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Spanking Bottoms and Tops

By a remarkable coincidence, two seemingly unrelated but nevertheless cosmically connected events were held last night -- one in New York City and one in Washington, D.C. -- both events being of particular interest to the bondage and discipline community.

The event in the nation's capital was the White House Correspondents' Association annual dinner held in the Washington Hilton Hotel ballroom. The one in New York City was "Flogjam IV", held in a private space in Chelsea and hosted by the NY Renegades, an all-male bondage & discipline & rubber & latex club for gay men interested in the S&M Lifestyle.

"Bush skewers self at correspondents' dinner" (!!)

For those not familiar with the psychological and sensual rewards of punishment play, it's really not as scary or as complicated as it might first seem. It's just play, after all. The spanking and other forms of discipline inflicted on the punishment bottom by the punishment top are ritualized affection, even though the spankings actually, you know, hurt. The acts of discipline and humiliation are external manifestations of a particular intimacy whereby the punishment bottom and the punishment top establish very specific emotional, psychological, not to mention physical connections.

The White House Correspondents Association dinner is an annual Washington tradition where politicians typically use self-deprecating humor to win over the audience.

For the bottom, the reward is often the satisfaction that comes of being the top's center of attention. For the top, the reward is often the satisfaction that comes of being in absolute control. It's all play, of course. Illusion. People on the outside often think the entire punishment/discipline transaction is far more serious than it actually is.

But like all play, all illusions, all "magic", if you will, those involved in S&M games need to be scrupulous about maintaining their roles in the transaction, else the illusion be broken and the play come to an untimely end. The "boy" will sometimes be a man twice the size of the "master". Never mind. It isn't the physical reality that matters; it's the psychology. The "boy" assumes his part, the "master" assumes his, and the transaction can thereby go forward. The boy gets to bask in the warm glow of the master's attention, and the master gets to pretend he is control of not only his fate, but also the fate of his boy.

If, however, one of the players or someone watching from the outside points out the absurdity of the roles being played by the two players -- the boy being twice the size of the master, for example -- the game is pretty much over, the mood shattered. It is a terrible offense within the rules of the game.

Stephen Colbert, of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," wrapped up the evening delivering a routine as the bombastic pundit character of his satiric talk show. [...] No one was safe from his sarcastic barbs. [...] "Fox News gives you both sides of the story -- the president's side and the vice president's side," he said to muted laughs.

In short, if you want to preserve the requisite illusions so necessary for play, you cannot speak the truth of the situation during the play itself. If you do, you should consider yourself lucky if the worst reaction you get is "muted laughs". In most cases, "muted laughter" will be the public, more or less "polite" response to your offense. Inside, the players you just screwed over will likely be filled with rage at you for shattering the illusion and ending their fun.

Bush seems to be a remarkably skilled punishment bottom ("No WMDs here!"), and the White House Correspondents' Association a gifted punishment top ("Did you lie to the American people, Mr. President?!"). They understand the play. They understand their roles. They know better than to shatter the illusion.

Shame on you, Mr. Colbert, for busting up the fun.

Brevity Is The Soul of A Rich Guy's Hard Time

Gee, I guess drug-therapy works. Well, that and $30,000.

...the deal with prosecutors called for the fraud charge to be dropped in 18 months if Limbaugh complied with all court guidelines, and that Limbaugh would pay $30,000 to defray the state's investigation costs and $30 a month for "supervision" of his treatment.

We must spend $30K per untreated, drug-offending prisoner per year and as a bonus we get them back after their sentence is up and they're still addicted and so liable to re-offend.

Hmm. What are the chances, I wonder, that Limbaugh will change his previous tune...

"Drug use, some might say, is destroying this country," Limbaugh said in October 1995 on a television show he had at the time. "And so, if people are violating the law by doing drugs, they ought to be accused and they ought to be convicted and they ought to be sent up."

...and now advocate more treatment in lieu of sending more people to prison?

Chances? Not so good, I'll bet. Well, anyway...

Me, I suspect Tom Wolfe was wrong. I suspect his famous quip should go more like:

"A liberal conservative is a narco-offending conservative who has been arrested $30,000."

Only except "strikeouts" are pretty hard to pronounce and so get in the way of the pith, you know.

Vagina Monologue

A piece of advice: Beware of actually listening to NPR News as soon as you turn the radio on in the morning.

Instead, do it this way: First plug your ears, then turn the radio on (use your elbow), and once you sense you are actually ready to hear what the radio is saying, slowing remove your fingers from your ears.

This morning, still half asleep, I picked up the remote and poked the power switch for the amp and when the NPR Voice came on I heard it say:

"...but this shows how crucial her vagina has become to dwindling energy resources..."

Her vagina? Dwindling energy resources? Jesus. That must be some vulva she's got there.

But then my awakening brain managed to rearrange things for meaning and I deduced the NPR Voice had actually said:

"...but this shows how crucial Azerbaijan has become to dwindling energy resources..."

The problem is NPR actually reports on Strange Places with Strange Names -- things most Americans don't have the wherewithal to hear about first thing in the morning. So, you know, just be ready for it when it comes, is all I'm saying. I take no position on the relative merits of female genitalia vis-a-vis authoritarian Eurasian republics, but I do stand for things making a little bit of god-damned sense in the morning.

I'm sorry, it's just the way I was brought up.

Evolution Karaoke

You know, I was thinking the other day -- never a dangerous proposition inasmuch as I am entirely harmless -- that there are two entities in this universe that want us to preserve marriage for the sake of the children. One of them is Mr. Religion and the other is Mr. Evolution.

The difference between them is, I think, Mr. Evolution only wants us to be married for the sake of the children until we actually have the children and raise them up to fend for themselves. Or at least until they are old enough to produce their own children. After that, we could sleep in separate beds, or get trial separations, or even kill each other in rages born of (a) jealousy, (b) despair, (c) ennui, or (d) other, for all Mr. Evolution cares.

Mr. Religion wants us to stay married even after the children are gone. He hasn't mentioned to me any particular reason why he wants that. At least not any reason as compelling as Mr. Evolution's reason for not giving a crap about us once we've thrown a litter.

Advantage Mr. Evolution, see, because you can't really argue with somebody who doesn't care about you once he's used you up and thrown you away. It's always the people who've fallen out of love that have all the power in any relationship. They're destined to win and it's the ones who are still in love who always lose. So, Mr. Evolution pretty much has the best argument there, if all you're talking about is "winning" or "losing".

The truth is, I think Mr. Religion might be just a little bit of a poser. I mean, he goes along with Mr. Evolution, all friendly and everything, while the little rug-rats are still around the house, but I don't know... I kind of think Mr. Evolution's attitude is more honest. Cold, maybe, but more honest. Why should he care if we are married once we've raised the kids and they've gone out and knocked up somebody, or been knocked up themselves? He got what he wanted, so it's, you know, sayonara baby and toodle-loo.

But Mr. Religion is all, "no, no, you still have to have the marriage because of the children" even though the children are long gone. It's a pose. He should just say it's for tax purposes or something. It would be more honest, is all.

I like straightforward guys like Mr. Evolution. I could play cards or go bowling with a guy like that, I think. But Mr. Religion, I don't know... As things stand, if I went out with him I'd feel like I'd have to keep one hand on my wallet the whole time.

Mr. Religion should just say "because you love each other". You know, that people who are in love with each other should be married because they are in love with each other, and that's all. He wouldn't need any other reason besides that. And then he could throw all the "for tax-purposes" and "stable society" stuff in on top of that. That I could buy, I think. I think that argument is just as compelling as Mr. Evolution's not giving a crap about it once the kids are gone.

The "do it for the children" thing has always been more Mr. Evolution's gig than it has been Mr. Religion's. Like Simon would say on "American Idol", when Mr. Religion sings that song, it's like listening to bad cabaret. "You can see it in a thousand hotel bars all over the country." Mr. Religion should learn to write and play his own marriage tune. He'll never be anything but a second-rate, Karaoke Mr. Evolution until he does.

I Test Out As A Studly Fem

I ain't got nothin' to say today. I finally took the BBC's Sex ID Test and found out I was a studly fem. My actual results here (350K .pdf). Somehow I knew all this before, but see myself in a new light anyway.

What's the difference between a metrosexual and a studly fem? Don't know, can't say. But I do know I hate those little rectangular glasses frames I should be wearing these days. Those low-rise jeans are kind of hot, though. You know -- the ones with those zippers that are about one inch long -- but I don't think they are really right for me. My brother told me -- on the testimony of my nephew, his son -- that the best thing is for the boys to buy girl jeans.

I withhold my approval. All is in disarray.

If only I hadn't taken this test, I would know more than I thought I knew before. Stop me before I test again. I like the part about me having a somewhat elevated ring-finger, though. This confirms many of the things I had previously only suspected about myself. It's good to finally know the truth.

But like I said, I got nothing to say today. Take the rest of the day off. I am in recovery.

Last Night I Talked to a Man from Outer Space

Only briefly, of course. He was probably on his way between planets. I caught him after a lecture he was giving at the Rose Center for Earth and Space.

I walked up to him and asked a question which went something like, "Would the ion engines have to be firing continually for the entire year?" He answered in some detail. I imagine people from Outer Space always answer you in some detail, on account of overlooked details probably kill you when you come from Outer Space.

He was there to tell us about his Secret Intergalactic Plan of Action for towing asteroids that were going to hit the Earth.

Some people think that you could blow up an asteroid that was heading for Earth, but the Man from Outer Space said that would be silly -- not unlike turning a bullet that was heading for you into a shotgun blast that was heading for you.

Other people think that you could attach a rocket engine to an asteroid and push it away, but the problem with that (according to the Man from Outer Space) is that asteroids aren't really one big rock the way most of us Earthlings think they are. They are actually more like piles of rubble held together by a relatively weak internal gravity. If you start pushing on them with an attached rocket engine, you might end up just breaking the pile of rubble apart instead of pushing it out of the way. Another problem is that most asteroids are spinning so if you are trying to push it out of the way with a rocket engine, you'd have to figure out a way to have the engine fire at only one very specific point in the asteroid's "spin cycle". The Man from Outer Space said this would be a very difficult engineering task.

Yet other people like what seems at first a rather elegant solution... attaching a space sail to the asteroid and letting the solar wind carry the asteroid away. This isn't quite as elegant as it seems, of course, since launching the materials for a big enough sail, and assembling it in space, is not so easy. And there is the bigger problem of the asteroid's "spin cycle". How do you attach the space sail to a spinning pile of rubble?

Then of course there are those who want to paint the asteroid white. The Man from Outer Space laughed, merely.

The Man from Outer Space recommended this (or this) instead:

Our suggested alternative is to have the spacecraft simply hover above the surface of the asteroid. The spacecraft tows it without physical attachment by using gravity as a towline. The thrusters must be canted outboard to keep them from blasting the surface (which would reduce the net towing force and stir up unwanted dust and ions).

This scheme is insensitive to the poorly understood surface properties, internal structures and rotation states of asteroids. A spacecraft needs only to keep its position in the direction of towing while the target asteroid rotates beneath it. The engines must be actively throttled to control the vertical position as the equilibrium hover point is unstable. The horizontal position is controlled by differential throttling of engines on opposite sides of the spacecraft. The spacecraft can be made stable in attitude by designing it like a pendulum, with the heaviest components hanging closest to the asteroid and the engines farther away.

I'm with the Man from Outer Space. Whatever he says goes, as far as I'm concerned. First, cause he's the Man from Outer Space and second, his secret plan of action makes sense to me. It has the elegance I demand from all my planet saving schemes. Elegance is the sine qua non of all your really high-class planet saving ideas, see. Ask any Man from Outer Space. He'll tell you.

United 93, Not

This past weekend we went to see the latest Spike Lee Joint, "Inside Man".

Capsule review: It's enjoyable. There are holes in the story you could drive an armored truck through, but then most movies like this have holes like that. You either are willing to park the truck and forget about it, or you aren't.

Denzel Washington is brilliant. The supporting cast is great except... why the hell does Jodie Foster keep getting work? Face it: she's a lousy and therefore particularly unconvincing and uninteresting actor. I don't get it. I guess it's just me.

The best thing about the movie, in my view, is its New York City "flava". What's especially good is the way Lee captures the manner in which New Yorkers deal with each other. There's a peculiar thing about New York City, see... it probably happens other places too, I can't say... but all the different kinds of people... everybody is aware of all the "strange people" living and working around you, people from foreign lands with funny clothes and accents and behaviors... it's not like we are somehow "color blind" or "origins blind" or anything like that. Everybody has their secret theories about what these "strange people" are like "as a general rule".

But the thing is, we are willing to do business with each other, whatever that business might be -- buying your morning paper, renting your vacant apartments, working out the details of confronting a hostage situation -- it doesn't matter. There's business to be done here so you go ahead and get it done with anybody who's interested in doing business with you. You keep your effed-up, ignorant opinions to yourself on account of you know they will only get in the way of doing business. It's not a bad system, actually. It would be better if we were all angels and such, but we're not, so the best thing after that is doing business with each other.

Also: my friend remarked after the movie: "I look forward to the day when so much time has passed that we can no longer see villains with dark connections to the Nazi past." And how. I'm not giving anything away here since, if you have half a brain, you will figure that one out about three seconds after you meet the character in question. I mean, what else could it be but a "secret from the Nazi past"?

Anyway, before the Main Feature, we got the Coming Attractions. One of them was the trailer for "United 93".

As I watched it, I had to ask myself: "Why in God's name would anybody think I'd want to see this movie?"

Here's the thing. I don't automatically reject the notion of seeing a movie about a bunch of people who I know from the beginning are doomed. Take for example, I dunno, "The Blair Witch Project". Going in, I was perfectly aware that all of the main characters were Doomed, Doomed, I Say. Didn't stop me from enjoying the movie. Granted, the usual shtick is to have our heroes struggle against adversity and then (some of them, at least) ultimately survive the struggle, but you don't have to do it that way.

But here, with "United 93", there is too much rage at the fact that the mess these poor people found themselves in was entirely preventable.

In the trailer, there is a brief scene that clearly indicates one poor sap almost missed the flight. He hurries onto the plane just as the flight attendant is getting ready to close the door. Under normal story circumstances, you can imagine yourself thinking, oh, the poor guy, bad luck, he should have missed the plane. You ache for him. But my response here was: what a stinking waste.

In an earlier post, I wrote at length on the section of 9/11 Commissions report that dealt with United 93. Never mind that the whole day, despite the Bush Administration's distortions on the subject, actually could have been prevented; if anybody in a position of authority had used his head on that morning, at least the hijacking of United 93 could probably have been prevented. Or, at least, the "battle for United 93" would have taken place before the hijacking was successful, when the passengers and crew actually had a chance to save themselves.

But no, idiocy abounded, and so these poor people found themselves in a hopeless situation.

I don't doubt that the passengers and crew of United 93 faced their desperate situation with courage; they therefore deserve the truth being told about them. The way the story has been presented to our culture, these people were brave because they chose to save those of us down here on the ground from more death and destruction. Well, they undoubtedly did save us from more death and destruction, but let's be real: they were trying to save their lives and get back to their loved ones. They knew what the hijackers had in mind. They knew that if they didn't do something, they were going to be plowed into some Important Building somewhere. Given that knowledge, who the hell wouldn't try to do something, anything, to try to keep it from happening?

I know saying all this makes me sound like the Grinch Who Stole the Heroic Act, or something. But I admire and pity those people who were on United 93, and I think they deserve some honesty here. Nobody believes for a minute that their final phone calls with their loved ones were peppered with heroic declamations about doing what they had to do for the sake of the country. They were saying what they needed to say to their loved ones, assuming that they probably wouldn't see each other again. That's what people do under circumstances that make it pretty clear they are going to die.

Because here's the deal about being a hero: you have to be able to choose to become one; if it's a matter of necessity for your own survival, it isn't heroism, is it? There isn't the requisite element of sacrifice that defines being a hero. Under the circumstances, the passengers and crew of United 93 had no choice but to try to take the plane back. They were doing it as a perfectly reasonable if desperate act to try to save themselves. And yet the story we are told is one of heroism.

All of which would be fine if the whole thing hadn't been a case of incompetence on the part of the Bush Administration. I'm sorry to harsh everybody's mellow about this, but let's be real. Those poor people died doing their best trying to make up for the incompetence of the people who were supposed to be protecting them from this sort of thing. It's in the interest of those who are ultimately responsible for this eff-up to transform what they did into an act of heroism.

I could probably see "United 93" if it told that story. That would be a genuinely tragic story worth seeing. I suppose I could be wrong about this, but I'm pretty sure that's not the story "United 93" tells. Until I hear otherwise, I have to believe the movie exists to perpetuate the great distractive myth created by those who have everything to gain by painting these poor people as heroes rather than as the victims of incompetence and stupidity that they were.

If that's the story this movie tells, the story of the distractive myth, then no way. No way in hell would I see this movie. I couldn't stomach it. It would be a betrayal of everyone who died on that day.

Stasi, Stasi bo Basi Bonana fanna fo Fasi, Fee fy mo Masi, Stasi!

I sometimes marvel at the performances of members of the Bush Administration on the weekend talk-slash-propaganda shows. Members of Congress, too. They come on, are asked questions, and then spew the party line in a manner that makes it seem we ought to, you know, believe them or something.

Condi Rice's performance in front of the 9/11 Commission was astonishing in the same way. And Rumsfeld's news conferences. Or the infamous press briefings of the recently undearly departed Scott McClellan.

Apparently all you have to do is keep saying what you want to say in the knowledge that no one, after all, will be able to contradict you so long as you never acknowledge you are full of crap.

Until now I could honestly say I'd never seen anything like it, and had to admit that I kind of admired their ability to press their clayey lies down into the mold of truth and almost make them fit.

But I see now that these people were mere wankers. You want to meet some real professionals at this?

I give you Peter Pfutze (left) and Gotthold Schramm two former members of the GDR's secret police, commonly known as "the Stasi".

They've both written books that present the notorious Stasi "as just another intelligence service, along the lines of the CIA or West Germany's BND, but which has been unfairly demonized in the wake of East Germany's collapse".

Audience response at a recent talk by the authors was mixed.

"You're lying!" the man yelled, "That's the biggest load of crap I've ever heard."

Okay, so maybe it wasn't so mixed. (Still, there's no need to be rude! You're worse than the Angry Left!)

The only real problem here, see, is that the Stasi has been misunderstood.

"The prisoners were treated correctly," Pfutze told the audience, some of whom then erupted into sarcastic laughter.


The books' release comes in the wake of another high-profile instance of former Stasi member publicly defending their actions under the former communist regime. In March, some 200 former officers disrupted a meeting at the Hohenschonhausen site, a former Stasi prison in Berlin and now a museum and memorial.

The officers called many of the former victims of the secret service "liars" when they described the terror, abuse and suffering they experienced at the prison.


The book contains accounts of the experiences of 35 former Stasi agents, which the publisher describes as "exciting," "funny" and "enlightening."

See? You just have to see it from the Stasi's point of view, is all.

The two authors presented the GDR as a country which respected the rule of law, which operated very normally within the framework of its own constitutional framework.

LOL! Sounds like Attorney General Gonzalez on "Meet the Press". Or Cheney on "Face the Nation". Or Rumsfeld on the subject of Gitmo.


(Brief pause.)

Wait... is that funny?

One MORE Reason to Elect Principled People

After a rigorous investigation regarding who leaked information on the CIA's secret prisons overseas, the CIA has fired Mary McCarthy, a senior official in the CIA's Inspector General's office. They used lie detectors to discover her involvement in the leak.

I am generally a great advocate of "principled leaking", mostly because the United States has become a government ruled by a cult of National Security, obsessed with secrecy. This opens the door to the worst sort of corruption and a dangerous undermining of the Constitution.

In theory, the CIA should be able to keep its secrets without being liable to damaging leaks. That would be the best thing, but only if we assume that our elected leaders are exercising proper oversight of the National Security cult.

Since Republicans have taken control of Congress, both houses have apparently forgotten not just how to spell the word "oversight", but also what it means to practice it.

I don't want a branch of my government running secret prisons. Why? Because I support the terrorists? That is the idiot, Republican, National Security cult answer. The real answer is: secret prisons don't make distinctions about who they imprison. They simply imprison, secretly. If my government is running secret prisons, I want to know about it so I can advocate getting rid of them. Obviously there are others who agree with me inasmuch the stories born of McCarthy's leaks won the Washington Post a Pulitzer Prize.

It's pretty simple, really. Leaks would not be necessary if we elected members of Congress who actually understood the importance of their oversight duties. Principled leakers are and should be nothing more than last resorts. And now the National Security cult is vigorously using lie-detectors to ferret them out, producing evidence not admissible in court (yet), but obviously sufficient to get you fired. Inevitably, the leaks -- our principled last resorts -- will completely dry up.

And that would be fine, actually, if we had a Congress willing to conduct principled oversight of the National Security cult, but we don't. This makes the Republican Congress a serious danger to the Constitution.

If Google News is any measure, this story will receive moderate to heavy coverage, and it will certainly be flogged to death by the Republicans inasmuch as McCarthy worked for the Clinton Administration and gave $2,000 to the Kerry campaign in 2004. The angle will be: "Democrats support the terrorists", of course, when the true story is: the National Security cult is winning big and if members of Congress won't stop it, and if principled leakers are going to be tracked down, fired and possibly prosecuted, then frankly I don't see how we can save ourselves.

It isn't Mary McCarthy who should be let go; it's the Republican Congress.

The Incandescent Rove

Back in January, at the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee, the stellar Karl Rove once again proved his political acumen by speaking the following now infamous words:

Republicans have a post-9/11 worldview and many Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview.

Stephen Schlesinger writes in the New York Observer:

Today, Mr. Bush is in deep trouble in the polls. [...] His positive numbers now hover from 34 to 40 percent. His collapse follows the disasters he helped to create, including the increasingly vicious Iraq war, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the botching of Katrina relief, the Social Security and Medicare calamities, the controversial Dubai port deal and others. But what must be especially disheartening for him is that his ratings even in his own party are now 10 to 15 percent lower than his previous level of support. [...] All of this suggests that Mr. Bush is returning to what he was always viewed as before the 9/11 catastrophe — namely, a mediocrity. [...] With the passage of almost five years since 9/11, and the calming of emotions from that terrible day, the American people are beginning to view the Bush Presidency for what it really has always been: one of the most inept and feckless since that of Millard Fillmore.

Once again the incandescent, halogenic wisdom of Rove illuminates our political landscape. The only quibble we have is that he might have noted that, these days, it isn't just the Democrats who have a pre-9/11 view of reality; now it's 60 to 70 percent of the whole damned country.

That deafening peal you hear, George, is history's mighty bell... tolling its everlasting condemnation of thee.

Where Were You on the Evening of...

Okay, I blew a post a minute ago (say, there's an image), and so now I'm all pissed off and feel like acting like a hard-boiled detective for a minute.

You know that thing they always do in police movies and shows? "Where were you on the evening of..."

I always wonder if I could remember what I did that night, or if I couldn't remember how I could get myself to remember. Could I "reconstruct my movements" of that night? Could I come up with an iron-clad alibi?

So, you try it. Using your local time, of course.

"Excuse me, sir/madam, can you tell us where you were on the evening of Thursday, March 30, 2006 between approximately 7:45 and 8:15 p.m.? Can you provide an alibi? Names? Witnesses?"

Go ahead. See if you can do it. It will be easier for some of us than others, of course.

[insert title]

[insert long post that you just lost because like an idiot you weren't saving your work as you went along]

Great Scott

One of the wonderful delights of "The Sting" -- beyond the chemistry between the Two Major Stars and all the twisty-turny stings the movie played on the audience itself -- was that it re-introduced so many of us to the music of Scott Joplin.

Of course his re-discovery so delighted us that for a time we found ourselves awash in, which is to say drowning in, his music. I never got tired of it, but I could see how those who said at the time they'd had enough of it had a reasonable point. But eventually that tide receded, his music sought and found its own level in the culture, and so now we are back to the happy circumstance of being able to be surprised and delighted whenever we come across his stuff again.

This morning there was a report on "Morning Edition" about Scott, and about a new novel by Tananarive Due called Joplin's Ghost. Apparently there are those who believe that Joplin's house in St. Louis is haunted by the composer himself. If so, in my opinion at least, he should get busy with some automatic writing or something and give us some more of his stuff.

I don't much believe in ghosts, except as very powerful metaphors, but it turns out that in some sense it may be true that the spectral presence of ol' Scott is actually with us.

As you no doubt know, piano rolls were made by a musician sitting down at a special piano, playing a piece of music, and small holes being punched into a roll of paper as the keys were struck. When the roll is played back through a player piano, we get to hear an exact replica of the original performance.

At that NPR page, you can find a link to a recording of a piano roll of the always resplendant "Maple Leaf Rag" that dates from 1916. I'm no judge of these things but I'm told the actual playing of the piece is poor. Which may turn out to be something of a godsend in that it has led some people to think that the creator of the piano roll was none other than Joplin himself. It turns out, you see, that ol' Scott was a much better composer than he was a piano player, and that fact along with some additional evidence has got some experts thinking that, well, there is a ghost of Joplin (of at least the piano roll variety) still moving among us.

Not being a musician, I don't really have the vocabulary to describe what always pleases me so much about Joplin's music. I have to fall back on foggy notions such as: "I like the rise and the fall of it" or "I like the up and down of it".

Yeah, I like the way it moves all over and around you. I like the way it tickles. It's especially welcome on a very pretty morning in Spring.

So go ahead. Go see Scott. And tell him "Good Morning" for me.

Further Outrage at the Mainstream Media

I love the New Yorker. I have a subscription. They employ Seymour Hersh. What more could you ask for?

But like so much of the Mainstream Media these days, they are slipping into irrelevance.

Each week the magazine has a Caption Contest. They publish a captionless cartoon and invite readers to submit captions for it. I've done this twice and haven't even won once!

Okay, so this is America. Free speech and all that. But there comes a time when you have to speak truth to the media power elite. Here is the most recent cartoon for which I submitted a caption, along with my caption:

OK, so they have genius IQs, but they don't know much about how
the world works.

Comedy gold. This is funny with a capital "F". Oh, wait, so I guess that would be "Funny" then.

But in the latest outrageous example of the MSM not getting it(!!!), the New Yorker editors did not select my caption to be one of the three finalists. Instead, they picked(.pdf):

"Back in my day, kids had a little respect for the law of gravity."
"Unfortunately, at this age they don't carry much pocket change."
"I told you those humane traps never really work."

Comedy basalt.

Probably they didn't pick me because I have a blog. They are afraid of me. I threaten them. I am the brave new world of online Comedy Gold.

No wonder the Republic is in peril.

Missed Me. Neeners.

When I first moved to New York City, I was filled with anxiety. I'd visited here a number of times and had determined that NYC Was The Place For Me, but once I'd actually moved here I discovered that there is a significant difference between visiting New York and living here.

Visiting here, you get to stay on somebody's sofa, usually for free. You get to wander out and have breakfast, see a few sights, go to a few clubs or bars, maybe take in a show or two, check out the museums. It's a blast. It's almost like you're a rich guy without a care in the world.

But when you move your entire life here, you have to cope with ungodly rents for hellish apartments. You have to find a job that pays enough to cover that ungodly rent. You have to find ways to discover where the hell you are when you come up out of the subway. There are people everywhere, blocking the sidewalk in front of you when you are late for wherever you have to be. People who were born here or have lived here for ages do stuff to you, stuff that you don't even get and half the time don't even know is being done to you. There is no safety net. You either find a way to make it, or...

Well, let me put it this way. My favorite T-shirt at the time sported a picture of a row of brownstones in flames and a death skull leering out at you screeching "New York... where the WEAK are KILLED and EATEN!"

So that's kind of what it feels like at first.

Anyway, back when I was still dealing with all of that, I was sitting around one night drinking with some friends and I launched into a description of a strange image that had occurred to me a few days earlier, an image that (as I look back on it) clearly came out of all that anxiety I was feeling at the time.

I hypothesized that each of us is being stalked by a black spot which I imagined to be about six feet in diameter. These spots are little pieces of the Infinite Void, lightless, heatless, dimensionless, pure and bottomless shadows that wander semi-aimlessly, semi-mindlessly all over the surface of the Earth. They are invisible to us, though I thought it might be possible for each of us to see our own spots. There is one spot for every human being, and if a human being accidentally encounters his spot, he is sucked into the Infinite Void which means for those of you out there with less than poetic minds: he croaks.

Your spot isn't stalking you precisely, but its wandering around the surface of the planet isn't exactly random either. It's kind of a gravitational thing, I think. It's a three-body problem between you and it and the surface of the earth. Eventually you and your spot will come together. You can't stop it. The attraction is relentless. Your spot will eventually wander across the same spot on the surface of the Earth that you occupy, and when it does you're a goner.

This explains why everyone dies, see.

Sometimes you can sense its wandering orbit coming uncomfortably close to you. I recall the night I described this thing to my friends I opined that my particular black spot was somewhere up in the Bronx at the moment, wandering around the Grand Concourse maybe. Far enough away from me to not be an immediate threat, but close enough that it might wander over my sleeping form sometime in the next few weeks.

Okay, so, anyway, here's the deal...

Yesterday I posted about the time I thought I was about to be swallowed up by a tornado when I was in graduate school in Iowa City. The occasion for that post was the fact that a tornado actually did hit Iowa City on Thursday. An old school chum of mine and I were trying to figure out the path Thursday's tornado had taken. This morning she sent me a link to a map at the Des Moines Register web site.

Below is a detail from that map. Note the shaded portion moving from the lower left hand corner to the upper right hand corner. That's the path of the tornado.

In my post yesterday, I noted that my apartment at the time was near the corner of Burlington and South Johnson.

Note that the intersection of Burlington and South Johnson is right in the center of the path of Thursday's tornado.

Which is to say, everything that I imagined happening to me in my post yesterday would have happened to me Thursday, if then had been now.

Ha, ha. Missed me Mr. Smarty-Pants Black Spot. By a mile. Or, at least, by a number of years.


(Like as if it isn't eventually going to get me anyway.)

My Beloved Little City

My apartment in Iowa City that year was near the corner of Burlington and South Johnson. It was a one bedroom in this really cool building with screened in porches in the front. Nice neighbors. Twisty hallways. A quirky little old landlady and her hulking, vaguely mentally disturbed husband. I was at the back of the building and had a view three stories down into the dirt parking lot and the ramshackle garage/shed reserved for the landlord's stuff, and a further view west toward downtown Iowa City.

But the coolest thing was it had a stainless steel kitchen. Like something out of Spacelab.

It was everything you'd want in an apartment in your final year of graduate school.

Summers in the Midwest mean, essentially, living in the Gulf of Mexico. The air is pretty much under very warm water. Glance out your window and watch trophy sized marlin swimming by.

On this particular day I was hanging around my apartment, reading or writing or something, I don't remember. I do remember having the radio on and hearing mention of a tornado watch. Yeah, yeah, whatever. I grew up in Seattle. I saw Mt. St. Helens erupting from afar. What's the big deal?

And then the sirens went off.

You sit there for a moment thinking, what are those? Are those sirens? Why are there sirens?

Beat. Beat.


Okay, so you get up and go to the window. Not a very smart thing to do when the sirens are going off, but what do you expect? I grew up in Seattle.

So, nothing out there. No tornadoes. But it did look a little... I dunno... a little green. The air was green. This fascinated me briefly, until I remembered hearing or reading somewhere that it's a very bad sign, in tornado-land, when the air turns green.

Jesus, I thought. Where am I going to go? My building, made entirely of old wood, was actually built on a steep hill. The front of the building was at street level. The back of the building, where I was, was probably 60 feet in the air.

There I was, practically in mid-air with a big old sign on my ass that said: "Take Me To Oz".

Deer. Headlights. Me.

I just stared out the window hoping, I guess, that I would at least get to experience the awe of seeing the tornado approach, just before it killed me.

After a few minutes, bored with the prospect of impending doom, I guess, I went into the bathroom and closed the door. I sat there on the edge of the bathtub. It was a nice big bathroom. I liked it. One of the best bathrooms I'd ever had and possibly the last place I would ever be.

But after a few more minutes, the sirens stopped. I came out of the bathroom and went back to the window. The air wasn't green anymore.

It missed Iowa City that day. I was glad. I loved Iowa City. It's a great college town. So many good memories of that place...

But it didn't miss Iowa City last night. Right through the heart of the city. Oh, man, my poor little college town with all my wonderful memories.

Only one fatality that I've heard of so far.

Some Number of Days in March and April

It's a pretty impressive measure of how incompetent the Bush Administration is when I find myself entertaining notions of a military coup in the United States of America.

Not that I think such a thing is possible, of course. At least not now. Our military is filled with professionals who take their oath to the Constitution seriously. But it's funny how times change and don't change.

In the movie "Seven Days in May", the definitive cinematic text on this subject, the Joint Chiefs were upset with the nuclear disarmament treaty the President was intending to sign, but the real issue, like now, was incompetence. The generals in the movie felt the civilian leadership was not competent to deal with the threat the nation then faced, and so they thought they'd just, you know, take over the reins.

So it's kind of scary when we hear the retired generals these days saying the same thing albeit under intriguingly different circumstances. But really, it boils down to this, in the opinion of (in this case, the retired) generals, the civilian leadership has bungled things.

What are we up to now, five retired generals calling for Rumsfeld's resignation? All retired, I emphasize. This is good. When the serving generals start in on the civilian leadership, incompetent though it may be, we're going to be in trouble. How close are we to that? Not very, in my view, but maybe not as far away as one might hope.

Even as some of their retired colleagues spoke out publicly about Rumsfeld, other senior officers, retired and active alike, had to be promised anonymity before they would discuss their own views of why the criticism of him was mounting. Some were concerned about what would happen to them if they spoke openly, others about damage to the military that might result from amplifying the debate, and some about talking outside of channels, which in military circles is often viewed as inappropriate.

"Inappropriate." Yes. Very inappropriate. For serving officers. Let's just keep that in mind, shall we?

But for retired officers, I say damn the torpedoes. Give us the benefit of your authoritative opinions on the subject of Rumsfeld. Please, please contribute your expertise to the political debate. Serving officers: fight the incompetence from the inside like the tough sons-of-bitches we rely on you to be.

Jesus. Nice one, Bush. You've made it possible for the prospect of a military coup to seem not only remotely possible, but also vaguely attractive. I can hardly wait for the devastating weight of history's judgment to come down on this man.

Worst. President. Ever.

If Regular People Wielded Undue Influence.

  • Our children would receive thick envelopes when collecting for paper routes.
  • Books from the library would be no-interest loans that never have to be returned.
  • Elevators would wait for us.
  • Senators would take our calls after we had them over to watch T.V.
  • Off-the-shelf accounting software would launder tips.
  • Packs of cigarettes would give us money.
  • Automatic doors at the grocery would greet us with respect.
  • Income tax returns would have a line for deductions we just made up.
  • We would give asthma to coal-fired power plants.
  • Our incompetence would always be rewarded.

Whew. These are hard to think up. You are welcome to try some yourself. I think the trick is to look for something you do or experience everyday, and then imagine what it would be like if you and everyone else like you were Big Shots with inherent undue influence, suitable for wielding as you see fit.

Tank Man Games, 2008

Year for year, week for week, hour by hour, has there ever been a better use of American television than "Frontline"?

I just finished watching tonight's episode called "The Tankman". Starting this Friday at 5pm Eastern Time you can watch it yourselves online at the link above.

It was an extended episode, an hour-and-a-half, and the purported theme was to ask the question "Whatever happened to the Tank Man?"

The question it really asked, however, was "Whatever happened to China after the Tank Man?" The answer is the Chinese government offered its citizens a deal: you can have prosperity (or, some of you can have it, mostly those who live in the cities), or you can fight us for your freedom. It wasn't even really an offer of a deal, come to think of it. It was more like: do it our way or we will shoot you.

One of the documentary's scenes concerned construction of a gigantic stadium in Beijing which will host the 2008 Olympic Games. It's being mostly built by migrant workers, people who have come into the city to find work, trying to find a way out of the crushing poverty of China's rural areas. Nearly one billion of China's citizens live outside its cities. Education is no longer free. Young men and women leave their families and go to the cities to try to earn enough money to send back home so their younger siblings can pay for their schooling. The money to be made is rarely enough to cover the school fees.

There is no medical care in the countryside. If you get sick, you either rely on the local herbalist or you die.

To keep the cities from being overrun with migrants seeking work, the government maintains strict rules concerning how you can live and work in the city. You cannot bring dependents with you. You have to live in a special migrant worker's hostel, 12 or 18 people to a room. If you lose your job or the job ends, you have to find another one, or you have to leave. Your days are long, frequently you work 7 days a week. You have no right to negotiate, collectively or otherwise, with your employer.

Meanwhile, the new cities of China gleam with brand name products.

The story of Tank Man is probably not the story you think it is. Most folks believe he was a young student, probably part of the demonstrations that ended in Tiananmen Square the night of June 3-4, 1989. There was a report in 1990 that Tank Man had been identified as the 19 year old son of a factory worker, and that he had been executed. That report turns out to have been dubious at best. The truth is nobody really knows who Tank Man was, or where he is now, whether even he is alive or dead.

If you watch the entire "Frontline" episode, you will understand that Tank Man's famous act of bravery required even more courage than you already think it did. This was a guy that was fed up with the People's Army firing on the friends and relatives and parents of students who had been in Tiananmen Square. They were desperate people looking for their missing loved ones. The soldiers gave them a count of five to clear out and then they started shooting. Shooting people who were running away. Shooting people in the back. That scene repeated itself maybe half a dozen times that day, people were so desperate to find their loved ones.

And the truth is, most of the killing during the summer of 1989 did not take place at Tiananmen Square. Most of it took place throughout Beijing as students and workers and just regular people tried to keep the tanks from getting to Tiananmen. The soldiers and their commanders were ruthless and brutal. They'd already made one attempt to break things up that ended in an embarrassment for the State. The people had gathered around the tanks and trucks and more or less flower-powered the soldiers into pulling back out of the city. The State had determined it wasn't going to make that mistake again. This time there would be no more Mister Nice Guy.

You look at your own life and you wonder, jeez, would I ever have the courage to be like Tank Man? Would I ever have the courage to be that fed up? I live in a fat and happy and, as a consequence, largely lazy and stupid country, politically speaking. All my worldly needs are pretty easily met. I have my complaints. I get on the internet and express my gripes. I post to my blog.

I remember sometime after the World Trade Center was destroyed -- I was there that day -- a friend of mine visiting me from London asked me if I had considered running into the burning buildings to try to help save people. I looked at him, shocked.

"Are you kidding? Of course not. They pay professionals to do that."

But later, I couldn't help wondering... it had never even occurred to me to try to help rescue people. My only thought was to get the hell out of there. The correct decision, I think. Especially since the cops were yelling at me to get the hell away. But still. My friend's question ate at me. No, I had to be honest, it had never even occurred to me to do anything except run for my life. The correct decision. The right impulse. To be sure. But still.

It's no use wondering, I guess, whether I would ever have the courage to be Tank Man. Frankly, I doubt very much whether Tank Man himself had ever wondered if he was capable of doing the sort of thing he did. People just get fed up, you know? And suddenly their view of the world takes on a whole new focus. You do things you never could imagine yourself doing before you got so fed up.

The illusion is, for most of us, for most of our lives, we can't do anything about the way things are. I can't stop my country's foolishness in Iraq. I can't stop my fellow countrymen from re-electing an incompetent, messianic imbecile as President. I'm as helpless as those migrant workers in Beijing. Little guys like us are born to be used by the states we live in, by the employers we work for, by the cultures we inhabit. The tragedy is most of us can't even conceive of facing the choice to be another Tank Man. Before you are faced with such a choice, you are secretly grateful to be so helpless. Once you face it... what happens then?

I started fantasizing...

We have always treated our athletes like heroes. We look to them to be reminded of what it means to live a heroic life. I wonder what it would be like if, for once, they really could be heroes?

The Beijing Olympics are coming in 2008. What if all the athletes of the world went ahead with their training, worked hard, preparing themselves for those games. And what if they all traveled to Beijing, holed themselves up in the fancy dorms built by all of those penniless, beaten down migrant workers, then marched in those glorious opening ceremonies they always put on.

This is China's Big Chance, see? This is her chance to show off her economic miracle to the world.

So what if all of those athletes, from every country in the world, took the opportunity to commemorate a true hero like Tank Man? What if all those athletes showed up for their events and then rather than competing they just stood there holding up the famous picture of Tank Man, for all the world to see.

Event after event, venue after venue, refusing to compete and choosing instead to pay tribute to the notion of Tank Men. Sacrificing all of their hard work to pay tribute before the world to a nameless, iconic hero. A hero who was not afraid to do something serious and brave.

What heroes they would be then, eh? To all of us who feel we have to live in the world as it has been handed to us. Think of all the powerful people freaking out, the world over, that whole week. Governments, network executives, advertisers, corporations... all of them sitting there staring at the T.V. in horror.

And there wouldn't be damned thing they could do about it.

What if the world's athletes, in Beijing, in 2008, reminded us all that whether we believe it or not about ourselves, we've all got the resources within ourselves to be Tank Men. To be Tank Men to corrupt governments. Tank Men to soulless corporations. Tank Men to our own lust for the material things they sell us, the lust that keeps us keeping ourselves in their thrall. Tank Men to all those, not just the Chinese government, who would tell us how to think, or who tell us -- as China tells her people -- that there is no such thing as Tank Man, that he never existed, that, in fact, he never could exist.

But he did exist, and whoever he was and wherever he is now, in my view he's one of the luckiest men alive whatever happened to him afterward. For he had the chance, you see, at least once in his life, to be a Tank Man, and he took it -- an act made even more remarkable when you reflect that he probably had no idea his heroism was being caught on film (by anyone besides State Security, of course) and that he would become an icon because of it.

Now that is a performance of Olympic proportions.

Long Awaited Post on The Death of My Father

There isn't one. This strikes me as indescribably weird.

A fellow livejournaler mentions that his father has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. In line with my general discomfort with this entire issue, I'm not pointing to his post. I don't know why. It just seems the sort of thing I don't want to point to.

I'm a gabby guy. I can't believe I can't write a post about the passing of my father. It's been over four months now. I can "mention" things to people. For example, getting in the mail the convenient year-end summary of his credit card activity for the year 2005. Foolishly, I opened it while standing at my mailbox in the lobby of my building. I scanned it even though I knew I should wait until I got upstairs.

It's the details that get you. All the little purchases he made, the dinners out, the golf games, the day trips to Mexico. All leading up to the Last Credit Card Purchase He Ever Made a day or two before he unexpectedly died.

My siblings and I talk about it sparingly. Almost never, recently. I suppose it's the Norwegian in us. You just go on.

I just can't see trying to put any of it into a post on a blog. And yet I could write in my blog about the death of my friend Shannon. Fathers are different, I guess. I don't know why, exactly. Because they're your fathers?

Except other people can write movingly about the death of their fathers, so it can't be anything inherent in the subject of your father dying. It has to be something about me and my father.

So once again, I will set the topic aside. It's obviously still there, waiting, otherwise I wouldn't be flirting with the subject again this morning.

Maybe it's this: I survive by play. I could and can always play with my friends. I couldn't ever really play with my father. Not in the same way. Writing is play. I can't play with this. And so I can't write this thing.

I don't know whether that is the true reason, but it certainly is true whether it's the reason or not.

I feel worse now than when I started this post. That's pertinent too, and compels me to aknowledge this further truth: I am my father's son in ways more profound than I can adequately describe.

Murder At A Good Address

The other day, helmut was asking for suggestions on how to increase the number of hits/links on/to his blog. I wonder about this too, of course, in relation to my own blog, though less so than I used to.

And then this morning I was reading in the New York Times a story on the amusing way in which the Daily News is covering the crap out of the Post's gossip column shakedown scandal. The News and the Post are New York City's two tabloids, see, and they've been fighting it out over circulation for some time now. Zuckerman's Daily News makes a profit. Murdoch's Post loses something like $40 million a year.

Anyway, the last paragraph in that Times story is a quote from Pete Hamill, journalist, novelist, and previous editor of both the Daily News and the Post. He's talking about how to win in a battle of the tabloids:

"The way to beat the other guy is to have the best stories, have them written at the top of everyone's talent, and stay true to the tabloid tradition - to find the drama in the story," Mr. Hamill said. "You don't pick up a tabloid to find out about the sisal crop in Malaysia. The best story of any type in a tabloid is murder at a good address. You don't become a better paper than the other guy by making remarks."

And it occurred to me that there's your answer right there. That's how to increase hits on your blog. What you want is the blog equivalent of "murder at a good address". You've got to find a way to practice your own form of Tabloig Journalism. Paraphrasing Hamill, "You don't become a better blog than the other guy by making remarks."

Well, we have to amend slightly that last bit since so much of blogging is so completely about "making remarks", isn't it? That's the problem. So many blogs making so many remarks. And so many of them not of the requisite "murder at a good address" variety.

You got a remark you want to make in your blog? First find the address where your idea lives. Is it at a good address? If not, forget it. If so, find the murder. If you can't find it, move on. If you can, write about it "at the top of [your] talent".

Easier said than done, of course, especially since you really should be blogging at least once a day if your goal is to get your readership up. Worse, not all of your ideas will live up to other people's notions of what constitutes a good address, let alone a juicy murder. Oh, and I suppose I should mention here that murder doesn't have to involve violence and outrage; there are plenty that are done with grace and finesse. Your range goes from somewhere around "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" at one end to something in the neighborhood of "Arsenic and Old Lace" at the other.

So. It's easy when you break it down: Look for the good address, then look for the murder, then write the hell out of it.

The rest is just, well... "making remarks".

Irony In Action

Don't know if out-of-towners are following this, but there is at the moment a scandal raging around New York City's very own Murdoch-owned, right-wing rag, the New York Post. The Post's famous gossip section is called "Page Six". A part-time writer for that section, Jared Paul Stern, has been caught on tape trying to shakedown publicity shy billionaire Ronald W. Burkle, offering to keep his name out of the gossip section in exchange for some pretty impressive remuneration. In short, we're talking an extortion racket, here. Stern offered "protection" -- i.e., keeping Burkle's name out of the gossip column -- for $100,000 up front and $10,000 a month thereafter.

Worse, excerpts from the tapes printed in this morning's Daily News offer tantalizing suggestions that this isn't just Stern running a racket here. There are hints that other "protection" arrangements have been made.

Blake Fleetwood writing at the "Huffington Post" adds detail:

This past summer I called Richard Johnson, Editor of Page Six, with what I thought would be a gossipy bit of dirt, just up their alley, exposing the foibles of the rich and powerful.

Ed Klein, who was getting much attention for a rumor filled smear book about Hillary Clinton, had been my editor at the New York Times Magazine. At one editorial meeting Klein bragged to me that Lou Rudin, a powerful NYC landlord, who was lobbying against rent control laws at the time, had recently given him a large rent controlled Park Avenue apartment for a few hundred dollars per month.

In New York City a large rent controlled prewar apartment, with lifetime tenancy, is literally worth millions. Klein explained that Rudin, head of the Association for a Better New York, had lots of rent regulated apartments (real cheap) that he gave out to journalists, celebrities, and public officials. No specific quid pro quo was made, but it was kind of understood. When Lou called with a story, or something he wanted, you were expected to take his phone calls. He was a master at the game.

So, in a not so generous mood, I thought that Klein, after digging up all that dirt on Hillary Clinton, deserved a little payback. But Richard Johnson was not impressed.

"Everyone does it," Johnson told me. "Its not news. Rudin is very generous. He gives out lots of cheap apartments to reporters and people on the City and State payroll."

"In fact years ago, he gave me a cheap (rent controlled) apartment on the Upper West Side." Johnson said as if to emphasize how common the practice is.

Lots of news outlets are covering this, so I wanted to see what the Post itself was saying about it.

This morning, not a word.

But I did find an editorial called "A Damning Silence". The particular silence here is not, of course, the Post's silence on its "Page Six" racket.

And in a final twist, the Post offers this morning a review of Eric Burns' Infamous Scribblers, a recap of the vile and slanderous and "pay to play" roots of American Journalism. Burns is host of Murdoch's Fox News Channel's "Media Watch".

I've heard Burns interviewed about his book. It sounds fun and interesting. He's obviously fascinated by the topic and seems a skilled observer of the phenomenon of corrupt journalism. Perhaps he can thank working for Murdoch for that.

As they say: "Write what you know." Except, of course, as far as the Post is concerned, when it means reporting on your own corruption.


The thing that I hate about being ill -- which I am today -- is getting up in the morning and facing a day in which I won't give a damn about anything. I won't care about having breakfast. I won't give a damn about checking my email. I care less than caring anything at all about doing or accomplishing all the stuff I was thinking of doing or accomplishing today. I don't even care about doing the New York Times crossword puzzle, which is a very grave sign indeed.

I might care, a little bit, about reading deeper into the biography of Admiral Nelson I borrowed from a friend. Then again, I might not. I suspect I will mostly care about it because lying down on the sofa and reading on the book will probably lull me into sleep. And sleeping, and thereby forgetting about how crappy I feel, is what I really long for most at the moment.

I think my cat woke me up last night, having a throw-up somewhere out in the living room. Normally, I would get up and hunt down the throw-up and clean it up before it soaked into whatever it was he decided to throw-up on. But, I didn't feel well. I didn't care. This morning I got up and looked around for signs of throw-up but couldn't find anything. Either I was delusional last night, or the throw-up disappeared into whatever he threw up on, or he was just being a throw-up drama queen and didn't bring up anything at all. In any case, this morning I couldn't find it, and I didn't care.

This morning, I have just some miscellaneous crud. I may even feel better by noon or so. But one of these days I will have The Final Illness, and I won't care about anything, and that not caring will probably be the thing that kills me. Well, that and the metastatic cells, or the immovable heart-blockage, or whatever.

Who doesn't know that caring about being alive is vital to actually staying alive? They do studies to prove this sort of thing, of course -- to prove that "having hope" or "looking to the future" makes a big difference in the speed with which we heal ourselves -- but who doesn't already know this, instinctively?

I guess there may be some sort of natural selective advantage going on here -- when you are sick and not caring about stuff you normally care about, it does have a tendency to make you slow down, and lie down, and long for the stupefaction of sleep. And they do say sleep is good for you when you are sick.

So, okay, I guess on those terms I can accept not giving a crap about anything. For today, at least. But I better start caring about stuff again by tonight. Or at the very latest by tomorrow. Being a human being is damned hard work, and damned hard work is nearly impossible to face doing if you don't give a crap about getting it done.

Oh, and it's cold and gray and rainy this morning, too. Thanks, cosmos. I hope I can return the favor someday, though it doesn't seem likely. We are such pitiful creatures compared to you.

Still, I feel better after having bitched about being sick. Bitching and moaning means I care about something, I guess. Otherwise I wouldn't take the trouble. Bitching and moaning is the secret of life, at least today, at least for me.

All of a sudden I almost feel like checking my email. And for a minute there, I thought about having some breakfast. So I guess this probably isn't The Final Illness. Not yet anyway.

The Final Illness is not being able to care at all anymore. Gratefully, I note in myself a growing taste for something. Maybe a great big bowl of Cream of Rice.

That seems enough. For now, anyway.

The Story of Nature

Returning to the ongoing story of our old friend, the 2006 Ozzie, last evening I had the door to the balcony open and was working quietly at my desk when suddenly I heard quite a bit of cardinal vocalizing going on out back. I got up, hurried out onto the terrace, and tried to espy our old pal Ozzie amid the tangle of bare branches.

It's hard to do find him by ear alone because his singing echoes off all the hard surfaces of the buildings back there. It's a great help when our old pal Ozzie flits from one branch to another and then continues his song. The movement grabs the eye.

Above: Lens cap being hurriedly removed, captured just as it happened.

Well, immediately I discerned the cause of all the commotion. Our old pal Ozzie had found himself a girlfriend. He and his winged babe were flitting from one branch to another, first one taking the lead, then the other. They would alight within a few inches of each other, share an excited song, then one or the other would hop into the air, swoop down and glide to another branch, or flap frantically to climb into the highest branches. Sometimes the other would hesitate -- never ceasing to sing of course -- as if pretending to play hard to get. But then of course he or she would swiftly drop the facade and follow quickly. They seemed to be having a marvelously fun, if noisy, time of it.

Above: Tension mounts as we nearly trip on the cam's power cord.

Ah, cardinals in love.

Well, I thought, I need to get some pictures of this.

Of course the batteries in my digital cam were dead so I had to scramble to get a power cord arrangement sorted out. Meanwhile I could hear the courting of our old pal Ozzie and his girlfriend climbing toward an amorous crescendo.

Above: Where Ozzie and friend had been just moments before.

I was desperately hurrying by this point, of course. Us Nature Photography types understand that fortune favors the prepared.

Above: Ozzie and friend, having exited frame-right.

We know all too well that if the chance comes, it may never come again. There are some brilliant instances of Nature Photography out there in the Almost-o-sphere.

Above: Ozzie and friend, amid the ivy, making cardinal love .

The trick, as always, is finding a way to tell The Story of Nature, whatever that story may be.

O Jesus, Don't Tell Me We're Losing Canada, Too

Dr. Brian Alters is director of the Evolution Education Research Centre at McGill University in Montreal. He testified in favor of evolution and against the teaching of "intelligent design" in the Dover, Pennsylvania case.

Some time back, he applied to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for a $40,000 (Canadian) grant to conduct a study he'd entitled “Detrimental effects of popularizing anti-evolution's intelligent design theory on Canadian students, teachers, parents, administrators and policymakers.”

The SSHRC denied him the grant. According to Nature (subscription req'd):

At a public lecture on 29 March, Alters revealed excerpts from the rejection letter he received from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). The letter stated that, among its reasons for rejection, the committee felt there was inadequate "justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of evolution, and not intelligent-design theory, was correct."

Come on, Canada. We've made a mess of things down here south of your border. We're counting on you. Somebody has to keep North America in the 21st Century.

But ever the optimist, let me also include here the bright side, as noted in the Nature article:

Philip Sadler, a board member of the centre and director of science education at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is more philosophical. "If he was trying to answer the question as to whether all this popularization had had an impact, he just saved the government $40,000," says Sadler. "He found the evidence without doing the study."

That's the bright side, see. Saving the money. Not having to spend it on the study on account of the study's rejection being evidence enough.

So that's the bright side. In case you were wondering.

Benchmarking The Dual-Boot Mac

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Buffalo Boy (Mua len trau)

Thirty or forty miles east of the city of Ellensburg, Washington, Interstate 90 bumps into the Columbia River. The highway runs effortlessly across those mighty waters, comes up against a wall of rock on the other side, then bears left and climbs the eastern side of the river's gorge. The climb is steep, as I recall, and once you make the summit the road swings to the right and continues on east across the desert.

At the place where the highway meets the western banks of the Columbia there is a sparse cluster of buildings known as Vantage.

This particular intersection of river and highway sticks in my mind because when I was a squirt my family used to pile into the car once a year and make the drive from Seattle to Spokane to visit relatives, and so once a year I would find myself in the back seat, peering over the car door at the cluster of buildings called Vantage. I didn't think all that much about the place until we were passing through it one time and my dad told me that the original town of Vantage was actually somewhere underwater, down there under the bridge. Some years before a dam had been built down river, raising the water level and covering the original town.

I can remember picturing what the town must have looked like down there. Trout swimming lazily through barred windows at the underwater bank. Long, swaying grasses clinging to the tops of Texaco pumps.

They say memories are best imprinted when associated with strong emotions. Maybe the reason this memory so strongly imprinted itself on me is because at the time I was told this story, puberty was starting to rise around me, threatening to drown the little hamlet of my childhood. Or maybe it just bugged the hell out of me, the thought of a whole town being under water.

I have what you'd call an organized mind. In my view, dry land should be over here, under my feet, and water should be over there, at a distance suitable for scenic viewing. And so you can imagine I would be disturbed by an image like this:

That's not a house-boat. That's a house. On stilts. The water around it is the Mekong River in full flood. In the dry season that would be a flat plain covered with rice fields, but in the wet season...

That image utterly creeps me out. It's a production shot from "Buffalo Boy", a 2004 Vietnamese film about a peasant boy who is given the task of finding some decent grass for his family's two water buffaloes to eat. Not such an easy job in the rainy season of the Mekong Delta.

The flood waters cover everything, and then just sit there. Decent fodder rots, becoming inedible except in the most desperate of circumstances. It's a day-by-day, hour-by-hour struggle to lead your buffalo through the vast expanse of water, anywhere from ankle to chest deep, often deeper, in a mostly vain attempt to find high spots where edible grass might still be found.

This is one of those films that exists to define in its own determined way the mystical cinematic term mise-en-scene. Imagine living in a world of waist-high water swirling with rotting vegetation. What do you do for food? Where do you sleep? Make love? What do you do with your father's corpse when he dies? The movie itself is that world -- the images are beautiful, haunting, creepy. They drag at you, like the pressure you feel against your legs as you slog through the shallow waters of a lake.

It takes no effort of the imagination at all, while watching "Buffalo Boy", to feel you have been invited into a remarkable visual metaphor. This is Art You Don't Have To Work At. The art of the film sits down next to you, pours you a cup of tea, and the two of you spend the next couple of hours going over together what it means to live a human life.

This is a remarkable piece of filmmaking and it reminds me, once again, why I started on this project of hunting up obscure DVDs on the shelves of my local Artsy Fartsy Video Store. There are so many treasures out there you are most likely never going to see. Unless you go looking for them, of course.

When you find one, it's like fresh grass on a high spot surrounded by swill.

[Netflix, B & N, ]

The Wires Are Singing For Me And My Gall

My word.

Tom DeLay bails on his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, after meeting with the King, says he will resign thus going some way toward resolving the political crisis in Thailand.

There'll be heaven to pay, I'm sure.

Killing Buffoons, Part Three

And so Moussaoui is one step closer to his lunatic dream of becoming a hero to his cause, a dream he otherwise could never have achieved without the assistance and cooperation of the United States government.

And the justice system is one step closer to teaching us all that some buffoons should be killed while others should not. It all depends on which sort of buffoon you are talking about.

On the one hand, we have a buffoon who was disavowed by al-Qaeda itself, but who claims he was supposed to be the guy who flew a fifth plane into the White House. No evidence for that, by the way. Except for the word of the buffoon himself, of course.

That is the sort of buffoon that deserves death.

On the other hand, we have a buffoon who had, or would have had if he'd been paying attention, plenty of warning of what was coming before September 11, 2001, only part of that warning coming in the penultimate paragraph of the famous August 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Briefing entitled "Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US", the memo Condolezza Rice labeled a mere "historical document".

Nevertheless, FBI information since that time 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.

And that, in case you were wondering, is the sort of buffoon that deserves re-election.

I am unequivocably opposed to killing buffoons, of course. In case you are new here or need reminding.

As it happens, I'm also opposed to re-electing them.

Not So Imaginary Friends

March 15, 2006 would have been my friend Shannon's 40th birthday had he not died in a terrible accident in December of 2004. His mom had set up a memorial website for him and so a bunch of us went there on or about his recent birthday and posted some notes in memory of him.

I wanted to post something that reflected the nature of our friendship, just so I could remind myself not only of him, but also of how we had played with each other, goofing around with words and ideas and so forth. It didn't feel right to just say how much I missed him. I wanted to get down a little bit of what I missed. So here is what I wrote:

You still owe me $60.

OK, maybe you paid part of that $60 back already, I'd have to check, but whatever you still owe me I'll give you a pass on that if you'll be our guardian angel for a while. I don't know what the rates are up there, if it's by the hour, or what. You figure it out and let us know. You must know how much we could use guardian angels down here, so do what you can. Maybe you could make it your birthday present to all of us on your birthday. Kind of weird, I know, but endearing too. That's how we'll know it's you. Anyway, happy birthday, pal. I'm thinking of you today (and a lot of other days, too). And not just about the $60 part, either.

Love, M.

So then yesterday I get an envelope in the mail. Inside was a brief note along with a $50 gift certificate to Peter Luger's, a famous steakhouse over in Brooklyn. The note read:


As your guardian Angel I've noticed you're looking a little peaked and thin lately. It's nothing a good hunk of red cow meat won't cure so I've enclosed means for the best in my non-humble opinion. Besides, I need to earn my wings. Guardian angel rates are priceless so now you owe me, Pal.

Love, S.H.

And here's the part of this story that truly astonished me...

I'm not much of a magical thinking type guy. Well, I'm not any more guilty of it than your standard, run-of-the-mill Secular Humanist, but when I finished reading the note, just as I got to the part where "he" signed off with his initials "S.H.", for about three seconds I thought: "Is it possible he didn't really...? Is it possible it was all just a...? Is it possible he's still...?"

I swear to God. For about three seconds I actually wondered if it was possible that his being dead was just some horrible mistake or joke or hoax or something. Honest to God, for a few seconds it actually seemed possible.

A whole bunch of ways it could possibly be true that he was still be alive got thrown up in the air and were floating there, miraculously, swirling around my head. I could feel myself trying to plug something in somewhere to make the thing be real, like one of those old-fashioned telephone operators in movies where she's sitting there with a whole board of holes in front of her and she's holding a wire in her hand looking for a place to plug it in.

But there wasn't any place to plug it in, of course, and after a moment all of the possibilities collapsed and fell out of the air and landed at my feet. There was a moment of intense pain, a rerun of the moment when I learned that he'd really died, but then I laughed.

I have my suspicions of who did this wonderful thing for me. But rather than trying to track down the "culprit" and send a plain old "thank-you" note, I decided to go back to Shannon's memorial site and post the following:

Shanny: Got the G.C. for Peter Luger's. I was shocked, to say the least. This sort of Heavenly Intervention qualifies as a miracle, doesn't it? All you need is two more and you'll be on your way to beatification. I'm pretty sure there isn't a St. Shannon yet, so you're practically a shoe-in. Anyway, thanks again. I really appreciate it and will think of you as I tuck in.

Love, M.

And that is how I learned that in some sense you can keep playing with your friends even after they've died, and that by doing so you'll be reminded that while your friend might have gone away, your friendship hasn't.

And pretty much never will.

Long May Her Bunsen Burners Burn

It's a beautiful morning here in New York City. As I start writing this post, it's Saturday evening in Bangkok (exactly 12 hours ahead of NYC). Tomorrow morning the people of Thailand will vote in a "snap" election called by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in an attempt to shore up his power.

Charges of corruption, cronyism, tax-evasion and even treason have been made against Thaksin. Some say he has been taking the country down the road to authoritarian rule, and in recent weeks anti-Thaksin demonstrations have clogged the streets of Bangkok. There have been calls for King Bhumibol Adulyadej to intervene and exercise his constitutional power to appoint a new Prime Minister.

And so in an election that will probably be mostly free of vote-rigging or other forms of fraud, by this time tomorrow Thaksin will likely have been returned to power in a landslide victory.

The short explanation for this seemingly odd outcome is that 70% of Thailand's voting population lives in rural areas, and Thaksin has taken care to see to the most desperate needs of Thailand's rural poor. He has introduced, and promises to expand, a program of inexpensive health care. His government has made cheap loans of the equivalent of US$25,000 to rural villages to help them develop their local economies. He has handed out cows to villagers like pieces of hard candy.

Not surprisingly, support for Thaksin in rural areas is overwhelming.

In the cities of Thailand, most of the country's middle and upper class elites fear and resent Thaksin based on the charges of corruption, cronyism and increasing authoritarianism that have been made against him. Parenthetically, there doesn't seem to be much doubt that these charges are for the most part true.

The only hope for those who oppose Thaksin is a constitutional quirk that prevents a parliament from being formally seated if a minimum number of candidates don't get 20% of the available votes. The opposition parties have boycotted the "snap" election and are calling for their supporters to either stay way from the polls, or tick the "Abstain" box. The hope is that if they can prevent a legitimate parliament from being seated, the King may finally intervene and begin a process of constitutional reform.

As I say, that's the short-version, as gleaned from the news reports I've been able to read. I'm sure it's all more complicated than that, but that's a pretty accurate free-hand sketch, I think.

What do we actually need to make democracy work? Not just in Thailand, of course, but also in the U.S., Iraq, and anywhere else you want to point to and mouth the words "the flowering of democracy".

On the face of it, in the case of Thailand at least, it doesn't seem like it would be that hard to find a way to address the needs of both the urban and rural populations. Do the stuff Thaksin has done for the rural poor, and then, you know, don't be corrupt and don't do things that edge the government toward authoritarianism. How hard is that?

But I guess the High and Mighty aren't built that way. Doing the thing that will both ensure you maintain your power and increase your wealth seems to be the preferred way to go. Split the "low" motivations from the "high". Identify and address the most fundamental needs of the largest voting blocs, and you pretty much get a free ride on whatever else you want to do.

In the U.S., our politicians identify our fundamental need to Be Safe, address it in showy but essentially ineffective ways (the war in Iraq as a prime example, or the "ports controversy"), and they pretty much get a free ride on raping and pillaging the country. It's a great formula once you master the fundamentals, it seems.

I don't know what you do about it. I really don't. It's easy to say that we should only elect People of Merit -- politicians who are not primarily interested in dividing us in order to maintain and increase their own power and wealth. Yeah, okay, all we need now is for People of Merit, and only People of Merit, to stand for election.

And it's easy to say that, for example, the rural population of Thailand should ignore their economic needs and vote strictly for democratic ideals. It's not going to happen, of course. In an obvious sense, they would be idiots to follow that advice, and it isn't anybody's place to tell them otherwise unless their critics are prepared to effectively address the problems created by the poverty of the rural population.

In my country, it just doesn't seem that it would be that hard to, for example, take effective steps to both protect the American people and to preserve our freedoms, economic and otherwise. But we are made to choose: do we want a warrantless and unconstitutional Terrorist Surveillance Program or do we want to die? That's it, take your pick. It's the best we can do. Take your free cows and shut up about the corruption, the cronyism, the creeping authoritarianism.

American political philosophers like to make a big deal about the notion of the several states being "laboratories of democracy", the idea being you've got fifty little democracies out there, free and independent enough to be able to experiment with all sorts of ways to get democracy to work better. It's a great idea. All you need to make it work is for people to pay attention to those experiments that yield useful results.

So maybe the real benefit for America in all this hoped-for world-wide "flowering of democracy" is not that the world will somehow be magically better in some airy-fairy way, but that there will be even more of these "laboratories of democracy" out there, searching for ways to address the inherent shortcomings of democracy itself.

I don't know what's going to happen in Thailand tomorrow, or in the weeks that follow. But it wouldn't hurt to keep a close eye on things over there. It doesn't seem likely, but maybe, just maybe, their little laboratory over there will come up with a result that will teach us something about how to do democracy a little bit better.

Because the problem with my country is that in spite of its much vaunted Entrepreneurial Spirit, way too often it thinks of itself as being way too smart to ever learn anything from anybody. Which suggests to me that probably the first lesson every democracy needs to learn about democracy is that you are never as good at it as you think you are.

In Memory

May 2006

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