Friday, December 21, 2007

A Blessed Solstice to All!

Cece, a friend of mine in Tucson, uses the following as her sig. I love it:

Life should NOT be a journey to the grave
with the intention of arriving safely
in an attractive and well preserved body,
but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand,
wine in the other, body thoroughly used up,
totally worn out and screaming
"WOO HOO, what a ride!"


Saturday, December 08, 2007

Thanksgiving weekend in Tacoma

We spent Thanksgiving weekend in Tacoma with The Babe's family, though we were able to break away for a day on Saturday and visit a few friends. I got to see my dear friend Kim and we stopped to see Elisabeth, Lonnie, and Zen. In the evening, we were able to do dinner with the Babe's old friends Bruce and Stacy--for those of you who were at our wedding, Stacy was the woman who sang You Are My Home (from The Scarlet Pimpernel)--in downtown Seattle.

Bruce and Stacy have a charming son, Elliot, who did not accompany them. Elliot's, uh, 3 years old. When Stacy left Elliot with her mother for the evening, her mother said "Who are you going to dinner with?" Stacy explained that they were going to dinner with her old drama partner and her husband. "What's her husband do?" Stacy's mother asked.

After thinking a second, Stacy said "He's a banjo-playing technical writer."

Her mother snorted and said "Where'd she meet him? On the Internet?"

Stacy said "Yes..."

Later that evening, the Babe googled "banjo player technical writer," thinking that there would probably be just me. She was horrified to discover this produced 159,000 hits using those criteria. The Babe explained that she'd always felt that one banjo-playing technical writer was a sufficient quantity.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Thought du jour

A great quote coming out of Indiana, no less!
"There's no evidence that seat belts have increased reckless driving.
There is no evidence that when we get tetanus shots, we seek rusty nails."
-- Judy Monroe, Indiana health commissioner on the subject of an STD vaccination (Merck's Gardasil) "promoting" sex among teenagers.


Thursday, December 06, 2007

Phrase du jour: "Computer bardo"

The phrase of the day is Computer bardo. The following is taken from the original Wikipedia article:
The Tibetan word Bardo means literally "intermediate state" - also translated as "transitional state" or "in-between state" or "liminal state". ... In the West, the term bardo may also refer to times when our usual way of life becomes suspended ...

The Computer Bardo is that time taken waiting for a response from a computer. It may be, for example, after double-clicking on a file and waiting for it to load, waiting for a Web page to load, waiting for the Start Menu to appear after clicking Start, waiting for your login/reboot to end, waiting for a window to maximize, etc.

The Computer Bardo is typically wasted time, where life is suspended staring at a computer screen with an idle mind. It is not yet known how much time is spent in this state, but it is likely to be considerable, although divided into many short intervals.

During this time it is difficult, but not impossible, to do anything practical. One can train oneself to make use of the time, initially spending a few seconds doing a crossword, reading a short article, or meditating. With training, this time can be reclaimed to a certain extent.


Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Some jokes just write themselves, y'know?

This was pointed out to me today:

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Intelligent Design

Okay, class, now, what was the definition of "irony" again?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

DVD of me in concert

July 4th 1993, I did a concert at Westercon 46. It was possibly one of the best I've ever done. Turns out the video tapes of that concert have been transcribed to DVD and Phil Zack, bless 'is heart, sent me one. It's wonderful to see me from 14 years ago--I had HAIR! and it was BROWN, not SILVER! It's a little annoying to hear that I go flat but I always knew that {sigh}. Nevertheless, it's a really fun piece of me and I'm glad to have it.

I'll be glad to make you a copy; drop me email and let me know and I'll mail you one.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Hey, wanna great job in Iraq doing customer support?

This lapidary little item just came in from David Silva, freelance journalist and incredibly funny writer.

Just came across a job listing for an entry-level position as a help desk operator in Iraq. The job offers a "competitive salary, bonus pay, comprehensive health plan, and a friendly and supportive work environment. Lunch meals provided."

I've been sitting here imagining the kinds of calls I'd get manning a help desk in Iraq.

"Help desk. How may I provide you with excellent service today?"

"Um, hi. I keep getting this error message on my PC... it says there's a device with an unsupported format attached to my USB port. Should I pull the port plug out, or...?"

"I wouldn't advise that at this moment, sir. What kind of operating system are using?"

"Windows Vista."

"No, I definitely wouldn't pull the port plug out at this time. Hey, Bob, we got another Vista IED! Sorry, sir; may I ask how many browsers you currently have open?"
You know, as if support wasn't a hard enough job as it is....

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

"Atlas Shrugged" -- 50th Anniversary

Someone I know casually from a writer's forum noted recently that it's the 50th anniversary of "Atlas Shrugged," the famous doorstop-sized book from Ayn Rand. I have to admit to not reading this, but even Ayn Rand's shorter works have a kind of leaden heavy-handed thud to them. Something the size of "Atlas Shrugged" would require me to take more heart medicine, I'm sure of it.

I loved their review and felt that it was worth reading on its own even if you never intend to read "Atlas Shrugged" (and after reading this review, you probably won't).

Review: Atlas Shrugged
The prose: it's not very good, although that's something Rand is willing to admit both within and without the main text. According to her, the artist's main goal is to be understood, which seems to me to be a limited aim among the many open to the novelist. The book's afterword tells of her struggle to find publishers: I can't help wondering if that's because a good editor would have recommended cutting the book by 400-500 pages, thereby deleting much of the repetition (her train rides through the prairies achieve the remarkable feat of becoming duller, through repetition, than an actual train ride through the prairies) and giving the parts that are meant to have impact some air. Her stylistic debts to a number of Russian revolutionary artistic movements are large - constructivism, muscular boy-meets-tractor realism - but her use of them usually appears tacked-on and artificial, as though her outline contained the instruction: "insert intellectual grace note here."

The plotting doesn't aspire to much beyond the Nancy Drew level and doesn't need to: Rand's only interest is the inevitable and she doesn't want surprises distracting anyone's attention.

I remember being told when I read Atlas for the first time in the 1980s that I had to make allowances for the fact that she was "of her period" and that the language and characters had dated, somewhat. It happened again when I mentioned to one or two of her fans here that I was re-reading the book. So I had a look for other authors who published something significant within a year of Atlas' debut: I found Singer, Nabokov, Kerouac, Ellison, Bellow, Updike and O'Hara, then I decided to stop looking. In my view, it's not correct to amend the description of Rand's writing as "stilted, graceless, stiff, repetitious and thin" with the phrase "compared to what we read today." She was, comparatively, all those things in her time and would have been for decades beforehand. I have come to wonder if she disdained all those things that make reading a pleasure as potential barriers to the reader's understanding.

The characters: Don't look for depth or subtlety: if he's firm-jawed, resolute and committed in the first paragraph, that's all he will ever be. One of the characteristics of lead characters in genre fiction is that they never change, never grow, and never alter themselves or their behaviour as a result of their relationships with the world or the people around them. Chuck Norris is always Chuck Norris. This is what makes them invaluable tools for social satirists: put these one-dimensional wonders into a world gone mad and you can point out the comedy or the dangers of the "conventional" reflex. Gulliver, Crusoe, Father Brown... Take your pick.

Rand supplies a trinity of such firm-jawed stock heroes (one of them's a woman, but never mind.) My initial hopes that they would be used to illustrate the variety of possible responses to the world gone mad, that their differing relationships would push them in different ways, that they might choose different means of fighting the injustices they perceive in common, came to naught. Rand's dirigisme (something I'm always surprised to see in an emigree from Communism) means every heroic type must not only come to see the same guiding light but sign up for an identical plan of action. So much for individuality and the competition of ideas, I suppose...

Not to bait the fans, but: I read an article a few months ago about dating relationships where both people have Asperger's. "We get dressed up to go out for romantic dinners and have passionate discussions about new Java applications and Star Trek novels," was the line that stuck with me. In my mind, there's a case to be made that Atlas is the first novel to feature three Asperger's leads.

To bait the fans: if you're not already a Randian and are going to give Atlas a try, whenever you see the name "Ragnar Danneskjold," think "Tinkerbell." The parallels, both in the author's usage of him as a plot device and the character, are frankly uncanny.

Where she does score well, and some credit is due, is in the caricatures of the bent politicians and union leaders. They're not in the Studs Terkel league for painful accuracy but they're head and shoulders above any of the heroes for subtlety and differentiation.

The philosophy: the bit that gets debated at length by the world is the novel's genuinely original contribution. I was as unmoved by the notions that profit is the only meaningful measure of value, that taxation is theft and that charity is an evil as I was on first reading 20 years ago. The watered-down versions, that adding value to the world is good and deserving of honest reward, that there is no right to a free lunch, that economic success is most easily achieved when individual liberty is high, appear to draw the same contempt from Rand as hard-core communism.

There's an insistence throughout the book that only one course of action, only one societal model, only one score of value is possible. Worse, there's a parallel insistence that disagreement is evidence of irrationality. I'm not particularly susceptible to catastrophism of this kind, I suppose: I finished the book feeling a kind of sympathy (Rand would call it pity) for its followers. I guess if they're desperate for some sort of logically-consistent theory of human affairs, Rand's is as good as any.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Quote du jour--Sinclair Lewis

This deliciously apt quote from Sinclair Lewis is over 70 years old.

When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.


Friday, November 09, 2007

Your thought for Friday

"English doesn't borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them down, and goes through their pockets for loose grammar and spellings."

Addendum: Guy Haas has given me the source for this: James D. Nicoll.

The proper quote is actually this:

"The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."


Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Sick and cranky :(

I've a cold of some kind today. I've been snuffling and feverish yesterday and all day today. I'm bulling my way through writing for work, as I'm close to finishing up the draft of a reference appendix and I'd love to be done with it.

Thought du jour for Wednesday

Kit Brown uses a wonderful quote in her sig that I wanted to share with y'all.

"We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give." --Winston Churchill


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Thought du jour

"If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the precipitate."

Monday, November 05, 2007

A story from some years ago

(I wanted to relate a story about cover letters. I wrote this up to pass on to someone and figured I'd add this to the blog as well.)

Back in the early 90s at one job where I had a couple dozen writers working for me, I had been talking to someone at the local STC chapter who wanted to work for me. A few months later, I had a slot and said "Now's the time! Send your paper in." He did, with a cover letter, that opened with the line (including the bold as I've shown it):

"Dear John:

Enclosed, please find my resume for consideration for a position as a Tecnical Writer."

I stopped reading right there. He's a great guy who would've been an addition to the team, but, yuh know, I just couldn't.

I showed it around to a bunch of the staph. They thought that that was pretty good, too. I phoned him that afternoon and explained that I was terribly, terribly sorry but I just couldn't hire him right then but that I wanted him to reapply. He was much chagrined but he understood.

The rimshot on this is that I called an old friend who was the Tech Pubs Mgr at our direct competitor and related the story (without names, of course). She told me about one that she'd gotten a few years before for an editing slot that contained the immortal line

"And, in addition, my poofreading skills are excellent."

Apparently, that letter went up on their departmental bulletin board for a couple years for all to admire.


Monday, October 29, 2007

Windows Vista: another bold step for Microsoft

My cousin Beth sent me a link to a great video about Windows Vista. I think they've hit all the high points.

30 years ago...

On October 27th, 1977, as near as I can figure out, I got my first initiation in the New Wiccan Church. This proves I have NO idea what, save for the fact that I'm getting old and I'm still alive so far to get older.


Yule letter this year!

I've been planning on putting together a Yule letter because I really, really, really wanted to get Yule letters out to everyone this year, and lo! the Babe did this a few days ago! We're now looking at how we want to print it and then we'll be ready to start the Yule letter & card process by the start of November instead of in a rush at the end of the season. Hot DAMN!

If we haven't got your mailing address or you think we haven't got your mailing address, please ping me with it and I can update the mailing list.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Why you should date a Starbuck's Barista

This came in from Mohammed, our all-time favorite Starbuck's barista.

Why you should date a Starbuck's barista
  • Because we're used to whipped cream.
  • We make everything extra hot.
  • We know how to keep you up in the morning.
  • We won't fall asleep afterwards.
  • We know how to make anyone smile.
  • We initiate conversations.
  • We thank and worship you over and over, even if we know you don't deserve it!
  • Because even if sometimes it may only last 10 seconds, you know it's the best damn shot you've ever had.
  • Nobody grinds like we do.
  • You ALWAYS find mocha, whipped cream, caramel, or some other deliciousness on some part of our body.
  • Give you enough cream so you won't complain.
  • Because we stay fresh for an hour and only need 4 minutes to re-brew.
  • We will always give you stuff that you LOVE to slurp and swallow.
  • No matter how crazy the request, we just say 'yes!'
  • If we don't give it to you like you want it, we'll keep trying until we make you happy.
  • When we're ready to give it to you, we scream for you no matter how many people are in the room.
  • If giving you what you want is too much for one of us to handle, we'll use our star skills and ask someone else to help.
  • We're all cross-trained to work in any position.
  • Free pound a week.
  • Black and khaki would look great on your floor in the morning.
  • We can use both hands to multitask.
  • If you leave dissatisified, we give it to you for free next time.
  • We eliminate the need to do it yourself at home.


Thursday, September 06, 2007

Hey, I got quoted in Cringely's column! :)

Just got the latest Robert X. Cringely email and lo! I found myself quoted: I was credited with coming up with the expression "At Microsoft, quality is job SP1." He added "Cringester and book author John Hedtke came up with that little gem, as pithy as any real Microsoft slogan and far more accurate."

Here's the whole column. That's fun.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Finished the last Harry Potter book

It was really an all-in-one-gulp sorta thing. The Babe had, very intelligently, ordered her copy months ago on advance purchase. It showed up today at 10am. She wasn't going to share. I went out and bought my own copy with a Barnes & Noble gift card I'd been saving for something like this that I'd gotten this past Christmas from one of my sisters-in-law. We spent much of the day reading, with only a break for going out to see the latest Harry Potter movie, almost as much for the fact that there was air-conditioning in the theater and ours needs to be poked by a service person on Monday as the movie itself.

We brought our copies of the book along, though, and read them until the lights dimmed. We weren't alone in this: the woman sitting next to us had her copy and was doing the same thing.

We got home, we read. And we read. I went and clambered into a hot bath tub about three hours ago. The water got cold and I added more. I wasn't going to move until I finished it.

I did. It was very satisfying. (The Babe's finishing hers up as we speak; I'd gotten ahead of her when she took a nap this afternoon.) Don't worry; I'm not going to say anything. It'd be like saying "Rosebud was his sled" to someone before they saw the movie, only much, much worse. (There's a classic Peanuts cartoon about that with Lucy and Linus, as a matter of fact.)

But I really do need to add this cartoon from UserFriendly:


Monday, July 02, 2007

Silas the kitten

We've got a new addition to the house, who is making life very difficult for me as I pack up for the next trip. His name is Silas and he's about 12 weeks. He's currently curled up behind me on the chair. I'd think he's sleeping, except he keeps shifting his position and I worry I'm going to suddenly get needle sharp kitty claws in the small of my back.

Nevertheless, he's as cute as any kitten ever was and he purrs an awful lot. He's also passionately fond of little balls of paper, which he tends to pick up and carry around as his lawful prey. He also brings them back to me so I can throw them again, so he's good at playing Fetch.


Monday, June 25, 2007

Unitarian Church in Mission Viejo

I'm in Southern California at the moment for work and had a chance to go to the Unitarian Church here in Mission Viejo. Their motto is "Where people of different beliefs can worship together with one faith," a sentiment that I admire and respect.

There was a speaker from the Network of Spiritual Progressives named Lauren Nile. She reported on the results of a 28-year study that answered the question "Why is it that poor people who are actively harmed by the policies of the Right--tax reductions for the rich, reduced medical care & services, etc.--nonetheless so keen on voting for and supporting the Right?" The answer, after talking to thousands of people in the US, Canada, and England, is that the Right has acknowledged that people have spiritual needs, and the acknowledgement of spiritual needs was greater than the fact that at the same time, the Right was voting and acting antithetically to the aims of that spirituality. The Left, btw, was viewed as being snotty and superior and anti-spiritual. (Well, shucks, I know I'm guilty of at least the first two far more often than I think is admirable.)

It was a fascinating presentation. The Left has lost the trust of the people it actually needs the support of and who it can potentially do the most for because it hasn't been acknowledging that there needs to be a spiritual component for many people. Jesus was a liberal and you'd think it'd be an easy sell from that point to emphasize how love, service, and community values are consistent with the goals of progressive thought and action... but we've COMPLETELY dropped the ball on this. ~sigh~

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Kim's back

I've been very sad for the past year that Kim, one of my oldest friends, had dropped out of sight. I couldn't reach her on the phone, email and snail mail weren't effective... I didn't know what was wrong, but it saddened me greatly.

I got email from her the other day and we talked on the phone for an hour or so on Wednesday. She's alive, she's fine, and she had been suffering from sleep apnea to the point that she simply couldn't do anything. I'm greatly sorry her health was so bad, but I'm quite happy that she's on the mend now. Old friends are always hard to lose and she's one of the best. It's great to have you back in my life, Kim.


Time has passed, once again....

It's the 24th and I haven't posted anything for 3 weeks. Oy!

I'm currently down in Lake Forest, CA (Orange County) for work. Normally, I'm here for a week and then home, but this time I'm down for two weeks.

The weather's been quite decent. I was worried I'd be fighting the effects of the heat, but no! It's been in the high 70s and I can survive that. I'm working with great people and they're all here, too.

There've been several fun things that've happened so far:

  • The space shuttle was landing at Edwards AFB near here, so we got to hear the sonic boom as they passed overhead on landing approach. We didn't see the shuttle, but chances of that were small at the speed they were traveling.
  • The four of us staying here at the hotel went out for a morning walk a couple days ago. We saw someone dressed in voluminous white cotton clothes and a huge sun hat walking in the same area we were. As she passed us, I saw that it was Julia Gnuse. She suffers from porphyria and has a sun hypersensitivity. To cover up the scarring, she's had her whole body tattooed. This doesn't prevent the sensitivity from causing new blisters and so on; it's cosmetic. She's listed in the Guiness Book as the "World's Most Tattooed Woman." She lives in Foothills Ranch, a mile or so from where we're staying.
  • Most of the staph went out to our boss's place in Riverside for a pool party Saturday. That was a Good Time Out.
I need to do laundry or I'm not going to have shirts to wear tomorrow. Bleah.

A problem has been detected and Bush has been shut down to prevent damage to your country


Sunday, June 03, 2007

I'm not sure where to go with this

Is this the desperate act of a bunch of overmatched and incompetent people who are challenged by the task of tying their shoes... or is it a brilliant ploy to bring in expert assistance into a group known for breeding imagination and foresight out of the system? I really can't tell, although it could be both, I suppose.

Whatever it is, it's weird. It's really weird.


Thursday, May 31, 2007

My Gawd, this explains a lot!

I sure hope this scientist wins the Nobel Prize. Could be for Medicine, could be for Peace; works either way, really.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Random Mondayish thought for Tuesday morning

If matches are made in heaven, where do lighters come from?


Friday, May 25, 2007

Misc thoughts for the day

It's Friday and it's already started out with someone at work who's being a prick, and a stupid prick at that. ~sigh~ Apart from figuring that he'll forget to breathe someday, I was reminded once again of a delightful aphorism given me by Mark Hanigan:

You can only get one good glass of lemonade out of a lemon.
While I'm putting in a quote, let me add another one just because:
I wouldn't mind the born-agains half as much if so many of them hadn't suffered the same annoying birth defects during that second trip down the birth canal.


Jesus Christ--The Musical

This is short and probably a wee tad disrespectful, but DAY-umn, it's funny!

Jesus Christ--The Musical

If that link doesn't work, try this one or this one.

Dubya bumper stickers

As we tromp merrily down the road to a prison-state run by Christian fascist blockheads, it's nice to know that we still can do a little to raise consciousness with bumper stickers. One of my sisters sent me the following list, to which I can only add "Dubya: the load his mother should've swallowed."

  • Bush: End of an Error
  • That's OK, I Wasn't Using My Civil Liberties Anyway
  • Let's Fix Democracy in this Country First
  • If You Want a Nation Ruled By Religion, Move to Iran
  • Bush. Like a Rock. Only Dumber.
  • If You Can Read This, You're Not Our President
  • Of Course It Hurts: You're Getting Screwed by an Elephant
  • Hey, Bush Supporters: Embarrassed Yet?
  • George Bush: Creating the Terrorists Our Kids Will Have to Fight
  • Impeachment: It's Not Just for Blowjobs Anymore
  • America: One Nation, Under Surveillance
  • They Call Him "W" So He Can Spell It
  • Whose God Do You Kill For?
  • Jail to the Chief
  • No, Seriously, Why Did We Invade Iraq?
  • Bush: God's Way of Proving Intelligent Design is Full Of Crap
  • Bad President! No Banana.
  • We Need a President Who's Fluent In At Least One Language
  • We're Making Enemies Faster Than We Can Kill Them
  • Is It Vietnam Yet?
  • Bush Doesn't Care About White People, Either
  • Where Are We Going? And Why Are We In This Handbasket?
  • You Elected Him. You Deserve Him.
  • Dubya, Your Dad Shoulda Pulled Out, Too
  • When Bush Took Office, Gas Was $1.46
  • Pray For Impeachment
  • The Republican Party: Our Bridge to the 11th Century
  • What Part of "Bush Lied" Don't You Understand?
  • One Nation Under Clod
  • 2004: Embarrassed 2005: Horrified 2006: Terrified
  • Bush Never Exhaled
  • At Least Nixon Resigned


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Falwell's dead--it's a good day!

Falwell's dead. The day seems better already.

People I know have said they don't celebrate anyone's death. They may be better people than I or just not as observant; who knows? But I can and do have a visceral hatred for the man for a wide variety of reasons. He lied about my faith, he lied about friends of mine, and he incited hatred, intolerance, and bigotry on virtually every issue he ever discussed. Like Pat Robertson, he was notable for lying to preserve the God of Truth, something that it seems only televangelists and their ilk do quite so well.

By clinging to 18th and 19th century values and bigotries, he set back social progress by and for decades in this country. He was a liar, a thief, a hypocrite, and a man who incited his brainless little followers to new heights of intolerance towards people they found threatening. His "university" is just a breeding ground of more peasants and Christian fascists stamped out in his mold.

What makes Jerry (and Pat Robertson, btw) personally culpable for all of this is their clear knowledge of what the alternatives might be and choosing to do this to maintain their power base and mulct still more millions from the jackasses who they conned into sending them money they could ill-afford. There are two types of evil: the thoughtless kind of evil committed by the ignorant and insensitive and the deep-seated planned evil that is willing to sacrifice people for a personal advantage and simply doesn't care. The former is more common, but the latter is far more dangerous, for it incites mobs, forms Crusades, and promotes further evil, all in the name of "God."

I piss on Jerry Falwell, his family, and his generations. May his brainless and brainwashed followers be treated as they deserve and may his name be forgotten forever by men and gods.

Note: for those who think that it's harsh to wish someone like this dead, let me point out that Jerry thought he was a Christian and that he'd go to a heavenly reward far better than anything on this earthly plane because of it. I have always approved of this belief on his part and have been very keen to see him get that wonderful gift of faith. I am deeply saddened for him and his future eternity that it took decades longer than it should've to arrive. There, I'm wishing him only the best--happy now?

Monday, May 07, 2007

Weekend :)

I made a bunch of banana-carrot bread that was really more of a cake recipe. Good stuff! I took a loaf over to neighbors a block away who are finally back in town (we've tried to stop by several times in the last few months, but they've been out of the country on business and pleasure a bunch; catching up with them has been impossible 'till now). I gave another loaf--with a cream cheese icing--to Brian & Inger next door.

I also tried out a new recipe for bagels. They're not done yet, as the recipe requires you to let the bagels rest overnight in the fridge before they're boiled and baked, so they're currently out in the fridge in the garage and I'll do 'em up tonight. Should be pretty nice, though; they look very good.

The Babe was in Tacoma for the weekend at the wedding shower for one of her nieces. I'll see her this evening.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

And you thought you had no life....

This thing just keeps going on and on and on. (They used a lot of electrical tape.) I'm truly dazzled at what human boredom + inventiveness can come up with. "Hey, Beavis, whaddaya think 'll happen if I put the dumbbell over here on this track?"

There's a little sound, but it's really essential to a few of the things to appreciate the level of weirdness. Keep it low if you're at work and concerned.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Do not press the red button!

Do not press the red button. Just don't do it.

Cleaning and itching

Saturday evening and I'm trying to get the last bits of paper off the office floor and into file folders/the waste basket/the recyle bin/the shredder box. I'm having a continual itching in my eyes and the back of my nose from the dust on rug.

The allergic reaction is actually more in response to some repair work I did today on the #1 computer. I've been having a serious problem with overheating and thermal shutdowns. Finally peeling the cooling fan off the top of the CPU's aluminum cooling fins, I discovered a solid mat of dust and lint, which prevented any air from getting in to the chip at all. After some wrestling with the chip and the fan to get it back in, I restarted the computer and ran the temperature monitor. Sublime success! The temperature was 25C degrees cooler than what it's been running at. I should be just fine from now on.

I've not put the side of the case back on yet, though. I want to see how it does for a few days just to make sure. And I'm awaiting the arrival of a PCI card that will give me another 4 SATA slots, which will let me add another two 500GB hard drives to this computer. (Yes, that's going to be a ton o' hard disks.) But that's a task that will wait until after I return from the STC conference in Minneapolis.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Added a MySpace account

I added a MySpace account to the list of things I'm signed up with simply so that I'm easier to access. It's not a big deal and it mostly points back to this blog, although I do have a direct link to my Flickr account in the profile as well.

I've also got a LiveJournal account that's been around for quite a while, again, mostly so I can say "Hi" to friends on LiveJournal without the hassle of signing on as a guest and so on.

Don't piss this woman off!

Whatever you do, this is clearly not a woman to piss off.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Why abstinence programs don't work

The Administration, hand-in-glove with a number of other psychotic Christian organizations, is pushing abstinence as the only way to prevent teen pregnancy, spread of AIDS and other STDs, and some general but unspecified supposed moral descent that always seems to go along with sex people are having because they want to. Many scare tactics are being used, too, not to mention a good dose of fundamentalist guilt. Talking about condoms, talking about birth control, talking about almost anything factual is forbidden, or, more appropriately, verboten.

I always thought that this was pretty stupid on their part--not surprising, but definitely stupid. But here's a wonderfully quelling argument against abstinence-only sex ed: Up until maybe 300 years ago, the consequences for unlawful carnal knowledge were HUGE. Not only could you get all kinds of STDs that would kill you slowly and horribly and risk unwanted pregnancy, but there was the very real risk of social condemnation, physical punishments (the stocks, for example, or prison), and even social expulsion or possibly transportation on a prison ship to a colony elsewhere. And after you died, you could be pretty well assured of an eternity burning in Hell for your immorality. (Yeah, you could actually get people to believe in that bullshit back then. Barbara Tuchman, in her classic book, A Distant Mirror, described Europe in the 14th Century as one big madhouse in which the entire population was locked up.) Remember, we're not talking about prostitution here, we're just talking about having unmarried/adulterous/gay sex. All of these consequences were very clear and to a large extent guaranteed.

Up until 100 years ago, the social condemnation had lessened somewhat, but there was still the chance of terrible STDs and unwanted pregnancy.You were less likely to believe in the torments of Hell and the stocks fell out of fashion, but you can't have everything in the way of a threat, I guess.

In the 20th Century, we saw the development of cheap and effective condoms for preventing pregnancy and diseases both, birth control devices and medications that work pretty well, and medications that are effective against a lot of the diseases that ravaged the population before. Morning-after pills and the possibility of safe, cheap, and effective abortion where not limited by legislation from moralists with too much time on their hand made pregnancy even less of a concern, although nobody should ever think of abortion as an alternative to birth control (not that many do, I'm sure--it'd just be dumb).

The thing is that, even with the myriad threats of disease, pregnancy, shame, calumny, expulsion, and an eternity of being burned and tortured lined up against people, they still chose to get laid. A lot. You couldn't stop 'em from screwing like minks because that's the way people are built. It's not a need to "dominate man's animal nature" or whatever bullshit phrase is being used these days, it's that you can't get people to stop having sex.

So in the 21st Century, we're left with exactly what in the way of threats you could make to scare someone into not having sex?  AIDs and herpes are still very real problems that need a big solution, but syphillis and gonorrhea were actually much more infectious and possibly even more unpleasant to have, although I wouldn't want any of 'em, I grant you. And condoms can prevent ALL of them pretty effectively, no matter what the liars have to say about them. People aren't worried about Hell and you'd have a hard time standing up and saying "Blasphemer! Whore of Babylon!!" at anyone for having sex outside of marriage without people treating you with the contempt and mockery you deserved. Folks are free to talk about sex these days and even admit that they (gasp!) like it!

But if you couldn't stop people from screwing by threatening them with the terrors of the Here and Now along with the terrors of the Hereafter, why anyone would get worried about what's left as a possible danger is a mystery. Yes, AIDS is a problem, unwanted pregnancy is a problem, but we know how to prevent them effectively and safely, and what are they compared to the threat of a red "A" on your clothes and Hell for eternity? Pfffft!

Every moralizing jackass has been pitching this doom and gloom approach for the last two thousand years or so, trying to get people not to mess around, scaring 'em with God/Gaw-ud/Ju-HEE-zus, threatening them with incurable STDs, unwanted pregnancies, social condemnation, and just plain hellfire... and it hasn't worked. People want to get laid and no-one seems to have come up with a good-enough argument that will convince them they shouldn't.

For the last 2000 years, we've tried:
  • threatening people (Hell)
  • offering them rewards (Heaven)
  • 'reasoning' with them (having sex years later is better than sex now? yeah, I don't believe it either)
  • just telling them 'no!' (Nancy Reagan's approach didn't do squat for drugs, either)
...and guess what? None of it worked. Now, with 2000 years of data, we can state emphatically that abstinence-only education is a failed experiment. So we're done with that. It was a dumb idea to begin with. Let's have sex-ed programs that actually tell the truth. It's the one thing that nobody ever thought of when trying to tell people not to have sex before they got hitched because it points out that there's no good reason not to have safe, responsible sex when the opportunity arises. Not the message that the abstinence-only people want to get across, but shoot, I've seen a lot of them and there's a reason they don't want people to have sex: nobody's likely to want to have sex with them in the first place.

So once again, the Administration and the fundamentalist Christians have got it completely wrong. Yeah, like there's a fuckin' surprise....

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Wotta day!

I thought I'd be spending the day starting the process of reformatting a couple computers and adding a pair of 500Gb hard drives, but no, it didn't work out that way. But it has been a very nice day.

I slept in a little, got up, cleaned the kitchen, and made banana bread--I've been wanting to make banana bread for the neighbors and now that I'm done with a lot of little things, it was a perfect day for it. I met someone online in an unusual venue who turned out to be from the Snake River chapter of the STC who's pretty nice. Well, networking does happen in the oddest places.

The Babe and Susan went to see Susan's friends Jeff & Mariah, who're getting married in July and are having the Babe do the service. They did some planning about the ceremony and program. Meanwhile, I did a bunch of cleaning here in the office, so that there is now more floor visible than paper, and most of the remaining tax stuff is ready to be boxed up (yay!).

The Babe came back around 2:00 and asked if I wanted to go get more bedding plants. Yes, I did, and I was interested in using up a coupon for Decker's Nursery out in Junction City (they'd sent us two coupons, one for 3 six-packs of bedding plants and t'other for 20% off of everything we bought).

We drove through some rather pretty rural sections of Lane County and got there. Nice place!! We loaded up a cart in fairly short order with about 250 bedding plants. Sure, sure, it sounds like a lot, but it isn't really. In this case, it means one plant every six inches about 4-1/2 rows deep for maybe 15-18'. We could have gotten a whole lot more plants.

We drove home and the Babe started prepping the ground while I worked on the garage, something that I'd been thinking of. We plugged away for hours, with occasional breaks to talk to the neighbors across the street (Harry & Julia, a gastroenterologist and an ER physician, who're going to have a baby around September 9 we discovered) and on both sides of us (Inger & Brian, lovely people to have for neighbors, with four kids, and Tim & Angela, with two daughters, on the other side).

At the end of the day, we have:

  • 250 new plants in the front of the house (marigolds, Mexican marigolds, petunias, impatiens, and something else that's escaping me at the moment)
  • pictures of some of this (I finally recharged the digicam's batteries and I'll upload those soon so you can see how pretty it all is)
  • a huge empty space where there'd hitherto been boxes in the garage
  • a pile of stuff in the back of my car to go to St. Vinnie's for the tax write-off
  • things to go upstairs to my office

I made potstickers for the two of us. It hurts to move with all this toting and lifting, so I'm now going to go downstairs, slither into a bathtub, then as bonelessly as possible slither into bed. We sing tomorrow and then vote on accepting the new minister at the Unitarian church, who we like.


Friday, April 27, 2007

Honeymoon Gin ad infinitum

The Babe and I play a lot of gin rummy together. It gives us an opportunity to say really rude things to each other in a structured environment. ("Gin!" "Screw you!") Gin rummy is an effective and inexpensive form of marital therapy.

There's an interesting variant called "Honeymoon Gin." (I have no idea where the name comes from.) The play is the same as regular gin but the scoring is different. So what I'm going to do is tell you how to play Gin Rummy first, then tell you how to do Honeymoon Gin, then how to play Honeymoon Gin forever.

Gin Rummy

Object of the Game
The object of the game is to arrange the 10 cards in your hand into runs or sets. A run consists of three or more cards in the same suit in consecutive order, such as 5D, 6D, 7D or 10C, JC, QC, KC. Aces are always low (A, 2, 3). You cannot "wheel" your cards in a run (Q, K, A, 2). A set is three or four cards of the same rank, such as 9H, 9D, 9C, 9S.

You can’t use the same card in a run and a set simultaneously (7H, 8H, 9H, 9D, 9C).
Deal 10 cards to both players. The top card of the remaining cards is turned face up to start the discard pile. The remaining cards are placed face down next to the discard pile to be the stock.

The player who didn’t deal the cards looks at the face up card. If s/he doesn’t want it, the option to pick up the first card goes to the dealer. If the dealer doesn’t want the card either, the other player then draws from the top of the stock. S/he then discards a card, ending the turn.

Play continues with each player in turn drawing a card from the top of the discard pile or the top of the stock and then discarding a card.

Finishing and Scoring a Hand
The hand ends when a player gins or knocks. To gin, a player must have all 10 cards in grouped into runs and/or sets. The player draws a card as usual, then discards a single card face down and says "Gin." (The other player is allowed to respond to this declaration as seems appropriate.) The hand is then scored. The player who didn’t gin counts up the points in their hand as follows:
  • Face cards count 10 points each.
  • Numeric cards have their face value.
  • Aces are 1 point each.
A bonus of 25 points is then added to the total of the cards, this score is recorded, and the next hand is dealt.

A player can knock if they don’t have all the cards in their hand grouped in runs or sets and the total of the unmatched cards in their hand is less than or equal to the value of the first card turned up for the discard pile. For example, if the first card was a 7 and you have 2, 2, 3 unmatched in your hand, you can knock. Similarly, a 10 or face card turned up means that you can knock with up to 10 points in your hand. (If the first card was an ace, you must complete the hand by ginning; knocking is not allowed.) As with a gin, the player draws a card as usual, then discards a single card face down and says "Knock with…" followed by the number of points they’re knocking with. For example, if a player knocks with a hand of 6H, 6C, 6D, 6S, 10D, JD, QD, KD, AH, 7C, they’d declare "Knock with 8."

Scoring a knocked hand is slightly different from scoring a ginned hand. The player who didn’t knock only has to score cards in their hand that aren’t already grouped in runs or sets and that they can’t lay off against cards in the knocked hand. To lay off cards, the player who didn’t knock adds cards in their own hand to runs or sets in the knocked hand. For example, if a player is counting up their points against the hand described above and they had a hand of 2H, 3H, 4H, 7H, 7S, 7C, 8C, 8D, 9D, JS, the 2H, 3H, 4H and 7H, 7S, 7C wouldn’t be scored because they’re already groups in sets. 8D and 9D can be laid off against the other player’s 10D, JD, QD, KD run, leaving only the 8C and JS for 18 points. The number of points in the player’s knock is then subtracted from the points in the hand, leaving 10 points for their score for knocking.

If a player knocks and the other player has a lower number of points, they underknock. For example, if a player knocks with a hand of 6H, 6C, 6D, 6S, 10D, JD, QD, KD, AH, 7C, and the other player has a hand of AD, 3D, 2H, 3H, 4H, 7H, 7S, 7C, 8D, 9D, their final score would be 4, 4 points less than the knocked hand. The knocked player receives no points and the other player receives 25 points less the number of points in their hand (in this example, the other player would receive 21 points). A reasonable amount of gloating is allowed at this juncture.

  • You can knock or gin on any turn, including the first if you’re lucky enough to have really good cards. (Do not expect to escape unscathed if you knock on the first card.)
  • You are never forced to knock. You may want to have cards that would allow you to knock with one or two points and then wait to see if you can gin or catch your opponent by underknocking.
If you reach the end of the stock with neither player able to gin or knock (a situation caused when both players are waiting for a card the other has in their hand), the hand is discarded with no points and the same player deals again.

Deal alternates between players.

Winning the Game
The game continues with hands until one player's cumulative score reaches 500 points or more.

Honeymooon Gin

Right then, you've got the hang of Gin; now we're on to Honeymoon Gin. The play is the same, but you change the scoring a bit. At the end of the first hand, you post the score. At the end of the second hand, you post the score to the first game's score (like always), then start a new game with that score. At the end of the third hand, you post the score for the hand to the first and second games, and then start a third game. Thereafter, you play three separate games, with the scores posting across each game score until there's a winner in all three games.

For example, suppose I win the first hand for 57 points. The first game would be 57 points for me. You win the second hand, for 83 points. We'd post 83 points to the first and second games, so the scores are now 83-57 in the first game and 83-0 in the second game. I win the third hand for 74 points, so that's added to the first game for me (74 + 57 = 131) and posted to the second and third games, so the scores are now 83-131, 83-74, and 0-74.

Honeymooon Gin ad infinitum

So, the Babe and I were playing Honeymoon Gin at one point early in our relationship and she said "Why do we have to stop at three games?" "Gosh, I dunno," I said. "Well, what if we just kept starting a new game with each hand?" "Sure, we can try that."

This evolved into a never-ending gin game, which then evolved into a gin game that starts on New Year's and ends a year later. We keep a deck of cards and a book of the games (usually in the back of her car) and frequently play gin while waiting in restaurants and so on.

So far, I've won 3 years and she's won 1. We're a little more than a third of the way through 2007 and I'm a few games ahead (128-79 or so), but there's still a lot more of 2007 left.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

Shades of Roger Corman!

I was sifting the email in my junk folder and I saw this lovely nugget: an email from "Brainhunter" with a subject "Greetings from Brainhunter."
Okay, would your first thoughts be about high-tech recruiting? 'Cuz mine weren't. I was definitely hearing Roger Corman zombies going "Braaaaaaains! BRAAAAAAAINS!! We want your braaaaaaains!!!"

Brainhunter's interesting enough as a job agency. Check 'em out.

Useful non-committal responses

Someone sent me a lovely list of non-committal responses. Some of them are rather elegant. Be sure to read the whole list. I'm not going to tell you my favorite, though; you'll know it when you see it.

Is it fascism yet?

There was a good article in the Guardian on the warning signs of fascism. (Yeah, we are so there.)

From Hitler to Pinochet and beyond, history shows there are certain steps that any would-be dictator must take to destroy constitutional freedoms. And, argues Naomi Wolf, George Bush and his administration seem to be taking them all

Tuesday April 24, 2007
The Guardian

Last autumn, there was a military coup in Thailand. The leaders of the coup took a number of steps, rather systematically, as if they had a shopping list. In a sense, they did. Within a matter of days, democracy had been closed down: the coup leaders declared martial law, sent armed soldiers into residential areas, took over radio and TV stations, issued restrictions on the press, tightened some limits on travel, and took certain activists into custody.

They were not figuring these things out as they went along. If you look at history, you can see that there is essentially a blueprint for turning an open society into a dictatorship. That blueprint has been used again and again in more and less bloody, more and less terrifying ways. But it is always effective. It is very difficult and arduous to create and sustain a democracy - but history shows that closing one down is much simpler. You simply have to be willing to take the 10 steps.

As difficult as this is to contemplate, it is clear, if you are willing to look, that each of these 10 steps has already been initiated today in the United States by the Bush administration.

Because Americans like me were born in freedom, we have a hard time even considering that it is possible for us to become as unfree - domestically - as many other nations. Because we no longer learn much about our rights or our system of government - the task of being aware of the constitution has been outsourced from citizens' ownership to being the domain of professionals such as lawyers and professors - we scarcely recognise the checks and balances that the founders put in place, even as they are being systematically dismantled. Because we don't learn much about European history, the setting up of a department of "homeland" security - remember who else was keen on the word "homeland" - didn't raise the alarm bells it might have.

It is my argument that, beneath our very noses, George Bush and his administration are using time-tested tactics to close down an open society. It is time for us to be willing to think the unthinkable - as the author and political journalist Joe Conason, has put it, that it can happen here. And that we are further along than we realise.

Conason eloquently warned of the danger of American authoritarianism. I am arguing that we need also to look at the lessons of European and other kinds of fascism to understand the potential seriousness of the events we see unfolding in the US.

1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy

After we were hit on September 11 2001, we were in a state of national shock. Less than six weeks later, on October 26 2001, the USA Patriot Act was passed by a Congress that had little chance to debate it; many said that they scarcely had time to read it. We were told we were now on a "war footing"; we were in a "global war" against a "global caliphate" intending to "wipe out civilisation". There have been other times of crisis in which the US accepted limits on civil liberties, such as during the civil war, when Lincoln declared martial law, and the second world war, when thousands of Japanese-American citizens were interned. But this situation, as Bruce Fein of the American Freedom Agenda notes, is unprecedented: all our other wars had an endpoint, so the pendulum was able to swing back toward freedom; this war is defined as open-ended in time and without national boundaries in space - the globe itself is the battlefield. "This time," Fein says, "there will be no defined end."

Creating a terrifying threat - hydra-like, secretive, evil - is an old trick. It can, like Hitler's invocation of a communist threat to the nation's security, be based on actual events (one Wisconsin academic has faced calls for his dismissal because he noted, among other things, that the alleged communist arson, the Reichstag fire of February 1933, was swiftly followed in Nazi Germany by passage of the Enabling Act, which replaced constitutional law with an open-ended state of emergency). Or the terrifying threat can be based, like the National Socialist evocation of the "global conspiracy of world Jewry", on myth.

It is not that global Islamist terrorism is not a severe danger; of course it is. I am arguing rather that the language used to convey the nature of the threat is different in a country such as Spain - which has also suffered violent terrorist attacks - than it is in America. Spanish citizens know that they face a grave security threat; what we as American citizens believe is that we are potentially threatened with the end of civilisation as we know it. Of course, this makes us more willing to accept restrictions on our freedoms.

2. Create a gulag

Once you have got everyone scared, the next step is to create a prison system outside the rule of law (as Bush put it, he wanted the American detention centre at Guantánamo Bay to be situated in legal "outer space") - where torture takes place.

At first, the people who are sent there are seen by citizens as outsiders: troublemakers, spies, "enemies of the people" or "criminals". Initially, citizens tend to support the secret prison system; it makes them feel safer and they do not identify with the prisoners. But soon enough, civil society leaders - opposition members, labour activists, clergy and journalists - are arrested and sent there as well.

This process took place in fascist shifts or anti-democracy crackdowns ranging from Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s to the Latin American coups of the 1970s and beyond. It is standard practice for closing down an open society or crushing a pro-democracy uprising.

With its jails in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, of course, Guantánamo in Cuba, where detainees are abused, and kept indefinitely without trial and without access to the due process of the law, America certainly has its gulag now. Bush and his allies in Congress recently announced they would issue no information about the secret CIA "black site" prisons throughout the world, which are used to incarcerate people who have been seized off the street.

Gulags in history tend to metastasise, becoming ever larger and more secretive, ever more deadly and formalised. We know from first-hand accounts, photographs, videos and government documents that people, innocent and guilty, have been tortured in the US-run prisons we are aware of and those we can't investigate adequately.

But Americans still assume this system and detainee abuses involve only scary brown people with whom they don't generally identify. It was brave of the conservative pundit William Safire to quote the anti-Nazi pastor Martin Niemöller, who had been seized as a political prisoner: "First they came for the Jews." Most Americans don't understand yet that the destruction of the rule of law at Guantánamo set a dangerous precedent for them, too.

By the way, the establishment of military tribunals that deny prisoners due process tends to come early on in a fascist shift. Mussolini and Stalin set up such tribunals. On April 24 1934, the Nazis, too, set up the People's Court, which also bypassed the judicial system: prisoners were held indefinitely, often in isolation, and tortured, without being charged with offences, and were subjected to show trials. Eventually, the Special Courts became a parallel system that put pressure on the regular courts to abandon the rule of law in favour of Nazi ideology when making decisions.

3. Develop a thug caste

When leaders who seek what I call a "fascist shift" want to close down an open society, they send paramilitary groups of scary young men out to terrorise citizens. The Blackshirts roamed the Italian countryside beating up communists; the Brownshirts staged violent rallies throughout Germany. This paramilitary force is especially important in a democracy: you need citizens to fear thug violence and so you need thugs who are free from prosecution.

The years following 9/11 have proved a bonanza for America's security contractors, with the Bush administration outsourcing areas of work that traditionally fell to the US military. In the process, contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars have been issued for security work by mercenaries at home and abroad. In Iraq, some of these contract operatives have been accused of involvement in torturing prisoners, harassing journalists and firing on Iraqi civilians. Under Order 17, issued to regulate contractors in Iraq by the one-time US administrator in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, these contractors are immune from prosecution

Yes, but that is in Iraq, you could argue; however, after Hurricane Katrina, the Department of Homeland Security hired and deployed hundreds of armed private security guards in New Orleans. The investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill interviewed one unnamed guard who reported having fired on unarmed civilians in the city. It was a natural disaster that underlay that episode - but the administration's endless war on terror means ongoing scope for what are in effect privately contracted armies to take on crisis and emergency management at home in US cities.

Thugs in America? Groups of angry young Republican men, dressed in identical shirts and trousers, menaced poll workers counting the votes in Florida in 2000. If you are reading history, you can imagine that there can be a need for "public order" on the next election day. Say there are protests, or a threat, on the day of an election; history would not rule out the presence of a private security firm at a polling station "to restore public order".

4. Set up an internal surveillance system

In Mussolini's Italy, in Nazi Germany, in communist East Germany, in communist China - in every closed society - secret police spy on ordinary people and encourage neighbours to spy on neighbours. The Stasi needed to keep only a minority of East Germans under surveillance to convince a majority that they themselves were being watched.

In 2005 and 2006, when James Risen and Eric Lichtblau wrote in the New York Times about a secret state programme to wiretap citizens' phones, read their emails and follow international financial transactions, it became clear to ordinary Americans that they, too, could be under state scrutiny.

In closed societies, this surveillance is cast as being about "national security"; the true function is to keep citizens docile and inhibit their activism and dissent.

5. Harass citizens' groups

The fifth thing you do is related to step four - you infiltrate and harass citizens' groups. It can be trivial: a church in Pasadena, whose minister preached that Jesus was in favour of peace, found itself being investigated by the Internal Revenue Service, while churches that got Republicans out to vote, which is equally illegal under US tax law, have been left alone.

Other harassment is more serious: the American Civil Liberties Union reports that thousands of ordinary American anti-war, environmental and other groups have been infiltrated by agents: a secret Pentagon database includes more than four dozen peaceful anti-war meetings, rallies or marches by American citizens in its category of 1,500 "suspicious incidents". The equally secret Counterintelligence Field Activity (Cifa) agency of the Department of Defense has been gathering information about domestic organisations engaged in peaceful political activities: Cifa is supposed to track "potential terrorist threats" as it watches ordinary US citizen activists. A little-noticed new law has redefined activism such as animal rights protests as "terrorism". So the definition of "terrorist" slowly expands to include the opposition.

6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release

This scares people. It is a kind of cat-and-mouse game. Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the investigative reporters who wrote China Wakes: the Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power, describe pro-democracy activists in China, such as Wei Jingsheng, being arrested and released many times. In a closing or closed society there is a "list" of dissidents and opposition leaders: you are targeted in this way once you are on the list, and it is hard to get off the list.

In 2004, America's Transportation Security Administration confirmed that it had a list of passengers who were targeted for security searches or worse if they tried to fly. People who have found themselves on the list? Two middle-aged women peace activists in San Francisco; liberal Senator Edward Kennedy; a member of Venezuela's government - after Venezuela's president had criticised Bush; and thousands of ordinary US citizens.

Professor Walter F Murphy is emeritus of Princeton University; he is one of the foremost constitutional scholars in the nation and author of the classic Constitutional Democracy. Murphy is also a decorated former marine, and he is not even especially politically liberal. But on March 1 this year, he was denied a boarding pass at Newark, "because I was on the Terrorist Watch list".

"Have you been in any peace marches? We ban a lot of people from flying because of that," asked the airline employee.

"I explained," said Murphy, "that I had not so marched but had, in September 2006, given a lecture at Princeton, televised and put on the web, highly critical of George Bush for his many violations of the constitution."

"That'll do it," the man said.

Anti-war marcher? Potential terrorist. Support the constitution? Potential terrorist. History shows that the categories of "enemy of the people" tend to expand ever deeper into civil life.

James Yee, a US citizen, was the Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo who was accused of mishandling classified documents. He was harassed by the US military before the charges against him were dropped. Yee has been detained and released several times. He is still of interest.

Brandon Mayfield, a US citizen and lawyer in Oregon, was mistakenly identified as a possible terrorist. His house was secretly broken into and his computer seized. Though he is innocent of the accusation against him, he is still on the list.

It is a standard practice of fascist societies that once you are on the list, you can't get off.

7. Target key individuals

Threaten civil servants, artists and academics with job loss if they don't toe the line. Mussolini went after the rectors of state universities who did not conform to the fascist line; so did Joseph Goebbels, who purged academics who were not pro-Nazi; so did Chile's Augusto Pinochet; so does the Chinese communist Politburo in punishing pro-democracy students and professors.

Academe is a tinderbox of activism, so those seeking a fascist shift punish academics and students with professional loss if they do not "coordinate", in Goebbels' term, ideologically. Since civil servants are the sector of society most vulnerable to being fired by a given regime, they are also a group that fascists typically "coordinate" early on: the Reich Law for the Re-establishment of a Professional Civil Service was passed on April 7 1933.

Bush supporters in state legislatures in several states put pressure on regents at state universities to penalise or fire academics who have been critical of the administration. As for civil servants, the Bush administration has derailed the career of one military lawyer who spoke up for fair trials for detainees, while an administration official publicly intimidated the law firms that represent detainees pro bono by threatening to call for their major corporate clients to boycott them.

Elsewhere, a CIA contract worker who said in a closed blog that "waterboarding is torture" was stripped of the security clearance she needed in order to do her job.

Most recently, the administration purged eight US attorneys for what looks like insufficient political loyalty. When Goebbels purged the civil service in April 1933, attorneys were "coordinated" too, a step that eased the way of the increasingly brutal laws to follow.

8. Control the press

Italy in the 1920s, Germany in the 30s, East Germany in the 50s, Czechoslovakia in the 60s, the Latin American dictatorships in the 70s, China in the 80s and 90s - all dictatorships and would-be dictators target newspapers and journalists. They threaten and harass them in more open societies that they are seeking to close, and they arrest them and worse in societies that have been closed already.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says arrests of US journalists are at an all-time high: Josh Wolf (no relation), a blogger in San Francisco, has been put in jail for a year for refusing to turn over video of an anti-war demonstration; Homeland Security brought a criminal complaint against reporter Greg Palast, claiming he threatened "critical infrastructure" when he and a TV producer were filming victims of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. Palast had written a bestseller critical of the Bush administration.

Other reporters and writers have been punished in other ways. Joseph C Wilson accused Bush, in a New York Times op-ed, of leading the country to war on the basis of a false charge that Saddam Hussein had acquired yellowcake uranium in Niger. His wife, Valerie Plame, was outed as a CIA spy - a form of retaliation that ended her career.

Prosecution and job loss are nothing, though, compared with how the US is treating journalists seeking to cover the conflict in Iraq in an unbiased way. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented multiple accounts of the US military in Iraq firing upon or threatening to fire upon unembedded (meaning independent) reporters and camera operators from organisations ranging from al-Jazeera to the BBC. While westerners may question the accounts by al-Jazeera, they should pay attention to the accounts of reporters such as the BBC's Kate Adie. In some cases reporters have been wounded or killed, including ITN's Terry Lloyd in 2003. Both CBS and the Associated Press in Iraq had staff members seized by the US military and taken to violent prisons; the news organisations were unable to see the evidence against their staffers.

Over time in closing societies, real news is supplanted by fake news and false documents. Pinochet showed Chilean citizens falsified documents to back up his claim that terrorists had been about to attack the nation. The yellowcake charge, too, was based on forged papers.

You won't have a shutdown of news in modern America - it is not possible. But you can have, as Frank Rich and Sidney Blumenthal have pointed out, a steady stream of lies polluting the news well. What you already have is a White House directing a stream of false information that is so relentless that it is increasingly hard to sort out truth from untruth. In a fascist system, it's not the lies that count but the muddying. When citizens can't tell real news from fake, they give up their demands for accountability bit by bit.

9. Dissent equals treason

Cast dissent as "treason" and criticism as "espionage'. Every closing society does this, just as it elaborates laws that increasingly criminalise certain kinds of speech and expand the definition of "spy" and "traitor". When Bill Keller, the publisher of the New York Times, ran the Lichtblau/Risen stories, Bush called the Times' leaking of classified information "disgraceful", while Republicans in Congress called for Keller to be charged with treason, and rightwing commentators and news outlets kept up the "treason" drumbeat. Some commentators, as Conason noted, reminded readers smugly that one penalty for violating the Espionage Act is execution.

Conason is right to note how serious a threat that attack represented. It is also important to recall that the 1938 Moscow show trial accused the editor of Izvestia, Nikolai Bukharin, of treason; Bukharin was, in fact, executed. And it is important to remind Americans that when the 1917 Espionage Act was last widely invoked, during the infamous 1919 Palmer Raids, leftist activists were arrested without warrants in sweeping roundups, kept in jail for up to five months, and "beaten, starved, suffocated, tortured and threatened with death", according to the historian Myra MacPherson. After that, dissent was muted in America for a decade.

In Stalin's Soviet Union, dissidents were "enemies of the people". National Socialists called those who supported Weimar democracy "November traitors".

And here is where the circle closes: most Americans do not realise that since September of last year - when Congress wrongly, foolishly, passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 - the president has the power to call any US citizen an "enemy combatant". He has the power to define what "enemy combatant" means. The president can also delegate to anyone he chooses in the executive branch the right to define "enemy combatant" any way he or she wants and then seize Americans accordingly.

Even if you or I are American citizens, even if we turn out to be completely innocent of what he has accused us of doing, he has the power to have us seized as we are changing planes at Newark tomorrow, or have us taken with a knock on the door; ship you or me to a navy brig; and keep you or me in isolation, possibly for months, while awaiting trial. (Prolonged isolation, as psychiatrists know, triggers psychosis in otherwise mentally healthy prisoners. That is why Stalin's gulag had an isolation cell, like Guantánamo's, in every satellite prison. Camp 6, the newest, most brutal facility at Guantánamo, is all isolation cells.)

We US citizens will get a trial eventually - for now. But legal rights activists at the Center for Constitutional Rights say that the Bush administration is trying increasingly aggressively to find ways to get around giving even US citizens fair trials. "Enemy combatant" is a status offence - it is not even something you have to have done. "We have absolutely moved over into a preventive detention model - you look like you could do something bad, you might do something bad, so we're going to hold you," says a spokeswoman of the CCR.

Most Americans surely do not get this yet. No wonder: it is hard to believe, even though it is true. In every closing society, at a certain point there are some high-profile arrests - usually of opposition leaders, clergy and journalists. Then everything goes quiet. After those arrests, there are still newspapers, courts, TV and radio, and the facades of a civil society. There just isn't real dissent. There just isn't freedom. If you look at history, just before those arrests is where we are now.

10. Suspend the rule of law

The John Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2007 gave the president new powers over the national guard. This means that in a national emergency - which the president now has enhanced powers to declare - he can send Michigan's militia to enforce a state of emergency that he has declared in Oregon, over the objections of the state's governor and its citizens.

Even as Americans were focused on Britney Spears's meltdown and the question of who fathered Anna Nicole's baby, the New York Times editorialised about this shift: "A disturbing recent phenomenon in Washington is that laws that strike to the heart of American democracy have been passed in the dead of night ... Beyond actual insurrection, the president may now use military troops as a domestic police force in response to a natural disaster, a disease outbreak, terrorist attack or any 'other condition'."

Critics see this as a clear violation of the Posse Comitatus Act - which was meant to restrain the federal government from using the military for domestic law enforcement. The Democratic senator Patrick Leahy says the bill encourages a president to declare federal martial law. It also violates the very reason the founders set up our system of government as they did: having seen citizens bullied by a monarch's soldiers, the founders were terrified of exactly this kind of concentration of militias' power over American people in the hands of an oppressive executive or faction.

Of course, the United States is not vulnerable to the violent, total closing-down of the system that followed Mussolini's march on Rome or Hitler's roundup of political prisoners. Our democratic habits are too resilient, and our military and judiciary too independent, for any kind of scenario like that.

Rather, as other critics are noting, our experiment in democracy could be closed down by a process of erosion.

It is a mistake to think that early in a fascist shift you see the profile of barbed wire against the sky. In the early days, things look normal on the surface; peasants were celebrating harvest festivals in Calabria in 1922; people were shopping and going to the movies in Berlin in 1931. Early on, as WH Auden put it, the horror is always elsewhere - while someone is being tortured, children are skating, ships are sailing: "dogs go on with their doggy life ... How everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster."

As Americans turn away quite leisurely, keeping tuned to internet shopping and American Idol, the foundations of democracy are being fatally corroded. Something has changed profoundly that weakens us unprecedentedly: our democratic traditions, independent judiciary and free press do their work today in a context in which we are "at war" in a "long war" - a war without end, on a battlefield described as the globe, in a context that gives the president - without US citizens realising it yet - the power over US citizens of freedom or long solitary incarceration, on his say-so alone.

That means a hollowness has been expanding under the foundation of all these still- free-looking institutions - and this foundation can give way under certain kinds of pressure. To prevent such an outcome, we have to think about the "what ifs".

What if, in a year and a half, there is another attack - say, God forbid, a dirty bomb? The executive can declare a state of emergency. History shows that any leader, of any party, will be tempted to maintain emergency powers after the crisis has passed. With the gutting of traditional checks and balances, we are no less endangered by a President Hillary than by a President Giuliani - because any executive will be tempted to enforce his or her will through edict rather than the arduous, uncertain process of democratic negotiation and compromise.

What if the publisher of a major US newspaper were charged with treason or espionage, as a rightwing effort seemed to threaten Keller with last year? What if he or she got 10 years in jail? What would the newspapers look like the next day? Judging from history, they would not cease publishing; but they would suddenly be very polite.

Right now, only a handful of patriots are trying to hold back the tide of tyranny for the rest of us - staff at the Center for Constitutional Rights, who faced death threats for representing the detainees yet persisted all the way to the Supreme Court; activists at the American Civil Liberties Union; and prominent conservatives trying to roll back the corrosive new laws, under the banner of a new group called the American Freedom Agenda. This small, disparate collection of people needs everybody's help, including that of Europeans and others internationally who are willing to put pressure on the administration because they can see what a US unrestrained by real democracy at home can mean for the rest of the world.

We need to look at history and face the "what ifs". For if we keep going down this road, the "end of America" could come for each of us in a different way, at a different moment; each of us might have a different moment when we feel forced to look back and think: that is how it was before - and this is the way it is now.

"The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands ... is the definition of tyranny," wrote James Madison. We still have the choice to stop going down this road; we can stand our ground and fight for our nation, and take up the banner the founders asked us to carry.

· Naomi Wolf's The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot will be published by Chelsea Green in September.

Kazim Ali's "Poetry is Dangerous"

Kazim Ali, a faculty member at Shippensburg University, got hassled recently for putting out a box of old poetry manuscripts for the recycler, something he's done before on a number of occasions. This time, he was spotted by a ROTC person, who saw his dark skin and just knew he was a terrorist.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Klingon technical writers

The following lovely little nugget is from Documentia, a tech writing firm in Ontario. #2, 6, 12, and 16 are my personal faves.

Klingon Technical Writers
The top 16 things likely to be overheard if you had Klingon technical writers working on your documentation team:

  1. Klingons do not sit in meetings, we take what we want and kill anyone who opposes us!
  2. Certification?! Taking your head and putting it on a pike in my office is all the certification I need!
  3. I will return to the homeworld and my documentation will arise triumphant in the STC Documentation Gauntlet, leaving all others drowning in their own dangling modifiers. It will be glorious!!
  4. Not returning my review copies by the agreed deadline is a declaration of war. Indeed, it is a good day to die.
  5. These software specifications are for the weak and timid!!
  6. This version of Word is a piece of GAGH! I need the latest version of Framemaker if I am to do battle with this manual.
  7. You cannot really appreciate Dilbert unless you've read it in the original Klingon.
  8. Indentation?! I will show you how to indent when I indent your skull!
  9. What is this talk of "drafts"? Klingons do not make document "drafts". Our documents escape, leaving a bloody trail of SMEs in its wake!
  10. Passive voice is a sign of weakness. Its elimination will be quick.
  11. Proofreading? Klingons do not proofread. Our documents are purified with pain-sticks which cleanses the documents of impurities.
  12. I have challenged the entire Marketing and R&D team to a Bat-Leh contest! They will not concern us again.
  13. A TRUE Klingon warrior riddles his document with bullets, leaving it to beg for mercy.
  14. By changing the layout of my manual, you have challenged the honor of my family. Prepare to die!
  15. You question the worthiness of my grammar? I should kill you where you stand!
  16. Our users will know fear and cower before our suite of manuals and online help! Ship it! Ship it and let them flee like the dogs they are!