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The Backstory to "Stand Your Ground"

On February 26th, (entirely self-proclaimed) "neighborhood watch captain" George Zimmerman of Sanford, Florida spotted a lone black teenager walking in the rain, and concluded, on no other evidence, that this was the only plausible suspect in a recent string of neighborhood burglaries. He called 911 (as he had done dozens of times lately) and (once again) cops told him they would be there soon; they specifically also told him not to do anything on his own, not to even the follow the kid, let alone confront him. Zimmerman complained to the 911 dispatcher that "these assholes always get away" and disregarded this legal order, chased the kid down, and, as 17 year old Trayvon Martin, who was only walking back to his dad's house from the nearest convenience store, screamed for help loudly enough that four people in nearby houses could hear him screaming, Zimmerman gunned the kid down.

When the police arrived, all they could do was ask Zimmerman if he had felt afraid. Why? Because under the law in Florida and 22 other states, a law called "Stand Your Ground," you're entitled to kill anybody who scares you. No, really; I am only barely oversimplifying this and not exaggerating it at all. Since "Stand Your Ground" passed, two killers per week, on average, have gone free just in Florida alone.

How can this be? Actually, it's not all that incomprehensible, if you know the backstory to the "Stand Your Ground" law. It wasn't unimaginable or inconceivable, it was merely wrong.

The backstory to "Stand Your Ground" starts with this simple fact: a tiny minority of Americans believe that if more people were walking around carrying concealed weapons, then at least some criminals would be afraid to commit street crimes, and the crime rate would go down. This belief has been disproved repeatedly and extremely thoroughly; there is no correlation, neither a positive nor a negative one, between the number of people carrying guns and the crime rate. It's a completely discredited idea, among sociologists and historians and criminologists. But this doesn't change the fact that several percent of the American voting public still believes it. And that's an important couple of percent. For one thing, they're very, very well organized -- and relentlessly determined to get their way. They're also disproportionately important in American politics because they're one of several fringe constituencies that the Republicans have to motivate to show up at the polls if they have any hope of winning. So there's been a steady stream of Republican and gun-lobbyist propaganda in favor of more people carrying guns for self-defense, and for those people to use their guns when confronted by criminals.

But as more and more places tried this, they ran into a problem, even with the few anecdotal cases that, they claim, prove their point: it was still, for all practical purposes, illegal to brandish a gun at someone, let alone fire it. Before you object, note that I said "for all practical purposes." What that means is that if you fired your gun, or even if somebody else saw you brandishing it, the burden of proof was (and, in 27 states, still is) on you to prove that you were justified; otherwise, enough evidence existed to put you away (or at least fine you heavily) for anything from improper use of a firearm up to and including felony assault or aggravated homicide. If you drew a gun on a burglar to keep him from stealing the $100 in your wallet, you would end up spending $1500 to $3,000 in legal fees to stay out of jail yourself.

To the National Rifle Association and other gun rights activists, this was a completely intolerable state of affairs. So they went to right-wing think tank ALEC (yes, that ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the same think tank that has written most of the anti-abortion, anti-contraception, anti-Hispanic, and anti-union bills for every Republican-controlled state legislature in the country these last two years), and asked them to write a model statute that would shift the burden of proof back onto the cops. They intended that statute to make it legally safe to use a firearm in self-defense, to make it functionally impossible for the cops or for the assailant or for the late assailant's family to criminally prosecute you or sue you if you were the one who was attacked, and you were only defending yourself.

They called the resulting model legislation the "Stand Your Ground" Doctrine because, among its many other protections for the person using a gun to defend himself, it removed the prior presumption that shooting someone or threatening to shoot them, when outside the home, was only acceptable if there was no other way to keep them from hurting you or someone else. Before this bill, if someone tried to mug you or rape you and you shot them, one of the things you were going to be asked to prove to keep your own backside out of jail was that you couldn't have otherwise escaped. Not any more! Now you don't have to look for any other way to escape or disarm them, you can just shoot.

Except, of course, that law enforcement has spent the last year learning, the hard way, in every state where the Stand Your Ground bill has been signed into law, that in the absence of any other witnesses, any shooter can claim that he felt threatened. Even in cases as cut and dried as shooting a kid half your size and half your age in the back as he was running away. Heck, at this point, the mugger can shoot you, as long as there are no witnesses, lift your wallet and your cellphone before the police arrive, and if he can say with a straight face "I thought he was reaching for a weapon," that's your mugger's get out of jail free card. Clearly, as with most arguments about guns in American, they didn't think this one all the way through.

Will Goldman Go the Way of Lehman?

Michael Lewis, possibly most famous as the author of Moneyball, started his rise to fame as a non-fiction author with an exposé of his years at Solomon Brothers, the hilarious and revelatory Liar's Poker. The main subject of that book was all of the ways in which investment bankers are (a) really unpleasant people and (b) nowhere near as smart as they think they are, but (as with a lot of books, thanks to lazy reviewers) the only really famous chapter in the book is the first one. In the first chapter, Lewis tells the story of his first day at Solomon. Literally the very first thing they told him to do, his very first day there, was to rip off a client's money.

The way Lewis explained it was this: there are important clients, VIPs, and there are the rest of us. Investment banks would like to make all of us profitable, and when the markets are going up, they do. But when the markets go down, there are a few really big-money clients who know that if they move their money out of the firm, the firm gets a lot less profitable, and they use that leverage to get out of having to pay off on their really bad bets. They tell Wall Street: find one or more of your less important clients, the ones that won't wreck your company if they go away or go under, and trick them into taking my bad investments off of my hands at a profitable price for me. Lewis said that Solomon (and, as far as he knew, every firm on Wall Street) absolutely would rip you off for every penny you have saved up if that's what it takes to keep a really rich client from having take even a tiny loss.

In the introduction to his latest book about economics, the second best book I read about the 2007 financial crisis, The Big Short, Lewis tells the story of having lunch with his former big-boss, the ex-CEO of Solomon Brothers. He says that the ex-CEO of Solomon blames him, Michael Lewis, having told that story for the fact that there no longer is such a firm. He seems to feel unfairly singled out, and it's possible it's true. It may well be that that's what all Wall Street firms' CEOs were doing at the time that Lewis was writing about it, and that it's just unfair that only one of them had an ex-employee turn out to be an award-winning insightful and hilariously funny best-selling novel-length journalist.

But here's what the entire industry didn't learn from Liar's Poker. If you can only keep the high-roller clients by destroying your small-fry clients every time the economy tanks? Well, here's the problem with that. Thanks to the powerful deregulation lobby, the economy is going to tank every four to ten years. If you, and everybody else, blow up lots and lots of your middle class customers every four to ten years, word will get around. If word gets around, middle class customers will no longer be willing to put their money in your firm. If middle class customers stop investing with you, then you've got a problem: nobody left to take the bad investments off of your profitable clients' hands. No matter how relatively unprofitable your middle class customers are by comparison to your wealthy customers, if your business model depends on having them around, and they go away, you're out off business.

I mention this because a middle manager at Goldman Sachs, an insider echoing the criticisms of outsider journalists like Lewis and like Matt Taibbi, is saying the exact same thing about Goldman Sachs that Michael Lewis said about Solomon Brothers. In an op-ed in today's New York Times, an outgoing executive director in Goldman Sachs' European equity derivatives division in London, accuses his now-former employer of just that same attitude: naked enthusiasm about, a feeling of being entertained by, ripping off middle class clients in order to protect the profitability of wealthy clients. Will Greg Smith have done to Goldman Sachs what Michael Lewis supposedly did to Solomon Brothers?

(See Greg Smith, "Why I Am Leaving Goldman," NYT, 3/14/12. See also the reaction piece for tomorrow's paper, Nelson D. Schwartz, "A Public Exit from Goldman Hits at a Wounded Wall Street," NYT, 3/14/2012.)

I'm Done with Rachel Maddown and with TPM

I've been a fanatic Rachel Maddow Show fan since the first day it went on the air. I used to check Talking Points Memo at least twice a day. And frankly, I'm done with both of them for now. I give up on both of them altogether until after this summer. And it's not because I disagree with either of them. It's because as talented and smart as Rachel Maddow is, I can not stay awake through her show any more, I drift off to sleep no more than 10 minutes in. And as packed with insider information and excellent analysis as they are, I can't make myself read more than one sentence of any article on TPM.

Here's why: the Republican presidential primary is the single most boring story since the Monica Lewinsky scandal. It's boring for, among other reasons, the same reason that the Monica Lewinsky scandal made such boring television: nothing changes from day to day, but the news media insist on dedicating the first half an hour, or more, of every hour-long broadcast to the day's non-developments in the non-news story.

Mitt Romney isn't doing, or saying, anything he hasn't done every day for the last eight years. Neither is Newt Gingrich. Neither is Ron Paul. Neither is Rick Santorum. They all have the same strengths, and weaknesses, that they've had all along. At this point, we can say with absolute reliability that the Republicans will pick one of these four guys, some time after Super Tuesday, maybe as late as the convention, and then the actual campaign begins. Until then, there is no actual news that can't be summarized in at most two sentences per day: any recent poll numbers if any, today's six-figure contributions if any, and maybe, if it's a slow news day, pick one of the candidates and tell which of their generic stump speeches they gave today in which state.

Then go on to the actual news.

For the love of all holy gods. Libya and Egypt are both hovering on the brink of civil war; Syria already has one. Israel is threatening to nuke Iran. The Obama administration, through the usual surrogates, is threatening to invade both Iran and Syria. Major developments happen at least once a week in the ongoing criminal investigations of the mortgage bubble, and at least once every couple of weeks yet another big-money "health provider" gets indicted for Medicare billing fraud. There's a rising wave of hate crimes against the disabled being reported out of the UK, driven by anti-disability rhetoric by the Tories. Greece is hovering on the edge of a default that could take down the European Central Bank and the Bundesbank; if you don't read Paul Krugman's blog, you'd never know that there's finally a serious discussion going on, at the top levels of the EU, finally admitting that austerity measures that drive down GDP are just as bad for debt-to-GDP ratios as running up higher debt is. Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev are getting ready to swap places again, demonstrating how far into strong-man dictatorship modern Russia has fallen, and Russian protesters are being squelched and being framed for terrorism. Thanks, ironically, to the Citizens United decision, Shell is in actual danger of finally being held liable in civil court for their long-standing role in inter-tribal massacres in Nigeria. Meanwhile, back here at home, Amnesty International just tallied the 500th American killed by taser-wielding cops, there have been a couple of really big prison industry scandals, and, oh yeah, Anonymous and Occupy are still out there getting things done.

And that's just stuff that could have dominated the news, just in the last couple of weeks. But instead, all of my usual news sources are dedicating half to three quarters of their time to in-depth analysis of the latest stupid-sounding thing that some Republican presidential hopeful said; no matter how many times they've said the same thing before, it's apparently worth bringing in the same reliable talking heads to say the same things they said about that stupid thing the last time the candidate said it.

I'll give Rachel this much: three of the biggest domestic news stories this year are the extent to which Republican state legislatures are making it illegal for poor people, black and brown people, college students, and the disabled to vote; the lengths that a couple of Republican state governors are going to try to do to the public-sector unions what Congress did to ACORN so they can do to those unions' pension funds what fraudster CEOs did to private sector pension funds; and several state challenges to Roe v Wade and even to Griswold v Connecticut. I've discovered that if I can somehow manage to stay awake long enough, Rachel usually dedicates at least a few seconds, maybe a minute or two, to one of those stories. That's more than any other US national media are doing; otherwise I have to read the US edition of the UK Guardian.

But until Rachel and TPM cut back on their Republican primary coverage, and start covering the rest of the news, the real news, I'm done with them. Let me know when it happens, okay?

A Better Death than They Offered Him

I've been following this story since it first broke, a hair over a month ago: Carol Daniel, "Nursing Home Sued after Resident Walks Away and Dies," KMOX-AM, 2/21/12. Capsule summary: back in January, on one of the only actually seriously dangerously cold days we've had this winter, an elderly dementia patient escaped from a Belleville, Illinois nursing home; police found his body, where he had laid down to die in a creek bed out of sight, two days later. The guy's family are distraught that the nursing home failed to stop him from escaping, and now say that they should have known better, because the guy had a history of escape attempts.

Oh. My. Fucking. Gods. I should damn well think he was trying to escape. I will, too.

Maybe I'm projecting my own issues onto this story, but let me tell you: I have no more intention of dying of progressive dementia in an in-patient convalescent facility than I have of dying hooked up to a van-load of late-medieval torture devices in some "intensive care" facility. Both of these ways of dying consist, in my opinion, of taking advantage of the dying person's weakness to inflict tortures on them, uncaring of how much you're making their life suck, just so you can selfishly hang onto them.

Can you begin to fucking imagine how awful even the best damned convalescent facility for dementia patients is? Even if these places had far higher budgets for entertainment and decor than they do (and they don't), even if the staff to patient ratio was adequate (and it's not), even if patients had more than comfortable amounts of living space to themselves (and they don't), what is the daily, hourly life of a convalescent dementia patient? Alternating periods of painful confusion that must feel every bit as unpleasant as being dosed with some horrible hallucinogen, and moments of lucidity in which, gods help you, you discover that you are imprisoned with several, or several dozen, or gods forbid a hundred or more, people, most of whom are in the grip of the same awful mind-robbing hallucinatory experience.

Worse luck for a guy like me? Just statistically, almost all of them will be mundanes. People that I have nothing in common with. Worse luck? Old mundanes. Have you spent time around old mundanes, lately? They can only talk about three things: sports (in mind-numbing detail), which parts of their bodies have malfunctioned most recently (in grotesque detail), and how awful liberals are. Complain, complain, complain. And I don't entirely blame them; chronic pain fucks you up, and I get that.

But if, because you can't stand the thought of a world without me in it, because you have utterly failed to emotionally prepare yourself (as I have) for the fact that some day I will die, you want to stick me in a building full of patients who were over-worked, who are exhausted, ill-informed people? And the caretakers who are, though overwork and exhaustion, being turned into the same people they are stuck caring for? Fellow patients who have spent the last decade or more of their lives living with chronic pain and who have thus lost almost any ability they ever had to think about anything but chronic pain, and the disappointment of their failing bodies? And leave me nobody to listen to except for them projecting that pain and disappointment outwards onto people I actually admire? When even I no longer have the mental clarity to read and to discuss current events, when my mind is fading in and out, when awful gaps in mental clarity where I don't know when it is or where I am or why I hurt so much or who are all these awful awful people are the only relief I get from the awful awful people themselves?

Then I hope to the gods that on some super, super cold night, during one of my remaining moments of clarity, I find an un-alarmed fire door with nobody between me and it, and I hope that clarity lasts long enough, as it did for this guy, for me to find some place where I won't be captured and returned in time, some place with a view of the trees and the stars. I hate the cold, but what I hear from people who've nearly died of it is that only the first hour or so is unpleasant, and even it doesn't sound any more unpleasant than being in a convalescent home. As awful a death as freezing to death would be, it's a death after a couple of hours of torture, not a couple of years.

I absolutely will be one of those patients who keeps making escape attempts. And I'll be relentless about it. So if somebody does get away with sticking me in one of these places, and I do end up escaping? Don't you fucking dare blame them for not stopping me. Because they probably can't. Because I can, and will, keep trying and I only need to succeed once.

(Of course, I've long assumed that it would never come to that. We Hickses are a mayfly breed; none of us has ever lasted that long. But I'm starting to feel cursed with unwanted longevity, so I'm starting to have to worry about this.)
I continue to be convinced that, when it comes to anything even vaguely connected to war, military affairs, or coercive diplomacy, the most important fact of history is the ferocious bipartisan determination to prove Donald Rumsfeld right and Colin Powell wrong, no matter how often Colin Powell's predictions end up being the ones vindicated by the facts.

A quick refresher course:

While at the US Army War College, Colin Powell did a historical survey of every single war in history that any democracy fought on either side of, dividing them into two categories: wars that the democracy won, and wars that the democracy failed to win, either fought to a tie or lost. He wanted to know if he could come up with a clear military doctrine for democracies, and he found one. Unsurprisingly, it was little more than a slight improvement on previous military-science research, from Caspar Weinberger's work all the way back to Von Clausewitz: a list of 9 pre-requisites, every single one of which a democracy must meet before the first shot is fired, or else the democracy loses: do everything possible to avoid military force (#1 and #4); persuade your own voters and the voters in other democracies to want to fight (#7 and #8); and plan in advance the attack strategy, the objectives that will signify victory, and how you intend to get out (#s 2, 3, 5, and 6). And having done all that, weigh what you hope to achieve against the cost of the only military strategy that has ever worked -- if it's not worth the cost of raising taxes, mobilizing every healthy military-aged male, and taking them all into the target country for half a decade or longer, then accept that you can't win and abort (#8 and, informally, #9). TL;DR version: do what we did in World War II, the last war we unambiguously won.

On the other side is a bi-partisan agreement among politicians and pundits, almost none of whom ever fought for their country let alone studied military science, that while fighting a Powell Doctrine war works, it can't possibly be the only thing that works. Because if the Powell Doctrine is the only thing that works, then war has to be a once or twice in a lifetime affair, at most, because no democracy can afford to fight a Powell Doctrine war more often than that without wrecking their economy. Why is that such a bad thing? The reason, say the bi-partisan politicians and pundits, that that's unacceptable is that there are so many bad things out there in the world that diplomacy and economic sanctions alone can't stop. Surely, they argue, a nation that can put a man on the moon (or, at least, that used to be able to put a man on the moon) can find some way for the President of the world's last remaining super-power to project force, when diplomacy and sanctions fail, in order to get his way, without having to convert the whole country over to a war footing for years on end! And while there were ideas and trial balloons floated by Madeleine Albright and others during the Clinton administration, Colin Powell's opponents crystallized their planned alternative during George W. Bush's administration, and thus it's called the Rumsfeld Doctrine.

The Rumsfeld Doctrine hypothesized that given sufficiently advanced technology and best-of-the-best training for elite special operations forces, a superpower ought to be able to find, or else if need be recruit, disaffected elements in the targeted country, and incite them to civil war. As they will be a tiny rebel force, we can count on their government slaughtering them, and then, under the UN's "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine, we can use the fact that they're losing their civil war as diplomatic cover for providing them with satellite and computerized intel and precision drone and stealth-fighter air cover, and covert special operations force ground support. With those advantages over the national army, Rumsfeld and his fans argued, any group of rebels, no matter how small and how unpopular in their home country, ought to be able to seize and hold the capital indefinitely. With enough such special operations forces units and enough drone air strikes, the Rumsfeld Doctrine argues, we ought to be able to credibly threaten any country that doesn't bow to our diplomatic and economic sanctions, and, if that threat isn't enough, replace them with a grateful, and thus friendly, government. As cheap as those things are, we ought to be able to do those things as often as the President wants.

The Rumsfeld Doctrine was a disaster in Iraq. It was a disaster in Afghanistan. Oh, we can pretend that both cases were victories, because the Rumsfeld Doctrine is right in one narrow regard: a tiny America-backed rebel force can topple any third-world government. What they can't do, after that, is govern the country, not without popular support at home, near-universal diplomatic support, and millions of pairs of American boots on the ground to protect that government, and to protect and provision the country, during reconstruction. The net result, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, ended up being that even worse, even more anti-American, governments end up being the ones that seize power at the end of the civil war after the old regime falls. It turned out, in Afghanistan and Iraq, that "Gideon's band" can topple a government, but they can't build a new one.

I worry that the Obama administration considers Libya to be a Rumsfeld Doctrine success. In Libya, we did do it a little differently. We made one concession to Powell and put more effort into diplomacy and coalition building before we went in. (Neo-cons will never forgive Obama for that. Having to have allies who agree to take the lead? Strikes them as an unacceptable limitation on Presidential power, it limits the US to only using military force when somebody else says we can. And a tool that can only be used when somebody else lets us use it is barely better than not having the tool at all.) Our covert troops on the ground were even more covert. Obama was very, very proud when Tripoli fell and made only unconvincing tut-tut sounds when US-backed rebels killed Qaddafi in cold blood. But has Libya been a success for the Rumsfeld doctrine? The news out of Libya in the last couple of months hasn't been any better than the news out of Iraq in 2004: sectarian and tribal militias are slaughtering each other, and elements of the old regime are massing across the border biding their time.

And, although no US newspaper or TV station will tell you this, that is why Russia and China used their UN Security Council veto power to turn down the US-backed motion that we have a "Responsibility to Protect" anti-Alawite rebels in Homs and elsewhere in Syria. I don't think they're just being cynical when they observe that, while the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine was promulgated after a genocidal civil war in sub-Saharan Africa, somehow it only gets invoked against oil-exporting states that the US has diplomatic problems with, and the facts are clearly on their side when they argue that the death toll among civilians in Libya, after our "Responsibility to Protect" intervention on behalf of the people of Benghazi, Libya is rapidly closing in on as many people as if we'd just let Qaddafi win; it's at best a net-break-even on human life and suffering, and will certainly be a net loss by the time the resulting Libyan Civil War grinds to a halt, who knows how many years from now.

In the days immediately following 9/11, neo-cons crowed that this meant it was only a matter of time before they got the wars they wanted. Afghanistan, which actually attacked us, was never more than an unwanted distraction from the wars they really wanted: Rumsfeld-Doctrine colonial adventures to replace anti-US governments in Iraq, Iran, and Syria. And, as the US has openly said that they intend to find some way around that Security Council veto, it looks like they were right; it's only a matter of time before our Nobel Peace Prize winning President finishes George W. Bush's dream of launching at least one more colonial adventure in the Middle East.

(Oh, and have you heard? According to the New York Times, Iran is pursuing Weapons of Mass Destruction! And is in contact with Al Qaeda! If we don't act now, the smoking gun could be a mushroom cloud!)

The "Responsibility to Protect" UN doctrine was, as I said, first promulgated by then-outgoing President Bill Clinton. He counts his failure to send US troops to stop the genocidal Tutsi/Hutu civil wars in Rwanda and Burundi as the biggest mistake of his two terms in office. He, and others, argued that no matter what the UN Treaty originally said about aggressive war, there must be something the UN can do, there must be something the world's superpowers can do, there must be something the US can do, to stop genocidal slaughter of civilians - that it's happening in a sovereign country that isn't at war with anybody else can't possibly mean that the rest of us have to stand by and do nothing, he argued, and many others have agreed. I stand by what I said at the time: if you do not have the ability, you do not have the responsibility. You cannot be held morally accountable for something you were incapable of doing. And Colin Powell keeps being proven right: no, we cannot overthrow every evil government in the world, because the only kind of war that's actually capable of doing it is one that we can only afford to use the one or two times per generation that we come under attack ourselves. Even if post-Rumsfeld generals find a way to topple governments that slaughter their own people, we cannot afford the manpower and the money it would cost to reconstruct those countries afterwards, and without that reconstruction, the slaughter only ends up worse, not better.

If the Shoe Were On the Other Foot

Two things happened to me the same day, just the other day. The first was that I sat down with a nice hot cup of "shut the fuck up" and said nothing about it, all day, the day that my hometown held the first-in-the-nation Welcome Home parade for the army that invaded Iraq. The second was that I saw a preview on one of the blogs I read of Matt Ruff's novel that is going to come out on Tuesday, The Mirage, and after reading that, even more so on the day I was stewing over the Iraq War sorry-you-didn't-win "victory" parade, I actually yelled at the screen while stabbing the pre-order button on Amazon, "Shut up and take my money!"

Re-reading the book blurb, I can see already that Matt Ruff didn't do the same bit of world-building that I've been doing in my head ever since 2003; had I the work ethic to type out a book-length novel and the dialog-writing and characterization skills to sell one, I would have written a book much like The Mirage myself. You see, on a regular basis, over and over again since 2003, I've been utterly failing to get people to take seriously the question, "How would you like it if it happened to you?"

Matt Ruff's novel takes place, apparently, in an alternate timeline where the US of A either doesn't exist, or at the very least never mattered to history; it's a backwater place full of savages, has been for a very long time. But somehow the various Islamic states of the middle east formed a United Arab States that became a globe-spanning, democratic, financial and military powerhouse. And in that timeline, on September 11th, 2001, Christian terrorists from north America fly airplanes into the Twin Towers in Baghdad, and the UAS invades north America to round up the anti-Arab terrorists and bring them, and any government officials that shielded or helped them, to justice, and to set up a friendlier, more reliably anti-terrorist, government. The complicating factor ends up being that at least one of the terrorist leaders is from our timeline: he has brought with him a copy of our timeline's New York Times for September 12th, 2001.

Well, even though Matt Ruff says that this isn't just a Mirror Universe, that it isn't just a world where for no explicable reason everybody's the opposite of who they are in our world, that he has a timeline constructed to make it turn out the way it did, that Ruff calls his world superpower the United Arab States tells me that he didn't do his world-building the way I would have. So, for those of you who have the patience to read it, and for my own amusement, here's how I would have done it:

Start in the early 1860s. Foreign governments see the advantage of balkanizing north America and join Great Britain in breaking the Union blockade of the Confederacy; European powers continue to ship money and arms to both sides in order to drag the war on as long as possible. As a result, as refugees from the conflict spread west, they end up setting up several more countries, including a fully independent Republic of Texas and eventually a Kingdom of Desseret. Constant sectarian and territorial wars fritter away what resource and geographic advantages north America has; it never amounts to anything.

As a result, when the Great War breaks out in Europe, various American states either stay out or cancel each other out, and the Great European War drags on even longer. But imagine that the Ottoman Empire drops out earliest. Absent the rise of fascism that came out of the Great Depression, when the Young Turks overthrow the last caliphate, instead of turning to fascism, they anticipate Lt. Mustafa by a decade or more and Turkey becomes a prosperous, anti-sectarian, tolerant, free market capitalist nation. Maybe they even create a parliamentary democracy, still honoring a Caliph who stays out of politics and leaves the governance to (say) a bicameral shura; maybe they find some other way out of having a hereditary absolute monarchy screwing up and dragging the empire into inter-ethnic, inter-sectarian warfare like every previous caliphate did. However they do it, you end up with a permanent, prosperous, stable United Islamic Caliphate, one as ecumenical and tolerant and prosperous as Baghdad under Harun al Rashid or the Moghul Empire or the empire of Mali back when Timbuktu was the richest city in the world, only stable. And they have all the mineral resources of Arabia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey, and all the agricultural wealth of Egypt, and they stand astride the global economy like a Colossus.

Sure, they have some kind of border war or cold war with the Russian Empire on their border. And sure, they have to worry about the various Christian inter-ethnic or inter-sectarian squabbles of Europe spilling over into the Caliphate, not least of which because if there is a cold war, both the Caliphate and the Russian Empire are backing various puppet states and proxy rebellions in Europe. The Caliphate has to worry about Hindu separatists in occupied India, and both Russia and Turkey worry a lot about China, or about the Japanese Empire if they were allowed to conquer China, whatever. But nobody much gives a rat's hindquarters about north America. It's that backwater state where, say, a nominally pro-Empire United States sells the drilling rights to the west Pennsylvania oil fields to the Russians and where the Republic of Texas, afraid of Russian dabbling in North America, sells its oil to the Caliphate. But any time there's any talk of permanent American Union, or even of economic cooperation that could result in Americans setting up their own industrial production (even though "everybody knows" that all Americans are good at is resource extraction and some farming and fighting among themselves), the Empire and the Caliphate and whoever rules east Asia all back one or more ethnic or religious militias in tearing the whole thing down.

So, you live in north America; depending on where you live, you live in one of (let's say) a dozen countries, plus or minus three. You live the way your 19th century ancestors did, without any of the modern 21st century conveniences that the Muslims have, although local rich people do import cars and the cell phone service is improving. Frankly, after a century and a half of mostly constant war, and after a century and a half of the great powers setting up pliant corrupt local dictatorships to keep your wages down and to make sure that the local resources all go overseas, to modern, successful economies that need them, where you live is probably a hellhole, and you've got very little loyalty to the local warlord and even less loyalty to the nearest President or King or Prophet. Maybe, after seeing what successes the Muslim governments have had, you wish you had one, too. Probably not, you are a loyal American. But still, sometimes you wonder, and you probably have heard of at least one story of your local government harassing someone who used their imported cell phone or, if they were privileged, imported laptop computer, to post pro-Islamic propaganda, and when you heard out that pro-Islamic-freedom blogger or micro-blogger got treated, when you find out what the local government did to their family and friends because of it, you at least winced in sympathy.

But on September 11th, a handful of Christian terrorists, convinced that everything that's gone wrong since the Great European War is somehow the Muslims' fault, have hijacked airplanes in the Caliphate and flown them into the Twin Towers in, well, we can use Matt Ruff's example, Baghdad, and into the main military headquarters of the Caliphate in Istanbul, plus one that failed to reach its target and went down somewhere in central Turkey. Then you heard on the news that the current President of the Caliphate, a draft-dodger during the last war between the Caliphate and the Russian Empire, with a personal grudge against Americans, has declared that several American countries, including yours, harbor anti-Arab terrorist networks that are seeking biological and nuclear weapons in order to destroy the Caliphate. You look around you, at local industry, at a local economy still barely out of the 19th century, and you think that's bullshit. But you aren't all that fond of your local government, so you don't know what to do or say when the Muslims bomb the crap out of your local capital ... although, pick at least one friend or family member of yours that lives or works in the largest city in your region, the city that would be your local capital; that person dies in the bombing.

After the Muslims have bombed the crap out of every major city, once you're living in the basement of the ruins of your house or in a tent in a refugee camp where, say, the nearest state or national park to you is now, get used to it. You won't have clean water, working sewage disposal, reliable heat in the winter, or any air conditioning in the summer, not for years, probably not for decades. Maybe where you end up is so rural that you never even see a Caliphate soldier. More likely, most of you live in cities where the Caliphate is still fighting against dead-enders from the previous government. All you know is that about 1 out of ever 50 people you know, that you're related to, or that you remember are dead in some way that can be blamed on the invaders.

And you still hear news, on your cell phone or radio or TV when they work, that at least some senators and governors who are running for President of the United Islamic Caliphate talk openly about how it's not a coincidence that all of the 9/11 conspirators were Christian. You know that many of the Caliphate's politicians, and nearly all of its soldiers, consider Christianity an inherently pro-terrorist religion. The pro-Caliphate puppet government, made up mostly of former drug dealers and tax cheats and ethnic gangsters who welcomed the invaders, swears up and down, as do the Caliphate generals assigned to the task of setting up a stable, anti-terrorist, modern government in your part of America, that they recognize Christianity as an Abrahamic faith, that they know that not all Christians are terrorists. But it sure looks more and more like at least some of them intend to stamp out Christianity and set up an Islamic government.

That's the setting I would have told my story in, if I wanted you to understand why I gritted my teeth and shut the hell up on Welcome Home day for the Americans who invaded Iraq.


This last couple of weeks' worth of various bloggers' complaining about booth babes at trade shows overlapped with a very good friend of mine's recent application to college, to finish her degree, and one of the questions on her entrance paperwork touched on exactly what booth babes mean to me. The question was, "What does 'professionalism' mean to you?", and she mentioned to me that it wasn't something that she thought about a whole lot, that (like, apparently, a lot of people) she had to look the word up in online dictionaries to come up with some inspiration, in order to find something to write about.

I laughed a low, nasty, knowing laugh. I don't get asked "what does professionalism mean to you?" enough.

In spoken English, a one-word insult, any one-word insult, can be spoken in almost any tone of voice. The same one-word insult can mean anything from, "I like you, you have this foible that you're embarrassed by, but, as your friend, I find it endearing," all the way to, "wow, I had mistaken you for an actual human being, until just now I had no idea that you were a subhuman incompletely house-trained talking animal; I find your presence so morally and aesthetically objectionable that if you don't leave right now, I'm going to have to." Some people always use one fixed tone of voice for a single insult, or a small collection of insults, and that tells you what they care about the most; there are some things that bother people so much that they cannot say the word for that moral failing without loading it up with deep, deep contempt.

For my father, the late Man of Concrete, that word was "unprofessional." For him, it was such a demeaning insult that, even having grown up willing to fight anybody any time, I never saw him be willing to call someone "unprofessional" to their face. He always waited until they walked away, or until he had walked away, before saying, "that was unprofessional" in the same tone of voice that most people would use to say, "that was supposed to be food, but ended up being just a maggot-covered pile of vomit and feces." Dad used the word "unprofessional" the way a conservative uses the word "filthy" or "bureaucrat," the way a liberal uses the word "racist" or "banker."

Even before I worked with him for two summers, just growing up under him, I probably knew by the age of 10, or at most 12, what "professional" meant to him: he meant that if something is your job, you treat it like a profession. If you're getting paid for what you do, you owe it not just to your employer, but to humanity as a species, to treat it as if it is important enough to deserve your full effort and your full attention, and you treat your co-workers, superiors, subordinates, suppliers, contractors, your customers' employees, and even your competitors and their employees, as if you and they are engaged in something important, something serious, something deserving of not just effort, but attention, and not just attention, but respect.

It is one of the unsolved mysteries about the Man of Concrete to wonder where in the hell he came by this notion, how it became so deeply engrained in him. His father was an alcoholic bum who spent most of the '20s in jail, most of the '30s in the WPA, and even after the war, when he finished out his working years as a union electrician, it was in a line of work where and at a time when, my father assured me, just about every electrical sign erector drank 3 six-packs' worth of beer in the course of a working day, and drank another half-dozen beers and a couple of shots of whiskey between when he got home and when he went to bed, and then got up again and did the exact same thing the next day, until he retired; there wasn't a lot of professionalism in that field when he started in it, and was only a little more when I was working in it around 1980. As I've remarked before, he went to his grave insisting that during WW2, he served not in the real navy, but in McHale's navy, on a tiny cargo boat full of rejects under an alcoholic skipper just waiting to retire.

He spent much of the post WW2 era in an artist colony, living on California unemployment benefits ... although I wonder, from what little he said about that, if it was trying to make a living as a professional artist that taught him to take professionalism seriously. Not long thereafter, he gave it up and went to work as a tool-and-die supervisor for a defense contractor; I know he took that job so much more seriously than his predecessor that he improved the department's processes to the point where he no longer had 8 hours' worth of work to do per shift, I know that from then on, long before I was born let alone adopted, he did everything that he did for money impersonally, seriously, calmly, with ferocious attention, and while he was capable of pretending to be polite, given any control over his work situation, he showed zero tolerance whatsoever for any activity or even conversation that wasn't work-related. And if he found himself working with, for, along side of, near, under, or above someone who tried to mix business and pleasure, at all? When he walked away, he would be muttering under his breath: "unprofessional."

The funny thing about it, to me, was that he could be very forgiving of people who were ineffective, for a lot of reasons. He was unfailingly kind to the disabled. He was capable of being amused by stupidity; when forced to work with someone who was just uneducably stupid, who just could not learn the job, he would be polite to their face, and as uncondescending as he could manage. When they weren't around, he and other people he worked with who knew them would swap stories about their stupidity while laughing so hard that tears ran down their faces; some time, ask me for some of the stories dad and his co-workers used to tell about "Arnie" if you want some really memorable examples. But even then, if other people's jokes about the terminally incompetent got mean-spirited or personal, dad would steer the conversation back towards forgiveness of them for things that they really couldn't help. I saw dad work with guys who were having personal problems, who were wrestling with alcohol or drugs or criminal problems, or who were losing sleep because of sick or criminal relatives, who just plain had little or no attention to spare for the job; he could be infinitely forgiving of that as long as he knew they were still really trying, as long as the job was getting as much attention as they really had left. Many of those things bothered him, as a guy they periodically endangered and who spent much of the rest of his time having to clean up the things they'd done badly or incompletely. But the only thing that ever aroused his total and unfailing contempt was people who didn't take their job seriously, was people who thought that their job was uninteresting, or beneath them, or, worst of all, something where they were entitled to play around during the hours that they should be working instead.

I can only try, probably unsuccessfully, to explain to any of you who've never worked in the financial services industry how poorly that prepared me for life at the employer I spent the most years at, the one I half-jokingly refer to as The Conspiracy. Oh, half of the people at The Conspiracy, the technical half of the company, the hardware and software guys who provided the actual services, were mostly almost as professional as I was raised to be. They flirted with each other to an extent the old man would have considered completely inappropriate, they took more breaks to laugh and joke than the old man would have considered appropriate, they wasted more time on small talk than the old man would have considered appropriate, but they all put in long hours, and when they were working, they worked. But the financial services side of the company, and the management who came up through that side of the company? Well, they were almost unfailingly people who were "to the manor born," people who grew up wearing imported high-fashion clothes tailored to them by bespoke tailors. I met exactly one of them that even tried to take the job seriously; the rest of them treated it like a profoundly unserious hobby, as something they did to fill the hours when they weren't (officially) allowed to be drinking, like a cocktail party with a couple of scheduled activities. These guys (and they were nearly all guys) expected not just booth babes at their trade-show junkets, they expected each sales rep to show up with a call girl in tow, to service them any time they weren't cheating on their wives with some subordinate while they were theoretically "on the clock." When they weren't sexually harassing subordinates, or actually having sex during working hours, they spent at least half of their time talking, either laughingly or totally seriously, about completely non-work related activities.

I spent the whole six and a half years I was at The Conspiracy holding my nose every time I had to deal with the financial industry half of the company. I have a notoriously impassive face, but that I didn't share their idea of appropriate work behavior wasn't especially feasible to hide; after all, I wasn't joining in. And I know they felt judged by me; I got complaints about it, although scarcely any more complaints than anybody else from the technical side of the company got. But I know this; neither the half of us who actually worked for a living, who actually shipped the product, nor the half of us who bribed and glad-handed each other while making or receiving sales or investment pitches, had anything like even minimally overlapping ideas of what the word "professional" meant.

But I know what "professionalism" means to me. And, to this day, I am my father's son in this: I use the word "unprofessional" with at best ill-disguised contempt when I say it.

"Briefly:" Booth Babes

I gather, from almost every blog I read, that there was an unusual number of scantily-clad and skin-tight spandex wearing "booth babes" at this year's MacWorld Expo. Which implies that companies just weren't listening after the even louder barrage of complaints about the "booth babes" at this year's Comdex. But apparently having it happen at MacWorld Expo made it even bigger news, because, Lord knows, everything is more interesting or more important when it happens to an Apple customer.

It's been a decade and a half since I was going to trade shows on a regular basis, but I remember my reaction to "booth babes" very distinctly. And it is exactly the same reaction I have whenever I see a religious symbol on a non-religious business, such as the Christian "ixthys" fish logo, and roughly the same impression I get when I see a celebrity endorsement:

This is your company's way of telling me that you have nothing interesting to say about your product or service. So if I'm there to shop for products or services? That is to say, if I'm there for any reason other than to enjoy (read: embezzle) a tax-deductible vacation on the company dime? Thank you for giving me an easy way to see which booths I can skip without any fear of missing anything interesting.

Now, sometimes there really isn't anything innovative or interesting to say about a product or service. Some businesses are what economists call "commodity" priced. Where no innovation is going on (or even desirable), businesses compete on price until all that are left are a couple of companies that can survive on razor-thin margins. If you're in that line of work? Thank you for spending money on booth babes and/or other expensive marketing gimmicks. It shows me which companies are unlikely to be the low-price leaders; the one that didn't waste money on booth babes is probably cheaper than you are.

This has nothing to do with prudery on my part, of which I have almost none. (Except when I'm in the workplace, where it's total, instinctive, and automatic, that's just how I was raised.) It has even less to do with any complaints I might have about women who can do so objectifying themselves by costuming to take advantage of male gaze, which, in social and artistic situations, I am entirely in favor of. February's a good month for that, for me, with both Naughti Gras and Conflation, both of which I'm looking forward to, plus Literary Nudes, which I almost hesitate to plug because it's outgrowing its venue already.

But at a trade show where I might've gone to shop for a company I run or work for, on the company dime? It's beneath my contempt.



Yesterday afternoon, I had a couple of minutes to kill, so I pulled one of my old favorite books down off of the shelf: Barbara Ninde Byfield, The Book of Weird, in trade paperback, from 1973.


It came apart in my hands, mostly. The pages are cracking, the binding is shot. Shame. It was a thing of beauty, both the pictures and the prose. I think I can either read it again, maybe one more time period, or I can keep it, but I can't do both.

Tonight, before bed, I glanced over at John Scalzi's blog, and saw that he, too, had permanence vs. impermanence of books on his mind, the last couple of days: a lovely meditation on the pointlessness of trying to "write for the ages," and then a follow-up in which he gently picks a fight with Jonathan Franzen on the "permanence" and "solidity" of paper books vs e-books.

Ars longa, vita brevis, my ass.


How Would SOPA/PIPA be Enforced?

It's taken me a long time to feel like I even needed to say anything about the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect Intellectual Property Act bills that are floating through Congress, even knowing (thanks to Wikileaks' Cablegate) that the US State Department is threatening every other country on the globe with crippling trade sanctions if they don't pass their own version of this bill this year. It's a horrific bill, but one I couldn't take seriously at first because it is, in every version floating around, as flatly impossible to obey as King Canute's legendary law forbidding the tide from coming in. No matter how much lobbying money is thrown at an impossible idea, no matter how many campaign contributions were made, no matter how much of the US's remaining export economy depends on the industry backing an impossible idea, I had a hard time taking seriously the idea that Congress would really, when push come to shove, try to ban all user-created content on the Internet: no more email, no more Twitter, no more Facebook, no more YouTube, no more LOLcats, no more discussion forums, no more comment pages on articles, no more blogs.

The only way to actually enforce SOPA or PIPA as written would be to do just that. SOPA and PIPA give the US Attorney General the unilateral authority to order not just any tweet or email or web page or blog post, but the whole site that hosts it, permanently off of the Internet if even one link is found on it, anywhere, that "facilitates" copyright infringement. That's a term that's been interpreted so broadly, in some court cases, as to include "linked to a web site where, by clicking on this button, then this button, then this button, you could find a link to a specific page on a different website, where, if you clicked down three layers from that page, you could find infringing content." When the lawyer arguing this was asked if there was any limit to that, he said no. He was laughed out of court, because it was pointed out that this argument, if accepted, outlawed the whole Internet, as the whole point of the World Wide Web was that, given enough clicks, you can navigate from any non-dead-end site to any page on the web. But SOPA and PIPA won't end up in court, because they don't create any actual judicial review process, or allow any judicial appeal: if anybody asks the Attorney General to knock an entire site off of the Internet for just this reason, and he or she agrees, it goes down, period, end of story. So the only way that any website on the Internet could comply with SOPA and PIPA is to never, ever allow anything to be posted to their site that could in any way be, or be decrypted to suggest how to find, a link to a site that might have on it, anywhere, an equally vague and hard to find link to infringing content. The process for guaranteeing the safety of each 140 character tweet, each 100px by 100px user avatar icon, each link-shortened URL to a baby picture on a picture hosting site, each text caption embedded in a video of a cute kitten, didn't link to or describe how to find any site? Can't be done. Especially can't be done if you do allow supposedly non-infringing links, because let's say you review the URL today, and tomorrow something else is up at that URL? And how do you review the URL anyway; does somebody have to go read every comment on every review on every product at Amazon.com if I link to Amazon? Can't be done.

But the law's going to pass anyway. Or so they say. And the Internet is Made of Cats. Sociologists and political scientists studying the Arab Spring have accepted this as literal truth, in a way: governments being threatened by the Arab Spring could shut down any website that was only useful to the opposition, but if the opposition used Facebook or Twitter or YouTube, no matter how badly architected those websites were for safe use by an illegal opposition, the governments couldn't block them -- blocking grandparents from seeing their grandbabies on Twitter or Flicker, blocking everybody in the country from seeing Maru or Keyboard Cat on YouTube, caused more political blowback than letting the activists use them. So no, not even in the post-9/11 national security state, not even the United States is going to enforce SOPA or PIPA as written. No, really, I meant it when I said it: it can't be done. Which made it hard for me to take the proposed laws seriously ...

Until I realized the only way they could be enforced.

The MPAA and the RIAA, Sony and Bertelsmann and Disney, et al, wave aside all claims that SOPA or PIPA will be used to ban all user-originated content. They say that the law is written to be as draconian, and instantaneous, and without appeal as it is because no other plausible law, nothing short of that that's been tried, lets them take down obviously infringing sites like Pirate Bay and Torrent Freak without them being able to set up new, mirrored sites faster than DMCA takedowns can take them off the air. They want a broad law that gives one person, the Attorney General of the United States, the authority and the power and the responsibility to know a pirate site when he or she sees one, and trusts that person to never abuse that power, to only use it to protect America's last remaining profitable export industry from never being able to sell more than one copy of every movie or song ever again. They want the rest of us to have the same trust that they obviously have: that this power will never be abused.

No Democratic appointee will ever find a whistle-blower report on the Drudge Report or Fox News websites that they don't like, find (or fabricate, or just baldly dishonestly allege) that there is an infringing link in a comment thread on one of the news articles, and order that site knocked off the Internet. No Republican appointee will ever find an anti-war or an anti-oil-industry news story they don't like on Democracy Now or MSNBC and order those websites taken off the Internet, permanently, the same way. Why can we trust this? Is there something in the law that would protect those websites from that kind of abuse? No. Is there anything that would penalize the Attorney General for doing that? No. Is there anything to stop them from doing it as often as necessary to shut down all political opposition that would publicize the fact that they'd done this, going into the next election? No. So why are we supposed to trust that it will never happen? Just "because." Because we need it not to. Because we need this law, or the pirates will sink our economy, so we'll just half to hope that it never happens.

It took me until today to realize that the rule of law, not men, has fallen into such disrepute that this may actually pass.
Tomorrow, January 17th (17/01, get it? yeah, I didn't think it was all that clever, either), Star Trek Online is going Free to Play, funded by an optional subscription, a cash shop for optional items, and an especially annoying casino feature (more on that in a minute). It's been a hair over two years since Star Trek Online went live as a subscription game. Two years is a good point to look in on an MMO; by the two year mark, you can tell a lot about the game's future. I've taken a couple of months off from it, here and there, but I've followed it the whole time with great interest. So, how do I think that STO has gone? STO had a really good first year. And then a really awful second year. But they have a really good excuse for that second year. And a mildly scary reason to be cautiously optimistic about the free-to-play launch.

For Me, the Business Model is the Real News Story

As much as I have at least some interest in every new non-medieval-fantasy MMO, and as much as I grew up deeply emotionally and philosophically attached to Star Trek? I've always thought, and still think, that the most interesting story about Star Trek Online is a business-case story. You see, ever since the unexpected success of Everquest, and even more so since the legendary business success of World of Warcraft, and up until, well, I'll come out and say it: up until this month, we've been in what I call "the MMO bubble economy." Company after company looked at what Blizzard had done and completely misunderstood it. "I can spend $100 million, which is a lot, but after that, ten million people will pay me $15 a month to play my game, which cannot be pirated, and they have to pay me every month for the rest of their life, and I never have to spend another dime on it!" That it has taken this long for people to realize just how stupid every single part of that is, it lowers my already low opinion of the world's investor class. WoW had extremely lucky timing, and a powerful (and frankly, no longer valid) reputation with strong brand loyalty that you just don't have, and has spent closer to ten times that much over the course of the game, and people don't have to keep paying you: they can stop paying and go play console games, or watch Netflix, or turn on their cable TV again any time they want. Paying out that $100 million (or more, these days much more) up front only buys you a chance to get onto the treadmill of spending the next billion dollars on an investment that is almost certain not to pay off, call it better than 20 to 1 odds (so far) against even breaking even. And (after way too long) that bubble has burst; the money to invest in another "AAA MMO" just doesn't exist. Bioware's Star Wars: The Old Republic will be the last of its breed.

Two much-reviled industry figures, Bill Roper and Jack Emmert, who ended up together when Atari bought the Cryptic brand name and primary ownership of the Cryptic Engine MMO development software, went looking for a different model, and found one. Two of the five most profitable MMOs of all time started small, with really low development budgets: Runequest and EVE Online. So they pitched the idea, to their corporate masters, the idea of extending Cryptic Engine 2.0 with better content-creation tools, so that they could iterate on any game fast after shipping a small but still fun game, and jumped with both feet when Interplay went down the toilet without ever even shipping their attempt to do a standard "AAA" Star Trek MMO. CBS, the rights holder, agreed, and even offered to help fund it rather than charging for the rights, but (as Cryptic has said recently in interviews surrounding Atari's sale of the company to Perfect World Entertainment) with stringent conditions: it had to be cheap to make, and they had to get it out the door faster than any MMO has ever shipped. And they did it.

The results weren't pretty, but it was still fun to play. They were able to add new content to it pretty quickly, too, but only up to a point. You see, a big chunk of what went into Cryptic Engine 2 was the development of something they called the Genesis System (after the Genesis Device, from Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan): a tool that was very, very fast at generating fairly unique, and attractive, and playable game world maps for outer space for ship-to-ship combat, and uninhabited or mostly uninhabited planet surfaces for ground exploration and combat. But they ran out of time and money to finish the Genesis System, and so they had to go live with three crippling problems with all new content: the event scripting tools still sucked, Genesis really sucked and creating populated-looking worlds, and it sucked even worse at creating building or spaceship interiors quickly.

The game had one other really glaring problem unrelated to Genesis: they spent very little time rebalancing the ground combat from the way it had worked in the first Cryptic Engine game, City of Heroes, and the resulting ground combat looked a little like Star Trek, but the rhythm of combat was all wrong. It's taken them two years, but they fixed that problem, literally just wrapping it up in the last couple of weeks.

Over the course of the first year, they improved the heck out of event scripting in what was no longer called the Genesis System, what is now called The Foundry for Cryptic Engine 2, and in so doing came up with a tool that actually does a really nice job of making it possible for players to create their own fanfic missions, the "Holodeck" system in STO. And then they did something that probably sounded really smart when they did it, but turned out to be disastrous.

About a year ago, Cryptic got offered the chance to develop an MMO based on the D&D "Neverwinter" campaign setting. Now, obviously, if you're going to pitch a D&D game, whether or not you can deliver this (*cough* DDO *cough*), you want to be able to let people GM their own dungeons in it. So Cryptic pitched this idea to their corporate parent, Atari: put up the money to buy the Neverwinter rights. We'll lend the Neverwinter project the entire programming staff behind The Foundry. They'll fix the city-building and dungeon-building problems that are left in The Foundry, then we can knock out a Neverwinter game just as fast as we knocked out Star Trek Online, and Star Trek Online will get the The Foundry update it badly needs, for free, when we back-port it into the main code branch for Cryptic Engine 2. It should have been brilliant -- but it wasn't. In their rush to finish Neverwinter, Cryptic has now admitted, and to adjust NPC behaviors to be more D&D like, they made such a hash of that fork of Cryptic Engine that none of the code could be back-ported. And, worse, they didn't even finish Neverwinter.

So, even though STO paid back Atari's entire investment in it on day one with boxed sales, and even though it's never not been profitable since, Atari lost patience with their MMO division, lost patience with the whole MMO industry, and went looking for a buyer. Perfect World Entertainment, a company that specializes in monetizing Free to Play MMOs, jumped at the chance, and immediately authorized hiring a big team to start over on the Foundry update, which Cryptic hopes to have finished this spring or early summer. After that, they can finally deliver on what they promised a year and a half ago: an MMO that ships new storyline content at least 20-some-odd times per year, for no additional cost, because generating new art and new scripted events and new sets and new worlds will be just that cheap and easy for them.

What makes me nervous is this, though. Even before PWE bought them from Atari, STO dabbed its toes in the waters of "Pay to Win (P2W)." A few special starship classes were made available for a fee in the cash shop. Now, I tolerated this well. They were cheap, a one time purchase of $5 to $15 that unlocks that starship class, in perpetuity, for all characters on the account. Also, they were ship classes that were, for various canonical reasons, supposed to be scarce, like the Galaxy-X prototype, or Defiant class ships with working cloaking devices. And, frankly, the advantages were pretty tiny, even in PvP. But practically the first thing PWE did was introduce a new ship class, the Jem Hadar attack vessel: cruiser-level hull strength with escort-level maneuverability and firepower. An honest to god, no you can't beat it, pay-to-win ship. What's it cost? You can't tell: the only way you can get one is to buy however many $1 lottery tickets it takes until you get one from a random drawing; I've heard estimates from the hundreds of dollars from people who were determined to get one. And it's that evil form of casino gambling that Asian MMOs are famous for: cheap investment per individual pull of the lever, but then sunk-cost fallacy sinks in ... yeah, you've already spent twice (or ten times, or a hundred times) what you intended to, but if you stop now, all that will have been for nothing! This kind of thing really pisses me off, and I hope it's not the shape of things to come, and it has, at the very least, permanently ended my interest in PvP.

So, Other than That, Mrs. Lincoln, How was the Play?

Should you play it? If you're a Trekker, and you've ever wanted to do Trek themed tabletop gaming, you'd be a fool not to unless: (a) you're especially vulnerable to falling for or seriously politically and morally opposed to P2W PvP, or (b) your computer won't run it, because it is officially Windows-only (although I'm told the unofficial Mac port is playable) and it requires an above-average graphics card, or (c) you just don't have the time.

Because it really does look phenomenal. The game setting, in the original Roddenberry/Berman timeline 40 years after the Hobus supernova, as the Borg and Species 8472 bring their war on each other to the Alpha Quadrant and as Species 8472, who know themselves as the Undine, are using their shapeshifting abilities to play an enthusiastic game of "let's you and him fight" to weaken the rest of us, makes for great gaming. Other than a couple of the more cheaply (read: randomly) generated sets, the game looks fantastic, and very Trek-like; they couldn't get the rights to some of the most iconic music, but the rest of the sound design is fantastic. (Just wait until the first time you time-travel back to the 2280s and the classic Trek sound design and set design dissolves you in a warm glow of nostalgia.) Ship-to-ship combat really captures that "destroyers versus battleships, biplanes versus dirigibles" feel of Star Trek combat, and at the higher difficulty levels, the newly re-balanced ground combat nicely enforces the shoot-and-duck, shoot-and-dodge, shoot-and-sprint, flank-and-beat-up rhythm of Star Trek hand-to-hand combat. The old uniforms are available as cheap options, and the new uniforms look fantastic while still being very Trek-like; the range of alien species you can play on the Federation side is huge and on the Klingon Defense Force side quite sizable. (No Kzin, yet, though: rights issues.) The fleet chat channel and built-in fleet and team voice communications make it really easy for you to roleplay with your personal friends, once you set up a time to play together; ship interiors and the holodeck system make for great roleplaying settings. The new "duty officer" free(ish) collectible-card-game like system for assigning tasks to your below-decks crew, adds some lovely dimensions of non-combat gameplay. And it's free!

Dumbest News in Days: Gunning for Kids

Well, that was the dumbest thing I've read in days. And I spend a lot of time on Facebook, I see a lot of dumb things. But this one takes the cake.

First, for those of you who are out of town or who don't follow the news, a bit of backstory. The Benton Park neighborhood of south St. Louis City, the area not-at-all-coincidentally around Roosevelt High School, has had a problem for a couple of years now, a "kids' game" called Knockout King. A group of 5 to 7 teenagers wander around their neighborhood looking specifically for one or at most two elderly people on foot, walk up to them or walk up behind them, and then the designated puncher, who has bet the others he can do it, tries to knock an elderly person completely unconscious in one blow. They've done this about once every two months for the last two or almost three years; there's been one fatality and quite a few hospitalizations.

A few weeks ago, cops got a break in the case: a 13-year-old girl who knew at least two of the kids involved went to the police, identified the current gang, told them that they were imitating a previous gang who'd been responsible for the first wave of assaults and who outgrew it. Based on her identification, police arrested seven people, all of them (and I want to stress this) 17 or younger.

At what was supposed to be their arraignment in juvenile court, the 13 year old failed to show up to testify; contacted, she said she wouldn't do it. The police chief held a press conference, saying that another witness has come forward to testify that someone, presumably either one of the Knockout King kids or some friend or relative of theirs, threatened to hurt the 13 year old if she testified. They say that they are investigating, and if they can prove the charge, that person will do serious jail time for witness tampering.

Now the stupidest thing I've seen in days: the last question at the press conference was from someone who asked if the police chief agreed that this was a good reason for St. Louisans to apply for concealed-carry permits and carry firearms when walking around their neighborhoods. The police chief gently discouraged this idea.

Is there anybody who reads my journal to whom I have to explain what's really stupid about this? If so, fine: you're suggesting that people do one of two things. Either you're suggesting that they draw their gun every time they see or are approached by a group of children and open fire, killing children, just in case one of them happens to be a Knockout King. Or else you're suggesting that after somebody gets knocked unconscious, having waited until they were attacked, that they then drop a gun for the children to pick up and run away with. Either way, good thinking, Einstein.
As I said earlier, I had to explain to some friends why the early 21st century Tiki Revival, the attempt by Sven Kirsten and Otto von Stoheim, Jr. and their friends to dig up, refurbish, and reinvigorate the late '40s and early '50s "Polynesian pop" style in art and music, was something that I'm not only unembarrassed about being interested in, I'm warmly and enthusiastically and completely unironically fond of. Part of it is that, to me, this is a friendly and nostalgic reminder of some of the stuff my late father brought back from his late '40s years as an unsuccessful member of a southern California artist colony. That was enough that, when I started reading reviews of Tauschen Press's just-beautiful book by Sven Kirsten, The Book of Tiki, I just had to have a copy, and why, armed with that knowledge, I went on a Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman (and, among the Tiki Revivalists, Don Tiki and Waitiki) music binge.

But I'm also a latent "authenticity cop" - when I pick up a new interest, I'm prone to doing a bunch of the reading. So I didn't stop there, I also finally got around to reading James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific and Return to the South Pacific, and other period texts from the original tiki fad, and also picked up Sven Kirsten's sequel to The Book of Tiki, his history of the Witco furniture and art factory, Tiki Modern. And the more of this stuff I got my hands on, the more I began to understand what it was that the Greatest Generation briefly saw in this stuff, and why they became embarrassed by it, and that helped me understand why I'm not. I'm reasonably properly educated; I know to be embarrassed by kitsch and to be ashamed of cultural appropriation and to know better than to go near anything that whiffs of "the noble savage." But when you dig below the surface of Polynesian pop? There turns out to be some actual "there" there.

The Profound: Civilization and Its SERIOUS Discontents

In the course of the island-hopping campaign to retake the south Pacific from Japanese militarists, lots of American soldiers, especially Marine Corp Sea-Bees, got dumped onto islands that had been colonized, from Australasia and from the Andes, back in the late Stone Age. Due to materials restrictions and agricultural restrictions (no domesticable animals, almost no fresh water), populations stayed low, and the only post-Stone Age technology they developed was surprisingly sophisticated deep-sea fishing. The Navy tried to keep the Americans away from the natives; the French mostly eradicated them and replaced them with captured Vietnamese slaves who escaped and went native as fast as they could. But there had been interactions between the Americans, and the English and French and Dutch before them, and the Polynesians long before WWII, and despite the western colonial powers' efforts enough of those contacts survived, that an awful lot of American sailors and marines saw some of how the Polynesians lived. The saw enough to ask themselves a question that came to be very popular in the suburbs of the mainland cities throughout the first half of the Cold War: how much was western civilization a mistake?

On some level, almost nobody took the question entirely seriously, nor should they have: it wasn't, after all, the Polynesians who saved the world from fascism. But even grade-school and high-school educated American marines saw with their own eyes what later anthropologists and archaeologists would confirm: compared with life among immediate-return forager, hunter, gatherer, and even fishing cultures? Agricultural civilization sucks, and industrial civilization sucks even worse. Polynesians didn't save the world from fascism, but they also didn't invent the 9-to-5 commuter job, or the National Debt, or politics, or racism, or sexual prudery and jealousy, or smog, or The Bomb.

Enter the first ever (we think?) of the theme restaurateurs: Don Beach, aka Don the Beachcomber. Based on his own vague interest in Polynesia, and off of travelers' tales from Cook and Selkirk to Heyerdahl and Michener, he invented a small chain of restaurant bars where, if you couldn't quit your job at the defense plant and abandon your family and run off to the South Pacific to live like the Polynesians did, you could go to a bar, step inside, take off your jacket, and in a carefully artistically sculpted environment and multi-track soundscape meant to evoke a lazy night on a South Pacific beach, served by smiling scantily clad waitresses in pseudo-native garb, eating Cantonese/Vietnamese cuisine like the better restaurants served in Tahiti, you could pretend for the evening that you had. A rival who'd been trying to invent the theme restaurant himself (his first attempt was a Halloween-themed hotdog stand, I kid thee not) named Victor Bergeron took one look at Don Beach's efforts, knew he had better access to capital and had been in the restaurant business longer, and said, "oh, hell, I can do better than that" and made "Trader Vic's" a national household name, itself widely imitated. And when Pan Am developed the technology to make it possible for rich people to visit these still-pagan islands, don't doubt for a minute that they exploited the holy heck out of the Don the Beachcomber/Trader Vic imagery to sell vacations. And when Walt Disney was building the first Disneyland, he invented audio-animatronics just so that he could perfect it.

But there's even more there than a well-funded late '40s attempt to do for the pagan stone age (almost exactly!) what the Society for Creative Anachronism and the Renaissance Fairs do to Christian medieval Europe in general and the Camelot myth in particular, something surprising and almost unique in the history of the contact between colonialist Europe and the lower-tech rest of the world: genuine artistic collaboration. Don Beach and Vic Bergeron created this huge demand for "authentic native art" that lead companies like Witco and Oceanic Arts to send promising sculptors to Tahiti and the Marquesas to study under native wood and stone carvers ... and instead of the usual cultural appropriation, times had changed enough, and enough people were questioning European/American cultural superiority, that something much closer to genuine cross-cultural artistic collaboration occurred. The southern California wood carvers brought American tools to the natives, and taught the natives not to be ashamed of their technological backwardness, told them that many "cargo-"enriched Americans wish they'd chosen the Polynesian way instead of worshiping the God of Cargo ourselves. They also carried techniques from island to island, introducing island artisans to each others' techniques, and for a while there were surprisingly successfully artistic collaborations, where artisans all over California and all over the south Pacific shipped each other works for comparison, swapped tools and techniques, and even traveled to exhibit art in each others' cultures.

There's a similar story in the history of Martin Denny and his imitators of the Exotica musical movement, and in surf culture and surf music, that I omit here for brevity's sake. Also for brevity's sake, I omit the story of how and why Victor Bergeron convinced the world that 90-proof cocktails of rum and tropical fruit juices were what the natives drank, even though it's hilarious. I also omit, for brevity's sake, the story of what possessed Sven Kirsten and Otto von Stroheim, Junior to dig this stuff up in the 21st century, the career of the phenomenally successful illustrator Josh "Shag" Agle, and the rumored but funny if true story of the connection all of this has to disgusted uber-trendsetter Genesis P. Orridge. If you're interested, consider it your homework assignment to look them up.

No, we weren't and aren't going to unilaterally disarm in a hostile world; no, we're not going to give up agriculture and industrialization, not without some other way to defend ourselves from the first neighboring civilization to take it up again. The one thing that agricultural society does better than pre-agricultural society, that industrial society does even better than that, is raise, equip, and transport huge armies. But, for a while there, there was no social stigma against asking if the rest of the cultural baggage of western European and American civilization, if the rest of the stuff that makes us miserable, was actually necessary? Could we choose, instead, to be happy? Was the most radical slogan any radical ever chanted actually true, the one that says, "Another World is Possible"? Well, when the backlash against '60s and '70s permissiveness kicked in, and America in particular became obsessed with the (in my opinion, disastrously stupid) idea that we could stay on top in a free-trade world after we ran out of domestic oil by worshiping Productivity, those who rule us commercially and from the pulpits, and to a lesser extent even the politicians, said, "No, damn you, another world is NOT possible. Don't be such a damned hippie. Sober up, put your clothes back on, and get back to work." All through the 1980s and '90s, retailers buried the art and the music, and developers bulldozed the architecture, as fast as they could, and a generation embarrassed to have been caught half-naked and drunk, now having to put their noses to the grindstone just to survive, raised no complaints about seeing the stuff eradicated.

But, even if I didn't admire the artwork of pagan idols in general, and even if I didn't think that Martin Denny was a genius of world-beat jazz more than a decade before world-beat jazz even existed, and even if I weren't impressed with the rare example of western artists collaborating respectfully with contemporary lower-tech tiki artists, and even if Shag's artwork didn't give me a warm glow of nostalgia for retro-sci-fi and old spy movies, I would want to keep alive the memory of the tiki fad if only for this: to remember that the generation that saved the world from fascism, and then, as they were being chained into an economy of increasingly oppressive, increasingly de-unionized jobs in the soulless outer-ring suburbs, accepted their life uncomplainingly but still asked, "Do we have to accept the bullshit, too? Or can we at least be happy, some of the time, instead?" I'd be proud to call them my spiritual ancestors. Especially since, allowing for the vagaries of adoption, in a sense, one of them was one of my ancestors.
Last night at a BBQ, an old friend of mine who was in from out of town dropped on me a remaindered copy of Teitelbaum's guide to tiki bars, Tiki Road Trip, kind of embarrassed to be seen with it herself, I think, but she said, "I thought you might like it." And as people saw how delighted I was, somebody asked, confused and very serious: "What is it with you and tiki, Brad? What do you see in this stuff?" And the people in the room let me get away with the longest version of this rant I've done yet, and I find, 24 hours later, that I feel like writing it down. Forgive me if you've heard some of this before.

Tiki, the pseudo-Polynesian more-or-less cultural appropriation of south Pacific art mashed up with 50s Hawaiian-style Jazz and Cantonese cooking and almost deadly-strong post-war San Francisco rum drinks as a now tremendously unstylish short-lived fad of white suburban entertainment, has two resonances with me: the personal, and the (semi-)profound.

The Personal: Tiki and Me

My late father, the Man of Concrete, fought in McHale's Navy in the war. He ran off to join the navy as soon as he was old enough, got in at the tail end of the Pacific campaign of World War II, and was assigned to a tiny ship captained by an aging alcoholic; the Navy had pity on an officer who'd stuck with them during the drawn-down years between the wars, pity enough to let him have his own command until retirement, but also pity enough on him and his men to know better than to let this falling-down drunk anywhere near a battle. Dad was his radio-man as the Navy ordered them all around the Pacific, and (quite deliberately on Pacific Command's part) they never got within a hundred miles of the convoys they were supposed to be trying to catch up with.

Even before the war, my dad and my mom were separated; after he finished his service, he came back just long enough to deliver an ultimatum. He had heard about southern-California "artist colonies," and that was what he wanted to do with his life, and he wasn't willing to do it with a wife several thousand miles away. "I will be in front of your parents' house tomorrow night at 5pm with a station wagon. Be at the curb with two suitcases full of your belongings and come out to California with me as my wife, or stay behind. If you stay behind, the minute I get to California, I'm divorcing you for abandonment. I don't care either way. You choose." She went with him, and became one of the first Xerox operators, for a defense contractor. He became a welfare bum, assiduously cheating the California unemployment insurance system, using fake names and addresses as he went on his mandatory job interviews, because as a white guy and war vet with electrical and electronics experience, it took constant effort to keep from getting hired.

When he would describe those years later, he would say that what he did with the rest of his time was "paint drift-wood 'art' for the tourists." Dad's artist colony dream went sour for him, because the art that they were producing in those colonies was tiki art, abstract expressionism, and cubism. That was what sold, and he hated it; he eventually came back to St. Louis, took up his dad's line of work as an electrician, and spent his evenings painting the watercolor over India ink suburban and rural landscapes he wanted to paint. (I don't know if he was aware of the irony that he kept framing them in hand-made Witco-style frames.) But Mom made him bring back two pieces of art with them, because she liked them: one hand-carved Easter-Island-style moai, about 8" tall, that I grew up playing with, and one cubist still-life that Dad hated so much that he hung it over the downstairs toilet as an editorial statement. Eventually, digging around for something in the basement cabinets, I also found two other artifacts that had survived Dad's artist-colony days: a pair of bongos that I never learned to play, but I sure tried, and a small stack of Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman LPs, which I adored.

But I could only play those tiki-music LPs when Dad wasn't around. Like everybody else who had lived through the tiki fad, he hated it. His reasons may have been more personal than some people's, as (it now occurs to me) it may have been a humiliating reminder of how badly his artist-colony dreams had turned out; on the other hand, given that the insanely high octane, insanely high sugar cocktails of the tiki fad got a reputation as "suburban LSD," it's quite possible that other first-gen tiki-fad survivors had their own personal reasons for wanting no reminder of the tacky drunken groping "luaus" they attended back then. I do know this, though: Dad was one of the people who enthusiastically participated in the 1970s purge of this stuff. That tiki I grew up playing with? Dad eventually destroyed it for an art project. The bongos? I never found out what happened to them. The albums? I wasn't allowed to take them with me when I grew up and left the house, and it was decades later before I figured out how to find those artists again. The unsuccessful turn of the 21st century attempted Tiki Revival was, for me, a chance to reconnect with some of the lost pleasures of a mostly otherwise unhappy childhood.

Review: Amy Schalet, Not Under My Roof

Imagine two rowboats, both adrift at sea. The first rowboat has no oars. They can see an island in the distance. Somebody calculates the distance to it, and the rate at which they're drifting, and concludes that they have only half the food and water they'll need for everybody to reach the island. The conclusion is obvious*: at least half of them have to be thrown overboard. And the sooner it happens, the fewer of them will have to die.


Now imagine the other rowboat. It has plenty of food and water, and it has oars, but it has a different problem: it's leaking, and fast. Somebody does the math, and they conclude that they can all make it to the island in the distance. But they can only make it if everybody who can row, rows, and if everybody else bails water as fast as they can, and if they cooperate in sharing the rowing, bailing, and resting cycles; if anybody is selfish, if anybody doesn't cooperate, nobody will make it.


Call the first rowboat "America." Call the second rowboat "the Netherlands."


That's the metaphor that came to my mind after spending a couple of days deciding how to explain Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex, by Amy Schalet (University of Chicago Press, 2011). Even though the book has nothing to do with rowboats, and only indirectly to do with the overall differences between Americans and the Dutch. What the book is really about is the regulation of teenage sex by their parents. You see, as someone who grew up in both the Netherlands and the US, baffled by the differences between the two, and who went on to do her Ph.D. research in the sociology of adolescent/parent relationships, Schalet has dedicated an entire book to trying to explain a major difference between two different cultures that were substantially identical as late as the late 1950s: democratic capitalist republics who won their independence from colonial imperial masters around the same era, dominated by conservative Protestants, who went through the same Great Depression and two World Wars, and the same sexual revolution when contraception and antibiotics were made widely available, and the same economic shock after the OPEC crisis. But in the years after that, huge social differences appear, and Schalet concentrates, as her academic speciality, on one of them.


It's a glaring difference, and it has to do with what American and Dutch parents and teens "know for a fact" about teenage sexual development and maturity during puberty. American parents and their teenagers both "know for a fact" that adolescent male sexuality is dominated by hormones that completely obliviate any capacity developed, up to that point, for sexual and emotional self-regulation. The parents also "know for a fact" that teenage boys are incapable of actually loving their partners; the sons all know that they have genuine romantic emotional feelings, but all feel freakishly abnormal and different from their peers because of this, because they "know" it's true of all the other teenage boys around them. All of them, parents and teen boys and teen girls alike, also "know for a fact" that there are two kinds of teenage girls: the "good girl" majority who desperately want someone to love them but who think that sex is icky and unpleasant, and the "slut" minority who want sex just as much as the teenage boys do, and who have no more self-control. As a result, parents and teens participate in a process of dramatization, intended to exaggerate the expected consequences of any teenage sex or romance, and that also relies on control and punishment by the parents in an attempt to prevent their teenagers from succumbing to those out-of-control hormones, punishment starting at loss of privileges and potentially (or at least threatened) to go as far as parental abandonment, as far as expulsion from the home and imposition of homelessness. Teenage girls are taught to fear rape, infection with STDs, and unwanted pregnancy by out-of-control boys; boys are taught to fear infection with STDs and the imposition of crushing child-support burdens that will drop them out of the middle class for all eternity, stranding them irretrievably among the poor. Despite this, at around age 15, teenage boys and girls assert their independence, and exercise the emotional and physical drives that will push them towards eventual independence from their parents, by "sneaking around," occasionally re-establishing emotional contact with their parents by "getting caught," until they are either married or "can put their own roof over their heads," because officially, those are the mnimum preconditions before any American can legally and morally be allowed to have officially sanctioned sex.


Dutch parents and teenagers, on the other hand, "know for a fact" that only an infinitessimally small number of teenagers, insultingly called "pubers," have out-of-control hormones that they have to grow out of; every parent and most kids have at least heard, second or third hand, of somebody who once knew somebody who knew somebody who might have been a puber once, but nobody interviewed could name one. They "know for a fact" that around age 13 or 14, boys and girls both start thinking about wanting romantic and family relationships of their own like the ones that their parents have. They "know for a fact" that by age 15 to 17, all but a few really abnormally immature children just normally and naturally find a partner they genuinely love, and with who they just naturally want to be cozily together with. They "know for a fact" that through consultation and proper education, parents and society have taught them that this is perfectly okay, as long as it's someone who's also willing to be cozily together with, comfortable with and acceptable to, the parents. They also "know for a fact" that any normal child, having been raised since early childhood to eroticize condoms, and any normal girl, having probably gone on hormonal birth control (for free) as soon as she started menstruating, isn't going to hurt anybody or disrupt the all-important family bond if they bring their romantic partner over to sleep with them a couple of nights a week. They "know for a fact" that children that young will make the occasional mistake, and get gently humiliated by their parents and peers for immaturity, for having shown that they weren't really ready or that they did a bad job of accomodating eveybody in the family's needs, and that they'll learn from that how to self-regulate their behavior in harmony with the cozy, comfortable family that they "know for a fact" everybody, including teenagers, wants. (Parents do, however, worry about their children forming relationships with people who "don't fit in with the family," by which they mean "poor people or immigrants." But they express confidence, for the most part, in their ability to steer their children towards someone more comfortable for the family. There's also a grating confidence that none of their children are "asocial" enough to be homosexual or polyamorous.) And, after all, since everybody in the Netherlands has free universal comprehensive health care, incuding birth control, STD treatment, and abortion, and nobody over the age of 16 needs so  much as a parent's permission to use it, and since everybody gets a guaranteed stipend to pay for their own living expenses any time they want to move out, as long as they're still in school, everybody, parent and child alike, "knows for a fact" that the worst thing that can happen if somebody makes a mistake is temporary discomfort and embarrassment. The most important thing, then, is to make sure that nobody feels any need to be "sneaky" or "secretive" about any part of their life, because that might disrupt cozy togetherness.


I am, for the second time in two years**, convinced that I live in a country full of superstitious, primitive, blood-thirsty savages.


So, what's this got to do with rowboats?


In interviews about this book, Schalet got asked a lot about what her opinion was, what did her research show, about why we're so different? Why did we go in opposite directions after our sexual revolutions? That's not her speciality, although she does speculate about it, some. She points out that hierarchical domination and winner-take all are also normal paradigms for American businesses and in American politics, whereas Dutch politics and Dutch businesses are a lot more collaborative; on some level, the difference in parenting styles do a pretty good job of preparing American teenage boys to appear to submit to those above them while sneakily seeking to form their own dominance hierarchies in which they can earn the privilege of dominating others, a pretty good job of preparing Dutch boys to go along to get along, to make and expect concessions, as part of collaborative structures in the rest of their adult life. But it's a unsatisfying explanation; both cultures changed more that way in their politics and business around the same time as they changed in their attitudes towards adolescent sexuality and child-raising, so there's more likely a common cause.


She speculates, at one point in the book, that the defining difference is this: around the time of our respective sexual revolutions, the two countries experienced radically different disasters. The Americans experienced Vietnam, which set the young against the old and corporations and their defenders against poor conscripts, in a struggle for life and death, and normalized the language of intergenerational conflict. The Dutch, who mostly stayed out of Indochina, instead experienced a series of catastrophic nationwide floods, which taught every single person in the Netherlands that unless they all cooperate, unless they all give as much as they can, unless they all move out of their comfort zone a little, they'll all drown. Or, in my metaphor: two different lifeboats.


* The lifeboat that's out of food is an imperfect metaphor, but I knew it would be vivid for any of you who haven't studied extreme survival. It turns out that a lifeboat at sea, after about three days, accumulates a thriving ecosystem on the bottom of the boat, making it relatively easy to fish for turtles and other sea life for food, and their spinal fluid for water. Survive the first three days, and there's no reason to sacrifice anybody. How many Americans do you think would actually think of that? Or, not knowing that, be willing to risk it, in hopes that "something will come along" to make it possible for everybody to survive? I think maybe a few of us, but the rest of us have been conditioned to be quick to try human sacrifice, throwing some people overboard, as the first thing to try in any disaster.


** See Thomas Geoghan, Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?

Posted via LiveJournal app for Android.


Quick Movie Note: Dragon Tattoo

I don't have a lot to say about it. And maybe I'm not qualified to have an opinion, as someone who didn't see the Swedish film version and who deliberately held off on reading the book until after I'd seen the movie. But The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is tanking at the box office, and, in my opinion, it doesn't deserve to, so I thought I'd stick a quick endorsement of it into my blog.

As I mentioned a few weeks or so ago, the parallels between volume 1 of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy and the earliest days of the real life Team Palast as documented in Palast's latest book are kind of eerie: an elderly womanizing disgraced liberal investigative journalist teams up with a younger man-hating female victim of sexual abuse amateur detective to take down rich killers who are above the law. The Hollywood trade press is saying that one reason it's tanking at the box office is that this is not exactly what most Americans want to go see during Christmas week, but it's the kind of thing that's solidly in my wheel-house.

It's a beautiful film. The Trent Reznor soundtrack is a little bombastic, in that way that Jerry Goldsmith scores usually are -- when the film wants you to be scared or wants you to be sad, the sound track hammers the stuffing out of you about it -- but it's an excellent soundtrack. (I walked out humming Enya's "Orinocco Flow" and twitching from the deliberately jarring way it's used.) Most of the violence happens off screen or is filmed at discrete angles, and the deliberately sickening attack on Lisbeth that's so important to the plot is still made only just barely as horrific as it needs to be; this is a profoundly unexploitative film about a subject that's easy and tempting for Hollywood to exploit. I'm told that the book and first movie adaptation play up the whodunnit aspects of the plot; this is, instead, a movie that's less about the cerebral exercise of solving a series of crimes than it is about the emotional and physical cost of doing so. I've heard complaints that Larsson's politics didn't make it into the film, but I don't know -- given the limitations of the movie's length, I think there are plenty of allusions to the central political issue of the book, at least as far as I know it from the many reviews I read, namely what Sweden's hushed-up, it's-impolite-to-bring-up, history of Nazi collaboration means for a country that wants to be an economically successful Scandanavian social welfare state, about the parallels between fascism then and neo-liberal corporatocracy now.

But above all, it's hands-down the best acted film I've seen all year. Maybe that's a low hurdle; I haven't seen a lot of movies this year, and most of them were genre films. But even with that grain of salt, let me tell you that Craig may be wasted on this part: his character is not an emotionally demonstrative man and neither is Craig in this role, and it's not hard to play a nearly one-note character, but I think he's more than adequate. Mara, on the other hand, is amazing; this is an Oscar-bait performance. There's this thing she does with her shifting posture that just completely, in every scene, sells the fact that this is a badly broken person, someone who has been hurt way too often, someone who toughs it out over a lot of unhealed emotional scars -- you constantly see her trying to do the impossible, to constantly watch every angle around her while lost in her own thoughts and while trying not to look anybody in the eye, someone trying to simultaneously be ignored and be too scary to mess with. The supporting cast are all pretty amazing, too.

I had one big complaint with the movie, and I know from the reviews of the book and the other movie that it's a source material problem. It's only a minor spoiler, since there are several characters in the movie that this description fits, but ... really? A Russian mafiosi alcoholic Nazi Christian fundamentalist corrupt corporate executive rapist serial killer? Really? Isn't that, oh, I don't know, just a little over the top? Just a little cartoonish?

Still: this movie deserves, in my opinion, to sell enough tickets to get the other two volumes of the trilogy green-lit. Please, go see it in a theater.


Empathy Disorders

Doctors call one of the things I have an "empathy disorder." That has always left me confused and very angry, because it seems to me that I have MORE empathy than neurotypicals. I finally got it through my head that there are two conflicting definitions of empathy. Sometimes, "empathy" means being able to sense other people's emotions without being told about them. That, I definitely can't do. Other times it means caring about other people's feelings and emotions, as in "having empathy for them." And as far as I can tell, when it comes to anybody other than their closest friends and family members, this, most neurotypicals cannot do.

I finally developed my own terms for the two conflicting definitions. I gave in, and let the doctors and the neurotypicals keep their word "empathy" to mean emotional mind-reading. Okay. I have an empathy disorder. What they have? Is a sympathy disorder. I can't tell what strangers are feeling. You can tell what strangers are feeling; you just don't care. Merry fucking Christmas.

I've been meaning to bring this up for a while; I get around to mentioning it now because of how sick to my stomach I feel, how much hatred for humanity is suddenly choking off my Christmas spirit, reading about the abuse the audience heaped on three former homeless teens who told their stories at a public panel, including now successful blogger, columnist, and author Violet Blue: "Booksmith Community Forum on Homelessness, Aug 24, 2009," un-bylined article on "Hope in Haight" blog.

Edited to add:

I find that I have more to say about this; something that's obvious to me but no, it probably isn't obvious to some of you.

There's a guy I used to hang with in college, a fellow CS grad, fairly right wing back then, now some god's own personal fool for every hoax, prank, and propaganda lie that trickles from various hate groups into the Republican commentariat via WorldNewsDaily. (Reporter Dave Neiwert, America's #1 expert on right wing death squads and death-squad wannabes in America, has written extensively about this: they brag to him, openly, that they learned ages ago that they can make up any lie they want, drop it into WND, watch it bubble up to the front page on page views and comments, watch it get picked up by Glen Beck or Bill O'Reilly from there, watch Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity get forced to comment on it when their listeners who overlap ask them about it, and watch it, from them, go straight onto Fox News and into comments by Republicans in power. They say it works every time.) Ever since we reconnected on Facebook, he bounces this crap off of me, and I serve as the fact check, for him, that 30 seconds on Google would be. It's inefficient, but personal. Anyway, I didn't bring this up to dish on the Aryan Nations or WND or Glen Beck or my friend Doc, I brought this up to introduce my friend Doc and explain something related to homelessness that I just had to explain to him.

You see, in the years since we were in college together, my old friend Doc has ended up on the board of directors of a religious charity that serves the homeless. And it occurred to him, the other day, to ask me why it is that no matter how good they make the services they offer the homeless people in his hometown, no matter how string-free they make them, at least half of the homeless people in his town just flatly refuse to have anything to do with them. He wanted to know if, as someone who's been borderline homeless himself and who sees the world through different eyes from him, I could give him any advice on what his church could be doing differently. As I expected, I bumped my head very quickly into the first hurdle: despite years of working with, and on behalf of, the homeless, he had no better idea than most Americans do of how in the hell anybody, whether it's a teenager or a single mother or a combat veteran, ends up homeless. It was the first thing I had to explain to him:

We threw these people away, because nobody wanted them for anything.

And that is the first thing we have to fix. You can't fix anything for a homeless person, whether it's an unparented or mal-parented homeless teenager trying to stay out of sex work or a homeless woman whose children's father left her for a younger model, or couldn't deal with her health issues, or who ran away because he was out of work too long and lost his own self-respect, or who is in jail, or who is dead, and she's spending 140 hours a week trying to keep her children alive without any help, or whether it's a Vietnam War, Gulf War, Yugoslav Civil War, Afghan War, or Iraq War veteran whose physical and mental health problems render him completely unemployable, you can't fix anything for that person if you can't find them someone who wants them to live, who needs them to live, who has a useful purpose for them.

And ever since Ronald Reagan got elected in November of 1980, we have solved every single problem we've had in America, every problem we've had since Lyndon Johnson's hare-brained idea of fighting a deficit-financed entirely optional land war in Asia, every problem we've had since we used up all but the last trickle of our own oil and oil producers discovered that a shattered, used up US Marine Corps could no longer come and take the oil away from them by force, every problem we've had since then, we have solved by human sacrifice: identifying more people to throw away, and throwing those people away; sending them away to sleep in alleys or under overpasses, to live off of stolen food and handouts and scavenged trash, to slowly rot away of completely untreated health problems. Never mind how much needs to get done and isn't getting done; we can't afford the energy cost or raw materials cost to do those things, so we can't afford to hire people to do them, so the people who would have done them are disposable, destined to end up in human landfills

So, if you're one of them, would you please stop depressing the rest of us by reminding us of this? Would you please go find some place to go where none of us can see you as you slowly freeze, starve, and rot away to death? The rest of us, the fortunate ones, have to get on with our lives somehow. That requires some modicum of morale. We do know, on some level, that the first time we slow down, or the first time we get sick, or the first time something goes seriously wrong, or the first time we end up losing someone we were depending on to survive, that we'll be joining you. But if we think about that too much, it'll happen all that much sooner. And you're bringing us down. That's what we, in America, say to them every day with our actions, with the way we complain about and hate on our homeless.

I didn't have a lot of advice for my friend Doc. Knowing he was a conservative, I appealed to Ronald Reagan. One thing Reagan wasn't wrong about is this: "the only effective anti-poverty program is a job." I reminded Doc that I've seen homeless, mentally ill drug addicts instantly and suddenly sober up, and rise to never seen before (albeit temporary) levels of functionality, when they found a kitten that needed to be rescued. I told him about a news story I saw a while back about a halfway house for about to be released, at best partially rehabbed, female drug addicts that more or less accidentally turned those women's lives around when one of the women staying there came up with the idea of volunteering, during the hours they were confined to their group home, to raise puppies that are destined to be trained as service dogs. What do those stories have in common? Somebody needed them. And we all need that. Maslow was wrong, you know: that need to be needed? It's more profound than the need for food and water and sleep; we can live better with occasional deprivation of food, water, and sleep than we can without having anybody need us, or without being able to meet that need. My suggestion to him was to find jobs that his church needed done, that they couldn't afford to do, and to go to those men and ask them, "can you please help us?" Not to bribe them with food and shelter to do it, not as some paternalistic way to rehab them into a "culture of work;" just tell them, honestly and humbly, "we need you for this; if someone doesn't help us, we're in trouble." Watch them rise up.

We won't do that. Oh, Doc might; he's easily fooled, but he's good people, his heart is in the right place. Or he might not; he's only one man, and the social and economic pressures to do nothing effective are overwhelming. We as a country won't. We took the homeless teens and homeless bums of 1932 and turned them into the Greatest Generation of 1944 by needing them that badly; we won't admit that we need the homeless teens and homeless bums of 2011, because we're not scared enough. So they know damned well that we (at least think that) we don't need them. Providing services to them? Is like taking aspirin to deal with the fact that you have a broken leg you can't afford to get set, or an infected tooth you can't afford to get pulled; it may make life momentarily better, but it doesn't stop the problem from getting worse. I hate painkillers for just that reason; they remind me that I can't get whatever it is that's broken, that's sick, that hurts, I can't get it fixed. I hate homeless services, whether government or private charity, the same way.

And they say I have an empathy disorder.


And ... NutriSystem permanently cancelled.

They screwed up my last order in the process of changing over to their new menu. They dropped roughly half of the items I liked. They added almost no new items, except to the frozen foods menu, which I can't afford, and wouldn't have room in my freezer for even if it were cheap. "NutriSystem Success"? More like "NutriSystem FAIL."

What this is going to do to my weight, I have no idea. Given how much of what I was eating for breakfast, with them, was over-priced Cheerios, I should do fine for breakfasts, although I'll miss their powdered-egg-white dehydrated vegetable omelets. Portion-appropriate lunches are going to be problematic to find. I should be able to match their price and selection on frozen dinners on South Beach brand without having to order them a month at a time; I'll miss the non-frozen dinners, but then, I was going to miss those anyway. Salty snacks in low-carb and portion-appropriate packaging will be impossible, but then, NutriSystem dropped several of those from their menu, too. Deserts I mostly found substitutes for, Skinny Cow and Weight Watchers branded, although they're not as good a selection and not quite as filling.

Maybe some day American food processing companies like Campbells and Hormel will learn that some of us want low-fat low-carb canned goods and packaged goods. I imagine the chemistry is daunting, but I do wish I could figure out how they made the low-fat, low-carb beef, chicken, and turkey gravy that so many of NutriSystem's entrees were based on! Yeah, I know: gravy is, almost by definition, nothing but fat and starch, but they have (or at least had) some substitutes that actually worked.

I won't end up putting it all back on, I know that. The six-meals-and-three-snacks a day diet they had me on taught me better portion control, and bullying me into buying a vegetable steamer has gotten me almost entirely off of mashed potatoes, rice, and noodles. I guess I'll see what happens over the next six months to a year.

I can already tell that it's going to save me a ton of money, though.


Santarchy Follow-up

I did skip the candy cane/lumps of coal idea, from the last post. (Not only was it bad theater, it occurred to me that it was also one more damned thing to have to carry around all day). But I did go as "Occupy Elf," as people were calling me all day. Instead of painting up a big protest sign (see "one more damned thing to carry," above), I took a small-to-mid sized white board and red, green, and black markers, so I could change my protest sign over the course of the day.

And, gods love her, one of the other elfs came up with a way to improve on it: as all 40 or 50 of us crowded into yet another bar, she would yell, "ELF CHECK!" "ELF CHECK!" "ELF CHECK!" "ELF CHECK!" and then, after enough "elf checks" got the other elfs, and some of the Santas, into "people's mic" mode, hand it off to me to lead them in:

"We are Santa!" (WE ARE SANTA) "We see everything" (WE SEE EVERYTHING) "We do not forget." (WE DO NOT FORGET) "We do not forgive." (WE DO NOT FORGIVE) "Expect us!" (EXPECT US!)

That's part of the Santarchy magic: bring along a bit of interactive theater to do, and at some point in the event, you can probably get a couple of other people to play along. Every time I changed the protest sign and did a lap of the room, people loved it. So between that, and walking from bar to bar with two to five other people chanting with me "Whose holiday?" "OUR HOLIDAY!" and "Show me what the holiday looks like!" "THIS IS WHAT THE HOLIDAY LOOKS LIKE!" and "Santa got bailed out!" "ELVES GOT SOLD OUT!" I was having the time of my life.

(No I didn't crowd out other people's fun. There was also lots of other people's leading the group in various chants and carols. And I was discreetly quiet when we passed the real OccupySTL march against the NDAA going the other way.)

It also helped that all of the afternoon and early evening venues were smoke free. And the half dozen cranberry-and-vodkas and three rum-and-cokes didn't hurt.

Posted via LiveJournal app for Android.

Having lost too much weight to be a convincing Santa Claus, I ordered an elf costume for St. Louis Santarchy this year, it should get here today. And now I have a terrible idea: I want to run up to Dollar or Wag's for some posterboard and paint, and make a sign to go with it:

The Naughtiest 1%
Get 42% of the Toys


I may even have time to get a couple of dozen fake lumps of coal and a couple of candy canes. I can ask people, especially kids, if they are in the nice 99% or the naughty 1%? If they say 1%, I give them a candy cane. If they say naughty, I give them coal, and explain that it's "austerity." "We can't take away the naughtiest 1%'s toys, because they're called 'job creators,' so all that's left for you is coal."

This is a no good horrible idea. It drags politics into what's supposed to be a fun event, especially here in town where it's never been as confrontational as it was originally intended to be when the Cacophony Society invented it. It breaks at least one of the rules of Santarchy, "Don't ____ with kids." But if I don't talk myself out of this, I may do it anyway.

Help talk me out of this?

In case you haven't noticed, almost every country in the world has been facing a problem that used to be confined to third-world hellholes: kleptocracy, which means "rule by thieves." In country after country, corrupt banking officials lent out money that they knew was going to be stolen, based on fraudulent loan applications. Usually, bribes were involved. Supposedly, this money was loaned out to build the country up, or to support working people, or to create jobs. But (and surely you've noticed this) at least half of that money ended up doing no such thing; it ended up in the offshore bank accounts of the corrupt bankers, of their personal friends, and of political officials (of all parties) with suspiciously close ties to those corrupt bankers.

As those loans came due, none of the people who stole that money have been asked to pay back more than a tiny portion of those loans, certainly nothing close to what was stolen. So how will those loans be repaid? "Austerity." They will pass laws that stop all the repairs on your kids' schools, that stop updating their textbooks. They will find excuses to seize the money that was set aside to cover your medical expenses and your retirement. They will cut your pay, but raise your rent or mortgage until you are evicted, and then that building will be sold to pay back the banks for the money the kleptocrats "borrowed" and then stole. You think this is the only place that it's happened? We're not even the first country they did this to.

In case you haven't noticed, citizens of every country that fell into kleptocracy have risen up with two demands: the kleptocrats must be brought to justice, and if those loans are to be repaid at all (and given that the banks knew the loan applications were fraudulent, there's no good reason to do so), it must be the thieves, not the people who didn't benefit from those loans, who pay them back.

In case you haven't noticed, you are not the only police officers who have been asked to use as much force as necessary, in order to crack down on trivial ordinance violations, as an excuse to shut those citizens up. Your fellow police have been asked to shut down those protests in every country in Latin America, in every country in the Middle East, in every country in North Africa, and in almost every country in Europe. In country after country, one of three things has happened: the cops obeyed orders and the kleptocrats are getting away with imposing austerity, or else the cops obeyed orders but foreign governments stepped in, citing actual or impending police atrocities, and overthrew the kleptocrats, or else they did something that you chose not to do, this last week or two.

In a few countries, the cops saw that they didn't have the choice of defending the perfectly law abiding, saw that they were being asked to defend criminals, concluded that they could not morally justify obeying the order to shut down the protests, and went home. Few if any of the protesters even asked the police to switch sides and join the protests against kleptocracy. Most of us know that that's an unreasonable request, we know that most of you feel that you owe it to the uniform you wear, and to the oath you took, and to your fellow officers, not to join the protesters. But in the countries where the police, asked to use force to shut down peaceful protests against kleptocracy, took off their uniforms and went home until it was all over? Not just in the Arab (Spring) world, but in places like Iceland? Freedom is on the march. Nor have those countries slid into poverty because they refused to cover the debts that the thieves owed to the dishonest bankers; those countries are recovering from the global recession faster than we are.

But you stood shoulder to shoulder with your brother and sister officers, and either nobody said anything, or else when somebody said something, nobody else stepped forward to back them up. You all decided to obey the orders passed down from the kleptocrats. You enforced municipal ordinances. Some of you, most of you, even did so peacefully and professionally. But you ended the only chance we had to escape ten years or more of austerity rule. So, ten years from now, when your pension has been stolen from you? Ten years from now, when your child or your parent or your spouse gets sick, or you get sick yourself, and you're told there's no money to pay for your health care because we can't tax job creators or penalize too big to fail banks, so that's where the money went? Ten years from now, when you see what your country has turned into after ten more years of CEOs and boards of directors who know that if they steal enough to make themselves "systemically important" they can scoff at every law? This will be your only consolation: you did what everybody else around you was doing, which is what you were told to do. May it give you some comfort.

First, let me lie to you: these are my opinions, it's okay with me if you disagree, I won't judge you harshly for disagreeing. Why did I just call that a lie? Because intellectually, that is what I believe about my own beliefs. What makes me think that I'm lying to myself when I say that, though, and what makes me think I'd be lying if I said that to you without disclaimer, is just how angry I get when I see a politician get savaged in the media for days at a time over shit I just think is completely unfair, unreasonable, or even if it's just shit that I think is no big deal, and how angry I get when I see someone skate on something that really pisses me off personally. I don't want to be angry at anybody who disagrees with me on any of the following, and I absolutely will hear any reasoned or emotionally honest argument for principles that contradict mine. I just can't promise to be 100% calm and non-judgmental about your opinions, just as I find out that I don't even want to try, any more than anybody else does, to be completely non-judgmental about some of the scandals themselves.

First, some principles, then I'll cite a few famous examples:

One: I really, really, really, more than anything else, give a shit about consent. Any sex scandal that whiffs of physical force pisses me off. Any sex scandal that even faintly hints of abuse of wealth, privilege, or any other form of power over the other partner pisses me off even more. If the accused didn't wait for consent or ask for consent, I'm angry; if they "asked" for consent under circumstances where the person who was asked faced punishment for saying no, I'm even angrier.

Two: I give a shit about favoritism. Even if the accused didn't offer anybody else the opportunity to benefit from their authority, if I find out that someone is accused of abusing their position to grant favors to someone that they've had sex with, I get very angry on behalf of all of the other people in the office who were wondering, "who do I have to blow to get ahead here?" and who find out that they were right, who have been told that blowing the boss is how you get ahead in life.

Three: It's not a deal breaker for me, but it's a bad sign if someone is accused of being callous or indifferent to people they voluntarily assumed responsibility for. That especially means the kids; you volunteered to have those kids, they didn't volunteer to be parented by you. Cheating on the mother or father of your children is one thing, good or bad, but doing so in a way that humiliates the spouse or that ruins life for the kids makes you a bad person, in my eyes. I give partial credit for the attempt, here; you tried to protect the kids from it afterwards and failed is better than you didn't give a shit if your kids got hurt by it.

Four: I care about official corruption, and so in theory I care if you spend company money or (worse) public funds on things like travel, hotel rooms, or meals to be with the person you love, especially if where you're working or the position you hold doesn't officially grant liberal "you can bring a friend along on our dime" perqs. On the other hand, I've softened my stance on this over the years, as it's come home to me how many violations of this principle are about protecting the higher principle of discretion to protect others; if somebody can't travel without it being official travel, and that's the only way to see someone they love, or if it's the only way they can see someone they love without having to put it out in public where their spouse or kids will be humiliated by it? I disapprove, but only mildly.

Five: As long as it doesn't violate any of the rules above, I honestly don't give a shit about "traditional values of marriage" and I don't give much of a shit about "sacred oaths" that are traditional, that people didn't get any input into, that were thus less than entirely voluntarily given, as in "I have to stand up and say these magic words to get the person I love onto my health insurance." A promise made under coercion is not morally binding. Given how young and dumb most people are when they swear out their marriage vows, I give even more slack. As Mark Twain said, marriage is two people who, in the grip of the most fleeting and insupportable of passions, rush directly to the altar of God and swear to remain that way forever.

Six: Other than worn-down, mostly meaningless ceremonial oaths, I do give a shit if you break your word. But if you at least tried to keep your word, I only barely give a shit.

Seven: I do not give a shit if you are "on my side" or not. I don't make excuses for bad behavior by Democrats, not even fellow liberals or progressives; I don't hold Republicans or conservative Democrats to higher standards.

Eight: I only give a shit about hypocrisy if it's something you built your career on, if it's something you spend a lot of time going on about. Some random politician who mostly campaigns on tax and regulation and foreign policy issues, who checked off a box on some "family values" questionnaire about "protecting traditional values" who had an affair? *yawn* Someone whose whole career in politics has been about "traditional family values" or, worse, who hounded some other politician out of office over their affair, who gets caught in an affair? That one pisses me off. Although, even then, it doesn't have to be a total deal-breaker; I can show some sympathy for someone who agonizes over it. Life is complicated. I feel no compassion towards someone who says "it's different when I do it," though.

Nine: As you might imagine from this, I honestly don't give a shit if you tell me "they lied about it." Of course they did. It would be unreasonable to expect them to do otherwise. Tell me how that lie callously or indifferently hurt someone, and it falls under #3, above, but otherwise, what did you expect them to do? When you catch a little kid with his hand in the cookie jar and cookie crumbs all over his face, and you ask him, "Did you take a cookie?" the kid doesn't lie; he answers the question he hears, which is, "Are you volunteering to be punished?" Telling the truth about it when you're caught, even if you didn't have to, can make a slight favorable impression on me, but I don't hold it against people when they harmlessly lie.

Ten: I have an unreasonable bias, one I'd complain about in other people, towards people in consensual non-monogamous relationships or other non-traditional relationships. On the one hand, I think this is an unfair bias of mine, because when the supposedly naturally monogamous insist on judging others harshly for their lack of monogamy, it pisses me off; I sometimes justify my prejudice by hoping that someone who has been a victim of prejudice will have learned tolerance from it; I know that I'm lying to myself about this because I know that what a lot of victims or prejudice learn is the importance of being the one who gets to enforce their prejudices. So while I can't prevent my feelings about this, I try hard to question myself when I find myself looking favorably on someone for this reason.

Now, those principles being stated, I'll address specific sex scandals in the comments; if you have one you want to ask about that I didn't bring up, do so as a direct reply to this journal entry so it gets its own comment thread, please.


I'm Wantin' Nuthin' for Christmas ...

Even before I saw the movie In Time, I was leaning in this direction: I don't want any gifts, per se, for Christmas. I have too much stuff. There are things I could stand to have replaced, but none of them are in the appropriate price range for Christmas presents. Everything that any of my friends could afford to give me for Christmas would be one more thing that duplicates something I already have, or that I didn't want in the first place, that I would have to find a place to store and then take care of. With all due respect, and I say this as someone who's fallen back on this lazy shortcut before and felt guilty about it, I've never been crazy about the gift certificate thing. And as someone on a diet, I can't even fall back on my old traditional wish-list item, consumables.

But I do like opening presents on Christmas. It's been a major disappointment for me, the last couple of years, that there wasn't anything under the tree. As irrational as this sounds coming from a 51-year-old guy, waking up Christmas morning and finding nothing under the tree makes me feel like a bad kid that Santa hates, makes me feel like none of my friends loved me enough to get me anything for Christmas.

Here's how I'm reconciling that this year: what I specifically want for Christmas, from anybody who feels any obligation to give me a gift, is a Christmas card (or any other Winter Holiday card) with a note in it telling me what charity you donated to in my name in the month of December. What I want for Christmas is at least a tiny down payment on a Christmas miracle. Because let's face it, what I want for Christmas, what I really want, you and I both know I'm not going to get: I want America, the country I'm stuck living in, to be a better place.

I want military demobilization and an end to American imperialism. I want an end to dependence on oil and coal. I want an end to the Forbes 400 list's absolute veto over all political candidates. I want an end to the militarized, rights-less police state that the Forbes 400 have insisted on, to defend their veto and to defend the privileges that the politicians they hand-picked for us gave them, and to defend them from occasional bouts of outrage over all of the above. I want an end to permanent high unemployment. I want an end to spousal murder/suicide and infanticide fueled by permanent high unemployment. I want a universal public-funded employer of last resort to replace extended unemployment benefits and SSDI, whether we get to call it the reborn WPA or whether we call it Workfare, I just want it. I want an end to Reaganomics. I want safe, legal, affordable and destigmatized reproductive rights and sexual health in every city and county in the United States, including safe, legal, affordable, and destigmatized abortion. I want either a national health service or universal single-payer health care for all Americans. I want an end to racial profiling in searches, I want an end to the country's centuries-long war on black men, I want an end to black men committing crimes at the same rate as the rest of us but being incarcerated at 7 times the rate. And, not incidentally, I want an end to the for-profit prison-industrial state. I want equal protection under the law; if it's illegal for a poor or powerless person to do it, it should be illegal for a rich or powerful person to do it. And vice versa.

I'm not going to get any of those things for Christmas this year. But if you were going to buy me a $1 or a $5 or a $25 present, you can buy me $1 or $5 or $25 worth of it. Pick a charity that's working towards any of those things. Send in a donation, whether in your name or in my name I don't care, but I don't want any of their "thanks for donating" gifts, either.

Christmas is a time to show that you care enough about someone to put some thought into finding or making something that they'd like. But if you don't have time to pick a charity, or don't have the energy, I understand that. So here's an easy fall-back. As a step towards getting me some or all of those things, I also want well-funded independent hard-hitting investigative journalism back, and if the 21st century has taught us anything, it's that we're not going to get that out of any shareholder-owned publicly-traded for-profit company, no matter how noble they claim to be. If you absolutely cannot make up your mind as to what charity would best promote any of the causes I listed above, I would admire and be thankful for any donations you made to ProPublica, or National Public Radio, or the Greg Palast Investigative Fund, or WikiLeaks, or GlobalRevolution.tv, or, if your town has a non-profit investigative journalism fund, like the St. Louis Beacon, donate to that. Or, maybe, I guess, PBS.

Tuck a note into a card that says, "Brad, because you asked, I donated to (whatever)." Mark the envelope "Do Not Open Until Christmas." And either give it to me in person, or send it to J. Brad Hicks, 8708 Crocus Ln Apt 6, St Louis MO 63114, USA. That's what I want for Christmas.


You know, I thought I understood the law on police use of police use of pain compliance in general and pepper spray as a tool of pain compliance in particular. Then I went looking for footnotes. Now I doubt if there even IS any clear or unambiguous law on police use of pepper spray.

In particular: can anybody find me even one settled case outside the 9th District Court of Appeals? Everybody seems to be basing what little argument they have on 1994 Forrester v San Diego (California), 1998 LaLonde v Riverside (California), and 2002 Humbolt v Riverside (California). I KNOW that cops have used pepper spray outside of California before this year! And I KNOW that the other 8 courts look askance at the 9th Circuit! And yet none of these cases has made it to the US Supreme Court, and I can't find a single case from any other circuit. Has NOBODY outside of California ever sued a cop for pepper spraying them? Or are there such cases, and nobody propagandizing for either side, for the cops or for the protesters, thinks to cite them?

Here's what I think is the law, or least what the cops think the law is, based on yet another review of those three cases:

Nobody disputes the right of a cop to use any tool or weapon at his disposal when somebody is in physical danger, as long as his response is "proportional" to the threat (can't shoot someone dead for threatening to punch someone) and stops as soon as the threat is over (can't shoot them again after they surrender). This is such settled law that it is hardly debated; all these cases assume it; none of these cases have anything to do with anybody being in immediate physical danger before the cop decided to use force. They have to do with what happens when the cop gives you an order, and you refuse to obey it. Specifically, they have to do with what happens after the cop says the magic word "arrest," as in "you are under arrest," because as far as the cops (and most courts) are concerned, it is fundamental and unchallenged law that once you are under arrest, the cop has the legal authority to order you to do almost anything, and the authority to do anything necessary to make you obey him if you don't immediately do so.

What are the limits on "do almost anything to make you obey"? In Forrester v San Diego, the police decided that the previous tactic of dealing with passively resisting protesters, namely carrying them out after they go limp, was injuring too many cops and not a few of the protesters. So they decided to use "pain compliance:" inflict physical pain on any limp or otherwise disobedient arrestees until they stop disobeying. The 9th Circuit upheld this. In LaLonde v Riverside, a guy who was pepper-sprayed in the process of a (frankly, bullshit) arrest inside his own home complained that the cops refusing him first aid once he was no longer resisting constituted torture for its own sake, for punishment's sake, not pain compliance, and the 9th Circuit agreed with him and held the arresting officer liable. In Headwaters v Humboldt, similarly, protesters were able to prove that the cops kept applying pepper spray to them once they had surrendered, and in intentionally egregious ways like pouring the liquid directly into their eyes, and again withheld first aid; once they established these facts, to the district court's satisfaction, the court ruled against the cops.

So, here's what I think I understand:

Until the cop says "you are under arrest," if you're not hurting someone or threatening to hurt someone, he cannot hurt you. If he does, he's the one breaking the law, not you.

Once the cop says "you are under arrest," and you disobey any order he gives you, then unless that order would result in you or somebody else being physically injured, then "Katie, bar the door." He can torture you to his heart's content, with his bare hands or or his boots or using any tool or weapon handy to him, as long as he doesn't intentionally permanently injure you and as long as first aid is provided as soon as you obey. As far as the law is concerned, as soon as you decided to disobey a direct order while under arrest, you volunteered for whatever comes next.

Can't obey, because the cop tazed or sprayed you? We're still waiting for some court to unambiguously rule on that; all I can say is, "sucks to be you." All I can point to is the Rodney King civil suit, in which a jury narrowly ruled that at some point, the cops who were kicking the crap out of him because he wouldn't get up and quietly go to jail, should have noticed that he could no longer get up and quietly go to jail, and should have stopped. But that ruling was narrow (all of the taser hits, all of the punches, all of the clubbings, and all but the last couple of kicks and stomps were ruled to be entirely legal), the videotape evidence was hideous, and the case was nationally politicized; and even so, the civil suit wasn't appealed, so nobody knows what the 9th circuit would have ruled.

(Postscript: Don't live in the 9th circuit? Then, as much as I hate to say it, under our constitutional form of government, the law is what the cops say it is until somebody appeals the case. At best, you can hope that they're assuming that their circuit court would rule the same as the 9th. And given that the 9th is the closest thing the US has to an anti-cop federal court, why would they assume that?)

(Second postscript: It should also go without saying that no court has ruled, nor is there any other law, that if you disobey a cop after he places you under arrest he has some legal obligation to torture you into complying, only that he has the discretion to do so if he thinks that it's the best thing to do in each specific situation. There is almost certainly nowhere near enough training or practice that goes into informing that decision.)

Gods Help Us, St. Louis Did it Right #OWS

Multiple news sources are reporting that the multi-city raids on Occupy Wall Street and its regional imitators were coordinated by the National Council of Mayors, via conference call right before they began. A few minutes ago, I saw an article on a San Francisco news website alleging that, based on deep-background off-the-record anonymous law enforcement sources, the FBI was on that 18-city conference call as well, and that it was the FBI that advised cities on tactics: go in hard, with as many cops as you can, wearing black riot-squad gear to make sure you have the psychological upper hand; do it in the middle of the night and keep the reporters as far away as possible.

The St. Louis Beacon non-profit news site is reporting that St. Louis's mayor didn't bother listening to the conference call himself; he let his chief of staff take the call. And after seeing how other cities handled their raids, and comparing it to how St. Louis handled its raid, I'm left wondering: did Jeff Rainford laugh out loud at the FBI and the credulous mayors who were listening in? Or did he manage to hide it?

See, here's one thing I didn't have the heart to tell my friend who's peripherally involved in Occupy St. Louis: Occupy is not the first liberal group to think that they could win for their political issue by setting up a permanent encampment on a major thoroughfare in downtown St. Louis. They're not even the first in my lifetime. They're the third. The only difficulty that anti-war tax-evasion advocate Bill Ramsey and his encampment posed for the St. Louis police was keeping the feds off of their back long enough for them to deal with it peacefully; homeless services advocate the reverend Larry Rice had multiple churches, half the city's politicians, and significant manpower at his disposal and was never more than a minor annoyance to the powers that be or to their police. And, now that I understand their strategy, St. Louis's sadly under-staffed, horrifically mismanaged, and irredeemably corrupt metropolitan police department did at least demonstrate this: they have dealing with encampments like this down to a science; Occupy St. Louis never stood a chance.

The first thing they did was the one that baffled me the most, at first: they gave the protesters nearly 36 hours notice, as opposed to the 20 to 60 minutes' notice other cities gave. It has taken me almost a week, and the mistakes of several other cities, to see why that was a good idea, because here's how they did it. Early afternoon on Thursday, they gave the protesters 24 hours' notice: as of 3pm on Friday, the no structures in the plaza rule was going to be enforced, and as of 10pm, the curfew was going to be enforced. So, unsurprisingly, Occupy St. Louis put out a huge call for as many people as possible to come to the plaza by noon, to be trained in peaceful civil disobedience; local civil liberties lawyers showed up to brief them. Needless to say, the cops did not oblige them by showing up at 3pm. Heck, I knew they weren't going to show up at 3pm; no way were they going to snarl downtown traffic during rush hour; I told my friend not to expect them any earlier than 7pm at the very earliest.

So, when no cops showed up anywhere near 3pm, the protesters had their biggest rally to date (as I suspect the cops were thinking, "getting it out of their system"), and then started to drift away. Rally organizers advised people to be back before 10pm, to block the enforcement of curfew. Sure enough, by 10pm, they had 350 people down there. And scant minutes later, people were jazzed up and ready to go, because outlying scouts reported that the police were gathering, en masse, with multiple cars, multiple buses, an ambulance, and a firetruck, only a couple of blocks away!

And sometime around an hour, hour and a half later, the cops just disappeared, dispersed, without ever having gotten within two blocks of the plaza. So the confused protesters declared victory, let most of the troops go home, and fewer than a hundred of them bedded down for the night in their tents. An hour later, somewhere around 150 cops showed up. I'm sure people in those tents tweeted and text messaged and phoned for reinforcements. But between the late hour, and the fact that people were exhausted after having been out there all day, and that it was the third call-up of the day? Nobody showed.

Ah, but the cops did more than just show up after two head-fakes and with sufficient numbers ... they did right exactly what the Obama administration told everybody else to do wrong. They didn't show up in riot gear and helmets, they showed up in shirt sleeves with their faces showing. They not only didn't show up with SWAT gear, they showed up with no unusual weapons at all, and what weapons they had all securely holstered. They politely woke everybody up. They politely helped everybody who was willing to remove their property from the park to do so. They then asked, out of the 75 to 100 people down there, how many people were volunteering for being-arrested duty? Given 33 hours to think about it, and 10 hours to sweat it over, only 27 volunteered. As the police already knew, those people's legal advisers had advised them not to even passively resist, so those 27 people lined up to be peacefully arrested, and were escorted away by a handful of cops. The rest were advised to please continue to protest, over there on the sidewalk ... and what happened next was the most absolutely brilliant piece of crowd control policing I have heard of in my entire lifetime.

All of the cops who weren't busy transporting and processing the voluntary arrestees lined up, blocking the stairs down into the plaza. They stood shoulder to shoulder. They kept calm and silent. They positioned the weapons on their belts out of sight. They crossed their hands low in front of them, in exactly the least provocative posture known to man. And they peacefully, silently, respectfully occupied the plaza, using exactly the same non-violent resistance techniques that the protesters themselves had been trained in. Downtown bicycle patrol cops had spent weeks coming to the Occupy St. Louis general assembly and working group meetings, paying respectful attention and engaging people in polite conversation, listening intently; who knew that they weren't surveilling protesters, as some of us paranoidly assumed, they were seeing what the protesters had to teach them about tactics! A few of the protesters stayed for a couple of hours, to maintain the stand-off; the police uncomplainingly and politely continued their occupation of the plaza, flawlessly turning Occupy St. Louis's tactics back against them.

By dawn, the protesters were licked. They weren't just licked Friday night, they're almost certainly licked permanently, too. When the park re-opened Saturday morning, a few protesters gathered, caught unprepared with no signs or other gear, quietly discussing what to do. One of them went right to the center of the plaza and set up a tent. A couple of officers came by, engaged him in quiet conversation, and once everybody was calm, they pointed out to him that nobody else was joining him. He took the tent down.

A couple of people on the Occupy St. Louis Facebook page are still promising defiance, but whether they know it or not, they're beaten. One thing that I've heard from everybody who's ever tried to organize St. Louisans to volunteer for anything as a group, from churches to political parties, from the VFW to anti-war groups, from the Bill Gothard Seminar to ACT-UP, is that it is almost completely impossible to get St. Louisans to show up for volunteer work. St. Louisans are available for work in the past tense. ("Oh, you did what? you should have called me, I would have helped!") St. Louisans are available for work in the future tense. ("The next time you do that, you should call me, I want to help out.") But they are never, ever available in the present. ("Sorry, I wish I could help.")* Occupy St. Louis benefited from the publicity of the national movement, and college students facing the prospect of graduating into an economy with high unemployment while carrying tens of thousands in debt were highly motivated, but I think their momentum is broken now. On the off chance it's not, the city is dangling the carrot that maybe, if you patiently wait and don't violate the ordinances between now and then, maybe some day we'll repeal an ordinance or the court will rule in your favor, and you can have your camp back ... yeah, never going to happen, they just have to stall until the last of the momentum is gone. The city will get that polite obedience, too; St. Louis has near-Minneapolis levels of politeness about those kinds of things. And long before then, St. Louis' genuinely awful winter weather will have kicked in, the time of year when nobody leaves the house voluntarily.

In every town where the local cops thought that the Obama administration's Department of Homeland Security knew what they were talking about, Occupy is roaring back bigger than ever; as Olbermann and others have pointed out, this is the historically inevitable automatic response of every American to police brutality and media censorship. Too bad for the 1% in other towns that their cops don't have St. Louis's long practice at appearing to ignore, and then effortlessly dissipating, liberal activist groups.

Berlusconi and the ECB Riots

Maybe I'm wrong.

I say that a lot, but I want to start with it this time, because I'm feeling paranoid.

Something looks obvious to me, too obvious for nobody else to be saying it, but Silvio Berlusconi is not really stepping down. As soon as I heard that he was stepping down, I knew that some sort of fix had to be in, because Silvio Berlusconi can't step down without going to jail, and media tycoons don't go to jail voluntarily.

I didn't have to think about it terribly long to see one way that the fix could be in. Now, I know enough enough about cognitive biases to distrust this conclusion: it's the first thing I thought of, my brain latched onto it, and is looking for evidence to back up my initial prejudice. So I'm very probably wrong. But I remember how Silvio Berlusconi came to power in the first place. And I just finished Greg Palast's Vultures' Picnic, which more or less predicted this in chapter 12. Palast was talking about Greece, which also just underwent a suspiciously convenient, suspiciously temporary-looking, change of executive, but the situation applies even more strongly to Berlusconi because of his history. So, even though I'm probably wrong, here's what I keep thinking.

Some of you may remember what I wrote about Haiti, after the earthquake ("The Earthquake Didn't Kill Hundreds of Thousands of Haitians. We Did," 1/17/10). As part of a concerted effort to keep the world's slaves and landless peasants from seeing even one example of a successful slave revolt, it has been US policy since the Jefferson administration that Haiti must fail. Once the Haitian people saved their way out of the financial reparations for their own slave revolt that were imposed on them by the Jefferson administration, the US imposed the Duvalierists on them. The Duvalierists made sure that Haiti failed by taking out huge "development" loans, stealing that money instead of investing it, and then demanding that the Haitian taxpayers repay the loan; any time Haitian voters insist that the people who stole that money be the ones who repay it, the US Marine Corps goes in to reinstall the Duvalierists. Any more, it's not even about a 200 year old slave revolt. It's about an even more important and contemporary principle: banks must not be forced to take losses when they loan money to governments, even if they know that the money will be stolen instead of invested.

In Vultures' Picnic chapter 12, Palast lays out a cache of whistle-blower documents from inside the International Monetary Fund, documenting that the IMF has followed exactly this policy with every country in Latin America, Africa, and south Asia; he quotes a disgusted former IMF president, someone who took the job thinking that the job of the IMF was actual third-world development, as confirming the smuggled-out memos and reports. For several decades now, the IMF has known exactly what was going to happen every time Wall Street, and their counterparts in the City of London and at Deutche Bank and in Switzerland, invest in third-world government debt:

Step one: bankers pay huge bribes to government officials to make sure that it is their bank that gets to loan money to the government. Step two: the people they paid those bribes to steal at least half of the money. Step three: when it comes time to roll over those loans, there is no tax revenue to cover them, because the money was stolen and used to pay for prostitutes, drugs, casino gambling binges, private islands, rare antiques and rarer jewelry for an ever-younger series of trophy wives, and 500-foot yachts, instead of roads or ports or schools or anything else that would actually grow the economy. Step four: the IMF imposes an economic embargo on the country, that can only be lifted if the country agrees to "austerity." Austerity, in the IMF's definition, means stopping all infrastructure repair, closing almost all the schools and selling everything in them to the bankers or their hand-picked friends for pennies on the dollar of what the stuff is worth, doing the same thing to the firehouses, doing the same thing to the water treatment plants, doing the same thing to the electrical generation plants, and giving away (giving away!) the mineral rights to "foreign investment." They must also "liberalize capital flows," that is to say, eliminate any laws that are stopping the people who stole those loans from smuggling their money out of the country. Step five: voters revolt, demanding that the bankers take a haircut on the debt to the extent that it can be proven that they knew the money was being stolen. Step six: since the elections are rigged, and since the local army always takes the side of the kleptocrats, we have "the IMF riots."

Step six is in the memos, in advance, part of the plan. The IMF approved and guaranteed the initial stolen loans knowing that part of making sure that the banks got their money back would be the CIA and the US Army and the US Marine Corps taking the sides of the kleptocrats in the riots, and in many cases all-out civil wars, that followed. They make sure that the kleptocrats, and the local army and the police, know to be prepared for it, because "the IMF riots" are considered an acceptable cost of defending the sacred principles that are at stake. Which sacred principles? One: nobody in Europe or the United States must ever pay face value, fair market value, for any resource in the third world. As Annie Leonard cleverly put it in "The Story of Stuff," third world natural resources is another way of saying "our stuff, which other people somehow ended up living on top of." That's a sacred principle! And two, bankers and other investors in the United States are entitled, as a matter of sacred principle, to earn a rate of return on their investments that exceeds the rate of inflation.

Deutche Bank, and its puppet, the European Central Bank, are at step four now with Greece and Italy. The embargo is somewhat porous, because European governments are a little nervous about having an old-fashioned IMF riot within walking distance of the rest of Europe, but the embargo is being imposed. Deutche Bank and other German banks loaned huge sums of money to Greece and Italy, knowing for a fact that at least half of the loaned money was being stolen by wealthy personal friends and business partners of government officials, and not caring, because they knew that the ECB would enforce "austerity," would demand that people who didn't benefit from those loans, not the wealthy people who did, pay them back by the enforced looting of those countries of every asset. There will be riots; there may well even be civil war, but Deutche Bank will be repaid and those countries' infrastructure and archaeological treasures and other resources will end up in the hands of the banksters and their friends for pennies on the dollar, extracted at gunpoint by the Greek and Italian armies with whatever "stabilization" help they need from NATO - as a matter of sacred principle.

And Berlusconi, more than anyone, knows how to survive that; governmental collapse and the fear of anarchy, combined with ownership of the media, is how he swept himself into the position where he and his personal friends could steal half of the money Italy was borrowing in the first place. Look up the "Clean Hands" affair. When all of Italian politics was collapsing into fear of anarchy because every single politician of every political party was being convicted in a wave of bribery scandals, Berlusconi's cable TV channels portrayed him as the only man in Italy with "clean hands," the only man who could save the country from anarchy.

And here we are, with Italy teetering on the brink of anarchy. And Berlusconi, the man who cannot legally step down because he and his friends stole half of the money that Italy owes Deutche Bank (and Deutche Bank knew it at the time), the man who is only out of prison right now because of presidential immunity and because of his ability to fire prosecutors, is suddenly stepping down? And, oh, how conveniently, handing the government over to a bureaucrat, with the explicitly stated job of enforcing ECB austerity. Everybody who knows anything knows what will happen: ECB riots, maybe even a civil war. And Berlusconi still owns all the cable networks, which will, as surely as the sun shines, report: "As soon as Berlusconi, the man who saved us from anarchy after the Clean Hands scandals, stepped down, the country fell back into anarchy. Only Berlusconi can save us!"

Maybe I'm wrong. It can't be that easy. If it were, everybody would be pointing it out.

There's something vaguely ironic about my having waited to the last minute to see the movie I was most looking forward to this year, given that the movie's title is In Time. (If you go back and look at my beginning-of-the-year list of movies I was looking forward to, this one was referred to by its working title, Now.) Being an old-fashioned sci-fi buff, I'm frequently prone to complaining that "they just don't make 'em like they used to," and by that I mean good old-fashioned low-budget '70s social-commentary hard-SF or semi-hard-SF dystopias. A couple of years ago, we got Duncan Jones' tribute to Silent Running, Moon; this year, we get Andrew Niccol's tribute to Soylent Green, In Time, starring a not-over-extended-by-the-part Justin Timberlake as the hero, and completely charming Amanda Seyfield as ... well, let me lj-cut the rest of this, because the trailer only does it partial justice, but I can't explain more without wandering deep into spoiler territory.

SpoilersCollapse )

The movie's not for everyone. You really do have to just accept the flaky premise at face value, the way you treat faster than light travel in space opera, and not set out to try to poke holes in it; if you can't accept it as a storytelling device, you will hate this movie, as quite a few reviewers did. And the ending feels out of place, like it was bolted on from another script at the last minute; if somebody digs up an article to show me that they test-screened a version with a different ending, that audiences hated it, and that the studio made them reshoot a more optimistic ending, I will not be at all surprised. But it was every bit the movie I was hoping for, and more.
There hasn't been a whole lot of detailed reporting since the end of the first day of the General Strike called by the Occupiers in Oakland, California. As far as I can tell from Twitter and Google searches at a distance, that seems to be because the strike itself is in abeyance while the Occupy Oakland General Council, and the city government, do their own separate after-action analysis, one in public, one in private, trying to understand how, after so much of it went well for so many hours, it all fell apart into violence by both sides -- and, more importantly, what to do about it?

I don't have the benefit of being on-site, but I do have the luxury to think about it while not up to my neck in the work both sides have had to go through to clean up the battlefield, and that one side has had to go through treating their wounded, while the other side is distracted by processing their captives. And I think a clue can be found in the timeline I wrote up the other day. But even with that clue, I'm left with a question that only the police can answer (if even they can). And I'd really like to know the answer to that question, because the answer would have important tactical implications for the broader movement.

Let me start by calling attention to something: on some level, everything about Occupy Oakland is illegal. Now, there's a giant asterisk over that, and that's that the Supreme Court, in a series of decisions from the 1940s through the 1970s, ruled that political speech and political assembly enjoy the highest possible level of protection in this country, and cannot be trumped by mere federal or state law or local ordinance unless there is a legitimate government interest that can only be served by enforcing those laws, and even then the enforcement has to be done in the least invasive way possible; if somebody suggests a way to attain the same goal that wouldn't infringe on political speech or assembly, police have to ignore the law as written and do that. So the Supreme Court used to say, anyway. I think that must be why the National Lawyer's Guild is all over the Occupy movement, writing their phone number in permanent ink on every protester's arm; they're itching for the easy money that they think would come from suing cities over this. I notice that the ACLU is being a bit more reticent; I suspect that they're less sanguine that the Roberts court would continue this tradition, and if so, I share their fear.

But this is all legalistic nitpicking compared to the main issue, because I doubt that either the Oakland city attorney or the Oakland police chief actually know all of the Supreme Court rulings around political expression and assembly, so Oakland police, like the police around every Occupy site, should be assumed to be operating as if they believed that every single aspect of the Occupy movement is illegal: curfew violations, camping illegally, petty private and public property damage, noise violations, traffic violations, sanitation violations, fire code violations, health code violations, conspiracy in restraint of trade, intimidation by threat of violence, public assembly for the purpose of creating disorder, intention to riot, god only knows how many drug and alcohol violations, and repeated failure to obey the order of a law enforcement officer.

So, as far as the cops are concerned, as far as discerning their mindset, it's worth remembering that, even though they are probably wrong to think this, to probably 95% of the cops anywhere near one of these sites, Occupy Wherever is something illegal that they are letting the protesters get away with. Why would they do that? Because they're not doing much harm. Because even the most legally ignorant cop has some vague idea that cracking down on a political protest looks bad. And, most importantly, because they really don't have the manpower to spare to ticket them for everything they're ticketable for, to write all the reports it would take, to testify in the cases that would go to court. If they don't have to do anything, all but the most right-wing among them would really prefer to look the other way as long as open anarchy doesn't break out.

I explain all that because you need to understand that the Oakland PD could have stepped in and swept up the whole mess the minute the OO General Assembly voted for a General Strike; under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, general strikes are illegal. (And I would expect at least one Oakland cop to know this; the 1946 Oakland General Strike is why there's a law against general strikes. It's local history, to them.) They could have swept in and mass-arrested them when they started their march on the banks first thing in the morning, without a parade permit, shutting down streets as they went, and in the opinion of some Oakland business owners and business managers the cops should have done so. Instead, not only did they not do so, they directed vehicle traffic around the march as if it had a perfectly good parade permit. There is no way in hell that it's legal to physically blockade a legal business, but the cops didn't sweep in and arrest enough people to clear a path to the doors at any of the branch banks that Occupy Oakland briefly shut down. The cops then went ahead and, frankly, illegally facilitated yet another permit-less road-clogging march all the way down to the Port of Oakland. They warned that if the protesters crossed the property line into the port they would have to arrest them, but then they blinked and ignored that. Truckers stuck at the port in what were, frankly, illegal citizens' arrests by the protesters who would not let them go until their trucks had been illegally inspected called the cops, and the cops did nothing, just told the truckers to submit.

But when a couple of dozen of the protesters broke off from the main march route to break into, start repairs and cleanup on, and re-open an empty building that had previously been a social services center for the homeless? The Oakland PD called in several hundred officers from at least 8 other agencies, marched on that building, broke in, beat the living shit out of everybody anywhere near that building, and arrested as many of them as they could cart off. And I don't think it's a coincidence that mass vandalism broke out, city wide, about an hour and a half later. Initial news reports say that it was people not involved in Occupy Oakland who did so after the Occupy Oakland General Assembly went to bed for the night; in the next day's General Assembly, several of the Occupiers themselves called bullshit on that, saying that the recognized at least two publicly recognized organizers among the vandals.

So here's the question that's bothering me: why was re-opening the Traveler's Aid Society building the line in the sand? After all of the other law-breaking that the Oakland PD had facilitated, and the even more crime that they'd openly tolerated, why did chiseling the lock off of a foreclosed building and starting cleanup on it trigger a multi-agency SWAT-style raid? Hell, the occupation of the Traveler's Aid Society building may actually be the least illegal thing that happened in the entire East Bay Area for 24 hours either way! Why was that action the flashpoint for violence?

The cops know that this question will keep being asked, because first thing in the morning, they lied about it. No, really; before anybody even asked, the Oakland PD put out a press release with the most transparently obviously stupid lie imaginable, explaining that they raided the Traveler's Aid Society because they were afraid the protesters would burn the building. I hope that none of you are dumb enough to believe them. Within minutes of entering the building, the people who occupied the Traveler's Aid Society building had handed police a statement that they had one and only one goal: reopening this exact building as what it was before the city budget cuts, a service center for the homeless. Even if some cop suspected them of lying to buy time, the cops had the building under observation for the hour and a half between then and the raid; they have to have seen, through the open and well-lit windows, that people were cleaning and repairing the place, not preparing to burn it down. No, whatever the reason was, fear of arson is not it.

I have two hypotheses. I could be wrong, and it could be neither of these, it could be something else altogether that I haven't thought of yet. I've been wrong before. But if it's one of these two things, that has important implications for the Occupy movement:

Was it Just about Numbers? Even with multi-agency support, had the Oakland PD tried to do anything about the main marching routes and main encampment of the General Strike, they would have been outnumbered by many dozens to one. The lowest estimate I've heard is that there were around 2,000 people at the smallest part of it. By the time the strikers crossed the cops' announced line in the sand, the border of the Port of Oakland, there were at least 7,000 of them and maybe as many as 15,000. And the most cops they could mobilize would probably have been fewer than 400. With enough tactical weaponry, 400 cops can clear the streets of 15,000 protesters ... but the process would be hideous, and the blowback would make the anger over Scott Olsen's head injury look trivial. It may be that the reason they attacked the Traveler's Aid Society was that it was re-occupied by fewer than 100 people; it was the only time, all day, the cops had numbers on their side. Observe how long it was between when the Traveler's Aid building was re-opened and when the cops moved; observe that the cops were in constant communication, all day, with appointed representatives of the General Assembly. Want to bet that the cops asked permission, first, or at least asked if, in the opinion of the people they were liaising with, the marchers at the port would move en masse to reinforce the Traveler's Aid Society building if the cops moved against it?

If numbers are the reason why the cops moved in, that bodes ill for all of the scattered Occupy sites; with the exception of Zucotti Park, and maybe one or two others, all of them are pathetically outnumbered by the cops. Heck, here in St. Louis, the estimate I'm hearing is that at night, Occupy St. Louis's encampment down in Keiner Plaza is as low as 6 people, and fewer than 100 during announced actions; if they got help from other jurisdictions, the City could outnumber that by 4 or 5 to 1 during the day, by dozens to 1 at night. If numbers are the reason, then everywhere outside of New York City (and now, because of the backlash and with the benefit of favorable climate, maybe Oakland), expect the Occupiers to be swept aside as soon as they inconvenience even one major employer. It won't be the end of Occupy New York, but the rest of the satellite protests are on borrowed time ... if, I say again, that's what it was. Or else, was it ...

Or Is Foreclosure Sacred? The very first thing that jumped out at me was that, for all the world, it looked to me like the Oakland PD was saying, by their actions: break any other law, and if you're white enough, we'll look the other way, but we will kill, and if need be die, to enforce the bank foreclosure process.

As crazy as this sounds, it is not too crazy to be true. Every local sheriff in every local jurisdiction in America has enforced a foreclosure at least once. Every local sheriff that has ever enforced a foreclosure knows how emotionally volatile that is, how easily the people being made homeless by the banks could tip over from despair into rage, which is why, in my experience, when they do have to physically evict or even just physically speed up someone who hasn't left the house by the exact minute they're supposed to, they bring a lot of manpower. Some of them may also know that there has been a history, during past recessions and depressions, of the black community banding together to physically block evictions, to harass the police until they leave and then to help the "evicted" family chisel the plywood and the locks off and help them move their stuff back in. Cops have some reason to fear that if people lose their fear of foreclosure, that if they stop semi-voluntarily complying with that law, it could go badly for them.

The tactical implication of that would be this. At every General Assembly north of the frost line, someone has brought up the idea, floating around the micro-blogging sites, that if the cops deny the Occupiers what they need to survive the winter, and/or if they evict them completely, the various Occupy sites should abandon the public space and Occupy Foreclosures -- move into prominent, empty, foreclosed-upon buildings and re-open them. Oakland Pd's intel may already be telling them that, too. Monday night's violence and anarchy, may well have been their way of saying to the Occupiers all over the country: don't you dare try it. It may well have been their way of saying that they were absolutely willing to put yet another war hero in the hospital, this time with injuries far worse than Scott Olsen's, to nip that idea in the bud before it catches on.
(to the tune of "Ode to Joy," words by Joe Hill)

Workers of the world, awaken
Break your chains, demand your rights!
All the wealth you make is taken
By exploiting parasites.
Shall you kneel in deep submission
From your cradle to your graves?
Is the depth of your ambition
To be good and willing slaves?

If the workers take a notion,
They can stop all speeding trains.
Every ship upon the ocean
They can tie with mighty chains.
Every wheel in the Creation,
Every mine and every mill,
Fleets and armies of the nation,
Will at their command stand still.

Join the Union, Fellow Workers,
Men and women, side by side.
We will crush the greedy shirkers
Like a sweeping, surging tide;
For, united we are standing,
But, divided we will fall.
Let this be our understanding,
"All for One and One for All."

Workers of the world, awaken;
Rise in all your splendid might.
Take the wealth which you are making.
It belongs to you, by right.
No one will for bread be crying,
We'll have freedom, love and health
When the grand Red Flag is flying
In the Worker's Commonwealth.

(Day One of?) The Oakland General Strike

If you want a good, detailed, well-sourced account of everything that happened at (day one of) the Oakland General Strike, here's the account that was updated throughout the day by reporters for the Oakland Tribune: "Occupy Oakland Live Blog, 11/02/2011."

Capsule summary:

It was reported elsewhere that approximately 1/4 of the businesses facing onto the Occupy Oakland site did close down for the strike; I have seen no authoritative estimate of how many businesses throughout the city did so. The protesters had demanded specifically that every national bank branch in Oakland shut down, and said that they would shut them down if they did not comply. None did. So, starting at around 7 am local time, a group that started with somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 marchers left the Occupy site, marched to each bank branch in turn, and peacefully blockaded them until each one locked its doors and sent its employees home. At one location, the Wells Fargo, the crowd wasn't able to act quickly enough to stop a small group, reported to be three teenagers, from breaking the bank's window, but the crowd did stop them from doing any other damage, from entering the building, and from injuring anyone; no arrests have been made in that case yet, but police say they have photographs of the suspects.

As the banks were being shut down, a rumor floated through Twitter that the manager of the Oakland branch of Whole Foods had threatened to fire any of his employees who took the day off to participate in the general strike. (Not in the live blog linked above, but elsewhere, on Twitter: This rumor has since been shown to be false. Several Oakland Whole Foods employees did participate, and their manager arranged for other people to cover their shifts, not merely permitting this, but, according to all witnesses, actively encouraging anybody who wanted to to participate.) As the marchers were passing by the Whole Foods location on their way from one bank to another, a group estimated at between several and several dozen attacked the front of the store, breaking the window and defacing the building with paint. They were swarmed by the rest of the marchers and stopped from doing any further damage, from attempting to injure or interfere with any employee or customer, and from stealing anything; no arrests have been made yet, but police say that (again) they have photographs of people who are wanted for questioning.

Once all the banks were shut down, protesters regrouped at the Occupy site, where someone (it has not yet been reported who) chartered a fleet of buses to take those who couldn't walk that far from downtown to the West Oakland container-shipping port; those who could march, by now estimated at around 7,000, did. Police cleared traffic away from the march, for the most part, but said that if the marchers attempted to violate federal law by entering the port itself, they would be stopped or arrested. After a tense standoff between bicyclists (reported on Twitter as members of Critical Mass) and California Highway Patrol motorcyclists at the port entrance, the police relented and let the protesters through. They set up checkpoints and, by consensus of the Occupy Oakland assembly, only allowed through empty trucks leaving the port, workers leaving the port, and medical personnel going both ways. This lasted from around 7pm to around 3am.

There were no arrests at the port blockade. There were no injuries at the port itself, but during the march there, a couple in a Mercedes either failed to see or ignored police orders to divert around the march. When they attempted to drive through the march, one marcher pounded on the hood of their car; the driver responded by attempting to kill the marcher with his car. Police evacuated the wounded protester (who is expected to make a full recovery, he seems to have only been badly bruised). Police were seen to question the driver, but made no arrest; the chief of police says that the matter is still under investigation.

At about 10:30pm, while the port protest was going on, an organized sub-group of the protesters broke into, seized, and forcibly re-opened the homelessness services center, which had been foreclosed by one of the banks after the City of Oakland cut its funding, in the old Traveler's Aid Society building. They announced their intention to turn the building back over to the previous agency for free; if the previous agency would not accept this free building, they were going to start their own volunteer homeless-aid service there. As police from multiple agencies converged on the building in riot gear, the people occupying the Traveler's Aid Society building set up an improvised barricade; as the raid began around midnight, they set the barricade on fire. By 12:30 am, police had retaken the building and arrested 30 to 40 people, and the fire department had put out the burning barricade.

From there, the Oakland police, who were still in riot gear, marched to the edge of the main Occupy encampment, arriving a little before 1:00 am, and set up a silent police line on one side. While the police were (apparently) still waiting for the "go" order to clear the park yet again, protesters set up a peaceful picket line of their own facing the police. That order apparently never came; the police dispersed from the park a little before 2:00 am.