Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Google's empire expanding, again

Wow, Google is just cranking out the good ideas these days... they've decided to get into the free email business, competing with Hotmail and Yahoo. Their 'hook': while Hotmail gives you 2MB of email storage (and deletes your account after a month of inactivity) and Yahoo gives you 4MB of email storage (they've never deleted my account for inactivity), Google will give you 1GB of email storage space for life. Their idea is that most people who use free email services probably won't even send and receive a gigabyte of email in their lives, so every email they ever see can be stored for later recall. And Google can enhance this with what they do best, organizing information and providing search tools for finding what you seek.

Personally, I store every email I've ever sent or received. It's a sort of electronic journal for me, a window on the past that lets me see exactly what I was complaining about on any arbitrary date in the past decade. Ahhh, the memories.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Digital Swiss Army Knife

Google has a new feature called 'Web Alerts' that lets you specify a web search to be performed daily or weekly; any results are emailed to you. They've got a similar search (NewsAlerts) that limits the search to news items. This isn't quite the 'intelligent agent' promised in the Sci Fi books, but it is a step in the right direction. Add these to Google's local search (that returns results that are near a physical address) and some of the other interesting tools coming out of Google Labs, and we might someday be able to navigate the infospace without drowning in advertisements and porn.

Boxes of genius

I just read a fascinating article about the method to Stanley Kubrick's madness. Two years after Kubrick's death, Tony Frewin (who had been Kubrick's assistant since the 60's) invited Jon Ronson to explore the legendary archives at Kubrick's estate, and the things he saw there provide a glimpse into the mind that gave us some of the best movies ever.

Monday, March 29, 2004

ich bin ein auslander

If you're traveling in Germany and are looking for a unique hotel experience, spend a few nights in the Propeller Island City Lodge in Berlin. The place is a hotel run by artists, and each of the rooms has its own theme... some of them are beautiful, some are whimsical, some are exceedingly impractical, but they are all interesting.

They've got a prison cell (for cubicle dwellers who miss the sensation), a padded room for those who've gone over the edge, and his-and-hers coffins for those who've really passed on. There's an abandoned mineshaft, a fairytale room, and it just wouldn't be Berlin without a 'now is zee time on Sprockets ven vee dance' room.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Free Culture

Lawrence Lessig, who might be one of the few people in the legal industry actually fighting the Good Fight, has just published his new book 'Free Culture':

In FREE CULTURE, he widens his focus to consider the diminishment of the larger public domain of ideas. In this powerful wake-up call he shows how short-sighted interests blind to the long-term damage they're inflicting are poisoning the ecosystem that fosters innovation.

All creative works - books, movies, records, software, and so on - are a compromise between what can be imagined and what is possible... technologically and legally. For more than two hundred years, laws in America have sought a balance between rewarding creativity and allowing the borrowing from which new creativity springs. The original term of copyright set by the Constitution in 1787 was seventeen years. Now it is closer to two hundred. Thomas Jefferson considered protecting the public against overly long monopolies on creative works an essential government role. What did he know that we've forgotten?

I've written before about Lessig's fight to keep marketing from subsuming our culture, and I fear that unless we get more Lessig's we're going to live in a world where all information is mediated, which in this culture means that if they can't make a buck off of it, you won't see it. This isn't a theory, it's something that happens all the time - books or music that are out of print remain out of print forever, because the company that holds the copyright doesn't see enough a market for them... but they aren't going to let them go, either.

But Lessig doesn't just talk about this stuff, he's actually doing something about it. While his book has just become available at booksellers, he has also released it (under a Creative Commons license) for free download (2.5MB PDF, or here's the torrent). A number of authors have been doing this lately, and they are finding that it actually increases sales of the physical book, something the marketroids probably wouldn't understand. Makes sense to me: let me see that the book is interesting, and I'm more likely to buy it. It works just like file sharing... I bought more CDs during the Napster era than ever before, because I'd download a song I liked and I'd want to hear the rest of what that band had done. Think of it as viral advertising, that lets the work speak for itself, instead of a barrage of marketing nonsense that you've probably become inured to anyway.

Lessig's blog is worth watching to see how your freedoms fare these days.

i'm not playing with myself, i'm adjusting my jewelry

The Georgia House just voted 160-0 to ban all forms of female genital mutilation. The primary intent of the bill is to prevent parents from having such procedures performed on their daughters for religious or cultural reasons. An interesting side-effect of the bill is that it also bans piercings for adult women... while there is no similar ban for adult men.

Amendment sponsor Rep. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, was slack-jawed when told after the vote that some adults seek the piercings.

"What? I've never seen such a thing," Heath said. "I, uh, I wouldn't approve of anyone doing it. I don't think that's an appropriate thing to be doing."

I'm not a big fan of piercings on anybody, but I am a big opponent of ignorant white guys telling everyone else what they do or don't 'approve' of. Who gives a fuck whether or not he thinks something consenting adults do is 'appropriate'?

Not to belittle the problem of female genital mutilation, but I have always been surprised at how something like 'female genital mutilation' is considered to be horrible, yet 'circumcision' is so commonplace that hospitals often just do the procedure without even asking the parents. It can be argued effectively that the effect such mutilation has on men is not quite as extreme as the effect it has on women, but I don't think this means we should just dismiss the idea that there is something wrong with circumcision being applied more as a cultural fashion statement rather than as part of a religious or social belief system. They'll pass a law stopping adults who want to modify their bodies in some way, but cutting off a newborn baby's foreskin is just fine? What a barbarous world we live in.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

personal update 24 March 04

I've been more incommunicado than ever, lately, because I've been going through a rough patch... last week was somewhere near the worst week of my life, on the pain scale, and I haven't felt like doing much of anything. Hopefully the next month will bring some answers... I'm getting a few MRIs done before I see the neurologist, the pain management doc is doing another diagnostic nerve block, and the other docs have got me on some new meds that might help in the meantime, though I am pretty skeptical about the whole thing having gone so long without any real relief.

I did have one good morning, this past week, when I got up and walked around the yard. It was the first time I'd been back there since the walkaround prior to buying the house. I can already see the hand of Anne-Marie in the subtle changes around the yard: a new plant here, trimmings there, soil turned in anticipation of some new addition. It's going to be a great space.

remembering spalding gray

NPR has a nice retrospective on Spalding Gray, with interviews, past write-ups, and a photo gallery.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Rumsfeld shown to be evil; nation unsurprised

Here's a small serving of bullshit from Donald Rumsfeld, being interviewed by Bob Schieffer of CBS' Face The Nation and Thomas Friedman of the New York Times.

SCHIEFFER: Well, let me just ask you this. If they did not have these weapons of mass destruction, though, granted all of that is true, why then did they pose an immediate threat to us, to this country?

RUMSFELD: Well, you're the -- you and a few other critics are the only people I've heard use the phrase "immediate threat." I didn't. The president didn't. And it's become kind of folklore that that's -- that's what's happened. The president went...

SCHIEFFER: You're saying that nobody in the administration said that.

RUMSFELD: I -- I can't speak for nobody -- everybody in the administration and say nobody said that.

SCHIEFFER: The vice president didn't say that? The...

RUMSFELD: Not -- if -- if you have any citations, I'd like to see 'em.

FRIEDMAN: We have one here. It says "some have argued that the nu" -- this is you speaking -- "that the nuclear threat from Iraq is not imminent, that Saddam is at least five to seven years away from having nuclear weapons. I would not be so certain."

RUMSFELD: And -- and...

FRIEDMAN: It was close to imminent.

RUMSFELD: Well, I've -- I've tried to be precise, and I've tried to be accurate. I'm s -- suppose I've...

FRIEDMAN: "No terrorist state poses a greater or more immediate threat to the security of our people and the stability of the world and the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq."

RUMSFELD: Mm-hmm. It -- my view of -- of the situation was that he -- he had -- we -- we believe, the best intelligence that we had and other countries had and that -- that we believed and we still do not know -- we will know.

Way to go, Rummy. I especially like the way he plays the rhetorical gambit of accusing Schieffer and 'a few other critics' of misrepresenting him, then has his ass handed back to him by Friedman. Just think, if Friedman hadn't been there, the viewers who buy whatever politics are sold to them on the television would have seen the image Bush & Co are struggling so hard to create, that they are beset on all sides by a liberal media that twists their words and ignores their great deeds. Hopefully some viewers had a neuron or two fire when Rummy got caught in his own lies, and they will start paying more attention. I'm not holding out much hope for that, however... people seem to be pretty securely plugged in to the Matrix nowadays, and critical thinking has just about been bred right out of us.

The bit that worries me is that the point isn't whether or not they said any specific two-word phrase like 'immediate threat', which is a matter of historical record despite their continued denials, the point is that they waged a war by lying to keep the fear level high enough that nobody would challenge their self-serving actions... and that they were allowed to do this by a Congress that has been asleep at the fucking wheel, except for when they've been actively dishonorable.

That whole "system of checks and balances" myth they laid on us in our junior-high civics classes was sidestepped when Congress voted to violate Article I section 8 of the US Constitution (the part that quite clearly says 'only Congress has the authority to declare war') by giving the president a blank check for a 'war on terror' in Iraq (despite the fact that Iraq has never been connected to the terrorist attacks in the US). This was a win-win situation for our spineless politicians: they could visibly support the fight against 'terrorism', and if things worked out well they would be rewarded by Bush (and presumably by their constituency) for their loyalty, but at the same time if things went bad they could deflect the blame, since Bush was ultimately responsible. I remember when I was a kid, hearing stories about how the corrupt politicians in Russia would do stuff like this... and now nobody even blinks when it happens here.

The worst part of the whole thing, from my point of view, is that the majority of Americans bought it... I've never been more ashamed of my country's ignorance than I have been these last couple of years. It makes me wonder, now, what is going on in people's heads - if they are capable of believing outright lies, even after the lie is exposed and some unsophisticated attempts at spin control have taken place, it seems like they could believe in anything. If you take a look at history, you might notice that all of the truly atrocious bits have something in common: the people responsible have a belief in their moral superiority that persists despite any evidence to the contrary.

I know it's a bit idealistic of me, but: weren't we supposed to be the good guys? We've managed to convince ourselves that we are, but our actions do not reflect our beliefs. And uncounted (literally, by Pentagon orders) lives have been lost, including 571 Americans (plus another 3254 wounded US soldiers), for what? We're not 'safer'... the mujahedin are even more pissed at us than they were before, and old Osama bin Laden (remember him?) is still out in the wild, except now he's a folk-hero for standing up against the US and getting away with it. We've also pissed off most of the countries on the planet, and proved to the world that their worst stereotypes of us are fairly accurate. The only real 'progress' from this war is that Bush and Cheney and their campaign contributors got richer. Was it worth it?

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Once upon a time some goatherders had an argument...

Author, translator, and expat, Nidra Poller has been living in Paris since she left the US ("a homeland I would have liked to keep at a distance, visit with pleasure, and leave with relief") in 1972. Her children and grandchildren are French, but they are also, like her, Jews... and as anti-Semitism continues to rise in France, Poller finds herself wondering if it is time to leave Europe, to rip up three generations of roots and return to the relative security of the States.

I came back to be European and, irony of ironies, Europe is showing me why my grandparents left...

I'm being treated to a poignant lesson in European and Jewish history. The 30's: why did they stay? Why didn't they run for their lives? Couldn't they see what was happening? I see before me a vivid demonstration of the deep roots we dig to make our lives bloom, the intricate biology of a human life, irrigated with the lifeblood of a community, inextricably connected to a society, born of life to give life to keep life alive. Leaving is not packing up and tipping your hat goodbye. It is tearing live flesh out of a living matrix.

We don't hear much, here in the States, about the political situation in France, but over the past few years growing anti-Semitism has led thousands of French Jews to emigrate to Israel... I had to read that a few times before it sunk in. Aren't Jews leaving Israel to escape the violence in the Middle East? French Jews are choosing that over staying in France? What the fuck?

I've never understood racism... there's always some non sequitur aspect of it that defies reason. Take the recent bombings in Spain, which appear to be Islamic retaliation for Spain's support of the US war in Iraq (and now Afghanistan). I naively thought that US actions (support of Israel, meddling with the governments of oil-producing states, Air Force planes flying over Mecca) were sufficient cause for the enmity of the Islamic world, but it turns out that I was mistaken, giving the US more credit than it deserves (which is not something I often do): we are not seen to 'support' Israel... we are seen to be puppets of the Zionists.

It's almost as though our own (sometimes very real) crimes don't even merit Islam's notice, shrinking in comparison to the legendary (and mythical, in socio-cultural power if not in historical fact) offenses the Muslims use to justify their ancient deep-seated hatred of the Jews. Once upon a time some goatherders had an argument, and a couple of thousand years later buildings fall and trains explode in service of that hatred. Wow.

I hope Poller is able to live out the rest of her life without being caught up in the wake of such irrational hatred. I hope we all are. It seems like such a sad thing, a small thing, to be fighting over.

Friday, March 12, 2004

war is peace. freedom is slavery. bullshit is still bullshit.

Each day it becomes more clear that President Bush is not making this country any safer. More clear, that is, to the people who didn't figure it out years ago. It has been a pretty sad couple of years, watching people waving their flags and praising Bush's presidential skills while he's led us from record surplus to record deficit, from record productivity to record unemployment, and from the sort of support we received after our buildings were toppled to the sort of scorned embarrassment we've become in the eyes of the world. To give credit where it is due, Bush's presidency has remained true to his assertion that he is "a uniter, not a divider" - never before in the history of our democracy have the poor and the wealthy been so united in their support of the wealthy. Bush's ability and willingness to capitalize on fear to further this economic and political agenda will be the lasting legacy of his Presidency.

But it doesn't stop there, because Bush is not just President. As Commander-In-Chief of the US armed forces, he has some pretty serious responsibilities to the world, the American people, and most importantly to the troops. He's made it pretty clear that he doesn't care what the world thinks, alienating former (and more importantly, possible future) allies. It can't be any more clear that he doesn't care what the US citizens think... he seems to regard us (as in 'We the People') as a nuisance, prefering the simpler and oh-so-much-more-rewarding task of simply serving his daddy's rich buddies. And he's shown reckless disregard for the well-being of our troops, placing them unnecessarily in harm's way then telling the terrorists to 'bring it on'. Now Bush is further violating the trust our soldiers have placed in him by making them mandatory 'volunteers' for additional tours of duty in places we should have already left and for which we have no exit strategy... in his defense, perhaps keeping them in the military is his way of making up for the fact that his cuts to the VA budget will leave many of these people without adequate health care when their tours of duty end?

The Army is spread so thin around the globe that when it needs fresh combat troops for Iraq this fall it will have little choice but to call on the same soldiers who led the charge into Baghdad last spring. The 3rd Infantry Division already has been given an official "warning order" to prepare to return to Iraq as soon as Thanksgiving. When those soldiers flew home from Iraq last summer to their bases in Georgia, few of them could have known they were, in effect, on a roundtrip ticket.

They are not alone in facing back-to-back deployments to Iraq. Some of the same Marines who teamed up with the 3rd Infantry to topple Baghdad are already assembling again in Kuwait, only a matter of months after returning home, and more Marines will go next year.

When the Saddam Hussein government collapsed, U.S. troops in Iraq figured the war was over, except for some mopping up. But as the acting secretary of the Army, Les Brownlee, acknowledged to Congress last week, "we simply were not prepared" for the insurgency that developed in early summer, prolonging the war and taking the lives of hundreds of American soldiers.

Retired General Gordon Sullivan, who recently visited U.S. troops in Iraq and Kuwait, acknowledged that sending war veterans back for a second tour of duty means the Army is stretched tighter than it has been in decades. "Loosely, in a historical perspective, it's not dissimilar to what you saw in World War II in Europe," he said in an interview. "We're just going to keep using them."

The Army has 10 active-duty divisions, and parts or all of each have been in Iraq or Afghanistan or are heading there this spring.

All right, so maybe you believe Bush is a blazing torch of freedom and democracy... but has it occured to you that a blazing torch might not be the best tool for dealing with the powder-keg of hostility in the Middle East? If you "support our troops", support keeping them away from unnecessary harm.

dream landscapes

There's something eerily beautiful about David J Osborn's landscape photography. His panoramic pictures of England, Scotland, and Wales appear to be more than 2-dimensional, like those old ViewMaster pictures, and they look too fantastic to be real, almost like movie sets or miniatures. Each pic has a little blurb about the subject of the piece, usually telling something of the history related to each location.

I have dreams that look like these pictures... some features are blurred, while others, even if they are miles away, are crystal clear... as though the optical clarity of something was related to how much meaning is embodied in that thing, and has nothing to do with the physics of the shot.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

possible sighting of vertebrate presidential candidate

Ok, I admit it, they could run a bag of Cheetos against Bush and I'd vote for the Cheetos... the guy makes me sick and I believe that we'll be paying for the shame he's brought on our country for a long time. Some idealistic part of me wishes there would be someone to vote for, rather than always having to vote against, but it's very rare that any candidate is worthy of respect, while there are always candidates to fear. Anyway, I was surprised by John Kerry today, and I'm not often surprised by politicos, unless one happens to think up some particularly new and innovative way of fucking the people that I hadn't been aware of before.

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry on Thursday rejected demands that he apologize for calling his critics in the Republican Party "the most crooked, you know, lying group I've ever seen."

"I have no intention whatsoever of apologizing for my remarks," Kerry said during a news conference on the Senate side of the Capitol. "I think the Republicans need to start talking about the real issues before the country."

Follow the link on the previous post and make your own decisions about who should apologize.

I'm not going to place much faith in Kerry, because even if he is a great president he's still going to be stuck with the task of cleaning up the mess Bush made... it's a thankless task, and it won't take long for the sheepulace to start pining for another fascist like Bush so they can wave their flags and feel good about their country again. My only hope is that whoever our next president is, they do less damage than this one. If Kerry is the guy, and he turns out to actually have some ethics and the spine to see things carried out, that would just be frosting. It almost seems like too much to hope for right now.

some days i'm ashamed to be an american...

... other days, i'm ashamed to be human.

Here's some atrocious things the Republicans have said on the record. I'm not going to repeat any of them here. Read them and imagine what must ge going on in their black little hearts, if this is what escapes their lips.

a soldier speaks... will you listen?

This is going to be a long post, but it's a complex problem, and glossing over it wouldn't be right... I think we owe it to the people who are risking their lives in foreign lands to hear what they have to say. I just read an interview with a soldier who has returned from Iraq that pretty much sums up everything wrong with US military actions over there. The guy is a military medic who served in the Gulf War as well, and his family taught him that he needed to do his part as an American by serving in the military. His description of what has been going on in Iraq, and what he thinks is yet to come, just hurts.

He's concerned about the lack of respect being shown to those who lost their lives in this little game...

Do you think the American public is well-informed about what is happening in Iraq?

No, I really don't. I see young people on my medical table all the time, people who have lost their legs or arms or had other terrible injuries. No one back home sees any of that. I've been home for a month and I haven't seen a casualty yet on television. I'm still waiting. Where are the casualties? It's as if it doesn't exist, as if it doesn't happen.

Was it like this in previous wars?


What brought about the change?

From what I gather, it used to be that the president would go out to the area to meet the [deceased] soldiers coming in. They would drape the caskets and they would actually watch and give a moment of silence as the coffin came by. The Bush Administration felt that was too much for Americans to handle, so they secured that part of the ceremony so that no one knows when that fallen soldier comes home. It's an injustice to the military, because you gave your life to the country and the country should give something back to you. Even just a moment of silence. Every day that someone dies, the flag should be lowered to half staff. Not just because a politician died. Those guys are good people. They work hard. They do anything and everything that is asked of them. And they gave the ultimate sacrifice. It should not be that you have to go to a website to find out who died.

How did you feel when the President said to the Iraqis, to the insurgents, "Bring it on!"

Being a medical person, I take an oath to try to protect my troops at all times. Anything that puts them in danger, alarms me. And that was unnecessary.

... and about Bush cutting the VA budget and reducing veteran's benefits...

I've seen lots of people with severe, permanent injuries. They're going to need a lot of help when they get back home, because their lives are going to change forever. And to have the guy [President Bush] cutting billions from the VA [Veterans Administration] budget, at a time when you've got all those guys coming back from overseas with major injuries, that's disgusting! That hurts every person who ever served this country. I don't understand how someone can stand up and say, "I'm pro-military," when you want to cut $16 billion from the VA and close VA hospitals.

... about the way Bush is twisting the media...

What did you think about President Bush's Thanksgiving visit to Iraq?

I was there when President Bush came to the [Baghdad] airport. The day before, you had to fill out a questionnaire and answer questions, that would determine whether they would allow you in the room with the President.

What was on the questionnaire?

"Do you support the president?"



Members of the military were asked whether they support the president politically?

Yes. And if the answer was not a gung-ho, A-1, 100 percent yes, then you were not allowed into the cafeteria. You were not allowed to eat the Thanksgiving meal that day. You had an MRE.

What's an MRE?

Meals ready to eat. We also call them "meals refused by Ethiopians."

... and he's concerned that our current administration, who haven't served in the military or lost family members to the war, are ignorant of the realities of war:

Do you think it matters that so many of the top people in the Bush Administration never served in combat?

Yes. It's quite a list. Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Rove, Rice, and many more. I'm still trying to figure out how Cheney managed to get five draft deferments. They say there is not one person in Congress today that has a son or daughter in combat. Neither house of Congress.

What do you think about that?

I think they would make different decisions if their sons and daughters had to go or if they had been there themselves. I really do. If Barbara and Jenna [Bush] had to put on a pack and go to war, I think Daddy would make different decisions. But there's never going to be a draft because rich people don't want it. You know, most of the kids in the military are not rich kids. As a matter of fact, most of them are poor. The reason they joined the military was to try to get ahead. So you have the lower class and middle class kids fighting, while the upper class kids, I don't know what they're doing. Hanging out at the beach, something like that.

He's concerned about our reasons for staying in Iraq...

President Bush said on Meet the Press, "We are welcome in Iraq" because "they realize what a free Iraq will be." What have you concluded about the feelings of Iraqis toward the Americans?

They think we did a good job getting rid of Saddam. Now they want us to get out so they can run their country. It's not so different from our war with England. We were glad the French helped out, but the French didn't come in and say, "Okay, now we're going to occupy you for the next 20 or 30 years." They want to do their own thing like we did our own thing. That's one thing that we haven't figured out... they don't want us there! They feel that they can solve their own problems, just like we solved ours.

... and he's got a front-row seat point of view regarding the democratic elections that the US is currently trying to block:

Do the troops currently serving in Iraq have a sense of how long the U.S. military is likely to remain there?

Yes. We know it's going to be a minimum of ten years.

Based on what?

Based on our government telling us that. A minimum of ten years.

So even if there is an Iraqi government of some sort formed...

We will still be there, to make sure the government thrives. If you know anything about the British occupation of Iraq, the British people after a few years pulled their soldiers out. They said, "We're tired of this, we don't want to do this any more." The British government set up an Iraqi government. In a very short time, that government was dead, and the Baath Party came into being.

So are you, therefore, not terribly optimistic about peace, freedom, and democracy taking root in Iraq very soon?

As soon as the Ayatollah [Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani] says go to war, the people will go to war. When he tells them to go home, they go home. When he tells them to get up, they get up. And he's going to be our worst nightmare because he controls over 60 percent of the people [the Shi'a] in that country.

There was an attempt on this Ayatollah's life recently.

And I wouldn't be surprised if it was us who tried it.


Yes. Because he will mess up our plans. We don't want to turn Iraq into another Iran.

By another Iran, you mean a radical Islamic state?

[Run by] ayatollahs. We dropped leaflets promising them that you will have elections, you will have a democracy, you will be able to choose your own leaders. Sistani is going to hold us to it. They will have elections. One man, one vote.

But the United States is currently...

Balking at that idea.

Saying that for one reason or another, direct elections with one man, one vote are not possible, or not yet.

Correct. Because if they allow one man, one vote, he will win in a landslide.

He being Ayatollah Sistani, or candidates that he designates?


And these caucuses that have been proposed by the American occupation authorities and the Iraqi Governing Council they appointed?

They're not going to fly.

Because there would be American control over them?


Which is what people like Ayatollah Sistani are questioning.

Dead against. He thinks the Governing Council they have now is phony. They will not survive if an election happens.

And he doesn't think Bush has been very honest about the whole thing...

Do you feel the Bush Administration has honestly and fully explained why they went into Iraq and why the U.S. military is still there?

No, and I don't think they ever will. There's no one to hold them accountable. Congress is a joke. We laugh at Congress. They come over and want to get their pictures taken. That's nice. But what are they doing? They're not helping us. They gave this man [President Bush] carte blanche to do whatever he wanted, and he's doing exactly what he wants.

Is it true that the American invasion of Iraq acted as a magnet, to bring in foreign fighters who weren't there before?

Yes, because they don't want Iraq to become a haven for the United States. They want it to be an Arab country. You've got to remember, what we're installing is actually against the way of life they've always known. It would be like somebody coming into this country and installing a dictatorship. We would fight that with everything we had.

... and he's concerned about the way personnel changes are being made without regard to the safety of our soldiers...

What else is happening in the military that we should know?

One thing that's really important, and that makes no sense, is that they are cutting 10,000 people in the Navy from active duty right now.

Why? To save money?

Yeah, and during a war. It said in the Navy Times that from October 1, 2003 to October 1, 2004, something like 10,000 sailors are going to go. They're going to try to run some of the ships with far fewer people than they've always used.

How is that going to work?

It looks like they are going to try to cut the Navy down to the size of the Marine Corps and have people doing more jobs. Just wait until the first time they have a real "general quarters" on a ship, an actual emergency. Because you need everybody on board to work as a team, to handle a crisis aboard ship. It's not like you can walk back to shore. So I'm waiting for the first crisis that occurs when they don't have enough people. And it will come. It's astonishing that they're letting those 10,000 people go in wartime.

But wait, at the same time, in certain parts of the military, they're ordering Reservists to stay on for much longer than they expected.

The Reserves are different.


Because Reservists are not paid yearly. Reservists don't make as much money as active duty people do. They don't require housing; you don't have to move the entire family to the base in order to ship them out. The whole idea is to get more people on as Reservists, so that they can use them to replace active duty. It's great for them [the government], they're saving money.

...and he thinks that the results of sending large amounts of Reservists, who have had less training, are going to be very bad:

What do you think of the United States remaining in Iraq now that Saddam Hussein has been overthrown and there are apparently no weapons of mass destruction?

We need to come home. We did our job.

So this whole notion of staying for the extra 10 years or whatever . . .

Why? What's the purpose? There is no military purpose there. We're not the police. We have pressing needs in our country. We are spending money like it's going out of style over there. Companies like Halliburton are gouging the American people over there. We protect them also. Part of our job now is actually to protect Halliburton employees. So, if we really want to cut off the spigot, we need to come home.

You're not too impressed with the corporate military contractors.

No. You know, they actually come up to you and offer you jobs. They say, "Once you get out [of the military], go to this company to apply and you can come back over. We can use people like you." I don't think it's worth any amount of money to be in a combat zone. You know, over 100,000 soldiers were offered $10,000 to re-enlist. Hardly anyone took it. I do not want to go back. I will do it if those are my orders, but I do not want to go back. It's not a winning situation for us. You're going to lose more people this summer than you did last year, I guarantee it.


For one thing, people going over there with inadequate training, like I said before. Heat, for another. It's unbelievably hot there in the summer. When it gets hot, people get upset. When April, May, June, and July roll around, watch how it spikes up again.

And he said something that I wish every armchair warmonger in this country, people who "support the troops" enough to get them killed but not enough to keep them out of unnecessary conflict, would hear:

Do you feel it is possible for American citizens to support the troops without supporting the policies under which the troops are acting?

Yes. Most definitely.

Any parting words?

We did our job. We need to come home.

I agree with him. And I'm pretty sure that Bush, who started this whole thing, isn't going to be the one to pull them out... he's going to leave them over there, and if they aren't useful in getting him votes it will be some other president that is seen to withdraw from Iraq in defeat. The guy is weak and evil and he seriously needs to get the fuck out of the Whitehouse. And you can do something about that. Go do it.

mass speculation

Scientists using the large electron positron collider (LEP) at CERN in Geneva Switzerland may have detected the Higgs boson, the subatomic particle that is believed to be responsible for the mass of all particles.

The Standard model of fundamental particles and interactions includes 16 'particles' that have been observed in supercollider experiments. Different combinations of these subatomic particles result in larger particles that differ in charge, spin, or even mass. The problem that researchers have faced is that when they do the math on these combinations, the resultant particles have all the right properties... except for mass. Mass is something we take for granted on our scale... everything we interact with (or even just detect) has mass of some sort, so it's understandable that having mass missing from the resultant particles is a bit unnerving to the scientists. The Standard Model was therefore revised to include the Higgs boson in the late 1960s. Think about that... we feel soooo advanced, and it's only been in the last 40 years that we've been able to come up with an as yet unverified mechanism for particles to have mass.

The current theory is that all particles acquire their mass through interactions with an omnipresent intrinsic field called the Higgs field, which is carried by the Higgs boson. This being quantum physics, we mere mortals can be forgiven for our lack of understanding of how a property like mass, which seems so fundamental to everything in our experience, can first off be missing from our subatomic bestiary and second off come into being by throwing this little theoretical ball back and forth. Of course, this being quantum physics, wave-particle duality has already screwed up the very idea of a 'particle' to the point that no definitions make sense, so the reality is we have no frickin idea what the hell is going on.

Part of me hopes that the new collider being built at CERN, the Large Hadron Collider, will be able to shed more light on this subject, but I am also pretty skeptical about our theories... the wave-particle thing seems to imply that subatomic entities aren't waves or particles - they are some other thing, something that can seem to be a wave or a particle depending on how you look at it, like that old 'elephant and then blind men' story. And it's no wonder that we don't understand gravitation (as evidenced by all of the 'dark matter' theories) if we don't even understand mass. The only thing I do understand completely is that the day will come when people will look back on our current theories and wonder how we could be so nearsighted, just as we now look back on the quaint science of the past. It is useful to remember that the people who believed the earth was flat (or that it was the center of the universe), or those that believed that a pendulum made of a stone and string swings because the spirit of the stone is upset about it's captivity, had as much 'logical' proof of the truth of their beliefs as we do of our own, and they believed as strongly in the truth of their deductions as we do, because 'logic' says nothing about truth... it merely shows that something is internally consistent with the rest of what is believed.

[via SEB]

Extreme film criticism

Upset at the cinematic treatment of her imaginary friend, a woman watching the money-shot crucifiction fetish scene in The Passion Of The Christ had a heart attack and was pronounced dead minutes later at a nearby hospital. This just goes to show that Christian porn (with its unhealthy sadomasochistic focus on death, disfiguration, shame, and guilt) is as unhealthy as any other. Seriously... if only religion encouraged people to care as much about doing good as they do about feeling good, people would be much healthier.

I don't often agree with the Jesuits on many things, but one commonality in our thoughts is that if you truly want to understand Christianity, you truly need to understand the horror of the crucifixion. But the average Christian doesn't understand anything about their own religion... they are just a member in a club that splits them apart, makes them purchase happiness with the pain of guilt... they don't make any progress, but they get to feel like they've done something, not realizing that all they did was shore up the walls of the hole they dug for themselves. Christianity is based on blood, not on peace. It is singularly sad that modern Christians get so bent out of shape when this is pointed out to them.

For the record, before you go type me some more hate mail, I am not singling out Christians for any special abuse - I'm pretty disgusted by any belief system that allows people to feel good about doing bad things. Today's rant was, however, inspired by today's headline, so Christians are on the menu today. In addition I've been a bit concerned that the anti-Semitic sensationalism in Gibson's film, combined with the rabid self-righteousness of many Christians, will lead 'decent God-fearing Christians' to become more hateful and less tolerant, and since such people already have a stranglehold on much of my country's government their madness has the ability to affect my life pretty directly.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

the house on the edge of town where flowers are born

The library at the Missouri Botanical Garden has scanned in the pages of 46 rare books of obsessively elaborate botanical illustrations published between 1626 and 1914 and made them available on the web.

bugs, up close and personal

This guy does some serious macro pictures of bugs. Some of them are interesting in a "never seen that before" kind of way, but most of them are more creepy in a "I can't stop my toes from curling up" kind of way.

starry starry night on the cheap

Polaroid photos contain a photoemulsion gel that hardens as the picture develops. You can manipulate the gel before it completely sets to get some pretty interesting results.

A changing perspective

The javascript animation Powers of Ten takes you on a pictorial journey starting 10 million light years away and ending within the nucleus of an atom. Puts things into perspective... humans are about halfway, on this sort of scale, between the biggest things we know of and the smallest things we know of.

Monday, March 08, 2004

no more Gray days

Spalding Gray was found dead in New York's East River this weekend, two months after he walked out of his apartment and disappeared on January 10th. Witnesses thought they might have seen him on the Staten Island ferry that night, and his family has long suspected that he finally gave in to his depression and jumped into the water.

Gray was a capable writer and actor (I first saw him in The Killing Fields), but he is probably remembered more for his autobiographical monologues than anything else. Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box, and Gray's Anatomy were all intelligent, funny, and essentially human; I always think of Spalding Gray when I see that poster that says "It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others".

remember when 'democracy' meant 'the will of the people'?

So last week American troops removed the democratically elected Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from office, which somehow "helped save Haitian constitutional democracy". You may recall that this isn't the first time we've meddled in Aristide's affairs, and some Haitians believe that this recent coup was just chapter two of an on-going political drama:

"Dick Cheney was the secretary of defense, Colin Powell was the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and George Bush, the father, was president at the time of the first military coup against President Aristide," recalls the attorney, Ira Kurzban of Miami. "Is there a settling of scores in some sense? They thought they got rid of him the first time, but Clinton brought him back. And now they want to make sure, before the November election, that they get rid of him a second time."

These actions are making other people nervous, as well: people who are concerned that the US might just, as long as we're in the neighborhood, remove Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez or any other 'leftist' leaders we don't like. I think State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said it best:

Boucher singled out Venezuela as an example of how Washington has supported democracy in the region. "We've stood up for threats to democracy in Venezuela, whatever side they might be coming from," he said.

'Whatever side', indeed... if you don't see the irony in Boucher's words, I would remind you that in April 2002 the US supported a coup against the democratically-elected Chavez that failed when hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans surrounded the seat of government and demanded his return.

Our meddling is particularly absurd in the light of worldwide concern over the way the US handled Iraq. Of course, the 'liberal' media organization Reuters is reporting the story in a different light:

U.S. Claims Diplomatic Victory on Iraq Constitution

The United States on Monday claimed a diplomatic victory in Iraq's tortuous march toward sovereignty after the Iraqi Governing Council signed an interim constitution despite persistent reservations from the country's leading Shi'ite Muslim cleric.

President Bush, who was visiting his native Texas for a campaign fund-raiser, called the signing "a historic milestone" that established American-style freedoms of religion, speech and assembly for Iraq while moving the Muslim nation toward sovereignty and democratic elections.

I've still not been able to find any way of looking at the situation that would justify the imposition of democracy1 at gunpoint... isn't democracy supposed to be the will of the people? Isn't the imposition of a government 'for your own good' automatically and by definition the opposite of democracy? I always thought 'the people' meant 'the people of the country', but Bush and friends have apparently decided that "We, the people" is an exclusive copyright, and therefore the US, in taking over the role of 'the people' in every country whose affairs we meddle in, is merely protecting its copyright.

I am glad I can't share Bush's view on this... I think the strain of such a narrow and illogical viewpoint would give me a headache.

'Each word is like a flower'

Denied a voice by social repression and never taught to read or write, the women of central China developed a secret language that has been passed from mother to daughter since the 3rd century:

Only men learned to read and write Chinese, and bound feet and social strictures confined women to their husband's homes after marriage. So somehow -- scholars are unsure how, or exactly when -- the women of this fertile valley in the southwestern corner of Hunan province developed their own way to communicate. It was a delicate, graceful script handed down from grandmother to granddaughter, from elderly aunt to adolescent niece, from girlfriend to girlfriend -- and never, ever shared with the men and boys.

So was born nushu, or women's script, a single-sex writing system that Chinese scholars believe is the only one of its kind.

The written language superficially resembles written Chinese, but the symbols are phonograms (representing sounds, as with western alphabets) as opposed to ideograms (representing ideas). As their culture changed and social restrictions against women reading and writing faded away, the knowledge of this language nearly vanished, but fortunately in the the last century people became aware of nushu while there were still women who knew the language. Then the Cultural Revolution came along, and the Red Guards destroyed all of the documentation they found on the subject. In the late 1970s, the studies were resumed, and today there there are classes taught in Hunan.

Even so, aside from scholars there are fewer than 10 people can fluently read and write nushu, and some of the most skilled practitioners (century-old women who remember when the language was necessary for self-expression) have little time left.

come inside and have a nice cup of tea

When I journeyed in India, I was force-fed so much chai tea that the first phrase I learned to say in Hindi was "thank you, no more please, I am sick" which only worked on occasion because many Indians believe that the cure for anything is just to drink more tea. I'd never got in the habit of drinking tea at home in the States... I always thought it was suspiciously similar to pondwater, and when I was a child the more colorful reddish teas looked like juice, but tasted like the aforementioned pondwater, and I just got in the habit of not picking up any glasses that seemed to have tea in them. In India, however, it is almost unheard of for any social (or indeed even business) transaction to take place without a pot of chai being involved somewhere in the process, and rather than offend my hosts I drank the tea, and even developed a bit of a taste for a strong chai.

The Indians, of course, got the their love of tea from the British. Tea is not native to India... it was brought there by the British, who were having trouble convincing the Chinese that they should assist the Empire in its economic expansion without thought for their own. Although the British eventually persuaded the Chinese to open their borders to trade (first by introducing the Chinese to opium addiction, then by forcing the 'treaty' of Nanking in 1842), British demand for tea was so great that the Indian tea market has remained strong to this day.

Before I learned these things, I thought tea was from India and opium was from China... which only shows how completely the authorship of history books lies in the hands of the conquerors. The Chinese were introduced to opium from India and tobacco from the States in the 1600s, and India first grew tea in the 1700s, both as a result of Dutch and British empire expansion. It's not like this information was hidden... it's widely available in references, and the book and movie 'Taipan' tell the story well with fairly good historical accuracy - it's just that my American education was... somewhat selective.

I'm convinced that there is something Americans just don't get about tea, something the British and the Indians know yet is inexplicable to us. As a result, I decided that the best way to figure out the relationship the British (and therefore the Indians) have to tea would be to find British writings on the subject. I found that their ideas about tea are as strong as they are varied. This essay by George Orwell carries a tone similar to his political writings, and while Douglas Adams' viewpoint is expressed in a manner consistent with his characteristic humor, his instructions retain the rigor and discipline and overall seriousness of the issue.

I've made an agreement with the British Empire (in absentia): as long as they don't ask me to try to understand the game of cricket, I won't hassle them about the tea. And furthermore, as with bowing in Japan, I won't mangle their ritual by attempting it when the subtle nuances are a mystery to me.

Seattle joins the fray

The city of Seattle is recognizing gay marriages... the Christian Coalition, as expected, got their panties in a bunch, but one gets the impression they like it that way so we'll just leave them be. I suspect that some of the cities that are granting licenses do so out of fear of litigation; some do so as a way of advertising their city; and who knows, some might actually do it because the consensus narrative of their people says it is time for new laws and less prejudice.

I find myself hoping that this is sign that America does not have its head as far up its ass as Bush makes it seem it does... and I hope he continues to bluster and thump his little bible and rant about this, right the fuck out of the White House.

'I hope'... I don't say those words very often. But I hope that Bush does not win the election, because he's been pretty effective at disenfranchising Americans and generating hatred, and there's quite a number of people who are visibly aligned against him on the issue of gay marriage. The Republicans have shown that they are vengeful and spiteful and inordinately interested in how everyone else lives their lives, and they believe they have divine sanction for their acts... not a good combination if you fall on the other side of the fence, which is getting harder and harder not to do as they press themselves further and further to the right. I hope that things work out such that more people are able to live the lives they wish without any unnecessary meddling from their fellow citizens. I am not going to hold my breath, but I will hope.

perspective and pizza and planes, oh my

I just read Richard Caetano's blog for the first time and came across this gem, which sounds like maybe his connection to The Matrix is glitching:

I started an anecdotal experiment a few months ago. It really started out of the frustration of media trying to capture my eyeballs. My response was to ignore it, as much of it as possible. "It" started out as banner ads, commercials, billboards, and other "in your face" advertising. Once the action of ignoring it became unconscious I started noticing my self ignoring other forms of media: general television, radio, talk shows, news.

As I became "detached" from popular media several social changes followed. The obvious changes were lack of pop-culture knowledge in group conversations and not being current with the world or politics, current events, and products.

However the more interesting effect was less obvious. I began developing a kind of third perspective of my participation in society. I saw that my well being was becoming less dependent on external matters and found it coming from the inside.

I found this to be an epiphany. I mean think about it. How often do we find ourselves chasing happiness?

There's more there, worth reading, plus he's got some good recipes for pizza dough and notes on his flight lessons. A real renaissance man :)

Sunday, March 07, 2004

a touching sense of artistic appreciation

Things tend to come in threes... so I was not surprised that the most recent post at A Softer World had something to say about human sexuality.

And if you haven't heard of them before, check them out... they put up a new post-modern autobiographical multimedia fortune-cookie haiku every Friday.

Who told you you were naked?

A fitting follow-up to the previous post:

There's been some joking in the news today about the topless march to protest anti-nudity laws in Daytona Beach, Florida, after more onlookers showed up than marchers, and the one organizer who removed her shirt was promptly carted off to jail. Liz Book, the woman who was arrested, said "I don't ever want to see another woman arrested because someone showed her breasts... our breasts are not criminal."

I think it's rather absurd that our puritanical laws tell one half of the population that something is wrong with their bodies... and I think it is pretty strange that more women aren't upset about it. You're at the beach, Mr Beerbelly von Hairyback next to you takes his shirt off, and you can't do the same, by law... and also because the same puritanical nonsense that led to such laws against women also led to a sickness in the minds of men, who are held in such thrall by the very idea of bare breasts that if they actually see some they stand and gawk, or worse. It's a fairly complex psychosis we've developed for ourselves... and as with most issues, the conservatives don't see that they are creating the very problem they claim to be trying to solve.

I remember spending summers down on the river, before I went to university, and not thinking twice about being naked... then one day, lying in the sun and daydreaming, I realized that I was a nudist - a word I had heard spoken, when I was a child, with disgust and hushed descriptions of the sorts of things the self-anointed guardians of morality imagined (oh how they love to imagine) the sinners were up to. I looked at the people around me, people who were comfortable with their bodies and mature enough to know that nudity does not necessarily imply sexuality, and I compared them mentally to the biblethumpers I had grown up with, and it was apparent that the perversity was in the hearts of the righteous... it amazes me how much damage they have done, eternally striving to scourge from others the darkness they find within their own hearts.

They're naked under those clothes

Fully clothed porn. Subtly perverse.

Having a gay old time in Portland

My hometown finally stepped up to the plate and starting issuing marriage licenses to gay couples. The oft-promised apocalypse that was supposed to smite us for daring to support such blasphemy did not, in fact, occur as predicted, but someone found a three-headed frog and some mangoes I was saving seemed to go bad quicker than I expected.

It's too bad, really... might do some people some good to get smote, and besides, I was really looking forward to those mangoes.

Do you feel safer now?

Hrrrmmm... apparently starting in June 2002 the Pentagon went to Bush three times with Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who is now blamed for more than 700 terrorist killings in Iraq, in their sights, but Bush kept turning them away:

In June 2002, U.S. officials say intelligence had revealed that Zarqawi and members of al-Qaida had set up a weapons lab at Kirma, in northern Iraq, producing deadly ricin and cyanide.
"Here we had targets, we had opportunities, we had a country willing to support casualties, or risk casualties after 9/11 and we still didn’t do it," said Michael O'Hanlon, military analyst with the Brookings Institution.
Military officials insist their case for attacking Zarqawi’s operation was airtight, but the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam.

Am I reading that right? Taking out actual terrorists, the alleged goal of Bush's policy of pre-emption against terrorists, was ignored because doing so would interfere with Bush's plan to start a war that used that policy as an excuse (without actually meeting the requirements). There are ironies within ironies in that one.

star light, star bright

The Astronomy Picture of the Day caught my eye the other day... there was a beautiful stellar explosion a couple of years ago that the Hubble caught on film. That same star has been the pic of the day before, in April of last year, when they combined images taken over 8 months to make an animated-gif movie of the explosion. Sad to think that our view of such things is going to be limited by our pResident's shortsighteness... we've learned more about the universe since we've had the Hubble than we did in all of the time preceding it.

where are my keys?

Wired has an interesting article about the 'Masters of Memory', people who are extraordinarily good at remembering. There's even a competition, where events include memorizing 400 words and reciting them back in order and memorizing a string of thousands of random 1's and 0's.

The part I find interesting is these aren't 'Rainman' savants... in fact, many of the competitors say that anyone can do what they do, with enough practice. While I am willing to accept this, in theory, I must also admit that I need to count on my fingers to figure out how old I am, and I have (on more than one occasion) lost my keys or glasses when they were in my hand. So yeah, I'll probably be at the World Memory Championships... I'll be the guy taking your ticket at the door. Don't bother asking me where the bathrooms are or when the events start... I'm sure I won't remember.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Less is more

I never would have thought I'd find anything interesting in the writings of a Stanford law professor, but then again Lawrence Lessig isn't the average law prof. When Scientific American named the top 50 visionaries of 2002, Lessig made the list for arguing "against interpretations of copyright that could stifle innovation and discourse online." Through his work with the EFF, the Creative Commons project, and the Center for the Public Domain, Lessig is fighting the Sisyphean battle against a government that is supporting the 'rights' of businesses over the rights of people.

Lessig's blog is a weekly read for me, since the things that bother him are things that bother me too. (Wow, I just realized how to Make My Millions: I'll make one of those social networking 6-degrees-of-separation friend-of-a-friend systems, but instead of being based on who knows who, it will be hook you up with people who are annoyed by the same things you are. "You know what really ticks me off...? err... you do? Awesome.")

So I had this big long drawn out rant about something that bothers both Lessig and myself: copyright law, and the way that congress is abusing the powers granted to them in the Constitution to indefinitely extend existing copyrights (since 1923), when imposing a limit on copyright duration is one of the very few explicit commands they were given in the Constitution. So why the hell should you care? Because a limited duration on copyright means that eventually, after the creators of those works have had ample time (life plus 70 years, before the extensions, wasn't it?) to benefit financially, the work would become public domain. Which, in a sense, means you and I and all the rest of the people own it.

So if copyrights don't end, new works don't enter into the public domain, which in a very real way diminishes our culture... actually in more ways than one: first, it means that things go out of print, becoming harder and harder to find as the years go by, and eventually they are effectively nonexistent, and secondly, it means that the works that do survive are those that the publishers feel they can make a buck off of. If the profit margin isn't high enough, the thing just sits in a vault somewhere, so in a very real way these copyright holders become a filter to determine which parts of our culture will continue to be accessible and which will just fade away.

Lessig was involved in a very important copyright case, which he lost. He's got a very crisp writeup of the experience and what it means to us that you should read. Read it, and if you still can't figure out why it's important, go to Project Gutenberg (public domain books), Ibiblio (public domain software, music, literature, art, history, science, politics, and cultural studies), Audiobooksgratis (public domain audiobooks), Mutopia (public domain sheet music), Common Content (public works under Creative Commons license: images, movies, audio, text), or just think about this: you're talking to your grandkids 50 years from now, and the only things they know about this era are Britnet Spears, Stephen King, Stephen Spielberg, and Emperor George Bush. Grim, no?

The basic deal hear is that corporate greed is choking of our culture. Now we expect that greed to be in companies, but the sad part is that companies can now buy legislators, people you (theoretically) elected. It's unconstitutional, it's weasely, but mostly it's just sad... the fairy tales of tomorrow will be the New York Times bestsellers of today, because everything else will have just *disappeared*.

As with most of my posts lately, draw your own damn conclusion, I'm going back to bed and a few hours of sweet sweet oblivion.

Sheepwatch '04: Ministry of Disinformation-related program activities

So yesterday I'm reading the international newspapers, I'm over at the Guardian, and I see this artiicle about how David Kay, the guy who led the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, has challenged the Bush administration to "come clean with the American people" and admit they lied about the weapons being the reason we went to war.

On the whole, I think this is a good idea, though it might be a bit soft: I'd prefer that he "come clean" and admit that he's fucking up the country and destabilizing the world to further his personal agenda and make his friends richer, just like his daddy did... instead of breeding hatred and destroying what little faith remains (here and abroad) in our government and coming up with lies that you'd expect to hear from a four-year old: "We never said they had weapons of mass destruction, we said they had weapons of mass destruction-related program activities". WHAT THE FUCK are 'weapons of mass destruction-related program activities'? Sounds like something kids do in kindergarten right after naptime. This guy, with all of his dessicated soulless buddies up on the hill, lied and abused his position and waged unnecessary war and all America did was cheer and wave flags, but perhaps they were only celebrating the fact that they would be long dead and gone before the full measure of the debt (in wealth and blood and poisoned earth and ill will) that Bush has run up will need to be paid back, with interest.

Anyway, I wanted to see what the papers in the US had to say about this, so I checked the lists at Google News, and let's see... there's the Pakistan Daily Times, and the BBC, and the Scotsman, and China Daily, the Taipei Times and Japan Today, the New Zealand Herald and the Kenya Daily Nation... where the fuck are all of the US news people? Most Americans feed on whatever they are given at the trough of ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox, and newspapers that are by and large owned by the same companies... and not one of them was carrying the story.

This means that the average American isn't going to hear this story. The very fact that the major news sources didn't carry it makes the news somewhat suspect for them... so if they do hear about it, watered down through other sources, they will doubt its validity. And the majority of people in this country, who know less about what is going on in the White House than people in fucking Kenya do, will continue to get their carefully filtered least-common-denominator perfectly safe conservative news from what most of them continue to believe, despite a wealth of proof (that they will never see) to the contrary, to be the 'liberal media'.

I'm going to quit reading the news for a few days, before I start engaging in debilitating brain aneurysm-related program activities.

Monday, March 01, 2004

me wants it... hobbitses stole it... but something got lost in translation

I wrote this whole post, then did something ingenious to the computer and lost it. So, here is a rewrite, a pale shadow of what was (I assure you) a brilliant piece of social commentary and movie review.

I woke up and read the news, happy to see that The Lord Of The Rings got some major recognition, winning every category in which it was nominated. Yea, some people are upset that other very good movies didn't get various Oscars (whatever happened to being honored that you were even nominated?), but it is good to see Jackson rewarded not just for bringing a good film to the screen, but for doing it in a way that honored the original fairly well, and for doing it on their own far from Hollywood, and in the process doing it better than Hollywood.

I still watch the DVDs, and I am just as likely to watch disk 3 or 4 of the extended DVDs as I am to watch the actual film... seeing the care with which they infused the spirit of Tolkein's world into the film, the intricate attention to detail, is more entertaining than many actual movies I have seen.

I was glad to see that Sofia Coppola got the screenplay Oscar. With the LotR juggernaut rolling around, this was a bad year to make Lost in Translation... the Best Picture and Best Director nods were both a good call, and in a different year she might have claimed those as well. I was sad to see that Bill Murray didn't get his - I don't think the guy gets enough credit for what he does. Everyone remembers SNL, Caddyshack, Meatballs, Stripes... but he played Hunter Thompson in Where the Buffalo Roam, was pretty damn good in The Razor's Edge, I'm obviously pretty enamored of Groundhog Day, in Mad Dog and Glory Bill held his own aside Robert DeNiro (maybe DeNiro held back a bit after Murray broke DeNiro's nose filming the fight scene?), The Man Who Knew Too Little was a great twist on and old formula, and then Rushmore... he's got more range than his early typecasting acknowledges, and his work in Lost in Translation is probably his career best. At least this was acknowledged at the Spirit awards, where Lost in Translation swept the same four categories in which they were nominated for Oscars.

The only bad part of Lost in Translation wasn't in the actual movie... it was in real life, where most of the truly unbelievable stuff goes down. A group has spent the last couple of weeks lobbying the Academy to block votes for Lost in Translation on the grounds that it is racially offensive:

''Lost in Translation provides a biased and offensive portrayal of the Japanese people and perpetuates negative stereotypes that are harmful to the Asian American community,'' notes, which is appealing to members of the Academy of Motion pictures not to vote for the film. "Had this film been set in Africa or Mexico, for example, we do not think Ms. Coppola would have given such an insensitive and racist portrayal of a people.''

Wow... it looks to me like some of the people involved in the complaint have issues:

"The Japanese are 'funny', two-dimensional, cartoon-like characters who can't pronounce English words correctly and often mix 'L' and 'R' sounds,'' laments Yoko Akashi in an article in Japan Today. "The U.S. media traditionally dehumanizes Asians as a whole, making them an easy target for jokes or as a scapegoat. And that view is the norm for many Americans. But seeing it in this supposedly 'intellectual' and 'artsy' film was an unpleasant surprise.''

Ummm... excuse me for a moment while I pull out my clue bat. Racism is pretty offensive, and can be somewhat subtle and hard to detect, but I feel that in this case these people are way off base. I'll just try to bring this out into the open where we can look at it more clearly.

Guess what: many Japanese people can't pronounce English words correctly, and to western ears it sounds like they often mix 'L' and 'R' sounds. This isn't a racist statement, it's an easily verifiable statistical probability. When I studied Japanese language in college, my professor told me that Americans who 'try' to speak Japanese sound mess up the 'L' and 'R' sounds too, and to their ears, we sound like cowboys - with all the attendant caricature stereotypes that implies: not too bright, not too subtle, loud and boastful, always trying to solve problems by throwing their weight around. The thing is, most stereotypes have some basis in truth... but over time there seems to be a tendency to forget that there are truths mingled with the falsities and prejudices, and it all gets lumped into one mental box, labeled 'prejudice'... and people seem to think that naming a thing is the same as judging that thing. Perhaps they feel this to be true because it is something they do themselves?

I ask this last question because there is a relevant story from my life: I know a woman who grew up in a very male-dominated household, and she developed a very strong sense of her identity as a woman. Unfortunately she also inherited some of her family's value judgements, or at least inherited the idea that every statement is a value judgement (which I hope is not true for you, because it seems to be a losing game). The result of all of this is that she treats any statement that relates to women (or even the mention that someone is a woman) as a value judgement, and tends not to hear anything you say after the 'offensive' bit. I tend to speak fairly gender-neutral around her, if only to save myself from stress and wasted energy.

I've actually gone off on a tangent here, however, because I don't feel like the situation I described above is truly relevant to the movie Lost in Translation. I felt that the intent of the film was not in any way to cast a negative view on the Japanese, nor did I feel that it did so through lack of mindfulness. I actually feel like the protesters were displaying racism to a greater extent than the film did.

If the title of the film didn't provide some clue to the filmmaker's intent, some rudimentary analysis of the contents of the film might. I thought that the movie was about the way that things fall apart when we forget what is most important to us, how we can become a stranger in a strange land wherever we are if we lose touch with who we really are. The plot did not require that the film be shot in Japan, only that it be shot in some place where the average western viewer could imagine feeling out of place, but picking Japan was a good choice, because it was easy to show how simply clueless the average westerner would be over there... how their culture developed in a way so different from western culture that we almost don't have the tools to understand each other.

This was important, because that sense of being out of place and disconnected was just an external representation of what was going on inside Bob Harris and Charlotte... the intent was not to show something wrong with the Japanese, it was to provide an external clue to the internal conflict taking place within the two characters.

The only scene I thought might offend Japanese viewers was the scene with the hooker, and that scene, while not flattering, was also not intrinsically linked to the Japanese. The movie takes place in Japan, therefore you get a Japanese hooker... it would have been awkward with someone of any nationality.

My point of view does overlap that of the protesters in places. I do feel that my country is astoundingly ignorant of other cultures, and I agree that this is often shown in films. But I feel that in the case of Lost in Translation this was not represented in a way that was prejudicial, that it was in fact an attempt to step out of that game and make some commentary on it. On the other hand, there are films like The Last Samurai that really do perpetuate stereotypes (Americans just love the "foreigners can't get a damn thing done until an American takes charge" meme) and is very prejudicial, and even worse, it will be seen by a larger audience precisely because it plays to the least common denominator.

Human prejudice is so absurd that there probably does not exist a way to put two people of different nationality or 'race' on the screen and make a film that didn't offend someone. People are different. This is a statement, not a value judgement. Showing some sort of commonality in human experience (even if it is as distressed as that shown in the film) is probably the best way to bridge that gap.

Dammit, I'm losing something in translation here myself... thoughts are a bit muddled. I'm sure I had a point when I started, though.

So your time spent slogging through this rambling rant wasn't completely wasted, I'll leave with a relevant quote from William James:

A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.

Lost In Translation... the missing post

The post I am working on about the Oscars brought me back to something I thought I had written before, but it turns out it was still a 'draft' and hadn't been finished or published yet... so here is the original, with incomplete thoughts, which I provide as an introduction to my next rant.

A self-proclaimed anti-racism group in the US have declared themselves to be against the film 'Lost in Translation', which it claims is guilty of a stereotypical portrayal of the Japanese... so they are orchestrating a smear campaign against the film to reduce its chances of winning an Oscar.

"The Asian-American community is abuzz with concerns that the movie's critical acclaim legitimises a film that mocks the Japanese people".

Spokesman Tom Roman told Guardian Unlimited that the campaign may have influenced voting at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards last week, where Lost in Translation star Bill Murray - hot favourite to win the best actor award - was defeated by Johnny Depp, who played Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. The outcome confounded many critics and industry insiders, but worse could be in store for the makers of Lost in Translation. Because the guild's members make up 22% of academy voters, the SAG awards are seen by many as a good indication of the way in which voting will go on Oscar night.

It seems like people in this country are most happy when they are making others unhappy.

As usual lately, the irony is off the charts... I've noticed a steady trend in this country over the past couple of decades: critical thinking skills seem to be on the decline. No part of the movie Lost In Translation, not the dialogue or the mise en scène, or the representations of the Japanese people, or did anyone bother to think about the fucking title of the movie?, served to belittle the Japanese... it seemed to me that the film used the cultural divide between westerners and the Japanese as a symbol of the divide that was growing within the lead characters... the internal struggle with comprehension and understanding and connecting with whatever is important in their lives was mirrored by their external interactions with Japan and its people: interactions where they tried with varying success to bridge the gap and make some real connection, often failing because they didn't speak their own language (in a 'language of the heart' sense) well enough to truly understand what they wanted and where they wanted to be.

From my point of view, "The Last Samurai" is more disrespectful of Japanese people than "Lost In Translation" is, and I wish I could be surprised that people fail to think, fail to absorb the message in this film or any other, instead just categorizing ideas according to whether they are aligned with or opposed to the viewers prejudices, a process that they mistakenly call "thinking".