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Volunteer Moderators Needed for Conflation

Brad @ Burning Man
Yay, two of my proposed panel discussions for Conflation were accepted! Oh, shit, now I have to actually do the work!

I'm signed up to moderate two panels: one on alcohol and drug safety, rape prevention, and safer sex called "How to Get Trashed and Laid (without Wrecking Everything)" and one on the quixotic struggles of early sex researchers and educators called "Those Who 'Came' Before." I need a couple of volunteers, who are already planning to be at Conflation in February, to help me with each of them.

For the first one, I would like a couple of people who have strong opinions about or are comfortable speaking about moderation management, and/or harm reduction, and/or recognizing and combating rape culture, and/or safer sex, who are willing to sit up front with me and take a turn talking before we open the room up to Q&A. We can each pick one of those topics, or I can rant for 25 minutes or so to introduce the whole subject and open it up for the rest of you to take questions from the audience, however we decide to run it based on who volunteers.

For the second one, my proposed curriculum is a brief overview of the sex research by Krafft-Ebing, Jung, Hirshfield, the Kinseys, and Masters & Johnson, especially how each of them had to prove some of the same things over and over again. I'm reserving Magnus Hirshfield for myself, and if nobody pleads for it, I'll take Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing, because both of them fascinate me; I would like volunteers to do five minutes or so, each, on the other three.

Knowing something about the subjects and experience teaching them welcome and preferred, but I'll settle for people who are willing to do the reading between now and February and talk about it.

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My Response to Leon Cooperman

Brad @ Burning Man
From: J. Brad Hicks, ret.
To: Leon Cooperman, CEO, Omega Advisors
Date: October 1, 2012
Subject: Re: Your Open Letter(s) to the President


Dear Mr. Cooperman, et al,

I have read with interest your open letter to President Obama regarding what is, in your opinion, the President's hostile tone towards success in a capitalist economy. As one of the now-famous 99%, and indeed, being a retiree, as one of the 47%, I am writing to correct one misconception you seem to be laboring under. We 47%, we 99%, do not resent your success, nor do we resent or covet your money. We fear what you can do with your money.

It may not be a popular opinion, but it is a fact: Citizens United v FEC, 558 US 310 (2010), was correctly decided. That sentence will shock many of my friends, who know that you can predict my position on a Constitutional issue, with 99% reliability, by asking Antonin Scalia his opinion and predicting that I will believe the exact opposite. But in this case, he is right; it is impossible to reconcile the First Amendment with the conduct of the authors of the First Amendment if you do not accept the historical fact that the authors of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights fully intended it to mean that anybody in America is entitled to spend as much of their own money as they want on publishing anything they want to publish. Even later courts that disagreed with Hugo Black's famous "plain and simple" rule ("When the Constitution says 'no law,' I believe it means no law") have upheld that principle when it relates to political speech. Under our system of government, you and your fellow multi-billionaires are, and must be, legally entitled to spend as much of your money as you choose on attempting to influence your fellow voters.

But that's a problem. Because, as you must know as someone who made his fortune investing in companies that manufacture and sell consumer goods, influence works. As you are about to find out, there are limits to how much the voters can be swayed by the side that has a vastly greater advertising budget. But you have doubtless also, by now, observed the transparent relief among President Obama's supporters when George Soros finally "came off of the sidelines" and resumed funding advertisements for the incumbent President.

We are all Americans. We all honor success. We all believe that success should be rewarded. As David Wong recently pointed out, "go into the bedroom of any child in America ... you'll see posters of pro athletes and Disney pop stars and famous actors dressed as action heroes. Millionaires, all. That's because all of our ... heroes are millionaires."

But you know whose posters you won't see up there? The billionaires who use their money to exercise a veto over the nominating process for either political party, or both political parties. Both political parties in America now vet their candidates for statewide or federal office based on "elect-ability" which is defined, in no small part, by "fund raising success," that is to say, based on the extent to which they are acceptable to those of you in the top 1/10th of one percent of us by wealth who have so much money that you are the only people who can fund a successful advertising campaign for statewide or federal office. This reduces the remaining 311 million of us to the position of courtiers, trying to make our case to the Forbes 400, because we can't have anything unless we persuade a majority of you that it's acceptable.

Now, you can describe a political system in which the financial success of the wealthiest couple of dozen or couple hundred people is so honored that they are, in effect, a House of Lords that is above all other branches of government. But you cannot describe any country, so run, as either free or democratic. Nor, in the long run, can you even describe such a country as having a free market. Look at the lobbying behavior of your fellow rich people. Look at the mess they've made of (for example) financial regulation, US energy policy, of health care policy, of intellectual property law and tell me that you don't see what I see: the wealthiest couple of hundred people in the United States are not using the power that their wealth grants them to keep markets free for their potential competitors, they are using that power to make it impossible for potential competitors to succeed.

This, then, is the dilemma that we face: we can be a free, democratic, and free market society, or we can allow unlimited accumulation of wealth. We cannot do both.

(signed) J. Brad Hicks

P.S. I am given to understand, by various journalists who have interviewed you and those who have signed onto your cause, that much of this is less about what Obama has done than about your hurt feelings. According to reporters, you have in fact gone so far as to say that you personally would accept policies that are even less friendly to the wealth accumulation of the 0.1% as long as those campaigning for those policies did not do so by vilifying the 0.1%.

Turn that around, if you will. When President Obama proposed the exact policies that you've expressed support for (for example, your remarks to Mr. Gore suggest that you are okay with allowing the Bush tax cuts for the super-rich to expire), your supporters vilified him in terms far, far harsher than anything anyone has said about people like you, and in far less honest ways at that. If he has made intemperate remarks about (some of) the super-rich, do you think maybe that might be why?

There are a few cranky liberals out here (myself included, I admit, but by no means including the President, who is a self-identified pro-wealthy Blue Dog Democrat) who have expressed some doubt that any of you in the Forbes 400 earned your money entirely legally, and some anger at the two-tier legal system that lets those who stole their wealth or who obtained it by bribery or who obtained it by gaming the legal system rather than by honest competition to deliver affordable high quality services keep their ill-gotten goods (and their freedom). This hurts your feelings. You don't think that you're a crook, maybe it's even true that you're not. (I haven't researched your personal fortune, although your past affiliation with Goldman Sachs raises red flags given that firm's recent lawless history.) You feel tarred by association.

All right, examine those feelings. Now imagine if we cranky couple of hundred far-left liberals could afford to intrude into every hour of television and every hour of radio half a dozen times or so to repeat that accusation. How much angrier would you be? How besieged would you feel? How frightened would you be of that (possibly) unfair accusation becoming accepted as fact through sheer repetition? If President Obama is as angry towards rich people as you think he is, do you think maybe that's why?
Brad @ Burning Man
In the last year and a half or so before Osama bin Laden's death, we found out, bin Laden himself had joined the chorus of current and former al Qaeda members who were questioning whether or not 9/11 had been good for the al Qaeda cause. All but a couple of bin Laden's closest friends and top commanders had made the case to him, some of them in public and in print, that 9/11 had not only failed to expel the Americans from the Middle East as was promised, had not only failed to expel the Jews from Palestine as promised, had not only failed to re-unite the shattered Caliphate into a single global superpower as promised—not only had it failed at every single one of its policy objectives, it had cost them the one place in the entire world that was unambiguously theirs, the (now former) Islamic Caliphate of Afghanistan. In the last few months of his life, bin Laden wrestled with the question of what, then, they could do, what if anything would actually work, to meet their policy objectives, and he died with the work unfinished.

In the wake of bin Laden's death, control of al Qaeda fell into the hands of practically the last remaining Islamic "theologian" who still believes in violent jihad against civilian infidels, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the world's war on al Qaeda continued. Since al-Zawahiri's promotion, he lost one of his best friends to the war, Abu Yahya al-Libi, his sub-commander in Libya, and so al-Zawahiri decided to honor the 9/11 anniversary this year by calling for strikes against Americans inside Libya in retaliation for Abu Yahya's death. But just as his predecessor over-played his hand by killing thousands of civilians, al-Zawahiri overplayed his hand—not by killing thousands of civilians, but by killing exactly the wrong one.

I mentioned, almost a year ago, how weirdly random it was that Cablegate, which ostensibly had nothing to do with Tunisia, because of newspaper reporting that happened in passing to draw attention to something about Tunisia's internal politics that wasn't even new, against all odds resulted in Tunisia, then Egypt, then Libya overthrowing their military dictatorships; there was no reason to think history would turn out that way, but it did. And here we are, a year later, and something just as random and unpredictable has happened: al Qaeda's allies in Libya had no way of knowing that US Ambassador Chris Stevens was going to be in Benghazi that night. His public schedule had him arriving the next day, for the dedication of a cultural center. He drove out the night before for a small, personal business meeting—and by sheer historical accident, drove into the consulate mere hours, at most, before al Qaeda attacked it.

Had they known he was there, I doubt that the Libyan al-Qaeda-allied milita would have attacked the building, abu-Libi or no, 9/11 or no. The Islamist militias are—or were, and I'll get to that in a second—headquartered in a tiny little town that's practically a suburb of Benghazi, so trust me when I say that they knew who Chris Stevens was. Everybody in Benghazi knew who Chris Stevens was. According to local Benghazi lore, it was Chris Stevens, personally, who persuaded NATO to intervene. It was Chris Stevens, the Benghazis say, who was the first outsider to take Qaddafi literally when he threatened to kill every single man, woman, and child in Benghazi during the Arab Spring. The people of Benghazi are in almost universal agreement that, if Chris Stevens had not been the US ambassador to Libya, every single one of them would be dead now. And, entirely by accident, one of Libya's two main Islamist militias, the one associated loosely with al Qaeda, killed that guy.

A British reporter (coincidentally) named Chris Stephen was in Benghazi the other night, to report on an all-day protest against not just Islamists, and not just against Islamist militias, but also against militias in general. He says that when night fell, the crowd sent the women and children home, because they had decided to simply end the militia problem in Benghazi once and for all. They over-ran six different militia bases, including all five Islamist compounds, including running unarmed directly into machine gun fire at the one where the Islamists dug in because that was what it took. According to Reuters, five protesters died, and more than 60 were wounded, but they succeeded: every militia headquarters in Libya's largest and second-most important city has been seized and enthusiastically, cheerfully turned right over to the Libyan army.

The new government of Libya has been negotiating for months to get the various resistance groups, tribal militias, ethnic militas, political militias, religious militas (all told, hundreds of them) to either stand down and return their seized heavy weapons to the Libyan army or to join the Libyan army and submit to elected authority. Negotiations dragged on, making minor progress after two militias opened fire on each other a few months ago in a local dispute. But no serious progress was being made, because each village, each tribe, each ethnic group, each local mosque wanted something in exchange for submission to the central government—more jobs, cash aid, a new school or water treatment plant—basically most of them thought they were entitled to be bribed to lay down their arms, they were holding the state (dare we say it) hostage to the idea that they could, if they wanted to, kill a lot of people if they didn't get what they wanted.

Thanks to al Qaeda over-playing their hand once again on an 11th of September, the militia blackmailing of Libya appears to finally be over. The civilians who ran to the front armed only with wooden, cardboard, or plastic toy guns to slow down Qaddafi's advance on Benghazi are on the march again, and with their support the President of Libya just gave the militias an ultimatum. It's a tempered, temperate ultimatum. They can keep their weapons. They can keep their structure and membership. But each and every single one of them will accept a Libyan army officer as their superior, and swear allegiance to the elected government of Libya, or be destroyed. And after what the protesters of Benghazi did this weekend, it's no bluff. The Libyan civil war is over, and (as in the last election) the Libyan people have come down on an enthusiastically pro-democracy side, unambiguously in favor of peaceful trade with the west, not jihad. Thank you for repeating your predecessor's greatest mistake, Ayman al-Zawahiri!

Irony Overdose

Sick Sad World
Many Americans, like Todd "Legitimate Rape" Akin, are incensed at (some) Muslims because they're burning our flag. They must be punished for this, because our flag is sacred!

Many Muslims are incensed at the US, and are burning our flags, because (some) of us have insulted their prophet. We must be punished for this, because the prophet is sacred!

I'm over here on the sidelines, banging my head on the desk, hoping that this will dislodge the irony that I'm choking on.

9/11/12 in Libya and Egypt

Brad @ Burning Man
The stories out of Libya and Egypt broke just as I was going to bed. (I sleep at weird hours in my old age.) When I woke up, I skimmed a half-dozen news sites to see what had changed and started to write something up, only to find out that Richard Engel was going to be on Rachel Maddow's show, so I sat down and shut up and waited politely, because what Richard Engel doesn't know about the current politics of the Middle East, and the players, I could calligraph onto my thumbnail with a Speedball C-3 point. I would, frankly, think more highly of any politician if, anytime something surprising happened in the middle east, when he was asked about it, said, "I don't know, yet, I'm waiting to hear from Richard Engel." It turns out he didn't have a lot more to say than was on the other sites, but Maddow's intro story had the pieces I was missing.

What happened yesterday breaks down into four very distinct stories, and don't trust anybody who tries to lump them together: (1) the military-style assault on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed our ambassador to Libya and burned down the consulate; (2) the completely unrelated mob protest on the US embassy in Cairo that was, almost inexplicably, allowed to enter and vandalize the compound; (3) the covert-ops media provocation that was behind the Cairo riot; and (4) the story of how one American political campaign tried to politicize this before knowing any of the facts and shot their foot off. I'm not going to say anything further about story #4; it's beneath my contempt and will, frankly, no longer matter when people's attention drifts away from in it the next couple of days. But those first three stories have fascinating back story, and/or fascinating recent reporting, that you may want to know while your co-workers and friends are blathering about them.

What Just Happened in Libya

It doesn't make any sense to talk about what just happened, either in Libya or in Egypt, without catching you up on what's been happening in each of those countries since their previous military dictatorships were toppled, a year and a half ago, in the Arab Spring. Both countries are having the same problem that every post-revolutionary government has in its first couple of years: until the victorious side (and, to some extent, the supporters of the vanquished out-going government, and to even larger extent the vast majority who don't care as long as they have a job and can afford to pay their bills and there's some semblance of policing and sanitation) agree on what constitutes a legitimate post-dictatorship government, there are a lot of heavily armed groups running around, confident that they can overthrow the next government if they don't like it any better, who remain to be convinced that they won't need to.

Libya is living through the very-nearly worst case scenario for this: village and tribal and ethnic and religious militia groups there, that were only loosely tied to the unified rebel command, armed themselves for the war by over-running and seizing pretty nearly the entire Libyan Army arsenal, and until they're convinced that the new government won't try to crush their village or suppress their faith or exploit their ethnic group or loot their tribe, they're not even vaguely willing to return those weapons to the new provisional Libyan army. On the other hand, nobody's in a hurry to use them, either, because the older members of those militias remember what happened to Afghanistan after the Russians retreated. They don't want to see the country carved up into warlord fiefdoms ruled by drug dealers and their rape gangs like the ones that ruled Afghanistan between when the Russians left and when the Taliban came in. Negotiations among the militias in Libya are still ongoing, shows of good faith are still offered and watched for, and you shouldn't judge them for taking their time; after the US overthrew its British colonial governors, it took us 11 years to write a constitution with agreed-upon legitimacy. In the meantime, though, the official Libyan army is kind of a joke and, in the very short term, that's kind of how most Libyans want it. After decades of military dictatorship, you can hardly blame them.

But when first the small protest outside the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and then the consulate itself, came under attack by a large, professional, and heavily armed militia, that did leave nobody to defend it but a couple of wildly-under-armed, poorly organized Libyan soldiers and whatever small bodyguard staff the US ambassador travels with when briefly visiting a consulate that isn't in the capital city. The defenders were surprised and completely outgunned; the consulate burned to the ground with the US ambassador inside.

To my annoyance, this has an awful lot of ill-informed people blaming the new Libyan government and demanding we bomb Libya, even though the people who did it are, clearly and unambiguously, the enemies of that government. Which enemies? We may not know definitively for days, but we do know this: the US recently assassinated, in Libya, the guy who was holding the same job the current head of al Qaeda held until SEAL Team 6 created a vacancy above him. Several hours before the attack, to commemorate 9/11, that current head of al Qaeda called on al Qaeda in Libya to avenge this guy's death. If this is a coincidence, it is a heck of a big one, an implausibly big one.

So, yes, by all means, lets bomb Libya's provisional government -- if our foreign policy goal is to weaken them for a deeply unpopular al Qaeda takeover. Fortunately, I don't expect that to happen. Instead, I expect Glenn Greenwald to wring his hands over yet more US drone-strike assassinations against suspected al Qaeda members, against the expansion of the Drone War to yet another country. Or maybe, just maybe, the drone operators and the CIA will do what they did all through the Libyan Civil War: use the drones to provide targeting data to the equally highly motivated provisional Libyan army, who (according to very early reporting) may have even lost one or more of their own in that attack, and let them take care of it. That'd be better for all of us, no matter what the ignorant say.

What Just Happened in Egypt

Egypt had an easier transition from military dictatorship to provisional rule, if only in the short term. There was no civil war, because when push came to shove, the Egyptian army sacrificed the dictator in hopes that if they took part in the revolution, one of their own would end up in charge. This did not happen; for good or ill, the larger, more populist Muslim Brotherhood won the presidential election, and the parliament is divided between several flavors of Islamist, secular militarist right-wingers, and secular liberals. This is leaving Egyptian governance not all that far off from where US governance is right now, unable to implement any policy because everybody has a veto; all they can do is keep the lights turned on. Morale on all three sides is pretty poor.

The protest outside the US embassy in Cairo was publicly announced in advance. As a precaution, the ambassador sent everybody home early that day, just to make life easier for everybody, leaving the embassy to be guarded by (mostly) Egyptian soldiers. Under normal circumstances, that should have been just fine. Americans "know" that the US Marine Corps has responsibility for protecting our embassies; like a lot of things the American people "know," it's decades out of date at best. For one thing, that job was outsourced to private military companies decades ago. But more to the point, to avoid the ugly sight of US soldiers beating up or shooting the locals, it's standard practice in every country (including ours) for local police, backed up by the local army if need be, to be the first ring of defense around any embassy, and they understand (usually) that it's potentially an act of war if they don't.

But this time it didn't happen. By all reports, the first time somebody tried to climb the wall into the US embassy, someone who was almost certainly expecting to be stopped by the Egyptian soldiers up on the wall, the soldiers just turned aside and let him. I suspect it was because of poor morale; alternatively, they may have sympathized with the protesters. The building was lightly damaged, mostly spray paint, before the protesters got bored with it and went home. The soldiers may have thought that, since their superiors do not like the Egyptian president, the generals would have their backs. That's not what's happening. All parties in Egypt have condemned the riot, nobody's standing up for the rioters or for those soldiers, and at least four arrests have been made, and that embassy is swarming with US and Egyptian soldiers backed by broad popular support in both countries; it is not going to happen again.

So What Was this Thing about an Anti-Muslim Movie?

That story's still developing. It also mostly doesn't matter, for reasons I'll get to in a moment. And it's almost-entertainingly weird, in that faintly cyberpunk way that a lot of news stories in the early 21st century are. Ostensibly, this is what it's about: the supposedly impending world-wide big-screen movie debut of a vicious satire about the prophet Mohammed by Jewish movie producer Sam Bacile called The Innocence of Muslims. What makes this all very weird, and faintly cyberpunk, is that even less of that is true than you would think. You would expect it to not be true that The Innocence of Muslims has a global theatrical distribution deal. You would be correct; that is, in fact, not true. But what's even weirder is that none of the rest of it seems to be true, either: the film The Innocence of Muslims "debut" was whoever the producer was and 9 of his friends watching it on a rented theater screen. What they watched may not have even been the movie The Innocence of Muslims because, so far, nobody at that small party has come forward and said that what they were shown was a whole movie. Nor was Sam Bacile, the producer, the one showing it, because there is no such person as Sam Bacile -- and, oh yeah, the guy who isn't Sam Bacile also isn't Jewish.

So what in the heck really did happen?

There is a YouTube clip that calls itself a trailer for The Innocence of Muslims. It's not a whole lot longer than any fake movie trailer, like the ones that run on Cracked.com or CollegeHumor.com. The production values are on the lower end of that scale. The actors who appear in the trailer have rushed to reporters to say that they were told to show up costumed for a Biblical-era epic, were given nonsensical lines to say, and that they were lip-dubbed for the trailer. In the roughly a year since the trailer showed up on YouTube, it was seen by about as many people as you'd expect to see for any random amateurish YouTube attention-whoring, somewhere in the hundreds. Several months ago, another copy of that trailer was translated into Arabic and re-released, and even fewer people noticed. This isn't even the Jutlands Post cartoon controversy, in scale; the Jutlands Post has readers.

According to the film's press release, the film was produced and financed by an Israeli real estate developer named Sam Bacile. Now that protesters have succeeded in attracting attention, it took reporters less than 24 hours to tie the film to two Egyptians, both Coptic Christians: the film was financed and produced by convicted bank fraudster Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, and promoted by an Egyptian anti-Muslim politician who's claimed religious asylum in the US following Islamist violence against Copts, Morris Sadek. Nobody has reported, yet, on Nakoula's motive, but Sadek's isn't hard to guess: he claims to have lost family when an Islamist mob attacked Copts during the chaos of the Arab Spring.

Because of that, Sadek is seen as sympathetic by some Copts back home; some of them read his web page, his attempt to create a Coptic "government in exile" for Egypt, and presumably gossiped about it. The gossip about the film caught the attention of a couple of medium-obscure Egyptian religious figures who have shows on satellite TV, who utterly misunderstood the word "premier" to mean something like a Hollywood premier, which would usually mean a kick-off to global distribution. Those TV networks are watched by dozens of people in many cities, all of whom showed up at US embassies and consulates to protest. And, frankly, nobody would have noticed or cared; ill-informed religious fanatics showing up by the half-dozens to protest something that only exists in their heads is something that happens every couple of days, maybe every day, somewhere in the world. But because someone, probably al Qaeda in Libya, coincidentally picked that same day for a medium-impressive military raid, this time you heard about it.

And what is the "it," really, that you heard about? A couple of guys, one a disgruntled politician with a small audience and one with some money left over from a career in bank fraud, launched an entirely private-sector covert op, intended to overthrow a government by playing "let's you and him fight" between that government and its nuclear-armed neighbor. And they almost got away with it, if small-market journalists and Internet hobbyists hadn't pierced their slapdash security. Wasn't Bruce Sterling writing stuff like this 20 years ago?

I Discovered a New Personal Limitation

Brad @ Burning Man
On a personal note, I've been feeling very fragile for about a week, now - to the point where I really thought I was over it, really thought I was feeling better by Saturday, only to get emotionally and physically exhausted by something I usually enjoy, the local Polymunch. I know why, too; I just don't know how long it's going to take me to get over it.

It would appear that there is an upper limit to how long I can room-pack for a convention, and that limit seems to somewhere between 60 and 70 hours. I can even tell why: that is how long I can go, apparently, without any privacy or any control over parts of my environment. At this year's Worldcon, by the morning of the 5th day without those things, the 5th day of sharing a hotel room with 3 other people, I was desperately wanting to gargle a shotgun. As soon as I got home from Worldcon, I locked myself in my apartment and slept for a nearly straight 36 hours, and refused to leave the house even for grocery shopping for another 36 hours after that no matter what I was out of.

I think I get it, too. Sensory equilibrium is hard for me to maintain; losing control over the lighting levels and the thermostat is rough on me. But there's more to it than that, something that hits me even harder. Attempting to read other people's facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice, let alone attempting to modulate mine so that they can comprehend them, are very, very, very mentally demanding activities for me; on the best day of my life, I don't do any of those things especially well. To do those things even as poorly as I do them requires a fair amount of concentration, especially if even one of the people isn't somewhere on the autism spectrum; non-autistics have (what feel to me like) unreasonable expectations of proficiency at those things.

And for as long as I have memories, as far back as age 4, I have always dealt with this the same way: when I cannot do it any longer, when I will simply go mad if I can't have some time to relax and get some thinking and/or reading done without having to interact with other people, I go to whatever room is designated for me only, I turn all but one low-lumen light source off, and I close the door, and I take off every scrap of fabric that binds or chafes in any way, and I don't turn the lights back up or put on street clothes or open that door until I've recharged enough to do it some more. (If, as usually happens, I notice this need right away, it's seldom longer than a day, and sometimes as little time as a few hours.) It's not because I'm anti-social; most of that time, I'm bored to death and would really rather be around other people. I just know that I can't do it without freaking out, losing my mind, and choking on my rage that other people want more out of me than I can do.

That's how I was able to stay married for almost three years: I had a room in the basement, dedicated to my hobby, and right up until everything else went wrong with my marriage, she respected a closed door and respected my need to control the environment in that room. That's how I acquired a reputation for generous hospitality back at the old Brad Davidian Compound, where I always had at least one live-in houseguest and sometimes as many as three of them: that whole time, I also had one room with a door that could be closed that nobody came into without my invitation except (on tiptoe, whispering, terrified of doing so, I was later told) during an emergency. It's part of why I'm gods' own perfect secondary in poly relationships: I have a lot of love in me and a lot of need to give and no possessiveness whatsoever, but on the other hand I also really don't have it in me to be there 24 x 7 x 365* for anyone, no matter how much I love them or they love me.

I've room-packed for cons before, I've been dirt-poor at least a third of my years in fandom. Heck, I've been to cons during years when I was couch-surfing, borderline homeless. But none of those times were for cons longer than 60ish hours, so I never noticed that I had this limitation until now. Chicon 7 was the longest I've ever been at a convention, the whole five days and four nights. Apparently I can't do that without getting my own room. It's good to know that, so I don't do that again, although Eris knows what'll happen whichever year it is I get around to going to Dragoncon, given how expensive and hard to find solo hotel rooms are for an event that size. Possibly just "not go for all of it," make sure that I have solo transportation that gets me out before the 60 hour mark if I have to room-pack. A budgetary complication, but one I'll probably find some way to hack around. Part of why I'm so high-function is that I have the long-term attention span to keep nibbling at a problem, a little at a time, until I can engineer a work-around for my limitations.

But, yeah: for those of you who need to know, Brad can only socialize in very small-group contexts, and for short spans of time, until further notice. I'll let you know when I'm feeling more resilient. Trust me I'll let you know! By that time, I'll be lonely and bored to death.


P.S. 24 x 7 x 365 is a weird cliché now that I think about it. Shouldn't that read 24 by 7 by 52?

P.P.S. This is all just another reason to miss the Libertalia, my long-ago disintegrated Pace Arrow motorhome. When I had it, I could go to any event and always have not just all of my clothes and all of my books and all of my groceries with me, I always had my own bedroom.
Brad @ Burning Man
First, a confession: I didn't finish reading everything in my Hugo packet. (If you buy a membership in the World Science Fiction Convention, these days, they give you a digital download of almost everything that's been nominated for an award, pretty much everything but the TV and movie categories.) Frankly, I looked over the list of nominees and realized that if I did bother to turn in my ballot, it was going to read No Award in almost every category. If that was the best that science fiction produced in 2011, then 2011 was (in my opinion) the worst year for science fiction since the late 1970s. Except for one category: Ursula (ursulav)Vernon's Digger was nominated in the Best Graphic Novel category. I really should have sent in my ballot, just to show support for her. But one reason I didn't bother is that I knew for a fact that she wouldn't win.

You can look over the rest of the ballot at the official Hugo Awards announcement website. I don't want to argue about individual nominations. I especially don't want to argue about the novella and novelette categories, where I'm told that (because I gave up in despair after slogging through the short story nominees) there are some real nuggets. I just want to talk about my overall impression of the ballot, and that is this: gods above, fandom has succumbed the same expletive-deleted disease that is killing off Hollywood, addiction to franchises. There are just tons and tons of sequels on that list, just depressing amounts of franchise mass-produced writes-itself crap. So when I got down to the graphic novels category and saw that Digger was nominated, I knew for an expletive-deleted depressing fact that it didn't have a hope in Tartarus of winning, because of sheer unfamiliarity.

I only bothered to go to the Hugo Awards ceremony so that when they got to the graphic novel category, I could at least cheer for the fact that Digger got nominated, and then, when it lost, to have my low opinion of science fiction fandom's taste validated. Well, maybe I gave up too soon and should have known that: had I looked at the ballot more carefully, I would have realized that the farther down-ballot you get, the more obscure the category, the less vulnerable it gets to having mediocre crap overwhelm the actual innovative stuff by dint of unflavored-gravy familiarity. Way down the ballot, in categories like best editor and best fan podcast, there are categories where I wouldn't have been embarrassed no matter who won. And graphic novel was one of those categories. But honestly, I figured Fables volume 14 had it in the bag, because looking at the up-ballot categories, it was obvious that fans don't want anything new or original, they want the more of the same. Fables 14 isn't a bad book, it's just, well, more of the same, a mostly-predictable soap opera sequel to a series that degenerated into mostly-predictable soap opera half a dozen volumes ago. But it's still not bad. If Fables didn't get it, I figured it would be frequent nominee Schlock Mercenary, which actually is good, and the best space opera we've seen in a decade or more, consistently high concept, consistently honest to its hard-science-fiction roots, and consistently funny to boot. Heck, in any other year, Schlock Mercenary would have been my pick, even if it is volume (n+1, whatever, I lose track) in a series of bound editions.

But I knew that Digger wouldn't win because Digger is special, and I just didn't think that fans had taste that good. I could have gone on at length about all the obstacles Digger had to winning the Hugo. For one thing, it's upwards of 700 pages long. It's black and white. It's been coming out a page or two a week for ten years. Vernor doesn't trust her audience enough to make the whole thing available online, only the first and the most recent pages, which made it hard as heck to get into if you didn't discover it 10 years ago. The protagonist is not only female, but (by human standards) a short, dumpy female who never wears a fan-service costume. It's published by a relatively obscure small press - is it even in any comic shops? The author is not famous. There is no toy line, there is no media tie-in, and none of your favorite singers or actors has plugged it. It has no brand recognition. But even if it didn't have all of those problems, it had this going against it: it's not space opera, it's not medieval European fantasy, it's not tights-and-fights, it's not a parody or an adaptation of a TV show or movie. If you just pick it up in the middle and read two pages, you have no idea what to make of the world it's in or who to root for, because it is that (blessedly) original. It's about a wombat. You don't get more doomed than that.

It is also, hands down, the single most riveting, and the single most moving, story I have read in the last couple of decades.

In a world that is not ours, but has eerie similarities, in a world that has humans and talking animals and regular animals, the wombat Digs-Unnecessarily-Convoluted-Tunnels (Digger, for short) is, like all of the successful businessmen and -women in her family and like most famous wombats, a mining engineer. While digging an exploratory tunnel, she hit a patch of bad spoiled magic, the rotted decayed remains of some ancient spell or artifact, and it made her sick, sick and intoxicated. She tunneled for miles, randomly, and came up inside a temple of Ganesha, the only one with a talking, enchanted avatar of Ganesha for its idol. Words cannot describe how much this annoys her; wombats hate magic, hate gods, hate prophesy, hate all that stuff. It's unpredictable, it's unreliable, compared to solid engineering. Worse luck, by the time she recovers, she finds out that the locals are on the edge of a three way war between human demon hunters, local human villagers, and the local tribe of hyenas -- and nobody on any side knows why the peace has been broken, what the war is about. The god is quite sympathetic for the fact that Digger is so lost that people here thought that wombats were mythical until she appeared, that she has family at home, that she has responsibilities to her burrow and contracts to fulfill. But a lot of innocent people, a lot of nice people, are about to die. And there is a prophesy that the only way to solve it will be by tunneling, and she's the only mining engineer they've met. Of course, if her other responsibilities are binding on her, if others' needs and her needs are so great that she has to leave them all to die, the god assures her that this is perfectly blameless and understandable. Against her better judgment, Digger stays.

Now you're thinking you've seen this story before. It's the classic reluctant hero in an orientalist knock-off of Narnia or Oz, with (eventually) a strong whiff of Lord Dunsany. But if I left you at that, I would be leaving you without the most moving, most touching thing about the story, and that is Digger herself.

This crotchety, almost despairing young middle aged woman's misanthropic veneer and relentless pragmatism are worn comfortably on top of a body of good sense, floating on top of almost limitless pools of effortless compassion. She's not a moralist, she's not a philosopher, she's not an altruist or a do-gooder; she's just someone who instinctively and automatically sees other people's perspective and their needs, and seeks ways to make their lives less painful for the same reason she'd shore up a tunnel or sink an air shaft, because to her it just makes sense not to leave people hurting. And so, with the effortlessness of a Robert Lynn Asprin hero, Digger accidentally assembles the team that saves the world from an unsuspected eldritch horror: herself, a hyena cast out from his tribe for a horrible crime, a teenage girl demon hunter with a shattered mind, and an orphaned baby demon who follows Digger around in hopes that she'll teach him how to be a good person.

And Digger won the Hugo. Fans deserve more faith than I had left for them. Congratulations, Ursula Vernon. You deserved that Hugo more than anybody else on that stage, because you did something harder than what any of the rest of them did, and you did it as well as or better than any of them.
Brad @ Burning Man
I somewhat regret that Chicon 7 scheduled the panel "A Reversal of Minorities" (description: "Outside of fandom, Christianity is the majority religion, inside of fandom; it often feels like a persecuted minority. A look at why some people who would lambaste religious persecution in daily life feel it is okay to unload on Christianity within the confines of a convention") opposite the Hugo Awards. Had it not, I would have shown up, waited until they opened the panel to questions and comments from the room, waited my turn, and said, "Welcome to normal life for everybody else. Excuse me for not being sorry that this is one place in western world where you don't enjoy privilege." And then I would have set back down.

I mentioned this to many people at Worldcon, and nobody I met disputed my nickname for it: "the butthurt panel." For those of you who are unfamiliar with this particular bit of Internet (mostly gamer) slang, "butthurt" is when somebody who has received some trivial or minor injury or insult insists on monopolizing the conversation, insists on constantly steering all conversations back to how much they hurt, insists that their trivial inconvenience or insult or injury was as serious and painful as (say, for example) anal rape.

I've spent a lot of time in science fiction fandom; been part of science fiction clubs off and on since 1973, been attending conventions since 1981. In that whole time, I have never once seen a Christian refused service. I have never seen a Christian refused an employment opportunity or a volunteer opportunity. I have seen every club and convention that was asked to do make generous accommodations to any religious need the Christians asserted, and seen every request for a panel discussion topic they submitted added to the schedule. What horrific injuries and insults do they demand be taken as seriously as if they were being anally raped by science fiction fandom?

People are not always sufficiently deferential to their invisible friend(s). Sometimes they even mock him. And when they make scientific claims that are indefensible, like Creationism, they are critiqued; when they do not take the critique of their scientific claims politely, it opens them up to mockery.

Flow my tears.

Today, in violation of the convention rule requiring a 2/3rds majority, the leaders of the Democratic National Convention over-rode the platform committee and reverted the language of the party's "equal opportunity" clause. Here are the old and the new language, emphasis added to point out the "controversial" and "un-American" phrase that was going to cause so much Christian butthurt that DNC leaders were afraid it might cost the President his re-election (despite election forecasts saying that he has it in the bag):

2008 platform, adopted: "We need a government that stands up for the hopes, values, and interests of working people, and gives everyone willing to work hard the chance to make the most of their God-given potential."

2012 platform, committee version: "... in America, hard work should pay off, responsibility should be rewarded, and each one of us should be able to go as far as our talent and drive take us."
What?!?!? There is even one political party where even some of the members believe that their talent and drive came from no god, or from many gods? That's oppressing Christians! They have to change that, or else people will be allowed to doubt that Christians' invisible friend was the source of their success! If we allow that, we might as well shovel Christians into fiery furnaces, because that's such an intolerable attack, it's as bad as if we were killing them!

No, it's not. Even if you don't agree, this is the privilege that you benefit from -- nobody can mock your beliefs, nobody can even express respectful doubt about your beliefs, nobody can even express a willingness to let other people consider doubts about your beliefs in their own private minds, without coming under attack. For crying out loud: the "objectionable" language doesn't even deny that God gives people their talents and drive; it merely permits people to believe otherwise. Thank God you won't be exposed to that threat any more!

And you can be absolutely confident that unless you go to a scientific conference, a science fiction convention, or a skeptics meeting (or a religious service for non-theists or polytheists) your freedom from having doubt expressed in your presence will be protected, while you will be absolutely free to express your confidence in the supremacy of your beliefs without any censure. And you and your co-religionists think the part of that that's awful is that those non-Christian-privileged places exist?

Sit down. And shut up.
Brad @ Burning Man
I don't know if any of you have been following this story, but the Jonesboro, Arkansas police department has spent the last couple of weeks trying to explain how a handcuffed young black man named Chavis Carter ended up dead in one of their police cars. Despite the fact that Carter's hands were cuffed behind him, and the fact that he was searched for weapons, the coroner has ruled that it was a suicide. No, really.

The Jonesboro police know that nobody believes them about this, so they released a video showing three of their officers, all around the same size as Chavis Carter, were able to contort their handcuffed arms around enough to draw a concealed weapon, raise it to their heads, and simulated fire it at an angle consistent with the gunshot wound. I watched that video, and I can think of at least three reasons why that video doesn't prove what they say it proves.

One: No way a pat-down would have missed a gun there. The gun is shown as being drawn from the right front pocket. This is, quite literally, one of the first places any even rudimentary pat-down would look. There is no way in hell that any cop, no matter how inexperienced, would cuff a suspect without checking his pants pockets for weapons. But if they put the gun anywhere else, their simulated suspects wouldn't have been able to reach it.

Two: They double-locked the cuffs. Notice that the reason they can turn their wrists around in the cuffs, and then pull the cuff on the right arm so far up the arm that the uncuffed part of their arm can reach their heads, is that the cuff is (a) very, very loose and (b) double-locked. Now, look. Back during The Year of the Million-Jillion Tickets (don't ask), I got cuffed by a lot of cops. None of them double-locked the cuffs. Not even when I reminded them to. They absolutely are supposed to double-lock the cuffs to keep them from ratcheting all the way down when the suspect is forced to sit on them. Not double-locking the cuffs can injure the suspect. But no cop that I've ever met actually does so. Under real-world policing situations, there is no way the suspect could have gotten the cuffs that far up his arm. Oh, and ...

Three: Chavis Carter is left-handed. The simulation only works because there's room to the right of where the simulated suspect is sitting for them to squeeze their arm through. If Chavis Carter was sitting where the simulation shows, and if the cuffs were double-locked so they didn't ratchet down on his wrists, and if the gun was in his right front pocket, and if the cops missed a gun that obvious. But even if all of those conditions applied, the simulation also assumes that he's coordinated enough, and determined enough, to shoot himself using just a couple of fingers on his off-hand.

Over a parole violation.

Look, as with a lot of cases, I concede that we don't have proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Chavis Carter mouthed off to the cops and a cop murdered him for it and the rest are covering up for that cop. But it remains a possibility, despite what they claim about that video. And it sure seems to me like it's a lot more likely explanation than the one the cops and the coroner are sticking to. Because I don't believe that any of the parts of that explanation are likely, let alone all of them together.

I read that the Jonesboro PD has invited the FBI to perform their own investigation. I rather hope that they do so. Because they're not helping their case, putting out a blatantly rigged video like that one.

Update: Since this, the two people who called the police in the first place, both of whom watched the event from start to finish, have come forward and said that they heard the gunshot, and that at the time there were no police officers anywhere near the car. If they're telling the truth, if they have no personal animus towards the deceased and their testimony is uncoerced, then we can rule out the obvious explanation. That doesn't change my opinion that the re-enactment video I linked above is bull, especially since Carter was searched not once, but twice, before being put in the car. We're left to speculate on even lower probability but still theoretically possible explanations, like the gun having been somewhere they didn't search, falling, and discharging at just exactly the wrong angle.
Brad @ Burning Man
(One of my most cherished possessions is an old, beat-up, hardcover copy of The Damon Runyon Omnibus, a complete collection of the Depression-era crime "fiction" of New York reporter Damon Runyon. Everybody should read this for the humor, for the beautifully creative syntax, for the artful use of dialect, for insight into organized crime during Prohibition, for the influence he had on all of your favorite authors, and just plain for fun. Finding out, today, that the Justice Department has declared Jon Corzine's blatant crimes as head of now-defunct trading firm MF Global are too complicated to have to explain to a jury, and thus de facto legal, inspired this little tribute to Damon Runyon.)

Nigh-on a hundred years ago, when betting on horses is something that just about every guy does, there is a guy at the race track that everybody knows: the tout. See, here's what a tout does for a living. You show up at the race track wanting to bet on a winning horse, but you know very little about horses. Or maybe you know what was in the racetrack newspaper, but you suspect that other people know more than that. Up to you comes a guy with a hot tip on a horse. He has made a lifetime study of the ponies that race at this particular track; he was here during warm-ups and work-outs and knows which horses aren't in peak condition today; maybe he has a friend or a relative who works in the stables or with the jockeys and he has an inside line on what the jockeys are telling each other today; maybe he says he eavesdropped on some powerful crime boss over a late dinner at Mindy's when they were fixing the race. However it is that he knows, he knows what horse is going to win this race, or, at least, he's pretty sure. Now, the tout has (he tells you) his own pitiful funds bet on that horse, but it is breaking the tout's heart that he won't make any more money than that off of this sure thing. So here is the tout's business proposition to you: for a small tip, say, a few potatoes, and the promise of a modest slice of your winnings after the sure thing comes in, the tout will tell you what horse in what race is the sure thing.

Racetracks do not like touts. Even an honest tout is doing something dishonest, which is trading on inside information that not everybody has. He is cheating, and nobody likes a cheater. But they have an even bigger problem with what touts do for a living, and that is this: any idiot can claim to have a sure thing and collect a tip. If the tout's randomly chosen pony wins, he shows up to collect his share of the winnings; if not, he takes it on the lam until the sucker goes away. For all that touts will tell you that what they are doing is providing a useful service, and for all of the customers touts will tell you about who made money on their sure things, nobody likes a tout. Which is why being a racetrack tout has been illegal for just about a hundred years, and all the racetracks had at least one racetrack cop whose job it was to chase away the touts.

These days, only a few guys (other than old guys) bet on the ponies, but just about everybody bets on the stock market. You take your money to the stock market, and you want to bet it on a winning stock. But you have a job, and an ever-loving spouse, and chores around the house, and kids to try to ride herd on, so you know that, truth be told, you have no time to learn anything about picking winning stocks. So up to you comes this guy called a broker, and a broker is nothing but a tout for stocks, only maybe not so honest. A broker is a guy who tells you that he has made a lifetime study of the stock market, and who has watched the stocks on this exchange all day, so he knows which stocks are having a good day and which ones are not doing so good today. Maybe he even (very quietly) says that he knows a guy who knows which stocks are rigged. But whether or not he says he has inside information, either way, he can tell you all about a stock (or a bond, or a mutual fund, or a commodity, or any other thing you can gamble on at this exchange) that is a sure thing. Now, the broker says, it is breaking his heart how much money he could make if only he had more money than his own to bet on the sure thing. So here is the broker's business proposition to you: pay him a tip, which is called a brokerage fee, and give him all of your money that you want to bet, and he will bet it on the sure thing for you, in exchange for a share of the winnings when the sure thing pays off. It is a lead-pipe cinch.

Except that, again, you will notice that the broker's proposition is even less legitimate than the tout's, and not just because the sums of money are so much greater. The tout, at least, lets you make your own bets. That way, unlike when you are dealing with a broker, you at least know that the money got bet on the pony you wanted to bet it on, and you get to hold your own betting slips. This is why, from FDR's time until Reagan's, there are more cops on Wall Street than they are are at Belmont, looking for dishonest touts. But back in Reagan's time, there are people saying that hey, all these cops on Wall Street cost a lot of money, and because all the brokers are so afraid of the cops they are not even finding all that much crime. Maybe, they say, we do not need so many cops. So we get rid of most of them, and we give the few that are left so little money they can barely afford car fare, let alone court fees. We decide, back around Reagan's time, that the brokers will stay afraid of the cops even after the cops are gone.

The brokers do not stay afraid after the cops are gone.

Now, there is this recently closed-down dodge that is back in the news, today, called MF Global, that until recently is run by a very rich and very famous stock market tout who is nobody other than former New Jersey governor Jon "Fuzzy" Corzine.

Fuzzy Corzine turns out to be a pretty good tout, at that; lots of his customers make money, and they pay him pretty good tips and a pretty good vigorish on the money they make. So now Fuzzy Corzine has a problem that many successful stock market touts have, and that is this: where does he put his own pile of money? There is money left over after paying his expenses. There is money left over after paying off the investors who lent him money. And if you ask any guy at a race track, he will tell you that a guy who has his expenses covered and who can pay off his creditors is a very rich man indeed, and Fuzzy Corzine is rich even beyond that. But what's a guy like Fuzzy Corzine going to do with his pile? Put it in a bank that pays 1% interest, when the inflation rate is 1.5%, and lose money every day? This does not seem like a winning proposition to a guy like Fuzzy Corzine, especially one who is such a successful stock market tout. So he joins his customers and bets his own money on the same Sure Things that he touts to them. This is what the stock market touts call "proprietary trading."

Now, see, Fuzzy Corzine does not invent this proposition. This is an old idea. You go back 100 years to when we had race track touts, and there are many sad stories about touts who get to believing their own stories and who lose all of their own dough betting on sure things that, if they were not such sad guys, they would remember that they made up. But you have to remember this: unlike a relatively honest racetrack tout, who lets you buy your own betting slips at the track window, a stock market tout like Fuzzy Corzine holds your money for you, and tells you that he has bought the betting slips he advised you to let him buy for you. And that is why, back when Wall Street was swarming with stock market cops, one of the things they obsessed over was this:

When a guy like Fuzzy Corzine bets all his own dough on a sure thing, only to end up with that sure thing getting beaten at the wire by a dirty nose, he is apt to look at the pile of dough you gave him to bet on other sure things that won. And, he is likely to reason with himself, you did give him those potatoes to bet with. And, he is likely to further rationalize, it's not like you will keep making money without a smart stock market tout like him, so it is in your best interest as much as it is in his best interest for you to cover his bet. After all, it is not as if it is the fault of a smart tout like Fuzzy Corzine that his sure thing stumbled at the last second. What is he supposed to do, go broke, and welch on the debts he owes, and not even cover his expenses like his girlfriend or his ever-loving wife? No, if the cops do not stop him, a guy like Fuzzy Corzine will take your money, and bet it on the next sure thing he hears about, thinking that he will put the money back when that sure thing pays off. This is what the stock market calls "co-mingling of funds" and it is a very bad thing, and, in fact, it is very illegal.

There are no more cops on Wall Street stopping guys like Jon "Fuzzy" Corzine from doing this, not any more. And his next "sure thing" breaks a leg coming away from the gate. And so it comes to be, a couple of years ago, that Fuzzy Corzine goes broke, and when he goes broke, to the tune of billions of dollars (because these are not just ponies he's touting), and has to explain to his girlfriend and his ever-loving wife and his very scary creditors that they will just have to give him more time, it also comes to the attention of the customers who gave Fuzzy Corzine their money. The customers whose sure things did, in fact, pay off all ask, "where are our winnings, Fuzzy?" and Fuzzy has to admit to them that, even though it is plain illegal, he bet their winnings on a sure thing, only in his own name, not in theirs. Only, he says, it was an accident.

Today, the handful of cops who are still on Wall Street admitted to reporters, quietly, that because they barely have enough money for car fare, and no money whatsoever for court fees, that they will not be able to explain to a jury that Fuzzy Corzine is just a dishonest tout who stole his customers' money to bet it on a sure thing, and it wasn't even a sure thing. They say that convincing a judge and twelve honest citizens that such things happen is too expensive for them to be able to afford.

And that is why, today, Fuzzy Corzine tells a reporter that once this is all over he will go back to being a stock market tout. After all, like every other tout, he points to all of the customers he did make money for. Why wouldn't he? It's not like there are any cops to chase him away from the Wall Street betting window lines.
Brad @ Burning Man
I figure this deserves its own post, if only because it's so complicated, and the previous one was getting so long. Like I said, the one thing that Funcom has been really determined to say in every interview is that The Secret World has no character levels and no character classes. So what does it have? Nigh-incomprehensible complexity. After playing with it for a weekend, and reading every guide that the people who've been playing it for a month have written, here's as simple as I can make it:

If you've played any role-playing computer game since Diablo II, you're probably familiar with the idea of "skill trees." In any other game, your character class has (depending on the game) a certain number of skills that you learn as you level up, replacing earlier skills with better ones or just adding to your powers. In general, you have to either pick them in order, or they unlock farther up the tree as you go up in level.

The Secret World has skill trees, too, although they use a weird UI to disguise this fact. 18 of them at first, each with 9 powers, but every time you fill out two related ones, it unlocks another six skill trees, each of which has another 9 powers. Oh, and there are 3 more completely unrelated "universal" skill trees, with another 9 powers each: a grand total of 525 powers that you have to unlock by spending "ability points" that you earn every so many thousand XP. You keep earning them; once you fill out your skill trees, you can start filling up other skill trees ... and you do want to, for a reason I'll get to in a minute.

Those initial 18 skill trees are tied to the 9 weapons of The Secret World, each of which has two trees; if you absolutely insist on thinking in terms of character classes, I won't stop you. Each of the weapons has a DPS tree. All 9 of them also have an "other" tree: hammer, blade, and chaos magic are your tanker weapons; claws, assault rifle, and blood magic are your healer weapons; and pistols, shotgun, and elemental magic are your crowd control, buff, and debuff weapons.

(There is no stealther weapon, no weapon that grants you stealth and assassination abilities. There also is no summoner-class weapon per se; shotgun, pistol, and elementalism eventually get turret-summoning or pet-summoning abilities, but very minor ones that aren't at all class-defining. Tank, heal, and buff/debuff are your only three non-DPS skill tree types. I'm slightly disappointed; I usually prefer playing the summoner or assassin classes. Maybe some day we can talk them into adding sniper rifle and summoner fetish weapons and weapon skill trees?)

From all of the click-power abilities from both of the basic trees for your two equipped weapons (and eventually from all 12 of their advanced trees), call it your choice of roughly 20 basic and 60 advanced click powers, you choose exactly 7 to be on your active toolbar at any time: any mix of DPS abilities, the secondary abilities for the one weapon, and the secondary abilities for the other weapon. So you can, if you want, build for pure tanking (say, just the secondary trees for any two of hammer, blade, or chaos), or pure healer/support (just the secondary trees for any two of the other six weapons), or pure DPS (just the primary trees for any two weapons). You absolutely can do that, and then play it more or less like any other MMO. But you don't have to. If you are ever going to play solo, you don't even want to; you will want a solo build of some mix of DPS and other, because a pure DPS build will get you killed by the first boss or the first zergling rush of minions.

Note, by the way, that you can level up all 525 powers, eventually, and store 5 or more "builds" of selected powers, weapons, and talismans (buff/armor items that don't show up on your character), and switch between stored builds in a couple of button-clicks any time you're out of combat. There is no reason you can't spec a tanker build, a support build, and a DPS build just by fully training up at most 4 of the 9 weapons. And because of the way the XP system works, once you fully train up 2 of the starter trees, training any more starter trees can be done practically overnight.

Now the super-complicated part, and the reason why you will eventually want to train all 525 powers:

I told you how to pick your 7 primary powers, your 7 active powers, your 7 click powers. Now the passives.

See, here's the first thing to understand about the advanced skill trees: for almost any weapon, you can eventually find an attack that is almost any possible combination of plain single target or single target channeled or rectangular AoE or circular AoE or cone AoE or ground-targeted AoE or infectious multi-target; plus charge-up builder or charge-up spender; plus aggravates or confuses or buffs or heals or debuffs or slows or immobilizes or knocks down or stuns or increases crit chance or armor piercing or applies DoT or just a couple of percent stronger. That's why there are so many active skills. The reason they can say that it's level-less, or mostly so, is that the more advanced skills don't do any more damage, they just offer a wider variety of combinations.

Scattered across all 75 skill trees are a total of roughly 300 passive skills. Almost all of them are agnostic of what weapons you actually have equipped; for nearly all passives, if you've trained it, you can use it with any combination of weapons. What most of those 300 available passives does is cause something to happen when some combination of attack type and special effect type happens. You can pick any 7 of those passives to be active at any given time, and save that with your builds, too.

So not only do you have nearly unlimited ability to multi-class or single-class to your heart's content, and not only can you level up alternate builds at an astronomical speed once you level up your first build, but you have this weird "deck builder" like system of picking 7 cards from a potentially huge deck to do things like "if the attack slows the target, apply a damage over time effect, and if the target has a damage over time effect, buff the player, and if the player gets buffed, spend all charge-ups to cause a small explosion around them that injures enemies when the buff wears off." That's the obscenely complicated and tricky part.



A note about character appearance: your two equipped weapons show up on your character at all times, and they get cooler looking as they get higher level and/or more rare. (Blood magic is a gigantic grimoire strapped to your back at all times, chaos magic is a fetish mask or small shield ditto, and elementalism is a small fetish hung from your belt; the others are, well, weapons worn where you'd expect them to be worn or in your hands.) You can only equip one tier 9 active ability and one tier 9 passive ability; several of them wrap your character in a visible aura. You get your buffs and armor stats from a collection of 9 invisible "talismans" carried in your pockets or otherwise not shown.

Everything else is up to you; ordinary clothes are relatively inexpensive, with the shops in the publicly-accessible part of London having the best selection. As you level up, you also unlock a series of faction-specific uniform pieces that are entirely optional; some whole-character uniforms, some mix-and-match pieces. So other than your two weapons, and maybe some aura around you, you can dress however you like most of the time.

(PvP is the one exception; when you queue for a PvP zone, it makes you pick from one of your faction's three PvP uniforms, each of which gives either a tanking or DPS or healing buff to you. It makes it easy to see at a glance who's on which side, which matters in big fights.)

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Forbidden Lore
A couple of years' back, Norwegian online-game developer Funcom announced that they were making a conspiracy-theory themed modern horror MMO called "The Secret World." As someone who plays almost every non-generic-fantasy themed MMO that comes along, I was aware of it almost immediately. At the time, I could have given you a list of reasons as long as my arm why I wasn't interested, and at the very top of the list was, "I'd be a lot more interested if it weren't by Funcom." As someone who used to play Anarchy Online before they utterly wrecked the storyline in it, and as someone who had horrific experiences with Funcom's inaptly named "customer service" department back then, and as someone who has watched the ongoing debacle with Age of Conan, I start out with no confidence in them at all. None.

And as the game has gotten closer and closer to next month's rollout, the list of reasons not to play it just kept getting longer. The hardware requirements are outrageous, to the point where my couple-year-old Alienware doesn't technically qualify. It's a subscription MMO in 2012, for crying out loud. The user interface that I was seeing in screenshots and in videos is baroque, opaque, and almost completely undocumented. The quest structure I was seeing is antique; lots of "click on a contact, walk half a mile, kill ten rats, find next contact, repeat ad infinitum." The penalty for failing is a corpse run, for crying out loud. There is no team-finder or team-recruiting UI. There is no sidekicking UI to let you play alongside any of your friends who out-leveled you or who haven't kept up. By any sane measure, to have something this obsolete and hardware intensive, written to satisfy only a tiny niche audience, is a recipe for a trainwreck that I could see coming from miles away.

Last week, Funcom sent me a couple of invites to play the last beta-test weekend for free, presumably because I'm a former Anarchy Online customer. They caught me at a good time, really bored with and disappointed with where the City of Heroes storyline has gone and where it's going; I figured I'd spare them some hours just to see the trainwreck and to cleanse the palate, to make me enjoy City of Heroes even more.

I pre-ordered.

Wow, I really didn't see that coming.

Three things really ended up working for me, so much so that after this weekend, I'm jonesing for it to come back online, even though there were a couple of really annoying bugs.

Better Character Leveling than I Expected

Funcom has long hyped the fact that it's a level-less, class-less character system, but defining a system in terms of what it isn't wasn't all that useful to me. Nearly non-existent documentation didn't help. But after spending 20 or 30 hours at it, I get it now, and it's fascinating. And I cannot explain briefly how it works; if you care, I may write a lengthy reply to this journal entry to stick it into. But the net effect is that every half an hour or so of play (and they say that this accelerates, not decelerates like most MMOs, the more you play) you get another Ability Point with which to advance any of the game's 18 basic and 54 advanced skill trees; every couple of points lets you unlock the next "card" in the deck. You deal out for yourself at any given time 14 "cards," 7 clickable powers that define your attacks or support powers, and 7 passives that modify how those powers work, so that with the right combination of cards you can take any build and make it a tanker, support character, healer, pure DPS, or some combination of the above. Any time you're out of combat, you can switch to another build.

Want a different build? Because you have higher level abilities in your first build that you can use to earn XP, you can level up an alternate build three or four or six times faster than if you rerolled, which makes this the first effective cure for my alt-itis. I will, in fact, probably spec a pure-tanking built sword-and-chaos-magic first, then level up a shotgun-and-blood-magic healer for my next build, probably with a blood-and-chaos-magic third build, using powers earned from those builds, if I want to make a pure ranged DPS hand to play. No more "I'm bored with this combat role, I should roll another character" ever. In The Secret World, the only two reasons to ever have more than one character are to experience all three factions or to change your character's name and gender.

The Factions are Better Than I Expected

When I first read the description of the three player-character factions, I said, "I don't like any of these people." But it turns out that because the lead writer was trying to hard to be mysterious, they ended up doing a crappy job of explaining the three sides, which ended up being quite simple:

Lawful Good: The Templars. As one of the contacts explains to you early on, "not the Knights Templar, this isn't some bloody Dan Brown novel." The Templars' faith isn't in Christianity or monotheism, but in humanity and in the idea of virtuous authority. They operate almost-openly, lots of people are vaguely aware that there's a pan-European non-profit private security force called The Templar, who have fans and supporters in every government in Europe and much of the former European colonies. Their leadership are almost chokingly British.

Lawful Evil: The Illuminati. The only break-away faction in the history of the Templars to survive defecting; their ancestors were rogue Templars who figured out that evil keeps winning, that being good just doesn't work, that the only question was as to which evil bastards were going to rule the world, human evil bastards or non-human evil bastards? These days they're headquartered in New York, because the real power is in media, finance, and corrupt diplomacy, and corporate high-tech evil in general. The NPCs are cartoonishly evil corporate management types, and the other two factions only tolerate them because at least they are opposed to evil alien monster demonic forces, and figure to deal with them later.

Chaotic Neutral: The Dragon. A gang of Asian-headquartered cyber-anarchists, who noticed centuries ago the problem with the other two. Well, the other problem. On top of their mutual obsession with ruling the world from the top down, which is an inherently bad idea, the Dragon's head mystic (a supposedly super-intelligent, super-spiritual toddler too holy to communicate with the world except through telepathic communication with his adult handlers) has also noticed that the other two factions are too busy trying to fight evil to actually study it, and too busy weaponizing magic to try to understand it, either. So the Dragons spend a lot of time foiling everybody's plots in tiny little ways and mathematically modeling the ripple effects.

I expected to hate the Templars for being religious bigots, only to have that rug pulled out from under me; having played through their tutorial and opening quests, I find them unpleasantly bellicose and military, but not as awful as I expected. I expected to hate the Illuminati for off-line reasons but to find their breed of evil entertaining; I failed to anticipate how low down in the corporate hierarchy you start, and how much crap from evil middle management rolls downhill onto you. (Shame, they have the most stylish uniforms.) Because some of the game's early press release called the Dragon terrorists, I expected to hate them, but it's a weird kind of Taoist "do without doing" terrorism, one aimed not at civilians but at gently confusing their coalition partners against evil in order to tease out their secrets and to prevent either of them from conquering the world once the current crisis is over. I ended up really, really, really enjoying the Dragon storyline, and I did not see that one coming. Speaking of which ...

The Storyline ROCKS

Ragnar Tornquist, the lead writer on this, has said that he has wanted to write this MMO his whole life, that it incorporates every obsession he ever had ... and I am freaked out by how many obsessions he and I have in common. Much of the gameplay involves figuring out riddles and puzzles (do not play this game if you hate reading, listening to NPCs talk, and taking notes!), and he said in advance that while the game comes with in-game access to Google and Wikipedia, the more you know about science fiction, horror fiction, world history, economics, conspiracy theory, psychedelic drugs, organized crime, mythology, religious history, art history, hacker politics, and terrorist theory, history, and tactics, the more of the puzzles and riddles you'll "get" without having to resort to Google or to spoiler sites. You may have already noticed, from that list, an uncomfortably precise overlap with my own interests? I wasn't expecting him to handle those subjects as well as he did, but the embedded throw-away references keep poking me in all the best places. I could regale you with examples, but this is already going too long.

The other part of the storyline that I had very little hope for has turned out to be nothing less than amazing. When you first walk up to a quest-giving NPC, there's an animated cut-scene; each mission starts with its own animated cut-scene; each NPC also has 1 to 7 optional recorded audio bits that tell you more about the character, the area, and what they know of what's going on. I haven't seen in-game animation this good, or voice acting this good, or characterizations this fun and funny, since Brütal Legend! (And I asked people who were much higher level than me; unlike Age of Conan, they really did continue this past the starting area. Supposedly, anyway.)

So I find myself really jonesing to meet all the people and find out what's going on in the places like the small town in Maine where the ancient Mayan 2012 prophesy is about to come true, to the excitement of a few and the annoyance of the many who are dealing with Lovecraftian horror and a Sam Raimy-style zombie invasion at the same time while lamenting the extent to which the Obama administration's unexpected overconfidence in corporate solutions is complicating the response, then going on to see how the rise of fascism in the former Warsaw Pact is complicating vampire/werewolf politics in Romania, then going on to see how the rise of Islamist politics and the Arab democracy movement are complicating the lives of the occultists trying to keep ancient pre-Pharaonic horrors locked up under the Valley of the Kings, if only because the people I meet when doing so, so far, have been surprisingly entertaining.

Will Funcom support it? I doubt it. Will they deliver new content in a timely fashion, or will we be stuck running through the storyline over and over again to unlock the rest of our skill trees? My guess is the former. When things go wrong, will Funcom's customer service be friendly and helpful or the surly "if we wanted you to have it, we would have already given it to you" jerks I remember? Again, my guess is the latter. But my guess is that I can get $50 worth of entertainment out of this before then. And it's arriving at a good time, for me. So I pre-ordered, despite all my inclinations to the contrary. I totally did not see that coming.

The Greek Elections Changed ... Nothing

Brad @ Burning Man
The Greek elections this year have been my favorite news story, as most of you know. Back on May 6th, Greeks went to the polls and elected nobody; the votes were split in such a way that nobody could get enough parliamentary votes to become Prime Minister. So they had to hold a new election. Which, as I'm reading the numbers, split the votes once again in such a way as to guarantee that they can't elect a government. Here are the numbers I've been waiting for all weekend, thank you Wikipedia:

PartySeatsPolitics (US Equivalent)Austerity?
New Democracy129Right (Tea Party)Yes
Syriza71Far-Left (Socialists & Greens)No
Pasok33Center-Left (Democrats)Yes
Independent20Center-Right (Republicans)No
Golden Dawn18Far-Right (Neo-Nazis)No
Democratic Left17Liberal (Progressives)No
Communist12CommunistNo

Looks simple, right? If you treat the election the way that the rest of the euro zone wants to treat it, the way most of the press wants to treat it, namely as a referendum on whether or not Greece will live up to the austerity terms imposed on them by Deutsche Bank et al, then it's simple. New Democracy + Pasok, the two traditional kleptocratic ruling parties, have 162 seats between them, more than the 151 needed. They form a national unity coalition with a mandate to implement austerity, Antonis Samaras becomes the prime minister, and banksters all over the world breathe a sigh of relief that they won't take any more losses (right away) on their Greek sovereign debt, Eurozone finance ministers stop panicking about the breakup of the euro, the world escapes a huge worsening of the Second Great Depression, President Obama gets re-elected, and Greece turns permanently into the Haiti of Europe.

Not so fast. Pasok's Evangelos Venizelos knows damned well that if he accepts that offer, he takes very nearly all of the blame for everything that happens to Greece afterwards. The only way he can accept that offer and not have his political party completely disintegrate in a couple of years (tops) is if he can stand up in the next election and say that "nobody would have done anything different" and "everybody knew that what we were doing was right." To get that cover, he needs the main left-wing anti-austerity party to flip, he needs Syriza to accept the austerity terms and join the national unity government. Which they've said that they can't do. And that's not going to happen. It's not a terribly well-kept secret that Alexis Tsipras' whole plan for how to bring the socialists to power in Greece is to ride to Greece's rescue after the pro-austerity parties wreck it.

Could New Democracy form a right-wing coalition? New Democracy + Independents + Golden Dawn = 161 seats. But they would need not just one, but both of the right-wing anti-austerity parties to flip on the austerity issue, or they'd have to renounce austerity themselves. Highly unlikely, to say the least. Also, they'd have to get over their (entirely justified) revulsion towards making any concessions at all to Greece's neo-Nazi party, because just New Democracy + Independents comes to only 149 seats, two short. (Now you know why New Democracy wasn't willing to flatly rule out including the Nazis in their coalition.) The odds of either New Democracy renouncing austerity, or the other two right-wing parties accepting it, are basically zero. So no matter how you slice it, New Democracy can't form a government.

So then it's Syriza's turn, as second in line, to form a government. But they can't even get all of the anti-austerity parties to join them; they wouldn't even accept the Nazis as coalition partners, and they're not going to offer. Even if all of the anti-austerity parties agreed to join Syriza in coaliton, that's only 138 seats, 13 short of what they need. So they can't form a government unless Pasok flips and renounces austerity. Which they say they can't do. Stalemate. Unless either Syriza or Pasok blinks, we're right back where we were a month and a half ago.

So, what happens next? I'm not a Greek constitutional scholar, but a casual reading suggests to me that they could call more elections and hope that Pasok loses even more seats to either ND or Syriza. But there's no reason to think that that would work, and the Greek economy is already rapidly circling the drain; absence of an elected government is turning into austerity by default -- by default in the sense of "without choice" and by default in the sense of "by the Greek government utterly failing to pay its bills," without the beneficial side effect of by default in the sense of "out from under Deutsche Bank's thumb."

At least some experts are predicting that what happens instead is that the Greek President appoints an unelected caretaker government, but postpones new elections for months or longer. Given that the pro-austerity parties won a majority of the seats, that probably ends up exactly where Italy is now: an unelected government that perceives itself to have a mandate to impose austerity, to shut down all health care to anybody but the wealthy and all schools except for the wealthy and all road repair except in wealthy neighborhoods and so forth and so on, basically everything but services to the rich and salaries to the military, with every other dollar of revenue raised going to Deutsche Bank.

Greece isn't Italy. If that happens, I expect riots. Big ones. Maybe even full-fledged civil war. If you take away the 50 seats that New Democracy got for being first past the post, if you just look at the popular vote, anti-austerity parties took 52.2% to the traditional kleptocratic ruling parties' 47.8%. The Greek people have proven once before that they will not allow a minority government with military backing to hold them down indefinitely. And this time the generals and the technocrats may not even be able to count on US help. And what having a member of NATO and the European Union going up in flames will do to the global economy may end up making the banksters wish that they'd spread less fear before this last weekend's elections.
Brad @ Burning Man
I just spent some time on Zillow.com, browsing for-sale listings in the neighborhood I want to move to. Wasn't finding much, so I broadened my search terms. This may have been a mistake. Because now I'm in the grip of a no-good, horrible, stupid, foolishly bad idea. And when I say "in the grip of" I mean it; I cannot let go of this bad idea.

According to city records, 3401 Winnebago Street in St. Louis looks to have been family-owned meat market, then a neighborhood convenience store, with a two-bedroom owners' apartment above it. The total square footage is huge, over 5500 square feet. It's been listed for almost three months, with an asking price of under $40k. The Google Maps photos are about a year old, and show no problems with the exterior other than a couple of windows that want to be replaced.

Here's my problem. Part of me has long wanted to own a building like this, convert the downstairs into a great room designed as a combination living room, library, and office, and hang up a shingle that says (or, in this neighborhood, more likely paint the door and windows to say) "Hicks & Associates. Secret History & Forbidden Lore. Hours by Appointment Only." Not to do any actual business out of, unless you count writing that book on secret history and forbidden lore that I've been trying to write for a decade now. Just to live in, and to look like a weird, vaguely scary sounding esoteric business, just to make St. Louis a little weirder. And if I did? Who knows? Maybe some day somebody who really needed an expert on secret history and forbidden lore might come to the door ...

$30 or $35k plus whatever it would cost to make it habitable is more than I wanted to spend, if maybe not more than I could afford. Utilities on 5.5k sq ft of space wouldn't be cheap. Those giant glass windows are vandal bait. This is a really, really, really bad idea. But it's a bad idea that will not let me go. I wonder what the inside looks like?

Burn Notice: Too Much Back Story?

Brad @ Burning Man
In about an hour, the premier of season 6 of the only show I'm watching on TV right now starts: Burn Notice, starring Jeffrey Donovan, Bruce Campbell, and Gabrielle Anwar. High on the list of reasons I worry about the show, though, is that it's approaching the point where (arguably) Stargate and Eureka ran into trouble attracting new viewers: too much back story to catch up on. If you haven't religiously watched the first five seasons of Burn Notice, almost nothing in tonight's episode is going to make sense to you.

So here's the tightest synopsis that I can come up with that will make sense.

At least ten years ago, a psych profiler for the NSA named Anson Fullerton got pissed off that there were threats to the world, and to the US, that the president wasn't taking seriously, and that none of the Three Letter Agencies would tackle without authorization. So he set out to use his NSA access to recruit his own private covert ops agency, and he did it in the most evil way possible: by framing America's best spies for horrific crimes and then blackmailing them into working for him. Five years ago, Michael Westen became one of his victims.

Over the course of the first three seasons, Michael pretended to be playing along in order to infiltrate the organization and take it down from within. He found out he was intended to be part of the support team for a sniper that Anson intended to use to bring a corrupt defense contractor to justice, one that was supporting terrorists to gin up business. At the last minute, Michael and another operative took down the CEO and his company legally instead of by killing him. After that, it took him about a year to steal and decrypt a list of every single operative in Anson's organization, and between seasons 4 and 5, with CIA help, Michael took down every single one of them.

Last season, Michael belatedly and too late realized that the head of the organization wasn't on his own employee list. Anson showed up, tricked Michael's girlfriend into thinking she'd blown up the British consulate in Miami killing everybody inside, recorded her confession, and used it to blackmail Michel into helping him rebuild the organization. After one season of this, the things that Michael was going along with sickened even her ... and she's a retired IRA terrorist, bank-robber, and gun-runner. So she cut the Gordian knot by turning herself in to the FBI for the embassy bombing. Even though she now knows that she's innocent, turning herself in was the only way to free Michael from Anson, or so she thinks. So that's where season 6 begins: Anson no longer has leverage over Michael, but Michael has nothing he can use as proof against Anson, either, and Fiona is in jail.

I honestly have no idea if it's going to be any good or not.

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Brad @ Burning Man
There's a phrase I've heard in so many news stories lately that I'm starting to twitch, pre-emptively, whenever I hear it now. Some bubble was about to burst, or some corrupt government was running out of borrowing authority, or someone was trying to finance some scam, or money needed to be laundered for some pyramid scheme. The question gets asked, "Where did the money come from?" The answer keeps being, "lots of foreign investors, but mostly Deutsche Bank."

*twitch*

There's an early scene in Casablanca where Humphrey Bogart, as Rick Blane, refuses a high ranking official in Deutsche Bank entry to his casino, saying, "Your cash is good at the bar." The outraged banker puffs himself up angrily and says, "Do you know who I am?" Rick replies, "I do, and you're lucky your cash is welcome at the bar."

This was not meant to be a welcome historical precedent. Dare I even ask how much corrupt sovereign debt Deutsche Bank owns that I don't even know about, how many criminal enterprises it finances that we don't know about yet?

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Brad @ Burning Man
Last night was book-club night for me, but my hosts and I watched the early results from Wisconsin's recall efforts before we got started. Very early results: huge turnout, which usually favors Democrats, and early exit poll results showing that it was a very Democratic crowd that was showing up the polls, with a 51 to 44 (I think? I may be off by one or two) presidential preference for Obama over Romney. Almost immediately thereafter by: networks call the race for Scott Walker.

About an hour in, the network I was calling said that while urban and suburban turnout were high, what drove the astronomical turnout percentage was that rural Wisconsin voters turned out to vote in all-time record numbers. And that instantly reminded me of something, so I asked, "Hey, wait, that sounds like a gun control vote. What's Tom Barrett's record on gun control?" Quick Google search on my phone confirms what few of the national media had pointed out: voted for the assault weapon ban, founding member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

Fuck. You think maybe Wisconsin Democratic voters should have paid some attention to how that was going to poll, outstate, when they were picking their candidate? Because I sure do.

When we think about the stolen 2000 election, most of us concentrate on illegal voter caging in Florida, the Bourgeois Riot in Florida's Dade County where paid Republican congressional staffers used threats of violence to intimidate election judges, and the nakedly partisan Supreme Court decision that stopped the state-wide recount that Florida law required. Not me. When I think about the stolen 2000 election, the first thing that I think of is that none of that would have mattered, none of that would have been sufficient, the Republicans could have even more cleverly and covertly stolen Florida outright and it wouldn't have put Bush the Younger over the top ... if it weren't for Handgun Control, Incorporated. You see, scant weeks before the election, HCI made a huge outside ad buy, buying radio ads in almost every radio market in America including rural areas encouraging people to vote for Al Gore because, unlike George Bush who was pro-NRA, Al Gore would do something about guns.

One, that was BS; there was no perceptible air gap between George Bush and Al Gore on gun policy. But more importantly, number two, what in the heck were they thinking?

Did they not look at those ad markets' demographics before they bought those ads? Because even HCI wasn't so insular, so caught up in their own closed-off reality bubble, that they didn't know that gun control polls terribly in rural areas. I haven't looked at the county-by-county numbers in other states closely enough, but I know my own state well enough to know for a fact that if that lying ad from our own side hadn't played in heavy rotation on downstate Springfield, Missouri radio, Al Gore would have carried Missouri, and that right there would have been enough to put him over the top even if the Republicans stole Florida, and the Iraq War and the Bush tax cuts would never have happened. Thanks, Handgun Control! No wonder you had to change your name. Idiots.

And there is no excuse, in 2012, for a Democratic politician or voter in Wisconsin not to know that the only, only, only reliable way to get about 10%, maybe 20% of rural registered voters to bother to vote is to threaten to take away their guns.

Look.

If you're that anti-gun, if you're so anti-gun (and know so little about guns, or about what the law actually said) that you think that the assault weapons ban was a smart piece of legislation, that is absolutely your right. And it is absolutely your right to vote for candidates who agree with you. But if you do, and if you win? You just plain need to accept the fact that for statewide office in almost every state, and for national office, you just handed the election to the other party.

I went into last night howling for Democratic Party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz's head on a platter for writing off the Wisconsin recall election, for refusing to put any national Democratic money into the race. Now, I don't blame her. No amount of money could have elected an anti-gun candidate as governor of Wisconsin. And the Wisconsin Democratic Party should have known that. And because they didn't, Scott Walker is going to get away with claiming that the race was actually about his economic policies, he's going to trumpet a statewide and, dare I say it, national mandate for less pensions, lower wages, no contract negotiating rights, fewer teachers, less independence for the teachers that remain, and more, more, always more tax breaks and cash handouts for the wealthy.

So, congratulations Wisconsin Democrats. Your idiotic decision to put an anti-gun candidate at the top of your statewide ticket may well have just cost us the entire US economy. I hope you're proud of yourselves.
Brad @ Burning Man
In the whole argument about austerity versus stimulus, fear of unemployment versus fear of national debt, fear of printing money and inflation versus fear of stagnation and deflation, even the best professional economists are having a hard time explaining what's wrong with the right-wing talking point, "Government should manage their finances like a family! When times are tight, you tighten your belt!"

I've thought about this for a long time, and I think I can explain it a little better, because the analogy actually does work ... for certain kinds of families. Specifically, it works for families that may not be like yours. You do know that not everybody is salaried, right? There are even families that don't work for hourly wages, per se. There are families that have cyclical income. Whether you're rich or poor, you probably actually know at least one family like this. High end realtors earn little or nothing between big sales. Authors make little or nothing between widely-scattered book advances. Contractors only get paid when they land a contract. Farmers only get paid at harvest times, and the less diversified the farm, the longer they go between (hopefully large) paydays, and itinerant farm labor also only get paid their much lower salaries at the same harvest times. Seasonal retail workers make next to nothing between big holiday sales periods, whether they own the retail shop or just work in one, and for that matter, most family-owned businesses will tell you that income varies widely from month to month.

Whether those families are rich or they're poor or they're in between, what they all have in common is income that is hard to predict. It's cyclical: whether it's regular, or irregular (predictable or unpredictable), it follows a pattern of good months followed by bad months followed, somewhat predictably, by more good months (and after that, just as predictably, more bad months, ad infinitum). And so they have to plan, and spend, accordingly.

Because of something called the business cycle, the boom and bust pattern that no government or economy has ever completely eradicated, government tax collections follow the same pattern as those families. And if I can get you to think about a government budget the way a family with cyclical income has to think about their budget issues, then you'll be that much closer to understanding the argument between "freshwater" (Republican and right-wing Democrat) pro-cyclical and "saltwater" (liberal) counter-cyclical economics.

Pro-Cyclical Family Budgeting

Imagine you're a farmer or a writer or a contractor or a realtor and you just got a big payday, way bigger than last month. Now that your income has risen to that level, you can predict with confidence (as long as you ignore any pesky complaints from people who insist that there are things called "fundamentals") that this reflects a change in your basic situation. Obviously you have become much smarter, you are managing much more intelligently, you have become much more productive than in those months that didn't have a harvest or a contract.

Therefore you can do two very important things. First of all, you quit any other jobs that you're working. If your spouse has a job, they should quit it. It's inefficient. It's wasteful. Secondly, now that you have this new permanent higher income, you should adjust your spending accordingly. This is a good time to go out and invest in expensive hobbies that you've never been able to afford before. In particular, now that you're going to be earning this much money every month from now on, you need to move to a well-guarded gated community, one that hires lots of guards. Buy a lot more guns, too.

Oh, wait, that was a one-time windfall, and it will be some unpredictable number of months before you get another one? Well, the most important thing is not to give up your space in that huge house in that well-guarded gated community, or to give up your guns, because you'll need them some day. The most important thing to do is to cut spending. And since you're not working right now, that means sell your tools. You don't need to drive to work right now, so sell the car. You don't need your work clothes, either. Liquidate everything. And don't take any additional professional development classes, because you can't afford that. Times are tight; you need to adjust spending accordingly. If anybody peskily asks you how you're going to get more income without your tractor or your seed corn or your tools or your typewriter or your car or your business clothes or up-to-date professional qualifications, well, comfort yourself that you still live in a gated community and still own lots of guns; you can make them go away. And what do they know? After all, sooner or later someone will notice how thrifty and smart you are for having liquidated all of your working tools, and will invest in you.

Counter-Cyclical Family Budgeting

Now, instead, imagine that you're a farmer or a writer or a contractor and you just got a big payday, way bigger than last month. You know that after this month, or at most after a couple of months, the income is going to go back down, so the most important thing you can do is to watch your spending like a hawk. Don't use that as an excuse to cut other side-income, don't use that as an excuse to invest in luxuries. If you can put that money somewhere where you know for a fact that it'll increase your productive income later, ideally in some way that won't increase your spending during the lean months, like investing in additional training or education or in durable goods, this is really the time to do it. It's probably not a bad idea to be charitable to people less well off, too, so that people will think well of you when your income is down, but don't go overboard. Most importantly, set as much of that money aside for the lean months as you can. If you're getting an exceptionally large income and you're not setting money aside, you know that you're doing something wrong!

The next month, or after a couple of months, it's not harvest time or you haven't had a contract lately and income is down. But the good news is that you didn't spend the previous months borrowing madly. And because you didn't give up your other sources of income, you still have some money coming in. You should even have some savings. But even if the lean months last longer than the savings does, you also have productive equipment to borrow against, judiciously, and because you didn't go overboard during the good months, you have excellent credit. You'd still rather not borrow money, but you can rest assured that if you do so while your credit is good and your interest rate is low, and if you kept yourself employable during the good months and you don't sell off your tools now, you can pay it down during the good months.

Governments SHOULD Manage Their Finances Like a Smart Family: Counter-Cyclically

I don't know how many of you remember the 1995 US government shut-down? In the 1994 midterm elections of Bill Clinton's first term, the Republican Party was swept into Congress in huge numbers, and pro-cyclical economic genius Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House, the leader of the side of Congress where all budget bills have to originate. At the time, the business cycle was roaring, in the early (and least fraudulent) stages of what came to be known as the Dot-Com Bubble. The Congressional Budget Office had predicted deficits as far as the eye could see, but actual government income rose precipitously. Analysis at the time showed that expenses were exactly as had been predicted, and income was exactly as had been predicted, except for one category. Because there was so much churn in Internet stocks, the government was taking in a huge amount of money in short-term capital gains, way more than was predicted. And so Newt Gingrich marshaled the Republicans to refuse to pass any budget unless it sharply slashed taxes. President Clinton, who was, on every other economic issue except pro-cyclical versus counter-cyclical economics, a moderate Republican, insisted instead on modest cuts to government spending, and on using the money from those cuts and the short-term capital gains tax windfall to pay down the national debt.

Clinton won, and the US made the first (and last) national debt principal payments since the Vietnam War. Republicans predicted that government would explode, that liberty would erode, that investors would stop investing because they were over-taxed; none of these things happened. At least, not until it turned out that most of the actual revenue in the Dot-Com bubble was from spending to fix the Y2K bug, spending collapsed early in the Bush the Younger administration, and capital gains tax revenues went back to what the CBO had originally predicted them to be. In other words, contrary to Gingrich's prediction (and Wired magazine's, and all of the Dot-Com fraudsters'), the "Long Boom" was, in fact, an ordinary (if large) business cycle bubble, and thank all holy gods we didn't slash taxes at the time or we'd have been even more screwed when we went back to normal levels of revenue or worse.

Because worse came. The American people elected a President who agreed with the Republican party (and with right-wing Democrats) that we needed pro-cyclical economic policies. Government revenue was down, so Bush threw away much of the income the government was still drawing by passing huge tax cuts. He also chose that time to bulk up our gun collection (huge private security contracts) and to invest in expensive luxuries we couldn't afford, like the Iraq War, while slashing investment in education and slashing the budget for repairs to the things that make us productive, from roads to ports. Unsurprisingly, as our tools and our skills got farther and farther out of date, nobody hired us.

Look. You want what the Internet calls the tl;dr ("Too Long, Didn't Read") version of this? Government should manage its finances like a farm family. And there's a farmers' saying that describes austerity politics, an old saying, one that probably goes back at least as far as the bronze age: "eating your seed corn." When the business cycle is roaring, government should be slashing spending and paying down debt and raising taxes, just like during rich months and rich years farmers know to cut their spending, pay down debt, set aside money for later, and keep looking for more income opportunities. When the business cycle contracts, governments should be borrowing all that cheap money that's out there to upgrade our tools and our skills, so that we can be competitive when the economy recovers, just like a smart farmer who kept his credit rating intact during the good months specifically so he could borrow rather than eat his seed corn.

Republican and right-wing Democrat "freshwater economics" austerians want the government to manage its finances like a family, all right. Like an exceptionally stupid family.
Brad @ Burning Man
I recently finished Jay Lake, Tobias Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, John Scalzi, and Karl Schroeder's shared-world anthology Metatropolis (Tor, 2010, John Scalzi ed), and I have only one major complaint about it: there isn't enough of it. It arguably needed at least one, maybe two more stories in the anthology to fill in some missing plot threads. What I really want is what we eventually got out of Terry Windling, et al's Borderland, et seq. Metatropolis wants to be the first of an entire series of shared-world novels and anthologies using this setting.

I'd like to think that it could happen, because in a weird sort of a way, perhaps unconscious on the part of the authors, it has a lot in common with the Bordertown series. In a very real way, the "Metatropolis" of this book is to 3rd-wave cyberpunk what Bordertown was to 2nd-wave urban fantasy. Both are collections of very relatable characters dropped into what are, or ought by all rights to be, horrible dystopias. Both assume a collapsed, closed off economy, and neither one glosses over the suffering and hard work that goes into living in a post-economic society, into rebooting an economy almost from scratch. But in both series, because each and every one of the main characters has refused to give up, and because the people who came before them refused to give up, and because people the rest of us abandoned are open to improvisation and clinging to the hope for joy, a better world is emerging, a world that even the rich who escaped the catastrophe, whether the high elves on Dragon's Tooth Hill or the corporate barons of the free-city enclaves, are starting to envy as much as they fear it.

I really want to give you as little description of the world of Metatropolis as I can, because the setting really is the main character here, and the slow reveal of how the world works and why it works that way is one of the main joys of reading it. But just to whet your whistle: it's been about 15 years since the US government, choked of all meaningful revenue, has given up on solving problems and repairing infrastructure and enforcing the law; as long as they don't bring down the wrath of the ultra-tech US military, corporations can get away with anything in their own cities. Not entirely coincidentally, it's also been about a decade since all meaningful supplies of oil have run out and the big industrial nations, like the US and China, have switched everything over to coal-fired electricity, leading to runaway global climate disaster. Miami and Manhattan no longer exist, and presumably neither do similarly low-lying cities around the world; other coastal cities have moved inland, to the extent they could. Switching from gasoline to electricity has required jobs to concentrate back into city cores, which are entirely run by the local employers. The biggest employers are big agribusiness, who use their genetic engineering patents to control high-density skyscraper urban farms that provide most of the food and much of the raw materials for what industry remains. If you aren't wanted, you're exiled permanently into The Wilds, into rural, exurban, and outer-ring suburban America where there is no food, no electricity, no nothing ...

Except that that's not true. Because for at least a decade now, various ideologically competing gangs of cyberpunks, gene-hackers, mad scientists, and homebrew engineers have been bicycling from town to town, campsite to campsite, suburb to suburb, teaching groups of survivors to convert the abandoned buildings of the suburbs into their own zero-footprint sustainable indoor grow-farms, releasing their inventions into the Creative Commons so that anybody with a home-brew RepRap can adapt them to local conditions. Co-ops, some of them merely practical, some of them overtly political, are springing up faster than the world's largest private-security corporation can squash them. And it's dawning on more and more of the people inside the cities that the people the corporations left behind are now, increasingly, living better lives than they do. Corporations and their security contractors are cracking down harder and harder for fear that this Creative Commons attack on intellectual property values will catch on, and Big Coal is leaving the US more and more economically and diplomatically isolated; their world is collapsing just as the new technologies in the abandoned exurbs are starting to make life actually pleasant.

This really succeeded where Jetse de Vries only partially succeeded with his Shine anthology. Both books try to maintain optimism that we will solve our problems, that (as the Occupiers are chanting now), "We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!", without hand-waving away the crisis that we're in right now. But the team world-building in Scalzi, et al's Metatropolis far outstrips the individual efforts in Shine, and the characters really bring it to life in ways that most of the stories in Shine didn't quite. I want more, please!
Brad @ Burning Man
Those lucky few of you who care neither about the political blogosphere nor about cable TV news analysis probably don't know that Chris Hayes is getting pilloried, and may even lose his job, for stumbling over the same tripwire that cost Bill Maher his original TV show, "Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher." Over the weekend, in a panel discussion on the subject of Memorial Day, Hayes implied that not all American soldiers are heroes.

For this, he obviously must die. If you think so? Come and get me, then, too, or maybe even before you get around to him. He's a more visible target but I'll go farther than the did. I think that every American who volunteers, and then fights to protect their country, is a hero. But with a handful of possible exceptions, like the first wave of troops into Afghanistan at the end of 2001, I don't think that applies to any American since 1945.

I think those who served in peacetime aren't heroes. I think they're ordinary people who signed up for the only jobs program that Republicans and right-wing Democrats will let us have. (Look up "military Keyensianism.") That's nothing to be ashamed of; my own grandfather was, as I've famously said, a WPA alumnus. But at least the WPA built things that we can use; all our peacetime soldiers have done was stay alive at taxpayer expense. That's better than not doing so, but nothing to be especially proud of.

And those that served in Korea, preventing the Korean people from voting for the government they wanted to elect? Those who served in Vietnam, doing the same thing? Those who served up and down Latin America, defending a tiny rich white minority in those countries and their right to own the rest of the country as slaves? Those who went to the Balkans to put Islamists in power in Kosovo and neo-Nazis in power in Croatia? Those who screwed up the mission in Somalia, thus teaching bin Laden that Americans were pushovers? Those who went into Iraq to install what was supposed to be a pro-American regime, and ended up handing that country to Hezbollah? And all of that at the cost of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of civilian lives in those countries over the last sixty years? I don't think that makes them heroes. I think it makes them dupes at best, and willing accomplices to war crimes at worst. No, I'm not even vaguely proud of your service. No, I'm not even vaguely grateful for it. I am, depending on which atrocity you served in, to varying degrees ashamed of your service. I'm just generally too polite to say so to your face.

Come and get me.

Look, that wasn't even the point that Chris Hayes was making, and if you read or listen to the whole piece, it's not hard to tell that. Chris Hayes is making the entirely valid point that, frankly, the people who most aggressively police the boundaries of "heroism," the ones who most loudly bully the rest of us into calling all soldiers heroes, are, not coincidentally, usually, outright militarists. Frequently, they're worse than that, they're some kind of nativist white supremacist; a large, visible minority of militarists think that what makes you a hero when you sign up for American military service is precisely that you're keeping all those brown people under the white guy's thumb where they belong. Not a few of them wander right up to the border of fascism. And the chest-thumpers and the flag-wavers that come out every Memorial Day to bully the rest of us into cheering all troops think that those of us who oppose imperialism, who oppose militarization, are the problem, not the white supremacists and neo-Nazis in their own midst.

And, ashamed as he is to say it, even though he's a borderline militarist himself, Hayes is as uncomfortable with the imperialists and the white supremacists who are constantly cheerleading for more US wars so we can make more heroes by conquering more and more brown people and making them do what we want, as he is with people like me.

And if the right wing gets their way, expressing that discomfort in public is going to cost him his career. Because that's the kind of country we are, now: expressing discomfort with anything that you think looks like it might be a slide towards fascist militarism is just plain unacceptable for a public figure. We are still fighting the Spanish Civil War, here in America, and right now, here in America, Generalissimo Franco (and his backers) are winning.
Brad @ Burning Man
Read this. I don't give a fat fuck if you want to or not, read this: Sebastian Rotella, "Finding Oscar: Massacre, Memory and Justice in Guatemala," Pro Publica, 5/25/12. Oscar Alfredo Ramirez Castaneda was raised to love and honor, as his father and as a beloved role model, the man who did this to his real family:

The commandos herded the men into a school and the women and children into a church. The violence began before dawn. One of the soldiers, César Ibañez, heard the screams of girls begging for help. Several soldiers watched as Lt. César Adán Rosales Batres raped a girl in front of her family. Following their superior officer, other commandos started raping girls and women. ...

The commandos brought the villagers one by one to the center of the hamlet, near a dry well about 40 feet deep. Favio Pinzón Jerez, the squad's cook, and other soldiers reassured the captives that everything would be all right. They were going to be vaccinated. It was a routine health precaution, nothing to worry about.


Commando Gilberto Jordán drew first blood. He carried a baby to the well and hurled it to its death. Jordán wept as he killed the infant. Yet he and another soldier, Manuel Pop Sun, kept throwing children down the well.


The commandos blindfolded the adults and made them kneel, one at a time. They interrogated them about the rifles, aliases, guerrilla leaders. When the villagers protested that they knew nothing, soldiers hit them on the head with a metal sledgehammer. Then they threw them into the well. ... By the end of the afternoon, the well overflowed with corpses.

As with everyone who actually read multiple news sources at the time, I knew about this while it was going on. I linked, a couple of years ago, to the video for Bruce Cockburn's 1984 song and music video, "If I Had a Rocket Launcher:" this is what that article is about. And I knew it at the time. Bruce Cockburn was only one of hundreds of reporters and aid workers who had, for years by that point, been coming out of Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, Honduras, Nicaragua and telling us that this, right here, is what Ronald Reagan's direct report subordinates, CIA director Casey and NSC director North, were doing there. More kept doing so, month by month and year after year, until well into the first Bush administration.

I was alive at the time. I was working and paying taxes at the time. I was working at a god damned defense contractor at the time, not one that was directly supplying material to the US backed death squads that were raping little girls and murdering nuns and stealing children to raise as pets, but still, I drew my salary at the time from a Reagan-era defense contractor. I paid some of the taxes that paid for this. I did this. It was done in my name, supposedly to keep me safe from Communism. I tried to stop it at the time. God's honest truth, I tried. It wasn't enough. Did I do enough? Do you think I did everything I could have done? Because I never will. I keep saying, not just about this but about a lot of things, that you can't be held morally responsible for something that you were physically incapable of doing. But there were things I thought of trying. And I didn't try them. They would have been risky things. They might well have cost me my life. They probably wouldn't have worked. But I'll never know if I could have stopped the man who murdered his entire village from keeping him as a trophy. All right? I can never know that.

But I know this: after the Iran/Contra scandal, when incoming President Bush had to pardon everybody involved for fear of how much more would come out if they were tried? I thought we were at least ashamed enough of what we'd done that we wouldn't do it again.

If you think that this shit isn't going on in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen and god only knows where else that your tax dollars are being used to save you from Islamist terrorism? You're ignorant, at best. Are you doing everything you can to stop it? Are you sure you are? Or are there things you've thought of trying that you don't have the confidence or the bravery to try? Maybe they wouldn't work. But you're not trying them. Which means that when you are confronted, decades from now, with the memories of what you didn't do to stop the War on Terror, after Iraq and Afghanistan veterans came home and told you what was going on? When you remember, then, how powerless you feel now, but also remember that there are things you've thought of trying but don't have the guts or the faith to try right now? Decades from now, you'll understand, then, how I feel now.
Brad @ Burning Man
Over on the St. Louis Riverfront Times' music blog, local rapper Tef Poe just posted a lovely, thoughtful article on what St. Louis's Metro mass transit system means to him as a St. Louisan, as a black man, and as a musician: "The People vs. Public Transportation" (RFT Music Blog, 5/21/12). Yes, it's long, but it's worth it: take the time to read this, even if you're not from St. Louis.

I got a little bit of praise, via Disqus, for what I wrote in reply; so, for the benefit of my regular readers, let me cross-post it here, because St. Louis Metro Transit is a subject I have strong opinions about -- some of you, my personal friends, have heard quite a few pieces of this over the years:



I'm an increasingly elderly white retiree on a small, fixed income. I depend on MetroLink and I agree with almost every single word of this. (My experience has been different in one small way: in a decade of riding trains and buses in this town, I've never been the victim of violence, and only been threatened once. But then, I'm also a faintly scary looking nearly 300 pound bald guy.)

I especially relate to his complaint about the sporting-event-only riders. There is no misery like being usually able to depend on making a certain transfer every night at 10, at the Civic Center station where everybody and I mean everybody who passes into or through downtown has to transfer, only to miss the last train out because either the Blues or the Cardinals or some tween-sensation pop concert has just gotten out, having to stand there, even if it's freezing drizzle, because the train you couldn't even get to because the bus hit a traffic jam has long gone and the next two trains are going to ship full. I can't blame Metro for that one; like you say, they need those people's money, and I'll add that it wouldn't make sense to design a system to handle peak loads like that if it would run 99% empty the rest of the time. But it's really, really frustrating. 
I share the frustration about the fare increases, too, but seriously, I doubt there's anything Metro can do about that. I hear the same complaints about the price of gasoline from my friends who drive. Sadly, except for CEOs and Wall Street financiers, nobody in America's wages or pensions have kept up with inflation, not in decades, and there isn't anything Metro can do about that.

I'll say this for Metro St. Louis, even if Google deserves more credit than they do, they helped: the MetroLink and MetroBus system is a heck of a lot less frustrating now that almost everybody can get a low-end smartphone for free. Google Maps' integration with the Metro system is complete, and it's usually accurate, and it makes a huge difference. If you've got an Android phone in your pocket or purse (or, to a lesser extent, an iPhone, the mass-transit interface on its Maps app isn't as good) you can stand anywhere in the Metro area, ask for transit directions to anywhere else, and get good transfer-by-transfer and stop-by-stop directions. Those of you who've never tried it, try it some time!

But, I've got to say this: I've ridden the buses and trains in a lot of towns, and one thing is painfully clear to me: there is a huge difference between towns where the people who run the mass transit system are also riders themselves, versus towns where the people who run the mass transit system are people who drive. And we are clearly the latter.

It is driving me mad how much Metro depends on large buses that only run every 40 minutes or once an hour, when every transit expert in the world has found the same thing, that everybody who uses mass transit everywhere in the world judges their transit system almost entirely off of how often the buses run. If Metro would absorb the slightly higher labor costs and run smaller buses every 20 to 30 minutes, maybe they wouldn't have such a hard time getting tax increases passed!

But just as importantly, Metro St. Louis's management has a vision in their head of what the mass transit system is for. On my most cynical days, I describe it as a system that is designed to deliver low-cost domestic help to mansions in Ladue. Buses travel in a straight line with few stops through any majority-white area, then slow down to wiggle through majority-black areas in order to pick up any black woman who could conceivably have a job and deliver her to a job that doesn't pay enough for her to afford a car, at some mall or at some call center. If you aren't a 20-something or 30ish black woman trying to get to and from a call center or mall job on the first or second shift, you run into awkwardness at best: the system is just plain not designed for you.

Metro St. Louis's route designs assume that nobody wants to use the system for shopping or entertainment; they drop you off a long, hot (or cold) walk from any mall or cinema or theater, and some of the biggest concert venues, like Family Arena, can't be gotten to at all. Metro St. Louis's route designs assume that you are in bed by midnight; nobody works third shift, or attends any event that runs past 11pm, in the mind of whoever designed these routes. Metro St. Louis's management seems to take it for granted that nobody works Sundays, either, as if this were still the 1950s or something and we still had strong "blue laws." And, of course, whoever's fault it is, it's nothing less than intolerable that at no time of day or night can you get anywhere in St. Charles county, anywhere in Jefferson county, or anywhere that isn't within walking distance of a train station in Madison or St. Clair counties.

If Metro St. Louis's CEO and all of his or her direct reports were to spend one year traveling exclusively by mass transit, if they were to have to depend on their own transit system not just for their commute but for shopping and shows and socializing with friends? By the end of that year, we'd have an entirely different, much better transit system, one that met everybody's needs a lot better. Because, right now? I don't think they have any idea how frustrating their system is to use.
Brad @ Burning Man
God knows how stupid this will sound, depending on how things turn out when the marchers reach McCormick Place, but I'm watching a little bit of the Chicago anti-war march provoked by the NATO summit there. Most of the police conduct looks like anything else you'd see at a routine, uneventful protest: lots of cops walking alongside the marchers, between them and the sidewalks, basic crowd-control, crowd-protection stuff. More of them are wearing helmets than I think makes any sense at this point, and even more of them are wearing visible armor vests, neither of which makes sense to me at this point, especially given the heat this weekend, but still pleasantly boring. Everybody looks miserably hot and exhausted on both sides.

But a little while ago, the protesters were being steered around a corner by the cops, presumably to make absolutely sure they didn't deviate from the approved parade route ... and at that corner, every single cop was in anti-riot helmets and, and here's the part that really caught my attention, every single one of them had their long anti-riot batons drawn and at the ready position.

If I'd been there, I would have wanted to stop at the barricade and ask one of them, at random, if he could spare a second to answer a question for me: "Officer, I'm not challenging your authority and I'm not going to cross this barricade. Can you help me with a question, though? In your personal opinion, not your supervisor's opinion, just your opinion, are the drawn, at the ready batons appropriate at this time? Do you, personally, think you need them, either to intimidate the crowd or because you think violence is imminent?" Either way, whether I got a "yes" or a "no" or a "no comment," I'd apologize for bothering him while he was working, thank him for his time, and move on. I wouldn't have been looking for an argument; I just really want to know?

So far, it's the only really weird-looking thing I've seen. Every protester and every other cop looks calm, if tired; that one squad looked like they were in a war zone. Everybody else looks, if anything, bored; they looked grimly terrified. I wonder what the hell they were thinking?

(This could all look either very stupid or very prescient in a couple of hours. It will pleasantly surprise me, and ever so slightly increase my faith in America, if there isn't a police riot when the protesters get to McCormick Place. This is an election year, peak "punch a hippy" season for Democrats.)
Brad @ Burning Man
In the comments to yesterday's journal entry about the current round of political negotiations in Greece, over whether or not whatever new government ends up ruling Greece is going to ignore the stated will of their voters, whether or not they're going to use whatever force is necessary to enforce their (just voted out) government's at-gunpoint pact with (about to be voted out, based on this weekend's regional election results) German Chancellor Merkel and (just voted out) French President Sarkozy, an agreement that would turn Greece into the Haiti of Europe, sinking them into debt peonage to Deutsche Bank for all eternity? Someone brought up the example of Argentina, and asked if that was a comparable situation. What a fascinating question to ask! Because the parallels are eerie. But not the parallels to the one people are thinking of, the one only a couple of years ago, but to a much earlier one that involved not just Argentina, but Mexico and Brazil and other third-world countries: the one in 1987.

Lets return to those thrilling (and not in a good way) days of yesteryear, to the late 1970s, when (as I keep having to remind people) Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Venezuela had just taken advantage of the fact that the US Marine Corps was still reeling from their humiliating defeat in Vietnam, and was in no condition to come and take their oil away any more, and on the pretext of protesting US support for Israel, quadrupled the price of oil overnight. When you quadruple the price of the most important input to every single manufactured good on the planet (and a fair amount of its food supply), unsurprisingly the result is runaway inflation and a crashed economy for the decade or so that it takes to reprice every good and service on the planet around the new raw-resource prices.

(Reagan, who like most Republicans was deeply in bed with the Saudi royalty, blamed the unions instead, because he didn't need the Marines to crush them, and being seen to do something was politically savier than what his predecessor did, which was nothing. And claimed credit when the economy finally naturally recovered. But that's neither here nor there.)

Several consecutive years of runaway inflation put the banking sector in a bad way: who puts money into banks when they're guaranteed to lose money to inflation? Who puts money into a 6% savings account when inflation is 11%? So the banks convinced President Carter, and Congress, to lift all the existing restrictions on what they could invest in, in hopes that they'd find something that would reliably pay greater than 11% return on investment, so that people and companies would go back to putting money in savings accounts. And, being a coke-fueled gang of inbred upper-class morons, the banksters of the mid 1970s to the early 1980s followed each other over an entire series of cliffs, in exactly that way that real-world lemmings don't.

The first disastrous cliff was Houston commercial real estate, on the half-brained theory that oil would never, ever, ever drop below the price at which it was profitable to drill through deep layers of Texas/Oklahoma granite to get to it, and in support of the Randroid theory that Houston's libertarian lack of zoning regulations meant that its real estate market would always be profitable; as soon as all the banksters were invested to the hilt, Iran and Iraq went to war on each other, ignored their OPEC quotas and briefly crashed the price of oil, just long enough to bankrupt every oil company and every real estate developer in Houston. And, of course, the banks that lent them the money to saturate Houston with empty office towers.

(Joke I heard at the time: Two girls are walking through the woods when they get stopped by a talking frog: "Kiss me, I'm secretly a Texas oil baron!" One of the girls picks up the frog, starts to kiss him, thinks twice and instead tucks him into her purse. She explains to the other girl, "It occurred to me that in today's economy, a talking frog is worth more than a Texas oil baron." P.S. You've heard of one of those suddenly-worthless Texas oil barons; he just got convicted of war crimes the other day.)

There was an equally disastrous third round of industry-wide self-immolation, the fad for issuing junk bonds to corrupt leveraged buyout artists that paid themselves multi-million dollar salaries while selling off all the production equipment in a company and liquidating the pension funds in order to pay junk-bond interest rates; the banksters thought that there would be enough money left to pay those loans back before the resulting companies went bankrupt. There wasn't. It wasn't until their fourth try that the banksters found a scam that actually worked: issuing 9 times as much credit as people could actually afford to American middle class households, and then soaking them with fees and penalty interest rates, because it turns out that middle class families will, in fact, work 80 to 100 hours a week each and loot their kids' college funds, and even starve their kids and skip doctor appointments if necessary, to preserve their credit scores. (And now you understand why, during the Clinton administration, we got "bankruptcy reform" that made it impossible to get out from under those debts.) Besides, by the time the bankster herd got en masse to the fourth scam, OPEC's one-time price spike had been priced into everything, so the era of runaway inflation was over. Even so, they still required repeated rounds of billions of dollars worth of taxpayer bailouts to return the industry to bare profitability.

But you'll notice I skipped the second one? The second one is the one that's relevant to Greece now.

Having utterly lost all of their capital to a slow-motion bank run caused by stagflation at home, having then raised more capital and lost all of it over-spending on Houston commercial real-estate right before an American oil-industry temporary bankruptcy, they raised yet more capital and invested it all in a brilliant idea: third world sovereign debt.

These were countries all over the southern half of the globe that were trying desperately to catch up with Europe and North America, that needed to borrow tons of money if they were ever going to build the stuff an industrial economy needs: schools, colleges, roads, ports, markets, factories, worker housing, police stations, court houses, etc, the stuff that Europeans built (originally) with money they looted from the third world during the colonial era and that America built with the money they looted from the third world and from the Europeans when people had no choice but to pay any price we demanded for industrial goods after World War II. The countries that had been twice victimized by imperialism and colonialism had none of this stuff, and were eager to borrow money to build it ... even at the ruinous interest rates they were being charged, on the basis of the fact that, as countries that didn't yet have any of the stuff you need to run an industrial economy, they had no tax base to speak of.

But in the late 1970s, American banksters reasoned it like this: third world governments may pay high interest rates because they have no choice, but there is no way any government ever will default on their debts. Ever. They wouldn't dare, because it would only drive their interest rates higher, because it would deprive them of any chance to ever borrow money again, of any hope of ever catching up with the rest of us. And besides, they don't ever have to default on their debts: they have armies that can go out and collect whatever they need to from their own citizens if that's what it takes to pay off the debt. So every coke-fueled inbred upper-class yuppie bankster twit in America rushed to take what little money they could still raise on the stock market (after two consecutive idiocy-fueled industry-wide crashes) and lend it out to every country in Latin America, in Africa, and in colonial southeast Asia.

They loaned money to those countries in quantities and at interest rates that they knew, knew for a fact from their own in-house economic analysis, those countries could never pay back by anything like normal tax collection on a productive economy. If nothing else, the loans were due long, long before any of the stuff they were borrowing to build would be profitable. But more to the point, they also knew, from what their own loan representatives were telling them, that 50%, 75%, sometimes even 95% of the money lent was just being outright stolen, that only trace amounts of it were being invested in actual capital that would actually make the countries profitable. Which was just fine with the banksters; a fair amount of the stolen money was coming back to the banksters as deposits, after all. They're going to borrow money from us at 19% and lend it back to us at 6%? Okay!

And they knew what they were going to do when the loans came due, too. They knew that by then, the CIA and the US Marine Corps would be back up to strength, and that no US president would ever, ever let some little third-world country get away with defaulting on a debt to an American corporation. If any country tried, they knew that the US CIA and the US Marine Corps would intervene to install a military dictatorship that would, if need be, send their own army out into the countryside to seize every possible resource, to seize every capital good, and to ship those all back to the US for free to pay off those loans. Because, you know, if they don't? That's communism! And in 1985, under pressure from the US, that is exactly what those countries tried to do.

And over the next two years, voters and peasants revolted - and won. One by one, starting with Mexico and ending with (if memory serves) Argentina, governments came to power that just flat-out said: send the CIA if you want, send the Marines if you want, they won't be able to install a government, any kind of a government, no matter how repressive, that can actually seize those assets. It can't be done. There just aren't enough assets to seize, and the people just aren't standing for it. We default. We're screwed? Fine, but so are you. Every savings-and-loan in the country went under, that's why they called it the S&L Crisis. Among the commercial banks, Citibank alone lost the equivalent of six billion dollars in today's terms. The whole American banking sector was, for the third time in not much over a decade, wiped out and had to be bailed out by the taxpayers.

I wonder if there's anybody left at Deutshe Bank that lived through those years, and realizes the parallels?

Greek Democracy 2012: The Best Thing in Weeks

Brad @ Burning Man
I cannot begin to express how much I'm enjoying watching the elections play out in Greece this year. I want to spend all day with a big old tub of popcorn, refreshing the Greek news tabs in my browser over and over again. This is the best show I've watched in years.

For those of you who don't follow overseas news:

Conservatives all over the world bleat about how awful and out of control Greek spending is, but truth be told, their government spending as a ratio of GDP is perfectly in line with the rest of the world's. The Greek economy is finally completely melting down because of corruption. Ever since Greece dropped the drachma and took up the euro, Deutsche Bank (and others, but mostly Deutsche Bank) has been running a sweet scam with elected Greek officials of both of the (previously) top two parties: Greek politicians borrow money from DB on behalf of the country, money that's supposed to pay for things that make the economy more productive like schools and roads and airports and docks and courts -- and while they do let some of that borrowed money go to those things, they steal a lot of it.

Nobody knows yet how much. Greek reporters over the years kept documenting huge swaths of big graft, giant overseas bank accounts and whole private islands and priceless archaeological treasures spirited away into private collections, all paid for with money corruptly lent by German banks. But a recent anti-corruption audit of what wasn't even thought to be one of the more corrupt agencies has turned up estimates that are making even Greek journalists' eyes pop, 30%, maybe as much as 50%, stolen. And the thing about that is that if you steal half the productive capital in a country, it doesn't reduce economic output by 50%. It reduces it by a lot more than that, because people who see with their own eyes that nobody is getting rich by working, that the only way to get rich is to be a politician or a politician's friend and steal, only a few noble fools actually still do any hard work. After a couple of decades of that, even after the lenders have (in desperation to get something back) offered to write off 71% of the face value of the loans, Greece can't even pay back the remaining 29%.

And so the usual international agencies, backed hard by the German and (outgoing) French governments, got the two corrupt parties to agree to a bipartisan deal: (a) None of the people who stole that money are to be inconvenienced in any way, because they're "job creators." (b) Their corrupt bankster partners must get back as much as possible, by disassembling every remaining productive asset in Greece and shipping it to Germany, and by closing down every public service from the hospitals to the schools to the police, so that the tax money that would normally pay for those things can go to the German banksters. And finally (c) since nobody even denies, any more, that this will destroy the Greek economy, the Greeks will pay those debts for all eternity. Presumably even if they do work hard enough to pay off those loans, decades from now, all that will happen is that new corruptocrats, new kleptocrats, will be installed by the banksters to take out new loans and steal those.

tl;dr version: French, German, and Greek bipartisan elites have voted unanimously to turn Greece into the Haiti of Europe.

Now, here's where it gets interesting:

Greece has a massively-multiparty democracy system. For the benefit of my American readers, let me somewhat dismissively and only slightly unfairly give the four big winners in the current round of elections new names that will make sense to Americans: the fascists, the Republicans, the Democrats, and the socialists (that would be Golden Dawn, New Democracy, PASOK, and and Syriza). This posed an interesting challenge to the Greek voters, in that only the facists and the socialists were anti-kleptocracy, anti-austerity, and anti-bailout. In the end, a lot of Democratic (PASOK) voters defected to the socialists (Syriza) and just enough Republican (New Democracy) voters defected to the fascists (Golden Dawn) that the two anti-austerity parties won a collective majority. So what's the problem? They hate each other even more than they hate the austerity and the bailouts; there is no plausible way that they can form a joint government, not even a temporary one. So the President of Greece has been locked all week in non-stop talks with the leaders of the four big parties, and a bunch of smaller parties, trying to find some compromise that will form a majority government. And they just can't do it.

The two pro-austerity, pro-bailout kleptocratic centrist parties are willing to form a coalition (since their commitment to looting the public treasury far exceeds their commitment to their own political principles), but can't do it without persuading one of the two main anti-austerity parties to go along. And it's just not working, they're having none of it. The two anti-austerity parties tried, earlier in the week, to form an anti-austerity coalition, and couldn't come up with any plausible way to get over their mutual loathing for each other, no way to form a government that's (say) 3/5ths socialist and 2/5ths fascist. So, constitutionally, they're going to have to hold new elections and hope that enough voters change their votes to give some plausible coalition a majority. This may or may not work, either.

But either way, the anti-austerity, anti-bailout, anti-kleptocrat voters win because they've already succeeded in the only thing they needed, in the short run: if a governing coalition isn't in place by Tuesday, if there isn't a government in place that still agrees to the bailout and austerity terms imposed on them by the German and (outgoing) French governments by the end of the day on Tuesday? The Greek government just flat-out defaults on its loans to Deutsche Bank, and Deutsche Bank is in even more trouble than the Greeks are. As the old saying goes, if you owe your bank a hundred dollars, and you can't pay, you're in a lot of trouble. But if you owe your bank a hundred million dollars, and you can't pay, your bank is in a lot of trouble.

Pass the popcorn!
Brad @ Burning Man
Thinking about the Marvel Avengers series of movies, it occurs to me how remarkable it would be, in light of their history, if Steve Rogers and Tony Stark could stand each other. Consider this difference in their upbringing:

Steve "Captain America" Rogers is a trailing-edge "GI Generation" American. He grew up during the Hoover administration, during the triple-disaster of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression and the rise of global fascism, and Herbert Hoover and his conservative pro-business pro-wealthy supporters insisted that there was nothing that the federal government could or should do about it, we were just going to have to accept our suffering and hope that things get better. And it was liberal anti-business anti-wealthy FDR who was the first politician of his lifetime to stand up and say that there was something the government could do to save kids like Steve Rogers, the New Deal, and he did those things, and the economy turned around.

The movie incarnation of Tony "Iron Man" Stark is a Gen-Xer. He grew up during the Carter administration, during the triple disaster that was the post-Vietnam military crisis and the OPEC economic crisis (and the resulting stagflation) and rising Soviet adventurism, and Jimmy Carter and his (supposedly) liberal anti-business anti-wealthy supporters insisted that there wasn't anything the federal government could or should do about it, that we were just going to have to accept our suffering and hope that things get better. And it was Ronald Reagan and his conservative pro-business pro-wealthy supporters who said that there was something the government could do to rescue the future for kids like Tony Stark, Morning in America, and he did those things, and the economy turned around.

For Steve Rogers' generation, Herbert Hoover discredited the Republicans, and conservatives in general, for decades; Herbert Hoover was the symbol of surrender, of flaunted impotence, of can't-do-ism, of accepting your suffering. For Tony Stark's generation, Jimmy Carter discredited the Democrats, and liberals in general, for decades; Jimmy Carter was the symbol of surrender, of flaunted impotence, of can't-do-ism, of accepting your suffering.

No matter who was writing the Marvel Avengers movie series, once the decision was made to set the story in the modern age but to keep Captain America as a World War II veteran techno-magically brought into the modern day, there have to come several points where Tony Stark flaunts his wealth, flaunts his big-business credentials, where he mocks government solutions and boasts of the primacy of wealthy industrialists. Any any time he says that in front of Steve Rogers, Steve Rogers has got to hear that and think: guys like you left me to die. But as soon as Steve Rogers speaks up against greedy businessmen, or stands up for the government, Tony Stark has got to hear that and think: guys like you left me to rot.

Maybe there are things out there that are enough worse than conservatives that Steve Rogers can, if he has to, join forces with Tony Stark for as long as it takes to fight them. Maybe there are things out there that are enough worse than liberals that Tony Stark can, if he has to, join forces with Steve Rogers for as long as it takes to fight them. Maybe. And maybe if it happened often enough and for long enough, they could develop a grudging respect for each other. But Tony Stark is always going to remind Steve Rogers of Herbert Hoover, and Steve Rogers is always going to remind Tony Stark of Jimmy Carter, so they are never, ever, ever going to like each other.
Brad @ Burning Man
David Graeber of nakedcapitalism.com has made what ought to be a devastating accusation against the New York Police Department: "New Police Strategy in New York -- Sexual Assault against Peaceful Protesters." After interviewing many of the participants in the Occupy Wall Street protests of March 17th of this year, Graeber has concluded that NYPD officers are deliberately sexually assaulting female protesters, in plain sight of nearby male protesters, in hopes of provoking a violent reaction, that can then be used to justify torturing the protesters (boot-stomping already-restrained protesters in the head, hands, wrists, and ribs in order to cripple them) for the crime of "interfering with a law enforcement officer."

Graeber says that his interviews with the targeted protesters, many of whom have been with OWS since last fall, say that this cannot be the work of a few rogue officers, because it didn't happen with any regularity until March 17th, and then on the 17th it became something that multiple cops, widely separated from each other, all started to do at the same time. Graeber argues that the only way that's possible is if the effort was intentional and coordinated, meaning either something the officers conspired among themselves to do, or that they were ordered to do by someone above all of those officers in the chain of command. Either way, it's a criminal conspiracy. But so what?

I've been reading a lot of history lately, mostly related to the peak industrialization years of 1870 to 1950, and I'm starting to realize that there are ideas that I take for granted because of when I was born that are the product of a weird, and possibly unsustainable, anomaly in American history. Prior to the late 1950s, the idea that anything in the US Constitution, or that anything in written law anywhere, would be applied in such a way as to inconvenience a law enforcement officer who was doing his duty, was unthinkable.

And the duty of any cop or sheriff was not, prior to that time, "enforcing the law." His duty was making the complaints of land-owners and employers go away. And the main tool they had for making those complaints go away was to go to the person being complained about, tell them to stop doing whatever it is that the land-owner or employer is complaining about, and if they don't stop, hit them with a big stick. Whether what they were doing was legal or not was of no interest whatsoever to the police and sheriffs because, frankly, no court and no legislature was going to care. Any cop or sheriff who said to a land-owner or an employer, "I can't stop that person from annoying you, what they're doing is legal," was going to find himself unemployed and permanently unemployable. Land-owners and employers have always had plenty of power to make non-compliant cops' lives miserable.

The mass mobilization, and mass propaganda, that accompanied US entry into WW2, followed by the horror at the discovery of the Holocaust, left the "Greatest Generation" with a revulsion against arbitrary authority and a reverence for the rule of law that is entirely anomalous in human history. And the GI Bill made a lot of them into lawyers. As those law-school grads rose to power, from around 1955 on, they passed some really unpopular laws and some even more unpopular court rulings that can be summarized as, "I don't care what land-owners and employers want, if people aren't doing anything illegal, cops can't hit them with sticks."

A big part of what the 1980 election was about was an all-out revolt by everybody in America who owns even a tiny bit of land, or who employs even a couple of people, against those court rulings. And it's only aging liberals like me who take those court rulings as scriptural, because we were raised in the only generation of Americans who were told that "we are a nation ruled by laws, not men" isn't just an aspirational slogan, it's enforceable. Nobody before us was told this; since my generation were kids, fewer people have been told this every year. If you were born after around 1970, you were probably told what every American born before 1920 was told: if a land-owner or an employer tells a cop to stop you from doing something, the cop should pass that order along, and if you don't obey the cop, then whatever happens next is not the cop's fault or the land-owner's fault or the employer's fault, it's something you deserved for not doing what you were told.

But this isn't just hitting people with sticks. This is sexual assault and torture as an anti-protest tactic and, as Graeber points out in his article, that's something we saw recently used against people who were raised with no expectation of fair and impartial rule of law: the Egyptian anti-fascist, anti-secularist, anti-corruption protesters of Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring. The Egyptian army and its closely-allied national cops made it clear to the protesters: bring your women into this, and we'll rape them, and then we'll torture you for defending them. They thought that would stop the protests, but it was so outrageously over the top that the revulsion against it was a major propaganda tool that the Islamists used to sweep the generals' hand-picked President from power, and it's revulsion that has lasted long enough that, if I'm interpreting the latest polls correctly, it looks like it's going to sweep a moderate Islamist into power there, as the accusation of sexual assault and torture as an anti-protest tactic has tainted even secularists who weren't directly involved.

So Graeber's accusation is a powerful and important one, one that you'd think that powerful people in New York City cannot dare ignore. It's an accusation that, once made, cannot be allowed to stand; if it can be refuted, the person who made it must be humiliated, and if it can't, then scapegoats must be found fast before political contagion spreads. (Although scapegoating cops is a dangerous tactic for people who can only stay in power through the loyalty of the cops.) When the New York Times was contacted by Graeber, and shown his evidence, the NYT reporter took that evidence to an editor. The reporter then told Graeber that the story got spiked. Why? "Because it's not news." That's what it's come to: police in America's largest city using a policy of widespread sexual assault and widespread torture isn't even news-worthy any more.

And why would it be? Occupy Wall Street annoyed land-owners and employers. Those land-owners and employers used the time-honored counter-tactic of making cops' lives miserable, and threatening their livelihood, until the cops used the time-honored tactic of telling them to stop annoying land-owners and employers, and when they wouldn't stop annoying the land-owners and employers, they hit them with sticks. Hitting them with sticks wasn't enough to stop them, and the land-owners and employers are complaining louder than ever. To any American born before around 1920, or after around 1970, what happened after that, if it happened? Probably isn't really news, at that.
Brad @ Burning Man
In the interest of brevity, when I wrote yesterday's journal entry about the UC Davis report (PDF link) on the still-infamous "pepper spraying cop" incident, I left one of the interesting unanswered questions of the report out of it: what were the cops even doing there, when everybody, and I mean everybody, that they interviewed knew in advance that this was not a police matter, and when everybody, and I mean literally everybody, who was involved in the planning of this was present at at least one meeting where that was brought up?

I mean, after all, this is the University of California system that we're talking about, here! This is not the first campus protest they've had to deal with, to put it mildly. The University of California system has been dealing with disruptive campus protests since shortly after World War II. They have been dealing with disruptive protests, including ones that violate campus regulations, including ones that go farther than this one did and explicitly broke the law, ever since the Berkeley Free Speech Movement days. They have procedures for this. Those procedures were not followed. Why not? The report doesn't say. And the report does say that this question was asked in advance.

I didn't know this, but it turns out that under UC rules, no campus protest is a police matter. By long-standing policy, no protest that is defined as a campus protest is a matter for the university to involve state, local, or even campus police in. The consultants who wrote the fact-finding report couldn't find an official definition of the term campus protest, as separated from an outside protest, one for the cops. But the department that is supposed to handle campus protests is the Student Affairs office, and when interviewed, they said that they use the same rule that the university system uses for defining campus clubs: three quarters or more of the attendees must be current students of that campus, alumnae of that campus, or faculty of that campus, and all leadership roles must be filled by students, alumnae, or professors. It seems like a good rule of thumb, and nobody had a contradictory definition. So if a protest happens on campus, and it meets that definition, then the campus police (and, in the university system's opinion, all other police) are supposed to stand back and let Student Affairs handle it.

At the previous protest, the one where this protest was decided upon and scheduled, there was someone from Student Affairs there monitoring it, as part of her job. She reported that during the day, she couldn't get a good count, but it seemed to her like it was more than three quarters students, not even counting alumnae and faculty. When they were occupying the admin building overnight, she did get an approximate count: 20 to 25 students, 10 to 15 alumnae, and one non-campus person, some kind of legal adviser who was there in case there were mass arrests, well within the guidelines. However, one campus police officer went by briefly and he reported to the Chancellor, the next day, that almost none of them were students. In that same meeting, after questioning him, the Chancellor said that she didn't believe him, because he admitted that he had somehow forgotten that UC Davis has a grad school and plenty of older students; he had assumed that anybody who looked older than 20 couldn't possibly be a college student. Nevertheless, she seems to have forgotten this by the time of later meetings, and in every meeting thereafter she stated that her concern was that she had a report from campus police that "most" of the protesters were from off campus, from Occupy Davis, who had come over to campus to make trouble.

But before that meeting even occurred, the head of Student Affairs had gone to the Chancellor and said "we have this under control, let us handle this" and the Chancellor agreed. In that meeting, Student Affairs again contradicted the one cop who said otherwise, and said, "we have this under control, we have a plan, it's worked before, let us handle this." I can't remember the circumstances, but I remember reading that there was one more meeting or voice conference of the "leadership team" set up to deal with the protests where it was said, yet again, that this was Student Affairs' responsibility, why are the campus cops dealing with this? The day of the incident, the Vice Chancellor, when it was her turn to speak, gave an impassioned 20 minute speech about how involving the cops in this and evicting the protesters was a bad idea, that they were on the wrong side of history, that using cops against protesters has never worked well for the University of California, we should not be doing this, we should let Student Affairs deal with this. Everybody who was on that conference call remembers this ... and the awkward silence that followed it ... and then everybody else ignoring the Vice Chancellor and going on with planning the police raid. And in the car on the way to the raid the incident commander (the one I called "Officer Nameless" yesterday) and his superior, the now-famous Lieutenant Pike, say that it occurred to them to ask each other, "Wait, why are we even being asked to do this? Isn't this Student Affairs' job?"

So, was it Student Affairs' responsibility? Well, Lieutenant Pike and his officers arrested 10 randomly-selected people: 8 students, 1 alumnus, 1 outsider. So, yes.

(What was Student Affairs' plan, if they had been allowed to use it? Politely wait them out, basically. Instead of paying overtime to every other campus police agency for one big raid, pay one local campus officer overtime on Friday and Saturday nights at bar-closing time to be on hand to keep rowdies from disturbing the camp. At other times have one Student Affairs staff member or volunteer at the protest to monitor it for safety issues and politely bring those issues up with the protesters. Student Affairs said that their experience was that when handled this way, campus protests always dry up and blow away, usually after the first rain, but if not then, then always by finals week.)

When interviewed after the fact, neither UC Davis Chancellor Katehi, nor US Davis campus PD Chief Spicuzza, could explain why the police were there, what campus policy or state law made it a campus police matter. Nobody said it, but I will: Student Affairs, the Vice Chancellor, the consulting firm who ran the investigation, and all of us who are appalled by this, we all have "a pre-9/11 mentality." Since the Bush administration, "coddling" protesters (and by "coddling protesters" what I mean is "obeying the law" and "following good standard procedures") is just not what "real Americans" (and by "real Americans" I mean "people with authoritarian personality and social dominance orientation") do.
Brad @ Burning Man
You know how every time somebody in law enforcement does something that looks bad, we're told that we should "wait until the facts are in" before passing judgment? Well, after Lieutenant Pike of the UC Davis Police Department became an internet meme by using high-pressure pepper-spray on peaceful resisters, the campus hired an independent consulting firm to interview everybody they could find, review all the videos and other evidence, review the relevant policies and laws, and issue a final fact-finding report to the university. The university just released that report, along with their summary (PDF link), and the final report is even worse than the news accounts made it seem.

You probably weren't aware that the protesters warned the university that they were going to be protesting two weeks in advance, were you? The campus, and campus police, had two weeks' notice to plan for this, and yes, on day one, one question they addressed was, "What if the protesters set up an Occupy encampment?" Two weeks in advance they planned, well, if they do that, then we'll send in police to remove the tents, and to arrest anybody who tries to stop them. Now, under California law, when planning an operation like this, there's a checklist they're supposed to follow when writing the operational plan, specifically to make sure that they don't forget something important. Had they done so? They would have avoided all four of the important steps they screwed up. When asked about it? Nobody involved was even aware that that checklist existed.

The most important thing that the checklist would have warned them about was do not screw up the chain of command. Let me make clear who was in the chain of command. Under normal circumstances, it runs from university Chancellor Katehi, to campus police Chief Spicuzza, to campus police Lieutenant Davis, to his officers, including one I'll call Officer Nameless. (The report refers to him by a code letter.) Once the cops arrive on the scene, there's supposed to be one and only one person in a position to give orders to the other officers on the scene, including any higher-ups who are there (if any). Officer Nameless, who wrote the plan, was put in charge of the scene by Lt. Pike. By law, the officer in charge of the scene is not supposed to get directly involved. He or she (in this case, he) is supposed to stand back where he can see the whole scene, and concentrate on giving orders, and everybody else is supposed to refrain from giving orders. Officer Nameless instead ignored his responsibilities, and waded in, and so did Lt. Pike; Chief Spicuzza sat in her car half a block away, communicating with the radio dispatcher by cell phone, and at one time or another, all three of them, Officer Nameless and Lieutenant Pike and Chief Spicuzza were yelling out contradictory orders.

But before it even came to that point, the student protesters had, with the help of Legal Services, gone over all the relevant state laws, city ordinances, campus ordinances, and campus regulations and concluded that no matter what the Chancellor thought, it was entirely legal for them to set up that camp. When the university's legal department found out that Chancellor Katehi was going to order the camp removed, they thought they made it clear to her that the students were right.

I kept having to stop and slap my forehead over that one repeated phrase in the report: (this person or that) was under the impression she had made it clear that (some order was given), but nobody else present had that impression. Anybody who is "under the impression that they made it clear" that some order was given who who didn't put it in writing and who hasn't had that order paraphrased back to them? Should be slapped. Or at the very least demoted. Unless you actually said it, you didn't "make it clear."

It turns out that it is illegal for anybody to lodge on the campus without permission, but the relevant law only applies to people trying to make it their permanent dwelling. The law prohibits non-students from camping on campus for any reason, but neither student affairs nor the one cop sent to look could find any non-students who were there overnight. A campus regulation says that students can't set up tents without permission, but that regulation is not enforceable by police, only by academic discipline. Campus legal "thought they made it clear" that the law was on the students' side, but according to multiple witnesses, what they actually said was "it is unclear that you have legal authority to order the police to do this" and Chancellor Katehi heard that as "well, they didn't say I don't have that authority, only that it's not clear."

Chancellor Katehi, on her part, "thought she made it clear" that when police ordered the students to leave, they were (a) not to wear riot gear into the camp, (b) not to carry weapons of any kind into the camp, (c) were not to use force of any kind against the students, and (d) were not to make any arrests. But all that anybody else on that conference call heard her say out loud was "I don't want another situation like they just had at Berkeley," and Chief Spicuzza interpreted that as "no swinging of clubs."

Chief Spicuzza "thought she made it clear" more than once that no riot gear was to be worn and no clubs or pepper sprayers were to be carried. What Lieutenant Pike said back to her, each time, was, "Well, I hear you say that you don't want us to, but we're going to." And they did, including that now-infamous Mk-9 military-grade riot-control pepper sprayer that he used. Oh, funny thing about that particular model of pepper-sprayer? It's illegal for California cops to possess or use. It turns out that the relevant law only permits the use of up to Mk-4 pepper sprayers. The consultants were unable to find out who authorized the purchase and carrying, but every cop they asked said, "So what? It's just like the Mk-4 except that it has a higher capacity." Uh, no. It's also much, much higher pressure, and specifically designed not to be sprayed directly at any one person, only at crowds, and only from at least six feet away. The manufacturer says so. The person in charge of training California police in pepper spray says that as far as he knows, no California cop has ever received training, from his office or from the manufacturer, in how to safely use a Mk-9 sprayer, presumably because it's illegal. But Officer Nameless, when he wrote the action plan for these arrests, included all pepper-spray equipment in the equipment list, both the paint-ball rifle pepper balls and the Mk-9 riot-control sprayers.

The students set up their tents on a Thursday night. Chancellor Katehi ordered the cops to (a) only involve campus police, because she didn't trust the local cops not to be excessively brutal, and (b) get them out of here by 3 AM Thursday night. Chief Spicuzza had to tell her that that wasn't physically possible, they couldn't get enough backup officers from other UC campuses on that short notice, it was going to have to be Friday night at 3 AM. Chancellor Katehi said "no can do," that they had to be out of there before sunset Friday night, so that the camp wasn't joined by drunken and stoned Friday night partiers that would endanger the camp and even further endanger cops trying to deal with them -- arguably an entirely reasonable objection. So she ordered Chief Spicuzza to get them out of there by 3 PM Friday afternoon. Chief Spicuzza "was under the impression" (oh, look, there's that phrase again) that she made it clear to the Chancellor that for one thing, it couldn't be safely done, at 3:00 PM the protesters and passers-by would way outnumber her officers, and for another, it couldn't be legally done, because there was no way to legally arrest someone for "overnight camping" in the middle of the afternoon. Nobody else who was in that meeting thinks she made that clear, only that she made it clear that she didn't want to do it but couldn't explain why not. Still, when she gave the order to Lieutenant Pike, he very definitely did raise the same objections, clearly and unambiguously, backed up by multiple witnesses, who all agree that Chief Spicuzza told him, "This was decided above my level, do it anyway."

So, there's Lieutenant Pike. (Who, by the way, for obvious legal reasons since he's still being investigated by internal affairs and, last I heard, still being sued by his victims, refused to be interviewed by the consultants, so everything we know about his side of this comes from what he told other people and what he wrote in his reports.) As far as he's concerned, he's been given an illegal and impossible order: take 40 or so officers - unarmed and unarmored officers - into an angry crowd of 300 to 400 people who aren't doing anything illegal and make that crowd go away without using any force or getting any of your officers injured. For reasons Stanley Milgram could explain, it does not occur to Lieutenant Pike to disobey this order, so instead, he does the best he can, using his own judgement to decide which parts of his orders and which parts of the law to ignore. Unsurprisingly, it goes badly. Backed into a corner by an angry crowd (which has, by the way, demonstrably left him room to retreat, even with his prisoners, contrary to what he says in his report) that is confronting him with evidence that he is the law-breaker here, not them, he snaps. And rather than take it out on the more-powerful people who put him in this situation, he takes it out on the powerless and peaceful people in front of him, using a high-pressure hose to pump five gallons of capsacin spray into the eyes and mouths of the dozen or twenty people in front of him ... and he would have used more if he'd had it, he only stopped when he did, halfway through his third pass down the line, because the sprayer emptied. When he gets back to the station, Chief Spicuzza (who has no idea what's just happened) congratulates him in front of half the department for how well he just did. And now, as far as he's concerned, he's being hung out to dry. We're apparently supposed to ignore the fact that multiple video sources contradict almost everything about his after-incident report because apparently, in his opinion, he was only following orders.

This is not better than the initial media reports. This is worse. This is an epic textbook in official-violence failure.
Brad @ Burning Man
On some level, I'm startled that this argument is going on, but the news is full of Republican push-back against President Obama's speech, the other day, in which he compared Republican budget committee chairman Paul Ryan's annual budget proposals to Social Darwinism. Republicans and self-proclaimed centrists all over television, the print media, and the blogosphere are falling all over themselves to say that this insult is out of bounds, unfair. Several have drawn the comparison that saying that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are Social Darwinists is as unfair as saying that President Obama is a Muslim anti-colonialist Socialist.

Seriously?

Okay, let's take this seriously. I'll even take it seriously on their terms, and rather than give the whole history of the term and every example in which it's been cited, I'll do what the Cato Institute just did on their blog, and refer to Encyclopedia Britannica. As they quoted it it:

"According to the theory, which was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the weak were diminished and their cultures delimited, while the strong grew in power and in cultural influence over the weak….The poor were the “unfit” and should not be aided; in the struggle for existence, wealth was a sign of success. At the societal level, social Darwinism was used as a philosophical rationalization for imperialist, colonialist, and racist policies..."

OK, you tell me: how is this an unfair comparison to the effect of the Ryan budget proposal that Mitt Romney is so thoroughly wedded to? It is, in fact, unambiguously Republican dogma, one of the few things that the whole party, that all factions of the party, agree upon, that the wealthy got there through superior virtue of some kind and deserve to keep all of their wealth. It is, in fact, unambiguously Republican dogma that people demonstrate their superior virtue and their right to that kind of wealth through all-against-all competition in which the losers are to be economically, if not literally, destroyed. And it is widespread Republican doctrine that if the policies of supporting winners over losers result in any imperialist conquest of other nations like it did in Iraq, or colonialist support of local dictators like it does in Nigeria, or racist policies like the mortgage industry's recent wholesale discrimination against black borrowers or the common police policy of only searching black male drivers for drugs has on black prison (and thus employment) rates, well, if what you want to do about that would in any way inconvenience society's winners, then that's unacceptable.

And those are the policies of the Ryan budget. It's short on details, but the only way to make the department-by-department, branch-by-branch numbers in it work is to further impoverish everybody who's currently impoverished, in order to preserve the most important prerogatives of Republican governance. In the Ryan budget proposals, there are only two legitimate government purposes that are so important that they cannot be cut. Billionaires in general and hedge fund and equity investors in particular don't give up any of their federal largesse, and in fact get more. And defense contractors and the large standing military, the things that give us the power to dictate terms to weaker countries, must be preserved and expanded. Literally everything else, from disease prevention to law enforcement to education to retiree pensions and healthcare, must be slashed to zero, if that's what it takes to protect the prerogatives of the powerful, the strong, the wealthy.

Now you tell me: whether they call themselves that or not, how is it unfair to call that Social Darwinism?

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