Wednesday, January 31, 2007

You Don’t Sweat Much For A Fat Girl

It’s been barely two decades that I’ve been old enough to pay much attention to politics, and during that time I’ve been exposed to roughly 21,957 would-be presidential candidates. My long-term memory doesn’t have enough room to give any one guy too much space, so for the most part I’ve reduced former hopefuls to word-association-style soundbites. Gary Hart? Monkey Business. Bob Dole? Viagra. Joe Biden? Plagiarism.

Yeah, Biden’s late-80s presidential bid failed after he was caught plagiarizing something written by some guy and then — aw, hell, I don’t really care. I’d largely forgotten about the whole thing until today, when I discovered why Biden resorted to stealing someone else’s words: because his own get him into worse trouble than stealing someone else’s ever could.

Check out what Biden had to say when he complimented another presidential hopeful, Barack Obama:

I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
Articulate, bright, clean, nice-looking and an African-American? Dude, this stopped being shocking a good fifty years ago. Go back to plagiarizing, Joe. Your chances of winning the election can only improve that way. “What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Barack Obama is the sun!”

(Speaking of plagiarism, I stole those last two links from Metafilter.)

Monday, January 29, 2007

Great Moments in Crowd Control

It was only a couple of weeks ago that I read H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds for the first time, after seeing the Steven Spielberg movie and hoping that in Wells’ original, the permanently screaming Dakota Fanning character would meet a brutal and hideous end. But no, even better — her character isn’t in the book at all.

However, Wells did mention the “heat ray,” an amazingly prescient idea for a late-nineteenth-century man. Unlike the versions you see in the movies, the original heat ray was invisible; you couldn’t see it coming and had no idea it was there until the heat made you burst into flames.

Now, just over a century later, the United States government has caught up with Wells’ imagination and unearthed an invisible heat ray of its own. It’s called the “Active Denial System,” which sounds much better than the “turn protestors into charred lumplets of carbon system.”

I’m exaggerating, of course. Our government surely won't turn the heat-ray all the way up to “charred carbon” mode. No, we’re told that the heat ray will be another “non-lethal” weapon like the Taser (currently being blamed for at least 74 deaths, according to Amnesty International, though other online sources claim the number is much higher).

I remember when the Taser was first introduced. Its proponents said it would be a safe and humane alternative to guns; instead of shooting and possibly killing a bad guy, the cops would simply Taser him. But read what Amnesty International has to say about the Taser and its use:

many US police agencies are deploying tasers as a routine force option to subdue non-compliant or disturbed individuals who do not pose a serious danger to themselves or others. In some departments, tasers have become the most prevalent force tool. They have been used against unruly schoolchildren; unarmed mentally disturbed or intoxicated individuals; suspects fleeing minor crime scenes and people who argue with police or fail to comply immediately with a command. Cases described in this report include the stunning of a 15-year-old schoolgirl in Florida, following a dispute on a bus, and a 13- year-old girl in Arizona, who threw a book in a public library.

In many such instances, the use of electro-shock weapons appears to have violated international standards prohibiting torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment as well as standards set out under the United Nations (UN) Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement.
Remember back in college, when you’d go to a party and there was always that one paranoid guy ranting about how the US was on its way to becoming a scary police state? Damn, I miss the days when I could dismiss him as having simply taken one bong hit too many.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Karma Zabitch

Last year was a snowy winter with miserable traffic on the roads, but I didn't care because I had an honest-to-God telecommuting job editing essays on my laptop at home and then e-mailing them to some guy in New York. I never met my boss in person, but when he hired me he explained (over the phone) that his plan was to eventually compile the essays into a sort of online encyclopedia, with each entry having a different address, and then make money off of advertising.

None of this really made sense to me, but then I have no idea how one goes about making money from online advertising anyway. (Don’t you freeloaders ever click on a mothafizzuckin’ blog ad, for Chrissakes?) My paychecks cleared the bank, and that was good enough for me.

The essays were written in India, in a language almost but not quite English. Some of them would have inspired any high-school ignoramus facing an essay test: three or four hundred words containing no information whatsoever. (My favorite was the piece on Chicago real estate, with the opening sentence “Chicago real estate is land and buildings in Chicago.” I changed “is” to “consists of.”) Others were semi-educational: that job is where I first heard of the diet drug known as hoodia. All were boring (except the unintentionally hilarious ones), but I did eight hours’ worth of work in less than three, spent the rest of the day reading books, and kept that job until I landed my current gig writing for a newspaper.

Then I started this blog here. Spambots discovered it two weeks later. At first the bots tried to disguise their spam as legitimate comments: “Nice site! Interesting topic! I find more information here” and here turned out to be a site where you could buy cheap Viagra without a prescription. Delete comment.

Then the bots started dumping comments into archived threads, and didn’t even try to disguise themselves. I get an e-mail alert whenever someone makes a comment here, and every day I find one or two comments in a months-old thread, saying nothing but Buy Cialis Buy Levitra Buy Viagra. Delete, delete, delete.

The bots switched to ploys for sympathy. “Hi don’t delete this please I need money.” Delete. They moved closer in time to the present, dumping links not only in archived comment threads but into comments on the main page, sometimes even the most recent post. Delete, delete, frak off, delete. The hard-core porn links started arriving: Asian three-way Lolita bestiality. Delete, you sick perverts.

The most recent bot attack was three posts in a row, each a list of multiple links. Not porn links, this time. No prescription-drug offers. Nuh-uh. With a sick sense of recognition I saw
Buy Chicago real estate
lose weight with hoodia
cruise vacations in Alaska
buy discount wedding dresses

and thirty more titles, and while I don’t dare click on a spambot link for fear of coming down with the computer-virus equivalent of AIDS I had a sudden insight into the nature of my last employer:

I USED TO BE AN EDITOR FOR A SPAM COMPANY. I probably edited (and wrote headlines for) some of the very essays whose links plague my comment threads.

Oh, hell.

(P.S. With January nearly over I have yet to receive an income-tax form from the guy. Want to bet I never will?)

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Day in the Life of North Korea

Here’s a great video to watch if you have 22 minutes to spare on a depressing yet educational experience: A Day in the Life of North Korea. Pieter Fleury is a Dutch filmmaker who was granted unprecedented access to film Pyongyang; by “unprecedented access” I mean he was allowed to carry a video camera into the country. I have little doubt that the people he filmed were hand-picked by the government.

Verily, the dispensers of Kool-aid in North Korea have become drunk on their own product. Obviously they showed Fleury scenes which (they thought) would impress Western viewers with the wonderfulness that is their country, yet the simple fact that they find this compelling highlights the soap-scum left over from their brainwashing. Here, for example, is the educational story a pretty young kindergarten teacher tells her charges:
The Story of the Returned Boots
Little comrades, when you have heard my story you will know that our General is the most praiseworthy man on Earth. When he was young, he was a child just like you. Comrades, do you know what boots are? In winter these boots feel wonderfully soft. When you wear them your feet stay dry. The Great Leader was so happy with his boots he put them on right away. And he ran straight to his comrades. But suddenly Great Leader Kim Jong Il stopped running. Why did he do that? Because he was sad. That’s because he saw his friends were still wearing wet sneakers. That is why our thoughtful General ran right back home. And when he came outside he was wearing wet sneakers too.
Wow! He wore wet sneakers, too? What a great guy! Those nasty things I've heard about him must all be wrong.

I’m pretty sure Fleury did a full-length movie; the link above is to a 20-minute excerpt which (apparently) aired on the English-language Al-Jazeera network last New Year’s Eve. And here’s an extra-spooky thought to keep in mind when you watch it: Pyongyang is a city reserved for North Korea’s elite. That garment-factory worker living with her daughter in a tiny apartment in a bleak and charmless building has it better than the majority of North Koreans.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

This Post Is Illegal in Texas

Here’s a link to a story in The Register, but if you click on it you risk being found guilty of aiding and abetting a crime. At least in Texas. Here’s why:
A court in Dallas, Texas has found a website operator liable for copyright infringement because his site linked to an 'audio webcast' without permission. Observers have criticised the judge for failing to understand the internet.
Can we pass a law requiring judges to actually understand technology before they’re allowed to interpret the laws regarding it? Maybe the website operator should’ve told the judge that linking to the webcast helped clear out some blockage in one of the Internet’s tubes.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Misery Loves Company

Slow news day here in my corner of Connecticut. With nothing else to report for my paper I went to various sports bars in town to research the following exposé: sports bars have increased business during the playoffs to the Super Bowl.

Then I returned to my office and stared at my computer screen, trying to get at least ten column inches’ worth of writing out of five column inches’ worth of material. A basic journalism rule of thumb is: the less you have to actually say, the more poetically you say it. I wrote an opening quoting some anonymous pundit (whom I may have invented) calling Super Bowl Sunday America’s number-one religious holiday, and explained how sports bars, like any church, see increased attendance as the holy day draws near; and as I tried to think of a way to somehow force “acolytes” or “advent season” into the metaphor one of the editorial assistants, so young he’s not even allowed to drink yet, walked up to me.

“Hey, Jennifer, did you Google Chris Farley?” he asked. His tone of voice was one that people use when they ask “did you do that thing you were supposed to do, and you’ll be in trouble if you didn’t?”

I responded to the tone more than the words, and so felt a tad guilty when I said “No, I haven’t.” Even as I uttered the words my brain ruffled through its short-term memory, thinking “when was I supposed to Google Chris Farley?” and “isn’t he dead?”

“Do it,” said the editorial assistant. “Google-image search for Chris Farley.”

I didn’t mind an excuse to take a break from my sports-bar story, so with a mental shrug I did as he suggested. A bunch of little pictures appeared on the screen, but my at-work monitor has such low resolution that none of them really looked like anything to me until the editorial assistant clicked on one of them, and it expanded to full size on my screen.

“Aaaigh! That’s disgusting!” I cried.

“Isn’t it?” he said. “I can’t believe somebody posted his death pictures on the Web. That is so gross. I wish I hadn’t seen it.”

“Me too,” I snapped as I closed out of that screen. “So why the hell did you show it to me?”

“I don’t know,” he said with an embarrassed chuckle. “I just wanted someone else to see it.”

And you know what’s really sad? As annoying as that was, I know exactly how he felt.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

You Really Can’t Prove A Negative, Can You?

I’m sure you’ve heard by now that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has, in a terrifying bit of hair-splitting, said that Americans have no explicit right to habeas corpus: the Constitution doesn’t grant us the right to habeas corpus, says he, but merely says such a right can’t be suspended.

Forget for a moment the obvious question of how the government can be forbidden to suspend a right which doesn’t exist. What frightens me the most is that by Gonzales’ reasoning, Americans have almost none of the rights we take for granted.

Think we have freedom of speech and the press? Read what the first amendment in the Bill of Rights says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedomof speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
This does not say Americans have freedom of speech; it merely says Congress can’t pass a law abridging it. Same goes for the right to a free press, the right to peaceably assemble, or to petition the government for the redress of grievances: nowhere does the Constitution say we have those rights; it merely says Congress can’t take them away.

Nor does the Constitution grant the explicit right to bear arms; it merely says such a right shall not be infringed.

Think you have the right to vote? Not according to the fifteenth amendment (and a Gonzales-style interpretation thereof):

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color,or previous condition of servitude.
Got that? It doesn’t say you have the right to vote; it merely says such a right can’t be denied on account of your color or race.

When you get right down to it, there are very few rights which the Constitution explicitly says people have; there are mostly rights which the government can’t take away. And according to Gonzales, such rights aren’t really rights at all.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Not as Hopeful as it Sounds

A bipartisan group of Congressmen has put forth legislation to prevent President Bush from attacking Iran without Congressional approval. Which sounds nice but isn't likely to make much difference, as the article points out:

to become law, [the bill] would need the support of the Senate and the House of Representatives and to be signed by the president himself.

Limiting executive-branch power just isn’t his style. It does look like we’re heading toward another unwinnable war (in a country which, like Iraq, just happens to have a large chunk of the world’s remaining oil reserves). Yet I can’t quite bring myself to believe we’re going to hit Iran. I’d never be able to defend this position in an actual debate, though, because my reasoning amounts to me waving my hands in the air and sputtering “We can’t! Our military's stretched as it is! We don't have the ability! Even — even Bush isn’t that stupid! Right? Right?”

And then the crickets chirp.

I’m going to sit on the floor in the corner, hugging my knees, rocking back and forth and whimpering “no no no no no” over and over again. That’s about as useful as anything else I can do at this point. Come and join me, if you wish. It's so calm and tranquil down here.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Question for the Lawyers Out There

I found on Fark an article which appears every winter in some form or other: an elderly, disabled woman faces a fine if she doesn’t shovel the snow off of her sidewalk. This particular incident took place in Denver, and it’s being touted as especially egregious because she’d already hired someone to shovel her walk clean, only to have city snowplows push more snow off of the street and onto her sidewalk. Furthermore, there are multiple snowy walks on her street, but she's the only one who's been cited.

Most cities have laws requiring homeowners to shovel and otherwise maintain the sidewalks in front of their homes. And here’s something I’ve always wondered: why are such laws not considered a violation of the Constitutional prohibition against involuntary servitude? If the sidewalk in front of my house belongs to the city, then maintaining it should be the city’s responsibility, not mine. And if the sidewalk belongs to me, then why am I not only required to let complete strangers trespass on my property, but to make sure said trespassers can trespass comfortably?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

But What About the Cholesterol?

Scientists in the UK have genetically modified chickens to lay eggs containing the proteins used to make cancer-fighting drugs. The chickens are now in their fifth generation, meaning the original anti-cancer chicken’s great-great-great-granddaughter is still fighting the good fight and laying the good egg in the battle against cancer.

I’ve read a lot of science-fiction stories about societies where technology is biological rather than mechanical, and look forward to the day when a new house can be had simply by planting a seed in the ground, adding water and waiting for your comfortable ten-room gourd to sprout. A cancer treatment dropping out of a chicken’s ass is bound to be an important first step in that direction.

(Having said that, let’s see what stupid advertisements the Googlebots put in the margins of my site here. For two weeks I had nothing but religious-fanatic ads like “God will cure your gout,” and now I’ve got a bunch of links to sites about Parenting. What part of “I’m a childless atheist” do the Googlebots not understand? Maybe if I wrote a few posts about indulging in RED-HOT MONKEY LUST on the decks of the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA while learning how to MAKE MONEY AT HOME after I BEAT A PRE-EMPLOYMENT DRUG TEST, the bots will post some ads which folks here will actually CARE ABOUT, for Christ’s sake.)

Uh-oh. I said “Christ.” That can’t be good.

Anyway, the BBC article about the cancer-fighting chickens is here. I’m sure that within a day or two there will be a follow-up article about a Luddite group arguing that GM chickens are a threat to humanity. I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, I'll enjoy some FREE SOLITAIRE GAMES and QUICK WEIGHT-LOSS PROGRAMS guaranteed to make me LOOK TEN YEARS YOUNGER. Maybe chickens can be modified to lay anti-aging oxidants as well?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Surge Protection

When I’m not writing for free on this site I’m writing for peanuts at my local newspaper. A couple of months ago I interviewed a Marine who was nearly killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq. He used to be a handsome man, and he may be handsome again someday if the shrapnel wounds on his face heal without scars.

Twenty years old, he was. Not even old enough to drink. When I arrived at his house for the interview he took off his shirt almost immediately — not for anything sexual, but to show me the still-shiny tattoo he’d just got the day before: a pair of hands clasped in prayer and holding three sets of dogtags inscribed with the names of good friends of his who died over there.

He’ll probably have to return to the tattoo parlor at some point, to add more dogtags to the picture on his chest. I’m sure you’ve heard by now that the President plans to not only keep troops in Iraq, but add several thousand more; a “surge.”

Criticizing Bush for the fact that our Iraq adventure is going badly is like criticizing a bad job building a highway to the moon. When I criticize the way things are going I’m not saying that I could do a better job building the Los Angeles/Sea of Tranquility expressway; it's just that I know enough to realize the plan was never viable in the first place.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

I Have a Hunch I’m Right

Have you ever met somebody to whom you took an immediate dislike, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on why? I’ve had this happen more than once, and in every case, as I got to know the person better, my initial impression proved right — the guy turned out to be some flavor of scumbag. Trusting my hunches was a valuable skill back in my college days, when I supported myself by working in bars in the less-savory parts of town.

I’ve read that hunches often pan out because they amount to your subconscious mind making connections of which your conscious brain is not aware. And today, the BBC reports on a new study that seems to confirm this: snap decisions are sometimes better than decisions you take time to think about.

University College London found making subconscious snap decisions is more reliable in certain situations than using rational thought processes. Participants in the study were given a computer-based task and performed better when they were given less time to make their decisions. . . . Ten volunteers were shown a computer screen covered in over 650 identical symbols, including one rotated version of the symbol. They were asked to decide which side of the screen the rotated image was on. Given a fraction of a second to look at the screen, the subjects were 95% accurate. But when they were allowed to scrutinize the image for over a second, they were only 70% accurate. . . .people and animals were designed subconsciously to recognise and fixate on anything out of the ordinary as it could help to identify and escape from predators quickly, and so has an evolutionary advantage.

If I’d written this story, I would have said we “evolved” to notice things out of the ordinary, rather than that we were “designed” to do so, but I have a hunch I’m being too nitpicky.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

“The Check is in the Mail” (the president knows you’re lying)

My friend Alex over at Inactivist has said that (I’m paraphrasing here) the worst thing about the Clinton impeachment is how it took one of the most serious penalties the Constitution has to offer and reduced it to just another partisan political ploy. Thus, no matter how bad this administration gets, anyone who suggests impeachment for Bush first has to discuss where they stood on the Clinton impeachment, and explain why this time it’s different, and say this has to do with concern for America rather than a partisan desire to discredit the Republican Party and . . . uh, what were we talking about, again?

So here’s another presidential misdeed that would have been worthy of impeachment back when impeachment was something more than a partisan smackdown: Bush has reserved for himself the right to open and read Americans’ mail without a warrant.

WASHINGTON - President Bush has quietly claimed sweeping new powers to open Americans' mail without a judge's warrant, the Daily News has learned.

The President asserted his new authority when he signed a postal reform bill into law on Dec. 20. Bush then issued a "signing statement" that declared his right to open people's mail under emergency conditions.

That claim is contrary to existing law and contradicted the bill he had just signed, say experts who have reviewed it. . . . Experts said the new powers could be easily abused and used to vacuum up large amounts of mail.

"The [Bush] signing statement claims authority to open domestic mail without a warrant, and that would be new and quite alarming," said Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies in Washington. “The danger is they're reading Americans' mail," she said.

"You have to be concerned," agreed a career senior U.S. official who reviewed the legal underpinnings of Bush's claim. "It takes Executive Branch authority beyond anything we've ever known."

So can I say that I think Bush should be impeached without being accused of shilling for the Democratic Party? Probably not. After all, I’m on record as saying I opposed the Clinton impeachment, too.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Navel Gazing

Either I’m losing my mind or this website is losing its archives. Please help me figure out which one.

A few months ago I did a post about a young girl whose parents subjected her to a series of hormone treatments designed to stunt her growth and keep her pre-pubescent forever. Which sounds horrifying, until you realize that the poor child had a stunted brain, and a mental capacity that would remain stuck in infancy forever.

She’ll never be able to take care of herself. She can’t even sit up. Her parents wanted to keep her small so that they could take care of her, rather than hand her over to an institution when her body grew too big for them to handle. Sounds like a sensible decision to me, but so many people have criticized them for it that the parents have started a blog explaining their side of the story.

My original plan for this post you’re reading was to link to the parents’ blog (which I’ve done), link to my original post on the matter, and then start a discussion about the various moral and ethical implications of such treatments.

Except I can’t find my original post. I went through my archives. I did multiple site searches on Google. I even checked other blogs for which I’ve written guest posts, in case I got them mixed up with my own.

Nothing. Nada. Zip. But I know I made that post, dammit! I even remember some of the comments people went on to make about it. And my significant other remembers it as well — hell, he’s the one who brought the parents’ new blog to my attention.

So here’s a question to this site’s regular readers: do y’all remember reading or commenting here, for a post about parents giving their daughter hormone treatments to stunt her growth? I hope so, because the only thing worse than the thought of me hallucinating my own Internet postings is the thought that my significant other and I are hallucinating in tandem.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Hey, Dollface, You’re Not Helping

Whenever I check my Hotmail account I find various MSN articles advertised in the margins. The majority of these articles are written for people who are either very stupid, very insecure, or both: I don’t want to check my horoscope, thank you, I don’t need a list of easy tips to find love in the new year, and I don't need to make any changes to my weight, my wardrobe or the circumference of my hips, thanks for asking.

So I hardly ever read these pieces. Today, however, an article titled “Survival on $6.50 an hour” piqued my interest enough that I clicked on the link and started to read. Six-fifty an hour? “There but for the grace of good luck go I,” I thought, as I read the opening sentences:

As a single professional woman, for years I sat securely among the lower rungs of the middle class. Now I've fallen off the ladder. In a matter of months, I went from a comfortable life with decent pay and health insurance to a $6.50-an-hour job with no insurance, no furniture and just enough resources to keep the wolf from the door.
Shudder. Horror. That could happen to me! I took a reassuring glance around my comfortable, well-furnished home before I continued reading the article. Oh, the poor author, victim of bad luck and evil fate!

Then I got to this paragraph:

Here's my story in a nutshell: I lost my job as a managing editor at a small newspaper in Montana after the ownership changed hands. Six months later, I moved to Pennsylvania to take a similar job. But finding a rental seemed nearly impossible because I have three dogs, and after two weeks of campground living, my boss fired me, telling me my living situation was "bad for business." I sold off my household goods -- everything from a sofa to pots and pans -- and drove back to small-town Montana.
She unloaded useful items like pots and pans — which she’d need to replace if she wants to cook her own food in her new home — but she kept the three dogs. She lost her job because she couldn’t find a decent place to live, but kept the pets which made finding a place to live impossible. She got rid of her home furnishings and then complained about not having any.

The article goes on to discuss how she accepts gifts of food from her friends because she can’t quite afford to feed herself, yet when she lists her various expenses and ways of cutting back, “feeding three dogs” somehow never makes it onto her financial radar.

As a softcore libertarian, one of the ways I differ from my hardcore brethren is that they say poor people only ever get that way due to laziness, stupidity or some combination thereof, whereas I insist that even the smartest go-getter in the world can be plunged into poverty if fate and circumstance conspire to make it so.

I hope none of my hardcore friends find this article.

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