grillework on this one"--but it's destined to be overwhelmed by events, events that will be interesting, sort of like when Ulysses sailed between Scylla and Charybdis was "interesting."

There are a mountain of details surrounding FISA, the NSA, new agencies under DHS, and the legislative battles to wonk out about, but let's gloss over what I learned from reading 1,000+ emails on it over the holiday weekend and cut to the chase: is it spying for a government to record your every phone conversation, fax transmission, most of your emails, and peek at your computer data?

I hate to grant this to the Bush Administration, but to a legal beagle, that's a pretty fair question. Fertile grounds for interpretation, and that's what lawyers will do until you take a shovel and whack it over their heads until the whimpering sounds stop coming out of their mouths. Definitions of privacy, the limits thereof, and what it constitutes have not been considered in a digital context for the citizens. For companies familiar with the terms "fair use" and "safe harbor," yes, it has been duly considered under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, which treats commercial artists, software publishers, and the companies who treat them like serfs as virgins inviolate. In a nutshell, however, average Americans don't have any digital privacy rights whatsoever. The reasons for this are surprisingly technical.

When I say, "you're being spied on," it might sound paranoid. Sure, I may be a smidgen prone to paranoia, and that might be related to, oh, working with data mining, security, and call processing at companies involved in so-called warrantless wiretapping. All of a given day's phone conversations can be stored on a drive smaller than a box of Kleenex, and they can all be searched for keywords in real time. Naturally, it's most efficient to perform these operations directly at telecom network operations centers.

For regular folks who avoid saying "tomorrow's VX shipment to Turkey" on the phone it's no big deal, really. Unless you're bored muslim teenagers from Buffalo talking big, the defense lawyer for a charity which gives money to poor Albanians, or are having an affair with the spouse of one of the 25,000-50,000 people who works for the NSA, you're pretty much in the clear! No, the reason you're being spied on at all is mostly due to incompetence. The government's way of finding a needle in the haystack is to say, "Yes, yessss. I know precisely what we must do to find that needle, Mr. President. We will make the haystack bigger!"

Government agencies aren't necessarily listening to what you're saying--they just figure that, given that you're a potential terrorist, they might need to at some point. I mean, wouldn't it look really bad for some poor slobs just looking forward to a quiet pension if it turned out you had been a terrorist all along, and nobody was paying any attention to you?
It's cheap to record and archive, and there's a new haystack every day. It starts seeming a reasonable thing to do, and there is ample precedent for surveillance and curtailment of privacies in the US during wartime. You can buy the legal argument, as counsel at many (but not all) telecoms did, that it doesn't violate the Fourth Amendment.

Personally, if I were forced to design a system for this particular government, I would doom it to elegant failure, and the people who've built ECHELON and its sister systems took a similar approach, albeit unintentionally. Well, wait--I'm really not so sure it was unintentional. If they wanted it to actually work, the general approach is simple. You'd make up something like a Terrorist Credit Score, a haystack-reducing device, stop looking at the 99.999% of hay and devote your resources to the needles. With their approach as it is, you could possibly build something predictive by associating terrorist-style outcomes with long data trails, but the incidence sparsity is a huge problem. Anyhow, combating terrorism is a convoluted rationalization, and not really the point of the 50-plus billion dollars the US now blows on digital spying every year.

Here's the real problem, one might say the Scylla with Obama's FISA support: he seems to assume surveillance works and should continue. Of these misapprehensions he should be thoroughly disabused, and that's why I'm one more thorn in his side. These systems are clearly outside the spirit of the Constitution, shouldn't be applied domestically, and they suck at catching terrorists. (Which...is...maybe...why they haven't caught any! Any real terrorists know they can communicate in complete privacy by FedEx-ing crayon drawings to each other.) What Total-Information-Awareness eavesdropping and data-mining excel at is controlling persona non grata via information blackmail or selective leaking. At that, the systems are top-notch, a totalitarian's wet dream for monitoring and stifling opponents, or as they call them in D.C., "friends."

I do not know a specific example in which surveillance has been used domestically to control congressional votes, but the irresistible temptation to do so should be manifest to every reader of current and historical affairs. In other words, it is to be strongly suspected, and may have something to do with the behavior of Congress and its attendant 10% approval rating. Applied offshore, there is even greater temptation and the lines of national security blur very quickly. To name a few examples, the NSA eavesdropped on Lady Diana's cell phone calls from its station in Scotland. To help Boeing make jet sales, it ratted out Airbus bribes to the Saudis. It has passed surveillance data on proprietary German wind turbine technology to an Enron subsidiary, which then filed a US patent on the trade secrets. Of course, these latter banalities are also outside the NSA's current charter, but no one's counting anymore.

It's hard to think of an example of a state domestic spying apparatus which was ever voluntarily given it up, but easy to think of how over-reliance on domestic spying brought regimes down. (A German-language film, 'The Lives of Others,' is great drama and effectively portrays why most surveillance is really conducted.) To walk for a moment in Obama's shoes, one would understandably be cautious when addressing a powerful security apparatus which shows every sign of having been usurped, just as Presidents once needed to stay on J. Edgar Hoover's good side. But once the apparatus is turned on innocent citizens, when the state's paranoia has gone so far, the only step left in the choreography is to turn upon itself. If privacy isn't extended to digital media, and the pre-snooping isn't made expressly illegal, it's going to get ugly here.

Whatever the outcome of Wednesday's Senate vote on FISA, it's not going to end there. Above, I mentioned that events will overwhelm Obama's stance on FISA and telecom immunity, and will quickly snowball into a question of spying in general. Here's what I meant, and welcome to Charybdis: just imagine how Rush Limbaugh and the Reich Wing will react when they realize Obama is able to spy on them.

Thursday, July 03, 2008


Introducing Ray Lamontagne, His Song "Hannah," And Lyrics

One eternal yawp is never equal to another. Even if it doesn't echo here, it can hit the Top 40 elsewhere. There are only 10,000 downloads on this YouTube so far, but there's a singer you should know. He's from here, but he's big in the UK. From Wikipedia:

Ray LaMontagne was born in Nashua, New Hampshire, in 1974 to a constantly travelling mother. When LaMontagne was a child, his mother left his musician father, while his father was on tour, and moved him and his siblings up north. His father had no contact with LaMontagne and had no knowledge of his whereabouts for years. Because of the stories told to LaMontagne about his father, LaMontagne refrained from most musical activity, instead spending much of his time reading fantasy novels in the forest.[1] His mother moved her six children wherever she could find work, so it was difficult for LaMontagne to make friends. LaMontagne attended high school at Morgan High School in Morgan, Utah, but frequently ditched class, wrote stories, or got into fights with other students. As a result of these interactions, his grades were poor — LaMontagne barely graduated.[2] After graduation, LaMontagne moved away from his family to Lewiston, Maine in order to find a full-time job.[3]

LaMontagne found a job at a shoe factory in Lewiston where he worked 65 hours a week. One morning at 4 a.m., LaMontagne heard Stephen Stills' song "Treetop Flyer" on the radio as it awoke him for an early work shift.[4] After purchasing the Stills Alone album, LaMontagne decided that he wanted to quit his job at the shoe factory and start a career as a singer-songwriter.[5] LaMontagne began touring in 1999, although he maintained a side job as a carpenter.[4] In the summer of 1999, LaMontagne amassed 10 songs for a demo that he sent to various local music venues. Mike Miclon the owner of Buckfield Maine's Oddfellow Theater heard the demo and invited LaMontagne to open for folk acts such as John Gorka and Jonathan Edwards. A friend and business executive, Ron Clayton, heard LaMontagne's recordings and introduced him to Jamie Ceretta of Chrysalis Music Publishing. CMP recorded his first album, and sold it to RCA Records in the US and Echo Records in the UK.
The lyrics to 'Hannah:'
I lost all of my vanity when I peered into the pool
I lost all of my innocence
When I fell in love with you

I never knew a man fall so far until I landed here
Where all of my wounds they turned into gold when I kissed your hair
Now come to me Hannah
Hannah won't you come home to me--
And I'll lay down this bottle of wine
If you'll just be kind to me!

Ask her why she cries so loud
She will not say a word
Eyes like ice and hands that shake
She takes what she deserves

To celebrate her emptiness
In a cold and lonely room
Sweep the floor with your long flowered dress
If you cannot find a broom

Now come to me Hannah
Hannah won't you come home to me
And I'll lay down this bottle of wine
If you'll just be kind to me!

She's got hair that flows right down
Right down to the backs of her knees
Her Papa he was a preaching man
And the Lord is hard to please

So she comes down from the ozark hills
to these very streets to roam
With a banjo and a bible
and a fine tooth comb

Now come to me Hannah
Hannah won't you come home to me
And I'll lay down this bottle of wine
if you just be kind to me!

I'd walk one mile on this broken glass
to fall down at your feet
Mmm-hmm-mmm Hannah: you're the Queen of the Street,
and I climb the tree with my Hannah-lee

My intentions they were pure
Oh the breeze did whip and I lost my grip
And I tumbled towards the earth
Where you never would guess
who it was that stood below

And His name I would never tell
But His eyes were clear
And His arms were strong
And He caught me as I fell

Now come to me Hannah
Hannah won't you come on to me--
well I'll lay down this bottle of wine
If you'd just be kind to me!

Now I'd walk one mile on just broken glass
To fall down at your feet
Mmm-hmm, Hannah: you're the Queen of the Street;
The Queen of the Street.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


Will Kill For Oil

I wondered a few posts ago what Preznit and his coterie would be doing after the election, and a graphic artist has donated their patriotic time to answer the question. If only Thomas Paine had Photoshop, and King George had Total Information Awareness, semantic analysis, and millions of terabytes of retrievable phone conversations stored on optical disks, history would seem so much more alive.

This picture, gleaned from the keenly visual Cat in the Bag blog, telegraphs the dissonant tragedy that is the Bush Administration. They were so certain of their course, and why it would be good for everybody. It's one of life's kick-ass ironies that if you start out certain you're on the road to ending up with doubts, and if you start out with doubts you've got a good chance to close in on certainty, at least part of it, and cuff it.

I Am That Girl

Her name was Kim Phuc, and she had just been napalmed. Trang Bang was her village, it was 1972, she was 9 years old and fleeing down Highway No. 1 from Saigon to Pnom Penh. American GIs were sheepishly herding Kim and other children away from another atrocity. She was naked, in mortal agony, humiliated, had 3rd-degree burns over 65% of her body, and was in all likelihood going to die.

I assumed she was dead, if not one of the millions of the anonymous war victims who live in Vietnam. But t
he Associated Press photographer who took the iconic picture, Nick Ut, rushed her to a hospital. As the picture was taken, Kim was most worried about her disfigurement and how it would limit her future prospects:
I still remember my thoughts at that moment: I would be ugly and people would treat me in a different way.
A decade later, she lost faith in her own society:
In 1982, I went through another very difficult ordeal. I had been admitted to Saigon medical school. Unfortunately, one day the government realized that I was the little girl in the picture and they came to get me to work with them, to use me as a symbol, and I didn't want to. "Let me study," I asked them, "I don't want to do anything else." So they automatically kept me out of school. It was awful. I didn't understand: why me? Why could my friends continue their studies and not me? I felt as though I had always been a victim. At 19, I no longer had any hope and wanted to die.
Now she lives in Toronto, is 45 years old, and has become a UNESCO representative. I heard her on Monday when she was broadcast on NPR's 'This I Believe' series:
On June 8, 1972, I ran out from Cao Dai temple in my village, Trang Bang, South Vietnam; I saw an airplane getting lower and then four bombs falling down. I saw fire everywhere around me. Then I saw the fire over my body, especially on my left arm. My clothes had been burned off by fire.

I was 9 years old but I still remember my thoughts at that moment: I would be ugly and people would treat me in a different way. My picture was taken in that moment on Road No. 1 from Saigon to Phnom Penh. After a soldier gave me some drink and poured water over my body, I lost my consciousness.

Several days after, I realized that I was in the hospital, where I spent 14 months and had 17 operations.

It was a very difficult time for me when I went home from the hospital. Our house was destroyed; we lost everything and we just survived day by day.

Although I suffered from pain, itching and headaches all the time, the long hospital stay made me dream to become a doctor. But my studies were cut short by the local government. They wanted me as a symbol of the state. I could not go to school anymore.

The anger inside me was like a hatred as high as a mountain. I hated my life. I hated all people who were normal because I was not normal. I really wanted to die many times.

I spent my daytime in the library to read a lot of religious books to find a purpose for my life. One of the books that I read was the Holy Bible.

In Christmas 1982, I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior. It was an amazing turning point in my life. God helped me to learn to forgive — the most difficult of all lessons. It didn't happen in a day and it wasn't easy. But I finally got it.

Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed.

Napalm is very powerful but faith, forgiveness and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope and forgiveness.

Christians can be good. More about Kim's story here.




Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Second Law Of Thermodynamics Violated, Then Confirmed

Starbucks is closing 600 of its stores and cutting 7% of its work force.

As many as 12,000 full-time and part-time retail positions will be eliminated with the store closures all over America. Which, in turn, means that the Fed will have to give another $75 billion to Wall Street banks next week. Don't worry, baristas and baristos will figure out a good use for their biology and ethnobotany Masters degrees.