Friday, January 29, 2010

Posted Without Comment

Failing to pass healthcare reform will succeed in killing 44,000 Americans every year.
-Bob Cesca

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Well, That's Good to Know

"Now we know," Kiriakou goes on, "that Zubaydah was waterboarded eighty-three times in a single month, raising questions about how much useful information he actually supplied."

Which is funny, because in 2007, John Kiriakou told ABC is a much-ballyhooed exclusive interview, that Abu Zubaydah cracked after just thirty seconds of waterboarding, while attempting to make the case that the Bush Administration's torture policies were both sound and effective. Later he went to work for John Kerry.

So, just to put this in plain English. In 2007, John Kiriakou, 15 year CIA veteran, went on national TV to make the case that America's torture policy was both necessary and effective. Now, he's written a book in which he admits, off-handedly, in just a single paragraph, that he actually had no idea what he was talking about, had no direct knowledge of that or any other enhanced interrogation, and that he was basically just passing off water-cooler chatter as the cold hard truth to the American people. "In retrospect, it was a valuable lesson in how the CIA uses the fine arts of deception even among its own."

What an asshole. Wonder if there'll be any consequences? I mean, that sure was a useful lie to the folks who sold America's soul so they could get off on torturing terrorism suspects who'd already talked.

True Dat

(note to wingers on both sides: expressing the opinion that Obama is not in fact moderate-lefty in the current US political spectrum, but is instead whatever thing you hate the most, is an IQ test in itself. Try not to fail it)
-John Scalzi

And, bonus quote:

But Obama’s real problem is not Obama or his own policies; Obama’s real problem is that in Congress, his allies are incompetent cowards and his adversaries are smug dicks.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Why Everyone in the Circular Firing Squad Should Turn Around

There was a lot of delusion among progressives who convinced themselves, in the face of clear evidence to the contrary, that Obama was a strong champion of their values. He wasn’t and isn’t.
That doesn’t mean that there’s no difference between the parties, that everything would have been the same if McCain had won. But progressives are in the process of losing a big chance to change the narrative, and that’s largely because they have a leader who never had any inclination to do so.
-Paul Krugman
For what it's worth, I never thought Barack Obama was anything more than a center of the road politician. I appreciated that he at least told the lies I wanted to hear during the campaign, and it was nice to hear lip service being paid to my beliefs and agenda. But I never expected him to be anything other than what he is, which is a politician. Perhaps smarter and certainly more eloquent than the average politician, but a politician nonetheless.

But whatever he is, it remains the case that a good portion of the electorate that voted for him, his 'base' if you will, was the Progressive Left, many of whom did a little projecting, unfortunately, and came to believe, in the face of plenty of evidence to the contrary, that he shared their values and their policy agenda. And to some extent he might have. Probably not as much as they (or I) might wish, but at very least he recognized many of the obvious problems that thirty years of being a 'center-right nation' have caused, and at least paid lip service to solving them.

Now, after months of bickering and mishandling, one of those solutions, Health Care Reform, which is something that's needed doing for several decades if not a centrury now, is on the brink of getting the foundation laid or failing for another generation. And while it's important in and of itself, it's also important in that it provides a rallying point for Progressives to organize around.

You can bitch and blog all you want, and God knows I do plenty of both myself, but at the end of the day, you gotta get in there and do your duty as a citizen. You gotta write the letters and make the calls and put the pressure on your elected representatives, because if you don't, they'll just listen to and aim to please the people that do, starting with the people that pay for their campaigns. Votes are great, and we all know that nobody gets elected without them, but money comes in a close second, and it certainly concentrates influence more than votes do.

Progressives may not have the leverage we think we deserve, and perhaps we never will, but we have more now than we've had in decades, and it's more important than ever that we use it. For most of the last decade, we could howl and scream all we wanted, but the people in power (i.e. Republicans) weren't going to listen because it wasn't our votes that elected them.

But that's all changed now. Obama and the 111th Congress need us in order to stay in power, which means that, if we act in sufficient numbers and with a modicum of discipline, we can influence the direction of policy more than we could in the recent past. If we can actually get some legislation enacted, like Health Care Reform (imperfect though it is), then it will make life better for people, which will go a long way to convincing them that our ideas are better than the ideas of the people on the other side of the aisle. We're already halfway there, because the folks on the right had the whole damned government for six or eight years and everybody saw how well that went.

But now we own it, at least in the eyes of the public. So that means we have to make it work.

Eyes on the prize, people. It's a long, hard slog, and it'll be filled with disappointment, but if we aren't willing to get in there and make it happen, nobody else is going to.

Monday, January 25, 2010

In Defense of the Democratic Party

There is no realistic scenario in which the electorate is impressed by policymakers who spend a year doing the hard work of tackling a seemingly-impossible challenge, pass the landmark legislation, and then somehow manage to come up short anyway.
-Steve Benen
Look, I hate the Democrats as much as anybody. They're feckless, and gutless, and they lack the courage of their convictions. They're in bed with many if not all of the same kleptocrats as the Republicans. But they do at least try to govern effectively when they're in power, and they do try to identify and solve the many looming crises that hang over our world and our nation like the proverbial Sword of Damocles. Yes, they must often compromise the best solutions to those problems, because the people with whom they negotiate have pretty much abandoned the notion that government is for anything other than handing out fat defense and energy contracts to their friends and the people and corporations who subsidize their campaign efforts. And they're a little too like Jesus, turning cheek after cheek until they're red and raw both top and bottom.

I wish they'd fight harder. I wish they'd get more accomplished.

I wish they'd at least realize that the other side isn't interested in finding common ground or even common sense solutions to the serious problems we as a nation, a people, hell, even a species, face.

But there really aren't any other options. No other game in town, except for the Republicans, and they've already amply demonstrated that they think campaigning is more important than governing, and when they do manage to get ahold of some power we end up with an endless series of debacles like the George W. Bush presidency.

For those, like me, who would pursue a largely Progressive agenda, who would like to see real problems addressed and life made better for everyone, both at home and abroad, there really isn't another credible vehicle for making the change I desire, the change I believe, in my inmost heart, is needful if we all are to survive for much longer. It may break my heart, and does on a regular basis, but the Democratic party, with its big, dysfunctional tent and its penchant for the circular firing squad, is pretty much it if what I want is Progressive legislation.

And that is what I want.

Thoughts on Caprica

I loved about half the run of Battlestar Galactica. I was totally addicted to it for the first season, when emergency after emergency came up and it seemed as if at any moment it might be curtains for humanity. Then they lost me, when it started to be more of a soap opera than a far-flung sci-fi adventure series. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of character development and the human drama associated with big events like the near extinction of humanity and the headlong flight into the unknown reaches of space with the agents of said near extinction in hot pursuit. But the series was more interesting when it was about the hard choices and the sacrifices demanded. Once things got to be about how everybody felt about each other I became less interested, and once they started playing political campaign I found it difficult to suspend my disbelief. When they found a planet and then the Cylons came and conquered them it got a little more interesting, but by the time the revolution was over and they started looking for Earth again I just stopped caring, and watching.

So it was with mixed feelings that I approached the prequel series, Caprica, which takes place fifty-odd years before the Second Cylon invasion. For what it's worth, I paid no attention to any of the hype or the previews. Knew nothing about the plotlines or anything besides what the Directv description on my DVR had to say about it. Not a perfect beginner's mind, but close enough.

There will be spoilers in what's to follow. Caveat lector and such.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Too Funny

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Known Universe

This is pretty freakin' cool, a journey, to scale, from the surface of the Earth to the farthest reaches of space that we've seen and mapped and back again. Music's a little cheesy, but what do you expect?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Massachusetts Special Election

Well, it appears that Milquetoast Martha, who apparently went on vacation to the Caribbean during a six-week special election campaign, has conceded the race for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. The polls closed about an hour and a half ago, with all indications that what happened was, in fact, going to happen, and now it has.

It's hard to understate just what a stupendously poor campaign Coakley ran, what with the aforementioned poorly-scheduled vacation, along with her apparently referring to Kurt Schilling as a Yankees fan as well as just generally not getting out there and shaking hands and kissing babies. And it can't be denied that the trends in the national scene didn't do her any favors. People are, rightfully, unhappy about the direction the country is headed in, and I think anti-incumbent sentiment worked against the Democrats, even though Coakley was not, in fact, an incumbent. After all, when you're not happy, you want to throw the bums out, whoever the bums happen to be, and the Democrats (not that they act like it) are at least theoretically in charge, and are thus the bums to be throwing.

But Kennedy's seat should have been a shoo-in, and it's a testament to how far out of control the National Dialogue has gotten that the Democrats could lose it, and in doing so, probably lose Health Care Reform, which was his signature issue.

I don't know what the solution is, how we're going to get Health Care Reform now. All we needed was to get the basic bill on the books, and fix it later.

Well, maybe now there might be some momentum for discontinuing the filibuster. Luckily the Republicans mapped out the way to make it happen a few years ago. Wonder if the Democrats will have the stones to go there?

Yeah, I'm not holding my breath, either.

Posted Without Comment

"No, I'm not a pessimist. At some point the world shits on everybody. Pretending it ain't shit makes you an idiot, not an optimist."
-Justin's Dad

Posted Without Comment

You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.
-Leon Trotsky

Friday, January 15, 2010

Dear Progressive Community

I understand that you're disappointed in how things are turning out here in the Obama era. It was easy to believe, during the campaign, and in those heady days after the election, that the tide had turned, and that America had consciously chosen to move to the left. Or at least farther to the left than it has.

For what it's worth, it probably did. Not all of it, but enough to win the election.

But governing? Well, that's a whole other business. A messy, ugly, dirty business, compromised by its very nature. It doesn't help that the other team thinks it's more important for liberals and progressives to lose than it is for America to win, and will do and say anything to make the job of governance harder. Hell, one of their founding principles is that government is bad and shouldn't work. That's why things were so awful when they were in charge.

And now that they're not, it's even easier for them to be the great big jerks that they are and suffer little in the way of consequences for it. Thanks to Senate tradition (and a stupid one at that), 41 Senators, representing just 10% of the population, can stop any and all legislation in its tracks. It ain't fair, and it ain't right, and I don't really understand why it's allowed to function the way it is, but it's how things are. Yes, the Democrats have a supermajority, but only because people like Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson caucus with them. And since the Republicans basically filibuster everything that comes to the floor (and while it's in committee, too, for that matter), and because they move and vote in lock-step, having purged themselves of all moderates except the two estimable ladies from Maine, that means that only things that are acceptable to people like Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson get passed. Sucks, but there it is. Are there things that can be done about it? Sure. If nothing else, I'd like to see Harry Reid make Republicans actually filibuster. Make them stand there reading the phone book until they collapse in exhaustion. But there are good reasons not to (for instance, no other business can get done, which is less than wholly responsible).

The Democratic party is hardly perfect. It lacks discipline and cogency. Many of its members are just as venal and in the pockets of industry and the kleptocrat class as the other side. It's one of the reasons I'm only a democrat for about an hour every four years (since Presidential candidates are picked by caucus in Washington state). The problem is that it's a coalition, and an often uneasy one. Not everybody agrees on every- or even anything. Many are Blue Dogs, and represent districts and states that lean conservative. Expecting that these people are going to govern from the hard left is just crazy. It'd be one thing if we had 60 Russ Feingolds in the Senate, or even just 60 Chuck Schumers. But we don't, and deals have to be made. Which means that Progressives aren't going to get what they want all or even much of the time.

None of which excuses the collective fucking hissy fit I'm seeing all over the net and hearing from people I know.

You know what? I'm disappointed, too. In Barack Obama, and the Democratic party. I want a single payer health care system. I want the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to end. I want the financial markets regulated and the environment saved. I want nuclear proliferation to stop, and for everybody in the whole goddamned world to have enough food to eat, a decent education, and a safe and comfortable place to sleep at night. Even Africans and Muslims. Hell, especially Africans and Muslims. I want terrorists to be read their Miranda rights and given a fair trial in open court. I want government surveillance of phone calls, emails, text messages, and internet surfing to stop. Shall I go on? I think I've made my point.

I was heartened by Obama's election. I really was. Not because I think or thought that he was particularly liberal or progressive, but because he was more liberal and more progressive than anybody who's made a credible run for President since I can remember. I had no illusions that suddenly, just because we elected a black man to the Presidency, who spoke well and articulated the hopes and dreams of the best of America, that all of a sudden the entirety of the Progressive agenda would be enacted or that everything was going to magically change for the better. But given the choice between Obama and McCain, there was no choice. And things have gotten better.

But they need to keep getting better. And this whole fuck-it-all, they're-all-the-same-so-I'm-just-gonna-take-my-bat-and-ball-and-go-home attitude that I see everywhere is just fucking horseshit. Do you believe in a Progressive agenda? Do you want to make the world a better place? Then get out there and fight for it. Do something. Raise money. Call your congressional representatives. Write letters. Blog. Fight and win the war of ideas.

This is about more than you, or how you feel. Politics is not therapy. There are serious problems in this world and this country that need solving, and if you're not in the game then nobody cares what you think or how you feel.

Take Martha Coakley. I don't particularly support her. She's a milquetoast candidate who's run a terrible campaign. She might even lose. To a Republican. In Massachusetts. But you know what? I gave her money today. You know why? Because if her opponent wins, he'll support a filibuster when the reconciled Health Care Reform bill comes to the Senate floor, and there won't be the votes to override the filibuster, and Health Care Reform will die. And while it's not the bill that I want, what it represents is the recognition, on a federal level, that every American is entitled to adequate health care. That's fucking huge. That's something that will never be taken away. Social Security, when first legislated, left all kinds of people out. It didn't even include cost of living adjustments. But over the years, bit by bit, it was expanded, and fixed, and got better, and now noone even thinks about trying to roll it back. And everybody in America has some income they can count on when they get too old to work. And that's a good thing.

And it'll be the same for Health Care Reform. That's why Republicans and the Insurance industry have fought so hard against it. It's a game-changer, another nail in the coffin of conservatism's stupid notion that the rich should be left alone to fuck everybody else over as roughly and raggedly as they want.

You can be as disgusted as you want about the lesser of two evils. I'm right there with you. But throwing up your hands and not participating means that the greater evil wins. And when the greater evil wins, then shit gets worse. Period. Ten years ago everybody on the left was talking about how Al Gore was no better than George W. Bush. And enough of them voted for Ralph Nader, even knowing how close it was going to be, that Al Gore lost and George W. Bush won. You wanna tell me that things would be the same if Al Gore had been President for the Oughts? That we'd roll back environmental protections and fall for al Qaeda's trap? That he'd've given away the budget surplus in a tax cut for the wealthiest one percent of the country and put us in hock to the Chinese to go fight two wars halfway around the world? Cuz if you do believe those things, you are fucking delusional. And while Al Gore would probably have disappointed me, too, the fucking horrorshow that was the Bush Presidency could've been avoided if only the hard left had thought more about the collective good than about their own fucking feelings.

There's a lot that's wrong with this country. Always has been. Probably always will be. But if you want things to get better, you have to keep choosing the lesser of two evils, until you shift things over enough that you can choose the greater of two goods. But until then, you have to keep the pressure on. You have to stay engaged. You have to keep fighting.

It may feel good to throw up your hands and walk away. But it doesn't fix anything. It doesn't make anything better. And it sure as hell isn't going to make the world a better place.

Posted Without Comment

Of course they're sinking. It was just a matter of time before more of that reflection of the people's uncomfortableness that they feel towards this administration is manifesting in these poll numbers. There is an obvious disconnect between President Obama and the White House, what they are doing to our economy and what they are doing in terms of not allowing Americans to feel as safe as we had felt and people finally saying, "You know, this is not the representative form of government that we thought that we had voted in." After a year of time, people are saying, "No, we want the White House, we want President Obama to hear from us. We want these common sense solutions with health care, with jobs, with the economy, with the war on terror to be implemented so we can get back on the right track."
-Sarah Palin

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Posted Without Comment

"I'd rather overreact than underreact." This appears to be the consensus view in Washington, but it is quite wrong. The purpose of terrorism is to provoke an overreaction. Its real aim is not to kill the hundreds of people directly targeted but to sow fear in the rest of the population. Terrorism is an unusual military tactic in that it depends on the response of the onlookers. If we are not terrorized, then the attack didn't work. Alas, this one worked very well.
-Fareed Zakaria
(hat tip to Bob Cesca)


Click here to donate to the Red Cross. Or text 'HAITI' to 90999.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Here's a Thought

So, one thing everybody's always on about when it comes to Muslim terrorism and terrorists is just how many of the guys that get radicalized are educated, middle-class people. The consensus seems to be, basically, wtf?

I think the underlying assumption is that educated folks should be harder to radicalize because they aren't dirt-poor and, as such, have so much more to lose. I mean, here are guys whose families have enough money to send them overseas to Europe or the United States to study useful professions (engineers seem to be especially well-represented among radicalized Muslims), who get to spend time in the West, in our generally freer, more tolerant atmosphere, while they're being educated, and who come out the other end with valuable job skills. All of which would seem to gravitate away from radicalization (after all, radicals are typically drawn from the ranks of those with little or nothing to lose).

But here's the kicker. These guys, many of them young, return home with their degrees to countries that just don't have any jobs for them. So here they are, young and ready to work, with an education they can't use because their economies are lacking in opportunity, and they get frustrated.

What's worse, and this is, I think, the crux of the matter, is that because they can't find work, they can't get married, since they can't support themselves, much less a family. Which means they can't have sex. And that's a problem.

As we all know, or should by now, Islam has some very strict rules about gender relations. I'm not going to go into a deconstruction of sharia law here, or even express my own feelings about that. I'm not a Muslim, and I do my best to respect the faiths of others, even when I do not share that faith, or necessarily understand it. But the fact remains that in conservative Islamic situations there is very little chance that a young man with no job is going to be able to woo a wife, which is pretty much the only acceptable path to the bedroom for him.

Sure, Muslims aren't the only religious conservatives that have a problem with premarital relations. I was once told by a Christian friend of mine, a woman, that she couldn't stand hanging out with the men in her church anymore because "all they want to do is get married, so they can have sex."

It was funny at the time, but it got me to thinking.

However you feel about it, whatever your Book says, the fact remains that the prime directive of being alive is to reproduce. Human beings are no exception. We're wired, especially when we're young, to desire sex, preferably right now. That our societies have evolved rules that countermand that primordial drive may or may not be a tremendous mistake, but the fact remains that there exists a powerful tension between what our bodies tell us and what our societies tell us we should and shouldn't do.

So here are these guys. They're raised in a strict Muslim culture that says the only way they're ever going to get some is by getting married. They've spent time in the West, where the rules are quite a bit more relaxed (after all, the most conservative parts of the US also have the highest rates of unplanned pregnancies and sexually-transmitted infections, so we can safely say that there is sex being had, whatever the prevailing moral attitude toward it might be), where they might or might not have gotten a taste of that sweet, sweet fruit that is a woman's love. But whether or not they were successful at the dating game, the women are much freer and more open, and sexuality is much more prevalent, which when you're young and horny can be quite maddening.

They then return to a land where a woman may not so much as step outside her home without a male relation to escort her. And because the economy is poor, thanks either to a kleptocracy or foreign intervention, or both, they can't find work, even with their advanced degrees. So they're not only frustrated by having all this training and education and it not doing them a damn bit of good, but they know that until they get that job and get that money that they're never going to get some love, which'll drive any man crazy.

No wonder they're so often willing to sacrifice themselves to kill Westerners. When you've got no healthy outlet for the perfectly natural desire to get your rocks off and you can't see a way forward to ever getting to, you become imbalanced and angry. Easy to radicalize. I'm sure it doesn't help that the Islamic heaven seems to involve a large supply of willing virgins, but even if it didn't there would still be this pool of young men who feel they have a reasonable expectation of finding work, getting married, and having, if not a good life, then at least sex, and who are frustrated beyond all reason when they discover that even though they have jumped through all the appropriate hoops that they still don't get to get some.

Hell, it's a wonder there aren't more of them.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Also, Too

"Fine, let’s take a vote. Who wants fish for dinner?...Yeah, democracy ain’t so fun when it fucks you, huh?”
-Justin's Dad

More Health Care Bill Explanation! This time from Paul Krugman!

Take it away, Dr. Krugman.

Start with the proposition that we don’t want our fellow citizens denied coverage because of preexisting conditions — which is a very popular position, so much so that even conservatives generally share it, or at least pretend to.

So why not just impose community rating — no discrimination based on medical history?

Well, the answer, backed up by lots of real-world experience, is that this leads to an adverse-selection death spiral: healthy people choose to go uninsured until they get sick, leading to a poor risk pool, leading to high premiums, leading even more healthy people dropping out.

So you have to back community rating up with an individual mandate: people must be required to purchase insurance even if they don’t currently think they need it.

But what if they can’t afford insurance? Well, you have to have subsidies that cover part of premiums for lower-income Americans.

In short, you end up with the health care bill that’s about to get enacted. There’s hardly anything arbitrary about the structure: once the decision was made to rely on private insurers rather than a single-payer system — and look, single-payer wasn’t going to happen — it had to be more or less what we’re getting. It wasn’t about ideology, or greediness, it was about making the thing work.

What's the takeaway? Because we lack the political will for the better system (cuz, you know, socialism), what we got is about what we had to get.

Hopefully, what we're getting will be a step in the right direction. After all, the single most successful subsystem of American health care is Medicare, which has its faults but that everybody seems to agree works pretty good, which is a single payer system.

But thanks to politics, echo chambers, and the seeming disconnect between the stakes of the game and the game itself in some circles, we can't just move to the smarter, more efficient, more humane system right away.

Okay. Guess we'll just have to take a deep breath, steel ourselves for the long slog up the hill, keep up the pressure on our duly elected representatives, and keep winning the war of evidence and ideas.

I think these words of Churchill's, though used in a different context, might prove instructive:
The United States invariably does the right thing, after having exhausted every other alternative.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

I have the best girlfriend ever, I'm pretty sure.

Last night a funny thing happened while I was at work. First of all, an old friend I used to work with came in, someone I hadn't seen in a long time. That was cool, and I was happy to see her, and also surprised that she'd brought me a bottle of wine for my birthday, which is on Sunday.

Then another friend showed up, and he had a bottle of wine, too. Then, while I was talking with them, another friend came, and she had a bottle of wine for me too.

"Did you read the cards?" the first friend asked. And then I noticed that each of the bottles, in addition to a colorful ribbon around the neck, had an identical little envelope on it. I started opening them, and each one had a little note in it, in Kendal's handwriting, telling me something about me she loved.

Then another friend walked by the outside of the bar, someone on my soccer team that I haven't seen in months (I tweaked my knee a bit before I had to go to Florida and haven't had a chance to play since, much to my dismay). I ran out to say hi, still not quite getting it, thinking how random it was that a friend who lives on the Eastside would walk by my bar in Fremont with her two kids on a Wednesday night. Until it was revealed that she too had a bottle of wine for me, and had made me a cd, too.

I went back inside and texted Kendal 'Did you do this?' She totally left me hanging.

By 6:30 more than a dozen of my friends had shown up, each bearing a bottle of wine with a note from Kendal on it. Many had added their own. By the end of the night I was up to around 29 or 30 bottles, maybe more, from people in all of my circles of friends, who'd all dropped by to wish me a surprise happy birthday. There were people from my soccer team, people I've worked with at a few different places, people I went to school with; the list goes on.

And Kendal did it all. Without my knowing. She tracked them all down, individually, and got a note to each of them for them to attach to their bottle. I'm amazed. Absolutely floored. Noone has ever done anything this awesome for me for my birthday before. Ever. I had one of the best nights I can remember, even having to work. All night people kept showing up. Some could only stay for a minute, some stayed an hour or more. Every one, and every moment, was almost unbearably precious to me, and will stay with me forever. I can't express how blessed I feel to have such people in my life.

Especially Kendal. The best girlfriend ever. Whatever I did to win or deserve her, I'm glad that I did it, and I hope I keep doing it.

Posted Without Comment

To live is to accept some modicum of risk. To live in an advaned, industrailized, technological, hegemonic, militaristic, imperial society in the twenty-first century is to accept with fair certainty that someone, somewhere, wants to blow you up, like, right now. This is, as they say, the cost of doing business, an inevitable outcome of the system in which we live, work, and pretend to thrive.


I just watched the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff say on the Daily Show that the military was 40% smaller than it was in the Vietnam era. But our military budget has increased every year that I can remember. What gives?

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Posted Without Comment

For me the basic dynamic of the mortgage bubble is some Ivy League dickwad hawking a billion dollars of securitized subprime mortgages to a pension fund, and then Hobie-sailing off into the sunset with a bonus after they all blow up.
-Matt Taibbi

Posted Without Comment

On the one hand, libertarianism advocates a free society in which there is necessarily economic inequality but considers it an unforgiveable sin to use tax revenue to give the inevitable lower orders some semblance of human comfort and safety; on the other hand, it advocates a society where the slightest risk of physical harm to air travelers is cause for the suspension of the Constitutional Order and the declaration of martial law. Yuh. Okay. That's really a robust and well-conceived philosophy of liberty you've got there.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

What I'm Reading

I've got a couple of books going right now, both of which are making me very happy.

The first is City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff Vandermeer. It's compilation of novellas and short stories of or otherwise having to do with the fictional city of Ambergris. Vandermeer was recommended to me by my good friend Nathan, and I have to say that it's totally rocking my world. Technically, it's New Weird Fantasy, which is a somewhat obscure sub-genre in whose most famous practitioner, as far as I know, anyway, is China Mieville (whose New Crobuzon novels are just absolutely amazing). New Weird Fantasy subverts the traditional mode of the fantasy novel by contextualizing it more deeply, building large, culturally and politically complex worlds to serve as settings for the narrative action and producing a more engaging reading experience through the unexpected and bizarre nature of the imagined worlds in which the stories occur.

It's the subversion of the reader's settled and comfortable expectations that produces the effect. The typical fantasy novel, at least the kind I cut my teeth on as a reader, has a pretty common set of tropes and storylines that, entertaining though they are, can grow a bit stale as time goes on. It's one of the reasons my pleasure reading made the turn to science and speculative fiction, because the worlds in which the stories occurred were more challenging and alien, and learning their internal logics was more fun for me as a reader.

But the New Weird Fantasy has brought be back to fantasy novels and provided some highly satisfying reading these last few years. Jeff Vandermeer looks to be a new favorite. He's got a lot of books set in Ambergris, his fictional city, that I'm greatly looking forward to reading. After seeing what he's done with City of Saints and Madmen, I'm especially keen to read some longer-form fiction set there, just to see what he does with it.

The book itself is comprised of four novellas, which take up about half the book, followed by an appendix of shorter pieces referenced in the last of them, The Strange Case of X. The stories are not your typical fantasy fare, being more deliberately literary in character, and somewhat postmodern in their execution, in the absolute best sense of the term (those who know me know that I have a somewhat... complicated relationship to said term, and mostly consider it a pejorative, but I can't think of any other way to characterize this guy's work). Narrative voices, even the most seemingly straightforward ones, become problematic, as authorial characters reveal themselves over the course of the work causing some interesting retrospective questions to come up and not a few 'a-ha' moments. There's less in the way of action, as typically understood in fiction, and more in the way of history and the sort of cultural background that makes a place and a time make sense. But it's not history as told from an objective, omniscient third-person voice, but from a more human-scale voice, set within a larger, albeit fabricated, historical narrative, which enriches not only the reading experience but also the world in which the stories take place.

And it's weird, so delightfully, unexpectedly, refreshingly weird. Like the best narrative fiction, it makes its own kind of sense, a sense you just have to sort of surrender to in order to understand what's going on. He intersperses a lot of official-esque narrative as well, as with the second story, The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, and the third, The Transformation of Martin Lake, which is about a painter and alternates between a more traditional narrative and a scholarly treatment of Lake's work after he has become famous.

What I like most about City of Saints and Madmen is that it is mostly context. World-building. It's about the art and culture and history of this strange place, not its politics and heroes. Fully half the book is a semi-random accumulation of works in Ambergris' varied and occasionally problematic intellectual history, that are mentioned only in passing in The Strange Case of X and would seem to be provided in order to give that particular story more heft and context. It's fascinating stuff, and extremely well-written. In his own voice, Vandermeer writes with an eye for small, telling details and an almost gothic, elegaic tone. In other places, he creates authorial voices that are every bit as believable and well-developed as anything Kierkegaard ever put to paper, and far more entertaining to boot.

In all, a big thumbs up. Highly recommended. The payoffs may not be the stuff of traditional fantasy or literature, but they're worth it and then some, because while the work is challenging, it's also enjoyable.

And go read some China Mieville while you're at it.

The other thing I'm reading, or, in this case re-reading, is The Princess Bride by William Goldman. I never realized until this go-round that it's as old as I am, having been published in 1973, and it surely does stand the test of time.

Obviously, it was the movie that brought me to this story in the first place. I was in high school when it came out, and loved it. To this day it's still one of my all-time favorites, being one of the first movies I was aware of to engage in the sort of ironic self-awareness and subversion of traditional storytelling tropes that've become almost de rigeur these days.

It's a truism that the book is always better than the movie, and The Princess Bride is no exception. While the dialogue does lose just a bit of its snap on the page, the story is richer and more fully elaborated, especially the backstories of some of the most beloved characters (Inigo and Fezzik spring most readily to mind). And it doesn't lack for a certain degree of postmodernity, either, which is pretty impressive for something written in the early '70s. The author continually inserts himself, both in his own voice as well as in the voice of S. Morgenstern, the fictional author of the ur-text of which The Princess Bride is the abridged version, creating a dialogue between the various levels of the story and its fictional historical context. Also, it's laugh-out-loud funny.

What's best for me about this particular reading experience is that I'm reading it out loud to Kendal and her son August (it was one of his Christmas presents from me). Kendal told me early on in our relationship that she really likes being read to, and she reads to August as well. Previously, I read her The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which was enjoyable for both of us and a fun read either out loud or just to oneself. But I'm finding The Princess Bride to be especially enjoyable to read aloud, both for myself and for my audience. It gives me a better feel for the language, and it makes me pay more and better attention, since the window of comprehension for the sense and rhythm of the language is so short between entry through the eye and exit through the mouth. Given that I plan eventually to release my own novel, these many years in the making (and many more to come, if my present pace and constant need to revise continues), in podcast form as well as written, it's good practice for me. And it's just a really fun story, with pirates and giants and swordfights and escapes and true love's triumph in the face of overwhelming odds. What more could you ask for, really?

So yeah, the written word continues to provide me with much joy and stimulation, and if you're looking for something to read, oh reader mine, I heartily recommend either of the above selections. You won't be disappointed.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Avatar vs. District 9

So, I went and saw Avatar last night in 3D. Normally I'm largely indifferent to seeing movies on the big screen. There's almost nothing that I just have to see, and I generally prefer to watch them in the comfort of my own home, where I can pause the movie to go to the bathroom. Also, the snacks are way better.

But there are some films that are such pure spectacle that it makes sense to see them on the biggest screen you can, and Avatar is definitely one of them.

[If you haven't seen it, and care, there will be spoilers in what follows, so caveat lector.]

As a technical acheivement, Avatar is nearly unparalleled. The vision is extraordinary, and the execution is just absolutely spot-on. Pandora feels real, and not only real, but credible. You can see how the ecosystem fits together, and though there's a certain amount of suspension of disbelief (floating mountains, anyone?), the parts add up to a credible whole. It may not necessarily make perfect sense, given what we know about things like physics and biology, but it's internally consistent enough that it's easy to allow yourself to be drawn into it anyway and let its internal logics and sensibilities wash over you and do their thing without engaging your critical faculties and ruining the spell.

And it is a spell, a glamer that draws you in, as fantasy worlds are meant to do, disconnecting you temporarily from your usual lived reality and casting you forth into a magical realm where not only is everything much prettier and more vivid, but all the intangibles that so inconveniently fail to manifest in said usual lived reality, the spiritual things that we poor humans must take on faith and believe in because we lack or have lost some fundamental connection to our world (that we may or may not ever have had), are always already there, easy to see thanks to the magic of the script and the cinematography.

And that is the real source of the film's power, the power of the vision behind it, the depth of the fictional world. The richness and splendor that draw you in, uncritically, and cast their spell upon you, the viewer. It's downright magical.

The story, well, not so much. Noble savages and white-explorer-goes-native aside, the sheer unoriginality of the plot is something you can ignore, or at least that I could, right up until the end. That such hoary tropes have been dusted off and pressed once more into service (is there any character, at all, that has more than a single dimension?) could be forgiven if the story did not engage in such obvious liberal-guilt wish fulfillment. The devastated Earth lurks offstage. We know she's been worked over but good. It barely rates more than a line or two of dialogue, because it can be safely taken as read. But here is a paradise that's never had its cherry popped, and She ain't gonna take it.

It's the deus-ex-machina that ruined it for me. Perhaps it is a personal failing, that I require some facsimile of realism even in my magical fantasy. I mean, you know that the humans are the bad guys, at least the military types leading the assault on the Tree of Souls. So you know they're going to lose, because that's what happens to the bad guys in Hollywood movies: they lose. Any other outcome would be unacceptable to a mainstream American audience, and we all knew going in that the Noble Savages of Pandora would triumph, even though the history of our actual world gravitates severely against such an outcome.

I'd hoped that said triumph would come about thanks to the smarts and savvy of, if not the Na'vi, then at least Jake Sully, the aforementioned white-explorer-gone-native. He's a marine, so you figure he's got some at least tactical understanding of warfighting, and certainly that he understands the armaments and capabilities of his foe.

But no, he doesn't. His plan is laughable. Bows and arrows against machine guns. A cavalry charge that makes the Charge of the Light Brigade seem like sound military strategy. The shuttle/bomber that's set to deliver the payload and destroy the Tree of Souls has an open door with no more than ten guys protecting it, but even though he has grenades (Where did he get them? It's never explained) he doesn't toss any in there, nor does he order a concentrated assault on the enemy's weak point. The whole plan is to say "Chaaaaaarge!" and hope that valor and ferocity will triumph over vast technical superiority. It makes you wish James Cameron had maybe talked with a couple of Native Americans before he wrote the script and asked them how that worked out for them, or maybe just watched The Last Samurai.

But instead the tide is turned by Eywha, the Planetary Overmind whose nervous system is made up of the trees in the forest. Flocks of flying dinosaurs conspire to take down helicopters. Forest rhinoceri plow through mechanized combat suits. Wolf-analogue packs rout the ground troops, who are surprisingly ill-equipped for their mission. And a tiger, or something very like one, consents to be ridden by the Hero's girlfriend.

Perhaps this is all part of the director's vision, the moral lesson we are meant to learn from the story. That not every Planetary Overmind will be as passive as Earth's, and just lay back and let the rape proceed. But for a movie that promised a new era of cinematic awesomeness, I have to say that though the cinematrography and technical acheivement are indeed stunning, the hackneyed storytelling and feel-good ending are Hollywood schmaltz at its purest. And for me, at least, that was needle enough to pop the bubble.

Standing in almost perfect contrast is District 9, a film gritty in its realism and unblinkered in its view of humanity. The aliens are just as believable as the Na'vi, though considerably less graceful or anthropomorphic. And though the vision of humanity, painted in broad strokes, is similar, it's more believable here, because it's rendered on a far more human scale. The documentary footage is what makes it work, especially the footage of Wikers van der Merwe, the quintessential company man whose luck in falling in love with the boss' daughter offers him the opportunity for advancement. That he has his unfortunate accident in the course of some bureaucratic kabuki makes it all the more poignant.

The story arc is nearly the opposite to Avatar in District 9. While both involve becoming alien, the one is willful wish-fulfillment, the chance to escape the fallenness of humanity and reconnect with something pristine and unadulterated by the moral hazards of civilization. The transformation of van der Merwe, on the other hand, is an accident, and represents a further fall from grace, the sundering of a man, not a perfect or even exemplary man, from all that he loves and holds dear. All he wants is to return to what he's lost, and you can see his character growing as the film proceeds. At the beginning, you'd hardly believe that the smarmy, nervous guy with the pre-emptive combover had it in him to do the things he later does, but we none of us know what we are really capable of until events require more of us than we are accustomed to, and we rise to the occasion or don't. Jake Sully, on the other hand, is a Marine, so we just assume he's up for whatever, and there doesn't seem to be a single moment where he has even the slightest question or hesitation. That may just be the character, but it's not half so interesting from a storytelling standpoint.

Contrast the endings. One the one hand, there's Avatar, that ends with the Na'vi running the human interlopers off-planet and Jake getting his wish to fully inhabit his awesome new body, a triumphal note that rings false pretty much as soon as the credits start rolling, because the disconnect between the story's logic and the logic of the lived world has become just too much. On the other, there's District 9, with van der Merwe's wife crying over her handmade garbage-sculpture flower (Wikers' preference for handmade gifts is mentioned in passing earlier, a small detail that becomes all the more moving in retrospect at the end) and the cutaway to what we assume is Wikers, now fully transformed into a prawn, gently smoothing out the rough edges of another, and seeming, somehow, to emanate a deep and abiding sadness, although the Prawn physiognomy is ill-equipped to demonstrate such quintessentially human emotions.

And here we have the crux of the thing. For all its visual richness and bombast, Avatar is essentially one-dimensional, a children's story with just enough sex and violence to keep the grownups titillated. The good guys win, though a few secondary characters must be sacrificed for the sake of some emotional string-pulling, and the bad guys are either killed violently or banished in ignominy, and that's supposed to be that. Everything's wrapped up in a neat little package with no loose ends, and we leave the theatre with the feeling that everything's going to be alright, although such a conclusion is patently ridiculous on its face if you stop to think about it for even two minutes. District 9, on the other hand, though equally science-fictional, resonates all the more powerfully at the end because so little is resolved. We assume Wikers is transformed, and awaiting his only hope, the return of the Prawns' ship, which may or may not enslave or destroy humanity in reprisal for its genuinely horrible treatment of its alien visitors, what with the experiments and the concentration camps and the casual executions that nobody seems to think is anything but wholly reasonable and right. There's a lesson to be learned, of course, but it's not clear that anyone has learned it, with the possible exception of the protagonist, who's not in a position to tell anybody.

In the end, if I may analogize, Avatar is candy, a delicious sugary mess whose gratifications are simple, straightforward, and essentially substance-free. District 9 is a meal, nourishment for the mind and spirit as well as a visually interesting phenomenon. And while both take as their subject the rapacious side of human nature, the one offers only pabulum and a happy ending, while the other leaves you with more questions than answers, and a lot more to think about after the spectacle is over.

For what it's worth, I liked them both. But as someone who enjoys some substance in my entertainment, there's really no comparison.

Friday, January 01, 2010

I'm so disgusted with the Seattle Police Department right now that I'm at something of a loss for words.

As a bartender in a nightclub, I've had more than a couple of opportunities to call 911, including during assaults on my person. It's a difficult situation to be in, since because I'm on the clock, I'm legally representing the business, and so my hands are tied in the application of physical force save in the service of self-defense. There's probably a bit more wiggle room than I'm allowed at the particular establishment at which I work, as my employer is adamant about this sort of thing, being rightfully worried about lawsuits, but there are real constraints on what we can do to/about people who become problems in and around the bar.

So when someone gets out of line, or becomes physically violent, we call 911.

I've called 911 at least a dozen times in the last five years. Not once has an officer arrived in less than 45 minutes. Not once.

Even worse, when calling 911, the operator, instead of acting with any expeditiousness at all, wants me to fill out a fucking questionnaire about the incident before calling dispatch. Now, I understand that having some detail would be helpful to the officers if/when they finally show up, but I've had a 911 operator keep me on the line with inane questions for minutes on end while a guy is standing in front of me, being held back by his friends and my employer, literally yelling "I'll kill you!" at the top of his lungs over and over. On at least one occasion, I lost my phone because the guy sucker-punched me while the operator, who I was calling for the fourth time, asked me the same goddamned questions as the last three times.

But last night just absolutely took the cake.

Around 1:30 am, there's an altercation outside the bar. This drunk asshole is trying to start a fight with just about anyone he can make eye contact with. He's on to the fifth or sixth one by the time we go out to intervene. I look over, and there's a cop car at the light. I wave and wave, to no avail. It's like the officer doesn't see me. We've already called 911 at this point, for what that's worth (see above). The street's mostly empty, so I walk over to the police car, where I'm told to get out of the street. At this point, the guy's running rampant right there on the corner, in full view of the officer, who has yet to even turn on his lights. Seriously, the guy's taking swings at people and the officer not only won't intervene, he won't even get out of his car or turn on his flashers until more cops show up. They finally do, and soon enough there are five police cars outside the bar. They put the guy in handcuffs, put him in the back of the car, and we all breathe a sigh of relief and go back in to clear out the bar and start cleaning up.

Now here's where it gets really fucked up.

Half an hour later, the police roll out. But they've left the guy. Apparently they decided that as long as he and his brother are willing to take a cab to a hotel that they're going to let him go. The guy's been running up and down the block in front of the bar for most of an hour, swinging on any- and everybody that he even thinks is looking at him cross-eyed, whether they are or not. I mean, if there is any point whatsoever to having police, any justification at all for the monopolization of legitimate force that government has arrogated to itself, surely it is to get this guy off the street and under control. Seriously, he's like a mad dog. And, despite the hour, it's not like they have something else they're supposed to be doing. I mean, there were five of them. Surely one could be spared to take the guy downtown and book his ass. But I guess DUIs are more profitable or something, and the city couldn't spare the revenue. So they let the guy go and drive away.

He then proceeds to hang around for another half hour, starting more fights, even going so far as to assault a girl. He even tries to sneak up the back stairs, back into the bar. Finally, after who knows how many assault and battery incidents, he and his brother finally get into a cab and go away.

I really have no idea what to say. I'm so outraged that I'm flabbergasted. As I mentioned earlier, I was already pretty unimpressed with SPD's responsiveness to 911 calls, having been in personal physical danger as a result on more than one occasion. But this takes the cake. The guy is literally assaulting people, in full view of the the police. They put him in handcuffs in the back of the police car, and then, for reasons that defy explanation, decide to let him go and leave, so that he can continue his rampage.

What the fuck? Seriously. So much is wrong with this situation that it literally boggles the mind. I mean, SPD is famously unhelpful when it comes to bars and bar staff. I've heard of at least one incident where an officer was at a bar, dressing the owner down for being at or over capacity, while a fight broke out in front of the club, which the officer ignored in order to concentrate on the club's supposed fire code violation. And don't let me even get started on the Mardi Gras riots, when the SPD famously stood by while Pioneer Square was overrun with drunks and hooligans and a guy got beaten to death right there on the street in front of them.

It shakes my faith in civil society. I mean, what's the point of having police if they're not going to keep people from randomly assaulting other people on the street?