Brad @ Burning Man

Volunteer Moderators Needed for Conflation

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.
Brad @ Burning Man

My Response to Leon Cooperman

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

It was Another 9/11, Alright - in Exactly the Way They Didn't Intend

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!
Sick Sad World

Irony Overdose

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.
Brad @ Burning Man

9/11/12 in Libya and Egypt

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?
Brad @ Burning Man

I Discovered a New Personal Limitation

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

In Which My Tattered Faith in Fandom is Almost Revived

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

Christian SF Fans: This is Why I Don't Respect Your Butthurt

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

Chavis Carter "Suicide" Re-Enactment Doesn't Prove What They Say It Does

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

How Damon Runyon Would Have Explained Jon Corzine

(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.