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Yes, I Am Special, Darn It!

I rarely win prizes. In fact, I don't think I've ever won a prize except for maybe one time when somebody felt sorry for me and gave me their prize. I thought that was a nice gesture, but it wasn't like, you know, actually winning it myself. Still. It was nice.

But, finally!

I got an email this evening from Dell telling me that if I went to one of their web pages and filled in some text boxes with important information from the back of my power adaptors, I might win a new adaptor!! And so I went there and filled in all the numbers and guess what!!??

I thought for a minute I was going to win two new adaptors, but I only won one. But still!! I finally won a prize!! Yay!!

So I guess I'll get my prize in 30 days or so. I'm psyched. Life is great. My first prize, ever. Now if only I could figure out how come I keep smelling smoke in here...

Congrats & Regrets

Congratulations to the Iraqi people and good luck in whatever their recent election brings them. Regrets to the American people and better luck with what our recent election has brought us.

Material below collected from "Homeland Insecurity" by William Finnegan in the current New Yorker.

Today, nearly everyone who studies the sources of potential terrorism, particularly the global jihadist movement, believes that more attacks are inevitable. Stephen Flynn, in his book “America the Vulnerable,” likens this period to the Phony War -- the eight months, beginning in September, 1939, after Hitler had invaded Poland, and Britain and France had declared war on Germany, when essentially nothing happened. The United States hasn’t been attacked for more than three years now, an extraordinarily happy fact for which the Bush Administration is quick to take the credit. If that changes, the Department of Homeland Security seems well positioned to take the blame.

Some of Finnegan's points from that article, in bullet form:

  • "The Administration, responsive to the claims of the big intelligence-collecting agencies -- the Pentagon, the C.I.A., and the F.B.I. -- quietly scaled back the intelligence function of D.H.S. to the point that fifteen qualified people who were asked to become its intelligence chief turned down the job...."
  • "The department was unable even to attract a full team of analysts...."
  • "In November, 2001, President Bush signed a law requiring that all cargo on commercial flights be screened. That is a D.H.S. responsibility. Two years later, less than five per cent of cargo on passenger planes was being screened...."
  • "Clark Ervin, a veteran of the first Bush’s White House who was appointed the department’s inspector general, found, in 2003, that he could sneak weapons and explosives past the screeners at fifteen airports...."
  • "At the same time, he noted, senior managers at the Transportation Security Administration were giving themselves the largest annual bonuses of any federal agency...."
  • "Ervin produced a series of reports on other gross lapses -- in contract monitoring, in port security -- in what he called a 'dysfunctional bureaucracy'...."
  • "In December, the White House replaced [Ervin]...."
  • "Air cargo is not comprehensively screened because the airlines don’t want to take on the expense of doing it."
  • "Nearly all the nation’s chemical plants, refineries, and storage facilities remain basically unprotected, and, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, seven hundred are in locations where an attack could cause more than a hundred thousand casualties...."
  • "Yet the chemical industry has effectively lobbied against legislation that would require plants to improve security in favor of what is essentially self-regulation, and D.H.S. has accepted that...."
  • "Michael Chertoff, barring unforeseen difficulties, will soon inherit [the D.H.S.]. Chertoff was, by most accounts, a brilliant prosecutor. But his main experience on national-security issues came in the Ashcroft Justice Department, where he headed the criminal division for two years...."
  • "He was a primary author of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, and a leader in the controversial prosecutions of John Walker Lindh and Zacarias Moussaoui...."
  • "He was, moreover, a zealous proponent of the arrest of more than a thousand people, mostly Muslims, after September 11th-a roundup that resulted in widespread mistreatment of detainees but not a single terrorism-related charge...."
  • "The next Secretary of Homeland Security will need to be much tougher than Tom Ridge -- capable of energizing the department, beating back its rivals, standing up to powerful industries, winning larger budgets, and, perhaps most important, making certain that our ideals won’t be sacrificed in the overreaction that terrorism, by definition, seeks. Chertoff has little visible qualification for most of these tasks, and his record on the last is not promising."

And finally:

  • "'The United States is going through its own version of the Phony War,' Stephen Flynn writes. The French and the British did not seriously prepare, when they had the time, for the new style of blitzkrieg warfare that Hitler had introduced in Eastern Europe. By May, 1940, when he invaded France, it was too late."

Let me remind you how absurd the "we're fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them over here" argument is. As Richard Clarke says, there's nothing stopping them from bringing the war to our shores again. Nothing at all. Close to $300 billion spent and we are just as vulnerable now, here at home, as we were on September 10, 2001.

These are the people who yawned at a Presidential Daily Briefing, dated August 6, 2001, entitled "Bin Laden Determined To Strike in US" which contained this warning:

...FBI information since [1998] indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.

This is the Bush Administration's on-going Phony War. This is what we got from our recent election. I truly, honestly hope the Iraqis fare better with the results of their election than we have with ours.

Note: See Jo Walton's informed observations on Britain's not-so-phony Phony War in the comments section.

New Age Closings

Think housing costs in New York City are high? Wait'll you get a load of the brokers.

Jeff Sharlet has an interesting article called "The Capitalist Spirit" in the January 24th issue of New York magazine that generally concerns itself with the rebirth of New Age spirituality in New York post-9/11, and that spirituality's relationship with this city's other perennial spirit, that of the entrepreneur. But in the midst of all it you stumble across something that, frankly, doesn't surprise me in the least.

"Sondra", here, is "Bhakti Sondra Shaye, née Shaivitz, B.A., M.A., J.D., guide, teacher, and adept member of the Great White Universal Brotherhood and Sisterhood of Light, ritual master in the High Council of Gor, universal Kabbalist, Reiki master, and metaphysician".

One of Sondra’s clients is a former telecom exec named James Hatt. Hatt moved to New York from London in 1999, and fell in love: with an American woman, the city, its opportunities. He bought properties, he sold them, he prospered. But then he’d picked up a million-dollar co-op in which someone had gone insane. Once he listed it for sale, the apartment sat on the market for seven months. Finally, says Hatt, a fellow real-estate agent said, “Look, there’s this woman you should try. A lot of agents use her. Nobody talks about it.” “This woman” sounded like an arsonist.

Okay, I don't who's responsible, Hatt or the author, but I do feel the need to get my chakra in order by taking note of a good laugh line when I see it.

Anyway, like I was quotin'...

But what Sondra offered, says Hatt, was a “cleansing,” a service she and other healers quietly supply for most, if not all, of the city’s major brokerages.

Yes, that's right. When a hot property isn't moving even in this current real-estate market, there's something wrong with it that needs to be fixed. Get your healer on the horn.

There’s no directory for this kind of work, but Jennifer L. Dorfmann, a broker for Corcoran, told me that when she sent out a query to colleagues asking for recommendations, she received half a dozen names in a manner of minutes.

Corcoran, for those who don't know, is one of the major property brokers in the city. And for those who haven't had the experience of looking for a place to live in this city, allow me to point out that most brokers and landlords here are tough as masonry nails. I ain't sayin' they're bad people or anything, but this is the Naked City after all, and nothing here will put the fear of God into you faster than a real-estate deal going bad. Property is no joke, you're runnin' with the wolves. These people aren't saps.

Sondra provided me with a list of brokers she works with at other firms, but their employers forbid them from talking about what some clients might consider hocus-pocus, even if the cleansing fee-usually around $250-comes out of the broker’s pocket.

Hatt sold the apartment two days later, and when he hired Sondra to cleanse a loft in Soho where the previous occupant had died, after it had sat unsold for four months, it also moved in a matter of days.

And another Corcoran agent, Jim Farah, as had occasion to use Sondra's services.

[Jim] sits with perfect calm as Sondra squirts holy water-tap, blessed by her, dispensed from a pink plastic spritzer-on the carpet, ceiling, and walls of a Kips Bay apartment he’s been trying to sell. It’s a one-bedroom in a doorman building, with an open terrace overlooking a dazzling, gold-domed church and the East River, and it’s priced very reasonably-$680,000-but it’s not moving. Farah, a sober, dignified man with neat gray hair, a black jacket, and a gray sweater, “baptized Episcopalian,” a former retail executive with no supernatural experiences, called Sondra. Now she’s standing in the living room, her eyes fluttering and her shoulders twitching as she calls in a full congregation of minor and major gods.

“Jim,” I whisper. “Does this-is any of this kind of, I don’t know, hard to swallow?”

Farah shakes his head and offers the best defense of New Age I’ve encountered. “Absolutely not,” he says. “To some extent, it’s a language of its own.” The terms, he says, may be peculiar, but the ideas at hand-that spaces reflect their inhabitants (“bad sex energy,” Sondra had diagnosed this property), that faith goes by many names, that all rituals, “true” or “false,” cohere around metaphors of our own creation-are perfectly ordinary.

Sondra slumps, hangs like a puppet on strings, straightens, and leaves the apartment. She needs to get some distance, so she can draw a magic circle around the newly cleansed space. Neither seller nor buyer will consciously budge an inch on the basis of this invisible shield. Farah, like most brokers, won’t even mention the procedure. I look at him, hands folded in his lap, waiting for Sondra to return. It’s then that I understand: He has purchased this spell, the details of which do not concern him, for his own peace of mind.

Yeah, I think that's probably about it. I think this is a variation on the old "there are no atheists in foxholes" trope. When there is as much money at stake as there generally is in a New York City real-estate transaction, I suppose it can feel a little bit like the fields of Flanders.

Show me the Money. Show me the Lord.

Celiacs Rule

As it turned out, because of changes of plans and so forth, I went by Bierkraft yesterday to pick up my case of Bard's Tale instead of having the beer delivered and so I got a chance to talk to Richard, The Guy Who Seems To Be In Charge over there. Nice guy. Told me some interesting stuff. As I mentioned earlier (United Corpuscular Appeal), Bard's Tale has no distributor. In fact, Richard told me the company had been turned down by two large distributors.

He said that in the beginning, more or less experimentally, he had ordered ten cases from Bard's Tale and, once they'd arrived, he blinked and they were gone. So he ordered 25 more cases which, upon arriving, also flew off the shelves. So he ordered 25 more cases (of which there are only a few left at the moment, one of which I got). And so now he's ordered 25 more.

The last batch was driven down from Albany or Buffalo or somewhere like that in the back of some guy's car. Richard told him that if a distributor didn't pick up Bard's Tale soon, he was thinking of renting warehouse space in Brooklyn and distributing it himself.

Ha! Take that you bastardly, evil, big-shot distributors. Celiacs rule!

Everyone who lives in Brooklyn should patronize Bierkraft. They are good people who take pity on, and are happy to make money off, gimps like me. And not only that, the people who work there are kind of cute.

Not that that matters, of course.

More Knowledge Sometimes == Life

Further proof, as if any were needed, that smarts can sometimes save your sorry butt. Only this time, this guy's knowledge -- and some personal initiative on the part of his wife and the gumption of an alert hotel staff -- helped save a number, maybe hundreds, of other lives as well.

As a theoretical seismologist, Chris Chapman says he "sits in front of the computer trying to work out how seismic waves can tell us things about the interior of the Earth". Sitting in Ahungalla, 30 kilometres north of hard-hit Galle on the southwest tip of Sri Lanka when last month's tsunami rolled in, he got a fresh perspective on earthquakes and their impact. Fortunately, Chapman, who works at Schlumberger Cambridge Research in Britain, was able to surmize the danger and initiate efforts to clear the beaches. He tells David Cyranoski about the experience.

From "Get off the beach — now!".

Like me, Chapman "had read about tsunamis when [he] was a student, especially from the big earthquake that occurred in Alaska in 1964." Unlike me, he had the unwelcome opportunity to make use of what he'd read.

Important Update

Thanks to all who may have joined the United Corpuscular Appeal. I was notified last evening by BierKraft in Brooklyn that they've received a shipment of Bard's Tale Beer. This morning I ordered a case which will be delivered today.

Brewskis, gluten-intolerant dudes, brewskis!!!!

Little "Mikey" says "Thank you, Beer Jesus".

Keep This Straight

Soon we will begin to see outrage over all the pending law suits against Merck regarding its recently recalled drug Vioxx. We will begin to see columnists railing against the onslaught of ads for lawyers willing to take on your case. The assault on Merck will be cited as one more reason for capping punitive damages.

So before all of that really takes off, take a moment to get this straight in your mind: Merck didn't just "ask for it"; it advertised for it.

From an article at :

Vioxx and other drugs in its class were initially developed as alternatives to pain relievers that caused internal bleeding in some patients.


The painkiller rofecoxib, sold under the name Vioxx by New Jersey-based manufacturer Merck, was pulled from the market in September 2004. The decision was made after a study of Vioxx's effect on colorectal cancer revealed that it increased patients' risk of heart attacks.

There were questions about Vioxx from the beginning. From an article by James Surowiecki in the current New Yorker:

Questions about Vioxx’s potential risks have been common since its introduction, six years ago, especially after a 2000 trial suggested that the drug increased the risk of heart disease. Merck did not hide these data, and beginning in 2002 the drug’s label included a warning about the possible cardiovascular risks.

But see, this was a risk-benefit question. The whole reason for the introduction of the drug was because there is a group of people who have a genuine medical need for it. From Surowiecki:

The simple fact that Vioxx might have risks wasn’t reason to recall it, since the drug also had an important benefit: it was less likely to cause the internal bleeding that aspirin and ibuprofen cause, and that kills thousands of people a year.

Okay, that's cool. But wait... Surowiecki again:

It would be one thing if Merck had marketed Vioxx only to people who really needed it -- people who couldn’t take ibuprofen or aspirin safely. Instead, the company marketed it aggressively to everyone, so that some twenty million Americans had Vioxx prescriptions.

In 2000, Merck spent $161 million marketing Vioxx on television. ("More prescription drug ads on TV", February 21, 2002 issue of Harvard University Gazette.)

From :

[A] group led by Randall Stafford of Stanford University's Prevention Research Centre in Palo Alto, California, found that many patients taking Vioxx did not even need the drug.... [B]y studying two federal surveys, Stafford and his colleagues found that almost two-thirds of new prescriptions written between 1999 and 2002 went to patients who were not at risk of internal bleeding. By 2002 only 39% of patients receiving the class of drugs that includes Vioxx actually needed that type, rather than earlier types of painkiller.

Okay, so the question juries are going to be asking Merck is: "Thanks for developing this drug that was a real benefit for a certain group of patients and everything, but why did you so aggressively market this same drug to the population at large, people for whom the risks of the drug, according to studies way back in 2000, clearly outweighed its benefits?"

Sounds like a perfectly reasonable question to me.

Read Surowiecki's commentary on all this here. It's compact and it's smart.

They Are Here

Last summer my friend Phil was visiting me from California. I don't see him nearly often enough. We entertain each other way too much.

So, anyway, we were walking around my neighborhood one day and I commented that I thought a race of superhuman beings was slowly infiltrating us, gradually taking over the world. As evidence, I pointed out all the remarkably tall people walking past us. As we moved through the neighborhood, we began surreptitiously pointing them out to each other. "Look, there's one." A slight nudge to the ribs, a nod in a particular direction, knowing looks exchanged.

It turns out we may have been right. Well, maybe not about the tall people. But I feel certain They truly are among us. They're just being very quiet about it.

There is an article in pre-press now -- coming out in the February issue of Nature Genetics -- by scientists at deCODE Genetics of Reykjavik who (while searching for a gene that might cause or contribute to schizophrenia) discovered a region in the human genome that may give fertility and longevity boosts to some 20% of the European population.

From "Are Humans Still Evolving?", a subscription-required article (join the AAAS, why don't you?) on Science magazine's "Science Now" site:

Are we beyond the forces of evolution, or is natural selection still shaping us? A genomic study of modern Icelanders suggests modern humans are still a work in progress.

The finding comes from deCODE Genetics, a company based in Reykjavik, Iceland that is hunting for disease-associated genes. While analyzing DNA sequence from more than 29,000 Icelandic people, deCODE researchers discovered something intriguing. A section of chromosome 17, 900,000 base pairs long, is flipped into reverse order in about 20% of Europeans, but this flip is very rare among Africans and Asians. Inversions on a smaller scale happen frequently when chromosomes reshuffle themselves in the course of sexual reproduction. Usually, they flip back with the same frequency. Also striking was the fact that the two versions of the chromosomal section appear to have been around for some 3 million years, long before the appearance of modern Homo sapiens.

The fact that such an extended stretch of inverted DNA appears to have been maintained for so long and today is carried by 1 in 5 Europeans suggested that it must provide some kind of evolutionary advantage in the European environment. If natural selection played no role, one of the two versions would have likely dropped to a low frequency long ago.

And according to an article at Sci-Tech Today:

[T]he DeCode researchers found that women carrying the flipped or inverted section tend to have slightly more children.


The chromosome 17 inversion... occurs at much higher frequency in women over 95 and in men over 90 than in the normal population. "It seems to confer on people the ability to live to extreme old age," Stefansson said.

Well, no use complaining, I guess. Whining didn't help the Neanderthals. I suppose the upside is we do still seem to be evolving in spite of improved health care, better education, and central air-conditioning ("better" as in "better than when we were confined to the prehistoric plains of the Serengeti", I mean). Who knows? Maybe we'll eventually evolve a brain.

And if Tall People really are here, that's okay too, I guess. More leg-room for shrimps like me. There's always a bright side even as your blossom on the Tree of Life turns brown.

Do Not Sink Completely Into That Door

In the last six weeks, the deaths of three particular people (either known to me or known or related to a close friend) have in one way or another had an influence over my daily life. Clearly this little flurry of Stygian activity has also had some sort of influence on my under-ego. Yesterday I attended the funeral of a friend's mother. Last night I had the following dream.

The first thing I remember is a sense, a belief, that this whole death thing seemed kind of interesting and maybe this was something a curious guy like me might want to look into.

Somehow I had discovered the proper procedure to apply for and be granted death; it apparently involved signing up for a strange trip on an bizarre airplane. I recall having gone through the application process, having been approved, and so I found myself aboard that plane.

From the inside (I don't recall if I ever saw the plane from the outside), everything was painted battleship gray. The interior was utilitarian. I think I recall guessing that this plane must have been something like a C-47 which is the military transport version of the old DC-3 -- the reliable Gooney Bird of World War II. If you ever saw the SF classic "This Island Earth" (how come nobody notices those guys have such big foreheads?), this plane is a little like the robot airplane that ferries Dr. Meacham to the mysterious and apparently remote Club Med(aluna) Resort.

I seemed to be the only passenger(?), client(?), patron(?) on board, but there were other, um, entities there. I don't think they were quite human. I don't know exactly what they were, but they seemed to be helpers of some sort. They behaved like extremely discreet waiters, standing by, ready to assist when the client required assistance, but otherwise neither suggesting nor not suggesting that the client should proceed.

I recall having niggling doubts about this entire enterprise. I had been informed (or otherwise knew) that if I decided to proceed with this thing, the results were going to be permanent. That is, if I decided to die, then I would be dead for good. I was a bit nervous about this prospect. On the one hand, I was very curious about this whole death thing. On the other, this was going to be a one-way street, no second thoughts allowed, no "do-overs". If I decided to try this death thing, the whole game was going to be perfectly over.

Well, I thought, maybe we could just take this one step at a time. It was somehow understood that I could call the whole thing off at any point in the process, short of the actual moment of death of course, so why not go a little bit further?

There were no seats in the plane. It was empty like a dead-heading cargo transport except for a large slab of metal lying on the floor of the plane. The slab was about the size and shape of a large and thick door -- maybe six or seven feet long, three feet wide, perhaps four inches thick. I knew that the next step would involve me lying down on this metallic door. I knew that if I did that, things would start to happen, things that would ultimately lead to my death.

I studied the door for a while. The helper entities waited patiently, neither suggesting nor not suggesting.

Finally, my curiosity got the better of me. I approached the metallic door. The helper entities took my upper arms, holding them in a gentle grip, and helped me ease myself down onto the door. As I lay there, they lovingly arranged my arms and legs so that I was as comfortable as possible.

I closed my eyes and after a few moments I felt either the door slowly sinking through the floor of the plane, carrying me with it, or my body slowly sinking into the slab of metal. My eyes were closed so I could not tell precisely what was going on. But I do recall understanding then that dying involved departing the interior of the cargo plane, apparently by way of sinking, one way or the other, through the floor.

I could feel my conscious self, as the saying goes, slipping away. I could feel myself disappearing into the metal. I was uneasy about this, uncertain I could stop it if I decided to call the whole thing off, but my uneasiness did not ever graduate into fear or panic.

But then this sinking into the metal slowed, then stopped. I recall lying there wondering what was holding things up. Is this the way it's supposed to go? Am I dead now? But I can't be. I still have an awareness of my self and of what is happening to me. Hmm... I suppose that's possible, even if you're dead....

I vaguely sensed the helper entities hovering over me, observing, offering their assistance. They communicated to me somehow that this dying stuff was not the sort of thing you could actually force, and so it did not seem, in their opinion, that I actually wanted or was ready to die. This information was not presented to me in any scolding way. I was not being chided for wasting everyone's time or for being some sort of Death Tourist. It was a simple fact: it did not seem I was ready to die, and so despite my curiosity about the subject, I apparently would not be allowed to go into that good night, gently or otherwise, at this particular moment.

I considered this. This appraisal seemed about right. I'd learned a little something about what dying is like. It's like sinking into a thick metal door implanted on the floor of a cargo plane, in case you haven't guessed. I decided knowing that much about death was probably good enough for the time being and so I allowed myself to rise back up out of the metal.

"Do not sink completely into that door."


Okay, so I never claimed to be Dylan Thomas, all right? Go dream your own death. Then we'll just see who has the better Poetic Imagination, won't we?

Meanwhile, I'm having a nice cuppa'.

Corpuscle's Rules of Rhetoric (1)

Instance: "Petty Politics".

From an article off the A.P wire.:

White House chief of staff Andy Card accused Democrats of "petty politics" for blocking the swift confirmation of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state.

Purpose: The phrase "petty politics" is used here as an attempt to put on the defensive those who would delay the immediate confirmation of Ms. Rice.

Advice: Use this shtick with caution. This technique only works when your side is in good odor with the voting public.

Discussion: As the 2nd Bush Administration and the Republican-controlled House and Senate proceed with their irresponsible agendas, things will further go to hell and this shtick will come back to bite them on the ass.

Over the last four years, Ms. Rice has shown herself to be incompetent and --

Oh, by the way, while we're on the subject, here's something I don't get...Rice clearly is an accomplished person and I've noticed that much is always made of her intelligence.

"I think it's good for the American public," Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said Wednesday. "I am very confident Dr. Rice will perform well. She's extremely intelligent.

But every time I see her answering questions in front of some committee or being interviewed, she gives every impression of having a rigidly funneled mind. Not focussed. Funneled. She never, like, you know, answers the damn question. She seems to think nobody notices this. I don't know, maybe it's just me, but I've always felt people with minds like that always end up showing themselves to be kind of stupid. But, whatever. Like I was sayin'...

Over the last four years, Ms. Rice has shown herself to be incompetent and so I think the American public, at large, is quite happy to see Ms. Rice's nomination further debated on the floor of the Senate. I think we don't trust her very much. And so when the Republicans call this insistence on further debate "petty politics", they risk making themselves look even more irresponsible and untrustworthy. One might even say they begin to seem Out Of Touch With The American People.

Frankly, I hope Republicans keep resorting to this sort of LuntzSpeak, over and over, as the disaster that is the Bush Administration's second go-around proceeds apace. As the Democrats stand up to this sort of vacuous and irresponsible spew (by insisting on further debate), they begin to look more and more attractive to voters. The public wants the Democrats to engage in this thing the Republicans are calling "petty politics", and so this rhetoric aimed at Democrats ends up looking like an insult to the intelligence of the public at large.

Not, I hasten to add, that this insistence on trying to put the brakes on the runaway freight train constitutes any sort of New Vision For The Future on the part of the Democrats. Let's get that part of it together, okay, there, Democrats?

No, alls I'm sayin' is that at this point Republicans use this rhetorical trick at their peril. It only works when and if things don't stink. Unfortunately for the Republicans, we already know that less than half of the public thinks things don't presently stink. Less than half. If the stench gets any worse, which it will with these incompetents and ideologues in charge, this brain-dead Republican LuntzSpeak is going to morph into a variety of the well-known and much-dreaded Fart In Church. And it will be a big one too. Verily, it will astound the congregation.

Ayatollah Miss Thing

Sometime ago, I had the, um... privilege, I guess... perhaps "honor" would be the better word... to be the first person on the face of the planet to whom a friend of mine revealed what he considered to be a terrible secret.

I'd known him for years. One night we were sitting around and he mentioned -- in passing, really, or so he tried to make it seem -- that he had a terrible secret. I asked him what secret could be so terrible as all that. Naturally, as I was reassuring him that no secret could be all that terrible, I was running through the various possibilities in my mind. Hmm... I thought, if his secret is that, or maybe even this, that would be a pretty effing terrible secret, all right.

But I didn't honestly think his secret could be anything remotely like either that or this, so I figured I was pretty safe in assuring him his secret couldn't be all that terrible. After a bit more dancing around the subject, he finally told me that for as long as he could remember, he'd always felt he was a woman born into the body of a man.

Okay, well, I have to be honest here. I wasn't shocked by what he'd told me, but, whoa, was I surprised, or what? I had no idea. Absolutely none. But the funny thing was... as soon as he told me this thing I knew it was true.

I didn't know much about transsexuality before that moment. Never really gave it much thought. I know a lot more about it now, of course, based on research I've done in the meantime. My consciousness done been raised. I pay attention to the subject more now than I used to, and so listening to the BBC World Service this morning, I was especially interested to hear a story about the lot of transsexuals living inside the Islamic Republic of Iran.

You may not be surprised to learn how it would go for you in Tehran if you were born into a body that had the wrong plumbing -- after I heard the BBC story this morning I did a little looking around on the web and I discovered this wasn't such a secret -- but it sure as hell was, as they say, News To Me. It turns out that the notion of sex-change surgery is just fine by the fundamentalist clerics of Iran, starting with the one Iranian cleric best known to all Americans of a certain age, the Ayatollah Khomeini himself.

According to an article at the BBC "Newsnight" site, an article which closely mirrors the BBC report I heard this morning, "41 years ago, Ayatollah Khomeini wrote about new medical issues like transsexuality." Says one current Islamic scholar, Hojatulislam Kariminia, "I believe he was the first Islamic scientist in the world of Islam who raised the issue of sex change." Not only that, according to the article, "The Ayatollah's ruling that sex-change operations were allowed has been reconfirmed by Iran's current spiritual leader."

Well. You could have knocked me over with a feather boa.

The cognitive dissonance here is due of course to my notion of what life in the Islamic Republic is like. I don't know if clerical approval of sex-change operations would have been precisely the last thing on the list of allowed activities I might have previously imagined, but I think it would have been pretty damned close. So how do I explain this thing to myself? Do I readjust my thinking to now regard the Islamic Republic as a compassionate society? Clearly not. Homosexuality in Iran still gets you the death penalty. No, it seems about the only thing that I can conclude about this is that it's okay by the clerics to have a sex-change operation in Iran.

Which got me to thinking about whether it is even possible to describe a particular society as compassionate. The culture I live in permits sex-change operations, but it doesn't (for the most part) permit members of the same sex to marry. Until relatively recently, in some states you still could be sent to jail for having gay sex. I haven't researched this, but I'll bet there were even places here in the U.S.A. where you could get jail time if you were discovered to be a man dressed as a woman. I'll just bet that was the case at some point somewhere in the land of the free. And yet I think if someone from overseas asked a typical American whether his or her culture was compassionate, he or she would probably answer "yes, generally, overall".

Are we? We have the death penalty in most states. A huge number of private citizens gave a great deal of money to help relief efforts following the recent tsunami in Asia. We send a great many of our children to bed cold and hungry. Most of us get pissed off when we see somebody kicking a helpless dog.

Okay, so maybe you can only talk about the mix. Some cultures, some societies are more compassionate than others, according to the relevant local mix of compassionate acts? But what does that mean, exactly? If you live in a place where it's considered compassionate to let people of the same sex marry for various legal purposes, and someone else lives in a place where it's considered compassionate to do whatever is necessary to prevent somebody (specifically, by punishing them severely for engaging in gay sex) from ruining themselves in the eyes of God, who lives in the more compassionate society?

I know what I would answer, of course, and what most of my friends would answer, but what we would answer doesn't particularly matter. Our answer is nothing more than our (correct, of course) judgment about how to define compassion. And from this I realize that you can't talk about any particular culture in terms of whether it is compassionate. What you can talk about is whether your culture allows someone to have a sex-change operation if they feel like they need one. What you can talk about is whether your culture allows consenting adults to engage in whatever sort of physical relationships they want to engage in. What you can talk about is whether your culture approves of people kicking dogs. Any conclusion you draw from what your culture allows or doesn't allow regarding the compassionate nature of your culture is nothing more than an inherently biased judgment call.

I can look at you and decide you are compassionate because you sent that young kid away to be "cured" of his homosexuality. Or I might decide you are an ignorant and cold-hearted son-of-a-bitch for doing that. Does it help -- in arguments over whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry -- if we identify one side as being more compassionate than the other? I don't see how. You can't tell somebody their impulse to "save" somebody from their homosexuality is not compassionate. Well, you can tell them that but your telling them that won't convince them of it. Likewise, you can't convince someone, simply by telling them that it is so, that same-sex unions should be legal because it's the compassionate thing to do.

I don't know. I guess I always used to think the whole compassion argument would work on people, but now I don't think it can. But maybe that's a good thing. Maybe if certain arguments can be framed such that the question of compassion is left out of it, maybe those arguments can be rendered somehow more convincing.

In the case of the ayatollahs... do we actually think we could argue them out of the death penalty for homosexuality on the basis of compassion? And yet sex-change operations are just fine with them. Or in the case of those Americans who oppose same-sex unions... do we actually think we can convince them they should be more compassionate when they already feel they are doing the compassionate thing? You want to keep in mind here, while answering that last question, that their concern is their overriding compassion "for the children", their concern is their deep compassion for "the family". No matter how you feel about what they feel, they know they are doing the compassionate thing.

It's kind of a live-by-the-sword, die-by-the-sword thing. The minute you drag compassion into it, you give as much ammunition to them as you feel you've given to yourself. The problem, of course, is that there's no reciprocity in abstaining, here. Just because you withhold your arguments for compassion doesn't mean they will withhold theirs.

And yet I believe most Americans think same sex couples should have just about the same legal rights as heterosexual couples. And so why are we having this cultural war over it? Well, that's a long and complex question, of course, and maybe it's that very complexity that is the problem.

When I look at the ayatollahs in Iran and see them perfectly happy to allow sex-change operations, and perfectly happy to execute you for having gay sex, the thing that jumps out at me is not any question of compassion. The thing that jumps out at me is the utter arbitrariness of it all. And where does that arbitrariness come from? From our point of view, it comes from the ayatollahs themselves. Naturally, from their point of view there's nothing arbitrary going on here. It all makes perfect sense.

The burden of proof of who is the more compassionate is an impossible standard to meet and so I think we ought to drop it. The argument has to be formulated in some other way. I don't think the arbitrariness angle helps much. You can point out the arbitrariness of the ayatollahs to people in American culture and they will see it immediately. What silly people these Iranians are. And yet if you point out the arbitrariness of denying to same sex couples the rights that heterosexual couples have in this country, all that clarity disappears. In Iran's case, they are being stupid. In our case, we are being perfectly reasonable.

The arguments on our side are too complex. Too unfocussed. The simple and straightforward arguments of the other side boil down to "don't change" and that's pretty powerful stuff in a conservative society like ours. The only viable counter-argument is "we have no choice but to change" and that's the argument we've as yet failed to make. Frankly, I don't even know how to formulate it. "We have to change so we can be a more compassionate people" hasn't worked. I don't think it can work. At least not within our lifetimes.

Why do we have to change? What's the most compelling answer to that question, if you are forced to leave compassion out of it?

Underground Religion

So I get on the #1 train at 86th Street, plop myself down on a seat in a half-filled car. I immediately notice a nice-looking, well-dressed young man -- black overcoat, black slacks, black dress shoes. And then I notice him surreptitiously eyeing the nice-looking Puerto Rican fellow a few feet away from him on the same bench-seat. The young man in black glances around the car, never really focussing on anyone or anything, then his gaze is drawn back to the Puerto Rican fellow. The Puerto Rican fellow seems vaguely nervous, perhaps a little vigilant, I can't quite tell. The young man in black runs his eyes up and down the athletic form of the Puerto Rican. He seems on the verge of saying something. I await the drama.

Then I notice the black plastic name tag pinned to the overcoat of the nice-looking young man in black: "Elder ______ ______, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints".

So the plot in my head changes course. The dramatist in me recognizes this as "perception shift". Is this adolescent elder going to find a way to sell his wares to the nice looking Puerto Rican fellow? This could be interesting: Salt Lake City meets the Big Apple.

Sadly, the young Puerto Rican fellow hops off the train at 59th Street. Another mishandled scene. But wait! A big-boned Caribbean woman gets on and takes the place of the Puerto Rican fellow. A change in cast. The young man in black sits up a bit straighter, hesitates briefly, then takes a running leap of faith.

"Hello," he says to the big-boned woman, "how are you this evening?"

She smiles, nods, and with every fiber of her being lets the young man know he should mind his own beeswax. The young man in black relaxes a bit, sits back, checks his watch.

Okay, nothing going on here. I let my gaze wander down the car, changing channels, looking for the next entertainment. I notice another young man dressed in black, and I also note the black plastic name tag pinned to his overcoat. Ah. A missionary team working the same car. I watch Elder #2 surreptitiously eyeing three young people across the aisle from him. The youngsters are talking animatedly, laughing. This second baby-faced elder studies them, first one, then another, then the third. He's looking for his opening, but even I can see he will never find it here. It's hopeless. He seems a bit undertrained for this job. Or maybe it's just that it's their first night out, working the trains as a team.

Now... I've been riding the subways of New York City for nigh onto twenty years and I've seen a lot of weird stuff going down, but I don't think I've ever seen a Mormon missionary team working a subway car before. Still, among the catalog of things I've seen on the subway over the years, this is pretty low on my Scale of the Remarkable. It barely registers, in fact, and I probably wouldn't have given it a second thought but for this...

Earlier in the evening, as I was beginning my journey at Union Square, I passed a group of people who had set up a number tables with some strange looking contraptions on them -- electronic-thingies with large calibrated dials and two metallic tubes attached to each by wires. There was a sign: "Free Stress Test". Several copies of Dianetics were on offer. As I passed by, a woman urged me to take ten minutes and discover how stressed I really was. I noticed a fairly unstressed-looking fellow sitting before one of the electronic devices, gripping a metallic tube in each hand, closely watching the needle on the calibrated dial. A young woman was sitting next to him explaining the results of his test, giving him The Bad News, I suppose.

A bit further on, I noticed a man and a woman huddled together and holding up a sign: "Free Kabbalah Classes".

Okay, look... there have always been fervently religious people flogging their beliefs on the streets and subways of New York, but I mean, come on. This is different. This is organized. This is looking like a series of spiritual campaigns. If this keeps up, my Metrocard will become the functional equivalent of a doctoral degree in Comparative Religions. What's next? The conductor on the #6 parading a sign up and down the aisle as we approach  City Hall: "The End of the Line Is Near!"

I prefer your secular subway lunatics. They generally keep their urgent truths to themselves -- behavior deeply symptomatic of their tragic afflictions, of course, and I wish we had better ways to help them, but still. At least they have the grace to leave me to my own delusions as I ride.

Guys... listen... thanks for the offer of help with my spiritual life and everything, but the thing is the subway only seems like a placeholder for my seedy interior life. In fact, it's just an ordinary railroad. With notably crappy scenery.

Panix In The Year Zero

Those of us who use the venerable panix.com for one reason or another -- hosting commercial sites, email, whatever -- will long remember this weekend. The domain was hijacked for some nefarious purpose, as yet undetermined, by some party, as yet unidentified, by some means, as yet incompletely understood. Wait until this happens to you to find out how much fun this is. And just so you know, it could happen to you at any time, though apparently the weekend is preferred because it makes it so much harder to sort out the problem, thus increasing the amount of damage done.

I'm put in mind of the Richard Clarke article I wrote about the other day. The scenario he imagines is different, but related. This hypothetical cyber-catastrophe takes place in 2008:

Then, as cybersecurity teams were attempting to figure out what had happened, a second worm penetrated the operating system of the most widely used routers on U.S. computer networks. Once inside, the worm found the routing tables, called border gateway protocols, that told Internet traffic where to go. It scrambled the tables so that packets were lost in cyberspace. Confused by the traffic errors, many of the routers exceeded their processing capabilities and collapsed.

The stock market closed, as did the commodities markets. Major hospitals canceled all but emergency surgeries and procedures. Three major power grids experienced brownouts. Police and state militia units were ordered into the cities to maintain order and minimize looting. Millions of Americans, now staring at blank computer screens, were sent home from work.

I've not seen one mainstream media article about what happened to panix.com this weekend. Apparently few people who are in a position to actually do something about the vulnerability of the internet really care about this stuff. One of these days, it's all going to fall down, at some wicked party's behest, and the public is going to look around blankly and wonder how the hell this could happen. The government's response will be "who could have guessed"? You know, like "who could have guessed they would fly airplanes into buildings"?

There are plenty of people in positions to actually do something about securing the internet (to the extent such a thing is really possible) who have been told of the danger the internet is in. Few of them seem to actually be doing much about making sure it gets secured.

Remember this when everything goes south: they knew it could happen; they knew it all along. Don't let them tell you otherwise.

And maybe this time, you should take the trouble to actually hold some people accountable.

Breakfast At The Titan Cafe

I have always felt the promise of adventure every time I get up at some ungodly hour of the morning. My guess is this is because my reptilian brain (the rest of my brain is still asleep) associates crawling out of bed at 3:30 a.m. with piling into the car at 4:00 to get to the airport for an early morning flight to parts unknown, or to loading myself into the car to go fishing in some far away mountain stream.

This morning, the promise of adventure came in the form of breakfast on the planet-moon Titan, courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History, that grand edifice about halfway up Central Park over there on the west side.

Some weeks ago, on the museum's website, anyone who was interested was invited to show up at the Rose Center for Earth and Science entrance of the museum at 5:00 a.m. ("yes, 5:00 in the morning" they made clear on the website) to join members of the staff in watching (what they thought at the time) would be the first pictures of Saturn's now-celebrity-status moon, Titan, as those pictures were released by the European Space Agency's Cassini-Huygens team. As we know, the first pictures were actually released yesterday afternoon (Eastern Standard Time), but oh well, my friends and I thought. There was still going to be free coffee, tea, and hot chocolate on offer. And maybe something interesting would happen.

I confess I was a little afraid that when I and my two companions showed up there would only be the three of us and a couple of slightly embarrassed scientists standing around. I think the staff of the museum feared that as well.

When the car we'd hired pulled up to the Rose Center entrance at about 4:45 a.m., there were already a few people milling about inside the glass doors of the lobby. Hunh, I thought. At least we know they weren't lying about all this. "Our fellow geeks," my friend Sandy mumbled from the seat next to me. My friend Robert made good with the driver, and the three of us joined the fifteen or so other early morning Space Fans inside the lobby. The real shock here, to me, was the degree to which everyone looked awake. It was almost as if something interesting was about to happen.

Our primary hosts for breakfast on Titan were:

Not to mention, of course, a surprisingly large and therefore necessarily unnamed number of museum support staff, not a one of them looking in the least bit sleepy.

The lobby of the Rose Center began to fill alarmingly as the time approached 5:00 a.m. I began to get that slightly panicky, noodgy feeling I sometimes get when people are milling about waiting to be allowed into a movie theater. Will my friends and I get to sit together? Will we get good seats? How many Old Farts will I have to elbow out of my way to get to the seat I want? And, you know, other musings of the petty soul.

From the lobby we could gaze down into the Cullman Hall of the Universe, a giant pit beneath the Planetarium that resembles a nest into which the Great Egg of the planetarium itself appears about to settle. A giant screen (one of those that looks like somebody has stacked a bunch of T.V.s on top of and next to each other) dominated one end of "the nest". A number of other "AstroBulletin" screens (wide-screen high definition T.V.s) were distributed about the rest of the hall. An optimistically large (but as it turns out, not overly optimistic) number of folding chairs crowded the floor of the hall. Across the abyss, against the far wall, stood the real object of my concern at that moment: several  urns of coffee, hot chocolate, and hot water for tea. There were heaps of muffins, bagels, donuts. Naturally, nothing for a poor Celiac like myself. There never is at events like this. But I am not bitter. I am just a little bit hungrier than you are, is all.

Finally... finally... they let us past the ropes and we descended into that Place of Knowledge. I hurried ahead because I am that way, and selected three of the most opportunely located chairs and quickly claimed them. My friends Robert and Sandy sauntered up, appearing mildly -- but only mildly -- impressed with my squatting skills.

Seats securely claimed, I hurried to the coffee machines.

I'm bad at estimating crowd size, but I would say there must have been 100-150 of my fellow geeks there. The mood was excited and a bit giggly, a combination of sleep-deprived minds and unfocussed anticipation, I suppose. Soon we were all settled, huddling over our hot liquids. The program began.

I won't go over the science we learned this morning. I imagine that by the time you read this, you will have read about most of it in the mainstream press. I would, however, like to mention two moments that stood out for me during the ESA press briefing.

The first was near the end of the introductory remarks by a man whose name escapes me, but who clearly seemed to be The Main Man, the guy in charge of the mission. Speaking of the remarkable success of the mission so far, he suffered a brief hitch in his emotional get-along... which is to say, he seemed (very briefly) on the edge of tears. Pride. Joy. And that indescribable emotion many of us space geeks seem to have as we gaze with admiration upon the accomplishments of these brave little machines we build and send to distant worlds. They are our children, after all. They carry with us our dearest hopes for exploration and discovery. They go where we wish dearly we could go, but can't yet. When they work the way they are supposed to work, they take our hearts from us and hold them in little mechanical hands. We love them so much. We are so proud of them. Go, you blessed and beloved little machines, go.

It occurs to me just now (duh) that we are the first human beings in all of history to feel this love for mechanical children. Our species has never before been able to build something that could carry our dearest wishes into space. No wonder we swell with pride when they troop on through that unimaginably hostile wilderness out there. They do their best, usually without complaint, to do everything we ask of them. They are brave (even though we know they are not). They are generous and self-sacrificing (even though we know they cannot possibly be those things). They try as hard as they can (even though we know they are programmed to do that). We give them baggage they can't possibly carry.

But, after all, isn't that what we have always done with those we raise up to be our heroes? We fill them up with all that we long for them to be. To make fun of our admiration for these little machines is to make fun of the human spirit itself, I think. I sometimes cry in the telemetric presence of one of these brave little machines, and I am not the least bit ashamed of my supposedly foolish, delusional tears.

The second moment that sticks with me came during the part of the press briefing where they played a recording of some sort of acoustical instrument that measured, I believe, deceleration of the little machine as it approached the surface. As you can tell from my incompetently expressed setting of this scene, I didn't quite understand what we were listening to, but the sound was in itself both delightful and dramatic. The scientist presenting this bit of the briefing was grinning impishly and waving his hands about whenever the pitch changed -- as if conducting a very strange little orchestra. The sound whirled and dived and then finally soared upward and ended abruptly in a musical button. The scientist beamed at the audience. Applause and laughter filled the room.

It reminded me of that moment in Close Encounters of the Third Kind during which Lacombe (Truffaut) demonstrates for a hall half-filled with Science Types (and mysterious people in sunglasses and red jumpsuits) the sign-language that will accompany the five musical tones. After the demonstration, his audience breaks into delighted applause.

I never really understood that moment. Why are they giving him delighted applause? It's not that big a deal.

Well, this morning I finally understood. They break into delighted applause because it is a moment that calls out for delighted applause. That's all. That's all you need to know.

Maybe that moment in that movie is one of those things that simply can't be captured in fiction. Maybe it isn't just that truth is stranger than fiction; maybe it's also that sometimes fiction simply cannot capture a particular moment of truth. Nothing against fiction or anything, I love fiction, but I don't think it is capable of condensing hundreds of thousands of years of human longing into one "applause moment". It could be that we really need the real thing for that. But I don't know... I really don't know why I felt like applauding in delight at that moment this morning. But I did.

It was just a marvelous morning. There were a great many other moments of delight -- like during the discussion afterward when Dr. Grinspoon pointed out features in one of the pictures that "clearly indicated" a medium-sized city. This was disputed by Dr. Tyson, of course, who argued that the features could not possibly indicate a city. What we were looking at was "obviously" a landing-strip of some sort.

Yeah, sometimes it pays to get up early in the morning. I don't think being the early bird got me any worms today, but it did get me some memories that have me a little misty-eyed as I sit here recalling them. That's worth not sleeping in on a Saturday morning.

And bless your heart, little Huygens. Bless your brave little mechanical heart.

What We Are Up Against

Yesterday, I bought the January/February issue of the Atlantic and this evening I finished reading the soon to be famous and/or infamous Richard Clarke cover page article in it called "Ten Years Later" (paid subscription).

Funny thing... the hypothetical history (2001 to 2011) of terrorist attacks that the hypothetical lecturer describes did not scare me that much. I guess that's because most of them take place outside New York City. I hate to say it, being all compassionate like I am and everything, but I'm comforted by this scenario. I can perfectly well believe that New York City has hardened itself enough  (on its own initiative) to possibly persuade terrorists to go elsewhere. I do not think New York City is invulnerable. Not by any means. But I do think the terrorists are smart enough to know they will have an easier time taking it to other places in this country.

Sorry about that, folks. Maybe you should pick up the Clarke article yourself and get reading.

What did scare me are the warnings in the article about economic near-collapse and the dangers to civil liberties. And here's the trick of it: The idea is not to stand around and bitch about Patriot Act I and Patriot Act II (as bitch-worthy as they certainly are). The idea is to have the debate now -- before the attacks--  over the issues and possibilities Clarke raises in his article.

Too many of us ordinary citizens, and too many people in government, are being way too stupid about not taking on any of this stuff now. And I'll tell you what, and as the Clarke article suggests, stupid people could cost us our country.

Say, come to think of it... want to meet one of those stupid people? Just as a "fer instance"?

Yesterday I was listening to the always reasonable and intelligent Brian Lehrer Show and Brian had Clarke on as a guest. Now, first of all, I have to say that the vast majority of Brian's callers are intelligent and informed people. "Sarah in Manhattan", who you will meet below, is an exception. Not a rarity, so much; an exception to the rule is more like it. Brian, bless his heart, is always patient, always reasonable with his callers. Which is, of course, one of the reasons I like listening to his show.

I typed out the transcript below myself, working from a .ra file of the segment which you can listen to if you want in order to verify my work. Corrections welcome.

And so, without further ado, here is what people who want to have a safe America -- with civil liberties intact -- are up against:

BRIAN LEHRER (BL): Let's take a phone call. Sarah in Manhattan, you're on WNYC with Richard Clarke.

SARA IN MANHATTAN (SIM): Hi, I was wondering if, uh, Mr. Clarke is trying to create fear so that he can create, uh, some kind of profits for those who may call and consult him because I think the ideas that he's putting forth may be helpful to the so-called terrorists who are, you know, conspiring to come into New, uh, America and do harm to Americans. I think it's disgusting.

BL: Well, whether you think he's right or wrong, I mean, you're not really accusing Richard Clarke, with his history of, you know, the jobs he's held, of trying to help terrorists, are you?

SIM: No, not help. Help himself by alluding-- there's such a fear factor that we should be aware of. Maybe, you know, people will start hiring him to-- to offset these so-called, uh, attempts, if any.

BL: So is there something in particular that you want to take issue with? That you think is unfounded?

SIM: Yes, when he said that there are still buildings, uh, there are, there are buildings that -- unprotected. There are, you know, there are certain entry, points of entry that, uh, that terrorists can access.

BL: Not true, in either of those cases?

SIM: I... I believe that the, that, that George W. Bush and, and, and, and, and, and Condolezza Rice and, and, and Colin Powell, everyone has done magnificent work with trying to deter these kinds of attacks. And I just don't believe that in this day and age that an attack could happen with all the measures that are in place after 9/11.

BL: Mr. Clarke?

RICHARD CLARKE (RC): The, uh, Inspector General of the Homeland Security Department was just fired[1]. Uh, he was fired by the Bush Administration because he had issued over 200 reports citing the failures of the Homeland Security Department to reduce vulnerabilities here in the United States. Rail security. Commuter rail security. Cargo rail security. Security at the airports. Security at the borders. Security of containers coming into the United States. Security of chemical plants. His reports document, uh, in great detail, how the Bush Administration has talked a good game about Homeland Security, but not significantly reduced our vulnerabilities. And that's what this article is about. It's not about spreading fear. It's about spreading a warning that the vulnerabilities have not been reduced.

Of course, the response that Sarah in Manhattan and others will always give to Clarke's arguments is to cite...

BL: ... Bush Administration statistics of more than 3,000 Al-qaeda operatives killed or captured since 2001 representing more than a quarter of known Al-qaeda forces. Are we not winning the war on terrorism in that respect?

RC: No, I think actually Secretary Rumsfeld finally got something right when he said in an internal memo that got leaked that we seem to be producing terrorists faster than we're killing or capturing them.

BL: But he says they're going to, um, to Iraq to fight us there rather than fight us here.

RC: Yeah, I've always been amused by that because the President seems to think that we've created some sort of terrorism magnet and -- in Iraq -- which we have -- but that the magnetic force of that, uh, phenomenon is so strong the terrorists can't come here. There's nothing stopping them from coming here.

One of the genuine tragedies of Kerry losing the last election is that I think there would have been at least a chance, if only an outside one, that Clarke would have been appointed to lead the Department of Homeland Security. Go to that .ra link above and listen to what Clarke has to say about Bush's latest appointment to that job. It's not snarky. It's totally reasonable. And it makes you want to gnaw your arm off.

Do track down and read the Clarke article, if you can. It's not, frankly, all that well-written in my view. Not nearly as well done as the first chapter in Against All Enemies, but it's still quite interesting, for the information contained in its footnotes, if nothing else.


[1] "Official Who Criticized Homeland Security Is Out of a Job"

To Ol' Corpsy's Adoring Fan(s)

I have discovered that The Corpuscle has been nominated and is a semifinalist for a Koufax "Best New Blog" Award. This is really fun to find out and thank you to whoever did it, though a come-from-behind win by Ol' Corpsy seems pretty unlikely. I am a lefty, but I don't write all that much about politics. As I've said elsewhere, I'm kind of a brat and so I end up writing about whatever the hell I want to write about. This is developing into Ol' Corpsy's theme, I think, and so I guess if you like what I write about, you might like this blog. Also, engaging in a bit of self-criticism here, I think I have a tendency to write "long" for the web. But that's OK. That's also what I like to do.

Thing is, I pretty much feel that The Political Beat is so effectively covered elsewhere by so many talented and really competent people (for example, The Sideshow) that I don't really want to go there except in the unusual circumstance when I feel I have something to add I haven't seen done better elsewhere. So, I don't know if that means Ol' Corpsy should even actually be nominated for a Koufax, but what the hell. Life is dangerous and full of twists & turns.

But here's what I find especially gratifying. I have been reliably informed that my post "How To Live With Dead People" has been nominated (not announced yet) for a Koufax "Best Post" award. Guess we'll see if it makes the semifinalists cut. It does not seem the sort of post that could actually win, but the post did seem to affect some people and maybe was even a little bit helpful to them, and so if by its nomination even more people who might find it helpful come across it, I would be especially pleased by that.

So thank you to all my adoring fans, or, at least, to the one or two people who actually took the trouble to point Ol' Corpsy out to the Koufaxians. I'm very pleased by your entirely reckless and foolish behavior.

United Corpuscular Appeal

Say hello to little "Mikey"...

Some years ago, "Mikey" was diagnosed with Celiac Sprue. Yes, "Mikey" was born a celiac and there is no cure.

Despite what many think, Celiac Sprue is not a wheat allergy; it is an autoimmune disease. Briefly, when "Mikey" eats anything that has wheat, rye, barley (and some say oats) in it, his gut attacks itself. The culprit in those grains is a substance known as gluten. "Mikey's" body hates gluten and has a conniption fit whenever "Mikey" eats any. In fact, his body gets way passive-aggressive about it.

See, the lining of a normal bowel is sort of like an accordion:

These crinkles in the lining of the bowel increase its surface area and that increased surface area helps people better absorb nutrients from their food. When "Mikey" eats anything with gluten in it, his body flips out and for some reason totally incomprehensible to "Mikey", his body attacks the "accordion" and flattens it out smooth as ice.

Flattening out the accordion means "Mikey" doesn't have enough surface area in the lining of his gut to properly absorb nutrients. His only hope is to avoid ingesting anything that has any gluten in it.

"Mikey" hates that he can't have French bread anymore, but he can cope. He's not a complete loser. But what he really misses is beer. See, beer has gluten in it from the barley. "Mikey" never really drank that much beer before, but every once in a while a tasty brew really hit the spot. These days, it's been so long, it about kills him he can't have a beer.

But then over this last weekend, "Mikey" discovered a web page for Bard's Tale Beer. The two guys who created it are celiacs, too. Just like "Mikey"! They, too, used to like a beer now and again, and hated that they couldn't have one anymore, so pretty soon they got off their gluten-intolerant asses and invented one -- a "golden sorghum lager". Sorghum is an ancient grain that has the happy quality of not having any of that bad old gluten in it.

"Mikey" was overjoyed and searched for Bard's Tale Beer in the city where he lived. It turns out there are only two places, one retail outlet (Bierkraft in Brooklyn) and one restaurant (Risotteria in Manhattan) that carry Bard's Tale. Out of one whole city with eight million stinkin' people in it, only two places carry this particular beer.

Well, anyway, "Mikey" was not deterred. Yesterday he journeyed to Bierkraft, but when he got there they told him they were out of Bard's Tale Beer. "Mikey" was brave.

Then, tonight after work, he stopped by Risotteria to see if they had any. They did! "Mikey" didn't exactly weep with joy, but he did have two of his new Special Beers. The first beer he'd had in years.

And here's the thing... they actually looked and, more important, actually tasted like real beer!! Good beer, even!! "Mikey" was psyched! For the first time in god knows how many years, he walked home with that pleasant beer buzz he'd forgotten even existed.

If only "Mikey" could find his Special Beer more places...

How You Can Help

  • Go to Bard's Beer "availability page", find an outlet in your area, then go there and buy some of their gluten-free beer. See, they don't even have a distributor so they really need people to start asking for it. The more retail outlets and bars and restaurants that have people asking for it, the better chance little "Mikey" will have of being able to buy it in his area!
  • Ask your local bar and beer specialty shop to start carrying it. Tell them a big honking lie if you have to. Tell them you can only drink that beer cuz you are a celiac. Make crap up. Who cares? It's not like you're lying about yellow cake uranium or anything. Make them feel sorry for you. Pretend you are a gimp like little "Mikey". Make them feel bad if they won't carry "your" beer. So what if you have to tell your bartender one teeny little lie. You think that's the first lie he's ever been told? He's an effing bartender, fer chrissake. And anyway, it's really good beer! Honest! You'll probably even like it!
  • They even have a letter you can give your beer shop or bartender asking them to carry it! You hardly have to lie to them at all! Just give them the letter! Or, if you are a total wimp, they have another letter where you don't even have to pretend you're a gimp like me. Er, I mean, like little "Mikey".

Heh... "Like it..."

Actually... frankly... little "Mikey" doesn't give a crap if you "like" the beer or not. You think maybe "Mikey" would have "liked" it if he could have had even one stinkin' beer over the last few years? Meanwhile, the whole time you were tipping them back like there was no tomorrow. Think little "Mikey" liked that?

Please. Join the United Corpuscular Appeal. Only you can help little "Mikey".

And after all, he's such a pathetic crip, you might even feel good about doing this one crappy little thing for him. I doubt it, but you might.

Hellion Spitzer

The very first mutual fund I ever bought, years ago, was on offer from what was then a well-respected firm, INVESCO. I'd been talked into taking a bit more concern for my future, and had determined that I really should be socking some money away. Being something of a financial crank, I went to the library and did extensive research on what funds I ought to buy. The answer was clear: INVESCO was the outfit for me.

Time passed.

In late 2003, news broke that the Attorney General of the State of New York had discovered some disturbing behaviors on the part of some mutual fund companies. There seemed to be evidence of Big Shot clients of various mutual fund companies being granted special "market-timing privileges", and there was other stuff too. It seemed, try not to faint, that the playing field had been a little bit stacked against The Little Guy.

I shot off an email to my Very First Mutual Fund Company, which by then had been acquired by AIM Investments. I wanted to know if they had been doing anything fishy with my money. On November 10, 2003, AIM replied to my queries. Here is a portion of that email:

Neither AIM nor INVESCO has received any notice from the New York Attorney General's office regarding any legal action. 

AIM and INVESCO are conducting internal reviews of these issues and continue to believe that our decision-making process has always been consistent with our commitment to serve the best interests of AIM and INVESCO shareholders.

In September of 2004, I received the following communication from AIM:

To our clients:

As part of our ongoing pledge to provide you with timely and accurate information, we want to inform you that INVESCO Funds Group Inc. (IFG) has reached agreements in principle with the Attorneys General of Colorado and New York and the staff of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to resolve civil enforcement actions and investigations related to market timing. Additionally, A I M Advisors, Inc. (AIM) has reached agreements in principle with the Attorney General of New York and with the staff of the SEC to resolve the separate market-timing investigations of AIM. All of the agreements are subject to preparation and  signing of final settlement documents. The agreements with the staff of the SEC are subject to approval by the full Commission. Additionally the Secretary of State of Georgia is agreeable to the resolutions with other regulators.

Under terms of the agreements, IFG will pay a total of $325 million of which $110 million is civil penalties. AIM will pay a total of $50 million of which $30 million is civil penalties. The agreements also will commit the companies to a range of corporate governance reforms. Under the agreements with New York and Colorado, management fees charged to investors on the AIM and INVESCO funds will be reduced by $15 million per year for the next five years. IFG will pay $1.5 million to the State of Colorado to create a trust for investor education and to reimburse the state for the costs of its investigation.

It is important to note that none of the costs of the settlements will be borne by the AIM and INVESCO funds or fund shareholders.

What happened in those intervening 10 months? Eliot Spitzer.

Mr. Spitzer recently announced his intention to run for the Governor of New York. Not too long after that, I heard a representative of the United States Chamber of Commerce sharpening his knife, er, I mean, political attack. He, in essence, called Spitzer an Insensitive Bully who is hostile to Corporate America. Well, we know that sort of thing will only get worse once the campaign actually begins. If this was all taking place in Moscow, Spitzer would probably have been gunned down by now, at the behest of some oligarchic cabal.

And, by the way, I don't hate Corporate America. I love Corporate America. It provides jobs, you know? That's good. What's bad is corruption. In case anybody's forgotten.

The current issue of New York magazine has an article called "Inside Eliot's Army". As someone who got a We're Looking Out For You letter from my mutual fund company, and then ten months later got their Sorry We Effed You Over, I enjoyed the hell out of the article. Especially the part where Marsh & McLennan, at the time the world’s largest insurance broker, tried to Sensitive its way out of the shit-storm it was then heading for (and has now met up with). Yeah, yeah, mean old Hellion Spitzer, picking on our Sensitive Corporations.

The article does make clear that the skill set required to go after corporate corruption is not the same skill set required to govern a state with the sort of dysfunctional government New York has. Still, six years ago, the office of the Attorney General was a sleepy backwater. Things happen. People, especially smart people, learn how to do things they didn't know how to do before. Whatever else you might say about him, Eliot Spitzer is a very smart man.

I can hardly wait. I can hardly effing wait for Governor Spitzer.

January 9, 1905

If you live by the Gregorian Calendar, as most of us do, go home and come back on January 22. If you live by the Julian Calendar, by which Russia lived up until 1918, go home and come back on January 9. Which would be January 22. Get me?

Okay, well, never mind. Let's live a little bit dangerously, shall we?

Tomorrow is January 9, 2005 (Gregorian). On January 9, 1905 (Julian), several thousand people marched on the Royal Winter Palace in St. Petersburg attempting to present Tsar Nicholas II with a petition listing a number of grievances. The Tsar wasn't home, not that that probably made much difference.

Apparently this large crowd of people annoyed somebody, so the Tsar's Cossacks attacked the marchers and hundreds of them were killed. This became one of the many Bloody Sundays that populate our history books, and is regarded by many as the prelude to -- maybe even the beginning of -- the Russian Revolution.

Here in bullet points, if you will pardon the expression, is what the marchers were asking for:

I.  Measures against the ignorance of the Russian people and against its lack of rights

  1. Immediate freedom and return home for all those who have suffered for their political and religious convictions, for strike activity, and for peasant disorders.
  2. Immediate proclamation of the freedom and inviolability of the person, of freedom of speech and of the press, of freedom of assembly, and of freedom of conscience in matters of religion.
  3. Universal and compulsory public education at state expense.
  4. Accountability of government ministers to the people and a guarantee of lawful administration.
  5. Equality of all before the law without exception.
  6. Separation of church and state

II.  Measures against the poverty of the people

  1. Abolition of indirect taxes and their replacement by a direct, progressive income tax.
  2. Abolition of redemption payments, cheap credit, and the gradual transfer of land to the people.
  3. Naval Ministry contracts should be filled in Russia, not abroad.
  4. Termination of the war according to the will of the people.

III.  Measures against the oppression of labor by capital

  1. Abolition of the office of factory inspector.
  2. Establishment in factories and plants of permanent commissions elected by the workers, which jointly with the administration are to investigate all complaints coming from individual workers.  A worker cannot be fired except by a resolution of this commission.
  3. Freedom for producer-consumer cooperatives and workers' trade unions--at once.
  4. An eight-hour working day and regulation of overtime work.
  5. Freedom for labor to struggle with capital--at once.
  6. Wage regulation--at once.
  7. Guaranteed participation of representatives of the working classes in drafting a law on state insurance for workers--at once.

Outrageous. Simply outrageous. No wonder the Cossacks had to kill hundreds.

Every once in a while I think it is probably a good idea to take a moment to recall what living in a democracy really requires of you. Things like, for example, paying attention. See, because as a matter of actual fact, you aren't really entitled to anything -- certainly not to anything from that list above. Power is what gives you what you think you own, and in a democracy the power is supposed to belong to the people.

So, you know, don't forget to own it. Unless of course you don't mind finding yourself in some other Royal Palace Square someday, in the snow, the cavalry thundering across the cobblestones toward you. All for the sake of an eight-hour day.

Plague of the Holy Wusses

The other day I was listening to NPR's "Talk of the Nation" and the topic was the response of various religions to the recent tsunami. There were a number of callers who explained with great cosmic patience -- for the benefit of all us theological retards -- that we really should just try to do better in God's eyes so He wouldn't need to do these things to us. Or, that we shouldn't get too upset because, after all, this is all part of God's Plan. And, you know, other advisories that pretty much amounted to Cosmic Surrender.

Today I'm listening to "Science Friday" and the topic is the proposed creation of a sort of Planetary Defense Agency that would be devoted to furthering the search for "planet killer" asteroids or comets, and to figuring out what we could do to "kill" these planet killers before they have a chance to kill us. So a guy calls in and says it's absurd to get all upset about this sort of thing because it is all in the hands of the Creator.

These sorts of people have always been around but lately they are really getting ubiquitous. You can pretty much bet the rent that at least one of them is going to call in every time you listen to one of these shows. One time I actually heard one caller say -- in a discussion on the death penalty -- that we shouldn't worry too much about executing innocent people because God will know (once the state-murdered man is in heaven) that the poor sap didn't  actually commit the crime.

I've had it. I'm sick of listening to these pathetic surrender-monkeys calling in with this crap. What happened to the can-do American? We used to be a nation of dreamers and doers. Me dear gray-haired Ma used to say "The Lord helps thems that help themselves". I burn for the hosts on these call-in shows to tell these professional rain clouds to go shove it up their Stockholm Syndrome afflicted asses.

Christ Almighty, these people can just bite my Let's-Get-It-Done overpumped frankfurter. I mean, seriously. Go to hell, you holy wusses, where your whimpering surrender is welcome and your contempt for the spirit of man is the stinking sulfuric coin of the realm.

The Eyes of Patient SM

Patient SM is a 38 year old female suffering from a rare genetic disorder that causes bilateral damage to her amygdala. The most notable symptom of this damage is that SM seems incapable of recognizing fear or terror in other people's faces: She does not exhibit normal fear responses. Her behavior toward others is trusting and friendly where people not suffering from her condition would be wary. SM's other cortical and subcortical structures show no damage. Perception, memory, language, and reasoning abilities (so long as they do not require processing emotional material) are unimpaired. Patient has little or no difficulty recognizing happiness or other emotions, except fear, in the faces of others. Research on SM's condition first began ten years ago.

A few days ago, I wrote in here about the Eyeswhite Project. The essence of that post was that according to a recent study published in Science, the amygdala in a human being will "light up" when its owner sees an abnormal amount of white surrounding the pupils of another person's eyes. That is, there is a more or less automatic fear response triggered in us (or, at least in our amygdalas) when we see someone whose eyes are abnormally wide open.

So what's the deal with Patient SM? Why doesn't she share this normal fear response with her fellow human beings?

Well, it turns out she does. The problem turns out not to be that her amygdala doesn't light up when she sees abnormally wide-eyed fear in others; the problem is that she doesn't look at other people's eyes.

The current issue of Nature (article itself is subscription only) reports recent research on Patient SM, and the simple and straightforward discovery that if she is instructed to look at the eyes of a human face exhibiting that "wide-eyed scared look", she is perfectly capable of accurately reporting that the person looks frightened. Researchers discovered that it wasn't her ability to interpret that look that was lacking; what was lacking was the normal human reaction to check the eyes of others.

Unfortunately, so far at least, she has to be continually told to look. If she isn't, she won't look and so continues to not recognize fear in other people. It's not clear yet, apparently, whether she can eventually be retrained to do it on her own without having to be constantly reminded to do it.

The authors of the article propose this discovery may have implications for research on other "affect disabilities" such as autism. If true, that would be wonderful, but I doubt things are going to be that easy.

If you want to read more about Patient SM but don't have a subscription to Nature, there is a brief "" article here, or you can find a number of articles by using Google News to search on "amygdala".

Tell Me Something Good

Let's just take a brief moment to acknowledge, amidst the Relentless March of Daily Horrors, something good we human beings have managed to accomplish.

At the Dawn of Man, almost by definition all human communities must have been located near fresh drinking water. You remember that scene with the proto-humans gathered around the pool of water knocking the crap out of each other with animal bones, right? Well, in the intervening eons many of those communities have been driven further and further away from clean water. Politics, geography, climate change, and other factors have joined forces to make daily life a miserable pain in the ass for a goodly proportion of the world's human population (mostly women, of course) by putting greater and greater distances between, for example, dirty cooking pots and the water needed to wash them. In some developing countries, treks of 6 to 10 miles each way in order to find fresh water are not uncommon.

In the December 30, 2004 edition of Christian Science Monitor, there is an article called "Finally, the world's drinking glass is more than half full" wherein we learn that:

Across the developing world, some 700 million people have gained a household connection to drinking water since 1990 - and helped the world reach a crucial tipping point. Now for the first time, more than half the globe's people have drinking water piped into their homes, according to an August report from the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF.

And it turns out that the greatest benefit of this convenience, in the opinion of those who have gained these new household connections to the water-supply, is something that most of us in the First World generally have plenty of, at least on weekends. It is, in fact: Time.

"When we ask women how water projects have changed their lives, their first answer is always, 'We have more time with our kids,' " says Marla Smith-Nilson, cofounder of WaterPartners International, which has projects in Central America, Africa, and Asia. "We're focused on sanitation and health, but we're always hearing stories of how lifestyle has improved."

...[W]here even the most rudimentary of water projects have come on line, rural women are finding themselves blessed with time they need to become not only better mothers and homemakers but also economic contributors.

For instance, Tanzanians are building new schools in just five months in watered districts, where women have time to swing hammers. Equivalent projects drag on for eight months or more in areas where women spend their days fetching water, according to the Tanzanian Embassy in the United States. What's more, children who don't need to haul water are more apt to go to school and break a cycle of poverty, says Ms. Smith-Nilson.

Okay, there remains a lot of work to do. But still, think about it for a minute. Yes, it's true that just under half of the world's human population still does not have a household connection to fresh drinking water. That's on the one hand. On the other, out of all the billions of people on this planet, just over half do.

Give yourself a break. Let yourself think about it in terms of the global glass being half full. It's not going to kill you to feel a little bit good for a while.

Knowledge Sometimes == Life

Back in 1964, I was a little squirt growing up in Seattle. I remember being fascinated when news reports started coming in of a giant earthquake off Alaska and of subsequent tsunamis spreading devastation along that great curve that runs from Alaska down to the west coast of Canada. I recall studying a photograph someone had taken of some bay somewhere that had been completely drained of water. This of course was the final warning sign that whoever took that photograph would get that he or she should be heading for the hills, pronto, instead of standing there taking scenic snaps.

Krabi, Thailand, 26-Dec, 2004: The curious finally realizing their mistake.

This morning's A.P. carries a story about how 181 villagers in Thailand escaped death from the December 26, 2004 tsunami by listening to people in the know.

Knowledge of the ocean and its currents passed down from generation to generation of a group of Thai fishermen known as the Morgan sea gypsies saved an entire village from the Asian tsunami, a newspaper said Saturday.

By the time killer waves crashed over southern Thailand last Sunday the entire 181 population of their fishing village had fled to a temple in the mountains of South Surin Island, English language Thai daily The Nation reported.

"The elders told us that if the water recedes fast it will reappear in the same quantity in which it disappeared," 65-year-old village chief Sarmao Kathalay told the paper.

So while in some places along the southern coast, Thais headed to the beach when the sea drained out of beaches -- the first sign of the impending tsunami -- to pick up fish left flapping on the sand, the gypsies headed for the hills.

Ever since I got done studying that photograph back in 1964, I've known that if I'm ever by a beach and I see all the water suddenly draining off that beach, that's my cue to run. Yesterday I saw some aerial footage of a town on Sumatra that had been creamed. Most of the town was low-lying and pretty much all that was left was mudflats, but there were a number of hills rising up out of those mudflats. The hills seemed untouched, their thick forest covers intact. Some people from that town probably knew what was going on and headed for those hills. One gets the impression most didn't.

I've heard a number of experts over the last few days saying that once the water drains away like that, you have between 5 and 20 minutes to try to get to safety.

If you are young and healthy you can cover a lot of ground in 5 minutes. Even if there aren't any hills around, you can at least put a lot of real estate between you and the beach. The farther you are away from the place where the waves will hit, the more water there has to be to catch up with you. With no hills around, or trees to climb, or sturdy and tallish buildings to make your way to, you will probably still get wet, but the forces the ocean will bring to bear on your frail body may be sufficiently reduced.

Of course, if you are not young (or are too young) or if you are not healthy and fit, you are going to have problems. I'm not sure what there is to be done about that. Get busy heading for the hills as best you can anyway, I guess. As we know, most of those killed in Asia were small children, the elderly, the frail and the infirm.

There has been much talk that there should have been a tsunami early warning system for the Indian Ocean just as there is in the Pacific. This is clearly true, but I also have to wonder how much education, or the lack thereof, might have contributed to the breakdown of the one natural early warning system that comes prepackaged with every tsunami. I wonder how much the incomprehensible death toll might have been reduced if all the countries in the path of the killer waves had widespread and effective systems of elementary education, especially in the sciences, wherein Interesting Facts are taught to children -- like what the water draining out of a bay means, and what you ought to do about it.

Not everybody had the good luck of having the Morgan sea gypsies nearby with their experience and knowledge of the sea. Maybe elementary science education would have helped fill that deadly gap in their luck. The water started draining away at the beginning of the work day. The sun was up. People were out on the beaches. I've seen video after video of people standing around just as the killer waves started coming in. Those beaches and nearby areas should have been deserted. We should not be seeing any videos whatsoever of these waves, except perhaps footage shot from airplanes flying high above the impending disaster.

So take a moment this morning to promise yourself that if you are ever on a beach that is miraculously losing all its water you will turn away from the beach and begin running for higher ground. Promise yourself that you will scream a warning to anyone you pass. If you are on a flat landscape, start locating candidate trees as you run, sturdy buildings, anything that might help you survive the deadly surge that you know is breathing down your neck. Put as much space as you can (that would be "space" as in dry land) between yourself and what is coming for you.

Look, I'm not blaming anybody for anything. I don't have the facts regarding what most of those who died knew or didn't know about the meaning of water draining away from nearby beaches. But I do know this: you don't have an excuse anymore for not knowing what to do if you see it happening on a beach near you. Don't stand there in wonderment and awe and maybe even some delight as you witness the power and majesty of nature. The ocean is coming for you. The ocean is going to try to kill you. In the immortal words of Monty Python: "Run away!"

In Memory

May 2006

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