Serving the will of Tommy Westphall since 2004.

escoles's blog

The Real Paris Underground

"La [société] Mexicaine de la Perforation" (roughly "the Diggers from La Mexicaine") are "...a clandestine cell of 'urban explorers' which claims its mission is to 'reclaim and transform disused city spaces for the creation of zones of expression for free and independent art'...." Earlier this summer, they ran a seven-week film series in an underground cinema complex (including restaurant and bar) of their own construction. [Guardian, "Paris's new slant on underground movies"]

And boy, were the gendarmes pissed.

Not that they've been able to quite figure out what they're pissed about. Paris police still don't know what to charge whem with. After all, the group adheres strictly to its rule of leaving each "crime"-scene "cleaner, if anything, than when we found it".

"They freaked out completely," Lazar, their spokesman, said happily. "They called in the bomb squad, the sniffer dogs, army security, the anti-terrorist squad, the serious crimes unit. They said it was skinheads or subversives. They got it on to national TV news. They hadn't a clue."


[The cinema] was constructed in a series of interconnected caves totalling some 400 square metres beneath the Palais de Chaillot, across the Seine from the Eiffel tower. Former quarries, they were partly refurbished during the 1900 Universal Exposition when one of the galleries was clad with concrete to represent a future Channel tunnel and a wall was artfully terraced.

But the caves were sealed off for the last time at least 20 years ago and subsequently "ceased to exist officially", Lazar said. "We knew them well because we used them to get into the Palais de Chaillot every Bastille Day. The roof is the perfect place from which to watch the fireworks."

Indeed most of the LMDP's underground happenings are organised in places the city authorities are not aware of, he added. "There are so many underground networks - the quarries, the metro, the collective heating, the electricity, the sewers - and each is the responsibility of a different bureaucracy," he said.

"Urban explorers are the only people who, between us, know it all. We move between each network. We know where they link up - often, it's us who made the link. The authorities, the police, town hall, they don't know a hundredth, a thousandth, of what's down there."

There's something really appealing about all of this -- and it only gets more amusing when you learn that the police were so upset about it. It's hard for me to imagine a major police department in a U.S. city getting so upset about such a thing (at least, until some security mom pointed out that they could have been TERRORISTS).

Then again, it does give one pause: Maybe the London Underground really is a terrorist movement....

(Link courtesy two rather pedantic discussions of the proper translation of "La Mexicaine de la Perforation" at LanguageLog.)

Dawn of the Google Era

The "Google OS" meme takes its next logical step: Signs indicate that Google is at work creating a Google-customized browser based on the Mozilla trunk. (My bet is that they would use Firefox, since the kewl kidz love Google so damn much.)

Last summer, Anil Dash suggested that it would be a good move for Google to develop a Google browser based on Mozilla. Give that kid a gold star because it looks more than plausible. Mozilla Developer Day 2004 was recently held at the Google Campus. Google is investing heavily in JavaScript-powered desktop-like web apps like Gmail and Blogger (the posting inferface is now WYSIWYG). Google could use their JavaScript expertise (in the form of Gmail ubercoder Chris Wetherell) to build Mozilla applications. Built-in blogging tools. Built-in Gmail tools. Built-in search tools. A search pane that watches what you're browsing and suggests related pages and search queries or watches what you're blogging and suggests related pages, news items, or emails you've written. Google Toolbar++. You get the idea.

Mozilla is currently getting some good press due to Microsoft's continuing troubles with their browser and the uptick in usage compared to IE is encouraging. But it's nothing compared to what could happen if Google decides to release a Mozilla-based browser. A Google Browser would give the Mozilla platform instant credibility and would be a big hit. The peerless Google brand & reputation and their huge reach are the keys here. Mom and Dad know about Google....

[Jason Kottke, "More evidence of a Google browser"]

"It's been obvious for awhile now that Google isn't a search company," Kottke says, pointing to earlier ruminations:

With their acquisition of Pyra and new Content-Targeted Advertising offering, it should be apparent that Google is not a search company. What they are exactly is unclear, but their biggest asset is: a highly annotated map of the web.

Unclear, indeed. But whatever it is that they are or become, it will control truly unprecedented amounts of power.

The relentless techno-optimism around Google is fascinating and frightening. That this "highly annotated map of the web" should reside in the hands of one closely-controlled company with strong profit motives and utterly unprecedented stores of information is, frankly, terrifying to me.

As a private entity, and as such not subject to public oversight (and no, stockholders don't count as "public oversight" -- and especially not at Google), Google is much more greatly to be feared than Government. There is effectively no control over what information they can collect and use internally, as long as they don't resell it. And if they are a one-stop-shop for all information usage, there ends up being effectively no limit to the uses they can put that information to.

In future, in fact, I can envision the Government outsourcing Total Information Awareness to Google. It would solve so many of their problems: No longer would the Government be hampered by silly "pre-9/11" rules that prohibit it from domestic spying; they'd effectively be able to get whatever they want, from Google. Sure, some kind of suitable chinese wall would have to be erected, but that's a trivial matter considering the power at stake, here.

(Leads courtesy Boing-Boing and the Register.)

On Moral Film-Making

Every now and then I go back and re-read a wonderful piece by SF writer David Brin, contrasting the moral universe of George Lucas's Star Wars pictures to that of Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek franchise. Lucas's vision doesn't come off well:

[George] Lucas defends his elitist view, telling the New York Times, "That's sort of why I say a benevolent despot is the ideal ruler. He can actually get things done. The idea that power corrupts is very true and it's a big human who can get past that."

In other words a royal figure or demigod, anointed by fate. (Like a billionaire moviemaker?)

Lucas often says we are a sad culture, bereft of the confidence or inspiration that strong leaders can provide. And yet, aren't we the very same culture that produced George Lucas and gave him so many opportunities? The same society that raised all those brilliant experts for him to hire -- boldly creative folks who pour both individual inspiration and cooperative skill into his films? A culture that defies the old homogenizing impulse by worshipping eccentricity, with unprecedented hunger for the different, new or strange? It what way can such a civilization be said to lack confidence?

In historical fact, all of history's despots, combined, never managed to "get things done" as well as this rambunctious, self-critical civilization of free and sovereign citizens, who have finally broken free of worshipping a ruling class and begun thinking for themselves. Democracy can seem frustrating and messy at times, but it delivers.

[Salon, '"Star Wars" despots vs. "Star Trek" populists: Why is George Lucas peddling an elitist, anti-democratic agenda under the guise of escapist fun?']

It's too good of an essay to summarize easily, but one way to cast the difference is by saying that Roddenberry's heroes are ordinary people, exceeding their own expectations of themselves, while Lucas's heroes are extraordinary people -- anointed by fate or chosen by the mitichlorians.

Does Brin expect too much? Perhaps. But perhaps Lucas does have an agenda. I wonder who he votes for... Brin's persuasive; and I can see how the Lucasian vision has seeped into my own consciousness. But still I resist it. Perhaps it's time I got around to reading John Gardner's On Moral Fiction.


The Revolution Will Not Be Advertised

Not the real one, anyway.

Pay attention, folks: If we end up with a military dictatorship in this country, it won't be enforced by the Army. It will be enforced by the National Guard. Here's one way it could play out.

It would start with the expanded use of domestic law enforcement resources to quell dissent. We'd see increased surveillance in public areas, a shift to a practical presumption of guilt, and a tendency to assume that anything that can be seen, if even through the use of technology, is fair game for Probable Cause. We'd also see a lot of pre-emptive arrests, and increased depth to the "zero-tolerance" zone around not just the President, but any officer or entity which provides a convenient excuse for zero-tolerance. We saw lots of this at the RNC protests in NYC in August/September.

This has already started, actually, as not just the FBI but also the Secret Service (in both their Presidential Protection and Treasury roles), BATF, the U.S. Marshall Service, et al., have used the Patriot Act to strongarm and threaten citizens ranging from the arguably threatening down to granola-grannies and those most dangerous radicals, librarians.

But that's all still civil, so far. Why do I even bother to fear the rise of military repression? The answer is that I fear it because of two trends: The increasing use of private contractors to escape oversight, and increasing federal control over the National Guard.

As the National Guard comes increasingly under federal control (a trend dating back to the Reagan era, and for which Clinton is not blameless in furthering), the temptation to use the Guard for domestic pacification will grow. It would probably start with anti-terrorism border patrols. (Along the southern border, those would also serve the purpose of drug and immigration control -- added benefits.) I could see a shift in Guard enrollment from "citizen soldiers" -- folks in it to make a few extra bucks while helping out in their state -- to a standing army of people who can't get reliable work anywhere else. If they know they can count on six to eight months of deployment every year, they might well just not bother to get any other real job.

I would expect these "opportunistic guardsmen" to replace the current principle constituency of the Guard. Charles Graners would begin to outnumber Joe Darbys; and with no Joe Darbys around to set a moral tone, the Lynndie Englands will party it up with Chuck. So what we end up with could look an awful lot like -- dare I say it? -- Ernst Röhm's SA: A collection of morally-weak souls looking for purpose, with no appreciable tradition and answering to leaders without strength of character.

The shift could be gradual, over a period of years. Or it could, just as likely, be quite sudden. Let's say there's another large scale attack -- say, something along the lines of the freighter-launched missiles Bruce Sterling has written about. The National Guard could rapidly be pressed into a large-scale, high-authority internal security role. Since their chain of command now effectively stops at the Executive, they would become the President's private army.

There are precedents in American history for the use of military force against civilians -- and many are Republican, for what it's worth. Think Eisenhower ordering in the Airborne to integrate schools; Hoover sending Macarthur to clear out the Hoovervilles; Lincoln ordering infantry into New York to quell the riots; Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion. What would be new for America in a Guard-backed "self-coup" would be that the exercises would be carried out by a group that amounted to the President's own private domestic army. It would have a level of -- for lack of a better term -- subtlety, that would make it more difficult to properly resis.

What would the regular Army do while this was going on? I've speculated before that our current officer corps would not happily stand by and watch the order of things overturned, especially in view of their low opinion of the Bushites. But setting duty against country is a recipe for confusion, and the most likely outcome of confusion is inaction. If the Bushites' actions were sudden and egregious, some large number of flag-rank officers might effectively mutiny -- really, put properly, they would be exercising their obligation under the Uniform Code to refuse unlawful orders. But if the pot were set to heat gradually enough, they might not be able to stir themselves to the concensus that would be necessary for that kind of action.

So I have come to believe that, should Rove and the Bushites choose to violently exercise what they see as their right to rule America as they see fit, the Army would stand by, feeling helpless. Much as the proud traditionalists of the Wehrmacht stood by while the SA and later SS wrought havoc, the Army might well stand by until it's too late to take lawful action.

Now, I've been assured that this will never happen in my lifetime. Why, I'm not clear; perhaps it's because for some people, anything that the President -- well, this President, at least -- wants to do is by definition justified. If he wants to usurp power, he must have a sound reason -- so the logic goes. We should shut up and get with the program. Get with their program, that is; that's the only program that matters....

More likely, though, the idea seems outlandish because we think it just can't ever happen, here -- that it has never happened, here. But as I'm occasionally reminded, on at least one occasion that we know of, a coup plan got fairly far along -- and was then hushed up, rather than its planners being punished.

So, yes, it can happen here. It almost did, once -- if they'd selected someone other than General Smedley Darlington Butler to be their stooge, it might have worked.


The New Pinkertons

"Libertarian anarchists" often smugly trot out the idea of privately-funded security agencies as the great solution to all of the obvious crime-related objections to -- well, to libertarian anarchism. DynCorp is the great, one-word counter-argument. If you can afford to hire DynCorp, "right" and legal oversight become irrelevant.

DynCorp specializes in outsourcing security. Other names are more public, but there may be no company more deeply and richly integrated into the fabric of governmental security outsourcing. For example, DynCorp currently holds contracts with the U.S. government to manage American drug interdiction efforts in Colombia and Mexico-US border posts, and to advise the new Iraqi government on law-enforcement and security issues. They have a specialty in field helicopter maintenance, so the Army often contracts DynCorp to operate forward Apache attack helicopter bases, like "Camp Commanche" in Bosnia.

They also run the Bosnian police forces.

Sometime in early 2000, two DynCorp employees approached officers of the Army's Criminal Investigative Division with evidence that DynCorp contractors were heavily involved with the local sex-trade -- in many cases even "purshasing" young (as young as 12 year old) women as personal sex slaves. You can guess what happened next, right?

You got it: DynCorp fired the whistelblowers, and covered up the rest: Several (but far from all) perpetrators were fired, a few more shipped back to the states (to be shipped out again somewhere else, presumably), but most went scot free. Why? Well, I'm guessing they aren't clearly under US jurisdiction.

But what about Bosnian jurisdiction? Couldn't they be arrested and prosecuted by Bosnian law enforcement authorities? Ah, but remember: DynCorp is Bosnian law enforcement....

Ultimately, the grievances of the whistleblowers were upheld, albeit in a less than gracious manner on DynCorp's part: One made an out of court settlement for wrongful termination, and the other was able to get relief under a Brtish whistleblower statute. DynCorp itself, of course, has yet to admit that it fired either for cooperating with the CID.

It's curious to note, here, that we're coming full-circle (well, full-spiral, at least): As for one-word retorts, "Pinkerton" should have been sufficient. But it's my experience that people who self-label as "libertarian" usually don't have much consciousness of history; the only image they get from "Pinkerton" is a bunch of middle-aged guys in armored trucks and ugly uniforms. Great American fortunes have been built in no small part by private armies, not to mention dynasties with histories both notorious and obscured, and we mythologize the private use of force to this day.

I sometimes believe we are not really a civil society, in America. Much of the rest of the world sees us as a lawless place, in one sense or another, and in a way they're right. One reason that we can instinctively see private armies as a good thing, that we instinctively believe we need to own assault rifles to defend our homes and Glock .40s to defend our persons is that we don't have coherent and consistent traditions of civil behavior. I fear that the same lack of homogeneity that has generally protected us from fascism, also renders us unable to trust civil authority, however it is vested.

[Link courtesy The Tutor.]

The Lewd Damon Method of Pedestrian Warfare

Sometimes you've just got to bring out the big guns:

Me: "Excuse me, Ma'am...but I must warn you that there has been a 12 subway stop donnybrook regarding the unwanted intrusion of religious beliefs into our morning commutes."

Preacher Lady 2: "I got freedom of speech! And GOD TELLS ME THAT THE GAY DEVILS ARE CONTROLLING NEW YORK."

Me: (standing up) "If you do not cease and desist fouling the air with homophobia, I must singâ?¦SHOW TUNES."

There are now 3 or 4 gay men on the train. They start laughing.


I say, Preacher Lady had it coming. "You don't look so bad -- how about another? 'When I take you out, tonight, with me, / Honey, here's the way it's goin' to be: / You will set behind a team of snow white horses,
In the slickest gig you ever see!'...." [thanks, Mr. Crash]

Time to Choose: Selective Service, or National Service

There's a lot of noise lately about the reinstatement of the draft. The Bushites are said to favor it; there are a couple of different bills working their way through Congress that would implement a new draft. The Selective Service Administration is said to be planning for it.

The military don't want it: They say it would dilute their force-readiness, and reduce the quality of their troops. Since Vietnam, they're deeply concerned with morale, and one of the worst things you can do for the morale of a fighting force is to inject a bunch of unwilling conscripts into the ranks. (And no, "conscripts" does not imply "unwilling".)

Yes, conscription and mandatory service work in some places, like Switzerland and Israel. But those are places where there has been a strong sense of civil society, and that's frankly something we haven't had in this country. I would say we've never had it; certainly we haven't had it in a long time, at least. We're a nation of individualists, and there are strong anti-civil strains in our culture.

All that having been said, National Service is actually a really interesting idea. It's been supported by advocates ranging from Charlie Rangel to Bill Buckley. But it's not without its cost. For example, as long as it's not mandatory for everyone, it will be exploited to get choice posts for the children of privilege. That's just how things work in America. (If it's voluntary and incentivized -- or anti-dis-incentivized, as Buckley would have it -- there are different pitfalls. But those are another subject for another time.)

And if a national service term is mandatory for everyone, regardless of lottery number, then we're talking about an enormous quantity of people. Back of the envelope (250 million divided by average age of 70 times 2 years) ... that's about seven million people in compulsory national service at any given time, conservatively, give or take.

What would we do with them?

Injecting seven million people into the Armed Forces -- or even into "National Defense" -- is a recipe for chaos. If it worked, it would be either an accident or a tribute to damage control. Whether the top-down mandarins in the Bush White House want to admit it or not, there is actual expertise down on the line. You can't just plug in bodies and make it work. (I like to refer to this as the "lost knowledge" problem.) And there's significant communications overhead from increased staffing. (In computing and engineering, this is known variously as the "one baby, nine ladies" or "mythical man-month" problem, a.k.a. "Brooks Law".)

So it makes more sense to spread those seven million out over a wider area of service. We can deploy them to make America a heavily-patrolled camp, but we can derive a corrollary of Brooks Law to predict that making it a heavily-patrolled camp will not make it a well-patrolled camp. Just to make sure my meaning is clear: Rapidly increasing the number of bodies applied to national security will probably result in decreased security.

To me, it makes more sense to apply these people to public works. For heaven's sake, if it keeps the foaming-mouth brigade happy, don't call it "Americorps" or even allude to that successful Clinton-era public service program. But talk sensibly about making national service have something to do with making the nation better, not just increasing our focus on "terror".

Nevertheless, there will be consequences to pumping seven million inexperienced workers into the infrastructure -- most notably, the injection of seven million inexperienced workers into the infrastructure. You'd have to pay them, which means increased "revenue" (i.e., taxes) (and note, some of the biggest backers of this idea are Republicans). At least initially, they'll displace a lot of people already doing these jobs. Initially, a society-wide national service plan would have a hugely disruptive economic impact.

I've said this is an interesting idea, so I'm not about to just shoot it down. There are huge potential advantages. Such a large quantity of civil labor could improve small aspects of our quality of life -- our streets could be cleaner, our highways better maintained (and aren't those good uses to put these folks to?).
The greatest potential benefits are the very ones that Buckley and others imagine: If we all give service, then we all have a real sweat-equity stake in the country, for the first time in its history.

The competetive advantage for America of such common spirit shouldn't be ignored. We'd raise laggard aspects of our standard of living, as a practical matter (those roads and streets, a generally better-maintained infrastructure). But if run correctly, it could have terrific unifying effects by forcing us to mingle across socioeconomic classes, geographic regions, religious orientations.... The Swiss have long argued that forced integration of service units across language barriers is a major factor in preserving the unity of a nation with four national languages. (The fourth is Romansch, in case you're wondering...)

Again, though, the nature of the incentives used to drive compliance could have a major impact on how well that would work -- and again, that's a separate issue.

"If we leave and there's no civil war, that's a victory."

From the Guardian, via American Samizdat:

[Retired general William] Odom said: "This is far graver than Vietnam. There wasn't as much at stake strategically, though in both cases we mindlessly went ahead with the war that was not constructive for US aims. But now we're in a region far more volatile, and we're in much worse shape with our allies."

[Army War College Professor W Andrew] Terrill believes that any sustained US military offensive against the no-go areas "could become so controversial that members of the Iraqi government would feel compelled to resign". Thus, an attempted military solution would destroy the slightest remaining political legitimacy. "If we leave and there's no civil war, that's a victory."

[Retired general Joseph] Hoare believes from the information he has received that "a decision has been made" to attack Fallujah "after the first Tuesday in November. That's the cynical part of it - after the election. The signs are all there."

He compares any such planned attack to the late Syrian dictator Hafez al-Asad's razing of the rebel city of Hama. "You could flatten it," said Hoare. "US military forces would prevail, casualties would be high, there would be inconclusive results with respect to the bad guys, their leadership would escape, and civilians would be caught in the middle. I hate that phrase collateral damage. And they talked about dancing in the street, a beacon for democracy."

General Odom remarked that the tension between the Bush administration and the senior military officers over Iraqi was worse than any he has ever seen with any previous government, including Vietnam. "I've never seen it so bad between the office of the secretary of defence and the military. There's a significant majority believing this is a disaster. The two parties whose interests have been advanced have been the Iranians and al-Qaida. Bin Laden could argue with some cogency that our going into Iraq was the equivalent of the Germans in Stalingrad. They defeated themselves by pouring more in there. Tragic."

Of course, these are all retired men and military academics, but still, one has to wonder: How do the Bushites expect to succeed when they are determined to dictate reality to their experts?

Tsk. Such defeatism. If we'd all just get with the program, then we'd beat those darn terrorists, for sure! (Better still if those pesky Iraqis would get with the program -- get with our program.)

But then, we never would 'get with the program', would we? Because, after all, if we think we're right, aren't we supposed to fight for that? Isn't that the very definition of moral courage -- not being swayed by the admonitions of others? Wouldn't it make as much sense for us to expect anti-abortion activists to give up their position because they're a divisive minority and are just causing everybody grief? And if not -- why?

Answer: "Why do you hate Freedom so much?" (Funny...I thought I loved it...I must have been wrong...)

In the market, no one can hear you scream

Shelley Powers' elderly father had surgery. True to modern ideas, he was to be released into home care. But it didn't go so well:

The surgeon who operated on Dad sent him home without any further instructions for physical therapy, care, and medicine, particularly pain medicine. All the assisted living home could give Dad was regular Tylenol. My brother hit the roof and had a frank discussion with the head of the assisted living house who directed Mike to the hospital discharge nurse who also had a frank discussion with Mike.

The long and short of it was that the surgeon felt Dad was going home to die anyway, and didnâ??t need any additional care. Including physical therapy, special care to help Dad once home, and pain medicine.

That was a mistake on his part.

I feel a grim ennui on hearing stories like this, and like Christian's. That this kind of thinking is typical is made clear by comment after comment, and my own knowledge of similar situations in my own family, and in the families of friends and acquaintances and of people I barely know...

This is the dark side of the free market. Free markets are efficient, we're told. Like machines that automatically seek a level. Like water seeking a level during a flood. Like snow seeking a level in an avalanche. Grinding people and homes beneath them.

Markets are efficient. They efficiently slot people into their tracks and grooves and efficiently grind up anyone who slips out of those tracks and grooves. Humanity becomes maladaptive, so long as you remain within the system.

What the market "wants" is a separate system, that exists "outside" the market, to support it. The efficient market will grind humanity to such a find spray that it will leave no knots of initiative or innovation or humanity anywhere, leaving us with a robotic society worthy of a J. G. Ballard story.

What the market "wants" is a system to maintain humanity for it, while seeming not to have any relation to it: It wants charity to be a personal matter, for just enough of the elderly to be maintained to make us think it's possible, and to make churches and cultural leagues and community charities take care of everything. So the Market can absolve itself of any responsibility for anything human. (Peace Be Upon The Market.)

(Not unions, of course. Let these social organizations have nothing to do with work -- it must be possible to look at these safety-net organizations and allow yourself to not understand that the Market relies upon them. The Market must be sacrosanct, after all; it would be blasphemous to suggest that anything in the human world is not market-driven at its base....)

At the end all I'm left with is a knot in my gut.

MemoGate: Approaching Real Data

The Dallas Morning News has finally managed to do what reasonable folks have been suggesting for almost a week, and tracked down Colonel Killian's secretary, Marian Carr Knox. For the first time, someone has bothered to actually talk to someone who might actually know something.

And according to Mrs. Knox, both sides are right: As far as she can recall, she never typed that memo, and no, they don't look right. But she's also adamant that they do accurately convey Colonel Killian's state of mind at the time.

But both sides are also wrong. She did have the superscript "th" key on her manual Olympia; and she didn't have proportional spacing. But Colonel Killian did routinely write "CYA" memos to "cover his back" on issues just like the one the memo purports to cover.

Regardless, it remains as true today as it was on Monday that fine-grained analytical techniques aren't valid when they're applied to coarse-grain data.

And perhaps more important, the cues that she used to definitively say that it wasn't authentic were completely different from those used by the brigade of attack-monkeys. For example, she notes that:

  • The signature block on the "CYA" memo is on the right; hers were always on the left. (That would be an standard signature block position for many institutions, FWIW.)
  • "Billet" and "administrative officer" are Army Guard terminology, not Air Guard.
  • The memo distinguishes between refusal to take the physical and failure to "meet military standards"; Mrs. Knox says that in her experience, that distinction wouldn't have been made.
  • While General Buck Staudt would most likely have tried to exert improper influence -- and Colonel Killian would indeed have wanted to "cover his back" on it -- he wouldn't have been in a position to exert influence after retirement. (Again, this could represent an Army Guard culture-bias.)

The Army Guard influences could end up being important, as the Dallas Morning News suggests that the CBS documents may have been provided by a disgruntled Army National Guard veteran.

"I remember very vividly when Bush was there and all the yak-yak that was going on about it," Marian Carr has remarked. But memory... it's non-sporting to question the memory of an 86-year-old woman, but it's also sensible. Just as sensible as questioning the memory of anyone. How certain can she be of things that did or didn't happen more than 30 years ago? Not very -- but she can reconstruct, and make judgements, and sometimes (if they're done consciously) those are better than memory. For example, she reconstructs that the placement of signature block and the terminology are wrong.

What will be interesting will be to see how the Right Wing attack brigades handle this. Will they focus on the forgery angle and ignore everything else? (That's my bet.) Or will they ignore it? And on the left -- will they bow their heads, or will they point out that the attackers were right for the wrong reasons -- and that, by that token, they were, in fact, wrong?

In the end, this does still come back around to different conceptions of truth and evidence -- I would say that it's basically a conflict between empiricism and lysenkoism. One side looked at existing data; the other side constructed new data. Now that something like a decision is being approached, the side that constructed data will most likely be prepared to jettison all of that data and still claim ownership of the conclusions they drew from it. It's a bit like reasoning that Smith is a killer because all redheads are killers, and then saying "See? I told you so!" when he's revealed to be a killer, but also blonde. They were right; it doesn't matter how.

And Once More Into The Mind Of A Right-Wing Lysenkoist

ParisParamus speaking on
MeFi about the hyperinflation of probable casualty figures with regard to hurricane strikes in New Orleans:

"... Don't you realize how everyone in the process (of planning for a disaster) has an interest in inflating figures, to inflate their importance, get as much funding as possible, etc?"

Lysenkoism rearing its ugly head, yet again: It couldn't possibly be the case that these folks make honest best estimates, based on their experience, expertise, and knowledge of the domain. Nope: They must just all be out to enhance their status...

Like A Kryptonite To A Bike Thief: "Steal Me!"

More proof that nothing is perfectly secure: these Quicktime videos show how to open a Kryptonite EV 2000 (525KB) and a Kryptonite EV "Disc" lock (955KB) like the one I own, using the barrel of a Bic Round Stic. (Courtesy MeFi,, and

The Moral: Don't count on one strong door. Double up your cylinder-key lock with a flat-key lock: Bike thieves don't like carrying more than one tool.

And don't get too attached to the bike. It's not good to be that attached to material possessions, anyway....

Update: I haven't made this work, yet. I suppose it could all be a colossal hoax, but I think it's probably got more to do with the fact that I was always pretty lousy at things like lock-picking...


"I pay your salary. So yes, I CAN tell you how to vote."

"The only thing a free man can be forced to do is die." So when Lynne Gobbell got an ultimatum from her boss to remove the Kerry-Edwards sticker or find another job, she had the choice to comply and stay, or to defy and go.

She had the choice to listen and obey when her lawful employer told her what to do in order to continue to earn a paycheck. Or to disobey, and not earn a paycheck.

Did she know that fealty to President Bush was the price of continued employment? Look for plant owner (and bankrupcy attorney) Phil Gaddis to take the position that she did, and that she understood the risks. After all, he'd inserted a slip of paper into everyone's pay envelope that read (in part):

Just so you will know, because of the Bush tax (cut):

  • I was able to buy the new Hammer Mill
  • I was able to finance our receivables
  • I was able to get the new CAT skid steer
  • I was able to get the wire cutter
  • I was able to give you a job


You got the benefit of the Bush tax cut. Everyone did.

So is it really Phil Gaddis's fault if Lynne Gobbell is too pig-headed to know who her betters are? Of course he can tell her how to vote: He owns her labor power. She sold it to him. Voting is work. End of discussion. When you own this country, you can vote however you like. Until then, get back to work.

Grover's World

A peek inside the mind of Grover Norquist:

Last, a Bush-Cheney victory in November will create the conditions for a constructive contest among leading Republican governors and senators for the presidential nomination in 2008. Dick Cheney's heart troubles mean that he will retire with Bush in 2009. Usually the sitting vice president is the natural enemy of all ambitious politicians of his party, but now all Republicans want a Bush-Cheney victory in 2004, so they can run for an open presidential ticket in 2008. The Democrats face the opposite dilemma: Every ambitious Democrat hopes Kerry-Edwards fails, so that the presidency will open for her (or him) in 2008 rather than in 2012, 2016, or 2020. [emphasis added]
[Grover Norquist, "The Democratic Party is Toast"]

"No brag. Just fact," says Norquist earlier in the piece, echoing the ubiquitous Freeper boast. Everyone, in the end (so goes the Gospel According to Grover -- or is it the Gospel According to Rove? ... or does it matter?), is always only ever concerned with his/her own dominance, and always only ever looking out for his/her self-interest.

After all, isn't bipartisanship just "another term of date rape"?

MemoGate Circle Jerk

"I've not seriously doubted since that afternoon that any lie will receive almost instant corroboration, and almost instant collaboration, if the maintenance of it results in the public enjoyment of someone else's pain, someone else's humiliation." ['Phillip E. Marlowe', The Singing Detective]

I need to leave off MemoGate, at least at the detail level. It's making me insane. But I will take a couple of parting shots.

On Saturday morning I took the trouble of mapping out a few of the point by point reasons why most of the "challenges" to authenticity are completely irrelevant. For the most part, they end up being quite a bit like arguing that the Mona Lisa must be a forgery because it's possible to make a digital represenation of it that looks the same when viewed on a computer monitor...

And yet, people keep treating these amateur forensics as though they mean something, even when they're carried out by incompetents. (That's being charitable; when someone repeatedly states that "x typeface didn't exist on typewriters", even after it's been shown that it was actually common, what you really ought to call that person is a liar, not incompetent. And when people proceed to create elaborate arguments based on detailed exegesis of of the minutiae of typefaces, while looking at a fundamentally corrupt dataset -- in this case, a digital image of a fax created from an nth-generation photocopy [alas, his popularity has swamped his website] -- you have to wonder why it never occurs to them that their dataset is fundamentally corrupt. So maybe I should settle for "willfully incompetent." That would at least be consistent with Our President's approach.)

Someone at PC Mag has been bothered by this same thought, and took the trouble to point out via a visual example that it's not terribly surprising when systems designed to make things look consistent actually (lo, and behold!) accomplish that goal: So, using word processing software, I can make a document that looks a lot (note: "a lot", not "completely" -- anyone claiming the latter about these "forensic exercises" is [ahem!] willfully incompetent) like a document that was done 30 years earlier on a typewriter. And that's surprising...why?

Anyway, I'm glad I didn't bother to buff up my own inventory. Media Matters for America has done a much better job than I could have in my exasperated state. They take a different tack, too, ignoring the blogosphere's circle-jerk to concentrate on the second-order circle-jerk that's been infesting media circles.

It's worth reading; they isolate the core charges, debunk them briefly, then proceed to demonstrate the failure of "journalists" across the spectrum to raise the obvious questions. I'm tempted to accuse these journalists, also, of willful incompetence; does it make a difference whether they're just protecting their jobs, or piling on?

Ultimately, of course, and so very, very sadly, none of this matters. The fact that the lie has been uttered so widely and in such an unquestioning, uncritical manner, will make it true, in the public eye. This is, again, the big lie. It's been refined and honed since it got this modern name, but of course swindlers and despots have understood it since the dawn of humanity: It's an intellectual circle-jerk, where each participant understands (at least, at some level) their own failure, but (willfully) (and oft uncharacteristically) presumes the integrity of their informant. Why? Because it's in their interest to do so. Because it protects their rice bowl. But mostly, I fear, becaues it lets them harm someone else without taking the blame for it, themselves. ("If everybody's guilty, no one's guilty.")

ADDENDUM: Maha at Daily Kos -- a bona fide type expert -- has talked extensively about (among other things) the fact that the data being used for these "analyses" is so degraded as to be nearly useless. He points to Jeanne d'Arc (blogger, not saint): "In general, people on the left face uncertainty the way I did in that post -- asking for answers, and weighing evidence (and often giving people with an ax to grind more credit than they deserve). On the right, 'evidence' is just whatever supports what you want to believe."

In the end, Maha bids us to:

Stop it. Just stop it. Could the Killian documents be forgeries? Could Paul Wolfowitz be a space alien? Anything is possible.

But there is no evidence I've seen so far that has persuaded me the documents are forgeries. And I'm the best expert I know.

MemoGate: The Festival Of Wrong Questions

A veritable shitstorm has blown across the country, and the spin is depressingly fascinating. Again, one left-field rant has succeeded in side-tracking every participant in the political discourse into a Festival Of Wrong Questions.

A creative (if Freeperishly obsessive) soul has taken the trouble to scale the font size and margins of a Microsoft word document until it has the same line-length as one of the increasingly infamous "Killian Memos". He's then pronounced the "spacing" on the two to be "exactly identical in every regard".

It's good to read through his entire argument. If you read it through in isolation, and without really trying to perform the tests he describes, you'll probably be convinced he's right.

Original from CBS

MS Word version


But if you bother to actually do the comparisons he claims to have done, you can quickly discern some damning differences:

  • Vertical spacing (i.e., float above the baseline) differs between the two images. (To belabor the obvious, this is entirely inconsistent with digital rendering by MS Word.)
  • Some of the letter-forms are just plain different. Find some 8s, for example.
  • In general, the serifs appear to be heavier on the Killian memo. (Modern computer fonts were generally designed with a lighter line and smaller serifs.)
  • The vertical spacing on the "th" element (para 1, line 4) is markedly different. (Again: Vertical spacing is very difficult in MS Word.)

To do the comparison, I suggest you save the files locally and enlarge them. You might want to bring them into a graphics program so you can really test them. Or, better still, print them and break out your straight edges and rulers. (A type guage would be handy, too, but won't be necessary for professinals.)

A typographer -- that is, a real typographer, as opposed to someone who merely claims to be one -- would spot these differences right away, and would never claim 'identity in every regard.' Any competent print designer would immediately perceive that these were typed using different typefaces. Ignorant and mistaken protestations regarding "kerning" [sic] notwithstanding (they happen to be wrong, as a simple test demonstrates), it's clear to any objective eye that the Killian memos were not produced using Microsoft Word and Microsoft New Times Roman.

(That having been said, and as it's demonstrably and unequivocally true that Times New Roman has been available on typewriters since 1941, the opinion of some document experts begins to seem quite odd... Makes me wonder about the quality of forensic experts in general, if this "expert's" "exhaustive" database didn't include something known to have existed.)

Now, a little history with typewriters can also help to make the arguments against the memos very suspect. The writer at LittleGreenFootballs can be forgiven for being too young to actually remember typewriters, but I'm not: I used a Selectric or a Wheelwriter five days a week for several years. In fact, one of my housemates c. 1984 owned a vintage IBM Executive, which had a switch that allowed it to type in proportional pitch, and had the raised "th" key, along with several other special characters ("1/2", "1/4" spring to mind). A dream of a machine, though too massive to haul around very much; as I recall, he sold it to make rent... Apparently, proportional type Selectrics were common in the military in the 1970s.

Hunter at Daily Kos has taken the trouble -- and quite a bit of trouble -- to do some really exhaustive research on the matter. And at the end of the ordeal of reading through all of this, there seems to me to be one fact that's more or less clear and not open to dispute:

The Killian memo was not typed in Microsoft's version of New Times Roman. It was typed in IBM's. According to Hunter,

.... both IBM and Microsoft specifically obtained the typeface "Times New Roman" from the designers of that font; neither was the creator of it. And, as we said before, typeface includes not just the "shape" of the letters, but the size and spacing between those letters.

One of the differences between the Times New Roman as implemented on the IBM machines, as opposed to Microsoft Word? The IBM machines apparently had the alternative '4' character that matched these memos, while Microsoft Word's TNR does not.

The "4" character on the IBM version of Times New Roman has an open top. The "4" character on the Microsoft version has a closed top. And guess what: The "4" on the Killian memos -- on all of them -- is open-topped. To quote Hunter: "Oops."

Just so this is clear: This demonstrates that, if these are a forgery, they were done using the IBM versino of Times New Roman. So maybe the were actually forged using Star Office for OS/2, instead of MS Word...

Ultimately, it should be a simple matter of examining the hard copies, or comparing the challenged memos with unchallenged memos. But it won't be. The White House (which can't be bothered to dispute their authenticity) has a vested interest in the controversy continuing unresolved. And in keeping us asking the wrong questions.

Golf-Pants Nihilists Redux

It's fairly sad what passes nowadays for an "intellectual" conservative, now that Bill Buckley's easing himself into retirement, and Pat Buchanan has been effectively barred from the national discourse. But they still try. The chief tactic seems to be to assert repeatedly that which gives lie to itself, in the conviction (probably justified) that if you say it enough times, a lot of people will believe it on the principle that you wouldn't say "I know you are but what am I INFINITY!!!!!" unless you really really really meant it.

(Many moons ago, one who shall remain nameless coined a term for this: "The Big Lie." But we're not supposed to talk about him; we're supposed to forget anything we learned from his example, because That's All In The Past, Now. All the better to swallow Anne Coulter's bile-flavored diet shakes....)

Case in point, on a website called (oxymoronically?) "Intellectual Conservative", Gary Larson calls Garrisson Keillor to task for his inspired epithet for modern Republicans, "nihilists in golf pants" -- "juvenile hyperbole", he calls it, retorting a few lines later: "A touché to his 'freelance racists' tag: Thomas Sowell defines racists as conservatives who win arguments with braying liberals."

Methinks that Mr. Larson needs to look up the most common use of the term "juvenile" as applied to intellectual effort. Sowell is given as an example of mature discourse for simply making an flat assertion in uncreative language; Keillor is given as an example of juvenile discourse for demonstrating mastery of a large vocabulary and a rich gift for metaphor...

Now, puerile, that has some possibilities. "Puerile", even Garrisson might go for. It is an angry piece, to be sure, but it should carry more weight for that fact, considering that it comes from a man known more for tolerance, (perhaps too much) restraint, and quiet amusement than anger.

Then again, "juvenile" probably is a good choice, for just that reason. The "big lie" tactic only works really well when the lie has almost no bearing on reality. It's like inserting a contradiction into your argument: Anything can follow, then. Similarly, if the lie has no bearing on the truth, then there's no traction for answering it. (Hey, Gary: Have you stopped beating your wife, yet?)

What Are Blogs, Really?

Lisa Schaertl is a former associate, a marketing writer and consultant. She's seen past the trendiness of "blogging" and recognized that it can be read as just another term for "newsletter", and has begun using a Typepad site as a platform to promote her business, TechSavvy Marketing.

Lisa's doing a very simple thing: She's positioning her brand by putting out examples of her craft. She's making those examples available for syndication (easily afforded by using a commodity publishing platform), then notifying her connections (like me) via a simple email that calls notice to a piece she thought would make a particularly good showpiece ("Harvey Mudd writes good copy!"). Note also that she waited to send that message until after she had some content on-site.

Personally, I found "Avoiding the Approval Death Spiral" to be much more useful -- and resonant: Of the five or six freelance projects that I've worked on over the past year, three of them got mired in Approval Death Spirals. Lisa and I were both involved in one of those, making this piece more resonant still.


More Thoughts on Tech-Macho Bullsh*t

A few more thoughts on the Kalsey-Firefox Affair. It's another illustration of Tech Macho Bullshit in action: If you're not "clueful" enough to see how much better off you are with Firefox, then you "deserve" IE.

Personally, I think that a "cluefulness-test" is the moral equivalent of playground bullying. (Geeks getting their own back?) And I don't think anyone deserves IE, but that's just me.

As far as I can see, this resembles the dueling of "eXtreme Programming" versus "traditional" methodoligies in that both are manifestations of the geek's adolescent obsession with control. They want to be able to make the decisions about what's "right" and "wrong" without subordinating themselves or their labor-power to inferior beings. The fact that those inferior beings do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this town escapes their mind; they only remember that they have to suffer the indignity of living with, working for, and being paid by them.

It's a real problem when backend geeks arrogate all app decisions unto themselves. Here's a real clue: If the app is hard for average users to use, it's a failure. Period. "Better" becomes irrelevant, because if you can still say it's "better" at that point, you're clearly using the wrong metrics.

Adam Kalsey Dares To See Through The Emperor's Cloak

Adam Kalsey has had the temerity to criticize the Kewl Kidz browser, Firefox, and thinks that maybe, just maybe, aggressively marketing it prior to "1.x" isn't such a good idea: "Aggressively marketing Firefox before it is a completely stable product is dangerous. Youâ??re running the risk of having people trying it out and being put off by the bugs, never again to return." [Adam Kalsey, "Why I don't recommend Firefox"]

I agree; in addition, I wonder again why Firefox is being so aggressively marketed in preference to the more stable, more usable, more feature-rich Mozilla. Wait -- I know the answer to that already: It's basically because Firefox is COOL, and Mozilla is NOT COOL. There really are no serious technical reasons -- it's all a matter of how to best herd the cats.

The history on this is worth looking at. Mozilla and Firefox forked sometime in '00, when Firefox was still "Phoenix". The split happened because a small group of developers thought that some of the approaches used in the Mozilla core were wrong-headed, and they thought everything had to be rebuilt from the ground up to improve performance. They were particularly obsessed with load-time and rendering speed.

Fast forward to 2004: Mozilla still loads faster (though it's slightly -- slightly -- bigger), and renders pages faster. Mozilla core has been modified to have more or less all the customization hooks that Firefox has. Mozilla is still significantly more usable out of the box. But those kooky Firefox kids have their own bazaar, now. Oh, and, yeh, they finally did implement extension management.

In a really objective analysis, there's no strong argument for introducing Firefox to novice browsers, and as Adam points out, lots of reasons not to. There are also very few sound technical arguments for basing future product development on the Firefox paradigm of "distribute minimal, expect the user to do all the work." The Firefox kidz want their own kewl browser? Fine -- let them go build it, like the Camino team did. Don't turn their misbegotten hacker-bait into the core product. That's a sure way to fail.

Nevertheless, it's abundantly clear at this point that Firefox is the way of the future with regard to the Mozilla Project's browser product, and it's also abundantly clear why: The kidz wouldn't play unless they got to do things their way, and the project needed them.

Sometimes I don't like being right

Spirit of Ontario at full cruiseThe Spirit of Ontario is a beautiful ship, in her own way. Sure, she looks a bit like a building, but she's fast and well built. Sure, I never thought there was really a business plan in a fast ferry between Rochester, NY, and Toronto. (Note that there's no need for me to say where Toronto is. Case made.)

But it's still depressing to hear that "Canadian American Transportation Systems" -- one of that class of risk-shielding partnership entities that ensure that the brain-farters get off and their fellow-travellers eat dirt -- has pulled the plug on the "Breeze" starting tomorrow, September 8, 2004. Just a few months after starting.

I made a bet with somebody a few years back. I told him that if the ferry was still in operation 18 months after it started, I'd take him out for a night on the town, my treat. I'm not in touch with him anymore, but I wouldn't have minded losing that bet.

So many people here got taken for a ride, from the crew who advocated restoring the Hojack Swing Bridge in Charlotte (at the Port of Rochester), to their fellow-travellers who advocated restoring the old trolly service from Charlotte to High Falls, or installing a comprehensive light rail network into a geographically dispersed metro area of 200,000. Pipe dreams -- millions of dollars of labor and material cost, powered by the fantasy of providing something interesting in Rochester for tourists from Toronto. The future of the ferry was always regional, in Finger Lakes tourism: The many "wine trails", the nigh-alpine scenery from the shore of central NY towns like Geneva and Canandaigua, the outrageous density of festivals from June through September. These were things that made our area at least a bit special. But they weren't Rochester -- they weren't smugtown.

Mayor Johnson is struggling to keep the ship running -- if not on its current twice-daily 7-day schedule, at least once a day, four or five days a week. I think he believes that if it stops, it won't ever get started again, and I believe he'd be right in that. The most sensible course of action for the CATS board right now is to preserve their reputations (of course, at that level of investment, there's no really personal investment stake -- these guys will all come out of this deal having made money) is to sell the boat, sell the concession, somehow -- maybe move it to Buffalo and run it to the Thousand Islands.

What the hell.

The New Republican Drug Of Choice: Cocaine

John Perry Barlow noticed something interesting in NYC last week. It seems cocaine is making a comeback:

I'm talking about the interesting fact that, along with the Republican National Convention, New York is being hit with a cocaine epidemic that is even worse than the snowstorm that gripped this town during the mid to latter 80's. (During the last Bush administration, to put a finer point on it.) This time there won't be a crack problem to get all racist about, however. Cocaine in New York is now so cheap and plentiful that such economic measures as cooking it down to crack need not be taken by the poor.

People who learned better 20 years ago are suddenly snorting blow again. People you would never think would mess with this stuff are messing with it big time. Once again one commonly sees lines on the tabletops and the frantic eyes you can never make contact with. I was in a club the other night that was full as a tick with beautiful-looking people pharmaceutically disabled from beholding one another's beauty.

At the same time that the white death has made such a roaring comeback, the drugs that I think are relatively harmless, pot and the psychedelics, are in extremely short supply. Pot is selling at cocaine prices, a hundred dollars a gram sometimes. And coke is selling at pot prices. An ounce of coke would cost about the same as an ounce of decent sensimilla a few years ago. Mushrooms are scarce. LSD is functionally off the market.

What's going on?


But then, cocaine is a Republican drug. It makes its users self-obsessed, aggressive, and greedy. It plays hell with one's sense of consequence. It's generally preferred by people who have more money than humanity. And, best of all, the weirdos and peaceniks who like to waste their useless time stoned on marijuana or psychedelics, tend to hate it. ("All the more for us, eh, Buffy?")


Once again, one can see clearly what the War on Some Drugs is really about. It's the culture, stupid. It certainly isn't about public safety, since coke and booze are the perfect combination for social depravity of all sorts. Instead, it provides a beautiful opportunity to jail the blacks and hippies who prefer the non-Republican drugs. It makes huge bank for one's wing-tipped colleagues.

Can it really be that the Bush Administration has decided to turn a blind eye to blow? Or is it that they are simply too incompetent, despite turning Columbia into a war zone. Maybe this is just a local phenomenon, arising from the fact that approximately 10,000 New York police officers, who ordinarily focus on narco crime, have been diverted to convention patrol.

.... Just what we need, a whole arena packed with irritable, glaze-eyed folks who are even more certain of their superiority than usual....

To once again quote an old prof: "Isn't it interesting that the only drugs that are legal make you either depressed or tense?" Add: Or temporarily sociopathic?

But it may be simpler: It may just be economics. As we shift focus from the America-exacerbated problem of narco-terrorism to the America-exacerbated problem of global religious terrorism, the drug-kingpins can expand their production and trafficking operations. And since our "homeland security" measures have been such dismal failures, we still have wide-open borders.

And to top it all off, those goddamn drug producers are behaving like manufacturers, and working to improve production! That's right -- those bastards are getting scientific, and breeding super-high-production coca plants! Clever'd think good capitalists like the Bushites would applaud that kind of initiative.

Maybe that's what's going on, after all...

Whitehouse.Gov's Robot Exclusion File

A friend (who shall remain nameless) just learned about Robot Exclusion Files; these are wide open and you can look at them for a number of very public sites. Being the curious sort, and being particularly mindful of the current administration, it occurred to her to see what happened when she tried to look at the robots.txt file for


[Since these are paranoid times, I think I should point out pre-emptively that by its very nature, the robots.txt file is intended to be read -- that, in fact, it's read many many many times a day (just not usually by humans). So while the massively secretive and paranoid current occupants of the White House might wish otherwise, there is no conceivable legal reason why I shouldn't be able to look at it. OK?] (The preceding paragraph, and my friend's insistence on anonymity, by the way, are examples of the "chilling effect" in action.)

Typically these things are pretty short. CNN's is an exception, and an educational one. In fact, the four commercial examples I give above seem to all be pretty good examples of when a big site would use them:

  • To exclude highly dynamic content that really just shouldn't be indexed, anyway.
  • To exclude stuff that just plain doesn't need to be indexed, like login pages.
  • To prevent indexing of non-text content like images, audio/video files, amd Shockwave movies. (CNN's web geeks have some fun with this. Hell, why not?)

What's immediately interesting to me on the White House's robots.txt is how superficially mundane a lot of the links are -- and how suggestive others are. If you actually plug in some of those links, you'll find that they run the gamut from broken pages to 404s; the broken or ill-formed pages seem to be static, for the most part, and often old. My friend wondered why the list was so long; I set that in the back of my mind and had a much more mundane and plausible answer flash into my head as I lay my head down last night: Sloppiness. Their web admins are too lazy to set up a sandbox or set passwords, or they don't have the clout to get White House staffers to actually use passwords, so they're opting for security by obscurity.

Maybe someone should tell the Bushites that "security by obscurity" is an oxymoron....nah, let 'em figure it out for themselves.

The Cheney Curse

T. D. Allman at Rolling Stone has been talking to a lot of old friends and acquaintences of Dick Cheney. He's noticed something interesting: If GW gets re-elected, he'll be the first President who's given a job to Dick Cheney to manage it.

It also seems that the old chickenhawk's history of self-serving lysenkoism goes way back. A former boss remembers it as long ago as 1973:

In 1973, while Nixon was self-destructing, Cheney, then thirty-two, got a job at the investment firm of Bradley, Woods and Company. "Dick needed to make some money," Bruce Bradley explained. "He and Lynne and their girls lived in a modest house, and he drove a used Volkswagen Beetle." Both Bradley and Cheney were Republicans, but they differed on Watergate. Bradley recognized that Nixon had violated fundamental American values; Cheney saw Watergate as a power struggle. They even debated each other, in a forum arranged for Bradley's clients.

"He claimed it was just a political ploy by the president's enemies," says Bradley. "Cheney saw politics as a game where you never stop pushing. He said the presidency was like one of those giant medicine balls. If you get ahold of it, what you do is, you keep pushing that ball and you never let the other team push back."

["The Curse of Dick Cheney", T.D. ALLMAN, Rolling Stone] [via MeFi]

If politics is all about power, then truth is relatively unimportant. Or at least, flexible. But then, even if Bushite science policy didn't make it clear to us, we've known for a long time that old lysenkoists like Rummy and Dick are all about flexible truth. To paraphrase a maxim: History, after all, is written by the folks who bother to keep on pushing that medicine ball.

Now You can have Nicolae Ceaucescu on your First Class Stamps!

The Smoking Gun used the USPS's new personalized postage stamp service to create a bunch of stamps featuring infamous figures including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Ted Kaczynski (twice), Romanian ghoul Nicolae Ceaucescu, and Monica Lewinski's stained black dress.
They seem to think this is a big deal:

.... (the image, of course, must not be deemed objectionable by the folks at, the online firm handling the trial run of Uncle Sam's postage gambit). But since objectionable is such a subjective term, TSG sought to determine what kind of interesting stamps we could actually create. While the image censors rejected our request for stamps featuring mug shots of Lee Harvey Oswald, Salvatore "Sammy Bull" Gravano, and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, they did green light other equally, um, distinctive postage.... TSG, of course, will not actually be using our personalized postage. This was just an exercise to point out that the only people truly worthy of stamps are statesmen (George Washington, Benjamin Franklin), civil rights leaders (Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall), and cartoon characters (Wile E. Coyote, Jiminy Cricket).

(AHEM. Do I detect a bit of tounge-in-cheek mumbling?)

I say, let 'em put on whoever they want. Better than than having a censor (or a Postal Service censor, for that matter) determining that George Bush is a-ok, but Bill Clinton is lewd and unacceptable. Or vice-versa, for the paranoid conservative crowd out there. I think the college/high school photos of Kaczynski are kind of poignant, for that matter.

Think of the marketing potential: The RNC can raise funds by selling Reagan stamps to the suckers at a healthy markup; obsessives and stalkers can creep out still more effectively by putting the object of their, er, affection, on everything they send by post; grandmothers everywhere will be getting flats covered with images of their grandbabies; midlife-males will be showing off their Vettes and Harleys. It's brilliant marketing....


Emergence as the Happy Horse-Hockey Du Jour

The Tutor is pessimistic about "emergence":

I think some folks on line are making an Hegelian case, without being Hegelians. They seem to think that the Zeitgeist is smarter than we are, freeing us from personal responsibility. We should all do what we please and emergence or the market, or God, Nature, or evolution will bring order out of choas, netting our errors to a wonderful whole.... I don't believe in emergence as a metaphysical principle. In my 55 years what I have seen emerge is increasingly malignant. What emerges most often in evolution are dead ends, of individuals, communities, species, and soon our planet. If left to itself, the mob will not get any smarter. And what will emerge will be a black ball floating in space.

[Emergence is Volkish Nonsense]

The Tutor finds fuel for his skepticism in the demonstrably poor qualifications of American voters:

Of course, if Converse is correct, and most voters really donâ??t have meaningful political beliefs, even ideological "closeness" is an artifact of survey anxiety, of people's felt need, when they are asked for an opinion, to have one. This absence of "real opinions" is not from lack of brains; it's from lack of interest. "The typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field," the economic theorist Joseph Schumpeter wrote, in 1942. "He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again. His thinking is associative and affective." And [political scientist Morris] Fiorina quotes a passage from the political scientist Robert Putnam: "Most men are not political animals. The world of public affairs is not their world. It is alien to them &endash; possibly benevolent, more probably threatening, but nearly always alien. Most men are not interested in politics. Most do not participate in politics."
[LOUIS MENAND, New Yorker, "THE UNPOLITICAL ANIMAL: How political science understands voters"]

What do we do, then? Do we hand over governance to an elite? And who gets to choose who that is? If Menand is right (and though he tries to end on an optimistic note), we already have. Or, at least, we do it all the time, by basing our "heuristics" on elite opinion, by letting party loyalty stand in for assessing policy.

My own 40 years of experience tell me that Menand's "third theory of democratic politics" is more or less correct: People tend to judge who the "right" candidate is to vote for based on heuristics such as whether he knows how to eat a tamale (Gerry Ford didn't, so he couldn't have understood the needs of hispanics), the kind of phrasing that he uses to make points (Bill Clinton and George W. Bush share the repetetive cadences, the repetetive stressing, the repetetive repetition, of the southern protestant church).

So I'd like to be more optimistic than The Tutor, but I'm not. I still believe that The Cluetrain and the idea of emergent techno-democracy are dangerous libertarian techno-fetishist fantasies entertained by people who ought to know better and who should be making much, much more productive use of their time.

On the flipside, of course, the Cluetrain is very very useful to some other people who would like to keep smart folks asking the wrong questions -- or entertaining unachievable pipe dreams. In that sense, perhaps Cluetrain-think is the opiate of the elite.

Vlieg Urinor

One more note for today. The first fruit of adventures with, a story about a novel and innovative bit of user interface design in Dutch public toilets:

I have seen one of the finest instances of user interface design ever, and I saw it in the men's room at Schipol airport in Amsterdam.

In each of the urinals, there is a little printed blue fly. It looks a lot like a real fly, but it's definitely iconic - you're not supposed to believe it's a real fly. It's printed near the drain, and slightly to the left.

(... so, no, that's not bad Latin, it's Dutch.)

I have nothing particularly clever to add to this, except that it's one of those things that makes a light click on over your skull...

BTW, I found this on my very first experiment with using for serendipitous browsing. I bookmarked the site diagramming story, then looked at the bookmark lists for two of the three other people who had it marked; on the second one, near the top of the list, I found this.

Cool; I think I'd better stop, now, or this will eat the whole day, and I really do have work to do...

Udell Observations on Taxonomy in Practice

I find myself retreating from politics and the real-world ramifications of social theory, back into the world of ideas about ideas.

This morning, via a new site in my aggregation list, John Udell on knowledge gardening

Conventional wisdom holds that people will never assign metadata tags to content. It just isnâ??t on the path of least resistance, the story goes, and those few who do step off the path succeed only in creating unwieldy taxonomies. (Do you file the revised XML Schema specification under xml/specifications or specifications/xml? We can never agree, and many good minds are sacrificed in the vain attempt.) Yet somehow, users of Flickr and do routinely tag content, and those tags open new dimensions of navigation and search. Itâ??s worth pondering how and why this works.

Abandoning taxonomy is the first ingredient of success. These systems just use bags of keywords that draw from &endash; and extend &endash; a flat namespace. In other words, you tag an item with a list of existing and/or new keywords.

Two quick lessons, here: People don't check their behavior to make sure it conforms to theory; and in order to find out what people do, you need to watch what they do. (To paraphrase Malinowski: Don't just listen to what they say they do; watch what they really do.)

I find taxonomies fascinating, yet limiting. This site makes use of Drupal's taxonomy module for organization. But I've always found the hierarchical nature of taxonomy to be a bit frustrating. Drupal's design lets me give a term multiple parents, and define associated keywords. It really serves, in effect, as a browsing tool, and as such can serve as a combination of gauntlet and conceptual joke (after the link, note the crumb trail at the top of the page).

Aside: SoulSoup is too much. I could just pour through it all morning. Alas, I need to get some work done, now...

Any Typeface, Anywhere, Any Time ( though we needed that)

Those control-freak design-guys are at it again. sIFR [Scalable Inman Flash Replacement] is flash movie / JavaScript library combination that builds on a set of techniques which dynamically replace text content with Flash-rendered content.

I'm of multiple minds on this. My first impression is that this control-freak approach to web design is so often couched in religious tones that it irritates the hell out of me. It always has. But then, I'm a content guy: It's the content that's important, and if you really truly need a specific typeface in an anally-retentively-specified size to make the content work, then your content is probably bad.

Unless it's a cartoon, in which case you should just break down and use Flash already.

That said, and assuming I ever get a Flash editing environment, I could very well see myself using this technique or one of its descendents, though not for my own sites. It addresses problems that I've had to deal with in dealing with designers. The big problem is that a designer would have to plan for this technique in her/his design; most web designers (and I do mean most) still fall back to static graphics for controlled type presentations, and then build rigid frames around them that either don't need to scale or flow, or would break when scaled. Also, this technique is not quite up to replacing a static GIF or PNG image in terms of layering elements and placing them in relative position.

One thing that strikes me: In a sense, this technique doesn't really do what the designers say it does. The stated goal is to enable the designer to use whatever typeface they want, with smooth rendering. Smooth rendering is a bit of a red herring; most users have font smoothing turned on by default (presumably the designers don't, so that they can see what their audience would see). It's the typeface that's important, here, and that's really it.

Which is OK, but it's far from the most important feature of this kind of technique, and glosses over the best and most interesting use. One of the biggest drawbacks to Flash-driven interfaces has always been that they're difficult to edit, as they're most often implemented. If someone asks me to make modifications to a site that was developed in Flash, I'm basically very limited in what I can do for them. They've called me, because they can't do it themselves; I have to tell them they have to go do someone else, already, which makes them feel still more powerless and possibly even "had", because their original supplier locked them in by doing the site in Flash.

The more interesting use for a technique like this would be one that's hinted at in Mike Davidson's writeup, and that's to replace random blocks of text with a flash-driven presentation: A clean, low-labor way to put up a Flash site without requiring flash in the browser, and that would allow any non-Flash-compliant schlub (like, say, your clients) to edit the menus and content. sIFR isn't quite there, especially with regard to things like dynamic menus, and the techniques required may not really even be similar. But it raises intriguing possibilities, and I don't doubt that somebody will be pursuing them.

Actually, it occurs to me that what's really needed to translate between a technique like this and CSS-driven "graphics" (the awesome and infamous CSS Pencils being the most extreme example that I know) is a new kind of design tool that uses XHTML and CSS as its native formats. If done properly, it could quickly simulate display in different environments by consulting some kind of a mapping resource. Initially, at least, it would have the drawback of being able to produce layouts and designs that couldn't be rendered across browsers, but that's alright. Because -- again, if done right -- it could be designed to limit the designer to renderable choices. And, in any case, the availability of standard but un-renderable designs would serve as a driver to the development teams to complete their standard CSS implementations. (Trust me, they're not standard yet.)

I seem to recall that Fireworks was supposed to do something like this, but I don't hear about anybody using it this way. I doubt it would be that extreme. And in any case, Macromedia would have no interest in developing such a tool, since it would undermine the market for Flash.


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